In this chapter Oli and Alain continue to discover the delights of technology, and Jake and Stefan start to learn about what the Nexus Room is and what its origins are.
That night Stefan and I didn’t misbehave, but he did let me snuggle up close to him, and I actually fell asleep with my head on his shoulder. And next morning I was woken up by sounds of laughter from across the landing.
“Our guests are awake,” I commented.
“Go and tell them to be silent. It is too early,” said Stefan, sleepily.
So I rolled out of bed, pulled on my boxers and my glasses and went to the spare bedroom, where I found Oli and Alain wrestling naked on the floor. Alain had Oli pinned down and was tickling him enthusiastically.
“You’re supposed to be resting today,” I pointed out. “And we’re still trying to sleep.”
“Why?” asked Alain. “The sun’s up, so the day’s started. If you were back on the farm you’d be eating breakfast with the other peasants, not lounging about on your bed.”
“Yes, but we’re not on the farm, and it’s only about six o’clock,” I said.
“What’s ‘six o’clock’ supposed to mean?”
“Oh, never mind,” I said. “Just try to keep it down for half an hour or so… that’s about… look, just keep quiet for a bit, okay?” And I went back to our room, closing the door behind me.
I got back into bed and snuggled up to Stefan, but no more than ten minutes later the door burst open and Alain came in, dragging me out of bed.
“Come on, get up,” he insisted. “It’s a nice day and we should enjoy it, not waste it lying about!”
After that there was no point in trying to sleep, so I got up, dressed (just boxers, shorts and tee-shirt) and went downstairs to sort out some breakfast. Alain and Oli both took to breakfast cereal straight away – it was a lot better than porridge, they said – and they liked the orange juice, too. They had no idea what an orange was, so I just explained that it was a fruit that grew a long way away in the south.
“I think you’re really lucky, living in a magic world like this!” said Oli enthusiastically, refilling his glass with juice. “Can we really stay here with you for ever?”
“Well… no,” I replied. “None of us will be able to stay here very long, because now that the people have gone everything will stop working: the gas will run out, the water will stop running, and in the winter the heating won’t work, unless we move to a house with a wood-burning stove.”
“Well, we could do that,” said Oli. “And we could grow food to eat, and get some cows and sheep… we could have a proper farm of our own, and we could turn Alain into a country yokel to work on it for us.”
“No, thanks,” said Alain. “You yokels do the work; I just get to eat the food.”
I thought about it, and I supposed that there would be nothing to stop us from moving down onto the plain, finding a farm and moving into it. And maybe some of the domestic animals might have survived the way the village cat had done… but I knew nothing about turning wheat into bread, or turning sheep into mutton, and I thought it would be hard work, especially with only four of us.
“I don’t think we could,” I said. “This world is a dead end – there aren’t any women here, for a start, so we couldn’t have kids, and that would mean that when we get too old to work we’ll just starve.”
“I don’t want kids anyway,” said Alain. “But maybe you’re right. So what are we going to do, then?”
“We’ll carry on as we have been doing: we use this place as our base and keep exploring the tunnels until we find a good world for you two to stay in. And once we’ve found one where you’ll be safe, Stefi and I can go back to our own worlds – assuming I find mine, that is – and we’ll carry on with our lives.
“So today I’m going to the shop to see what they have here, and maybe we could try a few of the other houses to see if we can find some clothes for Oli. How’s the ankle, by the way?”
“Much better,” said Oli. “I think I can walk properly again now. I’ll go for a walk after breakfast and find out. Perhaps Alain and I could go and look for clothes while you go to the shop. And then… can you show me how to work the magic carriage?”
It took me a moment to work out what he meant. “You want to learn to drive the car? Okay, then. What about you, Alain?”
“No, thanks. Magic makes me nervous.”
So we spent the day exploring the village. In the store at the back of the shop I found a bag of potatoes that were only just starting to sprout, so I grabbed enough to make a decent hash that evening. As I had expected, there weren’t any toothbrushes, but later on we found some unopened ones in a couple of houses and in due course had fun showing Oli and Alain how to use them. We also found some gel for Alain, who had decided he liked his hair brushed back and wanted to keep it that way. And later I taught Oli how to drive the Citroën, and he took to it surprisingly quickly.
“Next you must teach me to ride the magic horse,” he demanded. But that defeated him, at least for today: he had never ridden a bicycle, of course, and so balancing was a major problem. He was determined, and I thought that if he kept working at it he would probably manage it in the end, but since he had bare feet and bare knees I thought it would be too risky to do a lot of practice unless we could find a nice flat field to practise in.
Stefan, meanwhile, had scoured the village for mopeds, because we really needed another one that had a big enough seat for two. Eventually he found one like that, but he also found a proper motorbike, and he was determined to have a go at riding it. He knew the principle of it and quickly worked out how to change gear, but having a footbrake for the rear wheels instead of a handbrake took a bit of getting used to, and after he fell off for the second time he agreed that we should postpone any further experiments with two wheels until we found somewhere softer to practise.
