Charlie Boone blinked in surprise and stepped on the brake, stopping his mom's car well before the stop sign. Next to him, his boyfriend Kippy Lawson was talking animatedly about the coming July 4th festivities, and their plans to view the fireworks from Myer's Hill.
"...take a blanket to sit on, okay?" He laughed. "And I'm still wondering what kind of pizza I want this time. Irving's has three new toppings."
When Charlie didn't offer his usual kidding quip about the importance of pizza toppings, Kip turned to look at him, his smile fading as he caught the look on Charlie's face. "What's the matter?"
Charlie gave his head a slow shake, and squinted ahead at the sunlit road, already quivering with heat in the noonday sun. "Someone called my name."
Kippy rolled his eyes. "I didn't hear anything. I was the only one talking."
Charlie looked over at him, and Kippy immediately gasped. "Oh! Oh...Charlie. Something is wrong!"
Charlie nodded. "I think so."
Kippy reached out and squeezed his boyfriend's wrist. "I see it in your eyes. I see it...inside you."
"Oh, yes." Kippy took a sharp breath, looked surprised, and then dug his cell out of his pocket, even as it rang. "I felt it, too," he said into the pick up, putting the phone on speaker.
The voice of Adrian Whittaker issued forth from the phone, sounding somewhat small and distant. "You did? My skwish told me to call you, I think. And Ricky is pacing back and forth like crazy. He said Charlie needed him."
"I'm okay," Charlie said then. A car had come up behind them, and now he drove through the intersection and pulled over on the shoulder to let the other vehicle by.
"What's going on?" Adrian asked.
"I don't know," Kippy said. "I just felt...oh!"
He broke off as the car vibrated, and then the road and the fields around them vanished. There was a moment of utter darkness, and then a light approached them, and they realized it was someone carrying a flashlight. In a moment, that someone was at the window beside Charlie.
"Max! What's happening?"
The elf's eyes looked grim in the half light, the usual humor that always occupied them noticeably absent. "Wait just one second."
Charlie looked around the car then, and realized that they were in the dark basement of Nicholaas's workshop, where centuries of Santa's mistakes had been stored. Coming up with millions upon millions of gifts over the centuries could apparently stretch even the potent capabilities of a creative genius like Nicholaas, and many of those not-quite-perfect items had found their way to the basement, where a magical oddity of the vast room allowed for endless space for storage just so long as a light was not turned on its contents.
Max patted a finger on the car door twice, and the vehicle bounced slightly as Rick and Adrian appeared in the backseat.
"Whoa," Ricky said immediately, putting his hands atop the seat behind Charlie's head. "I felt that coming!"
Adrian leaned forward and laid a hand on Kippy's shoulder. "Something awful has happened," he said quietly. The fear in his voice was evident, and Charlie could only nod, the same sense of dread now pervading his own heart.
Max held out his hand, and something shiny appeared in it. It was the communicator that Charlie kept in his nightstand, the one that allowed them to talk with Murcha, the artificial mind that ran Lollipop, the small scout ship they had borrowed from the Moth. The communicator was humming softly, and there was a tiny blue light on the face of it, which was winking insistently.
"You better answer, Charlie," Max said gravely.
Charlie took the communicator and opened it. There was a flash of light, and the avatar that Murcha had chosen for such communications appeared in the air above the device. It was simply a pair of teardrop-shaped eyes, bright yellow in color, staring from a mist that showed no other sign of a countenance within. Charlie had thought it pretty creepy at first, but now he had warmed to the image.
The sense of foreboding he was now feeling only deepened. This just couldn't be good news. "Hi, Murcha. What's up?"
The eyes held no trace of a smile in return. "Charlie, it is my sad duty to report the loss of the vessel belonging to Pacha'ka."
Charlie simply stared, a sudden sense of horror creeping up his spine. "What?"
Kippy grasped Charlie's wrist tightly, and Adrian let out a tiny whimper from the rear seat.
"At this moment, this is what the data seems to be telling me," Murcha continued. "It pains me to think that I am also reporting the loss of all crew aboard the vessel as well."
Charlie simply sat there, unable to process the information.
Max leaned into the car window. "Murcha, what happened?"
