The Darkness Between Doors

by Geron Kees

Chapter 2

"And this one?" Mike asked. pointing at yet another door.

"Ysplesa," Difris answered immediately. "A trading center of the Um'ploog Confederacy. Quite a wild place, even back in the day."

Derry smiled at the spider's choice of words. Difris had been studying English relentlessly, and was even coming to master the colloquialisms nicely.

Mike was looking a little frustrated by now. "I knew it was a mistake to start asking where these darn doors went to. We should have just chosen an acceptable one and taken the plunge."

Cally shook his head. "I don't know. I'd rather pick one that was fun and interesting, right?"

When Derry nodded in agreement, his granddad smiled. "Hmm. Maybe we're going about this the wrong way."

"How so?" Nyf asked. "It seems logical to know what we are getting into first."

"It does," Mike agreed. "But I could stand here all day pointing at doors, and hearing where they go, and not be getting enough information to ever get us going." He grinned then, and rubbed his hands together. "How about we do this? The three of us will supply some clues we think would be interesting in a place to visit, and then you can tally them and suggest a place that fits the bill?"

"That would work," Nyf said. "At least initially, though don't be surprised if vague clues lead to many choices."

"We'll be careful," Mike promised.

"Then we are agreed." Difris nodded his visual receptor. "Proceed."

Mike blinked at the sudden acceptance of the idea, and looked questioningly at Derry. "Oh. Uh..."

"Well, we don't want to arrive in a huge city," Derry said, remembering the wildly overgrown plazas between the shattered skyscrapers that had marched away in every direction in the city of the fur people. The citizens of that city, now regressed to primitive hunters, had pursued the boys on their visit there as if prey, forever labeling the place as scary in his mind. "Maybe a town, or something like that. Small."

"That's a good idea," Mike agreed, himself visualizing the small city they'd arrived in on their visit to the planet of the bear-horses and glass people. It had seemed more an outpost than a true city, even. "Be a good idea not to suddenly appear in a Times Square loaded with people. A small city or town would do."

"Or even a door out in the boonies," Cally added.

Difris was silent a moment. "You wish to avoid immediate involvement with the population, if any?"

"That actually makes sense to me," Mike agreed."Sort of scope things out first?"

"A not unwise tactical approach," Nyf put in. "A door perhaps close to a population center, but not actually in one."

"But not as easy to provide as you might imagine," Difris decided. "Door stations were generally placed within centers of population in order to be easily accessible to travelers."

Mike nodded. "Okay. Then how about a place that's just sort of low-key on its own? Didn't you guys have places where people went to get away from the hustle and bustle of civilization? Like a park, or maybe a resort?"

"Ah." Difris extruded another appendage, which quickly presented a flat surface that filled with a colorful picture. The scene was of a beach that stretched away into the distance, one covered with orange sand, and upon which were laid out rows of large creatures that could have been walruses, had they not had thick legs like that of an elephant, with four great toes. They also seemed to have tails, which occasionally whipped about as if shooing away some annoying but unseen insect. The creatures were dressed in colorful but minimalist clothing that was clearly related to human ideas on bathing suits, and there were square umbrellas shielding some of them from the decidedly reddish sun that hung high in the sky.

The image turned inshore, and a series of six-sided structures came into view, looking very much like an otherworldly equivalent of beach cabins, each replete with a wide, covered veranda, and large, circular windows certainly designed to let in a maximum of the reddish sunshine. Tall growths with large, spade-shaped lime-green leaves stood around the cabins and along the beach, and Derry's first thought was of an alien Hawaiian resort of some kind, reposing among the local equivalent of palm trees.

In the distance, the shining spires of a city sprawled across the foothills of a chain of weathered mountains, and the small dots of aircraft of some sort could be seen drifting slowly among the towers. The entire scene was an incredible mix of the utterly familiar and the totally alien, and Derry could only join Cally and granddad in gaping just a little. The similarity to life on Earth was amazing!

"Those gray guys are big," Cally said, after a moment. "Where is that?"

"Hadeeros," Difris informed them. "A rather well-known resort in its time. That is a party of Alabascans you see relaxing there. The image is of course from the past. Hard to say what the place would be like one thousand years later."

Mike shook his head. "Too much water. I'm a woodsy sort. And those walrus guys look like they'd be a handful if they weren't friendly."

"Hadeeros catered to a variety of oxygen-breathers," the spider said. "There would have been many other races besides the Alabascans enjoying the amenities there."

