The Darkness Between Doors

by Geron Kees

Chapter 12

"I plan to fly straight across," Gilden told them, as they stood outside next to Aginshir's tube station. "When I get to where the tube straightens and runs true to Crowla's peak, I will land upon it and run the rest of the way. "

"Sounds like a plan," Cally said. He turned to Derry. "What about us?"

"Well, we can't just fly over there at some crazy speed, because we'll make noise ourselves. Cutting through the air makes a sound, and it gets louder the faster you go."

He stared at the distant peak that held Crowla's holding. It was an easy ten miles away, and yet they could still see the bright daub of light that was the lit tube at the entrance to the station. He turned to look at Gilden. "How long will it take you to fly over?"

The young Sasparian's eyes measured the distance. "Fifteen minutes. A little longer, actually, as I will have to land on the tube and run the last half mile. Twenty minutes."

"Nyf, how long will it take us to fly over?" Derry asked.

"Derry, you could be there in two minutes, but they would hear you coming."

Cally, who had also heard the answer, laughed. "Holy crap!"

Derry smiled. "Okay, what if we took a little more time? Say...ten minutes?"

"They would not hear you, Derry. Nor see you. Your suits can aid in camouflaging you, even from Crite night vision. And, in case you have not noticed, the sky has been clouding up considerably in the last ten minutes."

Derry cast a surprised glance skyward. The stars had vanished, except on the far horizon. "What does that mean?"

"I would suggest that rain is coming, at the very least."

Derry turned to Gilden. "Did you notice the sky?"

"Yes. When it turns cloudy like this, a storm is in the works."

Derry frowned. "You can fly in it, though?"

"Oh, yes. For perhaps another hour. Maybe less. I suggest we get moving."

"Okay. We are going to go at a speed that will take us about ten minutes to cross to the other peak. That will give us time to take out the guys on the roof before you get there. We can't wait on you, so you'll just have to play it by ear when you get there."

"I understand." Gilden reached out and placed a hand on each of their shoulders. "Safe journey."

"You, too," Derry said, nodding. "See you there."

Gilden smiled at them, and then took a running leap and propelled himself into the air. His great wings beat with increasing speed as he wheeled above them and headed off to Crowla's peak.

"You ready?" Derry asked his boyfriend, on their private channel.

"Yes." But then Cally grabbed Derry's wrist and squeezed it gently. "I just wanted to say...I love you, Derry."

Derry's breath caught, and for a moment a weakness overcame him. But then it passed, and he bent forward and they exchanged a brief but fierce hug. "I love you, too, Cally. We're gonna be okay. Right?"

"Yeah. Let's go." His boyfriend grinned. "Last one to Crowla's peak is a rotten egg!"

Derry smiled, and the two of them arced gracefully upward into the ever darkening sky.

"Derry? It was his grandfather's voice, on their three-way private channel. "What's your status?"

"We're in the air," Derry told him. "It's going to take us about ten minutes to cross. We don't want them to hear us coming."

"Smart. Did you notice the sky? Erva says a storm may be coming."

"We saw it. Gilden said we had an hour or less."

"His father says the same. Okay. Let me know when you're ready to take out Crowla's people on the roof of the station. We'll watch the guards at the tube entrance for any sign of a reaction."


"There's Gilden," Cally said.

Far below them, they could make out the Sasparian boy, his wings beating mightily as he made his way across the sky.

"He doesn't seem to see us," Cally said.

"He will not," Nyf told them. "Your suits are in full camouflage mode. You can only see each other due to the enhanced vision your head bubbles provide."

They were at altitude now, and the peaks spread out before and around them, to every horizon. It was an amazing and beautiful sight, each peak dotted with tiny lights, and connected by a gossamer web of tubing that seemed unusually prominent in the dark of the night.

"Safety precaution for flying machines." Nyf explained. "The safety of its citizens was important to the empire."

"Works for us," Cally said, pointing ahead. "I can see where our tube turns there and heads to Crowla's mountain."

"Granddad and the others were right at that last bend before the straight," Derry replied. "We'll be passing over them in a couple of minutes."

The cloud cover hiding the surface of Rustgevend was also faintly visible between the peaks, giving the view a slightly ghostly sense that was oddly compelling. That there was no place on their own Earth that could look quite like this was certain. It served to remind Derry that they were uncounted light years from home, and working in a time frame that would ultimately pass in an hour or two, at most, had they been sitting on Derry's own front porch. It struck him as a rather special way to be spending a few hours out of a warm spring afternoon.

"I feel good about what we're doing," Derry told his boyfriend. "So let's not mess it up."

Cally grinned. "I'll be right behind you, Captain."

Derry laughed. "Oh, shut up. There's the bend in the tube."

Wow," Cally responded. "We're making good time."

"We're passing over you now," Derry informed his grandfather.

"Good. Can't see you through the tube, anyway."

"Nyf said we were in full camo mode. No one will see us until too late."

Just then a flash of lightning lit the sky to their rear, and a moment later the sound of thunder rumbled past them.

"Whoa," granddad said, sounding impressed. "I'd just as soon get this over with before that storm gets worse."

"We've passed you and I can see the station now. I'm going to stop talking so I can concentrate."

"Okay. Let me know when you've taken those guys out."

I will."

"And good luck!"

Derry smiled at that last addition. Granddad was putting a lot of faith in them. Derry had no intention of letting the man down.

Another flash of lightning lit the sky behind them. They were over the station now, and several thousand feet up. The boys began to descend rapidly, and Nyf suggested they draw their weapons.

"I count six on the roof, spaced around the edge," the artificial mind told them.

The view through their head bubbles zoomed in, and the night was no hindrance whatsoever to sight. Derry easily spotted the six Crites, spaced evenly around the roof of the saucer-like station, away from the center, fortunately, which was transparent like the tubes.

"Crap! I forgot the roofs of these places were see-through," Derry said. "That could have been a problem if these guys were standing on the transparent part. I'd hate to drop them and the guys inside see them sprawled all over their ceiling."

Cally laughed, apparently imagining the sight. "They're not, so stop worrying. I'm going to take the three on my side, you get the three on yours, okay?"

Derry smiled. "I thought I was in charge of this mission."

"Oh, you are, Captain. Just sayin'!"

Derry laughed, pointing his zap gun at the first Crite as the boys drew to a halt a hundred feet above the roof. "None of them are looking straight up. So, on my mark, let's take 'em out."



Just as Derry fired another flash of lightning lit the sky, followed by a boom of thunder that completely masked the sounds of the zap guns. Still, Derry flinched at the suddenness of the event, and had to fire a second time at his first man before moving on to the others. But very quickly, all six Crites were out of action.

Derry informed his granddad of the act, and the man seemed pleased. "The ones inside didn't react at all. Good job. Now go to the emergency panel, and let me know right before you go inside."


Derry turned to his boyfriend. "Let's collect these staves and get rid of them. Only take a minute, and it'll be safer if they're unarmed should they wake up before we're done."

They did that, looking over the edge of the roof at the back of the station to make certain no one was below, and then dumping all six staves behind some bushes.

"The panel should be over there," Cally said then, pointing.

They crossed the roof by circling the non-transparent rim, looked over the edge carefully, and saw the landing below. No one was there.

"You sense anyone around we can't see, Nyf?" Cally asked.

"No. It is safe to proceed."

Derry held up a hand. " last thing." He raised himself twenty feet into the air, turned, looked back at the tube, and zoomed in on it, traveling it's length back towards the bend where the others were hidden. But he didn't get halfway there before he spied a figure running along the top of the tube. "Wow. Gilden is almost here!"

"He's fast," Cally said admiringly. "I like him."

"I do, too," Derry said, settling back beside his boyfriend. "These are all good people." He took a breath, released it. "Ready?"


They raised from the roof and dropped slowly to the landing below. Derry found the handle on the emergency panel, drew his zap gun again, and looked over at Cally. "We just walk in, and start shooting. You stay on my left side, and get the ones on the left. I'll shoot the ones on the right."

