The Darkness Between Doors

by Geron Kees

Chapter 8

Mergrun, the Crite who had demonstrated the operation of the staff to them, had just completed training another Crite, one Garmin, and the Sasparians, Erva and Gilden, in their use. Mergrun and Garmin were to be Inishee's representatives on the journey, and Erva and Gilden would stand for the Sasparians. It had been deemed necessary that the four to accompany the Armenti should at least be armed as well as those they sought to confront. Mike had been surprised at Erva's selection of the youngest of his men, when the others were obviously older, larger, and likely better trained. He had briefly mentioned it to the Sasparian, and come away from the ensuing discussion with an amused smile on his face.

"Seems stubbornness is not confined to human teenagers," he told Derry and Cally, upon his return.

"What's that mean?" Derry asked, glancing at his boyfriend.

"Gilden is Erva's son. He's a little older than the two of you."

Cally smiled at that. "And?"

Mike sighed softly. "There is some ritual, a sort of rite of passage in Sasparian culture, that allows for young people to demand participation in events that adults might otherwise deny them. Gilden has made a demand to his father to participate in our journey, a demand Erva feels he cannot deny him. Erva is not happy about it, but seemed both relieved and pleased when I told him that the two of you were somewhat young, too."

"You told him we were kids?" Derry asked, surprised.

"Of course not. I said you were both young men out on only your third duty as agents of Armenti Security."

Derry laughed. "You said we were agents of Armenti Security?"

"Well, I had to think of something to call us." His grandfather's eyes twinkled merrily.

Cally cocked his head questioningly. "You didn't say this was only your third trip exploring through the doors, did you?"

"Definitely not. Give me credit for having a little sense. We want these people to have some sort of confidence in us."

"I just hope it's justified," Derry returned. "I'm not afraid to say I'm a little bit scared."

Cally moved closer and bumped his shoulder against Derry's. "I got your back." But then he glanced around quickly, and leaned closer. "Think I'm not scared, too?"

They stared at each other a moment, until Derry smiled. "We'll be okay."

"I think so, too," granddad said. "I have confidence in these suits to protect us. More confidence than I have that our fellow travelers will be able to protect themselves. So it's going to be up to us to watch out for them, okay?"

Derry frowned at that.

Mike leaned closer to his grandson. "Something?"

"Well...I just hope we're doing the right thing. Getting involved in this."

"You three will be quite safe," Nyf put in quietly. "Your suits will easily handle any threats we have witnessed here thus far."

Derry nodded. "I know. I'm just...I don't want anybody to get hurt." He glanced around at their new friends. "Not anybody."

Mike sighed. "I know how you feel, son." He seemed to think about it a moment, and then nodded slowly. "Derry, it's easy to live a life as just an observer. Commenting from the sidelines carries a minimum of risk. But it's different if you decide to become a participant, and take chances, confront risks. Something very momentous happened a thousand years ago to a vast stellar empire. Something so grave that it left it a shadow of its former glory. Whatever that event was, it seems damned important to me now that I have been out here a few times and seen what's happened to these people. It could be something that one day affects our earth." He reached out and dropped a hand on Derry's shoulder. "The risks have seemed minimal, so far, and I am willing to continue with this if you are. I think these people need our help."

Cally leaned over and again bumped his shoulder against Derry's, and when Derry turned, his boyfriend was smiling at him. "I said I got your back."

Derry returned the smile. "I'm not wimping out. I'm just...concerned."

"Me, too." Cally nodded. "This is some serious stuff. So it's time to get serious."

Mike chuckled at that. "Spoken like a true agent of Armenti Security."

The boys laughed at that, and Derry gave his shoulders a gentle up and down stretch. "Okay, let's do this."

His granddad squeezed his shoulder a last time. "Believe me, Derry, if things get too hairy, I will be the first to admit it. The welfare of you boys takes top priority with me. Okay?"

Derry nodded. "I'm ready."

They rejoined Erva and the others, who were holding their staffs before them and looking them over a little hesitantly.

"There's no way they can activate without you deliberately squeezing the handle," Mergrun was telling them. "So relax. They also make fair walking sticks, so don't be afraid to use them as such."

Derry remembered then the video Nyf had shown them of the Crites passing through the transfer station. The one Crite carrying a staff had been using it exactly like a walking stick. And quite comfortably, too!

Erva's son was eying his own staff a little bit reverently. "So much power in so small a space. The old technologies certainly were amazing!"

"I heard that the beasts they used those staffs on were huge," Derry said, as he and Cally joined the Sasparian boy. "I guess they had to be amazing to do what they were designed to do."

