The Darkness Between Doors

by Geron Kees

Chapter 1

© 2018, 2021 by Geron Kees. All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation.

This story follows events first recounted in The Odd, Onward Door, and Never A Door Lost. You really should read them first.

Derry Hamlyn crossed his arms and frowned at the strange device as it floated across the floor and positioned itself near the door back to Earth. As tall as a man, the machine consisted of a large, hemispherical base that floated just above the floor. Its skin was made of the same malleable metal that Difris - the alien keeper of the transfer station - was made from, and it pulsed and flowed as glowing things moved in apparent random fashion just beneath the surface.

Projecting from the center of the rounded upper dome of the machine was a thick metal shaft, at the end of which was a series of successively smaller black disks, the first nearly two feet in diameter, and the uppermost, a mere six inches in diameter. The collection of disks resembled the weights on the end of a workout bar of the type that Derry had seen in the gym at school, except that this bar was vertical. The disks were also slightly luminescent, and the whole thing emitted a soft purring sound like a very large and very contented tomcat might produce.

Next to him, Cally Jameson squinted at the machine, and then raised a hand and touched his fingertips absently to the tiny orb that lay against his chest, suspended by a glass-like filament that circled his neck. It looked much like a glass marble, full of wispy and colorful inclusions, except that a clear loop of material large enough to go around a human neck was extruded from the top of it.

"What is it, Nyf?" Cally asked, looking down at the orb.

"It is a time calibrator, of course. What else could it be?"

A few feet away, Mike Hamlyn - Derry's granddad - gave out a laugh, and grinned at Cally. "Yeah. What else could it be?"

Mike stood next to the large, metallic spider that was Difris, the keeper of the door station. The humans had originally viewed him as a robot, but had since learned that he was more in the way of an artificial life form, just one composed of different materials than flesh and blood. A millennium past, Difris had been hastily assigned the task of caring for the doorway transfer station by the vanished race of empire builders, the Armenti, who had even then been in the midst of hurriedly evacuating the place as if embroiled in some supreme conflict. Difris was not told what was happening, only that his new mission was to safeguard the station. And he had been doing that for a thousand years now, reliably, loyally, while never once hearing from his former masters, and so never knowing what had happened to them.

In all that time, no one had emerged from any of the thousands of open doorways between worlds to tell of the fate of the empire. And the very fact that not a single person had used the door transport system that millions had been using daily was evidence that something dramatic had happened. No one had come through to check on the station. No one had come to inquire what had happened. No one at all, in one thousand years, until Derry and Cally had happened along, exploring the doorway from Earth.

The station was a huge complex built on the frozen moon of a giant world that circled a red sun more than 80 light years distant from Earth. It's thousands upon thousands of doorways gave instant access to almost as many worlds - the member planets of the old empire, now apparently cut off from one another and lost in the depths of time. The reason for this isolation had become another part of the mystery. Here was a fully functioning transport system capable of linking an interstellar empire, and no one was using it. The worlds on the other sides of these doorways had gone silent, and the several places the humans had visited thus far indicated that something catastrophic had befallen the old empire, and that at least some of its member races had regressed to a more primitive state.

Derry and the others had accepted the idea that, each time they stepped through the door in the secret underground station hidden in the woods on Mike Hamlyn's farm, they were transported instantaneously to a location unimaginably distant from home. But Derry preferred to think of it now just as one step, and forego even trying to wrap his thoughts around such incomprehensible numbers as that distance implied. Light years. It was just too much to grasp.

Most of the new concepts they had been exposed to recently were difficult to grasp. The humans had decided not to beat their brains out trying to understand the technology of the builders, feeling it was better to concentrate on the issues at hand, namely trying to find out what had happened to the empire, and what was happening now on former member worlds. This latest roll out of a new gizmo by Difris and Nyf was just a momentary distraction before getting to the reason for their visit to the station today: they were ready to try another trip through one of the miraculous doors.

Difris had his optic globe extruded on the end of a stalk, and was moving it slowly back and forth among the humans. "It's a portable model, you see."

