Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

I Think This Place is Haunted, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 2

Sefton maneuvered the flyer down into a clearing among the tall, glowing trees that dominated the surface of Engris. Here the planet still lay beneath its perpetual coat of false moonlight, the shine of the offworlder city and its spaceport far to their rear. But even in the ghostly light, they had been able to clearly see from aloft the structure that stood at the edge of the clearing.

It wasn't a castle - not exactly. It was large, and there were a couple of spires, and a keep-like building with a large dome atop it. But the first impression of a maybe castle was lost pretty quickly as their craft settled closer to the ground. The place had too many modern touches, including what looked suspiciously like a gun emplacement, for it to be a true castle in the medieval mold, anyway. It looked more like the lair of a mad scientist from one of those ancient Flash Gordon serials that Charlie had once watched with his granddad as a small boy. He smiled at the recollection, and wondered if his granddad still watched those old things.

"Holy crap," Ricky said quietly, as he inspected the place with a critical eye. "I wonder if the Galactic Overlord is home?"

Charlie smiled at that, even as he continued to look the place over. The large object by the building did resemble a defensive gun emplacement of some sort. But wouldn't that be against the rules here on Engris?

"That looks like a cannon," Kippy said, pointing at the emplacement. "I hope this Chirka isn't the excitable type!"

Ragal, standing behind Charlie, placed a long-fingered hand on his shoulder. "I don't think that's a weapon, Charlie. Military hardware is forbidden here, save for what resides aboard visiting ships, and that is closely monitored by the planetary mind. That appears to me to be a research device of some kind."

"Looks like a research device that means business, then," Ricky said, sounding unconvinced.

Casper, standing beside Ragal, gave his head a small spin of agreement with Ragal. "I sense it's safe," he said with certainty.

"And Casper knows machines," Kippy added, patting the small alien affectionately.

Casper looked up at him and smiled. "I can tell when they're not nice ones, anyway!"

"What an amazing place!" Horace said, the excitement in his voice plain. "A sort of combination of The Wizard of Oz meets Frankenstein!"

"It has the creepy part down pat," Bob Travers agreed, smiling. "Man, what a great set this would be for a Halloween magic show!

"If you didn't get eaten halfway through the second act," Ricky said, smiling to show he was kidding. Mostly.

Charlie did have to agree with that. With its eerie setting within the glow-lit forest of Engris, the place was less than warmly inviting. If the building had windows, he couldn't make them out. No light showed from within, and the only illumination was provided by Engris itself.

"Where land?" Sefton asked, looking around at the ground beneath them.

Charlie looked, too, and it all appeared a little uneven to him. But then he saw that the ground was was nice and flat close to the front of the castle-like structure, and he pointed to that spot now. "There looks as good as any place." He squinted at it a last time, the wan light here not exactly lending to the best view. "I don't see any flowers or garden gnomes, so it should be okay."

The flyer descended to the ground and alit with the tiniest of bumps. Sefton gave a short grunt of satisfaction, and cut off the machine's power.

Charlie patted the big Molkar's arm. "Good job. You're coming with us, right?"

"Yes. Not the same as spirit domes."

Charlie left it at that, and picked up the small orb of greeting that Eseffa and Jorli had given him. "May as well go and knock on the door, gang."

They stepped off the craft and formed a group with Charlie and Kip out front, and moved towards what looked like the front entrance to the building.

But they hadn't gone ten steps before a powerful light somewhere above them on the structure lit and captured them in a circle of intense white light.

"Hold your position!" an amplified voice called out to them. The sound level was enough that some of the wording got around the translator in Charlie's ear, and it was in a language that was completely unknown to him. Drazilian, maybe? Whatever it was, the voice hardly sounded feminine!

But the translated instruction was perfectly clear. Charlie stopped, taking Kip's arm and stopping him, too. The others behind him stopped as well, and no one said a word.

Charlie held up the orb in his hand then. "We come from Eseffa and Jorli, keepers of Engris."

"I know who you are!" the voice returned. "The Madracorn communicated with me and told me to expect you. I'm too busy just now for visitors!"

Kippy tsked at that. "This is important!" he called back.

