It occurs to me that I should have extended my opening remarks last time to point out that all of the characters in this story are fictional. All of the places, however, really exist – at least, they all exist in our world. The versions of them that exist in the worlds beyond the Nexus Room doors, however, may not be exactly the same as the ones in our world – so if you happen to live in one of the places Jake and Stefan visit, please bear that in mind!
So… in this chapter Jake and Stefan get to know each other a bit better (quite a lot better, in fact) and then go exploring.
“I want to see this room,” said Stefan, once I had finished my exposition. “It would be interesting to see if you are right.”
“Well, okay,” I said. “But there’s a ladder. Do you think you will be able to get down it?”
“I have two strong arms and one good leg. I do not think a ladder will be a problem. Show it me.”
I went into the kitchen, clicked the switch, walked back to the desk and pressed the switch behind the panel… and only then did I realise that there was no box file on this desk. Of course, someone could have come in while I was underground and moved it, but I didn’t believe that, any more than I believed the supposed someone would have stopped to tidy up the bunk. No, this was definitely not the same hut.
I helped Stefan over to the trapdoor and supported him while he got his good leg onto the ladder, and from that point he managed on his own, holding on to the ladder for support once he reached the bottom and waiting for me to come down. Once I was on the basement floor we got back into our three-legged position and I opened the door that led out into the corridor – and this time I noticed that as I opened the door the trapdoor above our heads closed automatically.
We made our way unsteadily down the corridor as far as the room of doors, but this time I made sure I held ‘our’ door open.
“We need to mark this door so that we know the way back,” I said. “Have you got a pen or pencil?”
He shook his head, and since I didn’t have one, either – I’d left my writing stuff on Jean-Marie’s desk when we left the school the previous afternoon – I tried to think of a way of marking the door.
“I suppose we could spit on it,” I suggested.
“Dogs mark things by pissing on them,” said Stefan. “Maybe we should do that?”
Apparently – and contrary to popular belief – Germans (and even junior Nazis) do actually possess a sense of humour, I thought.
“In fact,” he went on, “we could mark each door differently: spit on one, piss on one, shit on one, wipe… I do not know the word – the stuff from in your nose? Anyway, that, on one. We could try to find deposits in our ears for one. We could cut ourselves and bleed on one. And I have some stuff in my eggs… I think you say ‘balls’ - I could use as well, though I think you are too little.”
“I’m bloody well not too little!” I informed him, indignantly. “I’ve probably got more than you, in fact.”
“I do not think so.”
“Okay, I challenge you!” I said. “Let’s see which of us has got most.”
He looked at me, and I realised that maybe I should have kept my stupid mouth shut: I didn’t think the Nazi party liked gays very much. But then he grinned.
“I would win easily such a contest,” he said. “But this is not the place for such a competition. When we are again up in the cabin, perhaps we shall try. But for now, I will mark the door with my knife.”
He had attached it, and his water-bottle, to his belt before climbing down the ladder, and now he drew the knife and made a short vertical scratch down the centre of the door. To be safe I took the torn piece of chocolate wrapper from my pocket and dropped it on the floor of the corridor again, so there should be no problem in finding ‘our’ corridor this time.
Then we closed the door and he guided me across the room to a random door on the far side. We followed the corridor behind it until we came to the door that led to the ladder, though as soon as the door closed behind us and the trapdoor above us opened we could see that this place was different: there was no hut up there, just open sky.
I climbed up the ladder and helped Stefan out of the trapdoor.
We were standing on bare grey rock, and there was nothing else in sight but more bare grey rock, stretching off in every direction. There were no trees, no plants, nothing living at all.
“I do not like this place,” said Stefan, voicing my own feelings. “Let us go back.”
I thought that would be sensible, not least because there was no desk up here and hence no switch for the trapdoor – if it closed we would be stuck here. So we made our way back down the ladder and opened the door, and we were both glad to see the trapdoor swing closed once more.
We made our way back to the room of doors and found ‘our’ door again, but I stopped as soon as I had checked that my piece of paper was still in the corridor.
