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The Nexus

by David Clarke

Chapter 15

This doesn't look good: there seems to be no way out of the Hub and the Greys are coming. Jake has managed to come up with a couple of good plans previously, but can he think of a way out of this mess?

Copyright 2009: all rights reserved. Please do not repost, reprint or otherwise reproduce this or any part thereof anywhere without my written permission.

"Now what?" asked Alain.

"I don't know," I admitted. "I can't believe they didn't put in an emergency exit, especially since we know there was one at the other Hub."

"Maybe they closed this one before they left, for security reasons," suggested Stefan. "Perhaps they thought it wouldn't be safe to leave any direct entrance to the outside world if they were going to be leaving the Hub unmanned - well, except for Dead Guy, of course. Perhaps they bricked this tunnel up before they left."

"Then we'll have to unbrick it," I said, "because... well, it's a safe bet the Greys will find the service tunnel, and then they'll come here, and I don't want to be here when they get here. We'll have to find some tools."

"If I'd been in charge I would have destroyed the tunnel with explosives before bricking up this end," Stefan said.

"Then we'd better hope whoever was in charge was a worse soldier than you. Look, let's get back to the office. That'll put another barrier between us and the Greys, and it'll give us a chance to look at the control board. At least then we'll be able to see which of the tunnels is still open."

So we took everyone back downstairs and into the main part of the Hub, and this barrier still seemed to be as thick as it had been when we had left. Oli stripped off again to deactivate it, and then Stefan went to open the inner office.

"Alain, why don't you and Oli take everyone upstairs?" I suggested. "There's water in the kitchen - there's still some left in the jerry-can even if the water supply had been cut off. And I'll come up and join you in a bit, and then you and I can sort out something to eat."

I went to join Stefan and found him looking at a very worrying control board: there were lots of magenta lights now and only a couple that were better than steady yellow: the barrier control was still flashing cyan, and the accommodation area was still only flashing yellow. But fourteen tunnels were now showing steady magenta, two were flashing magenta and the last four were steady yellow. We couldn't tell which was which because Stefan's numbers didn't correspond to the ones on the board; we had simply randomly assigned the number 3 to Alain and Oli's world because it was the third world we were going to visit together, and Stefan had later added all the other numbers counting clockwise from that door.

We switched the computer language back to Kerpian, since everyone now spoke that, but it looked no better in another language, and after a minute or so we left the office and started to climb back upstairs: in the absence of any obvious way out it seemed best to get something to eat and have a proper rest.

I went straight to the kitchen and found that the power was still on, which was really good news. And because I was now acquainted with the Kerpian calendar I now knew that it was less than a year since the Hub had been abandoned, and that meant that all the tinned food would definitely be safe to eat - and I could now read the labels, so I knew what was inside each tin, even the ones without a picture on. And that was most of them, presumably because these were wholesale supplies obtained by the militia. So, with Alain's help, I started making a risotto - we had more rice than I knew what to do with, and there were plenty of tinned vegetables and some tinned meat as well. It might not have been the greatest dish I ever cooked, but there wasn't any left over afterwards, and that suggested that everyone had enjoyed it - or maybe they'd just been so hungry that they would have eaten any old rubbish... Still, the ones who did comment on it seemed satisfied enough.

"Right," said Stefan afterwards. "It's still quite early, but I think the best thing we can do will be to get a good night's sleep, and then we can try to find a way out of here tomorrow. I'm fairly sure the Greys won't get here for at least another day..."

"More, probably," I interrupted. "Their stamina isn't all that good."

"Good. That'll give us more time to come up with a plan. Now, before you go to bed I'd suggest you take a shower - there's no time limit on the one here, and you'll sleep better if you feel clean. And I also want you all to come with me now down to the laundry - again, you'll feel a lot better with clean clothes to put on in the morning."

Alain and I dumped everything in the dishwasher and turned it on and then followed everyone else through the third dormitory and down the stairs to the laundry. Stefan insisted that everyone put all their clothes into one of the machines - we thought it would be better to use only one of them to save power - and then he turned it on and took us into the store-room to collect a towel each (there was a pile of them next to the bedding). And then he led us upstairs and back to the shower we generally used.

That hot water felt wonderful, and having Stefan there to wash my hair for me again - which he did with no signs of embarrassment - felt even better. And looking about I could see that everyone else felt the same way: they all looked happy, and one or two were smiling for about the first time since I'd first met them. Oli and Alain were playing their usual game of chasing each other, and soon some of the others were joining in.