"Oh, naturally," Mike agreed, smiling. He turned and reached out to pat Difris on one metallic leg. "So...what is it?"

The spider's optic globe turned to him. "One of our concerns has been the amount of time you and the boys are able to spend away from your Earth, reconnoitering through the doorways. More than a daylight's span, on the average, and you feel others of your kind will be concerned as to your whereabouts."

The three humans looked at each other, and Derry nodded. "That's right. My mom will freak if we were gone overnight without letting her know where we were." He waved a hand at the glowing machine. "This thing will help with that?"

The tiny orb suspended from Cally's neck chuckled in their internal communicators. Nyf usually displayed an almost identical sense of humor to that of Difris, because he was a clone of the spider's artificial mind, and the two often shared responses to the things that struck them as funny. But Derry had already noticed a slight divergence in the way the two considered the world around them, no doubt because each intelligence now had a slightly different perspective. Those differences would only grow over time, as the unique experiences of the two minds began to weigh against those that were shared.

"Yes, of course it will. That is the entire purpose of having it here."

"The unit is a variation on the time-distance drive that empire starships used to travel between the stars," Difris added. "We will use it to change the temporal reference frames of the door pairing that you travel through, so that when you return you will only have been away one hour for each day spent on the other side."

Mike blinked. "Say again?"

"You will only spend one hour of Earth-time away from your homeworld for each day you spend on the other side of any door-pairing we link with this device."

Derry felt his eyes go wide, and he and Cally stared at each other.

"How does that work?" Cally asked, obviously impressed.

"The mathematics will be beyond your understanding," Nyf said. "You will have to take us on faith."

Derry laughed. "He didn't mean how does it work, he means what does it do?"

Both artificial intelligences laughed simultaneously, and the three humans grinned. Having a clone was obviously an interesting experience.

"Door connections are real-time events," Difris explained. "You step through one, and exit another at your destination, all in the space of time it takes for you to take the physical step. The actual crossing seems instantaneous to the traveler and to those on each side of the crossing, but only because there are complex mechanisms in place that keep the flow of time on either side in synchronization." The spider's optic globe turned to gaze at the purring machine. "Doors have safeguards in place to ensure that this function is reliable, and in order to thwart them, we need the assistance of another technology. The purpose of this new device is to alter the chronological referencing between the two doors so that time on the two sides no longer moves at the same apparent rate."

Mike frowned. "I thought time was the same everywhere."

Nyf offered another chuckle. "What a quaint notion."

"Now, Nyf," Difris admonished. "They cannot be expected to understand. Their science is still at the pre-starflight level."

"My apologies," the little orb said immediately. "I did not mean to be insulting."

"Yeah, we're not bothered that we don't get the math," Derry said, smiling. "We just want to know what to expect from it."

"You will feel no difference in the function of the doors," Nyf responded. "You step into one and emerge from the other, just as always. But the referencing of time between the two locations will no longer be equal. The time rate at your destination will effectively be accelerated, compared to the time you left behind."

Mike whistled in wonder. "But it will still feel the same to us, on the other side?"

"Yes. But when you return to the station, far less time will have elapsed here - and also upon your Earth - by a factor of twenty-four to one."

"Wow." Derry's granddad whistled again. "Now, that's some impressive stuff. I wonder what Mr. Einstein would have thought of that?"

"Yeah, but--" Derry frowned at the idea. "Won't we get a lot older doing this? I mean, if every day on the other side of a door only equals an hour here, the more time we spend going through doors, the older we'll get here in a hurry."

Mike raised a hand and brushed his chin thoughtfully with a fingertip, and nodded. "That makes sense. Yeah. If we go exploring for eight Earth hours, we'll come back eight days older. Say we go every day for eight hours, for just a month and a half of Earth time. We'll have aged a full year in real time, right? That may not be noticeable on me, but at the boy's ages, an extra year is going to show pretty clearly, isn't it?"

Nyf and Difiris both chuckled this time. "Actually, that won't happen. Time is relative between the two frames. Each time you return here, you will reattain the local time frame. Gone an hour here, age an hour on your return."

