The Third Clue: A Pacha'ka Adventure

by Geron Kees

Chapter 2

"I can't imagine building anything out of stars," Bobby said, his eyes filled with wonder at the idea. They were seated around a circular table that Illia had provided for them, save for Pacha, who was sprawled comfortably on a pillow in the center of the table, where he could see them all.

"They wouldn't have actually used the suns, themselves, I'm guessing," Mike asked. "I mean, not as suns." He frowned at Pacha. "The matter from them, right?"

The Kift emitted a soft grunt at that. "Stars have been used as sources of raw materials by many races, it is documented. The empires of today routinely harvest the smallest red dwarf stars for their hydrogen content, used in the terraforming of otherwise inhospitable worlds. So, making things from stellar matter is not in any way an unusual occurrence."

Mike turned and looked at the nearby display, and the suns glowing in abundance within. "These are not dwarf stars, Pach."

Tchk-tchk-tchk. "No, they certainly are not. And I greatly suspect that it was not simply hydrogen in abundance that the Hartonin sought here. Illia's final scans of this cloud have produced a handful of stars as large as twelve Earth-sun masses. And, several of the same that have undergone the transformation to become neutron stars. I suspect that it is the rare wealth of these same last objects in this stellar cloud that attracted the Hartonin."

Bobby looked from Pacha to Mike, and back again, his eyes wide. "Neutron stars? The ones that are made of stuff so dense, that a spoonful has the mass of a mountain?"

"Just so." Pacha looked pleased. "Your education is improving greatly from its less enlightened origins."

Mike frowned at that, and put out a hand to squeeze his boyfriend's arm. "That seems a little harsh, Pach."

But Bobby laughed. "It's okay. There was a lot less known about this sky stuff in my day than people know now. Pacha is right."

"And I did not mean to be insulting," Pacha said quickly, smiling his crooked smile at Bobby. "I was just acknowledging the work you have put into learning since you have been with us. In the year of Earthly history from which you were taken by the Markites, human science had proposed the existence of neutron stars, but had yet to prove them real."

Mike grinned at that. "Too bad Charlie isn't here. He'd know all about them, I'll bet."

Bobby laughed. "Britannica Brain!"

Pacha also smiled. "He is one to pick up some interesting facts."

"And he has a way of telling you about them that doesn't hurt," Mike added, smiling mischievously at Pacha.

The Kift gently rolled his brown eyes. "Are you saying I speak too technically, Michael?"

Both boys grinned at that. "From time to time," Bobby said gently.

The little koala sighed. "Perhaps it is the ears that hear, rather than the tongue that speaks?"

The boys laughed at that, and it was up to Kontus to rap his large knuckles on the tabletop for order. "Let us not digress from the subject." He smiled toothily at the humans, and then at Pacha. "You were saying?"

Mike and Bobby exchanged smiles, but both leaned forward again to focus on the Kift.

Pacha tapped his chin contemplatively. "I am leaning towards believing that the Hartonin removed a number of neutron stars from this swarm. Illia has mapped the cloud, and done a mathematical dispersion test of the remaining stars, and produced a dozen areas that would seem, by the rules of motion, that they should contain star members of this group, but which are glaringly vacant."

"What about all the wandering planets?" Bobby asked. "They got cut lose from the neutron stars when the Hartonin took them?"

"No. Now that I know we are dealing with neutron stars, that is not a probable answer to the amount of loose worlds we see here. In the stellar collapse that produces neutron stars, any close-in orbiting planets would almost certainly become casualties. It is possible for neutron stars to retain distant orbiters, as some neutron stars demonstrably have planetary systems. Some small percentage of planets would also be set free to wander on their own. Some of the planets we have detected may fall into this group. But other wandering worlds, I suspect, were perturbed from their neighboring parent stars in the process of moving the neutron stars." Pacha stopped a moment, looking almost amazed. "Which must have been an incredible task," he went on then. "I cannot imagine moving such masses, let alone guiding them with fine accuracy. The immense gravity wells of the neutron stars could easily have disrupted the solar families of any stars they passed close to. And the stars in this group are too close together not to expect some collateral damage."

