The Second Nexus

by David Clarke

Chapter Three

A second look told me that I wasn’t dreaming after all: there really was a Grey leaning over me and holding a knife close to my neck. I had no idea of what had happened or how I had got wherever I was now, and I still felt far too woozy to move, even though I knew that if I didn’t I was in danger of getting stabbed.

The Grey drew the knife back, and still I couldn’t move. And then a shrill voice yelled “Leave him alone, you bastard!” in Grey. The Grey froze, looking absolutely shocked, and a small red-topped missile suddenly flew into my line of sight, hit the Grey and hurled it off me. And at that I shook myself out of my trance and jumped in to help Tommi pin the Grey down, though in fact Tommi was doing a fairly efficient job on his own: the Grey was no bigger than me and was dressed only in rags, and I could clearly see how thin and scrawny he was compared to the ones I had met at Haless’s school.

“Stop struggling and you won’t get hurt,” I said in Grey, and the Grey stared at me in something that looked not far from outright terror.

“You can speak!” he croaked. “What are you?”

“We’re humans,” I told him. “Most of us can’t speak your language, but Tommi and I can. So who are you?”

“I’m nobody!” he said, trying to wriggle free. “Who sent you? Was it the Southern Bloc? And how did they make you?”

“Nobody made us,” I said. “We grew up, the same as you did… well, we didn’t hatch from an egg, but after that it’s the same. And I don’t know anything about a southern bloc: we don’t come from this world at all, in fact.”

I looked around. There was no snow on the ground here, but it still felt very cold, even in my thick clothes, and I thought the Grey had to be freezing: I was surprised he could still move at all, in fact. The sky was dark, darker than it had been in Kerpia, and the area we were lying in looked less hospitable: there was no grass, just cold, bare earth, with rocky outcrops here and there and the black trees of the forest looming over us on one side. I did a quick head-count of the bodies and found that all six of my friends were here with me, but there was no sign of the tent, or of the portal that it had contained.

I got off the Grey, though not before I’d taken the knife away from him, and motioned Tommi to do the same, and then I pulled the Grey to his feet.

“My name’s Jake,” I told him, “and this is Tommi. We’re mammals. We’re not supposed to be here – wherever ‘here’ is: we sort of got diverted on our way to somewhere else. What’s your name?”

The Grey was still gaping at us, and I supposed I understood how he felt: after all, if a chimpanzee suddenly started speaking to me in French I guess I’d be a little surprised, too. But then he pulled himself together.

“I’m Torth,” he said. “Have you got any food?”

We had, but as far as I knew none of it was meat, and as one by one my friends woke up I was able to confirm that this was indeed the case. Their reactions ranged from the obvious ‘Where are we?’ and ‘What happened?’ to the rather more belligerent “How did one of them get here?” That was from Alain, who really didn’t like Greys: he hadn’t forgiven them for separating him from Oli while we were working at the mine.

“His name’s Torth,” I told them, and I switched to Grey. “Torth, this is Alain, Oli, Radu, Marc and Stefan. None of them can speak your language, I’m afraid.”

The Grey grunted, looking nervous: he was, after all, heavily outnumbered.

“How old are you?” I asked him. “And what happened to you?”

“I’m thirteen. And… there’s a war on. We think that the Southern Bloc must have attacked about twenty days ago… at least, I think it was about twenty days ago. I’ve been underground for a long time, and I don’t know for sure what day it is.”

“Well, it’s December 12th in my calendar,” I told him, “or 39 Hideb in the one my friends use. But I don’t suppose you use either of those.”

Torth shook his head. “We didn’t know they were going to attack,” he told me. “Everything was normal. I’d decided to explore the Hirsh caves with three colleagues: we’d done some basic exploration before, but this time we wanted to go right into the complex and explore some of the deeper chambers. And while we were underground the whole area was destroyed by concussion bombs and ultrasound beacons – and most of the cave system collapsed. Again, we can’t be sure, but there haven’t been any cave-ins before, and we know what concussion bombs can do, so we can’t think of any other explanation. One of the others was killed in a landslide, and it took the rest of us until yesterday to find our way back to the surface. We’ve been living on small rodents, but there weren’t very many of them…”

“You said ‘we’,” I pointed out. “Where are the others?”

“I’m not telling you,” said Torth, looking at me distrustfully.

“Okay, but if they’re in the same state as you they’re going to need help.”

“All we need is food. But the attack will have killed all the animals. We’ve been looking in the woods for bodies, but we haven’t found any yet – and, besides, I don’t know if it would be safe to eat them without cooking first, and we haven’t got anything to make a fire.”

“Then you’ll have to let us help you,” I said. “And maybe after that you can help us to find a way out of here.”

He didn’t say anything, so I switched back to Kerpian and explained to the others what he had told me.

“We can certainly get a fire going,” said Stefan, “but we need to find some shelter first. Ask him if he can show us where these caves were – if there’s enough of them left for us to get into we can at least get out of this wind.”

