The Darkness Between Doors

by Geron Kees

Chapter 6

"Derry? Wake up, son."

Derry jerked his eyes open and tried to sit up. His suit immediately settled back to the floor and allowed that to happen. "What's going on?"

Cally was also awake, and sitting up as well. The sky was still dark outside, but the fires below had been replenished, and still burned brightly.

Derry's grandfather grunted from his position standing before the window. "Something's happening. Nyf woke me up."

Derry glanced toward the door to the hallway, but it was still closed. That his grandfather meant something was happening in the village below was clear. He got to his feet, and he and Cally joined the man at the window.

Below them, the scene had indeed changed. That much the fires and the few working lights high on the inner walls made apparent. But just what was happening, Derry wasn't certain.

The brightly dressed Crites were all huddled together now in a large group, their mood somehow conveying uncertainty. Several other Crites, all dressed in the mummy-bandage robes that Derry had seen in Nyf's video of the Crite travelers through the tube station, stood at either end of their group. Each of the newcomers had one of the strange staffs in hand, with the metallic knots at the top. The way they held them out before themselves, with the knots leaned towards the mass of silent Crites, seemed threatening, and the brightly-dressed crowd seemed strangely subdued. Several more of the bandage-robed Crites stood closed by, spears in hand.

Three more of the staff-wielding Crites stood in a loose circle around the Sasparians, while others holding spears filled in the gaps. The Sasparians had their daggers drawn and their spears in hand, but seemed quiescent at the moment. Their leader was at the fore of the group, apparently in conversation with one of the staff-wielding Crites.

"What's going on?" Cally asked.

Mike shook his head. "Not sure. This was already underway when Nyf woke me. But it looks like a new group of Crites arrived, and surprised the Sasparians while they were sleeping. The Crites that live here seem to be afraid of the newcomers. I'm not sure why, as they outnumber them ten to one."

"I registered a rather potent electrical discharge," Nyf explained then. "That was my reason for waking you, Mike. I have been trying to match the signature with known sources, to no avail."

"So you don't know what caused it?" the elder Hamlyn asked.

"No. I have access to your suit's sensory input, but video is restricted to line of sight, and you were sleeping below the base of the window. I could not see below us." Nyf paused, and it seemed apparent there was more.

"And?" Mike prompted.

"I hesitate to add more just now, because I cannot be certain. But the power level and duration suggest the possibility of a directed energy weapon of some sort."

"They hold those staff things like weapons," Derry observed. "The others act like maybe something more could happen than that they might just get hit with one. You think the things could be dangerous?"

"I'll believe anything at this point," Mike said.

"The staves do not correspond to known weapons in the empire catalog," Nyf told them. "Yet each emits a substantial energy reading. The emission signature I recorded earlier could easily have been emitted by the power source I sense from the staves now."

Mike made a frustrated noise in his throat. "You think they're a danger to our suits?"

"I would say not. The energy signature, while sufficient to cause harm or possibly even death to an unprotected body, would not be sufficient to overcome your own defenses. Not even to tax them, I would say."

Derry stared at his grandfather. "Were you thinking about going down there?'

The man looked undecided. "There's something about these new Crites I don't like. Look at the people that live here. They look scared. Look at the way these new guys have the Sasparians surrounded. The situation doesn't look good to me. I don't plan to stand here and watch people be killed, I'll say that much."

"Is it our business to get involved?" Cally asked then.

Mike bit at his lower lip a moment, but then nodded his head slowly. "People's lives are everybody's business, son."

Cally patted the front of his suit. "Is there a way down there, Nyf?"

"Yes. There is a contragravity shaft just down the hall from here. It is inoperative, but we can use it to get to the ground floor quickly. A corridor from there exits into the yard below."

Derry bent and retrieved his pack, and shrugged into it. Cally followed suit. Mike watched them a moment, and then retrieved his own pack. "I don't suppose you two would wait here?"

Derry and Cally exchanged glances. "Are you asking, or telling?" Derry demanded, unable to keep from bristling a little. He thought they had already settled this thing with the boys waiting while granddad did the hard stuff.

Mike took in the determined look on his grandson's face, and smiled. "Neither, I guess. Come on."

The exited the suite, and Nyf directed them down the hallway until they reached another closed door. "Here."

