The Second Nexus

by David Clarke

Chapter Eight


I don’t think I would want to join a monastery under any circumstances. We spent quite a while in and around the monastery whose parent house was the great Monastery of Ste-Odile in Oberehnheim, and the first word to spring to my mind if asked to describe our stay would be ‘boring’, closely followed by ‘dull’, ‘tedious’, repetitive’ and so on. Perhaps if we had attended all the services – seven or eight every day, with extra ones on Sundays and saints’ days – I’d feel different, but then again perhaps I wouldn’t. The monks gave the impression of being content with their life here, though, so clearly it must have had something going for it.

Still, I really can’t complain: the monks provided us with food and shelter, and we ourselves supplied the tank, which at least allowed us a place to escape and relax and do anything else that seemed appropriate every couple of days. We played cards a lot; I played chess with Marc; everyone who could read English borrowed the two Köninger books at one time or another; and a couple of times we went down into Schlettstadt, though as we had no Imperial money we couldn’t do anything in the shops there but look.

At the end of February the abbot came to visit, and we were all on our very best behaviour for the two days that he was there: we stayed away from the tank and Alain kept his cards out of sight. But in fact he turned out to be a lot less of an ogre than I had been expecting, and he even stayed in the lounge with us for long enough to give Marc and me a game of chess, which the abbot won comfortably.

The monks had built a large mound of earth where the portal to the Grey world had stood in order to prevent it from forming, at least for the next six months or so. At the end of that period Brother Paul told me that they would clear the mound and allow the portal to form again so that they could measure the levels of radiation, and after that they would have to decide whether to allow the portal to remain accessible in future or not.

Just after the abbot’s visit Stefan had his fourteenth birthday. I didn’t have the ingredients for a cake this time, and nor could I buy them, so I had to settle for promising him the best cake I have ever baked once we got home, or otherwise found ourselves in a country where I could buy ingredients and do some baking. I couldn’t give him a proper present, either, though I did make sure that he chose exactly what we were going to do during our session in the tank that afternoon. Not that he wanted to do anything I didn’t want as well…

There were more birthdays on the horizon, too: Oli, Radu and Nicolas all had birthdays coming up in April. All three would be turning thirteen, even though Oli still looked much younger than that. And I found myself wondering if we would still be stuck here when my own fourteenth birthday came round in June – life seemed to be passing us by while we were stuck in this limbo.

But ten days after Stefan’s birthday Brother Paul told me that there was a new portal starting to form. He wasn’t sure which one it was, because both the machine world one and the one to the green world generally appeared in roughly the same place, though it would become apparent which one it was once it had finished forming, because the green world one was slightly nearer the monastery but faced away from it, while the machine world one was slightly further away but faced towards the monastery.

While the new portal was still forming we ran to our rooms and packed our bags. We thought that this time we might as well take all the vehicles - Brother Paul had no advice for us either way – and so we got them all started. Both the tank and the jeep started straight away, even though neither engine had been started since our first arrival, which was a tribute to the efficiency of Grey batteries. We drove a short way up the valley and stopped, confident that we would be ready to move as soon as the portal was fully formed: since we didn’t know how long this one would last we didn’t want to waste time once it was ready to be used.

Eventually the portal stabilised. Two of the brothers went into it – and it was facing the monastery, and so was presumably the one to the machine world – and had a quick look round before returning to tell us that there didn’t seem to be any obvious problems on the other side: all their monitoring devices showed that it was safe to go through.

I said “Thank you” once again to Brother Paul, and he wished us luck, telling us again that we would be welcome to return if we couldn’t find another portal, but warning us that nobody knew when the portal might reappear: sometimes in the past it had made appearances only days apart, and sometimes months went by without it materialising. But I wasn’t going to be dissuaded now, not after we’d been waiting for so long, and so I drove the jeep forward into the mist, the other two vehicles following close behind me.

There were no buildings in view as we came out of the mist, so I drove on, swung wide to avoid going back through the portal and drove down the valley until I reached the point where our normal route towards Orschwiller swung off to the left to follow the contours of the hill, and here I stopped.

