They emerged onto a plain of blowing snow. Here and there the snow thinned out, showing thin wisps of pale blue.
Dr. Ransom distributed small phone-sized packs to everybody. Jeanette immediately felt warmer. “Courtesy of the Grammar Militia. The officer remarked that we seemed more equipped for a picnic than exploration.” Senhor Capoeira Capybara said “I suppose I should take that personally, but they’re forgiven.”
“I wonder if this is a polar region, a high plateau, or just winter,” said Grandmère Hutan.
“While I’m wondering why nobody thought to ask Miss Spindleshanks back there what was the story with that guy eaten by wolves. Was he looking for a portal? Was he looking for a portal back?” Thyrsis said, perching closely on Jeanette’s shoulder for warmth.
“Somebody thought to ask, even though it meant somebody would be the last through the portal,” Antithyrsis said, both voices coming through Jeanette’s bracelets. “The Yahoo was Ludovico Thraptelicus Roja, the last King of the Golden Dream, deposed by his daughter Mute Rosamunde and driven out into the Thousand-Year Winter.”
“Not a lot of help there, then.”
“Nope, but you have to admit, they have a flair for nomenclature.”
Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone lowered his fancy binoculars. “We have a convoy of wheeled vehicles about 20 miles away. They’re proceeding at an angle to us. I doubt they can detect us yet.”
“Wheeled vehicles?” The capybara asked.”What size?”
“Wheeled,” mused Dr. Ransom. “That would indicate a low level of technology--close to our home level.”
“Not necessarily,” said Capoeira. “In extreme conditions it could provide more stability than suspensor fields. They could be quite dangerous.”
“I suggest I move in closer,” O Tse said. He shook himself and his fur became snow white all over. “I think I can gather information quite effectively.” The now-Ermine Bear dropped to all fours, and within seconds had vanished into the blowing snow.
Grandmère Hutan had another device the size of a soda-can. “There’s some ambient electromagnetic activity, so I think their civilization has radio, at least. But I’d also like to know if they have magic. No real way to test for that with a device, of course.”
Within fifteen minutes O Tse was back. “The vehicles are very big indeed: Two stories of a house and massive wheels. Armed and armored, but they look like cargo vehicles rather than combat. Projectile weapons, but maybe more than that.” He smiled, and his face-fur changed color. “One fascinating thing. Go on, ask me what it is.”
Nobody else was going to oblige, so Jeanette asked, “What is it?”
“They’re burning whale oil.”
“Wow,” said Dr. Ransom.
“On my adopted planet, it was what the losing side of our perpetual war was reduced to, after we had captured the fossil reserves. It’s a smell you never forget.”
Lord Elphinstone said, “I think we can make ourselves known to them with some safety.”
Nobody objected, and Senhor Capoeira said, “It beats, and I quote, ‘tromping around through the landscape until you stumble on a portal.’” He reached behind him and pulled out from beyond the sixth wall, a red cylinder with a pointed cap, a stick on one side, and a thick rope curling out of the bottom. He jammed the stick into the ground and touched the twisted cord. The fuse burned, and when it reached the cylinder, the rocket flew off into the white and faintly blue sky. It exploded into a series of colored fireworks.
Silvertyger brought the binoculars up to his eyes. “There are confetti and balloons released as well.”
The capybara shrugged. “You work with the materials provided.”
“They’re changing course,” the tiger said.
“Let’s tromp out to meet them,” suggested Dr. Ransom.
They met in the lee of a stone outcropping that provided some shelter from the seemingly perpetual wind. The trucks were indeed big: Jeanette had seen pictures of the biggest dump trucks on earth, mainly because her friend Luis was obsessed with them, and they were nearly as big: the tires were twice as tall as she was. These were longer, though, and covered over.
The officer who came out to meet them gave both Terence and Jeaneete’s heart a twinge, because his clothing shouted Earth. He was Asian, but his parka, his rifle, and even his cigar could be from their world and time. His expression was a little more wide-eyed at their motley arrangement, but it didn’t leave the tough-and-competent spectrum.
“My name is Col. Yuan Yi , and I’m in charge of this convoy, Second in command of the United Democratic WFK Expeditionary Force. Can you understand me?”
