"Oumuamua," Charlie Boone said wistfully, sighing and sitting sitting back in his chair at his desk. His laptop was open before him, the screen aglow with the material he'd been reading. A picture stood out there, of a colorful object starkly lit against a dark background.
Over on Charlie's bed, his boyfriend Kippy Lawson was kicked back against the pillow, a magazine open upright atop his chest. "Did you say something?" he asked, turning a page.
Charlie smiled and turned to gaze at his boyfriend. "Oumuamua."
Kippy read on a moment before the oddness of Charlie's statement sank in; and then he lowered the magazine and turned to stare over it at his boy friend. "Oh-moo-a-moo-a?" He smiled. "Sounds like the call of a lovesick cow."
Charlie laughed, and jumped to his feet. "I was just reading about Oumuamua, the first object to pass through our solar system that can actually be shown to have originated in another star system."
Kippy frowned, and then raised his magazine again. "Why do they call it that? Honestly, these astronomy people think up the most outlandish names for the stuff they find."
"Well, most people want to be original, I guess. In this case, the object was first detected by people at the University of Hawaii's telescope on Maui. It was finally given the official designation 1I/2017 U1, but who wants to call stuff by names like that? So they also named it 'Oumuamua', which is Hawaiian for 'a messenger from afar arriving first'."
Kippy lowered the magazine again, and smiled. "I like that. It brings to mind a hunky, tanned guy in a loincloth, with a scroll in one hand and a big smile on his face."
Charlie laughed. "Well, I'm sure it's nothing like that. In fact, they never got a real look at this thing. By the time it was detected, it had already passed it's closest approach to the Earth, as well as perihelion, its closest approach to the sun. And its orbit was hyperbolic, meaning it would have one pass at the sun, swing around it, and then head back out into space again, never to return. It was already on its way back out of the solar system when they found it, so they only had like four months to study it before it was gone again."
Kippy looked more interested now. "But they never actually saw it?"
"Uh uh. Not like an image, no. It was too far away by then. But they put every available telescope on it, and they were able to measure the light it reflected, enough to eventually create a light curve that showed it was rotating, and tumbling slowly end-over-end, and that it was six to ten times as long as it was wide. That means it looked kind of like a cigar."
Kippy wrinkled his nose. "Smoking is a repulsive habit."
Charlie rolled his eyes and sighed. "Yeah, yeah. But it's really an odd shape for a comet or an asteroid, and no one could really explain why it was like it was. Most astronomers figured the first thing to be discovered that had come from outside the solar system would be a comet, because they're bright and have a tail, and are easier to spot than an asteroid. But Oumuamua had no tail at all, and looked to be an asteroid, instead."
"I thought those came from right here in the solar system?" Kippy said thoughtfully. "The asteroid belt, or the Oort cloud?"
Charlie smiled happily. "You mean you've really been paying attention to me all these years?"
Kippy made an amused sound. "Sweetie, we've been sailing around the stars in alien spaceships for a while now, and have visited a lot of weird places. How could I not learn a few things about out there?"
Charlie nodded, feeling slightly disappointed. "Oh. I just thought maybe you'd actually learned a few things from me."
Kippy saw the almost-pout on his boyfriend's face, and set down the magazine and squirmed out of the bed. In an instant he had Charlie in his embrace, and was kissing his cheek. "There, there, Is my wittle Britannica Brain feeling unloved and unappreciated?"
Charlie laughed. "That never happens, not with you around!"
Kippy beamed. "I learn tons of stuff from you, Charlie. I just don't label each thing so I can say where it came from later."
Charlie touched his nose to Kip's, and then kissed him. "Okay. My wounded ego is assuaged." He turned his head and gave it a nod towards the laptop. "Oumuamua came from above the plane of the ecliptic, diving down on the sun, not coming in from the outer solar system. Its orbit was too eccentric to have originated locally. It really had to have come from somewhere else."
Kippy nodded, not wanting to take the wind out of Charlie's sails, but his pragmatic side now considering the viability of this discussion at all. "So is there a point to this?"
Charlie gave Kip a final squeeze, and then stepped back. He raised a hand and pointed at the laptop. "Oumuamua came from outside the system. It had no tail, indicating no outgassing - no sublimation of surface ice as it approached the sun, which releases gases, and which forms a comet's coma and tail. That seems to indicate it's an asteroid, but its shape runs counter to what we know about elongated asteroids. The ones we have observed in our own system are, at best, three times as long as they are wide. Oumuamua is as much as ten times as long as it is wide. There's no way to account for that."
"So it's a fluke," Kippy suggested. "It's bound to happen."
