by David Clarke
I woke up with a splitting headache, and I was also finding it hard to breathe: something was constricting my chest. A few seconds more and my head had cleared enough for me to realise that I was lying in a bed, and from the machinery to my left and the needle in my arm I surmised that I was in hospital somewhere. I must have made a noise as I tried to sit up, because Nicky suddenly appeared on the right hand side of the bed.
“Hey, Jake,” he said. “How do you feel?”
“Lousy. Where am I?”
“We’re at the mine – it has its own mini-hospital in case of mining accidents. I was just here because I wanted to talk to Killian, but if you hold on a moment I’ll go and find Stefan for you.”
“No, wait – what happened, exactly?”
“Well, you got shot. You were lucky – the doctor said that if you’d been standing three inches to your left you’d be dead, because the first bullet sort of pinged off a rib – which is why your chest is all strapped up – and the second one creased your head as it went past. The doctor says you’ll be fine in a day or so – they just want to hang on to you for a bit in case there are any delayed reactions to getting hit on the head. Anyway, I’ll go…”
“No! Wait… did everyone make it?”
He turned his head away and began to mumble something about Stefan being only just outside, he’d just go and find him.
“Tell me!” I insisted. “Please, Nicky, I have to know.”
He sighed and sat down beside my bed.
“Killian had a bullet in his thigh,” he began. “He’s fine, the bullet missed the… I can’t remember what Marc said it was called, but it’s the main blood vessel in the leg.”
“The femoral artery,” I supplied. “Go on.”
“Well… Verdess is dead. I don’t suppose he even knew what had happened, because he took a bullet right above the left eye and… well, Marc says he would have died instantly. And… see, what happened is, we saw you get shot, and Killian jumped out of the jeep to go and try to drag you back under cover, only he got shot, too. So Marlo and I ran out to help: I dragged you back towards the jeep, and Marlo tried to move Killian, only he couldn’t manage on his own, so instead he tried to shield Killian with his body… and he got hit. Three times, in fact… I’m really sorry, Jake, but he’s dead, too.”
“He saved my life,” said Killian’s voice, and I turned my head and saw that he was in the next bed. “Even after the first bullet hit him he wouldn’t leave me: he said my white robe made me too easy a target. He said he’d stay on top of me until Nicky got back from dragging you back to the jeep, but by the time he got back – and Torth came too – Marlo had been hit twice more. They tried to save him, but… but…”
Killian tailed off, sobbing, and I couldn’t think of anything to say, because I knew it was my stupidity that had got Marlo and Verdess killed. Nicky got up and left, and a couple of minutes later Stefan came in and sat down beside me. Nicky trailed in after him and went and sat next to Killian, first holding his hand and then putting his arms round him.
“So you know about Verdess and Marlo,” said Stefan.
I nodded mutely.
“Well, it wasn’t your fault,” he said. “I know you, Jake: right now you’re convinced it was down to you, but you’re wrong, it wasn’t. There was no way you could have known they’d react the way they did – I mean, it didn’t occur to me either, and I’m supposed to be able to think like a soldier. But we’d all got so used to seeing the Greys wearing the uniforms they found in Hilsstok that we didn’t even think about it any more. Anyway, if I’d been in charge things would have been far worse, because when I saw you lying next to the jeep with blood all over your face I lost it and wanted to start shelling the mine, only the other three wouldn’t let me, and when I tried to load the gun single-handed Radu hit me. And Alain stopped the tank sideways on in front of the jeep and the truck so that you’d be out of their soldiers’ line of fire, and Radu hit the turret button and turned the gun to point away from the mine, and then they finally got the message that we weren’t hostile and stopped shooting.
“And then Alain took off his shirt so that they could easily see he wasn’t a Grey and climbed slowly out of the hatch with his hands in the air, shouting that we were human. We kept Torth and Sarleth out of the way until everything had calmed down and tried to help Marc deal with you and Killian and Marlo until the mine doctor turned up. Only there was nothing he could do for Marlo: he had two bullets in his chest and his lungs had been punctured, and he died before they could fix him up.
“But it wasn’t your fault, Jake! You’re not psychic: you couldn’t have foreseen what would happen. None of us could, not even Killian with his super-clever brain. So stop beating yourself up about it.”
Well, he could argue all he wanted: it wouldn’t make any difference to the fact that I was in charge and, for the second time in a fortnight, people had died. I had no idea how I could cope with this, so I said, “My head hurts, Stefi. Can you go and find a doctor to give me something?”
