The Darkness Between Doors

by Geron Kees

Chapter 4

Walking into the tube was no easy matter. Despite its sparkly look from the main gallery, when they actually stepped through the doorway in the almost transparent wall before the tube, it was to find that the tube itself had virtually disappeared, leaving only a slightly bluish pathway that seemed to wander off into the sky. All three of the humans simply stopped at that point and stared.

"Where'd it go?" Cally asked, absently patting the front of his suit where Nyf hung inside.

"It is still there. The tubes are designed to be visible from the outside, to ensure them not being impacted by the transport aircraft once in use here. Despite the safeguards built into all empire technology, there were recorded instances where passengers of aircraft deliberately removed them from automated control in order to...joyride, I think is the term you use. That habit sometimes had dire consequences. From the inside, the tubes are designed to be nearly invisible, giving the riders in the cars the impression of flying rather than traveling inside a tube. The blue pathway you see before you is a necessary concession to invisibility, as it houses the levitation technology that propelled the car. Being beneath the car, it was not visible to its passengers."

"It's still almost invisible," Derry pointed out. "I can still see right through it."

Nyf gave a laugh. "Technology need not be opaque to light to be effective, Derry."

Mike released an amused snort. "I'm learning quickly that we might not even know Armenti technology when we see it."

"That is true, though the transport tubes were provided by a Dapavalian concern and are not Armenti technology at all."

Cally blew out a breath of frustrated air. "It's still good tech, isn't it? If we go walking out on this thing, we're not going to fall, right?"

"You will not fall, no. Even were you to step into an invisible rent in the fabric of the tube, the contragravity unit of your suit would not allow you to plummet to destruction."

"Whoa, whoa!" Mike blurted, shaking his head in amazement. "These suits can fly? And you never mentioned that?"

"It has not come up yet," Nyf returned. "Your suits are designed to be very capable protections for exploring a wide variety of environments. I have not enumerated all of the suit functions because many have not been relevant to our previous explorations. The question of height is now relevant, in the light of Caleb's question."

"Cally," Cally corrected automatically, and then grinned at Derry. It was Derry who had shortened his name from the given Caleb to the much fonder version he used now. Cally now preferred it over his given name.

Derry cast a quick look at his grandfather, who was not looking their way, and then gave his lips the slight, suggestive pucker of a kiss, and grinned at the reaction when Cally smiled and his face turned ever so slightly red.

But Mike apparently sensed something unusual about the exchange anyway, and cleared his throat loudly before going on. "Uh, anyway. I'm not against walking out along this blue path as long as it's safe. And it's nice to know we can't fall. But at some point I want to sit down and learn all the functions of these suits, you understand me?"

"Yes, Mike."

"Okay. So, uh, how do we make the flying thing happen?"

"If you wish to raise yourself, make the thought known."

Mike narrowed his eyes skeptically. "Just decide I want to fly?

"It is the way that all on-demand functions work with your suits, Mike. Just as you wished to look more closely at the distant peak from the station, all you need do is to wish to raise yourself, and that will occur. Though I must point out that in the event of danger, some normally on-demand functions may be activated by the suit's mind in order to protect you."

Mike looked at Derry a moment, and then down at himself. And then, quite as if by magic, the man rose a foot from the floor, and then a second foot into the air. Mike grinned wildly then, his expression clearly displaying his delight. "Oh, I love this!"

Cally also floated upwards, accompanied by a tickled chirp of sound, and Derry had only to think that he wanted to go up, too, when he found himself lifting to a height several feet above the floor of the tube station. It felt a little like floating in a swimming pool, except there was no feeling of water around him, and no tendency to sink if he didn't move his legs. His legs and feet did not hang down as if unsupported, either, as they might had he actually been suspended from a rope or something. It was as if the entire suit lifted at once, and the feeling was very uniform. His feet still felt to be standing on firm ground, despite that fact that he obviously was not.

Mike moved forward then, did a slow circle, and then came back to float next to Derry. "I think you both should try moving a little. It's very intuitive, and you will pretty much move exactly like you think you will."

Derry nodded, and willed himself to move over to the wall, circle back, and then stop at the place he had started from. Cally watched him with an enchanted smile; and as soon as Derry stopped again, Cally moved slowly in his own circle, rose to touch his hands on the overhead, and then sank to the floor again. Mike, and then Derry, landed beside him.

"That is just awesome," Cally gushed happily, to which Derry smiled. The delight in his boyfriend's eyes was contagious, no doubt about that. Derry sighed, remembering again how much he loved to see Cally smile.

"And I can see a lot of usefulness to this, too," Mike affirmed. "It's nice to know we can simply escape some dangers by just taking off."

"The interface with your own thoughts is extremely efficient," Nyf acknowledged. "Control by thought patterns is a very old and mature technology."

"Not at home," Mike countered. "Our people are just learning how to do it."

"Armenti accomplishments in this area predate the first written records on your world," Nyf pointed out.

