In this chapter Stefan learns a bit about the history of his own world, Oli sticks his hand on the wrong panel, and our heroes find themselves somewhere they didn’t want to visit. And then things take a sharp turn for the worse…
When I woke up next morning I told Stefan that I would be cooking breakfast today and that he might as well stay in bed for a while until it was ready. Then I walked across the dormitory and collected Alain, telling Oli the same thing. Alain and I went and had a good wash first and then went to the kitchen.
There were no eggs, of course, and if this world knew about baked beans they didn't have any in the store-room, but there was plenty of bacon and lots of sausages, so we were able to prepare a cooked breakfast of sorts. I'd left about half a loaf out to thaw overnight, and now I set about toasting it under one of the grills. I got Alain to start cooking some of the bacon and sausages under another grill. I'd have liked to fry it, but I hadn't been able to find any oil, though I was sure there must be some somewhere in a kitchen this size, even if it might have been a bit past its sell-by date. But grilling worked equally well.
“And did you and Oli... you know?” I asked.
“No, not yet. Maybe tonight. What about you and Stefan?”
“Same for us, though maybe we might get around to it later today. I'm not quite sure how to raise the subject, to be honest – I mean, I don't want him thinking I'm just a pervert.”
“I'm sure he knows that already – it's all right, I'm joking! Actually I don't think it matters: like I said yesterday, he likes you a lot, and I don't think you could do or say anything to change his mind in a hurry.”
“That's easy for you to say. Still... I think I've got a way.” And I told him about my idea of playing another forfeit game and offering it as a possible penalty if I lost.
“Well, that might work, I suppose. And, talking of penalties: I don't remember there being a time limit on the game we played yesterday, which means you still have to do what I tell you today.”
“Oh, come on! That's not fair!”
“It is if we didn't agree a time limit, and we didn't. So you're my slave until I decide to let you off – a bit like you were saying I could have done with you the day we first met.”
“And you said you wouldn't have done that. You said you'd have let me go.”
“Well, I've been thinking about it since yesterday, and I think it would be fun to have a slave. So get undressed, Jake.”
I wasn't sure if he was serious or not, but I supposed it was true that we hadn't agreed a time limit, and so I stripped off. That didn't take long: I was only wearing my shorts, boxers and a tee-shirt. I even took my specs off.
“Good slave,” he said. “Come here.”
I pulled the bread I was toasting from under the grille and went to him, and he grinned at me.
“Kneel down,” he ordered, and I did that, too.
“Okay, that's enough,” he said. “You'd better get on with preparing the bread. But that proves what a really good friend you are, and how honourable, too: obviously it wouldn't be fair to keep the game going from yesterday, but you've just proved that you were prepared to keep your word even if I wasn't playing fair. That's one of the reasons we all like you, Jake: we know we can trust you. Oh, you can get dressed, by the way.”
To be honest I was in two minds here: part of me (it's not difficult to guess which part) would have been quite happy to have Alain ordering me about for a lot longer, especially if it meant... But then again, the rest of me wanted to keep that sort of stuff for just me and Stefan from now on, and so on balance I was glad he had decided to let me off.
Once the cooking was nearly done I went and called for Stefan and Oli to wash their hands and then come to breakfast, and they reached the dining hall just as I was serving. And they all liked it, even though with no butter for the toast and no eggs or beans it was definitely lacking something.
“I like it even better than the flaky things,” Oli said. We still hadn't got him and Alain to use forks yet, but they were managing quite well just picking things up in their fingers. “Can we have this every day, please, Jake?”
“There seems to be plenty of bacon and sausages in the freezer, so I don't see why not. And now Alain knows how to cook it, perhaps he can get breakfast tomorrow and let me have a lie in.”
“I wouldn't mind,” agreed Alain. “You've done almost all the cooking so far, so it would be fair.”
