"This is kinda outside my abilities, I think," Max said, after Keerby and Casper had filled him in. The elder elf was seated in a seat formed just for him by the shuttle, and calmly looking about at the circle of faces. "We'll need some specialists on this, I think."
Charlie smiled. "You're being modest, right?"
The older elf laughed. "I know you guys are used to me knowin' what to do in every situation that comes along, but even I have limits."
Kippy sighed, and leaned over Max from behind, laid his chin on the elf's shoulder, and pressed their cheeks together. "Say it's not true."
Max's face reddened, and the boys all laughed.
"Aw, geez," Max muttered, but the smile never left his face.
Kippy pulled back and patted Max on the shoulder. "We have to find a way to help Oumuamua. We can't just go off and leave her alone again."
Max briefly closed his eyes, and then nodded. "You guys never stop amazin' me, the stuff you get into." His eyes popped open again. "I ain't never encountered anything like this Oumuamua before."
"She is alive, right?" Charlie asked, just because he considered Max a good candidate for a final authority.
"Yeah, she is. How it happened, I don't know." The elf frowned, and then turned to Keerby. "Thanks for callin' me in on this. Glad to see you're using those brains of yours."
Keerby looked embarrassed, and then followed that with a pleased look at the compliment, and then he smiled around at the others. "Maybe it's the company I keep."
There was laughter at that.
"Besides," Keerby went on, "it was Casper's idea."
Max nodded, and smiled at the little alien. "Nice to have you around, Casper. You can help to keep this group of knuckleheads straight."
"I beg your pardon," Kippy said acidly, "but I will never be straight, no matter what you do!"
His boyfriend's eyes were bright with humor, though, and Charlie could only laugh.
Max's face reddened again, and he let loose a small sigh. "Aw, geez. Okay, let's see what we can do about this situation."
Qurank, who had been listening quietly, turned to face Charlie and the others. "Is it crazy like this for you gents all the time?"
"Pretty much," Rick said, patting Charlie on the shoulder. "Our Britannica Brain is always getting us into something."
The Rootar looked puzzled. "I don't get the reference."
"Never mind," Charlie said quickly, casting a quick glare at Rick. He turned back to Max. "What do you think we should do?"
The elf frowned. "Well, I like Casper's idea. I just ain't sure how to go about doin' it. I think...yeah...I think I know who to call., though" He laughed. "Maybe!"
Max closed his eyes, and a moment later Charlie felt the air nearby move, and another elf appeared. This one was female, and obviously old. Her hair actually had streaks of gray in it, and Charlie was stunned to see clear crow's feet around her eyes. Considering that Max was over six hundred years old, and looked like he was twenty-five, this must be a really old elf, indeed!
A lacy apron was fastened about the woman's waist, covering a blue house dress with a floral pattern on it. She had a large wooden spoon in one hand, which she immediately pointed at Max with the severity of a sword. "This had better be good. If my cake falls, there'll be hell to pay."
Max grinned. "I love you, too, Erma." He turned to the others then, and indicated the new arrival with one hand. "Fellas, this is Erma. She's a listener."
Keerby gave out a low whistle, and immediately gave a little bow. "It's an honor, ma'am."
Erma blinked, and then smiled. "Well, at least you have manners, if Max doesn't seem to."
"I got manners," Max complained, and then made a show of patting his pockets. "Somewhere here."
Erma finally laughed, and took the spoon and gently prodded Max in the chest with it. "Good to see you again, Max. I think I know why you called me."
"Uh huh. I'm sure you can feel her. What do you think?"
"Never felt anything like it before."
"Can you understand her? Maybe talk to her?"
Erma closed her eyes, but immediately shook her head. "There isn't an ounce of language here. Or, not the spoken type we're used to. It's all visual, and...emotional."
"Intelligent?" Keerby asked. "We felt that Oumuamua was more than an animal."
"You're right." Erma nodded. "The thoughts are deeper than any I've ever touched before. Old beyond belief. Our friend here has been a lot of places in her life, and seen and done a lot of things."
"I have a question," Charlie spoke up.
Max immediately smacked the side of his head. "Sorry, Erma. This is Charlie. And that's Kip, Adrian, Rick, Ragal, and Casper. And our Keerby, of course." Max turned to the Rootar, and smiled. "I ain't met this fella yet."
