Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

I Think This Place is Haunted, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 4

"There are rules in every reality here in the lower layer," Chirka said. "That is their purpose, to provide a world that performs in very specific ways. When you join one, you play by the rules. We cannot be hurt here, no. But we are caught up in a drama, if you will, and the parts are already written. If you decide to, we can simply leave right now and this will be over. But for the moment, this is the way this reality is playing out."

"Oh, I get it," Ricky said, fidgeting in the wraps his seat had bound him in. "Like a book, or a movie. The plot is written, and you can't change that. All you can do is close the book, or walk out of the theater, if you don't like the way it's going."


"What's a movie?" Browbeat asked. He was bound to his perch by much smaller and gentler strands, but seemed less than terribly upset about it.

Charlie couldn't help groaning at the sheer strangeness of what was happening. He turned back to Captain Berrick, who was watching them closely. "We're not your enemies. We just arrived in this reality. We have no idea who is after you."

The bearded man's face twitched, and he raised a hand. Just as suddenly as they had been captured, they were released. Charlie sat forward and stood up, distancing himself from the chair. The others also jumped to their feet and moved away from their seats. Browbeat took wing and danced back and forth in the air above them.

The captain held up his hands in a placating gesture. The pistol had disappeared. "I'm sorry. My first reaction was that you were there in the desert to get aboard before these others came."

Kippy put his hands on his hips and glared at the man. "What changed your mind?"

The bearded man managed a smile of sorts. "I have a good feeling for truth. I was pretty sure you were on the level, but I had to be sure."

Ricky narrowed his eyes. "That was a quick turnaround. Was it something we said?"

The captain turned to indicate Chirka. "When this one explained to you what was happening, it was clear to me that you were still learning. You could not possibly be part of a plot you don't even understand yet."

"We could have been acting," Adrian pointed out.

The captain looked sure of his decision. "My sense is very accurate. And I sensed the truth."

Horace leaned forward. "You're a power user?"

"Yes. My talent is for business. I know the truth of any deal while it's still in the making." The captain grinned. "Twenty-seven years in the business, and I have not been taken for a ride yet!"

Ragal waved a hand at the wall display, which still showed the other desert clipper pursuing them. "What about them?"

Captain Berrick's grin faded. "Privateers, most likely. Commissioned by the Lord Tursin of Atackit, no doubt. They have been attempting to cut off supplies to Ulexium tor."

"Can they catch us?" Casper asked.

"Not now. With the open desert at our bow, Scarpit is a match for any runner on the sands." He turned to look at the other vessel in the display. "They'll follow us to the narrows, where we will need to slow to pass. If they're reckless enough, they will gain on us there."

"What are these narrows?" Uncle Bob asked.

"A stretch bound on both sides by pinnacles of rock. We have to slow considerably to pass through them safely into the valley beyond. Our key to doing that without a confrontation now lies with staying as far ahead of the other vessel as possible."

Charlie gave a sigh, now that the immediate danger seemed to be over. "Anything we can do to help?"

Captain Berrick seemed to consider that. "If they catch us, they'll try to board us. Can you fight?"

Adrian raised a hand, and lightning snapped between his fingers. "Yes."

The shipmaster's eyes widened. "Power users?"

"We know a trick or two," Ricky admitted.

"We can probably help, yes," Charlie agreed. He turned to smile at Kip. "You okay?"

"Just annoyed," Kippy returned, casting a narrow glance at the captain. "But I'm the forgiving sort, thankfully."

Charlie had to smile at that. "The man is just protecting his ship."

Kippy sighed then, and nodded. "We'll see what we can do."

"I apologize again," Captain Berrick said. "You never can tell about the desert."

Charlie nodded. "So, what's the problem between this Ulexium tor, and the Atackit tor?"

"A simple rivalry, generations old. Both tors are well positioned to supply the lesser tors and the desert folk, but both think their businesses would be better without the other as competition."

"There's not enough business for both?" Adrian asked.

"There is, actually. And Ulexium has long been able to get along with that rivalry. It's been Atackit that has raised the stakes, by commissioning a fleet of privateers to sever supply lines from the port to Ulexium."

"Spaceport?" Charlie asked, surprised at the notion of star travel here.

Captain Berrick eyed him in surprise. "You jest."

"He's just asking," Kippy said, some of his annoyance returning.

The shipmaster gave a brief shake of his head. "The port on the coast of Gurah, is the one I speak of. Vessels from the northern continent cross the seas and arrive daily with supplies. Those supplies must be ported across the desert to the tors."

"No aircraft here?" Ricky asked.

