The Second Nexus

by David Clarke

Chapter Four

I slept right through the night, so obviously our relaxation exercises the previous evening had been quite effective, and maybe that’s why, after Stefan had woken me up with a kiss, we both thought it would be a good idea to practise them again. And that kept us occupied for another half-hour or so and definitely got the day off to a good start.

“Well,” I said, finally sitting up in bed, “you taste great, but I suppose I ought to see if I can find something for us to eat for breakfast. It could be difficult, though: Greys don’t go in for breakfast cereal, or even bread. We’ll probably end up with corned beef fritters, or something.”

“I think I could live with that,” said Stefan, grinning.

We got dressed and went along the corridor, knocking on each door and telling the occupants to be up and ready for breakfast in ten minutes. When we knocked on Tommi’s door he said that Sarleth was awake and wanted to speak to us, so we went in. The Grey boy was looking a lot more conscious of his surroundings this morning.

“This small mammal tells me I’m in Hilsstok,” he began. “How did I get here?”

“We carried you.”

“That’s what he said. But why?”

“Because you were hurt and couldn’t walk, and I never leave people behind if I can avoid it. Don’t you remember anything of the last day or so?”

“Not really. I can remember my leg hurting, and I remember someone giving me something to eat, but I reckon that must have been a dream, because it was cooked and we didn’t have any fire in the cave… unless it happened after I got here?”

“It did. You probably need more food today, even after the steak you ate last night, so if you’re still hungry I’ll get someone to help carry you to the base.”

“No, wait – I still don’t understand why I’ve been carried anywhere: I should have been left behind as soon as you realised I couldn’t walk.”

“Sarleth, we don’t do it like that where we come from. We look after each other: if someone is hurt, we help him, because maybe next time we’ll be the ones that need help. I don’t know how much Tommi has told you, but we’re mammals, and we’re different from you in a lot of ways. I’m in charge of this party – not that I want to be, but for some reason the others seem to think I can get us out of here… anyway, while I’m in charge we all do things our way. So you don’t walk anywhere until that leg is a lot better than it looked last night, for a start. I’ll ask the doctor how soon you’ll be able to walk again…”

I asked Stefan to go and find Marc, and when the two of them returned Sarleth stared at the curly-haired boy.

“That’s a doctor?” he exclaimed. “You really are different – to me he just looks like a child. How old is he?”

“He’s twelve,” I said. “And he’s not really a doctor, but he’s the nearest thing we’ve got, and it’s down to him that you’re properly awake this morning.”

I asked Marc how soon Sarleth would be able to walk and relayed the answer to him: in a couple of days he’d be able to get about using crutches, but he’d have to take it very carefully for a while after that so as not to risk reopening the wound.

“But I still don’t understand why you took the time,” said Sarleth.

“I know. But maybe you’ll learn a bit about us if we’re going to be together for a while. Anyway, Tommi will look after you, and I’ll make sure someone brings you down to breakfast shortly.”

I asked Stefan to get someone to help him carry Sarleth back to the dining hall in the base and then rounded up Alain and took him with me to try to find something for breakfast. And, as I had suspected, we ended up with luncheon meat fritters, though once again nobody complained about it, and Sarleth ate enough for me to think that he really was on the road to recovery.

After breakfast we sat down to decide what to do next. Stefan wanted to take one of the vehicles and get back to the Feldberg, and I thought that would be sensible. There didn’t seem to be any point in everyone coming, though, so I suggested that those who were staying in Hilsstok should get plenty of rest, but could also usefully spend some time sorting out equipment for everyone: extra clothes, sleeping bags, water-bottles, and so on. I also suggested that Oli should try driving one or two of the Grey vehicles, getting Torth to help him if necessary: the more drivers we had, the better, and I knew Oli had picked up driving very quickly indeed when he had been given his first chance to operate a ‘magic carriage’ back in Dead Orschwiller.

I was going to go on the scouting expedition with Stefan and Verdess, who had told us he knew about vehicles and intended working as a driver when he left school. I left Alain in charge in Hilsstok – I knew he had a tendency to be lazy, but I also knew he could be relied upon to look after everyone else. He was sixteen now, and was starting to behave in a much more mature way, though he still looked barely older than me or Stefan. And I told Tommi he was the official Grey liaison between Torth and Alain.

We took the jeep-like vehicle, because I was pretty sure we would have to divert off the road to get around the ruined town halfway between Hilsstok and Grey Hintraten, and I wasn’t sure if there would be roads right to the top of the Feldberg, either. We took some water and a couple of tins of meat, just in case, and Stefan brought a rifle along with him, too, though he didn’t try to persuade me to bring one and I didn’t suggest it myself. I’d had more than enough of guns.

