The Second Nexus – Chapter Sixteen


I dived straight back into the tent and told my friends in English that I thought the portal might be on its way back, that I didn’t know exactly what we were going to do yet but that they should keep on their toes. I told Oli to get his bag from the store tent as soon as we were dressed and keep it close at hand. I urgently needed to talk to Torth, but I didn’t get a chance straight away because Harlan spotted me as soon as I emerged from the tent and told me to get my clothes on – he’d brought the bags out and opened them – and then go and make a start on breakfast. The Greys of course didn’t eat breakfast, and so I didn’t see them until I had cleared away the breakfast things, and by then it was too late, because Torth had already seen the mist by then and realised what it meant.

“Sorry,” he said when Harlan asked him to carry on with the previous evening’s experiments, “but we’re leaving. We’ve been stuck in this place for months, and I’m not risking missing a chance to get out of here.”

Tommi translated that, and Harlan asked what he meant, at which Torth pointed at the mist.

“That’s going to be a portal by midday,” he said. “And we’re going through it. You can come if you want or stay if you want, but we’re leaving.”

“I’m sorry, but you can’t,” said Harlan, firmly. “There’s no need for us to take the risk of going through into another world if we don’t have to, and we don’t have to, because you’re here. So you have to stay.”

“Why shouldn’t we go through?” I asked, leaving Tommi to translate. “I thought you were looking forward to a holiday on the beach.”

“I was,” admitted Harlan. “But I’ve been thinking about it, and it would be much harder for us to keep all of you under control in a world we don’t fully understand, especially since I can’t control the reptiles yet. Those monks you told me about, for example: how do we know they won’t want to help you escape? Sorry, Jake, but now we’ve found your reptiles – which was the main point of the trip, after all – we don’t need to take the risk. In fact I think we’ll move the camp back out of the mountains away from this place – I don’t want any of you thinking you can just pop off into another world without stopping to say goodbye.”

“I don’t care about your problems,” said Torth. “We’re leaving. It might be safe to go back to our own world now – we’ve been gone long enough, after all.”

“I can’t let you leave,” said Harlan.

“You can’t stop us,” countered Torth.

By now everyone had gathered round and was following the argument by listening to Tommi’s translations. I was standing not far from Harlan and the other three Konjässiem had gathered close to him; Marlo had gravitated to Killian’s side and Dannis had moved to just behind Dervoran; Verdess and Sarleth were standing close to their tent and letting Torth do the talking for them; and the rest of the slaves were standing around here and there and just listening.

“I can stop you,” Harlan continued. “Maybe not directly, but if you don’t agree to stay we’ll have to kill one of your friends.”

“Go right ahead,” invited Torth. “The mammals are nothing to do with us.”

“I mean it,” said Harlan, starting to look flustered.

“So do I. You know nothing about our species, do you? Try and have another look inside my head – if you make it you’ll see I’m telling the truth: I don’t care what you do to the mammals. Our race is different: we’ve evolved by not worrying about anyone except ourselves. It would make no difference if you threatened to kill Verdess and Sarleth, either: I’m going, and that’s the end of it.”

“You’re bluffing!”

“He isn’t,” I said. “Greys only care about themselves. We helped them out, but I wouldn’t expect them to help us out. If you want to keep working with them you’ll have to go through the portal with them.”

“Unacceptable! Alright, let’s see if he’s bluffing.” He turned to his three colleagues. “Shut them down,” he ordered.

Before any of my friends could move they were all clamped. As far as I could tell, the only slaves other than me (and of course Oli) who were not immobilised were Dannis and Marlo, and I supposed that was because their masters trusted them.

“Now, tell him again, Jake,” Harlan instructed me. “Either they stay, or one of you dies.”

“Harlan, they don’t care!” I said. “Please don’t do this…”

“Translate!” he yelled, and it was obvious that he was getting angry.

So I translated.

“Does he mean it?” asked Torth.

“Yes, he does. And we can’t fight back – they can immobilise us, like they already have with the others.”

“They can’t immobilise us,” Torth pointed out. “I think we’ll start packing.”

He nodded to Verdess, who went into their tent and started to hand stuff out to Sarleth, who began to pack it into their bags.

“Stop!” yelled Harlan. “Dervoran, show them we’re serious. Pick whichever one you like.”

Dervoran nodded and stared at Radu, and Radu began to tremble and his nose began to bleed.

“Torth, he’s killing Radu!” I cried. “Can’t you do something?”

