Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

It's Just a Matter of Time, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 5

They sat around the coffee table back in the activity room, and Charlie thought that no one looked happy. Seeing what had happened to Lane Tallfield had been one of the most sobering experiences of their lives. The lawman had been murdered, in cold blood, by the man who had possibly been the most trusted friend he had. The image of that moment refused to leave Charlie's thoughts, and he knew it was one he would never forget.

"But what do we do about it?" Kippy asked, looking around at the solemn faces.

"It seems clear that this is somehow at the root of Tallfield's split," Horace said. "Seeing his best friend raising a gun to his back, even if in the last possible moment of his life, had to have made some sort of impact."

"He seems not to remember it happening," Uncle Bob pointed out. "He thinks he was kidnapped from his sleep by the devil."

"He may as well have been," Robin said. "The sheer impact of that split second at the end of his life would be profound. He may not recall it consciously, but somewhere within the torn echo of his quantum reflection, the moment is haunting him, and I mean literally."

"A sort of schism in his sense of reality, if you will," Ragal mused. "He has embraced this fantasy of being kidnapped by the devil and placed upon the road to hell as a way of ignoring the fact that he is dead, and that his best friend killed him."

"It would screw my head up," Jeremiah admitted. "If Joe Wilson suddenly stabbed me in the back, I wouldn't know how to react." He shook his head. "I wouldn't have seen it comin', anymore'n Tallfield did. Joe and me go way back. I can't imagine him doin' me dirty like that."

"It seems obvious that was not the original plan," Robin said. "The robbers were supposed to go into the bank, empty the safe, and get away without incident. The issue of the unlocked safe would be blamed on the confusion surrounding the sudden illness of the Jensen girl. Fred Evans, being one of the ones that helped carry her to the doctor's house, and not getting back to the bank until it had closed, could, at best, be guilty of some small negligence at taking his head teller's word on the safe being locked."

"But wouldn't the issue of robbers showing up on the day the safe was left unlocked strain people's credulity?" Adrian asked.

Robin shook his head. "Actually, the safe was left unlocked on Friday, remember? The robbers showed up on Christmas day, the following Sunday. Two days later. It could easily be argued it was simply a coincidence, as things like that do happen. And Christmas day is a time when everyone would be occupied, and no one paying attention to the bank. Holiday robberies are a common theme among thieves, in case you've forgotten." He smiled, and Charlie recalled how they had met Robin in the first place, in his role as The Christmas Bandit.

The man frowned. "I suspect it was the witch senses of some of the townsfolk that led to the suspicion - or, at least, distrust - of Fred Evans. But you can't lock a man up just because you don't trust him anymore. They couldn't accept having him stay around, though."

"Evans and his gang still got away with the money," Casper pointed out. "Despite everything that happened, their plan still worked!"

"Amazing, considering how badly things went in actuality," Horace mused.

Ricky made an amazed sound. "Yeah. And all because some kid happened to be looking out his bedroom window."

"Best laid plans," Uncle Bob said. "History is just full of even stranger moments."

Charlie raised a hand for attention. "We need to figure out what to do next. Somehow, Lane Tallfield has to face what happened to him, and accept that he has died. He's simply too powerful to be left to run amok on the lower level. If we don't help him, the Madracorn might boot him from the lower layer into the next one down. That seems incredibly unfair to me, after all the indignities that Tallfield has already suffered."

Kippy sighed. "It seems weird, to suddenly view this guy as a victim that needs our help, instead of an enemy that needs to be beaten."

"That's the way it goes, sometimes," Robin offered. "Tallfield is operating under an immense strain, because he is unable to confront reality in the way he needs to do in order to accept his current circumstances and move on. His fixation on returning to the real world may be, in part, the slice of his nature that made him a good lawman, straining to return to the scene of the crime and solve it."

"He saw Fred Evans raising the gun to his back," Horace said. "And it was possibly the last thing he saw. Somewhere, he has that memory."

"We have to help him find it," Charlie offered "I just...have no idea how to do that."

Robin looked around at the solemn faces, and smiled. "I think we'll work it out. I guess we have to begin by going back to this place he is right now. The Tors?"

"He's set something up there that he thinks will allow him to beat us," Kippy said. "According to what he said to Rance and Eleanora, anyway."

Ragal pushed his palms together and briefly touched his fingertips to his nose, something that Charlie's dad did sometimes when he was thinking. It brought a smile to Charlie's face, even though it felt out of place at the moment.

"Tallfield is a powerful user," the lanky alien said. "In life he was probably a very able witch. In the lower layer, his powers seem to have been magnified and expanded, some due to his altered mentality. From what you've told me about his ability to channel himself into Eleanora Tallfield, he is a very unusual customer. Fear is a powerful motivator for the development of skwish defenses. I would say that a furious drive to accomplish something, like this man has with his wish to return to the real word, may well be as big a boost to offensive capabilities. Our problem is in not knowing what other abilities Tallfield may now have. We are safe from his hypnotic powers, but we may still have to deal with something else uncommon."

