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The Second Nexus

by David Clarke

Chapter 12

I was really hoping that this had been forgotten - after all, we'd been here for more than six weeks now and nothing had been done about it. I could only hope that the senior instructor's lack of personal interest in the issue would meant that he'd just go through the motions, rather than conducting a full in-depth analysis of the place of portals in our lives.

He took me to a room on the far side of the building, and as soon as I stepped inside I realised that there was going to be nothing half-hearted about this: I found myself looking at a narrow bed fitted with restraining straps, with a helmet-like attachment at one end festooned with wires. It looked a bit like the apparatus the Kerpians used for implanting languages, except that I thought this equipment would be for taking things out of the head, rather than putting them in.

"Don't worry, it's completely painless," the instructor told me. "You won't feel a thing. The equipment follows your brain patterns and matches them to what you're saying - it's more of a back-up than anything else. Now if you'd like to lie down..."

Reluctantly I did as I was told, and the helmet was slid forward over my head.

"We're not going to bother strapping you down," the instructor told me. "Like I said, this won't hurt, and you're doing this voluntarily, after all."

If he thought that he wasn't much of a mind-reader, I thought. But perhaps he knew how I felt and was just trying to jolly me along. Well, tough, I thought: you won't hear anything about portals from me, whatever the thing on my head does.

"And now we'll just help you to relax a bit," said the instructor, and before I realised what he was doing he had jabbed a needle into my arm. And he was right: the relaxation followed almost at once.

"Now," he said, "one of my colleagues will be in shortly to ask you a few questions. All you have to do is to relax and answer him truthfully..."

And the next thing I remembered was someone helping me to stand up. The helmet had been removed, and although I felt a little woozy I still felt relaxed and unconcerned about what had just happened.

The senior instructor reappeared, glancing at his watch.

"That was a long session," he said. "We'll get you something to drink in a moment - I expect your throat is a little sore. If all of your colleagues have so much to say this will take longer than we'd expected.

"Now, we know that two of you don't speak the same language as the rest, but that you can speak their language equally well. So we're going to ask you to translate what they say into the language you call Kerpian - it'll be a lot easier for High Captain Aarnist if he only has to worry about translating from one language."

"Huh? Wasn't the whole point of waiting so that we could answer the questions in your language?" I asked.

"Oh, goodness, no - you really don't have the vocabulary for that yet. No, the point of waiting was so that we could give you your instructions in our language and so that you could understand them. Your answers have to be in your mother tongue, or in one that you speak with equivalent fluency. So we'll get the two non-Kerpian speakers done next, and then you can go back to work - we'll be able to manage the others without you. Sit down for a moment while we get the next one ready."

So I sat in the chair beside the bed, and another instructor brought me a cup of orange juice. The thought that I'd done so much talking that I'd given myself a sore throat was pretty scary, especially since I had no idea what I might have said. Perhaps I'd find out by translating whatever Nicky and Marc had to say, because presumably they were going to be asked the same questions.

Five minutes later Nicky was led into the room, and his face lit up when he saw me.

"Hey, Jake!" he said. "Stefan said he'd seen you a couple of times, and that you seemed to be okay but he wasn't sure what was happening to you. Is everything all right?"

"Yes I'm fine. What about you?"

He shrugged. "Not bad. I'm not really used to working quite this much, and my Konjässi gives me a headache sometimes, rooting about in my skull. But I'm okay. Why are we here, though?"

"They want to ask about the portals."

"Oh. Well, I'm hardly the person to ask, am I? I don't know anything about them, and I've only been through one twice."

"I know, but they're asking all of us about them."

"Oh, well, I suppose I'll have to tell them I don't know anything, then."

I smiled at him, hoping he'd be able to do that, and then watched as he lay on the bed and the helmet was put over his head. Next came the needle, and then the instructor told me to stand on the other side of the bed next to the microphone and to translate everything Nicky said into Kerpian. He also told me that if I said anything that didn't match Nicky's brain patterns we'd both be severely punished, and I thought that didn't really leave me a lot of choice. After all, surely there wasn't much that Nicky could tell them in the first place...

