Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

I Think This Place is Haunted, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 3

"We seem to have drawn a great deal of attention very quickly," Chirka said, her eyes traversing the quiet crowds below. They were standing on a wide balcony at one end of the large room, and had a clear view of everything happening on the main floor. "I have never had so many patrons come in, so quickly."

"It stands to reason that there being more of us this time than you on your own would be a larger draw," Ragal mused, smiling.

"It's just amazing!" Casper offered, the delight on his face clear.

Charlie had to agree. He'd never seen such a diverse crowd of alien life, not even on Engris. Two-legged, four-legged, slithering like a snake, rolling like a ball, zipping about on two or more wings. Large, small, and everything in between; some handsome, some frightening, and some just defying the eye to categorize, entirely. Yet all behaving like one would expect of library patrons: quietly moving among the aisles of books; sitting in chairs or at tables; standing or hovering about, observing; or talking quietly in groups spaced around the room.

His amazement at the sight of the patrons was compounded by his amazement at what they offered as they came in the doors. The shelves of the library were filling with new books even as he watched. Each time a new patron entered through the wide doorway at the far end of the massive room, several new tomes would appear in one or several sections of the library. The patrons, themselves, were fascinating enough, but their contributions to the knowledge pool were even more amazing!

Charlie found he could view the books right from where he was, and his mind filled with images and ideas that ran the gamut from astonishing to disturbing. Some offered stunning glimpses of worlds he could scarcely imagine, while others were simply so alien as to defy description. And some others even seemed shockingly violent, or even depraved. These less appealing volumes warred with the gentler and more interesting ones for his attention, leading to a whirlpool of information assailing his mind that was incredibly difficult to parse.

Chirka touched him then, and he felt a calming flow. "Like this. You need not read all the new volumes that appear. Simply set a filter, a set of parameters for what interests you and what does not, and be selective...that's correct."

"You getting this?" Charlie asked the others, as his thoughts calmed and the impressions he was receiving narrowed to things much more acceptable to his mind.

"That was freaky," Ricky said, sounding unusually subdued. He seemed to be standing just behind Charlie and to one side, but Charlie knew that everything they were seeing and experiencing was in their minds, no matter how real it seemed. "But I have it under control now, I think."

"Me, too," Kippy agreed, and that was followed by agreement from the others.

"I'm a little out of practice," Ragal admitted, with a brief laugh. "The flood of information is disconcerting, isn't it? But just as in a library on Earth, you need only look at the books that interest you here."

"There's some very strange material coming in," Adrian said, looking around the vast room. "Some of these people are a little frightening."

"Alien, I would term it," Horace said, though nodding in agreement. "Yet people they are, certainly. Just some very different perspectives on existence, I imagine."

"It is the same for them," Chirka pointed out. "Everything coming at them needs to be filtered carefully and inspected warily, lest they be overwhelmed by the flow."

"How about our talents?" Uncle Bob asked the Kift, his gaze one of curiosity. "Do they work here as well?"

It was Ragal that answered. "Anything your mind can do in the real world, it can do here."

Bob grinned at that. "Even teleportation?"

"Yes," Chirka agreed. "But only to places you've been, just as in the real world."

Charlie turned to look at her. "The Madracorn suggested that the antagah could possibly possess one of us here. And then go back with us to the Cooee, and from there, to the real universe."

The Kift considered that. "I know what they meant, and that could be a worry, though not quite as you are imagining."

"They cannot possess any of us against our will," Ragal clarified. "They can add us to their collective against our wills, by absorption. We would become trapped within the collective and unable to leave unless all parts agreed to dissolve. The collective could draw on our energy, but not our talents, our thoughts, or our cooperation."

"That's not being possessed?" Uncle Bob wondered. "Sounds like it to me!'

"It's not," Chirka explained. "Being absorbed might trap us, but it would not give the collective access to the Cooee, or our own universe."

"Agreed." Ragal picked up the narrative again. "Here, we can participate in all voluntary realities and come and go as we please. And, we could be taken against our wills into a collective like the antagah. But the only way they could possess one of us would be to have our willingness to join them."

Chirka gave a grunt. "And even if one of us wished to join, he could not without the agreement of all others here. Our own group safety supersedes the will of each individual. Know the rules, and remain safe!"

Charlie still didn't like the sound of that. "Can we be tricked into joining them?"

"It's not an impossible idea," Ragal decided. "But unlikely." He looked around at the group. "You would be presented with a clear choice to join. All you need do is refuse."

"You don't have to worry about me," Kippy said. "Let those creeps put their hands on me. I'll show them a few things they'll never forget!"

Charlie smiled at that, and looked around at his friends. "Just be careful, everyone." He returned his gaze to Chirka. "Can we leave this lower layer at will?"

"Yes. Anyone can leave at any time and return to the precipitator. And rejoin again later, at their will. The mechanism is preset to allow for that."

"What would be a reason for leaving?" Casper asked. "Are we in any danger here?"

Chirka seemed to consider that. "In my visits here, I have not encountered real danger. We cannot be injured here. Those realities we have witnessed where wars and other mayhem are happening are doing so without harm to the participants, no matter how violent they may seem. For those who enjoy such excitements, it is likely very exhilarating, an adventure such as they may have participated in in real life, yet without the danger of injury or destruction."

Ricky frowned at that." Then what would be the point? Part of the thrill of skydiving from an airplane at three-thousand feet is the idea in the back of your mind that the parachute might not open, or something like that. Some danger is what makes an adventure an adventure!"

