The Second Nexus

by David Clarke

Chapter Five

I stopped the jeep just short of the building and got out, and now I could see that both men were dressed in long black robes. The older of the two stepped forward and greeted me – in Latin. I could make out a couple of words – “Pax vobiscum,” at least - but since I only studied Latin for two years it would be fair to say that my knowledge of the language was rather incomplete.

“Salvete, domini,” I replied. “I don’t suppose you speak English, by any chance?”

Apparently they didn’t. There was a flag flying just beside the door to the building, and that was of a gold eagle on a red and black background. Eagles to me say ‘Germany’, so I called Stefan forwards and suggested he try that language, and it worked a treat: soon there was a proper exchange going on.

“We’re in the Holy Roman Empire,” Stefan told me – actually I’d understood a little of this, too, because I’d spent three and a half months immersing myself in Elsassisch, and the dialect of German being spoken was very similar. “These are monks, and this place is a sort of outpost from their main monastery in Oberehnheim. And the portals are the reason it’s here: it was built to help travellers who stumbled through the portals from other worlds. So they’ve met Greys before – apparently the portal we came though appears quite frequently. Generally this place exists to give the travellers a place to rest until the portal reappears and they can go home – the monks here see it as their duty of hospitality. And now I’m going to ask if they can do something about Oli’s arm.”

He spoke with the two monks for a bit longer and then called for Alain to bring Oli forward. And the two monks took one look and hustled Alain and Stefan into the building, Alain still carrying Oli in his arms. The rest of us simply waited where we were.

Five minutes or so later the younger monk came back outside. As Stefan wasn’t with him I thought we had a communication problem, but I’d forgotten that there was someone in the party whose Elsassisch was a lot better than mine: Marc stepped forward and asked in that language what was happening. The monk spoke to him briefly, and Marc turned to me and gave me a French translation, telling me that the hospitaler thought the arm could be saved, but that he wasn’t equipped to deal with it here… and at that point the monk interrupted him and asked me in French if I could understand him. I told him that I could.

“Then I can ask you direct,” the monk went on in French. “We need to take your friend to the infirmary in Schlettstadt for treatment – we don’t have the equipment here for proper surgery. May we do that?”

“Of course – you can do whatever it takes,” I said. “Can all of you speak French? See, the injured boy is a native speaker, and his brother, the one who was carrying him, is too. If they can understand what’s going on it will be a lot easier for them.”

“We don’t all speak French, but enough of us do that we can tell them what is happening. Wait here for a moment – I’ll go and tell Brother Gottfried that we can get him to the infirmary.”

He went back into the monastery and returned a couple of minutes later with Stefan.

“They’re taking him to hospital,” Stefan told me. “And they’re sending a French speaker with them so that Alain can be told what’s happening. And the hospitaler is pretty sure it’s not too late to save the arm, too.”

“I know,” I said. “This brother told us.”

“I’m Brother Paul,” the monk told me. “And if you’d all like to come with me we’ll find you somewhere to rest while you wait for your friend.”

He took us into the building. I have to say that it didn’t look much like a monastery: it was more like a cheap hotel, with a reception desk close to the door and what appeared to be a lounge to one side, and it was the lounge that he led us into, telling us to sit down and relax. The chairs were surprisingly comfortable – again, I would have expected a monastery to supply only upright wooden chairs, or maybe church pews. But I suppose that if this place catered for lost travellers perhaps the usual rules didn’t apply.

“Now,” said Brother Paul, “I’d really like to hear your story, because we normally only see a lone traveller, or maybe a couple, who got lost in the mist. And you came out of the reptile world, and we have never seen humans come through that gateway before, let alone an organised party of humans and reptiles, complete with a war machine. So how did you get there?”

“Hold on a moment – you know where that portal goes to?”

“Of course – it appears frequently, and in the early days of our house we carried out short explorations of the world beyond. We did that for each of the gateways.”

“Each of… you mean there are more? How many – and where do they go?”

“There are three that appear frequently and another two that are much more erratic. The reptile world gateway appears perhaps every two weeks. There is the gateway to the hot world and the one to the frozen world – those both appear every four to six weeks. And then there are the two that appear irregularly, and not very often: one to a world of machines, and one to a green world, though we know little about these because we dare not explore them in case we are cut off when the gateway fails. We have never had a visitor from the green world, so we know nothing of that one at all. But you have not answered my question – how do humans and reptiles come to be travelling together?”

“Well, we shouldn’t have been in the reptile world at all: we went there by accident. See…” And I explained what had happened, how we were travelling home from Kerpia when the portal failed. I didn’t bother explaining why we were in Kerpia, or how we had originally met, because I thought it would take too long.

“So there are more gateways in other places?” asked Brother Paul. “And some of them can be controlled by men? That sounds interesting, though I’m not sure if Father Abbot in Oberehnheim would approve: he sees the gateways as the work of God, and not something to be tampered with. Mind you, he can be a little old-fashioned: it took him a long time to accept that the reptiles are true people like ourselves, and not demons of some sort. Those of us who work here have seen enough of them to know the truth, and some of us have managed to speak with them a little, too, even though their language is strange.”

