"Hmm. That looks like the one." Captain Neema highlighted a dot on the display, and all eyes turned to examine it. "Shouldn't take long to get there at all."
"You sure this guy is manipulating time?" Qurank asked Charlie, casting a doubtful look at Keerby. "If we're off galactic time, why don't my instruments detect the shift?"
"The interfaces of our time frame with the exterior time frame include all the proper translation protocols," Keerby explained patiently. "So there is no detectable shift in the electromagnetic spectrum as it crosses from one time frame to the other. It's a what you see is what you get environment."
"Get him!" Beel hooted, shaking from side to side on his branch. "Power users give me the willies!"
"Sorry," Keerby returned, smiling. "But you asked."
"It don't matter!" Captain Neema grated, casting warning looks at his crew. "The less time we spend doing this, the higher our profit in the end. So shut your yaps and pay attention to your instruments, ya hear?"
"Sure thing, skipper," Beel replied, chuckling. "Just expressin' my opinion."
"Yes, father," Qurank said acidly.
All the heads on the tree except the captain's laughed harshly.
The captain emitted an all too human sigh, and turned to Charlie. "Ya see what I have to put up with? Is this any way to make a livin'? I ask ya."
They were in the actual pilot center of the Ishkatar now, which consisted of a circular room with a circular console in the center of it, and a continuous display that ran all the way around the outer wall of the room, showing off the space around the ship. There was a break in one arc of the circular center console, through which the Rootar could enter. This was accomplished by floating. The black cylinder that the boys had first mistaken for a pot proved to be a locomotive device, obviously harnessing gravity as its motivational force, which conveyed the tree that was the central body of the Rootar wherever they wanted to go.
Diek had told them the 'tree' had once had viney legs at the bottom, its natural form of movement, but that they had been lost in 'an altercation on the Plombanomba Sufrinym firk-station orbiting Ructival', wherever - and whatever - that happened to be. In the hours that Charlie and his friends had been aboard Ishkatar, they had learned more than a little about their hosts. The Rootar conglomerate that owned the ship was, quite literally, a family tree, with Captain Neema as head of the family and major shareholder at fifty percent; and his four sons, Diek, Qurank, Stropa, and Beel, equal shareholders in their fifty percent of the operation, and acting crew. With the tree positioned in the center of the circular console, each head had access to the controls that were a part of his duty. There seemed to be no controlling artificial intelligence there, and the level of technology seemed down a notch or two from what Charlie was used to on Kifta and Moth vessels. But the bare truth seemed to be that Ishkatar was just as capable of getting around the galaxy as any of its peers.
As the ship got ready to get underway, everyone had loosened up, and the conversation had become interesting. They traded information about each other, and Charlie filled in the Rootar on what they were looking for. Captain Neema had frowned at that, and made his head to bob side to side. "A rock? Are you serious?"
"Well, we don't know exactly what it is," Charlie had countered. "That's the whole point of this trip."
Charlie had brought along the orbital data for Oumuamua, which he had picked up online, and it only took a short time for Qurank to translate that into data that the ship could use to perform the search. But while that search was in progress they continued to talk, and Charlie was soon coming to see why Ragal had picked the Rootar for this voyage. They were a rowdy lot, rough around the edges, but that they seemed intent on providing good service for their fee seemed clear. And, they had come from Engris, which was the best judge of character in the galaxy today. If that artificial world had let them land and do business, then surely they could be trusted.
Well, trusted as far as one could trust Rootar pirates, anyway!
Charlie mentioned this idea to Ragal, who gave a quiet laugh. "Actually, theirs was the only ship available. But I have come to like them."
At one point in the conversation Kippy asked, in all innocence, if there were ever girl Rootar on the family tree, and had received a shocked group stare from their hosts.
"On the same limbs as the men?" Diek asked, sounding astounded. "There's a recipe for disaster!"
"What a nasty idea!" Qurank had followed with, shaking his head from side to side. "I've heard tell of such idiocies, mostly from among the Pintar Rebels in the Quotha Realm. But you won't find that here!"
"Indeed not!" Captain Neema bellowed. "Not on my ship! The female tree stays at home, where it belongs!. We may be pirates, but we have some common sense!"
Kippy looked at Charlie, and laughed. "That seems rather final."
"We just were curious," Charlie said to the Rootar, trying not to laugh. "We didn't mean to be offensive."
"It's not offensive," Beel returned, "it's just outlandish. No sane Root would travel about as we do, doing the things we do, carrying the family seeds along with him. Why, one bad encounter with a vessel of superior firepower, or a hostile planetary defense battery, and the whole genetic line could be lost!"
Charlie blinked at that. "Oh. So...so it's not just that you don't want the females along?"
"Are you kidding?" Stropa asked, clearly amazed. "Something might happen to them!"
Kippy's eyes held some mischief as he pursued the topic. "So...what? They like, sit back at home, and knit or something?"
The whole tree laughed.
"They're in charge!" Diek said then.
"The bosses!" Stropa added, right on his heels.
"They do the planning, we do the running." Qurank explained, more patiently.
"It's a partnership," Captain Neema offered, though sounding a little pained at the idea. "Let's talk about something else, okay?"
Ragal pointed at the highlighted dot in the display, and turned to Captain Neema. "You were saying that that was our objective?"
The captain seemed relieved to return to the business at hand. "Looks to be, I'd say."
Kippy frowned at the map of the solar system that appeared in one part of the display, and shook his head. "I thought this thing had passed by two years ago, and that is was traveling fast, as in miles per second." He waved a hand at the display. "That dot is still right here in the neighborhood."
Charlie smiled at that, and peered at the display. The tiny dot was exiting the solar system, moving away above the plane of the ecliptic, but was just as yet reaching a point above the orbit of Uranus. "It's a big neighborhood," he told his boyfriend.
"That it is," Captain Neema agreed. He swiveled his head and looked at Qurank. "This here object is on the course the lad provided, right?"
"Yeah, Cap'n. Right ascension 23 hours, fifty-three minutes; declination plus twenty-one degrees, twenty-nine minutes, fifty seconds. Heading into Pegasus. That's in the local lingo, and from the third planet perspective. That be our target, alright."
"How long to get there?" Charlie asked. They had left Earth and were currently moving through space out beyond the moon. The vista on the circular display was simply gorgeous to behold.
Captain Neema gave a coarse laugh. "Well --"
He waved his head at some controls on his console, and the circular visual displays about the room all briefly blinked to black, and then filled once again with stars. Ahead of them a small speck appeared, and was growing even as they watched.