The other gave an almost-nod, and smiled at them. "I am Gilden. We have not met."

"Oh, I'm Derry, and this is Cally. I think we're all pretty close in age."

The Sasparian eyed them curiously. "Do all Armenti go into danger so young, or are you on your quest for life, too?"

Derry knew he had to answer that question carefully. "We are old enough to go into the field as long as we go with an experienced agent," he said. He pointed at his granddad. "Mike has been training us further during this, um, investigation."

Gilden nodded. "One can only learn so much by reading, or viewing the old memory plays. Experience is the best teacher, my father has always told me. So I reminded him of his own words. " He smiled. "And now I am excited to be going along!"

Derry couldn't help smiling, too. Gilden's people were somewhat daunting in appearance. If Derry had run into Gilden back on earth on a dark Halloween night, he would have been petrified! But Gilden's smile went a long way towards gentling those somewhat forbidding features. Derry could see a heart and mind there, dreams and imaginings and wonderings, the very same things he often saw and loved in Cally's face. In that brief moment, when Gilden smiled in his excitement, Derry felt he understood perfectly what the other was feeling.

He nodded. "We're happy to have you along. It will be nice to have someone like us to talk to."

"Care must be taken," Gilden said, lowering his voice. "I have met this Crowla before on a journey with my father. He is unlike the Crites you see here. He impressed me with his coldness. That one cares not for the lives of others."

"We plan to be careful," Cally said. "But Mike is pretty good at this. Along with your dad and the others, we should be okay."

Gilden's eyes went from one boy's face to another. "I can only imagine the wonders you have seen in your travels."

Derry and Cally both smiled. "Actually, your planet has been one of the coolest places we've visited," Cally said.

The term coolest was translated as fascinating in the Aolic trade language. Gilden looked surprised, and then pleased. "If I was to be stranded someplace in the universe, far from home, I would have picked this very world. It is by no means a cruel place."

The others joined them then, along with the rest of the Sasparians. "We have pooled our supplies to make up travel packs for you and Gilden," one of them said, offering Erva two pouches almost as large as the small backpack Derry wore. "Good journey. We will wait here for your return."

There seemed to be a bit of emphasis on the word return that even Derry couldn't miss.

Erva smiled at that, and clapped the man on the shoulder. "Thank you, Brida. And we will come back, I assure you."

The other Sasparian grunted, and turned to Gilden. "Safe journey. May you find in experience the pathway to life."

Gilden gave a half-nod, looking solemn. "Thank you, uncle. Your wish will accompany me, always."

Brida gave a grunt, leaned in and gave Gilden a brief hug, and then turned and gave Erva the same. This ritual was repeated by all the Sasparians, and then the group headed back towards the tables.

"We have been set to wing...or foot... on our journey," Erva said then, turning back to Mike and the boys. "We are ready to go."

Inishee was there with Mergrun and Garmin, wishing them well, too. "There will be stories to share by the fire, I think," the Crite leader was saying. "Both of you will be needed to tell of your experiences." He leaned a little closer, and lowered his voice. "So come back to us. You understand?"

"We will do our best to return," Mergrun said simply.

"I don't trust Crowla at all, after what Dith has done at his command," Garmin added. "We will not be careless with any of them."

Mike turned to the Crites then. "There is one thing of concern to me. I know the two of you would normally be heading to sleep pretty soon. I was wondering how you'll do being forced to operate on a daytime schedule?"

"We will do fine," Mergrun returned. "By the time you are ready to rest this evening, we will be tired as well. In the morning, we will have adjusted to the new schedule."

"Okay, if you say so. But this is not a rush job. If you two get too tired along the way, we'll stop to rest."

"Thank you," Garmin returned. "But Mergrun and myself are used to daylight duty, which is one reason we were selected to go with you. Making the change is easy for us now."

That seemed to make Mike feel better. He turned to Inishee then and gave a little shrug of his shoulders. "We're off then. "

"Safe journey. And thank you for helping us."

Their group turned to go. It seemed a little odd that no one wanted to accompany them to the tube, but on reflection, Derry decided that both the Crites and the Sasaparians had made their farewells here at the village in order not to delay the journey by offering them at the tube. This was how it was done here, was all.

They returned through the wall structure of the castle, this time ascending back to tube level using a wide staircase with landings at each floor. They arrived at the tube station to find that it was no longer empty. Two dozen Crites were on guard duty, two of them armed with the remaining staves captured from Dith's men. The rest had swords and lances, and four had bows, and quivers full of arrows!