Verdess drove and Stefan and I watched him closely, but it seemed no harder than driving the automatic Peugeot we had used in Dead Orschwiller: there was an accelerator pedal and a brake pedal, and on the dashboard there was a closed handle that served as a gearstick, with a position for forwards, reverse, neutral and parking. Buy the time we were out of Hilsstok I was confident that I could drive this vehicle if I had to.

Getting around the ruined town took a while: we had to drive in a wide semi-circle through fields to the east of the town, and the ground was quite muddy. But there was a four-wheel drive option available, and that was sufficient to get us back to the road.

We skirted the edge of Grey Hintraten and carried on up the mountain, and the road looked as if it had gone all the way to the top at one point. But the entire top of the mountain had been blown to pieces: it looked as if someone had dumped a full plane-load of heavy concussion bombs on the summit, because the road stopped dead at the edge of a crater, and the area beyond was a moonscape of shattered rock and deep holes.

“I’d guess there was a post of some sort up here,” said Stefan, as we got out of the jeep and continued climbing on foot. “I can’t imagine why anyone would bomb it otherwise. But they’ve made a hell of a mess – and it’s probably ruined any chance we had of finding a portal, too, because I seem to remember that the geography in both worlds has to be the same for a portal to form, and I doubt if the Feldbergs in any other worlds have been smashed up like this.”

We walked on to the highest point we could reach. There was no shelter up here at all, and the wind was cutting.

“We can’t hang around up here,” said Stefan. “Even if there was an outside chance of a portal forming, we‘d freeze while we were waiting. I suppose we could huddle up in a bomb crater, but we wouldn’t be able to see anything if we did, and it would still be far too cold. And there’s no wood anywhere close to hand to build a fire: we’d have to drag it up here from the forest where we first came through. Sorry, Jake, but I think your idea of hoping for a portal up here is a non-starter.”

“You’re right,” I agreed. “It’s a pity, but we’ll have to come up with something else. Let’s go back – and we can stop on the way to see if anyone’s found your message. If they have I’d say our worries are probably over anyway.”

Stefan had a look round before we left, using a pair of binoculars he’d found in the base stores in Hilsstok. There was quite a good view, but he couldn’t see anything moving.

“If the southern bloc are coming, they’re not coming this way,” he reported, as we headed back to the jeep. “So I suppose things could be worse.”

He took the wheel himself to drive back to the point where the malfunctioning portal had dumped us and managed it easily: clearly it was no harder than driving our Peugeot had been. When we reached the right spot – and it took him a couple of tries to locate it – he showed me that he had buried a note written in Kerpian, German and English, and marked it by dragging some dead branches out of the forest and forming them into a large arrow pointing at the place where the note was buried. There was no sign that the ground had been disturbed in our absence, so he dug the note up again.

“Have you got the two maps with you?” I asked. “Good. Then take the Kerpian one and draw a line between here and the Vosges above Orschwiller, because that’s where we’re going next: we can’t wait here, but we know the other Hub was on the fault-line too, so we’ll go there. It’ll be easier to shelter there because the cabin was in the trees, not out in the open, and with any luck it’ll be out of the war zone, too. Stick some arrows on it so they know what we’re doing and bury it – if they do manage to find this place they’ll know where to look for us.”

So Stefan did that and then I drove us back to Hilsstok – and it really was no harder than driving an automatic petrol-driven car. The only real difference was that this vehicle was almost silent.

After lunch – a snack consisting of some tinned meat with a few chips (potatoes, at least, were not unknown to the Greys) – I called everyone together in the dining room to discuss what we were going to do. Stefan had found some Grey maps elsewhere in the base, and he still had the one we had brought from home for comparison purposes.

“We can’t wait on the Feldberg,” I told them. “There’s no shelter, and it’s been damaged by bombing to the point where we don’t think portals could form. So we’re heading over to the Vosges: we know there is another place there where portals might form, and it’s more sheltered than the Feldberg, too. I want to take plenty of kit with us, especially tents, blankets and sleeping bags – we might be there a while – and we’ll want to take lots of food, too. And I think it would be sensible to take more than one vehicle, in case one breaks down. We should have enough drivers…”

I switched languages. “Torth, what are you three going to do?” I asked. “By tomorrow Sarleth should be able to get about on crutches, though he can stay with us for a bit longer if he can’t… so are you going to head north to get back to your own people?”

“I don’t think so. If we do that they’ll almost certainly stick a rifle in our hands and tell us to fight, and that doesn’t seem to be a good way to stay alive. So I think we’ll stay with you for a bit longer, at least until we’re out of the likely war zone.”

“Okay. So…” I reverted to Kerpian. “We’ve got five drivers – I know Verdess can drive and I’m guessing that Torth can, so we can take five vehicles if we need to. Three will probably be enough, though – the jeep and two trucks, I suppose. That’ll let us carry all our stores easily.”

