by David Clarke
We were aware of the change of temperature as soon as we were clear of the mist: it was like stepping out of a blizzard into the furnace room at the mine at Hintraten. Verdess stopped the truck once we were fifty metres or so from the mist and we all got out and removed our jackets, scarves, pullovers and so on. We packed all our thick clothing away in our bags. Of course if we found a portal to take us home we’d need them again, but it didn’t seem likely that we’d need anything more than a thin shirt and shorts until then. The problem, of course, was that none of us had a thin shirt or shorts: we’d left home in the middle of a European winter and had been dressed accordingly.
Once we’d removed our outer clothing we got back into the truck and drove on. There was a rough track leading from the portal up the valley, and we followed this for a hundred metres or so until it came to a high fence. There was a gate in the fence, and next to the gate a small hut, and just as we reached the gate a vehicle arrived from the opposite direction. It looked like a golf buggy, though it seemed to be a bit faster than any I had seen before.
Two men in long white robes jumped out of it and came towards us, and the one in front ordered us, in heavily accented German, to stay where we were. Stefan and I got out of the truck and waited, and the man went on in hesitant German to say that we couldn’t come in and would have to return to… And then he broke off and stared past us, and when I turned round I saw that Torth had got out of the back of the truck and come to see what the hold up was.
“Jesus H!” the man exclaimed. “What the fuck are you?”
“You speak English?” I asked, and he stopped staring at Torth and stared at me instead.
“Who the hell are you guys?” he asked. “And what’s with the dinosaur in trousers? Where have you come from?”
“It’s a long story,” I said.
“Don’t worry, this is a slow sort of country. We won’t rush you… but maybe it would be better to discuss it in comfort. Okay, I’m going to open the gate, and then I’d like you to follow me up to St Mary. Don’t stop, don’t turn off, don’t do anything to annoy me – I’d hate to have to hunt you down, and I’d be seriously pissed when I caught you. Okay?”
“Okay,” I agreed, and we got back into the truck. The man unlocked the gate and pushed it open, and we drove through it and waited behind his golf buggy while he locked the gate again. Then, while his colleague walked over to the hut and went inside, he got back into the buggy, turned it round and drove off along the track, and we followed him. The track eventually led to a proper road, and that led up into the mountains in a series of zigzags, and at one point quite high up I glanced out of the side window.
“Bloody hell!” I exclaimed – we were high enough up now to be able to see over the trees and out across the plain of Alsace, except that the plain wasn’t there: instead there was a vast expanse of water, apparently stretching all the way across to the Kaiserstuhl and Black Forest on the far side of the Rhine.
“That’s interesting,” commented Stefan. I thought that was something of an understatement, but he declined to elaborate – I suppose he thought we’d get the full story when we reached St Mary, wherever that was.
It turned out to be around fifteen kilometres from the portal. We went through a couple of other small communities first, and then arrived at a larger place. We followed the buggy into the yard of a large building in the centre of town and parked next to it, and then disembarked and waited for further instructions. If the man who had greeted us was surprised to see two more ‘dinosaurs’ at least he didn’t say so: instead he led us into the building and to a room that was just about big enough to hold us all. There were benches around the walls, so at least we could sit down.
“Sorry it isn’t more comfortable,” said the man. “This is about the biggest room we have – it’s actually the changing room for our exercise room. We’ll try to find something a bit better, but this will do to start with. So – my name’s Emile Schwarz, I’m a police sergeant, and this is where I work. Who are you?”
So I gave him everyone’s name.
“Thank you. Of course, that was the easy bit,” he said. “Now – what are you doing here?”
I gave him the brief version, which was that we’d landed up in the Grey world by accident and were trying to find a way home, and that the three Greys had come with us to escape the war that was going on in their world.
“Right,” said Sgt Schwarz. “I was wondering, because we have an arrangement with the religious bunch at the other end of the tunnel: we try to stop people going from our world to theirs, and they try to stop people coming here. Except of course you’re not from their world, and I guess that’s why they let you through. But what makes you think you can get back to your home from here?”
“Well, I don’t know that we can, but we have to try to find a portal – a tunnel, you called it – somewhere, and we thought this would be a good place to start looking. Normally we’d check around here, and if that didn’t work out we’d head over to the Black Forest, because we know there’s another area over there where tunnels often appear. Except it looks like that might be a bit difficult… where did all the water come from?”