"Yep. Could be." Charlie smiled. "But the coolest thing is that, as Oumuamua moved away from the sun, it showed a really strong non-gravitational acceleration, that couldn't be accounted for by the slingshot around the sun. Something was making it speed up as it left."
Kippy stared at Charlie, understanding coming then. "You think it's a spaceship, or something?"
Charlie smiled. "Well...there's no proof of anything like that. Although one speculation was that the simple pressure of photons emitted from the sun would be enough to account for the acceleration, if Oumuamua was actually a very thin object - like a solar sail, for instance."
Kippy's mouth dropped open, and then he grinned. "That would be so cool! Aliens, surfing through our solar system!"
Charlie laughed. "Yeah, but other evidence seems to suggest that Oumuamua was too massive to be something like a sail. So they decided it must be outgassing on the end still facing the sun, which would be enough to give it the added acceleration."
Kippy's face fell, and he pouted. "Oh. You sure know how to mess up a pretty picture, Charlie!"
Charlie sighed. "Sorry. Outgassing would explain the acceleration, except, Oumuamua was still not showing a tail. They used the Spitzer space telescope and observed Oumuamua for thirty straight hours, but there was no trace of outgassing. The Spitzer is an infrared telescope, and should have been able to spot any gasses in a trail behind Oumuamua as a result of outgassing. But they didn't detect any gasses at all."
Kippy looked interested all over again. "So what was making it speed up?"
"No one knows for sure."
Kippy looked over at the laptop, and then marched across the room and bent to look at the image onscreen. He gasped, and Charlie smiled as he followed his boyfriend to the desk and looked over his shoulder. "Impressive, isn't it? That's just an artist's concept, but it's based on all the data they got, and is thought to be fairly accurate."
On the screen, a long, dark, reddish-tinged gray object hung in space. It looked like rock, but there was almost a sculpted look to it, that suggested more than a natural origin.
"How long is it?" Kippy asked, his voice subdued now.
"They could only guess," Charlie told him. "It was thought to be between six hundred feet and half a mile in length."
Kippy shook his head. "It looks like a spaceship. Or...something. Not just a rock."
Charlie nodded. "I was thinking the same thing. But it's probably just the artist's imagination supplying that sort of detail."
Kippy continued to stare at the screen, and finally shook his head. "I don't think so, Charlie."
Charlie felt a small thrill race throughout his body. "Skwish?"
"Uh huh. I feel like we need to know more about this object."
"We can do that. All it would take is one call to Murcha. He could have the ship here tomorrow, I'll bet."
Kippy looked surprised. "You've already been thinking about this!"
"Well, yeah. How could you look at that picture and not be intrigued? Normally, we'd just have to wonder and leave it at that. But now we actually have a way of finding out what it is."
Kippy finally broke his gaze away from the laptop, and shook his head. "Rick and Adrian, first. They have to be in on this. Then we'll call Murcha,"
Charlie bent forward slightly. "We might miss Valentine's Day, if we're off flying around space."
Kippy broke into a glowing smile, and leaned forward and kissed Charlie. "Don't be silly. Valentine's Day isn't like Christmas or Halloween, where you need to be here with other people to celebrate." He snuggled up against Charlie, and Charlie wrapped his arms around his boyfriend.
"It just takes you and me," Kippy went on softly. "As long as I'm with you, it's Valentine's Day wherever we are."
Charlie closed his eyes and pressed his cheek against Kippy's. "Yeah. You're right about that."
He felt Kippy doing something down low, and smiled and rubbed his hips against his boyfriend's. But the motion didn't stop, and Charlie pulled back and looked down just as Kippy fished his cell phone from the pocket of his jeans.
"But friends do make it better," Kip said, his eyes alight with mischief. "I'll call Adrian now, okay?" He laughed at the disappointed look on Charlie's face. "What did you think I was doing down there, Charlie?"
Charlie blew out an exasperated breath. "Oh, nothing. Nothing that matters now, anyway."
Kippy just grinned, and made his call.
* * * * * * *
"It's a rock," Ricky said, sounding disappointed. He was staring at the screen of Charlie's laptop. "A big one, but just a rock."
Adrian, next to him, shook his head. "How can you say that? It looks like somebody made it. I think it's important."
Ricky jerked his head back and stared a moment at his boyfriend, and then squinted at the laptop one more time. "I see a rock." But then he smiled. "An utterly cool rock, though." He turned his smile to Charlie. "Are we going?"
"I want to. But Murcha has Lollipop out on a long contract run, and they can't be here for a week."
"What about Pacha and Mike?" Adrian asked.
"And Bobby," Kippy added, smiling. "And Kontus."
