I wrote this story exactly the way I wanted to, including where necessary passages that the censors would instantly suppress were I to be stupid enough to try publishing it anywhere other than here, in one of the last havens of authorial freedom.
However, that is not to say that sex is an integral part of the story. It simply carries exactly the weight of importance it does for most boys of the age of its characters, but with the important difference that this story takes place in a culture much less unhealthily fixated on the subject than is our own. In other words, the boys in this story practise it more but worry about it a lot less. From a purely literary point of view, one might regret that this of course reduces the emotional charge that is often generated by doing that which is forbidden, but personally I prefer a vision of a world in which carnal delights do not result in suicide among kids who are so young that they have barely started to live.
So this is neither a book for those who 'read with the left hand', nor has it been bowdlerised. Although it certainly contains some spice, it's probably not what a gourmet lover of fiery sauces would choose.
I should also mention here the crucial part played by David Clarke in the production of this story.
This story was written in French. And even if it had simply remained in French it would have been no more than an incomplete attempt without the constant help and encouragement of the man who not only persuaded me to keep writing and to complete the story, but who then undertook the difficult task of producing a wholesale revision of my clumsy attempt at translating it into English. It is one thing to be able to write something in English, but it is another thing altogether to bring the words to life. And I sincerely believe that he has done that.
Editor's note: As soon as I started reading the original French version of this story I was hooked, and the further into it I got, the more determined I became that it should reach the largest possible audience. Yes, it's taken a while, but if the story now gets even a fraction of the recognition and appreciation it deserves, then it was worth every second. Personally I think it's a miracle that Engor has put up with me for so long: as those who have had the dubious benefits of my feedback in the past can attest, restraint is not my defining characteristic. Not only is he a fantastic writer, he's also a man of tremendous patience and resilience.
Finally I would like to thank my own long-term friend and proof-reader JJ, who as ever checked each chapter diligently for me and managed to spot all manner of mistakes. His work is greatly appreciated.
Return to the Nine Worlds
Here enter not vile bigots, hypocrites,
Externally devoted apes, base snites, Puffed-up,
wry-necked beasts, worse than the Huns,
Or Ostrogoths, forerunners of baboons:
Cursed snakes, dissembled varlets,
seeming sancts, Slipshod caffards,
beggars pretending wants, Fat chuffcats,
smell-feast knockers, doltish gulls,
Out-strouting cluster-fists, contentious bulls,
Fomenters of divisions and debates,
Elsewhere, not here, make sale of your deceits.
(Rabelais, on the door of the Abbaye de Thélème)
Translation: Project Gutenberg's Gargantua and Pantagruel, Complete., by Francois Rabelais
""Find him and bring him back!"
Those had been his orders. It was the most important mission of his entire life. And so he had searched and searched for a very long time indeed, as had thousands of his brothers. His search took him further and further away, following a trail that grew progressively colder and fainter.
And finally his search had succeeded. He found him because he had done what none of the others had dared to do: he had left the Roads and the Paths: he had left the Nine Worlds. He had launched himself into a crack in the universe so minute that it had been missed by everyone, yet so deep that it had led him here, so far, so far away that he knew that he would never be able to go back.
He was too far from home to bring back the one he came to fetch. But he had found him! And if he could not bring him back, well, he could still open the Door for him. It would have to suffice. He himself would stay caught in the trap of this world, but thanks to his sacrifice the boy would get through. He had prepared him for that without the boy becoming aware that he, Yol, even existed. He had crept into the boy's dreams. He had made him see what he had to see. He even had succeeded in giving him back the memory of a language he had never learned. He had spent every moment of his time on that task and now, at last, he was ready and there was no longer any reason to delay.
This happened when the moon missions were still under way, when colour televisions were in their infancy, and when computer data came in the form of punched cards. The Russians were still trying to bring about the Socialist Paradise on Earth and the Americans were still trying to prevent them from doing so in the name of Liberty and Free Enterprise. Abbey Road was famous throughout the world. The Flower Generation were wending their way to Kathmandu and lysergic acid was the door to Nirvana.
Julian, who was twelve and three-quarters, was daydreaming about the wide world in general while he ambled his way along a deserted beach on a cold, grey morning. It was July, too – clearly this was going to be another rotten summer. But Julien didn't care: he was on holiday. He could look for bottles carried in on the tide, or those thick green glass balls, floats that had fallen off of fishing nets. He had a huge collection of them up in the attic of the little summer cottage his parents had built in the dunes just outside a small town in the Cotentin area of Normandy.