"Qurank," the head said, sounding a little surprised to be included. "And Captain Neema, Diek, Beel, and Stropa, by proxy. They've been followin' along with us by com."
"Nice to meet ya all," Max said.
Erma smiled at the Rootar. "You're an interesting one. Can we talk after we handle this little matter?"
Charlie smiled at Qurank's momentary look of discomfort, but then returned his gaze to Erma.
She smiled at him, and nodded. "Shoot."
"Well, we've been under the assumption that Oumuamua in some way was in contact with the refugees here, while they traveled between stars. And that she now misses them. Our appearance here seems to have gained her interest, and when she thought we were gone again, it left her in despair." Charlie nodded. "I was wondering if we were on the mark in thinking those things."
Erma nodded. "I think you're right in all of your guesses. I feel very deeply that this person has had a taste of companionship for the first time in her long life, and that once that ended, she felt the impact of being on her own again very deeply. It would seem that, before the refugees arrived here, she had no concept at all of other minds beyond her own. The revelation was both stunning and welcome for her."
"Then we need to find her some company again," Kippy spoke up. "We can't leave her alone. Especially not --" He broke off, and his eyes sought out Charlie's. "Especially not at Valentine's Day."
Charlie sighed, and moved closer to put his arm around his boyfriend's shoulders. "Amen to that."
Kippy smiled, and Charlie kissed his cheek. "You're such a sweetheart," Charlie whispered, not really caring if anyone heard.
Max cleared his throat. "Yeah, well...what can we do about this, is what we're wonderin'." He turned and dropped an arm around Casper's narrow shoulders, and gently urged him forward to stand in front of Erma. "Casper here, has an idea."
Erma nodded, and smiled down at Casper. "My, my. You're just full of potential, aren't you? I've never met anyone like you, either." She smiled at Max. "Thanks for calling me in on this."
"Sure thing. Just don't forget about your cake."
Erma frowned a moment, waved her spoon in the air, and then smiled again. "It will keep now." Her gaze dropped to Casper again. "What have you got in mind, honey?"
Casper looked over at Kippy, who immediately gave him an encouraging smile, generating one of Casper's own.
"Well...I was thinking, that it's pretty rare for there to ever be just one of anything in this universe. What I was hoping was that we could find another...person...like Oumuamua, and maybe team them up."
Charlie stared at the little alien a moment, and then smiled. "What a great idea."
"If it can be done," Casper said, hastily. "I mean, even if there are lots of people like Oumuamua around...how do we find another one?"
"Indeed." Erma looked thoughtful, and then nodded quickly to herself. "We need a locator I can work with."
"Bevvy Erly is the best one I know," Max said, thinking. "Or maybe Ruby Kostafranovich." But then he snapped his fingers. "No, wait. Merl and Ada Umwald's daughter, Neelie, scored almost twice as high on the Horta test as even Bev Erly did."
Erma frowned. "I heard about that. But she's awfully young and inexperienced. I'm not sure she could help us with this matter."
Max grinned. "Won't know unless we try."
"If I may interrupt," Ragal spoke up, raising a hand, "I have an observation I'd like to share."
Erma looked over at Ragal, cocked her head in curiosity, and smiled again. "My, my. So many interesting people, all in one place." She patted Max's arm. "You really do need to invite me out more often."
Ragal smiled at that. "I should point out that placing Oumuamua with one of her own kind without consulting her on the matter may yield a result we don't expect. There may be a reason her kind lead a solitary existence."
Erma did not seem surprised by the comment. "I can receive much of what our new friend senses and feels, but I can't actually talk to her. What I can say is that Oumuamua has no knowledge that I can find of the existence of others of her kind."
"Then it is not a separation of choice?" Ragal asked.
"Not that I can determine. Oumuamua literally had no idea that there was other life in the universe until she met the Hanschwei."
Charlie immediately fastened on that. "Is that what the little bipeds were called?"
"That is what they thought of themselves in a group sense, yes. But consider it a translation, as Oumuamua only has a visual and emotional sense of how they viewed themselves."
"So they could talk to Oumuamua?"
"It seems they were rather gifted communicators, and with a high degree of empathy. They knew immediately upon encountering Oumuamua in their system that she was a distinct entity, and an intelligent one. While they seem to have been unable to actually converse with Oumuamua anymore than I can, they shared a very deep link with her that was almost as revealing. Oumuamua grew very fond of them in the time they shared this place. It was quite a blow to her when they left."
