Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

There's A Strange Partridge in My Pear Tree, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 5

"I have to say that Nicholaas really impressed me with this one," Robin said, staring around the bustling pirate market. "I never would have believed he could create a pathway to Engris from your house!"

"He's amazing!" Frit said, gazing owlishly at the amazing crowds.

"Better than amazing!" Pip agreed, equally enthralled with the sights. "He's stupendous!"

Kippy took a bite of Otherworld Pizza, from the stand that Ragal and Casper owned, and rolled his eyes in delight. "I never would have believed that pizza could be this stupendous, either!"

"You know what this means, don't you?" Rick said gleefully, munching on his own slice. "We can get take out from our own attic!"

Adrian laughed, and rubbed his cheek against his boyfriend's shoulder. "This just keeps getting better!"

"You like the pizza?" Casper asked Kippy, smiling as if he had prepared it himself. "Just remember, there's 101 flavors!"

Kippy rolled his eyes. "This is number one. Mogat cheese with sporza toppings. Write that down, Charlie."

Charlie laughed. "I'll remember it." He took another bite of his own slice, and had to agree the stuff was absolutely heavenly. "I'm afraid to ask what these toppings are. Sporza, you said?"

Casper nodded excitedly. "Fresh from Mertril's greenhouse!"

Charlie relaxed a little at the notion that they were plants, and not some exotic alien meat. He had seen what some aliens thought was good eating, right in Mertril's own restaurant. It was good to know the toppings didn't used to be part of something with fifty legs and pincers!

"It's really good!" he agreed.

Robin gave a little sigh, and looked around the marketplace. "You guys are going to have a stomach ache later, the way you've been eating that stuff." He pointed at the busy marketplace. "I haven't seen half of what there is to see yet. Anyone want to go exploring?"

When no one stepped up, Auggie gave a little grunt and moved over to gaze up at the man. "Me go. Don't eat pizza!"

Robin smiled at that. "I knew someone here had an adventurous heart! Come, my good man, and let us partake of the sights."

Auggie seemed to find that funny. "Partake," he agreed, as he and Robin headed off.

The market that never slept was crowded with people, scarcely any two of the same species. The myriad of items for sale came from every corner of the five empires, and every period in time. Much of it was illicit, plundered from the remains of vanished civilizations, and sold at the market here and on Lyrgris, rather than be turned in to the various governments involved, who would simply place the artifacts in museums, or, worse, keep them for themselves!

At least, that was the rationale of the people that came to Engris to sell things. Finders, keepers!

And, their own storeroom at the villa - where the staircase from the house on earth had led - was fairly well-stocked with all manner of curiosities they had purchased at the market, themselves. Treasures or trash, it could be hard to tell. Ancient, though, all of it seemed to be.

Ragal watched Robin and Auggie vanish into the crowd, and then stretched luxuriously, smiling at Charlie. "I had no idea we'd be back home so soon!"

Charlie felt satisfaction at the idea that Ragal and Casper now thought of Engris as home. The city here was a magical place, Charlie had to agree, and there were far worse locations one could spend the rest of eternity.

"You can come back with us when we go home," Charlie said. "This was sort of a detour, if you know what I mean."

Casper smiled at them. "We can come to visit now without having to wait on Murcha and Lollipop to take us."

Kippy paused in eating his pizza. "I can always teleport here and get you."

Ragal gave a quick shake of his head. "And now, there's not even a need for that. Still, we don't just want to be appearing in your home at random moments. We'll still call you to ask if it's a good time."

Casper seemed to think about that, but then nodded. "That's only right." He laughed. "You guys have to sleep, sometime!"

Ragal opened his mouth to say something more, but then closed it again in surprise as his com unit sounded in his pocket. He pulled it out and looked at the tiny screen, and then smiled. "Well, well."

He raised the unit to his ear. "Ragal here."

Kippy looked over at Charlie and shrugged, but the curiosity in his eyes was clear. Who could that be?

Ragal listened a moment, and then smiled again. "Wait just a moment." He pulled the com from his ear, and pressed the speakerphone button. "Now, please go on."

A new voice started speaking...and it was one Charlie knew well!

"We are on our way to Earth to see Charlie and the others, and we thought we'd stop here at Engris to ask if you needed transportation."

"Pacha!" Kippy said happily, around his last bite of pizza. "Hi!"

