There's A Devil in the Dark, Charlie Boone! - 9. Chapter 9
"Look at the town!" Kippy whispered, as the truck moved along main street.
Charlie was already doing that. The town seemed to be laid out much like the Kinniston they knew back home, but there the similarity ended. The buildings here were much like Carl Wolfbridge's house in appearance, grim and scary looking, the rows of shops looking to have a definite tendency to lean outward towards the street in a manner that Charlie found threatening. The facades were grim and gray, yet the windows were all brightly lit with red or orange lights, and signs pronouncing 'Halloween sale! Everything 20% off!' were everywhere.
The sidewalks were full of people. Some were clearly vampires like their hosts, but there were more than a few others that resembled werewolves, monsters, or other scary creatures from the Halloween realm. There were even some that looked for all the world like people with sheets draped over their heads - a child's idea of a ghost. But these creatures glided along in a very unsettling fashion, bereft of any of the familiar motions a person made while walking. Even a person hidden under a sheet!
And, amazingly, there were some that looked like people. Men in business suits, women in dresses, even a few kids dressed for different sorts of sports or anything from play to attending a church wedding. These people moved among the others with the same exuberant cheer, laughing, talking excitedly, and calling, "Happy Halloween!', just as were the more frightening figures among them.
"They look weird, "Adrian said, just loudly enough to be heard over the whine of the truck's transmission. "The people, I mean. Puffy, or something. Like they're not healthy."
"The werewolves are pretty old fashioned, too," Ricky observed. "Like in those old black and white movies. Not that scary. Nothing like what you did, Charlie!"
They reached the little park in the center of town, and the truck drew up to the curb and the engine shut off. The center of town was well-lit, even though all the lights seemed to be red or orange. He could see that the gnarled trees present in the little park were draped with cobwebs, and even the forms of a couple of very large spiders, high among the branches.The jets of water from the fountain were somehow a brilliant, virulent green, offering a sense of danger that Charlie just couldn't account for. The weirdness of the scene before them simply took their breaths away.
Darf and Grim piled out of the cab and looked up at them. "Coming down?"
Ricky and Charlie went to the back of the flatbed and lowered themselves to the street. Adrian and Kip followed, and the two boys turned to help Horace down. The elves simply jumped, and landed lightly on the pavement, all of them smiling.
"I've never seen anything like this!" Frit said quietly, but with amazement clear in his voice.
"Spooky!" Pip agreed, trying to look everywhere at once.
"Clear case of a divergent culture, yet with similarities to many of the human cultures of earth," Keerby decided, shaking his head in wonder.
"It's amazingly strange," Horace decided, smiling at Charlie. "But wonderfully in keeping with the season!"
Charlie had to agree. The town was done up for the Halloween of all Halloweens, and yet...
"I think it's kind of normally this way, if you know what I mean," he returned to the man.
"Yes. I think you have something, Charlie."
Darf and Grim came around to the rear of the truck, each of them carrying something in their hands. Charlie stared at the thing Darf was holding, and felt his eyes widen. It looked for all the world like a blow-up sex doll!
Darf grinned, and turned to Grim. "Time to suit up, huh?"
The other vampire nodded, and both vampires shook out their dolls. Darf found a hidden zipper on the front of his, pulled it down, and then lowered the doll and stepped into the legs of it. He quickly pulled it up around himself like a pair of coveralls, felt behind his head, and then pulled up a hood over it which covered his face completely. He then pulled up the front zipper, sealing the suit around himself. There was an immediate sound like air hissing into a balloon, and the suit firmed into a duplicate of the odd puffy humans walking around them!
"Not nearly as good as the get-ups you guys have," Darf said, patting the front of his suit. He now looked like a human in a set of running sweats, with a full head of blond hair and a big, goofy smile plastered across his face.
"Yeah, but you still give me chills!" Grim said approvingly, looking his friend up and down. "If I ran into you on a dark street looking like that, I'd run screaming!"
Adrian gave a brief laugh at that, perhaps recalling his own comment about Charlie back on the road.
Charlie tried not to smile at the costume that the second vampire was wearing. This was of a man in Bermuda shorts, a tank top, and canvas deck shoes, with hairy legs sprouting out of the shorts, and a big, floppy Panama hat on his head. The face beneath the brim of the hat wore the same goofy smile that Darf's costume head, causing Charlie to suspect that a human smile was less than enchanting to these folk.
Darf gave another sigh, and looked Charlie up and down one last time. "Those have to be the new costumes from Japanastan that I've heard about."
Charlie gave a small nod. "I think that is where they came from."
"I can't even see the zipper!" Grim observed.
Darf nodded. "They're pretty scary, no question about it." He raised a hand and snapped his fingers then, and quickly unzipped the front of his suit. The air sighed out of it again, and it flattened around him. He reached inside, felt around, and produced a cell phone, which he held up towards them. "Do you mind if I take a few shots?"
Charlie and Kip smiled at each other. "Go ahead, "Kippy said, nodding.
Darf held the phone up, aimed the lens at them, and took shots of everyone, moving the camera as needed. Then he sighed, pushed the camera back inside his suit, pulled up the zipper, and pointed at them as the costume reinflated. "I'm definitely going to get me one of those suits for next year!"
