The Second Nexus

by David Clarke

Chapter Nine


This gave me a serious dilemma: did I tell him where we had actually come through, or not? If I did, I’d be delivering the Greys up to him, and also risking problems for the monks and their world, which seemed to be stable and peaceful and which would surely not benefit from a visit – or more likely, an invasion – from a modern, mechanised culture whose morality was apparently atrophied to the point of believing that slavery was a necessity for economic success. But if I sent them the wrong way I’d be condemning all of us to slavery, and having experienced that once I had no wish to go there again.

Of course, I thought, he might have been lying about slavery in an attempt to force me to open up to him… and when I thought about it some more I was sure that this was the case. After all, in all the worlds we had visited only the Greys had used slavery, and even there it was simply an expediency to man their mine, rather than a widespread and general practice: I’d seen no sign that slavery was practised in the Grey world itself. No other culture that we had seen used slaves at all. And this was an advanced, modern culture. So it followed that Aarnist must be lying about it…

“Well,” I said, opening Stefan’s map once more, “obviously I can’t tell you exactly where it happened, because I don’t know. But somewhere up around here,” (and I pointed to the area on the map labelled ‘Der Hochwald’) “we found ourselves in a place with lots of mist, and when we finally came out of it we were lost. And we think it must have been while we were in the mist that we crossed over, because I’m sure we’d have noticed if things had changed once we were back in the sun.”

“Thank you, Jacob. I’ll get a couple of aircraft over that way straight away, and I’ll arrange to get some men on the ground as soon as I can. If we find it I’ll let you know. Of course, it might not be possible for you to go back through straight away, but as soon as we’re sure it’s safe we’ll consider sending you back.

“Of course, we’ll only be able to spend a day or so looking, especially if you think the portal is likely to disappear… why do you think that, by the way?”

“Oh! Well… I mean, if it was there all the time, surely people would know about it? Back in the world we come from there are foresters up in the woods quite a lot, cutting timber and stuff, and walkers too – and I suppose it’s the same here. If it was there all the time someone would have been sure to find it.”

“Not on this side. We don’t use the mountains much, other than a little forestry around the edges from time to time. But you’re probably right. Anyway, we’ll have a good look over the next twenty-four hours or so, and if we find it, well and good. But if we don’t… well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, shall we?” And he grinned at me and then called one of his colleagues through to take me back to my cell.

“So what did he say?” Nicolas asked me. “What’s going to happen to us?”

“He didn’t say, exactly. He’s going to go and look for the portal, but since he’s going to be looking in the wrong place I don’t suppose he’ll find it.”

“And then he’ll let us go, right?”

“Well… maybe not. He gave me a lot of stuff that was supposed to frighten me, I think, but I don’t know what’s really going to happen to us. We’ll just have to wait and find out.”

The operative word turned out to be ‘wait’ – we spent almost the entire day in the cell. At midday and again as it was starting to get dark outside we were given another offering from the station’s microwave, and we were kept supplied with water. As there was a toilet in the corner of the cell we didn’t have to leave it at all, except for a period of about forty-five minutes in mid-afternoon when we were all taken out to a yard at the back of the station so that we could get some exercise and fresh air. This at least gave me a chance to speak to Stefan, who was sharing a cell with Tommi. Neither of us knew what was going to happen to us, of course, but just being together was enough to cheer me up a bit.

“I was watching you and Stefan,” said Nicolas when we returned to the cell. “And now I know that you’re…. you know, together… it seems really obvious to me now. I suppose I wasn’t taking much notice before. Anyway, I don’t want to interfere with it, so I’ll stay away from you in future if you want.”

I looked at him, trying to decide if he really meant it or if this was an attempt to manipulate me. But if it was, it worked.

“Don’t be stupid, Nicky,” I said. “Of course I don’t want you to stay away from me. We’re friends, aren’t we? I’d just prefer if we don’t do anything… you know…”

“Sure!” he said, sitting down right next to me and putting an arm round my shoulders. “I don’t mind, as long as we’re still friends.”

Somehow I got through the rest of the afternoon and evening without succumbing to his charms, though when we settled down for the night it was obvious that things were going to be more difficult: the heating had been on in the cell for most of the day, and now it was warm enough for Nicolas to declare that he would be much more comfortable if he didn’t try to sleep with all his clothes on. And he promptly stripped to his underwear.

Of course he was right: it would almost certainly be more comfortable sleeping without my jeans on, and in the end I decided to take the risk, removing everything except my boxers and tee-shirt. And of course as soon as we lay down he snuggled up close, smiling at me, and my body promptly reacted in an unmistakable way. But at least he didn’t actually try doing anything more, and eventually I was able to fall asleep.

