by March 

Summer was wearing on, and Davy, Martin, and Keith were spending as much time as they could with their alien friends, Jahv and his little brother Keyro. Keyro and Martin, being the younger members of the group, had become close friends, and could generally be found either in the hidden pond near where Davy lived, or in the muddy expanse somewhat beyond that.

This particular day, Jahv, Davy, and Keith were indeed hanging around the cloaked tent-dome that was the aliens' home, while Martin and Keyro had made their way out to the muddy expanse to play. Keyro was, as usual, naked. Martin had decided to remove his clothing as well, before getting muddy. He wasn't really one for being naked around other people, but this muddy expanse, like the woods around it, was a well-hidden place, and this was a matter of practicality -- it was a whole lot easier to wash oneself off in the lake nearby than wash one's clothes. And Keyro certainly didn't object. Frankly, the young alien almost seemed more uncomfortable when Martin and the others WERE wearing clothes.

Martin and Keyro had indulged in a bit of good-natured wrestling, pretty well splattering each other with the mud, and at this point were sitting cross-legged in a shallower area (still deep enough that they couldn't see their legs) and using some of the thicker mud nearby to build small structures. Martin was trying to build a mud castle with some success. Keyro seemed to be building a mud tent-dome, and seemed to be having a little trouble even being that creative. His antennae were twitching. Martin had been hanging around these two long enough to recognize this as a sign of annoyance.

Finally Keyro slapped his hands in the mud in frustration. "I am just no good at this. I can build many things out of technology, but I am not a -- what was the word you used, Martin?"

"Sculptor." answered Martin. He was trying not to giggle. Keyro was acting so serious, and had a bit of a scowl on his face, but given that his face, as well as the rest of him, had a generous amount of mud on it, the resultant image was difficult to take seriously. Martin suspected he himself looked just as silly. Martin decided to change the subject. There were some questions he'd wanted to ask either of the aliens anyway. "May I ask you something?"

Keyro rolled over and flopped on his stomach, turning away from his attempted building to face Martin better. He propped his head up is his arms and smiled. "Certainly. I'd prefer conversation to further failure, anyway."

"Why did you and your brother run away?" asked Martin. "I mean, I know you said it was because your parents weren't treating you very well, but you two seem to know so much and are able to do so much. You're so smart, and everything, and you're able to survive out here on your own. How bad could it have been?"

Keyro adjusted himself into a sitting position so he could be eye level with Martin. "Martin, we seem to smart and strong to you, I suppose, but we're not that unusual for our people. We're kids, just like you. And I guess our adults are as different as your adults. We're a race that spends a lot of time traveling in space, and you have to know how to survive. I guess that's part of why we seem so smart to the rest of you."

"I guess," said Martin. "We've only ever gone to the moon in person, and sent robots to other planets. But that doesn't explain why you ran away."

Keyro paused before responding, trying to think of how he could explain how different the two cultures were. "Martin, do your parents love you? Do you know that they love you? Do they show you that they love you?"

Do your parents love you?

Martin seemed surprised by the question. He had to think about it, which was something he'd never really had to do before. He thought about how, when he was feeling sad, his mom or dad knew about it, and would try to comfort him. He thought about how, when he was sick, his mom would take extra-special care of him. They worried when he was out later than he should be, which kind of annoyed him a little, but he didn't like to upset them, and he guessed that their concern was because they did love him and didn't want anything to happen to him. And they always had time for a kind word or a hug for him if he wanted it.

Was Keyro saying what Martin thought he was? "Yes." he finally answered. "But -- why would you ask that?"

"On my planet, things are different." said Keyro. "We are a people devoted to technology and commerce. You would probably call us technologists. And the better you are at it, the more highly placed in society you are, which is something we consider very important. My parents -- Jahv's and mine -- are very good at it. They fed us, educated us, took us with them wherever they went. But I don't think they really loved us. On my world, emotion isn't something openly expressed. Jahv and I are still getting used to it with you guys. And my parents didn't like it when Jahv and I showed emotion to each other."

"Did they hurt you?" asked Martin, recalling some of what his friend Keith had been known to endure.

Keyro shook his head. "No. Not physically, anyway. They'd just -- ignore us more than usual. Jahv finally decided to run away, but I wasn't certain. It's a terrible crime on my world to run away."

"Why?" asked Martin.

Keyro shrugged. "I'm not sure. Maybe because if it weren't, more kids would do it. But after Jahv left, they accused me of making him leave. You see, parents are held responsible for the actions of their children on my world, so our parents would be blamed for this. I finally decided I had to leave, as well."

"Do you think your parents miss you?" asked Martin.

Keyro snorted, suddenly sounding bitter. "Probably all they miss is whatever lost business opportunities they'll suffer during whatever penalty would be imposed for our running off. After that, they'll probably be just as glad we're gone so they don't have any distractions."

Martin shook his head. "Do you ever get homesick?"

"Home -- sick?" asked Keyro. "I don't understand that word. Have I ever been sick at home? We've cured most diseases native to our -- "

"No, no, that's not what I mean." corrected Martin. "I mean -- do you ever miss your home planet?"

Keyro almost grinned. "That's an unusual question. Like I said, we're sort of taught that expressing -- sometimes even feeling -- emotion isn't quite right. I've never thought about it before. I guess -- no, I really don't. We traveled an awful lot. I've been to over a hundred different planets in my life. Not counting this one. My home planet is just -- one more world. My home was my parents' ship, and I really don't miss it. You would miss your home if you had to leave it?"