Charlie opened his mouth to agree, but clapped it shut again as the small orb in his hand took on a life of its own and pulled away from him. It sailed out of the circle of light they were in and approached the front of the building. A new beam of light stabbed down from above and caught it as it stopped near the large front entrance to the building. The air around it blurred, and then Eseffa - or was it Jorli? - was standing there before the doorway. Only --

"You will accept your visitors," the Madracorn said curtly to the building, and it was then that Charlie realized that this was neither Eseffa nor Jorli!

For a moment there was silence. And then the voice from within the building rang out again. "Mompas? Is that you?"

"My projection," the Madracorn agreed. "As one who knows you well, I was sent along to reinforce the suggestion that you cooperate in this current affair."

"I'm very busy!" the voice returned querulously. But even Charlie could sense the new tone of resignation there.

"Our agreement is clear," the projection of Mompas said. "You are required to assist in this."

Again, there was a silence that lasted all of ten seconds. "Oh...very well. You there, in the group! Come to the door, and I'll admit you!"

The Madracorn by the doorway turned to wave to them, and then disappeared. The small orb flew back to Charlie and landed in his hand.

"Well," Kippy said, smiling down at it. "You pack a lot of punch for such a little fellow!"

In front of them now, a light appeared over the large doorway, and the panel there split down the center and each half rolled backwards into the walls. The spotlight that had pinned them within a circle of light vanished now, leaving them in the glow of the land around them.

"Enter, please!" the voice called to them.

Charlie had looked up the Drazilian species before coming out to Chirka's residence, and already knew what to expect. Drazilians were a slight people, the average adult only about two feet tall. Their line was similar in some respects to the terrestrial marsupial, in that they gave live birth to their young and then raised them to maturity within a pouch on the belly of the mother. Drazilians were what humans might have called cuddly-looking, in that they were a bipedal species, had large gray eyes, were covered with a handsome pelt of usually light-colored fur, and had small hands laid out in the same form as a human hand, with four fingers and an opposable thumb.

Kippy had looked at the image of a Drazillian displayed in the holo at the villa, and clapped his hands together in delight. "Aww!"

Charlie had smiled at that, and given his boyfriend a gentle squeeze. "Please refrain from doing that when we meet this Chirka in person, okay? These are adults with a high-IQ and a somewhat snappish demeanor, and they don't seem to tolerate, um, nonsense very well. The profile here is very complete. These people are scientists and explorers, and they are not known for their patience with other races. Just try to be pleasant, but don't drool all over this one because she looks cute."

Kippy had tilted his nose into the air a little and grinned at Charlie. "You know you can trust me to be diplomatic, Charlie!"

"Uh, yeah."

And now, here they were, entering the lair of this Chirka. The first thing to cause Charlie some pause was the size of the entryway, which was big enough to easily accommodate even Sefton's heroic size. That suggested a not total indifference to the needs of other races, right?

Ricky laughed when Charlie mentioned that out loud. "Probably needs a big door just so she could get all her scientific gear inside. Those tri-spectral, inter-dimensional, patent-pending, spook-sniffing interociters used for ghost hunting are pretty darn big."

Charlie rolled his eyes at that, but had to agree it was best not to jump to any unwarranted conclusions. He gave a little sigh as they crossed the threshold into the dimness beyond, and then stopped along with everyone else when the lights came up inside, revealing the small form of Chirka standing there, waiting.

A motion to one side caught Charlie's eye, and he turned his head just as Kip brought his hands up and together, and he beamed out a smile at Charlie that just radiated, "Aww!" But, true to his word, he didn't say a thing!

Charlie cleared his throat hastily so as not to laugh, and turned back to face the Drazilian, just as she spoke to them for the first time in person.

"The Molokar, I know, but the rest of you are not familiar species. May I ask just whom I am dealing with?"

In person, the voice of Chirka was less threatening, but only slightly more feminine in sound. Charlie would have considered such a voice to be neutral, and very difficult to pin to a gender if he hadn't known of it beforehand.

"I'm Charlie," Charlie said then. "That's Kip, and these are Rick, Adrian, Ragal, Casper, Horace, Bob, and Sefton, in that order."

The little alien gave a more than sizable snort of irritation. "And I am Chirka. That tells me your names, but not your species. Other than the Molokar, none of you are in my database of galactic member species."

"There's a reason for that," Charlie said then, smiling. "We are not members of any of the empires."

