Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

It's Just a Matter of Time, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 8

The silence was brief. Charlie was startled by the man's appearance, but at the same time, he found he was not that surprised. He had expected to meet up with the lawman eventually, just not this soon. He had figured they'd need to sort of worm their way into Tursin's good graces in order to be brought together with Tallfield again. The key piece here was apparently Pankor, who had wasted no time in alerting Tursin of his new find. He probably got a nice fee for everyone he brought to Tor lord's attention!

It didn't matter. It was done.

"Lane," Charlie said, nodding. "Good to see you again."

Tursin and Pankor, both, looked stunned. "You know these people?" the lord asked, turning to stare at Tallfield.

"Oh, yes." Tallfield turned now, to smile at Tursin. "Go away. And take Pankor with you."

Lord Tursin's face immediately clouded, and he raised a hand to jab a finger at the lawman. "You'd better watch your manners, Tallfield. I'm not someone you can talk to--"

He broke off then, his eyes locked on Lane's. Charlie felt a strange sensation then, not a direct attack on his mental defenses, but sort of like a weird echo of volleys fired elsewhere, as if reverberating down a valley from some distant battle. Charlie moved slowly to the side, to stand beside Carl. "Go back to your rooms," he whispered, "Quickly! Don't come back here for any reason, understand!"

The man looked at him, and evidently sensed something of import in Charlie's gaze. He nodded, inched backwards slowly, and left the stage. Tallfield either didn't sense him go, or simply didn't care. Charlie breathed a small sigh of relief now that Carl had gotten away. The last thing he wanted was for the man to become another mental prisoner of Tallfield.

Charlie turned back to watch what was happening across the stage. Pankor, too, was now gazing at Tallfield, with a sort of slack-jawed appearance that said it all. Lane nodded at the two men, and then smiled again. "Go away. I'll see you later. Maybe."

Lord Tursin and Pankor both nodded, and simply turned and walked off, disappearing again into the shadows at the side of the stage.

"Haven't lost your edge, I see," Charlie said.

Tallfield laughed. "Not at all. In fact, I have gotten better!"

To accompany his words, a flood of mental force hit Charlie's defenses. There was nothing subtle at all about Tallfield's attempt this time. Rather than his power seeping undetected into Charlie's mind, the man came at him with every gun blasting. Charlie took a small step backwards just in reflex motion, and saw then that his friends were also showing signs of being besieged. Charlie's mental walls shook with the power of Tallfield's assault, but they didn't so much as crack, nor show any other signs of weakening. In fact, after the initial strike, they quickly firmed and seemed to become even stronger!

Charlie smiled then, the face of Blanche Kutraposky appearing in his thoughts. They built them strong, up there by the north pole!

"We've gotten better, too," Charlie said, taking back the step he'd given up, and then taking two more towards the lawman.

Tallfield cursed, his face displaying disbelief that his assault was being so easily repulsed. He leaned forward and seemed to pour more into the attack; but the walls around Charlie's inner self simply shrugged off the blast as if it was nothing. Charlie really understood then that Blanche had meant exactly what she had said: I cannot conceive of a hypnotic so powerful that he could overcome your defenses.

Charlie turned to Casper. "You can drop the disguises."

Casper nodded, and the group returned to their normal appearances.

Tallfield grunted, and stepped back. At the same time, the assault on Charlie's defenses ceased.

"What sort of devils are you?" Tallfield demanded, his voice filled with disbelief, and his face filled with rage.

"We aren't devils at all," Kippy said, before Charlie could. "We're just people, like you."

Robin stepped over to stand beside Charlie. "Talk to him, Charlie," he whispered. "It's time for talk."

Lane frowned then. "I don't know you. You weren't with this posse last time."

Robin nodded. "No, I wasn't."

The lawman's eyes moved among them, stopped on Jeremiah. "You're new, too."

Jeremiah turned to look questioningly at Charlie, and Charlie smiled. "Introduce yourself. Tell him where you're from."

Jeremiah stepped forward. "I'm Jeremiah Hawkins. I'm from Holdover, Missouri. I know your kinfolk. I've been to your house."

The fury on Tallfield's face seemed to ebb for a second. "Holdover?" He squinted then, as if trying to remember. "A lie," he said then. "You can't know of me."

Jeremiah nodded. "I've been to your parent's place. Pretty house, on a hill." Jeremiah cast a quick look at Charlie, and then smiled at Tallfield. "Maddy keeps the place looking nice."

Tallfield looked stunned, and then, suddenly, angry again. "A trick," he grated, his eyes returning to fasten on Charlie. "You're a devil! I see your lures, dangling in front of me. It won't work!"

A strange sensation touched Charlie's mental defenses, a sort of feeling of massing power, and he realized that Tallfield was about to loose some other type of attack against them.