There was a moment of silence, and then: "Kip? Is that you?"

"Yes! We're here on Engris!"

They heard voices over the com then, as Pacha spoke to someone else.

"Hi, Kip!" they heard Bobby call then.

"Hey, guys!" Mike added, immediately after.

"You're on Engris now?" Pacha resumed. "We thought you'd be on Earth."

"It's a long story," Charlie called. "We're at the pirate market right now."

Pacha paused again. "Charlie? You, as well?"

"And, Rick and Adrian," Adrian called then, grinning.

"And Frit and Pip!" Frit added, rapidly.

"I'm here, too!" Browbeat added cheerily. "And Robin, and Auggie, someplace! They're prospecting for gold!"

Tchk-tchk-tchk. The little Kift sounded delighted. "Why, we were on our way to see you! It was fortuitous that we stopped here, then."

"Are you at the port?" Ragal asked.

"Yes. We landed only moments ago."

"Looking to relax some!" Bobby called.

"And, maybe sell a few things!" Mike added.

"Is Kontus there?" Kippy asked then. "It's not like him to stay so quiet!"

"I am here." The Trichani sounded slightly restrained. "It is improper com etiquette for everyone to be calling out at once."

"You'd be forgiven," Kippy said, laughing. "We can't wait to see all of you!"

"I will admit to being enthused over the idea," Kontus returned. "We had no idea you'd be here!"

"I've got a big hug for you!" Kippy called, winking at Charlie.

"Oh, uh, well, I will be tempted to return that gesture with great fondness, Kip."

Kippy snorted and rolled his eyes. "Wow! You guys sound like you need some shore leave! How long has it been since you've seen other people?"

"Been some months, hasn't it?" They heard Mike ask in the background.

"Five, to be exact," Kontus said, sounding weary at the very idea. The big Trichani grunted. "I will be happy to see the market again, as well as all of you!"

Kippy laughed gleefully. "Mike getting to you, big guy?"

Pacha cleared his throat loudly then. "We could all use some relaxation, Kip. We stopped here as much for that as to see if Ragal and Casper needed a, uh, ride to Earth, as I believe you call it. Knowing that we could relax a little in no-time and still be at your world promptly for the party was very tempting."

"We understand," Charlie said. "Bet you guys have some stories to tell about your latest adventure."

"A few!" Mike called, laughing.

"It has been a profitable and educational experience," Kontus said evenly, causing everyone to smile.

"Charlie?" Pacha said then. "Illia informs me that Lollipop is not at Engris at this time. How did you get here? Will you want transport to Earth?"

Charlie laughed. "Um, we can talk about that when we see you, Pacha." He leaned closer to Ragal's com. "We'll be heading back to the villa shortly. Why don't you guys join us there whenever you're ready?"

"That seems quite equitable," Pacha said. "We'll be along shortly." Tchk-tchk-tchk, he laughed. "You've roused my curiosity now!"

"Can't wait to see you guys!" Bobby called.

"We'll see you soon," Ragal told them. He signed off then, and put his com away. "Excellent timing on their part."

Kippy grinned at Charlie. "They can leave their ship here and come downstairs with us!"

"Oh, look!" Adrian said, pointing. "Here comes Robin and Auggie."

"That was quick," Rick noted. "But I guess once you've seen a few booths full of whatsits and whodats, they all start to look alike."

Kippy hissed and stuck out his tongue. "This place is amazing, and you well know it, Richard Travers!"

Everyone laughed at that, and then turned to watch as the man and the bearcat ambled down the length of booths toward them. They were a striking pair, Charlie thought then, Robin tall and handsome in his dashing winter beard, and Auggie just gorgeous with his tawny fur and fiery red mane. Robin noted their group stare as he and Auggie arrived, and looked around at the smiling faces with pointed curiosity.

When no one spoke, he dropped a hand on Auggie's head and gave it a gentle rub, and then smiled winningly at them. "Okay, okay. What'd we miss?"

"A simply amazing accomplishment, to form such a link with Engris," Pacha was saying, after hearing about their new house and its attic. "Nicholaas must have made an arrangement with the Madracorn here, as well as with the Lugh that runs your house. I can't see the owners of this dark world allowing an interspatial doorway for just anyone!"

"They're not just anyone," Browbeat argued, his small face full of delight. "They're the Madracorn's friends!"

