Charlie Boone: Is That A Rocket In Your Pocket, Charlie Boone? (Charlie Boone # 6)

Is That A Rocket In Your Pocket, Charlie Boone? (Charlie Boone # 6)

 

 

"It's the Fourth of July," Kippy Lawson said, gazing fretfully at Charlie Boone over a spoonful of cereal. "We have to make plans, or it will be too late."

Kippy's blonde hair was still tousled from bed, which gave the intent look in his pretty green eyes a greater level of seriousness than his words actually warranted. Charlie loved it when Kippy was on a mission, because all that purpose always accented the sweet lines of Kippy's face, sharpened the intelligent light in his eyes, and brought out every measure of the beauty that lay in the power of his beliefs within.

Charlie paused, his own fork at the ready to spear some of the scrambled eggs on his plate and drag them onto his buttered toast, and smiled. He'd been thinking about the day as just any day, not as the Fourth of July. This pretty summer Wednesday, and what they might get out of it if they got together with Ricky and Adrian and went looking for something fun to do. That was what summer vacation was for, to be laid back and have fun, before school life resumed in the fall and time was less readily available for pleasure. Right?

But when Kippy got an idea in his head, sometimes it was all he could think about, and Charlie knew that his boyfriend would fret until the issue of their evening plans was resolved. It was the Fourth, after all, and they probably should agree on how they were going to spend it. And giving in was the easiest course of action, because to not do so might be to get run down by the freight train that was Kippy's intensity about things. But...Charlie also felt a need to soften these urges to act right now that occasionally infected the other boy, feeling it was not good for Kippy to be so fretful at such an early age in life. Worrying like that was for parents, and grandparents, and other people with more to care about on their hands than a pair of high school boys trying to enjoy their summer vacation.

So he smiled as innocently as he could, and sighed. "It's still early, Kip. What's the rush?"

Kippy rolled his eyes, and plunged the spoonful of cereal into his mouth. "I dun wanna weat to da list mommen, izzall."

"Don't talk with your mouth full," Charlie admonished, and then tried hard not to smile as he waited for the flash of irritation he knew the comment would draw from his boyfriend.

It came, and Kippy let it start to bloom. But then he saw the anticipation in Charlie's eyes, the barest of smiles; and suddenly he steeled himself, and channeled the nascent irk into a more patient-looking smile of his own. "Be serious, Charlie. We need to make plans, and get everyone to agree to them."

Charlie shrugged. "I thought we were doing the same thing we did last year. Get a pizza early, eat it, and then walk over to Myer's Hill at sunset and sit there and watch the fireworks display over at the mall. It's the best seat in the house - way better than sitting in the crowd in the mall parking lot."

Kippy nodded. "I do want to see the fireworks. And you're right about Myer's Hill. You can see the whole sky from there, and you don't have to look straight up to see the show." He managed a small frown then, and sent his free hand to rub at the back of his head. "I got a nasty crick in my neck the year before, when we actually went to the mall to see them."

"I know," Charlie acknowledged, recalling the moment. "I massaged it out for you, remember?"

Kippy's eyes lit at the memory. "Yes, you did." He sighed. "I slept over that night, and you massaged some other things out of me, too."

"Always my pleasure, Kip." Charlie reached across the table and laid his hand atop his boyfriend's, and rubbed his fingertips gently across the back of his hand. "Touching you is one of the nicer things I get to do in life. Any time, okay?"

Kippy's face softened even more, and he sighed. "Oh, Charlie. You say the nicest things." But the concession to fondness only lasted a moment before Kippy pulled his hand from beneath Charlie's, and gently slapped his wrist. "Now, get serious. What about tonight? I'm not sure I just want to eat pizza and hang out. That's why we need to get together on this. We didn't have Adrian and Ricky with us last year, remember? So there's four of us to consider this time."

That was true. Ricky had gone to the city with Adrian and his mom for the holiday the previous year, and both boys had returned with wondrous tales to tell of the fireworks over the Statue of Liberty. Charlie sighed. "Okay. After we eat, I'll call the guys and have them come over." He grinned then. "If they're out of bed, and if they're dressed."

Kippy looked delighted at the possibilities. "They just have to be out of bed, Charlie. They don't have to be dressed."

Charlie laughed at that. Even though Kippy loved Charlie dearly, he was still an unabashed guy watcher, and noted appreciator of the male form. Charlie gave his head a brief shake, but couldn't keep the smile out of his eyes. "I think asking them to walk over here in just their skins is above and beyond the call of duty. I doubt they'd like to try it."

Kippy considered that, and then briefly flashed his teeth. "I dunno, Charlie. Adrian is still a little shy, but Ricky has been outright kinky lately. It's getting so you never know what he'll try."

Charlie had to give a small nod at that. For a guy that said he wasn't really gay, Ricky Travers had certainly learned to love pretending. He had embraced his relationship with Adrian Whitacre with the same enthusiasm a cowboy had for riding a prized horse, wrapping his legs around it and giving it the occasional squeeze to keep it going. That he had fallen in love with Adrian seemed obvious to everyone but Ricky, who still maintained that, okay, he might be a little bi, but he wasn't really gay.

Not like Charlie and Kippy were, anyway!

Charlie and Kippy had been allowing him the pretense, and even Adrian played along, and would simply smile and pucker when Ricky protested his innocence, generating a return smile from Ricky, and an immediate kiss to the lips. Love is a strange beast, Charlie had decided. Its faces were many, and often one did not seem to recognize the other. But that Ricky and Adrian were in love, he had little doubt.

Finally, Charlie scooped some more egg onto his toast, and took a bite...and then sighed. Cold. Kippy could do that, no doubt about it. Divert attention from the issue at hand, and focus it on his latest cause instead. It happened a lot, and Charlie knew he should be used to it by now. Still, it could be a little irritating...

But when Charlie looked over at his boyfriend, Kippy just gave him a sweet smile, his eyes twinkling with excitement in the morning light; and Charlie sighed and resumed chewing, feeling a pleasant warmth inside. Some things - and especially some people - are worth a cold meal now and then.

 

* * * * * * *

 

After breakfast they took a quick shower, and then Charlie and Kippy sat outside on the front stoop and admired the warm and sunny morning. Charlie called Adrian's cell, but got his voicemail, and a message that Adrian was not taking calls just now, but would get back to him. But Charlie had scarcely finished leaving a message and disconnected before the phone rang back.

"We were in the shower," Adrian said cheerfully, causing Charlie to grin at how great minds thought alike. "We're just drying off now. What's up?"

Charlie explained that Kippy wanted them all to get together to plan their July Fourth evening, and Adrian must have had his phone on speaker, as Charlie immediately heard Ricky's voice in the background. "Tell Kip to lay down!"

Charlie laughed, and Kippy looked at him questioningly.

"Ricky says hi. They were in the shower when I called a minute ago."

Kippy smiled, and leaned against Charlie's shoulder. "That's so romantic. Tell Ricky I said he's full of shit about not being gay."

"We heard," Adrian said, laughing. "Ricky just has a big grin on his face." Charlie heard the smooch of a kiss, and when Adrian's voice returned, it sounded especially pleased. "What a nice day it is."

Charlie smiled, and gave a little sigh. "You guys eaten yet?"

"Uh huh. We were just enjoying a little after-breakfast recreation. Hence the shower."

"Well, get dressed and come on over." Then Charlie remembered the conversation he'd had earlier with Kippy, and laughed. "Or, come as you are."

Adrian returned the laugh. "I doubt we'd get very far like this."

"Well, it was just a pleasant thought. Kip and I are sitting out front. Just come on by when you guys are able."

"Okay. Probably be about ten minutes." There was the unmistakable sound of another smooch, and then Charlie heard Adrian sigh. "Um...make that fifteen."

Charlie just smiled. "See you soon."

"Bye."

He looked at his phone a moment before putting it back into the pocket of his jeans. "Those two got it bad."

Kippy smiled, and snuggled up against Charlie's shoulder. "I'm so happy for both of them. Finding someone special is pretty hard these days."

Charlie put his arm around Kip, and laid his head against his boyfriend's. "There is some luck involved," he agreed. "I don't think it's ever been easy for guys like us."

They sat quietly a while, just enjoying the touch of one against the other. That Charlie was lucky he knew. Not just in having Kippy by his side, but in having Ricky and Adrian as friends. The four of them went well together, four unique points of light in a universe filled with light, but which complimented each other wonderfully. That there was some magic involved in their being together was an idea he would have scoffed at not all that long ago. But having decided in the past year that there really was a kind of magic in the universe after all, he felt a little differently about it now. He'd been there, and done that.

Briefly he wondered what Max was doing, and Frit and Pip. And Nicholaas. I wonder how Switzerland's been going?

They knew that Nicholaas had vacationed there after Christmas, hoping to get to know better a lady there he had been taken with. That had happened, and the two of them had been seeing a lot of each other since that time. The last they had heard from Max, Nicholaas was going to talk to her about visiting him at his home...which was basically the same thing as letting her know that he was Santa. Nicholaas must have thought she would accept it all, or he wouldn't have dared to risk it.

He must have said something out loud, because Kippy sighed, and squeezed him. "I'll bet things worked out just fine. I think if it had gone any other way, we'd have heard about it from Max."

Charlie nodded. "Still, maybe we should ask. All we have to do is ask one of the statues Nicholaas gave us. I bet we'd get an answer."

Kippy sighed. "I love the idea that there really are magical things that happen."

Charlie had thought long and hard about that. Magic, as purely an elemental force, seemed unlikely to him, still. But that there were unusual people and unusual technologies afoot in the world, he could more readily grasp. Humans had become good at manipulating energy, and the idea that others could do so even more efficiently, and with a different twist, was not that much of a stretch. That there was a lot more to the universe than most people knew was becoming quite clear now, and the idea of elves and other fairytale beings as just a different sort of people with a different set of gifts had a kind of appeal to it that Charlie admired.

"Your kind knew a lot more about our kind, once," Max had told them. "Before you guys got all those machines and things. A lot of the magical folk backed off after that, once you guys started to blow things up." The elf had given them a pointed look then. "A lot of people got the idea that your kind was a little antisocial."

Charlie could understand that. There was a small and venomous portion of the human race that wanted everything they could get their hands on, and at any cost. That small group had a way of getting everyone else caught up in major conflicts, and the majority had yet to find a way to deal properly with these troublemakers when they first showed up. That we continually allowed a few greedy, grasping, conscienceless souls among us to cause such trouble displayed a flaw in our racial nature that we had yet to deal with properly. Max said it was because we were still growing up as a people, and that one day we would get it. Charlie hoped that the elf was right.

But that these other folk, like Max, and Nicholaas, that lived among us yet apart from us, still cared about us, and looked out for us, was evident. Anyone that had ever found a gift under the Christmas tree, marked as from Santa, that caused a parent to frown and scratch their head over who had purchased it, knew about that - even if they didn't know it consciously. Magic touched the lives of humans in other ways even less apparent, and Charlie was aware now that nothing was quite outside the realm of possibility, if you just believed strongly enough.

"There's a lot of crazy stuff out there, no doubt," Charlie agreed.

Kippy tilted his head back and looked up into the blue sky. "It's a pretty day. I checked the weather, and we're supposed to have a nice, clear night tonight." He squeezed Charlie's arm, and gave another soft sigh. "I love fireworks."


Charlie turned his head and kissed Kip, closing his eyes and leaving his face against the other boy's cheek for a moment after. Kip had a beautiful streak of something fine in him, one that cared about people and animals and things, and understood the need for causes now and then. Yes, it sometimes made him a little obsessive. But it was because he cared so strongly about the things he felt were important. Charlie often found himself following along with Kippy's sometimes outrageous-seeming ideas, all of which had a way of working out in the end. That there was a bit of a charm to Kippy's life seemed apparent, and that that charm was directed towards good ends, certain.

Kippy allowed the caress to go on for a long moment before turning into it and delivering a kiss of his own. "What was that for?"

Charlie smiled. "Just because I love you."

"Oh, Charlie. I'm so lucky to be with you."

They heard laughter then, and turned to look down the street. Ricky and Adrian were walking along, arm-in-arm, big grins on their faces, talking animatedly back and forth. Kippy raised a hand and waved, and the others spied them and waved back.

"That doesn't look gay at all," Kippy said drily. "They look like any two happy football jocks who just creamed the other team." He laughed then. "Oh. Maybe creamed is the wrong word."

Charlie laughed, and squeezed Kippy one more time. "Actually, I think it's exactly the right word."

Kippy gave Charlie's hand a happy compress, and the two of them watched as the other couple virtually danced up the front walk to stop before them.

"Someone's in a good mood today," Charlie said, smiling at the pair. "I can see the love in the air."

Adrian beamed, and Ricky stuck out his tongue; but both boys looked as if they agreed wholly.

Charlie and Kippy slid over to make room, and the others plunked down on the top step next to them. "So, what's up?" Adrian asked. "Trying to figure out our Fourth of July evening?"

"We want to see the fireworks," Ricky said immediately. "That's a must. We're gonna do that, right?"

Kippy sighed, as if the answer should be obvious. "It wouldn't be the Fourth without fireworks."

"Just checkin'". Ricky grinned, and gave Adrian a slight nudge with his elbow. "Never know with you, Kip."

Kippy did not rise to the bait, just nodding, and adding a let's get on with this wave of one hand. "Any suggestions? Seafood? Hamburgers? Don't be bashful."

Adrian laughed. "This is just about food? We could have done this on the phone."

Kippy offered a little pout. "It's about the whole evening. But we have to eat, too. Might as well be something fun."

Adrian raised one eyebrow, and then reached over and patted Kippy's wrist. "I'm sorry. I know you love the holidays."

Charlie rolled his eyes, and laughed. "Slightly!"

Kippy tsked, and gave Charlie's wrist a little smack. "Don't you start."

Ricky leaned past Adrian and planted a smoochy kiss on Kippy's cheek, causing him to jump. "Hey!"

Adrian and Ricky both laughed, and Charlie grinned. "Feeling the love now?"

Kippy sighed, but the delight in his eyes was plain to see. "Okay, let's have some suggestions."

"Pizza is traditional for the Fourth," Ricky stated. "I'm for that."

"I know." Kippy shrugged. "But we could always try something else for once."

Ricky frowned. "What's better than pizza?"

"We eat that all the time," Kippy pointed out. "It's a wonder we're all not waddling chunks by now."

Charlie laughed. "You keep us hopping, Kip. Who has time to get fat?"

Ricky reached past Adrian again, and laid his hand on Kippy's wrist. "It wouldn't seem like the Fourth without pizza, Kip."

That he meant that was apparent to Kippy, who sighed, but smiled. Kippy understood all about the things that had to be just right to make each holiday perfect.

"I second that motion, then, " Adrian said, seeing the look of capitulation in Kippy's eyes. "I could eat pizza in my sleep."

Ricky snorted merrily, and leaned against his boyfriend. "We're too busy in bed to eat," he whispered.

Charlie and Kippy both laughed at that.

"The human animal was meant to do many fun things laying down," Charlie agreed. "But eating wasn't really one of them."

"Depends on what you're eating," Adrian returned softly, obviously trying not to laugh. Ricky hooted and squeezed him, and then planted an enthusiastic, noisy kiss on his boyfriend's cheek.

Charlie leaned forward to look at Ricky. "You seem to be on a kissing binge lately. Or rather, a smooching one. I've been hearing that sound from you a lot this past week."

Ricky grinned, and Adrian made little quieting motions with one hand. "Shh! Don't discourage him, Charlie!"

Kippy grasped Charlie's hand, and squeezed it. "Shut up, Charlie. Now, as we were saying..."

Everyone laughed, and Charlie offered an affectionate squeeze back. "We're settled on pizza, okay?"

Kippy rolled his eyes, as if Charlie was missing the whole point. "On the type of food, yes. But not on the where, the when, or the toppings."

"Anything wrong with Irving's?" Charlie asked. "We all kind of agreed that we liked the pizza there."

Kippy immediately frowned. "That place will never be the same for me after Valentine's Day."

There was a moment's silence, as everyone recalled the argument the four of them had had there that day. It had stemmed from a dark malady of the spirit - a decidedly human thing - but somehow caught from Frit, who had mysteriously acquired it from Pip. Where that elf had caught the unhappy illness had never been really determined. Whatever its source, the evil bug had resulted in a strange release of hostile emotions among the four friends. Only their great affection for each other had carried the day - that, and a little help from Max, Nicholaas, and Kirka.

Charlie nodded. "I know what you mean, Kip. But it wasn't the place that did it. It was the state of mind we were in."

"I know. But every time we pass by Irving's, I remember that day. How about Pizza Heaven instead?"

Adrian sighed. "It's not Irving's fault that we all got stupid that day. I like the place, and Irving likes us. Let's not abandon a good thing just for one sour moment."

Charlie smiled, and gave his boyfriend a warm hug. "It's still good pizza, right?"

Kippy looked at him, and slowly smiled back. "Yes, it is."

Ricky looked pleased. "Irving's for pizza? Then fireworks on Myer's Hill?"

Kippy nodded. "If everyone agrees." He looked guiltily at Charlie. "I was thinking maybe we'd like to do something different...but this sounds like fun after all."

Ricky sighed, and reached out and gave Kippy a slight push. "It'll be fun just being together." But then he couldn't resist a slight dig. "Jeez. We could have settled this on the phone in under a minute, you know. All we decided to do was what we were going to do in the first place."

Kippy made a face. "It wouldn't have been the same. And we still have to decide on what kind of pizza we want."

Ricky feigned a look of horror. "Oh, decisions, decisions!" But there was an obvious humor there, and not a small amount of affection directed at Kippy. For once Kip saw it right away, and simply smiled and stuck out his tongue.

"How about you pick it?" Charlie asked, smiling at Kippy. "We like what you like. Choose something."

Kippy looked around at everyone a little uncertainly, but then smiled. "Okay, I will. How about bacon and sausage? The bacon at Irving's is really good."

Charlie had to agree. "Works for me. Everyone?"

Ricky and Adrian both nodded.

Charlie grinned. "Great. Finally. Now we can focus on the day, okay? What do you guys wanna do?"

Everyone started laughing, and all eyes went to Kippy, who reddened slightly. "What? It's not up to me!"

"Do we have to decide now?" Adrian asked, letting Kippy off the hook with a smile. "It's so pretty out, we might just wander into something."

Charlie squeezed Kippy's arm and drew him a little closer. "How about it, Kip? Do a little wandering with me?" He glanced past his boyfriend to include the others. "With us?"

Kippy's eyes came around, and briefly inspected the expression on Charlie's face. Charlie just smiled, letting the love he had for Kippy show a little, and the other boy suddenly smiled. "I'd love to."

Charlie got to his feet and crooked his arm out to Kippy. "Then let's start with a nice walk, huh?"

Kippy suddenly looked delighted, and jumped up, linking his arm with Charlie's. "I can be spontaneous...I guess." His eyes twinkled, and Charlie smiled.

Ricky and Adrian laughed at that, but also climbed to their feet and linked arms. "Which way?"

Charlie gave a big sigh, closed his eyes, and whipped the index finger of his free hand around in a small circle, and stopped it randomly, pointing somewhat the their right. "Thataway."

And that's the way they went.


* * * * * * *


There had been more than the usual amount of rain this spring and summer, and everywhere they went, the lawns and the woods were lush and green. The sounds of lawnmower engines in the distance drifted on the breeze, one of the hallmark songs of every summer day. The elms and maples planted along the right of way, all in early middle-age since the building of the neighborhood thirty years before, had knitted their crowns together in a rich canopy that shaded the sidewalk and the front yards they passed as they walked along. Kids were everywhere, in the yards, riding bikes, or just strolling along the sidewalk just as they were doing. They could hear laughter, and the occasional splash from some of the backyards they passed, where swimming pools of every size and sort were being put to use in the warm morning sunshine.

They had been talking as they had started out; but as they moved along, arm-in-arm, and began to absorb the summer day, a certain quiet overcame them, as they focused on what was coming into their senses from the world around them. The light breeze was already warm, suggesting a hot one ahead. Butterflies and bumblebees earnestly circled a small hedge of sweet-smelling Rose-of Sharon they passed by, and birds talked among the treetops above them. The distinct smell of charcoal briquettes and cooking meat wafted by, along with the faint sound of music playing, and laughter; and Charlie took a deep breath of all of it and smiled. This was summer, a time like no other.

"I love this time of year," Kippy said softly, mirroring Charlie's exact thoughts. Charlie nodded and smiled, squeezing Kippy's arm at the apparent telepathy going on between them; but not wanting to start a conversation that might somehow break the spell of the morning around them. Not just yet, anyway.

The others seemed to be in agreement, and they continued on along the walk in silence. They passed Greg Everon's house, where Kippy and Adrian had danced almost magically together two Halloweens ago, without either of them even knowing who was under the opposite costume. Even then, there had been chemistry at work to bring Adrian into their group as Ricky's partner.

Adrian and Ricky looked over at the house and then smiled at each other, and Charlie couldn't help a small smile himself at the memory of that evening. It was amazing how the paths in life we all take could meet at just the right point in time to create something special. Charlie had used to believe that luck and chance were pretty much the same thing; but the last year and a half had changed the way he thought about a lot of things. He understood now that chance was an impersonal thing, a simple roll of the dice that amounted to the same thing as a random number. Chance could favor you, or it could turn its back on you just as quickly, and both states were essentially equal in weight, if not in results.

But luck...luck had a certain life about it that could not be denied. There was no such thing as bad luck - that term was an oxymoron if there ever was one. You either had luck, or you didn't. That luck had smiled upon the four of them more than once seemed apparent to Charlie these days, and he had arrived at the point where he no longer questioned its presence among them. You cannot choose to be lucky. Luck chooses you.

They reached a corner and continued onward. Had they turned right it would have led them into the newer subdivision, where the ten year-old houses were slightly larger and a little farther apart on their lots than the ones on Charlie's street. There were more older families there, with less kids. The streets were quieter, and somehow less appealing. The trees along the roads were smaller and more separated, and at night the glow of streetlights lit the corners, shouting down the stars in the sky overheard. There was less in the way of landscaping, and less in the way of people...and less in the way of summer, somehow.

Kippy lived over here, and that was the main attraction for the area, Charlie thought. Neighborhoods take time to develop character, just like people. One day those new streets would be older streets, shaded by older trees, with yards that had become different instead of looking like they were all cut from the same mold. Then, the place would fit in better with the older neighborhoods nearby, and seem much more like a place that Charlie could call home.

He let the thought slide away. This was not the time to be comparing neighborhoods. He took a deep breath, and smiled as they walked on, enjoying the bright morning.

He became aware of Kippy again, moving along at his side, and turned to look at him. His expression was largely peaceful, but Charlie saw now that there seemed to be a slightly unsettled trace of something less at ease in his boyfriend's face.

"What is it?" he asked softly. "Something bothering you?"

