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Geron Kees

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Geron Kees last won the day on November 1 2020

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  1. Chapter 7 -- Misola and his men had been standing by their craft when the accident with D'eerth's transport occurred. In a single moment the tunnel opening had appeared, the borer had come out, and immediately moved to the side to make room. But then some amazing power had found it and pushed it backwards, even against the full driving force of its motivators. Misola's inner senses had simply pulsed alarmingly at the amount of energy involved in the drive backwards. In the blink of an eye the transport had moved back enough to block the tunnel opening, so that when D'eerth's transport came through at speed, it struck the rear of the borer, sending it spinning off in the other direction. But the transport had been in the act of shedding its momentum even at that point, and so the inertia of the strike had also been dissipated for the transport, if not the borer. "D'eerth! Respond!" For a moment there was silence; but then Misola heard the other's voice. "Well...that didn't go as planned." Misola felt a sense of immediate relief. "Are there any injuries?" "No. It would appear not. The inertial compensators in our seats dissipated the blow that made it past the overall inertial dump. The transport is showing some red indicators on the board, but none are critical systems." Onath's voice suddenly arrived in the mix. "Check. No critical systems are involved. So I would suggest you exit the transport and deploy your forces. You're vulnerable where you are." "Agreed," Deer'th returned. "Deploying the men now." Onath's voice sounded tight. "That appeared to be a deliberate and hostile act on the part of the enemy. I am lifting the restriction against return fire without my orders. If you are fired upon, you may return fire at will." Misola acknowledged, and Deer'th quickly followed. But then Kil'brith broke in. "I would suggest your men not use anything more destructive than their rifles, Onath. At least until called for." Onath's reply held the right amount of deference, but sounded strained even to Misola. "Your reasoning? Rifle fire is not as effective as some of the disruptive and explosive devices my people are carrying." But Kil'brith's reply only sounded patient. "The use of disruptive or explosive weapons will only destroy the very treasures we seek to recover. Look at this chamber now. A shambles! Who knows what these artifacts might have been? They may have been irreplaceable technological treasures, Onath. If we are to stay and contest this world as a prize, destroying valuable parts of it is not an option." Onath's voice sounded less willing to argue when he replied. "I see your reasoning. Very well. Misola, Deer'th, for the time being, no weapons more lethal than pulse rifles should be used." Misola actually breathed a sigh of relief at that, his eyes again appraising the huge chamber. Large as it was, it was still confined, and the use of disruptors or explosive devices here could be as lethal to his men as any enemy fire. "Acknowledged." "Acknowledged," Deer'th echoed. "I am not going to try to command this mission directly," Onath said then. "I am not on the scene, much to my own regret. I am placing you in local overall command, Misola. I will be monitoring everything, and will certainly speak when I feel the need. And you may question me should you feel the need. But I cannot be second-guessing everything you do." Misola felt some shock at hearing that, but also some relief. Not having to run every step before Onath would cut down their reaction time considerably. "Very well." "Look!" One of the troopers suddenly pointed, and Misola jerked his eyes in the direction indicated. For just a second, before they disappeared into the forest of strange, dark spires that thrust up from the very floor of the chamber, a small group of strangely glowing lights appeared. They seemed to wax and wane as they moved, almost as if in response to the changes in light and shadow within the great chamber itself. But in the brief instant that Misola's eyes appraised them, he estimated size and mass, and noted by the way they moved that they seemed very much like people walking. Living things. The enemy had come out into the open! But...glowing clouds of light? What sort of life was this? Misola turned towards the squad. "Tif'tok. Take three of the men and head around the outer wall in that direction. Try to flank the enemy. The rest of you, come with me. We will pursue directly. D'eerth, you hear?" "Yes. Sensors are obviously no good here. They display nothing, when your helmet imager clearly shows something there. I will deploy half my men along the other wall to flank from this side, and take the rest and go directly across the chamber after those we just...saw. We will meet up with you there." "Get a move on," Onath urged quietly. Misola waved at his men. Those assigned to flanking detail moved off along the wall at a trot, while the rest moved to Misola. He hefted his rifle, checked its charge a final time, and then started off across the vast floor of the chamber, his thoughts briefly entertaining a more respectable view of Onath. But then his training reasserted itself, and all he could think about was catching up with the enemy. * * * * * * * "They're close behind," Max said softly, throwing a thumb over his shoulder. "They're trying to get to either side of us, too, moving in from the outer wall." "Should we run, to catch up with Ragal and Casper?" Adrian whispered. "No," Ricky said immediately, turning towards his boyfriend. "Let them get to the command thing and put the mind in. We'll be the decoy for the Moth." Max grunted. "I'm afraid I gotta agree. Catching up with Ragal will only take the Moth right to them." "But can we hold off the Moth?" Adrian asked. "I think so," Max replied, though even Charlie thought the elf didn't sound certain. "They got a lot of weapons. I think I can handle them, though." His glowing shape turned towards them then. "I do got a little surprise for you guys, though. Watch." Max's hands came up, and Charlie looked around to see what effect it might have. So he happened to be looking directly at Kippy as the tortured light around him dissolved, and his boyfriend came back into view. Kippy immediately smiled, and Charlie knew that he was now visible, too. He looked back at Max. "They can see us now?" "Not them. We can see each other now, is all. I made the light-shifting pattern non-random, and just based it on one of those really big prime numbers. Took a while to figure out. New magic always does. But we each got a key now, so we can see each other. But to the Moth's eyes, and their, um, electromagnetic gear, we still look the same. And they still can't detect us." Kippy winked at Max, and pointed at Charlie. "What a lovely birthday present!" Charlie laughed, and moved closer to give his boyfriend a brief hug. "I like this better, too." Ricky, now visible, scratched his head. "So...what? We just stand here and let the Moth catch us?" Max looked slightly embarrassed. "Well...no. I suggest we start walking in the direction that Ragal and the others went. But not too fast. I do want to be near them in case something happens, but I don't want to take the Moth straight to them." They continued on then, at a leisurely walk, as if they were strolling on a park path on a warm summer day. Kippy took Charlie's hand, and let their arms swing slowly back and forth as they walked. Kippy smiled at him. "This has been an exciting vacation. We'll have to do it again sometime." Charlie gaped briefly at that, but then took note of the sparkle in Kippy's eyes. "Yeah, well...maybe. Not exactly the same, though." "This has been a blast!" Rick said, falling in beside them. He and Adrian were also hand in hand, their arms swinging happily as they walked. "More fun than a box of cats!" "I'll say," Adrian agreed. He leaned forward and looked past everyone at Max. "You sure know how to have fun!" Max gave his head a brief shake, but his smile was obviously heartfelt. "I never had so much going on in my life before I met you guys!" "But it's been fun, hasn't it?" Kippy insisted. Max watched them a moment, and then nodded. "Yeah. Like Rick said, it's been a blast." Charlie noticed something then, ahead of them. "Look! That pillar is broken!" Now that he really looked ahead of them, he could see broken pieces of the crystalline structures everywhere. Max squinted ahead, and then nodded. "That's the hold up with Ragal. That borer busted up some of the pillars. But...this ain't over yet. I feel it." Durapar and Sefton, behind them, suddenly hurried a little to get closer. "Observe left," the Molokar said quietly. "And to the right!" Durapar whispered. Charlie looked briefly both ways. Forty feet away, on either side of them, several armored Moth walked along, pacing them, disappearing occasionally behind one of the upright crystalline projections, but reappearing on the other side. Their rifles were held casually, muzzles down, but that the soldiers were watching them was plain. "Just keep going," Max whispered out of the side of his mouth then. They passed between two of the tall columns, and saw three of the Moth soldiers ahead of them. "Fast on their feet, aren't they?" Charlie commented. "Keep walking, same pace," Max whispered. "Don't act nervous. They can't see us, remember. We're just blobs of light." They were past the midpoint of the chamber, and were into the other side, where Ragal and Casper and Horace were surely at the right crystalline pillar now. Charlie looked over a shoulder, saw more of the soldiers behind them. They were effectively surrounded. He smiled grimly. Once, the sight of the tall Moth in their dark battle gear would have probably terrified him. But Charlie had changed in the past few years. Events had changed him. Events, people...and friends. He glanced over at Max, and felt confidence in him. Max would do anything to keep them safe. Even kill the Moth, if he had to. Charlie didn't want him to have to. He trusted Max to find a more civilized way out of this predicament. He also trusted his friends to go the distance. Kippy squeezed his hand, and Charlie squeezed back. They arrived in front of the three of Moth soldiers, who watched them come with an evident mix of haughtiness, suspicion...and fear. One of the Moth held up a hand, a clear signal for them to stop. Max spread his arms and they all stopped. For a moment nothing happened. And then several of the Moth that had been following behind them slowly and carefully circled around to the fore of the group, to halt before them. One of them stepped forward, and watched them carefully. "I am Misola, of the Moth High Guard, and of the occupation force of this planet." He waited for a reaction, any sort of response, but the glowing beings before him offered nothing in return. "Very well. I ask that you make no threatening moves. My men will not fire unless fired upon first." Again, there was simply no response. The strange beings before him simply waited, giving no indication they had even heard his words. He stepped back then, and a wary expression returned to his face. His eyes surveyed the enemy before him, and his reaction was again quite clear. "So we have captured you, it seems. If that is to be believed." * * * * * * * Ragal set Casper down and surveyed the damage. Horace clenched his hands into fists, and shook his head. "I don't believe it!" They had arrived at the correct crystalline pillar, where they needed to place the defensive mind, only to fine a scene of destruction. Nearby, a path of broken crystal material stretched away along a line, reaching into the distance. Twenty yards away, the broken body of the borer lay in the path, now apparently inoperative. That it had cut a swath through the crystalline pillars after being sent flying across the chamber by the transport's impact seemed clear. Ultimately, the borer had struck a last crystalline pillar, and sent the remains of it hurtling into the very pillar where they needed to place the defensive mind. It still stood, but was pockmarked and chipped, and the hole they needed in which to place the defensive mind could not be found. And Eseffa was nowhere to be seen. Casper looked up at Ragal. "We came all this way for nothing!" Ragal shook his head. "Maybe not. I don't feel it is over." "I hope not," Horace said, turning and looking back the way they came. "For the sake of the others, especially." "They are well," Ragal said comfortingly. "Max is decoying the Moth for us. He will be able to keep them there, hopefully for as long as it takes." Horace blinked at that. "For as long as it takes to do what? The pillar is a wreck!" But Ragal's eyes were moving now, and then he raised a hand and pointed. "There!" He was indicating a section of the floor, even as it bubbled up into one of the characteristic doorways that the Madracorn used to get around. The sides of the bubble retracted, a column of mist appeared, and then Eseffa was with them. "I'm sorry I'm late. I was here earlier, but had to leave after the Moth machine shattered the room." "Are we done?" Casper asked, looking mournful. "Are we beaten?" The Madracorn looked sympathetic. "No. I'm sorry I wasn't here to meet you. I was initiating a healing for this room." Ragal smiled, somehow having felt this journey was not over. "A healing? Is that possible?" "Of, of course." Eseffa smiled. "This world is all of a piece, a single shape from one pattern. It needed to be ultra-precise for our requirements, and there was no other way. It only took a small deviance from the required core dimensional figures to make it unsatisfactory to use as a beacon for the dead. But everything else works just fine." Casper looked overjoyed. "So what will happen now?" The Madracorn looked around the room. "First the mess will be cleaned up. Then the operators will be regrown." Horace stared. "Operators?" Eseffa waved a large hand at the crystalline pillar before them. "These. The synapses of the brain of Lyrgris, as it were. A world cannot function without a brain." Casper held up the small box he carried. "I thought I had the defensive brain right here." "No. You hold the memories, the training...the handbook, if you will, by which the mind of Lygris can defend itself. The most basic of these functions is for the brain to be able to think. That function was enabled in the mind of Lygris long ago, but the key to the defensive mind - the tiny orb you now hold - was never turned. Once we deemed this world unusable, it seemed a waste of a valuable asset to place the full mind into operation. It now seems a very shortsighted decision." "I think I'd agree," Horace said, smiling. "But I'm sure it was a reasonable assumption to think it would never be found in all the hugeness of the Cooee." "The odds were against it," Eseffa agreed. "But having Engris found by the Molokar should have warned us. We were a bit too complacent, there in that other continuum. Events here seemed distant, and not very pressing." He laughed. "Being dead has its drawbacks." Casper hooted out a squeaky laugh, which made Horace smile. "Then we are not done!" "Not at all," Eseffa agreed. "I did want to warn you that things will become quite, well...active here as the chamber heals itself. But you will be quite safe as long as you stay back from the pillars. Where you are right now should be just fine." Casper's gray eyes grew wide. "What will happen?" Eseffa chuckled. "Oh, a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. You should find it quite interesting, actually." He seemed to listen a moment, and then smiled. "Shouldn't be much longer. Now, brace yourselves. Don't be alarmed by anything that happens. You'll be quite safe, I can assure you." Horace looked around the great chamber, a sense of events to come settling over him. But it was not a bad sense. Just a strange one. And maybe a wonderful one? Again, he praised the day he had decided to investigate the old octagonal house in the woods near Norwich, New York. The day he had met Charlie Boone, and his wonderful crowd of amazing friends. Whoo-hoo! * * * * * * * Mor'ath spoke up. "They have stopped these beings, Commander. I have video, if you'd like to see them." Kil'bruth and Onath had been comparing notes, but now both men turned back to face the console. There, the ones they had been pursuing were clear now, transmitted by Misola's helmet imager. It appeared to be a group, but even that was not definite. What they saw was a large mass of glowing, twisting lights. Kil'brith searched his display, and then looked across at his systems manager. "What are these creatures? They don't resemble the misty ones we have seen thus far! I don't see any analysis of this, Mor'ath." "There is none," the other Moth said. "They do not register on any of our sensors." "If we can see them, they exist," Kil'brith argued. "So why can we not also scan them?" Mor'ath looked pained. "It...commander, it is my opinion that our sensors are being annulled. In order for our active scanning arrays to report, our directed sensory broadcasts must first interact with other things, either matter or energy, and then return to us. We have no returns for these beings because they are in some way preventing the active scans from interacting with themselves. Our strictly passive scans can only reveal data from emission sources. So in this case, the only data we are being allowed to receive is along a narrow band of the visual." Kil'brith stared at the images in the display, impressed despite himself. Long used to the superiority of Moth technology over all others, it was humbling to encounter those to whom the technology was less than effective. These others, whoever they were, were not to be despised. "Even their visual images are disconcerting." "I don't believe it to be their true image," Mor'ath returned. "I can analyze the visual stream we can see, and it appears that what we are seeing is not a direct reflection, but rather a high-order diffusion of the original reflected light. A deception." "Indeed." Kil'brith drummed his fingers on his armrest. "Or perhaps a natural occurrence of the way light interacts with these beings?" Mor'ath grunted. "It could be that, too." "If there is nothing to be done about it, then all we can do is watch," Onath said, sounding unhappy. "I should be there myself." Kil'brith eyed the other, but didn't say anything. Too late for that. Onath watched the display a moment longer, and then turned to face Kil'brith. "These aliens are on a mission of some kind. Their movements up until now have been purposeful, all leading to this chamber where our people are now. I feel that whatever task these aliens are up to, it will not bode well for our forces here if they are allowed to complete it. I think we need to stop them at all costs." Kil'brith shook his head. "I cannot agree with firing upon them. Not yet." "We don't need to fire at them," Onath argued. "Just keep them where they are now. Hold them up while our people investigate ahead to see what lies there." He slapped the armrest of his seat forcefully. "My feeling is that if they reach their goal, our mission here will be over." Kil'brith considered that, and then waved a hand at Onath. "Inform Misola. Keep the aliens in place. If they move, fire ahead of them to stop them again and keep them there. But do not fire on them!" * * * * * * * "It's okay." Max said. "I got us in a sound bubble, so the Moth can't hear us. I just wanted to warn you guys not to get excited when stuff starts happening." Adrian leaned forward. "What's about to happen?" "Yeah. What stuff?" Rick asked. Max held up his hands. "I don't know exactly. Ragal and the others reached the crystal pillar. But something ain't right. Eseffa is there, and I have a feeling this place is about to kick off. So don't get excited, no matter what happens." The elf smiled. "In fact...I think we can use this. Yeah." He grinned. "Okay, I'm gonna drop the sound bubble a little, but not all the way. We'll still be able to hear them, and they can hear me, but they can't hear you. Just play along with me, okay?" Charlie nodded, a sense of exhilaration overcoming him. He grinned at Kippy. Something is up! Max turned towards the Moth, who noted the change in his form, but had no idea of the cause. "Sefton, old buddy, can you come up here with me?" "Yes." The Molokar moved forward, his giant glowing form causing several of the Moth to slightly raise the barrels of their rifles. But they were well-trained, and no one appeared to look like they had an itchy trigger finger. "Great," Max said. "Now, I'm gonna do the talking, and you're gonna do the acting, okay? Just sort of follow me, if you can." Sefton grunted, but an amiable look came into his eyes, and he smiled. "Sounds fun." Max nodded. "Okay. I wish I could make these guys see that big djinn that Casper made 'em see in the tunnel, but I can't quite get it. But Sefton here is almost as large. What I can do is that same big, loud voice that we used then. Okay, everybody, play along. Sefton, raise your arms wide." The big Molokar did that, instantly drawing Misola's attention. Several more of the rifle barrels came up a fraction of an inch or two. "Intruders," Max said, once again in the big voice he and Casper had used before. Several of the Moth jumped, and Misola's eyes grew larger under the rim of his helmet. The voice was very large, very powerful. And very unsettling! But the Moth soldier was no coward. "So, you do have a voice." "You were warned in the tunnel that this was not over," Max said. "Yet here we are again." Misola made a gesture of agreement. "We did not intend to enter into conflict. We only intended to salvage from a vacant world." "And yet, you can see quite well that it is not vacant." The Moth looked over at the man next to him, and then returned his gaze to Sefton's illuminated form. "My people are not convinced that you...or your people...actually have a claim to this world. There was clearly no sign of any sort of activity here when we first arrived. You came later. We are of the opinion that it is you who are the interlopers here." "Turn from side to side," Max whispered at Sefton. The Molokar complied as Max went on. "We feel no need to explain anything to you. This world is ours. As you are about to find out." The timing was perfect. The floor beneath their feet quivered then, and a rumble was heard throughout the room. Nearby, what at first looked like a dust devil sprang up; but it quickly grew into a large, inky black tornado, which swept a path across the room, sucking up the shattered pieces of crystal that lay everywhere. The Moth soldiers now brought the muzzles of their rifles up all the way, some pointing them at the tornado, others pointing them at Sefton's figure. "Point your finger at their boss," Max instructed, and Sefton complied. "You fired upon me once," the big voice said then, sounding confident. "Do you somehow think those even smaller weapons will be more effective?" Misola looked to be in discussion now, though, and Charlie assumed that someone was issuing orders, somewhere. The Moth were a bossy bunch, and every Moth seemed to have someone who was able to tell him what to do. Even T'ath had not been fully his own man, and he was at the top of his particular little heap. His existence was governed by advantage, and what other Moth barons were thinking, saying, and doing. If someone had told T'ath he was not a totally free man, he would have been amused. But it would have been true, all the same. The black tornado was joined by another, and the two of them swept around the room, sucking up the shattered pieces of crystal. The noise they produced was considerable, and the chamber reverberated with sound. The Moth were agitated now, and drew together into circles, their rifles pointed outward. But such was their training and discipline that they held their ground. One of the black tornadoes turned and made a beeline for the Moth. Despite the sheer awe and terror factor of having this monster leap at them, they really didn't have much time to react. It was instantly upon them, and the soldiers barely had time to duck as the tornado swept over them. It swept over Charlie and the others, too, but Charlie felt nothing as the whirlwind passed. But every scrap of shattered crystal on the floor around them was sucked up in passing, leaving the floor clear of any debris. What's more, the shattered stumps of those crystals broken by the borer's wild plunge also disappeared, leaving clean floor in their place, and no evidence that they were ever there at all. The Moth circles drew back now, their weapons clearly pointed at Charlie's party. But they did not fire. It dawned on Charlie then that the Moth would only attack if attacked first. He pulled Kippy closer to Max and suggested that idea into the elf's ear. Max nodded. "Probably. I want to get moving towards Ragal now. Just follow me, and go slow, okay? Once we're between the Moth and Ragal and the others, we'll be in good shape." They started to creep forward, and the Moth defensive circles parted to let them come. Everyone seemed mesmerized by the twin whirlwinds as they swept the room clean. Communication was almost impossible, the droning of the two vortexes growing louder the cleaner the room became. But finally, with a last swish of their tails, the two tornadoes moved off and merged over the wrecked borer, visible now that so many of the broken columns had been removed, and consumed it completely. And then the whirlwinds vanished just as instantaneously as they had appeared, leaving a deafening silence in the room. Misola came alive then as Charlie's party moved away another few steps, but his actions were not what Charlie expected. Instead of running to cut them off, the Moth leader waved his men into movement, and pointed away to either side. The Moth simply followed Charlie and the others for a few paces, and then split into two small parties that moved away to pace them on their flanks. A number of fast, deep vibrations ran beneath their feet then, and every spot on the floor, now swept clean, that had once had a crystalline pillar in place, started to grow another one. They erupted forth and surged upwards in a smooth motion, crackling and spitting sound, a forest of new crystalline life emerging all around them. The sheer energy of the growth was discernible, and Charlie felt a vibration inside himself, almost as if his bones were oscillating in sympathy. A new crystal sprang up explosively right in the midst of the group of Moth to their left, scattering them wildly in all directions. The Moth ran as if the devil himself was chasing them, and Charlie was surprised to see the fearsome masters of a stellar empire so frightened. It was an enlightening moment for him, as he realized that the Moth were used to being masters of a situation, and really didn't deal so well when events suddenly went south at speed. It was a moment he would never forget. Another crystal sprang up directly in front of the other group, halting them in their tracks and sending several Moth running. Confusion briefly entered the opposing ranks, but Misola moved quickly to reform them. But Charlie's group was no longer bracketed, and Max now turned to yell to them. "We're going now! Start making for Ragal and the others." The Moth that had been scattered by the stunning growth of the crystals seemed to be everywhere now, but their chief concern seemed to be to get back to Misola and reform their ranks, and not to interfere with the glowing alien party. Charlie's group passed several of the soldiers that were running back in the other direction. Those men cast indecipherable glances their way in passing, but made no move to stop them. Sefton moved to the left, and they all followed closely. Charlie turned his head to look back at the Moth. Misola was regrouping his men now, but made no move to interfere with the movement of their foes, either under orders not to, or just realizing that he couldn't at this time. New crystals were sprouting everywhere now, and surging upwards with a growth amazing in its vitality and sound. Moth stragglers were still passing them, running back the other way. It was then that Charlie and Kip circled around one of the new crystals, and as they came to the other side, they surprised a Moth soldier who, for whatever reason, was just standing alone there. That man looked shocked, and his rifle came up instinctively, pointed right at Charlie. "No!" Before Charlie could even react, Kip had stepped in front of him, throwing up his arms as if to ward off the bolt that he was sure the soldier was about to fire. But that didn't happen. Instead, the rifle was torn from the soldier's hands with amazing force, and sailed away towards the other side of the room, to disappear into the shadows there. The soldier spun about and ran. Charlie turned and grinned at Max, who only spared him a glance as they moved on. Charlie grabbed Kip's hand and pulled him along, and they continued across the room at a run. * * * * * * * "Are we ceding the field to them" Tif'tok asked, watching as the strange glowing cloud moved off. "No! Deer'th? Have you got your people back together?" "Yes. What do we do now?" "After them!" "What do we do when we reach them?" "Lay down a fire ahead of them. But do not target the aliens. I just want to stop them, understand? We don't know what they're doing, but their movements have been purposeful thus far, all leading to this place. Whatever they are up to, Onath feels it will not be good for our forces if they are allowed to accomplish it!" * * * * * * * Charlie could see Ragal now, and Casper and Horace. And Eseffa! They were standing close to a giant of a crystal, which was still regrowing. The noise of crystals in rebirth was appallingly loud now, and so Charlie was astounded when one, and then another, reddish bolt of energy hit the floor before him. A wave of heat washed over him, and he turned to find the Moth directly behind them to either side. And then Max was suddenly very busy, batting aside the energy pulses from Moth rifles before they even reached them. "They're just trying to stop us!" the elf called. "Keep going!" The Moth followed closely, but every attempt to get ahead of them was thwarted by Max. Moth soldiers would race up beside them to pass, only to smash into invisible walls and fall back. The rifle fire was thick, but Max was like a high-speed tennis player, belting each volley back. The red bolts were splashing all around the Moth, causing them to lose momentum, to waver, to weave from side to side in an effort to evade their own fire returned to them. Charlie and Kip were almost to Ragal and the others now, and the crystal next to them looked almost completely regrown. Casper stood with the tiny defensive mind in his hand, looking back over his shoulder at them. Ragal looked ready to act the moment the crystal was fully formed. Max continued to bat aside the energy bolts from the Moth rifles. The room looked like a frantically active pinball machine, with bolts of fire sailing through the air in all directions. Inevitably, one of the Moth was struck by a return bolt and went down. The Moth battle armor had screens that were proof against anything as powerful as their own weapons, and the soldier rolled over and crawled back to his feet, shaking his head uncertainly, as if not certain what had happened to him. He grabbed up his rifle, and stumbled forward. Charlie spied the man fumbling with something at his harness; and then a small ovoid was winging its way towards them. Charlie heard Max curse again, and then a brilliant flash of energy erupted behind them. But it was immediately contained within a clear globe that expanded to a huge size, ceased its expansion, and then contracted suddenly and violently, to pop like a soap bubble as its diameter reached a point. A wave of some sort roared across the floor, sweeping everyone in the chamber off their feet. Charlie went down hard, Kippy falling on top of him. For a second, Charlie was stunned. He rolled over then, and spied their destination crystal. Eseffa was there, his arms waving frantically at the others. Ragal was just sitting up, and Horace was rolling over onto his back. But beside Ragal, Casper jumped to his feet, and held one hand up high...but he could not reach high enough! A new motion drew Charlie's eyes. Sefton, the only one of them but Max not brought down by the concussion wave, catapulted himself into action, raced to the crystal, snatched up Casper, and held him up high. Casper's hand darted to the crystal... The room shook, the very air vibrated. The crystals came to life around them, pulsing with multicolored lights, drowning the shadows everywhere in vigorous colors. Something came at Charlie and swept over him, around him, through him, and passed without touching him. Not so the Moth. The nearly invisible wall drew inwards in a circle, and immediately surrounded them, swept them together into a tight knot, and then disappeared, taking the soldiers with it. * * * * * * * Aboard Ehiztari, Kil'brith, Onath, and Mor'ath watched the scene in the distant underground chamber with amazement. Events were moving so quickly they were almost a blur: Misola driving his men forward, trying to stop the escape of the strange, flickering life forms. A soldier, felled by a reflected bolt of energy, staggered to his feet groggily, and - against all orders - throwing a disruption grenade. Yet, incredibly, that force was somehow contained, squashed, compacted, with only a brief but vigorous backwash escaping at the end... ...that knocked all of their men off their feet. One of the incredible glowing aliens - the largest of them all, and possibly the leader, suddenly leaped towards one of the newly resurrected crystalline pillars, snatched a much smaller glowing creature from the floor, held it up high and pressed forward to the crystal... ...and the crystalline forest within the vast chamber pulsed into life, colorful lights dancing within the tall forms, spinning and moving about with a life all their own. A barely-seen force, a wall of soft light, that formed from nothingness and suddenly raced in from all sides, ignoring the enemy completely, yet gathering the Moth soldiers and sweeping them into a tight knot while the men struggled, unable to fight the incredible force, and then...vanishing! There was a sudden sound of displaced air behind them, and Kil'brith turned just as a large, dark mass appeared and clattered to the deck. He blinked in amazement as the mass separated into men in armor! Misola sat up then, looking dazed, his eyes glassy with shock. "What...?" "I don't believe it," Onath whispered, mostly to himself. Kil'brith took a moment himself to process what he was seeing, and then realized what had happened. Their entire force had been collected and teleported to the ship! There was a sound from the display then, and Mor'ath, sitting in shock on the other side of the console, waved in alarm at the commander. "I think you'd better see this!" Kil'brith and Onath both turned back to stare at the console. It now displayed a view of the dark zone above them, and a glowing orb that was growing in size even as they watched. Kil'brith gasped. "Is that...?" "It appears to be Engris, yes," Mor'ath agreed. "And coming up quite fast." Kil'brith closed his eyes a moment, and then opened them filled with decision. "Prepare to up ship. Do we have a full count of personnel aboard?" "It would appear so," Mor'ath returned, his eyes darting to Misola's force, still sprawled on the deck. Onath made an angry sound. "So much to lose! We are running away from our futures now!" "More likely preserving them," Mor'ath commented quietly. The ground beneath the ship shook then, as if a last warning for them to leave. Ehiztari leapt from the ground and raced into the dark night above. But it was scarcely a planetary diameter from the surface when the dark zone seemed to spin around them, and both the planet they had just quit and the ancient, mysterious world of Engris disappeared. And for the Moth it would be forever, neither world ever to be encountered again. * * * * * * * "It's done," Eseffa said. "Engris is arrived, and the Moth departed." Charlie patted himself, feeling for bruises. Kippy breathed a sigh of relief, and smiled at him. "You okay?" "Seems so. How about you?" "I guess. I won't really know until tomorrow." Charlie smiled at him, then turned to Casper, who looked extraordinarily pleased. "You did good!" Casper pointed at Sefton. "He got me up high enough to place the key mind. I wasn't tall enough!" "We saw," Charlie agreed. "Thank you, Sefton. You saved the day." He laughed. "I'd never have guessed you could be so quick on your feet!" The big Molokar offered up a stunning grimace-smile. "Home was in the balance, so acted without thinking much about it. Once Lyrgris safe, Engris also safe." "You the man," Ricky said, patting Sefton's arm. "That was an awesome move!" "What about the Moth?" Durapar asked. "What happened to them?" Eseffa looked happy. "They left the surface, and Jorli used the resources of Engris to fling them rather far away into the Cooee. Only a moment ahead of Lyrgris doing so, I might add." "That was a neat trick, getting the Moth soldiers out of here," Max said, eyeing the Madracorn with a grin. "I thought you guys couldn't teleport?" "We cannot," Eseffa replied. "But our machines are rather good at it, I would say." Max nodded. "Let me guess. Your machines can't teleport people that are dead." "Exactly so. Being dead does have its drawbacks. Nor can these machines operate beyond the confines of this world. An unfortunate limitation that may need to be rectified." "And the moth borers?" Durapar pressed. "Now that Lyrgris is fully operational, I have begun the healing of the entire planet. Everything the Moth left behind has already been removed. The tunnels they bored are refilling, the machines they moved are being replaced. Lyrgris has been set into motion, and will cruise the Cooee in the same manner that Engris does now." "About that," Kippy said. "Is there any chance that Lyrgris could be used as a sort of haven, like Engris is now?' The Madracorn laughed. "Lyrgris is identical to Engris, save that the spirit domes here will never be operational. Lyrgris will now also seek out those in need, which will guarantee that it will soon be found by many." "Maybe we should put in a claim now," Ricky said eagerly. "Get us a spot to build a villa before the rush starts." Eseffa laughed again. "As with Engris, there will be only one place that ships of space will be allowed to land. It is a large, circular port, just as exists on Engris, and it is there where any settlers that come will build a first city, just as they have done on Engris. I would be happy to erect a suitable structure for you there now. Let those that follow build around you." "That would be amazing," Adrian said. But then he blinked uncertainly. "I mean, if it's not too much trouble." "It is no trouble at all. It is our feeling that you have earned your places on both Engris and Lyrgris. I will see to it immediately." Horace came to stand beside Charlie. "Touch and go there, for a minute or two." "It was. We got lucky. Again." Kippy reached out and patted Charlie's arm. "It's not just luck, Charlie. It's skwish." Charlie laughed at that. "Whatever works. I'm just glad we made it. I was worried a couple of times there." "I was not really worried," Horace said. "At least, not until that incredible wave of whatever it was knocked me off my feet. That sort of scared me. But then it was all over so fast, and we had won." Kippy turned to look at Casper. "Thank Casper for that. And Sefton." "It was good that Sefton was able to react so quickly," Ragal said, from nearby. Charlie smiled, remembering how excellent Ragal's hearing happened to be. "For I was somewhat stunned by the concussion wave that struck us in the aftermath of Max squelching that awful disruptor grenade. I actually did not foresee that happening." "Nobody's perfect, Ragal," Charlie kidded. "Is that what that was?" Adrian asked, sounding impressed. "A disruptor grenade?" He turned to look at Max. "I'll bet it would have really been bad if you hadn't stopped it." "I was sorta busy," Max said. "Them trigger-happy Moth was firing their rifles all over the place. That grenade was an unwelcome addition." Charlie walked over and patted the elf on the shoulder. "By the way, thanks. That Moth trooper looked like he really intended to shoot me." "He wouldn't have been able to," Max said, grinning. "But it wasn't me that took his rifle away from him and heaved it. Kip did that." A stunned silence dropped into place as everyone stared at Kippy. "Me?" Kippy looked the most surprised of all. "I did that?" "Yes, you. I told you guys you were gaining in power. This was just another talent that showed up because you thought you needed it." Kippy put his hands on his hips and glared. "I did need it. That Moth turd was going to shoot Charlie!" Charlie moved closer and put his arm around Kippy's waist. "About this stuff with you jumping in front of me when someone aims a gun my way. That was incredibly wonderful of you...but don't ever do it again." Kippy pouted at that. "I thought he was going to shoot you." "And you thought it would be better for me if he shot you instead?" "Well..." Charlie turned his boyfriend towards him and laid his forehead against Kip's. "It would have killed me just as dead to have lost you." "Oh, Charlie." Max sighed. "You guys are somethin'." He smiled then. "Kip, we'll work on your new talent. There will be more from all of you coming, I think. But for now...I say we all head back to Engris and finish that vacation we started. What do you say?" "Works for me," Charlie said quietly, smiling into Kippy's eyes. "Um...yeah," Kippy said softly, smiling back. Eseffa waved a hand around the crystalline chamber. "Everything here is now in order. The interior of Lyrgris is now shielded from prying eyes, the planet is on the move, and I can return to Jorli. Max, you can teleport everyone back?" "Sure. I'll take us right back to that room in back of Mertril's shop where we ate before we left. No problem." "Then I will see that the shuttle returns to Engris on its own. Thank you all for your part in this. We owe you a debt of gratitude for safeguarding our portal into this continuum, and for securing the safety of all those that call Engris home." "We try," Ricky said, grinning. Eseffa smiled around at them again. "If you ever need our assistance, you need only visit the control chamber on either world. We are unable to come to the surfaces of either planet, but we can always be contacted there. So for now, farewell." The Madracorn faded to a mist, returned to his hole in the floor, and both vanished. "I could use something to eat," Max said then. "Gather around, you guys, and I'll get us back to Engris." * * * * * * * Zistha had come and taken their orders, the food had arrived, and now their bellies were full. Mertril had been unaware that they had even left the room, just figuring that their conference was an unusually long one. But after a while she beeped Durapar on the control console, and asked how much longer they would need the big tasting room. "I have a party of Um'zoomth coming later in the day, and I don't think they'll all fit in any of the smaller rooms." "We will be done shortly," Durapar assured her. "Go ahead and schedule your party." He cut off the com then and smiled his goofy smile around at them. "She's a good friend. I don't want to put her out when it comes to her business." "It was a great meal." Max said, patting his belly. "I could get fond of this place in a real hurry!" Durapar looked pleased. "I'm so happy that this turned out so well. I never thought that odd vision of a distant room would ever yield such a fascinating journey." "We all learned a lot," Charlie said. "About Engris, especially. And meeting the Madracorn was worth the whole thing." He laughed then. "And, it was especially cool to learn that the Moth aren't quite the super bad guys we thought they were. I think we scared them pretty good!" "We did," Ragal agreed. "It just goes to show that people are much the same all over." "Never thought I'd see a Moth running away," Ricky agreed. "They don't seem so scary now." Kippy leaned closer in his chair and pushed his shoulder against Charlie's. "Did you get the impression that Eseffa and Jorli were a pair?" Charlie laughed at that. "Well, they did seem to be happy working together. I did sense that they were both guys, but I certainly don't know that for sure." "Well, I felt it. They felt like Billy and Will, when they're together. Two people, one heart." Charlie gave his boyfriend a squeeze. "I'll take your word for it." "You'd better, Charlie Boone!" Kippy leaned his head over then and offered a kiss, which Charlie accepted joyfully. Kippy let it go on for a bit, and then giggled. "I was thinking." "I'm not surprised. About what?" Kippy drew back, his eyes smiling at Charlie. "You think Durapar has ever seen fireworks?" "Probably not. Are you thinking of inviting him back to Myer's Hill for the show?" "I was sort of considering it." Charlie shrugged. "We'd have to ask Max if it's okay. But I see no problem with inviting him." "Um...Sefton, too? And Ragal and Casper? And certainly Horace!" "Yes. Certainly Horace." Kippy sighed, and rubbed his face against Charlie's cheek. "I love you, Charlie." "I love you, too, Kip. Always and forever." Kippy sighed. "I love fireworks. I love what they do to the sky. And I love the sky, too. It's such a...it's like a mirror, you know?" Charlie considered that, and then nodded. "I can see that. When I look up at the stars, I see us. You, me, Rick and Adrian. All our friends out there. The places we've been, the places we want to go, and all the things we've done. All of it, everywhere, everywhen. A reflection of what we are and who we are." Kippy laughed. "That's exactly what I meant, too. See? You and I do think a lot alike." Charlie laughed. "Scary, isn't it?" Kippy drew back and sighed. "So we can ask them?" "Yes." Kippy squeaked happily and jumped to his feet, and went directly to Max to ask him. The elf listened a moment, and then his eyes moved to touch Charlie's, and the smile they held was clear. Then Max looked up at Kippy and nodded. Kippy returned, looking happy. "He said 'yes'?" Charlie asked. "He said 'yes'." Charlie waved a hand around at those seated at the table. "Then ask them." Kippy stood and raised his hands to get everyone's attention, and Charlie sat back in his chair and smiled. He and his boyfriend did think alike. Share the wealth. Something for everyone. What's the Fourth of July without fireworks? And friends to share them.