Torth walked apparently unconcernedly over to his tent and unpegged the guy rope. I could hear him muttering something to the other two, but none of them showed any sign of acting. In fact the only person who was moving was Oli, who ran to the store tent and came out carrying his bag. I suppose he was hoping to be able to put one of our metal bands on Radu’s head, but before he could do that the situation completely fell apart, and there was nothing I could do about it. And the first blow came from an unexpected quarter: Dannis pulled a sharpened piece of wood from his pocket and thrust it as hard as he could into Dervoran’s back.

“That’s for Raamiss!” he cried, thrusting his makeshift dagger in again. “You killed my best friend, you bastard, but you’re not going to kill anyone else!”

Dervoran fell onto his knees, clutching vainly at his back, and then toppled onto his face. And then came the next shock: Harlan pulled a handgun from under his robe and shot Dannis in the head.

“What, you thought I was just going to rely on my brain-power?” he said to me, turning and pointing the gun at Stefan. “Call this insurance. Now, tell the reptiles they’re staying, or else.”

“But…” I looked at Torth, just in time to see Verdess pass him a rifle, which Torth loaded and then pointed at Harlan.

“Don’t shoot!” I yelled in Grey. “If you hit him he’ll pull the trigger!”

Harlan saw the rifle and his eyes widened – he seemed shocked to find that he wasn’t the only one who was armed.

“Put down the gun!” he ordered.

“You put yours down,” countered Torth, and there was nothing I could do except translate for them both.

“Put it down or I’ll fire!”

“So what? You’re not pointing your gun at me, but I am pointing mine at you. Fire and you’re dead.”

Harlan was starting to tremble and sweat, and I was terrified that he was going to shoot. So, apparently, was Oli, who was trying to get close enough to put a band on Stefan’s head, until Harlan screamed at him to keep still.

“Please, Harlan, give it up,” I begged. “Torth doesn’t care about Stefan. Just let the Greys go – I don’t want you to get hurt!”

“You don’t want Stefan to get hurt, you mean.”

“I don’t want either of you to get hurt – look in my head if you don’t believe me!”

“Then persuade them to stay!”

“I can’t! I keep telling you – they don’t think like us!”

“I’m going to count to three…”

“Harlan, don’t, please? You don’t need to do this – why can’t you let them go?”

“What, and have you slaves think I’m weak? And I’m not stupid, Jake – if I put the gun down it won’t just be the reptiles who leave, will it? As soon as we release your friends you’ll all go with them, and I can’t allow that.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” I told him. “I gave you my word that I’d stay with you, and that hasn’t changed. I’m staying, Harlan – you can see that’s true.”

“Okay, maybe you will – but the others won’t. They’re itching to head for the portal. And I can’t let that happen – so tell the reptile to put down the gun!”

So I tried, and Torth flatly refused, instead reiterating his demand that Harlan should put his own gun down. And when I translated that Harlan took a firmer grip on his gun and started counting again.


“Please, Harlan, I’m begging you, don’t! Just let them go, please!”

“Two. I mean it, Jake – I’ll start with Stefan and keep shooting them until you all DO WHAT I SAY!!”

If I’d been close enough I’d have thrown myself at him, but I was too far away.

“Oh, God, please,” I begged. “Don’t shoot him – I couldn’t stand it…”

“Thr… aargh!” Harlan clutched at his head with both hands, and before I could do or say anything Torth took advantage of the fact that Harlan’s gun was no longer pointed at Stefan and fired. Harlan was slammed backwards by the impact and fell on his back, and I rushed to his side. I was aware that there were other things happening around me: the slaves were moving again, Terry and Killian were fighting each other, Oli was thrusting metal bands at Stefan and Alain, but none of that interested me right then. I dropped to my knees beside Harlan and found a hole in the front of his tunic and a small red stain that didn’t look too bad, until I realised that I was kneeling in a spreading puddle of blood that was obviously coming from the exit wound.

“Marc!” I yelled.

Marc appeared at my side, carrying a metal band that he put onto my head. For a moment I was worried that one of the other Konjässiem might interfere, but when I looked up Terry was trying to stab Killian, screaming incoherently at him, and Killian was holding onto his wrist and trying to keep the knife away from his body. And then Marlo hit Terry hard over the head with a large piece of wood and Terry fell to the ground.

I had no idea what was going on, and nor did I care.

“Can you stop the bleeding?” I asked Marc.