“We could take a tank,” said Oli. “I had a go this morning and it’s not too hard to drive – and then if the lorries get stuck in the mud or something the tank will be able to pull them out.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m sure the tank would be really slow, and then we’d have to keep waiting for it to catch up.”

“It’s not that slow,” persisted Oli. “But there’s a lorry you can put it on – then you just unload the tank when you need it. Come on, Jake, please? It’ll be fun!”

This was typical Oli, of course: here we were in the middle of a war zone, with no way of getting home and enemy troops likely to arrive at any moment, and he thought driving a tank would be ‘fun’. But I suppose there’s nothing wrong with looking on the bright side of things, and maybe a tank would be useful if we got bogged down in mud, so:

“Okay,” I said. “But only if we can get everything else on the other vehicles.”

“Great! Thanks, Jake!”

The next question was which way to go.

“You don’t want to keep going along this road,” advised Torth. “There’s a large town called Var Thelvoss about thirty khirokubs up the road. It’s sure to have been bombed, and if not it’s likely that our troops will have come back to try to defend it, so one way or another the roads will be blocked and we’re likely to be stopped. The three of us will be conscripted to help the defence, and you lot will be locked up if you’re lucky, or shot for food if you’re not.”

That sounded like an experience to avoid, and so I spread the maps out and looked for a way to bypass the town, which was in more or less the same place as Freiburg in our world. It looked as if we could either bypass the town to the north or to the south, but Torth advised us to take the southern route, as we would be more likely to meet Grey troops on the northern side. Once we had bypassed the town we would be able to cross the Rhine – provided the bridges hadn’t been bombed, of course – and then it should be fairly easy to cross the Plain of Alsace without going into any towns. I discussed a route with Stefan and Torth and we settled on one that led through the hills to the south of the town and came out not too far from what was marked on the map as a bridge over the river.

We spent the afternoon loading one of the trucks up with supplies: tents, bedding, spare clothes, food (lots of it, including three full crates of tinned meat), medical supplies and (at Stefan’s insistence) some weapons, and Oli managed to get his tank onto the back of the tank transporter, and then Verdess showed us how to plug the vehicles into the battery chargers overnight. That, he said, would give all of them, including the tank, a range of what I translated as around two hundred and fifty kilometres, well beyond what we would need to reach the Grey equivalent of Orschwiller. Once that was done we relaxed for a while, though Stefan spent some time learning to ride a Grey motorbike, and once he was satisfied that he could manage it he loaded it onto the second truck.

“It could be useful for scouting,” he said, and I supposed he was right.

I cooked us all another full-sized meal for supper, and all three of the Greys had some: I guessed they had to refuel a bit after several days’ subsisting on bats and mice. And after supper we went back to the apartment block for the night, where I slept a lot better than I had expected to: I had spent most of the afternoon and evening worrying about what we would do if we made it across to the Vosges but then were unable to find a portal, because this was still the only way I could think of to get us home. What if we camped out for weeks until our supplies ran out and there was still no portal? Where could we go then?

But, as I say, I slept fairly well, and next morning I didn’t have time to sit around thinking unpleasant thoughts. I fried us all some corned beef for breakfast and then we went to the garage, unplugged all the vehicles from the chargers, settled Sarleth into the back seat of the jeep and then drove out of the base, heading for the hills to the south of Var Thelvoss. Stefan and I went first in the jeep; then came the truck with most of the stores, driven by Verdess and with Tommi riding shotgun (though not literally: Tommi had shown no interest in carrying a rifle); next was the second truck, with Torth driving and Radu and Marc as passengers; and finally the tank transporter with Oli driving and Alain beside him.

Away from the main road there were no houses: Greys tended to congregate in towns, and the scattered hamlets that Stefan told me existed here in his world were absent. This of course helped us, because no houses meant no bombs, and so the roads were clear. We were on the edge of the Black Forest here, but still the roads were quite tricky for inexperienced drivers, and we took it very slowly and carefully. Finally, though, we began to drop down into the last valley – the Munstertal, Stefan called it – that would bring us down onto the flatter country that lay close to the Rhine. The road became straight and flat as we left the valley, and I began to relax, thinking the most difficult part of the journey was now behind us.

Some ten kilometres from the entrance to the Munstertal there was a bridge across the Rhine, and we headed straight towards it, though taking a route that avoided the towns shown on the Grey map of the region. And we reached the bridge without difficulty, approaching it from the north down a road that ran alongside the river. I stopped the jeep just past the turning that led onto the bridge – both Stefan and I thought it would be sensible to have a look at the other side before blindly driving across: after all, the Alsace end of the bridge might already be in Southern Bloc hands.

We got out of the jeep and Stefan scanned the far bank of the river through his binoculars. Nothing seemed to be moving, but there was a fold in the ground on the far side of the river and he wanted to be sure, so he went and unloaded the small motorbike from the second truck.

