by David Clarke
While we were getting dressed we heard the tannoy announcing our arrival, though this time Stefan said the name of the place we were in stayed the same in every language, including German. He couldn’t make out exactly what it was called, because it seemed to have another of those multi-syllabic names everywhere in this world was apparently saddled with.
Once we were dressed we sat and waited to be collected, and in due course the policemen came in with the handcuffs and then escorted us off the ship, through another empty customs hall and on into another railway station. I kept looking for a map, because I was still convinced we were in or near Dublin, but I couldn’t see one.
We were parked in a waiting room for half an hour or so, and then the door opened once more – and there were High Captain Aarnist and Irfan the Konjässi.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” said Aarnist – he was carrying what had to be a portable computer, which was why we could understand him. “In a minute you’ll be getting on another train to take you to the capital, which will be your destination. Irfan will look after you after that, but I’ll be travelling with you because I need to talk to my superiors in the capital about your portal. You can probably expect a visit from some of my colleagues after that, because we need to find out all we can about them.”
I didn’t like the sound of that.
“I expect we can do that for you,” offered Irfan, and I liked that even less: at least I could lie to ordinary policemen if I had to.
“Well, we’ll talk about it on the way,” said Aarnist. “Now, you’ll be on the train for about three and a half hours and you won’t be able to leave your compartment, so if any of you needs the toilet you’d better say so now.”
Nobody did: apparently we’d all made use of the ones in our cabins before leaving the ship.
“Good. Then I’ll leave you to it. Have a safe journey.”
“Just one thing,” I asked. “Where are we, exactly?”
“You’re in the port of Maasjioleeme.”
“And are we in Ireland?”
“I’ve never heard of ‘Ireland’,” he said. And he walked away with Irfan at his side.
This time we hadn’t had our handcuffs removed, so when the officers came to collect us all they had to do was to open the door and march us onto the appropriate platform. This train was a sleek-looking affair in red and black, and when I glanced down at the tracks – the train was parked a short distance along the platform – I saw that it was a monorail system.
Once again we were installed in a compartment at the back of the train and locked in.
“Admit it, Jake,” said Stefan. “This isn’t Ireland.”
“How do you know?”
“Because he said we were going to the capital, and that it was three hours away. If we were where you said we were we’d be in Dublin already, or very nearly.”
“Well, perhaps Dublin isn’t the capital in this world.”
“Crap. You’re just trying to get out of admitting you were wrong.”
“Let’s just wait and see.”
The train pulled out almost silently and, like the one we’d travelled from Strasbourg in, quickly built up to a good speed. It stopped only three times before it reached the capital, and it was a very smooth ride. And this time we were taken off the train as soon as it stopped moving, to find a van parked on the platform and another man in Japanese garb waiting for us, together with a couple of men who were presumably police, even though their uniform was different from our escorts’. And these two had fair hair, rather than red.
Irfan appeared and consulted briefly with them, and then we were put onto the van and driven into the city. And I have to admit that this place looked absolutely nothing like my idea of Dublin – and, furthermore, almost every pedestrian we saw seemed to have fair hair.
“It’s almost like home,” commented Stefan. “Our instructors would love this place: everyone’s a perfect Aryan.”
There were red and black sword-banners hanging every fifty yards or so, and those also reinforced the similarity to Nazi Germany (or Greater Bavaria, which was as near as I had been to the real thing), though the other banners carrying portraits of the ruler wouldn’t have fitted in there because the ruler of this place didn’t look remotely like Hitler.
After a drive of about twenty minutes the van drove into a courtyard surrounded by a high wall and a pair of tall gates swung closed behind us. So much for just being able to walk out, I thought. We were helped out of the van and led into the large stone building at the far side of the courtyard – architecturally it resembled something from nineteenth-century Paris, elegant but solid in construction – and up to a waiting room on the second floor, where our cuffs were removed. And here we waited for quite a long time. The window overlooked the courtyard, and we were high enough up to be able to see the wire running along the top of the wall, which suggested that getting over it would need more than just a couple of long ladders.
I tried opening the window, but it wouldn’t budge.
“Do you need some air?” asked a disembodied voice in Kerpian, and the window slid up ten centimetres, apparently of its own accord. I looked around wildly and saw the camera in the opposite corner of the room.
“Guess it was too much to hope they’d leave us unsupervised,” I said in English – apparently they’d been given the Kerpian translation program, so if we wanted to talk privately it would have to be English from now on.
A few minutes later the door opened and Irfan came in carrying a laptop.
“Come through,” he invited us, the computer doing the work of translating as before. “I’ll introduce you to our senior instructor – he’ll be able to tell you where you go from here.”
He led us into a large office. Seated behind a desk was an older man with a neat grey beard, dressed exactly like Irfan, right down to the long hair and the white headband. Irfan put the computer on the desk and handed the headset to the older man.
“My name is Athelan ved Osman of the Clan of the East,” he said. “This is the central training academy for the Konjässiem of the Middle Continent – you have to be very bright to get in here, and that’s why my colleague here thought it would be good to send you to us: you have no native knowledge of any of our languages, which is something that is unique - all our other slaves were born here. And that means it will be much harder for our students to manage you, which will make them work harder, and there’s nothing like a challenge to bring out the best in someone.