Bobby shuddered at the idea. "I hope no one lived on those planets!"

"One would hope that the Hartonin took care in their actions. Yet, most of the stars in this group will not have the sorts of lifespans that would provide enough time for complex life forms to develop. I doubt anyone was impacted by the Hartonin's plans"

Mike whistled. "Still, taking a dozen neutron stars from anywhere would be a job!"

"How can we know what really happened?" Bobby asked. "It was so long ago!"

"There is an easy way to test the hypothesis that stars have indeed been removed from this stellar cloud. And we are already underway with that test," Illia supplied then.

"Yes," Pacha agreed. "The Hartonin were thought to be active around twenty-five thousand years ago. The stories of Nabakeah would seem to place its construction around that time."

Mike frowned at that. "That's about the time the Beltracians were active,. Do you think the two races knew each other?"

"I would say they did," Pacha responded, nodding. "There are stories in both culture's limited historical archives of the others, another race that vied for control of areas of space that these two peoples were each interested in. Their core worlds were quite some distance apart, on the order of twenty thousand light years; but the perimeters of their empires apparently interacted, and some mention of conflict remains in the histories today. Yet our scholars seem to think that the balance of what history is known of that time period suggests that the two races coexisted mostly peacefully - if warily - with each other. The science and technology of both races was formidable, as we have already seen. And the galaxy is vast. Why fight over territory, when there is plenty for all?"

"Much like the five empires co-exist today," Kontus pointed out.

"Yes. And with the sort of power that the Hartonin and the Beltracians could wield, I suspect any major conflict would have been devastating to both sides."

Bobby gave a gentle, wondering shake to his head. "And yet, as mighty as they were, both races are gone today."

Kontus grunted, and a slightly uneasy expression appeared on the big Trichani's face. "I recall our meeting with the Beltracians, and the sight of their armada world, where they had stored part of their war fleet. I cannot imagine two such species facing off among the stars. The destruction would have been immense."

"Perhaps they understood that," Pacha agreed. "In any case, it matters not to our own investigations. As Bobby has pointed out, both of these peoples would seem to be extinct today."

"Accent on the seem," Mike said warily. "No one knew there were any Beltracians still around until we ran into them, right?"

The Kift closed his eyes and emitted a tiny sigh. "Let us not complicate this any more than is necessary, please?"

Bobby leaned closer to his boyfriend and gave him a playful jab with his elbow. "Yeah, Mike. We don't need ghosts flitting around, on top of everything else!"

Kontus rapped his knuckles on the table top again. The Trichani looked as if he was trying to be patient, but that it was not taking very well. Mike and Bobby grinned at each other, but leaned forward again to look at Pacha.

"You were saying," Mike prodded, as if it were the Kift that had interrupted the flow of information.

Pacha opened his eyes, and his gaze was not without humor. "A simple enough test has been started to confirm Illia's idea that there are a dozen stars missing from this cloud." He swung his head to face Kontus. "And your own people will be assisting us."

The Trichani drew his head back in surprise. "My people? How so?"

Tchk-tchk-tchk. "Like most of the starfaring people's today, your kind never tires of viewing the heavens. Some of the devices your science people have put in place at the extremes of your empire are located more than twenty-five thousand light years away from our current location, and pointed in this direction. I have had Illia put in requests through the academic channels shared by your people and mine for scans of this area of the galaxy. Due to the distance of the instruments involved, they will be able to provide scans of this region as it existed at the time of the Hartonin. Before they may have harvested stars from this cloud. By comparing those scans to our own of the cloud made today, we can ascertain how many, if any, stars are now missing."

Kontus looked pleased at the idea, and then thoughtful. "You did not tell them what the scans you requested were for, though?"

"No. Such requests are made every day, my friend. The academic communities of all the star empires are, by far, the most cooperative agencies of those governments. Watching the stars is a task with many other reasons than defense or trade. Scientists tend to enjoy sharing information, because it usually means they get as much as they give."