Chirka's large, round, gray eyes grew even larger. "Independents? How unusual!" For the first time she stepped forward and examined them with something less than irritation on her face. "How unique! Are you aware how unusual it is to encounter independents on Engris? And now, three independent species at one time? I am amazed, astonished, and fascinated, and would love to speak more with you all...if I was not so busy just now."

Charlie held up the small orb to show Chirka, but didn't say anything. But he could see the woman remembering her brief conversation with the projection of the Madracorn Mompas, and then the capitulation come into her gaze once again.

"Oh...very well. If you must come in, come in. No use standing here in the vestibule."

And with that she turned and headed deeper into the building, waving a small hand at them to follow.

Ricky moved closer and whispered into Charlie's ear, "Cranky, isn't she?"

"But she's so cute!" Kippy added quickly, also at a whisper.

Charlie gave a small laugh, but stepped forward to follow Chirka, and the others fell in with him. They proceeded down a short corridor to a bend, and rounded it into a large room softly lit mostly by holographic views floating in the air at every turn. Charlie and the others stopped, examining the displays, and a creeping sensation worked its way slowly up Charlie's spine.

The displayed scenes varied greatly just in the ability to understand what was being depicted, with some being fairly obvious, while others were largely inscrutable. In one view, a long line of what looked like armored elephants were moving slowly through a valley filled with what resembled moving trees; except Charlie realized with a gasp that the elephants were not elephants, and the trees were not trees. There were no riders on the elephants - they acted entirely on their own. The creatures depicted lacked the trunks of their terrestrial counterparts, instead having two thick tentacles up front, which snatched at the trees in passing, tearing viciously at their blue-green foliage. The trees, for their part, waved their own limbs in response, the end of each being tipped with a solid ball that looked like rock, which smacked with great force against the armor worn by the elephants.

That a battle of some sort was happening became rapidly apparent, but who the combatants were was completely unknown.

Another view portrayed a city of spires and domes linked by glass-like walkways in the air, all made of what looked like pink lace, among which blue bubbles floated everywhere. Even as they watched, one of the blue bubbles floated by them close to their point of view, and they were startled to see several occupants within the bubble, reclined in seats, obviously enjoying the view through the transparent blue hull of their vehicle. The bubble sailed past before he could really get a good look at the pilots, and Charlie blew out an astonished breath as he realized there were certainly thousands, if not tens of thousands, of the blue craft visible, sailing above the fantastic city.

Another view showed a windswept, snow-covered mountain peak set against a fabulously violet sky filled with puffy yellow clouds, up which struggled a team of four-legged creatures whose features were indistinguishable beneath heavy fur coverings like parkas, replete with overlarge hoods hiding their heads, and some sort of leggings and boots that covered the extremities below. They were linked together by stout lines like ropes, and each climber was wearing a pack of some sort upon their broad backsides. Their faces were hidden behind masks with large lenses where eyes might have been, and the shape of the masks suggested a snout below that would have done a lion proper justice. Despite the familiar activity the group seemed engaged in, there was a quality of sheer alienness to the scene, brought about by the totally unfamiliar species doing the climbing.

In yet another view, a huge machine of some sort raced across a totally flat plain of greenish grass, traveling at high speed on three rails - or even above them. The horizons in every direction were equally flat, only the waving grasses giving them any sort of definition by delineating the ground from a strawberry-colored sky. Even as they watched, another, similar machine appeared in the distance, riding above the same three rails, as if chasing the first machine to its destination.

Charlie just stared, his eyes darting from one amazing scene to the next. Each showed some sort of life, in some impossible place, doing things that seemed hauntingly familiar, but which were marked in their otherworldliness by the simple fact that the life forms - the people, he came to understand - were not even remotely human.

And then he became aware of Chirka, watching them closely, a look of appraisal upon her features.

It was Ragal who spoke first, turning to look at Charlie. "Windows, into the layer of the dead."

Charlie, still watching Chirka, saw the Drazilian's eyes grow wider at that.

"Is he right?" Charlie asked.

Chirka turned eyes filled with new interest upon Ragal. "Yes. You know...I now think I have seen your species before, after all?"

Ragal smiled at that. "Why not? My people die, just like all others."

But Chirka had turned towards a large machine and was waving her hands at it in measured movements. In response, the view holding the battling elephants and trees faded, and was refilled with a new scene.

