It won't come as a big surprise to learn that this chapter describes what happens when Jake agrees to go back through the portal into Kerpia. And he has some surprises to deal with when he gets there...
“Are you sure it’s safe?” I asked.
“Well, we obviously won’t ask you or anyone else to go through until we’re sure it’s stable. But we’ve done plenty of simulations here in the laboratory and on paper it works perfectly.”
“Well, fine, but I'm not interested in results on paper. If it works in practice I suppose I wouldn't mind going along as translator for you, just to help get things started, but I'm not going near it until a couple of you guys have been through it – and back – first.”
“That seems entirely reasonable.”
“Well, okay, then. Where are you going to site it?”
“Initially we intended to put it on the Vosges, where you came through, but then we decided that it would be easier to contact the authorities over there if we sent you through nearer to the town you told us about, the one with the mine...”
“Hintraten,” I put in.
“That's the one. So we spoke to our colleagues in Baden-Bayern, on the other side of the Rhine, and they've given us permission to run our experiment on the Feldberg. We're establishing our portal a little further down the mountain, so you won't have so far to walk.”
“Sounds like a good idea. So who's coming with us?”
“Two of our colleagues, and a couple of militiamen, just in case your bomb didn't work and there are still Greys around – and if that is the case we'll retreat through the portal at once. They'll be going through on their own first to scout around before the rest of you go.”
I thought that sounded like a good idea – after all, the last thing I wanted was to walk into a troop of Greys. Though I suppose that if the bomb hadn't gone off they wouldn't have any reason to be hunting for me...
When we told the others what was happening they tried to talk us out of going.
“You must be mad!” was Markus's reaction. “After everything that happened last time you were in Kerpia, why on earth would you want to risk going back? Stay here where you're safe!”
“Or at least let us come with you,” said Oli. “Even if your bomb worked there might still be stray guardians around on the mountain. You need my catapult.”
“And if Oli's going, so am I,” added Alain.
“It's okay, they're sending some soldiers through with us, and they've already said that at the first sign of trouble we'll come straight back. But I think we really have to do this – after all, this world has been really good to us all, hasn't it? We turned up with no money and no papers, and they've given us a really decent place to live, and they're even paying us for studying. We owe them. Besides, this is only going to be a short trip: once we've done the introductions the Kerpians can implant their language into the scientists from this side, and then they won't need an interpreter any longer.”
They argued for a little longer, but I pointed out that if a portal could be established successfully it would benefit them, too: after all, if the Kerpian language-implanting technology became available here it would save them a lot of struggling with the learning of English and French. And eventually they accepted that we were going.
“But if you don't come back safely I'll have to beat you up,” said Alain, just as we were leaving.
I didn't bother pointing out the failed logic of that threat; instead I assured him that we'd both be very careful indeed, and that we were looking forward to being back well before December 12th – after all, we had something planned for that day.
We packed an overnight bag each, though Stefan as usual made sure he had his knife, compass and mini-tool set with him as well as a change of clothing, and then we were driven across the Rhine and into the neighbouring state of Baden-Bayern. Of course we had seen only a very small part of this area, and even when we reached a town called Hinterzarten an hour and a bit later we didn't recognise it as the place we knew as Hintraten. There was no mine here, for a start. But as we drove out of town, up towards the top of the Feldberg, it did become a little more familiar: the hamlet where we had first been captured by the Greys looked much as it had in the Kerpian world, and the road that led up from there towards the four loggers' houses looked exactly the same.
We turned off before we reached the houses, however, taking another track that led to an area with no trees, a large meadow on a slope, and here we found a number of tents set up. The largest of these contained two two-metre high arches about two metres apart, and it also contained a number of the other scientists we had met in Strossburi.
“Well, it works,” the senior scientist told us. “We'll be sending the first scouting party through in a few minutes.”
“Why have you got two of them?” I asked. “Where does the other one go?”
“It isn't two, it's just one. Somehow the Kerpians managed to get both ends of their portals into a single interface, the two planes only millimetres apart – at least, we're assuming that's how they did it. We can't get our two planes that close together without the whole thing collapsing. It's one of the things we want to ask them about. Ours works more like an airlock: you go in this end and come out at the other end, only that exit is in the other reality.
“Now, can you think of anything else our scouts need to know before they go through?”
He indicated four men in uniform who were standing to one side. They were carrying rifles, though they also looked distinctly nervous, which I suppose was understandable: this wasn't exactly a normal mission for them.
