Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Elementary, My Dear Charlie Boone! - Chapter 6

The small aircar was silent as it streaked through the night, heading for Chicago. Charlie and the others, now wearing the gray body armor provided by Ilessa's people, sat in the rows of seats that ran down each side of the center aisle. At the front of the aircar, a lone Defender sat before a largely automatic set of controls. These would have scarcely provided enough information to run a modern airliner in Charlie's world, but apparently the two small displays in front of the man told him all he needed to know.

Charlie looked down at the short rifle laying across his lap, and had a brief bout of disbelief at where he was and what he was doing.

"How does it work?" he'd asked the Defender who had handed him the rifle before leaving.

"Point it towards the enemy, and press that stud. The rifle will do the rest."

The rifle fired a steady stream of micro-flechettes, guided down the barrel by an intense electromagnetic field. These small metal darts had incredible penetrating power due to their terrific velocity. He had realized after learning about the weapon that had not Keerby provided a shield to capture the tiny projectiles fired at them on the balcony, that they would surely be dead now. Even the sophisticated body armor they now wore was not proof against the flechettes, if enough of them landed in the same spot.

Keerby had made some adjustments to the protective barrier around the mountain complex before they had left, which he said would thwart the boojums for the time being. Leaving the mountain undefended was just one worry that Charlie had to deal with right now. It wouldn't do at all to return and find out that the boojums had allowed the enemy to take the place in their absence. Charlie trusted Keerby, and if the elf said the mountain would hold long enough, Charlie believed him. That allowed him to at least push that one worry to the back of his mind for now.

Horace, sitting across from Charlie and Kip, had been talking quietly with Ilessa since they had left the mountain fortress. Now, he turned to Charlie and waved a hand for attention. "You should hear this, Charlie."

"Hear what?"

Ilessa frowned at him across the aisle. "Horace was just asking me why we were fighting the people we are fighting."

Kippy made a disgusted sound. "I thought it was because they were the bad guys!"

Horace nodded. "Yes, but why they are the bad guys is quite interesting."

Charlie and Kip exchanged glances at that.

"Does it matter why they're bad?" Adrian asked, angrily. "I just want to get them for what they did!"

Kippy frowned and picked up Adrian's hand, and squeezed it tightly. "We're worried, too. But you have to stay in control."

Adrian's face worked silently a moment, and then he nodded. "I just want to cry, and scream, and beat on something, all at once!"

Kippy gave his friend's hand another squeeze. "We'll get him back."

"I doubt they will try to harm him, at least initially," Ilessa said. "The dark energy beings have certainly told them about you and your attempts to aid us. The others will be curious about you, but will defer to what their masters say. But...they tend to be a reckless sort, too."

Horace nodded. "Ilessa thinks the boojums will use Rick to lure us into rescuing him."

"It's working," Durapar said patiently. "So we must not act in a manner they will expect."

"Pretty hard to do," Charlie said. "A rescue means we go and get him. It's as simple as that."

"Perhaps, the Andaleesian said. "And perhaps not."

Charlie looked at the intense expression on the teenaged human face the alien was wearing just now, and smiled. "I'm listening."

Durapar leaned closer. "I was talking to Rick earlier, before we arrived in this world, about the way that Ragal, Casper, and I suddenly wanted to talk to you before all this started. There we were, strolling along back towards their villa on Engris, and all of a sudden, all three of us felt a need to contact you."

Charlie nodded. "I remember."

"Well, Rick theorized that you have some sort of way of communicating with others at a distance."

Charlie recalled his conversation with Ricky then, and nodded. "It's not proven yet. Just some weird thing we were talking about."

Durapar chuckled. "Charlie, everything you and your friends do begins as some weird thing!"

Kippy laughed, and leaned fondly against Charlie. "There's some truth to that!"

Charlie sat back in his seat. "Are you saying I should try to communicate with Rick?"

"Well, the very best intelligence we might get about where we need to go would come from someone on the inside. Someone like Rick. Could it hurt to try?"

Could it?

Kippy bumped his shoulder against Charlie's. "It's worth a try."

"Yeah. I guess it is." Charlie thought of something else then, and turned to Keerby. "Any chance we could get help from, um, your people here?"

The elf looked distressed. "I'm afraid not." He looked around at the faces turned his way. "From what I can determine, my kind don't exist here."

Charlie joined the others in gaping. No elves!

"Why not?" Kippy managed to get out.