Auggie, until then standing quietly to one side, watching, suddenly bolted forward, to place himself between Tallfield and Charlie and his friends. The bearcat reared upwards, and bellowed forth the roar of all roars, a sound of such incredible proportions that it made Charlie and everyone else jump. Along with the sound, a visible wave of some sort rolled forth, struck Tallfield, and bowled him over. The man went flying, and rolled across the stage, to lie still a moment as the incredible sound ceased. The roar echoed away across the stage, living on in repetition a moment; and then it faded to a sullen grumble, and was gone. Auggie sat back then, but his eyes were fixed on Tallfield now, his gaze unwavering.

The man slowly sat up, the expression on his face one of utter confusion. He shook his head, and then got to his feet. His eyes landed on Auggie then, and all the rage that Tallfield had only a moment worn in every line of his features simply faded away.

"I know when I'm licked." His gaze came to Charlie, and Charlie could see the pain and the misery there, and the sense of loss. Tallfield sighed, and it sounded like a genuinely weary one to Charlie's ears. "I'll never get home now." His gaze slid over to Auggie, and he shook his head. "Can't fight the devil, not when he comes in person."

Charlie shook his head. "Auggie isn't the devil. He's our friend. He was just defending us."

Tallfield shook his head again. "So you say. Can't fight that kind of power. Never felt anything like it."

Robin whispered to Charlie again. "Talk to him."

"We want to help you," Charlie said, several plans now popping up in his mind. Tallfield might be acknowledging now that he couldn't best them, but he was far from being made whole again. That was their purpose now, to help the man find himself, and a place here, in the lower layer.

A flicker of the old anger returned to Tallfield's eyes. "You want to help me? Take me home." He looked around then, winced at the stage. "I don't belong here. I haven't earned to be in hell."

"This is not hell," Robin said, glancing at Charlie. "Nor is it the road that will take you there."

"It's not," Charlie agreed, shaking his head.

"I don't believe you," Tallfield returned. "I have no reason to, and every reason to think otherwise. This place is distorted, unreal. It's full of the strange, and the misbegotten. It is everything hell has been said to be, and more."

Charlie watched the man a moment. For now, the shock of Auggie's blow had seemed to calm Tallfield. But Charlie could see the old animosity, the anger, rebuilding itself behind the man's eyes. They'd be back to fighting shortly, he felt. If there was just some way to take advantage of the momentary lull...

One of the plans in Charlie's head hatched, so suddenly that he gasped. His gaze dropped to the lawman's waist, and Charlie could see the butt of the randomizer the man was wearing, protruding from its holster.

"I'll make you a deal," Charlie said then, stepping forward.

One of Tallfield's eyebrows rose, and more anger appeared in his eyes as he examined Charlie closely. "A deal? With the devil? You must think I'm stupid!"

"A very simple deal," Charlie continued, ignoring the man's objection. He pointed at the handgun Tallfield was wearing. "You know how to use that?"

Tallfield looked down, and his right hand came up and dropped onto the butt of the pistol. "Of course."

Jol moved closer to Charlie then. "What are you thinking?"

Charlie smiled. "A duel. A quick draw." He turned to Tallfield. "You against one of us. Back to back, go ten paces, turn and fire. Winner take all."

Tallfield's eyes narrowed as he considered the idea. "None of you are armed."

Charlie turned to Rick. "Go back to your room and get your gun."

Ricky nodded, and took off at a run.

Adrian gasped, and looked angry then. "Charlie, what are you planning?"

Charlie turned to his friend. "Trust me?"

Adrian's eyes continued to look accusing for a moment...but then they relaxed, and he smiled. "I do."

Tallfield took a step closer then. "If I win, what do I get?"

Charlie smiled. "You get to go home."

The lawman's eyes widened. "And...if I lose?"

"Nothing," Charlie said flatly. "Nothing changes. You're still stuck here, just as you are now. But there will be no other penalty at all."

Jol shook his head. "One of you will be sent to a random location."

Charlie leaned closer to the man. "This is your reality. You're in control, you make the rules. Can you, just for this one instance, make it so that the random location in question this time is right here on this stage? So that the loser simply moves a few feet, or something?"

Jol frowned; but the look immediately vanished, to be replaced by a smile. "Yes. I can do that. Give me a few seconds, okay?"

Charlie laughed in relief. "Sure. It will take a few minutes for Rick to get back, anyway."

Jol nodded, and closed his eyes, concentrating.

Kippy moved over to lean up against Charlie. "You think Ricky can take him?"

Charlie turned to his boyfriend. "Will you trust me, no matter what happens?"

Kippy smiled, and nodded. "Yes."

"No matter what happens, now? You might be surprised, but I want you to trust me."

