Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

I Think This Place is Haunted, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 5

It was late afternoon of the next day when Ulexium tor came into sight on the far horizon. Of their pursuer there had been no further sign, nor of any other travelers in the desert. But as they neared the position of one of the two major tors in this desert, they did begin to spy some foot traffic, small conveyance traffic, and the occasional desert runner - though none larger than a small schooner would be back on earth. These small runners had single-story cabins on their decks, in lieu of the taller superstructure common on the grander vessels of the desert. The smaller vessels also seemed to be unarmed, perhaps there being no need for it, as they transported nothing in any quantity that would alarm Atackit tor?

"Mostly, that's it," Captain Berrick agreed, when Charlie asked him about it. "There's the fact that Ulexium tor has its own police force, too, which keeps a weather eye on the lands around their domain. It's quite safe to travel the desert here. Privateers operate well away from Ulexium and her big catapults."

Ricky, standing on the bridge with them, looked up at that. "The tor is armed?"

Captain Berrick laughed at that. "Does a dust dancer have fleas? The catapults of Ulexium are the biggest in the world, at thirty inches. They can fire a 700-pound granite ball to a range of sixteen miles. Only a fool would want to get hit with one of them!"

Ricky gave a low whistle of appreciation, and smiled at Charlie. "I have to see these!"

"We are being observed by telescope from the tor even now, certainly. But they know Scarpit well there, and will welcome us and our cargo when we arrive."

Charlie nodded, looking at the tiny dot on the horizon that was their destination. "How long will that be?"

Mertram turned his head to look at them. "We are still a half-hour away, as yet."

Charlie nodded. Some of the tors they were passing even now were occupied, their sides hung with walkways and marked by the shiny openings of doors and windows looking out. The closer they got to Ulexium, the more common the sight had become, and now Charlie realized that they were moving through a city of sorts, though one composed of natural rocky tors that had been hollowed out and occupied, rather than skyscrapers built from the ground up. Ulexium tor was not so much a single spire of rock as an urban cluster of them, linked together by economic need.

Yet as they neared their goal it did seem to be becoming obvious that Ulexium tor itself was a major example of its kind. The tor eventually detached itself from the horizon and became distinct to the eye, allowing a more thorough appraisal. It was taller and far larger than any of the surrounding tors, actually composed of two considerable spires reaching skyward from a single immense mount of granite. The captain had Mertram magnify the tor and place its image on the viewing wall next to them, and everyone gathered around to inspect their destination.

"Wow," Adrian said, the first to speak, and looking impressed at what he saw. "That's a for-sure castle, isn't it?"

The two spires towered a good thousand feet into the air, and each was covered with the shiny panels of windows, and hung everywhere - even at dizzying altitudes - with walkways of every sort. The higher walks were enclosed in latticed cages, perhaps to keep the winds at that altitude from scouring them clean of foot traffic. The considerable span between the two spires was occupied by a structure that had every indication of being a fortress, with multiple levels lined with windows, a series of towers around the top, and large ports from which the barrels of electromagnetic catapults protruded.

There was also a fair wall around the base of the tor, which looked to be composed of stone blocks, and which was surely as tall as the topmost masts of Captain Berrick's clipper ship. Ulexium tor looked like a place that meant business, and Charlie was certain now that coming here would be the same as coming to the center of life in this dry and dusty place.

"Is Atackit tor this impressive?" he asked the captain, as the pair of them stared at the image.

The bearded man laughed. "It's not. Ulexium is the major power here, and Atackit the upstart. Only the considerable distance between the two have kept things from getting out of hand. Atackit is not without resources, but I would say that were the two forces closer together and Ulexium able to properly bring its might to bear on Atackit, that the result for the Lord Tursin's tor would not be good."

Kippy gave a faint snort. "There are Lords here? Sounds kind of feudal to me."

The captain looked surprised. "I suppose it's similar, in some respects. Lord Ulren of Ulexium is also the Baron Ulren, and his power over this tor is absolute, just as Tursin holds complete sway over Atackit."

Charlie smiled then at the way his boyfriend's lip curled at that. Kip very much disliked bullies!

"Next you'll be telling me slavery is legal here!" He said, sounding indignant at the idea.

Captain Berrick seemed surprised at that. "Oh, no. All are free here. The only requirement of a freeperson is that they work to support themselves. Otherwise, they are able to come and go and do as they please within the limits of the law." A smile showed through his beard. "The people of Ulexium tor are quite happy with the arrangement, let me tell you."

"What support is needed?" Ricky asked curiously. "You don't need to eat here - even to sleep. What do they have to do to support themselves in a place like this?"

The captain gave a patient sigh. "All must support the vision of this world. They must fit in. Just as in a real world, there are jobs to be done and duties to be performed. In order for a reality to seem natural, there must be barkeeps in the bars, cargo haulers in the warehouses, innkeepers in the inns, and people in charge of it all. All that participate here must find a position they enjoy filling, so that all are happy with the flow of the world. It would be quite an unnatural place if everyone just stood around, don't you think?"

