"Big solar system," Captain Neema said, as Ishkatar sailed past the rings of a world twice the size of Saturn. Awful lot of junk orbiting the primary."
"We're just looking for one thing," Charlie said. He turned to Erma. "You know where it is?"
Erma, still clutching her wooden spoon, turned and pointed it at Qurank. "Are we still on the line I gave you?"
"Yeah. I may have to dance around some of the local junk here and there, but it shouldn't be hard to stay on it."
Erma smiled at Charlie. "Then yes, I know where our new friend will be."
Charlie smiled at that. Erma was businesslike and efficient, but there were things about her nature that shined through that, letting everyone know that she was a sweetie at heart. Charlie would have been surprised to find it any other way. So far, he had yet to meet an elf that was anything but kind.
Kippy sighed. "I'm going to miss Oumuamua. I know we don't really know each other, but she's touched a place in my heart. I hope this works out well for her."
"You can always come back to visit her, anytime you want." Keerby pointed out.
Kippy sat up straighter in his seat. "I can?"
"Sure. Once we've been anywhere once, we can always teleport back there."
Kippy shook his head. "But Oumuamua will always be moving around. How can you keep track of her?"
Keerby shook his head. "Kip, everything in the universe is moving, all the time. We don't keep track of locations in space, we keep track of places. That hangar in Oumuamua is in the guidebook now. No matter where Oumuamua goes, we'll always be able to get to that hangar."
"Not only that," Erma said, "but I have a link to Oumuamua's mind now. If anything comes up that threatens her, I'll know."
Kippy smiled, and sat back again. "That's really good to know. I will want to come see her, I'm sure."
Casper nodded. "Me, too. I'm glad you invited us on this trip, Charlie. I love Engris, but there's only so much to do there."
Adrian laughed at that. "I could spend every day in the pirate market."
"I did that, too, for the first month of subjective time. But the stuff there only flips over very slowly, as new pirates...um, traders, come in."
Adrian frowned at that. "I forgot that subjective time in no time works both ways. You don't age, but the hands of the clock still move, while they don't at all out here by comparison."
Charlie gave Casper a playful poke with his finger. "You and Ragal can always hire a ship and go exploring. I'm sure captain Neema would be glad to have you again!"
All the Rootar on the tree turned and gave out a collective hoot. "This is the most fun we've had in ages!" Stropa called.
"I'll say!" Diek agreed. "Makes looting graves on Kuspernar or Rigelix seem tame!"
"He means our archeologiacal work," Qurank said hastily. "Never can get enough education!"
"Haha!" Beel added, nervously.
Everyone laughed at that.
"It's true," Captain Neema said, fixing an awful smile on his face. "We're enjoyed having you gents aboard. You need us again, give us a call. I'll be sure to give you our contact code before you leave."
Charlie scratched his head, and nodded. "Okay. Thanks!"
"I'm not positive, but this may be our rock coming up now," Qurank said. There was a hint of excitement in the Rootar's voice, and Charlie laughed as he and the others jumped to their feet. The exhilaration in the room was plain as they collected before the main display.
The great ringed world had disappeared aft. Ahead was only darkness, with the large bright dot of another giant world visible far off to the right. It was two-hundred-seventy million miles away, yet was still the size of a marble. Huge.
The star of this system, a blue-white sun twice the diameter of Earth's sun, lay far behind them. Yet its light was by no means faint even out here, and in only a moment, a pinpoint of light appeared ahead of them and quickly grew. Charlie leaned forward along with the others and stared.
The point grew as Ishkatar ate up the distance between them, and soon began to form a distinctly elongated shape, that Charlie instantly recognized. "It is," he said, peering at the screen. "It's another one."
In another minute, it was as if they were again approaching Oumuamua. This object had the same gray skin tinged with red, the same basic shape as Oumuamua, and was within a hundred meters of the same length. Ishkatar arrived at the huge rock, closed to within a half kilometer of it, and did a slow circuit, every instrument recording.
"I'm getting the same sort of readings from this one as from Oumuamua," Qurank said. "Except...there are no internal installations on this one. The native hollow spaces are vacant."