Martin nodded. "Very much so."

Keyro smiled, widely. "Maybe that's what Jahv and I like about you guys so much. You're not afraid to feel." His face turned a little sad, then. "I'm -- not sure I know how. Jahv is not afraid to, but it's unusual for both of us."

Martin reached over and gave Keyro a hug. Given that both boys were covered with mud, there was a rather bizarre SQUISH sound to the embrace. "That's how!" said Martin.

Keyro giggled. "Is it always that noisy?" That gave both boys a complete case of the giggles that lasted for some time.

Back in the tent-dome, Keith and Davy were discussing between themselves theories as to why exactly Keyro, and often with him Martin, had taken such a liking to the muddy expanse beyond the small lake in the woods.

"Must've been because he landed there that he likes playing in it so much," remarked Jahv on occasion.

"Or he landed on his head." countered Keith, but not very effectively. He found the mud a lot of fun to play in himself, if only because he knew that if his parents ever found out about it, he'd be in more trouble than he usually was at their hands, especially his stepfather's. His mother could be more understanding, but lately, she tended to go along with what Keith's stepfather said and did. That upset Keith more than ever. Granted, Keith lived with his grandmother most of the time, and she was okay, but she was so elderly that she wasn't someone that Keith could really have much fun with.

Davy and Keith tended to spend their time with Jahv, either playing in the pond, or wondering what new trouble Jahv was going to cause with his computer. "Trouble" wasn't the most accurate word, but every time Jahv hacked into some new site, out of simple, childlike curiosity combined with an alien intellect far beyond anything mankind presently knew, Keith half-expected Jahv to try to land the Space Shuttle in a nearby field, reprogram the Mars Pathfinder to search for settlements, or for all he knew, program every television set in the world to play reruns of "The Partridge Family." And he suspected Jahv was capable of any or all of the above.

Today, however, Jahv was not working with his computer. He was digging around in his backpack. That alone could take hours, thought Keith. All Jahv had ever explained was that the backpack, like the cloaked dome-tent in which he lived, contained an artificial tesseract -- essentially a four-dimensional region of space confined within a three-dimensional object -- like a backpack or a tent. That made the interior of the object exponentially larger than the exterior. Neither Keith nor Davy understood the scientific principles. But they couldn't deny it worked. Jahv's tent was the size of a decent house or a very large apartment. As for the backpack, Keith wouldn't've been surprised to see Jahv pull a small truck from it if there had been room to get it past the opening of the pack, which seemed to be its only size constraint.

Apparently Jahv was really searching for something, because his entire head, upper torso, and arms were buried within the backpack, which made for an extremely odd sight that the other two boys were having a very difficult time not laughing themselves silly over. It didn't help that Jahv, according to his peoples' custom that children did not regularly wear clothes, was stark naked. So the sight on the floor was nothing short of a bright green butt and legs squirming around, their owner apparently having been half-eaten by a denim blue vinyl backpack.

What if he gets stuck?

"Any thoughts as to what we do if he gets stuck?" asked Davy, who as usual was dressed in denim coveralls and no shirt. "Or falls in?"

Keith shrugged. Hot as it had been this summer, he'd been wearing shorts and sandals. "Turn it over, dump it out, and hope that the entire contents don't overwhelm the place?"

"I wonder if even HE knows what the entire contents are?" wondered Davy.

"Doubt it." replied Keith. "You know the entire contents of YOUR room?"

Davy grinned. "Nope. Although I did find a cheese sandwich I lost last week."

"Where was it?" asked Keith.

"Under the bed." answered Davy.

"What made you look under there?" asked Keith.

"Trying to figure out what had died." said Davy, not quite stifling a grin. "The sandwich had."

"It's disgusting what you people eat, you know!" came a muffled yell from the backpack.

Davy and Keith giggled. Jahv's alien metabolism could tolerate some foods from Earth, but not all. On the list of things Jahv and Keyro had to avoid were cheese, peanuts, peanut butter, and cola. Other sodas were chemically safe, but, as it had turned out, not safe from a reaction standpoint. Not long after his arrival, Keyro had chugged back an entire two-liter bottle of Sprite in one sitting. The resultant belch had blown leaves from the trees and set off a car alarm in a neighborhood almost a mile away.

"One more like THAT and they're going to KNOW something weird is out here!" Keith had remarked at the time.

"Yeah, but are they going to want anything to do with it?" Martin had replied. As it turned out, the noise had been heard, but had been reported in the local newspaper as a sonic boom, considered odd only because there were no military bases all that nearby.

Finally, Jahv started to wriggle out of the backpack. "Found it!" he called. "How would you guys like to see what my world looks like?"

"He's either found a globe, or an interstellar shuttle in there." said Keith.

"I'm betting on the globe." said Davy. "He ran away and can't go home, remember?"

"I'm hoping for the shuttle, just to see him haul something that big out of that backpack." remarked Keith.

Jahv extracted himself, and was holding a triangular-shaped box, about a foot long on either side, and perhaps six inches high. At each corner of the triangle, which was silver but seemed to reflect many colors, were small antennae which Jahv was pulling out to greater length. Then he pressed the exact center of the triangle, and a small control panel appeared.

"What is that thing?" asked Keith.

"It's called a holocron." explained Jahv. "I can program it to project a holographic representation of my world, or almost any environment. We can walk around in it, and participate fully. The device can project solid-light creations, and will react to our presence. Sort of like a fully interactive movie or video game."