It was the first time I'd seen some of them naked: three or four had previously kept their underwear on in the shower, the same way Tommi had done, and it was nice being able to enjoy the view... at least, it was until my body started to betray its interest, and then I had to turn round smartly and concentrate on washing Stefan's hair for him. That didn't make me lose my erection, but at least now only he could see it.

Actually it didn't matter that much, as by the time the chasing and fighting was over several of the others had erections, too, and so nobody commented on mine. Some of them did comment on the state of Tommi's bottom, but now he was not afraid to tell them that "a bad man, a Lettrian who married my mother, did that to me," and their universal sympathy and anger at his abuser just reinforced what I had already told him, that it was nothing for Tommi himself to feel ashamed about.

Finally we got out of the shower and dried ourselves off, and now that everyone was standing still it gave me a better chance to check everyone out. I put my glasses back on before even starting to use the towel and started looking around.

Only Markus was appreciably better developed than Stefan: he was the only one with thicker hair, for a start, and his cock and balls were a bit bigger, too. But then he was a year older than Stefan. Tibor and Shander had a little hair, too, though neither was any further along than I was, and the rest were still hairless. And Radu was the only one who was circumcised. I wondered if it was a religious thing - even if he might be a Jew, because obviously we Jews have been around since long before the fall of Rome, and just because Christianity didn't exist here it didn't mean that Judaism didn't, either. So I went and asked him about it.

"I don't want to talk about it," he said. "Except... I can see that your skin was cut off, too, so... what happened to you? Maybe it was something similar."

But before I could answer Stefan told everyone to leave their towels on the table by the door and follow him through to the dormitory. I hung back with Radu to answer his question, explaining that I was Jewish, and so it was something that had been done when I was a week old in accordance with the laws of my religion.

"Oh," he said, "you're religious. Are you like those damned Lettrians, then, like the bastard that hurt Tommi?"

"God, no. I'm not very religious at all, to be honest. It's the way I was brought up, that's all. But we never try to inflict our beliefs on other people, so we're nothing like the Lettrians."

"That's good."

"So what happened to you?"

He wasn't keen to speak about it at first, but I was interested now and pressed him, pointing out that I'd told him about mine, and now he ought to tell me about his. And finally he gave in.

"I went out fishing with a couple of my cousins," he said. "This was about a year ago, when I was still living near Tulsher. Anyway, we found a good spot and started fishing, but I didn't catch anything and got bored. It was a hot day, so I said I was going swimming. They said I shouldn't, because it would disturb the fish, but I took my clothes off and jumped in anyway. I had a good swim, but they didn't catch anything while I was in the river and it made them angry, so when I got out they grabbed me, tied my hands behind my back and then shoved a hook on a line through the skin on the end of my thing, from underneath and coming out at the top, so it made two holes in the skin. It hurt like hell, and when they pulled me up and down the bank by it for four or five huszaks it hurt even more.

"And after that they pulled me into the woods and tied the line off around a tree, so high up that I had to stand on tiptoe to keep the pressure off the hook. For good measure they took their belts off and strapped my bottom a few times, and then they left me there for ages - it must have been nearly two kends - while they went back to their fishing. And there were flies biting me, but every time I wriggled about to try to get rid of them it pulled on the line and hurt my thing.

"In the end they came and untied me, but that hook had been stuck through worms and maggots and fish guts before it went into me, and so I got infected and the doctor had to cut the skin right off. And the worst of it was that nobody blamed them at all: they said it was my own fault for scaring the fish. That wasn't the only reason I decided to leave home, but it was one of them."

There didn't seem to be anything I could say about that, so I settled for putting my arm around his shoulders and giving him a quick hug.

Stefan led them over to the side of the dormitory about halfway down the room and suggested that everyone grab a bunk for the night, but instead they pushed eight bunks together.

"We're used to sleeping together," Markus explained. "If you wake up feeling bad or have a nightmare or something, it means you've always got friends around you. It's kept us going for quite a long time now."

They took a blanket each and climbed onto the bunks in their usual order, Team Three to the right and Team Four to the left, just as we had done in Hintraten. I quietly suggested to Tibor that there were some smaller rooms available if he and Hansi wanted some privacy, but he just smiled at me.

"I think I'm still feeling too tired to do anything tonight," he said. "And, besides, nobody minded when we did stuff together back at the mine. Radu slept next to us, and he certainly didn't - did you, Radu?"

Radu shook his head. "I didn't mind at all," he said. "That sort of thing really doesn't bother me. Actually it was fun to watch."

"Didn't you ever want to join in?" I asked.

