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The Nexus

by David Clarke

Chapter 1

This is a story about an ordinary kid with an ordinary life who goes on an ordinary school trip to France - at least, the town he goes to starts out in France...

It's mainly an adventure story, though it's on this site for a reason, and so the usual disclaimer applies: the story features physical, sexual and emotional relationships between minors, so if it's illegal for you to be reading that sort of material due to your age or local laws, then this would be a really good time to stop reading and go somewhere else. Thank you.

A long time ago, before everything went weird, I used to live in Edgware.

I likedliving in Edgware - okay, it's not the most exciting place on earth, but I had friends there, and if we wanted to go into Central London to go shopping or something there was a tube station not too far from my house...

Okay, I've jumped the gun here: first you need to know who I am. Well, I'm Jake Stone and I'm thirteen years old. I'm five feet two inches tall, which is about average for my age, and I weigh thirty-nine kilos, or about six stone four, which is a little less than average - I suppose I'm sort of skinny. I've got mid-brown wavy hair ('wavy' sounds better than 'untidy' or 'messy' which is what my mother usually calls it) and hazel eyes. Anyway, let's get back to Edgware...

The problem was that my father didn't like living in Edgware: he works in West London, so he had the choice between a long journey on public transport or a very slow journey by car, because London traffic in the rush hour is no fun at all. Plus, he came to the conclusion that it wasn't safe for me: every time there was another report on the news about a kid getting stabbed or shot in London he commented again on what a dangerous place this was, and it didn't do me any good telling him that most of the kids getting stabbed or shot lived in inner city boroughs somewhere, not out in the outer suburbs like where we were. And then, around three years ago, a boy got stabbed and killed right there in Edgware, and that was it as far as my father was concerned.

So he sold the house and moved us out to the back of beyond... well, I suppose that's not really fair - it's not like we moved to the Outer Hebrides, or anything. But to someone who had lived his whole life in London, a small village in Oxfordshire feels like the back of beyond. The only good thing was that it happened while I was still at primary school, so at least it didn't mean that I had to change schools in the middle of exams, or anything. My dad pulled some strings somewhere and got me into a school in Abingdon. It meant a bus ride to school, whereas back in Edgware I'd been in walking distance of my school, but it didn't actually take very long so I didn't mind too much. And the following year I got into a good secondary school which was also in Abingdon, and by then I was used to the bus journey.

But it was dead in the village - there was nothing to do in the evenings at all, so I ended up sitting in my room playing computer games, which is okay but not as much fun as playing out with friends. And of course when we first arrived I didn't know anyone, and I didn't make a lot of friends when I started at my secondary school, either: I'm no good at sport and I wear glasses, which doesn't exactly put me in the Mr Popular class. And none of the boys in my class lived in my village anyway, so even if I had made friends I wouldn't have been able to hang with them in the evenings.

Okay, that's the brief version of how I got here, and it's probably all you need to know about my history prior to the summer of 2009, because in the couple of years since I started at secondary school absolutely nothing changed: I still spent most evenings watching TV, playing video games or surfing the net, and at school I was still one of those kids who make up the numbers but aren't really part of the social life of the class. I didn't get bullied or anything, just ignored, which at least meant that when I had my thirteenth birthday towards the end of June nobody at school knew about it, so I didn't get the bumps or anything. Although sometimes I think it would be better to get the bumps every year than to go on being the invisible boy...

However, although nothing had changed at school, things at home had been changing steadily, and for the worse, too. This was mainly because my mother found the village dead, too: in Edgware she'd had plenty to do, what with visiting friends and shopping and hobbies and stuff, but here she was bored out of her head. I'd heard my parents arguing about it after I went to bed, and recently my father had been getting home later and later - apparently he'd been volunteering to work extra hours to avoid the rows at home - and things had reached a point where the word 'divorce' seemed to be just over the horizon.

