The Third Clue: A Pacha'ka Adventure

by Geron Kees

Chapter 4

"What happened?" Mike asked, as he entered the control center with Bobby hot on his tracks. They had been sleeping, and had rushed to get dressed when the alarm had sounded.

"Just Illia, being careful," Pacha said, from his position before the display. Mike peered at the view, noting the lack of nearby stars, and the distant haze of light that was the next arm of the galaxy. It would have been a mesmerizing view at any other time, he thought briefly.

The signal that had brought Mike and Bobby awake and running was not a sound that would have been deemed alarming back on earth. It was a gentle, purring hum, like the sound of a huge swarm of bees, maybe, and perhaps unsettling only if one was deathly afraid of being stung. But it was also of a frequency which sort of got into your bones to where you could feel it, and made your teeth rattle, just a little. The Kifta believed in alerting, not startling. The true urgency of the alarm was in the fact that Mike had only heard it sounded once before, in the brief seconds before their previous ship had been crushed beneath several megatons of ice. That memory, alone, was enough to bring them running.

Kontus appeared then, also looking a little wary. "Are we in danger?" Mike noted that the big Trichani was still fastening his tunic, a sign that their friend had come running as well.

"I didn't mean to frighten anyone," Illia said then. "It is in my protocols to warn all those aboard ship if certain criteria are met. Such an instance has occurred."

Mike nodded quickly. "Fine. Can you tell us what's going on?"

Pacha smiled crookedly at him. "We came out of the Cooee to make a normal scan, and Illia immediately detected a very strong, very unusual source of gravity ahead."

"How far have we come?" Bobby asked. "I mean, from that big hexagon thing?"

"Approximately three hundred light years," Illia supplied. "We have emerged into the area between the two arms of the galaxy."

"Yeah. I can see it's a little barren. " Mike whistled. "That's a long way to come from the hexagon." He turned to face Pacha. "And you think that the hexagon was like an anchor of some kind, and that there's another one farther out?"

"Yes. Both an anchor, and a source of negative energy." Tchk-tchk-tchk, "Such as it is, anyway. The laws of physics that we know were apparently bent a little by the Hartonin in creating this set up."

Mike stared into the display. "I don't see anything at all."

"We are still about half a light year from the gravitational source. It is the unusual nature of this source that caused me to activate the warning."

"What's unusual about it?" Bobby asked, smiling sideways at Mike now. Is this fun, or what?

Mike couldn't help returning the smile. Yes!

Pacha patted his chin, something that had become a habit when he was thinking. "It's an extremely uniform gravitational field, for one thing. And an immensely powerful one, as well. Too powerful to be a planetary object." Pacha turned to look at Mike. "Too powerful for a star, even. If I didn't know better, I'd say we were dealing with a small black hole. Or a neutron star of exceptional size."

Mike understood then, and gasped. "The missing neutron stars?"

"That remains to be seen."

"Whatever it is, its gravitational well is barely within the limits of this vessel to counter." Illia sounded almost offended at the idea of such a thing. "We will need to proceed carefully from this point."

Pacha gave a quick nod of his head to that. "Fortunately, gravity is a well-understood phenomenon today. Some of my people's best exploratory vessels have been able to explore the close in regions near a major black hole's event horizon and return safely. Our own vessel, however, is not as well equipped to deal with extreme gravitational forces."

Mike frowned at that. "You're really good with gravity, yourself, Pach. Couldn't you sort of help out with that?"

"I can, and I will, if necessary. Since this object ahead is producing a gravity well within five percent of the limit of this vessel to counter, I would say my assistance is the only factor that will allow a safe inspection of our find, if we are required to get close to it."

Our find. Mike felt a small thrill at that. "So we're going to look?"

"Yes. If all are in agreement."

Mike sighed. "You know we are, Pach. Let's just get on with it, huh?"

When no one else said a word, the small Kift nodded. "Illia, begin moving us closer through a series of micro-transitions through the Cooee, stopping us the moment whatever is ahead becomes observable."