  2. Chapter 6 -- "That went over well," Max decided, closing his eyes a moment, and then smiling. "They've started up that car following us again, but they're staying well back." They had found that, by touching and concentrating, they could all participate in the recent experience. It had been largely Casper's game, with Max supplying a little muscle to bounce their foe's transport around a little, but everyone had felt as if they were there in person, even Sefton. "Amazing, to ride along with this one," the big Molokar said, patting Casper delicately. "You one scary dude." The humans laughed at the description, and Casper grinned, happily. "A lot of it was Horace's idea. I can see into the Moth's minds, and find what scares them. But organizing it is not always easy. Horace knows a lot about ghosts, and how they scare people. I followed his leads on how to present what the Moth are afraid of." "Just plain old experience," Horace, said, looking embarrassed. "I have a feeling most intelligent species out here know the concept of a haunting." "That was a pretty creepy guy you came up with," Ricky offered. "Big and ugly. And loud!" Casper nodded. "It was a combination of ancient Moth deities from their early history. Moria and A'monath, two really bad ones. By combining their features, there was enough of each to touch off a subconscious recognition in the minds of the Moth, while still being distinctive." "They were that big?" Adrian asked. "Or, supposedly?" "No." Casper twisted his shoulders back and forth, the closest he could come to a human shaking their head. "The Moth are also intimidated by size. It's one thing they really don't like about the Trichani, the people like Kontus. That they are so much bigger than the Moth. Of all the peoples running the five empires, the Trichani make them the most nervous." Charlie laughed at that. "Are you saying the Moth have an inferiority complex? I'd have never guessed that!" Casper nodded. "They're people, Charlie. They're not very likable to us, but they're actually not all bad." Kippy clapped his hands in delight. "Wait until Kontus hears that!" "Was big thing you created," Sefton agreed. "Don't see too many races bigger than me." He offered his grimace-smile. "Not wish to meet that one in dark alley, that's for sure." That caused more smiles to appear, and Charlie joined along with the others. "You guys have dark alleys out here?" Adrian asked, seeming surprised by the idea. Sefton turned his smile on him. "Have dark alleys everywhere, I think. No can build city without at least one." "It was an amazing experience," Durapar said, his eyes seeming filled with happiness. "I am learning so much I would never have encountered on my own." Charlie looked at his watch then, and gave out a big sigh. "Well, maybe that will keep them away for a while. Another forty minutes, and we'll be at the control center and can install the defensive mind." "If Eseffa is there," Kippy reminded. "He will be," Max assured. "But so will the Moth, most likely," Durapar added. "What will we do about them?" Max shrugged. "So far, they are all pretty weak power users. I don't sense anyone among them that can give us a problem there. It's just all the guns they have, is what we have to worry about." Ragal gave a nod at that. "They will arrive at the Lyrgris control center right after we do. The ones following us, and the ones in the other tunnel behind the borer. They will try to catch us between them. What happens then is what matters." He smiled at Max. "Good that you were able to handle that bolt of charged plasma they let loose." Because the tunnel was absolutely straight, the bolt fired from the Moth transport had continued onward after passing through the illusory devil that Casper had placed before the craft. Had Max not dealt with it, it would have crashed into their own transport and possibly damaged it. Not to mention messing up their hair a little! Max blew a burst of air through his lips and nodded. "Good thing it was just the one. These Moth do play around with a lot of power." "This has turned into a hell of a vacation," Kippy said. "But I can't decide if it's been fun yet, or not." Charlie smiled and put an arm around his boyfriend. "They say any vacation you live through is a good one. But it might make the fireworks seem tame when we get home." "Oh, Charlie, that's not true. Fireworks are only really exciting when you're little." But Kippy winked at that. "As an adult, they're a beautiful reminder of what we're celebrating. Our freedom." "Such as it is," Ricky agreed. "But I'll take what we have over what a lot of our planet has, any day of the week." "So will I," Charlie agreed. "There's always room for improvement in any society. But if you start with one that kinda works, the hardest part is over." Kippy sighed. "Okay. I do love fireworks. I don't want to miss them." Max smiled at that. "You may get to see some before we get back home, Kip." "Fought war for freedom ourselves," Sefton said, nodding. "Very bad thing. But survived to be better." He smiled. "Then find Engris. Best sort of freedom there is." "It is an idea that has merit," Durapar agreed. "A place where you either get along with others and treat them with respect, or you don't get to stay. There is a sort of a benevolent tyranny associated with this idea, but it is one I have always gotten along with. It is my nature to like others. To be sociable. My life on Engris has been a happy one." "We like the place, too," Charlie said. "It manages to combine some wild and weird with a lot of serenity. I could see retiring to Engris, someday." "With me?" Kippy asked, his eyes wide. Charlie smiled. "Of course, with you. Unless you don't want to go there." He sighed. "Then, I guess, I'll just be wherever you are." "Oh, Charlie. You say the sweetest things." Kippy sighed and snuggled closer. "But I love Engris, too." "You have a long time to decide," Adrian said. He smiled at Ricky. "Just like we do." Ricky pouted a moment, but then smiled. "I've already decided. I'll be where you are, too." Max raised a hand. "You guys are something. But maybe we can hold off on the sweet stuff until a little later?" "Party pooper," Kippy said, but smiled. Max returned the smile. "I love you, too, Kip. But we need to be ready for anything when we reach the control center." "Any idea how much time we'll have before the Moth arrive after us?" Charlie asked. "Couple of minutes for the ones in the bore, I think. Maybe even three or four. The ones behind us can be there almost as soon as we are, if they want. We'll need to worry about them first, but they may wait to do anything until the others arrive." "There will also be the borer to deal with," Ragal pointed out. "From the way the one we have already encountered performed, I would view it as one additional war machine set against us." "Yeah." Max nodded. "I can paste that thing to the ceiling if I have to, though. It's just a machine. I really don't want to be killing off a buncha Moth, though." Durapar chuckled. "Treating the Moth with forbearance will be a new experience for them. They like to muscle their way into places. Being treated as mere irritants won't sit well with them." "Tough," Max said, unsympathetically. "They're trespassing here, far as I'm concerned. Pain in the ass people." Charlie grinned at that. "Why, Max, are you getting curmudgeonly in your old age?" The elf laughed at that. "Nah. Just tired of people that are supposed to be advanced actin' like a buncha bandits. Reminds me of them Beltracians. Nasty crowd, they were." Durapar gawked at that. "You knew them? Personally? They're long extinct!" "Yeah. We had a run in with them a while back. Wound up having to toss one of their armory planets into the local sun. Tell you about it later, when there's time." The Andaleesian's blue eyes were huge in wonder. "I should say so!" Charlie waved a hand. "You were saying something a moment ago about us digressing all over the place?" Max's eyes twinkled at that. "Yep. Sorry." Ragal closed his eyes a moment. "I am supposing that the control center here will be identical to the one back on Engris. As far as positioning, too." "I think Eseffa would have said something if they were in any way different," Charlie agreed. Ragal nodded. "Then when we arrive, we will be across the room from the crystalline form where we have to install the defensive mind. We may need to cross that very large chamber with the Moth present." "They already can't find us with their sensor stuff," Max said. "Only be a new tweak to bend light off of us in random directions so that they can't see what we really look like, either." "But you can't make us invisible?" Charlie asked. "No, I could. But it works both ways, Charlie. Make us completely invisible, and we can't see out, either. Better to just bend up the light that strikes us everywhere but our eyes. To them, if they even see us, we'll look like blobs of color. They won't know what they're lookin' at." "Is there a reason you don't wish them to see us?" Kippy asked. "They don't know our kind." "T'ath does," Max countered. "And even though he destroyed the Earth's location, he knows the general area of space we come from. A dedicated search would eventually locate our sun. I don't wanna give these Moth any reason to come lookin'. Make 'em sacred enough, and they may try somethin'." That was food for thought. Charlie's own belief was that T'ath had not told anyone of his strange encounter with unknown aliens, except perhaps to warn other barons that there were power-users out there to be wary of. T'ath would walk the line between warning and admission of his defeat at the hands of Charlie and the others. It was not the Moth way to give up any advantage if possible. Casper held up the box containing the defensive mind. "This one seems ready to act. It considers the Moth problem to be urgent, because most of the planet's defenses are geared toward keeping anyone from landing in the first place. There's a lot less it can do once a ship is on the ground." "But it can get them to leave, right?" Max asked. "Otherwise, we're just spinning our wheels here." "It can get them to go, yes." Casper closed his eyes, and turned the box in his hands. "And once the ship is up, it can kick them a long way from here. I think it plans to start Lyrgris moving randomly in the Cooee after that, to keep anyone from just stumbling across it again." "Makes sense to me." Max looked satisfied. "Just so what we're doing counts." "It will." Casper opened his eyes."Maybe once this place is running, it can become another haven like Engris. We can talk to Eseffa and Jorli about that, huh?" "Sure." Max smiled. "There ain't never enough safe places to go in this universe." Kippy looked from face to face, and suddenly smiled. Then he snuggled up to Charlie once again. "I've made up my mind about this vacation. I'm having fun!" * * * * * * * "We'll let them arrive at the machine space ahead," Onath told Misola over the com. "You will slow to a stop as that happens. I want to give anyone aboard that other transport time to get off. Then you will proceed at maximum acceleration to the chamber, and deploy your troops. You will then only be a minute or two behind them. " "Yes, commander. And what are your orders then?" Onath's eyes glared at him from the transport's console. "We will have to see what circumstances are in play at the time, Misola. There is simply no way to know just now. But I don't want you or your people to open fire on these others without a direct command from me. Understand?" "Yes, commander." "Good. The transport containing the other squad will be there shortly after your own arrival. D'eerth is in command there. You know him?" "We attended training together. Yes, I know him. A good man." "He is under the same orders as you. Your team and his will be linked in the com web just before you arrive. You can coordinate basic actions with him." "Very well. I understand." Onath grunted, and his face disappeared for the moment. The active duty icon faded from the display. Misola chanced switching to the private channel and paged Tif'tok. "What do you think?" "I think this Onath could get us killed," the other man returned. "But his plan so far seems logical enough. Without knowing even who we face, or what capabilities this enemy possesses, it is impossible to plan in more detail." "I hope this is worth it," Misola returned. "It was nice to consider wealth and a rise in status, but what good is it if we are too dead to enjoy it?" Tif'tok made an amused sound. "I have some confidence that things may work out. Our enemy had the opportunity to finish us back in the tunnel, I think. But he chose not to do so. Or, he could not. Perhaps he did not like the pulse cannon. Either way, it suggests that we will not be totally helpless against a superior foe. I am willing to at least wait and see." Misola considered that. "You may have something there. Very well, I'm returning to the command channel." "I think that's wise." * * * * * * * Max sat down in the seat across from Casper and smiled. "Feeling okay?" "Yes. A little nervous." The elf nodded. "That's normal." He leaned forward. "You did a great job back there. Got me thinking. We still have some time before we get where we're goin'. I was thinking we might use that ttime to spook the Moth a little more." Casper's gray eyes held delight. "The ones behind us?" "Not them. By the way they're actin' now, they're already spooked. I was thinking about some of the others." Casper closed his eyes a moment, then reopened them. "I can sense the ones in that second transport pretty clearly. The ones up on the surface are less distinct. I think they're too far away." Max waved a hand, and Kip and Adrian came over. "I wanna try somethin'. If Ragal and Horace will get up a minute and let these two guys sit on either side of you, we can check out my idea." Ragal unfolded his lanky form from the seat and stood up. "I'm interested already!" Horace also got to his feet, and he and Ragal sat in vacant seats beside Max, while Kip and Adrian sat down beside Casper. The others crowded around and found seats or stood where they could watch. "What are we doing?" Charlie asked. Max scratched his chin in thought. "I want to see if Kippy and Adrian can extend Casper's range to the whole planet." "Whoa!" Ricky said, grinning. "Power move!" "Didn't we already learn that?" Durapar asked. "Kip and Adrian helped Casper with his illusion just a moment ago." "That was with projection," Max informed him. "Numbers of minds and duration, mostly. I want to see if they can also push Casper's ability to interact with other minds to cover the whole planet." He nodded. "These guys down here with us are the foot soldiers. I wanna see if we can reach the commanders." Charlie laughed. "Topple the head, and the whole body follows?" "Yep. I wanna get these guys on the edge, so that when the time comes to push them off the planet, they want to go." "Or at least be willing," Kippy said. He dropped a hand on Casper's arm. "Come on, Adrian. Grab his other arm and let's do this." The boys closed their eyes, and both nodded. "We're ready," Adrian said. Max patted Casper's knee. "Now see what you can sense." Casper closed his eyes. "Well...the Moth in that other transport - the one in the bore - they're really clear now. I sense other Moth at a few other places inside the planet and on the surface....and there's the ship. But...something isn't right. I can sense them, but I also feel I can't reach them." Max frowned. "Well, it was just a thought." "Wait a minute," Ricky said, getting up. He circled the row of seats and stood behind Casper, and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Try again, Casper." The little alien nodded, and closed his eyes. "Oh...I think it's still the same." Ricky put his other hand on Adrian, waited a moment, and then transferred it to Kip. "Ah. I think I can see what's happening." He opened his eyes, lifted his hand from Casper, and then patted Kip and Adrian each on a shoulder. "You guys are supplying gobs of power, but its just sort of a general application. Like offering someone help, but not saying what kind. Casper needs power that's aimed right at his ability to act on the minds of others at a distance. You guys need to think that when you offer the power." Adrian's eyes opened, and he turned his head to look up at his boyfriend. "Is that my Rick, I just heard?" Max laughed. "Rick's a magic mechanic, remember? He can see what's up with the processes, and even fix them." Kippy opened his eyes and looked back at Rick. "I'm not sure I know how to send power for something like that. I don't know what it feels like." "Me, either," Adrian confirmed. "Oh." Ricky frowned, and then laid his hand on Casper's shoulder. "Try again, Casp." Casper closed his eyes. "Oh...now I can barely sense the ones on the surface." But Ricky smiled. "Yeah, but now I know what it feels like." He lifted his hands and transferred one each to Kip and Adrian. "Feel this, guys!" Kip and Adrian closed their eyes, and both boys immediately smiled. "That tickles!" Kippy breathed, sighing. "I'll say," Adrian agreed. "I'm gonna save that feeling for another time, I think!" Rick rolled his eyes, but lifted his hands and circled back around to his former position. "Just use that tickle when you're feeding power to Casper, okay?" They made the attempt again, and this time Casper gasped. "Oh! They're...they're so clear!" Max grinned. "You got 'em?" "Yes. The ones on the ship, even." Casper opened his eyes. "They ordered a lot of their people to come back. There's only a few left on the planet." Kippy and Adrian were smiling. "I could do this all day," Kippy said. "It feels great!" Adrian just smiled, his expression saying it all. Max clapped his hands together. "Okay. Let's see what we can do!" * * * * * * * "Heavy thing," Cis'tat complained, as he and Ranti lashed the alien device to the flat bed of the floater. The antigravity cart ignored the weight, floating on its field a hand's breadth above the floor of the chamber, but Cis'tat figured he'd be feeling the strain to his muscles in the morning. "I'm not as young as I used to be." Ranti found that amusing. "Didn't think you'd have to be hefting these artifacts yourself, did you?" "No. Having all the support staff recalled seems premature to me. Either we all return to the ship, or we all stay on site, I would have said. Leaving us here to do the work alone is poor planning." Cis'tat glanced around the chamber, lit by work lights and almost empty now. They had removed the largest pieces of machinery here - or, at least they thought they were machines - and only these smaller devices still had to be taken back to the surface and stored in the dome. They all seemed to go together, all parts of one larger machine, perhaps, and to leave even one behind might lead to years of delay in understanding their operation. Cis'tat grunted. "I'm a specialist in foreign technologies, not a dock laborer." Ranti looked over at the two security guards, standing near the mouth of the bore from the surface, and laughed. "We could have gotten them to help us load." Cis'tat made a sound of contempt. "Ruffians! We're trying to salvage these things, not break them." Ranti laughed again. "Shh! They'll hear you!" Cis'tat looked over at the guards again, and grunted. "I hate working with security forces. All they ever think about are--" He broke off then, his eyes going wide. Within the tunnel bore, just behind the two guards, something moved. Ranti, sensing the change in his companion's demeanor, turned to see what the older Moth scientist was looking at. Within the tunnel bore, something large appeared, striding purposefully towards them. It was immense, almost as tall as the bore itself, a giant in steel armor, and with a fearsome visage from which two red-ember eyes stared out at them. "Oh!" Cis'tat squeaked. Ranti was a little more eloquent. "Look out!" he yelled, waving his arms at the two Moth soldiers. They were fast, Ranti could say that much for them. The two men spied Ranti waving and calling, glanced back into the bore of the tunnel, and then both of them were dancing backwards, their rifles coming up to bear on the new arrival. That apparition stormed out of the tunnel and looked around the chamber, and then stomped a foot on the ground with sufficient force to make the whole chamber tremble. "Thieves!" it roared, in just an incredible voice, one so loud and so angry that it made Cis'tat cringe. "Invaders! Grave robbers! This is intolerable!" One of the two Moth guards was talking away on his com now, obviously reporting this amazing event. The other looked like he'd rather be elsewhere, but kept his rifle aimed at the huge alien that had come seemingly from nowhere. The guards backed right up to Cis'tat and Ranti, and one of them indicated that the two scientists should continue to move in the same direction. "But the way out is that way!" Cis'tat yelled, pointing towards the tunnel bore. And the monstrous alien. The soldier said something rude, and to the effect that if Cis'tat wanted to go that way, he would not be stopped. Cis'tat took another look at the huge, enraged alien, and started moving back towards the rear of the chamber, along with the others. The huge alien approached the antigravity cart now, and looked down at the device in place on its bed. "This belongs to us!" One huge hand came down, grabbed the machine on the floater, and lifted it - and the floater itself - high into the air. The alien shook the pair with a force that snapped the securing straps and flung the floater across the room, where, fortunately, its tiny mind righted it and returned it to a safe place just above the floor. The alien examined the machine in its hand, and then carefully placed it upon the floor. "Get out! Leave now!" the giant alien resumed. "Leave, or pay the penalty for your sacrilege!" A small flurry of dusty air appeared around the great being, swirled upwards, and it suddenly vanished as quickly as it had come. * * * * * * * Teel'th listened to the report on the com with some feeling of alarm. He gazed about the dark interior of the spirit dome, feeling now that he and Kor'ti were not nearly as well placed as he had only moments ago imagined. When they had replaced Misola and Tif'tok on guard detail here so that those two could lead the first security team in the tunnels below, they had considered themselves unfortunate to be left out of the good things that might come of that venture. But after seeing the report of the giant alien that had accosted the transport in the tunnel, Teel'th had changed his opinion to one of relief that he was not down below with the others. This world unsettled him in a way that no other ever had. The reports that there might be life here after all had only honed that disquiet to a keen edge. "Stay aware," he said now to Kor'ti. "This place sings of trouble." "My senses say the same," the other Moth agreed. "I am a strong predictor. I feel that we are not safe here, even this close to the ship." Teel'th let his eyes scan the vast chamber, looking for anything that might be out of place. "Damnable shadows everywhere! What is wrong with these lights!" Almost as if in answer to that question, a new light appeared. It came from the midpoint well, that large opening at the exact center of the dome that had been determined to reach all the way to the planet's core several thousand miles beneath their feet. Unlike the illumination of the work lights, which was sharp and brilliant, this glow was softer, and whiter. Only the distance to the well allowed it to be seen at all, as the work lights did not reach that far. "Something is happening," Teel'th said softly. He and Kor'ti both raised their rifles, and drew together to mass their firepower if needed. Teel'th immediately called in, and linked the command center on Ehiztari with what his helmet imager was seeing. Onath seemed unsurprised at the report, and simply commanded the two Moth to remain quiet and see what happened as they watched. The glow in the center well intensified, and then an amazingly large creature rose into view. Kor'ti grunted in amazement at the size of the alien, and Teel'th felt the man draw back. "Hold," he whispered, though he felt like retreating himself. The apparition spied them, and drifted their way with alarming speed. The creature settled to the floor among the boxed and crated devices removed from the interior of the planet, and bent to inspect one. An enormous hand came out, tapped the top of the crate seemingly lightly, but the crate deformed immediately and the side popped open, revealing the device within. The alien turned blazing eyes upon the two Moth. "Is nothing sacred! Thieves! You will pay dearly for this!" Teel'th felt the ire of the creature. Never before had he felt the urge to run like he did now. "Try to talk to it," Onath's voice came in his ear. "Ask it what it wants." Teel'th nodded, mostly to himself, and stepped forward. "What do you wish here?" "Wish?" The voice was enormous. "I wish for nothing! I demand. Either you thieves leave this world at once, or pay the price for your misdeeds!" Teel'th looked over at Kor'ti. "He wants us to leave." Kor'ti raised the barrel of his rifle slightly. "We cannot." The huge alien bent towards them with amazing speed. "Oh, you will leave! Either on your own, or with our help. Mark my words!" A thin breeze started at the creature's feet, became a dusty whirlwind that rose upwards, and then the creature was gone. "It's gone," Teel'th said, in disbelief. "I can see that," Onath returned over the link. "Good work. You frightened it off." Teel'th couldn't help it: he laughed. "You find that amusing, soldier?" Onath asked then. Teel'th was not so far gone that he did not sense the danger in Onath's question. "No, commander," he managed. "I was just expressing...satisfaction, at running the fellow off." "Good work. You two remain alert. I'll be back to you shortly." After Onath was gone, Teel'th looked over at Kor'ti. The other man shook his head: don't say it! * * * * * * * "Reports are coming in from all the remaining teams on the planet now," Mor'ath said, looking unhappy. "Either the same being that accosted Misola's transport is now visiting each of our still active sites...or there are more than one of these creatures." Kil'brith was silent a moment, digesting this news. "And while the men all report seeing the same alien, the video of these encounters reveals to us only this same, swirling, misty apparition. We are missing something here." Mor'ath leaned forward. "This latest apparition seemed to rise form the core of the planet. That is something to think about." Kil'brith raised a hand for silence. "And yet, no one has been harmed. None of our people touched at all. That means something to me." He looked over at Onath. "Either this foe is unwilling to inflict direct damage to our forces...or he cannot." Onath considered that. "Possibly. But maybe these people believe in warning their adversaries first. That certainly sounded like what was happening." Mor'ath grunted. "More like they were trying to scare our people, I'd say." "You may have it," Kil'brith agreed. "This could very well be a campaign designed to generate fear. And it does seem to be working. We have withdrawn most of our personnel, and we are even considering withdrawing from this world completely." "We act out of caution, not fear," Onath protested. "And yet, the outcome is the same." Kil'brith was quiet a moment, thinking. "The prize here is a great one. Too valuable to dismiss casually. Yet I will not chance losing Ehiztari to a superior foe just as an act of stubbornness." He turned to Onath. "Opinion?" "For now? Perhaps withdraw all non-necessary personnel to the ship. That would be everyone but my two security details within the planet below. And then? And then we simply play out this game and see where it goes." Kil'brith nodded, and turned to Mor'ath. "And you?" Mor'ath was not terribly surprised to be asked. He and Kil'brith had a good working relationship. Yet this was a command decision of great importance... "Well, I tend to agree with Onath. We bring back everyone but his two units, and prepare to leave if necessary." Kil'brith grunted. "Is that all?" Mor'ath had not added what his senses were telling him, but this seemed an invitation to do so. "This foe is dangerous, commander. The ability to project force to any location while remaining completely undetectable is a lethal pairing. One we cannot counter." Kil'brith sat back at that. "My experience tells me the same thing. This foe is playing with us. That is generally a trait of an enemy that knows he holds the ultimate power. And yet...I cannot quite accept everything we have seen at face value. Something is off. I just don't know what it is. For us to run in the face of some grand bluff is also unacceptable." Onath tapped his fingers against his armrests restlessly. "So then? I will need to inform my people." Kil'brith turned to Mor'ath. "Recall all personnel not assigned to the two transport security details below. Inform Misola and Deer'th of our decision. Warn them again against allowing unprovoked gunfire. We don't want to start a shooting war with an enemy that may easily outgun us." "Yes, commander." "And notify everyone aboard ship that I am activating the ship-wide dampers. If we can in any way counter the mental forces our foe seems able to wield, I want to do it, even at the price of reducing our own effectiveness." "Immediately, commander" Kil'brith sat back. "And then we follow our new friends to their destination, and see what they are up to." * * * * * * * "D'eerth? Com check." "I have you, Misola. Good to hear from you again." "The same for me. We are only a few minutes away from the destination. You would look to be approximately two minutes behind us." "Yes. We intend to push that, if possible, and arrive sooner. We have to hang back from the borer some miles, or the heat is excessive. So once the borer breaks through into the chamber, we intend to accelerate through the tunnel at full speed until we exit, so as not to pick up too much heat. I cannot land men from a red-hot port." "That will be dangerous," Misola returned. "You will need to do a full inertia dump in order to stop properly once you exit the tunnel. That will send a considerable pulse of energy throughout the chamber." "It will be as light, which is as harmless as I can make the conversion. I've instructed the borer to get out of the way immediately after it breaks through. That will clear the way for us to emerge safely." Misola considered the plan, and found it more than a little risky. It relied too much on timing, which was one of the hardest things to maintain in a full battle situation. But if the alternative was the transport picking up so much heat from the fresh bore that it was unsafe for the troops to deploy, there wasn't much choice. It seemed more dangerous for D'eerth and his troops to be stuck inside the transport while its hull cooled to a safe temperature, than to rush an emergence from the tunnel at full speed, and then to convert the inertial impulse across to some other form of energy. Misola grunted, glad not to have to consider that complication for his own operation, too. "You've followed the thread of this encounter thus far?" "Yes. We would seem to know as much as you, minus your actual encounter with the foe in the tunnel. I'm afraid all we saw in the record was a strange mist moving about before your transport. It did look to be alive somehow, though." "It acted alive, certainly," Misola returned. Deer'th grunted. "And now we know that your team and ours are the only forces left on the planet. Everyone else has returned to the ship. We are now key to what happens next." Misola pointed a finger at Deer'th in the display. "I would only warn you not to immediately believe what you see. But not to discount it, either." "We think at this point that appearances do not matter," Tif'tok added. "It is the capabilities of the foe to be considered. Appearances notwithstanding, they would appear to be considerable." "Agreed," Misola continued. "Have you scanned the destination chamber?" "Yes," D'eerth confirmed. "It's large. The scanners are oddly diffused, but there would seem to be objects blocking line of sight across the expanse. Take care in your movements. There will be places for the enemy to hide, and scanners may not be totally reliable." Misola made a sound of contempt. "This entire world is not totally reliable. I will be glad to have this mission completed." "Agreed. Time to focus. Fare well in this mission, Misola." "Fare well in this mission, D'eerth." * * * * * * * "Almost there," Charlie said, his eye on the transport's console. "Remember. When we've stopped and the side door has opened, everyone get away from the transport as quickly as possible. Remember those big crystal things that we saw in the other command center on Engris? It would be good to put some of them between us and the Moth." "Which way will the other group of Moth come from?" Adrian asked. "The borer will come through somewhere to our right," Max said. "That works for us, because the command crystal we have to find is across the room and to the left." "Casper and Horace and I will go there immediately," Ragal announced. "It is imperative that we place the defensive mind as quickly as possible." Casper clutched the small box to his chest and nodded. He looks scared, Charlie thought sympathetically, seeing the light of anxiety in Casper's gray eyes. He sure knew what that felt like! He dropped a hand on Casper's shoulder and squeezed it. "We'll be okay." Casper smiled up at him, and made an obvious attempt to relax. "It's too bad they turned on that damper on the ship. I would have liked to put a scare in those commanders, too." Kippy bent down and circled an arm around the boy, and gave him a fond squeeze. "You did great. And you did scare them. That's why they turned that machine on!" "I agree," Ragal said. "They have limited their own abilities in order to limit ours as well." He smiled down at Casper. "A tactical victory, at the least." "I'll go last when we get out," Max said then. "Let me be the tail end, because I can put up the best defense against these guys if they catch us too soon." "You be careful," Kippy admonished, straightening. "I'm expecting you at my birthday party next week. Understand?" Max laughed. "Your birthday isn't next week, Kip." "You know what I mean!" Max nodded, his eyes shining. "Yep. You guys be careful, too. But I think we got this." They all stood, and moved to the side entry of the transport. A light appeared ahead, the end of the tunnel, and in a moment the transport slid out into the open and slowed to a stop in a shallow channel in the floor. The door whispered to the side, and Charlie led the way out. "Okay, let's go." They emerged, turned and headed off across the vast chamber. Ragal picked up Casper and took off, with Horace following behind. Charlie and the others jogged after them. The huge crystals here were not lit like the ones back in the command chamber on Engris. No colorful glow indicating things happening. The only light was a soft glow from the ceiling, which gave enough light to see by but scarcely enough to discern any great detail. But the crystals here looked different somehow, possibly because the fields that were a part of their operational make up were inactive. "It doesn't look the same as on Engris," Charlie said immediately. "Nothing's working." "Everything is in the same place, though." Ragal called over his shoulder. "Just follow us." But Max countermanded that order. "Everybody hold up for a second." Ragal stopped immediately, and Horace almost bumped into him. Charlie and the others stopped, too, and turned to look at Max. "The Moth transport just came in behind ours," the elf explained. "I'm adding the sight blocker to our sensor screens. It's going to take a minute for you to get used to them." Charlie turned to look at Kip then, and got a last, sweet smile from his boyfriend before he shimmered and disappeared into a cloud of manic, softly glowing fireflies. It wasn't quite what Charlie had expected, and it was disconcerting, to say the least. Despite the fact that he could see the chamber clearly enough, there was a peripheral glow around his field of vision that made it almost seem like he was walking in a tunnel. "Is this how it's going to be? I hope I don't trip over my own feet!" Charlie looked around. Their entire group now glowed similarly, and he couldn't tell who was who. Well...Ragal was obvious by his height, and Sefton stood out by his size. Durapar was smaller than anyone else save Casper. But the humans - and Max - all looked about the same. "It'll settle," Max said. "New stuff. Just wait a second. It's important, Charlie. Earth's safety is--" Max suddenly gasped, and his glowing shape spun around. Charlie looked over in that direction then, and saw a section of the wall that was turning red alarmingly fast. A wave of heat washed over him, and Max threw up a hand. The heat moderated, and then lessened. "Everybody, move back!" Max called, coming towards them. "Quick! Go that way!" They turned and ran. A glow appeared over Charlie's shoulder, and he cast a quick glance back. The far wall was now a circle of intense white light, and waves of heat shimmered in the air between them. That Max was keeping the heat away seemed obvious. "Stop!" Max yelled then. "Everybody hit the deck!" Charlie stopped and dropped, too well-trained now by past events to even momentarily question a command from Max. He turned as he dropped, watching the far wall, and so saw as he hit the floor how the intense circle of light puffed outward into a roar of gas and hot vapor. Something bulleted through the opening then, and immediately turned towards them. The borer! It skittered towards them at amazing speed, appendages on the side waving like the legs on a centipede. "No ya don't!" Max yelled, and Charlie saw Max's prone figure raise a hand. The borer stopped with a suddenness that was amazing, and drew back away from them, despite the motions of its many legs. It slid back across the floor with a screech of sound and arrived back before the tunnel opening, just as something else large emerged from it. The new arrival clipped the rear of the borer, resulting in a horrendous crash that assaulted Charlie's ears, and which was accompanied by a flash of unbearable light. In the microsecond it took Max's shield to deal with the amazing burst, Charlie's eyes were dazzled. He closed them reflexively, but blobs of light and color now danced before him. There were more crashing sounds, and a screeching, grating roar that passed to the side of them, and finally stopped somewhere behind them. A boom echoed throughout the massive chamber, dropping in volume with each cycle, and then a sudden silence descended upon them. "Charlie!" Kippy yelled, coming closer. "Are you okay?" "Damn!" Charlie heard Max getting to his feet then. "Anybody hurt?" Charlie sat up, blinking his eyes, the blobs of color slowly waning, until he could start to see again. Another glowing shape was immediately by his side. "Charlie? Is that you?" It was Kip's voice, sounding terribly concerned. "Yeah. I'm okay, I think. The flash blinded me a little. But...it's getting better." Kippy dropped a hand, felt around, found Charlie's shoulder, and squeezed it with all his might. "I thought you were hurt, by the way you yelled!" Charlie blinked at that. He didn't remember yelling at all. "I'm okay," he reassured, finding Kip's hand and squeezing it. "Everybody else okay?" He heard Ricky and Adrian respond, and a confused call from Durapar. Sefton grunted out something, the gist of which was that he seemed to be in one piece. But then nothing else. Alarm took hold of Charlie. "Ragal? Guys?" Nothing. But then Durapar spoke again. "I think they jumped up and went on after the crash. Ragal, carrying Casper, and Horace with them. Hard to make out the illuminated shapes, but I think it was all three of them. "Was all three," Sefton agreed, his large glowing shape coming nearer. Charlie's vision was returning now. "What the hell happened?" "My fault," Max said, sounding uncharacteristically subdued. "When that borer thing came at us, I pushed it back. The transport in the tunnel must have put on a hell of a burst of speed at the last moment. It came out and rammed the back of the borer, sending it spinning past us. The transport shed its momentum at the exact same time, as a pulse of light, which was what blinded you. But the damage is done. The borer hit some of those crystal things and smashed them to pieces. I hope I didn't just ruin this whole mission." Charlie shook his head a moment. "Maybe we should get after Ragal and the others. Won't the Moth come now?" Max came over and stood beside him. "Good idea. Better get up, and let's go," "Stupid idea, making us all into glow worms," Kippy chided. "Just makes it harder to walk around this dump." Charlie smiled at that, sensing the relief in his boyfriend's voice. He got to his feet, his vision mostly back to normal now, and they all headed off.
  3. Chapter 5 -- The transport pulled into a large chamber, sailed across a startlingly vast open area, and settled to a stop in a cradle that appeared to be floating in the exact center. Charlie and the others stared in wonder through the transparent nose of the little car, taking in the immense place with just a bit of unavoidable awe. "Um, that's huge," Adrian said quietly, his eyes trying to go everywhere at once. "Ginormous," Ricky added, nodding. He grinned at Charlie. "Looks like the inside of one of those old sea mines they used to drag out of the ocean every now and then. The round ones, with all the spikes on them?" Charlie nodded. The vast chamber looked to be the inside of an enormous globe, with the dark openings of tunnels spaced regularly about its entire inner surface. Charlie looked directly above them, and could see the beginnings of the tunnels fading into the distance inside their round openings. It was the same in every direction. The tunnels below them looked like gaping holes into the depths of the planet. The scale was intimidating, but the reality rather exciting. There must be tunnels here to every part of Lyrgris! He frowned then. "We seem to have stopped. Eseffa said we would keep going until we reached the control center." "Maybe we need to be switched into the right tunnel," Kippy suggested. "Maybe that takes a minute or two." Max got up from his seat and moved to stand beside Charlie. "Something ain't right. I feel it." Ragal appeared, and pointed at the distant inner surface of the chamber ahead of them. "There." Even as they looked, the surface bubbled upwards, and then the sides of the bubble retreated back down, leaving a hole. A bit of mist appeared out of the hole, quickly formed into a Madracorn, and then the alien was sailing across the interval towards them. "The door," Kippy said quickly, jumping to his feet. They moved toward the port through which they had entered the transport, and it opened just as Eseffa reached them. "You are in danger," the man said immediately. "The Moth have redirected one of their boring machines to this point. Its intersection lies close enough to the tunnel you must take to get to the control center that internal safety protocols have come into play. The service mind will not allow you to proceed until the danger is passed." "Can you override that?" Max asked quickly. "I cannot. The danger to your safety is real. At the speeds these transports travel, any threat to the integrity of the tunnels they utilize will cause a shutdown of that part of the system." Eseffa turned, and pointed to the distant wall of the chamber. "The boring machine will be here momentarily." "Can you come inside?" Max asked. "Yes." Max stepped back, gently pushing the others with his spread arms. "Come in so we can close the door." Eseffa entered, and the port closed behind them. Max turned and hustled back to the front of the craft, and Charlie and the others followed. "What are we going to do?" Charlie asked. But Max turned to Eseffa. "Will they be able to see us inside, through this transparent nose?" "No. It is only transparent from the inside." "Good. I'd just as soon they not get a good look at us." Max looked at Charlie then. "We have to wait and see what shows up before I can tell you what we're going to do." "That seems imminent," Ragal inserted, pointing to the section of inner wall that Eseffa had indicated earlier. "It comes now." They all turned, staring, and at first Charlie didn't see anything. But then a glow appeared on the wall between two of the tunnels, quickly became red hot, and then white hot. And then a large round section of the wall puffed away in a cloud of tumultuous vapor, leaving a glowing hole in its wake. From where they were, the hole looked as large as the transport tunnels on either side of it. That figured, as surely the Moth would be drilling tunnels large enough to take back the spoils they coveted. For a moment nothing happened. But as the rose-colored glow within the tunnel began to subside, first one, and then several, things appeared, and quickly became the ends of long metallic tentacles, which fastened to the rim of the hole and contracted, drawing the snout of a machine forward into view. That snout was rounded, and covered with unfamiliar gear of some sort, which, even as they watched, seemed to melt back inside the machine, leaving several round globes on the ends of stiff rods in their place. These immediately thrust forward and began to move about in all directions. "Having a look around," Ragal said quietly. "Reconnaissance." "They can't detect us," Max offered, watching the distant machine. "But they will see the transport sitting here." "It's curious," Casper said then, watching the distant machine. "And smart. It knows it's looking for people." Charlie felt a momentary shock at hearing that, but then realized the truth of it. Smart machines were a fact of daily life out in the empires. "I wonder if it can leave that hole?" "I would say it can," Ragal decided. "And that it will, at some point. This transport will certainly be an object of interest, as it seems to be the only one present. Charlie looked around, and realized that Ragal was right. In all this open space, theirs was the only transport in view. He turned to Eseffa. "I don't suppose the hull of this thing would keep it from getting at us?" "It probably will not, though this hull cannot be breached easily." Max gave a grim laugh at that. "I don't intend to let things get that far. Let's just see what happens." Durapar managed to push himself between Charlie and Kip then, looked up at them apologetically, and then turned his eyes to the distant borer visible through the transparent hull. "I had to see." Charlie smiled, and patted the Andaleesian on one skinny shoulder. "I hope it was worth the trip." "So far, it has been." He turned his gaze on Max, and then Eseffa. "What can we do?" "I'm afraid I cannot do anything," Eseffa said. "If the defensive key were in place, I could remove this machine completely. But as it stands now, I am sorry to say I am helpless." "Well, I ain't helpless," Max said. "They wanna fight, I can give 'em one." Kippy laughed then, a release of tension, surely; but it made everyone smile, and Charlie let out the breath he had been holding. "Can we help you in any way?" Max shrugged. "Won't know until I know. Let's just wait and--" "It's moving!" Casper yelled then, pointing. The distant machine launched itself out of the hole, coming directly towards them. Charlie had the impression of a long body, brownish in color, with appendages of some sort growing from the bottoms of the sides even as he watched. It looked like a giant cockroach scuttling towards them. Kippy grabbed Charlie's hand and gripped it tightly, and Charlie drew his boyfriend closer. "It's okay." "I know." Max raised his hands then, and the borer stopped dead in midair, halfway to them. "Ugly thing." One eyebrow raised slightly. "Strong, too." More appendages extruded from the top of the machine, and waved about, as if seeking whatever impediment was holding it back. The two globes in the front moved about on the ends of the rods, and Charlie had the distinct impression the machine was looking at them. The front of the borer changed then, right before their eyes, as the original strange gear they had first seen reappeared on the rounded nose, simply rising from the flat surface as if pushed out from within. A bright, circular light suddenly dazzled them, and the transport jumped in its cradle, throwing them to the deck. All except Max. He rebounded with the rest of them, but did not fall, held upright by some invisible force. He cursed, something Charlie almost never heard the elf do, and then Max had his hands out again, pointing at the distant borer. The transport jumped and rocked again, and Kippy grabbed at Charlie and held on tightly. Max flickered, was gone a moment...and then returned in the same spot. The transport suddenly went still. Charlie got to his feet with the others, and peered out the front of the transport. The borer was gone. "Well done!" Eseffa said, sounding relieved. "A marvelous effort!" Charlie stared a moment longer, and then laughed. "You teleported it." "Yep. It's happily orbiting Lyrgris even as we speak." Kippy reached out and patted Max fondly. "I saw you disappear for a split second. Where'd you go?" Max smiled and raised his hands like he was holding the reins of some wild stallion, and then bucked a few times, swinging his hips in a smooth curve back and forth, as if he was riding. Kippy's eyebrows immediately went up, and he sagged against Charlie and sighed. "Oh, my!" Ricky and Adrian laughed, and Max's face colored slightly. "Aw, Geez! I was making like I was riding a horse, Kip." "And doing very well with it, too!" Max rolled his eyes. "I teleported out to the borer, landed on its back, and teleported it out into space along the route we came to get here. Then I came right back. Only took a second or so!" "Can it return?" Horace asked, giving his head a small shake. "If it can fly, it might return." "It probably can. But it will take it a while, and we sure won't be here when it gets back." Charlie turned to Eseffa, who had been watching them in silence. "What do we do now?" The Madracorn looked apologetic. "I'm afraid I don't know. This transport is damaged, and it would be unsafe for it to proceed in the tunnel you need to take, and the safety protocols will not allow it, anyway." "What about another transport?" Max asked. "I can get one here fairly quickly, but it still would not be allowed to enter the tunnel to the control center. The tunnel bored by the Moth machine is too close to our own tunnel. There would be the possibility of a tunnel blow out at speed, which would be catastrophic for the transport car. And anyone inside it. Safety protocols will not allow for this to happen." "You can't fix it?" Kippy asked. "If Lyrgris were fully operational, yes. As things are now, I cannot." "I guess we have to walk," Casper said, grinning. "We'll just get in that tunnel and start hiking!" Kippy and Adrian both laughed. "I'm up for it," Adrian said. Eseffa looked startled. "I don't think that would work. The control center is some three hundred miles through the crust of the planet from this location. Time would not allow it." Ragal looked interested. "That would be about a fifteen-minute run in this transport. I don't even wish to think about the time it would take to walk it." He leaned forward. "The transport can't be used. But surely your people must have had some sort of slower autonomous craft here, maybe used for inspection or repair?" Eseffa considered that, and then gave a slight bow of his head. "Of course! There are small craft used here within the switching center for local movement. I can get one of those. It operates outside the tunnel transport system network and will not be halted by the safety block." The Madracorn frowned then. "However, it is a much slower craft, and would take much longer to reach the control center." Max gave a sigh. "How much longer?" "Three hours, relative? Give or take a few minutes." Charlie had been expecting something much slower. "That's not so bad." Max turned to smile at him. "That's a lot of time for the Moth to take action against us." Charlie shrugged. "We have to do this. We're just wasting time talking about it." The elf nodded. "How exciting!" Durapar said, clutching his hands before him. "I had no idea this trip would be so exhilarating!" Sefton gave a mighty grunt at that. "Has been more fun than driving sightseers to domes, must admit." Horace smiled at Charlie. "Beats investigating haunted houses for clues of paranormal activity." He winked. "So far." Charlie looked at his boyfriend, who simply smiled encouragingly. Charlie tugged at his ear, feeling a little amazed, but smiled. "We're all getting a little nuts, I think. But that never stopped us before!" Ricky briefly pounded his chest and grinned. "Yeah! That's the kind of talk I like!" Adrian circled an arm around his boyfriend and grinned at Kip, as if to say, that's my big he-man! Kippy laughed. "Rick's ready to carry us all there, if he has to." Ricky looked briefly embarrassed. "Well, I'm just saying! Let's get moving!" Casper laughed, and tugged at Charlie's arm. "Yeah, Charlie. You're holding up the party!" Charlie shook his head in wonder, but turned to Eseffa then. "Okay. How do we get this inspection craft, or whatever it is?" The Madracorn looked delighted, and waved a hand at the transport's port. "If you'll open the door, I'll take you there." * * * * * * * Kil'brith and Onath sat back from the center console, both looking astonished. The implications of what they were seeing were clear. In the inset providing a view of what borer number 18 was seeing, the darkness of the negative zone was apparent, while the nearly invisible orb of the planet circled below. Mor'ath stared at them across the display, his own face looking haunted. "The borer is now in orbit above us." The transition had been instantaneous. One moment the borer was launching itself towards a cradle holding what appeared to be a tunnel transport car; the next it was floating in space far above the planet. "They teleported it," Kil'brith said slowly. "Power-users!" "No one can teleport so much mass, so far!" Onath complained. Kil'brith shook his head. "The evidence of our eyes is clear. Someone can!" Mor'ath grunted, and quickly examined his instruments. "It could have been a machine of some sort. Translocation has long been considered possible by technical means, and I've heard rumors that our very own labs have been working on such devices for years." "It's not a rumor," Onath revealed. "I have read reports on such experiments, myself. But as practical machines, they are still many years away from production." He turned to Kil'brith. "Yet I would be much more comfortable with the idea that these ancient people had such devices, than I would with believing we face power users so much more capable than ourselves." Kil'brith briefly closed his eyes, then reopened them. "I sense these are actual beings we face. But it could be a combination of the two, a living adversary utilizing technical abilities beyond our own." He tapped his fingers restlessly against the armrests of his seat. "Onath, how long before the transport carrying your security detail reaches that large chamber?" Onath checked the console before him. "Another ten minutes, at least." "Make them aware of what happened to the borer. No...in fact...Mor'ath, switch them into our current display." "Done." The systems engineer peered at his console again. "Wait...I am detecting a small craft of some kind departing the large switching chamber. It is entering one of the tunnels now. Once again there seems to be no one aboard." His fingers moved quickly above the console, and then he looked up at them. "This tunnel leads to one of the machine spaces we targeted earlier." "Something is happening," Kil'brith decided. "Something that will affect us. I don't like it." "What can we do now?" Onath said. For the first time he was feeling the sense of helplessness that came with running an operation from the ship. Not being on the spot of the action was so limiting! But the ship commander seemed not hear him. "Mor'ath, do we have a borer on the way to the machine space where this new craft is heading?" "Uh...well, commander, they are heading to the chamber that borer number 18 was drilling to. That borer now circles the planet above us. I have sent a replacement borer to complete the task, but it is still on its way through the original bore and will be some time reaching the point where the first borer left off." Kil'brith sat back in his seat. "Onath, send a second squad of your people after this new borer. I want to have personnel on hand when it finally reaches the destination chamber." He checked his console again, and nodded. "When your first security detail reaches the large switching chamber, we will have them enter the tunnel the alien craft has taken, and pursue them from behind. With any luck both squads will converge on this new machine space at roughly the same time, and we will catch our adversaries between!" Onath nodded. "And what then?" Kil'brith raised his hands and gently tapped his fingertips together. "I suggest you order your people to hold their fire unless fired upon. I have no desire to initiate a war with those that built this place. You understand?" "Yes. I think it's an advisable course of action. I'll contact my people right now." * * * * * * * "This thing moves pretty good," Ricky said for the third time, causing Charlie to smile. Rick's fascination with things mechanical was almost legendary now. The car they rode in now was open, with sides that came up to a reassuring height, but with no top whatsoever. There was a windscreen up front, transparent, that seemed to direct the flow of air above their heads. There were enough seats for all, and still empty space left over at the rear for cargo, had they had any. The walls of the tunnel passed by in a blur, barely visible outside the glow of the amazing headlamp the car possessed. The tunnel was lit for what looked like a mile ahead of them, and the wash of the light reached back along the walls of the tunnel to almost the rear of the car. But behind them was an utter blackness deeper than any Charlie could remember seeing in a long time. "We're only going about a hundred miles an hour," he said, in answer. "At least according to the figures that Eseffa gave us." Ricky looked delighted,"Yeah, but that's fast for something open." He laughed. "I always wanted a convertible!" "It is one-twelfth the speed we could have made in the original transport," Ragal pointed out. "The Moth have slowed us down by that factor. What should have been a fifteen-minute journey will now take three hours to complete." "And they're after us, too," Casper added. "I can feel it." Ragal nodded. "I can, too." "Makes three of us," Max agreed. "Four," Kippy added, from beside Charlie. "Anyone care for 'five'?" Adrian put in. "Not just after us, but trying to cut us off, somehow." "You people are wonderfully sensitive!" Durapar said, looking from face to face. "I just sense a general feeling of doom, myself." Max grinned at that. "Aw, geez, we ain't there yet. We still have some tricks up our sleeves." "I do sense them moving along two courses that will ultimately meet somewhere ahead of us," Ragal stated. Max nodded. "They're behind us, in this tunnel, and I think they're in the bore tunnel leading to the control place where we're going. Feels to me like they'll get there right after we will." Durapar's eyes widened. "And you're not worried?" Max's grin widened. "Who said that? Sure, I'm concerned. But we have a good group here. We'll be okay." "Not have active powers like you," Sefton said, his face contorting into one of the grimace-smiles that was peculiar to his kind. He flexed his big hands, and held them out. "Can break things very well, though." That garnered a much needed laugh from everyone. Casper patted the box he held on his lap, that contained the tiny defensive mind they needed to put into place. "This one has become aware. I feel it knows it is off to do battle, somehow." Ricky grinned at that. "I'd be anxious for a scrap if I'd been sitting on a shelf for a half-million years, too!" Max held up a hand for attention. "Casper, can you talk to that thing?' Casper closed his eyes, and his face relaxed. "Not...really. It knows we are here, and it knows what we hope to do with it. It cannot act without a command from Eseffa or Jorli, though. I hope Eseffa meets us at the control center, like he said he would." "He will," Max reassured. "He and Jorli are limited in how far they can travel from those holes they come out of as mist. But he said they can send a shaft to any place on the planet except the surface, and that he would be there, waiting on us." "We need to build them one of those robot things like Billy and Will used to go with us when we first visited the Moth," Adrian said. "That way, Eseffa and Jorli could get around better." "It's an idea," Max offered. "But it was Billy and Will that mostly knew how to build that thing. Pacha and I just supplied the constructive energy. I doubt we could replicate that Gort thing they had us build without their help again." "So we'll get it," Kippy said. "That shouldn't be hard." "Remind me when we're not being chased by the Moth," Max answered, his eyes twinkling. Charlie held up his arm, and angled it so that the light struck the face of his watch. "Still more than an hour to go before we get there." He sensed something strange then, and turned his head to look behind them. And was startled to think he could see a light. "Look!" Everyone else turned, too. Far to their rear, a tiny pinpoint of light shone in the darkness. "They're catching up to us!" Kippy said, sounding alarmed. Casper looked over at Horace, and smiled. "Maybe it's time to use some of the stuff we cooked up?" Horace turned to look back at the distant light. "They're very far away. Can you reach that far?" "I've learned a lot from Ragal. From everybody. I'm sure I can reach them, even now. Even farther, if I have to." Max went to sit beside Horace. "Need any help?" "Maybe." Casper grinned at Kippy, and then Adrian. "You guys could help with some power, I think." Kippy squeezed Charlie's hand, and then released it. He stood at the same time as Adrian, and both boys circled around to take seats behind Casper, where they could touch his shoulders. "What are we gonna do?" Max asked. The sense of anticipation in his voice made Charlie smile. There were many times that Charlie saw Max as just another big kid. If it involved magic of any kind, Max was always interested. Casper chuckled in a squeaky fashion, widening Charlie's smile. "Well, the Moth are expecting to meet the builders of Engris now. I suggest we let them meet one!" * * * * * * * Misola strained his eyes, trying to see through the wash of light ahead of their transport. "I don't see anything." Beside him, Tif'tok grunted. "Sensors say they're there, about ten miles ahead of us. This tunnel is utterly straight. The walls are non-reflective. We have a clear mark on some sort of transport ahead of us." For a moment Misola cursed his own seniority. Being shifted from the relative safety of guard duty in the big dome to actively chasing ghosts of some kind did not sit well with him. So far, no one had detected any sort of living beings in any of what had happened thus far. Just machines moving about. It was his opinion that they were chasing automated equipment just going about some sort of routine, perhaps initiated by their own boring into this accursed planet's hide. But there were higher ups present, if only by way of a common link. They could see and hear everything that was happening within and around the transport. Briefly, Misola turned to glance at the dozen armored soldiers in their slanted racks to their rear, who could also see and hear everything happening. They, too, would be considering what sort of rewards might come from this action, and what sort of punishments might come if they messed it up. Misola and Tif'tok, as the two senior men, bore the responsibility one way or the other, unless Onath himself gave the orders that resulted in success or failure. But so far, their distant commander had chosen to remain mostly silent, waiting to see what happened. Misola felt like the sacrificial stiltz, about to be led off to the slaughter. He turned back to face forward, and checked the display again. "We're catching up to them?" Tif'tok grunted. "They aren't going very fast. At our present rate, we'll be directly behind them in about three minutes." Misola listened for a moment, but nothing came from Onath. "Slow us down some. I don't want to reach them that quickly." Still nothing from the distant commander. The transport slowed noticeably. "It will take us about twenty minutes to catch them at this speed. You have reason for delaying contact?" Misola made a patient sound. "We can't do much but follow them until they reach their destination chamber. Pressing them beforehand might make them act. I have no desire to suddenly find our transport in orbit around this world." Tif'tok made to answer, when his console beeped and a light appeared on the scanning array. Tif'tok looked over at Misola, alarm apparent in his expression. "Something has appeared in the tunnel between us and them!" "Bring us to a stop!" Misola responded. "What are you detecting?" The transport decelerated suddenly, and the walls of the tunnel ceased to be a blur and became visible ahead of them. The transport drew to a stop. "I...don't know what it is," Tif'tok said then. "It's large, though. It reads like...it could be a life form. But if it is, it's a very odd one!" Misola was stunned at the idea. "One of them jumped out of the car ahead? That's impossible!" Onath's voice spoke up in the car with them then. "We may be dealing with power users of superior ability." They had been informed that power users might be involved in these recent events, but no one had mentioned anything about someone that could leap out of a transport moving at this sort of speed and come to a stop without harm. That sort of personal control of inertia and force was beyond anything that Misola had ever heard about. Superior ability, indeed! "It's about a mile ahead of us," Tif'tok announced. "What do you want to do?" But it was Onath that answered. "Move up to it slowly. Let's get a look at it." Tif'tok looked over at Misola, but nudged the transport into motion. "Proceeding, commander." The mile passed quickly enough, and soon something appeared before them. Tif'tok slowed the transport, and stopped it when the object ahead was clear in the beam of light that lit the way ahead. Misola stared. The alien - and it was an alien - was a giant. It stood almost as tall as the tunnel, on two thick legs, it's two arms akimbo as its hands rested upon its hips. The creature wore what looked like armor, though of a type that would be deemed ceremonial on any Moth world, just steel formed to fit over the arms, torso, and legs, but without apparent energy defenses or dampers. A massive, ornate helmet rested atop the creature's head, with what looked like horns sticking out the sides of it. Two burning, coal-like eyes observed them from beneath a fearsome brow, and the snout of the creature was wrinkled and dark and well endowed with teeth. Briefly, he reached out with his mind, trying to sense the alien more closely, pushing, attempting to force it to reveal its secrets. He gasped than, as an overwhelming force pushed back! He was rebuffed as easily as if he were a child attempting his first mind contact. The power of the other mind was incredible! Misola couldn't take his eyes off the being, every childhood story of ancient gods and demons he had ever heard suddenly upon him. There were several sounds of amazement from the troops behind them, and even Tif'tok pushed himself back into the arms of his rack seat. Misola would have been amazed to have thought of himself as superstitious before this. The Moth were creatures of science and technology, and no one believed in the things now that the ancients had. The stories that had survived from those times, and the ancient fears they had once engendered, were matters of history now, and nothing else. Then why did this alien strike fear into his heart? "Are you seeing this, Control?" he asked the com. "Yes," Kil'brith returned. "Still to be determined what we are seeing." "Switching to exterior sound," Onath announced then. His next words were addressed to the alien before them. "I am commander Onath, of the Moth occupation force. Identify yourself." Misola winced at the lack of a civil greeting, feeling it was a mistake in this instance, and wondering if the alien before them even had translation abilities. But apparently, it did. "Intruders," the alien said, in a voice of both great size and somewhat combustible timbre. The tunnel seemed to amplify the sound, and it reverberated throughout the transport, the voice of a god of old. "This is our world. By what right do you invade our places and steal the things that belong to us?" Misola felt an unaccustomed alarm at the words. There was nothing like being caught in the act! "This world was empty when we found it," Onath replied, his words sounding more careful now. "We are simply exploring the place. Our intent is salvage, no more." "This world was slumbering," the alien countered. "You have awakened it. You will bear the consequences for this act." Tif'tok looked over at Misola. This wasn't going well! his expression seemed to say. But Onath seemed unimpressed. "You plan to stop us? You don't look capable of it." "We will stop you. I...and others." Kil'brith's voice suddenly replaced Onath's. "At the time we arrived here, no life was detected. We did not mean to intrude on an occupied world. Yet we require proof that you actually own this place before we can accept that it belongs to you. You took your time appearing after our arrival. My suspicion is that you arrived after us, and this is some game to contest our legal right to salvage." "We don't recognize your type of life," Onath added. "Where do you come from?" One large hand waved at them. "My kind roved the stars when yours were still pulling themselves from the muck of your dirty little homeworld! You dare to question me?" The hand moved as if to thrust them away, and the entire transport suddenly shuddered, and moved...backwards! "Hold in place!" Onath yelled over the com. Tif'tok's fingers shot out at the controls, and for a moment the transport steadied. Misola's eyes went back to the being in the tunnel before them just in time to see it leap forward at them. The transport shuddered to a heavy impact, and then began to jerk side to side, striking the walls of the tunnel! An override icon appeared in the display before them, and the transport hummed as forward thrust was applied. Onath had taken control from the ship! The transport groaned and continued to buck side to side, but not to gain an inch forward. They could hear an ominous pounding on the hull of the transport, and a warning buzzer went off as overstress indicators popped up in the display. "He's going to crush us!" Tif'tok yelled. They heard Onath yelling something, but the sound of the transport beating against the tunnel walls was now too loud to hear anything else. The transport trembled then as the forward offensive array bellowed out a pulse of high energy plasma. Onath had opened fire! But the energy pulse seemed to pass directly through the creature in the tunnel before them. The shaking of the transport intensified, and then suddenly ceased as the giant in the tunnel backed away from them. One huge hand raised and a thick finger pointed at them. The coal-fire eyes burned at them in anger from beneath the helmet's brim, and the voice, when it came, was of terrible volume. "This is not over! This has just begun! Beware!" And then the alien simply vanished. The transport surged forward, and then slowed as Onath brought it back under control. Alarmed voices came from the troops behind Misola now, and he immediately turned and made a vicious stab at them with a finger. "Hold back there! Order!" The voices died away. But the eyes of the troopers said it all. They had been unnerved by what had just happened. And Misola didn't blame them one bit! "I'm amazed that a bodiless life form like that could hold back the transport," Kil'brith's voice said over the com. "That being was a power user of some sort!" It took a moment for the commander's words to sink in. "Bodiless?" Misola repeated. "But it had a body. An enormous one!" The com was silent for a moment. Then Kil'brith spoke again. "Tell me what you saw." Misola described the giant alien, and Tif'tok corroborated his words. So did several of the troopers in the squad behind them. "There was no giant alien," Onath finally said. "Only a misty, indistinct presence, that flowed about with an apparent life. We could hear its voice, the same as you. But we did not see what you saw." Misola and Tif'tok stared at each other in disbelief. Only a mist! "It was fearsome," Misola said in a subdued voice. "Like one of the demons from legend. There was no mistake about it." "I believe you," Kil'brith said, his voice sounding reassuring over the com now. "Maintain your position for the moment while we review the record of this encounter. Don't move that transport, understand?" "Yes, commander. We will wait." Misola turned his eyes to Tif'tok, who now wore the same haunted expression on his face. What had they just encountered? A living, breathing life form, or...the ghost of one? * * * * * * * "This is alarming," Kil'brith said, his voice conveying in no uncertain terms how he felt. "I believe we are up against power users of incredible skill." He shook his head at Onath. "We will need to consider the possibility of a withdrawal from this world." Onath stared at him. "Isn't that a bit hasty? Think of what we would be throwing away! This world possesses the very same technology that shields Engris. Once mastered, Engris could be ours!" Mor'ath had witnessed the entire encounter with the transport, and now dared to offer his opinion. "If I may, Commander." "Yes. Speak your mind, Mor'ath." The other man gave a small shake of his head. "What the security squad on the transport saw and what our instruments transmitted to us were not the same thing. I suggest that what we saw was a true account of what happened." "Then why did the security squad see something else?" "Because they were made to, Commander. I believe we are up against power users that can manipulate great forces. Far greater than anything even our own strongest power users could accomplish. I also believe that the enemy possesses a power that has been proposed, but never yet encountered: the power of illusion." Onath made a rude noise. "The readings from those stress indicators on the transport were no illusion. Great force was expended against that vehicle. Almost enough to damage it, if not destroy it!" "Yes." Mor'ath made a sign of agreement. "This sort of application of force is a known talent among our own kind, though nowhere near this level. But it does not account for the troops there seeing one thing, while we saw another. Only one possibility can explain that, at least to me." Onath looked like he was not about to be convinced. "And that would be?" "Range. Distance. We did not see what the troopers saw, because we were too far away. Beyond the range of the illusionist to reach us." "That makes sense," Kil'brith said. "I, too, have read speculations on the possibilities of power usage among as yet unencountered species. The ability to create illusion in the minds of others has been widely theorized." He leaned towards Mor'ath then. "But no known race has this ability." Mor'ath held up a hand. "That would seem to verify that we are up against a new, as yet unmet foe." Onath's eyes moved back and forth between the two Moth, and then he settled back in his rack seat. "I can't come up with a better explanation at this time. But I do have trouble believing that there can be any power users out there that are so much more proficient than our own kind." Kil'brith drummed his fingertips against the armrest of his own seat. "We may well be facing those that created Engris. No ability on their part would be beyond my belief." For a moment there was silence in the command center, and then Mor'ath made a small noise. "I have just had a very unsettling thought." Kil'brith gave a nod at the other. "Please share it with us." Mor'ath looked unhappy, as if he really didn't wish to express his opinion, but felt that he had to do it. "It has been widely assumed that those that created Engris have been extinct for some hundreds of thousands of cycles. It has been considered probable that they were power users. This...force, that the transport encountered today, claims to be one of the owners of this world. That could be true, or it could be a lie. But let's suppose it is true." Onath's voice sounded impatient. "Let's suppose. Get on with it!" Mor'ath was unperturbed. "Engris, and we can assume this world, too, were built as in interface with the dead. If, as this entity we encountered today insists, the original builders of this world have returned to claim it, then it would explain much. Why they can move about undetected. Why the weapons on the transport had no effect. Why the creature simply vanished after the encounter. The original owners of this world may have returned. But if so...they are quite dead." "You suggest we fight ghosts?" Onath said, the contempt for the idea clear in his voice. "A mere term, for something as yet unexplained," Kil'brith injected, waving a hand at Onath. "Continue, Mor'ath." "If those that built this world are indeed dead, but can utilize this world's peculiar technologies to return and move about, and their apparently considerable powers to fight with...there may be no defeating them at all. How do you kill someone who is already dead?" "Indeed," Kil'brith agreed, softly. He was quiet a moment, but then sat forward again. "And yet, something is off. This being could obviously manipulate matter, as the attack on the transport indicated. So why the transports? First one, and now another, moving towards that machine space that borer number 18 was making for. If these beings are truly dead, and can move about the planet at will, then what are they doing with that transport? Is it carrying something? Someone? Perhaps we are not just dealing with the dead here." Kil'brith suddenly leaned forward and pointed at his console. "Z'tor?" A new face appeared. "Yes, commander?" "How many people remain on the surface?" "The construction specialists have all been brought back aboard for the moment. Some of the science teams, too. A few science personnel remain at machine sites, where artifacts are being recovered. They are accompanied by guard personnel. And of course the two security teams dispatched into the planet's interior are still out." Kil'brith grunted. "Notify those science people to complete what they are doing and be prepared to return to the ship. It may be best not to have anyone out for now save those two security teams engaged in pursuing the...the enemy." "Yes, commander. What of the alien devices stored in the dome?" Onath suddenly leaned forward. "We should at least take them! That way the mission will not be a total loss!" Kil'brith grunted again. "Bringing those machines aboard Ehiztari gives our foes reason to come aboard to retrieve them. I will not risk the loss of my vessel for any prize, Onath." "But they are priceless!" "And we will not leave without them if at all possible." Kil'brith's expression grew stony. "You forget yourself, Onath. This is my ship!" Onath struggled for a moment with his dreams, watching them slide away irretrievably, before discipline and self-preservation took over. "Yes, commander." Onath sat back into his rack. "What of my people?" "Keep the second team following the borer. Contact Misola and get his transport moving again. They are to close to maximum detection range with the craft in their tunnel and remain there. Follow only!" "Yes, commander. It will be done." Kil'brith considered Onath a moment, and then relented. "Be at ease, Onath. We are not giving up yet. The game has just begun. But I do wish to be ready to depart quickly should the need arise." He leaned forward, and laid a fingertip on the icon representing the as yet unexplored machine space that everyone seemed to be making for. "Here is where our endgame will play out. Here is where we will know if we are to win...or retreat, and wait for another day."