Ricky looked impressed. "I get it. Everyone that's here wants to be here."

Captain Berrick smiled. "You would be surprised how many people wish to continue doing in death, the things that they enjoyed doing in life. Or even the things they didn't particularly enjoy. It makes all the difference when you do not have to do something, but do it by choice, and with the full knowledge that you can leave at any time."

Kippy looked mollified at that statement. "Well, I guess it's okay, then." He visibly brightened. "Are we going inside the wall?"

"Yes. In the next few minutes, a police escort cutter will come alongside and escort us to the dock."

And that happened. Hardly were the words out of the man's mouth than Mertram was pointing out the dust plume of a fair-sized runner approaching them from the side. It quickly resolved into a police cutter, a runner much larger than the schooner-variety they had been seeing since earlier in the day, though still quite smaller than Scarpit. But the police cutter bristled with small catapult ports, and two larger weapons poked forth from small turrets on the foredeck. The vessel was perhaps half the size of Captain Berrick's ship, but looked as if it could put on a real show of toughness if the need arose.

The cutter turned to parallel their course, and slowly drew nearer to their side. Captain Berrick opened a side door of the bridge and stepped out onto the wing there, and lifted a bullhorn from a mount on the wall just as a man aboard the other vessel did the same.

"Hello, Scarpit!"

Captain Berrick laughed, and pulled the horn to his lips. "Is that you, Dunnar, you old desert rat?"

"The same!"

Charlie squinted across the gap between vessels, and was able to make out a man of the captain's race standing at the rail of the cutter. He didn't know why, but that surprised him, and he turned directly to Browbeat, who had alit on the corner of Mertram's pedestal. "Is this a reality of the captain's people?"

The flyer's golden eyes looked surprised. "You didn't know?"

Charlie frowned at that. He hadn't really known what to expect here. The library had been filled with members of a multitude of species, and somehow he had expected that that diversity would extend to every place they visited. "Um...I guess not. His people will be the only ones we'll meet here?"

The flyer tittered merrily at the idea. "Oh, my, but no! Captain Berrick's people, the Alsaran, will be in the majority here, because this place is one of their realities. But there will be many other visitors here, just as we are visitors here. Especially at a place like Ulexium tor, you will see many different species."

Kippy frowned at him. "Is there some problem?"

"No. I just didn't know what to expect. It just didn't occur to me that the captain was at home here, is all."

"It's an open reality," Chirka explained. "Anyone and everyone is welcome." The little Kift laughed. "It makes the place much more interesting, to their way of thinking."

Charlie nodded. "To mine, too. I just want to know what to expect should the antagah eventually come at us here."

Chirka patted his hand. "It is too early to be worrying of that yet. Wait until you know you have their attention before sharpening your wariness." She smiled. "Otherwise, you won't have as much fun!"

"I thought you were studying these places," Adrian said to the Kift. "Are you saying you come here for fun, too?"

Chirka looked as if the idea delighted her. "Of course! You've seen already how thrilling these places can be. I originally developed my technology purely to study the lower level, but I am not at all immune to the allure of these realities. I enjoy my studies as much for the adventure they provide as for the furthering of the science involved."

Charlie immediately likened that to Pacha's ideas on xenoarchaeology. His primary occupation was the study of vanished civilizations, but Charlie knew well that the Kift also loved the adventures involved in the hunt! He smiled at the idea that the Kift, as scholarly a people as they seemed, had a hidden streak for adventuring that was just as strong as in humans.

"Why are you smiling so?" Chirka asked, eyeing him now.

Charlie laughed, and shared his thoughts with her.

Tchk-tchk-tchl! "Oh, we are caught! It's true, I think, that the patina of refinement our culture shows to the universe hides a rather wild bent for excitement!"

Charlie suddenly started paying attention to the captain's conversation again when a certain question blared forth from the cutter.

"Who are those with you?" Dunnar called across the gap between ships.

Captain Berrick coughed out a laugh. "Friends! I will vouch for them, Dunnar."

"Good enough for me," the other called. He waved a hand at them. "Follow me to the gate, and then drop your sails. And after you have been to the cargo office, please join me tonight at The Dirty Whisker for a drink!"

"I'll be there!" the captain called back.

The other captain waved at them again, and then turned and went back inside his bridge.

"Friend of yours?" Ricky asked Captain Berrick, smiling.

"Long ago, back in life," the bearded man returned, a twinkle of humor in his eyes. "I was entering port here one day, and there he was, captaining a cutter, looking just as he had back in life. It's a small universe!"

"It is, indeed," Horace said, nodding. The man turned to Charlie then. "Um...Bob and I have a discovery to share." The low voice in which the man spoke suggested a confidence.

Captain Berrick had turned and was in discussion now with Mertram. Charlie took Horace by the arm and ushered him back to where Uncle Bob stood, waiting.

"What's up?"

Horace looked at Bob. "Maybe you should just show him?"