Pacha was about to answer when he noticed Charlie's happy expression. The Kift's little face scrunched up in a smile of his own, practiced for some years to get it right. "Was it something I said, Charlie?"

"Um, I just didn't expect you to appear looking like this, Pacha."

Charlie hadn't been able to stop smiling, watching the little flyer and the little Kift go back and forth. Pacha had arrived wearing a very Christmassy red pointed cap with a white fluffy ball at the top of it, and seemed to feel it was just the thing for the season.

Good-natured laughter circled the group.

"It's my fault," Bobby told them, unable to squelch a grin of his own. "He wanted something that would be instantly recognizable as seasonal for the holiday, and that was the first thing that came to my mind!"

"I think he's unbearably cute!" Kippy insisted, shaking his head. "A koala in a red Santa hat? What's not to love!"

It was true that Pacha was in his koala form, rather than his native form, which tended to resemble a large white rabbit. As such, he would have been cute without the cap, the addition of which just made one want to sigh and grab the nearest camera. Adorable was the word that came to Charlie's mind.

"Aw, leave him be!" Rick said. "He's happy, and there's no way we can't look at him and be happy right along with him!"

Tchk-tchk-tchk. "That was my intention," Pacha admitted. "I wanted to be cheerful for this holiday of yours."

"You've definitely made the grade," Rick said, laughing.

They were seated in the grand visiting room of the villa, which looked like it had been designed to entertain royalty. Charlie and the others had been a little extravagant when designing the home, allowing themselves to be carried away by the magnificent floor plans of the homes offered by the Madracorn. The arched ceiling looked to have been lifted from a cathedral somewhere. It was built of the wood from the native durkla trees that covered much of the surface of Engris, and adorned with etched landscape panels that looked down at them. The workmanship on those was beautiful, showing scenes from the silent, eerily-lit cities that housed the spirit domes of the ancient builders of Engris, the vast forests that surrounded them, and the chains of mountains that gave the almost dark landscapes their perspective and depth.

The tall windows to one side of the room looked out at the brightly-lit city and the market at its center, while the windows on the other side viewed the port and the fascinating array of ships landed there. Pacha's egg-shaped vessel was one of the more moderate in design, with a few of the vessels not even recognizable as something that might lift into the sky from a world and travel among the stars. Diversity of design went hand-in-hand with the diversity of species that made Engris a home.

At the end of the finely-furnished room was a tall Christmas tree standing beside an immense hearth, in which a fire burned, and the stones of which comprised the entire end wall of the room. The tree had been created just for this occasion, and lit and decorated in the time-honored fashion that gave such trees their incredible cheer.

Mike and Bobby were seated together on one of the sofas, their closeness and relaxed manner evidence that their relationship had only been building since the last time that Charlie had seen them. For a guy that hadn't really known he was gay, Mike had embraced the lifestyle with both arms. And Bobby, of course, was so visibly in love it was hard not to smile at the way he acted around Mike.

Kippy kept sighing and smiling at the couple, and squeezing Charlie's hand as they sat together on the sofa across from the others. That Adrian looked just as delighted with what he was seeing kept causing Rick to beam across at Charlie, and the whole thing was just amazingly fun to enjoy.

Kontus sat at the other end of the sofa from Mike and Bobby, actually looking now like he was happy to be there. The big Trichani had confided to Charlie earlier that he missed Roorapynta, the disc-world on which he had spent most of his life, and the company of his own species. Not that he didn't enjoy the company of Pacha and Mike and Bobby...but a fella had to mingle with his own kind now and then, you know?

Charlie had asked the big bearish man if he had mentioned that desire to Pacha, and Kontus had hemmed and hawed over an answer, to where Charlie felt the Trichani didn't want to put a damper on Pacha's exploration schedule. So Charlie had taken it upon himself to whisper a few things to Pacha at a convenient moment before they had all gathered to sit, and the first thing Pacha had announced at their gathering was that, after visiting Earth for the holidays, he had decided to visit Roorapynta and spend some time there for a little R & R. Kontus had been taken completely by surprise, and his elation after that had been clear. If he suspected that Charlie had put the word in for him, he didn't show it, and Charlie was perfectly happy to leave it at that.

But the mood in the room seemed a happy one, and that was what really mattered!