The instructor waited a moment for the drug to take effect and then told Nicky that he was going to ask some questions and that Nicky had to answer truthfully, using his own native language.

"What do you know about the portal you came through to reach this world?" he asked.

"It's irregular - the monks can't say how long it will be open, or how often it appears."

"What monks are these?"

"The ones in the monastery on the other side of the portal."

"And why is there a monastery there?"

"To look after travellers who come through the portals."

"How many portals are there?"


It was worrying to discover how much Nicky had learned during his stay at the monastery - worrying because he knew less than anyone else, which meant that if we were all questioned as carefully the authorities here would get a very complete picture of the monastery and the portals that it oversaw. I didn't know what they would do with that knowledge, but I didn't think it would be good news for the monks.

It didn't take too long to exhaust Nicky's knowledge of the portals, though he was questioned extensively about his own home world, too. But finally he was given another injection of some sort, and that revived him. He was led away, and I was given some more orange juice.

Five minutes or so later Marc was led in, and he was still completely naked. As soon as he saw me he ran to me and threw his arms round me, and I held him, wishing that I could project feelings of warmth and protection to him the way Harlan could to me when I was feeling bad.

The instructors gave him a minute or so with me and then told him to lie on the bed, and his nakedness seemed to make no difference at all to the way he was treated: presumably the instructors were well used to some of the slaves not having clothes for one reason or another. The helmet was put on his head and the injection given, and a couple of minutes later I was again recording his knowledge of the portals for posterity - or, at least, for High Captain Aarnist.

Marc had of course been through more portals than Nicky, and he was questioned about each one and about the worlds he had seen, especially his own - which was also, of course, my own adoptive world, and I really wasn't happy to think of these people knowing about it. But I had to keep translating: the first time I hesitated I felt a definite mental jab from the instructor.

Marc's testimony lasted quite a while, but eventually it was finished and he was revived.

"All right, you can both go," the instructor told us. "Report back to your students... no, I suppose it's a bit late: supper will be in twenty minutes. You're released from duties until supper."

And that gave me a chance to take Marc to the store-room at the end of Harlan's corridor and talk to him in private for a while. I didn't need to be a Konjässi to know that Marc wasn't happy: apart from his nakedness there were bruises on his back and legs, and especially on his buttocks. Once we were in the store-room I closed the door, pulled out a couple of chairs and sat down facing him.

"Are you okay?" I asked him, and felt my heart sink as he shook his head and then started to cry. I couldn't think of anything to say, so I just pulled him onto my lap facing me and hugged him while he cried against my shoulder. Holding an undeniably cute naked boy like this ought to have been extremely arousing, but I can honestly say I didn't get even a twinge: all I wanted to do was to try to comfort him as best I could. And seeing the state he was in made me realise that we really had to get out of here - it was clear that Marc was coming to the end of his tether. But of course I still had absolutely no idea of how we could do that.

"I'm going to sort this out," I promised him. "With Harlan's help if I can persuade him; without if I can't. But I'm not leaving you in this state. The only way Harlan is going to stop me is by putting me under a full control clamp twenty-four hours a day, and I don't think even he has the stamina to keep it in place that long. Come on, Marc: we're going to talk to him."

I led him along the corridor to Harlan's room and found my master sitting at his computer working.

"Ah, you've been out tending to the waifs and strays again," he commented as we came in. "I thought we'd agreed that we'd stay out of the slaves' internal affairs?"

"You agreed that. I went along because I didn't have any choice. But, look, Harlan, Marc's my friend, and I can't just leave things like this. I mean, haven't you got friends?"

"Well, yes, I suppose so. But my friends can look after themselves, so they don't need me to stick my nose in."

"Your friends are Konjässiem. They don't get picked on."

"You might be surprised," said Harlan, grinning. "I know of one... but then he definitely asked for it. I'll maybe tell you that story later. But, as for this, I've already told you I'm not going to get involved."