The doctor came and gave me some sort of painkiller, and as I result I fell asleep again, and when I woke up – and that didn’t happen until the following morning – my head felt better but my heart still felt completely numb. And when Stefan came to see me I told him that I didn’t want to be in charge any longer, and that as far as I was concerned he was our leader now, unless maybe Alain wanted to try.
“No chance!” said Alain – he and Oli had come to see me with Stefan. “I’d make a complete mess of it! If I’d been in charge we’d probably all have died in the Grey world, from hunger or cold or both. Jake, you’re the only one who can lead us – Stefan’s fine if we have to plan a battle or something, and I can cope if we’re just staying in one place and there aren’t any enemies around, but otherwise you’re our leader.”
“Only if you want to get killed,” I commented, bitterly.
“Jake, you took six of us with you into the Grey world, and all six of us are still here. I’m sorry about Marlo, but Dannis more or less decided his own fate when he attacked Dervoran, Verdess would have died ages ago if you hadn’t rescued him from the caves, and Dervoran and Harlan… well, I’m sorry, but after the things they did back at the school I’m not going to shed tears for them. Time and time again you’ve got us out of trouble when the rest of us were floundering about without a clue – you got us out of the Grey world even though there was a war on there, you had a logical plan to find us another portal, you remembered about this place – which is going to get us all home, because there is a portal here back to Kerpia – and, most brilliant of all, you got us out of the school – all of us – and back to the portal, and so you saved everyone from a hopeless future as a lab rat to the Konjässiem. Nobody else would have ever found a way to do that. We need you, Jake: you’re our leader – and you’re the best friend Oli and I could ever ask for, too. Please don’t give up.”
That was enough to start me crying again, and the three of them hugged me – gently, because of my cracked rib - and held me until I calmed down, and after that I did feel a bit better, though I thought it would be a very long time before I completely forgave myself for not thinking ahead. And I had no idea what I was going to say to Killian, because I knew how much he was going to miss Marlo.
The doctor kept me in hospital for another twenty-four hours, just to make sure there was no danger of any after-effects to my head injury, and by the time I got up again my side was feeling much better: apparently they had some clever technique to accelerate the healing process of damaged ribs. During that time I had a visit from the captain of the militia unit, who apologised for shooting at us, though he said he hoped I could understand why it had happened. So I said that I didn’t blame him or his men at all, and that I should have realised what we would look like. And it would be fair to say that his visit didn’t leave me feeling any better about myself.
On the following day I was able to get up and rejoin my friends, and although they were sorry about what had happened to Verdess and Marlo they were also looking forward to getting home, and so on the whole they were feeling positive about things. I suppose it helped that Torth and Sarleth reacted to Verdess’s death in typical Grey style, which could be summed up as ‘I’m still alive and that’s all that matters’, and in fact they found it hard to understand why we wanted to bury him and Marlo by the belt of trees we had driven through. I explained that in our culture we liked to have a chance to say goodbye to people who had died, and Torth told me that in his culture the corpses of the dead were used to make fertiliser.
“Don’t you miss him at all?” I asked. “After all, you were together for a very long time.”
“I suppose we are aware that he isn’t around any longer, and I regret that,” Torth admitted. “I’ve learned that in your culture you see other people differently, and that you interact much more closely with them than we do. At times I think that perhaps we lack something, but then when someone dies it affects us far less than it does you, so perhaps our way is best.”
“It’s strange that you came to help drag Killian and Marlo back under cover when they were getting shot at, then. What happened?”
“I don’t know. For a moment I found myself thinking like a mammal, I suppose. I can’t understand it now, because now that I’m thinking sensibly again it seems insane to risk your life to help someone else.”
“I don’t think so. I think we gain a massive amount from having friends, and although it makes it harder for us when one of our friends dies, I still wouldn’t prefer to live alone the way you do. It’s having friends that has kept us going when things have been difficult, and that’s why it’s worth taking risks to help them.”
And we were able to demonstrate that when we buried Verdess and Marlo that afternoon because, even though some of my friends still had reservations about having a Konjässi in our party, they all put them aside for long enough to try to support Killian as he grieved for Marlo. Nicky had scarcely left his side over the past couple of days, sitting by his bed in the hospital and supporting him as he limped about the place after the doctor allowed him to get out of bed.