Keerby raised and lowered his shoulders. "Who knows these things? In this reality, we don't exist. In fact, I believe it's the absence of my people here that has led to the problems for this Earth. Should the boojums have gotten together in our reality to cause problems for your people there, my people would have certainly put a stop to it."

Charlie stared at the elf. "Could they have stopped a whole horde of these things, out to make trouble?"

Keerby made a slightly dismissive sound. "They're just immortal beings made of pure energy and able to cross time and some realities, Charlie. They're not omnipotent."

Charlie noticed the twinkle in the elf's eyes then, and smiled. "Oh, is that all they are?"

Keerby smiled at Durapar. "I think he has a good idea, Charlie. I think you should try to contact Ricky."

Adrian scooted closer to Charlie's other side, and both he and Kippy each took one of Charlie's hands. "We're going with you," Adrian said, his tone accepting no argument.

Charlie nodded and closed his eyes, having no idea how to go about contacting Ricky. But then he remembered the way Rick had gotten him to purposely think about getting Horace to call them, back at the office. That had just been a matter of picturing Horace's face and wishing he would call. Could it be that easy?

Charlie had no trouble at all imagining Rick's face, and it even made him smile as his friend's handsome features swam into view in his mind. A stream of memories arose then in Charlie's thoughts, pictures of Rick going back many years, through all the things they had done together. Charlie had always thought Rick's smile beautiful, and the look in his eyes a mixture of strength, gentleness, decency, and compassion.

"That's beautiful," Adrian said softly, somewhere in Charlie's thoughts.

"You're so sweet, Charlie," Kippy added, radiating a sense of happiness in the feel of his presence close by.

"Where are you, Rick?" Charlie wondered in thought.


Charlie gasped in amazement. "Ricky?"

"Hey! I told you you had that communication thing going on!"

Charlie gasped again, so realistic was the sound of Ricky's voice. It was as if his friend was seated in the aircar with them!

"Where are you?" he asked quickly.

"Beats the hell out of me! Wherever it is, it's a damn big building! And full of these guys in red, too!"

"Ricky!" Adrian's thought came then. "Are you okay?"

"Ad? Oh, it's so good to hear your voice! I love you, sweetheart!"

Charlie heard a mental sob, and had to resist the strangest desire to cry inside his head.

"I love you so much! I was so worried about you! Are you safe?"

They sensed Ricky chuckle. "I'm fine. Keerby did something at the last second, and these guys can't even touch me. Sure made them mad! They've had a hell of a time just getting me to where they could watch me."

"How are they getting you to move around, then, if they can't even touch you?" Charlie asked.

Ricky laughed again. "Well, the one guy teleported me from the mountain complex to this big building, wherever it is--"

"You're in Chicago," Charlie supplied. "We've traced you to Soldier Field."

"Yeah? The Bears, huh? Maybe I can get a few autographs while I'm here!"

"I don't think the team is home," Charlie replied.

"Yeah, I'd say not. This place sure looks broken down to me!"

Adrian laughed, a release of stress and fear. "You sound okay!"

"I am. These red guys are some pure assholes, but Keerby's shield has kept them from doing anything to me."

"You were telling us how they move you around?" Charlie reminded.

"Oh, yeah. They can't touch me. It's like I have one of those frying pan coatings on me. They try to grab me, and their hands just slide off. A whole bunch of them have to crowd around me and sort of bump me along. I've been going along with it for now, but if I stop, they all just slide by me and fall down. Sure pisses them off!"

"What about their powers?" Adrian asked. "Can they get to you with them?"

"It doesn't seem so. They've had a whole line of people in here, shooting fire, trying to shock me, trying to pull me around, push me - do all kinds of stuff. None of it works. Whatever Keerby put around me, it sure is awesome!"

"Seems so," Charlie agreed, wanting now to ask the elf what sort of protection he had concocted. He let out a mental sigh of satisfaction, feeling a little better now. "It helps a lot to know that you're reasonably safe for the moment."

"I think so, for now. They want to know about this shield pretty badly," Ricky shot back. "They've had some people in here trying to study me, but they don't seem to be getting anywhere. They wanted to take me somewhere - like a lab, or something, I think - but I decided not to go."

"So they can't make you go anywhere?" Kippy asked.

"Not really. They finally hit on having two of them put their arms around me, join hands, and teleport me. That's how they got me to this room from where the red guy first brought me. But if I don't cooperate, and move around, they can't even do that much. And I'm not cooperating!"

"But you're not immobilized in any way?" Kippy asked.

"Nope. But they have me locked in a room right now, with a couple of jokers in full battle gear. Every now and then one of them shoots me just to keep me awake."