"I know. All I want is your permission to try to sort it out myself."

"Jake, if you stick your nose in it won't do any good and you're going to get hurt, and I need you in working order."

"It won't just be me. There are eight of us, remember?"

"Oh, so now you want to start a civil war among the slaves."

"No, I don't. I really want to sort this out without anyone getting hurt, so if I take Stefan, Alain and Nicky along with me it'll just be to make sure nobody attacks me without giving me a chance to speak first."

"You're just going to be stirring things up, and I really don't think..."

"Harlan, talk to Marc - have a look in his head and you'll see what sort of person he is, and then ask yourself if he deserves what's been happening to him. And why don't you ask him exactly what has been happening to him? Don't just wander away saying that it's got nothing to do with you - at least find out what's happening first - please?"

Harlan sighed. "Jake, you're way too lippy for a slave," he said. "I let you get away with far too much, which is my fault. Probably I ought to tighten up on you and beat you if you don't learn to know your place. Except... you know I like you too much to do that. But don't keep taking advantage of me, okay? Now, take Marc and sit him on the bed - you can sit with him and hold him if you like - and I'll talk to him."

So I led Marc over to the bed and we sat down side my side with my arm around him, and Harlan wheeled his chair over so that he could sit in front of us. And for a couple of minutes he said nothing at all, and nor did Marc, but I didn't interrupt because I knew there was some mental communication going on.

"Well," Harlan said to me, speaking his own language so that Marc wouldn't understand, "he's really unhappy. The worst problem is that he feels completely alone, and he's being kept away from you and his other friends to keep him feeling that way. If you want some good news, it's that he doesn't blame you at all - in fact he still thinks very highly of you, though whether he'll go on thinking like that if you can't help him I couldn't say."

"Oh." I switched to English. "Marc, Harlan says the thing that worries you most is being alone... but what about Radu? Isn't he there with you?"

He shook his head. "They sent him to another dorm," he said. "It was a couple of weeks ago now. Rusta said it wasn't fair if they kept both of us when there are two more junior dorms that could use a slave, so I've been on my own since. I'm not allowed to speak to anyone unless they ask me a question - they wouldn't be happy if they knew I was here talking to you now."

"Tell them Harlan wanted to talk to you. They can't go against a Konjässi. And actually I want you to talk to him - tell him exactly what happens to you on an average day."

"Do I have to? It makes me feel really ashamed..."

"It'll help," I said. "Harlan's really nice, and if you tell him what you have to go through I'm sure he'll help us."

Actually I was sure of nothing of the kind, but I hoped it might make a difference.

"You won't tell the others, will you?" said Marc. "I mean, Radu knows some of it, and I suppose the same sort of thing is happening to him too, but I still don't want anyone else to tell him. If we ever get back together I'll probably tell him myself, but for now... you understand, don't you, Jake?"

"Of course I do." And I hugged him to emphasise the point.

"Okay, then." He took a deep breath and addressed Harlan in Arvelan. "It isn't the same every day, but most mornings I have to be out of bed as soon as our alarm rings. Then I have to start making everyone's bed while they go and get washed, and there are sixteen slaves in my dormitory at the moment, so it takes a long time to get them all looking perfect. If any boy isn't satisfied with the way I've made his bed I have to do it again and he makes a mark on the board - there's a sheet there to keep track of how many punishments I have to come.

"If I've made all the beds in time I'm allowed to go and have some breakfast, though usually I'm only allowed a small bowl of porridge. And if I haven't finished the beds in time I don't get any breakfast at all.

"I spent most of the day with my Konjässi, but in the evenings I have to work in the dormitory, cleaning the boys' shoes, scrubbing the toilets and washing the floor, and when I've done all that I have to do... you know, sex things, for the other slaves."

"What sort of things?" asked Harlan.