Tchk-tchk-tchk! "And you will find that those same thrills apply here. For no amount of knowledge that you cannot be harmed will reduce the thrill of seeing an Alboan giant swing his war axe at you, or watching helplessly as your mortally wounded Kilmarxian transport plummets from space towards the pitted surface of the dead moon Sestus below. I know this for a fact, for I have experienced these things."

Rick's frown turned to a grin. "Alboan giant with a war axe? Where do we have to go to see that?"

Chirka waved a small hand at him. "Never you mind. We are not here to relive the Alboan conquest of the Kylan Isles." She smiled then. "Perhaps another time, when events are less pressing?"

Ricky gave her a thumbs up. "I won't forget!"

Adrian laughed at that. "He won't, either!"

Charlie sighed at the digression. "I want everyone to remember not to let anyone here talk you into anything. A resounding no may be a lifesaver. Understand?'

Everyone did.

"There must be some sort of real danger here," Ricky complained. "Or life, um, death would get pretty boring after a while, I'd think."

Ragal smiled at that. "Think of the things you can do here, though, that you could never do back in the real universe!" He leaned towards Ricky, his eyes alight. "Ride a comet as it hastens sunward, its glorious tail stretching behind, while wearing no spacesuit, and with no worries? Stalk the pintabi in the jungles of Yan, knowing it could eat you whole without pausing in step? Join the Icara raiders as they thunder across the plains of Siffoli towards the fabled city of Lancastria, there to storm the living walls of doom?"

Everyone was staring at Ragal in a little bit of surprise, just at the idea that he might have actually done these things!

Chirka eyed him uncertainly, and gave a quick shake to her head. "There are possibly real dangers here, yes," she told them then. "They don't come from the realities you visit so much as the people you meet. Power users here run the gamut of abilities, just as they do in the real universe, and while most of those abilities fall within the range of the known, I have heard mention of a few that possess powers dangerous even to the spirits that reside here."

"Dangerous, how?" Charlie asked.

The Kift held up her hands in a helpless gesture. "I don't know. I have not encountered these individuals on my own."

That led to a short silence that had everyone thinking.

"So, what's next?" Casper finally asked, looking around at the silent faces. That he was purposely dispelling the doubt was clear. "I've been sifting through what's been coming in, and there has been no mention of our friend, the antagah."

Uncle Bob lifted a hand to point at the main entry to their library. "What's outside? All these, um, people have to be coming from somewhere, right? What would we see if we went out?"

"In order for each of these patrons to enter the library, they must merge a part of their realities with ours. If you were to exit those doors, you would find a myriad of virtual worlds parked outside."

Charlie smiled at the notion that came to mind, of a parking lot filled with shiny, exotic cars of all kinds. "So, we would enter one or more of these worlds?"

"We are serving as a sort of a nexus at this point," Chirka clarified. "Leaving the library would allow us to participate in some manner with all the realities now surrounding our own."

"So, we have to stay inside?" Adrian asked, looking disappointed.

"Not at all," Chirka countered. "We are much more likely to learn something by exploring a little."

"But can we get back here if we go out?" Casper asked.

"Yes. Remember that we will act in some ways as a small antagah here. We are a group. The precipitator has placed us here together, and that dictates that we must participate in the same events. But we can each act independently within the group event experience."

Kippy gave a little groan. "I hope I can remember all this."

Chirka turned and patted his hand. "We'll do well. Simply remember not to accede to any demands to join any other group, and we'll all be fine."

"So, we go outside?" Rick asked.

"Not just yet." The Kift waved a hand at the patrons below. "Let us ask around, and see what knowledge can be obtained right here, first."

"Wouldn't we know right away if someone here knew of the antagah?" Adrian asked.

"Not necessarily." Chirka smiled at him. "Secrets, remember? Or, at least, knowledge that someone does not wish to share openly. Sometimes, the only way to learn is to ask."

Just then one of the small flyers they had observed earlier wafted up to their balcony on blue gossamer wings, which moved at a fantastic rate, like a hummingbird's might do back on earth. It turned large golden eyes upon them and examined them carefully, before winging away again towards the stacks below.

"What was that about?" Kippy asked, watching the small flyer disappear among the shelving.

"Curiosity is a universal trait," Chirka said, smiling. "This one was just looking us over. Did you sense anything negative about the appraisal?"

Kippy frowned, and then shook his head. "No".

"Because all that was wanted was a peek at the librarians, with no other motivation but to satisfy a wish to know who we were."

"What would it want to know? Adrian asked. "It must have seen a library before. And a librarian."

Chirka waved a hand at the room. "Every library is different here, though. The patrons that librarians draw are unique, which is because all librarians are unique. This experience is excitingly new to all these people. If you did nothing but visit libraries for all of eternity, no two would ever be the same." The Kift nodded. "The unique talents our group possesses is bringing in a correspondingly unique clientele. This fact is building a distinctly unique group of offerings upon our shelves. There is certainly a buzz about this place going on, as people keep coming in."

Charlie stared down at the room once again, and was suddenly shocked. "Is this room getting bigger?"

Chirka suppressed a laugh at that. "Of course. The more books we get, the more patrons we draw; the more patrons we draw, the more books we get. The building must grow in size to accommodate this process." She placed a hand on his arm. "And now, let us do as the books are doing here, and circulate."

She led them to a flight of stairs at the end of the balcony, and they descended to the main floor. Charlie noted that many sets of eyes watched as they did so, but no one came forward to meet them as they arrived upon the main floor.

