"He is burnt. Attempt is deemed a failure."

"Progress made on incursion?"

"Same as before. Searcher survived long enough to deliver short report."

"Give report."

"Security is now aware of our attempts. Further use of our own will result in immediate failure. We suggest acquiring a new unassociated Searcher for future attempts."

"Suggestion is accepted. Proceed with acquiring new Searcher."

XoOoX


"Hah, I found you!" Meggy exclaimed, pouncing on Rob to give him a big hug. Rob laughed and pushed her off, pulling himself out from behind a mirror in the Hall of Mirrors. Meggy looked down at the display of the little device in her hand, "This thing worked great! It told me exactly where to turn to find you. One time I was sure it was wrong, it looked like I was going to walk right into a mirror!"

"That's why this is the perfect place to test it." Rob said with a grin as he stood up, the mirror opposite them distorting his grin into a wide wavy caricature. "Your mind isn't deciding for the Tracker."

"Gotcha!" Nate exclaimed, jumping out from behind a mirror, making Meggy jump. She instantly swatted at him, which he easily avoided.

"I found Rob first! Hah!" Meggy crowed.

"Yeah, well, I had a Nugeni Security Guard insist on looking at this thing to make sure it 'passed security'." Nate said as he took a small box out of his pocket that matched the one Meggy held, "Obviously it did."

"Everyone is security paranoid right now, even in a kids amusement park. Although, the Nugeni are really security-crazy anyway, because of all the databases they source." Rob said as they started walking towards the center of the Hall of Mirrors, the mirrors reflecting multiples of them in every direction as they did.

"I think that's why Grandma and Dad brought us here. You think Dad is worried about where else they might attack in our solar system?" Meggy asked.

"Shadow and other groups like it don't care where they attack." Nate said with a sniff, "Even silly places like this, or the Mars Agricultural Domes."

"They were fighting for territory. To them it's not silly." Rob said quietly. He had to admit that the park was really nice, but he still didn't feel comfortable being on a planet light-years away from Earth while his Mother sat in a quarantined agricultural dome on Mars while doctors tried to figured out if a virus Shadow used on members of the Phorbia Crime Syndicate was dangerous to humans as well. The skirmish had gone badly for both sides, with the Phorbia members, all of the Forrah species, dying within minutes of being exposed to the artificially constructed virus. A Galaxy Security team, including his Father, successfully destroyed the Shadow ship making its escape from the site of the battle, but the damage had already been done.

The fact that so far no human who had been exposed had fallen ill, and there had been no indications the virus was anything but species specific, had not eased his mind. He knew from his studies of science history that the universe was filled with examples of unintended consequences. How easy it would be for his Mom to be a victim of one. Then there was the worry that the crime groups might decide to continue the fight on nearby worlds, including Earth itself.

"Well, they can just shove off. Earth doesn't belong to any of them." Meggy said. She looked at the Tracker in her hand, "Do you want to test it again, Rob? Gee, I thought you would have done something a lot bigger and complicated than this for the science fair."

"This fair is a little different, all about simplification and non-use of current technology infrastructure. I think not using satellite telemetry qualifies. Besides, I'm working on something a lot more complicated for the regional Science Fair." Rob said.

Nate rolled his eyes, "Of course. Yet another science fair. One of these days you're going to blow up the house with one of your inventions."

"There you are! Now which ones are real..." Grandma Simmons walked carefully towards them, her hands stretched out in front of her as if trying to find walls. Finally she put her hands on Nate's shoulders and smiled brightly, "I was beginning to wonder if I would ever find you! Your Father just called. He and Ben are ready for lunch."

"Aww, I wanted to be the one to hide next." Nate complained.

"Honey, help your vertigo-prone grandmother find a way out of this place. Ugh, I knew better than to come in here. You better appreciate my sacrifice!" Grandma Simmons complained as Nate patiently led her towards one of the exits.

"I didn't think this place was so hard." Meggy said as she made a face at herself in one of the mirrors.

"Maybe you should have been using Robs Tracker, Grandma. With the way it can map out where you've already been, you could have found the front door in no time." Nate said.

"Maybe we can try it again somewhere else after lunch?" Meggy asked. "I want to hide again."

"Sure, there can never be too much testing." Rob agreed.

"Blessed sunlight." Grandma Simmons sighed as they emerged into the gentle dual-sunlight of Dorbasan. "Next time you want to go in there; your Father is taking you."

"Maybe he can take us on that!" Nate pointed across the park as a security drone glided past them, its blank bulb eyes taking in all of them as it did.

"You've been on that ride dozens of times back home. We should try something new." Rob said, looking over at where enclosed aircars raced through a sky obstacle course, sometimes gently bouncing back from forcefields that enclosed the track.

"Not that high, or with those kind of cars. And look at that course! I bet that would be great to race." Nate said. Then he grinned at Rob, "And you need to practice if you ever plan to pilot anything in your lifetime."

"I'm not that bad!" Rob insisted.

"You need to practice a lot more. You can't live your life in a computer all the time!" Nate said as they walked down the short flight of wide steps to the main walkway.

"You beat me, so you must not be that bad." Meggy said to Rob with a big toothy grin. She pointed at a domed building farther down the sidewalk, grabbing ahold of Grandma Simmons hand as a group of Siruins passed by in a flutter of small wings. "There's the Galaxy Patrol museum! I think I can see Ben's red shirt."

"Oh yes, that boy will be following his father's footsteps, no doubt." Grandma Simmons sighed.

A crowd of honking and squealing Grebs came up behind them and pushed by, and Rob found himself pushed to the other side of the walkway against a railing. Meggy waved at him from the other side of the walkway, before he lost sight of them as the big creatures surged by. Rob sighed and leaned against the railing waiting for them to pass, knowing that trying to push past the aggressive creatures would be not be worth the trouble it would cause.

He scowled at himself as he thought about the ride. He knew he could beat Nate, once he figured out the course and the aircars abilities. Maybe he could invent a holographic trainer at home. Then he could practice and play with it anytime he wanted. It shouldn't be too hard...

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a flash of white. Turning his head, he found a cloth clamped over his mouth and strong arms pinning his arms down. Kicking and trying to scream, Rob instead found his nose and mouth filled with a horrible taste and smell. Sheer panic filled him as his vision began to go dark. The last sensation he had was of his unresponsive body being pulled backwards over the smooth metal railing.