Next morning, however, he was at it again.

“I must have had another nice dream last night,” he told me as soon as I opened my eyes, “because it’s happened again, look!”

And he pushed his briefs down, revealing that he had a very solid erection.

“See?” he continued. “Do you want to feel how hard it is?”

I thought about it. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time I’d done something with someone else: I’d played sex games with Haless and Issin; I’d allowed Tommi to handle me virtually every night at the mine; I’d even sucked Alain, though I’d done that mainly so that I would be able to do a good job for Stefan later on. And yet somehow this seemed different: Stefan was close by, and I expected us to be together again within a day or so. On the other hand, Nicolas did look nice like that… but still…

“Look, Nicky…” I began, feebly.

“Come on,” he said. “I can see that yours is stiff, too…”

“I really don’t want…”

“Yes, you do. I can tell.”

Somehow I managed to tear my eyes away, and after that it was easier to roll over, stand up and start to put the rest of my clothes on. Part of me felt stupid: here I was, clinging to the morality of a world I didn’t live in any longer instead of enjoying the less restrictive way things were in Nicky’s world. But the rest of me was convinced I was doing the right thing by remaining faithful to Stefan – at least unless Stefan told me in so many words that it would be okay for me to play around with anyone else, and I didn’t really think that was likely.

Nicolas looked disappointed, but at least he didn’t push it any further: instead he pulled his briefs up again, stood up and got dressed.

“I’m sorry,” he said, once we were both fully dressed and sitting on the mattresses once more. “I promised I wouldn’t do that again, didn’t I? It’s just… well, I’d really like it if we could… Look, Jake, I’m being unfair to you, expecting you to behave differently from how you were brought up. I know that, and I’m sorry. But…”

“But nothing,” I said. “Nicky, you know I like you, and you know I think you’re good-looking, too, especially when you’re undressed. And it would be really easy for me to give in, and… you know. But afterwards I’d feel bad about it, and then probably I’d stop liking you. So please don’t keep trying to make me do stuff I don’t want to. Okay?”

“Okay,” he agreed, and I didn’t believe him for a moment.


After breakfast (more tasteless porridge – even the monks had produced a tastier porridge than this) I was called out of the cell and taken to an office I hadn’t seen before. And here I found High Captain Aarnist sitting at a desk, and standing beside him was another man in a strange costume: he was wearing a full-length white robe with a black sash around the waist, and he had shoulder-length very dark brown hair that was kept in place by a white headband. He looked more like a Japanese nobleman than a police officer, although his features were Caucasian rather than Oriental.

“Good morning, Jacob,” said Aarnist into his headset microphone (the computer was on its trolley next to the desk). “Did you sleep well?”

“Not too badly, thanks.”

“Good. Well, the bad news is that we didn’t find anything up in the mountains. And it wasn’t for lack of trying: we had two platoons covering the whole area you indicated to me, and a couple of hoverers looking for anything unusual from the air. But it looks as if you were right in thinking that your portal wouldn’t last long. Oh, by the way, this is Irfan ved Meluan of the Clan of the East. He’s a Conyessi.”

So that’s what a Conyessi looks like, I thought. I was surprised: apart from the unusual clothing this man looked perfectly normal. After all that stuff about them being a completely different race and having big brains I’d expected something alien-looking – I had a sort of mental image of the aliens in Mars Attacks!, or maybe Dan Dare’s old enemy the Mekon (I’d inherited a pile of old Eagle annuals from my dad). And at that point the man in the robe started laughing.

“You have some strange ideas, young man,” he said, once he got his breath back. “I don’t know what High Captain Aarnist has been saying about us, but we’re certainly not aliens, and nor do we have outsize heads. Oh, and you’re not hearing the name of our race properly: it’s ‘Konjässi’,” and he spelled it out for me.

Well, that indicated pretty clearly that these people were capable of at least a certain amount of mind-reading. And that made me nervous.

“There’s no need to worry,” the man went on (and the fact that he could tell I was worried made me even more nervous). “All I want you to do is to tell me what you told the High Captain, about coming from a different world.”

“Well… okay, it’s like I said,” I said, hoping that he wouldn’t want details, and hoping that he couldn’t tell that I was hoping he wouldn’t want… I realised that if I went on thinking that way I’d end up paralysed with fear. I pulled myself together.

“We don’t come from this world,” I said, in as firm a voice as I could manage. “We came through a portal up in the mountains. In the world we came from this whole area is part of the Holy Roman Empire, which makes it part of Germany, more or less, and that’s why the map my friend was carrying is all in German and shows German place names for all the towns round here. This place where we are now is called Schlettstadt there.”