"What, they're shy now?" Kippy asked, rolling his eyes.

"Simple courtesy," Chirka countered. "If we take seats among them, they will feel free to approach us."

She led them to a vacant table circled by just enough chairs to seat them all, and they sat down.

Almost immediately, a tall, gaunt fellow approached them and offered a brief bow, and Charlie looked the man over without being obvious about it. The alien was bipedal, with a large, domed head, and with what looked like human features, but strangely exaggerated: long, hawkish nose; tall, pointed ears; wide mouth with dark, fleshy lips. He had some serious wrinkles above his hollow-looking eyes, and the overall effect was cadaverous. The man's clothing was black, too, and while like no earthly suit Charlie had ever seen before, the clothing reminded him of the sort of businesslike apparel a seller of caskets might be expected to wear.

Or, a mortician.

"Happy Halloween," Kippy whispered, eyeing the fellow carefully. It was meant as a personal comment, just for himself; but Charlie heard it, anyway, and smiled.

"Most unusual collection you have here," the man said, raising a hand to indicate the stacks of books around them. His voice was about as deep as any that Charlie had ever heard before, and the sound of it sent a small shudder throughout his body. His senses were telling him that this fellow was not to be trusted!

"We like it," Kippy offered, sounding nervous. Charlie turned to gaze at his boyfriend. Obviously, Kippy was feeling the same sense of wariness about their new friend.

He turned back to nod at the man. "It's our first attempt at a library. We're pleased you like it."

"I do. You have a future in this business, I think." He leaned closer. "I do not recognize your s-s-species."

Charlie's eyebrows raised slightly at the lengthy ess the man had made. But it was a simple enough question. "Um, we're called humans."

The fellow turned to inspect the group. "Not all of you, certainly."

Casper opened his mouth to say something, but Ragal quickly dropped a hand on the boy's arm and stopped him.

When no one else said anything, Charlie simply nodded. "No. Not all of us-s-s." He blinked then, at the strange way his own ess had come out, but was too distracted by the fact that Ragal, Casper, and Chirka had all declined to speak to their visitor to really focus on it. What was up with that?

The tall man looked somehow distressed now. "I am Tonglassan," he said. Charlie had no way of knowing if it was the man's name or species, but somehow he suspected it was the latter.

Their guest looked around the seated group one more time, bowed again, and then simply walked away. Quickly.

Charlie turned to Ragal. "What happened there? Why didn't you guys say who you were?"

Ragal stared at him. "You didn't feel the probe? The man was a power user. He was looking for information."

Charlie blinked at that. "What? I didn't sense anything!"

Kippy smiled, and leaned closer against Charlie. "You have defenses like a brick wall, Charlie. That guy couldn't even tickle them, I guess."

Ragal looked puzzled. "You didn't sense the probe, Charlie? It came right at you."

"No. The only thing I thought was funny was the weird way he talked. That long ess and all. Sounded like he was hissing at us."

Kippy squeezed his arm. "What long ess?"

Charlie turned to stare at his boyfriend. "He said something...oh, it was when he said he didn't recognize our species. When he said the word species, the ess-sound was really long."

"I didn't hear that," Casper said.

"I didn't, either," Adrian added.

Charlie looked over at Rick - who shook his head quickly - and then let his gaze move over to Bob and Horace.

"I didn't hear it, either," Uncle Bob confirmed.

"Nor I," Horace said. He frowned then. "But I did hear a very peculiar thing, now that you mention it, right as he said that very word. And, when you replied, and said the word us. Both words jarred me, somehow. They had a sort of a...a sort of an echo, or something."

"A rebound," Ragal said, understanding hitting him. "Charlie, things in this place do not always work the same way as they do in the real world. It may take some time for some of our talents to adapt to this new situation. Even how two minds interact here is different, because there is no physical body involved."

Charlie narrowed his eyes at that. "Are we in any danger because of that?"

Ragal looked approving of the question. "I cannot say no, definitely; but for now I think we can all hold our own. Your defenses are strong, but you would normally have felt that one's probe at your thoughts, even if it was repelled." He laughed then. "But here, your defenses seem to be different. They simply acted without bothering you for instructions at all. You felt nothing. That was because, rather than deflect his probe, you bounced it straight back to him. That was why he looked suddenly upset, and revealed his species to us. And why he then left so suddenly. He knew he was outmatched!"

"But what's the big deal about our species?" Charlie asked. "It doesn't need to be a secret, or anything."

Kippy laid a hand on his arm. "I apparently sensed this differently than you. When he asked our species, it was as if he was trying to open a door into our thoughts. That was supposed to be his way in. You simply told him we were humans without being led to it, and he thought he was in. But when you replied to him the second time, you bounced his probe back right to him. He was expecting just about anything but that. It confused him and frightened him. That's why he left so fast."

Charlie turned to look the way the alien had gone. He had vanished into the stacks now, even his unusual height masked by the diverse crowd. "So, was he a bad guy, or what?"

Ragal chuckled. "I don't think so, not like you're thinking. He struck me as an opportunist. He was probably an information merchant, Charlie. He was looking for goods he could trade for other goods. There wasn't anything really malevolent about his probe. Just, perhaps, immoral."

Charlie let that information settle, and then pointed out the obvious. "Are you saying there's an economy here? Barter, or something?"