XoOoX


"Searcher is secure and prepared. Mental implants successful."

"Proceed with activation."

"Activation complete. Neural nets configured and synced. Neural recorder time delay is within acceptable parameters."

"Open Searcher Channel."

XoOoX


"Grandma doesn't look very well." Ben said, shielding his eyes from the sunlight with a hand as they walked away from the Galaxy Patrol museum. "Does it look like she's yelling?

"She does. I hope Nate isn't nagging her about a ride." Thomas said, but to him it looked like Nate was acting subdued. He felt his Communicator vibrate, and he picked it up to look at the number. "And that's Grandma." The Communicator activated and instantly Grandma Simmons face appeared, but he couldn't understand a word she was yelling.

"Something is wrong. She sounds really upset." Ben said, peering over his Father's arm.

"I'll be right there, Mom. Stay where you are!" Thomas said before clicking off the Communicator, "Come on!"

Breaking out into a run, dodging groups and families, they made quick work out of the remaining distance. By the time they arrived several security drones were surrounding the group as well as three Nugeni Security Officers. Meggy was in tears, Nate looked ill and Grandma Simmons looked like she was about to suffer a breakdown.

Thomas looked around, "Where's Rob?"

"That's what's wrong! He's missing!" Grandma Simmons yelled, gesturing widely with her arms so violently that she knocked a security drone down the path. "We were walking towards you, he was right there when that group went by, and then he was gone!"

"What group?" Thomas demanded.

"A group of Grebs, Dad. They pushed passed us and Rob got pushed against the railing." Nate said, "But they found them and Rob wasn't with them."

"Rob didn't run away, Dad." Meggy sniffled, hugging his middle.

"No, of course not. Rob wouldn't do that." Thomas said, looking at the Nugeni with the red stripe across his uniform as he gave Meggy a comforting squeeze. "Did your security systems see anything?"

"The systems are being queried now, Sir. We have sealed off the park and a full search is underway." the Nugeni said, its opaque dull red eyes blinking at him.

Nate jumped and shoved a hand into his pocket. "I know! I know!"

Seeing what he pulled out, Meggy immediately pulled her Tracker out of her pocket. "If Rob still had his on!"

"Is that Rob's invention?" Ben asked, looking down at Meggy's.

"Yeah, we were helping him test it." Nate said, "It keeps tracks of where you go, mapping things as you go, and then you can use it to backtrack. It doesn't use satellite or any other interface to help."

"I'm getting a beep." Meggy said.

Thomas took the one out of Meggy's hand, "Is this showing him beneath us?"

Meggy looked at the screen and nodded, "It looks like it."

Thomas sucked in his breath when he saw how fast the blips were moving. Whoever they were, they knew the underground infrastructure of the planet. That didn't bode well. Thomas looked up at the Nugeni, "I am Captain Thomas Simmons of Galaxy Patrol and the missing child is my son. We'll need more than a small group to pin these people down."

XoOoX


Rob woke with a start, surging with panic, his heart pounding. Instantly he knew he wasn't in bed, or anywhere familiar. Sitting straight up, eyes opened wide, he frantically looked around him.

He found that he had been laying on one of several padded benches in a large domed entrance with ornate decorations along the edge of the dome where it met the walls and pillars. Wall alcoves held paintings and sculpture, some of which were lit, some in deep shadow. He couldn't see anyone else other than an elderly woman with gray hair swept back severely into a tight bun sitting at a tall wide desk that partitioned the room from another bigger room behind her. A tall gate with ornate black metal bars rose to the ceiling next to the desk, partially blocking the view of what lay behind it. The woman ignored him, continuing to look down at her desk.

Again, his eyes swept the room, but he couldn't see any sign of his family through any of the doorways leading off of the foray. Two passages were dark, and the other looked as if it lead out of the building. What lay behind the woman's desk caught his eye, though. He knew the look of those shelves. He was in a library.

Now back on familiar territory his heart calmed. Rob swung his feet off the bench and onto the floor, slowly rising to his feet. A wave of dizziness swept over him, and he leaned over slightly to put a hand on the bench to steady himself. As the sensation faded, he took a deep breath and pushed away from the bench, walking slowly towards the woman. As he did, a sound he hadn't noticed before started becoming louder and louder from somewhere behind the woman.

As he reached the desk the woman looked up, gazing at him gravely. A robot glided through the air behind her, taking a pile of books that had been sitting on the corner of her desk and then raced into the library shelves while making a humming noise to itself.

"What is it you search for?" The woman asked. Another robot glided by, depositing a pile of books on another corner of her desk.

In that moment Rob realized he didn't know why he was here. He couldn't even remember how he had arrived, or where his family might be. Had they dropped him off? Rob looked back across the foray towards the door to leave. Maybe he should go looking for them. Only then did a phrase popped into his head, "Find the Golden Lantern. Read what is written within the light".

Who was it who had told him that? It must have been his Mom, when they last talked to her on the vidphone. That's what she usually did when she wanted him to learn something on his own, gave him a little push in the right direction. "Do you have a book called "The Golden Lantern"?"

"We do not have a book by that exact name. Is there another search?" she asked, her face remaining blank, but disapproval seeping into the expression.

Rob looked down and tried to think. His head felt like mush, and the annoying phrase wouldn't leave his head. Maybe if he could relax with an old favorite, he would start feeling better and decide what he should do next. "How about "The Robotic Revolution" by E.S. Stourn?"

"The file is available. Please proceed to the reading area and it will be brought to you." The woman said, pressing a button under her desk. The gate next to her desk slowly swung open.

"Thank you." Rob said politely as he walked through the gate. As the gate closed behind him, he headed for a group of chairs and couches. Finding a smaller chair with its back to the head Librarian, he curled up in it and waited. To his right bookshelves towered over him, narrowing and dwindling up to the ceiling. Rob looked down as a feeling of vertigo made his stomach upset.

He rubbed his temple, his head hurting slightly. As much as he loved libraries, he felt uncomfortable. Was he supposed to wait here for his Father or Grandmother? And where was anyone else? As far as he could tell, he, the librarian, and the robots were the only ones in the entire library. As hard as he tried, he couldn't remember. As he waited, a sense of urgency continued to build in his stomach, making him feel even more queasy.

"Your :blip: book, Sir." a flat robotic voice said at his elbow, making Rob jump.

