Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

I Think This Place is Haunted, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 1

by Geron Kees © 2022. All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation.

Charlie Boone had never been one to believe in ghosts. So it had come as a little bit of a shock when he and his friends had actually met a couple of them, some Halloween seasons ago, at a holiday party in an old house located in the woods some miles from their homes. Billy and Will had been lovers in real life, until an accident had taken one of them away. The other had lived a long and somewhat lonely life, waiting and hoping that someday, in death, he would be reunited with his lost love. Charlie, Kip, Rick, and Adrian had stumbled onto that drama at a crucial point, and been instrumental in helping the reunion to come to pass.

And later, upon finding ancient Engris wandering within the depths of the Cooee, they had been reunited, themselves, with the two spirits they had helped to find one another. Engris was an artificial world, created by the lost Madracorn long-ago as an antenna, of sorts, for attracting the spirits of their own deceased. The planet moved at will through the dark nullspace in which starships moved from star to star, enjoying a timeless existence, and sharing that presence with all those who had made Engris and her sister world, Lyrgris, their homes.

Charlie and his friends owned a villa on Engris, in the one and only city there built and inhabited by offworlders. And, they had been gifted another such place on Lyrgris by the Madracorn, themselves. The spirits Eseffa and Jorli, keepers of Engris, had been generous to the boys from earth for their assistance in dispelling a threat to the dark world Lyrgris by the warlike Moth. And theirs had been just the first of many new structures built upon once-lonely Lyrgris. The offworlder city there had grown quickly to nearly match the one on Engris, eagerly filled by those that would harm no other resident, nor pose any threat to the Madracorn worlds, but who also lived by standards that in many places in the galaxy would be deemed lawless. Pirates, smugglers, thieves, and rogues, earning a living by their wits, their lack of scruples, and their often restless hands, hawking their loot in the marketplaces of the two cities that never slept, and watched over by the planetary minds that assured there would be safety and peace for all.

Which was mostly an easy task. Neither Engris nor Lyrgris could be found by those that would do harm. The self-same thieves that lived and worked on the dark worlds all shared one personality trait in common - or, perhaps, two: each was possessed of an uncanny honesty in dealing with others who visited the dark worlds; and each pirate, smuggler, and small-time thief shared a generally high regard for the sanctity of life. In the small and closed society of the dark worlds, it didn't matter what you had stolen, so long as you disposed of it honestly there.

In the years now that they had been coming to these dark worlds submerged in the timeless depths of the Cooee, Charlie and his friends had become comfortable with the fact that ghosts were real, and that the dead were only dead to the living they had left behind. The ancient Madracorn cities were each home to a great many spirit domes, every one designed to be a meeting place for the living and the dead. Only the domes on Engris actually functioned as planned, some variation in the finished mass of Lyrgris having caused the Madracorn to abandon the concept there. Lyrgris was a functioning world in all respects, save for the main one she had been designed for. There were no spirits visiting the domes of Lyrgris.

But Engris still operated as always. Her spirit domes, at least, had been every bit the success the Madracorn had hoped for. And each time the guys visited the dark world, they would happily spend time visiting with their two deceased friends, Billy and Will.

Until this visit.

"They've never failed to show up before," Kippy Lawson said for the third time, staring around the dimly-lit interior of the spirit dome.The dome they were in now was the very same one they used every time they visited Engris. It was inconceivable that there had been some failure of the Madracorn technology. So why had their friends not appeared?

Kippy turned and pouted at his friends. "It won't seem like Halloween if we don't get to see them."

Charlie Boone frowned, and blew a slightly frustrated breath into the still air around them. Engris maintained a constant surface temperature of 74 degrees, comfortable enough for most of the lifeforms that visited or lived on the dark world. Comfortable enough for them, certainly. Yet even so, the interior of the dome seemed unusually chilly this visit.

"Maybe they were really far away this time," Charlie supposed. "They have mentioned before that sometimes they don't even know where they are in the universe."

"But Engris is like a beacon to them," Ricky Travers pointed out. "Remember? They can see it from anywhere in the universe, and come to it."

Charlie nodded. "But that doesn't always mean they can instantly drop whatever they're doing to visit. We have to allow for the fact that their own interests may sometimes supersede our own."

Beside Ricky, his boyfriend, Adrian Whitaker, gave a gentle sigh. "That actually makes sense." He smiled at Kip. "I've called your cell plenty of times when you were doing something and couldn't answer."

Kippy looked like he was thinking about that, and then he glanced at Charlie and smiled. "Well...yeah. There are times when I've been pretty busy. That's true."

Charlie caught the look, and smiled back. "There have been times we've both been occupied."

Ricky grinned at that, and snaked an arm around Adrian's waist. "Us, too. So why not Billy and Will?"

Adrian tried not to smile too broadly at the notion. "Do ghosts make love?"

Kippy looked delighted at the question, and moved to lean up against Charlie. "Have an answer for that one, Britannica Brain?"

Charlie made a rude noise, but leaned closer and kissed his boyfriend. "If they don't make love, they should!"