  4. Chapter 4 -- "It had to be these guys!" Ricky hissed through clenched teeth, as the view moved around the intruder's encampment. The Moth were hard at work, obviously building a base from which to operate. There only seemed to be the one ship, built in the same design as their own Lollipop before Max had disguised its appearance, yet far larger in size. The numbers of Moth moving about were in line with their ship's size, and Charlie counted over forty of the aliens before he thought he might be counting them twice. There were surely others still aboard the ship, and probably elsewhere, too. "That's a cruiser, I would say," Ragal mused, studying the alien vessel. "But it may as well be a battleship. We would be considerably outgunned in Lollipop." Charlie turned to Eseffa. "Is there just the one ship there?" "So far. Their discovery of Lyrgris is very recent, going by the time in your own universe. This is the vessel that made the find, and no others have arrived as yet." "They may not, then," Max said speculatively. "This may be a small outfit of some kind, and the Moth don't like to share stuff with each other. If this is anything like a lot of their operations, it's in a box, and only a few people know about it." Charlie had to agree with that. Moth culture revolved around advantage and status. The central government of their empire was a collection of almost feudal lords, whose baronies ran the gamut in purpose from agricultural and industrial supply to shipbuilding, high tech weaponry, corporate espionage, and information-dealing. Their research labs were the best in the five empires, and their ship and weapons technology held a fine edge in superiority to all others. The balance of the population was aligned with at least one of these baronies, and worked for them, and treated them as if they were family. The Moth were concerned with moving up in life, not resting on any one accomplishment. And one thing the barons did not like to do was share their toys with the others. Not without a clear advantage in doing so, anyway. Baronies ranged in size from small and local to one planet to vast and interstellar in scope. If the one that had located Lyrgris was one of the smaller ones, their resources might be limited, and they would not be requesting aid from any of the others. A find like Lyrgris could build them their own empire! "Well, we can't fight them, obviously," Kippy said. "Their ship is more powerful than ours. So what do we do about them?" Eseffa and Jorli glanced at each other, and both of the Madracorn looked troubled. "Oh, no," Eseffa said quickly. "We don't wish you to fight." "None of you must be injured," Jorli agreed. "We would never ask such a thing of you." Max smiled at that. "Gonna be hard to move them off that planet any other way, I think. I doubt they'll just leave if we ask them to. What'd you guys have in mind?" "Lyrgris can defend itself," Eseffa explained. "The defensive systems simply need to be activated." "You said you could go there," Adrian spoke up. "Can't you just go turn them on?" "If it was simply a matter of activation, we could," Jorli agreed. "But Lyrgris was never completed, never made fully functional. The problem is that the operational key that would normally oversee defensive systems was never installed." "So what's this key?" Adrian asked. "You mean something that can think?" "Yes, very much so. It is like a small mind, it's thoughts primarily concerned with defense." Ragal gave a quiet laugh at that. "And where would this key happen to be now?" Jorli smiled at them. "Why, it is right here on Engris, as a matter of fact. A number of them were made, and placed in storage here for possible use at a later date." "I'm guessing you can't manipulate matter but so much then," Max said. "Otherwise you'd just grab the thing and pop over to Lyrgris and plug it in." "You did say you could go there," Charlie reminded. "That's true," Eseffa agreed. "And if the key were already in place at Lyrgris, we would not be speaking now." "We can manipulate things here and on Lyrgris through the assistance of technology," Jorli told them. "We use our mental talents to move physical controls that perform the tasks we need done. But we are unable to transport a material object through the continuum in which the dead reside. We cannot move the mind to Lyrgris on our own." "You guys can't teleport?" Max asked. "No. Such talents were known to exist in our time, but they were exceedingly rare." Ricky laughed at that. "See, Max? You elf guys are a one-off, you know?" "Pacha learned the talent from me," Max reminded. "Sometimes it's just havin' the right teacher." He smiled at the two Madracorn. "Maybe I could teach you guys." "That might have been possible if we were still alive," Jorli returned. "But our patterns are set now, and we cannot change them." That surprised Charlie. "You mean once you're dead, you can't learn new things?" Both Madracorn laughed at that. "Not at all," Eseffa said, his smile broadening. "Learning is both fun and easy. Memory is but a property of capacity. But our mental talents - our powers, as it were - are the result of brain functions we had in life, with corporeal brains. We retain those powers as we move on because they are set in our patterns, but adding new talents has so far not been possible. Evolution is a trait of living things, I'm afraid." "May still be able to teach you," Max said, but shook his head. "Sounds like a project, though. It took a while with Pach, and he's alive. So maybe we can wait on that." "It sounds like all we have to do is take this key thing to Lyrgris," Casper said. "Once it's there, you can get it going, right?" "Well --" Eseffa winced. "Actually, you need to get it to its mount on Lyrgris and install it there. Once that is done, we can get it going, as you say." Charlie had been feeling that this all sounded too easy so far. "Have the Moth reached the location where we'd have to place it?" "Not yet. They have been required to actually bore through the crust to reach the sites they have located with their scanning equipment. The material that Lyrgris is constructed from is rather dense. It is time-consuming for them to bore through it in their relative temporal state, but they are using twenty high-energy, high-speed boring machines to reach our equipment spaces within the body of Lyrgris, and for us to wait much at all will surely give them the time they need to reach them." "I thought the interiors of these little planets of yours were shielded," Kippy said. "Engris is, from what Durapar told us." "Engris is," Eseffa agreed. "But it is a function of the defensive system, not the materials that constitute that world ship. The Moth seem to have some very potent scanning equipment. They have located many of the machine spaces within Lyrgris." "But they still have to dig to them," Charlie repeated, seeking clarification. "Yes.They need to go down some hundred of miles to reach them. Even so, their machines are very fast." "What about those holes inside the spirit domes?" Ricky asked. "They go all the way to the core of the planet, right?" "They do," Jorli agreed. "But they do not offer access to any of the interior control spaces within the planet. The core and the tunnels that extend upwards to the surface constitute a single specialized area, constructed of super-hardened materials to limit changes in dimension. The Moth have found that boring from the core or the tunnels would require more time and effort than boring from the surface." Casper looked up at Ragal, and then over at Eseffa and Jorli. "Have they removed any of your tech from Lyrgris yet?" "They have removed a number of defensive devices from their original locations, but so far they are being stored in the spirit dome by their camp, and haven't been loaded onto their ship yet." "Anything really valuable?" Ricky asked. "The systems closest to the surface are the shielding units, that prevent the interior from being scanned. These sorts of shields would be superior to anything known in the five empires today, and give the Moth a distinct advantage. So far, they have only reached several of these, and removed them to the surface." "And the ship hasn't left since they discovered Lyrgris?" "No." Casper grinned, and looked up at Ragal. "So if we get there fast, we can keep them from getting away with any of the tech from that planet." "And that would be the most desirable conclusion, too," Ragal agreed. He smiled. "You have some ideas on this? A way to perhaps slow them down a bit?" Casper nodded, and then looked over at Horace. "I'll need your help." The man looked pleased, and nodded vigorously. "Then you shall have it." Casper let his eyes circle the group. "I think I can give the Moth something to think about, and mess up what they're doing. But it probably won't get rid of them. We'll all have to work on doing that. But maybe we can get the time we need. " Kippy laughed, and patted Charlie's arm. "That's why we're all here, I'm sure!" Charlie sighed, but with a not unhappy feeling of acceptance. It did seem that once again fate had placed them in the right place at the right time to perform a task that was in dire need of doing. He looked over at Max, who simply grinned back at him, and then nodded at the two Madracorn. "How do we find Lyrgris? If it moves around like Engris, and doesn't find us first, it might be pretty hard to locate." Eseffa and Jorli looked elated, sensing Charlie's positive decision. "Lyrgris does not move as Engris does. Lyrgris was set to stay in place within the Cooee while under construction. After the world ship was abandoned, it continued to operate to that plan. The Moth found Lyrgris, not the reverse." "But you know where it is now?" Max asked pointedly. "Yes. All four of the other world ships can be tracked by Engris. So we can get you to Lyrgris without a problem." Charlie did a small double-take at that. "Wait...you can actually get us there?" Obviously, getting to Lyrgris without the Moth detecting their arrival would be the hardest part of the whole operation. Jorli spread his hands to encompass all of them. "You can use one of the shuttles based here on Engris. Good as the Moth scanners are, they will not be able to detect this vessel.". Max looked over at Charlie. "Good enough for me. What do you think?" Charlie shrugged. "I think this is a no-brainer. We can't let the Moth get their hands on Madracorn technology. It would upset the balance of power between the five empires. The Moth will use this tech to do what they do best: bully others. There would be a fight of some kind, and a lot of people could get killed." "And we can't have that," Kippy said firmly. "I will assist," Sefton said. "Engris is home. If can't defend home, can't defend anything." "Thank you," the two Madracorn said in unison. "I have a question," Horace said then, raising a hand. The two Madracorn immediately turned towards him. "Please ask," Jorli offered. Horace looked at Charlie, his eyes holding a seems like a reasonable question to me look, to which Charlie smiled. "Go ahead." "Very well." Horace smiled at the two Madracorn. "Since you know where Lyrgris is, and since you can move Engris about at will, wouldn't it be a good idea to have Engris find Lyrgris and help to defend it?" The two tall aliens looked startled, and then both of them laughed. "Wonderful!" Eseffa said, his eyes bright with humor. "It is a wonderful question, Horace." The Madracorn leaned down towards them. "Engris has already positioned itself just beyond the range of the Moth vessel's scanners. We are, as your people like to say, a hop, skip, and a hump away from Lyrgris." Charlie grinned at that, and both Kippy and Adrian laughed. "That's a hop, skip, and a jump," Kippy corrected pleasantly. "Though humping has a lot to recommend it." Eseffa straightened. "Either way. But we are close by, nonetheless." Ricky waved a hand. "If we're that close, can't we just zoom up to Lyrgris, and have the weapons here on Engris force the Moth right off the surface?" "It would be ideal if that were all that was needed," Jorli replied. "But Engris is designed to excel at defense. It cannot be conquered by an inferior technology. But it's offensive capabilities are almost non-existent. The defenses here can guard the space around the planet, but cannot be extended to cover another world. We can keep further ships from landing on Lyrgris, but we cannot remove the one that has already landed." Casper laughed, a squeaky little sound that made Charlie smile. "But the Moth don't know that," Casper said. "This could be fun!" Charlie nodded, ideas already flitting through his mind. "I guess we all need to sit down and talk." Ricky grinned. "Britannica time!" "A place to conference can be made available to you," Jorli said. "We will take you there now." Kippy snuggled up to Charlie and hugged his arm. "I like the idea of pulling one on the Moth. They're the sort that need their tails twisted every now and then." "Yeah. Let's hope we can get away with that again." Eseffa and Jorli turned, and started to walk slowly across the grand machine room, and Charlie and his party fell in behind. * * * * * * * The small shuttle had been built to convey the Madracorn from place to place, and so was more than roomy enough for Charlie and his group. The seating had adjusted itself to their more diminutive frames, and Charlie found the view ahead as grand as it was astounding. The nose of the craft was transparent, so much so that it was as if nothing at all existed between themselves and the darkness of the Cooee. Ahead of them, Lyrgris hung in that darkness, the invisible world ship outlined by a ghostly light supplied by the vehicle's sensory equipment. Against the utter blackness of the Cooee, it was a stunning sight for the eyes.The disc of the world was growing even as they watched, the shuttle eating up the distance between them with an almost alarming efficiency. "This things moves!" Ricky said appreciatively. He grinned at Charlie. "Wonder if they'd let us take one home with us?" Adrian laughed, and bumped his shoulder against Ricky playfully. "I can see your dad's face now when he comes home from work and finds this thing sticking out of your garage." Ricky joined his boyfriend in laughing. "Nah." He turned and smiled at Charlie. "We'd keep it in Charlie's backyard." Charlie grinned at that, imagining his dad cutting the grass on his little lawn tractor while an invisible and undetectable Madracorn star shuttle hovered just above his head. "No." Ricky sighed, but Charlie could see that the idea wasn't going to die easily. "It's not like anyone would know it was there," Ricky pushed. "I would know it was there," Charlie returned, smiling. "No." "Give it up, Rick," Adrian said, squeezing his boyfriend's arm. "It's not a realistic idea." "Yeah, well. It was a fun idea, anyway." Charlie sighed, and turned to look towards the rear of the shuttle. "Everything okay back there?" Horace, Ragal, and Casper were sitting together, Casper holding the small box containing the key mind that would supposedly defend Lyrgris once installed. After seeing the big crystalline structures in the huge room beneath the surface of Engris, Charlie had envisioned something equally large and mysterious and crystalline-looking, designed to defend an entire world, that would take them all to manhandle into place once they reached Lyrgris. He should have remembered that Kifta and Moth artificial intelligences could be held in one's hand, and that surely the Madracorn could do better. And they had. The box contained a black marble held in a soft cocoon, and when they arrived at the right place within Lyrgris, it would be a matter of setting the marble into the right indentation in a larger crystalline structure. Eseffa and Jorli had taken them to the room within Engris where its defensive mind was stored, and shown them what needed to be done. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it was a very straightforward operation. Their movements about the interior of Engris had been astonishing. The place was honeycombed with tunnels, through which incredible transports rocketed at amazing speeds, eating up hundreds of miles of distance between facilities in mere minutes. Lyrgris was outfitted in the same manner, and Eseffa and Jorli had assured them that, once landed, they would be able to move about just as rapidly. The Moth were not very close yet to the chamber where Charlie's group needed to go to place the defensive mind, but one of their boring machines was heading that way, and they were amazingly fast. Getting there ahead of them should still be possible. Accent on the should be. But it would be closer than Charlie felt would be comfortable. Casper waved, and Ragal nodded. "Just discussing strategies." "Some good ones, I may add," Horace added, looking pleased. Charlie smiled, and sat back in his seat. They had outlined their basic plan before leaving Engris, and Charlie expected the details to fill in as they moved along. That seemed to be the way things always worked out. Planning in too much detail left too little room to improvise when conditions changed, and Charlie was sure they would. The Moth were nothing if not unpredictable. Kippy took his hand and squeezed it. "Worried?" "Not any more than usual." Kip laughed at that and leaned over and kissed Charlie's cheek. "I feel pretty good about this job so far. You should relax." "I always try to relax as much as I can. It's the roundabout way we have to do so many things that gets me a little keyed up." Kippy frowned at that. "What do you mean?" Charlie hitched himself around in his seat to face his boyfriend. "Well, think about it, Kip. We're going to try to get a Moth cruiser and its entire crew to leave Lyrgris, a prize of great value, without making it into a huge battle. If our positions were reversed, the Moth would just land their ship and tell us to leave, or get vaporized. We wouldn't have a lot of choice in the matter. But we can't do that to them, because we don't have that kind of power." Kippy's bottom lip thrust out for a moment, and then he nodded. "I see what you mean. But I wouldn't put it past Max to be able to wreck that ship if he put his mind to it. We aren't powerless, by any means." Charlie smiled at that. "I don't see Max being willing to kill the Moth, and wrecking their ship would amount to the same thing. He isn't built that way." Kippy tossed a look back at the elf, who was sitting between Sefton and Durapar. The three were engaged in a conversation that was apparently humorous in nature, if the big grins they all wore were any indication. He sighed. "No. He's not." Charlie nodded. "So we have to either scare the Moth away, or make them see leaving as a wise course of action. Eseffa said that if we can get the Moth ship off Lyrgris, then Engris can boot it to somewhere else in the Cooee, where they won't be able to get back anytime soon. By then Lyrgris will be functional and able to take care of itself." Kippy mulled that over a bit, and then nodded. "I still think it would be a good idea to let the Moth know that Engris is close by. If they can look up in the sky and see it hanging there, waiting, it will really make them nervous." "As much as Moth get nervous, anyway," Charlie agreed. "Eseffa seems to think that showing them Engris and then not doing anything immediately to remove the Moth from Lyrgris will be the same thing as telling the Moth that Engris can't remove them. That will simply empower them to stay as long as they want. Which would give them time to raid all the tech bases inside the planet. We don't want them to have that time." Kippy nodded. "Then the thing to do is to wait until we are ready to really do something to the Moth, and then have Engris appear, so that the two seem connected." Charlie smiled. "You're halfway good at this." Kippy gently slapped Charlie's arm. "Maybe it's the company I keep." Charlie sighed, and bent forward and kissed his boyfriend. Kippy made it good, and Charlie did feel like he was relaxing a little. "I love you, Kip." "Oh, I love you, too, Charlie." Kippy smiled. "I love to have you tell me you do, too." "Always and forever, Kip." Kippy gripped Charlie's hand, and Charlie returned his gaze to the front of the craft. They were very close now, the highlighted disc of Lyrgris swelling beyond the visible and forming a gray expanse before them. The shuttle would simply arrive at the surface and it would open to accept them. The basic systems of Lyrgris were operational, anyway. The shuttle would drop through the crust of the planet to a berth somewhere deep inside, where they would have access to the amazing inner transport system, which could get them to the next step of their journey. Eventually, they would arrive at one of the control facilities, and there Eseffa would meet them again, and guide them on the final journey to place the defensive mind. Jorli would remain behind on Engris, to guide that world should it need to intervene. That Eseffa and Jorli could communicate with each other over the distance seemed clear, and Charlie suspected that this sort of telepathic link was yet another of their talents. It sounded like a pretty straightforward operation at first review, but their basic outline of the plan didn't include any sort of variance from what the Madracorn said could be expected once they were actually inside Lyrgris. In Charlie's experience, few things ever went off exactly as expected. And then there was the matter of the Moth knowing they were there. The Madracorn had been clear on that. "Once you have reached Lygris, you will likely become detectable. Not in your persons, as Max seems very good at cloaking you against such things. But by your actions. Your movements about Lyrgris will necessarily create observable conditions within the world itself, that would normally be shielded from detection by the very defensive system you hope to activate. Once the Moth become aware of things going on within Lyrgris, they will certainly react as if they are no longer alone there." "That's where we creep them out," Casper had replied, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. "I'll give them a few things to think about!" That was followed by a squeaky laugh of delight, to which Charlie and Kip both smiled. "Looks like we're almost there," Charlie said, as the formless area before them began to show enhanced detail indicating surface characteristics. Mountains and valleys, and even a city or two, seemed to becoming visible. Adrian raised a hand, showing his first two fingers crossed. "Be safe, everyone." "Yeah," Ricky said, patting the hilt of his vibratory dagger. "These Moth don't want to piss us off." Charlie grinned at the optimism in that statement, but also knew not to get overconfident. They had handled the Moth once before. They had made T'ath destroy the data that pinpointed the location of Earth. Max and Pacha had been able to deal with the alien's fearsome technology, but only because the Moth could not envision power users superior to themselves. If that mindset was still in place, it was probable that they would succeed just as easily this time around. But the Moth were anything but stagnant. If T'ath had shared a warning with others of his kind that there were dangerous power users afoot in the galaxy...then anything could happen. * * * * * * * Misola moved across the dark floor of the spirit dome, casting his light about carefully as he moved. There were work lights here, but even their brilliant glow seemed unable to fully combat the gloom that lurked everywhere about. The interior of the dome seemed to absorb light, and no amount of it could to do more than light the floor and the immediate space above it. The upper regions of the dome remained aloof to the light, and teemed with shadows that that twisted and turned with a life of their own. Around him stood the large crates that held the machines - at least the science people said they were machines - that had been removed from the interior of the planet, as well as other items of interest taken from the same spaces. It was not a large amount, not yet, but it was understood that there would be more to come soon - much more. The boring machines were hard at work, even now. That they were accumulating treasure here was certain, and the entire camp was abuzz with talk of the rewards that this operation might bring to all of them by the time it was completed. And yet...though there was reason to be happy, Misola was less than happy just now. The huge old dome was not a comfortable place. There was something about this world that stretched the nerves, and left one treading softly about its mysterious places. A knowledge, appearing somewhere in the back of his mind, that they were not welcome here, not welcome at all. Misola was not accustomed to fear. No Moth was. But unease was also a survival trait, and Misola trusted his instincts enough to know when a situation demanded vigilance. Despite what Onath had said about this world being inactive and ripe for the taking, there was a taint to the atmosphere of the place that suggested otherwise. If this truly was a world of the ancient race that had constructed the elusive planet Engris, then nothing was certain. That Misola's nerves seemed to be on edge was enough to tell him that. He hefted his rifle and circled back towards the huge doors that had admitted them to the dome, and met Tif'tok coming the other way. His fellow sentry looked larger than life in his battle gear and helmet, and the way he held his own rifle seemed to suggest that his nerves were in no better shape than Misola's. Misola switched his helmet com to their private, encrypted channel, and stopped as the other man reached his side. "See anything?" "Just these infernal shadows." Tif'tok's voice sounded on edge. "This dome vibrates with something I feel deep down inside. Like it is alive, and aware. I am starting to think that Onath should come and spend a duty shift here, and see how he likes it." Misola felt humor at that. Onath was the commander in charge of the defensive force that had been placed among the science team investigating this world, and it was well known among his troops that it had been many a year since the man had seen anything more fierce in the way of combat than tumbling about with his wife mate in their sleep nest at night. Onath was sure that they were soon all to become wealthy beyond their most vivid of dreams, and his optimism had made most of the troops at least feel confident that the taking of this world's technological treasures might actually come to pass. Yet Onath was no fool, either. He was well-trained, and disciplined, and despite his eagerness to be wealthy, he had not skimped in any way in his deployment of his forces. Only his failure to come personally to inspect some of the places he had stationed his people smacked of a disrespect for this world's mysteries and possibilities - something that the older and more cynical among the security detail had noticed. Misola had been all over the empire, and had participated in several actions among subservient races straining at the collar of Moth domination. Misola was of the mind that such demonstrations among the lesser members of the empire were pointless and counterproductive. The Moth left their empire's member races pretty much alone unless they acted up; yet even the bare knowledge of this sort of passive domination was too much for some peoples to bear. They had to vent their anger every now and then, before settling back into the daily grind of life in which they contributed to the empire, but received little in the way of return. The Moth protected member races from the aggressive tendencies of other member races, but shared none of their considerable technology, nor any of the wealth they accumulated by it. Onath felt a need to remain close to Kil'brith, the ship's commander, so that he could be a part of any decisions that might be made, and thus position himself to receive any possible benefits this operation might eventually produce. His lack of visibility of late had left his most experienced troops a little cold. A leader who led from afar was hardly an inspiration. Only a periodic com check kept the man from being totally invisible to the line troops, and those stationed in places like this wretched dome had grown to resent it. "I feel it, too," Misola acknowledged. "This place is not dead, only sleeping. Like it will awaken the moment the provocation is fierce enough. Surely tunneling into the heart of this world will not go unanswered." Tif'tok grunted. "The scans of this world place its age at over one-half million cycles. Young for a natural world, but truly ancient for a made thing. The people that created this place had a science far ahead of our own at a time when our ancestors were still fighting over the mountain cliffs where they were born. It does not instill a confidence in me that no answer will come to our advances here." Misola stared at the other man. "You suggest retreat?" Tif'tok looked faintly surprised. "Of course not. But some measure of caution - or at least awareness - is indicated. Onath acts as if this were training maneuvers, or a police action on Sytophan." That last was a running joke among the Moth security forces. The Sytophani were one of the few subject races that had welcomed the Moth and celebrated their hegemony over the region. The idea of a rebellion on that world was nearly unimaginable, so visiting the place was considered a vacation for Moth security forces. "This world is no Sytophan," Misola agreed. He was about to say more when his com beeped into his ear. A message was coming in on the general channel. The unit automatically switched over, cutting him off from any reply from Tif'tok. Instead, Onath's voice filled his ears. "Attention all ground units. A heightened state of alert is in effect. Ships sensor's have detected action of some type within the body of the planet. Until further notice, a stage two battle condition is in effect. All units will report any activity whatsoever in their areas. Until we know what is happening, all scientific and construction personnel will not be allowed to move about without a security detail with them. Reassignments of guard personnel will be forthcoming. Onath, out." Misola immediately switched back to the private channel. "Hear that, Tif'tok? Something is happening already." The other man hefted his rifle, and looked around the dome carefully. "We need to consider defensive positions, if needed. And to limit what is said on this channel. You understand?" Misola did. Once battle conditions were in effect, communication privacy was only guaranteed against monitoring by enemy forces. Moth encryption was the best to be found in the five empires, but Moth record-keeping took a front seat once the alert went out. The ability to know everything that was said and done in any engagement could be crucial in determining later why that action succeeded - or failed. Rewards could be dispensed, or punishments meted out. A soldier in action was smart to keep his opinions to himself, unless they related to the actual conditions of battle. "Yes. I'm going back to the general channel now." "Very well. Let us have a look around, and see what there is to see." * * * * * * * Onath had taken a seat beside Kil'brith at the ship's command console, leaning back into the angled frame and dropping his arms onto the armrests with an eagerness he hadn't felt since his youth. Something was happening within the bowels of this strange world, something that might finally require the use of Onath's forces. He had been silently despairing of the way things had been going up until now, his forces little more than security guards watching the perimeters of this operation. But maybe now he could contribute something of substance. The more his forces could put into this operation, the greater the rewards that might come their way in the end. Kil'brith was an excellent ship commander, one of the best that operated under Baron T'usuny's sway. If wealth was to be dispersed as a result of this operation, Kil'brith could be counted upon to see that the divisions were fair. Kil'brith was watching the display in the center of the circle of seats, while across from them, Mor'ath, chief systems specialist on Ehiztari, also gazed intently at the information appearing there. "It looks like a transport of some kind, moving within a tunnel," Mor'ath decided. "And quite rapidly, too." Kil'brith grunted at that news. "Automated, do you think?" "I don't see any signs of life within the transport. But I cannot be certain." Kil'brith digested that, and then leaned forward. "Why not?" Mor'ath lifted his gaze to look across the display at him. "While the surface of this world has a breathable atmosphere and is warmed, the interior spaces we have scanned thus far have been at space normal conditions. But I am now seeing a rapid activation of both atmospheric systems and heat within the planet. That suggests a good reason for such conditions, as if someone needs them now." He cocked his head pointedly at Kil'brith. "I doubt very much it is a welcome for us." The commander of the Ehiztari gave a dry chuckle at that. "That is for certain. But we cannot rule out the idea that our presence here, or the boring machines operating within the planet's crust, may have triggered something automatic. This world is not shielded as Engris is. I do not see how any living beings can evade our sensors." Mor'ath glanced back at the readouts. "These interior transports were registered in the first scans of this world, including this particular transport. There are some hundreds of them in place, and they are all of the same construction - the same dimensions, the same mass. Except...this transport would now seem to mass more than it did in the original scans." Onath was stunned by the implications. "Are you suggesting there may be someone aboard this transport? Someone we cannot scan?" Mor'ath held up a hand. "I would think possibly more than one someone, going by the difference in mass. What I am saying is that the current figures for this transport no longer match the ones from the initial scans. And, this transport is on the move, and heading for a...well, we have come to consider these places as some sort of switching stations, where many tunnels come together there. My analysts suggest this is a place where transports can be routed to other destinations." Kil'brith gave a slow nod, apparently less startled by this announcement than was Onath. "I've had a feeling about this place. Everything has been going too smoothly." He looked over at Onath. "Ehiztari was with the coalition fleet that located Engris some years back. We were as easily repelled from that place as if we had been a swarm of ginatz buzzing about the head of a stiltz. It was a humbling experience. " He returned his gaze to the displayed images. "I would have been surprised to have looted this place unopposed." "We don't know that we are opposed as yet," Onath insisted. "One transport on the move is not necessarily anything." His eyes searched the display, fastened accusingly upon the icon of the moving transport, then jumped ahead of it and picked out a small, unfamiliar icon somewhat near the so-called switching station that the transport was on its way to. "What is that?" Kil'brith glanced at the icon, and waved a hand in dismissal. "One of the borers. It is on its way to the chamber you see at the end of the vector line ahead of it." Onath felt a surge of interest. "It's very close to that switching station where the transport is heading." Kil'brith shook his head. "It only looks close. It is at least twenty miles away, and moving in a different direction." Onath leaned closer to the commander. "I was told that the borers were running at half their normal speeds because the material of the planet was so dense. That if they ran at full speed, they would burn out prematurely. But let me ask you this: if that borer was turned towards the switching station and sent off at full speed, could it reach the station before it burned out?" Kil'brith's eyes narrowed. "I don't know." He pointed at a section of his display, and a face came up in the view. The new Moth gave a slight bow of his head. "Yes, commander?" "An'tis, I'm including you in a current display model of events happening on the planet. Can you see the inset?" "Yes, commander. That is borer number 18 you've indicated. A question about it's performance?" "Yes. If we turned it towards the destination I've highlighted, and set it moving at full speed and full bore, would it reach the place before it failed?" "Yes, definitely. But I would have to withdraw it afterwards and send a replacement to finish its original bore." Kil'brith gave an impatient grunt. "That's fine. How long to reach the indicated destination?" An'tis looked away a moment, and then is gaze returned. "About fifteen minutes." "Thank you, An'tis." Kil'brith waved the image away, and looked more closely at the icon registering as the alien transport. "It looks like it will take this transport car twelve minutes to reach the station at their current speed." His hands flew over the display then, and the icon that represented the boring machine suddenly veered towards the switching center and picked up its pace. "You're thinking to intercept them," Onath said quietly. "Or at least get a possible look at them." Kil'brith seemed satisfied. "Well done, Onath. We may not get there before the transport, but we should at least get a look at the place." He leaned forward, inspecting the display more closely. "We may have missed an opportunity here. By boring towards these switching centers, we could have utilized the tunnels already in place to reach our destinations, rather than making our own tunnels. It could prove to be faster." He turned back to Onath. "I'm having a rapid transport sent to the borehead for number 18. Can you get a squad of your people aboard quickly? I'm sending it after the borer. I want your people to inspect this transport hub. I hate surprises." He emitted a dry laugh. "I'd much rather give them to the enemy." The enemy. The line seemed to have been drawn in the sand now. Onath felt delight at that, and made a sign of agreement. "I'll get right on it."