Grim chuckled. "Yeah, but this is now, Darf. How about we get moving and mix a little?"
"Works for me." Darf cast one last, envious look at Charlie's costume, and then gave them all a little wave. "We'll see you guys around, I'm sure.The night is young!"
"Have fun!" Grim called, as he and his friend moved off into the crowd.
Charlie felt a bump against his shoulder, and turned to find Kip beside him. "You okay? Charlie whispered.
"Yeah. Just a little creeped out. If Keerby can't get us out of here, we'd have to live the rest of our lives here!"
"That's not true," the elf said, coming to stand beside them. "I'm already on the trail of the chrono-core that Pyewacket made to send us here. I should be able to unravel it eventually and get us home. But in case I can't, I've already had Blinken contact one of the hernacki that pals around with Nicholaas. He's aware of where we are now."
Charlie felt a wave of relief pass over him. "That's great! Isn't it, Kip?"
Kippy grinned, some of his old confidence back on display. "It's a load off my mind!"
"I just want some time to try to get this unwound myself," Keerby said. "This reality has no time-constant with our own back home. Even if we were here a year, we'd get back right after we left."
"I do not want to stay here for a year!" Kippy said firmly.
"And we won't," Keerby reassured him. "I was just using that time to illustrate how the two realities don't mix. I think I can get this solved in under 24 hours, or not at all. One more day, Kip? Then, no matter what, we go home. Nicholaas said he'd come and get us if I can't figure this out."
Kippy nodded. "Well, that's different." And then his smiled widened. "I don't suppose you'd like to seal the deal with a kiss?"
Keerby shook his head. "I have a girl, Kip."
"Like that matters?"
Keerby laughed, looked around briefly at the crowds, then quickly leaned forward and deposited a quick peck to Kippy's lips. "There. Happy?"
Kippy turned a stunning smile on Charlie. "On second thought, staying here a year with Keerby might not be so bad, after all! I might have time to turn him to our side!"
The elf looked embarrassed, and Charlie rolled his eyes. "Be nice, Kip."
His boyfriend sighed, and patted Keerby's arm. "I was just kidding. I'm sorry." But the twinkle in his eyes said something else entirely.
Charlie turned to look at the people walking by them. The mix was amazing, really. Vampires and werewolves and ghosts, and a few creatures Charlie didn't recognize. One giant shambled by, easily seven feet tall, and Charlie realized with a start that here was a Sasquatch like Darf had been talking about. Most of the passersby paused in their steps to gaze at the humans, obviously finding their 'costumes' as amazing as Darf and Grim had. Most smiled, or made otherwise approving gestures; but a few quickened their steps and hastened away.
One female vampire, pulling a little girl vampire with pigtails past them, paused as the little girl simply stopped in her tracks to stare at the humans.
"Look, mommy. Monsters!"
The woman, who was ugly enough to make the hair on the back of Charlie's neck stand up, cast a single glance their way, before applying a gentle pull to the little girl's arm. "If you just stand there, they may get you!"
The little girl's eyes grew larger; and then she had hastened past her mother, and was pulling her along!
Adrian chuckled. "I never thought we'd meet the bogeyman, and he would be us!"
"A little illuminating, isn't it?" Horace decided. "Everything is relative, I guess."
"So who are the real people here?" Ricky asked. "The vampires?"
"So it would seem," Frit said. "They are in the majority, certainly."
"Or, it's a very popular costume!" Pip added.
"I think they are the norm here," Kippy said. "Remember how Darf and Grit laughed back on the road after they told us we looked great, and I said they did, too? They weren't even in their costumes yet!"
"I'm not sure that the vampires are the only natives here," Horace said. "Have you seen how the ghosts move about? They don't look like people walking underneath sheets to me!"
"I agree," Keerby said. "They're strange, and the sense I get from them is strange. Almost as if they are not living beings at all."
"Maybe they're not," Frit agreed. "I feel the same thing."
"The werewolves don't look like suits - not like the humans do," Horace observed. "I'm thinking they are real, too."
"And what about the Sasquatch?" Adrian reminded.
"Let's get out of the street," Charlie urged, pointing toward the sidewalk.
"Where should we go?" Kippy asked.
Ricky turned and pointed across the street. "I'm pretty sure that's the town hall. Maybe we could look up the mayor?"
"At night?" Adrian asked, frowning. "Even a mayor has a life."
"And this mayor would not know us," Frit reminded. "This Kinniston has no phantom. So the mayor here would never have summoned a ghost hunter at all."
It was then that Charlie was able to put a name to something he had been feeling, which had been nagging at him, but which he had been unable to identify. The feeling that the phantom was nearby, so strong back on their own world, was nowhere to be found here.
"I just realized that!" Charlie admitted. "I don't feel the phantom!"
"Neither do I!" Kippy added, the realization striking home now. "I was wondering what felt so different about this place!"
"You mean other than the vampires and werewolves and things," Adrian threw in, laughing.
"Well...yes. I knew something just felt different, but not what it was."
"This is not just a different planet," Keerby said patiently. "A different earth. This is a different reality altogether. Things happened differently here than back in the reality you know."
