The Nexus

by David Clarke

Chapter 14


Somehow I got through to the end of the shift. Before Oli headed back to Stefan's dormitory I told him that it might not be possible to leave the following evening after all, but that they should stay awake and come to the changing room in case I managed to think of another way out. We showered and went to the dining room for supper, and I noticed that Ssyrl ate most of his, even though it wasn't an eating day for him: I supposed that three meals like these would just about constitute one ordinary meal by his usual standards.

When we got back to the dormitory I managed to get everyone to stop and listen to me for a couple of minutes before they got into bed, and I used the time to explain that Ssyrl was here because in his world some forms of sexual activity were taboo. "He's just like us," I said, "but in his world he isn't allowed the freedom we have to do the things we can here. And that's the only reason he's here. I've seen the way the boys in his world treated him, and I don't want us treating him like that, okay? It's not his fault his people came here - he's just a kid like we are."

"So what did he do that was so bad, then?" asked someone.

"He likes taking the female role in sex," I said. "I know some of you like that, too, so maybe you can imagine what it would be like for you if you lived in Lettria, say. Then you'll understand how it was for him back in his world."

The reaction seemed entirely positive, and two or three of the boys actually came and showed sympathy by patting Ssyrl on the back.

"What did you tell them?" he asked me.

"The truth - I said you were here because the boys you were with couldn't accept the way you like to... well, you know. How you like sex. Nobody here is going to give you a hard time for it."

"And is that all you told them? Nothing about me not helping you to escape?"

"Not a word. None of them knew I was hoping to do that, anyway. Come on, we might as well lie down."

I moved from my usual place to lie on the end of the Team Three position, where Shander usually slept, and Tommi came and wriggled in between Shander and me after a minute or so. Ssyrl came and lay on my other side, in the last Team Four place. We pulled the blankets over us and settled down.

"Ssyrl, I'm really sorry," I said. "I didn't even think about your position: I was just being completely selfish about it, wanting to use you for my benefit. I shouldn't have done that."

"Why not? It's a logical way to behave - after all, we're expected to think of ourselves first."

"Not in this world, we're not: we're supposed to think of what's best for other people, too, and I definitely didn't do that with you. I won't mention it again. Anyway, I hope things will get better for you now: the others understand why you're here, and they sympathise, and Tommi can speak your language, so there'll be someone to interpret for you even if I'm not here to do it."

"Okay. I don't like being here, and the work is really hard, but if the boys here treat me nicely it'll be something."

"Would you rather be back at the school being treated like shit all the time, and wondering if this time they might really seal your sheath permanently or something?"

"Well... no. But it's hard being the only Grey here, especially since the other boys blame us for them having to work here in the first place. And they're right, I suppose."

"Yes, but I think they can tell that it isn't your fault personally - a bit like me trying to persuade Stefan that the Holocaust is nothing to do with him..."

"What are you talking about?"

"Oh, never mind. Let's just get some sleep."

I snuggled against him. This didn't work as well as it did with Tommi or Stefan because Ssyrl's body wasn't as warm as theirs, but it meant he could draw some warmth from me, and I thought he deserved it: I had been really selfish in getting him here, after all.

"Jake," he said quietly, just as I was dropping off to sleep, "can I ask you something?"


"Would you... would you like to... to fuck me?"

"Well... not really. See, I'm a bit like you: I think I'd prefer it if my boyfriend did it to me, rather than me doing it. But I'm sure some of the boys here wouldn't mind doing it with you - and I'll help you with your piece of plastic until you find someone to do it with you properly, if you like. It'll probably feel nicer if someone else is doing it than doing it to yourself."

"Okay. Perhaps we can do it on the next Rest Day, then. And maybe you could ask if any of the others would like to... you know."

"I don't think I'll be here on the next Ertday," I said, gloomily. "But I'll ask around for you in the morning. I think Tommi wouldn't mind helping you, but he's not very big... anyway, I'll ask the others in the morning."

I settled down again, putting my arm around him so that he wouldn't feel so alone, and soon I fell asleep.

Next morning I tried to put my worries to one side, though it was difficult. I thought that if I couldn't find another way out of here in the next day or so I might just try running for it and hope that a Type Two guardian got me before a Type One - I was sure that this would be a quicker death than the one I would get if the Greys picked me up for destroying the portal. But perhaps they wouldn't come for me straight away: there was sure to be a lot of panic and confusion straight after the explosion, and an investigation would probably not get under way for a couple of days. The bomb was due to go off next day, and the day after that would be an Ertday, so perhaps Stefan would be able to think of something, if they hadn't arrested me by then, of course. Perhaps we could try to break through into the other side of the building and find some weapons, or something... or at least we might get shot in the attempt, which would again be quicker than what might happen otherwise.