"Not really. It wouldn't be fair to them. After all, I bet you and your friend wouldn't want a third party butting in, would you?"

"Well, no, now you mention it," I said.

So I left them to it and went to join Stefan, although he wasn't quite ready for bed yet: Instead he went back to the shower room, collected all the wet towels and took them down to the laundry. The machine with the clothes in had almost finished its cycle, and so we waited for it to finish and then emptied the contents into a large basket that was obviously designed for the purpose. Then we dumped the towels in the machine, selected the 'white' cycle and switched it on.

We carried the clothes up to the dormitory and laid them out on the four bunks closest to the shower-room ready to be reclaimed in the morning - and then, finally, he was ready to go back to our room and close the door on the world outside.

And at last I was able to put my arms around him, hug him hard and kiss him without any fear of what anyone else might think about it. And he kissed me back and led me to the bed. I got in and he dimmed the lights and got in beside me, snuggling up to me and putting his arms round me.

"What are we going to do, Stefi?" I asked him.

"We're going to get some sleep," he told me firmly. "We'll worry about tomorrow when we get there, okay? For now let's just make the most of having a quiet room and a decent bed to sleep in."

"And we've got each other," I said. "That's important."

"Yes, it is." And he hugged me, and somehow having him there was enough to get me to stop worrying and fall asleep.

He woke me up next morning with a kiss, which has to be the nicest way to be woken up. He'd obviously woken up a little before because he'd turned the lights up a bit.

"I hope you don't mind, but I borrowed your watch," he said, taking it off and putting it on the little stand beside the bed with my glasses. "I wanted to set the alarm for a sensible time, so that we would wake up before everyone else."

"Why would you want to do that?" I asked.

"So that we would have a little time together before the others are around."

"That sounds like a brilliant idea. How do you think we ought to spend this little time?"

"I thought this might be a nice way to start." And he slid a hand down to my groin and started to explore.

"I think you're right," I said, and did the same thing. And then I thought that this might be the perfect time to try out what I'd practiced with Alain, especially since I didn't know how much time we had left together... I put that thought firmly to one side and pushed the sheets back so that I could see what I was doing, and then I rested my head on his stomach so that I could examine his most important part from close range while I stroked it. And it looked wonderful, and so I rolled over between his legs and slipped the tip of it between my lips...

"Jake, what the hell are you doing?" he gasped, pushing my head away firmly.

"I'm going to suck your cock."

"What do you mean?" He sounded almost panicky.

"I'll show you," I said, and lowered my head once more.

"But... ohhhhh.... Jake, no! I mean... oh, God..."

He didn't try to stop me again and so I got on with it, trying to do everything I had practised with Alain, and Stefan lay there making incoherent noises that suggested I was doing a reasonable job. And soon he was moving beneath me, and then he was holding my head, and then... then I got a proper taste of him, not just a tiny amount scooped up with my finger, but spurt after spurt after spurt... I swallowed it down, keeping him in my mouth and licking slowly at him until I was sure he had finished, and then I slid it out of my mouth and moved back up the bed to lie beside him. He pulled the sheets over us and turned to face me.

"Why did you do that?" he asked.

"Because I love you and wanted to make you feel good. Did it?"

"Yes, it did. But how did you even know how to do something like that? I had no idea that such a thing was possible!"

"I think maybe my world is a little more relaxed about sex than yours is."

"I think it must be. See, we get taught about having normal sex with girls in order to produce babies, and older comrades have told us how good that feels. And we know how the warm brothers... sorry, gay boys, fuck each other in the arse, but that's only because we make jokes about it. And we get told that it's possible to stimulate yourself by hand, though we're told we shouldn't do that too often, because we ought to be saving our sperm for the girls we're going to have sex with when we get a little older. But that's all. I'd never have dreamed that it was possible to use your mouth like that."

"But it was okay, wasn't it?"

"Jake, it felt really exciting. It's just that... I don't know, it made me feel that I was using you, somehow - making you do something really perverted just to make me feel good."

"Well, you weren't, because it was entirely my idea. And, okay, you might call it perverted, but pretty much everything two boys do together is going to be called 'perverted' by some people. And I don't care what anyone else says about us. Although I don't think anyone will say anything while we're in this world - they seem to have a much more relaxed view of sex here."

We lay quietly for a while.

"I'm really sorry we can't get back to the Nexus Room," I said. "I wish I could find a way to get you back to your own world."

"Well, it looks as if that isn't going to happen. Still, if we could find a way out of here, maybe this would be a good place to live - at least, if your bomb went off and they get rid of the Greys, it could be. The people here seem decent."

