The Odd, Onward Door

by Geron Kees

Never A Door Lost

© 2018 by Geron Kees. All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation.

This story follows events first recounted in The Odd, Onward Door. You really should read that first. Use the little arrow just there <— in the left hand margin to find it.

From the trees beyond their hiding place came the sound of riders, a good half-dozen of them, as they pushed their mounts back and forth through the underbrush, calling to each other in a strange and alien tongue. Their voices were deep, guttural, with a commanding tone that pierced the late afternoon air and left no doubt as to their intentions. They were seeking prey, and fully expecting to find it.

They were searching for them.

Derry Hamlyn crouched low behind the oddly-shaped bushes, peering through the long, needle-covered limbs that screened them from their pursuers. A fresh, evergreen scent assailed his nostrils, which would have been pleasant at any other time, but which now just served as a distraction as his eyes sought out the great, bear-like mounts and their riders as they criss-crossed back and forth through the woods beyond.

"I don't think they know exactly where we are," Cally whispered, his eyes only hinting at the fear behind them.

"I agree," Mike Hamlyn, Derry's granddad, said, nodding slowly. "It's an eye-hunt. If they or their mounts had good noses, they'd be here already."

Derry scanned the woods beyond their hiding place, where the underbrush trembled as the searchers rode through, and then turned the other way to gaze at the tumbledown towers of the small city in the distance at the edge of the forest. It seemed very far away now, although it was surely only a few minutes to walk. That small city held their only chance of escape, in the form of a dark doorway that would take them back to the room of doors on the moon of the ringed world circling the great, red sun.

Difris, the alien robot-spider that had befriended them, would be there, awaiting their report on this world, yet another that had gone silent in the vast network of interconnected doors that had served as the chief form of transportation and communication for a once great stellar empire. Some grave misfortune had befallen that empire, at a time when humans on Earth still lived in rough feudal states and fought among themselves with swords and spears. The era had been nailed down by granddad after much talk with Difris, who had learned English at a simply astounding rate.

Derry and Cally had brought a laptop over, crammed with everything they could find online about the structure and usage of the English language, and the spider had simply absorbed it in one sitting, shedding in minutes the pigeon-English they had been communicating with until then. And since that time, Difris had joyfully been studying the boys, their grandfather, and every small whim and tic of their mannerisms, language, and customs.

"He's probably designed that way," Mike Hamlyn had mused, shaking his head in wonder at the alien technology. "Like a sponge for language and culture. He had to deal with a multitude of travelers passing through the transfer station's portals, and he would have needed an ability to get along, so to speak."

Difris was to an Earthly computer what a sleek and modern jetliner was to the Wright Brothers original biplane. The metal spider not only learned fast, but had the ability to consider the knowledge in the same intelligent, reasoning fashion that Derry used himself. The spider even seemed to possess a sense of humor, and a personality, and acted so much like any other person that Derry had ever known that he had ceased to think of the robot as a machine at all. Difris was as smart as they were, if not smarter, and his knowledge was simply amazing, covering every facet of the old empire. Derry knew now that the essence that was life could take many forms. You didn't have to be flesh and blood to be a person.

The spider had become a friend and a mentor, as the boys and Derry's granddad had begun the immense and daunting task of stepping through a million doorways for signs that the old empire might still be around. Difris was unable to transit the doorways himself, having been set a thousand years past to watch the transfer station on the moon of the ringed world, and having kept that lonely vigil all this time with the hope that someday, someone would reappear to let him know what had happened to the days of old.

That event had finally occurred, when Derry and Cally had appeared from Earth. But the doorway to Earth had only been a waystation, a quick stop on the road between the stars, that served in some way to connect the mysterious physics that governed the operations of the transit system over long stretches of otherwise uninhabited space. The civilization in existence on earth at the time of the stellar empire's flourishing had been too primitive for contact, and the one station, in what many years later would become Mike Hamlyn's woods, the only bastion ever established on Earth by the great empire. Earth had been a bus stop on the great roadway, and a dangerous, backwoods stop, at that.

The mystery of where the builders had gone still remained.

"There's one!" Cally breathed, as one of the great bear-horses came into view, its rider fingering the leather straps of the bolas-like weapon he held. If the mounts resembled great bears, the riders themselves looked like nothing Derry had ever seen before. Their long, sleek, shiny bodies had two lower appendages that straddled the bear-horses like legs, but lacked feet; and two fluid, jointless upper appendages to either side of the lumpy head, that twirled the bolas in tendrilled ends that scarcely resembled human hands, yet displayed every bit of their nimbleness. Their bodies were bipedal and bilaterally symmetrical like humans, but there the resemblance ended.

Both rider and mount were clothed in what looked to be thick leather armor, and a long, pointed weapon, like a sharp-edged spear, hung in a sheath in front of the rider's right 'leg'. The bolas seems designed to unseat another rider, or bring down a fleeing target, with the sharp weapon perhaps meant to deal with them once that was done.

Mike Hamlyn had no intention of experiencing either fate. He hefted the odd handgun that Difris had provided and checked again to see that the thing was set to shock and not kill. Were he to pull the trigger on one of the mounted riders now, a beam of electrifed force would be projected, which reacted with the nervous systems of living things to cause loss of function and unconsciousness. It was a humane weapon, and temporary in its effects, unlike some of the other security devices the spider had access to in the defense lockers of the moon-station.

Derry and Cally each had weapons, too, though theirs were of a different nature. Like the paint-ball guns they had used back on Earth, each small pistol fired a tiny round blob that, on impact, spread a large stain of a very potent chemical that smelled somewhere between a skunk's defensive stream and baby diapers after they had been fully loaded with baby poop, only ten times worse than either. Difris had warned them not to fire the weapons at close range, because there was no escaping the odor once released.

Derry had resolved not to fire the thing at all, if it could be helped, and so watched the hunter approach with more than a little apprehension.

"Don't shoot until you see the white's of their eyes," he whispered to Cally, nervously tossing out an expression he had heard in some old movie.

"What eyes?" his boyfriend returned, his face drawn with an apprehension of his own. "You see any?"

Derry squinted and looked more closely at the approaching hunter-pair. The bear-horse had eyes, but the rider...appeared not to possess them.

"Okay, not an eye-hunt," granddad said then, softly. "If they don't see, they may have something even better. No one move, okay?"

They watched in silence as the bear-horse and its rider moved slowly towards them, weaving gently back and forth. The eyes of the mount were upon the ground, but occasionally flicked about as though searching the undergrowth. The rider's face - if it could be called that, for it was mostly blank - turned slowly side-to-side, in ever decreasing arcs, until, quite suddenly, it pointed straight at them. There was a grunt from the bear-horse, and the pair literally catapulted towards the human's hiding place, the rider twirling his bolas ever faster as they approached.

"Damn!" granddad spat, raising his pistol and taking aim at the rider. Even so, he waited until it was absolutely clear that the team did not intend to veer off, before pulling the trigger.

There was a ripping sound as the molecules of air between the pistol and the rider were torn asunder, and then a flash as the bolt hit the being. This was followed by a shriek in one of the great, guttural voices they had heard earlier. But to Derry's great surprise, it was the bear-horse that yelled, not the rider.

"Estremok! Corivatches parl mu calla!"

The rider was plucked from his saddle as if by a giant's hand and thrown to the ground, and the bear-horse dug in and slid to a halt not thirty feet from their place of concealment in the bushes. The giant animal looked backwards at its fallen companion, and then turned that way and went back to him, all the while calling out in its great, booming voice.

In the distance, the underbrush waved violently as the other hunters forgot their search and came at full gallop towards their bellowing companion.

"Time to go," granddad said, turning and sweeping the boys before him. "Be quiet, and keep these bushes between us and them." He pointed to another thick stand of small trees well to their rear, and nodded his head. "That's where we're going first. Go!"

Derry and Cally ran, the pistols waving in their hands, the small backpacks they wore thumping against their shoulder blades as they moved. Granddad also ran, staying with them, his own weapon held high and ready for action.

Behind them, the voices of the bear-horses grew louder as the other members of the hunting party converged on their stricken comrade. What sounded like a brief argument ensued, and Derry was shocked to realize that the bear-horses seemed to be in charge, not the riders.

He felt sweat trickle down his back as the small stand of trees loomed closer, and breathed a sigh of relief as they dove into them and pressed back behind their shielding branches. An outcrop of reddish rock presented itself, and they clambered over it and shrank down behind, turning to look back the way they had come.

The great voices continued to argue back and forth a moment, and then suddenly went silent. For a moment nothing else happened; and then a single bear-horse and rider circled the far stand of bushes and stopped. The bear-horse swung its head back and forth as if searching for them, and then called out a single word. Three more mounts and riders appeared and joined the first, and all four simply stood and stared about in silence.

"Odd cusses," granddad said, shaking his head. "Don't give up easily, I'll say that." He looked at Derry, frowning. "Makes me wonder what sort of prey they are used to, that they walk about so boldly like they do, even after we've shown we can fell the riders."

"It's the bear-horses that talk," Derry said, his voice tinged with wonder. "Did you hear?"

"Yes. Just shows again that we are strangers in a strange land here. What we consider normal isn't the norm here at all."

"They're not coming any closer, though," Cally pointed out. "They at least know what caution is."

Granddad frowned, and nodded. "Weird. I'm thinking about the little city we arrived in. The buildings, and specifically the doorways. They're small, like human doors. Our size. Suitable for the riders of those big beasts, but not the bear-things themselves. So even though the bears talk here, I don't think they ever called that city home."

"You think it was the glass people that lived there?" Cally asked.

Despite the tension of their situation, Derry grinned at his best friend. "Glass people?"

Cally grunted, but smiled. "Yeah. They're sleek and shiny, like glass, what I could see of them. They sure are agile enough, though. You see that guy twirl that bolas? Looked like a pro to me, I'll say that."

"I'm sure," granddad agreed. "They look to have a well-established method of hunting. But I think they are just now realizing that we are not their normal prey."

Derry watched the four hunter combos as the bear-horses shuffled back and forth in place, mumbling to each other at a much-reduced volume, while the glass people aboard them swung their faces to and fro, as if searching.

"There's some sort of sense at work there," granddad mused, watching too. "But it must have a range limitation. I noticed that the fellow I took down didn't really seem to focus on us until he was pretty close."

"Heat, maybe?" Cally asked. "Like a snake does?"

"Don't know. Something we're not acquainted with, I think." Granddad turned his head and stared at the distant city, then turned back to the boys. "I don't think I want to wait around to find out. Let's get moving back towards the door. It doesn't look like the hunters are coming after us at the moment."

Derry watched the four mounts and their riders a moment longer, and nodded. "We should still keep out of their sight, though, right?"

Granddad reached out and gave Derry's arm a fond squeeze. "That's a given. Keep low, and keep this outcrop between us and them. You boys go, and I'll be right behind you."

They moved out, hunched over, their weapons at the ready. Derry led, with Cally behind him, while granddad brought up the rear.

They moved as quietly as they could through the underbrush, looking over their shoulders every so often, but seeing no sign of pursuit. In this way they made it to the outskirts of the city without incident, and paused in the last patch of underbrush before the cracked stones of the wide promenade at the edge of the buildings.

"Looks okay," granddad said, his eyes moving slowly over the ancient towers and the vacant stares of the windows in each. About fifty feet of open pavers lay between them and the nearest building. But the area was silent, with no sign of their pursuers.The man nodded, and pointed to the building directly across from them. "Derry, make for that doorway there. Cally and I will cover you. Once you're there, you and I will cover Cally as he crosses, and then the two of you can cover me. Got it?"

Derry nodded, and stepped out onto the paving stones. He looked both ways, and then started hurrying across.

But he had not made it to the halfway point when he heard the crackle of snapping branches, and looked to his right to see one of the bear-horses emerge from the underbrush and gallop towards him. It's rider already had his bolas in a furious spin, and Derry briefly froze, stunned by the suddenness of the attack.

He heard granddad curse, and at the same time a strange singing sound split the air. Something made Derry duck, just as the bolas sailed past his head. One of the spinning weights clipped Derry's temple, sending him sprawling onto the stones.

He heard the ripping sound of granddad's pistol then, and then a more violent sound as the ground briefly trembled beneath Derry's body. And then he sensed someone at his side, squatting, and felt a reassuring hand on his back, followed by the rapid blat-blat-blat of Cally's stink gun as the boy fired it at the hunters.

Derry's head felt a little woozy with shock and surprise, but he managed to get his eyes up in time to see a second hunter pair crash to the stones beside the first, as granddad's weapon jumbled the impulses of the nerves in their bodies. Beyond the two downed hunter-pairs, another two of the bear-horse and rider combos had stopped, and were watching. A faint but horrible odor filled the air, struggling to reach them against the light breeze, and one of the downed bear-horses was gulping hard and crying in its deep, guttural voice.

Cally pulled at Derry, helping him to his feet, and then granddad was there, too. The three of them stood together a moment and stared at the watching bear-horses, who squinted back at them as if just really seeing them for the first time.

"Armentim!" one of them suddenly bellowed, turning to look at its fellow. "Orwena! Mert trespi por-ta anerd'wa! Armentim!"

Both bear-horses began backing away, their eyes now wide, their tense bodies displaying every indication of fear. The glass people on their backs cringed and hunkered low as their great mounts moved backwards, until suddenly, both bear-horses turned and bolted into the brush. Derry stared, unable to account for the sudden change in attitude of the hunters, who, now that they had had a good look at the humans, seemed far from interested in further contact.

The downed hunters closer to them lay unmoving, with the one that had been yelling seeming to have lost consciousness. A brief change in the breeze brought a fresh burst of stink to them, and granddad pinched his nose shut and looked frantically at the boys. "Let's go!"

Derry and Cally needed no urging. Just a bare whiff of the stupendous stink was enough to propel them into motion.The three of them hurried to the nearby building and entered the doorway. This building they had passed through when first arriving. The ground floor was largely vacant, with what furniture and other items it once contained occupying moldering heaps strewn about the floor. Fortunately, the stink did not follow them inside, and they were able to pass through the bulk of the building without problem.