“Stefan,” I said, “could we try the door next to this one? Only I think it might be the one that will take me back home.”
He looked unsure. “It would be interesting to see your world,” he said. “But I do not want to stay there. I cannot walk without you, so… will you swear not to abandon me if we find your place?”
“Of course I won’t abandon you. I’ve helped you so far, haven’t I?”
“Yes, this is true. And I am surprised, because Jews are not truly like us, and I thought that I should not trust you… but you have been true, and so I am grateful… is it not hard to be a subhuman?”
Well, I’ve been called a lot of things, but never that.
“Is that what you think – that we’re not really human?”
He shrugged. “That is what the books say,” he said. “Of course, I have never met a Jew until today, but you are not as I had thought. I had read that all Jews have big noses and oily hair and mean little eyes, and that they care for nothing but money, but you are not like that at all. You look as a normal boy, as I am: you have an ordinary small nose, your eyes look normal and your hair is clean and looks good, and you are handsome, in a way. If I had not seen your penis, and if you had not told me, I would not know that you are a Jew. “
“Do you really think I’m handsome?” I asked, surprised. “Don’t you think the glasses make me look bad? I mean, you’re perfect, with your blond hair and blue eyes and strong body and perfect penis… I mean…“ I tailed off, hoping that wasn’t too much of a giveaway. But apparently it wasn’t.
“I am an Aryan boy,” he said. “I am what our leaders want. Except… sometimes it is boring when everyone looks the same. The Party’s breeding program has been developed over many years, and now most true German boys look as I do. And it is good to make strong soldiers for the future… I know that what the Party has done for us is what our Fatherland needs, and I would not ever question it. But each of us is as every other, so that when we are together we must wear a tag to show our name. Even when naked we are all the same. So to see you, who are not as we are, gives me a good feeling.”
I knew vaguely that the Nazi party had wanted to breed perfect Aryan specimens together to produce a race of blond-haired, blue-eyed warriors, and I supposed that if they’d been doing that for seventy years they’d have got what they wanted by now. I thought Stefan looked amazing, but I could see his point: if you are surrounded by nothing but blond, blue-eyed clones all the time it must get a bit boring – though I was surprised to find things were so boring for him that he considered me ‘handsome’.
“Thank you, Stefan,” I said. “Of course in my world nobody thinks us Jews are better or worse than anyone else… well, not many people think like that, anyway. And I’m happy to be friends with anyone. I’m really glad you’re here, anyway – I’m not sure that I could cope with all this weird shit on my own. So I won’t desert you or let you down, whatever you think of me.”
“I think only good things: you saved me, you helped me to reach the hut, you shared your last food with me. What you have done has been what one comrade should do for another. That you are a Jew changes nothing. Though I think it would not be good for you to come back to Rufach with me: I would not want to see you sent to the east.”
That makes two of us, I thought.
“So perhaps we should not return to my place until I can walk alone. Let us instead follow another passage, as you suggest.”
Fair enough, I thought, and I opened the door to the left of the one that led back to Stefan’s world and we set off down the corridor.
The door to the ladder was again in the correct place, but once I was up in the hut I realised immediately that this wasn’t the one in my version of reality: not only was there no box file on the desk, but the bunk had only a bare mattress on it, and the kitchen lacked both the cooking rings and the water container. Though – and I suppose this was a plus point – a glance outside the door revealed no mist: in fact it was a bright, clear day, and rather warmer than it had been in Stefan’s world.
I gave him a hand up into the room and helped him over to the bunk, explaining that this wasn’t ‘my’ hut after all – at least, I didn’t think so.
“Then, if this is neither your world not mine, it is something new,” he said. “We should explore it.”
“Well… okay, I guess that would be interesting. But you need to rest that ankle, or it won’t heal. Maybe we should stay here overnight and see if you can walk in the morning.”