"But there are similarities," Charlie pointed out. "Even though the life here is different, vampires are creatures we know about."
"Do we?" Horace asked. "We only know of the legends and stories about them back on our own earth. Just because these people resemble those myths, does not mean the reality goes any farther. If humans are the monsters here, then the vampire's natural prey back home is something they fear here."
"You mean these vampires don't suck blood?" Kippy whispered.
"There's a way to find out," Horace said. "Let's walk around to Costigan's and see what people are eating there."
They did that, crossing the street and heading down the block until they arrived at the restaurant. Here the placed was named Kostagain's, however, and when they went inside and looked around the dining room, it was to see that everyone seated there had a dinner plate in front of them, with what looked like very normal meals on them. No glasses of blood, no steaks running red.
A server moved up to them with a rather gruesome smile on her face, showing both fangs handily. "Table for eight? Great costumes, by the way!"
"Well--" Charlie looked around at the others. He was actually a little bit hungry, but didn't think that everyone wanted to just sit in here while they were still figuring out what needed to be done.
"We just came in to see how crowded it was," Kippy supplied for him. "Well be back later to eat."
"I doubt it will get any busier than this," the woman said. "Everyone will be over at the fire, I'm sure."
"Probably," Charlie improvised. "But we may still come back later."
"Well, we'll be happy to see you." She waved a hand at them and gave a wondering shake of her head. "They're the new costumes from Japanastan?"
"Uh...yeah." Charlie nodded, and turned to lead their group back to the street.
"What fire, I wonder?" Kippy whispered, as they went out the door.
"Maybe that one," Ricky answered, pointing.
On the other side of the street, a fierce glow arose from behind the rows of shops. The way it flickered immediately suggested a fire of some sort.
Charlie nodded. "I guess we go and see!"
They crossed the street again, and walked down the other side until an alleyway between the shops presented itself. There was quite a bit of traffic through it, all heading back to the area behind the shops. They joined the crowd, many members of which looked at them in amazement.
"Great costumes!" someone called.
Charlie turned, found a werewolf among several others of its kind, giving them the thumbs up. He waved. "They're the new ones, from Japanastan!"
"I thought so! They're really bitchin'!"
"They seem to use that term a lot here," Kippy noted quietly.
"Werewolves might," Ricky put in, laughing. "And maybe the others just picked it up. That's how slang gets around!"
They reached the back of the alley and emerged into a large field ringed with trees. An enormous bonfire was burning out in the center of it, while various vampires and werewolves and a few others were managing a large supply of firewood nearby. Picnic tables stood everywhere, and portable grills stood next to most of them, their own thin streams of smoke adding to the barely visible cloud overhead. An antiquated-looking fire truck was parked off to one side, one with a cab similar to the one on the truck that had brought them into town. Two vampires and a werewolf in firefighting gear stood beside it, their helmets pushed back, their hands on their hips, watching the fire attentively.
There was a considerable noise of conversation, laughter, and calling back and forth, and kids in costumes of all kinds ran everywhere, having a good time. The adults seemed to be enjoying themselves just as much, and Charlie smiled, feeling the sense of community deeply. Here was a town that liked itself. These people might look different, but they got along very well, and the atmosphere they produced was certainly a happy one.
"I like it!" Kippy said, just loudly enough to be heard. "This looks like fun!"
Charlie nodded, turned, and found Keerby. "Anything we need to be doing?"
"No, Charlie. I'm working on a way to get us home, but it's all in my head. None of you can help."
"You still think you can unravel this thing in a single day?"
The elf nodded. "Chrono-cores can only be so complex, Charlie. It's grasping how they are put together that makes all the difference. I know how to do that now, so it's just a matter of time." He smiled. "It's like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. You find all the right pieces, and make them fit to get the picture."
Charlie laughed. "If you say so."
The group stood quietly for a moment, watching everything going on around them. People going by often stared back, their reactions running the gamut from surprise and admiration to outright shock and a desire to be elsewhere. The boys endured it well, waving and calling back to those that hollered their way.
"Maybe not smile quite so much," Frit said at one point. "They seem to find that frightening."
And then, one fellow walking by, a werewolf with quite a bit of gray in his fur, glanced their way and then simply stopped in his tracks. He turned back to them, and stood and simply stared a moment. A skeptical look narrowed his eyes, and then he casually walked around them in a circle, eyeing them, almost as if they were inanimate objects instead of people. Finally, he came back around to the front and moved a little closer.
"And what are you supposed to be?"
Charlie wasn't sure how to answer that. "What's it look like?"
The man cast a brief look to either side, and then moved a little closer. "It's okay. I'm not someone that doesn't believe in humans."
Charlie had to laugh. "They're suits," he explained. "The new ones, from Japanastan."
The other's look of skepticism deepened. "Of course they are. Open one up, and show me who is inside."
Of course that wasn't possible. Charlie felt a moment of worry, and then realized there wasn't much to do but bluster their way through this. "And who might you be?"
The werewolf moved even closer. "I'm Professor Pilfer J. Dithering, of the University of N'yok's Parapsychology Department." He looked around again casually before returning his gaze to meet Charlie's. "You really should be more careful. The Overlord's secret police are everywhere, maybe even at backwoods galas like this one." He shook his head. "That story about new costumes from Japanastan won't fool them, either."