“I think we can help him with the food, too,” said Radu. “He needs to dig out some hibernating animals. We used to do that sometimes when food was scarce back home. I can show him where to look if you like. But… do you think we should? I mean, can we trust him?”

“Probably not,” I said. “Greys always think of themselves first. But I think we should try to help, all the same: at least he’ll be able to tell us more about this world we’ve ended up in.”

I switched back to Grey. “We can get a fire lit for you, but we need somewhere with a bit of shelter, so you’ll need to show us where these caves were: if there’s enough cover we can build a decent fire that won’t go out. And Radu here thinks he can help you dig up sleeping animals…” (my Grey vocabulary only went so far, and the word ‘hibernation’ was one I didn’t know) “…you know, the ones that sleep through the winter – if there are any in this world.”

“There are, but they’re probably dead, too. The beacons will have killed them. The only reason they didn’t kill us is because we were deep underground. But we can eat them if we cook them properly.”

“So will you trust us?”

“Why? I mean, why would you want to help us? What’s in it for you?”

“That sounds like a normal Grey response… well, I was thinking that if we help you, perhaps you could tell us a bit about this world, and maybe then we’ll be able to find a way out of here.”

“Then… I think I can agree to that. I’ll admit that if we don’t find food soon, we’ll die, and it’s hard for us to function properly when it’s as cold as this.”

“All the more reason why you need us to get a fire going for you – and we’d probably feel better ourselves, too, if we could warm up a bit. So where are your colleagues?”

He hesitated, but then seemed to come to a decision, and he led us into the trees. Quite a lot of them seemed to have been uprooted and were only still standing because they were caught up in the branches of other trees, but in places whole swathes of the forest had been flattened. The land began to slope steeply downwards, and the trees began to thin out, but before we emerged from them Torth led us into a crack in the rocks which eventually widened out into a proper cave. It was quite dark inside, but there was enough light filtering in from the entrance for me to be able to see a Grey lying on the ground and another one sitting beside him. This one stood up as we moved into the cave.

“You found us some food!” he exclaimed. “Well done, Torth!”

“We’re not food,” I told him, and had the pleasure of seeing him jump back in astonishment as I spoke in his language. “We’re here to help you.”

I left him and Torth jabbering at each other and turned to Stefan.

“What do we need to get a fire going, Stefi?” I asked. “Can you find somewhere in here where the smoke will be able to get out?”

“I think so,” he said. “There’s a draught coming from the back of the cave, and the roof is fairly high here, too… I should think any smoke will find its way out of the door. But we need to try, anyway: it’s too cold to sit around without heat.”

He organised a foraging party consisting of everyone except me and Tommi, whose job it was to stay and talk to the Greys, to see what we could find out. So I waited until Torth had finished explaining, as best he could, who we were, and then I broke in with some questions of my own, learning that the second Grey was also thirteen, and his name was Verdess, and that the one on the ground, who seemed to be sleeping, was eleven and was called Sarleth. And it was obvious that all three of them were almost immobilised by the cold and were extremely hungry.

I took off my heavy jacket and handed it to Torth.

“Put this on,” I said. “It’ll help you to keep warm until we get a fire going. Tommi, I think yours is a bit small for Verdess, but it’ll probably fit Sarleth. See if you can get it on him, and I’ll have a look in my pack and see what else I’ve got.”

The only other thing I had that would be useful was the decent jacket I’d worn when I had met the king, and it looked a bit odd on a Grey. But Verdess accepted it all the same: like Torth, his own clothes were torn in several places, no doubt as a result of being caught in landslides and scrambling about over sharp stones. I don’t know how humans would have coped in those circumstances: probably we would have died, because our eyesight isn’t anything like good enough to allow us to see in the dark, whereas the Greys could at least make some things out - or so I had learned during the tests I had done with Issin.

Some time later – and by now it was getting so dark outside that here in the cave I could barely see anything at all – the others came back. Not only had they brought plenty of dead wood with them, but Radu and Marc had found some squirrels.

“We got lucky,” said Radu. “These weren’t dead – I suppose they were so well insulated that the sound weapons didn’t affect them – or maybe there wasn’t one that went off close enough. Anyway, they’re still fairly fat, so there should be enough meat on them to keep the Greys alive for a little longer – though I’m still not sure about helping them, Jake: they’re the reason we all got sent to the mine in the first place.”

“That was a different world,” I pointed out. “These three are just kids – and, like I said, we need someone to help us find a way out of here.”

Stefan was already hard at work building a fire. He still had the little cigarette lighter he had shown me on our first day together, so at least he didn’t have to mess about rubbing sticks together – though I have no doubt that he could have done it that way if he had needed to. And soon there was a proper fire going. We all crowded round it happily, though I made sure that the Greys were able to get a good place, too: they needed the warmth even more than we did.

Torth took the squirrels Radu had found, skinned them expertly with his knife (which I had given back to him once he had accepted that we weren't his next meal) and spitted them on some green pieces of wood that Radu had helpfully provided, and soon they were cooking nicely. Fortunately none of us was particularly hungry: we’d had a large breakfast at the hotel and another good meal served on the train, though I thought that in another half-day or so we’d all start to feel peckish, and in another day or two we’d probably find roast squirrel quite an attractive prospect.

