1997 - 2006 G. Dallman
March 14, 1997 Version 2.01
Revision Date: 05/02/98
Watch Your Step
The Portal Chamber was located at the far aft end of SoulRipper, in a large space directly above the Vacuum Well. To Howard's eye, the most obvious characteristic of that space was its stark emptiness. Like most single-use areas on the Sennal ship, it was devoid of all but those items needed to serve its defined function.
The one item that defined this room's function was a large rectangular depression about fifteen meters long by ten wide, sunk into the wooden deck like a metal swimming pool. Unlike most pools, this one was filled to a depth of one meter with clean, white sand, its surface raked smooth, leaving small furrows, perfectly spaced. A few strategically placed stones and it would have made an excellent rock garden. At the four corners of the sand pool, tall metal rods rose to a height of four meters above the deck. Thick cables led from the lower ends of the rods to disappear through gormmeted holes in the chamber's plank floor. Attached to the rod closest to Howard was a standard Sennal identplate.
On the wall opposite the hatchway, Howard noticed a large orange placard, bearing a single black line of Sennal script. This and what was obviously a chronometer on the wall to his left, together with the Olympic-size sandbox, were the only items in the large chamber. Immediately, Howard's eyes were drawn to the sand.
Turning to Aarrl, he asked, "What's all the sand for?"
"At the moment if interface, it is impossible to control the exact location of the center of a forming Portal," explained the Ursine, "It would be quite inconvenient if a Portal opened part-way below deck level. Thus, the sand provides a readily perishable surface, else the Toccal would need repair the deck at every mishap."
"Do you use this often?" The Human waved his hand to indicate the chamber in general.
"Yes. As SoulRipper rarely makes planetfall, this is the only way on or off this ship.."
"You couldn't go anyplace else from here?" persisted Howard.
"No. But one Portal sleeps in this chamber, and its other terminus is on Teff. Its designator is Teff 17339 / SoulRipper 1."
"I see," replied Howard, with the demeanor of a jaded tourist. "Where... or what is Teff?"
Aarrl stared at the ceiling for a long moment, quietly clicking his teeth. Howard couldn't decide whether the Ursine was thinking about his answer, or beginning to lose patience.
"In relation to Gendas, Teff is one hundred and nine light-years beyond Taahas. That would be one hundred and fifty-one light-years from here.
"To answer the second part of your second question, the Imperial Monastery on Teff is the one institution in all the Sennal Empire that is completely dedicated to the study of Portal Physics. It is also the screening point for all Portal traffic to Taahas. Heffnss of Teff, is the Chief Priest of that institution and the Master of the T'Saarll Priesthood. It is he who will instruct you in the disciplines of the Portal."
As the Ursine spoke, Howard was reminded of the true purpose for his being in the Portal chamber and started paying closer attention.
"Could you... please tell me about Heffnss? What kind of person is he?"
"It is well you ask. Heffnss is a Sasskal, and being of that race, he will be a very difficult teacher. He has very little patience. Do not anger him, for it is only at the command of Tirrnn, that he very less than willingly renders this service."
At the mention of a being of the mysterious Feline race, Ripley paid closer attention still. Aarrl's admonition concerning angering the priest rang in his mind.
"When will he arrive?"
Aarrl uttered a low growl as he glanced at the large chronometer on the near wall, checking it against the one on his wrist, snarling with surprise. "We have loitered more than long enough! The priest arrives in point zero-one SubCycles, or by your reckoning one point four minutes. It is best we move back from the Portal zone. Now."
Immediately, the Ursine took two giant Gashka steps backward. Howard followed until he added four meters to his distance from the sand pit. Seconds later, bright blue strobes at the four corners of the Portal zone began flashing, slowly at first, but with increasing frequency as the seconds passed. The two waited in silence as the time counted off on the wall chronometer. At the appointed moment, Aarrl looked at his watch and touched the Human on the arm, as a way of telling him it was time.
At first Howard detected nothing, but after a few seconds an area about five meters in diameter suddenly flashed a blinding, bright electric blue, instantly taking on a mirror-like sheen. To the accompaniment of a tremendous, ear-splitting roar, huge discharge bolts arced from the periphery of the now active Portal to the copper rods at the four corners of the sand pit, as vast electric potentials were balanced. Howard's ears gave a sudden twinge as the air pressure in the Portal Chamber soared, equalizing with that of distant Teff. In less than two seconds the Portal was open, a perfect circle, limned eerily by writhing, fractal feathers of blue coronal discharge.