Charlie turned to Ragal and Casper. "You guys sense anything?"
"Yes," Casper said, immediately. "It feels like Oumuamua."
"I'll say," Keerby agreed. "This one has all the same signs of life."
Erma took a breath. "It's become aware of us."
The room was totally silent at that revelation.
Erma smiled, looking enchanted. "It's...I think shocked would be the right word. And...amazed."
"It feels like it's dreaming, too," Casper said. "And now we've become a part of the dream."
Erma shook her head. "This one seems to have been aware that it was not totally alone in the universe. It seems to know about ships like this...but only from a distance. We are the first to ever approach so closely."
"We're a lot farther in towards galactic center," Captain Neema said. "The star density's greater here, and that probably means more races live here. No wonder this one is aware of ships."
"But never this close," Erma said, smiling. "Never close enough to sense the life aboard. It is curious about us, and...and happy."
Everyone watched the huge rock as it turned slowly in the display, looking so much like Oumuamua that they could have been twins.
"This gives credence to the idea that they're a race," Charlie said. "I mean, if two of them look alike, they probably all do."
Ragal nodded. "You could be correct, Charlie."
Kippy prodded Max. "So do we bring Oumuamua here now?"
Max turned to Erma. "Can you communicate with this thing at all?"
The older elf shrugged. "I am sending happy thoughts at our meeting to it, but I cannot speak to it directly."
"Uh huh. Can you feel if it feels safe here?"
"Yes. I think I can say that. This one has a long memory of star systems visited, and never once has it been bothered. Any civilization advanced enough for star travel is not going to worry about one more asteroid passing through the system. All other races are unable to leave their worlds, and so no threat at all."
"What about other's like itself?" Max asked.
Erma sighed. "It has no memory of meeting another like itself. How these things come into being is a complete mystery. But they are apparently very few in number, for the size of the galaxy."
"So do we bring Oumuamua here?" Charlie asked.
"Yep." Max nodded. "I'm working on it now."
Ricky frowned. "What's to be done? You said you just open the tunnel and pull Oumuamua through."
Max sighed. "If I just do that, Oumuamua will sail right on by this one and keep going. They have a difference in speed in their spaces of nearly two kilometers per second. I have to slow Oumuamua down to the speed that this one is moving."
Charlie gaped at that. "And how will you do that?"
Max grinned. "It's just kinetic energy. We'll convert it to something else and bleed it off."
"Something else?" Adrian asked. "Like what?"
"We have our choices. Any or all of the EM spectrum. What'll it be?"
Captain Neema narrowed his eyes. "We've detected no life in this system, so no one's attention is to be drawn. The visible part of the spectrum is the safest, I would think." He gave a harsh laugh. "If i am actually understanding what you plan."
Max nodded. "You're probably right. It's going to be quite a show, so maybe you want to put any filters you might have on your display."
The Captain turned to Diek. "Strap it down."
"Gotcha, Cap'n." Diek manipulated his controls. "Ready."
Max nodded. "Here we go --"
There was an immense flash of light in the display, as bright as if Ishkatar had come out of the Cooee directly next to a star. The screens darkened, but could not totally mute the flash, which went on for what seemed like a very long time before fading.
Charlie had squinted along with the others, and still wound up with faint blobs of light in his vision, which took a full minute to clear.
"Look!" Casper said, the glee clear in his voice.
Charlie blinked at the display, and it slowly came into focus.
Before them, two identical Oumuamuas floated in the darkness.
Erma clapped a hand to her cheek and beamed at them. "Oh! Are they ever surprised!" She blinked, and then gasped. "Oh! I think...yes...they can talk to each other!"
"I sense happiness!" Casper said.
"Lots of it!" Keerby added. "Wow!"
Erma closed her eyes, and nodded, as if listening to some inner song. "They can communicate," she repeated after a while. "They're both dreaming the same dream!"
Kippy turned to Charlie, a big grin on his face. "Oh, Charlie. It's beautiful! I sense light, and colors, and sounds...happy sounds, like birds singing."
"And something gentle, like rain on flowers," Adrian said. He sighed, and snuggled closer to Rick. "We did good!"