Adrian waved a hand at them both. "That was a serious question. I mean, we know that Billy and Will are in love. They must have some way of sharing that, even if it doesn't involve sex."

"I would say they do," Charlie returned, after thinking about it a moment. He smiled then. "Those two are certainly in love. I'm sure there is a way to share that, even in the state they're in."

Kippy sighed happily. "I love love." He gave Charlie a brief squeeze, and then turned to look back at the large double doors they had entered through. "I guess we're keeping Sefton waiting."

"And, we said we'd meet Ragal and Casper for lunch," Rick reminded.

Charlie gave a last look towards the well in the floor that dominated the center of the dome. The shaft there extended all the way to the core of the dark planet, giving access to the surface to the spirits summoned by the peculiar and unfathomable technologies resident there. "I guess we can always come back--"

He broke off in mid-sentence as a light flickered at the edge of the well; and then a glowing mist shot high into the air with a roar of sound. So sudden was the appearance of the phantom that everyone danced a couple of steps backwards.

"Charlie!" The voice that rang out inside the dome was undeniably Will's.

"I'm here!" Charlie instantly called, stepping forward. The urgency in Will's voice seemed clear.

The glowing mist contorted and spun, looking nothing like the normal appearance of the two spirits.

"There's trouble!" came another voice, and Charlie knew it was Billy. "We can't stay! We have to go back!"

"What trouble?" Kippy asked, stepping back beside Charlie. "What can we do? Can we help?"

"No!" Will hissed then.

"It's coming," Billy said urgently. "We have to run!"

The mist twirled violently a last time, and then seemed to be sucked back down into the well with astonishing speed. No sooner than it had disappeared that they heard a sound like a warning horn, and lights they had never seen before suddenly came up all over the inside of the dome. At the same time, the floor gave a shudder, and a massive cover slid sideways across the well in the floor, sealing it shut.

So quickly had the events transpired that Charlie and the others were left stunned, gaping at the cover over the well in the floor.

Kippy was the first to speak. "What happened?" he breathed, pushing closer to Charlie for comfort. "They were in trouble!"

They heard the sound of someone running then - someone big - and Sefton raced in through the tall double doors, the shiny shape of a pistol gripped in his hand. The big Molokar spied them then, and a look of obvious relief covered his features. He ran towards them, his movements incredibly light and agile for so large a man.

"What happen? You come now!"

Charlie wasted a moment staring. In all the years they had known Sefton, not once had they seen him enter a spirit dome. He always preferred to wait at the flyer, smiling and saying that the mysteries of Engris were not for him.

The Molokar moved closer, his eyes darting nervously about the interior of the dome. The pistol in his hand, pointed upwards at the moment, looked ready for action. "Best come outside, please," Sefton repeated. His gaze dropped to find Charlie's. "Not safe in here now. Please come!"

Charlie nodded. "Come on. guys. Let's go."

Kippy cast a last look at the covered well. "But--"

Charlie reached out and took his boyfriend by the hand. "We'll help them if we can. But that cover didn't close for no reason. Better we talk outside."

Kippy winced, but nodded, and joined Charlie and the others as Sefton led them out through the tall double doors.

To a city that was unrecognizable. For the first time ever, the place was lit up like the outworlder settlement by the spaceport. The Madracorn cities normally existed in a kind of a glow, like strong moonlight, that radiated from every surface of every building, and even the ground, itself, filling the plazas by the spirit domes with a midnight splendor that they had always found magical. But now, panels high up on every building radiated a powerful light, as bright as sunlight, down into the streets and open areas below. The tiled plaza where Sefton had parked his flyer was now lit as if a sun had magically appeared over the dark world and dispelled every shadow.

"What's happening?" Charlie asked, staring around in amazement.

"You ask me?" Sefton replied. "Never seen city lit like this! Never!"

"Something's coming," Ricky said then, pointing across the plaza. Charlie turned with the others, to see a sphere about the size of a basketball floating towards them. Kip unconsciously hugged Charlie's arm, his anxiety clear.

"I think it's okay," Charlie said, as much to reassure himself as everyone else.

The sphere wafted up to them as if on a breeze, and then stopped a few feet away. The air around it blurred, and then two figures were standing before them.

"Eseffa!" Kippy said, before Charlie could. "And Jorli!"

The two Madracorn looked quickly around the brightly-lit plaza before turning their eyes down at them. "Will you come to us, Charlie? You and your friends? You know we cannot come to the surface ourselves."

"What's happening?" Charlie asked.

Essefa quickly raised a hand. "There has been some difficulty. We have things in hand for the moment, but we could very much use your assistance. This device is projecting a likeness of us, but it has limitations. It can transport you to us, however. Will you consent to come?"

Charlie turned to look at Kip, who immediately nodded. Rick and Adrian moved closer, both looking determined.

"Let's not waste time," Ricky said. "We're ready to go."

Charlie's gaze fell next on Sefton, who was watching and listening with great interest. The Molokar still held his pistol in hand, his arm and that weapon pointed skyward, apparently forgotten. Despite the apparent seriousness of the situation, Charlie couldn't help smiling faintly as he leaned closer to the big man. "I think you can put away the artillery now."