“Be careful,” I said. “I want you back in one piece, so if you see anything you shouldn’t, don’t hang around over there.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to risk dying before we’ve…”

He noticed that everyone else was listening and tailed off. Of course, our friends all knew about what we had planned, but that still wasn’t a reason to talk about it quite so publicly – and Marc, who didn’t know about it, would doubtless want a translation, and the Greys might, too. So I shooed Stefan away, and he grinned at me, started the bike and rode off across the bridge.

The rest of us stretched our legs a bit, and a couple of us went across to the far side of the road and peed into the ditch. Torth spotted us, and at first I thought I was in for another long discussion on how humans can actually use their reproductive equipment to unload waste water, as had happened with Haless and Issin, and maybe that would have happened subsequently. But first he obviously realised he needed to do go himself, and so he headed a short distance down the road to the south of the turn-off for the bridge, to an area where there were some small bushes growing beside the road, and he disappeared into them.

He re-emerged a couple of minutes later and started strolling back towards us. And then there was a bang from somewhere beyond him. I didn’t realise what was happening at first, but then there were a couple more bangs and something smacked into the jeep beside me, and only then did I realise that we were being shot at. Torth looked over his shoulder, and as he did so a couple more shots rang out and he crumpled to the ground.

“Get down!” I yelled at my friends. I took a couple of steps away from the jeep, intending to go to help Torth, but the next bullet pinged off the ground a foot away from me and I realised that it would be suicide.

I tried to think what to do, wishing that Stefan was here to make the decisions, but he was still on the other side of the river somewhere.

“Verdess, get the stores truck across the river,” I shouted. “Wait for a moment, though…” I switched languages and told Radu to grab a couple of rifles from the back of the lorry before Verdess drove off. At least we’d be able to return fire and make the enemy keep their heads down – well, Radu could: I couldn’t have hit the side of the truck. I thought some more.

“Oli, can you get the tank between Torth and the enemy?” I asked. “If we can get him up onto it and behind the turret we can get him out of there.”

“Why not just leave him?” asked Alain. He saw my face and continued, “All right, you don’t want to leave him. But… wait, Oli!”

Oli had already run back to the transporter and was hitting the quick release levers on the chains keeping the tank on the back of it. Alain ran after him and, to his credit, helped get the tank unchained, and then they both disappeared inside it.

Radu reappeared with two rifles and Verdess started the truck.

“Wait!” I called. “Take Tommi, Marc and Sarleth with you – get them over the river and out of sight!”

Marc and Tommi both tried to argue, but Sarleth of course simply dragged himself to the truck and waited for someone to help him into it, and after a few seconds I persuaded Marc and Tommi to do just that. The truck began to move off onto the bridge. There was some shooting at it, but Radu started shooting back, and I grabbed the other rifle and popped off a few shots in approximately the right direction: I knew I didn't have a hope of actually hitting anything, but I hoped that, with a bit of luck, the shooting might make the attackers keep their heads down.

The tank rolled past us and pulled up just past where Torth was lying. I told Radu to stay where he was and to give us covering fire if he could see past the tank, and I stood up and sprinted to where Torth was lying – now it was between me and the people who had been shooting at me. I dropped the rifle as I reached him and tried to lift him onto the back of the tank. He was unconscious and his head was bleeding, and he could have been dead for all I knew, but I wasn’t leaving him behind. But he was too heavy for me.

“Alain, come out and give me a hand,” I yelled, and the hatch cover opened and Alain climbed out. And Oli took it into his head to follow him.

There was another flurry of shots from the enemy, who of course could see the boys on top of the tank, and Oli gave a yell of shock, spun right round, fell onto the deck, hitting his head as he landed, and rolled off the side of the tank.

“Oli!” cried Alain, jumping down beside him.

But Oli was unconscious, and his right arm was bleeding and was also, to judge from its unnatural angle, broken. His head was bleeding, too, but when I wiped the blood away I realised that this was just from where he had hit the deck of the tank as he fell.

I grabbed his feet and yelled at Alain to take his shoulders but to be careful of his arm, and somehow we got him up onto the deck of the tank. Alain climbed up after him and tried to get him comfortable, though Oli was clearly unconscious.

“Alain, come and help me with Torth!” I shouted.

“Sod Torth!”

I tried again to lift the unconscious Grey on my own, but I simply couldn’t do it. And then the motorbike slid to a stop beside me and Stefan was there at last. He shoved the bike into the ditch out of the way, grabbed Torth’s legs and helped me hoist him onto the tank. He climbed up himself and saw Oli.

“I don’t suppose you can drive this thing, can you?” he asked me.

“No,” I said, grabbing the rifle and handing it up to him.

“Then I suppose I’ll have to try to figure it out myself, because otherwise we’re all fucked.”

I don’t think I’d ever heard Stefan use that word before, in any language, and it showed that he really thought things were bad - and when I looked down the road past him I realised why: there were soldiers running up the road a couple of hundred metres away, and behind them an armoured vehicle of some sort.

