by David Clarke
The only bad thing about our arrival in this world – I’ll call it ‘The Space Travel World’, I think – was the timing: we arrived on Saturday August 29th, which was right at the end of the school holidays, and that meant – or so I expected – that we would have to go straight back to school the following week. Though I suppose that it wasn’t as bad as all that, considering that the alternative might have been getting killed by the Grey soldiers up in the Hub.
But it turned out that the Residence actually had its own small classroom, and it was here that the Kerpian boys started their education – after all, since they couldn’t speak English or French they would not have been able to follow ordinary lessons. And the four of us who spoke French and/or English were sent there too to help them, because we had all been implanted with the Kerpian language during our earlier adventures.
To start with we were introduced to a couple of linguistics experts from the local university, and they listened to both the original language and our translations of it, ran it through their computers, and quickly came to the conclusion that Kerpian was a version of Hungarian. And that made things considerably easier, because they already had translation programs available for Hungarian.
In a way it was harder for Alain and Oli, because although they could read Kerpian they couldn’t read French or English, which of course used a different alphabet; and so they were put on an elementary reading and typing course to teach them to read and type in French, which they both spoke fluently already. Stefan decided to use the opportunity to improve his French, and I thought I might as well try to learn the local dialect, which was called Elsassisch. And so our language learning, interspersed with some basic history – because of course we knew nothing about this world beyond the little I had learned from Dr Feldela and Colin Jordan – got under way. We were told that if we made sufficient progress we would all be moved to the local school the following trimester.
As if that wasn’t enough to keep us occupied, in the third week Stefan and I got a visit from a couple of scientists from the capital, Strossburi. They wanted to talk to us about what we had seen on the computer in Hub Two – clearly Dr Feldela had passed on what I had told him about it. We explained to the scientists that we hadn’t understood any of what we had read, and in most cases we had simply flipped to the next page as soon as we realised that what was in front of us was incomprehensible gobbledegook, but that didn’t seem to put them off in the slightest. And before too long we found ourselves on a train heading north to the capital to help with their research.
We weren’t exactly compelled to go, but we were told that it would virtually guarantee that our new papers would come through very quickly if we co-operated. We held out long enough to ensure that the promise extended to all eleven of us and not just me and Stefan, and then we said that of course we would be delighted to help.
I’d never been to Strasbourg in my own world, though I had seen a few pictures, and the one thing I noticed was that in this world the cathedral had two spires: in my world – and apparently in Stefan’s – it only had one. I wasn’t sure about it, to be honest: the lopsided façade it had in my world made the cathedral unique; with two spires it was just another cathedral.
We were taken to the university, allocated two rooms (in practice we left my room empty and I slept with Stefan in his) and taken to a room where we spent an extremely dull two weeks asleep. This was because they used some sort of hypnotic technique to put us into a trance and then attempted to retrieve from the depths of our memories the various pages we had viewed on Dead Guy’s computer at the Hub. They were lucky that we had chosen to look at the computer in English, because it made the job of reconstructing what we had seen a lot easier.
During our free time we wandered around the city sightseeing or just stayed in bed entertaining ourselves – we locked the door when we were doing that, even though we knew that attitudes to sex in this country were a great deal more relaxed than in either of the worlds we had come from originally.
Eventually the scientists said that they thought they had recovered everything that was recoverable, and that we could go back home to Milhüsa.
“Was it any use to you?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. It might take us a while to put everything together, but you’ve given us some useful material. I would say that there is a genuine possibility that we will be able to open a portal to the world that built the Nexus Room. And if we can talk to their scientists, we might be able to build a Room of our own.”
“Well, if you do, and if you can find the world where I was born… do you think I might be allowed to use it? I mean, I like this world a lot, and I’m very happy here, but I’d like at least to be able to tell my parents that I’m safe.”
“I’m sure that would be possible. But don’t get your hopes up just yet: it’ll probably be quite a long time before we even manage to establish a portal to the last world you were in, and according to the records you saw it was sometimes years between the creation of successful portals.
“All the same, we’ll keep you informed. We might need to speak to you again once we get a bit closer to actually building a portal, but for now we’d just like to thank you for your help. Can you find your own way back to the station?”
And that was it, apparently. In fact I was a little more optimistic about being able to revisit my own world now, because I was sure the Kerpians would have records of the co-ordinates for it, and I was equally sure that, once the Grey problem had been solved, they would want to reconstruct the Hub Two Nexus Room – and that would mean rebuilding the portal to my home world. If, that was, the bomb had actually gone off, because we had no way of knowing whether it had done the job of sealing the portal to the Grey world or not.