“It’s because he was the one who wanted to go and help you when you got shot,” Nicky admitted to me. “You know I really like you, but I was too scared to leave the jeep. But Killian said he couldn’t leave you and ran to help you, and that sort of shamed me into getting out of the jeep myself. He’s a lot braver than me, and I’m really sorry that Marlo’s dead. Maybe if I’d gone to help you straight away he and Marlo could have stayed in the jeep and been safe. So now I’m just doing my best to help him. And now I’m not scared of him any more, either – now I can see he’s just an unhappy kid, like I was back in Vogesia.”
And after we’d finished saying farewell to the two dead boys and had gone back to the mine Nicky stayed with Killian while he said his private goodbyes. And a bit later it was Nicky who came to tell me that Killian wanted to talk to me.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do now,” Killian said. “I don't know if Terry told you this, but in the first year at the Academy you don't get involved in the more serious experiments. So I’ve never seen anyone die in front of me before, and it was horrible, though I suppose at least I was able to help him a bit: he was hurting a lot, and he was scared of dying, so I sort of numbed the pain a bit and did my best to calm him, and at the end when the pain got too bad I just closed his brain down so that he went to sleep. But how am I going to manage without him? I need someone to look after me and keep me under control, and he was the only one who could do that…”
“We’ll all look after you, but not like that,” I said. “We’ll show you what a normal friendship is like – I’m pretty sure everyone feels better about you now than they did before, and that means you’ll have people you can count on and who will help you to cope with being in a strange world. You won’t ever have to feel alone again.”
I hoped my friends would back me up here, because I knew that not all of them were happy about Killian being with us.
“Yes, but you know what I need.”
“You don’t need it – you just think you do. And if Harlan was strong enough to make you think you did, I can’t see why you can’t be strong enough yourself to realise that you don’t need it after all. You needed it because Konjässiem don’t have any friends, not real ones, but now you’re with us you’ll have friends. You’ll be fine, Killian – I believe in you.”
“You’ve got doubts, though – I can see them,” he pointed out. “You’re not sure everyone is going to accept me.”
“Oh, they will: the Mad Hintraten Stokers accept all sorts – hell, we even accept Greys, and you’re a lot more like us than they are. Give them time, Killian: once they see the real you, they’ll like you. Ask Nicky.”
“Yes, he has been nice to me… Okay, I’ll try.”
Later that afternoon we were taken to a large warehouse at the far side of the site. There was a railway track running into the warehouse and a loading area for goods wagons just outside it, but when we went into the warehouse we found a railcar on the tracks instead of a goods train. The track ran up to a closed shutter door.
“The portal’s on the other side of the door,” our guide explained. “We’ve got two, one for heavy road traffic and one for rail, and on the other side of the portal, in Kerpia, there’s a line that goes to the distribution centre on the north side of Molnarhass. You can get a train across the Rajna from there – you said you wanted to get back to Hintraten, I think?”
I confirmed that this was correct – after all, if we were going to be able to send Torth and Sarleth through to the other Grey world I was fairly sure I would need to talk to Narj Larzel again.
“Then you want the train for Ulm. Anyway, you speak our language perfectly, so you shouldn’t have any problems. So, have you got everything?”
We’d decided to abandon the tents and the heavier gear we’d been carrying – after all, once we were back in Kerpia we shouldn’t need them any more – and so were now just carrying our own bags, and since most of our clothing had been left behind at the school they weren’t very heavy. So we took our places on the train and waited while the shutter was raised, and once it was the train rolled slowly forwards through the portal and on into Kerpia. We emerged from the far side of the warehouse into a normal landscape of houses and roads and electric pylons, and that was a view that stayed with us throughout the short journey to the distribution centre. Word had obviously gone ahead of us, because we were met on the platform by another employee of the mining company, who directed us to a more conventional train waiting at another platform. And this one took us across the Rhine and, in due course, back to Hintraten once more. We walked the short distance from the station to the Town Hall and asked for Mr Narj, whose reaction on seeing us was similar to the one he had displayed when Stefan and I had walked into the same building the previous December.
“I knew you were still alive!” he greeted me. “You’re indestructible! Come through and tell me what happened.”
He took us to a conference room and sat us around the table, and then sat back and looked at me expectantly. “So,” he invited, “tell me what happened after the tree fell on the portal.”
“Huh? What tree?”