“Your main duty will be to work with our students and to help them with their work. You’ll each be assigned to a student shortly – we’ll probably just make a random selection for that – and you’ll do whatever they tell you to. You probably won’t work exclusively with that student: there are likely to be occasions when other students need an extra subject, so you’ll go where you’re needed.
“In a lot of ways this is a normal school, and I expect you’ve all been to one like it. In the mornings our students study the usual range of subjects – languages, numbers, the sciences, history, that sort of thing – and during that part of the day you’ll work around the school with the other slaves, cleaning, running errands, doing whatever is needed. Do any of you have any particular skills that might be useful?”
I raised my hand. “Alain and I can cook,” I said. “I’m quite good, according to the school I worked in last year.”
Okay, so I only actually cooked one meal at Haless’s school, but he and his friends had approved. And I figured that if we were working in the kitchen we ought to be able to nibble and taste and so on and so wouldn’t go hungry even if slave rations weren’t very good. And Nicolas obviously had the same thought.
“I could work in the kitchen too,” he offered (I’d been translating into English for him as we went along). “I’m expert at gutting and cleaning fish – I did it for a living until recently.”
“Good. Anyone else?”
“I know a bit about medicine,” offered Marc (through Stefan). “I don’t know if you have a place here for pupils who are ill, but I can probably help out there if you have.”
“We haven’t, but if there’s an accident it would be useful to know there’s someone else who can help. Thank you.”
He waited, but nobody else spoke. I suppose Radu realised that trapping and snaring wild animals wasn’t likely to be a skill in great demand in a city, and Stefan didn’t want to advertise his military training or Oli his skill with a catapult.
“Right, then. Before you start work your students will probably want to give you some basic knowledge of our language, enough for you to be able to understand simple commands and so on. That might mean you attending classes with the younger students, because not every student here comes from this country and some don’t know the language spoken here either. Once your students are happy that you have sufficient understanding you’ll move onto the normal schedule I’ve already told you about: manual work in the mornings, work with the students in the afternoons.
“There are dormitories for the slaves on the top floor and you’ll be taken there shortly, but before you go I want you to take your cloaks off and pile them up on the little table by the door: you won’t be going outside the school in the near future, and so you won’t need them. Once you’ve been allocated a bed you’ll be taken to the slaves’ dining room for something to eat, and then after the meal you’ll be allocated to your students. Any questions? No? Good.”
So we removed our cloaks and followed Irfan, who picked up the laptop and led us up the stairs to a room at the top of the building. This looked not unlike the dormitories at the Hub, with a line of beds against each wall and a washing area and toilet at the far end. There was a small cupboard beside each bed and a little table at the foot of it but no other furniture. There were around twenty beds in the room, at least half of which seemed to be in use – at least, half of them were made up. The other half had a pile of bedding on the table at its foot.
“This is where some of you will be sleeping,” Irfan told us. “This is one of the senior dorms. After the evening meal the other slaves will be here and they can confirm which beds are free, and they'll also arrange for the juniors to be taken to whichever of their dormitories has beds free at the moment. Now if you’d like to come with me I’ll take you to the dining room.”
“Do you teach here, Sir?” I asked.
“Me? No, I’ve never been here before.”
“Then how do you know where everything is?”
He grinned at me and tapped his temple and then led us down to the ground floor. Did that mean he had read the senior instructor’s mind? And then I realised that it was far more likely that the senior instructor had told him where everything was before we were called into the room. Obviously all this mind-reading stuff was stopping me from thinking logically.
When we reached the dining area we found that there were quite a lot of boys already there, all dressed exactly as we were. After the peculiar concentration of blonds on the city streets and of red-heads on the boat it was a relief to see a complete cross-section of society here… well, not quite: there were no Orientals and no Afro-Caribbeans, but there were red-heads and blonds and boys with mousy brown hair like Oli’s, boys with pale skin and tanned skin, a couple that looked like North Africans and one who had the flat face and copper-toned skin of a Native American. And as one man they all turned and stared at us as we came in.
Irfan said something to them that I couldn’t understand, but which provoked a buzz of conversation, so I guess he’d told them that we were foreigners or something similar. And then he turned the microphone on again and told us to take a seat, adding that we’d be called when the servers were ready for us. And then he left us to it.
The meal wasn’t bad: I’d say it was about the standard of the mine on Ertdays, which made it better than I had expected, and there was plenty of it, too. And the roll was actually quite soft, which was again an improvement on the Kerpian version. A couple of the other slaves came and tried to talk to us, but without the computer to hand we had no mutually understandable language, and so we could only smile and shrug at them.
After we had finished eating Irfan reappeared and took us to what was clearly a classroom, with a screen at the front and rows of desks facing it. He lined us up alphabetically by first name and gave each of us a small card with a symbol on it, and then he told us to go and sit in the first row of desks, in any order other than alphabetical, putting the card face down on the desk in front of us so that the students couldn't read it. I found myself clutching a card with two horizontal lines on it, which was apparently the local numeral for ‘Two’ (only Alain was ahead of me alphabetically).