“I think I can drive it,” said Alain, dragging his eyes away from Oli for a moment. “Oli was showing me how.”

“Then for God’s sake get in there and do it!” cried Stefan, emptying his magazine at the advancing troops. Radu, who had run forwards, dropped to the ground beside the tank so that he was firing from a prone position, as we had practised in Hub Two, and started shooting as well, and the enemy soldiers dived for cover into the bushes beside the road.

There was some swearing from inside the tank, and then Alain found reverse gear and the vehicle started to back up in a series of erratic zigzags. He backed up a little too far and reversed into the second truck, but I was prepared to forgive him for that: in fact I was astonished that the previously mechanophobic Alain had managed to make the thing move at all.

Stefan and I, with help from Radu, got Oli and Torth off the tank and into the jeep, with Oli propped up in the front seat and Torth lying in the rear – and then the enemy armoured vehicle fired, and something whistled over our heads.

“Get the jeep out of here,” Stefan told me. “If there are any shells in this thing we’ll see if we can shoot better than they can, and then we’ll follow you. Now don’t argue – go!”

So I jumped into the jeep and started it up, and in the rear-view mirror I saw Stefan and Radu disappear inside the tank. And then I just concentrated on getting over the bridge. At least the enemy weren’t shooting at me: they had a bigger target now, which I would have felt happy about if three of my friends hadn’t been inside it…

At the far side of the bridge the road dipped down briefly, took a right hand turn and then swung left and followed another bridge across a canal, and on the far side of that there were some earthworks, in the shadow of which I found Verdess’s truck. I screeched to a halt, jumped out of the jeep and scrambled to the top of the mound to see what was happening across the river.

Alain had got the tank onto the bridge and was apparently finding it easier to drive forwards than backwards, as the tank was travelling in more or less a straight line. Beyond it I could see soldiers moving, though they were still some way short of the bridge, and the armoured car was there too, which suggested that Stefan either hadn’t managed to work the tank’s main armament, or that he had missed. But he had found the heavy machine gun in the turret, and he had reversed the turret so that he could spray the road with bullets, preventing any close pursuit.

The tank came off the first bridge and ducked into the dip between the river and the canal, and there to my surprise it stopped. The turret moved a little, and then there was a tremendous crash as the main gun fired at the bridge – and even a complete novice like Stefan could hardly have missed at that point-blank range. The bridge wasn’t a very wide one, only one lane across, so by the time he had hit it three times, in virtually the same place every time, it was clear that nobody was going to be able to follow us across unless they could swim.

The enemy armoured car, which had reached the far end of the bridge, stopped and reversed back onto the road, and then it moved off northwards, and the soldiers, after checking the lorries we had abandoned in case there was anything useful in them, followed it. Alain drove the tank carefully across the canal and stopped beside the other two vehicles, and then he scrambled out of the hatch and ran to where Marc was trying to do something about Oli’s arm. I slid back down and joined them.

“I can’t deal with this,” Marc was saying. “The bullet has smashed the bone and there’s bleeding inside as well as out. He needs a hospital.”

“There isn’t a bloody hospital!” shouted Alain. “You’ll have to do it yourself!”

“I can’t!” Marc replied, his voice trembling. “I can try to stop the external bleeding and I can try to splint it, but I think the bone has broken in a couple of places, and I can’t do anything about the damaged blood vessels. He needs a proper doctor.”

“Well, at least stop the sodding bleeding, can’t you? What are you waiting for?”

“Don’t shout at him!” yelled Radu. “He’s doing his best, which is a lot more than you could do, so just go away and shut your bloody mouth!”

For a moment I thought Alain was going to hit him, but instead he stood up and ran off beyond the parked vehicles. And I went after him, which in retrospect was bloody stupid, but at the time it seemed like a good idea.

I caught up with him just beyond the truck, but I barely even opened my mouth before he turned on me.

“You!” he shouted. “This is all your fault – you care more about the fucking Greys than you do about us! If you’d got us across the bridge as soon as the shooting started we’d all be fine, but no, you had to be a hero! That Grey’s probably dead anyway, so what was the point?”

“And he might not be. I wouldn’t have left you behind, and I didn’t want to leave him behind, either.”

“He’d have left all of us behind without even thinking about it! You and your bloody stupid nobility… if Oli dies I’ll fucking kill you, understand?”

“If Oli dies I’ll let you. Do you really think I don’t care about him?”

