The Nexus

by David Clarke

Chapter 16


The Greys didn't arrive that night, and the following day passed uneventfully, too. We went on practising shooting - there was plenty of ammunition, so that was no problem - and I thought I was actually getting a bit better at it as the day went on, though I was nowhere near as good as Stefan himself, and still some way behind Radu, Markus and Hansi, too. But I thought that, given enough time, I would probably be able to hit a guardian eventually - as long as it was a Type Two that liked standing absolutely still for at least five minutes on end...

In mid-morning Stefan and I took a couple of grenades up to the corridor where the emergency exit should have been and used them to demolish part of the wall, just in case Janiq and his men had simply built a wall across the tunnel beyond. But when the dust cleared we could see that there was no tunnel: in fact it didn't look as if there had ever been a tunnel there at all, as beyond the wall there was nothing but solid rock. And we certainly didn't have enough grenades to try to blast our way through that to the surface.

We were pretty sure that if the Greys were on their way they'd be arriving any time now - we'd escaped late on Sunday night, and it was now Wednesday. The bomb had - hopefully - gone off on Monday, and that might have thrown them into disarray for a bit, but I thought even a race with the stamina problems of the Greys wouldn't need more than three days to march a hundred kilometres. But the Wednesday night also passed peacefully, and by midday on Thursday I was starting to hope that maybe they weren't coming at all: maybe the bomb had persuaded them to give up.

Stefan wasn't so sure: he said that if their own portal had gone it would provide the Greys with even more of an incentive to follow the tunnel to see if it led to another way back into their world. And I suppose he had a point, though I sincerely hoped he was wrong. But after lunch on Thursday he said that we ought to send a probe into the service tunnel to try to find out if the Greys were on their way or not.

"What sort of a probe?" I asked.

"A human one. It's all we've got. So, who here is the fastest runner?"

I knew I wasn't bad - at least I knew I could outdistance a Grey, provided he didn't catch me in his first sprint. If I could stay ahead for the first fifty metres I should be okay, I thought, and so I volunteered. Most of the others seemed willing, too, so Stefan arranged a series of races to the far end of the hall and back, and as a result of those he chose Radu to accompany me.

"Are you sure that you wish to do this?" he asked me in English. "I would not want that I lose you. Can you not agree to send someone else with Radu?"

"Stefan, you've said I'm in charge, so I have to do this. Besides, running is about the only thing I'm any good at. There's no way that even an adult Grey can outrun me."

"What about the guardians?"

"I'm sure I can run faster than an overgrown insect."

"Very well. But please be careful." He switched back to Kerpian and said, "The rest of us will be waiting in the hall, and I want someone... Oli, you're used to operating them - I want you standing next to the arch barrier to turn it on as soon as we're through. I'll wait in the Capsule station with Markus and Hansi so that we can provide covering fire if Jake and Radu need it."

So Radu and I went up to the dormitory and undressed - we both felt happier knowing that there would be no need to stop for the barrier at the end of the service tunnel. I gave Stefan my glasses to look after for me and then we headed off carefully into the tunnel itself. We didn't speak, and to start with we tiptoed forward, but after a bit we found that too slow and so we started to walk normally. Our bare feet made no noise on the floor of the tunnel and so our advance was virtually silent.

We had walked for about ten minutes when Radu put his hand on my arm to stop me, and as we stood still I heard what he had heard: a sort of rustling sound. We were in the section of the tunnel that curved as the Capsule track spiralled down to the level of the plain, so we couldn't see very far ahead of us, but that sound strongly suggested that someone or something was coming.

We stayed where we were and waited for a couple of minutes, and then, even though the light in the tunnel was very dim, we saw movement: a couple of guardians appeared around the corner ahead of us. And that was enough for me: if there were guardians coming, I wasn't going to stay around to see if there were any Greys with them. We turned and began to run back towards the Hub.

I don't think the guardians even saw us, because there was no sign of pursuit: when we turned round to check a hundred metres or so later, we saw that the guardians were once again hidden by the curve in the tunnel. So we jogged steadily back towards the Capsule station.

We were confident that the danger was some way behind us, so it came as a surprise when we emerged into the station and Hansi started yelling at us to run. And why were Stefan and Markus pointing their rifles at the ramp that led down to the train - or would have done, had there been a train there? So we ran, and as we reached the ramp we saw that the barrier was flickering wildly and that there was a Type Two guardian less than five centimetres from the top of the ramp: obviously the barrier was on the point of complete failure. So we ran straight past and out into the main hall, and Stefan and his two colleagues began to back away after us. But before they reached the ramp there was a muted 'bang' from the barrier and the guardian emerged into the station. Stefan shot it, but there were more behind it, and so the three boys just dived back through the barrier and Oli, who was waiting with his hand poised, turned it back on.