Sefton looked up, blinked in surprise at the gun held above his head; and then he dropped his arm, and his hand seemed to briefly pat the front of his clothing. But the pistol disappeared, and the big man's eyes brimmed with humor as they met Charlie's. "I will go, too."

Charlie nodded, and turned back to Eseffa. "What do we do?"

The plaza faded from view around them, and in the next instant they were standing in a large subsurface hall full of crystalline machines that talked quietly with each other in voices that never ceased. One of the brain centers of Engris, like they had visited before.

The orb that had presented the images of the two Madracorn on the surface was gone now, and Charlie knew that the figures of Eseffa and Jorli before them were real. Or, as real as ghosts could get.

"Thank you for coming," Jorli said quickly.

"You said there was some difficulty?" Charlie asked.

"We were waiting to visit our friends," Kippy interrupted. "They showed up for a second, but they sounded scared! I want to know before anything else happens that they're okay!"

"They were able to leave safely," Eseffa assured them. "They had every right to be afraid, though. Had the antagah caught them, it would have absorbed them and ended their individual existences."

Charlie narrowed his eyes at that statement. "Antagah? I don't know the word."

"You wouldn't," Jorli returned. "An antagah is a collection of spirits. A large collection, that has banded together for some purpose."

"Not good," Ricky said then, shaking his head. "Not good at all!"

Kippy snorted impatiently, turning to look at his friend. "Like you know what one of those things is!"

But Ricky's expression was serious. "Actually, I do know what Jorli is talking about. An antagah is a group spirit composed of many individual spirits. They act like one large, powerful individual. Not something you want to let loose inside a spirit dome, especially if they're on a rampage."

"That's entirely correct," Eseffa said, sounding impressed. "You have been absorbing the local color, I see."

Ricky smiled faintly then. "Don't ask me how! It's the magic mechanic in me that sees these sorts of things more clearly all the time. It was like I'd heard about an antagah before, though I know I never have."

Charlie waved a hand for attention. "What was happening above? We've never seen the spirit dome or the city lit up before!"

Jorli made an unhappy sound. "The city lights were brought up to warn living visitors to the spirit domes to exit for their own safety. We've had to close down spirit services temporarily."

"You sealed the shafts to the core of the planet," Adrian noted.

"We did," Jorli confirmed. "And the invading antagah has been expelled from the core, as well. But it is apparently lurking nearby, hoping to gain entry again. We cannot allow that to happen."

"But Billy and Will are okay?" Kippy asked again, seeking reassurance.

"They were not harmed," Jorli confirmed. "All visiting spirits were allowed to exit to safety while the antagah was confined in the core. Though it fought wildly to escape its confinement. The security doors over the shafts were closed as an added precaution."

Charlie digested that before nodding. "We've never seen the city lit like that. It was pretty startling."

"It was the norm long ago," Eseffa explained. "Regular cycles of day and night are important for all living things. The practice was discontinued after our people were no more, and the cities left to slumber under their cover of night."

"Never knew," Sefton said then. "Was big surprise to see place light up!"

Despite his distress over Billy and Will, Kippy smiled, and put a hand on the Molokar's arm. "You came inside the dome to rescue us. That was very sweet!"

Sefton looked embarrassed, and Charlie was sure the big man would be blushing if he was capable of the act. "Look out for friends." Sefton mumbled. "Is matter of honor and affection."

Kippy patted Sefton's arm one more time, and then smiled at Charlie. "Sorry."

Charlie closed his eyes a moment, and then reopened them. "Let's start over. This antagah is a collection of individual spirits, that somehow banded together? Why would they try to invade Engris?"

Eseffa nodded. "Yes. It's not the first time one of these entities has visited Engris, by any means. In most cases the collective is simply curious, and moves on after looking us over. Our ancestors were aware of the potential power of these groups of spirits, and decided it best to leave safeguards in place to deal with them if they became aggressive. This antagah was segregated after it entered the planetary core, and the visiting spirits directed to leave as hastily as possible."

"This was the first time an antagah ever directly threatened Engris?" Charlie asked.

"Yes. I will say now that I am one that has long felt it was a waste of resources to build defenses against them. Antagah band together for their own reasons, and have never been concerned with Engris." He looked unhappy now. "I was wrong."

"What reasons?" Kippy asked

Eseffa and Jorli both managed to smile. "It was supposed by some that these collectives were built of like-minded spirits that all wished to journey together," Jorli said. "A not uncommon practice, even among the living."

Ricky laughed. "A cruise ship for ghosts!"

"It's not funny!" Kippy complained. "Billy and Will seemed scared. I don't like that at all!"

"They had every right to be alarmed," Jorli said. "The antagah could have absorbed them against their wills. But the automatic safeties that Engris employs immediately separated the antagah before it could do any harm. Your friends were in no actual danger once that was accomplished."

Kippy gaped at that. "Absorbed? That sounds awful! You said this antagah was a collective deliberately formed by many spirits. Why would they take in others against their will?"

"This particular collective is apparently aggressive, and has an agenda. The more powerful it becomes, the more likely it is that it will succeed. Or, so it reasons. Conscripting the unwilling is an easy way to bolster its power."