With only a half light year to go, that happened fairly quickly. In only a few minutes they were again paused in space, the far ribbon of the next galactic arm now seemingly blurred by a dark mass far ahead of them. An enormous dark mass, too.

Mike and Bobby squinted at the display, but couldn't resolve what they were seeing. "I can't make it out," Mike complained.

"It's just a dark blob, "Bobby agreed. "I mean, I know something is there, because it cuts off the light from the stars beyond it."

But Kontus stared a long time at the display before grunting. "It's shape seems unusual."

"It is," Illia agreed, and Mike noted that the AI sounded excited. "It's gravity well is deep enough to capture light. I can only inspect it through inference methods, but inspect it, I can."

"Well, we can't!" Mike continued, a little put off by the idea that they may have found their goal, but be unable to see it at all!

"Describe it, please, Illia," Pacha said quickly.

"What is before us is a cylinder, approximately twenty kilometers in diameter, and over two hundred kilometers in length. My scans indicate that is it composed chiefly of neutron-degenerate matter, hyperons, and quark-matter, and that it is rotating on its longitudinal axis at the incredible speed of one billion revolutions per second. Its mass is approximately twelve earth-sun masses, and its gravitational attraction equivalent to one billion earth gravities.

Pacha shook his head at that. "That should not be possible. Why isn't it a black hole? A construct of that sort of matter, with that much mass, should not exist as a cylinder at all, let alone escape collapsing and forming a black hole."

"I agree. I have no explanation."

Pacha waved a small hand. "Illia, can you make this object more visible to us?"

"Yes. By using inference measurements...there."

Something appeared far ahead of them then, in a slightly more than quarter-view that let them see a somewhat foreshortened image of the object in its entirety. It simply looked like exactly what Illia had described: a featureless cylinder, perhaps ten times as long as it was thick, just hanging there in space. It could have been just about anything, really, and only their knowledge of its true characteristics made it somehow frightening and amazing at the same time.

"It doesn't look like it's spinning," Mike observed, studying the device.

"Its surface is utterly devoid of features," Illia told them. "There is nothing for the eye to fasten upon, even if it were not spinning so rapidly that such references would be invisible, anyway."

Mike whistled in amazement, and sat on an almost overwhelming urge to laugh a little crazily. "These Hartonin were some badass dudes!" He turned to grin at his boyfriend. "Cool, huh?"

But Bobby was staring at the display a little oddly. "You know..." He paused, and then looked at his boyfriend. "I think I've seen something like this before."

Mike couldn't help but to gape a little. "Really? When you were with the Markites?"

Bobby looked surprised, and then smiled. "Oh, no. I've never actually seen this thing, or one like it before." He turned to stare at the display again. "I think...I think I read about something like this in my space studies." He nodded then, and closed his eyes a moment. "Yeah, that's where I saw it. In my studies. It was called, um...a Tipler cylinder."

Mike gave his head a small shake. "What the hell is that?"

But Bobby just shrugged. "Well, I don't remember exactly what is was supposed to do." He smiled then. "It was pretty complicated. But one of the effects of this Tipler thing was that it did something weird with time. If you got into a space ship and you started going around this thing in a very specific path--" He stopped, and nodded. "That's it! You went back in time!"

Mike jerked his head back is surprised. "What?"

"I believe Bobby is correct," Illia interrupted. "In scanning my Earth science database, I find that the description of a Tipler cylinder matches the descriptions of similar theoretical devices listed in the science inventories of many races."

"A Radcha'ka device," Pacha breathed, nodding in sudden understanding. He looked excited then. "He was right! Of course!"

Kontus looked from one face to another, finally meeting Mike's eyes, which looked just as puzzled as he felt. "Will someone please explain? What is this cylinder?"

But the little Kift could only laugh in delight. He looked as excited now as Mike had ever seen him.

"Pach? What is this thing?"