Kippy looked over at him, and smiled. "Oh...no. Just a weird feeling, I guess. Something about the day, I think."

Oh. "Was that the reason for all the angst over whether we ate pizza or not?"

Kippy frowned at him. "Maybe. I just felt...I just felt we needed to be clear about what we were going to be doing this evening, for some reason."

Charlie chewed his lip. Kippy was always on a mission of some kind, but usually they had some dimension to them. Fixating on what they were having for dinner that evening was not up to his usual standards. It was almost as if...

Charlie had an insight then. "Is it Skwish?"

Kippy licked his lips and gave a little nod. "I think it is. But I can't figure out what it's trying to tell me."

Ricky and Adrian could not help but to overhear, and Charlie became aware that both boys were watching and listening. Kippy's experience with Skwish, the sense of what-may-come that Max had said was very strong in the boy, was documented fact by now. When Kip sensed something unusual stirring on the road ahead, it was time to listen up.

Charlie drew the group to a stop beneath a large maple tree, and they automatically formed a small circle.

"Something bad, or something good?" Adrian asked.

Kippy shrugged. "No...yes. I don't know. Something...different."
 
Ricky laughed, despite looking a little unsettled by the idea that they might be in for another encounter with the unknown. "What's more different than Santa Claus and his elves?"

"Or ghosts and spirits?" Adrian added.

"I don't know. It just...it just feels a little weird, is all."

"You sense that we'll be in danger?" Charlie asked, quietly.

Kippy frowned at him. "I just don't know, Charlie. I feel like...I can't describe it." But then he smiled. "But Skwish is about good fortune, not bad. So I have to think that, whatever I'm feeling, it will all come out well in the end."

That was the problem with a non-verbal sense like Skwish. It just seemed to convey feelings, maybe even premonitions; but it couldn't tell you much useful about why you were feeling them.

Charlie smiled, and have Kippy a hug. "Whatever happens, it will happen to all of us together."

Ricky immediately nodded. "Right."

Adrian reached out and squeezed Kippy's arm. "All for one, and one for all, right?"

Kippy nodded, and looked happy. "Thanks."

Charlie smiled, and urged Kippy onward. They resumed their walk, and their enjoyment of the day. They were getting to the edge of the developed area, and would soon be onto the section of road that was lightly forested and the domain of older homes on large plots of land that had once been farms of some kind. The houses seemed to move farther back from the road as they walked along, become more widely-spaced, and soon were off in the distance, poised upon hills surrounded by former pasture, or nestled among trees backed by the sagging shapes of unused barns and outbuildings.

Some miles farther on was Chaney Road, and that led to Mockingbird Lane, where an old house stood that had been the center of their attention the past Halloween, when they had assisted two loving spirits to reunite after a lifetime of separation. Briefly, Charlie wondered if Billy and Will were happy, off exploring infinity together. But then he knew that they were, and smiled.

The past year had been incredible, just a completely eye-opening set of experiences that had served to show them how amazing a place the universe they lived in really was. So much of what had happened to them pushed the bounds of reason, and yet they had embraced all of it with a sense of wonder and a desire to believe that sometimes bordered on reckless. But everything had worked out, and somehow he knew that things would keep working out, no matter what happened to them next...

Charlie blinked at that thought, wondering at its sudden presence in his mind. What could happen to them next? He thought back to his desire that morning just to take a walk, to be with Kip and Rick and Adrian, and just to go, and wander in the summer day. That was kind of odd, actually. He looked about them again now, and frowned.

Why did we even come this way?


Charlie paused, and pointed to a thick stand of trees ahead. "Anybody notice that we're coming up on the path to Myer's Hill?"

Adrian looked over at him. "Does that matter for some reason?"

Charlie shrugged, considering the idea. "I think it's interesting, maybe. I mean, it's the focus of our evening, and here we are, walking up on it just like we intended to come here."

"I didn't intend to come here," Ricky said. But then he squinted ahead, and frowned. "I don't think."

Kippy laughed. "Maybe it's a Skwish wish."

"A...what?" Charlie laughed, and gave his boyfriend a squeeze. "You just made that up, didn't you?"

Kippy's eyes twinkled with humor. "Well, what else do you call it when I say something just before it happens?"

"But you didn't say anything about Myer's Hill," Charlie pointed out.

"Not aloud, maybe. But I was kind of worried that it might be all covered over with stickers or something. We haven't been here at all this year." Kippy waved a hand at the trees and fields around them. "Look how grown up all this stuff is. We've had so much rain this year that everything looks like a jungle." He gave Charlie an apologetic look. "I was thinking we should check the place out, so that there wouldn't be any surprises for our evening."

Charlie stared at him. "You knew we were coming here?"

"Well...no. But I'm not surprised we did, let's just say."

Adrian laughed out loud. "Well, we're here now. Why don't we check the hill, just to make sure it's going to be okay to sit and watch the fireworks from? Okay?"

Charlie nodded, but wasn't sure he liked what had happened. Magic and ghosts and stuff like that was cool, but only so long as it did not become a controlling force in their lives. The idea that they might not be the masters of their own destinies was troubling. He had thought the idea to take a nice walk with his friends was his own, and that it might not have been bugged him, because he had in no way sensed that it wasn't his own idea. Things were going to get pretty difficult if they reached a point where they couldn't know if the the thoughts they were having were even their own.

He voiced his concern, and Ricky immediately sighed. "Britannica Brain strikes again."

But Adrian frowned. "No, I see his point." He nodded. "It is a scary thought."

Kippy shook his head. "I don't think anything made us come this way. I think we did this on our own." He tightened his grip on Charlie's arm, drawing him closer. "Skwish doesn't make us do things, Charlie. I think it just sometimes sees where things are going, and gives us a hint ahead of time. That feels like we were told, but in my head it's more like a feeling to me that we've done something before. Like...like deja vu."

Charlie looked around them again. They had walked this way countless times in the past, and never once had he thought it might not be their own idea. And had Kippy not mentioned the element of Skwish in relation to their current walk, he would not think so now. So maybe he was letting his own imagination get away from him. And maybe...

He stopped in mid thought, and had to smile. "I see a circle here that leads nowhere but back on itself. Either we came here on our own, or we didn't. It doesn't matter now, because we're here." He turned and looked back towards the thick grouping of trees down the road, and nodded. "But as long as we are here, we might as well check out the hill, to make sure that it will be okay to watch from this evening."

"I thought I just said that," Adrian said, allowing himself a grin.

Charlie shook his head. "I don't think so." He smiled at Kippy. "I think it was just deja vu."

Kippy laughed, and squeezed Charlie's arm. "Oh, Charlie."

Charlie sighed. "Oh, Kippy." He leaned closer and kissed his boyfriend, and Kippy let him know just then how much he loved him. Apparently the example was potent, as when Charlie drew back again he spied Ricky and Adrian with their faces together in a similar display of affections.

Charlie let his gaze move around them then, but no one was near, and no eyes were watching. They were usually a little more careful about kissing in public, but Charlie had completely forgotten himself in the moment, and here they were, standing out in the open at the roadside. Well, no harm done.

He squeezed Kippy's arm against him, and indicated the way towards the path to Myer's Hill. "Shall we?"

Kippy's eyes were fond in the noontime sunshine. "Let's."

"Coming?" Charlie asked over his shoulder, as he and Kip started off.

Ricky laughed, and Adrian sighed. "Yeah, we're coming. We can get back to this kissing later."

They crossed the road and walked along the edge of the trees, and came to an opening in the underbrush. Despite their worries about the added rain, the path was not overgrown and closed. It was narrower than they remembered, and the undergrowth to each side displayed a robust nature that Charlie never recalled seeing before. But the light coating of dead leaves underfoot had not been invaded by new tendrils from the sides nor new shoots from below, and the walking was just as easy as it had always been.

"See? No jungle here." Charlie smiled at Kippy, who nodded.

"That's a good sign. But let's see what the top of the hill looks like before we stop worrying."

"I'm not worried," Charlie said, grinning.

Kippy squeezed his arm, and sighed. "You know what I mean, Charlie Boone."

They continued onward. The path wound among the trees, and soon developed a grade to it that steepened quickly. It wasn't uncomfortably angled, but it was work to climb, and by the time they reached the top Charlie felt a light sweat beginning to pop out on is brow. "Man, it's hot today."

"We'll have to stop somewhere on the way back and get some drinks," Kippy said. But his eyes were busy taking in the grassy field that capped the hill, which was grown considerably taller than the last time they had visited, but which would present no problems to their viewing of the fireworks on the Fourth. Not a sticker bush in sight.

Charlie's eyes also surveyed the hilltop, and he nodded. "It'll be okay. We'll bring a blanket or something and just throw it on top of this grass. It'll bend right down beneath us."

Kippy nodded, his eyes gazing out over the valley now. "What a great view of the mall. Look, there's Irving's pizza place."

Charlie squinted, and then laughed. "If you can see that, I'm going to hire you out as a human telescope."

Kippy turned and smiled. "I just mean it's there, Charlie. It's not like I can see the front door of the place."

Charlie looked into his boyfriend's eyes, and sighed softly. "Another kiss sure would be nice."

Kippy made a delighted little noise and laid his face against Charlie's, and kissed him gently.

"Now that's what I'm talkin' about," Ricky said quietly. "Come here, you."

They heard Adrian laugh, and then a huge smooching sound ripped the quiet on the hilltop in half. Charlie and Kippy immediately started laughing into their own kiss, and turned their faces towards the others. Ricky had Adrian bent back over one arm, and was delivering a kiss for the ages. Adrian raised one foot off the ground, holding onto Ricky for dear life, and kissed back with all his might. Charlie rubbed his cheek gently against Kippy's as they watched, feeling that nothing could ruin this day now.

A shadow passed over them. It came and went, and some idle note-taker in the back of Charlie's mind said bird, without really paying much more attention to it than that. But then it came again, larger this time, and Charlie automatically looked upwards.

Above them, a gossamer bubble seemed to be drifting on the wind, in a small circle that let the bubble intersect the sun on one leg of each orbit. His first thought was that someone was blowing some pretty large bubbles nearby, using one of those rings that you laid in a round container of dish soap and then pulled through the air. He'd had one himself as a kid, and it had easily produced bubbles a foot in diameter.

But...that couldn't be right. First of all, a soap bubble couldn't occult the sun that way, being mostly transparent. And secondly, soap bubbles didn't grow as you looked at them...

Kippy looked upwards, too, and both of them froze as the bubble above them suddenly grew tenfold. At the same time they heard the faintest of sounds, almost like the soft whirr a small fan made on a warm summer day. They heard a gasp from Ricky and Adrian, and then a shout of alarm as the bubble continued to grow in size. It was coming right for them!

Kippy let out a startled sound, and Charlie grabbed him close and pulled him away from the spot beneath the descending bubble. Ricky and Adrian were also running, and Charlie could hear their desperate breaths alongside them as he and Kippy ran for their lives. Charlie continued to toss glances at the great bubble as they ran, and just as it was almost upon them he realized that it was huge, and that they were not going to get out from beneath it before it touched down.

But at the last second, the bubble, now a sphere easily fifty feet in diameter, drifted to one side, and with a last burst of speed Charlie and the others escaped from beneath its bulk and threw themselves into the tall grasses. Charlie was expecting an impact, but no tremor of touchdown reached him through earth. He sat up then, and stretched his neck to see over the waving grasses.

Kippy got to his knees, and joined him in staring. And then Adrian, and then Ricky. The four of them looked at the huge bubble pressing the grasses down not thirty feet away from them now.

"What is it?" Ricky breathed, asking the question now most prominent in all of their minds.

The thing was obviously not a bubble. What had looked translucent in the air now seemed quite solid, its skin a silvery-blueish shade that had looked great in the sky but which now looked cold against the greens of the field. It took Charlie a moment to realize that the thing was not sitting on the ground, but hovering about a foot above it. The tall grasses of the field were bent somewhat beneath the bulk, but not damaged in the least. If the great bubble chose to rise back into the sky now, there would be no evidence that it had ever been there at all.

The soft fan-sound emanated from within the globe, along with a less definable sound that was like nothing Charlie had ever heard before, yet still sounded exceedingly machine-like in nature, a regular pulsing that sounded both powerful and extremely well-controlled. That he was looking at some sort of transportation seemed obvious now...but where on Earth it had come from was anybody's guess.

Where on Earth...or where off of it.

"I think it's a ---" Charlie broke off, about to say flying saucer. But the craft before them was round, not flat in the least, and the orderly nature of Charlie's head when it came to words balked at the idea of such a misnomer. "Um...I think it's a UFO."

Ricky hissed and stamped his foot on the ground. "Come on, Charlie! Aliens? Are you serious?"

As if in answer to his words, a section of the globe's skin grew dark and disappeared, leaving a large round opening. What looked like a man appeared in it - well, he had two arms and two legs, anyway. But where his head would be was just another silvery-blueish sphere. His skin or clothing was the same color, smooth and virtually featureless. The creature hopped the few feet to the earth below the sphere and came towards them, raising a hand in apparent greeting.

"Aymates. KenyateellmewheerIyam?"

"Oh my god," Adrian breathed, "It is an alien!"

Charlie opened his mouth, but never got a chance to speak. Just then there was a strange vibration in the air, and a motion overhead that caused them all to look up.

A huge wedge of dark gray metal arced across the sky and stopped above them. It dwarfed the sphere, yet cast no shadow on the ground as it moved between them and the sun. The creature before them released a single word that Charlie did not recognize, but which could only be a curse, and turned as if to run back to the doorway from which it had emerged.

There was a flash from the great wedge above them, and the world suddenly wavered around them. Charlie felt Kippy grasp him and hold on tightly; and then even that small comfort faded as the lights went out and darkness settled over his thoughts.


* * * * * * *


"Charlie? Please wake up!"

Charlie opened his eyes. Kippy had Charlie's head cradled in his lap, and was rubbing his forehead as he stared down at him. The relief that crossed his boyfriend's face when he saw Charlie's eyes open was a sight Charlie didn't think he'd ever forget.

"What happened?"

Kippy dropped his head closer, and when he spoke again his voice was just above a whisper. "We got kidnapped by aliens!"

Charlie gave out a small laugh, just because the idea was so ridiculous. "Uh huh," he replied, and closed his eyes again.

Kippy patted Charlie's forehead again. "I'm serious, Charlie. Wake up!"

Charlie opened his eyes again. He felt unaccountably sleepy - only partially awake. He let his eyes slide past the concerned look on Kippy's face, to take in the steel walls around them, and the slightly reddish light that seemed to emanate from the air itself. "Where's this?"

"We're inside the big wedge ship, I think," Kippy whispered back.

Charlie sat up slowly, the odd feeling of sleepiness clearing from his thoughts as he did so. Ricky and Adrian were sprawled on the floor beside them, and were both stirring, shaking their heads slowly side to side. Across from them, the silvery man from the big bubble in the field sat with his back to the steel wall, the globe that was his head moving back and forth just enough to suggest that he was watching the four humans with interest.

Kippy noticed that, and pointed at the creature. "It's all his fault we're in this mess."

Charlie gave his head a little shake, and felt the last of the sleepiness fade away from behind his eyes. "Maybe."

"Oh, shit," Ricky said, opening his eyes and rolling his head from side to side. "I'll never drink another beer, I swear."

Kippy turned and reached across Adrian and put a hand on Ricky's chest, and gave it a comforting rub. "You're not drunk, Ricky-tick. We got knocked out by the alien paralyzing ray."

Ricky blinked, a look of confusion crossing his features. "The what?"

Adrian winced just then, and opened one eye. "Where's Rick?"

"I'm here." Ricky said, suddenly becoming more focused, and sitting up. Kippy retreated as Ricky rolled onto his side so the he was looking down into Adrian's face, and placed a hand on his boyfriend's cheek, his expression now one of concern. "You okay?"

Adrian's eyes fluttered open. "Are we alive?"

Ricky smiled, relief evident on his face. "Yeah." But then his eyes flicked cautiously about the room, and then came to settle on Charlie's. "Uh...we are, aren't we?"

"I would say so," Charlie agreed.

"We're inside the big spaceship," Kippy said, frowning. "They must have beamed us up or something when we were knocked out."

Charlie couldn't help smiling at that. "Any reason they couldn't have just come down and picked up up off the ground?"

Kippy raised his eyebrows at him. "Whatever they did, we are aboard their ship. We have to think about how to get out of here before something else happens."

Charlie got to his feet and gave his body a little shake to cast off the last of the languor he'd been feeling, and then looked around the room they were in. It was small, circular, and steel-walled all the way around. If there was door, it was not in evidence. "Doesn't look like leaving will be an easy matter."

"You fellas are stuck here for now," the alien with the globular head said then. "Sorry about that. I didn't know they were right behind me.."

All eyes turned to gaze at the creature. "You speak our language," Kippy said slowly.

There was a soft sound from the alien that could only be a laugh. "Not quite. Never could quite get the hang of Yank." The creature reached up and did something by its neck, and the silvery-blueish sphere slowly faded away, leaving a very human head behind.

And a very handsome face.

Kippy blinked, and then smiled broadly. "Well...hi."

Charlie laughed at his boyfriend's reaction, but moved closer to the young man sitting by the wall. That he was a young man - perhaps scarcely older than themselves - he could see now. He had a whirlwind of dirty blond hair on his head, mussed in just such a fashion as to be incredibly sexy. His blue eyes watched them with intelligence and humor - a combination that Charlie always found very attractive - and his grin was cute and extremely contagious.

"I'm Charlie," Charlie said, sticking his hand down towards the guy. "That guy grinning is Kip, and that's Ricky hovering over Adrian there."

The young man's eyes followed Charlie's hand as he introduced everyone, and he nodded at each name. "Michael," he said, when Charlie was through, and offered up his hand. "My mates call me Mike." Charlie couldn't miss the unusual inflections the boy put on his words, which were decidedly not local.

"Are you British?"

The other laughed. "Only after the fact. Australian. Gold Coast, actually."

Charlie grasped the boy's hand and shook. The grip was firm and strong.

"So," Charlie went on, considering this new twist, "what's an Aussie guy doing flying around in an alien bubble craft, dressed as Captain Sunbeam?"

Kippy hooted, and Mike's eyes widened slightly. He let go of Charlie's hand and sat back against the wall. "I was just minding my own business, mate. These fellas kind of came after me."

"They kidnapped you?" Charlie asked, narrowing his eyes. "Why?"

Mike's own eyes narrowed a bit. "Hey. I was walkin' in my own yard, just after brekky one mornin', and I saw a meteorite fall. Least ways, I thought it was a meteorite. I went to have a looky, and found this bubble ship."

Charlie scratched his head. "What about your neighbors? No one else saw this happen?"

Mike grinned again, and laid his head back against the wall. "You'll find out about that. These people don't want you to see 'em, you won't."

"What about back there on Myer's Hill?" Kippy asked. "That wedge ship was huge. I'll bet everyone for miles around saw it."

Mike shook his head. "Nope. No one did."

"What about radar?" Ricky said, sitting up, and carefully pulling Adrian up to a sitting position with him. "It had to have showed up there."

"Nah. Radar waves and light are the same thing, just different frequencies. These people don't want you to see 'em, you aren't gonna, period."

"We saw them," Adrian pointed out then. "Are you saying they meant us to do that?"

"Oh...no. You were under the scat field of my bubble ship. They can't hide from a scat field. I wanted you to see my ship, because I needed to ask where the heck I was. But you only saw Korig's ship because you was under my scat field."

"Who is Korig?" Charlie asked.

Mike frowned then. "You'll meet him, probably pretty soon. I would just stay quiet if I were you. Korig's an Arpathant. They aren't known for their patience."

"Is this for real?" Kippy said then. "I keep thinking this isn't for real."

Mike laughed at that. "I know that feeling. I had it myself at first. But this is for real, I'll tell you now."

Charlie turned around and went back and sat beside Kippy, who leaned against him and took his hand in one of his own. Mike smiled at that, and Kippy arched an eyebrow at him. "Something you want to say?"

"Naw, not me. I got a liberal heart from way back. You guys can have your jollies any way you like."

Kippy's face scrunched up with annoyance. "That sounded a little less than liberal to me."

Mike immediately held up both hands. "It's not important, mate. We got a lot worse to think about just now, okay?"

As if to accent those words, there was a dull, thunderous thud somewhere beyond the walls, as if a dungeon door had slammed closed somewhere; and then the deck beneath them vibrated as though to the footfalls of heavy feet. Very heavy feet.

A section of the wall disappeared, and a giant entered the room. Charlie and the others gaped at the creature as it stepped inside with them and then moved to one side of the opening. The creature was enormous, easily seven feet in height.

It looked like someone had cut the front end off an elephant and given it arms...arms that were nearly as large as its blocky legs. What flesh was visible was gray and grainy-looking - the face and the hands and the forearms. The face could have been an elephant's after all, with great black eyes that stared unblinkingly at them from above a trunk that ended in a spray of tiny waving tendrils that moved about uncannily, like a dozen fingers looking for something to do. The mouth beneath was full of sharp teeth, which tended to push out beyond the thick lips like the ill-concealed teeth of a crocodile.

The body was encased in armor - there was no other word for it. That it was military issue of sorts seemed evident from the crazy amount of insignia and fruit salad painted or printed on the front of it; but that it was practical battle gear first and parade-type pretty stuff last was apparent by the flaws in the dull metallic sheen it gave off. It was nicked and dented like the brow of an old battleship hovering above the docks, and looked like it had served its wearer in some very difficult situations, indeed.

Cradled in the creature's thick arms was a rifle of heroic proportions, with enough emitters, gadgets, knobs, vents, and probable muzzles to gladden the heart of Uncle Sam himself. It looked like an army arsenal thrown together into one weapon of mass destruction, capable of a dozen types of mayhem, if not more. The soldier hefted the weapon with ease, though Charlie would have guessed by the look of it that it easily weighed more than he did.

Another of the soldiers stepped into the room behind the first, similarly outfitted, and positioned himself to the other side of the door. And then a third giant stepped into the room, even bigger than the first two. This one, Charlie decided immediately, was definitely the boss.

 He was a foot taller than the other two, wider, and his armor was black instead of gray. He didn't carry any weapons at all, but also looked like he didn't need one to break someone in half. This one's dark eyes had a shine to them that Charlie would have termed manic in a human, which did not bode well for their fate.

Mike got to his feet and nodded at the newcomer. "Korig. Fancy meetin' you here."

There was a grating sound like a tank climbing over a concrete obstacle, and the one in black shook his massive head. "Ah, da teef. You steal from me again."

Mike smiled. "Actually, I just borrowed the bubble ship, and I don't think you can really complain about it, as you stole it from the Kifta in the first place."

Korig leaned forward a bit, his great eyes managing to squint somehow, even though Charlie could see now that they possessed no lids. "Not argue da point. Where is Pacha'ka?"