"You were right not to let me use the train tunnel, then," I commented.

"Looks like it," said Stefan, handing me my glasses. "Are there any coming up the service tunnel?"

"Yes. We didn't wait to count them, though, and we didn't see any actual Greys, so maybe we've only got the guardians to worry about."

The first guardian had now reached the far side of the barrier. It could see us, even though the air between us was distorted, and so it flicked a sting at us, but the barrier stopped it

"If there were only a couple of them we could wait for them to run out of stings and then open the barrier and kill them easily," mused Stefan. "But we'd better not risk it if there are more than two or three, just in case we miscount."

The guardian now tried to run at us, but the barrier stopped it. But the barrier started to make a humming noise, and when a second guardian appeared alongside the first one the noise got a little louder.

"I think that we are in trouble," said Stefan in English - obviously he didn't want to scare the others. "If there was no power drain I am sure that the barriers would hold out without limit, but now... now I think they will fail. If the guardians continue to press against it the power will be drained, as happened with the barrier to the train."

"Then we'll have to kill them," I said.

I ran to the far end of the hall and collected some of the bedding we had been using for target practice, and then I went into the office and brought back one of the chairs. With these I made a sort of shield, wheeling it up to the centre of the arch and standing behind it.

"Oli," I said, "you take the one on the left with your catapult. Stefan, yours is the one on the right. Both of you, stand off to the sides - I want them aiming at me. Someone stand by the barrier control - thanks, Alain. Right - ready, you two? Okay, Alain, now!"

Alain turned the barrier off. The right hand guardian managed to fire a sting at me before Stefan killed it; Oli didn't give the one on the left time to do the same thing. Alain reactivated the barrier and we relaxed. The sting had embedded itself in the blankets, so I removed it carefully and tossed it off to one side.

But more guardians were arriving, and before we could repeat the exercise there was a shout from the far end of the station, and we saw a pair of Grey soldiers pressing against the barrier at the end of the service tunnel.

"Okay, let's fall back," said Stefan. "Jake, you and Radu had better go and get your uniforms on. I don't think this barrier will fall too quickly: it's a thick one, much thicker than the one out there, so we've got time to do a little planning. I want everyone to get into firing position between here and the arch into the accommodation area. Just relax - I'm sure they won't break through yet. Markus, Alain, Hansi - I want you to come up to the briefing room. Jake, join us there as soon as you're dressed."

So we ran upstairs and got dressed. As soon as he was ready I sent Radu back to the hall to take charge - he was the best shot we had apart from Stefan - and then I headed for the briefing room, stopping on the way to grab my watch and Stefan's neck chain, which I'd left in our bedroom. As soon as I reached the briefing room I gave it to Stefan and asked him to do it up for me, and he put it back round my neck.

"Thanks," I said. "If this is it, I want to be wearing this when... you know."

He wordlessly showed me the Star of David around his own neck.

"Okay," he said. "We don't know how many Greys or guardians we're dealing with here, but it looks as if there are more guardians at least than I had hoped for. Maybe it's a good sign in a way: Jake and I think that if the portal back to their own world has gone they'll probably come here to try to find another way back home, and so if there are a lot of them it probably means the bomb worked. On the other hand, it'll be our bad luck, because it means we'll have to fight more of them than would have been ideal. Still, I've got a couple of ideas to hold them up. The plan is to hold them in the hall as long as possible and then retreat in here and try to hold the arch downstairs. If we can kill enough out in the hall they might give up...

"Anyway, as soon as we finish here I'm going to get everyone to move some of the bunks and bedding down into the hall for us to use as cover. Alain, I want you to go and get the jerry-can from up in the corridor and bring it back to the hall, and Jake, I need some bottles: there must be some wine in the kitchen stores somewhere.

"I'm going to get Tommi to act as ammunition runner: we'll get the magazines out of the rest of the rifles in the armoury and issue them as the first ones run out, and then he'll have to try to reload the empty magazines as fast as he can. I might get Shander to help him, because his shooting isn't too good.

"Finally, anyone who is injured should retreat into the lobby outside the office. Right, any questions?"

We looked at each other, but nothing occurred to me at that point, and so I headed to the kitchen store - I'd seen some bottles in the cool store at the rear, although I hadn't looked at them very closely: I usually prefer soft drinks, and although I'd shared a bottle of wine with Issin and Haless I would just as happily have drunk Coke or orange juice. I knew nothing about the quality or otherwise of the contents of these bottles, and nor did I care. There was a sort of automatic corkscrew on the wall next to the wine rack, and I used it to open half a dozen bottles, after which I poured the wine down the sink.