Charlie looked over at Kip, and then Horace, slightly at a loss for what to say next.
Horace immediately moved closer. "May I ask what you are doing here, sir?"
The professor smiled. "I grew up here. I always come home for the Halloween gala." He glanced around again, and then shook his head. "These are my people here. I don't want them in any trouble for harboring enemy aliens."
"Enemy aliens?" Ricky repeated, in almost a hiss.
"Relax. I know that you didn't come here by choice. I'm a part of the Circle. We've helped your kind escape before."
"The Circle," Charlie repeated, giving a small shake to his head. "What is that?"
The werewolf blinked his brown eyes at them. "You must have just arrived, then. So of course you can't know." He looked around again, and then raised a hand towards them. "Perhaps we can go somewhere less public to talk? If you'll come with me, I know a place." He widened his eyes, as if to accent his next words. "You're not safe here."
Charlie looked over at the elves then. They were still the best judges of character and motivation in others among their group.
Frit smiled, and motioned to the professor with his hand. "Lead the way."
The werewolf nodded, and turned and walked casually away from them.
"Let's go," Charlie said. "Act natural."
Kippy snorted. "Here? You're kidding!"
But they fell into a group and sauntered across the field after the professor, looking to any onlookers to be just another bunch of teen boys - and one older man - having a good time, dressed in the finest Halloween costumes that Japanastan had to offer.
At the far side of the field they found a lot where cars were parked. They were also of the bulbous, chromey sort that might have been seen on the roads of America in the late 1940s. This planet seemed to be a strange mix of the modern and the antique. They walked through the lines of parked cars, and out the other side.
There, parked before them, was another antique-looking vehicle, this one a truck. But instead of a flatbed, it had behind the cab a large, long ovoid made of shiny aluminum, with a door in the side, and a pair of windows beside the door.
Professor Dithering slowed, and smiled back at them. "My bus home. I always travel here in it for Halloween. The rooming houses in town are always full at this time of the year."
The man dug in the fur on his chest, and pulled a lanyard from around his neck, bearing several keys. He selected one and unlocked the door of the bus home. "I think we can all fit inside."
They did. The interior of the vehicle was very similar to the mobile homes Charlie had seen back on earth, though there was just enough of an old-fashioned quality to the furnishings to remind them that they were not at home at all.
They all managed to find seats, and sat facing the professor, who stood. "How long have you been here?"
"A few hours," Charlie revealed. He was still not sure how much he could trust this man.
"They probably haven't got a lock on you, then," the professor decided. "That's a good thing."
"A lock?" Kippy asked.
"Yes. On your mental powers. Witch lore here is very well studied. I'm something of an expert in the field myself."
Keerby leaned forward. "Your people have devices that can detect mental powers?"
The professor laughed. "Not devices. Sensitives of our own. There are a few, and the Overlord controls all the ones he can find."
"Your Overlord sounds nasty," Adrian decided.
"He's not. Not to our people, I mean. But he has a very low tolerance for human invaders."
"We're not invading anything," Ricky argued. "We didn't come here by choice."
"I know that. Perhaps even the Overlord knows that. But the fiction of alien invaders among the upper levels is important to cover the occasional use of unconstitutional methods of collecting them. Most cases of contact are kept quiet, but there have been a few cases that have just not been able to be hidden. Even so, most people in the public sector believe they're publicity stunts of some kind."
"Sounds a little nasty," Kippy offered.
"It's life," the other countered. "The Overlord is not cruel, but he is extremely jealous of this nation's welfare. The Undivided States of Mericah is a world power, and we have to protect ourselves from threats of aggression from foreign powers on and off the planet. That's the official line, anyway."
"But the people here all seem to know about humans," Charlie reminded.
"Of course. But only as supernatural creatures. Most people don't really believe in you." The professor smiled. "Hence their willingness to accept your amazing 'costumes'!"
"But you believe," Adrian offered.
"Yes. It's part of my area of study. Your kind have been showing up here for several hundred years that we know about. Academia would love to welcome you. Politics - a different story. No one there wants a bunch of aliens with extreme mental powers running loose. It's scary. To the government, anyway!"
"Kill the competition, huh?" Ricky said acidly.
The werewolf spread his hands in reluctant acceptance of the idea. "It's a scrob eat scrob world."
Charlie and Kip blinked at each other questioningly at that one, but neither made an attempt to learn more.
"What's this Circle thing you spoke of?" Horace asked.
The professor sighed. "A group of people like me, mostly in the field of parapsychology, but a few others, who know that your kind come here as victims, not aggressors. That all of you are not like the few that have arrived and sought to use their powers to dominate others."
"There's a few bad apples in every barrel," Ricky stated, sighing. "We're sorry about that."
The werewolf waved a hand in dismissal. "It's a complicated universe. There are very few among the Four Races with your kind of talents. Most are ghosts, but there have been a few others."
"The Four Races?" Adrian repeated. "Werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and Sasquatches?"
Professor Dithering smiled. "Of course. There are a few other races here, namely the Ghouls, the Ogres, and the Zombies, but they are standoffish and have never joined the Unified Nations."