"Uncommon?" Uncle Bob asked.

"Yes. Hypnotics are far from common. Rare is the word I would use. But it's not just very possible, but almost assured, that a hypnotic will have other abilities that are not often encountered, and so not easily dealt with."

"Let's not forget Lane's ability with luck," Horace pointed out. "Even though it failed him with Fred Evans, Tallfield did manage to get away from us back in The Tors."

Ricky looked around at his friends, and held up a hand. "I don't think we should make him more dangerous in our minds than he really is, by supposing what he might be able to do. I could sense some strange things in Tallfield, but none of them felt too far removed from the types of skwish I have already experienced in the past few years. He strikes the magic mechanic in me as being an unusually able operator. But I get a very capable sense of ability from our group, too. If the" --he looked around, rapidly taking a head count-- "eleven of us can't handle him, then something's wrong."

"It will be even more, when we get back to The Tors," Adrian said. "Jos and Browbeat will be back with us."

Ricky smiled. "I forgot about Browbeat. How can we lose?"

Kippy laughed. "He's a sweetie, no question!"

Charlie nodded at that. "We have the advantage in numbers, definitely. And, actually, I don't feel we can't handle Lane Tallfield. My biggest concern is handling him without hurting him even more than he is now."

"You forgot Chirka, too," Uncle Bob said, smiling. "There will be fourteen of us. I'd hate to have to face us, I know that much!"

"Jos seemed to think he had Tallfield under some measure of control in his reality," Casper reminded. "That will have to work in our favor."

"And remember, I can bring Tallfield to us," Horace said. "We don't have to go to him. It could make the difference between confronting him some place he has prepared to meet us, or reeling him in to a place we have prepared to meet him."

"Right." Charlie nodded. "I don't think we're going to be able to make plans sitting here. We need to go back to Engris, get with Chirka, and then have her take us back to The Tors. We need to talk to Jos, and get his input on our next move. There are too many things we don't know right now."

Charlie looked up at the ceiling, a habit he had developed when talking to the office AI. "Big Irv?"

"Yes, Charlie?"

"I need to talk to Murcha, aboard Lollipop. Can you get him for me?"

"Yes, Charlie. One moment."

Kippy blew out a breath, and snuggled closer to Charlie. "So, we're heading back?"

"I think we have to," Charlie answered. "Don't you?"

"Yes. But I just want to say that the idea scares me a little."

Charlie nodded, and squeezed Kip's hand. "Yeah. Me, too."

Chirka stared at the group before her, and smiled. "I hope there are enough seats in the precipitator."

Charlie realized the Kift was kidding, and smiled. "We never seem to be able to go anywhere anymore without attracting a crowd."

"It's nice to have friends." Chirka turned to examine Robin. "My, my. I get quite a sense of age from you!"

"I've been around, a little," Robin conceded, smiling. He gave a brief bow. "It's a very great pleasure to meet another of the Kift."

Tchk-tchk-tchk. "And charming, too!"

Charlie introduced Jeremiah, who seemed a little overwhelmed by it all. "I don't get out this way much, ma'am. I'm still tryin' to take it all in!"

That seemed to charm Chirka, who reached out to pat the man's hand. "You'll get used to it."

She turned then to look at Augie, and frowned. "What have we here?"

"This is Augie," Kippy said, smiling. "He's a bearcat."

"Whatever that might be." The Kift walked all the way around Augie, her frown deepening. "What are you made of, my friend?" she asked.

Augie gave her a playful grin. "Mah-jeek."

"Is there a problem?" Charlie asked.

The Kift turned to him and nodded. "This is not a corporeal being like us."

Charlie frowned. "He's alive."

"That's not what I meant. He is not made of flesh and blood, as are we."

"How can you tell?" Kippy asked.

"Give me some credit for sensory talent," the Kift replied. "This one is different, and I sense it clearly."

Charlie turned to stare at Augie. He viewed Augie as alive just as they were now, but --

"That's right. He was a foobear - a piece that broke off the Allmagic, according to some of our friends."

Chirka sighed. "The precipitator will not work on him. He will be unable to accompany us."

Augie gave a little growl, and Kippy made an alarmed sound. "We can't leave him behind!" Charlie's boyfriend said.

"We must." Chirka shook her head. "The precipitator is designed to work on corporeal entities such as ourselves. It's not that we must leave him behind. The precipitator simply will not work on him to allow him to go."

Kippy moved closer to Augie and put an arm around his neck. "Aw. That sucks."

"Sucks," Augie agreed, looking unhappy.

