The Darkness Between Doors

by Geron Kees

Chapter 3

They exited into a large chamber, which would have been dark had the ceiling not been a flattened transparent bowl. As it was, the sunshine that entered was from an angle, suggesting either morning or afternoon, and the light seemed to paint the vast room in somewhat harsher clarity than might the more cheerful sun of home.

"The sun around which Rustgevend revolves is somewhat larger and hotter than your own," Nyf supplied. "Its luminosity is greater, and the light it emits slightly whiter. You may find the sunlight tiring to your eyes at some point. Simply activate your head bubbles and the excess will be filtered out."

"Now you say," Mike said dryly, looking about the chamber. "This place is a lot bigger than I expected."

"There's more doors, too," Cally pointed out. "I thought you said there were only two, Nyf."

"I'm sorry. I said there were only two doors that led here from the transfer station. There are of course other doors providing access to Rustgevend from other station locations."

Mike nodded, turning slowly to count the five-door sequences nestled between what looked like car stations for the vast network of tubes connecting the mountaintops. "Hmm. I count fifty doors here. I suggest we mark ours."

Derry nodded, and slipped out of his backpack long enough to retrieve the can of red spray paint he carried just for this situation. He squatted in front of the door they had just exited, and painted a large red arrow on the polished floor. "That should do it."

Mike, still examining the doors all around them, raised a hand to point. "Nyf, a lot of these doors are not open."

Derry straightened and looked around, too. Many of the door ovals were still filled with the inky blackness that announced a connection between worlds. But fully half simply showed through to the gray steel wall behind them.

"A moment while I query the site mind," Nyf said.

Derry took that moment to look over the tube stations. These were large rooms that appeared to extend outward from the main body of the station, which was saucer-shaped. There were windows within these extensions, and tables and comfortable-looking seating, and even what looked like the food dispensers that their own door station back on the moon provided. The other end of the rooms were either filled with the rounded nose of a tube car parked behind an almost invisible wall, in which an entrance was plainly open or closed; or the stations were empty, with the sparkly sheen of the great tube itself showing beyond. Plainly, these empty stations suggested that the cars were at the other end of the line.

"It is as I thought," Nyf continued then. "There is a general failure of the power systems here. Yet that is not the reason for the failure of over half of the doors you see. According to the site mind, the doors that are inactive were deliberately deactivated one thousand years ago by the station master."

Mike gave the door they had just entered through a worrisome glance. "The power is out? That won't threaten our return, will it?"

"No." Nyf's tone sounded confident. "Each door has its own back-up power system. I have queried the system for our array of doors, and the back-up power for all five is still at ninety-four percent effectiveness." The small mind chuckled. "Besides, the doors do not draw local power to stay in operation. Onsite power is only required to establish or terminate a door connection. The doors themselves, once in operation, are powered by the peculiar physics of their own being."

"I think you told us that once before," Mike said, sounding relieved. He smiled. "Well, more or less."

"Does this mean the train cars aren't running?" Derry asked.

"I'm afraid so," Nyf returned. "And, according to the site mind's logs, the local power system was the victim of deliberate sabotage."

No one said anything for a moment. "Someone intentionally messed it up?" Cally finally asked.

"Yes. There appears to have been some conflict here at the same time as the general withdraw of the Armenti."

Mike sighed. "That doesn't sound good."

"Oh, any conflicts from that period seem to have been finished long ago."

Mike laughed. "I didn't mean that. I meant that no train cars mean no exploration."

"Apparently that is not the case. The site mind records a fairly consistent flow of foot traffic through here on a regular basis."

Derry and Cally exchanged surprised glances. "Foot traffic?" Derry repeated.

"Yes. The tubes seem to act as foot bridges now. Considering that the nearest peaks to this location are only a few miles away, such a walk between them, through this station, is on the order of a day trip."

Derry pointed at the tube stations holding cars. "Don't they block the tubes?"

Nyf chuckled. "If you observe the cars, you can see the entrance at this end. There is an entrance at the other end as well, for when the car reaches the opposite station. Upon the failure of propulsive power, these doors unlock and allow free passage. Travelers simply pass through the cars on their journeys."