“The ocean… okay, that’s a bit too short an answer. Well, about sixty-five years ago the planet got hit by a large asteroid, and it had the effect of knocking the earth off its previous axis – so all the polar ice wasn’t at the poles any more, and so it melted. I’m glad I wasn’t around back then, because it looked for a while as if the whole human race might disappear, and billions didn’t make it. First there was burning fallout everywhere, then the debris in the atmosphere blocked out the sun for about a year and a half. A lot of species died out completely, and, like I say, so did the vast majority of humans. The only ones who survived were the ones who managed to get into deep and well-stocked shelters up in the mountains. And even they were struggling to find food and fresh water for years afterwards.
“The Americans basically saved the rest of us: they were better organised and managed to secure supplies and animals and seeds and so on in huge bases in the Rocky Mountains. In Asia the British and Japanese, who had been fighting only a few weeks before, combined to build shelters in the Himalayas – the Japanese army had good engineers, and it made sense for everyone to join forces. Other nations did the same thing on a smaller scale. And after it was over and the sun was visible again the survivors came out and started to try to rebuild what had gone.
“And once they got their own house in order the Yanks came and bailed the rest of us out with food and equipment, and the British and Japanese did the same for as much of Asia as stayed above water. Things have been stable for the last twenty years or so: there are plenty of fish, and we can grow enough food to live on, and the Japanese developed a cheap desalination system, which means that fresh water isn’t a problem any more either. We have solar and wind power to generate electricity, and here we have some geothermic energy, too. We get by – in fact to be honest it’s not a bad lifestyle at all. It’s a lot more relaxed than it used to be, according to the old-timers.”
“And why is it so hot?” I asked.
“Because we’re a lot nearer the equator now than we used to be. When the earth’s axis moved it effectively shunted the Tropic of Cancer up to the Mediterranean, which means the average temperature here is about fifteen to twenty degrees – Celsius, in case you use something else – hotter than it used to be. At this time of year that’s nice, but in the summer it gets very hot indeed – in the high thirties most days - and we mostly stay indoors during the day. And you’ll find that this sort of costume is a lot more comfortable than what you’re wearing now.”
“That could be a problem, because I bet you don’t accept any of the money we’ve got.”
“Probably not. Have you got anything you could sell?”
“Well, we’ve got a lot of thick clothes, but I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t get many offers for those. And we’ve got some…”
I’d been about to mention our weapons, but then it struck me that this was a policeman, and so probably he’d just confiscate them, rather than buying them. So instead I said, “Food. Tinned meat, mostly. I don’t know if that would get us very much, though.”
“You might be surprised – we don’t have anything like as much meat as there was before the asteroid, because most of the cattle and sheep died. The Americans managed to keep some lines alive, but meat has become a lot more expensive. If you have some proper tinned meat you might find that there’s a good market for it. I know a couple of dealers who would probably give you a good price – I’ll ask around for you. And you’re going to need some money because you’ll need somewhere to stay.”
“Well, we’ve got tents,” I said. “If you’ve got a camp site or something we can stay there.”
“That will save you some money, then. Let’s just wait until we find out how much you can get for your food, and then we’ll know what you can afford. If you don’t have too much money you can always earn some – they are usually looking for help cleaning fish, for a start. That pays about three dollars an hour, I think.”
“Yes – everyone uses American dollars now, because we don’t have the facilities to keep changing money from one currency to another. It’s why we all speak English, too: it’s the international language for everyone, even the Japanese – and they say almost ninety percent of their population is completely fluent now. We mostly try to keep our old national languages alive, but only at home, or in those specialist bars where people care about it enough to make the effort. Anyway, if you’d like to go and find me a sample of your tinned meat I’ll start calling round for you.”
“This is very kind,” I said when I got back a couple of minutes later with a can in each hand.
“Not really. If you’ve got money you’ll be no trouble to anyone. If you haven’t, you might be tempted to beg or steal or hustle or something, and that would make work for me and my men.”
He took the tins from me and peered uncomprehendingly at the labels, which were of course in Grey. “What exactly is this?” he asked.
“Corned beef,” I told him. “That one is straight corned beef, the other one is beef and kidney.”
“That sounds unusual… wonder what it tastes like?”
“Open it and try,” I invited him, so he went and found a tin-opener, opened up and dug a knife into the contents. He transferred a little to his mouth and chewed, and it was obvious from his expression that he liked it.
“I’m sure there’s a market for this,” he said. “Wait there and I’ll go make those calls.”
