Next morning after breakfast I sat down with Stefan and looked at our maps, and very depressing it was, too. When you’ve lived all your life in civilised countries you don’t think about rivers very much at all – if you want to go from A to B you just get in a car and drive there, and generally you’re not even aware of crossing water. But when you’re in a world where there are no roads and no bridges, there suddenly seem to be rivers everywhere you look.
The River Ill, beside which we were camped, ran straight through the centre of the Plain of Alsace (and in fact it gives its name to the province), rising many miles to the south in the Jura Mountains and finally joining the Rhine at Strasbourg. It wasn’t impossibly wide, but it would certainly prevent us taking any of our vehicles with us if we wanted to cross it. Beyond it lay the Rhine itself, and that would be a formidable barrier even to those of us who could swim, because it would be a major logistical problem to get our tents and equipment across. Stefan said we could probably rig up some sort of rope system to carry our gear across the Ill, though he wasn’t sure if we had enough rope to span the Rhine.
And it wasn’t as though we could simply drive down to the Jura and attempt to get around the source of the Ill either, because the Ill had tributaries of its own, the most important of which, the Thur, rose in the Vosges south of our position and effectively blocked us in. North of Sélestat more rivers came down out of the Vosges and joined the Ill, the largest of which seemed to be the Bruche, running just north of Obernai to complete the third wall of the box we were in. The fourth wall, the Vosges themselves, would certainly be impassable except on foot.
“Well, it looks as if we won’t have to worry about the batteries running flat,” I commented. “It doesn’t look as if we’ll be able to get very far on wheels whichever way we go.”
“It’s a pity we can’t cross the Ill,” Stefan said. “If we could we’d be able to get right back to Milhüsa and hide in the forest – there’s no way anyone would ever find us in there.”
“We could, but we’d be on foot all the way. I think it would be sensible for us to try rigging up a rope crossing, though – at least that way we’ll have a way to retreat if the Arvelans turn up.”
“Okay, we’ll have a go at that today. But in the meantime we might as well stay where we are: we’ve got everything we need here, and the animals are likely to come to that flat bit of riverside we saw yesterday to drink, so we’ll only have to go a couple of hundred metres when we run out of tinned food.”
And that seemed like the sensible thing to do, so when everyone else joined us for breakfast I told them that we would be staying here for a bit until we worked out a long-term plan. I asked everyone to help Stefan with setting up a rope crossing for the river and said that once that was done we should just relax for a few days. It was a pity we didn’t have a beach here like the one in Vogesia, but it was warm and sunny and we could swim in the river, and I thought that would be good enough. And apparently everyone agreed with me.
Stefan dug into our stores: in the truck we had some rope that had come from the Grey base in Hilsstok, and Harlan had brought some along with us in case it was needed, too. We had two spades, packed mainly so that we could dig latrines, and a small hatchet for cutting up firewood, and the tank was carrying a basic toolkit of spanners and wrenches and hammers. It wasn’t exactly a full set of engineering tools, but it was enough for what Stefan needed.
By the time he had finished we had a rope spanning the river with a sort of bosun’s chair suspended from it, which we would be able to use to carry things, or non-swimmers, from one side of the river to the other. It meant that we would be able to retreat across the river if necessary, though it would take a while because we didn’t have enough rope to make a second one. We all tried it out over the next couple of days and found that it worked well and would support a person and a packed-up two-man tent at the same time without difficulty.
Once the crossing was complete there was nothing else that had to be done, and so we settled down to wait for a while to see if there was any sign of the Arvelans. Of course if they did make it through the portal they would be able to find us easily enough: even though we were hidden behind the wood they would only need to follow our tracks through the grass, because our vehicles had left an easy trail for them to follow. And so to play safe I drew up a rota to make sure that someone was always keeping an eye open in the direction of the portal. But after a couple of days there was still no sign and I was starting to relax a bit.
0n the second day Killian emerged from his tent in the morning naked.
“Marlo says I’m not allowed clothes while we’re here,” he explained. “He says everyone ought to be allowed to see what a Konjässi looks like under his robes.”
“Does he? Well, I suppose it’s warm enough… how do you feel about it, though?”
“Well, it’s what I deserve, obviously. Marlo says I haven’t got anything worth hiding, and he’s right, isn’t he?”
“I don’t think that ought to make any difference. Maybe I ought to have a word with him.”
I went into their tent and found Marlo folding their sleeping bag away.
“Have you seen him?” he greeted me. “It’s small, isn’t it?”
“It is, but… look, Marlo, we’re going to have to do something about you two. I don’t know if we can turn around what was done to him, but I think we ought to try. But we won’t be able to do it unless you agree, because you’re the one he listens to. So what do you think?”
“Well… it’s complicated. See, it wasn’t just him who got messed about with: us slaves who work with him did, too. Harlan wanted to make sure we kept after him, and so he found slaves who liked sex to start with and sort of tweaked us to make us something close to sex mad. And that means I wouldn’t be all that happy to lose him, except… like I said to you before, I do like him, and I can see that it’s really degrading for him, the stuff we do to him. So if you can find a way to turn him normal again, I’ll try to help – but you’ll have to try to make me normal again, too. And your main problem is going to be that both us like how things are now, at least some of the time.”
“Right, but if you really like each other I suppose you’d both like the other one to get well… we’ll try, anyway. I’d like to see you just having a normal, loving relationship like me and Stefan or Radu and Marc. There’ll still probably be plenty of sex, just not quite the same sort as at the moment.”
I went back outside and found that Killian was no longer the only one who had no clothes on: Oli had thrown his own clothes off and was running about naked again, the way he’d done back when we were staying in the Hub. And that started a chain reaction, and within half an hour we had all dumped our clothes in our tents and were enjoying the sunshine. After all, it was nice and warm, and at least in this world we could be fairly confident that nobody was going to walk in on us. Marlo seemed a bit surprised when he emerged from his tent and found himself in a nudist colony, but he just shrugged, went back into the tent and came out again naked.
On previous occasions when I’d found myself surrounded by naked boys – except in the furnace room, when I was too busy and too tired to do any sight-seeing – my body had betrayed my interest, and it happened again now.
“If you’re not thinking about me you’re in trouble,” growled Stefan in my ear.
“How could I possibly think about anyone else?” I replied, virtuously.
“Very easily. I know you, Jake.”
He sat down behind me, pulled me against him and hugged me, and that at least gave me a valid excuse for my state of excitement. But I wasn’t alone – several of my friends were also showing signs of interest.
“It’s being free again,” said Stefan in my ear. “We’ve been too tired, or too scared, to even think about sex for most of the last few weeks. You and I were lucky because Harlan fixed things up for us to get together, but for everyone else it’s been either sex on order from one of the Konjässiem, or sex they didn’t want, like Radu and Marc went through, or no sex at all. It’s no surprise that they’re enjoying being here with each other now – and of course most of them don’t come from the sort of society you and I do, so they’ve got no worries about doing things openly. I’ll bet a lot of them pair off and head for their tents before much longer.”
“We could do that, too,” I pointed out.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
When I emerged from the tent again about an hour later the only people in sight were Marlo, who was sitting on the riverbank idly lobbing stones into the water, and Killian and Tommi, who were standing talking a short distance away from him. And then Sarleth put his head out of the back of the truck and called to Tommi, who ran to join him, pausing to wave goodbye to Killian as he went.
“He was telling me about his stepfather,” said Killian as I walked over to him. “He saw the bruises and marks on my bum and felt sorry for me, so he showed me his own scars and told me how he got them. And he wasn’t scared of me at all – he just spoke to me like I was one of his friends, the same as the rest of you. And it felt strange, but I liked it. That’s how I want to be, Jake: just one of the group.”
“You’d be the smallest one of the group, at least where it counts,” commented Marlo. “I hope you noticed that Tommi’s is a fair bit bigger than yours, even though you’re older than he is.”
“There’s more to life than size,” replied Killian.
“You’d better hope so. Come here.”
Killian walked over to Marlo, who stroked him gently until they both had erections, and then he demonstrated to me that his was substantially bigger than the Konjässi’s.
“Nearly five centimetres longer,” said Marlo, though I hadn’t asked. “And he’s older than me. So you’d really better hope size isn’t everything.”
“Tommi’s taller than you,” Killian pointed out.
