The Third Clue: A Pacha'ka Adventure

by Geron Kees

Chapter 5

"It didn't work," Pacha said, his small face scrunching up in disappointment.

Max smiled at him. "No. It did work."

Mike, standing nearby with Bobby and Kontus, shook his head. "I didn't see any change."

Max nodded patiently. "You won't. Not when you're in the changing time."

Pacha's face brightened. "Of course!" He winked at the elf. "It's all relative, isn't it?"

"Now you're gettin' it!" Max grinned around at the circle of watchers. "The hardest part of dealin' with time is that you are always immersed in the flow of the present. Manipulations you make to that present seem perfectly natural to you. Only someone outside your sphere of influence will notice a change in your reference frame with regards to them."

"So I did it?" Pacha asked, looking delighted. "I moved all of us back ten seconds in time?"

"Yep. I can see it because I understand how the reference frame thingamajig works. Once you get that, you'll feel the movement, as well as experience it."

The Kift sighed happily. "To my knowledge, I am the first of my species to so manipulate the flow of time."

"Someone has to be first," Max agreed. He patted the little koala fondly. "You got oodles of talent, Pacha. You're strong. You just need a little teachin', and some experience, and you're gonna be great with time!"

Bobby sighed at that. "I wish we could help."

Max turned his smile on the boys. "Might be, you can. Both of you." He nodded at Kontus, then. "You, too. All you guys have some skwish goin' on right now."

Mike was shocked to hear that. "What? Us?"

"Sure. You got any talent for skwish at all, you just can't live, day in and day out, around a skwish-user like Pacha here, and not develop your own a little."

Mike and Bobby exchanged amazed looks, while Kontus slapped his own chest with enough force to make Mike wince.

"My kind are not power-users, Max," the big Trichani grated.

"I'm sure not!" Bobby agreed, his eyes wide.

Max stepped closer to the boy, and dropped a hand on his shoulder. "Son, you're a child of Earth, and the momma planet loves her children dearly. All the sons and daughters of earth have a potential for skwish."

Kontus emitted a soft growl. "I am not a son of your world."

"No, you ain't. But nature seems to have smiled on your people, just the same, Kontus. The potential is there."

The Trichani looked amazed at that. "I never would have believed it possible. Surely others of my kind have had long associations with power users. There are no stories of my people developing these powers!"

Max shrugged. "You've been around a lot of powers users for a long time." He grinned then. "But let me ask you this: if you started to develop powers, would you rush right back to Roorapynta and tell everyone about it?"

Kontus made a scoffing sound. "Certainly not! There would be no advantage to--" He stopped then, looking surprised at himself. "Ah. I see. Most of my people would immediately realize the benefits of keeping such advantages quiet." He smiled then. "Trade, brother!"

"Trade, brother!" Mike and Bobby echoed, laughing.

"Well, there you go," Max continued, his eyes bright. "It's the tough moments that tend to bring these talents into the open. To my senses, you three guys seem brimming with eager skwish, waiting to get out and play."

Kontus clapped his hands together, looking excited now. "So - what do you sense I can do?"

Max smiled sweetly. "Nothing, yet. It's just potential, at the moment."

Mike and Bobby grinned at the disappointed look that flashed across the Trichani's face. "Already saw yourself teleporting around the universe, didja?" Mike asked, aiming a playful swipe at his furry friend.

Kontus frowned, and then seemed to see the humor in the moment. "Well...yes. Being able to teleport would be a wonderful gift, indeed."

"Well, then, don't count anything out," Max told him. "Teleportin' is a basic talent of power users. You may wind up with it someday."

"Did Charlie get it yet?" Bobby asked. "Or Kip?"

Max smiled. "Won't put nuthin' past those two. Give 'em time, they'll get it."

Mike and Bobby smiled at each other. "This could be fun," Mike said.

"Lots of fun," Bobby agreed. "I love watching Charlie and the guys in action. It would be awesome to do those things ourselves!"

