Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Elementary, My Dear Charlie Boone! - Chapter 4

The sun was noticeably lower in the sky as they turned into the gate of Der Adlernest. The manor house looked regal in the softening light, her noble origins apparent in her lines and accents, the sureness of her presence suggesting she had been intended to outlast the ages. She was built from the same material that made mountains, and seemed to share their indifference to time.

"Quite a place," Robin said quietly, his eyes showing approval. "They sure knew how to build them, once."

"They still do," Charlie said, also looking at the manor house. "Modern buildings will last, too."

A faint look of distaste flashed across Robin's features and was gone. "I wasn't referring to just durability."

Ruedi drew the bus to a halt at the head of the drive, well before the parking lot in front of the manor. "You vant me to vait for you?"

Robin frowned, but then immediately nodded. "If you can."

"Sure. I got all ze time in ze world."

Robin smiled at that, but didn't say more.

The bus pulled forward and parked in exactly the same spot they had parked on their last visit. Charlie was looking towards the wide double doors of the manor when they opened, and the man that had watched them before stepped outside. He was probably Ruedi's age, and shared the same look of quiet competence that had impressed Charlie about their driver.

The woman that followed him outside was not the same one has before. She was younger than the man, and looked to be of African descent. Charlie could feel her eyes on them even then, and knew that the woman was a power user of some ability.

"Feel that?" Kippy asked, sliding closer to Charlie in the seat. "That woman is broadcasting skwish like crazy!"

"I don't think it's a broadcast you're feeling." Ragal turned in his seat to look at them. "She tickles your senses because she's like a sponge, absorbing what everyone else radiates. The draw on your own powers is what you are feeling."

"What's it for?" Ricky asked.

"I suspect she is there to learn what she can about us," Robin suggested. "It's what I would do in their place." He looked around at the others. "I think it best if we act like we can't sense her draw."

"She's a skwish magnet," Keerby put in. "An analyst. But she isn't as disciplined as she could be."

"What about the man?" Robin asked.

The elf gave a quick nod. "He's pretty powerful for a human. A lot more disciplined than the woman, too." He smiled at Robin. "Relax. These people aren't anywhere near your own level."

Robin nodded. "I wasn't thinking only of that. My impression is that the woman is somewhat wild, but that the man is a practiced user."

"Go with that impression," Keerby agreed.

Horace got up from his seat and came to stand beside Charlie. "I sense our immaterial friend watching again."

Charlie turned quickly to Keerby. "Hear that?"

"I'm on it!!" The elf closed his eyes, and once again his head moved erratically, as if he was chasing something. But after a moment he grimaced, and opened his eyes again. "He's fast, I'll say that! But I ran him off again, at least for now."

"It seems curious about us," Charlie dared.

Keerby grunted. "It's more than that. Horace is right - this one is up to no good. I get the sense that it's more worried than curious. It doesn't like that we are getting involved with Espero."

"Really?" Robin seemed to find that interesting. But he also seemed not inclined to spend time considering the implications. "Our new friends are waiting on us."

They emerged from the bus, collected into a group, and approached the staircase leading up to the front of the manor. Charlie was watching the pair above, and so noticed when the woman leaned closer to the man and whispered something to him. She seemed excited, though the man only nodded gravely at whatever she said to him, and continued to watch as Charlie's party ascended to their level.

Robin took a place at the fore of their group, and it was to him that the man first smiled and nodded. "Greetings to all. I am Hendrik. My companion is Ilessa." His gray eyes moved among them then, and Charlie felt certain that the man missed nothing. "Welcome to Espero."

"And my name is Robin," Robin returned. "And these are Charlie, Kip, Rick, Adrian, Horace, Ragal, Casper, Durapar, and Keerby."

Hendrik's eyes looked briefly questioning. "So many interesting names. Your group would seem not to all share the same origins."

Robin smiled at that. "We're from all over the place. It's a big world."

"It is that," Hendrik agreed.

"No women in your party, I see." Ilessa spoke up then.

"Not today," Robin agreed, though did not elaborate.

Hendrik indicated the young woman at his side. "Would you mind much if Ilessa looks you over? It will be a completely passive investigation, I assure you."

Robin looked at Charlie, and then his eyes moved among the others. "Objections? Speak up, please."

There were none. Robin turned back toward the Espero people and nodded at Ilessa. "Do your duty, young lady."