“Well?” Aarnist asked the robed man, once the computer had finished translating this.

“That was all true,” the man reported. “I think there’s probably quite a lot more that he isn’t telling us, but the central fact is true: he and his friends come from another world.”

“Can you be sure? Doesn’t the fact that he can’t speak our language make it hard for you to see his thoughts?”

“Not really. I don’t actually need words to see his state of mind. He’s nervous, yes, but then who isn’t when one of us starts asking them questions? But what he’s saying is truthful, or he’d be a lot more disturbed in his thinking. How many of them are there again?”

“Eight,” Aarnist told him.

“And they all came through this portal with you?” he asked me.

“That’s right, Sir – we were all travelling together.”

“Excellent. Have you decided what to do with them yet, High Captain?”

“Perhaps we should discuss it outside?”

“If you like. But you’ve already told him what’s likely to happen, haven’t you? Yes, I see that you have. Well, if they’re going on the market, I want them.”

“All of them?”

“I think so. They’ll make excellent practice subjects, and the language barrier will work in our favour: our kids will have to work twice as hard with them. So unless you have other plans I’ll be happy to put in a bid. I’ll just need to make a call to the Chancellor’s office in Laztaale to find out how high I can go…”

“You mean, you want to take them all the way back home?”

“Well, why not? It’s not every day we get an opportunity like this, so why waste them by giving them to some provincial centre when we can use them in our primary establishment?”

“All right, but I want to know all there is to know about this portal before they get their brains scrambled by your trainees. Make sure you run a full scan of them while they’re still sane.”

“You’ve got the wrong idea about our training, High Captain… anyway, you’re right: we should discuss this in private. Have him taken back to his cell and we’ll talk some more.”

So the High Captain called in one of the red-haired policemen and he escorted me back to my cell. And you can imagine that I wasn’t feeling remotely happy: that last bit, about getting my brain scrambled and ending up insane, hadn’t exactly reassured me that our future was rosy.

“Did he tell you anything useful?” Nicolas asked me. “When are they going to let us go?”

“They’re not going to let us go. It looks like the mind-readers are going to use us as a sort of teaching aid or something.”

“Mind-readers? What are you talking about?”

“Apparently there are people in this world who can read minds, or something. The police use them to find out if people are lying to them.”

“Oh. But what do you mean about using us as a teaching aid?”

So I relayed what I’d heard, though I didn’t mention Aarnist’s comments about getting our brains scrambled: there seemed no point in scaring him more than he probably was already. And in fact his reaction was better than I had been expecting.

“Oh. Well, I don’t think I have too many bad secrets,” he said, “so I suppose it won’t matter if my mind gets read. I’d like to be there when they read yours, though: I’d get them to ask you whether you’d like to play sex games with me, because I bet the answer would be ‘yes’.”

“You never give up, do you?” I said. “I’ll obviously have to make sure they keep us apart while they’re asking us questions.”

“Aha! That proves I’m right!” he said, triumphantly.

“Even if it does, it still isn’t going to happen, okay? And if you don’t shut up about it I’ll get Stefan to talk to you about it, and you probably wouldn’t like that.”

And that threat did seem to subdue him, at least in the short term.

An hour or so later the door opened again and we were taken back to the large cell, where we found High Captain Aarnist waiting for us, the translation computer at his side.

“I’m sorry, boys,” he told us. “I sent another hoverer up into the mountains this morning, just in case, but even though it covered a much bigger area than yesterday it still didn’t find anything. So it looks as if your portal has disappeared, and that means you have no way of getting back to where you came from.

“As I told Jacob yesterday, that means that you have a problem: you’re on our territory illegally, and we can’t send you back. This morning there’s going to be a short court appearance to confirm your status, and after that you will become the property of the state. Normally that would mean you’d be sent to the slave market, but in view of your unusual circumstances Irfan ved Meluan has expressed a wish to purchase you on behalf of the Konjässiem. That’s good for you because it means that you’ll be able to stay together, and I don’t imagine it’ll mean a lot of hard physical labour, either.

“Now, just wait here for a few minutes, and then we’ll take you through to the court.”

He turned off the machine and went out, and of course I was promptly besieged by questions, mostly wanting to know who Irfan was and what the Konjässiem, whoever they were, wanted us for. So I did my best to explain, though once again I kept the bit about going insane to myself.

“Does that mean those people can see what we’re thinking?” asked Alain.

“Sort of, as far as I can tell,” I said. “Which means you’re in trouble, Alain: all the bad stuff you’ve done with Oli is going to come out.”