Chirka brightened then. She spun and waved a hand towards one doorway. "Just a moment."

They heard footfalls then, coming from the other room. Small ones. In a moment, a device that was clearly an automaton of some sort came into the room. It was simply a cylinder on legs, about the same height as the Kift, with the upper portion completely surrounded by efficient-looking arms with deft little hands at the ends.

"This is Antus, my fabricator. She built the precipitator from my plans."

"Ilbum polana nin boti colafin?" Antus said.

The Kift rolled her eyes. "Language file 623, I believe it is."

"Oh." Antus returned. "I have it. What can I do for you?"

Chirka placed her hands together. "I have an interesting problem for you, Antus. I need an add-on to the precipitator that will allow this being's energy structure to participate in forays into the lower layer."

Two spaghetti-like appendages emerged from the top of the automaton and waved what appeared to be eye-like imagers at Augie. "Interesting proposition."

"Can you do it?"

"I will need to carefully analyze this being's structure. What I am getting at the moment is puzzling." One of the appendages moved closer to Augie. "But I don't see why not. May I touch you?"

Augie looked at Charlie a moment, and then nodded. "Touch."

The appendage dropped to contact Augie's furry hide. "Amazing. Your energy potential far exceeds any I have ever sensed from a living being."

Augie grinned at that, and rolled his eyes at Kippy.

Kippy laughed. "He eats lots of breakfast cereal."

"What do you think?" Chirka asked the automaton.

"I think I can do it. Is this a rush job?"

The Kift blinked, and then smiled. "Yes. If you don't mind."

"You're the boss. I'll start right away." Antus turned to Augie. "Come with me, if you would."

"Wait," Chirka said. "We'll be going into the lower layer. Will your work require interrupting any processes of the precipitator?"

"No. I will build the add-on, and simply add it on. There will be no impact to the operation of the precipitator."

Chirka looked satisfied. "Very well. As soon as the new unit is ready, I want you to ascertain our coordinates within the lower layer, and send Augie along to us."

Kippy moved to the bearcat and gave him a hug. "We'll see you soon, okay?"

"Okay." Augie moved to stand with Antus. "Ready."

"This way." The automaton moved off, heading back the way it had come. Augie gave them a last, slightly forlorn look, and followed.

Kippy sighed. "Poor guy."

"We'll fix it," Chirka promised. "Augie will join us as soon as possible."

It's always something! Charlie mused. He closed his eyes briefly, before reopening and fixing them on Chirka. "Anything new since we've been away?"

The Kift turned to the floating images in the room. "I've been examining The Tors while you were gone, though you weren't gone for long."

Kippy, sensing Charlie's drop in mood over the loss of Augie from their group, came to stand beside him, and leaned against his shoulder. Charlie immediately smiled, feeling some good spirits return.

"We were gone more than a month," Charlie said.

"Yes, but you know how that works here on Engris." Chirka told him.

"Not at all," Ricky put in, nodding. "How long did it feel like to you?"

The Kift turned a smile on them. "You left late in the day. It is now a subjective day later. The time it took for you to leave Engris in the first place, I presume, combined with the time since your arrival back here."

"That would be about right," Charlie agreed. He pointed at the many floating images. "That looks like The Tors there."

"It is. I've been studying what I can see of this reality, hoping to get a better grasp of the things happening there."

"Have you been able to learn anything?"

"Yes." The Kift waved at one of the floating images, which was currently focused on a desert clipper rolling across the sands. The image faded, and was replaced by one of a large hall of some sort. The great room was several stories tall, with wide windows to each side that ran from the polished floor to the vaulted ceiling. Outside the windows to one side, the red sun that lit The Tors hung in the sky, but whether it was on the rise or setting, they could not tell.

The room's center was occupied by a grand, rectangular conference-style table, with enough chairs for a dozen or more to be seated. But just now, only the largest chair at the head of the table was occupied. The man was of the same race as Jos, an Alsaran, and dressed in a suit of light gray that managed somehow to look rich despite the simplicity of its design. On the table before him were spread a number of papers, which looked to contain maps and diagrams. To either side of the man in gray stood two others, one another Alsaran like the seated one, and dressed in a suit of a soft blue.

But it was the other man that drew their immediate attention. Unlike the other two, this one was human, and easily more than a head taller than the others. The man was dressed in a black suit with a cape, and wore a tall top hat that looked to have been lifted from some old movie. His face was angular and handsome, and they all seemed to recognize him at the same time.

Kippy gasped. "That's--"

"It's him," Bob Travers said at the same time. "It's Tallfield!"

It was. Charlie examined the man, and had to admit that he was even more impressive looking in his current garb than in the western-style suit, duster, and Stetson they had originally met him in. What was interesting this time was that the lawman now wore one of the same type handguns that Ricky had purchased on their previous visit, which was part of a game of quick-draw practiced by some of the locals. Charlie frowned. What was the weapon called?