Charlie blinked at the implicit unfairness of that act. Slavery, for ghosts! It made him angry to imagine their friends Billy and Will captured into such a life after finally having been reunited.

The two Madracorn surveyed the worried faces around them. "Please relax," Eseffa said then. "Engris is not in danger. Your friends are not in danger. Individual spirits can easily evade these collectives out in the open. We are only concerned at the moment with what comes next."

"So, what does come next?" Charlie asked.

Both Madracorn looked uncomfortable. "Spirit services have been discontinued for the present," Eseffa replied. "We cannot allow spirits to be drawn into possible danger while this aggressive antagah is lurking about the planet."

"Engris moves freely about in the Cooee," Rick pointed out. "Can't you just move somewhere far away from this antagah?"

"We have done that several times already," Jorli explained. "Even with the marker turned off, they seem able to find us."

"Marker?" Rick repeated. "That's how, spirits, find this place?"

"Yes." Eseffa replied. "It's a...beacon, is the best word, I suppose, within their own realm, that, like a compass, always points to Engris."

Kippy looked unhappy. "So, no visits with spirits while this monster is hanging around?"

"It's not as bad as you think," Eseffa said gently.

"Remember that time is purely subjective here," Jorli added. "Nothing is lost by remaining calm and proceeding carefully. Those spirits that left here will not return unless summoned, and would not be able to find Engris, anyway, until the marker is reestablished."

Ricky turned to stare at Charlie. "We never did find out much about where Billy and Will are now, beyond what they've told us." His gaze returned to the two Madracorn. "What sort of place is the spirit realm?"

Eseffa and Jorli traded quick glances. "I don't think we can actually tell you," Eseffa returned. "It has to be experienced. You'd actually have to go there to see."

Everyone gaped a little as the import of the Madarcorn's words sunk in.

"You mean...we'd have to be dead," Kippy said flatly.

Both Madracorn smiled. "Normally, that's the way it works," Jorli confirmed..

"That is the easiest way to experience it," Eseffa agreed.

Charlie raised his eyebrows at what was implied. "There's another way?"

Eseffa turned and paced away from his companion, turned quickly, and returned to Jorli's side. "My people know a great deal about the different layers of this universe, Charlie. I say layers, because the universe you know is but one. This dark space you call the Cooee is another. There are others yet. When corporeal beings pass, the living body that held them in the layer of the universe you know is no more. Their spirit, as we have come to call it, moves to a different layer of the universe that can maintain it without the need of a physical body."

Charlie frowned at that. "I hate to say it, but it sounds a little like some of the fringe pseudoscience ideas I've read about. I never put much stock in them, myself."

Eseffa chuckled. "You are simply not in a position to understand, Charlie. Yet consider that you are, even now, within the Cooee, a different layer of the universe than your own. The layer of the universe where spirits dwell is just another realm that you cannot experience as yet."

Ricky nodded at that. "He's got a point, Charlie. Would we have understood the Cooee if we had never been to it?"

"No," Charlie answered immediately. "I get the point." He frowned at Eseffa. "Yet I get the impression you are saying that there is a way we can somehow experience the spirit, uh, layer, without giving up our lives in the process?"

Jorli turned a smile on his companion. "He is a perceptive one."

"Yes, indeed," Eseffa agreed happily.

Kippy sighed, and leaned up against Charlie. "That's my Britannica Brain!"

Charlie shook his head at that. "That's not an answer!"

Ricky waved a hand for attention. "Wait a second. Is there a reason we would even need to go to this spirit layer?"

Eseffa held up a hand. "Engris is well able to defend itself from any antagah. And it has done so in this instance. The invader has been expelled. Normally, this process would be quite discouraging to the group spirit, and once so chastised, it would not return. But this particular antagah is the largest yet seen, and seems quite stubborn in its attempt to gain entry here."

Adrian gave a puzzled shake of his head. "Why is this thing so hot to get inside Engris, anyway?"

Eseffa turned to face him. "Engris is well-equipped with the technology needed to communicate with and understand the spirit world. This antagah has made demands of us."

"Uh oh," Sefton said, shaking his head. "Not sound good!"

Charlie had to agree with that. "This've spoken with it?"

"Yes," Jorli replied.

"And you said they band together because they have a similar goal, and getting together makes them stronger somehow?"

"That's correct."

Charlie nodded at that. "What do you suppose their goal is in this instance? Why would they want to gain access to Engris?"

Eseffa smiled tightly. "Unfortunately, not everyone is satisfied to be dead, my friend. There are always those spirits that rebel against the inevitability of it, and even actively seek out ways to return to life. The spiritual layer is no more confining, in the end, than your own layer of the universe, Charlie. By dint of your technology, you can come to the Cooee at will. In the same way, determined spirits have many times managed to manifest themselves in the layer of space filled with suns and planets, which you call home."

"Ghosts!" Ricky said then, turning to nod at Charlie. "Hauntings!"