He was wearing a yellow oilskin jacket, but he was bare-headed. He didn't care about the wind, or about the way the drizzle was running in rivulets from his soaked hair down under the collar of his plaid shirt. He didn't feel the cold on his bare legs, and he had left his plastic sandals in the ruins of the old semaphore station.
His dog Ugo – a Bouvier – had run on a long way ahead of him, racing along the hard-packed sand at the water's edge. The sand was wrinkled by strange wave patterns, like petrified water. Julien could see Ugo up ahead, black and stocky, scratching frantically at the damp surface of the sand. Perhaps he'd found an interesting, and possibly tasty, carcass. He was the same age as his young master, but of course in dog terms twelve is quite old, and Julien was dreading the time, which he knew was drawing inexorably closer, when his big shaggy companion would leave him for ever.
Finally the dog stopped scrabbling at the sand and trotted back towards Julien – with nothing in his mouth, the boy was happy to see: he really didn't want to be presented with an old bone or, worse, a dead rat.
"What have you found, boy? Want to show me?"
The dog trotted along at his side, wagging his tail and rubbing gently against his leg, as he always did when they went for a walk together. They had grown up together and so they had developed a real understanding. Of course, the dog had grown up a lot faster than the boy, and now Julien saw him, rather confusingly, as both an elderly, lovable, somewhat eccentric old uncle and, at the same time, as a little brother who didn't want to grow up. He thought he knew him, and at times would have said that he could almost hear what the dog was thinking, but nothing could have prepared him for what he saw when he reached the place where Ugo had been scratching at the ground.
There, etched into the hard sand, was a complicated pattern some three metres across, as perfect as a piece of fine calligraphy. The pattern was completely unknown to him, and yet...
"It's a klirk!" he exclaimed. He was absolutely certain of it. Unfortunately he didn't have the remotest idea of what a klirk was, but he knew that this was one, and, furthermore, that he was looking at it from the wrong side. He'd have to walk around to the other side to see it properly.
"Did you do this, Ugo?" he asked.
The dog was sitting with his head on one side, looking at him quizzically.
"You're just messing about with me, aren't you? You're just pretending that you don't understand me!" said Julien. But then he wondered what he was expecting to happen – did he think the dog was going to answer him? He scratched Ugo's head in the way he often did and then walked around to the far side of the klirk.
And from this side the thing did seem to make sense. He was sure he knew what it was for, but somehow the meaning was just out of reach, like one of those words that are right on the tip of your tongue but which you can't quite remember. This klirk was... a sign? Like a road sign, perhaps? No, it was... it was a path! That was it – it was a path that led...
Julien was a well brought up and polite boy who hardly ever swore. But when you suddenly find yourself stark naked in the middle of what seemed to be a grove of tropical trees it's probably perfectly reasonable to swear.
He was alone. There was no sign of Ugo. He was standing on what looked a bit like a manhole cover made of grey metal, on which was a deeply-inscribed pattern that matched the one on the klirk that had just brought him here.
Of course, that was what a klirk was for: it was a means of transport. He had no idea how he knew that, but he'd worry about that later, because what mattered right now was getting back home, and it looked as if that was going to be no simple matter. He could tell straight away that this wasn't Normandy. In fact, he was pretty sure that it wasn't anywhere in France, except perhaps the extreme south. Provence, possibly?
No. Definitely not Provence. He wasn't by any stretch of the imagination a great botanist, but whatever the trees around him were, they certainly weren't pines. In fact, they looked like nothing he had ever seen. Furthermore, if this had been the south of France he would have been surrounded by the sound of cicadas: on the couple of occasions he had been to the south, their noise had been everywhere. Nor was there any trace of the distinctive southern scent of pine sap, dust and dried flowers.
He didn't think this was Africa, either. There were no baobab trees, no palm trees, no jungle... admittedly he had never set foot in Africa, but he was fairly sure that it didn't look like this. To judge by the neat and tidy layout of the vegetation this could have been a park: some strange-looking flowering bushes seemed to have been cultivated, and even though the trees weren't planted in straight lines it still looked as if they had been planted, rather than growing naturally.
At least the insects weren't aggressive. The few he caught sight of looked like small, colourful scarabs: considering his lack of clothing, things could have been a lot worse. At least there didn't seem to be any mosquitoes...
What about Australia? Could he be Down Under?