After breakfast I showed him how the dishwasher worked (this was simple: stick everything inside and press the 'on' switch, because, like the washing machines, there was an automatic hopper arrangement for the detergent) and then, on Stefan's insistence, we all went and got properly dressed once more. Alain was given my bag with the flashlight in, and Stefan checked that his own bag was properly equipped with a flashlight and a few other bits and pieces. And then Alain and Oli went exploring once more while Stefan and I went back to the office.
We said 'Good morning' to Dead Guy as usual. We hadn't wanted to risk trying to move him in case his body disintegrated when we picked it up, so we had left him where he was and just put a blanket over him. We hoped that he still had some colleagues out there somewhere who would give him a proper funeral when they returned.
Stefan sat down at the computer and I sat beside him and we began another search, clicking on things more or less at random. And fairly soon we found out something useful: it was an entry on a sub-menu marked 'additional defences', and it told us a bit more about the barriers: apparently they didn't just block anything inanimate from passing, but they also prevented the passage of any living creature that was not warm-blooded. And that made perfect sense, because if the Greys were descended from reptiles they would probably be cold-blooded.
And we also found out something else: after the Greys had taken the Hub One Nexus Room every tunnel leading from the Hub Two Nexus Room had been extensively mined, with explosives buried under the floor and behind the walls. These were each on a separate electrical circuit so that they could be triggered individually if a particular tunnel fell into enemy hands – obviously they didn't want to destroy all the tunnels at once if they didn't have to. But there was also a fail-safe device: there was a constant electrical circuit running through the system, and any attempt to cut the power – which an enemy might do to try to disarm the explosives – would instead start a countdown that would eventually set the explosives off, using batteries to power the detonators. Explosives had also been set around each portal, and the detonation of the explosives in the tunnel would also destroy the portal itself.
“Well,” I said, “I suppose it would explain what happened to the tunnel behind Door Fifteen.”
“That is true. We must ensure that we are not in a tunnel when the power is cut if that would be the result.”
Now that was a scary thought: either you get blown to pieces, or you get buried alive. On the other hand... “But there’s nobody here to trigger the explosives,” I said.
“And there was nobody here when the tunnel you saw collapsed, either. By then Dead Guy had already been dead for a very long time. Perhaps something else triggered it, or perhaps it was a simple power failure: we know the power supply is damaged. Maybe the power to that tunnel failed and triggered the fail-safe system.”
“True. In that case we'll have to be careful. Actually, it isn't completely instantaneous: I saw the tunnel's lights flashing and mist filling it before it collapsed. I suppose that happens to warn people that the countdown has started. I don't know how long the countdown lasts, of course, but at least we'll get a warning if the tunnel we're in is about to be blown up. If there's mist in a tunnel, we shouldn't use it.”
“Maybe the destruction of that tunnel was triggered by the power failure Dead Guy wrote of,” said Stefan. “We have seen no other sign of failure, after all.”
“If so it took a long time to fail completely,” I pointed out. “There might be a lot of other things wrong that we haven't seen. I think it would be a lot safer to assume that any warning light is a sign that we should get out of here straight away. Of course, since we don't know where the warning lights are displayed that doesn't help us much.”
“I am sure that the computer must hold this information,” said Stefan. “Let us search for it once more.”
So we started hunting through the system once more – and eventually Stefan found what we were looking for.
“This should display the control board,” said Stefan, clicking on the item he had found. And the screen cleared, and the words 'Collating information' appeared, along with a little rotating triangle that was presumably there to indicate that the computer hadn't actually stopped working but was performing a task.
And that's when Alain and Oli appeared at the entrance to the office.
“You've definitely got to come and see this,” said Alain. “It's really strange. We think it's another machine of some sort. Come on!”
Stefan and I looked at each other.
“We might as well,” I said. “The computer could be a while yet.”
Stefan nodded, picked up his bag and slipped it on.
“Just in case,” he said, when he saw me staring.
I shrugged. “Okay, Alain – where are we going?” I asked.
“We thought we'd have a look through the arch on the other side of the hall,” he said. “And we found... well, we'll show you.”
They took us through to the hall and headed for the arch, but Stefan called them back.