After a quick lunch we all got into the Citroen – with Oli driving – and went down the road to Kintzheim, and there Stefan and I investigated the shops while Alain and Oli went clothes-hunting for both of them. And when eventually they reappeared Alain had found a pair of jeans that fitted fairly well, and Oli had found… a rather fetching little sleeveless dress in a nice shade of pale blue.
“Do you like it?” he asked, giving us a twirl. The dress was barely long enough to be decent even when he was standing still, so you can imagine what twirling round in it did.
“Well… I mean…” I began, but Stefan was a bit less reticent.
“That is what girls wear,” he said, bluntly.
“Oh. Well… I don’t care. I like it. I won’t wear it when we go back exploring if you don’t want me to – I found some of those little things earlier, like you’re wearing…”
“They’re called shorts,” I put in.
“Well, those. And I’ll wear those when we go back to the place under the earth. But Alain likes me in this, and so do I, so I’m going to wear it while we’re here, all right?”
“I don’t mind,” I said, “as long as you’re happy. So, shall we go back home? I want to get cooking.”
So Oli drove us back to Orschwiller, and even though he left the car parked in the middle of the road I thought he was already an adequate driver.
The hash was pretty good, though I say it myself: the potatoes were still okay, and I’d found a couple of decent onions, too, and so the only thing missing from my mother’s usual recipe was a bit of cheese to put on the top, and it still tasted fine without any. And the others all liked it, too – at least, they said it was a big improvement on the previous evening’s packet meals.
We went upstairs when it started to get dark, and while Stefan was in the bathroom Alain called me into his room. He was just in the process of helping Oli to take his dress off, and as a result I found myself confronted with a completely naked boy almost as soon as I entered the room.
Alain draped the dress over the back of a chair and came to stand behind Oli, putting his arms round him.
“I thought I ought to tell you,” he said, “I changed my mind last night. I’ve decided that I like my little yokel too much to make him do dirty stuff with me, and so… well, you don’t have to suck me, either. I mean, it’d be fun to find out what it feels like, but… well… if Oli and I are going to be proper friends I wouldn’t feel right about him having to do that to me. And I want us to be proper friends.”
“So do I, but I still don’t mind trying to do that for you,” said Oli.
“Nor do I,” I added. “Seriously, Alain, I reckon it could be fun.”
“Well, it’s not happening just yet,” said Alain, firmly. “I never made my mates back in Columbarier do it, and I’m not making you two do it, either. Alright, maybe when Oli and I have known each other a bit longer – a month or so, perhaps – I’ll let him do it if he’s still sure that he wants to, but I don’t want anything to spoil us being friends, so I’m not risking it until then. And the same goes for you, Jake: Oli was right last night about you rescuing us, and we owe you – and so I won’t let you do it, either. Unless you get down on your knees, swear to be my slave and beg me to put it in your mouth, of course.”
“That’s not going to happen,” I said, although I have to admit I was a bit disappointed: I’d been sort of looking forward to learning how to do it.
“I thought not. So that’s the end of the argument, all right?”
And he scooped Oli up, carried him to the bed and put him down on it, and then quickly removed his own clothes and lay down next to him, pulling the quilt over them both. And he wasn’t even stiff, which suggested that his feelings for Oli had definitely moved beyond simple sex.
I said goodnight to them and went out, closing the door behind me and reflecting that if I was going to do it for Stefan at some point I was going to have to work out for myself how to do it.
I went to the bathroom and found Stefan cleaning his teeth, so I had a quick pee and then waited for him to finish using the basin, and ten minutes later we were snuggled up in bed once more. And although we talked quietly for a while before settling down for the night we didn’t do anything naughty. Alas.
Next morning we headed back for the hut as soon as we had had breakfast, and today we were all fully dressed in shorts, shirts and shoes – even Oli, although he complained that he found his dress a lot more comfortable than the shorts he had found in Kintzheim, and that the trainers he was wearing felt strange. Alain was used to wearing shoes, though, and he found his trainers far more comfortable than the rough shoes he had worn back from his own world.
Now that we had two mopeds with large enough seats we were able to ride up to the hut. Oli rode with me again and loved it; Alain had to be coaxed onto the back of Stefan’s bike and looked as if he would have preferred to go ten rounds with a gang of demons, though eventually Oli more or less shamed him into getting aboard.
We reached the hut without incident and parked the mopeds behind it as usual. Now we had two above ground and two below, and Stefan wondered if we ought to exchange the single-seater down below for one of the two-seaters, but Alain said firmly that he would prefer to run alongside than to sit on one of the mechanical horses for any longer than was necessary, and so in the end we kept things the way they were.
We pushed the mopeds into the tunnel once more, and then Stefan stopped.
“I have been thinking,” he said. “What happens if we go that way?” And he pointed off to the right.
“I’ve no idea,” I replied. “I’ve never been that way.”