Julien was a great reader of magazines like Galaxy, Meteor and the like, magazines that published translations of the best American comics and Sci-Fi novels. He had often dreamed that it might be possible, in the not-too-distant future, for ordinary people to visit the moon, or maybe even Mars. He'd have given anything to be able to go into space. And of course he was fully prepared to believe in many of the fantasies dreamed up by science fiction writers. All the same, he was reluctant to believe that...
No. Julien was a very bright boy, and deeply rational with it. He knew the difference between reality and the figments of his imagination. And in reality there could be no question that what he was actually...
On the other hand, in reality there was no such thing as a device that could instantly transport you to somewhere else, be it a klirk or anything else. And how had he actually been able to put a name to such an impossible device?
Was he losing his marbles? Or had his breakfast been laced with LSD?
No. He'd read descriptions of LSD trips, and they were nothing like this. And if this was a hallucination, it was an incredibly detailed and convincing one. There was even a sort of mild perfume in the air which he was sure he had never encountered before. And now that he'd had a couple of minutes to become acclimatised he realised that he was feeling a little disoriented, as if his weight had changed, a bit like that feeling you get in a lift when it starts to go down.
And as for this thingamajig, this... klirk, it was like absolutely nothing that he had ever encountered anywhere – and Julien was no stranger to the local public library, as a result of which his knowledge of other civilisations was not bad at all.
Well, then... why shouldn't it be true? After all, this was exactly the sort of thing that happened in Sci-Fi magazines... although it had to be said that, while the most extraordinary adventures seemed to happen all the time in those magazines, it was completely unheard of for their characters to find themselves standing around dressed as nature intended. Whereas here...
Of course, if the inhabitants of this place turned out to be furry lizards they would probably be completely unfazed by the anatomy of a visiting earthling. On the other hand, he wasn't in the habit of wandering around with his equipment on display. It was embarrassing. This wasn't Woodstock! There it was apparently the done thing to go naked. "Make love, not war!" they said, and it was commonly assumed that they made it in public, too. Love, that is, not war...
Of course, right at that moment this wasn't the main issue, because he had no intention of going looking for the local population. All he wanted to do was to get himself back to Earth – or to Normandy, if he was still on his native planet. And because he was bright he came up with the solution almost at once: klirks were paths, and paths lead in both directions. He was still standing on the klirk that had brought him here, so all he had to do was to use the same klirk to take him back the way he had come. Problem solved.
Or not, because he soon discovered that no amount of twisting and turning, no jumping off and jumping on again, and no attempt to get onto it from other angles, had the remotest effect. Apparently this klirk was a one way street. This was all the more frustrating because it seemed that he had his faithful companion to thank for this: Ugo – dear, faithful old Ugo, his constant and devoted friend – had played this dirty trick on him. Quite how, he had no idea: how could a perfectly ordinary dog have been able to draw that complicated pattern so perfectly? And how on Earth had his dog been able to create a klirk? That was another mystery he would have to try to solve once things got back to normal – assuming that they ever did get back to normal, of course...
Right now, however, things didn't look good at all, but there seemed to be no choice: with no return path to Normandy available, about the only thing he could do was to follow the path that wandered away from the klirk and see where it took him.
It didn't take long to reach the edge of the wood, and when he emerged from the trees he stopped dead. There was a kind of turf rolling away, a lush, Irish-green surface that seemed more like thick, dry moss than grass. This covered a landscape of hills, dotted here and there with small groups of trees and occasional low buildings. But what really stopped him in his tracks were the large multicoloured airships sailing lazily across the clear blue sky.
He couldn't begin to find the right words to describe the way he felt, but he was overcome by a sensation of absolute, overwhelming happiness. He had occasionally had dreams of being in a Paradise so wonderful that he had woken up each time with a deep sense of loss; being here was almost like being in those dreams again, or at least like being in a place in which he truly felt alive.
He'd seen these beautiful aircraft, with their propellers made of cloth, before: he had dreamed about them, just as he had dreamed about this landscape, and he knew, as an absolute certainty, that somewhere – just beyond those hills, perhaps – there was a white city whose gardens he had already explored...
The youthful voice dragged him back out of his trance.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?"
He hadn't heard the boy coming towards him. In fact he hadn't spoken in French, but in Tünnkeh, and his actual words had been "Kyeh son yinna? Dir, kan djegui yinn?" but Julien realised that he could understand this, the common language of... wherever he was.
Clasping his hands in front of his genitals he answered without hesitation, "Nga Julien yin. Nga data lep song," which meant "I'm Julien. I just got here."