Before him was an open door to another world. The Human's ears rang from the double abuse of the rapid change in pressure and the clash of the tremendous energy bolts. Looking at the bottom of the Portal, Howard could see a small cascade of sand pouring across the interface, which had materialized about ten centimeters below the sand's surface. For a few seconds, the only sound in the chamber was the faint whisper of flowing sand.
The silence was soon broken when a tremendous saber-tooth, tawny-furred, and obviously very male creature stepped through the Portal, sniffing noisily. The Feline was unclothed, in the Sennal fashion, except for a scarlet Name bound above his huge left biceps and an 'X' shaped harness that supported a large scimitar-like Scholar's Blade across his back. The instant the Sasskal emerged from the Portal, he placed his left hand on the identplate, wicked-long claws clicking loudly on its glassy surface.
/Heffnss of Teff is recognized. Defenses at standby,/ came the voice of ShipSoul.
In one continuous, lithe motion, the huge Feline pivoted slightly to face the waiting pair. The Sasskal Priest stood 285 centimeters tall, with an incredibly powerful build. Howard estimated he easily weighed three hundred and fifty kilos. Black, six centimeter, sickle-like claws on his hands and feet were partially exposed and when combined with his fifteen centimeter saber-like fangs, combined with his long, brown head-fur and mane, gave him an extremely fearsome appearance. Even at rest, the Feline looked ready to spring. He stood in a wrestler's stance, with his knees slightly bent, bulging arms held out before him as he leaned slightly forward, pivoting on digitigrade feet.
In three lightning-quick, bounding strides, the Sasskal was across the intervening deck, bringing him almost nose-to-nose with Aarrl, towering over the Ursine by at least 25 centimeters. As the Feline came to a stop, He roared at the Gashka in a voice like a three-way cross between a rip-saw, a broken steam line and a cat-fight. His ears were laid flat against his skull in obvious anger.
"Ah, Third Councilor, I thought I smelled your shaggy ass," sneered Heffnss, "It's rumored on Teff that Her Imperialness found someone expendable for this farce! Now, where is this strange creature She dispatched you to hunt?"
Aarrl regarded the priest with a malevolent stare, pointing one dark clawed finger toward the Human. "This is a 'Human'. He is S'Challh. Teach him well, Heffnss of Teff."
Howard stood dumbfounded, unable to follow even a syllable of the raucous conversation between the two large Sennal creatures. The piercing gaze of the Feline's emerald-green eyes, encircled by the same savage swirls of scar that framed Aarrl's visage, stirred deep primal fears that plucked at the Human's panic centers.
"That is the S'Challh of H'Settu's prophecy?!" yowled the Feline, his short tail whipping about like a severed fire-hose. "You jest! Perhaps Trinn's Precious would be better served if I were to just eat it now and go home!"
"If he fails, then I'm sure he will pray you slay him, for S'trriff is upon him," growled Aarrl.
"S'trriff indeed," sneered the priest. "I smell that Krrfinn's been upon him as well!"
Heffnss warily eyed the Human from head to toe, hissing to himself with ill-concealed anger. Howard fearfully tried to take a half-step backward as the Feline bent down for a closer look, but immediately met resistance from Aarrl's outstretched paw pressing at the middle of his back. The Sasskal's hot breath reeked strongly of raw flesh and stale blood.
"Where's its tail? What are those hideously putrid rags it drapes its ass with? If it speaks, tell it I'll neither teach it nor eat it until it has spent at least a SubCycle in the ablutorium! Did not my secretary tell you I despise Simians?"
"It is irrelevant, Heffnss," growled the Ursine, "He is none-the-less S'Challh and must be accorded due respect. I assume that you will be able to set aside your irrational prejudices long enough to do your duty?"
"Don't presume to tell me whom I must respect, Third Councilor," spat the Feline, flecks of saliva dotting the Ursine's dark pelt, "I shall honor my Oath and my Duty. Now get it out of here before I lose my lunch!"
The instant the Sasskal finished his incomprehensible ranting, he took a half step back from the duel targets of his ire and vanished in a soft implosion of displacement.