“I understand you,” said Dr. Ransom. “I’m Dr. Terence Ransom, and we’re travelers from another world.”
“I’d buy that in a minute.” He moved slightly aside, and an olive drab four-rotor drone whirred forward. It was spattered with confetti, and in its pincers was a red balloon. “Mind telling me what this is?”
“It’s a greeting,” Jeanette spoke up. “It’s our way of saying that we come in peace.”
The colonel looked down at Jeanette. He was tall and broad and blockishly muscular, but his voice went up a few notes when he said, “I sincerely hope it does, young lady. You speak excellent Korean, by the way.”
“Thank you sir,” she said in her littler-than-she-really-was voice. “So do you.”
There was a whoop from behind the Colonel: evidently the members of the expedition had been listening in. She was worried that this would make him angry (only after she’d done it, though: no thought before) but his half-smile stayed the same.
“Standard procedure is for me to take you back to base for evaluation,” he said with some uncertainty.
“We have no problem with that,” answered Dr. Ransom.
“It also requires that you surrender your weapons.”
Lord Elphinstone drew his longsword with a great ringing sound and with solemnity laid it before Yuan Yi’s feet. O Tse followed suit with his pike. This seemed to satisfy the Colonel, even though Terence guessed Yuan Yi thought that they hadn’t disarmed completely.
Jennifer insisted that she be allowed to ride up in the cab even though it was a long additional climb from the crew’s quarters where everybody else went. She therefore sat next to the Colonel, and even though he didn’t say a word to her, and even though there wasn’t a whole lot to see except snow, she was enjoying herself as they bumped along.
Close to the end of a very long day the convoy came over a ridge and started to descend into a huge snowless bowl, as if it were the crater of a volcano keeping it warm. It was a big military encampment with a lot of machinery and barracks, surrounding a small circle of stone monuments. The Colonel had them disembark before the trucks went elsewhere, and he delivered them to a small metal hut and brought them inside to an old man in a green uniform.
“I’m General Masamune, and I’m the commander of this expedition. Your claim to be travelers from another world is one I find credible for a number of reasons. I’d like to know specifically what your purpose is here. Note that this is not an invitation to explain your entire history. I have my limits.”
The General’s face was heavily lined and there were white streaks in his hair. Ransom noticed that he’d been focusing his entire attention on him: a little bit of prejudiced assumption that the human was the leader, or at least the only one he could communicate with. Well, best to not disabuse him of that notion just yet. “Briefly, we entered this world via a dimensional gateway, and our principal objective is to find another one so we can continue our journey.”
The General nodded. “Well, then you’ve come to the right place.” He got up and moved to the window. “This is, you may have noticed, an expeditionary force without a spaceship or anything similar. Our mode of transportation is what you see on the tone circle up there.”
“This is not our homeworld, sir. But on it, archaeologists unearthed a similar structure to what you see up there. We sent a man through it, and he ended up here. It was a gateway, and, we’ve established, one between universes. And that structure seems to be a nexus leading to a whole spectrum of universes, and it’s our mission to investigate all of that.”
“We have lost well over half our manpower to the things that have come through those gates, however. You are the first alien presences that seem at all benign. If you turn out to be so--and it’s still if at this point, we could use any help you’re able to give.”
General Masamune stretched a little. “But this has been a long day. I will have you escorted to quarters--they may seem oppressive but I assure you they’re the best we’ve got, I’ll have some food sent in, and we can continue this tomorrow.
The barracks were, in fact terrible, and the beds were particularly bad, and the meal rather tasteless--but none of that seemed to be out of malice. So they ate in silence, and Terence broke out the special blankets from his knapsack, which helped some.
But when it was dark, Jeanette, acknowledging that she was getting worse and worse, sneaked out of the barracks past the dozing guard.
She stood in the round courtyard. The big round gates almost looked like the TV show she had never gotten into, except that they were of black braided cables and not stone, and the space inside the circles writhed in the dark.
Another network of portals? Or maybe they were back in time and this was an earlier version of it? She stood looking at the wavering dark air, and started to see them gradually forming faces looking back--
--until someone clamped a hand over her mouth and held her tight, whispering, “Cry out and I’ll kill you.”