I stammered out a denial, knowing that he wouldn’t believe me, and sure enough he didn’t.
“Come with me,” he said, turning and heading for a door beside the information desk.
There was no point in running, because there was nowhere to run to: the airship still hadn’t arrived, and there were soldiers in the building anyway. I considered yelling for Stefan but dismissed the idea straight away: there was no point at all in drawing the officer’s attention to him. If we were lucky the airship would arrive before the officer thought to ask about my friend, and then Stefan could escape. I was afraid he wouldn’t, though: I knew Stefan well enough to be virtually certain that he’d come looking for me, and would probably end up under arrest for helping me – but there was no need to make that happen sooner than it had to.
The officer led me through the door and into a small office, waving me to a seat on one side of a desk while he took the rather larger chair on the other side. There was a nameplate on the desk that read ‘Hstuf Fischer’, which didn’t tell me much, and a couple of very old – pre-Apocalypse - travel posters on the walls, extolling the wonders of the Baltic Coast (now presumably rather further south than when the poster had been made) and the Bavarian Alps (now not so far above sea level). There was also a bookcase against one wall, but I wasn’t close enough to read the titles, even if I didn’t have sweat trickling into my eyes and near-blinding me.
“My name is Lothar,” he told me. “Lothar Fischer. What’s yours?”
There didn’t seem to be too much point in making something up – after all, my ID card from Elsass was in my wallet, and they were sure to search me.
“Jake Stone,” I told him.
“That doesn’t sound like a name from Vogesia, or even the rest of what used to be France. Where do you come from, Jake?”
You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, I thought: answers such as ‘Elsass’ (under water), ‘The Holy Roman Empire’ (gone these past two hundred years), and ‘Kerpia’ (never existed) ran through my mind – to say nothing of the Grey world, and I had no idea what they called it themselves. But the last thing I wanted was for the Nazis to know about the portals: I wanted them safely locked away here, clinging to their mountains.
“I’m English,” I replied.
“Ah, that explains your accent. I thought there was hardly anything of England left, though, apart from the odd little chain of islands.”
“You’re right, but there are bits – what used to be the Pennines, for example – and that’s where I come from.”
“And what are you doing here?”
“Just travelling, seeing something of the world.”
“With your friend?”
Damn, I thought, he’s remembered Stefan.
“Not really,” I said, hoping to keep Stefan out of this. “I only met him on the airship. We got talking because we’re about the same age, that’s all.”
“And where is he now?”
I felt I had to change the subject if I was going to keep Stefan out of it, and so instead of answering the question I said “What makes you think I’m Jewish?”
“Well, I could say that your glasses make you look Jewish, but that would be a lie, because really they don’t. Or I could say it’s because of the rabbit in headlights act you’ve done every time I’ve come near you. But really it’s because you’re circumcised.”
“What? How… I mean, why do you think that?”
“Didn’t you notice the old man in the men’s room? That’s old Franz, who was ten when the asteroid struck, and so he was in the Jungvolk and had a lifetime’s education under the Party behind him. And that robe you’re wearing – it’s difficult to lift it up to piss without exposing yourself, isn’t it? And of course as soon as Franz noticed that you were cut he came straight to my office to tell me about it. So, let’s get back to your friend. Where is he?”
This wasn’t a large terminal, and all Fischer had to do was to step into the waiting room and he’d see Stefan straight away, so there was no point in pretending I didn’t know.
“He’s in the waiting room,” I said. “He’s flying back with me. I need someone with me because I get sick, and so I bought him a return ticket so that he could fly back to Vogesia with me.”
That sounded totally feeble to me, but Fischer didn’t comment. Instead he stood up.
“Let’s go and see him, shall we?” he said.
That was obviously a rhetorical question, so I stood up and led him back to the waiting room, where Stefan was still reading The Popular Observer. He didn’t see us at first, but then Fischer cleared his throat and Stefan looked up and saw the uniform, and instantly thirteen years of training reasserted itself: he jumped to his feet and came to attention.
“What’s your name?” Fischer asked him.