"Sounds a lot like the holodeck from Star Trek." said Davy.

"That's exactly what it's like!" answered Jahv.

"Great. I never could figure out how that could possibly work, and now he's got a compact one in a little box." remarked Keith.

"What would you like to see on my world?" asked Jahv.

Davy pondered the question. "You have anyplace like the pond?"

Jahv grinned. "As a matter of fact, there was a large lake not too far from where we lived, when we were home, which wasn't very often. I'd go fishing there. I had a small hoverboat."

"Let's do that!" said Davy.

"Works for me." added Keith.

Jahv pressed a button on the console, and the world around the three boys turned into a miasma of shimmering light. Several seconds later, they were standing, so it seemed, on the surface of an alien world.

The sky was a gentle lavendar, incredibly merging into a pale green towards the horizon. Tall grass waved in a light breeze. The grass was a greenish-blue in color. There was a scent in the air, like cinnamon. Just beyond the tall grass was a lake with an island in the middle of it. Tall trees that looked like someone had crossed a pine with a palm waved in the wind. The trees were a deep mottled green, the water a deep bluish-purple. In the distance, beyond a faint haze, were the futuristic spires of an alien city, incredibly complex in design.

And in the sky above -- two suns.

Davy's eyes went wide. "WOW!" he said.

Keith couldn't speak. He knew, in his mind, that this wasn't real. But it was the most incredible thing he'd ever seen.

"Come on," said Jahv, obviously unfazed by it all. To him, this was home. "The hoverboat is over this way."

Jahv led the other two boys to the edge of the lake, where a circular platform with a control panel on a short platform in the middle of it, and railing around it, waited. The boys all climbed in, and Jahv started the hoverboat, which glided silently out over the lake.

"So -- what are we fishing for?" asked Keith in a quieter-than-usual voice. He and Davy were still mesmerized by the scenery.

Jahv opened a storage panel in the size of the platform, and brought out three devices that frankly looked like long, narrow flashlights. He considered the question. He knew he had to translate names into language that Davy and Keith could understand. This wasn't always easy. "I think the best description would be 'bulb-eyed red-fin'."

Davy and Keith glanced at Jahv, who merely shrugged. "Best I can come up with, guys, unless you want the native version."

"No thanks." said Keith. Jahv's language, which sounded like radio static to anyone else, came close to hurting his ears.

Jahv passed out the equipment. "What the heck is this?" asked Keith. "Lightsabers? We supposed to make sushi out of the fish before we even catch them?"

Jahv grinned. "Watch." He pressed a red button on the device, drew it back over his shoulder, and then cast it out just like a fisherman on Earth would have done. A bright blue line of light shot forth, and then slowly settled into the water at a distance.

"Wow!" said Davy. "But -- what do we use for bait?"

"You probably didn't see it," said Jahv, "but the fishing rod released a tiny sonic device at the far end. It attracts fish."

"Hey, at least we don't have to worry about getting hooks caught in our hands -- or worse." remarked Keith. "Or do we?"

Jahv shook his head. "When a fish bites, the lure creates a molecular bond. Sometimes the fish get away, but not very often. They can be released if you press the blue button on the rod, and that way you don't lose the lure, either."

"Well, let's give this a try!" said Davy. He'd fished several times, and enjoyed it. He made a successful cast in the direction opposite Jahv's. Keith then followed suit, with almost as good a cast as Davy's.

A few minutes later, Davy felt a tug on his line. "I think I've got something! How do I reel it in?"

"Press the green button." replied Jahv.

Davy did so, and he felt the pull get stronger. But he could also see something flopping around in the water that was being brough in closer. Moments later, he had brought the fish into the boat.

"Nicely done." said Jahv. He and Keith had shut down their rods. "That's a bulb-eyed red-fin, all right."

"Gross!" proclaimed Keith, and in fact it was. The fish, about a foot long, had a slimy, scale-less, mottled, dark green body, that otherwise looked more or less fishlike. This didn't surprise Keith or Davy too much, since Jahv was more or less human in appearance. The fish had a large red fin on its back, and two bulbous, protruding eyes up front. It had a huge mouth, and a wrinkled face with several rather haphazard "whiskers" like a catfish emanating from it.

"Jeez, what do you catch these things for?" asked Keith. "To put them out of the misery of having to look at each other?"

"Believe it or not, they're excellent eating." replied Jahv.

Keith made a face almost as ugly as that of the red-fin's. "I think I'll take your word for that."

"Besides, it's just a hologram." added Davy. "We couldn't really eat it."

Jahv shrugged. "Actually, I could program my food replicator to duplicate it. It wouldn't act alive, of course, but -- "

"That's okay." said Keith hastily. He had no intention of eating something this ugly.

Davy pushed the fish over the side of the hoverboat, where it swam off. All three boys cast their lines out again. Minutes later, it was Keith's turn to get a bite. But whatever it was was a lot stronger than Davy's catch. "Hey, Jahv, how big do those -- uhnnnn -- red-fin fish get?"

"Davy's was pretty large." replied Jahv, seemingly concerned. "Why?"

"Then I think I must have hooked a mutant or something, because I don't think I can hold onto this thing!" complained Keith.

Jahv's eyes went wider than usual. "Uh, ohhh."

"What do you mean, 'uh oh'?" protested Keith. "I don't want to hear 'uh, oh' right now!"

"You might have hooked onto the Legend of the Lake." said Jahv. "I thought I'd taken care of that glitch!"