“I think we should scout forwards a bit,” I said. “We want to know what sort of a world this is before we charge blindly into it. So I want you all to wait here while Stefan and I check out what’s in front of us. Alain, you’re in charge: if we don’t come back you’d probably better head back to the monastery before the portal disappears.”

“Yeah, right. Obviously we’ll just leave you two to get shot or locked up or eaten by things with lots of teeth.”

“I’m serious, Alain. If this world is dangerous there’s no reason for it to get all of us, is there?”

“Of course not,” he said, though the way he said it made me suspect that if anything happened to us he’d be coming after us, rather than retreating. But I didn’t think any of the others, except maybe the Greys, would be likely to act differently, and so I let it drop.

I drove off along the side of the hill. There wasn’t a proper track here, but the trees were fairly widely spaced and so I was able to weave around them without too much trouble. However, as we approached the last section before the road – if there was going to be a road in this world – the trees became more numerous and grew closer together, and it became difficult to find a way through.

“We’ll never get the truck through here,” I said. “Or the tank. We’ll have to leave them where they are and walk, unless we can find another way through.”

In the end we abandoned the jeep and went forward on foot, and we found that in this world the road was no more than a barely-discernable path – in fact I might have been imagining that there was a path there at all. We tried casting up and down, looking for a place where we could get the jeep through, but it seemed to be impossible, and in the end we gave up and used the bearings in Stefan’s notebook to strike out for Orschwiller on foot. In fact there was no Orschwiller in this world, but when we emerged from the trees and had a view out over the plain we understood why the monks had christened this place ‘the machine world’.

Against the foot of the mountains were vineyards, just as there were in the Empire and some of the other worlds we had seen, but beyond them was a town – Machine Sélestat, presumably – and between the vineyards and the town was a broad thoroughfare with vehicles rushing along it in both directions. Beyond the motorway was a railway line, on which we could see a sleek train running, and in the air there were flying machines - helicopters of some sort, to judge from their comparative lack of speed.

Stefan focused his binoculars on the town and told me that there were people there, and he thought they were humans rather than Greys. There didn’t seem to be any particular reason for us not to proceed: as far as we could see there were no soldiers or war machines, and life appeared to be going on normally. So we made our way back to where we had abandoned the jeep, turned it round (eventually) and drove back to where we had left the others.

“Everything looks okay,” I reported. “But we can’t take the vehicles, because further on the trees are too close together, so we’re going to leave them here.”

“I think we should try to camouflage them a bit,” suggested Stefan. “Park them under the trees, hide them with branches, that sort of thing. They have flying machines in this world, and it might be sensible to hide the fact that we’ve been here until we know more about this place.”

So we did that, parking the three vehicles close to trees and using fallen branches to break up their outline. And then Stefan paused once more.

“Do you think it would be safer to ask the Greys to stay here?” he asked. “We’ve been lucky the last couple of times: the monks were used to Grey visitors, and Vogesia was very relaxed… but can you imagine what Master Farmer would have said if we’d turned up at his door with a bunch of ‘demons’ in tow? We’d probably all have been lynched. I can guess what sort of reception they’d have got in my world, too, and they wouldn’t have enjoyed it. So I think we ought to go and check things out and then come back for them if it looks okay. What do you think?”

“I think you’re talking sense as usual,” I said, and I went and suggested to Torth that it might be best if they waited here while we went and found out what sort of a reception they might get.

“Well, okay,” agreed Torth. “We’ve still got plenty of tinned meat, so we won’t starve, and it’s not too cold here. Don’t be too long, though.”

“I should think we’ll be able to come and find you later today, or tomorrow at the latest, if everything looks okay. If we’re not back by tomorrow evening, it probably means the people here wouldn’t react well to you, and if that’s the case you can either wait for us here or go back and wait at the monastery. But you could have a look round for other portals before going back if you like. Leave me a note in the jeep if you decide not to wait here – I can read your language if you keep it simple.”