“I’m sorry,” said Marc. “The bullet’s gone right through, and it’s hit one of the major blood vessels. There’s nothing anyone can do, Jake.”

“Well, try for God’s sake!” I cried, putting my hands uselessly over the entry wound. “Do something, please! Don’t let him die like this!”

Marc just shook his head slowly. “It’s pointless,” he said. “Look at the blood, Jake – he’ll be dead in less than a minute.”

I took Harlan’s hand and squeezed it, and was conscious of a faint squeeze in return. Marc put his fingers gently against Harlan’s neck, feeling for a pulse, and a few seconds later he shook his head again.

“Sorry,” he said. “He’s gone.”

I stayed where I was for several seconds, feeling numb.

“If it helps,” said Killian from behind me, “he wasn’t hurting at the end, just feeling weak and a bit cold. And he knew you were there, too, and he appreciated it. And, for what it’s worth, I wasn’t trying to get him shot – I just wanted to stop him shooting your friend.”

“What did you do?”

“He was concentrating so hard on what he was doing – keeping four of the slaves locked down, trying to force his way into the reptile’s head and keeping the gun pointing the right way – that he’d let his shield slip. So I slipped in and sort of poked his brain, which is why he lost concentration and moved the gun. And Terry felt me do it, which is why he tried to kill me after Harlan got shot.”

Marc had moved on to Dervoran now, and he couldn’t find a pulse there, either: it looked as if one of Dannis’s blows had penetrated his heart. There was no need to look at Dannis himself, because there was a significant hole on his head.

“Now what?” Marc asked me.

“Have a look at Radu. I think he’s probably okay – when I saw Dervoran do that to another slave the kid survived even though it went on much longer, but you’d better make sure. Everyone else, let’s get this camp…”

There was a roar overhead and a helicopter appeared above us.

“Stay where you are!” came an amplified voice. “Do not attempt to leave this area!”

Once again I didn’t have time to react before Torth swung the rifle up to his shoulder and fired at the helicopter. There was a bang from the aircraft, which swung violently away as the pilot took evasive action. Torth fired again and the helicopter disappeared over the trees, trailing a thin line of black smoke.

“Now you’ve done it!” I cried. “They’ll have the police here in no time!”

“So? We’ll be gone before that,” said Torth, pointing at the portal, and he was right: the mist was much thicker now, indicating that the portal was either ready to use, or very nearly.

“Right,” I said. “Everyone get your shoes and socks on, then get the kit packed away. Oli, Verdess and Stefan will get the vehicles. I want us through the portal in the next ten minutes.”

“What about them?” asked Stefan, indicating Killian, Marlo, Terry and finally Caradoc, who had been keeping his head down with my friends.

“If the slaves want to come with us, they’re welcome,” I said. “The police will take care of Terry and Killian.”

“Hold on,” said Marlo. “If I’m coming, Killian’s coming too.”

“You’re not coming, then,” said Stefan.

“Oh, come on – you know he’s not like them! And he saved your life, remember?”

That was a fair comment, though I couldn’t believe Killian would want to come with us even if we asked him. Still, I supposed he deserved to be allowed to speak for himself…

“Well, Killian? Would you want to come with us? Because if we once leave this world I can guarantee that we’re never coming back.”

“If I stay here, Terry’s likely to get me arrested,” he said. “He’ll certainly blame me for Harlan’s death, especially if the reptile who actually shot him is out of reach.”

“Jake, we can’t!” said Stefan, urgently. “It would be like carrying a live hand grenade around with us, one with a faulty fuse. You know how dangerous these people are – and he’d never be able to settle in our world, anyway: we’re like stupid apes to him.”

“You’re not, actually,” said Killian. “Because of what Harlan did to me I don’t think the way the others do. Marlo will tell you that the only people I actually can relate to are Nevis, Altur and my other controllers. It’s here that I don’t fit in.”

“No!” insisted Stefan. “We can’t risk it… come on, Jake, tell him!”

“I think we owe him the chance,” I said. “There are conditions, though: he swears to make no attempt to force any of us to do anything; he makes no attempt to get into the heads of the Greys; and he agrees to do whatever you and I tell him without arguing. If he agrees to that he’d actually be an asset, Stefi: he’s clever, so he can give us useful advice, and if we get into trouble in some other world he can use his powers to help us out.”