“Then let us find out,” said Stefan, turning his moped round to point in the other direction. “There might be another room of doors, or something else that would be interesting.”
“What about my door?” asked Oli.
“Well, let’s just have a look down here,” I said, my curiosity now aroused. “If we do find another room of doors we’ll just number the doors, but we won’t go through any of them until we’ve had a look through yours, okay?”
“That’s fair enough,” agreed Oli, and he climbed up behind me once more.
We headed off down the tunnel, not too fast so that Alain could keep up. At first the tunnel just kept curving gently in the same direction, but after a bit it made a sharper turn and seemed to go uphill for a while. And then we came to a point where the air seemed to be shimmering and there was a steady hum in the air.
Stefan stopped his moped and looked with uncertainty at the distorted air, and then he took his water-bottle from his belt and lobbed it gently towards the point where the distortion started – and the bottle hit an invisible barrier and bounced back onto the floor.
“It’s a good thing we didn’t just ride into that at full speed,” I said.
“Perhaps it is just metal that it does not like,” suggested Stefan, and he advanced to the edge of the distortion and slowly put his hand towards it.
“Wait!” I cried, convinced I was going to see him get a massive electric shock, or something. “It might be dangerous!”
“Yes, it might. But it just stopped the bottle: it did not damage it, and there were no sparks. I think I should try.”
And he put his hand against the unseen barrier… and found out that there was no barrier – or at least, not one that stopped him.
He pulled his hand back and looked at it and found it unmarked and undamaged.
“I think we can pass,” he said. “Come on.”
He stepped forward and promptly stopped dead: he couldn’t get past the barrier after all.
“You’re carrying your knife,” I pointed out. “Let’s try getting rid of everything metal.”
So we emptied our pockets of keys and coins, removed our necklaces and took off our watches – and we still couldn’t get past the barrier.
“The zips in our shorts,” I said, and I pulled my shorts off and tried again. And I still couldn’t pass, although my arms could: I could wiggle my fingers beyond the barrier, but I couldn’t get past it myself.
“I think I understand this,” said Stefan, and he removed his tee shirt – and now he could get his head and shoulders through, but not his lower half.
“It does not like anything that is not alive,” he said. “We can pass, but we cannot take anything with us.” And to prove it he removed the remainder of his clothing and stepped up to the barrier once more – and this time he was able to move past it. He moved into the shimmering air, and although I could still see him as he moved away I was still scared for a few seconds that he would never come back. But then he returned through the barrier, looking none the worse.
“The barrier is perhaps five metres thick,” he reported. “Then the tunnel continues for a short way, and then there is a door. I did not open it – it would be better if we go together.”
I wasn't very keen on having to continue our exploration stark naked, but Oli immediately exclaimed, “Oh, good, I can get rid of these silly short things,” and threw all of his clothes off. And then Alain stripped off as well, and since I didn't want to be the only one left behind I sighed, got undressed and stepped up to the barrier after them – and found that I still couldn't get through. It took me a moment to realise that I was still wearing my glasses – like a lot of people who wear glasses, I tend to forget I'm wearing them a lot of the time. But it was only when I took them off and put them down with my clothes that the barrier would let me pass.
It was a weird feeling, sort of like having a million tiny little insects flying just past your skin without quite touching it, and I was happy to reach the other end apparently undamaged. By now Stefan was examining the door, but he couldn't see anything unusual, and when he pulled it opened easily. We followed him through and found ourselves in a corridor, though this one looked more like a normal one of the type you might see inside an office building. Off to our right the corridor ended against a solid wall and the wall facing us was also blank, but to our left it ran off for about twenty metres, leading to the top of a flight of stairs. There was another door about halfway between the one we had come through and the stairs, and when we opened it we saw another tunnel like the one we had come through, with another of the shimmering barriers about five metres along.
We backed out into the corridor again. The floor was very dusty, which meant we were leaving a trail, but just to be sure Stefan went back to 'our' door and drew a large arrow in the dust pointing at it.
We went down the stairs and through an arch on the right at the bottom, and now we found ourselves in a large open area that measured maybe fifty metres by twenty. There were three more doors along the right-hand wall (these were underneath the corridor and presumably led to similar tunnels and barriers), a wider arch on the left-hand wall, and another arch on the shorter wall at the far end.
“What do you think?” I asked Stefan. “Off to the left, or straight ahead?”
“Let us try straight ahead,” he replied and headed for the far arch, and we followed him, still leaving our trail on the dusty floor.
“Doesn't look as if anyone's done any vacuuming for a while,” I commented.
“No, but the lights are on, so there may be people here,” replied Stefan. And that was true: we'd had the usual dim lighting all down the tunnel, but up in the corridor and down here in the hall the lights were brighter.
We went through the arch and immediately found ourselves in another barrier, though this one seemed a little stronger: it was as if every molecule in the air had become heavy enough to notice as it bounced off our bodies. It was a strange feeling, and again I was glad when I reached the far end of it.