"That is cool," Cally said, grinning at Derry. "Can you imagine walking through those tubes above the clouds?"

"Not yet," Derry admitted. "I want to go and look first."

"What about this mountain peak?" Mike asked. "Is there a way out of this station, so that we can look around here?"

"There is, but there is nothing upon this peak but the station," Nyf returned. "The nexus stations are mostly located atop peaks too low themselves to offer much in the way of living space. This peak offers enough room above the cloud barrier for the station, and some support structures. But there are no villas here."

"Bus station," Mike grumbled. "Of course no one wants to live near it."

Cally patted Derry's arm and turned towards one of the large windows offering a view of the outside world. "Let's go look!"

The two boys quickly headed that way, leaving Mike to sigh quietly. "That's right, just leave the old guy standing here." But then he smiled, and followed.

The view from the window was stunning. They looked to be only several hundred feet above the clouds, which roiled below them, looking almost alive. This ocean of white extended to the horizon, and there were easily a dozen peaks visible from this window alone, with the suggestion of many more fading into the horizon. A few, like their own peak, seemed to just barely pierce the cloud layer, while others, much taller and wider, offered stunning flanks covered in greens and browns. The mountains really did look as if they floated upon the clouds.

And yet - as much motion as he saw within the clouds below, their break with the clean sky above was unusually well-defined. It was almost as if...Mike frowned then, an old memory coming back to him. "Hey, wait a minute." He turned his gaze to where Nyf reposed beneath Cally's suit. "You told us earlier that heavy gases were at the surface of the planet, and the lighter gases, like oxygen and nitrogen, were up here."

"That's correct," Nyf said, sounding slightly amused now.

Mike nodded. "Well, a little bit of my old chemistry class just kicked in. Heavy gases and light gases don't separate out in a planet's atmosphere. Otherwise, the surface of the earth would also be uninhabitable, because the carbon dioxide, methane, and other heavier gases would all sink, and the oxygen and nitrogen rise."

"Well --" Nyf emitted a soft laugh. "The density of gases is different than the notion of weight. And pressure and temperature are also important components of the equation."

Cally sighed dramatically. "You're not going to go all math-crazy on us, are you?"

"I guess I won't." The small mind sounded slightly deflated. "Planetary atmospheres are complex mixtures of gasses. Entropy alone ensures the mixing of those gases, even without a planet's own fairly active circulation systems providing even more mixing. Your Earth's atmosphere, while sufficiently mixed to harbor life, still exists somewhat in layers, with different regions of density and variations in component gases at different levels. This planet was once the same way. But now there is a reason for the current separation. It is artificially induced."

Mike made a surprised sound. "Were you going to tell us about this?"

"It seemed an unimportant detail. But now that it has come up, I will tell you more about it. When discovered, Rustgevend was on the extreme borderline for habitable worlds. The native atmosphere was too rich in carbon dioxide to easily support your kind of life. Yet there was enough oxygen and nitrogen, if somehow the carbon dioxide could be separated out to safe levels. If the atmosphere could be rearranged."

Derry laughed at that. "Wow."

"Yes. The surface of this world is rugged and not particularly appealing. Where landmasses separated on your Earth and allowed seas to form between continents, the plate tectonics of this world are considerably more tortured. The result has been mountains and valleys over much of the surface. The millions of valleys contain oceans of water within them, and only the mountains thrust above."

"There's no flat land on this entire planet?" Mike asked in amazement.

"Only what is available on the mountain ridges and terraces. The mountain ranges here on Rustgevend comprise a combined land area equivalent to a continent in size. There was enough land that, if a breathable atmosphere could be provided, it was worth the cost of the effort. So empire developers installed an atmospheric separation field, powered by the geothermal energy of the active core, that provides two layers of special conditions."

Derry oohed at that, suddenly seeing where Nyf was going. "They terraformed it?"