"He's wearing a randomizer," Ricky noted, supplying the weapon's name. "I wonder what that's about?"

The man at the table started talking, but they couldn't hear his words.

"No sound?" Ricky asked.

Chirka turned to laugh. "Visual magic isn't enough?"

Ricky looked embarrassed. " would be nice to hear what they're saying, I mean."

"It would. Unfortunately, my apparatus does what it does by analyzing light quanta off the reality mirror. Sound is not a component of the stream."

Ricky's eyes widened, and all he could do was nod. "Oh. I see."

The Kift smiled. "Much information can be gained just by watching, however."

The man seated at the table continued to talk, while Tallfield and the other man in the room listened. After a moment, the seated one turned to the lawman, and seemed to be asking him a question. Tallfield listened, smiled, and gave a dramatic toss of his cape, revealing that it had a red satin liner. He then raised his hand, and a startling, glassy-looking globe appeared upon his palm, the size of a basketball back on earth. Immediately, the globe filled with imagery, and they were treated to a recounting of their battle with Tallfield back on the mountain in Jol's secret lair, except that it obviously played out from Tallfield's point of view!

In the end, Horace entombed Tallfield within the pyramid atop which they had been fighting, and Tallfield blasted his way out through the side and rocketed over the rim of the mountain, still wrapped in the black, octopus-like arms of the darkness that Ragal and Bob Travers had imprisoned him within. But as he sped through the sky of Jol's reality, a shimmering whiteness appeared, like ice rapidly forming on a chilled surface, and completely covered the black arms of the octopus, and they soon fell away, freeing the man. Tallfield continued to sail through the sky, passing above the desert and the tors it held, while the sun above the world rapidly sank towards the horizon. The imagery clearly showed the passage of relative time, indicating that Tallfield had covered some distance.

Finally, as night approached, the tors over which the man passed started showing lights, and soon one tor, larger than the others and exceedingly well-lit in the darkness, stood out, and swiftly grew larger as he neared it.

"I suspect that this is Atackit tor," Chirka put in then, indicating the image with a wave of her hand. "I took this sequence to be Tallfield recounting how he came to be at the tor."

"We already knew he can fly here," Horace said.

"So can I," Kippy reminded. "And in the real world. Big deal." He smiled, to show he was kidding.

Charlie scratched his chin. "Tallfield kind of amazes me with how well he seems to be able to get around here. For a guy who thinks he's on the road to hell, his confidence is hardly what I'd call rattled."

"He's probably accustomed to things working out for him," Ragal reminded. "If good luck was a great component of his life, then failure would not be something he's used to. He still expects to win, in the end."

"What's he doing there?" Adrian asked.

Just then, the Tallfield in the image was moving his hands about, while green sparks and a red mist flowed around them. It was an impressive scene, but its purpose was a mystery.

"Look at the way he's dressed," Bob Travers said then. "Black suit, cape with a red lining, top hat? He's the spitting image of every nineteenth century person's idea of a magician!"

And, magic was what it looked like Tallfield was doing. The sparks and red mist continued around his hands as he waved them in a complex pattern. The show was impressive, and the two men watching seemed entranced.

Suddenly, the misty flow intensified, and then poured out of Tallfield's hands like water over a falls. The sparkly mistiness congealed into a pool on the floor, and then flowed upwards, forming a manlike shape, though one without any features. It continued to grow, until it was taller than Tallfield, and then it shimmered, and wings sprouted from the back!

The seated man was pressed back into his chair now, and his companion had moved slightly to one side to interpose the back of the chair between himself and this new apparition. The expressions of the two suggested apprehension, at the least.

Horace made a sound of surprise. "That looks very much like the power I found I had, to create things from the essence of that reality!"

Charlie turned to the man. "It didn't look much like the way you created your man-thing." He was referring to the Yeti-like form that Horace had created, and which would do his bidding for him.

"I think there's some show going on here," Uncle Bob offered then. "I think Horace is right, and Tallfield's power is the same one. Tallfield has just dressed it up to be impressive." The man gave a grudging nod. "Tallfield has the showmanship of a magician, I'll say that much!"

In the image, the winged man-thing seemed to be waiting on Tallfield. The law man raised a hand and pointed at the windows to one side, and said something they couldn't hear. The winged creation nodded, turned, and launched itself into the air, heading straight at the windows!

Charlie took a surprised breath, and mentally braced himself, expecting the winged thing to crash through the window glass; but instead, the creature reached the many-paned window and simply passed through it, without disturbing a thing. They could see it beyond then, winging away into the sky. And then it was gone.

In the image they were watching, the two Alsarans turned to look at each other, and the one standing gave a short bow, threw what looked like an angry glance at Tallfield, but then immediately left the room. The seated one watched him go, and then turned back to Tallfield, who was watching with great interest.