"Even if we spend a day on the other side?"

"Yes. The day you spend on the other side will still only be an hour here. The two alternate time frames are not cancelling. Time is still the same on both sides of the door, only the rate of its progression between the two locations is changed. It must correct upon your return or you will no longer be synchronized with your time frame here."

"Sounds like cheating," Cally said, grinning. "You can't get something for nothing."

"You're not," Difris said patiently. "It is a simple change in rate, but not a change in time. The physics of reality on each side of the doorway will know where you belong within the local time frame, and place you there upon your return."

Mike nodded. "It does sound too good to be true. That means we can do twenty-four years of exploring through doors, and only get one year older here."

Nyf gave a tiny sigh, and then seemed to think better of it. "Um...I was trying for slight exasperation. Was that sigh apt?"

The three humans laughed. "It was cool," Derry said."You think we're being stubborn."

"Oh, that was very good then. Amazing what these small sounds can convey."

Mike rolled his eyes. "You were saying, Nyf?"

"Uh -- yes. As we said earlier, the time coordinator is a variation on the time-distance drive used in empire star ships. You must understand that the stars are immensely far apart. Living beings - even the longest-lived varieties - simply cannot take years to cross from one star to the next. Empire star ships can travel five light years in a day of ship time. That is a ratio of five years for each day of travel. So a ship can cross 100 light years of space in twenty days for the crew inside. Yet they do not emerge from the vessel a century older. Despite the unequal rates of time passage during the voyage, and the distance covered versus the time passed within the ship, the crew retains their natural time frame upon arrival. They are but twenty days older, and only twenty days have passed between their departure and arrival at their destination."

"It is the same in this case," Difris said, picking up the conversation. "Despite the doors allowing you to step instantaneously onto another world, it does not mean that one side of any given doorway is immediately next to the other in space and time. You may cross dozens, or even hundreds of light years with a single step. In order for the physics of reality to allow this, time must be allowed to change its rate, then to readjust, with the difference being absorbed into the overall flow."

Mike waved a hand. "I'm convinced. I don't need the Star Trek explanation to do this. If you say we're good, I'll believe you guys." He grinned at Derry. "Right, Captain?"

Derry laughed. "Yeah. I'm okay with it, too. I trust you guys not to stretch us all out of time shape or anything."

Cally's eyes twinkled at Derry, but he also gave a nod of his head. "Yeah. Let's just go. If I come back with a beard, I'll just shave it off."

Derry tried to imagine his boyfriend with a beard, and couldn't. He bumped fondly against the other boy, and the two of them smiled at each other. Then Derry remembered that his granddad was right there, and took a step back again. Even though he and Cally felt that Mike Hamlyn knew about their relationship, Derry hadn't had the nerve yet to discuss his closeness with Cally with either his granddad or his mom. He had kind of hoped that his granddad would bring up the matter himself, but that hadn't happened. The silence on the subject since they had first suspected that Mike Hamlyn knew had grown deep in Derry's mind now, and reawakened his fears of discovery.

His defense was to play it off as just the normal give and take between friends. So he looked over at his grandfather and smiled as if nothing awkward had happened. Granddad was watching them with a thoughtful frown on his face, but Derry saw nothing negative in the man's expression to indicate he was upset or angry. Whew!

Mike Hamlyn gave a little shrug then, and turned back to Difris. "On with the show, then."

The spider's orb waved between them once again. "Very well. You now have your internal language library functions installed within your skulls, which will provide a language translating capability during your travels. It is to be expected now that contact will be required between you and any survivor empire species still inhabiting destination worlds."

Cally shook his head. "I don't feel any different." He turned to Cally. "You feel any different?"

"No. I don't feel any change at all."

"It is an on-demand capability," Nyf explained. "Attend me."

Derry shot a puzzled look at his granddad, who just smiled and shrugged. "I think he means for us to come closer."

They both moved over by Cally, who looked curiously at the orb on his chest.

"Omnu, purl a menni katji emho uf tan Obliagla, palavna," Nyf said then.

At least, that's what Derry's ears heard.