“Stefan Kohler, Hauptsturmführer,” snapped Stefan.
"Ah, you recognise our rank badges. How interesting. And that’s a good German name you’ve got, too. Where do you come from?”
“Don’t mention the portals!” I said in Kerpian, before Stefan could open his mouth.
“Huh? Oh, no, I… Vogesia, Hauptsturmführer.”
“Right. Oh, you can stand at ease, by the way – in fact, why don’t you come back to my office? Jake, you’d better bring your bag – we wouldn’t want anyone to steal it, would we? Oh, and your book. He’s good, isn’t he, Köninger? Have you read The Opening Line yet? No? It’s the first one in the series… anyway, come with me.”
He led us back to the office, stopping on the way to pick up another chair from a store-room, and then installed us in front of his desk.
“So, Jake, what do you think is going to happen to you now?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t know, Sir,” I said.
“Deportation to the General Government? Madagascar? Sent to live in a ghetto? Come on, have a guess.”
I shrugged again, not saying anything.
“Jake, it’s a different world,” he said. “I expect your grandparents, or your parents, told you how things were before the asteroid, and it’s absolutely true that back then the Party wanted the Jews gone from Germany, and from the rest of the Reich. There were reasons at the time which seemed good, but they’re all part of a history that is long gone now. The injustice of the Versailles treaty, the hyperinflation of the Twenties, the threat of Communism: all that is as irrelevant today as Charlemagne or Frederick the Great. All that’s left now is a world of small countries that have to co-operate with each other in order to survive. We have no ambition to interfere in the affairs of Vogesia, England or anywhere else – we don’t even have an army any longer.
“So what’s going to happen to you now is that you’re going to get on the airship – if it ever gets here – with your friend and fly back to Vogesia. And you’d be welcome to come back any time you want, okay?”
“But… then why did you want to speak to me?”
“I just wanted you to know there’s nothing for you to worry about here. Old Franz is part of a world that died sixty-five years ago. To me, his world is just pages in a history book. Among my other responsibilities is looking after tourists and visitors, and I wouldn’t be doing much of a job if I let you go away too scared to ever come back, would I? So you can tell your friends, and your parents, that here in Greater Bavaria we welcome all visitors. Now…”
He stood up, went to the bookcase and came back with a book in his hand. He wrote something on the inside cover and then handed it to me, and I saw that it was a copy of Theodor Köninger’s first book.
“Something for you to read while you’re travelling,” he said. “Now, let’s go and see how much longer you’re going to have to wait.”
And he took us back to the information desk, ascertained that the ship had made up a little ground and was now expected in about an hour, and then led us back to the waiting room.
“I’ll leave you in peace,” he said. “Have a good journey – and I hope you don’t get too airsick this time!” And he smiled and walked away.
“That was… unexpected,” said Stefan, which I thought was something of an understatement. “Of course, I can see that what he said was logical, but still… are you all right, Jake?”
“Yes, I think so. I suppose that’s called ‘jumping to conclusions’ – but I still think he could have told me straight away not to worry, instead of going through all that performance first. I thought my heart was going to pack up on me… Anyway, let’s see what he wrote in the book.”
The inside of The Opening Line was inscribed ‘To Jake – you’re always welcome in Greater Bavaria, Happy Travels, Lothar Fischer’.
“That’s nice, but I still don’t think I’ll be coming back,” I commented. “We’ve still got an hour to wait, so do you want to read this one, Stefi? We can swap over once we’ve both finished.”
So we sat and read our books until the airship arrived, and then we flew back to St Mary, got in the truck and drove back to our campsite, where we found Alain clearing away after a meal.
“Everyone else is on the beach,” he told us. “How did it go? Did you find anything?”
“It was an interesting trip, but… no, there aren’t any portals over there. Any joy here?”
“Afraid not. We’ll have to keep looking, but I suppose this place isn’t too bad, is it? For a holiday, anyway – I expect we’d get bored with it if we were here permanently, but it is sort of nice just being able to lie on a beach all day.”
“You’re just bone idle, Alain.”
“I know.” He grinned at me. “And I like it that way. So you’re cooking supper tonight, okay?”