Mike nodded at that, and then eyed Max a little more closely. "You think we can help you and Pach with this rescue thingo?"

"Don't know just yet." Max turned to look again at the cylinder in the display. "This is a big problem, guys. Dealing with time is easy on a personal level. Moving myself, or me and a few others, in time is not all that much work. Finagling time a little, so that we can do more in less time, isn't hard, either. The mass we deal with is small, the protections against causality violations built in, and the way to go, pretty clear with the magic." He smiled. "The skwish, I mean." His smiled turned to a frown then, and he waved a hand at the display. "That gizmo there is doing things that the universe don't like one bit. It does what it does because some smart folk created the circumstances where it would work, when the rules say otherwise. It's a cheat on dealing with time." He sighed. "It's so huge, and so powerful, that it creates all sorts side-effects to moving in time. If that really is a ship stuck in there, getting it out won't be an easy job."

"Can we even do it?" Bobby asked.

"It must be tried if there is even a small chance of success," Kontus offered. "Being forever committed to relive one minute in time is a terrible fate for anyone to endure."

"I happen to agree." Max seemed to think a moment, and then nodded. "I have a friend who can help a little, maybe."

Bobby smiled. "Keerby?"

Mike laughed, and poked his boyfriend with his elbow. "He's a cute one, huh?"

Bobby blushed. "I wasn't thinking of that. Um...not really!"

Max shook his head. "No, not him. He's off with Charlie and the guys right now, anyway. But he did help to introduce me to this other friend. Esmerelda."

Kontus smiled. "A female?" But then his eyes narrowed. "I remember you being married."

Max tossed his head back and laughed. "You're sure right there! Me and the missus have some wonderful centuries between us, and there ain't nothin' gonna mess with that!" He sighed. "Esmerelda is a hernacki."

"Certainly," Kontus returned, smiling. "And what might that be?"

Quickly, Max explained. "Hernacki are energy beings that live in the impervious zone - where the structure of the universe has zero random elements - so they are the most stable life forces in existence. They can go anywhere they want, and anywhen they want, and they do it by manipulating chrono-cores, which are these little pocket universe subsystems of the main one. Elves that can do time learned how from watching hernacki do it." The elf shrugged. "But even though I learned to create chrono-cores and manipulate time, I never really knew how a chrono-core was put together. It took Keerby to show me how it worked."

Bobby nodded. "I remember hearing about that. Keerby got a friend named Blinken, that showed him a few things about time."

"That's it. Yep, Blinken is a hernacki. And hernacki have no love for elves, so Keerby makin' friends with one was pretty amazing."

"Why don't they like elves?" Mike asked. "What did you lot ever do to them?"

Max made a face. "Sorry. I put that wrong. Hernacki have a hard time even seein' us. By us, I mean livin', breathin' creatures. Not just elves, but all of us that live on planets and such. Our lives are so short compared to theirs that we come and go too quickly for them to really get us. What Keerby managed to do was to get Blinken's attention. Once that happened, Blinken's curiosity was engaged, and he made it easy for him and Keerby to become friends. So, all Keerby had to do was to get Blinken to pull up a hernacki buddy to talk to me. That would be Esmerelda."

Bobby sighed "Keerby has a certain charm," he said, smiling a little wistfully.

"I guess he does," Max agreed, though his own smile suggested he was not referring to the same sort of charm that Bobby was. "Anyhow, Keerby got Blinken to introduce me to Esmerelda. It took a little bit of coaxing, but we hit it off pretty good after that. And I've been learnin' a lot about time from her, too!"

"Enough to deal with that?" Mike asked, indicating the huge cylinder in display.

Max frowned then."I don't know. That thing does what it does without the use of chrono-cores. It's hardline physics, guys, and the kind the universe does when it's in a bad mood."

"That does not sound good!" Kontus decided.