“Yes, but…” Stefan took a deep breath. “All right, Jake: as Alain keeps reminding us, you haven’t let us down yet. I’ll keep trusting you. Anyway, I’d better go and see if the jeep will still start.”

He and Oli went and gestured to Verdess to follow them and then headed off down the valley to where we had left the vehicles, and the rest of us got on with striking camp. And then Killian called to say that Terry was waking up.

“Everyone not wearing metal, get down the valley to the vehicles and get into the tank,” I said. “You should be safe inside it. Those with bands, finish getting the tents down.”

I went and knelt next to Terry, helping him to sit up, though Marlo was standing next to me swinging his lump of wood threateningly, just in case Terry turned nasty. But instead he just looked around quietly.

“I see,” he said. “What about Harlan? Is he…?”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I really am, Terry – you know I’d never have wanted him to get hurt.”

“It still happened, though, didn’t it? And as for you, you bastard…” He glared at Killian. “It’s your fault he’s dead. Just wait till we get back to civilisation – I’ll see you shot for this.”

“It isn’t Killian’s fault,” I said. “Torth would have shot him anyway unless he’d put the gun down, and he wasn’t going to do that. All Killian did was to make sure Harlan didn’t take Stefan with him.”

“He knew what he was doing,” insisted Terry. “Don’t be fooled by him, Jake – he wanted Harlan dead.”

“Can you blame me?” said Killian. “You know what he did to me – so, all right, I wasn’t exactly unhappy when he got shot. But I still didn’t pull the trigger. And, as Jake says, if he’d been a bit less arrogant and had put the gun down he’d still be alive now.”

“He wasn’t arrogant, he was scared,” said Terry. “I know you could feel it too, so don’t pretend you couldn’t. He was out of his depth – he’d never been in a situation he couldn’t control before and he was panicking. And he wasn’t going to shoot Stefan, Jake: he liked you too much to do that to you. He was just stuck in a situation and he couldn’t see a way out. He shouldn’t have died for that…”

He got up and walked over to Harlan’s body, dropping onto his knees beside it.

“He was my friend,” he said. “It’s hard for us to trust anyone completely, like I said before, but I trusted him more than anyone except my parents…he shouldn’t have died…”

I suddenly saw Harlan’s gun lying beside the body and I started to move just before Terry reached for it, and I was just in time: by the time he had it in his hand and was turning to point it at Killian I had almost reached him, and I threw myself at him, knocking his gun hand above his head and landing on top of him.

“No,” I said. “No-one else is getting killed, Terry, okay? It won’t bring Harlan back.”

He reached up with his left hand and knocked the metal band off my head, and I braced myself to resist… but the expected compulsion to get off him didn’t come. Instead he let go of the gun, put his arms round me and started to cry, and I held him and tried to comfort him. Dimly I was aware of the sound of vehicles approaching and Stefan’s voice telling the others to get everything loaded into the back of the truck, but still I lay there beside Harlan’s body, holding Terry and sharing his misery. And the only thing that got me moving in the end was the roar of another helicopter overhead and another amplified voice telling us to stay where we were.

“Do you want to come with us?” I asked Terry, hoping that the answer would be ‘no’ – I thought Killian would be manageable, but Terry was a completely different kettle of fish.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll stay. Someone has to look after Harlan. Go, Jake – go back to your own world while you can.”

I gave him a last hug and scrambled to my feet, pausing only to grab the gun and the headband. The helicopter voice was still commanding us to stay still, but I ignored it and ran to the jeep, which was at the head of the line, only to find Oli in the driver’s seat. Nicky, Tommi and Marc were in there with him.

“Okay, Oli – remember you have to come into the portal from the other side,” I reminded him. “We’ll give you a shout when it’s time to go.”

I ran on to the truck, saw that Verdess was at the wheel as usual and didn’t bother stopping: he knew what to do. Most of the others were crammed into the back of the truck, and I was about to join them when Stefan yelled at me from the top of the tank, waving me to join him. And I was halfway there when someone started shooting at us. I thought it was the helicopter, but then I saw people moving through the trees, heading towards us, and there was at least one vehicle there, too – obviously they’d found a route for it between the trees.

“Come on!” yelled Stefan. Radu popped up out of the turret and fired a couple of times at the oncoming men, but they kept coming.

I scrambled onto the tank and Stefan more or less shoved me inside, where I landed on top of Radu. Stefan yelled to Oli and Verdess to move and jumped down, slamming the turret hatch closed on the way, and then he hit a button on the side of the turret and it began to swing to the right.