“I suppose so. Any problems with the Greys?”
“No, they’re fine. Sarleth’s leg is getting better all the time, and the other two seem to be happy enough, as far as I can tell, because they don’t say a lot. And Oli’s arm is still sore, but he says he thinks it’s getting better, too.”
So we strolled down to the beach and found everyone else splashing about in the sea, which was probably the best place to be on a hot afternoon. We dumped our robes on the beach and went in to join them.
For the next couple of weeks we simply enjoyed ourselves, spending most of our time on the beach. Every day we would patrol around the area, looking for possible portals, but apart from that and cooking meals we just relaxed. At the start of the second week the local kids had to go back to school, but they still appeared at the end of the afternoon most days to splash about with us or to kick a football about, though we usually only did that when the sun started to go down, because it was too hot otherwise. Fishing, swimming, sunbathing and playing ball games kept us occupied during the day, and at night… well, each couple had its own tent. I can only speak for myself and Stefan, but we made the most of the privacy.
We again discussed doing what we’d planned for December 12, but although this was a much more comfortable environment than the tank had been, we still decided to wait until we got home: we both felt that to do it here would be tantamount to admitting that we thought we’d never get home. But we did keep doing the various things that Hansi and Tibor had taught us, so that we would be ready when the time finally came.
I can say that more than once I wanted to forget about waiting – after all, here we were on a tropical beach (okay, it wasn’t strictly tropical, but it was warm enough), with a tent to ourselves, so surely this would be the perfect place? And sometimes I went further and actually thought that if we didn’t manage to get home, so what? This was a good world… But then later I’d think that giving in to the temptation would be like giving up on returning home – and, although this world was good, it was also likely to get boring after a bit. And in the summer, according to Sgt Schwarz, it would be too hot to do anything. And eventually our money would run out, and then we might find ourselves having to gut fish for three dollars an hour, the way a couple of the local boys did, either because their families needed the money or because they had no families and so had to support themselves – apparently there wasn’t much of a welfare system here.
I suspect that Stefan felt the same way, but he didn’t say anything and so we both stuck to our decision to wait until we got back home. As long as that didn’t take too long, of course…
As we became accustomed to the sun we began to tan, all except for Tommi, whose skin didn’t seem capable of doing anything except burning if he went out for too long without lots of sunscreen on. But the rest of us began to get a nice healthy-looking tan, and Radu, who had been quite dark to start with, soon looked just like the local kids. We were now able to wear shorts instead of the robe if we felt like it, though unless we were going into town we normally didn’t bother wearing anything at all – this was clearly the norm, as the first thing the local kids did when they got to the beach was to dump all their clothes with their school bags.
The Greys seemed content to bask in the sun for most of the time. As Alain had said, Sarleth’s leg had improved to the point that he could walk and even run without his crutches, and although there was obviously going to be a permanent scar there, now that Marc had removed the stitches his leg looked almost normal again. And the fact that he could get about easily on his own meant that he had been able to resume playing the female for the other two. One afternoon I was helping Tommi by applying sun cream to his back when he surprised me by telling me that the previous evening Sarleth had invited him to go and watch.
“But I thought they didn’t like being seen to play the female role,” I said, remembering how upset Issin had become when I saw him on the receiving end.
“Sarleth doesn’t mind at all. I think maybe these Greys are a bit different: after all, Trethar and the others were at a military school where everyone expects you to be sort of strong and tough, and when they found out that Ssyrl actually liked having it done to him they got sort of offended about it. But these three aren’t like that – they don’t seem so worried about looking…”
“Macho,” I supplied. “No, maybe you’re right. After all, even at Trethar’s school they recognised that most boys did take the female role sometimes to help their colleagues, so I suppose that is normal for Greys. Perhaps this lot are less worried about what anyone thinks.”
“I suppose so. Anyway, Sarleth took me along with him, and I got to watch, and it was obvious that the other two enjoyed doing it to him, and that Sarleth quite enjoyed it, too. And when we got back to the tent he said that if I wanted they would probably do it to me, too.”