Mike stepped up to the doorway, but it did not open. "What gives?'

"The power to the shaft is out. The safety door has closed. If you look up to your right, you will see a small hole in the rim of the door. See if your finger will fit into it. If so, push it in as forcefully as you can."

Mike looked up as instructed, found the hole, and attempted to insert his finger. The tip went in, but his finger was too large to go deeper.

"Let me try,"Cally said, stepping forward. He took Mike's place, stretched himself upwards, and found the hole. His finger probed it, and they heard a sudden hissing sound, as if air were being released somewhere.

The door opened, sliding across to their left, revealing a dark shaft broad enough for all of them to easily stand abreast. An orange light on the back wall began to flash, obviously in warning.

"The contragravity field is inoperative," Nyf explained. "Your suits will be able to safely take you down, however. Simply step in, and your suit will do its job."

Mike and Derry stared at each other a moment, and the older man smiled. "Leap of faith here, guys."

"You will be safe," Nyf insisted. "Trust me."

Derry knew they had no choice if the wished to get quickly to the first floor level, and no reason not to trust Nyf and the wonderful technology of the ancients. "We're wasting time. All at once?"

Mike sighed, extended a hand to each boy, and then they all stepped into the shaft together.

It was just as Nyf had promised. They floated gently downward, finally stopping upon a smooth flooring at the bottom, where another door presented itself. Again Cally found the manual opening mechanism with a fingertip, and they emerged into a lit hallway on the first floor of the castle.

"Go right, and then the first left," Nyf instructed. "That corridor lets out into the center court."

Mike seemed to feel a need to hurry now. He took off at a trot, and the boys followed. The corridor was short, and the door open at the other end. They emerged onto a tree-lined path, the foliage thick enough to form a hedge, and could then hear voices. Derry's translator immediately came online as they hustled along behind the screen of trees.

"...and yet here you are again," a soft voice was saying, the anger in it plain even in the translator. "Interfering in matters that don't concern you."

"We have a pact with Inishee and these people," a deeper, harsher voice replied. "If they are in danger, it is our duty to assist them. And not within your power to stop, Dith."

"You are not wanted here," the first voice shot back. "These are affairs of the Crite. They do not concern you."

The harsh voice laughed in return. "You mean, you do not want us here. You think we will dissuade Inishee from joining in Crowla's mad quest through the doors. There is no need for that. Inishee does not wish to be a part of your scheme, as you can already see."

The softer voice let out a growl. "Inishee will do as he is told. And so will you." There was a pause, and Derry could almost imagine the owner of the silken voice smiling. "If you and your party were not to return to your mountain, your leader would know that to come back here is death."

There were several growls then, equally as harsh as the second voice. "He means to kill us, Erva," said someone else.

"And risk war? That would be a foolish move." But Derry thought that he could detect a note of uncertainty in Erva's harsh voice. "Even with your new weapons, your numbers are small. You would be no match for the clans. It would be unwise of you to start something that your leader will be unable to finish."

The one called Dith laughed. "There are more staves where these came from, Erva. Many more. All we need do is obtain them."

"Yes, but you do not have the hands to hold so many weapons. This is why Crowla tries to coerce Inishee and the people here into joining you. Because your own small holding is not enough to tame a world. Well, these others will not join you."

"They will, I think," Dith returned, sounding angrier now. "Or they will be the first to feel the wrath of Crowla."

"You are a fool, Dith, if you think killing us will end this. Your insane plans will be stopped if you invite war with the Sasparians. Messengers will be dispatched to the other mountains, and you will face a horde beyond your worst imaginings. Your lightning weapons will not stop daggers and lances in such numbers, I can assure you."

The three humans reached the end of the hedgerow, and Mike peered around the last tree. "We're only about thirty feet from them now," he said over their internal communicators. "Nyf, what language are they speaking? Crite, or Sasparian?"

"It's actually an evolved form of Aolic, a common trade language in use within the empire a millennium ago. It is fortunate that none of the speech we have heard thus far has evolved beyond the ability of the translators to handle."

"I just want to make sure that all of them understand me."

"They will."

Mike grunted. "A thousand years is a long time. Languages change. But I'll bet we could mostly understand the English spoken that long ago." He laughed. "Mostly."

"What should we do?" Derry asked.