“Now you’re being cheeky. I think I’ll have to whip you for that.”
“It’s true, though,” I said. “And – remember what we talked about earlier, Marlo – try to hold back on the whipping for a bit.”
“But if I’m cheeky I deserve it,” said Killian, thus demonstrating how hard it was going to be for me to get them out of their current abusive relationship.
“You do,” agreed Marlo. “But Jake wants you and me to sort of turn into him and Stefan, being equal and all lovey-dovey and with no discipline at all. So he’s asked me not to beat you for a bit, which I’m really not sure about – you’ll just get even cheekier if I don’t teach you some manners. Still, if you try not to be cheeky, I’ll try not to beat you for a while.”
“Well… crumbs, Marlo, I can’t imagine you and me being equal, let alone ‘lovey-dovey’.”
“Me neither. But since Jake got us out of Arvel I think we should at least give it a try… except would it be all right if we sort of ease into it, Jake? We’re not even used to being in a new world yet, and it would be easier to change the way we do things once we’ve settled in a bit.”
“I suppose so,” I said.
“Thanks. And I will ease back a little bit, as long as he doesn’t annoy me too much.”
Killian promptly put his tongue out at him and ran off, and Marlo chased after him, threatening him with all sorts of retribution. Obviously it was going to take a long time to change the way they acted with each other, and I wasn’t even sure that I should have been trying. But it just seemed so weird and unhealthy to enjoy being hurt, and I wanted to change that if I could.
A week went by. There was still no sign of the Arvelans, and I was fairly sure that even if they had filled in the shell holes the portal wouldn’t reappear for a long time, and even if it did there would still be a major problem with the portal to this world, not least because the last shell-hole was on our side and so couldn’t be filled in from theirs – at least, I didn’t think it could. So we began to explore our new environment a bit. Stefan and I crossed the Ill on our rope and walked the eight miles or so to the banks of the Rhine, discovering that, as Stefan had feared, it was far too wide for our limited length of rope. If we wanted to cross it without swimming we would obviously have to go a very long way upstream first.
Next we followed the Ill northwards until we reached the point where the first tributary ran into it and then followed the tributary back into the Vosges without finding anywhere that we could get the truck or the jeep across it, though I supposed the tank might make it in a couple of places.
I saw no reason to expect things to be different south of our position, and so I postponed the next trip for a while. Instead we decided to try hunting an antelope – we still had quite a bit of food left, but it seemed sensible to try hunting before we had no choice. None of us had ever hunted an animal this size before, and Stefan wasn’t quite sure where to aim to be sure of killing it cleanly.
I left Stefan and Radu to organise things, and in fact when they headed out on their hunting expedition I stayed in the camp. In due course they came back with a carcass draped on the bonnet of the jeep, though Stefan admitted to me afterwards that he’d found it hard to pull the trigger, and harder still to fire again when the animal didn’t die straight away.
“I know we’re probably going to have to do this,” he told me, “but it’s hard, Jake. They’re beautiful creatures. At least now we know where the heart is, though, so it should be easier to kill it with one shot next time.”
The Greys, however, weren’t at all squeamish, butchering the carcass expertly and telling me which bits tasted best. I hadn’t realised they had any sort of deer in their own world, but apparently they did. The antelopes here were much larger, but that just meant that we got more meat from one animal. Keeping it wasn’t so easy, though: we had the battery-powered cool-box we’d bought in Vogesia, but it wasn’t big enough to keep all the meat we didn’t eat straight away. It was really too warm to risk leaving it lying about, so I set about smoking and drying it, which was probably safer than trying to store it in the river or something.
So by the end of that week I thought that we would be able to live here for quite a long time if we had to, though whether things would be quite so good by the time winter came around was another story. Sooner or later I was going to have to decide if we should abandon this camp and make the long expedition on foot across the Rhine and up to the Feldberg, or remain based here and hope a new portal would appear back in the valley where we had come through, even though there would be more of a risk of meeting the Arvelans if we went that way, especially if we filled in the crater we had made. In an attempt to postpone that decision for another day or two I decided that instead we would follow the Ill south and see if the Thur and other tributaries in that direction would be crossable in our vehicles or not.