Pacha clasped his hands together and stared at the image in the display, his eyes shining in fascination. "Why, Michael, my boy, this is the find of a lifetime! A Radcha'ka device!"

Mike gritted his teeth, feeling his face grow warm. "Pach?"

Pacha turned those shining eyes his way now, sharing his fascination full strength. "Why just what Bobby said. It''s a time machine!"

"Radcha'ka was a scientist of my people, who worked some centuries ago," Pacha explained. "His domain was physics. Among the many theories he offered, all of which are now foundations of Kifta science, was the one regarding his space cylinder. In the language of my people, it has been called the Orrofix'tapa."

"And it's really a time machine?" Mike asked, staring at the cylinder in the display.

Pacha also turned to look at the display. "Theoretically, yes. But there are problems with the physics of it, unless the cylinder was either of infinite length - which this one obviously is not - or the cylinder existed in an environment which also included negative energy, which the Hartonin seemed to have supplied here, though the how of it escapes me."

Bobby frowned then. "I also read that the Tipler cylinder could only make you travel back in time. You couldn't go forward."

"That is also true," the Kift agreed.

"A one-way time machine, then?" Kontus asked. "What would be the good of that? Why go to the past if you cannot return?"

"But you can return," Illia put in. "You just have to come back in the normal manner."

Bobby laughed. "You have to wait for the time to pass again."

Mike whistled at that. "That could present a problem." He smiled at his boyfriend. "Why is it a Tipler cylinder?"

"That's they guy that discovered it back on earth. Just like Pacha calls it a Radch'ka device, after the guy on his planet that discovered it."

"Oh." Mike laughed. "Makes too much sense to be obvious, I guess!"

Kontus was watching the distant cylinder, a look of fascination on his furry features. "I wonder what the Hartonin would want such a device for?"

"They apparently had a reason to go back in time," Pacha said quietly. "It may tell us something else about them of which we were unsure. Either they were not power users at all, or none of them had the talent for time like Max and Keerby and some others have."

"Wow." Mike gave a little shake of his head,a measure of disappointment taking hold of him. "Well, we found it. We found Nabakeah, and I really can't see any use for it. We don't want to go into the past, not if we can't return." He smiled at the idea. "And if we did want to travel in time, an elf would be a helleva lot safer!"

Bobby sighed. "After all we did to find it, it seems a shame to just fly off and leave it."

"Something else that must be considered is the danger this device might pose to others should the Braunigan find it and use it for its intended purpose," Illia said.

Kontus issued a small growl. "What do you mean?"

"Suppose a Braunigan expedition in a modern ship - or even a fleet of ships - returned to the past of their rival empires? They could possibly eliminate the competition before they ever become strong enough to provide the balance of power we enjoy today. Even a one-way time machine could be extremely dangerous if used by the wrong people for the wrong reasons."

The growl that Kontus released this time made everyone's eyes widen a little. "And we do know that the Braunigan are not the most ethical people one would like to meet!"

Mike put out a hand and laid it on the Trichani's arm. "Careful, big guy. You don't want to pop a cork or anything."

Pacha waved a small hand at them all. "Relax, all of you. The presence of this cylinder is by no means proof that it works as a time machine. As I recall Radcha'ka's theories, there were very particular requirements that had to be met for such a device to function as predicted. "

Mike frowned at that. "You think the Hartonin would have done all this if it didn't work?"

Pacha smiled his crooked smile. "I think the Hartonin may have produced this experiment to see if it could be made to work. That is a very different thing, altogether."

Mike turned to stare at the cylinder again. "An experiment? Could that be all it was? What sort of people could afford the massive resources that this must have taken, just to see if something might work?"

"Those that could," Pacha pointed out. "All things are relative. Your own people have produced some very major technical achievements in pursuit of knowledge, Mike. This may be no different, save for in scale."

"But how would you test it?" Bobby asked. "You'd have to fly a ship around it to see if it would work."

"Which they may have done," Illia inserted. "Or most certainly did, I would say. We have no way of knowing at this late date what might have happened."