"How long before we receive these scans?"

"They have started coming in already," Illia spoke up. "Your people maintain an automated astronomical database that is very quick to comply."

Kontus looked pleased, almost as if the contribution were his own. "You don't have to pay for these scans?"

"No. The academic world is a wonderfully fee-less one, in most cases."

But Kontus grunted at that, and then smiled. "Seems an excellent deal! Trade, brother!"

"Trade, brother!" Mike and Bobby echoed together, by now used to the ritual.

"The download is complete. I am making the comparisons now..."

A sense of anticipation stole over Mike, and he grinned at his boyfriend while they waited. Bobby's eyes were brimming with excitement, and Mike sighed inwardly in happiness. Who knew, when he had first walked into the weeds near his aunt's home just a few years ago, to investigate what he thought had been a meteor fall, and found Pacha's ship instead, that events would eventually bring him face-to-face with the one person he seemed to have been destined to fall in love with?

"Task complete. I am projecting the results into your viewer, Pacha'ka."

Mike smiled a last time at Bobby, and both boys turned to look at the display. It resolved into a split view of two clusters of bright stars, one above the other, and to the eye, practically identical. And then, as they watched, new information appeared at the bottom of the display, and blue points began to appear in the top view, mostly towards the center of the cluster, until there were thirteen of them counted.

"Not a bad guess, with some nod towards statistical anomalies." The AI sounded pleased with herself. "In case it is not clear, there are thirteen stars in the view from the Trichani scans that are no longer present in the cluster today."


"They took them," Mike stated, unable to keep his excitement out of his voice. "The Hartonin actually took them!"

"It would seem so," Pacha agreed. His own excitement was noticeable, though understated, as was the Kifta way.

"One item of note" Illia continued, and the Trichani image expanded to fill the display, even as they seemed to zoom in on the stars. One of the highlighted blue dots took front and center in the display, and the image froze, while reams of data in the elegant Trichani script sped by below.

Kontus grunted in amazement. "A pulsar!"

"Exactly." Illia's voice also held a trace of excitement now.

"What does that mean?" Bobby asked, leaning closer to peer at the image.

Pacha sat up on his pillow now. "Many neutron stars are also pulsars," he explained. "The suns of this cloud are giants, with relatively short lifespans as stars go. They burn their hydrogen fuel much more quickly than do smaller stars, until at long last their cores undergo gravitational collapse and they shed their remaining halo of gases. As these cores shrink in size, their rotational speed increases. The cores continue to collapse under gravitational influences, until their matter is packed so tightly together that the density becomes, well, astronomical. Cores that mass as much as two and a half times your own sun of Earth can compact down to a sphere 20 kilometers in diameter. The resultant stars are not luminous as they once were, but combine extreme gravity with powerful electric and magnetic fields and high rotational velocity to become energetic broadcasters over wide ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum."

"Why are they called pulsars?" Bobby asked.

"Pulsars tend to emit electromagnetic waves in tight cones from along magnetic lines, and the star itself rotates at speeds of hundreds of revolutions per minute. Millisecond pulsars can achieve rotational speeds of one hundred revolutions per second. At that speed they are no longer spherical, but become oblate, flattened at the upper and lower poles, and extended at the equator. As the pulsar spins, these narrow cones of emitted radiation reach out in relatively straight lines. Distant observers have these tightly emitted broadcasts aimed their way for a brief moment in every rotation, amounting to a very regular pulsing signal with an interval equivalent to the rate of spin."

"They must not be common," Mike decided, frowning, "or we would have run into them more often."

"It is estimated that there are at least a billion neutron stars in our galaxy," Pacha countered, his eyes bright. "But we only know of thousands of them, because as they age they cool and spin down, and their emissions lose energy, until the neutron star becomes virtually invisible at a distance." He pointed at the display holding the Trichani scan. "Twenty-seven thousand years ago, when this data was fresh for our present location, there was one pulsar active in this cloud. This was evidently the youngest of the neutron stars in the cluster, still energetic enough to be detected at a distance. I submit that there were a dozen other neutron stars here at the time, older, and no longer announcing themselves as pulsars."