“It's not that strange,” I said. “Of course, I didn't have to learn it in the usual way... so some of the brothers can actually speak Grey?”

“'Grey'? That's what you call their language? Well, I wouldn't say we can speak it, exactly: we've simply learned a few basic words, like 'rest' and 'eat', which are useful when one of them stumbles through the gateway by accident.”

“Oh. Well, I expect we can teach you a few proper phrases, if you like.”

“That would definitely be useful. But before that we should get you registered – Father Abbot likes us to keep a clear record of our visitors. So may I start with your names?”

So I supplied everyone's names, though I didn't bother asking the Greys if they had numbers after their names, the way the ones in Haless's world had – I thought their single given names would be adequate.

“Thank you,” said Brother Paul. “In a moment I'll show you to your rooms, but first there are a few basic rules we like you to keep while you're staying with us. First, please keep to your rooms during the night, and vacate them at First Bell. Breakfast will be served in the refectory – I'll show you where to go in a moment – and after breakfast you may use this room, or walk in the grounds as much as you wish. You'd be welcome to join us for services in the chapel if you are members of the Roman church, or there is a small prayer room for those who are of the Lutheran or other Protestant persuasion. That may seem strange to you, but although we are a Roman order, the Dekapole – that is the Ten Cities, to which both Schlettstadt and Oberehnheim belong - are Protestant. We therefore cater for Protestant visitors.

“I know that the reptiles follow no known religion, but you others would be most welcome if you wish to join us. Except...”

He had caught sight of the Star of David, which had somehow found its way outside Stefan's shirt.

“I’m sorry,” he went on, “but Jews may not enter this house. Really you are supposed to remain in the Jewish Quarter in either Strassburg or Mühlhausen, and we can arrange transport for you to either tomorrow if you wish. But for tonight…”

“Don’t worry,” said Stefan. “I’m not Jewish. This was given to me by a friend.”

Brother Paul looked uncertain. “Forgive me,” he said. “I don’t wish to doubt your word, but I have never seen that symbol worn by anyone who wasn’t Jewish.”

Stefan unzipped his jeans and demonstrated that he wasn’t circumcised.

“Satisfied?” he said. “Though in any case I can’t see the problem with admitting Jews. They follow the same God, don’t they?”

“The Jews have rejected Our Lord!” declared Brother Paul. “It is one thing to accept travellers who have no god, but we may not admit those who have actively rejected the one true God. In any event, you aren’t Jewish, so we needn’t worry ourselves about it. So, the other rules are simple: don’t make too much noise – there are brethren here engaged in contemplation and prayer at all times – and abstain from sins of the flesh while you are here. I’m thinking more of the reptiles in your party when I say that – they have unconventional practices at times. Perhaps you could ask them not to indulge while you are here. Now if you’d like to come with me I’ll show you your rooms.”

He took us further into the building, up some stairs and along a corridor that had doors all the way along, like in a hotel. But when I saw the room I was going to be staying in I decided that maybe it was more like a prison than a hotel: the room held a narrow bed, a small desk, an upright chair and a very small wardrobe. At the far end another door led to a room containing a shower, a toilet and a tiny washbasin. There was a narrow window at the end of the room next to the desk, with a view of the forest, and there was a plain wooden cross above the bed. And that was all there was – no TV and no radio, though I did subsequently discover a copy of the Bible in the desk drawer. It was in German, so I wouldn’t have been able to make much of it even if I’d felt like reading it.

We moved our bags into our rooms, and then Brother Paul took us to the refectory, which was on the ground floor, and told us that supper would be served there when the Third Bell was sounded – which, he told me when I asked, would be at around six-thirty. First I went and spoke to the hospitaler and got the remains of my tooth pulled – he said it was loose already, and pulling it out was the best way to deal with it. That took all of five minutes, which still gave us around four hours to kill, so Stefan and I went for a walk around the grounds.

“I didn’t like that bit about sins of the flesh,” I said. “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to resist, especially with you being right next door…”

He smiled at me. “I’m glad you feel like that,” he said. “But… I don’t know, maybe we ought to keep to their rules, at least until Oli is back with us. There’s a camera in the corridor, or didn’t you notice? And that means that if we start slipping into each other’s rooms they’ll know about it, and I don’t think we should do anything to annoy them until Oli is back to normal. Besides, there’s barely room for one person to sleep in those beds, never mind two. We can always sneak off into the woods if we want to do anything we shouldn’t.”

“Yes, but it’s cold outdoors.”

“It is, isn’t it? I hope the vehicles will be okay if we’re not going to use them for a few days. Perhaps we should check.”

“Surely they’re built to survive being outdoors?” I said. “These are army vehicles, after all.”

“True, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to be sure. Come on.” And he grinned at me and headed off to where we had parked the vehicles.

He declared that the truck and jeep would probably be fine but that the tank was a bit more of a worry, because it used a much bigger battery than the other vehicles, and we could hardly push-start it if the battery went flat. He grabbed a couple of blankets from the back of the truck and strode on towards the tank.

“Come on,” he said, raising the hatch and dropping down inside. And I followed him in – in any case I was curious to see what it looked like inside. And I still didn’t get it until he closed the hatch after us and spread one of the blankets out on the floor.