“So what are we going to do, then?” asked Alain. “I mean, first of all, where are we?”

“No idea,” I said. “I’d guess something went wrong with the portal – I saw that the tent wasn’t properly closed, so maybe the wind disrupted it, or something. The main thing is, we’re not in Kerpia and we’re not in Baden-Bayern, so somehow we’ve ended up in a third world. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the Grey world Tommi and I visited before: there was no question of a war there. So we’re off the map, because the Kerpians only found that one Grey world. That means that this one doesn’t have a portal.”

They stared at me – all except Marc, who was the only one of us who didn’t speak Kerpian. Oli gave him a rapid translation into French, and I waited until he was up to speed.

“So we’ve got to decide what to do,” I went on. “We could hang around where we came through and hope that either the Kerpians or the bunch from our world manage to re-establish a portal – except that we know our lot can only build one to Kerpia, and the Kerpians probably have no idea where we went. They’ll know we went somewhere, because sooner or later the portal between Kerpia and Baden-Bayern will be rebuilt, and then both sides will know for sure that we’re missing, but I can’t imagine how they’ll be able to work out where we went.”

“But… what else can we do?” asked Radu.

“We could try waiting on top of the mountain. We know that portals do pop into being spontaneously up there from time to time: that’s how the Kerpians found out about the whole concept. The record said it’s a sort of thin point where worlds are close to each other. What do you think, Stefi?”

“I think we don’t want to hang around on top of the Feldberg in mid-December unless there’s a proper shelter up there,” he said. “We haven’t got any food, and I don’t think we could stay up there in the open for very long anyway. But I think we should investigate. I’ll go up there tomorrow and scout around: if there’s a shelter, perhaps we could try that. Though I think we’d need to stock up with food first, and I’m not sure how to go about that.”

“Hang on a moment,” said Alain. “Are you really suggesting that we stand around on top of a mountain on the off-chance that a portal will conveniently pop into existence right next to us? What are the chances of that happening?”

“Well… probably not very good,” I admitted. “I mean, we know it happens occasionally, in the correct weather and atmospheric conditions, but frankly I can’t think of anything else we could do except to stay here and hope someone rescues us. And since nobody knows which world we went to, I don’t think the chances of that happening are very good, either. But we have to do something. Got any better ideas?”

“Well, no,” admitted Alain. “But it seems a bit desperate.”

“I think we are a bit desperate,” I said.

“Don’t worry, Alain,” said Oli, brightly. “Jake’s clever and Stefan’s strong. They’ve looked after us so far, haven’t they? I know they’ll find a way out sooner or later.”

The vote of confidence was really nice, but of course Oli had always looked on the bright side of everything, and I was very much afraid that this time I was going to let him down.

I tried to take stock of what our resources were. Unfortunately the older members of our party were no longer with us, so we no longer had Markus’s strength or his ability – even if it was a bit limited – to hotwire vehicles. Nor did we have Hansi’s shooting ability, or Tibor’s dependability. So what did I have to work with? Well, Radu could shoot a bit, and he was obviously good at foraging for food, which could be very useful in our current situation. He could also pick locks, though I wasn’t sure that this would be needed in the middle of a forest. Oli’s catapult was with him as always, and he could be counted on to cheer us all up, and Alain had experience of surviving, and keeping his friends alive, in difficult circumstances. Tommi could speak Grey, which was obviously going to be handy. Marc was a completely unknown quantity. Against that I had three Greys who could certainly not be depended on to worry about anyone except themselves. I didn’t think this was going to be easy, although as long as I had Stefan beside me I knew our situation wasn’t completely hopeless.

“Tomorrow I think we should go down into the valley and see if there’s any food or shelter,” I said. “Our Grey friends can show us where to go. Of course, if there are hostile Greys down there we’ll have to avoid them…” I switched to Grey and asked Torth if the Southern Bloc would have sent its troops in.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Possibly, although where we live isn’t particularly useful land. They’re more likely to bypass us and head for the flatter country further north. They’d just bomb this part of the country to make sure we didn’t have any troops in the area.”

“Then we’ll do that,” I told my friends. “And afterwards Stefan wants to have a look at the top of the mountain, to see if there’s anywhere up there we could shelter while looking for portals. So for now I think the best thing we can do is to sleep. Except I want us to keep a watch through the night, just in case Torth decides that we’d make a nice snack – he has got a knife, after all. So we’ll keep watch, the same as we did in the Hub: two hours – or a kend – on watch, then four hours, or two kends, asleep. Radu, you and Marc start, then me and Stefan, then Alain and Oli, then we go round again. As far as the Greys are concerned we’re just making sure the fire doesn’t go out, but make sure you stay awake and keep an eye on them, okay?”