"How does now strike ya?" the captain asked. "Easiest money we ever made!"
But Charlie's eyes were fastened on the display. Ahead of the Ishkatar, the object that had become known on Earth as Oumuamua grew larger. Even at this distance, and in the lesser light from the distant sun, the reddish tinge of the object was distinct. Even before it became fully clear in the display, Charlie could tell by the way the light struck his eye that the object was tumbling, very slowly indeed, end over end as it moved through space.
Kippy suddenly moved to stand beside Charlie, and took hold of his arm. "Oh, Charlie. I'm feeling...I'm feeling something strange."
"Whoa," Adrian breathed, moving closer to the display. "What the hell?"
Casper had also closed with the display, coming to stand next to Adrian, his eyes intent on the object therein. "That thing...it's...I'm sensing something very unusual here."
But it was Keerby who made the announcement, as he came to stand by Charlie's other side. "It's alive."
Charlie was shocked, and immediately turned to the elf. "You're sure?'
"Oh, yes. That is a living thing." Keerby shook his head. "Not alive like we are, but alive, nonetheless."
"It's old," Adrian said, shaking his head.
"Very old," Kippy agreed, squeezing Charlie's arm again. "So old it's scary to feel it."
"Alive," Charlie repeated, still unable to grasp the idea. "How is that possible?"
"Oh, there be all sorts of things that live in the vacuum of space," Captain Neema put in then. "The Norila of the Habadasa system; the Mitrious at Kuplamoret; the Ambura-Klatha, in the Guern'tha system. Just to name a few."
"But they all live in-system," Qurank pointed out. "Around the methane giants, mostly. They ain't soloing about the universe like this one seems to be doing."
"No." The captain's yellow eyes watched the enlarging object in the display, and his head bobbed uncertainly on its branch. "None are the size of this one, either."
"Could be a real rarity then," Beel put in. "Might be valuable, what'dya think?"
Charlie felt his hackles rise at that. "If it's alive, it deserves to be left alone." He looked pointedly at the head on its limb.
All the heads laughed raucously.
"Relax," Captain Neema said. "He means the knowledge of this here critter, not the thing itself. It's a capital crime to steal animals from their home environment, in case you didn't know."
"And we're nice pirates, remember," put in Qurank, a note of humor in his voice.
"What if it's not an animal?" Kippy said then, his eyes still on Oumuamua.
"Then to mess with it would be assault and kidnapping, and that's almost as bad." Captain Neema turned to Strop, on the branch next to his. "Make a detailed recording of the sensory data on this thing, lad. We may be able to sell the log later."
Charlie turned to watch Kippy, who seemed enthralled by the view on the screen. "Do you think it might not be just an animal?"
"Me, too," Adrian said, extending an arm towards Ricky, without taking his eyes off the display. Rick came to stand beside him, and put one arm around his boyfriend.
"Me, three," Keerby said, closing his eyes. "The thing is...it's dreaming."
"It's asleep," Casper agreed. "Wow."
Ragal was also watching the screen. "This may be a very exciting discovery. We have to learn more about it."
Charlie closed his eyes a moment, trying to sense anything unusual, anything different inside himself, that might indicate he was also getting some sort of impressions from the distant object. But nothing came to him, no sense of alien life, old age, or anything else. He opened his eyes. "I don't feel anything at all. I guess my skwish is on vacation today."
Ricky smiled at him. "Don't feel bad about it, Charlie. It still seems like a rock to me, too."
They were close now - close enough to see more detail. Charlie was amazed at how closely the object resembled the artist's conception he had seen online. The sculpted look was there, alright; except now, rather than looking like a made thing, it resembled the bilateral symmetry one might find in the products from nature's own kitchen of life. He was put in mind of whales back home, except that this thing didn't really resemble a whale in any way. There was no fluked tail, no eyes, no mouth. The thing was tapered similarly at both ends, and slightly narrower in the middle, yet still immense as they neared it. It was obviously larger than Ishkatar, and as the captain drew his vessel to a stop nearby Oumuamua, Charlie really got a sense of its size for the first time.
He looked over at Qurank, who seemed to sense his question. "A little less than eight hundred meters long, in your counting. Ninety meters, on average, in width along its length. It's got several motions in addition to its linear course through space. It's tumblin' nose over tail, very slowly - too slowly to see - with about a seven-and-a-half hour period. It also spins slowly along its longitudinal axis. And there's also a slow third rotational motion along another axis, that will eventually present all sides of the thing to us." He examined his instruments a moment, and nodded. "It's moving along at about 28.4 kilometers per second, and on an outbound line approximately twenty degrees above the plane of the planetary orbits."
Charlie smiled. "Thanks." He winked. "You can sound like a real egghead when you want to, I see."
Qurank belted out a guffaw. "Calling me names won't get you anything!" But that the Root seemed pleased at the compliment was plain.
"What's it's composition?" the captain asked.
Beel's head waggled on its limb. "Got a fairly deep layer of carbon on the surface, Skipper. Beneath that is a fairly standard asteroid mix of rock and metals...except it reads funny, like there is an energy source of some kind in the stone. And...Great Porlum's left foot! I'm detecting artificial constructs within the object. There's what looks to be natural spaces within the body that have been filled with...hmm...rooms galore. Living quarters, it looks like. And I'm seein' power generation facilities, atmosphere production and recycling...and this looks like a very large agro center, and a biomass production and reclamation area. There's even what looks like a docking facility. It's amazin'! There's a whole lotta stuff inside this thing." The head looked up at Oumuamua, floating in the display. "It reads like a space station or something."
Again Charlie was stunned, and he and Kippy stared at each other. "Is anyone aboard?" he asked of Beel, without turning.
"Don't look like it. The place is a space-equivalent vacuum inside. Power generation is barely detectable. No signs of life at all."
"Abandoned, possibly," Ragal mused. "Or perhaps never even inhabited."
"Why?" Kippy asked. "Why build all that stuff inside, and then never use it?"
Ragal nodded. "We may never know. But I suspect you're right. Abandoned would be the better guess."
"The tech level is pretty low," Beel added then, watching his instruments."Level two fusion source for power, almost inoperative now. Maybe third or fourth generation nano-circuitry intelligence modules operating the equipment. Not even close to sentient. Some pretty big stasis chambers, all first generation." He turned on his branch to look at Captain Neema. "Suggests a pre-starflight culture."
"Budget star travel?" Stropa wondered.