I picked up the empty bottles and ran back down to the hall, in time to meet Alain coming from the other direction with the black jerry-can in his hand. And then I had to run all the way up to the kitchen again to find a funnel, because pouring the petrol into the bottles without one would have been very difficult.

Half an hour or so later we felt we were as ready as we were likely to get. We had six Molotov Cocktails standing against the wall and there was a solidly-constructed barricade of bunks and bedding (reinforced by the door that had been blown off its hinges when one of the tunnels collapsed) which we had set up in an arc around the arch leading to the accommodation area, for us to shelter behind. We'd brought the remaining rifles out of the armoury and filled the magazines: we'd decided it would be easier just to hand each rifleman a new weapon when he ran out of ammo, rather than have him fumbling about with magazines, and Tommi and Shander were standing by to reload each empty weapon that reached them.

At that point Stefan and I went back over to the station arch to see what was happening, and the answer seemed to be 'not much': there were a couple of guardians still trying to get through the barrier, which was still making that same humming noise, but they didn't seem to have got more than a few centimetres into the arch. At that rate, I thought, it'll be hours before we have to worry about them. But beyond them, in the station area, we could see ten to twelve Grey soldiers, as well as quite a few more guardians: clearly the small barrier at the end of the service tunnel had also failed. And as we watched more soldiers appeared at the end of it.

"We've got a problem," I said. "I don't think we can fight all of them."

"We're going to have to. I don't think they're interested in surrender, somehow, considering those guardians are mostly Type Twos. If they wanted us to give up they'd use the others, not the killers."

And as if to emphasise that point, a couple of the Grey soldiers noticed us standing at the barrier and began firing their weapons at us. The barrier successfully repelled their bullets, but the humming grew a little louder.

We walked back to our barricade.

"They won't be through for a while yet, so I think some of you can stand down for a bit," Stefan said. "So, Team Four, you can go and have a rest, have something to eat, or whatever you like. You've got two kends, and after that we'll swap over. Alain, you and Oli can rest, too. Team Three, you'll have to stay here just in case, but you can relax a bit."

Stefan and I walked back to the office - we'd left the final barrier deactivated for now - and sat down: I'd rescued the second chair from the main hall.

"Well," I said, "it's been fun... Look, do you think if I went and surrendered they'd let the rest of you go free? I mean, I was the one who blew up the portal."

"You'll do nothing of the kind! First, I don't think it would stop them coming after the rest of us, and second, you're not walking out on me now! Besides, we haven't lost yet."

"We're going to, though. Oh, shit, Stefi, I don't want to die! Especially not now, now that I've met you... it's just so... so..."

And I started to cry, and Stefan put his arms round me and held me, and that somehow just made me cry even more. So he helped me up the stairs to our room, closed the door and sat me on the bed, and there he just hugged me until I managed to get myself under control.

"If I hadn't met you," he said, "my life would have rolled along boringly for the next fifty or sixty years: I'd have done all the things I was supposed to do, like graduating, joining the SS, having a safe, predictable, boring career, getting married, having children, and eventually dying in some dull retirement home... and it wouldn't have meant a thing. And you'd have gone on being invisible, like you told me, and you'd have had a dull job like your father's, and it wouldn't have meant a thing, either. But instead, we've had an amazing time, visiting worlds nobody else from our own worlds will ever see, making friends from places that don't even exist as far as our families are concerned... and we've done it together. The last two months have been the best part of my whole life. So if we are going to die, I'd say it's almost worth it."


"Yes, almost, but not quite - which is why we're not going to die. I've got a couple of ideas that ought to even things up a bit. Now lie down and relax - and maybe you ought to get undressed first. I'm just going to run back downstairs to tell Markus he's in charge for the next two kends, and to make sure our Grey friends aren't in any danger of breaking through just yet, and then I'll be right back."

So I got undressed and lay on the bed, and five minutes or so later Stefan came back in and started to remove his own uniform.

"No change at all," he reported, getting into bed next to me. "The guardians are creeping forward and the barrier is slowly giving way, but at the current rate of progress it'll be hours before they break through. We'll have to run a double watch through the night, because even if the Greys stop to sleep I'll bet the guardians won't, but I think we're probably safe until early tomorrow. So right now I think we ought to find a way to relax a little. Roll over onto your front and I'll see if I can work out how to give you a massage."

I don't know if he'd actually been trained to do this or not, though it really wasn't something I associated with the SS. But if he was making it up as he went along he was doing a great job: starting with my shoulders he rubbed and pressed all my muscles, kneading my flesh and then stroking it, and it felt great. And when he'd finished with my back he gently rolled me over, but instead of working on the muscles on this side he just lay down on top of me. And for the next half hour or so we just cuddled each other like that.