  5. Chapter 3 -- "It doesn't always come to me on demand," Durapar said, his eyes closed, a fierce frown now contorting his face. Charlie couldn't help smiling at that. The Andaleesian's alien physiognomy seemed almost designed to delight the human eye, offering each expression with a degree of exaggeration that immediately reminded of a comedian mugging before his audience. It was almost impossible not to enjoy, and Charlie noticed the varying degrees of smiles on the faces of the others. That Durapar was a hit with all the humans was obvious by now. Even Max had a small smile in place as he watched the Andaleesian concentrate. "Do you always gotta go looking for this vision?" "No. It comes to me at the oddest times, sometimes even frustratingly so while I am attempting to concentrate on other things. So of course I will be unable to locate it when I need to." Max patted the alien on his narrow shoulder. "Just relax. We got all the time we need for this. The more relaxed you are, the better this will work." Durapar nodded, his ears again spreading and waving at the humans, and Charlie heard a small, affectionate sigh escape from Kip. "Oh...wait a moment. It's coming to me." Durapar suddenly sounded excited. "Yes, here it is. I can see it now." Charlie dropped a hand on the Andaleesian's shoulder and closed his eyes, relaxing his own mind and attempting to interface with the alien's thoughts. He didn't expect it to work, but Max had wanted to try it first, just to see if Charlie's own abilities were sharpening with time. To his surprise, he did see something in his mind's eye. Or...well, he sensed something. It didn't arrive as an actual image in his mind, but rather a lack of one. Instead he sensed a formless area of gray, marked only by the feeling that this was not something that had originated in Charlie's own mind. But it just sort of floated there, doing nothing, no matter how Charlie tried to turn it or make it clearer. Charlie opened his eyes. "I see something, but it's just sort of like a gray cloud in my head. But I do feel like I'm getting it from Durapar." Max nodded. "Hey, you're improving. Great! Okay, now move over and let Casper and Ragal get between you and Durapar." That was done, and Charlie clasped Ragal's hand, while he clasped Casper's, and he clasped Durapar's. The Andaleesian looked astounded. "This will work? This...chain?" Max laughed. "It's like a circuit, is all. But each person in the chain is isolated from anyone they're not touching. So Casper will hopefully see what you see, because one of his talents is looking into other people's minds. And Ragal, whose specialty is adaptation, will hopefully be able to translate what Casper sees into something Charlie can see. If that works, Charlie can travel to the place you see in your head. He will form a sorta mental roadway, or path. I can follow along that path almost to the end. With Rick's help pushing, and Kip and Adrian adding power, I can hopefully go all the way to the place you can see. Once I'm actually there, we'll come back here, and then I can transport everyone back to the chamber. Simple." Durapar emitted a loud, barking, amazed laugh, that had everyone grinning. "If you say it's simple, I'll trust you. Very well, let's try it." Once again the Andaleesian closed his eyes. "Oh...now where did you go, little vision?" Charlie smiled and closed his eyes. This was going to be interesting. "Ah...there you are. I am again seeing the place inside Engris." Casper sucked in his breath. "Oh, it's big!" "You see it?" Max asked. "Yes. It's a huge chamber, with a very tall roof of stone above it. The walls are stone, too...but they're polished. The floor is also polished smooth. And there are all kinds of...I think they're machines...standing around, but they don't look like anything I've ever seen before, and so I'm not sure what they are." "That's it!" Durapar shouted, excitedly. "You've got it!" "I can see it, too," Ragal said quietly. "Well...let me see what I can do about refining this image...a moment please...there." He grunted softly. "Well, well. Wait until you see this, Charlie." Charlie was already feeling the familiar stream from Ragal. The man's mind was smooth as silk, powerful and patient and careful. The image formed slowly inside Charlie's head, a piece at a time, walls filling in with broad brush strokes of light, then the roof, and the floor, and then the weird-looking things that might be machines popping into place all around. Charlie looked around the completed image, and gave a soft whistle. "Man! It looks like the biggest underground train station I've ever seen!" "You see trains?" Kippy asked quietly, but the surprise in his voice clear. "Um...no. Sorry. There's no tracks or anything, and no trains. But the room is huge like that, like Grand Central or something, only...even bigger." "I'm coming in," Max said, and Charlie felt the elf take his free hand. Charlie heard movement in the room, and knew that Ricky was taking a seat on the other side of Max, and both Adrian and Kip taking seats beside Rick. "We're ready," Ricky said. Max gave a ready sigh."Okay, Charlie." Charlie nodded, and moved toward the image in his mind. In that moment, the huge room telescoped away from him, and the image of the tremendous chamber receded from his view, its place taken now by an arched hallway of gray stone. A light at the far end seemed to suggest that the great room was now there, at the end of the hallway. Unlike other times that Charlie had done this, this hallway seemed very short, probably because the room he was seeing was close by, at least as far as stellar distances went. "I'm here," Max announced, and Charlie felt the elf in his mind with him. And then his image appeared beside Charlie at the hallway. "At least the path looks short this time." "I'm assuming it's because the place that Durapar sees is right here on the planet, and not light years away." "Works for me. Wanna take a little walk?" Charlie smiled, and started forward in his mind, while Max fell into step beside him. They proceeded down the hallway together, arrived at the halfway point, and it was there that Max started to slow down. "I'm at the point of resistance. You coming, Rick?" Charlie's magic and Max's magic moved in two different directions, each born of a different side of the same coin. They could work together to a point, but they had already found that when they traveled this way, Max needed help once he got about halfway to the end of the journey. Once the halfway point was reached. Charlie's magic began to push back against Max's, and as the resistance increased, Max found it harder and harder to move onward. Without assistance, he would arrive at the end of the short hallway and be unable to take the final step into the room beyond. But fortunately, they had an answer to that problem. "I'm here," Ricky said, coming up beside them in the hallway. "Man! Will you look at this place!" Charlie smiled. "Kip and Adrian?" "Oh, they're with me, ready to help power this show." Ricky shrugged then. "I don't know how much we'll need them, though. The way looks really short." "The resistance will build really fast, is all," Max supplied. "You'll see." Max was right. They proceeded onward, and had only taken a few steps when Max grunted. "A little help?" Charlie took the elf by the arm and started to pull him along, while Ricky fell in behind Max and started to push. They made good time that way, and soon arrived at the end of the hallway. Beyond them, the great room's extremities were draped in shadow, while the strange machines sparkled with light and colors. It seemed almost unreal, like a glittery palace from out of some fairy tale. And only a few steps away, too. "Wonder who the decorator was?" Max managed, around a grunt of effort. "Looks like early atomic pile, from the inside." Charlie laughed at that. "How are you doing?" "I'm okay. A little winded, but nothing like that time we went to help Pacha and the others. Having Rick start to push early works wonders." Charlie turned to his friend. "How about you?" Ricky nodded. "I'm okay. This isn't a lot of work for me, for some reason." "How about we take these last few steps, fellas?" Max pleaded. "Then I can catch my breath." Ricky and Charlie exchanged grins, and then Charlie nodded. "On my mark. One...two...three! Heave!" They surged forward, a sudden pulse of energy arriving from Kippy and Adrian that boosted their charge towards the room. And then they encountered a slightly rubbery resistance that threatened to halt Max altogether; but Charlie felt Kip and Adrian ramp up the power, and Ricky give an even greater push...and then they popped through the barrier and found themselves within the great chamber. Ricky released Max and came around to stand beside them. "That was easy." "Says you!" Max returned, sighing hugely. "Me, I'm ready for a nap!" The boys laughed at that, and Max grinned. "Nah. Really, this was a whole lot easier than going after Pacha and the guys. Good work, fellas. You too, Kip and Adrian. You guys are getting really strong!" "So we're really here?" Charlie asked. "Enough for the location book. I can get back here now without help. What say we go back and get the others?" They turned then, and retraced their path through the hallway. Going back seemed a lot easier, with Max almost propelled from behind by Charlie's magic until they reached the halfway point. From there it was smooth sailing back to the start of the hallway. Charlie opened his eyes then, and let the breath sigh out of him, relieved at their success. He was again seated between Max and Ragal. Durapar, at the start of the chain, suddenly jumped to his feet. "Did it work?" Charlie nodded. "Like a charm." "It was close by, so it wasn't that bad," Max agreed. He grinned at Durapar. "But now I know where this place is, and we can all go there." Durapar clasped his hands together in joy. "I know you mean right now, too!" Max held up a hand. "Hold up a second." He looked around at the others. "Does everyone want to go?" His eyes landed on Sefton, who had been seated quietly the entire time, watching and listening. "What about you?" The giant slid forward and rose to his feet. "Interesting, what you did. I sensed path you took, but could not see, could not follow. But I wish very much to see depths of Engris in person." "Everybody else?" There were no dissenting votes. Everyone was going. "Oh...we'll need some supplies!" Durapar said then. "Some food, and water, and --" "No, we won't," Max said, waving a hand. "I can get all that stuff right to us. We can go pretty much as we are. Why carry a bunch of junk?" "Oh." Durapar looked briefly confused, and then smiled. "I forgot you can do that." The Andaleesian leaned forward then. "Do you know how rare that talent is out here?" Max shrugged. "Not where I come from. Are you ready?" "Yes. What do I need to do?" Durapar thought of something else then, and barked out another laugh. "Oh, won't Mertril be confounded when we do not leave the shop through the front, yet cannot be found back here!" "Leave the privacy doodad running, and she'll never know we left." Durapar seemed to think about that, and nodded. "That would be best. I'd just as soon she not start talking to anyone about our sudden disappearance." Max waved around at the others. "If none of you guys have anything else you need to do, come on closer, okay?" "Do we need to touch you?" Durapar asked. "No. It works best that way, but as long as everyone gets close, it's almost as easy. Just gather around, folks." They all did that, and in a moment were standing in the vast chamber far beneath the surface of ancient Engris. * * * * * * * At first, no one said a word. Everyone just stared around them, taking in the view. The chamber dwarfed them, the dark stone ceiling at least fifty feet above their heads, and the far walls so distant as to show only by the sparkling light that rebounded from them. That light was supplied by hundreds of tall, crystalline structures, no two the same, that seemed to grow from the floor at random intervals all about the great chamber. It was the way they pulsed with lights of all colors, yet in a decidedly organized fashion, that suggested they were machines of some sort. The room hummed with a deep, smooth sound, that spoke of power and organization of some kind, and Charlie imagined these machines running just as they were now for the last half-million years of time. "Awesome," Ricky said quietly. Charlie grinned at that, and nodded. "As always, you're right on the money, Rick." Kippy took Charlie's hand then and squeezed it. "Oh, I feel we are supposed to be here, Charlie." He turned to Adrian. "What about you?" "I agree. And that we're just in time, too!" "Magnificent!" Durapar breathed, his eyes trying to be everywhere at once. "To actually be here! I can scarcely believe it." "It's some place, alright," Max agreed. "I can feel the power here. And it's a lot!" "These are indeed machines," Ragal said, waving a hand at the pulsing crystals. "I've seen their like before. They are not strictly made of matter, but are a framework of energy fields supporting intelligent material inclusions." He smiled. "This feels like home to me." Charlie licked his lips carefully. "Is it? Home, I mean?" Ragal turned to smile at him. "Why, Charlie. Are you still suspecting that my people created Engris?" "The thought did cross my mind. You come from the right period in time." Ragal shook his head. "No, Charlie. This sort of technology was available in my time, but my people had nothing to do with Engris. As I told you before, Engris was not known of in my time." Ragal turned to look at the pulsing crystals. "Besides, this technology is several steps ahead of what I knew, I suspect. These constructions are far more elaborate than anything my people produced." "What are they?" Charlie asked. "What do these things do?" "They organize functions." Ragal smiled at the closest crystalline structure. "They oversee operations. They create rules. They change rules. They listen. They contemplate. And they act." He laughed. "I'm sure we are looking at the brains of Engris. Or part of them, at least." "Looks like the high-IQ type," Ricky quipped, gawking around at the machines. "You think they know we're here?" "They know!" Casper called. "They're watching us!" "I would say they do," Ragal agreed. He turned to Max, and then to Charlie. "Anybody sense that? The feeling that something is coming closer?" "I do!" Casper whispered. "A couple of somethings." "I feel it," Kippy said, moving closer to Charlie. Adrian just nodded, and wrapped his arm around Ricky's. Charlie could feel it now, too. Almost as if he was standing at a window back home and watching someone come slowly up the front walk. Someone he didn't know, didn't recognize, but someone that was somehow familiar, nonetheless. So he was surprised when Horace came to stand next to him, his eyes looking back and forth among the pulsing machines. "I think I feel something, myself. And it's something I have felt before." He smiled. "At one of the true hauntings I have been witness too, in fact." Max grunted. "Just stay cool, everyone. This doesn't feel bad to me." "Something does come," Sefton agreed, his eyes closed. "Like at spirit domes, but...not painful." Twenty feet away from their group, the stone floor bubbled upward in a circle an easy thirty feet across. As the bubble rose it parted at the center, and the sides retracted back to the floor, leaving a clean circle of darkness there that was geometrically perfect. Immediately, a mist started to rise from the new hole, split, and formed two tall columns of light that had tiny sparkles of energy winking about inside them. At the same time, they began to hear what sounded like a crowd of people around them, all whispering at once, but in a language that none of them could understand. Yet there was no one there, just the two misty columns coming closer. "Amazing," Durapar breathed, clenching his hands in delight before him. "I do believe we are about to be contacted!" Charlie agreed with that wholeheartedly. The two misty columns of light looked just like Billy and Will when they first appeared in the spirit domes, except that these two were at least twice the height. Even as he watched, they moved away from the new hole in the floor, and settled to earth not ten feet away from them. Any slowly formed into... They were not a familiar race. Charlie took an involuntary step backwards, and Kip with him, stunned at what they were seeing, and Charlie sensed the same reaction from a few of the others. The two aliens now before him were tall and lean - even taller than Ragal. Taller even than Sefton's eight feet in height. They appeared bipedal, with two long arms and two long legs, and a face that was almost like an inverted triangle, narrow at the bottom and widening at the top, and expanding into a large, domed skull above. Tall, pointed ears adorned each side of the skull, giving the beings a slightly demonic look. The alien's eyes were large and round, without brows or lashes. They were like no eyes Charlie had ever seen, and in color were a soft brown, almost like the gentle eyes of a very big and very friendly dog. But these eyes held a sharp intelligence that could not be missed, and conveyed a sense of ages past that was undeniable. Both of the new arrivals were dressed in simple white clothing, a shirt and a pair of pants, though neither looked quite like anything a human might be able to wear, even had they shared the alien's noble dimensions. The pants seemed to flow directly into some sort of footwear, which covered a heroically-sized pair of feet. But of a belt, pockets, or any other sort of additions, there was no sign. One of the aliens raised an arm in their direction, and Charlie saw now that the five digits at the end were not like human fingers, but more like small, nimble tentacles, jointless and fluid in their motion. Both sets of alien eyes sought out Durapar, and then the alien mouths stretched in what could only be smiles. "Durapar. You have come." The voice was deep and strong, and Charlie had the weirdest thought that this was what a whale would sound like if it could speak English. Durapar looked awed, and nodded his head almost comically, but the joy in his eyes was unmistakable. "Yes. After so long a time, I have finally arrived here!" The second alien gave a slight bow to the entire group. "And Charlie, and Max, and Kip, and Ragal, and Rick, and Casper, and Adrian, and Horace. And Sefton, not the least of all." Charlie took a step forward before he was even aware he was going to do so. "You are...you are the people that built Engris?" The first giant turned his way, and the smile seemed to somehow intensify. "Yes. We are the Madracorn, creators of Engris. Welcome." Charlie turned over the unfamiliar word in his head, and had to smile at it. Madracorn! It sounded almost like some legendary fantasy beast out of human mythical lore. But...finally! A name for the people that had created Engris so long ago! Kippy stepped up beside Charlie. "We're very pleased to meet you." Charlie beamed at his boyfriend, the simplicity of his words seemingly incongruous to such a monumental meeting, yet so right, somehow, that it brought a swell of happiness to Charlie's heart. "Yes," he agreed, nodding. "We are pleased to finally meet you." The others chimed in in agreement, and Charlie grinned around at the others. Max stepped forward then, and pointed a finger at the two aliens. "Stop doing that, right now." One of the two Madracorns offered up a pleasant chuckle. "I did tell you that Max would find you out." The other Madracorn managed to look surprised. "Yes, you did. And I didn't believe you." This one's eyes focused on Max now. "You were the wildcard, Max, and I see now it was a just judgment." But the great head bowed in a nod. "I will release you now." Charlie, taken aback at Max's inexplicable conduct, felt a sudden lessening of his joy at meeting the Madracorn. It was still there, but lower down and honestly felt, and not the overpowering thing it had been only a moment ago. He cast an unsure glance at the two tall aliens, and then leaned closer to Max. "What just happened?" Max turned to him and smiled. "They're power users, Charlie. That fella there was making all of you overjoyed to meet them." "A precaution, only," the accused said, his smile not diminishing in the least. "In the past we found that our appearance is intimidating to some, especially the younger races in space, and I only sought to lessen the shock of it to you." Max nodded, and smiled himself. "You're lucky you're telling the truth, because I know a liar when I see one." He laughed. "But you don't need that stuff with us. We've all been around a little bit." "We apologize for doubting you," the first Madracorn returned. "I am Eseffa, and my companion is Jorli." Charlie gave his shoulders a little shake, and smiled. He was still very happy to finally meet the builders of Engris, and it was a more satisfying happiness now that the overabundance of sweetness was gone. But just as a precaution, he turned to his boyfriend and gave a nod towards the two Madracorn. "What d'ya think?" Kippy eyed the two aliens a moment, and then smiled. "I like them. But I also think they're both rascals." Eseffa and Jorli both laughed, a deep and somehow genuinely pleased sound. "We are caught, Jorli!" Eseffa said heartily. Durapar, who had been listening in plain disbelief, turned to Max. "They tricked us?" "Oh, no," Max said, hastily. He smiled at the two Madracorn. "Power users all have talents that they use pretty much automatically when needed. These guys can...among a bunch of other things, I think...make it easier to meet them by making it a happy time, instead of a stressful one. Know what I mean?" "It was not meant as a deception," Jorli said immediately. "I apologize if my action disturbed you. Its intent was to dispel any discomfort our appearances might generate among you." Durapar placed his hands on his...sides, and managed to look a little indignant. "Friends do not do that to friends." "I fully agree," Eseffa replied. "We misjudged you, and I am indeed sorry. It was just that we need your assistance so keenly, and we did not know any of you well enough to know how you might react to our appearance. The memories of past encounters still haunt us, I'm afraid." "You are pretty big," Adrian admitted then. "And a little bit intimidating," Ricky agreed. "Yeah, but they're sweet," Casper said softly. Ragal laughed at that. "There you go. There is no fooling this one." He patted Casper affectionately on one arm. Horace moved to stand beside Charlie. "Imagine for a moment entering a dark cave back on Earth, and running into two such as these. Would it unsettle you?" Charlie blinked at that, and then had to smile. "A little, I think." Kippy tsked. "You'd be running as fast as me, Charlie Boone!" Everyone laughed at that, and Charlie felt the new tension between the group and the two Madracorn evaporate. "So let's agree to relax," Max said. He arched his eyebrows pointedly at the Madarcorn. "And get down to business?" Eseffa gave a small bow of his head. "We agree not to attempt to influence you in any way save by our words. Right, Jorli?" The other Madracorn chuckled. "Having been caught at it once? Never again!" Ricky laughed, and leaned closer to Charlie to whisper. "These guys are different than what I expected." "Our hearing is exceptional, too," Eseffa said, smiling at Ricky. The tall alien spread his arms to take them all in. "We are not unaware of the legends surrounding Engris, and those that created it. Ourselves. It would be impossible to live up to such stories, and I will tell you now that we will not even try. We are people, just like you. Our science was the result of time and persistence, and no exceptional brilliance on our part. If we are to work together to save Engris, we must do it as people, all working together." Charlie leaned forward at that. "Is Engris in danger?" "Yes. Not in immediate danger. That lies in the future. But the roots of this peril have sprouted even now, and now is when it will be the easiest to deal with it. To wait will place this world in certain peril, perhaps even within your own lifetimes." "That's pretty soon," Casper said. He looked up at Ragal. "I believe him." "I do as well," Ragal agreed. He smiled at Charlie. "Just a feeling I have." Charlie laughed at that. He was feeling much the same, that they were exactly where they were supposed to be right now, doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing. That feeling had accompanied all of their adventures thus far, and Charlie trusted it now. He nodded. "Okay. But...just one thing. You and Jorli...you are both, um, passed, right?" Eseffa laughed. "You mean dead? Yes. For several hundred thousand years now." The tall alien struck a pose. "Do I look it?" Everyone gaped a little, and then a round of quiet laughter circled the group. "You don't look a day over a quarter-million to me," Kippy said, straight-faced. "Being dead must agree with you." Both aliens seemed delighted at that. "Could we?" Max asked, giving his head a little shake. But his eyes were bright with humor. "I mean, we're here for a reason, right?" Eseffa offered a small bow of his head. "Yes. We'll save the kidding for later." His large eyes moved slowly over the group standing before him. "You all know by now that life is sequential. That it moves from one state to the next. It took our own science some time to discern this. The project that culminated in Engris was conceived to address this issue, as you well know. Once placed back in communication with those members of our race that had moved on, we were able to use the knowledge they passed to us to refine the processes involved. Engris, as you see it today, was the end result of many thousands of years of study." "It's impressive," Charlie said. "No question about that. But I do wonder why we needed to come here to meet you. Why couldn't that have been done in a dome?" "I'll take this one," Jorli said. "The domes are designed to interface the living with those that have passed on. But they are also specialized places, where sympathetic sciences are used to link the living user with those that they wish to meet with. The simple fact is, one cannot go straight to a dome and call up a complete stranger. If there is no link between the living and the dead, no meeting can be established." "That seems a flaw," Horace said quietly. Eseffa raised a hand and waggled his fingers, which seemed to be a form of agreement. "It is, unfortunately, the way the science works. But before you assume that no strangers could ever be met, let me correct that impression. A living user could employ any of the various information technologies available on Engris to familiarize himself with a departed person's life story, and enough of a link could be formed to allow for contact. One must know of the departed, at least, if not know him personally. It was a two-step process, and it worked well most of the time. However, even this method would not have allowed us to contact your group." Ricky grunted. "No way we could know of you guys beforehand." "Exactly." "So how is it you can contact us here?" Adrian asked, waving a hand at the immense room. Jorli picked up the narrative at that point. "Engris was designed to be perpetual. Eternal. But even so, it was known that entropy exists even here, in the dark zone between realities. A tendency towards disorder. Even the best technologies are subject to the determined attempts of the universe to disorganize them over time. And while time here is very, very slow, enough of it passing can still add up. So provisions were made so that those of us like Eseffa and me...the passed, to use your term, could monitor Engris over time. Once our race had all passed in the normal universe, that is. It was thought that some millions of years down the line, adjustments might be needed in order to keep Engris running efficiently." "But it's only been a half-million years," Durapar pointed out. "Did something go wrong?" "No. Engris is not in need of adjustment yet. The reason for our appearance now concerns a danger to this world from the outside." "Yes," Eseffa said now. "Provisions were made to the technology of return to allow us to appear in any of the spaces within Engris where the machines that keep this world in operation might be located. In this way we could make any necessary modifications needed to keep things running smoothly." "But you're dead, if you'll pardon my bluntness, " Ragal said. "How can you effect change to material things in this universe?" "We are power-users," Jorli said. "Like yourselves. Those talents do not cease with the death of the body. Our talents allow us to manipulate matter. Max understands this form of energy use." Max grunted. "Yep." "What about my vision?" Durapar asked. "Did one of you send that to me?" "No." Jorli responded. "That was simply your own talent in action. We only put out the need for contact at this place, and yours was the talent that filled in the missing pieces. We hoped that someone on Engris would be responsive. We are pleased it was someone who would feel the need to act, and did." "It took me some time to find the right people. I hope not too long, if this danger to Engris is as imminent as you suggest." "It was not too long," Eseffa acknowledged. "Any danger to Engris from one of the normal space-time continua would be negligible, because of the differences in the flow of time between the two. This present danger to Engris is growing here, in the dark zone, even as we speak." "We call it the Cooee," Kippy said, smiling. Eseffa laughed. "As good a name as any. But because this action takes place here, in the Cooee, our opponents have as much time to work as we do, relatively speaking." "Opponents?" Charlie asked. "Yes." Jorli gave a very good rendition of a human frown, and then followed with a slight bow of his head. "Some history is in order." Sefton, who had stood quietly by while the various exchanges had been occurring, suddenly raised a hand. "A question?" "Certainly." Jorli turned towards the Molokar. "All of you...feel free to ask questions at any time. Sefton?" "Yes. Must say that many Molokar, including self, have had painful experiences around spirit domes. Manifestations there cause pain inside head. Can explain?" Jorli turned towards his companion. "You see? I was right about these Molokar. Their sensory abilities run very deeply." Eseffa briefly bowed his head. "Yes. Sefton, a rather complex series of events occurs in order to allow the living and the dead to meet inside the domes. Your abilities run strongly to interpretation. You have a native ability to read other people, and to sift and analyze the events that surround you. It is my suspicion that the pain you feel at the domes when they are in operation results from an innate attempt to follow what is essentially a near-infinite stream of micro-events that come into being, mutate, and then expire in the course of a meeting between the living and the dead." "Infinite micro-events?" Charlie repeated. "Yes. This is the reason Engris needed to be placed in the Cooee. To utilize the nearly negligible lapse of time here in relation to the operations involved in establishing the link between this reality and the next. To perform such an operation in the universe we know would take...well, almost forever." "That's a long time!" Ricky said, shaking his head. "It isn't actually forever, though," Jorli explained. "It is simply of such a duration that the living member of the meeting would certainly expire before the contact was established." "So is no way to mitigate experience?" Sefton asked. "I'm afraid not. It is your own talent that is the source of your pain." "Yet feel no pain here." "This is not a dome, and our contact has not been initiated in the way a dome initiates contact. Eseffa and I can come to this place at will, without anyone being here at all. You being here at the same time means we can communicate. But the processes are different. No input was needed from your end to make it happen. Thus you will feel no pain." "Ah." Durapar looked delighted. "It all seems clear now!" "You were going to tell us some history?" Max put in, patiently. Charlie smiled at that. Max did like to get to the heart of things quickly. "Yes." Eseffa waved one of his hands around the room. "What you see here is the fifth attempt by my people to construct a place such as this. There are four other worlds similar to Engris, here in the Cooee." Adrian suddenly reached over and tapped Kippy's shoulder. "Hey! Remember when we picked up Bobby? He said he'd been kidnapped by a flying saucer and taken to a planet that was inside the Cooee!" Kippy looked excited. "Yeah! And it was some kind of weird time rate there that made him lose 1957 when he returned to normal space. He wound up in our time, instead!" "Meergris," Jorli supplied. "The first attempt to create our project. We already know that it has been found and is being used by others for some harmless purpose." "Pirates," Charlie supplied. "Or thieves of some kind, from what Bobby said." He looked up at Eseffa. "Is this important?" "It is not. Meergris is simply a world afloat in the Cooee. The only technology the world has is the ability to stay here in the dark zone. It was deemed insufficient for our needs after being placed here, and abandoned." Ricky grunted. "Your insurance must be outrageous!" The two Madracorn looked at each other, and then smiled at Rick. "We don't understand that reference," Jorli said. Ricky looked slightly embarrassed. "Doesn't matter." Max rolled his eyes. "The history lesson?" "I'm sorry," Eseffa returned. "It's easy to get distracted. We haven't spoken with the living in a very long time." Jorli chuckled. "We don't get out much." Charlie smiled, not sure how much of what was being said was serious, and what was humor. Kippy appeared to be right in his description of the Madracorn: they were rascals! "Anyway," Jorli continued, "that accounts for the first such project we placed in the Cooee. There are three others before Engris." "So you said," Max returned. "This problem you're having concerns them?" "One of them," Eseffa agreed. "Lyrgris, the fourth of the world ships we constructed." "World ships?" Adrian asked. "Yes. That's actually what these constructions are. World-sized ships, able to voyage the Cooee indefinitely. The first three were judged inadequate almost as soon as they were placed within the Cooee. Construction facilities are of necessity located in our normal universe, where materials and industry are readily available. There is simply nothing within the Cooee at all. These world ships were constructed in the normal universe and later placed here in the dark zone. The Cooee, rather." "But there was some problem with them?" Horace asked. "Yes. There is a specific geometry and resonance that the core of the world ship must have in order for the process of spirit induction to work correctly. Building a ship the size of a world allows for anomalies to creep in. And, once it is placed into the zero-gravity environment of the Cooee, any imperfections can become exaggerated." Charlie frowned at that. "Zero-gravity?" Jorli chuckled. "Yes. The Cooee is a universe in size, Charlie. And totally, completely, forever empty of matter. Gravity has never been born here, so there are no gravitational waves to propagate. Our own universe is teeming with matter, and gravitational affects are everywhere, even if relatively minute in strength at any one given location. But all matter is affected to some extent by the other matter in our universe. Here, it is not so. So when the first three world ships were placed here, their structures were changed incrementally by the lack of gravity here. In each case it placed the geometry and resonance characteristics of the all-important core into the negative end of optimum operational parameters. Rather than try to move ahead with a flawed construction, they were simply abandoned." "Wow," Adrian said. Ricky whistled. "Just the first three were defective?" Eseffa bowed his head slightly. "The fourth world was close enough to the optimal operational parameters for further construction to proceed. While the first three world ships had their drives installed and nothing else, the fourth world ship was much more completely outfitted, with operational and defensive systems placed, and cities constructed on the surface. It was only as these events were underway that the added mass finally pushed the world out of operational parameters again. The project was halted, and eventually abandoned. But we had finally learned enough at that point to create a fifth project that was ultimately successful. That would be the Engris you see around you." Kippy raised a hand. "The fourth world ship is the problem, I sense." "Yes." Eseffa again bowed his head. "Our people were--" He broke off and glanced at Jorli. "Careless," that one supplied, bluntly. Eseffa looked pained. "Yes. Lyrgris was abandoned, but no provisions were made for its defense. The defensive systems are there, but the directional key that would guide them was never set in place. At the time, it was simply thought that the sheer size of the Cooee was defense enough. That no one would ever find Lyrgris, lost as it was in an entire, empty universe." The Madracorn's eyes focused on Charlie. "We were wrong." "Somebody found it?" Charlie asked. "Yes. We should have begun to worry when Meergris was found, but it was considered an amazing bit of chance, and nothing else. We should have moved at that point to secure Lyrgris." Ricky waved a hand. "What's wrong with it?" "As I have said, operational and defensive system were installed, but never activated. With no operational defenses in place, there has been nothing to prevent these people that have found Lyrgris from landing and attempting to locate and study the systems that are in place." Jorli leaned forward then. "We are able to go to Lyrgris just as we are able to come here. We have been observing those that have now based themselves on the world ship. We have listened to their plans." Eseffa also leaned forward now. "Their goal is to learn the defenses of Lyrgris, so that they may later tackle the ones here on Engris. Their ultimate goal is to seize Engris." The vast room's humming was the only sound heard then. Charlie looked around at the others, and saw the same consternation upon their faces. Seize Engris! Ricky balled up his fists. "We can't let that happen!" Kippy squeezed Charlie's arm. "We won't. We'll think of something, won't we, Charlie?" "We will need to," Ragal said then. "To have Engris fall into the wrong hands might be catastrophic to the five empires. And certainly to the people that live here." "Like us!" Casper put in, sounding angry. "We'll fight!" "Whoa, whoa," Max said, raising his hands. "We don't even know who these people are, or what their motives might be." "I believe you do know them," Eseffa countered. He raised a hand, and a round section of the air before them colored and went dark. It immediately filled in with a picture then, of a part of one of the magnificent cities that the Madracorn had left behind. The graceful towers were there, fading into the darkness beyond, and a spirit dome was nestled between the two closest ones. But unlike the cities of Engris, which were illuminated with a ghostly glow, this city was completely dark. So was the world around it. What light that there was came from a ring of spotlights on a ship grounded on the wide area of pavers before the city, and from other lights set up around an encampment that bustled with activity. The view moved in, and some of those moving purposefully about came into view. Kippy sucked in his breath then, and Charlie froze. The aliens were very tall, very black, leathery-looking beings, with great, shiny black eyes that were hooded by large ridges in their bony skulls. Below the eyes, there was no nose, no mouth, only more of the black, leathery flesh. Where the mouth would have been in a human, a series of wide, bony ridges stood out, between each of which was a hint of red, as if some soft tissue lurked within. Their figures seemed somehow indistinct, almost as if a dark mistiness swirled about them, one that tried to push the eyes away, even as Charlie fought to keep his gaze fastened upon them. The view moved in closer, arriving before one of the aliens standing at the base of the ship's boarding tube, as he silently watched the business progressing about him. The cool intelligence within the eyes of this one was plain. Another of the aliens came closer, said something they could not hear, and then looked away as the first raised a hand and pointed. Charlie saw then that there was an area of dark webbed flesh beneath the alien's arm, like the wing of a bat. "Shit!" Ricky said softly. Charlie had to agree. Yes, they did know these people. They had tangled with them once before, far away, in another part of the galaxy, and the experience had not been a pleasant one. "I see you do know them," Jorli said quietly. Charlie nodded, and turned back to gaze at the dark alien in the view. The Moth had found Lyrgris.
  6. Chapter 2 -- "My people have a strain of adventurism in them, just as most races do," Durapar told them. "Yet this was not my original reason for coming to Engris. I was fascinated by the tales of the spirit domes, and what they represented. The technology, of course; but it was the idea that some part of life remained after the death of the body. Some organization of forces persisted that allowed for awareness to continue. I wanted to know more about that." "We've felt some of that curiosity," Charlie confirmed. He smiled. "That sense of wonder. We have departed friends we have been able to meet again at the domes. It's actually a wonderful thing." Durapar took a sip of his drink and waved a hand. "But you are power users. That makes all the difference." Kippy turned puzzled eyes on Charlie before aiming them back at the Andaleesian. "How does that matter?" "It makes all the difference. In my studies of the domes, I have determined that the experience is not quite the same for those that are not like us." Adrian leaned forward. "How is it different? They can't see the spirits like we can?" "No, they can see them. But there is apparently some element of the mind of the power user that assists with organizing what manifests at the domes into people we have known. Non-power users vary in their ability to perceive what occurs there. Some see their lost ones just as we do. Others simply see misty apparitions that could be almost anything, while yet others have an even more negative experience, and are frightened. This would seem to be the main reason for the legends that abound that this world is haunted." "Is true," Sefton agreed. "Is why I always stay with floater car when you visit domes. What I see in domes is disturbing. Not wish to repeat the experience." "That's the situation with many hauntings," Horace said. "People often do not recognize the things they see and hear." "Misinterpretation of the data," Charlie agreed, nodding. "I mean, the information that enters your eyes and ears. I can understand how that would change things." "It also suggests something else important," Ragal put in, his expression thoughtful. "That the builders of Engris were themselves power users." Durapar looked delighted. "Exactly. The spirit domes are designed to interact with the minds of power users, and those without such mental abilities can get a much less clear idea of what is happening." "That doesn't seem right," Ricky put in quickly. "We have friends - Mike and Bobby - who are not power users. But they see the same things we do at the dome. Bobby even got to see his grandmother." "Ah. They are of your race?" "Yeah. I mean, yes." Durapar offered up his slightly goofy smile. "Your kind counts power users among the population, though from what Max tells me, not all of you are yet fully aware. But that means that your kind are power users, whether all are currently active or not. So I think that means that all of your people will experience the domes in the same fashion, no matter their current level of awareness. It is a quality present within your minds, whether in active use or not." Ricky laughed. "Who knew?" "Just a second," Charlie said, looking at Sefton anew. "Something you said just seeped in. You said that the Molokar are power users." "Indeed they are, but of a different sort. Your kind and mine are active power users. At least, that is what I term them. Our minds have the ability to redirect power from the universal flow itself and use it to mold our environment." Durapar leaned forward then, his big blue eyes bright with anticipation. "But there is another kind of power user, in case you did not know. These I term passive power users. They are sensitive to the universe in other ways than are we, and while they generally cannot manipulate physical forces as we do, they do seem able to interact with the universe in ways that we can only imagine." Ragal raised a hand and smiled. "Here." Charlie nodded. "Oh, I get it." Durapar turned and indicated Sefton. "The Molokar are passive power users. They are sensitive, but in a different way. This accounts for Sefton's wariness of the domes. His mind senses much more of the underlying forces in action in the domes, altering the experience of meeting those departed that arrive there." "He sees the man behind the curtain," Horace mused, nodding. "Instead of just the wizard onstage." "Wow," Adrian offered, looking impressed. "Are there a lot of passive power users out there?" "It is my conclusion that the passive power users outnumber the active sort quite handily." "Wow," Adrian said again. Ricky grinned at that, and put an arm around his boyfriend's shoulders and gave him a brief hug. "So what about everybody else?" Kippy asked. "The people that are neither one of those kind of power users?" "Isolates. They see the universe only with their physical senses. They are the most common form of intelligent life in the galaxy." Charlie nodded. "And the isolates? They would have the most trouble seeing spirits in the domes?" "Not necessarily." Durapar smiled at that. "It is the turn of mind of the beholder, so to speak, as much as anything. The Molokar have none of the normal talents associated with what we term power users. Their talents are passive. Yet they are sensitives, able to read other species rather more intently than most, and have certain talents of their own that fall under a study called --" Durapar frowned a moment, as if thinking. "Gospa," Sefton supplied, looking amused. "I am Gospeth, myself." "I've heard of that," Ricky said immediately. He turned to Charlie and smiled, and patted the hilt of his vibratory dagger. "From the guy who sold me this." "I remember," Charlie said, nodding. "How does this affect what we want to do?" Kippy asked. "Most people that come here don't do it for the domes, anyway." "True." Durapar made a very human-like nod, but it was accompanied by a spreading and waving of his small ears that again made the action seem humorous. Charlie just smiled, his liking for the little alien going up another notch. "But it does bring us to the crux of what I wish to convey to you," Durapar continued. "The matter of the builders of Engris being power users." Charlie shook his head. "But these Elders are gone, aren't they? You speak as if they're still around." Durapar set his glass on the table and briefly tapped his fingertips together. "I'm assuming they are still around, if only in that other reality now. In death." The alien's expression took on a touch of amazement. "To all appearances, they built an entire world that functioned as a meeting place for themselves and those members of their race that had departed this reality. I originally thought that those that created Engris did so entirely for their own use. I thought the fact that other races can also use Engris for the same purpose was just an aside to the original matter." Durapar leaned forward again, his eyes intent. "I've changed my thinking about that." Kippy emitted a soft grunt. "Are you suggesting the Elders wanted other races to use Engris?" Durapar nodded. "I now think it was part of their purpose, yes. Perhaps not originally, but later. I think that Engris was deliberately left running exactly because the Elders hoped that others would find the world and use it." "They saw a need?" Casper asked, speaking up for the first time. "For the future?" The Andaleesian looked surprised at Casper's deduction, and let his eyes circle the watching faces. "Yes. I think they knew that, at some future point, they would need to contact others." "Meaning them over there, contacting people over here," Ricky said, thoughtfully. "Like us, maybe?" Kippy squeezed Charlie's hand, a signal that his boyfriend was feeling something positive about what was being said. But by that point Charlie was having his own feelings on the matter, and simply nodded. "It actually makes a kind of sense," he said, considering the idea more carefully. Feeling the rightness of it, somehow. He looked around at the others. "I mean, think about it. These Elders apparently died out at some point in our universe. But they left Engris running, and apparently with instructions to seek out those in need of...of a place to go. In need of help. But to also screen out those that would abuse or misuse this word's secrets." Charlie nodded again, the idea growing in his mind. "We never find Engris. It finds us when we want or need to come here. But the place cannot be found by anyone that wants to use the planet for the wrong reasons. At least, they don't find it more than once. And that one time, once Engris knows what they're about, they get kicked out in a hurry." Kippy was watching him, his eyes searching Charlie's face. He had picked up on Charlie's new acceptance of what Durapar had said, and seemed happy about it. The way he squeezed Charlie's hand seemed positive, anyway. Kippy turned to gaze at Durapar now. "When we talk to our friends Billy and Will at the spirit dome, they say sometimes that they see many alternate outcomes for the things we do. That some things can go many different ways." Kip's eyebrows went up as if to accent what he was saying. "If the Elders passed on, and started to see things in the future, that could go one way or the other depending on who was involved and what they did --" "--they would tell that to the living members of their race they had left behind," Adrian finished, looking surprised. But he immediately looked embarrassed after that, and shrugged apologetically at Kip. "Sorry." Kippy just smiled. "Great minds think alike." Ricky patted his boyfriend's shoulder comfortingly, and turned to Charlie. "If they saw events that would someday happen after all the Elders were dead - when there were no more of them alive in this reality - then leaving Engris running makes a lot of sense. They would want to attract the kind of people here that would and could help them at that future time." "Maybe." Charlie turned back to Durapar. "Go on." But the alien simply smiled. "Your group has already grasped most of what I told Max earlier." "Told ya they were good," Max said, grinning. Charlie shook his head. "That can't be all. If the Elders wanted to make contact with people here, why haven't they done it?" Max shrugged. "This was about as far as Durapar and I got before you guys came in. There's a little bit more, but I'll let him tell you." The Andaleesian once again offered his charming nod. "Yes. We hadn't finished talking." He looked around the group again. "It's possible it's just not the right time yet. But...I have come to think that we have not been contacted because we are not in the right place." Charlie's gaze slid from Max back to Durapar. "We're here, on Engris. You mean somewhere specific on the planet?" "Yes. It's my feeling that we're looking for something more refined in the way of being at the right place than just being present on Engris itself." Kippy gave a chuckle. "We know all about feeling things." Durapar seemed to find that idea reassuring. "It is something that most power users can understand." "Well, we get it," Adrian confirmed. "I'm feeling now that what you're feeling is important." Durapar gave a small, almost whimsical sigh. "One of my talents as a power user is that I am drawn to places. I see these places, in fact, even though I have never been to them before. So I was thinking that maybe the reason that no contact had yet been made was that no one visiting Engris had yet found the right place to be for it to occur." "You mean the right dome?" Kippy asked. "There are a lot of them, I've been told." "Approximately seventeen thousand of them, in cities all over the surface of Engris," Durapar supplied. Kippy's eyes bugged out a little at that. "I thought the domes were all the same. How would we find the right one?" Charlie had a feeling of his own. "I don't think he means a dome, Kip." Durapar scratched the tip of his long nose. "Correct. I do not believe that it's a dome we are looking for. There is another place, I think." Ragal leaned closer to Durapar, obviously fascinated with what was being said. "You think you may have had a mental view of the correct place?" "Exactly that. Among the visions of places I have had since I first came to Engris, is one that recurs far too often for it to be chance." Ragal considered that a moment before speaking again. "And you feel certain that this place you see is here on Engris?" "Approximately." Durapar tapped a shoe upon the hard floor beneath them. "I sense that this place is below ground. Somewhere inside Engris." Ragal turned to smile at Max. "I think I see where this is going." The elf laughed. "Well, maybe. If we can get a handle on what Durapar sees in his vision, we might be able to follow the trail." Charlie frowned at that. "You're considering using the same method we used to get to Pacha and the others when their ship was crushed under the ice?" "The possibility occurred to me that it might work. If Durapar can get you to see what he sees, and you use your split presence to go there, Rick can help me tag along, and once I'm there I can teleport everyone in." Durapar brought his hands together and smiled his goofy smile. "Wonderful! Such abilities are not known among my race. I have not been able to convince enough of my people to take active steps to find this underground location. Some are convinced that Engris would see probing the interior as an attack, and ban us from this world forever. Without a consensus, I have been unable to act." "I don't know that that would actually happen," Ragal returned. "Engris seems extraordinarily capable at sensing motivation. I would like to think that it would understand that any attempt to enter the interior of this world by any safe means would not be an attack. And besides, any ruling to eject you for such a misdemeanor, were it to happen, would not include the rest of your kind." "That is also my feeling. But tell that to those who fear the idea of probing the planet at all. There are too many that feel that meddling in the secret business of this world would be the same as to risk losing our presence here. To many of my people, Engris is a supreme mystery, never to be really understood by others." "You haven't tried scanning for this place you've seen?" Charlie asked. "No. The interior of Engris is shielded from all sensory-type probing. I would need to employ a surveyor device of some sort, which would actually burrow into the surface to have a look at what is beneath. The fact that sensors will not probe the interior of Engris is proof enough to many of my people that this world will not tolerate a closer inspection of its technologies. So some other form of investigation than I can manage on my own will be needed." Charlie turned to Max. "What do you think? Would we be trespassing by entering the interior of Engris by this means? I don't want to lose our welcome here, either." The elf shrugged. "I think we'd be warned first, Charlie. Or just plain stopped. Getting kicked off this planet is harder than you think." He smiled. "Engris is a pretty tolerant sort." "What about the domes?" Ricky asked then. "You know...the holes in the floor that go down to the center of the planet? Couldn't we take a small flyer and go down one of them?" "They're covered with shields that are impermeable to normal matter," Durapar answered, giving a small shake to his head. "Safety precautions to keep visitors from falling into them. The field could possibly be disrupted, but again it might be considered a violent act by the planet." The Andaleesian gave forth a slightly rattling sigh. "We just don't know how Engris will react to some things." Casper looked up at Ragal, who noticed his gaze immediately, and smiled. "Something you wish to add, my friend?" "Yes. Engris knows what is in our hearts. We wouldn't be planning evil. We wouldn't be intending harm. Isn't that what is important here? We'd be trying to help, not hurt." That seemed to burst the dam, and everyone started talking at once. Max raised his hands, trying to quiet them, and when that didn't work, whistled sharply to get everyone's attention. "Whoa, fellas. Hold up a minute." "I think you've caught everyone's interest, anyway," Charlie told him drily. The elf laughed at that. "Yeah. Listen fellas, let's not get ahead of ourselves." "It's just healthy speculation," Ragal replied, smiling. "You've already encouraged that by bringing us here." He turned and placed a hand on Casper's shoulder, and gave the boy a squeeze. "I happen to agree with Casper. Engris isn't going to see anything we do as an attack, because we aren't attacking. My feeling is that the worst we face will be a gentle denial of some sort, letting us know that we are not to go further." Adrian leaned forward to look past Ricky at Ragal. "What kind of denial do you mean?" "I can't answer that. But suspecting as we do now that Engris was constructed by a race of power users, we should also expect that they understood how to deal with such abilities. Just as the Moth use dampers which flatten power-using within their range, to keep opponents among their own kind from spying on them, I would think there would be technological safeguards here to keep power users in check should the need arise." "So we might just not be able to do anything," Ricky said, frowning. "But then at least we would know." Charlie turned to Horace and smiled at the man. "You've been very quiet." The ghost hunter returned the smile. "I am so far outside my experience now that I can't even think of anything to say, Charlie." But then he leaned forward. "Well...maybe that's not true. I kind of agree with Casper and Ragal, I suppose. This marvelous place seems to think of everything. So I have to agree that if there are things here we really shouldn't be doing, we will either be told that in some way, or prevented from doing them, which amounts to the same thing." Charlie smiled at that. "You have faith in Engris?" The older man laughed. "That's pretty much saying it, yes." Horace raised his shoulders and lowered them, and sighed, and Charlie could see the satisfaction the man was feeling. "Engris is the product of a kind people, Charlie. It shows in everything I have seen here. I would be shocked to be treated in any way that was less than fair by the spirit of this world." Kippy laughed at that, and leaned up against Charlie. "See? Yet another convert to the idea that Engris is much more than a big ball of dirt." "Yeah." Charlie was satisfied that this was the way he felt, too. Engris was much more than just a place. It was an expression of an ethos, the guiding principle of a race that had vanished from the known universe some unknown part of a half-million years past. Engris gave real meaning to the human expression of a people 'being known by their works'. Engris was a haven, among other things, where the sometimes cruel hand of the galaxy could never reach. "I also feel that this is the right way to go. We need to explore this further." Durapar held up his hands and clasped them in delight. "Oh, wonderful! I had such high hopes after meeting Max, and now you have confirmed them." Charlie held up a hand. "But we don't just go barging in, okay? We need to scope this out a little bit." He turned to Sefton. "How will the Molokar react to us snooping around the place?" "Not at all, Charlie. My people know Engris. If you are allowed to do what you are doing, Engris agrees with you. You stopped by Engris, Molokar not need do anything. Everybody wins." Charlie laughed at the look on the big man's face. "I'll take that to mean we won't be interfered with. I wouldn't like the idea of a crowd of cops each the size of you showing up at just the wrong moment to tell us we're in the wrong." Sefton's eyes were full of laughter. "Molokar been doing this long time. Know when to mind own business and find other things to do." "But you'll go along with us, right?" Ricky asked. "We'd love to have you." Sefton considered that, and then nodded. "Will go as far as can. Not guarantee anything if spirits appear." "Fair enough," Charlie agreed. "But I doubt we'll find anything to fear." The Molokar was silent a moment, but then grunted. "Not fear that keeps me from spirit domes. Have trouble seeing things there. Hurts inside my head. More pain than fear." A round of silence greeted that revelation. After a moment of it, Charlie turned to Max. "What do you make of that?" Max seemed less surprised than the others. "Dunno. The brain is a funny animal, Charlie. There are some things we can see and hear that feel like pain to the brain. Nothin' would surprise me that happens here. Sefton's people are just different from any of us. But I believe him if he says the experience is painful." "We don't want you to be hurt," Kippy said, shaking his head. He looked at Charlie. "Tell him he doesn't have to come, Charlie." But Sefton held up a large hand. "Will make decision myself. Will go along, and only stop if find situation too painful. Interest in welfare of Engris greater than worry over minor discomfort." Kippy smiled at that. "You're a sweetie, Sefton." The big alien looked briefly embarrassed. "Will take that compliment in spirit in which offered." "You'd better." Kippy looked over at Charlie. "So what's our next step?" Ricky reached over and patted Charlie's knee. "Yeah, boss. What's our next move?" Casper emitted a squeaky laugh at that, and everyone grinned at Charlie. Charlie nodded good-naturedly, not letting the gentle kidding get to him. "Lunch first, I think. I'm still hungry." "I know a wonderful place to eat," Durapar said, waving his hands excitedly. "I can contact Mertril and get the back room of her place. We'll have complete privacy in which to talk. And to eat, of course." Charlie nodded. "You good with this, Kip?" "Need you even ask?" "Yes." His boyfriend smiled and squeezed his hand. "I'm good with this plan." Charlie nodded, and turned to Ricky and Adrian. "And you guys?" "Of course, Charlie. Tell him, Rick." "Yeah, Adrian's right. You know we're coming." "Uh huh. Casper?" "Yes. This feels right to me, Charlie. And exciting!" Charlie laughed, and then turned the grin at Ragal. "I wouldn't even try to stop you from going." The tall man laughed. "I am in favor of this plan so far. If I change my mind, I'll let you know." Charlie turned to Max, who gave him a toothy grin. "I was here first, remember?" "Yeah." Finally, Charlie turned to Horace. "I didn't mean to leave you out." "I don't feel left out at all, Charlie. Just excited about having a new adventure." Charlie laughed. "Sounds like another yes." "Of course it is. You haven't disappointed me yet!" Charlie sighed, and swiveled back to Durapar. "You say you know a good place to eat?" "Yes, Charlie." Durapar grinned his goofy grin, now liberally laced with excitement, and Charlie had to smile in return. "Okay. Everyone, let's go eat." * * * * * * * Mertril turned out to be another Andaleesian, obviously older than Durapar, but sharing his good humor. She was somewhat more colorful than Durapar, with some striking shades of red tipping some of her green fur, and a touch of gray here and there, which seemed to signal experience to Charlie as much as age. Her shop was called The Missing Ingredient, and apparently sold foodstuffs from all over known space, and then some. There were a fair number of patrons inside, some just browsing, others being dealt with by one or the other of the two Andaleesian clerks. There seemed to be a pair of artificial lifeforms employed there as well, obviously machines, but resembling the Andaleesians themselves closely enough as to leave no doubt about their origins. Mertril and Durapar moved off to one side a moment to talk, while the new arrivals stood around looking at the contents of the various containers that seemed to be everywhere. The shop occupied what appeared to be two original shop spaces, with the wall between them removed. The place was filled with cabinets, bins, hoppers, barrels, shelves, and even chests of all kinds, each containing something from somewhere that was edible by someone. An array of technologies was in place to keep everything fresh, for while Engris existed in the no-time of the Cooee, it was a relative state compared to the normal universe, and there was some incremental passage of time on the world itself, or everything would simply be frozen in one single moment of time. "I didn't know that," Charlie said, when Max explained it to him. "I thought no time passed at all here." "It doesn't, compared to the normal time frame of our universe. The Cooee is described as timeless, but there is time here. For the most part it moves so slowly that it's not noticeable at all, but there are parts of the Cooee where it runs faster, or backwards, or some other variation. There has to be some movement of time here, Charlie, or there would be no experiencing this place at all." Kippy, standing next to Charlie, sighed dramatically. "And yet another cherished belief dashed to pieces!" Charlie grinned at that. "Well, I guess we just never really talked about it in enough depth. Everyone always refers to this place as no-time, and I guess I was taking that literally." "It is no-time, relative to back on Earth," Max explained patiently. "You could stay here for years, and then go back to Earth, and no time would have passed there but what you spent getting the ship down to the surface of the planet. But that don't mean no time at all passes here. It's just so slow it can hardly be counted." "It doesn't seem slower here than on Earth," Kippy said pleasantly. Max raised one eyebrow skeptically, certain he was being led around by the nose. "That's because you're immersed in the time flow here, and it's all relative. Now I know you get this, so let's move on." "I got it, anyway," Charlie returned, smiling. "So we'll be back to Earth in time for the fireworks, no matter how long this new business takes. Right?" "Right." Max sighed. "I can finagle that, anyway. Stop worrying about the holiday, Charlie." "I'm not worrying about the holiday. Kip is worrying about the holiday. He's the one that would be heartbroken to miss the fireworks." Charlie smiled. "I'm just worrying about Kip worrying about the holiday!" Kippy tossed his head back and laughed, and snuggled closer to Charlie, hugging his arm. "I love you!" "Me, too, Kip." Charlie hugged his boyfriend back. Max rolled his eyes. "Let's just stop worrying about time, and start worrying about this food. If I don't eat soon, I can't be responsible for what happens!" Durapar returned then, with Mertril by his side, and made introductions all around. Mertril's eyes were a striking shade of aquamarine, and filled with the same shine of good humor that they saw in Durapar's gaze. "I am thrilled to meet you all. My shop is yours." "We just need the big tasting room," Durapar explained. "And something to eat. And some privacy to talk a little, if you can manage it." Mertril looked interested, but also obviously did not intend to ask what was going on. "That's fine. The big tasting room is not in use. Just call Zistha to take your orders when you're ready." Durapar looked grateful. "Thank you, Mert. I'll fill you in later." The older Andaleesian sighed. "Just remember to activate the anti-snoop field once you're inside, if you're really serious about your privacy." "I'll do that." Durapar turned to Charlie. "If you and the others would accompany me, please?" They formed a group behind Durapar, and then followed him into a hallway at the back of the shop, which had numerous large doorways along either side of it. Most were open, revealing fine alien ideas on dining rooms in general, perhaps mixed with a bit of kitchen here and there; but several of the doorways were filled with darkness, signaling the presence of some sort of privacy field in place. Durapar ignored them all, and marched directly down the hallway to the largest doorway of them all, spanning the very end of the hallway, and led them inside a large dining room with several styles of tables in place. He chose the largest table, which could easily accommodate them all, and turned and waved a hand at it, the excitement still present in his eyes. "If everyone will find a place. The seating will adjust to your physical characteristics, so just sit and you'll be fine." Durapar flopped onto one of the round but featureless seats, and it immediately flowed around him, providing a back and armrests at just the right height. It also raised slowly until he was at the right height before the table for eating. Charlie grinned, and he and Kip found seats next to each other and sat down, too. There was a fluttery feeling at his back, and in a brief moment he was comfortably presented before the table at just the right height and distance. Presently, everyone was seated, and Durapar tapped the tabletop in front of him. "Services." The tabletop directly before him bulged upwards, presenting a sleek face covered with the winking dots of tiny instruments. "Privacy, please." Charlie caught a flicker of motion out of the side of his eye, and turned to find the doorway they had entered through now covered with one of the black fields. Kippy gave a little harumph, and turned immediately to Durapar. "You really need to lock the door?" The alien laughed. "It's a normal business precaution here. The doorway is not actually closed. If you get up and walk through it, the field will easily pass you back to the hallway." "Oh, just eye-proof, huh?" Ricky said, grinning. "Cool." "And soundproof," Durapar added. "And immune to electromagnetic probing. And not just the doorway, but the entire room, is secured from eavesdropping of any kind." Charlie exchanged glances with Kippy. "Is that really needed?" Charlie asked. "I mean...this is Engris." Durapar's eyes smiled at them. "You haven't been here that long, have you?" "A few years, on and off." "Ah. I have owned my shop here for quite some time, and have been studying Engris even longer. I have come to understand that there is a certain fluidness to the rules here." "I have noticed a bit of that myself," Ragal put in. "Engris is mostly concerned with allowing no harm to others or the property of others, and with the physical safety and jurisdictional freedom of the planet itself." "Exactly." Durapar nodded, and Charlie smiled as the little alien's ears waved at him. "Engris disallows violence of any sort, and will eject those that intend harm to others. Nor can you purposely steal so much as a single florba fruit from one of the stands without gaining this world's attention. But intent is all important here. Accidental acts that harm others will be brought to the attention of the perpetrator, but will not result in automatic expulsion. Repeat acts of the same offense might, however, with Engris apparently reasoning that second offenses of the same type present a willful disregard for the safety of others and/or a failure to learn from experience." "So why do you have to raise a privacy field?" Charlie asked. "Anyone trying to listen in or observe us would be harming us, wouldn't they? Engris would stop them?" "Not...necessarily." Durapar shook his head. "Here is where the fluid part of the rules comes in. Engris seems to understand the concept of competition. Curiosity without intent to harm is apparently not considered a reason for Engris to act. Some people are just plain nosy, but have no intention to harm anyone. The city is rife with spyware of all kinds. Apparently, Engris considers some forms of this nosiness as normal and non-harmful, even when the information gained is sometimes used to the advantage of someone in business. If you spied on someone, and planned to use that knowledge to be somewhere at a certain time to kill them, Engris would come and get you quickly. But if you, uh, overhear something, and use the knowledge to gain an advantage in business, Engris looks the other way as long as no physical harm comes to the one affected." Charlie laughed in amazement at that. "You mean we've been spied upon for years, and didn't even know it?" "Not us," Max said immediately, shaking his head. "I know how to flummox that sort of stuff." "But you're not always here with us," Kippy pointed out. "Don't matter. I put the hoodoo on all that stuff for all you guys. Lollipop can take care of itself, but I got the villa covered, and all of you personally. And Pacha did it before me. No one is spying on you, believe me." "Well, that's good to know," Ricky said. "Some of the stuff we talk about here is nobody's business but ours." Max nodded. "So even if Durapar didn't have his doodad turned on right now, no one could monitor what's going on here." The Andaleesian brought his small hands together in a giant clap. "Wonderful! You continue to amaze me with your versatility!" "Oh, uh, I try," Max said, a little drily. "This is just commonsense stuff, you know?" Charlie considered what he had just learned, and sighed to himself. Engris was such an enigma, and seemed to be understood so differently depending on who you talked to. Charlie had never considered the possibility of being spied on here. But such things were apparently so commonplace in galactic culture that Pacha'ka had dealt with them automatically, and Max had simply detected them and cut them off with the same sort of casual practicality. "Well, uh, thanks, Max." "Sure thing. Now let's get on with this, huh? Especially the food part!" Durapar chuckled, and patted the tabletop. "Send Zistha, please." Kippy tapped the tabletop lightly with his fingers to regain Durapar's attention. "You seem to know more about the way Engris thinks than we do. So don't you think Engris would understand you meant no harm by digging into the surface to find this room of yours?" Durapar made a small sound that definitely conveyed a sense of frustration. "I believe as you, that Engris will view any attempt by us to assist this world as exactly that. But I am responsible to the others of my kind who live or work or trade here. Not all of them think as I do." "They're afraid of the possibilities," Ragal said, nodding his head. "Exactly. The very mystery that Engris represents inspires uncertainty, and uncertainty inspires fear. Or, at least, an unwillingness to push the bounds of safe conduct. I understand how some of my people feel, and do not hold it against them." This was not the first time Charlie had encountered this sort of adherence to the rules among some of the people here. While most of those that came to Engris to do business were only responsible to themselves, some of the people that had taken up residence on Engris, like the Molokar, and now the Andaleesians, lived under a more formal set of rules that governed the conduct of the group. Durapar was not some loner here on Engris just to make a profit. He was a member of a resident community, and therefore bound by its rules. Charlie eyed the alien speculatively. "So what will your people think about this latest attempt to gain access to the interior of Engris?" Durapar smiled. "Why, nothing. I don't plan to tell them." For a moment the table was silent, and then Kippy laughed. "Oh, that's good. And I was worried!" The Andaleesian shook his head. "I am a law-abiding citizen. Any attempt by known means to explore the interior of Engris must have the approval of the majority of my people here. The law specifically addresses excavation, sensor probing, and mechanical intrusion into the interior. I have no plans to gain entry by any of those means, which have already been denied. But I am not required to have approval to attempt exploration by means unknown to the law." "It wouldn't be considered implicit?" Charlie asked. "No, not at all. The law addresses specific instances. It does not cover investigation of Engris by way of the abilities of non-Andaleesian citizens." A soft chime rang in the room then, seeming to come from everywhere at once. Durapar raised a hand towards the cloaked doorway. "Come." The darkness within the doorway bulged inward, and then parted around one of the artificial Andaleesian lifeforms from the front of the shop. "Hello, Zistha!" Durapar called. Charlie had not noticed that the AI's feet did not touch the floor back in the shop. It glided across the room to them, and pulled up near the head of the table. "Greetings, Durapar and company. I am to take your orders." The AI's eyes moved among them, and then came back to Durapar. "I'm sorry, but I am unable to scan anyone but you and Sefton. I will need nourishment profiles from the rest of you." Charlie looked over at Max, who smiled and winked at him. Whatever the elf did to keep them from being scanned, it obviously worked! "Three-A for all us humans," Kippy said, waving a hand among them. They had learned which local profile covered foods that were safe for them to eat. "I am Three-B," Ragal said next. "Me, too," Casper said. All profiles with the same number header were basically the same, with the lettered sub-categories excluding some foods from the previous group. But in practice both Ragal and Casper had been able to eat anything that the boys did; the exclusions were precautionary only. "Very well. Menus will appear before you." And they did. Right out of thin air, placed before them from hidden projectors somewhere within the room. By now everyone knew what dishes here on Engris were tasty and which were more daring, and so Charlie was surprised to see a number of selections on the menu with which he was unfamiliar. But the menu was cross-referenced, with an 'if you liked selection A, you will most likely enjoy selection D, F, J, K and Q' type of listing. Charlie picked a few items he knew he liked, and then decided to try one more unfamiliar dish from the cross-referenced listing. Couldn't hurt to branch out a little! Kippy glanced up at Zistha. "Can I get my katang lightly done? I don't like it as crispy as most people." "Yes. Any conditions that stray from normal preparations should be indicated at the time of ordering." Presently they had all ordered, and the conversation moved away from their plans with Engris and into more mundane things as they waited for the food to arrive. Kippy talked with Adrian, seated next to him, and with Ricky in the next seat further on, but gently squeezed Charlie's hand under the table the entire time. Charlie smiled at that, while also watching Ragal talk to Casper about something they had done together before the humans had arrived, while a smiling Horace, seated beside Ragal, sat with his chin propped up on one hand and his eyes large, and followed every word attentively. Max and Durapar had put their heads together and were talking quietly about something, while Sefton sat back with his eyes closed and an uncannily pleased smile on his face. The contentment the Molokar was feeling seemed to radiate outward from his body. For the briefest of moments, Charlie was on his own in his thoughts. The feeling of relaxation he got from this small, private moment was enormous. Here were his friends, people he trusted and loved, ready to again set out on a mission that was yet to be fully defined. That these sorts of things were common and readily accepted by them all now was amazing. Briefly, Charlie wondered what his mom and dad were doing back home, and thought how astonished they would be if they had any idea of where he was now and what he was doing. We've come so far, he thought, amidst a brief wave of genuine wonder. And so fast! The food began to arrive then, and Kippy returned his attention to Charlie, and inspected what he had ordered, and they each sampled some of the other's plate. The conversation shifted to the matter at hand, and they all discussed what their next steps should be. By the time the food was gone and their bellies full, they had laid out a plan for the next morning, to hopefully begin their exploration of the interior of Engris. And to find the special place that Durapar had envisioned, where, hopefully, the answers to some age-old questions might finally be obtained.