"Shoots you!" Adrian sounded alarmed again.

"Oops." Ricky chuckled again. "Don't worry, sweetie. Those little bullets they fire just bounce off me and ricochet around. Last time they did it, one of them shot straight back and hit the guy next to the one that fired. His armor protected him, but he sure was mad! They haven't really done anymore shooting since."

"I'm going to fry them when I see them!" Adrian promised.

"We're on our way, Rick," Charlie thought. "We're coming to get you."

"That's good, because I'm hungry, and they haven't been able to feed me."

Charlie was stunned at that. "Why not?"

"Well...Keerby's shield won't let anything inside. I mean, I can breathe, but that's about it."

"I'll ask him about it," Charlie replied. "Will you be okay for now?"

"Sure. You know me. I'm always hungry!"

Charlie felt relief. In the press of things, none of them had had another chance to eat. Their last meal back at the hotel was a fond memory now.

"I'll buy you the biggest hamburger the hotel has to offer," Charlie replied. "Just as soon as we get you back."

"Works for me!"

Charlie gave a little sigh. "I won't be able to keep Adrian and Kip in the loop once we get there. We need to touch to do that."

"I was thinking about that, Charlie. I'll bet if the four of us work together on this, we can get it so we can always contact each other. There has to be a way."

Charlie smiled at the idea. "You sure you want Kip to be able to peek inside your head whenever he wants?"

An amazing sigh came across the link. "Right now, yes!"

"I'd always be respectful," Kippy thought. "I'd never peek unless you wanted me to!"

The four of them laughed in thought. It was so good to be together again!

"I have to get back to the others now," Charlie thought. "Adrian and Kip will be leaving the link. But you and I can maintain contact, okay?"

"Sure. Like I said, right now I'm not giving these guys any trouble. They get too mad, and they start shooting up the place. They might hurt each other. But if I decide not to stand still, they can't do a damn thing about it. So I won't let them teleport me somewhere else. I'll be here when you get here."

Adrian sighed in thought. "It's so good to know you're okay, my love. I was so scared."

"I'm so sorry, Ad. We'll be back together soon. I love you!"

"I love you back!"

"We all love you," Kippy thought. "And we'll be there as soon as we can."

It took an act of will, but Adrian and Kippy released Charlie's hands. Charlie sensed them go. "Still there?" he asked Ricky.

"Yeah. Watch out for Adrian, will you, Charlie?"

"Yes. But he's fine. I think we'll have to keep him from electrocuting everyone in sight when we get there, though!"

Ricky laughed. "That's my little dynamo!"

"Speak up any time," Charlie instructed. "But I need to get back to the others now."

"I'll be fine. Looking forward to that hamburger, Charlie!"

Charlie sighed and opened his eyes.

"--he's okay, though," Adrian was telling the others excitedly. "He's just waiting for us to come and get him!"

Durapar looked almost ecstatic. "It worked!"

"It sure did," Charlie said, smiling. "Thanks!"

Horace held up a hand to get Charlie's attention. The man looked worried, and Charlie knew how Horace was when he was worried. "I'm so glad that Rick is okay. But you need to hear this, about our enemy, Charlie."

Charlie blinked, catching up, and remembered that Horace had wanted Ilessa to tell him something before their communication experiment had started.

"Right. What was that you were saying?"

Horace frowned. "It's about why any humans at all are helping the boojums against their own kind."

Charlie looked askance at the man. "I thought the boojums were controlling them?"

"No. They're not. The human enemy here is acting of their own free will."

Robin nodded. "They really are the bad guys, Charlie."

Ilessa looked unhappy. "A good portion of the human race is selfish and greedy, Charlie. In your world and in mine. Promised power, wealth, and position, you would be surprised what some people will do to their own kind to achieve those goals."

Charlie's jaw dropped. "Are you saying these people have trashed your whole planet helping the boojums because they think they'll wind up running it at the end? That's crazy!"

Ilessa nodded. "We've already discussed that many humans are not too smart. Combine that lower intelligence with greed and selfishness, and it's a lethal combination."

"I can see a few people willing to sell out their own kind," Charlie said. "Hundreds, maybe thousands, even."

"Try two billion," Ilessa returned. "We estimate that one quarter of the human race here is in league with the boojums. Their intent is to simply get their way, and have the world they want, where they are at the top, and everyone else is at the bottom. Or dead."

"I can't believe that. It's a completely unrealistic goal!"

