The Third Clue: A Pacha'ka Adventure

by Geron Kees

Chapter 6

"Explain," the deep voice continued, as the alien's eyes digested their startled looks. "We will proceed with the test, simply because, in your own time, we already had done so," the gentle voice clarified. "We cannot alter what is to be."

Max nodded at the others. "They have to go. Otherwise, we'll have a whopping big causality violation."

Pacha squinted at the elf, understanding dawning on his face. "I see! They can't not be where we first found them. Correct?"

"What?" Mike asked. "What violation?"

Pacha turned to face him. "The Hartonin have already gone into their loop of time around the cylinder. Our discovery of them there in our own time is why we are here now. If they were not to go, it would break the chain of events that has brought us here."

Bobby gaped at that. "But I thought we came back to stop them!"

Max sighed. "Sorry if I wasn't clear. We didn't come back to stop them. We came back to warn them, and then to rescue them."

"Agreed," the Hartonin stated, sounding unaccountably satisfied. "We will proceed. Your presence here gives us confidence that we will succeed. Only the future we expected to find will be different."

Max nodded. "I'm Max. These are Pacha, Kontus, Mike, and Bobby."

"Names. Ours are long, and yours are short. To friends, we are Alonquel."

Max nodded. "Nice to meetcha. If you don't mind me askin', are there more than one of you on that ship?"

"Quantity. There are sixteen of us."

"You were gettin' ready to leave when we got here?"

"Agreed. Yes."

Max smiled. "Great. Don't let us stop you. Have a nice trip!"

Bobby gasped at that, but Mike put out a hand to restrain his boyfriend.

The Hartonin released another burst of elated crowd sound, like the canned laughter in a comedy TV show, only somehow classier "Agreed. We will meet again."

The image of the alien vanished from the display.

"You let them go!" Bobby cried, his tone accusing.

"Wait," Mike said, patting his boyfriend's arm. He looked over at Pacha. "They're just gonna get stuck in time around that cylinder again."

"It does seem a move contrary to our very reason for being here," Kontus added, quickly.

Pacha held up his hands. "Wait! Let Max explain."

Max nodded at that. "Yeah." He smiled at Mike and Bobby. "You guys gotta see...they're not going to get stuck in time around that cylinder again. This will be the first time, and they need to do it." He reached out and laid a hand on Bobby's arm. "We came back to warn these guys, but not to stop them. We can't stop them. They have to go into their time loop and spend the next twenty-five thousand years stuck in it, so that we can find 'em there in our own time, and rescue them."

Bobby shook his head, clearly puzzled. "This is still a rescue?"

Max smiled. "Sure it is."

"It is the most unusual one I have ever been part of," Kontus said, smiling.

Mike put a hand on his boyfriend's arm. "Wait. I see what Max is saying. If the Hartonin were stopped from going into the time loop now, there would be no Hartonin ship stuck in a loop around the cylinder in our own time, which was our reason for coming back here in the first place."

"Right." Max sighed. "Action and reaction. Chronological order. That's causality, and it has to be maintained."

Bobby frowned at that. "Like...predestination?"

"Nah. That's like having things set beforehand. It ain't like that." The elf smiled. "See, before we came along and found that cylinder, the Hartonin had already done their test flight, 25,000 years before. It was a done deal. We can't change that. I'm surprised that this Alonquel understood that so clearly. Smart folk, our new friends."

"And somewhat confusing," Kontus admitted. "The way this one kept saying we, I had the impression he...well, or she...was speaking for everyone aboard their ship. Then it came to me that the Hartonin was just referring to itself when it said we. Because it had those two perspectives on everything."

Max's eyebrows went up. "I didn't get that until now. You mean the way the one mouth sorta set the subject, and then the other one did the talkin'?"

"Correct," Pacha answered. "The Hartonin language is very complex in this way. It would seem that our guess was correct that having the two language sources in one body has led to a brain that considers everything from two slightly different points of view. Hence, we, for me."

Bobby held up his hands. "So they're going to be lost again?"

As if in answer, the Hartonin ship moved away from them, heading for the distant cylinder.

"Wait for it," Max said.

Pacha quickly waved a hand. "Illia, please follow that vessel in the display."

The image before them magnified, and then magnified again, keeping up with the Hartonin ship as it moved away from them at increasing speed, heading towards the center of the cylinder. They watched in silence as the ship seemed to surge closer to the immense cylinder, pulled along by its ever-increasing gravitational influence, until the ship suddenly seemed to fade, and was gone.