Mike managed to look uncomprehending, although Charlie decided immediately that the look wouldn't hold up in a court of law. "Who?"

Korig took a shockingly quick step forward, and his trunk flexed convulsively. The end darted out, and the tendrils stopped a mere inch from Mike's face. The boy flinched back a bit, but the tendrils followed him, maintaining that tiny distance.

"No play games," Korig grated, the tendrils dancing about Mike's face. "Tell!"

Kippy bounced to his feet. "Don't hurt him!"

The alien's eyes moved to fasten on Kippy, and Kippy gulped and took a step backwards. Korig's trunk settled downward again as he swung from Mike to turn his attention to the other humans.

The big alien's eyes examined Kippy, and then Charlie, and then the others. "You are hees kind," the alien said then. "What your part in dis?"

"We don't know what's going on," Charlie said, finding his voice and stepping closer to Kip. "We don't know anything at all."

"Klooks never look guilty when dey steal eggs from nest. Yet teefs dey are, surely."

Charlie blinked at that, but understood the message plainly. "We haven't stolen a thing. In fact, you stole us from our planet."

Korig made the grating sound again, and waved an enormous hand in dismissal. "No law on your world. Rights not determined yet."

Kippy rolled his eyes at that. "We have laws against kidnapping, let me tell you."

"No laws under galactic code." Korig leaned closer. "Same as no laws at all."

"You're wastin' your time," Mike said, shaking his head. "He's a bloody bushranger. Thinks his laws are the only ones there is."

"Compliments no help you," Korig grated, looking quite serious. "Now tell where Pacha'ka is hiding."

Mike sighed loudly, and used his hands to indicate himself. "Do you see him with me? He took off after we got away from you last time. I took his ship, but he didn't come with me."

"No? Where go?"

Mike dropped his hands and looked pointedly at the big alien. Charlie was amazed - the guy had guts, anyway! "He didn't say. Just took off." The boy sighed then. "Can't say I blame him much, either."

Korig stepped closer to Mike, and the big alien's trunk whipped out again. Mike held his ground, looking defiant, while the tendrils waved slowly in front of his face. "You will tell." The certainty was so plain in the alien's voice that it made Charlie cringe a little. Kippy pushed against him, and Charlie drew him close.

Korig stepped back again, and said something unintelligible to the soldiers. They both gave off sounds like boulders washing down a gulley in a flash flood, which Charlie presumed to be laughter. Korig's face pulled into a terrible grimace, displaying his shark-like teeth, which on such an ugly mug could only be a smile. The alien pointed at Mike with its tendrils. "See you again, soon. Den talk."

The giant alien turned and exited through the doorway, followed, one by one, by the two soldiers. The wall grew opaque, and then solid again. They were alone once more.

Kippy gave Charlie a squeeze, and then pulled away from him, still gazing at the section of wall the three aliens had departed through. "That was the Galactic Overlord, I presume."

Mike gave off short bark of a laugh. "Korig? He's just commander of this ship. A nobody hoping to be somebody. He thinks that finding Pacha'ka will get him promoted."

Ricky and Adrian got to their feet and brushed themselves off. "Who is this Pacha'ka?" Adrian asked. "Why is he important?"

"Wait." Charlie held up a hand and looked around the room. "Don't you think they're listening to us, or watching us?"

Mike laughed at that. "No. They wouldn't dare."

Kippy and Charlie looked at each other. "Why not?" Kippy asked.

Mike came over to them. "Took me a while to understand these pricks, myself." He smiled. "They got laws, these people do, and they are the most law-abiding folk you will ever meet in this galaxy."

Kippy huffed. "Can't tell that by the way that rhinoceros almost grabbed you. He could have hurt you if he had!"

Mike shook his head. "Korig's just a lot of show right now. If he'd been tryin' to hurt me, he could have pulled my arms off."

Charlie frowned. "Why do you think they aren't listening? Or watching?"

Mike grinned. "'Cause we're not people, see?"

Adrian snorted. "We were the last time I looked in a mirror."

"Yeah, sure." Mike shook his head. "But under their laws, because we aren't members of the galactic union, we aren't people. We live in woop woop - the smallest town there is. We're classified as animals."

Charlie's eyebrows bounced upwards. "Wouldn't that make it easier for them to torture you to get the information they want?"

Mike laughed. "That's the beauty of it. These galaxy folk have the strongest laws for the protection of animals you will ever see, anywhere. On their own worlds, animals live on preserves, and nobody is allowed in. Nobody is allowed to observe them, or do anything that might alter their environment. For one of these aliens to muck up a natural habitat is a major capital crime." Mike waved a hand around them. "Out here in the never never, the laws are even tougher. Anything not classified as a person under their law is an animal, and it's hands off or face the consequences. Muck up some planet that animals live on, and the authorities will vaporize you and bottle the vapor for all eternity. Korig has been walking the fine line with me, and he knows it. But he hasn't stepped over it yet, because he's waiting on a ruling on Earth and all of us."

"A ruling?" Charlie shook his head. "On what?"

"On whether we're animals, or people." Mike winced at that. "Korig filed for a review, and he's waiting for an answer."

Charlie felt a creeping sensation at the back of his neck. "And if they decide we're people?"

Mike closed his eyes a moment, and when they reopened, they looked grim. "Then we're in a spot. 'Cause these galactic folk can be real mean to each other, when both parties are people."

"I thought he couldn't touch us," Kippy observed. "If we're animals, hasn't he committed a crime by taking us from Earth?"

"A big one," Mike agreed. "He's banking on the ruling coming back that we're people. But even if it doesn't, all he has to do is wipe your memories of meeting him, set you back on that hill, and you'd be none the wiser."

Kippy looked horrified. "Wipe my memory!"

"Just the ones after you saw my ship. He wouldn't dare touch the other ones."

"Yeah, but shit happens," Charlie said, not liking the idea of someone messing around inside his head, either. "They could screw us up with that kind of meddling."

Mike shrugged. "Their tech is awesome. If they go to delete just those memories, that's all they'll get, believe me." He shook his head. "No one but Korig and his two henchmen know we're aboard, you can bank on that. As commander, he can blank the feeds to all the rest of the crew, so that they don't even know what planet they're visiting."

"Feeds?" Ricky asked.

Mike waved a hand impatiently. "Doesn't matter." He smiled grimly. "Korig won't touch us until he gets that ruling. He won't spy on us, either, because even he can't edit or delete the ship's logs, and any attention paid to us by ship's security systems will be logged." The boy laughed. "Korig really does think we're animals, too stupid to fight him. That's why we'll get away from him again."

"You know an awful lot about all this," Adrian said, squinting at the boy. "How is that?"

"Been doing this almost a year now, I reckon. In all that time, this is the first I've made it all the way back to Earth." He scowled then. "But I couldn't get the local navs on that bloody Kifta bubble ship to cooperate, and I couldn't even find the southern hemi, let alone Australia. That's why I was stoppin' to ask you fellas where the hell I was."

Charlie looked around the room again. "You really think they're not listening to us? Or watching us?"

Mike sighed. "Like I said, that would be a security issue, and it would go into the log. Korig won't do that, not until he has that ruling. As far as the ship is concerned, we're not here."

"This is all nuts," Ricky said, shaking his head. "What are we gonna do now?"

Mike grinned. "Leave. It's in our best interests not to be here when that ruling comes in, no matter how it goes."

Charlie reached out and laid his hand on the Aussie's arm. "What happens to Earth if we are ruled as people?"

Mike frowned. "That will be bad. Korig's bunch would make contact and set up trade with us, which would be good for them and bad for us. They'd bleed us until we were dry." He shook his head. "They're not a nice bunch."

Charlie felt a strange sense of relief. "But they won't invade us or anything?"

"Naw. No point in that. I'd say they'd contact you Yanks first, or probably NATO. That lot would keep it a secret from everyone for as long as they could, and the average Earthie wouldn't even know aliens were about for another fifty years or so. But a lot of the wealth of our world would go offplanet, and people would be faced with a world that was getting poorer and hungrier each and every year."

Charlie felt a breathless sort of fear at the other boy's summation. It must have showed, because Mike smiled sympathetically. "Don't worry. They won't rule us as people."

Kippy looked astounded. "How could they not!"

Mike just laughed. "We haven't even been to the planets of our own system, Kipper. We don't have enough of the technology markers that the judging panel will be looking for us to have if we are really people."

The four boys all stared at Mike, and he shrugged. "What? I don't make the rules."

"Then why does Korig think the ruling will go in his favor?" Charlie asked.

"Korig's an opportunist. Mostly it's that he needs to think it will go in his favor, because he's stepped on some serious laws if it doesn't. But mostly he is banking on some string he pulled somewhere. Can't be much though, or he'd already be more than just a ship commander, right?"

"What's this pasha-whatzit he's looking for?" Ricky asked.

"Pacha'ka," Mike corrected, patiently. "We were traveling together. Pacha is a Kifta. His people think our people should be protected from the Arpathant."

"Why?" Kippy asked, and then suddenly pointed a finger at Mike. "And don't call me Kipper, please. It sounds like you're calling me a small, greasy fish."

"Who are these Kifta?" Charlie asked hastily, not wanting the conversation to become an argument

Mike laughed, but his manner was unapologetic. "The Kifta are a folk that live a ways off from us. Like us, they were discovered by the Arpathant, who petitioned to have them declared as people. The Kifta had explored their own solar system, and even had galactic travel. But they're peaceful, and laid back, and they hadn't started spreading out from their own system. They had enough going that they got ruled as people, and the Arpathant moved in and have been sucking the life out of them for two centuries." He shrugged. "They don't want us to have the same fate."

Charlie nodded. "Korig's bunch are powerful?"

"Oh, hell, yeah. They've been traveling the stars for a coupla thousand years. They're in the top ten economic and military powers in our galaxy." Mike make a disdainful sound. "And they're greedy, and mean, and don't care about anyone but themselves. Buncha bloody hoons, is what they are."

Kippy laughed at that. "Sounds nasty."

"Yeah."

Charlie shook his head. "So we actually want to be judged as animals? That will make them leave us alone?"

"For a while." Mike offered a sort of who knows? look. "At least until we go nosing about, looking for trouble outside our own system."

"What do these Kifta have to do with us? How do they even know about us?"

Mike winced. "Er, well, they know about us...because of me."

"Because of you." Kippy frowned. "Why am I not surprised?"

Mike rolled his eyes and gave out a little huff of air. "Look...the Kifta are peaceful, but they're tired of being dominated. When Pacha and I escaped from Korig the first time, we visited Pacha's planet. One day he took me to speak to a little group of his people sitting at a table on a sunny balcony. Looked like a bunch of picnickers, they did, drinking fizzy stuff in cups and acting all happy rabbits. I thought it was the local PTA or something. They wanted to know all about Earth, and all about us. I told 'em what I knew. Talked for four straight hours."

Something in Mike's manner seemed to say there was more to be told. "And?" Charlie prompted.

Mike grinned. "Well, that was the ruling council of the whole damn planet. Pacha told me later they decided they would act to help us if Earth was declared a people planet instead of an animal planet."

Adrian leaned forward. "Aren't they victims of the Arpathant, too? What could they do to help us?"

Mike frowned. "The Kifta are...a strange bunch.They're actually an older people than the Arpathant, and in some ways their tech is even better. They're just pacifists, mostly. But after they decided they needed to make a stand, some of their top boys put their heads together, and came up with something they think will end the problem of the Arpies forever."

Charlie eyed the boy. "Something like...what?"

Mike shrugged. "Some kind of doomsday thingo, I think."

"That sounds like fun," Kippy deadpanned.

Charlie slowly shook his head. "And where is this...thing, right now?"

"Oh, they gave it to Pacha. I don't know what he did with it."

Charlie gave out a small laugh. "Is it small enough to be carried on his bubble ship?"

The Aussie boy grinned. "Tiny." He patted his belly. "Pacha put it in his pouch." He nodded then, as to himself. "Oh. It's probably still there, too."

Kippy's mouth dropped open. "Your alien friend has a pouch? You mean like a kangaroo?"

"A little. Pacha's smaller than a 'roo, though. He's a...well, normally they look a little like big white rabbits...kind of."

"Normally?" Charlie repeated.

Mike grinned. "You'll have to see, to get me."

Charlie simply stared, unable to imagine a doomsday device that could be carried about in a...well, a pouch. "You're serious?"

"Absolutely. Pacha is supposed to use the thingo when the time is right."

Kippy gaped a second, his eyes briefly seeking out Charlie before returning to Mike. "And when is that?"

"Dunno. Only Pacha can say."

For a moment no one said anything. That they were so far outside of their own experiences here was just horribly obvious. One minute they had been checking out Myer's Hill, planning for their July Fourth evening; and the next they were captives on a giant starship of an alien superpower, discussing doomsday weapons in a jail cell.

"This just sucks," Ricky said, shaking his head.

Charlie and Kippy both laughed, unable not to, and Adrian smiled, and leaned over and pecked Ricky on the cheek. "There's my stalwart hero."

Ricky gave a little huff at that. "So what are we gonna do? We can't just sit here and wait while some alien zookeepers decide which side of the bars we belong on. We have to think of a plan."

"Oh, I already have one of those," Mike said, smiling. "We're leaving."

Charlie eyed him, and Kippy just sighed. "As easy as that, huh?" Charlie asked. "Okay. You lead, and we'll follow. You can start with that steel wall first."

Mike laughed, but nodded. Then he looked down at himself, and patted the front of his suit. "Pacha? You awake?"

Charlie stared. The front of Mike's suit slowly bulked up, like a balloon was inflating inside of it, until something sizable seemed to be within. Mike did something to the collar of the suit, and a vee of material appeared at his neck and yawned open down to his sternum. The bulge inside the suit squirmed about, and then a head popped into view in the opening. Soft, dark eyes stared at them from an utterly delightful furry face.

Kippy's mouth dropped open, and he clenched his hands in front of himself in amazement. "Aw!"

The little creature turned its dark eyes and black nose upwards and made a tiny grimace at Mike. "Why does your kind always react in this fashion to this shape?"

Mike just laughed, and unconsciously raised a hand and stroked the creature's velvety pelt. "Koala's are cuties, is why."

Kippy's jaw dropped even further. "It...talks," he breathed.

Mike nodded. "Mates, this is Pacha, a ka among the Kifta."

Charlie shook his head. "You're not going to tell us that koala bears are secretly aliens, are you?"

"Naw. Pacha's people are polymorphs, which means they don't have any set shape of their own, but can assume the shape of anything they want, pretty much, as long as it's about the same mass." Mike stroked the alien's fur again, and smiled. "Pacha seems to like this one."

"He's so cute," Kippy breathed, his eyes shining.

"What exactly is a ka?" Charlie asked.

Mike frowned. "Kind of like a scientist, or a thinker." Then he smiled. "Actually, it's more like a wizard. Pacha's pretty good with the special effects."

Adrian leaned forward to peer at the creature. "You mean Korig didn't know that this guy could make himself small enough to hide inside your suit?"

"He didn't make himself smaller. He just stretched out, like a rope, and wrapped himself around my waist." Mike smiled. "You should see some of the things he can become."

"Our ability is not widely known," Pacha himself said, turning those dark eyes back on the boys. "There was no need to inform others about it."

"They have always showed the same shape to offworlders," Mike explained. "The one where they look kind of like big, white rabbits. Not what you'd call scary at all."

"Heck of a secret to keep for two centuries," Charlie observed.

"It's like I told you," Mike said immediately, "these galactics have a hell of a lot of laws. Even though the Kifta have fallen under the feet of the Arpathant Hegemony, that doesn't mean that their planet is overrun with them. Korig's folk have a minimum presence on Kift, just enough to keep an eye on things and keep the cash flowing outward. The Kifta have a right to keep everyone else in the galaxy off their planet save for trade missions, and they do just that. Not that Korig's kind cares. The Arpies think everybody else's planets are second-rate. They're happy to loot them for what they can get, but they sure don't want to live on 'em."

"I am beginning to not like these Arpies," Ricky said darkly.

"For an advanced species they possess remarkably criminal tendencies," Pacha agreed. "Thugs, basically." The dark eyes turned up to peer at Mike. "What did you call them?"

"Hoons," Mike supplied, grinning. "Hooligans."

"Hey," Ricky said then, " you said you couldn't figure out the nav systems on the bubble ship, and that's why you stopped to ask us directions. But if your buddy there was with you, couldn't he have helped?"

Mike rolled his eyes. "Pacha was asleep when we hit Earth. He's pretty tough to wake up when he's sleeping."

"Impossible, actually," the little koala said, a trace of amusement in his eyes. "It runs in my family."

Mike and Pacha looked at each other, and Mike grinned, and the koala would have had its face been quite able to manage it. But the smile was there in the alien's eyes, and it was enough to make Charlie think they were being had. "Private joke?" he asked.

Mike turned the grin on Charlie. "Pacha's folk only sleep every now and then. Like every few months, even. But when they do, look out! He zonked on me halfway back to Earth, and if he hadn't set our course first we'd probably be out zoomin' around the Lesser Magellanic Cloud about now."

"You drive passably," Pacha countered. "You just can't park. But...you would have managed."

That these two were friends was evident now. There was a warmth between them that bespoke of troubles shared, and a kind of trust grown out of experience with each other's abilities.

"You two have been around a bit, huh?"

Mike nodded. "Pach and I have logged some light years together, yeah. Seen a lot that I would have never had the chance to, if I hadn't walked out to see that meteorite that day."

Charlie shook his head and smiled at Mike. "Sounds like it's been quite a year for you. You must have had some interesting adventures."

"I'll say. That day when Pacha's ship came down near my house, he was running from Korig even then. The Arpies got wind of the fact that the Kifta were cooking up some new tech to deal with them, and Korig was out to rip off what he could get out of it. Of course the Arpies never think anyone else's tech will be a threat to them, so they weren't terribly worried about it being a rip snorter, or anything that might hurt them. Korig just wants whatever loot is to be had."

"You got captured that day, when Pacha's ship landed in your backyard?" Kippy asked.

Mike nodded. "Well, it was up the back hill and a ways off in the brush, actually. But, yeah. I got picked up the same way you fellas did. I was standing by Pacha's ship, having just met him, when Korig swooped in and used the zapper on us."

"And for the past year you've been a captive?"

"Aw, hell no. Pacha's really tough to keep locked up. We left as soon as we got to a waystation on the frontier of the Hegemony. Been here and there and all about space since then, with Korig usually a step or two behind us." Mike grinned. "Been fun, actually."

Pacha emitted a tiny chk-chk-chk that could have been a chuckle, and Charlie would have sworn that the creature rolled its eyes. "We have differing notions of amusement, it would seem."

Mike laughed and rubbed the alien's pelt fondly. "I've loved all of it, mostly. You throw a hell of party, Pacha."

Kippy shook his head. "Your family must be worried sick about you."

Mike simply shrugged. "Don't have one, really. Been on my own since I was sixteen. Fluttered about the coast a bit, and was staying with a distant aunt when I got new wings under my feet." He stroked the koala bear again and sighed. "Auntie Mae was used to me coming and going. She probably thinks I'm off working somewhere, is all."

The four Americans were quiet a moment, digesting what was to them a startlingly different way of living.

"You look like you're still sixteen," Adrian offered then. "Our age."

"I"m nineteen, actually." Charlie almost smiled at the small touch of pride that seemed to be available along with that statement.

"You said something about us leaving?" Kippy said then.

"Yeah. It'd be almost impossible if Korig kept us in a real jail cell, 'cause there's all sorts of tech to keep you from leaving. But he can't do that, because then the ship would know about us, and our presence would be logged." Mike glanced around the compartment they were standing in, and smiled. "They probably cleaned all the brooms outta here just before they put us inside."

Charlie shook his head. "I can't believe that this ship - if it's self-aware like you seem to be saying - doesn't know we're here."

"Nah. The Arpies don't spy on themselves. They have all kinds of laws against it, probably because they're such a buncha cheats when it comes to business. Don't want no one lookin', you know? Since the only crew on this ship are their own kind, the ship isn't allowed to watch anything that isn't designated as a security matter." Mike grinned. "Which works in our favor, most definitely."

"They seem somewhat unimaginative, for star-conquerors," Pacha agreed. "Having left their hospitality previously from just such a room as this one would make most captors more careful about repeating the experience. But Korig seems not to have learned from his last mistake."

Mike snorted. "He probably thought someone left the door open by mistake. These Arpies just can't see anyone being able to do stuff they can't."

Pacha gave off a sound that could have been agreement, and then carefully extracted himself from Mike's suit and climbed slowly down his body to the deck. Even Charlie smiled at that. The little alien, dressed as a koala, was simply too cute for words. His smooth, soft pelt was gray and red with silvery-white accents, and Charlie felt an urge to walk over and give the little fellow a rub. It was hard to reconcile the cute, teddy-bear shape with an alien being from a star system light years away from earth.

"This is going to be interesting," Charlie couldn't help whispering under his breath.

Pacha waddled across the deck to stand before the section of wall that Korig and his minions had exited through, and raised his tiny hands and closed his eyes. Everyone watched in silence, expecting anything up to and including a miracle to occur.

Nothing happened. After a few moments, Pacha lowered his hands and turned to look at Mike over his shoulder. "Apparently we were wrong. Korig has learned something from our previous leave-taking. There is a guard stationed outside the door." The koala sniffed. "The uglier of the two that was in here with us before."

Mike gaped at that. "They were both butt-ugly."

Pacha grunted in agreement, and turned and started a slow circuit of the room, pausing every few steps and extending one hand towards the wall. He was halfway around when he stopped, waved a hand at the wall beside him, and then looked at Mike. "Here."

Mike moved over to stand by the creature. "Give it the works."

Pacha raised his hands again, and closed his eyes. Charlie glanced at Kippy, and then went quietly to stand near Mike and the koala. He sensed Kippy and the others move up behind him, and they all stared at the wall before them.

Pacha's hands moved just slightly, as though he was feeling his way through the dark The wall before him looked just like every other inch of the steel wall around the room, solid and uncompromising in nature. Yet almost immediately it wavered like a bed sheet on a clothesline in a soft summer breeze, grew opaque, then transparent, and then disappeared altogether. Charlie leaned forward slightly, staring.

The opening revealed was not round like the entry doorway, but rectangular, more like a normal human doorway, but Arpathant-sized. Within was a narrow tunnel extending back into the guts of the ship, the walls of which were covered with small round and square fixtures, some connected together by slim tubing. Lights at periodic intervals indicated that the tunnel was endless, or as close to endless as their eyes could perceive, the far end of the tunnel being just a dot of light that certainly appeared to meet the definition of infinity.

Charlie's eyes staggered a little at the apparent distance indicated, and moved back to examine the things attached to the walls close at hand. There were a lot of them, and they, too, seemed to march backwards towards no certain end. It looked like the mother of all plumber's pipe chases, save for the fact that what was inside was certainly electronic in nature.