For a moment the seated man just stared at the lawman; and then he indicated the chair to his left at the table, a clear offer for Tallfield to sit. The lawman nodded, went and pulled out the chair, and calmly seated himself there.

The image faded.

"That's it?" Charlie asked, turning to Chirka.

"No, there's more. They sat there for some time after, talking, and then went away together. There follows quite a bit, but I didn't find it that interesting."

Charlie understood then. "That was a recording?"

The Kift looked surprised. "Yes. I'm sorry if you didn't understand that. Relative time in Jol's world moves at a different rate than here. The mysteries of relative time are many. But I thought that sequence most telling, and wanted you to see it." Chirka smiled. "Would you like to know what I gleaned from observing it?"

Charlie smiled. "Of course!"

The Kift sighed happily. "I do believe our Mr. Tallfield has gotten himself a job."

Uncle Bob laughed. "You mean as a magician?"

"Yes." Chirka's gaze held a twinkle of humor. "I believe the seated man was Lord Tursin, ruler of Atackit Tor. The gentleman with him was his former chief magical advisor. I believe that Tallfield now holds that position."

It made sense. Charlie reviewed what they had seen and nodded. "Apparently, it didn't take much to get the job!"

"The Alsaran are a decent people, and they do number power users among their kind. Most are fairly mundane practitioners, however. Jol is the most able Alsaran I have seen yet." Tchk-tchk-tchk. "I suspect that Lord Tursin's reputation as a powerful wizard is part organization, and part put-on. I think he employs other power users to make him look good, and that his own abilities are nothing to be terribly worried about."

Kippy stared at the Kift. "You got all that from watching that one short sequence?"

Chirka looked amused. "Of course not. There are many hours of that footage there. I watched all of it, and arrived at my conclusion after. I simply showed you the salient part, and spared you the hours of less interesting fare."

"One thing of interest," Ragal said then, "is the way that Tallfield neutralized the black wraiths that Bob and I entwined him in. Did you see the white film that covered him as he flew off? He added a positive light to the negative light, which neutralized it."

"I thought it wasn't really light at all?" Ricky pointed out.

"It's not." Ragal smiled. "Speaking figuratively, of course, without introducing reams of higher-order mathematics on the nature of interacting, interlaced charged fields"

Ricky's eyes popped a little at that, and he laughed. "Oh, I get it. He lit the dark and neutralized it."

"So, we can't depend on that trick as a means of restraining the man in any future encounter," Uncle Bob mused. He smiled. "I'll have to see what else I can come up with."

Kippy pointed at the image they had been watching, now dark. "Where did the winged thing go?"

Chirka looked briefly annoyed. "I didn't get after it quickly enough to follow. However, I suspect, from what I know of Tallfield, that it is a spy of some sort, sent to look for you or Jos, to see what is happening."

"Could it be dangerous?" Adrian asked.

The Kift looked unsure of her answer. "Considering the rules of the lower layer, where no one can be killed, I would say it's most useful aspect will be that it somehow gives Tallfield knowledge that he would otherwise not have gained without its use."

Kippy smiled at that. "That sounds like a very smart way of saying you don't know, to me."

The Kift also smiled. "It's painful to be so transparent!"

Charlie turned to Robin, who had been viewing the proceedings silently. The man seemed to do his best thinking when simply standing around watching. "What do you think?"

History's favorite thief smiled. "That everything said here has merit, but that we won't know for sure until we go and see for ourselves."

Charlie sighed. "I kind of thought that, myself."

"Trust your intuition then, I say." Robin waved a hand at the now dark image. "It does seem to me that Tallfield is making plans. Whatever he is doing, it's probably the lead up to him confronting us again. On his own terms this time, or so he thinks."

"Could he know we've observed this?" Charlie asked Chirka.

"No. The technology I have here is outside the bounds of the lower layer, looking inward. If you walked the surface of a world while someone gazed down at you from an orbiting spacecraft, would you know?"

"I wouldn't put anything past Charlie," Kippy said brightly.

Charlie smiled at that, but shook his head at the Kift. "Probably not."

"It isn't even that simple a comparison," Chirka continued. "It would be more like you walking around on the surface of your world while someone here in the dark realm of Engris watched you do it. You would have no way of knowing, that I can fathom."

"Even better," Robin decided. "We have a slight advantage in knowing he is preparing for us, if nothing else. We know where he is, and that he can neutralize Ragal's inky handcuffs, and that he can manipulate that reality to the extent of creating proxy beings, like Horace can. That is powerful knowledge."

"But we don't know his plans yet," Kippy pointed out. "What he's preparing."

The older man nodded. "Which is why we have to go there now and see for ourselves."

