The following morning I was woken up by someone pulling the covers off us, and when I looked up blearily I saw the twins standing beside the bed, grinning at me. And today they each had a metal band on his head, presumably in case Declan was unhappy about being woken up in this abrupt manner.
"See?" said Clovis to his brother. "Told you he'd be hard. I bet they were doing stuff together all night."
"No, we weren't," I said, pulling the covers back over us. "We were asleep."
"So why have you got a stiff one, then?"
"I often wake up like this. Don't you?"
"Well... okay, sometimes. But do you really expect us to believe you two didn't do anything last night?"
"Jake's only just got here," Declan told him. "And I can wait - we're not sex mad like you two."
"You're just jealous because we're mature, not a little baldy like someone I can think of."
"I hope you realise what's going to happen the next time you take that band off," said Declan, levering himself into a sitting position using my shoulder.
"You wouldn't really make us shave," said Clovis, confidently. "You're not as nasty as that."
"Watch me," said Declan, darkly. "Still, if you bring the chair over, maybe I won't do it just yet."
Carlis went and positioned the wheelchair next to the bed and I helped Declan into it. Declan went and collected some clean clothes from a drawer and then headed for the door.
"Do you need a hand with washing?" I offered.
"No, thanks. I won't be long."
Once he'd gone I stood up, intending to go to my own bed and get dressed, but the twins just pushed me back onto the bed.
"We were talking about you last night," Clovis told me, "and we were wondering whether you do things differently in your world - sex things, in particular. So we decided that you're going to show us how you play with yourself in your country."
"And suppose I don't want to show you?"
"Then we might have to beat you up a bit."
"Don't you think Declan might not be happy about that? He seems to like me, after all."
"Don't worry, we can deal with Declan. He lets us wear the bands most of the time anyway, and if he gets too lippy we'll get Peter and Godfrey to help us, and there's no way he can handle four of us. So you'd better get on with it, hadn't you?"
"Get stuffed!" I said.
To be honest I suppose I wouldn't have minded too much, but I didn't see any reason why I should surrender tamely without at least a bit of resistance. So I tried to get up, but they just pushed me onto my back and pinned me down, and then Clovis started stroking my balls. And although my erection had subsided in the couple of minutes since I had woken up, pretty soon I was showing clear signs of interest once again.
"Now," said Clovis, "either you can show us how you do it, or we'll have to pull your balls off."
"Well, how do you do it?" I countered. "It's probably exactly the same."
"We don't do it to ourselves at all - only feeble loners have to do that. Sometimes we do it to each other, or if we're feeling lazy Peter does it for us instead."
"Well, I don't do it to myself, either," I replied. "I've got a friend who does it for me."
"Good for you. But you're still going to show us how to do it yourself, or else."
"Okay, then. But I'm definitely going to suggest to Declan that he makes you two shave - if you've even got anything worth shaving, that is."
"We've got more than he has!" declared Carlis, "And it's staying that way, too, because if you try to talk him into making us shave, we'll shave you, too. And you've got a lot more to lose than we have."
I supposed that was true, so I decided to shut up and get on with it. I gave them a five-second demonstration, but they weren't satisfied with that.
"Do it properly, or I'll go and get the scissors," said Carlis.
So I did it properly, this time for about twenty seconds, but then I stopped and sat up.
"That's it," I said, firmly. "Now it's up to you: either you can let me get dressed, or you can stay here when Declan and I go to find out what the scientists are doing."
They looked at each other.
"Well... all right, then. It would be boring being left behind. But next time we might not let you off quite so easily."
"Next time maybe we'll catch you without the bands, and then it'll be you who end up giving the demonstration."
"Like that's going to happen!"
But they stood up and let me get dressed anyway, and by the time Declan came back from the bathroom we were ready to go. Of course we had to have breakfast first - you should never go on an expedition on an empty stomach. And after that I had to ask the manager to credit my chip with enough money to make the bus trip a few times. He wasn't too keen to put more than a minimum amount on the chip at first, but then Declan had a word with him, and after that there were no further objections.