Uncle Bob nodded, and held up his hand, fingers open, palm up. "Watch."

Charlie stared at the man's hand, expecting just about anything. But not what happened.

A dove suddenly appeared there, perched upon Bob's fingers. It cooed, and looked around, appearing just as startled to be where it was now as Charlie was to see it.

Charlie stared at the bird, and then smiled. "That's pretty good. You didn't close your hand, or anything."

Uncle Bob nodded, dipped his chin at the bird, and it promptly vanished again.

Ricky, who had turned to look at them as they passed, saw everything, and now came over to grin at his Uncle. "That was awesome, Unk!"

Bob nodded. "Watch this."

He stared at his vacant palm, and as they watched, a small flame ignited there, and burned yellowishly about an inch above the skin. Uncle Bob took his hand and moved it rapidly about in the air, but the flame stayed put in his palm, and didn't so much as waver. "And now..."

He held the flame up, and then slowly dropped his palm. The flame remained, suspended in the air, a tiny glowing ember surrounded by light. Bob waved a hand at it, and the fire began to move, first in a simple circle, and then in a spiral, and then through a startlingly complex series of maneuvers that had Charlie's eyebrows topped out with wonder. The show went on for a full minute before Uncle Bob placed his hand beneath the flame once more, and it settled to hover just above his palm. And then the man held the hand up before his face and blew on the flame, and it went out.

Captain Berrick had turned, apparently at Mertram's prompt, to see what was happening behind his back, and his eyes widened as Uncle Bob's flame went out. "Why, sir! You're a wizard!"

Uncle Bob nodded. "So it would seem."

Charlie got it then. "Those weren't tricks?"

"No. But I'm not at all sure how I did them."

Captain Berrick marched over to them, smiling. "It's an honor to have a wizard aboard my vessel!" He suddenly stopped then, his smile fading to a frown. "Um...providing you're not a dark wizard, that is."

"I don't think so," Uncle Bob said, smiling.

The captain's own smile returned. "Of course not! What was I thinking?" He looked around from Charlie to Kip, and then all the others. "Not in this company, surely!"

Chirka put out a hand and touched the captain's sleeve. "Magic is a reality here?"

"Of course! The Baron Ulren is quite a powerful wizard. So is that cad, Lord Tursin of Atackit. He claims he is a white wizard, but more than a few have said otherwise!"

Chirka squeezed her eyes shut a moment, and then opened them to fix her gaze upon Uncle Bob. "Tell have some knowledge of illusion as entertainment where you're from?"

Ricky laughed at that. "That's putting it mildly! My uncle is a crackerjack magician!"

The Kift scratched the side of her head. "Then here, you are a wizard."

Ricky's jaw dropped. "You mean a real one?"

"Yes. If magic is enabled here, any with knowledge of it or skills with it, can use it."

Uncle Bob suddenly grinned. "Tell me more."

Horace held up his hands. "Just a second!"

Bob Travers turned to his friend and suddenly looked contrite. "Oh, sorry, man. I was getting ahead of myself!"

Horace smiled at him. "I would be enthused about making flames dance, too!" He turned to Charlie. "But...I have something to show you, as well."

"You're not a magician now, too, are you?" Charlie asked.

" Watch." Horace closed his eyes, and held out a hand to one side. For a moment nothing happened; and then there was a spark, a flash of light, and a whirling dervish of color appeared just beyond Horace's extended fingers. That swirl of color quickly grew in size, until it was taller than Horace, and then semi-solidified into an image of a humanish form made of multi-colored light.

But...maybe not so human, after all, Charlie realized. The figure had the form of a biped, but was even taller than Ragal, and broader even than Charlie remembered their friend Kontus being. It much more resembled the Bigfoot of legend, or perhaps a Yeti spirited away from the Himalayas. Whatever its origin, it now raised a hand and pointed at Horace. "Command."

Horace sighed. "Walk forward five paces, turn, and retrace your steps."

The creature of light did as asked, and returned to its place beside Horace. "Command."

But instead of asking something else, Horace waved his fingers, and the thing faded and was gone.

Charlie turned to Kip. "What did you sense?"

His boyfriend frowned. "It wasn't alive. Not like us, anyway."

Charlie smiled thinly at that. "Not that we're alive here, really."

"You know what I mean." Kippy rubbed at his jaw, and then smiled sunnily at Horace. "You made it! You made it out of the stuff this place is made of. This reality."

Horace grinned. "I knew you'd figure it out."

Chirka moved closer to Horace and stared up at him. "You have the power to mold this reality." It was a statement, not a question.

The man nodded. "In a way. It didn't have to be manlike - the form I created. I could have just as easily created a kitchen table, a barn roof, or a copy of my Buick wagon."

Chirka turned to look eagerly at Charlie. "He possesses the same quantum creative power my precipitator uses to place us here." She waved a hand at the bridge of the ship." And the same power used to create these realities."

"Shh!" Captain Berrick went to the weather door leading out to the bridge wing and closed it. "This is something you must keep to yourselves!"