He wasn’t all that keen at first, but he could see the sense of allowing his ankle to recover. To be honest I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about staying here either – after all, by now there would probably be a full-scale hunt on for me, and that would just make me look an even bigger idiot when I went back to the real world. But I couldn’t abandon Stefan, certainly not here where he didn’t belong, and I found it too exhausting to keep supporting his weight everywhere we went.
“I’ll go and see if there is a light round the back,” I said, but the small shed at the back of the hut was completely empty.
“Look,” I said, once I was back inside, “we’ve got a problem here: there’s no food, though I suppose we can probably survive until tomorrow without, but there’s no water either, and that might not be so easy. And that bunk is far too small for us both to sleep on, unless we take it in turns. So I think I should go back to your hut and bring the mattress from that bunk, and I can bring the lamp, too – and if you give me your water-bottle I’ll fill it while I’m there. I won’t get lost because I know it’s the door next to this one. So, will you be okay on your own for a few minutes?”
“Of course,” he said. “I was on my own for a long time before you found me. But… be careful, Jake: we do not know why those doors are there, or what might come through them.”
I wished he hadn’t said that, but I assured him that I would be fine. I picked up my bag and began to empty it, discovering in the process an apple and a small bag of crisps that had escaped from my packed lunch of the day before, and that cheered us both up. I left them on the desk, took the empty bag to bring back the oil lamp in and went back down the ladder.
I didn’t hesitate when I reached the room of doors, just going straight through the one Stefan had marked with his knife. My discarded bit of chocolate wrapper was still on the floor of the passage to reassure me, too. I jogged along the tunnel, climbed the ladder into Stefan’s hut, stowed the lamp and the oilcan in my bag (being careful to keep them upright), and rolled the mattress and a couple of blankets up so that I could carry them. I refilled Stefan’s bottle in the kitchen, had a last look round to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, and then started the return journey, though getting down the ladder with the bedding took a bit of effort.
I got back as far as the room of doors and hesitated: one of the doors on the far side of the room was shimmering, and there were wisps of smoke, or maybe mist, escaping from the edges. I opened the door of the tunnel that led back to where I had left Stefan, propped it open with the bedroll and walked across the room to the shimmering door. From this close it was clear that it was mist and not smoke seeping through the edges, and so I opened the door and looked into the passage beyond.
The passage was full of mist, and the lights in the passage walls seemed to be pulsing irregularly, making the mist glow. And there was a distant humming noise, too. I thought that maybe we should explore that passage next day, and so I made a note of which door it was: eight along counting clockwise from Stefan’s marked door. But I didn’t want to venture into it alone, so I closed the door once more and went back to where I had left the bedding, and five minutes later I was climbing the ladder, pushing the bedding ahead of me.
The first thing I wanted to do (apart from eating – which we agreed to postpone for a bit) was to have a proper look at Stefan’s ankle, so I got him to lie on the bunk while I removed his shoe and sock. The ankle didn’t look bad at all, and I thought it was probably nothing more than a light strain, but Stefan still said it ought to be bandaged – apparently he’d been taught some basic first aid at his school.
I borrowed his knife and cut a strip from the underside of the cover of the mattress I had brought from his room and used it to bandage the ankle, and then I rolled up one of the blankets and put it under his foot. We both hoped that if he rested it overnight it would feel better the following morning.
I had my pocket chess set with me (it had been in my bag) but it turned out that Stefan couldn’t play chess, and that left us with virtually nothing to do. So I asked him to tell me a bit about his life so far and what he liked doing in his spare time, only it turned out that he was at a boarding school (and a military one, at that) and so didn’t have a lot of spare time. He’d been born in a large town called Mülhausen, which was apparently not that far away, had joined the Jungvolk, a sort of junior Hitler Youth, at ten and had got into the local military school at the age of twelve. His father was an SS officer on duty somewhere in Norway, so he hadn’t seen him for a long time, and his mother was at the family home, so he only saw her during the school holidays. And he supposed that when he left school he would probably join the SS like his father.