  7. A Charlie Boone tale for July 4th. Charlie Boone and his friends are vacationing on the dark planet Engris when they meet up with an alien with a story to tell. Before they know it they are drawn into another adventure, this time with the prize being Engris itself!
  8. The Sky is a Mirror, Charlie Boone! by Geron Kees © 2021 All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation. _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Chapter 1 -- "How do I look?" Ricky Travers asked, as he posed before Charlie Boone and his boyfriend, Kippy Lawson. They were standing in the pirate market on Engris, the fabled ancient world that traveled the dark depths of the Cooee, while throngs of aliens of every sort walked or crawled or hopped past them. None of the passersby gave the humans much more than a cursory curious glance, even though humans were not a recognized species within the Five Empires. People on Engris minded their own business, most of which was secretive, and paying attention invited attention, as the local saying went. So after a very brief inspection indeed, the humans were politely ignored unless they stationed themselves directly before a seller of goods. They were near a large booth with luminescent signage, that grandly proclaimed in a tongue their translators told them was Bocustin, the sale of Movement Enhancements Plus. The proprietor was a large fellow with a colorful, bony plated covering, a variety of arms, and eyes on five long stalks, all of which waved incessantly at the passers-by, while that fellow spoke excitedly in a raspy version of the same tongue about the wonders his stand had to offer. Ricky and Adrian had just come from there, and now stood before Charlie and Kippy, while those two boys tried not to laugh. Ricky was wound in a glittery body wrapping that included a hood for his head, which had a face piece that only let his eyes look out. The tips of his shoes peeked out from under the lower edge of the wrap, but otherwise he was completely cocooned. His voice was slightly muffled when he spoke, and most of the emotions they could detect from him were only visible in his eyes and heard in his voice. Just now, both of those sources were expressing excitement, and some order of pride. Kippy smiled, and squeezed Charlie's arm. "Isn't he cute? I always wanted to see Rick in a dress." Beside Ricky, his boyfriend Adrian Whittaker snickered softly, but didn't say anything. Ricky's eyes grew surprised, and he looked down at the glittery wrap he was wearing, and then looked up at them again in clear annoyance. "What? It's not a dress, Kip. This is the latest in sensor invisibility. Anyone wearing one of these babies can't be detected by any sensors known, including those super snoopers the Moth use." Charlie brought a hand up and tried to subtly cover his mouth, again making an effort not to laugh. But Ricky noticed anyway, and his eyes glared accusingly at the unspoken condemnation of his newest acquisition. "I thought at least you would admire the technology, Charlie." "I do, Rick, I do. I'm sure it's wonderful to be able to evade sensor detection." The other boy's eyes narrowed in another frown. "So why is everybody giving me that look?" Charlie sighed. "Well...it's kind of a...a noticeable get up, Rick. Um...sort of like wearing a lighted sign, if you know what I mean." "You look like the Strip in Vegas," Kippy threw in, smiling. "Or Cinderella at the ball, in her glittery gown!" Ricky made a frustrated sound, and patted the wrap, which rustled alarmingly at the touch. "But I'm invisible to detection!" Kippy leaned forward and patted the other boy's shoulder, which initiated more rustling from the wrap. "But you're visible to the eyes, Rick, and in a really big way. And you sound like you're wrapped in tin foil when you move. So they may not be able to detect you coming on scanners, but they sure will see you with their eyes, and hear you moving, long before that." Ricky's eyes widened, and then he glanced down at the glittery wrap again. "See me?" He looked up at Charlie then, embarrassment now coloring his gaze. "Uh...damn. I kind of didn't even think of that." Charlie nodded. "I can see how that outfit would be useful if you were drifting towards a ship in the dark of outer space or something. In a situation where being seen or heard didn't matter. But you're not invisible, Rick, even if you can't be detected by sensors. Kip is right. That suit makes you much more noticeable than you'd be without it." "You look like a Christmas tree," Kippy went on, smiling. "But a cute one." Ricky huffed in disgust; and then they heard a soft click from inside the wrap. It opened along an invisible seam in the front, and the boy shrugged out of it. As soon as he did, the wrap began to contract, quickly shrinking into a small, flat bundle, which Ricky then tucked into a black pouch and stuffed into the pocket of his jeans. "Oh, well. At least it wasn't that expensive." Adrian stepped back from his boyfriend then, looked him up and down in an admiring fashion, and then moved close again and smiled. "Much better." Ricky grinned, then leaned towards his boyfriend and puckered up, and he and Adrian shared a quick but heartfelt kiss. Kippy sighed softly, and dropped his hand down to grasp Charlie's, and gave it a quick squeeze. "I love love." Charlie laughed. "And it does seem to be in the air." Kippy sighed at that. "It must be the romantic surroundings." Charlie looked around at the eternally dark sky, the alien architecture standing all around them, and the crowds of non-human visitors everywhere, some of whom were a little alarming to the eye, to say the least. But all he could do was smile. "Must be." Ricky grinned then, and patted his pocket. "Okay, so it's maybe not the most useful thing I've ever bought. I guess I didn't think this one through very well." He laughed. "I guess I let the holiday air overcome me." "It's a vacation," Kippy countered, his eye shining with humor. "You let the vacationy air overcome you." Ricky looked exasperated. "Whatever. We're here to have fun. And what fun is it being a millionaire if you never buy anything?" That was true. Murcha and Onglet, the two artificial intelligences that the boys had freed from Moth control, had used the spaceship they had also acquired from those dark aliens to build a nice little interstellar transport business, the proceeds from which were banked there on Engris in several different galactic currencies. It had become quite a tidy sum now, and neither Murcha nor Onglet had any use for money. Other than the standard maintenance on the ship, the money was just laying about in the Bank of Engris, gathering interest. The boys had gotten so that they were not hesitant about using some of that credit now and then, and had first rented, and then purchased, a comfortable villa on the edge of the city. It gave them a place to stay when they visited Engris; and better yet, provided a home for their friends, Ragal and Casper, and a base from which they could all operate when they were doing things out among the stars. And a very comfortable base it was, too. There were far worse places one could live than Engris! The ancient world was artificial, constructed a half-million years in the past by a race that had understood that death was not the end, but just a change in state. Using physics that had yet to be duplicated by any of the current empires, they had constructed a world hidden in the depths of the Cooee, that strange, dark place disconnected from the normal universe, where ships could travel the incredible distances between the stars in literally no time at all. This amazing planet allowed for those who had passed on to return and visit the living they had left behind. The intricate cities of these ancient people dotted the planet's twilit surface, each home to clusters of the spirit domes that were places where the two worlds could meet. Charlie and his friends had been able to visit with their two good friends, Billy and Will, who had passed away on earth in the past. Those two had been lovers, and they had met again as partners in eternity, roaming the dimensions of space in an endless exploration that never failed to fascinate them both. And there was of course the pirate market of Al'roost, at the center of the port city built by those wanderers and drifters who had fled the five empires and settled Engris in the half-millennium since the Molokar had first discovered the place. Here the wares of a thousand worlds were available for purchase. Much of the merchandise that was available on Engris was also readily available at more standard sources throughout known space; but they tended to be cheaper here, and just as good, so long as one didn't get curious about their provenance. The current owners were the only owners anyone here cared about, and how these owners had come into possession of their wares was not open to discussion. Additionally, the pirate market was a fabulous source for items that couldn't be found anywhere else: novel new technologies not yet officially released; or amazing, ancient technologies, that had come from the dead empires of yore, picked up on planets that were no longer on the maps, nor even known to still exist. And artifacts, constructs, and objects unknown; things and doodads and whatsits that defied description, part of the great lost heritage of a galaxy that had given birth to races and watched them grow to conquer the stars, and then to disappear again into the dusts of time. There were strict laws in place within the empires of space that required that all such found antiquities be declared and turned in to the authorities - laws that would tend to preclude a decent profit for the archaeologists, adventurers, and outright freebooters that plied the spaceways in search of lost history. Much of that found property wound up at the market on Engris, so long as the seller was of mild heart and soul, and not one looking for trouble. Engris did not abide trouble, and the artificial world had ways of ensuring that undesirables of every sort were removed, and never allowed to find the world again. This intolerance for violence and mischief extended to the great fleets of the galactic empires themselves. No one looking to cause trouble would find Engris more than once, and even the great powers of the galaxy, which coveted the ancient world's secrets, had come up short against the awesome technologies that Engris could evidently bring to bear. "That's true," Adrian agreed. "It's not like we're plowing through all that money, or knocking it back in any appreciable way. Every time we come here there's more than there was last time we visited." Ricky nodded in agreement, and looked satisfied. The sensor cloak would undoubtedly join some of the boy's other treasures in the closet of his room at the villa. They each had such a room and such a closet by now, home to the many often strange and fascinating things they had each picked up at the marketplace. The closets were far from full, and Charlie could not really envision a day when they would be. The pirate market was an incredible place, but then the closets in the villa were very large! "Have you seen the others?" Charlie asked then, his eyes again moving searchingly among the crowds. "Max said he was hungry the last time we saw him, and that was an hour ago. I'm kind of there, myself, now, and would love some lunch." "I could eat something, too," Kippy agreed, gently patting the flat expanse of his stomach. "Horace went off that way with Ragal and Casper," Adrian said, turning and pointing down another crowded lane between stands. Charlie squinted in the direction indicated, but didn't see any familiar faces. "What about Max?" Ricky turned in another direction and pointed. "He went that way. Sefton was going to show him a particular shop, I think." Charlie's eyes moved that way, but again couldn't see anyone he knew. All about them, the market pulsed with action. The place was just packed today, making it hard to spot anyone. There were longstanding enterprises represented here, most of which had storefronts around the perimeter. Some of these merchants were known in the shadier sectors of the economy throughout the five empires, dealers in fabulous wares simply not available anywhere else but Engris. Others sold services - skills and instruction that were hard to learn in the more formal channels of education, but uniquely valuable to those that visited the less well-traveled places in space. And yet others sold knowledge: information, and the peculiar and often esoteric expertise needed to utilize it. The secrets upon which many a quest for long-forgotten worlds had been based; the stories, the legends, the history one would need to learn in order to strike out in the right direction in the dark depths of space, and have any real hope at landing that coveted prize: Loot! The inner square was home to stands and stalls, many ingeniously constructed and eminently portable, designed to be put up quickly and then taken down the same way again once business was concluded. Easy to travel with, easy to store. Other stands had been there for as long as anyone could recall, their proprietors insulated against the effects of time, yet always seeming to conduct the same business and sell mostly the same wares. Many vendors specialized, and the competition was keen. But buyers still vastly outnumbered the sellers. The pirate market was ancient, the most unique outlet in known space for relics and treasures and high-tech sorcery of every type imaginable. Yet there was also a quaint, almost hastily-assembled aspect to the proceedings, a casual informality, that lent to the market the same merry air as a weekend county fair back home. Charlie and the others had grown to love the place, and considered Engris a second home. What was not to like? "I guess we'll find them eventually," Charlie decided. They were, after all, here on vacation. No time was passing out in the universe, and there was no place they had to be. Fun was the order of the day, right? "Even Max gets involved in the stuff that goes on here." Kippy smiled mischievously. "The elves are an honorable bunch. I think Max gets a secret little thrill in rubbing elbows with all these thieves." The others laughed at that, and Adrian followed up with a grand and happy sigh. "I guess it is time to eat." He poked his boyfriend, who jumped, but then nodded. Ricky turned and looked around the market, set his face in an expression that said he meant to conquer the universe, and then dropped his hand on the hilt of the vibratory dagger he wore at his belt, and started forward. "Well, let's just go find them, then, shall we?" They moved off as one, Ricky and Adrian in the lead, Charlie and Kippy following, arm-in-arm. Another great thing about Engris was that absolutely no one there knew anything about human sexuality, nor even particularly cared. In galactic thinking, such things were a private matter between those people involved, and not something to be gawked at or remarked upon. Especially on Engris, where minding one's own business was the order of the day. Charlie and the others felt absolutely free here to be themselves, and could fully expect that not a single soul would have the slightest interest in what they were doing. Charlie leaned closer to Kip as they walked along, and spoke quietly into his ear. "You were a little hard on Ricky back there, Kip. I think his feelings were hurt over that sensor get-up." "He'll be okay," his boyfriend whispered back. "I couldn't let him wander around here dressed like that, with everyone snickering at him behind his back. Would it have been better if I'd just said he looked ridiculous?" Charlie smiled at that, and squeezed Kip's hand. "No, I guess not." "Well, then." Kippy's eyes were full of bright sparkles. "I love the guy, even if he does do goofy stuff sometimes. And there's Adrian to think of, too." But he looked ahead for a moment, watching as their friends made their way through the crowd, and then his expression softened. "But I'll give him a hug later and say I'm sorry." Charlie just smiled, and squeezed his boyfriend's hand again. They weaved in and out among the stands and stalls until they could see some of the shops lining the edge of the market square. Charlie spied Ragal then, the lanky alien visible by his height, and by the somewhat outlandish garb he had adopted since coming off his stint at feeling feminine at the end of the previous year. He had been an eyeful then, and was even more of one now. If anything, the man had gone too far the other way when retreating from his feminine side and become a poster boy for macho - or, perhaps an alien idea of macho, anyway. He was dressed in a shiny black one-piece suit that had the look of wet reptilian scales about it. The outfit was embellished about the wrists and atop the shoulders with somewhat garish bits of what looked like chrome, though in the shapes of strangely-shaped bones and some particularly creepy claws, and which were good company to the large medallion of the same material he wore about his neck. That piece of jewelry somewhat resembled the naked skull in miniature of one of Earth's ancient raptor dinosaur species, though this representation seemed somehow even nastier and more dangerous. A black belt around Ragal's waist was adorned with a series of throwing stars of alien design, which much more resembled table saw blades than they did their human counterparts. And Ragal had shown himself in practice to be both familiar with and quite accurate at throwing the things, which had earned him Ricky's undying admiration, and caused Charlie to once again reassess the alien's abilities in a new light. Ragal was a man of many talents, it seemed, and not all of them as civilized as Charlie had first assumed. Yet Ragal claimed that the garb was an expression of something transient, a feeling that would not last for long, and his daily demeanor had changed only slightly, with perhaps a bit more of the wild in his humor, and a willingness to play that had had all of them laughing. Ragal promised that this was just another phase he had to work his way through, and that soon he would be back to his more mellow and dull normal self. That was funny, because one thing Ragal never seemed to Charlie was dull, and he and Kippy had simply smiled at that declaration. "You can't miss Ragal," Ricky said, grinning and pointing. "He looks like an ad for the alien branch of Hell's Angels." Just the sight of the alien put a smile on Charlie's face. He laughed, and took the lead now as they crossed to where Ragal was standing. As the crowd between them thinned, they could make out the smaller forms of their friends, Horace Wingspanner and Casper, standing next to Ragal. The three of them were stopped before a stand that was occupied by a small, wan, roundish looking alien, that reminded Charlie immediately of a certain muffin company's doughboy, though one dressed in a sort of mesh body net that seemed to contain the fellow's mass and keep it from spilling all over the place. Casper spied them coming and immediately waved, a smile spreading across his features. Kippy beamed at Charlie and surged ahead, reached Casper's side, and bent down to hug him. Horace grinned at that, and his eyes twinkled at Charlie and the others as they arrived. But the man raised a hand and held his index finger to his lips then in a request for silence, and then turned and used the same hand to indicate the alien merchant behind the counter. "...is apparently completely functional, huff, huff," that one was telling Ragal. There was a wheezing quality to the vendor's voice which seemed somehow to strengthen the idea that the net clothing he wore was somehow constraining his body from pouring onto the ground. Ragal gave an appreciative grunt. Their tall friend was turning over a small opalescent globe in his hands, which sparkled with radiant energy from deep within. "It looks to be in good condition." "It is, huff, huff," the vendor agreed, waving his flabby-looking arms. "From the late plutocratic era of Dagosian empire, huff, huff. Made to last." Ragal smiled at that. "Indeed? That puts its age at about ten-thousand standard years." The merchant emitted a wheezing, pleased laugh. "See? Well-made, huff, huff." "And you've tested it?" Ragal asked pleasantly. The alien vendor looked momentarily stymied. "Well...huff, huff...no can test. Defies modern equipment at my disposal, huff, huff. But functionality seems apparent due to emitted energy readings." Ragal nodded knowingly. "And you have some idea of what ancient Dagosian technology would consider normal operating parameters?" This time the alien vendor emitted a raspy laugh. "No. You are too smart for me, huff, huff. This is why sign above says all items sold as is." Ragal smiled and re-examined the small orb. "It does seem to be functioning, though." "Money-back guarantee if not delighted, huff, huff." "Um...yes. The price is a bit high, though," Ragal replied, and made as if to return the globe to the countertop. "I offer eighteen thousand, instead." The vendor managed to look appalled, and clutched at his front as if having a heart attack of some sort. His belly wiggled alarmingly beneath the mesh outfit he wore, and for a moment Charlie thought the fellow was about to swoon. But a new glint appeared in the doughboy's dark eyes instead, and one chubby hand extended as if to accept the little globe from Ragal. Apparently, the merchant thought that Ragal would suddenly snatch the artifact back and up his bid; but Ragal simply plopped the sphere into the merchant's hand and turned as if to go. For a second the doughboy seemed stunned; and then the other pudgy hand jerked forward. "Wait!" Ragal's eyes smiled at Charlie for just a moment before the lanky alien turned back. "See here, fellow. I have places to be." Charlie smiled at the erudite tone that Ragal was employing, as if he were some scholarly oldster out seeking items for a museum display or something, instead of a collector out looking for treasures. It was all a part of the buying game, Charlie decided, smiling to himself. The chubby alien let out a distinctly defeated grunt, and extended the hand holding the globe. "Twenty thousand, huff, huff?" Ragal crossed his arms then, and acted like he was going to refuse, when Casper suddenly reached up and tugged at one arm. Ragal looked surprised, but Charlie knew the man well enough now to discern when he was putting on, and tried not to smile as Ragal bent low and Casper whispered into his ear. Ragal pulled back and stared into Casper's large gray eyes a moment, and then emitted a fairly disgusted grunt of his own and straightened. He tried to smile then, but looked like he was having trouble pulling it off. "I'll split the difference with you, my good man. For the boy's sake. Nineteen thousand, and that is my final offer." For just a second a shrewd light shone in the merchant's eyes as he examined Casper; but then he set the globe on the countertop and nodded, a motion which set his entire belly to wiggling beneath the mesh suit. "Done, huff, huff. Your account charged when you leave stand." Ragal made a show of claiming the little globe and shaking his head as if he knew he had just been robbed at gunpoint; but then he suddenly smiled and bowed at the vendor. "An honor doing business with an astute seller like yourself." The doughboy looked like he was sure that he was the one that had been robbed; but he also managed to bow as much as his round frame would allow. "Your intelligence exceeded only by your patience, huff, huff." Kippy giggled quietly, and Charlie smiled then. It did sound like a sort of backhanded compliment, at that. But Ragal seemed to take it in stride, and pocketed the globe even as he turned to face Charlie and the others. "Why...look who it is! I didn't see you standing there, my friends. We were just coming to meet you." He cast one more slightly dismissive look back at the vendor, and then extended his arms to gently herd Casper and Horace away from the stand. "What did you buy?" Kippy whispered, after they had put some distance between themselves and the round vendor. "Beats me," Ragal returned, grinning down at him. Kippy stopped in his tracks and stared. "You paid nineteen thousand credits for something, and you don't even know what it is?" "He knows what it is!" Casper called, laughing. Horace moved to stand beside Charlie. "Indeed he does. Our friend here certainly has been entertaining today." The man smiled. "He's in a rare mood, I think." Ragal took a deep breath, and let it sigh out in a satisfied manner. "Life is often humorous, Horace. I see no reason not to go along with that premise. This is a vacation, correct?" "Correct," Horace agreed. He smiled again, and leaned forward. "Even though you live here now, we should consider this visit a chance for all of us to relax and have fun. That's your third purchase just this morning. I would consider that fun!" Kippy looked more closely at Ragal. "Third purchase? Where's the other stuff?" Horace laughed at that. "You do have to admire the way none of those items show in Ragal's pockets." Ragal chuckled. "A little trick that Max taught me." Charlie remembered then the 'no bulge' policy that the elves required of their clothing, and laughed. "Max can hide a bulldozer in his hip pocket. What else did you buy, Ragal?" Kippy harumphed. "He didn't tell me yet what the globe thing was." Ragal smiled patiently, and leaned down towards Kippy. "It's a time machine." Kippy's eyes grew in size at that, and he turned his incredulous gaze on Charlie a moment before allowing it to slide back to Ragal. "You're kidding!" Ragal nodded. "Somewhat. It's not a time machine in the way you are imagining, Kip. It's not a miracle device for allowing one to travel about the temporal highways." Kippy's features scrunched up a bit, as if he now knew he had been had. "What other kind is there?" The tall alien's face settled into an unreadable expression. "You recall your ring? My doorway back into this universe?" "Sure. How could I ever forget that?" Ragal looked back over his shoulder. "That merchant? He didn't really know what he had. He thought that little sphere was some sort of information storage device, a piece of technology manufactured by the Dagosians back when they were at the height of their power." Ragal smiled. "Ten thousand years? It is far older than that. A half-million years is more like it. And not Dagosian at all." For a moment Ragal fell silent, as if remembering a distant past. Finally, Casper reached up and tugged at his friend's elbow. "Well, are you going to tell us?" Adrian grinned. "The suspense is killing us!" "And I'm hungry," Kippy stated, pointedly. Ragal let out a gritty-sounding laugh, and turned to Kippy. "You recall your ring?" "I think I answered that." The tall alien looked amused, but dipped a hand into his pocket and brought forth the iridescent sphere. "The stone in your ring. Imagine it twice that size, and with the dust and grime of ages removed from its surface." Ragal extended his hand and opened his fingers, displaying the sphere on his palm. "It might look like this, don't you think?" Kippy stared at the orb with new interest, and so did Charlie, seeing now where Ragal was going. "Are you saying this is another stone like the one in the ring? A repository of...what did you call it?" "Savva," Ragal supplied. "That which is left when the body is removed. The essence of each of us, if you will." "Like the soul," Adrian said softly. "If you wish," Ragal agreed. "Though I have read of the human concept of the soul and it is not entirely the same as the reality of savva. But as an expression of essence, it will do nicely." Charlie pointed at the sphere. "This one has others inside it? Or attached to it, or whatever the link is? Like you were, with Kippy's ring?" Ragal nodded. "Yes. Though at this point in time, none of the savva are emergent. None are waiting for the right moment for rebirth, as I was with Kip and the ring." Ricky pointed at the sphere. "Your people made that?" "Yes. Or, it was made in the time when my people were ascendant in this galaxy. If not by my own kind, then by someone who possessed the same technology." "So we're going to have more visitors?" Kippy asked, his eyes going wide. "No." Ragal sighed, and brought the orb up closer to his eyes. The pearl winked at him then, a sort of pleasant light that bathed Ragal's face in a certain timelessness for a moment, and to which he smiled. "But as you can see, we have an affinity. The orb has chosen me, and I it. So I will be its bearer, until the time comes when another will take his turn." The tall alien nodded. "And I will be its keeper, safeguarding the rights of those savva for whom this might be a way back to life." Kippy smiled, and patted Ragal affectionately. "What else did you get?" "Just trinkets, Kip. Two items that spoke to me of distant times and far away places, but no more. Nothing I can identify, save that they seemed worth possessing." Ragal smiled around at them. "What did you boys buy?" All eyes went to Ricky then, who looked slightly uncomfortable at the attention. "Oh, uh...nothing, really. I just got a trinket, like you said." "We didn't see anything that really grabbed us," Adrian added, coming to his boyfriend's rescue. "There's always next time, I guess." "That is one of the wonders of the market here," Ragal agreed. "It's never quite the same place twice." "Did you see Max and Sefton?" Charlie asked then. "We were all thinking about having lunch." Casper stuck up his hand. "I heard them saying they were going to the shop of Durapar." Charlie looked around at the others. "I never heard of it." "Him," Ragal corrected. "One of the longtime merchants and residents of Engris." He smiled. "A power user." Charlie blinked at that. "Really? What do you think Max wanted there?" "It wasn't Max that caused that trip to occur," Casper said. "It was Sefton. He said that Durapar was interested in meeting other power users. Especially from unfamiliar empire races." Ragal nodded. "Durapar is a scholarly sort, interested in the mental sciences. I have spoken with him on several occasions. I told Max it might be worth his time to go." Ricky made a grumbling sound. "Well, I hope the shop of this guy is near one of the food stands. I'm hungry!" Charlie heard a soft chuckle, and turned to Horace and smiled at him. "Having fun?" "Of course. It was a wonderful day when I met you boys. That wonder has been with me ever since!" Charlie laughed. "I have a feeling you've been finding wonder for a long time. Before you met us, even." "In some regards, that's true." The man's eyes smiled. "I think it's just a matter of scale here." Kippy patted Horace on the shoulder. "Are you hungry?" "As a matter of fact, breakfast was quite early, wasn't it, Casper?" "Too early! I'm ready to eat!" Everyone smiled at that. "Sounds like we have a plan," Adrian said. "Let's go collect Max and Sefton, then," Ricky added, turning slowly to look around the edge of the market. "Ragal, if you'll just point the way?" "Better I take you there. Giving directions never seems to do the trick here in the marketplace. Things have a way of moving around, if you know what I mean." With that the tall alien turned and started off, waving a hand to indicate that the others should follow him. Kippy took Casper by the hand and they hurried off, laughing and talking and catching up on the day. Adrian grabbed Ricky by the hand and pulled him into motion, causing Ricky to cast a happy grin Charlie's way as he followed. Charlie laughed, and turned to Horace. "Shall we?" "Of course." They started off at a trot and caught the others, and then made their way through the throngs of shoppers, letting Ragal part the ways. It was surprising the way that happened, as Ragal was neither the tallest nor the bulkiest patron there, by far. But people just seemed to note him coming and step back to allow him and his retinue to pass, all without really seeming to notice any of them. They soon arrived at the edge of the square, and Ragal turned right and proceeded along the shop fronts. Business was booming here, too. Every shop window had its lookers, gazing in through the transparent front of the shop at the often mysterious items that lived within. Charlie could see that most of the shops had at least one browser inside, but usually more. Yet most shops had but one proprietor, with an occasional automated assistant of some kind looking after those with questions. The air was still one of personal attention that no larger store would ever be able to provide. "There," Ragal said, pointing ahead of them. The shop in question had a respectable facade, with none of the garish illumination or action ads that some shopkeepers used to draw attention. The air of the place was low-key, and the signage announcing it as the place of business of one Durapar, small and simply presented. Charlie liked that immediately. In the marketplace of Engris, no advertising was sometimes the best advertising. They couldn't see anyone within through the transparent facade, but that the place was open was apparent. The door slid aside as they arrived in front of it, and the seven of them entered. The door closed quietly behind them, while a brief chime sounded somewhere in the back of the store. The murmur of voices came to them then, and Sefton appeared at the doorway to the back of the shop and looked out. "Ah. My friends! We are here." Ragal led the way past the counter, but stopped short of entering the back of the shop. "We don't want to get in the middle of business, if that is what is happening." The big Molokar, owner of the finest tour agency on Engris, grunted out a cordial laugh. "Drinking vith and telling war stories, not business. Come." They followed the big man back, and arrived in a large room set up like a warehouse, with row upon row of shelving containing goods of all sorts, but none of which Charlie could readily identify. In front of these rows of shelving was a cleared area, hosting a low, round table, around which seating was placed, and where sat Max and an alien whose species Charlie had never seen before. Presumably Durapar, the alien put Charlie immediately in mind of a small ostrich, one with longish legs, a rather smaller body than the earthly bird would possess, and skinny arms where the wings would be. The parts of the body that showed were covered with a striking greenish fur. Durapar was dressed in satiny blues with burgundy piping along the short sleeves and short legs of the outfit, and wore a number of ornate rings on his smallish hands, which each had three fingers and an opposable thumb at each side. The garment he wore had a sort of scarf attached at the top, which wound around Durapar's long neck and was tied in a glorious knot like a bow tie just under his chin. The alien's feet were encased in brief shoes that more resembled sandals, and which were rimmed in the same burgundy accents as his clothing. Charlie estimated that Durapar might be five feet tall standing, but he had already come to understand that size and appearance had no bearing on the competency or capabilities of anyone. Durapar's look was slightly comical, which only made Charlie's determination not to notice that grow even more resolute. If they had learned anything in their time out among the stars, it was that you could never judge anyone by how they appeared. The alien turned interested blue eyes upon the newcomers, and took a sip from the long-stemmed glass he held in one hand. "Your compatriots, I would imagine." Max, seated across from Durapar, put down the more conventional glass he was holding and grinned up at them. "Hey, fellas!" Sefton circled the table and sat down on a supersized seat and folded his hands in front of himself, smiling at Charlie. "Now things get interesting." Kippy raised an eyebrow and looked at Charlie. "What does that mean?" Max jumped to his feet and made a motion with his hands. More seating appeared around the table, to which the elf waved his other hand. "Why don't you guys take a break?" "Well, we were actually heading off to eat lunch," Charlie said, not immediately moving. "We just thought you'd want to come along." "Sure, sure. In good time, guys. But first...sit a minute and have a listen, okay? I think I may have a little job for us that will interest you guys." Kippy immediately put his hands on his hips. "A job? We're on vacation, remember?" "Yes, I do." Max's expression grew more serious. "An important job? One that matters to all of Engris?" Charlie reached out and took Kippy by the arm, and started him towards the seats. "Won't hurt to listen, Kip." But Kippy had heard the same change in the elf's tone, and simply nodded. They all took seats, and then looked at Max expectantly. "First of all, this is Durapar. He's an Andaleesian, and a power user like us." Max introduced everyone to Durapar, who offered a broad smile to each one of them in turn, an action that made his face look almost like a cartoon caricature of an ostrich. Charlie could see the charm in the situation, and that Durapar was going to test him - all of them - until they got used to the oddness of his appearance. The others all looked like they were trying hard to keep a straight face, with only Ragal and Casper looking as calm and relaxed as they always did. Charlie smiled. "Nice to meet you, Durapar. We are always interested in any friends of Max and Sefton, of course." "So kind of you to say." The translation of Durapar's Andaleesian language was smooth and competent, indicating a structure and usage at least similar enough to English to not baffle their interpretive gear. Or, that Durapar's race had been on the galactic scene for a long time - enough time for the language to fully seep into the general database of translations. "We was just talking," Max put in then. "Durapar's people are the closest thing to Pacha's kind in ability I've seen yet." "You mean in the things they can do?" Kippy asked, sitting forward to examine their new friend more closely. "I do sense a lot of things from him. He does feel a little bit like Pacha." "I am anxious to meet your Kifta friend, the next time he is in port," Durapar said, real excitement entering his voice now. "It's already been amazing meeting Max." The Andaleesian's eyes made a slow circuit of the new arrivals, and the smile returned. "And now all of you. I sense much of interest from all of you!" Ricky frowned, looking over at Charlie. "I'm surprised we haven't heard of these people already. I thought the Moth were some of the best power users around?" A look of what could only be disgust crossed Durapar's face. "In brute force they are of superior ability to my kind, but in finesse and variety? No. The Moth are thugs, to our way of thinking." Adrian laughed at that. "To a lot of people's way of thinking!" "We agree on that," Max said. "Durapar's people see power using more like Pacha's do, as a study of the mind thing. An art. Something to place value on, not to use as a weapon to slug people with." Charlie smiled at that, but a lot of information had come with the last few exchanges. The Andaleesians apparently understood power using across a greater spectrum than the Moth, but their actual abilities were not on the same level of power as those dark masters of one of the most powerful of the five empires. But the Moth themselves were not all that hot, either. Pacha's people were much more powerful with their ka, and the elves of earth even more so. That made Charlie relax some. He remembered the Beltracians all too well, and how they had been of sufficient power to press Pacha hard after kidnapping him, and to challenge a group of elves assembled to rescue him. Power using was a gift in the right hands; but in the wrong ones, it could be a deadly peril. Charlie had already decided he liked Durapar. The alien's slightly goofy smile was genuine, and grew on you quickly. And if Max liked him, that was more than enough for Charlie. Fooling Max was not something most people could do. "So what's this job about?" he asked, putting away the slightly hollow feeling of hunger in his stomach. Lunch would have to wait. Max looked over at Durapar, and then shook his head. "Engris may be in trouble." Kippy's hand spasmed against Charlie's, and the boy leaned forward. "How can Engris be in trouble?" "Engris is a tremendous artifact," Durapar said then, holding his hands up as if to take in the entire world. "Its technology is far in advance of what exists within the five empires today. The Elders seemed to think of everything in its construction, and there is certainly nothing else quite like it here in the Aphotic Zone." "He means the Cooee," Max supplied, at the blank expressions that appeared all around. "And Durapar's people call the ones that made Engris 'the Elders'." Kippy smiled at that. "Well, all we ever called them was the people that made Engris". "Yeah," Ricky agreed. "They must have had a name, though." "It has not survived them," Durapar said sadly. "But they must have been a grand people to have seen the universe the way that they did." Charlie looked over at Ragal, who immediately noticed and smiled at him. "Can I help you with something, Charlie?" "Well...you come from the same period in time when this place was built. Don't you know anything about the race that created this place?" "You've asked me this before, Charlie. I don't, I'm afraid." Ragal smiled in sympathy at Charlie's obvious disappointment. "It's a very big galaxy, Charlie. While those that know of this place today say it was constructed in my time, it was not known to me. I had to wait until coming to you in the present to visit this place." He looked about the warehouse-like rear of the store with obvious fascination. "It is one of the most intriguing puzzles I have ever been faced with." Durapar leaned forward to stare at Ragal, his blue eyes wide with interest. "You...you come from the time when Engris was built? You never mentioned that before. How is this possible?" "It's kinda a long story," Max said, a slight note of impatience creeping into his voice. "You guys can talk about that later. For now, let's stick with why we're here." Durapar blinked his eyes rapidly a few times, but then smiled and sat back in his seat. He lifted his long-stemmed glass and took another sip of vith. "Of course. The matter at hand." "Durapar works with my people," Sefton explained then. The Molokar were the closest thing to a governing body that Engris had - at least among the new arrivals. They did look out for the details of keeping the port and settlement towns of Engris running smoothly. And they believed wholeheartedly in the planet's own edict of peace and goodwill to all, and worked tirelessly to ensure that Engris would not have to do all the work of keeping the undesirable element in check. Charlie found Sefton's statement interesting. "So you are somehow affiliated with your government here?" The big Molokar laughed good-naturedly at that. "All Molokar part of Engris. All Molokar work to keep Engris safe. No real government, though. Molokar do not own Engris." "My people and the Molokar have worked together for a long time, trying to understand Engris more fully," Durapar told them. "I have become as close to a specialist in this world as any among my kind." Charlie nodded. "So why do you think the planet is in trouble?" The alien took another sip from his glass, obviously trying to find the right words to use. Charlie and the others waited patiently, knowing there was not going to be a way to rush to this. But finally, Durapar made an annoyed sound and set his glass back on the table. "Would it be pressing the bounds of your credulity for me to simply say it's a feeling I have?" Charlie considered that. Kippy looked over at him, his eyebrows raised, and Charlie could almost read his boyfriend's mind: sometimes, a feeling is all you've got. That notion agreed with Charlie's own opinion, and Charlie took that as his cue on what to say next. "No. It wouldn't be hard for us to believe at all. Sometimes, a feeling is all you have." Kippy smiled and squeezed Charlie's hand, and Charlie had to smile in response. "We've learned to trust our feelings," he finished. Durapar looked relieved. "There have not been any other power users here except Sefton that I feel I can trust to share the way I feel. When Sefton mentioned your group to me, I had to meet you." The alien examined Charlie carefully. "You're the leader?" Charlie did a double-take at that, and then laughed. "Yeah," Max said, before Charlie could speak. "Charlie is our leader." Charlie stared at the elf in surprise, and Max grinned at him. "Something?" "Charlie is the spiritual guide behind our operation," Ragal said seriously. "But what we do is a sort of group thing, really. All of us contribute what we can." "I'll go with that," Max agreed. "But Charlie pretty much has the final say in whether or not we take on any, um... jobs." Kippy squeezed Charlie's hand, a warning not to contest what the others were saying. Charlie hadn't planned to do that, but it was comforting to have Kippy on his side. But where this conversation might be going, even Charlie couldn't guess. "I sensed as much already," Durapar said, sitting back. "That I had to convince you first, Charlie." Charlie looked around at the others, and every eye was on him. For a moment he felt slightly beleaguered; but these were his friends, and simply wanted to know that he felt comfortable with whatever was happening here now. He sighed, just a little. Another decision. But the feeling that they were right where they were supposed to be just now was strong, and that gave him comfort. He turned to look at Kippy, who smiled at him, his eyes conveying the love and trust the he felt inside. I go where you go. Charlie smiled in return, took a breath, let it slide slowly back out, and then turned his smile on Durapar. "Okay. We're listening. Tell us your story."