"And you all get along?" Adrian asked, as if he couldn't believe it.
"Mostly. Oh, sure, there have been a few wars in the past. Not in my lifetime, not since the Overlord was elected leader of Mericah. He's introduced a very stable period in our history. Most people are anxious to help keep it going."
Charlie pointed out through one of the windows. "If the people out there knew we were really humans, they would be afraid?"
"Yes. And do everything they could to capture you or do you in." The professor pointed at them. "Only the knowledge of the new human costumes available for Halloween has saved you. Everyone has seen the ads, how lifelike the costumes are. And, frankly, there are just a lot of people that don't believe in humans, and think all the scare stories are made up to frighten the kids. Almost anyone seeing you will think 'costume' long before they would suspect you were the real thing."
Kippy sighed. "And I was beginning to like the people here."
"They're good people," Dithering countered. "But even good people can do bad things when they're scared."
That brought a nod of understanding from everyone.
"Best thing we can do is to not give them any reason to fear us," Keerby said. "Besides, we'll be gone in less than a day."
The professor narrowed his eyes. "Gone?"
"Yes. Unlike many others that have arrived here, we are learning now how it was done, and working on a way to undo it that will return us to the world we know."
The professor cocked his head at the elf. "My understanding was that some ethereal entity was responsible for sending you people here. And that the method used was so unfathomable that it could not be countered."
"That was before we began to understand what was happening," Pip put in. "Now we have ways to counter that process."
Charlie squinted at the werewolf. "You said this Circle of yours helped humans to escape from here. How can you do that, if you don't understand the processes involved?"
"Easy. We send them away, but we don't know where they go. All that is known by the humans involved is that to stay here means incarceration or death. Any alternative is preferable."
Kippy harumphed. "How do you send them away?"
The professor rubbed his hands together a moment. "A device, called the reintegrator. It's based on principles of our own parapsychological understanding, supplemented by knowledge shared with us by the humans that have come here."
Ricky cast a sideways glance at Charlie before speaking. "And where is this device located?"
The professor looked briefly resolute. "In a safe place. I cannot tell you. But I can take you to it."
"We have our own way out of here," Keerby offered. "All we need is a safe place to stay until we work it out."
The professor was silent a moment. Then: "It's dangerous. The Overlord's sensitives will pinpoint you if you remain in one place for very long. If you have already been here for hours, I'm kind of surprised they haven't located you already."
"Maybe they have," Pip said then. "There seem to be a number of people outside paying a lot of attention to your vehicle."
The professor looked alarmed. He moved to one of the windows, and peered out between the blinds that covered them. "I don't see anyone," he said after a moment.
"They're there," Pip insisted. "And more are coming. I sense vehicles converging on us from several directions."
"We need to do something!" Horace said urgently.
The werewolf squeezed his eyes shut, almost as if he was in pain. "Then we're caught. There is nothing to do but surrender now."
"Screw that!" Ricky said, jumping to his feet. "Just let them try to come inside!"
"We're going," Frit said. "Everyone relax."
The vehicle suddenly lurched slightly to one side, and then a feeling of acceleration hit them. They could see through the forward windshield of the vehicle, and everyone watched in stunned silence - everyone but the elves, that is - as the trees slowly seemed to sink before them...and then they were flying away over the colorful canopy into the night!
"We're airborne!" the professor yelled, his shock at the idea plain.
"Which way?" Frit asked then. "I need to go someplace and not just fly around. I can detect the minds behind us that found us, but they are unable to follow us. But even as we speak, those we left are alerting others with flying machines at their disposal."
The professor shook his head as if to clear it. "Where? Oh...um...go north! How fast can you go?"
Frit smiled. "Faster than the shell of your vehicle can stand. Pip? You wanna shield us so that I can kick some ass here?"
"Gotcha. Let's go!"
The sense of acceleration increased considerably.
"How far north?" Frit asked. "We're already fifty miles from where we started."
"Fifty miles!" The professor's mouth dropped open in amazement.
"We have to go somewhere," Frit reminded, when the man made no move to comply. "Unless you just want to fly completely around the planet!"
Professor Dithering shook his head. "None of your kind have displayed such powers before! Who are you people?"
Charlie reached up and pulled the man down to sit beside him. "There are many levels of power among the human race. Those of great power are seldom shanghaied to your reality by these 'ethereal beasts' you mentioned. Most of the humans that have come here in the past have been very low power. We're likely the first of any real power to have made the trip. But we don't want to stay here!"
"Aircraft rising from several locations," Keerby announced. "They appear to be jet-powered. They can be here in a matter of minutes."
"The air force!" the professor whispered. "They're after us! They'll shoot us down!""
Frit shook his head then. "Pip, make that shield hold air, okay? I'm going a different way!"
The nose of the truck lifted then. The moon spun past the view in the forward windshield, and then only the stars were above them. They were going up!
"Your people have anything that can reach orbit?" Keerby asked the professor.
The man looked horrified. "Orbit! We'll die!"
"No, we won't," Keerby reassured him. "We're in a shielded bubble of air at atmospheric pressure. It will only last so long without being refreshed, but for that length of time, we will have air to breathe."
"I'm heating the interior of the shield, as well," Pip told them. "We'll be fine."