"Not all of them," I said. "I don't think we'd ever find a perfect world, even if we had access to all the doors in both Nexus Rooms. Okay, this world isn't bad, but people here can still do horrible things - like what happened to Tommi and Radu."

"What happened to Radu?"

So I explained briefly. "And that was just people being cruel - it's nothing to do with how this world is now, because both Tommi and Radu got hurt before the Greys arrived. And my world still has wars, and kids our age bully each other, and the same thing happens in the Grey world - and in the first world we went to the whole human race had wiped itself out. Maybe the only perfect world would be the one we read about on the computer here, the one where the human race never evolved in the first place."

"I don't think so. Okay, there are some bad people in every world, but most people are good - look at our friends here: they're all decent kids, aren't they? And even when people do bad things, it's often because they think they've got good reasons for doing it. Tommi got beaten because his step-father honestly believed the gods he believed in wanted him to act that way, and Radu's cousins just wanted to fish in peace - okay, maybe they went overboard a bit, but they didn't know the hook was going to infect him. And even when Master Clerk wanted to sacrifice one of us at Quarter Day he was really only thinking of protecting the kids of his own commune. And... and in my world..." He tailed off.

"In your world your leaders did what they did because they genuinely believed it was best for Germany to get rid of all the Jews?" I said. "Well... okay, but they didn't have to kill them. If they'd really resettled them somewhere else, that wouldn't have been so bad. Still, I've already tried to explain that it happened ages ago and it wasn't your fault. Maybe your world now is a good place to live."

"I like it. I feel I fit in there - I have a place and a career ahead of me, and the Reich is prosperous, and there's no likelihood of war in the near future."

"And you're happy there?"

"I'm not sure that 'happy' is really the best word. 'Content', perhaps. If I'm honest, the only time I've been truly happy has been since I met you: exploring together, visiting places I would never have seen otherwise, sharing things with you... and sharing a bed with you especially... That's made me happy. I've never opened up to anyone the way I have with you, and I've never cared about anyone the way I care about you. Even when things have been bad, like almost not escaping from Olivier's world or being captured here and sent to work in the mine, having you with me has sort of made it all worthwhile. So if we really are trapped here and... well, you know... I think I can face it now."

I hugged him hard. "And... do you think we are trapped?" I asked.

"Probably. But this was a military post, and so there ought to be some weapons here somewhere, and if we can find them we might be able to defend this place until help gets here. After all, if the bomb did work there can't be that many Greys coming after us."

"Stefan, there are eleven kids here including us, and probably ten of them have never handled a gun in their lives. The only way we'll survive is going to be if the barriers stay up, and we already know the power is failing."

"I know. But I'm not giving up without a fight."

"Then neither will I. And I know that if anyone can find a way to defend this place it'll be you."

"Well, I'm going to try. And now I'm going to try something else." And he threw the covers off again and started to wriggle down towards my groin.

"Stefi, no! You don't have to do that!" I said.

"Neither did you, but I'm glad you did. Now tell me exactly how to do this."

So I gave him a crash course in how to perform oral sex (as if I was an expert!) and he did everything I suggested until what he was doing felt so amazing that I couldn't really speak coherently any longer. And when I finally lost control my orgasm seemed to go on for ever - well, I'm convinced I managed to spurt four times, anyway, which was yet another new record.

When it was over he came and lay beside me once more, and I kissed him and told him again how much he meant to me, and we lay together holding each other for several minutes.

"We'd better get up," he said, finally. "I need a pee, and then probably we ought to get the others up. I want to make a proper search for weapons today, and it'll go faster if everyone joins in the search."

"Okay. But I want everyone to get a decent breakfast first, so I'll go and wake Alain up and then we'll get some bacon and sausages on the go."

So we tiptoed past the sleeping boys - though I think they were so fast asleep that we could have ridden past on a herd of elephants without disturbing them - and went to the washroom for a pee and a wash. We got dressed in the same clothes as yesterday - of course we had access to the rest of our wardrobes now that we were back here, but the previous day's clothes were freshly laundered and so we were happy to keep wearing them - and then we went to wake Alain up. We found him and Oli curled up together, and they looked so peaceful that I didn't have the heart to wake them up.

"Come on," I whispered to Stefan, "you can help me today. Let them have another fifteen minutes in bed - it might be the last chance they get."