The captain laughed. "Ships that fly? No. No one has come up with one of them yet."

Charlie looked around the room before settling his gaze on the captain again. "Your ship is solar powered, isn't it?'

"Yes. You saw the collector sails above. Scarpit generates more than enough power from sunlight for both mobility and defensive systems."

"What about at night?"

"The accumulators store enough energy during the day for operations in darkness."

"He means batteries," Charlie explained, at Kip's bewildered look.


"You have defensive weapons?" Rick asked. "I mean, other than the pistol you had earlier?"

The captain grinned through his beard "Certainly. Scarpit is equipped with dual catapults, front and rear."

Ricky blinked at that. "Catapults?"

Captain Berrick shook his head. "You really are new here! Any doubts I may have had are now laid to rest."

Uncle Bob stepped forward. "And there's no crew? You run everything yourself?"

"I do. Or, with Mertram's help, anyway."

At their apparent confusion, the captain heaved a great sigh. "Since we are friends again, why don't you accompany me to the bridge? I can show you, better than tell you."

Browbeat dropped down close to Charlie's left ear. "I trust him," Charlie heard, over the humming of the little flyer's wings. "He's good people, Charlie."

Charlie's own senses had been telling him that they were in no danger from the ship or its captain. This reality seemed a weird mix of advanced and primitive technologies, and Charlie understood that the contradictions he sensed here were deliberate. This was a constructed reality. Someone had set the rules, and then let things play out. Once that was thoroughly understood, things made a lot more sense.

He smiled. "I know I'd like to see the bridge."

"Me, too," Ricky admitted. He glanced back at the table, and the trays of steaming food there, and sighed. "We can eat another time."

Adrian came up next to his boyfriend and put an arm around him. He smiled at Charlie. "If my guy can sacrifice a banquet like this, then I'm with him. Let's go.".

Charlie turned to Chirka. "This is your show. What do you think?"

Tchk-tchk-tchk. "Actually, I think this is your show, Charlie. I am prepared to go along."

Charlie looked to Ragal, who simply smiled and nodded, and then turned back to face Captain Berrick. "After you, sir."

Mertram, it turned out, was a talking head. Literally. The bridge of Scarpit seemed also to be a mix of old and new ideas. There was a large, transparent sheet of something like glass, that allowed one to look out over the long forward deck of the craft. Being high up, they could see everything well, and Charlie immediately fastened his eyes on two large turrets, from which the snouts of sizable barrels of some sort protruded. These must be the catapults, but what kind they could be, he couldn't imagine.

Captain Berrick ran an orderly ship. Everything was clean and uncluttered, and looked to be in excellent working order. Various devices hummed happily, and twinkled with lights that suggested good health. A table in the center of the bridge was lit with what was surely a map of the desert they were crossing, with a myriad of tors represented, and their own course among them marked by a tiny, slowly moving model of Scarpit. If the dimensions if the map were any indication, The Tors was a very big place, indeed.

Before the forward-facing window stood a pedestal, at the top of which a head that looked to be made of bronze faced forward, its gem-like green eyes watching the course ahead. The head could have been a twin for the one the captain wore himself, even the beard etched so finely into metal that the resemblance was clear.

"This is Mertram, my first mate," the captain introduced. He laughed. "And my wheelman, navigator, and first engineer."

The head swiveled to face them, and the green facets of the eyes seemed to twinkle at them. "Good evening."

Charlie blinked at the device. This was clearly an artificial intelligence!

Ricky came up beside Charlie and nudged him with his elbow, to tell him he knew what the head was, as well.

"Mertram runs the ship, pretty much," Captain Berrick said proudly. "He's a copy of my own intellect, and knows as much about navigating the desert as I do. More, actually, as he has access to a multitude of data about the geography of this place that even I cannot remember."

"I try," the head said, and Charlie sensed a smile that the metal of its construction could not supply.

The captain's expression grew more serious. "How are we doing?" he asked the head. "Maintaining our lead?"

"Oh, easily, Captain. They're no faster than we are. I would say, actually, that they are going all out even to keep up."

Captain Berrick looked pleased. "Can you image them for me? Use the telescope? I'd like to have a better look at them."

"Right away."

The captain turned to a blank wall to one side just as colors flowed across it and solidified into an image.