"I got it."

Derry gave the panel a gentle pull, enough to release it, and opened it a crack so he could peer inside. He quickly counted sixteen Crites: ten arrayed across the tube entrance, and six standing behind them. No one was looking their way. He relayed that information to Cally, and then informed granddad that they were going in.

"Be careful, son," the man said.

Derry pulled open the panel and he and Cally simply walked inside. They each took out several of the Crites on each side before the others noticed what was happening, and turned their way. But even as they tried to bring their staves to bear, they were collapsing into a heap on the floor. In five seconds, they were all down.

Derry turned to look around the back of the station. It was darker there, masked in shadows, but seemed empty of any Crites. But there was one thing to the side there that immediately caught his eye: a door. One of the big ovals, laying on its side, that was a cargo door between worlds. Big enough for large machinery, vehicles - just about anything one might need to ship between worlds. The oval was filled with darkness, a sign that it was still active.

"It's done!" Derry called to his grandfather.

"We saw! We're on our way!"

"Let's collect their staves before they wake up," Derry said then. "We'll hide them in the space behind the cargo door for now."

They picked up the staves from among the fallen Crites and hid them behind the open cargo door. The black field within the oval looked serene, but Derry knew it was a mask as much as a threshold. The other side of a door could be peaceful, or it could be a warzone. That there might be millions of these doors, each hiding a mystery, seemed an almost overpowering idea now. The task before them was an awesome one, indeed!

"That'll do it," Cally said, looking back at the door as they walked back to the fallen Crites. "Can't see 'em, so they might as well not be there. Let's look these guys over and make sure they're all just knocked out."

Derry nodded and they bent beside the Crites and checked for pulses.

"We can see you now," Granddad said over the private channel. "I'm flying ahead. Almost there. out!"

The warning was barely uttered before Derry heard the blast of a staff to his rear. A bright flash washed over him, but he felt nothing. He whirled, pulling his gun as he turned, and was stunned to see the room full of Crites behind them. The bolt of electricity had come from the one closest to them, and the others were spreading out behind him and trying to bring their staves to bear. Derry realized what had happened then: the six Crites had just come back through the cargo door!

In the same second another staff roared, and the bolt seemed drawn to the staff of the Crite that had just fired at Derry. That man shrieked and was thrown back at the others, his staff flying in the other direction and his body crashing into the massed staves just then being brought to bear on the humans. A finger of the original bolt branched off and struck another of the Crites, who promptly let go of his staff and collapsed to the floor. The entire group behind him staggered backwards under the body blow from the first Crite struck.

Derry's eyes jerked to the source of the new bolt, and there was Gilden just inside the emergency panel. The boy's expression looked grim, and his staff moved with the tumbling Crites, seeking another target.

Derry couldn't believe what happened next. The shadows at the back of the room, to the rear of the Crites, suddenly moved. And then they were flowing forward, tossing Crites aside as if they were nothing. One Crite turned with a frantic speed and bolted back through the cargo door, and was gone. Two more, thrown to the floor by the moving shadows in passing, scrambled to retrieve their staves, and then were gone through the cargo doors as well. The last two conscious Crites struggled to rise, and then one simply pushed the other off him roughly, and crawled across the floor and disappeared through the cargo door.

The last Crite, the one struck by the branching bolt from Gilden's shot, grabbed his staff just as the three shadows converged upon him again. The staff was pulled roughly from the Crite's hands and tossed away, and the Crite lifted and thrown to the floor with enough force to knock the wind out of him. Derry heard the sound of the impact, and knew the Crite was at least temporarily out of action.

And suddenly, all was still.

Gilden took a step backwards and tilted his staff back away from the three shadowy ones. Then he seemed to think better of it, and bowed his head at them. "I am grateful for your assistance."

The three dark figures turned in their eerie, almost ghostly fashion, and Derry realized that they were now all facing him and Cally. Schrikken! For a moment he froze; and then a small voice at the back of his mind yelled at him: You're an Armenti, dummy! Say something!