So, leaving Alain in charge of the camp, Stefan and I took a two-man tent and enough supplies to last two days and set off in the jeep heading south, following the river bank. We could have walked it, but according to the map it was about twenty-five miles from our camp to the point near Ensisheim where the Thur joined the Ill and then at least that distance again until the Thur ran out of the Vosges, and I was feeling lazy. I thought we’d follow the Thur up into the Vosges as far as we could get in the jeep, camp out overnight and then head back next day, thus combining a bit of necessary exploration with a chance for the two of us to be on our own for a couple of days, away from cooking and decision-making and worrying about Killian and Marlo… just me and Stefan, forty or fifty miles from any other people. It sounded like heaven.
We reached the junction of the Ill and the Thur without incident and set off to follow the smaller river towards the Vosges, and we'd covered about five miles when we found something that changed everything. We could very easily have missed it, and the only reason we didn’t was because Stefan decided that he needed a pee: he parked the jeep close to a small copse of bushes growing on the riverbank and went into it – and ten seconds later he yelled to me at the top of his voice. I snatched up Harlan’s gun, which we’d brought with us in case we ran into a sabre-toothed tiger or something (well, who knew how evolution might have gone in a world with no humans?) and ran into the bushes, and found him standing staring at what was undoubtedly a bridge. It looked as if it hadn’t been used for a very long time, because the bushes totally obscured this end of it, but it seemed solid enough. We walked gingerly out onto it, but it didn’t even creak.
“Looks like we were wrong,” said Stefan. “Seems this world isn’t uninhabited after all. At least, it was inhabited at one time.”
“It’s odd we’ve seen no other trace, though. You’d think prime crop-growing land beside a river would be the first place people would settle, but there’s no sign that anyone has ever lived where our camp is. Even in the frozen world there were traces of people having lived on the surface.”
“True. And it’s odd nobody’s been this way for ages, too – why abandon country like this?”
Well, maybe they were only passing through, like us. Perhaps they had vehicles, too, only they had proper engineers with them, so they were able to build bridges…”
I tailed off, because I had just had a flash of inspiration.
“Hey, Stefi,” I said, “do you know where I think we are?”
He shook his head and waited.
“You remember when we first found the Hub and were reading its history on Dead Guy’s computer? Remember it said they found a world where humans had never evolved? Well, I think this could be it.”
“I suppose so,” he said. “It would certainly make sense: explorers from the Hub might well have wanted to build a bridge if they were coming and going a few times. And… wow, Jake, if you’re right it means there’s a good chance of a portal appearing… wait, I can’t remember: was that world reached from Hub One or Hub Two?”
“Hub Two,” I said. “It was one of the first five they discovered from the Vosges Hub. Of course I’m pretty sure the Kerpians won’t have been able to rebuild the Hub and reopen all the portals yet, but it does mean that eventually they’ll reconstruct it. All we have to do is wait, and eventually they’ll reopen the portal and we’ll be able to go back to Kerpia – and I’m sure by now they’ll have managed to establish a link back to Elsass.”
“We might have a long wait, though. We left the Hub in a bit of a mess, and all those tunnels will have to be rebuilt and the portals re-established. And if anything goes wrong – like the Greys reappearing, or something – it could take them years. In fact it could take years anyway – it’s a massive job.”
“I’d sooner not have to stay here over the winter… do you think that if we hang around up there the portal might appear on its own?”
“Possibly, though the Arvelans could appear too if we wait up there. I’d sooner stay down on the plain and just go up to check every couple of days. I think that would be safer.”
I waited a short distance away for Stefan to have his pee and then we walked back to the jeep and got in.
“Should we have a go at clearing the bushes and go across the river?” Stefan asked.
“It would be easier to bring the tank – that will clear the area quickly enough. I’m not sure the bridge will take the tank, though: it might be safer to try the other vehicles first – if we decide we want to go that way, that is. Let’s try carrying on towards the mountains. Maybe there will be more bridges further up.”
So we carried on the way we had been going, and this time I was driving. I was thinking about what we had read on the Hub computer about this world: a world where humans had never evolved, and so a world just begging to have its mineral wealth harvested. And then later it had said that exploration of other worlds took a long time because a lot of resources were being diverted to exploiting the minerals in the empty world… and then something else hit me, and I stamped on the brake.