At least they didn't use me as a pawn, though they had both tried that early on. I simply refused to play along, just retiring to my room whenever either party tried to get me to support their point of view (though I have to say that my sympathies were rather more with my mother than my father on this issue). Anyway, when the opportunity arose to go on a school exchange trip to France I absolutely jumped at it: for four weeks away from the arguments I'd have agreed to go pretty much anywhere.

I should say at this point that my French is excellent, for the simple reason that my mother is French. We quite often speak French at home, and I have relatives somewhere on the outskirts of Paris, and we go to visit them every now and again. So I wasn't worried at all about surviving in France for four weeks, even if it turned out that the family I was going to be staying with didn't speak any English at all. Though the way things were at home, if the school had offered me four weeks in Murmansk I would probably still have said yes straight away.

There were twenty of us kids and three teachers in the party, and we went by train - I suppose it was a bit too far to do it by coach, and it wasn't really practical to go by plane because of the limits on luggage and because it's too much of a performance to get a large party from Abingdon to Heathrow. So we took a train from Didcot to London, and then took the Eurostar to Paris, and finally an overnight train from Paris to our twin town of Colmar. I'd never heard of it before the trip was suggested, but I'd looked it up and found it was a large town in Alsace, not too far from the River Rhine and the German border. It's got about 67,000 inhabitants, so it's nearly twice the size of Abingdon, but that doesn't seem to matter to whoever fixes up all those twinning arrangements.

I didn't get a great deal of sleep on the train, so I was probably not at my best when we got off the train at Colmar, but I perked up a bit when I met the boy I was going to be staying with (the host families had come to meet us at the station). His name was Jean-Marie Kellermann, which struck me as not being very French, but apparently the majority of people living in Alsace have Germanic surnames. But it wasn't his name that interested me, but his appearance...

Okay, I didn't mention this before, but I'm gay. At least, I think I am, because I'm not remotely interested in girls, but for the past year or so I've been noticing boys in a big way. I'm not out, or anything - quite the reverse, in fact, because if I started eyeing boys up at school I'd probably get the stuffing kicked out of me. Obviously I do look at them, especially in the changing room on Games Day, but I'm very, very careful about it, and I'd never risk making a pass at a boy I fancied. If a boy were to come on to me, of course, I'd be only too happy to respond, but not too many boys are going to go after a skinny kid in glasses, so I suppose that isn't going to happen.

Anyway, Jean-Marie Kellermann was a nice-looking boy: he was a little taller than me, with quite long dark brown hair and green eyes, and I was hoping we'd be sharing a room, because he looked very fit and I wanted to see how he would look with his shirt off. His English wasn't too good, though, as I discovered when he said hello and asked how the journey had been (and I was happy to hear that his voice hadn't broken properly yet, because my voice hasn't even started to change and I'm a bit sensitive about the way I sound). So I replied in French that it had been okay but that I was a bit tired, and his face lit up as he realised he wasn't going to have to strain his English too much over the next four weeks or so. And when he was smiling he looked really good... yes, I decided, I was going to enjoy the next four weeks.

There was less than a week to go before the end of the French school term, but now that I'd met Jean-Marie I was quite looking forward to spending most of the time I was here on a one-to-one basis, and I was even contemplating breaking my usual rule by trying it on with him... right up to the point when we got to school and he introduced me to his girlfriend. And at that point my expectations for the stay plummeted once more... unless he turned out to be into girls andboys... no, I could never be that lucky.

So when Jean-Marie's class, together with their English guests, got into a coach after lunch to go on a visit to the castle of Haut-Koenigsbourg, my mood really wasn't great, and of course Jean-Marie chose to sit next to his girlfriend instead of me, which left me sitting on my own and wondering if it wouldn't have been better to have stayed at home after all.