Obviously Marc found it hard to talk about this, but I suppose Harlan gave him a sort of mental nudge, because he swallowed and went on, "I have to suck on their things. And some of them like to put it inside me... you know, in my bottom. I have to make everyone in the dormitory get excited every day if they want me to. And if they're not happy with how I do it they add some marks to my punishment list."

"And what do they do about that list?" asked Harlan.

"They beat me. They tie me to the bed in the dorm leaders' room and hit me with a strap. I get hit loads of times, even though I try really hard to do what they say." And he began to cry again, and all I could do was hug him.

And then he seemed to calm down.

"Lie on the bed," Harlan told him. "Jake, you can stay here with him if you like. He's going to rest for a bit while I go and have supper - I'll bring something back for you if you want to stay here."

"I'll stay," I said. "Thanks, Harlan."

Marc flopped over onto his side and I realised that Harlan had done something to make him sleepy. I lifted his feet up onto the bed and lay down beside him, and then Harlan must have done the same thing to me, because I felt extremely tired all of a sudden - in fact I can't even remember Harlan leaving the room.

He shook me awake a while later, and he'd brought a tray with him.

"Help yourself," he said. "We'll wake him up in a bit - the rest will do him good. And you were right, Jake: he is a nice kid, and he doesn't deserve to have his life made a constant hell. I can't get involved directly, but I won't get in your way if you want to try to fix things - at least, as long as you can do it without starting a war."

"I won't. I just want to talk - at least, that's all I'll do to start with. Though I might use your name once or twice..."

"Jake, if you get me involved I'll have to punish you - and I mean it this time. Just because I haven't beaten you yet it doesn't mean that I won't, understand?"

"Don't worry. If anything goes wrong I'll say you knew nothing about it. Of course, you'll have to teach me how to shield my mind if it's teachers I'm trying to lie to..."

"Forget it! You'd never be able to. We could always try finding a great big metal pole and ramming it up your bum - that ought to protect you..."

"Perhaps not. Trust me, Harlan - I won't let you down."

Harlan let Marc sleep for a couple of hours, and then offered him the remains of the cold cuts he had brought from the dining room. And when Marc had eaten Harlan took him back to his dormitory in person.

"I told them he's been working for me," he told me when he got back. "And I said he'd be too tired to do anything except sleep tonight. I waited until he was in bed and then made sure he'd stay under for a few hours, so at least he'll get a decent rest tonight. But that's the last time I'm getting involved, understand?"

"Of course. Thanks, Harlan."

Next morning I intercepted Marc on his way to his Konjässi's room and got the names of his chief tormentors from him. As I had expected, the dorm leader was the tribesman, Rusta, and Marc told me that his henchmen were two boys from the Republic and one from Maasaarvi, the large island off the north-east coast of the country - and that was very useful, because three of them spoke Harlan's language, and I was a lot better at that than at Arvelan.

I let Marc keep going and headed instead for the garage, and here I told the senior mechanic that my master wanted to borrow Stefan for an hour or so. I was hoping they wouldn't actually check - after all, this probably didn't qualify as keeping Harlan uninvolved - but they seemed to accept me message at face value, because five minutes later Stefan and I were making our way back into the main building. On the way I explained what I was doing and why, and he said that he'd be only too happy to help, even if we got into trouble for it.

Next I had to find Rusta, but by asking some of the other slaves I met I eventually discovered that he was supposed to be polishing the desks in the ground-floor classrooms. And so he was.

"You're Rusta, aren't you?" I said. "My master wants you. Come with us."

"Who is your master?"

"Harlan ved Istian. You know who he is, don't you?"

He swallowed. "He's the Chancellor's son."

That was news to me - all Harlan had told me was that his father was 'rather important'. From what I had learned since arriving here, the Chancellor was the right-hand man to the head of state, which made 'rather important' a bit of an understatement.

"Right," I said. "So you'd better come, hadn't you?"

I turned and walked away, and clearly Harlan's reputation was known, because Rusta came after us without hesitating.

"Why does he want me?" he asked.

"He needs someone who speaks his language fluently, so that narrows it down to slaves from the Republic," I told him. "And there are other considerations, too, which I'll tell you about when we get to his room. Come along."