"Yes, if I have the meaning of that word correct. There are a number of ways to redraw a planet's characteristics to support life. What was used here was one of the simplest, the creation of two specialized barrier layers around the world, each selectively permeable to gases, with the peaks of the mountains in the area between them. The lower layer is a gas-exchanger. As a powerful active scavenger of gases, it draws oxygen, nitrogen, and argon to it from below, and then forces them through to the space between the two barriers. At the same time, it draws carbon dioxide, methane, and other undesirable gases from above, and forces it to the layer below. The second barrier layer, the upper, outer layer, is permeable to selected undesirable waste gases only. Both layers will also freely pass solid matter and the electromagnetic frequencies necessary to maintain life."

"Cool," Cally breathed, causing Derry to smile at him. His boyfriend was becoming quite the techno geek!

"The two barriers were put in place and set in operation," Nyf continued. "In less than a single lifetime, all but trace amounts of carbon dioxide were removed from between the two barriers and forced below, and enough of the necessary breathable gases were drawn from beneath the lower layer and pushed into the middle space between the two boundary layers to provide an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere at the pressure a species like yours would need to survive. And, of course, the peaks of the mountains are very conveniently within the breathable area."

"That sounds simple enough," Cally decided.

"Actually, it is simple only in cost relative to other options," Nyf countered. "The actual process is fairly complex. I have simply made it more easy to understand by excluding the mathematical concepts involved."

Mike whistled. "But what if the fields fail?"

"The technology is secure," Nyf insisted gently. "In the unheard of event of field failure, the atmosphere would not suddenly become deadly. It would take time for the layers to remix. There would be more than enough time to make needed repairs. But there is no worry. This technology is in use on hundreds of worlds, and none have failed yet."

"That you know about," Mike said, smiling.

"Agreed. My information on the subject is of course one thousand years old. Yet I fail to understand why humans always wish to look at the dark side of things. Why contemplate failure instead of applying faith in the success of the technology?"

"It's our nature, I guess," Mike returned, laughing. "We hate to be broken down on the road."

Nyf was quiet a moment, clearly not getting the analogy. "Well...anyway, the work of producing a breathable atmosphere has been done. The barrier layers now simply provide balance and maintenance of the habitable region containing the mountain peaks."

"It seems to work," Derry said, sniffing the air. "I'm ready to go look around the place."

"So we're going to walk it?" Cally asked. He looked eagerly at the peaks outside. "Which mountain should we select?"

"Any of the closest large mounts should suffice," Nyf responded. "We do want a peak where we are likely to find people in residence."

"That one is huge," Derry said, pointing to a massive mountain large enough to look rambling. It had a rounded peak, gentle shoulders, ample terraces, and an abundance of green covering what they could see of it. It looked to have a surface area easily twice that of some of the other peaks.

"I was actually about to suggest that very one," Nyf supplied, sounding pleased. "If you will call up your head bubbles, you can use the magnification feature to inspect the flanks of that peak. I think you will clearly see the number of villas and other structures in attendance."

Derry did that, pulling up the golden globe of energy that could surround his head like a helmet, and which was absolutely transparent from inside. "What do I do?"

"Simply desire to look closer."

Derry actually leaned forward against the window, not sure how to do that; but the will was apparently enough. He gasped as his view of the distant peak suddenly raced towards him, and he heard a small, surprised yip from Cally as his own view must have similarly changed.

"Wow," Mike said, following his words with an appreciative laugh. "Now, that is an impressive feature."

Derry had to agree. The far peak now looked close at hand, as if he were flying just above it, and he could now readily see the castle-like structure where the tube from their station entered. Another tube entered to the right side of the structure, apparently arriving from another peak in that direction. He could plainly see the villas, no two seeming alike, sprinkled at respectable distances from each other over the terrain, and linked together by a network of what appeared to be roadways.

"Awesome," Cally said. "Looks like hundreds of those big houses over there."

"I don't see any people," Derry murmured, his eyes darting rapidly here and there. "You'd think there'd be somebody walking around over there."

"All structures are connected by a subsurface transport system," Nyf informed them. "The roadways are just for those that enjoy that slower form of travel. And, there are many pathways among the...trees, for want of a better word. They are very similar to the trees on your own world, in any case. Anyone walking beneath the canopy would not be visible."