Still, I managed not to think about it between getting out of bed and the end of breakfast. As soon as I was out of bed I grabbed Tibor and Hansi, the two thirteen-year-olds in Team Four, and explained that Ssyrl was looking for someone to try sex with. "He wants to play the female role," I told them. "I know you two are... you know, friends, and I wondered if one of you would like to try the male role with him. Or if not, maybe you can think of someone else who might."

"I'd never have thought of trying it with a Grey," Tibor said. "But I suppose it might be interesting. And I can certainly think of a couple of others who might want to try it with him, too... you're sure he doesn't want to do the fucking? Because I'm not so sure about having him doing it to us."

"No, he definitely prefers to be on the receiving end. Talk to him and he'll tell you so himself. I can translate for you, or Tommi speaks Grey a bit now, too, so he can probably do it if I'm not around."

And I noticed that the pair of them made a point of sitting next to Ssyrl at breakfast (Ssyrl didn't eat breakfast, and he didn't like bread much, either, so he gave his roll to Tibor and Hansi to share, which they were very grateful for). Tommi had been drafted in to translate for them, and they seemed to be having a long and interesting conversation. I hoped something good would come of it.

On the way down to the furnace room I noticed Alain talking to Ssyrl too, again using Tommi as interpreter, and I wondered what that was about: I didn't think Alain would want to have sex with anyone other than Oli these days. But I didn't get a chance to ask him about it before the shift started.

Somehow I got through to the midday rice cake without actually collapsing - how the rest of my team had been coping as a three-man team was beyond me. I noticed that every time Ssyrl had a two-huszak break he used it to speak to someone from one of the other teams, using Tommi to interpret for him, but since my breaks didn't coincide with his during the morning I didn't get a chance to participate. And after 'lunch' I was back to concentrating on keeping going myself.

In late afternoon he changed a break so that he was free at the same time as I was, and he took me a little to one side and asked me what I thought of the food here.

"It's not very good and there isn't enough of it," I said. "Why?"

"Well, at first I thought that because you ate so often everything here must be fine. But then when you told us at school that you have to eat three times every day to keep your body operating I started to wonder... see, I get enough here, but only by eating all the meat that is offered every day and eating some of the other stuff, too. And now I can talk to you all, everyone here says the same thing: you need more food than you're getting. So why don't they feed you better?"

"Ssyrl, this is a slave labour job - that means they give us just about enough to keep us alive. They feed us up a bit on Ertdays, but during the working week they don't want to waste food, I suppose. Actually this is more food than I'd expected: generally slaves are lucky to be fed at all. But you can see how thin everyone is: I've no idea how some of them manage to keep going."

"I see." He was silent for a few seconds. "What you were saying last night: if you did get out of here, where would you go? Aren't things exactly the same everywhere in this world?"

"No. As far as I know your people haven't tried to move too far from this area yet. Of course, once the uranium runs out they'll probably want to push on into other regions with useful minerals, but at the moment we wouldn't have to go too far to get out of your area. But I wouldn't be trying to do that - I'll be trying to get back to my own world. I don't belong in this one."

"You mean, you come from one of the other worlds beyond the doors in that room under the checkpoint we came through?"

"That's right."

"But you'd never get past the checkpoint, so how could you hope to get back?"

"There's another way. If I once get out of the mine I know another entrance."

"Right. You mean there's another way through to that room that my people don't know about?"

"Yes - well, sort of. Look, Ssyrl, you could come with us if you want - I'm sure there are worlds out there that would accept you as you are instead of giving you a hard time about it. I mean, this world would, it's just that Greys aren't very popular round here, for obvious reasons. Parts of my world wouldn't have a problem with you, I'm sure."

"Except that I belong to a completely different species."

"Well, there is that... but I'm sure there are other worlds out there where humans aren't the only intelligent species. Maybe there's even one where your species and mine live happily together."

Our two huszaks were up and we went back to work. Of course, he was right: he would be profoundly unhappy in my world, even if he did avoid getting used for scientific research, and I thought most of the other worlds we knew about would be no better. He wouldn't last five minutes in Stefan's world, and the people of Oli's world would be sure to think he was one of the demons they were all so scared of. And even though the Greys didn't think friendships important, I didn't think he'd enjoy being the only living creature - apart from a cat - in the dead world where we had lived before moving to the Hub.

So when he came up to me in the shower at the end of the shift I was unprepared for what he had to say.

"I've changed my mind," he said. "I'm leaving tonight, and I'd like you to come with me, and if your friends want to, they can come, too."

"Wow, that's brilliant, Ssyrl - but why? I mean, what do you get out of taking a risk like that?"

"First, the work here is too hard - it's too hard for you mammals, but it's too hard for me, too. And second, the food is bad - there's hardly any meat, and I need meat to survive."