The tall alien laughed again. "Charlie, trade is part of the makeup of countless races. For many, it's a trait that is very hard to let go of, even in death. There is no need to trade for anything here. Nothing is required. So, of course a market had to be created for something that some would value. Information was a rather obvious choice. There are always those that seem to wish to know the business of others."

"Nosy pokes!" Kippy said, tsking.

Adrian laughed at that, and nodded. "I can feel a lot of curiosity about us in this room. But most people don't feel a need to pry, it seems."

Almost as if to counter that statement, the little flyer that had examined them on the balcony earlier, or one just like it, swept up to them again and stopped, hovering before them. It was about a foot long, and seemed almost a cross between a butterfly and a bumble bee, with iridescent blue and yellow wings that were just a blur of motion now, and a body banded in bright, cheerful colors. Its eyes were golden, large, and filled with curiosity. "Ran him off quickly enough, didn't you?" It said, glee apparent in its tiny voice.

So contagious was the creature's sense of delight at the defeat of its predecessor that everyone smiled.

"Not that I blame you, of course," their small friend followed with. "I mean, he was trying to pick your pockets, which is very bad business!" The creature floated that much closer to them in a move that seemed an offering of confidence. "Now, me, I am willing to pay for things, I am! Surely a group like yourselves, with so many fascinating stories to tell, have a few that haven't made it onto the shelves?"

Kippy turned enchanted eyes upon Chirka. "How is it that we understand everybody here so well?"

The Kift smiled. "It's all in the mind, remember?"

The flyer's curious gaze traveled around the group of those seated. "Oh, just got here? Kind of overwhelming at first, isn't it?"

"I take it you are an information merchant, like our just left friend?" Charlie asked.

"I prefer the term fact broker," the flyer returned, one large golden eye winking at them. "Browbeat's my name, and facts are my game!"

Charlie smiled - he couldn't help smiling - at the little flyer's name. Certainly it was only a similarity to a word in English, and not a literal translation?

"Charlie," Charlie decided to offer, freely and without coercion. "Kip, Casper, Ragal, Rick, Adrian, Chirka, Horace and Bob."

"Pleased to meetcha, I'm sure!" Two long antennae, which had been laid down back along the length of the flyer's body, suddenly rose into the air and waved over its head. "Boy, you guys sure are sending out some strong stuff! Power users, huh? I'll watch my step, that's for sure!"

Kippy turned to smile at Charlie. "I like him."

Charlie had already arrived at the same assessment. The flyer gave off a strong sense of curiosity, but it was coupled to an equally powerful sense of fairness. The alien was in his game as much for a fascination with learning as he was for the sheer joy of knowing secrets he could trade to others.

Browbeat's golden eyes fastened on Kippy. "You're a likely-looking fellow! I have a feeling you know all sorts of delectable things!"

Kippy grinned at that. "I do, actually, and I may even be willing to trade you a few, if you have something I can use in return."

The flyer drifted a little closer, but remained out of arm's reach. "You just gotta ask!"

Kippy turned to Charlie. "Can I ask about our, um, friend, the collective?"

Charlie's eyes flicked to Ragal, who replied with a barely discernible nod of his head.

"Sure." Charlie patted his boyfriend's arm before turning back to the flyer.

Kippy cleared his throat gently and leaned towards Browbeat. "We heard there was an antagah hanging around Engris lately. Do you know the spirit world?"

The flyer issued forth a tiny titter of delight that made Charlie smile.

"I'll say I do! You have to be a pretty poor silkspinner not to know about the spirit world, Engris. I've been there a lot of times. It's good for business!"

Charlie exchanged smiles with Horace and Bob, who had moved closer and were listening with interest. The two men's eyes shined back at him; they were obviously caught up in the proceedings.

"What do you know about this antagah?" Kippy finished.

Browbeat seemed to consider the question carefully. "Well, I don't want to tell you wrong, you know? But you've picked a nasty bunch to be curious about, and they're going to know you've been asking. They're new on the scene, and no one knows that much about them yet. They aren't open, so who's inside is tough to tell. And I've heard that they've sucked in a few that didn't want to go. That's always bad news around here. So, people have been giving them plenty of room when they show up, if you know what I mean?"

"Makes sense to me," Ricky said. "The more we hear about this collective, the more I don't like them."

Browbeat edged just a little closer. "I heard they were trying to extort something out of the Madracorn. That's really a bad idea. Those folks are nice people, but they can be tough if they have to. This antagah doesn't seem to be too smart to me!"

Ragal leaned closer to the flyer. "So, you don't have any real idea of what this collective is composed of? Many races, or one?"

"I heard it started out all as one people, but that they have grabbed a few who were not fast enough or smart enough to get out of the way. But I don't know what race comprises the main group. They've got themselves hidden, like they don't want anyone to know who they are."

"Makes sense," Uncle Bob said. "If you're going to commit a crime, you wear a mask, right?"

Horace frowned at that. "If you're a small-time crook, surely. But the big-time operators all seem to do their dirty work right out in the open, and then simply deny everything. They don't need masks because they have money and lawyers."

Kippy emitted a surprised squeak, but grinned. "There's a scary thought! What if this antagah is made up of lawyers!"

Everyone smiled at that, except for Browbeat, who managed to look uncertain. "What's a lawyer?"

Kippy sighed. "Oh, boy, what a sweet society you must hail from!"

Browbeat looked even more confused; but then suddenly emitted another cheery titter. "Oh, you mean rule-makers, and rule-breakers? And the ones that interpret the rules?"

Kippy looked disappointed. "So much for paradises!"