The structure of the tubes would make it hard for someone not able to fly to approach Inishee's holding. Anyone coming via the tube would have to face two staves and several flights of arrows. If Dith and his people returned, they would find the welcome quite warm!

Those on duty offered them brief well wishes, but seemed not to wish to impede their start. The group entered the tube, and soon the station was left behind them. It was another beautiful day, the sky bluer than blue, the surrounding peaks sharp and detailed in their colors, the white clouds roiling slowly beneath them as they moved forward. The view was almost unreal. Yet Derry quickly found that he felt more comfortable now with walking the blue pathway in the sky than he had the first time coming in, and could actually look around at what there was to see without feeling a sense that he might fall.

"A fine day for a journey," Erva said, as they walked along. The tube was wide enough that they could easily walk abreast of each other, and Derry looked over at the man. "A shame that the journey need be for so poor a reason," Erva finished.

"You normally fly between the peaks?" Derry asked.

Gilden laughed cheerfully, and Erva smiled Derry's way. "Of course," the man said. "It would be wasteful not to use the gifts nature has given us. But tube travel is much preferred over flying in poor weather. The mountains look beautiful and serene most of the time, but when storms do arrive, they are often fierce, with wind and rain and thunder."

"Time to take cover, then!" Gilden added.

Derry could imagine the perils of flying in a thunderstorm, not to even mention the discomfort of being wet, and blown all about the sky by wind gusts.

"There are minor variations between the charges of the two atmospheric barrier layers," Nyf informed them over the private channel. "These give rise to periodic thunderstorms in addition to the normal rains here. It could actually be corrected, but the Talaspin developers of Rustgevend were actually fond of rain and thunder, and sought to ensure that their guests could also experience them."

Mike gave an inward chuckle over their private channel. "First time I ever heard of lousy weather being offered as a vacation highlight."

"Many empire worlds were carefully controlled environments," Nyf explained. "Visitors to Rustgevend were often thrilled to experience these storms of nature. Though from the comfort of covered porches around their villas, I might add."

"Oh, of course," Mike agreed. "I can actually kind of get that. Many's the time I've sat on my own porch during a storm and watched the rains come down."

"Our farms need the rain," Mergrun injected then, unaware of the silent conversation between the humans. "Without them it would be much harder to produce the crops we desire."

"I saw a creek or something running by your village," Mike remembered aloud.

"It is not natural, but rather a feature of the atrium," Garmin explained. "The open center of the tube complex where our village is set. The nature of the engineering that has made this world's mountains a viable environment does not offer running water as part of the plan. All such flows upon the peaks are artificial, with the water manufactured from hydrogen and oxygen and pumped to the springs that feed our mountain creeks and rivers. The axial tilt of Rustgevend is minimal. It does not provide for seasons as many worlds have, so there is no winter here in the habitable zone, and no snowcaps on the mountains to provide water. When it does rain here, the runoff is simply channeled into the many waterways provided by the builders on each mountain and manufacturing of water suspended during those times. It's all regulated very carefully. We have made our own means to collect and store this rain water, which greatly assists with our farming needs."

Derry was impressed by the man's knowledge. "So you know all about how this world was redesigned to make the mountains habitable?"

"Oh, yes. I am one of Inishee's engineers. It is my duty to look after the systems that keep our peak running. Though I must admit they are largely self-sustaining."

"Does this surprise you in some way?" Mergrun asked. "Each peak has it's own technical people to manage the systems, though of course the technology pretty much takes care of itself."

For a moment no one said anything.

"We've been a few places where people have forgotten a lot," Cally explained then.

"Door travel has been suspended for a long time," Mike agreed. "Many lifetimes, for most races. Your people here have maintained a grip on the empire and empire technology, to some extent, anyway. It has not been as easy for others on other worlds."

Garmin and Mergrun looked at each other, and Erva gave his wings a brief flutter, as if in consternation. "We have wondered about this," the elder Sasparian said. "It was a logical assumption that the end of door travel would leave many worlds unprepared to deal with the fact. It was that way here, though we have actually managed well. But until now we had no way of knowing how others had fared."

"It will make resuming empire life much harder," Mergrun said. "When the doors are open to travel again, I mean."

"Your people must have their hands full," Gilden said then, leaning forward to look at the humans. "Trying to keep things together while fighting the great menace, too."

All faces turned towards the humans then, and Derry once again felt the curiosity among their new friends to know more about why door travel had ceased.

"I wish I could tell you more," Mike said slowly. "I can't. It's not that it's a secret, or anything like that. Some of it is that we still do not know exactly the full nature of the great menace. Only that it's danger is not to be minimized. Door travel was suspended to safeguard people, not to confine or harm them. You'll just have to take my word that it has been a necessary thing."