We went to Harlan's room and I closed the door behind us.

"You're still a junior," I commented, looking at Rusta's shorts. "How old are you?"

"I'm thirteen."

"And how many months?"

"Nine. Why?"

I looked at Stefan. "He's over thirteen and a half. Looks like he'll be perfect."

Stefan nodded, even though he didn't know what Rusta would be 'perfect' for - I hadn't had time to give Stefan the details of the plan.

"We'd better make sure," I said. "If I present Harlan with an unsuitable candidate he'll have me whipped. Rusta, get undressed."

Rusta had been a slave in this place long enough to do what he was told when he was told: even though I was only a slave myself, bringing him to Harlan's room made it seem as if the orders were coming from my master rather than from me. And so he stripped.

Once he was naked I examined his genitals closely. They were a nice size but, as I had hoped, still completely hairless.

"He is perfect," I confirmed. "See, we have a custom in my country: boys who reach the age of thirteen and a half and have not reached puberty are considered not to be proper boys at all. What happens is that they lose the right to wear boys' clothes, and they have to play the female part in sex for normal boys. And I was telling Harlan about this, and he said he thought it would be a really good basis for an experiment - he thinks that he can probably alter the boy's personality completely and make him enjoy being used that way.

"So what's going to happen is this: you're going to be kept here, and six or seven senior slaves are going to have sex with you two or three times every day. Harlan's going to start by watching the effect this has on you, and later he'll start fiddling about in your head to alter the way you feel about it, to see if he can change you permanently. You won't be allowed any clothes while you're in this room, and when you go out you'll be dressed as a girl, complete with make-up. Okay?"

Rusta's face was a picture. As I had hoped, masculinity was extremely important to him.

"But... you can't do that!" he protested.

"Of course he can. You're a slave."

"Yes, but... look, you just can't! I don't want to be used like a woman - it wouldn't be right!"

"Why not? You're old enough and you haven't got any hair, so this is exactly what would happen in my world. The only difference here is that Harlan will probably be able to change you so that you enjoy being fucked all the time."

"But I don't want to enjoy it - I don't want it to happen at all!"

"It doesn't matter what you want. It's the custom."

"Not where I come from! Maybe it's all right where you come from, but we don't do that!"

"So what? We're not in your country now, are we?"

"No, and we're not in yours, either! Come on, please choose someone else!"

"Sorry. You're the right age, you're still a junior and you speak the language. It'll have to be you."

I could see the emotions sweeping over him - you didn't have to be a Konjässi to do that, because it was obvious how he was feeling: he went through several, but he ended up, as I had wanted him to, feeling helpless and hopeless.

"Well?" I said. "How do you feel?"

He was trying not to cry, and he obviously didn't trust his voice because he just shrugged.

"Do you think this is unfair?" I asked.

He shrugged again.

"Get dressed," I told him, and he fumbled his clothes back on, still without speaking.

"I think I can persuade Harlan not to go ahead with this experiment," I said. "I mean, it would be cruel to make you suffer because of someone else's customs, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, it would," he agreed - and then apparently all the pieces dropped into place in his head.

"Oh, now I get it," he said, staring at me.

"Harlan said you were intelligent," I replied. "So, what are you going to do about it?"

"This is all made up, isn't it? There's no experiment at all, is there?"

"Not at the moment. I'm pretty sure I could interest Harlan in doing one, though - I'm with him all the time, and he listens to me. So?"

"You total bastard! I really believed it, you know. How do you know I won't get you back by whipping your friend till he bleeds?"

"I don't. I could tell you that if Marc does get hurt Stefan and I will beat the crap out of you, but... look, Rusta, there's no need for this: you've admitted yourself that you shouldn't apply a set of cultural rules to someone from a different culture. Where Marc comes from having the skin removed doesn't mean what it does among your people. Talk to him and he'll tell you why it was done. Harlan says that the tribesmen are honourable, but what you've been doing to Marc and Radu isn't honourable at all. I'm just asking you to treat them fairly, that's all."