"Precisely," Jorli agreed. "And yet, the majority of these spirits can only ever manage to recreate a small presence in the physical universe. A few of the talented attain the ability to actually project a true image of their former bodies into the real world, and to animate them as if alive. But only for brief periods, and the effect is usually confined to a very small area. It's not the true freedom they seem to yearn for. And most spirits never even reach that level of expertise, and can only make themselves known indirectly, with noises, lights, the movement of objects, and, occasionally, very distorted views of themselves, that would tend to frighten or horrify the living."

Kippy snapped his fingers. "Billy and Will! Both brought themselves into our world at that house in the woods, when we first met them!" He smiled. "I'm not surprised those two are talented, especially after they came into our universe later on to help us with the Moth!"

"But they weren't really there at the house where we met them," Adrian pointed out. "Or here, with us, when they helped us with the Moth. At the house they were projections - ghosts. And they had to move around in that robot thing they created, from that old movie, when they helped us with the Moth." He thought for a moment, and then smiled. "Gort. But neither Will nor Billy were here physically, just like Jorli said."

"So, they can never come all the way back, right?" Rick asked. "Not ever?"

The two Madracorn exchanged glances. "No," Jorli agreed. "The spirits no longer have their bodies to anchor them in the layer of the real world. They cannot actually come back, unless --"

When Jorli paused, Eseffa smoothly picked up the narrative. "-- unless they manage to possess the body of someone living."

Sefton shook his head again. "Definitely, not good."

Charlie gave his own head a little shake, to try to clear it. "Are you telling me that that can really happen? I mean, I've read my share of ghost stories where someone is possessed...but for real?"

"It's very uncommon," Eseffa reassured quickly.

"It takes a massive amount of power," Jorli affirmed. "Well beyond that available to most individual spirits."

Charlie began to see now. "But an antagah is a collection of spirits, much more powerful than any individual, right?"

Kippy pointed a finger at the two Madracorn. "Is that why this thing tried to get into Engris? To take over someone here?"

Eseffa breathed a small sigh, as if of relief. "It's so much easier when dealing with bright people like yourselves."

"I see," Ricky said. "Forcing their way into Engris here in the Cooee has to be easier than forcing their way back into the real universe. They want to possess someone here, and then go back to normal space the way everyone else does: in a ship."

"That's about the extent of it," Eseffa agreed.

Charlie gave a little, disbelieving laugh. "But you shut them out, right? It can't happen now?"

"That's true," Jorli said. "The defenses of Engris will never be overcome by any collection of spirits. But...there still remains a problem."

Ricky grunted. "Uh huh. As long as this thing is hanging around Engris, determined to get in, you can't restart the spirit domes, right? No other spirits can visit, either?"

Eseffa brought his hands together in a brief clap of delight. "Wonderful! You see our predicament, then!"

Maybe it was nervous tension. Everyone laughed.

Charlie held up his hands for silence. "Wait, wait." He fixed Eseffa in a speculative gaze. "You want us to do something about this, I take it?"

"Your assistance would be much appreciated," the Madracorn agreed.

Kippy laid a hand on Charlie's arm. "If we don't help, we won't get to see Billy and Will again!"

"How long is this antagah likely to hang around?" Adrian asked. "Won't it come to realize it can't get in at some point?"

Jorli laid a hand against his broad forehead. "It has been supposed that the forcible removal of a collective spirit would be enough to deter it. The process is, shall we say, unpleasant for the antagah, though not enough to terminate it. This one...this one has signaled its intent to remain, and shut down spirit services here, until we let it in to do what it wishes."

Kippy gaped a moment at the two alien spirits. "Our new friend actually told you that?"

Eseffa seemed surprised. "Of course. Being spirits ourselves, it's quite easy to communicate with another one. But even were we still alive, Engris has the equipment needed to speak with them. Variations on the same technology used within the spirit domes and the core."

Jorli nodded. "This collective is quite determined to return to your own universe, one way or another."

"Can you destroy it?" Ricky asked bluntly.

Eseffa winced at that. "Engris has the ability to defend itself even to that point, yes. But--"

"This collective numbers some thousands of spirits," Jorli continued. "We would be extinguishing forever a great many reasoning beings."

"They don't sound very reasonable to me!" Kippy said, sounding slightly indignant. But then he sighed. "But you can't just kill them." He quickly held up a hand as Ricky turned to him. "I know, I know...they're already dead."

Ricky smiled. "I was going to say that, even though this antagah is composed of thousands of spirits, they're merged into one common intellect now. None of the individual parts can leave unless the entire whole agrees to dissolve."

Eseffa looked surprised. "That's exactly right! How did you know?"

Ricky looked briefly lost, and then smiled. "Oh, it's all in the magic mechanic's handbook, you know?"

Kippy somehow managed a smile then, leaned closer to his friend, and briefly kissed him on the cheek. "You pulled it out of thin air, huh?"

Ricky looked slightly embarrassed. "I just don't know where this stuff is coming from!"

Charlie closed his eyes a moment, thinking. But then he realized that everyone had stopped talking, and when he opened his eyes again, it was to find everyone watching him. He laughed at that, and turned back to Eseffa. "I really don't know how we can help with this."