"Well," Declan explained as we waited at the bus stop, "we might want to make this trip a few times, and it'll be easier if we don't have to keep waiting around for him to decide whether to give you two crowns or three this week. So now you've got enough for at least the next month."
The bus dropped us a hundred metres or so from the monument. Strangely, there was no visitor centre in this world, even though the stone circle was intact and thus even more spectacular than the ruins in my own world. Perhaps the supposed curse and the stories of people disappearing kept visitors away.
Because this wasn't a tourist attraction in this world there were no paths leading to the stone circle, but Declan's wheelchair coped with the rough terrain, and soon we were inside the henge. And Aarnist and Irfan were there waiting for us, which seemed to be confirmation that I was being watched by one of the High Captain's tracker drones, and probably of the fact that he wanted me to know about it, too.
"Good morning, Jacob," said Aarnist. "I see you've made some friends already. Good - you might as well enjoy yourself while you're here. How's the accommodation?"
"A lot better than that room I was in a couple of nights ago. Thanks for letting me do this - I appreciate it."
"Well, you're going to help us to identify the reptile we're looking for, so I think we can afford to be generous, even if Irfan still thinks we'd be better to lock you away somewhere - don't you, Irfan?"
"He'd still like to escape," said Irfan, looking at me darkly. "He'd be safer in a prison cell."
"Well, of course he'd like to escape," said Aarnist. "He'd be stupid not to, especially if there's any chance of finding himself back at the Academy. And he's not stupid - are you, Jacob? You know you wouldn't be very popular back there. But as long as you help us out we'll look after you, and if everything works out the way we want I'll see if I can fix it for you to stay where you are now - or maybe even go back to your own world. No promises, mind, but I'll see what I can do. Fair enough?"
"Yes, thank you," I said, even though I didn't really believe him.
"Good. Then we'll leave you to have a look round. Don't get in the scientists' way, mind!" And he and Irfan walked away.
"Did he mean that, or was he just stringing me along?" I asked Declan, as soon as they were out of earshot.
"I'm not sure. I didn't want to root about in his head too much in case the Konj�auml;ssi caught me at it - I'm pretty sure he hasn't worked out what I am yet, and I don't want to draw his attention to me. But I think the copper's not quite sure what to do with you - it'll probably depend on how things work out. I don't think you should trust him, though."
"I won't. But... do you really mean that Irfan didn't spot you for a Konj�auml;ssi? How did you manage that?"
"Well, he didn't give me or the twins more than a quick glance, and I have a fairly good shield - he'll have just seen an unimportant cripple, because that's what I wanted him to see. Of course if he decided to look at me properly he'd see past the shield in no time - he's an adult, after all. But he hasn't done that yet."
"Your shield must be pretty good, then. And I've been meaning to ask: if you don't belong to the clan system, who's been training you?"
"Ah. Well; at first they wanted me to go to the nearest Konj�auml;ssi Academy, but it's in Belgal�jre, which is about twenty-five kilometres away, and the journey would have been a nightmare. And the school wasn't really equipped to take a wheelchair, either. It was cheaper for the authorities to get someone to come to me. So they found an old guy who lives in S�derhamvik. He comes in to train me four days a week, and he leaves me plenty to do when he's not here, too." He shrugged. "Probably I get a better education from him than I would have at the school - everything is on a one-to-one basis, for a start. What about you - are you going to have to go to school when the holidays end?"
"I don't know. Aarnist didn't say anything about it, but I'll bet the manager raises it with him once everyone else goes back to school. Of course, I can't speak Vestdansk, so that might give me an excuse to stay at home..."
"And it might not, because most of the teaching is done in Arvelan. Vestdansk is only a minority language, after all: everyone has to learn Arvelan. And you can speak that perfectly well, so if you do have to go to school you'll be able to follow most of the lessons."
To be honest I was beginning to worry just a little about my future, because my education over the past couple of years had been - to put it mildly - patchy. Of course I'd learned some practical skills instead, like how to shovel coal, how to fire a rifle (inaccurately), how to load the main armament of a tank, how to drive a jeep, how to communicate with members of alien species... I supposed some of those might actually be useful one day, though as I had no intention of joining the army, some of them would be no use at all. I hoped I wouldn't be here long enough to have to go to school, but if I was still here when the time came, maybe any education would be better than none.