It was as if they were standing atop the rear of the superstructure, gazing behind them. In the distance, beyond the stern of their own vessel, the other desert clipper was raising a low cloud of dust as it sped after them. It didn't look any closer than their first view of it, that was for sure. Charlie let his eye rove over the other vessel, noting differences from and similarities to Scarpit. For one thing, their pursuer looked to be the slightly smaller of the two craft, though the difference was probably not much. The solar sails above it, tilted at an angle to meet the rays of the blood-red sun, also seemed slightly smaller in area, in keeping with the other vessel's smaller size. For Charlie, less surface area meant less collected energy, which meant less power. Very likely, Mertram was correct in his assessment that the other craft was laboring to keep up with them.

"Let's have a look at those catapults," the captain said, leaning closer to the image to peer at it.

Like their own craft, their pursuer boasted two turrets up front. The image zoomed in now, and Charlie could see the snouts of two weapons like the ones their own ship boasted, pointed directly at them.

"Hah!" Captain Berrick looked pleased. "Twelve-inchers! We've got the range on them, surely."

Kippy smiled at that. "Twelve inchers? Oh, my!"

Charlie sighed, and gently prodded his boyfriend with his elbow. Not now!

Kippy grinned, and linked an arm around Charlie's, but said no more.

Adrian took note of the byplay, and smiled at Kip as he leaned closer to the captain. "Yours is bigger?"

Ricky cleared his throat loudly, and waved a hand at his boyfriend. Shhh!

But the captain seemed not to notice. "Hmm? Yes. Scarpit mounts eighteen-inchers. The other ship hasn't fired yet, because we're out of range. But we could hit them easily at this distance."

"What do you hit them with?" Ricky asked.

The captain turned to smile at them. "My armory's equipped with some of the finest granite available, lad!"

For a moment no one said anything. It was left to Horace to state the obvious. "You throw rocks at each other?"

The captain seemed surprised. "Certainly, sir. The granite balls Scarpit's catapults can fire weigh a good three hundred pounds. Fire one off at 1400 feet per second, and it delivers quite a blow!"

"Will that hole the other vessel?" Uncle Bob asked. "Your own hull looked pretty stout when we were coming up in the lift."

Captain Berrick laughed. "Why, no one aims at the hull! The catapults are for taking out the other vessel's sun sails! Knock them out and put them running on accumulators, and not only is their speed reduced considerably, but their own weapons will lose most of their range. It takes a hefty charge to fire a catapult each time."

"They're electric in nature?" Charlie asked.

"Yes. The impulse is imparted to the stone by an electromagnetically driven impeller. As long as one's barrels are true and their operator's mathematics halfway decent, the effect is considerable."

"So why don't you fire at them?" Kippy asked. "If you can hit them and they can't hit you, it seems a no-brainer."

The captain frowned at what was possibly an unfamiliar term. "Why, they haven't done anything yet. They're breaking no law taking the same path we are."

"You said they were probably a privateer," Horace reminded.

"Even if they are, it's not illegal until they act against us." The man shook his head. "We'll know when we get to the narrows and have to slow down. If they slow as we do, and maintain their distance, they are not after us. If they close, we'll know, and can open fire."

Uncle Bob smiled. "Or, you could just call them and ask what they intend."

The captain drew his head back. "Call them? How would I do that?"

Uncle Bob's eyes narrowed slightly. "Um, radio? Telephone?" He smiled. "Semaphore?"

Captain Berrick looked doubtful. "I don't know what you're referring to, I'm afraid. If they get within hailing distance, I won't need to talk to them, as their intentions will be clear."

Charlie tossed a quick glance at Rick to see what is friend was thinking, and was not surprised to see the boy's face mirroring the same look of speculation as his own. What sort of culture had huge ships riding on mammoth, grooved ball-bearings and driven by solar power, that could cross deserts, and which could defend themselves with electromagnetic cannons...but which had never heard of radio?

"The rules are as written," Chirka reminded then. "This is the way this reality works, Charlie."

There was a fluttery sound near Charlie's ear, and Browbeat dropped down beside him. "And this is one of the more orderly realities I've been to!"

"Have you been to many?" Kippy asked, plainly thinking the flyer's experience had to be limited if he thought this place was orderly!

"About a hundred thousand. Give or take. I stopped counting some time back."

Charlie had to laugh, amazed at the idea of countless realities out there, each designed by one or more minds to work under a set of very specific rules. The idea was fascinating, and the prospects limitless.

Casper, who had been listening quietly, moved closer to Mertram and looked up at him. "Hi. I'm Casper."

The head depressed, and the green eyes gazed down at him. "Good evening. I'm Mertram."

Casper watched the head a moment, and then smiled. "One of your feet itches."

The head managed to convey surprise. "How could you know?"

"I have a way with machines. Your back left foot itches you. It has for some time."