"Man, that is one foul stench!" granddad said, as they paused at the exit doorway. "I almost feel sorry for the poor slobs laying there in the middle of it."

Cally held up his pistol and pretended to blow smoke from the end of the barrel. "I don't. That guy was after Derry. He got exactly what he deserved, as far as I'm concerned." Cally turned concerned eyes on his boyfriend. "Are you okay?"

Derry rubbed at his temple. The blow delivered by the bolas had been glancing, more startling than injurious, and all he felt now was a mild soreness, as if there might be a little bruising on the way later on. "Yeah. I'm okay. Thanks."

Cally nodded, and reached out and squeezed Derry's arm. "I was scared shitless there, for a minute."

The boys exchanged fond smiles, and only then did Derry remember that granddad was there with them. He pulled his gaze from Cally and looked at the man, who was watching them with a look of interest in his eyes.

"Hmm. Yes. That was a pretty serious moment, guys." Granddad turned and looked out through the wide doorway, and then pointed across the large, open area beyond at another broken building across the way, its base concealed in the wildly prolific ground cover. That building wore an odd logo high up upon its side - a half-ellipse with little glowing lines radiating outward - that announced the presence of a transport room holding doors to other places. "We're almost there. Let's not stop to talk just yet."

But they were not accosted again as they made their way across the paved ground. Obviously once meant to be park-like, the open area was seriously overgrown, although the sturdy pavers underfoot seemed to have resisted the efforts of nature and time to dislodge them, and clear pathways still existed among the brush. The only sound to reach their ears was the thin keening of the wind, which sounded lonely and desolate - as desolate as the ancient city.

"No one has lived here for a long time, I think," granddad said, as they reached the doorway to the transport building. "This is about as empty a place as I have ever seen."

Derry and Cally both nodded, feeling the same. It was that exact feeling of emptiness that had prompted them to dare to walk beyond the edge of the city and into the dense woods that surrounded the place. For as devoid of occupants as the city seemed to be, the woods that ringed the old habitation seemed bursting with the sounds of life. The strange calls they had heard, so unlike anything they knew from back on earth, could only be the voices of wildlife.

But they had seen very little in the way of local fauna on their brief excursion, despite the proliferation of sounds. Derry had been counting the woods as being either more mysterious than they had seemed at first glance, or haunted by something that gave voice like songbirds, but which could not be seen by the eye. Only after the hunters had appeared had they considered the idea that the wildlife was deliberately laying low.

"I know I would, if I saw them coming!" granddad had said.

The man drew them up as they went inside the transport building, and pulled Derry closer, his eyes filled with concern. "Let's see that head now, son." Granddad turned Derry's head to the side, and gave the spot where he had been hit by the weight of the bolas a gentle rub. "Hurt?'

It didn't, not really, and Derry said as much.

Granddad nodded, and frowned. "You're damn lucky, is all I can say."

Derry expelled his breath, and shook his head. "I'm fine. I hope you're not going to start on that 'we shouldn't be doing this' thing again. Please, granddad."

The man laughed. "Well, you can't blame me for feeling that what we are attempting is too dangerous for an old guy and a couple of kids to be doing on their own. Even in the movies, the guys that do this sort of thing are all soldiers or something. Trained experts."

"Yeah, and that never seems to save them from the monsters when they show up, either," Cally pointed out. "So at least there we are as good as the pros are, right?"

Granddad laughed again, his eyes twinkling. "I suppose you have a point. But I'm having a talk with Difris when we get back. He said that as soon as his study of human biology was completed he would have some better gear for us, that would make these little trips safer. I want to at least get you and Derry guns like mine, which I now think you can handle. It was dumb of me to insist on those stink guns instead of giving you something with more of a kick to it. It took a lot longer than I liked for that stink to put those bear-horse guys out of commission."

Derry grinned at that. "Just what little bit I smelled was enough for me. I can already imagine those guys going home later and their families locking them out of the house because of how they smell." He laughed. "They're gonna need a long bath after that one."

"Hmm." Granddad looked around the entry hall they were in and nodded his head. "Speaking of getting home, let's do that now." He put a hand on each boy's shoulder and steered them down the wide hallway.

Despite the apparent length of time that the city had been abandoned, a clean, curious glow filled the building, enabling them to see where they were going. The design of the building was open and airy, with high ceilings and transparent walls in many places, and some sort of interior waveguide system that managed to scatter the light from outside all about in just such a way that the interior was never too dark to see. They didn't need the small flashlights that Difris had provided them with, and quickly found their way back to the room full of doors at the heart of the building.

It was a fairly large room, with five sets of the five-to-a-row ellipses full of darkness that were the transports doors, set in a large semi-circle about the interior of the room. There were also several of the much larger ellipses, these set on their sides, that they had learned were transport doors for cargo, and which were not currently filled with darkness. Unlike the doors for people, the cargo doors were only activated when needed, and the boys had seen the large rings in other places, but had not understood their importance until now.

Derry paused and looked at one of the cargo doors, and waved a hand at it to bring it to the attention of the others. "You know, those bear-horses are too big to go through the regular doorways, but they'd go through the cargo doors, no problem. And there are bigger exit doors in the back of this building than the one we used, remember, so they could still have come here from somewhere else, and not be native at all."

"Good point," granddad said. "Difris said that the peoples of the old empire were spread all over the place, and while each race still had a homeworld where they originated, there were, in most cases, more of those people spread out among the stars than there were still living at home. Those bear-horses could be from here, or from anywhere. But whoever this city was built for, it was obviously not for them." He sighed. "Just another mystery on top of all the others we've been collecting."

They crossed to a row of five doors, the center door of which had a rough, white arrow painted on the floor before it. Derry had insisted on that, remembering the mistake he and Cally had made once before in taking the wrong door, and their frightening experience in the ruined city of the fur people that had resulted. He had not wished to repeat that experience again, although with the events of this very day now under their belts, he realized that it didn't matter now whether they traversed a door on purpose or not, that what lay beyond could be just as dangerous.

Granddad cast a last look about the place, as if imprinting it in his mind. "We'll be back, someday."

Derry nodded as granddad pulled him and Cally closer, and the three of them stepped through the doorway together.

They would be back, indeed. The old empire was immense, its mysteries shadowed now with the passage of time, but still there, waiting, for those with the curiosity - and the daring - to look for them.

"I cannot say for certain," Difris told them, at the conclusion of their recounting of their journey. Granddad and the boys had taken turns describing the trip, while the big metal spider had sat and listened, its legs partly retracted, its extruded voice globe turning to follow each human as they added their memories of the horse-bears and the glass people to the pot of recollection. "There are several species that fit those descriptions, although with the glass people you describe, I am fairly certain that you mean the Kabrini. They were one of the older member races, and very prolific in the old empire."

"They don't have eyes," Cally said, shaking his head, "but they sure seemed to know where we were."

"They do see in most of the same spectrum as yourselves," Difris returned, "but with far less acuity over distance. The surface of their facial areas contain light-gathering cells that work, cumulatively, in a similar fashion to the elements of your own eyes, but without the same level of detail. But the species also possesses a secondary sense, that allows them to 'see' the electromagnetic activity within the bodies of living things, and therefore locate others over a distance by their neuro-muscular actions."

Cally grinned at Derry. "I knew they were creepy some way."

"Yeah. It was weird the way they swung their heads back and forth until they homed in on us. But once they had us, they knew where we were."

"They were some tricky guys, too," granddad put in. "Once I dropped the first glass guy, the other four with him just kind of came out on their mounts and stood in the open, as if looking for us." He frowned. "But I don't think they ever got a good look at us. And there were more of them than we first presumed. While those four were standing out in the open, four more pairs of them evidently circled around, trying to outflank us. When we got back to the city, they came after us. We dropped two more pairs, and the last two bear-horses finally saw us out in the open, and stopped cold. That was really odd."

"I remember," Derry agreed. "They looked at us, and it was like they got scared. One of them yelled something, and then they backed away, and then they ran."

"Interesting." The spider waved its voice sphere back and forth among them. "Did they say anything that you can recall?"

Derry closed his eyes, trying to remember, but could only come up with one word, which had been repeated. "Uh, yeah. One of them said something like 'Armentim'".

"Ah. That may make more sense than you know." Difris emitted a faint sound that Derry had come to think of as a chuckle, but which apparently did not always denote humor. The spider extruded its legs and stood, and swept his voice globe about the room. "All of this, everything: this place, the doors, the empire itself, was created by the Armenti - the builders." The voice globe swung their way and came to a stop. "They bore a considerable resemblance to your kind. I can see how you could be mistaken for them, especially by those who only knew them from visual representations or descriptions from memory."

A light went on inside Derry's mind. "Those were the guys we saw in the movies you showed us of what this place once looked like a long time ago, when it was busy. They looked like us, except they had big, round eyes, and no lips."

Cally laughed, his eyes bright, and Derry grinned at him. "Well, they didn't have any lips."

"You are correct," Difris confirmed. "There are other differences, not noticeable when both your species are clothed."

Cally laughed again, and bounced his eyebrows at Derry. "Aw, you're just guessing, Difris. You haven't seen us naked."

The spider emitted the faint chuckle-sound again. "Certainly I did. I inspected both of you quite closely when you were unconscious in the station infirmary."

Cally blinked, and his eyes widened. "You undressed us?"

"A brief physical inspection was necessary," the spider agreed. But the voice globe wavered uncertainly. "Was this a taboo among your people?"

Derry looked at granddad, who was trying to hide a smile. "Well, it's polite to ask, first," Derry said.

"I apologize. I will not look again without permission."

"I'll say you won't!" Cally responded. "I'm kind of particular who gets to see my goodies." His eyes briefly touched Derry's, and both boys couldn't help grinning.

Derry felt his face redden, and hoped that granddad's smile didn't mean more than it seemed. The man appeared to be enjoying their brief discomfort, although there was no hint of maliciousness to it. But it was almost like the three of them were sharing some secret, and Derry could readily guess what that secret might be.

"So you think the bear-horses thought we were builders?" he said quickly, hoping to redirect the focus of the conversation.

"It is possible," Difris responded. "Although the word 'armentim' has a lexical similarity to native words in at least a dozen other empire languages. Most, but not all, refer back to the builders, however."

"Languages change, too," granddad said quietly. "It's been a long time."

"Yes. I am also considering the species that you saw, and what native words are recorded as being similar to the name for the builders. There are none. So we will assume for now that they thought your were the builders."

The spider extruded another globe on a stem, the face of which flattened out and flashed with color, and then settled into a startlingly vivid likeness of a bear-horse. "Is this the larger species you saw?"

Derry opened his mouth to agree, when something about the picture suddenly struck him as wrong. He closed his mouth again, staring.

"The ears are too big," Cally said then. "Those there look like dinner plates. The ears on our bear-horses were a lot smaller."

"That's right," granddad said. "I don't recall seeing any whiskers on ours, either."

Derry nodded then, seeing more differences. "The eyes on that one are black. The eyes of the bear-horses back on the planet were lighter, like gray, or even blue. I know, because I looked right into them."

The image on the screen shifted to address the differences mentioned. "I am not familiar with this variation on the species," Difris admitted, "although that means nothing in particular. Many empire species had been around long enough even a millennium ago for elements dispersed to colonial and offshoot worlds to develop traits of their own. But I would say that you encountered Hvarla, and I find that quite interesting, as the Hvarla and the Kabrini were not known to associate. And neither species was native to the world you just returned from, which is most peculiar. Why are they even there?""

"Maybe they just got stranded there on the same world, and decided to cooperate to survive," granddad offered.

"But they are not stranded," Difris pointed out. "And they never have been. The doors there work quite well, as you know. There is nothing to keep either species confined to that world."

"Fear, maybe?" Derry wondered. "They sure seemed scared of us, once they saw us. Would they have some reason to fear the builders?"

The spider shifted on its legs, and the sphere showing the likeness of the bear-horse shrank and blended back into the steel shell of its body. "Not to my knowledge. After so much time, there may be legends or other stories, however. There is also the apparent change in their level of technology to consider. Hunting in the fashion you describe, with the weapons you describe, would hardly be considered efficient by modern standards. This indicates a reversion of some sort to an earlier level of existence. And it is hard to say what might be in the minds of a species that has stepped back from technologically proficient to a more primitive state."

"You think they've gone native?" Cally asked, grinning at Derry.

The spider's voice globe turned to address the boy. "Yes, if I properly understand your meaning."

"A lot of time has passed," granddad said. "And without knowing what happened all those years ago, we're going to have to assume that it was something unpleasant, to keep people from using the doors." He frowned. "And if it was something concerning the builders, we may have to deal with the idea that we may be received with hostility wherever we put in an appearance, because we look like them."

That last was sobering, and Derry shook his head. "Man, I sure can't deal with being chased around on every planet we visit." Cally nodded, obviously feeling the same way.

"What about that?" granddad asked, reaching out to pat Difris on his metallic skin. "You said that after you completed your studies of us, you might have some better equipment available for our use. Any headway on that?" He grunted. "I want to at least get some zap pistols for Derry and Caleb. Those stink guns are potent, but they're too slow-acting for real defensive use."

"My basic studies are completed, although I have yet to finalize studies of your brain function. But I am far enough along with them that I have been creating devices for your use that will work with your body chemistry."

Derry and the others had discussed this, unsure of why their particular body chemistries were a factor. "Why does that matter?"

The spider's voice globe came around to face him. "The people of the empire enjoyed a number of augments to their own biologies that were introduced to make the quality of life better for them, to ensure good health and provide protection from injury. Those additions needed to be tuned to the recipient's bodies. As you are essentially a new species, the infirmary equipment needed to sample your biology in order to provide devices that will work with your bodies. Augments created for you also needed to employ stealth technologies, in order to keep them from being discovered by your own medical people during your visits with them."

Granddad laughed. "Amen to that. It wouldn't do for old Doc MacKenzie to see little alien machines floating around in my blood sample."