We reached the castle, which is perched high up on the edge of the Vosges Mountains, and set off on a guided tour. Jean-Marie more or less ignored me in favour of his girlfriend, and I trailed along after them feeling like the invisible boy again. Eventually I got so annoyed about it that I told him I needed a pee and went back to the toilets near the entrance, and afterwards I decided that I couldn't face spending the rest of the afternoon looking at Jean-Marie smooching his girl, and so instead of going back into the castle I crossed the road and went for a walk along one of the paths that led off into the forest.

I quite like walking - it was about the only thing there was to do back in Oxfordshire apart from playing computer games - and it was nice here under the trees. At first it was all downhill, but eventually it levelled out. Later the path forked a couple of times, and each time I took the one that seemed to be going highest: I was hoping the path would take me up above the trees, where the view would probably be spectacular. But the paths never got above the trees, and eventually I came to the conclusion that they probably wouldn't, so I turned back...

Okay, you can see where this is going...I got turned around somehow, and I couldn't work out which path went back to the castle. I thought I was on the right path at one point, but then it went off in an unexpected direction, and so I did something stupid and left the path, convinced that if I could just keep going in a straight line I would find my way back. And of course I just got more and more lost.

I told myself that this was ridiculous: these mountains weren't out in the Western Highlands of Scotland, but in a fairly well-inhabited part of France. There were towns and villages up here, and roads - I'd looked at the map before leaving home - and so if I kept going in a straight line I would have to find a road sooner or later. But it was hard to keep to a straight line through the trees, and although I went on walking for a long time I didn't even find a path, never mind a road.

I was getting seriously worried by now, not that I wouldn't eventually find my way out of the forest, but that I'd look a complete idiot when I did get back: either everyone would be waiting for me, or the coach would have left without me. But then it started to get misty, and as the mist got thicker I got more and more worried about my chances of getting out of here at all: it would be really easy to go round and round in circles without realising it once the mist got really heavy.

I could feel a growing sense of panic: should I stop and wait for the mist to clear, or would it be better to keep walking? And, thinking about it, where had the mist come from, anyway? Early morning mist would certainly be possible, but it was mid-afternoon, and it was a fine warm summer's day. I was no weather expert, but it seemed strange to me that the mist had appeared at this time of day at all.

I kept walking because I was still hoping the mist would clear, but instead it got thicker until I could barely see five metres in front of me. I looked at my watch and found that it was already nearly five o'clock: I'd been walking up here for more than two hours now, and I still didn't have any idea of how far I was from civilization - probably, I thought, hardly any distance at all: I could be walking parallel to a road for all I knew. And that thought kept me moving - that and the thought of what would happen if it got dark before I found my way out.

Twenty minutes later I thought I'd made it - a building loomed up through the mist, and for a moment I thought I'd found a village, or even stumbled on the castle again. But as I got closer I saw that it was just an isolated hut, standing on its own in the middle of the forest. I guessed it would be for the use of a garde forestier, those people whose job it is to keep an eye on the forests, make sure no-one is stealing wood or hunting illegally and generally protect the wildlife - though I hadn't seen any wildlife today, not even a bird.

I found the door and was really pleased to discover that it was unlocked. I thought that if I was really lucky there might be a phone there, or more likely a radio - some means for the gardeto stay in touch, anyway. (I hadn't bothered bringing my mobile to France because it cost far too much to use it abroad, and when I left home I hadn't been able to imagine any situation where I would need it). So I went inside, calling out in case there was anyone there. But of course I couldn't have been that lucky.

It was basically a rustic office - there was a desk and a chair, and on one side of the room there was a bunk, and there were some shelves and cupboards... but no radio and no phone. On the far side of the room was another door, and that led into a mini-kitchen containing a two-ring cooker run on bottled gas, a large container of water and some more empty shelves. There was no running water, no electricity... and no phone.

I went and stuck my head outside the door once more, but there was no sign of the mist lifting - in fact it looked thicker than ever. So I closed the door and went and lay down on the bunk to rest for a bit, because it would clearly be sensible to stay put until I could see where I was going. And because I hadn't slept a lot the previous night I fell asleep.