"I don't think the others will agree. Okay, I can get them to ease up a bit, and we can share the cleaning work out, but it's been brilliant having someone there to have sex with, and I'm not sure I'll be able to persuade all of them to stop."

"You'd better, because you're the dormitory leader. And maybe if you ask him he won't mind doing stuff from time to time, as long as nobody's forcing him. Rusta, I don't want to get Harlan involved in this, but I will if I have to. I'd sooner you sorted it out yourself, but one way or another I'm going to stop what's been happening to my friends. We're all slaves, and life is hard enough without us making it worse for each other, don't you think? Anyway, I'll leave it to you to sort it out."

He got up and left, and I explained to Stefan what had happened - Stefan, of course, couldn't understand Harlan's language at all.

"Do you think he'll actually do anything?" he asked.

"He'd better. If he doesn't I'm quite prepared to go round there with you and Nicky and any other seniors you think might help and get physical with him."

"You? Get physical?"

"I'm serious, Stefi. I know I'm no good at fighting, but I'm not leaving Marc in that mess without doing everything I can to get him out, and if I have to try to hit a few people, I will."

"Don't worry. I think I could get one or two of the other kids in my dorm to help if I need to. I get on pretty well with most of them."

"Good. I hope we don't have to do that, because I sort of promised Harlan I wouldn't start a war, but... well, let's wait and see what happens. But there's another problem: we really need to get out of here, because now we've all spilled the beans about the portals..."

"Have we? I didn't think I said anything."

"Trust me, you did. I had to translate for Marc and Nicky, and I reckon the instructors now know everything we do about them. And that's why I want to get back to the one we came through before Aarnist and his boys find it - if we can get to the monastery first the monks will be able to build a mound to stop it appearing again, like they did with the one to the Grey world. If Aarnist gets there first, the monastery will be in trouble and we might not be able to get out of this world at all."

"Okay, but how are we going to get out of here? I can't see why they'd let us leave."

"Me neither. But I am starting to think of a plan that might work. The problem is going to be making sure nobody gets left behind, because I think I could get out of here on my own easily enough."

"Then you should go. It's better if someone gets away than nobody."

"No, it isn't. That's Grey thinking, Stefi: I'm not leaving without my friends. Somehow or other I'll find a way."

As we were alone in a room that had a bed in it we decided to take a risk and have a cuddle for ten minutes or so - after all, Harlan hardly ever came back to his room in mid-morning. And as usual, just being with Stefan made me feel much better, so that by the time he reluctantly went back to the garage I felt a lot more confident about everything.

"Ah," said Harlan when he returned at the end of morning school, "I see it went well, whatever it was: you're much more relaxed than you were this morning. So tell me about it, and don't leave anything out."

I gave him a full and complete account of what had happened with Rusta, and at the end of it he shook his head.

"You're too bright for your own good sometimes," he said. "And I'd told you not to involve me, too. And what did you do? You brought him to my room, threatened him with an experiment I was going to carry out, and suggested that you might get me to intervene personally if he didn't do what you wanted. I really can't let you go on taking advantage of me like that. This time I'm going to punish you. I've been using other slaves to practise my control on recently, but this time it's going to be you. You're going to get beaten. Get undressed and touch your toes."

I did that, and he found a thick leather belt in his cupboard and swished it a couple of times. And then the clamp of complete control came down on me again and I found that I couldn't so much as twitch. And while I was stuck like that he beat me hard ten times. He'd left my voice free, so I was able to yell, but that was all I could do.

As soon as he had finished he released me and put the belt away.

"Get dressed," he said. "Normally a slave who has been beaten is kept naked for an hour or so to let everyone see what has happened to him, but this is just between us, and I'm not having anyone else making fun of you... Wow, Jake - you're really not angry with me?"

"No. You told me what I could and couldn't do and I disobeyed you. And I'll do it again if I have to. I like you, you know that, but I have to do whatever it takes to help my friends if I can, even if it means I get punished."