I explained to Torth that we were going to make sure the fire was kept burning all night. He offered to take a turn, but I said that he and his friends needed rest, and that we’d be happy to deal with it for tonight at least. I’m not sure if he guessed the real reason we were keeping watch or not, but he didn’t say anything about it.

The ground beneath us was very hard, which made sleeping difficult, and I didn’t actually manage to get to sleep before Radu told me it was our turn. Stefan and I sat up, while Radu and Marc lay down in our place, their arms around each other. I felt sorry for Marc: at least the rest of us had been through this sort of thing before. He must have been scared, but he was managing not to show it, which I thought was quite impressive.

The night passed without incident: the Grey boys seemed to sleep right through it, anyway. I didn’t sleep a lot myself, and I got the impression that most of my friends hadn’t, either. Still, as soon as there were signs of daylight outside the cave we got up and made our way to the entrance. It looked dull and damp, but at least it wasn’t actually raining or snowing.

“We’re going down into the valley,” I told Torth. “Hopefully we’ll meet someone who can help us – and obviously they’ll be able to help you, too: you still need some proper meat, and you need to have somewhere warm to stay, too.”

“If I was right about the bombing there won’t be anyone alive down there,” he told me. “Unless the Southern Bloc troops have turned up, of course. And there won’t be any shelter, either.”

“Well, we can’t stay here,” I said. “There’s no food, and it’s too cold. If there’s no food or shelter in the valley we’ll have to keep moving until we find some.”

“There’s one thing we need to do first,” said Stefan, when I proposed moving out to my friends. “I want to go back to the place where we arrived and leave a note, just in case the Kerpians or our own people manage to find this world. Get yourselves ready: I’ll be back as quickly as I can.”

He slipped out of the cave, and so the rest of us settled down again. He came back about twenty minutes later and we started to move out, but I called a halt when I realised that Torth and Verdess were heading for the entrance, but that Sarleth was still lying by the dying flames of the fire.

“What about him?” I asked them.

Torth shrugged. “He has injured his leg, so he can’t walk. He’ll have to stay here.”

“What, you’re just going to leave him?”

“Why not? He would only slow us down. We brought him this far in case we became desperate enough to want to eat him, though frankly we taste horrible – it would have had to be a last resort. But now we won’t need him any longer: if we get really hungry we can eat the weakest of you – the small one with red hair, perhaps. Mammals generally taste fine, even uncooked.”

“You’re not eating me!” declared Tommi, vehemently. “I’d taste nasty, anyway.”

“But… Sarleth is your colleague, isn’t he?”


I suppose I’d forgotten quite how selfish Greys usually were, but I’d already decided that if I was at least in nominal charge of the party then nobody, human or Grey, was going to be abandoned.

“We’re taking him,” I said. “Suppose it was you with the hurt leg – would you want to be left behind?”

“No,” admitted Torth. “But I’d expect to be – we all have to think of ourselves.”

“Not in my parties, we don’t. Here we think of each other, too. So we’ll carry him, if we have to. We’ll all take turns, including you two. And in return you can both keep wearing the extra clothes we lent you last night. Fair?”

“We need the warmth, so… I accept. But I think you’re being stupid about this.”

“Perhaps I am, but I’m not changing my mind.”

Stefan and Alain managed to rig up a rough stretcher: there was plenty of wood about, of course, and Stefan had some string in his customarily well-equipped back-pack, and soon we had Sarleth, who still seemed to be semiconscious, on the stretcher. Alain and I started carrying it, and the whole party moved off down the hill.

We walked for quite a while. In Kerpia there were several houses on the lower slopes, but here there seemed to be nothing, and in fact we reached the town before we found any other buildings. And the town was an absolute shambles: there seemed to be no buildings that were intact. There were piles of masonry half-blocking the street, and here and there we could see bodies. There was nothing moving except for some pieces of rubbish that were being blown about by the wind.

“Told you,” said Torth, morosely. “There’s nothing here.”

“Well, there will probably be some food we can scavenge, provided we can get into what’s left of the buildings. Can you show us where you lived? I’d guess your school had kitchens, and maybe there’ll be food we can get at.”

It took Torth a while to identify his school, so complete was the destruction, and the school itself had virtually been levelled. There was clearly no chance of finding any food without a substantial amount of digging. The same was true of the adjoining building, which Torth said was an apartment block of living quarters for adult males.

“We need something smaller,” I said. “There must have been eating places here somewhere, and the ones I saw last time I was in a town like this were a lot smaller. They might have been sheltered from the blast by the larger buildings, and even if they collapsed there should be a lot less digging to do to get to their storerooms.”

“That could be true,” agreed Torth. “There were eating places close to the transport centre. It’s this way.”

He picked his way through and over the rubble, and we followed him. Stefan and Verdess were carrying the stretcher at this point, and Verdess certainly wasn’t happy about it, to judge from the muttering I could hear, but I ignored him and followed Torth on through the remains of the town.