"Perhaps someone's long-term method of reaching the stars," Ragal mused. "The stasis chambers suggests storage of the crew for the journey between stars, with the living quarters to support them each time Oumuamua actually entered a star system."
Charlie blinked at that. "What...every fifty thousand years? Oumuamua just isn't moving fast enough for realistic star travel."
Qurank grunted. "The calculated incoming velocity I've got is within five kilometers per second of the mean galactic velocity of the stars that lie within about eighty light years of your solar system. But it doesn't match the relative velocity of any of the closest stars. That kind of means its origin isn't in the local star group." He looked up at them. "It came from a long way off."
"Might not have been a choice for them that built these inner habitats," Captain Neema suggested. "Maybe they had to leave home for some reason. What's a few hundred thousand years of stasis for a chance at life somewhere else?"
"Well, it entered our star system," Ricky pointed out. "So where are they?"
"Suppose they were colonists," Adrian offered. "And they finally reached a place they liked, and got off?"
Ragal smiled. "That's a very good bit of thinking. You may be correct."
"The state of their fusion source says a lot," Beel put in. "For it to be down to the levels it's displayin' now, it would have to have been goin' a very long time. Looks to me like, between hibernation cycles and power ups, about nine hundred thousand local years. The fuel injectors are nearly depleted."
"What about Oumuamua itself?" Charlie asked. He turned to Keerby. "You said it's asleep?"
"Uh huh. What we would call sleep, anyway. It may be something else here, though. This seems kind of layered, in a way we couldn't manage in our minds. It could even be the normal state of Oumuamua's sentience. It may not ever be fully awake and aware like we are. It could be that its interface with the universe is always on the level of a dream."
"That's the way it feels to me," Casper agreed. "Dreams have different levels of awareness. I sense that Oumuamua's awareness is highly flexible."
A faint tremor went through the ship then, and a light blinked on Diek's console. "Fluctuation in the object's gravitational field, skipper."
"A faint increase in velocity, too," Qurank added.
Stropa released a faint, whistling sound. "Looks like this thing can create inverse gravity fields, skipper. It's adding to its velocity by repelling from the field of the local star."
"Hmm." Captain Neema nodded at the display. "Same way the Norila move about among the gas giants in their system."
"You mean it propels itself using gravity?" Charlie asked, feeling yet another surge of excitement. This was so cool!
Stropa bounced in acknowledgement on his branch. "Yep. 'Cept here, it looks to just be maintaining velocity, keeping your star from robbing it of momentum."
Kippy squeezed Charlie's arm. "We need to go and see what's there." His gaze was insistent, his jaw set firmly.
Charlie watched him a moment, and then turned to Captain Neema. "Do you have a small ship aboard? Like a lifeboat, or something?"
"Uh...we do have a couple of shuttles, sure." The head's eyes looked interested. "You plan to board yon behemoth?"
Charlie looked at Kippy again, and smiled at his boyfriend's insistent nod. "I guess so." He turned to Ragal. "Don't you think it's a good idea?"
"I do." The tall alien turned to Captain Neema. "You have production facilities aboard? Can you manufacture vacuum suits for us?"
Captain Neema laughed. "Sure. That'll cost you extra, though."
"I wouldn't have it any other way. Charlie, what are your thoughts here?"
"Well --" Charlie looked around the control center. "I don't think we should all go."
Captain Neema guffawed. "We won't run off and leave ya. I promise."
Keerby patted Charlie's sleeve. "I could get us all back home, even if they did."
Qurank grumbled. "We won't leave you gents, okay?"
Charlie smiled. "I wasn't thinking of that, so much, as I was that if we get into trouble over there, someone needs to be the rescue party."
"I'd want one of my boys to go along with you, anyway," the captain said. "You gents ain't exactly impressed me as hardened spacers. Someone needs to keep you outta trouble."
Charlie felt surprise at that. "I didn't know any of you could, uh, separate from the others."
"Oh, sure," Diek said. "The tree's just for family stuff, you know? We can get around on our own if we need to do it."
"One of us should go along," Qurank agreed. "These boys don't strike me as the explorer types."
All the heads laughed, and Charlie grinned. "Oh, we've been around, a little."
Captain Neema produced another frightening grin. "Uh huh. Qurank? You wanna do the honors of babysittin'...er, accompanying our good clients on their visit to this...thing?"
"Sure, Skipper. Be my pleasure."
"You should at least take me," Keerby insisted. "I can bring you back to the ship if something happens."
The heads on the tree exchanged glances, and Diek jiggled a little on his branch. "You said that a moment ago, too. How can you get them back?
"I'm a teleporter, too."
"Power users give me the willies!" Beel said again. But this time he chuckled, as if the idea was growing on him a little.
"Well, ain't you just somethin'!" Captain Neema said, looking Keerby over anew. "Any other talents inside there that we ought to know about?"
The elf smiled. "A few. But you don't need to know about them unless we need to use them."
The heads all laughed at that, but Charlie could detect a slight trace of unease among the humor. The Rootar were definitely respectful of power users, and having Keerby about would go a long way towards keeping the pirates honest in their dealings. Yet the sense that Charlie had about their hosts was that no coercion would be needed to keep them in check. The Rootar struck him as people that honored a contract, and Charlie had come to feel that he was a pretty good judge of character for things like that.
Listen to your heart, for it is seldom wrong.
He smiled, wondering where that thought had come from, but shook it off, and nodded at Qurank. "Well, if you'll help us get outfitted, we can get going."
There was a soft whirring sound at the base of the console, and a drawer popped open there. A ring made of dark metal arose from it, quickly positioned itself beneath Qurank, and with a tiny slurping sound the head detached from the branch and settled comfortably into the ring.
"Come on, follow me."
Kippy grinned, and pulled on Charlie's arm. "Who's going?"
Charlie looked around at the expectant gazes of his friends, and could only sigh. "Qurank, is there room in your shuttle for all of us?"
"Yeah. We'll take the larger one. No problem."
Charlie looked about at his friends, and smiled. "We'll all go."
Ricky immediately poked Adrian with his elbow, and laughed. "Told ya."
"If ya run into any trouble, we'll be right here," Captain Neema said. "We've got a couple of inspection drones that we can send over if ya need a hand. They're pretty well stuffed with what it takes to get the job done."
"He means they're armed to the teeth," Stropa added, sounding happy at the idea.
Charlie nodded, and started after Qurank. "Come on then, guys. Let's go see what there is to see."
* * * * * * *
The shuttle was more than large enough for all of them, as promised. It was also able to inspect their dimensions and provide proper seating for them, something Charlie had come to expect of galactic technology. The market for virtually any product was much larger when it had the ability to adapt itself to the user.