Ilessa smiled, and then her eyes went from face to face. When they touched his, Charlie felt a wash of curiosity, concern, wasn't quite suspicion, but the sort of need to know that might prompt suspicion at some point if not satisfied.

"You are not quite all as you seem," the women went on. She moved closer, and inspected Robin. "This one has great age," she spoke over her shoulder to Hendrik. "And great ability". Her eyes moved to Charlie, then Kip, then Rick ,and then Adrian. "These four are strong, and have great potential for even better things. And a very close bond." She moved next to Horace, smiled at him, and turned to Hendrik a moment. "This one knows those that haunt the darkness, though he is only friend to the gentle of those kind. Much like Alberto, though this one is more sensitive."

She moved next to Ragal, and stared up into his eyes. Her face moved from curiosity to wonder, and she shook her head. "Here also is great age, and...great distance."

Hendrik looked interested. "Great distance?"

"Yes. But that is all I sense." She continued to stare at Ragal a moment, shook her head, and moved on to Casper. He smiled at her attention, and Ilessa immediately smiled in return. "So playful, this one! I also sense great distance, though why, I cannot say. And...a very great need to stand up for those treated unfairly." She winked at Casper, and moved on to Durapar. He watched her without any sign of trepidation, his own interest and curiosity evident upon his face. Ilessa smiled again. "This one is also possessed of a sense of distance, and time, and some other things I cannot quite name." She smiled. "But he's a nice one, too."

Durapar chuckled. "At your service, dear lady."

Ilessa nodded, and then took a quick step, and stopped in front of Keerby." And this one sends my senses reeling!"

Keerby only smiled. "I don't mean to, ma'am."

Ilessa smiled in return, and turned back to Hendrik. "There is very great power here. But it is harnessed to an equally great desire for good."

Hendrik nodded. "So in the matter of trust?"

Ilessa returned to the side of her companion, and turned to face Charlie's group. "Yes. We can trust them. There is no deception here, save for perhaps some trick to the eyes."

"A rather amazing synopsis," Robin said, smiling. "I will admit I would consider it a fair appraisal of our group."

Hendrik considered that, and then smiled. He looked relieved, and much happier now. "Ilessa has what we call an open talent. Her strength lies in her ability to sense the strengths...and the ills... in others."

"They are an amazing group," Ilessa agreed. "Strong, able, and compassionate." She tilted her head back a little and smiled at Robin. "That one is the wiliest of them, but his fairness cannot be denied."

Robin gave his head a brief nod. "We are all products of the lives we lead, my dear."

The woman raised an eyebrow in response to that. "Some lives are more interesting than others, obviously."

Charlie was impressed. Ilessa had not been able to clarify some of what she sensed, but that she had gotten the basics right was plain. It seemed obvious that Hendrik wanted to know who he was dealing with before allowing them to re-enter the manor house. This, Charlie hoped. would put him at ease.

"You're the leader here?" he asked the man.

Hendrik smiled at him. "I am responsible for this place, yes. And now that I have satisfied myself as to your intent, I would invite you into our home."

He turned and opened the right-hand door, and then stepped inside. "Will you please follow me?"

No one else was visible as they filed inside. Yet Charlie sensed that others were watching, somewhere, perhaps through the hidden eyes of a security system. He suspected that, should something go awry now, these others would put in an appearance very quickly.

Ilessa brought up the rear and closed the door, and Hendrik led them to the stairs, where the velvet ribbon that had once closed them off had been moved to one side. "If you will. Our meeting rooms are upstairs."

"We saw on our tour that the main floor was mostly for show," Robin said, as he led the way up the steps after Hendrik. "The house has been kept in beautiful condition. It made me think the property was cared for more than just as a business acquisition."

Hendrik smiled over his shoulder at Robin as they reached a landing and turned to the right to continue upwards. "I, and most of my staff, actually live here. A home, by any other name, as the bard might have said."

Robin nodded. "Of course. The bard."

They reached the second floor and were greeted by a wide hallway that ran to either end of the manor, with a plush carpeted runner that ran down the center of a dark hardwood floor. There were Old World hallway pieces - furniture designed just for this purpose, and no other - spaced along the walls, and paintings centered above the ornate panels of the wainscoting below. Crystal sconces at regular intervals shed the same sort of pleasant, sparkly glow as the chandelier down in the entryway. The sense of luxury was very much apparent, but so were the practical nature of the furnishings, which stated plainly that simply no other accessories would do. The manor was an old and regal place, and demanded the same sort of noble air from its furnishings.