"I can't believe such powers!"
"Do your people have anything that can reach orbit?" Keerby repeated.
Charlie gave the professor a gentle push. "Answer him!"
"Well...we've been to the moon and back. There's the space station. But...no. It would take them a while to get anything ready to go that high."
"Then we have some breathing room," Frit said. "Keerby, you need to get to work on our way outta here!"
The other elf laughed. "I'm working on it!"
Presently, the vehicle leveled off again. Charlie got up and moved forward to look out the front windshield. The curve of the planet filled the sky below then, blue and white and green and brown, just as their own earth would be. "Professor? You might want to see this."
The werewolf got up slowly and came forward. His eyes widened as he stopped next to Charlie, and he simply stared at the vista beyond the windshield for a long time before finally speaking. "It's so beautiful!"
"Yes, it is," Charlie confirmed. "It looks much like our own world looks from this height."
"I'm absorbing the microwaves they're beaming our way, trying to track us," Pip put in. "We should be able to drop back down and land somewhere undetected, if you want."
"It will only be a matter of time before the sensitives find you again," Professor Dithering pointed out. "Eventually they will get us!"
Pip chortled happily. "How little you know!"
"Not us!" Frit agreed.
"Tell me about these sensitives," Charlie instructed. "Their capabilities. Do they have a range?"
"Well...yes. The best I have ever heard of can only detect your people within a range of about one hundred miles."
"And are these sensitives everywhere?"
The professor looked surprised, and then smiled. "Everywhere in Mericah. But not everywhere in the world. Or, they are only organized in the industrialized nations where studies of your kind have been made."
"There you go," Horace said, smiling. "We just need to be someplace less civilized!"
Kippy, standing behind Charlie, gave a chuckle. "So we head for Outer Mongolia, right?"
Professor Dithering looked somehow reinvigorated again. "No. Any less developed nation will do." Suddenly he looked excited. "I know just the place! I have a colleague who lives in a very out of the way place in Europa. He is normally located at one of the big universities there, but has gone home to his mountains for a vacation. I just spoke with him the other day. He was saying then that it would be so good to get away from simply everything!"
"Europa?" Charlie repeated. "East, across the ocean from Mericah?"
"But of course, you cannot know. Yes, it is the continent eastward of Mericah, across the Lantic Ocean."
Ricky and Adrian, who had been listening until now, stood up.
"What will your friend think of you showing up with a bunch of humans?" Ricky asked.
"And in a flying motor home?" Adrian added.
The werewolf threw his head back and laughed. "Oh, he will be overjoyed! Costel will love meeting you!"
"Costel?" Charlie repeated. "Can he be trusted?"
"Yes. He is a member of the Circle. A very underutilized member, too, who is always complaining that nothing exciting ever happens in his part of the world. He will be overjoyed to meet you!"
Ricky gave a little shrug Charlie's way. "What do you think?"
Charlie returned the shrug. "We can't just hang out up here all day." He looked over at Kippy. "Any port in a storm?"
"Seems stormy enough to me, Charlie. I trust your judgment in these things. Go for it."
"I'll just need directions," Frit told them.
"East, towards the rising sun," The professor instructed. "You said that we cannot be detected on radar just now?
"No," Pip answered. "Just a simple matter of absorbing the frequencies they use and converting them to something else. Nothing returns to them, so they can't track us."
The werewolf shook his head. "Amazing. Just amazing."
"What about optically?" Charlie asked. "Can they still see us?"
"I can fix that, too," the elf answered. "Trust me. They won't be able to follow us."
Charlie nodded, and turned to Frit. "Then you can drop us down some. We'll need to see the landmasses better so that the professor can direct us."
The werewolf laughed. "Even then, it will not be easy. I would suggest we head for a large city that can be identified by sight, and then land, and get directions, and drive to where Costel lives in the Carpathian Mountains."
Charlie's eyebrows did a brief dance. "The Carpathian Mountains? We have a similarly named mountain range at home."
"Really? How wonderful. Costel lives in the eastern part of the range, in a country called Romani."
Charlie couldn't help a surprised laugh. "Romania, on our world." He leaned forward. "Where are we heading?"
"Costel lives in the mountains near a small city called Cluj-Napoca."
Charlie laughed again, and Kippy and the others just stared at him.
"What's so funny?" Ricky asked.
Charlie turned to him. "Well, back on earth, the region where we're heading has a rather storied past."
"Indeed it does!" Horace agreed, smiling.
"It does here, too," the professor supplied. "The area is the ancestral home of the vampire race."
Kippy's jaw dropped. "You don't mean...?"
Charlie nodded, grinning. "Yep. Transylvania!"
Kippy looked amazed. "So this Costel is a vampire?" he asked the professor.
The werewolf chuckled. "No. Costel is a Sasquatch, of course."
"Of course!" Kippy returned, rolling his eyes at Charlie.
* * * * * * *
The motor home bounced along the narrow mountain road, shimmying in time with the uneven surface. Everything was bathed in the most amazing, white moonlight, the full moon now directly overhead seeming uncannily bright.
"Less maria than our own moon," Charlie had determined earlier, after inspecting it before they had landed. "Less dark areas, so it reflects more sunlight. Impressive, actually."