Kontus drummed his fingers on the tabletop. "Yet, there is no pulsar here today. That would seem to indicate that the Hartonin removed, not only the older neutron stars, but also the pulsar?"

Pacha nodded. "At a guess, yes."

"An incredible task!" The Trichani breathed, shaking his massive head. "How could such a job be managed?"

Pacha gave his head a quick shake. "I know of no way it could be done. Illia?"

"The task would require amounts of energy and means of applying force that we can only speculate upon. The science available today is not capable of such tasks, not without a long-term study of the problem and the creation of new technologies, as yet unspecified."

Mike laughed at that. "So, it's a no-go?"

"I believe I just said that."

Bobby pointed at the display. "If these missing stars were already old neutron stars twenty-seven thousand years ago, then how do they show up in the Trichani scans? You said they were no longer visible at that time."

"I can answer that," Kontus said. He waved a hand at the display, and the Trichani script still flowing past. "In reading the accompanying literature, I see that these scans span the entire electromagnetic spectrum. The missing stars were detected by their gamma ray emissions, which are not visible, but extremely energetic. So much so that they tend to produce larger and less distinct images than do visible stars." He cocked his head at the display. "Their locations in these scans are approximated. But as they do not appear at all in our current scans, we can safely assume that these stars are no longer present."

"There are several candidates for future pulsars among the large stars here," Illia stated. "But at present, this stellar cloud is rather quiet."

Mike stared at the display a while in silence, his imagination trying to envision the Herculean task of moving neutron stars to another location, and then somehow using their material to build something. Neutron stars were tiny in size in comparison to normal stars, but their mass was similar, which would mean a gravitational punch equivalent to something far larger. So, moving one would still require moving the mass of a large star. And how, then, could the incredibly dense neutron-degenerate matter within the core of the star be used to manufacture anything? What sort of tools could be used? What possible source of energy would be up to the task? One thing seemed clear: anything built of 13 neutron star's worth of material would be immensely strong, and produce a gravitational attraction that would be unbelievable. There were certainly things he simply didn't know about something like this, that were just beyond his comprehension. That this Nabakeah thing they were looking for might be even something Pacha and Illia couldn't understand was almost frightening.

Bobby leaned against his shoulder then. "What are you thinking about?" he asked softly.

Mike leaned his head sideways so that it rested against his boyfriend's. "That this may be something bigger than we can handle."

Pacha turned to look at him. "We will not know until we get there, I suspect. It seems clear the Hartonin would not expend this sort of energy on a project just on a whim. It must have been something important to them."

"Any idea what it is?" Mike asked.

"No." The Kift glanced back at the display. "I don't. "Pacha frowned then. "There is also--" But he broke off in mid-sentence, suddenly looking lost in thought.

"There's also what?" Mike asked.

Pacha blinked, and then looked at him more closely. "The neutron-degenerate matter that comprises a neutron star core is a product of gravitational collapse. You don't just peel off pieces you can use to build things. Unraveling a neutron star would not be feasible, I would think. So, whatever they wanted these cores for, it would entail somehow leaving them intact."

"That's a problem?" Bobby asked.

"Well...yes. If you merge the masses of two neutron stars, you generally get a black hole. How thirteen such bodies could be used together for any one seems impossible to me."

"They wanted these stars for something." Kontus turned away from the display to look at Pacha. "I would assume we will now move on to the second set of coordinates you have?"

"Well..." Pacha patted his chin.

The Trichani's eyes widened slightly. "You do have a second set of coordinates, do you not?"

The little Kift nodded. "Yes."

Kontus cocked his head to one side. "Is there a problem with them?"

"You may as well tell them," Illia put in.

Pacha sighed, a resigned sound if Mike had ever heard one. This couldn't be good!