"I do," Mergrun said, his dark eyes on Mike. "That your kind have not visited here in all these years, but came immediately in response to the use of a single door by Crowla and his men - that settles in my mind the gravity of the situation. Such a reluctance to travel the doors can only result from a true belief in the danger of that action. If the creators of the doors will not use them except in times of grave need, I do not wish to use them, either."

Derry felt guilty at hearing that, hating to be a part of misleading these people. But almost immediately he pivoted in his mind to agreeing with the Crite. That no one was using the doors when so many were still open suggested one thing above all others: fear. Fear of what might happen if they did use them. So intense must have been the Armenti warning not to use the doors that it had endured almost as law on uncountable numbers of worlds for a thousand earth years. The humans didn't know that no one was using the doors, but that no one had appeared on the moon of the ice giant circling the red sun - the door transfer station which Difris cared for - in all that time, virtually shouted the fact that no one dared to make the attempt.

"It's for the best," Erva said. "To know the true danger would cause some to judge the merits of ignoring it. We do not want others deciding it is a reasonable risk to try using the doors. The story of how the Armenti returned to stop Crowla from using a door will circulate among all the peaks. None will dare acting similarly, when the stakes are so high." He turned to look through the invisible side of the tube, at the world beyond. "None will risk the threat to our home."

"I hope you're right," Mike replied. "But my experience is that what one will dare, others will dare at some point, too."

That seemed a sobering statement to the others, and they walked on for a while in silence. It was still a beautiful day, and Derry could not imagine a threat to this wondrous world. Was it really possible that Crowla's actions could bring danger to Rustgevend? Derry and Cally and Granddad had traveled through the doorways several times now. Nothing dire had resulted from those travels. Not yet, anyway.

It was scary to think that their own actions might be putting people at risk. But he already knew the position that both Difris and Nyf had taken, that these explorations were necessary if they were to find out what had happened to the Armenti and the empire, and that that need must be balanced against any possible danger resulting from using the doors. But now Derry saw another question that needed to be asked: Did anyone out here even know the answer? Did any of the countless numbers of empire citizens on the other side of each door even know why door travel was restricted? That Derry and the others might travel for years and never find an answer was frightening.

By not passing on the nature of the great menace to everyone, the Armenti may have been trying to ensure that panic was kept to a minimum. Restricting door travel so suddenly and so thoroughly would have been a massively traumatic event to an empire long used to instantaneous travel. What threat could be so frightful to so many that people would pass by open doorways for a millennium after and not even consider using them?

Derry could only think of one thing that would deter so many from using the doors. And that was the certain knowledge that to use one might be fatal. To use a door was to die.

But they had already proven that that was not so. And so had Crowla, in his passage through a door to obtain the staves he craved as weapons. This fact had not been questioned by Erva or the others. They had not been surprised that Crowla had been able to use a door and survive. So if not death...what was the threat that kept so many in place?

Derry was aware of the others resuming their conversation, but he walked on in silence, trying to figure out an answer that could fit the facts he knew. It wasn't until Cally nudged him that he became aware that they had slowed, and that Garmin had lifted a hand to point ahead of them. Derry brought his gaze up, and was surprised to see the peak holding the tube transfer station ahead of them.

"From here we will go on to Aginshir holding," Garmin was saying. "It's another Crite holding. From there we can reach Crowla's peak."

"Yes," Mergrun agreed. "Inishee has empowered me to speak to Aginshir and to query about the actions of Crowla."

Mike looked interested at that. "Each holding is named after the leader? Doesn't that get complicated over time as they change?"

Mergrun and Garmin both emitted hissing laughs, and Erva smiled at them. "Actually, each new leader becomes known by the name of the holding."

"Our current Inishee bears no relation to the last leader of our holding," Mergrun agreed. "Only in name. Once, the leaders of each holding were called by the title, Kori Andi, which means Who Speaks for in Aolic. So our leader was Kori Andi Inishee. Who Speaks for Inishee. Over time, everyone simply started calling each leader by the name of the holding."

"It is less formal," Erva agreed, "and therefore more desirable. Formalities were one of the first things we found we could do without after door travel ceased and the initial squabbling was over."

"The fighting, he means," Mergrun said cheerfully, offering a short hissing laugh. "The juggling for position. But once the first panic died down, and the moving about to resettle the peaks was done, cooler heads finally prevailed. People on Rustgevend were reminded that we were all empire citizens, and that we were all stranded here together. It was decided that the formalities between us needed to be loosened in order to bring us together. The peace that resulted from this decision has lasted all this time. Those few tube outlaws among us have never been enough to threaten the pacts that bind us."