We made out way over to the control stone, where a couple of the scientists were standing around a trestle table and looking at one of the metal sheets.
"How's it going?" I asked.
"Not well," said the nearest one. "It's hard to make out if some of these faint lines are supposed to be connections, or if they're just scratches."
"Who are these kids?" asked a voice from behind me, and when I turned round I saw an older man glaring at me. He was bald and thin, which gave his face a skull-like appearance, and he was wearing a lab coat that was white enough to have come straight out of an ad for soap powder.
"Well, that one's called Jacob Stone," said the one who had spoken before. "I don't know about the others. But High Captain Aarnist said he could come and see what we're doing. Apparently he has quite a lot of first-hand experience travelling through portals."
"Has he?" said Skullhead, looking at me with interest. "Wait a moment... yes, Stone - you're one of the ones who supplied the information about the portals in the first place, weren't you? I was under the impression you'd left our world."
"I did," I said. "Aarnist brought me back."
"Ah. In that case I'm surprised to see you walking about freely... still, I suppose Aarnist knows what he's doing. Well, I'm Viisas Gordiss of Poicheeme, and I'm responsible for getting this place fully operational again. And that would be a lot easier if we could read the instruction manual..."
I stared at him: according to my understanding of the Arvelan language, 'Viisas' translated as 'Clever-clogs' or 'Smarty-pants' or something similar. It seemed unlikely that a humourless-looking individual such as this would give himself a name like that, so I assumed that my linguistic knowledge - which, after all, came from Killian and Caradoc, neither of whom was a native speaker of Arvelan - was faulty. Probably it was a genuine title like 'Doctor' or something similar.
I put that out of my head and asked, "Can't you just use the Kerpian method, like you did to open the portal to my world?"
"We can't find any other co-ordinates that work. We know there must be some, because it's clear that this place used to lead to several worlds, but they didn't leave us any lists of co-ordinates, just these worn connection diagrams. If we can open a portal using the old method we can probably work out its co-ordinates once it's open, and that means we'd be able to use either method in the future."
"I thought you'd already managed to do it the old way once?"
"We did, but it took us to the same world as one of the ones we found the Kerpian way. And as that place seemed to be frozen solid, with a temperature of almost thirty below zero, we decided not to waste a lot of time with it."
Well, that world sounded familiar, and I suppose it gave me a way home, sort of: if I could get into the Frozen World here, I could theoretically get out of it again back at the monastery, and then I could get from the monastery back into the Green World and so via the mine at Wittenheim back into Kerpia. Of course, that depended on a number of things: had we destroyed the portal from the Empire to the Green World for good when we shelled it? Had the Arvelans already invaded the Holy Roman Empire? And, most important, would I be able to travel on foot from here to the Vosges in the Frozen World? I thought the answer to that last question at least was a resounding 'No' - crossing the Channel would be impossible, unless it had actually frozen over, and I would need a huge amount of cold weather gear to attempt a journey of that length even without the Channel in the way.
"What about the other one you tried using the Kerpian method?" I asked. "What was that one like?"
"It looked quite primitive. There were a few fairly small settlements, but most of the people our tracker observed seemed to be nomadic herdsmen. There wasn't much life overall, at least not in this part of the world. We checked in the direction you were supposed to be, found nothing and came back. Of course, if that world is as primitive as it looks I expect the High Captain will have his eye on it as a source of minerals, but that's not really our concern."
I wondered if that could be the world Alain and Oli came from. That was primitive by modern standards, with a sort of feudal set-up and an agrarian society. Of course in their part of that world people weren't nomadic, but I supposed they could be here in Britain. The problem was that there had to be an infinite number of worlds out there, some not too dissimilar to others - and the crunch was that if this wasn't Oli's world there wouldn't be a portal up in the Vosges. Of course, the portal from Kerpia to Oli's world was probably still closed at the moment...