"See, that's why I like you: you stand up for what you believe in. Come on, put your clothes on and let's go and get something to eat."

We spent the afternoon on a variety of tests, including a long session where I wore the metal band on my head and he tried vainly to get past it. And again I could feel the faintest of touch from his mind, and that was another reason why I wanted to get away from here fairly soon, because if he did learn to overcome the restrictions of the metal band my job would be a whole lot harder.

So that evening, once we were in bed, I laid the bait. So far I'd told him all about our first round of adventures and about the accident that had precipitated us into the Grey world at war, but now I told him the next bit, about how three Grey boys had travelled with us to escape the war in their own country.

"They're basically a different sort of human," I explained. "They're intelligent, like us, but they're descended from reptiles instead of mammals, so physically they're a bit different. Do you reckon you could control one of them like you can me?"

"I don't know," he said, "but I'd really like to try. And in theory I ought to be able to: if there's intelligence, there's a way to control it. It's a pity none of them came here with you."

"It's funny you should say that, because they did, all three of them. We thought it wouldn't be safe for them to come into town with us, and obviously that was right - look what happened to us. So they stayed near the portal."

"And do you think they're still there?"

"Probably not - after all, there's not a lot for them to do. I should think they'll have gone back through the portal as soon as it reappeared. But they won't have been able to go back to their own world because of the radiation, so they'll either be waiting for us at the monastery or, if they've got any sense, they'll have gone back to Vogesia. In either case they'll be easy to find."

"What's Vogesia?"

So I described the beach and the hot weather and the warm sea, because I thought that if the Greys weren't enough to captivate him on their own the concept of a holiday in Paradise might help.

"Ah. That sounds interesting. Perhaps I should visit that country sometime in the summer."

"The only problem is that the portal is really erratic," I said. "The monks don't know when it will appear next, so you might end up camping at the portal-site for days on end. It would be better to take a proper expedition, so you can send people to buy food and supplies and stuff while you're waiting."

Well, I'd dangled the hook; now all I could do was to hope he bit. I thought he would: I knew him well enough by now that I was sure he couldn't resist the challenge of the Greys. The hard bit was going to be making sure we all got to come along.

"Let me guess," he said. "You think the expedition should include you and all your friends, am I right?"

"Well, obviously not just us," I said. "You'll need some of your own colleagues along, not just to keep us in order, but in case you have problems with the Greys. If we're there you'll be safe enough - Tommi and I both speak their language, and they know all the others. And if anything happened to me, the others know where the portal is and how to use it, and they also know the monks, and the authorities in Vogesia. If you're with us you won't have any difficulties."

"Jake, you forget I can read you like a book. You just want to use the portal to escape from this world. Okay, it's true about the Greys, and so is everything else you've said, but really there's no need to take everyone with us. I think it would be much safer if we left some of them here - Stefan, for a start. And Marc and Radu - you wouldn't want to leave them at the mercy of Rusta and his friends, would you?"

"What's the matter, Harlan - scared you can't control us? Afraid that you and your colleagues can't keep a bunch of slaves under control?"

"You know perfectly well that's not true. I could probably manage all eight of you on my own."

"Now you're boasting. You told me you could only do three at a time."

"I could only forcibly operate three at a time. I could keep more than that quiescent without a problem."

"Prove it, then!"

"Do you want me to punish you again?" he asked. "Doubting my abilities is sort of disrespectful, don't you think?"

"You know I'd never disrespect you," I said, wriggling closer and putting an arm round him. "You should have seen how Rusta jumped to attention when I used your name this morning! Everyone respects you, Harlan, especially me. But I was going to suggest that if we do go on this trip there should be at least four of your colleagues with us, not because I don't think you could deal with us on your own, but so that you don't have to. I was thinking of this as a holiday - we go on a trip, we spend some time on the beach in Vogesia, and you get to work with the Greys while your colleagues make sure us slaves do what we're told. Alain and Oli can cook, Stefan and Nicky can do the heavy work, Tommi and I can help with translating, Radu can trap animals for food and Marc is our medical expert in case anyone gets hurt or feels unwell. We've lived that sort of life before, so all you and your colleagues would have to do would be to relax, enjoy the sea and the beach, and keep us safely under your thumbs. Don't you think that sounds like a good way to spend a couple of weeks?"