“If you cared you wouldn’t have let him go where people were shooting at him! And we wouldn’t even be in this stinking world if you hadn’t wanted to go and get a fucking medal from the king of bloody Kerpia – we were happy in Elsass, so why did you have to drag us all along with you? If you wanted to play the hero you should have gone on your own, not…”

And at that point words apparently failed him and he just hit me, hard, on the jaw. When I came to my jaw was hurting and I found I had a broken tooth, and emotionally it didn’t feel any better – okay, Alain was being a bit unfair, but I could understand it. I sat up groggily and saw Alain standing a few metres away, and Stefan was with him. They had their arms round each other and Alain was crying. I got to my feet and moved towards them, but Stefan saw me coming and shook his head almost imperceptibly, and so I went back to the others instead, feeling awful. And things weren’t a lot better there, either: Marc was crying in Radu’s arms, Oli was still lying on the ground unconscious and with blood all over his arm, Torth was lying next to him with blood all over his face, and Sarleth was standing propped up against Verdess, both of them looking grim even by Grey standards. Even Tommi, who was normally bubbly and smiling these days, looked more like he had the day I found out about what his stepfather had done to him.

And I realised that this shambles really was my fault. Okay, I hadn’t been responsible for the portal failure – though maybe I should have mentioned the open tent flap before Stefan pressed the button – but I was supposed to be in charge, and I’d let us walk straight into enemy troops. No wonder Alain blamed me for what had happened to Oli.

At that moment I simply didn’t know what to do, and I was even contemplating walking back to the bridge and hoping the Greys would shoot me. I felt worse than I have ever felt, I think, even worse than when I thought we were all going to die in Hub Two: at least I wouldn’t have felt half as responsible if that had happened. I stood numbly, not knowing what to do or say.

And then Tommi ran towards me and threw his arms round me.

“It’s not true, what Alain was saying,” he said, and I realised that Alain had been yelling so much that everyone had heard him. “It’s not your fault – in fact, we’re all still alive because you sorted things out so quickly.”

And Radu and Marc came and put their arms round me too, and at that I simply burst into tears, standing there while my friends held me for… well, I’m not sure how long it was. I don’t think it could have been that long, because when I pulled myself together I saw that Marc had left us and was working on Oli’s arm, except that now he looked as if he was in better control of himself, too. Stefan reappeared, though without Alain, and went to help him, and soon the arm looked a lot better, with proper splints from the medical kit and bandages. Next Marc cleaned the cut on his head and bandaged that, too, and finally he moved on to Torth, and by that stage I felt up to going to help him.

“I think the bullet just grazed his skull,” said Marc. “I can’t feel any real damage, though I don’t know enough about these creatures to be sure his skull isn’t cracked. And I can’t tell from his eyes if there’s a serious problem or not: in humans if the pupils are a different size you know there’s pressure on the brain. In his case the pupils aren’t round, so I’m not sure if the same thing would happen. Really he needs an X-ray and a proper doctor, just in case – all I can do is to stop the bleeding.”

By the time Torth was properly bandaged up Alain had returned. He didn’t look at me, but he did say “Sorry” quietly to Marc.

“I know you’re doing your best,” he added. “I shouldn’t have shouted at you.”

“We should be moving out,” Stefan said to me quietly. “I don’t think the Greys across the river will bother looking for boats to come after us – by now they’ll expect us to be kilometres away. And the next bridge isn’t until whatever the Greys call Breisach. But we need to get to the Vosges – unless you think we should drop Torth off at a hospital on the way? Only that would mean going into a town – assuming there are any towns here that haven’t been bombed flat, that is – and I’d prefer not to do that.”

“Let’s ask Verdess and Sarleth what they think,” I said, and so I went and did that.

“I think we should stay with you for now,” said Verdess. “The Southern Bloc will be coming up this side of the river too, if they’re not here already, that is, and if they catch us the three of us will be shot or enslaved, and they’d probably kill you, too. And if our own lot find us first we’ll end up having to fight, like Torth said. I’d sooner stick with you for now. Except… where are you heading for?”

“There’s a place where we might be able to get out of this world completely,” I said, “the same way as we came in. That’s where we’re going. I’d say it’s about another hundred khirokubs or so, though we’ll probably have to wait quite a long time when we get there, and we might not be able to leave at all… but we’re going to try. Are the southerners likely to bomb this area? Obviously we don’t want to be anywhere they’re going to use those ultrasound bombs.”

“I don’t think so. This is farm country, and if they use ultrasound beacons or gas they’ll kill all the cattle – assuming the cattle haven’t already been evacuated northwards, of course. But if they’re still here the south will want them, so no gas and no ultrasound. And probably not too many concussion bombs, either.”

Well, that was good news, anyway.

Of course we were down to three drivers now, or four if I included Alain’s ability to drive the tank. I wasn’t sure about taking the tank: there would be plenty of room for everyone in the truck and the jeep. But on the other hand it had already proved its worth, and so even though it might slow us down – the transporter had, of course, been abandoned with the second truck back across the river – I decided to take it.