“You didn’t know? A tree came down in the storm and one of the branches hit the tent. We hoped you’d got through before it happened, but when we finally re-established the portal a week or so later, once the scientists from your side were able to converse with us properly, we found that half of your party was missing. The first group had got back safely, but after that, nothing. So we guessed that you’d been thrown off somewhere else – after all, you weren’t at our end or theirs, alive or dead, so you had to be somewhere. So where were you?”
“In another Grey world – not the one you were at war with, but a completely different one. Only that one was at war too, internally. We rescued three boys who had been underground when the bombs went off – these are two of them. The third one didn’t make it. But I was hoping you’d be able to send these two through to the Grey world you already know about – they can’t go back to their own world because the war there went nuclear.”
“I don’t see why not. Obviously I don’t know what sort of a welcome they’d get there, but we can send them through if that’s what they want.”
Tommi had been translating for Torth and Sarleth, and they both indicated that they wanted to do that. So that was one problem solved.
I went on to explain, briefly, about the other worlds we had been through, and about the problems we had encountered in Arvel, and I ended by saying that we just wanted to get back home.
“That won’t be a problem,” Mr Narj told us. “There’s a permanent portal between your world and ours now, and there are more under construction. We have a political agreement with your state for preliminary portals, and an agreement in principle for a full political alliance and trading accord once the portals have been extensively tested. It should be beneficial to all of us, and I guess we’ve got you to thank for it. I hope your own world is suitably grateful.”
“To be honest, I don’t care whether they’re grateful or not. I just want to get home. Where’s the portal – up on the Feldberg?”
“No – we decided that it made sense if the first permanent one was on Elsass soil, rather than over here, where your side of it would be in the neighbouring state. So it’s just outside your capital. We are rebuilding the two Nexus Rooms, though, and eventually there’ll be another link between your world and ours up in the mountains on your side of the river. Once we shipped the last of the Greys back we started work repairing the tunnels at Hub One, and we’ve been working on Hub Two for the past three or four months as well. It’s going to be a long job, but it’s worth it, because when we have a success – like finding the uninhabited world – the rewards far outweigh the costs. Anyway, it would be best if you stay with us overnight: that will give us time to make the travel arrangements to get you to the portal tomorrow, and it’ll give us a chance to send your Grey friends through to the other reptile world, too. Wait here for a few minutes and I’ll make some calls.”
He came back fifteen minutes later and told us that he’d booked us into a hotel in town for the night and that we’d be travelling by train to the new portal-site next morning. He took us to the hotel personally, and it was clearly the best one in town, and when I commented on that he said that we were national heroes and that meant we got only the best. In one way I’d have quite liked to stay if that was going to be the attitude of the Kerpian authorities, but on the other I was still looking forward to getting back to our own room. Assuming we still had one, of course…
We saved the state a bit of expense by asking for five double rooms instead of ten singles: Nicky said he would share a room with Killian, rather than leaving him on his own, and that left Tommi and Caradoc together. Of course their hair colour and the two-year age difference meant that anyone meeting them for the first time would quite possibly take them for brothers, and although they didn’t really know each other very well yet, I thought that would change once they’d shared a room a couple of times: Tommi was outgoing and friendly, and both were keen on physical activities…
Once everyone was relaxing in their rooms at the hotel Mr Narj took me, Tommi and the two Greys up to the Grey checkpoint above the Hub One Nexus Room. There were a number of people working there, and already one of the tunnels back to the Hub had been reopened: Mr Narj disappeared into it and returned a few minutes later with some men in pale green coats. These bustled about on the surface outside the checkpoint, setting up equipment and connecting it to the power supply inside the checkpoint using thick electrical cables. We stayed back out of the way, though I took the opportunity to write an introductory letter for Torth and Sarleth. My written Grey was a bit ropy, and it took a while before I was satisfied with the result, but eventually I ended up with this:
I was involved in a portal accident about six months ago, and while I was trying to get home I met the two boys who are carrying this note. Their names are Torth and Sarleth, and they come from another reptile world like yours. But they can’t go home because there was a nuclear war in their country and their town and the whole area around it were destroyed.
‘I don’t know if your school can take them, but I think they’d be suitable, because they survived on their own for long periods, first while trapped in some caves and later when stuck in a forest for several weeks. I think they would make good soldiers. If your school can’t take them I hope your director can find somewhere else for them.