The space suits provided for them by Captain Neema were not quite as light or comfortable as the suits they had stored away on their own vessel, Lollipop, but it was plain they would do the job just as well. The suits themselves were one-piece, and put on by simply stepping into the feet and pulling them up to allow the arms to slide into the sleeves. The closure was some sort of bond at the molecular level, and just pressing the two sides of the opening together sealed it. The helmet was a clear bowl, that also sealed itself to the collar of the suit. There were no bulky air tanks or cumbersome environmental management system, like Earthly space suits had. The whole thing conformed itself comfortably to the body of the wearer, and was scarcely more noticeable than walking about in a set of heavyweight sweats.
As they neared the surface of Oumuamua, Charlie was once again awed by the size of the thing. It now had the appearance of a great wall suspended before them, one textured like rock, but with an oddly reddish tinge to the otherwise dark gray coating that seemed to cover it everywhere. They were slowly circling Oumuamua while moving back and forth along its length, while a battery of sensors recorded everything there was to learn about the visitor.
"The red coloring's from irradiation," Qurank told them. "Cosmic rays, over millions of years of time. This thing is pretty ancient, way older than the constructions that're inside of it." The Rootar was studying his instruments from his perch before the main display as the shuttle worked its way down the length of Oumuamua. "A lot of this thing is just rock, with a fair amount of organics mixed in. But there's a lot of metal, in the bulk, too, and it's displaying some pretty odd readings. Magnetic fields out of proportion to the size of the inclusions, electrical fields that seem to link the chunks of metal together. I ain't never seen anything like this."
"It's Oumuamua," Kippy said, staring at the screen. "The living part, anyway."
Qurank turned a puzzled stare on Charlie's boyfriend. "How'd you know that?"
Kippy shrugged. "It just seems obvious to me." He looked over at Adrian. "How about you?"
"Yeah. I think you're right. What I feel is spread all around inside this thing."
Qurank turned back to his instruments. "Even though it's put together like a chunk of rock, it's awfully regular, and the organics are really uniformly distributed. If I didn't know better, I'd say this was a made thing."
"Could it have formed naturally like this?" Charlie asked.
"You're asking me?" The tone of Qurank's voice indicated the Rootar would have shrugged if he'd had shoulders. "I'm beyond my experience here, and there ain't nothin' like this in the files."
Ragal nodded at that. "I think we're a bit beyond what was known about life of this sort in my time, too. And yet, I feel certain that this is a living thing in its entirety, not just the odd fields within it."
"Never heard of living rocks, before," Qurank mumbled.
Ragal laughed. "In life like myself, and the humans here - and our friend Casper - the endoskeletons consist of a matrix of fibrous protein and an inorganic compound made mostly of calcium and phosphate. It provides a structure to which are attached the muscles that allow us movement. And yet, these skeletons have definite stone-like properties, despite being alive. Oumuamua is quite interesting in its composition, in that it combines a carbon-rich with both a metallic and a silicate composition. The uniformity of the mix seems wholly unnatural to what little I know of such things, and the electromagnetic fields at play here seem to have no reason for existence."
Ricky looked interested in that. "Could it be that this thing is alive, but still that someone made it?"
Casper spoke up in his small voice then. "If you believe the universe is the work of a creator, then we are all made things."
Kippy turned to stare at him. "Are you referring to religion?"
The little alien laughed, sounding so much like the squeak of a hamster that Charlie couldn't help smiling. "Not like you are. My people have believers in the idea that the universe was laid out with a set of rules, and then left alone to grow on its own. But the rules provided for life, and so all living things were created."
Charlie nodded. "I'm familiar with that idea." He shook his head, and turned back to gaze at the display. "I don't think it matters just now how Oumuamua came to be. None of us are the types of scientists that we'd need to get a better handle on this. Maybe someone can figure out more from Qurank's data, later."
Ragal laughed. "Always the practical one, aren't you, Charlie?"
"Well, I have to say I'm more interested in the stuff that someone built inside Oumuamua at the moment, than I am in how Oumuamua herself came into being."
Kippy gave a delighted laugh. "'Herself'?You think it's a girl, Charlie?"
Charlie gave Kip a fond poke with his elbow. "No. It's just that something this big, the closest I can get to to in my mind is a ship, like one of those monster cruise ships. 'Her' just comes naturally, I guess." He waved a hand at the display. "Somehow, I don't think gender or sex is involved here at all."
"I would tend to agree," Ragal said. "And I am also interested in what lies inside. Qurank? Have you located a way to the interior yet?"
"Yeah. There's multiple openings around this baby, all of which seem to have some sort of docking area. We're coming up on one now."
It turned out to be farther than Charlie expected, as it was a full minute before a natural looking gash opened in the side of Oumuamua and gave them a tantalizing glimpse within. But the light was insufficient to get more than an impression of what was below, and it was not until Qurank lit a powerful array of external lights and pointed them down into the gash that they could really see what was there.
Charlie gasped along with the others at what was revealed. Within the gash was a smooth white wall, one fitted with line after line of large ports, all of which were open to space. Within the ports they could see bays of some sort, with the strange shapes of mysterious constructions lining the walls.
"I think we're inverted, relative," Qurank said then. "Let me flip us over."
The scene in the display rolled lazily one-hundred and eighty degrees, the lights playing about within the ports as the shuttle turned on her back. The scenes steadied then, and what looked like cradles of some kind could now be seen on the floors of the ports. They moved down the line of open doorways, until they came to a larger port, also open, in which a smooth expanse of deck could be seen inside.
"More than big enough for us," the Rootar said. "I'll take us inside."
Keerby, standing near Charlie, turned to face him. "I'm going to return us to normal galactic time, Charlie. We should be in the here and now to enter Oumuamua."
Charlie nodded, not about to question the elf on time. "Do it."
Qurank, who had turned to watch them, let his eyes briefly go from side to side, as if watching and waiting for something spectacular to happen.
Keerby grinned. "I'm done. Take us in."
The Rootar looked skeptical, but wheeled about again and moved back and forth in front of his console. "Okay, gents. Here we go."
There was a faint flicker of light, and a tiny image of Captain Neema appeared above Qurank's console. "No sign of active defenses," he said. "Still, you be careful, son."
Qurank cast a smile back at his passengers, but his voice sounded businesslike as he responded. "Gotcha, Cap'n. Wouldn't want anything to happen to our passengers."