When I woke up it was dark, and by that I mean really dark: it wasn't like waking up at home when there are street lights outside the house and an LED alarm clock beside the bed. Here there was no light at all... except...

I sat up and saw a faint glow from one corner of the room, and when I had made my way carefully across the room I saw that there was a trapdoor in the floor. It didn't fit perfectly, and so some light was escaping around the edges - which had to mean that there was a basement, or something, and that someone had left a light burning. I was fairly sure there wasn't a generator here, because if there had been I would have heard it, so it must have been running on a battery. But I couldn't get the trapdoor open, though I couldn't really see what I was doing: if there had been a lock or something I wouldn't have been able to see it in the dark.

In the end I gave up, groped my way back to the bunk and lay down again: the trapdoor could keep until morning, I thought.

As soon as I woke up next morning I went to the door and looked outside, but the mist was still there, though at least it seemed a little more natural at this hour. Hopefully it would clear once the sun got up. In the meantime I thought I'd investigate the trapdoor, but there was no lock or bolt that I could see, and I still couldn't get it open... which must mean that it was locked or bolted from the other side. And that might mean there was someone down there, so I banged on the trapdoor and shouted for a minute or so. But there was no sound from down below and the trapdoor remained closed.

I went and sat at the desk, wondering how long it would be before the mist cleared, and whether Jean-Marie or his teachers had got people out looking for me. I'd very much appreciate being found, but I was only too aware that getting lost like this would make me look like a total dickhead. Any lingering chance I might have had of scoring with Jean-Marie had surely gone out of the window now, unless my luck changed completely.

The shelf above the desk was empty, and so were the two drawers in it, and the only thing on top of it was an empty box-file that I looked at and then put to one side - so it looked as if the hut was only used very occasionally: the gardehadn't left so much as a pencil behind. Next I went back to the kitchen and checked the cupboards in case he had left any food, but again I was out of luck. But then I noticed something strange: there was a light switch on the wall next to the cupboards. What was a light switch doing in a place with no electricity - and why put it on the opposite side of the room from the door? Most light switches are right beside the door so that you can turn the light on as you enter the room.

So I reached out and flicked the switch, and was not entirely surprised when no light came on. I flicked it back: still no light. But I heard a faint sound from the other room, and when I flicked the switch back to the 'on' position I heard it again - so apparently the switch did do something.

I went back to the main room. Nothing seemed different. So I gave a sort of mental shrug and sat down at the desk once more - and then noticed that there was a little panel at the back of the desk that had opened up, revealing another switch inside - I suppose the switch in the kitchen had opened the panel. I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't moved the empty box file, which made me wonder if it had been left there simply to hide the panel.

Okay, I thought, let's see what this one does... I pressed the switch, and there was a louder noise from the corner of the room, and when I went over to the trapdoor I saw that it was now open, revealing a ladder going down into a lighted area.

I decided that I might just as well go and see what there was down below, so I put my shoes and jacket back on - I'd taken them off the second time I lay down - picked up my bag, slung it onto my back and climbed down the ladder. There was a door opposite the bottom of the ladder, and I went through it and found myself in a long brick-lined corridor that ran off to left and right. So I spun a coin to see which way to go and set off to my left.

The corridor curved slightly, and so soon I was out of sight of the door, but there were lights inset into the walls at regular intervals, so I wasn't worried about not being able to find my way back. I wondered where I was: this tunnel seemed too old to date from the same time as the hut up above, and I wondered if it led to the cellars of the castle - perhaps there was an old ice-house or something at the other end of the tunnel. Then I wondered if it could be part of the old Maginot Line fortifications that had been built in the 1930s to defend against a possible German invasion - much good it had done in 1940. I wasn't sure exactly where the Line had run, but this did seem a likely location. Perhaps I would come out in an old gun emplacement somewhere on the edge of the Vosges looking out towards Germany.