"Okay, so that's why you're going - but how come you're prepared to take us with you? Your people wouldn't worry too much about you walking out on your own - in fact they'd probably commend you for having the sense to see what's best for you. But if you take us with you... well, you already told me what'll happen if they catch you after that."

"I don't know, really. Maybe it's because everyone here has treated me okay since you explained what I'm doing here. But I'd also like to come and see whichever world you come from. That would be interesting."

I wasn't going to argue: after all, the bomb was due to explode the following morning, and I didn't want to be here after that. So after the meal we all retired to the dormitory as usual and waited for a couple of hours to allow the building to settle down: the night shift were working, so it was only the furnace room that the guards would be monitoring seriously. By now I'd seen that all the other cameras in the building were pointing at the locked doors that led into the administrative areas, and of course we had no intention of using any of those.

The other reason for waiting those two hours were to allow it to start getting dark outside: even if we avoided the cameras it would be dangerous to try walking out of the gates in broad daylight. But after dark it would be a lot safer. In any event I was fairly confident that there would be only a small risk of being stopped once we were outside the mine because the Greys seemed to rely completely on fear of the guardians to keep humans indoors.

So two hours after we had settled down we got up again. Some of the boys had fallen asleep and had to be woken up by their friends, but absolutely nobody wanted to be left behind, and so within a couple of minutes everyone was ready to go.

We opened the door and headed along the corridor. At the far end there was a door that led into the other half of the building and there was a camera pointing at it, but we wouldn't have to go close enough to it for it to be a problem: we left that corridor just before it reached the dining area, which was silent now: the cleaning up after our evening meal had all been done some time before.

We went down the stairs, and at the bottom we did have to be a bit careful and hug the wall because there was another camera pointing at the door to the furnace room. But we were going the other way, to the changing room, and there was no camera on that door.

We went into the changing room, retrieved our clothes from the lockers and got dressed, and while we were doing so the door opened once more. For a moment I thought we'd been caught, but it turned out to be Stefan, Oli and eight other boys, mostly a little older than those of us who worked in the furnace room. Stefan came straight up to me and hugged me hard.

"I was afraid I'd never see you again," he said. "What were they doing to you?"

"It was just some tests. It was a bit scary because they started out by threatening to cut me up, but they changed their minds about that. Anyway, get dressed - once we're out of here we'll be able to talk properly."

While everyone was getting dressed I pulled Ssyrl to the front of the room.

"This is Ssyrl," I told Stefan and his colleagues. "He's the one who's getting us out of here, so if this works out it'll be thanks to him."

"This is going to work, isn't it?" I said to Ssyrl in Grey and in a much quieter voice. "I mean, there are a lot of us and only one of you."

"It might make the guardians a bit skittish, but they are trained to respect the presence of a single Grey. It means that one of us can escort several prisoners at a time. I think we'll be fine as long as we all stick close together."

Once everyone was ready we went up the stairs and along the corridor to the outside door.

"Okay," I told everyone, "there's a camera above this door looking out into the yard, so we need to stick close to the wall. Ssyrl will have to go first in case there are any guardians close to the door, but the rest of us will have to make sure we stick as close to him as we can. And once we're outside the door, keep quiet - if there are any windows open on the other side of the building someone will hear us. Right, let's go."

I opened the door a crack and looked out, but there was nothing in sight, just an empty yard. Stefan's coal-hauling crew didn't have a night shift because they were able to do everything that needed doing - in particular, keeping the hopper at the furnace room topped up - during the hours of daylight, and so there was no activity going on outside the building.

We edged our way along the wall until we were clear of the camera, and then we were able to bunch up and start moving, with Ssyrl leading us, towards the gates.

"Guardian!" hissed someone, and I saw one of the Type Ones heading towards us. It stopped about ten metres away but didn't raise its tail or make any other threatening gesture, and when we kept moving it didn't show any sign of wanting to attack. But it didn't go away, either: instead it moved along beside us, and by the time we reached the gates a couple of others had joined it.

We had to be a bit careful at the gate because of the camera on one of the gate-posts. This made it impossible to use the road until it went around a bend about a hundred metres away, and so we headed off into the woods and then advanced through the trees, keeping parallel to the road by courtesy of Stefan's compass. Eventually we were able to rejoin the road, though somewhere in the woods we had picked up a fourth guardian, and having four of the creatures keeping pace with us was very disturbing.

Nonetheless we reached the town without further incident. This was likely to be the dangerous part, because there had been several Greys in the town each time I had passed through it. I was counting on the fact that it was after dark, and so I hoped that most of the Greys would be indoors, or possibly in a bar somewhere, if Greys liked alcohol, and also on the fact that we wouldn't have to go very far into the town, because the vehicle parking area I'd made a note of the last time I had passed this way was close to the mine end of town. And I was delighted to see that the line of trucks, of the same type as the one that had brought us into town when we had first been captured, was also still there.