Mike realized he'd been holding his breath, and let it out. "Well, they're off."

Max grinned. "Gone, but not forgotten."

"They made a clean insertion into the closed loop orbit," Illia said. "Max, you want me to move us closer to the spiked sphere?"

The elf laughed. "Smart girl! You're gettin' ahead of me. I have to scope out what sorta defenses that thing has first." Max closed his eyes then, and his expression relaxed as his mind obviously went to concentrating on something else.

Pacha turned to the display, which now showed the spiked ball before them, and gave out a small, delighted laugh. Tchk-tchk-tchk!

Bobby looked over at Mike and rolled his eyes. "I am totally lost."

Mike laughed at that. "Right there in the dark with ya, love."

Kontus frowned at the image in the display. "This device has meaning to us somehow?"

Pacha turned his delighted expression upon them. "They left this device here to assist them in their escape from the cylinder ten thousand years from now. Yet when those ten thousand years arrived, they did not escape, because this device was somehow missing from its assigned location. Someone took it."

Kontus released a startled laugh. "Us?"

Mike and Bobby got it at the same time. "We're going to take it?" Bobby asked.

"All the way back to the time we came from?" Mike continued. "Because the Hartonin were still stuck in a loop in our time, right?"

"Exactly," Pacha agreed. "Illia, you knew?"

"I suspected. It was the only logical resolution that fit all the facts."

Mike grinned. "I see. We can't just leave the spiky ball thingo here now, because it would let them out in ten thousand years, and they wouldn't be there in our own time for us to find." He laughed. "What a crazy thing! It's like we started all this, in our own time, by finding them!"

"Causality," the Kift replied, sighing happily. "I understand more about that concept now than I ever did before!"

Bobby let out a breath of sheer amazement. "So...we were able to come back here, not just to warn the Hartonin about what was to come, but to pick up this spiked ball and take it back with us!"

Mike grinned. "I think there's an echo in here."

Bobby leaned closer and bumped his shoulder against Mike's, but he was smiling. "I'm just getting all this now. I haven't been flying around space as long as you have!"

"That Hartonin...Alonquel...he knew," Mike told him. "He understood! He said he would see us again. He meant in the future!"

Max opened his eyes. "Smart machine," he said softly, shaking his head. "Very smart machine."

"What happened?" Mike asked. "Can we get around its defenses?"

"No need to." The elf smiled. "And a good thing, 'cause that little gizmo is armed to the teeth with goodies to keep anyone from messing with it."

"You...reasoned with it?" Kontus asked, a smile now tugging at his muzzle.

"I actually did." Max smiled. "I always had a way with machines. And I like this one. Smart as a whip!"

"It's going to cooperate with us?" Bobby asked, sounding like he didn't believe it.

Max nodded. "Sure. I was able to explain the facts to it. That the people it was supposed to help wouldn't be helped if it didn't let us take it back to the future. That the facts dictated that it already had gone back to the future with us, because it wasn't here in ten-thousand years to do what it was supposed to do." Max scratched at his chin. "In fact, it seemed ready to go along with us almost from the start. Makes me wonder if our boy Alonquel didn't tell it to come with us in the first place."

Mike frowned now, having some new thoughts on the whole thing as his native caution kicked in. "This is happening pretty fast. I hope we're doing the right thing."

"Isn't helping them the right thing?" Bobby asked.

"Well...yeah. But...why would these Hartonin even trust us in the first place? I mean, this guy Alonquel didn't even ask questions about how we came to be here!"

"They got skwish," Max explained patiently. "And a lot of it, too."

Mike gaped at that. "I thought they weren't power users!"

The elf laughed. "They're not."

"Now, I believe you are having fun with us," Kontus said, sounding stern. But the look in his eyes seemed to say he was enjoying the back-and-forth immensely.

Max held up his hands defensively. "They have skwish, guys. It's just not the kind that gets directed. It can't be applied. For them, it's sorta like a second nature. It's always on, and it gives them a grand perception of things." He shrugged. "Alonquel trusted us because he knew we were tellin' him things straight up. He knew. There just isn't gonna be any lying to folk like these. No deception. Their talent is about having the most perfectly clear view of the universe possible. So Alonquel saw that we would help them."

"So, we take this spiky thingo back to our own time?" Mike asked. "And it releases them then? Is that a good idea? Remember the Beltracians?"

Max shook his head. "These guys ain't Beltracians. These guys can be trusted. I feel that just as clearly as they felt that we could be trusted."