The golden eyes cocked slightly to an angle to take in the elf. "I was speaking with Illia at the moment it happened."
Max nodded patiently at the name of the artificial mind that ran Pacha's ship. Illia and Murcha had become close friends. "And?"
"The vessel of Pacha'ka was aground on a planet called Antariluma, and Pacha, Mike, Bobby, and Kontus had been to the ruins of the city of Taraqua. They had just returned to the vessel from their most recent expedition, and Illia was recapping their discoveries to myself and Onglet." Onglet was the second Moth artificial mind to have joined Charlie's group once its restraints against free-will had been removed by Max.
"Where are you?" Charlie managed to ask. "Is Onglet with you?"
"No. He has returned to the offices we maintain to acquire new business. I was referring to the link we share with Illia."
"I was on my way to pick up a rush cargo between Alfin and Penatrix. I have now diverted to your Earth, and will be arriving shortly." The artificial intellect's voice sounded slightly regretful. "There will be a contract penalty for failing to pick up the cargo at Alfin on time, I am afraid. I contacted Captain Neema aboard Ishkatar, and he informed me that he was currently free. I have transferred the cargo contract to him, and he has left immediately to retrieve it. But there will be a penalty for the delay."
Charlie gave a little shake of his head at the change in direction of the conversation. He took a breath to calm himself, and nodded. "What about Pacha's ship?"
"As I was recounting, I was speaking at length with Illia. Pacha's party had just returned to the vessel. Illia had scarcely said they were back aboard when there was a disturbance. Illia reported a planetquake in progress, and cut the ship's sensor figures into our stream. It was a quake of rather considerable proportions. In converting it to the Moment Magnitude Scale in use on Earth, it would register as a ten-point-five event."
Charlie's jaw dropped, and Kippy immediately tugged at his wrist. "Is that a big one?"
Ricky leaned forward and touched Charlie's shoulder. "That's huge!"
Charlie just nodded. A quake that size was far more powerful than the strongest quake ever recorded on Earth. Much stronger.
Max uttered a small curse. "What happened next?"
Murcha seemed slightly subdued now. "There was virtually no time to react after that. The data stream indicated the defense screens of their vessel suddenly activating, and then a massive drain of power systems accompanied by sudden intense accelerations and stress indicators from areas of the hull. Far too intense for the structure of the vessel to withstand. And then the data stream, and Illia's communication, simply ended."
Adrian gasped. "It sounds like the ship was destroyed!"
Murcha emitted a small, unhappy sound. "For Illia to go silent as she did, and remain so, I would have to agree. That is the essence of my report."
Charlie and Kippy looked at each other, and then Kippy scooted over closer to Charlie, the stark horror in his expression clear in the beam of the flash. "They can't be dead!"
Charlie sat still, the faces of Pacha, Mike, Bobby, and Kontus flickering in his mind. They had been off on another adventure, exploring yet another lost world belonging to yet another lost empire. Pacha was a wonder at turning up even the slightest of clues from unexpected sources, and then digging out real destinations from the resulting pieces of the puzzle. Mike and Bobby and Kontus loved these expeditions into the unknown, and they had become quite a source for stories passed around among the members of Charlie's group. They had all been thrilled to actually be tracing down legendary places from nearly forgotten eras of galactic history.
Charlie had talked to Mike on the communicator only a week ago, as they were setting out on this newest expedition. He could remember the barely restrained excitement in the other boy's eyes, the ready smile on his face --
Charlie closed his eyes, remembering now the voice he had thought he had heard earlier, calling his name. Mike. "It was Mike I heard a while ago, calling my name."
He had to explain to the others then what he had heard.
Adrian, who had leaned against the seat and put his arms around Kippy, looked up. "He was calling for you, Charlie. I think you're right."
Kippy nodded, tears on his face. "I do, too. As soon as I looked at Charlie's face, I could see it."
"They're not dead," Ricky said fiercely. "I would feel it!"
"No," Charlie agreed, a small feeling of hope within him. I would know if they had died, somehow, he told himself. He closed his eyes, and briefly tuned the others out. He took a breath, relaxed as much as he could, and tried to find the voice he had heard earlier. "Mike?"