We took the train home and resumed our studies, but we hadn’t heard the last about our trip to Strossburi because, four days after we got back, the director of the Residence called me and Stefan into his office.
“I’ve got a present for you,” he said, and he handed me a package about the size of a half-brick.
I opened this up with the help of Stefan’s knife and discovered a pile of Identity Booklets and eleven plastic cards, each stuck to the outside of a small envelope.
“Those are your credit accounts,” the director explained. “As I told you when you first got here, you’re paid a small amount for studying, just so you can afford to buy clothes and other bits and pieces, and now you have your cards you can access your savings at any time: you just present the card in the store when you want to buy something. The envelopes contain the access codes you’ll need to authorise purchases, and the ones you’ll need to contact the bank by computer to check how much you have. And I can tell you that you two have rather more in your accounts than the others: the scientists made quite a generous payment for the help you gave them last week and the week before.”
“Oh. Is there some way we can transfer our money to someone else’s account using the computer?”
“Of course. Go to the bank site and you’ll see how to do it. Anyway, if you’d like to give the others their cards… and their ID papers, of course: you’re now all officially citizens of Elsass. Congratulations!”
It was good to know that we now had a proper legal status in the community, though the way everyone had treated us so far meant that even without papers we hadn’t worried at all about our position: this really did seem to be a friendly world.
We took the ID papers and bank cards down to the school-room and interrupted everyone’s studies long enough to hand them all round. I handed the ID papers out first, and while everyone was examining them I went round again with the bank cards. This took longer than it might have done: I’d handed the ID papers out using the photos on the front to identify the holders, but the bank cards had no photos and gave only the holder’s surname, one initial and an ID number. And I had no idea what the Kerpians’ surnames were – although I'd looked at the memo Hansi pinched from Mr Jaecklin's office, I'd skipped over the surnames.
Alain had decided to keep the name I had chosen for him when we first went to the mine, and so his card was in the name of De Columbarier A. However, Oli had apparently decided to take the same name, since they had a relationship somewhere between brothers and partners, and so his card was in the name of De Columbarier O.
I was able to guess at most of the Kerpians’ surnames from their initials, though Hansi’s real name turned out to be Johannes and Markus’s first name was actually Hermann (“I hate it,” he told us. “I like my second name a lot better, so I’ve been Markus for years. But the director asked for our full names, and I thought I ought to be honest – after all, this world is a new start for me: I wasn’t very honest back home and I wanted to change.”) And we had two names starting with ‘T’, so Tibor and Tommi had to enlighten us as to their surnames (Hedj and Ulmer respectively, although Tommi told us that he had changed his name back to his birth name of Ulmer, rather than his legal name of Paulauskas, which he had been forced to take when his mother had remarried).
Of course, once they had the cards they wanted to check and see how much money they had. As we weren’t sure of the value of the Credit this was actually a bit meaningless, though we did discover that Stefan and I were both around five hundred credits better off than the others. I wanted us to share the extra around so that everyone was equally well off, but Markus refused to let us.
“You’re the ones who got us here,” he said. “And you’ve just had to have the insides of your heads examined for about two weeks, which I don’t suppose was a lot of fun. I think you’ve earned the extra. Okay, if it turns out that one of us actually needs more money, maybe we’ll ask, but otherwise it’s yours. And if you don’t shut up about it I’ll have to thump you.”
And I thought that was reason enough to let the matter drop.
For the next few weeks nothing much changed. We went on studying, and when we were free, usually at weekends, we went exploring, sometimes together and sometimes individually or in smaller groups. One weekend Stefan took us all out on a bicycle expedition (the director somehow arranged for the loan of eleven bicycles) to the forest he had talked about, and we had fun running about, playing war games and climbing trees. We found a couple of miradors, which were platforms that hunters had built high up in the branches of trees, ideal for watching out for wild boar. One of these was in a poor state of repair and so we didn’t risk actually climbing the thoroughly unsafe-looking wooden ladder, but the other was in far better condition. It even had a roof so that the hunters wouldn’t get wet in bad weather, and we all thought it made a good base for our games. Stefan said that in his world there were several of these dotted across the forest, and we decided that on future days off we would try to locate some of them.
And the following weekend Stefan and I rode out on our own. We headed for a different part of the forest to start with, but it started to rain shortly after we reached the forest and so we diverted to the mirador we knew about in order to take shelter. We left the bikes at the foot of the ladder and climbed quickly up.
