Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

I Think This Place is Haunted, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 6

The alien was fast. In the blink of an eye, his pistol was coming up from its holster...

And then the fellow froze, a look of pure astonishment on his face. A glow appeared around him, full of little sparkles, and he slowly dissolved and was gone.

Charlie's eyes darted to where Ricky stood. His friend's pistol was just coming down, and with a snappy flourish, was returned to its own holster. For a moment everyone just stared, until Ricky swallowed hard, blinked his eyes, and turned to look at them. "What?"

"You won," Captain Berrick said, his tone one of pure disbelief.

Around them, the room, which had gone eerily silent, started to return to normal. In a moment the laughter and conversation was everywhere again, and it was like nothing had happened at all.

Charlie looked around at the patrons, and was instantly aware that the people were not seeing them, as in, purposely not looking their way. Across the room, a different alien, lean and lizard-like, and also wearing a pistol strapped to one hip, made his way carefully to the door of the tavern, never once seeming to see them, and then exited and was gone.

"Sit," the captain said then. He turned to the empty table next to them and pulled a pair of chairs over, and forced a smile at Ricky. "Grab one for yourself, and there will be enough."

Ricky nodded, pulled another chair from the neighboring table, and they all sat down.

Charlie looked up then as a man of Captain Berrick's people, dressed in a white apron, approached the table, a smile plastered on his bearded face. "What will you have, folks?"

Charlie turned to the captain. "Are these drinks alcoholic?"

The man laughed, seeming to regain some of his good humor now. "Is there any other kind?"

"We don't want to be hampered in our thinking," Charlie persisted.

"You won't be. Remember where you are. You will get the pleasant feeling a good drink provides, but there will be no physical or mental decline at all. You can literally drink the place dry, and not become drunk." He sighed. "Not that that's always better!"

"On the house, of course," the new arrival said. "I'm Dollen, master of this place." His eyes fastened on Ricky now, appraising him; and then the man looked as if he was deciding to speak further. "Thank you for ridding us of Murgess."

Ricky frowned. "That was the other guy with the gun?"

"Yes." The tavern master looked slightly taken aback. "You didn't know who he was?"

Ricky shrugged. "Nope."

The man's eyes briefly found the captain's, who smiled. "Rather amazingly fast, isn't he?"

The tavern master seemed to relax a little. "Incredibly so. Murgess was the fastest I'd ever seen." His gaze returned to Ricky. "But you made him look slow. How long have you been dueling?"

Ricky seemed astonished at the question, but managed to offer a winning smile. "That was my first time."

Dollen looked stunned, and settled back onto his heels. "Which makes it even more amazing a feat!"

"You didn't like this Murgess?" Ragal asked of Dollen.

The other man rolled his eyes. "An annoyance, he was. Bad for business. Always strutting around, making people nervous. Such a stupid game for a civilized man to practice!" He blinked then, and offered an uneasy smile to Ricky, "No offense meant."

Ricky smiled. "I'm not offended, believe me."

Dollen looked relieved. "Even though no one was in danger but other gunmen, it still put a crimp in my business. People want to come here to relax. Murgess had a way of making people nervous."

"Why didn't you just toss him out?" Ricky asked.

The tavern master chuckled. "Also bad for business. Murgess brought in a different sort of crowd, those that want to see such duels. That, at least, offset my losses from normal patrons staying away." The man shrugged. "Besides, dueling is legal, and he wasn't breaking the law."

Charlie frowned. "I noticed another, um, duelist, leaving after the fight."

Dollen nodded. "That would have been Un'za'ic. A friend of Murgess, but not at his level. He knew it was time to leave." Dollen sighed, and looked around the circle of faces again. "What can I get for you?"

They allowed the captain to order them drinks, and to suggest what might be good to eat. Knowing that they didn't have to eat here in order to survive didn't seem to keep hunger pangs totally at bay, and everyone looked happy when the trays started to arrive from the kitchen.

"I wonder where he went?" Kippy asked, after they started eating. "That Murgess." He smiled at Ricky. "You sent him some place, that's for sure."

"I don't have a clue," Ricky said. "And, I don't care."

Adrian gently smacked his boyfriend's arm. "That's not nice, Rick."

Ricky turned to him. "You didn't see the look in that guy's eyes like I did, Ad. He may have known that the worst he could do was send me somewhere I didn't want to be, but I saw more than that. Murgess wanted to kill me, and the wish that he could was there in his eyes." Ricky gave a sigh. "It completely erased any hesitation I had in shooting him."

Charlie appraised his friend. "Your reaction time here seems...pretty extreme."

"I know. It was like I could see everything Murgess was doing, in slow motion. The minute he went for his gun, I pulled mine. He just seemed really slow to me."