"Oh, thanks." Rob said, settling back into the chair and taking the book from a shelving robot. Or rather, he tried to.

As the robot lifted the book out of the storage area on its back, the arm holding the book began twitching and jerking back and forth as it tried to hand it to him. Rob attempted to grab it, only to have the book almost hit him in the face. After a few more grabs, he finally managed to snag it.

The blue and white robotic head looked down at the floor as it withdrew the long multi-jointed arm, "Apologies, Sir. I am due for maintenance overhaul."

"That's okay. No harm done." Rob said with a smile. He set the book on the small round table next to the chair and kneeled before the robot, taking its broken arm in his hands, "Maybe I can help? My Mom has been teaching me about robotics..."

In a flash Rob found himself surrounded by rapidly moving numbers and letters. The library disappeared, leaving only the digits, some growing bigger while others shrank. For a brief moment he had another sense of vertigo, only to have it disappear as fast as it appeared. Immediately his brain tried to make sense of them, but most were moving too fast for him to identify. A series of numbers pushed past the others, and in an instant Rob knew they didn't belong there. Grabbing them out of the stream, he looked around. Seeing a blank space to the other side, he knew where they belonged. Shoving them to his left, the number drifted into the blank space, and then sped past him until they were out of sight.

The next instant the numbers were gone, and the library with its enormous bookshelves reappeared. Rob blinked, almost losing his balance at the sudden change of view.

The robot withdrew its arm from his hand and flexed it experimentally, "It works again."

Rob looked down to watch the antics of the little robot as it practiced picking up and putting down the book Rob had set on the table. He couldn't help but smile at it. "Something was out of place. Now you don't have to spend time in maintenance."

"Thank you for your assistance. Now I may continue with my duties without interruption. May I assist you with anything else, Sir? I'm quite good at locating hard-to-find information." the robot asked as it stopped experimenting, and settled close to the floor, its round face tilted up at him.

Again, the phrase popped into his head, and he asked before he could think about it, "Where is the book, "The Golden Lantern"? It must be something important, I keep thinking about it."

"An exact title search is negative. The catalog brings up many possibilities for the phrase, beginning with the Apex Lighthouse of Doressus to the Zekrin Monastery."

"This would be scientific." Rob said, "I think my Mom wanted me to look it up."

"The Mother-unit with whom you have learned robotics?" At Rob's nod, the robot tilted its head back and forth while it thought. "I have come up with several possibilities that are close to the defined phrase. Perhaps one of them may be what you seek."

The robot turned and headed down a main aisle into the sea of bookshelves. Rob took one glance towards the head Librarian. Seeing that she was preoccupied with whatever was on her desk, he swiftly followed the robot. The bookshelves towered several stories above him, with every shelf that he could see completely filled. Robots like the one he followed, but of all different colors zipped back and forth through the aisles, floating up and down as they collected or put away the books. His robot turned down one of the side aisles, and Rob trotted after him, worried about losing sight of him and then getting lost. As he turned down the aisle, he saw the robot floating half-way up the bookshelf pulling out a book.

A moment later it floated back to him and presented the book, "This file is named "The Golden Furnace". Perhaps this is what you are looking for, Sir?"

"My name is Rob." Rob said automatically as he accepted the book, "What's yours?"

"My designation is Binary Optimized Reporting Terminal 2193662."

Rob blinked. "Uh, that's a little long. How about I call you Bin for now?"

"That is acceptable, Sir Rob."

"No no, just Rob." Rob said with a laugh as he opened up the cream colored book.

As he did the library around him instantly disappeared. Instead, Rob found himself standing in the midst of a forest clearing in front of a roaring campfire, the light from it casting strong shadows against the trees surrounding them. Bin stayed by him, the bluish light from his glowing eyes more visible in the night. "Wow, a holographic program!"

"Many libraries employ such a technique." Bin said.

"I don't understand, what does a campfire have to do with a "Golden Furnace", much less with a "Golden Lantern"?" Rob asked. Walking closer to the fire he suddenly realized something was missing, "Wait, what is the fire burning? Where is the wood?"

"There is none, the Furnace can create energy from almost any kind of matter without the use of hot fusion." Bin said, picking up a small rock in its robotic hand and throwing it into the flames. The flames instantly surged, and then quieted down.

Rob then tried it himself. Rocks, twigs, dirt: no matter what he threw into the fire, the flames consumed. Then he saw a shape in the flames, and slowly the form of a planet appeared. Another shape, a long tapering cone a third of the size of the planet appeared next to it. A blinding light shot out from the cone, and the planet slowly disintegrated, the pieces of which were slowly pulled into the cone. As the fragments entered the cone, the cone began to glow and pulse.

"What just happened?" Rob asked as he stepped away from the fire, his skin suddenly feeling cold.

"The Golden Furnace: The ability to extract the energy inherent in all matter at first gave the promise of an un-ending power source. However, the use of this technology by the Limorsets as a weapon precluded its general civilian use. After the loss of 14 planets in the Solarus War, the fledgling members of the United Planets banded together to destroy the Planet Furnaces. After severe losses, this campaign was successful. The basic technology was deemed hazardous to life, with the information consequently placed under extreme restriction." Bin said.

"How awful." Rob muttered. "Shadow or Phorbia would terrorize the entire galaxy with something like that. The planets themselves wouldn't be safe."

"Yes Sir, it could be used to hurt many, and has in the past."

"Still," Rob thought out loud, "There are a lot of worlds that don't have enough energy. With something like that, as long as they had rocks they would have energy."

Rob sighed and closed his eyes. Feeling the book in his hands, he closed the pages. Opening his eyes, he found himself once again standing in the midst of the library, "Too bad evil has to ruin so many good ideas."

"Is this book what you were looking for, Sir Rob?"

"No, Bin, this definitely was not." Rob handed the book back to Bin, who took it and rose up to the higher shelves, carefully placing it back in its place. He stepped up against one of the shelves as another robot zipped by him.

Bin descended to hover next to Rob and then slowly moved away, leading him down another main aisle, and then across several side aisles before stopping again. This time Rob was able to keep up much easier. For a moment Bin paused and then it selected a book near the floor, handing it to Rob.

""The Golden Principal"?" Rob asked as he opened the book. Beside him instantly appeared a door. Startled, Rob almost dropped the book.

"Another phrase for "Alternate Dimension Holding", coined by the original discoverer." Bin said.