"Beautiful," Robin said, nodding his head as they followed Hendrik down the hallway. "Someone has a grand eye for decoration."

Hendrik smiled briefly over his shoulder. "Most of what you see here was selected by the original lady of this house. Her eye was indeed fine, and no one has seen fit to second-guess her over time."

"That would be the Lady Brachmann," Robin stated pleasantly.

Hendrik nodded. "You've done your research, I see."


They were led into a large room in which a square of sofas and comfortable, matching chairs had been placed around a heavy coffee table. The effect was of an informal conference room, and reminded Charlie in some ways of their own conference room back at the office. He smiled inwardly, the old one about great minds thinking alike briefly flashing through his thoughts.

Ilessa closed the doors to the hallway behind them, and Hendrik circled around to a lone seat at what would be the 'head' of the table in a real conference room, and stood by the chair there. "Please be seated. Is anyone hungry or thirsty?"

"We ate before we came here," Robin said. He smiled. "You know, just in case."

Hendrik also smiled. "You have nothing to fear from us." He waved to Ilessa, who took the seat at the other end of the table, and then he smiled at them again, plainly waiting for them to be seated.

Robin nodded at Charlie, and they all took seats. Hendrik sat last, and sighed. "So. I take it that your visit to us was not simply a tourist trip." It was a statement, not a question. He smiled at Robin now. "Especially as you were here once before, and then returned with your friends."

Robin chuckled at that. "Reviewing security footage, are we?"

Hendrik also laughed. "It's a standard procedure to review the logged footage when something unusual happens. Of course, nothing quite this unusual has ever happened here before."

"I came through on the tour because I have a certain hobby." Robin's eyes displayed his interest now. "I analyze corporate structures and the varied methods they use to disperse and hide their wealth. I stumbled across the tracks of several large but relatively unknown corporations, and was astonished to find that all the trails led back to Espero, an even larger and less known corporation. It rather spiked my curiosity, you see."

Hendrik sat forward, looking amazed. "You came here following a money trail?"

"Yes. Once exposed, it was an astonishingly wide trail. too. Too much for me to pass up."

Hendrik slowly settled back into his seat and stared down the length of the table at Ilessa. Charlie noted the silent exchange, and felt an urge to speak up.

"You thought we came here because we detected your power. You were worried that others might be able to do the same thing. Governments, even." He smiled sympathetically. "It worried you."

Hendrik's eyes focused on Charlie, and his surprise seemed to deepen. "We strive not to use our powers here. But it seemed a reasonable deduction that we had been detected by way of our emissions, yes."

"I did detect them when I finally arrived at the manor house," Robin agreed. "But it was the corporate trail that first brought me here."

Hendrik's gaze returned to Robin. "Ah. But when you visited us the first time, and sensed our abilities, you decided not to make contact? Odd, that we did not sense your own abilities at that time."

"I didn't want you to sense me," Robin said simply. "I did want to come in and look around, but not to make you aware of it."

Ilessa, at the other end of the table, frowned at Robin. "I can sense you now, but I was also here when you first visited, and I did not sense you then."

Robin nodded. "There's a method of submerging the power - of canceling emissions - that allowed me to appear here undetected. But I want you to be able to sense me now. I want you to know that we are not here to cause trouble for you. Allowing myself to remain open to being sensed is the only way to prove our peaceful intent."

Ilessa cocked her head to one side. "I have never met a theurgist that could hide from me."

Charlie blinked at the unfamiliar word, but noted its similarity to other words, and so divined its meaning.

Ilessa seemed to immediately see that the word was not a common one among her guests. "I'm sorry. I'm referring to those that use the power."

Horace raised a hand then. "The term refers to someone who can work wonders." He smiled. "A magician."

Ilessa looked pleased. "It's a word that seems to fit the circumstances."

"So does magiisto," Robin said then, using the Esperanto word for magician.

Hendrik and Ilessa exchanged glances. "Vi parolas esperanton?" Hendrik asked.

"Sufiĉe bone, fakte," Robin returned. He smiled at Charlie. "He asked me if I speak Esperanto. I told him I speak it well." Robin's gaze went back to the man at the head of the table. "I noted how many of your properties had names that meant something in that language. I found it an interesting coincidence."