“We might not have to wait,” I said, staring at Stefan in excitement.
“What are you talking about?”
“Stefi, you know what the tunnels in the Nexus Rooms were like,” I said. “They were narrow and not very high, and at the end of each one there was a ladder and a trapdoor.”
“That’s right. So what?”
“Well, if you wanted to dig a mine-shaft or something, you wouldn’t want to try to do it using a couple of shovels, would you? You’d need proper heavy machinery. And when you’d dug out your coal or whatever it was, you wouldn’t want to take it back to your own world a sack at a time, either. So…”
“So they must have built another portal,” supplied Stefan, his own excitement growing. “A large one, more like the ones we’ve been using this time around, big enough to allow heavy machinery to pass through it. But where, though?”
“As near to the mine as they could get it, I should think. It would have to be somewhere away from the Hubs, anyway – they’d want to be on the plain if possible, so as to be able to get their vehicles in and out quickly and easily, and unless they wanted to have to build bridges all over the place they'd want to have the portal right next to the coalfield or whatever they wanted to dig out. So the question is, what minerals are there in and around the Black Forest, the Vosges and the area in between – and especially around here, because they wouldn’t have built a bridge right here otherwise. You know this area much better than I do, so what would they be looking for? Coal?”
“Not round here. Most of the major coalfields are a lot further north, in the Ruhr, and there are some in Lothringen and the Saarland, I think. We could head that way if we don’t find anything closer, I suppose. What else? Let me think… There are lead and silver mines in Saxony, but that’s a really long way from here… we know there’s a little uranium in the Black Forest, of course, but it’s not economical to try to extract it, unless you’re using slave labour…”
He thought some more. “Hey, wait a moment… in my world they used to mine potash just north of where I lived – so that’s just south of here. When they first explored from the Hub they’d have been on foot, so I don’t suppose they’d have gone prospecting too far from this area. It’s worth looking, anyway.”
“Where exactly?” I asked.
“There was a whole area north of Mülhausen where it was mined at one time. Most of the mines had closed by the time I joined the Jungvolk, but once I went to visit one of the ones that was still operating. It was near Wittenheim, and that's probably only seven or eight kilometres south of where the Thur meets the Ill. Should we go and look?”
“Well… I don’t think we’d get the jeep over the bridge without clearing all the bushes first, and we haven’t brought the tools. I suppose we could walk… but why don’t we move the camp down here? If we’re right and there is a mine at Wittenheim we won’t need to pitch camp again, and if we’re wrong it still wouldn’t be a bad idea to move a bit further from the portal, just in case the Arvelans find a way through.”
“Okay. Of course, we could still spend a night out here on our own before we go back…”
“We could, couldn’t we?” I smiled at him. “After all, if there is a mine they’re hardly going to abandon it overnight…”
So we drove on up the Thur until the mountains began to close in on us from both sides, and when we were as far up the valley as we could get easily – which would have put us in the region of Thann on my map – we pitched our tent close to the river and then walked a little way up into the hills, just to stretch our legs a bit. It was quiet and peaceful there: there were some birds in the sky, but otherwise nothing was moving. We lay on our backs in the long grass and watched the clouds drifting past.
“Sometimes I think I’d like to own a portal to a place like this,” I said. “Whenever we get fed up with life and want to get away on our own we could just head through the portal and come here, to our very own empty world.”
“Empty apart from a load of Kerpian miners.”
“Well, okay, right now I hope there are some miners. But we could sort of claim this bit for ourselves, anyway.”
We lay there side by side for ages. The thought that the Kerpians might have a presence in this world had taken a tremendous load off my shoulders, because if they were here and we could find them our troubles would be over. And so I relaxed and watched the clouds and held Stefan’s hand, and I dozed a little, too.
Eventually we stirred ourselves and walked back down the hill to the tent. I’d collared one of the few remaining tins of Grey army corned beef and some rice, together with a little two-ring gas burner to cook it on, and once we’d eaten it we went and sat on the riverbank for a while.
“I hope you realise you missed our anniversary,” Stefan said.