There were more guardians wandering about the car park, and these came to investigate as we entered the area. Clearly these were an excellent anti-theft device, but only as long as it wasn't a Grey carrying out the theft. That only left us with one problem: we had to find a couple of trucks that we could start. Initially we looked for hidden keys left in the usual places - under seats, in glove boxes, on sun visors - and when that failed we called on our secret weapon: Markus had been in trouble in the past for stealing cars, and he knew how to hot-wire one. At least, he said he did, but huddling in a group against the side of a lorry and being eyeballed by half a dozen inflated scorpions while he fiddled about in one of the cabs is not a situation in which I wanted to linger, and the longer it took him, the more nervous I got.

Finally, though, he got the first truck going and moved on to the second one. At least the quiet motors these vehicles had helped us - if it had been a normal diesel engine I'm sure someone would have heard and come to investigate very quickly, but the sound of this engine barely carried ten metres.

Eventually he got the second engine started, and this was the point at which we decided to separate: a lot of the boys had made up their minds to just head east until they were out of the area controlled by the Greys.

"We'll head for Ulm," their leader, the oldest boy from Stefan's team, told me. "If there are still Greys around there we'll keep going till we get to Mynga - hell, if we have to we'll keep moving until we get to Bech or even Budd. Sooner or later we'll be out of the area they control. And as long as we stay in the truck the guardians won't bother us. And I don't suppose the ones here can keep up with a truck, anyway."

"Okay," I said. "Good luck."

That left the ones who were coming with the four of us: Markus, Tommi, Frank, Shander, Tibor, Hansi and the last member of Team Four, whose name was Radu. And Ssyrl, of course. The whole party moved to the rear of the two vehicles so that Ssyrl could shepherd everyone aboard except for myself, Markus (who was going to drive our truck) and the leader of the other party, who was going to drive his. We closed up the backs of the trucks so that they would be safe from possible Grey stings and then moved up to the cabs. We said "Goodbye and good luck" to the leader of the other party and got into our cab, and then the two trucks drove out of the car park. The other one turned off a short distance down the road, heading for the main road to the east, while we drove through town, apparently without attracting any unwelcome attention.

On the way up to the car park I'd discussed with Stefan what we should do: should we just head directly back towards the Vosges and try to do the whole journey in the truck, or would it be better to drive back up to the secret entrance to Hub One and trust that the Capsule would be ready to use again? In the end we had decided to do that, mainly because Stefan felt sure that the Rhine crossings would all be guarded - and, after all, if we hid the truck in the forest near the entrance to the Hub we could always come back to it if the Capsule was not ready.

So we drove through town and followed the road on towards the village where we had been captured. We didn't take the turn-off that the Greys' trucks used: the last place we wanted to be was at the Greys' checkpoint. Instead we carried on along the road that would eventually lead to the four loggers' huts we had passed as we walked down from the Hub.

Going through the village where we had been captured we saw no humans or Greys, but we did see our first Type Two guardian, which was sitting beside the road as we passed. It was definitely larger than the Type Ones, and it seemed interested in us, in that it moved out into the road after we had passed and started to follow us, but even on this fairly steep road our vehicle was able to move faster than a guardian, and soon it fell away behind us.

We reached the little collection of loggers' huts, which were still as dark and silent as they had been the first time we had seen them, and here we left the truck, parking it round behind one of the huts before continuing on foot. Before we left the truck Ssyrl found the tool-kit under the driver's seat and helped himself to a tyre-iron - "Just in case," he said. And I wished I'd thought to look for a weapon of some sort, even though the likelihood of running into a Grey up here seemed fairly slim. We did have weapons, because both Stefan and Alain still had their knives - we'd never been searched, and they'd been in the lockers all this time - and I was very much hoping that Oli still had his catapult, too, because that was likely to be a far more useful weapon than a knife if a guardian got too close.

We moved along the path that would take us back to the Hub. I was fairly confident that there wouldn't in fact be any guardians this far up the mountain: after all, we had walked down it without seeing any. On the other hand, if they could communicate with each other maybe the one we had passed back in the village would have sent a signal to others elsewhere on the mountain - and maybe the checkpoint sent a few out at night as a precaution, so probably it would be better not to take this for granted.

We carried on, past the fork where the other path led up to the summit and on to the point where Stefan had marked the trees on our journey down from the cave. He took a bearing and led us out into the open. This was a little worrying, because I now knew that the Greys' checkpoint was just on the far side of the thin belt of trees off to our left, and indeed I thought I could make out a light off in that direction. And if I could see the building, it was possible that anyone in the building could see us, now that the moon was out - after all, we were no more than four hundred metres away from it.