“Keep down, Jake,” he said, and began to fire the heavy machine-gun at the advancing men, while Radu pushed past me, opened the breech of the main gun and began to wrestle a shell inside. I helped him – it was heavy for one boy to manage alone – and he slammed the breech shut. And then Alain threw the control levers forward and the tank started to move.

I could hear bullets hitting the tank now – it sounded as if someone was hitting the hull with a hammer – but they didn’t seem to have anything that could penetrate our armour. Stefan abandoned the machine gun and came to help Radu line up the main gun on one of the enemy vehicles, and I just kept back out of the way.

“Cover your ears!” Stefan shouted at me, and he hit the firing button, and even with my hands over my ears it was deafening.

“Got it!” cried Stefan, peering through the viewing slit. “Pity there are two more of them… reload, Radu – and Alain, get us right up to the portal. We’ll fire once more and then get through it as fast as you can.”

I couldn’t see where we were going, but I suddenly had a thought.

“Wait!” I said. “Don’t fire yet – if we get through the portal and then fire from the other side, we might get lucky and disrupt it, especially if you can get the shell to explode right in the mouth of it. Get rid of the portal and we’ll be safe, because if that lot follow us through I doubt if the monks would be able to fight them off.”

“Good thinking, Jake,” agreed Stefan. “Okay, Alain, you heard him: top speed, and stop once we’re outside the monastery. Have the others gone through okay?”

“Yes,” Alain confirmed. “Well, they’ve vanished, anyway, so I’d guess they’re safely through.”

“Then let’s go!”

Alain drove us past the portal and then spun us round so that we were approaching it from the correct side.

“Ready?” he asked.

“Go!” confirmed Stefan, and Alain shoved his controls forward again. The tank leaped into the mist, and the sound of bullets stopped.

Ten seconds passed.

“We’re still in the mist,” Alain reported. “I’m going to have to slow a bit, Stefan – maybe the mist goes all the way to the monastery, and I don’t want to hit it – or any trees, either.”

“Okay,” said Stefan, and he opened the hatch and stuck his head out. I stood beside him and looked out too, but there was just mist. I was sure it hadn’t been this thick going through any previous portal... Alain had slowed right down by now, and I was peering through the mist looking for the outline of the monastery, but it failed to appear. And then at last the mist started to thin, and finally we emerged into a valley. A short distance ahead of us were the jeep and the truck, both of which were stationary, and here and there trees were growing, but much less thickly than I remembered. And of the monastery itself there was no sign at all.

“But... where the hell is it?” asked Stefan, looking around vainly.

“It must have been a different portal,” I said. “It wasn't the one going back to the monastery at all – it's brought us somewhere completely different.”

“Okay. Do you still want us to try blowing it up?”

I thought about it. There might be other portals leading out of this world, but then again there might not: after all, as far as we knew Vogesia only had a single portal. But we still had to consider the possibility – or, indeed, the likelihood – of pursuit.

“Yes, let's blast it,” I said. “If all else fails we can probably come back later when the portal has gone and fill in the craters. But right now we don't want half of the Arvel police on our tail.”

“Okay.” Stefan ducked back into the tank. “Turn us round, Alain – and Radu, let's get the gun loaded.”

This time I jumped out of the tank, and once Alain had spun it round I climbed down and stood on the grass next to it, leaving Stefan and Radu room to work. A few seconds later the gun roared and there was a loud explosion from somewhere in the mist, though we couldn't see where the shell had landed or how much damage it had done.

They reloaded and fired twice more, changing their aim slightly each time, and twice more there were explosions from deep inside the mist.

“How many shells do you want us to keep?” Stefan called to me.

“How many have we got left?”


“Then give it one more,” I said.

They gave it one more, and this time the mist swirled about wildly and then slowly started to dissipate. I stood and watched until the mist had gone, by which time the rest of the crew had climbed out of the tank to stand beside me. And now we could see that further up the valley, where the portal had stood, there was nothing except a few trees scattered about in a grassy valley. Further up the trees were thicker, standing up on the ridges to the sides of the valley and higher up as the valley climbed towards their level, but there was no monastery, and nothing to indicate that one had ever stood here. And there was only one shell-crater, too, which suggested that our earlier shells had passed clean through the portal and back into the Arvelan world. I hoped that Terry hadn't been too near where they landed...

