Perik crouched behind a bush, shivering with mingled impatience and fear. Out in the clearing something waited, yet she had to go that way. Go that way, and soon! She whimpered, muzzle low to the ground as she peered through bluish-green foliage. A sheer cliff rose to her right, and on her other side the swamp crowded close. The clearing was her only path to her cubs, and it was blocked.
Amy looked out of place in her neatly pressed lab smock. Her blond hair and clear blue eyes called for a setting of fresh air and sunny skies, not this cramped underground cubicle, but she handled the test equipment with deft familiarity. The lab's airtight door was sealed, and pumps were slowly bringing the air pressure up to the desired fifty centimeters of mercury.
"How did you happen onto it?" Jewel, ebony skin gleaming in the humid air, helped with a rack of small animal cages. Looking only slightly older than Amy, she too moved with lithe athletic grace. "It's nowhere near the usual settings."
"Pure luck." Amy flashed a satisfied smile. "I set the portal controls for as far from here as they would go, then programmed for a random search. Neal's big machines are taking care of searching the most likely patterns, so I decided to have some fun."
The control panel with its proud 'World Traders, Inc.' nameplate was set just to one side of the trans-dimensional portal. Its six dials, each clearly marked with one hundred settings, gave it a range of ten to the twelfth possible combinations. Each one of those combinations addressed a different dimensional universe, many of them complete with planets, suns, star clusters and galaxies. In most of those universes the portal would open out into interstellar or even intergalactic space, but now and again the other end of the dimensional bridge would link with another planet. Many of these, most even, were barren balls of rock with atmospheres of poison gas or no air at all. Still, a few had breathable air, drinkable water, and life forms not too dissimilar from those on Earth.
"Everything's ready." Jewel seated herself at the console and pressed a button. A deep hum, like the sound of a distant swarm of impossibly huge bees filled the room. It rose in pitch, dwindling in volume until its faint whine faded into silence. The framework of the portal, an ovoid some two meters wide by three high, filmed over with a wash of pale blue light. By the time the hum faded completely, the ovoid was a solid sheet of blue that hid the painted concrete of the cubicle's wall.
Jewel turned a knob a tiny increment, and a spot of darkness marred the center of the oval. There was a faint movement of air as the pressure on both sides of the portal equalized. The spot of darkness expanded slightly, until the watchers' eyes could tell that it was an actual opening. Amy wheeled a gleaming machine into position, extending a metal and plastic arm through the opening. The opening clamped down on the arm, and a screen on the back of the machine came to life in brilliant colors.
"We're up too high. Lower us about fifty meters."
Jewel adjusted a knob on a secondary bank of controls, and their viewpoint settled close to the ground. Other than a few color differences the screen might almost have been showing them a subtropical scene on Earth.
"It looks normal enough," Jewel commented.
She moved another control. The picture flowed from right to left, panning around in a full circle. Their viewpoint was close to the base of a steep cliff, near the middle of an irregular clearing. The ground sloped down unevenly toward a tangled marsh, and on the other two sides dense vegetation blocked their view.
"I've already checked this area from just below the cloud cover," Amy responded to a questioning look from Jewel. "No town or villages that I could see, no signs of smoke, nothing but a few game trails, but I couldn't see very far."
"I'm just surprised that everything looks so familiar, so normal." Jewel glanced down at the settings of the primary controls. "The gravitational constant in that universe must be just about double ours. Let's see. Yes, one point nine five standard. And the speed of light is point four five C, while the rate of elapsed time is two and a quarter times what ours is."
An experienced portal operator, she could read at a glance the values of the physical constants that were the 'address' of a particular universe. Each knob on the panel related to a specific constant, and each combination of settings denoted a separate and distinct dimensional universe.
"It doesn't look too bad." Amy continued to study the screen. "Since the planet's diameter is just under ten thousand kilometers, the surface gravity is about one point six three standard gees. All right, dilate the portal a little and I'll start testing."