“If we are all leaving the area we should reactivate the barrier,” he said. “The barrier is there for a good reason.”
“Yes, but if we're only just outside...”
“We must be safe, Jake. Olivier, would you go and activate the barrier, please? And perhaps we should seal the inner office also: on the small desk opposite Dead Guy, at the back, there is a switch. Press it and the inner office will close.”
Oli stripped off his clothes – trainers, socks, the blue dress and his army hat – and went back into the office. A minute or so later he emerged, reactivated the barrier and walked through it to join us.
“I won't bother getting dressed just yet,” he said. “There's another barrier at the arch, and I bet you want that one closed too, don't you?”
Alain led us to the arch and the three of us walked through it, Alain carrying Oli’s clothes. Oli activated the barrier and walked through it to join us, and while he was getting dressed I looked around.
We were in another room, perhaps ten metres across by twenty-five long. At the far end, directly ahead of us, was another entrance that seemed to lead to a narrow tunnel, and to our left was a door that led, so Alain told us, to an empty storage cupboard. But it was the entrance to our right that had caught their attention. It was a small arch leading to a short ramp that sloped downwards. There was a barrier control at the side of the arch, and Alain deactivated the barrier and led us down the ramp, though this time Oli just came with us without stopping to reactivate the barrier, and when we reached the bottom of the ramp I saw that he didn’t need to activate this barrier from outside because there was another control panel just inside the room at the bottom of the ramp. And when Oli put his hand on it the barrier reappeared and a door slid closed at the same time.
At first glance it looked a bit like a long, narrow cinema: there were rows of seats with a screen at the front of the room, and my first thought was that it was another briefing room. But it was the low, curved roof that suggested something else, and when Oli led us through a little door beside the screen I realised that my second thought was correct: this was actually a train. The little door led to a driver’s cab, though there was no sign of any controls. Through the screen at the front of the cab we could see a tunnel stretching away, lit only by occasional dim lights set widely apart.
Oli sat in the driver’s chair, and as he did so a panel slid away in front of the chair, though there was nothing beneath it except for a line of ten little cyan lights and a barrier control hand outline. I assumed that this must be an automatic system, a bit like the Docklands Light Railway in London, which runs without drivers. But it seemed a bit unnecessary to have yet another barrier between the cab and the rest of the carriage – why bother protecting the driver when he wasn’t actually driving? And I was still pondering that when Oli reached out and put his hand on the control panel.
And that’s when we found out that the outline of a hand on this panel didn’t actually control a barrier at all: instead it controlled the train, which started to move forwards.
“Move your hand, Oli,” I cried. “We don’t want to go anywhere!”
“Why not?” asked Oli, taking his hand away all the same. “It might be interesting to see where this goes.”
“I’m pretty sure it goes to Hub One,” I told him. “This is what Dead Guy called the Capsule, I think. And Hub One isn’t somewhere we want to be, especially if the Greys have found their way into it.”
But moving his hand hadn’t stopped the train moving – in fact it was still accelerating. And touching the panel again did nothing at all, so it looked as if once the train was in motion it would keep running until it reached its destination. I didn’t know how long it would take: Stefan said he thought it was only about eighty kilometres to the Feldberg, but the train would have to go some way down at our end and then climb a fair bit at the other, and so it would be likely to take a while. So I went into the main compartment and sat down, and Stefan came to join me, though Alain stayed with Oli in the cab.
“My grandfather wouldn’t approve of me making this journey,” I said. “He always told me I shouldn’t ever go to Germany.”
“Why would he say that?” asked Stefan.
“Oh, it’s just old memories, from when he was a kid before the war. He was born near Gdansk – you’d call it Danzig – when it was part of Poland, although of course it became German after 1939.”
“It should always have been German. It was part of Germany for many years before the First War, and returning it to the Fatherland was one of the reasons for reacting as we did when the Poles attacked our frontier posts. So, what did your grandfather say, exactly?”