In due course he came back to tell me that he had an offer of ten dollars a tin for the straight corned beef and twelve fifty for the other one.
“And if he’s offering ten it means he knows he can get at least fifteen, if not twenty,” he told me. “Offer him twelve and a half and fifteen and I’m sure he’ll agree. Come through to the office and you can talk to him yourself.”
So I did that, giving the prices the sergeant had suggested, and the dealer on the phone hemmed and hawed for a bit and then agreed. “How many have you got?” he asked.
“A case of each,” I told him. “I’d have to check, but I think it’s about a hundred tins to a case.”
“What about a discount for bulk buying?” he asked.
“If you didn’t think you could sell them all you wouldn’t take them. But… I don’t know, I suppose I could go five percent off for cash?”
“Seven and a half.”
I took his address and said we’d be along shortly. If I’d known there was that much money in Grey army rations I’d have filled the truck with them, though I supposed we could try stocking up with meat from the butchers’ shops in Schlettstadt and then bring it back next time the portal was available… Still, I reckoned we weren’t really here to make money.
In actual fact we had more than two cases: there was a third one which we’d been using since we left Hilsstok. But I wanted to hang on to that one – after all, if we didn’t find another portal we might have to feed ourselves until we could get back to the monastery, and that might be five or six weeks away.
So I went with Verdess and Sgt Schwarz – who I thought probably wanted to keep an eye on me in case I decided to try disappearing – to the dealer’s address. I got Verdess to wait in the truck – there was no point in raising unnecessary questions – and the sergeant and I carried the two cases inside.
“I’ve brought you a free tin to try,” I told the man. “After all, I wouldn’t expect you to pay for something you haven’t tried for yourself.”
And after he’d tried it the dealer seemed even more enthusiastic about the deal, which made me wonder how much he was going to sell the tins for – would it be like expensive caviar back home, where people pay ridiculous money for small tins of the stuff? But then I decided that the price we were getting was good enough: if it was five times the hourly minimum wage it would be worth around thirty pounds a tin back in the land of my birth. If he could sell it for more than that, good luck to him.
Although it was both a Saturday and Boxing Day the shops and, more importantly, the banks, were open. French banks generally opened on a Saturday morning, and Boxing Day wasn’t a holiday in most of Europe in my original world, so I wasn’t too surprised about this. And it meant that, with Sgt Schwarz along to guarantee that everything was above board, I was able to take the dealer’s cheque to his bank and draw cash. In fact there had been a hundred and twenty tins in each case, so I walked out of the bank with three thousand and fifty-two dollars and fifty cents in my pocket, which I thought ought to be enough to keep all ten of us going for quite a long time, especially if we were going to be living in tents.
When we got back to the police station I gave Sgt Schwarz the odd fifty-two dollars as an agent’s fee, together with five tins of meat. I don’t know if that constituted a bribe or not, but I supposed it would do no harm to have the local police sergeant looking out for us. And he seemed very happy with it.
By the time the shops closed for lunch we’d bought ourselves some more suitable clothes: shorts and tee shirts, and also a long white robe of the sort that the sergeant and most other people on the streets were wearing. As we weren’t used to the sun he also advised us to get hats with a sort of cloth hanging at the back to cover the neck, rather like the ones the French Foreign Legion used to wear. And we also bought plenty of sun-block. This all cost rather less than I had expected, which suggested that corned beef really was this world’s version of caviar.
We’d been a bit worried about taking the Grey boys with us, but the sergeant assured us that, once people got over the initial shock of their faces, they’d be accepted. “We’re very easy-going here,” was how he put it. And he seemed to be right: although the shopkeeper stared at them he managed to maintain his aplomb throughout. He didn’t have hats that would fit them, but they each took a robe like ours.
“I’d suggest you find somewhere to put up your tents next,” the sergeant said. “You might want to go back down towards the shore – there are plenty of areas down there where nobody will bother you. Just go back the way we came, and when you get to the fence, turn left. And if you need any help with anything, you know where to find me.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Look… it’s obvious you know about the tunnel back to the Empire – but have you ever seen one going anywhere else?”
“Sorry. That one appears fairly regularly, which is why we’ve fenced it off and put up a camera and a guard post, but I’ve never heard of any other. You’re welcome to look around, though. And if you want to go over to Greater Bavaria later on and have a look there, like you said, just let me know. There are boats that make the crossing most days, or if you want to go a bit further inland on that side there’s a passenger airship every Wednesday.”