"We gathered that much," Adrian said. "We could feel the power of her loneliness."
"Could we!" Kippy said softly. "It actually hurt to feel."
Erma nodded. "Your skwish potential is off the chart." Her eyes shifted to Adrian. "And yours." Her gaze moved to Charlie, and then Rick. "All of you have some interesting things evolving within you." She turned to Max. "You need to keep an eye on them, and help them along."
Max laughed at that. "Oh, I've been watching out for them, no doubt about that!"
Charlie was again surprised that someone had mentioned evolving powers or senses within him. He felt no different now than he had felt before they had met Max for the first time, and he definitely did not feel that he had added anything new to his ability to get along with the world and the sometimes odd things that cropped up in it. Not like Kip and Adrian had, at least.
Ricky apparently felt the same way. "I didn't feel anything at all about Oumuamua."
Erma nodded. "You're not a listener, is all. Or, not of the kind I am familiar with." She waved a hand at Kippy and Adrian. "These two are, but of a different nature than myself. But all four of you are growing. It isn't something to fear, believe me. I don't sense anything malevolent in any of you."
Max waved his hands at that. "Don't scare 'em!"
Erma laughed. "They're not scared. They're made uneasy by all this talk of changes within them that they don't really feel yet, is all." She smiled. "Just relax, all of you. You'll be fine."
Max leaned closer to Charlie. "You hear that? You listen to her, okay? If Erma tells you you'll be okay, you will."
Charlie did feel relaxed by the double reassurances. He smiled at Ricky, who also looked somehow relieved. "You good?"
Rick nodded. "Yep."
Ragal had stood by patiently during the byplay, and now turned back to Erma. "I sense an interest in Oumuamua in what we are all thinking about. She seems able to gather some idea that we mean to find her companionship. She seems to have a positive opinion of this, though I don't think she understands we mean to find her a companion of her own kind. She seems unable to grasp that there might be others like her in the universe."
Erma nodded. "You're a listener of a kind I've never met. I agree with you completely, but how you arrived at some of your opinions intrigues me. We'll have to talk later, okay?'
"It would be my pleasure. I am also intrigued by your own abilities, and would welcome the chance to discuss them."
Max rolled his eyes. "Okay, okay, we can do all this stuff later. Can we get back to the matter at hand?"
"Don't be rude now, "Erma scolded. "You're too good at it for your own good."
Max grinned, and patted his pockets again. "Still lookin' for them manners."
Charlie cleared his throat. "Um...so we need to get this locator person here? How will that help?"
"Locators can find anything, anywhere, anywhen," Erma said. "All they need is something concrete to look for, just as a hunting dog needs the scent of its subject. It is my hope that a locator, starting with my impression of Oumuamua's mind, will be able to find another like it."
"Wow." Charlie considered that, and nodded. "That sounds awesome."
Erma beamed. "I'll take that as a blessing on the venture and get going on it right now." She settled herself into one of the seats, flinched in surprise when it adjusted to her form, and then smiled and closed her eyes. "My my. What will they think of next?"
Max turned to Keerby, and clapped him gently on the back. "Good thing you were here. If the guys had been on their own, they have had to come get me by ship. This place wouldn't be in the guidebook if you hadn't been here first."
Keerby nodded. "You know how these guys are. They broadcast so strongly. I felt where they were going, and why, and it just seemed to me I needed to go along."
"That's trusting your instincts," Max said. "You have awfully good ones for someone so young. You're gonna be a real dynamo when you get a few more years on ya."
Keerby blushed, but seemed very pleased at the compliment. "I try to follow your example."
Max laughed at that. "Oh, brother. You'll wind up in charge of somethin' one day, is my guess. With skills like that, you can't miss!"
"Politics doesn't interest me," Keerby returned. "But learning and exploring does. I like going along with Charlie and the gang."
"We like having you with us," Charlie returned. "You've really made a difference in some of the things we've done."
"He's cute, too, remember!" Kippy whispered.
Charlie grinned, but didn't take the bait. "You're welcome to come with us whenever we go on one of these...um..."
"Trips," Charlie finished, grinning at Ricky. The other boy rolled his eyes, but didn't argue the point.