The rest of us packed our bags with a change of clothing and a few other essentials, leaving the rest of our kit in the truck, and then set off once more, taking the same route that Stefan and I had done in the jeep, except that when we reached the edge of the trees we just kept going, down through the vineyards and on across the plain towards Machine Sélestat. It was about seven or eight kilometres from the edge of the trees to the town, but it was flat most of the way, and we reached the outskirts of the town in about an hour and a half.

The first thing I noticed was the lack of cars in the street. There were some small electric (or otherwise almost silent) mopeds, but otherwise the only vehicles were trams and trolley-buses. And I couldn’t read the names of the shops we passed, because they were written in an alphabet I’d never seen before: I could tell that it wasn’t Greek or Russian, and it wasn’t Hebrew, Kerpian or Roman either.

The pedestrians we passed – and there weren’t many – were mostly men, and they were all soberly dressed in dark colours, wearing what appeared to be old-fashioned raincoats that looked strange to my eyes because they had a high collar but no lapels. Some of them were also wearing hats that resembled trilbies. And several of the passers-by stared at us as they went by, probably because the clothes we were wearing looked so different from theirs.

As we were approaching the town centre we were stopped by a man in a grey and black uniform. He was wearing a red armband that had a device of two black swords, parallel to each other and pointing upwards, on it, and I suppose he was a policeman, though I couldn’t understand a word of what he said to us.

“Sorry,” I said in English. “I can’t understand. Do you speak English?”

Clearly he didn’t. He tried another language instead, and this one sounded like a distant relation of Kerpian, so I replied in that language and got another blank look. Next he tried something that, though clearly a different language, was still completely incomprehensible to me. His fourth attempt was Russian, and his fifth was German, and at that point we had a communication medium, though not by any means a perfect one because the policeman’s German was very sketchy. I left the talking on our side to Stefan, whose German was far superior to mine, though I was able to understand a little of the conversation.

The policeman wanted to know who we were and where we came from, so Stefan gave him our names and said that we had been walking and had got lost in the hills. The policeman then told him to hold out his left arm, and when he did so the man pulled a short metal rod from his belt and ran it over Stefan’s arm, before looking up and asking why he had no ID. And Stefan could only shrug, because it was obvious that the sort of ID the policeman was looking for wasn’t written on a piece of paper.

And things went sharply downhill from that point. I suppose I’d been lucky so far: although I’d been through ten or eleven worlds by now, the only one that seemed to be hot on ID before this had been Stefan’s world, and I hadn’t come into contact with the authorities there. Here it was a big issue, and within a few minutes the cop had whistled up a police van and we had been bundled inside and taken off to a police station in the town centre.

It was quickly established that none of us had an ID chip in his left forearm, as was apparently the norm here, and that led to a preliminary interrogation, in the course of which Stefan was obliged to admit that we had come from another world. However, he maintained that he didn’t know how it had happened, and gave the impression that the crossover had taken place rather further north than was actually the case: he didn’t want the apparently unfriendly local authorities to find the Greys, because he was sure, judging from his knowledge of his own world, that they wouldn’t be treated at all well if their presence in this world was discovered.

And at that point we were parked in a large cell and left for a couple of hours while the cops tried to work out what to do with us.

“What are we going to do?” asked Alain in Kerpian: we’d already established that none of the policemen understood that language.

“We’ll have to stick with the story Stefan gave them,” I said. “We’re friends and we were out walking in the mountains north of here…”

Stefan pulled out the local map he’d managed to obtain from Brother Paul, and we studied it for a few moments.

“Okay,” I said. “We were walking from Oberehnheim to Breitenbach, but we got lost somewhere around Der Hochwald, and when we came out of the mist we decided that it would be best just to head east to get out of the mountains; and when we came out on the plain we just made for the nearest town – this one. Last night we stayed at the monastery in Oberehnheim – we can describe Father Abbot to them if they’re in any doubt, and if we keep them looking in that direction they won’t stumble into Torth and the others.”

I gave Marc and Nicolas the same story in English, which again seemed to be a language nobody here spoke. I thought that a bit surprising: it was hard to imagine a world in which the USA wasn’t a significant power, even if Britain was less important here. And then there was nothing to do except wait.