Max smiled. "Nah. The universe does physics, you know? But it takes something living, like us, with imagination and inspiration, to take physics and make it into magic."

There was a moment of silence as everyone digested that bit of wisdom.

"Have we any ideas?" Pacha asked. "It would seem to me that actually snatching the stranded ship out of its tiny loop of time into our present would be extraordinarily hard to accomplish."

"It would," Max agreed. "We probably have to focus on rescuin' the people, not the ship. In almost any other situation, I could teleport onto the ship at the moment it strikes the present and grab whoever is there and come back out on the next cycle. But because it's a tiny loop of time, I'd be facin' the same difficulties they are now. Time would reset to the start of the minute, and I'd just be arriving again. I would have to go in and be able ta insulate myself from the loop they're in, so that I could still be there to take them out when the loop reset." He looked unhappy at the idea. "If it was a chrono-core, I could do it. But these closed timelike curve things this cylinder makes are tricky!"

Mike grinned, and pressed a hand to his forehead. "I think I feel a headache coming on."

Max's unhappy look turned to a smile. "Not just you. This isn't like any time stuff I've done before."

Pacha patted his chin thoughtfully. "There may be another way." He pointed at the display again. "If we could find a way to slow the cylinder's rotation, that would also diminish the frame dragging effect. Which would lengthen the cycle of their loop." He squinted then. "Wouldn't it?'

"Maybe," Max also inspected the cylinder in the display. "But that thing is just massive beyond anything we can imagine, Pach. Slowing it would require some big-time force. More than just the few of us could muster, I'm sure. There has to be another way."

The Kift gave a little nod of his head. "Perhaps another idea, then. According to the physics I understand, for this Radcha'ka cylinder to do what it does, it either needs to be infinite in length - which we can plainly see it is not - or operating in the presence of dark energy. As you have said, yourself, that very source of negative potential is somehow being funneled to the cylinder."

Max nodded. "Yeah. It comes from the directions on each end of the cylinder."

Mike snapped his fingers. "The hexagon thingos! Maybe we can turn them off somehow?"

"Might be a problem with that, too," Max observed. "I can't quite get the feel for what that weird dark energy stuff does here. But it could be that cuttin' it off might make this cylinder collapse into a ball."

Pacha looked slightly unnerved by that. "It would collapse into a black hole, you mean."


The Kift gave out a tiny sigh. "In which case any ship orbiting it would fall beyond the event horizon and be lost."


Pacha stared at the cylinder in the display, and brought his hands together in a tiny, frustrated clap. "I don't believe in the unsolvable problem. Every equation has a solution."

"Some of them are pretty hairy, though," Max pointed out. He frowned then. "Maybe we're goin' at this the wrong way."

"You have an idea?" Kontus asked. "I'm afraid I am out of my element here, no matter what sort of talents I may have that I am unaware of at this point."

Mike and Bobby both smiled at that, and bobbed their heads up and down in agreement.

Max gave a little sigh. "I think I've been standin' too close to this problem. We've been talkin' about rescuing these guys here and now, when maybe we don't need to do it that way. There's a whole other way we can deal with this."

"And that would be?" Pacha asked, looking slightly frustrated now.

"Well, all we really need to do is to go back in time to before these folk got on their ship and sent it around the cylinder, and warn 'em what's to come."

No one said anything for a moment, and then Mike laughed. "That sounds so simple! I can't believe we didn't think of it before!"

"It's not that simple," Max returned. "I can do a look back and find out when that ship was here, and take us there. Then we'll just have to see if we can make 'em understand what's happening."

Pacha waved a hand in the air. "Illia? do you feel that your translation abilities with Hartonin are sufficient to deal with this task?"

"I can't be certain, Pacha. But I think I can say enough to make them understand the peril they face."

"Providing they're not the kind that shoot first and ask questions later," Mike pointed out. "Any people that could deal with the Beltracians are not ones I want to piss off."