"Thanks," Keerby replied. "That means a lot to me."
"Okay," Erma said, rising. "I think we're ready to go."
In response to her words, there was a larger pop nearby, and three elves appeared in the ship.
"Gettin' crowded in here!" Qurank said, softly. "Who needs a ship, with these guys around?"
Charlie smiled at him. "You can add the extra people to our bill."
The Rootar's face lit up at that. "Oh, well, if it's like that! Anyone else comin'?"
Charlie laughed, and turned to look over the new arrivals.
There was a man and a woman, and a young girl. All elves, all appealing to the eyes. The man and woman were as ageless in appearance as Max, pleasant looking and smiling; but the girl couldn't have been more than twelve or thirteen, by her appearance. If this was their locator, then Charlie could see why Erma had had doubts about her experience.
Erma introduced the adults as Merl and Ada, and the girl as Neelie, and then introduced Charlie and the members of his party.
"Wow," Neelie said immediately, looking at Qurank. "You're amazing!"
The Rootar apparently could not blush, but every other indication of discomfort came through clearly. "Uh...thanks!"
Neelie's eyes circled the group, and then came back to Erma's. "What a bunch of cute guys!"
Ada waggled a finger at her daughter. "Behave, young lady."
"I'm just sayin'," Neelie returned, looking abashed.
Erma nodded. "You know why I sent for you?"
Neelie nodded. "You want me to find something for you."
"A very special something," Erma agreed. She extended a hand, and waggled her fingers. "Grab hold."
Neelie took two steps forward and took hold of Erma's hand. She immediately gasped, and looked around the interior of the ship. "That's here? Or outside? It' so big! And so old!" She seemed to consider that, and then smiled. "And so special!"
Erma nodded. "We agree on that. This is Oumuamua you're sensing. She comes from the depths of the galaxy, and has been journeying for millions of years. She is lonely now, and in need of companionship. What I want you to find is a friend for her."
"That looks like that?" Neelie asked, closing her eyes. "It's all energy and light!"
"But see the pattern? See the way it's woven? It's unique, like no other in my experience. I want you to look for that pattern, okay?"
Neelie gasped. "Out there? Among the stars? There's so many!"
"You can do it," Erma said calmly. "Take them one at a time, just look for that pattern in the space around them, and move on. It will get faster and faster as you go, and in no time we'll be done."
Max stepped forward then, and raised a hand. "Ready, Erma?"
Max closed his eyes, moved his hand...and Erma and Neelie both froze. A thin, bluish aura sprang up around the two, ebbing and flowing like mist around a lighthouse on a foggy day.
"Oh," Keerby said softly, leaning forward to look. "Micro time."
Max nodded. "They can be in there for however long it takes to find what they're looking for, and then rejoin us with just a few seconds or minutes passed."
"Wow." Keerby looked eager then. "I need to learn that."
The older elf grinned. "I'd be glad to teach you."
"You mean they're in some other time now?" Qurank asked. "Right in front of us, like that? Great Porlum's left foot!"
"Who is this Porlum guy, anyway?" Adrian asked.
"Huh? Oh..." Qurank's face stretched into another terrifying grin. "Just some guy from the homeworld. There's an old story about how his tree took a misstep in a swamp full of rachetgators and lost the left half of their vine, kind of like the way we did at Rectival and lost both sides of ours. Except their left foot supposedly took on a life of its own, and went looking for its tree - or any tree it could find, for that matter. You hear a noise in the night, or some other strange sound, and it's supposed to be Porlum's left foot, looking for a tree to take over." The Rootar laughed. "Just stories to scare the kids with."
"A ghost story!" Casper said. "I love them!"
"You have them, too?" Kippy asked.
"Sure. They used to be really scary, until the ruling body started the purges of power users. That kind of became the most scary thing I could think of then!"
Charlie winced at that, at the very idea of a culture that could kill its own for being different. "I'll have to tell you some of our ghost stories sometime, just to see if you like them," he told Casper.
"Monkey's Paw," Kippy said, grinning. "I'll do it!"
"Whoops," Max said then, and waved a finger.
Erma and Neelie immediately relaxed and released hands. "How long?" Erma asked.
"About fifteen years," Max told her. "Longer than I expected."
Even Charlie had to gape at that. "They were searching for fifteen years?"