I sighed. What I really needed was for the scientists to open a portal into a world I knew, like the Green World or Dead Orschwiller, and then for everyone to turn their backs for about a week while I escaped through it and disappeared. But somehow I thought that was unlikely to happen.
We watched for a while as the scientists argued over the marks on their sheet of metal, and then we watched for a while longer as they directed a team of men who were wearing the black clothing of slaves into changing the configuration of the inner ring of stones by adding or removing lintel-stones. They did this using something that looked like a cross between a fork-lift truck and a cherry-picker, moving the lintels one at a time until the scientists were sure they had the configuration they wanted.
Next they started connecting the various stones together using long metal poles.
"How is that going to do anything?" I asked Mr Smarty-pants. "Stones don't conduct electricity, surely?"
"These do. We found traces of rust on some of the lintels, and in a couple of places you could see where there had been metal studs driven into the stones. We're fairly sure that originally there were two metal bands running lengthways around the outside of each lintel-stone, and more on the upright stones, too. We've fitted about a third of the stones with bands, and those are the ones we're using to test the diagrams on the control sheets."
One of the scientists put on a pair of heavy gloves and connected the last long metal pole to one of the trilithons - and absolutely nothing happened.
"I told you that was just a scratch," said one of his colleagues.
"Then let's try again without that link," replied another of them, and that led to some more juggling about with the metal poles, but not to the creation of a portal. After an hour or so of this the twins had got bored and were off chasing each other round the stones on the far side of the circle, and after another half-hour or so Declan and I had given up, too. We collected the twins and headed back to the bus stop, telling the scientists that we'd probably come back in a couple of days' time.
"Sorry that was such a waste of time," I apologised.
"No, actually it was sort of interesting," said Declan. "Once the Konj�auml;ssi left I was able to have a dig about in their heads, and they're all convinced the ancient system is going to work again if they can get the connections right. They weren't telling us everything, though - some of them think there's some other power source involved apart from electricity, something drawn from the earth, though even the ones who think that aren't sure what it is. Anyway, I reckon that if I keep coming with you I'll be able to persuade them to tell us all there is to know about it. And if they do get it to work I want to be here when it happens, because I think it would be amazing to see a completely different world."
"Depends what it's like," I said. "Some of them are really nice, and some are places you definitely wouldn't want to be stuck in. Trust me, I've seen them."
"What are they like?" asked Carlis.
So I started telling them about some of the worlds I'd seen: the good ones, like Kerpia and Vogesia, and the bad ones, like the Frozen World and the Grey world at war. The only one I didn't mention at all was Elsass - I was pretty sure I could trust these three, but I knew that an adult Konj�auml;ssi like Irfan could pluck the details out of their heads really easily and I wanted to keep my permanent home a secret for as long as possible, even if I had probably already spilled the beans about it when I was drugged and interviewed back at the academy.
"I like the sound of the one with the beach," said Declan. "I wouldn't mind going there."
"I'm pretty sure they won't be able to a portal from here to that world," I said, "because in that world this whole area is probably under water. But perhaps they could open a portal to the Holy Roman Empire, and we could go from there to Vogesia."
Actually I wondered what would happen if the scientists inadvertently opened a portal to the Vogesian world. In theory you can only establish a portal between two places with the same geography. I knew you couldn't open a portal in mid-air, but I thought that maybe if the only difference between the two worlds was a higher sea level in one of them it might be possible to establish a portal - though I suspected that it wouldn't take more than a few seconds of sea-water gushing through the portal before all the electrics shorted out and the portal collapsed again. It was an interesting thought, though.
The bus arrived eventually and took us back to Sarutaale. I'd hoped that the others would have thought of something for us to do together after lunch, but I was out of luck: the twins had already arranged to help the manager with the shopping, and Declan's tutor was coming in to give him a lesson.
"But we're on holiday!" I protested.
"I'm not. Actually it was my idea: I want to get as good as I can, and it's a good thing he's coming, too: if I'm going to be trying to pass unnoticed under the nose of an adult Konj�auml;ssi I need to develop my shield some more. Sorry, Jake, but when I arranged it I didn't know you were going to be here."