I can’t say that I had ever foreseen a moment when someone I was starting to consider a friend would tell me that his ambition in life was to join the SS, but I managed to nod and smile and say “okay” in all the right places. And then it was my turn to tell him about my life so far, and I explained why I was in this part of the world in the first place. My exposition failed to mention religion at all, because my family really isn’t particularly religious. I’d had my bar-mitzvah a couple of weeks previously, but it wasn’t a big thing in my life the way it had been for some of my friends back in Edgware: for me it was just something that happened around the age of thirteen, and in fact I’d been seriously considering not bothering with it at all, especially bearing in mind what a pain in the arse it was having to learn Hebrew. In the end we had decided that I probably ought to, and so I had, but I wasn’t going to talk about it now.
And Stefan didn’t ask about my religious life, either, though he did ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. I thought of telling him I wanted to be a money-lender, a pawnbroker or at the very least a merchant banker – after all, I’m sure that’s what he was expecting. But in the end I just told him the truth, which was that I hadn’t decided yet.
“Of course,” he said, “you will not grow up for a long time, because you are still just a little boy… so, shall we have that contest we spoke of before?”
“If you don’t mind getting completely shown up,” I agreed, hardly daring to believe that he seriously wanted to do this.
“I shall not be shown up,” he assured me, lifting his bottom and pushing his shorts and briefs down and then pulling his vest over his head and throwing it onto the floor.
I tried not to stare, but I couldn’t help it, because he looked absolutely amazing now that he was naked from the knees up. And when he took hold of himself and started to get it hard I just couldn’t tear my eyes away.
“Take off your clothes,” he said, “or I shall have finished before you even go hard.”
No danger of that, I thought: I was hard already, and the more I looked at him the harder I got. Finally I managed to drag my eyes away long enough to undo my belt and get my jeans down to my ankles.
“Take them right off,” he advised me. “Else you will be so amazed at what I produce that you will step back and fall down.”
I pulled them back up long enough to go and stick my head out of the door, but it was absolutely quiet out there, which I was confident meant that we wouldn’t be interrupted. So I sat on the chair, took my shoes and socks off, removed my jeans completely and pulled my shirt over my head, and then whipped my boxers off and dropped them on the desk with my other clothes.
“Ah, so you can get a little bigger,” he told me. “Come here.”
I did that, standing beside the bunk and letting him look at me.
“It looks interesting like that,” he said. “It is strange without the skin, but somehow I like it. So, are we trying to see who has most stuff, or who can get it fastest?”
“Both,” I said, rashly. “But wait a moment: if I have to be completely naked, so do you.” And I went and pulled his shorts and briefs right off, and removed his remaining shoe and sock for good measure. And while I was doing it I was able to have a good look at his penis, which by now was nicely erect. I’d guess that it was a centimetre or two longer than mine, which would have made it around twelve centimetres long (I know mine is about ten and a half, because I measure it regularly – well, I have to be sure that everything is developing as it should, don’t I?) His was a little thicker, too, and I already knew he had more hair than me (though neither of us had any on his balls yet), so I thought I would probably lose this contest, though I can honestly say that didn’t bother me at all.
I went and stood next to him once more, because I wanted him to be able to watch me – there’s definitely an exhibitionist streak in me somewhere.
“So, are you ready?” he asked. “Then go.” And he started to wank himself, and so did I, though I was watching him rather than looking at what I was doing. I was fascinated by the way the tip of his penis appeared briefly as each downstroke drew his foreskin back. He wasn’t going particularly fast – I was probably doing it faster – but fairly soon he asked if I was close yet.
“Not really,” I admitted.
“Then you are going to lose,” he said and, sure enough, about ten seconds later he spurted onto his chest and stomach. There were four good spurts and a dribble, and his stuff was white – okay, it was still a bit watery, but it was definitely white.
“Now I shall sleep,” he said, grinning at me. “Wake me up when you are ready to do it – or tomorrow morning if that comes first.” And he pretended to close his eyes, though I could tell he was still watching through his not-quite-closed eyelids.
I speeded up a little, and it wasn’t too much longer (well, no more than a minute or so, anyway) before I felt it building up.
“Okay, I’m coming,” I said.
