The Darkness Between Doors

by Geron Kees

Chapter 7

The map they were looking at had been hand-drawn, but the quality was simply excellent. It was an aerial view of a range of peaks - the one they were on now, that was occupied by Inishee's Crites, and those peaks that surrounded it. The outlines of the peaks were in different colors, with some grouped by a particular color, apparently a key to certain alliances.

They were standing at one of the large outdoor tables in the Crite village again, this time with just Inishee and Erva in direct attendance. Erva's four remaining men stood nearby, watching the brightly dressed villagers go about their business, yet obviously aware of the party at the table. A small group of Crites also stood by, part of Inishee's counsel, awaiting any directives that might emerge from the meeting. The sun had been up for an hour, but the night's duties had yet to be completed. The people cast curious glances towards their leader and his strange guests as they passed, but Derry could only see a certain happiness there, as well as a complete acceptance of their presence here. The Armenti had arrived, finally, and things were well in hand.

It was kind of amazing, actually.

"Here," Inishee declared, dropping a sharply-tipped finger on a peak two over to the east of his own. Even on the map it looked small, less than one-quarter the area of Inishee's holding. "This is Crowla's domain."

There were no rulers among the Crites, as such. A leader - the Crite term actually translated as decision maker - and a council of overseers was selected by the people and empowered to take the needed actions to keep things running smoothly and plan for the common good. The position was generally held for life, and then another leader was elected.

It was a very informal system. The Crites maintained trade with their own kind on other peaks, and with the other races around them, and so used a common, agreed upon rate of exchange, and mostly spoke the Aolic trade language. But they didn't actually use money among themselves, each contributing to the welfare of all. It was a little more complicated than that, but the basic results were that being a Crite leader did not normally breed unusual ambition or greed. There were simply no worlds to conquer here on Rustgevend. You had the peak you lived on, and you could ally that peak with others to conduct trade, but that was about it.

Crowla was apparently an exception to the general rule. The peak he currently oversaw had originally been considered too small by the planet's developers for much more to be done with it than using it as a transfer station for the tube network. There had been no villas built there, no roads, none of the infrastructure that the inhabited peaks enjoyed. Much like the peak where Derry and the others had arrived on Rustgevend. A tube station, and little else.

Crowla's mountain peak was larger than that first tube station peak, but not by much. Several centuries past, a rift of some sort had arisen between Crite factions on one of the other peaks, and in frustration, the smaller faction had pulled up stakes and moved themselves to the tube station mountain. There they had to build their own homes, and create everything they needed to start a new life. But time had been on their side, and they had persevered. And they had apparently been happy there until fairly recent times.

The peak's primary drawback was its size, which was too small for real comfort, and which provided little room for expansion as the population increased. As the sense of confinement grew, so did the level of dissatisfaction among the people. The Crites were a mild folk in the main, but every race had those elements that simply had to go against the established norms. Under the current leader, Crowla, the peak had developed a reputation as something of a troublemaker among the Crite peaks, and while trade agreements and cultural exchange continued between them and the other Crite holdings, none of those other holdings were anxious to accept the overflow from Crowla's burgeoning population.

His people were disruptive, pushing the notion that Crite populations should all join forces, with an aim to eventually becoming the most organized and the most powerful single contingent on Rustgevend. Though there was no stated goal after that one, the other Crite holdings could well imagine what might come next. Crowla was ambitious, a trait not unknown at all among the Crites, but his ambition was steeped in a certain disregard for the welfare of others that could not be missed. The other Crite holdings wanted no part of a war for domination.

The arrival of Derry, Cally, and Granddad had been fortuitous in its timing. Crowla's people had only recently started showing up armed with the new staff weapons. They had made certain that the other peaks had a demonstration or two of how they worked, but so far Crowla had not made any overt moves that would show his hand. The stories circulated that Crowla and his men had dared to enter an open door at their tube station, and had brought back the staves from another world, barren and broken and empty of life. Those stories had been met with disbelief at first, and then anger from many of the different peaks. The edict against using the doors was clear. To violate that law was to invite disaster for the whole world.