So we got back into the lorry and drove back the way we had come. I didn’t recognise all of the trees we drove past, but there were a couple of olive groves, which I didn’t think had existed in the Vosges previously. And as we got closer to the water there were palm trees of some sort, too.
We found a fairly flat clearing for our camp a hundred metres or so from the beach. The first thing we did was to change into our new robes, because thick winter trousers are not a good idea when undertaking physical work in a hot climate. Oli, predictably, declared that he didn’t think there was any point in wearing anything underneath the robe, and so he dumped his underwear in his bag with the rest of his clothes before pulling the robe over his head, somewhat hampered by his right arm, which was still in a sling. And he said that it felt so nice being naked under the robe that we all decided to do the same thing, and I have to say that Oli was absolutely right: it did feel nice.
Once we were all changed we set up the tents. We only had four of them, the three we had used before entering the Empire and one other small one, and that meant that not everyone was going to get the privacy they might have wanted. But Torth said that he and Verdess could sleep in the truck, provided we gave them some sleeping bags to sleep on, and provided also that Sarleth didn’t mind coming to visit them from time to time.
“Okay,” I agreed. “But not until his leg’s better.”
“I’m fine now,” said Sarleth. “And I find sex pleasurable, so there’s no reason for me not to spend time with Torth and Verdess.”
“Oh, right,” I said, surprised: at Haless’s school the boys had taken the female role for each other, but none of them except Ssyrl had actually enjoyed it, as far as I could make out, because they had found it shameful to play a female role. Apparently that wasn’t the case in Sarleth’s world.
So I gave the small tent to Sarleth and Tommi, since they wouldn’t need a lot of extra room, especially if Sarleth was going to be sleeping in the truck a lot. Stefan and I took the one I had used as the kitchen, and the other two went to Marc and Radu and Alain and Oli.
“Can we go and see what the water’s like?” asked Radu, when everything was set up and our bags had been put away in the tents.
“Sure – in fact that’s a really good idea.” I turned to Torth. “Do you guys swim?”
“Of course. All reptiles swim.”
“And do you find it pleasurable?”
“When the conditions are hot, I think it would be.”
“Then let’s go and find out.”
And the water was really nice, warm and clear and not too rough. Oli couldn’t do much more than sit in the shallows and paddle, and Marc couldn’t swim and so stayed and kept him company, but the rest of us swam and dived and splashed each other and raced and generally had a brilliant time. Even Sarleth came right in: Marc had put a waterproof dressing over the wound on his leg, but the healing was coming along nicely: Brother Gottfried, the hospitaler at the monastery, had checked it over and said that Marc had done a first-rate job. And the Greys were excellent in the water, too, and won all the races we organised.
Afterwards we dried ourselves off, applied sun-cream (except for the Greys, who said they didn’t need it) and sunbathed naked on the beach for a while. And I thought that this was a really nice place for a holiday, and that even if we didn’t find a portal I’d be quite happy to stay here until the one back to the monastery reappeared… and quite possibly for longer than that. Okay, maybe this world had problems we didn’t know about yet, but on first sight it seemed really nice.
I wondered if the brothers who had come through the portal in the early days of the monastery had been tempted to stay. I supposed that would have been breaking their vows, but even so… or perhaps they thought nude swimming and sunbathing hideously sinful? Well, they didn’t have to do it nude. And maybe the monastery could run holidays here, charging wealthy citizens of the Empire a nice sum in exchange for letting them come through the portal for a five-week holiday in the sun. I decided that if we did have to go back I’d raise the question with Brother Paul.
We rested in the tents for a while after a quick lunch – I thought we ought to take it a bit careful for the first few days until we started to tan a bit, because we certainly weren’t used to the sun being this hot. But later in the afternoon we went out for another swim, and this time while we were splashing about in the water a couple of kids came down the beach to join us. They were about eleven or twelve years old, had deep tans like kids from the south of Italy or Spain in my world, and they weren’t wearing a stitch, so clearly there was no taboo on nudity here.
“Hi,” said the first one. “I’m Eddie, and this is Bobby. We were wondering about your pets – what sort of creatures are they?”
“I’m Jake. The Greys, you mean? They’re not pets, they’re more…” I wasn’t sure that ‘friends’ was the right word, but I couldn’t think of a better one. “They’re our friends,” I went on. “They’re intelligent, same as we are, but they come from a different world.”