"Until Crowla came along," Garmin put in, in almost a growl. "Or, more rightly, this Crowla. The ones before him were far more agreeable types."

"This Aginshir holding is closer to Crowla's peak than yours," Mike pointed out. "Strange that they should bypass this holding and try to take yours."

"We don't know that they did," Mergrun returned. "We will need to approach Aginshir carefully."

"Ah. That makes sense." Mike nodded slowly. "The possibility exists that they have already been subjugated by Crowla's people."

"Agreed." Erva sounded grim. "We need to take care here."

They continued on towards the transfer station, all eyes alert and watching. Derry activated his head bubble and zoomed in on the tube car station, but could see no one else present. "Looks deserted to me," he told the others. He had to explain then the ability of his head bubble to magnify, to which Erva made a sound that seemed decidedly disgusted. He paused a moment and pulled his travel pouch from his harness, and then resumed walking as he rummaged within.

Shortly he produced a small device that Derry immediately recognized as binoculars, though these seemed not to have actual lenses like the human variety, but some sort of sensor at the end of each eye tube. They were small - more like opera glasses than real binoculars. But they were surely just as good as any empire technology, Derry figured.

The Sasparian held them up to his eyes a moment, and then grunted in satisfaction. "I agree with your assessment, Derry. No one is on guard here just now."

Gilden wanted to look through the binoculars, and then the Crites each took a turn. "I believe we have a few pairs of these in storage, now that I think of it," Mergrun said, after his view. "I should dig them out when we get home. They may prove useful now."

"These belong to my brother, Brida," Erva told them. "They have never been much use until now, but he included them in the packs that he and the others assembled for Gilden and me. I can now understand his thinking on this matter, where before they just seemed an extra burden to carry."

"One man's trash," Mike said, and then laughed when the others stared uncomprehendingly at him. "My people have a saying: one man's trash is another man's treasure."

Erva also laughed. "I surely see the wisdom there. I have never considered these far-seers much use. Now I can see my imagination was not up to the task, where my brother's was!"

Derry kept his head bubble active as they approached the tube car station, and still could see no one within. They arrived, and gained the interior of the saucer-like structure without incident.

Gilden immediately noticed the red painted arrow before one of the doors. "This was not here last time we visited."

"I placed it there," Derry revealed. "It marks the door we arrived through. We do this in case we need to...well, retreat on the run."

"A precaution, only," Mike added. "Just to make certain no mistakes are made if we are pressed to leave quickly."

Garmin eyed the door curiously. "This one leads back to your world?"

"Actually, it doesn't," Mike said carefully. "It goes to a base of operations overseen by operatives of Armenti Security."

Mergrun offered a hissing chuckle at that. "You were planning to visit them, Garmin?"

The other Crite's dark eyes widened. "Not me! I was just asking. The last thing I would want would be to emerge in a place where many weapons were quickly pointed my way!"

Gilden stepped closer to the door and examined it carefully, and then seemed slightly disappointed that it was no different from the other active doors in the station. "Such mysteries intrigue me." He turned and smiled at Derry and Cally. "One day, I hope to be able to travel to other worlds to see what there is to see."

Derry fully understood that sense of adventure and curiosity. "I hope that happens for you, Gilden. For all of us."

"Where do these other doors go?" The Sasparian boy asked. "The ones that seem active, anyway?"

"Tell him you don't know for certain," Nyf suggested. "As the mind that operates this station is not fully functional. The system is actually mapped, but they don't need to know that."

Mike passed the relevant information on to the others. The adults looked at the doors warily, but Gilden's enchantment with them only intensified. "So they are puzzles, too!"

"Don't be getting any ideas," Erva said firmly, clapping his wings together loudly as if in admonition. "Crowla is trouble enough without a wayward Sasparian added to the problem."

Derry and Cally broke into laughter at the startled look that came onto Gilden's face, and even Erva looked amused.

"I would never pass through a door, father! You know this!"

"I just wished to be certain."

Gilden looked around at the smiles turned upon him, and suddenly relaxed. "You tease me. But I give my word that I would never attempt to pass through a door"-- he smiled then --"without being invited first."

Derry and Cally laughed again, and Mike raised a patient hand to quiet them down. "Just so long as everyone knows what's at stake here. It's really not safe to use the doors. I'm interested in seeing what sort of place this Crowla has found his staves in. And what other doors may lead from there. We don't want him branching out in his explorations."