"Glitch!?" exclaimed Davy and Keith simultaneously. Just then, a huge, serpentine head rose from the water. The head alone was easily as large as any of the boys. It was attached to a neck that was a good twenty feet long. This beast was nothing less than a medieval dragon, with scales, frilled ears, and a nasty attitude. Keith's fishing line was squarely in the creature's mouth. The dragon jerked its head, which sent Keith flying out of the hoverboat with such force that the boat itself overturned. Then the dragon sped off in the opposite direction.

Uh-oh!

"Keith! For God's sake, let go of the fishing rod!" yelled Davy, once he and Jahv had swam out from under the capsized boat.

Keith had been so petrified, being pulled across the lake by the alien equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster, that simply letting go hadn't occurred to him, but he finally did so, and the dragon swam off and submerged itself again. Frankly, Keith was more than a little angry. He swam back to his soaked friends. "What the hell was that thing doing in your program? I could've been eaten!"

Jahv tried not to grin. "Somebody put it in there as a joke, years ago. It's not even native to this world. Supposedly some expedition saw it on a largely uninhabited jungle world. I've tried to delete it, but it keeps cropping up. You weren't in any real danger. As you've said, it's only a hologram. You can't be harmed in here."

"Oh yeah?" protested Keith. "I just went bodysurfing at the tail end of a water dragon that was apparently the result of some alien hacker! My chest and my stomach feel like I've been bounced off of walls, and my arms feel like they've been dislocated!"

Jahv considered this. "It's possible that because my people are physically stronger than yours, you would feel a greater strain. I am sorry, Keith."

Keith nodded. He was calming down. He'd really just been given a nasty surprise. "Maybe there's somewhere else on your world we could visit?"

Jahv scratched his left antenna. Davy had learned that this was what Jahv did when he was in deep thought. "We could visit MetroCore. It's the largest city on my world. And there's a wonderful -- what's your word -- ? Oh, yes. There's a wonderful Mall there."

"Sounds great, but aren't we going to be a little obvious?" asked Keith.

"Yes, I remember you said when you first met us that you'd never seen people quite like us before." added Davy. "And if this program is fully interactive..."

Jahv stared at his two friends. "Well, that's true. But both of you have fairly long hair. You could pretty well pass for Kintasians. As long as no one notices that your ears aren't pointed."

"What about how we're dressed?" asked Keith.

Jahv considered this, as well. "If anyone asks, which I doubt, since no one pays any more attention to children in MetroCore than they seem to in your society, just tell them you're recently freed servants. That'll explain the clothes and the hair."

"I think we've just had our fashion insulted." remarked Davy.

"What fashion?" countered Keith.

Jahv said, "Holocron Access" to the seemingly open field, and the device that had created it appeared at their feet. He made several adjustments and reactivated it. Second later, the lake and field around them shimmered and vanished, and was replaced by a wide open plaza, with huge, alien buildings on every side, towering to immense heights into the lavendar sky. The architecture was almost as varied as the strange people that the boys saw on every side. Some were like Jahv, others were clearly from different planetary races. One being seemed to be an eight foot lizard. Another seemed to be a walking statue, a person made of rock.

There was, of course, no shortage of Jahv's people, the Botarans in evidence. And as Jahv had explained when Keyro had arrived, and proven to be an entirely different color than Jahv, Botarans came in a great many different colors. The boys saw red Botarans, yellow Botarans, blue Botarans, even one with stripes and one with dots on his skin. The scary thing was how much they otherwise looked alike. They all dressed identically, in bland, grey, form-fitting outfits, they all had white hair, and every one of them was carrying what looked like a laptop computer, and probably was.

"Come on!" called Jahv, already walking towards the largest building in the distance. "MetroMall is this way."

"How is it there are so many different types of aliens on your world?" asked Davy.

"My world is a center for a lot of interplanetary techno-commerce." replied Jahv.

"I'm having a hard time seeing all this as a hologram." said Keith.

"Don't try to." explained Jahv. "Some of it isn't. I didn't want to go into too much detail, but the holocron automatically links to some of my other equipment, including the replicator. If you pick up food around here anyplace, it will be an actual sample of food. And anything or anyone that you touch is made solid by another device I've got, that I don't use much. It's sort of like the replicator, but it's used for dry goods. Non-food items. It's called a fabricator. I really brought it along in case I'd forgotten anything."

"In THAT backpack?" joked Davy.

"But what makes the -- people -- move and seem so real?" asked Keith.

"They're really just sort of mannequins, the ones we might come into actual contact with. But they're controlled by the holocron." explained Jahv as best as he could.

"Sort of like those robots at Disneyland in some of the attractions." offered Davy. "Just more complicated and more interactive."

Jahv nodded agreement, even though he didn't know what "Disneyland" was, but he understood "robots" and "interactive", and it was close enough.

By now they'd reached the entrance to the vast MetroMall and had entered. Five levels of shops along an immense, wide corridor were laid before the three boys. The names of the stores were all in alien script, which Davy and Keith couldn't read.

"So, what do you want to do first?" asked Jahv.

"I can't speak for Keith, but I'm hungry. It feels like we've walked a long way." said Davy.

"Go ahead and speak for me," said Keith. "I agree. But I guess now we'll find out if your food is safe for us!"

Jahv grinned. "Don't worry. I wouldn't let you eat anything dangerous. I know a good place in here, too."