"It does. In fact I think a holiday like that would be really nice. And I'll think about it - I really will. But I still think we'll have to leave some of your friends here, just to make sure the rest of you behave themselves."

"You'll have me to guarantee that," I said. "You know I like being your slave, and I won't leave you. Look into my head and you'll see it's true."

And it was, because I'd decided that if the only way to make sure all my friends managed to get back through the portal was to stay behind myself, then I was ready to do that. Obviously in one way I'd like it if Stefan stayed behind as well, but I'd sooner know that he was safe. And if swearing to stay with Harlan and keeping my word would guarantee the freedom of everyone else I would do so happily.

"You mean it," said Harlan, wriggling closer and hugging me. "You really do like me that much. And I haven't done anything in your head to make you like me, either, so it's a real emotion. Thanks, Jake. I don't have a lot of friends, you know - people are nervous around me, both because of what I can do and because of who my father is. There are a couple of boys I get on quite well with, but every slave I've had before you has been scared of me and has just wanted to get away from me. You're different: you know what I can do, and you've had me control you, which I know can be really frightening. And today I beat you - and yet you still genuinely like me. I wish you were one of us - not quite as good as me, of course, but good enough for us to be able to have fun together. That would be so cool..."

"I'm sorry I'm not," I said. "I suppose you can't really be friends with a normal kid because we're so far below you - it would be like me being friends with a dog or something. But at least I can be a faithful dog."

"You're not that far below me. There's loads of stuff we can do together, the same as I could with other Konjässiem. And I can connect to your mind enough for us to be able to share thoughts - okay, I have to work harder than I would if you could do it too, but I can do it. Yes, you're my slave, but you're my friend too, sort of. That's why I don't want to lose you. And for you to commit to me like this even after I hurt you... I really appreciate it, Jake."

I realised for the first time how lonely it must be for him: here he was, with almost god-like powers, and the result was that everyone was too scared of him to get close. At that moment I felt really sorry for him and felt more determined than ever to do everything I could not to let him down. Quite how I was going to achieve that at the same time as getting my friends out of this world I wasn't sure, but at that point I felt ready to stay with Harlan if that was the only way to do it.

I knew not to push the expedition any further at that point. The seed had been sown, and now I just had to let Harlan think about it, and if I mentioned the Greys now and again, that would only help. The tricky bit was going to be persuading him not to leave any of my friends behind as hostages, because in his place I'd have done exactly that. I hoped I could talk him out of that; if I couldn't I would have to try to decide who would be an acceptable loss in return for saving everyone else, and I didn't think I would be able to do that - as far as I was concerned, nobody was an acceptable loss.

Harlan settled down to sleep and I kept my arm round him, trying to project feelings of warmth and friendship to him. Obviously I couldn't actually do that, but if he was still awake and could see what I was thinking he'd get the message.

Once I was sure he was asleep I relaxed a little. I wasn't sure that Harlan would be allowed to take himself and a party of colleagues and slaves out of school during term-time, even if his father was Chancellor of the Sanöljan Republic, but the longer we delayed, the more likely it was that Aarnist's men would be out in force looking for the portal, and that would make it much harder for us to get through unopposed.

I was less worried about coping with Harlan and his colleagues. For a start I was sure he wouldn't be able to get inside the Greys' heads: the Kerpians' language system didn't work on them because their brains were laid out differently, and I was confident that this would prove sufficient to defeat the Konjässiem. And Oli was also immune, so we already had four who could fight back. And if I could find a few more metal bands and keep them secret - which would obviously be difficult...

I decided that there would be time to worry about that later. I settled down and fell asleep.

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