Charlie felt his mouth drop open in surprise. The view was now of some immense, fantastic dance floor beneath a star-speckled midnight sky, in which a multitude seemed to be dancing. The lights of the stars also danced above the couples on the vast, polished floor below, in a scene that was simply breathtaking in its scope. The clothing was colorful, the motions practiced and amazingly well-coordinated for so large a crowd, and the faces, where they could see them, seemed full of laughter and joy.

They were the faces of Ragal's people, of that there was no question.

"Your kind is extinct," Chirka said flatly.

Ragal laughed, and gave a small bow to the Drazilian. "Obviously, you are in error."

Chirka examined them all anew, the interest in the woman's eyes now at levels they had not seen before. "Who are you people?"

Charlie took a measured breath and released it, gathering his wits. "I believe the Madracorn related to you what our mission entailed."

Chirka squinted at them then. "An antagah was mentioned, I believe. Something about it lurking close to Engris and keeping spirit services shut down."

"That's right. We're here to find out what's going on with that."

The woman frowned at them. "I don't need spirit services for the work I do. I have my own methods for observing the lower layer."

"Where the dead live," Kippy said, smiling faintly at the contradiction inherent in his words.

"More or less." Chirka eyed them with something akin to suspicion now. "What is it you plan to do about this antagah?"

Charlie raised a shoulder and dropped it. "Whatever we can."

This seemed to make the woman even more suspicious. "The Madracorn would not send you unless you could help them. Yet I fail to see what a small party like yourselves could do to change the current situation."

"We have a few tricks up our sleeves," Horace said then.

Chirka turned her potent gaze on the man, and Horace's face looked to color slightly in the wan light. Charlie grinned at him in support, and patted his shoulder. "He speaks the truth."

The Drazilian peered at them even more closely a moment, and then closed her eyes. "I can't imagine what sort of talents such an odd-looking band of ...oh!"

She looked startled then, and her eyes popped open again, her gaze now intense. "Why...why did I not sense it? I should have felt it immediately! You, and you, and you" --her finger moved among them, pointing with an almost accusing thrust each time, until it had traveled completely around the circled group-- " by the spirit of Canebika! You all are gifted with the noesis! It shrouds you in splendor, it calls out its power!"

"I think she means skwish," Adrian whispered.

Chirka turned to him. "I don't know the term, but sense you mean it the same way that I do." She stepped closer to them. "I have not felt such a quantity of this ability a very long time. What you possess is very different from what I am familiar with, which must be the reason I did not feel it immediately."

Charlie frowned at that. There was nothing in the literature he had read on Drazilians that indicated they were power users of any kind. "You are aware of such things?" Charlie asked.

For the first time, something akin to humor appeared in Chirka's eyes, and her expression filled with a pleasing sense of amusement. "Certainly!"

And then she laughed. Tchk-tchk-tchk!

Charlie froze in amazement, along with the others. So familiar was that laugh, that hearing it here, and now, was simply stunning!

Kippy managed to say it first. "You're a Kift!"

Chirka simply went rigid then, and stared back at them. Shock was etched into her every feature; but it only lasted for a few seconds, before it was all replaced with a scowl. "That damn laugh! I knew I should have done a more complete change!"

Charlie shook his head in wonder. "You are of the Kift?"

"There's no denying it now," the woman said. She watched them a moment more, the tension in her body clear; and then she seemed to relax a little. "I sense a certain factor of trust for you people. I ask that you not reveal my secret to others, and in turn, I will attempt to be more cooperative with your current mission."

Kippy reached over and lifted Charlie's hand, and patted the small orb grasped in his fingers.

Chirka offered a grudging smile at that, and laughed again. Tchk-tchk-tchk! "There is that, too."

"Is there a reason for your, um, disguise?" Adrian asked.

Chirka moved closer to them now. "First, you must tell me what you know of my kind. You must certainly be acquainted with my people, if you have so easily spied me out!"

Kippy and Charlie exchanged glances, and Kip nodded his head twice. She can be trusted.

Charlie relaxed a little himself, and began telling Chirka an abbreviated account of their friendship with Pacha'ka. When he paused a moment to take a breath, Kippy jumped in, and very quickly all of them were adding bits and pieces of the story, while Chirka's gaze moved from one face to another in obvious fascination.