Max looked surprised. "The Beltracians? They ain't in this, are they?"

"We don't think so," Pacha answered. "It's just that the Hartonin - the people we think built this cylinder - were contemporary with the Beltracians. We think the Beltracians were afraid of them, though. Or, at least aware that they could not take on the Hartonin and prevail."

The elf frowned. "We're a long way off from that war planet that me and the boys tossed into that sun. You think the Beltracians ever got this far out?"

"I don't believe either of those ancient empires extended this far," Pacha answered. "The Beltracians, almost definitely not. They occupied much of the space the Moth now hold, as well as a great portion of the unknown areas in the other direction. The Hartonin would have been between them and this location."

Mike let some air out past his lips in an almost-whistle, trying to imagine a time in which two great races like the Hartonin and the Beltracians vied for control of the spiral arm. Or, at least this length of it. That the civilizations of the past had out-achieved those of the present - at least thus far - was certain. To actually go back in time to when these peoples were still alive and active...

"Would it be safe?" he asked, glancing now at Bobby before letting his eyes go back to Pacha. "What if they just start shooting the second we appear? The Beltracian ship was superior in power to the Moth ship that Charlie has, and that Moth ship is more powerful than ours. If it wasn't for Max and the others, who knows what might have happened?"

"Well, I'm here now," Max pointed out. "And, believe me, if we get a hostile reception, I can take us out of there just as quickly as I got us there in the first place."

Bobby raised a hand. "You can take the whole ship back?"

"Sure." Max grinned. "It's just a matter of extending the diameter of the chrono-core I'll use."

"Would that not lessen its power? "Kontus asked.

"Not like you're thinkin'," Max returned. "It's not like a defense shield, that gets weaker the larger you make it. A chrono-core encompasses. It's about what's inside that matters, not what's outside."

Bobby looked excited now. "So, we go back to before the moment their ship went into its spiral around the cylinder, and show them what's going to happen to them?"

"That's about it," Max agreed.

"It sounds so simple," Kontus said. "That makes me worry!"

Everyone smiled at that. The Trichani's instincts were good ones. Mike was also not sure about this plan, but did feel it was the most obvious way to get the job done. If they could prevent the Hartonin from even embarking on their hazardous journey to begin with, there would be no reason to rescue them later. But...could they make themselves understood? Even figuring out the riddle that had brought them to this area of space had not been easy.

"My only concern is the language barrier," Mike said. "Can we make our warning understood?"

"I think so," Max replied. "I have a little talent with language, too." He shrugged. "Won't know until we try."

"There is also the possibility that the Hartonin, themselves, will have superior language abilities to our own," Illia put in. "It may be a matter of them talking to us, as much as us talking to them."

"I say, let's do it," Bobby dared. "At the worst, it won't work, and we'll come back here. Right?"

"Right!" Mike echoed enthusiastically. He turned to Kontus then. "Right?"

The big Trichani's eyes widened, but then he smiled toothily. "Right!"

Mike grinned, and turned to Pacha. "Right?"

Tchk-tchk-tchk. "I feel only experience will answer that!"

Max looked from face to face. "So, we go?"

Pacha nodded his head. "Yes.

Mike wasn't sure what he expected, but what happened wasn't it. In the display, the cylinder itself remained unchanged. But the distant ribbon of light that was the Perseus arm of the galaxy crawled with changing colors as the stars within reshuffled their locations to points they had occupied twenty-five thousand years past. A number of odd constructions appeared near their ship, beyond which something much larger loomed, stationary relative to their own movement. Mike's first impression was of an atom, or perhaps similar to the classic model of one he'd seen in old books. It looked like a half-dozen globes all pressed together, so that no globe exposed more than a hemisphere of its diameter. The vessel - and he was sure that's what it was - was several times larger than their own. There was an elegant look to the ship that suggested a mature technology, one that had been building such things for a very long time.

"A Hartonin ship," he whispered, shaking his head. "The one we're looking for?"