"What's that?" Captain Berrick asked, moving closer.

The head turned to face the Captain. "Casper was just saying that one of my motivators is sending disturbing signals. The one on the maintenance list? I reported it to you last week."

"Ah." The captain nodded. "It hasn't grown more serious, has it? We can ill-afford a breakdown at this point."

"It's no more serious. But it is just as disturbing."

Casper offered a winning smile. "I can fix it."

Charlie moved to stand beside his friend. "You know what's going on with this problem?"

Casper closed his eyes a moment. "Yes. I think so."

The captain waved a hand. "It wouldn't matter if he did. There's no way to reach the motivator while we're moving, anyway."

"Kippy could fly me down," Casper said, his eyes twinkling at Charlie's boyfriend. "It would just take a few minutes."

Kippy stared at the small alien. "Are you talking about one of those huge balls this ship rides on?"

"Uh huh. On the left side, all the way back."

"Port side, rear," The captain clarified, watching with interest.

Kippy glanced at Charlie, before allowing his eyes to go back to Casper's. "And you want me to fly you down, underneath the ship, while we're moving?"

Casper smiled now. "Sure. We can't get hurt here. Remember?"

Charlie tried not to smile. "How dangerous is this problem, Casper?"

The small alien grew serious then. "I think it's just a buildup of sand in the main operations enclosure. Um...I see...the seal has become defective, and the desert has gotten inside. That's not serious on its own. It doesn't affect the actual working of the motivator. It itches for Mertram because the sand coats the processors and make them run hot. There is also an unacceptable static charge building inside the enclosure due to the sand. The combination of excess heat and static charge creates junk bits in the data stream being sent along with the motivator's status. The danger lies in the static becoming so prevalent that it overcomes the ability of the data stream to self-manage its error-correction. At that point, the motivator will shut down under safety protocols to protect the equipment." He frowned then. "At the moment, the problem is a little too close to that threshold for comfort."

"And that would not be good," Captain Berrick decided. "That would slow our progress, and allow the other vessel to more easily catch up to us."

Everyone turned to look at Kippy, whose eyes widened at the sudden attention. "What?"

"Can you do it?" Charlie asked.

"You cannot be hurt," Chirka reminded. "And I'd be willing to bet that the experience would be thrilling, too!"

Kippy frowned. "That's what worries me!"

Casper turned to Charlie. "I'd need an extra set of hands. The access panel is too big for me to handle by myself."

Charlie nodded. "Kip, could you fly Casper and me down to the roller?"

Casper turned to look at Rick. "Maybe two extra sets of hands would be even better."

Charlie took that in stride. "Could you fly the three of us down to the roller?"

Kippy looked from one face to another. "I can do it, if you think it's safe."

The captain looked pleased. "We'll put a line on each of you, just in case. If there's a problem, we'll haul you up!"

Kippy smiled a little sourly at him. "Gee, thanks!" He turned to Casper. "What do we do?"

"Go out on deck, I guess. Then you fly us down."

"This way," the captain said, heading back to the doorway.

Their group moved along the left flank of the ship, and once again Charlie was impressed with the vessel's size. The view sternward was impressive, with the magnificent rock tors rising all around them, and the shine of the solar sails visible on the vessel pursuing them. The red sun above had moved appreciably towards the horizon now, and Charlie figured they only had several hours of daylight left. A thought occurred to him now, and he picked up his pace to catch up to Captain Berrick.

"How do you see to maneuver at night, Captain?"

The man cast a quick smile his way. "I don't. Mertram sees as well in the dark as he does during the day. Otherwise, we would be required to come to rest at each sundown."

Charlie frowned at that, but nodded and dropped back a bit. The idea of radar or thermal or some other form of imaging came to mind. Odd, that this culture might have such sensory gear, but no radio!

Ricky had also moved to catch up. "Weird, huh? To have sensing equipment, but no form of distance communication?"

Charlie nodded. "Part of the script, I guess. It's like one requirement of this place is that everything has to be done in person, first hand." He shrugged. "It must lend to the excitement, I guess."

They reached the rear quarter of the ship, and the captain went to the rail and looked over, and continued walking another twenty paces. "We're above the motivator in question."

Here by the railing, the sound of sand being ground beneath the roller below was clear. The massiveness of that steel ball came home then. To even be close to it while it was in motion would be dangerous!

Kippy came up next to him, and looked over the rail a moment. "I hope this is a good idea."

Casper looked up at him. "If we don't do this, that roller ball could stop in the middle of the night. It's pretty close to failing now!"