Bobby squeezed Mike's wrist. "Max knows what he's doing, sweetie."

Mike smiled at his boyfriend. "I know. I was just remembering how many times this old universe has thrown us a curve ball. I just wanted to be sure, is all."

"The Hartonin device has moved closer to us," Illia said then.

"Bring it aboard," Pacha instructed. He turned to Max. "Do we need to talk to it any further?"

"Nope. It's a smart machine. It knows what to do once we get back to where we started."

"Pacha, the large structures nearby have begun to move off."

"Was that in the plan?" Pacha asked Max.

"Yeah. The spiky gizmo - the release mechanism - defends this place, and looks out for the bigger machines. Since we're takin' the release mechanism with us, it's sending the big machines back to someplace safe."

Pacha smiled. "So we are also the cause of why none of these machines were found here in our own time."

Max grinned. "Looks that way. Ain't time grand?"

Bobby sighed. "I could use a couple of aspirin about now."

Mike put his arm around his boyfriend's shoulders and squeezed him. "I don't have any aspirin. Would a kiss help?"

Bobby's eyes glowed happily. "I think it would."

Mike waved a hand at the others. "Look the other way, you lot. This is private."

But he didn't even wait to see if the others turned away, before pulling Bobby close and kissing him.

"It looks like it's in position," Pacha said, watching the display. "Illia?"

"The release mechanism has assumed precisely the same location it occupied with respect to the cylinder twenty-five-thousand years ago. This is perhaps a requirement to perform the operation it is to perform."

"And you still have a lock on the Hartonin ship in its loop?"

"Yes. I will project a simulation so that you can more easily follow the process of recovery."

In the display, their view of the cylinder enlarged, and a tiny mite came into view, whipping around the cylinder at tremendous speed, disappearing behind the massive bulk only to reappear moments later.

"This is a simulation?" Mike asked. "Does the real thing look anything like this?"

"No. In reality, the Hartonin vessel is not visible save for a brief instant when it synchronizes again with our own time frame. At that moment it does become visible, but is gone again so quickly as to escape the notice of the eye. Even if you were looking directly at the location of time synchronization, you would not be able to see it at all."

Bobby linked his arm around Mike's and pulled them closer together. "This is exciting!"

Mike sighed, and nodded. "Always is, with you."

His boyfriend grinned and hugged Mike's arm, and Mike turned back to the display. What could be better than this?

"I have a signal from the release mechanism," Illia announced. "It is about to commence action...wait." There was a moment of silence. "There may be a problem."

All eyes went to the display. "What sort of problem?" Pacha asked.

"One moment," the artificial mind responded.

In the display, the spiked ball that was the release mechanism seemed to release a wave of light, which raced away from it towards the cylinder. Mike new he was watching a simulation, and that the reality would be invisible to the eye. The wave seemed to arrive at the cylinder just as the Hartonin ship was at its closest position in its rapid orbit, and the wave washed over the alien spacecraft and disappeared. But nothing seemed to happen. And then another wave squirted away from release mechanism, to again strike the Hartonin ship just at the point where it must have briefly reached the present time.

"There is a problem," Illia continued. "The orbit of the Hartonin ship is not within the expected parameters for release. The gravity waves that the release mechanism is using to nudge the vessel are not having the required effect to perturb its orbit enough for it to escape the loop of time."

"Crap," Max said softly, and then looked embarrassed when all eyes went to him. "Sorry. But this doesn't sound good to me."

Pacha looked like he agreed. "Can you analyze the problem, Illia?"

"The release mechanism already has. The orbit of the Hartonin vessel has decayed beyond predicted parameters. The ship is closer to the surface of the cylinder than expected, and the time loop shorter. The reappearance of the vessel in the present time frame is of insufficient length now for the gravity waves used by the release mechanism to have the required effect. This problem is almost certainly a result of the difference in expected time between the originally calculated release of the ship after 10,000 years, versus the attempt to free it now, after 25,000 years."

"They waited too long, you mean," Mike said.

"It should have still worked," Illia disagreed. "What was unable to be taken into account were uneven variances in the gravitational attraction of the cylinder due to the distribution of varying forms of matter within.The cylinder looks perfect to the eye, but there are, in fact, variations in its width over its length. Despite its shape, the cylinder is effectively a black hole in gravitational strength. One reason why it is invisible to the eye without enhancement. Light reaching its surface is not allowed to escape again."

"What does this mean for the Hartonins in the ship?" Bobby asked.