“I shouldn’t think anyone will interrupt us here,” he said. “’Just remember to mind your head if you stand up.”

There wasn’t a lot of room inside: there was a place for the driver on one side at the front, a place for a gunner next to him, and a couple of tip-up seats behind them for the remainder of the crew. Where we were was underneath the main armament, and Stefan was right to point out that if you stood up too quickly you’d probably brain yourself on the breech. The back of the tank was largely taken up with the batteries – two of them, extremely large ones – and the shells for the main gun. There was just about enough room under the gun for the two of us to lie down side by side.

It wasn’t particularly warm to start with, but because this was a Grey vehicle and Greys don’t function well in cold conditions there was a heater in the main compartment, and once Stefan turned this on it soon became more comfortable. He also turned on a light so that we could see what we were doing, because with the hatches all closed to keep out the cold it was very dark in there.

That floor was very hard, though, and so after a couple of minutes Stefan ran back to the truck and returned with a couple of sleeping bags, and lying on top of those it was a lot more comfortable.

“So,” he said, once the heater had done its job, “about those sins of the flesh you mentioned: what did you have in mind?”

“Well, we could just try taking our clothes off and see what happens.”

So we did that, and then we wrapped the other blanket around us, turned the light off again – it was sort of fun being together in the dark - and cuddled for a bit, and that led us to doing other things...

There was no doubting that Stefan had rather more hair now than he had when we first met some five months previously. I mean, I'd seen him undressed several times in the meantime, but now that it was just my fingers doing the exploring instead of my eyes I was aware that it was thicker. I suppose my hair had grown a bit too, come to think of it... anyway, running my fingers through Stefan's hair felt nice, and when I moved from his hair to his erection, that felt even nicer.

I started to wriggle down, but the space wasn't big enough, and so instead I reversed my position so that my head was in line with his feet and then wriggled the other way, and this time there was enough room. I'd never tried sucking this way round, but it seemed to work perfectly well, to judge by the noises Stefan was making. And then, while I was still sucking him, I suddenly felt my own erection engulfed in his mouth, and I was so shocked that he was lucky I didn't bite him.

Until now we'd never considered doing it to each other at the same time: instead we'd always taken it in turns. Now I found out what we'd been missing. It felt amazing, and the only problem was that we both got too excited too quickly.

“You know,” Stefan told me when I'd finally stopped writhing against him, “you've got a lot more sperm now than you had last summer: I reckon you could mark two or three doors if we were down in the Nexus room. Of course, I could mark ten or eleven...”

“You wish. Next time we'll leave the light on in here and check out exactly how much we've both got, because I reckon I've caught you up.”

He gave a splutter of laughter and wriggled round so that we were facing the same way again, and then he pulled the blanket back over us and hugged me. And I hugged him back, and we held each other until we had recovered enough to start again.

We were in the tank for most of the afternoon, doing things both manual and oral, though we still held off from doing what we had planned for December 12th – even though in one way it would have been interesting for our first experience to have been in a Grey tank parked outside a monastery, we still wanted to wait until we were home and in our own bed once more.

And after we were both too spent to do anything else Stefan turned the light on and we just cuddled some more.

“Do you think Alain will forgive me?” I asked.

“There’s nothing to forgive, and I’m pretty sure Alain knows that. He’s just terrified of losing Oli, exactly the same as I would be if it was you who had got shot, and you don’t think straight when you’re in that frame of mind. Once Oli has recovered Alain will be fine.”

“I hope so. I know if I lost you I wouldn’t want to go on living.”

“Hey, don’t talk like that! First, you not going to lose me, but second, even if you did you’d survive – and eventually you’d find someone else and be happy. “

“No, I wouldn’t. I’ve no idea how I survived thirteen years without you, and I don’t want to try carrying on without you.”

“Look, I don’t want to think of you killing yourself if anything happens to me. Even if you don’t think you’ll meet someone else, there are other things you could do with your life. Perhaps you could join a monastery - I’m sure Brother Paul would appreciate your ability to speak Grey.”

“He wouldn’t appreciate the fact that I haven’t got a foreskin, though. It sounds positively medieval here, making the Jews live in a ghetto in Strasbourg or Mulhouse…” I broke off, but of course the damage was done.

“It wasn't just in the Middle Ages, Jake. There were Jewish ghettoes in the Reich before the Jews were sent to the east and…”

“Okay, Stefi, we don’t need to go there again,” I interrupted. “Let’s just say that I won’t be advertising my origins to Brother Paul and his colleagues, and then we can forget all about ghettoes and go somewhere else instead. You heard what he said – it looks as if we have a choice of portals here, so where do you think we should go next?”

“I don’t like the idea of a frozen world much, and the portals to the world with the machines and the green one sound a bit too erratic. I think maybe we should try the hot one next – as long as it’s not too hot, of course – because if we don’t find another one going back home there we can always come back here. We’ll have to ask Brother Paul how hot is hot – if we’re talking about the inside of a volcano we’d probably do better to wait until the one to the machine world appears again, even if that’s a long time off. Maybe a world with machines will be advanced enough to have its own portal system.”