‘I don’t suppose we will meet again, but I found it interesting being with you. My best wishes to Issin, Rathyk and the others – and to Ssyrl, if he’s with you again. I heard what he did, and he’s a lot braver than me. And Tommi says hello to Trethar.
I couldn’t remember the name of Haless’s school, but I was able to describe how to get there from the cable car station, so I explained to Torth how to get there and gave him the note.
“Ask for a boy called Haless,” I said. “If he’s not there you could try the other names I mention in the note – all of them will remember me.”
“Thank you,” said Torth. “As I said before, it has been interesting living with you and the other mammals. I know that we would be dead if you hadn’t led us from the caves… I know I said before that I didn’t understand why you decided to save us – especially Sarleth, since he had to be carried – but now I think I do understand: it’s because you’re social creatures. What you said when we put Verdess in the earth… I can see why you choose to live in such a way, co-operating with each other and helping each other: when something bad happens you don’t have to face it alone. It’s a strange way of living, but I can see that it makes it easier to deal with problems if you face them together.”
“We think it makes us stronger,” I said. “It’s hard to hurt you because you’re not affected when something bad happens to your colleagues, but we think it worth accepting the risk of hurt in exchange for being able to face life together.”
“I think I can understand that. It’s a mammal way of thinking, but I’ve seen that it has positive results. Like I said, being with you has been interesting, and educational, too.”
We waited for the scientists to finish rigging up the temporary portal, and once they had run their checks and were satisfied they gave Mr Narj the nod and he motioned the two Greys forward.
“Good luck,” I said. “I hope everything works out for you.”
Torth nodded. “I don’t suppose we will meet again,” he said, “and I find that strangely dissatisfying. I would never have used this word before meeting you, but now I think I would consider you a ‘friend’. Thank you, Jake.”
He turned and walked over to the portal, and once Sarleth joined him – he’d been saying his own goodbyes to Tommi – one of the scientists threw a switch and the portal hummed for a few seconds. And once it was properly established the scientists waved the Greys forward, and they stepped through it. The scientist hit the switch again and the two Greys disappeared.
“Thanks,” I said to Mr Narj.
“No problem. If you’d like to wait by the jeep I’ll be with you in a few minutes – I need to talk to the head of the repair operation.”
“It’s okay, we’ll walk,” I said. “It’s a nice day, and I wouldn’t mind a walk, especially if it’s downhill all the way. Is that okay with you, Tommi?”
“I’d like that,” said Tommi, and so we started walking.
“I’m going to miss Sarleth,” he said. “He was fun. I reckon if more Greys and humans spent time together we’d understand each other a lot better, and then there wouldn’t be any more fighting between us. We’re not really all that different from them.”
“If what Torth was just saying to me is anything to go by, perhaps you’re right. So what did you and Sarleth get up to while you were sharing a tent? Did you actually do what you were talking about when we were in Vogesia?”
“Well… yes, actually. I mean, not everything – I wasn’t going to let Torth and Verdess actually do it to me, but I did do it to Sarleth a couple of times. It was nice, and he seemed to like it, too. I wasn’t sure if he would, because of course I’m much warmer than the other Greys, but he said it felt good. I’m going to miss doing that.”
“I should think if you end up spending time with Caradoc you won’t miss it for long, because he likes playing sex games. Borrow Alain’s cards and challenge him to a strip game tonight and I expect you’ll find out what I’m talking about.”
“Okay, I will. Thanks. So – are we really going home tomorrow?”
“I hope so – provided nothing else goes wrong.”
“I’m sure it won’t if they’ve got a proper portal now. It’ll be really nice to get back and see all our friends again won’t it? I wonder if Markus and Sylvie are still together… I think they probably will be, because he was sort of serious about her…”
We walked on for another fifteen minutes or so.
“Jake… I know you’re still sort of unhappy because people got killed, but it really wasn’t your fault, all right? I was talking to Oli on the train, and I said something about how amazing it was that all of us got out of the school and all the way back to Kerpia, when we’d been prisoners almost two thousand ezerhersps away, and he said that it wasn’t all that surprising because we had you as our leader. He said he always knew you’d find a way out for us because you’re so brilliant, and because you’d never dream of leaving anyone behind. He never doubted for a moment that you’d think of a plan. And you did, didn’t you?”
“God, Tommi, that makes it sound so easy – does Oli really think that it doesn’t matter what happens to us because Super Jake will always find a way to rescue us?”