“Put it onto my chest,” he invited me. “There will probably not be enough to see, so perhaps I will be able to feel something – like a tiny drop of rain, perhaps.”
I wasn’t going to decline that opportunity, so I stood right against the bunk and spurted it onto him. I seemed to do a bit better than usual this time: there were two proper little spurts, though what emerged was still colourless. But having him watching me made it feel far more exciting than it did when I just did it alone in my bedroom.
“Ah, you have got a little bit after all,” he said. “Not much, but I suppose I cannot call you a baby more. But you must admit that I am more of a man, no?”
“Okay, I admit you’re a bit more mature than me,” I agreed. “But I have got enough to mark a door downstairs, haven’t I?”
“This is true,” he admitted. “Barely, but you could mark it.”
There was a small packet of tissues in one of the pockets of my bag. I have no idea why my mother had thought I might need them in the middle of summer, but she had insisted that I carry a packet anyway, and now I was glad of them. I took one out of the packet and used it to wipe Stefan’s chest and stomach and even the tip of his foreskin, which gave me a chance to touch his by now softened penis briefly. Finally I wiped my own tip and dumped the tissue on one of the shelves above the desk.
As Stefan showed no sign of wanting to get dressed yet I decided that I didn’t need to, either, and so I went and perched on the edge of the bunk beside his feet.
“What shall we do now?” I asked him.
“First, I need to piss,” he said. “I am supposed to rest this foot now, so I should stay where I am – so if you take my penis in your mouth I shall be able to piss, and more, you will not need a share of our drinking water today. Is that acceptable?”
“I’m afraid not,” I said, watching his failing attempts to keep a straight face. “Sit up and I’ll help you outside.”
“A true comrade would not make me leave the bunk,” he said.
“Then I’ll make you a deal: you drink mine first, and then I’ll drink yours,” I offered. And at that he sat up.
“I think I would like not to do that,” he said, offering his left arm so that I could help him to his feet. “Perhaps it would be better to go out.”
“Perhaps it would,” I agreed, and I helped him to the door and out into the forest. We walked about ten metres from the door and then both pissed against a small bush.
It was really warm now, and although I was stark naked I felt really good – so much so that when we had finished pissing I helped Stefan to a patch of clear ground a few metres away and helped him to lie down beside me in the sun. We lay quietly for a while, soaking up the warmth.
“It feels good to be outside naked, does it not?” he asked. “There are places in the Reich where people go to walk and swim naked – in the south of France, on the north coast, in the mountains of Bayern and the Ostmark. And in Scandinavia people roll naked in the snow after a sauna, though I do not think I want to try that. But I do not know of any place open to the FKK – what you call nakedism?”
“Nudism,” I corrected.
“Right… well, there are no places for it here in Baden-Elsass. So we are the first – or, at least, we are the only ones to practice it here.”
“Have you been to any of those places?”
“No. It seems a little… strange. But now that I have tried, I can see why people like to do this. It feels good.”
He was right, although probably my high impression of social nudism was because I was lying next to a perfect specimen of boyhood. Still, if he was happy staying naked, then I had no problem with it, either.
We didn’t stay out in the sun for too long because we had no sun cream, and I for one didn’t want to get burnt just when my life was becoming interesting. So I helped him back into the hut and put him back on the bunk with his foot raised.
“So, what do you think this place is?” I asked him.
“I do not know. It seems to be a place where you can move between one world and another, though I did not know that such a thing was possible.”
“I didn’t even know that there was more than one world,” I said. “I thought that mine was the only one. But then I suppose you thought the same thing, and if we go out exploring tomorrow we’ll probably find people who think that their world is the only real one, too. But it still doesn’t explain who built this place, and why. Maybe if we try all the doors we’ll find one that goes somewhere where we can find out about it.
“I know I probably ought to just go back to my own world, but I’m going to look a complete dick if I do, and frankly I don’t think the next four weeks were going to be that good for me anyway – so I’m happy to stay here with you until you’re well enough to go back to your school.”