“Well, he said he could never trust the Germans. He said that one day everything would be fine, and you’d be thought of as an ordinary German citizen, and a week later you’d be on your way to the gas chambers.”
“Gas chambers? What did he mean by that?”
I stared at him. Could it have been different in his reality? I didn’t think so, somehow. So perhaps he really didn’t know what had happened to the Jews, in which case… I was starting to wish I’d never mentioned grandfather at all, but I supposed that I had to follow it through now.
“Well, in our world the Jews weren’t sent to Siberia or Madagascar,” I said. “The Nazis did put those stories about, but what really happened is that they were sent to special camps – in Poland, mostly – and in the camps they were gassed.”
“That cannot be true! I cannot believe that your world was so different from ours. This must be a story put about to discredit our government.”
“I’m afraid not. See, in my world Germany lost the war, and as the German army retreated it left behind a lot of evidence of what had happened, including some of the concentration camps where the killing took place - Auschwitz and Treblinka and Majdanek, and a lot of others. And there were survivors, too, and the gas chambers were still there, and so were the crematoriums where they burned the bodies afterwards. It really happened, Stefi – around six million Jews died in those camps. And a lot of other people, too: gypsies and communists and… and homosexuals, too.”
He stared at me. “And… and do you believe that this happened in my world also?”
“Well… probably. I mean, people wouldn’t know about it – at least, not many people would – because your government would have had time to finish the job and then dismantle the camps. In my world they ran out of time because the Russians were advancing too quickly, but in yours there would have been no time pressure. So they could have killed all the Jews and spread the story about them being resettled in Siberia and Madagascar, and nobody would have any reason to disbelieve it – except for people living in Siberia and Madagascar, I suppose, because they would never have seen a Jew at all. But it was always Hitler‘s intention to dispose of the Jews, and I’m sure that would have been the same in your world.”
He was silent for several seconds. “It is true that I had never seen a Jew before I met you,” he said, slowly. “But we were told… No! No, I cannot believe that so many… Six million? Truly?”
“More, in your world,” I said. “Ten or eleven, maybe.”
He looked at me. “I do not think you could lie to me, Jake. I think that I know you well enough now. But… if you truly believe this to be true, then how can you bear to be near me?”
“What sort of question is that? Stefi, all this happened before either of us was born. You didn’t have anything to do with it. You’re my friend, and that’s all that matters to me.”
“Yes, but… But it was my government that did this, and I am a loyal German. I remember that you said how your people do not like the swastika emblem, and now I understand why…”
“Yes, and the fact that I’m wearing one round my neck now shows you how much you mean to me. It's just an accident that I am a Jew and you are a German. What is important is that we are friends, and that I… I mean, you’re my best friend, and I don’t want that to change. In my world Jews have done some bad things, too, things that I don’t agree with. But it doesn’t matter what other Jews have done, or what other Germans have done, either: you and me, that’s what matters, Stefi. We’re just boys who are friends. It doesn’t matter what other people have done: I just care what you have done, and you’ve been my friend since we met. Please don’t let any of this ancient history change that.”
“Well… are you certain that you still want to be friends with me?”
“Absolutely,” I said, and I hugged him hard. And after a moment he responded, and we sat holding each other until Oli called for us to come to the cab.
“What is it, Oli?” I asked, sticking my head through the door. “Are we at the other Hub?”
“No, not yet. I was just wondering about the little lights: they seem to be going out.”
I looked, and now only four of the little cyan lights were still lit.
“I think it’s an indicator of how far we have to go,” I said. “Or maybe how much power we’ve got left. Perhaps that’s more likely.”
“Oh. I was wondering, because when I went back to close the inner office, like you said, I saw there was a picture of some lights on that magic window you and Stefan spend so much time looking at. But those were a different colour: some were yellow and some were a sort of purple colour, and some of them were flashing on and off. There were only a couple that were the same bluey-greeney colour as these ones are.”
I didn’t like the sound of that at all: we’d asked the computer to show us the control board, and if was full of yellow and magenta lights the power situation must have been a lot worse than we had thought it was.