Then Irfan went out, returning a couple of minutes later with eight boys of around my age dressed in the same Japanese nobleman style as him. He told the first one to think of a number between one and eight, and the boy seemed to shrug and say ‘Six’ without making any attempt to think about it. He got Radu. The next one called ‘Four’ and got Nicolas. But the third boy simply stood at the front of the room and stared at us, and after a few seconds he pointed at me, turned to Irfan and said, “I’ll have him. He’s number two.”
After that each of the others tried to do the same thing, attempting to probe our minds to see which card we were holding. The fourth one successfully selected Alain as number one, but the fifth one called ‘seven’ while pointing at Oli.
“Wrong,” said Irfan, and sent the real number seven, Stefan, to him.
Oli was the last to be chosen, and the final student didn’t seem happy to take him. “I can’t see anything,” he complained to Irfan.
“Then you’ll just have to practise. Right, that’s it: I’m done here. You slaves, do as you’re told and you’ll be treated well: don’t, and you won’t.”
I remembered the manager at the mine saying exactly the same thing, and I could only hope we would walk away from here as easily as we had there.
“I’m giving your students the translation program, but only as a temporary measure,” Irfan went on. “Eventually they shouldn’t need language to communicate with you at all, and before that you’ll be expected to learn enough of the local language to get by.”
He handed each of the students something that looked no larger than a phone sim card and then simply walked away. The student who had picked me beckoned to me, and I followed him out of the room, up to the first floor and along a corridor to a room at the far end. He motioned me inside and closed the door behind us.
He turned on the computer on his desk, slid the chip he had been given into a slot, pressed a couple of keys and then spoke into the machine.
“Hello, can you understand me?” emerged from the speakers a couple of seconds later.
“Perfectly,” I replied, and the speakers emitted a word that seemed to consist largely of modified vowels.
“Good,” he said. “So at least we can talk to each other. What’s your name?”
“Jake Stone,” I said. “Why did you pick me?”
“Because you looked interesting, and because you’re the leader of your group.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because all the others kept looking at you, especially the two who were picked before you. They seem to look up to you. And that makes you a challenge.”
“Wouldn’t you prefer someone who is less of a challenge – I mean, wouldn’t that be easier for you?”
“I’m not looking for something easy. I want to get better, and I won’t get better if I look for the easy way.”
“Then I’ll try not to be easy. What do I call you?”
“You can call me ‘Sir’ if you want, though I’d prefer you not to. Okay, you’re a slave but, unlike some of my colleagues, I prefer to think of you as an assistant. My name is Harlan ved Istian of the Clan of the Founder, but just ‘Harlan’ will do fine.”
I looked at him. He was a little shorter than me, and he looked younger than me as well (I’d have guessed that he was no more than twelve), but he seemed very self-confident – not arrogant, because he was speaking to me in quite a friendly way, but sure of himself all the same. He seemed to have a different accent from both Irfan and the senior instructor, whose name I had already forgotten… and at that point he stared at me and told me to take off my shirt.
Well, I was a slave now, so I didn’t bother asking why. I pulled the shirt over my head and at once he came and peered at my chest, and at my shoulders. He seemed particularly interested in the vaccination scar at the top of my left arm.
“Where did you get that mark?” he asked.
“It was an injection against tuberculosis. All the kids in my country get it. Why?”
“It’s just that for a moment… well, look.”
He undid his robe and took off the short-sleeved shirt underneath it, and I saw that there was a small purple mark in the centre of his chest, and what looked like a horizontal burn mark at the top of his left arm.
“All of us have the birthmark,” he explained, pulling his shirt on again. “And the shoulder-mark is burned onto us on our fourth birthdays. I’ll get one on the other shoulder when I’m fifteen if I pass the tests, which I will.”
“So why were you looking for them on me?”
“Because there was a moment there when I thought you were one of us – or at least that you had Konjässi blood in you. You were sort of assessing me, weren’t you? I didn’t get all of it, but you thought I was younger than you, and was there something about speaking funny?”
“I thought you had a different accent from the teacher. And, yes, I was thinking you look about eleven or twelve.”
“I’m twelve. And I have got an accent because I’m not from this country: I’m from the Republic. But I shouldn’t be getting that sort of detail from you yet, especially given that you’re not thinking in the same language as me… oh, well, I suppose I was wrong. But working with you is definitely going to be interesting. Are you any good at learning languages?”
“Good, then I’m going to make you work yourself silly, not only on the stupid, illogical tongue they speak here, but also on the one that civilised people speak.”
“In the Republic?”
“Exactly. Once we understand each other properly we’ll get a lot more done. We’ll start today: I’ll get a program on my computer for my language, and a beginner’s one for Arvelan – that’s what they speak here – and you can jump straight in. I can help by keeping you from getting too tired too soon… I’m going to want you here with me full-time, too, not sliding off back to the dormitory whenever you feel like it. We’ll get a couple of blankets so you can sleep here on the floor. I’ll fix it so you eat with me – you’ll get better food that way anyway…”
“Can you do that?” I asked. “I thought we had to eat in our own room and sleep in a dormitory?”