“Thank you, Jake. That might be some time, though – even when my foot is well I want to explore here. Then I can go and give a proper report to my instructors, and if I do that I will not be in trouble for that I failed the running test.”
I wasn’t sure that I wanted the secret of moving between worlds passed to the Nazis, especially since my own world was one of the ones they would then be able to move into. Somehow the idea of Nazis coming to Britain didn’t appeal to me at all. Although I supposed it would be difficult to get a panzer column through those tunnels…
We cut the apple in half with Stefan’s knife and ate it, and I opened the crisp packet and laid it flat on the bunk so that we could share them – and I found myself wishing that my mother had packed a much bigger packet for me. I sincerely hoped that our exploration next day would take us to somewhere where we could buy food...
And that might be interesting, come to think of it, because I was carrying euros and sterling in my wallet, while Stefan had a few reichsmarks in his, and I supposed the odds were that the world we were now in would accept none of these currencies. Still, I had a wristwatch to barter, and so did Stefan, and he also had his knife, and I had a small gold Star of David round my neck (it had been a bar-mitzvah present), and he had a little gold swastika on a chain around his (a thirteenth birthday present)… between us we could probably offer a shop-keeper something he would take in exchange for food.
We drank plenty of water to wash the meal down, and we talked some more (and I was really happy when the word ‘girl’ never once passed Stefan’s lips – this looked like a much better prospect than Jean-Marie had been), until eventually it began to get dark outside. I put the mattress I had brought from Stefan’s hut onto the floor, but he told me to move it a little further away from the bunk.
“I will put this mattress by yours,” he said. “Then we can talk easily.”
So I helped him to stand up and then moved his mattress from the bunk to the floor, putting it down right next to mine: we were both still naked, of course, and so I was already having some bad thoughts. And then I helped him outside so that we could pee again, and the bad thoughts didn’t get any better there, either, and by the time I got him back onto the mattress those thoughts were having a visible effect on me, though he was kind enough not to comment.
It was still pretty warm, so although I gave him one of the blankets and took the other myself, putting it down beside the mattress, neither of us felt the need to use them.
We talked about this and that for a little longer and then he turned onto his side and settled down to sleep. It took me a while to drop off myself: this was the first time I had ever tried sleeping naked next to a frankly beautiful naked boy, and parts of me were in no hurry to switch off for the night. But eventually tiredness caught up with me and I fell asleep.
I slept really well – it was clear daylight outside when I woke up, and when I looked at my watch I saw that it was already half-past nine. But Stefan seemed to have slept even better, because he was still asleep now. And that gave me a chance to look to see if he was in the same condition I was, and so it proved. At that point he started to stir, so I lay back down quickly and tried to look innocent.
“Good morning, Jake,” he said. “Have you slept well?”
“Yes, thanks. How about you?”
“I did not wake up at all, so I think it was a good sleep.”
“And how does your ankle feel this morning?”
“It does not hurt. Help me, and I will try to stand.”
So I helped him, which of course gave him a good chance to see my condition.
“So, it happens to you, too,” he commented. “To me also, every morning. I do not know why.”
“Nor do I, but I’m glad it’s both of us and not just me. Otherwise you would think it only happened to subhumans.”
“I do not think that of you, Jake. It is clear that the books were wrong: I think we are the same.”
“Good. Okay, ready? Grab my arm, then…”
I pulled him to his feet and he balanced on his right leg for a moment before gingerly putting his left foot on the ground and trying to put his weight on it.
“It is still sore, but I think soon I will walk,” he reported. “Perhaps one more day and everything shall be as it should be. So, for today… first I need to piss.”
So I helped him outside, where it was already starting to warm up, guided him over to the little bush we had used before and watched him pee. By now his erection had gone, though mine hadn’t, and he grinned at me as I peed through it.
“You have no control, Jake,” he said. “Can you not even master your own body?”
“Apparently not. So… are we going to explore this place, or shall we go and look at the tunnel I told you about last night, the one with the mist?”
“It is good here under the sun,” he said. “Let us stay above ground. Come – we can get our clothes and then we will walk.”