And now there could be no more doubt: wherever he was, it was a long, long way from home.
The boy was a few centimetres shorter than he was and looked a little younger, but it was difficult to be really sure because of the silvery patterns which decorated his face and, indeed, most of his head, because he had no hair to hide them except for a triangle of dark hair on top of his head. Beneath this silvery make-up his skin was tanned, and his brown eyes looked quite ordinary.
He also had the advantage of being dressed in a sort of sleeveless beige tunic which had no belt and reached down to his knees. He was also wearing sandals, which allowed Julien to see that he had the usual number of toes.
"Hello, Julien," he said. "I'm Niil. So where have you come from, like...that?"
The little lift of the chin and its accompanying grin were a fairly tactless way of referring to Julien's complete lack of clothing. Julien blushed ,something that would be even more obvious to an observer because of Julien's colouring: he was a red-head – a nice shade of darkish squirrel-red, rather than flaming carrots, but all red-heads tend to look like red traffic lights when they blush.
It's hard to explain," he said. "You're never going to believe this, but – and I swear this is true – I come from another world."
He almost added, "I come in peace. Take me to your leader," but he wasn't sure that the joke would be understood.
"I'd sort of guessed that. What's so strange about that?"
This came across in the same way that he might have asked "And were there a lot of people on the train?", which somehow made the question seem almost insulting.
Julien was annoyed. He'd just made an amazing journey – interplanetary, interstellar, maybe even between different universes – in any case, an absolutely unbelievable trip. And yet instead of showing it the respect that was due for such an amazing achievement, here was this smock-clad yokel acting as if he'd just crossed the road.
"Listen," he said, "until today I didn't even know that there were any other worlds. And I've got no idea how I got here."
"What! You mean, you didn't use a klirk?"
"Well, yes, I did, but normally there are no such things as klirks in my world."
"That's impossible. There are klirks in all of the Nine Worlds. It would be impossible to travel without them."
"All right, that might be true, but that's not how we travel in my world."
"So how do you do it, then?"
"We use cars, trains or aeroplanes. We use boats too, but that's really just for fun."
"Those things are like our gliders and flybubbles. That's not really proper travelling, just moving about. In any case, you couldn't have got here without a klirk, so there must be klirks in your world."
Julien sighed: it was hard to argue with the logic of that.
"I promise you that where I come from nobody has ever heard of klirks. Actually I think the klirk I used was drawn by my dog. As soon as I saw it I knew it was a klirk. I knew what it was called too, and I was very happy to see one. But I had no idea how to use it. Then I had a feeling I was looking at it from the wrong direction, so I walked round it – and then I found myself here."
"On your own?"
"Well, yes. You're the only person I've seen since."
"No, I mean, did you use the klirk on your own? Didn't you have a Guide?"
"Obviously I came on my own. There was nobody with me."
"But that's impossible!"
"What do you mean, it's impossible? Hello! I am here, you know!"
"You can't operate a klirk. Only the Guides know how, and you're definitely not a Guide."
"You're right," agreed Julien, "I'm not a Guide. Actually I don't even know what the Guides are. But, Guide or no Guide, I still found myself standing in the park, and I have no idea who or what brought me here."
"Forgive me for asking, but... well, you sound like a boy. You are a boy, aren't you?"
"Of course I'm a boy! Look!"
Julien moved his hands away, exposing himself to the other boy's curiosity. Now he was angry again: how could this kid have possibly thought he was a girl? That was way out of order.
"Well, in that case, why do you wear your hair so long?" asked the boy.
Julien's hair wasn't long – in fact he'd had it cut less than a week before. It hadn't been his idea, but his mother had put her foot down, and his father had backed her up: there were going to be no hippies in their house. If he wanted to look like a Beatle, he could do so just as soon as he was able to earn enough to keep himself. What was he thinking? Did he think he was manning the barricades at the Sorbonne? And so on, and so forth. He'd barely persuaded them to let him keep his ears covered.
"What do you mean?"
The boy frowned, looking at him as if he was a complete imbecile. Or an alien – which, of course, he was.
"Well, I don't know how it is in your country, but here on Nüngen, what you have is a girl's hairstyle. It's the same on Dvârinn – and everywhere else on the Nine Worlds, come to that."
Suddenly Julien felt exhausted. This ridiculous argument about his hairstyle was the last straw.
"Listen, you moron..." he started.