It didn't work quite as perfectly as it had previously: I don't think anything would have made me completely forget what was happening downstairs. But somehow it seemed less immediate while I was holding him in my arms.

"Now," he said, "there's one other thing I can do to help you relax..."

He wriggled downward until his head was level with my groin. It was a measure of how relaxed I was already that I wasn't even stiff when he got there, but it didn't take long for that situation to change. He drew it out over the next ten minutes, and I don't think I'd use the word 'relaxing' to describe the experience: quite the reverse, in fact. But it felt absolutely incredible, and when I finally couldn't hold it in any longer I thought it was the greatest feeling I had ever had - and the first time hadn't been bad at all.

And then I relaxed, and this time I really did feel relaxed all over. I tried to change places with him, but he wouldn't let me.

"Not yet," he said. "You just stay there for ten minutes or so. After that I won't mind at all if you want to do it for me, but first you need to rest for a bit."

He moved back up to lie beside me, putting his arm around me, and I simply lay there quietly for a bit.

"Okay, now it's your turn," I said, finally, and I moved down to take up a position between his legs. And he was clearly ready for this before I got there, because I didn't have to do anything to get him hard. I kissed it all over and then set to work, and my only regret is that I couldn't keep it going for as long as I would have liked: I hadn't learned to read the signals properly, and as a result I pushed him beyond the point of no return a little too quickly. The number of spurts he gave me seemed undiminished, though.

"Sorry," I said, returning to my previous position. "I didn't mean to finish it off that quickly."

"It was perfect," he said. "And now we can relax properly."

And we did - in fact I was able to relax so thoroughly that I fell asleep, and I didn't wake up until he shook me awake much later - six hours later, in fact, as I saw when I looked at my watch.

"Why did you let me sleep for so long?" I asked. "I should have started making supper two hours ago!"

"Alain has made supper," said a voice by the door, and there was Oli. "Markus said we should let you sleep: he said there's nothing much happening downstairs, and he knows you two will insist on keeping watch through the night, so he thought you should sleep now while you can. He swapped the teams over a little while back: Team Four is eating supper now, and then they'll go on duty while Team Three eats theirs and then sleeps. Markus is waiting for you in the briefing room now."

We got up and put our uniforms back on, and I have to say I felt far better than I had for a while: obviously a good sleep had made a lot of difference.

"Thanks," was the first thing I said to Markus, who looked surprised: I think he'd expected us to complain about not being woken up earlier. "You were right. I think if the situation downstairs merits it we should let Team Three sleep for at least four hours, and longer if possible. I feel a lot better after that. So, how far have they got into the barrier?"

"I'd say a little under halfway. They're not really trying very hard - it's just a couple of guardians pushing the barrier. If they hit it with all their weapons as well it could easily speed things up, though, so you'll have to watch it carefully."

"We will. Okay, we'd better go and eat."

Alain had made a sort of thick stew. I'm not sure what was in it, but it tasted okay, so obviously I would be able to rely on him to look after some of the cooking in future - if we had a future, of course... I took the opportunity to congratulate him, and he clearly appreciated it.

"I hope you and Oli got some sleep," I said to him.

"Well, some," he said, grinning. "This didn't take too long to cook, so I didn't have to get up until a short while back. But before we went to sleep..."

He lowered his voice and switched to French. "It's the first chance we've really had to try out... you know, what we practised together. We've been too tired until now. But I wanted to try it today, just in case... well, you know."


"And it was stupendous! I did it for him first, and he squealed so loudly at the end that I'm surprised it didn't wake you up. And when he did it for me I found out why, because it was unbelievable. Thanks, Jake - whatever happens now, at least we both got to find out what that was like first."

"You'll get to find out about it again," I said, firmly. "Stefan's got a couple of things up his sleeve. Anyway, hang on here for a bit: we'll swap the teams round and get the other lot fed, and then maybe Stefan will tell us what he's intending to do."

Stefan took Team Four downstairs and returned shortly afterwards with Team Three, who set about Alain's stew hungrily. And it turned out that we had timed the meal almost to perfection, because just as Team Three were finishing off all the lights went out. The emergency lighting kicked in a couple of seconds later, but when we tried turning one of the cookers back on, nothing happened.

"I think that's our last hot meal," I commented. "I'll get the rest of the bread out of the freezer and let it defrost, because we'll probably be eating a lot of sandwiches from now on. And without any butter, either."

Team Three headed for the dormitory. I promised to let them sleep for as long as possible, and then I helped Alain tidy up - we couldn't turn the dishwasher on, of course, but we dumped all the dirty stuff into it anyway. Then we went downstairs.