“And are you going to?”
“I don’t think so. I think it would hurt – their things are really solid. And, besides, if I was going to let someone do that to me I’d prefer it to be a human, at least to start with. But then Sarleth said I could do it to him if I wanted: he says I’m definitely big enough. I’m not really sure about it, though. What do you think, Jake?”
“Whoa, don’t ask me!” I replied. “It’s your decision. I mean, I wouldn’t, but that’s because I’ve got Stefan, and he’s the only person I want to do anything with. If I didn’t have him… I don’t know, but I’m still not sure that I would. It just seems a bit strange to me, doing stuff with a different species – though maybe that’s just me. I don’t think anyone with give you a hard time about it if you do decide to, though: everyone’s very tolerant around here.”
“Okay, I’ll think about it. It’ll be my birthday soon – perhaps I’ll give myself a birthday present.”
“Oh? When is it?”
“23 Serts – that’s… wait a moment…”
He did the calculation in his head, translating from the Kerpian calendar into the one he had learned in Elsass. “January 15th, and I’m going to be eleven.”
“We’ll have to get you a present,” I said. “A gigantic bottle of sunscreen, perhaps.”
“I wish I could tan like the rest of you. You’re all getting nice and brown.”
“Well, maybe if we go to the cold world next you’ll find that you keep warm better than us.”
“I doubt it. Sometimes I hate having red hair.”
“You shouldn’t. You look really nice with red hair. If your hair was boring brown, like mine, you wouldn’t look half as good.”
He argued the point for a bit but still looked pleased that I’d said it, and when I’d finished putting the cream on him he ran off happily to join the others.
As usual there were some of the local kids on the beach with us: four or five of them came straight from school, and two or three others came round a couple of hours later after a stint at the fish cleaning factory. The first thing the fish-cleaners did was to jump into the sea and have a good wash, though the smell of fish still seemed to cling to them afterwards.
One of these, Nicolas, had a couple of times accepted an invitation to stay for supper: he’d told us that he lived in a shed on his own, and it was obvious to me that he found it hard to cope with looking after himself. And we weren’t exactly short of meat or fish, and the vegetables available from the market in St Mary were cheap, varied and tasted good.
Another week went by. I managed to get the ingredients to bake a cake for Tommi’s birthday, and he was enthusiastically flung into the sea, still wearing his robe, by the local boys – it was a tradition, they told us, and indeed five days later they proved it wasn’t just something they’d invented for Tommi’s benefit by doing exactly the same thing to one of their own number. I decided that if we ended up staying in this world I wasn’t going to tell anyone when my birthday was, though Jeff – the boy in question – emerged from the sea laughing, and as soon as he’d removed his robe and spread it out in the sun to dry he started chasing his attackers, trying to push them into the water.
Jeff had turned out to be rather different from the way I had imagined him when Bobby and Eddie had first mentioned him: I’d expected a small, downtrodden kid who resented being teased about his undersized genitals, but instead I was introduced to a tall extrovert who seemed to find his lack of development as funny as everyone else did – at least, he made as many jokes about it as anyone else. He was fun to be with, often organising games and telling amusing stories about things that had happened at school, and even though he was now thirteen he didn’t seem to mind in the least when his friends pointed out that part of him at least didn’t seem to have had any birthdays since turning three. I asked him once when the others weren’t around if it really didn’t bother him.
“Nope,” he said. “I’ll get there in the end. It might take another year or so, but since I’m in no rush to have kids of my own I don’t really need it to be in full working order yet, do I?”
I wondered if Alain felt like that – after all, he was sixteen now and still had no visible hair. Certainly Alain didn’t seem to be worried about it, and in fact in terms of personality he was a lot like Jeff, sort of loud and outgoing, and the two of them seemed to get on really well with each other.