“If the hot one is just warm I think I’d like to try that – it would make a nice change from the weather round here.”

“And it would be a good idea not to stay here too long anyway, just in case the people here dislike Jews enough to do more than just putting them in a ghetto. We’ll have to make sure we tell Radu and Marc to keep their clothes on in public, too, just in case the Brothers think they’re Jewish.”

“I don’t think they do a lot of running about naked,” I said. “At least, not when the weather is like this. I will make sure they all stick to their own rooms, though – that way there shouldn’t be any danger of them being caught without their trousers on.”

We lay quietly for a while in each other’s arms, and when we finally emerged – and we only left the tank because we were in danger of missing supper if we hadn’t – I felt a lot better. Stefan turned off the heater and light so as not to drain the battery, though we left the sleeping bags and blankets where they were: we both thought we’d be using the tank again if we were going to have to stay here for any length of time.

Supper was basic but edible – a piece of chicken accompanied by some unexceptional vegetables, and it really needed a proper sauce… but it was hot, and that was the main thing. The Greys didn’t join us for the meal: apparently they had recovered sufficiently for their usual three-day eating pattern to have reasserted itself. Before the meal the older brother we had met on arrival stood up and gave a brief blessing in Latin, and during it another brother read a passage from the Bible. As it was in German and I have no knowledge at all of the New Testament I was unable to make anything of it.

After the meal I told everyone I wanted to talk to them in the lounge next to the entrance, and when we got there we found the Greys already there. I explained to everyone, first in Kerpian (and today Stefan translated for Marc) and then in Grey, that we were going to be staying here until another portal was available, and that I wanted everyone to abide by the house rules and stick to their own rooms at night. The two older Greys seemed a little disappointed – I suppose Sarleth was well enough now to resume playing the female for them – but they agreed, all the same. Afterwards I impressed upon Radu and Marc that they should be particularly careful, explaining why, and they said they’d be sure not to let anyone see them undressed.

It was only about nine o’clock when Brother Paul came and told us that we should go to our rooms.

“We keep the old monastic hours here,” he said, “and that means that breakfast is likely to be earlier than you are used to. You’ll be woken in time to wash before breakfast, but I would advise you to go to bed now or you won’t get enough sleep.”

So we went to our rooms, and that bed was very narrow and very hard, but I managed to get to sleep in the end. And in what seemed to be no time at all a bell rang – in my room, I thought, because it was very loud, but on further investigation later I found a small speaker built into the wall above the door – and I managed to drag myself out of bed and stumble to the washroom. The water in the washbasin was cold, which certainly woke me up but didn’t encourage me to try a shower. I washed and dressed, and was just doing up my shoelaces when the door opened and Brother Paul looked in.

“Oh, good, you’re up,” he said. “Can I leave you to rouse your friends? Breakfast will be in the refectory in ten minutes – and don’t be late, because we have to be at Prime shortly afterwards and we have to clear everything away before we go to the chapel.”

I went down the corridor, knocking and putting my head around each door. Stefan was already up and dressed; Radu’s room was empty but I could hear his shower running; Marc was just in the process of pulling a shirt over his head; and Tommi was still lying in bed, and when I told him to get up he made a rude noise at me and rolled over away from me. So of course I went into the room, dragged the bedclothes off him and tickled him, which was easy because he was sleeping naked, a bad habit I had got him into when we had shared a bed in Haless’s school. He also had a very solid erection, which he made no attempt to hide from me.

“Come on, Tommi, get up, or you’ll miss breakfast,” I said, and when he made no attempt to move I picked him up and carried him into the washroom. I ran some cold water into the basin, picked up his flannel and threatened him with it, and at that he succumbed to the inevitable and grabbed the soap.

“You just wait,” he said. “One day I’ll drag you out of bed when you’re all nice and cosy, and we’ll see how you like it!”

“If you missed breakfast you’d be sure to complain,” I pointed out.

“Well, you could bring me something to eat in bed, couldn’t you?”

“Tommi, you are so lazy. Anyway, if I did that you’d get crumbs in the bed and then they’d keep you awake the next night.”

“I don’t drop crumbs.”

“You’re not going to get the chance. Come on, Tommi, please get washed – I’ve still got to go and get the Greys up.”

“I shouldn’t think they’ll want breakfast,” he pointed out seriously, starting to wash. “They don’t normally, do they?”

“You’re probably right, but I’d better go and make sure they’re okay anyway.”

“Say ‘good morning’ to Sarleth for me. Tell him we can go for a walk later if he likes – it’ll give him a chance to see how his leg’s doing, and if he can’t manage I can let him lean on me.”

“You like him, don’t you?”

Tommi shrugged. “I think he’s nice. Maybe when his leg stops hurting he’ll want to play with me.”

“Tommi, you know Greys don’t think like we do, and… well, they don’t really have friends the way we do. You can’t rely on them.”

“I know. But I had some fun with Trethar that time, and I think maybe Sarleth would like to have someone to talk to, even if they don’t make friends properly like we do. And… well, I’m sort of on my own otherwise: there’s you and Stefan, Alain and Oli and Radu and Marc. I’m feeling just sort of spare.”