“Okay, we’re leaving,” I announced. “I want to get across to the Vosges as fast as possible, and certainly before nightfall. I’ll take Oli and Torth in the jeep, and Marc if there’s room, so he can keep an eye on them; Alain and Stefan will take the tank; and everyone else goes with Verdess in the truck.”

Five minutes after we left the canal I saw some cows in a field, and that made me feel a lot better: if what Verdess said was true we should be safe from bombing. I’d picked a route that avoided the few small towns on the map because I didn’t want to have to stop before we reached the mountains. The small places we bypassed looked absolutely normal, and occasionally I saw people moving about, though we also passed close to a much larger town – the Grey equivalent of Colmar – which had been extensively bombed and was now burning, suggesting that the attack had been fairly recent.

The nearest we came to encountering troops from either side was when our small convoy was heading north and a rather larger convoy of tanks went by heading south on a parallel road about half a kilometre away. They didn’t stop and neither, obviously, did we.

Eventually we drew close to the foot of the Vosges. We’d made quite good time: Oli had been right when he said the tank was capable of a good speed on flat ground. There was no town where Orschwiller stood in our world and no castle on the hill above it, but when we stopped briefly to confer Stefan was confident that we were in the right place. He had his notebook with him, of course, and was sure that he could find his way back to the place where the hut had stood in the other worlds we had visited. We were aware that there would be no hut here because we knew the Kerpians hadn’t found this world, but if we set up camp in the same area…

I knew the odds of finding a portal weren’t good, but I simply couldn’t think of anything else to do. And at least now we were properly equipped with tents and food and warm clothes.

Stefan got Alain to move the tank to the front of the column and guided him along a track that ran up into the trees. The first part of this was quite steep in places, and we had to use the four-wheel drive of the jeep and truck to make it, but after that it levelled out a bit and we followed the contours of a hill for a while. Finally the tank swung to the right into a valley and stopped.

“The hut was up on that ridge to our left,” said Stefan, once we had left the vehicles. “It would be better to set up camp here, though: we’ve got the stream for water and we’re sheltered from the wind – and there are enough trees here to give us cover from aerial reconnaissance, too. And I don’t think we’d get the truck up onto the ridge anyway.”

We set up two tents, one to act as living quarters and the other as a medical centre, and as soon as this one was pitched we moved Oli and Torth into it and got them into sleeping bags. Both were still unconscious, though Marc said that this was probably a good thing in Oli’s case, because he was sure that his arm would hurt really badly if he was awake. Marc said he would sleep in that tent too, in case he was needed in the night, and at that Radu declared that he would keep him company. Finally Alain said that nobody was going to keep him away from Oli, and that anyone who tried would have their face smashed it. Nobody tried.

The rest of us put our bags in the other tent, and then we pitched a third one to act as the kitchen store, with a couple of portable gas rings and the various pots and pans I’d rescued from the kitchen in Hilsstok. And I set to work straight away on preparing something to eat, while Stefan and Alain went up to the top of the ridge to scout around the site where the Nexus Room huts stood in other worlds. I was not surprised to learn that there was nothing there.

Both Torth and Oli woke up before we turned in for the night. Torth seemed to be okay except for a headache: he assured me, and I relayed it to Marc, that his eyesight was fine and that his sense of balance was unaffected.

“We’ll need to keep an eye on him for a couple of days to be sure,” Marc said. “And he shouldn’t go off on his own for a while, either. If he still feels okay in a couple of days’ time, he’s probably not got anything seriously wrong with him.”

Oli was a different matter: his head hurt, but his arm hurt a lot more. He tried hard not to complain about it, but it was obviously painful, and Marc had to give him pain-killers before he could get to sleep. But it had clearly cheered Alain up seeing him awake and talking lucidly, though he still avoided me for the rest of the evening.

Next day Stefan organised us into patrols, leaving only Oli, Sarleth and Marc in the camp. The rest of us fanned out, looking for anything unusual: patches of mist, places where the air was hazy, any place that looked in any way odd, and of course any people that might be around, especially if they were humans rather than Greys. And we went on doing that for the next four days, wandering about looking for something that, I was becoming more and more convinced, simply wasn’t there. Occasionally we could hear the distant rumble of guns or bombs, and once there was a faint whining noise that Verdess said was an ultrasound device, though one that was at least forty khirokubs away. But nobody came near our camp.

By the second day Torth was more or less back to normal, and by the third Sarleth had joined our scouting parties, propelling himself along quite quickly on the crutches we had brought from Hilsstok, but each day Oli’s arm was a little worse, and Marc was having to keep him semi-sedated for a lot of the time. And on the fourth day he took me to one side and said that he was running out of pain-killers. I was glad I hadn't asked for any to help me deal with the pain from my broken tooth – the tooth hurt, but at least I didn't now feel that I was contributing even further to Oli's pain.