“Well, he’s mad, then! There was so much that went wrong with this one, and even more that could have gone wrong. I didn’t know how Torth would behave, I had no idea how far Harlan might have gone, we could all have been shot by the police helicopter – I had no control over any of it. And if they’d had some heavy guns at the mine we could all have been killed there too, not just Verdess and Marlo. I was lucky, Tommi. And next time I might not be so lucky, and everyone might die, which is why I don’t want to do this any more. Alain and Oli keep saying stuff like ‘you’ve never let us down yet’, but sooner or later I will, and I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to them, or to the rest of you, either. And that’s why I don’t ever want to see a portal again after tomorrow.”
“I don’t suppose there’s any reason why we should, is there? All you have to say next time is ‘No, thanks, I’m allergic to portals’ and they’ll leave you alone. Although I still think they’re exciting – I love seeing completely new worlds, with different ways of doing everything and interesting places to visit.”
“That’s just because you and I were lucky at the school: neither of us got messed about with too badly. But if we’d stayed, sooner or later you’d have got too old to be a runner, and after that you’d have found yourself on the end of the nastier experiments. Okay, so I liked lying on the beach in Vogesia, and once I got over the shock of the Nazis running Greater Bavaria that whole world was pretty good. But the rest of the worlds we saw this time around weren’t too good, were they? A Grey world where they drop nuclear bombs on each other; a world where it’s so cold you’d freeze if you stayed there for too long; a world with no TV, no radio, no computers, no books and nothing to do except go to church; a world where they do ghastly experiments on you; and a completely empty place that I suppose was nice enough in the summer but which wouldn’t have been a lot of fun in the winter, especially if the antelopes migrated away. No, I think I’ve seen as many other worlds as I want: all I want now is to get back to Elsass and settle down to a nice boring life.”
I’m fairly sure that Tommi disagreed with that, but he didn’t say so – perhaps he was afraid of hurting my feelings. But I meant it: even if the portal scientists came and waved sheaves of credits under my nose I had no intention of ever going through another one after we got back home.
We walked back to Hintraten, taking our time, enjoying the scenery and the nice weather and talking about inconsequential stuff, and when we got back to the hotel I said I’d see Tommi at supper-time and headed for our room. And I found Stefan lying on the bed looking at the ceiling.
“Everything okay?” he asked me, and I assured him that it was.
“Good. Last time we slept in a hotel in this town we had to hide behind clouds of steam when we wanted to do anything. This time we won’t have to. Still, maybe we should take a shower before supper. What do you think?”
Strangely, I thought that was an excellent idea.
Supper was excellent, especially when compared to what we’d been living on in the last couple of weeks: Harlan’s choice of slave rations had been functional rather than selected for gourmet diners, and I’m not sure that my Antelope Surprise was the greatest dish that had ever been created, either. And the bed was comfortable, too, especially as we had been camping and so sleeping on the ground until a couple of days ago. I decided I liked being a hero of the state.
Next morning after breakfast Mr Narj came to the hotel and escorted us to the station. He’d booked us on the local train as far as Sábavar, which was the Kerpian name for Freiburg, and there we would change onto a fast train that would take us the rest of the way to Utkravar (or Strasbourg). He’d arranged for someone to meet us at the station to take us the rest of the way to the portal-site.
“Have a good journey,” he said to me as the train arrived. “And remember, you’re welcome to come back and visit any time you want.”
And that was very kind, but I thought – just as I had when Lothar Fischer said something similar about me going back to Greater Bavaria – that the chances of me coming back here were small to non-existent.
We didn’t have long to wait in Freiburg, and the express only took about an hour to get us to Strasbourg. It followed a route on what I would have called the German side of the Rhine and crossed the river at Kehl, and the scenery was nice, but I didn’t appreciate it as much as I might have done because I was really only thinking of getting home. As promised, we were met on arrival by one of Mr Narj’s colleagues, and he took us by minibus to what looked like an industrial estate to the east of the city centre.
“We didn’t think there was really a risk of anything going wrong,” he told me, “but it still seemed like a good idea to put the portal away from residential areas. It’s something we’ve always done, and we didn’t have too much trouble convincing our colleagues from your side, either. Anyway, here we are.”
He took us into an anonymous-looking building that looked exactly like any other building on a light industry estate, and in the middle of the large room that took up most of the ground floor there was an archway set up, big enough to allow quite a large truck to pass through.