Derry cleared his throat and smiled. "Um, hello. Thank you for your help."

Cally nodded, his eyes wide. "Yeah!"

One of the Schrikken moved towards them, and it was all that Derry could do not to take a step backwards. "We could not stand by while these depraved ones acted out their treachery behind your backs." The voice was soft, with the quality of a whisper, yet perfectly audible to Derry's ears.

"You were invisible in the darkness there," Gilden said, taking a step further into the room. "You surprised us."

"We have been here all day, watching and listening to these agitators as they made their plans," the Schrikken revealed. "We have been among them for some time now, in fact."

"And they never knew," Cally said, in amazement.

"No. The eyes see what is familiar. That which is not is...just a shadow among many."

Gilden stepped closer to the Crite the Schrikken had disabled and stared down at his face. "It's Dith!" He tapped his staff on the floor forcefully and turned to Derry. "And one of the Crites that went back through the door was Crowla!"

Mike Hamlyn arrived just then, gun in hand, and landed beside Derry. "You okay?" he asked quietly.

"Uh huh." Derry smiled at the relief he saw in his grandfather's eyes. "Did we scare you?"

"Just a little." His granddad smiled. "But you two did a great job." He turned then and smiled at Gilden. "You, too, son. Thank you."

And then Mike Hamlyn put away his weapon and stepped towards the Schrikken. "I'm Mike Hamlyn, of Armenti security. These are my associates, Derry and Cally. We are grateful for your help in subduing these Crites."

That the Schrikken had eyes seemed clear, but Derry was not certain where they were. Yet the alien turned slightly to face each of the 'Armenti' as they were introduced, proving that they were there.

"I am called Ssistraa. My companions are Ssalit and Ssraik."

"Nice to meet you," Cally said, pushing his zap gun back into his holster. Derry noticed the movement and reholstered his own weapon.

Erva arrived on his wings then, and they could hear the sound of running feet behind him within the transport tube. The senior Sasparian landed running and deftly stopped right beside his son, and immediately placed a hand on the boy's shoulder and squeezed it, as if making sure he was really there. "In one piece, I see."

Gilden smiled, and shifted his staff to his other hand, and placed the free one on his father's shoulder. "I wouldn't have missed it for anything."

Erva nodded. "Nor I, when I was your age. The circumstances were different, but the experience just as lasting."

Garmin, Mergrun, and Koort arrived then, and the two Crites immediately took up watchful positions over their fallen brethren just inside the station, while Koort came forward to stand with the humans. "That was rather thrilling."

Granddad laughed. "It wasn't boring, I have to agree."

Introductions were made all around again. Ssistraa acknowledged each new face, but his two companions never said a word. That everyone but the Schrikken were feeling a bit of nervous strain seemed evident. If Sisstraa noticed it he did not acknowledge it, but in only a moment his two companions moved past him towards the tube back to Aginshir. Both Garmin and Mergrin leaned away from the two Schrikken as they passed, and probably didn't even realize they had done so.

"We will be leaving now," Sisstraa said.

Mike emitted a short sigh. "You are more than welcome to stay. We would like to know how you happen to be here."

Ssistraa moved closer to Derry's granddad, and Derry marveled at how cool the man seemed to be.

"There is nothing strange about our presence. We had heard of Crowla and his new weapons. We were sent by our Ssiam Ssali to see for ourselves. Our ability to remain out of sight allowed us to listen to many things. The plans these people discussed would have caused ill for all the peoples of our world. We just happened to be here in this place when these most recent events transpired." There was the softest of sounds then, that could only be a sign of humor. "Now that the Armenti have arrived, we feel things will be in good hands. Our mission is fulfilled. Crowla is routed, at least for the moment. We are pleased to be able to return to our people and tell them of your arrival, rather than of the plans of Crowla to make war. And so we will depart now."

"Well, thank you again," Mike said. "You made a difference here today."