They watched Erma as she swayed gently side to side, a smile on her face. In the display beyond her, the two immense rocks drifted closer together, moving through the darkness on parallel courses now.
"This is amazing," Merl said, putting an arm around Ada. "To witness something like this is incredible."
"It's so romantic," Neelie said softly, her eyes aglow. "I'm so happy for them!"
To one side, Captain Neema gave out what sounded suspiciously like a sniff, and then followed it with a small cough. "That's something, boy. Yeah, it is."
Erma's eyes suddenly popped open. "Oumuamua is...I think this is a communication directed at us!"
"What are you getting?" Max said, his fascination obvious.
The older elf turned to him. "A picture. Of the ship you used to board her, returning to where you were before."
"We can't stay with her," Kippy said sadly. "Does she understand that?"
Erma frowned. "I see the ship coming into a big room through a large door. And all of us getting out, and walking to one corner of the room. There's a large ring set into the floor there. We all bend down and touch it."
A memory came to Charlie then, of the little bipeds doing just that before the last of them left Oumuamua. "I think I know what she wants."
"Do we go?" Kippy asked.
Charlie looked at him. "I think we should, yes. But anyone that doesn't want to go should stay here."
As it turned out, only the Captain and the four of his sons that had stayed aboard Ishkatar before felt they should stay behind. "This ain't for us. You go, Qurank, and represent Ishkatar."
Suits were made for Erma, and the Umwalds, and Max, and then Qurank boarded his ring and led them back to the shuttle. The flight across to Oumuamua was quick, and soon the shuttle settled onto the deck of the hangar for what Charlie felt certain would be the last time, at least for now.
They exited the shuttle, being careful in the lack of gravity, but even the Umwalds tooks well to the efficient suits, and Charlie led them all to the corner he remembered the little bipeds standing in before the last of them had left Oumuamua forever.
There, set into the floor on a little dais, was a silvery ring, perhaps a meter across. In the center of it was a graphic, of Oumuamua herslf, against the starry backdrop of space.
"What is it?" Ricky asked.
"I don't know," Charlie replied. "I only know that we should touch it."
He bent down slowly, and laid his gloved hands on the rim of the circle.
Inside his mind, he was suddenly among a crowd of people. An enormous crowd of people. But when he looked at them, it was to find they were not familiar at all. Not even human.
The crowd that surged around him consisted of small, brown-skinned bipeds with large ears, and smiles on their faces as they walked about, talking to each other in a totally unfamiliar tongue. There was laughter here, and a sort of joy at their togetherness, that was unlike anything Charlie had ever experienced before.
In the middle fo the crowd, a spire stood, just a shaft of reddish gray rock, pointing up into the light. The crowd flowed around it, and as each person passed they reached out a hand and brushed their fingers across the the smooth stone. Charlie knew immediately what that spire was. Or, what it represented.
He moved towards it, aware then that Kippy was walking beside him, and Rick, and Adrian, and all the others. Charlie reached out a hand and found Kippy's, and grasped it, determined not to let go. The crowd parted in front of them, the small bipeds smiling at them as they passed, and Charlie felt a definite sense of welcome from them. They approached the spire, and the crowd made room for them, and raised small, four-fingered hands, and pointed at the spire.
They want me to touch it, Charlie thought, and felt like this was a dream, but one in which he was awake and knew it was a dream.
He and Kippy and the others arrived at the spire, and Charlie felt a tug as Kippy raised the hand that held his, and pushed them both, knuckles to the stone. It was warm to the touch, and a sense of peace washed over him. That, and a feeling of great time and vast distances, almost overpowering in their strength.
But there also was a sense of pleasure at their touch, a response of affection, and a sense of...gratitude. Unmistakably, Charlie felt like he was being thanked.
The crowd of small bipeds moved closer, and as they passed Charlie he felt their hands brush briefly across his back. Pictures appeared in his mind, a series of glimpses of another world. The small aliens, working in shops together, tending plants in huge greenhouses together, studying in classes together, eating in large messhalls together, watching what could only be plays together, exercising in gymnasiums together, relaxing in lounges together, and even racked together in stasis, their eyes closed in blissful unawareness of time and space.