"They live in their own little reality, Charlie. One where they are right, and everyone else is both wrong and expendable." The woman gave a shrug that conveyed a definite sadness. "These same forces are constantly at work in your own world, too. Selfish, greedy people, who are willing to trample the freedoms of others to get what they want. True believers, separatists or anarchists, the fringe element - call them what you want. All of them believe that what they want is all that matters, and that they have some sort of right to remake the world in the image they see. And anyone that stands in their way gets trampled. The only difference between your world and mine is that here these people have been empowered by a race of immaterial entities that have multiplied their reach and ability to destroy by tenfold."

It was a frightening thought. Could such a thing happen in their own world, on their own earth?

Keerby seemed to divine his thoughts. "Not with people like us around, Charlie. My kind, and people like you and your friends. Never."

"These kinds of people can still do a lot of damage, even without help from boojums," Horace said. "They can, because they always have. Our own past reeks of these people's efforts to destroy everything in order to have their own way."

Ilessa nodded. "So, it is important to remember that mercy is a liability when dealing with these people."

Charlie hated that idea. But...he could actually see the merit of the argument. If these people were truly possessed of the sort of single-minded determination to erase everything and everyone that stood between them and their goals...the idea was frightening. It was a new way of thinking, of seeing the world, and he would need to think more about it before he could embrace it as truth.

"I'll keep it in mind," he promised. "And thanks for letting me know."

The Defender piloting their aircar turned to look back over his shoulder at Ilessa. "We are at the five-minute travel mark from the destination. I've halted us, and lowered us down. At this point the scramblers seem to have remained effective against enemy positioning scanners, but I cannot guarantee that as we get closer. And, there's their own seers, of course."

Ilessa frowned. "We may be as close as we can get by flying. I am less worried about the scanners finding the aircar than I am their seers detecting us."

Keerby nodded. "I can sense the city from here. There are those there whose purpose it is to watch."

Ilessa lifted a hand in acknowledgement. "At this point, I am not sure how to proceed."

Adrian looked over at Kip, and then back to Ilessa. "If their scanners are anything like our radar, they lose their effectiveness as a target gets closer to the ground."

"It's the same with this technology," Ilessa agreed. "If we were in a ground vehicle, we would be lost among the ground clutter and much harder to detect, at least until we were right on top of them. The seers, however, have no such limitations. They will detect us by the emissions of our minds."

"I can shield us from that sort of detection," Keerby announced. "Since we're all in one spot - the aircar - it will be easy, even."

"That just leaves the radar thing," Adrian said. He looked at Charlie. "If we were driving on the ground, we'd be very hard to detect."

Charlie leaned forward and called to the Defender up front. "Any roads down there?"

The man swung his seat around on a pivot. "Plenty of them. Many are cluttered with debris, however. Some have been eroded by weather and time. I would say they would be a challenge to drive on now."

Charlie nodded. "Uh huh. And how about if we just floated over them a foot for so off the ground?"

The man looked surprised, and then smiled. "They would be easier to navigate that way, surely."

"Why not just fly over the ground at that level?" Kippy asked.

"Lots of obstacles," Charlie replied. "Both natural and man-made. The roadways stand a chance of at least being somewhat clear."

"I would agree with that," their pilot returned. "We could keep up a fair speed, I would say, though nothing like the speed we can make flying at altitude."

Charlie turned to Ilessa. "How about if we do that? Take the roads in?"

"I'll agree with it if the pilot thinks it will work."

That man nodded. "It beats walking, definitely. While we're five minutes away by air, we'd be several hours walking the same distance."

"And just floating along?" Kippy asked.

The pilot frowned. "Half hour, maybe less. Depends on how much junk we have to navigate around. Some of the roads I've seen in other areas have quite a lot of wrecked or destroyed vehicles on them. No telling what this road is like."

Charlie nodded. "Then let's get going."

"Right." The pilot turned back to his console, and they settled lower and began moving along a roadway that led into the city.

Charlie scratched his head. "Now we just need to figure out what to do when we get there."

Adrian suddenly frowned at Charlie.

"Something?" Charlie asked.

"Well...I was remembering when we went to save Pacha and Mike and the guys when their ship got crushed by the ice. You took Max along with you in your second presence, until he was there with Pacha and the others, and he teleported them out."

Charlie nodded. "Yeah, but without Rick's help, we'd never have made it."

The other boy nodded. "But you have a link with Rick now. Could you follow it with your second presence to where he is?"

Charlie stared at his friend, and then smiled. "Hold on a second." He turned his thoughts inwards. "Rick?"