After a couple of hours Stefan was called out on his own, and the rest of us sat around talking quietly, playing cards and re-reading one of the Köninger books until it began to get dark outside. Shortly after that we were each given what appeared to be a microwaved meal of some sort (none of us could read the label) and a plastic spoon to eat it with, and when I mimed drinking they gave us a couple of large jugs of water and some thin plastic cups. After another couple of hours we were taken out of the large cell and put into some much smaller ones, two to a cell. I’d hoped to save the second mattress in my cell for Stefan, who still hadn’t come back, but instead Nicolas was pushed in with me and the door was slammed behind him.

“I bet you’re wishing you’d stayed in Vogesia now,” I commented.

“Not really. I’m sure this won’t last too long, and it’s a bit of an adventure, isn’t it?”

“I’ve had a few too many adventures,” I replied. “All I want is a portal that’ll take me back to Elsass or Kerpia – I won’t mind at all if I don’t have to visit any other places on the way. Last time something like this happened to me I ended up as a slave labourer stoking a furnace all day long, and I really don’t want to go through that again.”

“Really? What happened?”

Telling Nicolas the story of my earlier travels passed the time, and even hearing about my time in the mine or being shot at by Grey soldiers didn’t seem to put him off the idea of staying with us.

“Okay, I guess it was dangerous,” he said when I finished, “but all I’ve done since my father died is go to school and gut fish. I was happy to take the risk when I hid in your truck, and I’ll put up with whatever happens here, because pretty much anything is going to be better than the fish factory.”

We took off our shoes and lay down next to each other. The mattresses were thin and covered with thick plastic, and so they weren’t very comfortable, and neither were the equally hard pillows. But we had a blanket each, and by huddling together and putting them both over both of us we managed to get warm enough to fall asleep in the end.

I woke up next morning to find that I had an erection, and that there was a boy cuddled up close against me. I’d snuggled up even closer to him before I remembered where I was and that the boy wasn’t Stefan, but even when this dawned on me my erection showed no sign of repenting of this betrayal: it stayed hard and went on twitching. After all, Nicolas was quite a good-looking boy, and now that the smell of fish had more or less disappeared…

And then I felt ashamed of myself. I loved Stefan, and allowing myself to get aroused like this by someone else was inexcusable. I disentangled myself from Nicolas’s arms and drew back, and in the process I woke him up. He peered at me blearily and smiled.

“Morning, Jake,” he said, sleepily. “Did you sleep okay?”

“Yes, thanks,” I said, hoping the tent in my jeans wasn’t too obvious.

“Looks like the smell has finally worn off, then, because you wouldn’t have been able to sleep right next to me like that a couple of weeks back. I never got any invitations from the other boys to sleep over, and none of them wanted to come stay in my shack, either. And I can’t say I blame them. I’m glad to hear that I’m socially acceptable again.”

He rolled onto his back and slid a hand down inside his jeans.

“These clothes are definitely warmer than my robe was,” he said, “but it’s a bit uncomfortable getting a stiffy in them. I see it’s happened to you, too – I’m glad I’m not the only one.”

He got himself more comfortable and rolled over to face me again. “That happens to me most mornings,” he said. “I don’t know why – I can’t remember any particularly sexy dreams. What about you? Do you have nice dreams?”

“Sometimes,” I admitted. “But it seems to get hard every day, whatever I dream about. I suppose it’s just because I’m going through puberty.”

“Me, too. So what would you like to dream about?”

That was a bit personal, coming from someone I didn’t really know very well. He knew that Stefan and I were good friends, of course: he’d been around our camp in Vogesia long enough for that to be obvious. But we hadn’t done anything in public to indicate that we were anything more than that – we’d kept that for when we were alone in our tent.

“This and that. What about you?” I said, hoping to deflect him.

“Oh, no – I asked first!”

“Sorry. I get embarrassed easily.”

“Oh. Well… see… look, Jake, when I stowed away in your truck… see, it wasn’t just that I was fed up of the fish factory and wanted something more… well, I was fed up of it, that and being treated like a joke at school… but… well, it was more than that. See, you were always nice to me when I came round to your camp, and that last night you and Stefan even let me share your tent, even though I still stank of fish guts. And you never even mentioned it… so… well… I really like you, Jake. I think you’re kind and decent, and… and good-looking, too…”

He broke off, looking at the floor.