“You’re not just sort of spare!” I said, spinning him round to face me and hugging him hard, even though his hands were dripping. “You’re our friend, Tommi, you know that, and we all… hell, we love you, okay? You’re one of us, the Mad Hintraten Stokers, and we always stick up for each other, don’t we? I haven’t forgotten how you were ready to come back for me when we escaped from the Hub office, or how you stopped me from running right past the ladder afterwards. You’re special, Tommi. Okay, I know the rest of us are sort of paired off, but you mustn’t think you’re some sort of spare part, because that isn’t true! Okay?”

“Okay,” he agreed.

“Right. And if you ever think we’re ignoring you or anything, come and remind me of this, okay?”

“Okay,” he said, again.

“Good. Now finish getting washed and get dressed, and I’ll see you in a moment.”

I left him washing his face and went to see if the Greys wanted breakfast, finding, as Tommi had predicted, that they weren’t hungry. They said they would get up shortly, though, and Sarleth said he’d take Tommi up on his offer of a walk round after breakfast. I went back to Tommi’s room to tell him so and found him sitting on the bed in his underwear trying to undo a knot in his shoelaces. While I was waiting for him I found my watch in my jacket pocket and put it on, and I found to my horror that it was only twenty-five to six.

We were at breakfast five minutes later, yawning, and I have to say that the porridge we were served seemed hardly worth getting up for, though the milk that accompanied it was really nice and tasted far better than the usual stuff. I mentioned this to Brother Paul later, and he told me that the monks kept their own cows – which probably meant that what we had been drinking would have been condemned out of hand by the safety-obsessed food industry back in the version of England where I had lived until six months ago.

The monks disappeared as soon as breakfast had been cleared away to say Prime in the chapel – apparently we had already missed Lauds, which had taken place before breakfast – and that left us to our own devices. I was tempted to go back to bed, but I supposed that would probably be against the rules of the house or something, so instead I went to the lounge and started playing chess against Marc, who had brought his own pocket set with him from Elsass.

Most of the others drifted into the room over the next half hour or so – it was too cold to do very much outdoors, and it was still dark, too: at this time of year the sun probably wouldn’t rise much before half-past eight.

A little later Brother Paul came to join us and asked if we would like to go down to Schlettstadt to visit Oli – apparently he’d just called the hospital and found that the operation had been a success and the arm had been saved, though the bone was now held together with screws and a metal brace. As there was virtually nothing to do where we were we all said we’d like to go, though Brother Paul said that the Greys should stay here: it might not be safe for them to go into a town whose people had never seen a Grey before. At that Tommi said he’d stay to keep Sarleth company, as long as we promised to give Oli his best wishes.

I hadn’t seen much in the way of technology at the monastery: the lights were electric, but somehow you don’t really notice those when it’s what you’re used to anyway, and there was the CCTV camera in the corridor, but still I had visions of being taken to town in a horse-drawn cart or something similar. Instead we were taken through to the other end of the monastery, where there was a sort of miniature tube station, with a one-wagon railcar sitting at the platform. We got on board, the doors closed and the railcar moved off, making very little noise. It reminded me of the Capsule between the two Hubs in the Kerpian world, not least because it started out running through a tunnel. But after two or three minutes it emerged into the open, and it was light enough now for us to see the landscape around us, which seemed to be largely given over to vineyards.

In another five minutes we were running through the outskirts of a town, and again my expectations were not met: somehow the words ‘Holy Roman Empire’ had led me to expect tall, crooked houses with exposed beams, like the ones in Alain’s version of Colmar. Instead it looked almost the same as the version of Schlettstadt we had visited in modern Elsass.

There were trams here, too, and Brother Paul took us on one from the station to the hospital, though this wasn’t in the same place as the one we had visited before. I thought the nursing staff would refuse to let us all visit at the same time – in most hospitals there seems to be a limit of two or three visitors – but nobody tried to stop us from piling into Oli’s room. He was sitting up in bed and looking a lot happier, and Alain was sitting in the chair beside him.

“Hi, Oli,” I said. “How do you feel – is the arm OK?”

“Well, it still hurts a bit. There’s a metal rod inside it holding the bits of bone together, though the doctor says I’m young enough that the bone should repair itself eventually, and then they’ll be able to take the rod out again. And – thanks, Marc,” he added, switching to French. “Alain tells me you stopped most of the bleeding and kept it from hurting too much. He thinks I’d have died if you hadn’t been there.”

Marc shook his head. “I didn’t do much,” he said. “Stefan did the splints, and I only gave you pills and stuff to try to stop it hurting you. Anyone could have done that.”

“I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned I owe you a lot. So, Jake,“ (back to Kerpian again, so that most of the others could understand), “what are we going to do now? Does this place have a portal system, like the Kerpians?”

“Not a proper controlled one, no. But the monastery is sort of like a natural Nexus: there are five different portals that appear near it from time to time, and they all go to different worlds. Once you’re out of bed again we’re going to pick one of them and see where it goes – maybe there’ll be a way back to one of our proper worlds from there.”

“Okay. The doctors say I can probably come home… well, you know, come back to join you, tomorrow. Then we can go and have a look at another world, can’t we?” And he smiled happily, and I smiled back, happy to see that our old, optimistic, cheerful Oli had somehow survived intact through everything that had happened to him.