Howard stared at the spot formerly occupied by the angry Sasskal, not believing the evidence of his own eyes. "Goddamn!! How did he do that? Where did he go?"
"The Sasskal are not only gifted with a fine talent for insult, most are also superb natural teleports," explained Aarrl. "For them it is but a matter of mentally adjusting the quantum probability dictating their existence at any particular location. By enhancing the probability that a significant percentage of their atoms are at a desired location, quantum superposition takes effect and spreads to the rest of their body. Since it is impossible for an object much larger that a molecule to exits simultaneously in more than one location in the same universe, they cease to exist in one place and commence to exits in the another.
"In answer to your second question, the priest has probably teleported himself to the quarters he will occupy while he instructs you. On the other paw, he may have gone in search of Krrfinn, in hopes of imposing on an old friendship," Aarrl growled, obviously still agitated after his less-than warm-hearted greeting by the arrogant Feline.
While Aarrl was talking, the portal deactivated, diminishing to subatomic proportions with a brief static crackle. In its quiescent state it would be undetectable among the localquantum background fluctuations.
"Aarrl, I didn't understand a word he was saying," complained Howard.
"Most of his ranting pertained to a grossly less-than-cordial greeting of myself. Though I must say, some of it was directed specifically at you."
"What did he say?"
"As to what he said that specifically pertains to you, I will condense to a few words," rumbled Aarrl. "To put it succinctly, Heffnss commands that you bath, strenuously."
"I just took a shower this morning," retorted the Human.
"Here is your first lesson regarding Sasskal: They have exceedingly keen noses. The Lord Priest was not exaggerating when he said he could smell Krrfinn on you."
"He said WHAT?" Howard was mortified. "Does the whole damn Universe know about that?"
The Ursine waved a hand as a form of shrug. "It matters not. The point is, as with his other sensibilities, Heffnss' olfactory senses are easily offended. If you would live undamaged until Alignment, I would strongly suggest you do nothing to offend the priest... in any way."
"Is that all?" Howard replied sarcastically.
"By no means," Aarrl turned and stooped to look the Human in the eye. "You will remember, I told you that Heffnss would be a difficult teacher. This, from the standpoint of your tradition, may be a gross understatement. Within the T'Saarll Priesthood there are a number of forms and rituals to be followed at all times in matters of discourse between Teacher and Novice. In this matter, Heffnss will demand that you treat with him in the manner dictated by Tradition."
"How do you mean?"
"When addressing the priest, you will always address him as 'my Teacher'. Conversely, he will always address you as 'Novice' or 'my Student'. This is Custom and a matter of Honor. You would deviate at great peril."
"Peril?" asked Howard weakly.
"You surely noted the Scholar's Blade at Heffnss' back. It is not in any way ceremonial. The T'Saarll Priesthood guards its Honor very strenuously."
"Yes, The priest will answer failure with, ah… cutting comment," answered Aarrl. "Provoke him and you will become meat for the FieldSurgeon."
Howard stood silently for a long moment, staring at the few centimeters of wooden deck between his feet, absorbing his brief but brutally frank lesson.
"Aarrl, how will I know what he's saying to me? Will you always be around to translate?"
"No. Heffnss shall be your Teacher now. By the next time we meet, the priest will have had a linguistic processor installed. It was his one precondition. Be very careful what you say to him. Remember, he does not have the same forgiving manner as I." Aarrl placed one large paw over his dark-furred chest in an indication of modesty.
"Oh fucking great!" muttered Howard.
* * * *
Two SubCycles elapsed since Howard left the Portal chamber. He sat, cold and naked, on the corner of his pallet shivering, reliving unfound remembrances of his last SubCycle in the ablutorium. His clothes, laundered and returned, lay in a neat pile at the opposite end of his sleeping pallet. Howard considered wearing them, but remembered Aarrl's admonition that his Teacher would probably oppose it on religious grounds.
Perhaps the worst part of the ordeal had been the obnoxious goo that passed in the Sennal world for soap. The smell said a lot about Sennal aromatic esthetics. The scent was evocative of geranium, industrial grade balsam resin and several unidentifiable though noxious petrochemicals, one probably naphtha. Howard didn't remember the stuff smelling quite so vile before, but then he never had it applied to his hide in quite such liberal quantities.