“I don’t know what to do,” he confessed. “I’m scared the arm’s going to… well, turn gangrenous, and then we’d have to cut it off. Except I’m sure I won’t be able to do that, and I couldn’t possibly deal with tying off blood vessels and all that if somehow we did manage to cut it off. I know that in the old days you used to burn everything closed, but I think in Oli’s condition the shock would probably kill him. And if he dies Alain will go berserk, and I’m scared he’ll blame me…”

“He won’t,” I assured him. “He thinks it’s my fault, not yours. And probably he’s right. Just make the pills last as long as you can and tell me when you’re down to the last three or four.”

He agreed to do that, though I had no idea what we could do after the pills ran out. I thought he was right about amputating the arm: I didn’t see how Oli, in his already weakened condition, could possibly survive such a traumatic event. I went and asked Stefan, but he had no answers, either.

“I suppose we’ll have to try to remove the arm, then,” I said. “But I think I should do it. At least then Alain will only have one person to blame.”

“Leave Alain to me. I’ll find some way to stop him going out of control. And I think I should do the operation: I’m probably stronger than you, and I could get it done faster than you could.”

I didn’t want to argue at that stage, but I was determined that if anyone was going to face Alain’s grief if Oli died it would have to be me. Though I thought I’d sooner cut my own arm off than have to do that to Oli.

Next morning the scouts went out as before, and as before they came back at midday with nothing to report. Oli was moaning in a sort of semi-stupor and it was doing nothing for anyone’s morale, but Marc was trying to ration the last pain-killers, which meant keeping Oli at least semi-conscious.

I tidied the cooking materials away and prepared to head out for the afternoon patrol, but when I came out of the kitchen tent I saw Stefan, Radu and Tommi staring past me. I spun round to see what they were looking at – and saw a bank of mist less than fifty metres further up the valley.

“Is that what we’re looking for?” asked Radu.

I looked around, but there was no sign of mist anywhere else, and I took a step towards it, convinced that it was exactly what we had been looking for. And then Stefan grabbed my elbow and pulled me back.

“Wait,” he said, firmly. “If it is a portal, I’m going to scout through it first – after all, there could be poisonous gases on the other side, or it might come out on the edge of a cliff or in a glacier or something. If we all just rush into it we might all die. Don’t worry – the guy who found the first portal said it lasted a couple of days, remember? This one hasn’t been there a couple of hours yet.”

He went and got some rope – no doubt it had come from the stores at Hilsstok again – and tied one end around his waist. Then he handed me the other end and set off towards the mist.

“I should have picked up a gas mask while I was in the store-room,” he said, demonstrating that he was actually fallible after all. “I’ll just hold my breath and hope for the best.” And he grinned at me and strode into the mist.

I moved to the edge of it and held the other end of the rope firmly, fearing the worst. The worst was that something horrible would be on the far side of the portal – a volcano, a radioactive wasteland or a pack of tyrannosaurs, or something similar. The second worst was that this would just be a random bank of mist and that there wouldn’t be a portal at all. But when Stefan returned a couple of minutes later he was smiling happily.

“It’s a portal, and it’s a big one,” he said. “And there’s a building not too far away, so maybe we can get some help for Oli. Of course, there might not be any people there, or the people might not be friendly, but it has to be better than here, hasn’t it?”

“I should think so,” I agreed. “Let’s get packed up, anyway.”

“One more thing,” said Stefan. “I think we should take the vehicles. I’m pretty sure the portal is big enough – it’s certainly wide enough, anyway. That way we’ll have the tank if the natives are hostile, and if the worst comes to the worst we could point the tank at them and say something like ‘Sort out our friend’s arm, or else!’ Obviously it would be better if we don’t have to, but it would be sensible to make sure we do everything we can for Oli, wouldn’t it?”

That made sense. But before we did anything else I thought I should ask the Grey boys what they were going to do.

“We don't know what's through there,” I said. “It could be a world where your people live, or ours, or both, or even another species entirely, and in any case it might not be safe. At least here you know you're with your own race, even if it isn't too good here at the moment. But it's up to you: if you want to come with us you certainly can, and if it's a human world we'll do our best to make sure you're safe until you can come back through again.”

They conferred briefly, and then Torth said, “I think we'll come with you. This place is going to be dangerous for ages, and there might be more bombing. And it might be interesting to see another world.”

“Okay. In that case, you can keep driving the truck, Verdess.”

We cleared the camp at top speed, stuffing the tents and everything else into the back of the truck any old how, and then we jumped into the three vehicles and drove into the mist. And when we emerged on the other side we were in a greener valley which seemed to have been landscaped into a large, semi-wild garden, with shrubs dotted here and there and a track winding along beside the stream. The trees had been cut back in places and removed completely in others, and it made it easy for us to follow the track towards the building Stefan had seen. And as we got closer I could see that there were a couple of people standing outside waiting for us. And they were human, not Grey.

For better or worse, we were in another new world.