Adrian also smiled. "And Bobby, and Kontus. Are they busy?"
Charlie sighed. "They're on another treasure hunt to the Magellanic Cloud. I talked to Mike, and he said something about the Catacombs of Cadarius. But he said they'd only just arrived there. They couldn't be back here much before Murcha, even if they left right away. And he didn't sound like he wanted to leave right away."
Kippy made a small noise with his lips. "I don't blame him. They're not there just to answer our call every time we have a whim to visit a huge alien space rock-thingy."
"See," Ricky complained, "even Kip says it's a rock."
"I do not. I was being clever."
Ricky grunted. "Well, it didn't work."
Charlie raised a hand. "Now, now, children. Behave."
Kippy stuck out his tongue, but his eyes were bright with humor.
Ricky just looked annoyed. "So we have to wait a week, at least."
Charlie smiled. "Maybe not. I also talked to Ragal on Engris, and he said to give him a little time, and he'd call us back."
Ricky looked unconvinced. "What can he do?"
"Well...he said something about renting a ship."
Kippy suddenly swung on Charlie. "You didn't tell me that!"
"I wasn't going to until I heard back from Ragal. No use getting everyone's hopes up."
Adrian smiled. "You think Ragal is up to renting a ship? He's a little behind the times."
Charlie laughed. "I think Ragal could talk the socks off a marching soldier without causing him to miss a single step."
"He's very convincing, in his own sweet way," Kippy agreed. He looked happy. "I guess that would mean we'd get to see Casper again?"
Adrian immediately chuckled. "You're not prying those two apart. Ragal thinks he's a daddy now."
Charlie didn't totally agree with that. Ragal was protective of the newest addition to their group, but it was the attitude of someone deeply concerned for the welfare of a friend, and not parental in any way. Ragal had empathy in spades, and it was a characteristic of his species, one that had placed them in the roles of ambassadors and peacekeepers back in the days of the early empires.
"He said they were tired of knocking around the big villa we rented for them. Casper has already explored just about the whole of Engris, and Ragal said they need something new to do."
Kippy gave a little sigh. "I'd love to see them both again. I hope Ragal can come up with something." He frowned then. "Engris isn't exactly the kind of place you can rent a ship, though. Most people that just visit there have to leave again, and a lot of people that live there don't own ships because they never want to leave."
Ricky laughed. "If there's something there that flies, I'll bet Ragal gets it for us."
Charlie was of a similar mind. The alien born from Kippy's ancient ring was extremely resourceful, and in ways that Charlie still had yet to completely understand. That Ragal was concerned for the welfare of all those that entered his sphere of activity might suggest he would be a poor bargainer; and yet, he had shown them time and again that he was imbued with a gentle forcefulness that was really very hard to step around. Charlie liked and respected the tall, spindly man, finding him an amazing and positive addition to the rather wonderful crowd of people they had somehow managed to draw into their orbit.
Casper was still something of an enigma, a member of an as yet uncontacted alien species that seemed to be truly adept at hiding their presence from the large galactic powers that dominated this portion of the spiral arm. The few other members of Casper's race they had met had left a bad taste in their mouths, exhibiting an almost tribal fanatic fear and hatred of other species in their evinced goal of maintaining racial 'purity'. Their war against the new power users birthing among their people had more concrete roots: the ruling party feared that the new breed of young people arising with mysterious powers at their command would one day unseat them from the throne of power. They had moved to contain and euthanize those power users that were unmasked, and their fear had led them to chase Casper across light years of space to hide on the ancient, shielded battle world of Erenar, where Charlie and his friends had later found him. Their meeting with the party of Casper's people who were hunting him down had not gone well for the aliens.
And now Casper was with them, staying with Ragal at the villa they had rented on Engris. Murcha and Onglet, the two liberated Moth artificial intellects that ran the appropriated Moth scout ship now in the service of Charlie and his friends, made a fair living using the ship as a fast courier and transport, and the profits of that enterprise had been quickly building in a secure account at one of the banks on Engris. They now had at their disposal some millions of galactic credits, for which they had no use whatsoever while living on Earth. Renting the villa was a small expense, and it gave them a place to stay when they visited Engris, in addition to providing a home for Ragal and Casper.
Keerby, their new elf friend, had told them that Casper would one day be a key factor in saving the peoples of the galaxy from some awful fate, but that it would be a group effort that would win the day. That some mysterious power was at work bringing together all the correct talents and people needed for victory against this as yet unknown menace sometimes haunted Charlie's thoughts. The idea was on a scale he really couldn't comprehend, a chess game perhaps played across the breadth of the galaxy and millennia of time by forces or intellects as yet unknown. Charlie had meant to talk to Nicholaas about it, feeling that if anyone could get a line on such a game, it would be him. But the time had not been right yet for such a conversation, and the concept of greater forces at work still sometimes made Charlie nervous.