"Didn't you say that Robin and Auggie were here, as well?" Pacha asked then, his eyes on Ragal. Casper, seated beside the tall alien, grinned and giggled like he had a secret, which caused Ragal to smile and pat his little companion's arm. "Now, now."

He smiled at Pacha then. "They're here, yes. They are out on a little errand, and will be back shortly."

Mike chuckled at that, and Bobby grinned. Kontus looked up at the ceiling, and Rick coughed gently into his hand and looked elsewhere. Frit and Pip adopted almost comical looks of innocence, and after noting the reactions, Pacha brought up a small hand to pat his chin. "Why do I feel like I am about to be the victim of a prank?"

Everybody smiled at that. The word had gotten around, despite Kippy's desire to keep the affair a secret. Charlie even suspected that Kip had been the one that had told the others himself, unable to hold onto the secret even as he contemplated the hoped-for outcome.

They heard the main door to the villa open then, and footfalls arrive on the polished stone floor of the entry foyer.

"I suspect that's them, now," Ragal said. Casper fought to keep a straight face, and everyone in the room sat forward at once as they listened to the progress of the new arrivals in the hallway.

"Yoo hoo!" Robin called, in a squeaky, feminine voice that made Charlie laugh. "We're home!"

At Charlie's breast, the dragon medallion warmed faintly, as if Castor was eagerly awaiting what was to happen next, too!

Robin came into the grand room through the double entry doors, walking slowly beside another visitor, who was small and had to take fairly rapid short steps to keep up. Auggie brought up the rear, his face alight with happiness.

But Charlie was watching Pacha, who had suddenly become alert and was leaning forward in his seat beside Mike.

At that moment, Chirka, walking beside Robin, also suddenly stopped, and she and Pacha stared at each other. Pacha gave a little gasp, and hopped off the sofa, shifting from his koala appearance to his native one as he did so. Chirka's body also changed suddenly, shedding its appearance of a Drazilian, and flowing into the same rabbit-like form as Pacha now wore. The two Kift moved towards each other, and stopped barely an arm's length apart.

"Pacha'ka," Pacha said then. "Iveely oss, Kenumber."

"Chirka'ka," Chirka replied, her voice cracking slightly with emotion. "Iveely oss, Partarka."

And then the two Kift stepped together and hugged each other fiercely.

Kippy gave a soft sigh, and squeezed Charlie's hand while gently wiping at his eyes. Charlie felt a hint of moisture in his own as he watched the two Kift, both long separated from the planet of their birth, rejoice in this unexpected meeting. The journeys of life were many, but the memories of home and kind remained dear.

And, there was no better time for them to come together, Charlie thought, than just now, when all their friends could be with them.

It was, after all, almost Christmas.

"I have been to Partarka, Chirka's place of birth," Pacha said, smiling at his new friend. "It's a beautiful city, suspended between two mountain peaks on a contra-gravity platform, where the rising and setting sun can bathe it in gold at the start and end of each day."

"And I have been to Kenumber, Pacha's place of birth," Chirka returned, also smiling. "The university city, woven into the treetops of the Arduwigh mega-forest, suspended upon molecular threads as if a pidar's web, far above the ground, and home to the gentle breezes that arrive off the Indaway Peaks."

Mike chuckled then. "Pacha's folk like heights. Most of their cities are off the ground in some way or another."

Tchk-tchk-tchk! Both of the Kift laughed at that. "My people love the sky," Pacha agreed. "It is a place where thoughts may roam free, unencumbered by the vagaries of terrain. The ground is such a messy place!"

Charlie and Kippy grinned at each other. The meeting they had arranged between the two Kift had come off amazingly well. Especially seeing as both Pacha and Chirka were basically solitary types, more engaged in their explorations than with their community. But it did go to show that there really was nothing quite like the company of one's own kind now and then to remind of the unity that could only be found at home.

Pacha sighed happily. "Thank you, Charlie, for bringing this meeting about."

Charlie shrugged. "Actually, it was Kip's idea to arrange this today. We had told Chirka about you before, and she had expressed an interest in meeting you. It just seemed a good time to get that done."

Chirka made a satisfied sound. "I get so wrapped up in my work, I tend to forget what I am missing."

"As do I." Pacha laid a hand on Chirka's, and gave it a fond pat. "I hope you don't mind if I call on you when we visit Engris. We actually get here fairly often."