Mike thought a moment. "Nyf? We're kind of outside the circle of light from that fire. Can our suits turn a color that will keep us from being seen if we step out?'

"From being seen by the Crites, I would say yes. But the Sasparians may detect the movement, despite the camouflage."

"We'll have to risk it. We're too far away for me to trust hitting these Crite jokers with my zap gun if things get nasty. But I don't intend to let this Dith guy kill anyone."

"I don't want to kill anyone, either," Derry said firmly.

"That's two of us. Check your pistols again to make sure the charge is dialed down to something that will stun. Nyf, can we expect a stun jolt to take out these Crites?"

"Absolutely. Crite nervous systems are not even as resilient as your own. The Sasparians are hardier, but even they will be rendered unconscious by a minimum charge."

Their suits changed then, becoming black as the night, but with brown streaks that seemed to flow about and obscure their outlines. It made the eye not want to look there, somehow. It was disconcerting to Derry, and he was certain it would make them hard to see by others.

Derry and Cally both checked their pistols, and made sure they were dialed down. "What do we do, Granddad?"

"Follow me. Walk slowly. Try not to move your arms much. Think like a tree."

Derry had to smile at that, but fell in behind his grandfather as the man inched out into the open. Derry looked back once to make sure that Cally was behind him, and then concentrated on where they were going. The ground at their feet was in shadows, but not so intensely dark that he could not see where he was walking, and they all made it out into the open without anyone noticing them.

"I count six Crites with staves," Mike said. "Derry, when I say now, I want you to get the two on the left. You understand?"

Derry set his jaw. "Nyf, you're sure these guys won't be hurt badly?"

"Just rendered unconscious, Derry."

Derry nodded. "Okay. I got it."

Mike grunted. "Cally, when I say now, you get the two on the far right. Okay?"

"Yes, sir."

Mike issued another soft grunt. "I'll get this Dith and the one with him, in the middle. Okay, everyone ready with their guns?"


"I'm ready, too," Cally added.

"Then let's move forward slowly. Listen for my word, okay? Don't get trigger-happy. Now, one small step at a time. Let's go."

They moved forward carefully while Dith and the leader of the Sasparians, Erva, continued to talk. Such was the focus on the conversation by everyone concerned that they made it to within fifteen feet of the main players before one of the Sasparians looked their way.

"Now," Mike said calmly, and opened fire.

The night was torn asunder by the ripping sounds of their pistols as they fired, and the ionization trails glared in the air as the beams licked out and toppled the Crites with their staves. Some of the village Crites gave frightened shrieks and lunged away from the flaming air, but so quickly was it done that only the better-trained Sasparians really had time to react, turning as a group towards Mike and the others and raising their daggers and their lances towards this new threat. But the silence that descended upon the area after it was over was thick with shock.

"No one move!" Mike roared, his translated and amplified voice lashing out at the assemblage before him. Then, just over their internal communicators, he said, "Walk to either side of me. Keep your guns ready. But don't shoot at anyone, okay? They can't hurt us in these suits."

The three of them walked forward, and Derry could see the eyes of the Sasparians straining to make out their camouflaged shapes. The village Crites, now highly agitated, took a collective step backwards as this new, formless menace approached them, and then some of the brightly dressed members turned and ran.

"Let them go," Mike cautioned. "We're almost there."

They got within about eight feet of the nearest group, the Sasparians and their now frightened Crite attendants - Dith's remaining minions, only armed with spears instead of staves - and stopped.

"Okay, guys," Mike said softly, "drop the camouflage."

Their suits reverted to their normal appearance as one, the deep red looking striking in the fire light beneath the golden globes of their helmets. At their appearance more of the village Crites ran, and even the Sasparians took a group step backwards. An untranslatable, amazed murmur rippled through the crowd.

One of the bandaged-robed Crites made a leap for the fallen staff of a comrade brought down by the human gunfire, and Mike simply dropped him in his tracks with a short burst from his pistol. The Crite crashed to the ground next to his fallen comrade and lay still.

"I'm serious," Mike said, his voice still amplified, but sounding less threatening now. "If you don't move, you will not be harmed."

Derry took a moment to examine the aliens now that they were up close. The Crites were indeed a good foot taller than the humans, but the Sasparia ranged in height from the one as tall as Derry to only an inch or two taller than granddad's six-one. Erva, the Sasparian leader, seemed the tallest among his people.