"Makes the place look creepy, if you ask me," Kippy had replied.
The road snaked its way across a valley between peaks, and was not at all bashful about showing them impressive drop offs to one side now and then, and without any sort of guardrails in place to moderate the threat of a fall. But the motor home was both more powerful and more sure-footed than they would have believed, once again showing that appearances were not everything. The vehicle might look like it was from the forties, but its performance was modern in more ways than one.
"You weren't kidding about your friend living in an out of the way place!" Charlie said now, squinting ahead of them as the headlights bobbed up and down on the gravelly road.
He was sitting in the passenger seat, while the professor drove the motor home.
"Oh, this is just a side road," Dithering replied. "I just had you land us here so that no one would possibly be around to see. There is a better road up ahead, that we can take to reach Costel's home."
"You've been here before?" Adrian asked, from further back.
"Yes. Just two years ago. Costel and I both attended university in Edinburo twenty-five years ago to obtain our degrees, and we have been good friends ever since."
"Edinburo?" Charlie repeated. "Scotland?"
"Yes, of course."
"Just checking. So you have known Costel a long time."
Yes." The werewolf briefly looked his way. "He can be trusted. When I talked to him on the phone and told him I was coming, he was elated."
"You didn't mention us," Charlie returned, recalling the conversation. "Won't he be surprised?'
"Certainly. But he will be thrilled even more! I mean, to actually meet humans in the flesh...!"
Kippy gave a little sigh from behind Charlie. "We're used to such acclaim. It goes with being daring young men who live by their wits, their talents, and their beautiful smiles."
Charlie sighed. "He's kidding. Don't mind him. He hasn't had his nap yet today."
Professor Dithering gave a gravelly laugh of his own. "Oh, I find you all very witty!"
"We try," Ricky said, a little caustically. "We're not at our best just now."
The werewolf gave no sign of being insulted. "I can well imagine. I can only wonder how I would be if thrown suddenly into an unfamiliar world. I think you're all doing very well, actually."
Ahead of them, a sign appeared, written in recognizable symbols, but not making much sense.
Kippy leaned forward and placed his chin gently on Charlie's shoulder. "That's not Cyrillic, is it?"
"No," the professor said, before Charlie could answer. "They use the Latin alphabet here, though with an additional five characters needed to reproduce the language." He cast a glance back at Kip."The differences are in pronunciation. There are three usages of the letter 'a', two of the letter 'i', and two of the letter 't'. Those are the standard 'a', the 'a-breve', the 'a-circumflex', the standard 'i', the 'i-circumflex, the standard 't', and the 't-comma'. They provide the clues to the varying usage of the vowels in the spoken language."
Charlie turned and smiled at his boyfriend. "Ask a professor, huh?"
Kippy smiled. "Yeah. Sorry."
Professor Dithering laughed. "No matter. Costel speaks very good Anglish. You will all understand him just fine."
There were two more signs, and then one that was clearly intended to get vehicles to stop. They arrived at the end of the gravelly road and found themselves facing a two-lane blacktop road that disappeared around a curve to their left, and another curve to their right.
"This is the one," the professor said, sighing. "Only another ten minutes or so, and we'll be there."
"I could use some sleep, actually," Kip said, rubbing his chin gently against Charlie's shoulder. "It's been a long day."
The new road was much better, and the motor home cruised along its paved surface much more smoothly now. The ride was gentle enough, in fact, that Charlie felt his eyelids getting heavy. He put a hand up to his mouth and yawned, and felt Kippy's jaw flex on his shoulder as his boyfriend smiled. "You, too?"
"A few hours of shuteye wouldn't hurt," Charlie admitted.
But a new sound came to his ears then, one that was all too familiar, and he suddenly sat up a little straighter. "Is that a siren?"
The professor glanced into his side mirrors, and nodded. "Motorcycle cop, by the looks of it." He looked over at Charlie. "Perhaps a wise idea for you all to get into the back of the bus, and get down out of sight."
Charlie got up and went with the others to the back of the motor home, by the two beds, and they all managed to find places to squat down.
"I can take care of this if the needs arises," Frit whispered.
"Make him forget his own name!" Pip added, gleefully.
"We'll just wait and let the professor handle this for now, okay?" Charlie warned.
"You're no fun!" Pip whispered, and both he and Frit giggled.
"Shh!" Horace cautioned, around a smile of his own.
The professor turned off the interior lights then, and pulled the vehicle to the shoulder of the road. "Quiet now, " he whispered back to them.
The motorcycle passed them, and the glow of its headlight stopped in front of the motor home. The engine shut off. They heard the brief, incoherent babble of a radio then, and then the scuff of booted feet along the pavement. Charlie raised his head slightly and watched as the professor looked out his side window.
"Permisul dumneavoastră, vă rog," a deep voice said outside.
"I'm sorry, I only speak Anglish," the professor returned.
"Ah. Your permit, please."
The professor apparently produced the required document, and handed it out the window. "Was I going too fast?"
"Nu. Your vehicle bears plates of a foreign nation, with no local add-on designating permission to operate it here in Romani."
"I was intending to get those," Dithering replied. "It's after hours, you know."
"Then you should not be operating the vehicle until that time, cetăţean."