But eventually the corridor simply ended in a plain wooden door. There was a piece of paper pinned to this door, and on it was written, in faded ink, "Faut choisir la bonne porte".

"You have to choose the right door," I translated to myself. Which seemed a bloody stupid message, considering that this was the only door in sight - or did it mean I had to go all the way to the other end of the tunnel to find out if there was another door there? Sod that, I thought, and I pulled the door open.

I found myself in a circular room about forty feet across, and now I got the point of that cryptic message, because there were doors all around the edge of the room. There were twenty of them, all looking absolutely identical: they appeared to be metal, painted black, with no number or any other means of identification. Otherwise the room seemed to be completely empty: there was a one-metre-thick metal pillar, also painted black, in the centre of the room which was presumably just there to hold the roof up, though I went and examined it, just in case there was anything painted on or stuck to the far side. But there was nothing.

And then I realised that I might be in trouble, because the door I had come in through had closed behind me - and apparently this side of it was faced in black metal, because I could no longer tell which one it was: all twenty doors looked exactly the same.

At least I knew roughly where it was - there were only three or four that it could actually be, because I'd only walked to the pillar and stepped to the far side of it. So I headed back in the general direction, and found myself looking at three doors. Or possibly four. Or maybe even five... no, if I went on thinking like that I'd end up thinking it might be any of the twenty. But even if I just limited myself to the three or four doors I could see in front of me I was in trouble, because there was nothing to indicate which door it might be.

So I opened one of the doors at random and breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the corridor stretching away in front of me - and when I stepped into the corridor and looked at the other side of the door I saw that the message was still pinned to the other side of the door, too. I stepped forward... and then I hesitated, overcome with curiosity: where did all those other doors go, I wondered? So I used my bag to prop this door open so that I wouldn't forget which one it was and then opened the one next to it...

...and was confronted with an identical view of a brick-lined corridor stretching away from me, and a note pinned to the back of the door. Oh, shit, I thought.

I walked across the room and opened another door at random, and lo, there was that same corridor and that same piece of paper pinned to the door.

Okay, this was ridiculous. Were there mirrors involved here, or was it some sort of optical illusion? I walked back across the room, picked up my bag and walked a couple of paces into the corridor, allowing the door to close behind me. Then I stopped, opened my bag, tore a bit of the wrapper off the large bar of chocolate I had packed for the train journey and then not got around to eating (and, boy, I was glad to see it now, because I hadn't eaten anything since the previous day's midday meal) and dropped the piece of paper on the floor. Then I went back into the circular room and opened the next door along: if it was a trick, my piece of paper should have been on the floor of the tunnel behind this door, too.

It wasn't.

I went back to the door I had just used and looked, and there was the piece of paper. And that meant that there really were twenty identical corridors behind the doors, not just one that magically appeared whichever door you opened.

I stepped into that corridor again, picked up the paper and stuffed it into my pocket, and then kept walking along the corridor. My hopes rose when I found a door on the right, just about where my memory said the door by the ladder had been, and when I opened it and saw a ladder they rose still further. I scampered up the ladder and found myself in the hut again - at least, it looked like the same hut. I hit the switch on the desk to reseal the trapdoor, went into the kitchen to flick the switch that closed the panel on the desk, and went and put my head outside the door. The mist was still there, but now I didn't fancy staying in the hut any longer: that underground room was just too unsettling.

I had a quick look round to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything... I couldn't remember tidying up the bunk earlier on, but I must have done, because it certainly didn't look as if anyone had slept on it. Of course, there was an alternative explanation, but I didn't want to think about what it would mean if there was an identical hut on every identical corridor, so I marched to the door, opened it and walked out into the mist.

Gradually the mist seemed to thin, and soon I was walking along in a pleasantly warm summer's day once more. The trees around me looked exactly like the ones I'd seen the previous day, and my spirits started to rise as I got further and further from the hut, even though I still didn't come across a road, or even a path.