This platform was well-constructed, with low sides as well as the roof, and coupled with the canopy of branches higher up the tree it provided a complete shelter from the weather; and the hunters who had built it had even put an old piece of carpet on the floor. The weather wasn’t cold, and now that we were out of the rain and had taken off our wet jackets we felt fine, even though we were only wearing tee-shirts and shorts. Stefan settled into a corner, put his arm round my shoulders and pulled me close to him.
“Are you happy?” he asked me, speaking Kerpian as we usually did between ourselves: even though his French was improving and his English was pretty solid, his Kerpian was implanted and so more fluent than either. And, of course, so was mine.
“You know I am,” I replied, nestling against him.
“So am I,” he said. “Very happy. Look, Jake… if they do manage to open a portal… you’re not really going to go back to your world, are you?”
“Well, I might go for a quick visit, I think. But I wouldn’t really want to stay there: this is a far more interesting world than mine. And, besides, all our friends are here.”
“Well, if you do go, can I come with you?”
“Of course you can! Though I’m not quite sure how it would go down with my parents… I can sort of imagine saying, ‘Hello, Mum and Dad – this is my boyfriend. His father’s in the SS and he’s in the Hitler Youth.’ I’m not sure they’d be altogether happy…”
“I’m not in the HJ yet,” he pointed out. “You have to be fourteen. Technically I’m still in the Jungvolk, although because I’m a cadet at a Napola I’m counted as being somewhere in between…. Except I’m not, not any more. It’s silly to even say ‘I am a cadet’ because I don’t really intend going back there, even if they do open a new portal. I suppose it would be good to get a chance to say ‘Goodbye’ to my parents, but the problem is that if I once went back I don’t think they’d let me leave again. And that’s why I was a bit worried when you said you wanted to go home. What if they wouldn’t let you leave again?”
“I’d run away if I had to. Look, Stefi, you don’t have to worry: I want to be with you, and I want to stay here. Like I said, this is a good world.”
“Good,” he said, and he hugged me hard.
For a while we sat quietly, listening to the rain.
“Jake,” he said, quietly, “I was wondering… how do you feel about us having sex?”
I stared at him. “Do you really need to ask?” I said. “I love doing stuff with you, Stefi – you know that!”
“No, I mean… you know, proper sex. Like gay boys are supposed to do.”
“Oh! Well, yes, I would like that… at least, I think so. I suppose it’s hard to know until you try, but… well, to be honest I first thought about you doing that to me a long time ago, and I decided I definitely wanted you to try.”
“No, Jake, that’s not what’s going to happen: I don’t want to do anything to you. I want to do it with you, and that’s not the same thing at all. If we’re going to do it, it should be something we share, just like when we use our hands and our mouths. So we’re not talking about me doing it to you: we’re talking about us doing it to each other.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. I’d never for a moment considered taking the active role: in every fantasy I had had about it – and I’d had a few, mostly in the days when I was kept apart from Stefan, at the mine or in the Grey world – it had been him doing it to me. He was taller, stronger and, well, bigger – okay, not a lot bigger, but he was still clearly more mature than me, and so logically I felt he should take the active role.
“Jake?” he said, when I didn’t speak. “What do you think?”
“Is that what you really want?” I asked. “To take turns, I mean?”
“Of course it is! I want to share all these things with you! We’re equals, aren’t we?”
“Well, yes, I suppose so. Okay, then: if that’s what you really want then we’ll do it that way.”
“Great!” he said, hugging me hard. “Can we set a date for the first time, so we’ve got something special to look forward to? I was thinking maybe we could do it at Yule.”
“You know, the big festival for the longest night of the year. The Christians used to celebrate Christmas then, and I expect your people had a festival of their own, too.”
“Chanukah,” I said. “And I think that’s a brilliant idea – though I’m not sure I can really wait that long…”
“Same here, but I want us to try. Besides, I was talking to Tibor and Hansi, and they both said the first time can hurt a bit unless you do some preparation first, and if we agree not to actually do it until the festival it’ll give us time to sort of work up to it. Hansi told me a few things we could try in the meantime…”
“Wow, you have been thinking about this,” I commented. I’d have been embarrassed to talk to Tibor and Hansi about it, even though I knew that this was a stupid way to feel, because all of our friends knew that Stefan and I loved each other, and all of them approved.
“I know. In fact they said they’d be happy to help us prepare by showing us the sort of things they did with each other when they were getting ready for it, and I said I’d talk to you about it and we’d let them know. So what do you think?”