"Yep. They didn't feel it as that long, of course. And we certainly didn't!"
"Wow." Keerby looked impressed. "I have got to get me some of that!"
Erma turned to Qurank. "You use the standard galactic charts for this arm?"
The Rootar's eyes positively bugged out at that. "You know about that?"
"Certainly. With Max's exploits out and around, we had to start a new system of movement for the guidebook."
Qurank cleared his throat. "You give me coordinates, and I can find the place."
Erma raised a hand, and a sheet of blue paper appeared in it. "Using our current location as a reference, of course."
"Set it over on the console," Qurank instructed. "Cap'n? You get this?"
"Yeah. Find out where they want to go, and feed me the coordinates. I'll take 'em there."
Qurank floated over to his console, and went to work on the paper.
"I have a question," Kippy said, raising his hand.
Erma smiled at him. "Shoot."
"Saying we find another, uh, person like Oumuamua, do we bring that person here, or take Oumuamua there?"
The elder elf smiled. "That's a very good question." She turned to Ragal. "Opinion?"
The spindly alien grinned. "Well, since we are sort of in communication with Oumuamua, and she seems to know what we intend, it seems we should move her there. It would be unfair to basically kidnap an unaware stranger to bring here."
Erma nodded. "Good answer. Ethical. I like it."
Ragal laughed. "Why do I feel like you're teasing me?"
"Because I am. That's what friends do. And I think you and I are to become good friends."
Ragal gave a slight bow. "That would make me very happy, too."
Qurank revolved on his ring to face them. "Uh...people? This destination is almost twenty thousand light years away. It's gonna be a long trip."
Erma turned to Max. "We will need you or Keerby to cut the time down."
"It's not just that," Qurank said. "It's...uh...well..."
"Outside your normal run," Charlie guessed. "It's new territory."
"That's putting it lightly," Qurank grumbled.
"We can get you there and back with no time lost," Max said. "Well, not much, anyway."
Qurank made an unintelligible sound. "Uh, Cap'n? What are we going to do?"
"Are you simple? We'll take them, of course. Just the survey maps we make will be worth the trip!"
Qurank brightened, and exhibited a smile that would frighten away a jack-o-lantern. "At your service, gents."
Adrian raised a hand. "Are we all going?"
Erma laughed. "I am, because I want to see this thing through." She turned to Merl and Ada. "Do you need to get back?"
"No," Merl returned. "And I expect Neelie would like to see how this turns out, too."
"I would!" the girl said, cheerfully.
Erma turned back to Adrian. "What's on your mind?"
Adrian looked unsure of himself a moment, but Rick reached over and gave him a gentle prod.
"Well," Adrian said, "I just didn't want to leave Oumuamua alone."
"We're not leaving her alone, sweetie. We'll take her with us."
Qurank made a shocked sound. "That thing won't fit inside Ishkatar, I can tell you. And there's no way we could tow something with that kind of mass."
Max waved a hand. "Aw, it's just size. We'll take care of that, believe me."
"Shut up, Qurank," Captain Neema said over the com. "These people know what they're doing."
"Uh huh." Qurank turned back to his console.
Charlie went and sat in a seat, and sighed. In a moment, Kippy came and sat next to him.
"What's wrong, Charlie?"
He smiled at his boyfriend. "Nothing. Everything seems to be in good hands."
Kippy reached over and rubbed Charlie's arm. "They've kind of taken it out of our hands, though, haven't they?"
"It's not that." Charlie mulled over his own words a moment, and then frowned. "I'm happy we can do something for Oumuamua. And we needed help to do that."
"I just hope it works. The idea of Oumuamua having to go off on her own again is...it makes me unhappy." Charlie leaned closer, and took Kippy's hand. "I love you, Kip."
"Oh, Charlie, I know that. I love you so much, too."
Charlie nodded. "See what we have? Everyone should have that, if they want it. Friends. Companions. Love. We have so much, and others have so little." He looked up at the overhead, imagining Oumuamua beyond. "Or none."
Rick and Adrian appeared, and sat in the seats across from them. "Can we get in on this?" Ricky asked.
Charlie smiled. "Anytime. Friends are always welcome."
The others leaned together, and mimicked the closeness of Charlie and Kip. Charlie watched them a moment, seeing how happy they were together, and nodded. "We love you guys."