“Yes, you did. Assuming I haven’t completely lost track of time, today is Saturday July 3rd. You and I met last year on June 30th, so we’ve known each other for a year and three days.”
I thought for a moment. I had lost track of the date, and I hadn’t realised that Stefan had been counting, either: sometimes he could be even more romantically-inclined than I was. But I realised that he was right.
“Then thank you for an amazing year,” I said, putting my arms around him and kissing him, a kiss that he returned enthusiastically.
“It has been interesting, hasn’t it?” he agreed, when we came up for air. “How many different worlds have we seen now?”
“I know it was eight for me when we got to Elsass,” I said. “That would make it six for you, because you never saw my world or the first Grey one. And since then… let’s see: the second Grey one, the Holy Roman Empire, Vogesia, the Frozen World, Arvel and now this one. Although I have to say that I wouldn’t mind too much if we didn’t see any more: back to Kerpia and then home to Elsass - that’s all I want now.”
“Me too. Of course we might not have a home there any more: they might have given our room to someone else, seeing that we’ve been away for six months now.”
“Then we’ll bunk in with Frank and Shander until they find us another one,” I said. “I like it there, and I really don’t want to have to move again.”
We sat by the river until the sun had disappeared behind the mountains and then we went back to the tent and eventually, after a certain amount of other stuff, went to sleep. And the next day dawned bright and sunny again, and I got up feeling happy and optimistic: if we were right about the mine, today might actually be the day we finally got back home, or at least to Kerpia, where I knew we’d be made welcome. We had breakfast, packed the tent away and drove back down the valley and out onto the plain.
We went back the way we came because I wanted to be sure I could find the bridge again: there were a few places where there were bushes growing alongside the river. But we found it easily enough, and after we’d checked that the bridge really was there and not just a figment of our imagination Stefan got his map and compass out and took a bearing from a couple of hilltops off to our left, just to make sure we could find the place again. Then we drove on back to the camp.
We found a couple of the boys splashing about in the river and Radu lounging on the bank, but not everyone was there: Radu told us that Oli had actually talked Alain into going for a walk with him, and they had headed off back towards the portal, while Marlo and Killian had crossed the river straight after breakfast and headed off towards the Rhine.
“I think that was so the rest of us wouldn’t have to put up with Killian yelling while Marlo beats him,” Radu added.
“I thought they’d agreed to stop doing that for a bit?”
Radu shrugged. “Marlo had a little whip with him, and Killian was carrying a bag, though I don’t know what was in it,” he said. “It still seems weird to me, though: Killian’s the one with the brain and the power, and yet he lets Marlo do whatever he wants to him.”
“They both had their heads messed with,” I explained. “I’m hoping that eventually they can forget all that kinky stuff and just start behaving like the rest of us, though I think it might take a while… anyway, we think we might have found a way home.” And I told him all about the bridge and our speculation that it dated from the early days of the Kerpian exploration of this world.
“That would be brilliant,” he said. “You mean we could really go home – today, even?”
“I hope so. We’re all heading that way this afternoon, anyway, as soon as the others come back, so you might as well start packing.”
Radu ran off to find Marc and give him the good news, and I got the swimmers out of the river and sent them to get dressed, pack their bags and get the tents down. And while they were doing that I went and found the Greys, who were in the back of the truck with Tommi, though for once they weren’t actually having sex with Sarleth.
“I think we’ve found a way out of this world,” I told them. “And even if I’m wrong about the mine, I’m confident that eventually there’ll be a portal we can use.”
Once more I explained about the bridge. “And if we can get back to Kerpia they’ll be able to get you to another world where the people are the same race as you,” I went on. “They can open a portal to a reptile world, one where there isn’t a war going on. I have some friends there, too… well, okay, maybe not friends as such, because I know you don’t really have friendships like we do. But acquaintances, anyway. They’re around your age, and they go to a military school. I could give you a letter for them to give their school director – maybe they could find a place for you there. And even if not it would be a safer world than the one you came from. What do you think?”