With one hand Rob opened up the door to see a messy closet full of clothes and small boxes where the bookshelf should be. Another door appeared farther down the shelves. "Pockets?"

"Yes, keyed-signal quantum pockets in time-space, where items, energy and/or matter can be stored and then retrieved later. Unfortunately, the power needed to accomplish this was deemed excessive." Bin said as Rob closed the first door, and then opened the next door to find it full of weapons, mostly consisting of laser rifles and big black and red plasma grenades, "Unfortunately the technology was seen by the terrorist group Quo'lpqt as a way to further their quest of racial superiority. They harnessed the technology, using the pockets to hide and bring out weapons, or even themselves, using the power grid of their home world of Lopquo."

"Which has an abundance of energy." Rob said, remembering holo-pics of the huge solar arrays the world had built around their twin suns which were considered a galactic technological marvel.

"The group was destroyed while attempting an all-out offensive against the elected government of their home world. The discoverer of the Golden Principal, Dr. Quetl, closed all such pockets in the galaxy using nearly all the stored energy of their confederate, thus killing any terrorists currently waiting within the pockets. He then decreed the knowledge dangerous, destroyed all information except what you now hold, and disappeared." Bin finished.

Rob shut the book, looking at the title. "It would be horrible to have an invention you created used like that."

"Is this not the information you were looking for?"

"No, I don't think so. I don't think Mom would have liked me looking at something like this. Besides, how would I apply it to any of the robots we're building?"

"You were working on a project your Mother-unit wished you to research?" Bin asked as he replaced the book on the bookshelf.

Rob scowled, realizing that he didn't know. Concentrating harder, a few murky details came to mind. "Honestly, I can't remember what specific project. Wait, she's quarantined on Mars, I think. Someone attacked."

"Shall we continue looking for the phrase?" Bin asked.

Rob looked around, the shelves filled with books comforting him from the problems he was having in remembering anything. "Sure, I love libraries. Lead the way!"

XoOoX


Thomas waited impatiently at the end of the tunnel, waiting for the joint Galactic Patrol and Nugeni Security Force to storm the room where Rob had been found. The Nugeni had insisted that he held a conflict of interest because of the identity of the kidnap victim, and so had been kept from the actual liberation mission. It was a decision he hadn't appreciated, but he'd been forced to accept, even though every fiber of his being said he should be in that room right now.

He stood up straighter as a cluster of shouts and loud noises echoed down to him. An unnamed Nugeni Officer stood a short distance away from him, his hand on his sidearm, his dark blue skin looking almost black in the strange lighting of the tunnel. Then the sounds stopped, and an eerie silence pervaded the area. No running footsteps to indicate a fleeing body, no breathing, nothing.

His wrist-comm crackled to life, and then he heard the voice of the local Galaxy Security Commander, "We have secured the area. All units stand by."

Resisting every desire to run forward into that room, Thomas made himself wait, playing breathing games in an effort to calm himself. But, every moment that passed, the more nervous he became. Why wasn't he being called in? Had something gone wrong with the operation? Had Rob been injured during the assault?

The Nugeni next to him seemed frozen in his pose. A perverse part of Thomas brain became angry that none of the Nugeni so far had shown any emotion at all, even as his logical mind reminded him that this species was not known for outward emotional expression. Would the stoic facade break a little if it were one of their own children?

By the time his wrist-comm finally activated again, Thomas was more anxious than ever. "Captain Simmons, please proceed to the objective location."

"Yes, Sir. On my way." Thomas said back before disconnecting the signal. With a nod to the Nugeni Officer, he quickly turned the corner to the main tunnel leading to the room Rob had been traced to.

As he did, he watched as several restrained Nugeni in flowing mauve robes were escorted out of the room and down another passage. The perpetrators surprised him. Very rarely did a Nugeni ever involve themselves in an illegal activity. Their laws were learned by rote from the time they could first speak, and rarely did they deviate from them, even in time of crisis.

Passing by a small group of Galaxy Patrol and Nugeni Officers guarding the entrance to the room, he stopped just inside. The room was bare except along one wall where part of the wall had been removed, and several large mobile computers and various equipment had been set up. His eyes immediately were drawn to one place, where a little blond-haired boy lay strapped to a bare table with various wires and cables leading out from his body and head into the computer array and into the wall.

As he surged forward, a strong arm caught him to hold him back. Thomas looked up into the face of an old friend, slanted eyes looking down at him with worry. "Rhondu? When did you get here?"

"Just in time to be asked to participate in this mission." The arm dropped away as Rhondu turned to look at Rob, and then he looked back at Thomas, "We must proceed carefully. The Nugeni responsible refuse to say what they have done. We believe they may be apart of the Nevermore cult. If so, it may be impossible to find out what they were wanting."

"Is it as bad as it looks?" Thomas asked, as Rhondu allowed him a closer look at Rob. Rob remained completely motionless except for the very slow rising and falling of his chest.

A technician interrupted Rhondu's answer, "We've identified a neural recorder. It looks as though it has been hooked up to the human child directly in order to bypass the planetary network security systems. This connection type is causing stress in the mental tissues."

"His name is Rob." Thomas said angrily.

The technician blinked both sets of his eyes and then adjusted his uniform with one of his tentacles, "Apologies, Sir."

"So, they are recording all that he encounters while within the system?" Rhondu clarified.

"Yes Sir. I am also unable to define which specific system he was mentally sent into. I also have concern that there is no buffer between the child and the network itself. Breaking the connection with the planets computer network at this time would certainly be fatal." The technician said, one set of eyes on Rhondu, the other looking worriedly at Thomas.

"Your youngest son?" Rhondu asked quietly, to which Thomas nodded, "I'm guessing they did not realize the child they abducted was a son of a Galaxy Patrol officer, or for so fast a response thanks to the tracking unit he carried."

"Not likely." Thomas said looking at Rob, wishing the young face would show at least a twitch of movement.

"This is not the battle of Umbra." Rhondu said quietly, almost as if reading his mind. Considering Rhondu's mental powers, Thomas had often times wondered if he sometimes did.

"But the same premise. Using innocent people to attempt a computer infiltration. Not a one of them survived." Thomas said.

"One survived." Rhondu corrected. He walked to the technician, who had gone back to studying the computers, talking quietly with him.

Thomas turned back to Rob, finally daring to touch his hand. The skin felt colder than what Thomas had expected. Taking his hand away, he closed his eyes briefly and took a deep breath, reminding himself that while his son still drew breath, there was a chance.