I expected that to attract howls of disbelief, but apparently the kids here knew about the portal, because the boy nodded.
“Right. They don’t normally let people use the tunnel, though, so how come you got through?”
“We don’t come from the religious place, we come from another world altogether. We’re lost, and we’re trying to find a way back to our own world, and the Grey boys came with us because there’s a war going on in their world. The monks let us through so that we could try to find a way home, and the police here agreed.”
“Gotcha. Say, do the lizards understand English?”
I shook my head. “They have their own language. I can speak theirs, but they can’t speak any of ours.”
“Good, because I was wondering… you said they were boys, but… well… how come they don’t have a dick?”
“They do, but it’s kept inside the body until they need it. Same with their balls. It means kicking them in the groin doesn’t hurt, which they think is a good thing, and I guess they’re right.”
“Wow… I bet Jeff wishes humans were like that, huh?” And the two boys looked at each other and laughed. “See, we got this friend called Jeff, and he’s got a seriously little dick. He gets teased a lot, so I guess he’d like it if nobody could see it. Say, can you ask one of them to show us what it looks like?”
“I don’t think so. They’re not generally keen on non-Greys seeing them. Maybe when we’ve been here for a bit longer and they relax a bit they might, but I doubt it.”
“Pity. Still, we’re usually around here quite a bit, so if they change their minds about it we’ll probably not be too far away. You gonna be here long?”
“Until the portal – the tunnel, I mean – reappears, probably, unless we find another one first. I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen another one, have you?”
“We haven’t even seen that one. What does it look like?”
“Mist, mainly. If you see mist where there isn’t usually any it might mean there’s a tunnel in it.”
“We don’t get a lot of mist here, but we’ll watch out anyway, and I’ll tell my friends to keep an eye open, too. Anyway, we gotta go. We’ll probably be back tomorrow.”
“Okay. Come and see us whenever you want.”
The next three days passed in a similar way: we took it in turns to patrol round the area of the portal in pairs, checking over outside the fence – we were confident that the police would already be aware of any other anomalies inside it – and spent most of the rest of the time on the beach. We caught some fish – there was a hut selling rods and lines half a kilometre further up the beach – and it turned out that the Greys liked fish, and that enabled us to keep our stock of meat intact. I was a bit worried about how long it would last in these temperatures, and so on the Monday Stefan and I drove up to St Mary and asked Sgt Schwarz if he could find us somewhere to store it. He agreed to find it a home for the rental of ten dollars and one tin of corned beef a week, and subsequently told us where we could buy a cold box, big enough to hold several tins, that we could run from the truck battery.
“I’ve been worrying a bit about that,” I said. “Is there somewhere we can recharge the battery?”
“Sure – you can use our charger. If the connection doesn’t fit I’ll get Officer Maurer to rig something up that will work – he’s a genius with electricity. And we’ll only charge you… say two tins a time?”
“You really like that stuff, don’t you?” I said. “Anyway, you’re on – and thanks. Now, there’s one other thing: I want to go over to the Black Forest, like I said. Can you tell me where I can get tickets for the airship on Wednesday, and where it leaves from?”
“The airfield is just outside the town – keep going the way you’re facing and you can’t miss it. And there’s a ticket office there.”
So I bought two return tickets, and on Wednesday morning after breakfast Stefan and I prepared to drive to the airfield. Before we left I took Alain to one side and gave him the bulk of our money.
“You’re in charge while we’re gone,” I told him. “I know you can manage the cooking for a couple of days. Keep looking for a portal, but otherwise just relax and enjoy yourselves. And I know you don’t like Greys, but try not to get into a fight with them, okay?”
“Hey, you can trust me… no, really! Anyway, I don’t mind these three: they generally do what you tell them without arguing, and that’s good enough for me.”
Stefan and I drove up to the airfield, and now there was an airship tethered to a mast in the middle of the field. I’d never seen one close up, and it seemed larger than I had expected. I’d seen photos of the old ones, the Graf Zeppelin, the Hindenburg and the R101, and it wasn’t as big as that, but it was big enough.
We got into the gondola with five other passengers and settled into our seats, and shortly afterwards the airship rose into the air and started to turn towards the east. And as we rose we had an incredible view: when I was nine we’d gone on holiday to Crete, and the view below the airship now reminded me of the Aegean - a large blue sea with small islands here and there. To the west beyond the Vosges it was mostly water, with just the odd little island here and there; to the east and south-east were the land-masses of the Black Forest and the Alps.