Kippy bumped against him, a look of concern on his face. "What are you worrying about?"
Charlie shook off the ghosts of doubt in his mind, and smiled. "Nothing in particular. I am always being reminded of the amazing group of people and powers we've come to know in just a few years time. Elves, aliens, super-science and scientific magic - we've developed quite a force here, if we ever need it."
Kippy frowned. "I don't really like that word. If it's a force we really have, it's a force for good."
"Of course. That's exactly what I meant. I'm just...sometimes it makes me wonder how we always manage to come up with the right solution to whatever dilemma we're facing."
"Oh. I know what you mean." His boyfriend smiled. "Like someone, somewhere, is watching our backs."
Charlie laughed. "Maybe. But I've also considered that our group is being put together somehow, with an end purpose in mind."
Kippy was quiet a moment, and then nodded. "I've felt that, too. And at a skwish level, where it's pretty hard to ignore."
Charlie was astounded. "You've never said anything about it."
"No." Kip sighed. "It's too hard to put into words. It's a feeling, Charlie, way down deep. How do you describe something you can only sense, and even then just barely?" He nodded. "I have always felt though, that if it's true that something is working with us here, that it's for a good purpose."
Charlie sighed at that. "That's good to know. I feel the same way, but I don't know why."
"Skwish. We're all supposed to have it, on some level. Maybe yours is telling you things, and you just don't realize it."
"Maybe." Charlie didn't feel like he had developed any mysterious powers lately, but you never knew how these things might present themselves, either. Sometimes, you didn't even know you had a zit on your face until you walked past a mirror.
A soft tone presented itself from the communicator on the nightstand, and Charlie immediately reached for it.
"That was fast," Kippy said, grinning.
"He's in no-time, remember," Charlie returned, lifting the communicator and activating it. Ragal's face sprang into being above the device, and the man looked quickly about the room. "The gang's all here, I see."
Charlie laughed. "No keeping these guys away."
The alien nodded. "I've rented a ship. We're inbound now."
Charlie blinked at that. "You're here already?"
"Just about. I needed to contact you and ask you where you wanted us to land."
Charlie grinned at the 'us'. "So Casper wanted to come, too?"
Ragal laughed, a pleasant sound. "Are you kidding? It would have been dangerous to my health to try to leave him behind."
Kippy sighed through a smile. "I'm glad he decided to come along."
Charlie felt the same way. Casper had been invited, of course, but they had not been sure he would want to come. Charlie felt certain that the small alien would not want to stay behind while Ragal went off on an adventure - but you never knew. The ability to assume was one of the banes of the human race.
But then he frowned, other thoughts coming to mind. "The ship you rented has a scat field, right? So it can't be detected? Can't you just land it in my backyard like Murcha does with Lollipop?"
"No, Charlie. Um...this ship is a little bigger than Lollipop."
Charlie's thoughts raced a moment, and then the obvious solution presented itself. "How about Myer's Hill? Where Pacha landed his ship to pick you up after Halloween?"
"I was going to mention that place, as I remember where it is.That would be fine. How long will it take you to get there?"
Charlie shrugged. "Fifteen minutes."
"That's perfect. We'll be there about then."
"Well...okay, then. See you soon."
Ragal's image smiled around at the boys, and then vanished. Charlie took the communicator and put it in the drawer of his nightstand for the time being. He could return it to where he normally stored it later.
Ricky stood and grabbed up his coat. "We go pretty close to my house on the way. I'll run ahead and get my dagger."
"Wait," Charlie said then, getting to his feet and going to his desk. After their last adventure, he had retained the four tiny blobs that were the translators provided by Mike. Kifta technology, they fit into the ear and became virtually invisible, and each offered the wearer an on-the-fly translation of all the galactic languages stored in its tiny organic nano library. Charlie grabbed them up and distributed them, and then tucked his own translator into his right ear.
"Okay, gotta run," Ricky said,turning to go after installing his own translator.
Adrian smiled. "You're not running anywhere without me." He jumped up and grabbed his coat, too. "We'll meet you guys at the corner before the road hits the woods, okay?"
Ricky grinned, leaned over and planted a noisy smooch on his boyfriend's cheek, and then headed for the door. Adrian sighed, tossed Charlie and Kip a last grin, and followed.
Kippy gave a little groan of delight after they were gone. "Those two. They're so in love."
Charlie laughed, and leaned over and gave Kippy a noisy smooch on his cheek. "And we're not?"