"Still here."

Charlie explained Adrian's suggestion.

"Maybe," Rick decided.

"The only thing is, I needed you to push that last time, because I couldn't get Max all the way to Pacha. If I tried to bring Keerby with me to teleport you out, I figure the same thing will happen."

Charlie sensed the other boy grunt. "Well, I'm already at the destination. Seems to me I could reach out to you and Keerby just as easily and pull you the last part of the journey, if needed. That's not my main worry, though. I sense all sorts of ghosts here. I have a feeling they would interfere."

Charlie blinked at that. "Ghosts?"

"Yeah. You know...those boojum things? There's a lot of them here, watching me. No way you and Keerby could just come along and they wouldn't know about it, I think."

Charlie considered that. "Well...I know Keerby is good with those critters. And I seem to be able to kick some boojum ass, myself!"

Ricky chuckled. "I'm willing to try it, if you guys are."

"Okay. Let me talk to Keerby, and I'll get back to you."

The elf listened attentively as Charlie explained what he wanted to do, and then looked interested. "I think we could do it, but I'm not sure they wouldn't see us coming. All the things I know how to do to shield us in the real world will not work when I am in your second presence with you. It's because it's an immaterial existence, not physical."

"Would it matter if they saw us coming?" Charlie asked.

"I actually don't know that they would," Keerby returned. "From what you said earlier, the five you tore apart didn't know you were there in your second presence form until you spoke to them. Your second presence is a unique talent in my experience. Very little is known about it."

"Oh. That's right. They didn't seem to sense me until I hollered at them."

The elf nodded. "Then again, boojums are just like us, in that their talents vary between them. Those five may not have felt you there, but another one might." He tapped his chin with a forefinger. "Let me think a moment. I want to talk to Blinken."

"Okay." Charlie returned to his inward channel. "Rick? Keerby wants to talk to Blinken about the chances of this working."

"I think that's a good idea. This is a totally different situation than at Pacha's ship. These boojums have a lot of potential to interfere with it here. And they're curious about me, and about the shield Keerby made. I can feel them...maybe probing at it is the right word? They seem to want to get rid of it."

That sounded alarming! No telling what the dark energy beings could do if they set their minds to it. "I don't like the idea of that. I don't want them breaking your protection before we get to you."

Rick grunted over their link. "I think if they could take it away, they would have by now. They seem a little puzzled by it."

"Good. Maybe they'll be the same with me." Charlie sighed. "There's just so much about operating in my second presence we don't know about yet."

Rick laughed. "Not just that! All our powers still have that new car smell, Charlie. We're just getting started."

"That's for sure." Charlie smiled at the comparison. "It's like my new truck. My seats still squeak when I get in!"

They both laughed silently at that.

"Okay," Charlie thought then. "I'll go back and wait on Keerby, and then get back to you."

He returned his attention to the aircar then. Robin seemed to have been watching for this, and smiled at him. "Back with us, are you? How is Rick doing?"

"He's okay, all things considered."

Robin leaned closer to him. "I've been thinking."

Charlie couldn't help grinning at that. "Of course."

The older man smiled. "This rescue is very much like attempting to enter a guarded castle of old. I have some experience with these things, you know."

"I have no doubt. What have you got in mind?"

Robin smiled. "The best way to enter a guarded position of any kind is to have the defenders concentrating their efforts elsewhere. As in a diversion of some sort."

The idea had instant appeal to Charlie, striking him right off as an idea worth investigating. "I can see that. But what sort of diversion?"

Robin shrugged. "Any sort will do, actually." He offered a very pleasant, if conspiratorial, twitch of his lips. "Even better, two diversions, a primary, and a secondary. The primary will be the attention-getter, the secondary the lure. Occupy some large part of their defenders with the primary diversion, and occupy the smart ones, who might suspect just such a ploy, with the secondary diversion. The actual rescue itself should be as minimalist as possible."

Charlie smiled. "I like it."

A trace of a frown crossed the older man's features. "Just one thing. I think I should be the one to go with you to rescue Rick. Keerby is, by far, the most able of our group. He can best direct both diversions, I think. All you need is a teleporter to go with you, and I'm your man for that."

Charlie nodded. "Maybe. Let's see what Keerby has to say about it, though."

"Fair enough. Never let it be said that Robin Hood couldn't take orders, as well as give them."

Charlie had to smile at that. "Your decency is showing, my dear Hood."