Soon we had been in this world for a month, but still there was no sign of any other portal appearing, and I had more or less given up on it. We still patrolled the area every day, but then there wasn’t a lot else that had to be done, so it was no hardship – in fact, having a quiet stroll in the hills in pairs was nice. To start with I’d always gone on patrol with Stefan, and that let to us stopping for a cuddle every now and again, which was really nice. But then I’d thought this would be a good opportunity for us all to get to know each other a bit better, and so I started varying the teams. At weekends some of the local boys came with us on our patrols, and that gave me a chance to find out a bit more about this world. And the more I found out, the less inclined I was to stay permanently.
“It’s nice here, but there really isn’t much to do,” was Eddie’s verdict. “And in the summer it’s too hot to do anything but stay indoors, unless you want to spend the whole day in the water. I think you’re lucky to come from a more interesting world.”
We’d told the local boys a bit about the worlds we had originally come from, the one we were trying to get back to and the ones we’d seen on the way, and they’d thought it interesting but a bit scary, too.
“Doesn’t it worry you, going through a tunnel with no idea what might be waiting on the other side?” asked Eddie. “Like walking into the middle of a war, like you did with the lizard place?”
“Well, yes, I suppose so. Maybe we’ve just been lucky so far. But we have to try, anyway, unless we want to give up on ever getting home.”
“I don’t think I’d risk it,” said Eddie. “Okay, this isn’t the most exciting place, but it’s safe.”
“I bet people thought that here before the asteroid came,” said Nicolas. “You never know what’s going to happen. Personally I think I’d risk it for a chance to go somewhere better, like the world Jake and his friends come from.”
“I bet you’d be happy to go to any world where there weren’t any fish,” contributed Jeff, getting a laugh: as usual Nicolas had removed his robe and put it some distance away, but the whiff of fish still clung to him.
“Those fish have kept me alive,” Nicolas pointed out. “Of course I’d prefer a world where fish didn’t stink, but then maybe if I could get to Jake’s world I wouldn’t have to gut fish any more anyway, so I wouldn’t care what they smelled like.”
That night Nicolas not only stayed for supper but spent the night with us, too, sharing the tent with Stefan and me. We found this a little inhibiting, but I felt sorry for Nicolas, living alone as he did, and thought it would be nice for him to share food and accommodation with us for a bit – after all, I expected us to be on our way back to the Empire shortly. And in fact when he and I strolled up to the police hut next morning the officer on duty told us that there were signs of mist forming.
“It’ll probably be there by midday,” he said. “There’s no rush – it generally lasts a couple of days – but if you guys are going back you probably ought to start getting packed. The sergeant will be down shortly, and I expect he’ll want to speak to you before you go.”
So we went back to the beach and I called everyone together.
“The portal’s back,” I said, “so we can go back to the monastery and wait for another one to appear if we want – or we can stay here. So, who wants to go, and who wants to stay?”
Nobody seemed to want to be first to answer that, but eventually Alain asked, “What are you going to do, Jake?”
“I’m going back. I want to try to get back home.”
“Then…” Alain looked at the others. “I guess we’re all coming with you. We’ve been together too long for us to leave you now.”
Oli was nodding vigorously, and so was Tommi, and Radu and Marc obviously agreed with the sentiment, too.
“What about you?” I asked the Greys. “This isn’t a bad place, and you lot function best in warm weather. And the locals seem to accept you, too.”
They put their heads together for a few seconds, and then Torth said, “We’ll go back. Eventually the war will end and we’ll be able to go back home. And in the meantime we’re content to stay with you. It’s interesting to see how your species does things.”
“Okay. Then we need to get packed. Let’s go back and get the tents down and loaded – we can always come back here for a last swim before we leave.”
So we returned to the camp and started to pack everything away. The four local boys who were with us – it was a Saturday – came and helped, and eventually the tents were stowed in the truck and our bags had been packed, though we left a change of clothing out: I remembered how cold it had been at the monastery, and I thought driving into the portal wearing nothing but a thin robe would result in us all catching pneumonia or something.
Once the truck was loaded Nicolas said he had to go, he had a shift at the fish factory to do. So I gave him my robe – we were close to the same height – and told him to keep it for non-work occasions, so as to keep it fish-free. He was very grateful, and even more so when I slipped him twenty dollars and told him to use it to buy something nice. I’d have given him more, but at this stage I thought we might end up coming back here ourselves if a better portal didn’t materialise, and that made me inclined to hang on to what was left of our money.