And at that thought the death of Harlan rushed back into my mind and overwhelmed me. He was just a kid, younger than me, and if Terry had been right he'd been scared out of his mind at the end – and he'd died while I held his hand. In everything we had done, and every world we'd been through, there had been danger, and some of my friends had been hurt or wounded, and some of the nameless Grey soldiers chasing us back to Hub Two had died – but this was the first time I'd actually had to face the death of someone I knew and cared about. I'd known Dannis and Dervoran, too, but their deaths seemed small to me compared with Harlan's. I'd met his parents, I'd heard his secrets, I'd shared his bed... he was my friend. And he was dead because of me, because I'd brought him here and exposed him to the Greys, who I knew would have no compunction in doing whatever was in their interests, regardless of what that might mean for anyone who got in their way...

I dropped to my knees, crying, and when Stefan knelt next to me and put his hand on my shoulder I threw myself into his arms, sobbing uncontrollably.

“I killed him, Stefi,” I sobbed. “He trusted me, and I killed him.”

“No. Torth killed him, and maybe Killian helped a bit, but it wasn't you. Jake, he wasn't one of us – your friends are the ones who are here now, who got out of an impossible situation because of you. I'm sorry he's dead, too, because he's about the only one of them who seemed halfway decent – but they're still a race of monsters, who grow up to torture and murder in the name of their government, or their town council, or the village chief, or anyone else who has enough clout to wind them up and point them at their next victim. We're alive, Jake, and we're free, and we're all here – and I'd say that's what matters.”

And that was true, but I couldn't get Harlan out of my head. Yes, if I'd been offered a choice between the life of Harlan and the life of Stefan – never mind the lives of Stefan and all my friends – I suppose I'd have taken it, but I wouldn't have liked it at all. And I still felt responsible, whatever Stefan might say: I should have found a better plan, come up with a way to get us through the portal without anyone getting hurt... but I hadn't been able to do that, and now he was dead. And I didn't think I would ever get over it. I'd been operating on adrenaline since the shooting had started, but now it was over I just felt tired, and sick, and wretchedly miserable. I was dimly aware of Stefan getting up and Alain taking his place, and I just clung to Alain, still crying hopelessly – and then I lost consciousness.

I opened my eyes and found myself lying on my back on the grass, gazing up at a clear blue sky. Tommi was sitting on the grass beside me, and when he saw that my eyes were open he yelled “He's awake!” and Stefan came trotting over.

“Feeling better?” he asked.

“A bit. What happened?”

“I asked Killian to knock you out for a bit. You were right – he is going to be useful. And then I moved us further down towards the plain, just in case they do manage to fill in whatever holes there are on their side and come after us again. I thought perhaps we could find out what the local version of Schlettstadt is like. Except... well, see for yourself.”

He helped me to my feet, and I found myself standing on more long green grass, on a low hill that overlooked a wide grassy plain.

“We're roughly where the church in Orschweiler is,” Stefan told me. “And out there is Schlettstadt – except, as you can see, it isn't. There's nothing out there at all, though about half an hour ago a large herd of antelope went past. This is prime farm country – as you know, this area has vineyards in most of the worlds we've seen. But here there's nothing at all. It's not even like the first world we went to together: there weren't any people there, but it was obvious that there had been people living there until recently. There's no trace here that there have ever been houses here, or out there, either.”

I looked through the binoculars, which had been in Stefan's bag throughout our stay at the school, and found that he was right: I couldn't see the remotest sign to indicate that anyone lived here at all.

“Oh, wow,” I said, as it hit me. “I think this is the Green World, Stefi. I think both portals appeared at the same time – they faced each other, remember? That's why the mist went on for so long: we weren't going through one portal, we were going through two. We went straight through a little bit of the Holy Roman Empire without stopping and on into the second portal. And Brother Paul said they'd never had a visitor from the Green World, didn't he? Well, if nobody lives here, that would be why.”

“But if nobody lives here, what are we going to do?” asked Tommi. “How are we going to survive until we find another portal – and what's going to happen if we don't find one?”

“Well, Stefan said there are antelopes here,” I pointed out. “And we've got rifles. So we hunt for meat when we need it. We've got tents, so shelter won't be a problem, and any water we find here is guaranteed to be clean and pure. We'll be fine.”

I took Stefan's elbow and steered him a little way away.