We flew steadily across the Sea of Alsace, and then we were over dry ground again, and not long after that the ship turned into the wind once more and sank towards the ground. And once it was tethered to the mooring mast the door opened and we were able to walk down a set of steps. And the first thing I saw when I looked up on reaching the foot of the steps was a terminal building that was decorated with two huge red swastika banners.
I felt a chill run through me, and I had to force myself to walk forward instead of turning and running back into the gondola and hiding under a seat. Beside me Stefan looked equally shocked, though he was quickly back in control of himself.
“Let me do the talking,” he said, as we approached the terminal building.
“Wait!” I hissed in his ear. “Take off your star!”
And that did make him turn pale: he’d forgotten that he had a Jewish symbol round his neck. Fortunately it was under his robe, so nobody had seen it, and so he was able to undo the catch and slip it into a pocket without anyone realising what he was hiding.
We moved into the building, and there were men in uniforms there – those same uniforms that I’ve seen in countless films and documentaries about the Holocaust – and I was almost paralysed with fear: I was sure that I looked archetypically Jewish, and I was convinced they were going to step forward and grab me at any moment. But the uniformed types never moved, and the man at the reception desk was wearing a far more practical white robe like ours, even if he did have a swastika armband on his left sleeve.
“Welcome to Greater Bavaria,” he told us, in English. “Will you be staying long?”
Stefan shook his head. “We’ll be going back on tomorrow’s ship,” he said. “We’re just here for a short visit. We don’t have a hotel booked, but we hoped there would be something available not too far away.”
“I’m sure there will be,” said the man, handing Stefan a brochure. “This lists the hotels in the nearest towns. You’re best chance would be in Hinterzarten – there are several hotels there and I’m sure they won’t all be full.”
“Thanks. Is there a bus, by any chance? We don’t mind walking, but a bus would be quicker.”
“No, but there’s a cable car that will take you most of the way. Turn left when you leave the building. Do you have enough money for your stay?”
“Definitely,” said Stefan looking at the prices in the brochure.
“Then have a nice stay.” And he looked past us to the next arrivals.
Stefan got me moving again and we headed for the exit, but before we got there an officer in a black uniform intercepted us, and I almost wet myself.
“Your friend doesn’t look too good,” he said to Stefan. “Is he sick?”
“He doesn’t really like flying – he gets airsick,” Stefan replied. “He’ll be okay when we’ve been on solid earth for ten minutes or so.”
“Oh. Well, if you’re going to vomit, young man, make sure you do it outside, okay?” And he grinned at us and stepped back, and I was able to breathe again.
We made it outside and turned left towards the cable car station.
“I thought he was going to ask for our papers,” I said. “And, let’s face it, the name ‘Jacob’ would have had them jumping all over me, wouldn’t it?”
“I was pretty sure they wouldn’t do that, because I asked Schwarz last time I saw him if we needed passports to travel, and he said that we didn’t. And if they’d asked anyway I suppose we could have said that we didn’t have any – if they’re not generally needed I’d guess that most people don’t have one. But still… are you okay, Jake? That must have come as a bit of a shock…”
“You can say that again. I wonder how the hell that lot can possibly be in charge here?”
“If we can find a library, perhaps we can look up the history. We might as well, because I don’t think we’re going to need to spend a lot of time searching for a portal.”
“Because this is the Feldberg, Jake – don’t you recognise it? And it’s all built up, except for that bit off to our right where the goats are, and I’ll bet every inch of the place has people close enough that they’d spot it in an instant if a portal appeared. I suppose we could have a look a little further down the mountain, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t going to be any places remote enough for a portal to appear without anyone knowing about it, unless it’s an absolute one-off. And that wouldn’t be any good to us, because I don’t believe for a moment we’re going to step through one without all our friends.”
“You’re right about that – I’m not leaving anyone behind.”
We reached the cable car station and paid a dollar each for the trip down into the valley. And we could see from the car how built up the mountain was in this world: there were houses and larger buildings everywhere, with just a few fields between them occupied by either animals or crops. I guess if land is scarce you make full use of whatever land there is.