"I'm taking it there is a problem with this second location?" Mike ventured.

The little Kift sighed again, and nodded. "The second set of coordinates is located in the hinterlands of one of the current five empires."

"Not in space claimed by my own kind?" Kontus asked, sounding surprised and alarmed. With the complex tangle of trade contracts and proprietary trading regions within Trichani space, doing anything without being noticed by some 'competitor' would be difficult.

Pacha laughed. "I only wish it were that easy!"

"The Moth?" Bobby wondered, looking unsettled by the idea.

"Well...I wish it were them, actually. They are a known quantity, at least."

Kontus looked at Mike, and the two of them arrived at the same conclusion together. "You don't mean...?" Mike began.

Kontus squeezed his eyes shut a moment. "Please tell me you are not speaking of Braunigan space."

Pacha released another soft sigh. "Okay. I will not tell you I mean Braunigan space. But, unfortunately, I do."

The Braunigan occupied a stellar empire of unknown size, though it was thought to be at least as large and powerful as those of the Trichani and the Moth. But while the Moth and the Trichani traded together fairly eagerly and to great profit, the Braunigan were less interested in the exchange of either ideas or goods, and they had made it clear that, while they wanted no trouble, any ship crossing into their territory beyond the approved border ports would face instant obliteration. A network of outposts and stations in space monitored the borders, supposedly from all sides, and the peace had been kept for more years than humans had had calendars to count them. Braunigan warships were not as deadly as those of the Moth, but existed in numbers similar to those of the Trichani, and history had shown them quick to act when border violations occurred. The Braunigan seemed to have no smugglers of their own, but those from the other empires had found the act of encroaching upon Braunigan space a short and quick trip to oblivion.

What was known about the Braunigan had been gathered by inference as much as investigation, and they remained a somewhat shadowy folk to those outside their borders. Getting into Braunigan space, even legally, was not an easy task. Going there surreptitiously, looking for something of possibly extreme value and power...the idea was not encouraging at all.

"I have met them before," Kontus said, a sound of distaste in his voice. "They come to Roorapynta to trade fairly regularly. Our security people consider these visits to be acts of spying."

"Really?" Mike frowned at the big man. "Are they that paranoid?"

"Yes. They have always seen Roorapynta as a threat. Its position is such that it would be a first-rate forward base for any incursion into their space. They like to look us over periodically to make sure the many ships in port are not warships."

Bobby laughed at that. "Man, that is paranoid!" He frowned then. "Kinda scary, too."

Kontus nodded his large head. "My experience with neighbors that constantly watch me is that they bear watching, themselves."

"It does make our task much harder," Pacha admitted.

"Do you know where in Braunigan space?" Mike asked, briefly squeezing one hand anxiously with the other. If anything might serve to stop them in their tracks in the quest to locate Nabakeah, this was it.

"The location is clear," Illia supplied. "What is not clear is whether Braunigan territory extends that far to the rear of their borders with Moth and Trichani space."

"How can we find out?" Kontus asked, already looking like he would not like the answer.

"No star empire is more than a rough oblong of space within the arm of the galaxy," Pacha informed. "We tend to think of them as vast expanses, but next to the size of the galaxy itself, their size is quite small. Also, the galactic arm we reside within is far broader and lengthier than it is thick. The average thickness of the arm in the area holding the five empires is roughly 1500 light years. All the known empires fill the arm from top to bottom, with the largest area of their expanse being within the width of the arm. Each empire has also claimed numerous halo stars above and below the arm, proper. It makes an accounting of worlds and suns extremely difficult, especially as none of the empires openly discuss what lies to the rear of their border areas. But it is possible to get to the back side of any of the empires by going over or under them, by leaving the plane of the arm. You just have to go well above or below, to avoid encroaching upon territory associated with halo stars."

Mike rolled his eyes and grinned. "Doesn't sound complicated at all!"

"But we can go around them?" Bobby asked, patting his boyfriend's hand reassuringly.

