It’s still hard to believe all the changes that have occurred in my life, and the whole world, for that matter. I’m Jan Jenkins. In a time frame of just a little over three years my twin sister Jani and I went from know-it-all eighteen-year-old teenagers to adult married combat veterans and parents. America, along with its allies in other alternate Earths, fought a war against a brutal, repressive, downright evil world-spanning regime from the alternate Earth known as Panka. And we won, or I probably wouldn’t be here today. But it wasn’t easy.
Jani and I learned we were Apes-aperture formers-when we accidentally encountered the first explorers from the Pankan alternity. Not only that, we discovered that our newly recognized ability to form apertures to alternate Earths in other universes was at least ten times greater than that of any other Apes ever found, in any alternity. We could sense an aperture or another Ape from up to ten miles away, while only the very best of normal Apes were limited to less than one.
Our age, learning-enhanced upbringing, and environment gave us the potential to become aperture formers. Only one out of eight or ten thousand teenagers who had that kind of potential actually went on to become Apes after being exposed to apertures or other Apes. Our unique ability followed from an unknown experiment on Mom before we were born and while she was still in a remote Romanian institution that had somehow been overlooked after the fall of communism. Like bureaucracies everywhere, inertia kept funds flowing for their horrible human experimentation. The ability we inherited through epigenetic changes in one of Mom’s chromosomes allowed us to win the war, barely, and it damn near got us killed or captured numerous times by Pankan soldiers. Their Apes recognized what we were the first time they saw us, and they were determined to take us out of play one way or another. We escaped by the narrowest of margins on several occasions, but then they went after our families, intending to take them captive in order to bend us to their will. Our mom was kidnapped by Pankans and then coldly executed during a rescue attempt.
We had been planning on going into the army anyway, but the war hurried the process along. It also got my wife, Colleen, her father, and my dad all back into the army. They were inducted into the Alternate Special Forces, ASF, operated by a new Special Force Command in charge of Apes and apertures to other worlds. Previously, both had been Delta Force soldiers. Dad took a medical retirement because of a hip wound. Herb Friedman, my father-in-law, retired after twenty years.
Now that the war was effectively over we had all requested and received special discharges from the army, even though most normal Apes and most regular army troops were still doing mop-ups and chasing down rogue Pankan Apes who refused to surrender and had turned to robbery, killing, and rape as pastimes, popping from world to world as they pleased, along with their cutthroat companions. Not that their present activities were much different from what they’d been during the war. Panka was truly an evil empire.
What I was doing now was trying to find a suitable alternate Earth so far "away" from the home alternity that no other Ape, except my sister, would ever be able to go there without our assistance. Once we found an alternity that satisfied a long list of specifications, we intended to help set up a new world, one that would begin under a unified, sensible government. We intended for it to start right off with a Constitution or some other method of rule which would limit the population and provide a stewardship of our new home world’s resources. We didn’t intend for it to be plundered and raped as our home Earth had been, and where the various nations were still at it. Dad and us, along with Herbert Friedman, Colleen’s dad, were still working on how the new alternity would be run, what we’d have to do to get started, what kind of supplies we’d need, and the number of colonists we would allow over what period of time. But first we had to find our world. So far we hadn’t; or, I should say, I hadn’t. Jani was still nursing her twin daughters, and Colleen was doing the same with our son, who had been born a month or so before Jani’s twins. They were both in the process of weaning them, though.
We had many requirements, but the first prerequisite for our new home was that it be uninhabited by humans or any other sapient species. None of us thought it would be fair to intrude on natives who weren’t up to our technological base, and we damn sure didn’t want to go through all the racial and ethnic issues that our Earth had endured for so long and which had caused, and was still causing, so much misery. So far, me and my team of tough former Delta Force troops had gone to two of five possibilities selected on the basis of preliminary reconnaissance and struck out both times. We found humans, of a sort, on one world, and a species derived from what appeared to be raccoons on the other. Both were late Stone Age cultures. We were working on the third of the five possibilities now and were very hopeful it would work out. It’s a lot harder to determine whether or not an alternate world is inhabited than you might think. Sure, for a world with seven or eight billion people there wouldn’t be too much of a problem. But how about a world where most humans were wiped out by a plague of some sort? Or where civilization never got started? Or where humans or another intelligent species were present only on one continent? And so on. You have to do a thorough search.