"I don't see anybody, either," Mike offered. "It just seems odd."

"It may be, or it may not be," Nyf countered. "The log of the station mind documents foot traffic through here by a number of races. Narthies and Crites would seem to be in the majority, however."

Mike smiled at that. "Certainly. Narthies and Crites."

"Which you don't know about, of course," Nyf went on smoothly. "Observe."

There was a sudden flash to one side of them, and all three humans turned as a large, opaque circle appeared in the air nearby them. Colors ran through its interior and formed an image, immediately recognizable as the interior of this very tube station. The focus was on one of the tubes, from which they could see shadows approaching.

In a moment four tall, slender life forms emerged, taller than the humans were by a foot, certainly. The flesh of these people, where not hidden by their clothing, resembled the variegated head of a wheat plant, like many small kernels assembled together with dark lines between them, yet not giving the impression that they were separate parts. The effect was almost reptilian, Derry thought.

The aliens had two arms and two legs, and a pair of black eyes gazing forward from among a spiky fuzz high up. They were clothed in what looked like a cross between a robe and the wrappings of a mummy from some old horror movie. Their feet were encased in black coverings that somehow managed to look soft like socks, yet durable like combat boots. The upper body was circled by the belts of a black harness, from which dangled several small black boxes of indiscernible function.

"These are Crites," Nyf informed them, as the three humans stared at the images.

One of the aliens, plainly in the lead, carried a tall staff with what looked like a metallic knot at the top of it, which he was using as a walking stick as he moved. The other three carried large bags of some sort, and toted them with a deference that suggested the contents might be fragile. None of the four made any sounds but the scrape of their foot coverings against the floor, and the repeated tap-tap of the leader's staff as they moved. The four of them came into the station proper and made a beeline for one of the other tubes, and quickly vanished within. Derry frowned after them. The sense of purpose the four had displayed conveyed the definite idea that the Crites were not someone you wanted to interfere with.

"Businesslike bunch," Mike said, affirming Derry's own appraisal. "They don't look like the types you want to cross."

"Crites were known as a quite reasonable species, actually," Nyf countered pleasantly. "Appearances aside, these were probably simply focused on getting where they were going so that they could sleep. Crites are a nocturnal species by nature, and tend only to move about in the daylight if necessary. These were probably engaged in some important task that could not wait for the sun to set."

Before Derry could comment, the image before them changed, and another party of travelers was shown emerging from one of the tubes.

Where the Crites had been tall and slender, these new aliens were short and rather rotund, and Derry immediately smiled, his own thoughts saying beaver. Yet the resemblance to those terrestrial animals was superficial, driven mostly by the shape of the head and the two overlarge front teeth in evidence. These fellows had longer legs than any beaver, and there were no tails at all in evidence.

But they were furry like beavers, and boasted tall, pointed ears, and hands that resembled the nimble ones of a squirrel, though on a much larger scale. The group was dressed uniformly in baggy brown pants, and their shoes looked to be of soft leather, though with no two pairs exactly the same. Above the pants they wore butter-colored jerkins, with wide black belts encircling them in the middle, from which hung several small pouches, and a very capable looking sword at the side.

And where the four Crites had clearly been focused on their mission, the six aliens in this group seemed to be having a good time. They were talking and issuing forth sharp barks that sounded like laughter, and there was a camaraderie among them that could not be missed. Yet Derry could also not fail to miss how their eyes moved about alertly, and that most of them had their hands on the hilts of the swords hung from their broad belts. Derry could already imagine the mayhem one of the aliens might create should that sword be withdrawn from its scabbard. Despite their genial look, to assume that they would be friendly was not something Derry was ready to do just yet.

"Narthies, right?" Cally asked, patting the front of his suit.

If the constant tapping of Cally's fingers against the glassy marble of his mind bothered Nyf in any way, he clearly didn't show it. "Yes."

"Looks like a fighting force," Mike mused. "Or maybe a scouting party."

Derry turned a puzzled look on his granddad. "Why do you think that?"

The man shrugged. "Anytime I see a group of men all dressed the same and armed, I think soldiers. These have the look of some sort of unified force."