Crowla had been unfazed by the criticisms, and had kept a low profile while his people armed themselves. There were apparently not enough of the staves to go around just yet, but the stories said there were more to be had upon this distant world. The other peaks were keeping a wary eye on what Crowla might be doing, but so far it had been a game of watching and nothing else.

Until Crowla had sent Dith and some men to the holding of Inishee and his people on a conscription mission, that is. Now, Inishee had sent messengers to the other Crite peaks in the area, to warn them what to expect from Crowla and his people, and to be on guard. Erva had dispatched one of his own men home, to spread the word there. Crowla had finally acted, and now his goals were known.

And the Armenti had noticed the use of the door, and had appeared to put a stop to it!

"What a mess," Mike said to the boys over their private channel, as they listened to Inishee and Erva explain some of the workings of the local cooperative. The peaks were largely self-contained, their populations for the most part still comfortable with the space they had available. Trade was encouraged among peaks and peoples, though no one was required to do anything. The sharing of cultures and products was seen by most as beneficial and binding, a reminder of the galactic civilization they had all been a part of. Crowla and his bunch were a fly in the ointment, the first big one in the millennium since the first conflicts, and no one was really sure how to deal with the situation.

The humans also learned how the populations of Rustgevend had largely wound up with their own peaks. The Talaspin operators of Rustgevend had been an orderly people, and with so many peaks to work with, they had offered visitors the option of an integrated, empire vacation, on a peak where empire culture flourished among visitors from all over known space; or one where they only had their own kind to associate with. So while many of the peaks hosted a diverse mix of peoples, there were numerous peaks designated for the use of only one race or another.

After the Armenti had withdrawn and door travel ceased, many people had reacted to being stranded on Rustgevend by a desire to be with their own kind. The tube system became busy, shuttling people among the peaks, and quickly homogenizing the populations. In most cases, there were enough visitors of each race to require they receive a number of peaks, but with slightly less than sixty-percent of the peaks occupied at the time, there was more than enough space to go around.

"Wait a minute," Mike said, at that point in the narrative. "If there were enough peaks that people could choose where to go, why did Crowla's bunch settle for some little bitty place when they could have gotten themselves a much larger mountain?"

"Populations are regional," Inishee quickly explained. "The five peaks that house the Crite populations are all here, and the surrounding peaks all belong to other peoples. In order for Crowla's ancestors to obtain a peak ready for habitation, they would have had to trek hundreds of miles through the by then inoperative tubeways to get to an unused one. Not only would the journey have been difficult, but then they would have been distant indeed from others of their kind. They were unwilling to make that sacrifice."

Mike grunted over their secure channel. "Troublemakers always want things their own way, it seems."

But Derry could kind of get that. Nothing made you feel safer than being among your own friends. It must have been frightening to suddenly feel stranded, who knows how many light years from home, and to know that you might never be able to leave again in your lifetime. It didn't seem strange to him at all that the many visitors to this place had decided to form new societies of mostly their own people, with other peoples as neighbors, just as it was in the empire. As the years passed, the peoples of Rustgevend had adapted to their new world, and reached a kind of equilibrium.

And now, Crowla and his bunch threatened that equilibrium, at least locally.

"Are there still peaks where more than one people live together?" Derry asked.

"There are," Inishee replied. "There are a number to the west, though it is a journey of a week through the tubes."

"So you mostly deal with the local populations, then?" Mike asked. "Crites, Sasparians, Narthies, and Schrikken?"

There was a sudden silence at the table. Then Erva squinted at them, curiosity now in every line of his face. "The shadowy ones? There are no peaks occupied by them locally."

"Really?" Mike returned, and Derry could hear the surprise in his granddad's voice.