The best way is to use a small drone that along with the operator can pass through an aperture, a vehicle to drive through the aperture, and a flat enough area on the other world to get the drone off the ground. And you have to go through the aperture yourself once you’ve found a new alternate Earth, or you’re likely never to set eyes on it again. An inviolable law of multiple alternities is that an Ape actually has to physically enter any new alternity in order to find it again and to get back home. Think about it. Quantum theory says the number of alternate universes is infinite, and, thus, the number of possible Earths is infinite as well. For every decision point by a living organism, or possibly only by a sentient animal, a new universe is created. Or, it could be that an insect could create a new universe by taking a different route around a rock than originally intended, although the new universe might be so much like the other one no one could tell the difference. We just don’t know and probably never will. For my purposes, all I wanted was to find a world where sentient humans or other species hadn’t gotten a start and that wasn’t so inimical as to preclude colonizing.
"Is everyone ready?" I scanned the ten-man guard force consisting of five men and five women. The reason for using an equal number of male and female guards was simple. If anything happened to me while we were in the new alternity, they would never be able to get back to Earth. Never.
"We’re ready, son," Friedman said, nodding his head.
"Okay, Pop. Let’s do it." I called Friedman Pop and Colleen did the same with my dad. When we were all together it sometimes became confusing.
So far we’d explored all of North and South America of this alternity as best we could, from the little expendable drones, flying from place to place back on our Earth when the drones’ coverage exceeded their fuel supplies at each location. We’d also done Africa and much of Europe. So far, so good.
Now we were in southern Russia, nervous as hell that we’d be discovered before making our exit to the other alternity. Our country and Russia weren’t at war, but they weren’t on very good speaking terms, either. We’d been dropped off by a civilian stealthed helicopter that Forrest Bullock, our wealthy sponsor, had obtained from the army. We would be picked back up at a predetermined time. It would be the same situation, or worse, in China if Russia proved bare of habitation. We’d probably have to go in as tourists or with some other disguise and travel around, then find isolated areas in many different spots and explore on foot-a hard way to do the job. I wasn’t looking forward to it, even though this was our last stop in Russia; China would be next on our itinerary if we came up cold here. In fact, I hadn’t been all too pleased with this world. There seemed to be a plethora of voracious carnivores that would make the first colonists very nervous indeed. It would work if I couldn’t find anything better, though. Or if the political situation at home got worse and we had to get started immediately-which was looking more and more likely to become the case.
I concentrated and formed an aperture, a blurred oval about eight feet high and ten wide that resembled a rectangle with curved corners. Lately, Jani and I found that we could alter the shape of the standard oval of an aperture with a bit of extra effort. It made getting vehicles and large numbers of troops through an aperture much easier and quicker. The initial blurring faded quickly, leaving only the outline of the aperture and allowing us to see into the other alternity. I said, "Okay, troops, here we go."
Six of the guards entered first, weapons ready. Even though no humans had been found in this alternity, there were plenty of other animals that regarded us as nothing more than a tasty snack. From what we’d observed, the world resembled the Pleistocene shortly after the last ice age ended. In this alternity that meant cave lions, cave bears, and all manner of big cats, not to mention the huge dire wolves. They weren’t exactly the same as their counterparts on Earth, and there were other animals that no one except us had ever seen before, that were not only carnivorous but hunted in groups. A pack of those could ruin your whole day in nothing flat. They had no fear of man because humans apparently hadn’t evolved here.
"Clear!" the advance guard called. The sound came through the aperture with no distortion. The drone command vehicle drove through and the rest of us followed, going in an instant from our alternity to an Earth that was totally different. I closed the aperture behind me with a quiet sigh of relief. Making an aperture into an alternity this far from our own took more than a little effort, although it wasn’t as hard as the first time. The more an Ape travels to a particular alternity, the easier it gets. The better part of the sigh was from getting out of Russia without being spotted.
Fortunately, we came out on a small rise. Many times we found that an aperture opened into another alternity at a much higher or lower elevation, in which case you faced either a blank wall of dirt or rock, or perhaps a tornado of water that could drown you if you were directly in its path. That happened when the aperture opened into a body of water. In other cases there might be a drop that could range from a few feet to a height that could kill you if you fell through. This time, no problems like that.
The vista stretched before us, not exactly tundra but close. It was interspersed with shrubs and small trees. In the distance I could see a line of thicker growth indicating a stream or maybe a small river. In our alternity there was a large river nearly in the same spot, with sloping rocky bluffs that contained a lot of caves cut into softer stone. A good area for habitation, but it wasn’t like that here, as might have been expected. We were a long way from the home world. The drone operator and his partner got to work while the first guard shift set up a perimeter. Dad and I and the others sat in the back of the utility vehicle, a civilian version of the latest edition of the timeworn jeep that had been replaced with the Hummer and was now being replaced in turn. For convenience we called it a jeep, although the proper name for it was the Ford Terrain Master.