"That's okay," I said. "I'll go and read in the garden or something."
So I took From a Dusty Basement out into the garden behind the house, found a quiet spot at the far end, parked the chair I'd borrowed from the dining room in a patch of sunlight and started to read. It wasn't particularly warm out, but it was okay as long as I was in the sun, and soon I was back in the world of sub-officer Boskiss and his long-dormant murder.
"Aren't you cold, sitting about out here?" asked a voice in my ear.
"Huh?" I'd been totally immersed in the book and I hadn't heard Peter and Godfrey approaching.
"I said, aren't you cold?" repeated Godfrey.
"No, not really..." I glanced at my watch and saw that I'd been sitting here for three-quarters of an hour. "Anyway, I can't use my own room because Declan's having a lesson in there."
"Then you should have come and knocked on our door," said Godfrey. "Or you could have used the twins' room. They wouldn't mind, and even if they did they wouldn't have said anything to annoy you in case you got Declan to make them pull each other's ears off, or something like that. Or you could even have sat in the dining room."
"I like being outdoors," I said. "But I suppose it isn't all that warm..."
"Good, then you can come and play with us for a bit," said Godfrey. "Come on." And he marched off towards the house with Peter trailing along behind him.
I returned the chair to the dining room and followed them up to their room, which was on the top floor. It was a bit smaller than ours, but it had something ours didn't, and that was a games console. I'd seen one like it before - there had been one in Harlan's bedroom in the Imperial Palace in San�ve, though that one had been in better condition than this one, which looked a bit battered. But it worked, and I guess that's all that mattered.
I spent the rest of the afternoon playing on it, or watching Godfrey and Peter playing on it. I wasn't very good at first because the controls weren't anything like the ones on games consoles in my world, and on top of that I'd never played any of these games before, either. As a result I lost the first six times I played. But then I started getting used to it, and when I finally won a game against Peter, Godfrey congratulated me briefly before pouring scorn on Peter for losing to a klutz like me.
I'd worked out by now that Godfrey was the loud, extrovert one and Peter was a quiet boy who seemed happy to let Godfrey do the talking even though Godfrey was eighteen months younger than he was. Both had mousy brown hair and blue eyes, though Godfrey wore his hair fairly long and Peter's was quite short. Peter was a couple of inches taller and had rather prominent front teeth, but neither of them would have stood out in a crowd. They both went to the secondary school half a mile down the road and they wanted to know if I was going to be joining them the following Monday, when school was due to start again.
"I don't know," I said. "I suppose so, but nobody's actually told me yet. I suppose I ought to ask Aarnist next time I'm up at the monument."
"Who's Aarnist?" asked Godfrey. "And what monument?"
So I gave them the potted version of who I was and where I came from, and their reaction was pretty much the same as that of the twins. The difference was that Declan wasn't here to confirm that I was telling the truth, and consequently they took a bit of persuading before they would accept that it was possible to move between completely different worlds.
"All right, but if you come from another world, how come you can speak Arvelan?" asked Godfrey.
"Well, I've been to this world before, and I have some friends from here, and they taught me, sort of," I said.
"So they speak different languages where you come from?"
"Yes. You already know that, Peter, because I tried talking to you before in my own language, remember?"
"That's true," Peter confirmed. "Anglish, or something."
"That's close enough. And I learned other languages in other worlds, too." And I demonstrated by speaking French and Kerpian to them, and while they couldn't understand anything they could at least tell that they were proper languages.
"So it's true, then," said Godfrey. "Lucky for you we believe you, 'cos we beat up people who tell lies."
"Oh, so you think you could beat me up, do you?" I asked.
"Obviously. Even Peter could, and he's totally feeble."
The next half hour or so was spent play-fighting, which was fun: although I really can't fight, I was eight months older than Peter and more than two years older than Godfrey, and Peter turned out to be a hopeless fighter too, so at least I didn't lose every fight. Godfrey was a lot tougher, though, and I had to work hard to keep him from beating me in the first ten seconds. Of course, when they ganged up on me I had no chance - at least, not until the door flew open and the twins burst into the room and joined in the fight on my side.