"I can tell you something now," Garmin said. "The stories we've heard say that Crowla went through the door in their own transfer station. There is only one door there, so there will be no mistaking which one it was."

Mike waved a hand around their own transfer station. "It's not like this station?"

"No. This is a confluence station. Ten tubes meet here, and it was also the main entry point to Rustgevend for travelers to this hemisphere of the planet. There are fifty doors here, though as you can see, many are no longer in operation. Crowla's station is the meeting point of four tubes - two that would normally cross, actually - and there has only ever been the one Armenti transfer door there. A larger one, larger than these."

"What do you think, Nyf?" Mike asked Nyf over the secure channel. "I didn't think there were doors here except at the main hubs in the northern and southern hemispheres."

"There are a few others," the artificial intelligence explained. "Mostly for cargo and supplies. Going by the map we were shown by Inishee, the peak in question has one cargo door that leads to a supply station at Kuridian."

"Wow," Cally said, the feeling of amazement clear in his voice, even over their private channel. "Where is that?"

"It's a...a warehouse is the best comparison. A small, lifeless world circling around a red dwarf star about seven hundred light years from here."

"Just around the corner," Mike said humorously.

"It's a transshipping center, largely automated in its time. It makes sense now that Crowla may have simply happened on a shipment there of the staves bound for Curivo Two."

"You mean nobody would be there?"

"It's doubtful. There was a small maintenance staff there originally that oversaw the automation, but when the Armenti retreated and door usage became forbidden, they would either have left or faced being stranded there. If the latter case, it's doubtful there would have been enough of them to form a population that would survive until now."

Derry frowned at that, suddenly imagining all the places people might have been stuck when door usage was suddenly forbidden. That some may have been in places that would not support them, or that they were so few in numbers that they had died out over time, was frightening and sad. People stranded in their millions or billions on populated worlds would have gone on with life. Those stranded in smaller populations like here on Rustgevend would have still been able to make do. But those genuinely few in numbers, stranded in the out of the way places throughout the empire, would have been faced with a decision to make: risk the doors and hope for escape, or slowly perish over time through lack of numbers, supplies, or both. There was a grim reality to the idea that was sobering.

Derry's granddad must have felt that same dark sense. "That sucks. I guess we won't know unless we look."

"Will we?" Derry asked.

"Yeah," Cally added. "Are we going through that door, too?"

"I think we need to see what Crowla has access to," Mike replied. "We know about the staves, but what if he's been gathering other technology there that can be used against the people here? Unless we go look, we won't know."

"It seems a reasonable precaution," Nyf agreed. "But I must remind you not to stay long on the other side of that door, as time may catch up with you again on your home world. You don't wish to be away longer than is safe for you."

"Okay," Mike agreed. "We'll need to remember that."

"I thought all the cargo doors were shut down when they weren't used?" Cally said then. "We haven't seen any open ones, and there were a bunch at the starport we visited."

"Normally, doors were never shut down," Nyf explained. "As I said once before, it required local power to initiate them and to shut them down, but when in operation they basically powered themselves. It was simply the most efficient procedure to leave them open. But at the time the Armenti stopped door travel, cargo doors were targeted to be shut down for some reason. And, as we have seen, many of the personal travel doors seem also to have been shut down, for reasons that are not clear to me. If this cargo door was left open, it was for a reason."

"Or someone opened it later," Mike suggested. "We already know that doors right here in this tube station were deliberately shut down. Why not one deliberately reopened?"

"We must investigate," Nyf agreed. "Proceed."

The Crites and the Sasparians were standing by, watching the humans patiently. They had grown used to the moments of silence now, where their guests seemed distracted by conversation among themselves. Gilden's gaze was especially fascinated, as if he wondered what secrets might be being discussed.

Derry smiled at him. "Sorry. Just reviewing a few things."

"I understand," Gilden returned, bowing his head slightly. "What you do is at least much better than whispering."

Mike smiled at that. "We don't mean to keep secrets from you. It's simply the nature of the technology we're using."

"Shall we move on?" Erva asked. "Best to use the day while we have it."

The Crites led them to another tube, this one with a tube car at their end of it. They passed through the silent vehicle and back out into the pleasant day.

"I wonder what it would take to get these things running again?" Cally asked, pausing a moment to look back at the car. "It would make travel here a lot easier."

"It has been tried in the past," Garmin responded. "The destruction of the power system for the network was very thorough. Even our own engineering staff feels the system could not be made useful again without the importation of replacement parts from offworld."