"Then I guess we ought to be able to trust them," Mike said. "I do feel better about walking above the clouds now, though."

"Then let us proceed before we use up our allowance of daylight."

Mike smiled at the trace of a reprimand he detected in the artificial mind's voice, and turned back to the tube. "Wait here a minute, guys."

He stepped forward onto the blue pathway, walked out several paces, and then turned and moved diagonally from the path, as if he meant to step off into space. But he reached the edge of the blue path and continued, until his feet started to land upon the invisible curve that was the start of the sides of the tube. He leaned forward then, and it was clear that his hands rested against something firm, even if they couldn't really see it.

"No doubt about it, boys. This is the inside of a tube. I can feel it now. And it feels solid as a rock, too."

"Then come back," Derry insisted, not happy to see his granddad apparently poised in mid air over a drop of some height to the flank of the mountain below.

Mike nodded, turned around, and returned to the blue path. "Come on, guys. Let's get rolling."

Derry and Cally stepped onto the blue path together and quickly joined the man. Derry put an arm around his granddad and gave him a brief squeeze, to which the elder Hamlyn looked surprised. "I was in no danger, Derry."

"I know."

They smiled at each other, and Mike gave the boy a squeeze in return. "Come on."

They started out along the blue pathway. Below them, the flank of the mountain retreated, and soon they were stepping out over the roiling bed of clouds that filled the valleys between peaks. It was almost unreal, and would have been like walking on the air itself had not Derry plainly felt the solidity of the tube beneath his feet.

After a short time they were far enough from the station to turn back and be able to see it in its entirety, and they did just that, pausing long enough to look over the exterior of the great saucer in detail. The station sat squarely upon the summit of the peak, which appeared to have been artificially leveled, and paved or covered over in a copper-colored metallic material. Travel tubes could be seen coming from other peaks in nearly every direction of the compass, though there were only ten tubes to this station, all told.

Despite its clean and orderly appearance, there was a certain inactive, unused look to the place, as if it could only appear normal when in use as a busy hub of movement, and now looked deserted by comparison. They knew that the station was not totally deserted, of course, as travelers still made their way there and passed through it. But the somewhat forlorn look of isolation about the place seemed a certain sign that better days had passed.

"Damn thing doesn't look a year old, let alone a thousand of them," Mike remarked.

"Empire technology is largely self-maintaining," Nyf offered. "The skin of the station is non-reactive, and so immune from the effects of sun and weathering. Of course, if damaged severely enough, even empire technology will fail. The sabotage of the station power systems was apparently thorough enough to ensure that the maintenance systems could not repair it."

"It looks lonely," Cally said, a trace of sadness in his voice.

Derry nodded, feeling the same thing. Like an empty old house, alive now only with the memories of those that had once lived there.

"And you don't know any more about that sabotage, except that some of the systems were destroyed?" Mike asked.

"No. The station's scanning array was also taken out in the attack. So while conflict was recorded up until that point, no detailed analysis of it survives."

Mike grunted, and went silent as they turned and resumed their walk.

The sun had reached a point now that Derry was certain suggested late afternoon, and the sky above the clouds below was a uniform blue that he didn't think he had ever seen quite so perfectly represented before. The lighter blue of the path ahead of them had a tendency to vanish into that sky as the tube curved away towards the distant peak, and the feeling of walking upon a thin bridge suspended in the air high above the roiling clouds was distracting. Derry dealt with it by mostly focusing his eyes on the way immediately before them, and minimizing his looks around them. But he did look away now and then, and soon saw their destination peak finally positioning itself directly ahead of them.

"Looks like a couple of miles," Mike decided, with a glance upwards at the sun. "Plenty of time. I'd say there's still at least three hours until sunset, and we should be there in an hour or less."

"You could progress faster by flying," Nyf pointed out. "The tube will contain you, and it would be quite safe."

Mike looked as if he was considering that, and then shook his head. "Not just yet. I think that would be distracting, and I want to keep having the ability to look around like we're doing."

Derry, who had not been looking around that much, squinted at his granddad. "Look at what?"

The man smiled. "Derry, there's a lot to see here. Look at that peak over to our right. We're close enough to it now that I can actually see more of the villas there." He suddenly squinted, and looked surprised. "And that looks like a flying machine of some sort, I do believe."

Derry gasped, and whipped his head around to gaze at the subject peak. Cally also looked, and shook his head. "I don't see any flying machine."

Mike nodded and pointed at his head. "Just a second."

The golden globe appeared around Mike's head, and then Derry heard the man grunt. "I'll be damned."

Not waiting for an invitation, Derry formed the protective globe around his head and stared again at the peak, willing his gaze to move closer. It zoomed in rapidly, until it was again as if he flew just above the mountain's flank. He moved his gaze slowly about the landscape, seeing no movement.

"I don't see any--"

He broke off then, because he did see something. And then several somethings. He focused on them, and then gasped.