“That’s the one part of my life where I’ve got nothing to worry about. But before that… well, let’s just say that I didn’t take a lot of notice about what the law said. I don’t really want some total stranger rooting about in my past.”

“I don’t think they’re going to worry too much about what happened back in Columbarier – and in any case you were just trying to keep yourself and your friends alive, weren’t you?”

“Well… mostly,” he said, in a mumble.

“I shouldn’t worry about it, anyway,” I said. “From what I could make out they want us for school-kids to practise on, and I bet kids aren’t any good at that sort of stuff yet – so your deep, dark secrets can stay deep and dark.”

“Are we going to try making a run for it?” asked Oli.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to just yet. You can be sure they’ll keep a close eye on us until they hand us over to the mind-readers, and after that it will depend on where we are and what sort of a place it is. If it’s like a normal school we should be able to walk out, so if they move us away from here – and Irfan was saying something about another town – we’ll have to make sure we can find out way back. But remember that we’ll be with mind-readers: even if the kids aren’t much good at it there are bound to be teachers who are, and that means you mustn’t keep thinking about escape, or they’ll know. That’s why if I do find a way I won’t tell you in advance. You just have to be ready to move if an opportunity comes up.”

“What about the Greys?” asked Stefan. “What do you think they’ll do? I mean, if they come looking for us…”

“I’m pretty sure they won’t. Greys only think of themselves, remember, so even if they knew we were in trouble they’d probably just shrug. If Torth’s got any sense he’ll hang around waiting for us for a couple of days and then go back through the portal as soon as it reappears, or now if it’s still there. By the time we get back they’ll probably have taken themselves back to Vogesia, where they can lie on the beach and eat corned beef for a few weeks. Anyway, they’re not our problem at the moment. Let’s just hope they send us somewhere close by where there isn’t any security.”

Half an hour or so later a couple of the policemen came back and handcuffed us together in pairs. This time I made sure I got paired off with Stefan, which left Nicolas with Tommi, who I thought would have no objection to playing sex games if Nicolas suggested it. We were then led along a corridor, down some stairs and through a tunnel that came out in the courthouse. We were kept in the basement area for five minutes or so and then led up into what I suppose was a dock. Facing us was an ordinary-looking man in a suit, though behind him on the wall was a large red flag with the two swords on it, the same as on the police officers’ armbands, and also another banner depicting a middle-aged man who I guessed was the ruler of the country.

High Captain Aarnist was sitting in front of the dock with Irfan beside him, and I saw that the translation computer had been wheeled to the front of the court just below the magistrate’s desk. And that meant that at least we could understand the proceedings, though since this was just a formality I suppose it didn’t matter that much. The High Captain explained that we had no ID, that we had apparently strayed here from another world (that caused a bit of a discussion between him, Irfan and the magistrate, though again we weren’t asked to contribute), and that consequently the police were applying for us to be declared the property of the state.

To be fair, we were asked if we had anything to say, so I declared that we were all citizens of the State of Elsass, as stated on our identity papers, and that we demanded the right to return to our own country as soon as the portal reappeared. A further discussion confirmed that the portal was no longer there and that nobody could say when, or even if, it would reappear (I couldn’t argue against the ‘if’ without disrupting our story, and with Irfan in the courtroom I couldn’t do that without endangering the Greys). And once that discussion ended the magistrate stated that he was granting the police application, and that accordingly the eight of us were now officially the property of the state.

A further discussion resulted in the magistrate handing possession of us to Irfan, subject to payment of the market price. And that was it: we were taken back to the police station and parked in the large cell once more. Here we were given another microwave meal – this one was a sort of chicken stew with rice – and then left on our own for ten minutes or so. And then something happened that made it clear to us that our status had changed: two policemen came in, one of whom was carrying a number of canvas bags. The other was pushing the computer, and once he had plugged it in he sat down, put on his headset and addressed us.

“Line up in front of my colleague,” he said. “When you get to the front of the line you are to empty your pockets and then remove all clothing, timepieces, jewellery and anything else that you might be carrying or wearing. We’ll make a list which you’ll sign for. Generally a slave’s possessions pass to his new owner, though some owners allow slaves to retain some items. In your case the Konjässi will decide when you reach your destination. Later we’ll bring you in something to wear for the journey. You,” (he pointed to Alain, who was nearest him) “you can go first. The rest of you, stand in a line behind him and don’t move. If I think anyone is trying to hide anything, you’ll all get a full body search, and believe me, you don’t want that.”