Kippy huffed. "Of course we are. That's beside the point."
But Charlie could see the warm smile in Kippy's eyes, and it stayed there as they got their coats and headed out the front door.
It was a cold day, gray and a little frosty. But it was also quiet, with a sort of peace that only winter can bring to the land. The boys hastened out to the sidewalk and turned right, and headed down the block. There was no sign of Rick and Adrian, indicating that the boys had indeed been running when they'd left. Charlie and Kip maintained a decent pace, and soon neared the corner where Rick and Adrian had said they'd meet them. They could see the other two boys then, walking along the side street, nearing the corner, too.
Rick and Adrian got there first, and stood waiting. There was no sign of the alien vibratory dagger that Rick had purchased at the pirate market on Engris, so he must have it belted on beneath his jacket. That was the sensible place, really, because you just didn't walk the streets with a foot-long dagger in hand these days.
Ricky grinned at them as they met. "We ran our asses off."
Adrian smiled, peered behind his boyfriend, and then patted Ricky's butt. "I got news for you, Rick. It's just as cute as always."
Ricky's face reddened slightly, and Kippy laughed. "I've been telling him for years how nice a butt it is."
Charlie smiled, and gestured down the street. "We can compare butts later. I don't want to keep Ragal waiting, with them parked in some alien starship on Myer's Hill."
"It will be invisible," Kippy reminded, but took Charlie by the sleeve and pulled him into motion. The four boys headed off, and soon reached the path into the woods surrounding their destination.
At this time of year the path was clear of wandering underbrush, and the ground hard as a rock, and they ascended quickly and without any problems. When they emerged into the field atop the hill it was to find the browned stubble of hibernating grasses empty.
Kippy raised his hands above his head and waved them back and forth. "If they were here, they'd certainly see us, right?"
Charlie shrugged. "We might have gotten here before them. I'm sure --"
He broke off, feeling a sudden familiar sensation of displaced air nearby.
There was a small pop, and someone appeared beside them.
Kippy immediately released a happy squeak. "Keerby!"
The elf smiled, and allowed himself to be wrapped in a hug. Keerby was a teen elf just like Frit and Pip, a few inches shorter than Charlie and the others. Keerby had typically cute elf features, with dark hair, long eyelashes framing cheerful green eyes, rosy cheeks, and a smile that would melt butter. Everybody took a turn offering a hug, and then the elf stepped back, a large grin on his face. "Heck, that was worth the trip, all by itself!"
"Remember, you have a girlfriend back home," Charlie kidded, grinning.
Keerby blushed, but the smile didn't fade one bit. "Aw. You know what I mean."
Kippy stepped back to appraise the new arrival. "What happened to your suit? The one you bought on Engris, that you can change the color of to suit your mood?"
Keerby laughed, and then waved a hand over the brown shirt and slacks he wore now. "That was fun for a whole day. Maybe two. But it gets a little tiring, changing colors all the time." He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "And I thought that when I set the dang thing it would stay on that color. But I found out that when I wasn't paying attention, it was changing color on its own. You know - with what I was feeling?" He looked embarrassed. "Sometimes it was...um, telling on me."
The boys laughed, each able to imagine the trouble that might come with displaying your emotional state literally right on your sleeve. It reminded Charlie of the globes they had purchased at the pirate market on Engris, which changed color to display the holder's emotional state. Hard to hide what you were feeling when it was up there in lights!
"So," Charlie continued, patting the elf on his shoulder. "I presume you're here because you want to go along with us?"
"You're gonna need me," Keerby returned, nodding. "Frit and Pip wanted to come, too, but they're in the middle of mid-term exams. They weren't happy about that, but you know how school is."
"Do we ever," Ricky said, under his breath.
Adrian smiled at his boyfriend, and emitted an amused chuckle. "This is our last year. And it's certainly been fun so far. I'm going to miss it, actually."
Ricky winced, but returned a reluctant nodded. "It's not so bad, I guess."
Charlie looked at Keerby curiously. "You know where we're going?"
"Well...just that you're going out there." The elf waved a hand at the sky. "I just felt like you might need me to give you the time to do what you need to get done."
Charlie smiled. According to Frit and Pip, Keerby was a prodigy, already gifted in manipulating time, even though he barely had much of it under his own belt to speak of. Charlie knew about people that were naturals, and that the talents that went with that description showed no concern for age.
He nodded. "Glad to have you along." He let his gaze track upwards into the sky. "I just hope our ride gets here soon."
Keerby also looked at the sky, and then smiled. "Here they come now."
Charlie stared upwards, as did everyone, but could see nothing but gray sky. He opened his mouth to ask Keerby where...and then felt a strange sensation inside his body, as if his very tissues were vibrating to some as yet unknown force.