But inside his head, the most curious thing happened. In his thoughts, Derry heard, quite clearly: "For instance, I am now speaking to you in the language of the Obliagla."

"That's amazing!" Derry blurted...and then gasped. For while those were the words he thought, what came out of his mouth was: "Attu teagra sul!"

Cally gaped at him. "Wow."

Mike shook his head in wonder. " impressive. So the translating is entirely automatic? I kind of envisioned these long waits while something happened."

Difris chuckled alone this time. "No, the delay is almost negligible. It may be disconcerting to you at first, but the more the augment works with your brain and nervous system, the faster it will become. There is a learning engine that continually assesses your body's electrochemical network, and which will, over time, tune the device to a perfect match with your own brain functions."

"What about the encyclopedia thing?" Cally asked. His eyes narrowed a moment in concentration, and then he frowned. "I can't seem to find anything inside my head."

Derry grinned. "I've known it was like that for a long time."

Cally's eyes came up, and the boys grinned at each other.

"That function is not active just yet," Nyf told them. "Once the augment is fully adjusted to your neural signatures, we can allow them to begin training to act as memory augments for a greater variety of information than just languages. In due time you will have at your disposal complete histories of any people you meet, as well as what was known about their worlds, or any world you happen to be visiting. Up until a thousand years ago, anyway."

Derry shook his head in disbelief. "You mean we'll eventually have access to all the knowledge of the old empire? I'll be able pull up any subject I want, at any time?"

"I don't believe I said that," Nyf countered. "As with your translating function, access to broader knowledge will be an on-demand capability. While you can sit for hours and sift through your own knowledge and memories - those contained within your own brain - you will not be able to access this information source in the same manner. It will supply available information as needed, but you cannot browse it at will. To allow that capability would be so distracting you would never be able to concentrate on anything else."

Derry felt a momentary wave of disappointment, envisioning himself lying awake at night in his bed, wrapped up in the memories of a star-traveling culture far older than Earth's own.

And never getting a wink of sleep at all!

He smiled then, understanding. "I guess that's for the best."

Mike nodded. "Sounds that way to me, too. There are a lot of things we are not ready to know just yet." He smiled, and tapped his temple with his fingertips. "Just so it works when we need it."

"It will," Nyf assured them. "Once it has been trained to work with your brains. But for now, the only additions it can offer will be the translating skills."

"Yes," Difris agreed. "Now we should be able to send you off to look around, and feel a reasonable degree of certainty that you will return."

There was something in that statement that was slightly disconcerting, and the two boy's eyes met, each seeking some support from the other. But it was granddad who provided it. He stepped between the two boys and dropped a hand on each of their shoulders, and gave them both a squeeze. "With the exploration suits and the weapons, and now the translators, I feel pretty confident, I think."

"Very good." Nyf sounded happy at the idea. "So can we now proceed with the next mission?"

Mike glanced at his watch, and nodded. "We have about four hours before we'll be expected to be back home for dinner. That's four days to go exploring, right?"

"Yes," Difris agreed. "And this mission would hopefully be much shorter than that."

Derry smiled as his granddad frowned at the hopefully, but the man just nodded then. "Guys? Anyone have to go to the bathroom first? No?" Mike smiled at the spider then. "I guess we're ready."

They went with Difris to the supply center and reclaimed their exploration suits, and stepped into them. The suits automatically fitted themselves comfortably to each human form, and Derry closed the invisible fastening on his and ran his hand over the silky material, feeling the cool resiliency of it beneath his fingertips. The one-piece suit was a deep red in color, almost maroon, and fit his body like a loose glove. The feet, which were a part of the suit, were soft and comfortable, with a firm sole beneath that added a refreshing spring to his walk. Hand coverings at the ends of the sleeves molded themselves to his fingers and provided an amazing tactile sense, almost as if he were touching things with his bare hands. A black belt with a series of small black boxes with rounded corners upon it circled his waist, and a holster attached to the belt on his right side carried a brand new zap pistol, fresh from the armaments locker of the moon station.