"They have no idea what is happening, of course. They have existed for 25,000 years within the same tiny span of time they took with them into their time loop."

Bobby turned a brief, frightened glance at Mike. "But what will happen to the Hartonin if we can't get them out?"

Illia released what amounted to a sigh. "At the current rate of orbital decay, their craft will strike the surface of the cylinder and be destroyed within 12,000 years."

"And they won't even know it when it happens," Pacha said, sounding sad.

Mike could feel the horror he could see in his boyfriend's eyes. "We have to do something!"

Pacha gave a brief shake of his head. "I don't know what. If their own machine cannot free them, I don't know what we can do to help."

"There must be something!" Bobby insisted.

"To come so far, only to fail," Kontus said sadly. "They deserved better than that."

Max waved his hands at them. "Hold on a sec, guys! This ain't over just yet!"

Hope suddenly spiked within Mike. "You can do something?"

The elf rubbed his forehead, staring at the display. "Maybe. If everyone helps. Illia?"

"Yes, Max?"

"Ask the Hartonin machine a question for me. If we lengthen the amount of time the Hartonin ship is exposed to the gravitational nudge, and make that nudge stronger, could we maybe get 'em outta there?"

There was silence for a moment before the AI responded. "Our new friend says that the vessel is only minimally below the required exposure time and applied force to be perturbed from the time loop. It wants to know what we can do to assist."

Max bit at his lip, and then turned to look at Mike and Bobby, and then Kontus. "How much do you guys want to help our friends get out of there?"

Mike and Bobby exchanged hopeful glances. "We'll do whatever we can," Bobby promised.

"I will also assist in any way possible," Kontus offered. "Though I have no idea how."

Max nodded. "I'm gonna ask Esmerelda for some help, too. She can figure the time curve a lot faster than I can."

"What are we going to do?" Pacha asked.

"Gravity," Max replied, smiling at the Kift. "How much can you augment it?"

Pacha looked surprised. "It depends on how strong the initial force is, and how localized my application."

"Uh huh. Illia, what's the size of the gravitational wavefront our friend out there is applying, and the resultant acceleration imparted to the Hartonin ship?"

Mike raised his eyebrows at the elf's wording. Max could really get his tongue around words if he needed to!

The AI supplied the figures, and Max looked expectantly at the Kift.

Pacha looked uncertain. "Perhaps three times. And we will need to get much closer for even that."

"I have relayed those figures to the release mechanism. It says it will only be enough if we can somehow double the exposure time."

Max smiled at that. "Well, well, now." He waved his hands then. "Everybody come closer!'

Mike grinned at Bobby, and then at Kontus, as they moved closer to the elf. Pacha raised his arms as Mike went by, and the boy picked up the Kift and cradled him close.

Max laughed as they crowded around him. "I've got Esmerelda's attention. This should be interestin'!"

"You're in the dark place," a deep voice said.

"The VERY dark place," another voice agreed.

Someone struck a match, and then Max was reaching up to light a candle. And then another, and another, and another. A wrought iron candelabra holding four tall, thin tapers came into view, casting a soft circle of light around them.

"Where is this?" Mike asked, unable to control his curiosity. One minute they had been standing around Max in the control center of the ship, and the next...

"You're in the dark place," the deep voice said again, even more loudly.

"Just go with it," Max said quickly. "I can explain later."

Bobby nudged Mike with his elbow, and nodded seriously at the elf. Yeah, just go with it!

Mike made a face at his boyfriend, but Bobby just laughed. He reached out and wrapped an arm around Mike's and pulled himself closer. "This is just weird," he breathed.

"Skwish stuff," Mike whispered back. "Magic. Like when Charlie and Max rescued us from the smashed ship. Do you feel it?"

Bobby nodded solemnly. "Inside. Like I'm a rubber band, and someone is drawing me tight."

"Just relax," Max said to them. "This experience is going to make your skwish dance a little. Don't be surprised by anything that happens, okay?"

The boys nodded.

Kontus blew out a long breath. "I have never felt this way before. And I feel like we are in a very large space. I can't see it, but I can feel it." He let out a soft growl. "And we are not alone."

As if in answer to his words, they heard a loud creaking sound, like a very large and weighty door had been opened. A moment later it slammed shut with enough force to make them all jump, even Max.

"Esmerelda is the showy type," he whispered. "She likes to have fun. So don't be alarmed by anything you see or hear. Okay?"

The boys nodded. Kontus looked around the dark place, and his eyes narrowed. "Someone is coming."