Few words were exchanged for the next hour. Amy and Jewel had worked together often enough to know just what each was apt to do next. Samples of soil and vegetation were brought in, examined and placed in containers for future, more thorough tests.
"Nothing too odd," Amy decided. "Now for the real test."
She fastened a small cage to the arm she had been using for testing and thrust it through the portal. Inside the cage crouched a white mouse, nose and ears twitching. She lowered the cage to the ground. The mouse nibbled at a point of leaf that stuck through the mesh, then backed away, its nose twitching in disgust. It sampled parts of other plants, all with much the same result.
"It won't eat any of them, but they don't seem to have done it any harm," Amy reported into a recorder. "Now, let's try a hamster."
She had first noticed a faint disagreeable odor. Perik had been retracing her earlier footsteps, doubly alert since her hunting foray had been barren of results. She needed to return to her hideaway, check that her children were safe, and set out again, this time armed for night hunting. She had to find food, and soon. Her spear had been lost the day before, and now she had only a bone knife to back up her own built-in weapons.
She had been about to enter the clearing when the faint stench drifted her way. At first, she saw nothing unusual. Without the smell it would have gone unnoticed, merely a troubling of the air like heat waves over a sun-baked ledge. It hung in the air like the eye of a legendary demon, turning in all directions before becoming still.
Perik crouched behind her bush, not daring to move. She was too close to back away without being seen, and anyway there was no way around. The cliff on one side and the swamp on the other saw to that. A stifled moan escaped from behind clenched fangs as the eye grew larger. A gleaming, strangely rigid arm reached out, scrabbled at the ground and drew back into nothingness. The eye of the demon hung there, growing larger or smaller as the arm reached through again and again.
The shadow of the cliff grew long across the clearing. She would have to hurry to reach the children before dark, and they would all go hungry this night. Perik moved slightly, easing cramped muscles. This was no place for her, out here braving dangers and demons. She should be with her mate, sharing his burdens in civilized comfort, but he was dead and she was on her own.
The eye of the demon grew large, and again the arm reached forth. This time it carried a shining basket, a cage that held something alive! Perik watched intently, aware of something she hadn't noticed before. This demon was slow, its arm moving awkwardly. Yet the tiny creature in the cage moved with darting speed. Perhaps she could cross the clearing in one frantic dash, be gone before the demon could move to stop her. The urge to be back with her children was an ache within her, an ever-mounting pain.
The tiny cage was drawn back into the eye, and a larger one brought forth. The arm moved clumsily to set it down, and then it happened. The cage caught on the corner of a rock and pulled free. The arm groped for it, seemingly unable to bend as a proper arm should. The cage was beyond the demon's reach. Now, to run past while the demon's thoughts were on the tipped cage...
The impulse died even as it was born. The demon's eye suddenly grew huge! Through it Pirek could see things so strange that her memories of them never did make sense. Then, through the demon's eye, came another of its creatures, tall and stalky, and of strange bright colors. With a shriek of fear and desperation, Pirek charged! The creature stumbled, falling directly in her path. Pirek scooped it up in her arms, carrying it with her into the forest!
Jewel hit the alarm button. In seconds, a squad of guards cycled in through the lab's emergency airlock.
"What's up, Jewel?" The squad leader, a veteran of combat on a dozen worlds, held his carbine at the ready.
"It's Amy. She stepped out through the portal for a second and something grabbed her. Looked like a fat, furry alligator with tentacles growing out of its shoulders. Went into the jungle that way. Watch it when you go through, Frank. The gravity's one point six gees out there."
"No trace of her," he reported moments later. "Was she wearing a beeper?"
"Of course! I must be getting senile."
She took a flat case from a drawer and snapped a switch. The box squealed as she held it up to the portal, and rattling, crashing noises came from it.
"Static!" Jewel spat the word as though it was a curse. "Here, put it outside the portal so that the frequencies match."
Once out in the clearing under the watchful guns of the guards, the box did pick up an occasional faint beep.
.... There is more of this story ...