"I'm not even sure many peaks would want the tube cars to run again," Erva said. "Most of the people here feel secure knowing that movement between the peaks is a time-consuming operation. Trade carries on quite well locally without the cars. My feeling is that things are best as they are now."

"It was why the system was deactivated so long ago," Mergrun agreed. "What was deemed speedy travel in empire times brought the peaks a little too close together for the tastes of those stranded here after door use became proscribed. It has been very peaceful here since the time of troubles was resolved. It would be nice to have tube travel restored once Rustgevend is again part of an active empire. But for now, we will leave things as they are."

That seemed to end the debate. The locals were happy with the way things were. Derry smiled at that, actually understanding their thinking. Each peak was its own world, and the occupants sort of wanted to keep it that way.

"What kind of trade goes on here?" Mike asked. He looked back over his shoulder at the now dwindling tube station behind them, and frowned. "You could get a wagon or cart loaded with goods through these tubes easy enough. But those cars at one end or the other of each tube would be a real hindrance."

The Crites laughed their hissing laugh again. Mike blinked at them, and the smiled. "What did I say?"

"It is not really the sort of trade you imagine," Gilden supplied.

"True," Erva said, picking up the conversation. "Each peak has very much the same needs. The technologies are still in place to feed and clothe us, and as you can see, housing is not a problem. The village you saw back at Inishee holding is a choice made by the people there. There is more than enough room within the great circling structure in which to live, yet they have chosen to build a village out in the open. Most peaks are not like that. People living at tube stations tend to use the facilities there that are already in place. Others live within the many villas covering each mountain. So there are not that many things that one peak can provide that another does not already have. Even the crops we farm are similar everywhere, based on the seeds that were available here."

"Yes," Garmin agreed. "The village is a meeting place for us, somewhere for everyone to be together and share life. Meals are brought to the tables by the fire mostly from within the station, where the large dining halls there are still in operation. Only the local crops are prepared by the fires. Our medical and production facilities are all within the great building around the village."

"Then why have the village at all?" Mike asked.

"Well...our people are an outdoor breed," Mergrun told them. "You already know we are nocturnal by nature. A fire beneath the stars is a need that goes back to the dawn of our civilization. Even those that live within the villas have courtyards out back with firepits for a flame, and tables to congregate around. Crites spend more time each day out of doors than within. It is simply the way we are."

"Cultural as well as instinctive," Nyf supplied over the private channel. "Fire would seem to be a legacy need enjoyed by many intelligent species everywhere."

Mike smiled at that. "I love a good fire in the hearth, my own self."

"Then you understand."

"I think I do."

"Then what do you people trade, if not crops and stuff?" Derry asked.

Gilden smiled at them. "We trade each other, of course."

At Derry's startled look, the Sasparian boy laughed. "Oh, not as you are thinking! I mean, we trade the essence of each other. Our cultures. The things we each create that are unique to us."

"Intellectual property," Erva explained. "For instance, arts and crafts are actually highly traded items. And clothing. Or rather, clothing designs. Under empire law, a unique thing created by any individual or group is forever the property of that individual or group. In order for others to use such properties, licenses must be obtained. This goes for all intellectual properties, whether it be clothing design, writings, dramatic productions in the Vicarious format, food recipes, technical innovations, artwork, or simple designs for daily items. There is a vast trade among all the peaks in such areas, just as we enjoyed when we were a part of galactic culture."

"The empire, in miniature," Cally said, grinning.

"It is exactly that," Mergrun agreed. "There is an actual physical transport of goods between the peaks, but most is able to be carried by traders. Those items too large for such transport are indeed moved by wagons. The wagons themselves are strong and lightweight, and designed to fit through the tube cars easily. It is a bit of a task for traders to unload the heavier carts and get them through the tube cars, but trade missions tend to run to at least a half-dozen in number, so there are plenty of helping hands to assist."

"We haven't seen any such traders," Cally pointed out. "Where are they?"

"The foot traffic is not that heavy here," Gilden said. "But for a reason. In this area, a great deal of inter-peak trade is carried out by Sasparian merchants, so that others do not need to travel."

Erva gave out a hearty laugh. "Yes, of course. We offer something that few species here can offer: wings! We can travel between mountains without needing to use tubes. Our courier services are much faster than trade by foot. So in this area of Rustgevend, at least, you are much more likely to see flights of our people, than traders traveling on foot. Though foot trade does still occur here."

"On a journey north once, beyond our normal travel range, we spied many traders and wagons within the tubes there," Gilden revealed. "It was exciting to see, actually. This area of Rustgevend seems empty by comparison!"