“You really think I’m good-looking?” I said. “Aren’t you thinking of Stefan there? He’s the perfect one – I’m just a nerdy kid in glasses.”

“No, you’re not! Okay, I suppose Stefan does look good if you like blond, blue-eyed surfer types, but I think personality is really important, too, and yours is really nice. And actually I think you are good-looking: you’ve got nice hair, and when you smile you look… well, special, somehow…”

He looked away again. By now I think I’d got the message, but I still found it unbelievable that anyone could think me good-looking – I still half-believed that Stefan was pretending when he said so – and so I thought I had to make sure Nicolas was saying what I thought he was.

“Are you saying you dream about me?” I asked, finding it hard to keep the disbelief out of my voice.

“Yes,” he said, still looking at the floor. “Sometimes. And I’d like to more often. I’d really like us to be friends.”

“Well, we are friends, aren’t we?”

“No, I mean… of course we’re friends, but… well, I’d like to be more than friends…”

“Oh.” I tried to think of a nice way to turn him down, but I’d never been in that situation before: whatever Nicolas and Stefan might say, I’m simply not the sort of boy that has to beat suitors off. Quite the reverse. “Well, look…”

“It’s okay,” he said, quietly. “I know I’m nothing special: if it hadn’t been for the fishy smell, I don’t think anyone at school would have even known who I was. I’m just boring and ordinary. And I know I’m younger than you, too. I understand.”

“No, you don’t. To start with I don’t think you’re boring at all – in fact, I think you’re pretty unusual, not only managing to fend for yourself back in Vogesia, but in having the courage to come with us even though you had no idea what was beyond the portal. And you’ve got beautiful eyes, too: our friend Hansi back in Elsass has eyes that same shade of green, but yours look even better because you’ve got nice long lashes, too.”

“Do you really think so? I don’t like them – I think they’re a sort of grungy green.”

“Trust me, they’re not. But… well, I can’t… you know, be friends with you like that, because… well, I’m sort of spoken for.”

“Oh! You mean, you and Stefan…?”

“That’s right. We’ve been together for a long time now…”

“I see. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do… you know… with anyone else, does it? A lot of people have more than one partner where I come from.”

“It’s sort of like that in some of the other places I’ve been, too. But in my world – and in Stefan’s – it’s normal for you to only have one partner at a time.”

“Well, maybe here it isn’t like that. And I’d really like it if… I mean, we wouldn’t have to do anything too… you know…”

I looked at him: the ‘grungy green’ eyes were now puppy dog eyes, too, and I thought this might turn out to be a problem, not just because I thought Stefan might smack him one if he came sniffing around too blatantly, but because he really was good-looking, and if I was left in the same room as him for too long… well, let’s just say that thirteen-year-old boys like me are permanently horny, and I didn’t know how long I would be able to resist. Or even if I should resist – after all, he was right when he said that exclusive relationships were not the norm in several of the worlds I had visited…

I dragged my eyes away and gave myself an imaginary slap around the face.

“Look, Nicolas…”

“Call me Nicky!”

“Okay, Nicky… I like you a lot, okay? It’s just that I don’t want to do anything… you know, sexual, with you right now…”

“So you might want to later?”

“No! I mean, probably not… I mean, no, not while Stefan and I… hell, Nicky, you know what I mean. I’m a one-boy boy, and Stefan’s that boy, okay?”

“Okay. But we don’t have to do anything sexy – I mean, it would be okay if we sort of hug, wouldn’t it? I’ve seen you do that with some of the others.”

“Well, yes, I suppose so, but…”

“Good.” And before I could do anything he threw his arms around me and hugged me, and it was impossible for me not to hug him back. He held me for a few seconds and then gave me a quick peck on the cheek and stepped away, smiling at me. And he looked so nice like that that I simply couldn’t be angry with him.

“If we can do that sometimes I suppose it’ll do for now,” he said.

“You’d better not do that when Stefan’s around,” I warned him.