"There is a Narthie peak on the other side of my own peak," Erva continued. "And three more beyond that one. They have always been good neighbors. The shadowy ones live to the west of them, and stay to themselves, and none live closer."

"They are somewhat unsettling," Inishee added, with enough of a shudder in his voice to make it clear how he felt.

Something about that tone made Derry bristle. Intolerance was something that irritated him personally. "They're empire citizens," he said, a little brusquely. "Are they not welcome here?"

Both Inishee and Erva looked surprised, and Derry knew then he had been wrong in his assumptions.

"All are welcome here," Inishee said emphatically. "The shadowy ones set their own boundaries. It is they that shun us, not the other way around."

"They are retiring," Erva agreed. "It has been some years since our elders and theirs have had reason to conference. There is some trade between the shadowy ones and the Silusions to their north. But we have not been included in that commerce. It is by their choice, not ours."

"I cannot help my reaction to them," Inishee said. "It is almost a primal fear. But on the few occasions I have met with their emissaries, I have always done my utmost to be cordial. To not be so would be to my everlasting shame."

Derry just nodded. He could see now that one had to be careful not to apply human sentiments and actions to others. Despite their isolation from the empire, the people of Rustgevend still had empire culture all around them in the form of their neighbors. These people had existed quietly, side by side, for a millennium. It didn't mean they were beyond prejudice, but it did seem apparent that their respect for others outweighed their own personal fears.

Erva gave a brief, harsh laugh. "The shadowy ones have always been peaceful. It is our own inner demons that plague us at their form. Even when presenting our best face to them, they sense our disquiet. It has led them to keep apart from us, much to our own great loss."

"How far is it to the nearest Schrikken peak?" Mike asked.

Erva and Inishee traded glances. "Four days walk through the tubes?" Erva asked. But then he smiled. "Of course, flying is faster."

"I would agree with that estimate," Inishee returned. "A four day walk, easily. Perhaps five, just to get to the nearest peak occupied by the...Schrikken."

Mike nodded at Erva. "And to fly straight there?"

"Rest stops would be needed along the way. But...two days, and two nights, I would say."

"Do we need to see the Schrikken?" Cally asked, over their private channel.

"I don't know," Mike admitted. "But remember we saw a recording of three of them passing through the tube station just last week. That means they're active here in the area, whether these guys know it or not."

"Probably just want to see what the hell's going on around here," Derry offered.

"Don't swear, damn it," Mike said absently, to which Derry smiled. It wasn't a true admonition, but rather a sign that his granddad was puzzling over something.

"Maybe it will help to know which tube they came from, and which one they went into leaving the station," Cally pointed out.

"That is an excellent idea!" Mike decided, and Derry could hear the enthusiasm for it in his granddad's voice. "Nyf, as soon as we get a quiet moment, let's discuss this further."

"I'll remind you, Mike."

Erva and Inishee were watching them now, probably wondering over the brief but noticeable silences.

Mike noticed that, and smiled. "Pardon me. We have the ability to discuss things privately. If we seem silent a moment, we're just trying to figure out what to do next."

Erva looked amused by the notion. "I must admit you are not quite as I imagined the Armenti to be. When you first appeared, you seemed every bit the legends I grew up with. seem very much like...well..."

"Regular people?" Derry supplied, unable not to smile.

Erva barked out his harsh but cheerful laugh. "Very much so."

"It does make me curious--" Inishee began, but then stopped, and seemed to be embarrassed then.

"Go ahead," Mike insisted, sounding curious. "We're all friends here."

Inishee stared at him a moment in surprise. "Are we? Friends?"

"Yes," Mike returned, soberly. "We are. We are all empire citizens. Equals, friends, neighbors. We're dealing with a difficult situation right now, but none of that has changed our status. So speak your minds, please."

Inishee raised and lowered his thin shoulders, perhaps a sign of agreement. "You breathe the air as we do. Is it necessary to hide behind your helmets?"