"We have an option." Rhondu said.

Thomas opened his eyes and looked at his old friend while the technician behind him scurried around with a new set of cables. "Why do I have a feeling it means a risk to you?"

Rhondu lifted one eyebrow and for a moment Thomas saw the spark in his eyes showing the fighter that lurked beneath the calm facade, "Because you know me so well? I will need your help."

"Tell me what you want me to do."

XoOoX


"Elemental Lantern? That's an odd name." Rob said as he looked at the blue colored book. Opening it, he suddenly found himself back on earth, green grass cushioning his athletic shoes, the yellow sun shining down on them bright and hot.

"Come on, Rob!"

Rob turned to see Meggy waving at him a short distance away dressed in a short skirt with a pair of ice skates hanging over her shoulder by the laces. She sat down on a bench and started putting them on. "What is my sister doing here? Is she in the library?"

"No sir, the images here are being produced by you."

"Why is she putting on her skates here? There's no ice." As Rob said the last word, Meggy stood up in the skates and extended a hand over the grassy field.

Silver and blue streaks extended out in a wide arc with a glowing yellow light shaped in pulses of triangles. The grass disappeared under a layer of a perfectly formed sheet ice. The ice extended farther and farther out, engulfing other benches, a walkway and a gardening robot. A bird flying low over the grass suddenly dropped to the ground, encased in nearly glass-clear ice. The ice finally stopped advancing just short of where Rob and Bin stood. The next moment Meggy was skating happily over its surface.

"You sister would be unable to harness this energy." Bin said.

Rob stopped watching his sister and looked down at the little robot, "Why?"

"The energy used to harness the instantaneous production of ice, heat and wind by changing the energy level of surrounding particles is deadly to organics. Only specially designed robotics can use it, if they had the high energy requirements available for use."

"I'm guessing control was also a problem?" Rob said, looking at the poor bird encased in the ball of ice.

"Yes. Also, this was developed during the Robot Wars."

"Yikes, that would do it. But, the war is long over, it seems like this could be used now, in a good way..." Rob stopped and looked around. Meggy was still skating around contentedly, spinning and making small jumps. The rest of the small park sat empty and quiet.

"Is everything all right, Sir Rob?" Bin asked.

"I thought I heard someone call my name. A man."

"I have heard nothing." Bin said, also looking around.

"Rob!"

Rob jerked at the loud voice as a piercing pain shot through his head. With a snap of his hands he closed the book, collapsing on the floor of the library as the books around him flew off the shelves, pelting him from all sides. His vision swam with numbers, words and colors, his ears assaulted by a deafening cacophony.

"Bin, what is happening?" Rob screamed as he shut his eyes tight and pressed his fists to his ears.

If Bin responded, Rob couldn't hear him. Even with his ears covered and his eyes closed; the sounds and visions continued. His breath caught as his chest felt like it was being squeezed in an agonizing vice. Rob fell to his side, curled up in a ball, tears running down his face as the pain in his head grew worse. The numbers around him took other forms, some of the words started stringing together, and some of that they showed and said struck fear in his heart, although he knew not why.

Suddenly it all stopped, leaving him with only the sound of him desperately gasping for breath and the beat of his heart pounding loudly in his head. As he gained control of his breathing, he realized that something was holding the back of his shirt. Squinting his eyes open he found Bin holding the back of his shirt, having dragged him out of the side aisle and into one of the main aisles. Several other robots surrounded him in a semi-circle, cocking their heads at him and Bin, beeping and whistling at each other in their own language.

Bin let him go, and with a final set of beeps at the other robots they then dispersed. Bin came to rest on the floor in front of Rob, two of its hands held in front of it, "Are you functional?"

"Give me a few minutes." Rob gasped out.

"There has been a fault in the system. Security has responded. You are now in a protected area." Bin said, its limited voice inflection registering worry. "Perhaps reading a calm book would help distract from any discomfort?"

Rob couldn't help smile even as he wiped away the tears.

XoOoX


Thomas watched the calm, seemingly-unconscious face of Rhondu, the technician carefully monitoring the computer he was hooked up to. One of the tall thin Nugeni Officers stood nearby, watching impassively. His hand ached from grasping the connection cable that connected Rob to the planets main network computer system, prepared to yank it from the hacked connection as soon as Rhondu gave the signal. Still Rob showed no life.

With a start, Rhondu opened his eyes, sitting straight up. The sudden movement surprised Thomas, making his hand squeeze the cable. Instantly he corrected himself, relaxing the grip. A Galaxy Patrol physician rushed forward, examining Rhondu's eyes, but Rhondu motioned him away.

"I had nearly found him. Then the system responded." Rhondu said to the Nugeni Officer.

"The system is functioning as expected." the Officer said simply.

"You weren't able to bring him out with you?" Thomas asked, taking his hands completely away from the cable. Rhondu shook his head. Thomas looked at the Nugeni, "Can't anything be done to help my son?"

"The system itself will decide whom it will allow in, and who must remain out. It is functioning as expected." the Nugeni said.

Thomas looked at Rhondu, who looked back at him with tired eyes, explaining, "There is a reason this world was chosen to house so many of the most delicate and sensitive database among the galaxies. The security system itself is intelligent. It has decided not to allow me into the deeper functions where Rob is currently located. I cannot get past without the proper security keys."

Thomas looked back at the Nugeni, already knowing the answer to the question, but he had to ask anyway, "Can we have the security keys to get Rob out."

"No, we do not view this as a critical security situation. The system is functioning as expected."

Thomas looked back at Rhondu, who's face told him Rhondu was not surprised by the response. "What now?"

"I go back in."

"Into a system that has decided not to trust you?"

"I will stay in the outer systems and hope Rob can find his way to me. Hopefully, he will remember me from my visits to your home. I can then lead him back."

XoOoX


"Golden Robotics? Wasn't that the name of a robotics company?" Rob asked.

"It was, until acquired by Nova Robotics in 2352." Bin said.

Rob grinned at the dog-sized robot in front of him as it shifted shape to look like a simplified gardenbot. Then it shifted again into a chair. Bin watched the antics of the robot with its head cocked to one side. "Wow, with a robot like that, you would only need one to help around the house. It could change to whatever the job needed."

"I admit the versatility. Many times I have needed more hands to shelve more efficiently." Bin said.