There was a grunt over the com. "Or their thick-headed pilot," Neema shot back. The tiny image faded out again.
Qurank chuckled, and Charlie grinned along with Kippy and the others. Rootar family ties appeared to be stronger than they had first imagined!
The shuttle entered the large port, turned slowly about its center axis, and settled to the deck with the nose pointing back out into space.
"Quite a place," Qurank said, watching his instruments. "Just finished a full-spectrum scan. It seems that nothing is actually attached to Oumuamua. Looks like they built all these interiors in place, and then shot some kind of expanding and insulating foam into the spaces around the complex. It hardened, and anchored the complex inside by simply filling the entire open space between and around it."
"What does that mean, exactly?" Adrian asked.
Ricky smiled at him, and gave him a gentle squeeze. "That whoever built this place went out of their way not to harm Oumuamua."
"That's right," Qurank agreed. "And all the other complexes in other open areas are the same."
"So they're not linked," Charlie asked. "They didn't drill or bore through the rock to connect them?"
"No." Qurank moved the light array outside their shuttle, and settled it on a large opaque tube that emerged from the white wall that held the ports, somewhere down below them, and headed out to the surface, there to curve around the lip of the gash and disappear. "I'd say that's a transportation system, that links this area to the next one. It's colored the same as the surface, and not easy to see."
Kippy nodded at that. "That kind of says that the people that built this place were aware that Oumuamua was more than just a rock in space."
That was exactly what Charlie thought. And it said a lot for whoever had once been here. Like that they were perhaps not power users, like Keerby and Casper, but certainly sensitive in some way, like Kip and Adrian. Sensitive enough to know that they had something entirely different here than just another asteroid.
But for now, other matters pressed. "Can we go out and look around?" he asked.
"Don't see why not," Qurank returned. "Nothing much seems to be runnin'. There's a few lights on at a low level, but no other systems seem to be active at this time. No wonder we couldn't detect these installations until we were right on top of Oumuamua. The activity level here is barely above none." He revolved to look at them. "Still advise that we be careful."
"You're coming, too, I take it?"
"Har! Think I'm gonna miss out on this? Let's get movin'!" A bubble of tinted light appeared about Qurank's head, and the ring holding him floated towards the lock of the shuttle. "Follow me, gents. Visitors will please mind the stairs. Don't want no bumps and bruises!"
Kippy laughed, and tugged at Charlie's arm. "Come, on. I can't wait to see this!"
Charlie grinned and allowed himself to be pulled along, feeling the glow of his boyfriend's exuberance. Kippy approached most things pretty sensibly, but moments of simple wonder seemed to capture him every time. And he never failed to transmit that feeling of wonder to Charlie.
Ragal joined up with them, Casper right behind. Keerby was talking to Rick and Adrian as those three joined the others in the large airlock.
"I'm telling you, it knows we're here," Keerby was saying, his voice now coming over the common channel that connected everyone's helmets.
Charlie turned to look at the elf. "Oumuamua? It knows we're here?"
"I can't sense that," Adrian said, shaking his head. "I'm sorry."
"I can't, either," Kippy spoke up then. "I just feel the same thing as before. That it's alive."
"I feel it knows we're here," Keerby insisted. "I feel its...interest in us." He looked surprised. "And a...a joy at our presence."
Charlie turned to Casper, only to find the small fellow already gazing up at him.
"I think Keerby's right," Casper said. "It knows we're here."
Charlie's gaze shifted to Ragal, and the tall man smiled. "I would tend to give credit to the senses of our power users, if you're asking."
Charlie laughed. "I was going to ask your opinion, yes."
"Then you have your answer."
Charlie turned to Keerby. "Do you sense any danger from Oumuamua?"
"Oh, no. None. Just that it has become aware of us, and that it's interested in us. Even happy to see us." The elf grimaced. "It's kind of weird. I still feel the sense of dreaming, but that the awareness level has changed to include us."
Charlie considered that, and then nodded. "Let me know if anything changes. I don't think I'd like it much if a bunch of strangers walked into my bedroom while I was sleeping."
"Okay. But all I sense now is interest and happiness, for the moment."
The lock closed, and began to cycle to space-normal.
"No gravity outside to speak of," Qurank reminded them then. "Your suits will keep you on the deck, but remember that there may be objects afloat out there. You don't want to walk into anything by accident."
The lock completed its cycle and the outer door opened. A short flight of stairs had emerged from the hull, and they made their way down them to the deck. There they formed a group, and silently stared about the huge room.
Just as Qurank had said, there were a few dim lights on here and there, enough to brighten the deck, at least, with enough light to walk about and not fall over anything. But the light faded with height, and the upper reaches of the hangar, three or maybe even four stories above them, were hidden in shadows. Charlie let his eyes rove, taking in the different fixtures visible along the walls, possibly for ship servicing of some kind, and the large tanks that seemed to fill the back of the hangar. He could almost envision a different ship than their own parked here, while indefinite forms scurried about it, performing tasks that even he could not imagine. They had no idea yet what the inhabitants of Oumuamua had looked like, but his imagination insisted on adding some movement to the picture, and he smiled at the wraith-like forms his mind produced.
Kippy was also examining the room. "There's such a feeling of time here," he said then, turning to look at Charlie. "Just...so much time. This place is old. But nothing like as old as Oumuamua." He shook his head. "You know what this place feels like? It feels like Engris to me. Ancient. And no one has been here for a long, long time. Whoever was here, left a very long time ago."
"It would be thousands and thousand of years between star systems," Ragal said. "If this place was really built nine hundred thousand years ago, Oumuamua could conceivably have visited upwards of a dozen solar systems in the interval."
"So we'll never know who they were," Casper said - a little sadly, Charlie thought.
"There's a way to know," Keerby said then. "It's just time, remember?"
Charlie turned to the elf, a sudden feeling of excitement taking hold of him. "That's right. And you're the time guy. What can you do about letting us see the people that were here once?"
"It's not that hard." Keerby smiled. "Observing the past is actually easier than going there. I can just encase us in a bubble holding our own time frame, and then let everything outside it slide backwards."
Qurank, floating nearby, made a noise that Charlie interpreted as doubtful. "Is this guy serious?"
Charlie laughed. "Definitely." He smiled at Keerby. "Do your stuff."
Keerby nodded, and briefly closed his eyes. Charlie had no doubt that whatever process the elf was about to initiate was hardly as simple as Keerby had suggested. But that he would not attempt it if he could not master it properly was also something Charlie was certain about. Keerby was good at what he did!
The Rootar shuttle, just behind them, flickered and vanished.