"I don't mind at all. I would love to share some of my discoveries about the lower layer with a fellow scientist."

Pacha's satisfaction was evident. "You may be interested in some of our explorations, too. For instance, we are just back from Abresar, beyond the Golden Trail."

Chirka's eyes widened. "The Caprasol? The Moon of Torm'etah? That's just a legend!"

"It exists," Pacha said simply. "We have been there."

Chirka leaned closer to him. "And the Trembling City?"

"All true. Exactly as the legends speak of it. We spent over a month exploring its remains."

"We have some artifacts on the ship," Mike added, nodding. "Strange stuff, but quite beautiful."

Chirka looked amazed. "I would love to see some of it."

Pacha nodded. "You would be welcome. I will take you, myself."

Charlie held up a hand. "Um...before you two get wrapped up in a're coming to our party, right?" He smiled at Chirka. "Consider this an invitation."

The Kift turned back to Pacha. "You'll be there?"

"Oh, yes. I wouldn't miss it."

Chirka turned delighted eyes on Charlie. "I accept!"

Frit and Pip and Casper all giggled, and Ragal cast a gentle hush! look their way before smiling at Chirka. "I think you'll enjoy yourself."

"I know I am," Charlie heard Robin say softly. The big smile on the man's face confirmed that Robin's heart was in the right place, no matter how he sometimes acted.

Browbeat buzzed over to Charlie and carefully landed on his shoulder. "That was sweet and wonderful," he whispered into Charlie's ear.

"It was Kip's idea, remember," Charlie whispered back.

Browbeat took a small hop, from Charlie's shoulder to Kip's. "That was sweet and wonderful," Charlie heard him whisper into his boyfriend's ear.

Charlie sighed. What was Christmas without friends?

"What is that?" Casper asked, staring wide-eyed at the holoprojection in the center of the room.

Mike looked at a small device in his hand, and then shrugged. "Item 216. From what we think was the Palace of Ister, in the Trembling City. We don't know what it is." He laughed then. "But it's big!"

Pacha and Chirka had gone to Pacha's ship to look at the cargo of valuables in person, leaving Mike, Bobby, and Kontus to show Charlie and the others projections of what they had collected, without leaving the villa. This would give the two Kift some time to be alone and talk. Charlie suspected that the two scientists would enjoy the moment well.

The cargo was an amazing and eclectic selection of items, many quite beautiful, though almost none recognizable for function.

Kippy tsked. "It looks like an ornate bathtub for elephants."

Mike grinned at that. "For all I know, that's exactly what it is. You have to admit, it's quite fetching on the eyes, though."

Kippy grumbled, but then nodded. "It is pretty, for a bathtub."

Charlie squeezed his boyfriend's hand. "Ease up, Kip. This stuff is thirty thousand years old."

"Yeah, Kip," Rick put in. "Have a little respect for history."

Kippy replied by sticking his tongue out, to which Rick and Adrian both laughed.

Mike tapped the projector control, and the bathtub disappeared, to be replaced with a strange, tripod-like affair with a bright central orb, around which circled six balls of varying sizes, all encased within a halo of softly-lit points that winked and sparkled.

Charlie gasped at the projection. "Is that an orrery?"

Mike smiled. "It is, though what makes it go is something we aren't sure of just yet. The six planets revolving around the sun are still in the correct positions, thirty-thousand years after this thing was made. And the star groups you see in the halo around the system are all positionally correct, too, if you were observing the sky from the moon of the fourth planet. But there are no physical connections, as you can see, and what powers this thing and keeps it synched is something that Illia is still mulling over."

Charlie gave a low whistle. "It's gorgeous."

Kippy looked at Charlie, and then smiled at Mike. "Is it for sale?"

Mike's eyebrows raised, and his gaze moved between Kip and Charlie with delight. "It is. I'm sure Pach would make you a good deal on it, too, seeing as how you're family and all. You should speak up, though, before it goes with the other stuff we plan to sell here."

Robin frowned at that. "These are unique artifacts, taken from what would surely be an historical site, and you just plan to sell them to the highest bidder?"

Kippy hooted in surprise. "Are you having a problem with that?"

Robin's eyes widened, and then he laughed. "No. I do feel these things should be well-documented before they possibly disappear into some private collection, though."