Max nodded his head. "I'm sure that's the one. I backtracked this cylinder until I saw this ship head for it, and then went back a little farther in time. And here we are."

Pacha was staring at the ship. "It doesn't have that deadly look that the Beltracian ships we saw on the armada world had."

"It's makin' a lot of energy, I'll say that," Max replied. "Let's not underestimate it just because it's pretty."

"You think they know we're here?" Bobby asked.

"They do," Illia supplied. "We were scanned the moment we arrived."

"And yet there has been no response of any kind," Pacha observed, with interest.

"That vessel is easily making twenty times the power of our own. I would suggest that there has been no reaction because they do not consider us a threat. Yet."

"A magnificent vessel," Kontus decided, his eyes inspecting the other ship with obvious approval. "As one that has seen many vessels come and go at the port on Roorapynta, I have to say this one is among the most beautiful in design I have encountered."

"It does sort of please the eye, doesn't it?" Mike agreed. "More like a Kift ship than a Moth one, definitely."

Everyone smiled at that. The Moth were known for producing ships that looked ready to go to war at a moment's notice. The Hartonin ship, by contrast, looked completely unarmed.

"It's not," Illia returned, after Mike had offered his views aloud. "I would say, just from what little my own scans have revealed, that this vessel before us is more than the equal of anything the Moth have produced."

Pacha nodded at that. "Try to contact them, Illia. Can you tell them that we are non-threatening, and that we have important information to share with them?"

"I'll give it a whirl," the AI said, not sounding that positive about it to Mike's ears. "There. I have sent the message you requested."

For a moment, they all watched the display in silence. Mike gave his head a brief, almost unbelieving shake, as where they were and what they were doing really began to sink in. Thousands of light years from Earth, and twenty-five thousand years in the past, about to confront the lost Hartonin, vanished in their own time, yet at the height of their power here. What would they be like?

On their own earth now, humans were building what were thought to be the first hamlets in the fertile valleys of what would become the present-day Czech Republic. They had progressed to using fibers to create useful things like clothing, bags, baskets and nets. Infants were carried by still nomadic tribes in mesh baby carriers. The atlatl, or spear-thrower, was one of the chief distance weapons, the bow and arrow still some thousands of years in the future. Humans had arrived on their technological feet, but were still a long way from civilization.

And the Hartonin had had the stars.

"Wow," Bobby said softy, obviously thinking along the same lines.

"It impressive thing," Pacha said then, perhaps sensing their thoughts. "Yet simply a matter of time. Thousands of years into the future of our own time, young peoples will arise on their worlds and someday view us with the same feeling of reverence."

"Yeah," Max agreed. "And the Hartonin and the Beltracians weren't the first, either. People of one sort or another been roamin' the stars for millions of years, if not longer."

"I am receiving a message," Illia told them then.

"Let us hear it," Pacha instructed.

A voice spoke to them then...or was it several voices? A deep, commanding voice spoke out in clipped tones, and then was immediately followed by a softer voice, much more fluid and expressive. This was followed by the sound of a small crowd of people laughing and talking, all at once.

"There's an earful!" Max said, smiling.

Pacha shook his head at the chorus of sounds. "Knowing what the Hartonin language looks like, and hearing it spoken, are truly not the same thing! Illia, can you understand them?"

"I...believe they are asking us who we are."

Pacha offered a brief chuckle at that. "And can you tell them?"

"In any detail? I doubt it. But I'll do what I can."

A confusing variety of voices went back and forth several times.

"I believe they are asking us for language files."

"Give them English," Mike suggested, before Pacha had a chance to speak. "That way we can talk, without giving them the language of the ship."

"I sense curiosity, chiefly," Illia said. "I do not detect hostility or suspicion...not that I am sure I would, with all those voices speaking at one time."

"There are several Hartonin speaking to us?" Kontus asked.