"I do, Charlie."

Charlie nodded, squeezed his boyfriend's wrist, and then turned back to Tallfield. "What do you say?"

The lawman blew out a resigned-sounding breath. "That your man must be very fast, or you wouldn't be doing this. But...what have I got to lose?"

Charlie nodded, amazed that Tallfield could find any sense of trust left inside him at all. Despite his broken self, there was some part of Tallfield that still wanted to be back among people he could trust. Charlie had no plans to let the man down.

Ragal moved closer to whisper to Charlie. "Rick is very fast. When Tallfield loses, I expect him to attack us again. His anger will resurface with new energy at this next defeat."

"Maybe," Charlie said. "We'll see."

Ricky returned then, at a run, the holster belted to his waist. "I'm ready."

Charlie walked over to him, and extended a hand. "Give me the holster."

Ricky froze, his eyes going wide. "But--"

Charlie waggled his fingers, and smiled. "Come on, Rick. Give it to me."

Rick looked over at Robin, and then at Adrian, and then at Kip.

"Charlie--" Kip began, but then he stopped. He turned to Ricky. "Do it."

Ricky nodded, and unbelted the holster, and handed it to Charlie. Charlie wrapped the belt around his waist, cinched it, and positioned the holster, withdrawing the pistol a couple of times and reseating it, getting the feel of it. He turned back to Tallfield then.

The man was smiling. "You, Charlie? Why do I feel that this is not what your friends expected?"

Charlie smiled, but turned to Jol. The man opened his eyes then, and laughed when he saw Charlie looking right at him. "It's done. The loser will just get moved a few feet, but stay here on the stage."

Charlie turned, and saw Kip watching him. He smiled, and Kip smiled back.

"I'm ready," he said to Tallfield.

The lawman moved closer. "Back to back, ten paces, turn, and fire?"

"Those are the rules," Charlie agreed.

"I'll count paces," Robin said, stepping forward.

Charlie nodded, and turned his back to Tallfield. He heard the man grunt, and then felt the lawman press his back to his own.

We're touching, Charlie thought, in one of those weird moments that seemed to come at the strangest of times. And it was a weird moment, for, until now, he would have never have guessed that he and Tallfield might ever touch. Until now, no matter his intentions to help the man, Tallfield had remained, at some level in Charlie's mind, the enemy.

But now, they were touching, and the touch felt like touching anyone else. Any other person. Any other human being.

"Ready?" Robin asked them.

"Yes," Charlie said.

"Yes," Lane Tallfield echoed.

"On my mark, start walking. Go! One, two, three..."

Charlie moved away from Tallfield, following the beat of Robin's voice, and as he did, his mind went back in time, to where they had stood by the bank in rural Stockdale, Missouri, in 1910, and watched a fine man be destroyed by his best friend. The face of that other man, Fred Evans, swam into view, and Charlie focused on it, and called up his shape-changing ability. The always-odd feeling of crawling came over his face, and then stopped, and as Robin hit the number ten, Charlie spun and grabbed at the pistol in his holster...

He heard a buzzing sound, and felt a momentary sense of dislocation, and his view shifted by several feet, as he realized that Tallfield had outdrawn him.

And then, everything simply stopped. Charlie looked up at the lawman, whose gun was still pointed his way; but Tallfield was utterly frozen, his eyes locked on Charlie's face.

Charlie nodded then. "Hello, Lane."

Tallfield continued to stare, unmoving, his eyes riveted to the face of the man who had killed him. The sense of loss, the sense of incompleteness within the man, surged to the fore, calling out.

Charlie felt a disturbance in his skwish then, and something came onstage with them. Something with no body, with no whole sense of self. It was a splinter, a portion, a piece; broken off something larger, and set free to wander on its own. It had a mind, but an incomplete one. It had a heart, but it was cold, unloved, and unloving, because it had been separated from the part of its spirit that knew love. It was lost, and looking, and, until now, not finding.

Until now.

A terrible moan came from Lane Tallfield's lips, and he lowered the gun. "My god, Fred! What have you done?"

The splinter of being, the missing part of a man's soul, lost and now found, moved closer to Lane Tallfield, and was absorbed within. The gun dropped from Tallfield's hand and bounced on the floor, and the lawman sank to his knees, and then forward onto his hands. Charlie was stunned to hear the man sobbing then.

He let the face of Fred Evans go, and reverted to his own, something he found a great relief. Wearing the face of a murderer brought not an ounce of joy with it.

Charlie stuck his pistol, still unfired, back into its holster, and moved to stand beside Lane Tallfield. The man was crying now, deep sobs that wracked his entire body. Charlie found no shame in it at all, understanding that Tallfield was finally dealing with his own death...and the cause of it.