Robin's eyes widened briefly, but the smile he offered forever cemented in Charlie's mind the friendship he had with this amazing man. Robin briefly patted the legs of his armor, made brushing away and then neatening motions that in no way actually moved the flexible but tough material, and then smiled again. "There. All hidden away again!"

"Charlie?" It was Keerby. Both Charlie and Robin turned to him. Keerby looked happy. "Blinken seems to think the boojums here are not that bright. Sort of like the people they have influenced to make war here. He thinks we'd have a good chance of rescuing Rick by your method."

Charlie and Robin exchanged glances. "Not that bright?" Charlie echoed. "I thought these guys were super-beings!"

The elf shrugged. "Their powers are one thing, and their intelligence another. There are surely some fearsome, bright boojums in this reality. The ones besieging this earth just happen not to be them."

Robin looked askance at the elf. "But all this destruction..."

"You don't have to be a genius to destroy things, Robin."

The older man looked amazed, and then relieved. "Then this bodes well for our plan."

"With just one change," Charlie said to Keerby. "I was thinking of taking Robin with me as the teleporter. That would leave you free out here to use your powers."

The elf laughed. "That was exactly Blinken's suggestion!"

Charlie felt relief at that, and went on to tell the elf the rest of Robin's plan. "So, you can handle the two diversions, while Robin and I go to get Ricky?"

"It sounds good to me. Blinken seems to think your second presence is an unknown talent among the humans in this reality. It's rare enough back in our own reality, you know. So, neither the humans nor the boojums here have any experience with it. That may be why the boojums you destroyed didn't sense you. If that's the case, none of them will be able to do it."

Charlie liked that notion, but also knew there were a number of ifs implicit in accepting it as fact. But he also figured that if they could get to Rick undetected, they stood a good chance of getting him back.

Charlie thought of something else then. "Rick says he can't eat, because nothing will pass the shield you put around him."

The elf winced. "That's entirely true, I'm afraid. My objective was to protect Rick as much as possible, and I figured at the time we could get him back before the issue of food became a problem. So, I changed his state to one that Blinken has been teaching me about. It was almost a reflex, as it was the most powerful defense I was aware of at that moment."

Charlie and Robin exchanged interested glances.

"Just what kind of shield is it?" Robin asked.

"'s not exactly a shield. It's a state, like I just said."

"Oh," Kippy said, smiling and waving a hand. "That explains it!"

Keerby blinked, and then laughed. "Sorry. I didn't actually put anything around Rick. I simply changed the time reference he exists in. I changed his state."

Ragal, across the aisle, laughed. "I think I understand!"

Casper shook his head. "Well, I don't. What's he mean?"

Ragal smiled at the elf. "I'm assuming you put him forward, just a little?"

Keerby beamed. "A thousandth of a second."

Kippy sighed. "Will you please let us weaker minds in on this?"

The elf raised a placating hand. "You know that time is one of my talents?"

"Just slightly," Kippy answered, dryly. But his eyes were bright, and anyone that knew him knew he was having fun.

"Well, what I did was to cause Rick to exist a thousandth of a second in the future. It's a difference that's not noticeable to us, perceptually. So you can talk to him, and he can respond, and you won't sense any lag time between you. But he is perpetually ahead of everything by that thousandth of a second. That's why nothing can touch him. No matter what it is, it always arrives a thousandth of a second too late to interact with his body."

"But what if he's still in the same place?" Adrian asked. "A thousandth of a second is nothing!"

Keerby shook his head. "A thousandth of a second is everything, actually. Because Rick stays that thousandth of a second ahead at all times. So, even if he stands still, no force can touch him because it is always one thousandth of a second too late to interact with him."

Charlie whistled, amazed at the concept. Explained a little now, he could see what a powerful defense such a state could be. "Why don't the boojums know how to take it off him?" he asked. "I thought they were good with time, too."

"They are," Keerby conceded. "But that's a matter of temporal localization. In order for them to act on others, they have to be in the same time frame with them. To the boojums, Rick is something they can see and sense, but he's already moved beyond their ability to act on him. Believe me, I learned this from Blinken, and the hernacki are the best at this sort of thing."

Robin raised a hand for attention. "Okay, we have established the fact that Rick is safe for the moment. Now we need to consider our plan to rescue him."

Charlie looked over at Ilessa then, and saw the amazed expression on her face. "We operate like this all the time," Charlie explained, smiling. "Kind of by the skin of our teeth."

The woman shook her head. "You seem acquainted with some astonishing concepts. I feel a little lost in trying to follow you."

Charlie grinned. "Well, it may sound good, but we're really just winging it!"