They heard it then: giant footfalls, like an elephant might make, if it was wearing heavy boots and walked on two legs. Kalunk...kalunk...kalunk...kalunk...

Mike stared into the darkness in the direction the sounds were coming from, and thought for a second he could see a dark shape moving there. And then two softly glowing lights appeared, high up - at least three tall humans high in height. The lights blinked a few times, and then seemed to focus on them.

They were eyes, as large as dinner plates.

"Look at you!" a deep, but girlish voice rang out. "So small! So soft! So helpless!" This was followed by a deep grunt, hardly feminine.

Mike simply stared at the eyes. If this was supposed to be Esmerelda, she came across as about as female as a sumo wrestler.

The weighty footfalls moved closer, until the eyes hovered above them, just outside the range of the circle of light from the candles, looking down upon them. "I see you!"

Kontus emitted another soft growl. "This is...odd."

Max laughed at that. "Everyone, this is Esmerelda. Don't mind her, 'kay? She's still learning to relate to our kind of folk."

"I'm trying," the big-girl voice said. "So hard!"

Max closed his eyes a second, and then more light appeared in the form of an image of the great cylinder, floating in its dark realm, with just the distant ribbon of the Perseus arm of the galaxy as a back light. Mike took a deep breath at the sight; it was as beautiful as it was awesome. The image was much larger than they had seen from within the ship, almost like the size of a large movie theater screen, but three-dimensional, and somehow alive with energy.

The view moved closer to the cylinder, until they could no longer see the entire device. Then closer still, until a faint dot appeared, hung before them the briefest part of a second, and vanished again.

The Hartonin ship?

"I can see it," Mike whispered, awed.

"Not really," Max said. "This is a representation, not a true image. We need ta see what we're doin', you know? But whatever we do with this image will be mirrored in reality, in real space and time. Okay?"

A chorus of murmured agreement followed, and Mike realized then that the others - even Pacha - were feeling some of the same awe that he was.

"So fast!" Esmerelda said, the large eyes glancing at the image. "And such an odd little bubble of time." The voice suddenly deepened then, to the one they had heard earlier, announcing that they were in the dark place. "It's wrong!"

"This is what we're here to fix," Max agreed. "The orbit of the vessel has gotten too close to that big cylinder. We can't break it free."

"Break it free," the deeper voice repeated, but with a peculiar drop in volume at the end of the sentence.

Max turned to Mike and the others. "I need you - all of you - to look at Esmerelda. Focus on her. We have to keep her concentration on us. It will wander if we don't."

Mike nodded and turned his attention back to the glowing eyes outside the circle of light. He examined them now, saw how they had faded, but suddenly seemed to brighten and come back to life as he looked.

In the image floating before them, the tiny dot that was the Hartonin vessel came and went with regularity now, much faster than the one minute interval that they had pegged it at before.

"The image is sped up, except at the moment the ship appears," Max told them, when Mike commented on the fact. "Then it's slowed way down. We gotta be able to see what we're doin' here." He turned his gaze to Pacha. "When the Hartonin's release mechanism doodad propagates its gravity wave, its gonna look like a red breaker on a beach. You have to hop on it and boost it as much as you can."

"I understand," Pacha said, from within the cradle of Mike's arm. "Having a visual representation will allow me to focus much easier."

"That was the idea," Max said, nodding. "Even you are new to this sort of magic operation, Pacha. We're gonna be dealing with something that comes and goes in time in an instant. We gotta allow the release mechanism to force the Hartonin ship into a spiral instead of a circular orbit. It's gonna take a lot of juice, so everyone pay attention and concentrate."

"I'll do my best," Pacha said solemnly.

Mike patted the Kift's fur. "Right here with ya, Pach."

His friend gazed up at him fondly, and nodded.

"What's Esmerelda going to do?" Bobby asked.

"Not anything, actually. She's lending me a heightened ability to create a chrono-core of a type flexible enough to deal with this situation. I have to lengthen the time the Hartonin ship stays in the present so that Pacha and the release mechanism can bump it into a new orbit."

"Esmerelda needs our concentration?" Kontus asked.

"Yep. Hernacki are used to dealin' with things on a very large scale. Like, a universal scale. They normally don't notice people like us at all. It isn't on purpose, it's just the way they're built. I've been teachin' her to narrow her focus, and she's better now. But she still needs work. You and the guys focusing on her will help to keep her attention here with us. I need that, if I'm gonna harness her power."