"Where does that go?" Kippy wondered aloud.

Pacha looked over his shoulder at them, the little alien's eyes suggesting a smile. "I think it's the escape route."

Charlie laughed, seeing almost a small dare in the alien's words. "I'm game."

Mike bent and picked up Pacha, and cradled the little alien in his arms. Then he stepped into the opening and started forward. Charlie reached for Kippy's hand, grasped it, and followed.

Ricky sighed. "I feel like the trailer behind an old pick up truck." But he reached for Adrian's hand, took it firmly in his own, and the two of them stepped after the others into the tunnel.


* * * * * * *


"Won't the ship's security systems take note that we're in this tunnel?" Charlie whispered, leaning closer to Mike's ear.

"No. Not the automated stuff, anyway. Only Arpies would use this tunnel, see? If the ship's maintenance guy is bored, he or she might be looking around with a viewer - but like I said, they're damn careful at what they look at. Being accused of spying on another Arpathant is some serious shit. And if Korig has the feeds to his crew muted, they won't be seeing a lot of things. He wants to hide us, not make us known to everyone on the ship."

"That seems ridiculously careless."

Mike gave a soft laugh. "You just don't get the mindset of these guys. Nobody bucks them out in the galaxy. There's more than enough space for the big empires to share and get along. Them and Korig's people spend all their time squeezing everybody else's pockets. They're so used to getting that done, they don't know different now. Korig thinks he can walk on water."

Charlie grinned at the other boy's speech. He was growing fond of the twangy pronunciations and occasional oddball slang. "I guess we'll find out."

They passed several side branches to their own tunnel before arriving at a niche in the wall with a tunnel leading downward. "There," Pacha indicated, pointing.

Mike leaned forward and looked down the opening, and then immediately stepped back. "Shit."

Charlie leaned past the other boy and looked down. This new tunnel looked just like their own in its infinite quality, except this one headed straight down into the bowels of the ship. And, there was no ladder to be seen, either.

A brief sensation of vertigo struck him, and Charlie immediately stepped back next to Kippy. "Man. Wait until you see this."

Kippy, never one to be bashful, immediately leaned forward himself, and stared down the new tunnel. "Wow. It looks high up."

"Oh, shit," Adrian said then. "If Kippy says it's high, it must be incredible."

"There," Pacha repeated, pointing at the hole in the floor. Mike nodded, and turned to look at Charlie and the others. "What you do is step up to the lip and lean down and grab ahold of those handholds there. Then you set one foot onto the near wall of the downward tunnel, and then sort of tilt yourself forward and step into it. Then you'll be standing on the wall, only it will be the floor then."

Charlie stared at him. "Really?" He grinned. "You go first."

Mike nodded, and Charlie noticed then that the other boy looked a little unsettled. Charlie put a hand on Mike's shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "Don't like heights?"

Mike narrowed his eyes, and visibly fortified himself. "I'll be okay."

The boy took Pacha and slid him back into the vee of his suit, and then stepped up to the opening in the floor. He stooped, grabbed the handholds to either side of the opening, then he took a breath, looked downward, and slid one foot into the other tunnel. And then he did just as he had said, kind of tilting himself downward into the opening, and suddenly, he was walking away from them. He turned after a few paces and grinned up at the ring of faces looking at him. "See? It's easy."

Charlie laughed, seeing the green-around-the-gills look only now fading from the Aussie boy's face. But he didn't say anything about it. "Come on, Kip. Last one in's a rotten egg."

Charlie copied Mike's exact movements, and soon was standing in the new tunnel. Kippy followed with an excited little squeak, and Charlie opened his arms and allowed his boyfriend to step into them. "That was awesome," Kippy said, grinning, little lights dancing in his eyes. Charlie just sighed, hugged him, and kissed the tip of his nose.

Ricky came next, seeming to have no trouble at all with the move, and then turned and extended a hand to Adrian. Adrian took it, slid around the corner like he did it every day of the week, and smiled as Ricky pulled him close and kissed him. "Cool, huh?"

Charlie turned around to see Mike watching them. There was some humor to be seen in the Aussie boy's eyes, but none of it seemed mean in spirit. Charlie just grinned at him. "Shall we?"

Mike nodded, and pulled Pacha back into the cradle of his arm as he turned down the tunnel. "That way," the little koala said, pointing forward.

This tunnel looked much the same as their former route,  just wide enough for them to walk two-abreast. Charlie wanted to walk with Kippy, and Ricky with Adrian, so they just let Mike and Pacha lead the way, and followed behind them, holding hands. Kippy swung his back and forth with each step, taking Charlie's along for the ride. Charlie smiled the whole time, finding Kippy's sweet enjoyment of a walk that normally would be a frightening test of their abilities very endearing. That Kip saw the world just a little differently than Charlie did was one of the reasons he loved him so much.

At one point Mike raised a hand and stopped. The tunnel ahead visibly widened, and they crept forward and found themselves at the edge of a large room. Tremendous metallic cylinders and cubes stood about the deck, humming and pulsing, while tiny lights swarmed like fireflies around the faces of black plates set into their bases. A catwalk circled the huge room, one level above them, but their eyes could detect no movement, anywhere.

"There's no one," Pacha said then, with a certainty that had Charlie wondering. The little alien reminded him then, just a bit, of some other little folk he knew, in his uncanny ability to know what was going on around him with just a glance. That the koala might harbor some of the same strange power that Max and Frit and Pip knew kind of startled him.

What was magic, really? The way that Max talked about it, it was science of a different kind than humans knew, and not a mystical thing at all. A way of manipulating energy that humans had yet to even discover, let alone master. Well, all save Nicholaas, who had mastered it quite thoroughly, indeed.

Kippy looked at him then, and Charlie smiled, seeing that, somehow, Kippy was thinking along the same lines. "It might be magic," Charlie said softly.

Kippy grinned at him, and patted the side of his head with a fingertip, and then pointed at Charlie. Charlie smiled, understanding immediately. Are you reading my mind, Charlie Boone?

They crossed the great room, and Charlie could only wonder what function the huge, fabulous machines performed. That they operated unattended bespoke of a confident technology as yet unknown on Earth, where no ship traveled the seas without her inner machine spaces carefully tended by human hands. It prompted a question in his mind, and he moved closer to Mike to pose it in a quiet voice.

"Hey...how many Arpies does it take to crew a ship this size?"

Mike slowed, and grinned over his shoulder. "Sounds like a light bulb joke." At Charlie's blank look, the other boy sighed. "You know...how many Arpies does it take to screw in a...never mind."

Charlie got it then, and laughed. "I mean, really?"

Mike shrugged, and looked down at Pacha. "What is it? Fifteen? Twenty?"

"Twelve," the alien returned.

Charlie was stunned. A dozen crew, to run a ship that had looked in the sky above Myer's Hill to be at least a mile long! "That's amazing," he breathed.

Pacha stood up in the crook of Mike's arm and peered at Charlie over the boy's shoulder. "The ship is large because the Arpathant think that increasing the size of everything makes it more powerful."

"Doesn't it?" Charlie returned.

The little koala offered him those smiling eyes again. "To a point."

"Intimidation counts for a lot with these meatheads," Mike added. But then he nodded. "But they can back it up, if they have to."

"Let's not make them have to," Charlie said. "I was pretty intimidated just by the size of these guys. They look like they could do major construction work without using any machinery at all."

Mike laughed at that. "Their homeworld is a big, heavy-gravity rock sweating under a red giant star. I think growing up there left them all a little irritable."

"Really?" Charlie frowned at that. "The gravity aboard this ship seems normal to me."

"They had it turned down in the broom closet where they had us stashed," Mike returned. "That's another reason Korig thinks we can't get away. Leaving that room would put us under their gravity, and we'd pretty much be unable to deal with that on our own. Pacha's been keeping the pull off us since we left there."

Charlie and Kippy looked at each other, and then stopped. Rick and Adrian bumped into them, and stopped, too. Mike went on a few paces before he realized that no one was following, and then turned back to stare at them. "What's the matter? We need to keep moving."

"Pacha can control gravity?" Charlie asked. Now, that was definitely within the realm of things that elves could do. That sounded more like magic than anything they had experienced thus far.

"I just said so, didn't I?"

The koala's head appeared and the alien gazed solemnly at them over Mike's shoulder. "Would you like to see?"

"Umm..." Charlie didn't want to initiate something unpleasant, but...he had to know. "Maybe a little demonstration?"

Suddenly, Charlie felt a new weight descend upon him, as if a heavy sling had been abruptly slung about his shoulders. He sagged under the load, and gasped when it only increased.

"Fuck," Ricky breathed, as he and Adrian tried to hold each other up. Unsuccessfully, too. The four boys sagged to their knees almost in the same instant, and Charlie was certain that the deck was the next stop.

But the load bearing him down vanished just as suddenly as it had appeared, leaving him gasping from the sudden release of strain upon his body.

"Not pleasant, is it?" Mike asked, very matter-of-factly. "Now let's get on with this walk, ay?"

Charlie looked at Kip, who had something resembling fright in his eyes. Just how precarious their situation actually was had been born home to them. Without Pacha, they would not even be able to walk around on this ship, let alone escape from it.

Charlie got to his feet, helped Kippy up next to him, and gave him a quick hug and a kiss. "Sorry."

Kippy smiled, his eyes fond. "You wouldn't be my Charlie without your curiosity."

"That felt like a whole bookcase of Britannicas on my back," Ricky said, as he and Adrian assisted each other to their feet.

But when Charlie looked over at him, Ricky just smiled, the support for their recent learning experience apparent in his eyes.

Adrian nodded. "That would have been hell if it had just suddenly happened without us knowing what to expect. We wouldn't have had a clue as to what was going on."

Charlie agreed. Better to know the devils you were facing, than not. He stepped forward, and nodded at Mike. "Let's go."

"That way," Pacha said, pointing forward.

They proceeded onward, and Charlie squeezed Kippy's hand as they traveled. Having briefly experienced even part of the kind of gravity that Korig and his people lived with daily, he now understood just how physically powerful the aliens had to be. Facing one unarmed would be impossible, certainly. That meant that staying with Mike and the little koala was an imperative, and not an elective procedure. To lose Pacha would be to lose all hope of escape.

They finished crossing the immense room, and Pacha opened another hidden doorway into another rectangular tunnel. The corridor before them seemed just as endless as the first one. Fortunately, they only traveled about a quarter of a mile before Pacha once again directed them into a cross tunnel. They made the ninety-degree transfer smoothly this time, one after the other, once having been enough prior experience to cause the process to be nearly automatic.

The new tunnel looked exactly like the old one, and they followed it along for a while until Pacha suddenly bade Mike to stop. The little alien pointed at an apparently blank section of wall, closed his eyes, and held his hands up again. The wall wavered and then vanished, revealing another rectangular opening.

The five humans crowded around it, and looked into the great hall beyond.

It was an immense room, bigger even than the machine room they had crossed. This one was easily ten or twelve stories tall, and with an area that a half dozen football fields would fit inside comfortably. Parked about in no seeming order were a series of small craft - although the word small was entirely relative to the surroundings. Most were wedge-shaped, and about the size of a Boeing 747 - obviously transports or taxis or what have you. Still others were of varying shapes, and seemed to have specialized functions that Charlie could only imagine. But one other craft, over on the far side of the immense hangar, bore a familiar round shape and blueish skin that made Charlie's heart leap with joy when he saw it.

Pacha's bubble ship!

"There," the little koala said, pointing at the ship, and Charlie was certain now that he detected a trace of humor in the the alien's voice.

Mike stuck his head  through the doorway and gave the place a quick once-over. "Don't see anyone. What about you, Pacha?"

The koala was still a moment, but then nodded. "Someone is there. But we must go this way, no matter." He looked up at Mike. "I'm not sure what will happen."

Mike stared at the alien for a long moment, and Charlie was certain that this answer was not what he had been expecting. "I trust you," the Aussie boy finally said, softly, nodding at Pacha. He turned his head and grinned at Charlie and the others. "Fancy a walk, mates? We're almost home."

Mike turned back, squared his shoulders, and stepped through the opening. Charlie looked at Kippy, who smiled, and stepped forward and tugged at his arm. "Come on, Charlie. We'll miss the bus."

The group started across the vast expanse of deck, their eyes trying to dart everywhere at one time. Charlie hoped they could cross to the bubble ship without meeting the tech or guard, or whoever was stationed here, but was prepared for the worst. He was not prepared for them to get all the way to the last wedge ship before the bubble without seeing a soul. Maybe Pacha had been wrong?

Mike seemed to be thinking the same thing. As they arrived at the last transport, he picked up the pace and walked around the nose of the alien craft, and so almost ran into the guard standing on the other side, his rifle at the ready.

The alien grated something at them, pointing the business end of the weapon at them, and everyone froze.

"Ah, da teef, about to steal from me again," came a familiar voice. Charlie turned with the others just as Korig and the second guard stepped out from beneath the curved hull of the transport. "I tell you we see each other again, no?" That horrible smile stretched itself across the alien's face once again.

Charlie's heart fell into his shoes. They were caught, with nowhere to run.


* * * * * * *


"Pacha'ka?" Korig stared at the little koala. "What wonderful disguise! Never would have recognized you, I tink." He leaned closer. "But was sure you were about, someplace, despite what da teef say.  Knew you would not leave your friend behind."

Korig walked slowly around their group, delight at his own smarts at apprehending them obvious in every mannerism. "See now dat you have way to deal with gravity. Dis was not suspected before." But then any trace of delight vanished from the alien's features. "Place Pacha'ka on deck please," he instructed to Mike, who glared, but stooped and placed the little alien on its haunches. Pacha stood calmly, examining Korig and the guards as one might an unusually boring potted plant.

"Didn't expect to see you here," Mike admitted, straightening.

"Only one place for you to go." Korig waved a hand at the bubble ship, then leaned ominously at Mike. "How you leave room with guard at door?"

Mike shrugged and licked his lips. "Stupid of you to guard the front door, but not the back one."

Again, Korig's eyes seemed to narrow, without the benefit of lids. "Service way? Should not be possible."

"Neither should you be in charge of anything important," Mike returned, rebelliously. "But it apparently happened."

Korig's trunk darted out so quickly it was almost a blur. But this time the tendrils did not stop a scant inch from the Aussie boy's face, but wrapped completely about his neck. Mike was jerked up into the air, his hands grasping at the ropey tendrils, his feet pumping wildly. He made a horrible sound, obviously choking.

Korig's eyes were gleaming now, as manic as they could become. "Bad timing to try my patience. Just have news. You are declared people now, so no more hands-off."

Charlie gasped at that. People! "That's impossible," he gasped.

Korig waved Mike about for another moment, and then let him go. The Aussie boy crashed to the deck and lay there, coughing and gasping, rubbing at his throat, which now had visible red weals about it. Kippy immediately pulled his hand from Charlie's and went to the boy, and dropped to his knees beside him. Kippy tossed a furious glare at Korig, and helped Mike into a seated position.

Korig ignored all of it, and turned to Charlie instead. "No impossible." The alien gave forth the volcanic equivalent of a chuckle. "Is family. Great uncle Trasdinmoob is chief regulator of court of review. For small piece of da action, he assure your ruling as people go in my favor."


Charlie simply gaped. Korig was so pleased with himself just now that nothing could apparently push him beyond irritation into genuine anger. The giant could easily have killed Mike, but that his purpose had simply been to scare the crap out of him seemed obvious now. Korig worshipped a certain kind of respect - craved it would be a better word - and it was a respect that equated with fear among the opposition.

Korig swung around again, and pinned Pacha in his gaze. "Have much to talk about now."

The koala's soft eyes came up and regarded the giant Arpathant. "I do not think so."

Korig's face twisted into irritation mode again...and then froze. At the same time, the two guards standing watch grunted, and the muzzles of their weapons slowly dropped to hit the deck. Charlie stared, unsure of what was happening, as Korig and the two guards suddenly hunched forward, as if in pain. The guard's arms slowly stretched to their full lengths, and with a terrific thunk-thunk, their weapons pulled from their grasps and dropped to the deck.

Korig voiced something angry in his native tongue, and the three Arpathants dropped to their knees, and then fell over on their sides and lay twitching on the deck.

Pacha turned to Mike. "Can you travel?"

Mike nodded, and pointed at Korig. "Gravity?"

"Twelve of them, to you. Almost six to them. I think that will hold them while we take our leave of this uncheerful place."

Charlie understood then. Just as Pacha had relieved their group of the extra gravitational pull within the ship so that they could move about, now he had somehow increased it sixfold to incapacitate the Arpathants.

"You don't need to tell us twice," Kippy said, helping Mike to his feet. The Aussie boy was still wobbly, and Ricky and Adrian came around to his sides and threw one of the boy's arms over each of their shoulders. Mike looked unhappy to be helped, but just nodded his willingness to allow it. Kippy went to Pacha and bent low before him. "Would it help if I carried you?"

Pacha reached up with his small, furry arms. "It would hasten things dramatically, yes."

Charlie smiled, wishing he had time to take a picture of Kippy bent down as he was, with the koala reaching upwards to be picked up. He patted the pocket containing his phone, but then went to stand beside his boyfriend as Kippy carefully picked up Pacha and cradled him in his arms.

"Oh, my god, are you two cute together," Charlie whispered.

Kippy grinned ear-to-ear. "Which of us is cuter?" he whispered back.

Charlie laughed. "It's damn close, but you know the answer."

Kippy beamed at him, his eyes twinkling.

"We will have time for your mating ritual later," Pacha said, pointing at the bubble ship with one tiny hand. "We should leave now, before something else happens."

Korig twitched and rolled, and grumbled something unintelligible in his gravelly voice. Whether it was a plea or a threat could not be determined, but Charlie felt certain it was the latter.

They started moving towards the bubble ship, expecting any moment for alarms to sound and troops to come rushing at them. But nothing at all happened. Charlie remembered then that there were only nine other crew aboard the great vessel after Korig and his two lackeys, and that made the chance of discovery quite slim, indeed.

They reached the bubble ship, at which point Mike was able to progress under his own power. Pacha waved a tiny hand, and the round entry appeared in the side of the ship. They hustled inside, and the hull sealed up again behind them. Charlie breathed a sigh of relief then.

"Here, I'll take him," Mike said, going to Kippy and extending his arms towards Pacha. Kippy sighed, but held the koala out, and Pacha scrambled into Mike's arms. Mike grinned then, and again Charlie could see that the boy held a great deal of affection for the little alien. They had been through a lot together, he imagined, and the bond they shared was apparent. But...first things first.

"Shouldn't we take off?" Charlie asked.

"We already have," Pacha returned. "I have opened the lock in the ship's hull, and we are about to depart. The moment we do, Korig and his men will be free."

Charlie grimaced at the idea. "They'll chase us?"

"They will try." Somehow, Pacha managed to look pleased with himself. "By the time they swing that giant vessel around in it's tracks, we will have vanished into the Cooee."

Charlie blinked. "Into what?"

Mike started laughing. "Oh, I gave him that word. Cooee is a bush call back home. Do it right and it can be heard for a fair piece. But we've come to use it to mean distance, like, 'we aren't within cooee' of this or that. Means we ain't close, by far. Or, we say, 'that's within cooee' of this or that, and it means it's close by."

Charlie laughed. "So it can mean near or far, depending on how you use it?"

"Yep. When Pacha tried to explain to me how their ships travel through this no-space, no-time stuff, I thought it sounded a lot like he was sayin' that when you went into it, you were just as close to and just as far from some place as you could possibly get, until you got there."

Ricky laughed, and gave Charlie a fond poke. "There's one for that brain of yours. What does that tell you?"

Charlie shrugged. "Beats me. But if it takes us away from Korig and his boys, I'm all for it."

"Can we get back to Earth?" Adrian asked.

"Yes." Pacha offered them a perfectly human nod. "But not right away. They will assume your world as our destination, and move to intercept us."

"They can do that?" Charlie asked. "Stop us?"

"No, they can't stop us. But they can trail us, and be right there when we reemerge into normal space. We would then be in the same predicament that we now have here."

Ricky scratched his chin. "They can't grab us with a tractor beam or something?"

The koala offered a faintly puzzled look, and Mike jumped in to explain the concept. "The technology is fanciful," Pacha decided, after hearing about it.

"That means they don't have it," Mike explained. "They use other stuff to dock ships. No Cap'n Kirk out here."

Kippy frowned and turned to Charlie. "That means we aren't going home? Charlie, we can't just stay out here. Our families will worry." He looked even more anguished a moment later. "And we'll miss the fireworks!"

"Not as much time has passed as you might think," Mike told them. "A ship in flight under the star drive doesn't connect with the time going on out in the yonder. The Cooee is no-time, as far as the real universe is concerned. " He grinned. "You know - back home and everywhere else."

"Is that possible?" Adrian asked, looking like he thought it wasn't at all.

"If they do it, it is," Charlie decided.

"It was morning when we met, wasn't it?" Mike asked.

Charlie nodded. "About eleven o'clock, I think."

The Aussie boy shrugged. "Probably just after noontime, then, back at your place. Korig took us right into the Cooee after he pinched us."

"What about now?" Kippy asked. "We've left Korig's ship, haven't we?"

"Yeah, but Pacha's ship uses the same tech." He looked over at the koala, who had moved to a small pad on the deck by a faintly glowing column, and sat himself comfortably upon it. There were several more pads in a line next to it, and Charlie understood then that this was the Kifta equivalent of a row of seats in a human airplane. "Are we back in the Cooee, Pach?" Mike asked.

"Almost. The Arpathant ship is trying to turn, but such mass is not compliant with a quick about-face. As long as they don't fire at us --" The koala broke off, staring at the glowing column.

"What happened?" Mike asked immediately, looking suddenly apprehensive.

"They fired at us."

Mike looked aghast, and turned to Charlie and the others. "On the deck! Quick!"

Mike dropped like a shot and rolled onto his back, spreading his arms and legs. Charlie wasted only a second staring before following, and the others were not much slower.

"Impact," Pacha said, as if he were discussing the day's weather.

Charlie squeezed his eyes shut, expecting an explosion, followed by a terrible outrushing of their air. But instead, the ship suddenly seemed to gyrate wildly about them in perfect silence. It reminded Charlie of one time when he had been relaxing in a hammock with his eyes closed, just swaying ever-so-gently back and forth, and his idiot cousin Henry had sneaked up and grabbed the lines at one end of the hammock and bounced them furiously up and down.

For a second Charlie felt like he might be seasick...and then the awful twisting, turning sensation slowed, and was gone.

"Another," Pacha said, just as calmly. "Impact."

Again the world shook, and Charlie felt like a Lady Bug caught out on the end of a leaf in a tornado. All he could do was try to hug the deck, and hope this one would be over as quickly as the first one --

The ship suddenly returned to normal. "We have entered the Cooee," Pacha told them. "They cannot reach us now."