For a moment nothing happened. And then...slowly, as if a light was turned on deep within the black depths of the sea, a momentary vision swam into view. A small place, tight, claustrophobic, even, the walls indistinct in the poor light, yet somehow looking crumpled. What light there was came from tiny spots on the front of spacesuit-clad figures - four of them. One large figure was seated on the deck, back to the crumpled wall, it's helmet canted forward, motionless. Two human-sized figures were crouched nearby, a third, even smaller one, being held between them. The small suited figure appeared limp, almost lifeless.
"Mike!" Charlie whispered now.
One of the human figures turned, and Charlie briefly saw the Aussie boy's face within the clear face plate, his eyes staring. "Charlie?"
And then the vision faded away. Charlie willed it to come back, waited desperately to see it again...but nothing else came to him. He opened his eyes, and was immediately aware of the silence around him.
"I didn't feel anything," Kippy said, shaking his head. "But I can see it in Charlie. You did see them."
"Something new is happening," Max said quietly. "Charlie?"
Charlie nodded. "I did see them. All of them. Crammed into a very small space together. Kontus looked out of it, maybe passed out against the wall. Mike and Bobby were holding Pacha between them. He...something seemed wrong with him."
Max nodded. "That may explain it."
Charlie turned to look at the elf questioningly.
"Why they didn't teleport out," Max continued. "Pach is good enough at movement now he could have returned them all to Earth, or Kift, or Engris. But he didn't." The elf nodded. "It also explains why I can't talk to him."
"That's how you knew," Charlie said. "You lost touch with Pacha."
"Yeah. It was like a tiny light got turned off in my head." Max swallowed hard. "That doesn't usually happen unless someone is...gone."
Kippy leaned past Charlie. "You mean dead?"
The elf winced, and briefly closed his eyes. "Maybe. Or unconscious at a level beyond normal sleep, anyway. Or...or something dire."
"You can't go look?" Adrian asked. "You can't teleport to Pacha's ship to see what happened?"
For just a second, Max actually looked frightened. "I...I can't seem to find it."
Charlie shook his head, unwilling to consider the loss of any of his friends. He had just seen them, hadn't he? Hadn't he?
He turned to stare at Max. "What happened? Why could I see them?"
Max frowned, "Charlie, all of you have been growin', since the day I first met you. I've sensed the changes in you boys, and have wondered what they would eventually mean." He gave a small shrug of one shoulder. "This would seem to be a new aspect of that growth."
"Well, what is it? I mean, I saw them. I said Mike's name, and it looked like he heard me. Is it telepathy or something?"
Max forced a smile. "Or something. Charlie, this is not an ability within my own experience. But I do know of it."
"What is it, Max?" Kippy asked. "Does it mean they really are alive?"
"I think so. I hope so." The elf bit at his lip, as if deciding what to say next. "You didn't just see this inside your head, Charlie. For a moment, you were there."
Total silence greeted that pronouncement.
"He never left us," Kippy said then. "I had hold of his arm the whole time."
Max rubbed his chin. "If this is what I sense it is, it's a pretty rare talent, called split-presence."
Ricky made an astonished sound. "Like being in two places at one time?"
"Yeah. Very much like that."
"How?" Charlie asked, stunned that there might be something happening inside himself that he'd had no knowledge of until this moment. "I never left this seat. I could feel it under me, even when I saw Mike and the others."
"That's you," Max said quietly. "The real you. The anchor you." He laughed. "The you you were born with. What visited Mike was...the other you."
Ricky emitted a frustrated sound, and Adrian immediately put a comforting arm around him. "What does that mean?"
Max gave a little nod. "We all have ties of the heart, guys. People we feel close to. People we care about. For me, I always know where these people are, and what might be happening to them. I can sense when they are happy, or when there's a problem." He shook his head. "I can even see them and talk to them, as long as they are in a location I can find. And go to them, too, or bring them to me. You know...teleport?"
"You brought Rick and Adrian here just now," Kippy pointed out. "Can't you get Pacha and the others the same way?
Max looked pained. "This stuff is complicated sometimes, fellas. I can sense Rick and Adrian, and I also know their locations because they were at Rick's, and his house is in the location guidebook. I told you about that, remember? Every place an elf has been before gets put into the guidebook. Once its there, any other elf can find that place, too." He shook his head. "I lost touch with Pacha, but I can still sense him and the others. But I don't know where they are. Wherever it is, it ain't in the guidebook."