Eseffa looked eager now. "The antagah is desperate to leave and return to the real world. There has to be a reason."

"You just said that some spirits don't want to be dead," Ricky pointed out.

"That's true," Jorli agreed, nodding his head. "But these are usually individuals. When thousands of spirits join to form a collective, there has to be a very strong reason for them to do so. By forming an antagah, an individual relinquishes control over its own existence. It's not something to be done lightly."

"We don't understand this need to return to the normal universe by so many," Eseffa explained. "It's unprecedented. And the antagah refuses to talk to us further. It simply repeats its demands."

Jorli held up his hands in a helpless gesture. "If we were free spirits, we would simply go and investigate, ourselves. But our duty is with Engris, and we cannot leave it." He smiled then. "But you can."

Charlie eyed the two a little wonderingly. "You still haven't said how we can go into the spirit world without dying in the process."

The two Madracorn exchanged looks that seemed to say they knew that Charlie was hooked now, before turning back to him.

"There is someone on Engris who can help," Eseffa said then.

"Chirka, the Drazilian," Jorli followed with, quickly.

Sefton grunted in surprise, and Charlie turned to face the big man. "You know of him?"

The Molokar looked distinctly disquieted. "Not a him. A her."

Kippy flashed a quick grin at Charlie. "Can't win 'em all!"

Charlie waved a hand for silence. "But you know of this person?" he asked Sefton again.

"Yes. Called Wizard of Latoolik by some." At the look of total confusion that surfaced on the faces of the humans, the Molokar winced. "Sorry not clear. Latoolik area of forest on other side of spaceport. Wizard Chirka live alone, outside city."

Charlie was amazed to hear that. "I thought all offworlders lived in the one city!"

Eseffa shook his head. "Not all. There are a few who have their own places, apart from the city. Engris allows that in special cases."

"What's special about this case?" Adrian asked.

"Chirka has been on Engris a very long time," Jorli explained. "She came here to study us." The Madracorn smiled. "Her reasons carried only one motive of profit: to understand Engris, and how it linked with the spirit world. Chirka's explorations are, by far, the most advanced of their kind."

Charlie nodded. "This person can help us somehow?"

"Chirka has developed methods of investigating the spirit world," Eseffa said. "She can actually go there, without giving up the life she possesses."

Ricky nodded at that. "Then she might be able to help us."

"We don't even know what we're supposed to do if we go!" Kippy bemoaned.

"We wish you to learn the reason this antagah was formed, and why its participants wish so heartily to return to your layer of the universe," Eseffa said.

"You think they'll just tell us if we ask them nicely?" Rick asked, sounding a little bit annoyed.

Jorli turned to face him. "No. You should not approach the antagah at all. But you will find once you are there that many others will know the reasons for what is happening. All you will need to do is visit some of their spirit worlds to find out."

"Worlds?" Charlie asked wonderingly. "I had no idea that spirits lived on planets in their realm."

Both Madracorn shook their heads. "They don't," Eseffa countered. "It...cannot be adequately explained now. You will see when you get there, I'm sure."

"Chirka will most ably assist you in this area, we are certain," Jorli added. "Her technology is quite flexible and engaging."

Charlie eyed the two Madracorn speculatively. "I'm surprised anyone else could be ahead of you guys in this area."

Jorli actually looked embarrassed. "My people had similar technologies ages ago, during our formative studies of the spirit layer. But once the technologies of Engris were developed. and spirits could come to us, the technologies that allowed us to visit them were unfortunately allowed to wither and die. Engris is today not equipped with this technology. It was shortsighted of our ancestors, but this is the reason that Chirka has more freedom here to follow her investigations. She is rediscovering what we have lost."

Adrian put his hand on his hips. "I'm surprised that you and Engris can't whip up any tech you need for the job!"

The two Madracorn smiled. "No one is perfect!" Eseffa offered.

Something sounded off with that, but Charlie had no idea what it was. He rubbed at an earlobe in thought, and then turned to his boyfriend. "What do you think?"

Kippy smiled. "My skwish thinks we should follow this lead." He turned his smile on Adrian, and raised his eyebrows inquisitively.

"Oh, I agree," Adrian said quickly. He grinned at his boyfriend. "Don't I, Rick?"

Ricky laughed. "I agree with you, sweetheart."

Charlie couldn't help rolling his eyes a little. But then he turned to Sefton. "Can you take us there?"

"We can provide you with transportation to Chirka's abode," Eseffa put in quickly.

Charlie smiled at the Molokar. "Can you?"

Sefton understood then that he was being invited along, and offered up a big smile of his own. "Know the way, yes. Best tour guide on Engris! Can take you right away!"

Charlie nodded, and turned back to the two Madracorn. "Will we need anything in the way of an introduction?"

Eseffa made a tiny motion with one hand, and a baseball-sized orb appeared in the air before Charlie. "Take this with you," he said. "Chirka will assist you, I'm certain."

Charlie extended a hand, and the orb moved to meet it, settling into his palm with a faint tingling sensation. Charlie inspected it closely, but its silvery hide was featureless.