Mike didn't like the things he was imagining now, visions of hordes of Braunigan warcraft descending upon the worlds whose people now led the other empires, and destroying them before they ever had a chance to reach the stars. It smacked of a gross misuse of the gift of time, and cast a shadow over everything they had done thus far to find Nabakeah.

"Are you sure that a fleet of ships could go back in time and attack the other empires?" he asked Illia.

"Of course not. It is just one scenario that comes to mind. Having never encountered a device of this nature, I am only considering the implications of a large-scale ability to travel backwards in time. That this device even works as the theories suggest it might is highly subject to argument."

Bobby grinned at that. "So you're just repeating scary stories, huh?"

The AI chuckled at the idea. "I am posing possibilities, relevant only if this device works as some theories suggest it might."

Pacha closed his eyes, and everyone automatically went silent as the familiar look of contemplation settled onto the Kift's face. But it only lasted for several seconds before his eyes reopened. "Max has taught me something of time, but I am not nearly good enough yet to be able to gain any knowledge of its application here." He stared at the cylinder in the display, and shook his head. "I sense many strange things about what we have found, but can make sense of none of them."

Mike smiled sympathetically, knowing how frustrating it was for his Kift friend to know what needed to be done, but not be able to do it. "You could always call Max for another lesson or two."

Pacha emitted a little sigh. "I just did. This find has too many possibilities attached to it - some of them dangerous - for me not to."

Bobby looked around the control center. "So he's coming?"

There was a brief pop, and Max appeared nearby. He spread his arms, and smiled at Bobby. "No, I'm here!"

Mike and Bobby rushed in to hug the elf and clap him on the back, while Kontus stood by, smiling, until his turn came up, and then he carefully hugged the much smaller man. "It's wonderful to see you again, my friend."

Max nodded, his face lit with pleasure. "Same here, big man. With you four always off runnin' about the stars, lookin' for stuff from the past, I don't get to see any of you as much anymore."

"I hope you weren't busy," Pacha said, holding his arms out wide to the elf. Max laughed, and stepped closer and picked up the Kift, and gently hugged him. "Nah. Sure was good to get your call. Me an' Frit and Pip were just back from layin' on a beach in a pretty side dimension." He set the Kift back onto his cushion and stepped back. "But I've had all the vacation I want for now!"

Pacha nodded. "We have a bit of a puzzle we could use your assistance with, if you have the time."

But Max's smile faded then, and he turned to stare at the cylinder in the display. "What the heck?" He squinted a moment, and shook his head. "That thing's draggin' frames all over the place!"

"Reference frames?" Pacha asked quickly. "Closed time-like curves?"

Max blinked, and his gaze moved back to the Kift. His smiled returned, and he nodded. "Fancy names for how things move in space and time. Sure." He pointed at the cylinder in the display. "Something that big, that massive, rotating that fast, it changes the way that time flows around it. To us standin' here, light seems to move faster off the side rotating towards us, than off the side movin' away."

Bobby shook his head. "I don't see any difference."

"Nah, you won't. Not with the weird way you're looking at this gizmo."

"It was the only way I could provide a view," Illia explained. "The cylinder traps light within its gravity well."

"Yeah, it would," Max agreed. "Close up is where things happen, anyway." He frowned then. "But stay away from the ends of that thing, guys. There's so much temporal turbulence there, no tellin' what might happen."

Mike held up his hands questioningly. "So it really is a time machine?"

The elf looked surprised at that. "A time machine? Like Wells wrote about?"

Mike couldn't help releasing a surprised gasp. "You've read that book?"

Max's eyes brimmed with humor. "Elves can read, y'know."

"Yeah," Bobby agreed, giving Mike a prod with his elbow. "Elves can read, you know!"

Mike felt surprise, and then his face redden. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded, Max. I're so busy, and all."