“Well, if they don’t mind… after all, I suppose that the better prepared we are, the more we’ll enjoy it.”
“That’s what I thought. Thanks, Jake.” And he hugged me again, and I snuggled up even closer to him. And then I thought I ought to kiss him for being so thoughtful, and so I did, and then he kissed me back, and we spent the next half hour or so kissing and cuddling happily until the rain stopped and we were able to ride back home.
As soon as we got back I got on one of the Residence computers and printed myself out a calendar of the next three months. I discovered that this year the Festival of Lights that marks the beginning of the Chanukah celebrations would be on December 12th, whereas Yule would be on the 21st. But the big plus point for Chanukah was that the twelfth was a Saturday, and so we wouldn’t have to get up the following morning. And when I ran this past Stefan he approved entirely, and so we pinned the calendar to the wall in our room with a big red ring around December 12th.
Our studies went on. The Kerpians’ understanding of English grew steadily, and soon they were asking us to speak English to them some of the time to help them practise. Often we had to supply a Kerpian translation, but it was fun, all the same. And Oli had started to take English lessons, too, even though he was still barely able to read French, and somehow he managed to persuade the normally lazy Alain to share his lessons. By the time the mid-term holiday came round at the end of October all eleven of us were able to hold a very basic conversation in English, even though in most cases this was limited to things like ‘Pass the salt, please.’
And it was during the mid-term break that Hansi and Tibor began to show us ways to get each other ready for what we intended to do on December 12th.
“We wouldn’t do this for just anyone, you know,” commented Tibor, as they came into our room, closed the door behind them and started to undress. “But you’re a bit special. After all, if it wasn’t for you we’d still be shovelling coal all day long.”
“I nearly got you killed, though,” I pointed out, looking at the nasty scar on Hansi’s hip and the smaller one on his chest.
“It was worth taking the risk,” said Hansi. “Before the Greys came I was in an orphanage and Tibor was in the House of Detention, so we didn’t have a lot of fun even before we were sent to the mine. What we’ve got now is unbelievable. And I know the others feel the same: they’d all do anything for you two.
“Anyway… first you need to get in the mood.”
And they started to cuddle each other and to kiss. I wasn’t sure that I would have felt entirely comfortable doing that in front of an audience: okay, they’d all seen me and Stefan kissing, but only when we were fully clothed. But then I suppose that Stefan and I both came from worlds that didn’t exactly approve of this sort of behaviour, whereas in Kerpia sex between boys of the same age was perfectly acceptable.
For the next half hour they showed us all sorts of things to do, using fingers and small candles, not to mention plenty of lubricant.
“It’s actually easier doing it for real,” said Tibor. “Hansi feels a lot nicer inside me than that candle. But it’s best to spend a while getting each other ready first, especially if you’ve never done it before.”
“It’s still probably going to hurt at first,” Hansi warned us. “But I can promise it’s worth it in the end. It’s a whole lot better than anything else, even sucking… have you two tried that yet?”
We assured him that we had.
“Well, actual sex is even better. And now that we’re in the mood… do you mind if we actually do it here, or would you prefer us to go back to our own room?”
“No, go ahead,” I invited, interested to see how this would work in practice.
So first Hansi did it to Tibor, with Tibor lying across the bed on his stomach, and then, after a little cleaning up, they swapped places. Only Hansi positioned himself lying on his back with his legs raised, so that when Tibor entered him they were facing each other.
“You can do it either way round,” Tibor said, “but we prefer it like this. It’s nice being able to see each other – and you can kiss if you do it like this, too.”
We watched, fascinated, until it was over. They cleaned themselves up and got dressed, and I impulsively hugged them both.
“Thanks,” I said. “We really appreciate it. And I promise we’ll tell you what happens when we do it ourselves.”
“Do we get to come and watch?” asked Hansi, grinning at me.
“No,” I said, firmly. “Or not the first time, anyway. Maybe when we’ve practised a few times, but I bet we make a mess of it the first time, and I’d prefer to do that in private.”
“It’s okay, I’m just teasing. We don’t normally do it in public, either – unless you count Radu, but he’s been our friend for ages and he doesn’t mind. Besides, sometimes we rub him so he won’t feel too left out, and he enjoys that.”
“We ought to try to find him a boyfriend, though,” said Tibor. “Or a girlfriend… but I’m pretty sure he prefers boys, at least at the moment.”
“Did you know Markus has a girlfriend now?” asked Hansi. “They got together while you were in Strossburi. It’s hard for them to actually talk to each other, because Markus’s English is still pretty rubbishy, but I suppose talking isn’t what they’re most interested in.”