Qurank looked shocked. "My ship!"
"Relax," Keerby said quietly. "It's right where we left it. We'll be back before your mates on Ishkatar even know we're gone."
Outside the large entry port, the stars suddenly whirled into motion, and a moment later the sun came into view and leaped at them, enormous beyond anything they had ever seen before.
Ricky instinctively grabbed Adrian and pulled him closer, protectively, and Charlie's own grip on Kippy's arm spasmed in tune. But Charlie knew immediately what he was seeing, and loosened his grip on his boyfriend's arm, and instead rubbed it reassuringly.
"Relax," he said quickly, holding up his other hand to the others. "Oumuamua passed inside the orbit of Mercury when it went around the sun, is all. We're going back along it's path now."
But then the sun retreated just as quickly, and was gone. The whirl of stars outside became a blur, and a parade of ghostly light and shadow crisscrossed the deck of the hangar as the universe outside shifted around them. And then the port itself began to flicker between light and darkness, while shadows and shapes moved about them, and the bulk of something large appeared and disappeared nearby.
"We are back to a time when Oumuamua was inhabited," Keerby told them.
"Aren't we slowing down?" Kippy asked.
"In a moment. I want to get all the way back to when this place was being built...now!"
The open port reappeared, and was immediately filled with the bulk of an odd-looking ship as it entered from space and settled towards the deck nearby. Wheels on struts emerged from beneath the fuselage, and the craft touched down light as a feather, and began a slow turn to face the port it had entered through.
"Remain calm," Keerby said. "We're observers, only. Nothing we see can touch us or harm us."
"Will we be able to hear anything?" Adrian asked.
"No. This is visual only, I'm afraid."
The odd ship was a flattened cylinder with stubby wings and a blunted nose, painted in white with blue lines along its side, and sort of resembled a drunken aviator's idea of an airliner, Charlie thought. There was a wide, short window in the nose, and the short wings bore integral nacelles suggesting engines of some kind. The look of the craft was just enough off from something they might see back on their own world as to suggest a design by a different type of mind altogether from what they were familiar with.
But that it was a perfectly functional design was evident. The craft stopped, and a moment later a lock opened in the side, and a flight of stairs extended from the port to the deck below.
"That looks familiar enough," Kippy said.
A stream of small bipeds in spacesuits emerged then, and started down the stairs. They came hand over hand, pulling themselves along the handrails, for there was no gravity in the hangar. As the first alien reached the deck, he performed a graceful turnabout maneuver and planted his boots firmly on the steel, and stood upright. The others followed suit, and soon the small crowd proceeded towards a large closed lock at the back of the hangar, moving slowly, raising and lowering their feet carefully, suggesting anchors that were only partially effective, at best.
The aliens were easily a foot shorter than Charlie and his friends, and perhaps only a foot taller than Casper. Their suits were white, with small symbols on the chests, different for each wearer. The suits were bulkier by far than the the ones the humans wore themselves, and equipped with small packs on the back that were undoubtedly atmosphere tanks of some sort. The group reached the port, cycled the lock, and vanished inside.
"Wow," Ricky said softly, his eyes on the now closed door. "What do you think of that?"
Charlie let his gaze go around the hangar then, and noted for the first time now that it was much more brightly lit than it had been in their own time. There were open panels in the walls, and sled-like frameworks bearing equipment tethered before them, and empty brackets within, suggesting that assembly of the hangar's systems was still in progress. There was an unfinished look to the place that was now obvious.
"Oh," breathed Casper, pointing, "look at that!"
Outside the still open port, a colorful light was slowly coming into view at the rim of the doorway as Oumuamua turned on her several axes. The motion was slow, and they stood in silence for several minutes as the light moved into their field of view.
"I'd bump it forward a little, but at this extreme distance in time, a few minutes is hard to define," Keerby said. "I might go right past the moment we want to see."
"That's okay," Charlie said softly. "We can wait."
It took several more minutes for the distant light to come fully into view. Charlie watched it, feeling that it looked familiar somehow, but unable to place what he was seeing. "It's too far away," he decided.
Keerby nodded. "Oh, that I can do. Zoom in, I mean."
The distant light suddenly expanded, and began to come towards them. It grew and grew in size, until in a matter of seconds it completely filled the frame of the big hangar door.
"Great Porlum's left foot!" Qurank exclaimed. "If that's what I think it is--!"
The light had split now into several sources, one near, one more distant. The nearer one was a great banded world, obviously a major planet. But it looked oddly flattened at the poles, and a thin streamer of glowing matter was moving away from the equator of the world, and flowing far across space to the next glowing object, which resembled a whirlpool of light with a dark center and two faint spiral arms.
A chill went through Charlie, and he turned to look at the Rootar. "What is that?"
Qurank's expression was grim. "That looks like a small black hole, busy ripping away the matter of that gas giant. Eating it, is the better word! That glowing spiral is the accretion disk. See how it's dark in the center? Matter gets sucked past the event horizon and disappears into the hole."
"A black hole!"
"Yessir. It will take out that whole planet eventually, and the rest of this solar system, including the sun, if it's not massive enough."
Kippy gripped Charlie's shoulder. "Oh, Charlie! Can't you see? They're running away from that!"
Charlie knew it to be true. At some time, perhaps nearly a million years before, a small black hole had entered a solar system containing an earth-like world, home to the little bipeds they had seen here. Those folk had spotted it when the black hole had started to consume the larger, outer system worlds, and seen the end of their civilization foretold. They had not had a level of technology that included star travel as yet, and no way then to flee the coming disaster.
How Oumuamua figured into this was hard to tell. Perhaps it had simply been passing through the system, just as it had done back at Earth's system. He wondered now if Oumuamua periodically visited suns in passing, perhaps to swoop by them and gather in their solar radiation in some way. Whatever the reason that the large visitor had been here, the people of this system had surely mapped its course and seen that it was on its way around the sun and back out to the stars. And in Oumuamua, they had seen a chance at salvation.
"They built all this stuff inside here," Ricky said, in amazement, "and when Oumuamua left their system, some of them went with it."
Kippy turned to Charlie, the pain in his eyes obvious. "But only a few could have gone. Out of a whole world full of people, only a handful must have escaped." He looked about the vast hangar. "Maybe thousands, out of billions."
It was an agonizing idea to consider. What would happen to the human race, if something like this happened at home? Humans weren't even at the technical level that these people had obviously enjoyed. There would be no place to go, no way to escape destruction!