And then when I looked back the way we had come I was sure I saw something moving at the edge of the trees. The moon disappeared again before I could be sure, but I suspected that there was at least one guardian back there.

As we drew close to the cave the light on the checkpoint building became hidden behind a rather thicker group of trees, and that at least left me feeling a little less exposed, but I was still sure I could hear something moving off to our right. The sooner we were safe inside the cave, the better I'd feel.

And then Ssyrl stopped, putting his hands on his knees and breathing heavily. I'd forgotten about the stamina problems the Greys have, and so I called a halt to give him a moment to recover.

"Can you keep moving?" I asked. "It's just that we're almost there, and we're a bit exposed out in the open like this."

"We're almost there?" he queried. "Where are we going, then?"

"Just up there," I said, pointing at the cave, which I could make out because the dark vegetation growing across the entrance stood out a bit against the lighter stone. "There's a cave up there, and the entrance is inside it. Only I don't want to hang around this close to the checkpoint, just in case they have patrols out."

"We're close to the checkpoint?"

"Yes, it's just through there," and I pointed towards the belt of trees. "You can't see it from here, but it's far too close for comfort."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that," he said, and he hit me across my left thigh with his tyre iron.

It hurt like hell, and I cried out and fell over, clutching my leg. It took the others a moment to work out what had happened, and by then Ssyrl had already moved away from me.

"There's a pair of Type Two guardians about fifty kubs away to your right," he told us - well, Tommi and I understood him, anyway. "You might not be able to see them, but I can. So you want to get up into your cave as quick as you can, and if you waste time following me they'll get you for sure. Jake won't be running anywhere on that leg, so the rest of you had better carry him to the cave - and quickly, because once I'm out of range the guardians will be coming."

"Why?" I asked him.

"Because I'd never survive in any of your worlds: I'd end up in a zoo or being experimented on. You know that. This way I can get myself re-established in my own world: they'll forgive me any amount of perversion if I show them another way to the other worlds. I'll be able to go back to school and the other boys will have to respect me. Be glad I brought you this far: I could have just left you back in town, or had you arrested, Jake - our soldiers would have got the information about this place out of you quickly enough."

"So why didn't you?" I asked, trying to stand up.

"Because this way I get to lead our troops here personally. And... because you were decent to me. All of you were. That's why I wanted to give you a chance to get away before the soldiers arrive. But now you'd better move, because I'm not waiting. Bye!"

He turned and ran away. Tommi had given a rapid translation as he talked, and one or two of the boys looked as if they wanted to go after him, but Stefan stopped them, pointing out that we had to get under cover before the guardians arrived. He came and offered me his shoulder, and when I still couldn't move quickly enough for safety Markus came to my other side and they carried me up towards the cave. Some of the others were running on ahead, but Alain, Oli and Tommi stayed with us, looking out for guardians. And it was Tommi who spotted the first one, coming towards us from further down the hill. So Ssyrl had been right about that: if we'd tried chasing him the guardians would certainly have got me, because I could never have stayed close enough to him with an injured leg.

Oli pulled his catapult from under his dress and fitted a stone to it - he still had a pouch of them hanging round his neck - and before the guardian got close enough to fire its sting at us Oli shot it. It was a hell of a shot considering that the light was really bad and he was aiming at a moving target, but he hit it full on with a loud 'crack'. The guardian twitched a bit but then stopped moving.

We hurried on towards the cave, which still looked dangerously far away to me, even though it was probably less than fifty meters away now. And then there was a hissing sound followed by a slap, and something struck me in the back. For a moment I was convinced one of the guardians had hit me, but I was able to keep moving and I couldn't feel any adverse effects. Oli's catapult twanged again and there was another crack from behind us, and then at last we reached the cave and were pushing our way through the vegetation. The others were waiting for us there, crowding round and asking if I was okay, and then Oli came through the vegetation and said there were more guardians out there and that we needed to get through the door before they arrived.

Stefan still had his flashlight (I'd left mine in the cabin where I'd stayed with Haless and Issin) and so he turned it on and led everyone to the door at the end of the cave. Once we reached it he told Markus to help me down the stairs - they weren't wide enough for more than two to go down together - and so we led the way, leaving Stefan to shepherd everyone else along. The emergency lights were still on, but they were now very dim, making the stairs tricky. We were at the bottom of the first flight when I heard shouting from up above, and then a cry of pain, but there was nothing I could do except to lean on Markus and keep moving downwards.

Eventually we reached the bottom and headed down the tunnel towards the barrier... only there was no barrier there - we were able to walk all the way to the door unopposed. And I thought that was a very bad sign indeed, not least because when I put my hand on the panel that should have operated the barrier and opened the door, nothing happened.