Charlie sank to his knees next to Lane, and put a hand on the man's back. "It's okay," was all he could think to say. The need to comfort the man seemed strong.

And then Kip was beside him, and had dropped to his knees, and placed a hand on Lane Tallfield's back. Charlie's friends crowded around then, saying nothing, but each dropping a hand upon the man's shoulders or back. Browbeat came over and landed on Charlie's shoulder, and looked down at the man that had been their enemy. "Poor guy. Can you put your other hand on him for me, Charlie?"

Charlie nodded, and placed his other hand among the rest.

Auggie arrived, pushed between Charlie and Kip, and gave the lawman a sniff. "Fixed," he pronounced, and then raised a paw and placed it among the hands on Lane Tallfield's back.

Charlie felt the man's sobs soften then, and soon they ceased altogether. Everyone stood back as Tallfield pushed himself from the floor and came up on his knees. He looked around at them, and gave a shake of his head. "I'm dead."

Charlie nodded sadly. "Yes. You are."

Tallfield squeezed his eyes shut a moment, and then opened them again. "Fred Evans. I can't believe it."

"It wasn't supposed to happen that way," Charlie said quietly. "No one was to be hurt. The March boy seeing the robbers go into the bank, and coming to get you, changed everything."

"He did right," the lawman said. "Not his fault. Poor young'un. I hope he didn't blame himself for it."

Charlie sighed, knowing this simple statement was about as far from the old Lane Tallfield as one could get.

Tallfield looked up at them. "I know you fellas, don't I?"

Charlie and Robin helped the man to rise. Tallfield looked around the stage, and frowned. "Where's this place?"

Kippy looked at Charlie, the question plain in his eyes: did he forget everything?

"The shock of coming back together may have displaced recent memories from both parts of his mind," Ragal said quietly.

Tallfield was still looking around, shaking his head. And then he turned to Charlie, and smiled. "This sure isn't what I figured dead would be like."

Jol looked across at Charlie. "He's no longer embedded here. I have total control back."

Charlie examined this Lane Tallfield, and found the change from the old one remarkable. This man wore the same face as their previous nemesis, but this Lane Tallfield lived in it with peace and dignity, and none of the anger and hate the other one had displayed. This face was tamed, the animal back in its cage, the lawman home to stay.

Charlie turned to Jol. "If I were to ask you to use your expertise in creating realities for a good cause, would you help?"

The man looked interested. His eyes flicked to Tallfield, and then he smiled. "I believe I would."

Charlie took Tallfield by the arm. "Um, Lane...may I call you Lane?"

The man smiled at him. "Please do, young fella."

Charlie grinned. "I'm Charlie. And that's Kip, and Rick, and Adrian, and Robin, and..."

The snow was a gentle one, dropping like a blanket that silenced the earth. Even so, the Christmas carols still made their way around the town square, carried, not on a breeze, of which there was none; but by intention, because that's the way the reality was put together. It was just after sunset, and the lights were on in the sheriff's office - real 'lectric ones - because that's what Lane Tallfield had wanted for his town. The streetlamps were also electric, and the yellow glows issuing from the houses along the streets, straight out of Thomas Edison's Pearl Street station.

There was a nip in the air, but it was not truly cold. It was the sort of winter evening that a good coat and hat could easily fend off, and allow one to enjoy. And, it was Christmas Eve, a reason to be out and about, seeking family and friends, and partaking of the season. Or, the season as it was practiced once upon a time.

Charlie and the others stood on the broad front porch of the sheriff's office, looking out on the town square with more than a little delight. Children ran and played in the falling snow, building snowmen and throwing snowballs at each other. There were plenty of people about. Couples strolled the sidewalks - another innovation that Lane had always wished that Stockdale could have - and others stood under one of the streetlamps, singing Christmas carols.

This town was Stockdale...but it wasn't. It was the Stockdale of Lane Tallfield's imagination, of his dreams and wishes and hopes for what could be. It didn't look like the down they had visited, with its frozen mud roads and houses sitting far apart, and tiny main street business district of a bank, a general store, and a stable. This Stockdale had those things, but they were organized around a town square, with a tiny park in the center, and a fountain that would gush water when the seasons permitted. The streets were paved with cobblestones, and the homes were large and comfortable, and nicely spaced on their lots, but still close enough that people were neighbors, and not acquaintances.

Lane Tallfield stood on the porch with them, smiling around at the town and its people. "I can't thank you folks enough. It's like having a second chance."

Jol smiled, and patted the man on the back of his jacket. "You'll remember the things I taught you about reality maintenance?"

The lawman laughed. "My head's still spinning, sir. But I think it's taken, and I'll be good for now." He sighed. "Christmas will be over soon, and I'm hoping the stuff we planned for the farms around the town will all work out. I keep thinking I've forgotten something, that'll pop up to haunt me." He smiled at Charlie when he said that, and Charlie smiled back.