Also obvious was that she was relaxing with them, and even taking delight in their stories. Finally, Charlie added a last bit to the tale, and offered up a smile. "And that's about it!"

"A wonderful recounting!" Chirka responded, clasping her small hands together. "I would enjoy meeting this Pacha'ka, myself!"

Kippy leaned forward then. "Are you also a Ka of the Kift? Should we rightly be calling you Chirka'ka?"

The woman smiled again, and Charlie could see that the lines seemed somewhat unpracticed on her face. Living here in no-time, for who knows how long, accompanied only by studies of the dead? It had to lead to a sort of flatness of emotion, he would think. Chirka seemed not used to dealing with people anymore!

But she seemed to be warming to them now, and Kippy's smiles were of the type that told Charlie very clearly that his boyfriend sensed only good things from the Kift.

"I must apologize for my abruptness at our first meeting," she finally said, as if in confirmation of Charlie's musings. "I don't know how long it's been since I have talked to someone who was actually, well, breathing!"

She turned to Kip then. "I am a Ka among my kind, but there is no need to use that appellation here. Please...let us be friends, and therefore informal." She raised a small hand then and used it to stroke her chin thoughtfully. "And...your quest to deal with this antagah may actually be a fascinating aside to my own studies. While I have noted the passing of such collectives within the lower layer, I have had very little interaction with them, myself. A chance to study one might prove revealing!"

"We aren't supposed to confront this one," Bob Travers said. "Just hunt around in that, well, place, and see if we can find out what made them join together."

Chirka looked from face to face. "But...didn't the Madracorn tell you? Once you express an interest in this collective within the lower layer, they will take note of you, and will likely seek a confrontation."

At Charlie's raised eyebrows for an answer, she offered a faint smile. "The Madracorn can be wily ones. They are good people, though, and if they didn't tell you this, then maybe they expect it not to be an issue for you. Their kind still knows much more about the lower layer than I am likely to ever learn on my own."

"You call it the lower layer, instead of the realm of the dead," Casper pointed out. He looked up at Ragal then. "Is that right?"

The tall alien nodded. "In the groupings of the layers of the cosmos, it is entirely correct. The realm of the dead is physically of a less complex nature than what we experience in what we call the normal universe. But it is also a very different layer than our own, or even the layer that is the Cooee. The rules there, to persons like us, will seem quite strange."

Chirka looked amused by that. "I would agree with you there, wholeheartedly." Her gaze became speculative then. "How is it you know so much of the lower layer?"

Ragal looked over at Charlie, and he knew his friend was asking if it was okay to speak. Charlie took one last look at Kip, who gave a quick nod, and then Charlie smiled at Ragal.

The tall alien's eyes showed humor at the route his silent request had so quickly traversed for approval, and then he turned back to Chirka. "I have been there, for once I was quite dead, myself."

Chirka's gaze seemed less surprised this time. "I thought your species was extinct."

"But can we leave that tale for another time?" Charlie asked patiently. "And focus on what we need to do next here?"

The sigh seemed to be a universal trait of all oxygen breathers. Chirka emitted one, and Charlie could sense the disappointment in it at postponing a conversation that was of great interest to the Kift. "I suppose we must."

"You never did say why you were here, masquerading as a Drazilian," Kippy pointed out, his own eyes smiling.

Tchk-tchk-tchk! "That can be another conversation that can wait until a later time!"

Kippy grinned at the turnabout is fair play air with which the little alien offered her words. "Fair enough."

Chirka turned and waved a hand at the large machine she had addressed with hand movements earlier, and a variety of seating appeared nearby. "Then let us be more comfortable as we make our plans. Please, be seated!"

"I call it the trans-layer precipitator," Chirka explained later, as they walked slowly around the...the word vehicle was the only one Charlie could think of at the moment.

The device was as large as the flyer they had arrived in, and actually looked like it might have been adapted from a similar, if older, model than the one that Sefton owned. Certainly, the look of humor with which the big Molokar looked the craft over said it all. Charlie exchanged a grin with the man, and could see the decision in Sefton's eyes not to mention the obvious.

"Certainly," Kippy said, smiling. "Everyone has one, don't they?"

Chirka turned a smile his way. "It will perform exactly as I said it would."

Adrian reached up and patted the solid hull of the machine. "This thing will take us into the realm of the dead?"