The three boys scampered through the busy corridors of the Mall, but Davy and Keith were so busy looking around at the incredible sights that they weren't watching where they were looking, and Keith ran headfirst into a rather large and ugly-looking specimen of alien life.

It was humanoid, but had short-cropped fur all over its body, and was wearing some sort of armor-plating. If somebody had crossed a Wookiee with a Klingon, this would have been the result. It snarled something that sounded extremely threatening.

Keith was tired of getting hassled by grown-ups. Even ugly holographic alien ones. Before Davy or Jahv could react, Keith barked out a string of apparent gibberish and put up his fists. Incredibly, the huge alien's eyes went wide, he attempted to grin, backed off three steps, and then took off in a flying run. Keith wasn't sure whether to laugh or faint. He'd been reasonably sure he couldn't get too hurt in this holocron-created environment, but he certainly hadn't expected THAT!

"What did you say to him?" asked Davy.

"Actually, I'm not really sure." said Keith. "I was just pissed. So I decided I wasn't going to let a hologram push me around. Whatever I said, I got it from that kid in that Star Wars movie, Anakin Skywalker, when he was speaking to some alien before the podrace."

"It sounded a lot like Aldebarian." offered Jahv. "Which would explain why that Prokkop took off so fast. Aldebarans are the fiercest warrior race in the galaxy. You don't look anything like them, of course, but they have been known to train survivors from their raids on other planets, since they regard such survivors as warriors themselves."

"Well, now I'm really hungry." said Keith. "So where's some food?"

The three boys continued their journey, being more watchful of where they were going. There were many dozens of aliens wandering around, a great many of which were the blandly-dressed Botarans. There were a few other Botaran children running about, all of them naked. One boy, perhaps about five years old, had such neon-red skin that he was almost painful to look at. Finally, Davy worked up the nerve to ask a question. "Uh, Jahv, I guess fashion isn't much of a priority for you people?"

Jahv snorted. "Hardly. Neither is art, and most of our music is imported, although we've developed some native forms."

"Is that part of why you left?" asked Keith.

"Maybe a little." said Jahv. "On my world, outward expressions of feelings are sort of discouraged. But I've seen a lot of worlds where it isn't. Maybe I got -- I dunno -- 'contaminated' and wanted something more than what my world offered."

"So what do you people do?" asked Davy. "I mean, clearly you possess a vast technology..."

"That's pretty much it, too." answered Jahv. "We are builders and developers of technology. And we trade and sell it to other worlds. We're probably the most technologically advanced planet there is. And the most emotionally-deprived."

"Is that why you act so stiff and use such big words sometimes?" asked Keith, getting a nasty glare from Davy. "No offense, Jahv, but sometimes you almost act like a grown-up. It's a little creepy."

Jahv smiled. "Maybe I do, to you. Life for a child on my world is one primarily of education. Learning is everything. That's part of why I left. I want to learn more than what my world has to offer. Maybe one of those things is how to be a child."

"Well, you picked the right people to hang around with!" declared Davy. "Now -- food?"

Jahv led the group to a place that looked something like a cross between a buffet and a grocery store. There were aisles of food, and at least a dozen customers walking along the aisles, picking up food and even sampling it.

"How can this place afford to stay in business?" asked Davy. "The people are eating the food and not paying for it!"

"Food is free on this world." said Jahv, a little surprised at the question. "Any food product can be replicated easily, and the machines don't cost too much."

Keith watched an alien that looked something like an overgrown slug hovering over one row of food. "Yeah, but how clean is the food?" he asked, slightly nauseated.

"The lights above the rows of food also emit a sterilization beam. Harmless to sentient beings, but it instantly kills any bacteria or foreign objects in the food."

Keith shrugged. "Well, that answers my question. Let's eat! What do we do?"

Jahv smiled. "Just pick up a tray, and help yourself. Stay out of aisle three, though. Most of that would probably be poisonous to you."

The boys began to wander through the aisles, Jahv popping samples along the way. But Davy and Keith were more hesitant. Nothing at all looked the least bit familiar, and a lot of the food looked pretty horrible. Finally Davy thought he saw something edible. There was a tray with what looked, at least, like large bunches of red grapes. He grabbed about half a dozen and popped them in his mouth.

And instantly regretted it. The second he bit down, he felt like somebody had opened his mouth and cut loose with a flamethrower after dousing the entire interior with cinnamon and pepper sauce. His eyes watered to the point where he could hardly see. Searing, stinging pain went through the inside of his mouth and tongue. He didn't dare swallow. Finally, he knelt under the countertop and spit, and then tried to catch his breath. "What the heck were those!?" he sputtered.

"Flamespice Berries." explained Jahv. "Of course, that's only a rough translation."

"Based on the way Davy's eyes are watering, I'd say a pretty good one, though!" proclaimed Keith, trying not to giggle.

"So much for lunch." said Jahv. "What else would you like to see here?"

"Besides a large glass of water?" wheezed Davy.

"This from the kid that puts Tobasco sauce on his pizza." snorted Keith. "What've you got in the way of music stores? Or arcades? Or just plain entertainment?"

Jahv grinned. "Okay, let's take those in order. Come on."

Jahv led the two boys through the wide, winding corridors of the Mall. A few minutes later, they came across an apparent music store. The layout wasn't too dissimilar from a music store on Earth. Racks with alien lettering and packaged rectangles of what looked like transparent circuit boards were throughout the stores. Jahv was prodding through the racks already, and pulled out one of the long rectangles. "This is one of my favorite musicians."