Captain Berrick had gone to an equipment locker fastened to the wall of the superstructure, and now he returned with four ropes in hand. "Tie these around yourselves. Just in case."

Charlie's eyes followed the lines back to the locker, and he saw four reels on sturdy mounts inside, each full of the line. That there were exactly enough of them for their group made him smile. This was certainly going by the script!

Chirka, standing beside him, reached up to pat Charlie's hand. "You'll get used to it."

Browbeat glided up to Charlie. "I'll go with you. You might need a hammer or something, and I can come back and get it!"

Charlie just nodded, accepting now the fact that things were going to happen, one way or another.

They fastened the lines around their waists, and Kippy lifted them into the air. Browbeat hummed along beside them, his gray eyes filled with delight at their progress. "Wow! And no wings!"

The ropes played out behind them as Kippy lifted them over the rail and dropped them slowly down the side of the vessel. The giant roller, at the end of its curved mounting arm, was a blur beneath them, partially hidden by the cloud of dust it raised in passing over the sandy landscape.

"Where?" Kippy asked Casper, as they neared the rolling behemoth.

"On the inside of the mounting arm, there," Casper pointed. "See that big flat panel? We have to open that."

Browbeat dropped more quickly towards the panel, examined it, and then rose back to meet them. "Looks like some kind of touch plates that have it closed. No tools needed to open it."

Charlie had already assumed something like that, or Captain Berrick would have told them about it. Kippy lowered them towards the panel, and Charlie could see then that it was hinged on one side. That probably meant nothing they could accidentally drop, anyway.

There was a noticeable amount of turbulence in the air now, and dust assailed their eyes. Charlie squinted, and found he could still see clearly enough. They arrived before the panel, which was even larger than it had first seemed. Beneath them, at the end of its giant mounting arm, the roller was a blur of motion, thirty feet across.

Browbeat hovered beside them, fighting against the turbulence. The flyer's eyes looked excited though, and Charlie was amazed to realize that Browbeat was having fun!

It was kind of exhilarating. Even the supposed knowledge that they couldn't be hurt here was no match for the seeming reality of the giant ball of steel rolling along beneath them. It appeared to the eye that if they slipped and fell somehow, they would be ground to a pulp beneath it!

"There," Casper said, pointing to the upper corner of the panel opposite the hinges. "And there," he went on, dropping his hand to point to the lower corner on the same side. "You and Rick touch those plates at the same time, Charlie."

Kippy grunted, and Charlie rose a little, while Ricky dropped a few feet so that he could reach the lower touch plate. They looked at each other, Ricky nodded, and they each touched the assigned panel. Over the rumble of the roller they heard a sigh, and the panel popped outward.

Charlie and Rick returned to their positions to either side of Kip.

Casper looked back at them. "Kip, can you use your power to pull that open?"

Kippy nodded, and the panel swung backwards, revealing an interior stuffed with a surprising amount of complex-looking equipment. Status lights blinked and winked in a variety of colors, and tiny screens crawled with enough data lines and sequencing dumps to gladden the heart of any mad scientist.

"Whoa," Ricky said, grinning. "Makes the inside of my computer at the house look simple!"

Casper laughed. "This is galactic-grade equipment here." He frowned then. "See how dirty everything is?"

Charlie looked closer. The interior of the box was coated with a layer of fine dust, definitely.

Casper turned to look at the door of the enclosure. "It has a molecular seal of some kind. It seems to not be working. Dust is getting inside and coating the sensitive electronics."

"What can we do about that?" Charlie asked.

Casper frowned. "Nothing now." He examined the interior of the enclosure carefully. "This needs to be cleaned out. But I think we'll have to shut it down to do it."

Kippy looked alarmed at that. "Won't that turn off the roller, or something?"

Casper turned to smile at him. "It will cancel its motive power, yes. But it won't just stop. The motivator will freewheel. But its lack of power will slow us down some." He turned to Browbeat. "Can you fly back up and tell the captain? Tell him I need to shut this unit down to clean it. It should only take a few minutes.. Ask him if it's okay/"

Browbeat nodded eagerly. "Gotcha!" He turned and sailed upwards.

Kippy looked after the flyer, smiling. "I like him. His exuberance rubs off a little."

Charlie nodded. "Maybe we should take our cue from that. Browbeat has been a lot of places, and he's still obviously in one piece." Charlie looked around at the incredible scenery passing by, the bloody sun now falling towards the horizon, and the massive ball spinning beneath them. It was thrilling!

Ricky poked Charlie's arm. "You couldn't pay to experience something like this in the real world, you know?"

Charlie nodded.