“Whoever lives here seems determined to make sure visitors arrive naked and unarmed,” I commented.
Alain burst out laughing. “Naked, yes,” he said. “Unarmed, no – looks like my Oli is armed and dangerous!”
Oli had emerged from the barrier with an erection. He didn't seem too embarrassed about it, though.
“I have to try that,” declared Alain, and he stood right at the edge of the barrier and thrust his hips forward, and a minute or so later he stepped back with an erection of his own. Oli laughed and slapped it playfully, and Alain tried to retaliate.
“Hey, come on, you two,” I remonstrated. “We're supposed to be doing some serious exploring here! Tell them, Stefi, it's...”
I broke off when I noticed Stefi standing at the edge of the barrier himself.
“This is a most interesting feeling,” he said. “I can feel the air stimulating me... come, Jake, try it!”
Well, if even the normally sensible and practical Stefan thought the experiment worth trying, who was I to argue? So I stood next to him, pushing my hips forward so that my genitals were inside the barrier... and he was right: I could feel things happening. It was sort of like one of those hot air machines for drying your hands in public toilets, except that the air wasn't hot. But it was definitely stimulating.
Stefan stepped back, visibly stimulated.
“Wow, Oli,” exclaimed Alain, “look at Stefan! That's big, isn't it?”
“It is, too,” agreed Oli. “Let's see!”
The two French boys crowded round Stefan and Alain reached out to stroke it, and I wasn't having that.
“Hands off, you two!” I said, putting my arms round Stefan and pulling him away. “He's mine!”
Then I realised that this was a bit of a give-away... but nobody seemed to care.
“I'm only teasing,” said Alain. “I know you two are friends – and there's no way I'd want to share Oli with you, either. But he has got a nice one, hasn't he?”
“He certainly has,” I agreed, hugging Stefan from behind. “But maybe we should stop fooling around like this and go and see where we are.”
“I suppose so,” said Alain, giving Oli's hard little penis a last squeeze.
We walked forward to the end of the short corridor and found ourselves in a small hallway. To our right was a staircase going both up and down; to our left was what looked like a lift; and straight ahead was a short flight of stairs going down to a set of metal doors.
“Shall we start at the top or the bottom?” I asked.
“Let us go down,” replied Stefan, heading off down the stairs.
It went down quite a long way, and at the bottom it led to a large room, most of which was taken up by a massive dome-shaped chunk of metal. Thick cables led away from it, rising up into the ceiling and off into the walls, and there was a steady humming sound. I had no idea how it worked or where the energy came from, but I thought this had to be a power generator of some sort.
There wasn't a lot more to see down here, so we climbed the stairs again and then went down the short staircase and through the double doors that were opposite the barrier. And in total contrast to the futuristic power generator, this led to a fairly basic office not unlike the ones in the huts: there was a desk that was smaller than the ones in the huts, a chair that was more modern than the ones in the huts (this one had castors) and a bunk – which, unlike the ones in the huts, had a body on it.
“Oh, shit,” gasped Alain, stepping back smartly.
“Do not worry,” said Stefan. “He has been dead for a long time – the body is... I do not know the word. Like the old kings in Ägypten?”
“Mummified,” I supplied.
“Just so. The air here is warm and dry, and so the body has dried and not rotted. But he must have been dead for many months, perhaps years.”
I looked around the room. It was rather larger than the huts, but there was less furniture, just the desk, the chair, the bunk and a couple of small empty bookcases. One entire wall was devoid of furniture. I crossed the room and found a kitchen alcove like the ones in the huts, though this one had a small sink, a ceramic hob, a closet in one corner that contained cleaning materials and a smaller cupboard containing some pans, plates and cutlery. And... yes, there was a switch on the wall next to the cupboard, so I flicked it and went expectantly back to the desk – and, as I had hoped, there was a small panel and a switch.
Since we already knew that the power generator was underneath this room I thought that maybe this time the trapdoor might simply be an access point to the cabling, or something like that. But I pressed the switch anyway.
Instead of a small trapdoor, this time the entire blank wall slid aside, revealing a larger room with banks of machinery around the walls, and in the centre of the wall opposite the entrance was a large desk with a computer screen on it.
“Right,” I said, approaching the desk. There was another wheeled chair in front of it, and I pulled it out and sat down – and as I touched the desk a panel slid away and a keyboard appeared, though I didn't think I'd be able to use it because every single key on it was blank.
I couldn't see an 'on' switch – in fact I couldn't see the equivalent of a computer CPU at all – so I hit the key at the bottom right, hoping it would be a Return key. And the screen lit up, and so did the keys on the keyboard, although I was no better off, because instead of recognisable letters I was looking at rows of strange symbols. And the document on the screen was covered in the same symbols, making it total gibberish to me. Even if I had been wearing my glasses I didn't think I'd have been able to read any of this stuff.