"It is not a coincidence. Surely you must know that." Hendrik brought his hands up in front of his chest, placed the fingertips together, and gazed at Robin across the tips. "What else do you know?"

Robin adjusted himself comfortably in his seat. "Espero appeared 78 years ago, at the tail end of the conflict known here as World War II."

Hendrik simply watched him, not acknowledging anything.

"You came here from a long way off," Robin continued. "Another reality, even."

This time Hendrik could not hide his surprise. And his continued silence seemed the same as an admission that Robin was right, Charlie thought.

Robin turned to Keerby. "You can explain this better, I think."

Keerby frowned, and Charlie could sense the elf's mind racing. "We have sensed a dark presence observing us. One of the immaterial beings that exist in all realities, it seems."

Hendrik carefully licked his lips. "We know of them."

"It has been traced to another reality - an alternate reality to this one, and one so divergent that there should be no natural pathways left between them. This dark energy presence can only observe us here, not act against us. But we sense it is worried, because we have contacted you."

Hendrik gave one, slow nod of his head. "We have someone here sensitive to these beings. Alberto. He is our watchman. He has said that there has been new activity directed this way recently."

Keerby smiled. "You shouldn't be here, you know. With no natural corridors between your reality and ours, there should have been no way to come here at all." The elf leaned forward then. "So you must have made one."

Hendrik exchanged an incredulous glance with Ilessa. The woman blinked in similar astonishment, but seemed to regroup quickly. "I told you as they got off the bus that they had extraordinary resonance."

The man made a small sound of agreement. "But there is resonance, and then there is resonance."

"We really do mean you no harm," Robin reiterated. "I have studied your group for some time. You are very generous in helping out just causes in this world, and my study of that has led me to believe it is not a front, not deception. You seem to very much care about our world."

"We do. Your reality has been kind to us. We only wish to repay that kindness."

Robin nodded. "And...?"

Hendrik watched him a moment, and then exchanged another glance with Ilessa. Charlie wondered then if the two had some way of communicating by more than just a look.

"I think we have a story to tell," Hendrik said then.

"We'd be very interested," Robin said, looking around at Charlie and the group.

"Very interested," Kippy spoke up, smiling.

Hendrik seemed to relax then, and smiled back at Charlie's boyfriend. The way Kip had of easing people's worries and fears was well-known to Charlie by now.

"I think you are best suited to tell our story," Ilessa said to her companion. "Anything I may want to add, I will."

Hendrik nodded at that, briefly closed his eyes and stroked his forehead with thumb and forefinger, and then dropped his hands and opened his eyes. "But where to begin? That is the question."

"That's easy enough," Kippy said gently. "Start at the beginning."

"Our worlds share much of the same history," Hendrik told them. "Where they principally diverged was in the time of ancient Egypt. Precisely, during the time of the civil war between Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy XIII. At that point the general, Julius Caesar, who had sided with Cleopatra, was besieged in the city of Alexandria by the forces of Ptolemy, and took drastic action to save himself and his forces. He accomplished this by setting afire all the ships in the harbor, which carried over to the enemy fleet, and destroyed them."

Charlie nodded. "I remember reading about that. The fire supposedly spread from the harbor and destroyed parts of the city, including the great Royal Library. Something like 40,000 irreplaceable texts were lost. That, and the destruction of the associated library in the Serapeum by religious extremists later, amounted to a tremendous loss of knowledge from the ancient world."

Hendrik nodded. "In your world, that is what happened. In mine, the library did not burn. The texts were saved, the knowledge not lost."

Charlie took a breath. "That's saying a lot."

"Yes. The texts in the Royal Library, and those in the daughter library in the Serapeum, both escaped the destruction that was served upon them in your world. The knowledge that was lost in your world survived in ours. Your world was set back centuries of learning by those double losses. Ours moved onward."

Charlie's head reeled at the idea. The lists of texts supposedly lost in those two historic events - the sheer bulk of human learning up to that time - was extraordinary. But...

"Some doubt exists in our history today, of what actually happened to the two libraries. Some feel that the story of Caesar accidentally burning the main library at the Museum to be false. Others offer up completely different explanations of what happened, and who was responsible."

"I know of this. These events are also unsure in our own timeline. The accepted theory is that masses of scholars spirited away to safety the bulk of the contents of both libraries before they could be destroyed. The knowledge contained in those two repositories regrouped under new institutions of the old world, and continued to spread. Such massed learning has a way of spawning new knowledge, of growing upon itself. The ages of darkness that followed in your history were largely avoided in ours."