Horace held up a hand. "Relax. I'm not going to be creating any realities. I think this stems from my ability to communicate with natural spirits like Gretchen. What I feel this talent has become here is an ability to...well, to amend things." He waved a hand around the bridge. "I can't create a reality. I can just, um, add things to one that exists."

Captain Berrick settled back onto his heels and sighed mightily. "That is still worrisome." He frowned. "This is Ulren's reality. He is Baron and Lord of the tors. Were he to find out you have the power to alter his creation, he would not be happy."

"I thought anyone on the lower layer could create a reality," Charlie said.

"Anyone can," the captain acknowledged. "But others cannot normally change what they have created. They must enter and live by the rules in place." He frowned at Horace. " I don't know how Ulren would react to knowing you could actually make changes to what he has created."

Ricky shrugged. "What could he do to us?"

The captain turned to look pointedly at Rick. "He could expel you from this place." But then the man suddenly looked doubtful. "Or not." And then he grinned. "That would be unprecedented, and people wouldn't like it. It might make them take a dim view of Ulren and his reality here."

"If this is Ulren's place, how did this other guy get here?" Adrian asked. "Um, this Tursin, at the other tor?"

The captain grunted. "Conflict is permissible here, as you have already seen. Lord Tursin of Atackit has challenged Ulren's vision of the tors, but only as to who is premier in trading. He cannot actually wrest control of this place from Ulren. Ulren has allowed this conflict out of fairness to the rules, and because it adds flavor and competition to life here. It adds fun. It is a game of dominance between himself and Tursin, one that Ulren could certainly win. But he allows it to go on because he enjoys it. And because Tursin, like any participant in a created reality, only has the power to alter it by action, which is how the reality is designed, anyway." He pointed at Horace. "Your power to physically add to a reality would seem to be unknown before now. At least, I have not heard of it before. But...upon consideration... it is possible that Ulren - if it does not alarm him first - will find it even more fun than the simple aspirations to power that Tursin makes here."

The captain blinked, nodded to himself, and looked delighted then. "Two wizards I have aboard my ship!" And then he turned to smile at Adrian. "And perhaps more!"

"Are all power users here viewed as wizards?" Kippy asked.

"Not at all. It certainly depends on the ability." Captain Berrick laughed, and pointed to Adrian. "This fellow's command of lightning would surely impress enough to qualify!" But then he looked at Charlie, and then Kip, and then his eyes slowly circled those around him. "As perhaps would you all. As I said, I have my own power, to determine if a business deal is true. That extends to my judgment of others, and I find nothing but fairness in all of you. You are no threat to this reality, I am sure. So, what I have learned will remain with me. I only ask you to take care in what talents you choose to express in public. You do not wish to be labeled as dark wizards in Ulren's domain."

Ricky grunted. "Again, what could anyone do to us?"

Captain Berrick smiled. "You could be challenged to a duel."

Charlie's eyebrows went up with everyone else's who had them. "What sort of duel?"

"Magic against magic. And in a public place."

Charlie shook his head. "But we can't be harmed here."

"No, but you can be marked, and unfairly, too. Perception counts for much here. Duels must be won or lost. The loser is usually considered the dark wizard, as good is expected to prevail."

"Who thought that one up!" Kippy asked scornfully. "The bad guys win way more than they should!"

"And who says we would lose?" Adrian said, grinning. "We know a few things, too!"

"This is a complex society," the captain pressed. "All I am saying is that it is best if you do not display your powers too openly for now."

Charlie nodded. "Hear that, everyone? Don't be tempted to use your powers, okay? Save them for if we really need them."

"Works for me," Rick said. "Keeps surprise on our side, too."

Charlie closed his eyes, feeling pressed for clarity. This was a complicated place, and they were only just seeing how it worked. They could always leave, and try another reality. but...he kind of liked this one. It was fascinating, and they hadn't even tested the water yet for knowledge about the antagah...

He opened his eyes and turned to Ragal. The tall alien smiled, seeming to have anticipated Charlie's attention. "You've been very quiet," Charlie said. "What's your opinion on all of this?"

"I am still forming one. Despite having been to the lower layer before, I never visited this particular reality. All realities here are different, even the ones that seem familiar. So far, I think we're doing very well. But my opinion of this place cannot be fully formed until I see how power users fare here. The fact already that our powers here seem heightened, and even changed, from what we knew back in the real is intriguing. But it does not mean there are no limitations we have yet to encounter."

Charlie smiled at that. "Intriguing, huh?" He turned to Casper. "And you?"

The small alien lit up happily. "I'm having a lot of fun!"

Charlie laughed at that. He heard the hum of wings, and turned then to find Browbeat hovering nearby. "I knew you guys would be great to travel with!" the flyer said happily. "You're too serious about this, Charlie. These places are designed to be enjoyed, even the dangerous ones. This place is a mystery and an adventure, all rolled into one. You should relax and just enjoy it!"