"Hopefully, nothing will ever haunt you again," Charlie said.

Tallfield nodded, and turned to Horace. "And I owe you, too, Horace. Thanks for finding my family."

Horace had used his summoning powers to locate and draw Lane Tallfield's wife and three kids, who had all lived their lives and passed away after the lawman had been killed. They were overjoyed to be reunited with Lane, and the man was so happy that he was almost bursting at the seams. "I have something to go home to every evening now, thanks to you."

Horace looked happy, too. "I can't think of a better Christmas present, Lane."

A couple walking by on the street waved to them. "Evening, Sheriff. And friends. Beautiful Christmas eve, isn't it?"

"It is, indeed," Tallfield called back, raising a hand to wave. "And merry Christmas to you, too!"

"Merry Christmas!" they called, smiling.

The carolers under the streetlamp launched into Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!, and Charlie sighed. Kippy, standing next to him, leaned against Charlie's shoulder. "I love Christmas."

Charlie nodded. "Yeah."

Lane dropped a hand on Charlie's shoulder. "I hope you won't miss your holiday, spending all this time helping me. You're welcome here, anytime. But especially at Christmas."

"We'll have our own," Charlie said. "It's just a matter of time."

Robin came out of the sheriff's office, smiling. "Your prisoner wants to see you, Lane."

Tallfield sighed, and shook his head. "Throwing snowballs at streetlights on Christmas Eve. You'd think these young folks would have better things to do on this night, of all nights. I'll go see to him. I reckon he's had enough of bars for the evening, and I can let him go home." Tallfield turned to go inside, and then stopped, and turned back to Charlie. "You won't leave without saying goodbye, will you?"

"I promise, we won't," Charlie said, smiling.

Tallfield watched him a moment in silence. "I don't know how...I wish I, hell."

The lawman stepped closer, bent, and wrapped his arms around Charlie, and gave him a big hug. Kippy erupted into laughter at the stunned look on Charlie's face, and Charlie just sighed and hugged the man back. They clapped each other on the shoulders, and then Tallfield pulled away, grinning. "Folks'll think I'm going soft!"

He turned away then, still smiling, and went inside to tend to his errant tenant.

Robin sighed happily, and looked around at the pleasant scene before them. "This is so unlike how I figured this would turn out."

"What did you expect?" Charlie asked. "A knock down, drag out with Lane?"

"Actually, I did. I had envisioned a battle royale with the man. That we would somehow have to force his sundered self back together. From what you told me of him, and what I sensed at first meeting him, he didn't strike me as the sort that would surrender easily."

"I have to admit to being a little surprised, too," Charlie conceded. "I hate to say it, but we sort of overestimated what he could do. At least, what he could do with Auggie around."

"I'm glad," Horace said. "I didn't want to have to beat the man into submission. Yet I had no idea it would be so easy to get him whole again." He sighed, and smiled around at the reality that Lane had built, with Jol's help. "It's Christmas. I'm glad this went well."

"It seems his missing self was looking for home," Robin said. "All Lane had to do was to call for it, and it came back to him."

Charlie nodded. "But first he had to get past his death, and the part that Fred Evans played in it."

Robin smiled, and patted Charlie's shoulder. "An inspired way you found to get that done."

Charlie shrugged. "It just came to me, suddenly." He turned a smile of his own on Robin. "I got lucky."

They heard a new carol then, someone singing Jingle Bells, and looked up the street. Rick and Adrian, arm-in-arm, were strolling towards them, with Uncle Bob, Casper, Ragal, Jeremiah, and Chirka in a group behind. The humans were singing, and their alien friends grinning and doing their best to keep up. Auggie brought up the rear, with Browbeat perched on his shoulder.

Charlie sighed. "Here they come."

Kippy nodded, and hugged Charlie's arm. "I feel so lucky to have good friends."

Charlie nodded. "I'm glad this adventure wasn't too hard on them. I'm glad that Christmas won out, and no one got hurt."

Kippy sighed. "Charlie, you say the sweetest things."

And finally, it was time to go. They exchanged hugs and handshakes with Lane, and then with Jol, who wanted to head back to his own reality.

"I leave the thing unattended too long, and Tursin might take over," Jol said, laughing.

Both, Lane and Jol, exacted promises from the group for return visits. Goodbyes were said, and they parted for now.

"I'm coming with you," Browbeat insisted. "The fun isn't over yet! I can feel it!"

Chirka guided them back to their own small reality, the library they had created, via the odd area outside, with its tree-like openings into other worlds. Charlie was amazed at how that area had grown.