The five humans lay still for a while, trying to get their senses back under control. Charlie had heard about the beer-spins from guys at school, a condition brought on by drinking way too much alcohol, and he could only imagine that the way he felt just then was something like that, only ten times worse. It felt like his eyes were still bouncing back and forth inside their sockets, and keeping them closed seemed the best course of action.

Slowly, the sensations ebbed, and then vanished altogether. Mike sat up, sighed, and looked around at the rest of the guys. "We sure got lucky on that."

Kippy sat up, still looking a little like he might throw up. "Lucky? I thought we were going to die!"

Mike nodded. "We might have, if we'd been on an Arpie ship. Those were gravity vortexes they shot at us. They're meant to twist the ship up and incapacitate it. Woulda done that to an Arpie ship the size of this one." Mike turned and nodded at the koala. "Pacha's good with gravity, as you already saw. He deflected a lot of the stuff that hit us. Long enough for us to reach the Cooee."

Charlie climbed slowly to his feet. He looked over at the koala, who still seemed engrossed in the light show going on in the column before him. If Max had been here, Charlie was certain that the elf could have handled this situation, maybe even in the same manner. That the little Kifta understood a power somehow akin to what the elves used back home seemed certain now.

"It's almost like magic," Charlie said softly.

Mike heard him, and grinned. "I've thought the same thing, myself. Beats the hell outta me how he does it. And he can't seem to tell me, either."

Nor could Max - or Frit or Pip, for that matter - really explain what they did, either.

"I kind of get it," Charlie said.

Mike frowned at him, but then smiled. "Maybe you do. You fellas sure have taken to this stuff a lot easier than I expected you to."

"We have some strange friends at home," Kippy muttered, shaking his head. "And I wish they were here right now."

Charlie looked about the room, almost expecting Max to suddenly appear in response to Kippy's call. Kippy saw that, and laughed. "Skiwsh isn't a radio, Charlie."

"Squish?" Mike asked, looking back and forth between the two boys.

"It's...complicated," Charlie said, smiling at him.

Mike eyed him a moment, and then grinned. "If you say so." Then the turned about to gaze at the koala. "Where are we headed, Pach?"

The Kifta looked over at them. "We need to separate ourselves from possible pursuit. Korig will assume that we will return to your Earth, and if we were to do that, he would find us within the Cooee, and trail us there. When we do get back to Earth, we need a period of time without interference from Korig. So we must travel a different path in order to escape detection. Once he does not find us on the route to Earth, he will think we headed for Kift instead."

Mike shook his head. "That means we'll have to head away from Earth for at least a day or two, before we can double back there."

Kippy's breath sighed out. "No fireworks for us, I guess," he said sadly.

"I was thinking about laying over at Engris," the koala said then.

Mike gave a low whistle. "Holy Dooley! I've heard a lot about that place." He grinned, and turned to Kippy. "Don't count your fireworks out just yet, mate. Pacha is talking about us holing up at Engris for a day or two."

Ricky and Adrian joined them now. "What's Engris?" Adrian asked.

Mike's eyes glowed with what could only be described as wonder. "Ancient space station. Actually, an artificial world, really. Nobody knows who built it. It's supposed to be covered with jungle like a planet and dotted with abandoned cities. It's so big it's never been fully explored." He laughed. "It's supposed to be home to rebels, outlaws, pirates, and every other galaxy bloke that found himself unwelcome at his home port."

Despite himself, Kippy was intrigued. "How can this save my fireworks?"

Mike looked like he wanted to laugh. "Easy. Engris is located inside the Cooee."

Charlie and Kippy stared at each other.

"How is that possible?" Charlie asked.

"Hell, I dunno. That's one of the mysteries of the place."

"So that means no time will pass, right?" Ricky asked.

"Naw. Not a second, relative to Earth." Mike did laugh now. "That ain't the best thing, though."

Kippy tsked. "What could be better than that?"

Mike widened his eyes and leaned forward. "The place is supposed to be haunted, too."

Charlie grinned. Ghosts? "Oh, yeah?. We know how to deal with them."

"Not these ghosts," Mike assured him. "These are the ghosts of the builders of the station, I heard. And the station is supposed to be a half-million years old."

Charlie turned to look at Pacha. "Is this true?"

The koala considered that a moment, as if trying to decide for himself the meaning of the word true. Finally, he simply offered up an expression that was as close to a smile as a little koala face could offer. "Yes."



* * * * * * *


The Cooee, on its own, was a dark place. Light seemed never to have been born there, as there was no place for it to start from. There were no stars at all, just darkness, in every direction. So when Pacha said they were nearing Engris they all gathered together before the great expanse of the viewer that the little alien seemed to have conjured out of thin air above the illuminated column that was his control center. The air itself had grown smoky-looking, and then solidified into an image of utter blackness, that Mike explained was the exterior view of what lay ahead of them.

The boys had watched as a tiny pinpoint of soft light appeared in the center of the view, and slowly grew before their eyes. It soon became a dark orb, visible mostly as a slightly less dark circle than the Cooee around it, self-illuminated in a minimal, almost ghostly fashion. But then small, slightly brighter lights appeared, at the edges, near the center, and then all about its surface. They were tiny, and weak, like the campfires of old would have looked from a great height. That the lights represented settlements among the dark jungles that covered the face of the artificial world, Pacha soon explained to them. No one knew how many ex-citizens of the galaxy now called Engris their home, but that the place could support millions was obvious by its size alone.

"It is slightly smaller than the moon of your own world," Pacha said, as they all stared at the image in the viewer. "Yet it maintains a gravity much like a larger world. The jungles that cover the surface are artificial, consisting of engineered plant growth fed from below in the absence of a sun above. The small towns and cities you see illuminated are the works of those that came to Engris much later. The surface is also dotted with far vaster cities of towers and domes created by the original builders of Engris, but settlers avoid them, for here is where the legends of ghosts were born."

"You've been here?" Kippy asked the koala, staring at the view in wonder. Charlie smiled in anticipation, already foreseeing that Kippy might like to do a little looking about the place while they were there. That would of course have to depend on what Pacha told them was safe. But...Charlie had to admit that the idea of ancient, abandoned cities waiting to be explored held an allure that could not be denied.

"Yes. The cities of the ancients are lovely, and still as sturdy as the day they were created. All lie in darkness, however. The jungle seems to have encroached upon them only slightly, as some mechanism appears to be in place to prevent the growths from completely taking over the spaces."

"What about the ghosts?" Charlie asked.

Pacha's expression now grew neutral. "I have seen them myself. And heard them."

"Are they dangerous?" This from Adrian.

"They did not seem to be so when I viewed them. I was here with a small party of investigators from Kift, looking into the history of this place."

Charlie shook his head. "There aren't any Arpathant here? I would think they'd want to get their hooks into a place like this."

Mike answered that one. "They ain't welcome here."  A definite note of satisfaction at the idea was evident in his voice.

Charlie had to give a small laugh at that. "Conquerors are seldom welcome anywhere. That never stops them from trying to take over."

Mike shook his head. "Not here. The Arpies managed to find this place about a century ago, and tried to land here. Engris is capable of defending itself, and even the Arpies can't take the place on. Their fleet was kicked right the hell back into normal space, with their tails between their legs." The Aussie boy grinned. "All the big galactic powers have had a shot at taking Engris, and all of 'em have failed. They ain't gettin' a second chance. None of 'em will ever find this place again."

Charlie looked back at the screen. "Why is that? It isn't stationary?"

"Uh uh. It wanders the Cooee like a dingo wanders the outback."

"How does anyone find it?" Kippy asked, his enchantment seeming to deepen.

"Engris finds those in need," Pacha said slowly. "I did not know exactly where to travel to locate this world. But as you see, we are here."

The boys all stared at the screen in wonder. More magic, Charlie thought.

Now that they were closer, the entire globe before them seemed to exude a soft light. Charlie could imagine now that anyone standing on the surface would not see total darkness at all, but more like a view akin to a moonless, starlit night back on Earth. Engris was definitely eerie, but there was something undeniably magnetic about the place, too. Charlie loved a good mystery, and this place seemed to offer them up in spades.

The bubble ship shuddered briefly, and Pacha waved a hand at the illuminated column.

"What was that?" Ricky asked.

The koala looked back at them. "We have entered the zone about Engris by which it maintains itself here in the Cooee. I have deactivated our own drive, as it is no longer needed to keep us from returning to normal space. We are now free to land at the port and disembark."

Charlie frowned. "This place has an atmosphere?"

"Damn right," Mike interjected. "Just as good as our own at home." He frowned, and looked over at Pacha. "Least ways, that's what I heard."

"It's true. Engris is designed to support oxygen breathers such as ourselves."

Charlie stared at the view of the worldlet again. The lights on its surface were brighter now, but no single one seemed to be a city of any great size. "We're landing at a spaceport?"

"There's only one," Pacha supplied. "The rest of the surface does not allow for ships of space to alight, although surface transports may come and go as they please."

The bubble ship drifted towards one of the larger lighted areas on the ground below, which soon resolved itself into a small city surrounded by a huge expanse of flat surface, upon which many space vessels were parked. Their sizes and shapes varied dramatically, and from the beautifully designed to the outright ugly in form. But Pacha assured them that each vessel was basically the same, in that it could travel the mammoth distances between the stars. The differences in them were largely cosmetic.

There seemed to be no flight center, or anyone in charge of berthing at the port. No one contacted them as the bubble ship wafted over a few parked vessels shaped like snowflakes and landed without even a bump on an empty stretch of pavement. Charlie halfway expected a car or some other transport to come racing out from among the nearby buildings, loaded with suspicious-eyed characters asking what they were doing there. But no one seemed to take an interest in them at all.

"Doesn't seem like anyone even noticed we landed," Kippy observed.

"There is an administration, of sorts,  here," Pacha offered, as he rose from his comfortable pad before the illuminated column and waited for Mike to pick him up. "The Molorak are the first modern species known to have discovered Engris. Ships fleeing from their great civil war located the worldlet some five centuries ago. Although they cannot claim to own Engris - no one living now can claim that distinction - they do have a sizable presence here, and have taken it upon themselves to manage what tasks are necessary for a minimum amount of organization."

Charlie nodded at that. The place didn't look at all as if it existed under a system of complete anarchy. What he could see of the little city nearby looked clean and modern, and scarcely the hideout of a bunch of dropouts from galactic society. At the same time, there was no one visible at the edge of town, and so the place did give the impression of being perhaps a little underpopulated.

Pacha gave off a small chuckle when Charlie mentioned that. "The towns are circular, with a large open market at the center. These markets run constantly, both for the purpose of buying and selling, for many of those that come to Engris carry cargoes looking for buyers. Some small part of the illicit trade of several star empires is transacted here, and as far as provisions go, we will be able to eat and find whatever necessities we might need."

"We'd have to have something to trade, wouldn't we?" Kippy asked.

"We do." Pacha's eyes were almost merry. "Mike and I have a few trinkets stowed away, gathered in our travels."

Mike picked up Pacha and automatically stroked the koala's fur. Pacha seemed so used to it that he accepted it as his due, and made himself comfortable in the crook of the Aussie boy's arm. Charlie smiled at the closeness of the two. Friendships are not forged by form or background, so much as common need and similarity of thought, and Charlie had learned through his own experiences that the word people covered a lot of territory. If human beings could make friends with those they found in the other places of the universe, both on Earth itself and far across the heavens, then there was hope for them to some day make peace with themselves.

Kippy came and rubbed up against Charlie, his eyes bright with speculation. "Isn't this exciting?" he whispered.

Charlie sighed, and kissed him. "Yep. I can hardly wait."

Kip gave a little sigh and pushed against him, and Charlie put an arm around his shoulders and squeezed him close.

Ricky and Adrian both emitted small sounds of their own, and then a large and unabashed smooch parted the silence within the ship. Charlie and Kippy laughed, turning to look at Ricky, who just grinned back at them. Mike rolled his eyes, but seemed more than good-natured about it all, and even Pacha simply watched with interest.

"I suggest we exit the ship now," the koala finally said, looking up at Mike. "Our guests seem restless."

The Aussie boy nodded. "Come on, guys. Let's go and check this place out, right?" He winked. "You fellas can have a naughty later."

Charlie grinned, and Kippy laughed, and Ricky shook his head, and Adrian just sighed. But all four boys followed as Mike led them to the ship's port, and on to whatever journey lay ahead.


* * * * * * *


Charlie stared briefly upwards at the infinite darkness of the sky, and shook his head in amazement. All about them, the lighted market of Al'roost pulsed with action. For a trading mart comprised of citizens and wares from all the great galactic powers, the place more resembled a large flea market back on Earth than anything else. There was a quaint, almost hastily assembled aspect to the proceedings, giving it the same air as a weekend county fair, rather than that of a long-standing market for high-tech sorcery of every type imaginable.

Nearby, a tall, spindly creature with a head shaped like a pumpkin was demonstrating how quickly a tiny hand weapon could reduce a hundred-kilo block of iron to a molten puddle, and then using some other gizmo that looked amazingly like a canister vacuum cleaner to suck up the liquid metal and reconstitute it as a block only slightly smaller than its former self.

"Mazz lozz izz reeztricted to lezz than two perzent," the alien explained to the prospective buyer, himself a large, scaly creature with an angular head poking forth from a tubular shell. The tiny, almost invisible blobs that Pacha had given them to stick into their ears rendered everything that was said by everyone around them into English, although there seemed to be distinct flavors to the translations that colored every conversation in its own exotic shade.

They had simply walked into the town and down the first street they had come to, and as all roads seemed to lead either to the center of town or around it in a circle, they had quickly arrived at where the action was taking place. It seemed that most of the little city's residents were busy flocking about the great circular center, examining with a festival air the many goods laid out for their pleasure at the stands, tables, and booths arranged in neat lines that crisscrossed the great open space.

Pacha had deemed it wise to kill some time here, although the term time was entirely relative to their present course within the Cooee, which also happened to be Korig's lack-of-time state, as his vessel was presently attempting to hunt them down within that odd medium of no-time, no-space. The time equated to distance, somehow, although Charlie had the distinct impression that distance within the Cooee was something entirely different than he thought he knew.

What they wanted was for Korig to head for Earth long enough to realize that the bubble ship was not on the same course, whereupon he would certainly turn about and head for the only other place they would likely be to go, which was Pacha's homeworld of Kift. While Mike gave the amount of time they needed to wait as 'a day or two', Charlie had come to understand that that was a vague estimate at best. Engris circled no sun, and the wordlet seemed not to even turn on its axis, even if it had. So a day was wristwatch time, if it existed at all, and when Charlie had asked what 'a day or two' meant in relation to the clock on his cell, Pacha had given him that almost-a-smile look and simply said, "I will tell you when it is time to go."

And that was that. So the boys had gotten used to the idea that they were there for a while, but that no matter how long they stayed on Engris, it would not add to the time that they were away from Earth. Charlie and the others had already experienced this seeming indifference to the flow of time in dealing with Max and the other elves, and especially with Nicholaas, who seemed to consider time as a nuisance to be adjusted here and there, more than anything else.

Pacha had told them that they should stay together, but when Kippy had asked him if that meant that they were unsafe on Engris, the koala had seemed amused by the notion. "Your kind will be completely unknown here, which may cause interest in your presence among a few. But no one will harm you, or restrain you in any fashion, if that is what you mean. Engris operates under its own laws, the primary one being that all are safe here. Were anyone to threaten you in any fashion, all others about would come to your aid."

Charlie had been surprised by that, considering that Mike had pretty much suggested that the place was a refuge for pirates and rebels and other sorts that could easily fall under the group term of undesirables. But there seemed to be a requirement for the use of Engris, that placed the responsibility upon all comers to treat all others that they met there with respect. No matter what sort of thief or thug visitors to Engris were in their home territories, while here they were on their best manners, because not to be meant to be expelled by the worldlet itself, and forbidden to return.

Those that lived here full time had long ago passed the test of faithfulness to the idea of peace for all who sheltered here, and while a certain amount of leeway was allowed for differences among species, everyone they met seemed cheerful and helpful and interested. By the time their group had circled once about the great market, Charlie was convinced that here was an attitude that needed bottling and distribution to every corner of the universe. Engris, as a place, was wonderfully mysterious; but as a home to an idea - and a great idea indeed - it was beyond price or measure.

"This place is amazing," Charlie said, for the third time at least, as they paused at a stand for refreshments. The counter was automated, home to a device that instantly analyzed a patron's biological make up, and then provided food and refreshments guaranteed to be compatible. The food and drinks offered to them were even tasty, though none of them could have named a single thing that passed down their gullets.

When they left without paying, Charlie immediately asked Mike about it.

"Oh, everywhere we go and everything we do is taken note of. When we get ready to go, our charges will be tallied and the bill presented." The Aussie boy grinned. "Pacha will pay, so don't worry." Charlie had laughed when Mike had leaned closer and lowered his voice, even though the koala was right there, wrapped in his arms. "Pacha's loaded, so don't have a worry about it."

They each picked up a trinket or two, after the koala had instructed them to feel free to do so. Charlie paused at a stand holding, among other things, a line of small, rectangular copper plates - or that was what they looked like, anyway. Each was about the size of a photograph, with a pleasant finish resembling a new penny. The stand's proprietor was a small, quite hairy fellow a little shorter than they, with very large, liquid brown eyes that managed somehow to look both interested and bored at the same time.

"What are these?" Charlie asked, indicating the coppery rectangles.

The creature emitted a soft sound that Charlie took to be laughter. "To pick one up," the fellow responded. "To hold one in hand."

Charlie understood that to mean he should take one and examine it more closely, and so picked up the nearest piece. Kippy and Ricky and Adrian crowded around, looking down at the thing as Charlie turned it over in his hands. It looked to be exactly what he thought it had been: a rectangle of copper metal.

But then...something happened. One side of the rectangle was more polished than the other, showing a soft luster that was both restful to the eye and somehow regal in nature, almost like rubbed red gold. As Charlie was looking at it, it slowly darkened.

"Something's happening," Kippy breathed, quite unnecessarily. But Charlie simply nodded, staring. The rectangle continued to darken until it was almost black, and then suddenly started to lighten again. Only, this time the finish did not look like copper. A swirl of colors filled the surface, and slowly a picture took form.

Charlie gasped, and at the same time, Kippy blurted, "That's your house!"

It was. And it was not just a static picture, either. It was Charlie's house on Karloff Street, viewed from the sidewalk out front. But even as he watched, the perspective moved up the front walk, reached the front door of the house, and passed through it into the front hall. And then it climbed the stairs to the second floor, passed the bathroom and the hallway closet, and turned into Charlie's bedroom. The view turned in a circle, showing off Charlie's desk, his bookcase filled with books, and his bed, and the cot next to it.

Kippy sighed deeply. "Oh, I wish we were there right now!" He held out his hand. "Can I see?"

Charlie nodded, and handed the rectangle to Kip. But even as he did so, it went dark again. Disappointed, Kip just held it and looked down at the surface, shaking his head. "That made me homesick, Charlie."

Charlie could only swallow hard and nod. For a moment he was made aware again of how far away they were from the places and the people they all loved. And made aware again of the danger to that home, now that Korig's government had determined them to be people. Would the Earth now be sucked dry of its remaining resources, and left a poor and desperate home to her billions?

"Look," Adrian said, peering over Kippy's shoulder. "It's changing again."

Charlie looked down at the rectangle. Once again a picture was forming. Another house came into view, one that Charlie knew all too well.

Kippy squeaked with joy. "That's my house!"

Again the rectangle showed them a tour, which ended in Kippy's bedroom. Charlie smiled at that, remembering all the love that had been shared there, and considered all the love that was yet to come. Kippy's face was filled with delight, and Charlie could not resist bending forward and kissing him. Kippy squeezed his eyes closed and returned the kiss, and Charlie felt the brief warmth of tears on the other boy's face. "My house," Kippy breathed again.

Ricky and Adrian both put their heads on Kippy's shoulders, and closed their eyes and nuzzled him. Kippy smiled at that, and turned eyes filled with happiness upon Charlie. "I just felt some skwish again, Charlie. We're gonna get home, and things are gonna work out. You'll see."

Charlie nodded, and gave Kip a hug. "I believe you."

The rectangle was passed to the other boys, and each was offered a short tour of his house. Charlie understood then that the rectangle would show anyone that held it the place that they loved the most, the place they considered to be home. He turned to Mike and smiled at Pacha, in his arms. "Can I get this? I'd like to have it."

The koala, who had watched the events in silence, offered him a very human nod. "Yes. A good choice."

Charlie waved the plate at the vendor, and nodded. "I'll take this, okay?"

"To be charged when you leave," the creature said, apparently satisfied with the deal.

Charlie slid the plate into his pocket, and they moved on.

At another stand, Kippy became enchanted with a ring, but a very odd ring it was. It was far too large for a human finger, and was pitted with age. The stone it held was opaque and dark, maybe even dirty, showing no life whatsoever. Yet there was something about it that compelled, and when Kippy picked it up there was the faintest of flashes from the stone, as though it were somehow alive.

"What's this?" Kippy asked the vendor, a large quadruped with dusky yellow skin and hands with tiny suckers on the fingertips.

"Very old," that one said, wiggling its dark nose at the ring. "Found in grave of dead alien, race never identified. Very mystery, it was."

Charlie's eyebrows went up at that, the suggestion of grave robbing quite clear. Well, Engris attracted all sorts, and what was grave robbing but archaeology without the degree?

Charlie looked at the ring anew. There was a sense of vast timespans about the thing, a feeling of age that could not be ignored. Charlie wondered what sort of creature had originally worn the ring, and where in the galaxy it had originated.

"That's pretty weird," he decided. "Does it do anything?"

The alien made a gesture that Charlie interpreted as a shrug. "Stone sparks when some very few touch, but not for most." He indicated Kippy. "Spark for this one, first time in long time."

That told Charlie that the alien had possessed the ring for quite a spell, apparently. He could see why, in a way. Not only was the ring old and ugly, but it was somehow a little creepy, too.

"I love it," Kippy said immediately, causing Charlie to laugh. Kippy turned and held up the ring for Pacha to see. "What do you think?"

"A scholar's choice, in my opinion. I do believe you will enjoy possessing this particular ring."

Kippy frowned at that. "Do you know what it is?"

For a moment the koala looked uncertain. "It...I feel it. There is something special about it. And it's very, very old." Pacha closed his eyes a moment, and then sighed. "As old as Engris itself."

Kippy gave a little gasp, his eyes filling with awe. "Oh, I really want it now!"

"Take it," Pacha said, with a wave of one small hand. "It has chosen you, as well."

Charlie blinked at that statement, a tiny worry appearing in the back of his mind. But...Kippy seemed thrilled with the artifact, and Charlie had to smile at the excitement in his boyfriend's eyes. If Kippy had a good feeling about getting the ring, it probably would be okay.