“I need to know how many bullets we have left,” I said to him, quietly. “Also, how much power the vehicles have left, because I don't think we'll be able to recharge them, somehow. Do it quietly – I'm not worried about Alain finding out, but I don't want the younger kids getting worried. And then you and I are going to have to sit down with Alain and Killian and try to decide where we go from here. I'm thinking about heading back to the Black Forest and looking for another portal there, because it won't be safe for us to risk going back the way we came, just in case the Arvelans got through the first portal and into the Empire, but obviously that'll depend on whether we can get there without our batteries going flat. If we can't we'll have to think of a Plan B.”

Stefan nodded and walked over to the tank, which was parked with the other vehicles a short distance away, and I walked a little further down the hill to where everyone else was sitting on the grass – I suppose they were waiting for me to decide what we should do next. But first there was something that was still puzzling me, and so I went and sat next to Marlo.

“When Dannis attacked Dervoran, he said something about a friend dying, or something,” I said. “Do you know what he was talking about?”

“Partly. Dannis had a friend called Raamiss, who died during one of Dervoran’s experiments. That was months ago. And Dannis was determined to do something about it, and so he started making himself useful to Dervoran, volunteering to help with his experiments – I suppose he was hoping not to be used for anything fatal – and stuff like that so that Dervoran would trust him. He didn’t tell me anything much else, because of course nobody can keep secrets for very long, but I suppose he was originally intending to stab Dervoran at school – he’d made himself a wooden knife because the Konjässiem tend to feel if someone is carrying metal. This trip must have seemed like a gift from the gods to him – not only would he get a chance to kill Dervoran, but he’d have a reasonable chance of getting away at the same time. I suppose originally he intended to do it somewhere quiet and then just run, but when he saw your friend going the same way as Raamiss he decided not to wait. Lucky for Radu, huh?”

“Very. But how come Dervoran trusted him? Couldn’t he see what Dannis was planning to do?”

“There are ways to hide things, at least in the short term. Dannis spent ages developing a shielding technique that would allow him to keep things hidden as long as he wasn’t probed directly on that subject, and apparently it was good enough. It probably helped that Dervoran was too arrogant to think that any mere slave would dare to try to hide things from him.”

“And can anyone learn to hide stuff like that?”

“In theory, yes, but it’s difficult. Killian’s been helping me to learn, so I can use it to hide stuff from him even when I’m not wearing metal. He wants us to feel we can beat his powers, at least a bit. Again, it’s hard to explain why, exactly. Probably when you’ve been around him and me for a bit you’ll start to get it. Which is a good point: I suppose you’re going to be around him and me permanently from now on – so what are we going to do now?”

“We’ll have a talk about that shortly,” I said. “Now, in fact,” I continued, because Stefan was heading towards us.

I thought briefly and came to a decision, and instead of taking Stefan, Alain and Killian off somewhere I asked everyone to sit and listen.

“We’re all in this together,” I said, “and so I want to discuss what we’re going to do with all of you. It’s going to be difficult with so many languages to work through, but we’ll manage. I’m going to speak in Kerpian, and I want Tommi to interpret for the Greys, Stefan to translate into English and Radu to translate into Arvelan. If anyone wants to speak, please raise your hand. Okay, you three, translate that much and then we’ll start.”

Each of the three translators gathered his own audience around him and translated what I’d said so far, and then I was able to start. First I asked Stefan about the vehicles and our ammunition supplies.

“The truck’s fine,” he said. “We recharged it in Vogesia and it’s still got about a ninety percent charge. The jeep has around forty percent, but the tank is below twenty – it won’t make it back to the Black Forest. The jeep might not either, bearing in mind that there are no roads here and we’ll probably need to use four wheel drive a lot. Of course, there’s another major problem if we’re going to try to get back to the Feldberg: there won’t be any way to cross the Rhine in this world. Either we’ll have to build a raft strong enough to take the truck, or we’ll have to drive right down into Switzerland to get around the source of the Rhine – though we’ll have problems even with smaller rivers like the Ill in a world with no bridges.

“As for ammunition, we’ve got about a hundred rounds left, plus one more belt for the heavy machine gun in the tank, so as long as we’re careful we’ll be able to keep ourselves supplied with meat for quite a long time – long enough for us to learn how to make and hunt with spears if we have to.”

I have to admit that the lack of bridges was a problem that hadn’t occurred to me, and it was going to be a major issue, because I seriously doubted our ability to make a raft strong enough to carry even the jeep, never mind the truck, especially given our lack of decent tools. And I didn’t think driving into the Alps to try to get past the source of the Rhine was going to work, either: in an uninhabited world with no roads the Alps would be impassable except on foot.