"Look at all the cars in the parking lot!" Ricky joked, as they went inside.

The library had grown tremendously. The far side was now very far away, and Charlie, who had visited the Library of Congress, and felt it would be hard to surpass, was duly impressed. You could put five or ten such libraries inside this one now!

"It would seem that you are popular," Chirka said, smiling at them.

Browbeat circled them, and landed on Charlie's shoulder. "I guess it's that time," the little flyer said sadly.

"We'll come see you again," Charlie promised. "And we can visit via the spirit domes, too."

"I guess," Browbeat replied. "It won't be the same."

Kippy grabbed Charlie's arm then. "Look! Madracorn!"

Charlie turned along with the others, to see two of the tall aliens striding towards them. One raised a hand then, and waved at them.

"That's Eseffa and Jorli!" Adrian exclaimed, and lifted a hand to wave back.

"Oh, there you are," Eseffa said, as they arrived beside them. "We were wondering when you'd get back. Quite a nice job you did with Lane Tallfield. We're very happy with the results."

"You know?" Charlie asked.

"We see most of what happens here, yes," Jorli said. "It's our job." His gaze shifted then, to Charlie's shoulder. "And this is Browbeat."

"Hi!" Browbeat said, grinning. "Wow! Real Madracorn. You guys are like legends!"

Eseffa and Jorli exchanged glances, and nodded at each other. "I think this will work."

"What will work?" Charlie asked.

Jorli smiled at them. "This custom you have...Christmas? It seems like we owe you a gift for all you have done for us here."

Charlie chuckled. "It doesn't work that way. You give a gift to make someone happy, because you like them. Or love them." He squeezed Kip then, who sighed happily.

"That's our intention," Eseffa said. "We want to give you a gift, because we think very highly of you."

"We like you," Jorli said, smiling. He rolled his eyes, and pointed at Eseffa.

"That's nice of you," Rick said. "Um...what is it?'

Adrian poked Rick with his elbow then, and Ricky sighed. "Well, if we don't ask, how will we know?"

"Exactly," Jorli said. "But...isn't surprise a part of the whole process?"

"Yes," Kippy said. "You unwrap a Christmas gift. You don't know what it is beforehand."

"Excellent ," Eseffa said. He turned to Browbeat then. "Have you ever used a spirit dome?"

The flyer's golden eyes widened. "Who? Me? No! I don't think my people have ever made it to Engris."

Jorli frowned. "You know how it works, though? You get a visitor in a dome, and a summons goes out to you. You do not need to answer it, but if you don't, you miss seeing your visitor."

Browbeat tittered. "Hey, if someone comes to see me, I'll be there!"

"Good." The tall alien turned to Charlie. "Are you ready to come back to Engris yet?"

"Soon," Charlie said. "We want to say goodbye to Browbeat."

"You mean see ya!" the flyer said. "Goodbyes are permanent!"

"Right," Charlie said. "Sorry."

"Do us a favor," Eseffa said. "Hold off on the goodbyes for now, and come back to Engris. Browbeat, when you receive the summons, please enter the core reception area of Engris, and rise to the spirit dome indicated. Will you do that?"

Browbeat launched himself into the air and circled excitedly around Charlie. "You mean, I'm getting a visit now! Whoopee!"

Charlie and the others laughed.

"High spirited, isn't he?" Jorli commented.

Browbeat circled, and then landed on Auggie's shoulder. "You'll be there, won't you, pal?"

Auggie laughed. "Be there, yes!"

Browbeat sighed. "You fellas are so much fun!"

Jorli raised a finger. "Remember to come when you are summoned."

"Are you kidding? I'll be there!"

Eseffa smiled at Charlie. "Ready to go back to Engris?"

"Is this part of the gift?" Kippy asked.


"Chirka has to take us back," Charlie said.

"We know. "Eseffa smiled. "Just come to your favorite spirit dome when you're ready. We will know, and join you."

"You can't come to the surface." Kippy reminded.

"We will join you via projection. Just trust us."

Kippy grinned "I can do that!"

The two Madracorn left them then.

"What do you think they have planned?" Uncle Bob asked.

"Something cool!" Rick answered.

Uncle Bob smiled at Charlie. "I had a great time, Charlie. I'm glad I came along, even if I didn't do that much to help."

"Yeah," Jeremiah added, smiling. "It was amazing, but I couldn't help much."

Charlie shook his head. "Don't ever think that, any of you. Just being along changes the odds for us. It makes us stronger. You may not always feel like you've done a lot...but you have, just by being here."

"Well said," Robin cheered. he looked around at the others. "Everyone counts."

"Everyone," Auggie agreed.

Chirka clapped her hands together for attention. "Then I suggest we get back."