"He will not. The stealth implemented within this technology will prevent its discovery by normal means. Your people are nearing the level of technology where their own medical science will be able to produce such augments in a simpler form, but they are not quite there yet. Until they are able to manufacture their own, they will not have the technology to detect these."

"Great." Granddad nodded. "Anything else?"

"The moon station is also equipped with a variety of ready-made exploration gear, including some fairly formidable offensive and defensive technologies of the purely electromechanical variety."

"Like zap guns?" granddad asked, grinning at the boys.

"Yes. And I will provide those weapons to Derry and Cally in place of their current armaments before you go out again."

"So what are these other things?" Cally asked. "The ones that go with our body chemistries?"

"A small selection of bio-devices that will serve to help protect and aid you in your travels. We will need to go to the station infirmary to install them."

Granddad's eyebrows bounced upwards. "Install them?"

"Yes. They will be permanent additions to your physical make-up...or at least until a time comes that you wish to dispense with them."

"So they can be taken away again?"


Granddad looked at the boys, and frowned thoughtfully before turning back to Difris. "How about we go to the infirmary and you tell us about this procedure first? And then we'll decide if we want these, uh, installations?"

"A fair request." Difris settled to the ground again, and the passenger compartment on his back opened. "I think you all can get in, if you squeeze a bit."

Granddad nodded, and climbed aboard, followed by Derry and Cally. The spider was right: it was a tight fit, but they all managed to get into the seat.

And then they were off, for whatever was to come next.

Derry came back to consciousness slowly. He felt warm and comfortable, and in no hurry to rouse himself from the pleasant drowsy feeling that had hold of his body and mind. He could hear the faint sounds of movement nearby, but felt no great urge to open his eyes and see what it was all about. He smiled, and stretched slowly on the soft pad on which he lay.

"Wake up, sleepyhead."

That was Cally's voice, and enough to decide Derry to at least look and see what was going on. He opened his eyes, and found the other boy and granddad standing next to his bed, smiling down at him.

"He's awake," granddad said, turning to look over his shoulder.

Derry heard the distinctive cadence of Difris's metallic feet upon the floor covering, and then the spider's voice globe appeared over granddad's shoulder. "How are you feeling, Derry?"

Derry smiled and stretched again, understanding now that he would have to throw off his sweet languor and rejoin the others. He sighed and sat up slowly, smiling.

"Man, do I feel like I had a great nap!"

Granddad chuckled. "We all had one. Cally and I woke up a little while ago. You stayed under a little longer while the medical machinery checked out your head for injuries."

Derry frowned at that. "Is my head okay?"

Cally laughed. "Other than the fact that it's totally empty, it seems to be in one piece."

"Look who's talking." But it was wonderful to see the others again, and Derry couldn't stop smiling. "I feel great!"

"The medical unit leaves one feeling quite refreshed, I have been told," Difris put in from the rear. "You are feeling the effects of brain-derived neurotrophic factor and endorphins introduced into your brain chemistry to offset any minor mood deflation generated by the addition of your new augments. The augment installation procedures are very gentle, but it is surprising how the body knows when things have been done to it, and reacts with stress."

Derry grinned at the linguistic gobbledegook. "Oh. I thought it was something like that.."

Granddad laughed at that. "Sounds like we're all Frankenstein's monsters now, doesn't it?" But his expression was cheerful, and the man was obviously feeling good, too.

Derry swung his legs around and sat on the edge of the bed. "So...what? We're all superheroes now?"

Cally laughed, and clapped his hands together. "Wait 'til you hear!"

Difris made the small chuckling sound again. "Your biology was not so different from that of the builders that this technology could not be fully deployed. Still, I had to limit what I gave you, as you will be going back to your world, and we cannot have you flying about and lifting trucks into the air."

Derry's jaw dropped. "Are you kidding?"

Cally and granddad laughed, and even Difris seemed amused. "Yes, I am kidding. The technology is an aid to health, not a change to your basic form. But you and Cally, being younger, will not notice its presence on a daily level as much as Mike has already."

Derry looked at his granddad, who smiled. "That arthritis in my shoulder is gone, for one thing."

"These types of benefits to your overall physical feeling may be noticeable," Difris admitted, "especially as I do not know if there were things that bothered you before the procedure. Your own immune systems have been augmented substantially, and deficiencies in that system corrected. While it is fairly uncommon for microbes to be exchangeable from one world to the next, there are a sufficient number of worlds where cross-infection is possible that we needed to protect you from that event. So far I have not permitted you to go to worlds where such infection might occur; but now that is a possibility, given your protections."

"It made us better physically, too," Cally added. "Difris was telling us about it while you were still asleep."

"It is in the area of your stamina that the most gains will be noticed," the spider went on. "You will be no stronger than you were before, but your muscles will not fatigue so quickly. You cannot run faster than before, but you can run four times as long as you used to be able to do. Your reflexes will be ten percent faster, and your thought processes marginally quicker than before. This is due to a perfection of the electrochemical processes within your nerves and the neurons within your brains, and the introduction of nano-scale augments that can react faster than your native cells."

Derry just stared. "Wow. That, really cool. I guess." He looked at Cally, trying to see how his boyfriend felt about it. But Cally's eyes were aglow with pleasure at the idea that they might now be better than they were.

"I feel great," the other boy said, as if divining Derry's thoughts. "Don't you?"

Derry had to admit that he felt wonderful. Not that he didn't usually feel good; but there was some small difference to the way he felt now, a sense of well-being he had never quite felt before. "Yeah. I do feel good." Derry smiled, and turned back to Difris. "Anything else?"

"You can still be hurt. A broken bone or a torn or damaged muscle can still occur. However, repairs to this type of damage will be considerably quicker, on the order of days rather than weeks."

"A broken arm will heal in a few days?" granddad said, his jaw dropping.

"Yes. And the pain from such injuries will be considerably lessened for the duration. However, it is best not to sustain these injuries in the first place, and the same caution that you have used in the past should be continued from this point onward."

"No problem," granddad said, nodding. "A broken bone is a broken bone, in my book. I won't be asking for one, believe me." He looked pointedly at the boys. "And neither will they."

Derry and Cally both also nodded. "We'll still be careful," Derry said.

Difris leaned forward. "No one can elude death, not even the builders. You can still be killed, or seriously hurt. Your chances of surviving major damage are far greater now than before. But the best thing for you all will be to not allow it to happen in the first place."

There was a chill to that pronouncement that Derry felt inside, down deep, and that made him shudder. You can still be killed. So far, this had been an adventure, mostly. The boys had managed to avoid much thought on how dangerous their travels could actually become.

The spider receded a bit again. "I thought it important that all of you be able to maintain contact with each other on your journeys. So you each now possess a built-in communications system that will link you with the others."

Derry and Cally looked at each other.

"How does that work?" granddad asked.

"You each possess a bioelectronic transceiver with a considerable range. You will need to train them, but that only takes an instant. Each pattern of thought is unique, and all you need do is think about who you wish to speak with, and the link will be opened. If you wish to speak with both of the others, simply consider that intent within your mind. You need not vocalize your thoughts in order to communicate. Speaking as if to yourself will be sufficient."

Derry was stunned. "You mean we're telepathic?"

Difris's voice globe briefly swayed back and forth. "No. You cannot exchange abstract thoughts or visuals. You will need to subvocalize words in order to communicate. Talk to each other as normal, but without using your voice. And the links are purely electromagnetic, although of a very penetrating power and frequency. But the signals will not pass through insulating materials, and not through the door effect itself."

Granddad frowned at that. "That's too bad. I can think of several uses for being able to maintain contact with you while we're out in the field."

"I agree," the spider responded. "Especially as there is already in place a contact method for speaking between worlds via the gate systems."

There was a moment of silence as the three humans looked questioningly at the spider.

"But they do not work." Difris finished slowly. A moment of introspective silence followed from the spider, as if he were mulling that problem over.

"Are you going to tell us about it?" granddad finally asked.

"Oh. Pardon me. Each door can act as a transceiver. When in operation, there is an antenna that thrusts through the door. It is that small spike you may have noticed at the top of each doorway. They penetrate the doorway effect, and they can exchange data in that fashion. While electromagnetic waves will not penetrate the door effect on their own, they are carried through the door effect in the body of conducting materials transiting the door. Those signals re-radiate from the end of the antenna just as though it was still connected physically with the base. So the doors can act as communicators as well as providing a means of travel."

Cally looked at Derry and rolled his eyes. "You get all that?" He turned to the spider. "What happens if the door is shut down? Aren't the ends of the antennas cut off then?"

"They retract automatically when the impulse to terminate door function is received."

Cally laughed. "Oh. Well, then. That would be great, to be able to ask you things while we're walking around on some crazy planet somewhere." He shrugged. "Why doesn't it work?"

The spider's voice ball turned to him. "My function here once was as an aid to travelers. As such, the security level of my access to the station archive was only in the middle grade. When this station was evacuated, I was told to maintain the facility until contact was reestablished. My security rating was improved slightly, and I was given wider access to station facilities. The rest of my kind were removed, presumably to perform similar functions at other empire facilities."

Derry and Cally exchanged glances. "And?" Cally asked.

"For whatever reason, the builders moved to isolate elements of the empire. According to the communications center, which I can monitor but not employ, communications through every door in the empire, everywhere, was...shut down."

Grandad whistled. "Slammed the door, and hard, huh? Something big must have happened."

"I agree. While I have always been disallowed passage through the doors themselves, to forbid travelers from removing me from the station premises, I once had the capability to use the communications system, and to employ messenger drones of varying sizes to send items through the doorways. Travelers were always leaving their baggage or other personal items behind, and my kind used these drones to send the items along to their owners. But that capability was rescinded when this facility was closed. Otherwise, I would have used these drones to look about the door system to see what is happening elsewhere."

"So they deliberately cut off every world from every other, except for door travel." Granddad shook his head. "That doesn't seem to make sense. If there was a threat of some sort, why leave the doors in operation? It's like they didn't want people to talk to each other, but still wanted them to be able to travel. Only no one is doing that, either."

"That seems to be the case. In any event, I am unable to access the communications system to stay in contact with you on your travels."

Granddad frowned. "If I were leaving you in charge of a place like this, I would have raised your security level to the roof, so that you could do anything needed to protect the place."

"I have considered that. I have come to the conclusion that the builders considered the idea that, despite their precautions, the transfer station might fall into the hands of others, in which case my ability to access all of its secrets would become a liability. I cannot communicate what I cannot access."

Derry looked nervously about infirmary. The idea that it was not as safe as it seemed was a little scary. If something could scare the builders of all this wonder, it was a thing to be dealt with most carefully.

"Any way around that?" granddad asked, smiling. "I don't have any security rating at all. Point me to the right button, and I'll push it for you."

"It is not that simple, or I would be glad to accept your offer. The security of this facility is rather formidable. Far too secure for us to easily breach it by physical means."

"Well, that sucks," Derry said, playfully, trying to throw off his sense of unease. "I thought with all this advanced technology you guys have, that you could do better than that."

"I apologize. It is not the case."

There was almost a helpless tone to the spider's words, and Derry sat forward even more and patted the tough exterior of the robot sympathetically. "It's okay, Difris. We were just kidding you. We'll help out in any way we can, okay?"

"Thank you, Derry. Just having all of you to talk to has greatly improved my situation. I was getting a little...hairy around the edges, I think you call it...being here alone for so long."

Granddad laughed. "You've certainly been studying your English, I have to admit."

"An expressive language, actually, despite its many odd constructions. Among empire languages it would be considered quite artistic in its ability to convey subtle meanings."

"We try," granddad said, wryly. "So it's no big deal that we cannot stay in touch with you on our travels through the doors. We'll just do the best that we can. It's very reassuring to me, at least, that I won't lose contact with the boys if we get separated."

Derry had to agree with that. "It's just too bad we can't do more. I mean, each one of our trips has been done inside of a single day. So we can only go so far from the door before we have to come back here."

"We have people at home that will worry if we are gone too long," granddad added, smiling. "I can't just say to Derry's mom, 'Oh, look honey, Derry and Cally and I are going to explore the moon of the speckled hyena-people. See you in a week.'"

"Mom would clobber you and me both," Derry admitted.

"Me, the most."

"I already understand this limitation," Difris reminded. "So far, brief looks have been all I have needed, and a single day has been all the time we have needed. However --"

The spider's voice globe swung in a slow arc to look at each of them in turn.

"Spit it out," granddad said, smiling. "The worst that can happen is that we'll say we can't do it."

"Very well. There is a matter that has come to my attention that needs...investigating."

Granddad gave a soft chuckle of his own. "It sounds a little adventurous."

"It may be," Difris acknowledged. "Or it might be quite simple, too."

"What do you need us to do?" Cally asked, his eyes darting mischievously to Derry's. "Not more bear-horses, I hope!"

Derry grinned. "Yeah, please, no more bear-horses!"

Granddad held up a hand. "How about we go back to the door to Earth, and we'll sit and you can explain it? And after that, we'll need to be heading home, so that Derry's mom and Cally's folks won't be worried. We'll come back tomorrow, if everyone is able."

Difris spun, and the passenger compartment door opened on his back. "Squeeze in, and we shall go."

"The builders began life on one world, just as with your own people," the spider began, after Derry and the others had made themselves comfortable on the step before the platform holding the doorway to Earth. Difris had settled down and retracted his legs, and Derry had to wonder if it was more comfortable for him in that position. Despite the fact that the spider's skin seemed made of steel, it was unaccountably malleable, and Derry had wondered if Difris could feel it the way that he felt his own skin.

"As their civilization progressed, their technology progressed, and they began to explore space, beginning with their own solar system, and then eventually moving on to the nearer ones around them."

"They used some kind of ships for this?" Granddad asked.

"Yes. The initial methods of propulsion were primitive, of the reaction type. But they later progressed to other forms of propulsion, and eventually to the time-dilation drive, which made star travel possible."

"Wow," Derry breathed, fascinated. "Starships? For real?"

Cally gave a small laugh, but only glanced fondly at his friend.

"For real," the spider returned, causing all three humans to laugh. "The door technology came much later, and was at first established upon the worlds that the builders had already reached with their ships, linking them together in an instantaneous web. For while the doors provided instant travel to other worlds, the starships required days or even weeks of time to travel the same distances."