Chirka raised a hand and pointed at the connecting corridor to the next room, where the precipitator was based. "I'm ready, if all of you are."

Ricky suddenly started patting his pockets, and looking around like he'd lost something. Long attuned to his friend's sense of humor before 'going into battle', Charlie decided to humor him. "Lose something, Rick?"

The other boy smiled knowingly at the opening. "My insurance policy. I just wanted to see if it covers being chased by winged whatsits in the realm of the dead."

Adrian sighed, but smiled fondly at his boyfriend. "We can put in a claim later, and find out."

Kippy moved closer to Charlie, and wrapped their arms together. "Ready?"

Charlie looked around at his friends - his very able friends - and nodded. "I think we're as ready as we'll ever be." He turned to Chirka then. "Let's go."

They appeared within the room shared by Charlie and Kip at the inn inside Ulexium Tor, called The Wild Gnorf. Chirka had told them she could place them anywhere they had already been within the reality Jos had created, as the precipitator stored all the coordinates as a matter of course. Since Jos expected them to come back to Ulexium Tor when they returned, Charlie had opted to be placed in their room at the inn so that they could pick up their backpacks. The room looked just as they had left it, and their backpacks were still piled together on the large bed. They retrieved them, and looked inside to make certain everything was there, though Charlie was certain they had been undisturbed. Jos did have complete control of the place, right?

Charlie finished checking his own pack and walked over to where Rick was examining the contents of his. "Still got the randomizer in there?"

The other boy nodded. "Yes. I'll leave it here."

"No." Charlie leaned closer and lowered his voice. "Bring it along. We may need it."

Rick looked surprised, but just nodded, without questioning Charlie's motives.

"Jeremiah and I don't have packs," Robin said then.

Charlie nodded. "We'll swing by the shop we visited before, and get you both some supplies. They're just things that will help, nothing is a necessity. We don't actually need anything here to survive. You get thirsty, it's just an inconvenient feeling. You can't die of a lack of water here anymore than you can die of a lack of food."

"Consider them adventure accessories," Chirka said, smiling. "Things that will accentuate your visit here, or make you more comfortable. Things that will make it easier, and more fun."

Robin smiled, and rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "I can't wait to see the shop!"

Charlie laughed, and then went to Jeremiah, who had been looking a little lost lately. "Are you okay?"

The man smiled at him. "Are you kiddin' me? This is all as far from the witchin' I know as it gets, Charlie. I really have no idea what's goin' on!"

"I explained to you where we are now, and you understand that?"

"Sure." Jeremiah smiled. "I'm wonderin' if I'll run into my uncle here."

Charlie's eyebrows went up at that. "Your uncle is dead? I'm sorry to hear that."

Jeremiah laughed. "Naw, he ain't dead. He's just one of those witches that has a way of gettin' to unusual places. Now that I understand how this teleportin' power works, I suspect he's one of them."

"Oh." Charlie smiled. "Well, relax. As far as I know, you can't teleport to the lower layer from the real world."

Jeremiah just shrugged. "You don't know my uncle!"

Charlie nodded, and patted the man's shoulder. "Well, if he shows up here, we'll put him to work. We can use every hand we can get!"

A strange sound at the door into the hallway drew Charlie's attention then. It sounded as if someone was brushing up against the door in passing, except it went on and on.

"What do you suppose that is?" Rick asked, frowning.

Robin, closest to the door, shrugged. "Why don't we just open it and see?"

"Go ahead," Charlie agreed. "Just remember to duck if the guy has an axe!"

Robin smiled at that, almost as if it was a challenge. He moved to the door, opened it a crack...and then stepped backwards, pulling it all the way open.

Browbeat sailed into the room, his wings beating like mad. "Friends! You came back!"

Kippy gave a little squeal of joy, and stepped forward, his arms out. Browbeat eyed him with surprise, and then gave forth a tittering laugh. "I don't hug very well. No arms!" He moved nearer to Kippy. "Stand still a moment and I'll land on your shoulder."

Kippy did that, and the small flyer landed carefully. Kip raised a hand and laid it daintily on Browbeat's back, and stroked the little alien with his fingertips. "We're happy to see you again," he said.

"I came the moment Jos told me you'd returned! It sure was less fun without you guys!" Browbeat blinked, and then laughed again. "Not that Jos isn't fun. He's just busy, running this place! I had to entertain myself some of the time. Bor-ing!"

Kippy laughed, and everyone smiled.

"But you're back now," Browbeat went on, sounding excited. "Let the fun begin!"

Kippy sighed, smiling at Charlie. "Can we take him home, daddy? Can we?"

Charlie laughed. "If there was a way, I might. But I suspect Browbeat would find the real universe boring after this!"

"It would be fun, as long as you guys were there!" the flyer countered. He looked around the room then, and spotted Robin and Jeremiah, as if for the first time. "New friends! I'm Browbeat! Who are you?"