Kippy put a hand on Charlie's arm. "He has a point. It sounds like good advice."

"It probably is," Charlie acknowledged. "It's just taking me a while." He smiled. "It's a different sort of job than any that Third planet Inquiries has handled before. And...I don't want to lose sight of why we're here. To find out more about the antagah and what it wants.'

Captain Berrick interrupted them then. "We're approaching the wall. You don't want to miss this!"

They all moved forward to watch through the forward window of the bridge. The wall around Ulexium tor loomed before them now, while the two massive spires towered into the sky above them. Charlie had to take a breath of wonder at the sight. Nothing he had ever seen before could top his current view for sheer size!

Kippy leaned up against him. "Amazing, isn't it?"

"Yes." Charlie nodded, and put an arm around his boyfriend. "Happy Halloween!"

Kippy chuckled. "Oh, we aren't even there yet!"

"I know. But imagine a bunch of bats circling this place, and it would look pretty creepy, huh?"

Kippy leaned closer to the window and stared up at the spires. "It doesn't have enough of that scary look of evil to be a Halloween castle. It looks more like some place that King Arthur would arrive at on a quest, or something."

Charlie reevaluated the fortress between the spires, and smiled. "Maybe. So no monsters, just a few dark knights?"

"I could go for that!" Ricky whispered, from their side. He and Adrian were also standing together, looking up at the spires. "I wonder if Mordred has an office here?'

They all laughed at the idea.

"It's even better inside," the captain told them. "Just you wait and see."

"Looks like a place where wings will come in handy!" Browbeat decided, humming happily. "I wonder if I'll see any of my people here? They'd love this!"

The captain gave a series of commands to Mertram, and Charlie was surprised when the roof of the bridge turned transparent above their heads, allowing them to watch as Scarpit's majestic solar sails slowly folded into compact bundles and retracted into housings on their masts. The process only took a couple of minutes, and by the time the vessel had pulled up to the massive gate in the perimeter wall guarding Ulexium tor, the sails were neatly stowed away. The police cutter, until then pacing alongside them, had turned away now and was moving along the outer wall, away from them.

The massive gate before Scarpit parted now, and each half drew surprisingly quickly back into the wall, revealing a huge shipyard ahead of them, with a number of vessels the size of their own berthed at raised piers. Upon each pier stood large cranes and rows of warehouses, and behind each warehouse was a wide, transparent tube that rose into the rock of the base upon which the two towering tors stood..Even as they watched, they could see platforms within the tubes, loaded with all sorts of crated and boxed goods, zipping skyward. Elevators!

"Wow," Ricky said, his eyes trying to be everywhere at once. "This is a big operation!"

"It extends all the way around the tor, too," the captain said proudly, as if he owned stock in the place. "There are three other gates, just like the one our ship entered through, at equidistant points in the circular wall."

Horace, standing behind Charlie, placed a hand on his shoulder. "Can you feel this place? There is an extremely high concentration of life force here."

Charlie turned to stare at the man. "You can sense that?"

"He's right," Chirka said. "This place has a large population. I can feel it, myself."

"Is it life force, though?" Adrian asked. "I mean, if everyone is dead?"

"Death is not an end to quantum life," Chirka said. "Only the life of the physical body ends. What exists here has the memory of life, even if not a body to base it in."

"So in other words, there are a lot of people living here," Uncle Bob said dryly.

Charlie smiled at the man. "Yep. Let's stop worrying about the words we use. We all know what we mean!"

By now it was apparent that Scarpit was heading towards one of the empty piers jutting out from the main dock. The vessel slowed and crawled up to it, and parked alongside. Beneath their feet, a faint vibration they were only becoming aware of now, as it ended, faded away. They had arrived.

"What do we do now?" Kippy asked.

Captain Berrick looked excited. "Well, I have to make a quick stop at the port master's office and transfer my cargo list, but after that we are free to do as we please while Scarpit is unloaded. That will take a day and a half, at least. So, it will be a while before I can head back towards the coast." He rubbed his hands together. "I promised to meet my friend Dunnar at The Dirty Whisker tonight for a drink. Perhaps you'd like to come with me to the inn to get rooms, and then visit the tavern later? It will give you an interesting introduction to the place, I think."

Kippy turned to grin excitedly at Charlie, and his mood was immediately infectious. "That sounds, um, fun," Charlie said. He looked around at the others. "Anyone have a different idea?"

Uncle Bob laughed. "If I do, it's buried deeply! I wouldn't know what to do here on a Saturday night even if I had a visitor's guide to help me!"

The agreement to the captain's idea seemed universal. They said their farewells to Mertram, and followed the captain to where a ramp had been placed across the gap between the pier and Scarpit's main deck. They crossed to the stone landing, and were officially arrived at Ulexium tor.