The ‘transport centre’ proved to be a bus station, and it struck me that I hadn’t seen any cars at all on our way through the town. Perhaps this was a particularly green world, or perhaps it was just one in which private transportation didn’t exist, a bit like Soviet Russia. And here we got very lucky indeed: there was a small restaurant next to what was left of the bus station, and it had only partially collapsed. We were able to get inside it, and right through to the storeroom at the back. The various refrigeration and freezer units had no power, but there was also a cupboard that held a lot of tinned food, mostly meat. We formed a chain and passed every tin we could reach outside: I didn’t want to risk staying inside the building longer than necessary in case the rest of it collapsed.

“I’m sure this will taste better than we would,” I said, handing Torth a large can of something that I thought was probably a type of preserved beef.

“I think you’re right,” he said, opening it with no finesse at all using his knife and scooping out the contents into his mouth. I passed another can to Verdess and opened a third for myself. Neat corned beef isn’t exactly my idea of a perfect meal, but it tasted good, all the same. I ate enough to keep me going and passed the tin onwards, and soon everyone had eaten enough to get by on for a while. That led me to the next big issue, and that was water. There was a stream running through the valley – we’d crossed it on the way to the transport centre – but I wasn’t sure that the water would be safe to drink.

“It should be,” said Torth when I asked. “It comes down from high up on the mountain, so it should be completely clean. It would be as well to take it from the steam before it gets into town, just in case someone fell in it and died when the bombs went off: we can be fairly certain there won’t be anything in it once we get upstream of the town.”

“What about the bombs? Could there be any contamination?”

“No, these are just explosive and sound-based weapons. We don’t use chemicals or poisons at the same time as concussion bombs: this is only a civilian area, after all.”

Well, that sounded okay. That just left us with the third major requirement, which was shelter, and that looked to be a lot more of a problem: I didn’t want to risk staying inside the restaurant, and there didn’t seem to be any other buildings left with even part of a roof.

“How far is it to the next town?” I asked. “And how far do you think we’d have to go to get out of the bombed-out area?”

“A very long way,” said Torth, gloomily. “The next town is about ten khirokubs along the valley, but it’ll look the same as this one. But…” He hesitated, and then looked a little more optimistic. “If we can get to Hilsstok, I’ll bet there’ll still be buildings standing there, because it’s got a military base. They’ll have saturated the area with ultrasound beacons to kill everyone, but they’ll have wanted the materiel intact, and so they probably won’t have used the heavy bombs. It’s textbook practice.”

“How far away is it?” I asked.

“Around twenty to twenty-five khirokubs, I should think.”

“How far is that, for people who don’t use your measurements?”

“Well… I suppose you don’t use our time measurements, either?”

I’d learned a little bit about time measurements during my stay with Haless and Issin, but I could remember very little of it now.

“You’d better assume not,” I said.

“Well… if you were on foot, I suppose the sun would move about that far in the sky,” he said, indicating an arc over his head. That looked very inexact to me… and then I realised I could probably use Grey measurements of distance after all.

“How many kubs in a khirokub?” I asked.

“A thousand. Why?”

“Well, I know I’m three point four four kubs tall – at least, I was about four months ago. I think I was about a metre fifty-five then, so that means…” I did some rapid calculations in my head. “So a metre is about two point two kubs, so that means your army base is about ten kilometres away. I think we could walk that far without too many problems, even carrying Sarleth.”

“You’re not still going to drag him along with us, surely? We’ve got food now, and there’ll almost certainly be more available in Hilsstok – provided the Southern Bloc hasn’t got there first, of course… Anyway, we don’t need to lug him about any more. Let’s just leave him here.”

“If we do that he'll probably die.”

“Yes, he will. But we’ll be able to move a lot faster, won’t we? And if we do run into enemy soldiers we’ll be able to run a lot faster if we’re not carrying a dead weight, too.”

“If we meet enemy soldiers we’ll decide what to do then. But I’ve already told you I’m not leaving anyone behind. He’s coming with us.”

And I was pleased to discover that none of my own party wanted to question the wisdom of carrying an injured Grey with us, not even Alain. So we packed as many cans as we could into our bags and headed back the way we had come until we reached the point at the edge of town where the road forked, the left fork going back the way we had come, towards the top of the mountain, and the right hand one leading down to the main valley. We stopped at the edge of town and filled our water-bottles at the stream: the Greys all had one, Stefan had his as usual, and everyone else except Marc had a plastic bottle in their bags. Radu immediately said that he would share his water with Marc, and I added that if Radu ran out we’d all be happy to share with both of them – and again nobody disagreed, although I thought that I might run into more of an argument if I tried commandeering any of the Greys’ bottles.

Stefan walked with me for most of the journey. He hadn’t said any more about scouting the top of the Feldberg, though I agreed that it would be sensible to do so sooner or later: for the time being he agreed that finding proper shelter was more important.

“But I don’t think we should stay in that place for very long,” he added. “If Torth is right it’s likely that enemy troops will turn up sooner or later.”

“I know. I was hoping for maybe a night or two so that the Greys can recuperate fully, and to give us a chance to stock up on food and water. And maybe there’ll be survivors there who can help us…”

“Or kill us,” he interrupted.