“Don’t worry, I won’t.”

I thought that would be the end of it, but a couple of minutes later he undid his trousers, sticking his hand back inside his underwear.

“I still can’t get comfortable,” he said. “I’m just not used to wearing underwear, or trousers, come to that. I had an old pair of football shorts at home, but they didn’t squash it the way these trousers do. I suppose it’s just too big when it gets hard.”

He slipped his trousers and pants down to his knees.

“It is quite big, considering that I won’t be thirteen until next month, isn’t it, Jake?” he said, showing it to me. “And I’ve got some proper hairs, too, look. I’m bigger than Eddie, and I’ve got more hair than Bobby, and it’s three times the size of Jeff’s. What do you think?”

I thought it looked good: it wasn’t a lot smaller than mine, and he did indeed have some proper little hairs. And it was really hard, too. However…

“Get dressed, Nicky,” I said. “Yes, it’s big, and hard, and it looks good, but if you don’t get dressed I’m going to bang on the door and demand to be taken to a different cell, okay?”

“Okay,” he said, pulling his pants up. “But I’ll have to adjust it if it gets uncomfortable again.”

He finished doing his trousers up and came and sat next to me on the mattresses, which I had piled on top of each other to give us a bit more of a cushion.

“I’m sorry for teasing you like that,” he said. “I won’t really do it again, I promise. I don’t want to annoy you, or you might stop liking me.”

The fact that his display had given me another erection made it impossible for me to pretend I hadn’t enjoyed the show, so I just said nothing. And fortunately a minute or so later the door opened and one of the policemen came in carrying a tray that held two plastic cups of coffee and two plastic bowls of what proved to be a particularly bland and lumpy porridge. I was hungry, and so I ate it, and by the time I had finished eating my penis was behaving itself again.

“What do you think is going to happen to us?” Nicolas asked. “Will they just let us go?”

“If we’re lucky. If not they’ll hang onto us while they try to find the portal, though I should think there’s a good chance it will have disappeared by now. I’d sooner they didn’t find the Greys, though, because that would complicate things.”

An hour or so later the door opened again and we were beckoned out into the corridor and taken back to the large cell we had been in the previous afternoon, and here I found a hollow-eyed Stefan waiting for me.

“I was up most of the night,” he told me. “They’ve got translation programs on their computers like the ones in Elsass, and they had me translating stuff into Kerpian for hours. I decided to go with Kerpian because six of us speak it fluently, where only you and Nicolas are really completely fluent in English.”

“There’s not much wrong with yours, or Marc’s.”

“Thanks, but we both know it’s a long way from perfect, and Alain and Radu in particular hardly understand it at all. So they’ve prepared a translation program from their language to Kerpian, and you or I can do a translation into English for Marc and Nicolas.”

So we sat and waited, and after a few minutes three policemen came into the cell, one of whom was pushing a trolley with a computer on it. He set it up and got it running, and then one of his colleagues sat down in front of it and stuck a headset with a microphone on his head.

I was struck by the fact that all three cops had red hair, and wondered idly what the odds were against that. And then the one with the headset started to speak, and the computer speakers obediently reproduced a Kerpian translation for us. It wasn’t perfect: I’d have been astonished if it had been, after only one night’s work – but it was good enough for us to understand the basics of what the officer was saying.

“Can you understand me?” was the first thing he said, and I replied in Kerpian that I could. The computer presumably translated that back, and the officer nodded.

“You have a problem,” he told us. “You have entered our territory without permission, you failed to use a recognised port of entry, and you’re not carrying any form of identification chip. And the paper documents your friend showed us are meaningless. You don’t speak any of the languages of our Confederation, and the only recognisable language any of you can speak is one from a country with whom our relations are at best strained. We may not be at war with the German Empire at the moment, but there are strict limits on the movement of German nationals on our soil, the more so since the Kaiser concluded his recent treaty with the Tsar.”

“We’re not German,” I said. Well, I suppose Stefan was, even though his place of birth was within France in my world… and maybe the Kerpians came from somewhere that might be inside the German Empire – all this world-hopping was very confusing at times.