People with wings, flying among the treetops

Only they weren't people in the human sense. For one, it was hard to tell how large they were, sailing as they were within the treetops. Their wingspan seemed impressive, though, and their dark bodies were at least bipedal and bilaterally symmetric, with two arms and two legs, with the latter moving deftly behind the body as the creatures soared, acting as a rudder, perhaps. His helmet's optics, however they worked, did a great job of keeping one of the creatures centered as it swooped low and then soared again, but the rush of landscape below the creature distracted his eyes enough that it seemed hard to get the most out of the detail he could see.

Dark skin, leathery-looking, even, with only the torso encased in a covering, perhaps clothing, leaving the arms and legs completely exposed. The face was out of sight most of the time, though the creature turned its head enough for Derry to imagine a face with a sharp, jutting chin, a heavy ridge above the eyes, and a slightly tubular nose. A sense of shock hit him then, as he suddenly recalled the third door they had investigated with Derry's cellphone camera in the mound station on granddad's land back on earth. There they had seen through a window and gazed out at tall towers of rock, around which people with wings much like the ones he was looking at now had fluttered. Could these be the same aliens?

Cally apparently had the same thought. "Derry, they look like the bird people we saw through the door in the mound back home."

"I was just thinking that, too."

Mike gave a little whistle then. "They do look similar, though it's been a long time since I looked."

"Sasparians," Nyf offered then, interest plain in his tone. "The people of the wind."

"Civilized, I would imagine?" Mike asked.

"A millennium ago, yes. Now? Your guess is as good as mine."

"They have clothes on, anyway," Cally observed.

Derry nodded, his eyes fastened on the one he was looking at. "I think I see a sword, too."

"That may now be the standard level of defense here," Nyf observed. "It fascinates me to consider that empire cultures have regressed so far. This cannot be the norm, yet it has been observed so far in the several cultures you have encountered. Save for the fleet base, which was uninhabited, it would almost seem that technology has been purposely discarded."

"Maybe their tech just stopped working," Derry suggested. "Maybe there was no one to fix it."

"And yet, I detect regular electromagnetic emissions from all nearby peaks, suggesting that power generation is ongoing. Some tech remains."

"Well...this was a vacation place," Cally reminded. "Visitors wouldn't come here armed, would they? Maybe there just weren't any weapons here when the doors stopped being used, and they just had to make do."

"Perhaps." Nyf didn't sound too positive, though. "Yet personal arms were common among many of the empire's member races, especially when they traveled."

Mike grunted at that. "I would think more advanced cultures wouldn't need to carry weapons."

The artificial mind chuckled at the idea. "There were many empire cultures that eschewed the carrying of personal weapons on their home worlds, and yet even they carried personal weapons when they traveled. And there were just as many cultures where going armed was the rule."

"Why?" Mike shook his head. "They had laws and police, didn't they?"

"Of course. You are mistaken if you think that empire members went armed against each other. Or, that they did so specifically. Mostly, it was the circumstances of door travel, which could deliver one into both unexpected and difficult situations with a single step, or bring them to you just as quickly. There were thousands of member worlds, each unique and often strange to the others. Customs, laws, and norms varied wildly across the spectrum. Although the Armenti policed the system efficiently, it was felt by many travelers that safety included possessing a means of self-defense."

Mike shook his head. "I guess people never really do grow up, even when they have the stars in their hands."

"Having the stars in one's hands, as you say, means dealing with a variety of situations that you cannot even imagine yet. I must point out to you that you and the boys are armed on your current explorations. Granted, the circumstances have changed within the empire from what used to be the norm, but the situation for travelers is still the same. We will never know quite what to expect each time we step through a doorway. That is reason enough to take precautions."

"Maybe their weapons just wore out here," Cally suggested. "Even if everyone came on vacation armed, would guns last a thousand years?"

"I see no reason why they would not." Now Nyf sounded slightly puzzled. "Your own weapons are that age. They're self-maintaining. It was a common feature of empire technology."

Mike gave a grunt at the notion. "Stuff that never wears out. There's a marketer's nightmare!"

"There never seemed to be a shortage of takers for weapons technology, Mike."

"I guess." Mike nodded. "So, what about these winged guys? That's four different races we now know to be here. Will we go to that peak, too?"

"Unless I am mistaken, the second tube that arrives at our destination peak comes from the one we are observing now. We will be able to visit that peak without even having to return to the tube station."

Derry smiled at that. "Can you be mistaken?"

"No. I was just using a polite expression that really suggests I am actually certain about something. That tube does travel from our destination peak to the one next door."

"We could just fly from one peak to the next," Derry suggested. "We don't even need these tubes to get around. I'll bet that's how these Sasparians travel. Didn't see any recordings of them walking through the station, and they live on the next mountain over."

"The tubes are a protection," Nyf countered. "If you wish to travel faster, we can fly through them instead of walking, but to abandon them totally is not suggested at this point. Not until we know the state of long-range weaponry here, if any."

"If any," Mike repeated, softly. He nodded, and looked one more time at the fliers on the next peak over. "We can decide what to do about them later. For now, let's get moving."

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