Max and Pacha both laughed. "Relax," Max said, winking at Mike. "I was pullin' your leg a little." He turned and pointed at the cylinder in the display. "It's not a time machine like you're thinkin. What can happen is that if you get close and orbit the center of that thing against the direction it's spinnin', in a real careful spiral, you get into a warped area of space, and the frame reference you're in gets tilted partly backwards, so it points back in time instead of along its forward movement."

He frowned, and then sniffed the air. "That thing ain't long enough on its own to have the right effect, but I smell that somebody is pumpin' in that funny energy with the reversed potential...stokin' the furnace. From what I'm feelin', you get close to this thing and circle it the right way, you'd not only move back in time, but wind up a long way from here, too." He shook his head at them. "I'd advise against it, if that's what you're thinkin' of doin' here. Way too dangerous, if you ask me." His gaze shifted to Pacha. "Tell me you ain't plannin' to do that."

"We were not thinking of using the cylinder," the little Kift reassured. "We are, however, concerned that someone else might be able to, and thus affect the current stability of power within the Five Empires."

"Yeah," Mike agreed. "Go back in time and kill off the competition before they have time to grow up."

Max squinted a moment, and then shook his head. "Don't see how. That would mean anyone using this gizmo would need to be able to pinpoint a specific time to come out again in the past. Once you get into an orbit around this thing, you're gonna lose your reference with real time, and you wouldn't have any idea when to come out. You'd just get carried into the past and have to wing it. And, with everything movin' in space, like the galaxy and all that, when you come out again, you'd be in a totally different place than from where you left. Might be a very long way off from this spot, let me tell you."

Mike was astonished at the idea of that. "We don't have that sort of problem when you move us in time!"

Max smiled. "'Course not. For one thing, a power user that knows time don't rely on bending the natural rules like this big gizmo does. We move in time by selection. By finding specific world lines and then moving back along them to where we want to be. The process we use is a natural one, that guards against violations of the time flow, so that you can't go back and kill your own grandfather, and stuff like that." He grunted, and pointed at the cylinder in the display. "That thing bends the timelines all over the place. You go in there, no one is in control. It's just you and the universe, son. And the universe ain't always that friendly a fella."

"This is the brute force method of traveling back in time, you're saying," Pacha observed keenly. "I think I can agree with that statement!"

Kontus, who had been standing by quietly, listening, now raised a hand. "So, this device cannot be used to attack any of the empires in past times? Not my people, or any of the others?" He frowned, as if not happy with his own questions. "It's not something we have to worry about?"

"Nah. It would take blind luck to go into orbit around that thing and come out at the exact time you wanted to hit. Or even close. You have to get the orbit just right even to begin with, or there's no tellin' what could happen. Even if someone did it, the odds of them gettin' to where they intended to go are slim. Good way to lose a perfectly good ship."

"We were thinking a fleet of ships, actually," the Trichani added.

"Nope. That would never happen. See, only one ship could occupy one closed curve. If you put a fleet into orbit around that thing, even followin' one ship after the other, they would all be in different closed curves of time going backwards. They couldn't communicate to coordinate, and even if they all left the cylinder at what they thought was the same moment, it wouldn't be, because each one's internal time would be different. They'd all wind up in different places at different points in the past." Max smiled. "Stop worrying. This gizmo can't be used to do what you're thinkin'." He pointed at the cylinder in the display. "What this thing does is a byproduct of its shape, its mass, and its spin. It alters the rules of time in close proximity to its surface by force. It's not like what I do at all when I move in time. I go by the rules, not sit on them so hard they bend!"

The control center was quiet a moment as everyone absorbed what Max had said.

"I feel a degree of relief," Pacha finally admitted. "And some disappointment, as well. We have found Nabakeah, but the sole prize here would seem to be the small amount of knowledge we have gained."

Max smiled at that. "Ain't that enough?"

Pacha watched the elf a moment, and then smiled. "Yes. I guess it just clears us now to do something else."

Bobby clapped his hands together. "Ooh! Remember that reference we found to the Spires of Artikulus? I think that would be a fun project to tackle next!"