Browbeat returned quickly. "Captain Berrick said to do what you thought needed to be done. But he said if we shut this motivator down, it will reduce our speed by over 12 percent. He said the desert runner behind us will start to catch up pretty quickly. We'll only have a few minutes, at best.'

Charlie turned to Casper. "Can you do it?"

"I think so."

Ricky reached out to touch the little alien's shoulder. "How?"

Casper surveyed the enclosure again. "I'm going to cover the opening with an airtight field, and then slowly raise the air pressure inside to several atmospheres. Then I'll remove the field, and the overpressure will blow out. It will bring a lot of the dust with it. I can do this three or four times, and that should take care of it."

Kippy squinted at Casper. "You can do that? I didn't know you had talents like that."

Casper smiled. "You never asked me."

"How do we shut this thing down?" Ricky asked.

Casper turned back to the enclosure. "I can do that. I'll just replicate the impulse Mertram would send to shut the unit down for maintenance."

Charlie turned to look back at the vessel behind them. It was no closer, and might even have fallen back a little. It was hard to tell from their new position closer to the ground.

"Okay, let's do it."

Casper gave a little grunt. "Kip raise us up some, or we'll all get a faceful of dust when I drop the air field."

Their entire group moved upwards past the top of the open enclosure, and Browbeat rose with them.

"Initiating shutdown," Casper said.

Charlie craned his neck to the side and peered down into the enclosure. The rows of lights within all started flashing in sequence, then shut off in order straight down the line, until the interior of the enclosure was dark. Beneath them, the steady hum of the motivator ceased, leaving just the frictional sound it made rolling lifelessly over the sands.

"Creating the cover field," Casper said, grimacing. "There. Raising the air pressure inside to three atmospheres."

They couldn't see anything happening, but the concentration on Casper's face was clear. The little alien released a puff of breath then, and turned to look at them. "Watch your eyes. I'm going to release the field."

They brought their hands up as shields, but Charlie peered between his fingers to watch. He couldn't see the field when active, so couldn't see it disappear. But the enclosure beneath them suddenly exhaled a large puff of air, carrying an amazing amount of dust and grit with it.

"A couple more times, I think, and that should do it," Casper said.

Kippy turned to look at Charlie. "I think Adrian's calling to us. We can't hear him over the noise of the roller!"

Browbeat, hovering next to Charlie, zipped closer. "I'll go and see!" And then he was gone, up the towering steel side of Scarpit.

Casper repeated the cycle of closing off the enclosure holding the guiding electronics of the huge roller beneath them, increased the air pressure inside, and then released it again. Another great cloud of dust billowed outward, though Charlie was certain there was less of it this time.

"Once more!" Casper called.

Browbeat returned then, flying straight up to Charlie and Kip. "Adrian says the other ship is gaining on us! Captain Berrick says they'll be within gun range any second!"

Ricky grunted. "Well, now we know if they're friendly or not!"

Charlie nodded, and patted Casper's shoulder. "We should finish up now."

"Right!" Once again, the enclosure below them belched out a breath of dust, but this one was scarcely a shadow of the first one. "I think that'll do it for now," Casper said. "But it needs a good cleaning and a new seal soon, or it will just get filthy again."

"I'm sure the captain will take care of it," Charlie said. "Can you restart it now, so that the roller works again?"

"We should close it first. If you and Rick can grab that door and close it - Kip, will you move them to the right places?"

The entire group dropped back down in front of the enclosure. Charlie peered inside, and really could understand then how dirty the interior had been before. Everything looked shiny and bright and new again. He felt a gentle force move him then, and he and Ricky drifted back to the big door of the enclosure to where they could grab the corners and close it. Kippy maneuvered them around until the door closed, and Charlie and Rick each pressed their hands against the corner sealing plates.

And then it was done.

"Shall I take us back up to the deck?" Kippy asked.

"Wait just a minute, Kip." Casper closed his eyes and concentrated. "I want to restart it first."

Charlie turned to look back along their path, and was startled to see how much closer the other vessel had come. "I think you'd better hurry," he said to Casper. The little alien nodded, and they could see him concentrating.

Kippy brought them all closer together. "That other ship is a lot closer now!"

Charlie nodded, squinting and shielding his eyes from the evening sun as he stared back at the other vessel. "I just hope once this thing's working, we can pull ahead of them again."

He'd no sooner said that when he saw a tiny flash at the fore of the other vessel. He blinked in surprise, just as a sound like an enormous, angry swarm of bees assailed his ears. Part of the flank of the rocky tor alongside them exploded just after they had passed it, pelting the side of the ship, the roller support, and them with dust and debris.