Kippy nodded. "Hold onto your hats!"

Ilessa smiled. "I plan to watch, and learn as much as possible. But you and your people are in charge of this rescue. So, let's go ahead and make our plans."

Everyone bent forward then, looking at Charlie, who blinked at the sudden attention. But then he smiled. "Robin had the idea that this will be like trying to steal into a castle of old. He thinks our best plan will be to have two diversions, and...maybe I'd better let him explain it." He turned then, and smiled at the thief.

Robin was in his element here. He smiled as he accepted the baton. "Gather around, my friends, while we plot to overthrow the king!"

Kippy sighed. "Could we do without the theatrics?"

But Robin's smile only broadened. "I think not. For theatrics, my dear Lawson, is what our plan will be all about!"

Kippy blinked at that, and then smiled. "Do tell us more, my dear prince of thieves!"

"I sure hope this works!" Kippy said, peering out from behind the broken wall. In the distance, the tumbledown remains of a large stadium stood in the moonlight, reminding him of the ruins of ancient castles in lands far away in place and time. Amazingly, the sparkle of streetlights showed here and there around the ruins, whatever illuminated them having somehow withstood the test of time. Beyond the great stadium stood a collection of shattered towers - skyscrapers that had once dotted the city's skyline. And beyond them stood a giant dome, the largest structure Charlie had ever laid eyes upon. It wore a metallic sheen that glinted in the milky light from the indifferent moon, suggesting a strength the likes of which he had never seen before.

"That's Fortress Chicago," Ilessa had explained, as the boys had expressed amazement over its gargantuan size. "All our cities - the free ones, that is - have been enclosed like this. They have the same defenses that the Cheyenne Mountain Complex has. That's why it's so frightening to think that these, um boojums" --she smiled at the odd name, in spite of the seriousness of the situation -- "can find a way inside.".

"We don't know if that knowledge was passed on," Keerby explained hastily. "Boojums don't like to share advantages much. If those five created that method of making holes in your defenses, it's likely it went with them when Charlie tore them to pieces."

"Yet, what one - or several - can think of, others can, too," Ragal pointed out. "We must not assume that the secret died with them."

"We're not," Ilessa replied, her expression grim. "Every city has been placed on high alert."

Charlie surveyed the stadium. From their observation point within the ruins of the Field Museum, he could also see the waters of Burnham Park Harbor nearby, and of Lake Michigan beyond. The gentle play of moonlight on the surface of these two bodies gave the scene a deceptively peaceful feel, reminding him of other moonlit nights in more restful times.

He didn't even want to think about the condition the museum was in. He had visited it once as boy while staying with his father's parents for a week, and fallen in love with the Museum Library and the Hall of Dinosaurs. To see the grand structure in the ruined condition it was in now was heart-rending. It wasn't just people that died in wars.

"It's big," Adrian said, shaking his head at the stadium. "I wouldn't even know how to go about finding Rick in a place that size."

"Don't worry," Charlie told him. "When Robin and I go in in my second presence, Rick will lead us straight to where they have him."

Adrian smiled at him, and reached for Charlie's hand, and squeezed it. "Rick couldn't have better friends."

Ricky gave the other boy a quick hug. "We'll get him. Are you ready to do your part?"

"Yes. You just watch me!"

Charlie smiled. "I'll be busy. But I know you'll do your part." He turned to Casper then. "Do you have the image from my mind?"

"Yes." Casper laughed his squeaky laugh. "Is this going to be fun, or what!"

"You've never done anything this size before," Charlie told him. "Can you handle something like this?"

"Sure. Size doesn't require any more effort from me. I just hope we're close enough that I can affect every mind in that building. I can sense some good users in there. But I don't think any have any built-in safeguards against illusion. I can usually sense things like that. I think it means that illusion is not a talent humans have here."

"Keerby said there are as many as five hundred people inside. Have you ever done anything like this before, with so many minds?"

"No. But remember that I'll only need to be affecting the minds of people outside, or who can see outside. Besides, Ragal is going to work with me to stabilize the image. Between the two of us, it should be a pretty good show."

Charlie smiled. "We're counting on you."

Casper sighed, and smiled back. "No pressure, though."

Charlie laughed, and leaned down and gave the little alien a hug. "You'll be fine. I remember some of the illusions you used on us before we first met you. If those are any indicator, these guys are in for a rough night!"

"Their cameras, or whatever they use to observe the outside of the that stadium, won't see what the people see," Kippy reminded.