"What's his, her, or its name?" asked Keith.

Jahv made a sound with his mouth that sounded like a cross between a fart and a sneeze.

"With that, I'm not sure I want to hear the music." remarked Keith.

"Aw, come on, where's your spirit of adventure?" countered Davy. "Any way we can get a demonstration?"

There was a small black button on the back of the package. Jahv pushed it. And what sounded like a three-ton pig screaming bellowed across the music store. No one even looked up. Three screams later, the "demo" halted.

"That's -- it?" asked Davy, trying to be polite.

Keith wasn't as diplomatic. "What the hell was that? And you gripe about our heavy metal?"

"This is very soothing to the antennae!" replied Jahv.

"It is very soothing to the antennae"!

Davy managed a slight grin, Keith rolled his eyes, and the three boys left the store. Keith expressed interest in whatever sort of arcade the Mall might have, and Jahv said he knew of one. On the way there, however, they passed a toy store. Davy decided he wanted to have a look. Jahv grinned, and Keith just shrugged.

The first thing Davy noticed was a huge, chrome-plated, futuristic rifle that looked like it was right out of Star Wars or Star Trek -- but a whole lot better made than any toy he had ever seen on Earth. He picked it up and pulled the trigger, initially planning to make a "Zap!" noise with his mouth, but he was spared the trouble when a loud zapping noise not only burst forth from the rifle, but so did a short burst of light that whipped out of the store, into the mall, and blew a few chunks out of the wall across the way.

"Jeez!" said Keith, flinching. "Put that thing down! Cripes, you call that a toy?"

Jahv inspected the device. "Must be a fresh power pack or something. Of course, the warning label DOES say it's not for indoor use."

Davy was still exploring. He saw a large action figure that looked like a futuristic soldier on display. It stood about a foot tall, and was outfitted in armor and a fancy helmet. Davy picked it up.

The figure moved to turn its entire upper body to face Davy, and raised its arm to raise the visor on its helmet. The face beneath it, relatively human in appearance except for being blue, scowled and said, "Listen, sport, unless you're planning to buy me, and I'm not scanning a cred-card on you, don't handle the merchandise, all right? Now put me down!"

"I'm sorry, I -- " stammered Davy. Keith came over and extracted the figure from Davy's hand and set it back on its display pedestal. "Just as well, Davy." he said. "Ever since I saw the movie 'Small Soldiers', I've been a little worried about army-like action figures with too much attitude."

The threesome headed out of the toy store, and shortly came to the arcade. Instead of machines, however, there were several dozen booths set up throughout the place. "This is a good one," said Jahv, pointing to one. "It's called Swamp Hunt. Come on."

"How the heck did you ever recognize our arcade machines?" asked Davy, as the three entered the darkened booth. "This is nothing like them."

Jahv grinned. "History readers. Our arcade machines, or simulators, were once on flat display screens, the way yours are now."

"So, is this some sort of virtual reality game, or something?" asked Keith.

"More like the holocron." said Jahv. "Which I suppose is something like virtual reality." Jahv pressed a small glowing button on the wall of the booth. Instantly he, Davy, and Keith were dressed in camouflage vests, trousers, and boots, and carrying blaster rifles not too dissimilar from the toy Davy had been playing with. There were dense trees all around them, and their feet were sunk in what looked like about six inches of swamp muck.

"Ya wanna tell us what the objective of the game is?" asked Keith.

"We're hunting an ancient prehistoric serpent." said Jahv. "We're on the clock, too. If we don't find it in five cycles, about seven of your minutes, I think, the game shuts down and we get a zero score."

"Prehistoric serpent." muttered Keith. "Great -- just what I need -- another dinosaur after messing with that thing in the lake."

The three boys made their way through the dense jungle. A few minutes later, they heard a nearby snapping of twigs. They readied their weapons, and a fierce --

blue, five-foot-tall chipmunk sauntered through the bushes towards them. The cartoonish creature had a surprised look on his face when he saw the three boys. "Oh! I'm dweadfully sowwy. I seem to have gotten wost. Which way is the Flarney's Adventure Game Booth?"

Davy started laughing, Keith just shook his head, and Jahv looked mildly annoyed. "Five booths down to your right."

The chipmunk bowed politely and said "Thank you.", and left.

"That's the problem with running a holographic program inside a holocron." remarked Jahv, mostly under his breath to himself. "Sometimes you get crossed programs."

Davy finally stopped giggling. "I think that sort of built up our adventure levels for a while. There anything in this Mall that'll let us unclench a bit?"

Jahv, shutting down the simulator game, thought for a second. "There's a health club with a sort of natural environment sauna."

"They'd let kids into that?" asked Keith.

Jahv grinned. "You forgot where you are. This is a holocron program, remember? We can go where we please."

Keith shrugged. "Works for me." Davy nodded his agreement and the three boys headed off.

The health club was at once familiar and bizarre. There were aerobic workouts in progress, although some of the participants weren't entirely humanoid. One of the individuals (it was impossible to determine gender) looked like a twelve-foot-long, very thick snake, who kept coiling, uncoiling, and then coiling her body in the opposite direction in rhythm to some upbeat music that certainly sounded better than what Jahv had played for them in the music store.

There was a weight room, and one muscular individual with four arms was using two sets of huge weights, first pressing one set, then the other. Running on a nearby treadmill, if it could be called running, was what looked vaguely like a large octopus.

Jahv led Keith and Davy towards the back, to a door with more alien script on it, and a digital display sign with more alien script in illuminated green. "Good, it's unoccupied." remarked Jahv.