"Casper!" Charlie urged, waving the dust away from his eyes. He felt the hair stand up on the nape of his neck, understanding then that they had become a target for those on the other ship!

"Almost there!"

Another flash at the front of the other ship caught Charlie's eye, and he pulled Kippy closer and braced them as the sand and rock that had just passed beneath their roller fountained upward, again showering them with debris and dust.

Charlie waved away the dust before his eyes and was just about to urge Casper to more speed when an enormous flash reached them from above, shining down the side of the vessel and illuminating the growing shadows on the ground beneath. An incredible crack of thunder reverberated from the rocky tors around them, and Charlie turned to see the mother of all lightning bolts snap out and strike the vessel behind them. The front of the pursuing ship lit up so brightly that Charlie had to close his eyes, seeing the intense flash even through his eyelids. A mild tingling sensation ran over his skin, and the air around them vibrated in agitation.

It was over as quickly as it had started. Charlie opened his eyes, blinked away the tears, and turned to look back behind them.

The other ship had stopped dead, looking to have rolled uncontrollably a moment before sluing to one side and impacting a low rock ridge. Even as he watched, the other vessel receded, until they rounded a shoulder of the tor they were passing, and it disappeared altogether.

Beside Charlie, Ricky broke out in laughter. "I know the sound of my guy getting pissed off when I hear it!"

"Adrian," Kippy said, smiling. "He nuked them!"

"Probably blew every fuse on that old tub," Ricky said, grinning. "Whoo-hoo!"

Charlie felt a vibration in the air then, and a new sound, as the roller beneath them stopped freewheeling and again began applying power to the ground, grinding the sand and rock as it gained traction again.

"All done," Casper said, smiling at Charlie. "Sorry it took so long. This is a big piece of equipment, and you don't just flip a switch to get it going."

Charlie smiled, and dropped a hand on his friend's shoulder. "You did a great job. Thank you."

Casper beamed, and Kippy bent forward and gave him a little hug; and then they were moving up the side of the ship to the deck. Browbeat moved alongside Charlie, and the flyer seemed almost excessively exuberant. moving side-to-side in apparent glee. "You fellows sure know how to have fun!"

Kippy looked askance at the flyer as they touched down on the deck. "That was fun for you?"

"Well...sure! That's why you visit places like this, to have fun!"

The others were there to meet them. Ricky went straight to his boyfriend and embraced him, and the joy in Adrian's eyes at seeing his guy safe and sound made Charlie smile. He turned to Chirka then, who also seemed happy at the way things had turned out, and nodded to her. "I see what you mean. Even knowing we can't be hurt here doesn't change the thrill of it all. In the press of the moment when things are happening, it's as real as it gets."

The Kift took his hand and squeezed it. "It's all real, Charlie. The only thing that is not real here is death. You cannot be injured, and you cannot die. But you can be scared, and thrilled, and mystified, and amazed. Those emotions sometimes surround the death experience, and for all intents and purposes, your body and mind will react to events here just as intensely as if they could, indeed, be fatal."

Ragal came up beside Charlie. "You saw the lightning bolt that Adrian used?"

"Uh huh. Quite a beast, even for Adrian."

The tall alien frowned. "It was more than he should have been able to apply across such a distance, Charlie. It was as if his power was somehow enhanced here."

Charlie felt surprise at that. "Is that possible?"

Ragal smiled. "Charlie, quite literally anything is possible here. But if power users here are enhanced, we should be careful in dealing with any we might meet."

Charlie turned to Kip. "Did you find moving us down to the roller any easier than usual?"

His boyfriend's face screwed up in thought. "Now that you mention it, it did seem pretty effortless for me."

Casper looked up at him. "I felt the same thing. I have never had such a strong rapport with any machine I have not previously met."

Charlie closed his eyes a moment, and felt around inside his head at his own repertoire of gifts. They did seem unusually potent and ready for action. He opened his eyes. "Interesting."

"We should assume that all gifts here are somehow enhanced," Ragal said. "We may even see gifts that have heretofore been nascent suddenly becoming active here."

Horace, standing with Uncle Bob and listening, raised a hand for Charlie's attention. "I think that's right. I feel some...odd things within myself, even now."

Uncle Bob clapped him on the shoulder fondly. "Odder than usual?"

Horace laughed. "Well..."

But Ricky's uncle nodded then. "I feel a little strange, myself."

Adrian, leaning happily up against Ricky, sighed. "It runs in the family."