"Whoa," Ricky breathed. "Feel that?"
Charlie nodded, but before he could answer, a vessel appeared in the sky above them. It was close to the ground, no more than a hundred feet, and descending rapidly. At first Charlie was surprised by the size of the craft - it was easily twice the diameter of Lollipop - and then he was stunned at its shape. The craft was a flat ovoid, with four oddly bent projections that stuck out along each side of the craft, resembling the thin jointed legs of some tremendous insect. The ship was black, and the belly was covered in ridges that looked like the furrowed, jointed exoskeleton of a lobster tail.
"Ew," Kippy said softly, pushing himself up against Charlie. "Is that thing ugly, or what?"
"Or what," Charlie agreed, under his breath. They had seen a lot of different ship designs on their adventures into space, but this one was startlingly alien in appearance, suggesting a designer with a uniquely non-human perspective on aesthetics.
Adrian let out a soft whistle. "Wonder what sort of huge rock that thing crawled out from under?"
It did look like a beetle, Charlie thought, though no beetle found there on Earth. There was an aggressive stance to the craft that suggested a predator, and a mean one at that. But...looks could be deceiving, and they had already learned that appearances were only skin deep. For all they knew, this was someone's idea of grace and beauty, not to be tossed off lightly just because it didn't appeal to them.
"It is a little on the sinister side," Keerby agreed. "But that doesn't mean it won't do the job."
"Let's reserve judgment for now," Charlie advised. "It's a ship, and we need one."
The others nodded, but displayed varying levels of conviction. But that none of them would say or do the wrong thing, Charlie felt certain. Well...hopefully!
The craft hummed in tune with the vibrations they could feel within themselves, that sensation only finally moderating as the ship touched down on the field and went silent. Rick looked around nervously, his eyes touching upon the several paths that led to other parts of the neighborhood. "I hope no one is up here hanging out, or anything."
Charlie shook his head. "If the way this ship became visible to us is any indicator, the scat field doesn't extend very far beyond the hull. We can see the ship now because we're inside the scat field with it. But anyone farther away won't see it at all."
"So you say," Ricky returned, sounding unconvinced. But he waved a hand at the ship, as if to urge them forward. "That looks like a way in there, on the side."
A dark oval just above ground level did seem to be a doorway or lock of some kind, and they moved towards it as a group. Unlike Lollipop, which stood upon landing legs extruded from the hull when it was aground, this new vessel had landed directly on its belly. And yet, it had made no impression on the hard earth at all, suggesting that its touch was light, the mass of the vessel kept from pressing itself into the ground by a suspension of gravity by some method. All the alien empires manipulated gravity like humans did electricity, and the boys were used to this now.
They were a dozen feet away, the bulk of the strange vessel now towering above them, when the oval slid to one side, revealing someone within. It was a small creature, wearing a green one-piece suit and green boots, and two-legged, brown of skin, with two short arms, and a cone-shaped head that held two large eyes above a small, thin mouth now drawn wide in a smile.
"Casper!" Kippy ejected happily, running forward, his arms outstretched. The little alien raised his own arms, and Kippy leaned into the lock and swept him up into a hug. "It's so good to see you again!"
"Me, too!" Casper said, in his tiny voice. His big eyes smiled across Kippy's shoulder at the others, and Charlie grinned and stepped up to take his turn with a hug. Soon, greetings happily traded all around, Casper was set on the ground, where he smiled up at them. "I'm so glad to see you all again!"
"We're glad you came along," Charlie said. "We weren't sure you'd want to leave Engris."
"I love that place!" Casper returned. "But I've been everywhere I could get into legally. It was time for a vacation."
They all laughed at that. Even Engris, with all its intriguing ancient mysteries, could apparently get old.
"How goes the language lessons?" Kippy asked, patting Casper's shoulder fondly. Ragal had managed fairly quickly to get ninety-five percent of Casper's native tongue translated and installed into the library of their earpiece translators, and he and Casper had been hard at work on the rest while staying at the villa on Engris.
"We're pretty good now," Casper said, smiling. "Ragal said we're ninety-nine point nine percent there. My translator just updated yours, so you should have it all now."
Charlie briefly touched the nearly invisible insert in his right ear with a fingertip, marveling at the efficiency of the Kifta technology. "That's great. Good work!"
"Nice ship," Ricky said then, drily, waving a hand at the dark hull. "Where did you get it?"