“They’re expecting you,” our guide said. “We popped through this morning and told them you were coming, so if you’re lucky you won’t have to walk back to the station over there. Anyway, if you’d like to stand in front of the arch, we’ll give you the word when it’s safe to go through.”
Once again switches were thrown and motors hummed, and then a cyan light on the arch lit up and we were told we could go.
I hoped this would be the last time I went through a portal, and really it was a complete anti-climax: nothing went wrong at all. We stepped out of Kerpia and into Elsass without incident.
There were three or four scientists waiting for us, including Dr Szabo, who I had last seen at the clinic in Hintraten, and one other that I recognised but whose name I had forgotten.
“Welcome home,” that one said. “I have to say that I’m glad to see you: we were afraid you were lost for good when the original portal failed. We’d like to debrief you on what happened, and perhaps you can tell us a bit about your new friends, because I can see that your party is a bit bigger now than when you left… anyway, once you’ve done that we’ll get you back to your Résidence. So… where did you go when the portal failed?”
So once again I gave the short version of our history over the past six months, and while I was doing that I asked if Nicky, Killian and Caradoc could stay with us – after all, I said, it was largely thanks to us that the state now had access to portal technology…
And the chief scientist said that he could see no reason to object to that, and he gave me a short note to take to the director of the Résidence, asking if the three new boys could be accommodated with us.
Half an hour later we were on our way back to the station, and a couple of hours after that we got off the tram and walked the short distance back to our Résidence. I was a bit disappointed that nobody came to meet us, but it seemed that nobody had told them we were coming, and all our friends were at school – they were now all studying at the local school, rather than in the Résidence itself. We went straight to the director’s office and knocked at his door, and the look on his face when we walked in was priceless.
“They were right, then,” he greeted us.
“Markus and the others. They all swore you were alive and that you’d be back sooner or later. And when I tried to reassign your rooms I nearly had a riot on my hands. In the end I let them persuade me, so you’ve still got the same rooms, if you can remember where they are after all this time… you’ll have to tell me where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing when you got a moment, but for now I expect you’d just like to go and start to settle back in. Perhaps we can talk a bit after supper. Now… there seem to be more of you than when you left…”
“Ah, yes…these are friends we sort of picked up on the way. We’d like them to be able to stay here with us if possible. The chief scientist at the portal in Strossburi seemed to think it would be okay, legally-speaking – he gave me a note for you…”
I handed it across and he perused it briefly.
“Well, we have got a couple of rooms available, as long as a couple of them don’t mind sharing,” he said.
“We don’t mind at all,” said Nicky – of course we were speaking in English, which meant that Nicky at least had been able to follow the conversation. “I’m Nicky, and this is my friend Killian, and we’d both like it if we could share a room.”
“Ah, you speak English? That’s a nice change – the last batch Jake brought with him couldn’t. What about your two friends?”
“Sorry,” I said. “That one’s called Caradoc, and neither he nor Killian can speak English or French. But I’m sure we can help teach them…”
“I’m sure you can. Anyway, those of you who already have rooms, you can go and relax until supper-time. Jake, perhaps you could show Nicky and his friend Room 2-13, and the other one 2-14. And now I’d better call Marc’s parents and tell them that their son isn’t dead after all.”
“Oh, God, I’ll get grounded for about a million years,” said Marc, gloomily.
“I shouldn’t think so,” said the director. “I should think they’ll be so happy to see you safe and well that they won’t even consider grounding you. Besides, what happened was a freak of nature, and nobody could blame you for that.”
“And when we tell them what a brilliant doctor he’s going to be I should think that will help, too,” I pointed out. “He saved lives out there, you know.”
“I have a question,” said Stefan. “You said our friends were all at school. Does that means we’ll have to go to school tomorrow, too?”
“Strictly, yes,” said the director. “But there doesn’t seem any point, because tomorrow is the last day of school before the summer holidays. So you can have an extra day off tomorrow to give you a chance to recover, and then you can go back to school with the others at the beginning of September.”
And that, I thought, was really good news. Last year we’d missed the whole of the summer holidays; this year we seemed to have timed things to perfection.