“I expect they've already told you about the Greys,” I said to them. “They wear red-brown uniforms, so if you see anyone in that colour, run: they have poor stamina, so if they don't catch you in the first fifty metres they won't catch you at all. They might shoot you, of course... oh, and look out for the guardians. One of our friends pointed out that even if the Greys have gone there might still be one or two guardians about that got left behind. Their range is about ten metres, so don't get closer than that, and watch out for the red and black ones: their sting is fatal. Shoot them before they get close enough to shoot you.
“If you meet any humans in uniform, they'll be friendly. Their uniform is dark green, so you can tell them at a distance from the Greys. I can't think of anything else. Stefan, have I forgotten anything?”
“I don't think so.”
We watched as the four men went through the first arch. We could still see them as they waited for a few seconds between the arches, though they looked fuzzy: it was a bit like seeing someone through one of the barriers in the Hub. And then there was a humming noise, at which they moved on through the second arch and disappeared.
“They'll be a while,” the chief scientist told us. “We told them to have a proper scout round the area, and of course the first thing they have to do is to erect a tent over the portal: we don't want it being disrupted if the weather on that side is bad. So you might as well go and rest for a bit. We'll call you when they get back.”
We were taken to a smaller tent in which a field kitchen had been set up, and here we were given some soup, which was welcome: it was of course mid-December, and up here in the Black Forest it was quite cold, though there was no snow on the ground yet.
We drank our soup and then wandered around the camp for a bit, and when we got bored with that we went to the tent where we had been told we were going to be sleeping and lay down for a bit.
The scouting party came back as it began to get dark, and their report was entirely positive: they had been down the mountain as far as the outskirts of Hintraten without seeing anyone except humans – there were no Greys and no guardians about anywhere. Of course they hadn't actually been able to confirm this by asking anyone because of the language barrier, but they saw people moving about quite freely, which I was sure would not have been the case if there had still been guardians in the area.
That tent wasn't very warm, and although we were each provided with a fairly thick sleeping bag they were of a type that couldn't be joined together, and that meant that Stefan and I couldn't cuddle up to each other for the night the way we were used to doing. But somehow we got through the night, and next morning, as soon as we had eaten breakfast, we went to the big tent and prepared to go through the portal.
There was just about enough room between the arches for eight people, provided that they didn't mind being jammed up against each other. The four militiamen went first, then me and Stefan, and finally the two scientists who were coming with us, Dr Schmitt and Dr Szabo, who had been chosen because his father was Hungarian and so he hoped to be able to communicate a bit with the Kerpians even if there was a problem with the language implanting system. Once we were all between the two arches we had to wait for a few seconds while the first arch closed behind as and the second one opened ahead of us, and then we were able to walk out into Kerpia.
The only difference was that here the trees were a bit closer to us: the meadow was rather smaller than the one in Baden-Bayern. But that seemed hardly important. Stefan didn't even need to get his compass out, because the militiamen had already been here and had found the way down to Hintraten, and so we simply followed them into the trees and down the hill until we met a road, which I was pretty sure was the one that led up to the Grey checkpoint above the Hub One Nexus Room. We followed that road downwards until it met another one, and now I definitely knew where I was: the cabin that had been used by Haless and Issin was only a short distance away, and the town itself was probably only ten minutes further on.
By the time we reached the first houses the militiamen were carrying their rifles slung on their back so as not to alarm people: we'd seen a number of people going about their business by now and none of them seemed to be worrying about guardians, so there seemed little risk of us meeting one, either. And soon we were in the town centre.
I took everyone to the clinic, since I had decided that Narj Larzel would be the best person to speak to first: he knew about the Hubs, anyway. But when I asked for him at the clinic I was told that he was now based at the Rathaus. I knew where that was because I'd been there before, and so I led the party on down the road until we reached the town hall.
And this time my enquiries were successful: the person at the front desk made a phone call, and two minutes later Mr Narj appeared, and his face lit up as he saw me.
“Stone Jake!” he exclaimed, grabbing my hand and shaking it. “We were afraid you'd been killed! How did you get away?”
“First of all, did the bomb go off?” I wanted to know.
“Oh, yes. I don't know how you managed to plant it, but it worked perfectly: the portal collapsed, and so did about ten hersps of tunnel. And that's one portal that we're in no hurry to restore, I promise you. Most of the portals at the Hub One Nexus Room are either still open or can be dug out fairly easily, but we’re holding back for the moment because there are still Greys in some of the other worlds. There’s a Grey officer in their checkpoint at the moment, rounding up everyone who comes through for us so that we can send them home.”
“But I thought you said you weren’t going to reopen the portal to the Grey world?”
“We’re not – at least, not on a permanent basis. Every time we have a dozen or so ready to go back we open a temporary portal on the surface – in a slightly different place every time, of course – and send them through, and as soon as they’re through we close the portal again. We agreed that with their surviving senior officer: he realised that if they didn’t co-operate with us they would never be able to return to their own world, so they’ve been entirely sensible about it. But I still want to know what happened to you. Have you been hiding somewhere all this time?”