Casper's big eyes widened. "You like it?" He leaned forward, and lowered his voice. "I think it's butt-ugly." He turned and looked up at the towering hull, and then gave a little shrug to his narrow shoulders. "But it got us here okay, so who can complain?" He turned and pulled himself up into the open hatch, and gestured for them to follow. "Come on inside. Ragal is in the control center."
Keerby touched Charlie's shoulder then. "I can fix time for you once we get inside, if you want. No use being away from home any longer than you need to."
Charlie had considered this expedition to be a day trip, and so had not considered how long they might be away from home. He'd figured six or eight hours, tops, for them to run out and look over Oumuamua, and that they'd be home in time for dinner. But...things did happen. Maybe having Keerby show up was more than just a happy coincidence, and having him adjust their time flow so that they would not be away from home for long had definite benefits.
"Sure. I think that's a good idea. Thanks."
The elf grinned. "Well, it's one reason I came. I had a feeling you'd need more time than you thought."
Charlie laughed. "And what was the other reason?"
"A chance to go out there again." Keerby pointed a finger at the sky. "I mean, I can teleport myself to the places I've been before, but...new places are fun, too." There was a certain wanderlust in Keerby's eyes as he gazed skyward, one that Charlie understood only all too well. The lure of the unknown, the urge to explore, to find and see new people, places, and things. He knew that feeling himself.
He smiled, and patted Keerby's shoulder. "Works for me. Let's go."
It was a good step up to enter the lock, and Charlie took it carefully, not totally sure the interior gravity would be the same as outside. You just never knew quite what to expect with these alien starships. But the gravity within proved close enough not to notice the difference, and soon they were all inside the lock with Casper. The door whispered closed, and they felt the faintest of sensation then, as if the ship might be rising again into the sky. But it was soon apparent they were in an elevator, when in a moment the back side of the lock opened, and they turned to find themselves before a large room.
Ragal was standing there, next to a large potted plant of some kind set against the wall; a tree, actually, and an ugly thing at that, as tall as the alien was himself. It rose upwards from a black cylindrical pot standing on the deck, a gnarled gray trunk spreading crooked gray branches midway up, each branch hung with one large, ugly brown fruit at the end. Charlie counted five of the wrinkled things, and couldn't help staring a moment before Ragal stepped towards him, his arms extended.
"Charlie! So good to see you again!" And then Charlie found himself enveloped in a quick hug, which was soon transferred to Kippy, and then Adrian, and then Ricky, and then Keerby. Charlie grinned, amazed all over again that the tall, spindly alien could seem to bend in places where he had no joints. Despite being a biped with the same number and general location of joints that a human possessed, it was almost as if the alien's bones had the ability to flex, too, giving the hug Charlie received an almost octopus-like quality to its grip. He could sense Ragal's great strength in that hug, another fact that would seem to run counter to his almost skinny appearance. Ragal's ancestry was reptilian, not mammalian, and his genial appearance made it easy to forget he was the product of an alien and exotic biology.
Kippy had gotten a perhaps slightly extra-special hug, his bond with Ragal and the ancient ring that had given him his rebirth making the two close. Charlie's boyfriend now stood next to Ragal, looking carefully about the large room, and finding them alone.
"So," he said in a whisper, "what's with the gruesome tree?"
Charlie heard Keerby take a sharp breath, and Ragal's eyes widened, just as his hand rose to cover the smile that spread across his features. At the same moment, one of the branches on the tree shuddered, and suddenly jerked one of the large ugly fruits upwards, to stop directly in front of Kippy's startled face. A pair of yellow cat's eyes opened, and a jagged mouth grimaced, showing a fair number of pointy white teeth inside.
"You ain't exactly no prize yourself, sweetheart."
Kippy squeaked in shock and jerked back, right into Ragal's ready hands, which grasped him and stabilized his plunge away from the tree.
"Don't be alarmed," Ragal said, still trying not to laugh at the look on Kippy's face. "These are the Rootar. They're the, um, the crew of the ship."
The other branches moved now, lofting the other fruits at their ends, and more eyes opened, and more mouths spoke.
"Didja hear this bum?" said one. "He said we was less than appealing."
Another wrinkled orb turned to look at the neighbor that had spoken, and emitted a slightly sinister chuckle. "You ain't much to look at. I don't blame him for sayin'!"
"I'm your brother!" the first one said, sounding annoyed. "We look the same!"
"Only by an accident of genetics!"
"Stop arguing, ya clunks!" said a third fruit, now clearly a head like the others. In fact, now that Charlie had a really good look at them, he was reminded of the tiny shrunken heads he had seen in old horror movies involving voodoo and the curse of the undead. Except each of these heads was as large as a human head!