"Why does it have the word "Restricted" printed on its chest?"

"A robot that can shift shape into anything can also shift into a weapon." Bin said. At his reply the robot in front of them suddenly shifted again, this time into a plasma cannon, one end pointed down the aisle at the other side of the library.

"Why is everything being turned into a weapon?" Rob demanded.

"Is that not the way of organics?" Bin asked.

"Not all the time! My Mom designs robots that help people. Like older people living at home alone, or in hospitals, or agriculture. Dad is with Galaxy Patrol, but his job is to protect worlds that want to live in peace." Rob said. "And he doesn't even like having to do it. But, someone has to protect from groups like Shadow."

"Unfortunately protectors can also become aggressors." Bin insisted.

"You think we have no right to protect ourselves from someone who may want to enslave us, or murder us?"

Bin sat silent for a moment, and then looked back at Rob, "There is a balance."

"Yeah, if you try hard enough to find it. But it can be done." Rob looked back at the plasma cannon, and said to the robot, "I preferred you as a chair."

In response the robot shifted again, changing into a brightly colored molded rocking chair, with a round smile-face on the back.

Rob then blinked, something inside his head clicking. He shut the book, the robot instantly disappearing, and handed it to Bin. As Bin re-shelved it, he walked to the end of the aisle, looking at the numbers and letters at the end of the aisle he had been in and the one across.

He knew where it was.

Leaving Bin to catch up with him, Rob ran down one of the aisles, before stopping briefly to look at the signs at the end of the aisles. Heading down the main aisle for a ways, he then turned again, moving deeper and deeper into the library. The shelving robots became fewer and fewer as he ran.

"Where do you wish to go, Sir Rob?" Bin continued to ask as Rob ran up and down the aisles.

"Don't worry, Bin, I know where I'm going." Rob said, running down another aisle.

"I'm sure I can help, Sir." Bin said as Rob finally came to a stop.

"No need." Rob said as he pulled a book off a shelf right above his head. "This is it. "The Golden Lantern"."

As he opened the book, the world around him disappeared. As usual, Bin remained close by his side. He instantly recognized that he was standing in the midst of a starfield that extended all around him. Stars twinkled at various brightness at him while a red and blue cloud of luminescent gas lit up one corner of the starfield.

"Where is the lantern?" Rob asked.

Before Bin could respond, a circle of golden light appeared in front of them, slowly growing brighter and brighter, the streaks moving faster and faster. In the center, the black suddenly glowed to life, the edges warping the view of the stars behind it.

"A singularity, also known as a Black Hole." Bin said.

"So, we're seeing it swallow a sun?" Rob asked.

The view changed to bring them to the edge of the rim just slightly above the event horizon. The golden light continued to spin at the outer edge, and through the light Rob thought he could see something. As he squinted, he made out what looked like a webbing extending the entire width of the circling light. Following the webbing to the outer area, he finally saw a dark gray object. Slowly the object started to glow.

"No, the light is not a sun. It is a field drawing power out of the singularity itself." Bin said.

"And that's the powerplant." Rob guessed, pointing to the object from which the webbing extended.

"Yes, that would be correct."

The phrase "Find the Golden Lantern. Read what is written within the light" popped back in his head with a force that made his eyes water. Rob looked at the circling light. As he focused, he though he could see something else there...

A spark of golden light shot off from the webbing, making Rob jump, almost making him close the book. The light flew out into space towards a star. The next moment the star shattered into a ring of gas, at which point the star itself blinked out. Another spark shot off the web in another direction, and again a star blinked out in a puff of colorful gas and dust.

"It's destroying suns." Rob muttered as yet another spark flew off.

"This is why the area of Tobrius holds only clouds and singularities. Some suns go supernova, some simply go dark, some collapse into yet more singularities."

"Depending on mass." Rob said. "But why haven't the clouds in Tobrius reformed into new suns? No one has been able to figure that out."

"Exact answer is unknown." Bin said, "The few survivors of the event forbade this technology from ever being used again, but wished it to be stored so that the technology could be recognized and combated should the technology ever be rediscovered again by another."

"How do you combat the power of a singularity?" Rob wondered. Then he suddenly understood another part, "The energy. Navigation and most hyperjump engines don't work in that area. If the energy fields are inhibiting the effects of gravity, then that would explain all of it. And with that kind of power, the effects could last billions of years. If time itself even works the same in the area. It's been off-limits for eons."

Bin looked up at him, tipping its head in one direction, "You have read this file before?"

"File?" Rob repeated.

Again, the phrase popped into his head, and his eyes automatically went to the light. Another spark left the light, flying off into the starfield. Rob started shaking, the phrase refusing to go away. But now he knew this wasn't a question from him, or his Mother. Where was the instruction coming from? He didn't want it answered.

With a force of will he didn't know he had, he slammed the book shut. Bin looked up at him as Rob took a deep breath, working to banish the phrase from his head. Looking down at the book, he studied the numbers and letters on the binding, suddenly understanding, and knowing what he needed to do. Someone wanted this, and he knew no one should.

The library melted away from around him, and even the book in his hands became a sequence of numbers and letters cradled in his hands.

"No one can find this. It could destroy too many." Rob muttered to himself.

"Which is why it is restricted." Bin's disembodied voice said.

"Yet I found it. I shouldn't have been able to." Rob said.

"You are unusual." Bin replied. "No one who wished to know or find this information to hurt others is allowed near. You did not wish this."

"The survivors wanted a way for what happened to them to be recognized in case the knowledge was discovered again. You don't need the entire file to find that pattern." Rob said.

"Sir Rob?"

The numbers and letters in his hands shimmered, blurred, then began to divide. A moment later two sets appeared, one smaller than the original. The larger one he cradled in his left hand, and then looked out at the streaming numbers, letters and colors. Studying them, he finally smiled and pushed the large book in his left hand out into the streams. Instantly it disappeared among the movement.

"Now it can't hurt anyone." Rob looked around at the data streams, trying to put off the fear that was finally starting to appear, "I love libraries, but I don't think I belong in the midst of this one. This isn't real, is it."

"It is real. All the information contained within this database is real." Bin said.

"I meant that I could touch with my hand." Rob said, looking down at his hand. It looked the same as normal, but he knew better than to trust what his brain was saying it could see. "I shouldn't be inside a database!"

"No, this is not a normal event." Bin admitted.