In fact I hadn’t known that. I’d noticed that Markus seemed in a good mood lately, but I hadn’t realised why. So the next day I got him on his own and asked him about it.
“That’s right, I haven’t told you,” he said. “Sorry – I meant to, I’ve just been a bit busy. Anyway, her name’s Sylvie and she lives on the first floor – in the girls’ wing, obviously, though there’s nothing to stop us visiting each other whenever we want. And she’s really nice. She’s lived here for a long time now and she likes dancing – she’s going to teach me.”
“Don’t you find it hard to talk to each other?”
“Well, we cheat: Oli interprets for us. Sylvie speaks French, after all. We just have to chase him out of the room when we want to kiss, otherwise he giggles a lot. He seems to think he and Alain kiss a lot better than me and Sylvie.”
“That’s just practice,” I told him. “You’ll just have to keep working at it until you get it right.”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking.” And he gave me a big grin.
So it looked as if our friends were starting to settle down here: Markus had found a girlfriend, Tommi – who was making faster progress in English than most of the others – had found some friends of his own age among the other residents, and all of the rest of us had already had a close friend when we arrived: Tibor and Hansi, Frank and Shander, Alain and Oli and of course me and Stefan. The only remaining singleton was Radu, and the half term break solved that problem, too.
What happened was that he went out on the Wednesday on his own, borrowing one of the Residence bikes and cycling out into the forest to continue our ongoing hunt for miradors. I didn’t get to hear the whole story until the Saturday evening, when he came and sat on my bed and told us what he had been doing for the past couple of days….
“I’d had a look at the map and checked the bits we’ve already looked at,” he told me, “and I decided to go right through to the far side of the forest and look there. And…”
Radu rode most of the way to the village of Bantzenheim, which was just beyond the eastern edge of the forest, and then he started following one of the paths that led off into the trees. And after a while he saw a mirador away through the trees, so he found some bushes to hide the bike in and then walked the rest of the way to the hunters’ platform. And this one was even better than the one we had found on our first expedition: not only did it have a proper roof, but it had complete sides as well, hinged halfway down so that one or more could be opened ready for shooting. This one, like the one we had found, had a carpeted floor, though by now we had worked out that this was probably to minimise noise, rather than purely for comfort.
So Radu climbed the ladder. At the top was a hatch in the floor which, he discovered once inside, had a bolt on, so it could be securely closed, and he thought that made this a perfect base for our games. So he sat down to rest for a bit, and promptly fell asleep.
He was woken up when he heard someone climbing the ladder. He’d left the hatch open, and before he could close it a boy’s head appeared, swiftly followed by the rest of the boy, who yelled something down the ladder. And the first thing the boy did once he was inside was to jump on Radu and pin him to the floor. A second boy followed him into the hide, and this one closed the hatch and bolted it.
The first one asked Radu something, but unfortunately he spoke in Elsassisch, and so Radu didn’t understand a word.
“I am sorry,” he said carefully in English. “I do not understand.”
“Oh, you’re foreign! Hey, Fredi, we’ve been invaded by foreigners,” said the boy to his friend, followed by a lot more that Radu didn’t understand. Fortunately he, like the rest of the Kerpian boys, had been given a hand-held translator. It wasn’t perfect because it had been set to translate English to Hungarian and vice versa, and Kerpian wasn’t exactly the same as Hungarian, but it was better than nothing. So as soon as the boy got off him he pulled this from his bag and turned it on.
Over the next five minutes he established that the fair-haired one was called Kris and the dark-haired one was called Fredi, that they lived in Bantzenheim, that they were thirteen (and so a few months older than him: he was still only twelve and a half) and that this mirador belonged to Kris’s uncle, who wouldn’t be using it this season because he had broken his right arm. And that, they said, made it their property, and any foreigners who entered it uninvited would get beaten up.
Radu apologised, told them his name and age and that he lived at our Residence but that he originally came from a long way away.
“Where, exactly?” asked Kris.
“Not in this world,” answered Radu, which led to an argument in which they accused him of lying: unlike Colin Jordan, these two had never heard of a parallel interchange. He swore he was telling the truth and offered to prove it, if they didn’t mind coming back to the Residence with him, but they said it was far too far to walk, and that the only way to deal with liars was to beat them up. And that led to a fight, though in fact they didn’t actually beat him up, just pinned him down and tickled him until he begged for them to stop.