"No bullying the new kid," Clovis admonished Godfrey. "Only we're allowed to do that."
The fight lasted until the manager came upstairs to tell us to keep the noise down, and by that time I was confident that I would be happy enough if I had to stay here for any length of time: whether it was because coming from another world made me more interesting, or whether it was because I was a bit older than the other residents, at least here I wasn't going to be Invisible Jake again.
I decided to give the scientists a couple of days to work on the connection problem before I went back to the monument, and so for those two days I stayed at the Home, playing cards and video games and having wrestling matches with the others. By the Friday, which was New Year's Eve in my world but just another day in this one (here the new year started at the Winter Solstice) it was pretty clear that all five of them had completely accepted me, because that afternoon Declan invited us all to his room to play cards with him. And I quickly discovered that this was going to be one of those interesting card games that lead to forfeits of a personal nature.
I wondered why the twins hadn't brought their metal bands with them. Did they even know that Declan might be capable of reading their cards? But it turned out that the cards were a fairly unimportant part of proceedings.
"We have a new player," said Declan, once the door was shut and bolted. "And I think it might be worth him issuing a challenge."
"Who, me?" I queried, when I saw they were all looking at me. "What sort of a challenge?"
"Just say that you want to issue a challenge," said Clovis.
"Okay, then: I want to issue a challenge."
"Right," said Declan, turning his computer on. "When's your date of birth?"
"The twelfth of June, 1996," I said. "That's... hang on, I can remember this...the fourth day of the seventh month, 6679, in your calendar."
Declan typed this into his machine, hit a couple more keys and reported, "So you're twenty-six months older than our existing champion, so that's an allowance of two and a half stoicesu... I think this challenge is going to fail by a distance, but I suppose we ought to check. Get undressed, Jake."
Somehow I knew we were going to get to this point sooner or later. Still, I was fairly sure I wouldn't be the only one to find himself without his clothes, so I did as I was told.
"Not bad," commented Peter, who hadn't of course seen me undressed before. "But you're still going to lose."
Clovis fetched a ruler; stroked me until it was good and hard and then announced that it was eleven and a half stoicesu long. I hadn't measured myself recently, but I guessed I was probably around five and a half inches by this time, which meant that the local unit of measurement wasn't too far away from half an inch.
"Last time we checked Godfrey he was eleven stoicesu," said Declan, "and that was at least three months ago, so with an age allowance of two and a half stoicesu he's got you thrashed, Jake. Unlucky. So Godfrey's still our king."
"Obviously," said Godfrey, looking down his nose at what I had to offer.
"How do I know you're not just making that up?" I demanded.
"Oh, you want proof?" said Godfrey. "All right, then." And he threw his clothes off.
Once he was naked Peter went and fondled him until he was fully erect, and then he held the ruler alongside - though I didn't need the ruler to see that Godfrey was a hell of a lot bigger than I'd been at his age.
"I make it eleven and a half," said Peter. "So they're the same size. Of course, Jake's got hair as well, but I don't think that matters, does it?"
"Not really," agreed Declan. "So Godfrey's still in charge. Hand me the cards."
He held the pack while each of us drew one card, selected one himself at random and then went around us and tried to see which card each of us was holding. But that was just to allow him to practise, because once he's finished guessing - well, it wasn't really guessing because he got three exactly right and got the rank and colour right in the other two cases - we simply turned the cards face up. And the person with the lowest card - in this case Carlis - got a forfeit chosen by Godfrey.
I'd have to admit the afternoon was a lot of fun, though it was a bit of an eye-opener, too: Godfrey had a thoroughly dirty imagination. By the time we stopped for supper pretty much everyone had been made to do something to everyone else, and I'd had a good chance to check out all of my new friends. And the twins did have more visible hair than Declan, though they weren't as big, and they had the sense not to flaunt it - they weren't wearing their metal bands, of course.