We stayed with him for a little longer. Brother Paul said that we could have a look round the town as long as we were back at the station by half past eleven: he had to be back in time for the next office, Sext, at midday.

“Is there a library here?” I asked.

“Well, we have one at the monastery, though the main one is at the mother house.”

“No, I mean a public library.”

Public library? I have never heard of such a thing. What would one do?”

“Well, it lends books to ordinary people.”

He stared at me. “What, just anyone? What sort of books?”

“All sorts – stories, mostly, but books that help people to learn things, too.”

“Stories? Things that aren’t real? Doesn’t the church forbid that sort of thing?”

“Well… no. I suppose the church doesn’t have a problem with it. After all, there are lots of stories in the Bible, aren’t there?”

“Yes, but those are real, and given to us by God! You obviously come from a very strange world. Here the church – well, the churches, because in this area the Lutheran churches form part of the government – decide what can be taught and what can be made available to the people, and in general we limit ourselves to the Bible and the teachings of Holy Mother Church. I believe that the King of France allows secular books in his kingdom, but even there the Church has a say in whether or not such books are permitted: anything unwholesome or contrary to the Law of God would, of course, be forbidden. We have a duty to educate God’s children in the right way…”

He broke off and smiled. “I’m sorry, I’m preaching,” he said. “I usually leave that to Father Abbot and Brother Prior. But I’m not used to speaking to someone from another world in quite such detail – after all, usually we only see the reptiles, whose language we can’t speak properly, or people from the hot world, where they live a very simple life – and there, too, language is a problem. Anyway, there is no library here, though if you want to have a look at ours when we get back you’d be very welcome, though I’m not sure if you would find what you’re looking for there: we only have devotional material from some of the doctors of the church, plus a little history. I suppose you might find that interesting…”

He said goodbye and left, and the rest of us stood in the hospital foyer debating where to go. Of course, we had no money that would be accepted here, and that rather limited our options, but we decided to just wander round for a bit, looking at the shops and anything else that might look interesting. We were heading towards the door when Alain suddenly appeared at my side.

“Hold on, Jake,” he said. “We need to talk.”

And before I could say anything he grabbed my elbow and propelled me down the nearest corridor and through the first door we came to, which turned out to be a broom cupboard. Alain turned the light on and closed the door behind us.

I wasn’t sure what to expect: after all, Alain had studiously ignored me since smacking me on the jaw and breaking my tooth beside the bridge over the Rhine. So I didn’t say anything and just waited for him to get his words in order.

“How’s your jaw?” he said, eventually.

“Okay. Brother Gottfried sorted it out for me”

“Good.” There was a pause. “Look, Jake… I’m sorry, okay? It wasn’t your fault – none of it was. We both wanted to come when you said you were going back to Kerpia, so that wasn’t your fault, and Oli getting shot… that was mine. I should have told him to stay in the tank. You were right to try to save Torth, too… in fact, you were right all the time. It’s just… I was so scared, Jake… I think you and Stefan are the only ones who know how much I love him, and I didn’t think I could survive without him – and later, after he woke up, he was hurting so much and there was nothing I could do… I’ve never felt so useless before: when things went wrong for one of the boys back in Columbarier I almost always managed to fix it, and at the Hub I could shoot back, even if I wasn’t much good with a gun… I hated feeling like that, hearing him crying and not being able to do anything about it…

“Anyway, I’m sorry I was such a bastard to you, especially after everything you and Stefan have done for us. Are we still okay, you and me?”

I looked at him. “If Oli had died, would you still be saying this?” I asked.

He hesitated. “No,” he admitted. “Probably not. But I’d still know it wasn’t your fault, even if I didn’t want to admit it.”

“You can be a stupid bastard sometimes,” I said. “Don’t you realise that if something like that happened me and Stefan would be there to help you –and we’d need you to help us, too, because I don’t know how I would cope if Oli… I mean, you know – you and him are like my brothers now.”

“I know. That’s why I hope you can forgive me – after all, brothers fight all the time, but even when they do I think they still love each other. There were two brothers in our gang in Columbarier, Achille and Ulysse, and they fought all the time, but they always made it up afterwards. So… are we going to make it up? Please?”

“Well… of course we are,” I said, succumbing to the hangdog expression he was wearing. “Come here.” And I hugged him hard.

“Thanks, Jake,” he said, hugging me back. “I won’t do it again.”

“I bet you do. I know you, Alain – you often say things without stopping to think first.”

“Well, if I do, you can hit me as hard as you like – or get Stefan to do it, because I think he’d hit harder than you.”

“Are you calling me a weed?”

“No! I mean…”

“You’re right, I am. So I will get Stefan to clout you next time you act like an idiot, okay? Now come on, or the nurses will start thinking we’re having sex in here or something.”

“I’m not that desperate!”

“I’ll remember that,” I said, returning his grin and opening the door.

We went back to the foyer. The others were still waiting, so Alain went back up to Oli’s room and the rest of us went into town.