Pacha looked interested, but emitted a small sigh. "Save for the fact that we have no idea where in space the ancient Artikulans made their home."

"I still think clues point to the Abatula sector of Moth space," Mike said, his interest level pumping up. "It would be a place to start."

"Perhaps." Pacha turned to Max. "I'm sorry to have gotten you all the way out here for no good--" He broke off then, his eyes narrowing.

The elf was leaned forward, staring at the giant cylinder in the display, the intensity of his gaze suggesting total interest. The Kift turned to look, too, but only could see what they had been seeing all along.

Mike noticed Max's distant stare then, and opened his mouth to ask a question; but Pacha immediately threw up a hand for silence, and Mike and Bobby exchanged glances at this new development. Max was a powerhouse of talent, and when something grabbed his attention like this, it could only be for an important reason.

Several minutes passed in silence, and then Max gave his head a little shake, and settled back on his heels. "Well, I'll be a three-toed wemblat!"

Mike and Bobby laughed at that, and Kontus leaned forward. "I do not know this species."

Max turned to look, saw everyone staring at him, and laughed again. "Sorry. A wemblat? It's nothing. A mythical beast, said to have been the arch foe of the elongated narflescarp."

Kontus blinked at that, and drew back. A trace of a smile touched his muzzle. "Um...perhaps it is best not to know."

Everyone laughed at that. Mike waved a hand at the display then. "You saw something there?"

The elf shrugged. "No. I felt something there."

Pacha looked interested now. "What sort of something?"

Max shook his head. " just putting out all kinds of weird stuff. I can feel the warping of time all along its length, which strikes me as little, closed bubbles, containing probability lines and vectors." He frowned. "Directions in time that run differently than our own."

The Kift nodded. "I sense a jumble of such impressions, myself, but can make nothing of them."

"They're chaotic," Max agreed, "because they are at angles to our world line, and touch our senses as insistent false turns to the direction we are moving in time." He shook his head. "All but one, that is."

Pacha closed his eyes, and reopened them almost immediately. "I sense a myriad of such curves, seemingly in our path, yet none come quite to my mental feet."

"They aren't part of our world line," Max agreed. "Or, rather, none are, but one. Look for something that feels like a branch instead of a sharp turn."

The Kift nodded, closed his eyes again, and a minute passed while everyone waited in silence.

Pacha opened his eyes. "I feel it. Not like a branch, though, because it doesn't leave our time like a branch leaves a tree. This one goes out, spreads...but then returns."

"That's it," Max agreed. "And you're describin' it just right. It is a branch, though - a branch in time. But it is also a closed loop, one that returns to its starting point at regular intervals."

"Yes." The Kift leaned closer to the elf. "What is it?"

Max rubbed his forehead just above his eyes. "Notice how, when it terminates the loop and starts over, there's a little pulse of energy?"

"Yes. A very regular pulse."

"But what is it?" Mike finally asked, unable to stand the guessing game going on between the two.

Max turned to him. "It's something stuck in a loop of time, one that repeats over and over."

Kontus looked over at the display, his eyes going wide. "Something? Like a ship?"

"Could be," Max acknowledged. "The loop it's in is ill-formed. It leaves our world line and branches into probability vectors - different directions into the past - but then fails to develop any of them, and returns to the start."

Mike gave out a whistle. He was used to Max dealing in time like it was just another little bit of skwish magic. The elf was so good at it that all anyone ever saw were the results. But just listening to Max and Pach talk about what they were sensing was enough to make him realize how complex the mental science was behind traveling in time. Max understood it well, and Pacha had an inkling, at least. But for Mike, it was another mystery as deep as any he had ever encountered.

It apparently struck Bobby the same way. He moved closer to Mike, and took his hand. "Kind of creepy, huh?"

"Yep. We're not just off in the bush now, we're walkin' the outback in the dark!"

Bobby gave a little sigh at that, but smiled. "English! You're reverting, sweetie."