"How long will this take?" Mike asked.

Max blew out a speculative breath. "Once we get the moment exactly right, it will happen all at once. But we have to get it exactly right!"

"We will do our best," Kontus promised, smiling at Mike and Bobby. "Is there anything else we can do to assist?"

"Not just yet," Max said. He grinned. "But you're gonna find that this experience, um...wakes some stuff up!"

The Trichani nodded and gulped, just a little nervously. "What now?"

"Practice run," Max said. He smiled around at those watching him. "You three can't use any specific powers just now, but you project skwish like crazy. Just keep that aimed at Esmerelda for me, so she doesn't wander off. I would normally be able to do that myself, but I'm going to be using some of her chrono-core powers and can't hold her attention, too." His eyes dropped to find Pacha. "When the Hartonin release mechanism lets go with its gravity waves, you need to pump them up as much as you can. I'm gonna be using some of Esmerelda's juice to grab hold of the present the Hartonin ship is in when it appears, and slow it down, so that there will be enough time to whop it with the gravity waves. It has to be enough to shift the ship from a circular orbit to a spiral."

Kontus raised a hand. "Won't that send the ship backwards in time?"

"Just for a few seconds, because once its free of the loop, the release mechanism will push it away from the cylinder. It will only take a few more seconds for the frame-draggin' effect to end. Then they'll pop out of there, right into our laps! Illia? You still with us?"

"Right here, Max."

"You're my timer. I need your prompt, three seconds before the Hartonin ship synchs with our time. Just keep givin' it to me until they're out."

"I understand."

They performed a practice run in concert with the Hartonin release mechanism, with which Illia was in communication. It was amazing to see the red breaker of the gravity wave flow past their view, heading for the twinkling dot of the orbiting vessel, all stylized in the image that Max was somehow producing.. Mike did his best to keep focused on Esmerelda, but it was hard. His eyes kept being drawn to what was happening in the image.

"So small!" Esmerelda said again, her giant eyes focused on them once more. But in only seconds her gaze seemed to darken again.

Come back! Mike thought insistently, again driving his focus at the eyes of the hernacki.

The eyes brightened again, and a deep fit of laughter echoed around the dark space, which offered enough in the way of reverberation to suggest that it was a huge place, indeed!

"She sounds a bit cocked," Mike said, frowning. He turned to Bobby, and pulled him closer. "Work with me, okay?"

Then he turned to Kontus, shifted Pacha to his other arm, and reached out to pull the Trichani closer. Only it didn't work out that way. Instead, it was Mike that was pulled closer to Kontus.

The big man smiled down at them. "I weigh more than all three of you."

Mike smiled back. "Funny. Now pay attention." He turned back to Bobby, motioned him to come to his side. Bobby grinned, and moved closer until their shoulders were touching. "Are we done playing?"

"Yes," Mike said. "Kontus won. Now...let's all do this together, okay?"

Kontus and Bobby both nodded, and they all turned back to the glowing eyes, which were inspecting them curiously now. "I see you!"

"We see you, too," Bobby said, chuckling. "It's impossible not to!"

Again the large eyes turned towards the representation of the cylinder, and seemed to watch the tiny dot of the Hartonin ship come and go. "Wrong!"

"Okay, let's give it a try," Max said. "Illia, give me the first mark when you're ready."

"On my mark," Illia returned. "!"

The red wave of the release mechanism's gravity front swept past their view, and Mike heard Pacha grunt, and felt his small body tense, as the Kift applied all he could to boost the power of the wave.

Max had his eyes closed, his face a mask of concentration. In the giant movie screen of the representation, the red wave seemed to reach the cylinder just as the tiny dot of the Hartonin ship appeared...and then vanished again.

Max grunted hard, and took a deep breath. "Not enough. Illia, again!"

"On my!"

Again, Pacha tensed in Mike's arms, and Max grunted hard. The red wave swept up to the cylinder just as the Hartonin ship appeared...and then it vanished again.

"One more time!" Max called.

"On my!"

The entire scenario played over again, but still the Hartonin ship vanished.

Mike, focused on Esmerelda's eyes, was startled when their gaze suddenly shifted to the elf, just as he called for another timing mark. "Hurry. We're gonna lose them!"

"On my mark," Illia called out. ""

But then Esmerelda gave out another tremendous laugh. "No, Maxie! Like this!"

"...mark!" Illia called.