So we went to the kitchen and I got to work on a mountain of sausages and bacon - and because I could now read the labels on the tins, this time I was able to add some tinned tomatoes. I'd found some cooking oil, too - it was in a tin and not a bottle, which was why I hadn't spotted it sooner - and that meant I could fry some of the food while grilling the rest, and that speeded things up a lot. When it was almost ready I got Stefan to go and wake everyone up, telling him to bring them straight to the dining area: washing and dressing could wait until they had eaten.

Okay, maybe that was a little selfish of me, but watching them queuing up in front of me stark naked did make me feel good - and, after all, it was still warm in here, so clothes weren't really necessary. And in fact once everyone had finished eating Stefan stood up and explained that it would be better if everyone stayed naked for now.

"I want us to do a thorough search of this place," he said, "and that's going to mean going through the barriers quite a bit. I don't want to keep activating and deactivating them in case that uses more power, but if we've got nothing on we won't need to - you can go through a barrier if you're naked and not carrying anything. The Greys can't, so if they do appear suddenly you'll be able to escape a lot more quickly if you haven't got anything on: you'll be able to run straight through instead of waiting for the barrier to be deactivated.

"Those of you with watches, rings, bracelets, necklaces and so on, you'll have to take them off, because the barriers stop anything non-organic. In a moment I'll divide you into teams and assign you to various areas, and then I want you to search as completely as you can - you're looking for hidden doors and cupboards, hidden caches in the floor, anything like that. We're looking for two things: first, an emergency exit or other way out of here, and second, a weapons store.

"If you find anything, come to the barrier that goes out into the main hall and shout. Jake, do you want to sort out the teams? You know them better than I do."

"Okay," I said, standing up. "First, in case you were wondering, Stefan's in charge because he has military training: he was at a military school in his own world, so he's the only one of us who has any idea of how to fight - which we might end up having to do. If anything happens to him it'll be Alain in charge, because he's the oldest of us..."

"No, thanks," said Alain, straight away. "I can manage to look after a few street kids, but I have no idea of how to organise things the way you and Stefan can."

"Well, okay, but I don't think anyone here has even that much experience. So it's you, then Markus - is that okay with you, Markus?"

"I'd sooner not, because I've always worked on my own."

"Yes, but I've seen how you look after your team, so I know you can do it. And then it'll be Hansi, because he was Team Leader back at the mine."

"I'm too young," objected Hansi. "I only took over Team Four a week before you arrived."

"I don't care. If you end up in charge, just do the best you can, okay? So, the teams for the search will be Alain and Oli, Tibor and Hansi, Frank and Shander, Markus and Tommi..."

"No, I've got a special job for Tommi," interrupted Stefan "Make it Markus and Radu, and that'll leave you and me. Oh, and in case there's any doubt about it, Jake's our real leader: he's been to all the worlds I have, and he's cleverer than me. I don't mind trying to do the military stuff, but he's the real boss, okay?"

I didn't want the responsibility, but I couldn't really say so after that.

"Anyway," Stefan continued, "I want Tommi out in the Capsule station watching out for Greys. Tommi, the moment you hear or see anything, come back into the main hall and yell as loud as you can. Then I want Tibor and Hansi out in the main hall and the upstairs corridor where we were yesterday; Frank and Shander, the capsule station and the main hall - work out with the others which walls you're going to check; Markus and Radu and Alain and Oli, the dormitories and other accommodation areas, and me and Jake will take the generator room and the office. Okay, let's go - and remember to be thorough: we're probably only looking for an operating panel like the one down by the arch into the main hall. It isn't very big, so make sure you check every centimetre..."

"Shardihersp," I corrected.

"Right, that. Okay, let's go. When you finish your area and you're absolutely certain there's nothing in it, come and find me and Jake. We'll either be in the office or down in the basement."

Stefan and I went back to our room to undress, removing our chains and necklaces, though I kept my watch on - I could always throw it off if I had to cross a barrier, and I wanted to keep an eye on the time. And I kept my glasses on, too - after all, we wouldn't have to cross the barrier until we'd finished our own part of the search, and I thought it was important for me to be able to see properly while we were searching. And then everyone dispersed to start the search.

Stefan and I decided to start in the basement - I remembered that Dead Guy had made a reference to the sub-basement, and that was a room we had not yet found. Maybe there would be a way out through it.

The generator was still making humming noises, but now there was also a sort of grinding sound, as if something was rubbing against something else, and the machines around the walls were carrying far too many magenta lights for my liking. There were a couple of pieces of wall with no machines against them, but we couldn't find any sign of a control panel anywhere near them. But in the far corner of the room we found a square piece of floor that looked as if it was covering something, and an examination of the machine closest to it revealed a switch marked 'Inspection Hatch', and when we pressed it the square piece of floor swung down just like the trapdoors in the huts.