The flyer eyed him doubtfully. "This antagah sure doesn't seem concerned with rules. I mean, there really aren't a lot of rules here. But one of them is that you don't mess with the travels of others. Blockading Engris is going to make a lot of folks mad. And by crossing the line and grabbing people that don't want to be a part of their group, they risk angering some of the chiefs around here. You don't want to do that!"

Chirka leaned closer, surprise on her face. "Chiefs? Are you saying that there are organizations here other than these collectives like the antagah?"

Browbeat laughed again, and Charlie had to grin at the sound of it. It brought to mind the sound a rambunctious kitten might make if it suddenly learned to express humor.

"Well, sure! There are a lot of popular realities here. Some of them have billions of participants. I remember a couple of times that some rogue antagah got the wrong people mad, and everyone in one of these realities decided to go after them and make them pay. This is a big antagah, but it still only has a few thousand members. Get one of these popular realities with a few billion participants riled, and there'll be no place that antagah can hide! They'd make short work of them!"

"How?" Chirka demanded, her eyes now narrowed in thought.

Browbeat dipped up and down now, seeming to fill with excitement. "Oh, it's quite a sight! The big reality forms a swarm of a few million volunteers, and they go hunt up the rogue collective. Once they corner them, they tell them to disband or that they'll bend them."

The Kift blinked at that. "Bend them? And what does that entail?"

Browbeat paused a moment to stare. "Hey, you guys really are new at this, aren't you?"

"We are," Charlie agreed. "But we're concerned about this antagah. It's in our best interests, and the best interests of our friends, to know what to expect from them."

The flyer settled back from them a little, while his golden eyes studied the group. Then he darted towards them again, almost coming within arm's reach. "I know! Oh, I know!" His voice dropped to a whisper. "You're working with the Madracorn, aren't you!"

Charlie was surprised at the mental leap the small flyer had made, but it didn't change the feeling of trust he felt for Browbeat. "Well, that's one of our secrets you know now," he admitted, smiling. "So, about this bending thing?"

"I won't tell," Browbeat assured him. "I learn a lot of things I never tell anyone else. Some facts are for selling, and some are for keeping." The flyer's antennae waved in appreciation. "I happen to agree that this antagah is not good for business. I often hang around Engris and do business there. A lot of facts come and go, and people are happy after seeing their living relatives and friends." A look of alarm came into the golden eyes. "Not that I take advantage of that! I just mean, business is better with happy people."

Kippy sighed, and smiled at Charlie.

Charlie tried hard not to laugh, and nodded at the flyer. "About this bending?"

"Oh, yeah! Well, an antagah is stuck together by will. Everybody that joins, at least initially, does so because they want the same thing. It forms a group will, becomes one piece, sort of. No one can leave until everyone says so. That group will gives them a sort of group reality, where they all act together as one. But it's not like the realities that people create here where you can come and go as you please, and do whatever you want while visiting. In an antagah, you're a part of a whole that is based on one big idea, and the minds sort of get together like one. They share a lot of thinking, and the reason for the formation of the collective becomes the driving goal of everyone. It's sort of like a single mind obsessed with one idea. A little scary, if you ask me!"

"And the bending?" Chirka prodded patiently.

"Oh. Well, an antagah is built like a sphere, because every component personality has equal space inside. It's a very orderly thing, held together by the motive for its creation. It's not the same with normal realities, where someone creates an environment and every visitor sort of grabs whatever space they want inside it. Those realities are always in flux. They adapt, they change, they grow, they shrink." Browbeat quickly spun in a circle to take in the library. "It's like the reality you have created here. It's open. The place is based on one idea, sharing knowledge. But those that visit are free to take or reject any part of it, or all of it. Visitors are still independent. Their realities interface with yours without joining it." Browbeat emitted a hum that somehow conveyed distaste. "An antagah is a form of reality where every member has the same goal, the same thoughts. I could never join one, I know that!"

Charlie frowned at that, not liking the implications. Somehow, the term cult came to mind. An antagah could make a powerful enemy!

"And some of these larger, open realities can act against an antagah?" Chirka went on, ever the scientist, exploring.

"Sure. People visit realities to enjoy some aspect of them. But these realities are not traps, and they don't impose anything except the idea of what they are in the first place. You know, like this reality is a library? People visiting have to abide by that rule, but everything else is free for them to interpret however they like. And it they don't like it, they can leave. So, when one of these antagahs messes with people like this one is doing, it riles folk. You get a few billion people having fun in one place all decide they don't like something like a rogue antagah, they can quickly act together with one purpose. One of these larger volunteer realities can totally surround an antagah, and compress the life right out of them."

"Squash them?" Kippy asked, his eyes going wide.

"Deform them," Browbeat corrected. "Bend them. The mental pressure is applied unevenly. It distorts the equal space each participant in the antagah occupies, either forcing them together or drawing them apart. This sorta makes them crazy!"

Adrian laughed at that. "Sounds like they were a little crazy to begin with!"

"That's interesting," Ricky added, nodding. "I see what happens. It would be like you have to wear glasses to see the world clearly, but someone came up to you and bends the lenses. You'd see a really warped view of the world!"

"What are glasses?" Browbeat asked.

Ricky waved a hand dismissively. "Never mind. But what you're saying is that bending an antagah messes up their ability to act as one, but doesn't let them separate to act on their own. It's like their whole world has gone nutty to them."

"It has to be pretty awful," the flyer agreed. "I remember once, when I was living, some friends got me to drink some hooganut juice. That stuff is potent! I was so dizzy I couldn't get off the ground!"