Now that I was aware of it I noticed the absence of bookshops, tobacconists – nobody we saw was smoking – and newspaper sellers, though there was a stand near the station selling a single newspaper. It was written in black-letter Gothic script, so I couldn’t read it and even Stefan struggled, but when we found a discarded copy in a bin a little later he translated the lead story, which was about a proposed meeting between the Emperor Karl-Franz and the Tsar of Russia, which was supposed to resolve once and for all the status of Poland. The paper clearly considered that as Poland was a Catholic country it belonged inside the Empire, and that the Tsar had only a tenuous claim to its eastern borders.

The rest of the shops seemed rather old-fashioned: there were fishmongers and butchers and bakers and grocers, but no supermarkets; there were clothes shops for men and clothes shops for women, but no large department stores; and there were furniture shops and antique shops, none of which was very large. There seemed to be a single bank, which had a number of branches, and a couple of post offices, and cleaners and repair shops for clothing… but there were no shops selling electrical goods at all – no TVs, hi-fis, DVD players or computers. The closest thing there was seemed to be a small outlet selling (so far as we could see) nothing but lights and light bulbs.

“This place must be really boring,” commented Marc. “If there’s no radio, no TV and no computers, what do people do in the evenings?”

“Go to church, probably,” I said, because there seemed to be no shortage of ecclesiastical buildings in the town. There was no sign of either a mosque or a synagogue, but there were plenty of Protestant chapels and a Catholic cathedral and several churches.

“Well, I’m glad I don’t live here,” said Marc. “You can’t even read a book, unless it’s that boring religious thing in my desk drawer.”

Of course Marc’s home world was largely secular now, so it was perhaps not surprising that he’d never read the Bible before.

“Well, with a bit of luck there’ll be a portal we can take out of here before too long,” I said. “Until then we’ll have to survive with some long walks in the forest – though maybe you and Radu might like to help us by checking that the batteries on the tank aren’t running down too quickly.”

“Huh? What’s the point of that – I mean, we can’t charge them up here anyway – can we?”

“Probably not. But I reckon that it would be useful if you two were to spend an hour or so inside the tank every now and again, just checking it over and… stuff… You’ll find a heater on the left hand wall, and we’ve left a couple of sleeping bags and a few blankets there, too…”

“Oh!” Daylight dawned, and a huge smile spread over Marc’s face. He whispered in Radu’s ear for a moment, and Radu started smiling, too.

“Thanks, Jake,” he said. “We’ll tell you when we go to carry out our, um, inspection, so we don’t both decide to check it out at the same time… perhaps we should have a look at it this afternoon?”

“Okay. It’ll be our turn tomorrow afternoon, in that case.”

We strolled back to the station. I wondered how long we would have to wait for the next railbus back to the monastery, but it turned out that, since the line between the town and the monastery was privately owned by the church, we didn’t have to wait at all: Brother Paul just stepped into the cab and pressed a switch as soon as we were all on board, and after that the train ran automatically, just as the Capsule had done.

The rest of the day crawled by. After lunch Stefan and I went out for a walk, though we kept well clear of the tank. It might have been fun to see what Radu and Marc were up to, but I didn’t want them spying on us the following day, and so we politely kept our distance.

By the time nine o’clock came round I was so bored I was not at all reluctant to go to bed. I really hoped one of the other portals would manifest itself soon…

The following morning began in a way that was anything but boring: less than ten seconds after the bell woke me up a fully-dressed Tommi burst into my room and wrenched the bedclothes off, and then slapped a cold, damp flannel into my face. I pulled it away and glared at him, and he simply grinned.

“Told you,” he said. “Now get up and have a wash.”

I made a grab for him but missed, and he took hold of my balls – like him I was sleeping naked – and squeezed hard enough for me to stop struggling. He towed me into the washroom, turned the shower on and shoved me under it - and, as I had feared, the water was freezing cold. I was certainly awake by the time he let me out.

He handed me a towel and retired to the main room, and when I came out, still vigorously drying myself in an attempt to get warm, he grinned at me again.

“That’s what you get for bullying,” he told me. “Next time I’ll pour a bucket of cold water over you.”

“You do that and I’ll leave you behind when we go through the next portal,” I threatened.

“No, you won’t,” he said, confidently. “You’re too nice to do that.”

“I won’t be nice if you pour water over me in bed. That would definitely be crossing the line.”

I found my underpants and pulled them on. “So how did you get on with Sarleth yesterday?”

“It was fun. We didn’t go very far because his leg is still a bit sore, and it was too cold for him really, even though he’s got proper clothes now. But we found somewhere out of the wind and sat and talked quite a lot. I told him all about the school and the tests I’d done with Trethar, and he thought that sounded interesting. He didn’t believe me when I said there were things I did better than Trethar, though, and he’s challenged me to take some tests with him when his leg’s better. I think he’s nice. And it’s okay, Jake, I know they’re different, and he’s probably not able to make friends the way you and me are friends, but at least it means I’ve got someone to talk to when the rest of you are doing boyfriend stuff.”

I finished getting dressed and we went down to breakfast together, and another slow and not very exciting day went by, although Stefan and I kept ourselves amused in the tank for a large chunk of the afternoon. And when we emerged we found that Alain and Oli were back. They weren’t pleased when I told them that they had to sleep in separate rooms, though they cheered up a bit when I told them about the tank. I thought if we all went on using it the batteries would certainly go flat, but at that point I didn’t much care.