The suit had a metal ring as a collar, which closed in a circle that remained two inches from his neck all the way around. This collar could produce an airtight globular field about his head, which presented as a golden helmet to those outside the suit, but which let the wearer see clearly in a variety of situations, including total darkness. The suit was proof against vacuum environments, and even had a built-in inertial absorber system that served to convert the energy of any type of impact to the suit to another form, which was stored in the suit's accumulators and used to strengthen its own defenses.

There were limits to everything, of course. Difris had told them that, at a certain point, if the energy striking the suit became too great for it to convert quickly enough, than the wearer would be gently shoved out of the path of the impact. The suits were intelligent to a point, and aware, and took their job of protecting the wearer seriously. But they weren't military-grade defensive suits, and while they boasted impressive protective capabilities, Nyf had been quick to remind them not to feel as if they were invulnerable.

"Some common sense is required on your part," the small mind had told them.

Cally raised a hand to his neck and tucked the small orb of Nyf's mind inside his suit and closed the invisible seam. Nyf liked to switch off riding with each of them, and had selected Cally for this mission. The boy patted the front of his suit and smiled. "Alright in there?"

"Yes. I am now interfaced with the suit's operating mind, and can make use of your sensory array to see and hear what goes on around us." The small mind's voice arrived inside their heads via the implanted communications augment they had all received earlier. Derry was so used to it now that the voice sounded like any other within his ears.

Cally laughed at that. "I have a sensory array?"

"A very good one, actually," Difris advised them. "You will not be caught unawares."

They had only worn the suits once before, on their last mission to investigate unusual goings-on at one of the empire's outlying fleet bases, which had proved to be an amazing adventure, but not one that had seriously tested the functions of their new suits. That the marvelous technology of the door builders was anything short of infallible was a hard thought to get a handle on, but Derry was open now to the idea that not even Armenti technology was perfect. After seeing the devastation wrought at the fleet base by a simple and apparently avoidable asteroid impact, he knew that even the ancient, proven technology of the door builders could experience breakdowns or glitches. The Armenti's machines had been running unattended and mostly without problem for a millennium since their disappearance, and Difris had assured them that they would run for many millennia more before failure became a problem. But even a fabulous technology such as the door builder's was purpose-built, and while far more adaptable and intelligent than human technology currently could boast, there were apparently things that even the Armenti had not been able to foresee.

So the boys did feel confidence in the technology that had been placed at their disposal, and even granddad seemed willing to accept that they would be safe in their investigations through the ancient door system. But Derry already had the thought in mind that overconfidence could still lead to disaster. It had made him promise himself to be careful, and to insure that the others were just as cautious as he was. The thought of any one of them being injured or worse was something he could not allow himself to imagine.

"I do have one question on the translator," Mike said then. "If we have to talk between ourselves and not have anyone else overhear us, how do we do that? Do we have to use the communicator function, and not speak aloud?"

"That will not be a problem," Difris returned. The spider's visual orb turned to each of them in turn. "The augment is in tune with your own thoughts, and will take into account intent. If you mean to speak to someone via the translator, you will, just as Derry did earlier, in response to Nyf's use of Obliagla."

"I didn't know that would happen," Derry countered, quickly.

"Agreed." The spider offered a pleasant chuckle, to which everyone smiled. "Yet your augment considered your response a comment on what was said by Nyf, and used the appropriate tongue. If you are intending to talk among yourselves, only English will be heard by any listeners. If your head bubbles are active, they will not hear your conversations at all. But since your native tongue is not in Empire records, no one will be able to understand what you are saying, even should they overhear."

"That's a relief," Mike said, smiling. "I had a picture of myself standing in front of some alien queen and saying something insulting that was accidentally understood."

"If you simply never say anything insulting, you will never have any problems like that," Nyf pointed out.

Mike grunted. "I could be insulting by accident and not even know it, I mean. I just want to know I can complain about my old ass being tired without causing an interstellar incident."

Nyf made a plainly surprised sound. "I'm sorry, Mike. Is your old ass tired? Have we been at this too long?"

Derry and Cally both burst into laughter, and Mike clapped a hand to his head. "No! I didn't mean...just never mind, Nyf. Let's get on with things, okay?"