Charlie did a little double take at the expression, when I was living, being one he once would have thought he'd never hear spoken! It was a bit of a shocking reminder of where they were and what they were doing!

He cleared his throat. "I think we're getting away from our main idea here."

"I can help," Browbeat told him. "I get a really good feeling about you people, and I follow my instincts. You need me, I'm your man!"

"Earnest little fellow, isn't he?" Horace said, smiling. "I think he'd be a big help to us, Charlie."

Charlie looked around at the others, saw acceptance for the idea of adding Browbeat to their initiative.

"It could be dangerous," Charlie warned the little flyer.

"I know what's what around here," Browbeat assured. "Besides, this antagah is messing up my business. I want to see it dissolved as much as anybody!"

"We thought there might be more people here that knew something about this collective," Chirka said, looking around the ever-growing room. "You seem to be the only one that knows anything."

"If the antagah was homegrown, there would be more people that know something," Browbeat agreed. "But this collective came from way off somewhere, and it's closed so tightly no one can get a look at the folk inside. So, you'll be limited in what you can find out about them unless you talk to them in person." He tittered again. "Anyway, there are some people around here that do know stuff. They're just not willing to talk about it, because the antagah will know."

"How does that work?" Charlie asked.

"In order to talk about the antagah, you tag its reality. It knows then."

"Can it find us that way?" Rick asked.

"Given enough time," Browbeat said. "They know that people are talking about them. We're just a few of a lot of folks doing that. But too much attention, and they'll single us out, yes."

"I get it," Kippy said. "Mention them once or twice, it's just background gossip. Mention them a lot, and their ears will burn!"

Browbeat tittered again. "You're funny!"

Ricky patted Kip's arm. "We've suspected that for a long time now."

Kippy sighed, but grinned at his friend. "Don't you get started. There's too much to do!"

Chirka tapped her fingertips together and looked around the room, which had grown even larger by now. "I suppose we'll have to go out and look around a little to learn more."

Charlie peered at her. "What will happen to the library if we leave it?"

"Nothing. Our books are on the shelves now. It will likely continue to grow, even in our absence. Besides, we are still tied to this place, even if not actually present here. The realities outside the door are all tethered to our own."

"For now, anyway," Browbeat pointed out.

"Just so. Yet any we visit will remain tethered while we are there. Any that choose to leave may do so, but the bond will not be totally severed until we leave their own reality."

Kippy blew out a short breath of air. "This is a complicated place!"

"It's got me going," Uncle Bob agreed. He turned to smile at his nephew. "No wonder you're always smiling!"

Ricky laughed at that. "Life has been interesting, these past few years!"

Chirka rose from her seat. "Shall we start?"

They all got to their feet.

"Oh, boy!" Browbeat said, hovering next to Charlie and Kip. "New things!"

Charlie smiled at the flyer. "Be careful what you wish for!"

Browbeat tittered, and they all moved towards the door of the library. Patrons offered what Charlie guessed were supposed to be smiles or their equivalents as they passed, and he did his best to return the good cheer, even to the people who were more than a little frightening in appearance. The universe was vast, and nature a skillful artist, but some of her subject material was the stuff of nightmares more than dreams. But he sighed then, the basics coming back to him even then.

It's all a matter of perspective!

They reached the double doors of the library and emerged into the world beyond.

Charlie had been uncertain what to expect; still this was not it. His brief image of a parking lot full of exotic cars vanished immediately.

They seemed to be standing on a sunlit plain covered by tall, swaying trees, each vibrating with color, like an enormous prism. There was some distance between each tree, yet none seemed that far away, and even when Charlie looked at the more distant ones, they somehow seemed to move closer. The flowing rainbow of color that each one offered was almost mesmerizing, and played seductively with the eyes, almost calling for them to come closer.

Charlie realized then that the plain was not silent. Each tree hummed, each at a different frequency, and each with a distinct voice, that somehow played into the flow of colors, matching their changing light in sound. It was definitely a wow moment, and Charlie had to turn to Kip then, and smile. "Wow."

Kippy laughed. "Wow is the word!"

"Oh, right, this is all new to you," Browbeat said then. He looked around at the trees on the plain, and tittered out his small laugh. "Every interface zone is different. I got to admit, yours is a classy act."

Charlie got it then. "Each one of these trees is a reality? A different reality?"

"The interface, sure."

"How will we know which one to go to?" Horace asked. "There must be hundreds of them!"

"Thousands," Browbeat corrected. "That's not really that many. And you can just pick any one. If you don't like it or don't get the information you want there, you just try another one."

"This could take a while!" Uncle Bob said.

"No time will pass for us," Chirka reminded. "We have an eternity to explore."

Adrian gave a low whistle." So, how do we pick?"

Kippy lifted a hand, closed his eyes, turned slowly, whirling the hand in a circle, and then thrust out a finger to point. "That one," he said, opening his eyes.

Everyone turned to look. The tree Kip had pointed to looked just like the others. The hum it emitted was low, almost a tease to the ears. But Charlie could see no reason why that tree would be any worse or better than the others. "Works for me."

"I have no objection," Chirka agreed. "When we get closer we will get a view into the reality, and can change our minds, anyway. Come."

She stepped out, moving quickly on her short legs, and Charlie took Kip's hand and they followed.

As they neared the tree in question, the waves of light that rippled along its branches seemed to quicken, the hum to grow more pronounced and rapid. In a few moments the tree blurred, and something started to become visible. But Chirka continued along as if this was exactly what she expected, and the others followed.