Once we were in bed that night - and we were sharing again, as we had every night so far - I asked Declan if he'd been using his abilities on us during the afternoon.
"Of course," he said. "I try to make everyone enjoy it as much as possible, so there are things I can do... yes, like you're thinking now, the same sort of stuff that your friend Harlan used to do. That's why everyone enjoys it so much, even Peter. Somehow he seems to end up getting the worst forfeits every time, but he still keeps coming back for more. So, did you enjoy yourself?"
"Yes, I did, even when Godfrey made me... you know, do that to him. And I'm not sure that I should have enjoyed any of it because, after all, I've got a steady boyfriend, and normally I'd only ever do stuff with him. That why I was pretty sure you'd been sort of lowering my inhibitions a bit, because I don't think I'd have been quite that quick to join in otherwise."
"Oh. So would you prefer not to do that again?"
I thought about Stefan. If he'd got my message he'd probably be worried about me right now, although perhaps that shouldn't make any difference to how I behaved. And of course if he hadn't got my message he'd probably still be eyeing up Jean-Patrick... actually I was sure he wouldn't be doing that, but, even so...
"Well, I did have fun," I admitted. "And I liked making you feel good, too - I really don't mind doing that any time."
"Only because you feel sorry for me."
"No! Well... okay, I do feel sorry for you, but I wouldn't mind doing things with you even if you were a super-athlete. It's good sharing stuff with a Konj�auml;ssi because I get to share in the feedback. I remember how good Harlan made me feel..."
I tailed off, remembering again what had happened to Harlan. Although the bad dreams had more or less finished I still felt horribly responsible for Harlan's death...
"You shouldn't blame yourself," Declan said, quietly. "I know you were desperate to get your friends away, and so would anyone else have been. And you did it, too, which was the most important thing. I know you didn't want him to die. Besides, you gave him something really special first: most ordinary humans are far too scared of us to make friends with us, but you did that - you gave him your friendship. I promise you that would have meant a lot to him."
"Really? It's just... well, as far as I can see everyone here likes you - or are you making them?"
"Not really. Yes, I make them feel good when we're playing sex games, but apart from that I don't try to influence any of them into liking me. But I'm not exactly typical, am I? I'm on my own, for a start, not in a school full of other Konj�auml;ssiem. And physically I'm no threat to anyone - even Peter can beat me in a fight if he's got a metal band on. Hell, even the two little kids probably could. Besides, most of them have no idea of what I could do if I really tried, because they hadn't had a lot of contact with my people before they met me. You, on the other hand, have been a slave in a school full of us, so you know exactly what we can do - and yet here you are, still sharing my bed. And I promise I'm not doing anything to make you do that. So that must mean that you genuinely do like me.
"Anyway... if we're going back to talk to the scientists tomorrow we might as well get some sleep first, don't you think?"
And he settled down and went to sleep.
Next morning he and I set off for Stonehenge straight after breakfast. We'd invited the twins to come with us, but they hadn't been all that impressed on our first visit and said that they'd wait until we actually had a chance to go to another world. I presumed there was still a tracker drone keeping an eye on me, but this time there was no reception committee and we were able to go straight into the heart of the stone circle, where Smarty-pants Gordiss and his colleagues were watching the slaves shunting lintel-stones about once more.
"How's it going?" I asked. "Any luck?"
"It's going very well," Gordiss told me, looking a lot less irritated than he had on our previous visit. "We've managed to open a couple of portals since you were last here. It's true that one of them looks like a complete waste of time from an exploring point of view, but to be honest I'm mainly concerned with opening the portals and nothing more - what happens on the other side of them is Aarnist's concern, not mine."
"Can we see?" asked Declan.
There was a pause, and I suspected that Declan was being silently persuasive. If he was, it worked.
"I don't see why not," said Gordiss. "We haven't dismantled the stone settings on the second one, so that one's still open: we've found that once a portal is open it stays that way unless we remove the relevant lintel-stone. Wait while we finish setting up this new one and then I'll tell you about those two, and I'll be able to show you one of them."