"Great, how do I get back to Dad and Grandma? I don't even know how I got in here. And now my head is starting to hurt again."

"You appear fatigued."

"Maybe the head librarian can help me get out of the database?" Rob wondered.

"It might be possible."

"And my Mom? That information wouldn't be dangerous, would it?" Rob looked around again, searching through the numbers and letters running around him, sorting through them as he remembered more and more about the situation he'd heard his Mother was in.

Suddenly, the numbers surged towards him, and Rob felt himself overwhelmed with flashes of color, images and shapes, his ears likewise assaulted. All his senses and mind felt as if they were going to burst. He knew Bin was asking him a question, but he couldn't hear the words. In desperation he tried to stay focused on his Mom. There had to be something here to help. If only he knew more details, but he'd never heard all the details. Gulping in air, he closed his eyes and pictured his Mom's face, then pictured the Mars Agricultural Domes. A series of images and words appeared in his head, informing him of the latest situation. Rob opened his eyes again in surprise. Had he accessed some of the communications?

He pushed back some of the numbers and letters, trying to find order among all the strings and batches. The sensations continued to run through his head, in rhythm with the strings running around him. A strange peace seeped through him as he let himself flow with the rhythm, and again the numbers and letters started making sense again. With a start, he reached out and grabbed a few. Looking down at them resting in his hands, he could feel that this was a good start, but not quite what he needed. As if in response, several more batches of strings zipped into view to settle with the first in his hands.

The scene around him shifted again, and once again he found himself in the library, but now with two books in his hand, "The Golden Lantern" book now appeared much thinner. He handed it to Bin, who promptly took it from him.

"What did you do with our file? I cannot find its entirety." Bin said examining it closely.

"No, and you won't unless it's needed. This new book looks for the pattern. Only then will the full file ever surface again. It's safer this way. I should never have been able to see it." Rob said as he looked down at the new book in his hand as Bin re-shelved the other.

Bin settled back next to Rob and looked up at him, "The Golden Lantern was capable of generating and storing almost unlimited power."

"And how many died in the attempt? We'll never know how many species were wiped out in that event. There were only a handful of survivors, and they didn't live long after they escaped. It shouldn't ever be used." Rob blinked, "Why did I even want to know about it anyway? It couldn't have helped Mom. It doesn't make any sense."

"I agree, it was not a logical request." Bin said.

Rob examined the new book in his hand, the title of it something he couldn't even pronounce.

Bin looked at it, as well, "A new anthology? You found something useful?"

"For my Mother. She was exposed to a virus that is deadly to the Forrah. There are other species that might be in danger of that virus, too. Maybe this can help all of them."

"This is a conglomeration of many very old files, its usefulness in the situation may be limited."

"Something tells me I found what is needed." Rob said, not quite understanding why he felt that way.

"Your Mother-unit is infected with virus?"

"Mom is human, so they don't know. Possibly infected, certainly exposed. It's a manufactured virus created by a terrorist group. Bin, even if I can't get out of here, this needs to get to someone who can help them. Maybe someone with Galaxy Security? They have some of their best Doctors in the Galaxy working on the problem, but they need help."

"The data ports are at the front of the library." Bin said.

"Then lead the way. It's time to get this to someone who can do something good with it."

Bin lifted off the ground and began heading down the main aisle. By the time he had taken several turns, Rob was more than just tired, he ached and his eyes felt as if they were going to close on their own. Somehow he knew that would be a bad thing. Finally, he stopped in one of the aisles and leaned up against the shelves, trying to find the strength to continue the walk to the front of the library.

Realizing Rob wasn't behind him any longer, Bin stopped, turned, and came back to him. "Are you unwell?"

"I'm very tired. It's hard to walk." Rob said with a sigh.

"If you will allow me, you can sit on my back where my books usually reside. I can carry you to the front."

Rob looked doubtfully at Bin. The robot wasn't a big one, the small concave space on his back where books usually sat would barely fit him. "I'm heavier than I look."

"I am capable of the weight. Let me help you."

Knowing he was nearly at his limit, Rob did as he was told. Bin sank to the floor, and then with a soft whir rose slightly. Barely above the ground, he started to slowly move forward.

"Are you sure you're okay, Bin?" Rob asked as he steadied himself against the top edge of Bin's body, the precious book pinned to his lap with his free arm.

"I am well, Sir Rob. We will be at the front of the facility shortly." Bin replied as he moved to one side to let another shelving robot by.

Several turns later, they turned down another wide main aisle, and at the end Rob could see the desk of the main librarian and some of the chairs and tables behind her. He wasn't sure what he was supposed to do when they reached the front. The head librarian hadn't seemed too helpful the first time. How was he supposed to explain that he needed to get back to his own body? Was it as simple as telling himself to wake up? Somehow he didn't think so.

The Librarian turned around as Bin emerged from the last of the library shelves. Settling near the barred gate into the library, Rob pushed himself up to his feet. "Thank you for your help, Bin. You did a really good job."

"Thank you for repairing my arm. I hope you can find your way home from here." Bin said.

"There is a visitor waiting for you." The Librarian said. Then she glared at Rob, "You should not have been among the shelves."

Rob scuffed at the floor with one of his shoes, the book behind his back as he tried to ignore the growing pain in his head, "I'm sorry. I really needed to find a book. Bin was really helpful, though."

Rob felt one of Bin's hands grab the book and slip it out of his hands before he could grab it tighter. Bin backed away as the Librarian stood up, "Visitors are not to wander about unescorted. A Bort is not a suitable escort."

"Uh, can you help me get home? I mean, back into myself?" Rob asked, nervous about asking a question to the unhelpful librarian, but hoping it would get her off the subject.

Bin settled to the floor a short distance away, the precious book now in his back storage area, "Perhaps I can help you to your destination?"

Rob's hopes began to rise, only to be dashed when the Librarian said, "You will not, Binary Optimized Reporting Terminal 2193662! Your function is only within this database. The organic will leave on his own."

The Librarian opened the gate, which slowly swung open. Rob then looked back at Bin, only to find that the little robot had moved again, but this time to a tall pillar with several slots in it. Bin dropped the book in one of the slots and looked back at him as the pillar lit up, and a ring of light ascended from the base to the top, moving faster and faster as it rose. For a moment Rob felt another surge of numbers and letters, but this time he knew better how to keep it from overwhelming him. A moment later before his vision cleared again.