They talked for a bit longer afterwards: Radu tried to explain where he came from, which was difficult because there was no such place as ‘Kerpia’ in this world. But eventually he told them that he had been born near the Black Sea, and that they did understand.
“Wow, that’s hundreds of kilometres away,” said Fredi. “You must be Bulgarian or Romanian or Bessarabian, or something like that. No wonder you can’t speak English or French very well. What’s it like there?”
“It was all right most of the time. But I didn’t get on with my family, and in the end I ran away and got put in an orphanage.”
“That sounds rough,” sympathised Fredi. “Well, perhaps we won’t beat you up, then. Fancy a swim?”
“A swim? Where?”
“In the canal, of course. Come on, we’ll show you.”
They led him less than a hundred meters from the hide and there was a canal running through the forest. It seemed to be more for irrigation purposes than anything else because it was only about five metres wide, and there was no towpath, just ordinary banks. If it hadn’t been dead straight Radu would have thought it was a natural river.
Fredi and Kris threw their clothes off and jumped in. Radu hesitated: he had bad memories of the last time he had been outdoor swimming. But after a few seconds he decided to join them: it was a very warm day for late October, and the water looked good. So he stripped off and jumped in, and found that the water came up to his shoulders in the middle, and that there was an appreciable current: trying to swim against it he was hard pressed to make any headway at all, but going with the current he was able to swim a lot faster than he had been able to do in the Danube back home, because the river near his house was merely meandering along. And it felt really good, too: the water wasn’t really very cold at all.
For a good hour they swam about, chasing each other and having races, and Radu was able to demonstrate that he was totally at home in the water. And it was nice to have someone else to swim with, too, even if they did gang up on him and duck him now and again.
Eventually they got out. Kris and Fredi had brought towels with them, but they opted to share one and handed the other to Radu. This gave him a good opportunity to check them out, and he was able to see that Kris was a little bigger than he was, and that Fredi was about the same size, and that both had a little hair. In fact they looked quite similar to Hansi and Tibor in terms of size, though Hansi had no hair yet. And Radu found himself wondering if these two were partners as well as friends. In his own world he would have asked, but he wasn’t sufficiently sure of social customs here to risk it.
“Do you want to come back for something to eat?” Kris asked him once they were dressed. “Only I’ve got an atlas at home, so maybe you can show us where you come from.”
So Radu accepted, pushing his bike along beside them as they walked back to the village, and up in Kris’s bedroom he looked at the atlas and tried to work out where he had been born. It wasn’t immediately clear, because in his world the whole area from the Black Sea to beyond the Vosges was a single country, whereas here it was several different states; but eventually he realised that the town which in this world was called Tulcea was the place he had lived in Kerpia.
“That’s it,” he said. “We lived about ten ezerhersps… that’s about nine kilometres, I think – outside the town – about there.” And he pointed to a spot on the map.
“That makes you Romanian…at least, it does if all that nonsense about coming from a different world is just lies.”
“It isn’t! It’s true, I swear – and next time I come I’ll prove it!”
“So you want to come and play with us again, do you?”
“Well… yes, if you’d like me to.”
“I don’t know… what do you think, Fredi?”
And the two of them went into a huddle and jabbered at each other in Elsassisch, before Kris finally turned back to him and said, “Of course we would. You’re a good swimmer – and you’re fun, even if you do tell lies. So, what are you doing tomorrow?”
“Good. We’ll meet you at the mirador at two o’clock.”
So next day Radu was waiting at the hide at two o’clock, and today he had brought a copy of his legal paperwork with him. This was the document that we had all been given to attest to the fact that we had entered this world through a parallel interchange, which was why there were no birth or other papers for us.
Kris and Fredi arrived five minutes later, and today there was a third boy with them, a slightly younger boy with curly black hair and blue eyes… and Radu thought he looked stunning: he could barely take his eyes off him.
“This is Marc,” Kris told him. “He lives next door to me and he usually comes with us when we play out here, but he was away with his parents yesterday. He’s the same age as you, so maybe you’ll have stuff in common – except he can hardly swim, and he doesn’t tell lies all the time, either.”
“Neither do I,” said Radu indignantly, and he handed over his naturalisation papers.
Kris and Fredi read them carefully, but Marc didn’t bother: instead he just looked at Radu, smiling.
“I like your earring,” he said, shyly. “I’ve never seen a boy wearing one before.”
“Oh! Well, they’re quite common where I come from. We had to take them off while we were in the Hub because of the barriers and I didn’t get time to rescue mine before we left, but I was able to buy a pair just like it here. The shopkeeper seemed surprised, though: he thought I was buying them for my girlfriend, or something, and when I put one of them in my own ear he gave me a very funny look. Still, because they only sell them in pairs here at least I’ve got a spare if I lose it again.”