“Can you remember exactly what the picture looked like?” I asked.
“Yes, I think so. If you can find me a slate and some chalk I’ll draw it for you. Of course, I couldn’t read any of the little squiggles, so I probably won’t get those right, but I can show you where the little lights were.”
“Stefi, you’d better come and listen to this,” I said: Stefan was still sitting looking pensive, which I guess was understandable in view of what I’d just told him. “And have you got your little notebook and a pencil or pen?”
Of course he had: Stefan was nothing if not organised. He pulled his little notebook out of a pocket on his bag and handed it, together with a pencil, to Oli, who of course thought that pencils were an excellent invention. He turned to a blank page and started to draw the control board from memory.
I have to admit I was surprised at his ability to reproduce something as complicated as that board, but I suppose the ability to read is not essential in order to be able to paint or draw. The problem was that the lights were divided into several blocks, and he couldn’t reproduce the heading for each box accurately: a lot of the headings were just squiggles instead of actual letters. But some sections of the box were clearly decipherable, and he had accurately remembered the letters that spelled out ‘HUB 1’ (which covered the top half of the page) and ‘HUB 2’, which was the bottom half. And we could tell which line of lights indicated the condition of the tunnels, because there was a line of twenty lights on the lower half of the page and a corresponding line of fifteen lights on the upper half.
Hub One looked really bad: there were steady magenta lights almost across the board, except for a block of ten on one side of the board, where two were flashing yellow and one was steady yellow (Oli explained what colour the lights were, of course, and had drawn a circle round the flashing ones). Hub Two looked better, in that there were only four steady magenta lights, but there were another seven flashing magentas and a whole lot of yellows. And the scary part was that three of the steady magentas were in the row of tunnel lights, and six of the others were flashing magenta.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” I said. “It looks as if three of the tunnels have closed already, and a lot of the others are heading that way. We’ve got to get back before we lose the ones that’ll take us home.”
“How?” asked Alain. “We can’t stop this metal pipe thing, and even if we could it’s a long way back now.”
“Well, we’ll just have to turn straight round when we arrive and come back straight away,” I said.
“Do you think we will be able to do so?” asked Stefan, pointing to the one little box that lay squarely between Hub One and Hub Two on the board. And in fact Oli had got the first two letters ‘CA’ right, though the rest were less accurate. The three lights in the box that covered the capsule system were apparently all a steady yellow.
“I bloody well hope so, or we’re in real trouble,” I said, and I meant it: it was obvious that Hub One was almost out of power, and we might even arrive to find the Greys already in possession. Of course, it might be possible to persuade them that we were just innocent travellers, but it might be hard to explain what we were doing using the Capsule if we weren’t actually a part of Dead Guy’s world. But perhaps we would be lucky and find that they still hadn't found their way into the Hub – though that would still give us a major problem if the Capsule wasn't able to take us back. I thought that if the worst came to the worst we would have to abandon the Capsule, find our way out to the surface and then travel overland through Dead Guy’s world until we got back to the Vosges, where there had to be another way into Hub Two. But that would obviously take quite a long time, and the idea that the tunnels back to my world, and to Stefan’s, might disappear in the meantime was really frightening.
The train ran on. It was virtually silent, and I found myself wondering how it was powered: I thought maybe it might be some sort of magnetic levitation system. I’d read a bit about those, and apparently if the maglev train ran through a specially designed tunnel it was possible for it to go extremely fast, mainly because the air could be pumped out of the tunnel, leaving it a vacuum. This would eliminate air resistance, but if anything went wrong we would really be in trouble, because there would be no air outside the train and so we would be unable to leave it.
But it looked as though we were going to be spared that particular problem, because shortly after that the train followed a right hand curve that then became a prolonged left hand curve, and then it slowed down and finally came to a stop. And as it did so the last cyan light on the dashboard went out.
We waited, and about a minute later the same light began to flash yellow. I hoped that this meant it was recharging, and so we waited some more. But fifteen long minutes later it was still flashing, and the other nine lights were all extinguished, and touching the control panel had no effect at all.
