[Fiction/fantasy] Europe or next portal back

Portal to Europe by kimoz

Image credit: kimoz on DeviantArt

Last summer, my fiance Harriet and I took a trip to Europe. We knew it would be winter there, in the northern hemisphere, but hey, them’s the breaks.

We landed at the airport in the afternoon. Well, when I say landed, we didn’t so much land as step out through a portal into a wide, flat, open plain.

You see, when you travel to Europe you can’t just fly there — it’s something to do with EU regulations around immigration from outside. Instead, you have to use one of these nifty portals that they have, the ones located in old abandoned houses right next to the airport. I expect you know the ones I’m talking about, if you’ve ever gone to Europe yourself, I mean.

The portal we used was down in this dingy, poky cellar, filled with mold and piles of old human remains in the corners, but that’s what you get when you travel third-class, right? At least the trip itself was short and besides, the agent told us it was perfectly normal to experience a little bit of pre-flight nausea. I’ll tell you what, though, the portal system is not that much cheaper than flying — I suspect the whole system is pretty power-hungry, and the passengers pay for the overheads!

Well, there we were, in Europe, though the agent hadn’t been too clear exactly about what country we were going to be arriving in. Harriet thought it must be France from the lush, thigh-high grass everywhere, but I knew it was Germany — you see, the clouds had these distinct purple spots all over them, which is caused by light refracting through chemical smog left over from Germany’s heavy industrial past. That was way back, before they switched to renewables.

But when I travel abroad, what I always find so remarkable is just how different everything is. It wasn’t proper culture shock, nothing serious like that — but when we saw Mervyn, our tour guide, I must admit I was a little taken aback. I mean, I knew people were different in Europe, but Mervyn had orange skin and seven eyes that all blinked in weird, disturbingly asynchronous patterns. It was very off-putting, though at least Harriet finally admitted we were in Germany after all, since her cousin had been to France twice and she’d never described anyone like that.

It really goes to show that it takes all sorts, huh?

Oh, but you’re probably impatient to hear what we got up to on our little romantic European getaway. Obviously, when we told our friends we were traveling to Europe, we got endless lists of recommendations about where to go, what to see, fifteen funny pranks to pull on policemen — all that rigmarole and unasked-for travel advice!

Well. We talked to Mervyn, who said in that high, reedy voice of his that Germany — it sounded like Schlermany with the accent — didn’t really have the entertainment venues our friends had raved about, but that he’d take us into the city center and show us around all the same. Naturally, we were bummed when we heard there weren’t going to be any nightclubs or real party places. Again, Mervyn was a bit vague about exactly what city center he was taking us into, but you had to assume it was Berlin!

In a quaint European tradition, we rode into town on the backs of these massive camel things with twelve humps and mouths full of thousands of long, sharpened teeth. Mervyn assured us they were harmless, but I got a bit of a fright when my mount attacked a passing rabbit, staining my shirt with bits of spattered gore, which is so hard to wash out. And, since we were on holiday, I didn’t have many spare shirts like I would do at home. Still, my annoyance didn’t last.

I mean, the German countryside is magnificent. Coated in that thigh-high green grass and rollicking hills, there were giant iron windmills every couple hundred meters and these bubbling pits of lava which Mervyn called natural geysers. Apparently, every few hours, they’d violently explode and splatter the surrounding countryside with molten rock — I think they have the same kind of thing in parts of America. Thankfully, people are quite used to them and the only ones who die in the explosions are worthless serfs. I’m pretty sure the way Mervyn said it, “serf” was local slang for a careless or incautious person.

On the way too, we’d occasionally see these orange-skinned Germans out in the fields, striking at the ground with giant metal hammers. When we asked Mervyn what they were doing, he said they were hunting for mugwumps, which seemed to be some kind of pest as bad as cane toads up in Queensland. It made me sad to see the kind of damage introduced species can do to local ecosystems. Harriet inquired whether animal smuggling was a big problem for the EU with their open border policy, but Mervyn only laughed and said that neighboring kingdoms would not dare to ‘tangle vit zee Schlerman border patrols.’

It’s crazy — I had no idea that parts of Germany still clung to feudal monarchies! In the modern day! When they call Europe the “old world” they’re certainly not kidding. Still, tradition’s a powerful thing — one of our prime ministers nearly brought back the aristocracy here, without it ever even existing in Australia in the first place.

Berlin kind of crept up on us. I wouldn’t have expected there to be open fields so close to a major city like that. At some point, the grassy plains gave way abruptly to this black earth that looked like it had been scorched with fire. There were no plants or animals beyond this border, which ran in a giant circular arc away on either side, just the city. Now, we do the same back home in bushfire season, only I couldn’t imagine why they’d be backburning in winter! That said, the weather during our stay was rather warm, not at all the freezing cold people had claimed was usual across Europe. We never even saw any snow, which I was bummed about. Harriet blamed global warming and localized temperature fluctuations.