I also gave ten dollars each to the other three, Eddie and Bobby and Jeff, and then we went back to the beach and swam and splashed about for a bit. Finally we went back to the truck, put on our thicker clothes, said goodbye to the local boys and drove back to the police hut, where we found the gate open and Sgt Schwarz waiting for us.
“I just wanted to wish you luck,” he said. “I hope you find your way home. If not, come back any time – just make sure you bring some more meat with you. I’ve brought you the crate you left in our refrigeration unit, less the storage fees, of course.”
“I’ll make sure we stock up if we do decide to come back,” I promised, and called for someone to get out of the back of the truck and load the remains of the crate. And once it was on board we said goodbye to the sergeant and drove forward to the portal. We stopped just short of it long enough to put on our jackets and coats, and then Verdess drove us into the mist and out the other side, and there was the monastery ahead of us up the valley. We parked the truck next to the tank and the jeep and walked to the door, and Brother Paul opened it and ushered us inside.
“Welcome back,” he said. “I know you’d prefer to be somewhere else, but we’ll be happy to look after you until you get a chance to move on. I assume you didn’t find what you were looking for in the hot world?”
I shook my head. “There weren’t any other portals there,” I said. “We’ll have to wait here until another one appears.”
“Well, you seem to have had a nice break, anyway: you’re a lot browner than you were. Anyway, sit down and make yourselves comfortable, and I’ll go and make sure the rooms are ready for you.”
After lunch Stefan and I went out for a brief walk, just to check that the tank’s battery hadn’t gone flat in our absence, but it seemed to be fine: the heater still worked perfectly, anyway. Of course we thought we ought to check its efficiency by taking our clothes off for a while, but the heater coped adequately. And when we had got dressed again and turned the heater off we saw that the battery charge meter was still showing almost fifty percent.
We got out of the tank and closed it up, and then we went back to the monastery lounge and told Alain and Radu that the tank battery was still fine, but that it would be a good idea if we kept a close eye on it. They got the message straight away, and soon we had a rota drawn up for the next week or so at least.
The following afternoon Alain and Oli went out to check on the tank, but when they came back they were not alone: Alain had a prisoner.
“He was hiding in the back of the truck,” he told me, pulling Nicolas into the lounge behind him. “He was under a pile of blankets and sleeping bags, but it didn’t stop him sneezing just as we got out of the tank.”
“Oh, hell,” I said. “We’ll have to take him back. Is the portal still open?”
“I’ll check,” said Stefan, getting up and heading for the monks’ CCTV room.
“Please, Jake, let me stay,” begged Nicolas. “I hate it back there, the way I stink of fish guts all the time, the way I keep cutting myself with the gutting knife, the way everyone laughs at me because my clothes are tatty – I mean, how would you like it if all the other kids called you ‘Fishy Nicky’ or ‘Stinker’ all the time?”
“Yes, but, like we told you, it’s dangerous being with us. And the sergeant told me he has an arrangement with the monks to stop people moving between the worlds, so I should think they’ll send you back whatever we think.”
“Then let me go and I’ll run and hide until the tunnel closes – then they won’t be able to send me back!”
But that option was lost before I even had time to consider it, because at that point Brother Paul came into the lounge.
“Hello, who’s this?” was his first reaction. Of course, Nicolas was wearing a Vogesian robe and was wrapped in a blanket, which made it hard for him to blend in with the rest of us.
“His name’s Nicolas,” I said. “He’s an orphan, and he stowed away in the back of our truck. We’ve only just found him.”
“Ah. We’re supposed to stop people coming through, you know.”
I didn’t need to translate this: apparently Paul’s school still taught French, even though it was as a ‘foreign’ language and so subordinate to the teaching of English. “Yes, but… please?” he replied, in the same language. “I’ll be good, I promise, and I’ll keep really quiet. You won’t even notice I’m here.”
“What do you think, Jake?” asked Brother Paul.