"Not necessarily. What we don't know is how much space the Braunigan consider their own domain back from their borders with the Trichani and the Moth. If it is of a similar size to Trichani and Moth space, the place we want to go would indeed be in the hinterlands of Braunigan space, far to the rear and to one side of their empire. The empire of the Hartonin, just like the empire of the Beltracians, occupied areas of space today belonging to different members of the five empires. Sometimes multiple members. But the ancient borders were nothing like the borders of the empires today."

"The modern empires tend to be most heavily occupied and developed in the areas where their own borders meet with other empires," Illia said. "What we would consider the far backsides are much less developed, much more sparsely occupied, much less completely explored. But we must assume that the Braunigan mentality will insure that no stretch of border is left unwatched."

"I would think the galactic powers would have a good idea of each other's borders," Bobby said.

Pacha rubbed his button nose. "No doubt, they do. But we do not have access to such sensitive information." He looked around at the circle of faces. "We can get where we want to go within the Cooee. And remain undetected until we get there. But the moment we return to normal space, we will be subject to detection."

Mike considered that, and then shook his head. "No.There's something wrong with that assumption. If we are detected the moment we re-enter normal space, that would mean that Nabakeah is within the Braunigan sensor sphere, and they would have to know it's there. If they have not found it, then they will not find us."

Pacha narrowed his eyes at that. "Illia? Your opinion?"

"Mike is right. If the Braunigan have Nabakeah, they will detect our approach. If they do not have it, it lies someplace outside the range of their sensors. And that would mean someplace beyond their rear border. Their empire may not be as extensive as we have assumed."

Bobby held up his hands. "So how do we know?"

Pacha held up his tiny hands. "I guess we go and see."

There was silence at that pronouncement. Everyone was thinking about the known penchant for the Braunigan to be quick on the trigger as far as intruders were concerned.

"Wait a second," Bobby said then. "This second set of coordinates only takes us to where Nabakeah was made. Do we even need to go there? Can't we just cut to the chase and go right to the third set of coordinates, where Nabakeah is now?"

Pacha squirmed slightly at that. "Well...the third clue, the one that tells us where Nabakeah is now, isn't a simple set of coordinates like the first two. There are directional indications and distance parameters, but...the third clue is in the form of a verse...almost a riddle...that points the way to Nabakeah from the site of its construction. I have no idea if it is even translated correctly. But it begins with observing some view from the site of construction that would seem to be necessary to the solving of the riddle itself and locating Nabakeah."

Kontus grunted at that. "What sort of person gives directions as a riddle?"

"Well--" Tchk-tchk-tchk. "These weren't exactly directions, per se. And the third clue isn't exactly a riddle. It just seems like one to me, since I have no real idea what it means just yet. My own suspicion is that our information comes from something that is the Hartonin equivalent of a sightseeing program. A travel brochure, if you will."

There was silence at that, and then Mike and Bobby both burst out laughing. "A travel brochure!" Mike repeated. "Are you serious?"

"Certainly. I know of no culture that has not had sightseeing and tourism as valid parts of its make up. People like to see amazing things. In many cultures, they pay for the privilege. Why should the Hartonin be any different?"

"But wasn't Nabakeah some sort of big military secret or something?" Bobby asked, looking amazed.

"We don't know that," Pacha countered. "It seems to have been a very large scientific program of some sort, at least in scope. But there is nothing in the literature on Nabakeah I have found that points to a direct military use for whatever Nabakeah actually is." The little Kift smiled a crooked smile. "As a matter of fact...the evidence points to this entire program being a private venture on the part of a small group of Hartonin."

Mike and Bobby exchanged astonished stares. "Private?" Mike repeated. "Something this large?"

"Size is a function of ability," Pacha responded. "When you have very great ability, very great projects become the norm."

Mike shook his head, unable to imagine a project that could move stars about and build things from them as just another private venture. "And they allowed sightseers? That's amazing!"

Pacha patted his chin in thought. "The Hartonin seemed not to have secrets among themselves. Whatever any of them were doing was open to all to observe."