“They’ll do what I want. My father’s rather important. Oh, and one other thing – if you work hard and help me, I’ll look after you. But don’t forget that you’re still a slave, and if you don’t work hard I have the right to punish you however I want, okay? Good. Now go to the store at the end of the corridor and get another chair.”
So I went, thinking that this job was probably going to be hard work…
Over the next four weeks I spent every spare moment in front of the computer, working away at the two languages. I like languages, but I have to say I shared Harlan’s scorn for Arvelan: it was a ridiculously over-inflected language whose noun had nine cases, whose verbs made Latin look simple, and that didn’t even have a word for ‘No’ – instead there was a verb meaning ‘Not I, not you,’ and so on, which meant that the word ‘no’ changed depending who was involved.
His own language was a lot easier: the noun had only four cases, the verb had only two forms (singular and plural) for each tense, and it didn’t have lots of huge words containing great strings of double vowels. As soon as he realised how much easier I was finding his language he concentrated on it, refusing to use the translation program in the computer and addressing me exclusively in his own language. And if I didn’t understand him I got punished (okay, it was only a clip round the ear, but still…) A couple of the other slaves came from the Republic, and Harlan got them in and held conversations with them, forcing me to join in, and steadily my understanding grew.
I hardly saw the others, which meant that I missed Oli’s and Nicolas’s birthdays completely. I was a bit worried about them, though if they were being treated as well as I was I supposed there was no real cause for concern. And I missed sleeping with Stefan, but Harlan was working me so hard that I slept without difficulty on the floor of his room and barely had time to think about anyone else.
By mid-April I was able to understand most of what Harlan said to me, as long as he kept it simple, and although I didn’t yet have an adequate active vocabulary to be able to say very much without a dictionary in front of me he was still pleased with the progress I was making.
“You’re doing really well,” he told me. “I was definitely right to pick you. We’ll be able to start on the real work soon. I want you to go on practising the language whenever you can, and I suppose you’ll have to come to my Arvelan classes too, in case someone else wants to tell you what to do, but apart from that you’ll be free to help me develop my powers. I think it’s going to be good!”
“What powers are you talking about, exactly?” I asked. “I thought you just read minds.”
“No, that’s only part of it… Okay, I suppose I should give you the history – where we came from, how we developed, what our job is – and then you’ll understand better. After supper tonight I’ll tell you all about it.”
He took me to the students’ dining hall again, as he’d done several times before. None of the other students brought their slaves with them, and some of the others taunted Harlan, suggesting that he fancied me or that I was being rewarded for services in bed with good food (actually there hadn’t been the remotest hint of misbehaviour: I slept with my clothes on, and he changed into a nightshirt in the shower-room attached to his bedroom. I wouldn’t have minded too much if he had wanted me to do that sort of thing with him - after all, as a slave I would have had to comply! - because he was quite good-looking, and the long hair was particularly attractive: I’ve often wished I’d lived in the Seventies, when apparently most boys had longer hair than girls), but they didn’t push it too hard – I got the impression that some of the others were scared of him for some reason. Anyway, the food was good there, so I didn’t mind him taking me with him at all.
After we had eaten we went back to his room and he told me to sit on the bed beside him.
“This is a very old country,” he began. “So: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth...”
“And the earth was without form, and void,” I broke in. “I know that bit: our holy book starts like that.”
“I know. The Bible exists here, too. Well, anyway, let's skip forwards a bit: the gods, being an impatient lot, got tired of waiting for man to evolve into something interesting, and so they gave him a bit of a boost. This is all legend, you understand: these days there's an argument that says the 'gods' were off-world visitors... but, anyway, they shoved the development of the human race forward a bit by some sort of genetic tinkering, and in this part of the world alone the human race zoomed forwards past fire, past the wheel, past all the other slow steps – the gods showed us all of those things – and began to build houses, and cities, and civilisations. And then, because humans are like that, they discovered how to go to war with each other, too.
“See, originally there were seven races of men here, and each race kept rigidly to itself – there was no intermarriage or anything like that, because the gods didn't want that. Even now this is the only place in the world where the races are kept apart by self-regulation, which is why almost all the Arvelans are blond, the people of the two northern countries have red hair, and so on. Looking back it's easy to see that this isolationism contributed to war, but at the time it just seemed natural.
“Anyway, the gods tried fixing it themselves, but the more time they spent with men, the more like men they got, and they didn't like that. So they withdrew and tried another trick: they made us.”
“What, out of nothing?” I asked.
“More like out of collected genetic material. Anyway, the legend says that the gods made a new race, an advanced and enlightened one with great intelligence, whose role it was to guide the rulers of the various countries into more peaceful paths. They were placed into positions close to the various kings and emperors so that they could persuade them not to fight all the time, and when that wasn't enough they cheated and used their powers to plant ideas into the kings' heads, or even to coerce them into doing the right thing. And for a time that worked pretty well: every monarch had one of us at his right hand talking sense to him or using their extra brain-power to squash bad ideas and slip good ones into the heads of the king and his advisers.
“But of course, in the long run that didn't work, either: every now and again one of us would go rogue and use his powers in the wrong way. The number of times this place was on the brink of complete destruction down the years would terrify the people who live here, if only they knew. We've been on the verge of destruction by all-out war – including fighting against the gods themselves and whatever extra-terrestrial weapons they might have had – by artificial earthquakes, by thermonuclear war and cold fusion accidents, by attack from orbiting weapons platforms, by rupturing the earth's crust; we've had experiments with temporal displacement that destroyed a large chunk of the western coast by sending it back in time ten million years – the inventor was lucky the power failed, or he might have send the entire planet back. And only twenty years ago there was nearly a spectacular accident: some scientists in the southern mountains of my own country were trying to create anti-matter... well, you get the idea. The fact that we're here at all is something of a freak: a few years back someone calculated that our part of the world has been at risk of total annihilation one way or another at least a hundred and fifty times in the last four or five thousand years or so.”
“That's something I keep meaning to ask,” I said. “Where are we, exactly?”
“Exactly, you're in the central training academy, in King Juuniss XIV Street, in the north-east of the city of Vovor... well, this lot call it Laztaale, but who cares? ...In Arvel.”
“Yes, but... have you got a map?”
“No, but there's one on the computer. Come on.”
He went to the computer, found whatever this world's version of Google Maps was called, and typed in the address of the school. A map duly appeared, and he hit a key that caused it to zoom out slowly. Gradually the whole of the city appeared, and then the countryside around it, until finally the whole country was on the screen – on the right-hand side I could see the port of Maasjioleeme, where we had landed. And one thing was abundantly clear: this was definitely not Ireland, which meant that I owed Stefan, Oli and Alain a good suck, if we ever found ourselves alone together again. In fact I had no idea where we were, because the country outline was one I had never seen before.
“Can you zoom out some more?” I asked.
Harlan hit the key again and more was revealed: there was a large island off the coast to the north-east, and again I had never seen an island that shape before. And to the west of Arvel the land went on, and on, and on...
“That's where I come from,” said Harlan, pointing to a little dot labelled 'Sanöve', well to the west of Arvel.
The map went on zooming out. To the south of Arvel was a very large lake, and south of it yet more land... until finally the zoom stopped once more, and there was water all around the edge of the map.
“That's it,” Harlan said. “That's the entire continent.”
“Zoom some more,” I said.
“Why? That's all there is.”
“Because I want to see where it is.”
“Well, it's... okay, if that's what you want.”
So he zoomed further and further out, until land began to appear around the edges again and I had confirmation of what, in despite of all common sense, I had started to believe: the Middle Continent filled most of the Atlantic Ocean.
“Oh, come on!” I exclaimed. “There's no way this is real... you mean, we're sitting in the middle of Atlantis?”
“Atlantis! It's a legendary place that the Ancient Greeks believed was somewhere out beyond the Pillars of Hercules – but it's a myth! There's absolutely no evidence for it, and the ocean is far too deep for there to have ever been even an island there, never mind a bloody great land mass like this!”
“Yes, you really believe that, don't you? Well, sorry, but here we are, though I'm pretty sure it's never been called 'Atlantis'. So in your world there's nothing here – is that what you're saying?”
“Harlan, this place doesn't exist in any other world, and I've seen a few. In my world there's nothing between Europe and America except a few tiny islands.”
“Sorry, Europe and where?”
“America! There!” And I stabbed at the left-hand side of the map.
“Arconia, you mean?”
“Sure. It's named after one of our greatest emperors. It was part of our empire for hundreds of years until we granted it independence about a hundred and twenty years ago.”
“So what language do they speak there?”
“My language, of course.”
Which explained why nobody I'd met in this world could understand English, I supposed: if it wasn't spoken in America, it would be far less important.
“So I suppose that in your world one of the disasters I spoke about actually happened,” he mused. “Wow, that's a strange feeling... it's hard to imagine a world where my entire continent doesn't exist.”
“Believe me, it's a damned sight harder to imagine a world where it does. Anyway, I interrupted your story – you were saying that putting your people next to the kings didn't stop the fighting. So what happened next?”
“Well, eventually one of my people went spectacularly rogue and more or less declared war on the gods. He even managed to kill a couple of them. And the legend says that after that the surviving gods thought about destroying the whole continent – yet another near-apocalypse – but instead they just threw in the towel and flew off back to wherever they came from, leaving us to get by as best we could.
“That was way back, of course, over five thousand years ago. And since then we've just muddled our way through. There have been wars, both on the continent and later, after the Romans arrived, in Europe, but somehow we always resolved them before anyone pressed the Big Red Button. And so here we are. As for my people, we still do what we were designed to do: we advise the rulers, though we don't mess with their heads any more. And because of what we can do we help out various other agencies, too.”
“Just what can you do? I was told you read minds and stuff like that.”
“Well... okay, I'll tell you the truth, since we're going to be together for a long time. Originally all we could do was to read people's emotions. That's mostly observation, rather than anything else: probably you could do it too if you trained yourself. You're looking for trembling, sweating, little tics, the way the eyes move, and that sort of thing. We could tell when someone was sad, or angry, or happy, and we could always tell when he was lying, which made us very useful. And adult Konjässiem, with a lot of training, could actually manage a sort of low-level telepathy with each other, provided they were fairly close together.
“But the various mavericks down the years proved that we can do a lot more than that: we can develop proper telepathy, we can see what ordinary people are thinking, and we can force people to do what we want – at least, we can if we train ourselves for a long time: normally only adults can do that. The main use for that sort of thing is with the police and justice departments, because we can tell if a suspect is lying, and we can force him to tell the truth and show us where the evidence is hidden, if there is any. We're not supposed to do more than that, but you can understand how the idea of being able to make people obey you is sort of attractive.
“In the old days my people were very religious, and swore oaths to the Highest, who was the chief god, never to misuse our powers. These days hardly anyone believes in the gods – at least, we don't believe they're still around – so there isn't any religious belief to hold us back. Once we take office with the justice department we do swear an oath to the king or president, depending which country we're in, but before that there's nothing to stop us – except the teachers, but we can generally get around them. So before too long I'm going to be trying to make you do things you don't want to, and you're going to have to resist. It'll be a really good laugh.”
I wasn't sure about that, and I wondered what sort of things he'd be trying to make me do: I had a nasty vision of being made to stab myself, or to hold my hand in a flame or something.
“And there's something else I want to try,” he went on. “I found an old book that claimed that the Konjässi who fought the gods could actually use mental power to move physical objects. It's called psychokinesis. I don't know if that's actually possible or not, but I'm going to try to find out.
'Anyway, that's enough about me; now it's your turn. When you got here they told us that you came from another world, and that you had apparently fallen through a portal from one world to another. Well, okay, I'm quite ready to believe that, especially since you genuinely had no idea that the Middle Continent exists. It sounds weird, but I guess it's possible. But a little while back you said you'd been in a few other worlds, not just one. What did you mean by that?”
I realised I'd dropped a serious clanger here: if it got back to Irfan and Aarnist that I'd been through more than one portal they'd be sure to realise we'd lied about our origins, and about how we'd arrived in this country. All I can say in my defence is that I was so astounded to find out I was in Atlantis – even if it wasn't called by that name – that I'd temporarily lost control of my tongue. And, I suppose, my brain.
“I'd rather not say,” I said. “Sorry, Harlan.”
“Great! That can be our first test together, then: you're going to try not to tell me, and I'm going to try to find out all about your history. Sorry, Jake, but I know I can do that, so you're going to end up telling me everything. But I want you to hold out for as long as you can... I know: if you tell me before we go to bed tomorrow you get punished. How's that?”
“What sort of punishment?”
“I don't know, something embarrassing – like I'll make you run across the courtyard naked, or something like that. Or... no, this is better: if you tell me what I want to know you'll have to stand under a cold shower for five minutes. That'll give you a good reason to try to hold out.”
“And if I do hold out, do you get the cold shower?”
He burst out laughing. “Jake, you're a slave, and I'm a free boy. Free boys don't get punished.”
“Chicken!” I said. “Just because you know I'm going to beat you.”
He looked at me, and then laughed again.
“You've got a hell of a nerve, for a slave,” he said. “But... all right, I accept. If I don't get the information out of you by this time tomorrow, I'll take a five minute cold shower. But if I do, you're getting ten minutes!”
We settled down to sleep. I was fairly sure that Harlan was going to win his bet: he was far too confident for someone who wasn't sure of his abilities. And that meant I'd have to try to persuade him to keep our secret, rather than blabbing to the senior instructor about it. And I had no idea how I was going to do that...
I still couldn’t get over the idea of a real Atlantis, though. Okay, maybe in our world it had been destroyed by some unimaginable catastrophe, but surely there would be some evidence? Unless… I suppose if we went back far enough it was possible that the Continental Drift away from Pangaea had gone differently in this world, or, even further back, that there had been more dry land and less ocean when Pangaea formed in the first place. After all, if there were worlds that were peopled by intelligent reptiles rather than by intelligent mammals, there was no reason why there shouldn’t be worlds where the geography was significantly different as well. In any event, the bottom line was that I was here, at least a thousand miles away from the only portal I knew about and with no way to get back to it. And that was a far more important issue to worry about than the probability of the existence of an extra continent.
When I woke up next morning I was feeling a lot more relaxed about things, though – apparently a good night’s sleep makes a difference to one’s thinking. Take Harlan, for instance: he was a nice kid, he’d been decent to me, and even if I did tell him about the portals, surely it wouldn’t do any harm? I mean, I could trust him, couldn’t I?
I sat up and saw him lying on his bed looking down at me.
“Morning, Harlan,” I said.
“Morning, Jake. How do you feel this morning?”
“Pretty good. In fact, about what we were talking about last night… I’ve been thinking, and I suppose I might as well tell you about…”
I stopped. Hang on, I thought…
“What have you done to me?” I asked.
“Who, me?” he replied, the very picture of innocence.
I paused again, realising I was being ridiculous: he hadn’t had time to do anything to me, and surely I’d have felt it if he had? Besides, he was too decent to do something like that…
“You should have stopped after telling me I was being ridiculous,” I said. “You had me there. But that bit about being too decent – that was just a bit too much.”
“Wow, you really are good!” he said, grinning at me. “Are you sure there’s no Konjässi blood in you? Still, you’re right: that last bit was clumsy. I was trying too hard. So let’s forget it and go and get some breakfast, okay?”
“Fine,” I said, tidying my blankets away while he went to the bathroom to wash and get dressed. When he was done I nipped in to splash some water on my face and to clean my teeth – he insisted on that because we were in close proximity to each other for most of the day – and then we went downstairs for breakfast. And after breakfast he went to his normal classes while I went back to his room, tidying up and making the bed before sitting down at the computer to work on my languages.
He reappeared at the end of morning school and took me to lunch, and he didn’t mention the portals once or (as far as I could tell) try to manipulate my thinking, right through the meal. And after lunch he said we should just forget about studying for a bit and go out for a walk instead.
“I haven’t got a cloak,” I said.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get you one. Wait downstairs by the main door.”
And in due course he reappeared with a slave cloak for me and a grey one for himself, and he also had a gate pass that allowed me to leave the premises. We went out into the street, walked to the end of the road and got on a trolleybus, and he paid for both of us by holding his left arm in front of a chip-reader. We rode to the city centre and got off outside the East Station, the one where the train from the coast had brought me.
For a couple of hours we strolled through the streets, browsing around a couple of department stores and visiting a clothes shop where he bought himself a couple of items. Later he went into a sweet shop and came out with a bag of assorted sweets for himself and one for me, which I thought was kind – and still he didn’t seem to do anything about our bet.
We caught another trolleybus back to the school and went back to his room.
“I haven’t been out into town like that for ages,” he said. “I’d forgotten how good it feels to be able to get away for a bit. We’ll have to do that again. So – let’s try a bit of thought-reading.”
He took a pack of cards from a drawer. “I’m going to look at a card, and you’re going to sit over there on the bed and tell me which card I’m looking at,” he said.
“But… I can’t read your mind!”
“No, but I can send it to you mentally. This probably won’t work, but it’d be interesting to find out.”
So we tried that for a while, first with him trying to send a picture of the card to me, then with me staring at a card while he tried to look into my head to see what it was. It worked better that way round: with him holding the card it was pure guesswork, but with me holding it he managed to identify red or black most times, and the actual rank quite a lot. And a few times he got the exact card.
“You know, we really shouldn’t be able to do this,” he commented. “You’re not one of us, and even if you were we’re not old enough yet for detailed transfer. Either you really are part-Konjässi, or I’m a lot better at this than I should be. Anyway, that’s enough work: what else can we do with a pack of cards?”
A thought flashed into my head and he obviously caught it, because he started laughing.
“You want to play a strip game?” he said. “Why? No, don’t tell me, let me see… no, that can’t be right… it is, though. You think I’m good-looking and you want to see me naked… crumbs, I don’t think anyone’s ever said that to me before, or thought it – at least, if they have I didn’t catch it. I suppose I should be flattered – actually, I am flattered. Thanks, Jake. Of course, if I lose our bet you’ll get to see me naked anyway while I’m in the shower, but obviously that isn’t going to happen.”
“Are you sure?” I said, looking at the clock on his wall. “It’s already gone five – there isn’t that much of the day left.”
“Oh, yes, I’m sure. In fact, let’s just get it out of the way now, shall we? Tell me about the portals.”
I can’t describe what it felt like, other than to say that for a while I had no control of what I was doing or saying, and in that time I heard myself explaining that I’d seen several different portals, some that were artificially created and controlled by Man, and some that were naturally occurring, though the natural ones tended not to last very long. Each portal linked two different worlds, and it was possible to pass through them in both directions.
And then suddenly I was myself again. I fell down as my legs collapsed under me and then vomited uncontrollably.
“Sorry,” said Harlan, and I felt a wave of warmth and concern sweep over me. “I didn’t control that very well. Are you okay?”
I nodded, wiping my mouth and getting slowly to my feet. “I think so. Sorry about the floor – I’ll get it cleaned up.”
“Okay. Are you sure you can walk?”
I made it to the door, my legs quivering but still supporting me. “Looks like it,” I said. “I won’t be a minute.”
I went to the store cupboard and found some cleaning materials, and by the time I got back to his room I was feeling more or less back to normal, though shaken by what had happened: he had simply taken me over. It was a terrifying feeling.
I cleaned up the mess and put the cleaning stuff away, and it was obvious that he was concerned for me.
“Normally I have to work like hell to get someone to obey me, but for some reason it was much easier with you,” he said. “I went in expecting it to be really difficult, which is why I was using so much force. I’m sorry, Jake. Next time I’ll know I don’t need to be quite so rough. It proves we’re on the same wavelength, anyway – I think I’m going to able to achieve some amazing results with you. So – would you like your shower now, or would you prefer to wait until after supper? You might feel a bit stronger then.”
“I think I’d prefer to wait,” I said.
“Okay. Then why don’t we play that card game you wanted to try? If you lose you can have the shower once you’re naked, and if you win you can leave it until just before we go to bed.”
“Hold on,” I said. “It’s hardly going to be fair if you can see what cards I’ve got, is it?”
“I suppose not.” He hesitated, but then got up, went to his cupboard and came back with what looked like an oval metal band.
“Put this on your head,” he said. “See, we have a big problem with metal: it disrupts our control. I was going to tell you later anyway because I want to try to overcome it, but at the moment if you’re wearing this I won’t be able to do a thing to you.”
“I swear. I’m serious, Jake: it’s something I really want to work on with you, because it’s a big problem for us: as far as I know, no Konjässi has ever been able to work on a subject who is protected by metal on his head. In fact, metal anywhere against the wearer's skin gives us problems, but on the head it's supposed to be impossible to penetrate. I want to be the first. So – which game would you like to play?”
“How about pontoon?” I said.
“How do you play that?”
So I explained – it didn’t take long – and then I put the metal band on my head and we started to play. And I did feel different: normally when I was with Harlan it was like there was a faint hum in the air, like walking underneath high-tension electric power lines, but with the band on my head it had disappeared completely.
I dealt the first hand, which I won, and Harlan removed one of his shoes without complaint. And as the game went on I found myself winning, although he still seemed to be enjoying the game, joking with me as he took more and more things off until he was only wearing his briefs. And then he lost again.
“Do I have to?” he asked.
“If you’re playing the game properly, you have to.”
So I grabbed him and pulled him on to the floor while he laughed and squealed and tried to escape – though he made no attempt to knock the band off my head, which was probably all he needed to do to control me again. Instead he clung to the waistband of his pants until I pried his hands away, and when I finally got them down he curled into a ball so that I couldn’t see anything.
I flung his underwear onto the bed with his other clothes and dragged him to his feet, and at last he stopped resisting and let me look at him – and he had an erection, which clearly indicated that he wasn’t just pretending to enjoy this. It looked good: it was very straight, sticking up at about forty-five degrees above the horizontal, pale, uncircumcised and, I guessed, about ten centimetres long, which isn’t bad for a pre-pubescent twelve-year-old. There was no trace of hair, though the balls were developing nicely.
“What do you think?” he asked, quietly.
I took the band off so that he could see I was telling the truth.
“It’s nice, Harlan,” I said. “You look really good.”
“Do you mean that?”
“I’ve taken the band off, so you can see for yourself.”
“Wow, you do mean it… thanks, Jake. So, are you going to strip too?”
“Would you like me to?”
“Yes, please – in fact if you strip now you can have a warm shower instead of a cold one.”
“Well, in that case…”
I removed the remainder of my clothes. Of course by now I was stiff too, and Harlan looked at me with interest.
“Ah,” he said. “When you said yesterday about the Bible being your holy book – does that mean you’re Jewish?”
“It’s a bit of a give-away, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes. See, there aren’t any Jews here, apart from the odd visitor, and if I hadn’t studied the Bible I wouldn’t know about them being cut. On this continent it’s extremely rare: the only people who do it, as far as I know, are some of the nomadic tribes who live out to the west of my own country, and they only use it to mark the few boys who fail their manhood tests, so you’d better be prepared to be laughed at if any kids from that part of the world – and we do have one slave here from there – see you naked.
“Anyway, it looks interesting, and it’s big, too… and I like the hair. I probably won’t get any for a while. So, shall we go and have that shower?”
“What, both of us?”
“Why not? It’s a big shower.”
I suppose I should have been feeling guilty about this, but this was a different situation from what had happened – or not happened – with Nicolas: Harlan was my master, and it was my duty to do what he wanted. And I had no idea when I’d get a chance to be on my own with Stefan again. So I went quite happily into the shower with him, and we washed each other and shampooed each other’s hair, and afterwards we dried each other, and at his instigation we went back to the bedroom and lay down on his bed side by side.
And then he took hold of my erection and began to stroke it, and then rub it, and at the same time he was doing something in my head, because the feelings of warmth and excitement were incredible. When I finally reached my climax it was the strongest, and longest-lasting, orgasm I had ever experienced, and I must have spurted six or seven times.
“Was that okay?” he asked, finally letting go.
“That was amazing. What did you do to me?”
“Oh, I just sort of enhanced what you were feeling, and let you share how I was feeling about it at the same time.”
“Well, it was bloody incredible – thanks, Harlan!”
“Consider that my apology for hurting you and making you puke earlier. Now, please would you do it for me?”
So I did, and he seemed to enjoy it – in fact, somehow I could feel that he was enjoying it – even though I couldn’t play with his sensations the way he could with mine. And although he only managed a couple of little colourless spurts he still seemed to appreciate it enormously.
“If we practise,” he said, wiping us both down with a tissue from a box on his bedside table, “I can probably make you spurt without even touching you, just by manipulating your thoughts. That would be interesting.”
I thought he was right about that – in fact I was starting to think that being Harlan’s slave might turn out to be a lot of fun.
But I was forgetting something important: I’d told him about the portals.