Kippy turned and held up the ring to the vendor, who seemed unable to conceal some delight at the sale. "Your account charged when you depart."

Kippy nodded, thrust the ring into his pocket, and once again they moved on.

Adrian was the next to find treasure, in the form of a crystalline orb the size of a large egg that reminded a little of a snow globe back home. It was filled with tiny lights of different colors, frozen in an apparently random pattern among a darkness that was totally transparent, yet allowed no light to pass through from the other side of the orb. As the orb was turned, each of the tiny pinpoints of light could be seen, their overall pattern changing only by perspective of the viewer, yet no light passed through from any other direction to dilute the darkness holding the points of light.

One pinpoint of light near the center seemed to have a halo around it, which stayed in place no matter how the orb was turned. Again, there was something compelling about the thing, but Charlie could not figure out just what it was. If nothing else, the orb was a technical marvel, and the sense that it was also an old thing seemed apparent to Charlie. But also that it was a thing of purpose, rather than just a decoration.

Adrian was spellbound by it, and looked to Pacha, who leaned closer to inspect the orb. "I have seen these before. They are Beltracian artifacts."

"What's that?" Adrian asked, staring at the orb with even more amazement. That the orb could actually be said to be something other than art made it even more desirable, in his mind.

"They were a people who colonized the section of space close to that of the territory the Moth now hold. But this was perhaps twenty thousand years past. What you have in your hand is a star chart, pointing the way to a certain place. See, those are stars within, and the one with the ring about it is the destination."

Adrian squinted within the orb, and nodded. "I see now." He looked up at Pacha. "What place do you think it is?"

"I could not say. But other examples of this type of chart have been sought after by scholars and adventurers alike. Whatever the destination, the world is certainly a Beltracian world, and will no doubt hold other artifacts of their science and technology, both of which reached levels beyond what the galaxy holds today." The koala offered up another almost-smile. "That makes this something of a treasure map."

Adrian gasped, and then his eyes slid sideways to where the merchant was still watching them. "Maybe he won't sell it, now that we've told him what it is."

"He does not know," Pacha said quietly, "and he might not care, even if he did. Voyaging to the realm of the Moth is a dangerous proposition. Only the most courageous or the most foolhardy would consider their possible destruction worth any treasure that might be found there."

"No, but this guy could sell the map for more to someone who might want to chance it," Adrian pointed out.

Pacha shook his head. "English is not a language known here, and I turn off our translators when we are in private discussion. So he has not understood anything we have said."

"Oh." Adrian looked over at the vendor and frowned. "That's kind of unfair. I feel like I'd be putting one over on him now if I bought it."

The koala gave a soft grunt. "It is noble of you to feel so, but pointless. If you do not buy it, I will."

Ricky laughed. "There you go."

Adrian frowned a moment longer, but then grinned and turned back to the vendor and held up the orb. Again, here was a seller who seemed pleased to be rid of something that hadn't sold in ages. Adrian felt relief at that attitude, being as happy to acquire the item as the seller appeared to be to be rid of it.

"I'd love to see where this goes, someday," Adrian said, gazing at the orb again as they stepped away from the vendor's stand. "There's something exciting about the idea of looking for lost treasure."

"There would be work involved," Pacha pointed out. "While the star grouping displayed within your crystal might have been known to the Beltracians, it is not known to us. The stars involved will have shifted their locations since that map was created, and require backtracking their movements by twenty thousand years. The grouping itself would have to be picked out of maps of that portion of the sky. Finding the correct location to go to would be a quest all by itself."

Adrian shrugged. "Well, you win some, you lose some." But that his enchantment with the orb was in no way diminished seemed clear.

Ricky sighed as they walked on. "There some great stuff here. But nothing that really grabs me, you know?"

They walked around some more, until they came to a table laid out with exotic cutlery of every shape and size. Some were swords so huge that Charlie just could not imagine what sort of giant had hefted them. Even Korig would have been unable to manage many of them, and certainly not some of the axes and hammers, which were larger than any of the boys, and some with handles or hafts that would have defied the human hand to hold. Some were plainly weapons of murder, and others were jewel-encrusted and showy, despite their obviously lethal qualities.

"Wow," Ricky said, his eyes large and fascinated. If anyone among their group was a tool guy, it was Ricky. And what were such weapons as these, but tools of destruction?

"You couldn't even lift most of them," Adrian said, not unkindly. He laid a hand on Rick's shoulder, and then laid his chin on his hand. "See anything you like?"

Ricky turned his head and delivered a large smooch to Adrian's cheek.

"I meant on the table," Adrian said, though unable to disguise his delight.

Kippy took Charlie's arm and squeezed it, never one to be able to easily withstand a show of affection between lovers, and Charlie grinned and squeezed his boyfriend back.

Mike laughed. "Affectionate buggers, ain't'cha?"

Charlie smiled at him. "Yes."

Mike stared at him a moment, and then his smile slipped away. "Bet it's nice to have someone." He sighed. "Had me a couple of nice girls on and off. Even got my dick wet a couple of times." He laughed. "I miss that."

"There's always the other side," Kippy suggested. "Gorgeous guy like you could find a boyfriend like that."

Mike looked surprised, and then lowered his voice. "Thought about that, too. Don't think I'm ready for it, though." He smiled then. "Seeing how much fun you guys have makes me want to give it some more thought, though."

Kippy gave a little surprised squeak. "You mean you're open to it, and you haven't tried it?"

"Had a chance, once, back when I was your age. Nice bloke from Queensland, visiting some friends." Mike's eyes grew distant. "Really a sweet guy. And he was willing, too." His gaze returned to them, and he sighed. "But I was scared."

Kippy looked sympathetic. "It happens to the best of us. Maybe if you look around again, you'll get another chance."

"Maybe." But then Mike dropped a hand and stroked Pacha's fur, and smiled down at the little koala. "There's time. Me and Pach have been having too much fun for me to run home just yet."

Pacha turned his soft brown eyes upwards. "You have strange ideas of fun, Mike. But...it has been a pleasurable experience. I would be much poorer for having missed it."

Mike grinned at that, but seemed unable to take having all eyes turned upon him at this moment. He waved a hand at the table full of sharp things, and reached out and gave Ricky a gentle poke. "Bet there's somethin' there that'll grab ya, if ya just look long enough."

The remark served its purpose, and Ricky turned his attention back to the arrayed cutlery. That drew everyone else's attention back, too. But Charlie gave Mike a last glance, noting the look of pleasure on the boy's face, and wondering if Mike had found a happiness out among the stars that he had never found back on Earth.

"Look at this thing," Ricky marveled, running his fingertips along the silky smooth blade of a sword resembling a cutlass, but easily eight feet in length.

"Too big, you," the proprietor of the stand said then, grunting as if to accent his opinion. Charlie had given the fellow a single glance when they had first stopped at the stand, feeling it might definitely be impolite to stare for long at this one. At least eight feet tall and probably weighing as much as any three of the boys, the fellow had startlingly pink, soft-looking skin, almost completely covered by fancy chain mail and bejeweled scabbard, from which hung an ornamented sword to rival some of the larger ones there on the table.

At the same time, obvious bits of high-tech were hung about the creature's wardrobe, including a silvery device stuck into one long, mule-like ear, that was probably doing the same job as the translating blobs in their own ears. The fellow looked like a baroque solder-of-fortune, the modern touches only serving to accent a kind of serious and deadly side that the more primitive outfit definitely managed to convey. Here was a fellow that no one in his right mind would want to meet in a dark alley, most definitely.

The giant waved his hand at some smaller pieces along the right side of the table. "More fitting, you."

Ricky transferred his gaze to the objects in question, and almost immediately his face lit up with interest. "Hey, look at this one!"

He extended a hand as if to pick the thing up, and then stopped short, his gaze lifting the meet the giant's. "Can I see it?"

"Please."

Ricky grinned, taking that as a yes, and lifted the weapon off the table. The other boys crowded closer, and eyeballed it along with him.

It appeared to be a dagger in a metal scabbard, with a belt that seemed the right length for a human waist. The hilt of the dagger was only slightly ornate, being engraved in a beautiful fashion that caught at the eye and pulled it along the intricate grooved patterns, yet which obviously would serve well as a good grip for the hand. And it was a sword-hilt dagger, with a small crossbar that served to protect the user's hand, and which in this case was also carved and inlaid with a reddish metal that was quite striking to the eye.

The scabbard was finely etched, too, but far from ostentatious in manner, and the first thought that Charlie had was that it resembled the conductive printing on the bottom of a circuit board in complexity. The belt looked like leather but was probably a synthetic, and the buckle was of the friction type where you passed the end of the belt through it and a roller inside held on until you pulled a release.

That the weapon was not some ancient, primitive piece in construction seemed obvious, and yet that it was so obviously old seemed almost a contradiction. Charlie had to remind himself that the races out here in the galaxy had been around far longer than humans, and that something could easily be a thousand years old and still be a high-tech marvel as yet undiscovered on Earth.

Ricky smiled at Adrian, and slowly drew the weapon from its scabbard. And then he blinked and stared at it, and Charlie was right there with him, the beginnings of confusion filtering into his thoughts. For the blade that appeared was neither pointed nor sharp, the tip being rounded, and though both edges of the blade were polished to a shine, that neither had any sort of edge on them was readily apparent. The blade was easily eight inches long, but that it obviously would not cut a piece of paper removed any sense of danger from the thing entirely.

"It looks like a butter knife," Kippy said, trying not to laugh. "And a dull one, at that."

Ricky stared up at the vendor. "Is this for cutting, or what?"

The alien extended a large hand, and Ricky pushed the blade back into the scabbard and handed it over. "Observe," the giant said, and withdrew the dagger from the scabbard. He laid the scabbard on the table and held the hilt of the dagger between his beefy fingers, the weapon almost a toothpick in comparison to the size of its wielder. The alien laid the blade in his other hand and drew it back and forth. "Safe," he said, nodding.

Then he laid the edge of the blade against the tabletop and drew it along, leaving no mark of any kind. "Safe," he said again.

Then the giant squatted, felt around underneath the table, and pulled forth a block of what was certainly wood, at least four inches thick. He set it on the tabletop with a meaty thud, which perfectly conveyed the point that it was dense wood, and heavy. "Feel," he instructed to Ricky, who reached out a hand and caressed the block with his fingertips, and nodded.

"Feels like oak."

The alien then took the dagger and casually swiped the blade at the block of wood. There was a fierce, high-pitched humming sound, and the blade of the dagger almost seemed to disappear. The shadowy blade connected with the block of wood, and severed it neatly in two.

Everyone stared. The giant grunted again, and immediately pulled the dagger back . The hum disappeared the moment he did, and then when he immediately drew the blade across the back of his hand, nothing happened at all. "Must want to cut," the giant said then. "Otherwise, always safe.

Pacha turned to look up at Ricky. "The atoms of the blade vibrate, probably at the rate of a million cycles per second or so. It will cut through just about anything you can imagine, I would guess." The koala made an admiring sound. "And, it is thought-regulated. Unless the wielder obviously intends to make a cut, the blade will not activate."

"Yes," the giant agreed, actually looking somehow pleased. "Very safe."

"It's gorgeous, too," Ricky said, turning pleading eyes on the koala.

Pacha simply nodded. "Take it."

The giant handed the dagger in its scabbard back to Ricky and stood back, and waved a hand at the block of wood. "Must try first. Not work for everyone."

Ricky nodded, looked down at the scabbard, and then grasped the hilt of the dagger and slowly pulled it forth. He gazed at the innocuous-looking blade, almost as if he feared the power it held within it. But then he gave a little cough, visibly firmed his resolve, and bent over the table and carefully brought the blade down on one half of the severed block of wood. Just before it touched down the fierce hum sprang into being, and the wood parted again just as if it were the butter that Kippy had suggested with his earlier comment. Ricky straightened, stared at the dagger's blade one more time, and then carefully returned it to its scabbard.

The giant vendor raised his hands to his midriff, and gave a little bow over them in Ricky's direction. "Gospeth. Am honored to meet another."

Ricky blinked, and then gave a little circular wave of his free hand. "Hiya."

Charlie grinned, and Kippy gave a little laugh. Ricky's face reddened, and he shrugged. "What?"

"I believe that was an honorific," Pacha said, watching the giant vendor. "I suspect that this particular weapon will not work for just anyone, just as the man said."

"Only Gospeth," the vendor agreed.

"It worked for him," Ricky said of the alien, and then pulled in a sudden breath as he understood. He bit his lip, but pulled his hands to his midriff and gave a little bow over them at the giant. "Gospeth."

That seemed to please the alien no end. The man's face knotted into something fierce-looking, but somehow also gentle, and damn if there wasn't some sort of smile hiding in there somewhere. The giant's head nodded forward again, and one eye blinked in Ricky's direction.  "Charged when leave."

That there was humor in there somewhere seemed apparent, and all of them save Pacha were grinning as they moved along.

"What was that last about?" Ricky asked, as they congregated at the edge of the market.

"I am not certain," Pacha admitted. "That was a Molorak, one of the people I mentioned earlier, the oldest known race to inhabit Engris. They are a peculiar breed, but frighteningly honorable. At least, almost all of them are. The few that weren't rose to a position of power a few centuries back, and the race had a pretty terrible civil war over it. It was refugees from one of their destroyed worlds that first found Engris."

Charle gasped at that. "They destroyed each other's worlds?"

Pacha nodded. "A terrible crime perpetrated by the evil ones, not the honorable ones. The acts of destruction so united the rest that they pursued the evil ones to the edge of known space to eradicate them from the galaxy."

"Damn," Adrian said, shaking his head. "You guys play rough out here."

"There's assholes everywhere you go," Mike said then. "Even out here. The Arpies are one such group, and if they weren't restrained by galactic law, they'd be a real problem for everyone else."

"You said they suck people's planets dry," Charlie reminded. "That sounds like a real problem to me."

"Yeah, but that's legal. It's commerce to these blokes." Mike grimaced. "The powerful always get the laws to go their way."

Ricky snorted, and wrapped the belt with the scabbard around his waist and cinched it. Then he patted the hilt of the dagger and grinned. "Well, they better not mess with me, 'cause I'll stick a vibrator up their ass."

Charlie howled, and Kippy squeezed his eyes shut and slapped his knees, and Adrian fell against Ricky and hugged him. Even Mike tossed his head back and laughed, leaving only Pacha staring round from one boy to the next, wondering what was going on.

"Humans," the little koala finally said to himself, as the others laughed. But then he blinked fondly at the boys, and would have grinned, if he could have managed to do so.


* * * * * * *


They stayed at an inn later, one of many modern accommodations the city had to offer to visitors. Mike was especially happy to do that, having had to suffice in the past with sleeping on a row of the cushions that Pacha's people used as both seats and for sleeping. The inn had real beds, although they were round, and enormous, and conformed themselves automatically to the physical needs of the user.

Or, in this case, the users.

Rooms came in all flavors, and they decided to get one room with three beds. Charlie and Kip took one, and Ricky and Adrian another, and Mike and Pacha flopped down on the last one.

"Man, I am beat," Ricky said, patting the soft covering of the bed next to himself and winking at Adrian. That boy finished kicking off his shoes, and hopped in beside his boyfriend and snuggled up close to him.

Kippy was already snuggled up with Charlie, and both of them laughed when a huge smooch reverberated from the other bed.

"You're gonna break your lips one of these times, Ricky-tick," Kippy called.

"Yeah, but it's a hell of a way to go," Ricky called back.

"You mates keep it clean, hey?" Mike called, not to be left out. "I don't wanna wake up at the odd hours to find the naughty going on over there."

Kippy sighed. "We'll be good." He snuggled against Charlie, and kissed him. "At least until we get back home," he added, more softly.

Charlie lifted his head and looked over at Mike. The Aussie boy was on his side, facing them, with Pacha laid out an arm's length away from him. Mike's hand rubbed the koala's pelt absently, and Charlie wondered how Mike would feel if he had any idea of how that looked. That it was perfectly innocent affection was obvious to Charlie; Mike might as well have been rubbing a dog, or even a real koala. But it was somehow different when the other was as intelligent a person as a human. The ease with which Pacha accepted attention from Mike said a lot about their friendship, and a lot about how easy the Kifta were with each other, probably. Most creatures enjoy being touched. As a form of fond exchange, it was a tough one to beat.

He almost made a comment that Mike and Pacha should keep it cool, too, but stopped himself just in time. To take the innocent affection they had for each other and hint at something more would be totally unfair to both of them, and might even make Mike self-conscious about touching the little alien. So Charlie just laid his head down and smiled at Kippy. "Love you."

"Oh. Me, too, Charlie. Being with you is such an adventure."

Charlie grinned at that. "Me? I'm not the one with skwish that sets us moving into all these things."

Kippy grinned at him. "It is you, Charlie. Everything happens around you. Wonderful things follow you wherever you go."

Charlie kissed Kip again, and closed his eyes. "It happens to all of us, together," he reminded. " I can't go anywhere without you."

The lights in the room dimmed, and the air filled with a gentle sound, almost like crickets in the nighttime woods, only much more alien in nature. The ceiling above them flickered with a hint of stars, and Charlie and Kippy gasped at the beauty of it.

"Now, that's what I'm talkin' about," Ricky whispered loudly, from the other bed.

"That's just Pacha's way of saying 'go to sleep'," Mike called across to them. "G'night, mates."

Charlie sighed, and pulled Kippy close. They kissed in silence for a while, somehow aware that Ricky and Adrian were doing the same in the next bed. But soon they grew sleepy, and the sounds and the sights of an alien night lulled them into sleep.


* * * * * * *


"A tour of one of the ancient cities?" Charlie asked, looking at Kippy to see how he would take it.

Kippy gaped, and then looked excited, and his eyes shone as he grinned at Charlie. "Me, me! I want to go!"

Pacha looked from one human face to another. "There are no laws denying entry to these places to visitors. Most people simply avoid them on their own, due to the stories of ghosts and other things."

Ricky, who had been smiling at the idea of going, blinked at that and scratched at his jaw. "What other things are you talking about?"

Pacha's soft eyes gave nothing away, but Mike grinned at them. "Aw, all sorts of stuff. Not just ghosties, but monsters, and bunyips, and even bogans." He winked at the last one - or maybe it was at the last two - but Charlie had no idea what he meant, anyway.

"Oh, stop, Michael," Pacha said, turning his gaze briefly on Mike before returning it to the other boys. "There have been cases of disappearances, and even deaths, in the ancient cities. But nothing has ever been ascribed to violent acts by unknown forces. Some people react negatively to the sight of unexplained phenomena, of which there certainly have been documented examples. Death from fright has been suspected in more than one unfortunate case."

"I'm surprised the cities aren't crawling with treasure hunters," Adrian said.

"The buildings are all completely empty of artifacts," Pacha returned. "There is simply nothing to take."

"Still, people are curious," Adrian argued. "If nothing else, you'd think they'd want to look around."

"Perhaps once," Pacha agreed. "But those that live on Engris now respect those who lived here once before. While there are no rules against exploring, almost no one does it. There is almost a feeling of trespass involved. The locals are happy with their own towns and cities. They see no reason to tramp about in the once-homes of others."

"And there's the ghosties, too," Mike reminded, almost gleefully. "Too many have seen and heard them for most people not to believe."

"How will we get there?" Kippy asked, undaunted by the idea of ghosts.

"Very few locals will go," Pacha said. "But the guide that provided transport for my last visit here with the study group from my world is willing to take us out."

"Why?" Adrian asked, bluntly. "Why do you want to do this, Pacha?"

The little koala gave them that almost-a-smile look. "The ancient cities of Engris are among the most fascinating places in all the galaxy. To visit this world and not see one is almost a waste of the journey. The number of people that can claim to have visited a city here are so small a portion of the galactic population as to be negligible." The little alien shook his head. "Don't you wish to see a legend first-hand?"

"I do, I do!" Kippy said, jumping up and down and waving one hand in the air.

Charlie laughed, and looked over at Adrian. "Kip and I are going along. You and Ricky can stay here, if you like."

"I don't think so!" Adrian said, looking indignant. "I just wanted to know why we were going." He grinned then. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."

Ricky looked over at his boyfriend, shrugged, and then nodded at Charlie. "We're going, too." Then he grinned. "It'll give me a chance to wear my new dagger."

Charlie grinned at that. "I feel safer already."

Pacha nodded. "We still have time to pass before we can leave for Earth, so we might as well pass it profitably. Visiting one of the ancient cities will be an experience none of you will soon forget."

It was decided. They walked across town to the opposite edge, and came to a building with a large door on the front that looked to be the roll-up type that suggested a garage. A sign out front showed a stylized saucer-like vehicle with a bunch of heads popped up above the rim, flying just above some trees, with some weird-looking towers in the background. Underneath the illustration were several large words lettered in a blocky alien script. Charlie didn't have to read the sign to imagine what it said: Tours-R-Us. See the Ancient Cities!

The proprietor, one Sefton, was another Molokar like the one that had sold Ricky the dagger. This fellow was a tad smaller than the vendor had been, and dressed in relaxed-looking clothing of a totally unwarlike nature. He wore a floppy brimmed hat on his head that struggled to cover his long ears, and which would have looked at home on one of Mike's Aussie neighbors.  He offered the strange, gentle, smile-grimace, that seemed a characteristic of the species, after almost everything he said. Charlie liked the man immediately, and felt that Pacha and the others liked him, too.

And, his translated English came across a little better than had the vendor's in the square, making him much easier to talk to.

"I hope you know what you get into," Sefton said, as they made their way through the building to the garage. "Scary places, these old cities."

"So we've heard," Charlie offered, smiling. "Ghosts and stuff, right?"

Sefton looked over at him. "Don't know what is there. Have seen the glowing lights myself, look like fluffy clouds, but small. Hear sounds that make skin crawl, and see other strange things. Nothing ever touch me, though." The alien grinned. "If they don't touch me, I can get along. Only when lights pat pockets will I get nervous."

Pacha looked over at Charlie's uncertain expression. "'Patting pockets' is a local expression for being robbed."

"Oh." Charlie grinned. "Can't say I'd want to be mugged by spirits, either."

The garage held a saucer-like craft much like the one depicted on the sign out front, with a large open interior and no roof. Charlie was about to ask what Sefton did when it rained, but then remembered that there was no weather on Engris. The atmosphere was regulated, uniform, and completely unchanging, for the most part.

They climbed aboard through a section of the circular hull that slid aside to admit them, and then the craft lifted silently, the big roll-up door opened, and they moved out into the streets of the city. The brightly-lit buildings and street lights showed them the way to the edge of town, and then the craft started out across a vacant section of the paved landing field towards the dark trees beyond.