"And many empire races are larger than you," Nyf added. "Would you like us to narrow the field to those races that are your own size or smaller?"

"Of course, as we have already learned, there is no guarantee that any world you visit will not have members of multiple races present," Difris reminded.

Mike frowned. " We can't be particular about who we want to meet. But I'd prefer something a little less oceany."

Derry hid a smile, knowing how much his granddad loved to swim in the lakes near their home, but also how much he did not like the ocean. Derry had never learned the why of that, but now was not the time to inquire.

His granddad noticed Derry's attempt to conceal his smile, and raised his eyebrows at the boy "What? I just prefer to go somewhere away from that much water, is all."

Derry nodded, wanting no trouble just now. "I'm good with that."

"Me, too," Cally spoke up immediately, sensing the odd moment, and wanting to support Derry. "Let's just move to the next one."

The picture on the panel Difris was presenting changed to another view. This one was much less immediately comprehensible, depicting a place where weird green growths draped with white lacy strands towered into an impossibly purple sky, and among which bluish, blocky beings walked on three legs while small, many-legged creatures of some sort scampered back and forth all around them. Derry gulped at the unsettling feeling the scene gave him, and all the humans agreed immediately that it was just too alien.

"I don't even know what I'm looking at," Mike said.

"My apologies," Difris returned. "I'll keep it more terrestrial in nature. Hmm. How about this?"

A new scene appeared, and Cally immediately released an impressed and appreciative whistle. "Look at that!"

The view seemed to be taken from the peak of a mountain, one among many such peaks marching away on all sides to the distant horizon. Between the mountains, and leaving only the peaks visible, a thick bed of clouds obscured any view of the ground below, leaving the impression that the many mountaintops floated upon a vast, frothy white sea. The mountaintops were connected together by a web of glassy-looking tubes suspended atop impossibly thin pylons that poked up from the depths of the clouds, and through which the occasional bullet shapes of what were certainly passenger cars fled past at amazing paces. Each tube terminated at a majestic, castle-like structure, into which the cars vanished, apparently there to disgorge their passengers.

Derry looked closer at the nearest peak, and could see the smaller dots of other structures, well separated, but dotting the green flanks of the mountain in some numbers. They seemed to be connected by nearly invisible lines that might have been roadways. He couldn't discern much in the way of detail, but that he could see them at all suggested they were even larger than they looked from so far away.

"Wow," Mike said, just as impressed at the others. "Where is that?"

"Rustgevend," Nyf said, sounding amused at the human's reactions. "Billed as a meditative retreat in its day. One could lease one of the many villas there, and simply relax and enjoy the peace and solitude."

Mike stared at the picture a little longer, and then shrugged. "That's it? What was there to do there?"

"I just told you. Relax and enjoy the peace and solitude."

Derry laughed. "He means, like, are there museums and theme parks, and stuff like that?"

"Nothing like that," Difris said. "The idea was to have total peace and privacy, something not easily obtainable in most cultures of the empire. It was quite popular at the time."

Derry stared anew, trying to imagine people paying to stay at a place that appeared much like the house he lived in, nestled as it was among the peace of fields and woods. "Was it so hard to find a quiet place in the empire?"

Nyf offered up a perfect small sigh. "Many of the empire's worlds were virtually one large city, elegant and supremely well laid out, yet offering very few places one could go where others were not present. Even the many parks these cities offered were in constant use, both day and night. Citizens living in even the finest buildings could not help but to be aware that there were others all around them, which they could neither see nor hear, but which they could still sense in their multitudes. Even being alone in one's dwelling gave no real sense of solitude."

Derry looked at Cally, who shrugged. "I can't imagine that."

"Neither can I," Mike said, offering a small shudder. "But all the empire worlds weren't like that. The planet of the bear-horses wasn't."

"That's true," Difris agreed. "The farther one went from the core of the empire, the more rural the settled worlds became. But the core of the empire contained thousands of suns, around which circled thousands of life-supporting worlds, all of which were densely populated. Worlds such as Rustgevend were not so common in core territory."

Derry pointed at the view of the mountain peaks. "Why is this place special? What was beneath the clouds?"

"Nothing," Nyf supplied. "The surface of Rustgevend is uninhabitable. Several heavy gases poisonous to oxygen-breathers comprise much of the atmosphere at the surface, with only the tallest peaks reaching high enough to enter a zone where lighter oxygen and nitrogen become the dominant mix. To travel below the clouds on Rustgevend is to perish - at least if one has no protective gear."