As though divining his greatest fear, Krrfinn had arrived to help with his ablutionary undertaking. It seemed to Howard as though 'laundering the Human' had become her second avocation.
Without warning, Heffnss materialized about a meter in front of the startled Human, his arrival heralded by a slight explosion of displaced air.
"Is my Student ready?" asked the Sasskal in a tone that probably indicated a degree of false solicitude. His words were delivered in a low, sibilant growl.
Howard, jarred from his reverie, shot to his feet, unconsciously backing a few centimeters farther from the towering Feline. "Yes… er… my Teacher."
Heffnss' vertically-pupiled eyes followed the Human as though he had a radar-lock on him. "Good. You remembered, my Student." Again, the strange twist of inflection on the last two words.
It suddenly occurred to the Howard that he was talking to Heffnss without Aarrl being present to translate. That thought alone, increased his anxiety and caused him to back even further from his fearsome Teacher. Now that he could talk to the irascible Sasskal, Howard found himself speechless.
Heffnss continued to track Howard's steady backward movement, his gaze resting on the Human as though he'd just that moment really noticed him.
"My Student, you have much to learn if you are to fulfill what is expected of you and gain that which is your Heart's Desire. The first thing you must learn is not to fear me overmuch." The Sasskal's speech was very low pitched with a pronounced lisp caused by his huge canines, which protruded downward at least eleven centimeters below his upper lips. "Come, stand before me. I will not harm you."
Cautiously, his heart pounding so loud he was sure the Sasskal could hear it, Howard reversed his slow retreat, taking two hesitant steps forward, bringing him to within half a meter of his formidable Teacher. The Feline's scent was like wet iron.
Heffnss stooped to regard the Human closely. "I have never seen a creature such a you." He sniffed once and closed his eyes. "Yes, definitely Simian," the Feline murmured to himself. Howard fought to conceal his embarrassment as his Teacher's unblinking gaze examined him from head to toe.
Not being able to think of anything else to say, Howard remembered his first conversation with Aarrl. "If my Teacher will take no offense, Your face resembles that of a saber-tooth cat of Earth's Pleistocene Epoch."
Heffnss smiled in an open-mouth way. "No offense is taken, my Student. As the wolf and the bear are the Progenitors of the Dirhal and the Gashka, so the saber-tooth feline is my Progenitor. Do you think the Patrons chose well?" As he spoke, the Sasskal turned his head, revealing his features in semi-profile.
Breathless with trepidation from his close proximity to Heffnss, Howard managed to whisper, "Oh yes, my Teacher. As my fear is my witness, they chose well."
"Yes, my Student, I sense your hereditary fear. When your Progenitors were just past the threshold of sentience, they were a food item for my Progenitors. But alas, I am given to understand that your species in time arose to cause the extinction of those fine creatures."
Howard looked down at his feet in unexpected embarrassment, "Few creatures on my planet have ever successfully competed against Humans and remained a viable species, my Teacher."
Heffnss stared into space for a moment. "Let us hope the Feltah fare as poorly!" Rousing himself, the priest beckoned to his Student, "Come, we shall repair to the Portal Chamber."
Without thinking, Howard turned and took a half step toward the door, before being stopped by a heavy paw on his shoulder.
"A lesson, my Student," rumbled Heffnss, as he turned the Human about to face him. "The shortest distance between two points…
…is through hyperspace."
Suddenly, Howard found himself in the Portal Chamber, his Teacher's huge hand still resting heavily on his shoulder.
"Whaa…?" he uttered in confused amazement.
"It is a skill which you may learn too, but we shall explore that further another time, my Student."
Howard slowly took in his surrounding, still not totally comprehending his sudden materialization in the Portal Chamber. He had a million questions, but his vocal chords wouldn't cooperate.
"My task is to teach you the physics of the Portal," growled Heffnss. "Has your species any grasp of the Laws involved?"
"My father is a physicist, my Teacher. Quantum physics is his specialty."
Heffnss smiled, regarding his Student in a new light. "Ah, there may be hope yet. I was not told my Student is the son of a priest."
Howard sighed, dreading the awkward explanation of Human-kinds' illogical separation of church and scientific reality. Discretion being the better part of valor, he naively chickened out, believing it the end of the matter.