  9. Geron Kees

    Amateurs

    'I decided I will find my way back. I am going to embrace being an amateur and write the stuff i love again.' There is only one reason to write - because you enjoy it. Even the so-called 'pros' do it mostly because they have to, or they aren't happy. A professional writer is nothing but an amateur that has found a way to do what they love and make a buck off it at the same time. But take away the money, the recognition - all the above things - and the love of writing is still there. Write what you love. It is the only way to write happily.
  10. "Amazing amount of destruction," Nyf said, sounding slightly appalled. "The materials used to build this place are immensely strong and durable. The walls of these buildings seems to be crystallized." "What could do that?" Mike asked. "I don't know. There are weapons in the empire armory that neutralize the electrostatic attraction between the lattice of positive ions in a metal and the fluid of valence electrons in which they are immersed. Something similar to that effect, but operable on a broader spectrum of materials." The man grunted. "Sounds like a classic science fiction disintegrator to me." "It would have that effect, yes." "Do you hear that?" Cally asked, his voice hushed. "Yeah." Derry nodded, slowly. "Creepy as hell." The air around them was filled with sound, which seemed almost to beat at their ears through their sound receptors. Derry could hear wind, though there seemed very little movement of the air yet, and something that sounded vaguely like the clicking-tick of the turn signal in his Mom's SUV. And something else... "Sounds like voices," Cally said then. "Like a hundred people, all talking at once." Yes, that was it. Whispers, and chants, and the droning sound of one of his teachers going on and on about fractal geometry. A choir sang somewhere nearby, completely off-key, while another voice laughed maniacally, and yet another screamed insults. And all in a not-quite-language that seemed terribly threatening, but which could not be understood, not one word of it. And it was getting louder. Derry looked up at the dark cloud, at the red pulses of light inside it, and for a long moment was sure he saw faces. Terrible ones, inside the cloud, circulating with the great black currents, pausing momentarily to stare at him as they sailed by. The hair on the back of his head stood up then, and he held onto his pistol with what was surely a death grip. The urge to run was incredibly strong now, and even as he fought to stand his ground he felt Cally move up against him. "I got your back," his boyfriend said, though his own voice sounded terrified. Derry took his free hand, found Cally's free hand, and they clamped their gloved palms together. In the distance, maybe a hundred yards from them, there was movement, and two figures emerged from behind a large shipping container and starting running their way. Two of the Crites, tossing away their staves as they ran, their arms pumping as they raced towards the doorway. Mike Hamlyn raised a hand and waved towards them, and then his amplified voice boomed out into the lowering darkness: "Run! Come on!" And then Derry and Cally were yelling, too, urging the two runners on to even greater feats of motion. The cloud, immense and close now, pulsed, and a furiously white bolt of something terrible arced downward and found the pavement, which immediately exploded, sending chunks of material everywhere. The bolt moved rapidly across the pavement, ripping a long, deep gash in it, found the two runners...and then they were simply gone. Derry was stunned, horrified, and amazed at the same time. "Nyf, what was that?" he heard his granddad ask. "What will it do to our suits?" "You must not be struck," the artificial mind said then. "I advise an immediate retreat!" And then, much closer to them than the first pair had been, two more runners emerged from their hiding places. One was empty-handed, and the other cast his staff to the ground, and both men raced towards the door. Mike Hamlyn backed up then, forcing Derry and Cally back towards the door, but again raised a hand and waved it furiously. "Run! Run fast!" The world had settled into an odd, gray twilight now. The cloud had grown to block out the last of the red daylight. The voices had become a crowd - no, a mob - screaming and ranting and bellowing discordantly, pulsing against Derry's eardrums. Another white bolt found the ground then, and raced towards the runner on their left. He saw it coming out of the side of his eye and tried to dive out of its way, but it followed his movements tenaciously...and then, he too, was gone. The last runner was fifty feet away now, and closing fast. Derry was certain he could see the look of frantic fear on the Crite's face, the sure knowledge that he was close to death. Another bolt dropped from the sky then, and raced towards the last runner...raced straight towards the door where they stood. Derry's grandfather turned then, and spread his arms wide, and propelled them back through the darkness of the doorway. They emerged into the transfer station at a run, and turned to face the cargo door, weapons drawn. "I'm shutting the door down!" Nyf called on the private link. "No, wait!" Mike bellowed, in a tone that brooked no argument. "Give that last man a chance!" Time simply stopped then. The others in the tube station had moved closer to them as they emerged, but then had frozen at Mike's yell, which was in the clear on the translator and at top volume. All eyes turned back to the doorway, and Derry imagined the last Crite running, his arms pumping, his feet flying across the pavement as he approached the safety of the doorway, and...he'll be coming through right...now! But the doorway remained quiescent, the dark surface of the amazing spacial intersection that filled its oval not parting to reveal the Crite. More moments passed, and then thirty seconds, and then...nothing. "I'm shutting down," Nyf said quietly. A panel on the wall to one side of the doorway flickered into life. A series of lights raced back and forth across its surface, and then slowly winked out, one by one. Derry felt an odd tension in the air, heard a humming, like a swarm of bees in a nearby nest; and then the darkness within the oval of the door faded, and was gone, revealing the stack of staves behind it, and the wall beyond them. "He didn't make it," Derry said, sadly. His granddad's face looked as sad as Derry had ever seen it. "No. I guess not." Derry found that he was still holding Cally's hand, and gave it a very great squeeze, indeed. "I love you," he whispered on their private link. "I love you so much!" He heard Cally's relieved, still nervous chuckle, and the other boy squeezed his hand back. "I love you, too! We have so much fun together!" Derry couldn't help gasping at that. "You call that fun?" "I was with you," Cally said pointedly. "That's what mattered to me." Derry's grandfather turned and found Gilden. "You sure one of those Crites was Crowla?" "Yes." "What happened to them?" Dith asked, from his seat on the floor. But the expression on his face said he knew. "The storm...it got them, didn't it?" "Yes," Mike replied, shaking his head sadly. "I'm sorry about that. We did what we could." "I heard," Dith said. "You waited for them, but they couldn't make it." He looked back at the empty oval of the now deactivated doorway. "What was that thing?" "The great menace," Nyf said then. "Tell him it was the great menace." "Was it?" Mike asked privately, sounding astonished. "I don't know. Just tell them that." Mike repeated the words, and everyone in the room stiffened. Koort stamped a foot on the floor. "So close!" He whirled on Dith. "Only a few steps away through a door! You nearly had it down on us! Fool!" "We didn't know," Dith returned in a strained voice. "How could we?" "You knew that something was off about what you saw there, didn't you?" Mike asked. "Yes. The first time we went, it was several hours before the storm arrived. But each time we went back it was there much more quickly, as if it was waiting, and knew we would be back." "I suspect it was," Nyf put in then. Erva moved closer and peered down at Dith, then looked up at Mike. "Crowla was lost?" "Yes. We saw three of the Crites killed by...by the thing that was there. The last was running for the door as we came back through it. We waited...but he obviously didn't make it." Koort gave a sigh, and let his head hang down for a moment. "Then justice is served, and we did not even have to work for it. Crowla has decreed his own sentence." Derry's grandfather gave his head a shake. "What a waste. What a...a stupid waste." He turned to face Dith. "You're in command of your holding now." The Crite looked aghast. "Me? I cannot...I am not the...the people will need to name a new---" "You're the man," Mike insisted, cutting him off. "Because I'm going to tell you what happens next, and you're going to do it. Hear me?" Dith stared up at the expression on Mike Hamlyn's face, visible now that he had dropped his head bubble. It was not an expression to be argued with. "I...I understand." Mike looked at Koort. "Do you have a complaint against this one?" He indicated Dith. The Narthie frowned at Dith. "Not to my knowledge. I, myself, slew the one that killed my friends. The leader that set that one to his task is now also dead. Those in between, like this one, are not my concern." "Anybody else?" Mike asked, looking around at the others. "I do not," Mergrun said. "Dith has offended our holding, but he was kept from more dire action by your appearance there." The Crite made what was surely an offensive sound. "One cannot try a man on what he has not yet done, though I am fairly sure that murder was in his mind in regards to Erva and his people." Dith dropped his gaze at that, but said nothing. "I am of a similar mind," Erva said, stepping closer. "What Dith may or may not have been ready to do before your arrival is now moot. It is what he will do now that matters." All eyes turned to the Crite on the floor, who blinked at the combined stare, but nodded. "I will do what is needed now, to ensure the safety of my holding." "Good." Mike nodded. "The first thing you are going to do is to get your people to turn in those staves. I want them all brought here, understand? And not like an army on the move. Small groups of your people, each carrying as many staves as they can. Dump them in a pile here, and then leave." "I will do that," Dith said. "All I will need to say is that Crowla is no more, killed by the great menace on the broken world beyond the door. Enough of my people have been there to remember the great storm, and the fear that it inspired. They will comply." Mike nodded. "Okay, let's do this." Dith made an attempt to stand again, had trouble with it, and Garmin grunted and waved a hand at Mergrun. The two Crites moved in and helped Dith to his feet. "Can you stand?" Mergrun asked, not letting go of Dith's arm just yet. "I think so. I'm a little wobbly." "You're lucky you're not dead," Erva pointed out. "Gilden's lance could have easily done to you what you may have intended to do to others." Dith winced at that, and nodded. "I know. I'm sorry." "If you really are sorry, this will be easy," Garmin said. "Just have your people bring the staves here. No hiding a few of them away for later, hear?" "We can detect them at a distance," Derry's granddad said. "Just so you know." By now the rest of the Crites from Crowla's holding had regained consciousness. A few had risen enough to sit up, but most had remained where they had sprawled, watching and listening, but afraid to do anything that might draw unwanted attention. That they had been defeated by the Armenti and their accompaniment of Crowla Holding's own neighbors was clear. Mike turned to face them. "You all heard what has been said here. Go back to your holding with Dith. He's in charge, at least for now. Return with the staves, dump them here on the floor, and then turn around and go home. No funny business, you hear me? My patience is getting thin with you people." Dith started to walk past Mike on his way to the archway leading deeper into the tube station, but stopped when Mike stuck out an arm in front of him. "This is your one chance, Dith. Listen to me carefully. Do this, return the staves, and then go home." The Crite nodded. "And then?" Mike shrugged, and then smiled thinly. "And then I and my two men will be leaving. What happens to you and your people after that will be up to your neighbors to decide." He leaned closer to the Crite. "But if we are forced to come back here again, it won't just be three of us." Derry had an idea then. "Nyf, do you have footage of all those battle robots that came when we talked to the crew of that moon ship back on the starport moon?" In one of their earlier adventures, Difris has sent them to one of the empire's fleet starports to investigate why a door from that place had suddenly opened a new link with the transfer station. They had found a primitive spaceship from the world the fleet base moon revolved around landed at the port, and its crew trying in vain to gain entry into one of the empire's ships landed there. The aliens had thought the port abandoned, and the technological treasures there up for grabs. Nyf had put an end to that notion by having Mike Hamlyn, Derry, and Cally approach the aliens amidst a veritable horde of security lifeforms that resembled giant spiders, armed to the teeth, and proclaim themselves the owners of the moon, and not happy with trespassers. The poor frightened aliens had gotten the word, and had left. "Yes, I do," Nyf said, chuckling. "Show 'em," Derry directed. He turned to Dith. "This is what will happen next time there is a problem with doors from Rustgevend." The large round viewer appeared in the air before them, and the scene on the distant star port played out before the stunned audience. "On our last mission, we ran into some people who thought an empire starport could be casually looted. We convinced them otherwise." Derry pointed at the viewer. As the thousands of battle lifeforms, resembling giant, metallic spiders, raced across the paved landing field of the starport towards the grounded moon ship, they were seen extruding forth giant cannons and projectors and other weapons of mayhem, all to the accompaniment of an incredible din as those thousands upon thousands of metallic legs churned up and down with their motion. The final moment, when they encircled the moon ship, and Mike, Derry, and Cally stepped forward to warn the aliens off, was pretty impressive to watch, even for Derry, who had been there at the time. "These are empire security lifeforms," Mike said, smiling sideways at Derry. "These are the troops that go to work when talking fails." He turned to look at Dith. "You get me?" The Crite looked horrified, his eyes bugged out at the image on the screen. "Oh, yes! We will not...we will do as you have asked. There will be no more trouble." Mike waved a hand at the image on the viewer, and Nyf took the hint and made it vanish. Mike sighed then, and smiled at Dith. "We don't want to bring you trouble. You people are citizens, which is why just three of us came to look into what was happening here. We really don't have time for games, though. You understand? It is absolutely imperative that you not use the doors until we have mastered this situation." He leaned closer, causing Dith to flinch. "You remember the life form you saw at the shipping facility?" Dith blinked uncertainly. "Life form?" "Yes. That thing that looked like a giant thunderstorm. It's a living thing. The great menace. Or, one of them." Dith shrank away from him. "A living being!" "Yes. By using the doors, you risk bringing one of them - or even more than one of them - here, to Rustgevend. Do you understand me?" The fear in Dith's eyes ran deep. "Yes. I do understand you." He glanced at the now inoperative door. "Now I can see why door usage was prohibited. To bring one of those...things...to Rustgevend...no!" He jerked his eyes back to the humans, and waved his hands in agitation. "I swear that all will be done as you have asked. This menace must never be allowed to come here!" Mike nodded slowly. "That's all we ask. Don't make things worse for us while we fight these things. As soon as it's safe, we'll come back and tell you so." Dith was in a hurry to leave then, as were all the Crowla holding's Crites. Derry and the others watched them hustle through the archway into the depths of the station. "You think they will comply?" Gilden asked, a little skeptically. "Do you think they will return and forfeit the staves?" Garmin and Mergurn both made amused sounds, and Koort roared out a laugh, and smiled at the Sasparian. "Wouldn't you?" Erva came to his son and took the staff from his hands, and tossed it over into the pile with the others. Then he smiled at Gilden, and gave him a hug. "I am proud of you." Gilden looked happy at that. "It was an amazing adventure. I'm...I'm a little sorry it's over." He smiled at Derry and Cally. "Must you leave so soon? We were just becoming friends." Cally grinned at Derry. "We have time for a few stories before we go, don't we?" Derry nodded, but looked at his granddad for confirmation. "Sure. A few good stories, told around the fire?" He smiled at Gilden. "And we'd love to hear some stories about life on Rustgevend." "That would be enjoyable, I think," Mike agreed. He let his gaze travel around the circle of their new friends. "Inishee holding? Tomorrow night? Around the fires? You're all invited." He smiled. "There are a million open doors out there. Each one has a story to tell. You won't be bored, I can assure you." "Rustgevend has its own stories to share," Koort told them, smiling. "I need to see to my fallen friends, and inform their families of what has happened here. But I think I can do that in a day's time and make it back to Inishee. So I, for one, will be there." "We will assist you, brother," Erva said then. "My son, Gilden, and I." Gilden gave a nod of his head. "We will." Mergrun and Garmin stepped forward as one. "So will we," Garmin said. "And gladly," Mergrun added. Derry looked at Cally, and then at his grandfather. Mike Hamlyn smiled, and gave a slow nod. "I'll help." Derry said. "So will I," Cally joined in. "We all will," granddad decided. "As soon as we are finished here, in fact." "What will you do with the staves?" Gilden asked. "We can reactivate the door and push them through," Nyf offered, on the private channel. Mike managed to hide his surprise, and passed that answer on to the Sasparian lad. "Will that be safe?" Derry asked. "Yes," Nyf replied. "I have had time to process some of the data we obtained at the supply center on the other side of the door. I believe it will be safe to reopen the door long enough to dispose of the staves." "Was that really a creature of some kind?" Cally asked. "That big thunder cloud?" "Many creatures, actually," Nyf responded. "You may have been prescient with what you told Dith, Mike. This is, perhaps, the great menace, after all." Mike Hamlyn looked surprised at that. "What? One thing like that, on one out of the way planet, would force the Armenti to shut down door travel everywhere?" "I don't think there is just one," Nyf countered. "I am still digesting the data. I will not know for some time yet. But I do think it will be safe to dispose of the staves. And then we close down this door, and lock it so it cannot be reopened." Derry considered that, and decided that Nyf probably knew best. "So we wait for Dith and his men to come back, then we help Koort with his friends, and then we go back to Inishee and sit by the fire and share stories with these people?" "Doesn't sound like a bad way to end this trip," his granddad said. "Helping our new friends. Does it?" It didn't, actually. Derry shrugged, and smiled at Cally. "We only have a few stories to tell." "The planet of the fur people, the planet of the bear horses and glass people, and the star port," Cally agreed. "And we'll have to be creative with them." "That will be enough," Mike said. "We want to hear their stories too. I'm sure they have a lot to tell. And a night is only so long." Derry smiled at that, and nodded. "I'm hungry. And I could use a nap." "Time for that, too," Mike said. "Time for a lot of things now, it seems." That was true. The new time calibrator that Difris and Nyf had come up with would see to that. For a brief moment Derry imagined what might lay ahead of them in times to come. What had his grandfather said? A million open doors... Oh, yes. Their task was only just beginning. * * * * * * * Derry sighed happily, and settled back among the cushions of the outdoor sofa on his grandfather's wide front porch. Cally was next to him, and the two were holding hands between them, listening to the thunder rumble in the distance. The afternoon sky had darkened, and the first patterings of rain were falling on the tin roof above their heads. It was wonderful to be home again, to smell Indiangrass and conifer, and to see the dazzling faces of red trillium and hepatica lining the edges of the woods. The boys were tired from their recent adventure, but happy at its outcome. "I can't believe only four hours passed while we were gone," Cally said. "That time thing that Difiris came up with sure did the trick!" "Uh huh. It means we can take a lot more trips through the doors, and not get in trouble with my mom." "Or my folks, either," Cally agreed. "It's sure gonna be an interesting summer. When it gets here." "Yeah, well. We can only do weekends with Difris and Nyf until school is over, I guess." Another rumble of thunder came to their ears, and Cally's hand tightened around Derry's. "You okay?" Derry asked. "Yeah. I just...it's weird to come home, and there's a storm here, too." Derry nodded. "It's one of ours, though. There's nothing in it to fear." "Yeah." The front door opened then, and Mike Hamlyn came out and looked over at them. Derry quickly withdrew his hand from Cally's, but the brief frown that appeared on his grandfather's face told him the man had seen the action. Derry tried to bluster his way through. "Hi, granddad. What's up?" The man smiled. "Your mom said not to go anywhere. Dinner will be ready in about fifteen minutes." "We're not going anyplace," Derry said, waving at the rain sprinkling down. "We had enough of getting wet back on Rustgevend." Mike nodded, and looked out into the fields of Indiangrass, waving in the breeze. "That storm there made this one look tame." A moment of silence dropped between them then. Derry looked over at Cally, who raised one shoulder in a question. "What do you think?" he asked, on their private channel. "He saw us," Derry responded. "I know he did." "Maybe he didn't," Cally offered. "He hasn't said anything." Derry licked his lips, looking for something to say to break the silence. "Um...It was cool it was mom's night to cook," he managed to his granddad. "Saves you the trouble of coming right back to a hot stove." He was feeling nervous, but his granddad's continued silence gave hope to the notion that he was not ready yet to tackle the issue of Derry's and Cally's closeness. And then that notion fell through. Mike Hamlyn looked back at them, then at the screen door, as if determining where inside the house Derry's mom might be; and then he came over and sat down in the rocker next to where Derry sat at the end of the sofa. "About the two of you." Derry's nerves spasmed then. "Huh?" His granddad watched them, his eyes going from one boy to the next. "I'm okay with it. I said that before, and I'll say it again now." Cally's elbow tapped hard against Derry. "He does know." Derry suddenly felt breathless, as if all the air had been sucked away from around him. "You...know." It came out as a statement, not a question. His grandfather's eyes filled with sympathy then, and he smiled. "Relax. I said I was okay with it." Derry turned to look at Cally again, but he couldn't seem to confine his words to their private link. "He said it was okay." Cally simply stared at him, and then let his gaze go back to Mike Hamlyn. "Okay?" Mike turned and settled back into the rocker, and set it to moving. There was a flash of lightning off to their left somewhere, followed by the bang of thunder. The rain seemed to gain energy then, coming down in sheets. The Indiangrass responded joyfully, waving in accompaniment to the wind and the rain in a welcoming dance. The man nodded. "Well...my initial reaction was not so understanding." He turned to look at them again. "I don't really get a man loving a man. Or...well, like you two." He sighed, just barely audible over the rain now. "But it isn't my decision. It's not up to me." Derry simply nodded. His granddad's eyes were anything but accusing. "I got to thinking how your dad would have reacted, Derry." He smiled again. "He loved you so much. Just so much. I decided he would have worried about the effect of this on your life - on your future, I mean. But I also decided that, after all was said and done, he would have continued to love you so much, and to support you in the life you were living. I felt I owed him that much, at least, to try do the very same." Derry was slightly aghast. "It sounds like you've known for a long time." His grandfather laughed at that. "Kind of hard to miss. Don't be surprised if your mom suspects, too." Derry's disbelief intensified. "But...what do I do?" Mike Hamlyn shrugged. "Nothing. If your mom finds out for certain, I am pretty sure she'll take it even better than I did. I would suggest you tell her, in fact. There's a lot more known about this than when I was a kid. You are who you are, Derry, and it's just that simple." His grandfather went quiet a moment, as if thinking. The rain tried to come onto the porch with them, but the old house's builders had known their stuff, and the porch wasn't having any of it. The boards near the rail in front of them grew damp, and then soaked, but none of the raindrops reached the dry oasis where they sat against the front wall of the house. Granddad turned to smile at them again. "You know what? I've come to see how small a bump in life this really is. You love Cally, and he loves you. After all we have seen and done on Rustgevend, after all the lives that we've seen affected by events just in the past few days, what you two have seems not to be something to fret about. It's yours to participate in, not mine. I kind of realize I'm in the same boat as your dad was. I love you, Derry, and that's all that really matters. How you live your life is not up to me. But I do want you to know that I support you in this, and that I will always be here to fight for what you believe in. Understand?" Derry fought to hold back tears then. Cally sniffed, and settled against Derry's shoulder, found his hand again, and squeezed it tightly. "Thanks," was all Derry could manage. "Not needed, son. I've had a good look at the kind of man you are, out there among the stars. The kind of man you'll be, rather. A good man, Derry. Both of you. That matters more than what you two do in the privacy of your own lives. Understand?" Derry nodded. "Yes." He bit at his lip, and rubbed his nose awkwardly. "I was a little bit scared of how you'd take this." His grandfather nodded. "Been there, myself. Scared, I mean. You'll pull through." He smiled then. "I love you, son. And I'm pretty fond of the people you spend your time with, too." Cally snuffed hard, and squeezed Derry's hand again. Derry could only nod. His granddad smiled again, and got to his feet. "Um...I'd better go help your mom, before she comes looking for me. I'm glad we finally talked, Derry." "Me, too." Sympathy filled his grandfather's eyes once again. "It'll be fine, son. You'll see. You two get yourselves together, and come on in for dinner in a few minutes. Okay?" Derry nodded, and Cally squeezed his hand again in support. Mike Hamlyn sighed, smiled one more time, then opened the screen door and was gone. "I love your granddad," Cally said, rubbing at his nose and squeezing Derry's hand. Derry sighed, really let the air come out, realizing now that his last few breaths had been trapped somewhere inside of him. "Yeah. Me, too." Cally laughed. "It'll be okay, like he said." Derry hitched himself around in his seat to face his boyfriend, and smiled at him. "I love you." Cally grinned. "I love you back." Derry glanced back at the door, then bent forward to kiss Cally. The other boy accepted the kiss, and gave it back with all his heart. For a moment their faces stayed together, sharing some things they both had longed to experience for several years now. Openness. A lack of fear. Love without shame. Freedom. The rain beat steadily upon the roof now, but the sound was restful, unhurried, clean. Rain washed away the grime of the day, and left everything shining again. Nature understood the rebirth of the world on a daily basis like people never could. Cally sighed. "I'm so happy, Derry." "I know." Derry nodded. "I feel it, too." "What do you want to do tomorrow?" Derry sighed. "Granddad said something about a hike after lunch." Cally laughed. "A hike? He wants to go see Difris again." "Uh huh. Don't you?" Cally didn't have to think about it. "Yes. I don't think I'll ever get tired of walking between the stars." Derry laughed at that and jumped to his feet. Then he reached a hand down, waited for Cally to take it, and then pulled his boyfriend up to stand beside him. "Me, either. But let's eat dinner first." They went into the house then, smiling. Derry paused at the threshold, the screen door ajar in his hand, and took a last look at the rain coming down, at the fields of grass and flowers, and the woods beyond. It was wonderful to be home. His eyes lingered on the woods in the direction of the ancient mound, left there so long ago by a people that had once held the stars in their hands, but had now gone missing. We'll find you, Derry promised, as much to himself as those lost others. We won't give up. He smiled a last time, at the rain, the world it fell upon, and the secrets that world held hidden, and then carefully closed the door behind him.
  11. "I plan to fly straight across," Gilden told them, as they stood outside next to Aginshir's tube station. "When I get to where the tube straightens and runs true to Crowla's peak, I will land upon it and run the rest of the way. " "Sounds like a plan," Cally said. He turned to Derry. "What about us?" "Well, we can't just fly over there at some crazy speed, because we'll make noise ourselves. Cutting through the air makes a sound, and it gets louder the faster you go." He stared at the distant peak that held Crowla's holding. It was an easy ten miles away, and yet they could still see the bright daub of light that was the lit tube at the entrance to the station. He turned to look at Gilden. "How long will it take you to fly over?" The young Sasparian's eyes measured the distance. "Fifteen minutes. A little longer, actually, as I will have to land on the tube and run the last half mile. Twenty minutes." "Nyf, how long will it take us to fly over?" Derry asked. "Derry, you could be there in two minutes, but they would hear you coming." Cally, who had also heard the answer, laughed. "Holy crap!" Derry smiled. "Okay, what if we took a little more time? Say...ten minutes?" "They would not hear you, Derry. Nor see you. Your suits can aid in camouflaging you, even from Crite night vision. And, in case you have not noticed, the sky has been clouding up considerably in the last ten minutes." Derry cast a surprised glance skyward. The stars had vanished, except on the far horizon. "What does that mean?" "I would suggest that rain is coming, at the very least." Derry turned to Gilden. "Did you notice the sky?" "Yes. When it turns cloudy like this, a storm is in the works." Derry frowned. "You can fly in it, though?" "Oh, yes. For perhaps another hour. Maybe less. I suggest we get moving." "Okay. We are going to go at a speed that will take us about ten minutes to cross to the other peak. That will give us time to take out the guys on the roof before you get there. We can't wait on you, so you'll just have to play it by ear when you get there." "I understand." Gilden reached out and placed a hand on each of their shoulders. "Safe journey." "You, too," Derry said, nodding. "See you there." Gilden smiled at them, and then took a running leap and propelled himself into the air. His great wings beat with increasing speed as he wheeled above them and headed off to Crowla's peak. "You ready?" Derry asked his boyfriend, on their private channel. "Yes." But then Cally grabbed Derry's wrist and squeezed it gently. "I just wanted to say...I love you, Derry." Derry's breath caught, and for a moment a weakness overcame him. But then it passed, and he bent forward and they exchanged a brief but fierce hug. "I love you, too, Cally. We're gonna be okay. Right?" "Yeah. Let's go." His boyfriend grinned. "Last one to Crowla's peak is a rotten egg!" Derry smiled, and the two of them arced gracefully upward into the ever darkening sky. "Derry? It was his grandfather's voice, on their three-way private channel. "What's your status?" "We're in the air," Derry told him. "It's going to take us about ten minutes to cross. We don't want them to hear us coming." "Smart. Did you notice the sky? Erva says a storm is coming." "We saw it. Gilden said we had an hour or less." "His father says the same. Okay. Let me know when you're ready to take out Crowla's people on the roof of the station. We'll watch the guards at the tube entrance for any sign of a reaction." "Okay." "There's Gilden," Cally said. Far below them, they could make out the Sasparian boy, his wings beating mightily as he made his way across the sky. "He doesn't seem to see us," Cally said. "He will not," Nyf told them. "Your suits are in full camouflage mode. You can only see each other due to the enhanced vision your head bubbles provide." They were at altitude now, and the peaks spread out before and around them, to every horizon. It was an amazing and beautiful sight, each peak dotted with tiny lights, and connected by a gossamer web of tubing that seemed unusually prominent in the dark of the night. "Safety precaution for flying machines." Nyf explained, when Cally mentioned it. "The safety of its citizens was important to the empire." "Works for us," Cally replied, pointing ahead. "I can see where our tube turns there and heads to Crowla's mountain." "Granddad and the others were right at that last bend before the straight," Derry replied. "We'll be passing over them in a couple of minutes." The cloud cover hiding the surface of Rustgevend was also faintly visible between the peaks, giving the view a slightly ghostly sense that was oddly compelling. That there was no place on their own Earth that could look quite like this was certain. It served to remind Derry that they were uncounted light years from home, and working in a time frame that would ultimately pass in an hour or two, at most, had they been sitting on Derry's own front porch. It struck him as a rather special way to be spending a few hours out of a warm spring afternoon. "I feel good about what we're doing," Derry told his boyfriend. "So let's not mess it up." Cally grinned. "I'll be right behind you, Captain." Derry laughed. "Oh, shut up. There's the bend in the tube." Wow," Cally responded. "We're making good time." "We're passing over you now," Derry informed his grandfather. "Good. Can't see you through the tube, so your suits are doing their jobs." "Nyf said we were in full camo mode. No one will see us until too late." Just then a flash of lightning lit the sky to their rear, and a moment later the sound of thunder rumbled past them. "Whoa," granddad said, sounding impressed. "I'd just as soon get this over with before that storm gets worse." "We've passed you and I can see the station now. I'm going to stop talking so I can concentrate." "Okay. Let me know when you've taken those guys out." "I will." "And good luck!" Derry smiled at that last addition. Granddad was putting a lot of faith in them. Derry had no intention of letting the man down. Another flash of lightning lit the sky behind them. They were over the station now, and several thousand feet up. The boys began to descend rapidly, and Nyf suggested they draw their weapons. "I count six on the roof, spaced around the edge," the artificial mind told them. The view through their head bubbles zoomed in, and the night was no hindrance whatsoever to sight. Derry easily spotted the six Crites, spaced evenly around the roof of the saucer-like station, away from the center, fortunately, which was transparent like the tubes. "Crap! I forgot the roofs of these places were see-through," Derry said. "That could have been a problem if these guys were standing on the transparent part. I'd hate to drop them and have the guys inside see them sprawled all over their ceiling." Cally laughed, apparently imagining the sight. "They're not, so stop worrying. I'm going to take the three on my side, you get the three on yours, okay?" Derry smiled. "I thought I was in charge of this mission." "Oh, you are, Captain. Just sayin'!" Derry laughed, pointing his zap gun at the first Crite as the boys drew to a halt a hundred feet above the roof. "None of them are looking straight up. So, on my mark, let's take 'em out." "Ready." "One...two...three!" Just as Derry fired another flash of lightning lit the sky, followed by a boom of thunder that completely masked the sounds of the zap guns. Still, Derry flinched at the suddenness of the event, and had to fire a second time at his first man before moving on to the others. But very quickly, all six Crites were out of action. Derry informed his granddad of the act, and the man seemed pleased. "The ones inside didn't react at all. Good job. Now go to the emergency panel, and let me know right before you go inside." "Okay." Derry turned to his boyfriend. "Let's collect these staves and get rid of them. Only take a minute, and it'll be safer if they're unarmed should they wake up before we're done." They did that, looking over the edge of the roof at the back of the station to make certain no one was below, and then dumping all six staves behind some bushes. "The panel should be over there," Cally said then, pointing. They crossed the roof by circling the non-transparent rim, looked over the edge carefully, and saw the landing below. No one was there. "You sense anyone around we can't see, Nyf?" Cally asked. "No. It is safe to proceed." Derry held up a hand. "Wait...one last thing." He raised himself twenty feet into the air, turned, looked back at the tube, and zoomed in on it, traveling its length back towards the bend where the others were hidden. But he didn't get halfway there before he spied a figure running along the top of the tube. "Wow. Gilden is almost here!" "He's fast," Cally said admiringly. "I like him." "I do, too," Derry said, settling back beside his boyfriend. "These are all good people. Makes me feel good to be helping them." He took a breath, released it. "Ready?" "Yeah." They raised from the roof and dropped slowly to the landing below. Derry found the handle on the emergency panel, drew his zap gun again, and looked over at Cally. "We just walk in, and start shooting. You stay on my left side, and get the ones on the left. I'll shoot the ones on the right." "I got it." Derry gave the panel a gentle pull, enough to release it, and opened it a crack so he could peer inside. He quickly counted sixteen Crites: ten arrayed across the tube entrance, and six standing behind them. No one was looking their way. He relayed that information to Cally, and then informed granddad that they were going in. "Be careful, son," the man said. Derry pulled open the panel, and he and Cally simply walked inside. They each took out several of the Crites on each side before the others could react to what was happening, and turned their way. But even as they tried to bring their staves to bear, they were collapsing into a heap on the floor. In five seconds, they were all down. Derry turned to look around the back of the station. There was an alcove to one side, perhaps for freight storage, and it was darker there, the rear of the depression masked in shadows. But it seemed empty of any Crites. The alcove was directly across from the next thing to catch his eye: a door. One of the big ovals, laying on its side, that was a cargo door between worlds. Big enough for large machinery, vehicles - just about anything one might need to ship between worlds. The oval was filled with darkness, a sign that it was still active. But it looked like all the enemy had been taken down. "It's done!" Derry called to his grandfather. "We saw! We're on our way!" "Let's collect their staves before they wake up," Derry said then. "We'll hide them in the space behind the cargo door for now." They picked up the staves from among the fallen Crites and hid them behind the open cargo door. The black field within the oval looked serene, but Derry knew it was a mask as much as a threshold. The darkness hid the world beyond. What lay on the other side of a door could be peaceful, or it could be a warzone. That there might be millions of these doors, each hiding a mystery, seemed an almost overpowering idea now. The task before them was an awesome one, indeed! "That'll do it," Cally said, looking back at the door as they walked back to the fallen Crites. "Can't see the staves, so they might as well not be there. Let's look these guys over and make sure they're all just knocked out." Derry nodded, and they bent beside the Crites and checked for pulses. "We can see you now," Granddad said over the private channel. "I'm flying ahead. Almost there. I...watch out!" The warning was barely uttered before Derry heard the blast of a staff to his rear. A bright flash washed over him, but he felt nothing. He whirled, pulling his gun as he turned, and was stunned to see the room full of Crites behind them. The bolt of electricity had come from the one closest to them, and the others were spreading out behind him and trying to bring their staves to bear. Derry realized what had happened then: the six Crites had just come back through the cargo door! In the same second another staff roared, and the bolt seemed drawn to the staff of the Crite that had just fired at Derry. That man shrieked and was thrown back at the others, his staff flying in the other direction and his body crashing into the massed staves just then being brought to bear on the humans. A finger of the original bolt branched off and struck another of the Crites, who promptly let go of his staff and collapsed to the floor. The entire group behind him staggered backwards under the body blow from the first Crite struck. Derry's eyes jerked to the source of the new bolt, and there was Gilden just inside the emergency panel. The boy's expression looked grim, and his staff moved with the tumbling Crites, seeking another target. Derry couldn't believe what happened next. The shadows within the alcove at the back of the room, to the rear of the Crites, suddenly moved. And then they were flowing forward, tossing Crites aside as if they were nothing. One Crite turned with a frantic speed and bolted back through the cargo door, and was gone. Two more, thrown to the floor by the moving shadows in passing, scrambled to retrieve their staves, and then were gone through the cargo doors as well. The last two conscious Crites struggled to rise, and then one simply pushed the other off him roughly, and crawled across the floor and disappeared through the cargo door. The last Crite, the one struck by the branching bolt from Gilden's shot, grabbed his staff just as the three shadows converged upon him again. The staff was pulled roughly from the Crite's hands and tossed away, and the Crite lifted and thrown to the floor with enough force to knock the wind out of him. Derry heard the sound of the impact, and knew the Crite was at least temporarily out of action. And just as suddenly, all was still. Gilden took a step backwards and tilted his staff back away from the three shadowy ones. Then he seemed to think better of it, and bowed his head at them. "I am grateful for your assistance." The three dark figures turned in their eerie, almost ghostly fashion, and Derry realized that they were now all facing him and Cally. Schrikken! For a moment he froze; and then a small voice at the back of his mind yelled at him: You're an Armenti, dummy! Say something! Derry cleared his throat and smiled. "Um, hello. Thank you for your help." Cally nodded, his eyes wide. "Yeah!" One of the Schrikken moved towards them, and it was all that Derry could do not to take a step backwards. "We could not stand by while these depraved ones acted out their treachery behind your backs." The voice was soft, with the quality of a whisper, yet perfectly audible to Derry's ears. "You were invisible in the darkness there," Gilden said, taking a step further into the room. "You surprised us." "We have been here all day, watching and listening to these agitators as they made their plans," the Schrikken revealed. "We have been among them for some time now, in fact." "And they never knew," Cally said, in amazement. "No. The eyes see what is familiar. That which is not is...just a shadow among many." Gilden stepped closer to the Crite the Schrikken had disabled and stared down at his face. "It's Dith!" He tapped his staff on the floor forcefully and turned to Derry. "And one of the Crites that went back through the door was Crowla!" Mike Hamlyn arrived just then, gun in hand, and landed beside Derry. "You okay?" he asked quietly. "Uh huh." Derry smiled at the relief he saw in his grandfather's eyes. "Did we scare you?" "Just a little." His granddad smiled. "But you two did a great job." He turned then and smiled at Gilden. "You, too, son. Thank you." And then Mike Hamlyn put away his weapon and stepped towards the Schrikken. "I'm Mike Hamlyn, of Armenti security. These are my associates, Derry and Cally. We are grateful for your help in subduing these Crites." That the Schrikken had eyes seemed clear, but Derry was not certain where they were. Yet the alien turned slightly to face each of the 'Armenti' as they were introduced, proving that they were there. "I am called Ssistraa. My companions are Ssalit and Ssraik." "Nice to meet you," Cally said, pushing his zap gun back into his holster. Derry noticed the movement, and reholstered his own weapon. Erva arrived on his wings then, and they could hear the sound of running feet behind him within the transport tube. The senior Sasparian landed running and deftly stopped right beside his son, and immediately placed a hand on the boy's shoulder and squeezed it, as if making sure he was really there. "In one piece, I see." Gilden smiled, and shifted his staff to his other hand, and placed the free one on his father's shoulder. "I wouldn't have missed it for anything." Erva nodded. "Nor I, when I was your age. The circumstances were different, but the experience just as lasting." Garmin, Mergrun, and Koort arrived then, and the two Crites immediately took up watchful positions over their fallen brethren just inside the station, while Koort came forward to stand with the humans. "That was rather thrilling." Granddad laughed. "It wasn't boring, I have to agree." Introductions were made all around again. Ssistraa acknowledged each new face, but his two companions never said a word. That everyone but the Schrikken were feeling a bit of nervous strain seemed evident. If Sisstraa noticed it he did not acknowledge it, but in only a moment his two companions moved past him towards the tube back to Aginshir. Both Garmin and Mergrin leaned away from the two Schrikken as they passed, and probably didn't even realize they had done so. "We will be leaving now," Sisstraa said. Mike emitted a short sigh. "You are more than welcome to stay. We would like to know how you happen to be here." Ssistraa moved closer to Derry's granddad, and Derry marveled at how cool the man seemed to be. "There is nothing strange about our presence. We had heard of Crowla and his new weapons. We were sent by our Ssiam Ssali to see for ourselves. Our ability to remain out of sight allowed us to listen to many things. The plans these people discussed would have caused ill for all the peoples of our world. We just happened to be here in this place when these most recent events transpired." There was the softest of sounds then, that could only be a sign of humor. "Now that the Armenti have arrived, we feel things will be in good hands. Our mission is fulfilled. Crowla is routed, at least for the moment. We are pleased to be able to return to our people and tell them of your arrival, rather than of the plans of Crowla to make war. And so we will depart now." "Well, thank you again," Mike said. "You made a difference here today." "So did you," Ssistraa returned. For a moment the Schrikken paused, watching Mike with his invisible eyes; and then the alien leaned forward. "I would speak with you privately, in the tube." Mike Hamlyn glanced over at Derry, but then nodded at Ssistraa. "Sure. Be right back, guys." Over the private link, Derry's granddad said, "I'll fix it so you guys can hear what happens." Ssalit and Ssraik had already entered the tube, and now stood in the distance. Ssistraa followed them, and Mike Hamlyn followed him. The two stopped just inside the tube, out of earshot of the others. "I am very old," Ssistraa said then, his voice coming over the private channel "I was a visitor here when the doors first shut down." Mike Hamlyn grunted in surprise. "Oh?" "Yes. I know many of the Armenti personally. You look strikingly like them, and you wear their protective suits well. But you are not them." "Why would you say that?" Again came the soft laugh."You do not taste like Armenti." Mike Hamlyn's surprise came through the link clearly. "Taste?" "Yes. Every race has its own distinct flavor. The Armenti had theirs, and you have yours. They are not the same." It was Derry's granddad's turn to laugh. "There's a reason for that." "I am listening." Mike sighed. "Long ago - a very long time ago - before there were doors, the Armenti were confined to traveling the stars in ships." "This we know. Continue." "In those early days, the Armenti colonized many worlds. My ancestors were among those of one of the earliest new settlements. The planet was called, um, Terra." "I have not heard of this world." Mike gave a short grunt of agreement. "You would not have. We were lost for a very long time. We managed to keep our civilization, but we lost the ability to travel the stars. But then one day a ship arrived on our world. An Armenti ship." Ssistraa made a small sound that came across as one of fascination. "You were rediscovered?" "Yes. Doors were set up on our world, and we were quite suddenly reconnected with our long lost kin." "Ah. That would explain the slight differences in your appearance. In your taste. The results of evolutionary adaptation to a new world over time." "Yes. At the time of our rediscovery, the great menace had already been encountered. Our brothers needed the help of all Armenti, everywhere, to assist in the fight. And so...here we are." Derry could see Ssistraa offer Mike a rippling bow. "My apologies, then. Now that I have your taste, I will share it with all others of my kind, so that they will know you should we meet again." "Um, great. Are you sure you need to go now?" "Yes. It is the wisest course. We make the warmbloods nervous. It distresses us to do so. Please give them my heartfelt thanks for their parts in keeping Rustgevend free." Derry heard his grandfather chuckle. "It's not over yet." "And yet, it soon will be. I have confidence in you. In all the Armenti. So now...I bid you farewell." Ssistraa moved off with that amazing and unsettling rippling movement, joined his fellows, and quickly, the Schrikken headed away from them. Cally nudged Derry then. "I just thought of something." "What?" His boyfriend patted the front of his suit. "Nyf, how come our suit scanners didn't detect the Schrikken there in that alcove?" "They did." Derry and Cally stared at each other. "Nothing popped up," Derry insisted. "I didn't know they were there until they moved!" Nyf was silent a moment, and then offered a very practiced sigh. "I think we should talk about this later. Suffice it to say for the present that the Schrikken have their own gifts for remaining unseen." Cally's eyebrows went up in amazement, but the smile he aimed at Derry was unfazed. "Cool!" Mike Hamlyn, still standing in the tube, watched the enigmatic aliens disappear, and then turned and came back to the station. "Strange people," he said, as he rejoined the group. The others were watching and listening with interest. "And yet, I liked them very much." "They are an honorable part of our society," Erva responded. "Just not very interactive." "You're getting good with the storytelling," Derry kidded his granddad on the private channel. "You could write books!" "I hate it," granddad replied, frowning. "Lying to friends just sucks. But I am enough of a realist to know when it's a necessary thing. It's important that we act here with the authority of the Armenti. That's all there is to it." Koort, standing over near Erva, looked around the room, and then offered them an approving nod. "I should not have doubted you. I see now that justice will indeed be served here." Erva laughed, and clapped the Narthie on the back. "You had doubts, brother?" Koort's expression grew serious. "I'm sorry. But I did." He cocked his head at the humans. "The Armenti left suddenly long ago, without adequate explanation, but with a potent warning that the doors were not to be used. For these many years we have abided by this warning, because it was understood that the safety of this world and other worlds might be at stake. But I will say now that there have been those among my own people that have been watching what Crowla and his holding have been doing with interest. And talk that perhaps the confinement to this world we have endured has actually been self-imposed. Some wished to have a look through the doors at the nexus station, even." "You must not do this!" Erva said, sounding alarmed. Koort smiled at him again. "Relax, brother. I will tell the tale of this undertaking. The Armenti have said what they mean, and mean what they say. Only something grave indeed would have brought them back so quickly. Crowla's violation of the door seems not to be taken so lightly now." He gave a shake of his head and shoulders. "Just the word that the Armenti are still with us will be enough to calm those restless enough to wish to explore. It holds out hope for us that things will change someday." Erva looked askance at the Narthie. "Is this world so unpleasant to you?" The other gave a hearty laugh. "Not to me! I rather like it. But some among my kind feel it doesn't have enough earth to burrow in, if you know what I mean." Erva and Gilden laughed at that, and Derry couldn't help smile. But the smile quickly ebbed as more important things came back to mind. "What do we do about the ones that got away?" he asked his granddad, pointing at the cargo doorway. The man frowned, and then gave a small shrug. "We'll need to go after them, I guess. We still need to see if there is anything else dangerous on the other side of this door." He looked at the two Crites on the floor before him. Dith was conscious, and glaring up at them. The Crite mainly struck by Gilden's bolt was obviously breathing, but otherwise out of it. Granddad smiled at Gilden. "That's pretty good. Two hits, yet they both survived." The Sasparian boy looked pleased. "Their staves both seemed to attract my fire. I was very close to them, though. Perhaps that had something to do with it." Granddad nodded and squatted before Dith. "Crowla was with you? He went back through the door?" The Crite simply glared, but said nothing. Mike Hamlyn leaned closer to him then, all pretenses to civility gone. "I could simply deactivate this door, and leave your friends on the other side. Forever." Dith looked alarmed at that. "You can't! It would be--" But he trailed off, his glare returning. Mike shook his head slowly. "Murder? Isn't that what your leader planned for all those that opposed him?" "I did not intend to kill anyone," Dith returned, sullenly. Mike leaned closer. "Five Narthie traders were murdered back at Aginshir by Crowla's own cousin. And yet you people didn't intend to harm anyone?" A look of alarm washed over Dith's features. "I had nothing to do with that!" Mike pulled his zap gun from its holster and held it casually in his hands before him. "Conspiracy is a crime under empire law. All involved are treated as perpetrators of a crime." Dith looked appalled at that. "Conspiracy! I was not part of...I had nothing to do with..." A look of shock appeared on the Crite's features, and a certain dullness came into his eyes. "We meant to unify this world," he said then, very quietly. "I don't know how it got so out of hand." Mike nodded. "Your leader seems to have little respect for life." Dith closed his eyes, and gave his head a short side-to-side nod of agreement. "He was a good man, once. I don't know what happened." "Uh huh. Where did you get the staves?" Dith looked over at the cargo door. "There. There is a world there, beneath a red sun. A broken land, once covered with vast storehouses. But not now. The landscape is pockmarked with craters, the buildings mostly destroyed. There are...shipping containers, I guess they are, laying everywhere, as if dispersed by the explosions. We found one such container, broken open. It contained many staves, some broken themselves. But others still worked." Mike frowned at that. "You can't outfit an army on one container of weapons." "There are five other containers, exactly like the first. They may have all been piled together at some point. But these other containers were not broken, and we have not been able to get them open." "Empire shipping security was very efficient," Nyf noted. "They would have a hard time breaching it." Mike repeated that statement. Dith nodded again. "We never had enough time to work for very long. We would arrive, and the sun would be shining overhead. But within the hour, every time we went, strange clouds would from on the horizon and move closer. The wind would pick up, and thunder and...and lightning would threaten. We would be forced to leave, to come back here." Mike looked over at the door. "And this time?" "The same. The strange weather returned, so we made our way back here." Dith suddenly looked horrified, and turned to gaze at the cargo door. "They went back! Into the storm!" Mike looked up at Derry, and shook his head, before turning back to Dith. "That's a lot of trepidation over a simple thunder storm." Dith turned haunted eyes back upon them. "It was not a simple thunderstorm! Crowla laughed at my fears, and dismissed them. But there was...there was something inside those dark clouds. Something I could feel. Something...dangerous!" Mike Hamlyn cocked his head to one side. "When we discussed this before back at Inishee, you said you saw nothing dangerous on the other side of this door. You laughed at the idea, in fact." Dith looked unnerved now. "I...I was wrong. The storms gradually came closer with each of our visits, reducing the time we could stay to work on the containers. The last few times we were there, the storms were very close. Close enough for me to sense their danger." "Hmm. And no one else could feel this, um, presence?" "Yes." Dith waved his hands in agitation. "Crowla finally pulled me aside and told me to stop frightening the others. He said it was my talk that was scaring them, not some storm! He could not sense the presence like the rest of us could." "Odd," Nyf commented over the private channel. "Records for this transshipping station indicate that the weather was universally mild, year-round. It was one reason the planet was selected to fulfill its present function." "You have to get them back!" Dith said then, trying to rise, but unable to do that yet. His legs seemed to still be too weak. "They're in danger there!" Mike watched the Crite a moment longer, then propelled himself erect, and slid his zap gun into his holster. He took Derry and Cally each by an arm and moved them away from Dith, over by Erva and Gilden. Koort joined them, though obviously keeping an eye on Dith. But the Crite was simply staring at the cargo door, unmoving. "Something's going on here," Derry's granddad said. "The man seems genuinely frightened of something on the other side of that door." Gilden frowned. "I would not trust that one any more than his leader." Derry looked over at Dith again, and nodded. "He does seem really scared." "I don't think he's playing," Cally agreed. "Something has him spooked." Granddad nodded. "We're going to have to go and look ourselves." "I could just close the door down and place a strike in its database record," Nyf offered. "The door could not be initiated again from either side without my approval." Granddad winced at that, and looked over at the door again. "Yeah, but that would be condemning those men to exile, and probably death. I'd be willing to bet there's nothing at all to eat or drink over there." "They could starve on that planet," Derry said to Cally, aloud. "We can't just maroon them there." "They chose to flee," Koort countered. "Do not they deserve their fates?" "Maybe," Mike Hamlyn replied. "But we still need to see what is there before we shut this door down. Dith's description of the place doesn't match what we have in our records." "Will you require assistance?" Erva asked. At that, Gilden looked hopeful, and Derry tried not to smile. "Thanks," Mike said. "But it's not safe. And the fewer that use the door, the better." Outside the station now, they could hear the wind, and the transparent overhead flashed as lightning split the sky. A dull rumble of thunder washed over the station, and then came the sound of rain upon the roof. "We're getting a storm of our own," Derry said. He turned to his grandfather. "When do we go?" "Right now." Cally leaned closer. "Shouldn't we look before just walking through?" "That might be a good idea," Mike agreed. "How do we do that?" Cally grinned. "Just lean your head through. I've done it before, and it works fine." Derry remembered when Cally had done just that, poking his face through the door back from the planet of the fur people to see if Difris was still watching for them back at the transfer station. They had yet to meet the giant spider at that point, and had been afraid of encountering him. Difris had outwitted them, settling back away from the door and pulling in his legs to sit and watch and wait for their return. When Cally had looked through he had missed the giant spider, which just looked like any other piece of machinery sitting on the floor. Mike nodded. "Yeah, I did that once, myself. Okay, let's do this." "We will watch this place while you are gone," Erva said. "Gilden, watch the panel you entered through. We don't wish to be surprised from the outside." "Yes, Father." Koort moved closer to the humans. "Be safe. Nothing is worth your lives." Mike grinned at him. "No doubt in my mind!" The three humans approached the cargo door and stopped before it. Mike opaqued his head bubble, and then grunted over the private channel. "Here goes nothing!" He leaned forward then, and all but the very back of his head bubble disappeared through the doorway. Derry started counting seconds, and it was a full ten of them before his grandfather pulled back again. "Wow." He sounds scared, Derry thought. "What did you see?" "I'm...I'm not sure. I want you both to look before we go through, okay? You need to see what we're getting into." Cally patted Derry's arm and then stepped up to the field of darkness filling the doorway. "Come, on, Derry!" Derry stepped up beside his boyfriend and opaqued his head bubble. Cally did the same. Then they leaned forward, together. The effect was unnerving, both to Derry's eyes and to his imagination. He leaned into the veil of darkness, which parted before him to reveal a strange and dark landscape beyond. At the same moment, he was aware that his face and his body were now separated by light years of distance - or were they? The odd qualities of door travel seemed to place two points widely separated by distance into a contiguous state. Moving from one place to the other was just the matter of a single step. Yet those two places were separated by both time and distance in the reality of things, weren't they? Weren't they? Derry abandoned the thoughts then, before they could overwhelm him, and concentrated instead on what he could see before him. A broken land... He was viewing it through what had surely once been a wall, now a gaping hole that revealed an enormous paved area outside the shattered shell of the building the door seemed located within. The remains of other buildings dotted the landscape, all of them large, and in most cases simply the walls, or just parts of the walls, left standing. A few were simply large piles of rubble, their former status as buildings only suggested by the placement of the piles among a row of less thoroughly blasted structures. The same picture went on and on, for miles it seemed, finally fading into a haze on the far horizon. Craters dotted the pavement, surrounded by huge chunks of whatever material the empire had used to cover the land here. There were blackened streaks across the still smooth areas between craters, looking very much like the lash marks a whip might leave behind. And everywhere...just everywhere...lay shipping containers of all sizes and shapes, most still whole and looking undamaged, but a few broken and their mysterious contents strewn about the pavement. The suggestion of wholesale destruction was simply breathtaking. Whatever had happened here, it hadn't been gentle in nature. Looming above all this was a dark cloud, like a thunderhead, but one that pulsed and glowed with reddish light within. It was some miles away, but seemed even now to be coming closer. To each side of the vast column of roiling atmosphere the sky was uncannily clear, and filled with a reddish glow that could only be sunshine scattered throughout the quieter air. The dark cloud was inconsistent with the sky around it. It jarred Derry's senses, made him frightened somehow, and instilled within him an urge to run. The cloud was alien, not natural and yet not identifiable in nature. Immense and powerful looking, and radiating a sense of menace that could readily be felt. And whatever it was, it did not belong there. "Crap," Cally breathed, and Derry could feel his boyfriend's anxiety. "What the hell is that?" They backed away together, and turned right into Derry's granddad, who stretched his arms out to contain them. "Felt like running, didn't you?" he asked on the private channel. "It struck me the same way." "What do you think it is?" "No idea. It scares me, though. Nyf?" "Not enough data," the artificial mind told them. "The sampling was too short. But one thing did seem clear: that cloud is alive." Derry and Cally stared at each other. Cally's eyes were wide, and Derry could see the same fear there he was feeling himself. "Alive?" Granddad grunted. "I have to go look. Derry, you and Cally can stay here. I'll just be gone a few minutes--" "No!" Derry shook his head emphatically. "I'm going with you." "Me, too!" Cally said, right on his heels. Mike Hamlyn laughed, and shook his head. "There is no doubt in my mind that you share the family gene for stubbornness, Derry." He turned his smile on Cally. "Seems to be rubbing off, too." Derry suddenly found that funny, and grinned. "We're going with you." "Suit yourself. But stay right with me, and come back here when I do. Understand?" "Okay." "Yes." "I didn't see the Crites," Derry said then. "They sure weren't waiting for us." His granddad huffed at that one. "I'm not sure I'd be just standing there waiting for that cloud to arrive, either." "Where can they go?" Cally asked. "There's nothing there. They'll starve if we close the door on them." Granddad simply shook his head. "Let's go see." They drew their weapons, informed the others of their intentions, and then stepped through the door.