"As far as I can tell, it's just the one. But it does sound a little like a crowd, doesn't it?"

The Trichani's eyes widened. "An amazing language, certainly."

"Send the English language files," Pacha told the AI, before turning amused eyes on Mike. "So that everyone can understand."

Mike grinned. "Hey, can't blame a guy for tryin'! These Hartonin start talking to us in the whistles and clicks your people use, I'd never learn anything!"

The files were sent, and then they waited.

"How long does it take to learn a new language?" Bobby asked then. "We can't sit here for a year!"

"I rather think the Hartonin ability with language will assist them," Pacha ventured. "And their machines will certainly be at least the equal of ours."

"I would suggest better," Illia offered. "Though that's just my own opinion. I...wait. They are sending again."

Once again, the deep voice filled the command center. "Greetings." This was followed immediately by the gentler voice, "It is our most profound pleasure to meet you." That was followed by the soft sound of a crowd of people watching a trapeze act at the circus, oohing in total amazement.

Mike grinned at Bobby. "Cool! Sound effects!"

Pacha favored them with a look that clearly said shh!, and then turned his gaze back to the ship in the display. "It is our pleasure to meet the Hartonin."

"Time," the deep voice said then. "You come here from the future?" the gentler voice asked. "The temporal signature seems clear."

Pacha's eyes widened slightly, and he smiled. "Yes. We came back to assist you, by delivering a warning. When your vessel goes into its spiral around the time cylinder, it does not take the correct path. Your vessel will become locked into a closed loop, a circular closed timelike curve, that repeats at very small intervals. In our time, you still have not found your way out."

"Disagree," the deep voice intoned. "The path has been plotted precisely," the gentler voice continued. "It is the correct one for our purpose."

Pacha sat back at that, and looked over at Max. The elf frowned, and cocked his head at the display. "You meant to get stuck in a loop of time?"

"Purpose," stated the deep voice. "That was our intention," the gentle voice agreed.

When no further explanation was offered, Max placed his hands on his hips. "Why, if you don't mind me askin'?"

"Test," the deep voice returned. "An experiment," the gentler voice added. "An experiment in time travel. Unlike yourselves, our kind have no inborn facility for moving in time. Nor do any of the other races existing at this moment. This was a test to see if it could be done."

"They know about power-users," Bobby whispered.

"Theory," the deep voice returned. "A mental exercise,'" the gentler voice clarified. "Those with mental abilities are known here. But none that can travel in time. Yet it seems an ability that should be allowed. But without any examples such as yourselves to aid us in experimentation, we had to find another way to make the attempt."

Kontus leaned closer to the display. "So you decided to create this immense cylinder? To use physics to help you travel backwards in time?"

"Contrary," the deep voice answered. "We wished to go into the future," the gentle voice explained. "And as you have said, our vessel is still locked into its loop in your own time. So, apparently, we are to succeed."

Pacha blinked, and then looked about as amazed at Mike had ever seen the little Kift. "The Radch'ka cylinder - like the one you have created here - only allows for travel backwards in time. When used properly, that is."

"Agree." Mike was now used to the deep voice stating the line on which the gentler voice would expand. "A specific spiraling orbit along the middle length, against the rotation, is required for movement backwards in time. A perpendicular insertion, a completely circular orbit against the rotation, creates a closed loop of the present, that repeats...forever."

"Forever," Bobby echoed. "That's awful!"

"You wanted to stay there forever?" Max asked, sounding amazed and a little unsettled, all at a time.

Again, came the sound of a small crowd of people laughing. "Disagree. The technology was left here that would help us to re-emerge in--"

Pacha blinked at the garbled words at the end of the sentence. "What was that?"

"A time reference," Illia answered. "Based upon the travel time of light against the width of the galaxy. I figure it at ten-thousand years."

Pacha looked over at Max, and shook his head.

"We came from twenty-five thousand years in the future," Max returned. "And your ship is still stuck in its loop in our time."