They reached them, and the craft slowly rose until it was just above the treetops. It moved away from the city lights, and powerful headlights lit at the fore of the vehicle and illuminated the way ahead. The treetops resembled palm back on earth, but were packed closely together, and they couldn't see even a hint of the ground below. That the surface was not uniform was apparent though, as the craft lifted to pass over hills and settled again into a valley beyond.

"Just like real planet," Sefton explained, when Charlie asked the guide about it. "If you walk about out here, it look like you own planet at night. All of jungle have glow, never totally dark. If you had to walk, could see way back to town, as long as you knew direction to go."

Hopefully that would not occur. Charlie felt that dependability was a common trait of technology at the level these people enjoyed, and that their vehicle might break down and force them to walk back seemed not to be a worry. The treetops appeared ahead of them in the beams of the headlights, and passed beneath them without change, and they covered what was certainly a dozen or more miles before Sefton slowed the craft and pointed ahead.

Dimly visible in the faint glow around them, Charlie could see that the trees below were thinning. Gaps appeared between them, and then they simply ended. The transport crossed a section of level ground covered with paving squares, and the dark bulk of a city loomed out of the darkness ahead of them. The craft flew in among great cylindrical, steel-clad towers coated in a variety of pastel colors, and over low domes covered in mosaic patterns that teased the eye and caused them to blink and look again. Finally, a great open square appeared, and Sefton set the craft gently on the paving stones, and shut off the power plant. A silence of incredible proportions settled upon them, without even a breeze to give life to the surroundings.

The city had a faint glow, too, and they could make out the towers and domes all around them. Nothing moved, however, no matter where they looked, and the feeling of abandonment seemed clear. No one had lived here in more years than the boys could imagine, the city long empty of life even when the pyramids were newly rising on the plains of Giza.

For a moment no one said anything. The weight of years was apparent to them somehow, and the sense strong that those who had lived here were now the dust of ages. Charlie and the others looked slowly about them, now knowing what to expect, but expecting more than simply nothing at all.

"I don't see any ghosts," Kippy whispered, and Charlie grinned in the darkness and pulled him close with one arm.

"They are not seen in the open," Sefton explained, opening a compartment and passing out handheld lights. "Pick any dome, and maybe you find them inside."

"Shall we, then?" Pacha said, looking up at Mike. The koala was the only one not to take a light, depending on Mike to carry one for the both of them.

Mike nodded, and climbed out of the vehicle when Sefton opened the door, moving carefully with Pacha cradled in one arm. The other boys followed, and snapped on their lights as soon as they stood on the pavement. Sefton shut down the craft's powerful lights and followed, and the six of them stood quietly and gazed about, shining their lights about like new scouts on their first trip into the big woods.

The towers were large, and they marched away into the distance and became lost in the dark. That the city was far larger than any present settlement on the surface of Engris was plain to see. This had been the home of a million people, easily, and perhaps more.

The nearest building was one of the domes, and Charlie turned and started towards it. No one argued the point, and the others fell in and followed. All except for Sefton. When Charlie turned his head and saw that alien was not following, he stopped, and the others stopped with him. "You're not coming?"

The big alien offered one of his strange smiles. "Oh, I just drive now. I wait here for you. Have fun."

"It's okay, Charlie," Pacha said quietly. "Let him be."

Charlie nodded, and they started out again. He waved his light slowly over the structure as they approached, again noting the mosaic covering, set in intricate patterns of varying colors, each as bright and crisp as they day they were new. Nothing about the buildings looked old. It was as if the people had simply walked away yesterday, never to return.

"This place was beautiful, once," Ricky said quietly, as they drew up before large double doors set into a covered entry at the base of the dome.

"It's still beautiful," Charlie decided, shining his light at the pleasant patterns etched into the doors. They were of no one thing, not even a picture, yet somehow suggested rolling hills with forested flanks, a waterfall, and a sun or a moon overhead. The craftsmanship was exquisite, the detail incredible.

"Yeah, but it's just a little creepy now," Ricky returned, in a hushed voice.

Charlie nodded, and stepped up to the right hand door. It towered above him, appeared to be made of steel, and certainly weighed more than their entire group. Yet when he gave it a slight push it turned silently inward, smoothly, and without so much as a pause. The space beyond was genuinely dark, and they aimed their lights through the opening and were not terribly surprised to see that the structure was completely empty. It was large enough to cover a football field, and the roof was obviously self-supporting. The floor inside was of the same type of pavers as covered the square outside.The interior of the dome was simply a huge open space of no obvious purpose.

"That's kinda weird," Mike said, shining his light about. "You could play footy in here no problem. I wonder what they used it for?"

Charlie shrugged, and entered the dome. They walked about a bit, but couldn't see anything that was of much interest. Only when they finally decided to cross to the other side of the dome did they discover something unusual. Charlie kept his light on the pavers as they crossed, allowing the others to shine their lights about the interior, and so he was the first one to spy the hole in the floor.

"Hold up," he called, throwing out an arm to stop Kippy. "Look at that."

Judging by where they were, the hole was in the exact center of the dome. They moved closer, and Charlie shined his light over to the other side. "Looks like twenty, twenty-five feet across." He crept up to the edge and pointed his light downward, and then immediately jumped back. "Holy shit!"

Kippy was instantly by his side. "What did you see? A monster?"

Charlie gave out a nervous laugh. "Kip, that hole looks bottomless. All I saw was a shaft going straight down, and I do mean down. The light beam went down and down, and then just ran out of energy to light things." He pointed the bright spot across the dome, and it easily lit the other side. "That's a couple of hundred feet, and you can see the spot on the far wall. But when I pointed this light down that shaft, I couldn't see the bottom at all. That means it is more than two hundred feet deep." Charlie blew a small burst of air between his lips. "Way more than two hundred feet, I think."

Kippy placed his hands on his hips and glared at the hole. "Well, that's just plain stupid. How unsafe is that, putting a damn crater in the middle of the floor? Look...there's no railing, no signs...nothing. Someone could fall into this thing in the dark and be killed."

Pacha, who had been listening to the byplay in silence, suddenly spoke now. "I would have alerted you, had you not seen the opening. I am aware of them from the last time I was here."

Charlie looked at the koala with interest now. "You knew about it?"

"Yes. Every dome in the city has a hole just like this one at the center. We used a small drone to explore one for depth."

"More than a couple hundred feet, right?" Charlie guessed.

"Oh, yes. These shafts extend down to the core of the planet. About a thousand miles, in your measurements."

Charlie simply gaped. And then he and Kippy both stepped even farther back from the edge. They bumped into Ricky and Adrian, who grabbed hold of them and pulled them back even farther. Only then did Charlie turn on the koala. "You let me walk right up to it!" he accused.

For the first time, the little koala looked slightly flustered. "I apologize, Charlie, if you were frightened. But you could not fall into the hole. It has a neutral gravity screen across its diameter. Had you stepped over the edge, you would simply have floated across and been deposited on the other side."

Charlie turned back and shined his light at the hole. "I couldn't have fallen in?"

"No."

He turned back to the koala, now feeling sheepish. "Then I apologize for being so abrupt with you." He took in a deep breath, let it sigh out. "I think that scared a few years out of me, though."

Kippy stared at the hole now, one eye closed. "Why would anyone build something like that?"

"I can answer that," Pacha said quietly.

All eyes turned to the little koala, who gave them that face that suggested a hidden smile. "It is a ghost catcher, of course."

"Oh, of course," Ricky said, nodding enthusiastically. "Everyone should have one."

Mike frowned, and waved a warning hand at Rick. "Here...don't get smart, mate. Listen and learn something, why don't you?"

Ricky drew back. "You mean he's serious?"

Mike frowned himself, and looked down at the koala cradled in his arms. "You serious, Pach?" he asked quietly.

"Of course. I made light of the terminology, but the fact is that this entire world is designed to work here in the Cooee as a focus to attract the immaterial spirits of those that have passed from life into the beyond." Pacha looked about the room, and nodded. "And it seems to work quite well, too."

Charlie licked his lips. He already knew that ghosts - or at least the spirits of the once living - really existed. He had met a few of them himself. But...

"Why here?" he asked, looking slowly about the room.

"The Cooee is not part of our universe," Pacha said. "We do not know for certain how, but we do know that the spirits of those deceased are able to move on from the universe we know, and attain an ability to explore every place and every when there is or ever was. Engris was clearly designed by a people that understood this, and who hoped to once again interact with those of their race who had moved on. What we don't know was whether these ancients understood that Engris would also attract the spirits of other races, or all races, for that matter. We just don't know. Nor do we know why the builders of the this place abandoned it and went elsewhere." The koala looked about the vast chamber. "But the purpose of Engris lives on."

Charlie looked about at the dome again, astounded. They had flown over several of the domes on their way in, and the layout of the city suggested that the domes were numerous, indeed. That each was a receiver for the spirits of the dead...was almost unbelievable.

"Are all the ancient cities on Engris just like this one?"

Pacha nodded. "Yes. All built to the same end."

Charlie gaped, simply staggered by the notion of an entire world culture focused solely on making contact with the dead.

"How does it work?" he wondered aloud.

Pacha pointed at the floor beneath their feet. "The center of this world is hollow, and the home of energies we do not quite understand. To those passed away spirits journeying the great beyond, the center of this world shines like a beacon in the darkness. They are attracted to it, arrive at its core, and then can rise up the tunnels from the there to meet with the living in these domes. But they cannot exit the domes. The only way to leave is the way they arrived, by retracing their route to the center, and then away again."

"It's unbelievable," Kippy whispered, mirroring again Charlie's own thoughts.

"The people that live here on the surface, in the settler cities - they don't know all this?" Charlie asked.

Pacha shook his head. "No. Sadly, many would not understand. Many would not believe. The beliefs of even the most intelligent of species vary widely around the galaxy.  Engris survives as it is because the ghosts here are legends, and people can get along with legends. That they don't want to know more is as good an explanation of why there are no other explorers in these cities as any. If the settlers here knew that the entire world was an attractor, and that the spirits visiting here were genuine, they might feel differently about staying here."

Ricky shook his head in wonder. "How is it that the spirits don't get out and wander the whole planet?"

"These domes incorporate some very complex fields within their hemispheres. The shafts, as well. They cannot be passed by those spirits that visit here."

"Someone could leave a door open," Kippy suggested, quite seriously. Charlie grinned at his boyfriend's capacity to accept and believe even the most outlandish of facts.

"The fields are circular, and cross the thresholds of the entries," Pacha said. "Material beings can cross, but immaterial ones cannot." Pacha opened his small arms and spread them at the ceiling of the dome. "The dome we visited once before was full of light, as these immaterial beings swirled about above our heads. We heard their voices, but could not understand their tongues. The number of races that have come and gone in this galaxy since the first race walked the first world here is uncountable. The numbers of those many races that have passed into death, beyond comprehension. These domes are meant to be meeting places, where the living can meet with those that are no longer alive. The people that built this world must have once yearned greatly to stay in touch with their members that had died."

"But they didn't bank on every dead guy in the galaxy showing up, huh?" Ricky asked.

Pacha gave out a tiny grunt. "We just don't know the answer to that. They may have known it would happen, or they may not have known. The answer is lost in the depths of time."

"Are all these domes the same?" Charlie asked. "How could a spirit know which one to go to to talk to his descendant, or whatever? Or vice versa?"

"Again, this is a question with no answer. It took our party a year of inquiry here to learn the few facts that we have." The koala grunted. "That is a year of chronometer time, actually. We could have stayed here an eternity and probably learned no more."

Kippy turned his light towards the center hole again. "It couldn't have been just random, Charlie. The chaos would have been incredible. There must have been a way to talk to the spirits that you wanted to talk to. A system, or maybe even a way to call the ones you wanted to see."

Charlie shrugged. "I can't even imagine how that might work."

Kippy turned to him. "I can. Skwish."

Charlie was about to say something else when a flash of light arrived in the corner of his eye. He turned to look, just as a tall, wispy, glowing cloud of light rose up out of the tunnel and hovered in the air above it. It was like a mist that he could see through, with tiny sparkles of light inside. Even as he looked, another of the same things rose beside the first one, and both wispy clouds moved away from the tunnel opening and approached them. Charlie was rooted to the spot, the urge to run strong, but the urge to stay and see this incredible thing even stronger.

The two clouds stopped a few feet from them, and the sounds started. It was like voices, but from afar, and so many that it was a chorus, with each separate voice lost among the others. Charlie and the others simply stared, unable to do anything at all but watch.

The two shapes pulsed and flowed, and settled to the paving stones. Slowly, the many voices began to quiet, even as the misty clouds darkened and started to change form. Charlie could not pull his eyes away, even as the two forms took on arms and legs and heads, and the many voices ebbed away, until only one was speaking.

"Hello, Charlie. Hello Kippy."

The two shapes became people, and two smiling faces covered with an otherworldy glow looked out at them.

Kippy gave out a gasp, and raised his arms towards the two, even as Charlie understood who it was he was looking at.

Billy Matson and Will Hopkins.

It was Billy that had spoken, and now Will raised a hand and pointed at them, too. "Hello Ricky. Hello Adrian. I see you brought friends."

Charlie found his voice, and stepped forward. "Billy! Will! I don't believe it!"

Kippy was right beside him, and turned and gently smacked Charlie on the shoulder. "Of course it's them. I'd know those faces anywhere."

And then Ricky and Adrian were there, and the four boys surrounded the two spirits of their friends, all talking at one time. Finally, Ricky stuck two fingers into his mouth and blew a sharp whistle, and everyone ground to a halt. "Let's take turns or something, huh?" he pleaded. "No one can understand a damn thing being said!"

Charlie found himself laughing along with the others, but suddenly remembered Mike and Pacha. He turned to find the other two simply watching from a few feet away. Charlie grinned, and went and took Mike by the upper arm and pulled him closer. "Come meet our friends."

Mike simply stared at him. "You blokes never stop surprising the crap out of me," he whispered, eying the two spirits.

But Pacha seemed eager to come closer. "Please introduce us, Charlie."

Charlie did that, and Mike nodded nervously while Pacha leaned forward, obviously burning with curiosity. "We are honored to meet you," the little koala said.

Billy laughed, and Charlie smiled at the pleasant sound of it. "You have such wonderful friends, Charlie. Why am I not surprised?"

Charlie simply shook his head. "Billy...Will...what are you doing here?"

The two boys looked at each other. "We came to see you," Will said. "All of you."

Kippy looked astounded. "How could you know we would be here?"

Billy smiled. "We always know where you are, Kippy. Where all of you are. Even when we don't know where we are ourselves. We are linked to you, in spirit." Billy winked, and Charlie laughed at the joke.

"Seriously," Charlie went on, "how do you two happen to be here?"

Billy looked about the interior of the dome. "This place is known to us. And to all of those like us. We were absolutely amazed when we sensed that you were here. It was a golden opportunity to see you again, to talk to you. So we came as quickly as we could."

Charlie was agog at the meeting, at the impossibility of the timing. But then he remembered that they were in no-time, and that things that happened in the now were not always things just started. That the two spirits could have taken more time to get here than Charlie imagined was a real possibility, because no matter how long it had taken them, it was still no time at all. Here in the Cooee, there was no math for the dimension of time.

Charlie closed his eyes a moment, feeling almost overwhelmed by all the impossibilities this journey of theirs was handing to them. It seemed just moments ago that they had been sitting on Charlie's front stoop, wondering what to do with the day. But...he opened his eyes and smiled. "It's so wonderful to see you two again. Have you guys been...happy?"

Billy and Will smiled at each other, and Charlie knew the answer right away. "I can see you have been," he went on, answering his own question.

"Yes," Billy said. "Our bond is incredibly strong now. Nothing will ever break it again."

"Have you been back to your house again?" Adrian asked, referring to the house in the woods where Pat Burroughs had had his Halloween party. It had been Billy's home as a boy, and it was there Charlie and Kippy and the others had first met the lovelorn spirit.

Billy shook his head. "It is no longer mine to keep." He looked at Will again, and smiled. "And, I have all that I need."

For just a moment, it seemed that the two spirits faded, but then they came right back.

"Are you okay?" Kippy asked, his voice full of concern. "You guys just almost winked out."

Will laughed. "It is because we are here, while part of us is still there."

Charlie blinked at that. "Still where?"

"
The place we were before we came here, of course," Billy said. "We had to leave some of ourselves there, like a bookmark, so that we could find the place again." He laughed. "It is a very big universe, and there are an infinite number of iterations of it, too."

Pacha leaned forward at that. "Then it is as we thought? There are other universes bordering our own? Branches, and loops, and causal variations of this one?"

"Oh, yes." Will nodded at that. "There are so many iterations of reality that even we may never be able to explore them all." He winked. "And no two are exactly the same, either."

"You have all the time there is," Kippy said, sounding worried. "I mean, it's not like you can die again, or anything. You only have to do that once, right?"

Billy laughed. "It is not that we will die before exploring all that there is, Kip. It's that the Great All keeps expanding, getting more numerous, faster than we can keep up with it. No matter how long we go on, there simply may be too much to see and do."

Pacha closed his eyes, and nodded. "This is so good to know. To know for certain."

Billy nodded. "Yes. We understand." The spirit leaned closer. "One purpose in us coming here was to tell you, Pacha'ka, that you must perform the duty you have been assigned to perform by your people."

The koala actually gasped. "You know?"

"Yes. Freedom must be fought for, even when the cost seems high. If you do not act, it is not just your own people that will continue to suffer."

The koala looked up at Mike, and the taut expression of worry on his face softened. "I understand." His soft brown eyes went back to the spirit of Billy Maston. "I will do my best."

Billy and Will both closed their eyes a moment, and then reopened them and smiled. "Yes, you will."

"What...what is it like? Pacha asked, his eyes brimming with interest. "To be able to visit all of eternity?"

Billy looked at Will, and Will looked at Billy. "It never ceases to be interesting, does it, Will?"

"Never," Will agreed. Both spirits returned their gazes to the koala. "Have patience. Life is interesting, too."

Pacha nodded. "I have found it so. The more I learn and understand, the more fascinating life becomes." He turned his head to look at Mike, and then the other boys. "The more people I meet, the more I love life."

Mike smiled at that. "Amen there."

Again the two spirits faded for a moment, and Kippy stepped forward. "Don't go!"

"We must," Will said. But then he smiled. "But we will be back, the next time you are here."

Charlie's eyebrows bounced upwards at that. "We'll be coming back here?"

Billy pointed at Mike and Pacha. "Of course. You will return here with your new friends." He smiled. "Your lives are just starting, Charlie. All of you have wonderful things to do in your futures."

"When will we come back here?" Ricky blurted, looking almost breathless at the idea. When Charlie's eyes sought his, he smiled. "Well, I need to mark my calendar."

"We will see each other again," Billy promised. He closed his eyes again. "But now...we have to go, or lose our place in that other there."

Charlie nodded. "It was wonderful to see both of you again, Billy. Take care, okay? Will? You guys look out for each other, okay?"

Ricky and Adrian lifted their hands and waved, and Kippy's face scrunched up, but he waved as well.

The two spirit boys smiled, and joined hands, and began to fade away. "We will, Charlie. Always, we will..."

And then they were gone. There was a brief flicker of light at the edge of the shaft leading below, and then nothing.

Kippy gave out a little sob, and turned into Charlie's arms. "It was so wonderful to see them again," he said softly, pressing his face into Charlie's cheek. Charlie nodded, and closed his eyes, and squeezed Kippy close. They stood together in silence a while, until Pacha cleared his throat to get their attention. "It is time to go."

"We just got here," Adrian said, as if that was all he could think of to say.

"We have things to do," Pacha announced. He nodded, his eyes moving from one boy to the next. "It is time to return to your Earth."

There was something behind those words, Charlie thought, as he stared at the koala. Pacha seemed to have been energized somehow by his conversation with Billy Matson.

"One purpose in us coming here was to tell you, Pacha'ka, that you must perform the duty you have been assigned to perform by your people."

Charlie shined his light a last time at the opening in the floor, that led to the center of the world, and beyond. And then he pushed Kip back, and looked into his eyes. "Did you know Will and Billy were coming? Did you call them, somehow?"

Kippy shook his head. "No. I only just had the thought that maybe Skwish had other purposes than just sensing the future. I did think of Will and Billy...but then they were just there."

Charlie thought back over the conversation with the two spirits, and nodded. It had sounded like they had purposely come on their own. Still...

For a second Charlie closed his eyes. This was just too complicated to easily grasp.

Kippy leaned his face forward to touch Charlie's. "Getting a headache yet, Charlie?" he whispered, his tone one of humor now.

Charlie opened his eyes and smiled. "Not yet. But I think I am well on my way."


* * * * * * *


They all watched Engris grow smaller in the bubble ship's viewer, and finally fade from sight. Once again the utter blackness of the Cooee surrounded them, and Pacha waved the viewer away into nothingness again.

"Are there other places like Engris, that exist only in the Cooee?" Charlie asked, as they made themselves as comfortable as they could for the trip back to Earth.

"If there are, they are as yet undiscovered," Pacha told them. "Engris is unique in that it wishes to be found by people in need. Without that trait, I wonder if it would have ever been discovered at all."

"You guys have good science," Ricky said. "Could your people build something like that in the Cooee?"

"No, I don't think so." Pacha looked thoughtful. "Then again, there has never been a need, so it has not been considered. But...I think the current level of science in the galaxy is somewhat less than the one the builders of Engris enjoyed. Civilizations seem to run in cycles, rising and falling over time. Their civilization was part of a previous cycle, unrelated to the current one."

"What are we gonna do about Korig?" Mike asked then. "We can't let him do to Earth what his people have been doing to other worlds. Yours included."

Pacha considered that. "My people have come up with a solution. I have been charged with deploying it, as you may well have guessed."

Mike grinned. "I remember that you tucked that doomsday gizmo into your pouch when we left Kift."

The koala patted himself, and nodded. "It is still there. I had my doubts that I could use it." He turned his head and smiled at Charlie and Kip. "But meeting your friends on Engris was the final piece of the puzzle I have been struggling with."

"So what happens now?" Kippy asked.

"We go home," Mike said, as if the solution was obvious..

"Exactly," Pacha agreed. "I have every confidence in Korig's ability to find us."

"Are these people really so bad?" Charlie asked. "I mean, we've only seen the one ship. It's not like they have these great, conquering fleets swooping about the galaxy, taking over everything by force."

"Like Star Wars," Mike nodded, grinning. "Korig ain't no Darth Vader, I can say that."

Charlie smiled at the Aussie boy's pronunciations. "I agree. So are they really so dangerous?"

"They are," Pacha said, nodding. "They do not take by blatant, destructive force, but they use force just the same. The force of law. Their law, bent to their own ends. It is a law that gives them the right to create trade agreements with peoples and planets that do not want trade agreements with them. It gives them the right to set quotas, and prices, and to back those requirements up with sanctions if they do not get them. And, if the sanctions fail, to back them up with real force. They do have an enormous fleet of vessels, quite capable of delivering complete destruction to an entire world."