"Without killing us, I hope!" Ricky added quickly, eying the machine suspiciously.

His Uncle Bob, standing beside him, raised a hand to partially hide his own grin. "Um, never question the magician's magic, Rick!"

Chirka cocked her head to one side to stare at him. "I assure you, no magic is involved. This machine conforms strictly to principles of science, some of which I have only recently established myself!"

Uncle Bob offered her a brief bow. "I was referring to the layman's view on such things, and perhaps making a small joke, too."

Chirka's eyes crinkled with good humor. "I see."

"This must have taken many years of study to produce," Horace said, his open admiration for the machine evident. "As one that has been visited by those from the other side, I never imagined I could one day be able to return the favor!"

"It has taken more than a lifetime of work," Chirka agreed. "I could never have accomplished it in the real-time environment of the normal universe."

"You've been here that long?" Ricky asked, keeping his expression entirely neutral.

But Chirka only smiled. "That's for later, remember? We will have time to tell our tales after we have done what needs to be done."

Charlie waved a hand at the converted flyer. "It will take us there, right?"

The Kift made an affirmative gesture. "It has taken me there many times on my own. I see no reason it will not work just as well for your group.

Horace raised a hand. "I have a question. It came up while we were talking to the Madracorn, that they had the power to destroy the antagah, if the need arose. They said they did not wish to extinguish so many reasoning minds forever. If the spirit members of this collective are already deceased, how can they be killed again?"

Chirka eyed him closely. "You cannot kill what is already dead. I suspect they meant they had the power to force the antagah from the lower layer we now view as the realm of the dead, into the next one down."

"The next one down?" Kippy repeated. "The next layer? Where would that take them?"

"I don't know. My discussions with Mompas, who only seems to come to Engris when I am being obstinate over something" --was that a note of humor that Charlie could see arising in the Kift's gray eyes?-- "has revealed that his people do have the power to do this very thing. He considers it a last resort, as do Eseffa and Jorli, because all indications are that, once expelled from the layer of the dead, those spirits will be unable to return under their own power. The composition of the next layer down, and what might reside within it, are unknown at this point. So, deporting this antagah to that layer will be the same as extinguishing its presence for all time, since those members can never return to the layer they now know."

Charlie felt a chill at that idea. It would be like being stuck in the Cooee, unable to return to the planet and the people they loved. Family, friends, the places they spent their days and nights...gone. Forever.

"I don't think we want that to happen," Charlie offered. "It would pretty much be the same as killing them a second time. Let's not."

Kippy smiled at him, and Charlie was surprised to see that Chirka did, also.

"A respect for life in any of its forms is a valuable commodity in the universe today," she said approvingly. "I feel better, knowing it resides within you."

Horace looked interested at that statement. "Do you consider the dead to still be a form of life, Chirka?"

"I do. I do not look upon the death of the physical body as the end of being. It is a change of state, only."

The older man leaned forward, his eyes bright. "So, let me ask you this: do you feel that the physical bodies we wear in life in the layer known as the normal universe are the first incarnations of our existence, or just yet another one? Did we in fact, move to the layer of the normal universe from somewhere else to begin with?"

Tchk-tchk-chk. "You go well beyond questions I am able to answer at this time." Chirka leaned forward, too. "But if you ask me, do I feel there is a layer, or other layers, above our own...the answer is, yes."

"You've detected them, maybe?" Bob Travers asked.

" I have found that the science I have created that allows me to explore the layer beneath this one...what did you call it?"

"The Cooee," Kippy supplied, smiling at the name they had picked up from their Aussie friend, Mike.

"Interesting. The science I have created that allows me to explore the layer of the dead beneath the Cooee offers clear indications that there are multiple layers in each direction from our own normal universe. Both up, and down, then." She looked briefly charmed by the idea. "Perhaps even sideways!"

Ricky offered a brief whistle of amazement, and grinned at Charlie. "Some future adventures, maybe?"

Charlie laughed. "The technology belongs to Chirka, remember."

The Kift looked pleased. "Thank you. Just for that acknowledgement, I may invite you all along on my first exploration into one of these other layers." She sighed. "I have to admit to missing conversations like these."

Ragal, who had been listening with interest, raised a hand and pointed at the craft before them. "I would have to guess that this vehicle does not actually go to the realm of the dead."