The lower station was half a kilometre or so from the town – I suppose they couldn’t take the cable any closer because of a wooded ridge that reared up between the lower station and the town. But there was a shuttle bus service, and as that only cost twenty-five cents each we took that. Once we arrived in the town centre Jake consulted his brochure and booked us into a twin bedroom in a three-star hotel – not the best in town, and not the worst either. He used his own name to book in, and when the desk clerk saw it she spoke to him in German, and I didn’t understand too much of the conversation after that.
“Nobody’s likely to bother us now, and we’ll get good room service if we need it,” he told me once we were in our room. “Most people here still speak German, and they much prefer it. You can imagine that the Party wouldn’t be happy to see the German language die out, so they encourage people to speak it amongst themselves as much as possible. But maybe we should stick to the separate beds tonight. In my world hotel rooms were often bugged so as to catch dissent or unpatriotic feelings, and it’s possible that the same thing is true here. They won’t understand us if we stick to Kerpian, so at least we can talk freely.”
We left our bags and went downstairs, and the receptionist gave Stefan directions to the town library, and here, once we located the History section, we discovered why there were swastikas all over town.
The asteroid was discovered by American astronomers in the summer of 1944, and once they’d checked and double-checked their figures and confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was on a collision course with earth, everything changed: clearly the war had become meaningless if the entire planet was going to be destroyed a few months later. Stopping the fighting took a while, of course: the Democracies were convinced quickly, and Hitler was only too happy to accept a cease-fire which he hoped he could use to reorganise his armies, because the Germans were in retreat on every front at the time: this was after D-Day, of course. In the Pacific, the Japanese were equally happy for the fighting to stop: the Americans had just taken Guam and were clearly in the ascendancy. Stalin took rather longer to convince, but eventually he accepted that this wasn’t an American plot to deny him his rightful victory over Fascism, and the Eastern Front also fell silent.
After a couple of top-level meetings between all the major powers it was agreed to stop the fighting permanently. In the Pacific theatre it was agreed that both sides would maintain their current positions for now, while in Europe Germany agreed to return to its September 1939 boundaries (except for the Danzig Corridor, where they dug their heels in and eventually got their way). And then the best scientists on all sides tried to find a solution. Germany and America had been running neck-and-neck in the race to the atom bomb, and working together they overcame the remaining problems and produced a viable weapon early in December 1944. But the delivery vehicle caused far more of a problem: only the Germans had a genuine rocket technology in development, and that hadn’t got very far as yet. Again there was international co-operation, and finally a rocket was launched from Peenemünde in February 1945 that successfully escaped the earth’s atmosphere.
But there was no time left to develop a guidance system, or at least, not one that worked, and when the asteroid was on its final approach there was no way to aim the rockets carrying the atomic warheads at it accurately. Even if they had taken the ultimate step of adding a pilot there was no way to steer effectively. Four rockets were launched from Peenemünde, each carrying an atomic warhead, but none of them hit the target, and so the asteroid reached earth, with the results that Sgt Schwarz had already told us about.
But because of the ceasefire and agreement to end hostilities while the asteroid was on the way the Nazis were still in government when the asteroid struck, and so they were the ones to preside over the rebuilding. Of course there was no question of restarting the war afterwards: it was all the survivors could to do hang on until outside help arrived. And when the Americans demanded assurances as to the future from the Nazis in exchange for their aid, Hitler – who had survived the cataclysm in the Bavarian Alps – had accepted. Even he could see that this was a completely different world, and his surviving population was in any case now so small that there was no need at all to seek Lebensraum for them.
There was no mention of the Holocaust anywhere in the book, and that suggested that the Democracies either didn’t know about it, or that they had no proof, because I was sure they would have demanded a change of government before providing aid to Germany – or rather, Greater Bavaria, because large chunks of Northern Germany had disappeared under water, and others were de facto independent – otherwise.
And it appeared that since then the Germans had played ball with everyone else nicely. Hitler had been quietly eased aside and replaced with a more pragmatic figure, and although the basic Nazi philosophy didn’t seem to have changed, it was fairly clear that – for now, at least – the policy was to be satisfied with what was available and to accept the same mutually-beneficial trade agreements as everyone else.
Nonetheless, I had no wish to stay here any longer than we needed to: just seeing that flag and those uniforms made me feel profoundly uncomfortable. Of course, since there seemed no chance of finding a portal here there was nothing to keep us, and so we could catch the airship back to Vogesia, as it seemed to be called officially, the following afternoon.