"Then a briefing is in order," both Difris and Nyf said simultaneously. Mike blinked at the sudden change in direction, but Derry could see the humorous light come back into his granddad's eyes. That the man was having fun was clear.

Cally clapped his hands together. "Okay, where are we going?"

"There is no set destination," Difris returned, surprising them.

"You mean we can go anywhere? Pick any door?"

"Yes, Derry. Your last excursion to the fleet base was prompted by that particular door becoming active. No other instances of that nature have occurred since."

"Wait a second," Mike said, turning to look through the large entryway of the supply center to the enormous room full of doors waiting beyond. "You mean you haven't selected a destination for us?"

The spider's visual globe swayed side to side, as if shaking his head. "Every door holds equal mystery at this point. No one has come here through any of them in a thousand years. So no door holds any singular priority over any other, at least at the moment. There will be places we wish you to investigate at some future point that are more of a priority, but we feel you need some experience first before tackling them."

Mike waved a hand at everyone to follow, and exited back into the large door chamber. He crossed the wide expanse of floor, marched up to a sequence of five active doors, and pointed to the right-hand oval. "So if I wanted to go there, we could?"

"Not that door," Nyf spoke up then.

Mike looked amazed. "You just said any door!"

"But not that one," Difris returned, patiently. "There will be many doors we would not have you choose at first for various reasons, but that number is so high that to enumerate them would take more time than we have today. Better to wait until you select one that is not an option, and we will tell you then."

Derry grinned at his granddad's look of astonishment. "I get what he means" he said. "Like that one door in the station back on Earth. When I put my phone through it, it showed a frozen room on some awful snow planet, with a cracked window and no atmosphere to breathe. It would be dangerous to go there."

"That door would not actually be one we would not allow you to select," Nyf countered. "Your suits would be more than up to the task of safeguarding your survival there. But we would prefer for you utilize doors here at the transfer center, so that any retreat you make is not layered by other transfer points. It's safest if you come and go directly to and from this place."

Mike looked at the door he had selected. "What's wrong with that one?"

"All five of those doors lead to other transfer stations, all much smaller than this one. You would be required to pick another door from there to go through to reach a planetary destination, and we prefer not to add additional transfers to your travels, at least initially. For one, the time calibrator will only affect a door here and it's paired door on the other side. If you move through yet another door, we cannot be sure that the altered time frame will carry over through the second door pair. Also, we wish to have any retreats you may have to make be quick and straightforward, without you having to remember a sequence of doors to enable your return."

Derry remembered their first visit to the transfer station circling the red sun, and how he and Cally had taken the wrong door to go home, and wound up in the crumbling city of the fur people. "I'll say!"

"Although with me along, I would know the way back," Nyf pointed out.

"But you are only with one of the humans," Difris countered immediately. "Should they be split up, the other two not enjoying your company would be left to their own devices to find their way back."

"And we can't have that," Nyf continued, as if it was all a part of one conversation.

"No, we can't," Difris agreed.

Cally laughed. "This can really be like listening to someone talk to himself, you know?"

Derry nodded, smiling.

"Just hold up a minute," Mike said, raising a hand. "How about you take us to where there are doors we can use, and we'll talk more then."

"A marvelous idea!" Nyf returned, and followed it with a maniacal laugh worthy of a mad scientist in the movies.

Derry and Cally looked at each other in amazement, and then the latter boy patted the front of his suit. "Uh uh, Nyf."

"Too much?" the small mind asked.

"Yeah," Derry acknowledged. "A lot less on the crazy, I'd say."

"Thank you for pointing that out. I'm still trying to master all the nuances of the laugh."

"You'll get there," Cally said, patting the front of his suit reassuringly.

Mike looked around at everyone, and then squinted at Difris. "Shall we?"

"Of course." The spider opened the passenger compartment in his back and squatted so that the three humans could get into the seat. And then they were off, the spider striding across the polished floor at far faster a pace than a human could run.

Ahead of them, countless doorways to unknown lands awaited them.

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