The inn was called The Wild Gnorf, and displayed upon the sign out front the head of a creature that Charlie hoped fervently was not in residence. It had tusks and reddish eyes, and the teeth of a definite carnivore. Why someone would consider its likeness to be good advertising was anyone's guess. But here, in an alien land, alien ideas were the norm. Beauty was in the eye of the beholder, and for all Charlie knew, the pictured gnorf was someone's idea of a cute little doggie.

The building was of stone - big surprise; or, more rightly, it was hollowed out of the stone of the mount upon which the two tors of Ulexium sat. The interior of the mountain seemed to be hollow in large part, with a grand open floor in the middle, which lay beneath an admittedly gorgeous roof composed of hexagonal glass panels, through which could be seen the setting sun on one horizon. Directly above them, a peculiar black sky hung, and it took a moment for Charlie to realize that he was seeing the underside of the fortress that was hung between the two tors. The idea of such a massive structure suspended just above them was unnerving; but the captain assured them that, despite appearances, the construction was of galactic standards, and the technology in place to ensure that the structure could never fail.

And it was a made world, anyway, so what could go wrong?

The inn was neat and clean, the stone floors polished and the stone walls inlaid with pleasant designs in eye-resting colors. The front desk was massive, because the innkeeper was also of heroic proportions. Her name was Mazier, and despite her size and apparent ability to crush boulders with her bare hands, she was polite and cheerful, and managed to come across, amazingly, as sweet.

"You can each have a room, if you wish," she told them pleasantly. "Or combine. The beds are large enough for any five of you to rest comfortably."

Charlie and Kip took one room, Rick and Adrian another, Uncle Bob and Horace one more, and Ragal and Casper a fourth. The captain took his own, as did Chirka.

"Can I stay with you?" Browbeat asked Charlie, buzzing about excitedly. "I'll be quiet, I promise!"

Kippy smiled and nodded, and Charlie acquiesced.

"All together?" Mazier asked, her large black eyes managing to smile at them.

It was only then that Charlie thought about money. They didn't have any!

Captain Berrick must have noticed Charlie's slightly panicked look then. He smiled, and slapped a round metal chip on the desktop. "Put them all on my credit, please."

After that, they took an elevator up a clear glass tube to the next floor, where their rooms were all together in one polished hallway. Lighting was provided by areas of the stone ceiling that glowed cheerfully, and the illumination, while soft, was more than adequate to find one's way around.

Captain Berrick paused at the door of his own room, and turned to smile at them. "If you'd like to get cleaned up, we can meet again shortly. I have to run to the port master's office and drop off my cargo manifest, but then I'll take you by the visitor's center and we can get you credit chips. They will be loaded with enough credit for you to stay here a while, but should you wish to stay for a longer term, you'd have to seek employment in order to get credit added to your chips."

Charlie smiled. "I doubt we'll be here long enough for that."

"You never know." Captain Berrick seemed to find the idea amusing, somehow.

The found their rooms, and Charlie and Kip looked over theirs. They were suites, they actually found, with a living room, a bedroom, a bath, and a sitting room with an exterior wall that was transparent, and looked out over the harbor. The view was simply stunning. The sun was setting, and night was coming on, and the vast work areas below were lit up with varied colors in amazing patterns. It was a fairytale setting, no question.

Kippy put an arm around Charlie and snuggled up to him. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"


Browbeat came winging in from the other room, chortling to himself, and Kippy gave him one look, and grinned at Charlie. "I think our friend is having fun!"

The flyer came right up to them, his golden eyes shining with delight. "Wait until you folks see the bedroom! You could sleep an army in the bed!"

They followed the happily tittering flyer back to the other room, and then just stopped and stared. The bed was enormous! It was round, and covered with something luxurious that looked thick and soft at the same time. Kippy laughed with delight, his own eyes shining. "Oh, Charlie! We could fit the whole gang in that thing!"

Charlie smiled. "But we're not going to, right?"

Kippy huffed and rolled his eyes at him. "Of course not." He grinned then. "Not this trip, anyway."

They walked around the room, and Kippy pronounced it fit for habitation. "This place must have cost a fortune!"

Charlie considered that. Captain Berrick hadn't acted as if the outlay for the rooms was extreme. But maybe the guy was better off than they imagined?

They explored the bath next, and, once they had mastered the odd fixtures, also decided it would do.

Someone knocked on their door then, and they opened it to find Rick and Adrian waiting. "The captain wants to take us to the visitor center now." Rick leaned closer and lowered his voice. "Personally, I get the impression he can't wait to get to that tavern he was talking about."

"The Dirty Whisker," Adrian supplied, rolling his eyes. "Sounds classy."

"What's in a name?" Charlie asked, as he and Kip left their room and closed the door behind him. There, another problem presented itself: there was no lock on the doors.

"Oh, we had the same problem," Adrian offered. "The captain said that no one can open it but whoever the room is registered to. Don't ask me how it works."

The met the others in the hallway, and Captain Berrick led them back to the elevator. But instead of going down they went up, and soon arrived in a hallway that was clearly not a part of the inn.

"Boundaries here are almost non-existent," he said cheerily, by way of an explanation. "You'll get used to it. Come on."