“Try that,” suggested Stefan, leaning over my shoulder and pointing to a small icon at the right hand end of the menu bar. The icon depicted a flag. But there was no mouse and no obvious cursor, either.
“How?” I asked.
“Like this, of course.” Stefan hit what would have been the Escape key on a standard keyboard twice and then the equivalent of the F1 key, and the left hand icon on the top row of the menu bar began to flash. Stefan then hit the F4 key and the flashing moved along the top row of the icons until it reached the little flag, and a further tap on F1 produced a drop-down menu.
“How did you know how to do that?” I asked.
“Do you not have computers in your world?” he asked.
“Yes, obviously. Actually, I wasn't sure that your world would have them. But how did you know what keys to press?”
“It was a German who invented the computer, so clearly we have them in my world. And that is the standard key system to activate the icons.”
“Not where I come from, it isn't. We have a mouse.”
“A mouse? A small rodent?”
“No, it's a device that moves a pointer around the screen. I suppose German computers don't have them.”
He shook his head. “And nor do computers here, it seems. So, now we have a language menu...but I do not know any of these languages.”
Indeed, the words on the menu were all composed of strange symbols, and furthermore they all seemed to read from right to left – as, in fact, did the document on the page, to judge from the layout.
“How do we scroll down?” I asked.
“This is the down button,” he replied, indicating the F3 key.
So I hit that and kept it down, and the menu seemed to scroll upwards – and then I saw something that looked suspiciously like Arabic. I kept going, and... yes, that was definitely Hebrew, though I didn't feel up to trying to work in it. So I kept going, and after a bit the menu switched to the left hand margin and, a few entries further down, to the Roman alphabet. 'Afrikaans' was the first one I recognised, so I scrolled on until I reached the letter D. Dansk, Deutsch... English. Since Alain and Oli couldn't read any language and I couldn't read German, English seemed the obvious choice, and so I hit the F1 key.
The keyboard went dark for a moment and then lit up again, this time with the same QWERTY layout as on my machine at home. And the document on the screen changed as well, and I found myself looking at the last couple of entries of what seemed to be a journal.
“There must be an enormous memory disc on this machine,” commented Stefan. “To translate everything accurately into so many languages would take much power.”
“This must be one hell of a keyboard, too,” I added. “And I wonder why it wasn't passworded? You'd have thought there would be some sort of security.”
“The machine was not turned off,” Stefan pointed out. “It was in standby mode. Perhaps the dead man out there did not turn it off – perhaps he was sick and thought he would recover and return to work further, but then could not.”
“That makes sense,” I agreed. “And... you're right, look: he was keeping a diary.”
The final entry on the screen read, '41 Serts:' (which I guessed was a date of some sort) 'There is still nothing. Although the power drain has become worse all systems are still operating, including the Capsule, and yet nobody has come to relieve me. And although the communication link is still active there is nothing: Hub One is not responding. I am sure the Greys could not have penetrated the Hub, and even if the war were going badly I feel certain that someone would at least manage to contact me.
'When Regulus Janiq took the reserve cohort to investigate two months ago he only agreed to me remaining behind because of my injury. Of course the system is self-regulating and can generally be left unattended, but now that a malfunction has occurred it requires intervention by trained engineers. As yet the power drain has not compromised the system, but if Janiq does not return soon I will have to try to reach the sub-basement and run a full diagnostic of the boreholes, pumps and turbines – though even if I identify the problem I shall be unable to repair it alone.
'My headaches are becoming substantially worse, and I am having to use the medication at well beyond the recommended dosage in order to continue to function. I do not know how much longer I can continue without medical assistance.
'I am going to rest. Perhaps my relief will arrive tomorrow.'
“Looks like the relief never arrived at all,” I said. “I suppose the war he talks about went worse than he thought. Look, Stefi, we need to have a really good look at this computer: if we read from the beginning of the diary we might find out more about what this place is – and if we're really lucky there might be some sort of record showing which tunnel goes where. That would save us from going to a world where there are real demons, or where there's been some sort of disaster, like that first place we went where there was nothing but rock, remember? Only it'll probably take some time to investigate properly, so perhaps we should have a quick look round the rest of this place first – or even come back tomorrow. What do you think?”
“I think you are right to want to look at this machine. Alain, why do you and Olivier not go and see what there is upstairs? Be careful, and do not touch any machinery. While you are gone, Jake and I will see what this machine holds.”
I wasn't sure about the other two going off on their own, but I supposed Stefan was right – after all, we knew the poor guy on the bunk had been alone when he died, and if anyone had come back since they would probably have moved the body. So I went and got the other chair from the outer office so that we could both sit and look at the computer, and Alain and Oli headed off towards the staircase.
Since the system was one that he understood I let Stefan work the keyboard. First he scrolled back to the start of the diary, though that wasn't as far as I hoped: it looked as if our dead friend had only started keeping the journal about two weeks after Janiq had left with the rest of his colleagues, and he hadn't made an entry every day, either. Flipping through the entries we learned very little: he never explained exactly what his injury was or how it had been caused, and nor did we learn any more about the war he had mentioned, just that he was worried it might be going badly.