For a moment we found ourselves hoping that this would lead to a tunnel that would take us out of here, but instead it led us into a small square room with more machines in. There was also a door in one wall that led us into another room, and in fact there was a complete maze of inspection tunnels, small rooms and heavy machinery down there, including a couple of places where pipes apparently led down into the bowels of the earth. It was uncomfortably hot in there, but we stuck it out long enough to make sure there was no other way out.

Eventually we got back into the generator room, sweating even though we were naked.

"Well, it would be stupid to put an emergency exit right down here, anyway," I commented.

"True. And you wouldn't store weapons anywhere as hot as this, either. I was hoping maybe there would be some sort of inspection tunnel that would take us outside... oh, well, let's try upstairs."

We checked the bottom of the stairwell thoroughly and prised the lift doors open - the power was off - to check that there were no buttons above the one for the dormitory level. There weren't, even though we prodded and poked at the sides of the lift in case there was another hidden panel there. In the end we gave it up and walked back up the stairs to the office level, though we checked every centimetre of the walls of the stairwell on the way.

There was nobody looking for us when we reached the office level, so obviously nobody else had found anything, either. So we went into the office to continue our search. The control panel wasn't looking any better this morning, but at least it wasn't looking any worse, either - no more tunnels appeared to have closed overnight, anyway. But it was still bad having to look at it and knowing that we couldn't reach the tunnels that were still open, and so we cleared the screen and went back to the primary menu. And then we started a thorough search of the office.

There was a corner of the room with no machines, and I remembered there being a similar place in the Hub One office as well. I'd thought there was something there, and I was suspicious of this corner, too: somehow when I tapped the wall it didn't sound right. But no amount of probing around revealed a panel cover, and in the end I gave up. And the rest of the inner office also failed to reveal anything hidden.

We moved out into the outer office and started to go over the walls, though again there was no sign of any hidden doors, hatches or panels.

"Let's try thinking logically about this," I said, once we were convinced there was nothing hidden in the outer office. "On the floor below this there's nothing except the generator room and some of the power equipment. On the floor above this we've got the three dormitories, the dining room and kitchen, the briefing room and the officers' rooms. And on this floor we've only got this office. Okay, it's logical to dig out most of the complex close to the surface, because it's easier to get rid of the spoil that way - though that would mean that while the place was under construction there must have been an opening to the surface..."

"But it would have been sealed off again once construction was over," Stefan pointed out. "And we searched for an exit at Hub One without finding anything in the dormitories."

"True. But maybe this place is different. I suppose if it is the others will find something up there."

We sat thinking for a while. Then Stefan said, "This office isn't the only thing on this floor - the laundry is below the third dormitory, so it must be on this level."

"That's true. I wonder why it's under the third dormitory and not the first one? Okay, this office is under the first one, but the office isn't very big. There'd be plenty of room for the laundry as well. So perhaps there's something else on this level, next to the office or under the second dormitory..."

"We've got people searching the second dormitory. If there is a hidden staircase, they'll find it. And the same goes for the laundry: if there's a secret door there I'm sure the boys will find that, too."

"Right. But - and I'm thinking of an armoury here, not an exit - wouldn't it be more sensible to have your weapons close to the centre of the complex? If you had to traipse upstairs and then down to the laundry and through another door to find your guns, it would take ages. It would be a lot more sensible to have them here, where you can get at them quickly, don't you think?"

"But we've already checked the office."

"Not all of it." I got up, went back into the outer office and through it into the kitchen alcove. This wasn't very big: as we'd seen on our first visit, it contained only the sink, the hob, and a couple of cupboards, the smaller one of which contained some pots and pans, and the larger, which was a closet in the corner of the room, contained a couple of brooms, a mop and bucket, and some smaller cleaning equipment. The first time we'd been here I'd barely glanced into it, and I almost did the same thing this time, too - and then something struck me.

"Why would they need brooms and stuff?" I asked. "We know there's an automatic system here, so there's no need for mops and buckets. So let's have a closer look..."

The closet was about a metre square, so I was able to step right into it and start checking the walls. And after a minute or so I found a hidden panel on the back wall, and once I got it open I found myself looking at a barrier control panel.