Stefan and I went into the office and quickly pulled up the control board. There were still four tunnels on steady yellow, and the barriers were on steady yellow, too, but otherwise there were magenta lights everywhere, some flashing and some steady. We replaced the display with the primary menu again, because I didn't want to just stand there waiting for the barrier lights to turn magenta.

Out in the hall not too much had changed: the guardians were about halfway through the arch, but the soldiers behind them didn't seem too concerned with their progress: some seemed to be asleep, and the rest were just sitting around.

"I'm going to wake those bastards up in the morning," promised Stefan. "It's a pity we don't know how much ammunition they're carrying, otherwise... actually, come to think of it, I'll bet they're not carrying that much: there's no sign of any large boxes out there, and if they set out just to try to chase us down they wouldn't have stopped to collect anything extra..."

"I don't know," I said. "If they'd just come chasing straight after us I think they'd have got here sooner. This looks more like a properly constituted effort - I mean, it must have taken a while to round up all those guardians, for a start."

"Well, maybe. But there are still no ammo boxes. Okay, maybe they're playing safe and keeping the spare ammo in the service tunnel, but maybe not - after all, as far as they knew they were just chasing a bunch of unarmed kids... So maybe I won't wait till morning. I'll give it a couple of hours, until about two in the morning - that'll give our boys upstairs a chance to get some sleep, at least. Depending on what happens, we might need them after that.

"I haven't thought to ask this, but - are the Kerpians likely to help from their end? I mean, you said it was Narj who gave you the bomb, so will they be coming to help us?"

"I don't know. I suppose it depends how many of them are armed and ready to fight, and how many Greys are left on this side of the portal. It would probably be best not to count on them turning up for a good while yet, though."

"Pity. Oh, well..."

We let Team Four doze behind the barricade: Stefan and I were fairly fresh, and so we were able to keep watch. And a little after two o'clock we strolled over to the arch and found things quiet beyond it: apart from the two guardians under the arch there wasn't a lot of movement, just a couple of bored-looking Greys on their feet and a lot of others lying down on the station floor.

"This is where they find out we're not unarmed after all," said Stefan.

He went back to the barricade and roused Radu and Hansi, getting them to bring their rifles and to lie down on the ground facing the arch, each aiming at one of the guardians. Then we got Alain to stand by the barrier control. And finally Stefan took two grenades from the box and showed me how to arm them.

"These are the same sort as we use in Germany," he explained. "You unscrew this cover at the bottom of the handle and you'll see a piece of material come out. When you're ready to throw the grenade you pull the material hard and then throw. German fuses are about four and a half seconds long, and we'll have to hope these aren't a lot longer or they'll get a chance to throw them back. Do you think you can manage one?"

"I think so," I said, nervously.

"Good. Okay, you stand to the left of the arch, I'll stand to the right. I'm going to count to four: on 'One', Alain opens the barrier. On 'Two' Radu and Hansi kill the guardians and you and I pull the fuse. On 'Three' we throw the grenades into the station, and on 'Four' Alain closes the barrier again. Everyone got that?"

We said we had. "It seems a bit bad, though," I said. "Those poor bastards are asleep."

"Serves them right for not taking proper precautions," said Stefan. "We're at war, after all. And if we don't kill them now, they'll probably kill us once the barrier comes down."

"I suppose so," I admitted. "Okay, then."

We took up our positions and Stefan and I unscrewed our grenade handles, and the fuse appeared as he had told me.

"Okay?" said Stefan, quietly. "Then One! Two! Three! Four!"

It worked exactly as it had been supposed to. My grenade didn't get too far because it clipped the far end of the arch, but Stefan's landed halfway up the room. The two guardians were both hit before they could fire their stings, and the unfortunate sleeping Greys had no time to react, though the two on their feet yelled a warning and dived for the floor themselves. And then there were two loud explosions, almost simultaneously, and the room turned to carnage.

For a few seconds we actually thought we'd killed every one of them, but then some began to stagger to their feet, and others started to yell for medical assistance. And a whole lot more emerged from the service tunnel and we realised that we'd just thinned them out a little: there still seemed to be plenty left. And they weren't happy, either: some of them started shooting at the barrier, until an officer angrily told them to stop and conserve ammunition. And that was good news, at least, because it meant that their ammunition was limited, as we had hoped it would be.

Three more guardians emerged from the arch leading down to the tracks and came to press against the barrier, and we realised that the guardians had been down on the rail tracks and so protected from the blast.

"Don't worry," said Stefan, when I mentioned this. "I've got something else planned for them."

We went back to the barricade. The noise had woken up Oli and Tibor, who had not been involved in the action, but we reassured them that everything was well and they settled down once more.