Everyone crowded around Browbeat, and patted him, rubbed him, or tried to give him a hug. The little flyer tittered in joy, and then launched himself into the air. "Friends! I'll be waiting!"

Chirka took them back to Engris. Antus was standing near the precipitator, and spoke the moment they arrived. "Everything work out?"

"Yes." Chirka smiled at the automaton. "Thank you, dear.":

Charlie sighed, and bent to look into the little Kift's eyes. "I'm not ready for another goodbye. Why don't you come to the spirit dome with us?"

Tchk-tchk-tchk! "Are you serious? I wouldn't miss this for the world!"

Charlie was glad he didn't have to call Sefton for a lift. The big man's discomfort at not being able to accompany them still made Charlie feel badly. Whatever Sefton's reasons were for not wishing to have anything to do with spirit domes or the dead, they were his reasons. He didn't need to justify them, and certainly, they were not cause for embarrassment or guilt.

Chirka had her own floater, and soon delivered them to the tiled square before the spirit dome they always used to talk to Billy and Will. They parked, and everyone went inside. The large dome was quiet, its interior dimly lit and peaceful.

"Now what?" Rick wondered aloud.

"There!" Adrian answered.

Something drifted in through the tall doorway behind them, a small, glowing ball, and parked itself nearby. There was a flash, and Eseffa and Jorli were there with them.

"It's not here yet," Eseffa said, sounding annoyed.

"I did set it to arrive when we did," Jorli returned. "Give it a second."

Something else drifted in through the doorway, a much larger conveyance, oval in shape, and about seven feet long. It arrived near them and settled to the floor.

Eseffa clapped his hands together. "Oh, we're ready! Charlie, call Browbeat."

Charlie blinked, surprised by the request. "Call him? How?"

Jorli chuckled. "When you come to see Billy and will, how do you summon them?"

"We just hope they'll come," Kippy said.

"Then hope Browbeat will come," Eseffa said.

Kippy grinned, and turned towards the dark well in the floor. "Come on, buddy. Come see us!"

The little flyer must have been poised for the summons. Scarcely had Kip said the words, then a colorful mist rose out of the center well, swirled in a small circle with great energy, and coalesced into a glowing copy of Browbeat.

"Friends! I'm so happy to see you!"

The small flyer zipped towards them and stopped to hover in front of Charlie and Kip. "This isn't so bad! I can see you all! Hi, Auggie!"

"Hi!" Auggie called, his colorful mane vibrating happily.

The two Madracorn came closer. "And now, for the gift part," Jorli said.

He pointed a finger at the second, larger conveyance, and the top of it split in half, and two doors raised and flopped to either side.

"Look within," Eseffa said, sounding pleased.

Charlie and the others walked to the conveyance, and peered inside.

Kippy gasped. "That's--!"

"It's me!" Browbeat called, sounding amazed. Charlie looked up, to find the flyer hovering over them.

Charlie examined the replica in amazement. It was the spitting image of Browbeat, down to the last detail. But it was also, quite plainly, not alive.

"What is it?" Charlie asked, turning to the two Madarcorn.

Eseffa smiled. "Charlie, nothing transpires on Engris that we don't take note of. Some time back, your two friends, Billy and Will, worked with your friend Max to produce a device that the two spirits could enter, and leave Engris in, and function as living creatures in the real world."

"Gort!" Ricky said, snapping his fingers, " The robot from that old movie! They made a copy, and could walk around in it."

"I remember," Charlie said, a suspicion coming to mind. He pointed at the replica of Browbeat. "Is that...?"

"It's the same technology," Eseffa confirmed.

"We copied it," Jorli added, sounding delighted. "It's our Christmas present to you."

"What's it do, Charlie?" Browbeat asked.

In answer, a tiny door opened on the back of the replica.

"You go inside," Jorli said quietly. "You will find you fill every inch of the receptacle within. It will fill you, as well."

"What for?" the flyer asked.

"It will allow you to move about the real world again," Charlie said. "Almost as if you were once more alive."

Kippy pressed his hands together in delight. "It means you can go with us!"

"What?" The flyer's response was scarcely more than a whisper.

"You don't have to," Charlie said. "It's only if you want to come along."

Browbeat let out a war whoop, and dove into the open compartment. His form compressed with a soft squishy sound ,and he disappeared inside, and the little door clapped shut behind him. Almost immediately, the replica stirred, the wings buzzed to life, and it took off.

"Whee!" Browbeat soared, and buzzed around the inside of the dome, did loops and circles and spins, and then came to hover in front of the guys. "It's just like being me!"

Kippy extended a hand. "Come, land on my shoulder."

Browbeat hummed over, and landed just as easily as he had done in the realm of the dead. Kippy closed his eyes, reached up, and placed a hand carefully on the flyer's back. He sighed then, and smiled. "It feels just like you, too!"