So we stood quietly to one side while the slaves finished setting up the new circuit and then watched as the last couple of metal poles were connected. And this time there was a humming noise, and then the arch everyone was looking at seemed to flicker for a moment. And when the flickering stopped we could see clear blue sky through that arch - the sky above us was grey and overcast. I stepped forward, wanting to see what was on the far side, but one of the scientists pulled me back.
"Wait!" he said. "We don't know what's through there - we need to run a scan first in case the atmosphere is poisonous, or there is radioactivity or some other problem."
Two of his colleagues left the circle and returned a few minutes later carrying what looked like a large model aircraft. They fiddled about with this for a while and then started its engines and more or less chucked it through the arch into the newly-discovered world. We watched the probe as it flew straight ahead into the new world.
"Standard nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, no obvious poisons," announced the man who was standing by the console that was receiving signals from the probe. "No significant radioactivity - it's up a little on our own world, but not to any dangerous level. Air purity is excellent - no sign of any contaminants. It's hot through there - around forty Celsius - but it looks perfectly safe. On the other hand, there's not much to look at - so far I can only see what looks like a lot of grey dust. I'll send it higher and see what there is a bit further away."
So we waited for a bit longer.
"No change," the man said. "Just lots of grey dust. It's as if we're in the middle of a large desert."
"Can I look?" I asked.
"Wait one moment," said Gordiss.
One of his colleagues stepped forward with what looked like a metal detector with a very long handle, and he stuck this through the portal, studied the reading on the handle and then pressed a button, and a small scoop appeared at the side of the business end of the instrument and collected a sample of the dust.
"No sign of life - in fact it seems to be completely inert," he reported. "It should be safe enough to go through."
I looked at Gordiss, and he nodded, and so I stepped through the portal, and immediately sank up to my ankles in the grey sand, or whatever it was. Declan followed me through the arch, but his chair quickly sank by about six inches. And it was hot, too - we were dressed for December. It reminded me of the first time we drove into Vogesia, except that this place seemed even hotter.
I had a quick look to either side, but there was nothing in sight except grey dust. And this seemed to be the only arch in this version of Stonehenge, too - there was nothing but dust where the rest of the circle should have been.
I stepped past Declan and then pulled his chair back through the arch into the Arvelan world.
"That has to be the most boring world I've seen yet," I remarked. "Except perhaps for the one that was nothing but bare rock. Sorry, Declan - I'd have liked your first foreign world to be more interesting than that."
"Don't worry," he said. "At least I can say I've been to another world now - for about ten seconds."
"Well, perhaps the other ones they've found are more interesting," I said, and I turned to Gordiss. "You were going to show us the others you found?"
"Well, we can show you one of them," he said. "There appears to be a war on in the other one, so we're staying out of the way until it stabilises a bit. But the first one is a bit more interesting."
He led us across the circle to an arch on the far side from the one that had just been opened. For the first time I noticed that a small piece of plastic had been attached to each lintel-stone, and each piece carried an Arvelan numeral. The one on the arch Gordiss was indicating carried the number 14.
"This portal is still open," he told us. "As I said, we've found out that unless we actually remove one of the smaller lintels the portal remains open. That's what we meant when we said that there's some other power source at work here, because the electric circuit that opened this portal has been disconnected. We've still got a probe in this world at the moment. It's inhabited, but most of the people seem to be in large towns, and the nearest one that we've seen so far is about twenty tuhacesu away, so you should be able to have a short walk around without bumping into too many of the natives."
"Thanks," I said, a bit surprised that he was prepared to let us go through on our own. But then I caught sight of the look of concentration on Declan's face and I realised that he was up to something in Gordiss's head.
"Don't wait up for us!" said Declan, brightly. And he pointed his chair at the arch, made an 'after you!' gesture and then followed me through into the new world.
"Wait!" I said. "We didn't ask him how long we've got."
"We've got as long as we want," Declan told me, grinning. "Gordiss has already forgotten we were ever here today, and so have his colleagues. He'll leave the portal open, too - I made sure of that - so we can take our time. Now - where should we go first?"
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