"They are, "Kontus said, waving a hand. "Everything is examined by Illia with every instrument at her disposal. Of every group of artifacts we find, some go to the central museum on Kift, and some go to various university study collections in our area of space. Each of us keeps any small item we fancy for ourselves, but we don't get greedy. And, some portion of the artifacts gathered, which Pacha views as less academically important, get sold to finance our further explorations. If it were up to Pacha'ka, everything would go to the museums and researchers. But he's a realist, and we do have to eat and keep the ship going."

"Right," Mike agreed. "Exploring ain't cheap, guys."

Kippy nodded, smiling at the orrery. "It would make someone a great Christmas present, I think."

Charlie grinned at his boyfriend. "I wonder who?"

"I'm not telling." Kippy's eyes shined, though, and he leaned forward and planted a kiss on Charlie's lips.

"Were these folks power-users?" Rick asked.

"We believe so," Bobby answered. "Though at what level, it's impossible to tell today."

Rick leaned forward. "Any skwish devices in your haul?"

Frit gasped. "That would be interesting!:

"It would!" Pip agreed.

Mike looked over at Kontus, and then Bobby, before turning back to Rick. "Well...there are a few gizmos no one could figure out, even Illia."

Charlie shook his head. "I would think that Pacha would recognize a skwish device, if any were present."

Mike frowned at that. "He did say a few of the items were odd, but that none tickled his senses. But he also said that other power-users might get different reactions to them than he did."

"Maybe we should look at them," Browbeat suggested. "You guys are great power-users!"

"Maybe we should," Robin agreed. smiling at the little flyer.

Mike nodded, and tapped the device in his hand again. Something smaller appeared than, this one obviously sitting on a table in the projection. Charlie leaned closer, staring. The object had what looked like a hand grip, but one designed for a slightly smaller hand than a human one. If the device had had a barrel it would have resembled a small pistol, but there was nothing that looked as if it might be the business end of a weapon. It looked to be made of a bluish metal, with a lustrous surface that was quite appealing to the eye.

"What's that one?" Frit asked. "It looks like a portle-pruner."

Kippy laughed at that. "Whatever that is!"

Pip giggled. "Oh, everyone loves portles! A garden isn't complete without some!"

Mike shrugged. "We have no idea what it is. It's not in the sale lot, though Pacha would make an exception for one of you, I'm sure."

They stared at the device a while longer, but no one had any ideas on what the device might be.

"Does it have a power signature?" Robin asked then.

"A faint one," Mike said, nodding. "It has a tiny power source, that seems to have been exhausted by time. So it doesn't seem to work."

Casper laughed. "Maybe it is a portle-pruner!"

That brought a round of smiles. Guessing at the purpose of something created by an alien race that had vanished 300 centuries before was apparently not an easy task.

"Next!" Kip called, smiling.

Mike laughed, and the projection of the portle-pruner vanished, to be replaced by another device also displayed on a table-top. This one was a circle made of silvery metal, with small ovals spaced evenly around the inside, and was another item the purpose of which was far from obvious.

"Jewelry?" Adrian asked, frowning at the projection. "But where would it be worn?"

"A little too big to be a wristband, even for Kontus," Rick observed. "But it does give the sense of something that is meant to be worn, doesn't it?"

"That was our conclusion," Kontus agreed. "Each of us placed it on our arms, too, but did not feel it belonged there."

"Too small for a headband," Frit decided. "Or, at least for one of us. What did these aliens look like?"

Mike shrugged. "We're not exactly certain. We do know they were small in stature, closer to Pacha's crew, or maybe Casper's, in size, than one of us Earther bunch."

"Could fit on a smaller head than ours," Pip suggested. "We should look at that one. It makes me tingle."

Frit turned a look of surprise at his boyfriend."It makes you tingle?" He turned to look at Charlie and Kip. "It makes him tingle."

Kippy looked from one elf to the next. "Is that important?"

"For Pip, it is," Frit answered. "Tingling means something. We should look at that band." He grinned at Mike. "Is it for sale?"

"Mark that one, too, Mike," Kippy said. He smiled then. "Along with that cute orrery."

Mike laughed, and they went to the next item. Adrian immediately sat forward, a look of enchantment covering his features. "Oh! Look at that!"

Rick immediately waved a hand. "Sold!"

Everyone laughed. Charlie bent forward to examine the thing, along with everyone else.