By now Frank and Shander had caught up with us, and so I explained that there was a door here that slid upwards, so Markus propped me against the wall and the three of them tried to open the door. It didn't want to move at first, but then I hit on the idea of putting my hand on the panel while they tried - after all, there might still have been a vestige of power holding the door shut. And this time they were able to move it a little, and once Markus managed to get his hand under the edge of the door and lift he was able to raise it far enough for us all to be able to duck underneath it.

One by one the rest of the party came through to join us. Most of them seemed to be unharmed, but Stefan and Alain were carrying Tibor between them. Finally Oli ducked through, still holding his catapult, and we tried to close the door again, only to find that now it was stuck in the half-open position - and the panel on this side of the door was dead, too.

"I really hope the Capsule is working again," said Stefan, "because otherwise we're definitely in trouble."

He and Alain picked up Tibor again and headed off along the corridor, and Markus and Hansi came and helped me to hobble along between them, and somehow we got down the stairs, across the main hall and out to the smaller room that served as the Capsule station. And none of the barriers was working any longer.

We piled into the train, closing the door behind us - that still worked, at least - and Oli and Stefan went into the cab.

"There are eight cyan lights and one flashing yellow," Stefan reported to me. "Do you think we should risk it?"

"I think we have to - after all, now the barriers have gone there's nothing between us and the soldiers Ssyrl will be bringing up here in the next few minutes, and nothing to keep the guardians out, either. Let's just hope eight and a half lights is enough power to get back."

Stefan ducked back into the cab and told Oli, who had taken up his previous position in the driver's chair, to try moving us. For a moment nothing happened, but then the train started to move and I began to relax a little. I tried not to think about what would happen if the train conked out somewhere between the stations, especially if I'd been right about the maglev system and there was a vacuum outside - but, as I'd said to Stefan, there really did seem to be no other choice.

I slipped my backpack off and sat down, and then I saw that there was a large black spine stuck into the back of my bag. I remembered being hit in the back outside the cave and realised that one of the guardians - a Type Two, to judge from the size of the thorn - had hit me. Gingerly I opened the bag and found that the spine had gone right through the rear pocket and was sticking a couple of centimetres out into the main part of the bag. If I hadn't been wearing the bag, or if it had been made of a thinner material, I'd be dead by now. I carefully removed the thorn and dropped it in a corner of the carriage, out of everyone's way.

Stefan came back into the carriage and sat down next to me, and Alain went up front to keep Oli company. Of course there was no reason for anyone to remain in the cab, but Oli liked being able to see where the Capsule was going, and so he stayed in the driver's seat.

"So what happened up there? What happened to Tibor?" I asked.

"A couple of guardians came through into the cave before we could get everyone through the door," he told me. "There was a Type Two and a nasty little black one that we haven't seen before. Oli was trying to hit the big one, but the light was bad because we only had the one torch, and his first shot missed. And so Tibor and Hansi deliberately went and stood in front of him to protect him, because we all knew that Oli was the only one of us who could kill them. It was really brave - they didn't even hesitate. Anyway, Oli got the big one with his second shot, but the small black one hit Tibor before Oli could kill it. Tibor just collapsed. He's alive - I can feel his pulse - but he's unconscious, so it looks as if there's a third type of guardian that nobody told us about, one that carries a knock-out drug."

Tibor had been laid across three seats, and Hansi was sitting on the third one with his friend's head in his lap.

"Is he going to be okay, do you think?" he asked us.

"I'm sure he will," said Stefan. "After all, the Type Twos are the ones that kill. There'd be no point in having a third species that does the same thing. He'll probably wake up before we get to the other end."

"I hope so. And... where is the other end? I mean, where are we going?"

"There's another Hub at the end of this line, and some of the portals there are still working - at least, I bloody well hope they are. We can escape into a different world. I'm not sure that coming with me would be the best answer - for starters, Jake won't be able to - but if we can find the way to his world, or another peaceful one, you'll be fine there."

The train kept going, and the longer it kept moving the happier I felt. But then Oli called to say that all the lights were now out except one, and that one was flashing, and a couple of minutes later the train started to slow down. It got slower and slower and finally just stopped, and the lights dimmed down, all but a couple of them going completely out.

"I think this is as far as it's going to go," said Oli, coming through to join us. "All the lights are out - there isn't even a flashing yellow one this time."

"Are we anywhere near the station?" I asked.

"I don't think so: it just looks like the rest of the tunnel we've come through so far. When we came out of the station last time we went round a long curved bit first, but there's been nothing like that this time."

"Then I think we're going to have to get out and walk," I said: after all, it had taken the Capsule a month to recharge up to eight lights, and we sure as hell didn't have a month this time - I reckoned the Greys would be on the way already, and even if we'd got most of the way to the Vosges it wouldn't take trained soldiers more than a couple of days to reach this point.