That one lowered his dagger and his lance now, and carefully returned the former to its sheath at his side. "Stand down," he said quietly, meant for the ears of his men. "We're outclassed here."

The other Sasparians took their cue from Erva, and carefully resheathed their daggers and lowered their lances.

One of the brightly-dressed Crites very slowly raised a hand. "If I may...I am Inishee, and this is our village. I am the one responsible for my people, and it is I that accept your judgment."

"I am Erva, leader of this party of the Sasparians, guests of Inishee and the people here," the tall Sasparian quickly added. "I am equally responsible here. Our people must not be harmed for our deeds."

Derry wanted to lower his pistol then, but forced himself to keep it pointed towards the crowd. That these people did not want trouble was plain. The willingness of their leaders to take responsibility was almost humbling. Derry felt like he was the one in the wrong now, threatening them.

Mike relaxed, but did not lower his weapon. "We don't wish to harm anyone. We only acted to take out the threat offered by these Crites with staves."

"They are not of our village," Inishee returned. "They are outsiders, and we were their captives."

"We heard as much," Mike agreed. He moved his pistol to cover the other bandage-robed Crites. "You people can drop those spears, unless you want to join your friends on the ground."

The speed with which that occurred almost caused Derry to laugh. The Crites either thrust their spears away from themselves or simply took their hands off them as if burned and let them fall to the ground. No one argued.

Mike turned to Erva. "Would you mind having your people collect the staves and spears and pile them over here beside us?"

That request was quickly carried out. One of the Sasparians that stepped forward was the smallest one, the same height as Derry. He joined the rest, and they quickly cleaned up the weapons and piled them nearby. The young Sasparian looked at Derry as he passed, and the smile on his face seemed plain.

Erva waited until his men had rejoined him before turning back to Mike. "You have my bond of no threat. We will not take arms against you. I would like to relax these proceedings, if possible." He leaned forward slightly. "We do not wish to be your enemies."

"We don't see you that way," Mike said. "We actually only came to this world to investigate and observe. Not to fight."

A noticeable wave of relief swept through the crowd of brightly-dressed Crites.

"May I ask who you are, then?" Erva chanced.

"They are the Armenti, finally returned," the youngest Sasparian blurted forth, sounding excited. "I have seen their like in the memory plays, dressed exactly in this manner."

Erva turned his head slightly towards the boy, without taking his eyes off Mike, and spoke quietly. "Mind your station, Gilden. I am as aware as you of the memory plays. Yet I wish to hear it from their own mouths."

"I would play the part of the Armenti for now," Nyf advised over their internal communicators. "It would disadvantage your position here to be seen as door travelers without authority to use them."

Derry could almost feel his granddad's dislike for the idea of beginning things with these people by telling a whopper of a lie like this one; but the man stepped forward and lowered his pistol. "Your associate is correct, Erva. We are the Armenti, come to investigate happenings on your world."

That answer seemed to satisfy the tall Sasparian. He looked around at the fallen Crites. "You are here to discipline Dith and Crowla for their transgressions in violating the doors?"

"We are here to investigate this, and more," Mike said evenly. "And there will be no killing while we are present."

Erva looked surprised, and Derry felt wonder that the alien's emotions seemed so easy to read.

"These are not dead?" Erva asked, waving a hand at those on the ground.

"No. Simply unconscious. But had we wished them dead, they would be so."

"Well, well," Nyf said then, over the closed channel. "I have identified these staff devices. They're not weapons at all."

"They're not?" Derry asked.

"What are they?" Cally put in, right on Derry's heels.

"They are...I believe the term on your world is cattle prods. These are herding staves, used to direct the herds on Curivo Two."

Derry gaped at that. "They herd sheep with those things?"

"The herds of Curivo Two are Huniflar, Derry. They are reptilian in nature, extremely large beasts with extremely thick hides. The animals are an endangered species, nearly edged out of existence by the first settlers to Curivo Two, before stringent conservation laws were put in place. The herds are migratory, and great pains are taken to ensure that they migrate safely past the settler's holdings each season. To the Huniflar, the sting of one of these staffs is sufficient to turn them without harming them. But of course devices engineered to handle such large beasts would deliver a much more lethal charge to smaller and less resilient lifeforms."