"So did you," Ssistraa returned. For a moment the Schrikken paused, watching Mike with his invisible eyes; and then the alien leaned forward. "I would speak with you privately, in the tube."

Mike Hamlyn glanced over at Derry, but then nodded at Ssistraa. "Sure. Be right back, guys."

Over the private link, Derry's granddad said, "I'll fix it so you guys can hear what happens."

Ssalit and Ssraik had already entered the tube, and now stood in the distance. Ssistraa followed them, and Mike Hamlyn followed him.

The two stopped just inside the tube, out of earshot of the others.

"I am very old," Ssistraa said then, his voice coming over the private channel "I was a visitor here when the doors first shut down."

Mike Hamlyn grunted in surprise. "Oh?"

"Yes. I know many of the Armenti personally. You look strikingly like them, and you wear their protective suits well. But you are not them."

"Why would you say that?"

Again came the soft laugh."You do not taste like Armenti."

Mike Hamlyn's surprise came through the link clearly. "Taste?"

"Yes. Every race has its own distinct flavor. The Armenti had theirs, and you have yours. They are not the same."

It was Derry's granddad's turn to laugh. "There's a reason for that."

"I am listening."

Mike sighed. "Long ago - a very long time ago - before there were doors, the Armenti were confined to traveling the stars in ships."

"This we know. Continue."

"In those early days, the Armenti colonized many worlds. My ancestors were among those of one of the earliest new settlements. The planet was called, um, Terra."

"I have not heard of this world."

Mike gave a short grunt of agreement. "You would not have. We were lost for a very long time. We managed to keep our civilization, but we lost the ability to travel the stars. But then one day a ship arrived on our world. An Armenti ship."

Ssistraa made a small sound that came across as one of fascination. "You were rediscovered?"

"Yes. Doors were set up on our world, and we were quite suddenly reconnected with our long lost kin."

"Ah. That would explain the slight differences in your appearance. In your taste. The results of evolutionary adaptation to a new world over time."

"Yes. At the time of our rediscovery, the great menace had already been encountered. Our brothers needed the help of all Armenti, everywhere, to assist in the fight. And we are."

Derry could see Ssistraa offer Mike a rippling bow. "My apologies, then. Now that I have your taste, I will share it with all others of my kind, so that they will know you should we meet again."

"Um, great. Are you sure you need to go now?"

"Yes. It is the wisest course. We make the warmbloods nervous. It distresses us to do so. Please give them my heartfelt thanks for their parts in keeping Rustgevend free."

Derry heard his grandfather chuckle. "It's not over yet."

"And yet, it soon will be. I have confidence in you. In all the Armenti. So now...I bid you farewell."

Ssistraa moved off with that amazing and unsettling rippling movement, joined his fellows, and quickly the Schrikken were gone. Mike Hamlyn watched after them for a long moment, and then turned and came back to the station.

"Strange people," he said, as he rejoined the group. The others were watching and listening with interest. "And yet, I liked them very much."

"They are an honorable part of our society," Erva responded. "Just not very interactive."

"You're getting good with the storytelling," Derry kidded his granddad on the private channel. "You could write books!"

"I hate it," granddad replied, frowning. "Lying to friends just sucks. But I am enough of a realist to know when it's a necessary thing. It's important that we act here with the authority of the Armenti. That's all there is to it."

Koort, standing over near Erva, looked around the room, and then offered them an approving nod. "I should not have doubted you. I see now that justice will indeed be served here."

Erva laughed, and clapped the Narthie on the back. "You had doubts, brother?"

Koort's expression grew serious. "I'm sorry. But I did." He cocked his head at the humans. "The Armenti left suddenly long ago, without adequate explanation, but with a ruling that the doors were not to be used. For these many years we have abided by this ruling, because it was understood that the safety of this world and other worlds might be at stake. But I will say now that there have been those among my own people that have been watching what Crowla and his holding have been doing with interest. And talk that perhaps the confinement to this world we have endured has actually been self-imposed. Some wished to have a look through the doors at the nexus station, even."

"You must not do this!" Erva said, sounding alarmed.