“Well, if it’s recharging, it’s doing it damned slowly,” I said. “I don’t think there’s any point in just sitting here, so let’s go and see what’s happening outside. But carefully: if we hear anything when we open the door we’d better close it again straight away.”
I put my hand on the control by the door and it slid open. I couldn’t hear anything at all, and so cautiously we advanced up the ramp and found ourselves in a mirror image of the room we had left in Hub Two: storage cupboard straight opposite the train, small door off to the left, large arch into the Hub proper to our right. We closed the barrier behind us – it still seemed to be working – and walked to the arch. And that barrier was working, too, which suggested that they would be the last things to fail.
We sent Oli through to deactivate it for us, and once we were all inside we closed it again – and for once Oli dressed again as quickly as he could, because it was immediately clear that this place was not like the one we had left. For a start, the lighting was very low – I guessed that it would be emergency lighting only. Ahead of us we could see three doors which, assuming this Hub was arranged the same as Hub Two, would have led to the Nexus Room. But these doors were welded shut and heavily barricaded, and the wall around one of them was blackened and the door itself was warped. But at least it looked as if none of them had been breached.
The arch leading to the office and living quarters was also still protected by a barrier, so again we sent Oli through to turn it off. And once it was off and we were all inside he again pulled his clothes on quickly. We closed the barrier again and looked at the office: the outer office was deserted, and the inner office was dead – the machines around the walls were all dark and silent, and the computer was clearly off and couldn’t be turned on. And there was only one dim light in the room, too.
We went upstairs and found empty dormitories, though here the water supply also seemed to be off and neither the showers nor the washbasins were usable. The kitchen was also dead and the freezer had apparently been without power for a while, to judge from the nasty smell that emerged when I opened the door briefly.
Finally we went down to the basement and found the generator dark and silent. It seemed that the only things still working were the barriers, and I guessed that because these were so vital to the safety of the Hub they would be able to draw power from Hub Two in the event of a catastrophic power failure locally. Of course, once the power at Hub Two failed as well…
“There’s nothing here,” I said. “Let’s go and look at the other doors to the Nexus Room – if it’s the same as in our Hub, there’ll be some more upstairs.”
We left the office area and went back to the main hall, and this time I volunteered to strip off and reactivate the barrier behind us, because it was obvious that Oli wasn’t enjoying stripping off in this place the way he usually did back at Hub Two. Once I was dressed again we went up the stairs at the far end of the hall and looked into the corridor, and we saw that, just as in our Hub, there were two doors here, both of which were welded and barricaded shut.
“So where is everyone?” I wondered aloud. “These barricades were all done from inside, and so nobody left through these doors, or the ones downstairs. If they’d left using the Capsule I’m sure they would have dealt with Dead Guy, not just left him lying in the office. So what happened? Do you think they’ve got a Star Trek-type transporter?”
And of course I had to explain that, because Star Trek had never appeared on German TV in Stefan’s world, if in fact it had ever been made at all.
“I do not think this is possible,” said Stefan. “I agree that the portals are also impossible, but there are very great problems in teleportation. German scientists have concluded that it may never be possible. And so the people here are either hiding, or in a room we have not yet found, or they left by a route we have also not yet found.”
This made perfect sense, and so we decided to carry out a proper search. Stefan and I went back to the living accommodation, while Alain and Oli, who of course had done a lot of exploring around Hub Two, said they would start in the main hall and try to find a concealed exit there.
As we were looking for a way out to the surface Stefan and I started in the dormitories, and for a good hour we felt our way around the walls trying to find a hidden door, or even just a hidden panel. We checked over every officer’s room, the shower rooms, and even the toilets, but without success.
Next we went down to the main office, but although there was a point in one corner of the room where I was convinced there was something – it sounded hollow when I rapped my knuckles on it – I couldn’t find any way to actually make either a door or a panel appear. And there was nothing in the outer office, either.