"Even to sightseers," Bobby said softly. A smiled filled his eyes. "That's really neat!"

"But the Braunigan apparently do not like to sightsee," Kontus pointed out. "Nor do they tolerate sightseers!"

"We don't know that they don't practice sightseeing within their own realm," Pacha observed. "They may love to see their own wonders, even if they don't wish to share them with others."

A thought occurred to Mike then. "Hey! I've never seen a Braunigan. Illia, have you got a likeness we can see?"

"I do. Observe the display."

The star fields currently in the large viewer vanished, to be replaced with an image of a familiar place. Bobby slowly rose to his feet, and Mike quickly joined him.

The scene had obviously been taken on Roorapynta. A market area and auction site were clearly visible, and the crowds attending were amazing and diverse. The image turned, and started moving towards a group of people.

Mike extended a hand and closed it gently on his boyfriend's wrist. "Bring back bad memories?"


Mike moved closer and put his arm around the other boy. "I'm here."

Bobby nodded, but his eyes never left the screen. The image continued to move towards a small group of large beings wrapped in odd-looking robes of some sort. These creatures, as the view circled around to face them, had rounded bodies beneath the robes, with at least two legs beneath supporting the torso. If there were more legs, they could not be identified beneath the flowing robes.

Two thick arms protruded from within the wraps, seeming to be jointless as the aliens moved them around, and which ended in a simple splay of six finger-like appendages arranged in a circle, making them all opposed and capable of gripping. Indeed, several of them clasped small objects in hand that might have been devices for displaying auction wares and bidding stats, which were periodically held up to the large, oval eyes as sales progressed around them.

There was nothing like a standard biped's head. The rounded body narrowed at the top and produced a fur-covered hump at the peak, which protruded from the robes, and which bore two eyes spaced widely apart, a fleshy knob between that served as an air intake, and a rounded mouth below, filled with a combination of sharp tearing teeth and squarish grinding teeth, both much larger than their human counterparts. There was a smoothness to the geometry of the alien that was pleasing to the eye, but also a sense of strength and purpose about them that could be felt even from the images before them.

When the group stepped towards one of the bidding blocks, it was with none of the deliberate sluggishness that large creatures often displayed in their movements. Their motions were fluid and graceful, suggesting that the gravity of Roorapynta was lower than what they were accustomed to. Their voices, as they talked together, were deep and smooth, in no way harsh, and the language they spoke was also graceful and well-paced.

"The Braunigan," Illia announced. "They're mammals, with all the common traits to that order. This is one of several surveillance images I have managed to locate on them."

"I've seen them before," Bobby said quietly. "When I was stranded on Roorapynta and looking for help. I didn't know who they were. Just more aliens to me, then."

Mike stared at his boyfriend. "Did you interact with them?"

"No. I just walked by a group of them, like this one. But you don't forget faces like that easily."

He closed his eyes, and Mike gently squeezed him closer. "I know that was a hard time for you."

"Yeah." Bobby's eyes opened again, and he smiled. "But it's all in the past. I'm happy, now."

"I believe I recall seeing these people there, too," Pacha said, sounding surprised. "I had no idea these were the infamous Braunigan."

"They are often seen on Roorapynta," Kontus agreed. "As I said, they like to keep an eye on us."

Mike gave a little shake to his head. "Strange looking bunch. But I'm sure they'd feel the same about us." He turned his gaze back to Pacha. "So, we're going to the second set of coordinates?"

"I see no other way to progress in our quest."

Mike turned back to his boyfriend. "What do you think?"

Bobby looked uncertain for all of two seconds, and then smiled. "We've come this far," he said simply.

Mike smiled at him, and shifted his gaze to Kontus. "I know you're all for going!"

The big Trichani laughed. "There is always some risk involved with discovering new knowledge. I am ready to go, even now!"

"Uh huh." Mike smiled, and looked at the overhead. "Illia?"

"I am ready to proceed, if you are."

Mike laughed softly, and nodded at Pacha. "Okay. So, what's our next step?"

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