Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

It's Just a Matter of Time, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 6

The piers were busy with the usual comings and goings of desert clippers, and the ruckus of busy dock crews loading and unloading the moored vessels. The noontime sun illuminated all of this motion with a rose-colored shine that lent just enough of an otherworldly quality to the scene to make it instantly memorable. Charlie sighed, feeling the odd satisfaction that sometimes overcame him when he realized the length and breadth of their travels in space and time. He and his friends had been places and experienced events that would have astounded anyone back home on Earth, and Charlie had memories now that he would cherish for a lifetime.

Browbeat whizzed past his head, trying to look everywhere at once, his excitement causing Charlie to smile. They had met some fascinating people, and made some wonderful friends, in their travels, too.

"Wow!" the little flyer called, sailing back to hover beside Charlie and Kip as they walked along. "Is this place busy, or what? I've counted over eighty different races just out here on the docks, alone!"

Charlie looked around, nodding. The reality that Jos had made had brought together all kinds of people, mostly of races Charlie had never seen before. But that everyone here went about their business with an air of satisfaction seemed clear. It was interesting to consider that someone's idea of a heaven after death would be loading and unloading ships at a pier, but the crews he saw at work seemed to be enjoying what they did. It reminded him that people could come to love any sort of job, if it simply touched them in the right place inside.

"Oh, look at that!" Browbeat called then. "That must be the ship Jos is taking us to!"

They had followed the man along a wide dock that extended narrower finger docks to each side, each of which hosted a vessel alongside. But at the very end of the long pier stood another vessel, really not much different than the others, which all looked fairly new, and quite capable in their jobs of putting miles of sandy desert behind them every hour. There was no rust, no discoloration, like one might see on ships of the oceans. These vessels all looked well-kept, freshly painted, and...somehow, contented, almost as would living things happy to be doing what they were doing.

Charlie smiled at the idea, but found it somehow not at all out of place in this realm. Jos ran a happy ship, in more ways than one.

The private vessel of the Baron Ulren, called Indic, was only about half the size of Scarpit, the vessel that had picked them up in the desert on their first visit and brought them to Ulexium Tor. Scarpit had been a very large transport, however, and Indic was still three times the size of the little ship they had rented to take them to Ilorum Tor to see the mystic, Tanna Terail. And, Indic boasted two very large turrets up front, and another to the rear, that promised to hold catapults of a size beyond what one might expect on a vessel this size. The baron apparently intended that any meetings he should have with other vessels out on the sands go his way, or no way at all.

"There are plenty of cabins aboard," Jos called back to them. "And we can be underway as soon as we board."

Kippy tensed then, and held onto Charlie's arm a little bit tighter. "I feel like we're being watched."

"I hope so," Charlie whispered back. "That would be Tallfield's winged spy, I'll bet. You have to act like you don't know, okay?"

"Uh huh."

Adrian pulled Ricky closer to them then. "Charlie--"

"We know," Kip whispered. "Ignore it."

Adrian nodded, and smiled at Rick. "Pretty day to go sailing."

Uncle Bob, who was next to them on the other side, chuckled. "Have we seen it rain here yet?"

"I haven't," Browbeat said. "Though there's no real need for it. Jos runs everything, so he can make the gardens grow without water, if he wants to!"

"We saw that little waterfall in the main centrum of the tor, remember?" Horace asked. "There have to be sources for water here."

Robin smiled. "From what I've been told, Jos could have simply scripted an unquenchable aquifer under this whole place, and left it at that."

"I suspect there's more to it," Ragal offered. "And I recall seeing evidence of erosive forces when we were out in the desert. Washes and gullies - those sorts of things."

Jos, having caught part of the conversation, had slowed to let them catch up. "It rains here one day each week, pretty much randomly, though it's set for the days not to be too closely together. There are complete systems in place for the recycling of water, naturally."

"People don't really need it, though," Casper pointed out.

"No, but being thirsty is unpleasant, and it's very hard to cook a nice quabish without water. Remember, our senses work, even if our bodies don't."

Charlie remembered then that they could experience a lot of things here, even if they had no lasting impact. Being thirsty felt the same here as it did out in the real universe. And being hungry.