We went and got the rest of the party up at five o'clock. I handed round some preserved meat sandwiches, which they ate on their way downstairs, and we allowed Team Four to take a ten-minute breakfast and toilet break, but by half-past five everyone was up, dressed and as ready to fight as they were ever going to be. When we went to look at the arch we saw that the guardians were now only about ten centimetres from the end of the barrier, so apparently some of the soldiers had also been trying to push their way through during the night, and as a result the barrier was close to failing. And there was a platoon of Greys waiting at the far side, their weapons in their hands. I counted twenty-two, but of course I had no way of knowing whether there were any more lurking in the tunnels. There were also several more guardians standing between the Greys and the arch.

"Good," said Stefan. "I was hoping they'd send the guardians through first. Come and give me a hand with the jerry-can."

We carried the jerry-can to a point to one side of the arch, out of sight of the Greys, and there Stefan sloshed a large puddle of petrol across the floor in front of the arch. It was no longer as hot in here as it had been when we had first arrived, and so Stefan said there was no serious danger of the fuel evaporating before we needed it.

He carried the can back to the barricade - there was now only a little left in it, and so he could manage to carry it easily - and put it down next to the six Molotov Cocktails.

"There's no danger of setting the whole place on fire, is there?" asked Markus, nervously. "I don't fancy getting burnt to death."

"No, there isn't anything over there to catch fire," Stefan pointed out. "It's all stone. And the fuel will burn itself out quickly enough."

He pulled his lighter from the pocket of his trousers and placed it on top of the barricade where he could get at it in a hurry, and then we just waited for the barrier to fail.

It was obvious looking at the others that most of them were as scared as I was, though they were trying hard not to show it, and I tried hard to look confident.

"Don't worry," I told them. "This ought to take care of most of the guardians, and that'll just leave the Greys. And they're so big that even a bunch of lousy shots like us can hardly miss them!"

That got a grin or two... and then there was a thud and the barrier disappeared. Stefan grabbed his lighter in one hand and a Molotov in the other and lit the fuse, and then lobbed it in the direction of the puddle of fuel. He didn't lob it high enough and the bottle failed to break, but as it rolled forwards into the puddle the burning fuse hit the petrol and that produced the same result: the fuel ignited, and the four or five guardians advancing across the puddle were engulfed in flame. Then the bottle exploded and a large sliver of glass hit the wall above our heads.

"Hey, you're supposed to be trying to kill them, not us!" protested Alain.

And then the first Greys appeared in the archway and we were shot at for the first time, and it was terrifying: we cowered behind the barricade as bullets - lots of them: clearly the Greys had automatic weapons - thumped into the front of it and smacked into the wall above our heads. We'd left a couple of very narrow gaps in the barricade to shoot through, and Radu and Markus managed to hit a couple of Greys. Stefan threw a grenade towards the arch, and that bought us a moment's respite as the Greys ducked away from it, but then they threw one of their own which went off close to the end of our barricade. Hansi cried out as a couple of bits of shrapnel hit him, and the sight of the blood was truly frightening: now we could no longer fool ourselves into thinking this was anything other than a real battle with real casualties.

Stefan threw another Molotov at the arch and this one broke, feeding the dying flames, and under cover of it he had Alain and Tibor drag Hansi back through the last arch into the lobby outside the office. Another Grey grenade exploded just in front of the barricade, and then more continuous fire, and our return shots sounded feeble as a response. Stefan lobbed another Molotov and then said it was time to go, and he and Markus kept up a covering fire of sorts while the rest of us scurried back through the arch. Another grenade exploded just as I reached the arch and there was a cry of pain from behind me, and I spun, terrified at the thought that Stefan had been hurt. But in fact it was Markus who came staggering past me, clutching his right arm. Stefan threw a final grenade in the general direction of the enemy and came through the arch dragging the box of grenades with him, and as soon as he was safely through Oli closed the barrier. And now that all the bangs and thumps had stopped we could hear a klaxon sounding. Thanks, I thought, but I think we can work out there's something wrong without the sound effects.

"Did we get enough to stop them, do you think?" I asked, grabbing a bandage from the first aid kit and trying to see how bad Markus's arm was.

"Probably not. I don't think we did badly, but we only took out three or four, unless I got lucky with one of my grenades. We did better with the guardians, but they're not the ones carrying guns and grenades. How's Markus?"

"It fucking hurts," reported Markus, "but I don't think it's broken. It took a chunk out of my upper arm, that's all. How's Hansi?"

Hansi didn't look so good. Tibor had slapped bandages over the two wounds, one in his chest and one in his hip, and at least the bleeding seemed to be slowing. But the wound in his chest worried me: if it had penetrated the lung he would be in deep trouble.

And then the barrier through to the hall started to hum, and I saw a guardian and two Grey soldiers pressing against it - and a couple of other Greys were doing something close to the far end of the arch. And when they all suddenly ran back into the hall I realised what.