I would have been quite happy to stay naked, but of course he was right: sooner or later we would probably meet someone, and it would be embarrassing to be found in the nude. So we went back to the hut and got dressed. We left the oil lamp and oilcan behind, because it was obvious that we would not need it outside, but I took my bag, just in case we found anything worth scavenging.
He put his arm around my shoulders once more and we set off, though he stopped regularly to cut notches into trees so that we could find our way back again (and I don’t think I would have thought to do that, so once again I was glad he was with me). We were heading as close to due east as we could: the sun was in a clear blue sky once more, so it was easy to work out our direction, at least to start with. As the sun rose higher and the trees got thicker it became more difficult, but Stefan was confident that we were still heading more or less east, and I was happy to follow his lead.
After about thirty minutes we found a path, and Stefan marked the point very clearly, not only on three nearby trees but also on the path itself, by finding a fallen branch and getting me to drag it to the side of the path at the point where we had joined it. We made faster progress on the path, mainly because it was following the contours of a hill and so stayed flat, and after a further ten minutes or so the path it broadened out into a proper track. We followed the track, and eventually it met a road.
We rested for a while to get our breath back and then set off again, still heading basically downhill (and although the track we had followed was quite a wide one we still marked the point where it joined the road as clearly as we could, with a big blaze cut from a tree). And after another five minutes or so Stefan said he recognised the place: we were close to the village of Orschweiler, he said. With no hesitation he led me off the road and onto another track, and half an hour or so after that the first houses came into view.
But the village was absolutely silent: nobody was in sight and nothing was moving. I propped Stefan up against a wall and went and knocked at three different doors, but nobody came, and this didn’t change as we advanced further and further into the village. There were some cars parked here and there, and once a cat scampered across the road in front of us, but there were no people anywhere.
Eventually I tried a door that turned out to be unlocked, so I helped Stefan up the path and installed him in an armchair in the main room, and then I went out and went further into the village on my own, looking for signs of life. But the shops were closed, the Mairie was locked, and every house I tried calling at was uninhabited, or possibly inhabited only by the very deaf or very suspicious.
In one of the unlocked ones I found a newspaper dated around two months previously, and I also found a couple of identical leaflets in other houses, so I took these back to the house where I had left Stefan and showed them to him. They were all in French, so I translated for him.
“The leaflets are a call to attend mass vaccination at the hospital in Sélestat,” I explained, “and the news headline says ‘Mutant bird flu: thousands more die.’ But I wouldn’t have expected the whole village to just get up and leave – I mean, some of them must have been vaccinated already, and some would have been too old or too sick to move, and some wouldn’t have gone out of sheer bloody-mindedness. So where is everyone?”
“If this happened in my world everyone would go,” Stefan told me. “Most obey the government without question, and the police would ensure that nobody was left behind. If the threat was serious, would not that happen in this world too?”
“I suppose so. But these leaflets are over six weeks old – why hasn’t anyone come back?”
“Perhaps all the people are in… I do not know the word…where you keep people who are ill apart from those who are not?”
“Quarantine,” I said. “I suppose that is possible… look, Stefan, don’t you think we should get out of here? I mean, if there is a deadly disease loose in this world, shouldn’t we get back to our own worlds?”
He shrugged. “Flu is transmitted from person to person,” he said. “Here there are no people to give it us. And the… little particles of disease cannot live outside the body for more than a few minutes. I think we are safe here. And there will be food here, and clean water…”
That was certainly true, I thought, and immediately I got up and went to the kitchen. The power was off, which didn’t surprise me much, and so the cheese in the fridge had an interesting mould growing on it. But there were several bottles of water and quite a lot of tinned food, and some breakfast cereal, and packets of rice and dried pasta. The cooker here was electric and so did not work, but I remembered the rings back in the huts in Stefan’s world and in mine, and so we could take food back there to cook…
And at that point I had another thought and went back outside. Here on the edge of the mountains there would probably be no mains gas, and so a lot of houses would have their own large gas cylinder so that they could use gas appliances. This system was quite widespread in France – the householder would buy gas the same way that he would buy heating oil, and a tanker would come and refill his cylinder when necessary.