“No, we got out through the Hub Two Nexus Room. We’ve been living in another world for the last four months.”
“Ah, so you were responsible for the chaos at Hub Two. We wondered if it might have been you and your friends… By the time we got there everything had stopped working – all we found was eighteen or nineteen living Greys and around twenty dead ones. The survivors surrendered fairly quickly once they found out that they were trapped and outnumbered. They told us they’d been fighting Kerpian militia – at least, they said the defenders were in uniform, so they assumed it was a militia unit. There didn’t seem to be any human bodies, though, except for the remains of one – in several pieces - that had obviously been dead for several months.”
“Ah, our friend Dead Guy. No, we found the emergency exit just in time, and then blocked it so that they couldn’t follow us. There were still four tunnels open in the Nexus Room, so we took pot luck and found a really good world. And that’s why we’re here now: these men are scientists from our new world. They managed to set up a portal to get us here, and they want to talk to you about building a permanent one between our worlds so that we can learn from each other.”
I introduced Dr Schmitt, who hadn’t understood a blind word of the conversation so far, and Dr Szabo, who seemed to have understood at least some of it. Mr Narj explained that if they were prepared to spend a while in the clinic he could arrange to have the Kerpian language implanted in their brains, and that would make communication a lot easier. I translated this, and both scientists agreed enthusiastically.
”Once we’ve got them safely installed in the clinic, will I be able to go back home?” I asked.
“Well, you could. But the King wants to see you.”
“Why do you think, Jake? You’re a hero! You planted the bomb that saved our country from the Greys, and you took some serious risks doing it, too, because if they’d caught you with it you would almost certainly have been killed. It took a lot of courage. And now we know that you also defended Hub Two against them and stopped them from accessing any of the tunnels there, that makes you even more of a hero.”
“That wasn’t me: that was Stefan, mostly, and the Kerpian kids who escaped with us. They were the ones defending their country. I was just trying to stay alive.”
“If it hadn’t been for Jake we’d never have got as far as Hub Two,” Stefan interrupted. “And if it hadn’t been for Markus knowing about Kerpian computers we’d all have died there. It was easier for me: I’ve been trained. The Kerpian boys hadn’t, and the way they fought, even though they were tired and hungry after working in the mine, was incredible. So don’t listen to him, Mr Narj: it’s Jake and the Kerpians who deserve the thanks.”
“And I’m sure they’ll get them,” said Mr Narj. “Jake, could you take your friends down the road to the clinic for me? I’ll make a call and arrange for them to have the language work done, and then I need to make a couple more calls. Come back here when you’re finished.”
So we escorted the two scientists back to the clinic, translated the technicians’ explanations for them and saw them safely ensconced in two of the implanting chairs. At that point I suggested to the militiamen that they could go back home if they wanted: clearly there was no danger here any longer. And they seemed quite happy to do that, so they said goodbye and headed back towards the portal site.
We walked back to the town hall and discovered that Mr Narj had been busy: apparently we now had a standing invitation to travel to the capital to meet the king. And the invitation extended to all the boys who had helped in the defence of Hub Two.
“A couple of them were in the House of Detention before the Greys came,” I said. “I’m not sure that they’ll want to come back, in case they end up getting sent back there.”
“Oh, there’s no danger of that happening – or not unless they were there because they’d murdered someone, or something. Had they?”
“I don’t think so. Markus stole some cars, I think. I’m not sure about Tibor, but I don’t think it was anything too awful.”
“Then I guarantee they’ll be safe. So I’d like you to go back through, collect the others and bring them back here… the day after tomorrow, perhaps? That will give us time to sort out some transport for you.”
Stefan and I looked at each other. There didn’t seem to be any risk here, and I definitely wanted Markus and Tibor to get a royal pardon for whatever they’d done to put them in prison in the first place. If the king offered us a reward for services rendered, that would be the first thing I asked for. Of course, some money would be nice, provided it was in the form of gold or silver, so that we could exchange it back in Elsass…
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll do our best to persuade them all to come.”
“Excellent! And now I can save you the walk back to the portal: I have to go up to the Hub to see if any more Greys are waiting to be repatriated, so if you’d like to come with me I’ll drop you off at your portal on the way back.”
He took us out to a Kerpian version of a jeep – like all Kerpian vehicles, this was a lot more streamlined than the versions from my own world – and we headed off through the town and up towards the former Grey checkpoint. This looked a little different from the way it had been on my previous visit: there seemed to have been a substantial fire-fight here, because the stonework was chipped in several places and the doorway had partly collapsed. The fallen stones had been cleared away now, but the entrance was still a mess.