And, being shot with an arrow, or hit with a fist. Unpleasant, though no real damage was done. Still, why feel thirsty or hungry - or injured - if you could avoid it?

Uncle Bob sped up a bit to walk alongside the baron. "Is it true that being injured here comes with real pain?"

Jos frowned at that. "Yes, and no. Say you are caught in an explosion, for instance. One powerful enough that it might have blown you into pieces in the real world. Here you will feel the concussive force of the blast, and be tossed into a heap somewhere. It will be painful, but there is no actual damage to your body. Being shot with an arrow, say, would also cause pain, but you could simply pull the arrow out and it would go away. And, again, there is no real damage to your body here. But the experiences are unpleasant enough that you really don't want them to happen again."

"That's just weird," Kippy said. "Why have the pain part at all?"

Jos laughed. "Pain is nature's way of alerting us to problems, and reminding us not to do some very dangerous or stupid things.Those reminders are important to daily life. If I simply did away with them here, there would be people jumping off the tors to get to the ground, or doing all sorts of other unnatural things, which would detract from the experience of living."

"But we're not alive here," Kippy objected.

Jos nodded. "But the object of creating a reality here in the lower layer, usually, is to return to a semblance of the order of life that we once enjoyed. There are realities where people are allowed to do most anything, but not here in mine. This reality insists that those that partake of it treat it as a living world, with all the good, and bad, that comes with that."

"That makes sense to me," Horace decided. "I don't think I'd want to live someplace where there's nothing to lose by being stupid."

That brought smiles, and a couple of laughs.

They reached the Indic, and boarded the vessel by a railed gangway that spanned the dock and the deck of the ship. As soon as they were aboard, the gangway retracted, and a whistle high on the superstructure sang three short blasts. The deck vibrated briefly beneath their feet, and the ship pulled away from the dock.

"I left instructions with Soren to take us out as soon as we were aboard," Jos told them.

Soren turned out to be the bronze, bearded Alsaran head that ran the ship on the very modern looking bridge. Jos took them there, and introduced them to the ship's AI, who had a similar but distinct personality from the previous two heads they had met on other ships.

Casper took an immediate liking to Soren, and pronounced him hale and hardy. The ship moved to the big doors in the wall, and was let out into the desert, and Ulexium Tor soon grew small behind them.

Charlie looked out across the desert from the bridge, and realized this could be an interesting life here, transporting cargo or passengers from place to place. For someone who had done this sort of work in life and loved it, such a continuation in the afterlife with even less in the way of worries would be a sort of heaven, indeed.

Kippy sighed, and smiled out at the rose-hued desert. "There's a lonely beauty to it, isn't there?"

Charlie put an arm around his boyfriend's shoulders and squeezed him. "Yes." He leaned his head closer to Kip's. "You still feel like we're being watched?"

"Yeah. Whatever it was, it followed us from the tor."

"Good. That has to be Tallfield's spy." Charlie turned to Jos then. "If we teleport off the ship, won't the watcher notice we are never on deck?"

"I can leave a few dummies to be us," Jos grinned. "No offense."

The dummies, it turned out, were other AI contrivances, that could be customized in appearance. Jos could set them to be able to resemble anyone in the group, and have them make occasional appearances on deck after they had left. That way, Tallfield's watcher would think they were still aboard and report that fact to its master.

"That seems kind of simple," Uncle Bob said to Jos. "Are you sure this watcher won't notice the change?"

"I doubt it. The effectiveness of Tallfield's proxy is based on us not knowing about it. It will watch from afar, then, so that we never see it. And from afar, the dummies will be indistinguishable from us." The Alsaran smiled again. "No offense."

Everyone laughed at that.

"What about me?" Browbeat asked. "Will you make a dummy me to fly around?"

"That can be arranged, easily. We may as well be complete about it."

"Wow!" Browbeat executed an excited circle in the air. "I'm going to be immortalized in plastic!"

"It will only be a temporary fame," Jos said, smiling along with everyone else at the flyer's contagious high spirits. "Once this mission is over, the dummies will revert to the basic forms they come in."

That seemed to have no effect on Browbeat. "It's the thought that counts!"

Robin looked out at the desert, and then turned to the baron. "This almost seems too easy."