This kind of stuff fascinated Derry no end, and seemed to be working its magic on Cally, too. The other boy, once not displaying much interest in technology, had seemed to blossom in that area since the discovery of the doors, and both boys were leaned forward, their chins propped on their hands, soaking up every word from the spider with a delicious sense of anticipation.

"After the discovery of door technology, the empire's ships began to carry them along on exploratory missions, along with technicians of my kind, whose job it was to establish the complex technology on any new worlds that were discovered. The door network continued to expand in this fashion for a very long time, adding countless new worlds and new races to the empire's population. The doors, though difficult to set up, maintained themselves once established, and the technicians moved on with the ships to new destinations."

"They had a way to communicate between worlds that was not door-based?" granddad asked.

"No. Empire communications were maintained by ship prior to the gates. As these ships often took weeks to complete the journeys between far-flung stars, communication between elements of the empire was at best a slow proposition."

Granddad frowned. "Sounds complicated."

The spider offered the small chuckling sound again. "After the introduction of door technology, communications between even the most distant worlds became instantaneous, providing that both worlds had doorways linking them. But the empire still occupied a fairly small volume of space, scarcely ten thousand light years in diameter, in a galaxy ten times that size. The empire's ships were constantly improved, up to the limit of the basic technology, and vast fleets of exploratory vessels, many automated, continued to move out into the galaxy, carrying doors with them to be established on worlds that fitted the criteria for occupation by empire races. Once doors were established on these new worlds, empire science teams would pass through to evaluate the new world and see where it could be fitted into empire needs."

"What if people were already living there?" Derry asked.

"Then those worlds were left to themselves, as was the case with your own planet. There are simply far too many worlds in this galaxy vacant of intelligent life for the empire to waste time pursuing those already inhabited. If the natives possessed a level of technology of a certain level, they were sometimes contacted and invited into the empire. Some rather complex studies were first made of the society in place, and technological proficiency alone was not sufficient for an invitation. A stable society of a productive nature was also required for membership."

Granddad rolled his eyes. "So much for us, then."

"Actually, despite your feelings on the matter, your own society would not be considered too aggressive by empire standards. Your current technology is on the borderline for acceptance to empire status, but more than likely your people would have received an invitation to join."

Granddad's jaw dropped. "Really? Wow. All the science fiction books I've ever read painted us as too violent for any nice folks 'out there' to want to associate with."

Difris gave a slight grunt. "You would be surprised at what the empire tolerated in the way of bad manners. It was understood there that races were all different, and that any one could not be judged by a set of inflexible standards, because what was normal for one race was unacceptable to another. The empire simply insisted that differing races educate themselves in what to expect from others they might be interacting with. The empire was intolerant of armed conflict among its members, and so would withdraw door access between cultures that demonstrated a clear inability to get along with each other."

"Did you just grunt?" Derry asked, grinning. "Not to change the subject."

The spider's voice globe came around to face him. "Yes. You like it? I find the unarticulated sounds and body gestures your people make fascinating in their ability to convey meaning. I have been considering trying a few of them on for size, and have been attempting to master the companionable chuckle. I am starting to obtain a feel for that one, and am moving on to grunts.That was one of my first attempts."

"I liked it," Cally offered, smiling. "It's cool."

"I will take that as a compliment," Difris returned, his tone sounding pleased. "I am still trying to get the chuckle right, but I have given up for the moment trying to determine where the giggle belongs in pleasant conversation."

Granddad laughed. "You really are into this stuff, aren't you?"

"Well...yes. Interacting with empire races was my chief occupation at one time. I have always enjoyed it, and I am again enjoying it with you. Do you mind being the object of some study on my part?"

Granddad held up a hand, smiling. "Nope. Not at all." He gave a little sigh. "You know where that sound goes yet?"

"The sigh. It seems to be of use nearly anywhere, and can denote weariness, frustration, relief, or even grief. And shades of other meanings, of which I am still studying."

"Very good. It can also be offered when one feels the topic of discussion is wandering away from its original path."

Difris offered his chuckle again. "I understand. We were talking about the empire's space fleet."

Granddad just smiled, nodding.

"It was quite large," the spider continued. "There were dozens of ports spaced about the circumference of the empire, which consisted of entire worlds or moons made over as a single spaceport, from which the fleets sailed outward on exploration and mapping runs."

"Whole planets?" Derry repeated in wonder, staring.

"Small ones, generally. And moons as well. The surface would be covered with a tough shell to act as a single large take off and landing field, and the interiors hollowed as needed to house the maintenance and supply facilities. A port was quite an active place, or so I have been told."

"I would imagine," granddad said, drily. "Does this have something to do with what you want us to investigate?"

"Yes." The spider's voice globe again made its odd up and down movement, and Derry suddenly realized that Difris was mimicking a human nod. He smiled, but said nothing, not wanting to change the subject again.

"This station has a section of doors that were for travel to these spaceports. When the builders left, the entire section was shut down."

"And?" granddad asked, leaning closer.

"A short time ago, a single one of these doors became active again. It's activation was not local, but was accomplished from the other side."

For a moment, none of the humans spoke.

"Someone turned it on from one of these spaceports?" Cally asked then.


"Which means someone is there," granddad continued.

"More than likely."

"But are they the builders?" Derry wondered aloud, his eyes wide at the very idea.

Difris grunted again, apparently feeling this was the correct place for it. "That is the part that I wish you to investigate."

"I think more than a single day may be required for this investigation," Difris continued. "Which is why I hesitated to request it."

"An outing for the night should work," granddad said, frowning at the boys. "We'll tell your folks we're spending the night down by the river." He sighed. "I hate lying to them, but what else can we do if we are going to stay out overnight?"

Derry frowned, too. "Man. If mom finds out we're not being honest, I wouldn't wanna be you."

Cally laughed, and patted Derry on the shoulder. "Way to be supportive, bud."

Granddad laughed. "She can only kill me, Derry. You she can make miserable for years to come, though. So enough with the pessimism, okay? We'll just do this, and it will all work out."

"Are you sure?"

"Of course not. But if I think any other way I won't be able to let us do this at all. This is going to be a test. If everything works out, we can consider longer trips for Difris."

Derry nodded. "I have an idea. Let's just say to mom that we're all sleeping out under the stars. If we don't say where, and she doesn't ask, it won't be such an outright lie."

Granddad sighed, and rubbed his eyes. "Derry, Derry. This nefarious gene must come from your dad's side of the family."

Derry smiled. "Dad would have busted my ass for doing this. So it must come from your side."

Granddad winced, but didn't disagree. He turned back to Difris. "We'll need a day or two to set this up, okay?"

"That will be fine. I will continue to work with the infirmary equipment while you are gone, to add to your augments. Once I finalize the studies on your brain chemistry, I should have something else to offer."

Derry raised his eyebrows at that. "Even more?"

"Yes. Once I know that the biomemory forms I have on hand will definitely be non-toxic to your chemistries, I can install nano-builders that will create additional storage memory inside your skulls. Enhanced memory capabilities will allow for the implantation of encyclopedic knowledge of worlds you are bound for, along with language bases for any races known to be living there. Translators, I mean."

Granddad started laughing. "You know, I think that's enough for now, Difris. I won't be able to sleep tonight if I hear any more, and I need my beauty rest." He stood, and motioned for the boys to get up as well. "Time to go. We'll be back tomorrow, or at least let you know what is going on. As soon as I can arrange the overnight, we'll check out the door you mentioned."

But then granddad narrowed his eyes at the spider. "One thing I need to know first. You said this door was turned on from the other side?"

"The link was re-established from the other side, yes."

Granddad nodded. "What's to keep it from being turned off again...I mean, after we have gone through it? What happens if the door...or any door, for that turned off while we are on the other side? How would we get back?"

"It is not the problem you imagine it to be," Difris returned. "The door system maintains locks, that keep doors tuned and aligned. Shutting down a link requires confirmation from both sides. Should someone move to shut this door down - or any door, for that matter - I would be aware of it, and direct the archive mind to refuse confirmation to shut down."

"So you're saying that someone on the other end couldn't shut down a door?"

The spider offered another gentle grunt. "There are certain safety protocols that cannot be circumvented, and every door is self-aware to the point that it will de-link on its own if certain catastrophic criteria are met. But that has not happened in all the years that the builders have used the system, nor in the further years since the builders disappeared."

"How about power? What if whatever powers a door fails or is turned off? What happens then?"

"Doors draw power from the underlying energy of the universe, which is inexhaustable, for all intents and purposes. One does not 'turn off' a door as you are suggesting. The transportation link can be de-established, but the door itself, once activated, remains so for the life of the materials it is constructed from."

"A thousand years is a long time," granddad argued.

"Not for this technology, Mike. Redundancy and self-repair are standard features. I foresee the system easily lasting many times longer than it already has before failure becomes a problem."

Granddad nodded. "It seems strange to me that someone would reactivate a door, and then not make use of it. Can't you even stick a camera through to see what is happening?"

"My proscription against door travel does not allow me to breach the door effect in any way at all, not since the builders left. Or I would have been looking through doors long before you arrived to do so for me."

"We can stick my phone through and look," Derry suggested. "It worked great before."

"I think we will," granddad returned. "Something odd about this happening. I just don't know what it is."

They said their farewells to the spider, who seemed genuinely saddened that they were leaving. "I will be waiting," he said, settling to the floor and retracting his legs.

Derry patted Difris on his hard skin, and then the three humans turned and headed for home.

"Wanna spend the night?" Derry asked Cally, hopefully, as the three of them crossed the field of Indiangrass on their way back to the Hamlyn farm. "We can talk about stuff."

"I can't tonight," Cally said, making a face. "My aunt Grace and uncle Bill are coming for dinner, and they'll probably be there until midnight. My folks will expect me to be home."

Granddad laughed. "One night apart won't kill you two." He winked. "Besides, now you two can talk all you want without actually being together, remember?"

Derry had forgotten. Difris had helped them to train their communicators, and now when Derry thought about talking to Cally, or granddad, the link was opened and he could do just that. It really was weird, just like having either - or both - of them right at his side. Their words did not form in his mind, as he had thought they would, but were as if he was hearing them with his ears. It was kind of creepy, but with Cally it was an ability he knew he would soon treasure. Being separated from the other boy had been a little lonely for him even before they had become lovers, and now that they were that, he could feel the little empty spot form in his heart every time Cally went home. That Cally felt the same way seemed evident, both by the things he said sometimes, and the way he acted.

It's hard to share one heart, when you're not physically together to do it.

"Yeah, I forgot," Derry said, grinning now. "Okay, we can still talk about stuff."

"We could, anyway, by phone," Cally pointed out. "At least, here on Earth, we don't really need the fancy communicators Difris gave us."

"Phone's not the same," Derry said, sighing. "It''s a phone."

Cally grinned, pretending that Derry was a little loopy, even though he understood just what his boyfriend meant. A cell phone conversation lacked the feel of really talking with someone, lacked the sense of being there.

"Okay, we can talk in our heads. It's more fun, anyway."

"There you go." Granddad nodded. "It's really been an amazing day for us. I am going to need to sit in the rocker on the front porch and think about it some."

Derry looked up at him. "You're not still worried about me and Cally, are you?"

The man sighed. "I will always be worried about you and Cally. I am still not convinced I'm doing the right thing by letting us go traipsing about the cosmos. You could have been seriously injured today, son. I could not live with myself if I let something happen to you."

Derry smiled. That felt good to hear, even if it also announced doubt about what they were doing. "I'm okay. And the stuff Difris gave us today will make us even safer." Derry cocked his head to one side. " that you've been out...could you really stop?"

Granddad looked up into the sky a moment before shaking his head. "That's one of the things I want to think about, Derry. Whether or not the excitement, the...the lure...of all this, isn't clouding my judgment."

Derry laughed. "Looks pretty sunny from here."

"Thank you, but you are hardly a disinterested observer."

Derry grinned at Cally, whose face lit up in return. The boys both felt that Derry's grandfather would be unable to cease their explorations, at least, not without more severe provocation than they had received today. Derry planned to be even more cautious in the future, too, but had basically accepted that what they were doing was risky and nothing could be done to make their explorations totally safe. Unless...

"Maybe Difris has some body armor at the station," he suggested. "We're enough like the builders that we could probably wear it."

Granddad frowned, but then gave a slow nod. "Can't hurt to ask. I can't see us staggering about under the weight of something heavy, but maybe a lightweight vest of some kind, or something like that, would help."

"And we would probably look seriously cool in it, too," Cally offered, giving Derry a playful look.

Everyone laughed. "Okay," granddad said, waving a hand at them. "I'll go light for now. But I'm still going to be thinking about what we're doing."

Derry considered that fair enough. "I am kind of hungry," he announced, perfectly willing to change the subject. "We haven't eaten since breakfast."

I'll rustle us up something when we get back." Granddad looked at his watch. "Although you might want to be heading home, Caleb. If you have company coming for dinner, you might want time to clean up."

Cally sighed, but nodded. "I probably should."

They were crossing the lawn now, with the Hamlyn house before them. They stopped at the front walk, and Derry and Cally looked at each other a moment, as if unsure what to say next.

Granddad watched them a second, and then cleared his throat. "Uh, let me go on in and start some grub. Say hi to your folks for me, Cally."

"Okay, Mr. Hamlyn," Cally returned. But his eyes were on Derry.

The man nodded, smiled, and headed up the walk.

Cally sighed. "Your granddad is so cool. I can't see mine doing stuff like this with us. He'd think we were crazy for wanting to explore the stars."

Derry looked briefly towards the house; the front screen door was just swinging closed. "It's great having him with us. I feel a lot safer with him along."

They looked at each other in silence a moment.

"I love you," Derry said, using the new communications link between them.

Cally smiled, his eyes shining brightly in the late afternoon sun. "I love you, too, Derry. This is really going to be cool, being able to talk like this."

"Sure makes my cell phone seem dull."

Cally laughed, and briefly put a hand on Derry's chest and gave it a fond rub. "I'd better go," he said aloud. "I'll talk to you a little later, okay?"

"Okay. Say hi to your folks."

The other boy nodded, and headed off down the drive. Derry watched him go, feeling again that little hollow spot forming inside him. He watched Cally until the other boy reached the end of the driveway, and was just an indistinct blob in the distance.

"Can you still hear me?" he asked over the link.

"Loud and clear."

Derry smiled, feeling the hollow spot fade, just a little.

"Cally? Can you talk?"

To his great surprise, a sense of the other boy's laughter reached him over the link. "Great timing. I'm just getting out of the shower."

A small thrill raced throughout Derry's body. "So you're naked?"

"That would be a 'yes'".

Derry grinned in the near darkness of his bedroom, and stretched himself on the bed. It was a warm night, but the ceiling fan provided a comfortable sense of motion to the air, which played about his body, cooling and caressing.

"I'm naked, too."

"What's your excuse?"

"I always sleep naked. You know that."

A strange sensation came across the link, almost as if Derry could sense Cally moving, until he realized that the other boy was humming to himself.

"Yeah, it is pretty late, at that," Cally returned. "I had to wait until everyone left to get my shower, and once I get dried, I can't wait to lay down. I don't know about you, but this day kinda wore me out."

Derry nodded to himself, understanding. He could feel the day in his muscles, although pleasantly, and in the sense of impending sleep forming in the back of his mind. "I just wanted know. Be with you a little before bed."

Again, the sense of laughter. "You're a romantic, partner."

Derry laughed. "Hard not to be, with you."

He could feel the other boy sigh. "I wish I could be there. I'd love to be holding you about now."

Derry closed his eyes, imagining Cally in his own arms, his body warm and willing, his lips pressed close against Derry's own. He smiled at the rush that swept through his body at the thought, and had to laugh at the result.

Apparently, any type of thought that touched the voice box was transmitted across the link. "What are you laughing at?" Cally asked.

"Got some wood showing here, that's what."

"Yeah?" Cally laughed again. "Ooh, that got a reaction on this end. I feel my goodies smiling."

They both laughed together.

"We could, uh..." Derry began.

"...wank together?" Cally finished.

"Stop reading my mind." Derry reached down and fondled himself, imagining that the touch was Cally's, instead. He sighed, and the other boy heard it.

"Must feel good."

"It does. I'm imagining it's you."

"Ooh, I like it. What am I doing?"


The next half hour was an odd collection of talk, sighs, laughter, strange sensations carried across the link, and mutual satisfaction. There was no way the same experience could have come from a phone call, of that Derry was later certain. In the end they both sighed, sleep almost upon them, and talked together until it was actually there, and the night settled about them in a peaceful, contented rest.

Derry ran his hand over the silky material, feeling the cool resiliency of it beneath his fingertips. The one-piece suit was a deep red in color, almost maroon, and fit his body like a loose glove. The feet which were a part of the suit were soft and comfortable, with a firm sole beneath that added a refreshing spring to his walk. Hand coverings at the ends of the sleeves molded themselves to his fingers and provided an amazing tactile sense, almost as if he were touching things with his bare hands. A black belt with a series of small black boxes with rounded corners upon it circled his waist, and a holster attached to the belt on his right side carried a brand new zap pistol, fresh from the armaments locker of the moon station.

The suit had a steel ring as a collar, which closed in a circle that remained two inches from his neck all the way around. Derry fingered it absently, shrugging his shoulders as the suit seemed to conform somehow to fit him even better, and looked over as Cally fastened his own collar and turned to Difris, who was watching the humans dress without comment.

"Okay," Cally said, nodding. "Now what?"

"There is military gear stored here at the station," the spider said, his voice globe swinging back and forth among them. "But my security level will not let me access them. These suits will have to do, instead."

Granddad rubbed his own suit with his fingertips, and looked doubtful. "They're pretty, and they're comfortable, but I don't know how much protection they'll add. This material is mighty thin. I think the pajamas I wear to bed are heavier."

Difris offered a small chuckle, and Derry grinned at the spider's insistence on adopting human customs. "That's funny?"

The spider's voice globe turned in his direction. "I was just thinking of the human expression, 'appearances can be deceiving'. That is the case with these suits, surely."

Mike Hamlyn pursed his lips and actually looked down at his suit. "How so? I mean, it's thinner than my rain suit back at the house. I hope it's at least waterproof?"

"Yes, it is waterproof. Among other things."

Derry looked at Cally, who grinned. They were getting used to playing the game with Difris, whose one failing with English thus far seemed an inability sometimes to sense from the conversation when questions were being asked indirectly.

"Like...what things?" Derry finally asked.

"Oh. Pardon me. The suits are one piece, and I mean that literally. A single, extraordinarily tough molecule with some features that will surely amaze you." The spider paused again.

Now, even granddad laughed. "You realize that you can offer information without waiting to be asked for specifics?"

"Yes. I was trying for a sense of excitement and anticipation."

"You're there. Spit it out."

Difris gave out a grunt. "These are exploration suits. They have the ability to fit themselves to the wearers, and the builders were like you in that they varied in size. So the fit should be adequate. I have adjusted the gloves to fit your slightly different hands, but otherwise, no modifications were necessary."

The spider raised a leg, and gently prodded Derry's chest with the end of it. "What do you feel?"

"Like you're touching me."

The leg drew back, and suddenly thrust forward with great force. Derry was shocked when he saw it coming, but even with his heightened reflexes, he barely had time to flinch before the leg struck home. Granddad and Cally both hollered in surprise, and stepped closer. But even though the metallic tip struck the suit a considerable blow, nothing happened. There was no sound or force of impact, and Derry felt a curious tingle at the spot, but nothing else. Difris's leg simply stopped dead at the suit's surface.

"What the hell!" granddad finally got out, leaning forward to look closer. "Are you nuts? You could have hurt him badly."

The spider's voice globe swung back and forth. "No, I could not. I could have told you about this feature, but you would have had doubts about it. You would not quite have believed. You needed to be shown."

Derry raised a hand and rubbed it over the spot where the spider's leg had hit. The suit felt smooth and undamaged, maybe slightly warm at that spot, but otherwise unchanged. "What happened?"

"The energy of motion was absorbed and converted to another form, and stored in the accumulators about your belt. This function works for all energy sources that strike the suit's surface, except for the visible spectrum, selectively. And even the visible spectrum can be converted, if energy is required."

Granddad's jaw dropped. "Are you saying the suit can absorb inertia?"

"Inertia is a property of matter in motion or at rest, and motion is simply a change in energy state."

"Does that mean yes?" Cally asked.

"That means yes. The suit is designed to protect explorers in harsh environments, against dangerous wildlife, and against damage due to falling or being struck by moving objects."

Granddad shook his head slowly. "Would it stop a bullet?"

"Yes. And should the projectile be explosive, that energy will also be converted. The lag time is virtually imperceptible, although you will feel a slight tingle at the place of impact, just to let you know something has occurred."

The three humans looked at each other. "What about gas?" Derry asked. "We could still breathe something in that could hurt us."

"Or drown," Cally offered, pointedly.

"The suit is both aware and quite intelligent. It will monitor your situational status and provide appropriate defenses. However, you can also erect the head covering...the helmet, for lack of a better word, at will. Derry think about your head inside a fish bowl."

Derry's eyes widened. "What? In a fish bowl?"

"Well, then, think about putting a hat on your head."

Derry shrugged, and thought about putting a cap on his head.

The air before his eyes briefly flickered, but there seemed to be no other change.

"That is so cool," Cally breathed then, stepping closer and cocking his head at Derry. "What's it feel like?"

"What's what feel like? Nothing happened."

"I'll say it did," granddad said, also coming closer. "Your head is enclosed in a gold-colored globe." He leaned closer, peering. "I see. It emanates from the collar, right?"

"Yes." Difris sounded slightly pleased with himself. "The helmet is even tougher than the suit, and can also convert one form of energy to another. And the more energy it converts, the stronger it gets."

"Its a space suit!" Cally said then, sounding delighted.

"It can be used in a zero-gravity, vacuum environment, yes."

"What about air?" granddad asked, sounding subdued. "There's no tanks."

"The suit can manufacture it's own atmosphere for as long as power is available. And as power will always be available in one form or another, that means indefinitely."

Derry saw a flicker, and then Cally's head was enclosed in a featureless, golden sphere. "I can't see it," the other boy said, turning back and forth.

"I can't see mine, either," Derry said. He imagined taking a hat off then, and saw the same brief flicker before his eyes. "Is it gone?"

Granddad nodded. "Yes." The man blew a burst of air between his lips and turned to the spider. "I don't know what to say. The technology is just...amazing." But he seemed to consider that a moment, and then shook his head. "Maybe not, though, in light of the doors themselves."

"The doors are the pinnacle of builder technology," Difris acknowledged. "Next to them, these suits are quite simple to produce."

Derry considered that, and for the first time really understood that the technology of the builders was far beyond what his own people had yet to produce. It was a little deflating to realize that people could do these kind of things; but, on the other hand, it was also kind of cool to see what the future looked like, first-hand.

"How old are the builders?" he asked then. "I mean, we have history on Earth that goes back thousands of years. How about the builders?"

The spider nodded his voice globe. "Their recorded history extends back about twenty thousand years, in Earth time. Their first spaceflight was about thirteen thousand years past."

Granddad whistled. "That's a bit, but I would have thought more, considering their level of technology."

"No. Your people are on the cusp of a great leap in technology yourselves. Technologies are additive, and arrive at a point where they literally propel themselves forward. The builder culture is several times older than yours, but the gap is not extreme. It will not be as long as you think before your own people are capable of exploring other worlds."

"I hope they have as much fun as we're having," Derry offered, grinning. He gave his grandfather a pointed look. "Still worried about me and Cally getting hurt?"

"Less than before," the man admitted. "But we are operating under extraordinary circumstances, too."

"Agreed," Difris said, bobbing his voice globe. "It is in your best interests to maintain caution. And now, let us go to the door in question, and I will fill you in on additional information that has come to my attention."

The three humans crowded into the passenger compartment on the back of the spider, and were whisked away into the depths of the station. It soon became apparent that they were on their way to the far side of the great dome, to a place that none of them had ever been before.

"Technically, this may be a violation of security, taking you here," Difris said, as the floor of the dome swept beneath them. The spider could really cover some ground if pressed, and the ride was anything but dull. Derry smiled, just amazed to be in this place, dressed as he was, and doing what he was doing now.

"You are a non-member species," Difris continued, "and so not normally permitted full run of the station. But I have queried the archive, and found permissions in place for non-member species to enter otherwise off-limits areas if they are possessed of technical abilities not currently available to others present. As you are the only people here at all, I feel you qualify for that permission in this instance."

"Great," granddad said, "just so long as there is no other authority here to argue the point."

"There is the station's archive mind, but it has agreed to allow me discretion in all matters for the duration of the present emergency situation."

Granddad blinked. "You're sending us into an emergency situation?"

"The disappearance of the builders is the emergency I was referring to."


"Although there may be another emergency aspect to this investigation, as well," the spider finished.

Granddad looked at Derry and rolled his eyes. "Such as?"

"The door where we are going has communicated unusual circumstances to the station archive. It has exited standby mode in response to some problem at the starport, which is unfortunately unspecified. However, one of the flags in the data stream indicates that intruder security systems have become active at the starport."

"I thought communication between doors was shut down?" granddad reminded.

"This information comes by way of the door link status telemetry, not through normal communications. It is therefore incomplete and we can only guess at what the problem may be."

"What's standby mode?" Cally asked.

"As I said before, doors are never turned off completely. When inactive, they are in standby mode and the transport link can be re-established quickly."

"So it's possible someone didn't turn the door on deliberately, after all? It started itself due to some problem? Like...a cry for help?"

"Yes. It would seem from the data stream that there may be unauthorized personnel at the port. Unfortunately, the only way to determine the cause of this sudden re-linking is to go and see."

"We need to look through that door before we go, then," granddad said. "We can use your phone, Derry. Wouldn't do to step through the door into a crowd of trigger-happy builders."

"Actually, I have created a device you can use to look," Difris said. "It will perform as readily as your own device, but allow me to record events for later review."

Granddad frowned at him. "I thought you couldn't stick anything through the door?"

"I cannot, but you can."

Mike Hamlyn laughed. "Sounds to me like you're playing a little loose with the rules, aren't you?"

"Unusual circumstances require unusual solutions."

They reached the other side of the great dome and proceeded down a long hallway. Ahead of them, thick steel doors drew apart, revealing a large room full of transportation doors beyond.

But whereas every other door they had seen on the moon was filled with darkness, the ellipses here were all empty. They passed several five-door sequences before finally drawing to a halt before another one that showed activity. But only the door second from the left end was black, signifying an open link.

"That seems weird, to see all these inactive doors," Derry said.

"Yeah." Cally frowned. "Makes me realize that if all these doors shut off at once, we'd be stuck a long way from home."

Mike Hamlyn patted the spider's tough hide as the three humans climbed down to the floor. "Yeah, about the location of this station. Any idea how far this big red sun is from our own little yellow star?"

"The distance is somewhat over eighty-eight light years," Difris returned.

All three humans froze. "Did you say 'light years'?" Cally asked, his voice sounding small.

"Yes. But with door technology, your planet is only as far away as the door itself."

"How reassuring," granddad said drily. His expression looked anything but reassured. "Well, there's one for Ripley. Bet nobody else from Earth has ever been this far away from it."

Cally came and bumped his shoulder against Derry's, and the two boys stood looking at the active door. Granddad came to stand with them, and turned to look at Difris. "You say you have a gizmo we can use to check out the other side?"

"Yes." The spider moved closer, and a small bulge extruded from the front of his body. It formed a ball, and then a rod behind that, and quickly pushed outward to a length of three feet before stopping. "Please take hold of it, Mike."

Granddad grunted and extended his hand, and Derry smiled. That his grandfather loved all the technical gizmos this journey had paraded before them was apparent to him. No man that had spent as much time in a workshop as granddad had could fail to be impressed with all the amazing gadgetry everywhere about them.

Granddad grasped the rod just behind the ball. "Okay, now what?"

The whole thing pushed out a few more inches, and then came away in Mike Hamlyn's hand. The end of the rod opposite the ball had what was clearly a handle on it, meant to be held by a human hand.

Difris extruded another ball, which grew and flattened in the front, and quickly became the part that he used to display video."You can take the viewer by the handle and push the other end through the doorway."

Granddad nodded, turned the device around and grasped the handle, and walked slowly up to the active door. "How far through?"

"Only the end needs to pass through for us to have a picture. The length of the handle is so that you can move it about and get a good view."

The flattened fore of the globe extruded from the spider's body crawled with color, and then they were looking at a sharp image of the doorway.

Granddad took another step forward and slowly pushed the end of the viewer at the blackness within the ellipse. On the screen of the video globe, the blackness approached, parted, and then they were looking at a room.

It was mostly dark, with patches of soft radiance here and there emanating from the ceiling, enough that they could see that the room was empty. A few large pieces of strange equipment stood about the floor of the room, and some consoles, now dark; but nothing else they could recognize. Granddad moved the wand of the viewer about, and a wide entry doorway into the room came into view. It was sealed, the thin line between the two large slabs of gray steel showing clearly down the middle.

"Confirmation," Difris said. "Those are security doors. If they are closed, no one has been inside the door room. But it does indicate the presence of others at the port."

"They wouldn't close if builders landed, you mean?"

"Builders are always authorized to visit their own facilities. Only certain portions of those facilities are regulated. But door travel is open to all builders, and the security doors of this door center are sealed. That suggests we are not dealing with the Armenti themselves."

"Will we be able to open those doors to go out and look around?" granddad asked.

"They should open from inside without difficulty. They are meant to keep people out, not inside. And once you do pass through them, the system will recognize you and allow you to re-enter on your return. After all, you will have come through the transfer door from a known transfer station, and the system on that side will consider you legitimate travelers."

Granddad nodded, and squinted at the image of the steel doors. "I wonder who's out there?"

"It is a starport, and therefore could receive ships from anywhere in the empire. But the fact that security has been activated suggests that, even if it is an empire vessel that has landed, those aboard it are not authorized to be present at the port."

Derry looked at Cally. That sounded ominous.

"Sounds to me like we'd better go through ready for anything, then," granddad said, patting his holster. "In fact, maybe I should go through first and check the place out?"

Derry squinted at the man. "Safety in numbers, granddad."

"Yeah," Cally said, from the other side. "Three against the enemy is always better than one against the enemy."

"We don't even know there is an enemy, yet," granddad pointed out.

"We're going with you," Derry said, determinedly.

Granddad looked from one boy to the other, at the expressions on their faces, and nodded. "I guess you are."

Derry stepped up to the metal doors and placed a hand on one. There was an adamantine quality to the steel that was eerie, as if the cool, dense slab had been cast in place, forever immovable, more like a wall than the covering of a portal. He rapped on it with a knuckle, and shook his head. "No one's coming through this thing in a hurry."

Even as he spoke, there was a soft hissing sound, and the doors parted effortlessly and withdrew into the walls, revealing a dimly-lit corridor beyond. Derry took a step back in reaction and bumped into Cally, who extended a hand to balance his friend. "Made you jump," the other boy said, cheerily.

Derry grinned, despite the uneasy feeling the place gave him. "This place is creepy."

"Well, the doors opened, just like Difris said they would," granddad said quietly, passing the boys and peering out into the corridor. "Weird, the way the lights are down here. Almost looks like something isn't working."

"Maybe the bulbs are burned out," Cally said, only partially kidding.

"You may be more right than you know." The man looked up at the ceiling, and raised a hand to point. "Those circles usually emit light in these places. These are dark. That may signify a failure of some sort. We may need our helmets if it gets any darker."

The golden globes, when active, also provided for sight in the dark, amplifying ambient light, and even utilizing microwave imaging techniques if the surrounding air was filled with smoke or other impurities. Blind they would not be.

Derry felt an unusual spring to his step, almost as if his legs were twice as strong as normal. "I feel really light here."

Granddad nodded. "Gravity's lower than we're used to. Must be a smaller world than Earth."

"You think there's any danger?" Derry asked, peering past his grandfather at the dark hallway.

The man seemed to listen for a second, turning an ear toward the silent corridor, before turning back to look at him. "Only of falling over something in the dark, at the moment. Just be careful where you boys place your feet. Let's go."

Granddad led, and Derry and Cally followed. This leg of the corridor was short, turning ninety degrees at one point and continuing onward. Open doors along its length offered dim views of what looked like offices and storerooms, all vacant.

A bluish glow appeared ahead, and they reached another turn in the corridor. Granddad peered around it, and then motioned for the boys to follow.

Ahead of them was what appeared to be an exit to the outside world. The light that entered was strange, though, almost violet in appearance, as if night was almost upon the landscape beyond, and dusk just settling into place. Granddad patted his holster, and then withdrew his pistol, holding it before him as they came up to the entry doors. They were glass, or rather some clear material like glass, in that it allowed light from beyond to enter.

Light, and a view of the world outside. The three humans paused and looked out, all three of them gazing in silence at the strange world beyond.

A purple sky speckled with cold stars hung above a smooth landscape that stretched as far as the eye could see. In the center of that sky hung a green-blue world, luminous in the yellow-white light of a distant sun somewhere to their rear, its atmosphere speckled with the streaks and whorls of clouds, and the browns and blues of land and oceans beneath.

The ground outside the doors resembled concrete, or some other hard, utterly smooth substance, which covered the land, everywhere, to a far horizon that was a perfect arc, a line so sharp and so distant that it was breathtaking to behold. Sprinkled about the landscape were the tall, featureless forms of buildings - smooth, glass-like towers, bottle-green in color, iridescent in the glow from the planet above, next to some of which squatted the immense, globular forms of what could only be the starships that Difris had told them about.

A steely, blue-gray in color, every bit of a football field-length in diameter, the great globes stood on four squat legs that extruded from the lower hulls, the ends of which spread into thick disks that provided stability upon the landing field beneath. The hulls were featureless, resolute, radiating a sense of mass and strength. The sense of might, of forces quiescent now, but capable of immense and perhaps even terrifying things, was tangible. Even the very air seemed wary of these vessels, dancing above the hulls in faint swirls of color that suggested a charge or a heat within the metal, and one quite unchallenged by the obvious coolness of the night air about them.

And yet, for all that impression of grandeur, and home to power, the land beyond held a profound sense of loneliness, and time gone by, that was almost palpable in its essence. For there was no movement in all that vastness, nothing to indicate that things were happening, or even that they ever had happened at all.

Frozen, was the word that came to mind. A land frozen, forever, in time.

"Wow," granddad breathed. "I"

Derry nodded. "Awesome."

He felt Cally's hand on his back, and then the other boy's fingers were gripping his shoulder. "It's...beautiful."

Derry could only agree. There was a majestic quality to the view beyond that was inescapable. It made Derry feel tiny, and at the same time, quite wonderful, too. Living things, beings not unlike himself, tiny and mortal, yet bearing the magical wand of imagination and creativity, had done this. People had remade this world. There was a feeling that great things had started from here, new worlds and new peoples discovered out among the far stars.

Here was the old empire, first hand.

"We're on a moon, I think," granddad said, finding his voice, and pointing at the fabulous green-blue world in the sky. "I can only imagine that the Earth looks much like that from our own satellite."

"Can we go out?" Cally asked. "Let's go out."

Granddad laughed, obviously understanding Cally's sense of wonder. "Okay. But stay close, and be careful, okay? We're not here to wander."

The glassine doors had been automatic at some point, but now seemed not to be working. But they were marvelously balanced, and opened at a slight push. The three humans emerged onto the pavement, and stopped again to look around.

They were standing in the shadow of one of the green, glass-like buildings. This one was a little different than the others, larger, and with several wings, while the others were just single towers jutting up into the violet sky. There was no ship nearby their building, as there was with many of the other, smaller buildings. And as they looked about, they could now see that even many of the smaller buildings were unaccompanied, as if part of the fleet had gone out, and never returned. It was obvious that each building was designed to service a single vessel, although what that servicing entailed was anyone's guess. The round vessels in no way resembled an Earthly rocket - there were no rocket tubes, or anything of that nature that suggested propulsion. What made them go was a mystery, and perhaps one that they would never know the answer to.

Granddad looked up at their own tower. "Maybe this is the administration building or something. It's certainly bigger than the others."

"Is it night, or what?" Cally asked. "That sky is amazing looking."

"If this moon is like ours, it shows one face to the planet always, and we're on that side. Most of the light here is earthshine - or planetshine is a better name for it, in this case. Sunlight, reflected from that planet."

"It's cool as shit," Derry said, and then grinned. "Or even cooler than shit."

Granddad laughed, but then shook his head. "I don't get it," he said, returning his pistol to his holster. "There isn't anyone here."

"Maybe they weren't right at this building," Derry suggested. "They could be around here somewhere, and we wouldn't know. This place is huge."

Granddad nodded. "Yeah. Huge, and fairly uniform in appearance. I don't want to go too far from this building on our first trip. The others all look alike, and we might have trouble finding this one again if we went out of sight of it."

"We could get lost," Cally added, nodding. "Really easily."

The idea was unsettling. They could easily get turned around in this place, and head off in the wrong direction. Derry could imagine exploring the moon indefinitely, until they found the the administration building again - the one with their open door. If they ever found it again at all.

If they didn't starve to death, or die of thirst, first.

"Let's at least walk around this building, okay?" he suggested.

"I planned to," granddad replied. "Let's go, and keep your eyes open, okay?'

They started around the base of the building. Derry inhaled deeply, getting a sense of the cool air, which seemed strangely absent of smells. The silence of the place was also disturbing, with only the faintest sound of moving air - a faint breeze - to accompany them on their walk.

They were nearly to the other side of the building when Derry sensed a faint flicker before his eyes, and turned to look at the others. Both granddad and Cally now had golden globes about their heads.

"What happened?"

Granddad held up an arm for them to stop, and withdrew his pistol again. "I don't know. I'm going to assume that the suit sensors detected something we should be concerned about. Stay close to the building. I want to look around the next corner very carefully."

They edged up the wall, single file now, until granddad slowed at the end of the building. He leaned forward, and looked around the corner. For a long minute he was silent, and then he drew back. "Well, I'll be damned."

"What is it?" Derry whispered.

Granddad stepped back, and motioned for Derry to take his place. Derry crept forward, and slowly peeked around the corner of the building.

In the distance, another green building stood, with the great globe of a starship parked next to it. Something was happening at the ship. There seemed to be some kind of framework about the base, that reached up to the lower hemisphere of the vessel, and tiny, intense lights flickered at several different locations within the framework.

Beyond the great globe stood two...contraptions was the only word that Derry could think of to describe them. Each stood on four legs, and consisted of a latticed framework inside which were nestled the shapes of large globes and cylinders, connected together with piping and cabling. The base of each structure looked to be a forest of familiar shapes - the inverted cones of rocket nozzles. At the top of each contraption, a large globe topped the framework, around which marched a string of portholes, from which light emitted. A steel ladder descended from an open port in the globe, all the way to the ground, and cables and pulleys hung from a small crane outside a much larger port, now closed.

Derry realized then that the two contraptions were a lot larger than he had first guessed, perhaps as much as a eighty or ninety feet tall, but seemed dwarfed by the great globe of the starship nearby. It was a matter of perspective, in more ways than one.

Derry's eyes went back to the framework girding the base of the great starship, and he was shocked to see movement within that framework that could only mean one thing.

People. Or someone, anyway, moving about platforms within the framework.

Derry felt a pat on his back, and moved back to let Cally take his place. The other boy looked around the corner for a while, and then backed up and rejoined them. Granddad motioned for the boys to follow, and the three of them walked quickly back around the building.

"What's all that?" Cally asked, when they reached the front door again. "There's people over there!"

"I think I know what's happening," granddad said, grinning. "Those two funny-looking things are moonships, probably from the planet above us."

"They have rockets," Cally agreed. "What are they doing over there?'

"I suspect that they are trying to break into the starship. I see the lights of gas torches in the framework. They're trying to cut their way into the hull."

"Why?" Derry asked. But then he gasped. "Are they trying to steal it?"

Granddad shook his head. "Derry, imagine what would have happened on Earth if we had reached the telescope era, and when we pointed them at our moon, we saw great constructions there. We would have watched the place incessantly, with bigger and better telescopes, until we were convinced that no one was there, that the place was truly abandoned. Myths and legends and suppositions would have abounded over the years, and science would have worked hard to eventually take us there to see what was happening."

He waved a hand at the planet overhead. "When this starport was constructed, that planet must have held no civilization to speak of. Whoever lived there was probably very primitive, and of no concern to the builders." He shook his head. "But now another thousand years have passed since the builders vanished, and these people have progressed. And now they have come here, to see what there is to see. And what have they found? A technology so far beyond their own that it's breathtaking. And every bit of it apparently up for grabs."

Derry and Cally exchanged glances, and then both boys looked back at the man. "Can they get inside the starship?" Derry wondered.

"I don't know. I think what we need to do is go back to Difris and let him know what we've discovered."

It seemed the only course of action.

They made their way back into the building, and down the corridor to the room of doors. The great metal slabs slid aside to admit them, and then closed again behind them.

"Now we know why the door started up," Derry said, as they mounted the step to the platform by the door. "I hope Difiris can figure out what to do about it."

Granddad shook his head. "This is not really our business. I don't intend to get in a shooting war with these people just to make Difris happy, either. It's not worth risking our lives for, that's for sure."

"Maybe there's something else we can do," Cally suggested.

"Only one way to find out," granddad said motioning towards the door. "And that's to go and ask."

"Amazing," Difris said, and Derry could actually detect a hint of wonder in the spider's voice. "Records do indicate a very primitive culture on the world around which the starport revolves...but I am not sure this particular event was foreseen by the builders."