Introductions were made, and Browbeat launched himself off Kip's shoulder and circled the room happily. "I'm supposed to bring you back to Jos when you're ready."

"I guess we are," Charlie said, returning to pick up his pack. He shrugged into it, cinched the straps, and looked around at the others, then smiled at Browbeat. "We have to go by that supply shop and get packs for Robin and Jeremiah. Can you rein in your excitement long enough?"

The flyer laughed happily. "I'll lead the way!" He flew to the door and hovered before it. "Darn things! Open!"

To their surprise, the door clicked and then opened inward. Browbeat smiled at them. "Jos fixed it for me. I can't come in unless I'm invited, but I sure can get out if I want to! Come on, friends!"

The group fell in, and Browbeat led them back to the outfitter's shop on the main corridor, where Robin and Jeremiah were bought packs and supplies. From there they followed Browbeat as he led them upwards around a giant spiraling staircase, the flyer darting ahead of them and then turning back to fly excitedly around them and then back to the fore again.

"He's going to wear me out just watching!" Kippy said cheerfully.

"Good preparation for having kids one day," Charlie said, and then smiled when his boyfriend goggled at him.

But Kippy decided he didn't want to be baited at the moment, and managed to turn the startled look into a smile. "It sure is!"

Charlie linked arms with his boyfriend, and they followed Browbeat up the staircase and into another wide corridor. The flyer led them down the length of it to two broad doors at the end. "Open!" the flyer called, and this time, the two doors parted to admit them. Charlie and Kip led the others inside, and the doors whispered shut behind them.

They were in an anteroom to what looked like a large and well-appointed suite of rooms. They could see into several of the others from their spot inside the entry, and Charlie looked around curiously, noting that, while the rooms seemed to be comfortably furnished and attractively decorated, they were far from what one might expect of the absolute ruler of an entire reality. Not quite spartan, and well above utilitarian; but not grandiose in any way, either.

"Be with you in a minute!" a voice called from a back room.

Robin looked around at the rooms, and then smiled at Charlie. "I like this Jos already."

And then the man himself was coming towards them, his hand outstretched to Charlie. The Alsaran was dressed in his usual low-key style, in clothing that seemed fairly plain to the eye, but somehow managed to still look like it cost something. Charlie did admire good taste in clothing, and he could also see the approving look in Robin's eye.

"Good to see you back," Jos said, shaking Charlie's hand warmly. "Your timing was perfect."

Charlie smiled at Chirka. "We have an excellent guide."

"I see you have two new additions to your party this time," Jos noted, smiling at Robin and Jeremiah. "I'm Jos, and I welcome you to my home."

Robin and Jeremiah were introduced, and then Jos took them all through into another room, one efficiently furnished with appealing seating, and waved a hand. "Get comfortable, and we can talk."

They all found places, and Jos actually sat on the corner of a low table where he could face them all. "I guess I should update you first." He looked around at the faces, and nodded. "Your Mr. Tallfield is a capable power user - maybe one of the most capable I have ever met - but he's very quaint in his methods." The man's eyes settled on Charlie. "I was under the impression that your kind were galactic travelers."

Charlie decided to answer that plainly. "Not all of us are. And Tallfield is from our past, before the advent of space travel."

"Ah. That would explain it."

"Is there a reason you've made a note of this?" Charlie asked.

"Yes. Tallfield seems not to be acquainted with sophisticated technology at all. He has been spying on me via a rather ingenious being he created, a sort of a winged shadow of himself, it appears. But he doesn't seem to understand about even the few sorts of spy devices I allow here in my reality. The things he has done thus far display a surprising naivete about the modern world."

Charlie nodded. "The period in our history he's from was very early into our electrical age. His familiarity with such methods would be next to none."

"That explains it. His winged spy has been hovering around the tor for a while now, watching the comings and goings of ships of the desert. I suspect he's looking for my own vessel to depart for Atackit Tor, and expects you to be aboard with me."

Charlie marveled at that. "He expects us to come to him by ship? Can't you just teleport us there, like you moved us all here from the rental ship last time?"

The man smiled. "I could do that. And, I suspect he knows I can do that. He has his tendrils into my reality, and so he can deduce many of the rules it operates by. He would also be able to detect us coming by direct teleportation, and would be ready to meet us. And, I suspect he knows I know that, and so will opt for a slower and more secretive approach."

Kippy rolled his eyes at that. "There's a lot of suspecting going on here!"

Jos laughed. "The bottom line is, if we approach him via teleportation, he will see it coming. I must tap the coordinates of his location in order to initiate the transfer, and with his feelers out like they are, he will notice it immediately. So, teleportation, normally an excellent avenue of approach to be used to surprise a foe, would work against us in this case. If we want to sneak up on the man, we'll have to do it the old-fashioned way."