Jos nodded. "It helps when you're the one that's created the reality." He sighed. "I've always been a bit of a romantic, to go along with my love of adventure. And I love history, and the great intrigues of those eras, before my kind reached the stars. Those were simpler times, the technology was far more limited, and intrigues of the day had to be carried out in person." He grunted. "In modern galactic culture, industrial and military espionage are the province of machines, from nano devices capable of infiltrating the competition's deepest lairs, to interstellar outposts that monitor the billions of messages that fly between star systems. It's all become too huge and too complex. The people-angle has been removed, save at the far back end where the volumes of information come together."

"You wanted something simpler," Robin stated, smiling.

"Yes. I wanted a culture that allowed for competition, especially in business, and which was friendly to all the little moves and countermoves that go along with acquiring position and power. But I wanted it to be on a personal level, without the myriad of machines in the way of the adventure. Mystery and intrigue, yes; but all of it handled by people. So, I limited the rules, allowing enough modern technology to exist here to provide a comfortable life for people that came to my reality, but not allowing any tech in that acted as a surrogate for getting out there and competing in person."

Robin nodded. "The Tors seems an amazing mix of the old and the new. These ships are certainly not primitive, nor are the facilities at Ulexium Tor. You have allowed for AI control of essential operations, but there are absolutely no AI intel devices of any kind. There is no form of distance communication, no sensing devices, no modern weaponry to speak of. Your ships and your forts are armed with catapults that throw rocks, yet even they are powered by modern means."

Jos grinned. "Exciting, isn't it? If you have an opponent out to get you, either they or their minions will have to face off against you in person."

"You said earlier that you did allow some modern methods of spying here. And that Tallfield seemed oblivious to them."

The baron waved a hand. "Only modern when viewed next to throwing stones at each other. You may have noticed that there are absolutely no electromagnetic communications here."

"Radio, we call it," Ricky said.

The baron nodded. "The name is unimportant. And this ban extends to all electromagnetic sensing and detection gear, as well. If two ships meet in the desert, they were unaware of each other until they became visible to each other, or one deliberately followed the other. And if you need to talk between tors, or from one ship to another, you send a messenger to the other tor, or hail the other ship with a megaphone. Mail is delivered between tors the old-fashioned way. By letter. As I mentioned earlier, there are regular mail packets that move between tors daily."

"I can see where that would limit things quite a bit," Robin said. He smiled at Charlie. "Sounds very nineteenth century, doesn't it?

"In a way," Charlie agreed. "Though even then they had telegraph to communicate over distances."

"Not here," Jos said. "I intended the pace of life here to be slow, while allowing the people to enjoy many modern amenities. But I have purposely limited the art of competitive advancement here. That includes the area of espionage, by necessity." He smiled. "You want to get ahead here, you have to do it yourself!"

"I thought you wanted excitement here," Adrian reminded the baron. "And that you enjoyed intrigue."

"Oh, I do. I just don't want the sort of modern intrigue that plays out daily between galactic empires going on here."

"So, there is spying happening here, other than like the way Tallfield is doing it?" Charlie asked.

"Certainly. Lord Tursin and I spy on each other constantly. And, the many transport companies, merchants, and entrepreneurs here practice many forms of behind-the-scenes competition. The ban on modern spyware doesn't preclude the use of earlier forms of it. There are no nano-sized optical or audio pick-ups that can send encrypted signals - or any sort of signals - to an observer elsewhere. Yet there are cameras here, and there are simple recording devices. One can install a camera and microphone to spy with, so long as all of it is hardwired in place. And what is seen and heard is only saved to a magnetic medium of some kind, and never broadcast. This means that an actual spy has to come and set it up." Jos laughed. "I have found several such installations inside Ulexium Tor, courtesy of Lord Tursin at Atackit, though he has yet to get a spy into my inner sanctum. And I have several similar observing set-ups inside his domain. But in each case, an actual person has to retrieve the recorded medium periodically and replace it with a fresh one." He rubbed his hands together in delight. "This is how intrigue is supposed to work!"

Robin laughed. "How quaint!"

"Sounds like an old mystery novel," Kippy said. "Secret tape recorders inside statues, and stuff."

Jos nodded. "Exactly. People do the spying here, using limited tools. It is old-fashioned, but that's what I wanted. It actually makes for a much gentler form of intrigue than you'll find back in the real world."