So one by one we stepped forward, emptied our pockets, stripped and removed our jewellery and watches. I’d been wearing Stefan’s swastika for a long time now and didn’t like losing it, but it had to go, along with all of our watches, Radu’s and Marc’s ear-studs and the matching identity bracelets that Alain and Oli wore. Each boy’s valuables were put into a side-pocket of the bag his clothes went into and sealed with a plastic seal, and each of us was asked to sign a piece of paper listing what we had handed over. Of course we couldn’t read these, but there did seem to be a line for each item, and if you can’t trust the police not to steal from you, who can you trust? Though I thought the fact that our stuff was going to Irfan was more likely to keep the police from temptation: after all, stealing from a mind-reader is a mug’s game.

After that we were left alone for a while. It’s one thing to run naked on a semi-tropical beach; it’s another thing entirely to do it in a police waiting room, and I’m sure I wasn't the only one who felt uncomfortable. Even Nicolas looked embarrassed. But eventually the two cops came back with some clothing for us.

“We need to classify you,” the first one said. “You’re to stand against the scale on that wall one at a time, then step to your right to be weighed, then wait in that corner.”

The height and weight meant nothing to me: this country apparently used yet another system. After that we were photographed, which could have been extremely embarrassing, but it turned out that they only wanted a head and shoulders shot for our ownership papers. But then came the part that was embarrassing: we had to be segregated into pre- and post-puberty, as apparently different regulations were in force for each group. A quick look at our genitals was all it took for them to send me, Stefan and Nicolas in one direction and Tommi, Oli and Marc in the other, but poor Alain and Radu had to undergo rather closer scrutiny to ascertain if they actually had pubic hair or not. In the end both were sent to the pre-puberty group, which I thought Alain might find rather embarrassing, given that he was now nearly sixteen and a half. Still, at least it meant that he and Oli got to stay together.

Then finally we were given something to wear: white briefs, a black tee-shirt with a yellow stripe down the front and back, black trousers with a yellow band above each knee, black socks and plain black slip-on shoes. We were also given a black cloak each with a yellow stripe down the back. The five who qualified as ‘pre-puberty’ were given shorts instead of long trousers, which struck me as amusing (the look on Alain’s face was priceless), but otherwise the clothing was the same as ours.

Once we were dressed we were handcuffed in pairs once more, taken out to a van, locked in the back of it and driven out of town, heading north: Stefan no longer had his compass, of course, but we could see the Vosges close by on our left. After about half an hour we came into another large town which Stefan thought had to be Strasbourg, or whatever it was called here. The van drove to a railway station and waited for about fifteen minutes, after which we were led to a train and installed in a compartment in the rear carriage. The police hadn’t been able to bring the computer with them, but the one who spoke German told Stefan that we’d be in the train for quite a long time, so we should relax. If we needed the toilet we were to press the button on the intercom by the door: the police escort would be in the next compartment and would come to take us to the toilet at the end of the corridor. Then our handcuffs were removed and the compartment door was locked.

First we tried the window, but of course it was welded shut. Next Radu had a look at the door, but there was no access to the lock from this side, which made it impossible for him to pick it, even if had been able to keep his tools. And finally we checked out the roof and the floor, but quickly decided that we’d need an axe or something to get through either.

“Looks like we’re stuck,” I said. “So we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride. It could always be worse.”

“How?” asked Alain, who obviously wasn’t enjoying being dressed as a child, and it’s easy to understand why: he was a couple of centimetres taller than me, which made him taller than anyone else except Stefan and well over twenty centimetres taller than Oli and Tommi. Even Radu was shorter than him by eleven or twelve centimetres.

“This could be a cattle truck, not a passenger train,” I told him. “And it could be going to an extermination camp, not a job in a school. By the standards of some of my grandfather’s friends in the Nineteen-Forties, we’re well off here. Look on the bright side, Alain: this time we’re all together, and we’re not going to have to shovel coal for a living.”

“I suppose so. But it’s embarrassing, being dressed like this.”

“Don’t worry, Al – I think you look good,” said Oli. “You’ve got really nice legs, and now we can all see them.”

Alain gave a grunt and put his cloak over his legs, but Oli mischievously pulled it away again and then slid a hand up the leg of Alain’s shorts. Of course by now we were all used to the two of them playing sex games with each other in front of us, but this was the first time it had been Oli taking the first step. I wasn’t sure how Alain would react, but in fact he just grinned, grabbed Oli, pulled him onto his lap facing him and hugged him. And Oli promptly took advantage of his new position to burrow a hand down the front of Alain’s shorts instead, and this time Alain let him get on with it.

The train pulled out of the station, and once it was clear of the town it built up to a serious speed: the countryside flew by, and we went through small towns so quickly that we wouldn’t have been able to read the names on the stations even if they had been written in an alphabet we could understand.

“Any idea which way we’re going?” I asked Stefan.