About four weeks before the final entry he had mentioned a power drain for the first time. He hadn't been able to identify what was causing it, thought he speculated that the problem might have been at Hub One (wherever that was), because he had been unable to contact anyone there to find out what was happening. And over the next four weeks the problem had grown a little worse, until in the entry before the final one he had mentioned seeing the first flashing magenta light on the control board. As we didn't know where the control board was that didn't enlighten us much.
Once we had gleaned all we could from the diary Stefan switched the interface language to German and typed away for a minute or so, and then switched back to English.
“This is the primary menu,” he explained. “We should be able to discover much about the tunnels here.”
And at that point Alain and Oli came in, and it was understandable that we got a bit distracted because they were dripping wet.
“You've got to come and see this,” said Oli, grabbing my hand and pulling me towards the door. “There's a big dormitory upstairs, and other rooms, like an eating hall and a kitchen – and behind the dormitory is a big room with lots of those magic pumps, like at your house, and when you work them it starts to rain. And the rain is warm! It's amazing!”
Magic pumps and warm rain – sounded like a shower-room to me. And so it was – as Oli had said, there was a big dormitory with around fifty bunks, each with a pile of neatly-folded bedding at one end, and beyond the dormitory was a washing area, with a row of wash-basins and a large shower-room. Oli dragged me into the shower-room and turned the wheel on one of the showers, and warm water cascaded onto us. So whatever else might be suffering from a power drain, it certainly didn't seem to be the water heating system.
“It's called a shower,” I explained. “You use some of those things we've got in our bathroom, the soap and the shampoo, and you wash under the warm water. It's a bit quicker than taking a bath.”
“Well, whatever it's called, I like it,” declared Oli. “It feels really nice.”
It did, too, but after a bit I managed to drag us both out, turning the shower off as we left. I grabbed a blanket from one of the bunks and used it as a towel, chucking another one at Oli, and when we were dry Stefan and I let the French boys show us what they had found. This included a toilet area adjoining the wash-room; two more dormitories with attendant washing facilities; a dining hall with a spotlessly-gleaming kitchen beyond it; a room that might have been a small cinema, or a briefing room, or both; a number of smaller bedrooms that were presumably for officers; and a few storerooms. Most of the fittings were recognisable but subtly different from the ones I was used to, suggesting that the toilets, basins and so forth had been made in some foreign country.
In complete contrast to the large hall and the corridor above it everything was clean and free from dust, so I supposed there was some sort of automatic system in use here.
“This place is well-equipped,” Stefan commented. “Jake, do you not think we could move our base here while we examine the computer? It would be faster as... faster than to go home every evening.”
“Well, maybe,” I said. “But... it's not that I mind going naked all the time: actually it's sort of fun. But we won't be able to bring anything with us – no food, no water, no washing kit... and I'm not sure about drinking the water here just yet.”
“I like going bare!” declared Oli. “It means I don't mess up my clothes, and if I get dirty I can go in the magic rain room.”
“True, but I still think we need to think about food and water,” I said. “And I don't like not having my specs: I could manage okay in daylight on the farm, but indoors and in artificial light my eyesight isn't very good. If I spend a lot of time squinting at the computer I'm going to get a nasty headache.”
“There must be a way to pass the barrier,” said Stefan. “The man in the office is wearing clothes, and I do not believe that Janiq and his soldiers marched off to war dressed like on a summer beach and carrying no weapon.”
That was true. “Okay,” I said, “let's see if we can find a way past the barrier.”
So we went back to the lobby between the staircase and the entrance to the office. The barrier was still clearly there (we could see through it into the hall beyond, but the way the air shimmered showed that the barrier was still operating) but we couldn't find a switch. I checked inside the outer office – by now I was used to the concept of switches being hidden beyond other switches - but I couldn't find anything. Stefan, meanwhile, was going over the short stretch of corridor between the lobby and the start of the barrier, trying to find out if you had to tread on a particular tile, or something like that. And, of course, Alain and Oli weren't looking very hard at all: instead they were in the lobby itself, trying to tickle one another.
And so naturally it was Alain who found the switch, and it was entirely by accident: Oli dug him in the ribs and Alain squealed and tried to back away, but he tripped over his own feet and bumped into the wall just to the left of the corridor. And a panel in the wall swung open.
The panel was at shoulder height and was about twenty-five centimetres square. In the centre was an outline of a hand with the fingers spread, and just above it were three small glass domes.
“It's a palm-reader,” I said. “You put your hand on the outline and it reads your palm-print, and if you're on the database it'll work the barrier. Of course, we're not on the database, so it won't.”
“How can you be certain?” asked Stefan. “Let me try it – perhaps it will work.”