Inside there was more damage, though some clearing up had been done and the actual desk by the barrier appeared intact. Today it was manned by a bored-looking Grey.
“Is Force Leader Nass here?” Mr Narj asked him in Grey.
“Force Leader!” called the Grey, not bothering to get up. And a slightly older Grey appeared from one of the back rooms. He’d obviously been in the wars: his right arm was strapped to his chest, and he was walking with a pronounced limp.
“Hello, Narj,” he said. “We’ve got a couple more for you, but I really think we’ve got almost everyone who was out there by now. It’s only World Six I’m not quite sure about. I think we should perhaps give it another three or four days, and then I’d like to go home myself. I can leave a message for anyone who comes back after we’ve gone, but I really don’t think there’ll be many more.”
“That sounds fine to me,” said Mr Narj. “We’ll put a sign up downstairs, at the entrance to what’s left of Tunnel One, telling anyone who sees it to come up here to report. We’ll keep this place manned for a little longer. I’m sure any of your people who do try to get home after that will have the sense to come out here and look for instructions. I’ll be coming back this way in a couple of days’ time, so if you like we can send you all home then.”
“I would appreciate that.” The Grey officer called over his shoulder for someone to bring him out some writing materials so that he could prepare a suitable message for any Greys returning from the other worlds after he and his staff had left, and a smaller figure emerged from one of the back rooms carrying one of the Grey mini-computers. And I recognised the newcomer.
“Ssyrl!” I exclaimed.
I was surprised to see him, and not entirely comfortable with it, either: after all, the last time I had seen him he had more or less betrayed me, given me a very nasty dead-leg with a tyre iron and run out on us, leaving us threatened by guardians. And it was because I'd led him there that the Greys had found the entrance to the Hub, something I would prefer Mr Narj not to know about. Of course, I could understand why he'd done it, and I thought that maybe I would have done the same thing in his place.
“You’re still here!” I went on. “Are you okay?”
“Yes… I thought you’d gone home!”
“Well, we had a few problems with that…”
“Do you know this mammal?” the Grey officer asked Ssyrl.
“Yes, I do. He was the one who…” Ssyrl broke off, looking at Mr Narj. I guessed he’d been about to say something like, ‘the one who told me about the other entrance to the Hub,’ but realised that this might get me into trouble. Instead he said, “The one who helped me when I was in the mine.”
“We sort of helped each other,” I said, considerably relieved that he had decided not to drop me in it. “So why are you still here?”
“I wanted him to stay here until I left,” the officer said. “When we get back home I’m going to make sure that the High Council hears about what he did.”
That had me worrying for a moment: after all, Ssyrl had expected to get into very serious trouble if his people found out he had helped us to escape from the mine. But the officer went on, “He defended this place almost single-handed for a very long time: most of our soldiers were dead, and I’d been hit twice and couldn’t fire a gun any longer. And Ssyrl picked up my weapon and held the door on his own. And at one point they threw a grenade in, and he reacted quickly enough to pick it up and throw it out again before it exploded. And when he finally ran out of ammunition he stood over me and another wounded soldier, threatening to use his rifle as a club if the enemy got near us. I’ve never seen courage like it.”
I stared at Ssyrl: this didn’t sound much like the boy his colleagues had all derided as unmasculine, so I jerked my head at him and took him off to one side, where we could speak privately.
“Thanks for not mentioning that I showed you how to get into the Hub,” I said. “I mean, it wasn’t deliberate or anything, but I don’t suppose Mr Narj would be too happy about it. I hope you got credit for it, anyway. And what on earth was all that heroic stuff about?”
Ssyrl shrugged. “At the time I didn’t see that I had any good reason to stay alive,” he said. “For a few hours I was a hero for showing our troops the way into the control centre, but then something went wrong and the portal back to our world exploded...”
“Do you know what happened to it?” I interrupted.
“No. Force Leader Nass thinks it was some sort of power feedback, perhaps because we kept the door open all the time – we left the doors and trapdoors in place on the other tunnels, but because there was so much coming and going with ours we removed the trapdoor completely and left the door open. And Nass thinks maybe it caused some sort of overload. We can't find out for sure because half the tunnel collapsed at the same time and we didn't have time to dig it out before the Kerpians attacked us.”
I managed to prevent myself from jumping for joy at that point: apparently the Greys didn't know I was responsible for destroying their portal. Of course I had no intention of going anywhere near any Greys once Ssyrl and his few remaining colleagues had gone, but it was still nice to know that there wouldn't be a Grey death squad after me if by some mischance they ever found a way through to my new world.