“It’s true that he doesn’t have a great life over there,” I said. “I’ve warned him that it’s likely to be dangerous being with us, but he still wants to stay, and I suppose one extra person doesn’t make a lot of difference to us. It’s not really my decision, though, is it?”
“Well, I’ll have to ask Father Abbot,” said Brother Paul. “Unfortunately I know he’s away from the mother house at the moment, and by the time he gets back the gateway will probably have closed, and if that happens you’ll just have to wait until it opens again. And if Jake finds another gateway and decides to leave before that happens I don’t suppose there’s any good reason why you can’t go with him – provided Father Abbot agrees, of course.”
“Great – thank you, Sir!” replied Nicolas.
“Just ‘Brother’ will be fine. Jake, can you find some clothes for him? If not we can go down to Schlettstadt on Monday and buy something there.”
So apparently we had a new recruit. In a way I was quite happy about this: I expected the Greys to want to return to their own world eventually, and that would leave Tommi on his own again. Maybe Nicolas could take Sarleth’s place. I knew Tommi was the sort of kid who would try to make friends with anyone, and Nicolas would almost certainly be glad of someone to talk to, even if Tommi’s English wasn’t exactly perfect.
A couple of days later – by which time Nicolas had been outfitted in the sober but comfortable clothes of the Empire – the portal back to the Grey world reappeared, but its appearance also seemed to cause anxiety among the monks. When I asked about this Brother Paul told me that there were sensors around the portal, and that something had triggered an alarm. Two of the brothers went into the portal carrying various pieces of equipment, and when they came out again it was clear that something was wrong. They went into the monastery, and some ten minutes later Brother Paul came and spoke to us, asking me to translate for the Greys.
“You won’t be able to go back,” he said. “The war has obviously got a lot worse, because someone has detonated a radiation weapon of some sort, and that means you’d die if you went back. We’re going to have to try to block the gateway until it’s safe to go back, but that is likely to be several months, and there probably won’t be much left to go back to even then.”
The Greys stared at me when I gave them the news.
“What should we do?” Torth asked the other two. “Should we stay here until it’s safe to return, or go back to the world we just came from?”
They discussed it for a couple of minutes, and while they were doing that I realised that this meant that we were truly on our own now: even if the Kerpians managed to work out where we had gone they couldn’t come after us through a land where a nuclear war was under way.
“We’ve decided to stay with you,” Torth told me. “If you find a portal going on to a new world we will come with you, and if not we will go back to the hot world with you. But following you has already saved our lives twice: you kept us from dying in the cave, and you took us out of our world before the radiation bombs were used. It would appear that following you is a sensible course to take.”
“They’re going to stay with us,” I reported to Brother Paul. “And I’m curious: this seems to be a peaceful world, so how do you know about radiation?”
“It’s a peaceful world now, but we’ve had our share of wars in the past: with the French, with the Tsar, with the Swedes. The Swedes first used a nuclear bomb against the British about forty years ago, and the British retaliated, which is why the Swedish capital is now in Gothenburg: Stockholm no longer exists. Since then all the monarchs have signed a treaty forbidding first use of nuclear weapons, and so far that treaty hasn’t been broken.
“There are those who think the use of such weapons indicates that Our Lord is close to returning: there’s a passage in the Second Letter of St Peter that talks about the elements melting with extreme heat. I know that Father Abbot believes the return of Our Lord to be imminent, and he has preached on that passage more than once. For myself, I’m not certain, but it’s as well to live in a state of grace, just in case.”
I wasn’t going to be drawn into whether or not I was in a state of grace, so I said nothing at that point, though I suspected that what Stefan and I had been doing in the tank the previous day was not entirely consistent with being in such a state.
We settled back into life at the monastery, rising at an appallingly early hour, dining on similar food each day, and spending most of our time sitting in the lounge reading (I’d finished both Köninger books by now and was reading the first one for the second time, since there was nothing else available that wasn’t in Latin or German), playing cards, going for walks and visiting the tank every couple of days, which at least kept me sane.
Nine days after we returned Brother Paul told us that a new portal was forming.