“That is irrelevant,” the officer said. “We don’t know who you are or where you came from. Your story about coming from another world entirely seems highly unlikely, and while you’re below the normal age for espionage agents we’re not prepared to take any chances. Your arrival here has been reported to higher authority, and I’m sure that a decision will be taken on what to do with you in due course. In the meantime you’ll have to stay…”

At that point another officer entered the room, and it was immediately obvious that he was senior to the ones already there, not only because his uniform carried more silver braid, but also from the way in which the three policemen jumped to attention the moment he appeared. And this one had fair hair, which basically seemed to prove that you didn’t have to have red hair to become a policeman. Actually he looked disconcertingly like Kenneth Branagh playing Reinhard Heydrich in the TV film Conspiracy, about the Wannsee Conference: the fair hair was brushed back, the uniform was spotless, and he had an air of command that was almost tangible.

He spoke to the man wearing the headset, and as it was still turned on the computer translated the conversation for us, and to my surprise nobody bothered to turn it off.

“What do we know?” asked the senior man.

“These eight boys appeared in town yesterday afternoon. They don’t speak any of the major languages, though one of them understands German. We don’t know any more than that. They say they come from a different world altogether, which is obviously nonsense, but we’ve only just got the translation program running, so we haven’t had time to ask any more questions.”

“Is there a…”

The computer didn’t translate the next word, suggesting that there was no equivalent in Kerpian. In the officer’s own language it sounded like ‘Conyessi’.

“…based here?”

“No. If we need one, we call provincial headquarters in Lottantaale and they send one. We don’t need to do that very often, of course: most criminals just confess, because they know we’ll find out the truth if we have to.”

“Naturally. Well, send for one now.”

“Can they manage if there isn’t a mutual language?”

“I’ve no idea, but I’d imagine that they could work perfectly well through a translation machine. Except… before we do that I’d like to talk to them myself. Hold back on the call to Lottantaale for now, and clear everyone out of here except… which of you boys would like to be the spokesman?”

Everyone looked at me, and so reluctantly I raised my hand.

“Thank you,” said the officer. “Right, get everyone else out. Once we’ve had our little chat I’ll decide what we’re going to do with them.”

The three policemen ushered my friends out of the room, leaving me alone with the Branagh-Heydrich look-alike. He moved the computer trolley a little closer to where I was sitting and put the headset on, and I looked at him nervously.

“Right,” he began. “I’m High Captain Aarnist. Who are you?”

“I’m Jake Stone.”

“And where do you come from, Jake?”

This was Lothar Fischer all over again, I thought. “Well, I live in a town called Milhüsa, or it’s sometimes called Mulhouse or Mülhausen. I was walking with my friends in the mountains…”

I went on to give him the story we had agreed on. I even got him to send for the map in Stefan’s bag, which I used to show him our supposed route from Oberehnheim towards Breitenbach… but that turned out to be a bit of a mistake.

“Why is this map written in German?” he asked. “These places aren’t in Germany… did you buy the map in Germany?”

“No… well, not exactly… someone gave it to us.”

“A German?”

“Well, sort of…”

“You’d better explain, I think.”

“Well, where we came from all this area is part of Germany, except it’s called the Holy Roman Empire. There’s an Emperor in… Vienna, I think. Anyway, they speak German there, and that’s why the map has all the German names on.”

“But if you live in this place, how is it that you can’t speak German?”

“Well, I’ve only lived there for a couple of months. Before that I lived in England.”

“Where is England?”

“Do you have a map of Europe?”

He called one of the policemen back in and in due course was given a map of Europe. I duly pointed at the British Isles.

“In this world everyone there would understand my language,” he said. “It’s been part of our Confederation for nearly four hundred and fifty years. And they would understand the speech of the other officers here, too, because their ancestors started trading with those islands around eight hundred years ago. So, either you’re lying to me and pretending not to understand, or your story is true, however unlikely it might sound. Of course, I can find out easily enough: all I have to do is to call in a Conyessi and we’ll know straight away whether you’re telling the truth or not. And if it turns out that you’re lying you’ll find yourself in even deeper trouble than you’re in at the moment.”