“Anyway,” Ssyrl continued, “I didn't see that I had any future: I couldn't go home, and I knew we'd never be accepted here. I thought I'd either end up in a zoo or find myself being dissected for medical knowledge, the way Haless and Issin were originally going to do to you. And so I decided that it would be better to die fighting – at least there's some sort of honour in dying in a battle, and I thought it would be a lot quicker than being sliced up by scientists. Nobody thought much of me back in my own country, and I suppose I can understand why, because I wasn't much of a soldier, but here I had a chance to at least try to behave as a soldier should. And, of course, when you don't care whether you die or not you probably find it easier to be brave.
“So I tried to do everything the instructors taught us. I was lucky with the grenade – it must have had an extra long fuse, or something – and somehow none of the bullets hit me, except for a graze on my left arm. And when I ran out of bullets I just stood in front of the Force Leader and told the Kerpians they'd have to shoot me to get at him. At the time I actually wanted them to – I thought it would be better than being taken prisoner – and so I was very disappointed when they didn't. A Kerpian officer who spoke our language came in and explained that if we'd surrender they'd do their best to repatriate us, and that was the end of it. And so it worked out lucky that I didn't get shot, because now I can go home after all, and Nass is going to say lots of good things about me – and that should mean I can go back to school and have the rest of the boys respect me, the way I originally hoped when I tricked you into showing me the way into the tunnels.”
“Good,” I said. “I'm glad, Ssyrl. If Haless and the others hear about what you did here I'm sure they'll ease up on you in future.”
“I'm certainly hoping so. If I go back to school with a bravery commendation I think they'll have to look at me differently. So what happened to you? How come you're still here?”
“It was a struggle, but in the end we got out into another world,” I told him. “And the new world has worked out the basics of opening a portal, too, and they sent me and Stefan through to make contact with the scientists here because we can speak the language. And now we've done that we're going home, too. No more adventures for me!”
We wished each other luck, and then Mr Narj drove me and Stefan back to the meadow where the temporary portal had been set up.
“Did you know the Greys think the explosion was an accident?” I asked him.
“Well, I thought it odd that Nass never mentioned the words 'bomb' or 'sabotage', but I thought that was just because he thought it would be a waste of time asking me about it.”
“No, apparently they think it was a power overload, or something like that,” I told him. “So please make sure nobody says anything to make them think otherwise – just in case they change their minds about leaving and decide to come looking for me instead.”
“My lips are sealed,” he promised me.
He came into the tent with us to have a look at the portal.
“Why have they made a tunnel instead of a flat interface?” he asked.
“Don't ask me. All I know is that they said this was the only way they could get it to work. Probably the two guys back at the clinic can tell you more.”
“All right. Now, I'll arrange to have some transport here for you the day after tomorrow – in around mid-morning, say Kend Nine? That way you won't have to walk down to the station.”
I agreed to that. I knew that some of the boys had still got their Kerpian watches, so we should be able to arrange to arrive at approximately the right time.
We said goodbye and walked through the first arch. Once inside Stefan pressed the button on the arch frame and the first interface closed behind us, and five seconds later the second one opened ahead of us and we were able to step back into Baden-Bayern. The remaining scientists were waiting for us, so we explained what was happening, saying that Dr Schmitt and Dr Szabo would be getting the language implant for the next three or four days, but that we had been asked to go back through in two days' time. They said they had no problem with that, and once they had driven us back to the residence they arranged to pick us up again at around nine o'clock on the Thursday morning.
“No chance!” was Markus’s reaction when I said that the Kerpians had invited everyone back. “I’m not getting put back into the House of Detention! I like it here, and I can’t see any good reason for going back!”
“Not even a royal pardon and a pat on the back from the king for being a true Kerpian hero?”
So I explained the situation to them, and afterwards they were a lot more enthusiastic about it.
“And I’m sure that if you two decided to stay there they’d be happy to have you,” I added to Frank and Shander. “After all, before we came here you said you’d prefer to stay there if it could be arranged.”
They looked at each other. “No, thanks,” said Frank. “When we said that we didn’t know what this place would be like. Sure, it wasn’t too bad in the orphanage, but things are far better here – and we wouldn’t want to leave all our friends behind, either. We’ll be happy to go back with the rest of you to visit the palace, but we’ll want to come back here afterwards.”
“Can we bring a friend with us?” asked Radu. “Only I’d like to show Marc my own country…”
“That’s a good idea,” said Markus. “I’ll ask Sylvie if she’d like to come and see where I used to live.”
I hesitated, but nobody else showed signs of wanting to invite a guest, and I supposed that a couple more travellers wouldn’t make any difference. And I thought that if I was going to be honoured by my king I’d probably want my friends there to support me.