Mike grinned. "We always go home when trouble strikes, love."

Kontus emitted a sharp little growl. "If there is a vessel stuck in a loop of time there, what will happen to them?"

Max frowned. "Nothing can happen to them. They'll just keep doing that loop, over and over, for as long as this cylinder gizmo exists."

A feeling of horror descended on Mike. To be stuck like that, repeating the same moment in time, over and over, forever?

"You think it's a Hartonin ship?" he asked.

Max raised an eyebrow questioningly. "I got no idea. Who are they?"

Tchk, tchk, tchk. Pacha looked like he felt a little silly. "We haven't related any of the history of our quest to Max as yet."

Mike grinned. "Oh, yeah."

Quickly, they took turns filling in the elf on why they were where they were, and what they had been looking for. "And that's the story," Mike finished. He pointed at the image of the cylinder. "And now it looks like someone is stuck in there, and can't get out."

Pacha patted his fingertips together lightly. "Being off even slightly in their entry into the spiraling orbit of the cylinder required to go back in time could lead to disastrous results."

Max sighed. "That's why time travel is best left to the pros."

Kontus pointed a large finger at Max. "Is there anything we can do for them?" He turned to look at the cylinder in the display. "To be marooned so, in the space between the present and the past - it is frightening to consider."

Pacha looked over at Max, a new interest in his gaze. "Is there anything we can do for them?"

Max looked surprised. "We don't even know if there is a them. It could just be some automated gizmo they sent in to test the thing out." He waved a hand in the air. "Man! There's just an awful lot of raw power involved in this cylinder gizmo, and what it's doing. Just trying to synch with whatever's in there would be a major effort."

"Is that a no?" Bobby asked, sounding disappointed.

Max picked up on the boy's tone, and smiled at him. "No. It's a that would be hard, but probably not impossible. You like the sound of that better?"

Bobby grinned, and nodded. "Sure do!"

The elf sighed. "Okay, let's say there's some actual folk stuck in there. They would have some way to move their ship, to realign it with the cylinder. I'd think they'd be trying that, so that they could possibly get out of the loop." But he immediately frowned at his own idea. "But then, maybe not. That's a pretty fast loop. They'd only have a minute or so each time to understand what was happening and try to fix it, before it started all over again."

"They could really be stuck, then!" Bobby said, with an urgency that had Mike nodding in agreement now.

"Yeah." Max nodded. "And, maybe there's the one other thing, too." Max looked at Pacha pointedly. "You notice how, every time the time loop restarts, there's that little burst of energy?"

"Yes. I was wondering about that."

"Uh huh. Well, every time the loop restarts, whatever is in there is briefly in the present. At that point it's doing something - sending something out, a signal of some sort. It just might be what we need to synch with it so I can get to it."

Mike whistled. "You plan to go there?"

The elf laughed. "Sorry. Figure of speech. I just mean, that might be what we need to be able to help them." He frowned in thought. "Actually, they're probably broadcasting the signal all the time. We can only sense it during the brief moment when they touch the present."

Pacha gently cleared his throat. "I have been practicing the temporal exercises you've taught me. It is a slow process of learning."

Max smiled. "It takes time, my friend. No pun intended."

"Yes. But I hope I can help you with this." He pointed at the display. "This rescue."

Mike and Bobby exchanged excited glances. "We're going to try?" Bobby asked.

The Kift nodded. "Yes. That pulse we detect, each time the vessel in there touches the present? I think it's a distress signal. Someone is calling for help."

Mike turned to look at the display, a sudden new meaning to everything they'd learned thus far coming home to him. He nodded. "We have to try to save them."

Kontus growled softly, and his ears flicked in emotion. "I agree. It is only right to go to the aid of those in distress."

Bobby nodded in agreement, but didn't add to that.

Max looked from face to face, and smiled. "Okay, guys. Let's see how much more we can learn about this whole situation, and then - maybe - we can get to the savin' part!"

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[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