"Got the local trade contracts sewn up, huh?" Mike said, smiling.

"We offer an important service here that no others can provide," Erva said, giving is wings a contented flap. "It would be foolish of us not to capitalize on our natural strengths."

"Oh, I wasn't being critical," Mike said. "I fully agree that your people are providing a much-needed service here. Air mail has always been faster than ground."

"And at very reasonable rates," Gilden added, looking pleased at the idea. "It is our philosophy to contribute, not to monopolize."

"There," Garmin said suddenly, raising an arm and pointing out one side of their tube. "Such a trade mission even now, unless I miss my guess."

They all turned to look in the indicated direction, and Derry could indeed see what looked like a flock of large birds far off among the peaks, heading slightly away from the direction in which they were traveling. The moment was slightly eerie, and reminiscent of the moment that he and Cally had looked through the door back in the transfer station hidden on granddad's farm and first spied what they thought were large birds circling carved towers of stone. Their shock at understanding that they were actually people with wings had been considerable at the time.

"Heading for Bela'mtor holding, I think," Erva said, squinting slightly at the distant flight of his people. "That would be Tralus and her group."

"It's certainly a fascinating existence you have here," Mike said. "We are pleased to see your world doing so well."

"It has not been a burden to us, really," Mergrun stated. "After the initial arguments over procedures and rights, and the resettling of parts of the population here were over, the focus at first fell on what might be happening out in the empire. That no news was coming in was frightening. But over time, attention began to shift away from what we did not know to what we did know, and we focused on our lives here. No new dangers presented themselves, and it was quickly found that this world was indeed a hospitable and pleasant place to live."

"There were even those that rejoiced in our separation from the empire," Garmin added, along with another hissing chuckle. "Life here was so much more peaceful than what all the visitors to Rusgevend were used to. The relaxation factor was quite extreme for many."

"And now this is our life," Erva said, sounding not in the least distressed about it. "These events with Crowla have been the first upset to our lives in quite a long time."

"We'll get through it," Derry promised, trying to sound more reassuring than he actually felt he could be.

They continued to talk as they walked, and made good progress through the tube. By the time that the peak that was home to Aginshir holding aligned itself before them, Derry was feeling a genuine sense of affection for their new friends. If this was what empire folk were like on average, then future explorations through the doors would be less worrisome.

Eventually, the blue pathway before them seemed to run straight towards another of the large, castle-like affairs on the wooded flank of a peak, again with a second tube heading off from the right side of the structure. The sun was now high in the sky, perhaps just past noon now, and they had been walking for some hours.

"That would be the tube to Crowla holding," Erva said, pointing towards the second tube.

Derry brought up his head bubble and zoomed in his view. It was apparent immediately that something was off at the tube station ahead. Derry could see what looked like the forms of people sprawled in the tube where it ran into the station. "You'd better see this, guys," he said over the private channel.

His grandfather's head bubble winked into existence, followed immediately by Cally's.

"I'm not sure what I'm seeing," Derry continued. "But that looks like people on the ground there."

"But what kind of people?" Cally said. "They look strange!"

"Narthies," Erva suddenly said, his voice sounding harsher than usual. "They are injured...or dead."

Derry turned and spied the Sasparian with the far-seeing binoculars poised in front of his eyes.

"Narthies!" Garmin repeated, sounding distressed. "A trade mission, certainly!"

"Perhaps they arrived at the wrong time," Mergrun added grimly.

"I would say," Erva agreed, sounding angry now. "Something is very wrong here."

"I don't see any Crites with staves," Mike said slowly. "I don't see anyone else at all."

"And no Crites on the ground among the Narthies, either," Erva added. "I see no movement within the station, either. I suggest a rapid approach to survey the situation. Perhaps I should fly ahead. It will be quicker."

"No. I'll go," Derry's grandfather said. "It's not safe for you."

"But I will be faster on my wings than you will be on your legs," the Sasparian argued. "Time may be critical!" Erva's wings unfolded, and twitched impatiently.

Mike turned to Derry. "Stay here," he said, and this time Derry found no room for argument in his grandfather's tone. "Keep our friends here. If it's safe to come forward, I'll tell you."

"Yes, sir," Derry answered.

"I'll be much quicker than you think," Mike said, turning towards Erva. "Please. Trust me a moment."

Without waiting for an answer, Derry's granddad pulled his zap gun, turned back towards the looming castle, lifted himself a foot or so from the ground on his contragravity field, and then surged away from them at an incredible speed, dwindling to an instant to a mere speck far down the tube. A brief backwash of displaced air buffeted them, and then the tube went silent once again.

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