This time, as the red wave swept past them, and Pacha grunted again with effort, the Hartonin ship seemed to briefly freeze right before the onslaught of the gravity front, and this time swerved suddenly to one side. It flickered a moment, and then stabilized as it moved away from the cylinder... and then, almost magically, it was hovering in space right before them.

Max sagged, and let out an amazed laugh then. "Thanks, Essie!"

"What happened?" Mike asked, letting his gaze shift to the elf.

Max grinned. "Esmerelda jumped in at the last second and inflated the chrono-core way more than I coulda done it myself. It froze the Hartonin ship in the present long enough for the gravity waves to bump it into a spiral. Then the release mechanism used more gravity fronts to push the ship away from the cylinder. Once free, they did a mini-transition through the Cooee, and here they are!"

Kontus, standing next to Mike, leaned closer to the elf and offered up a toothy smile. "Maxie?"

Max looked embarrassed. "Aw. Just a nickname Esmerelda has for me. I call her Essie, and she calls me Maxie." He leaned closer to the big Trichani. "Let's just keep that between the five of us, huh?"

"The six of us," Illia pointed out. "But I can keep a secret as well as anyone."

Max gave a little sigh. "The things an elf has ta bear!"

Mike joined the others in smiling.

"Okay," Max said, then. He turned to the large glowing eyes, and blew them a kiss. "See you back at home, sweetie."

The shining eyes blinked, and seemed to smile. "Bye, Maxie! Bye everyone!"

Mike found himself smiling and waving, and calling goodbyes along with the others...

...and then they were once again standing in the control center of the Kifta ship.

Bobby leaned hard against Mike's shoulder. "This magic stuff is enough to wear a fella out!"

Mike nodded, feeling a certain lethargy now, himself. "I could use a nap," he admitted.

"I have a communication from the Hartonin vessel," Illia informed them.

"Let us see them," Pacha returned.

The command center's display filled then with the image of a Hartonin - probably the one they had spoken with before, but Mike couldn't be certain.

"Greetings," the alien began. "It is wonderful to see you again so quickly. It was only moments ago, it seemed, that we exchanged farewells."

Max grinned at that. "That was the longest minute of your life, I'll bet!"

The Hartonin's eyes seemed to fill with laughter, and there came the faint sounds of a crowd of people chuckling. "Amusement. We must agree with your statement. Our survey of the near star groups indicate that 25,000 years have indeed passed since we last met. Yet it was just a moment ago we spoke in the distant past. We are indebted to you for your assistance in fulfilling our mission."

"Mission?" Pacha asked.

"Agreed. Yes. Our mission was simply to prove that travel into the future was possible, using a device that theoretically would only allow travel into the past."

"You've done that," Max agreed. "So what now?"

"Satisfaction. Why, nothing. We have accomplished our goal."

"He means, what will you do now?" Mike spoke up.

In the display, the Hartonin's deeply understanding eyes shifted to Mike. "Explain. We are creatures of curiosity. We wish to see what there is to see. Go where we have not yet been. But we are out of our time, and alone here. Our failure to communicate with our people would seem to indicate that our species is no longer active in this space."

"Your kind are something of a legend in our age," Pacha said, solemnly. "But it is true, your species no longer exists in this part of the galaxy."

"Explain. But they are not deceased. They have simply moved."

"Moved?" Kontus asked, before anyone else could. "Moved where?"

"Explain. Away. Away from this arm of the galaxy. But a trace was left behind, a marker, a beacon. For stragglers like us, so that we could again find them."

Pacha made an amazed sound. "The Hartonin have survived? They still exist?" He looked up at Mike, his eyes filled with wonder. "Don't you see? The Hartonin have broken the rule that galactic empires must crumble and perish. If they can survive this long, others can, too!"

Max smiled at the Hartonin. "It was nice to meet you folk. Nice people."

"Pleasure. We have enjoyed the contact, as well. And we are indebted to you for your assistance. We would like to leave something with you, if permitted."

Max turned his smile on Pacha. "These folk are sincere, Pach. They can be trusted."

The Kift nodded. "I sense that, myself." He turned back to the display. "What did you have in mind?"

In answer, the air nearby them clouded, and one of the spiky ball devices appeared, this one of course small enough to easily fit into the command center. It hovered in the air a moment, and then rose to a point just beneath the overhead, out of the way of those walking beneath it.

"Explain," the Hartonin said. "This device is a gift. It understands that it now belongs to you, and its place is aboard your vessel."

Pacha stared at the new arrival a moment, his eyes wide. "Illia?"