Koort smiled at him again. "Relax, brother. I will tell the tale of this undertaking. The Armenti have said what they mean, and mean what they say. Only something grave indeed would have brought them back so quickly. Crowla's violation of the door seems not to be taken so lightly now." He gave a shake of his head and shoulder. "Just the word that the Armenti are still with us will be enough to calm those restless enough to wish to explore. It holds out hope for us that things will change someday."

Erva looked askance at the Narthie. "Is this world so unpleasant to you?"

The other gave a hearty laugh. "Not to me! I rather like it. But some among my kind feel it doesn't have enough earth to burrow in, if you know what I mean."

Erva and Gilden laughed at that, and Derry couldn't help smile. But the smile quickly ebbed as more important things came back to mind.

"What do we do about the ones that got away?" he asked his granddad, pointing at the cargo doorway.

The man frowned, and then gave a small shrug. "We'll need to go after them. We still need to see if there is anything else dangerous on the other side of this door." He looked at the two Crites on the floor before him. Dith was conscious, and glaring up at them. The Crite mainly struck by Gilden's bolt was obviously breathing, but otherwise out of it.

Granddad smiled at Gilden. "That's pretty good. Two hits, yet they both survived."

The Sasparian boy looked pleased. "Their staves both seemed to attract my fire. I was very close to them, though. Perhaps that had something to do with it."

Granddad nodded and squatted before Dith. "Crowla was with you? He went back through the door?"

The Crite simply glared, but said nothing. Mike Hamlyn leaned closer to him then, all pretenses to civility gone. "I could simply deactivate this door, and leave your friends on the other side. Forever."

Dith looked alarmed at that. "You can't! It would be--" But he trailed off, his glare returning.

Mike shook his head slowly. "Murder? Isn't that what your leader planned for all those that opposed him?"

"I did not intend to kill anyone," Dith returned, sullenly.

Mike leaned closer. "Five Narthie traders were murdered back at Aginshir by Crowla's own cousin. And yet you people didn't intend to harm anyone?"

A look of alarm washed over Dith's features. "I had nothing to do with that!"

Mike pulled his zap gun from its holster and held it casually in his hands before him. "Conspiracy is a crime under empire law. All involved are treated as perpetrators of a crime."

Dith looked appalled at that. "Conspiracy! I was not part of...I had nothing to do with..." A look of shock appeared on the Crite's features, and a certain dullness came into his eyes. "We meant to unify this world," he said then, very quietly. "I don't know how it got so out of hand."

Mike nodded. "Your leader seems to have little respect for life."

Dith closed his eyes, and gave his head a short side-to-side nod of agreement. "He was a good man, once. I don't know what happened."

"Uh huh. Where did you get the staves?"

Dith looked over at the cargo door. "There. There is a world there, beneath a red sun. A broken land, once covered with vast storehouses. But not now. The landscape is pockmarked with craters, the buildings mostly destroyed. There are...shipping containers, I guess they are, laying everywhere, as if dispersed by the explosions. We found one such container, broken open. It contained many staves, some broken themselves. But others still worked."

Mike frowned at that. "You can't outfit an army on one container of weapons."

"There are five other containers, exactly like the first. They may have all been piled together at some point. But these other containers were not broken, and we have not been able to get them open."

"Empire shipping security was very efficient," Nyf noted. "They would have a hard time breaching it."

Mike repeated that statement.

Dith nodded again. "We never had enough time to work for very long. We would arrive, and the sun would be shining overhead. But within the hour, every time we went, strange clouds would from on the horizon and move closer. The wind would pick up, and thunder and...and lightning would threaten. We would be forced to leave, to come back here."

Mike looked over at the door. "And this time?"

"The same. The strange weather returned, so we made our way back here." Dith suddenly looked horrified, and turned to gaze at the cargo door. "They went back! Into the storm!"

Mike looked up at Derry, and shook his head, before turning back to Dith. "That's a lot of trepidation over a simple thunder storm."