"Yes!" I cried, and I slapped my hand against the panel. The glass dome - there was only one here - lit up and scanned me, and then the right hand wall of the closet slid upwards, revealing a tunnel blocked a couple of metres in by a barrier. There was another control panel just inside the tunnel, and this one removed the barrier. We ran down the tunnel, which made a sharp left turn and opened out into a small armoury. It looked as if Regulus Janiq and his cohort had taken most of what the room had once held, but he had left us around twenty rifles, a couple of pistols, and several boxes of ammunition.

Stefan pushed past me and started to examine the nearest rifle.

"This is a bit primitive," he commented. "We stopped using these about eighty years ago. It's a single shot type with a bolt action and a small magazine. But at least they're easy to use - you just point it and pull the trigger. I think all the boys should be able to handle one of these. Let's get a dozen of them out into the office, and then this afternoon I'll start teaching everyone how to use them."

We carried twelve of the rifles out into the outer office, and then went back for some ammunition, and here we found that one of the ammunition boxes contained grenades instead of bullets, and that discovery brought a big smile to Stefan's face. We took that case out to the office, too.

We checked the armoury to make sure there wasn't another exit anywhere. I didn't think it was likely, but I wanted to be absolutely sure, and eventually I was satisfied that there was only the one way in and out. As we headed back to the office Stefan picked up the two pistols, which were in holsters, and handed one to me.

"No thanks," I said. "I'd probably shoot myself in the foot, or something."

"Wear it," insisted Stefan. "You don't have to load it if you don't want, but you're our leader and if you're wearing a pistol you'll look like an officer."

Reluctantly I took the holster, thinking that I was about the last person anyone would put forward as officer material.

Once we were outside I set the barrier and closed the door once more, replacing the brooms and mops in the cupboard. I don't really know why - it wasn't as if there was a lot of equipment left in the armoury for the Greys to steal, and if they got this far we'd probably all be dead anyway. But it seemed to be the right thing to do, so I did it.

We stacked the rifles, pistols, ammunition and grenades in the inner office. I removed my watch and glasses and left them on the desk and then we went out into the hall to see if anyone had found any sign of a way out. But the two pairs out there were winding down their search, and neither had anything to report. Next we went through into the Capsule station. Tommi wasn't there, but when we called his name he emerged from the mouth of the service tunnel and came to meet us.

"I went a little way in to listen," he said. "I can't hear anything, though."

"Good," I said. "I didn't think they'd be here just yet, but it's better to be careful."

Once the hall search parties had finished their sweep we all went back up to the dormitory and waited for the other two parties to finish their search, and once they had - and nobody else had found anything useful - we got everyone together and told them that we had found some weapons.

"We'll have something to eat now," Stefan told them, "and then we'll meet in the briefing room after lunch and I'll show you how to use a rifle. And then we'll get some practice out in the hall."

And so after lunch - I just made some sandwiches for everyone - we all went to the briefing room and watched as Stefan showed us one of the rifles we'd found, explaining how to load it, where the safety catch was, how to hold it and the right way to squeeze the trigger. As I had feared, only one person apart from Stefan had ever handled a firearm before, and that was Radu who, in happier times, had been taught to use a shotgun by his father and taken on hunting trips to shoot some game birds for supper. But they all looked excited by the prospect of learning how to shoot, even though once we got started in practice, shooting the length of the main hall at targets Stefan made using bedding, it very quickly became clear that none of us could hit a barn door at ten paces - even though I had my glasses on (we had to deactivate the barrier to take the rifles through, of course) I was still hopeless. And the way the stock recoiled against my shoulder was painful, too.

"Hold the rifle firmly!" Stefan told me. "That way it won't recoil and break your shoulder!"

We were lying on the ground to fire, because Stefan was worried about guardians as well as Grey soldiers, and it would be a lot easier to hit guardians if we were on their level. Plus, lying flat would give them a smaller target to aim at.

He coached each of us in turn, encouraging us and smiling. If I'd been in his shoes I'd have been screaming that we were a bunch of useless imbeciles who had about as much chance of hitting a guardian as we had of flying to the moon, so his patience with us impressed me a great deal. Personally I thought my only chance of killing a guardian with my rifle would be to throw the damned thing at it, but I kept plugging away until at least I was hitting the target with every second or third shot.

After supper he took us back to the briefing room and told us that we probably had no more than one further day before the Greys reached us - if they were coming, that is: in a perfect world they'd have been called back as soon as their portal was destroyed.

"But we have to assume they're coming," Stefan went on. "And it looks as if the only way out of here now is going to be back the way we came, along the service tunnel to Hub One - and that will mean getting past any Greys coming after us. So we're going to stay here for another three or four days, provided the power lasts that long - at least here we've got the barriers to help protect us. If the Greys haven't got here by then I think we can assume they're not coming, and we can head off back to Hub One. We'll keep practising with the rifles, and I have one or two other ideas to help defend this place, too.