"Really?" Granddad shook his head. "If it were Earth's moon we were talking about, and you people paved it over and built a starport on it in the time of the ancient Egyptians, I would assume that your science people concerned with how cultures grow would have foreseen that one day those pyramid builders would be constructing spaceships."

"Perhaps. Perhaps they did. I am unable to guess what was in the minds of the builders three thousand years ago, for that is the era in which that port was constructed." Difris waggled his voice globe. "The point is moot at this time. We are faced with the reality of these intruders' presence, and must in some way deal with it."

"How can we?" Cally asked. "We're just three guys. There's two shiploads of them there."

Difris directed his attention to the boy. "It is important that they be stopped. Not only might they damage the facility, but they risk their very lives by attempting to breach the hull of that ship. No matter what problems seem to have befallen the starport's own security, each vessel has its own mind and its own defenses. They risk destruction by provoking that ship to action."

"They were trying to cut through the hull with torches," granddad said. "I have used enough of them in my time to know what that looks like, even from a distance."

"They will not be able to breach the hull in that fashion. And that is probably the only thing that has saved them up to this point."

Granddad squinted. "You mean the ship hasn't done anything because the torches pose no real danger?'

"Exactly so. No archive mind will take action against living beings without extreme provocation. But a starship will defend itself against capture or intrusion. If these beings manage to pose a sufficient threat to the vessel, it will take action, and some of those beings may be injured or killed. I would prefer to prevent that, if possible."

Derry grinned. "You're an old softie, Difris."

"I place value on life. It is not possible to replace a unique individual. Therefore, that individual must be cherished, if at all possible."

Derry reached out and placed a hand on the spider's tough hide, and gave it a little rub. "You're cool, you know that?"

For a moment there was no reaction. But then the spider offered his small chuckle. "I am unable to blush, but I now understand where that action is required. Thank you, Derry."

Granddad tapped a finger against his chin. "Any idea why the starport isn't functioning correctly? I do seem to recall you saying that builder technology would last almost forever. Yet it certainly seems that something is broken there." He frowned. "Heck, even the lights were off in the door building. I got the impression that what few were working were emergency lights of some kind."

"It does seem there was a catastrophic failure of some sort," the spider admitted. "If the port security was functioning properly, the ships of the planet people simply would never have been allowed to land. They would have been stopped well out in space, and turned back to home."

"Hmm. So what are we going to do?"

"I do not know."

Derry shrugged. "Well, we can't figure out what to do on our own. It's just too bad you can't come with us to figure out what the problem is there."

"How about that?" granddad asked. "Isn't there some emergency rule or something that will allow you to go through a door in a case like this?"

"There is not. My primary function at this point is the maintenance and security of this transfer station. I am not at liberty to modify that mission."

Derry nodded. "You're a prisoner here."

"I have never considered it in that light, but that is the gist of it, yes." The spider gave a small sigh, and the humans smiled.

"You're getting good at that," Cally offered. But then he waved a hand at the spider. "I just thought of something. That viewer you made for us to look through the door? That was made from your body. By sticking it through the door, didn't that mess up the rule about you not going through?"

"I know it's a gruesome analogy, but if someone cut off your finger and carried it through a door, could it be said that you transited the door yourself?"

Cally help up a hand and winced at his fingers. "No. But it sure as hell would be a part of me that went through."

The spider's voice globe nodded. "But I am not defined by my body. What you see is a case, a machine, that carries my mind about and serves as my body. My mind and all of me that contains that mind may not traverse a doorway. But a part removed is just a tool. It contains no part of my mind. In that respect is is just matter, and may transit the door."

"You can make anything you want, just like you made the viewer?" granddad asked.

"I can produce any tool I deem necessary, within certain limitations as to size and mass, yes."

"Uh huh. Then why did you never produce a mobile version of that viewer, that could walk or roll...or whatever...up to a door and peek through it for you? Once separated from your body, it would not be a part of you, right?"

"The matter of intent plays some part here. In producing the viewer for you, I was producing a tool for the use of another. You held it through the door, not I. I was also allowed to show you the images the viewer returned, because, again, they were for your use. That they were also of interest to me was a coincidental effect."

"What about copies of you?" Derry asked. "Could a copy of you go through the door?"

"I do not have sufficient mass to produce a duplicate of myself."

Derry sighed. "No, dummy. Not a copy of your entire self. Just a copy of your...your mind."

Cally laughed. "Yeah. Can you have kids?"

Granddad looked at the boys, and then smiled at Difris. "Yeah. What about that?"

For a long moment, the spider was silent. Then: "By the rules of unique intelligences, it is impossible to make an exact copy of myself, and any intelligence not an exact copy would simply not be me by extension. What an extraordinary idea. A thinking unit with my knowledge that could accompany you and interface with starport systems may be a possibility, after all."

Derry and Cally both laughed, and granddad gave a little nod. "Well, let's get on that, shall we? Time's a wastin', as the man in the comics once said."

Difris nodded his voice globe, and then lowered his body to the floor and opened the passenger compartment on his back. "Get aboard. I will need the assistance of the infirmary mind on this project."

The three humans climbed inside, and the spider headed off across the great dome.

"Now, about this comic man you just mentioned," Difris said, as his many legs thrummed against the floor. "Can you tell me more about it?"

Granddad looked at the ceiling, and sighed.

Derry, Cally, and granddad clustered around the small orb that sat on the infirmary worktable. It was cushioned on a ring of squishy foam, and the three humans examined the device with interest. It looked like a glass marble, full of wispy and colorful inclusions, except that a clear loop of material large enough to go around a human neck was extruded from the top of it.

"One of us will wear it?" granddad asked, staring at the thing in wonder.

"That is the easiest way for it to move about," Difris agreed.

"It's so tiny," Derry marveled. "And it can think like you?"

The spider stood across the table from them, his voice orb wavering slowly back and forth between the human faces. "It can, but it is not me. It has my knowledge as it exists up to this point, but the processes of thought with which the mind will utilize that knowledge is unique unto itself."

"That is correct," the small orb said, and Derry gaped, realizing that the voice was coming to him via his built in communications system. "I will need a name to differentiate myself in conversations. Any suggestions?"

"It is your right to select one," Difris returned. "Simply find something you like, and select it."

"I rather like Klorapyzknua," the small voice said, with a definite labial click in the middle of the word. "An Omnibalom word for 'new life from chaos'".

"Oh my god," granddad breathed, looking horrified. Both boys laughed.

"That's a mouthful!" Cally exclaimed. "I can see us tripping over that one while we're yelling for help."

"Perhaps something less strenuous for our friends here," Difris said, a definite note of fondness in his voice. "After all, you will be working with them."

"Something likeable, yet brief, then," the orb responded. "Fair enough."

There was silence for a moment before the small voice spoke again. "I also like Nyf, which is an Erfreenik word for 'child of my father'. How does that sound?"

Granddad laughed. "'Child of my father'? Isn't that kind of redundant?"

Difris gave a small chuckle. "The Erfreenik are in the habit of overstating the obvious. It is a racial tendency that has often frustrated empire scholars studying their language."

"I like it," Derry said. "It's you."

"That is my selection, then."

Granddad looked relieved. "Much better."

Cally extended a finger and hovered it above the orb. "Is it okay to touch you?"

"Yes. One of you will need to transport me about, and touch will be required for that function."

Cally lowered his finger and gently rubbed the marble. "Wow. It's smooth, like velvet. And not hard at all." He lifted his finger and looked at Derry. "Check it out."

Derry extended a finger and also rubbed the orb. "You feel warm. And Cally's right: you feel soft, too. I hope that doesn't mean you can be hurt easily."

Difris and the Nyf both chuckled at the same time, causing all three humans to laugh.

"I am quite resilient," Nyf said. "I consist of matter related to that from which your exploration suits are constructed. I will be quite safe in our travels, barring extraordinary circumstances, of course."

Granddad huffed. "Like what?"

"If we are plunged into a sun, we will all cease to exist."

Derry laughed, his eyes fastening on Cally's, who also grinned at the tiny orb. "Let's not do that, then, huh?"

"I will try my best not to allow that to occur," Nyf agreed.

Granddad smiled at Difris. "How's it feel to be a dad?"

"I do not know yet. I already foresee that we will both be talking at the same time."

"God forbid!" granddad laughed.

"Shouldn't we be going?" Nyf asked. "After all, time's a wastin'".

Granddad stared at the orb a moment, then closed his eyes. "I could be at home right now, sitting in my rocker on the front porch."

"That would be dull, granddad," Derry said, smiling. "You'd be missing out on all the fun."

"Yeah. What was I thinking?"

"If you would place me around your neck, Derry, we can go? I will wish to ride with each of you over time, if you do not mind."

"This will be interesting," Difris said, opening his passenger compartment and lowering his oval body to the floor. "Upon your return, I will download Nyf's experiences, and it will be as if I went myself. The possibilities here are exciting to contemplate."

"I'm glad we're all on the same page, sort of," granddad said dryly, climbing into the passenger compartment.

Derry gently picked up the orb from the table and placed it around his neck, tucking it inside his suit collar. "Comfy?"

"I will be fine, Derry. Thank you."

The boys joined Derry's grandfather in Difris's passenger compartment, and the spider was off.

The door room at the starport was as they had left it.

"That console there by the door," Nyf said, as they stepped down from the door platform. "Can we move to face it?"

Derry nodded, and walked over to the indicated console. Cally and granddad followed.

Derry examined the face of the console as he stopped before it. It was mostly blank, and appeared to have little functionality.

But even as he watched, lights began to play cross the face of the console, seemingly embedded within the face itself, and a large section of the wall behind it crawled with color and then illuminated, showing them an aerial view of what could only be the administration building they were standing inside even then.

Other colors appeared on other consoles within the room, and then the ceiling illuminated, and a soft glow emanated from the walls, and seemingly from the very air itself, giving the room a comfortable illumination that was both efficient and cheery. Other sections of wall crawled with color; and then they were surrounded by images of the starport.

The air in the center of the room grew opaque, and then they were looking at the globe of the starship at the nearby building, the two moonships from the planet above, and the tiny figures of people of some sort, walking back and forth between them.

"Awesome," Cally offered, looking around the room and grinning. "This place has a Star Wars look, if I ever saw one."

Derry had to agree. The amount of information available for viewing was amazing.

"Let's have a better look at our guests," Nyf said over the com link. The image of the moonships grew rapidly, and in an instant they were hovering over a pair of the invaders as the two walked back to one of the moonships.

Cally and Derry immediately laughed. "They look like monkeys!"

Granddad stifled a laugh, but his eyes held humor as he gazed at the boys. "That's not nice. These fellows built ships that could cross the vacuum of space to their moon. They're on what is to them a daring and perilous adventure. You're probably looking at the local equivalent of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Show a little respect, will you?"

Derry couldn't erase his smile, but nodded at the two aliens. "Sorry, guys."

The aliens did resemble terrestrial primates. The were about mid-chest high to Mike Hamlyn, which still put them a good half-a-head shorter than the boys. The two were slender, and gray-furred, with large, forward-facing eyes; tall, pointed ears on each side of their small heads; short, almost canine muzzles with wide mouths; and two slender arms and two slender legs. Their hands each displayed three fingers and an opposable thumb, and waved animatedly as they walked along, talking in a growling tongue that clearly was composed of words.

The aliens were outfitted in blue uniforms bearing insignia, and black boots on their small, wide feet. Each wore a belt, to which was attached a holster with a small sidearm encased inside.

"Hmm. A for-sure military expedition, if I ever saw one," granddad said. "We will need to be careful, because we don't want them to start shooting."

"Your exploration suits cannot be damaged by those weapons, and therefore you cannot be hurt by them," Nyf immediately said.

"I was thinking about accidents," granddad said. "Friendly fire. We don't want them hurting each other by mistake, either."

"Point taken," the tiny orb returned. "And now, let us look at the moon and see if we can determine what happened to its defenses."

The large image suddenly drew back with a speed that made the humans gasp, as the point of view soared into the sky like a missile. The view of the starport grew, spread out, and begin to show them just how colossal the works really were. Thousands of the towers covered the paved landscape, and at least half of them had the globe of a ship parked nearby. The thousands became tens of thousands, and then began to dwindle as the moon grew rounded and then finally became an orb itself, hanging in space.

There the view held steady. "Everything looks normal," Nyf said. "And yet I am unable to talk to the starport mind."

"Is that located in a certain place?" granddad asked.

"Yes. On the far side. Let us look there, shall we?'

In the view, the moon began to turn, or perhaps the observer was circling it. Mile after mile of surface passed by beneath their eyes, all the same, the white pavement dotted with the towers, half of them home to landed ships.

"How many ships can this place handle?" granddad finally asked, his voice tinged with amazement.

Nyf gave out a small chuckle on the link. "There are berths for two-hundred and seventeen thousand vessels, though of course not all of them were ever in port at a single time."

Cally looked at Derry and gave him a little astounded look, as if to say can you believe that?

It was hard to grasp the scale of all this. And to realize that there were 'dozens' of other ports, just like this one, 'sprinkled around the circumference of the empire', lent a sense of size to that old empire that was staggering to consider.

The view changed as they reached the terminator and moved to the sunward side of the moon. Everything was brighter here, but still the same, almost monotonous view of towers and ships.

At first.

"What's that?" granddad asked, leaning forward to look closer. Derry and Cally mimicked him, staring at the view as a range of blackened mountains rose into view, spread wide, and quickly became the outer barrier of a monstrous hole in the face of the moon.

The view stopped, directly above the massive, dark entrance to the interior of the moon.

"Is that a crater?" granddad asked, shaking his head. "It's enormous."

"Six hundred and six miles across," Nyf said. "The outer rim barrier is nearly a mile in height."

"What did that?" Cally asked. "A meteor?'

"An asteroid, would be my guess," Nyf returned. "A direct plunge, too, as there is no evidence of an angled impact."

"It must have been huge," Derry said.

"Velocity and composition of the impactor is the key. The asteroid could have been quite small and done this damage, if it was also composed chiefly of iron and traveling at high velocity."