Robin gave a low whistle. "May I ask what year it is in your world?"

"The same year it is here," Hendrik returned.

"Your level of technology is ahead of ours," Ricky spoke up. "We got that much from looking over the investigator."

"Yes." Hendrik patted his fingertips together thoughtfully. "Our science people estimate the current technological state of this world to be where our world was approximately 125 years ago."

"That doesn't sound like so much," Horace said.

Hendrik smiled. "Science and technology grow quickly, and sometimes even exponentially. Consider the level of technology in your world today to where it was a century and a quarter ago, and you'll see what I mean."

Charlie did consider that, comparing the world he knew to the one that had largely vanished by the year 1900. The differences in technology were extreme.

Horace apparently also did the comparison, and sighed. "Point taken."

Adrian raised a hand. "Still, what you're saying is that the difference between these two ancient libraries being lost in our world and saved in yours only amounts to 125 year's difference in learning."

Hendrik raised an eyebrow at that. "The difference is considerably more than that, young man. In our world, electric lights and power transmission were a fact by 1455. Antibiotics were in wide usage by the first years of the sixteenth century. The first humans landed on the moon in 1611."

Charlie gaped at that. "That sounds like your world was a lot farther ahead than just a century!"

Ilessa gave a small sigh. "It was, once."

For a moment no one spoke. And then Robin leaned forward in his seat. "Something happened to slow your progress. The gap between our two worlds, as far as science and technology go, has been allowed to close."

"Not intentionally," Hendrik supplied. "Our slowdown was not done on purpose."

"What happened?" Kippy asked.

"In your world," Ilessa said, "the power seems rare. In the time we have been here, we have encountered remarkably few of your people that possess it to any degree. It's one reason your appearance here was such a shock. While we have encountered individuals over time who displayed some mastery over the power, having so many people show up at a single moment was unheard of." The woman gave a brief, wondering shake of her head.. "And that I sense that you are so much more apt with the power than we are, only increases the shock value."

Ragal spoke up for the first time. "In your reality, everyone has the power?"

Hendrik nodded. "Yes. Like here, it varies in degree, but everyone has some talent. Here, it's the reverse. There are a scattering of people with the power, and the bulk of the human race is dormant."

Robin looked at Charlie, and smiled. "The plot thickens, my dear Boone."

Hendrik and Ilessa traded mystified glances at the apparent non-sequitur. Robin smiled at them. "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. I'm just marveling over how interesting this entire thing has become."

"There is a reason for the slowdown in your technical advancement," Ragal pointed out. "And I suspect it is part of the reason your people are here. What is it?"

Hendrik nodded. "It's complicated."

"We have lots of time," Durapar said. But he turned to look at Charlie then. "Don't we?"

"Yes. Enough, I think."

Kippy turned to look at Charlie, and silently mouthed the word, fireworks. Charlie smiled at his boyfriend. "I haven't forgotten." He turned back to Hendrik then. "Will you explain?"

The man rubbed his forehead again, but nodded. "This is not my specialty, you understand. Most of what I know is based on the education all my people received in their youths. So it's more general than I would like to be able to present."

Ragal smiled at that. "There is a truth to be found in every word, no matter its origin. Please proceed."

"I can assist," Ilessa said, sitting forward in her seat. "Some background, while you gather your thoughts, Hendrik?"

The man seemed relieved. "Yes, please do."

Ilessa bit at her lip a moment, looking around at those watching her. "People are not terribly bright, you see."

Ricky gave out a startled laugh, and most everyone else smiled.

But the woman shook her head. "I did not mean to joke. The average intelligence of the human race is not that high. Not in my world, and not in yours."

"Yet we get things done," Ricky pointed out. "We left the caves a long time back."

"Yes. But most of the progress of the human race over time is the work of singularly bright and determined individuals, or groups of them, working together. The bulk of the people in either reality contribute greatly to the maintenance of daily life, but contribute very little to assist with moving things forward." Ilessa sighed. "In fact, there are more people, in both realities, and in any given moment, trying to tear down what others have built, than there are people actually striving to move us forward. Only the lack of organization among the anarchist element keeps us going." She offered a tight smile then. "Their inability to manage within a society extends even to working with each other."

Charlie frowned at that. "I don't know if I agree with that. Most people live fairly orderly lives. They get up each day, go to work, put food on the table, see that their kids get educated, and do their part to keep the world running. That stability is what makes the world continue onward. Anarchism is not a terrific force, that I can see."