"Oops," Cally said then, and Derry smiled at the grin he could imagine on his boyfriend's face. Oops, indeed!

"What do you think, Nyf?" Mike asked. "Is it safe to lower our head bubbles?"

"I would say yes, Mike. It will be a mark in our favor to seem less aloof. And I don't think these people will be able to tell you from the Armenti. If they do, remember what I said about being an offshoot of the main race."

Derry's granddad grunted. "Okay. Guys, let's drop 'em."

Derry dropped his head bubble at the same time as the others. Inishee drew back at the suddenness of the act, and Erva's eyes widened noticeably. Derry could feel himself being inspected along with Cally and granddad, perhaps with a bit of awe along with the amazement.

"Well," the Sasparian finally managed. "It is you."

Mike laughed at that. "You had doubts?"

"Not really," Inishee said, but then made the hissing sound of a laugh. "But the golden spheres you wore were...less than detailed."

"They are not helmets after all," Erva mused. "The old technology was certainly marvelous. Some of the memory plays my people have show your people exploring new worlds, dressed just as you are now."

"Memory plays?" Derry asked, before he could stop himself.

"He is probably referring to a technology called...well, I believe it would translate as Vicarious," Nyf explained quickly. "It allowed the encoding of visual and audio data from one person's mind experience to a storage medium, generally a module, for playback by others."

"Whoa," Cally said softly.

"You mean you still have working Vicarious modules here?" Derry quickly added.

His grandfather quirked his lips in an almost smile at him, obviously admiring Derry's deft comeback.

Erva seemed not to notice the byplay. He made the tilt of his head that seemed to serve as a nod. "Yes. There are still thousands of examples of this technology in many of the villas on the mountains. It is the opinion of our engineers that, had not the original occupants of Rustgevend been so...shall we say, unsettled, by the end to door travel, and briefly argued among themselves, that much of the technology here, including the tubes, would still be in operation. The old techs built well."

Mike nodded at that, ably hiding any surprise he may have had at the idea that people that carried swords and spears had engineers among them. The curious mix of primitive and advanced technologies here was fascinating. Derry was beginning to see now the real difference between an advanced people forced to adopt more primitive ways in order to deal with a changed daily life, and those that had regressed to a true primitive state. The variety of empire culture stranded here on Rustgevend a millennium ago had apparently gone a long way towards retaining much of its civility. He tried to imagine a variety of human cultures stranded in the same situation, and could not imagine so favorable a result.

Mike cocked his head at the Sasparian. "I'm kind of surprised not to see any personal energy weapons still in use here. The technology certainly should have lasted."

Erva and Inishee again traded glances.

"They were purposely deactivated after the initial conflicts," the Crite said. "As part of the overall settlement between the peaks. It was decided that such weapons could only cause problems among us, not ensure our safety. They are still in existence, but none operate."

"Their security codes were randomized, I would suspect," Nyf speculated over the secure channel. "They may still be quite usable, if only the codes could be determined."

"We'll leave that alone," Mike said firmly.

"Then why do you carry swords and spears?" Derry had to ask.

Inishee turned to him. "Although the peaks and their peoples are peaceful, there have always been individuals and small groups among many of the races that feel that tubeway traffic is a target of opportunity. Traveling is not completely safe here, even with our pacts in place. Agreements cannot be made to cover those rogues among us that prefer to live outside the rules."

Mike grunted at that. "So Crowla is not the only outlaw here?"

"There is a significant difference," Erva explained. "Individuals and small groups that live on their own and are allied with no peak are indeed outlaws. There are always those for whom an orderly and peaceful existence is stifling. While the problem is not a great one in our region, one does hear of travelers being robbed upon occasion. We Sasparia deal harshly with these criminals when they are encountered."

"I would imagine. And Crowla?"

Erva made what could only be taken as an impolite sound. "Crowla is actually a threat from within, not without. His peak is a pact holder with many others - or was - and he and his people part of the culture here. For an entire peak to go rogue is a new experience."