"Is this where the starport mind was located?"

"Yes. Not only the primary mind, but the reserve mind was located on the other side of the moon from here. As much of the interior of the moon had been hollowed to provide room for maintenance and supply facilities, the impactor probably plunged most of the way through the inside. Compression damage probably destroyed the reserve mind." Nyf sounded slightly subdued himself. "The landing field surface confined much of the damage to the interior of the moon. But I would say that this facility will be a total loss unless repairs are made."

"There isn't anyone to make them," Derry said.

"I could make them myself," Nyf countered. "Or any mind like me. What is needed here is direction. Several of the manufacturing and repair facilities within the moon still report as ready. All that is required is to get them into operation with a plan of action. When we return to Difris, I will suggest to him that he create another child mind that can be placed here to run this facility. Once that is done, repairs can begin in earnest."

"Any idea when this happened?" granddad asked.

"Within the last thousand years, certainly. After the builders vanished. The people of this world are very lucky, I would say."

"Why is that?" Cally asked.

"The moon intercepted this strike," Nyf pointed out. "Had the impactor struck the planet instead, the devastation would have been extreme. I very much doubt these people would have been around to travel here in that case."

It was a sobering idea.

"I am at a loss to understand how this could occur," Nyf continued. "Surely such an asteroid would have been detected well before impact. There are enough vessels in residence here to pulverize a planet. It would not have been that difficult for them to deflect or destroy an asteroid."

"Maybe something was already broken down at that point," granddad suggested. "Can you ask one of the ships what happened? You said they each have a mind of their own."

"Yes, but that can wait. Let us address the matter of the intruders first."

"Okay. Then what do we do now?"

"The defensive centers here are still operational. But with no overmind to guide them, they have remained at rest, even though apparently informed of the situation."

"You guys have soldiers here, or something like them?" Cally asked.

"Of the same physical model as Difris, although less autonomous. The builders did not believe in giving destructive forces too much will of their own. I can direct them for now. Let us go outside."

They passed through the double doors, which closed again behind them, and retraced their way to the front of the building. Granddad led them around the side again, and they formed a single file line along the wall before stopping at the last corner. "Now what?" the man asked.

"We wait," Nyf said.

Granddad nodded, and peered briefly around the corner of the building. "Still busy as bees over there."

Derry became aware of a sound then, a rather incredible sound, that touched his awareness and then rapidly grew in volume. It was a familiar sound, too, like the sound that Difris's legs made as they moved rapidly over the floor of the moon station. But this was much louder, much more insistent, as if hundreds of the metal spiders were running at full speed across the pavement of the moon.

He was not far off.

"Look!" Cally called, pointing across the landing field.

Derry and granddad both turned to look. A wave of steel was rushing towards them, hundreds and hundreds of machines like Difris, their legs almost a blur as they raced over the pavement. Granddad peered around the corner of the building again, and reported a similar wave coming from the other direction; in fact, a great ring of the large spiders, closing in, the furred intruders and their ships at the center of the circle.

Derry edged forward and peered around the corner. The furry aliens had stopped what they were doing, staring in all directions at the onrushing horde. Several broke and ran towards the moonships, while others climbed hastily to the ground from the framework surrounding the empire starship.

The wave reached the humans and bulleted past, the noise of their passing deafening and frightening, even though Derry knew they were not the objects of the spider's mission. The furry aliens must be crapping their pants about now, he supposed. He knew he would have in their place, had he seen the spiders rushing towards him.

Suddenly, there was silence.

Derry edged forward again and peered past granddad. The aliens and their little moonships were now at the center of a ring of spiders five deep in number. What was occurring inside that ring was anybody's guess.

"I don't hear any shooting," granddad said. "They're well-disciplined, I'll say that for them."

"Now we can go," Nyf said then. "Approach the ring of soldiers from behind. They will make an opening to let you through."

"What are we doing?" Derry asked.

"You are going to play the part of aggrieved builders, come home from a trip to find burglars in the bedroom."

Derry and Cally exchanged glances, and granddad grunted. "You sure you know what you're doing?"

"No. But we have no language files for these people, and no time to learn. So we are going to have to communicate in any way we can. The soldiers are intimidating, but they are just machines to the aliens, and their arrival could be in response to some automatic signal. We wish to make these people understand that there are live owners of this facility, who take exception to their landing here and trying to make off with private property."

Granddad grinned. "This might be fun."

They stepped out from behind the building and started across the field, walking three abreast, granddad in the middle, and the boys to either side of them.

"They won't be able to see you coming," Nyf continued. "It will be dramatic to have the ranks of soldiers split at the last moment to allow you inside the ring."

"You're having fun, aren't you?" granddad asked in amazement.

"I have Difris's memories of a millennium of isolation. In all that time he yearned to know what was happening elsewhere, yearned for the company of others. He cannot leave the moon station still. I want this event, once related to him, to be as enjoyable as possible."

Derry reached up a hand and laid it against his suit, over top of where the tiny orb nestled against his skin. "You're alright, Nyf. Difris will be a proud daddy when we get back."

The orb did not reply, but Derry sensed a brief, unusual warmth against his skin.

They reached the outside ring of spiders, which parted smoothly, as did the next ones. As the inner ring opened, the three humans found themselves approaching a small group of the furry aliens, who looked startled at the sudden appearance of the three golden-headed figures. One of them dropped a hand to his holster, and was immediately snarled at by another.

"Walk up to them, and stop a few feet away," Nyf instructed. "Then look over at the starship, as if you are inspecting the things they have been doing."

The humans stopped, and did as the orb suggested. From here it was apparent that no damage had actually been done to the ship. Besides the gas torches, there looked to be a variety of cutting tools and machines set up, but the hull of the ship looked unscathed.

"Now look back at the group of aliens. Mike, ask who the leader is. Do not be surprised at the sound of your voice."

Granddad nodded inside his helmet, and turned back to the party of aliens. They looked up at him, quite obviously not at ease with the situation at all.

"Who's in charge here?"

Despite Nyf's warning, it was all that Derry could do not to jump. His grandfather's voice came out deep and ominous-sounding, and all of the little aliens took a step backwards.

And then one of them stepped forward again - the one who had jumped on the the other alien, who had reached for his pistol.

"Neer flek nau im dossa, Op Grunni Natta."

Derry grinned inside his helmet. Even the unfamiliar words could not hide the alien's meaning. I am Commander so-and-so, leader of this expedition.

"Good," Nym responded. "Mike, point to the alien, then indicate the others, then point emphatically at their moonships, and then swing around and point back at their planet. I want them to understand that you're telling them to go home."

Granddad did as he was instructed, leaning forward and pointing at the little furry commander, and then taking in the other aliens with a wave of his hand. Then he pointed at the moonships, and then swung about and made a dramatic gesture at the distant planet. The meaning was clear.

Get outta here!

The alien commander looked shocked, and then swung his head back and forth in a very human gesture of denial. "Imnit. Col veruka ninma palihadra. Lit t'manas..."

"Raise your hand abruptly, Mike," Nyf instructed. "Don't jump at what happens next."

Granddad jerked a hand upward.

There was an explosion of sound in the air about them, the gist of which was a combined noise like a zillion rifle bolts being yanked back. Derry looked over his shoulder at the spiders, and was amazed to see that each had extruded a variety of ominous-looking devices, some of them as large as a cannon. And resembling a cannon, too. And all pointed at the alien commander and his party. That they were weapons was plain, both to the humans and to the furry aliens.

Derry turned back, and saw that several of the aliens had jerked their pistols from their holsters. The commander immediately swung around and held up his arms, yelling loudly, obviously telling them to hold their fire.

When the alien commander turned back to face them, the fear was plain on his face.

"Mike, repeat your gestures for them to leave."

Granddad went through the motions again, and this time the alien commander gave a little bow of his head, and turned to his people. "Kirma! Alniucka!"

The furry aliens backed away, and then turned and headed en masse towards their ships. Quickly.

"We can withdraw now," Nyf instructed.

The ring of spiders to their rear parted, and the three humans headed back towards the administration building.

"I feel kinda bad about that," Derry said, as they arrived again at the corner of the building. "We scared the piss out of those guys."

"Yeah," granddad agreed. "I suppose it was necessary, Nyf?"

"It was. Not only could those people cause damage to the facility, but they could be hurt or killed here. And it would not do to have empire science fall into their hands. Past experience has demonstrated that an exposure to advanced science can cause more primitive races to stagnate in their own quest to progress. I hope this incident will keep them from returning until at least we can get this place running again. After that, they simply won't be able to land their ships here."

"What will happen now?" Cally asked.

"We will go back to the transfer station and wait while Difris creates another mind, and then return and install it here."

They stopped at the administration building and turned to watch the moonships within the ring of spiders. The aliens had climbed the ladders and closed the hatches, but nothing else was happening.

"They may be afraid of damaging your soldiers," Granddad finally said. "Those rockets pack a punch. Maybe you can pull them back a bit."

Nyf simply grunted, but the ring of spiders suddenly expanded as the machines withdrew to a safe distance. A few minutes later one, and then the other, moonship rumbled, and both spouted flame and smoke, and slowly ascended into the sky. The noise was deafening, but there was something majestic to the slow rise of the two craft, and even Nyf seemed entranced by the take off. They stood and watched until the exhaust flames were just small lights in the sky, bound for space on their long journey home.

"Impressive, but how wasteful of energy," Nyf finally said. "Let us go."

The ring of spiders seemed a part of that request. They turned, and headed back to wherever they had come from. Derry and Cally and granddad walked slowly back to the administration building's front door, and then down the hallway to the door room within.

When the security doors had closed again, Derry turned to his grandfather. "Is it just me, or do you feel let down some?"

Granddad smiled. "No. It's not just you. I know what we did was necessary, but I would have liked to talk to those guys and get to know them a little. They seemed an awful lot like people I know back home, if you know what I mean."

"Yeah," Cally said, nodding. "Just doing what they were told, I guess."

"They sure didn't get a good impression of the empire," Derry said. "I wonder if they'll go home and sit around worrying about being invaded or something."

"They'll be back," Nyf said, assuredly. "The next thing they will do is send a diplomatic mission, and try to make peace. It was one thing to come here prepared to help themselves to our technology when generations of sky watchers said that there was no one here to complain if they took things, and another altogether to find out that their neighbors are still at home after all. I think it will alarm them to think they made a wrong first impression, and they will be anxious to correct that."

"Will you let them?" Derry asked.

"Eventually. But this facility must be running and secure before they can be allowed to land again."

Granddad swung between the boys and dropped a hand on each of their shoulders. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm hungry. I vote that we go back to the transfer station and have at some of the sandwiches we left in our backpacks there. And then maybe we can spread out our sleeping bags in the big dome and get some sleep."

Derry laughed. "Why in the dome?"

"Well, we did tell your mother we were going to sleep out under the stars, right?"

The new mind, called Brik, had been placed in the starport administration building and was already directing repair operations from there. The starport hummed with activity, as machines made more machines, the inner factories hard at work producing what was needed to repair what had been destroyed in the asteroid impact. Other machines crawled through the inner regions of the moon, re-establishing power grids, and re-connecting systems that had fallen out of communication with one another.

Nyf thought that basic operations would be restored within a week, which made Mike Hamlyn just shake his head in amazement.

"But it still doesn't do much good, without anyone to use the place. We still have to find out what happened to the builders."

Difris was in agreement. "There are still a lot of doors to examine," he pointed out.

The spider was delighted with his memory of the trip to the starport, shared with him by Nyf in complete detail. That the two would have much to talk about together seemed obvious, and Derry, for one, was pleased that Difris now had a companion to ease his loneliness at the transfer station.

"Even if it will be like talking to himself," he joked, as they made their way across the field of Indiangrass towards Derry's house.

Granddad sighed. "Man, I'm beat. Even with our new additions, this old body is tired. I'm for the rocker on the porch, as soon as we get there."

"Gonna rest your eyes?" Derry kidded.

"Hell, no. I'm taking a full-fledged nap."

They all laughed.

"Wanna spend the night?" Derry asked, turning towards Cally. "We can talk about stuff."

Cally grinned, and gave his boyfriend a gentle punch on the shoulder. "If it's okay with your granddad."

Both boys looked up at the man, who watched them a moment in silence. "Son, anything the two of you want to do together is okay by me."

Derry blinked, sensing much more to that comment than was at first apparent. He and Cally looked at each other, but Cally only gave his head a quick shake. Later.

They reached the house, and dropped their packs and their sleeping bags on the floorboards. Granddad settled into his rocker, and smiled. "Ah. Home. Nothing like it, you know?"

"You want a drink?" Derry asked him. "I'll bring you one."

"Nah. I'll be examining the inside of my eyelids in two minutes. You guys go on. I'll talk to you at dinner."

Derry motioned to Cally, and the boys went to the kitchen and got some drinks. Then they went up to Derry's room, and Derry closed the door.

"I think he know about us," Derry said, swinging around to face Cally.

"I think so, too."

Derry frowned. "What do we do?"

Cally laughed. "Nothing, dum dum. He said he was okay with it."

"I...I don't believe it. I was always scared he would find out."

Cally crossed the room, set his drink down, and took Derry's from his hand and set it next to his own. Then he pulled Derry close and hugged him. "It doesn't matter."

Derry slowly relaxed, and finally sighed. "I guess not."

Cally nodded, and drew Derry to the bed. They laid down, and snuggled together.

"What an adventure," Cally said. "Wore me out, playing builder, and chasing aliens around, and all."

"Me, too." Derry laughed. "I guess every time we step through a door now, it will be like this. Until we figure out what happened to the builders."

"If we figure it out," Cally corrected.

"Yeah. Kind of neat, to think we can go through some door one day, and there they'll be, waiting for us."

"I just hope they're not mad we came looking."

Derry grunted, and then laughed. "You sure think up nutty stuff."

Cally lifted his head and grinned. "Whose turn is it tonight?"

Derry smiled, already thinking about what they would do together, later. "Both of us."

"Ooh. I can do that."

They went back to holding each other, while the ceiling fan whirred overhead.

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