The door slid open to reveal a room about the size of a walk-in closet. "This is the sauna?" asked Davy.

"No," said Jahv, "this is where you two leave your clothes. They're not permitted in the sauna."

Keith shrugged and pulled off his shorts and removed his sandals, and Davy dispensed with his overalls. Then they went through a second sliding door.

Steam emerged from a large region across the floor. That region, however, was not steaming water. It was bubbling, dark olive green mud. "You're kidding, right?" said Davy hesitantly. "Green mud?"

"It's very therapeutic." remarked Jahv. "Gets all the stress out of your system."

"How deep is it?" asked Keith, looking intrigued.

"About two feet." explained Jahv. "There are seating areas within the mud, and of course the walkway around the perimeter, for those..." he glanced at Davy, "reluctant souls who might only wish to dip their feet in or something."

"Heck with that!" retorted Keith, who had backed up several feet into the short corridor which led to the small room where they had left their clothes. He then took a running start and yelled "Cannonball!" He brought his feet up and flew into the green mud, which made a loud SPLORK! noise as Keith hit.

Seconds later, a green-mud-covered Keith popped to the surface. "Yow!" he exclaimed. "This stuff is pretty hot! But that was a blast!"

This stuff is pretty hot!

Jahv had walked down a couple of nearby steps, but was now swimming out towards Keith. Davy was still at the side of the sauna pool. Jahv scowled, somewhat amusedly. "This was more or less your idea, Davy. Are you not going to participate?"

"Heck, he's still getting that 'haunted mud' story out of his mind from where Keyro landed." laughed Keith.

Jahv made his way back to the edge of the sauna pool, and tried splashing some of the mud on Davy. Davy backed up a few steps. "Don't make me come out there and throw you in." said Jahv. "I'm a lot stronger than you are."

Davy frowned, but came closer to the pool. "Well, okay. But I don't want to stumble on the way in. Lend me a hand?"

Jahv stood, came to the top step, and extended a hand to Davy. Davy, catching the young alien completely unawares, hauled Jahv out of the mud, lowered him to the floor, slightly twisted his arm behind him, and then sat down on his back. This, of course, got a fair bit of mud on Davy, but he didn't seem to mind. "Now, Mr. Lot-Stronger-Than-Us-Poor-Humans, here's a little lesson in leverage, and we won't be throwing any more mud in my direction, will we?"

Jahv was giggling. He knew Davy wasn't serious. "Okay, okay! I give! Cousin! Cousin!"

"The word is 'Uncle'." called Keith, who had come over to the edge of the sauna pool to watch the amusement.

Davy let Jahv up, and then jumped into the mud pool in a fair approximation of Keith's cannonball. Jahv himself re-entered, and for the next several minutes, the three boys wrestled around, until the heat and the strain of moving around in the thick mud exhausted them. They headed for the edge of the pool to catch their collective breath and talk.

"Jahv," asked Keith, "that replicator thing you brought with you. Is there anything it can't make?"

"It's actually rather limited." said Jahv. "I'm trying to get it to make machine parts for a project I have in mind. But it's good for some stuff. Mostly small stuff."

"Why, when you have that bottomless backpack, would you even need it?" asked Davy.

"Some of what the fabricator -- and for that matter the food replicator -- can do is make things we can't carry with us. Perishable items especially. Certain medications, stuff like that. But they have their limits. The food replicator couldn't be used to feed the world, or anything."

"Why not?" asked Keith.

"Power pack would burn out long before then." said Jahv. "Theoretically, the fabricator can make replacement power packs -- if I can get it to do that. But they're really not designed for such massive use. It's like -- I don't know how to make a comparison that you'd understand."

"Like using one candle to light an entire house?" asked Davy.

Jahv nodded. "Close enough, I guess."

"You mentioned perishable medications." said Keith. "You a doctor or something?"

Jahv giggled. "No. But even kids younger than Keyro have to have some first-aid training to travel in space. And you get more training each year. I can't do surgery or diagnose complicated illnesses or anything. But I can take care of minor injuries and stuff. Space travel may be fairly common where I'm from, but it's never one-hundred-percent safe. We don't take it for granted. Space can be a very dangerous place."

Keith suddenly thought of something. "Hey, how long we been in here?"

"In the mud?" asked Davy.

"No, in this whole holocron thing. Since the lake." replied Keith.

"I think it's been about three hours." remarked Jahv. "I'm still getting used to your time measurements."

Keith cringed. "That makes it late afternoon. I dunno about Davy and Martin, but I need to be getting home."

"Yeah, me too, really." added Davy. "But this has been a blast!"

"Holocron access." said Jahv. The device appeared to be floating on the mud seconds later. "End program."

That put the three boys back in the dome-tent. The mud was completely gone. Their clothes were piled about five feet away from them. Keith and Davy wandered over and redressed. "All that mud just disappeared!" said Keith.

"It was holographic." said Jahv, grinning.

"It sure FELT real enough." remarked Keith.

There was a rustle at the dome-tent. Davy looked over, and grinned. "THEIRS isn't holographic."

Keyro and Martin appeared in the entryway, both plastered in mud. If it weren't for Keyro's large eyes and antennae, it would have been hard to distinguish one from another. But something wasn't quite right. Keyro was supporting most of Martin's weight -- rather effortlessly, it looked like -- and Martin had a pained expression on his face.

Keith was the first to notice. "What happened?"