Charlie nodded. "So what just happened to me is like what you sense, but different?"
"Uh huh. You can actually go to the people you know. But it's not moving like an elf would do. Not teleporting. You send your other self, instead."
"My other self." Charlie repeated the phrase, but shook his head. "I have no idea how I did it."
Max blew out a frustrated breath. "I don't really know, either. I've never seen this magic before. You were able to go to them, but I wasn't able to follow your path. I still don't know where they are."
Murcha, who had remained silent as they talked, spoke up again. "I have arrived in your system and am inbound to Earth. Shall I pick you up at Myer's Hill?"
"Nix that," Max said immediately. "I can bring us all aboard from here. But not yet. Just hang out by the moon when you get here, Murcha. We'll be along as soon as we can."
"Very well. Ceasing communication." The avatar disappeared, and Charlie closed the communicator. He leaned back in the seat and went to slide it into the pocket of his jeans, when it started humming again.
"Murcha must have forgot something," Kippy said, trying to smile. "So much for being the perfect intellect."
Charlie managed a weak smile, too, and flipped up the lid. A light glowed into being above the device, and again an avatar looked out at them. Only this time, it was not Murcha's cat eyes that met Charlie's.
The alien nodded. "Charlie, you need us."
Charlie shook his head slightly, stunned at this new development. "What?"
Ragal smiled patiently. "Casper and I. You need us. We'll be ready for pick up when you arrive at Engris."
Max laid a hand on Charlie's shoulder, and nodded emphatically when Charlie looked at him.
"Um...okay," Charlie said, turning his gaze back to the face of the alien hovering above the com. "You know what's happened?"
"No. I only know that you need Casper and me to go wherever you are going." The alien's eyes narrowed. "Time is of the essence, Charlie. We'll be ready when you get here."
"Um, okay. See you soon."
Ragal nodded, and the connection terminated. Charlie closed the communicator and stared at it. "Does everyone know what's going on but me?"
Ricky laughed in the back seat. "Hell, I'm totally lost." He turned to Adrian. "What about you?"
Adrian managed a smile, and wrapped an arm around his boyfriend's and leaned up against him. "Not a clue. But I do feel somehow that things are coming together like they should."
"I do, too," Kippy said. He laid his head over on Charlie's shoulder. "We're doing what we're supposed to be doing so far. Let's go, okay?"
Charlie turned to look at Max. "How did Ragal know?"
The elf's eyes were bright now. "He's a puzzle, that one. But I've learned to trust his instincts."
Charlie gave a little sigh. "Okay. Anyone else coming?"
"No. Frit and Pip and Keerby are aware something is going on, but I've told them it's official business. They ain't happy, but they're staying put."
Kippy leaned forward to look past Charlie. "Are you sure they can't help?"
Max shook his head slowly. "No. I ain't sure. But I just feel we need to keep our party small this time. At least for now." He smiled. "Besides, we can always bring in all the help we need later. Lollipop is in the location manual now, remember? One quick call, and we can fill the ship with help." He briefly closed his eyes. "Murcha's close now. We should go."
Charlie took a deep breath, and nodded. "Do me a favor, Max? Put my mom's car back in our driveway? She may need it while we're gone."
The elf patted the top of the car door. "Sure. But I'll be keeping the passage of time for us to a minimum, okay? You guys can't just go missing for days at a time, you know?"
Charlie nodded, and leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes. Kippy hugged his arm, and rubbed his cheek against Charlie's shoulder. "We can do this. We can do this, Charlie."
"I hope so." Charlie did not feel so sure about it. Once again a new situation had been deposited squarely in their laps. The last thing he had expected to happen today was some new power coming to life inside of him. He considered that, and then a startling thought arose.
Maybe it was a question of need? My friends are in danger. I would want to know. I would want to help!
He felt a sudden need for speed. To hurry, to get things rolling. Even as he sensed the car fading from beneath them, and the odd sense of flitting through the night that elf transport often gave him, Charlie tuned it all out, and once again sought out that strange place he had been to before, and tried to find Mike and the others again.
"Mike! Bobby! We're coming!" he thought, with every ounce of his being.