At the end of this hallway was another of the large windows that looked out on the harbor, and there they found a desk with a rather bored-looking clerk behind it, of the same overlarge species as Mazier. This one was plainly a male, and older than their innkeeper had been. He examined them politely, asked a few questions, and then handed them each a metallic disc like the captain had used to pay for their rooms.

"It is good for a month, on average. After that you can come back and get an extension, but if you plan to stay much longer you should look for employment. The Baron Ulren has decreed that a month should be long enough for anyone to decide if they like the place."

Charlie asked the captain if there was a way they could reimburse him, but the man just laughed. "I don't need it. I spend most of my time aboard ship, where expenses are non-existent. Just your company thus far has been more than adequate compensation." He rubbed his hands together. "Now...who is ready for a drink and a good meal, in that order?"

They walked back to the elevator and this time took it down, and then, amazingly, into a side tube that seemed to carry them part of the way around the inside floor. They re-emerged into another polished hallway, this one wider, and seemingly filled with shops along each side. As they passed one of them the captain stopped, frowned, and then turned with his arms out to corral them. "It occurs to me that you people have virtually nothing in the way of accessories." He indicated the window of the shop, which was filled with gadgets of every kind. "Why don't we go inside a moment and look around? I would suggest you each decide if the clothing you have is enough - the nights here are often chilly, and a good jacket is a necessity - and look over the other items for sale. If you will be here for a while, you may as well be equipped."

He led them inside, and showed them around, suggesting a few things that they might be able to use. They looked into all the display cases, first as a group, and then drawn apart by the many fascinating offerings. Charlie and Kip walked together, and Adrian and Ricky went another way, and the others just wherever their eyes led them. It was not a big shop, so there would be no getting lost.

It quickly appeared that the captain hadn't realized what a can of worms he had opened. He stood and watched them for a while, smiling and answering questions and offering more suggestions; but it soon became apparent that he was chafing at the delay. Soon, he approached Charlie and Kip as they made their second turn around the shop.

"Oh, listen," the man said. "I promised to meet my friend, Dunnar, at The Dirty Whisker for a drink. I know Dunnar well, and he keeps naval hours. I'm afraid if I wait any longer, I'll miss him."

Charlie nodded. "Let me hunt up the others, and we'll go."

The captain held up a hand. "That's not necessary. Feel free to stay and look some more." He nodded approvingly at the jackets the boys were carrying. "Those are good. When you're ready to go, or even before, if you wish, simply pause at the door and offer your credit chip to the servo. Your purchases will be deducted."

Charlie frowned at that. "How will we find you again?"

The captain turned and indicated the door of the shop. "Exit and turn right. Continue down to the end of the shop row, where the tavern district begins. The Dirty Whisker is the first one on your right that you will encounter. Simply enter and go straight to the back of the room. You will find us seated there."

"You think we'll be okay?" Kippy asked.

The captain smiled. "Of course. No one will bother you here. When you've made your purchases, just follow the instructions I gave you. You'll have no trouble finding me." He reached out and put a hand on Kip's arm. "Relax."

And then he turned, and was gone.

"Abandoned," Kippy said forlornly.

Charlie laughed and put an arm around his boyfriend. "Oh, shut up. Come on, let's keep looking."

After a while, they had a number of things in hand. Besides the jackets, they'd gotten themselves timepieces of a sort, which would keep track of the local time - once they learned how to tell it. They each added a compact folding pocket knife to their selections, and a small metal flask, probably made for spirits, but which Charlie figured would hold enough water to make a difference between being thirsty and not, and which easily slipped into the rear pocket of their jeans. Charlie got them each a pair of adjustable, ultra-thin goggles, just in case they encountered one of the sandstorms the captain had told them about, and found a pair that would even fit Browbeat, who laughed at the idea, but allowed Charlie to buy them anyway.

Finally, the others arrived, and they began to compare items, and it was only then that Kippy spied Ricky's new prize.

Strapped to the boy's right hip was a slim holster, with a small pistol inside.

"What is that?" Kippy demanded, giving the weapon a disapproving look.

Adrian rolled his eyes. "He got it when I wasn't looking."

"What?" Ricky said, sounding defensive. "What's wrong with this? I feel naked without my vibratory dagger in this place. I just wanted a little something for defense, is all."

Charlie stared at the holster, and noted that there were no cartridges on the belt. "What does it fire?"

Ricky chuckled. "Beats the hell out of me. I figured the appearance alone would be enough to keep people polite."

Uncle Bob walked slowly around his nephew, getting an eyeful of the weapon. "Is that how it's supposed to be worn? You look like Alan Ladd in Shane."

Ricky blinked at that. "Who, in what?"

Uncle Bob frowned. "Never mind." He shook his head. "You look like a gunfighter in some old movie."

Ricky actually looked pleased with that estimate. "Yeah? What's wrong with that?"

The older man shook his head. "Just that I haven't seen anyone else wearing one of them. What did the display say where you got it?"