"And you would be correct," Chirka agreed. "This technology allows that which resides within each of us to journey there, while safeguarding the link back to our bodies here."

Adrian looked slightly alarmed at that. "So, we do actually leave our bodies, just as if we had died?"

Chirka frowned at that. "Yes, and no. In death, the body actually dies. There remains no connection between it and the spirit that dwelled within. With my technology, perhaps it is better to say that some portion of the inner us goes voyaging, while always knowing the way home."

"How do we, uh, manifest in this realm of the dead?" Horace asked.

Chirka looked amused at the question. "Why...any way you wish."

Horace looked confused by that, and glanced at Charlie before shaking his head briefly. "But what does that mean?"

The Kift patted her fingertips together in a gesture that immediately reminded Charlie of Pacha. Perhaps the gesture had more meaning with the aliens than it seemed at first glance?

"The realm of the dead is a most unusual place. It is infinitely malleable, able to take on virtually any shape or feel that one desires. The uses are literally infinite. Every spirit that resides there does so under its own conditions."

Casper gave a soft ooh at that. "Any conditions? Any at all?"

"As far as I have been able to determine, yes. Any conditions."

Adrian pursed his lips, thinking. "Our friends that live...well, reside the in layer of the dead...they have spent much of their time exploring, they said. Traveling around their universe, seeing things, visiting new worlds."

Chirka looked surprised. "Oh, of course. You have used the spirit domes to meet with deceased friends?"

Kippy nodded. "Yes."

"I see." Again, Chirka patted her fingertips together, again and Charlie smiled at the act. He would have to mention this - politely - to Pacha the next time they met, and ask - politely - if it had any special meaning to the Kift. "Then what they relate to you is exactly how they see the layer in which they live. As one much like the one they left, where they can travel around a universe filled with life, seeing the sights, so to speak. But not all choose to exist that way there."

"What sort of other ways are there?" Ricky asked.

Chirka spread her hands. "The ways are infinite. You saw the holographic projections in the other room? Each represents a reality that someone has created in the layer of the dead. Each reality is open to visitors...or not. One could spend an eternity just visiting the worlds and realities created by others, sampling each. Or, one can create their own reality, and share that reality with anyone they wish."

"What about this antagah?" Charlie asked. "This collective? They have banded together for a purpose, which would seem to be to get back to the layer we see as the land of the living. Why would they wish to do that?"

"You ask me?" Chirka laughed again. "I have no idea. But rest assured that why they wish this is known within their layer. Their reality has been shared with someone who will have the answer."

Uncle Bob shook his head. "But if the worlds there are infinite, how will we ever find someone who knows?"

"And how will we know they speak the truth?" Casper added. "I'm guessing that even the dead can lie?"

Chirka looked absolutely delighted. "Wonderful! This may be much more interesting than I first imagined!" She favored Casper with an extra smile. "You are right. Deception is as well known among the dead as it is among the living. But there is one major difference between there, and here. Once you express an interest in anything anyone is doing within the realm of the dead, they become aware of it. You see, you can only delve into what others are doing by impinging upon the worlds they have created. Even this antagah exists in a reality of its own making. Once you start seeking answers, that collective will know."

"And perhaps not be happy about it?" Casper asked.

"They almost surely will not take well to prying," Chirka agreed. "But what they can do about it will be entirely dictated by the reality they currently inhabit, and our participation in it. And, we can simply choose to opt out of their reality, which means that if they wish to confront us, they will have to come into ours."

"But what will our reality be?" Kippy asked.

"Whatever we wish it to be."

Charlie sensed the circle they were traveling here. "Is this reality one that all of us must imagine, or can one of us just create one and everyone here join it?"

"It can be either way. One of us may suggest something and all join in, or each may add their own mark to the reality. For us, the experience of traveling to the realm of the dead will be much like being a small antagah, save we are not all bound in such a way that the association cannot be dissolved without the consent of all. We will work together, but each retain their individuality. Is that acceptable?"

Charlie looked around at his friends. "What do you think, guys?"

Kippy took Charlie by the arm and smiled at him. "We already work together like we're one soul. Will this be any different?"

A chorus of agreement arose then, at which Chirka stared in some mystification. "You are indeed a close group," she finally offered. "There is a story there, I am sure."

"One for later," Charlie reminded, grinning.