Charlie leaned forward. "Have they ever done that? Destroyed someone's world?"

The koala nodded. "Yes."

"If Pacha's people refused to go along, the Arpies would move in and take over the planet," Mike said. "Buncha damn thieves, is what they are."

"Galactic law favors the powerful," Pacha agreed. "Trade is the law for them. To refuse it is to invite police action to enforce it. My people do not wish to be occupied, and so we have complied. But...that is coming to an end."

"Can you fight these guys?" Adrian asked. "One planet against...how many?"

Pacha looked uncertain. "We do not have an exact number, simply because the figures are deliberately blurred. There are purely Arpathant worlds, but then there are all those like mine, that have a small presence of the creatures, but do not belong to them. But their worlds number in the hundreds, surely."

"And they aren't even the big boys," Mike added. "The Arpies are in the top ten, but the top three - the Moths, the Braunigan, and the Trichani - those guys are huge."

"We are actually fortunate to reside within the Arpathant sphere of influence," Pacha agreed. "We are far away from the center of things, out near the edge of the galaxy. The Moths are closest to us, but even they are twenty thousand light years away. The Arpathant have it all to themselves out here, at least for now."

"Think the Moths will ever come looking this way?" Mike asked. "The Arpies wouldn't like that one bit." He grinned. "Might even start a war. The Arpies would get their butts handed to them, too. The Moths aren't people you want to mess with."

"The Moths are no longer in an expansion phase. None of the big three empires are, being still busy consolidating what they have acquired in the past thousand years. I do not foresee an encroachment upon Arpathant space any time in the near future." Pacha sighed. "So if we cannot hope that a superior power will deal with them, then we must deal with them ourselves."

"Good luck," Ricky said. "Little guys on our planet have had a tough time with the big boys forever."

Pacha said no more, and the boys settled in to wait. This was odd going, having no time pass while the senses said very plainly that it did.

"I wonder if the fireworks have started?" Kippy asked at one point, leaning up against Charlie on the series of pads they were laying on. "I hope we don't miss them."

Charlie smiled, that Kip could be concerned with fireworks when the fate of worlds was hanging in the balance. Whatever it was that Pacha planned for the Arpies, it had better work, or the Earth would face the same problems that the Kith did. And Earth was far less likely to adjust to such measures easily than the more advanced Kitha.

"I'm sure we'll see some, of one kind or another," Charlie said, giving him a hug.

Kippy sighed. "This has been so amazing, Charlie." He smiled then. "We have such fun together."

Charlie couldn't help laughing. "Kip, your idea of fun sometimes amazes me. But whatever you call it, I love every second of it, as long as I am with you."

"Oh Charlie. You're such a romantic."

They kissed, and heard Ricky and Adrian whispering - surely about them. And then another smooch! came to their ears.

"It's contagious," Kippy whispered, smiling into Charlie's eyes. Charlie just nodded, and kissed him again.

Pacha called them together later, and said that they were nearing the solar system containing the Earth.

"What is the plan?" Adrian asked, just as Charlie opened his mouth to ask the same question. The two boys grinned at each other, and Kippy laughed.

"We will land, and wait.," the koala told them.

Charlie blinked at that. "That's it?"

"Yes. I will set the ship down on that hill where you first met Mike. Korig will be about somewhere, I am sure, and he will attempt to subdue us and capture us. This time, that will not be allowed to happen."

Charlie just stared at the koala when he heard that. "You let him capture us the first time?"

Pacha's eyes held humor. "Yes. Sorry about that. The greatest advantage my people have had so far is that certain elements of our physical selves, and our science, have been successfully hidden from the Arpathant. To have made them aware of these things before would have been to make them feel threatened, and to invite armed conflict. It was a situation we did not wish, and so we have been patient, and waited for the moment."

"Two hundred years is pretty damn patient," Ricky noted.

"Exactly. But we are patient no more."

Mike gave the koala a fond rub. "Trust Pacha, mates. He knows what he's doin'."

Since there seemed to be no other course of action, Charlie just nodded. "We're with you, is all I can say."

The other boys nodded in agreement.

Pacha returned the viewer to action, and soon the darkness peeled away and a sun burst into the center of the screen. Slightly below them was the face of the moon, which they were just passing. Beyond lay the Earth, blue and green, covered with the intricate swirls of weather systems, and just beautiful to their eyes. That they might lose control of this, their special place in the universe, was an intolerable thought to them, and Charlie set his jaw as the bubble ship settled into the top of the atmosphere with a tiny shudder. Surrender is not an option.

The world seemed to turn rapidly beneath them, and North America came into view, and grew wide across the screen. The east coast spread out in the viewer, rushed towards them, and then they were among clouds, the land below covered with familiar features. And only an instant later, it seemed, they were settling towards Myer's Hill, with the evening sun still above the horizon, and the sky all about them still bright and blue.

Kippy looked delighted. "We're in time!"

Charlie laughed, that Kippy could still be worrying about fireworks while the fate of the world hung in the balance.

The ship touched down with nary a jolt, and Pacha shut things down, and invited them all to go outside. They exited the craft through the round port, and once again stood on the surface of their own planet.

Kippy sighed, and grinned at Charlie. "I'd get down and kiss it, but it's just so dirty."

Charlie laughed, pulled Kippy close, and kissed him. Ricky and Adrian were doing the same thing, all of them happy to be home.

The sun had not yet reached the horizon, and a few puffy clouds flecked with violet and orange trekked slowly across the sky. It was still quite warm, but Charlie took a deep breath, and enjoyed every bit of it. Home.

"
Stay close to the ship," Pacha warned them. "You need to remain beneath its defenses to be safe."

"Didn't help before," Charlie pointed out. "Korig's ship showed up and they zapped us and knocked us out cold."

"Only because we could not let them know we could defend against that," Pacha said. "Now, it does not matter."

Charlie nodded, and he and Kippy went back to examining the sky. It was a perfect evening for fireworks. The few clouds above them were moving off, promising an utterly clear view of the show. A few early bird stars were appearing, and a small and comforting breeze was sending waves through the grasses around them.

They were still looking up when Charlie felt a familiar vibration, and the huge Arpie wedge ship appeared above them. There was a flash from it, and a corresponding flash from the bubble ship, but nothing else happened. Then, a tiny dot disengaged itself from the giant wedge, and dropped rapidly towards them.

"Here they come," Pacha said, unnecessarily. But his voice was calm, and Charlie found it reassuring.

The dot continued to grow, and finally resolved itself into a miniature version of the great wedge ship above them. It touched down nearby, and a door immediately opened in the side. A half dozen of the armor-clad soldiers piled out, each carrying one of those mammoth rifles, and formed a skirmish line aimed at Pacha and the five humans. The business ends of the rifles held steady on them, and Charlie felt that to even breathe too hard might be to draw their fire.

Another Arpie emerged from the transport, and Charlie immediately recognized Korig by his size, and the black armor he wore. The man moved to stand between two of the soldiers, and waved his trunk at them uncertainly. "Why you no unconscious?"

Charlie almost laughed at that. But then Mike stepped forward, bearing Pacha in his arms.

"You still wear disguise," Korig added, disapprovingly. "Pointless, now that I know it."

"What do you want, Korig?" Pacha asked.

The alien stared at them, and then rumbled out one of his seismic laughs. "We both know. Your people send you out to test new weapon of some kind. Not find it in your ship, so you must hide somewhere. Tell where now, and no incinerate your friends there." Korig waved a large hand at Charlie and the others.

"You would not," Pacha said, almost disbelievingly.
 
"Detect threat against legal trade authority," Korig countered. "Can under law, and would."  He offered up his awful smile. "Not animals, these. People involved in conspiracy. Deadly force authorized if feel threatened."

Charlie found his voice. "We're not even armed."

Korig laughed again. "You know, I know, but trade authority that receive my report not know. I say you dangerous, they believe me."

The giant alien lifted a hand, and the six soldiers leaned slightly forward, looking anxious to pull the triggers.

There was nothing slow about the reaction this time. Pacha suddenly flowed in Mike's arms, his shape changing astonishingly fast. His fur lightened to white as his jaw grew long, and his ears thrust upwards like a rabbit's. But there the similarity ended. The tops of the ears ended in a fine spray of tiny, waving, cilia-like appendages. which suddenly vibrated almost into invisibility.

The muzzles of the soldier's rifles crashed to the ground, followed by the rifles, and then the soldiers themselves. Korig was right behind them, mashed flat by the force of six gravities of acceleration. Something leaped from the small wedge ship, a whip-like arc of yellow energy, aimed squarely at Pacha. The little alien threw up an arm, and the whip cracked like thunder, but was deftly deflected into the grass, catching it on fire. Pacha raised another hand, and the grass was smashed flat, and the fire simply vanished before it could get started.

One of the little alien's ears changed its appearance, vibrating in a new fashion, and Korig's wedge transport vibrated with it. A sound grew, the sharp, keening wail of molecules vibrating fiercely, and another Arpathant appeared in the doorway of the vessel and threw himself to the ground, there to be mashed flat by the same force holding the others.

And then quiet descended upon them, as if none of it had happened at all. Only the eight Arpies, laying motionless on the ground, fiercely trying to breathe, gave any indication that a battle had been fought here, and lost.

Above them, the giant wedge ship started to move, and circled above them in an agitated fashion. But that those left aboard  dare not move against Pacha for fear of hurting their commander seemed plain.

"You lose," Pacha said quietly, climbing down from Mike's arms. The little creature crossed to Korig in a series of hops, and sat himself beside the huge alien. He looked into the flattened expression on Korig's face, and actually smiled this time. "You aren't so tough, after all."

Pacha waved a hand over Korig's face, and the giant took a fierce gulp of air. "How you do dis? How!"

Pacha nodded. "Science has many directions, Korig. Your people tend to one version, and my people to another. Your version is limited by your ability to mold matter into machines, while ours is limited only by our knowledge in using it. And that grows, every day we live." The little alien leaned closer. "You're done, Korig. Even as we speak, your trade mission is being rounded up and expelled from our planet. No more taking from us, Korig. Not ever again."

"You cannot fight us," Korig returned, the first traces of a kind of fear appearing in his eyes. "You have no ships, no fleet. You cannot fight."

"We do not need those things, Korig. They are of your science, not ours. What small ships like this one" -- he indicated the bubble ship behind him --" we use to travel about, are all we will ever need."

"Den you will die," Korig assured him.

Pacha shook his head slowly, almost sadly. "What vermin you are, that you feel others simply exist to serve your needs." Pacha looked back at Mike and smiled. "You would do the same to these people as you have done to us."

Korig did not say anything, but his eyes showed that he was in total agreement with that statement. Even flat on his back and defeated, the Arpathant could not keep his contempt from showing.

Pacha shook his head. "This cannot be allowed." He took a small hand, and Charlie saw it disappear into the fur at his belly. It reemerged a moment later, grasping a flattened ovoid with a clear skin, inside of which dots of crimson fire danced and spun. Pacha brought his hand around in an arc and smacked the thing down on Korig's armor, where it stuck fast. The giant alien's eyes stared downward in horror at this new development, and Pacha laughed. "You wanted our new weapon, and now you have it."

Pacha backed away, and raised his hands, and his ears vibrated anew.

Korig suddenly sat up, and the other Arpies gasped and did the same thing. The first thing Korig did was grab at the ovoid attached to his armor, but even with his formidable strength, it remained immovably in place. The big alien dropped his hands and aimed the end of his trunk at the device, and the tendrils at the end closed upon it and tried to remove it that way.

"Korig." Pacha said the name softly and patiently, but it seemed like a whip to the big alien. His eyes came up, and his trunk ceased to pull at the ovoid.

"You have five minutes to be away from this world," Pacha said. "All of you will now get into your transport, go up to your vessel, and go. If you are still here in five minute's time, I will destroy you. Understand?"

"You cannot," Korig grated, but his eyes plainly said he didn't know what to believe.

"I can, and I will," Pacha assured him. "And if you get to your ship and decide to take a few shots at us, I will definitely be upset. Understand?"

Korig got to his feet and backed away from Pacha and the humans. "Dis not over. Dis just starting."

Pacha raised his hands again. "You don't seem to be leaving."

The Arpie soldiers found that, while they could get to their feet, their weapons remained pinned firmly to the ground. Once Korig saw that, he barked out a command, and the aliens piled onto the ship. The door closed, and the wedge leaped into the air.

Pacha turned and hopped back towards Mike, changing as he moved, back into the koala. He stopped before Mike and raised his arms to be picked up. The Aussie boy grinned and retrieved the fuzzy creature, and stroked him fondly as he settled into the crook of his arm. "That was some amazing stuff, Pach."

"It's not over yet. Despite my warnings, Korig seems determined to fire upon us. He has ordered his ship to do just that." Pacha closed his eyes, and lifted his hands again. "Oops. Weapons require power, and the fusion plant that powers theirs seems to have somehow broken loose, and is busy bouncing about inside the ship, knocking down bulkheads and just being a general nuisance. Amazing what damage thirty tons of shielding can do to your basic walls and decks."

Charlie and the others just stared at Pacha, and then almost as one tilted their heads back and looked up at the huge wedge ship. It had risen, and now danced about in the sky in a panicky fashion. Suddenly it accelerated, and grew rapidly smaller.

"Good," Pacha said agreeably. "Now you show some sense. I just need you and your ship beyond the atmosphere, and then you will have a personal demonstration of the device you wear upon your chest. Good, good. A little higher. Faster Korig, or you will regret it. Yes, higher, almost there..."

The big ship was dot now, and then it disappeared altogether. The boys continued to watch the skies, not knowing what to expect, while Pacha continued with his monologue, and Mike stroked him fondly.

"...that's good, a few miles higher...my, that power plant is making a mess of your machine spaces, isn't it? So sorry. But you need a good reason to go away...good...better...and you're there."

Pacha sighed and closed his eyes. "Farewell, Korig."

Far above them, a flash lit the sky, and a great green ring of light expanded outwards into a halo about a tiny, furiously bright dot of light. Moments later a faint rumble reached them, and then the pinpoint of light slowly began to fade, while the halo became like a bright ring of smoke, slowly dissipating outward.

Charlie and the others simply gaped, and Kippy turned an accusing look upon the koala. "You blew them up!"

Pacha laughed. "I did no such thing. They are not dead. We are simply rid of them." But then his mirth faded. "All of them, everywhere."

No one spoke, because no one understood. Finally, Charlie shook his head. "What happened?"

Pacha's warm eyes examined him a moment before the koala spoke again. "Reality is where you happen to be at the moment, Charlie. Our universe is vast, but it is not the only one there is. For lack of an easier way to put it, I will say that, to either side of our own universe, are millions or billions - or even more - other universes. If you argue that once there was just one, then each universe that followed is a child of the first, born when some event that had more than one possible outcome in the main universe went one way or the other. If a star goes nova in our universe, there is one created where it did not. For everything that goes one way in our universe, there is a mirror universe created where it went in the opposite direction. The more possibilities that exist, the more universes are created to address each possibly eventuality."

Charlie had actually read about this very idea once before. "I thought that was just a theory."

Pacha nodded. "We had evidence that there was truth to this, and we have been looking into the matter almost since the day the Arpathant first showed up on our world. We had discovered another universe, next to ours, if you will, that was identical in every way save one: there was no life in it, not a single cell of it." Pacha nodded. "It was decided to make this universe available to the Arpathant for colonization. That is what just happened."

Charlie and Kippy stared at each other. "What does that mean?" Kippy asked.

Charlie shook his head. "I'm not sure."

"They're gone?" Ricky asked, staring at Pacha. "You sent them away?"

"Yes. You have it now. I was charged with placing the trigger with an Arpathant. Any Arpathant would do, it just was my luck that it was Korig himself. An Arpathant genome was required, as a template. The tech was expanded to include their technology - their ships, their cities, their worlds. And then all were simply moved to that other, empty universe." Pacha gazed upwards at the still dispersing halo, a certain satisfaction apparent in his eyes. "No one was killed, no cities destroyed. The Arpies will simply find themselves suddenly alone in an entire universe, with no way to return to this one."

Charlie shook his head. "I don't think I could have done that. A whole race...there must have been billions of them."

"There were. And believe me, I was burdened with the weight of the task assigned to me. It was not known for sure that this mirror universe actually existed, or was simply a phantom version of our own, fooling our investigations. But after I spoke with your friends in the dome on Engris, I understood that all these mirror places were real, and could actually be reached. So I knew then that I was not committing genocide, but actually removing a certain blight from our universe to a location where they could still live, but not harm others."

Charlie could hardly get his mind around the idea. "They are all gone? Every single Arpie?"

"Yes. All of them. And their ships, their planets, and even their trade missions on subject planets. It is now as if the Arpathant never existed in our universe at all."

"I cannot imagine a technology that could do such a thing," Charlie whispered. Kippy nodded, eying Pacha now with something akin to worry.

Mike saw that, and shook his head. "Stop that right now. Pacha's people are the most decent folk I ever met. If he says the Arpies are okay, then they are." Mike snorted. "That's better treatment than I would have given them. But the main thing is, it's done. So stop worrying about it."

"What will happen now?" Ricky asked.

Pacha gave a little shake of his head. "Nothing. It's all done. You are home, and all I need do now is drop Mike back in his land, and everything will be fine."

Mike's face twisted up at that. "Uh...Pacha, about taking me home...?"

Charlie almost laughed out loud at the look that crossed the koala's face - a mixture of amusement, and pure, unadulterated innocence. "Yes?"

Mike looked uncertain, but then stamped his foot. "Dammit, I don't have nothing back there to go to." Mike's eyes looked pleading. "I wanna stay with you, Pach."

The koala nodded. "Okay. I just needed to hear you say that."

Charlie and the others laughed at the dumbfounded look that appeared on Mike's face. "As easy as that? I've been worrying how to ask you!"

"Yes, Mike. As easy as that." Pacha shifted in Mike's arms, and patted the boy's chest with one small hand. "I'm kind of used to you now."

Mike grinned. "All right!"

Charlie knew it would take some time for himself and the other boys to sort this all out. They would have a lot to talk about, for some time to come.

"Billy said he would see us again on Engris, sometime," he said to Pacha. "That would seem to indicate that we will see you again."

"I would love that," Pacha said. "And I think you would enjoy visiting my world, now that it is free. I will check with you, from time to time, and we will come up with something we can all do. How about that?"

"Works for me," Charlie said.

Kippy nodded, looking happy, and Ricky clapped Adrian on the shoulder. "I never got a chance to use my dagger, dammit."

"We'll find something here for you to hack to pieces," Adrian returned, fondly.

Charlie patted his pocket, where the little copper panel resided that showed whoever held it his home. "We all got some cool stuff out there."

"More than you know," Pacha said. He turned to Kippy. "The ring you purchased has a great secret, one that will bear looking into." He then turned his eyes to Adrian. "And your object - your star chart - may just be something to pursue as well."

"I thought you said it would be dangerous?" Adrian asked, looking surprised.

"What part of this adventure has not been?" Pacha countered. "And didn't you somehow enjoy it, anyway?"

"Yes!" All five boys chorused the reply, and then started laughing.

Pacha nodded. "I am finding a certain exhilaration to our travels, as well." He leaned closer and lowered his voice. "I feel like a cub again!"

"Wait until we get back out among the stars," Mike said, patting the koala's fur excitedly. "I've heard some great stories, I have, about some great places to go, and --"

The koala held up a hand. "We will discuss it later. After I give my report to the council. Fair enough?"

Mike grinned. "Fair enough."

Charlie laughed. "Sounds like you and Mike will be doing a little exploration."

Pacha nodded. "Having completed this task, I am interested in doing something more restful. I have an interest in antiquities of all sorts. What better way to relax than looking about space for such things as that?"

Mike beamed at that, and nodded, and Charlie and Kippy both laughed.

"Will you stay for the fireworks?" Kippy asked. "They have even more meaning, now that our Earth will not fall under the thumb of the Arpies."

"We should go, actually," Pacha said, now a little sadly. "My people will expect a full recounting of recent events." He turned suddenly, and pointed at the Arpie rifles still laying on the ground nearby. "Maybe I had better dispose of them. I don't see any good coming from feeding your military-types any distressing new ideas." He closed his eyes and held out a hand, and the weapons jerked into the air, lined up like a freight train, and headed for the entry of the bubble ship.

Charlie sighed, realizing that this adventure was coming to an end. There was an anticlimactic feel to that that must have shown on his face. Pacha saw it, and nodded. "We will be back, Charlie. But, for now, we do need to go."

No one said anything then. Charlie looked over at Mike and smiled, and Kippy sighed and leaned hard against Charlie's shoulder. "Oh, I hate saying goodbyes."

All the boys took turns giving Mike a hug.

"I still say you're  gorgeous," Kippy whispered, when it came his turn, and then laughed when Mike's face reddened.

"And still not ready," the other boy whispered back. "But...if I decide to give it a go, I'll come to you first for some pointers."

"Ooh, I can hardly wait!"

 And then Pacha had to suffer the same fate. The boys lined up to offer the koala a hug, and Pacha took it kindly. Charlie could see that he was actually sad to see them go.

"We'll be in contact," Pacha assured them. "It is a big galaxy. More than Mike and I can explore on our own."

Charlie laughed. "I think all of us are interested, Pacha."

The koala reached out and patted Charlie's arm. "It was wonderful to meet all of you, Charlie. I am very fond of Mike, and it is especially pleasurable for me to know that he is not unique among your kind."

They said farewell again, and then Mike took Pacha and climbed into the bubble ship. The two stood in the doorway a moment and waved,  and then it was closed.

Kippy put an arm around Charlie and hugged him. "You sure know how to show a guy a good time, Charlie Boone."

Charlie smiled. "It was mostly fun because you were with me, Kip."

The bubble ship hummed, rose quickly into the sky, and then was gone.

Charlie gave a sigh, and turned to look towards the sun, which was down below the horizon now. The sky was darkening, and the lights were on over at the distant mall. There would be a huge crowd there in the parking lot now, waiting for the show to begin. "We don't have time to run home. I guess we'll just have to wing it without pizza and drinks for now."

"We can go later, "Kippy decided. "I'm just happy to be here, with you."

They went to the front of the hill, and tramped down the grass to form a place to sit. And then they did just that, Charlie and Kippy, and Ricky and Adrian.

"What a great Fourth of July this was," Adrian said. "Best one I ever had."

Ricky sighed, and snuggled against him. "Everything is great when it's with you."

Kippy leaned against Charlie, his eyes capturing the last rays of evening sun. "It was a wonderful Fourth, Charlie."

"It's not over yet," Charlie said, pointing at the distant mall, where a series of sparks were rising into the night sky.

"Oh, Charlie. I love you so much."

Charlie sighed, feeling the moment himself. "Me, too, Kip. I love you, too." And then they snuggled together as the first rockets burst in the sky above a free land.

And, a free world.