They looked at each other. “If we can’t get back to our own world,” said Torth, “which we probably couldn’t even if we could get back to the portal that brought us here, because there would probably be nothing left to go back to, then another world with our own kind would be a good place to go. It’s been an interesting experience, interacting with mammals, and a lot of what we have done while we have been with you has been pleasurable, though not all – being in the forest on our own was boring. But we've learned a lot about you, watching you and talking with you and Tommi, and that has been interesting. In one way we would be content to stay with you. But if we could go to be with our own kind that would be preferable.”
“Then I’ll ask the Kerpians to send you on. Now if you’d like to get packed and take your tents down we’ll be ready to leave as soon as the others come back.”
It didn’t take too long to get the tents down and everything loaded into the truck. We left the two remaining tents for their occupants to deal with on their return: I thought they’d prefer to do their own packing, as at least then the rest of us couldn’t be blamed if they were subsequently unable to find something…
Marlo and Killian got back first, and it wasn’t too hard to see them approaching against the green background of grass and trees because Killian was stark naked, though Marlo was fully dressed. They crossed the river using the bosun’s chair, Marlo making the trip first.
“I didn’t think you’d be back yet,” he told me.
“So you thought you and Killian could go and do your thing somewhere nice and quiet?”
“Well, yes. Come on, Jake, we are trying, honestly. If we weren’t I’d have punished him here and invited everyone else to join in. At least we’re keeping it private now.”
“I suppose that is something,” I conceded. But you’ll have to put that stuff on hold for a bit, because hopefully we’ll be going to another world this afternoon. Go and get your stuff packed and take the tent down – we’ll be heading out as soon as Alain and Oli get back.”
Killian reached our side of the river and Marlo helped him out of the bosun’s chair and started explaining what I had said as they walked past me. I could see that Killian had some fresh marks on his bottom and I shook my head, wondering if there was any chance at all of straightening them out.
Once they had their tent down I surrendered to impatience and got in the jeep, driving up towards the portal-site, and I found Alain and Oli heading towards me at the point where the last foothill flattened out at the edge of the plain.
“What’s up?” Alain asked as I gestured to them to get in.
“We’re moving out. I think I might have found a way home… so, did you go and look at where the portal was?”
“Yes, and there’s no sign of anything happening there at all, so we had to find something else to do… it’s probably a good thing you didn’t find us about half an hour ago, because we were sort of busy… so what do you mean about a way home?”
So I gave them my hypothesis that this was the world mentioned in the Hub records, and they both agreed that it made perfect sense, and the result was that they wasted no time at all in getting their gear packed up and their tent on board the truck. I had a quick scout round the campsite to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything, but it looked clear: while I’d been off collecting Alain and Oli Stefan had dismantled our bosun’s chair and packed the rope away in the truck, and as far as I could see we hadn’t left anything behind.
I stuck my head over the back of the truck to make sure everyone was aboard, and saw something out of place.
“Give him his clothes back, Marlo,” I said. “He can’t travel naked, I’m afraid – what sort of an impression is that going to give the people I’m hoping to meet?”
“But he doesn’t deserve… okay, okay, he can have his robe, and his shoes. But he isn’t allowed anything underneath it!”
“I suppose so,” I said. “I definitely need to do some work with you two, though. In fact... come with me. You can travel in the jeep with me for a change.”
I left Killian putting his robe on, nodded to Verdess, who was at the wheel of the truck as usual with the other two Greys beside him, and walked forward to the tank. Alain was in the driver’s seat again, and Stefan, Oli and Radu were aboard with him.
“Stop when you get to the bushes,” I told Stefan. “We’ll clear the approach to the bridge and then decide whether or not to risk the truck and the tank on it.”
I walked back to the jeep, collecting Killian and Marlo on the way, and took my place behind the wheel. Nicky was sitting in the front passenger seat, so I told him to stay where he was and sent Marc and Tommi forward to the truck. Today the tank was going to lead because Stefan knew where we were going, and in any case the tank was, I hoped, going to clear away the bushes from the end of the bridge, either by crushing them flat or by dragging them out by the roots using its tow cable.
We made good time along the river – as we had found out before, the tank could move at a decent speed on flat ground – and we reached the bridge in mid-afternoon. Once we got there we got out of our vehicles and waited while the tank crew cleared the bushes away using its tow cable. That left us with a few small holes to fill in, but the soil around the riverbank was fairly soft and it didn't take too long to make the approach to the bridge passable.