"Shaddap!" a fourth head said loudly, and turned towards Charlie and the others. "Don't mind my boys, gents. They don't get out much, and their manners leave a little to be desired." The branch dipped once, in an almost nodding fashion. "I'm Captain Neema, and you're aboard the Ishkatar, out of Aroostook City, a port out beyond the Horsehead. You fellas make yourselves comfortable, you hear? Relax, look around - ya got the run of the ship. Er...just don't touch none of the baubles, okay? And don't try to open any locked doors, see? We don't want no accidents around here. Ya break somethin', ya bought it!"
The alien's voices were plainly issuing forth in some harsh tongue that was beyond comprehension, and what they were hearing were the translations in their Kifta earpieces. But those translations sounded so...so common. Charlie turned to look at Ragal, almost in shock. "Why do they sound like that?" he whispered, even then knowing that the heads could hear him. "They sound like gangsters out of some old movie."
The heads all broke into laughter, and Charlie felt his face grow warm. "I didn't mean to hurt anyone's feelings," he said immediately.
Ragal was all smiles. "They're not easily offended, Charlie, believe me. And I think they're just having some fun with you." A patient look came onto his features. "Kifta translators are actually extremely good at determining nuances of cultural identity in the original tongue, and relating them to similar identities in the tongue of the listener."
"Listen to that!" hooted one of the heads. "Fancy, schmancy!"
Again, all the heads on the tree laughed, and Captain Neema offered up an almost frightening smile. "We're just funnin' with you gents. We don't usually hire out just to carry passengers, but your boy Ragal here was so persuasive that we caved. Now we're ready to be off on the hunt." The Captain's head moved closer to Charlie, his expression somehow eager. "So what's this thing we're chasin'? Any loot to be had, d'ya think?"
Casper, who had been standing quietly nearby, watching the proceedings with a big smile on his face, suddenly tittered. "Here we go!"
"What?" Captain Neema bobbed back, looking far from embarrassed. "Hey, it's an honest question, ain't it? I just wanna know if there's any swag to be had. We ain't makin' a huge profit on this run, I can tell ya!" The captain's eyes fixed accusingly on Ragal. "Your man here is a sharp negotiator. And me'n the boys gotta eat!"
Charlie shook his head slowly, still trying to grasp this sudden turn in the events. They knew Ragal had gotten them a ship...but not that the crew would be along for the ride. And, especially, not this crew!
Ragal apparently saw the doubt in Charlie's eyes, and leaned a little closer. "I did rent this vessel on Engris, remember?" He smiled. "And Engris does seem to draw visitors from all across the, um, moral spectrum."
Charlie digested that, and then nodded. "So these guys sound like thugs, because they're --?"
"Smugglers," said one of the heads, somehow managing to convey pride. "Lowlifes."
"Crooks," agreed another head, sounding equally self-satisfied.
"Traders in antiquities, mostly," interjected yet another head hastily, while frowning at his crewmate. "You're a bore, Diek."
"Don't get hoity toity with me, Qurank!" countered Diek. "I'm bein' honest here. The lad asked what we were, and I told him. Gunrunners, schmeep traffickers, dealers in gems and trinkets of shady origin, and sellers o' things found in places that some people don't want others lookin'. All brought to Engris to be sold." He sighed happily. "It's a good life."
"But we're decent smugglers," pointed out Qurank, quickly. "We don't steal the stuff, we just buy it cheap and move it fast. And we don't hurt people, you know? Engris wouldn't let us trade there if we were real louses."
Ricky started laughing then. Adrian stared at his boyfriend a moment, and then smiled at Charlie. "We're in trouble now!"
"I like these guys! " Ricky said in explanation, holding up his hands, as if to say the answer was obvious. "They're pirates!"
"Well, duh," said Diek, with a horrifying smile. "Took ya long enough!"
The heads on the tree all snickered, and Captain Neema thrust himself forward again, aiming this time at Ricky. "Smile when you say that!" But even his strangely creepy face managed to convey his sense of humor, and Charlie could only laugh in response.
Adrian turned to Kippy. "What's your skwish say about these guys?"
Charlie's boyfriend was smiling now, himself. "Well...that they're okay, I guess. Amazingly."
"That's what I get, too." Adrian turned to his boyfriend. "And we already know that Rick likes them. And that Ragal hired them. Even Casper seems to like them." He turned again to look questioningly at the little alien.
"I do!" Casper acknowledged.
"Those are pretty good endorsements!" Adrian pointed out.
Kip shrugged, sighed, and smiled at Charlie. "I'm good. What do you think?"
Charlie looked around at all the eyes on him, and saw that even the Rootar looked like they were waiting for his word. Charlie looked up at Ragal a last time, noted the man's smile, and then smiled himself.