"It doesn't matter," Casper said. "The people watching what those cameras see and hear will see and hear what I direct at them. I doubt anyone will have time to go back and look at recorded footage." The little alien laughed. "They'll be too busy running or hiding!"

"Just one thing," Ragal put in. "Casper's illusions will not affect any boojum watchers. They will be confused by what their human allies report and what they observe on their own. We need to get Rick out before they overcome that confusion and start to act."

"We'll do our best." Charlie nodded, and turned to Robin. "What do you think?"

The man smiled. "That takes care of our primary diversion. Keerby said he had something in mind for the secondary diversion."

The elf, talking to Ilessa, turned to face them. "Did I hear my name?"

"You said you had a plan for the secondary diversion?"

The elf bobbed his head. "Yes. I've been thinking about it, and it's just too dangerous for any of us to actually try to enter that building. We are simply outgunned here. These armored suits are good, but that kind of firepower would be beyond their capability to cope. So we will all stay here, and perform our roles from the relative safety of the museum."

"What about the protective time thing you gave Rick?" Kippy asked. "Couldn't you put that on us? We could walk right into the place."

"I could do that, yes. But you couldn't touch anything, remember? You couldn't operate weapons, or even so much as open doors, in that state. And my feeling is that the boojums would go on the offensive at that provocation. Right now they're using Rick as bait to try to snare us. But if it becomes apparent to them that we can just walk right in, all bets are off. I can't guarantee that they haven't figured out a way to deal with the time shift in some other way than just removing it."

"Like what?" Kippy persisted.

Keerby looked slightly exasperated at that. "Like booting us into yet a different reality or time."

"Blinken could help us get back from anywhere, you said."

"Yes. But they might boot us out and not Ricky. We could be separated indefinitely while we hunt for him...and he won't be able to eat while we do."

Kippy blew out a frustrated breath. "Sorry. I was just making sure there wasn't some other way."

The elf nodded. "Better we all stay here."

"Except for Robin and me," Charlie reminded.

"Yes. Ragal, Casper, and Adrian will handle diversion number one. Kip will stay beside you, Charlie, to add his power to yours if you need it."

"He will," Kippy put in. "When he went after Pacha, it was all he could do to drag Max close to the other end. Adrian and I, both, added our power that time."

"I have a much better handle on my second presence now," Charlie said. "I'm sure just you will be all the extra juice I need."

Kippy's eyes flashed at that. "We'll talk about some juice later, honey."

Adrian covered his smile with a hand, and Charlie tried not to laugh.

Keerby cleared his throat noisily. "Right. Horace will stay alert for boojums paying attention to us, because he will sense them before I will, and I'll be busy running diversion two."

Durapar, standing with the others nearby, raised a hand." What about me?"

Keerby sighed. "You and Ilessa are limited in what you can do just now. Ilessa has no talents that could be termed offensive, and your own powers are as yet dormant."

The Andaleesian hefted his rifle. "Ilessa and I can use these. How about we just keep an eye on all of you, and watch for anyone coming?"

"That will work," Keerby agreed. "The rest of us will be concentrating, and less aware of what is going on here. I'm blocking their seer's ability to detect us, and then, on top of that, I'll be doing other things. So, you and Ilessa will be our first line of defense."

Robin brought his hands together and rubbed them briskly back and forth. "By Jove, this is just like the old days! Charlie, you and your merry men really know how to have fun!"

Charlie let out a surprised laugh. "You call this fun?"

The older man sighed. "In a way. Oh, the danger is obvious to me. But the planning, the ruses to foil the enemy, the prize at the end of the quest...yes, I do call this exciting, at the least."

Charlie had to admit that the man was right. The element of excitement was definitely there.

He closed his eyes and switched back to his internal channel. "Rick"?

"Right here."

"We're about ready to get this show on the road. What's happening there?"

"Nothing. Just me and the two guards. One is asleep, and the other is watching me."

Charlie felt relief at that. At least the enemy wasn't trying to move Ricky at the moment. "Okay. When things start happening, Robin and I will follow this link to you. You must make sure the red guys don't move you, okay?"

"They won't be able to. They try, and I'll make like a jackrabbit!"

"Good. So relax, keep alert, and we'll be there soon."

Ricky gave a little sigh in thought. "Be careful, Charlie."

"You know it. Okay, back soon."

He opened his eyes, and looked around. "Everyone ready?"

A chorus of affirmatives was the answer. Charlie nodded, and then smiled. "This is going to be a hell of a show! Okay, everyone - places! On my mark...lights, camera, action!"

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