"It's me!" Browbeat sang, his eyes alight, "Its me, it's me, it's me!"

Charlie turned to the two Madracorn. "What a wonderful gift! Thank you."

Eseffa and Jorli looked at each other, and Eseffa shook his head. "It's the least we could do, Charlie. We know that your friends are your greatest treasures. Allowing one to spend more time with you seemed a very fitting gift. Thank you, for assisting us, and the people of the lower layer."

"Yes," Jorli agreed. "Thank you. All of you."

"Time for us to go," Eseffa said.

"Wait." Charlie raised a hand, and then brought it around to point to Browbeat. "Does this replica, um, require any maintenance?"

"Nothing any of you can do. The passenger capsule is foolproof. Nothing can happen to Browbeat's spirit. Even in the event of catastrophic failure, the passenger capsule will go into stasis mode, where it simply cannot be damaged. Simply bring it back here, and we can install it in a new body."

Charlie blew out an amazed breath. "Well, what about batteries? You know...power?"

"It will need a new power module at some point," Jorli agreed. "I believe the mean time before failure of the current one is..." He looked at Eseffa. "Was it forty-seven thousand years?"

"I believe it is," Eseffa confirmed. "But in general use, I have found they last more like fifty-thousand."

Ricky laughed, and rolled his eyes. "It's the coppertop battery!"

Kippy smiled at the two Madracorn. "I'd hug you if I could."

The two aliens laughed. "We'd take it, if we could," Jorli said. "We're just happy that you're happy. Merry Christmas, I believe the term is."

"Merry Christmas!" everyone called back.

The two aliens waved, and vanished.

Browbeat looked around at the faces turned his way. "Can I come with you?'

All eyes turned to Charlie. He smiled. "Sure."

Browbeat whooped again, and shot off Kip's shoulder, swooping around the interior of the dome and tittering like mad. They gave the flyer a couple of minutes to burn off his excitement, and then Charlie waved him down again. Browbeat dropped to a landing on Auggie's back. "Do you mind?"

"No, Auggie said happily.

Charlie pointed at the flyer. "If you come with us, though, you're on your honor to be good."

Browbeat laughed. "I'll do what you guys tell me. I'm sure it will be fun!"

Charlie nodded. "Okay. You're hired."

Browbeat whooped, and Auggie jumped up and down.

Kippy leaned up against Charlie. "I'm ready to go home. I want to have our Christmas now."

"Me, too," Charlie said. "Let's go."

The exited the dome, and Browbeat stared around the dead city, and up into the dark sky. "Wow! Look at that! I can't wait to see all this stuff!"

Robin moved closer to Charlie and smiled. "I hope you know what you're doing. That little fella can be a handful."

"We'll manage," Kippy said. "I love the little guy."

Charlie sighed. "Me, too. He'll be fine."

Robin nodded. "Not such a bad Christmas, after all."

"It sure turned out better than we hoped," Charlie agreed.

"It was pretty darn good, I think," Rick said, putting an arm around Adrian and pulling him close."And it's going to get better!"

Jeremiah moved up to walk with them. "Thanks for the look, Charlie."

"The look?"

"Yeah. At the world beyond the world I know. Thanks for that." The man sighed. "I guess I'll be goin' back to Holdover. Sure is gonna seem small now, after all this."

Charlie smiled at him. "You don't have to stay there. We can use an extra hand now and then. How about I call you?" He laughed. "Even better, if you get too bored, you call me!"

Jeremiah stuck out his hand. "It's a deal!"

They boarded Chirka's floater, and she headed them back towards the port. Everyone was quiet, smiling as they listened to Browbeat as he chortled with glee over every new sight. Auggie was propped up on the side of the craft, the flyer perched on his back, and both of them were watching the passing sights with fascination.

"They're going to be a pair," Kip said. "I can feel it."

Charlie smiled at that. "I think so, too. Merry Christmas, Kip."

"Merry Christmas, Charlie."

Kip slowly blew his breath out in a sigh.

Charlie nuzzled him. "What's that for?"

"Just...because. I love being with you, Charlie Boone."

"I love being with you, too, Kip. There's no one else in this universe, or any other, for me."

"Oh, Charlie," Kip leaned forward and kissed him, and they pressed their faces together.

Charlie closed his eyes. He was ready to be home, to see his parents, to spend Christmas with them, and his friends, and with Kip. To relax a little, and not worry about a thing.

Because after that, after they were all rested, they would move on to the next adventure, waiting in the wings. Something amazing, something thrilling, or something wondrous beyond all imagination.

It's what they did, at Third Planet Inquiries.


Charlie smiled at the notion. Look ye, and ye shall find.

He really couldn't wait.

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