“Into France, I think. If we’d been going into Germany we’d have crossed the Rhine soon after leaving Strasbourg. But it was pretty obvious we’d be going that way, considering the tension between this place and Germany.”

After about half an hour we ran into a large town, where the train stopped for a couple of minutes. Another hour brought us to another large town and another brief stop, and then a little under an hour brought us to the suburbs of a substantially larger place.

“I think this is Paris,” I said. “If it is I expect we’ll be getting off here – the Gare de l’Est, or whatever it’s called in this world, is a terminus.”

Sure enough, the train ran slowly into a very large station and stopped, and we waited for the policemen to come and let us out. But nothing happened. At first I thought the delay was because they had to go and get a van to move us in, but after ten minutes there was still no sign of life in the corridor.

“Do you think they’ve forgotten about us?” asked Marc.

“I’m sure we couldn’t be that lucky,” I replied. But after another five minutes the train started moving again, back the way it had come, and at that point I really was starting to wonder if the policemen had slipped up somehow.

“We’re going a different way,” commented Stefan, looking out of the window. “That factory with the three chimneys was on the other side as we came in. Looks like Paris might not be the terminus for this train after all. Shall we find out?”

He pressed the intercom button and asked in German if he could go to the toilet, and a few seconds later one of the cops appeared and opened the door. Stefan went out and the door was locked again. Three or four minutes later he was let in again.

“Well, they haven’t forgotten about us,” he said. “We’re not even halfway through the journey yet: apparently we’re going to somewhere called – if I got this right – Paazi-Beretokheeme. I’ve no idea where that is, and the cops don’t seem to know any other name for it. Oh, and this isn’t called Paris – it’s called Luutetiaame.”

“Lutetia,” I said. “It’s the old Roman name for Paris. I wonder if this is some sort of modern day Roman Empire? Except the language is nothing like Latin… oh, well, I suppose there’s no point in worrying about it.”

The train ran on through the suburbs of Paris. In my world I had relatives living on the west side of Paris, not far from Versailles, and for the first time in ages I felt a stab of homesickness for my own world. My aim all along had been to get back to Elsass, but now I found myself wishing I could find a way back to England, and even to the deadly dull village in Oxfordshire where I had lived until the previous summer. And my parents… I wouldn’t even care if they were still fighting if I could only see them again…

And before I knew it I was crying. Stefan had moved to the window to try to work out which way we were going and the others had moved up to make room for him, and so I found myself sitting next to Marc instead. And once he noticed I was crying he put his arm round me, hugged me and asked me what was wrong.

As soon as the others realised I was unhappy they crowded round, taking my hands, hugging me and offering their support. I found it hard to believe that someone like me, who back in England had had practically no friends, could have assembled such a collection of loyal friends whose only thought, regardless of their own precarious situation, seemed to be to make me feel better.

“Don’t cry, Jake,” said Marc. “We know none of this is your fault – and we’ll be all right. You’ll see.”

“And even if we aren’t, it’s still a good adventure,” added Nicolas. “I haven’t changed my mind yet: I’m still glad I’m here and not back in Vogesia.”

One by one the others came and hugged me. Tommi and Oli both kissed me, too, and Nicolas didn’t, which was equally significant: for once he wasn’t trying to flirt with me but was trying to be supportive. And afterwards I was still crying a little, but now it was tears of gratitude for having such good friends.

By the time the train came out of a long tunnel into open country I had recovered enough to be able to go and join Stefan at the window and ask which way he thought we were heading.

“We’re still going west, I think,” he said. “The sun’s more or less ahead of us.”

We didn’t know what the time was, of course, but I thought by now it must be late afternoon, and so the sun would be heading towards the western horizon.

“Then we can’t have too much further to go,” I said. “If we were heading south I’d think maybe we were going to Spain, but this way we’ll run out of land in another three hours or so at the most. So it looks as if we’ll be staying in France. Okay, it’s the wrong side of the country, but at least we won’t have to worry about crossing borders if we manage to escape.”

About an hour and a half after leaving Paris the train stopped in another large town, though of course we couldn’t read the name on the station boards, and when Marc, who could at least communicate a little in German, went out to the toilet just afterwards he came back to say that, according to the policeman who spoke German, the place was called Kondaate Riidone, which meant absolutely nothing to any of us.

“But when I asked how much longer we’d be on the train he reckoned about an hour and a half,” Marc added.