"They aren't as serious looking as the Crites," Derry pointed out. "That sounded like laughter to me."

Mike nodded. "Laughter is a good sign, but not a certainty that these fellows might be trusted." The man looked at the two boys. "So we be careful, understand?"

"If the only weapons available here are staves and swords, you will be impervious to them in your protective suits," Nyf informed them. "Though it is important to recall that these are images only, and are not accompanied by scans. If these people were carrying other, more dangerous weapons out of sight, we will not know until we encounter them."

"They didn't look particularly advanced," Cally decided. "They had that same look the glass people and the bear horses had. Sort of like old Native American warriors, or something."

"They did look a bit more primitive than I expected," Mike agreed. "You think there has been a regression here, too?" He seemed to think about that a moment, and then shook his head. "The clothing looked machine made, and the swords also had a sort of mass-produced look to them. So maybe these guys are not so primitive after all."

"I would say that it's likely we will see no survivors that have maintained the empire's high level of technology, at least on the less populated worlds. The core worlds may or may not have fared better, but worlds like Rustgevend were too dependent on contact with other places to have maintained a high level of technology beyond the self-maintaining sort. This was, as you have suggested, a sort of vacation world. There were no manufacturing facilities here of any kind. Those stranded here when the unknown event caused people to stop using the door system would have had only what was brought with them, and the use of this world's general repair and maintenance facilities. That would have limited their ability to expand upon the technology available. And the apparently deliberate sabotage of the local tube transport system indicates a desire - at least in this region - to limit the ease with which different peaks could access each other. That suggests that some factions may not have been getting along, or that each peak wished to maintain what advantages it might have for its own population and not share them."

Mike frowned at that. "Not share them? Wouldn't it have been to their advantage to view their new isolation as a group problem?"

"It would no doubt have been an advantage for this world to share resources in the struggle to survive. Had the population all been of a kind, that may well have happened. But empire races, despite their level of technology and social advancement, often simply did not get along with others of completely different view. The Armenti policed the system and acted as arbiters in the many disputes that arose. As the possessors by far of the most advanced technology, and the key to the use of the doors, their decisions had the weight of law. To have them suddenly disappear from the empire and the door system suddenly become untrustworthy, or even is doubtful that complete peace would have ensued."

Mike gave an appreciative whistle. "I can sort of see that."

"What about these two people?" Derry asked. "The Crites and the Narthies? You said it was no surprise that we couldn't see them walking around on the other mountain."

"Crites are a nocturnal species, as I said," Nyf replied. "They only do business during the daylight hours if circumstances require it."

"And the Narthies?"

"On their homeworld they were a subterranean species, beginning as primitive burrowers, and later placing their cities underground as their technical level increased. They are not averse to the open air and sunshine, but if they are the inhabitants of the peak we examined, they would most assuredly be doing most of their travels in the connecting tunnels underground. It's simply their nature."

"And if the Crites live there, most of them would be asleep now," Cally finished. "Weird."

"The galaxy is home to many species," Nyf said. "You will become used to the fact that their lives are mostly very different from your own."

Derry pointed at the circular viewer still hanging in the air, which had gone opaque again. "You said the station mind said most of the foot traffic through here lately were Crites and Narthies. What about anyone else?"

"Well..." Nyf hesitated, and Derry and Cally immediately looked at each other.

"Spit it out," Mike said then. "Are there others here, or not?"

"There are quite a number of other races in the record, that have passed through here on foot since the tube system stopped functioning. The traffic has thinned in recent years, becoming almost exclusively Crites and Narthies. No other species but one has passed through here in the last several months."

"And who would that be?" Mike asked, obviously trying to be patient now.

Nyf emitted an audible sigh. Colors flowed into the viewer again, and once more showed them a view taken within the station. This time the light was low, the sunlight coming in through the clear roof above diminished as if by intense clouds, or even dusk. They were looking at a tube station again, and just when Derry thought he might be missing something, he caught sight of three shadows as they flitted into the room. They were large - larger than a man - and their movements were flowing, almost like the slow beat of the wings of a bird, as they undulated forward across the room. Their shapes were dark, almost formless, the outlines seeming to ebb and flow as they moved, and Derry felt an instant creeping sensation rise along his backbone, until it felt like the hair was standing up on the back of his head.