“I don’t see why not,” I said. And that was clearly enough to overcome any doubts Markus might still have been entertaining, because he immediately announced that he was going to come with us. Of course it was still term-time, and I wasn't sure that either Sylvie or Marc would be actually be allowed to come, particularly into a completely different world through a brand-new piece of technology.
A bit later I managed to get Tibor on his own long enough to ask why he had been in the House of Detention.
“Why do you need to know?” he asked, distrustfully.
“Well, Mr Narj said you’d definitely get a pardon unless you’d done something really serious, like murdering someone.”
“Oh. Well, no, it was nothing like that. It was burglary. I broke into quite a lot of houses, but I never hurt anyone.”
“Then I’m sure you’ll be okay.” I hesitated. “Why?” I asked. “What made you do it? Was it like Radu – you were hungry and needed to steal something to buy food?”
“No, it was nothing like that. I just liked having money and lots of nice stuff, so I stole things, sold them to a man I knew and bought expensive clothes and stuff with the money.”
“Didn’t your parents ask how you afforded them?”
“They never asked me anything. They more or less let me live my own life. I wasn’t badly treated or anything, I just didn’t have a lot of contact with them. They were away a lot, anyway: I quite often had the house to myself for days at a time. But I can’t make the excuse that I needed the money: I just liked buying stuff. And doing the break-ins was sort of exciting, too – at least, it was until I got caught. And the third time they caught me they seemed to lose patience, and I suppose I can’t blame them. Anyway, something good came out of it, because I met Hansi at the mine. I’d never had a proper friend before: I’d had people I thought were friends, but they vanished once I got into trouble.
“But Hansi was different: I told him what I’d done to get sent to the House of Detention and he said I was really stupid and made me swear never to do anything like it again, and once I’d sworn he just carried on as if I’d never done anything wrong. You know what the mine was like: there were times I just wanted to die, and I thought about running for it, even though I knew there was no hope of escape – I really thought I’d be better off dead. But Hansi got me through it…
“The first time he kissed me, it was like being in an earthquake: nobody had ever kissed me before… well, perhaps my mother did when I was really little, but I can’t remember. It was the first time I got really miserable and I’d said I was going to run and hope the Greys shot me dead. And Hansi hugged me and said that I couldn’t go because he needed me, that having me there was what got him through the day. I was crying a little, and then he promised he would always stay with me if I promised to stay with him, so that we could help each other through everything… and that’s when he kissed me. It felt for a moment like my heart had stopped beating: it was only a little peck on the cheek, but I’d never felt needed before, and I didn’t know how to react. I think I cried a bit more, and he held me, and then I kissed him, and after that I never thought about running again, at least not until you and the Grey kid got us all out safely.
“It’s funny, but we didn’t do anything… you know, sexual, until quite a bit after that. I suppose being tired all the time was the main reason, but it was also because now I had a friend I didn’t want to risk spoiling it by suggesting something he might not have wanted to do…”
“I thought it was easier in your world, that there was no stigma involved in doing stuff with other boys?” I asked.
“What, and you think that makes it easy?” he asked, staring at me. “Just because a lot of boys do stuff together, it doesn’t mean that they all want to – I mean, as far as I know Frank and Shander have never done anything together, even though they’re probably as close to each other as me and Hansi. After all, in the world you come from I bet you couldn’t just walk up to a girl and ask her to have sex with you, could you? And even if you were friends you’d be nervous about asking in case she didn’t want that sort of relationship. Well, it was exactly the same for me: I wasn’t sure Hansi would want to do anything like that… not that I’d done anything like that myself before. I knew about sex, but I’d never been all that interested, both because I didn’t have anyone I wanted to try it with, and because I suppose I was too young to have any real interest in sex. But I thought Hansi was really good-looking, and he’s got a beautiful body… okay, he was too thin, but then we all were. So it took a lot of courage to actually suggest getting undressed together. And then it turned out he felt exactly the same way as I did: he’d been trying to pluck up courage to try it on with me for ages.
“Still, even though the sex is great, I’d have to say the friendship is more important. Even if he didn’t want to do sex any more I’d still love him…. So I’m never going to steal again, because I think that’s about the only way I’d ever lose him, and I never want that to happen.”
Well, that was a much longer answer than I had expected, but the bottom line was that I could see nothing to prevent the Kerpians giving him a full pardon, too.
We spent the Wednesday getting ready, which mainly consisted of making sure our best clothes were clean. On the Wednesday night Stefan and I briefly considered moving our December 12th appointment forward, but we decided against it. First, we might be back by then anyway, and if not another day or so wouldn’t make a lot of difference.