Ilessa shrugged. "Our world differs from yours in many areas. The nation-states so prominent here were merged into a world-ruling body in our world centuries ago. At last it seemed that one elected body could speak for the citizens of the entire planet. But it was apparently not to be. After only a century of peace, about two hundred years ago, the old divisions began to reappear. Nationalism arose once more, with people once again placing the interests of their own small parts of the world ahead of all others. Tensions reappeared, conflicts arose, and the contentment of the entire planet seemed to vanish."

Keerby looked over at Charlie, and the elf's eyes seemed to say that he had an idea where this was heading.

Hendrik picked up the story then. "It took some time for the government to recognize the extent of what was happening, and to realize that their every move to counter the rising discontent was meeting with failure. A special investigative body - some of the best minds on the planet - was assembled to look into the root causes of these new problems. Their discoveries were both enlightening, and quite shocking in the extreme." Hendrik's eyes circled the group, his intensity plain. "We had been invaded. And, we were being conquered, silently and terribly, and mostly by our own kind."

Keerby expelled a short breath of air, as if he has been holding his breath while listening. "Boojums. Those dark entities we talked about earlier."

Hendrik looked impressed. "Your intuitive abilities are astonishing. But, yes, you are correct. The investigative team discovered that immaterial life forms had engulfed the planet, and were using their considerable mental talents to create chaos among the human race."

"To what end?" Robin asked. "Why do such a thing at all?"

Hendrik shrugged. "We don't know the answer to that. Only that it is being done, even as we speak."

"Some dark entities thrive on chaos," Keerby said then. "Some of them love disorder. But in this case, it may have a simpler explanation. It could be that they just don't like the competition."

Hendrik and Ilessa stared at the elf. "I'm not sure I understand," Ilessa said.

"Your entire race has the power," Keerby went on. "That much usage of skwish - a term we use to describe the ability to utilize one's innate talents - leaves a tremendous footprint in space-time. Other life forms that use skwish can detect it, and some are drawn to it. Some of the dark entities are particularly sensitive to the emissions of others, and can follow them across vast distances in time and space."

"But why bother us?" Ilessa asked. "We were not bothering them."

"Perhaps not now," Keerby replied. "But perhaps in the future, you would have."

Hendrik looked amazed. "Are you saying these beings can travel in time?"

"Yes. They are not chained to the flow of time like most people are. And, many dark entities can cross the boundaries between realities. This ability to come and go as they please lends a certain arrogance to their actions." Keerby's eyes moved from Hendrik to Ilessa. "Tell you know of any others that have visited your kind? People that look very human, but are not?"

Their two hosts looked uncertain. "You mean aliens?" Hendrik asked, sounding skeptical now.

Keerby shook his head. "No. I a second human race, maybe, living side-by-side with your own?"

"No." Hendrik said then, his eyes narrowed somewhat. "Should we know of these people?"

Keerby sat back in his seat. "No. I just thought...with your mastery of skwish...that you might."

The man watched him a moment, and then squinted in surprise. "Do you have something like that here in your world? This...other human race?"

Keerby's eyes turned to Charlie, as if asking how he should reply.

Charlie smiled at him. "Do whatever you think is best."

Keerby nodded, and returned his gaze to meet Hendrik's. "Yes. I am one of those people. Our mastery of skwish - of the power - is greater than most any of the humans here."

Ilessa nodded excitedly. "It is as I said! This one's power is enormous!"

Hendrik looked for a moment like he thought he was being kidded. His eyes swept over to meet Robin's, and then Charlie's. "You're serious?"

"Absolutely," Robin agreed.

Charlie nodded. "Yes." But he decided not to mention the word elves unless Keerby did.

"We do not live among the humans here," Keerby explained slowly. "We live in...well, it's, um, sort of a side dimension."

Hendrik released an amazed breath. "You mean another alternate reality?"

Keerby smiled. "No. We live in this reality. Just...just not on the same floor as the humans, so to speak."

Hendrik closed his eyes a moment, and gave his head the tiniest of shakes. "If I could not detect your power myself, I would suspect that this was some sort of a joke. Or...insanity."

"We're all sane here," Robin said, smiling. "Or, we'd like to think we are."