For a split second Julien thought the other boy was going to hit him, but he didn't care. He'd had enough of this entire performance. But instead the boy caught himself, and instead of hitting Julien he bowed to him.
"I am Niil, of the Ksantiris," he said. "And I apologise for not offering you a proper introduction of myself earlier."
Julien's anger melted away. After all, he supposed that Niil hadn't met too many aliens before.
"I'm sorry, too," he said. "It's just... this whole situation has got me stressed. Your Nine Worlds – I've got no idea what they are or even what you're talking about. Like I said, I only just got here. On my own. So it's up to you: you can believe me, or disbelieve me, but I really can't think of anything else I could say to convince you."
Niil didn't answer straight away. He tilted his head and looked at the visitor, apparently trying to read something in his face. Eventually he took a deep breath, like a man preparing to dive into a deep pool, and said, "What you've told me makes no sense at all. Anyone hearing you would say that you're loopy. But... I reckon you definitely believe what you're telling me. And I also reckon you're a decent person. Considering that you're just a No-Clan, of course."
He saw the shocked look on Julien's face and added, "Well... I mean... you don't belong to a Noble Family. You don't have any Marks. Even so, I don't know why, but I reckon you're all right."
"Thank you," said Julien, in a flat voice.
The clear lack of enthusiasm in this response made Niil offer an explanation.
"See, normally a Noble Son isn't allowed to have any friends who aren't themselves Noble Sons or Noble Daughters. It's not forbidden, as such, but it's definitely Not Done. Understand?"
"Yes, I think so. I'm not good enough for you, but maybe you'll make an exception in my case because I've got a pretty face. Is that it?"
Niil turned pale and Julien braced himself for the blow that he was sure was definitely on the way this time. But he was more than just fed up. His situation was catastrophic enough already, without having to put up with some stuck-up snob looking down on him. To hell with the consequence, he thought: if he hits me I'll knock him into next week!
But he wasn't dealing with some street yob. Niil closed his eyes, took two or three deep breaths, opened his eyes again and smiled.
"Sorry again," he said. "Please forgive me. I didn't mean that at all – I was just trying to explain the situation. I made a mess of it because I'm not used to talking to people from outside my own House – and not only are you not from my House, but you're from somewhere much, much further away. I just meant that I'm not allowed to have friends of my own age unless they come from a Noble Family. And on Dvârinn the Noble Houses are a long way away from each other, which means that I'm on my own a lot of the time. I have got two brothers, but they're away a lot, and in any case they're both quite a bit older than me. So I thought that maybe... well...
"Look, I don't know why, but... I believe you. And what I was trying to say – but making a complete mess of saying it – was... I'd... I'd like to get to know you. Is it all right if I say it like that?"
Now Julien felt ashamed of his outburst. His throat had tightened up too, for some reason, but he still managed to utter a subdued "Thank you." He was far more relieved than he would have thought possible: now he realised how important it was for him that Niil accepted his story.
"Don't thank me too quickly," Niil warned him. "I'm a Ksantiri."
Niil shook his head. "You really aren't from around here, are you?" he said. "Everyone in the Nine Worlds knows it's a really bad idea to betray the trust of a Ksantiri."
"That's doesn't bother me. I never do that sort of thing."
"Good. So – what can I do to help you?"
"Well, ideally you can tell me how to get back home. But if you can't do that... is there any chance that you could find me some clothes? This is just a bit embarrassing, being like this..."
Niil looked him up and down,quite openly, and then smiled and said, "I've seen boys who were a lot uglier than you. Still, I don't suppose you want to meet my dear cousin dressed – or not – like that. Actually, that's a good question: how come you're naked? Don't people wear clothes where you come from?"
"Of course we wear clothes! But somehow mine had disappeared by the time I got here."
"That's weird, too. Any Guide who played that sort of a trick on someone would be kicked out of his Order in no time flat."
"I suppose it happened because I made the journey without a Guide, then."
"Maybe... anyway, first let's go and have a look at the klirk you arrived on, and then if we can't find out what happened to you, we'll go to Izkya's place. She's my cousin – I'm just visiting her at the moment."
"But I don't want to meet anyone!" exclaimed Julien, anxiously.
"Why not? I'm telling you, you look pretty good, despite the girly haircut!"
He laughed at the look on Julien's face.
"It's all right, I'm just messing about. I'll go and fetch you an abba – that's a thing like the one I'm wearing. It won't take me long – the house is just on the other side of the park..."
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]