"Holy crap," Mike breathed softly, moving closer to Derry and putting a protective hand on his shoulder. "What the hell is that?"

The three shapes quickly crossed the room and vanished into another tube.

"Schrikken," Nyf said quietly. "I knew that their forms would be unsettling to you."

"You think?" Mike returned. "I feel like I just saw my first real ghosts!"

Derry blinked then, and nodded. That was exactly what he was feeling, too. "This was an empire race?"

"Yes. They are oxygen breathers like yourself, originally from a world circling a red dwarf star, and preferring worlds of a similar kind. It was a surprise to see them here. I would think the sunlight here would be quite uncomfortable for them."

Mike let out his breath, and wiggled his shoulders slowly, obviously trying to relax. "Are they as creepy as they look?"

"They seem to have a similar effect on many species, and have been a retiring member of the empire almost since their introduction. But if you are asking me if they are a malevolent race, I would have to say no. Their forms simply --"

"Raise the hackles," Mike supplied instantly.

"Thank you. Their forms are disturbing to many, and while studies have been made of the reasons for their effect, the effect itself has never been adequately explained."

Cally licked his lips. "They were like something supernatural."

Mike nodded to that. "That's putting it mildly." He firmed his expression then. "But if Nyf says they're decent people -- um, you were saying they were decent people, weren't you, Nyf?"

"The Schrikken are a respected member race of the empire, or they were a thousand years ago. But, yes, they were also feared. Yet I have no record of a reason for that fear beyond the unsettling effect they have on many warm-blooded, oxygen breathing species."

"They could have gone bad," Cally said. "A thousand years stuck far from home could change anybody."

"That goes for all the races we might meet here," Mike replied. "But it's a different thing to never have been civilized at all, then to be civilized and lose some of that due to circumstance. I'd prefer to give these people the benefit of the doubt until they show us otherwise."

"So what do we do?" Derry asked.

"We treat them civilly, if we meet them," Mike said. "Like in no shooting before we talk to them, got it?"

Derry and Cally exchanged startled glances. "We would never do that, anyway," Derry said.

"Okay. Sorry. I was just being sure of it. That scene of the Schrikken you showed us was probably from years ago, anyway, right, Nyf?"

"Actually, it was recorded just last week, Mike."

Cally looked at Derry, and the expression on his face was so comical that Derry couldn't help laughing. The moment he did so, Cally also broke loose. Mike stared in surprise from one boy to the next and back again; but then he also smiled. "Well, so much for fearing the ghosts and goblins." He looked up at the overhead. "I'd say it's afternoon here now. What do you think, Nyf?"

"I estimate we have about five hours of daylight left, yes."

"Enough for us to walk to that peak we were discussing?"

"Oh, certainly. Even moving leisurely."

Derry had his laughter under control now, though he and Cally couldn't help grinning at each other. "Um, would it be better to stay here for the night and go in the morning? We'd have a whole day then."

Mike shook his head. "There are ten tubes that come into this station. That's ten avenues of approach we'd need to be wary of. At least inside a tube there are only two directions to worry about.'

"But if we get to the mountain before dark, we still need a safe place to camp."

"I only saw two tubes entering that big castle over there. And I'm sure we'll be able to at least find a defensible corner someplace to sleep in." He looked around the station one more time. "I don't want to be here if someone comes through in the middle of the night."

Derry recalled the ghostly shape of the Schrikken, and nodded. "Yeah. I'm with you on that!"

"I'm sure you are," Mike said a little drily, his eyes smiling. He made a clicking sound with his tongue as he thought for a moment. "So, Nyf, is there anything else we need to know just now?"

"Not that I am aware of. The tube to our right is the connecting tube to the destination peak."

"I'm ready for a walk," Derry decided, smiling at the others. "Are we all ready?"

Cally grinned. "I am!"

Mike nodded, and turned towards the indicated tube. "Then let's go."

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