Uncle Bob smiled at that. "Gentle intrigue. I like it."

It did seem a slower, less threatening way of practicing the age-old art of competition between opposing sides. Violence here was also limited, and the mayhem people could cause with advanced weaponry practically negated. Throwing rocks at each other, and peeking around corners to see what others were doing, seemed an almost childish form of aggression, at best. Like kids playing wargames in a sandbox. People got dirty, but no one really got hurt.

Charlie remembered some of the scenes of other realities he had observed back in Chirka's laboratory, and their implicit violence, and nodded at Jos. "I like the way you have this place set up. All the excitement of a game of Risk, but none of the mess of tanks at war."

The baron frowned at him, and then smiled. "I don't know the game. But it sounds intriguing!"

"I know what sounds intriguing," Ricky said then. He patted his belly suggestively. "The sounds coming from here. They sound hungry!"

Adrian sighed, and smiled. "Only Rick could visit the realm of the dead, and the first thing he does is look for a restaurant."

Charlie chuckled at that. "I'm sure any ship Jos designed has a very nice galley."

The baron plucked at his beard, smiling. "As a matter of fact--"

Ricky took Adrian's arm, and smiled at their host. "Shall we?"

"Absolutely. Never let it be said that the Baron Ulren goes to war on an empty stomach!"

Browbeat sailed into the air, and buzzed back and forth happily. "Is this getting good, or what!"

The mail packet was quite a bit smaller than Indic had been, and obviously designed for transporting things efficiently, and not moving passengers in comfort. Yet there were the basic facilities that any ship of the desert would provide, and Charlie and his friends didn't mind at all that the vessel's small lounge was a little cramped with all of them in it.

"It's actually a pretty good vessel, if not very large," Jos told them, looking around at the room with some measure of pride. Like everything they had seen here, there were no signs of wear, and everything was clean and functional.

"It does seem as well-made as everything in your reality," Chirka said, smiling. "I have seen a few realities that looked to me to be a little, uh, scruffy."

The Alsaran nodded at that. "Everybody has their own standards, I guess. Some people want a reality that has a decidedly lived-in look. I visited a large number of other realities before I decided to try my hand at creating my own. One thing I decided early was that I wouldn't allow rust, mold, or other signs of degeneration in mine."

"You seem to have a knack for making things," Uncle Bob said, smiling. "I'd have never guessed this was your first world."

Everyone smiled at that.

"Oh, it took some time after I first created it to get the bugs out," Jos told them. "And I still find them now and then. But I've been very satisfied so far."

Robin canted his head to one side. "How hard is it to create a reality here?"

Jos seemed surprised by the question. "Well, as you can probably imagine, a lot goes into making a world. Even as complex as this one looks on the surface, it's nothing like a real world. Because there is no real biology here, none of the intricacies of biology need to be considered. On a real world circling a sun somewhere, the biology starts at the microbial level and builds to the resident intelligences, if any. The process of evolution is simply stunningly long and varied. None of that needs to be considered here."

Kippy frowned at that. "I've seen a few plants in the desert. Does anything else live there?'

"Certainly. There are many small lifeforms, all borrowed from the desert life of my own homeworld. But their purpose, like the plant life you see there, is simply to add flavor to the surroundings. They move from place to place, and act like real life forms would in the desert of Alsara. But none of the complexities of their own true-life societies have been replicated. They are window-dressing, and no more."

He gave a nod at the overhead. "The clouds you see in the sky are the same, for appearances only. Clouds are formed as part of atmospheric cycles in the heating and cooling of water vapor. Here, they simply are. There is an algorithm that varies their colors and appearances, but that's about it."

"What about the rain?" Charlie asked.

Jos shook his head. "The clouds have no part in that. The structure of this reality simply allows for the creation of water droplets in a uniform layer at a certain height at periodic intervals, at which time they are allowed to fall to the ground as rain."

Ricky made a face at that. "Isn't that cheating?"

The baron laughed. "Yes. But when you create a reality, all you need really concern yourself with are the end results." He reached out and patted a wall. "I didn't design these vessels. I imagined them. Or, I imagined what I wanted, and the overall layer mind provides any details I can't come up with on my own, culled from the group knowledge of all that are here. This layer is alive, in a way, in case you didn't know that."