“I very strongly advise you to make a short scouting trip first, rather than just rushing straight through,” he told me. “The frozen world is a very hostile environment, and we don’t know if anyone lives there or not. The gateway is stable, and it always lasts for at least a complete day, so it would be safe to check before taking the whole party through. But you should put on several layers of the warmest clothes you possess first.”
If he was trying to worry me he was doing a good job, but I still thought we had to check. So once the portal was fully formed – and this one was halfway up the ridge, rather than on the valley floor – Stefan and I wrapped up warm and went to investigate it. It wasn’t very warm outside the monastery, probably a degree or so above freezing, but once we emerged on the far side of the portal we found it considerably colder – twenty-one degrees below zero, according to the thermometer Brother Paul had lent us. And that was with no wind at all – I thought that if we got out of the shelter of the valley and into the wind the wind chill would make it seem colder still.
There was snow on the ground, but not so deep that we couldn’t walk through it, and so we went down into the valley. There were no signs of life other than trees – there were still plenty of those, evergreens that were presumably adapted to survive in sub-zero temperatures - and certainly no building where the monastery stood in the other world, and so we walked on, following the bearings in Stefan’s notebook that would have brought us to Orschwiller, had such a town existed. And indeed there were some ruins there, but they seemed to have been abandoned centuries ago: there was little left except for a few low walls.
By that stage I was feeling too cold to take much notice of anything else, and in any case I'd had to take my glasses off and put them in my pocket because they were getting iced up; but Stefan scanned the plain with his binoculars and found more ruins but nothing indicating current human life.
“Let’s go back,” I said. “I’m freezing.”
“Okay. There doesn’t seem to be much here, anyway.”
So we trudged out way back the way we had come, following our footsteps between the trees. There were no other tracks visible in the snow, not even so much as a bird’s footprints. By the time we got back to the portal I was feeling like a side of meat that had been in the deep freeze for too long, and although Stefan conscientiously climbed to the top of the ridge for a quick look around I simply waited for him by the portal. And when he came down again shaking his head I just grabbed him and hustled him through into the comparative warmth of the Empire.
Back in the monastery we sat in front of the lounge fire and tried to get the blood flowing again.
“I don’t think we can survive through there,” I told the others. “It was minus twenty-one there in the daytime with no wind and the sun out, so at night and in the wind it would be unbearable. Unless we had the sort of equipment used by Antarctic survey teams we’d all be dead within a couple of days.”
“I’d say there’s no life there,” Stefan added. “Or not on the surface, anyway. If there are any people there they would have to be living underground, and it would be really hard to find them. It’s possible that other portals do appear there, but I think Jake’s right: we couldn’t stick around long enough to find one, unless we were amazingly lucky and one appeared less than a day after we got there.”
“So we’re going to forget about this one,” I said, glad to discover that Stefan felt the same way I did. “I don’t know if that’s a world where there’s an Ice Age going on, or if somehow the planet is further away from the sun – though I doubt that, because it looks as if there were people on the surface at one time – or maybe the sun itself is dying. But whatever is responsible, we can’t go there. So we’ll have to wait and see what the other two have to offer.”
Of course there was a major drawback to the remaining two portals: both were erratic and unstable and didn’t appear at set intervals, and that meant that if we committed ourselves to one of them we might not be able to get back easily: it might mean camping out right next to the portal site and hoping not too many weeks or months – or years – went by before it reappeared. And if the world turned out to be hostile we might find ourselves trapped there. For a while I considered throwing in the towel and just suggesting a return to Vogesia, but then I thought about what we had in Elsass and decided that I wasn’t ready to give that up without a fight. No, I thought, we’ll at least try one of the others first.
I wanted to make sure that everyone else felt the same way, though, so I put it to the vote. And apparently everyone shared my point of view – at least, nobody voted the other way, not even the Greys. And that at least meant that when we found ourselves in deep, deep trouble a month or so later I could honestly say that it wasn’t just my fault…
That sounds ominous... but then given their past form it probably won't come as too much of a surprise to learn that Jake and his friends are about to find themselves in yet another fine mess...
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