And then I heard a voice in the distance. I couldn't make out what it was shouting, but I didn't care, because at least it proved I wasn't alone up here, and so I headed in what seemed to be the correct direction.

After a bit the voice fell silent, so I called out 'where are you?" and at once whoever it was started shouting again. I followed the shouts and finally came to a point where a path (if you could call it that - it looked more like a goat track) ran along the top of a steep slope - and now the voice was coming from beneath me. I looked over the edge and saw a figure lying against a tree at the bottom of the slope.

"Stay there," I called in French. "I'm coming."

That was easier said than done: the slope was very steep and appeared to be scree, which would be very unstable, and it wouldn't help at all if I fell down the same way the other boy - for by now I could see it was a boy of around my own age - had apparently done. I went back the way I had come a little, looking for an easier way down, and eventually I found a place where the ground looked a little more stable and where there were trees growing, and I was able to move down from tree to tree, using them to brake my descent.

Once I was at the bottom of the slope I made my way back to where the other boy was lying. He was half-sitting, half-lying propped up against a tree, his legs splayed in front of him, and I wondered how long he had been there. I hoped for his sake that it hadn't been all night, because he was only wearing a pair of shorts and a running vest. But he didn't look in bad shape, so I just asked what had happened and how he was feeling now. And he answered me in German, which is a language I can't speak at all.

"I'm sorry," I told him, sticking to French. "I'm afraid I don't speak German."

"Why not?" he replied in the same language, though with a very clear German accent. "Everyone in France has to learn German."

That was news to me - even at the school in Colmar, only a short distance from the German border, I'd had the impression that at least half of the pupils chose English as their first foreign language.

"I'm not French," I told him. "I'm English."

"Good," he said, in English. "My English is better as my French. But it is the case in England too, that all children have to learn German."

"Not in the school I go to," I told him.

"That is most strange. However... I have hurt my leg. It is not broken, but this part - I do not know the English word" (he pointed to his ankle) "is hurt and I cannot walk as I should. Can you help me?"

I looked at him: like Jean-Marie he was a little taller than me, and because he was only wearing that vest I could also see that he had more in the way of muscle than me, too. I didn't think I'd be able to carry him, but maybe if he leaned on me I could help him to walk.

He was also very good-looking, with blond hair and light blue eyes, and I thought that maybe if I helped him he'd be so grateful that...

I shook that thought away quickly. "Can you stand up?" I asked.

Using the tree to support him he managed to get to his feet, though it was clear that his left leg wouldn't be able to take his weight. I moved beside him so that he could put his left arm round my shoulders and we took a couple of experimental steps. I didn't think I wanted to run a marathon like this, but I thought we could probably manage to hobble along on a flat, or fairly flat surface. But first we would have to try to get back up the slope, and that seemed likely to be extremely difficult.

In fact when we reached the point where I had come down I decided that 'impossible' was a better description, and so we continued on along the foot of the slope until finally we found a place where we could climb back up, though we had to do the steepest part with him sitting with his back to me and me hauling him upwards a few centimetres at a time. By the time we finally got to the top I was exhausted.

"You are not very fit," he commented. "But thank you - I know that it was difficult for you. What is your name?"

"Jake," I told him.

"I am Stefan," he said.

"Hello, Stefan," I said. "Do you know the way out of this forest?"

He shook his head. "I am lost," he said. "I was following a trail, but there was... I do not know the word. In German it is 'Nebel' - like the air is white?"

I nodded. So I wasn't the only one who had struggled with the mist.

"And now I do not know where I am," he went on. "And in the... whiteness I fell and hurt my leg. If you had not come I might..."

I nodded again, because I knew what he meant.

"So," he said, "can you begin again?"

I wasn't very keen, but I supposed that we couldn't just stay where we were, so I stood up and pulled him up after me.

"Wait," he said. "I need... I have to... what is the word? Yes, to piss."