"Where the hell did the Crites get these things, then?" Mike asked.

"It seems obvious that they have risked passing through a doorway here on Rustgevend, one that leads to Curivo Two, or at least to some place where these staves are available."

The Sasparians, and the Crites nearby them, not privy to the human's conversation, seemed to take the lengthening silence with a degree of nervousness.

"None of us has passed through the doors," Erva said then. "Only Crowla and Dith, and the members of their holding."

"Where is this Crowla?" Mike asked.

Inishee spoke then. "They are neighbors, two peaks to the east. It's a smaller peak, and Crowla has grown restless with its confining nature. He wishes to spread his dominance to other peaks, and other holdings."

"No easy task," Erva added. "As each peak is well-defended by those already in residence."

Mike waved a hand at the bandage-robed Crites. "These seemed to enter this place easily enough."

Inishee braved a step forward then. "We have a pact with them, and felt it strong enough to not be included in their aggressive plans. We were mistaken. They apparently need numbers now, and feel that any Crites available are to be pressed into service."

"Crowla's eyes are larger than his good sense," Erva told them. "He and Dith chanced a door at the station by their peak, and found a world empty and broken beyond. But they did find these staves there, much to the ill of the rest of us. Only the fact that the numbers of these weapons are small thus far, and Crowla's own holding equally short on hands, has prevented a larger conflict."

There was a groan from the ground, and the Crite called Dith sat up. His back was to the humans, and he immediately looked up at Erva and raised a fist towards him. "You will regret this. What did you do to us?"

The Sasparian laughed, and pointed at the humans. "It was not I, foolish one. Your Crowla's daring of the doors has brought back the Armenti to punish him."

The Crite turned and spied Derry and the others, and leaped to his feet.

Mike immediately waved his pistol at the alien. "Settle down, or I'll put you out again."

"They were invisible until they were among us, Dith," one of the other bandage-robed Crites dared. "You cannot fight wraiths!"

"Armenti," Dith repeated, as if he could not believe it. "Impossible! Crowla has said you are no more!"

Erva laughed, a deep, happy sound that made Derry smile. "You are a fool, Dith, not to believe what is there before your eyes. And your Crowla is a fool, too."

Mike took a step towards Dith. "You have passed through a doorway." It was a statement, not a question.

Dith flinched away from the man at the accusation. "I was...Crowla said...we were told that the Armenti were no more! We were told that the edict against using the doors was no longer valid!"

Mike's voice was like ice. "It seems you were misinformed."

"The Armenti are not forgotten here," Inishee said then. "The promise that they would someday return has been proven. A word kept is a word to be honored!"

Dith simply stared at the humans.

"Well?" Mike said.

"We...this is not our world. We do not wish to stay here. You cannot keep us here against our will."

"Tell them the doors are dangerous," Nyf suggested. "Tell them they risk great danger in using them."

Mike repeated those words, to which Dith somehow managed to convey scorn.

"We saw no real danger on the world we visited. There are odd storms there, but we leave when they arrive. It is a deserted and broken land. But there are many things there we can use."

"You are fools," Inishee stated flatly. "No one knows the doors better than their creators."

"I am pleased that you remember so much," Mike improvised. "Much time has passed since we were last here."

"We have not forgotten," Inishee agreed. "Although much of the ancient technology was ruined in the conflict that followed your leaving, there is still enough around that operates to keep the old knowing alive. We are not savages yet."

"You are not afraid of our return, then?" Mike asked.

"Should we be?" Erva countered. "It was said when you last left here that you would return, once the great menace had been defeated. That was but six lifetimes ago, and the memories are still clear." The Sasparian leaned forward, an eager light in his eyes. "You came to investigate Crowla's use of a door here. But does this also mean you have returned, as was said you would? Is the great menace defeated? Will the door to Saspar be reopened?" His voice dropped to a whisper. "Can we then, go home?"

Derry could tell by the slight sag that crept into his grandfather's shoulders that the man was not enjoying playing his part of one of the long lost Armenti. There was too much at stake here for that. People's hearts and minds were involved. People's hopes and dreams.