Hendrik opened his eyes at that, and managed a smile. "Very well. Let us proceed from this point as if this is the true situation of this world. As a guest here, I really feel I should differ to your view of your reality, anyway."

"Good man!" Horace blurted out, and then looked slightly embarrassed. "Well, it is a very sane reaction, I think."

"I think so, too," Adrian agreed.

Kippy displayed a thumb's up. "We're on your side."

Hendrik's eyes looked amused, but also displayed a noticeable amount of relief. "So how do we proceed from here?"

Robin turned to Keerby. "These dark beings are your specialty, I think."

Keerby nodded, and smiled at Hendrik. "May I ask how your people came to our reality from your own? There are no natural pathways left between them that I can detect."

Hendrik nodded, and smiled down the length of the table at his companion. "Ilessa?"

The woman frowned a moment before speaking. "Oh...well. We arrived here by way of a device, called the probability index." She smiled a little sadly. "Only, it's not actually an index. Its purpose was to create portals into alternate reference frames that had diverged from our own. In that it has failed completely, for it was able to open a path to only one alternate frame: this one."

Robin made a soft ah. "So you came here because this was your only choice?"

"Yes." Hendrik tapped his fingertips together again. "Several of the top scientists on the project were assassinated before the work was completed. The mechanism to tune the probability index was one casualty of that crime. We were left with the single, random reality the machine had reached when first activated. Your own."

"They were assassinated?" Casper asked, sounding a little horrified.

"Our world is in a state of chaos, I'm afraid. Our dark energy friends have formed an alliance of some kind with the fringe elements of our own society. The streets are in the hands of madmen. All those working to fight against them have become targets. The world's population lives in fortified cities now. The economy is a shambles. It's everything we can do to keep going."

For a moment Charlie felt an unsettling thought. "You're not planning on moving your population here, are you?"

Hendrik's eyes widened at the idea. "I don't think that would be practical, even if it wasn't unethical. We just have the one gateway. And our population is even larger than yours."

Kippy leaned forward and smiled. "Then why are you here?"

"We are here because we needed safe ground," Ilessa said. "Here we have been able to establish businesses that cannot be assailed by our adversaries. Manufacturing facilities. Trade lines. Research centers. Here we can manufacture the things we desperately need at home. Here we can provide the means to continue the fight, to hold onto what is left. And, to hopefully, one day, prevail against our enemies."

"The unassailable high ground," Robin said suddenly, nodding. "As America was for the allies, in World War II."

"Precisely." Hendrik seemed pleased that they understood. "In the time my people have been allowed to work freely here, we have progressed against our opponents. We know it is not the human enemy that needs to be conquered, but their masters. Until we created the portal to your world, we were losing the fight. Today, we are holding our own. And some day, we will prevail."

Kippy stared for a long time at Hendrik after he stopped talking, and then looked at Ilessa, who smiled at him. Then he turned to Charlie. "They're telling the truth."

Charlie nodded. "I sense the same thing."

"We have to help them, Charlie."

"I don't know how we can."

Kippy shook his head, and turned to look at Adrian. "I'm right, aren't I?"

Adrian nodded slowly. "I think so."

Robin looked from one boy to the next. "What do you mean?"

Kippy turned to look at him. "The boojum that's been watching us? It knows. It knows we can help these people. It wants to stop that."

Keerby looked doubtful. "It can't reach us here."

Kippy closed his eyes. "It doesn't want to reach us. It doesn't want to come here. It wants to stop us from going there. Through these people's portal. Through the door they made to get here. That machine is in danger. By coming here, we have forced the dark energy beings to try something they have long been afraid of attempting."

Hendrik slowly rose to his feet. "You mean...?"

Kippy nodded, his eyes filled with fear. "They're going to attack your machine in your world."

Horace looked shocked. "I think he's right, Charlie."

Keerby shook his head. "They might give these people a hard time, but if I alert my people, they'll come and twist these boojum's tails off!"

Kippy shook his head. "That's what they're afraid of. They want to close the portal, and end the threat we pose to them."

Keerby jumped to his feet. "We can't let that happen!"

Everyone started talking at once.

Robin stood then, and waved his hands for silence. "Wait! Please! One moment, everyone!"

The room grew quiet again, and Robin turned to Hendrik. "I don't have the same senses that Kip and Adrian have, but even I sense the danger now. There's only one thing we can do, and we must do it quickly."

"We have to go to their world," Kippy said bluntly. "Go and defend the machine, and quickly!"

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