Berlin itself was incredible. When they talk about German engineering, they do not exaggerate! I’ve seen a lot of neat architecture, but nothing like this — Berlin had these giant towering buildings made out of a thin, fleshy substance which kind of heaved in and out like it was breathing. They had these amazing sky arches between buildings that were perfect spirals, twisting clockwise and then counter-clockwise ceaselessly and occasionally sending orange-skinned inhabitants plummeting to the blackened ground. Germans are certainly a tough race — they would just pick themselves up and go on with their business like nothing had happened, even after falling ten or twelve stories. Harriet once fell down just three steps and complained about it for days!

All the citizens we met were perfectly lovely, real friendly native Berliners from what Harriet and I could gather. None of them appeared to speak English, which was a shame, but Mervyn acted as an intermediary and translator, so we could get a taste for the local populace. German is such a harsh language — all rough, barking coughs and high-pitched squeals, hacking and spluttering — utilitarian is the word I want. Mervyn seemed to render our meaning okay, though he kept on saying “Schlermany” instead of “Germany”. The limitations of accents!

We met this one wonderful orange-skinned woman — she had only five eyes, having lost a couple in some accident Mervyn called a “reckoning” — and her name was Ellen, we think, though Mervyn mangled it into something like Yelmurnia. Anyway, Ellen told us about the city and her own life. She works at a local factory where they produce packaged food and incendiary devices, presumably for barbecues or the like. It sounded like she worked quite long hours, which she said was sad because it took away from coupling time with her partner, whom she affectionately termed her “broodmate”. Harriet and I just looked at each other knowingly at this — we were on a romantic getaway, after all!

Weirdly, Mervyn kind of gave Ellen the evil eye — well, eyes — at this response, and she stressed hurriedly that she loved working long hours for the good of the kingdom, and she would never have it any other way, and all glory to Zelmar, who we gathered must be the guy in charge. Mervyn confirmed this, and pretty casually added that we could see him, if we wanted, because he was always pleased to meet Earthsiders. I believe he meant Sydneysiders. Who knew Australians were so popular in Germany? Imagine, a king wanting to meet us! Of course we said yes, because we were thinking how insufferable we could be when we returned and told our friends we’d met a king of Germany. Their expressions would be priceless!

With this royal visit in the works, we were free to enjoy our trip any way we wanted. On the first day, Mervyn gave us a formal tour around the major civic sites of Berlin, like the old Berlin police station, a nifty conference hall with these enormous iron pillars out the front, and best of all Zelmar’s iron palace. Forget Versailles and Buckingham — this place was the real deal, more like some kind of dread fortress than a seat of government. It had a molten metal moat, a wicked sharpened spire that seemed to pierce the sky, and proper fortifications: big towers, huge black cannons mounted on revolving turrets, plus a fifty-foot high wall that didn’t even block the vast bulk of the palace behind it. Harriet thought the wall must have been built from remnants of the Berlin Wall torn down after the USSR collapsed — it was a nice idea to think they repurposed that horrible divider of the city into something far more practical and awesome.

What’d we get up to in Berlin? We ate out a lot, dining on fine European cuisine. Most of the restaurants we went to were so exotic they didn’t even have chicken schnitzel or sauerkraut, the kind of dishes you’d expect in Germany. Instead, the specialty of this region appeared to be a dark green slimy paste that looked kind of awful, but grew on you the more you had it. It seemed to be what most people around us were eating, anyway, so we tried to blend in and enjoy it like the natives.

We took walks through the city, savoring the warm, breezy weather, though the absence of any plant or wildlife was a little disconcerting at first. Luckily, the people on the streets were so immensely friendly and an absolute joy to talk to, at least when Mervyn was around to introduce us. The rest of the time they sort of scurried around with their shoulders hunched and their heads down like they were trying to avoid being noticed, which just goes to show what living in a big city can do to your nerves.

Some of them were so frazzled that they started visibly when they saw Mervyn, and wore expressions almost approaching fear. Once or twice after one of these encounters, Mervyn had us go on ahead so he could stay behind and ‘deal vit them’. We both thought it was awfully noble of him to stick around and comfort people who were clearly going through a difficult time in their life, viewing Mervyn and us as something to be fearful of. Harriet would joke and say she could understand not wanting to meet me, which I took with a smile.