"How?" asked Stefan: the panel by the door had gone dark and putting his hand on it was doing nothing.

"There has to be an emergency exit," I said, trying to remember how this worked in the London Underground, "or a manual handle to open the doors. If there was an accident people would have to be able to get out somehow."

Not if there's a vacuum out there, said a nasty little voice in my head. But I kept that particular fear to myself because I didn't want to demoralise my friends.

Stefan, Alain and Markus looked along the sides of the carriage, trying to find a switch or handle, and some of the others went into the second carriage and did the same thing. But it was Oli who finally found the emergency handle: it was in the cab, to the side of the driver's chair, and when he pulled the handle there was a hiss from the door in the side of the carriage, and when we pushed at it we were able to slide it open. And there was air outside, so at least my worst fear had not been realised.

We found that there was a narrow walkway running alongside the train, and a short distance ahead of the door there was a white arrow painted on the wall, pointing in the direction in which we had been moving. Stefan and Alain went to scout ahead and came back a few minutes later to say that there was an emergency exit about a hundred and fifty metres down the track.

"The door leads out into a service tunnel," Stefan reported. "It seems to run alongside the track. I think it's probably going to come out in the Capsule Station in Hub Two - remember the little tunnel at the end of the room? I think this is where that led."

"Is there anything to indicate how far we have to go?" I asked.

He shook his head. "If the little lights mean that we got eight-tenths of the way before the train stopped I would guess we're about twenty kilometres from the Hub," he said. "But there'll be some climbing to do at the far end, because the Hub is quite high up in the mountains, and at the moment we're still below the level of the plain. It'll probably take us a couple of days, considering that we'll have to carry Tibor to start with and your own leg won't be back to normal for a while yet."

"It could be worse," I said. "He could have broken it. And I might easily have mentioned the bomb to him, too, and that would have been a disaster, because then they'd have found it before it went off."

"What bomb?" asked Markus.

So I explained about the bomb, and the Kerpian boys looked at each other.

"You mean we might actually be able to get rid of the Greys?" asked Frank.

"I hope so. And if it works this world will go back to how it was before the Greys arrived, I should think. So maybe some of you would want to stay here. I'm sure there's a way out at Hub Two."

"No, thanks," said Markus. "If the Greys went I'd just end up back in the House of Detention, where I was before. I wasn't very good at stealing cars and I got caught more than once. So if you don't mind I'll come along and see what your world looks like."

"I'm pretty sure Tibor would say the same thing," said Hansi. "He was in the House of Detention, too. I wasn't: I was just in the town orphanage, but if Tibor decides to go with you, I will, too."

"So will I," added Radu. He didn't speak much: he came from the other end of the country, from a town called Tulsher not far from the Black Sea, and his accent was a little difficult to understand. "There is nothing for me here."

We never got the whole story of how he came to be so far from home, except that it involved running away and making his way along the Danube - which ran close to his former home - all the way to this area. He had then been caught stealing food and sent to the orphanage.

"I think we'd prefer to stay, if we can," said Frank. "Shander and I weren't in trouble before, so I think it would be okay for us to stay here."

"Tommi?" I asked.

"I'll stay with you. You helped me."

So that would be nine of us leaving and two staying - if we managed to get back to the Hub safely, of course.

"It's late," said Stefan, "and we all worked a shift today, so I think the best thing we could do would be to stay here in the Capsule and get some sleep: I don't think we'd get far trying to walk in our current state. And if we're lucky Tibor will have woken up by morning and Jake will be able to walk better. So let's take five kends. I was going to say we ought to post a guard, but I don't see how the Greys could get this far in less than five kends, so let's just all try to sleep. Jake, does that watch of yours have an alarm?"

I nodded.

"Then set it for six hours," he said. "That'll be close enough."

Everyone took a row of three seats and lay down and I set my alarm - noting that the stop-watch was still counting the time left before the bomb went off (around eleven hours, I reckoned) - for five o'clock in the morning. Then Stefan led me into the second carriage, where we would have a little privacy.

The seats were too narrow for us to be able to lie down side by side, so we sat together for a few minutes.

"What are we going to do if the portals back to your world and mine have gone?" I asked.

"We'll have to take whatever is left. If the worst happens we could go back to the dead Orschwiller, or even to Alain and Oli's world - provided we don't go back to Irtengarde we should be okay. We'll be all right."

"I hope so. I feel sort of responsible for everyone now - after all, if I hadn't said anything they could all have headed off for Ulm with the others."

"Yes, and for all we know they've been caught and sent back by now. There's no point in worrying about it, Jake. Let's just try to get some sleep."

I tried lying down, but with no pillow it was very uncomfortable, and after watching me wriggling about for a few seconds Stefan said, "If I sit in the corner, like this, you can lie down and use my lap as a pillow."