Sure enough, a few houses away I found a house with one of the six-foot-long cream-coloured cylinders outside. The front door was locked, but when I went around the back I found that the back door wasn’t, and when I tried the gas cooker in the kitchen it lit first time. And this householder believed in easy meals, too, because in his cupboard I found a pile of ready meals of the long life variety.
I went back to the first house and collected Stefan, and twenty minutes later we were tucking in to packet Boeuf Bourguignon, warmed through in a pan of water on the gas cooker. It was hardly the epitome of French haute cuisine, but it tasted bloody good to me.
Once we had eaten and drunk (and we also found some unopened bottles of Orangina and Gini, neither of which Stefan had tasted before, though he pronounced the Orangina almost identical to a German drink he had drunk many times) we settled back in the main room to decide what to do next.
“I think we should make this our base,” suggested Stefan. “It is more comfortable as our cabin and there is a good stock of food. And the beds here shall be better as the one we used this night, too.”
“’Than’, I corrected. “More comfortable than, not ‘as’. But… well, you’re right, and your ankle will be better here, but it’s a long way to walk back every time we want to explore the tunnels.”
“So we do not walk. We shall take a car.”
I stared at him. “But… that would be stealing,” I protested.
“As is eating this person’s food. But he is not here, and I do not think he will come back. As will the other people in this village not come back. They will have no need for a car.”
“I suppose that’s true… but do you know how to drive?”
“Well… no. That is, I have not yet driven. But I can ride a motor bicycle – I have a small one at my home in Mülhausen. And I know that some cars are very easy – we must find one that is automatic, I think.”
I was surprised to learn that it was legal to ride a motorbike at thirteen in his world – or maybe he only meant a moped, and I knew that at one time those were legal for fourteen-year-olds in France, though I wasn’t sure if that was still the case. And I think he was right about automatic cars, too: as far as I could make out you just had to put it in drive, take the brake off, press on the pedal and aim the right way. And since he was also right about the unlikelihood of the local people suddenly reappearing, as soon as my lunch had gone down I went out car-hunting.
It took a while, and in the end I had to break into a house to find the keys for a small automatic Citroën, but eventually I found the keys in a drawer in the hall and took them back to Stefan.
I helped him to the car and put him in the driver’s seat – fortunately he wouldn’t need to use his left foot at all in an automatic. We were lucky because the battery had not gone flat, and although it took a few seconds, soon the engine was running smoothly. The fuel indicator showed more than half a tank of petrol, too.
Stefan put the gear stick into ‘drive’, removed the handbrake and trod on the accelerator, and the car leapt forward, slamming me back into my seat. Stefan hit the footbrake just as sharply and I was flung forward again, but fortunately we had put the seatbelts on before moving.
“I think that I must be a little more gentle,” commented Stefan.
“I think you must,” I agreed. “After all, if we die here, probably nobody will ever find us.”
So he tried again, much more carefully, and this time we moved smoothly forward. By the time we reached the end of the street he was feeling confident, and by the time we left the village I was feeling a lot happier, too, not least because he was now looking where he was going and not at his feet.
“Where shall we go?” he asked.
“We could try the next village along,” I suggested. “Maybe things will be different there.”
So we did, but things were no different down the road in Kintzheim.
“Now I think we should go to Schlettstadt,” he said. “That is where the leaflet said people should go, so we should be able to find out what is happening there.”
I wasn’t sure about that at all: if the flu was serious, we’d probably end up stuck in a quarantine camp somewhere, or even shot on sight just to be sure. But Stefan said I should not worry: he would stop and go back if there was any sign of trouble. And in the end he persuaded me, and so he pointed the car in the direction of the town of Sélestat, which in his world was called Schlettstadt, and we set off, even though I was still harbouring serious doubts about this…
So what has happened in this world and where are all the people? The next chapter will provide some answers.
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