It didn’t seem likely that they would have sited a route to the surface in the basement, but I supposed that it had to be investigated, and so we headed for the stairs. But before we got there Oli appeared.
“We think we’ve found it,” he reported. “Come and see!”
So we followed him out into the main hall. This time Stefan threw his clothes off long enough to activate the barrier into the living quarters, and as soon as he was dressed again Oli led us back to the staircase that led up to the corridor we had already visited. Alain was waiting for us at the top of the stairs.
“We looked everywhere else – well, we didn’t bother going back to the pipe thing, but we checked everywhere else inside the hall. And we wondered why the corridor goes on past the two doors that go to the room with all the doors… perhaps it was easier to build it like that, but then we noticed that there seem to be footmarks going past the second door – and that would be silly if there is nothing beyond it except a wall, wouldn’t it? And we think perhaps there’s a door there, because it sounds different to the walls at the sides when you hit it.”
And I thought he was right, and so we examined the wall closely. And it was Stefan who found the panel, which was higher up than usual and to the right of the end wall instead of to the left, as seemed to be the usual arrangement. The panel slid open, revealing the usual hand outline and glass domes.
Stefan put his hand on the outline and for a moment nothing happened, and I was thinking that perhaps the power to this system had failed. But then the entire end of the corridor slid upwards, revealing a tunnel beyond, and a couple of metres into the tunnel we could see the swirling air of a barrier. The control for this was to the left as usual, and we found that activating it both removed the barrier and closed the door behind us. We declared that this time it was Alain’s turn to undress and reactivate the barrier, and so he stripped off, handing his clothes to Oli and waiting until we were all beyond the barrier (there was a mark on the wall that indicated where the barrier ended).
Alain put his hand on the mark again and the barrier was reactivated, and the door opened at the same time. That was a complication: it looked as if we would have to leave the door open. But I couldn’t see any way around it, and so I called to Alain to leave it and come through, and ten seconds after he emerged from the barrier at our end the door slid closed once more, so presumably there was either some sort of sensor on it, or it closed automatically after a certain time period.
We waited for Alain to get dressed and then walked along the tunnel for about twenty metres, at which point it made a ninety degree turn to the right and stopped at the foot of a staircase.
“I think that perhaps this is the escape route,” said Stefan. “Let us go and find out where this leads.”
We climbed the staircase, which was quite long and which took another right-angled turn every twenty steps or so. Finally we reached the top, at which point we were confronted with a perfectly ordinary-looking little door, which opened straight away when Stefan pulled it: obviously there was no panel to operate this one – or if there had been, the power had apparently failed, leaving the door unlocked.
At first we thought our watches were wrong, or that days in this world were a different length, because it was dark as we emerged from the doorway. But then I realised that we were at the back of a cave, and that the entrance, which was about five metres away, was heavily overgrown, making the interior of the cave very dark. We closed the door and moved to the mouth of the cave, where we found that the greenery, though quite thick, was at least not of the thorny variety, and so we were able to push our way through it. We emerged to find ourselves on the side of a hill, with a forest off in the valley immediately ahead of us and open land to our right and left.
Stefan got his compass out, but there were no obvious landmarks, and so he suggested that we scramble up to the top of the ridge on which the cave entrance lay. It wasn't too far, and from the top we had a truly excellent view. Stefan pointed off to the west
“We are almost on top of the mountain,” he told us. “The highest point is over there – you can see that the people of this world have put a tower there, the same as in my world, and in that direction,” (he pointed south-east) “in my world there is another tower and a memorial to the German chancellor Bismarck. And all of this part of the mountain should be covered in grass, not just be partly bare rock, as it is here. Perhaps the grass was destroyed when the Hub was excavated... Anyway, our part of the Vogesen is north-west of here. In my world if we walk that way we would come eventually to the town of Freiburg, which is around thirty kilometres from here. Past Freiburg there is a crossing of the Rhine at Breisach, and then we can pass north of Colmar and so return to the mountains. But it is at least eighty kilometres, and it might be a hundred, so it will take us about a week unless we can find transport.”