"Alive?" Chirka asked. "I have not been able to determine that."

"Certainly. Perhaps you have not been here long enough to understand. This layer - the lower layer - is composed of a sort of non-sentient fabric of thought, which hosts the quantum echoes of all of us. It's why we come here when we die. There is no other place that can host our ghosts, if you will. You die, your quantum signature mentality arrives here instantly."

Ragal nodded his head. "He's right. An allegory might be that the lower layer is like an immense, empty brain, in which each of us that arrives here becomes one neuron firing an overall creative thought. This layer is actually surrounded by the layer that holds the so-called real universe. A mirror of the real universe is visible to those who wish to see it, and many here spend their mutable existence exploring the mirror reality of the real universe, which is incredibly diverse and endlessly fascinating. But all most of these explorers can do is observe the real universe. It takes a special talent to interact with the real world, as Lane Tallfield has done with Eleanora, and which other ghosts do from time to time, giving rise to those legends in the real world. By contrast with how many people are here in the lower layer, the number that have the power to reach the real universe in any way is infinitesimally small."

"Some people, or groups of people, choose to create their own realities here," Jos continued. "It comes down to imagining what you want, laying out rules for what things will be allowed to happen, what visitors will be allowed to do. You allow things. You don't really have to disallow anything."

Adrian rubbed his jaw in thought. "If it's that easy, why doesn't everyone have their own existence?"

Ragal and Jos both laughed. "It's work," Ragal said. "And a form of responsibility. And it requires a creative bent that many simply don't have. Imagination is a universal ability among living creatures in the real world. But the depth of that ability varies significantly from one individual to the next."

Browbeat tittered at that. "I have a lot more fun visiting the places others create. Why would I want my own reality? Then I would be limited to what I could imagine. That's no fun!"

Kippy grinned at Charlie. "I kind of get that."

Charlie nodded. "So do I."

"And many, many others feel the same way." Jos rubbed his hands together eagerly, pressing his point. "Most people that create their own realities do so because they have a very specific existence they want to live in. Like me, with this place. My reality is based upon the Orneferi desert on Alsara, and the life I led there when alive. I have taken the best aspects of that life, and recreated them here." He smiled. "And, added in all the things I ever thought would have made that life more enjoyable, and made myself the guy in charge of it all."

Uncle Bob looked amazed at that. "And there are others that find your reality so attractive that they take up residence here?"

"Exactly. The rules here allow for visitors to establish themselves. All new arrivals receive the funding they need to get along for their trial period here. If they like the reality and choose to make a place for themselves, they get a job doing the things they want to do. They get paid in credit. That credit builds, and they can buy into established businesses, or eventually start their own. Or simply continue to work at professions they enjoy, and not build anything. These rules are exactly like the real world."

"So, you still have to work for what you want," Casper observed. "People have to earn the things they get."

"Yes," Jos agreed. "But the big difference here is that there is no time involved. This reality is mutable, just as is the entire layer, meaning it can and will change as if time exists, but there is no real passage of what we know of as time in the real universe. No one ages, no one dies. So, if you want to own a shop in my reality, you simply work and save until you can afford it. You don't feel the years of subjective time that it would take in the real world. You simply set your goals, and wait to get there. This means that every visitor to my reality can eventually have everything they want, if they simply work to that end."

"Allowing some play, for the competitive nature of others," Ragal observed, smiling.

"Yes." The baron nodded. "There is competition here, just as in the real world. I specifically allowed for that, and all that goes with it. You build a transport service here, you are competing against all other similar services. You may get your wish to own one and operate it, but what will be limited is how large your business becomes because of the competition. Here is where the persistence and ingenuity of each person comes into play. And the drive to succeed. Just as in the real world, those that are best at the game, rise to the top."

"So, this place is all about empire building?" Ricky asked, sounding disappointed.

"Oh, no, not at all," Jos disagreed, smiling. "My reality is about getting what you want out of life. There are plenty of business here that are small, and their owners content to remain that way. While the major shipping companies take up a large part of the transport business here, there are plenty of operators that own one or two ships, and do fine picking up the smaller contracts the big boys don't want. There is enough here to go around, you see? And, there are simply a lot of people living here that are doing things they love, and are not trying to become wealthy, or powerful, or hugely successful in business or politics, at all. For some, happiness and contentment are the true measure of success. They don't want or need more."