We had lunch – fish, which seemed to occupy most of the slots on the menu – in a small restaurant near the station. I didn’t particularly want to spend the whole afternoon just sitting in the hotel room, so after we had eaten we went for a walk round the town. This was the fifth incarnation of Hintraten/Hinterzarten that we had seen, if I included the rubble of the second Grey version, and it was fascinating to see how different each was from the others, though some things remained in the same place: the railway station (or bus station, in Grey Hintraten Two) seemed to be a constant, and the mine that we discovered on our walk that afternoon was in the same place as the one we had worked in.
This was a larger place than any of the others, though: the built-up area extended much further up the valley than in other worlds, and a lot of the surrounding forest had been cleared to allow buildings to be put up. A lot of these were wooden: I supposed that wood was in fairly plentiful supply, whereas other building materials might be harder to come by.
Eventually we went back to the hotel. I found it difficult to be alone in a room with Stefan and yet unable to act normally towards him in case there was a hidden camera there, but then I had a thought.
“If we’re going to eat in the restaurant this evening I think we ought to look presentable, don’t you?” I said. “Perhaps a shower would be a good idea.”
“Good thinking. Perhaps I should come and, er, clean my teeth or something while you’re in the shower, and then we can swap over…”
We felt confident there was no camera in the bathroom, and even if there had been we were soon generating clouds of steam, and the result was a really nice shower. We didn’t spend that much time actually washing ourselves, even though we must have been there for at least half an hour, but I still came out feeling a lot better than when I went in.
The meat dishes on the menu in the hotel restaurant were expensive, but I saw no reason not to splash out a bit – after all, the following day I would be back to cooking for myself and for everyone else. So we had a large steak each, together with a lot of what our Grey friends call ‘garnishes’, and I thought it was really good – though perhaps it helped that I hadn’t actually had to cook it myself for once. As I said before, I like cooking, but I prefer not to have to do it for every meal every day over a long period.
I didn’t like having to sleep in the same room as Stefan but in a separate bed – sleeping in separate beds was happening far too often for my liking lately, what with having to use single sleeping bags in Baden-Bayern and individual cells in the monastery. The sooner we got home to our own room in Milhüsa, the happier I would feel.
I tried not to contemplate the possibility that we might never get back there, but it was starting to look as if the only portal we could use in this world was going to be the one that went back to the monastery, and then we would have to wait for another portal to appear, and there was no guarantee that we could get home from any of the other worlds accessible from the monastery portals, either.
Still, I thought, tomorrow we’ll be back camping on the beach in Vogesia, and if you have to be stuck somewhere there are a lot of worse places. And on that happy thought I finally fell asleep.
We decided that we needed another shower next morning, and that got the day off to an excellent start, and after breakfast we settled the bill and took the cable car back up to the top of the mountain. The airship was supposed to leave at eleven-fifteen, but they told us that it was running late due to adverse winds in the Alps – the route started in Garmisch. The delay was expected to be of around an hour and a quarter.
There wasn’t a lot to do while we waited, though as is the case with stations and airports everywhere there was a small shop selling newspapers and books. Stefan bought a copy of a newspaper called The Popular Observer, and I found a paperback thriller called Across the Line by a writer called Theodor Köninger. I’d never heard of him, but the first couple of pages looked quite good, so I bought it and went into the waiting room with Stefan. Half an hour later I was getting nicely into the book: the hero was a military policeman in the immediate post-Apocalypse world, when everything was chaotic, who inadvertently stumbles on a plot by a group of dissidents to steal the main food reserve which would have enabled the people of most of the Alpine communities to survive.
I finished a chapter, put the book down beside me and went to use the men’s room, and when I had finished I diverted to the information desk to get the latest news on our flight, and after the person behind the desk had made a couple of calls I learned that the ship was now expected to arrive at around twelve-fifteen. Oh, well, I supposed we weren’t in that much of a hurry…
I turned to go back to the lounge, only to find my way blocked by the black-uniformed officer who had spoken to us when we arrived, and the close proximity to that uniform had the same adverse effect on me as before: I could feel myself trembling and sweating, and if I hadn’t just been to the men’s room I’m sure I would have wet myself.
“You’re not looking too good again,” the officer told me. “Strange, because the airship hasn’t even got here yet. I wonder if there could be something else bothering you?”
I mumbled a denial, but he ignored it. “Tell me, is this the first time you’ve been to this country?” he asked.
“Well, yes,” I managed to say.
“Thought so. And I think I know why you look so nervous, too. You’re a Jew, aren’t you?”