The tree slowly vanished, to be replaced by a new scene. They drew up to it, and Chirka stopped.

Beyond her, in a circle that rippled and flowed around the edges, was the image of another world. Charlie's first impression was of a desert-type landscape, but it was nothing like the traditional flowing dunes of sand he knew from earth. This desert was occupied by rocky spires that grew from naked areas of stone surrounded by sandy flats occupied by low brush. The tors were each different, looking to have been eroded from the bed of a long-vanished sea, one-time veins of denser stone from around which had been dissolved a softer mineral like limestone. In some areas the tors were close and numerous; in others, they stood alone, surrounded by sandy wasteland. Above all of this, a large red sun hung, its light bestowing a ghostly appearance to the world below.

"Um, this does not look fun!" Kippy said, turning to stare at Charlie.

"It's perfectly safe," Chirka noted, turning to look up at Charlie's boyfriend. "Remember, we are not subject to any of the depredations of climate. And, also know, that some form of intelligent life came from this place to visit the library. It may look harsh to our eyes, but it is certainly no more dangerous than the library, itself."

"Look at that!" Adrian said then, pointing.

All eyes returned to the scene as some kind of strange conveyance came into view, rolling across the sand between tors on a dozen large balls with the raised grooves of traction tread on them. Each ball was at the end of a curved leg, above which was supported the body of some large vehicle that somewhat resembled an old-fashioned sailing ship. Above the vessel towered four masts, each of which carried wide expanses like sails, but which seemed not to be angled to catch the wind. Instead, the masts seemed to turn as the vehicle wound its way between the tors, keeping the vast expanses of the sails pointed at the red sun overhead.

Ricky was the first to smile. "Check that out! A clipper ship for the desert!"

"It's coming this way," Chirka said, waving a hand and stepping towards the large circle containing the image." Come, or we'll miss it!"

Kippy squeezed Charlie's hand, and they stepped forward together, following the Kift.

And then they were simply there. There was no feeling, no fanfare, no sense of traversing any sort of doorway or gate. One moment they were standing on the treed plain; the next they were standing in the sand of the desert, an enormous tower of rock at their backs, and the peculiar desert clipper coming right towards them.

Charlie felt no heat to speak of. His skin told him the temperature was mild, and the air fairly dry. The hair on his head responded to a light breeze, and his nose detected a few unfamiliar, spicy scents, that seemed to come from the gnarled, grayish plants around them. But otherwise, the transition was almost startlingly tepid.

He felt Kip's hand tense in his own, and allowed his gaze to return to the craft coming towards them. He could hear it now, the sound of the giant balls it traveled on grinding the sand and stone beneath. And then he understood the reason for Kip's apparent anxiety.

The craft was much larger than he had first supposed.

It continued its advance, and Charlie noted the distance to the next tor closest to theirs, and realized that the desert clipper would have a tight squeeze going between them. For now it was as large as some of the ocean-going ships he had seen on earth, perhaps five hundred feet in length, and as much as a hundred in the beam. The giant solar sails above looked enormous now, and the ground beneath their feet trembled at the craft's approach.

"It's going to run us down!" Kippy said, trying to step back.

"Stay where you are!" Chirka called, the snap of a command in her voice. "Remain calm. You cannot be harmed here!"

Even then, Charlie sensed that the desert clipper was slowing. It turned slowly to miss them, and ground to a halt with the first of the tremendous globular tires, like some enormous ball-bearing, right before them.

"Hello there!" a voice called then. "On the ground!"

Charlie looked up along the towering hull of the craft, and spied someone standing at the rail above. It was difficult to make out the person's form, but Charlie was pretty certain it was not human.

"Hey, there!" the figure called again. "You need a lift to town?"

Charlie found his voice then. "Uh, hello! Thank you for stopping." He glanced at Chirka, who was smiling in approval at him, and took his cue from that. "Uh, yes! We could use a lift, thank you!"

"No problem! I'll send the lift down."

They heard a faint sound, and in a moment a flat steel plate with angled trusses beneath, more than wide enough for all of them to board, hit the ground nearby, suspended by a cable rig attached to the four corners and meeting together above in tie-block from which a single, stouter cable rose above.

"Jump aboard, and I'll bring you up!"

Chirka was the first to do just that, climbing carefully up onto the plate, and then waving at them to join her. Browbeat quickly zoomed up next to her, and then their entire group boarded, stepping up to the level of the plate, and Charlie was quick to note that there were no rails or anything to even hold onto, save for the cables themselves. But he need not have worried. Once they had all boarded, the plate lifted gently from the ground and rose smoothly skyward with a feeling of complete steadiness.

The hull of the vessel slid past them then, and Charlie noted that it seemed to be all one piece, with no welds or rivets showing. He looked up, saw the railings around the main deck nearing; and in a moment the rail slid past them and the plate stopped.

"Welcome aboard the Scarpit!"

Standing on the deck nearby was a single figure. The voice sounded male, but it was impossible to tell gender just by looking. The fellow was a biped, two arms and two legs, and big. No taller than they, just broad and beefy, like a professional wrestler. The face was cheerful-looking, bearded, and could almost have been human, save for the fact that the beard seemed to cover the entire face before hanging down beneath the chin. Two curious brown eyes gazed at them from among the fur, missing nothing.

The alien was dressed in light tan clothing, what certainly looked like some sort of uniform to Charlie. The first impression was a good one, one of order and competence. And good cheer, if the man's gaze was anything to go by.