"It is my sad duty to say that the doors are not yet safe for travel," Mike said slowly. "We are here only to investigate, to learn about what has been going on here. After that, we must go again, until the time comes when door travel is completely safe."

It was only then that Derry became aware that most of the people present had been leaning forward, anxiously awaiting the word. They sagged back at what Mike had told them, yet Derry was surprised that it was not disappointment he thought he was seeing. It seemed like...relief.

Inishee emitted a sound much like a sigh. "I am not so disturbed by this news. I was born here, and this world is the only world I know. That holds true for all of us. Only the memory plays of life in the old realm entice us. Fantastic pictures and amazing sounds, yet no more real than a dream in sleep." He raised his arms and turned to take in all of his people. "This has been our home, and it has been a kind place to us. Let us not forget our peaceful lives here."

The crowd seemed not only perfectly able to do that, but in fact definitely happy to do so. Derry felt surprise. Maybe these people were not so anxious to leave this place, after all!

"One cannot live in legends, I suppose," Erva said quietly "I would love to see the world where my people originated. To fly among the stone spires once again." He gave a brief shake to his head. "To have traveled the stars once must have been grand. But I have not known them, and so cannot miss what I have never possessed."

Derry realized that he had been holding his breath, and slowly let it out. He had expected these people to be disappointed, even angry, at being told they were not yet able to go home. Their ready acceptance of the fact said something else entirely. Their former worlds were now strange places to them, memories and stories, and not as real as what they knew firsthand. Rustgevend was home to these people now, and their fondness for the mountain peaks seemed clear.

That made him think again of the fur people on the planet of the crumbling city that he and Cally had visited. Those people had seemed like primitive savages, hunting the boys, trying to hurt them. But had that really been the case? At this late date it was impossible to guess how much those apparently primitive people had remembered of their glory days. But just because they had carried spears instead of zap guns did not mean they had reverted to animals.

Nor, either, the bear horses and the glass people they had met on their first exploration through a door with granddad. Perhaps, then, none of this was quite the way it had at first seemed...

"There will be a time for reunification," Mike said quietly, drawing Derry's attention back to the present. "For worlds to be but a step away once again. Perhaps even in your own lifetimes. But I must sadly say that time is not yet arrived."

"I feel trust in you," Inishee offered then. "The great menace never arrived here, just as your kind promised. Relinquishing door travel has protected us far more than it has harmed us. We have been safe here, even if stranded far from home." The man offered up a soft laugh. "In fact, this world has become home. I am not sure I would leave it now, even if I could."

Erva nodded. "Agreed. There are worse things, surely, than to live among these airy peaks." He pointed at Dith then. "What of this troublemaker, and his people?"

Mike turned to the Crite, who leaned slightly away from him, again looking anxious. "Take your people and go," Mike instructed. "Do not come back here looking for trouble. Tell your Crowla that we have returned, and know what he has been doing."

"He will not listen," Dith hazarded. "He will not believe."

"Then maybe we shall pay him a visit," Mike said icily. "And then he will believe."

Fear is a universal survival trait, readily apparent even in an alien face. Dith gave a short nod of his head, but said no more.

Derry's thoughts were in turmoil. A thousand years seemed like such a long time! In human history, such a period covered the vast gulf between the first spread of iron-using technologies in human cultures, and modern civilization, a considerable divide for memory to straddle. Yet here, among people who apparently lived longer than humans, and who had known civilization far longer, it was not the same interval at all. Living among a self-repairing technology that was able to remind them, they had not become distant from their origins, nor the memories of what had caused them to be here on Rustgevend.

They had not forgotten the great menace - whatever that was - and they had not forgotten the Armenti.

Inishee turned to another Crite standing near. "Bilrith, arm your guard. Escort Dith and his company back to the tube." He turned again to face Dith. "You are warned not to return here. The pact of peace and trade between our peaks is at an end. Inform Crowla that we will not be a part of his plans."

Derry could tell that Dith did not like hearing this, but the Crite made no response to the order. He and the rest of the bandage-robed crowd, including those former staff bearers now awakened, were assembled together and surrounded by armed villagers. Dith and his people were taken away. Derry turned to watch as the group was led towards the very door from which he and Cally and granddad had emerged earlier. Just before they reached the edge of the circle of light, with the glow from the fire still affording a good view, Dith turned a last time to look at Derry and the others.