There was a brief moment of silence, and then Professor Dithering gave a small grunt. "I have official permission to be out."
"Yes? Then you know the secret words."
"Yes, I do."
"Then give them to me, please."
The professor cleared his throat. "Afghanistan banana stand."
They heard a surprised grunt, and then Charlie saw a hairy hand return the professor's papers. "My apologies, sir. I could not know, of course. You must expect to be stopped until you get that permission plate attached to your current one. It is the law."
"Oh, I understand. My fault. I certainly bear you no ill-will for simply doing your job."
"Thank you." And the cop's voice really did sound grateful! "You may proceed now. May I ask how far you drive this night?"
"Just a few more kilometers, and then I will be there," the professor returned.
"Da.That is fine, then. I am the only officer along this stretch of road. You should not be bothered again. Good night, domnule."
"Oh, good night. And, thank you!"
They heard the scuff of boots on pavement again, and then the the engine of the motorcycle starting up. The lights out front brightened as the officer turned the bike around, and then it was off down the road again, going back the way it had come.
"It's safe to come back," the professor said then, sounding relieved.
Charlie and the others moved forward.
"What was that about?" he asked. "What was all that secret word stuff?"
Dithering smiled. "The local police are well-known to be rather zealous. Costel gave me the code words on the phone, just in case."
Kippy hmmed. "And how did Costel know the official secret words?"
The professor's eyes boasted of a secret to be shared. "His brother-in-law is the chief of police here. The code changes each week, and is designed to keep officers from running afoul of dignitaries, the monied, and other people that might result in an investigation of local police practices. No one here wants that!"
"Ah," Horace put in, his eyes smiling. "A light comes on!"
"Well!" Kippy replied, tired enough by now to be argumentative. "You'd think the police were all corrupt or something!"
The professor held up his hands. "Here, foreigners are fair game, I am sorry to say. This is a poor land. Opportunities must be taken when they present themselves."
"It's more common in the world - even our world - than you think," Horace agreed.
"Can we get going?" Ricky asked, looking to end this particular conversation. "A bed would be nice about now."
"Feel free to lay down in back," Dithering replied. "But we shall be there shortly." He smiled at Horace. "Care to sit up front with me and talk?"
"I'd be honored. I love these boys, but sometimes they can be a little overwhelming."
"Come and tell me about it," Dithering offered, laughing. Horace cast a smile around at Charlie and the others, and then took the seat beside Dithering.
The boys moved back into the rear of the bus, found comfortable seats, and Charlie settled down with Kippy up against him. He put his arm around his boyfriend, and gave him a comforting squeeze. "We'll get home, don't worry."
"I'm not worried. Just tired."
Keerby came up the aisle and bent down by Charlie. "I have almost all the puzzle figured out, Charlie. We can go home in another five or six hours, I think."
Kippy raised a hand and waved it. "Yay!"
Charlie smiled at the elf. "Thanks, Keerby. I know that this has been a lot of work for you."
"It's been a challenge, but I've learned a lot. I will even be able to regulate how long we have been gone from earth, if you like. And where we reappear."
Charlie considered that. "Well...originally I was hoping we'd just pop back right after we left, in Carl Wolfbridge's den, with no time lost. But now I'm thinking we should go back after a little time...a half-hour, or an hour...after Pyewacket banished us. He shouldn't still be hanging around then. I'd hate to have him just kick us right back out to some other crazy time line."
Keerby frowned at that. "Well, there is that to consider. He can produce a new chrono-core much faster than I can counter it. I would also hate to take another trip like this one." He smiled. "So soon after the first one, anyway."
Charlie also smiled. "It's been kind of fun, in a weird sort of way."
"I wouldn't have missed it for all the tea in China," Kippy said, deadpan.
Charlie gave his boyfriend a squeeze. "Oh, come on. It's been interesting meeting these people, hasn't it?"
Kippy was silent a moment, and then seemed to relax beneath the curve of Charlie's arm. "Yes, it has. I just don't like being chased, is all."
"I'll second that," Ricky said, from across the aisle. "It's wearing."
Kerby nodded. "Anyway, let me get back to it. I just wanted you to know I'm almost there."
Kippy sighed after the elf had left them. "He's so sweet."
Charlie laughed, and gave his boyfriend another squeeze. "He's taken, remember?"
"Oh, Charlie." Kippy turned his head and pushed his lips against Charlie's cheek, and delivered a very heartfelt kiss. "He's cute and sweet, but he's not you. I like Keerby a lot. But I love you."
"I love you too, Kip."
Charlie turned his head, and this time their lips met in a kiss. Charlie felt his whole body respond, and wished for a moment that it could have been just the two of them, alone. "I can't wait to get home," he whispered.
The motor home gave a lurch then, and they felt it turn and start up a grade, the sound of gravel crunching beneath the tires plain now.
"Hold on," Charlie whispered, grinning, and pulled Kippy tighter against him.
For five more minutes the truck lurched over the uneven ground, and then it suddenly stopped, and the professor turned off the engine. "We're here!" he called back to them.
Charlie sighed, gave Kippy one more kiss, and then forced himself to his feet. "Come on, Kip. Let's see if this inn has a bed for rent!"
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