“And perhaps it's booby-trapped to electrocute people who aren't on the list, or something!” I warned him.
“I do not think so. Probably many soldiers stayed here in the past, and not every one can be on a database. I may not be able to open the barrier, but I think there is no danger.”
He put his left hand on the panel – the design would only take a left hand – and at once the three glass domes lit up and a beam of light was directed into Stefan's face and off to each side of him, catching all of us in the process. I flinched, expecting a death ray or something similar, but all that happened was that there was a brief humming sound and then the barrier disappeared.
“Okay, it doesn't read palms,” I admitted. “It seems a bit insecure having a system that anyone can open, though.”
“Yes, but you can only open it from inside,” said Stefan, and he was right: there was no trace of a switch on the other side of the barrier. “And I do not think that many attacking soldiers would think to remove their clothing to pass the barrier – and if they did they would find the defenders waiting, and the attackers would be naked and without weapons. I think it is an adequate system. And... I think we should leave the barrier running. Wait here – I will go back and close the panel to the inner office, and then I will turn on the barrier once again.”
“How? There wasn’t a switch that I could see.”
“No, it is probably an on-off system where the same touch simply changes the current situation.”
So he did that (and found he was right about the switch being a simple toggle) and then we went back up the stairs to the entrance to the tunnel we had used to get here, and now that we knew what we were looking for we found the panel to the left of the door that led to the tunnel. Of course we didn't need to turn it off because we weren't wearing any clothes or carrying anything, but now that we knew where it was it would be easy to turn it off when we came back with all our kit.
Everything was as we had left it, so we got dressed and rode back to the ladder room. But Stefan said that since he had the paint in his bag he might just as well go and paint the numbers on the doors in the circular room – it would save having to bring the paint next time. So the rest of us waited in the hut, and fifteen minutes later he returned. He put the paint away in the storage shed at the back of the hut, and then we closed the trapdoor and rode the two 'above ground' mopeds back to Orschwiller.
For supper that evening I mashed up the remaining potatoes and served it with tinned luncheon meat and baked beans, and again Alain and Oli seemed quite impressed. I skipped the luncheon meat in favour of some more corned beef – I mean, I don't eat kosher at home, but somehow the idea of eating pork when there was a suitable alternative to hand seemed like an unnecessary way to provoke a god who, if he was up there somewhere, had kept me more or less out of trouble so far.
After supper we sorted out what we would need to take with us and what could be safely left behind, and then we packed as much as would fit into the two large rucksacks, fitting the remainder into the two smaller bags and a couple of supermarket carrier bags we found in the kitchen. And once we had done that we decided to go to bed, since this would be our last opportunity to sleep in a proper bed (as opposed to a basic military bunk) for a while.
We took it in turns to use the bathroom (I sent Oli and Alain in first so that we could make sure the taps were turned off afterwards) and then Stefan and I went back to our room, closed the door, took our clothes off and got into bed.
“You know, Jake,” said Stefan, a minute or so after we had got into bed, “I am really not very tired yet. I think perhaps we should take a little exercise before we go to sleep. Can you think of anything we could do?”
“Well, one or two things do spring to mind.”
“Good. Let us try those, then.”
“Okay… so, would you like to rub mine for me again? Because I really liked it when you did that – and this time we don’t have to worry about Alain coming to interrupt us, or anything.”
“I would like that a lot. And I would like for you to do it for me also.”
So we did that, making it last for a good hour – in fact we had to stop to light one of the camping lamps so that we could see each other, and somehow the limited illumination made it even better. When I finally succumbed and spurted onto myself Stefan gently cleaned me up with a tissue from a box we had found in the village shop, and quite a bit later when he eventually spurted I did the same thing for him. And then he reached across me to turn out the lamp and somehow didn’t move all the way back afterwards, which meant that we finally fell asleep with his arm around me.
Next morning we woke up peacefully – by which I mean that it was simply the sunlight, not a lot of noise from the other bedroom, that woke us up. I needed a pee, so we got up and went to the bathroom together, and on the way we looked in on the other two and found them still fast asleep. Oli was sleeping with his head on Alain’s shoulder, and they looked really peaceful.
We washed quietly and then went back to the bedroom and got back into bed, because it was still only a little after six o’clock.
“Would you like to do some more stuff before we get up?” Stefan asked me.
“Well, yes, obviously… except… could we just…”
“Could we just sort of cuddle for a bit?”
“Cuddle? What is that?”
“Well, you lie on your back, like you are now, and then I come and lie sort of on top of you… like this… and then you put your arms round me and we sort of hold each other.”
“Like this, you mean?”
“Exactly like this.”
“Right.” There was a pause as we settled against each other. “Oh.”
“Oh what?” I asked.
“Oh, this is nice. I have never held another person so, and it feels… special, somehow.”
“Good, because I like it, too. And now we just relax and feel close to each other for a while.”