He was treated to a thousand views of life within the refuges inside Oumuamua, over a period of time that was simply staggering to contemplate. And throughout all of that time, never once so much as flagging, a sense that they and Oumuamua were in this together, and that the small aliens were grateful to be there.
Charlie knew then what this was about. The time had finally come for the small aliens to go, to leave Oumuamua and seek their destiny They had built their ship, and they were determined to return to their home system to see what had become of their world and their people. There was sadness at leaving Oumuamua, home for forty-six centuries of time. They could not stay, and they could not bear the thought of leaving their friend totally alone. So they had built this device, this ring in the corner of the hangar, and others in each hangar from which they departed Oumuamua. And as the people left, each paused at this ring, and left behind memories. Memories of life on Oumuamua.
They could not stay with Oumuamua, but they could leave her with the memories of their time with her, that she could dream in her dreams, as she tracked across the endless darkness of space. And those memories had sufficed to keep her company for a very long time, until Charlie and his friends had come along to remind her that the the things she dreamed were not a true reality, and that in her travels, she was still very much alone.
But that had changed now, and Charlie and his friends had been invited to leave memories of their own. To join this happy crowd of people, come and gone over a small eternity of time. To become a part of the treasury of memories that Oumuamua wished to keep, of all those that had meaning to her.
Beside him, Charlie felt Kippy heaving slowly, and knew that his boyfriend was crying. Charlie's own eyes were wet, and tears streamed down his face. They were not tears of sorrow, nor tears of joy, but rather simple tears of acceptance. They were a reaction to memories of struggle and hope, joy and despair, wonder and desperation. They were a reaction to the small miracle of a coincidence, in which a chance visit by a member of one unique species had meant the salvation of another. The power of that simple twist of fate was overwhelming, and Charlie knew he would never be able to forget what had happened here, in this place.
The crowds about them slowly receded, and Charlie felt a lightness, almost as if he was about to float away. It was time to go.
Charlie felt Kippy move beside him, and then they were standing again in the hangar, the others all about them. Charlie could see tears on more than one face, but felt it only right not to look, not to make the others share what they were feeling. Instead he turned to Kippy, and smiled at him. "I love you."
His boyfriend smiled at him through the clear bowl covering his head. "I love you, too, Charlie Boone."
Max spoke up then, sounding subdued himself. "Let's get going, guys."
They returned to the shuttle, and a very quiet Qurank flew them back to Ishkatar.
That vessel paced alongside Oumuamua and her new companion for a while longer, and then curved away to disappear into the night.
As the vessel retreated, the boys stood at the display, and watched as the two giants grew smaller, and then finally faded into the background of stars.
"Good luck," Kippy whispered. "And good travels."
* * * * * * *
They decided to let Captain Neema and his crew off the hook of taking them home to Earth. Max could transport them all back at once, and save Ishkatar the trouble of making the journey. Captain Neema seemed less than thrilled at this resolution, but not because it was costing him so much as a credit of his fee.
"I'm sorry to see this voyage done," the Rootar told them. "It was one o' the best we've ever had."
"Certainly the most incredible one, anyway," Qurank added, smiling at them. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't been there myself."
"You gents need a ride again, you call us," Captain Neema went on. "Here's our contact code."
A small memory cube was passed to Charlie, who stuffed it into his pocket with a smile. "We certainly will."
Ragal and Casper, however, had elected to stay aboard, to return with Ishkatar to Engris. Even Casper was ready to relax a little, and revisit the pirate market to see what new treasures were to be found. Charlie promised to call them, and to include them the next time they headed out on a new adventure.
Hugs and goodbyes were traded with Erma and the Umwalds, who would go back to their own homes, Erma to finish her cake, and the Umwalds to resume whatever they had been doing when called away. None of this could have happened without their help, and Charlie was reminded again of the power of the group to accomplish things that none of them could have accomplished alone.