"Okay." He felt the plan firm in his mind. There was still something that bothered him about what Eseffa and Jorli had said, but...they were ready to go. "Send us back to the spirit dome, and Sefton will take us to this Chirka."

The basketball-sized globe reappeared, and in an instant, they were standing outside the spirit dome once again. Eseffa and Jorli were there in projection form, and both Madracorn offered what looked to be genuine looks of concern then. "Good luck," Eseffa said. "And be careful. An antagah like this one can be extremely dangerous."

"We're not spirits," Kippy pointed out firmly.

Jorli nodded at that. "But once you enter their world, you will be in danger from the antagah, nonetheless. We cannot be certain, but it is possible that you going to them may provide an opportunity for them to possess one of you. Every caution must be taken to prevent that."

"Now you tell us!" Ricky said, with a groan.

Charlie shook his head. "It's too late to turn back now. Spirit services have to be allowed to start here again."

Kippy nodded firmly. "I'll fight for my right to see Billy and Will again!"

"Yeah," Adrian said, nodding. "Me, too. Let's just go."

Charlie turned to Sefton. "We're ready."

The Molokar tossed a nod at the two Madracorn, and turned to go.

"Be careful," Eseffa said again. "We cannot afford to lose you."

"The resources of Engris are behind you," Jorli added. "We will monitor your progress, and do what we can to assist your travels."

"Works for me," Ricky said. He put an arm around Adrian. "Ready?"

"Yes. Come on." And with that he took Rick's hand and pulled him after Sefton.

Kippy took Charlie's hand and pulled him after the others. "Let's go."

But Charlie dug in and held his spot. "You go, Kip. I'll catch up in a second. I just want to say one last thing to Eseffa and Jorli."

Kippy blinked at that, and looked about ready to argue; and then he took note of the expression that Charlie's was wearing. A series of emotions flashed across his face then; but he nodded and turned to follow the others. "Okay."

Charlie waited until Kip was out of earshot, before turning back to the two aliens. "Something is off about this whole thing, you two."

Neither Madracorn looked surprised.

"We felt you would sense this," Jorli said quietly.

"Believe me," Eseffa put in, leaning closer to Charlie, "that this is the best way to handle this situation. You will not understand fully until later. But I assure you, we mean you no harm, and that we will be using every resource that Engris possesses to aid you in your quest."

Charlie could sense the truth from the two. But it irked him that there was something he was not being told. Still--

You either trusted your friends, or you didn't. In the time they had known the Madracorn, Charlie had definitely come to view the two as friends. That they were rascals of a sort seemed clear now...but they were friends, and Charlie did sense that Eseffa and Jorli would not deliberately place them in a situation they couldn't handle.

They couldn't handle.

Charlie smiled at that then. Nothing he was feeling had him thinking they were in over their heads with this operation. Their own abilities were increasing daily, it seemed. Not so much that caution could be thrown to the wind...but enough that they had reason to feel confident in the things they did now. With that thought came a few others, and suddenly he found himself looking at this situation from the viewpoint of Third Planet Inquiries. They had come to Engris for a nice Halloween vacation, to spend time with their friends there, and to visit with Billy and Will. But now...this situation definitely felt like business.

Ragal and Casper would need to be included in this mission. And...

Charlie felt his mind was made up. "Okay. We're going."

The two Madracorn looked relieved. "Thank you, Charlie. You will find that, once you are in the spirit layer, we will be able to communicate with you easily. Chirka will know how. Engris has an enormous presence in that layer of the universe. Our reach is extensive. There are many things we can and will do to assist you. You will see."

Charlie nodded, relieved to know that they wouldn't simply be on their own. He smiled then, and raised a hand to wave. "See you, fellas." And then he turned to go.

When he got to the flyer, the others had climbed aboard, save for Kip, who was standing on the tiled plaza outside, waiting. He moved to meet Charlie, and put his arms around him and hugged him. Charlie closed his eyes, and hugged his boyfriend back.

"Everything okay?" Kippy asked quietly.

Charlie pushed them apart without taking his arms from around Kip, and smiled into his boyfriend's eyes. "Yes. I just had to ask Eseffa and Jorli a few things. It turns out they will be along with us - sort of - as Engris has a presence in the spirit, um, layer, and we will have some help there. But I've decided to increase our odds of success even more by turning this into a mission for Third Planet Inquiries."

Kippy smiled at that. "Ragal and Casper?"

"Uh huh. And...let's get aboard."

They climbed aboard the flyer and were immediately accosted by the others.

"Hey, no secrets!" Ricky said, frowning.

"Tell!" Adrian insisted, with a compelling look that said or else!

Charlie smiled. "This is now officially an operation of Third planet Inquiries."

Ricky beamed at that. "Ooh! The gloves come off. I like it!"

"What happening?" Sefton asked.

"We're getting some reinforcements," Kippy said, grinning.

Charlie fished around in his pocket and pulled out his handheld com. He activated it, put through a call, and waited a moment for the connection.

And then the air above the com thickened, and a face was smiling out at them.

"Charlie! We were just talking about you!"

Charlie grinned. "Horace, I have a need for a ghost hunter, right away! Can you leave immediately?"