“I know. We’ll have to be very careful. But there’s no reason for them to attack us unless they’re short of food: they’ll be far more worried about the southerners. What I’m really hoping is that we can find transport there, because it’ll be a lot easier to get back to the top of the Feldberg if we can find a truck or something. And it’ll be a lot easier to stock up with supplies if we don’t have to carry everything on our backs, too.”

We walked onwards. After a couple of hours we came to the remains of the next small town, and this was if anything even more of a mess than Grey Hintraten had been: there were vast craters here and there, and between those and the piles of rubble we found it hard to get through the streets. But eventually we made it and were able to continue onwards in the direction of Hilsstok.

We stopped for a break shortly after leaving the destroyed town, had another impromptu meal of tinned meat, and then carried on. The Greys were making heavy weather of it: I knew their stamina wasn't good to start with, and these two were still suffering from cold, hunger and lack of sleep, so I took it slowly and stopped for breaks as often as I felt we could. And eventually we saw another town ahead of us.

“That's it,” said Torth. “That's Hilsstok. And it looks as if I was right about the bombing, too.”

We stopped where we were while Stefan made a quick scout forward on his own: if there were live Greys inside the town I didn't want just to walk blindly into them. But he came back shortly afterwards to report that there was no sign of life, but that there did appear to be bodies lying in the streets. So we moved forward again, and as we got closer we could all see for ourselves that the nearest buildings were still standing. The place still didn't look normal, though: it was absolutely silent, and as we reached the first buildings we could all see the bodies Stefan had mentioned.

“Do you know where the army base is?” I asked Torth.

“No, I've never been here before. Bases are generally in the centre of towns, though, so that the soldiers can head out of town equally quickly in any direction.”

So we kept going until we found the military base. There was a high wall around it and a fairly solid gate leading inside, and fortunately the gate was open, though there were a couple of dead Greys in uniform – a dark grey one, rather than the red-brown that had been in use in the Grey world I'd visited before – lying just inside it. We stepped over them and continued towards the heart of the base.

“How come all the glass is intact?” I asked Torth. “If they're using a sound weapon, shouldn't it all be shattered?”

“Those weapons are very finely tuned,” Torth told me. “If one went off close to you it would pulp all your major organs and possibly break most of your smaller bones, but it would leave those vision frames you're wearing intact. Of course, they might not work exactly the same on you because your organs are probably different from ours.”

“Not that different,” I said, thinking of Haless's test results.

“Well, anyway, I think they probably used gas here as well,” Torth went on. “If you're attacking a military base there's a danger that some people will be behind thick walls or in deep shelters, so the textbooks say you should follow up with a poison gas attack, just to make sure.”

“What? Is it safe for us to be here, then?”

“Oh, yes – the gas clears fairly quickly, a couple of days at the absolute outside, and it'll have been quicker here because of the wind.”

“But if it's textbook stuff, won't the soldiers have taken precautions – worn gas masks, or something like that?”

“Some of them probably did. But any survivors will have cleared out by now, because they'll know the enemy will be on the way, and unless a large number survived – which is unlikely: as I said, there hadn't been any hostile action for months – they'll have fallen back northwards.”

So we're not going to get any help here, then, I thought.

There were bodies here and there, so if there had been any survivors they clearly hadn't bothered tidying up before they left, but then Greys almost certainly wouldn't have bothered, even if they had been thinking of anything except making a fairly rapid withdrawal.

Best news of all was that the power was still on, and when we finally found our way into the kitchens I found plenty of supplies, including enough meat to keep our three Greys alive for months. Torth seemed almost ready to eat half a cow raw, but I persuaded him to wait and let me cook a proper meal for everyone. Alain stayed to help me with the cooking and Sarleth, who was still drifting in and out of consciousness, was left with us, but everyone else went out to scout around and look for somewhere for us to sleep for a couple of nights.

There were enough vegetables in the storerooms to provide 'garnishes' for a great number of typical Grey meals, so we got to work on those as well, and for a while I forgot everything else and concentrated on making us all a really good meal.

One by one the scouting parties returned, and by the time the food was ready everyone was sitting at one of the dining tables impatiently. I piled up the plates, giving the Greys a couple of thick steaks each with a small portion of vegetables, while the rest of us ate a bit less meat and a few more vegetables. Nobody complained, and nobody seemed disposed to talk while they were eating.

Sarleth roused himself long enough to eat one of his steaks, but he really didn’t look well and I thought we were going to have a problem there if he didn’t improve – we simply couldn’t go on carrying him everywhere we went.

After we had eaten we sat back to discuss what the foraging parties had discovered.

“The good news is that we have transport,” Stefan reported: he’d gone with Verdess and Tommi to look for a truck for us. “There are four or five trucks, something that looks like a jeep, and a couple of motorbikes. Verdess tells me they all run on some sort of super-battery, so they don’t need fuel, and once they’re charged up they’re good for at least two hundred kilometres. Or if we’re really feeling aggressive there are a couple of light tanks down there, too. Verdess says the trucks are easy to drive, but he doesn’t know about the tanks.”