“Oh. I’d sort of like to try wearing one… I think yours looks nice.”
“You’d have to have your ear pierced first. That was easy for us because everyone in my family wore them, and there were lots of people who knew how to make holes in ears safely; but here you’d probably have to go to a place that normally only deals with women, and they’d probably look at you a bit funny.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” said Marc, quietly.
“No, he’s used to being looked at funny,” said Kris. “Aren’t you, pube-head? Anyone who has pubes on his head and none on his cock is going to get funny looks.”
“Shut up!” said Marc. “You didn’t have any either until about a year ago. I’m sure I’ll get some soon.”
“Don’t worry,” said Radu. “I haven’t got any yet either.”
“Really?” said Marc, looking at him gratefully.
“Really. If we go swimming later you’ll be able to see for yourself.”
”Well,” said Fredi, handing him back his papers, “looks like all that stuff was true after all: you really do come from a different world. That’s pretty amazing. Tell us about it.”
So they sat in the hide while Radu told them a bit about Kerpia and how he and the other orphanage kids had been sent to the mine after the Greys invaded.
“It was really bad there,” he said. “We didn’t get enough food and we had to work really hard shovelling coal all day. And then one of my friends at the Residence here came up with this brilliant plan to rescue us…”
He told them about the flight to the Hub and the battle there against the Greys, and how they had found the emergency exit just when they had given up hope.
“Wow, that makes our lives seem really boring!” commented Fredi. “I wish I’d had an adventure like that!”
“It sounds exciting when I look back at it now,” said Radu, “but at the time I really thought I was going to die. And we so easily could have done. Adventures are best from the outside, I think. I’m in no hurry to have another one, anyway.”
“I think you were all really brave to try to fight against real soldiers like you did,” said Marc. “I think I’d have just tried to hide under a bed or something.”
“I don’t think you would. It’s surprising what you can do when there’s no real choice.”
By now the batteries on Radu’s translator were showing signs of failing, and so he suggested they should go for a swim, as that wouldn’t involve any real talking. So they went to the canal and swam for a while. And Marc really wasn’t much good at swimming, though he was happy to splash about with the others.
“You swim really well,” he said to Radu at one point. “I wish I could swim like that.”
“It is practice,” said Radu, whose English just about stretched that far. “Perhaps I help you to practise.”
“I’d really like that!”
Today Radu had brought a towel, and so he was able to start drying himself as soon as he got out. And Marc came and started to use his own towel right next to him, which gave Radu a chance to look… and he saw that Marc was circumcised, just as he was himself. It was slightly smaller than his, and there was no hair.
“Oh, wow, you look the same as me!” said Marc, doing just as much looking as Radu was… and then Marc began to get an erection. Flustered, he tried to hide it with his towel, but Fredi whipped the towel away, grinning, and Marc gave a cry and ran off naked into the trees.
“That wasn’t very nice,” said Radu, turning his translator on again.
“I thought it was funny… but I suppose you’re right. Marc’s okay, but there are times I wish he wasn’t always hanging around. It’s pretty obvious he likes you, though.”
“Do you think so?” asked Radu, pulling his pants on.
“Of course.” And he did an impersonation of Marc. “’Oh, I really like your earring… oh, you’re a really good swimmer… oh, you’re really brave…’ Come on, Radu, it’s obvious he fancies you!”
“’Oh’? Is that all you can say? Don’t worry, we won’t let him come with us next time if you don’t want him to.”
“No! No… I mean, I like him, too. I’d better go and see if he’s all right.”
Radu finished dressing, grabbed the translator and Marc’s towel, which Fredi had just dropped on the ground, and headed off into the woods.
“We’ll wait for you at the mirador,” Kris called after him.
Marc hadn’t got very far because he had bare feet and there were too many bramble-bushes around. Radu found him about fifty metres away, huddled down at the base of a tree and sobbing.
“It’s okay,” he said, kneeling down facing him and putting the translator down between them. “That happens to me all the time.”
“I swear. It’s natural. In fact it would probably have happened to me back there if you hadn’t run off.”
Radu took a deep breath, hoping that Fredi’s assessment was accurate. “Because I think you’re really good-looking,” he said. “Especially naked.”
“Do you really mean that?”
“Oh. Because… well… I think the same about you.”
“I don’t see how you could think that. I’m just ordinary.”