"Same here," Ricky returned, without the slightest sign of embaraasment. "You should know that."
"We do," Kip said.
Adrian smiled. "It's Oumuamua. Her happiness is spilling over on us."
Charlie considered that, hoping that the things he was feeling weren't just being generated elsewhere and then thrust off onto him. "You mean that literally?"
Adrian looked surprised. "I mean that the thought of giving Oumuamua the sort of companionship we have makes me...makes us,...very happy. Isn't that apparent?"
Charlie was relieved. "I thought you meant that we were all picking up on her feelings, somehow. That they weren't our own."
"No. Though I wouldn't be surprised if we were all feeling some of her pleasure. My sense is that Oumuamua is, well, excited over this."
Kippy laughed. "I feel the same way. She's waiting to see what we come up with."
Charlie turned to look at his boyfriend. "You think she knows what we plan?"
Kippy shrugged. "Probably not exactly, no." He smiled. "I think she's going to be surprised if we come up with another like her."
Charlie warmed to the idea, feeling a trace of excitement himself.
Qurank lifted the shuttle from the deck in the hangar, and they moved slowly back out into space.
"I think we've convinced Oumuamua to be patient," Erma said, coming to sit near them.
Ragal was just behind her, and also sat. "I think we have also convinced her that we will not leave her, even if she feels us moving away. I want to keep her spirits up, if at all possible. The better her mood, the more recpetive she will be to meeting someone new."
Casper and Neelie took seats, too. "This is so exciting!" the girl gushed, grinning around at everyone. "I'm so glad you asked me to come!"
Casper smiled, and rolled his eyes, but seemed to be enjoying Neelie's good spirits. The two had been off talking together for some time, and Charlie figured it was good for Casper to spend some time with someone a little closer to his own age. No one was certain how old Casper was, but Ragal figured he was Earth-equivalent to fifteen years of age, at the most.
The shuttle exited the gash in Oumuamua's side, and pulled away from her. The Ishkatar came into view, and the shuttle moved toward the larger craft, towards a large bay that opened in the bigger ship's side.
"Only take a moment to dock," Qurank said. "Capn's waiting for everyone in control."
One of the displays showed Oumuamua behind them, fading now to a darker mass among the stars. "Don't be scared," Charlie whispered. "We're not leaving you behind."
Kippy sighed, and leaned against him, and gently rubbed his cheek into Charlie's shoulder. He didn't say anything, but he didn't need to. Charlie knew that his boyfriend shared his sentiments about the strange new life they had found in space.
Soon they were docked, and atmospheres matched, and the crowd of them traipsed into the control room, where the tree still stood in the middle of the round comsole. Qurank breathed a sigh of relief and rejoined the tree, and the ring he had been riding returned to its drawer below.
"Now," Captain Neema said, turning to face them. "What's the next step here, gents?"
Max pointed at the display showing Oumuamua. "We're going to take her with us."
"I can't tow that sort of mass, I can tell you. Not twenty kilometers, let alone twenty thousand light years."
"I know." Max nodded. "What we'll be doing is taking a piece of the space she resides in along with us. That will keep her connected to us, and she will always feel our presence. Plus, when we're ready to move her, we'll expand the space into a tunnel, and pull her through."
Charlie simply stared at Max. "You're serious?"
Max grinned. "Yep."
"I never heard of anything like this," Charlie said. "You've never done anything like this before."
Max's grin expanded. "I've never done anything like this, period."
Charlie was stunned. "And you think it will work?"
Max nodded. "This is something I learned from Pacha. It's a variation on the stuff they used to send the Arpathant to an alternate universe. We just ain't gonna point our tunnel at some other universe."
Kippy also looked amazed. "And you think it will work? Couldn't it be dangerous to Oumuamua?"
"No." Max sighed. "Fellas, this thing only goes one way. It either works just like I want it to, or not at all. And it will work." His eyes circled the boy's faces, and he smiled again. "Trust me."
Charlie took a breath, and slowly let it sigh out again. Trust. If there was anyone that Charlie trusted with magic, it was Max.
"I trust you," Kippy said. He looked at Charlie.
"Yeah. I do, too."
Ricky held up a hand. "Never any doubt here."
Adrian smiled. "Lead on, McMax."
That made Charlie laugh, and that made his tension seep away.