No one said anything for a moment after that. The prospect of conflict obviously did not appeal to these people, but Derry could see that they intended to do what might be necessary to ensure the peace.

"Any idea how many people Crowla can muster?" Mike asked.

"Several hundred, easily. Perhaps as many as five hundred, leaving enough behind to care for the young and secure his peak."

"That's not that many, really."

Derry and Cally exchanged owlish looks. It certainly sounded like a lot!

"It's why he tried to conscript our people," Inishee said, the anger at that action plain in his voice. "This settlement alone numbers one quarter of his available men. This peak is home to many more thousands. He would build an army, if he could."

"The Sasparian peaks offer tens of thousands that would fight to preserve peace." Erva added. "Crowla is vastly outnumbered, and can only level the field somewhat by reintroducing superior weapons. Even then he needs more hands to carry them. We cannot allow that to happen."

"We are in agreement," Inishee stated firmly. "I have little doubt that the other peaks will feel the same way. We have no room for warlords on Rustgevend."

"Has anybody seen one of these staffs in action?" Cally asked.

"We have seen a demonstration," Erva replied. "One of Dith's men was careful to show us the potency of these new weapons when they first arrived. They are not true directed energy devices, like your own weapons. These discharge extremely potent bolts of electricity."

"They're not truly weapons, is why," Mike revealed. "They're actually herding staves, used to direct herds of very large reptiles on another empire world."

Erva looked surprised, and then gave forth another hearty laugh. "Ha! And Crowla feels himself mighty now! If he knew what his vaunted new weapons actually were, I wonder if he would feel quite so bold?" But then the Sasparian's smile turned grim. "Weapons or not, they are deadly enough. They have the power to take a man down, if not kill him outright. We had heard the stories of these staves even before this night's demonstration."

"They do seem limited in range," Inishee agreed. "By Dith's own words, I suspect they are not very accurate beyond perhaps fifty yards."

Mike smiled at that. "I would think they would have some bit of range to them. I, for one, would not wish to get much closer to a very large beast on the move."

"They also seem not to be good weapons in confined spaces," Erva added. "Some other witnesses to their use say they can hit more than one target at close range, and that the bolt of electricity seems attracted to metal surfaces that are grounded, and can be dissipated thusly. We even heard one tale of a bolt doubling back upon its wielder as he stood beside a metal pylon."

"They are open-field devices," Nyf supplied then. "Meant to be used on a range, not in close spaces. And handlers wore suits such as your own for protection while utilizing the staves."

"We could demonstrate one, if you like," Erva offered. "The six staves that Dith's people left behind have been examined by Inishee's science people already."

Mike considered that, and then turned to the boys. "Might be good to know exactly what to expect." He turned back to the other. "Even though we know what these staves were used for, we have never actually seen one discharged. I think we'd like that demonstration."

Inishee summoned one of his people from those waiting nearby, and gave instructions to set up the test. The man hurried away, taking another from among the waiters with him.

"We will have our demonstration shortly."

"May I ask a question?" Erva directed at Mike.

"Sure. Fire away."

The Sasparian squinted a moment at the remark, but then decided that it was indeed an affirmative. "How did you detect Crowla's use of the door?"

"Tell him that the entire door system is monitored," Nyf said quickly. "Tell him that you know when a door is being used, anywhere in the galaxy."

Mike passed on that information.

Erva seemed fascinated by the idea. "And...are any doors being used by others? Anywhere?"

Again Nyf passed on an answer. "No," Mike repeated. "Only by ourselves, in our battle to defeat the great menace."

It seemed clear by the expressions on their faces that both Inishee and Erva would love to know more about the great menace.

But the humans were saved from being asked by one of the Crites that had departed to set up the demonstration, returning to say that they were ready.

"Very well. Come this way, if you please." Inishee started off, and Erva fell in behind him. Mike nodded at the boys, and they followed.