“No, you’re not! You’ve done masses of things I never will, and… and I think you’re really handsome, too. And it’s amazing the way our… you know… look the same. I’ve never met anyone else who has one like mine. They had to cut part of the skin off when I was little because the hole in the end was too small and it wouldn’t open properly. Is that what happened to you?”
“Not exactly.” And Radu told him about his cousins and the fish hook.
“That’s horrible! How could they do something so nasty?”
Radu shrugged. “A lot worse has happened to me, or nearly happened to me, since, so I’ve more or less stopped thinking about it. Look, you’d better finish drying yourself or you’ll catch cold. Stand up.”
So Marc stood up, but Radu didn’t hand him the towel: instead he used it to dry the other boy himself. And Marc liked that, giggling a little as Radu tickled him as he dried his ribs. And then Radu moved a little lower and dried Marc’s bottom, and Marc seemed to like that, too. Radu moved on down, drying the other boy’s legs, and then stood up.
“Turn around,” he said, quietly, and Marc turned around and looked at him solemnly. And Radu dried his chest, then his stomach, and then waited…
“Carry on,” said Marc, in a whisper.
Radu very carefully cupped Marc’s small genitals in the towel and dried them slowly and gently. And when he took the towel away the penis was stiff again, standing out from the hairless groin. But this time Marc stayed where he was and made no attempt to cover himself.
“That looks nice,” said Radu.
“Do you really think so? You don’t think it’s too small?”
“No, I think it’s perfect.”
Marc smiled. “Fredi and Kris tease me because I haven’t got any hair yet, but they’re both a year older than me, so I don’t worry about it too much. So… please can I see yours?”
Radu undressed, and by the time his briefs came off he was stiff, too, and so they were able to make a proper comparison. And Radu was a little longer and thicker, but not by much.
“I think yours looks nice, too,” said Marc. “Please… I mean, would you mind if... that is…”
“Could I touch it, please?”
“Oh. Okay, then – as long as I can touch yours…”
So they spent a couple of minutes feeling each other, and Radu thought it was a really exciting sensation. Sometimes Hansi and Tibor had masturbated him, but somehow simply touching and being touched by Marc felt even better than that. And when Marc said, “We’d better get dressed and go, or they’ll come looking for us,” Radu was very disappointed. But he realised that Marc was right, and so he got dressed and then gave the other boy a piggy-back to the side of the canal, where Marc had left his clothes. Once Marc was dressed Radu turned to head back to the mirador, but Marc grabbed his arm and held him back.
“Please can we do this again?” he asked. “This and… maybe other things.” And he blushed.
“I’d like that,” answered Radu, feeling himself getting hard again. “I’d like that a lot.”
“Great! Maybe I can help you with your English, and then perhaps we can… you know… sort of undress again, and do some stuff together…”
“That would be great!” said Radu, getting even harder.
“Good,” said Marc, giving him a dazzling smile. “Come on!” and he ran off towards the mirador.
Just before Radu left to go home Kris managed to get him on his own.
“So, do you think you and Marc are going to be friends?” he asked.
“Good. He’s a nice kid, Radu. And it’ll be more fun playing here with four of us than with three, too. Have you got a chipfone?”
“No, not yet. But I’ve got some credits saved up, so I can probably get one.”
“Okay. I’ll give you my number, then you can phone me to let us know when you’re free to come out this way. And I expect Marc will want to give you his number, too…”
“… so I definitely want to get a phone,” Radu concluded his story.
“I’ll give you the money if you haven’t got enough,” I promised him. “And I’ll help with your English, too, if you want. Working through a pocket translator can’t be ideal, no matter how good those things are.”
“Thanks. I really hope this works out.”
“So do I. I didn’t like you being the only one of us who didn’t have someone special. So, are you going to invite Marc to come and visit you here?”
“Would I be allowed to?”
“I’m sure you would. And I’m pretty sure Hansi and Tibor could be persuaded to go and do something else for a couple of hours and leave the room to you and Marc.”
So the mid-term break came to an end and we got back to our studies, and as the end of the year grew steadily closer Stefan and I spent a little while two or three times a week doing the things that Hansi and Tibor had taught us so that we would be ready to make our first attempt at a proper joining on December 12th. November gave way to December, and then we were into the final week of our countdown, and then…
Then one of the portal scientists from Strossburi arrived at the Residence. Stefan and I were called to the director’s office to talk to him.
“We think we’re ready to open a portal into the world you came here from,” he told us. “And, since you two can speak the language and know the country and the people, we want you to go through it for us…”