Our nights were spent in this cozy little hotel made out of that same thin fleshy material as most of Berlin. Let me tell you that people definitely don’t visit Europe much in the off-season — the entire rest of the hotel was vacant, and we didn’t see a single non-German the whole of our stay! I remembered my friends raving about how multicultural and international a city Berlin was, but evidently we’d either come at the wrong time or gotten unlucky, or visited the wrong part of the city or something. Anyway, the hotel was nice, and Harriet and I spent our nights in relative luxury, getting up to what fiances get up to in cool evenings and foreign climes. It was a beautiful trip and we certainly learnt a lot about the idiosyncrasies of German, or “Schlerman”, culture.

Our meeting with King Zelmar came on the last day of our stay. We were escorted to the palace in the morning, several hours before we were scheduled to catch the portal back to Sydney. Mervyn walked us right up to the great iron gates and exchanged a few words with the uniformed guards outside, pulling out various official-looking documents and gesturing at us. A few curt nods later, the portals opened as ponderously as the Black Gate of Mordor, and we were beckoned inside.

Mervyn took us past several other checkpoints once inside the gates, this time attended by guards wearing spiky, dangerous-looking armor. Always, at every stage, we could make out the words “Zelmar” and “the Earthsiders”. Harriet tried to correct Mervyn that it was “Sydneysiders” or even just “Australians”, but he seemed a bit on edge and her words didn’t really register.

Eventually, we were brought inside the palace itself, where Mervyn handed us over to another English-speaking official called Brenda, who was also missing a few eyes. It seemed like these reckoning accidents Mervyn had mentioned were rather common in Berlin. Brenda was much more brisk and officious than Mervyn as she led us through a maze of grandiose corridors with very little small talk. This was alright because Harriet and I were too cowed by our surroundings to do much more than gape and whisper quietly to each other.

At the end of one of these hallways stood a huge double door, guarded by a pair of grimly-attired soldiers. They weren’t quite the black-hatted protectors of Buckingham Palace, but they seemed to have about the same range of facial expressions — bored and impassive. Seriously, these guys looked like they’d never smiled in their lives, and the fact that their seven eyes didn’t blink even once made it all the creepier.

At our approach, the guardians saluted stiffly to Brenda and opened the doors, admitting us into the throne room. Inside, a tiny orange-skinned man sat in an uncomfortable-looking iron chair, playing with a Rubik’s cube. He glanced up briefly as we entered, grinned, and signaled for us to wait before resuming his puzzle with a look of fierce concentration. In less than a minute, the cube had been solved, each face showing a solid block of color, and he tossed it casually to one side as we approached.

Zelmar wasn’t what we’d expected — sounds silly when you’re talking about a foreign monarch, but it’s true. He had only two eyes, with no sign the others had been gouged out or lost in a reckoning, and a broad smile. He was also really tiny. While he didn’t stand up to greet us — Harriet and I bowed for lack of any better idea — it was clear he was very, very short. All the other Germans we’d met were average-sized, maybe our height or even a bit taller. Zelmar, when he spoke, had the same accent as Mervyn did, asking us how we were enjoying Schlermany. That’s how they all said it — Schlermany.

Our conversation with Zelmar was odd, but enjoyable. He seemed intensely curious about where we had come from and what Australia was like. It was almost like he’d never met any other Sydneysiders, which couldn’t be true because he’d been so keen to say hello to us specifically. We just thought he was being polite. Pretty soon we got over our awe of speaking to a real live king and settled down into pleasant conversation. Zelmar was a really nice guy, really genuine, you know? His responses and questions were so outlandish that at one point Harriet laughingly asked him whether he was from some other world entirely and he just blinked owlishly and smiled.

We had such a great chat with King Zelmar that it was a bit of a surprise when I looked at my watch and realized that it was time to head out for our portal back home. Zelmar seemed crestfallen that we had to leave, but insisted on thanking us for our time and gave us a couple of keepsakes to remember Europe by.

I got a few packages of that dark green slimy paste we’d eaten so much of during our visit, and Harriet got a spear! It was sleek and shiny, made from iron of course, and it had this wicked-looking tip that could probably do some serious damage. Zelmar explained that Schlermany had a proud military tradition, and traditional weapons like spears were an important part of that heritage. I knew this from my European history — if you read about the early days of Germany and Prussia, you’ll find all sorts of references to war and armed combat and things.

We assumed he was joking when he added that he’d personally killed tens of enemies with this very spear while wielding it in battle.

So we said goodbye to King Zelmar, promising to visit again when we could, and met up with Mervyn outside the palace gates. Together we picked up our luggage from the hotel and rode those monstrous camels all the way back to the portal. After that, it was merely a matter of saying goodbye to Mervyn, thanking him for taking care of us, and hopping back through the portal into the dingy basement of the house near the airport.

As always after traveling abroad it felt weird to be back home, but comforting too. Europe hadn’t been what we’d expected — but we’d still had a hell of a time.

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