Chirka smiled across the table at Rick. "You may as well accept that we are different here."

Ricky smiled back at her. "Hard not to!"

The Kift nodded. "It isn't the first time I have experienced these changes when visiting realities here. It much depends upon what the creator of each reality wants for their entertainment."

Adrian looked surprised. "This is entertainment?"

"Of course." The Kift looked around the room and nodded. "You must remember that everyone that creates a reality here does so for a reason. Most want to experience places they were familiar with in life, but under rules they feel are more to their liking than the original. Many realities are closed, the property of the one or the many that created it, and not open to visitation. Others, like this one, are open to all because the creator feels that allowing in others will add to the overall experience." She tapped her fingertips together, obviously happy to discuss her favorite subject. "Experiencing the lower level is a purely personal matter. One may simply travel and explore the mirror of the real universe, or one may visit the realities of others, and come and go as they please. The variety this layer offers is incredible. Certainly, if one is to spend an eternity somewhere, there are much harder ways to do it."

Charlie smiled. "You sound like you like this place."

"I do. I also like this particular reality. It is well-made, and obviously a popular one. I can sense the numbers that reside here, and that most seem very content to do so."

"Most," Casper said, frowning. "But not all?"

"No." Chirka, dropped her hands to the tabletop. "This Murgess, just here, was one that was unhappy, even doing what he seemed to love the most."

"Shooting people?" Kippy asked, the distaste in his voice clear.

"It was clear he thirsted for the competition of pulling his weapon against another similarly armed. But, just as clear, was that the act lacked something for him, and was, ultimately, unfulfilling."

"Yeah," Ricky put in, nodding. "He was a killer, and he knew he really wasn't killing anyone. I could see that in his eyes."


Charlie took a bite of his meal, thinking. They seemed off track, somehow, and he couldn't figure out what do do about it. They had come to the lower layer searching for clues on the antagah, and seemed not to be getting anywhere at all with that. The purpose of visiting one of these realities had been to search for clues. If they weren't finding them here, shouldn't they try another?

He voiced his concerns.

Browbeat, perched on an arc of the circular table, looked alarmed at the idea. "You can't leave now! This is too much fun!"

That brought smiles, at least.

Captain Berrick set his glass on the table and fixed his gaze on Charlie. "You must remember that time is irrelevant here. None is being wasted at all, no matter how seemingly long you visit this place. But if you wish to feel you are hastening things, there are those here you can ask directly for the knowledge you seek."

Charlie looked around at his friends. "Maybe we should try that?"

Kippy turned to look at Ricky then. "What about that gun you're wearing?"

Adrian laid a hand on his boyfriend's. "You should get rid of it. It will just cause us is more trouble."

Ricky sighed. "I happen to agree. We can't be pausing every step of the way to confront some wannabe gunslinger."

Kippy smiled, a bit of mischief entering his eyes."And you don't want to become known as Quicky Ricky, anyway!"

Adrian tried hard not to laugh, but didn't quite make it.

Ricky rolled his eyes, but smiled at Kip. "No. I sure don't. I'll get rid of the gun."

Ragal, to everyone's surprise, shook his head. "Put it away, but don't dispose of it. It may be useful at some point."

Adrian looked like he might argue; but then he thought better of it. Ragal did not make suggestions lightly. "That will be okay, I guess."

They continued with their meal. Charlie had a second drink, and found it did relax him, without in any way slowing his mind. He wasn't a drinker at all, but the drinks served here seemed hardly stronger than water.

Dollen returned to check on them, and Captain Berrick gave Charlie a smile. "Ask him about your antagah. There is no better place to pick up gossip than a tavern."

The tavern master smiled. "What's that?"

Charlie looked up at him. "We've been hearing things about a large antagah lurking about."

The man nodded. "You mean the one harassing Engris? Bad mistake on their part, if you ask me. The Madracorn are not to be fooled with lightly."

"You know the Madracorn?" Kippy asked, surprise on his face.

Dollen chuckled. "Who doesn't? They're a large presence here. Some of their realities are amazing. I visited several before settling here."

Ricky eyed the man carefully. "They weren't good places to live?"

"No, they were wonderful!" Dollen sighed. "Just too much going on for my tastes. I wanted somewhere quieter and more relaxed." He smiled around at his tavern. "Like this."

"So about this antagah," Charlie went on. "Do you know who they are?"

"Didn't hear a name for the species, no. Heard they were from some backwater planet, with a primitive society and a pre-spaceflight culture." Dollen shrugged. "You know how those types can be. We were all there, once. It's a lot harder dealing with the layer if you haven't previously been part of a galactic culture. Pretty eye-opening, when you get here, and some of the more primitive types have trouble adjusting."