"Lord Tursin," Horace said. "He started small? He rose to become the leader of Atackit Tor?"

"Yes. He arrived here, he played the political and business games well, and rose to the top. Once in charge of Atackit Tor, he turned his eyes to other tors. But the chief tor here is my own Ulexium, and so I have been able to counter many of his moves, and we have been playing the game ever since. We both enjoy it. He knows he cannot take control of my reality, but his enjoyment is in still trying to get his hands on as much of it as he can."

"And that doesn't bother you?" Kip asked.

The Baron Ulren laughed. "It's fun for me, young man. I play by the same rules as everyone else. I could cheat, and manipulate the reality to always give myself the advantage, but where would the challenge be in that? Ultimately, this is my reality, and it can't be taken away from me. But I have long enjoyed the machinations of those that have wished to try."

Charlie's boyfriend shook his head at that. "I can't imagine someone coming here, knowing they can't take over this place, but still investing in the attempt."

Jos chuckled. "It is the competitive nature of some, my young friend, to try anything, even if they know that winning is not a true option. Just for the thrill of the game. Tursin could go off and create his own reality, and be head of that, if he wanted. That's not what he wants. He wants the thrill of trying to take over mine."

"But he can't," Kip repeated.

"That has no effect on the thrill of trying," Ragal said.

Kippy looked a little lost, and shrugged at Charlie, who laughed. "I think I understand the urge to do what Tursin is doing," Charlie told his boyfriend. "But doing it wouldn't interest me, either."

"Where does Lane Tallfield fit into this?" Jeremiah asked. "He can't take over here. He's not tryin' to build a business. Why don't he just move on?"

Charlie frowned at that. "Up until now, we've been assuming that he simply wants his revenge on us. But now...I don't know."

"I have been thinking the same," Jos admitted. "That it was simply revenge. But now...something feels off. And yet, his most recent moves are definitely designed to bring your group and himself together again. So, if he isn't out for revenge, what is his goal?"

"He probably still wants to take you over," Browbeat offered. "I could feel how much he wanted that the last time."

"That's what the Madracorn warned us could happen," Ricky said. "That Tallfield's antagah might try to take over one of us so that they could ride out of here with us back to Engris, and from there, back to the normal universe."

Jos stared at them. "Back to the normal universe?"

Ricky looked stunned; and then he winced, and turned to Charlie. "Sorry."

Charlie shrugged. "It's okay." He held up his hands to Jos. "We would have told you eventually. We just thought it wasn't important at the time."

The Alsaran smiled, but his eyes watched them closely. "Tell us what?"

Charlie took a breath, let it sigh out. "We're not really dead. We're here via a piece of technology invented by Chirka, that allows our minds to visit here from Engris."

"Not dead!" Browbeat repeated, sounding aghast. "Aw! And I was hoping to tag along with you when you left this reality!"

Kippy's face fell, and he extended a hand towards the flyer. "I'm sorry. We'll come visit you!"

Browbeat lifted off the table and came to land on Kip's shoulder. "I was just getting really fond of you guys, too!"

Charlie sighed, having hoped to put this off until later. "We can also visit with you in the spirit domes on Engris. We'll do that every time we land there, if you want."

The little flyer looked crestfallen. "I guess. If that's all we can do." But his face suddenly brightened. "But you'll come back here now and then, and we can go adventuring together? That will be fun!"

"Not dead," Jos repeated, eyeing them speculatively. "And I supposed that when you left, you were simply going back to another reality briefly." He turned to stare at Chirka with some wonder in his eyes. "Quite a technical marvel you've created. I don't believe I have ever heard that people from the normal universe could visit here."

"If it weren't for the no-time of Engris, we wouldn't be here," the little Kift explained. "It has taken me longer than a lifetime to understand the science involved."

Jos turned back to Charlie. "I never suspected this at all." His eyes narrowed then. "Tallfield tried to assimilate your minds, didn't he?"

"Yes." Charlie grimaced at the unpleasant memory.