And he put his left arm across my shoulders once again so that I could hold him upright, and then he undid his belt, opened his shorts, pushed both them and his white briefs down below his balls and took hold of his penis. I should probably have looked away, but I don't always do what I should and so I feasted my eyes instead. And it looked really nice: it was slightly larger than mine, but not much, and perfectly proportioned, and his balls looked about the same size as mine, too... I hoped that later we could carry out a proper comparison. And he had a little dark blond hair, and that looked perfect as well. I've got a few little hairs, but he was definitely a bit further along than me. And watching him piss felt good, too - so much so that things started to happen to me, and I looked away quickly, hoping that he wouldn't notice the twitching going on in my jeans.

He shook off and pulled his briefs and shorts back up, though he had trouble doing them and his belt up with one hand; so I supported him by holding him round the waist while he used both hands to get his clothes back the way they had been. And then he put his arm round my shoulders again and we headed back the way I had come, because even if the hut made me feel uneasy I still thought it would be best to get him there, make him comfortable on the bunk and then set off alone to try to find help.

It was slow going, but I knew we were getting close when the mist began to close in again: by now I'd decided that the mist wasn't going to leave that hut, ever. He got nervous as it got thicker, but I told him that I had found a hut the previous afternoon, and that if I could find it again he would be able to rest properly while I went for help.

I thought I'd missed the hut at first, and that was a nasty feeling, but eventually it loomed up through the mist and I breathed a sigh of relief. This time I had approached it from the side, and in trying to find the front, where the door was, I found the back instead. And here there was a small chemical toilet, which was why I hadn't found one inside, and a small shed, which contained a whole lot of useless rubbish - and an oil lamp and a can of oil. I had no idea how to use one, but Stefan said it was easy, so once I had got him safely inside and stretched out on the bunk I went back for the lamp and the oil. And there was another old can there too. This one was empty, but I took it inside as well.

"Shall we stay here until they find us?" he asked, as I set them down on the desk. "There will be people looking for me."

"Me, too, I expect. But I don't know if that mist ever goes away. If it doesn't they could walk past this place and never see it, even if they are only ten metres away. I thought it might be better if I went for help."

"Perhaps that would be good. Jake, you were here last night, you said?"

I nodded.

"Well... is there any food? Only I have not eaten for many hours."

"I'm afraid not. I looked yesterday. But I have got some chocolate." And I pulled the bar from my bag and broke it in half, and his eyes lit up, and he looked even nicer like that, and so I didn't mind sharing it with him even though I was extremely hungry myself. He sat up and took his half enthusiastically.

We ate it, trying not to just stuff it all into our mouths at once, and then I told him there was a container of water in the kitchen but nothing to use as a cup. He had a small water-bottle attached to his belt (and also quite a large knife, which I was pretty sure would have been illegal in England and probably in France, too) and he handed it to me and told me to go and have a drink myself and then to fill the bottle to bring back for him. So I did that, and he drank and then put the bottle down by his feet.

I brought the oil lamp over to the bunk and he showed me how to trim the wick, checked that the reservoir had some oil in and then put it on the floor beside the water bottle. I asked if he had a light, and he pulled a small cigarette lighter from his pocket.

"And I brought this other can in case you need to pee again while I'm gone," I told him. "I'm not sure that you could get round to the toilet on your own. In fact, I think I might use it myself, because that toilet didn't smell too good."

Okay, I was showing off: I was hoping that his physical reaction to seeing my equipment would be similar to mine on seeing his, and if it was I thought I might postpone the rescue mission for a bit. So I put the can on the chair, pulled my jeans and boxers right down to my knees, lifted my shirt out of the way - I wanted to make sure he didn't miss the fact that I have a little hair, too - took hold of myself, aimed into the can and started to pee, watching his reaction out of the corner of my eye. And he certainly seemed interested: he was positively staring at me.

I shook off and rearranged my clothing and then tucked the can under the desk out of the way. Then I walked over to the bunk and sat down next to him to see if anything would happen. And to start with things looked very promising indeed.