“Now I want everyone over to the far side except the three drivers – no, in fact I want Verdess and Alain over there too,” I said. “That way if the bridge does collapse at least you won't have to swim across. Then I'll bring the jeep, and if I make it Verdess can bring the truck, and after that we'll decide if we should risk the tank or not. Any questions?”
There weren't, so I waited until everyone had crossed the bridge and got clear of the far side and then I got back into the jeep and drove it slowly across the bridge. But there wasn't so much as a creak, and I drove off the far end of the bridge and pulled over to the side, confident that we would be able to get the truck across at least.
Verdess walked back across the bridge and drove the truck over, and again there wasn’t a hint that the bridge was in danger of collapse. He pulled the truck over in front of the jeep and got out.
“What do you think?” I asked Alain. “Do you want to try?”
“Might as well. I don’t fancy leaving it for the Arvelans to use, and if we don’t bring it with us the back of the truck is going to get very crowded.”
So he walked back to the tank and climbed in, though he left the hatch open in case he had to get out in a hurry. And then he lined the tank up and roared across at top speed, no doubt thinking that if the bridge did start to give way his momentum might be enough to carry him across. And in the event the bridge held. He parked the tank next to the truck and climbed out.
“They’re good, those Kerpian engineers,” he said.
“They are, aren’t they?” I agreed. “I wonder why they bothered making it that strong, though, if it was only going to be used for a short period… after all, if they were going to open a larger portal nearer the mine they wouldn’t have needed to transport a lot of stuff back up to the one in the Vosges.”
“Maybe they originally intended building another large portal up there,” suggested Stefan. “Or perhaps it was because they wanted to be able to use some of their potash in other worlds, and it would be easier to do that if it was delivered direct to the Hub.”
“Maybe. It doesn’t matter, anyway: what matters is that we’re across. Which way is Wittenheim?”
“Straight ahead from the bridge – we just have to keep going the way the vehicles are pointing now.”
“Then let’s go,” I said. “Eight kilometres, you said? So if you’re right about the mine we could be only eight kilometres from Kerpia – and that means we could be almost home!”
Everyone got back in the same vehicles that they had travelled this far in, though this time Sarleth got in the back of the truck so that he could sit with Tommi. And once everyone was aboard we set off. Because the truck was in front of the jeep Verdess led the way, and I followed him with the tank bringing up the rear – after all, I was fairly sure that if we were going to be attacked it would be by the Arvelans coming up behind us.
After we had been driving for around ten minutes we went through a belt of trees, and as we emerged from the far side of them Verdess sounded the truck horn a couple of times. I swung out a little so that I could see past the truck, and then I was able to see what Verdess had seen: there was a pithead winding-gear tower in view ahead of us, and some buildings close to it. And the winding-gear wheel was turning: the mine was actually in use.
“I bet they’re going to be surprised to see us!” I commented happily, already contemplating being home in time for supper, and still not realising that I’d made my worst and most costly mistake yet. And even when they started shooting at us it took a few seconds before I realised what I’d done: I’d led a column of Grey military vehicles, headed by a truck with two Greys in military uniforms in the cab, towards a base crewed by people who had recently been at war with a Grey world. I knew the mining operation in the Green World was important to the Kerpians, and so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to discover that they had assigned a unit of their militia to protect it, and yet I’d been so busy thinking about getting home that I hadn’t stopped to think what we would look like to them.
The truck slewed to a halt and Verdess fell out of the cab door and landed in a heap on the ground. I drove the jeep just past the truck and pulled across in front of it to try to give Verdess some cover, and then I jumped from the driver’s seat and ran towards the mine, waving my hands frantically and yelling at them in Kerpian that we were humans and that we weren’t hostile. I could hear bullets hitting the truck and the jeep and I hoped that Nicky and the others would have the sense to keep their heads down… and then something hit me violently in the side and knocked me to my knees. I put my hand to my side and it came away red. And then something else hit me on the head and I blacked out.
Just when you were thinking they were home and dry, too... I can at least promise you that this will be the last cliffhanger ending, because the next chapter will also be the final one. So you're running out of time to write and tell me what you think. You know the address by now: email@example.com
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