"The members of this antagah want to gain access to Engris in order to get back to the real universe," Charlie said.

Dollen looked amazed. "They can't go back!"

"They can if they possess someone on Engris, and that person goes back to the real universe."

Captain Berrick looked unsettled. "What an awful idea!"

"The Madracorn are not happy," Charlie continued. "They want to know why the antagah wants to go back."

The captain frowned at them. "You're working with the Madracorn?"

"They're our friends," Charlie said. "We're trying to help. We need to know more about this antagah first, though.

Something twinged inside his mind then, and the small feeling of awareness he had sensed before, that the antagah was aware of them, went up a notch. A fluttery feeling went through Charlie, and he felt the brief glance pass over him, and then vanish.

Everyone must have felt it, as the conversation simply stopped. Dollen looked around the room, for the first time actually appearing anxious. "I don't want any part of an angry antagah."

Captain Berrick grunted. "They can be annoying, if they take a dislike to you."

Charlie squinted at the man. "How so?"

"Well, they act like a single person, but they are bigger, and way stronger than any one person. Depending on the reality you happen to be in, bigger and stronger can be enough to ruin your day." Berrick smiled then. "This particular reality, I don't know that size or strength would do much for them. Unless they happen to be power users, too. We already know that this reality favors wizards. An antagah as a dark wizard here could be a pretty potent enemy."

Ricky made a dismissive sound. "Again, what could they do to us?"

The captain eyed Ricky speculatively. "I don't know. Despite the fact that we cannot be killed in this layer, there are more than a few stories of power users here that have...unusual abilities. Short of recounting the stories to you now, all I can suggest is that the thought always remain in your minds that power users here could possibly be dangerous. Until you know that your antagah is or is not composed of power users, you are taking a chance by dismissing the possibility that they can harm you in some way."

"I agree with that statement," Chirka said, turning to Charlie. "In the many years I have been studying the lower layer, I have found it comes with many surprises of its own."

Charlie nodded. "We'll remember that. I...felt that change in the way the antagah is aware of us. I don't want to actually confront them until I can learn more about them."

"And yet, every time we ask about them, we will move more towards the center of their attention," Chirka reminded.

Charlie nodded. "I know."

Captain Berrick frowned, and then leaned closer to Charlie across the table. "There may be someone here who can help you. Tanna Terail."

Dollen gasped. "The old witch?"

The captain offered a disapproving look to the other. "I've actually met her. I wouldn't term her a witch."

"Well, I would! Some of the stories I've heard about her are frightening!"

"I suspect she is a most unusual power user, is all." Captain Berrick smiled at Charlie. "I have a feeling your group would get along grandly with her, actually."

Chirka looked pleased. "Can you arrange for us to meet her?'

"Well..." Captain Berrick scratched at his beard. "She doesn't live here at Ulexium tor. She has her own place, a small tor about fifty miles from here, called Ilorsum. You would have to go to her, I'm afraid."

"We could do that," Charlie said. "Could you take us there?"

"No." The captain shook his head. "Once my runner is unloaded, I will need to head back to the coast. There wouldn't be time for that. But you can rent a runner and go yourselves. Just tell the head where you want to go, and it will take you there." He smiled. "Like Mertram, aboard my own vessel?"

"Can we afford that?" Ricky asked.

"Easily," Dollen supplied, though still looking uncomfortable with the idea. "And there are plenty of places at the yard to rent a small runner."

"I can even recommend one," the captain added. "Veren's, not that far from where Scarpit is berthed."

Charlie looked around at the others. "Any comments?"

"Let's try it," Adrian suggested. "I get a good feeling about this."

"Me, too," Kippy added. "Let's go."

"You want to finish your meal, at least," Dollen supplied, shrugging. "It won't do to meet that witch on an empty stomach!"

They waited until morning to leave. The desert was no place to be traveling at night, and dropping in on this Tanna Terail in the wee hours seemed a certain recipe for failure. Who unbarred their door to strangers after midnight?

Besides, even though they didn't need sleep here, Charlie did feel a need to relax and collect his thoughts, and nothing was more relaxing than a warm bed with Kippy in it. So they did sleep, after a fashion, and as the sun came up they had a quick meal and then met to start their day.

Veren's Rentals provided them with a schooner-type runner at a very reasonable rate. Captain Berrick took them there and saw to it that they got a good craft, and assured them that the guiding head would have no trouble getting them to their destination.

"And I guess this is where we say farewell," he said, as Charlie and his friends boarded their rental craft.

Charlie turned to the man and extended his hand. "Thank you. For everything."