Ricky blinked. "Um...I don't know. It seemed to be showing some sort of description in several languages, but English wasn't one of them. I put it on and it didn't fit, and a machine extended an arm, and presto!, the thing was fitted to me like a glove."

Uncle Bob turned to Horace. "What do you think?"

"That it looks threatening. You don't know what it fires, Rick?"

"Um, no." Ricky looked at Charlie. "I didn't know it would cause a problem. When we get back to the inn I'll take it off, and won't wear it again while we're here."

Charlie nodded. "Probably a good idea."

They paid for their remaining items, and left the shop. As they did so they passed a couple of light-skinned bipeds walking the other way, both tall and lanky like Ragal, and one obviously a male, and the other a female. They smiled at the boys - until the woman saw Rick's gun. Her eyes widened, and she took her mate's arm then, and hurried him away.

Ricky was shocked by the reaction, and looked down at his pistol in consternation. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea."

Adrian looked unhappy. "Everybody, kind of move in around us, so that people can't see."

They did that, and headed down the walk in the direction that the captain had indicated. And, just as he had said, they quickly found The Dirty Whisker and went inside. Straight back, through a crowd that seemed very lively, until they found the captain seated at a table against the rear wall.

He stood to welcome them. "No trouble finding the place?"

"No," Charlie agreed, noting a second empty glass on the table. "What happened to your friend?"

"He just left," the captain said. "As I told you, he keeps navy hours. I'm glad I hastened here when I did--" He stopped in mid-sentence then, catching sight of Rick's pistol. A horrified look came onto his face, and his eyes quickly darted around the room before he leaned closer to Rick and hissed, "What have you done!"

Ricky looked confused, and glanced down at the pistol. "What's wrong with it? You carry a pistol, yourself!"

The bearded man shook his head. "Not out in the open! Not like that!"

"What are we missing?" Charlie asked. "What don't we know?"

The captain seemed to catch his breath. "You have chosen to play a very dangerous game!" he told Ricky.

Adrian looked alarmed now, and wrapped an arm defensively around his boyfriend's. "What did he do?"

The captain cast another quick look around the room. "There are some who come here specifically to play this game. It is a game of competition, of challenge. Of duel, to see who is the quickest."

A sinking feeling came over Charlie then. "You mean, like gunfighting?"

"Yes. Especially in places like this. One pistol wearer will challenge the other, and the quickest to fire wins."

Ricky gave out a disbelieving laugh. "Like the old west? Come on!"

Adrian looked scared now. "But...we can't be hurt here, right? We can't be killed."

"No," the captain agreed, shaking his head. "You cannot be hurt or killed."

"Then what's the harm?" Kippy asked. "If no one gets hurt, it's just a game."

"There has to be a winner," the captain said carefully, "and there has to be a loser. The winner gets the acclaim of being faster. The right to parade about like a fool and intimidate other pistol wearers, until he finally meets one that's faster than he is. It's a stupid game, a waste of good time, but those that play it seem to love it."

Charlie leaned closer. "And what happens to the loser?"

The captain pointed at the pistol. "That's a randomizer you have on, boy. It can only be fired at someone with another randomizer close at hand. Even that safeguard doesn't keep the average, unbelted person from being wary of those that possess one."

"A randomizer," Charlie repeated, not liking the sound of it. "What does it do?"

The captain licked his lips under his beard. "If you are hit with one, it will, quite at random, transport you to some other location within The Tors. It could be anywhere at all."


"But it wouldn't hurt him?"

The captain managed a short laugh. "Of course not. It will simply send him somewhere else, at random. It could be out into a hallway here, or another floor, or somewhere in the desert outside - or to the other side of The Tors, where it might take months to get back here. The destination is purely random."

A creeping sense of horror worked its way down Charlie's spine. Rick, separated from them, sent perhaps to the other side of the world here?

Chirka raised a hand then. "All he would have to do is to exit this reality back to the precipitator, and then rejoin us from there. It would not be the catastrophe you envision, Charlie."

Ricky dropped a hand to the pistol. "I'll take it off. And wrap it in my jacket and take it back to the inn and leave it. I can do that and be back here in ten minutes."

"I'm going with you," Adrian insisted.

Rick turned to his boyfriend, and as he did, he took a step backwards.

Right into a tall biped carrying a mug of something foamy in hand. The other stumbled at the impact, and the mug went sailing away from his grasp, to go skittering across the polished floor, sending its contents every which way.

"Idiot!" The other stopped as if struck, and turned to face Rick. "You've lost me my drink!"

Charlie looked, and the world seemed to slow down. The alien was wearing a pistol strapped to his side.

Ricky took that in at a glance, and pushed Adrian away from him, just as a vulpine grin appeared on the face of the alien, and his hand dropped towards the holster. The man stepped backwards, away from Ricky, and his grin widened to something even more frightening as he stopped several paces away.

"I'll teach you some manners, you clumsy slog! Draw, stranger!"

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