The two techs were so experienced by now that they could get the drone into the air in a very short space, indeed. They had practiced with ground flights first, but now were using the innovation Forrest’s tech teams had come up with. A section of their vehicle raised up to extend a plastic plank in each direction, one slanted downward, the other upward so that they had a handy little runway that went along with their vehicle. The techs situated the drone at the end of the down-sloped side, closed their canopy so that the heat from the takeoff wouldn’t hurt them, ran through their checklist, and launched the drone. It ran off the upward end of the portable runway, lost altitude for a moment and then began gaining speed, bound for the sky. Neat trick, I thought.
After that we settled down to wait. While keeping watch, of course. You never knew. Some lovestarved mammoth-like creature might take a liking to one or the other of the vehicles and attempt to mate with it. Or, this world’s equivalent of a Siberian tiger might come strolling along and decide one of us would do for its next meal. This was an entirely different universe from our home, even if it was still Earth.
A couple of hours later Randall, the drone operator, suddenly perked up, from where he’d been sitting and watching in a slumped position. He must have found it comfortable because he hadn’t moved until then.
"Find something?" I asked. I leaned forward to see the screen, not that it did much good. I’d never become proficient at discerning the images. I guess it took training. Probably that was why he was the operator and Blackson, his partner, took care of the mechanical end of the system.
"Maybe. Give me a minute or two. I’m going to move in closer."
I kept watching, and presently I could make out some little figures moving. Damned if I know how he spotted them before that, though. They were barely visible to me, even then. To keep from frightening whatever it was he brought the drone down only to an altitude where it wouldn’t be seen or heard by his target and wouldn’t cast a shadow large enough to matter. The drone was tiny to begin with, and powered by smoothly operating twin props that could barely be heard even up close. He made an adjustment and the view zoomed in enough for really good resolution. I’ll admit it was interesting.
At first I thought we might have found some humans, or humanoids. There was one large animal in the center of a cluster of the running figures. It moved on four legs while shaking massive horns. The others were two-footed like us, but there the resemblance stopped. Their forelimbs ended in long claws and their mouths gaped open in wide gashes crossing their heads, revealing fangs like a tiger. No, scratch that. More like the mouth of a shark. A snout that grew from a spot below two big, slanted eyes held the fangs and sharp teeth. As I watched, the first of them drew blood. It made a sudden side movement of its long neck and red fluid spurted from its prey. As if that were a signal the others closed in. The horned animal stumbled when one of the creatures fastened its fangs on a rear leg. It went down and the pack closed in for the kill. It was all over a few minutes later. The creatures settled down to an orgy of feasting, tearing at flesh as if they hadn’t eaten in weeks, including in their meal one of their own that had been badly gored by a horn.
"Leave it," I ordered, suddenly nauseated. I’d seen enough blood during the war to last me a lifetime. Besides, there was no sentience in those bloodthirsty creatures. They were all teeth and appetite and strong running legs designed to chase down prey.
And that was the highlight of the last trip to the area that southern Russia occupied in this alternity. As soon as dusk began creeping closer, we packed up. I checked the time.
"The chopper should be here in a minute," Dad said, before I could get the words out.
I nodded and made an aperture back to our own Earth. We drove through it. I counted heads, then let it close behind me. A beam from the setting sun glinted off the silver around Dad’s temples, a solid contrast to the rest of his hair-dark just like mine and Jani’s. It was so close to sunset I couldn’t even see the other little gray threads in his hair, gray that hadn’t been there three years ago. Wrinkles were beginning to form around the corners of his eyes when he frowned or smiled, but he was still a handsome man. I was young enough that he looked old to me, but Jeanine, his new wife and my stepmother, apparently didn’t think so. She was a few years younger than Dad, but you sure couldn’t tell it from looking at her. I smiled to myself, thinking he was probably as anxious to get back to her as I was to see Colleen.
I heard the chopper coming before I saw it. It was a big machine, built for carrying a good number of troops and weapons on clandestine missions, and it was armed almost as well as a gunship. It lacked the modern heavy Gatling machine gun but it did carry two .50 caliber MGs with very able gunners. There was also a full rack of rockets beneath, ready to blow hell out of anyone that threatened it or the men and women it deposited in out of the way places. The big machine came zooming in on what looked almost like a crash landing, but the pilot was good. She set it down on its skids in a cloud of debris and dust but left the rotors going. Its loading ramp flipped down and the loadmaster motioned frantically for us to get aboard.
Randall and Blackson didn’t waste any time, but Friedman was at the wheel of the lead TM. He or Dad always got me out first. If I went down, everyone else was stranded, no two ways about it. No other ape except Jani could create an aperture to an alternity this far away from our home Earth. The vehicle left more dust behind to blend in with what the chopper was kicking up, and the drone carrier followed right behind. The loadmaster and the engineer of the chopper worked frantically at securing the two machines, but we still took off before they had all the chains locked.