It was strange, but although we were naked I didn’t go hard, perhaps because this somehow wasn’t about sex at all: this was about being friends, but more than just friends… I put my cheek gently against his, and he made a little noise of surprise but made no effort to push me away – in fact he moved a hand to the back of my head and stroked my hair, at the same time making sure that I didn’t move away from him.
We lay like that for some time without speaking, and I’d have been happy to keep lying there for ever.
“Do we have to go?” I asked, quietly. “Couldn’t we just stay here, Stefi?”
“I do not think we can,” he said. “Yes, I like this house, and I like to share this bed with you a lot, but… you know that we cannot stay. The gas will run out, the water will stop, and finally there will be no more food we can eat – and I do not think that for us to try to run a farm would be sensible.”
“Yes, but can’t we just stay a few more days?”
“I think it would not be sensible. We know now that there is a problem with the power supply to the tunnels, and we have already seen one tunnel disappear. If we stay here too long the tunnel from this world may collapse, too, and then we would have no means to return to our own worlds – and even though I would be happy to be with you in this world, it would be difficult to live here. So I think we must return to the tunnels today.”
“You’re right,” I said. “I mean, I know you’re right. I just wish you weren’t.”
We decided to get up but we met with one problem: we had put our gold neck chains back on, and somehow his swastika had got caught up in my Star of David. In the end we had to remove the chains and then separate them. I suppose you could read some deep meaning into those two symbols getting tangled up together, but to us it was just funny, as if the ‘guardian gods’ Master Farmer had spoken about wanted to keep us locked together.
Stefan finally managed to wiggle the swastika out of the star. He made to put the star back around my neck, but then hesitated.
“You know that I was taught to see this symbol as something bad, the sign of a bad race that had damaged my country,” he said. “But you have shown me that some Jews are nothing like how I had been told. So… will you let me wear your star for a while, to show that my closest friend is now a Jew?”
Wow, I thought – closest friend? “Of course you can,” I said. “And my people regard your swastika with… well, let’s just say that they don’t like it. So for a Jew to wear a swastika would be an indication of a very special friendship indeed. And I’d like to show you just how special you are.” And I took the swastika from him and put it round my own neck, and he did it up for me while I put the Star of David round his neck and closed the clip.
We gave each other a quick hug and then got dressed in clean clothes – boxers (or briefs, for Stefan), shorts, socks and tee shirts. Then Stefan went downstairs to sort out breakfast while I put my glasses on and went to wake the other two up. I don’t know what they had been doing the previous evening, but they were still flat out now, and I had to shake them gently to wake them up.
“Can’t we just stay in bed?” asked Oli, sleepily. “Alain makes a really nice pillow.”
“No, you can’t,” I said. “Get up and get washed, and if you’re not downstairs soon you’ll find there isn’t any breakfast left.” And I left them to it and went downstairs, and less than thirty seconds later they arrived in the dining room, still both completely naked.
“Oh, you’re coming back to the tunnels naked, are you?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t mind,” said Oli. “I like being naked.”
“You won’t if we end up in some really cold world,” I pointed out.
“Well, if that happens I’ll come back into the hut and put some clothes on. I’ll bring some with me just in case, obviously. But someone is going to have to be naked when we get back to the army place so that he can go through the barrier and turn it off for the rest of you, so I might as well stay like this until then.” And he grabbed the packet of Frosties and filled his bowl.
In the end we persuaded him to wear his clothes because we wanted to use his bag – we’d given him one of the small ones to carry – to bring other stuff up to the hut, and there wouldn’t be room for much if his clothes were in the bag instead of on his person.
After breakfast we had a quick scurry round to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything important. I checked that we’d packed all the washing kit we could need, and most of the spare clothes, and Stefan had fitted most of the camping equipment into one or other of the large rucksacks. I’d also packed a lot of food and had filled the large white jerry-can with water (I’d simply emptied most of our litre and two-litre bottles of Evian into it), and I hadn’t forgotten to pack some crockery and cutlery, either.
I stopped in the bedrooms long enough to make the beds – I’ve been brought up to do that sort of thing – and before we left I had a tidy up in the main room, too. And then I helped load up the car.
Because of all the kit we were taking it wouldn’t have been possible to get all four of us and our equipment up to the hut on two mopeds, and so we had decided to take one of the cars as far up the track as it would go and then run a shuttle service from there. And so once everything was loaded Stefan and I got on the mopeds while Oli drove the car, with a reluctant Alain, who still didn’t like mechanical transport, sitting beside him.
We drove out of the village in a convoy – because Oli wouldn’t know where to go otherwise we took the mopeds by road via Kintzheim rather than on the path through the forest – and as we were leaving the village I spotted the cat lying outside one of the last houses, sunning itself. Obviously it was still managing to forage for food fairly successfully, because it looked perfectly healthy. It raised its head as I rode past and I waved and called ‘goodbye’ to it. And it was a good thing that I said goodbye while I had the chance, because we never came back to the village again.
Expect the unexpected, then...
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