"One other thing: you're all Kerpians, and you have a right to fight to defend this establishment, and I think that if you're in uniform the Greys should respect the rules of war and take you as prisoners of war if the worst happens. So in a moment I want you all to come down to the laundry store. We'll find the smallest uniforms they've got and cut them down to fit, more or less. And from now on you wear them, over the top of your normal clothes if you want, or instead of them.

"And we'll be posting a watch in the Capsule station, too. Probably we're safe for tonight, but I don't want them getting here, finding a way to deactivate the barriers and catching us all asleep, so we're going to keep watch all the same. We'll watch in pairs, the same pairs as today, and each pair watches for two kends. I'll pin the rota up on that board over there shortly. Tommi gets tonight off because he spent most of the morning on watch. Any questions?"

There weren't, so we went down to the laundry store and kitted ourselves out with uniforms. Obviously everything was far too big, so we got each boy outfitted with a pair of trousers and a shirt and then hacked the trousers off somewhere close to ankle length and the shirts at the elbow - as long as we were all wearing something that was basically the same colour and design it would qualify as a uniform. Most of the boys had belts to keep the outsized trousers up, and we improvised with rope for the others: Stefan sacrificed part of one of his climbing ropes. And at least we all found a hat that fitted.

Stefan posted a list in the briefing room to show who had which watch, and I saw that he'd given us the hardest one, in the middle of the night: we'd get woken up just about as we fell asleep, I thought. But I suppose officers have to lead by example.

He borrowed a Kerpian watch from Markus - obviously our own watches weren't calibrated in kends - and gave it to Frank, who was taking the first shift with Shander, telling him to pass it on to Hansi when the shift changed, and then Stefan and I were able to retire to our room and shut the door once more.

"We're not going to get any more nice, peaceful nights, are we?" I asked.

"Probably not - at least, not until we get out of here."

"But we are going to get out, aren't we?"

"Well... not if we have to relying on our shooting ability. As long as they only have a couple of guardians with them we'll be fine, because I should think Olivier can deal with those on his own. Radu can shoot a bit, and Markus isn't too bad, but the rest of you... not really. Still, maybe all those bullets flying about wildly will scare the Greys off."

"Then let's make the most of the time we've got," I said, and I stripped off and got into bed. And he got in with me and snuggled up to me, and once again having him there helped me to relax and fall asleep. Except this time I was shaken awake again. It felt as if it was almost at once, but checking my watch I saw it was three in the morning.

"We're not taking this watch every night, are we?" I groaned as I rolled out of bed.

"No, but I thought we ought to take it the first night. Come on."

Tibor was standing by the door holding the watch, and Stefan took it from him and told him to go to bed. Then he and I walked naked out to the Capsule station - we were standing watch naked because that way we would be able to run straight back to the dormitories to raise the alarm without having to worry about the barriers. Of course we had to deactivate the barriers to take the watch and my glasses through, but in an emergency we'd just abandon them in the station and run.

It was quiet out in the service tunnel - in fact the whole place was quiet. The lighting out here was dim - by now only the emergency lights were working - and it felt strange being there on our own. In fact it was almost like being back in dead Orschwiller when only Stefan and I had been there, except that here we were underground, and it felt even more isolated.

"Could we try walking through the Capsule tunnel?" I asked. "If we kept very quiet we'd be able to walk right past them, because I'm sure they'll be in the service tunnel, not the actual train tunnel. And Greys don't have particularly good hearing: it's one of the things I beat Issin at comfortably. Okay, they see better than we do, but if we weren't in view, maybe their eyesight wouldn't matter."

He thought about it. "I think it'd be too risky," he said. "If I was their leader I'd be inclined to cover the tunnel - I'd probably put a guardian or two in there at least. No, it'll be safer to stay here and use the barriers. Anyway, let's not worry about that for now. As long as we don't go to sleep we can do anything we like while we're here, and we know we won't get disturbed - so, got any ideas?"

I certainly had, and so had he, and the shift passed very pleasantly indeed, even though it wasn't quite as good as doing it in a comfortable bed. But later, after we'd gone and woken Markus and Radu up to replace us and had returned to our room, the seriousness of our situation closed in on me again. And I clung to Stefan for the rest of the night, because I was starting to believe that, unless something miraculous happened, we'd all be dead in the next couple of days...

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