It looked like a small fish tank, in which tiny somethings moved about. The water inside the tank had a greenish tinge, but the tiny, moving figures were a bright orange with blue stripes, and could clearly be seen as they roved about inside. They looked to be swimming, and they seemed companionable, too, as two would come together now and than and touch a moment, before moving apart again. It was a harmonious and captivating scene, to say the least.

"Are they alive?" Adrian breathed, his look of fascination deepening.

Mike shook his head. "Not as we know it." He frowned. "Or, not that we can tell." He pointed at the fish tank. "I know it looks like this is a tank" -- he tapped the display device in his hand, and the tank turned sideways in the projection, revealing itself to be only a finger's breadth in thickness -- "but, as you can see, it's not." He tapped the device again, and the tank revolved back so that they could see inside it again.

And yet, despite the thinness of its construction, it seemed obvious that some of the swimmers moved away from their view, to vanish into the greener waters to the rear.

"What is it, then?" Kip asked. "It's like a flat TV, but ten times more amazing."

Mike and Bobby exchanged glances, while Kontus looked resolute. "Our opinions vary," the big Trichani offered. "It is not an electronic projection device, such as your TV. It displays some extremely unusual physics in its construction, and our attempts to dissect its operation by non-invasive means were inconclusive."

"We aren't willing to take it apart to see what makes it go," Bobby interpreted, grinning.

Rick smiled. "So no one knows what it is."

Kontus actually grunted at that. "My own judgment is that this is a window of a sort, in either time or in space, and that what we are seeing is, or was, in fact, taking place in some ocean, somewhere in the universe."

It was a breathtaking idea. Adrian's mouth dropped open, and his captivation with the object only became more evident. Rick observed that, and turned back to Kontus. "How much?"

Mike laughed. "Another item not in the sale group, but Pacha will let you have it, I'm sure. You guys are safe sales, in his book."

Charlie blinked at that. "What does that mean, exactly?"

Mike shrugged. "He knows you'll take care of whatever you buy, and he knows that if he wants to see it again to study, you'll allow him to do that. Simple and easy."

They looked at another dozen items, none of which they could figure out, and marked two more to look at later.

"That's it for the possible skwishy lot," Mike said then.

"When can we see these things?" Adrian asked, looking eager.

Mike laughed. "I'll walk over to the ship and get them."

Kippy jumped to his feet. "No, you won't. I've been aboard Pacha's ship. I'll take you there."

Mike looked surprised at that. "I can walk on my own, Kipper."

Kippy frowned at the nickname, which he had never really liked, but just as obviously let it slide. Instead, he moved over beside Mike and placed a hand on the Aussie's arm. "That's not what I had in mind."

There was a popping sound, and both young men disappeared.

Bobby stood up quickly. "Oh! Kip can teleport now!"

Kontus brought his hands together in a fearsome clap. "Wonderful!"

Browbeat hummed happily, as if the compliment was directed at him, personally. "We aim to please!"

Charlie sat back in his seat and sighed. This was going to be an interesting day, no-time or not!

Mike laid the items out carefully on the table in the visiting room. "There you go, lads."

Ragal put out a hand and briefly hovered it over each item. "Old, indeed," he pronounced. "And such an amazing feel. I do believe your analysis of these ancients as power-users is on the mark, Mike."

"It was Pach that said so," Mike corrected. "But I do agree that they have a willie feel to 'em."

The orrery was even more impressive in person. The tiny planets circled the star without any visible means of support, while the starry points in the halo twinkled merrily. "That seems to be for visual effect," Charlie decided, of the way the pinpoints twinkled. "Of course real stars don't twinkle. It makes me wonder if this is an object of art, rather than a scientific device."

Kippy sighed. "It's pretty, either way."

Charlie had to agree. He bent closer to his boyfriend, and kissed him. "Thank you, Kip."

Kippy sighed happily. "Merry Christmas, a little bit early."

Adrian was equally enchanted with the fish tank. They watched as the tiny lifeforms inside moved about, and it was certain now that they were seeing life of some sort. But where, and when, such living things had flourished, was anyone's guess.

"I love it," Adrian said, kissing his boyfriend. "Thank you, Rick."

Kippy reached out and gave Rick's arm a squeeze. "You're so romantic, Ricky-tick."