"Not at all. I think what you and your friends have done for Scarpit more than balances the books." He grasped Charlie's hand, and shook it warmly. "Just remember, Charlie. This is a congenial reality, for the most part. But it does have its dark side, too. Be careful out there."

Everyone wanted a chance to say goodbye to the Captain, and after that had been done, he stood on the pier and watched as Charlie entered the small bridge of the craft and told the head there, one Bellux, where they wished to go.

"The witch's tor?" Bellux asked, though without any of the hesitation that Dollen had displayed back in the tavern.

Charlie smiled. "The very same. Any problems with that?"

"None. It will take perhaps two hours to get you there. Are we ready to depart?"

"We're all on board," Charlie agreed. "Whenever you're ready."

"I must first get authorization from the port authority to leave, and then we will be on our way."

That took only minutes, apparently, for soon the small craft was backing away from its berth, turning, and heading towards the big doors that led out into the desert beyond.

Kip and Adrian, with Casper in tow, had gone off to explore the vessel. Rick, Horace, and Uncle Bob were inside the tiny forward turret, examining the guts of the small defensive catapult mounted there.

Ragal and Chirka had joined Charlie on the bridge, and the three of them watched as their small craft was allowed out of the shipyard through the double doors, and turned to follow the wall for a while before heading off into the desert in a different direction from the one they had arrived from.

"I see why Captain Berrick couldn't drop us off," Charlie said then. "It would have meant going in a different direction than he needed to go to head back to the coast."

"We'll be fine," Ragal assured him. "I think we mostly have the hang of this place for now."

Tchk-tchk-tchk. Chirka seemed to find that statement funny. "Until something new jumps out at us, any way."

Ragal smiled at her. "I am admittedly out of practice with places like this, but I am feeling my senses come back to me now. This reality seems to have been constructed according to some very clear rules. Other than a bent for allowing power users wide latitude in their abilities, I find the place very orderly."

"It is that," Chirka agreed. "Yet it is exactly the apparent lack of limitations on power users that requires care. There is no telling what some talents have been allowed to become in this place."

Ragal considered that, and then nodded. "Granted."

"So far we haven't seen anything we don't understand," Charlie observed. "Some changes to our own talents, but nothing extreme."

"It just takes one," Chirka pointed out. "There are already extreme talents in the real universe. No telling what they may become in a place that favors wizardry like this one."

Rick and the two older men came onto the bridge then. "You should see that catapult, Charlie," his friend said eagerly, smiling. "It's completely automated." He turned his smile at Bellux. "I assume you control that thing?"

"The catapult operation is one of my responsibilities, yes."

Ricky nodded enthusiastically. "Have you ever had to use it?"

The head rotated to face him fully now. Like the head on Captain Berrick's vessel, this one was of a bearded Alsaran, too. "I have used it to discourage would-be hijackers exactly once. This close to Ulexium tor, you will not see much need for weapons."

Ricky looked disappointed at that. "Well, I'd still love to see it fired sometime."

Charlie seemed to detect a note of humor in the head's voice then. "Perhaps something can be arranged before we return to Ulexium."

Horace and Uncle Bob chuckled at that.

Kippy and his group came in next.

"Nice cabins on the ship," Adrian said approvingly. "The galley is well stocked, too. If you're into food, I mean."

Ricky patted his stomach. "I am!"

"It's only going to take us two hours to get to this Ilorum tor," Charlie reminded.

Ricky grinned. "So I'll eat light."

"This is a nice little ship," Kippy said. "Have you noticed how smooth the ride is?"

"At least as good as Scarpit," Casper added. "And this is a much smaller vessel."

"My shock absorbing struts are quite effective," Bellux said then. "Your trip will continue to be smooth so long as we are not forced to operate at maximum speeds."

Charlie smiled at that. "Do you foresee a need for that?"

"I don't know. Are you aware that we are being followed?"

The smiles faded all around at that. "What do you mean?" Kippy demanded. "Who's following us?"

"I have no idea," Bellux returned. "They are at the absolute limit of my detectors, and no doubt feel they are beyond them. Last week, they would have been. But Veren just upgraded his entire fleet, and so I am able to detect the vessel that follows us."

Charlie leaned closer. "Can you tell anything about it?"

The head turned to gaze forward again. "It is a craft similar in size to our own. I would guess it is one of Lorder's rentals. His are the only craft I know of - before Veren upgraded his own fleet, anyway - that would have sensory gear sharp enough to trail us while normally staying out of range of our own."

"Remind me to tip this Veren when we get back," Ricky muttered.

Charlie turned to look through the rear window of the small bridge. Nothing was visible behind them save for desert, and the dwindling spires of Ulexium tor. Who could be following them?

He turned back to look ahead of them. Coming at them now was a small tor, perhaps a hundred feet in height, and too narrow to provide much room for habitation. It's rocky surface was unblemished by doors or windows.

Charlie pointed at it, and turned to look at the head. "You're going around that tor?"


He nodded. "Suppose, once it's between us and the craft behind us, you stop in its shadow and we wait for them to catch up."

"Should we do that?" Kippy asked. "What if they shoot at us?"

Charlie's eyes moved to Adrian. "You could zap the thing and blow all the fuses in it, like you did with the runner that chased Scarpit."

"A moment," Bellux interjected. "They have not done anything illegal as yet."

Charlie frowned. "You said they were following us. You didn't just mean they were going the same way we are, did you?"

"No," Bellux said, sounding sure of himself. "The way the craft behind us deliberately stays just beyond what they think is the limit of our detectors suggests their motives are furtive in nature. We are traveling at a comfortable speed, but by no means our fastest. Yet they maintain the same position."

Charlie nodded. "Try this: speed up a little, and see if they drop back."

Several minutes passed in silence then. They could feel the increase in speed, conveyed to them through the deck by a tiny but still perceptible gain in the amount of vibration under their feet.

Bellux turned to look at them again. "They initially dropped back, but have increased their speed to stay within the zone where they feel they can track us but where we should be unable to detect them."

"So we are being followed," Charlie stated.

"It would seem so."

Chirka patted her fingertips together. "The question now becomes, who has reason to follow us?"

"Maybe we should find out," Charlie decided. "Bellux, when we pass that upcoming tor, and it's between us and our pursuers, pull into its shadow and wait for them to catch up."

"You're the paying party," the head answered. "We'll be in position in about five minutes."

"What are we going to do about them if we confront them?" Adrian asked.

Charlie gave a little shrug. "I guess we won't know until we do. But I think we have a right to ask them why they are following us."

"What if they don't stop?" Casper asked. "It's possible they will simply go right past us and keep going."

Charlie smiled. "Well...maybe we can follow them for a while."

"We are abreast of the tor," Bellux told them then. "And now circling it. Let me see...yes, there is a space between those two large boulders I can back us into, which will only present the bow and our forward turret to anyone that goes by."

Ricky nodded. "Is the forward turret ready to fire?"

"It's always ready to fire," Bellux told him.

"We don't want to shoot just yet," Charlie warned. "Let's see who we might be shooting at, first."

Bellux backed them into the small space between the two monoliths, and they all stood quietly and waited.

In another minute they felt the smallest of vibrations in the deck, and then a small, schooner-type vessel much like their own moved past their hiding place.

"Won't they detect us here?" Chirka asked.

"They will, and likely have," Bellux agreed.

A moment later they felt a vibration again, and the other schooner backed into view and stopped in front of them.

"They're trapping us!" Kippy said, in alarm.

"No," Bellux replied. "They can't bring their forward or stern catapult to bear on us here, and they are in our direct line of fire. I suspect the move is meant simply to make us aware they know we are here."

As if in agreement with that statement, the other vessel slowly pulled forward again, until only the tip of the stern was visible, where it stopped.

"Now what?" Ricky asked.

They watched in silence a moment, until a man appeared at the stern railing, a megaphone in hand, which he waved at them. He was a bearded Alsaran, a local, and dressed appropriately for a walk in the desert.

"Now, I guess we talk to them," Charlie said, taking their own megaphone from its mount by the door.

He turned and went out on deck, aware that the others were coming out behind him. "Maybe not all of us should go to the railing," he suggested, but left it at that.

He marched forward towards the bow, watching the man aboard the other ship, who simply stood calmly by the railing, watching Charlie approach. Charlie glanced back over his shoulder, and smiled.

Watching Charlie, Ragal, Chirka, and Horace approach, rather.

Charlie arrived at the rail, and waited a moment for the others to catch up. They took positions on either side of him, and Charlie raised the megaphone to his lips. "Hey, there!"

If the Alsaran was surprised by Charlie's opening remark, he didn't show it. He raised his own megaphone and spoke into it. "I am Jol, and I would like to speak with you."

"I think we're doing that now," Charlie responded.

The other man looked to laugh. "I would prefer not to yell back and forth, if possible. May I come aboard your runner?"

Charlie looked up at Ragal. "What do you think?"

The tall alien gave a soft grunt. "That it would be much easier to talk without all the yelling."

Charlie smiled at that, and then dropped his eyes to Chirka. "And you?"

"Nothing ever happens without some small element of chance," she said. "I sense nothing inimical about this one."

Lastly, Charlie looked at Horace, and only then was just a little surprised that he was there. "What do you think?"

The older man frowned. "I sense something about this one, but I don't know what. I had to get nearer to him."

"And did that help?"

Horace managed a smile. "A little. I still sense something about him, but it's just stronger now."

"Bad or good?" Charlie asked.

"Neither." Horace frowned. "I think we should talk with him."

Charlie nodded. He knew the smaller runners like their own had a port on the underside, for quickly reaching the ground. He raised the megaphone to his lips again. "I'll drop the keel stairs, and you can come aboard."

The other man quickly raised his own megaphone again. "That won't be necessary." He turned and set the megaphone on the deck beside him, and then simply lifted off the deck and moved slowly through the air towards them, his arms outstretched and his hands open.

Charlie heard footsteps behind him, and Kippy joined him at the rail. "He has my power to fly," he said softly.

They stepped back then, making room for the other man to land on their deck. He alit lightly, gave a little sigh, and smiled at them. "There, now. Much simpler."

Charlie nodded. "Yes. Now, what can we do for you?"

The other man surveyed them all with interest. "Such a varied crew you have here, Charlie."

Charlie tensed, and watched the other man more warily. "You know my name."

"Yes." The other man smiled, and held out his hand to indicate each of them in order. "Kip, Ragal, Chirka, and Horace. And those there, coming along even now, are Rick, Adrian, Casper, and Bob."

Charlie turned, to see that the others had now joined them. "So you know us," he said, turning back to the newcomer. "And you said your name was Jol?"

The man nodded. "I am a representative of the Baron Ulren, sent to keep an eye on you."

Ragal smiled. "Representative? You mean spy, right?"

Jol laughed. "Of course. Having failed in my mission to follow you surreptitiously, it now seems best if I simply join your group and spy on you in person."

"Why do you want to spy on us at all?" Kippy asked.

"Well, you are here on a most interesting mission, it seems. You must know that, as the creator of this reality, the Baron is privy to all that happens within it. He has taken an interest in your quest to learn more about the antagah menacing Engris, and has sent me along to keep him informed of it. Now that you're aware of me, it just seems best if I go right along with you. Don't you think?"

Charlie smiled. "What interest, specifically, are we talking about, that the Baron has in this situation?"

Jol leaned forward. "The Baron shares an interest with Engris in maintaining the openness of the spirit domes on that world. I have been authorized to assist you in any way possible, to that end."

Charlie turned to his boyfriend. "What do you get from all of this?"

Kippy fixed an eye on Jol, and then stepped forward and carefully walked around the man, who simply turned his head and smiled as he followed the appraisal. Kippy went all the way around their visitor, and then arrived back at Charlie's side. "He seems okay to me." Kip turned to Adrian. "What do you think?"

Adrian smiled. "I don't need to walk around him to feel like he means what he's saying."

Kippy grinned in return. "Oh, that was for dramatic effect. I already liked him, as soon as he flew over to meet us."

Jol looked pleased to hear that. "So may I join you? I can probably help you much more than you imagine."

Charlie waved a hand at the other desert runner. "What about your ship?'

"A rental. I'll simply go and inform the pilot head that I am joining you, and it can return to its berth at Ulexium tor."

Charlie turned to the others. "Anyone have anything to add?"

"Let him go and tell his ship to go home," Ricky said. "We're wasting time sitting here."

"I'll be right back, then," Jol said, and lifted off to head back to his ship.

Charlie turned to Kip and Adrian after the man had left. "You two are sure he's okay?"

"I like him," Kip offered. "The things he says register as true to my inner ear."

"Same here," Adrian added. "He's not being deceptive in what he says."

Charlie turned to Ragal and Chirka. The Kift smiled. "There is more to our friend than meets the eye, certainly. But I detect no intent to deceive us."

"Agreed," Ragal said. He nodded at Charlie. "There is much more to our new friend than we are seeing thus far. But what I cannot see does not seem to alarm me just yet."

Charlie shrugged at that. "Okay. For now we'll just treat him at face value." He turned to Horace then. "If whatever you feel sharpens about this Jol, let me know."

"I will."

The man returned, and settled to the deck beside them again, even as his runner pulled out of sight. A moment later it reappeared, farther out and making an about face turn, and then it headed back towards Ulexium tor.

"I am now at your mercy," Jol said, smiling.

"Uh, yeah," Charlie replied, smiling back.

The Alsaran gave a little let's get down to business nod of his head. "So, shall we get on to our meeting with Tanna Terail?"

"Yes, let's," KIppy said jovially.

They returned to the bridge, where Charlie instructed Bellux to get them underway towards their destination. And from there they headed down the inner stairway to the small lounge below, where everyone took a seat.

"I guess you are wondering how much I know?" Jol asked, looking around at the curious faces turned his way.

"That would be a start," Charlie agreed.

The Alsaran nodded. "Only what the Baron told me. Who you were, why you were here, and what you hoped to learn."

Ragal smiled. "So in other words, about what we know, ourselves."

Jol smiled at that, and Charlie could sense why Kippy liked the man. There was an enthusiasm there, almost surely for the current quest that they were on, and that the Alsaran might be able to help with that. Maybe the man had been an accountant in real life, but always had dreamed of being a secret agent?

Whatever his history, Jol seemed to be enjoying his role now.

"The Baron knows of this antagah, but not much more than what you have learned already. It's only the fact that Engris and the Madracorn are involved that has prodded him to take this step to assist you. Baron Ulren has a great respect for the Madracorn. And he feels that Engris plays a vital role in the mental health of the lower layer. The ability of...the deceased, shall we communicate with those left behind is an important factor in the stability of this layer."

Charlie nodded at that. "We feel much the same, but from the other perspective. The ability of the physically living to communicate with those passed is equally important."

Jol looked to agree. "The Baron seems to feel that you seeing Tanna Terail is a good move. The Bathorn are a very spiritual people."

"Bathorn?" Kippy repeated.

"Yes." Jol said. He looked at Charlie then. "You were not told that Tanna Terail is a Bathorn?"

Charlie sighed. "It wouldn't matter much if we had been told. We have never met the Bathorn, and know nothing about them."

Chirka raised a hand. "I have met them, here in the lower layer. I was unaware that the person we were going to meet was of that race." She turned to Charlie now. "I can see now why Dollen described her as a witch."

Jol frowned at that. "A limited perspective, and an uneducated one. The Bathorn are simply connected to the lower layer in ways that most of those living in the real universe will never understand."

Charlie shook his head. "Connected? In what way?"

The Alsaran smiled. "The Bathorn in life are possessors of a power that in some way mimics the technology of spirit domes. The Bathorn can talk to ghosts."

"That wouldn't help much here, would it?" Horace asked. "Everyone here could be considered a ghost, at least in reference to the real universe."

"True. But here, their power to speak with the dead is even more powerful. They can actually find specific others, anywhere within the layer. They have a way of...I guess the word is summoning...others, to speak with them."

Charlie sat forward in his seat. "You mean she might actually be able to summon the antagah? So that we could speak with it?"

"She might," Jol agreed, "but only if she thinks it's wise. The Baron felt that with me along to represent his interests, Tanna Terail might be more inclined to cooperate with you."

"The Bathorn are a bit standoffish," Chirka added, looking pointedly at Charlie. "Not to mention just a bit hard to speak with."

"It's a function of their place in things," Jol supplied. "Their focus is split between two layers."

"But once they're here, they're disconnected from the layer that holds the real universe, aren't they?" Kippy asked. "I mean, once they're here, they're dead themselves."

"We don't know that for certain," Jol said. "It's not something they discuss with others. And the Baron is not usually one to pry into the affairs of the guests in his reality." He smiled. "Without very good reason."

Charlie considered that, and nodded. It sounded like there was no guarantee that this Tanna Terail would even speak with them.

"I've never heard of these people," Charlie said. "These Bathorns. Where do they live in the real universe?"

"They occupy three small solar systems to the rear of Trichani space," Chirka answered. "The Trichani tend to leave them alone."

"I can see why," Uncle Bob said. "They sound like they want to be left alone."

"Which is one reason I am here," Jol said. "The Baron felt that your chances of seeing Tanna Terail were less than optimal. He hoped that a word from him would assist in this."

"I guess we'll see, " Charlie replied.

The trip passed quickly. They returned to the bridge and watched their progress through the forward window. The desert was apparently a lonely place in any world, and they saw no other travelers along the way. The sun was an eerie red eye in the sky, and the tors jutting up from the sand gave the entire scene a decidedly alien flavor.

And yet, it was captivating, still. The flavor of another world was so strong that Charlie had to smile at the quickening he felt inside as he observed it. That the others felt the same thing seemed evidenced by the excited conversations along the way, which only trailed off as Bellux informed them that they were approaching their goal.

A single sharp tor separated itself from the jungle of them ahead, a broad needle of stone which made up for its lack of height by a wealth of detail that many of its neighbors lacked. This tor was serrated, like the inverted tooth of a shark, with white lines of some other mineral running through the otherwise dark granite. A cluster of tiny tors lived at the base, children of stone camped about a stolid mother. The glint of windows appeared at what would be the first two levels of a standard building, though this tor lacked any outside walkways at all.

At its base and facing them, a rather massive door presented itself, only visible now because it was a different color than the stone around it. Red, it was, as blood red as the sun above. The place looked more than a little desolate, and Charlie felt a small gnaw in his stomach at the sight of it. What sort of life could call this lonely place home?

Bellux pulled them right up to the doorway, and once in front of it, they could see that it was actually large enough to admit the schooner.

"We won't take the ship inside, will we?" Kippy asked, sounding as if he disliked the idea. Charlie could imagine his boyfriend envisioning the runner being allowed to enter, but not leave again. It was not an impossible scenario, and the idea of somehow having to trudge the fifty miles back to Ulexium tor on foot through the desert was scarcely appealing. But then Charlie brightened, remembering that they had a teleporter among them. Uncle Bob could not only get them out of this tor should it try to become a prison, but back to their rooms in Ulexium tor, all in the blink of an eye.

"We don't even know if there's anybody home," Charlie said, patting Kip comfortingly. "First things first."

"Allow me," Jol said, scooping up the ship's megaphone and exiting the bridge. He marched up to the bow, leaned on the railing, and brought the megaphone to his lips. "Ahoy, the tor! I am Jol, emissary from the Baron Ulren, sent to speak with Tanna Terail. I have with me a delegation from the Madracorn, sent to converse with you on a matter of the utmost importance. May I ask that you allow us to enter?'

The man dropped the megaphone to his side, and stood watching the big door, as if he expected it to open right away.

And to Charlie's great surprised, it did just that. There was steely grunt, as if from long disuse, and the door drew to one side, revealing a dimly-lit interior within. Jol turned to come back to them, a satisfied expression on his face. "Would you ask your head to take us inside?"

Charlie eyed the door. "Are you sure that's a good idea?"

The man smiled. "I think it's safe to do so, if that's what you're asking."

It was, and Charlie nodded. "Okay."

He stuck his head into the bridge, and instructed Bellux to enter the tor. The runner vibrated, and then crept forward. Charlie watched the doorway as they passed, and realized that the wall it was mounted within was at least eight feet thick. The door itself was a foot of that, and Charlie blew out a small breath of air as he realized that there wasn't a bettering ram ever made that would breach a door like that.

The room beyond was cavernous, and lit by a scant half-dozen lights hung on cables from the dark ceiling above. There existed a pool of light in the center of the room, too feeble to do more than suggest the walls around them. The runner moved to the center of the pool of light and stopped. Behind them, the enormous door slid closed again, and seated with a heavy thud that once again spoke of its impenetrability.

Browbeat took wing, and hovered before Charlie a moment, looking excited. "Want me to check the place out?"

Charlie smiled. "Be careful, okay?"

The little flyer hooted merrily, spun, and vanished into the darkness.

Kippy, standing a couple of feet away from Charlie now, sighed deeply. "He's braver than I am."

"We'll be okay." Charlie patted his thigh. "Come closer, my sweet."

Kippy laughed, but came to stand beside him, and wrapped an arm around Charlie's. Just then something banged in the darkness, rattled, and then many somethings rolled across the distant floor, causing Kippy to jump. "That was spooky," he added, sighing softly. "Now, I feel like it's Halloween."

"You and me, both," Charlie said. He smiled at his boyfriend, leaned forward and kissed him, and squeezed his arm fondly. "We'll be fine. Join me for a walk in the cool ghostlight?"

Kippy smiled. "Oh, Charlie, you say the sweetest things."

Browbeat returned then, and once again hovered before them. The others gathered around to hear his report.

"Not much to see," the flyer told them. "Big piece of equipment of some sort just outside the pool of light. Might be an automated gangway or something. It leads to a raised platform over that way" --he dipped slightly to indicate the direction away from the side of the ship-- "where there's a door. I, uh, bumped into something that fell over, but no harm done that I can tell. I didn't see anyone around."

"Good job," Charlie said. "Thanks."

"If you move towards the side of the ship, the gangway might come out," Browbeat suggested. "Worth a try."

"Okay. Come on, Kip."

But they'd only taken several steps when a sound came to their ears, a whirring, metallic sound. Something came out of the darkness beside the ship, causing them to start. It touched against the side of the vessel and seated there with a small clang, and Charlie realized then that it was some form of boarding ramp. The gangway Browbeat had seen.

"That made me jump," Ricky said, by their side. He and Adrian were there, their arms also locked together. In a moment the others had joined them, and the rail of their vessel gave a soft purr and pulled to one side at the boarding ramp.

"Won't you come in?" Ricky said, trying to sound cheerful.

Adrian, at his side, was left to make the obvious conclusion. He nodded, and blew out a small breath filled with the same nervousness they were all feeling now. "Said the spider to the fly!"

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