“Or maybe we can borrow the king’s bed and do it there,” suggested Stefan, grinning at me. “Or we could sneak into the throne room when nobody’s about and do it on the throne.”
“We’d probably be executed for high treason if we got caught,” I said.
“No, we wouldn’t: we’re not Kerpian, so we can’t be guilty of treason against Kerpia. But I don’t suppose they’d be very happy, so perhaps we’d better not. I’m quite looking forward to doing it right here, to be honest, and then going to sleep with your arms round me afterwards.”
And that summed up the way I felt, too, so I agreed that we should wait until we got back.
Next morning we were up and ready to go well before nine o’clock. We’d decided to travel in older clothes and keep the good ones to change into before we were presented to the king, so we were all carrying bags. I was anything but surprised when I saw Stefan packing his bag, not just with his best clothes, but also with his compass, water-bottle, knife, mini-toolkit and various other pieces of his survival equipment. I could have pointed out that we would be making a simple return journey through a portal that led into a world we already knew to be safe, but I’d seen Stefan’s careful preparations prove necessary too often to say anything of the kind. Instead I packed a torch and a few other odds and ends into my own bag, just in case.
Markus had not had too much trouble persuading the director of our residence to let Sylvie accompany us, but it had taken a number of phone calls before Marc had been allowed to take time off school. His parents arrived at the Residence at around half past eight and had a short chat with the director, but the upshot was that Marc was allowed to come with us, which I suppose is a testament to what a peaceful and relaxed society I was now living in. It wasn’t the first time I had seen him because he’d been to visit Radu a couple of times before, but today he looked particularly happy and excited, and I had to agree with Radu’s initial description of him as ‘stunning’.
“Keep your eyes off,” growled Stefan in my ear. “He’s spoken for, and so are you.”
“I know, and you don’t need to worry: he’s pretty, but you’re perfect. And Radu says Marc only has a small you-know-what, and I’m a lot happier with your massive one.”
“And don’t you forget it,” said Stefan, hugging me. “Mind you, he is attractive, isn’t he?”
“Don’t you start!” And I parked myself in his line of sight and then hugged him hard, and after that he showed no sign of being distracted by anyone other than me.
They had sent a large minibus for us, which was rather more comfortable – and probably a lot warmer – than the army truck I had expected, and so although it was quite cold outside we made the journey in comfort. When we reached the meadow where the portal had been established and got out of the bus, though, we found it a lot less warm, and we were grateful for the warm quilted jackets we were all wearing: we’d already discovered that winters in this part of the world could be quite chilly, and so we’d all made buying a decent jacket a priority once the weather turned cold.
A couple of the portal scientists were waiting for us, bundled up in thick winter clothing. They said they were coming with us as far as Hintraten, where they intended to wait until Schmitt and Szabo had finished at the clinic and then start work with their Kerpian counterparts.
There wasn’t room in the tunnel between the interfaces for all of us at once, and so the scientists went first, together with Markus and Sylvie, Tibor and Hansi and Frank and Shander. The rest of us waited until the cyan light on the portal arch lit up again, and then we opened the door and stepped inside ourselves: Radu and Marc, Alain and Oli, Tommi, and finally Stefan and I. Stefan hit the button on the inside of the arch and we waited a few seconds until the second door opened ahead of us and we were able to step though and join the others. And so, around three and a half months after we had escaped from the mine, our whole party found itself in Kerpia once more.
It was cold in Baden-Bayern, but colder still in Kerpia, and there was a little snow falling. Fortunately we didn’t have to walk very far, because Mr Narj was waiting for us with a trio of Kerpian jeeps: he’d been counting on eleven passengers rather than fifteen, but we all managed to squeeze in somehow. We stopped off at the clinic to let the two scientists out, and I went inside with them to make sure they were found accommodation for the next couple of days until Schmitt and Szabo woke up and were able to talk to them. Then I went back to the jeep for the short journey to the station.
We took a local train as far as Ulm, where we had a bit of a wait for our connection, but after that we got VIP treatment: we were allocated first-class seats on the main line train. The journey to Temishar was going to take around eight hours, so we settled back to watch the countryside go past. Stefan had brought a map of Europe with him from home, and while we were waiting at Ulm he managed to persuade Mr Narj to buy him one of the whole of Kerpia, and he used the two maps to follow our progress east, translating the Kerpian place-names into ones that he and I could recognise: Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Budapest – which I remembered had been the Kerpian capital until 2217 – and on into what in our world was now part of Romania. We reached Temishar – or Timişoara, as it was called in my native world – at around seven in the evening, but of course by then it was too dark to get a proper idea of what the town was like. We were taken straight to a hotel, allocated rooms and then led to the restaurant, where we ate an excellent meal. The only bad thing was that we each had a single room, but of course I spent the night in Stefan’s room, and I’d guess that some of the other rooms weren’t slept in either.