"It's an explosive!" I shouted. "Everyone get down!"

There was a loud bang and part of the arch collapsed, though the part that was left still seemed to have a barrier. Greys appeared at the far end and started to clear the rubble away, and while they were doing it some more started to plant more explosives.

"Oli, open the barrier when I say," ordered Stefan, grabbing a grenade and arming it. "Now!"

The barrier came down, Stefan threw the grenade and the barrier went up again, and this time two or three Greys were visibly caught in the explosion.

"That should persuade them to keep their heads down for a bit," said Stefan. "Let's get Markus and Hansi into the office."

Between us we carried the two injured boys into the office. We parked Markus in one of the chairs in front of the computer and laid Hansi on the floor.

"I'm going back to throw a couple more grenades," said Stefan. "Tibor, could you come and move the grenade box into the outer office? And then we'll have to try to find a way to barricade the outer door - maybe we can use Dead Guy's bunk? I'm sure he's past worrying about falling to bits by now..."

"They're going to break through, aren't they, Stefi?" I asked, in English.

"Yes," he admitted in the same language. "They are. I will get everyone into the outer office once I have thrown these grenades, but after that there will be nowhere to go."

"Okay," I said, reverting to Kerpian. "Go and kill some more for us, Stefi."

"I will. And try to turn those bloody sirens off - they're giving me a headache!"

"If I can find the switch, I will," I said, as he disappeared. "Except I've got no idea where to look."

"Try asking the computer," suggested Markus.

"Markus, in a couple of huszaks this place will be full of Greys. I haven't got time to hunt through all the menus until I find the one that includes 'sirens'.

"Then use the search function. That's what it's for."

"What search function? We never found one."

"Just do this," he said, hitting the Escape key at the same time as the one that bore the Kerpian symbol for 'sz'. "There you are - a search box. So let's try 'sirens'."

That got no response.

"Try 'Emergency' suggested Tibor, who had just reappeared carrying the remainder of the grenades. "That ought to find it - after all, the siren is presumably there to tell us there's an emergency going on."

"Okay," agreed Markus, typing the word in clumsily with his left hand. And this time a drop-down box appeared.

"That's better," he said. "Now, let's see what we find if we scroll down here... let's try 'emergency siren' first.... No, there's no such entry."

"Try 'emergency alarm,' I suggested, looking over his shoulder as he scrolled back the other way. He got all the way back to 'a', but there was no 'alarm', either.

"What about 'klaxon'?" suggested Tibor.

Markus started to scroll again - and suddenly I yelled "Stop!" in his ear.

"What? I'm right here, you know - you don't have to shout!"

"Scroll back up again... stop! Click there!"

"What, on... oh, no, it couldn't be..."

"Click on it!" I insisted, so he hit the entry that said 'Emergency Exit'. And up came a little box that asked, 'Do you wish to use the emergency exit? Y/N'

Markus hit 'Y' without waiting for me to react, and a panel on the desk slid away, revealing a barrier control hand outline. I thrust my left hand onto it, and a large panel in the corner of the room - the corner I'd been suspicious about all along - slid to one side, revealing a ladder. But it was going down, not up.

There were a couple more loud bangs from outside the room and Stefan reappeared.

"I got a couple more, I think, but the next grenade they throw back will probably finish the barrier off. Someone help me barricade the door, and then... let's just try to take some of them with us, okay?"

"Let's not," I said, pointing at the ladder. "Let's just get the hell out of here."

"Where does it go?" he asked.

"Who cares? It's out of here, and right now that's where we want to be. And they can only follow us one at a time, and the guardians can't use ladders... come on, Stefi, let's go!"

"Okay," he said. "Jake and I will barricade the door. Alain, you and Oli lead the way. Markus, can you manage a ladder with one arm?"

"Watch me!"

"Okay, then. Tibor, if you and Frank can get Hansi down the ladder somehow, do. We'll come and help as soon as we've fixed the door."

Alain scrambled down the ladder and disappeared and the others started to follow him. Tibor swung Hansi onto his shoulders in a fireman's lift and climbed down, and at that point Stefan and I left them to it. There were a couple more bangs outside that suggested the Greys were almost through the barricade, and we grabbed Dead Guy's bunk and wedged it against the door. And then Stefan took one of the last three grenades, removed the cap and hooked the fuse onto the door handle, tucking the grenade itself into Dead Guy's armpit.

"Take the buggers with you," Stefan enjoined him. "It's been nice knowing you."

There was a final crash from outside and a couple of seconds later something thumped into the door from the far side. We ran back into the office and I scrambled down the ladder, and Stefan paused for a moment at the top before sliding down to meet me at the bottom, where there was a tunnel leading away, with dim lights every few metres.