Chirka stared a moment, and then laughed. "Yes. May I suggest we board the craft and get comfortable? And let us choose some reality to begin with, from which we can always diverge from later as the situation requires."

Charlie nodded. "Any suggestions? We're kind of new at this."

"In my visits to this lower layer in the past, I create a place much like a library. Are you familiar with the concept?"

"Charlie was born in one," Kippy kidded.

Charlie gave a short laugh, and then squeezed his boyfriend's arm. "Let's not complicate this, huh?" He turned to Chirka. "Why a library?"

Again, she patted her fingertips together thoughtfully. "Such places seem universal as storehouses of knowledge, both common and arcane. Many find themselves in these places when seeking knowledge, or simply relaxing. I have found that such a reality tends to attract the more intellectual among the spirit world."

"Probably much better than a bar," Ricky decided, smiling.

Chirka also smiled. "I have also used that scenario, too. One cannot learn everything from intellectuals!"

"That seems a good start, then," Charlie decided. He looked around at his friends. "Anyone have anything else they want to add?"

Horace raised a hand. "How will other...spirits find out about our library, to even visit it?"

Chirka nodded. "Others will know the moment we set it up. There are those in the spirit world who do nothing but seek out such wells of knowledge to visit. It is their dream reality, to spend all eternity learning new and fascinating things."

Charlie smiled at that, and Ricky reached over and patted his shoulder. "What a way to go, huh?"

"I can think of much worse ways," Charlie had to admit. He offered a grin to Chirka. "Tell me...will we actually have access to knowledge in this make-believe library?"

"As much as you want, that exists within the minds of us all."

Ragal emitted a pleasant sigh. "I have visited such places before. They are often sources of amazing things."

"Not every bit of knowledge in our heads will be available to visitors," Chirka pointed out quickly. "All beings have their secrets, or things they know they wish to guard. Only the things you might offer in conversation, pretty much, will be available to visitors."

"That doesn't seem like very much," Kippy said. "I mean, we're not stupid, or anything, but we're just a few people. How can we know enough to be of interest to people of other races or cultures? We'll probably seem dull."

The Kift looked delighted at that. "I tend to believe that you are not dull people. In any event, each spirit that joins our new reality will become both a patron and another book in the library. Curiosity will draw many very quickly, and then word will pass that we offer a place of interest and learning. You will be surprised at how fast the library becomes amazingly well-stocked."

Charlie was intrigued by such a concept, and turned to look at the converted flyer with renewed interest. "This sounds like it could be interesting, as well as informative. So, you think that someone will then come along who possesses the knowledge of why our antagah demands to return to the land of the living?"

"The possibility is actually a good one. But even if we cannot obtain direct knowledge of the antagah's purpose, we may be able to learn where we can go to find out more."

"Sounds complicated," Uncle Bob said. "Like we could be at this a long time."

"It won't matter," Chirka told him. "Time has no more meaning in the lower layer than it does here in the...Cooee." She smiled. "Even if it takes ages to learn what we need to learn, you can still go home when we are done, and no time will be lost in the home layer."

"I don't want to miss Halloween completely," Kippy reminded.

Charlie laughed at that. "I really feel like we're experiencing that holiday now!"

Sefton, who had been standing by listening, raised a hand now. "No can go."

All eyes turned to him.

"Why not?" Kippy asked. "It seems safe enough."

The Molokar looked unhappy. "For same reason I not visit spirit domes. can go."

"We respect that," Charlie said immediately, tossing a warning glance at his boyfriend. He turned then to Chirka. "Will it be okay if he stays here?"

The Kift turned to Sefton. "You have other things to do than to simply wait here, surely?"

The Molokar looked relieved. "Yes."

Chirka put on a satisfied smile. "Then simply go back to that. When we return, Charlie can call for you to pick them up, or I can even deliver them to the port, myself. I have a flyer here."

Sefton looked pained as he turned to Charlie. "Sorry."

Charlie shook his head, and put a hand on the Molokar's large wrist. "Don't be. We each have our own ways, Sefton. Never be ashamed to stand for yours."

The large man nodded. "Call, and I will come."

They each gave their friend a hug, and he left them to return to the port.

"So shall we proceed?" Chirka asked, after the flyer had left. "No more doubts?"

Charlie took a final call from the others, and then nodded at Chirka.

They were going.

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