I spent a little while in the monastery library that evening, though I didn’t stay long: almost all the books were in Latin, and I wasn’t good enough at that language to read them. And that pretty much exhausted the leisure activities of the house. Still, now that Alain was back with us we could at least play cards, because he’d carried a couple of packs in his bag so that he and Oli could play during the train journey to Temishar and back. He taught everyone to play pontoon and poker, and we had some marathon games that at least kept us entertained for a while. Even the Greys eventually decided to join in, though playing cards were unknown in their country, and teaching them to play gave us something else to work towards – though once they had learned they proved to be good players.

Brother Paul and the others raised no objections, which surprised me a little until I realised that they had no idea of what we were doing – playing cards were unknown here, too, though when I explained Brother Paul said that he had heard that the French court enjoyed such pastimes. As long as we weren’t actually playing for money he said he saw no harm in it, but advised us to stop if Father Abbot came to visit.

Another day passed, and it was now Christmas Eve. Nobody in our party actually celebrated Christmas: I’d already missed Chanukah, Stefan had missed Yule, Alain and Oli had missed the Midwinter Quarter Day (though I suspect that they hadn’t minded that, bearing in mind that Oli had described the three non-sacrificial Quarter Days as ‘boring’), the Kerpians had missed Kerpian New Year, which in our calendar fell on around December 21, the same day as Yule, and Marc usually only celebrated European New Year on January 1. But when the monks invited us to attend Midnight Mass, which they said was one of the two biggest celebrations of the year, we decided to go along to see what it was like. And it was interesting: the music was quite nice, the incense smelled good and all the candles in the chapel somehow gave things an interesting atmosphere. There was no danger of me wanting to convert, but I could see why the monks liked that sort of service.

All three meals next day were rather better than usual, too, but the best thing that happened on Christmas Day came in mid-afternoon, when Brother Paul came and found us in the lounge.

“There’s a gateway forming,” he told me. “We’re fairly sure it’s the one to the hot world, but we’ll know for sure once it’s finished appearing.”

He took me into a room I hadn’t seen before, and here I found a monk looking at a set of CCTV screens, one of which had a thin mist drifting across it.

“It’s in the usual place for the hot world,” Brother Paul told me. “The three regular ones all have a different place where they appear; the other two both seem to appear in roughly the same place. One of us will check as soon as the gateway is stabilised, in case it’s one we haven’t seen before, but if it is the hot one it would be safe for you to cross over tomorrow. The gateway usually remains in place for a couple of days, and you can expect it to reappear in about four to five weeks’ time – so if you don’t find another one to take you home you can always come back here.”

“How do you know there’s a gateway forming?” I asked.

“It’s the mist. See, usually there’s a temperature difference between the air in one world and the air in the other – if this is the gateway to the hot world their air is a lot warmer than ours. And when hot air meets cold air you usually get mist. Even when there isn’t a great temperature difference between the two worlds you generally get a bit of mist. And we have cameras aimed at each of the recognised sites, and a couple of others checking elsewhere in the area in case a new one appears, and any time one of our cameras sees mist… well, you get the idea. And we know roughly how frequently the gateways appear, too, and we’re about due an appearance from the hot world one.

“Of course, it’s not that hot – if it was too hot we couldn’t go into it. It’s just rather hotter there in winter than it is in summer here, and in summer there it’s like being in Africa in our world. But at this time of year it’s probably not a bad place to be. I’m afraid we can’t tell you too much about politics or anything else because we can’t communicate with them very easily, but I expect you’ll manage to get by.

“You won’t need your war machine – it’s a peaceful world, and if you arrive with one of those you’ll probably just scare people. You can leave it here – if you don’t come back we’ll hand it to the Emperor’s Guard, or perhaps just drive it back into the reptile world next time their gateway opens and leave it there.”

So we decided to take the truck instead, and spent part of the afternoon tidying our equipment up sufficiently to make enough room in the back for seven passengers. I found it hard to get to sleep that night because I was too excited about the prospect of a new world and a possible route home, but eventually I dropped off.

After breakfast we sat around in the lounge until it got light enough to see where we were going, and immediately after Terce, the service which took place at nine o'clock, Brother Paul and another of the monks walked the short distance down the valley, past the point where the portal we had used had been, and on to the new one. They disappeared into the mist, and around ten minutes later they reappeared and confirmed that this was indeed the hot world.

We loaded up the remainder of our gear into the truck, retrieving the blankets and sleeping bags from the tank at the last moment, and climbed aboard. Brother Paul shook my hand and wished us good luck, and the Prior came out and gave us a blessing, which was a nice gesture.

“If you don't return on the next cycle of the portal, or send a message through it, we'll assume that you've found your way home,” Brother Paul said. “If you have to come back, you'll be welcome to stay with us again.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Of course I hope we don't have to come back, but it's good to know there's a safe place to come if we have to.”

Brother Paul nodded. “Go with God,” he said, and stepped back. And Verdess put the truck in gear and drove us forward into the mist.