Then Martin limped in and it was obvious. There was an ugly gash on his upper leg. The boy was close to tears, but trying to be brave.

"We think there was a sharp tree branch or something under the mud." said Keyro.

"We should clean him up and take him home, quickly." said Keith.

"May I try something?" asked Jahv. "I might be able to heal this much more quickly."

Keith frowned. "Jahv, you may know some first aid, but you can't know anything about treating humans."

"A cut tends to be a cut." said Jahv. "We're not that different."

"Let him help, please." cried Martin. "This hurts too much to wait."

Keith bit his lip, but nodded. Davy and Keyro hauled Martin over to a nearby table. Jahv was already fishing around in his backpack. He brought out what looked like an oversized lunch box with alien script on it. "Basic first aid kit." he explained. He opened it, and very few of the contents looked familiar to either Keith or Davy -- except from a few episodes of Star Trek.

Jahv dug around, scratching his left antennae. He was remembering basic procedure for cleaning and treating large cuts. First -- clean the area. Medicinal cleaning spray. He found the spray container. "This may sting, Martin." he informed the whimpering boy. Jahv sprayed the cut and Martin screamed, pulling his leg away. Everybody flinched.

When Martin stopped quivering, Jahv inspected the cut. "Well, the spray didn't do any damage, but I have to clean this area to treat it."

"It hurts too much!" insisted Martin. Jahv frowned. Then he thought of an idea. "Keyro? I need your help. Remember when your little cousin cut his arm on that table edge? What you were trained in?"

Keyro nodded, and walked over to Martin. "What are you gonna do?" asked Martin.

"Make it stop hurting." said Keyro. "Martin, I promise I would never hurt you. Please let me help."

Martin frowned, but nodded. Keyro touched his finger to Martin's forehead, and Martin froze like a doll.

"What did you just do to him?!" exclaimed Keith.

"Telepathic anesthesia." explained Jahv. "Only about one in twelve people can do it. Keyro knows how. Martin will be fine. Won't feel a thing. Won't flinch anymore, either."

"Will you be able to bring him out of that?" demanded Keith, as Jahv went abour cleaning the mud out of and from around the cut with the medicinal spray. The mud seemed to dissolve, and the skin around the cut seemed to go down somewhat in swelling.

Jahv nodded. "Of course. About the worst that'll happen is he'll be a little -- foggy for a few minutes. Might act a bit silly."

Jahv turned back to the first aid kit and brought out what looked like a small blue sponge. "Medicated bandage. Leave it on until you get close to his home. Then take it off. As quickly as the spray worked, about all that should be left is a small scratch." Jahv pressed the bandage into the wound, where it adhered immediately.

"What about cleaning him off?" asked Davy. "He can't go home covered with mud like that."

"The bandage is water resistant." replied Jahv. "Toss him in the lake on your way out. Keyro?"

The lavendar alien boy walked over, and touched his finger to Martin's forehead again. The boy blinked, yawned, and mumbled. "Huh. M'leg feels better now." Then his eyes opened wider and he got a silly grin on his face. He looked at Keith and Davy. "Hi, you guys!" He stood up, stumbled over, and practically tackled the two of them, of course smearing mud all over both boys.

Martin got a silly grin.

"Oh, great." said Keith. "Looks like the lake for all three of us."

"Four." said Jahv. "Including Keyro."

"Don't make me splatter you, big brother!" stated Keyro.

Martin, for some reason, had settled on attacking Davy, and was attempting to undo the straps to the older boy's overalls, mumbling, "Wan' his pants."

"I think he's remembering the first time we met." said Keith, trying not to laugh with only slight success. The first time Martin and Keith had met Davy, Keith had called Davy a "dork with baggy pants," which Martin had subsequently yanked off and tossed out of Davy's treehouse.

"Wan' his pants." said Martin again, first attempting to undo one strap and then the other, even as Davy sought to refasten them. Keith couldn't hold in his laughter any longer. "You might as well give them up, Davy. I don't think he's gonna give up."

"All right, fine!" said Davy, standing up (and as such rather unceremoniously dumping Martin to the floor), yanking off his overalls, and tossing them outside the tent, with Martin in close pursuit.

"At least that got him closer to the lake." remarked Davy. "And we really do need to get going, Jahv -- Keyro."

"You will return soon, won't you?" asked Jahv, almost pleading. "Sometimes -- we both get lonely out here, and you're such good friends."

"We'll be back." said Davy.

"Definitely." added Keith. "You two are the most interesting people I know."

"Thank you." said Jahv.

Davy and Keith headed out of the tent, to find Martin having draped Davy's overalls over his head. "I hope he doesn't sneeze in there." said Davy. "I hope for his sake you didn't fart in there before you took them off." added Keith. The two boys dragged Martin to the lake, where they all washed off the accumulated mud, redressed as needed, and headed back in the direction of Davy's house, where Keith and Martin had left their bicycles. Along the way, Davy and Keith explained how they had sort of visited Jahv's homeworld. "So what was it like?" asked Martin.

"You gotta watch what you eat, that's for sure." said Davy.

"And they've got music that sounds worse than either rap or heavy metal." added Keith.

"And how about that blue rodent-thing in the arcade?" remarked Davy.

"And the toy rifle." said Keith. "Think the Army would like to get their hands on a few thousand of those?"

"Huh??!??!" exclaimed Martin. Davy and Keith laughed. On the rest of the walk home, they explained in full about their latest adventure with the alien boys living in the woods.

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