"But you won't be able to sleep like that," I argued.

"Yes, I will. I'm tired out. Come on, let's try it."

So I put my head on his lap and found it was much more comfortable, and even though I was still seriously worried about what lay ahead of us I fell asleep quickly.

The alarm woke me up next morning. I felt better, and when I stood up I found I could walk unaided. I wasn't sure that I could manage twenty kilometres, but at least they wouldn't have to carry me all the way.

We went back into the other carriage and roused everyone, and here we found that Tibor was awake, too. He felt groggy and said that he had a headache, but he was able to stand.

"Can I have a drink of water?" he asked, sitting up and holding his head.

And that's when I realised that we had no food and no water... or at least, not very much, because it turned out that the ever-efficient Stefan had filled his water-bottle the morning we had left Hub Two and had hardly touched it since.

"One mouthful," he said, offering it to Tibor. "This is all we've got, so it's got to last all day. The rest of you, try as hard as you can to manage without. If you really can't keep going without, ask me, but once this has gone, there won't be any more until we reach the Hub."

We made our way out into the service tunnel and stood quietly for a moment listening, but we couldn't hear anything, which we thought was good news. And then we started walking. The tunnel was quite dark - there was only a dim light about every fifty yards - and it was obviously as daunting for the others as it was for me, because we all just walked along in silence.

"This is too slow," said Stefan, after about fifteen minutes. "Let's try marching for a bit - we'll make better time like that."

He formed us up into three columns of three, with himself at the side and Markus bringing up the rear on his own. It took a while before everyone got the hang of keeping in step, but once we did we did seem to move faster. Stefan called out "One, two, one, two," for a bit to keep us in step and then started singing something that was obviously a marching song. The rest of us couldn't join in because he was singing in German, but it was easy to keep in step with, and it kept us going for a while. When he finished I asked what it was, and he said it was the party anthem, and that it was called the 'Horst Wessel Lied'. I'd heard of that, although I'd never heard it sung before, and I didn't suppose too many Jews before me had marched along to it.

Unfortunately none of the others knew any marching songs, because none of them came from a country with a military tradition. My own repertoire was limited, but I managed to give a not-too-shaky rendition of the Marseillaise, which Stefan said he knew, though he declined to join in. And a couple of minutes after I finished the tunnel began to curve slightly, and at the same time it began to climb, though at a fairly shallow angle: not even a maglev train can go up a very steep incline.

"We got further than I had thought," said Stefan. "We must already have reached the mountains - now it's just a matter of climbing back up to the Hub."

However, that wasn't as easy as it would have been if we had been well-fed and fully fit. Tommi and I were in better condition than most of the others because at least we'd had plenty to eat in the Grey world, but on the other hand my leg was getting sore again and Tommi was a couple of years younger than anyone else, and so none of us was finding it easy. Stefan drove us for as far as he could - he had a good repertoire of marching songs - but then told us to rest, and we all collapsed to the floor of the tunnel.

We went on like that for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon: march, rest, march some more, rest for a bit longer. During one rest break my stop-watch told me that the bomb should now have gone off, provided that nothing had gone wrong, but to balance that out it was during that same break that the water ran out. Somehow we kept going, until finally the tunnel straightened out and stopped climbing, and there ahead of us was the door that led into the Hub Two Capsule station. And we were really pleased to find that there was still a barrier across it, even though this one was barely a metre thick.

Oli threw off his clothes and went through to deactivate it and the rest of us followed him - at least now there was something between us and the Greys. And the barrier on the arch leading back into the main hall was still working, too - Oli had run ahead to deactivate it as soon as he had opened the first one for us.

The lighting in the hall was a lot dimmer than it had been when we had left, but it was still bright enough to show us that one of the doors on the opposite side of the hall, the ones that led back to the Nexus Room, was lying on the floor, the tunnel it had guarded having collapsed. A second door was hanging on by one hinge: that tunnel, too had been destroyed. And the third door wouldn't open at all, demonstrating that its tunnel had also gone. Quickly we ran upstairs to the other two doors. The black jerry-can was still standing in the corridor outside our door, but the door itself was blocked solid, and when we tried the final door it only opened a couple of centimetres. All five tunnels back to the Nexus Room had gone. We looked at each other in dismay.

"Now what do we do?" asked Alain.

"The emergency exit," said Stefan. "We've got to get out of here. Once we've done that we can try to find another way into the Nexus Room - there has to be a hut out there. Come on."

He ran to the far end of the corridor and started looking for the panel that would open the emergency exit, but even when Alain and I joined him we couldn't find it anywhere. And then Stefan drew his knife and dug it into the end wall - and found that the wall was a normal stone wall: there was no door there at all.

There was no way out.