Charlie felt a hand on the sleeve of his suit, and turned to gaze into Keerby's eyes. "No, Charlie. It could not happen to us."
The elf's gaze was steady and comforting. "Not with my people around. Not to mention Pacha, and Kontus, and all of your friends. There is no way this could happen to Earth."
Charlie shook his head, feeling some new assurance, but unable to distance himself from the tragedy that had happened here. "I know. But what an awful thing to have happened to these people. To look into the sky and see death at your doorstep, and know that there was nowhere to go to get away from it."
"But some of them did," Keerby pointed out. "Some bold soul looked at Oumuamua, and saw that its course was taking it away from the black hole, and out of the system. They must have already investigated this visitor to their star, and in some way understood that it was alive. They built these refuges inside, but were careful not to harm their host. And so some few did escape, before the end came upon their people."
"And it happened so long ago," Casper said, almost in a whisper. "Before my people knew of such things. And yours, too, Charlie."
Charlie nodded. But somehow, knowing that this was now an event long past did little to dull the horror of imagining a world full of people watching death come from the sky.
Ragal also moved closer, and laid a hand on Charlie's shoulder. "This is the universe we live in. It is a beautiful place, Charlie, but there are times it isn't pretty. Yet life goes on. Some of these people escaped the fate of their race."
"I wonder where they went?"
Ragal smiled at Keerby. "I think, if we are patient, and allow Keerby to take us forward, we may be able to find out."
The elf nodded. "I can do that." He turned, gave a little sigh, and closed his eyes again.
The hangar around them flickered, as the lighting changed and the swift shadows of people and machines moved about like wraiths. The big hangar door opened and closed in blinks of an eye, and the universe outside spun and wavered with distant lights. The strange ship they had seen came and went...and then it all paused, and then settled into a view they could understand with their eyes.
The hangar door was open now, and a line of the little bipeds stood before it, each suited figure attached to a long tether that stretched across the opening. Beyond the doorway, in the light spattered depths of space, a lone yellow sun stood out among the others, one just large enough to be seen as a disk instead of a dot. The bipeds seemed to be watching it, doing nothing else at all.
"They're saying goodbye," Kippy said then, his voice choked with emotion. "To their world, to their sun, and to their people."
"It's years later." Qurank spoke up."Oumuamua would have been outbound at speed. They'd have been putting a couple million miles behind them each day." The Rootar grunted. "But that's not fast by galactic standards. Their sun would have been visible for years after they left. A lot of years."
"That must have been so hard for them," Adrian said. "To look back and know what was happening." His voice also sounded emotional, and Ricky moved closer and put an arm around his boyfriend.
Keerby sighed over the com, and then again the hangar returned to a flicker as time passed with incredible speed. This time it went on far longer, and the next time there was a pause, it was to see another sun beyond the open door, this one perhaps as large as a marble. But unlike the sun the bipeds had left, this one was reddish in color, and looked far less inviting to the eye.
The little bipeds themselves were everywhere, also watching the distant star. Charlie immediately noticed that they were no longer tethered, that they walked on the deck just as they might on the surface of a world. Their spacesuits now were also much lighter looking, sleeker, and with only a tiny bulge in back that might hold atmosphere processing gear.
"They've invented gravity control," Qurank said. "And their suit tech has improved a lot."
"How did that happen?" Ricky asked. "I thought they all went to sleep in stasis while Oumuamua traveled between the stars?"
"I would say not all of them did," Ragal mused. "They may have run in long-term shifts of some kind, with certain members of the group awake while the balance of them slept. They would have been unable to depend on Oumuamua's course taking them somewhere they could find a livable world. They would have had to make some provision to eventually rescue themselves." He raised a hand and pointed at the distant red sun. "I suspect we are seeing the first star that Oumuamua approached after leaving their own. A red dwarf, not a very promising candidate for finding a world that would support them."
"How long do you think it took them to get there?" Kippy wondered.
"I can tell you," Keerby said. "Forty-six thousand years."
There was a moment of silence, as that figure seeped into everyone's thoughts.
"With all that time passed, I'm surprised they ain't invented a good star drive and left this place," Qurank finally offered.
"They may indeed have invented a star drive by this point." Ragal waved a hand about them. "But what to do with it, if they had? There were certainly many thousands of their people here on Oumuamua. Far too many to move with the few small ships they brought along with them, even equipped with a star drive."
"They could have built new ships." Ricky suggested. "Much bigger ones."
"With what?" Ragal swept a hand around the hangar. "In the depths of interstellar space, they would have had no raw materials with which to build things, let alone ships the size they would need. No raw materials except those in Oumuamua herself."
Adrian gasped. "And they wouldn't do that!"
"It would have been murder," Casper agreed. "And they knew that. And they didn't do it, not even to save themselves."
"Wait," Keerby said, and then the hangar started flickering again as time moved forward.
When it paused again, they could see the red sun outside the hangar door, much larger, much closer now. But between the hangar and the sun, something blocked some of the starlight, something large moving along with Oumuamua in her orbit.
"A ship?" Charlie asked, but not to anyone in particular.
"This system of the red sun must have provided materials they could use," Ragal said. "Asteroids, comets, even minor or major planets."
"I'll zoom in," Keerby said, and then the distant ship leaped closer.
It was indeed a ship in the building. A huge cylinder, covered with hull in places, but with others merely showing open framework, through which the light of the red sun poured almost unimpeded. Tiny sparks of light danced in the darkness all about the huge hull, certainly welding of some kind taking place. Several smaller ships hung in space at intervals along the huge construction, and Charlie recognized the design as being the same as the alien ship they had seen in the hangar.
It gave scale to the project: the vessel they were building was huge. Almost as large as Oumuamua, perhaps, and certainly large enough to carry away the thousands of people that had been living aboard the wanderer for these many thousands of years.
"They would have had decades to build it," Charlie said, nodding. "If how long Oumuamua took to pass through our own system is any indicator."
"I thought it was in and out in two years?" Kippy asked.
Charlie shook his head. "Oumuamua first crossed what is considered the limits of our solar system in 1837. Way out, a thousand times the distance Earth is from the sun. It would have been many more years before it reached the planets, but there would have been a very long stretch of years where anyone aboard Oumuamua would have had access to the raw materials of our own solar system." He smiled. "Oumuamua will be just as long leaving our sun. It gives you a sense of wonder at how long it took for it to actually get from one star to another."