The baron closed his eyes a moment, nodding to himself. "He may know."

"Know what?" Ricky asked.

Jos opened his eyes. "That you are not dead, and that you have a way of visiting here. And a way of leaving again!"

Ragal looked surprised. "He may have a point, Charlie. Tallfield was already inside our minds before we discovered what he was doing. Who knows what knowledge he gleaned in that attempt?"

"Oh, that does make a horrible sense!" Horace said. "He has stayed here and wants to confront us again, because he has gained the knowledge that we can go home!"

"But he can't take over our minds now," Kip protested.

Horace nodded. "But he doesn't know that yet! We had none of the mental defenses we have now, at our last encounter with the man. He thinks he failed because we got lucky, and because Charlie surprised him with his second presence. Tallfield simply wants to get at us again, and hopes that the second time, he can be successful in his attempts to take over at least one of us."

"So that when we go home, he will go with us," Uncle Bob said, flatly.

Charlie considered that, and nodded. "It makes sense. Tallfield's initial siege of Engris was to force his way onto that world, where he thought he could take over a visitor and get back to the real universe with them. That implies that he has a knowledge of his situation we really haven't been considering until now. His view of the lower layer as the way to hell may simply be his provincial upbringing interpreting his surroundings as best as he can. That doesn't mean he hasn't figured out some things about the way this place works in conjunction with Engris. He may really think he's on the road to hell, but he also seems to think he can turn around on that road, and go back out the way he thinks he came in."

"But he didn't get here from Engris," Adrian pointed out.

"No, but he may have come to understand that Engris is some sort of interface with this place and where he desperately wants to go. The gate, he called it. Remember? So to him, it's the way home."

"This changes everything," Jos said slowly.

"How?" Ricky demanded. "Tallfield still wants to get at us."

"Yes, but now it seems that he doesn't want to do that to try to destroy you."

"He can't destroy us!" Ricky said, sounding exasperated.

"But he seems not to be totally aware of that," Jos argued. "His actions thus far indicate a man still operating with some notion of real-world values, and unsophisticated ones, at that. He seems not to totally understand the rules here. That may be a consequence of the split in his personality. But it doesn't matter. Now, it seems to me that he simply might want a ride, not a total victory. So, his plans now simply require that he lure you to him long enough to take one of you over."

"Which he can't do," Kippy said, smiling now.

The Baron Ulren also smiled. "Exactly. But he won't learn that until he tries again. What this means is that he will very likely not be laying for us, waiting to attack. Rather, he will want us to actually find it easy to reach him, so that he can confront us again. I did allow for a rather strong wizard streak among power users in my reality, and Tallfield fits the bill as a major player there. I was kind of worried he might mess up the place and hurt some people in his attempts to destroy you. But now--"

"He just wants to capture us," Ricky said. "Or, at least one of us."

Jos tugged thoughtfully at his beard. "Right now, we are attempting to sneak up on the man. He seems to be preparing some sort of reception. But all the clues now point to his ultimate aim being something else than I have imagined."

"But what will he do when he suddenly discovers he can't take us over?" Kip asked.

The baron laughed. "Be very mad, I suspect. Then we might have to deal with him messing up my nice, clean reality."

No one said anything for a moment.

Charlie finally grunted. "Well, for now, we may as well continue trying to sneak up on him."

"I agree," Jos said. "I think we'll be successful at that, too. According to Soren, back on Indic, Tallfield's flyer is still trailing the ship."

Charlie frowned at that, realizing that the possibilities were many here. One thing they would not do is underestimate Tallfield again.

And...something else seemed quite clear now. Tallfield was a tortured man, beset by demons not of his own making. The evil disposition of the Tallfield they had encountered before was the result of a crime perpetrated against him, and a resulting rent in his sense of self that, along with the incredible situation he had found himself in after, had set him heading down a road with only madness at the other end. It seemed such a sad and pointless fate for a man who, plainly now, did not deserve it.

"We're going to help him," Charlie said, looking around at the others. "One way or the other, we are going to end this nightmare for him."

"I agree," Robin said. "I have no intention of abetting a tragedy by further harming this man. So, we will need to try to plan a little more deeply than just sneaking up and pouncing." He turned to Rick. "You said you didn't feel any sort of powers in Tallfield that were too far removed from those you have already encountered in your travels?"