“We’ve found somewhere to sleep,” reported Radu. “Off the base, like you said, in case the enemy troops turn up while we’re asleep.”

I’d thought this a sensible precaution: incoming troops would head for the military base, which meant it would be safer to sleep outside it.

“It looks as if the bombs fell during the day, because the accommodation block we found was empty – there aren’t any bodies in it at all,” Radu continued. “And it’s a couple of hundred hersps from the base, too, so it should be safe.”

“I found the clothing store,” Oli told me, “so our Grey friends can replace their torn clothing, as long as they don’t mind wearing uniforms.”

I translated that for Torth.

“I’ll wear anything, as long as it’s warm,” he told me. “And… I found the armoury, so we can take weapons with us.”

I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of the Greys being armed: after all, they were only with us because it suited them, and as soon as they decided they’d be better off on their own they’d leave. I didn’t mind them leaving, but I didn’t want them to take a couple of Jake steaks with them for the journey. And, as for the idea of the rest of us carrying weapons, I’d had quite enough of that last time around, and I was fairly sure that Alain, Oli, Tommi and Radu at least would agree with me. Stefan, however, was interested, and got me to ask Torth to show him where the armoury was.

“One other thing we need,” I said to him once I’d transmitted his request, “and that’s medical supplies. I’m worried about Sarleth, and it would be sensible if we carried some basics with us anyway, just in case. See if you can find an infirmary while you’re looking for guns. Take Tommi with you: he’ll be able to interpret for you.”

I cleared away the empty plates and started to wash up, but Radu and Marc came and pushed me away.

“You did the cooking,” Radu said, “so we’ll wash up. That’s only fair.”

Stefan came back just as they were finishing off – unarmed, I was pleased to see, though he said that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to carry a couple of rifles at least, even if we were only going to use them for hunting purposes. He’d also found the infirmary, though again he hadn’t bothered bringing any supplies yet.

“We’d better have a look at Sarleth,” I said. “I don’t suppose Torth and Verdess are going to be a lot of help, but if they want me to keep cooking for them they’ll have to at least try to find some sort of suitable medicine. I just wish there was a proper doctor round here…”

As usual, Oli was translating everything for Marc, and at this point Marc put his hand up timidly as if he was in school.

“I know a little bit about medicine,” he said in English. “My parents are both doctors, and they’ve taught me quite a lot, because I’d like to be one too when I grow up. Obviously I don’t know anything about these creatures, but I’ll have at look at him for you if you like.”

“Please do,” I invited. “Stefan knows the basics of bandages and splints, otherwise we’re all pretty hopeless at anything to do with health.”

So Marc went over to where Sarleth was lying – he’d lapsed into unconsciousness again, and it was a measure of how unwell he was that he’d left one steak completely untouched. There was a large bloodstain on the right leg of his trousers, and that seemed to be the obvious place to start, though the material was stuck to his leg and Marc had to ease it free with warm water. He then cut the trousers off completely, because that didn’t involve moving the injured boy, and looked at the wound, a fairly deep gouge about halfway down his thigh.

“This is infected,” Marc said, and I think even such complete medical novices as the rest of us could tell that there was a problem here; the wound looked puffy and inflamed and seemed to be oozing pus. “We’ll have to open it up, clean it out and then sew it up again – so we need some sort of alcohol to clean it, a needle and some surgical thread, and a probe, or forceps, or something – I think there’s probably something stuck inside that’s causing the infection, and we need to get it out.”

Stefan ran to the infirmary and returned carrying everything Marc had asked for, and over the next ten minutes or so my opinion of Marc changed completely: I’d thought him timid and weak, but the way he worked on that wound showed me once again that it’s best not to judge people too quickly. He got Torth and Verdess to hold Sarleth down when he started to struggle and scream, and eventually he was able to extract a sliver of stone from deep in the wound, releasing at the same time a flood of creamy pus, at which point Sarleth mercifully fainted.

“I think that should fix it,” he said, once he was sure there was no other foreign matter inside. “Now it just needs stitching closed. He won’t be able to walk for a bit, but at least it should heal cleanly – at least, it will if their bodies are anything like ours. Stefan, could you do the stitching, please? It would probably be a good thing if someone else could do this as well as me, just in case.”

Stefan was obviously as impressed as I was, because he took the needle and thread and, following Marc’s instructions carefully, closed the wound up. Finally they applied a bandage.

“Wow, Marc, that was amazing!” cried Radu, throwing his arms around his friend. “I never knew you could do stuff like that!”

“I just wanted to help,” said Marc, hugging him back.

We all went to the apartment block that Radu had found, carrying Sarleth between us. Of course Greys didn’t have families, so adults lived in blocks of what we would call studio apartments, except that these had no kitchen space: Torth told me that each block had a communal kitchen and dining area. Since Greys only ate every two or three days there was no need for anything more.