I’m going to skip over most of what happened next day because it’s sort of embarrassing: everyone from the king downwards wanted to make me out to be some sort of superhero who had put his life on the line to deliver Kerpia from the Greys. Okay, I suppose I had taken a risk, but I certainly hadn’t been thinking of Kerpia at the time: I was thinking of me, mostly - and of Stefan, Alain and Oli, of course, and perhaps to a lesser extent of my fellow stokers. I tried to deflect as much of the praise as possible at Stefan and the Kerpian kids who had helped me survive the mine and who had defended Hub Two – I had barely fired a shot during that battle - and to an extent it worked.
Anyway, there was an informal meeting with the king in the morning (and at that stage he was an ordinary-looking chap in a suit) and a more formal presentation of awards in the afternoon. Markus and Tibor got their royal pardons, and that was really the only thing I was bothered about: the fact that I now had some sort of gallantry medal is something I’m not going to mention again because I’m far from convinced that I deserved it. At least everyone else got some sort of an award, too.
So we had another night in the hotel, which was noteworthy mainly because late in the evening we got an unexpected visit from Radu and Marc. It was unexpected because we’d locked the door, but that didn’t stop them coming into the room after we’d got into bed.
“Tibor’s been giving me lessons,” Radu explained, grinning at us. “He told us how he ended up in the House of Detention, and although he's sworn he's never going to do any more break-ins, he’s still been teaching me and Hansi a bit about getting past locked doors and windows for a while now, just for fun. So we thought we’d see if I’ve learned anything.”
“And apparently you have,” I observed, glowering at him. “Why pick on us for your experiments, though?”
“Because you’re nice and I knew you wouldn’t get mad and hit me.”
“Jake might not,” growled Stefan. “But I might.”
“I don’t think so,” said Radu, and that was more than enough for Stefan, who rolled out of bed, not caring that he was naked, and grabbed the other boy. Marc tried to defend his friend, so I piled into him, and for a couple of minutes we all rolled around on the carpet, play-fighting.
Eventually we managed to throw them out into the corridor, though not before Marc had made some observations about how big Stefan was, and how my penis looked like his and Radu’s. I closed the door on them, threw the lock once more and wedged a chair under the door handle, and then we were able to get back to our interrupted cuddling.
Next day we travelled back to Hintraten. Mr Narj said that if we wanted to stay another night we would be very welcome, but I said that I’d like to get back home today if possible. And I had good reason for that: today was December 12th and Stefan and I had plans for the evening.
The weather had turned rather more unpleasant now: as we travelled up to the portal it was snowing hard, and there was quite a strong wind whipping the snow about and making visibility very poor for the drivers. We reached the meadow safely, though the tent was almost invisible through the driving snow.
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay until the weather settles?” asked Mr Narj.
“No, I want to get back now if we can,” I said. “Maybe the weather is better on our side.”
We struggled our way through the snow and into the tent, and here we found a couple of militiamen waiting for us.
“About time!” said the first one. “We’re freezing, hanging around here. The boffins want you back straight away – they’re worried about the effects of the cold on the portal, or something. They say it’s safe enough at the moment, but they don’t want to risk it after dark when the temperature drops.”
I could barely hear him above the noise of the wind, but I got the point quickly enough. I told the militiamen to go through with the first half of the party – they looked half-frozen: at least we’d been sitting in warm vehicles since we left the station. I sent Markus and Sylvie, Tibor and Hansi and Frank and Shander through with them, and the rest of us huddled together waiting for the cycle to complete. After what seemed an age the cyan light above the portal came on and the rest of us were able to get into the tunnel. I could see that the entrance to the tent had blown open and was flapping about in the wind, but all I could think of was getting back to our own side, where hopefully the weather would be a bit better.
Stefan pressed the button on the arch and the first door closed. The portal started to hum as the process kicked in… and then there was a hell of a crash and I was thrown to the ground. I must have hit my head as I landed, because I passed out.
And when I woke up again I thought at first that I was still asleep and dreaming, because there was a face looming above mine and a hand holding a dagger close to my neck. And the face and the hand were both grey…
This can't be good... incidentally, I should warn you that I got sort of addicted to cliffhanger endings in the first Nexus story, and I'm afraid there are going to be some more in this one. Don't miss next week's exciting episode, etc, etc.
If you want to complain about cliffie endings or have any other feedback for me, let's have it – firstname.lastname@example.org is the place to send it.
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