Erma spent a few moments with each of them before going, trading smiles and warm wishes, and collecting something in return from each of them which she simply described as a link, and a good one. Ragal came away from his meeting with her smiling, as did Casper. Qurank came away from his looking amazed and pleased in a sort of horrifying way, and returned to the tree to relate his encounter to the others.
"Remember what I said, you boys," she told Charlie and the others. "Relax, and let what comes to you come. It's all for the good, you hear?"
She gave Max a gentle slap on the shoulder and told him to mind his manners, kissed his cheek, and then waved her wooden spoon, and was gone.
The Umwalds shook hands with everyone and said they'd had a wonderful time, and then they also left.
Charlie was feeling unusually elated after all this, and he and the others ganged up on Keerby and gave him a group hug, to which the young elf responded with much enthusiasm, before promising to stay in touch, and then disappearing from among them with a rather gleeful pop of air. Charlie smiled after Keerby was gone, wondering if this was to be a pattern now, with Keerby showing up suddenly when needed, and then vanishing just as quickly when the deeds were done.
At long last it was just Charlie and Kip and Rick and Adrian, standing before Ragal and Casper, while Max waited patiently nearby. More hugs were exchanged, and promises to call when the opportunity presented itself. Casper was all smiles at the adventure he had just taken part in, and Ragal foretold that the youngster would be bouncing off the walls for some time to come.
Charlie wandered over to the Rootar tree, and thanked all the aliens again for their help in what had been done. He was a little suprpised to find he was going to miss their ugly grins and rough talk, and hoped that events might bring them together again. For their part, the Rootar seemed genuinely sorry to see the humans go. Qurank was the only one not on the tree, off somewhere, presumably, handling something important. That he was the go-for of the family seemed obvious now. Charlie asked Captain Neema to say goodbye for him.
As he turned to head back to the others, Qurank appeared, floating on his ring transport, and arrowed over to him, to stop beside him. "Charlie. I wanted to say farewell, mate."
Charlie smiled. "Thanks for everything, Qurank. We couldn't have done it without you."
The Rootar head beamed. "Thanks." He moved closer then. "I just wanted to tell you...that memory cube the Cap'n gave you? With our contact code? There's two settings on it. I wanted you to know that I left you guys something on the second one, okay?"
Charlie smiled. "Really? What?"
The Rootar offered up a fearsome chuckle. "Ah...look at it when you get home, okay? See you, Charlie."
Charlie stared after the retreating head a moment, and then rejoined the others.
"Ready?" Max asked, herding them into a group. The elf turned, and waved to Ragal and Casper, and Charlie and the others immediately followed suit.
There was a brief moment of darkness, and then the five of them were standing in Charlie's bedroom. The first thing he did was to check the alarm clock on his nightstand, and saw that Keerby's deft juggling of time had resulted in scarcely two hours going by since they had left. The elf was certainly good at what he did!
Charlie sighed, and turned to Max. "Thanks. Thanks again."
Max looked pleased. "Charlie, you're always thanking me for stuff I am happy you got me to do. This whole thing was pretty special. I should be thanking you."
Charlie nodded, and opened his arms. "Can I get a hug then?"
"Aw, geez. Okay." Max stepped forward, and they clapped each other on the back.
"Now me!" Kippy said, opening his arms wide.
"No kissing," Max warned, but grinned as Kippy embraced him.
Adrian and Rick each got a hug in, too, and then Max gave a big sigh and stepped away. "I gotta be gettin' back, okay?" He smiled then. "Call me if you need me, you hear?"
"We're not shy!" Kippy said, waving.
Max laughed, and then was gone.
Kippy sighed. "We're so lucky to have friends like that."
Ricky turned to Adrian, and smiled. "I need a kiss."
"Okay. Just one?"
Kippy sighed, and turned to Charlie, and pulled him close. "I had a wonderful time, Charlie, But I always do, with you."
Charlie smiled, and allowed himself to be hugged.
He felt the memory cube in his pocket then, and remembered Qurank's suggestion that they look at it when they got home. He reached down and stuck his hand in his pocket, trying to retrieve the device. Kippy made a happy sound, and rubbed his hips against Charlie's. Charlie pulled the cube from his pocket and held it up in front of him, and Kippy looked surprised and took a step back.