Stefan and I went up to our room, which had been cleaned but otherwise not been touched since we had left the previous December, and we unpacked (which didn’t take long) and changed into some of our other clothes, only to find that they were mostly a bit too small: we’d both grown quite a bit in the past six months. We found some that weren’t too tight and got changed, and then we lay on the bed to wait for supper. I wasn’t too surprised when, over a period of about fifteen minutes or so, the rest of the party came to join us.
“I’m going to move in with Caradoc,” Tommi told us. “That’ll make it easier for Markus if he wants to talk to Sylvie, or do anything else with her, in private: he won’t have to worry about me walking in on them. And I have to help Caradoc to learn English, too.”
The new boys asked us some questions about their new home and seemed to like the answers, although both Killian and Caradoc were going to have to try to learn English or French, or even both. At one point I was asked to go back to back to the director’s office with the three of them to help them register, and although Nicky’s name caused us no problems (he had a surname, Tessier, just like the rest of us) the other two were less straightforward. When I asked Killian his full name he replied “Killian ved Carran of the Clan of the West,” which I didn’t think entirely suitable – it wouldn’t fit onto the director’s documents, for a start. I suppose we could just have called him ‘Killian West’, but in the end I decided to replace the Konjässi patronymic indicator ‘ved’ with the Scottish equivalent, and he went into the register as ‘Killian McCarran’.
Caradoc usually followed the Arvelan practice of calling himself by his given name and the town he came from, which was called Kullaneeme in Arvelan, though he said its real name, in the language of his own country, was Cuanór. And so, as we already had a Scot, I decided to make him Irish – both his name and his town sounded sort of Celtic, after all – and so he became Caradoc O’Cuanór, which I then anglicised to O’Connor. And both of them said they were happy with their new names.
Once the paperwork was done we went back to my room and continued the general discussion, and I was halfway through explaining about the Tammids when the door burst open and we were invaded: the rest of our friends had returned from school and heard that we were back. The next half hour or so was amazing: I was hugged and kissed, even by the normally undemonstrative Frank and Shander, and Tibor actually burst into tears, and Markus said that he’d never doubted for a moment that I’d find a way home…
I really can’t describe how I felt: a little over a year ago I’d been Invisible Jake, the kid nobody noticed, and now here I was in a room full of real friends, all of whom obviously cared deeply about me. It was overwhelming. And when Stefan asked why I was crying I said it was because I was so happy, which I’m sure the Greys would have found extremely confusing if they’d still been with us.
And that evening after supper Stefan and I closed our door and finally did what we had been intending to do almost seven months previously. I’ll be honest and say that the first time he entered me it still hurt a bit, despite all the things Tibor and Hansi had shown us, but then by now Stefan was a fair bit bigger than he had been when we had first met. And once he was fully inside and was just lying on top of me holding me it stopped hurting and began to feel wonderful instead. The only drawback to it was that he got excited a bit too quickly and so it didn’t last as long as I would have liked, but when we swapped places I found out why, because being inside him was the most incredible sensation, and I was pulled over the edge even faster than he had been.
“Don’t worry,” he said, when I apologised for finishing too quickly, “next time we can make it last a lot longer. And we’ll have plenty of chance to practise, because as far as I’m concerned we won’t be going anywhere until we leave school, and especially not if it involves portals. I’ve had enough adventures to last me a lifetime.”
And I said that I couldn’t agree more, and that this world was the only one I wanted to see from now on. “No more adventures for me, either,” I added. “From now on I’m staying right here.”
I'm still not sure whether that's actually true or not, because I'm tinkering around with a possible third - and final – Nexus story at the moment. Whether it happens or not will depend on a number of things, not least whether or not I can find a coherent storyline. If I can't, or if I don't think I can produce something of sufficient quality, then it won't happen.
As far as this story is concerned, I need to thank a number of people, without whose help the story wouldn't have made it this far. First, of course, I'd like to thank Mike for inviting me to post the story and its predecessor here in the first place – I still find it hard to believe that my stories are here alongside those of so many people who actually know how to write!
Second, I must thank my two friends JJ and Bob, who read each chapter as I finished it and then made all manner of helpful suggestions. Between them they caught most of the linguistic mistakes and, more important, pointed out weaknesses in the storyline and gave me invaluable advice (most of which I followed) as to how to improve the passages concerned.
And third, I deeply appreciate the comments I have received from you, the readers, which have been overwhelmingly (if not quite exclusively!) positive. Thank you all very much indeed. And if you have any final comments about the story, or the possibility of a third instalment, please feel free to let me know.