They circled around behind the huts and crossed an open field towards a wooded section of the compound. The trees reminded Derry of evergreens back home, though they were bluer than anything he had seen back on earth. Their upper branches moved lazily, showing that some sort of air circulation was happening above them. And beyond those waving branches, the morning sky - lit in a way that no sky of earth could ever quite match - shone a deep blue above the vast circular walls of the castle compound.

The other Crite that had left them earlier stood waiting for them, one of the herding staffs in hand. Two other Crites stood off to one side behind him, carrying small pouches. The Crite with the staff nodded at them as they approached. "I would suggest you remain there, to my rear, as the staff is discharged. It will be safer."

Inishee stopped immediately and turned to face them. "We shall watch from here." He turned back to the waiting Crite with the staff. "Proceed, Mergrun."

The Crite in question held up the staff. "It is aimed by leaning the head of the staff towards the target. There is a grip lower down here, and a pressure plate that must be squeezed vigorously to initiate the discharge."

Mergrun turned and leaned the staff towards a small tree. There was a sudden flash of bright light, and Derry took an involuntary step backwards as an arc of electricity flashed between the head of the staff and the tree. His head bubble activated immediately, a circle developed in the view and targeted the stricken tree, and a series of figures began to parade across the bottom of his view.

"What's that I'm seeing?" he asked Nyf on the secure channel.

"Analysis of the discharge. It is quite sufficient to kill the unprotected, but will prove no threat to your suit security."

"Well, now we know," Mike said grimly. "This Crowla has to have a good idea what he has here. If he intends to use these staves against the other people here, he intends to kill them. That makes things simple for us."

Derry nodded, understanding what his granddad meant. "We have to stop them from getting more of these."

"And take away the ones they have!" Cally added, firmly.

"If we can locate the door he is using to access these staves, it will be a simple matter for me to shut it down," Nyf supplied. "And I think this needs to happen."

Erva and Inishee had been watching the humans. Mike turned to them now, and dropped his head globe. "Okay. I've seen enough."

"What course of action do you suggest?" Erva asked. "Can we stop Crowla's plans?"

"I think we have to. The staves are too dangerous for someone with Crowla's apparent lack of respect for others to possess."

"What can we do?" Erva asked.

"Locate the door they are using, and shut it down."

The Sasparian looked surprised. "You can do this? Then why have so many doors been left open for so long? Would it not have been wiser to shut them all down, to contain the great menace?"

"No answer to that," Nyf said, unhelpfully.

Mike grunted. "It's, uh, complicated. The integrity of the door system relies on a substantial number of all doors remaining in operation. And shutting them all down would have limited our ability to act quickly in the battle against the, um, menace."

"A good enough ad-lib," Nyf said, chuckling. Derry did his best not to smile, and saw that Cally was also making faces in the battle not to laugh. Erva briefly glanced at the boys, but if he wondered at their reactions, he did not let on.

Inishee moved closer. "We will assist in any way we can. If you plan to go to Crowla's peak, I will send men to accompany you."

"And I would go myself, if you will have me," Erva put in. "I and my men were sent here to Inishee's village to reaffirm the pact our two peaks enjoy. This has been done. I have sent one of my men home to apprise our leaders of the situation here. I feel they would wish me to accompany you on your journey."

Mike nodded at that. "Your knowledge of local affairs would be invaluable. We're strangers here." He shook his head. "I don't want to take an army along, though. We can protect ourselves from these staves, but you and your people would be vulnerable. So care is needed here. We don't want to lose any lives."

"A couple of each?" Derry hazarded, over the closed channel. "Two Crites, and two of the Sasparians?"

"Even that is a lot of targets," Mike returned. "But...I see they feel a need to participate. And I'm sure they can help a lot."

He nodded at their new friends. "It's settled, then."

Inishee seemed satisfied. "Then let us return to the table to make our plans."

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