Ricky thought about that, and nodded. "He's a tough witch, I think. But I don't get that feeling of a sort of endless, deep well of power like I got from Pyewacket. I don't sense a waiting swarm of abilities I wouldn't understand, like I get from Nicholaas. I don't get a sense that Tallfield will be able to use skwish against us that we won't be able to counter."

Robin smiled. "Is that like saying we can handle him?"

Ricky grinned. "Pretty much."

The older man nodded. "Then we shall proceed as if we can."

"It will be three more days before we even get within sight of Garmo Tor," Jos said. I figure another day after that before Morion approaches from the east, heading to Atackit Tor. At that point this packet will be moored to a dock in Garmo. We will make the transfer to Morion then."

"And how many days until Morion reaches Atackit Tor?" Charlie asked.

"Another four days."

"So, a week," Kip said. "That should be more than enough time to plan something."

"You would think," Robin said, smiling. "And yet, nothing comes right to mind to even start with."

Charlie turned to Jos. "Maybe you can start by telling us more about Atackit Tor. I'd like to know any similarities to your own Ulexium, and any notable differences."

"All the tors here bear some similarities," the baron said. "They have access to the same technology, the same support services. People live in them, and, the larger they are, the more people they support."

"Atackit is as large as Ulexium?" Robin asked.

"No. Ulexium is the largest tor here. Atackit is about two-thirds the size, which still makes it a large tor."

"What's this Tursin like?" Charlie asked.

Jos smiled. "He's not a bad sort, really. He fancies himself a wizard, but I have not noticed that his powers are exceptional. People like you - or Lane Tallfield - would definitely impress him." Jos eyed Charlie speculatively. "Your kind would seem to be major power users among the galactic races of that sort."

Charlie smiled at the idea of that. "Some of us do okay."

"I was under the impression that this Tursin was a big-time wizard," Horace said. "Are you saying he's not?"

"Not at all." Jos smiled. "All things being relative, he's not bad. But I believe his reputation has been enhanced, in part, by him employing other power users that act behind the scenes to make him appear more powerful than he really is."

Charlie thought back to the imagery they had seen in Chirka's lab, of Tallfield in the meeting room of the Lord Tursin. "So Tallfield's abilities would probably appeal to this Tursin?"

"I would say they would, providing Tallfield didn't scare Tursin off with his caustic nature."

"He turned on the sweet talk fast enough when we met him before," Charlie said. "Once he understood that we were not pushovers."

"He was trying to act harmless while he stole our minds," Kippy said, sounding angry again. "The guy he is now is pretty sneaky. I'd like to cure him of that forever!'

"He's doing what he feels he needs to do to survive," Casper said. "Something I can understand."

Kippy reached out a hand and squeezed the small alien's shoulder. "You're with us now. You don't have to scare people with your powers."

Charlie smiled at that. "Casper, you can make people see and hear things, which has them doing things they would otherwise not be doing. Your power is the closest we have among us to Tallfield's power of hypnotism."

Casper looked indignant. "I'm nothing like him!"

Kippy squeezed Casper's shoulder again. "He wasn't saying you are, sweetie."

Casper frowned a moment longer, sighed, and then smiled at Charlie. "I'm sorry."

"No need to be. And I wasn't suggesting you were like him. Just that your power and Tallfield's power both affect people's minds." Charlie smiled. "Would your power of illusion work on Tallfield?"

Casper looked thoughtful. "You mean would he sense it, and know what it was? I doubt it. My abilities don't work like his. He goes directly into the conscious mind and installs his victims into a false reality he's created. My powers affect parts of the brain that directly process vision and hearing. I can't affect people's thoughts, except by proxy. They do react to what I make them see and hear. But that's as far as my powers of persuasion go."

Kippy smiled at Charlie. "You have a plan?"

Charlie laughed. "No. I have an idea, that I hope we can all discuss and make into a plan."

"You going to tell us about it?" Ricky asked.

"I think I can be persuaded," Charlie said, smiling.

The end of the day arrived, and they had talked for hours, and still not agreed on a plan of action. But they were making headway, and Charlie felt that after they all slept on the problem, something would come to them.

And, in the morning, something did.

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