“What’s a Conyessi?” I asked.

“If you genuinely don’t know, you really do come from another world. The Conyessiem are a completely separate race from the rest of us: their brains are more developed, and they have abilities that go beyond what the rest of us can do. And one of the things they can do is to tell when someone is lying. I don’t know whether they can simply read all the little signals people give out when they are lying, or if they can actually get inside the person’s head and see the truth for themselves – and we know they are able to get inside people’s heads, so that’s not at all improbable. Anyway, if I send for one, he’ll be able to tell me straight away whether or not you’re lying to me.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. The last thing I wanted was some mind-reader digging away inside my head: there was far too much stuff I wanted to keep under wraps. The existence of the Greys, for a start.

“I’m not lying,” I said. “We really do come from another world. Most of us are carrying ID cards – we don’t use chips, like you do here – so you can see we’re telling the truth.”

“The fact that you don’t have chips certainly supports that theory, because here they are implanted in the first week after birth and then updated every six and a half months. And if you’d tried to remove it you would have scars, and my colleagues tell me that the blond boy at least has no scar on his arm. Would you mind showing me your left arm?”

I took off my jacket and pullover and rolled my shirtsleeve up above my elbow, displaying an unblemished left forearm.

“Thank you,” he said. “And you said you had an Identity Card – could I see it, please?”

I got it out of my wallet. “Can you read this alphabet?” I asked, handing it over.

“Of course. Several of the countries in the Confederation use the Roman alphabet – your own island, for one. So, let’s see: it says here that you’re Jacob Stone, that you live at a place called the Résidence Alfred Werner in Milhüsa, and that you’re… I’m sorry, we don’t seem to use the same calendar as you. How old are you?”

“I’m thirteen. I’ll be fourteen in June – that’s in three months’ time.”

“Right. You’re going to have to adapt to our calendar, though I suppose it will depend where you end up as to which version of the months’ names you learn to use.”

I really didn’t like the sound of that – I’d hoped we could be out of here long before we had to worry about such details of local life.

“What’s going to happen to us, then?” I asked.

“Well, like I said, even if you’re not spies – and I’m inclined to believe that you’re not – you’re still in trouble. You’re in the Confederation illegally, and we can’t send you back to where you came from because you don’t know how you got here.”

“We’d be happy to go back into the hills and try to find the way back to our own world,” I assured him.

“I’m sorry, but we’re not about to let you go roaming off all over the country on your own. And we can’t spare anyone to come with you. I’m fully prepared to try to locate this portal of yours for you, and if we find it I’d be prepared to consider letting you go back through – in fact we’d probably want to send an expedition through with you: I can see substantial advantages to being able to move into another world and back.”

“I don’t think the portals stay open for very long,” I said, hoping to scotch this idea. “Your expedition might find itself stranded.”

“Then we’d have to research the portal and find a way to keep it open. Anyway, that’s beside the point: the point is that you’re not going to be allowed to go off looking for something that might not even exist. Like I said, we’ll have a look for you, but we’ll be keeping you here, or somewhere similar, while we do it.”

“And what’s going to happen if you don’t find it?”

“Then I’m afraid you’re going to be stuck here with us. And since you are here illegally and have nobody to take responsibility for you, you’re outside the law, and that means you belong to the state.”

“Do you mean we’ll have to go to an orphanage?”

“An orphanage? God, no! We’re not a charity! No, when I say you belong to the state, I mean it literally. To put it in terms that you can understand more easily, I mean that you’ll be slaves.”

“But… this is the twenty-first century! Isn’t slavery illegal?”

“Actually it’s the sixty-seventh century, but that’s irrelevant. And slavery is certainly not illegal: in fact it’s central to our economy. Of course, there are limits to what boys of your age can be expected to do, but those limits aren’t always observed – it depends who ends up buying you. You might end up owned by a company or business, and in that case there are certain guidelines laid down as to what constitutes acceptable practice; or you could be sold to an individual, in which case pretty much anything he says goes. So you’d better hope we find your portal, hadn’t you? Now: where exactly do you want us to start looking?”