“I think Colmar is what Stefan and I call Columbarier,” I added. “Perhaps you’ll get a chance to see what your home town looks like in another world, Alain.”
“That might be interesting, but I bet it won’t look like home. Still, I don’t mind stopping for a look when we get there.”
“If we get there,” I corrected. “We don’t know much about Dead Guy’s world, after all. We know it has an army, for a start.”
“Yes, but we know also that the people here did not seek to attack other worlds through their Nexus Room,” Stefan pointed out. “The timeline says they went only peacefully into other worlds, seeking minerals. And the army at the Hub was only there to defend against aggressive people such as the Greys. I think this is likely to be a peaceful world, and so we should not encounter any great problems.”
“You’re probably right,” I said. “So I suppose the first thing to do is going to be to get off the mountain and try to find some people. If we can find a village, perhaps we can find a car or something.”
“There are train lines around the mountain,” Stefan said. “Or there are in my world, and so there might be here, also. I have been here before, and I believe that a railway lies north or north-east from here, perhaps eight or ten kilometres. And it will be downhill all the way, so we should reach it in less than two hours. There we can take a train to Freiburg, where we can certainly find transport.”
“If the railway exists in this world,” I said, “and if there’s a town where Freiburg ought to be. But I think that’s definitely as good a plan as any.”
So we went back down to the entrance of the cave and set off in a northerly direction, with Stefan once again keeping a careful record of our bearing and distance, and as we reached the edge of the trees we found a path heading in roughly the correct direction. Stefan used his knife to mark the trees at the point where we had joined the path, wrote the distance we had travelled to reach it in his notebook and then led us off along the path.
Actually it was a nice day for a walk in the Black Forest: the sun was shining, but it wasn’t too hot, and now we were under the trees we had plenty of shade anyway. The path wandered along for half a kilometre or so and then forked, with one path heading off to the west and the other veering in a north-easterly direction. There was a signpost, but it was written in the squiggles of Dead Guy’s language and so we couldn’t read it. But it was obvious that we didn’t want to head west, and so we followed the other fork further into the trees.
About half a kilometre further on the trees thinned a bit and we could see three or four houses around the path, but when we got there we found them empty and closed up. For a moment I was afraid we’d found another dead world, but Stefan said that there were a few of these logging places up in the Black Forest in his world, and they were only used occasionally, when tree felling was actually taking place.
Beyond the houses the path became a track, suitable for four-wheeled drive vehicles, which were no doubt what the loggers used to reach the houses. We followed the track onwards, now heading steadily downhill.
About half an hour later we saw the trees starting to thin ahead of us once more, and this time we could see smoke rising above the trees: finally we had found civilisation.
“I hope they’ve got some food here,” commented Alain. “We haven’t eaten since breakfast, and I’m a growing boy.”
“You might be lucky,” I said. “This looks like a proper village – there are definitely more houses than there were back up there. Maybe they’ll have a shop.”
We walked onwards, and soon the track emerged into the open, though now that we could see properly it didn't appear to be a proper village after all, just a collection of houses dotted about. There were a couple of lorries parked at one side of the road outside one of the larger houses (in fact this one looked big enough to be a hotel) and while they looked different from anything I had seen before – they were a lot more streamlined than any European trucks I had seen, for a start - they were still clearly lorries.
“If we can find a lorry driver, perhaps we can cadge a lift down to the railway,” I said optimistically.
And a minute or so later a couple of people came out of the large house and walked towards us. My first thought was that they were soldiers, even if their uniform was a sort of red-brown colour, rather than the dark green of Oli’s army cap. My second thought was that they were carrying weapons, which seemed a little unnecessary in the middle of a peaceful forest. And my third thought was that we were in deep, deep trouble, because their faces were a weird shape, with an elongated, protruding jaw. And because their skin was grey.
This is a nasty surprise. Can Jake talk his way out of this? The next chapter will answer that question...
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