"I chucked the second grenade under the desk," he told me. "I didn't want them getting at the computer. So I think we should get down."

We did that, hurriedly, and a bang from above, followed by debris falling down the ladder shaft, suggested that the grenade had done its job. We started to run along the tunnel.

"We're going to look very stupid if this tunnel doesn't actually go anywhere," I said.

"I'd sooner look stupid down here than be dead back up there," he replied, and of course he was right.

We caught up with Tommi, who was the back-marker of the column and who said he had been holding back to make sure we were okay.

"I'd have come back for you, Jake," he assured me.

"Well, I'm glad you didn't have to. Come on, let's catch up with the others."

We ran for a while, long enough to be away from the Hub, I felt sure. Stefan kept an eye out over his shoulder, but there was no sign of pursuit, so hopefully the grenade in the office, or the one we had left with Dead Guy, would have dissuaded the opposition from advancing further without a proper reconnaissance.

We caught up with the others and got them to slow to a walk, and Stefan persuaded Tibor to let him carry Hansi for a bit. And then came a shout from Alain, who was scouting a short distance ahead.

"There's another ladder," he told us.

So there was, and the tunnel didn't go any further, so the only way out seemed to be up the ladder.

"Okay," I said. "Let's see where this goes. If we're lucky it'll go all the way to the surface."

I scrambled up, but it didn't go very far at all - about five metres up the ladder stopped. There was a control panel on the wall near the top, and when I put my hand on it the tube above my head rose away - and I saw that I was in the Nexus Room: the tube was the black pillar in the centre of the room.

I climbed out and yelled to everyone else to follow me, and then I started to circle the room, trying to find a tunnel that had not yet collapsed. Alain climbed out behind me and helped by going the opposite way round, and by the time the rest of the party had joined us we had discovered that there were four doors still available to us: numbers One, Seven, Twelve and Thirteen. All the others were blocked. Seven was the one that led back to Stefan's world, so he would be able to go home - and I wouldn't, because I knew my door was no more than two away from his.

There was a bang and a rumble from down in the tunnel, and a moment later Stefan climbed up, looking pleased with himself.

"I used the last grenade to block the tunnel," he told us. "So, what's our choice? Are there any of the worlds we've been to before?"

"Yes. The door back to your world is still open," I said. "And three others, but we don't know which worlds they go to."

"Oh, wow, I can go home!" he exclaimed, smiling broadly. "Except... it's like we said before: I don't think any of you should come with me. You have no papers. And you're Jewish, and they'll think Radu is, too, because he's been cut; and Tibor and Hansi are gay... I think you should choose a different door. Which one will you choose?"

"We can pick between one, twelve and thirteen," I said. "Thirteen is supposed to be an unlucky number - but one could be lucky. Maybe we should..."

"Number Twelve!" interrupted Oli. "That's the one I picked, remember? That's our lucky door!"

"Okay," I agreed, pushing Door Twelve open - after all, we knew nothing about any of these three worlds, so it was pure luck where we ended up. "Let's go to Oli's lucky world. Oli, you and Alain had better lead the way: you know how to get out of the tunnels. And..."

Suddenly the lights in the tunnel ahead of us started to flash on and off, and mist began to appear close to the floor. And I could hear a humming noise, like the one the barriers had made when they began to fail.

"Run!" I yelled to Alain. "The tunnel's going to collapse! Run for it!"

Tibor took Hansi from Stefan and ran off into the tunnel behind Alain and Oli, and the others ran after them. Tommi hesitated, but I waved him away.

"You know I can't come to your world, don't you?" I said to Stefan, once we were alone.

He nodded. "It would not be safe for you. For me, it is home, but for you it would be too dangerous. But I shall never forget you, Jake. And I will always love you."

"And I love you, too. Good luck! Be a great soldier for me!"

He hugged me and we kissed, and then he pushed me away, towards the tunnel. "Run, Jake!" he said. "Run before the tunnel fails!"

And somehow I forced myself to run, though I couldn't see where I was going because I was crying too much. An hour ago I'd expected to die, and now I was going to live - but I was going to have to do it without Stefan. Somehow I would have to survive in this unknown world without him. And we hadn't even had time for a proper goodbye...

I'd have run right past the ladder room had it not been for the fact that Tommi was waiting there for me, and when he grabbed me I managed to wipe my eyes and follow him up the ladder. At the top I pushed him out of the hut and urged the rest of the boys to get a safe distance away - I didn't know what would happen when the tunnel explosives detonated, but I didn't want to be too close to it.

The explosion, when it came a couple of minutes later, was muffled, and somehow the hut even stayed standing, though a cloud of dust blew out of the open door.

"Well," I said, "I suppose we'd better go and see where we are now..."