For a moment there was no answer, and even Mike felt he detected a moment of surprise on the part of the Hartonin.

But then: "Visual? May we see each other?"

Pacha waved at the display. "Hook us in, Illia."

The image of the cylinder in the display vanished, and then they were looking at one of the ancient, long-vanished Hartonin.

Mike's first thought was of some prehistoric creature related to the dinosaurs. There were no references to indicate the size of the creature before them, but Mike suspected it was a large one. They could only see it from about mid-body up, but what was visible was startling. The body looked to be armored in some sort of a hard shell, but that proved to be deceptive, for when the creature moved, the 'shell' rippled and moved like dark, scaly skin. The Hartonin had two well-muscled arms, and large hands that apparently rested on a table or some other flat surface before it. The head was large, with a bony ridge across the top, underneath of which were two large, dark eyes. Just below the eyes and in the center between them, was a round, red, fleshy-looking circle. Below that, was a broad, flat snout, with two nostrils at the end of it. And beneath that snout, a mouth, long and narrow. At the top of the head, two large, pointed ears moved about like radar dishes looking for targets. The effect would have been amusing in any less formidable-looking creature.

But it was the Hartonin's eyes that commanded. As slightly frightening as the alien appeared, its eyes belied every bit of it. The Hartonin's eyes were intelligent, its gaze powerful yet gentle, and implicit of an ability to understand with a depth that Mike had never seen before.

The mouth opened. "Amazed," it spoke in the deep voice. And then the round, red, fleshy circle parted, and more words spilled out. "We are surprised. There are clearly several different races present aboard your vessel."

"We are from three different worlds," Pacha acknowledged. "But of one purpose here."

"Clarify. You say you have come from twenty-five thousand years hence?"

"That's right." Max agreed. "And your ship is still stuck in a loop of time around the cylinder then."

"Concern. That should not be so." An inset appeared in the view in the display, and expanded until just the head of the Hartonin was looking at them across the top of it. "Observe."

The cylinder appeared in the inset, and their view moved closer to it, past several of the large structures floating in space, and then neared a smaller object, which looked like the head of a medieval mace, a ball covered in spikes.

"Clarify. This object? Does it exist in this place in your time?"

Pacha squinted at the display, and shook his head. "Illia?"

"I performed thorough scans of the area around the cylinder upon our arrival. None of these structures were present. Just the cylinder, itself."

"You heard?" Pacha asked the Hartonin.

"Agree. Yes. This, then, is the reason our vessel is still caught in the loop of time in your own era. The release mechanism is absent."

"The spiky ball?" Max asked.

"Agree. This device was set to automatically deviate our vessel's orbit after a period of ten-thousand years, thus releasing it from its loop in time."

"It's not there," Max repeated. "None of the things we see floating here now are there then."

"Surprise. Most unusual. And since we were not released at the ten-thousand-year mark, we can only assume that the support units were removed before that time."

"Removed?" Kontus repeated. "You suggest that someone deliberately took them?"

This time, both of the Hartonin's mouths opened, and the sound of the crowd laughing emerged. Mike couldn't help grinning at that. These folk sure were interesting!

"Clarify. We just meant that the support structures were apparently lost at some point before the release could perform its set task. This area of space was chosen for the experiment because of its distance from the known star traveling peoples of our time. These devices could defend themselves, and the passage of time would not affect their operation. Their absence at the moment appointed for our release was unforeseen."

Mike grunted. "Well, now that you know they're missing, you can cancel your trip, and you won't be stuck orbiting that cylinder for all eternity."

"No," Max said quickly, "they can't not go."

"Agreed," the Hartonin returned. "It is still our plan to proceed."

Mike joined the others in staring at the Hartonin. "But you'll be lost!"

The alien face in the display seemed to show no emotion, but those startlingly understanding eyes seemed filled with an odd satisfaction. "Agreed. It is our destiny."

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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