  12. The nights on Rustgevend were dark ones. There was no moon, nothing to light the sky but stars. So the lights in the station on Crowla's peak could be seen from miles away. "Looks like a spotlight of some sort, aimed into the tube from the station proper," Mike said, zooming in with his head bubble after they had come closer. "Looks like we're expected." Erva, studying the distant scene through his binoculars, grunted. "I see ten men armed with staves inside the station, guarding the approach from the tube. And several more to their rear, also armed. They mean business, it would seem." "I am detecting others, atop the station outside, and below the station, on the flank of the mountain," Nyf said on the private channel. "They're guarding against fliers - our Sasparian friends - I think." Mike passed that information to the others. "Crowla will not be taken easily," Mergrun offered. "He has to know now that his crimes cannot go unpunished. He will fight, rather than surrender." He gave a short, hissing laugh. "He did not foresee the intervention of the Armenti in his plans." "It's not a done deal yet," Mike cautioned. "Ten staves can fill that tube with death for anyone that approaches." "Nyf, would our suits withstand the bolts from ten staves at once?" Derry asked, on the private channel. "I would say the danger would be significant," the artificial mind returned. "The tube is electrically neutral and will serve as a guide for the many bolts, focusing them and increasing their range. It would be impossible for you to approach without receiving the full brunt of their attack." "We'd have the range on them with our zap guns, wouldn't we?" Cally asked. "It would be close. You would need all three weapons at once to take down the ten guards. That means all three of you getting dangerously close to the staves. It is not an advisable course of action." "I don't like the odds, myself," Mike said, frowning. "At least these people are inexperienced. This looks like a much better-planned defense than those jokers back at Aginshir offered up. But it still has its limitations." Taking the Crites at Aginshir had been even simpler than it had been at Inishee. They had made their way to the open center of the building, and again found the odd blue bushes offering good cover between the door and their adversaries. The four enemy Crites had assembled Aginshir and her people on the central lawn, allowing them to seat themselves at the many tables and be comfortable, at least. The four guards stood at the points of a square around the group, with one of them close enough to Aginshir's table to keep heckling them about joining their cause. "Crowla will reward those that are loyal," that one was saying. "This planet is in need of change. The empire has deserted us, leaving us to fend for ourselves." "And yet we have been quite comfortable here," Aginshir returned calmly. "There has been no danger to our existence. Until now." The holding leader was in female mode apparently, though Derry didn't pretend to understand the complexities of Crite sexuality. Only the fact that both Mergrun and Garmin referred to the holding leader as she had cued them in to the difference. Aginshir's brightly-colored clothing seemed no different than that of anyone else that Derry could see, and her voice sounded much the same as any of the male voices he had heard, though all Crite voices had a fairly neutral tone. All Crites were referred to as he, apparently, unless they were definitely in female mode, even though the average Crite on any given day was no more male than female. Nyf had explained it as a practical artifact of translation purely for the humans rather than a literal description of gender, and let it go at that. "Comfort is the same as stagnation," the Crite with the staff called back, sounding a little more belligerent now. "Crowla would see us back on the galactic scene once more. The doors are open, and ready for use. We have been testing the door at our own station, and no harm has come to those that have used it. We will soon be testing the doors at the hub station, once all are armed with these new weapons." As if to accent that final remark, the Crite took his staff and tapped the ground with it several times. "And what of the Armenti?" Aginshir asked. "Your own people have let slip word of their return to stop what you plan to do." "They are few in number. What can they do to stop us?" Aginshir released a short, hissing laugh. "You test them, and only a fool would do that. If you harm these three, do you fail to see that they will be back in even greater numbers? And with even greater weapons?" The leader of the Crite invaders didn't like hearing that at all. "Crowla will deal with them," he blustered. "Soon we will have a hundred of the staves. And there would seem to be even more of interest to find on the world that lies through our very own doorway. Once we are armed, we will see what lies beyond the other doors. If the Armenti cannot run the empire, we will do it for them!" Erva gave a quiet, disgusted sigh. "Fools," he whispered. "Crowla has filled their heads with nonsense of greatness. They fail to see their own limitations, even as they are paraded before them." Mike just grunted. "We're well-positioned. All four of these jokers are in our line of site. Derry? You get the one in the back there, on the left. Cally? Take the one in the back on the right. I'll get the one in front on the left, and then bounce over and get the leader. Ready?" "Yes." "Me, too." And then it was done. The first three Crites dropped immediately under the beams from their zap guns, while the leader briefly froze in amazement, unable to react in time before Mike shot him, too. And then it was simply a matter of collecting the staves and securing their 'guests'. Aginshir was happy to see them, and immediately sent some of her people to retrieve the fifth enemy Crite bound in the hallway, and the staff hidden under the bushes outside. And then they were down to dealing with Crowla and his home peak. "I suggest a night approach," Mergrun said to Mike, after they had all sat down to talk about it. "Won't everyone be awake then?" Derry asked. "Yes, but my feeling is that there will be a substantial force awake during the day now, anyway. They have learned by their failure at Inishee. Crowla hit Aginshir during their sleep period in order to minimize interference. I am thinking of our approach to their peak through the tube now. In sunlight, we will be visible to them for a long time in the tube before we arrive at their station. And I am sure they will be watching for us, too." "Makes sense to me," Mike said. "Erva? Koort?" "It does make sense," the Sasparian agreed. "Visibility will be our enemy." "I also think there is some wisdom to a night approach," Koort agreed. "Even should we get there and find we cannot enter for some reason, we can still retreat without being seen. That way we do not tip our hand too early." And so it was decided on a night approach to Crowla Holding. They spent the rest of the day napping and relaxing, ate a good meal, and then were off at sunset. Aginshir asked if they needed further help in their mission, and seemed unperturbed when Mike said he felt they had enough people already to do the job. She wished them safe journey, and bid them to return after their quest was completed to pass on the results of the mission. And now, here they were in the tube, perhaps a half mile from Crowla holding, and the place was so well lit that they could not safely approach. "Where'd they get the spotlight, I wonder?" Derry asked. Gilden spoke up from behind them. "Such things are available in the maintenance stores of all the peaks. We seldom have use for them." "Well, it's a problem now," Mike said, sounding slightly irritated. "My people would approach from the air," Gilden added. "We would be difficult to see at night." Mike nodded. "But your wings make quite an unmistakable sound, and you would be heard. Especially in numbers. And it seems they have thought of your people and taken precautions." "Um, I have an idea," Derry said then, aloud so that everyone could hear. The humans had their head bubbles up to make use of the night vision they enabled. His granddad offered up a thin smile, which was probably visible to the others, even under the limited light from the stars. The Crites apparently could see it easily enough, having a strong night vision themselves. Mergrun and Garmin both smiled. "I'm not surprised," granddad said, with some sense of wary anticipation. "What is it?" Derry turned to Cally, whose eyes immediately fastened upon his own. He saw reassurance there, and a prompt to go on. "Well, if Cally and I flew back to Aginshir through the tube, we could be there in ten minutes or so. We could leave the station through one of those emergency panels, and then fly across to Crowla's peak. They may be listening for Sasparian fliers, but they won't hear us or see us. We will be able to see them in the dark, and knock them out. Once we get to the station, we'll go in through one of those emergency panels. That would put us behind the ones we see waiting. They'd be watching the tube. I think we could shoot them all and knock them out before they knew what was happening." "If I may point out," Garmin said then, "Crite night vision is quite good. We are a nocturnal species, remember." "I know." Derry nodded. "Our suits can mimic the night very well, and I figured to cross high up and then drop straight down on them. They'll be watching for an approach lower down, not from directly above." "Another thing," Mergrun added quickly. "Those weapons of yours make a very distinctive sound. Once loosed upon those on the roof, anyone else outside the station will hear them." "How about the ones inside?" Derry asked. Mergrun and Garmin glanced at each other, and Garmin gave his head a wag. "We think not," Mergrun added then, turning back to them. "Those inside the station will not hear what happens outside its walls." "Crowla's people have never heard the weapons fired, anyway," Erva said then. "Even Dith and those with him were unconscious before the sound could register. So if someone else hears those on the roof being taken down, will they even know it signals an attack?" Mike grunted. "It would put me on alert. But...those are a lot of questions." He was silent after that, and Derry could almost feel the man thinking. "You'll have to trust us to do stuff on our own at some point," Derry said patiently, now on the private channel. "You've been in charge here, and rightly so. But you can't do everything on your own, granddad." "I could be the one to fly over," the man said, as if he had not heard his grandson's plea. But Derry could hear the doubt in his grandfather's words, even across the private link. "That would be just one gun," Cally pointed out. "I could take one of yours along," the man countered. "That would give me two." "But you'd still only have one set of eyes," Derry reminded. "And you just couldn't be as effective as two of us." Granddad was silent again for several seconds, and then they could see him nod. "I needed you to talk me into it a little, son. But...even I can see it's the best plan we have." Derry felt a small thrill run through his body, followed immediately by a more sobering sense of doubt. Could they do this? He looked over at his boyfriend. "Are you good with this?" Cally smiled. "I said I had your back." Derry smiled, too, and turned back to his grandfather, whose eyes seemed very intense now. "We can do it." The man nodded, and went over the plan again aloud so that everyone could hear the decision. "So while Derry and Cally are doing their part, we here will to get as close as we can while still being out of sight, wait until we see the enemy start to go down, and then we charge them. I'm going to fly ahead at that point, and you will all just have to make the best speed you can. Is this acceptable?" "It makes sense to me," Erva said. "You three are the most able among us, the fastest, and the best protected." He gave a short laugh. "And the best armed. It would be unwise not to use this advantage." "I agree," Koort said. "Justice, for me, does not require that I be in the front line to serve it. Only that I be there at some point to see it done. This sounds like a good plan to me." "I see no other way to approach them," Garmin agreed. "This plan can work." "Yes," Mergrun agreed. "I will go with whatever you suggest." Granddad swiveled to look at Gilden. "And you?" Derry could sense the boy's surprise. "Me?" Granddad laughed. "Sure. You're a part of this show. What do you think?" "Well..." Erva reached out a hand and dropped it on his son's shoulder. "Speak your mind, son." Gilden's wings clapped together faintly. "I would add something to this plan." "We're listening," Mike said. Gilden made a small, nervous sound, and then took a step towards the human. "I would go back to Aginshir with Derry and Cally. I will then fly with them - or as closely as possible after them, since they are faster - back to Crowla's peak." "But the sound of your wings may be heard," Erva reminded. "You would be targeted, if they hear you." Gilden's eyes were bright in the starlight. "I will not fly all the way to Crowla holding. I will approach only until I feel I may be heard, which is at least as close as we are now, and then I will land atop the tube, and run the rest of the way. As I get closer, I will slow and make my way more quietly. The light they have mounted fills the tube and will keep them from seeing me outside. I will then be there, much closer to Derry and Cally than all of you, to serve as back up if needed." "The very light that fills the tube will make you visible to those on the roof," Koort pointed out. "Yes, but if Derry and Cally get there first, and they will, they will take out those on the roof, anyway. Correct?" Derry smiled. "Correct." "So there will be no one to see me. Once there I will climb to the roof of the station and let myself down the side. I will not need my wings for that." "There will still be those on the ground to consider," Erva said. "You may be seen, if not heard." "They are well below the station roof, and the upper level where the tubes meet. They have set themselves to guard against fliers crossing between the mountains down low., while those on the roof guard against fliers crossing higher up. I will be above the ones on the ground, and well out of sight. And if they hear anything, it will take them some time to make their way to the station and ascend to the tube level." Derry turned to his new friend. "It's dangerous. But we would welcome your company." It was all he could offer. "I know this. And yet, even with your protections, things can go wrong. So it is also dangerous for you, as well. I will not act unless needed, I promise you." Gilden turned to his father. "I will not be reckless." Erva tilted his head back a moment, as if making a decision, and then turned back to Mike. "It seems a worthy safeguard. And I trust in my son." "Yeah." Derry's grandfather gently cleared his throat, and nodded. "Okay. We'll do it as you've all said, then. Derry, Cally, Gilden - all of you - be careful." The thrill reasserted itself inside Derry. He turned to Cally and patted his arm. "Ready?" "Uh huh." "Gilden?" "Yes." Derry raised himself on his contragravity effect, waited for Cally to join him, and then the two of them drifted slowly back up the tube the way they had come, before turning to look back. Gilden gave his father a quick hug, pulled his lance close to his body, walked away from the group, and launched himself into flight after them. "Let's go," Derry told Cally, and the two accelerated forward down the tube, heading back to Aginshir Holding. And, hopefully, towards an end to Crowla's ambitions.
  13. The base of the stairs let out onto a well-maintained green. But there was a wooded area straight away before them, and Nyf directed them into it. "Proceed fifteen degrees left," he said, as they entered the oddly bluish undergrowth. Derry could see where the underbrush had been trampled. There was a clear path leading into the woods. "I think we can follow them by that." Far ahead of them they heard a crash of mini-thunder as the Crite's staff discharged. Mike swore, and turned to Derry. "You and Cally come with me. We're flying ahead!" "We will catch up as soon as we can," Erva said quickly. "It is too confined here for us to fly among the trees. But go! A life is in peril!" Derry followed as his grandfather lifted from the ground and surged ahead along the trampled path. Their head bubbles immediately reasserted themselves to protect their heads as they bulleted forward. Small growths were batted aside effortlessly at they flew, the kinetic energy of the impacts easily absorbed by their suits. The crash of another bolt of lightning reached their ears, and granddad only increased his speed. They were covering ground at an amazing pace, and Derry could scarcely believe the maneuverability of his suit as it darted back and forth between larger trees at the guidance of his will. There was another crash of lightning, much closer now, and they emerged into the end of a long clearing, where the trees withdrew to the sides and a knee-high blue grass rippled in the light breeze. At the far end of the clearing stood the Crite, his back to them, the staff held out before him as he leaned forward, apparently searching the edge of the clearing. Mike turned then and raced towards the other end of the field, pulling his zap gun as he did so. Cally moved up beside Derry, and both boys drew their own weapons and surged ahead after Derry's grandfather. "Stop where you are!" Mike roared, his voice amplified almost to a point beyond reason. The Crite jumped, and the staff discharged wildly into the trees. But the man then turned with amazing speed, and the staff swept around towards them. Another bolt leapt outward and died against Mike Hamlyn's suit, the energy absorbed and converted as readily as a sponge absorbed water. Mike thrust his hand with the gun in it forward... What happened next was almost too fast to follow. The underbrush behind the Crite suddenly parted, and the Narthie thrust forward in a surge of motion, his sword extended before him. The blade pierced the Crite cleanly, popping through the front of the mummy-bandage robe amidst a bloom of red spray. The Crite staggered and dropped the staff, which immediately died; and then the Narthie straightened and pulled back, and the sword withdrew. The Crite managed to turn long enough to see his executioner, and then simply toppled over and fell to the ground. The Narthie's eyes raised then, caught sight of the three red-suited figures bearing down on him, and his jaw dropped and he took a step backwards. Granddad immediately slowed, and Derry's suit automatically put on the brakes so as not to run into the back of him. He and Cally each moved to one side of Mike, and the three of them settled to the ground before the stunned Narthie. Mike holstered his weapon, and held his empty hands out before him. "It's okay, "he said, his voice at a much friendlier volume this time. "We're on your side." The Narthie gave a slight shake of his head as if to clear it, and then looked down at the Crite. "He killed my friends." "We know," Mike said quietly. "We saw. I'm so sorry." The Narthie's gaze reached out to them, searching. "I don't even know why." Derry felt the man's grief, and clenched his jaw in reaction. He could fully understand what the Narthie was feeling. Just seeing the video of the massacre had been horrifying. Derry could remember how he had felt, some years ago, after learning that his father had passed. Even as little as he had been at the time, the pain of understanding had come upon him like no other he had ever experienced. Death meant gone forever. And this man had lost five of his friends! They heard a rush of sound from their rear, the beat of great wings, and Erva and Gilden dropped to the ground beside them. "Ho, traveler!" Erva called. "Stand at ease. You are safe here now." The Narthie blinked his eyes, and seemed to come fully back to his senses. "Ho! A good thing, if true. I...I don't think I am up to more fighting just now, anyway." "There is no need," Erva returned gently. "You are among friends." "Friends." The Narthie carefully resheathed his sword and held out an empty hand. "I am Koort Underlook a'Ormini, of Valspessa Holding. I am a registered trader of the pathways." Erva gave a solemn bow of his head, and also held out an empty hand. "And I am Erva Furapetra Swiftflight, of Mystacinida Holding. I am a registered courier of the air." He turned slightly, and indicated Gilden. "This is my son and travel mate, Gilden Marciniva, also of Swiftflight clan." "Cool names," Cally seemed to whisper, on their private link. "Translations," Nyf replied. "Awesome," Derry agreed. The Narthie gave a nod of his head that included his beefy shoulders. "And...your companions?" "I'm Mike Hamlyn," granddad said, patting the front of his suit. "And these are Derry and Cally, fellow operatives, and travelers of the doorways." Derry pressed his lips together slightly in order not to smile at that introduction. Granddad could be really creative when he wanted to be! The Narthie simply stared at them, trying to digest this new information. "The Armenti, returned," Erva added, in a quiet voice. "Armenti," the Narthie repeated, his eyes widening. "Returned." "They have come in response to Crowla Holding's use of a door," Gilden put in. "Crowla and his people have placed our entire world in danger!" "I have heard of this," Koort acknowledged. "And of the staves. But...I had no idea Crowla's folk were so vicious in their use." "They have wronged you and your Holding," Erva said gravely. "As they have also done to Inishee Holding, and now Aginshir. We are witnesses to these events." The Narthie's face fell. "I don't...why was this done? My trade group, killed by this...I have no word for one so despicable." The Narthie looked down at the fallen Crite. "And killed for no reason that I can understand." They heard running steps behind them then, and Derry turned as Mergrun and Garmin approached them across the field. Koort's eyes widened, and the Narthie bellowed in anger, going for his sword again. "Here are more of them!" But Erva surged forward and grabbed the man's arm before he could pull the sword fully from its sheath, and steadied it forcefully. "No, brother. No. These two are with us. They are not the enemy." Koort's eyes darted from the two approaching Crites back to Erva's. "They are with you?" "Yes. Only the ones you see dressed as this one on the ground at your feet are the enemy." Koort gave a brief shake of his head. "But these two carry the staves!" "Taken from those like the one dead here, when they tried to take over Inishee holding." Erva looked back at Mike and the boys. "The Armenti have come to put a stop to this madness." Koort's eyes returned to land on the three suited figures before him, and his eyes narrowed skeptically. "So you say. Yet I cannot see who lurks behind these glittery head coverings." Derry started, and looked around them. Their head bubbles had reverted to their original golden opaqueness. Mike allowed his head bubble to become transparent again, and Derry and Cally followed suit. "How'd that happen?" Derry wondered over the private link. "In response to the Crite firing a bolt at you," Nyf supplied. "It's an automatic response to the flash." "Oh." Koort was staring at them now, his eyes going from one human to the next. The Narthie gave a small shake of his head then, and a smile slowly spread across his furry face, showing his large frontal incisors plainly. "The Armenti, returned! Welcome back!" Mergrun and Garmin were introduced, and those two immediately apologized to Koort about what had happened to his trade group. The Narthie shook his head slowly, causing his shoulders to twist back and forth. "It was not your deed. And I am not one that holds the transgressions of individuals against others of his kind." He looked over at Erva. "What do you plan next? I would like to accompany you, if it is permitted." The Narthie's gaze moved back to Mike. "I would follow though with this matter and see justice served." Mike glanced over at Erva. The big Sasparian inclined his head slightly and smiled, and Mike nodded at Koort. "You're welcome to join us." He turned to Mergrun, and waved a hand at the dead Crite. "Get that staff off the ground, if you would, and show Koort how to use it." He turned back to the Narthie. "If you are to join us, you need to be properly armed." The Narthie drew back at that. "I don't...I don't want to arm myself with the weapon that took my friend's lives." Mergrun stepped forward and offered his own staff to the Narthie. "This one has not killed, to my knowledge. Please take it, and I will use the weapon of this despised one. And perhaps redeem its misuse." Koort looked uncertain at that, but saw then that everyone was waiting for his response, and slowly reached a hand towards the offered staff. "I will do this, but the sooner these things are banished from Rustgevend, the better." "Agreed," Mergrun replied solemnly, as Koort took the weapon from him. "Step over here away from the others, and I will instruct you in it's operation. It is very simple, actually--" Mergrun and Koort moved back towards the center of the field, and Erva moved closer to the humans. "Hard to know if this dead Crite acted on his own, or if he was left with instructions to kill. Either way, it doesn't speak well of the mindset of Crowla's people." Garmin pulled one of the small pouches from his harness and opened it, and withdrew a small device of some kind from within. He bent over the dead Crite and held the instrument above the body for a moment, and then gave out a short, hissing sigh. "One of Crowla's own cousins, it would seem. His biometric ID lists his age at but twenty years. So young to have killed so ruthlessly...and to be killed, in return." "Conflict is always hardest on the young," Mike said gruffly. He glanced at Derry, and shook his head. "I agree, it's sad." Garmin looked over at the humans. "We must try to prevent further death." "Yet we must do what is necessary to stop Crowla and those that assist him," Erva immediately inserted. "It may not be possible to do that without more people dying." "I know." Garmin sounded resigned to the idea. "I'm just saying that we should not let that be our first response, if possible." "It is the best choice, father," Gilden affirmed. "We did not come here to kill." Erva smiled at his son. "No, and I agree. Yet difficult problems often come with hard choices. But I will choose the death of Crowla and his cohort over any more deaths among those with no part in their actions." He placed a hand on his son's shoulder and gave it small, affectionate shake. "But we will ask questions before resorting to violence, if possible." Gilden closed his eyes a moment, as if in relief, and then opened them again and smiled. "What do we do now?" Erva turned to Mike and the boys. "If I may offer a suggestion?" Mike grinned. "Shoot." Erva blinked at how that came out in Aolic, but laughed. "I think that means what I think that means." He took a deep breath and seemed to relax. "It would be dangerous to return to the tube station and enter the transport center that way. If Crowla's people left more guards, it will be along that route. I suggest we circle the complex and make our way inward through one of the other entrances. If there were but six of the Crites with staves, and we have removed one of them, they cannot cover every door and still have enough weapons to hold Aginshir at bay." "Sounds like a plan," Mike agreed. "And we need to get going the minute Koort is ready to use the staff." Behind them, there was the distinctive sound of a staff discharge, and they turned as a group to watch as Koort fired the staff a second time. Then the Narthie said something to Mergrun, and the two turned and headed back to them. "It's not a hard device to learn," Koort said to them, holding the staff away from him at arm's length. "Nasty thing. I wish I had seen its abilities before encountering the guard back in the station. I would not have done what I did." "You mean charge forward?" Cally asked. Koort turned to look at him. "How could you know?" "The station mind keeps a visual record." Koort squeezed his eyes shut in remembrance. "Evert was our leader. As fine a man as I have ever traveled with. When the Crite denied us entrance, Evert argued with him. Among the things he said to the Crite was a hidden command to those of us behind him to charge as he stepped forward and raised his hands to distract the Crite. I was to propel Evert into the Crite, and then the others were to charge forward and pile atop him. It's a standard defense against tube pirates, though we have only used it once before." Koort's eyes opened again, and now contained a haunted look. "It did not work out as planned this time." Erva flashed a quick glance at the humans, and then moved closer to the Narthie and settled a hand upon his arm. "It was not your doing, Koort. None of you could know, not really, without having seen a staff in action." Koort's eyes still held their anguished look. "The Crite was in violation of the law. No one may impede tube travel. Evert decided to treat that one as a tube pirate. It was the right decision...but at the wrong time, I see now." "It's done," Mike said quietly. "And what happened was the fault of Crowla's people, not yours. This was an act of murder. It will be treated as such, I can assure you." "It's okay," Derry added, feeling a need to say something reassuring. "We saw what happened. It wasn't your fault. You're with us now. We're going to see this thing made right." Koort looked over at Derry, and the tips of his incisors peaked out in a small smile. "Thank you for your words. Yet I will live with that moment forever." "You do not have to accompany us," Mergurn said then. "We would certainly understand you not wishing to do so." The Narthie let his gaze travel from one face to another, making the full transit of the arc of people arrayed before him. "I will come with you. I will see justice done." "Then we should go," Mike said. "We need to secure Aginshir, and then move on to Crowla Holding and end this thing." Koort eyed the staff in his hand, brought it closer to his body, and tapped its end experimentally on the ground. "It will make a fair walking stick, anyway. I am ready." "Nyf?" Mike asked, over the secure channel. "What's the best way to go?" "I will cause a directional circle to appear inside your head bubbles. Simply keep it centered, and you will arrive at an entrance in the station outer wall." A small red circle appeared inside Derry's transparent head bubble, off to the left, and he turned until it was centered. "That way," he said, pointing. They made good time through the undergrowth, and soon reemerged into the kept grounds around the immense structure of the transport station. From the ground the building even more resembled a castle, the circular wall tall and imposing, and only from ground level showing a slight tendency to taper inward as it rose into the heights. Only the fact that it was smooth, and not made of stone blocks, served to counter the idea that knights and fair maidens might be found within. "I've noticed something, Nyf," Derry said on the private channel as they marched along the wall in single file. "That's always a good thing," the artificial intelligence returned, sounding in a good humor. "It proves that you're paying attention." Cally laughed, and Derry gave a snort. "I'm serious. I was just thinking, that despite having kept a lot of technology going, these guys don't seem to have any way to communicate over distance." "I was thinking about that, too," Mike said. "The empire didn't have anything like human cell phones, did it? Everyone communicated through their implants, like we're doing now." "Exactly," Nyf responded. "There is no facility here, on what was basically a vacation planet, to perform that sort of medical procedure. The original citizens stranded here when door travel ended would have already had implants, but all those born here after would lack them." "I'm surprised they couldn't think of something," Cally said. "Even running wires for old fashioned phones would have been better than nothing." "Rustgevend lacks any manufacturing facilities," Nyf pointed out. "Beyond the basic amenities of food and clothing, anyway. The ease of supplying any place through the door system made it a profitless venture to install design and manufacturing facilities on many worlds. Population centers all had them, of course, and planets devoted solely to manufacturing. But a resort like this, no." "But they've had a thousand years," Derry went on. "They could have devised something." "Creating anything presupposes a need, Derry. It's entirely possible the people here found no need to provide instantaneous - or even speedy - communication between the peaks. Or even between structures on a single peak. They may have just decided it wasn't necessary." "Well, I'm going to ask." Derry insisted, feeling stubborn. He drifted back a bit, until he was walking beside Gilden, and brought up the subject of communication between peaks. The Sasparian boy grinned at him. "Well, I did say that my people act as couriers in this region." "Yes, you did. But someone that needed to send a quick message couldn't just wait around for one of your guys to show up. What do they do if they need a courier right away?" "Ah." Gilden's wings flexed slightly, and clapped together in emphasis. "I see what you mean. In a case like that, they use the blinkers to communicate between peaks." Cally had also drifted back to walk with them by then. "What the heck are blinkers?" "Mirrors," Gilden told them. "It's easy enough for much of the day to communicate with every peak for some distance around your own, as long as you have line of sight. But that is seldom needed. Couriers make their rounds every day, morning and evening. The most that one needs to wait to send a message is some small part of the day." Derry laughed then. "Oh! Like mail men!" "That's cool," Cally added, smiling at the idea. "That must keep your people pretty busy." "Oh, it does, at least some of them. But message transport is only a portion of the economy of our peak. The truth is, there are not enough peaks within a day of flight to keep but so many couriers busy. Some others of my people are occupied with far trade. That's trade with peaks beyond the normal range one might need to send a message. I have been on several such flights with my father and uncle. They are always exciting!" "There are communications facilities in place here, beyond those that were carried by each individual in the form of their implants," Nyf added on the private link. "The tube transport centers were all connected by the same technology I used to show you the recorded videos. Each peak's transport station was on a network with all the villas on that peak. So it was once possible to have immediate bidirectional video and audio connections with any place on the planet. Unfortunately, that network went down at the same time as the tube stations. I have to wonder if those that shut down the tubes were aware beforehand that they would also be disabling the communications system." "Seems not too bright to have all that stuff on one power system," Mike said. "You have to understand the efficiency and redundancy built into all empire technologies," Nyf returned. "Those that brought down the tube systems went to extraordinary lengths to do so. Otherwise, those technologies would still be in use today." "You don't feel a need for faster communications?" Derry asked Gilden. The Sasparian boy looked bewildered. "For what reason? Nothing is so important it cannot wait to be handled by courier." "How about the present situation?" Cally asked. "It would have been a lot better to let everyone know right away what was happening with Crowla and his bunch." Gilden frowned at that. "But why? Crowla can act no faster than anyone else on foot. By sending a courier back to our peak, the word has been handed to other couriers, and will be known today on every peak in the area. Crowla's people could get there no faster, I assure you." "Hmm," Mike said privately. "I think we're wasting our time here, guys. These people have settled into a far more relaxed culture than we have back home. Life here is unhurried, laid back. They don't have faster methods of communication because they don't really have a need for them. Crowla has been the first major problem they've had in a long time." Derry heard his grandfather laugh within his mind. "It wasn't that long ago back on Earth that the world moved at the same pace as this one. I think we're viewing things here through the wrong set of glasses." "Yeah, Derry," Cally said, humor deep in his voice. "Put the right glasses on!" Derry grinned at his boyfriend, a promise of pleasant retribution when they were once again alone. Cally appeared happy to receive that look, which only made Derry's grin harder to let go of. "Uh oh," granddad said then. "My red circle is bearing right here." Derry focused upon his own guide circle, and it had indeed moved to the right side of his view. "A doorway, there," Erva called, raising a hand to point. "All these transport structures use the same basic design," Nyf told them. "This entrance will let you into a circular hallway. Make your way back in the direction we came and you will encounter a hallway to the inner court." Mike turned to Mergrun. "Is the layout here like at Inishee? A village in the center of the building?" "It is not exactly the same, no," the Crite supplied. "Aginshir chooses to utilize the living quarters inside the building, and spend their nights in the center atrium. But rather than huts there, they simply have tables and a firepit, and several covered areas for when it rains." "So they'll be inside the building now, asleep?" But Mergrun made a gesture of disagreement. "I would say not. If I were Crowla's people, I would want Aginshir and her council in one place so I could watch them. That would go for the entire population, in fact. So we should at least check the atrium first to see if they are there. The only other place large enough to hold the entire population will be the dining hall. So if they are not in the atrium, they will almost certainly be there." The entrance let them inside without so much as a pause. The hallway here was mostly lit, though there were a few distant sections where it looked like the illumination had failed. They made their way carefully, walking as silently as they could, until a hallway presented itself on the left. Mike turned to the group and pointed at it, but made no sound. Just then a voice came to them, from out of that very hallway! "'...have to be vigilant, Deeka! The Armenti have returned, Deeka! Go back to the tube station and help Gantz to guard it, Deeka!' Firebugs! This Jazeere is a bossy sort!" The annoyance and contempt in the voice seemed plain. Yet they barely had time to absorb the monologue before a Crite bearing a staff came around the corner ahead. His dark eyes came up and beheld the group before him, and he stopped in utter astonishment, his mouth hanging open in shock. And then the lance began to lean towards them...! Derry was unsure of what happened next. His hand seemed to move on its own, drawing his zap pistol and firing it at the Crite before he even knew he was doing it. The man's staff, already moving towards them, was suddenly loose as the hand holding it lost its grip, and the staff sailed right at Gilden, who snapped his free hand out and caught it even as the Crite crashed to the floor before them. For a moment the entire group stood rooted in shock. "Holy shit!" Cally breathed then, on the private channel. "That was fast as all get out, Derry! Like some old west gunfighter!" An astonished laugh followed that. "You were awesome!" Derry looked down at the gun in his hand, and then slowly placed it back in his holster. "It would seem your augment is working just fine," Nyf said, sounding pleased. "Your response time was measurably close to the absolute limit of your nervous system. Not bad for a new implant." Derry's granddad lifted his eyes from the fallen Crite and turned to smile at his grandson. "Not bad, boy. Not bad at all!" Derry shook his head. "I didn't even know I was going to do that." "The germ of the idea was your own," Nyf told him. "The augment simply responded to what you intended, and heightened your response time." None of this could be heard by the others, of course. Gilden had been looking at the second staff in his hand, and now turned wide eyes to Derry. "Remind me to always be your friend, Derry." Derry grinned at that. "Oh, stop. I just happened to act first." "And rather quickly, too," Erva said approvingly. He stepped forward then and peeked carefully around the corner into the hallway before coming back. He bent then, and examined the Crite. "He is only unconscious. You were more merciful than I might have been in your place." "I suggest we bind him," Garmin offered. "If he is only unconscious as long as Dith and his group were back at Inishee, we need to restrain him." Gilden pulled off his pack and opened it, and produced a length of stout cord from within. "You have a knife? I can cut this for you, otherwise." "I have one," Garmin returned, taking the cord. "Help me, Mergrun." The two Crites flipped the unconscious one over onto his stomach and deftly bound his hands behind him, and then his legs low down. Mergrun used a knife he produced from his own pack to cut a section out of the enemy Crite's robe, which he then wrapped around the other's head at the mouth and secured with more of the cord. Then the two Crites stood and replaced their packs. "He should be able to breathe, unfortunately," Garmin said, a note of humor in his voice. "One cannot have everything, it seems." Mergrun gave him a slight prod with an elbow, but it was most definitely a comradely one. "We are not of Crowla's ilk, brother. Let this one stand trial for his actions." Cally made a surprised sound at that. "You guys are brothers?" Mergrun smiled at him. "No. It is simply a term for a friend. But if I had a brother, he would be as Garmin." Garmin looked embarrassed at that pronouncement, but not at all displeased. "We work well together," was all he could say. "This probably answers our question of where the others are," Mike decided aloud. "This guy was coming from the center court." "And it answers the question of who we face, too," Garmin said. He used the toe of his boot to gently prod the Crite on the floor. "This one mentioned Jazeere. That Crite is one of Crowla's council members. A not very likable soul, if someone were to ask my opinion." "Two down, and four to go," Mike said. "I say we get this done." "What of the extra staff?" Gilden asked. "This one will just get in my way if we have to fight." Mike considered that. "Take it back to the door to outside, and conceal it in the underbrush where we can find it again. Then come back. We'll wait for you." The Sasparian canted his head in acknowledgement, and then was gone. Mike smiled at Erva. "Fine boy you have there." The big Sasparian's chest seemed to swell slightly. "I think so, naturally." He then indicated Derry and Cally. "Your young companions seem to know their jobs well, too." Mike glanced at Derry, and then Cally, and smiled. "They certainly pass muster with me." Derry felt a glow of pride at that, and smiled. "We have a good teacher." Mike and Erva both chuckled. Koort, who had been silent until now, looked towards the hallway. "I hope this means we have surprise on our side." "Probably does," Mike agreed. "We'll know in a moment." Gilden returned then, moving quietly, and positioned himself next to his father again. "All done." Mike nodded, pulled his zap gun, and nodded towards the hallway. "Let's go. Try to be quiet. If possible, let us do the shooting. I'd prefer to capture them alive." "Of course," the Narthie offered. "We cannot have a trial without the guilty there to receive judgment." Mike cast one more glance at Derry, and smiled. "Be careful, guys," he said over the private channel. "Shoot first, ask questions later. We don't want anyone else killed." Derry drew his own zap gun, and looked over at Cally. His boyfriend winked at him, and drew his own weapon. "I'm ready." His eyes smiled at Derry. "After you, Quickdraw." They moved into the hallway then, and towards the atrium waiting beyond.