"There's more," Keerby said. Again the hangar flickered with the lights and shadows of advancing time, before once again coming to a standstill. Now, outside the hangar door, the new ship stood by much closer than before, an enormous bulk, marker lights lit along her length, with every sense that this was a ship ready to tackle the stars. Two of the smaller craft from Oumuamua were in the process of docking there, entering through a large door in the side of the craft. They touched down, and almost immediately streams of the little bipeds issued forth and marched down the landing stairs.
Adrian gasped. "They much have had them crammed in there like sardines in a can!"
It seemed plain why. The aliens were clearly ferrying their people over to the new ship, a mere moment of cramped inconvenience, worth the price of salvation. Here inside their own hangar, one of the stubby winged ships stood, while a small party of the bipeds stood in a circle in one corner of the large room. They seemed to be in conversation, if the way their hands and arms moved were any indicators. Finally, they all bent forward and reached down to touch something, and Charlie noticed then that the aliens were standing about a flat raised circle attached to the deck. The bipeds placed their hands on the rim of the circle and ceased all movement for a moment; and then the group suddenly broke up and started moving towards the ship.
They boarded it, one by one, going up the steps with a certain grave reluctance that was visible even through their spacesuits. The last biped reached the top of the stairs and stopped, and turned around. They could tell by the way the reflective helmet made a slow survey that the alien was taking a last, long look; and then the suited figure reached down and detached a small device from a belt at its waist, and held it up high.
The lights in the hangar slowly faded, finally reaching the subdued levels that they themselves had seen upon boarding. The biped let go of the device it held then, and rather than falling to the floor, it hung in he air before him.
"Turned off the gravity," Qurank said.
"And everything else, maybe," Ricky added.
The alien seemed to be watching the small device a moment before slowly raising a hand and giving it a gentle push. The device sailed away from him, crossed the room, then took on a new life as it neared a panel filled with odd controls in one wall. It made an abrupt right turn, approached the panel, and attached itself there. Charlie had the distinct impression the the suited alien smiled at that, before it turned and vanished into the small ship. The lock closed, and the ship moved away from Oumuamua.
It took just minutes to cross to the larger ship, where it vanished through another lock, which closed behind it. Scarcely was the shuttle aboard when the huge ship turned away from Oumuamua, dwindled rapidly in size, and then vanished among the stars.
"They left," Charlie said, in amazement. "They left at the first star they came to."
Charlie looked from one face to another. "Are you saying that Oumuamua is glad to see us?"
When no one answered immediately, Ragal stepped forward. "A theory, Charlie," he said, his expression looking thoughtful. "An exercise in thought."
Charlie smiled, already knowing how accurate Ragal's theories often proved to be. "I think you've got our attention."
The tall alien laughed. "Let us suppose for a moment that the bipeds that once lived here were not just aware that Oumuamua was alive, but that they were in some way able to share some sort of intimacy with her." He indicated Keerby, and Casper, and then Kippy and Adrian. "The sensitives among our own group have already determined that Oumuamua is alive and thinking, even if in some sort of dreamlike state dissimilar to our own thought processes. Let's take that a step farther, and suppose that the small bipeds that sought refuge on Oumuamua had the ability to go beyond our own abilities, and make actual contact."
Ricky whistled in amazement. "You mean like telepathy?"
Ragal smiled. "I know the definition of that word in human terms, but I resist the literalness of its implications. One need not share actual conversation between minds, in order to share camaraderie and a joint sense of purpose."
"You mean company," Kippy said. "They kept each other company, on that long voyage between stars."
"It may be as simple as that," Ragal agreed. "In any event, Oumuamua, perhaps for the first time in her existence, had someone to share her travels with her. One gets used to having friends very quickly, and misses them when they are gone."
"You think she's lonely?" Adrian asked.
"That actually makes sense," Keerby said. "When we first came aboard, I sensed that Oumuamua became aware of us, and was not only interested, but quite overjoyed at our presence."
"That's what I felt," Casper agreed. "The mind here was pleased to have company again."
"So what was with the sudden bout of despair?" Qurank asked. "We've been here the whole time."
"Not entirely," Keerby corrected. "While we were observing the past, our physical and mental presence here would have been briefly severed. To Oumuamua, it would have seemed that we were gone again."
"And she reacted with loneliness and despair." Charlie said.
"Aw," Kippy said, softly. "She misses the little bipeds. She misses their company."
"Its a working element of my theory," Ragal confirmed.
Charlie turned to Casper. "What do you sense now?"
"Happiness. Contentment. Pleasure."
"Our thoughts...our minds, are stimulating hers," Keerby decided.
"No one should be alone, that doesn't want to be alone," Kippy said. "What can we do to help her?"
Ricky whistled again. "We can't stay here, not even one of us!"
"No." Charlie agreed. "But we can't ignore Oumuamua's plea for assistance, either."
"She hasn't asked you gents for nothin'!" Qurank pointed out.
"She doesn't need to," Charlie said. "People in difficulty sometimes can't ask for help. That is no reason not to give it if we can."
"But what can we do?" Ricky asked.
Casper moved to Keerby then, and touched his suit. "Can you and I get a private channel?"
If Keerby was surprised by the request, he didn't show it."Sure. Here we go--"
Their voices cut off, but it was plain from their movements that they were still talking.
Kippy turned to Charlie, his eyes full of questions. Charlie was not terribly thrilled at being excluded from the conversation, either, but trusted that Casper would only have asked for such a thing with good reason. He looked over at Ragal, who smiled at him, every nuance of his expression stating the same request: have patience.
Casper suddenly turned back to them, and Charlie's com came alive again.
"We have a plan," Casper said, sounding excited. "But we'll need help to try it."
"Big help," Keerby agreed.
"Help from whom?" Charlie asked, even as a suspicion was forming in his mind.
Keerby grinned. "Just a second. I'm working on it now." He turned to where Qurank floated nearby. "Can we go back aboard the shuttle?"
In answer, the head spun inside its little bubble of light and flew back towards the landing stairs. "You gents are beyond me! Come on in."
They boarded the shuttle, and once back in atmosphere, removed their helmets. Keerby went and sat in one of the chairs, and closed his eyes, while Casper stood anxiously nearby.
"I didn't want to get anybody's hope up until I knew we could do this," the little alien told them. "We'll know in a minute, I think."
Again, Kippy looked at Charlie, as if to say what do you think?
Charlie smiled, his own ideas firming up now. "Wait for it."
Kippy's eyebrows had just gone up questioningly when Charlie felt a slight displacement of air, and then heard a small pop nearby.
Max appeared, looked around the room quickly, and then smiled at Charlie. "Hey, fellas. What's up?"