Ricky laughed and threw an arm around his boyfriend and hugged him. "Look who's talking, Johnny Thunder!"

Charlie looked around at his friends, and smiled. "This could be fun."

"Didn't I tell you!" Browbeat said, tittering happily.

"It's all in how you approach these things," Captain Berrick said. "I have stayed in this reality a very long time because it evolves constantly and keeps offering new surprises." He looked pleased at the way things had turned out. "And I keep meeting interesting new people here!"

Charlie turned and waved a hand back the way they had come. "What about that other ship?"

Captain Berrick offered an indifferent frown. "They will be incapacitated, but not for long. The systems will reset, and they will be on their way again. It's possible they will arrive at Ulexium tor just hours after we do."

Adrian looked surprised. "That was a pretty good wallop I gave them."

The captain smiled. "During dust storm season here, static discharges can become quite violent. Desert runners are built with this in mind." He did give an appreciative nod of his head then. "But that bolt you handed them was more significant than any I have ever seen generated naturally."

"It was a corker!" Casper said, laughing. "It made my hair stand up!"

Charlie laughed along with the others. One thing Casper did not have, was hair.

Captain Berrick leaned towards them smiling."There's still that dinner I had prepared. I can make it hot and ready in an instant."

Ricky patted his stomach. "I could do that!"

Charlie nodded. "Captain, when will we be reaching this Ulexium tor?"

"I'd say by late afternoon tomorrow, providing we are not waylaid again."

"Do you think now that other vessel was a privateer, out to stop you from delivering your cargo to Ulexium?"

"It's still the best possibility."

Kippy squinted at the man. "Is there another possibility?"

Captain Berrick offered a gentle sigh. "Oh, yes. It's quite possible they were after you. All of you, I mean."

That got everyone's attention. "How would they even know we're here?" Horace asked.

Tchk-tchk-tchk! Chirka laughed, and pointed at Adrian. "How could they not!"

Charlie grinned along with the others, but Horace waved a hand then. "I'm serious. Is it possible the antagah has learned we have inquired about them?"

"Definitely," the Kift replied. "I told you they would know the first time you asked anyone about them. But they probably have not become interested in you just yet, or we would feel that, the same way."

"How?" Kippy asked.

The Kift watched him silently a moment before answering. She looked around, studying each face. "Do any of you feel a strange feeling of being watched?"

Ricky made a derisive sound. "You're not serious, are you?"

"I am. But it will not be that someone is actually watching you. You will just get a sensation that someone is somehow...paying attention to you."

Charlie stared at the Kift a moment, and then closed his eyes, searching inwardly. Was someone interested in them? He did a silent, internal prowl around the perimeter of his defensive barriers, and came back to where he had started. No one was...wait.

Briefly, like the light from a lighthouse washing over a ship at sea, he felt it. Not interest, not really. Not even attention. It was a small thing, that came and went at uneven intervals. He focused on it, and finally understood what it was. Awareness. Someone was aware of them, if not actively paying attention to them.

"I feel it," he said then, opening his eyes.

"So do I," Kippy agreed. "But it's just a sort of knowledge that we exist, and not much more. I don't sense that anyone is pursuing us. So that other vessel wasn't them chasing after us."

"Yet," Adrian added. "I do feel they know about us, though."

Chirka nodded. "If I am not the only one to feel it, then it's definite. The antagah knows we have asked about them."

"They don't seem too upset about it," Uncle Bob put in. "I've had stronger looks from people passing by me on the road, driving the other way."

"We are not on the road," Chirka countered. "We are in the lower level. The more we inquire about the antagah, the more that collective will become aware that we are searching for information about them, until at some point we suddenly become the center of their attention. And then we will have to watch for them to approach us."

"They can do that here?" Casper asked.

"Yes. Just as we entered this place, so can they. Should they approach us in this reality, it will be in the form of another character in the drama transpiring here. My own experience tells me they will choose the form of an enemy."

"Great," Ricky said, nodding. "Will we feel them coming?"

"We will, to a point. But until they address us directly, they will only appear to us indirectly. So, it will be up to us not to let them get close without revealing themselves."

"And how do we do that?" Charlie asked

The Kift smiled at them. "Perhaps information best shared at a meal?"

Captain Berrick laughed. "That's the spirit! Everything seems better over dinner!" But then he looked more closely at them. "Is it true you have an antagah interested in you?"

"Not just yet, it seems," Charlie told him. "But at some point, we will."

The captain rubbed his hands together. "That sounds like a capital adventure!"

Browbeat, hovering nearby, tittered loudly. "I knew these guys would be fun!"

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