I thought about it. At the speed this train had been travelling that would surely take us all the way to the western coast. That would put us some eight hundred kilometres from the Vosges, and that would present us with a real challenge: eight hundred kilometres in hostile territory, with no transport and no money. And before that we’d have to escape from the school…

Still, I supposed that it would be possible to steal money, and if we could find a vehicle… it was a real pity that Markus wasn’t with us, because I didn’t think anyone else would be able to hotwire a car for us. We’d just have to carjack one or something, even if that meant they’d be chasing us almost straight away.

The train stopped again, and now we could see that we were on the coast: there was a river estuary off to our right, and a glimpse of open sea, though after that the sea disappeared and the train continued to run through open green country, with just a couple of smaller towns at which the train didn’t stop. And then, finally, it stopped once more, and when I looked out of the window my heart sank: we were in a shipping port.

“Oh, God,” said Stefan, looking at the ship berthed a hundred metres or so from the train. “You don’t think…?”

“I hope not, but I’m afraid it might be.”

We were left for fifteen minutes or so, and then the policemen came back and handcuffed us in pairs once more. And when we got out into the corridor we saw that they had been reinforced, so there was clearly no chance of making a run for it.

We got off the train and left the station, and we were boxed in by men in uniform all the way across the yard to another building, which I suppose was a customs point, though since obviously none of us had anything to declare we walked straight through and out the other side. And there in front of us was a gangway leading onto the ship.

“Where are we going?” asked Radu.

“No idea,” I said. “Maybe the school is on an island off the coast, but this seems a hell of a big boat to go island-hopping.” In fact it was the biggest one I had ever been on, considerably larger than the ferries that still crossed the English Channel between England and France.

“Cool!” exclaimed Oli, with his usual enthusiasm. “I’ve never been on the water before. Is it fun?”

“Depends on the weather,” I said. ”It doesn’t look too bad at the moment, so we should be all right.”

“Wow,” said Oli, looking off ahead of the ship, “the water goes on for ages, doesn’t it? In Vogesia you could see the other side, but you can’t here, can you?”

“The other side is about three thousand miles away, or call it five thousand kilometres, and I really hope we’re not going that far, or we’ll never get back,” I told him. I didn’t think we could really be going to America, though: surely we would have flown if we’d been going that far. And if it was America we were going to, why couldn’t anyone speak English? I simply couldn’t believe that this was a world where everyone in America only spoke Sioux or Cheyenne or something – though that would explain why I couldn’t understand a single word of the language the policemen spoke…

We were taken below decks and installed in two small four-berth cabins: Alain, Oli, Stefan and I in the first one and the others next door.

“I know you haven’t eaten,” the German-speaking cop said. “Don’t worry, they’ll bring something round as soon as the ship sails. Have a good trip.”

“Aren’t you coming?” asked Stefan.

“No, we’re going back. But don’t worry - there’ll be plenty of other officers on board to keep an eye on you!” And he closed the door, and we heard a key turn.

I had a look around the cabin. Apart from the four bunks there was a little cupboard, a table and two chairs, and a porthole that was far too small to squeeze through, even for Oli. In the corner was a door leading to a small washroom and toilet (I vaguely remembered that you’re supposed to call it a ‘head’ on a ship, for some reason), so there would be no reason for us to be let out of the cabin until we reached our destination.

“Do you have any idea where we’re going?” asked Alain.

“No. The ocean is about three thousand miles across, so if we’re going all the way and the ship can do…”

Actually I had no idea how fast a ship could travel. I knew the channel ferries were pretty slow, taking well over an hour to cover twenty-two miles, but I thought ocean liners could probably go faster. I remembered reading that the great battleships of World War Two could do about thirty knots…

“Let’s say thirty knots,” I continued “In that case it’ll take us a hundred hours, or four days. We’re going to be sick of this cabin if we’re stuck here for that long.”

“Yes, and the bastards took my cards, too,” said Alain. “What are we going to do for four days?”

“I can think of some things we could do,” said Oli, grinning at him and sliding his hand up the leg of Alain’s shorts again.

“That’s true,” said Alain, looking happier. “As long as Jake and Stefan promise to look the other way.”

“Oh, I expect we’ll be busy ourselves,” said Stefan. “We won’t have time to spy on you.”

“I don’t think it matters,” said Oli. “I’m not ashamed of anything we do together, and I bet you’re not, either. And we’re proper friends, aren’t we, us four? I don’t think we need to keep secrets from our best friends.”

“Just as long as there aren’t any cameras in here,” said Stefan, checking the ceiling over. But there was no sign of a camera, and nowhere that one could be hidden, either.

“We’d better wait until after we’ve eaten, though,” I said. “I don’t want them walking in on us at an awkward moment.”

“I suppose so,” said Oli, slipping his hand out again. Alain gave a stifled groan of disappointment.