“Okay,” I said. “We might end up having to try to swim the Rhine and walk back up to the Feldberg, but that would be a really difficult journey. I think we could do it, but I’d want us to rest up for a while before trying it. The alternative is to wait here and see if we can find another portal back, but to be honest I’m not very keen about waiting around too close to where we came through in case the Arvelans find a way to follow us. So I think we should move out onto the plain – if we go down to where Irtengarde was in Oli’s world we’ll have the river for water, and it’s likely that the animals will come to drink at the river, too, which should make hunting easier. We’ll wait there for a week or two – I should think that if the Arvelans are going to find a way through they’ll have done it by then – and then go back and look for a portal back where we just came through. If that fails we’ll think about crossing the Rhine, but really that’s a bit of a last resort. Anyone want to say anything?”

“What if the Arvelans do come through?” asked Marc.

“Then… well, it will depend how many of them there are. If there aren’t too many we could fight – we’ve still got the tank, after all. If there are, we’d have to retreat across the river and hope it holds them up long enough for us to get away. But I think we disrupted the portal, and as it only appears occasionally they’ll have a very long wait before they can start to come after us. Anyone else?”

Everyone looked at each other, but nobody else seemed to want to say anything.

“Okay, then we’ll head down onto the plain and set up a camp near the river,” I said. “But before we do I just want to say one thing: we’ve got some new members of our group now, and I want everyone to make them feel at home. You can all remember what it was like when you left your home world for the first time, and it won’t be any easier for them. And I want you all to remember that Killian saved Stefan’s life back there by making Harlan…” I swallowed, but managed to keep going. “…move his gun. None of us has any reason to like the Konjässiem, but Marlo says that Killian is completely different from the others, and I think he’s right. So treat him just like anyone else, okay?”

“That’s easy for you to say,” said Radu. “You’ve got a metal band.”

“I won’t be wearing it – in fact none of us will. Killian’s one of us now and we have to trust him, and wearing metal isn’t how to show him our trust.”

Killian raised his hand, and when I nodded to him he said, “I’m very grateful that Jake allowed me and Marlo to come with you. I promise I won’t try to do anything to any of you unless I’m asked to, and if I do you can beat me up and throw me back through the portal for Terry to deal with. After all, you know I can’t touch the reptiles or Oli, and I can only lock down about three of you at a time, so I’m not going to be able to take over, or anything. I just want to help, that’s all.”

There were a few sceptical looks but nobody actually argued, and so I stood up and said that we should move down to the river, and half an hour later we had found a suitable place: we were able to put up our tents close to a small wood about a hundred yards from the river. The trees hid us from the portal site, so a casual observer standing close to the portal site wouldn’t be able to see us even if they had binoculars. We had plenty of tents now: we had the four that we’d brought from the Grey army base, plus the seven that had been brought with us from the school. And that meant we had seven two-man tents, plus a kitchen and a stores tent, and the large one the slaves had slept in to serve as a meeting place in case of bad weather.

We had enough food with us for several meals before we had to start hunting, so once the tents were pitched Alain and I prepared some sandwiches, and after we’d eaten them we spent the afternoon getting everything put away, having a walk along the river to find signs of where the antelopes and other animals came to drink, and then just resting. I cooked a decent meal for supper and we had an early night: most of us were only too keen to take advantage of the fact that, for the first time in ages, we were able to spend the night in private accommodation with just our partners - okay, Stefan and I had been able to use Harlan’s room on my birthday, but for Alain and Oli and Radu and Marc it was the first time since we’d been arrested. Tommi went back in with Sarleth, as he had done in Vogesia; Marlo and Killian shared a tent, as did Nicky and Caradoc (and I thought that if Nicky tried it on with the red-haired boy he’d find a willing partner), and Torth and Verdess shared the last two-man tent, though they said they would probably invite Sarleth to join them in the back of the truck for a night now and then.

So I was able to sleep in Stefan’s arms again, though it would be fair to say that I was a bit distracted: I was glad to be out of the Arvelan world, but I was still grieving for Harlan. And I was seriously worried about our chances of finding a way out of this world...


Well, that might not have gone quite the way you were expecting. If you want to comment, the usual address – – will enable you to do so.

Copyright 2010: all rights reserved. Please do not repost, reprint or otherwise reproduce this or any part of it anywhere without my written permission.

David Clarke