Dith turned haunted eyes back upon them. "It was not a simple thunderstorm! Crowla laughed at my fears, and dismissed them. But there was...there was something inside those dark clouds. Something I could feel. Something...dangerous!"

Mike Hamlyn cocked his head to one side. "When we discussed this before back at Inishee, you said you saw nothing dangerous on the other side of this door. You laughed at the idea, in fact."

Dith looked unnerved now. "I...I was wrong. The storms gradually came closer with each of our visits, reducing the time we could stay to work on the containers, The last few times we were there, the storms were very close. Close enough for me to sense their danger."

"Hmm. And no one else could feel this, um, presence?"

"Yes." Dith waved his hands in agitation. "Crowla finally pulled me aside and told me to stop frightening the others. He said it was my talk that was scaring them, not some storm! He could not sense the presence like the rest of us could."

"Odd," Nyf commented over the private channel. "Records for this transshipping station indicate that the weather was universally mild, year-round. It was one reason the planet was selected to fulfill its present function."

"You have to get them back!" Dith said then, trying to rise, but unable to do that yet. His legs seemed to still be too weak. "They're in danger there!"

Mike watched the Crite a moment longer, then propelled himself erect, and slid his zap gun into his holster. He took Derry and Cally each by an arm and moved them away from Dith, over by Erva and Gilden. Koort joined them, though obviously keeping an eye on Dith. But the Crite was simply staring at the cargo door, unmoving.

"Something's going on here," Derry's granddad said. "The man seems genuinely frightened of something on the other side of that door."

Gilden frowned. "I would not trust that one any more than his leader."

Derry looked over at Dith again, and nodded. "He does seem really scared."

"I don't think he's playing," Cally agreed. "Something has him spooked."

Granddad nodded. "We're going to have to go and look ourselves."

"I could just close the door down and place a strike in its database record," Nyf offered. "The door could not be initiated again from either side without my approval."

Granddad winced at that, and looked over at the door again. "Yeah, but that would be condemning those men to exile, and probably death. I'd be willing to bet there's nothing at all to eat or drink over there."

"They could starve on that planet," Derry said to Cally, aloud. "We can't just maroon them there."

"They chose to flee," Koort countered. "Do not they deserve their fates?"

"Maybe," Mike Hamlyn replied. "But we still need to see what is there before we shut this door down. Dith's description of the place doesn't match what we have in our records."

"Will you require assistance?" Erva asked. At that, Gilden looked hopeful, and Derry tried not to smile.

"Thanks," Mike said. "But it's not safe. And the fewer that use the door, the better."

Outside the station now, they could hear the wind, and the transparent overhead flashed as lightning split the sky. A dull rumble of thunder washed over the station, and then came the sound of rain upon the roof.

"We're getting a storm of our own," Derry said. He turned to his grandfather. "When do we go?"

"Right now."

Cally leaned closer. "Shouldn't we look before just walking through?"

"That might be a good idea," Mike agreed. "How do we do that?"

Cally grinned. "Just lean your head through. I've done it before, and it works fine."

Derry remembered when Cally had done just that, poking his face through the door back from the planet of the fur people to see if Difris was still watching for them back at the transfer station. They had yet to meet the giant spider at that point, and had been afraid of encountering him. Difris had outwitted them, settling back away from the door and pulling in his legs to sit and watch and wait for their return. When Cally had looked through he had missed the giant spider, which just looked like any other piece of machinery sitting on the floor.

Mike nodded. "Yeah, I did that once, myself. Okay, let's do this."

"We will watch this place while you are gone," Erva said. "Gilden, watch the panel you entered through. We don't wish to be surprised from the outside."

"Yes, Father."

Koort moved closer to the humans. "Be safe. Nothing is worth your lives."

Mike grinned at him. "No doubt in my mind!"

The three humans approached the cargo door and stopped before it. Mike opaqued his head bubble, and then grunted over the private channel. "Here goes nothing!"

He leaned forward then, and all but the very back of his head bubble disappeared through the doorway. Derry started counting seconds, and it was a full ten of them before his grandfather pulled back again.