"I'm Captain Berrick," the alien said, nodding at them. "And this is the trading vessel Scarpit, bound for Ulexium tor." He laughed, a deep, pleasant sound. "Please, do come aboard!'

Chirka led the exodus from the plate, and soon they were standing upon the deck, that, while looking to be of wooden boards, felt distinctly like metal underfoot. After they vacated the plate, it soared upwards and turned, and Charlie could see that it was suspended from a crane of some sort, which retracted and put itself away with surprising speed and agility.

Captain Berrick moved closer and peered at each one of them in turn. "Well, now. It's nice to meet new folk. You're a long way from the usual desert rats I see poking about the sands. Heading for Ulexium tor, I hope?"

Charlie figured that was as good a place as any to start. "Yes. Thank you for stopping to pick us up." He introduced himself then, and all the others. "We're travelers," he concluded, smiling. "This is our first time here."

The captain nodded. "This is The Tors, as you can well see by now." His eyes moved to Browbeat then, and he smiled even more broadly. "Pintuckin, aren't you?"

Browbeat tittered happily. "You know my kind?"

"I do. Good folk, in my experience." The captain's eyes again inspected Charlie and the others. "Don't know the rest of you, but that's hardly unusual." He smiled again. "I was just about to sit down to dinner. Will you join me?"

Up until then, Charlie had felt nothing like hunger. And he still didn't feel it. But a sort of pleasurable sensation arose in his middle then at the idea of a meal, and he sighed happily. "I think we'd enjoy that, thank you."

"Good then. Let me get us moving again--"

The man seemed not to do anything at all, but the big ship shuddered, and started forward again across the sands, the two tors towering above her as she slid between them. And then they were past, and into a more open section of desert, though the towering spires still marched away from them in every direction.

"This place is awesome," Ricky said, staring at the route ahead of them. From their current height above the sands, the view was even more impressive. Charlie had to agree that the world they had come to was an amazing treat for the eyes.

"There," the captain said. He turned, and used a large hand to indicate the direction they were to go. "If you'll come with me, we can sit and talk over a good meal."

They followed him along the deck, and it was then that Charlie noticed that there were no other people anywhere to be seen. They moved along the superstructure, the only sound that of the huge rollers the ship moved upon crunching the sands beneath, and Charlie was struck then how lonely the place seemed.

"Is there a crew with you?" he asked impulsively, before he could stop his tongue.

Captain Berrick turned to smile at him. "A crew? Whatever for? The entire vessel is automated. I wouldn't be here, myself, if I didn't enjoy the travel." He laughed. "I'm the owner, as it happens to be."

They reached a hatchway, and went inside. The corridor within was tall and wide, not the sort of cramped quarters that Charlie would have expected aboard a ship.They reached the end and were shown into a small dining room, the center of which was occupied by a single long table. A variety of seats were placed along each side, with one seeming taller and offered for Chirka, and a peculiar one next to it that looked like a parrot's perch at table level, perhaps for Browbeat?

"You can find your places, I think," the captain said. And Charlie did feel that a certain seat at the captain's right hand as for him, while everyone else seemed to move automatically to a different seat.

They sat, and trays and bowls and plates of a sort began to appear before them. Quickly, the tabletop was covered with food, and pleasant aromas of all sorts assailed Charlie's nose.

"Please," the captain said, indicating the repast. "Help yourselves."

They did just that, passing around the trays and filling their plates. Charlie had no idea what the food was, but it smelled delicious, and he knew it couldn't harm him. Everyone seemed as suddenly hungry as he was, though they all knew that eating was not required here. Old habits die hard, it seemed.

"So," Captain Berrick said, after the meal had progressed a little. "That was a little risky, walking in the desert like that. You weren't worried about raiders?"

Charlie stopped, the peculiar silverware that amounted to a spoon here halfway to his mouth. "Raiders?"

The captain offered a frown then. "You're heading for Ulexium tor, correct?"

Charlie nodded. "Well, yes."

That seemed to reassure their host. "As far as I know, they are still having problems with Atackit tor. You know how those things go."

Charlie turned to look at Ragal, who simply offered a very human shrug.

The captain's eyes noted that reaction, and he looked uncertain then. "I looked you over carefully before stopping. You could have been anyone. But I could have been anyone, too."

Charlie shook his head. "We really don't know the situation here, at all."

Captain Berrick finally looked surprised. "Just arrived? That explains it. I--"

He broke off then as a sharp signal sounded in the room. Charlie jumped at the speed with which the captain leaped to his feet. The man raced to one side of the room, and touched the wall there. It immediately filled with an image. They were looking to the rear of their vessel, from atop the superstructure, it seemed. Far to their rear, another desert clipper was pulling around a tor and lining up in their tracks, to follow them.

The captain turned quickly, and Charlie was shocked to see a small pistol in his hand. "I guess I was wrong about you. Your friends are coming, even now."

Charlie raised his hands, and used his chin to motion at the other ship in the screen. "We don't know who that is. I told you, we just got here."

The captain frowned, but waved a hand. Charlie's seat came alive, wrapping strong arms around him and pinning him in place. The seats of the others did the same to them, eliciting sounds of shock and surprise. Charlie couldn't believe what was happening! His head was still free, and he turned now to look at Chirka. "I thought we couldn't be hurt here!"

The expression on the Kift's face was unreadable. But a grim sigh escaped her then. "We cannot. But I never said we could not be captured!"

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