"What happened to your penis?" he asked. "Why is there no skin over it? I have never seen one like that."

I was surprised. "How old are you, Stefan?" I asked.

"Thirteen. Why do you ask?"

"I just wondered." I found it pretty amazing that he'd never, ever seen a circumcised penis before - after all, I was under the impression that there were lots of Turkish people in Germany, and they would all be circumcised. Could he possibly go to a school with no Muslims or Jews at all? "See, I've been circumcised - that means I had the skin removed when I was a week old."


"Because I'm Jewish."

And then things got weird again.

"You cannot be Jewish," he informed me. "There are no Jews in the west. It is not permitted."


"What do you mean, 'not permitted'?" I asked.

"It is against the law. The Jews were relocated to the east a long time ago, first to the General Government and then beyond to the Ukraine and Western Siberia. And I think some went to Madagascar. The European part of the Reich is officially Jew-free."

I gaped at him. European part of the Reich?? And then I looked more closely at his knife, which he had removed from his belt and put down on the bunk between us - and there was a swastika on the front of the handle. Oh, my God, I thought - I'm stuck in a hut with an escapee from the loony bin.

"Okay," I said, getting up and backing away slowly. "Well, perhaps we can discuss it later. I'd better go and see if I can find help. I'll try to find my way back to Haut-Koenigsbourg - there's sure to be someone there."

He looked at me strangely. "You mean Hoch-Königsburg? There will not be anyone there - the place is a ruin. You would be better to go the opposite way - if you head towards the border posts there are usually soldiers coming and going. The posts are always manned."

"The opposite way?" I said. "And what border?"

"The one with France," he said, looking at me as if I was mad. "Which other border is there?"

"But... but the German border is on the Rhine," I said.

"Are you insane? The border runs across the Vogesen Mountains."

"Since when?"

"Since 1940. That is nearly seventy years. Look, Jake... are you sure you are well? You seem to have lost your memory."

"Are you sure you didn't bang your head when you fell?" I countered. "You seem to have a completely different view of history."

We stared at each other, and then I returned to the bunk and sat down again.

"Okay," I said, "let's compare notes. What year is this?"


"Good. At least we agree on that, then. What country are we in?"


"Ah. You see, I think we're in France. And who is the German Chancellor?"

"Erwin Müller."

"Not Angela Merkel?"

"Who is Angela Merkel?"

"Right. Do you know who the Queen of England is?"

"There is no queen. England is a Republic."

"I see. What about the President of America?"

"I am not sure. To me, it does not matter."

I took a deep breath. "So, who won the Second World War?"

He stared at me. "Germany and Japan," he said. "Everyone knows this. And Italy, I suppose."

Right, I thought: either Stefan was completely nuts, or... perhaps I had not 'chosen the right door'. And I have to say that he didn't look nuts, and that knife looked genuine, and... and now I could see that there was a small metal badge pinned to his running vest, and when I looked at it closely I saw that it depicted what appeared to be a red and white diamond with a swastika in the middle of it.

"What were you doing up here on your own?" I asked him.

"I am a cadet at the Napola in Rufach," Stefan told me. "I and some comrades were on a test run, to see if we could memorise a route and then follow it without a map. We each had a different route, and we had to follow it using only the position of the sun, the layout of the hills and our memories. And I could have succeeded, but the... whiteness hid the sun and I lost my direction. And now I will have failed the test. I will be in trouble when I return."

And that sounded entirely plausible, too, even though I had no idea what a Napola might be. So that left me with a problem: if my ill-chosen door had somehow brought me to a place where Germany had won the war and all the Jews had been deported... or worse... then I really didn't want to go looking for help, because if I found some the likelihood was that it wouldn't help me at all. Quite the reverse. So I did the only other thing I could think of.

"Look, Stefan," I said, "you're not going to believe this, but underneath this hut is a room full of doors..."

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