Horace simply stared for a moment, but then he laughed. "Can I! Where are you?"

"On Engris. Can you get to Myer's Hill? I'm sending Murcha in Lollipop to pick you up."

"I...well...yes...but...well...Bob Travers is here with me."

Charlie's mind raced a moment, and then he grinned. Horace and Rick's uncle had become close friends. "Ask him if he'd like to come along."

Beside him, Ricky chuckled softly. "He will!" he whispered. "Count on it!"

Horace's face turned to one side a moment, and they could hear a somewhat muffled and hurried conversation. And then Horace turned back to them, beaming. "He said he'd love to come!"

Charlie nodded. "Great. If you leave now, you can get to Myer's Hill in an hour or so. I'll send Murcha right away. With maneuvering time in real space included, you shouldn't have to wait too long for him to arrive to get you."

"We'll be there!" Horace called, sounding excited. "Can't wait to see you guys!"

He signed off then, and Charlie put in a call to Murcha, the artificial mind that ran their ship, and asked him to leave immediately for Earth to pick up Horace and Bob on Myer's Hill.

"Leaving immediately," the AI responded, following up with his famously sinister laugh. "I will notify you immediately upon our return."

Charlie thanked the AI, and signed off.

Sefton offered a toothy smile then. "Not going straight to Latoolik, I see."

"No," Charlie agreed. "But it will just be a few relative hour's delay. Nothing that the no time here can't handle!"

"This is turning into a real mission," Rick said then. "So much for our vacation!"

Kippy turned to smile at him. "What? Can you think of a better way to spend Halloween than in the realm of the dead, hunting ghosts?" He rubbed his hands together gleefully. "This is exciting!"

Adrian laughed. "He's got a point!"

"Yeah." Ricky grinned. "And getting the crew together, too? This will hopefully be fun, and not just scary and dangerous work!"

Adrian gasped, and gently smacked his boyfriend's arm, and shook his head. "Oh, you!"

Ricky grinned, but his gaze was serious. "Am I wrong?"

"Should we head back to the villa to wait for Horace and Bob?" Kippy interjected, casting a look sideways at Ricky that suggested the words 'party pooper!'

Charlie knew the look well, and tried not to smile. "Yeah, but--"

He held up the com again, and put another call through. In a second the air above the handheld unit clouded, and Casper was gazing out at them. "Hi, Charlie! Are you ready for lunch?"

Charlie laughed. "Is Ragal there?"

"Right next to me."

Charlie nodded. "There's been a change of plan. How would you two like to go meet the Wizard of Latoolik, and then go with her to the realm of the dead?"

They all laughed at the way that Casper gaped at them. And then he was moving the com in his hand, and Ragal's face was there beside Casper's.

"I heard," the tall alien said, his eyes full of interest. "Will we have time to eat first? I really would hate to visit the realm of the dead on an empty stomach!"

"We'll be there shortly," Charlie said. "We'll all want something to eat before we go. And we're waiting on Horace and Bob to arrive from Earth, anyway. Murcha has already left to get them."

Ragal looked charmed. "The Wizard of Latoolik, you say? I've heard stories about that one."

Charlie looked askance at Ragal's image. "You never mentioned her before!"

"I have not had the pleasure of a meeting, Charlie. But what I have heard of this one says that she values her privacy. That is enough for me to not wish to impose upon it." The tall alien managed a smile. "Besides, she is just one of many in my collection of legends of Engris."

"There's a lot of strange stuff here!" Casper chimed in.

"Well, we're on our way," Charlie said. "We'll explain when we get there, or, at least as much as we know."

Ragal was quiet a moment before responding. "The realm of the dead? It seems ages ago that I was there."

Charlie felt the same surprise every one of his friends was projecting. "You've been there?"

The tall alien smiled at them. "You forget how I came to be among you."

"The ring," Kippy whispered. "He came back from the dead!"

Charlie felt a strange thrill run through him. "Then you will be of invaluable assistance, I'm sure!"

Ragal nodded. "I can only hope." His image leaned closer to them. "I hope you know what you're doing, Charlie. The realm of the dead is a dangerous place for those that do not belong there."

"So we've been told," Charlie replied. "We'll talk about it more when we arrive. Sit tight, and we'll be there as soon as we can."

"I'll order out some food!" Casper called. "Batreezian, or Rulenka?"

Charlie looked around at the others.

"Rulenka," Kippy whispered. "That Batreezian stuff gives me gas!"

Charlie felt a sudden desire to laugh, but sat on it hard. He passed on the information, repeated that they would be there as soon as they could, and signed off.

Kippy put an arm around Charlie's and drew him close. "What have we gotten ourselves into this time?"

Charlie looked into his boyfriend's eyes, and smiled. "I don't know. But the more we learn, the more it feels like Halloween, huh?"

"It's a little scary, Charlie."

Charlie nodded. "Halloween's supposed to be scary, remember?"

Kippy smiled, but followed it up with a sigh. "Yeah. But the more I think about this, the more I think I'd rather just have a jack-o'-lantern on the front porch and a bowl of candy for the kids!"

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