"So, he's set a watcher to let him know when we leave," Ricky said. "Makes sense to me."

"It does," Jos agreed. "So, we will use that to our advantage."

Uncle Bob grinned. "I suspect some sleight-of-hand coming up!"

Jos nodded. "My plan is very simple, really. I want his winged spy to see all of us boarding my private vessel, and then it leaving here and taking the route to Atackit Tor."

Horace smiled. "That seems hardly deceptive."

"I know. Tallfield figures his watcher is his advantage here, because he thinks we won't know about it. But we do. So, we will all board my private vessel and depart from Atackit Tor. And, once we are out in the desert, we will leave that vessel and move to another."

"How do we leave it?" Casper asked. "If Tallfield can detect teleportation, I mean. Won't his spy see us if we stop the ship to make the move to another?"

"No. Tallfield would be able to sense us teleporting to his location, or any place near it, but he is unable to sense such movement elsewhere within the reality. None that he, himself, is not the focus of, in other words. So, he will not know if we teleport off my private vessel and move to a location not near his own."

"Where will we teleport to?" Robin asked.

Jos looked like he was having fun. "A half-day before my private vessel leaves with us on board, the regular fast mail courier for Garmo Tor leaves here. It's a routine run, and scheduled. Garmo Tor lies two-thirds of the way to Atackit Tor, if slightly to the east in direction. My plan is, that once we are out in the desert on my private vessel, I will teleport all of us to the mail packet running a half-day ahead of us. Both vessels will continue on as if everything is normal. Tallfield will be able to track the approach of my private vessel, not knowing we have left it."

Robin frowned at that. "That will get us to this Garmo Tor. What about after that?"

Jos nodded happily. "Here's where the good part of my plan comes in."

Charlie smiled, seeing the glee in the Alsaran's eyes. That he was enjoying the game seemed clear.

"There will be a supply vessel called Morion on its way from the eastern seaport to Atackit Tor, and it will be approaching from a completely different direction. It's scheduled to arrive at Atackit Tor three days before my private vessel can get there. When the mail packet reaches Garmo Tor, I will teleport us to that supply vessel. We will then arrive at Atackit three days before Tallfield expects us."

Robin smiled. "I like it. But will he think of such a ploy?"

Jos shrugged. "I won't say he won't think of it, but it actually doesn't matter if he does. You have to remember that there is a great deal of other traffic that will be approaching Atackit Tor from many directions. We will scarcely be out in the desert alone. By my estimation, there will be upwards of 100 vessels arriving at Atackit Tor during the course of the day we arrive. Tallfield may indeed suspect we have changed vessels, but it will just be beyond his capabilities to watch every one of them."

"Can he sense our arrival any other way?"

Jos frowned at that. "He may, but not until we are very close to him. And I mean close. One of the underpinnings of adventure is the element of surprise. This reality is set up to allow for that."

Charlie nodded, understanding that, for Jos, this was an adventure. A game. And one the man intended to win.

Charlie was pretty sure that Lane Tallfield did not consider this a game. For him, winning meant life, or so he thought. They would have to be careful, because in his present state of mind, Charlie felt that the lawman from earth would stop at nothing to get home again.

"Okay. It sounds like a plan, or, the start of one, anyway."

Jos smiled. "I agree that it is only a start. We really won't know what Tallfield has planned until we get there."

Horace cleared his throat then. "I just wanted to remind you that I can summon Tallfield to us, if we so desire."

"And we may want to do that," Jos agreed. "It's too early to know for certain what we will need to do later."

"When were you thinking of leaving?" Charlie asked.

"Tomorrow, around noon."

Ricky grinned. "That leaves the evening free. How about we go to The Dirty Whisker for dinner?"

Charlie nodded. "Okay by me."

"You can come back here around mid-morning," Jos told them, as he escorted them to the door. "Once we're underway, we can start planning in more detail."

"I'm going with them for now," Browbeat told the Alsaran. "They're having fun!"

Jos smiled at that. "Probably for the best. I'll be busy right up until we leave."

They exited the baron's quarters, and moved back down the hallway.

Robin arrived beside Charlie as they walked along. "I like Jos. I just hope he has as firm a grip on this reality as he thinks."

Charlie turned to look at the man. "I think he sees this as a game. I don't know if he understands how seriously Tallfield views this coming confrontation."

"That was my thought. It will be up to us not to lose sight of that." Robin smiled and rubbed his hands together. "So, what's this Dirty Whisker like? Bawdy women, fistfights, and gunplay?"

Charlie laughed."No. But the food is good. And the drinks will make you relaxed and happy, but not drunk."

Robin's eyes widened, and he sighed. "Oh, well. Maybe I'll like it, anyway!"

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