Some of the apartments were unlocked, and the others didn't pose too much of a challenge to Radu's lock-picking skills, and soon we had enough of them open for what we needed. Each apartment had a small bed, so we did what we had done previously in these circumstances and borrowed beds from other apartments to give each room a double instead of a single bed. We fitted out five rooms on the second floor in this way, finding fresh bedding in a laundry room in the basement.

“Do we need to keep a watch tonight?” asked Alain.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think we’ll be safe enough – and if enemy soldiers reach the town they won’t start here, and we should hear them long before they try coming into the block. And we could probably all do with a decent night’s sleep, too. Tommi, do you want to come in with me and Stefi? I don’t suppose you want to be on your own tonight.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll go in with Sarleth – if he wakes up and needs anything I’ll be able to understand him.”

“Are you sure?”

He nodded. “He sort of reminds me of Trethar, and he and I got on pretty well.”

Trethar was the ten-year-old at Haless’s school whom Tommi had befriended, and I supposed there was a slight resemblance.

“Well, okay, then,” I said. “But we’ll be right next door if you change your mind.”

Alain and Oli took the room on the other side of ours, and Radu and Marc the one beyond that.

“We’ll see you in the morning,” I said to Torth – he and Verdess were going to use the room on the other side of Tommi’s. “And don’t worry if you hear strange noises from our rooms: it’s normal for boys in our world to… well, to practise sex together, and some of us can get a bit noisy.” I darted a glance at Alain and Oli. “I know you sometimes do that too, so we’ll ignore anything we hear from your room.”

“We don’t do it with each other,” Torth told me. “Sarleth was taking the female role for us, because he isn’t big enough to take the active role yet. That’s another reason why we carried him out, to be honest, though we haven’t felt strong enough for days, and we couldn’t do it anyway while his leg was hurting as much as it obviously was. I suppose we could do it together until he’s better, but we’ll probably just sleep instead.” He paused. “I should tell you something,” he continued. “When I found the armoury I considered simply arming myself and Verdess and leaving. Normally I wouldn’t have hesitated, in fact. But … I have never met creatures like you: even though we are not even the same species, you still cared for us, sharing your clothing, finding food for us and carrying Sarleth for a long distance. I think you’re insane, but I am glad that your insanity helped me. So we’re going to stay with you and see what happens. Perhaps it will be educational.”

“I’m sure it will,” I said. “Goodnight, Torth.”

I went into our room with Stefan and we closed the door, locking it just in case Torth had a change of heart and felt hungry in the night – though with the amount he and Verdess had eaten I thought it far more likely that they would sleep soundly for several hours. Still, it never hurts to be careful.

I’ve no idea what Greys do in their free time, but to judge from the room we were in it wasn’t done at home: there were no books, no TV, no radio – nothing, in fact, except the basic furniture. It didn’t bother me, though, because all I wanted to do was sleep… well, not quite all.

“We’re a day late,” I pointed out to Stefan. “Are we going to do it here tonight, or should we wait?”

“I’d definitely like to do it, but… I really want to do it in our own bed at home, where we can relax and be comfortable and not have to worry about anything else. So, to be honest, I think we ought to wait until we get home.”

“Good. I’m glad you said that, because I’d prefer to do it there, too. Except… do you really think we’ll be able to get home, Stefi?”

He shrugged. “It won’t help to worry about it,” he said, starting to get undressed. “You know as well as I do that the chances aren’t great, especially if we’re relying on a random portal appearing on top of the mountain and leading us somewhere decent. Ideally we want one that will take us to one of the worlds still open to the Kerpians’ Hub One Nexus Room, because then we’ll be able to get home easily. But we’d have to be amazingly lucky to find one at all, never mind a useful one.”

“I know,” I said, removing my own clothes, turning out the light and getting into bed with him. “We’ve got no chance at all unless the weather settles down: the stuff on Dead Guy’s computer said the first natural portal appeared in mist, and there won’t be any mist unless the wind disappears completely.”

“Still, we can’t give up yet,” said Stefan, cuddling up to me. “We’ve been in as bad a mess as this before, and we got out of that one okay, didn’t we? Tomorrow we’ll scout out the top of the Feldberg. If we’re lucky there will be shelter up there. And we’ve got plenty of supplies now, and there are sure to be sleeping bags we can use somewhere in the stores here.”

“They’d better be the sort that you can zip together,” I commented. “I’m not sleeping anywhere that I can’t snuggle up to you: that one night in the tent in Baden-Bayern was more than enough.”

“In that case, maybe we’d better make use of the room we’ve got here, just in case,” he said, and he started burrowing down into the bed.

It’s amazing how quickly you can forget your worries when someone has your penis in his mouth, and over the next half-hour or so we made sure that neither of us had time to worry about anything except making sure that we were doing everything we could to keep each other excited. And by now we were pretty good at that. And so by the time I fell asleep with Stefan’s arm around my shoulders I felt nicely relaxed. Stefan was right, I thought: we’d been in a bigger mess before. Surely we’d find a way out of this one…


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