The message in his dark eyes seemed plain: This is not over yet!

* * * * * * *

They returned to their room for the rest of the night, telling Inishee and Erva that they would be back at dawn to talk more. Both groups of aliens were excited, and wished to conference at length then, but Mike knew the fliers needed their sleep, and Derry knew that he needed his. Being awakened in the wee hours to confront an armed invasion was always tiring.

"There are nearly four more hours until dawn," Nyf told them. "The days are slightly longer here than on your own world, and thus the nights, as well. Your best use of the time will be to sleep."

"You think?" Mike returned, sounding a little grouchy now. Derry grinned at that, knowing how his granddad could get when he needed a nap.

"What about the Crites?" Derry asked. "They'll be going to sleep when we get back."

"Not immediately," Nyf corrected. "They do not head for bed the moment the sun comes up, any more than your kind heads for bed at dusk. Some continuation of activity is present into late morning for most of them."

"I'm not crazy about this pretending to be the Armenti," Mike said. "We're bound to get caught at it at some point."

"I see no reason why. Even were you to lower your head globes in the presence of the others, you look so much like the Armenti they are unlikely to notice."

"They might, though," Mike persisted. "And then where would we be? I have a feeling these people wouldn't like liars anymore than the rest of us do."

Nyf made a patient sound. "If they question your identity, you simply tell them you are one of the Armenti colonial offshoots. Every empire race has them. Those who colonized worlds early in empire history, and remained separated from the home race long enough to develop noticeable physical differences. There were no other races in the empire that even vaguely resembled the Armenti. You are too close to their appearance for anyone to doubt your words."

"We aren't, though, are we?" Cally asked.

Nyf was quiet a moment before he caught on. "Related to the Armenti, you mean?"

"Yeah. We're not some long lost tribe of them, are we?"

"The line of origin of your species on your home world is quite plain," Nyf responded. "You and the Armenti are not related species. But your resemblance to them is uncanny."

"Old Momma Nature and one of her jokes," Mike said, laying himself out and then floating slowly off the floor. "But better to look like a prince than a pauper, as mister Mark Twain said."

"It is important that these people feel you have the authority to make decisions on the doors," Nyf explained. "We need to know that when you tell them not to use them, they will not."

"Why?" Derry asked. "We haven't had any problems. Would it hurt so much if they used the doors to look around a little?"

"It might. We have no knowledge of what occurred one thousand years past. But no one has exited a door at the transfer station Difris maintains in all that period of time. There is a reason for that, perhaps a very critical one. The evidence is clear that something overwhelming occurred during the last period of the Armenti. That so many doors are still open and no one seems to dare to use them is an extremely eloquent statement. To disregard this clue might put entire worlds in jeopardy again."

"We're using them," Derry pointed out.

"Yes, but some usage is necessary if we are to learn anything. It is still in everyone's best interests at this point to minimize that usage as much as possible until we understand what has occurred."

"That guy Erva mentioned 'the great menace'," Cally reminded. "That doesn't sound like a fuse blew somewhere."

Derry couldn't help laughing at the picture that brought to mind, and Cally blinked in surprise, and then laughed with him. They grinned at each other, and Derry poked his boyfriend playfully. "Blew a fuse. You're nuts!"

Mike cleared his throat noisily. "Can we?" But he smiled at the boys before sighing tiredly. "I need some more sleep. So let's decide now how were going to act on this, okay?"

Derry nodded. "If Nyf thinks we should keep being Armenti, I'm willing to do it."

"So am I," Cally agreed.

Mike nodded. "Well, it so happens that I agree with him, too. At least for now. Okay, so we are Armenti until further notice. And now, I am going to sleep. Nyf, would you wake us just before dawn?"

"Yes, Mike."

The man rolled over carefully until his back was to Derry and Cally, sighed, and then was quiet.

Cally laid out and slowly lifted from the floor, and Derry imitated him. He cast a quick look at his grandfather, and then willed his suit to move him closer to Cally. They came together long enough to exchange a goodnight kiss, and Derry whispered an 'I love you' into his boyfriend's ear. Cally nodded quickly, whispered the same in return, and then they slowly drifted apart again.

Derry smiled as he closed his eyes and relaxed. A guy could get to like this antigravity stuff, no doubt about it.

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