Rob then had to work not to smile. He was sure the Librarian would be instantly suspicious. "Thank you for your help." he said to the scowling matron, taking a tiny step towards the gate.

Bin waved from the edge of the shelves and Rob gave a small wave back. Finally, he turned to move through the gate. For the first time he noticed that the foyer was not empty like it had been before. A tall man with long blue hair pulled into one long ponytail that draped over one shoulder looked back at him with intelligent slanted eyes, wearing a Galaxy Patrol uniform. Knowing that the face was familiar, Rob struggled to remember the name.

The moment he moved past the gate, it closed behind him. The Librarian settled back to her desk, ignoring them both. Looking back, Rob could no longer see very far into the Library, and couldn't see any sign of Bin.

"Are you all right, Rob?" the tall alien asked.

Rob looked back at him, and in that moment the name popped into his head, "Rhondu. Your name is Rhondu? Do you know where my Dad is?"

Rhondu smiled and held out a hand, "Yes, Rob, I know where he is, and I know how to take you to him."

Rob gave a relieved smile and took the hand offered to him. As they walked towards the wide doors at the other end of the foyer, the world around him began to swirl away.

XoOoX


Thomas jerked up straighter as Rob took a deep breath. The next second he jumped as one of the computers emitted a loud screech and then erupted with a shower of sparks. The technician was instantly beside it, "The Neural Reader has overloaded!"

Thomas jerked his gaze back to Rob, and as he watched a tint of color began to show in his cheeks. Rob breathed in again even deeper. Then Thomas felt a squeeze on his arm where no one was touching him accompanied by a strong tingling sensation.

The signal!

Instantly Thomas jerked the cable out from the makeshift terminal. One of the computers went dead immediately, and part of the lights on another blinked out. At his hand signal, two paramedics rushed to Rob, pulling off the computer connections. The technician sprayed the neural reader with a fire-retardant foam, and then rushed to the others.

"Access to the Golden Lantern is denied. All information concerning this request has been erased."

Thomas froze at the sound of his son speak in such an emotionally devoid voice. He pushed one of the paramedics out of the way, "Rob! Open your eyes. Rhondu, are you sure he was clear?"

"He is clear." Rhondu said, sitting up.

"Possible genetic type 81139: classification unknown. Effects likely limited to Species Thorun. Effects on Species Homo Sapiens considered negligible. Recommended testing and possible counter-active measures is now available at the main terminal within the Capital Library for retrieval by a Galaxy Patrol Officer of a Top Secret rating or higher. Access through this unauthorized terminal is now permanently denied." Rob sighed, squished his eyes tighter for a moment, then relaxed again with another soft sigh, his eyes still closed.

Thomas felt Rhondu's hand on his shoulder, pulling him back, "Let the paramedics transport him to the hospital. He's sleeping now."

Thomas allowed himself to be pulled back, and the paramedics had Rob transferred to a gurney and were pushing him out within a few minutes. "What did he mean by that?"

"Obviously the group that kidnapped him wanted some sort of information, but I'm guessing Rob had concerns of his own on his mind." Rhondu said.

"Andrea." Thomas looked to the Nugeni Officers, who continued to stand and watch. "Is that what Rob referred to, a possible antidote for the manufactured virus released on Mars?"

"When a Galaxy Patrol Officer of a Top Secret rating or higher checks in at the main terminal, you will know your answer." Two more Nugeni walked in, and all of them stopped to look at Thomas and Rhondu, "You may leave now. We will repair the damage to our network system."

Later, as Rhondu drove them to the hospital, Thomas muttered, "Sometimes I wish they would just blink."

"You are emotional over your son. It's natural to feel that others around you should be just as emotional." Rhondu said.

"But don't be surprised if they aren't?"

Rhondu smiled slightly at the outburst, "Perhaps they are more aware of what occurred within the system than we think. I think you underestimate Rob. What I sensed while bringing him back was not that of a normal child. Not only did he gain the main planetary archive on his own, he survived the search and access systems. He also overcame the hypnosis of the Nevermore on his own. I assure you, their methods are a trial to overcome for the best of my kind."

"Is he going to be all right?" Thomas insisted.

"I sense that the answer is yes. But the exact side effects are unknown to me. Such a mental strain affects even those of the same species differently from one to the other."

Thomas remembered those words months later as he finished packing for a short two-week patrol. Andrea was finally home after being medically cleared, busy catching up on her projects, the files Rob had found within the computer helping the Doctors working on the situation to quickly isolate and begin to counter-act the constructed virus. Rob continued to have a memory blank about everything that day, including the visit to the amusement park, and had insisted his brothers and sister help him re-test his Tracker invention.

In the light slanting in from the window Rob sat on the floor, the top access port of the housebot he had built open. A tool inserted and turning, his young face showing his intense concentration. Meggy, determined to help, was fitting one of her dolls bonnets on the robots head.

"You're sitting on the transducer adjuster." Rob said as he gave the tool in his hand another twist.

Meggy shifted and pulled a long tool with a forked end out from under her skirt and handed it to him. "Don't break your robot!"

Rob took the tool, yawning as he did, "I'm not going to break it."

Thomas could tell another nap would soon be coming. The naps were becoming shorter and fewer, but it still bothered him that Rob was being affected six months later. Thankfully Andrea and his Mother had taken the lead in enrolling Rob in a home-based school system so he could keep up while recovering from the physical effects of the event. Thomas almost laughed at himself. Rob had not only kept up, but was now far beyond his age-level. As it was going now, he doubted Rob would be returning to his previous school.

He lifted the duffle bag to his shoulder, waiting until Rob had finished his adjustment before saying, "Time for me to head out. Do I get any hugs?"

The tools were instantly dropped and Thomas found himself smothered in four small bodies determined to each give him a tight hug. Meggy added to it by insisting he give a hug to her currently favorite doll.

"Be good for your Mom, and I'll see you within 2 weeks." Thomas said.

"Be safe, Dad." Rob said quietly before returning to his robot, yawning as he did. Nate followed him to see what he was up to.

Thomas headed for the door, Ben following him. At the door, he turned back to look at Rob once more. Ben looked at Rob as well, and then back at his Father, saying quietly, "I'll look after him while you're gone. You can count on me."

"I know I can." Thomas said with a weary smile for his oldest son. With a final glance at Rob, he turned and headed out the door.