Derry examined the scene anew, seeing it differently now. Instead of majestic peaks poking high among the clouds, he saw islands in an ocean filled with sharks. That explained the tube transports to connect the peaks. It was the only way to travel short of flying.

Mike was eyeing the view with renewed interest now. "That sounds more to my liking."

"Really, Granddad?"

"Sure. How many people could be at a place like that? "

"Each peak had several hundred villas," Nyf pointed out.

Mike nodded. "And if people went there to get away, they wouldn't have brought crowds with them to each villa. So it's likely we're looking at a small population on each peak. Even after a thousand years, how many people could there be?" He nodded. "Much better."

"It will do for a first attempt," Difris decided. "Although at some point you will need to visit more centralized and populous worlds if you are ever to learn what became of the Armenti."

"I understand that." Mike nodded. "Let's work our way up to that, though. I am also aware that these more populous and centralized worlds might also have the technology on hand to deal with uninvited guests. Our suits and stuff are no better than what others might have. I don't want to be captured the minute we arrive, you know?"

Derry gasped at that. He had considered the idea of capture when they had been pursued on the planet of the bear-horses. But to arrive in some ultramodern alien city and be arrested on the spot by the authorities actually had a much more frightening feel to it. They might never be allowed to go home!

"I think this is better, too," Derry said. "We're gonna need to think hard before visiting one of these city-planets."

Difris let his visual orb bob up and down. "I understand your feelings of caution, Derry. I would tend to agree with you more if there was evidence that empire culture had survived intact. But a thousand years is a long time. Empire worlds were much dependent upon one another, and to have each suddenly isolated cannot have been good for them. And the regression of the cultures we have seen thus far seems to indicate at the least an aversion to the very technology that made them what they were. The city on the world where you met the Hvarla and the Kabrini - the bear-horses and the glass people - had been abandoned. The two species you encountered had adapted into a cooperative hunting culture, and those that occupied the city originally were not in evidence at all. This suggests a very great upheaval that may have left the empire unrecognizable today."

Cally frowned. "You think the empire fell? Like Rome?"

Both Difris and Nyf emitted identical laughs. "I'm afraid the crash would have been far more resounding than that example," Nyf said. "But yes, we do feel the empire has collapsed, at the very least."

"Well, you don't have to sound so cheerful about it," Mike said, frowning.

"We did not mean to be," Difiris returned. "The laugh was directed at the comparison to your Rome, not at the collapse itself."

"We are not cheerful," Nyf agreed. "We are just being realistic."

"That's so sad," Derry said, shaking his head. "They built so much. They had so much. How could it all have fallen down?"

"This is the knowledge we seek," Difiris answered quietly.

Mike gave his head a little shake. "This business of no one wanting to use the doors has to be considered, too. That sort of fear can be dangerous. Anywhere we go where people know we arrived by doorway, we could be seeing trouble."

Derry had also considered that earlier, but being reminded of it now was unsettling. "We'd much more likely be spotted emerging from a door in a crowded city," he offered carefully.

"Yeah," Mike said, also sounding subdued. He nodded then. "We'll try this place first, I think. Rustgevend, you said?" He indicated the view on the spider's display. "Any idea where the door will drop us?"

"There are two doors to this particular planet from this location," Nyf told them. "One for each hemisphere. The mountain peaks you see here are a worldwide feature, with broad chains of them circling the globe north to south."

"I think Mike is asking what structure they will emerge within," Difris decided. "The door will exit into one of the travel tube nexus sites. The travel tubes you see here run between individual peaks, but there are many tubes going in many directions, and they often meet at so called nexus centers. The door will drop you at one of them in either the northern or the southern hemisphere."

"Uh huh," Mike said. "What about weather? I'd prefer to go to the warmer hemisphere. You know - summer?"

"The axial tilt of Rustgevend is negligible," Nyf returned. "The world does not experience extreme seasonal changes as does your own. The comfort zone for your kind runs to about forty degrees north and south of the equator, with the equator of course being the warmest, with a mean temperature of eighty degrees on your Fahrenheit scale."

"Any advantage to going north over south?"

"None that I am aware of, Mike."

"Okay. Take us to those doors."

"What about the time calibrator thingie?" Cally asked.

"It will meet us at the door," Difris responded. Once again, the spider opened the travel compartment on its back and squatted to the floor. "Get in and I'll take you there now."

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead