The Nexus

by David Clarke

Chapter 13


"I'm sorry, did you say 'a bomb'?"

"That's right. What I really need is one that's fairly small, with a timer device. If you can find one I think I can solve your main problem here."

"Explain," said Larzel.

"Well, I'm going back through the portal into the Grey world tomorrow morning. There's no guard on the portal itself, and the door from the ladder room to the tunnel hasn't been closed for ages - there are cobwebs all over it. And so there's a little space between the door and the wall about ten centimetres... sorry, eleven or twelve shardihersps - wide, and if I were to slip a small explosive device in there it's a pretty good bet that nobody would notice it.

"And then, once I'm safely back on this side, it explodes and destroys the portal, and provided the Greys haven't worked out how to open a portal themselves yet it will stay closed. Okay, you'll still have to deal with however many Greys will be trapped this side of the portal, but they won't be getting any reinforcements, and if they're sensible they'll just surrender instead of fighting a war they can't win. What do you think?"

"I think it's an excellent idea. I don't think there are too many Greys permanently stationed in our world - though they probably have expeditions in some of the other Nexus worlds, too, and if you destroy the portal to their home world those will still be around to cause a nuisance. Still, if they can't get reinforcements we'll be able to deal with them, even if their weapons are better than ours and we don't have a lot of experienced fighters. I'm sure I can find you a suitable device. But don't let them catch you with it or we'll all be in big trouble."

"That's why I want one with a good long timer: I daren't carry it around in the Grey world because I'm expecting to be there for two days and someone would be sure to look in my bag during that time, so I want to plant it on the way out and not have it explode until after I get back - preferably a good couple of days after, because you can bet that I'll be about the only human going through the portal in the days before the bomb goes off, so they're sure to come looking for me afterwards and I want to be well away by the time that happens. Even if there aren't many of them left on this side by then, I don't want to be their Public Enemy Number One."

"How are you going to manage to avoid them? They know you work in the mine."

"I've got a plan to get out of the mine, but I'll probably need a couple of days to make it work. So I really need at least a five-day timer."

"I'll see what I can do. I'll have it ready when you come to collect your friend in the morning."

I went back out to Reception, where the Greys were waiting for me, and together we walked up to the cabin. During the afternoon we talked a bit about how the tests were going so far, and later they asked me to help them with an experiment of their own.

"Oh, yes?" I said. "What's that?"

"We want to see which of us is the most mature. So we want you to hold us like you did before, and we'll see which of us produces his seed first - and who has most of it, too."

"I don't mind that," I told them.

And so they stripped off and lay next to each other on the bed, and when they were both good and stiff I took hold of a penis in each hand and let them do the work by bucking and thrusting against me. It was fun, to be honest: they were so intent on beating each other that they were writhing about like mad, and all I had to do was to hold on.

Haless won by about five seconds, and in my judgement managed about half a spurt more, too. I went and got the tea-towel from the kitchen (making a mental note not to use it when I came to do the washing up that evening!) and watched them clean up. I thought that would be it, but at that point Haless asked, "So, can you do that yet?"

"Well... just about. I haven't got anything like as much sperm as you two, but then you seem to mature faster than we do, so perhaps that's not surprising. And I suppose you need more than us because you're trying to fertilise several eggs at a time, whereas we only have to fertilise one."

"I think we ought to find out exactly how much you've got. Get undressed and lie on the bed."

So I did that, and Haless sat beside me and took hold of me, and it stiffened up in his hand.

"It'll probably take quite a bit longer than it does with you," I warned him. "Your cool hand doesn't affect me in quite the same way that my warm hand affects you."

"We'll see," he said, and he started to rub me. It felt very strange: his hand was a lot colder than either Stefan's or Tommi's, and when he popped out his claws and scratched lightly around it and across my balls it felt a bit scary, but somehow exciting at the same time. But after a bit of teasing he just got on with it and did it properly, and it wasn't bad at all, even though emotionally it was nothing like as good as when Stefan did it for me.

Eventually I tensed up and produced my usual couple of spurts, and he gave it a final hard squeeze and let go.

"Is that all there is?" asked Issin, peering closely at my stomach. "It was hardly worth the effort if that's all you've got."

"Shut up, Issin. We already know you mature faster than we do. And my cock is still bigger than yours."

"And about half as hard. And after all that effort you just managed a couple of tiny dribbles. You mammals are so..."

"Inefficient, I know," I finished for him. "We're better in cold conditions that you are, though."

"That's about the only thing you've beaten me at so far!" he protested.

"Issin, it's not really a competition," I pointed out. "All species have things they are good at, and we cope better with extremes of temperature, while you are stronger than we are. Your reactions are faster than mine, but I can think through puzzles faster than you. In a really perfect world we'd be allies and friends, living together and co-operating in everything, each race using its strong points to benefit everyone. It's a pity this world isn't like that."

"I think it would be difficult in a world like that," said Haless. "We think differently, too, and it would make it hard for us to completely trust each other. Okay, we trust you as an individual, and you obviously trust us now too, or you wouldn't have risked bringing your little red-head with us, but that's just because we've got to know each other. Our politicians don't even trust each other, so they certainly wouldn't trust those of a different species, and I bet it's the same here."

"Probably. It's a pity, though."

I got dressed and went into the kitchen, where we had put all the food we had bought. My bag was still here: I'd brought it with me when Haless and Issin had first taken me from the furnace room - after all, at that stage I hadn't been sure I would ever be going back there. But I hadn't bothered taking it to their world because the only thing in it was a torch, and I didn't think I'd need one on that journey. So now I took the torch out of it and packed it with all the food I had bought to keep myself and Tommi going in the Grey world. There wasn't enough room in my bag for everything, so I kept one of the supermarket bags to hold the rest of it.

Then I got to work on our supper. Again there were five steaks, but this time I decided that I was going to have the largest one: if I was only getting one that seemed only fair. Tonight I made a pepper sauce to go with the steaks, and I served them with the remainder of the peas and chips that I had left over from the previous meal. I didn't bother with any other vegetables this time, and in fact they said that this time the balance was about right (that is, their meal consisted of about 75% meat and only 25% vegetables). And they really liked the sauce, too.

"We wouldn't mind at all if you decided to stay and cook for us all in future," Haless told me. "The food at school is boring: nobody bothers to make a decent sauce."

"Thank you, but I'd still prefer to stay here with my own species. I'm glad you liked it, though."

I slept that night in the cage with the door open - there wasn't really enough room on the floor to put the mattress anywhere else - and this time I woke up before they did, probably because they were still digesting supper. I got dressed and then realised that I couldn't walk down to the clinic on my own, and that meant that it might be difficult for Larzel to give me the bomb, if he'd found one for me. Somehow I would have to try to get a couple of minutes with him alone.

But in the event it was easy: Haless and Issin just sat down in Reception and told me to go and get Tommi.

"I'll probably have to walk him round the garden for a bit," I warned them. "Even if he was only in the chair overnight he'll still need to get his legs moving again, because I don't want to end up having to carry him."

"That's fine - we've got plenty of time before the truck leaves."

So I went into the clinic and found Larzel already disconnecting Tommi's needles. "Is everything okay?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "He'll be conscious in a huszak or so." And he jerked his head towards the French windows, and so I went out onto the balcony and found a package waiting for me, about half the size of a shoe box (same length and width but about half the depth). There was a small sliding section at one end, a bit like the battery cover on a portable CD player, and when I slid this open I saw a key and a digital display that was currently turned off.

"Turn the key and remove it, then close the cover and plant the bomb," said Larzel's voice from over my shoulder. "It's set for 99 kends and 19 huszaks, which is as long as the timer will allow, but that's the five days you asked for, so I hope it'll be long enough."

"It should be," I said, emptying my supermarket bag and putting the bomb at the bottom of it before putting the food back on top. "As long as I can plant it without them seeing me I think everything will work out fine."

"Well, just be careful, for your own sake and for ours: if they find the bomb they'll trace it back here."

"Is it big enough to do the job?"

"Oh, yes. That'll demolish the door frame, and that will in turn disrupt and destroy the portal. It should also bring down enough of the tunnel to make any sort of repair out of the question for a long time even if they have worked out the technology, and that ought to give us long enough to recapture the Nexus Room and destroy that tunnel completely. And after that I'm hoping the Greys left on our side will have the sense to surrender."

We went back inside and waited for Tommi to wake up, and then I took him for a short walk in the garden. In fact his legs recovered almost at once - he'd been in the chair for less than a day, after all.

Larzel checked that the implant had worked and then said we were ready to go, and so we went back to Reception, where Tommi greeted Haless and Issin in Grey.

"Hey, Haless, this funny-coloured little mammal speaks our language!" commented Issin.

"If anyone is a funny colour, it's you two," replied Tommi.

"Don't be cheeky, or we'll have to whip you," threatened Haless.

"You wouldn't... would they, Jake?"

"They might. They haven't whipped me yet, but then I'm polite. And, seriously, you'd better behave while we're travelling, because there will be adult Greys around, and I don't think the Grey sense of humour is all that well-developed."

So he shut up after that. We walked down to the Town Hall to wait for the truck, and not too long afterwards we were heading back up to the Nexus Room again.

We got off the truck and started walking up to the checkpoint, and now I was starting to get really nervous: if they found the bomb I would probably be killed on the spot - and what about Tommi? Would they think he was involved and hurt him, too? Suddenly I wished I hadn't suggested bringing him with us... but of course I had had to do that, because otherwise I wouldn't have had any reason to go to the clinic, and that was the only way to get a bomb. But that didn't make me feel any better now.

We followed the soldiers into the checkpoint and let them go through ahead of us again. Fortunately the desk guy was the same one who had been there when I went through for the first time, so at least he'd seen me before.

"What's this?" he asked Haless. "Are you starting a zoo back home?"

"No, this one's just coming to help us finish off the experiment. They'll both be coming back in a couple of days' time. And the little one would be no use if we wanted to start a zoo, anyway: he's a male, same as Jake here."

"Well, go and get him a card," said the desk guy. "You know where to go now."

So Haless took Tommi off to the right to get a pass card issued... and that of course left me and Issin waiting by the barrier, which probably wasn't where I wanted to be. At first the soldier talked to Issin about the experiment, asking what sort of tests they were doing. And then he turned to me and asked, "So what have you got in the bag, then?"

Oh, shit, I thought. "It's just some food for me and Tommi," I said. "We have to eat three times a day, and I thought it would be better to bring some stuff with me rather than keep making Haless and Issin take us out to a stall all the time."

I held the bag open so that he could see into it, holding my breath: if he wanted to look at it properly it would all be over.

"You have to eat three times a day?" he asked. "Why?"

"We're endothermic - we have to keep eating to keep our bodies working."

"They're really inefficient," put in Issin, predictably.

The guard grunted. "And the other bag," he said. "Is that more food?"

I handed my backpack to him. "Some of that's for us, but I've brought the ingredients to make some sauces," I said, trying to keep my voice steady. "They were complaining that the food they get at school is boring, so I thought I'd show whoever does the cooking how to make a couple of decent sauces to make the meat more interesting."

The soldier rummaged through my bag, looking at some of the ingredients.

"I think I'd just prefer a good thick steak," he said. "Still, maybe school food does get a bit boring after a while. What else have you got?" And he looked at the supermarket bag.

"That's just stuff for me and Tommi - bread and stuff," I said. I pulled a loaf out of the bag and showed it to him, horribly aware that the bomb was now actually visible if anyone looked into the bag. "I don't think you eat things like that at all."

"Can't say I've ever tried," said the guard.

So I broke off a piece of the loaf and handed it to him, and he took a small nibble.

"Tasteless," he said. "How can you eat stuff like that? What else..."

At which point God smiled on me once more, because Tommi and Haless emerged from the photo room. Haless handed the guard Tommi's card, and the guard duly made a note of the number, gave the card back and waved us through.

"Try eating more meat," he told me as I went through. "You're far too thin. That other stuff can't be good for you."

We walked down to the Nexus Room and along the tunnel.

"We're going to climb a ladder in a bit," I told Tommi in Kerpian. "When we get there I want you to slip when you're a rung or two up and land badly. Pretend you've hurt your ankle. I'll explain later."


"Trust me."

Fortunately he seemed happy to do that, and when we reached the ladder room he played his part well, seeming to slip off the ladder and landing hard. His 'Ouch!' wasn't entirely convincing, but I hoped the Greys wouldn't be able to recognise that.

"What's the matter?" asked Haless - he'd gone up the ladder first, and so he was now looking down at us from inside the hut.

"I hurt my foot," said Tommi, holding his ankle in a way that wouldn't have been in any danger of winning an Oscar.

I dropped the supermarket bag by the door and went and knelt beside him, pretending to examine the ankle. "I don't think there's any serious damage - I expect he'll be okay shortly," I said. "It would be a good idea if you could help him up the ladder, though: Issin, you're stronger than me, so perhaps you could climb up just behind him and make sure he doesn't slip again?"

"Okay," agreed Issin, helping Tommi to his feet. Tommi limped back to the ladder, overacting again, but once he was on the ladder Issin more or less climbed it with him, lifting him up and keeping his arms around him.

I stepped back to the bag and, without taking my eyes off the ladder, moved the bomb to the top and slid the cover open long enough to turn the key and remove it. I closed the cover and slipped the key into the pocket of my shorts.

"Okay, Tommi?" I asked, standing up.

"I think so," he replied.

I didn't move until Issin was busy helping Tommi up into the hut, and then I grabbed the bomb and shoved it into the gap between the door and the wall... or at least I tried. But the bomb was marginally too wide.

Somehow I managed not to panic, pulling the door a couple of centimetres away from the wall and then shoving the bomb into the gap and pushing it as far as I could. I straightened up just as Issin turned round to see if I was following.

"You okay up there, Tommi?" I called, picking up the bag and casually leaning against the door to push it that couple of centimetres closer to the wall once more.

"Yes, thanks," came Tommi's voice.

"Great," I said, moving to the foot of the ladder and handing the bag up to Issin, who took it and disappeared through the trapdoor. I scampered up the ladder after him, taking a last look round as I did so. A couple of the strands of cobweb had broken, but not all of them, and I guessed the ones that were drifting about in the draught would get stuck to the door or the wall very soon. Apart from that everything looked as it had been.

Up in the hut I took the bag back from Issin, who had already hoisted Tommi onto his shoulders. I surreptitiously pressed the button to start the stopwatch on my watch and followed them out into the checkpoint - where again there was no problem: presumably the guard there felt that as we'd already passed the main checkpoint at the other end there was no reason for him to waste time with us - and on into the forest.

Tommi did draw quite a bit of attention as we walked through the town: his hair colour was certainly noticeable, and the fact that he was riding on a Grey boy's shoulders also made him hard to miss. But nobody said anything, at least not in my hearing, and Tommi seemed to be enjoying himself no end, especially when we reached the cable car station: he thought this was a really exciting way to travel. And I remembered what Alain had said about Tommi, how he was like Oli, and I thought that Oli too would have thoroughly enjoyed a ride in a cable car. I decided that if we ever got out of this mess and got back to my own world I'd make sure he got one.

The other boys in the class were interested in Tommi, asking the obvious question ("Why is his hair that stupid colour?") and some slightly less obvious ones ("Why isn't his hair the same colour as Jake's?") and that led to me trying to tell the class the very little that I knew about genetics. I explained that there were some boys of our race who had fair hair or very dark hair, and there were other races of humans whose skin was a different colour to ours, and that most of them had black hair.

"None of us has grey skin, though. Do you have races with different coloured skin?"

"Not really. Some have skin that is slightly lighter or slightly darker, but we're all basically grey," Haless told me. "And none of us have any hair, either."

We decided to carry on with the tests we had been doing before I suggested bringing Tommi back with us, and so Issin and I undertook a series of physical challenges that lasted for the remainder of the day. In general he out-performed me on sprinting and other short-term exercises, but I outlasted him at anything requiring stamina. And he swam a lot better than I did, too, though I'd never been much good at swimming in the first place, which meant that I was hardly the ideal representative of the species if we were going to have an inter-species Olympics.

That evening they got me permission to use the kitchen to prepare some food for myself and Tommi - it wasn't one of their eating days - and so I made us cheese on toast, since that was something I could do quickly and easily. Haless had a taste and was not impressed at all.

"You can keep that!" he said, thrusting it back at me. "I hope you brought some meat with you, too."

"Well, no - I assumed I could use some of the meat that's already here," I said. "But I did bring enough stuff to make a couple of good sauces, and some vegetables and stuff that I was going to use to make something for me and Tommi tomorrow. There'll be meat in that one, so you might like it more."

"We'll see. But whatever you make it has to be better than this greasy yellow stuff."

When we went to the dormitory to get ready to sleep the other Greys were interested in the contrast between Tommi's body and mine. They pointed out that by the time Greys reached Tommi's age - ten - they were generally already sexually mature.

"Well, I might not be mature yet, but I know how to do it," Tommi pointed out.

"Really? It's a pity we haven't got a human female here for you, then," said Haless.

"It's a pity we sent Ssyrl away," corrected Rathyk. "Watching him getting taken by a little immature mammal would have been even funnier than it would have been if Jake had done it to him."

"I don't think Tommi would have been physically able to do it," said Issin. "That little penis probably doesn't get hard yet."

"Oh, yes, it does!" Tommi told him. "Do you want me to prove it?"

"Go on, then."

Tommi sat on the bed and started to fondle himself, and pretty soon it got hard - very hard, in fact: it was jutting up as stiffly as the Greys' did, no more than thirty degrees away from his body.

"So you can," admitted Issin. "In fact that's a lot better than Jake's floppy effort: he can't get as hard as that."

Of course I had to try, but mine has only ever stuck up a little above the horizontal, and although it was solid enough, the Greys all said they thought Tommi's looked better, and that pleased him no end. But he was still my friend, and so he pointed out that his was a lot smaller than mine.

"It's not bad for ten, though," said Issin. "Most of us were smaller than that at ten. I think if I'm honest I'd admit that you mammals are a bit bigger than us there: Jake says his is still growing, but mine won't grow a lot more now. On the other hand, we have a lot more seed than he has - haven't we, Jake?"

"Yes, okay, you don't have to go on about it," I mumbled.

They offered to let Tommi sleep in Ssyrl's bed, but he said he'd prefer to share with me, and I didn't mind that at all. This was of course the first time that we'd actually slept naked together, and it meant that when he started stroking me as he usually did I was able to do it for him, too. I felt slightly guilty because, after all, I was only supposed to do this sort of thing with Stefan, but I thought he would probably forgive me in the circumstances: we were in an alien world and we had to keep our morale up somehow, didn't we?

The following day we finished the tests that Haless had chosen for us and I was able to relax, because I was fairly sure there would be nothing to keep us here any longer, and that meant we would be safely back in the Kerpian world long before the bomb went off. In the afternoon we did a short report to Haless's computer on puberty in mammals, pointing out the differences between me and Tommi and explaining exactly how boys developed as puberty arrived and the general time-scale for the entire process. Issin and I demonstrated to the camera what our erect penises looked like and masturbated each other into a Petri dish so that the quantity, colour and consistency of our seed could be assessed. It was immediately obvious which of us was the most potent.

And then for comparison purposes Haless went and recruited a ten-year-old Grey called Trethar from another study group and ran though the same process with him and Tommi. Tommi was slightly larger, but Trethar already had sperm - a lot more than me, to be honest.

"Can we do some of the other tests together - like the ones Jake was doing with Issin?" asked Tommi. "Like running and stuff? That'd be fun."

"I'm not sure what would be 'fun' about it, but it would be interesting to see if the same trends are true at a younger age," agreed Haless. "So, okay, we can try some of the other tests. We'll start tomorrow."

That made me sit up in a hurry: 'start' tomorrow? I was hoping to be out of here next day, not find myself at the start of another load of tests. "You're not going to do the whole lot, surely?" I said.

"No, of course not, because I expect the results to go the same way. But it would be useful to run a few tests just to confirm the earlier findings - though if there are signs that the results are turning out different we'll be able to investigate further."

And now I was really worried, because if the results did turn out to be different Haless would want to do a major investigation, which could take days. And we didn't have days. I didn't particularly want to get stranded in the Kerpian world, but it would be infinitely better than getting stranded here, especially if they found out what had happened to the portal.

"Can I show the mammal to the rest of my study group?" asked Trethar. Haless said that would be fine, and so Trethar and Tommi ran off together.

I didn't see him again until supper-time. Today I made a beef Bourguignon, using a chunk of meat supplied by the school and a lot of other ingredients I'd brought with me, and I served it with pasta. Tommi loved it, and Haless liked it, too, though he thought it was a lot better without 'those yellow tubes'.

"I think I know how to survive on your food," he said. "Don't eat anything yellow! Anyway, what are you going to cook for us all tomorrow night?"

"Tomorrow?" I queried.

"Yes, it's an eating day, and I promised everyone you'd make us a sauce to go with our meat."

"Oh. Right... Yes, of course I will. Can I work here with your own cooks?"

"Yes, I'm sure you can."

"Hey, Jake," Tommi butted in, "I'm going to sleep with Trethar and his friends tonight, okay? I'll see you in the morning!" And he ran off without waiting for an answer.

The last thing I wanted was for Tommi to get friendly with Trethar, or any other Grey, for that matter: I wanted to be out of here as quickly as possible, and if Tommi decided that he liked it here and wanted to do the full range of tests with Trethar I'd be in deep trouble. It looked as though we were stuck here for at least one more day anyway, so that I could display my cooking skills to Haless's study-group, but if we stayed any longer I'd never have time to get us away from the mine before the bomb went off. I was already wishing I'd risked keeping it with me so that I could plant it on the way out, but at the time I had been sure it would be too dangerous, and it was too late to think about it now.

When Tommi arrived at the kitchen for breakfast next day - and I'd only bothered bringing bread and cheese for breakfast - his hair was wet.

"Trethar and his friends had to give me a bath," he told me when I asked about it. "We were playing a sex game last night, and I got a little sticky."

"Really?" I asked, handing him a cheese sandwich.

"Yes. See, Trethar told me there's a tradition here: when everyone in a dormitory can produce sperm except for one boy, the others help him along: he lies on a bed and every other boy in the dormitory makes his sperm shoot out all over him, and they do it for ages, loads of times until none of them can make any more. Then they rub it all into him and he goes to sleep like that. It itches a bit, but a lot of it gets into him through his skin, and all the masculine stuff in it helps him to get mature faster. So maybe soon I'll be able to make my own sperm shoot out like you can! But I had to have a bath this morning because there was a lot of dried stuff all over me and in my hair, and it smelled a bit funny."

"Right. I'm not sure if it's going to help you a lot, though, because you're a different species from them, so their masculine stuff probably won't work on you."

"Oh. That would be a pity.... it was still fun, though: some of Trethar's friends have got really little ones, but they can still make loads of sperm shoot out. And some of them let me do the rubbing for them - in fact, they all wanted me to, but I got tired because they kept coming back for more, and after that they had to do it themselves."

I thought it would have been fun to watch that: even if I thought Trethar and his study-group had been taking advantage of Tommi, it was obvious that he'd enjoyed every minute of it. And he must have been absolutely covered in their stuff, if the amount Trethar had produced into Haless's Petri dish the previous afternoon was anything to go by.

After breakfast Haless got Tommi and Trethar started on the tests he wanted them to take. I watched them for most of the morning, and in the afternoon I went to the kitchen and showed the staff there - all males, which surprised me a bit - my recipes for three different sauces. I had no idea if the ingredients could be obtained in this world, but I'd brought enough with me to make a sauce forestière for tonight at least. And apparently there were mushrooms in this world, so this one at least ought to be possible for them to make after I had left.

I got engrossed in what I was doing, which at least meant that I didn't keep worrying about the way time was passing, and the meal itself got a generally positive response from the study group (and members of other groups came by to ask about it, though I said I hadn't had enough ingredients this time, but that the kitchen staff now had the recipes and so might be able to make enough for everyone next time).

Tommi went off to sleep with Trethar again that evening, which I wasn't really happy about, but at least when I asked Haless how the tests had gone he said he was happy with it.

"The results all confirm what happened with you and Issin, so we don't need to do a lot more," he said. "We'll be finished tomorrow morning. But we really wouldn't mind if you wanted to stay, Jake - and now you've got Tommi here you won't feel on your own any more, will you?"

"I haven't got Tommi," I pointed out. "Trethar has. Actually I was going to ask you about that..." and I told him what Tommi had told me at breakfast. I wouldn't have been surprised if Haless had told me that Trethar had invented the whole sperm thing, but in fact Haless confirmed that the tradition existed.

"Issin was the last boy in our group to get his sperm, so we performed the ritual on him - three or four times, in fact. And it worked in the end, because now he can make plenty of his own. But I keep reminding him that even Ssyrl had sperm before he did. Of course, we didn't know about Ssyrl being a pervert back then, but since we found out it's made Issin really embarrassed about being less mature than a would-be female."

"Oh," I said, making a mental note not to mention this unless Issin really annoyed me. "Still, Tommi spending his time with Trethar isn't really the point. It's interesting being here and learning about you, but I think having us about will distract you from your studies if we stay too long. And it really isn't fair on the other boys in the furnace room: we've left them short-handed. I know Ssyrl's there now, but I'm not sure how much use he'll be at manual work, to be honest."

"He'd better be pulling his weight. It'd be pleasurable thinking of him getting whipped, but he's supposed to be working."

"Yes, but even with him there they're still short-staffed. I really think we ought to get back as soon as we can. Look, how long is it going to take you to put all the data together and produce the finished project?"

"Four or five days, I should think. Why?"

"Well, I'd quite like to see how it all turned out, so perhaps we can come back and visit? Let's see - today's 16 Kinnik... four days will be a bit too soon, so how about we come back to visit on 25 Kinnik, which is nine days from today? It's an Ertday, so we won't be working that day, and that means we won't be leaving our friends short-handed again. If you can arrange an escort for us to come up with the morning truck, we'll be able to spend most of the day here and still be back in time for the next day's shift."

The bomb was due to go off in mid-morning on 19 Kinnik, so I sincerely hoped that there would be absolutely no chance of coming back on the 25th, but I hoped this suggestion would sound reasonable. And apparently it did.

"That's sounds like a good idea. Probably me and Issin will come to pick you up - if we come the previous day we can come and watch Ssyrl working himself into a coma as well. That would be highly pleasurable."

Next morning Tommi and Trethar finished their tests, which apparently mirrored the ones I had done with Issin right down the line. Tommi seemed keen to stay longer, but I played the 'duty' card, and eventually he allowed himself to be persuaded. We left shortly after midday - in fact I was so keen to get back that I skipped lunch completely, and Tommi and I nibbled biscuits and chocolate in the cable car and as we walked back to the checkpoint.

I was a bit nervous as we approached it: if the bomb had been found they would be waiting for us. But the checkpoint was manned only by one bored-looking guard, and he waved as through as soon as he had checked our pass cards.

We climbed down the ladder, and I resisted the temptation to try looking into the gap between the door and the wall: to do that I would have had to put my head right against the wall, which would have looked very suspicious, and in any case I could see that there were still cobwebs between the door and the wall, which there certainly wouldn't be if anyone had opened the door to remove something from behind it.

Once we were through the checkpoint above the Nexus Room I turned to Haless and said that he and Issin might as well go back: there were some soldiers waiting for the afternoon truck, and I said I was sure they could see that we got back to the mine. So Haless spoke to an officer and arranged for us to escorted back, and then he and Issin turned to go back into the checkpoint.

"Aren't you going to say goodbye?" I asked.

"Why?" asked Issin. "We'll be coming back for you in a few days' time."

"Yes, of course you will," I said, realising I'd blundered. "But I still wanted to say thanks for picking me to help you. And for not dissecting me, of course."

"That's all right," said Haless. "We'll just wait for you to drop dead from overwork in your mine, and then we'll claim the corpse and cut it up to complete the record. At least you won't feel it then."

I wasn't sure if he was joking or not: bearing in mind that their sense of humour was at best atrophied I thought that maybe he wasn't. Perhaps it was just as well that I wouldn't be seeing them again - it wasn't impossible that they might change their minds on the vivisection thing again.

So I said "Goodbye" and watched them go back into the checkpoint, and then we waited with the Grey soldiers until the truck arrived to take us back to Hintraten. A couple of soldiers were delegated to escort us back to the mine, where they handed us over to Hass Eri, and as there was still a good couple of kends before the end of the shift he took us straight down to the changing room. We got undressed except for our underwear, collected gloves, masks and sandals and went back to work.

Markus was glad to see me, because he, Frank and Shander had been working as a three-man team in my absence: as I had hoped, Ssyrl had been given to Team Four, who had been short-handed previously. I'd hoped it would be that team he joined because I knew that Tibor and Hansi at least would be sympathetic to his situation.

I was even more delighted to see that Oli had been lent to the furnace room to cover for Tommi, and he was equally happy to see me, putting down his bucket and ladle carefully in a corner and running to hug and kiss me.

"We've been so worried," he told me. "Stefan's been going mad - he was afraid you'd been caught trying to escape and shot, or stung by one of those big insect things. He'll be really happy when I tell him you're safe."

I was still recovering from the shock of that kiss, but it was a nice shock, and I noticed that Alain, who was also waiting to greet me - he must have been on a break - didn't look remotely jealous. And in fact as soon as Oli let go of me Alain hugged and kissed me himself.

"Oli, I'm hoping that now Tommi's back they'll send you back to Stefan's team tonight," I told him. "I need you to tell him something." I switched to French and added, "We're getting out of here tomorrow night. Tell him, and anyone else on his team who wants to leave, to be ready a couple of hours after the shift ends."

"How?" asked Alain. "Have you found us one of those big wagon things?"

"No. Look, just trust me. Oli, is Stefan's dormitory locked at night?"

"No. I suppose they know we can't go anywhere because of the insects, so they don't bother."

"Good. Then tell him to meet us in the changing room at half-past nine tomorrow night, or two kends after the end of his shift if you can't remember that. Make sure you avoid the cameras, if there are any - I don't think there are any on our corridor, but I've only been up on his side of the changing room once and I can't remember if there are any there or not. Just make sure that if there are any, they don't see you."

I went and took my place in Team Three, moving coal from the hopper to the stokers' feet, and I was glad this was only going to be a small part of a complete shift: over the past few days I had forgotten just how hard this was. I kept an eye on Ssyrl - as far as I could see he was being treated exactly like everyone else, but because nobody could speak Grey he must have been feeling really isolated. As soon as his turn for a two-huszak break came round I told Markus I really had to speak with the Grey boy and asked if he would swap breaks with me - he was about to start a break himself. He didn't look too happy, but he agreed, and so I was able to take Ssyrl to one side.

"Are you okay?" I asked him in Grey.

He shrugged. "Not really. This is really hard work, and I hate not being able to understand what's happening. Why did you get them to send me here? Do you despise me the same way they do?"

"God, no! I thought you'd be treated better here, actually, and now I can interpret for you I'm sure you will be. Boys in this country do a lot of sex stuff your study group wouldn't like at all, so nobody is going to hate you for being like you are. But there's another reason, too, and to be honest this is the real reason I suggested sending you here: you're a Grey, and so the guardians won't bother you - or anyone who is with you..."


"So, you can just walk out of here any time, and so can we if we come with you. I arranged for you to come here so that we can all escape."

He stared at me. "You're completely insane!" he said. "Have you any idea what the High Council would do to me if I helped a load of slave workers escape? If you lot weren't here the power station could only work part-time - it would slow production at the mine by half at least! It would be sabotage in time of war. They'd drag me back home and then publicly roast me alive. So I'm not doing it, and that's final!"

I stared at him in horror: I'd been sure he would go along with the plan. But now I was really in trouble: in a day and a half the bomb would explode, and I'd still be stuck here with no way out. It wouldn't be Ssyrl that got roasted: it would be me.