  14. The shock among the others was apparent. "He flies!" Gilden breathed, the awe in his voice apparent. "And faster than any Sasparian could ever manage," Erva said, also sounding subdued. The winged man turned to Derry. "I see the wisdom in waiting now." Derry nodded, although he knew the Sasparian could not see the action through his head bubble. But he didn't want to lower it, because he needed the zoom to see what his grandfather was doing. "He will call us if it is safe to move forward." Erva retracted his wings, and returned the binoculars to his eyes. In his view, Derry watched as his grandfather reached the tube station and the bodies lying on the ground. He flew over and past them, and alit just inside the tube station, obviously looking for anyone there. In a moment he returned to the bodies, holstered his weapon, and bent to examine those on the ground. "Narthies, alright. Five of them. Nyf, where would I find a pulse for these guys?" "In the front of the neck," the artificial intelligence replied. "But I have access to your suit scanners, and it is too late, I'm afraid. These five have suffered electrocution, no doubt from the staves acquired by Crowla's people. Their hearts were stopped. It has been too long now to revive them. I'm sorry." Derry could see his grandfather's shoulders slump, and the man was quiet a moment. Then he straightened suddenly, again pulled his pistol, and turned back to the station and vanished within. Derry's nerves stood on end during the long moment of silence that followed, and then his grandfather reappeared. "No one inside. Come on forward, guys. I'll keep watch here." Derry lowered his head bubble and turned to the others. "It's safe to go forward." Erva immediately squinted at him. "And the Narthies?" "Dead," Derry said grimly, allowing some of the anger he now felt into his voice. "Electrocuted. It happened too long ago to revive them." Erva nodded, and pulled his staff close to his body. "Gilden, accompany the group to the station. Safeguard them. I do not want Mike to be there alone." Gilden barely had time to acknowledge his father before the man's wings swept wide again and beat with a vigor that Derry found amazing; and then the Sasparian was off down the tube at a speed far faster than they could run. "I suggest we move forward, and at pace," Garmin said, hefting his own staff. The two Crites launched into a jogging run, and Derry, Cally and Gilden followed. It was an energetic pace, and Derry wondered if he would have been able to maintain it without the additions to his body that Difris had made. As it was, the Crites were breathing only a little more rapidly than normal when they arrived at the station, and Gilden showed no sign of the exertion at all. Derry was pleased to feel strong and capable, his body more than up to the task of the run. They arrived beside Erva, who had squatted by the bodies to examine them while Mike stood watching the entrance to the station. "They look like they were surprised," Erva mused sadly. "They didn't even have time to draw their swords." One of the bodies was slightly ahead of the others, and sprawled on its face just inside the vestibule to the station. The rest were arrayed behind the first, and looked like they had simply collapsed to the floor when the life had been removed from them. It was an unpleasant sight, and spoke volumes of a treachery of some sort. "I know I'm mad now," Mike said, sounding every bit of it. "Someone is going to be in trouble for this, mark my words!" "I feel as you do," Erva said grimly. "This is murder, plain and simple. Responsibility will be ascertained, and the law will be done." "Can we move them inside?" Mergrun asked. "It is unsuitable to leave them here like this." Mike turned towards them. "Yes. Derry? You and Cally come on up here and watch the station. I'll help move the bodies." Derry and Cally moved forward, drawing their zap guns, and positioned themselves inside the station. This station looked exactly like the one on Inishee's peak, with a large, arched doorway in the back that led into the castle proper. Except the hallway here seemed to be lit, and they could see into it plainly. No one was there. The tube that went to Crowla's holding had a car in their station end of it, but they could see into it easily enough, and it was also vacant. Granddad and the others carried the bodies of the Narthies in, two at a time, and laid them carefully on the floor of the station in a row. Derry looked them over briefly, and then found he did not wish to look again. The faces of the aliens were drawn in frozen grimaces, the electrical charge that had played throughout their bodies bunching muscles unmercifully into death masks. It made Derry mad just to think of it, and he found himself waving his zap gun restlessly, as if looking for someone to shoot. He felt a hand on the arm of his suit then, and turned to see Cally gazing at him through a now transparent globe. "Relax," his boyfriend said, over the private channel. "It's awful, but we can't change it." "I know," Derry said sadly. "It just...it makes me mad someone did this." Then he squinted at his boyfriend. "How'd you make your head bubble clear?" "I just thought in my head that I wanted it clear," Cally returned, smiling. "Duh!" Derry forced the same thought through his own head, and then couldn't help smiling a little when Cally laughed. "See? I can see you just fine now. Mmm!" "Shh!" Derry said automatically, holding up a hand. "My granddad will hear!" "No, he won't. My thoughts now are just for you. Remember? The augment knows from your mind who you want to hear you." "Oh, yeah. I forgot." Derry leaned forward. "I can't believe someone just killed these people. Just...just shot them dead!" "I can. I remember the way that guy Dith talked. He wanted to kill Erva and his people. These are some bad dudes, Derry." Derry nodded slowly, feeling a sense of resolve come into him. "Yeah. I get that now. This has been a great adventure. But now...we're seeing how real it can get." Granddad came over then, his own head bubble also transparent. He smiled at them, and gave Derry's elbow a brief, reassuring squeeze. "Once I saw the transparent thing could be done, I figured it out." "With my help, of course," Nyf put in. "I have something important to show you." Granddad nodded inside his head bubble. "What have you got?" "Ask the others to come over," Nyf returned. "And it's safe to lower your head bubbles for now. I sense others around us on the mountain, but no one is nearby." They dropped their head protection, and Derry's granddad asked the Crites and the Sasparians to join them. Nyf continued then. "I have been linked to this station's mind, which is running at the same level as the one back at the transfer station. I have an interesting video record to show you." Granddad turned and explained what was going to happen to the others, so that they would not be startled when Nyf formed the viewer seemingly out of thin air. "Okay, Nyf. Shoot." The large circle of the viewer appeared in the air before them, and immediately filled with colors, that quickly resolved into a picture. Their new friends leaned forward, fascination and interest visible on their features. "Wonderful!" Gilden breathed, smiling. The view was of one of the tubes, but not the one they had just quit. This one had a tube car in the end of it. Derry looked over at the other transport tube to confirm his suspicion. "It's that tube, over there." "The tube from Crowla's holding," Gilden confirmed. The view was of the tube, taken from within the station. A group of people could be seen coming through the tube car - a large group. Crites all, twelve of them Derry finally counted, as they arrived into the station proper. All armed with staves. These twelve Crites wore the mummy-bandage robes of Crowla's holding. "That's Dith in the lead!" Mergrun exclaimed, a new anger in his voice. Derry nodded, surprised that even he recognized the Crite leader from their one meeting at Inishee's holding. Dith seemed in charge of this larger group, too. He pulled up one of the other Crites the moment they entered the station, and the two conferred a moment before the second Crite waved at some of the others, and five Crites split off from the larger group and accompanied him deeper into the station. Dith waved a hand impatiently at the remaining five Crites, and the six of them headed across the station and entered the tube leading back the way Derry and his friends had just come. "And there's our answer," Erva said then. "Dith took five of the Crites and headed for Inishee holding. The other six went into Aginshir holding." "So we can assume this place has been captured," Garmin offered, sounding worried. "There is more," Nyf said. "I have some more footage from a later time." "We're not done yet," Mike told the group. "Something happened later." There was the briefest of whiteouts in the view floating before them, and then they were viewing the station again. This time, two Crites armed with staves and dressed in Crowla holding's unique raiment paced slowly back and forth before the tube leading back to the transfer station. Then one suddenly paused, tensed, and then leaned his staff towards the tube. The other came to stand beside him, and also leaned his weapon towards the tube. But in a mere moment, both Crites relaxed and drew their staves back to an upright position. A group could be seen approaching then, and quickly defined itself as six Crites, similarly dressed, moving at a run towards them. But these Crites were unarmed. "Dith, returning after you disarmed them and threw them out of Inishee," Mergrun quickly guessed. It was indeed Dith and his men. The lead Crite looked angry, and waved his hands in agitation before the armed Crites, obviously filling them in on events at Inishee. Those two looked alarmed, and cast worried-looking glances back the way that Dith and his party had come. Then one of the armed Crites made a gesture of agreement, and turned and headed at a run towards the archway that lead deeper into Aginshir holding. Dith waved at his five men, and the group hurried across the station and entered the car at the end of the tube leading to Crowla's holding. The remaining Crite hefted his staff, and resumed pacing back and forth before the tube from the transfer station. "Dith headed back to Crowla to report, "Erva suggested. "One of the guards here went into the holding to pass on the news to the four there. And one was left to guard the tube from the transfer station." "But he's not here now," Gilden stated. "Is there more to see?" "Yes," Nyf said. "Observe. This is not very long after Dith returned." "This is a little later," Mike told the others. Again the view briefly whited out; and then they were looking at the lone guard again. He was standing before the tube he had been guarding, his staff leaned into its opening. Another group was approaching through the tube. "The Narthies!" Cally said, sounding shocked. "Oh, no!" The six Narthies approached the Crite slowly, and one moved slightly ahead of the others to confront the guard. They obviously talked a bit, and Derry could tell by the way the other Narthies carefully moved their hands to the pommels of their swords that they didn't like what they were hearing. The Crite was obviously being belligerent, and denying the Narthies passage. He kept waving his staff at them insistently, while the leader of the Narthies seemed unwilling to have it. Then came the fateful moment. The lead Narthie took another step closer to the Crite, and raised his hands. At the same moment, the Narthie directly behind him charged forward, blocked somewhat from the view of the Crite by his leader's body. But not blocked from view enough. The staff discharged in a blinding flash, and the Narthie leader was struck. The Narthie behind the leader, already crouched in his run, ducked in instinct, and fingers of the main bolt leapfrogged him and struck the four other Narthies behind. Even as that happened, the charging Narthie hit his leader from behind and propelled him straight into the Crite guard. The bolt of lightning cut off in an instant, and the electrocuted Narthie leader and the Crite crashed to the ground. The Crite immediately struggled to get the heavy body off of him, and had not lost his grip on the staff. The last Narthie took a step towards the staff, realized then he could not get it before the Crite was free, and then turned and ran into the station. But instead of heading for the archway into Aginshir holding, he bore left, reached the wall there, and pushed hard on an apparently blank section of it. A panel immediately opened outward, revealing daylight, and the Narthie disappeared through the doorway. It immediately closed behind him. The Crite guard got to his feet then. Two of the Narthies were still moving on the floor, and in a moment that Derry knew he would never forget, the Crite guard unleashed another bolt at them, causing their bodies and the bodies of the other Narthies to constrict as their muscles contracted and their bodies seized up. And then the Crite guard turned and raced for the same wall panel the last Narthie had disappeared through, pushed it open, and was gone. No one said anything for a moment after the image faded away. But everyone again turned to look at the Narthie bodies nearby. Mergrun finally made a small, harsh, angry sound. "I...I...cannot believe this was done by one of my own kind!! That was a deliberate act of murder!" Garmin's voice sounded unusually harsh, too. "This one will be punished, I promise!" Mike nodded. "I agree." He turned and pointed to the apparently blank wall the Narthie and his Crite pursuer had vanished through. "Where does that go?" "It's a maintenance and emergency egress," Garmin said. " All tube stations have them." Mike blinked at that revelation. "It's not marked. How will people find it in an emergency?" Garmin looked surprised. "Why...everyone knows they are there. Why should it be marked?" Mike gave a little amazed laugh at that, and nodded. He turned to Erva. "I think we should follow." "Yes. The last Narthie is in extreme danger." Mike nodded. "Let's go." "Do we leave a guard here?" Cally asked. "No. We stick together. Come on." They crossed to the wall panel, and Mike pushed against it. It opened easily outward. They emerged onto a wide landing, where a staircase led down quite some distance to the ground below. There was no one in sight. "Nyf?" Mike asked. "Can you sense that staff?" "Yes. Proceed to the ground and go straight out from the base of the stairs. I will direct you from there." Mike nodded, and turned to the group. "Let's go."
  15. Mergrun, the Crite who had demonstrated the operation of the staff to them, had just completed training another Crite, one Garmin, and the Sasparians, Erva and Gilden, in their use. Mergrun and Garmin were to be Inishee's representatives on the journey, and Erva and Gilden would stand for the Sasparians. It had been deemed necessary that the four to accompany the Armenti should at least be armed as well as those they sought to confront. Mike had been surprised at Erva's selection of the youngest of his men, when the others were obviously older, larger, and likely better trained. He had briefly mentioned it to the Sasparian, and come away from the ensuing discussion with an amused smile on his face. "Seems stubbornness is not confined to human teenagers," he told Derry and Cally, upon his return. "What's that mean?" Derry asked, glancing at his boyfriend. "Gilden is Erva's son. He's a little older than the two of you." Cally smiled at that. "And?" Mike sighed softly. "There is some ritual, a sort of rite of passage in Sasparian culture, that allows for young people to demand participation in events that adults might otherwise deny them. Gilden has made a demand to his father to participate in our journey, a demand Erva feels he cannot deny him. Erva is not happy about it, but seemed both relieved and pleased when I told him that the two of you were somewhat young, too." "You told him we were kids?" Derry asked, surprised. "Of course not. I said you were both young men out on only your third duty as agents of Armenti Security." Derry laughed. "You said we were agents of Armenti Security?" "Well, I had to think of something to call us." His grandfather's eyes twinkled merrily. Cally cocked his head questioningly. "You didn't say this was only your third trip exploring through the doors, did you?" "Definitely not. Give me credit for having a little sense. We want these people to have some sort of confidence in us." "I just hope it's justified," Derry returned. "I'm not afraid to say I'm a little bit scared." Cally moved closer and bumped his shoulder against Derry's. "I got your back." But then he glanced around quickly, and leaned closer. "Think I'm not scared, too?" They stared at each other a moment, until Derry smiled. "We'll be okay." "I think so, too," granddad said. "I have confidence in these suits to protect us. More confidence than I have that our fellow travelers will be able to protect themselves. So it's going to be up to us to watch out for them, okay?" Derry frowned at that. Mike leaned closer to his grandson. "Something?" "Well...I just hope we're doing the right thing. Getting involved in this." "You three will be quite safe," Nyf put in quietly. "Your suits will easily handle any threats we have witnessed here thus far." Derry nodded. "I know. I'm just...I don't want anybody to get hurt." He glanced around at their new friends. "Not anybody." Mike sighed. "I know how you feel, son." He seemed to think about it a moment, and then nodded slowly. "Derry, it's easy to live a life as just an observer. Commenting from the sidelines carries a minimum of risk. But it's different if you decide to become a participant, and take chances, confront risks. Something very momentous happened a thousand years ago to a vast stellar empire. Something so grave that it left it a shadow of its former glory. Whatever that event was, it seems damned important to me now that I have been out here a few times and seen what's happened to these people. It could be something that one day affects our earth." He reached out and dropped a hand on Derry's shoulder. "The risks have seemed minimal, so far, and I am willing to continue with this if you are. I think these people need our help." Cally leaned over and again bumped his shoulder against Derry's, and when Derry turned, his boyfriend was smiling at him. "I said I got your back." Derry returned the smile. "I'm not wimping out. I'm just...concerned." "Me, too." Cally nodded. "This is some serious stuff. So it's time to get serious." Mike chuckled at that. "Spoken like a true agent of Armenti Security." The boys laughed at that, and Derry gave his shoulders a gentle up and down stretch. "Okay, let's do this." His granddad squeezed his shoulder a last time. "Believe me, Derry, if things get too hairy, I will be the first to admit it. The welfare of you boys takes top priority with me. Okay?" Derry nodded. "I'm ready." They rejoined Erva and the others, who were holding their staffs before them and looking them over a little hesitantly. "There's no way they can activate without you deliberately squeezing the handle," Mergrun was telling them. "So relax. They also make fair walking sticks, so don't be afraid to use them as such." Derry remembered then the video Nyf had shown them of the Crites passing through the transfer station. The one Crite carrying a staff had been using it exactly like a walking stick. And quite comfortably, too! Erva's son was eying his own staff a little bit reverently. "So much power in so small a space. The old technologies certainly were amazing!" "I heard that the beasts they used those staffs on were huge," Derry said, as he and Cally joined the Sasparian boy. "I guess they had to be amazing to do what they were designed to do." The other gave an almost-nod, and smiled at them. "I am Gilden. We have not met." "Oh, I'm Derry, and this is Cally. I think we're all pretty close in age." The Sasparian eyed them curiously. "Do all Armenti go into danger so young, or are you on your quest for life, too?" Derry knew he had to answer that question carefully. "We are old enough to go into the field as long as we go with an experienced agent," he said. He pointed at his granddad. "Mike has been training us further during this, um, investigation." Gilden nodded. "One can only learn so much by reading, or viewing the old memory plays. Experience is the best teacher, my father has always told me. So I reminded him of his own words. " He smiled. "And now I am excited to be going along!" Derry couldn't help smiling, too. Gilden's people were somewhat daunting in appearance. If Derry had run into Gilden back on earth on a dark Halloween night, he would have been petrified! But Gilden's smile went a long way towards gentling those somewhat forbidding features. Derry could see a heart and mind there, dreams and imaginings and wonderings, the very same things he often saw and loved in Cally's face. In that brief moment, when Gilden smiled in his excitement, Derry felt he understood perfectly what the other was feeling. He nodded. "We're happy to have you along. It will be nice to have someone like us to talk to." "Care must be taken," Gilden said, lowering his voice. "I have met this Crowla before on a journey with my father. He is unlike the Crites you see here. He impressed me with his coldness. That one cares not for the lives of others." "We plan to be careful," Cally said. "But Mike is pretty good at this. Along with your dad and the others, we should be okay." Gilden's eyes went from one boy's face to another. "I can only imagine the wonders you have seen in your travels." Derry and Cally both smiled. "Actually, your planet has been one of the coolest places we've visited," Cally said. The term coolest was translated as fascinating in the Aolic trade language. Gilden looked surprised, and then pleased. "If I was to be stranded someplace in the universe, far from home, I would have picked this very world. It is by no means a cruel place." The others joined them then, along with the rest of the Sasparians. "We have pooled our supplies to make up travel packs for you and Gilden," one of them said, offering Erva two pouches almost as large as the small backpack Derry wore. "Good journey. We will wait here for your return." There seemed to be a bit of emphasis on the word return that even Derry couldn't miss. Erva smiled at that, and clapped the man on the shoulder. "Thank you, Brida. And we will come back, I assure you." The other Sasparian grunted, and turned to Gilden. "Safe journey. May you find in experience the pathway to life." Gilden gave a half-nod, looking solemn. "Thank you, uncle. Your wish will accompany me, always." Brida gave a grunt, leaned in and gave Gilden a brief hug, and then turned and gave Erva the same. This ritual was repeated by all the Sasparians, and then the group headed back towards the tables. "We have been set to wing...or foot... on our journey," Erva said then, turning back to Mike and the boys. "We are ready to go." Inishee was there with Mergrun and Garmin, wishing them well, too. "There will be stories to share by the fire, I think," the Crite leader was saying. "Both of you will be needed to tell of your experiences." He leaned a little closer, and lowered his voice. "So come back to us. You understand?" "We will do our best to return," Mergrun said simply. "I don't trust Crowla at all, after what Dith has done at his command," Garmin added. "We will not be careless with any of them." Mike turned to the Crites then. "There is one thing of concern to me. I know the two of you would normally be heading to sleep pretty soon. I was wondering how you'll do being forced to operate on a daytime schedule?" "We will do fine," Mergrun returned. "By the time you are ready to rest this evening, we will be tired as well. In the morning, we will have adjusted to the new schedule." "Okay, if you say so. But this is not a rush job. If you two get too tired along the way, we'll stop to rest." "Thank you," Garmin returned. "But Mergrun and myself are used to daylight duty, which is one reason we were selected to go with you. Making the change is easy for us now." That seemed to make Mike feel better. He turned to Inishee then and gave a little shrug of his shoulders. "We're off then. " "Safe journey. And thank you for helping us." Their group turned to go. It seemed a little odd that no one wanted to accompany them to the tube, but on reflection, Derry decided that both the Crites and the Sasaparians had made their farewells here at the village in order not to delay the journey by offering them at the tube. This was how it was done here, was all. They returned through the wall structure of the castle, this time ascending back to tube level using a wide staircase with landings at each floor. They arrived at the tube station to find that it was no longer empty. Two dozen Crites were on guard duty, two of them armed with the remaining staves captured from Dith's men. The rest had swords and lances, and four had bows, and quivers full of arrows! The structure of the tubes would make it hard for someone not able to fly to approach Inishee's holding. Anyone coming via the tube would have to face two staves and several flights of arrows. If Dith and his people returned, they would find the welcome quite warm! Those on duty offered them brief well wishes, but seemed not to wish to impede their start. The group entered the tube, and soon the station was left behind them. It was another beautiful day, the sky bluer than blue, the surrounding peaks sharp and detailed in their colors, the white clouds roiling slowly beneath them as they moved forward. The view was almost unreal. Yet Derry quickly found that he felt more comfortable now with walking the blue pathway in the sky than he had the first time coming in, and could actually look around at what there was to see without feeling a sense that he might fall. "A fine day for a journey," Erva said, as they walked along. The tube was wide enough that they could easily walk abreast of each other, and Derry looked over at the man. "A shame that the journey need be for so poor a reason," Erva finished. "You normally fly between the peaks?" Derry asked. Gilden laughed cheerfully, and Erva smiled Derry's way. "Of course," the man said. "It would be wasteful not to use the gifts nature has given us. But tube travel is much preferred over flying in poor weather. The mountains look beautiful and serene most of the time, but when storms do arrive, they are often fierce, with wind and rain and thunder." "Time to take cover, then!" Gilden added. Derry could imagine the perils of flying in a thunderstorm, not to even mention the discomfort of being wet, and blown all about the sky by wind gusts. "There are minor variations between the charges of the two atmospheric barrier layers," Nyf informed them over the private channel. "These give rise to periodic thunderstorms in addition to the normal rains here. It could actually be corrected, but the Talaspin developers of Rustgevend were actually fond of rain and thunder, and sought to ensure that their guests could also experience them." Mike gave an inward chuckle over their private channel. "First time I ever heard of lousy weather being offered as a vacation highlight." "Many empire worlds were carefully controlled environments," Nyf explained. "Visitors to Rustgevend were often thrilled to experience these storms of nature. Though from the comfort of covered porches around their villas, I might add." "Oh, of course," Mike agreed. "I can actually kind of get that. Many's the time I've sat on my own porch during a storm and watched the rains come down." "Our farms need the rain," Mergrun injected then, unaware of the silent conversation between the humans. "Without them it would be much harder to produce the crops we desire." "I saw a creek or something running by your village," Mike remembered aloud. "It is not natural, but rather a feature of the atrium," Garmin explained. "The open center of the tube complex where our village is set. The nature of the engineering that has made this world's mountains a viable environment does not offer running water as part of the plan. All such flows upon the peaks are artificial, with the water manufactured from hydrogen and oxygen and pumped to the springs that feed our mountain creeks and rivers. The axial tilt of Rustgevend is minimal. It does not provide for seasons as many worlds have, so there is no winter here in the habitable zone, and no snowcaps on the mountains to provide water. The uniformity of the atmosphere at all levels does not provide for cooler temperatures at altitude. When it does rain here, the runoff is simply channeled into the many waterways provided by the builders on each mountain and manufacturing of water suspended during those times. It's all regulated very carefully. We have made our own means to collect and store this rain water, which greatly assists with our farming needs." Derry was impressed by the man's knowledge. "So you know all about how this world was redesigned to make the mountains habitable?" "Oh, yes. I am one of Inishee's engineers. It is my duty to look after the systems that keep our peak running. Though I must admit they are largely self-sustaining." "Does this surprise you in some way?" Mergrun asked. "Each peak has its own technical people to manage the systems, though of course the technology pretty much takes care of itself." For a moment no one said anything. "We've been a few places where people have forgotten a lot," Cally explained then. "Door travel has been suspended for a long time," Mike agreed. "Many lifetimes, for most races. Your people here have maintained a grip on the empire and empire technology, to some extent, anyway. It has not been as easy for others on other worlds." Garmin and Mergrun looked at each other, and Erva gave his wings a brief flutter, as if in consternation. "We have wondered about this," the elder Sasparian said. "It was a logical assumption that the end of door travel would leave many worlds unprepared to deal with the fact. It was that way here, though we have actually managed well. But until now we had no way of knowing how others had fared." "It will make resuming empire life much harder," Mergrun said. "When the doors are open to travel again, I mean." "Your people must have their hands full," Gilden said then, leaning forward to look at the humans. "Trying to keep things together while fighting the great menace, too." All faces turned towards the humans then, and Derry once again felt the curiosity among their new friends to know more about why door travel had ceased. "I wish I could tell you more," Mike said slowly. "I can't. It's not that it's a secret, or anything like that. Some of it is that we still do not know exactly the full nature of the great menace. Only that its danger is not to be minimized. Door travel was suspended to safeguard people, not to confine or harm them. You'll just have to take my word that it has been a necessary thing." "I do," Mergrun said, his dark eyes on Mike. "That your kind have not visited here in all these years, but came immediately in response to the use of a single door by Crowla and his men - that settles in my mind the gravity of the situation. Such a reluctance to travel the doors can only result from a true belief in the danger of that action. If the creators of the doors will not use them except in times of grave need, I do not wish to use them, either." Derry felt guilty at hearing that, hating to be a part of misleading these people. But almost immediately he pivoted in his mind to agreeing with the Crite. That no one was using the doors when so many were still open suggested one thing above all others: fear. Fear of what might happen if they did use them. So intense must have been the Armenti warning not to use the doors that it had endured almost as law on uncountable numbers of worlds for a thousand earth years. The humans didn't know that no one was using the doors, but that no one had appeared on the moon of the ice giant circling the red sun - the door transfer station which Difris cared for - in all that time, virtually shouted the fact that no one dared to make the attempt. "It's for the best," Erva said. "To know the true danger would cause some to judge the merits of ignoring it. We do not want others deciding it is a reasonable risk to try using the doors. The story of how the Armenti returned to stop Crowla from using a door will circulate among all the peaks. None will dare acting similarly, when the stakes are so high." He turned to look through the invisible side of the tube, at the world beyond. "None will risk the threat to our home." "I hope you're right," Mike replied. "But my experience is that what one will dare, others will dare at some point, too." That seemed a sobering statement to the others, and they walked on for a while in silence. It was still a beautiful day, and Derry could not imagine a threat to this wondrous world. Was it really possible that Crowla's actions could bring danger to Rustgevend? Derry and Cally and Granddad had traveled through the doorways several times now. Nothing dire had resulted from those travels. Not yet, anyway. It was scary to think that their own actions might be putting people at risk. But he already knew the position that both Difris and Nyf had taken, that these explorations were necessary if they were to find out what had happened to the Armenti and the empire, and that that need must be balanced against any possible danger resulting from using the doors. But now Derry saw another question that needed to be asked: Did anyone out here even know the answer? Did any of the countless numbers of empire citizens on the other side of each door even know why door travel was restricted? That Derry and the others might travel for years and never find an answer was frightening. By not passing on the nature of the great menace to everyone, the Armenti may have been trying to ensure that panic was kept to a minimum. Restricting door travel so suddenly and so thoroughly would have been a massively traumatic event to an empire long used to instantaneous travel. What threat could be so frightful to so many that people would pass by open doorways for a millennium after and not even consider using them? Derry could only think of one thing that would deter so many from using the doors. And that was the certain knowledge that to use one might be fatal. To use a door was to die. But they had already proven that that was not so. And so had Crowla, in his passage through a door to obtain the staves he craved as weapons. This fact had not been questioned by Erva or the others. They had not been surprised that Crowla had been able to use a door and survive. So if not death...what was the threat that kept so many in place? Derry was aware of the others resuming their conversation, but he walked on in silence, trying to figure out an answer that could fit the facts he knew. It wasn't until Cally nudged him that he became aware that they had slowed, and that Garmin had lifted a hand to point ahead of them. Derry brought his gaze up, and was surprised to see the peak holding the tube transfer station ahead of them. "From here we will go on to Aginshir holding," Garmin was saying. "It's another Crite holding. From there we can reach Crowla's peak." "Yes," Mergrun agreed. "Inishee has empowered me to speak to Aginshir and to query about the actions of Crowla." Mike looked interested at that. "Each holding is named after the leader? Doesn't that get complicated over time as they change?" Mergrun and Garmin both emitted hissing laughs, and Erva smiled at them. "Actually, each new leader becomes known by the name of the holding." "Our current Inishee bears no relation to the last leader of our holding," Mergrun agreed. "Only in name. Once, the leaders of each holding were called by the title, Kori Andi, which means Who Speaks for in Aolic. So our leader was Kori Andi Inishee. Who Speaks for Inishee. Over time, everyone simply started calling each leader by the name of the holding." "It is less formal," Erva agreed, "and therefore more desirable. Formalities were one of the first things we found we could do without after door travel ceased and the initial squabbling was over." "The fighting, he means," Mergrun said cheerfully, offering a short hissing laugh. "The juggling for position. But once the first panic died down, and the moving about to resettle the peaks was done, cooler heads finally prevailed. People on Rustgevend were reminded that we were all empire citizens, and that we were all stranded here together. It was decided that the formalities between us needed to be loosened in order to bring us together. The peace that resulted from this decision has lasted all this time. Those few tube outlaws among us have never been enough to threaten the pacts that bind us." "Until Crowla came along," Garmin put in, in almost a growl. "Or, more rightly, this Crowla. The ones before him were far more agreeable types." "This Aginshir holding is closer to Crowla's peak than yours," Mike pointed out. "Strange that they should bypass this holding and try to take yours." "We don't know that they did," Mergrun returned. "We will need to approach Aginshir carefully." "Ah. That makes sense." Mike nodded slowly. "The possibility exists that they have already been subjugated by Crowla's people." "Agreed." Erva sounded grim. "We need to take care here." They continued on towards the transfer station, all eyes alert and watching. Derry activated his head bubble and zoomed in on the tube car station, but could see no one else present. "Looks deserted to me," he told the others. He had to explain then the ability of his head bubble to magnify, to which Erva made a sound that seemed decidedly disgusted. He paused a moment and pulled his travel pouch from his harness, and then resumed walking as he rummaged within. Shortly he produced a small device that Derry immediately recognized as binoculars, though these seemed not to have actual lenses like the human variety, but some sort of sensor at the end of each eye tube. They were small - more like opera glasses than real binoculars. But they were surely just as good as any empire technology, Derry figured. The Sasparian held them up to his eyes a moment, and then grunted in satisfaction. "I agree with your assessment, Derry. No one is on guard here just now." Gilden wanted to look through the binoculars, and then the Crites each took a turn. "I believe we have a few pairs of these in storage, now that I think of it," Mergrun said, after his view. "I should dig them out when we get home. They may prove useful now." "These belong to my brother, Brida," Erva told them. "They have never been much use until now, but he included them in the packs that he and the others assembled for Gilden and me. I can now understand his thinking on this matter, where before they just seemed an extra burden to carry." "One man's trash," Mike said, and then laughed when the others stared uncomprehendingly at him. "My people have a saying: one man's trash is another man's treasure." Erva also laughed. "I surely see the wisdom there. I have never considered these far-seers much use. Now I can see my imagination was not up to the task, where my brother's was!" Derry kept his head bubble active as they approached the tube car station, and still could see no one within. They arrived, and gained the interior of the saucer-like structure without incident. Gilden immediately noticed the red painted arrow before one of the doors. "This was not here last time we visited." "I placed it there," Derry revealed. "It marks the door we arrived through. We do this in case we need to...well, retreat on the run." "A precaution, only," Mike added. "Just to make certain no mistakes are made if we are pressed to leave quickly." Garmin eyed the door curiously. "This one leads back to your world?" "Actually, it doesn't," Mike said carefully. "It goes to a base of operations overseen by operatives of Armenti Security." Mergrun offered a hissing chuckle at that. "You were planning to visit them, Garmin?" The other Crite's dark eyes widened. "Not me! I was just asking. The last thing I would want would be to emerge in a place where many weapons were quickly pointed my way!" Gilden stepped closer to the door and examined it carefully, and then seemed slightly disappointed that it was no different from the other active doors in the station. "Such mysteries intrigue me." He turned and smiled at Derry and Cally. "One day, I hope to be able to travel to other worlds to see what there is to see." Derry fully understood that sense of adventure and curiosity. "I hope that happens for you, Gilden. For all of us." "Where do these other doors go?" The Sasparian boy asked. "The ones that seem active, anyway?" "Tell him you don't know for certain," Nyf suggested. "As the mind that operates this station is not fully functional. The system is actually mapped, but they don't need to know that." Mike passed the relevant information on to the others. The adults looked at the doors warily, but Gilden's enchantment with them only intensified. "So they are puzzles, too!" "Don't be getting any ideas," Erva said firmly, clapping his wings together loudly as if in admonition. "Crowla is trouble enough without a wayward Sasparian added to the problem." Derry and Cally broke into laughter at the startled look that came onto Gilden's face, and even Erva looked amused. "I would never pass through a door, father! You know this!" "I just wished to be certain." Gilden looked around at the smiles turned upon him, and suddenly relaxed. "You tease me. But I give my word that I would never attempt to pass through a door"-- he smiled then --"without being invited first." Derry and Cally laughed again, and Mike raised a patient hand to quiet them down. "Just so long as everyone knows what's at stake here. It's really not safe to use the doors. I'm interested in seeing what sort of place this Crowla has found his staves in. And what other doors may lead from there. We don't want him branching out in his explorations." "I can tell you something now," Garmin said. "The stories we've heard say that Crowla went through the door in their own transfer station. There is only one door there, so there will be no mistaking which one it was." Mike waved a hand around their own transfer station. "It's not like this station?" "No. This is a confluence station. Ten tubes meet here, and it was also the main entry point to Rustgevend for travelers to this hemisphere of the planet. There are fifty doors here, though as you can see, many are no longer in operation. Crowla's station is the meeting point of four tubes - two that would normally cross, actually - and there has only ever been the one Armenti transfer door there. A larger one, larger than these." "What do you think?" Mike asked Nyf over the secure channel. "I didn't think there were doors here except at the main hubs in the northern and southern hemispheres." "There are a few others," the artificial intelligence explained. "Mostly for cargo and supplies. Going by the map we were shown by Inishee, the peak in question has one cargo door that leads to a supply station at Kuridian." "Wow," Cally said, the feeling of amazement clear in his voice, even over their private channel. "Where is that?" "It's a...a warehouse is the best comparison. A small, lifeless world circling around a red dwarf star about seven hundred light years from here." "Just around the corner," Mike said humorously. "It's a transshipping center, largely automated in its time. It makes sense now that Crowla may have simply happened on a shipment there of the staves bound for Curivo Two." "You mean nobody would be there?" "It's doubtful. There was a small maintenance staff there originally that oversaw the automation, but when the Armenti retreated and door usage became forbidden, they would either have left or faced being stranded there. If the latter case, it's doubtful there would have been enough of them to form a population that would survive until now." Derry frowned at that, suddenly imagining all the places people might have been stuck when door usage was suddenly forbidden. That some may have been in places that would not support them, or that they were so few in numbers that they had died out over time, was frightening and sad. People stranded in their millions or billions on populated worlds would have gone on with life. Those stranded in smaller populations like here on Rustgevend would have still been able to make do. But those genuinely few in numbers, stranded in the out of the way places throughout the empire, would have been faced with a decision to make: risk the doors and hope for escape, or slowly perish over time through lack of numbers, supplies, or both. There was a grim reality to the idea that was sobering. Derry's granddad must have felt that same dark sense. "That sucks. I guess we won't know unless we look." "Will we?" Derry asked. "Yeah," Cally added. "Are we going through that door, too?" "I think we need to see what Crowla has access to," Mike replied. "We know about the staves, but what if he's been gathering other technology there that can be used against the people here? Unless we go look, we won't know." "It seems a reasonable precaution," Nyf agreed. "But I must remind you not to stay long on the other side of that door, as time may catch up with you again on your home world. You don't wish to be away longer than is safe for you." "Okay," Mike agreed. "We'll need to remember that." "I thought all the cargo doors were shut down when they weren't used?" Cally said then. "We haven't seen any open ones, and there were a bunch at the starport we visited." "Normally, doors were never completely shut down," Nyf explained. "As I said once before, it required local power to alter their status, but when in operation they basically powered themselves. It was simply the most efficient procedure to leave them open. But at the time the Armenti stopped door travel, cargo doors were targeted to be idled for some reason. Those doors you see that appear without the dark interface zone within are still operative. They are simply idled, and unable to provide access to their destinations. And, as we have seen, many of the personal travel doors seem also to have been idled, for reasons that are not clear to me. If this cargo door was left open, it was for a reason." "Or someone opened it later," Mike suggested. "We already know that doors right here in this tube station were deliberately, um, idled. Why not one deliberately reopened?" "We must investigate," Nyf agreed. "Proceed." The Crites and the Sasparians were standing by, watching the humans patiently. They had grown used to the moments of silence now, where their guests seemed distracted by conversation among themselves. Gilden's gaze was especially fascinated, as if he wondered what secrets might be being discussed. Derry smiled at him. "Sorry. Just reviewing a few things." "I understand," Gilden returned, bowing his head slightly. "What you do is at least much better than whispering." Mike smiled at that. "We don't mean to keep secrets from you. It's simply the nature of the technology we're using." "Shall we move on?" Erva asked. "Best to use the day while we have it." The Crites led them to another tube, this one with a tube car at their end of it. They passed through the silent vehicle and back out into the pleasant day. "I wonder what it would take to get these things running again?" Cally asked, pausing a moment to look back at the car. "It would make travel here a lot easier." "It has been tried in the past," Garmin responded. "The destruction of the power system for the network was very thorough. Even our own engineering staff feels the system could not be made useful again without the importation of replacement parts from offworld." "I'm not even sure many peaks would want the tube cars to run again," Erva said. "Most of the people here feel secure knowing that movement between the peaks is a time-consuming operation. Trade carries on quite well locally without the cars. My feeling is that things are best as they are now." "It was why the system was deactivated so long ago," Mergrun agreed. "What was deemed speedy travel in empire times brought the peaks a little too close together for the tastes of those stranded here after door use became proscribed. It has been very peaceful here since the time of troubles was resolved. It would be nice to have tube travel restored once Rustgevend is again part of an active empire. But for now, we will leave things as they are." That seemed to end the debate. The locals were happy with the way things were. Derry smiled at that, actually understanding their thinking. Each peak was its own world, and the occupants sort of wanted to keep it that way. "What kind of trade goes on here?" Mike asked. He looked back over his shoulder at the now dwindling tube station behind them, and frowned. "You could get a wagon or cart loaded with goods through these tubes easy enough. But those cars at one end or the other of each tube would be a real hindrance." The Crites laughed their hissing laugh again. Mike blinked at them, and the smiled. "What did I say?" "It is not really the sort of trade you imagine," Gilden supplied. "True," Erva said, picking up the conversation. "Each peak has very much the same needs. The technologies are still in place to feed and clothe us, and as you can see, housing is not a problem. The village you saw back at Inishee holding is a choice made by the people there. There is more than enough room within the great circling structure in which to live, yet they have chosen to build a village out in the open. Most peaks are not like that. People living at tube stations tend to use the facilities there that are already in place. Others live within the many villas covering each mountain. So there are not that many things that one peak can provide that another does not already have. Even the crops we farm are similar everywhere, based on the seeds that were available here." "Yes," Garmin agreed. "The village is a meeting place for us, somewhere for everyone to be together and share life. Meals are brought to the tables by the fire mostly from within the station, where the large dining halls there are still in operation. Only the local crops are prepared by the fires. Our medical and production facilities are all within the great building around the village." "Then why have the village at all?" Mike asked. "Well...our people are an outdoor breed," Mergrun told them. "You already know we are nocturnal by nature. A fire beneath the stars is a need that goes back to the dawn of our civilization. Even those that live within the villas have courtyards out back with firepits for a flame, and tables to congregate around. Crites spend more time each day out of doors than within. It is simply the way we are." "Cultural as well as instinctive," Nyf supplied over the private channel. "Fire would seem to be a legacy need enjoyed by many intelligent species everywhere." Mike smiled at that. "I love a good fire in the hearth, my own self." "Then you understand." "I think I do." "Then what do you people trade, if not crops and stuff?" Derry asked. Gilden smiled at them. "We trade each other, of course." At Derry's startled look, the Sasparian boy laughed. "Oh, not as you are thinking! I mean, we trade the essence of each other. Our cultures. The things we each create that are unique to us." "Intellectual property," Erva explained. "For instance, arts and crafts are actually highly traded items. And clothing. Or rather, clothing designs. Under empire law, a unique thing created by any individual or group is forever the property of that individual or group. In order for others to use such properties, licenses must be obtained. This goes for all intellectual properties, whether it be clothing design, writings, dramatic productions in the Vicarious format, food recipes, technical innovations, artwork, or simple designs for daily items. There is a vast trade among all the peaks in such areas, just as we enjoyed when we were a part of galactic culture." "The empire, in miniature," Cally said, grinning. "It is exactly that," Mergrun agreed. "There is an actual physical transport of goods between the peaks, but most is able to be carried by traders. Those items too large for such transport are indeed moved by wagons. The wagons themselves are strong and lightweight, and designed to fit through the tube cars easily. It is a bit of a task for traders to unload the heavier carts and get them through the tube cars, but trade missions tend to run to at least a half-dozen in number, so there are plenty of helping hands to assist." "We haven't seen any such traders," Cally pointed out. "Where are they?" "The foot traffic is not that heavy here," Gilden said. "But for a reason. In this area, a great deal of inter-peak trade is carried out by Sasparian merchants, so that others do not need to travel." Erva gave out a hearty laugh. "Yes, of course. We offer something that few species here can offer: wings! We can travel between mountains without needing to use tubes. Our courier services are much faster than trade by foot. So in this area of Rustgevend, at least, you are much more likely to see flights of our people, than traders traveling on foot. Though foot trade does still occur here." "On a journey north once, beyond our normal travel range, we spied many traders and wagons within the tubes there," Gilden revealed. "It was exciting to see, actually. This area of Rustgevend seems empty by comparison!" "Got the local trade contracts sewn up, huh?" Mike said, smiling. "We offer an important service here that no others can provide," Erva said, giving his wings a contented flap. "It would be foolish of us not to capitalize on our natural strengths." "Oh, I wasn't being critical," Mike said. "I fully agree that your people are providing a much-needed service here. Air mail has always been faster than ground." "And at very reasonable rates," Gilden added, looking pleased at the idea. "It is our philosophy to contribute, not to monopolize." "There," Garmin said suddenly, raising an arm and pointing out one side of their tube. "Such a trade mission even now, unless I miss my guess." They all turned to look in the indicated direction, and Derry could indeed see what looked like a flock of large birds far off among the peaks, heading slightly away from the direction in which they were traveling. The moment was slightly eerie, and reminiscent of the moment that he and Cally had looked through the door back in the transfer station hidden on granddad's farm and first spied what they thought were large birds circling carved towers of stone. Their shock at understanding that they were actually people with wings had been considerable at the time. "Heading for Bela'mtor holding, I think," Erva said, squinting slightly at the distant flight of his people. "That would be Tralus and her group." "It's certainly a fascinating existence you have here," Mike said. "We are pleased to see your world doing so well." "It has not been a burden to us, really," Mergrun stated. "After the initial arguments over procedures and rights, and the resettling of parts of the population here were over, the focus at first fell on what might be happening out in the empire. That no news was coming in was frightening. But over time, attention began to shift away from what we did not know to what we did know, and we focused on our lives here. No new dangers presented themselves, and it was quickly found that this world was indeed a hospitable and pleasant place to live." "There were even those that rejoiced in our separation from the empire," Garmin added, along with another hissing chuckle. "Life here was so much more peaceful than what all the visitors to Rusgevend were used to. The relaxation factor was quite extreme for many." "And now this is our life," Erva said, sounding not in the least distressed about it. "These events with Crowla have been the first upset to our lives in quite a long time." "We'll get through it," Derry promised, trying to sound more reassuring than he actually felt he could be. They continued to talk as they walked, and made good progress through the tube. By the time that the peak that was home to Aginshir holding aligned itself before them, Derry was feeling a genuine sense of affection for their new friends. If this was what empire folk were like on average, then future explorations through the doors would be less worrisome. Eventually, the blue pathway before them seemed to run straight towards another of the large, castle-like affairs on the wooded flank of a peak, again with a second tube heading off from the right side of the structure. The sun was now high in the sky, perhaps just past noon, and they had been walking for some hours. "That would be the tube to Crowla holding," Erva said, pointing towards the second tube. Derry brought up his head bubble and zoomed in his view. It was apparent immediately that something was off at the tube station ahead. Derry could see what looked like the forms of people sprawled in the tube where it ran into the station. "You'd better see this, guys," he said over the private channel. His grandfather's head bubble winked into existence, followed immediately by Cally's. "I'm not sure what I'm seeing," Derry continued. "But that looks like people on the ground there." "But what kind of people?" Cally said. "They look strange!" "Narthies," Erva suddenly said, his voice sounding harsher than usual. "They are injured...or dead." Derry turned and spied the Sasparian with the far-seeing binoculars poised in front of his eyes. "Narthies!" Garmin repeated, sounding distressed. "A trade mission, certainly!" "Perhaps they arrived at the wrong time," Mergrun added grimly. "I would say," Erva agreed, sounding angry now. "Something is very wrong here." "I don't see any Crites with staves," Mike said slowly. "I don't see anyone else at all." "And no Crites on the ground among the Narthies, either," Erva added. "I see no movement within the station, either. I suggest a rapid approach to survey the situation. Perhaps I should fly ahead. It will be quicker." "No. I'll go," Derry's grandfather said. "It's not safe for you." "But I will be faster on my wings than you will be on your legs," the Sasparian argued. "Time may be critical!" Erva's wings unfolded, and twitched impatiently. Mike turned to Derry. "Stay here," he said, and this time Derry found no room for argument in his grandfather's tone. "Keep our friends here. If it's safe to come forward, I'll tell you." "Yes, sir," Derry answered. "I'll be much quicker than you think," Mike said, turning towards Erva. "Please. Trust me a moment." Without waiting for an answer, Derry's granddad pulled his zap gun, turned back towards the looming castle, lifted himself a foot or so from the ground on his contragravity field, and then surged away from them at an incredible speed, dwindling to an instant to a mere speck far down the tube. A brief backwash of displaced air buffeted them, and then the tube went silent once again.
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