Bolstered by this new knowledge, Heffnss steered his Student toward the Portal pad. "You have seen this Portal in operation, my Student, but I doubt the Councilor was able to give an adequate explanation of its operation."
"He left that to you, my Teacher," agreed Howard.
"Very well, Novice, beneath this sand lies the controller for FoldSpace Portal Teff 17339 / SoulRipper 1, forged here, over 7,000 years ago, when SoulRipper was new. Now, the Portal sleeps, but one attuned to the scent of its quantum signature may awaken it."
"Before my Teacher explains how a Portal works, perhaps he could explain what it is," hinted Howard.
"Hrrr. If you wish. Is my Student aware that space-time is composed of eleven dimensions?"
"Yes, my Teacher, one of time, three normal spatial dimensions, and six smaller entwined dimensions," replied the Human.
"Correct, my Student. A Portal is a quantum-mechanical construct used to short-circuit the continuum between distant locations, through a singularity-like, lower-level dimension, in which all points are, at times, common to all others in conventional 4-dimensional space. Portals are observed into existence by the effect of Conscious Intent at the quantum level. Once it is forged, a Portal endures until the end of ALL."
"But, my Teacher, it is believed by my species that all points are common to all others in dimension-zero."
"Only during specific periods of Alignment, which correspond to conditions in 4-dimensional space, my Student," rumbled Heffnss. "This alignment follows filaments bent by the curvature of normal space, and thus connect only at predictable intervals.
"Might this be related to what we call Superstring Theory, my Teacher?"
"Yes, as I understand your theory, my Student."
Howard was beginning to become overwhelmed as quantum theory gave way to quantum cosmology. "I think you need to talk to Steven Hawking."
"I shall, my Student. I look forward to the opportunity to converse with such a learned priest. I greatly wish to help him correct his error concerning the direct proportionality of the antigravity force to the square of the radius of the universe. Your species will never get your value for the Universal Expansion Constant correct until you factor in the effects of antigravity on cosmic expansion." The Sasskal shook his head at the last statement as though it were a tragedy of epic proportions.
"I don't think its a mistake, my Teacher, I just don't think we've discovered it yet."
"Such a pity. It explains everything," Heffnss sighed wistfully. "I digress. It was my intention to demonstrate the operation of this Portal, not lecture you on cosmic expansion."
"Yes, my Teacher", agreed Howard, more than eager to discuss something he could understand.
Heffnss approached to within ten meters of the Portal pad, motioning the Human to join him. "The Portal controller is attuned to the quantum emanations of sentient thought. All I must do is will it to activation. Observe."
Howard watched as his Teacher closed his eyes in obvious concentration. Several seconds past before the Portal materialized with a brilliant flash, accompanied, as before, by deafening bolts of electrical discharge snaking from the periphery of the new Portal to the metal rods at the pad's corners.
"See, my Student? The space between Portal Chamber 17339, on Teff and our present position has been folded along the connecting superstring, reducing its distance to zero. Quickly, place your paw on the identplate."
Quickly, Howard crossed the ten meters to the corner of the pad and firmly placed his hand on the glass plate
/Howard F. Ripley is identified./ Came the voice of ShipSoul.
Heffnss was directly behind his Student and likewise placed his huge paw on the identplate.
/Heffnss of Teff is identified. Defensive systems to stand-by./
Behind him, Howard heard the whine of motors. Turning, he caught a glimpse of a wicked-looking plasma cannon rotating into its stowed position. A second later, his Teacher's huge paw was on his shoulder again, propelling him toward the Portal. "Come, my Student, I shall take you to my home."
Stepping through the trans-Spacial interface, the Human's attention was captured by the writhing, blue, feather-like tendrils of coronal discharge lining the Portal's periphery. Instantaneously, between heart-beats, between one step and the next, the gulf between the stars was bridged. In that instant of inattention, Howard's left foot met nothing but fifteen centimeters of air, causing him to flail his arms and in slow-motion, fall flat on his face in the sand on the Teff side of the Portal.
Behind him, Howard heard Heffnss' hissing laughter. "My Student, did you not read the sign?"
"No my Teacher," replied the Human, spitting sand. "I can't read Sennal. What's it say?"
"Watch your step!"
* * * *