"What did you think I was doing down there?" Charlie asked, grinning.
Kippy blew out an exasperated breath. "Oh, nothing. Nothing that matters now, anyway."
Ricky and Adrian pulled apart and looked over. "That the thing Captain Neema gave you?" Ricky asked.
"Uh huh. Qurank pulled me up just before we left and said he put something extra on it for us."
Kippy looked surprised, and then wary. "If it's Rootar porn, I'm gonna hurl."
Charlie laughed, and held up the small device. It was a simple cube, slightly larger than a sugar cube, and had one small button in the center, and a small, two-position slide on one side. "Looks simple enough."
He pushed the button, and a three-dimensional image appeared above his hand. The Ishkatar roared past them, guns firing, turned in a neat arc, and then roared back at them again. A gruff voice in an incomprehensible language said something, and then a series of characters in the universal com code stood out in bold relief.
"No missing that!" Ricky said, laughing. "About as subtle as a brick to the side of the head!"
They played it again, and laughed at the brazenness of it. As an ad, it would likley appeal only to someone who sauntered about with one hand on the pistol at his belt, and the other in the back pocket of the fellow ahead of him.
"Let's see what's on the other setting," Kippy said.
Charlie nodded, thumbed the slide to the second position, and pushed the button. Once again, a three-dimensional image appeared above his hand, only this time...
Kippy gasped. "That's Oumuamua!"
It was. Oumuamua, and her new companion, hanging side by side in the vastness of space. Even as they watched, the two moved off together, at first slowly, and then gaining speed, their vast bulks illuminated by the distant sun and the reflected glare of the ringed planet. They grew smaller and smaller, became points of light that briefly twinkled at them, and then disappeared altogether.
Kippy sighed. "Play it again."
They played it five times, and Charlie knew they would probably play it many times again in the future.
After the fifth time, Charlie set the cube on his nightstand, and sighed. "That Qurank. I had a feeling he was an old softie."
Kippy came closer, and opened his arms, and Charlie stepped into them happily.
"This was the best Valentine's Day, ever, Charlie. We brought happiness to two very special people."
Charlie smiled. "I didn't think of it that way until now, but you're right." He sighed. "I hope those two will be happy together."
Kippy nodded. "Valentine's Day isn't just about love. It's also about being together. And about being happy that you are together."
Charlie nodded, and kissed his boyfriend. "I'm happy that you and I are together," he murmured softly.
"Look at that," Adrian said, pouting at Ricky. "It makes me feel neglected."
Ricky laughed. "Oh, we can't have that!" He stepped forward and opened his arms, too.
"Take off that darn dagger first," Adrian said. "It was sticking me the whole time we were out in space."
Ricky sighed, unbelted the dagger, and tossed it on the nightstand. "Now come here."
Adrian laughed, and danced into his boyfriend's arms.
Kippy turned his head, and smiled. "They're so in love."
Charlie smiled. "And we're not?"
"Yes, we are." Kippy kissed him and then smiled. "Happy Valentine's Day, Charlie."
"Happy Valentine's Day, Kip."
Kippy reached past Charlie and picked up the cube, and pushed the button again. Oumuamua and her companion appeared once more, ready to take flight.
"No one should ever be alone, that doesn't want to be alone," Kippy said, smiling.
'No," Charlie agreed. They turned their heads and pressed their cheeks together, and watched as two immense members of a strange and fascinating race moved off, side by side, and soon disappeared into the depths of the night.
Where they would go, what experiences they might have, Charlie and the others might never know. He smiled at the thought, and the one that followed. It didn't matter, really. What did matter was that they were together. Briefly, he recalled the memory ring in the hangar on Oumuamua, and the thousands upon thousands of fond members of a perhaps now vanished race, eager to bestow upon the friend that had saved them a gift they knew she would treasure forever. The gift of companionship, even if just in memory.
And now, with another member of her kind finally found, Oumuamua would be living the life she had only once dreamed. Living her wish, and the wish of all those who offer love, and kindness, and shelter, and need to have those things returned.