He looked unnerved, Derry thought. "What did you see?"

"I'm...I'm not sure. I want you both to look before we go through, okay? You need to see what we're getting into."

Cally patted Derry's arm and then stepped up to the field of darkness filling the doorway. "Come, on, Derry!"

Derry stepped up beside his boyfriend and opaqued his head bubble. Cally did the same.

Then they leaned forward, together.

The effect was unnerving, both to Derry's eyes and to his imagination. He leaned into the veil of darkness, which parted before him to reveal a strange and dark landscape beyond. At the same moment, he was aware that his face and his body were now separated by light years of distance - or were they? The odd qualities of door travel seemed to place two points widely separated by distance into a contiguous state. Moving from one place to the other was just the matter of a single step. Yet those two places were separated by both time and distance in the reality of things, weren't they?

Weren't they?

Derry abandoned the thoughts then, before they could overwhelm him, and concentrated instead on what he could see before him.

A broken land...

He was viewing it through what had surely once been a wall, now a gaping hole that revealed an enormous paved area outside the shattered shell of the building the door seemed located within. The remains of other buildings dotted the landscape, all of them large, and in most cases simply the walls, or just parts of the walls, left standing. A few were simply large piles of rubble, their former status as buildings only suggested by the placement of the piles among a row of less thoroughly blasted structures. The same picture went on and on, for miles it seemed, finally fading into a haze on the far horizon.

Craters dotted the pavement, surrounded by huge chunks of whatever material the empire had used to cover the land here. There were blackened streaks across the still smooth areas between craters, looking very much like the lash marks a whip might leave behind. And everywhere...just everywhere...lay shipping containers of all sizes and shapes, most still whole and looking undamaged, but a few broken and their mysterious contents strewn about the pavement. The suggestion of wholesale destruction was simply breathtaking. Whatever had happened here, it hadn't been gentle in nature.

Looming above all this was a dark cloud, like a thunderhead, but one that pulsed and glowed with reddish light within. It was some miles away, but seemed even now to be coming closer. To each side of the vast column of roiling atmosphere the sky was uncannily clear, and filled with a reddish glow that could only be sunshine scattered throughout the quieter air. The dark cloud was inconsistent with the sky around it. It jarred Derry's senses, made him frightened somehow, and instilled within him an urge to run. The cloud was alien, not natural and yet not identifiable in nature. Immense and powerful looking, and radiating a sense of menace that could readily be felt.

And whatever it was, it did not belong there.

"Crap," Cally breathed, and Derry could feel his boyfriend's anxiety. "What the hell is that?"

They backed away together, and turned right into Derry's granddad, who stretched his arms out to contain them.

"Felt like running, didn't you?" he asked on the private channel. "It struck me the same way."

"What do you think it is?"

"No idea. It scares me, though. Nyf?"

"Not enough data," the artificial mind told them. "The sampling was too short, But one thing did seem clear: that cloud is alive."

Derry and Cally stared at each other. Cally's eyes were wide, and Derry could see the same fear there he was feeling himself. "Alive?"

Granddad grunted. "I have to go look. Derry, you and Cally can stay here. I'll just be gone a few minutes--"

"No!" Derry shook his head emphatically. "I'm going with you."

"Me, too!" Cally said, right on his heels.

Mike Hamlyn laughed, and shook his head. "There is no doubt in my mind that you share the family gene for stubbornness, Derry." He turned his smile on Cally. "Seems to be rubbing off, too."

Derry suddenly found that funny, and grinned. "We're going with you."

"Suit yourself. But stay right with me, and come back here when I do. Understand?"



"I didn't see the Crites," Derry said then. "They sure weren't waiting for us."

His granddad huffed at that one. "I'm not sure I'd be just standing there waiting for that cloud to arrive, either."

"Where can they go?" Cally asked. "There's nothing there. They'll starve if we close the door on them."

Granddad simply shook his head. "Let's go see."

They drew their weapons, informed the others of their intentions, and then stepped through the door.

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