“Of course, it doesn’t have to be America,” I mused. “It could be Spain, though I’d have thought we’d go to Spain by rail. Or – how about this? It could be Ireland. There are an awful lot of red-haired people about – not just the cops, but some of the other people we saw getting onto the ship. Celts often have red hair, so perhaps Ireland is a sort of superpower in this world.”

“Ireland?” said Stefan incredulously, and I knew what he meant: in my world Ireland was a pleasant, inoffensive sort of place that guarded its neutrality closely, and it seemed no more likely to try for world domination than Estonia or the Seychelles would. But of course we knew nothing at all about the history of this world, and I supposed that the concept of militaristic, power-hungry Celts was not completely off the wall.

“Well, it could be,” I said, defensively. “We’ll just have to wait and find out, won’t we?”

It was quite dark outside by the time the ship started to move out of port, and so we couldn’t tell which way we were heading. Once the lights of the port fell away behind us it was hard to gauge our direction, although for a while after we left the port we saw the odd group of lights off to the right of the ship, the side our porthole was on. But eventually we passed a lighthouse, and after that there was nothing but empty ocean.

Just before we reached the lighthouse the door opened and a cop we hadn’t seen before, and whose uniform was a different shade from those of our escort, came in carrying a tray. The plates were plastic and so was the cutlery, but the food wasn’t bad at all: there was a fish pie served with peas and some disc-shaped fried potatoes, and for dessert a bowl containing apple crumble and cream. I think the cream was synthetic, but it tasted okay. A second cop came in with a large jug of water and four plastic cups. Neither of them spoke – I suppose they’d been told we couldn’t speak the local language.

“See?” I said, when they’d gone out, locking the door behind them. “Those two had red hair, too. I bet it’s Ireland.”

“I bet it isn’t,’ replied Stefan at once. “Loser has to suck, not just the winner, but Alain and Oli, too.”

I stared at him: I’d never imagined that Stefan would want to involve anyone else in our personal practices.

“Well, it’s like Oli said,” explained Stefan, seeing the look on my face. “The four of us are special friends: we’ve been together almost since the start. I know you feel the same way about them as I do, and it wouldn’t worry me if I had to suck them. But I won’t have to, because you’re going to lose.”

“Okay, then, you’re on,” I said. “Loser sucks everyone else. Except it won’t be me, because it has to be Ireland: if these redheads were American they’d be speaking English, because there’s no way that Native Americans could have evolved into people with pale skin and red hair. What they’re speaking has to be Irish Gaelic – you’ll see.”

Once we’d finished eating we rinsed the plates and cutlery in the washroom, just in case we had to use the same things for the next meal, and piled them up on the table. And after that we thought we might as well try to get some sleep: although the sea was fairly calm there was still a bit of movement in the cabin, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to sleep like that. Unfortunately the bunks were too narrow to sleep two people – at least, not unless one of them wanted to fall out onto the floor every few minutes – and so I grabbed one of the top ones, stripped to my pants and tee shirt, wrapped my cloak around myself as an extra blanket, and went to sleep.

We woke up very early next morning, not because of the ship rolling and pitching, but because the ship was entering a harbour and the ship’s tannoy was announcing the fact in several languages, including German.

“He says this place is called Osthafen,” Stefan told us. “That would be ‘Eastharbour’ in English. It’s obviously a translation of the real name, though, because as far as I could make out he called it something different in each language. And it must be in a different time zone to where we started, because he said the local time is three-fifteen in the morning.”

“I suppose that would be about the time needed to sail to Ireland,” I said, smugly. “Shall we get dressed, or should we wait until they come and wake us up officially?”

“Might as well wait,” said Stefan. “After all, Alain’s still asleep, and we don’t need to disturb him until we have to.”

“Alain could sleep through anything,” said Oli. “I have to pull the bedclothes off and drag him onto the floor if I want him to get up earlier than usual.”

So we decided to wait. But when we’d been waiting for about half an hour the ship started moving again, and the lights of the port faded away.

“We’re probably just sailing up the coast,” I said. “That was probably Cork or somewhere and now we’re sailing on to Dublin.”

And I rolled over and went back to sleep. And when I woke up again I was convinced I was right, because the ship was just coming into another harbour, and it was light outside. And the ship was still drawing up to the quay when one of the cops stuck his head around the door and indicated that we should get up and get dressed.

“Told you,” I said. “I bet this is Dun Laoghaire, or maybe Dublin City port. We’re in Ireland, and that means that you lose, Stefi – hah!”

“Let’s wait until we get ashore,” said Stefan. “For all you know we could be anywhere.”

“I’m telling you, it’s Ireland,” I repeated.

But it turned out that I was way off the mark.