Rick smiled, kissing Adrian back. "Mmm. Worth every credit!"

Charlie looked over to where Ragal was examining the metal band they had looked at earlier. "This looks interesting." Again, he hovered his hand over it, and then nodded to himself. "Pip? Would you look more closely at this, and see what you sense?"

Pip came over to look down at the ring. He closed his eyes, and then opened them and smiled. "It tingles."

Ragal nodded. "In a good way?"

"Oh, definitely. It's nice!"

Ragal nodded again, and bent to pick up the ring. He turned then, and smiled at Casper. "Willing to try an experiment?"

Casper's eyes lit up. "Sure!"

Ragal nodded, raised his hands, and carefully lowered the ring. It fit easily over the conical peak of the little alien's head, and Ragal lowered the ring until if came to rest snugly several inches above Casper's gray eyes.

"What do you feel?" Ragal asked.

Casper's small mouth opened in delight. "It feels...oh, it feels dreamy."

As if in response to his words, an image formed in the air before him, of Ragal holding the ring, and then lowering it over Casper's head. There was a flutter to the image, and then they were seeing Charlie's delight at the orrery, followed by his kiss with Kip. And then, the scene where Adrian had received his fish tank, and the resulting kiss that had been generated between him and Rick.

"It shows thoughts!" Casper said then, the delight in his voice clear. "And nice ones, too!" He closed his eyes, and the image faded a moment, only to strengthen immediately again into an image of the pirate market that had occurred earlier, where everyone had been sampling their first slices of Otherworld Pizza. The image was vivid, utterly clear, as if they were actually standing there, observing it all over again.

Ragal reached out and carefully raised the ring from Casper's brow, and laid it back on the table. "Enough for now, I think." He turned to smile at Pip. "Was it your intention to purchase this item?"

Frit bumped his shoulder against Pip's. "It won't fit your big, square head, love."

Pip laughed delightedly, putting an arm around Frit and hugging him close. "I just thought it tingled," he told Ragal. "But I wasn't going to buy it."

Ragal beamed, and then turned to Mike. "Then I wish to purchase it for Casper."

Casper looked delighted at the very idea. "Thanks, Ragal!"

The lanky alien nodded, and gazed down fondly at his friend. "One could learn to love this Christmas giving ritual, I believe."

Frit pointed back at the table then. "Can I pick up the portle-pruner, Mike?"

The Aussie held up a hand. "Be my guest!"

Frit grinned at Pip, and picked up the alien device. He closed his eyes a moment, and then opened them excitedly and extended the portle-pruner to Pip. "Feel this!"

Pip put out a hand and the two elves held the device together.

"Ooh!" Pip said then. "That feels good!"

Kippy looked from one elf to the other. "What are you feeling?"

Frit turned a smile on him. "It's old! And, someone loved it!"

"Huh?" Kippy stared at the two elves. "But what does it do?"

"Oh, we don't know that," Frit replied.

"Yeah, that's still a mystery," Pip agreed. "But what we get is, well--"

"A long, long time ago, someone cherished this," Frit said.

"They loved it," Pip agreed.

"That makes it special." Frit turned dreamy eyes on Pip. "You can feel the love."

Kippy scratched his head a moment, gave it a little shake, and then turned to Mike. "I want to buy that thing, too. For Frit and Pip."

Frit gasped. "For us?"

"As in, the two of us?" Pip elaborated, looking amazed.

Kippy laughed. "Yes. You two share now, okay?"

"Thanks, Kip!" Both elves exclaimed. They moved together, holding the portle-pruner between them. "I feel love," Frit said softly. He kissed Pip, who looked delighted. "Extra love!"

"I feel it, too!" Pip said, returning the kiss. "Special love!"

"You guys already feel that for each other," Rick pointed out, rolling his eyes.

"But this magnifies it!" Frit said, still sounding dreamy.

"Makes it bigger!" Pip agreed.

Rick sighed. "You guys need a room?"

Adrian laughed, and squeezed his boyfriend's arm. "Leave them alone, Rick. They're sweet on each other."

"I kinda guessed that." But Rick smiled, and put an arm around his own boyfriend. "I know what they're feeling."

Kippy tightened his arm around Charlie's. "So do I."

Browbeat gave a little sigh, looking around at all the happy expressions. "This is what it's all about, folks!"

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead