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Space Trails
cover art © Malcolm McClinton

 

 

Space Trails encompasses the spirit of the old American pioneers who risked all for a chance of a better life in a new environment. With conditions in America deteriorating, the Bentley family decides to take advantage of the recently discovered method for reaching the stars.

 

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Space Trails

science fiction adventure

 

Darrell Bain

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

            The Trailways have been driving scientists to drink ever since their discovery. According to Uncle Jim, many of them say the Trailways shouldn’t even exist. Since there’s no denying their reality, he goes with one of the newer theories, that the universe we thought we knew is actually just a little segment of a bigger one that it fits into, like a piece of a four-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Alone, the piece doesn’t make much sense except to itself, but fit it correctly into all the others and a newly discernable picture emerges. Not that we have any idea of what the whole picture looks like yet, and not that we’re likely to find out any time soon, but the theory does give an inquiring mind something to hang a thought on. It may even be right, for all I know.

What they say is that the Trailways exist in a congruent universe, one billions of times smaller than ours. What they don’t say is how and why they came to exist in their present form and who or what created them. There are a thousand different explanations for those questions. You can believe any of them you like, just as you can believe any of a thousand of the religions of Earth purporting to describe how and why we’re here and what our purpose is. I listen to my uncle. He takes just about everything like that with a hefty dose of skepticism and doesn’t have much use for dogmatism on any subject. He thinks an open mind is like a rare jewel and should be treated with reverence. He once told me that he’s never met a politician or a priest who can be believed without reservation. He also said that the Trailways aren’t any more unlikely than our own universe if you get right down to it.

            The Trailways, or Space Trails as they’re often referred to, were discovered by an odd merging of astronomical and satellite observation with some obscure mathematical theory and soundings by energy companies going ever deeper into the earth in the perpetual search for new reservoirs of oil. A satellite which was pinging North America from several hundred miles up, section by section, began showing anomalies when the sections were pieced together. These weren't apparent unless you had a mind like Vernor Midling, who not only noticed the phenomena but went on to tie them in with cosmological theory and devise the equations which described what he saw in the obscure data. From there, lesser minds were able to construct the apparatuses that form the portals into the other reality that contains the Trailways.

The portals are the entrances to the ’ways, which gave us our path to the stars. Like I said, the Trailways are still driving scientists around the bend but I’m not going any further in trying to describe their discovery or how it’s possible for them to exist. Give me another twenty years of study in the new field of esoteric math, alternity math, that studies alternate and congruent universes and I might give it a try. Not that it’s likely I’ll ever get a chance at formal schooling again, not if I sign on for the ’ways when I come of age. Once you enter them, it’s like going back in time to frontier days, to wagons and horses and lawlessness and long treks into unknown wildernesses to the new planets being settled.

            I heard the faint whooshing of the front door seal being broken, but stayed at my desk, knowing it was just Uncle Jim coming home.

            “Hi, Brad,” he said as he came into the den. He touched my shoulder as he passed, heading for the bar.

            “May I have one, Jim?” I asked, not really expecting him to say yes but I had just turned sixteen, plenty old enough for a drink. I thought so anyway.

            Jim hesitated, eyeing me from behind a bottle of sour mash whiskey. He shrugged, then said, “Okay, but a small one. Would that suit you?”

            “Yes, sir!” I said. I couldn’t keep the grin off my face.

            He even brought it to me and sat down across the desk from me in his usual chair. The comp clicked and came on line as it recognized him. He raised an eyebrow as he saw what I was interfacing with.

            “Still studying the Space Trails, huh?”

            Jim teased me a lot about my interest in the Trailways. I shrugged and took a sip of whiskey before answering, trying not to make a face at the taste. “Well, yeah. It’s part of our modern history section. Besides, some guys at school think they’d like to try them. There’s sure not much future here at home now.”

            I was sorry the moment the words came out of my mouth. I wasn’t telling Uncle Jim anything he didn’t already know, and it certainly wasn’t his fault that drought, disasters, energy shortages and financial panic had ruined the economy, especially in a swath of states that included Arkansas, where we lived.

            Uncle Jim was my Dad’s younger brother, so we both have the same last name, Bentley. He took me in just before my ninth birthday after Mom and Dad were killed in a tornado spawned by one of the big hurricanes that have been ravaging the coastal states with increasing frequency over the years.

            I’m not as dark as my uncle. He has some Hispanic features, courtesy of Granddad marrying an immigrant from Mexico. My skin color is from my mother and much lighter. Anyway, I’m satisfied with my looks: dark brown hair and even features. Jim says I’ll be a big man when I get my full growth, but I’m not so sure of that. I’m slender and no taller than him but he tells me to give it time.

            “Which ’ways are you and the guys thinking about?” Jim asked, eyeing me speculatively. He sipped his whiskey, the double shot he always has upon arriving home. Sometimes he comes home at noon, other times after dark, depending on whether he found work or not. It doesn’t matter; he still has his drink first thing.

            “Well… the only ones most of us could afford on our own would be the unknowns, wouldn’t it? Either that or sign on with a corporation.”

            Uncle Jim looked sad while he thought about it. He did his best at supporting us, but he didn’t have much formal education. He had always been satisfied running his little auto repair shop but then the same tornado that killed the folks destroyed his shop. Some fine print in his insurance policy kept them from having to pay for a lot of the damage to his diagnostic machinery and suddenly in his early forties he was unemployed. Since then he has been supporting the family on savings plus what he makes as a day laborer. The insurance settlement wasn’t enough to start another shop, not with all the equipment needed for the newer cars.

            “Don’t even think about the unknowns, even supposing you’re still interested when you’re of age. Unless you’re part of a family you’d have to join the exploratory corps to get in, and that’s just a slow way of committing suicide, for my money. I guess a corporate group would be the only kind we could tackle, not that I’m enthusiastic about the Trailways to begin with. They’re dangerous as hell and there’s you and Angelita and Margaret to think about.” He spoke as if he were really serious about chancing one of the known Trailways, something I knew he couldn’t afford even if he wanted to. The unknowns led to planets explored so far only by robots, not men. The real unknowns hadn’t even had a robotic survey. The few of those which had been discovered were found by convict parties trading life sentences for a chance at a pardon if they were lucky enough to come out ahead on a really, really chancy bet. Most of them were never heard from again.

            Angelita was his daughter, a year younger than me, and Aunt Margaret was his wife, of course. Angelita was pretty and quietly studious, something I liked in a girl. Not that I thought of her like that. She was a cousin and by now I thought of her as being more like a sister.

            I didn’t say anything more at the moment. I was wondering whether he was just idly speculating or was really serious about the Trailways. The ’ways were always something to debate about at school, especially toward the end of the year when the recruiters came around talking to the seniors, but Uncle Jim seldom mentioned them. He wouldn’t, though. He never made up his mind in a hurry, especially for anything important. He patted me on the shoulder and went to prepare the bread and warm dinner, the beans and rice I had cooked earlier when I got home from school. Aunt Margaret worked uptown, cleaning office buildings. It didn’t pay much, but it helped.

* * *

            We lived near Ft. Smith, up in Arkansas near where the hills began turning into a small mountain range. There was still a lot of forest in our area, but it was being depleted pretty fast nowadays. It was being used for firewood and fodder for making a crude fuel that helped to power homes for those who couldn’t afford enough solar panels and storage cells to do the job. Like our family and our neighbors, if you want the truth.

            There was a group of us who walked to school together, all of us from the same cluster of aging homes. The morning after Jim said those few words about the Trailways I was still thinking about what he’d said and wondering what had brought them on. He couldn’t be serious, I thought.

            “Hey, Brad, wake up before you get run over!”

            Moose Burley gave me a tap on the shoulder, only with him it was more like getting hit with a sandbag.

            I grinned and hit him back, just playing around, but a moment later I was back in the clouds, with the natter of school and girls and part-time jobs swirling around me with hardly an impact while we walked along the side of the street. I wasn’t a big talker anyway. The guys teased me a lot about the way I always had my nose in my reader or for talking about things they weren’t interested in, like history and how it was fun to study, or genedogs and whether they could really reason or not, but it wasn’t mean-spirited. I let it pass me by unless it was one of the bullies, the type who liked to pick on anyone smarter or smaller than themselves. Those I either ignored completely or if it was a physical confrontation I refused to back down no matter how many times I got beat. Uncle Jim had told me how that worked. If you ever let a bully get away with abusing you they never quit. The only way to make them leave you alone is to fight, every time. They usually let me be because after a while word got around that even if I got whipped I almost always managed to do some damage to them and occasionally I even wound up winning. I never got to where I liked fighting, though. There are better ways to spend your time.

            “Magic, that’s what my mom thinks,” I heard Juan say. “Can you believe?”

            “Nah, they’re like an alternate universe,” Moose said. “My dad knows a guy that used to work the portals and that’s what he says.”

            The talk of Trailways brought me into the conversation, as always. I’ve been fascinated with them ever since I learned to read. “They’re sure not magic,” I put in.

            “Yeah, how d’you know?” Juan challenged me.

            I shrugged. “There’s no such thing as magic.”

            “Well, you go through a portal, and it’s sure as hell not to an alternate earth, is it? Huh?”

            He had a point. There wasn’t a really good theory to explain the Trailways. “We just don’t know enough about them yet,” I said. “Just wait, in another twenty or thirty years we’ll figure out what they are.” I was just talking. I didn’t know if we would or not.

            “Sure. That’s what they’ve been saying,” another boy put in. “Anyway, what does it matter? The ’ways are still how to go, you want to get anywhere in life.”

            “You’ll get killed is what you’ll get, dumbbell. Unless you’ve suddenly inherited a bunch of dino and can afford the good planets.”

            I listened, but quit participating. Arguments about the Trailways were like religion. They never proved anything. It was true enough that if you had money, you could emigrate to one of the explored worlds and take part in opening it up, but none of us would ever see that. There weren’t that many open for migration, not from the United States portals, anyway.

            It was the points where portals were possible that Vernor Midling had discovered, not the Trailways themselves. First you had to build the towers that brought the portals into existence and allowed entrance. North America had four portal points, and was lucky at that; no other nation had more than three. And so far, no Trailway exit had been discovered on earth, though there almost had to be one. The exits don’t require portals, at least on other worlds, so it stood to reason Earth wouldn’t either. Uncle Jim told me once that if the Trailways were properly exploited, they could revive our economy. Perhaps they would be someday, but politicians and the military controlled them for now, with some allowances for corporate exploration contracts.

            “Nah, the Ozark portal has the most ’ways. I heard it from my cousin; he lives right near it.”

            “How the hell would he know? Does he work the portal?”

            “No, but my uncle does. He should know.”

            The conversation had veered toward the number of Trailways in a portal. I didn’t know and doubted anyone else did, not even the authorities who ran the entrances. Once you went through a portal, there was something like a giant railroad station from past ages, and from there the Trailways started and branched and branched again and again. The number of possible worlds available to any particular portal was a closely guarded secret if it was known at all, and speculation was always rife. I didn’t think the number mattered; it was how many were useful, and they had to be explored to find that out.

            “No one knows,” I said, coming back into the conversation.

            “Yah, so how do you know that, smartass?”

            I was saved from having to explain where no explanation was possible by arriving at the school. I split off for history class and the other guys waved and headed toward their classes, some together, others individually.

            For some reason, I couldn’t keep my mind on my studies that day. Part of the problem was knowing the school term was nearing its end, but on a deeper level I was still absorbed in thoughts of the Trailways. Some experts thought they were remnants of a former, galaxy-wide empire which had contrived the ’ways by some kind of science far beyond our understanding. Others who studied them had given up trying to explain their origin and attributed them to the supernatural, a cop-out any way you looked at it.

            Magic? Well, I couldn’t prove differently, but I don’t believe in magic, despite what the New Agers and Mystics or Diviners and their ilk preached. I don’t think there’s much reason behind their claims of a ‘universal force’ or a ‘supreme oneness’ or other gobbledygook either. On the other hand, the Trailways don’t make a lot of sense scientifically. The biggest lump for scientists to digest was the fact that you could start down a Trailway, use up several months of time plodding along with a covered wagon or pack horses and arrive at another world light years away. The Trailways were like tunnels between planets where distance was compressed in some strange fashion. Not even alternity math could truly explain the ’ways. They couldn’t tell you why there was gravity inside the Trailways or why it varied from place to place. They couldn’t explain what the inert haze that encompassed the ’ways was or what was on the other side of it when it became too compressed to go farther into it.

            There was one theory that explained a lot about the Trailways although it offered no real proof. This one held that the haze, the grayish white non-reactive substance which delineated the expanse of the ’ways, was the material of another universe entirely and that the ’ways were simply tunnels through it. Go toward the edge of a Trailway and you ran into the haze, like a mist at first, but the further one went into it, the more concentrated it became, until before long it became impossible to see. Explorers said it felt like walking through syrup. Those who tried going farther into it never came back, nor did robots. There had been attempts to dig down through the earth on the floor of the ’ways but the holes only met more haze, now compressed into a hard compactness. This was in agreement with the theory that said the substance of this other universe was concentrated to an incredible degree, yet was coincident with our universe, so that traveling a short distance in a Trailway was the equivalent of going billions of times farther in our universe. That made a kind of pseudo faster-than-light travel possible while walking along beside an ox or a horse or riding in a wagon.

I have to admit these conjectures explained a lot, but they still didn’t say anything about where the Trailways came from originally, what the haze was made of nor why the exits on other planets were so open. It would seem that if the ’ways were old, the exits would have been covered with debris over time, but they weren’t. So why hadn’t an exit been discovered on earth, other than coming back through the portals? No one knew, or perhaps the exit had been discovered but was being kept secret. Or hell’s bells with whistles, no one even knew why there was gravity inside the Trailways, nor, if the adjacent universe was so compact, why the gravity wasn’t much greater. Some theorists said it was because the other universe was composed almost entirely of the haze which consisted of particles impossible to measure, but they were a small minority. Most just admitted they had no idea. The gravity in the ’ways varied, but never by that much. The density of the haze varied but it was always present. Instruments had been brought into the ’ways in attempts to get a handle on what it was, but had been unsuccessful so far. It was just there, inert and unreactive to any substance known.

            It was all way too deep for me, and Jim freely admitted he didn’t understand much about the ’ways, either. It seemed to me it was something like the olden days when science was first getting started and the elements were being discovered and categorized. We just hadn’t discovered enough yet to fit the Trailways into a reasonable slot. In the meantime, scientists continued to study them, the military explored them, and colonists took their chances on getting to another world and settling down away from all the strife, over-population and shortages of our earth. Then there was the fiction written about brave explorers, military expeditions, scientific excursions and so forth. It made exciting reading and wonderful movies and games but the facts were so distorted that they were mostly useless as sources of information. I read them anyway because I like exciting stories and I like reading about the Trailways. I guess I wasn’t much different from millions of other young people, or adults too, for that matter. The Trailways had been open for ordinary citizens for less than twenty years now, those with money, and had only been discovered and the first portal built thirty-five years ago, before I was born.

* * *

            Angelita was the only one home when I arrived after school. It was Friday, Aunt Margaret’s usual day off.

            “Hi, Angel,” I greeted her. “Where’s the folks?”

            “Mom left a note. She’s working extra today and Dad must have gotten a day job.”

            “Good deal,” I said. “For Jim, I mean. He hasn’t had much lately.”

            “Yeah, but I hate to see Mom work so much. She says she doesn’t mind, but I know she’d rather stay home.”

            Angel was a good kid, even if she didn’t look much like a kid any more. The last year she had really developed, looking older than me now even though she was a year younger.

            I took a minute to drop off my reader at our desk and touch the interface to download the day’s data from school, then went back out to the living room.

            “Your girlfriend asked about you today,” Angel said, smiling slyly. She liked to tease me.

            “I don’t have a girlfriend,” I said.

            “That’s not what I hear.”

            “Don’t believe everything you hear. The way gossip goes, we’ll both be married off before we finish school.”

            Angel blushed at that remark, but girls blush for reasons that don’t make sense to me so I paid it no mind.

            “Have you started dinner?”

            “I put the beans on,” Angel said. “That’s all Mom said to do in her note.”

            I began salivating. If Aunt Margaret hadn’t left any more instructions than that, it meant she was bringing something home with her. I hoped Jim would make it in time to eat while it was still hot, or fresh, or whatever.

            With nothing else to do at the moment, I turned on the big screen, the one we used as a group. I like to listen to the news, another thing I got teased about, but the heck with it. I liked to know what was going on in the world outside of our little neighborhood.

            I caught the tail end of something about riots up north but didn’t hear which city. It didn’t matter much. The cities were pretty well interchangeable so far as unrest went. Too many people and not enough work, even after the military closed the borders with Mexico. A.I. programs were getting so smart they were even harvesting veggies now. It made me wonder what kind of job I’d be able to find after graduation, only a year away now.

            “I’m glad we don’t live in a big city,” Angel said as she sat down beside me on the big couch.

            “You and me both. I wouldn’t mind living a little farther north, though. The damn hurricanes don’t die off as quick as they used to.”

            “I wish we could just go on the Trailways to another planet and forget the whole earth.”

            She managed to startle me. The ’ways weren’t something Angel usually talked about. Her interests ran more to mechanical stuff, like Uncle Jim’s did.

            “When did that come about?”

            “Well, you’re always talking about them. Why can’t I?”

            I shrugged. “No reason, I guess. Just didn’t know you cared.”

            “Well, I do. Of course we can’t go, but I can dream, can’t I?”

            I smiled at her. “Anybody can dream.”

* * *

            Aunt Margaret came in carrying two big bundles. I got up and ran to the door to help her while wondering what on earth she had. An extra treat sure wouldn’t take up that much room. Then I saw her face and knew something was wrong.

 

CHAPTER TWO

            Margaret didn’t even have to say anything. As she was removing our delicacy for supper, some barbecued pork to go with the beans, one of the other bags tipped over and spilled on the kitchen table. There were all the little gadgets and pens and notepads and scissors and pictures and things a person accumulates when they have a place to work from. She had brought it all home.

            The expression on her face said it all, but she spoke up anyway as she began gathering her goods and returning them to the bag. “I guess you can see I cleaned out my locker at work.”

            “Why, Mom? Was it getting too full?”

            Angelita didn’t get it yet.

            Margaret put her arm around her and said “No, honey. I just don’t have a job any more. I got laid off today.”

            “But… but why, Mom?”

            Margaret shrugged, as if the job had been of no account to begin with. “Same as always. They found someone who would work without benefits and for less money.”

            “But couldn’t you…”

            “Hush, Angel. Everything will be okay. Now let’s get dinner ready before your father gets home. See what I brought? Ribs!”

            I was properly enthusiastic and went along with her, trying to pretend that nothing had happened.

* * *

            Uncle Jim must have already been expecting the news because he and Margaret didn’t discuss it while we ate. Instead, conversation took the usual route when we were all together for a meal. Margaret wanted to know what we were doing in school and what kind of work Jim had found that day if he had gotten a job. Jim always asked about school but let the rest of us do most of the talking.

            As quickly as the meal was over and the dishes were washed Jim and Margaret retreated to their room, leaving Angel and me to amuse ourselves.

            We only had the one comp for the whole family to share. I hung back until Angel had finished loading the school stuff into our comp. By then she had had time to think the situation over.

            “We’re not going to have much money now, are we?”

            “Uh-uh. Not unless Margaret finds another job and that’s not likely.”

            “What’s going to happen to us?” Angel’s face had taken on a serious expression that made her look almost grown up.

            “I’m not sure. I guess I’ll have to quit school and try to find day work with Jim. I hope I can finish out the year first, though, so if things get better I wouldn’t have to repeat.”

            “It’s not fair! How come those Spinks get all the jobs?”

            “Life isn’t fair,” I said. And it wasn’t. So many Orientals had slipped into the country from Canada while we were completely closing the Mexican border that the job situation was worse than it had ever been.

            “Oh, you always say that, Bradley Bentley. If you have to quit, I will, too.”

            “No,” I said automatically. “You can’t find any work and you know it. Not the honest kind.”

            “I could try.” Her voice told me she was kidding herself. Girls without a diploma didn’t get jobs these days, not unless they traded favors for it.

I felt my face burn. “Forget it. I won’t let you even if you do try, not to mention the folks.” Angel was just a cousin but I felt more protective toward her than I would have had she been my sister—or my girlfriend. I had a sudden vision of her standing in a dark alcove by one of the buildings along the tracks, waiting on customers, like I had seen one of the girls a grade ahead of me doing after she dropped out. I hardly recognized her with her face painted and wearing a getup leaving little to the imagination. When she saw me she looked away and I passed on by without speaking.

I don’t feel like studying,” Angel said. “I wonder what Mom and Dad are talking about?”

I glanced through the open archway toward their room. The door was still closed but there was light seeping from around the edges. “You know damned well what they’re discussing.” There wasn’t much room for doubt.

Would you really quit school?” Angel asked.

If I have to. Hey, I don’t feel like studying, either. Want to go for a walk? I’ve got a dollar. I’ll buy us a cooler.”

Okay. Let me comb my hair.”

I grinned. More and more Angel wanted to look good when she left the house. I didn’t blame her. She was really neat, a pretty girl with promise of being beautiful as a woman. I liked being seen with her even if she was my cousin. She was a little lighter-colored than me but her skin still had a golden tan from the summer that went well with the chestnut-colored hair she wore below the shoulders, in contrast to the wired look most girls fashioned their into hair now. She can be as stubbornly her own person as anyone I know, even me.

            We walked along the side of the street, watching for the cruisers, the uptown kids that hit the burgs on weekends for drugs, drink and fun. They drove flashy low-slung wheelies, telling the world they or their parents were well-off. We didn’t live in the really bad part of the burg, but it was close enough that we got part of their traffic and it was getting worse every year. Margaret and Jim talked about moving occasionally, but it was just talk. I knew there was no money to scale up. If anything, it would have to be down now.

            Businesses and tract homes alternated along the streets, with a few of each closed here and there, the ones that were used for illegal sales and sex pads. Kids in the burgs got an education young. I could no more protect Angel from the sights and sounds and the stories bandied about among the kids than I could expect a scholarship to UA if I graduated. I always tried, though, acting like the big brother even when she resented it sometimes.

            Ahead of us, I saw a band of idle boys, dressed in the style that told me automatically they weren’t in school even though some of them were younger than me by a couple of years. I took Angel’s hand, giving the impression she was my girl. It saved having to fend off advances.

            Angel moved closer to me, hip bumping me as we walked. It got a couple of idle whistles and sleaze remarks. I waved casually to one of the guys I vaguely recognized and put my arm around Angel. He winked at me, automatically assuming we had something going. I didn’t know if he knew we were related but in his case I doubted it would have mattered. It made me feel like popping him one. Angel must have caught my expression because she squeezed my hand. I looked down at her, then back up and we passed on by without an incident but already the walk was spoiled. We had a cooler with my only dollar and headed back home.

            The folks were out of their room when we got back. They were sitting at the com, involved with some kind of search. As we passed, going to the kitchen for a drink, I saw what they were after. The Trailways.

* * *

            “Are we going on a trip?” I asked, just kidding about the subject of their com searches, but curious just the same. Margaret seldom spent time on the com, preferring novels and texts on her reader. So far that was one thing even the poorest had in common with the uppies: free access to the net. Of course you had to be able to buy the equipment, the com and readers and so forth before it was useful. Margaret hadn’t been able to go on with her schooling after she and Jim married and Angelita came along. There had been a boy, but he died in his first year from a heart defect they couldn’t afford to have fixed.

            Jim stood up and stretched. “It’s a possibility, kids. Don’t say anything at school yet, though. We haven’t decided for sure.”

            And as casually as that, I found out we might be going where my dreams and fantasies had already taken me. The Trailways.

* * *

            I was surprised to find Jim still at home the next morning when I got up, sitting in his big chair in the living room, a pensive look on his face, accentuated by a high forehead where his hair had retreated as he aged. Saturday was usually the best day for a chance at a job. Sometimes he could hook up with a homeowner for work that lasted several days, or occasionally a week or two.

            “G’morning, young man,” he greeted me. “Ready for a hard day’s work?”

            Work? “Sure. What are we doing?”

            “Planning, as soon as the rest of the family wakes up. There’s coffee made. Help yourself and bring me some more, please.” He held out his cup.

            I took it and filled one for myself. Both of us liked it just as it came from the dispenser, in contrast to Margaret and Angelita, who took cream and sugar.

            When I handed Jim his coffee I saw he had several pads of paper and pens lying on the kitchen table, the place where family business was always discussed. Whatever he was talking about with the ‘planning’ must be serious. And then I remembered. The Trailways!

            I sat down carefully, trying not to spill my coffee. Suddenly I noticed my hands were trembling, like they sometimes did before a final exam or when I was thinking I’d have to fight with one of the idiot bullies who spoiled classes for those of us who were serious. I often wondered why they were even in school. There was certainly no law saying they had to go. That sort of thing was far in the past. I guessed it was optimistic parents, spending money and hoping their offspring would amount to something.

            Jim noticed my hands and grinned. “No need to get agitated, son. We’re not planning on signing up for a suicide team.”

            I grinned back at him, rather feebly. “Are we really going to go, Uncle Jim?”

            He sobered and shrugged. “Looks like we may have to. Wait ’til mama gets up and around and we’ll see where we are.” He touched the arm of his chair and brought up the news on the wall screen, a relic salvaged from an unclaimed travel van he had repaired. It flickered a minute before settling down, then gave about as good a picture as we ever got. Sometimes it bounced into and out of 3D but we were used to it and it didn’t bother us any longer.

            I sipped at my coffee while releasing the seams of the sleeves of my jumpsuit. It was a sultry morning, already warm and sticky. I rolled the sleeves up above my elbows as the morning news feed began. A political analyst was moderating a panel of economists and techies. They were discussing the economic future of the United States.

            I glanced at Jim, wondering why he was watching something like this. Usually he paid no attention to politicians, claiming they were all as crooked as a broke-tail dog. I didn’t know enough about politics to argue with him but Jim knew lots more than his small education would indicate. He read a lot, just like Aunt Margaret, and I guess they had passed it on to Angel. I was already into reading when I came to live with them so I fit in pretty good from the start. Jim always said a family that read together stayed together.

            The moderator was asking one of the economists what he thought the prospects were for boosting the economy through exploitation of the Trailways, given that the country had a better starting point than others since we had a bigger share of the portals.

            “It’ll work out great in the long run, Abner, but I give it another twenty years before we become a dominant force in geopolitics again. That’s assuming we don’t learn some new method of exploration in the meantime.”

            “And that’s not likely,” one of the techies put in. “We’ve still not had anyone come back from the deep Haze, not even robots. That’s where I believe the key lies but we’re going about it wrong. We need more research before trying that kind of exploration. All we’re doing now is collecting casualties.”

            “Ah, but are they casualties?” the moderator asked, glancing at the panel as a whole, inviting comment.

            One of the economists bit. “Maybe when they go into the haze and don’t come back it means they’ve found something better on the other side of it.”

            “Uh-uh,” a techie said. “The most they could find is an alternate universe even if they could force their way through the Haze, which they can’t. No one can. But even if they could, there wouldn’t be any returning. Hell, if they entered an alternate universe there wouldn’t be anything left, not even their atoms.”

            “How do you know? Is that the latest theory?” the moderator asked.

            “No, it’s just my own opinion. What I think is that we need to set up a major expedition, build something like a portal inside the first portal, then gradually work inward.”

            “But how…”

            They went on gibbering for a few more minutes. I began losing interest. It seemed to me they were straining, like trying to whip an ogre with a silly stick in one of the kids’ games the grade schoolers played.

Jim touched the side of his armchair and the screen blanked out. “Talk about making an ass of yourself, let that be a lesson, Brad. Never get up in public and try bullspeaking your way through something you aren’t sure of. You just saw a perfect example. The only thing any of them said that made sense is the time frame. Twenty years sounds about right, but I think that’ll just be the starting point before we’ll begin reaping the benefits of owning more portals than other countries. From there, it’ll be another twenty or thirty before it really works its way down to people like us. That’s too long to wait. And even that’s assuming we don’t get so high and mighty about it that other nations gang up on us and invade. That also assumes nothing really new is discovered about the Trailways in the meantime, which I don’t believe. Sooner or later there’s going to be a breakthrough that’ll explain a lot of things about them.”

When do you think it’ll happen?” I asked.

Jim smiled at me and shook his head. “Breakthroughs can’t be predicted. That’s the nature of breakthroughs. They don’t follow any particular time frame. It could be next week or not for another hundred years. Anyway, that’s not what we should worry about. What if we discover something that backfires on us, like the originator of the ’ways if there was one?” He cocked his head. “I think I hear mama stirring. How ’bout putting on some more coffee and go wake your sister.”

I nodded and got busy. Jim referred to Angel and me as brother and sister about half the time. So did Margaret. Heck, Angel and I did it ourselves occasionally.

* * *

            I tapped on the door of Angel’s little cubby hole of a room, remodeled from a large closet, same as mine.

            “Come on in,” she said in a muffled voice, still heavy with sleep.

            I opened the door just in time to see her sitting up and yawning. The sheet was puddled in her lap. As she stretched, her thin nightgown gathered over her maturing breasts, showing them almost as plainly as if she had nothing on. I couldn’t help staring for a moment, then blushed and turned away.

            A pillow hit me in the back of the head, timed with her giggle. I turned back around, intending to repay the favor, then thought better of it when I saw Angel was no longer giggling. She pulled the sheet back up and swung her feet off the bed, but that left her legs bare to mid-thigh.

            “You better get dressed,” I said, again trying not to stare. “The folks are going to have a pow-wow with us today.”

            “Okay. Too bad we’re family, huh?”

            I didn’t get it for a moment, then said, “Yeah. You’re too good-looking to pass up otherwise. As is…”

            “Yeah. Git, cuz. What are the folks all agitated about?”

            “Put some clothes on and come see. I’ve got coffee going.” I left her, wishing she wasn’t my cousin. She really was pretty, just like her mother, and her figure was already better than half the seniors at school. Of course, there was no law against cousins… I turned my mind in another direction. Jim and Margaret probably wouldn’t like what I was thinking.

* * *

            Margaret was dressed in jeans and a work shirt when she appeared, just like Jim. Angel came in right afterward, wearing a jump suit like mine, with lots of pockets and tabs, but designed with feminine-looking decorations at the seams. The neckline was more open than mine, too, with reddish threads running through the lapels to draw attention there.

            Angel tried to get on the subject of the conference right away, but Margaret refused to say a word about what was going on until she had us all fed and the kitchen cleaned up. “Bring your readers and tablets and let’s move into the living room where we can be comfortable. This might be a long day.”


 

 

Space Trails Copyright 2006. Darrell Bain. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

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Author Bio

Darrell Bain is the author of more than sixty books, in many genres, running the gamut from humor to mystery and science fiction to humorous non-fiction. For the last several years he has concentrated on humor and science fiction, both short fiction, and suspense thrillers.

Darrell served thirteen years in the military as a medic and his two years in Vietnam formed the basis for his first published novel, Medics Wild. Darrell has been writing off and on all his life but really got serious about it only after the advent of computers. He purchased his first one in 1989 and has been writing furiously ever since.

While Darrell was working as a lab manager at a hospital in Texas, he met his wife Betty. He trapped her under a mistletoe sprig and they were married a year later. Darrell and Betty owned and operated a Christmas tree farm in East Texas for many years. It became the subject and backdrop for some of his humorous stories and books.

TTB titles:
Alien Infection
Doggie Biscuit!
Hotline to Heaven
Laughing All the Way
Life on Santa Claus Lane
Medics Wild
Samantha's Talent with Robyn Pass
Shadow Worlds with Barbara M. Hodges
Space Trails
Strange Valley
Tales from a Christmas Tree Farm
The Focus Factor with Gerald Mills
The Melanin Apocalypse
Warp Point

Series
Human By Choice with Travis 'Doc' Taylor. Book 1 Cresperian series.
The Y Factor with Stephanie Osborn. Book 2 Cresperian series
The Cresperian Alliance with Stephanie Osborn. Book 3 Cresperian series.

Author web site.

 

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To order this book:
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List Price: $6.50 USD ebook

Format: Trade Paperback
    Available Fall/Winter 2016!
Amazon.com;  Amazon.co.uk;  Barnes & Noble;  Indy Bookstores; The Book Depository (free delivery world-wide)
List Price: $19.95 USD

 

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