"The device has established a completely cooperative link with me," the artificial intelligence advised. "It bears the signature of this vessel, as if installed as original equipment."

Pacha exchanged an amazed look with Max before nodding. "And your opinion, Illia?"

"It would seem to be perfectly safe, Pacha."

The Kift turned back to the Hartonin. "What is it for?"

"Explain. Its purpose is twofold. One, to help safeguard you. Its abilities extend somewhat beyond the level of your own technology at this time. Secondly, it will provide a link with us, should you ever require our assistance. We are indebted to you, and will always come, if needed."

Mike joined Pacha and the others in gaping a little.

"I...we cannot thank you enough," the Kift managed. "But really, we were happy to assist."

"Agree. We know this. Your assistance was given at some peril to yourselves, and with no expectation of profit. It is an honor to know you, and we ask that you accept this token of our esteem."

Pacha seemed overwhelmed, and Mike gave the little Kift a reassuring squeeze. "It's a gift, buddy. They're grateful."

Tchk-tchk-tchk. "It's just a little unexpected." But he turned to the Hartonin in the display, and nodded. "Thank you for your gift."

That seemed to please the alien. "Conclude. We will go now, to seek out our kind."

"Goodbye," Bobby said softly, raising a hand to wave.

"Good luck," Mike added, also waving.

Kontus offered a brief bow. "It was an honor to meet the Hartonin."

"Contrary. The honor was ours. Farewell."

Max and Pacha also raised hands to wave. The image of the Hartonin vanished from the display, to be replaced by the image of their vessel. And then it, too, vanished.

"Wow," Max said, grinning. "Nice folk. So much better than them Beltracians!"

Pacha was silent a moment, before motioning at his cushion on the deck. "Put me down, Mike? I have some thinking to do on what we have just accomplished."

"Everything okay?" Mike asked, feeling concerned. It was unlike his friend to want to go off alone like this.

"Yes." Pacha smiled his crooked smile. "I just want to log my impressions of this very unusual experience."

Mike nodded, and moved to the biggest pillow before the display and set Pacha down. The Kift took a moment then to smile at Max. "Thank you, my friend, for assisting us, and the Hartonin."

The elf bounced his shoulders up and down. "It was Esmerelda that did the hard part. But, hey...I learned some things, too, so it was all to the good."

"What will you do now?" Kontus asked him. He tossed a toothy smile at Mike and Bobby before fixing Max in his gaze once again. "Are you hungry? I'm hungry! How would you like to join us in a little feast to celebrate the success of this enterprise?"

"You cooking?" Mike asked, immediately interested.

"Of course!" Kontus looked excited now. "What's your pleasure?"

"Rrretachuf!" Bobby called, grinning.

"With woluf garnishes, and a side of guroof!" Mike added, nodding happily.

Kontus scoffed. "You always ask for the same thing!"

"Because it's delicious!" Bobby returned, emphatically.

"Please?" Mike added, making big puppy-dog eyes at his friend.

Kontus heaved a huge sigh, but somehow managed to look very much delighted. "Then I will adjourn to the feasting, the food preparation area, and get things started." He strode away, humming happily.

Bobby moved closer to Mike and leaned up against him. "I'm feeling a little strange. Wound up, like that rubber band thing I was telling you about before."

Mike nodded. "Me, too. Skwish, I think. I can't wait to talk to Charlie about this."

"For once, we'll have a pretty good story to tell him."

Mike brightened at the prospect. They had completed a pretty good adventure of their own to share this time! "Uh huh."

Max offered up a knowing look. "Uh...just a hint, Mike. I have a feelin' that you and Charlie will both have a good story to tell this round." He paused to sniff the air then, his eyebrows bouncing upwards. "Say...that smells pretty good!"

"You coming, Pacha?" Bobby called. "I think Kontus is about to set things on fire!"

Tchk-tchk-tchk! "I'll be along in a moment!"

Mike turned to smile at Max. "Join us? You'll love Trichani cooking, I promise you!" A new whiff of the delights in preparation touched his nose then, and Mike felt his mouth water. He turned with a smile, and extended a crooked elbow to his boyfriend. "Join me in the feasting area, love?"

Bobby's eyes were filled with light. "It would be my pleasure!" He accepted the proffered arm, and then leaned forward past his boyfriend to look at Max.. "Are you coming?"

The elf patted his stomach a few times, as if thinking; but then he laughed, his mind made up. "Don't mind if I do. A good feast would really hit the spot about now. I don't think I've eaten in at least 25,000 years!"

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