The Second Nexus

by David Clarke

Chapter Eleven


After supper we went back to his room and sat down on his bed again, though this time we kept our clothes on.

“I thought you said only adult Konjässiem could actually make people do what they want?” I asked.

“No, what I said was ‘normally only adults can do that’,” he reminded me. “If you’re talented and work hard at it you can do it long before you become an adult. Me and some of my friends have been working on it for a long time now, and we can all do it, though some are better than others. Of course we have had to work out the practicalities for ourselves, because the teachers only give us the theory: they don't actually demonstrate by forcing us to do things. You slaves are here for us to practise with, though the instructors don't expect us to be completely competent at it until about a year before our Manhood Ceremony, which happens on our fifteenth birthday, like I said earlier.

“But me and my friends have found out that you don't have to wait that long if you practise seriously. We can all control slaves now; the next stage is trying to control each other, and that’s a lot harder. Then it’s controlling more than one person at a time, which is really tricky. I can manage three, but it’s hard work.”

“Bloody hell – you mean you can make three other people do what you made me do at the same time? That’s amazing!”

“It is, isn’t it?” he agreed, looking pleased with himself. “I reckon by the time I reach my fifteenth birthday I should be able to manage a lot more – I’m aiming for ten. And you’re going to help me, so you’ll be part of it. And maybe, if you go on like you’ve been doing so far, I’ll let you stay with me after I leave school – you’d be my personal slave. Would you like that?”

Well, I’d much prefer to have left this world long before that, but if I really was stuck here I thought I could do worse. On the other hand, what would happen when Harlan reached puberty? If he turned into a typical moody teenager it could be dangerous to be too close to him – what if he had a temper tantrum and I was closest?

“You’re not sure, are you?” he said. “Why not?”

“I was just thinking that right now I like you a lot, but that… well, a lot of boys, when they get a bit older… you know, they start to change. You might lose your temper with me, and to be honest I’m scared of what would happen if you did.”

“Right, so you’re scared of me.” That thought seemed to please him, too. “Well, I understand that, but you don’t need to be. I like you, Jake, and I wouldn’t hurt you unless you deserved it… well, except if we were doing an experiment, or something. Anyway, you won’t have to worry about that for a long time: we generally develop physically a bit more slowly than normal boys, so I won’t get hormone problems until I’m at least fourteen. And that’s well over a year away.

“Now, before supper you told me you’d been in quite a few different worlds. I’d like to know more about that. Tell me about the first time you found one of these portals.”

I braced myself for another psychic invasion, but it didn’t come, and after a moment Harlan laughed.

“Not like that, stupid,” he said. “I mean just tell me. I’m not going to force it out of you this time.”

“Oh, right. Thanks. Well, last summer I went on a school exchange to France…”

I told him about getting lost in the Vosges, and about finding the hut and the Nexus Room beneath it, even though I hadn’t known what it was at the time.

“And after I went outside again I met Stefan – he’s the one with blond hair…”

“Number Seven,” he said. “I remember. Go on.”

“Well, we found out he and I came from different worlds. I showed him the Nexus Room and we found ourselves in a third world, and we went to explore it… and we’ve stayed together ever since.”

“You really like him, don’t you? Even saying his name makes your mind go all warm. Does he feel the same way about you, though?”

“Yes, he does. We’re really close.”

“And you do some sex stuff together too, don’t you? But… you haven’t had full sex yet. Why not?”

“We were going to, but we got sort of interrupted by things. We kept putting it off until we got back home, but I suppose we’ll never get back home now, and so probably we’ll never get a chance to do it.”

“I don’t see why not. I’m sure I could arrange something. Of course, you’d have to let me watch, but I could help, too: I could help you to feel what each other was feeling. Anyway, go on – tell me about the worlds the two of you saw.”

By now I knew there was no point in refusing, because he could force the information out of me if he wanted to, but I still wasn’t very happy about it.

“Harlan, I know I have no right to ask this – I mean, I’m only a slave. But… please can you not tell anyone else about this?”

“The teachers, you mean. Well… I’ve heard that the senior instructor is going to make a recording of everything you know about the portals on behalf of a copper from the east. He’s just waiting until all of you are a little more proficient at Arvelan, because it’s far easier to interpret a mind-recording if there’s a proper channel of communication. Also, as far as I can tell, he’s not all that interested himself, so he’s not going to put himself out setting it up. Our senior instructor is only interested in the workings of the mind, not the physical world. But eventually he’s going to find out, even if I don’t tell him.”

“Oh. Well, it’s still sort of private. I don’t really mind you knowing because we’re together all the time, and I know that eventually I’ll have no secrets from you at all, but I’d prefer it if it was just between us, at least for now.”

“Okay. I won’t tell anyone if you don’t want me to.”

“Well, it’s quite a long story. Perhaps I could tell you a bit at a time, a bit like a bedtime story? You know, ‘Chapter One: the world where I was born’, and so on.”

“Yes, all right. It might be sort of fun to do it like that. Nobody has told me a bedtime story since I was really small. Well, in that case let’s do something else first: we’ll spend a while working on your languages, and then we’ll try a little more mind-reading.”

Apparently sitting around watching sport on TV and eating pizza wasn’t high on Harlan’s list of ways to spend an evening. Still, the mind-reading was interesting: this time I started to receive information he was sending me, although it was a long way from being consistently successful.

Eventually it was time for bed. Harlan went into the shower-room to change into his nightshirt, and I got the blankets out and settled down on the rug beside his bed.

“Let’s try something different,” he said. “Put those blankets away and get undressed, and then you can come and share the bed with me.”

I didn’t mind that idea at all: even though I was used to sleeping on the rug by now, the idea of sleeping in a proper bed again was very attractive. So I did as he said and climbed into bed with him naked, and he pulled the covers over us and turned out the light.

“Now tell me about your own world,” he said. “Where you were born, where you lived, and what you did before you found that first portal.”

“Well, I was born in 1996,” I started. “I think that’s something like 6679 in your calendar. I was born in Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow, which is a suburb of London, the capital of England, though I don’t suppose that means anything to you. I’ll show you on the map tomorrow and you can see what the names are in this world. Anyway, we lived in a place called Edgware when I was little, and then we moved into the country…”

I told him everything: why my father wanted to move us out of London, and how my parents later started arguing and fighting. I told him what my school was like and which subjects I was best at (languages, mostly), and I admitted I was the sort of quiet kid that nobody notices. And I told him I was gay, and that this was a problem in my society.

“These days everyone’s supposed to be equal, and the law is supposed to treat us the same, but in practice gay boys get bullied really badly if anyone finds out about it, and so I made sure nobody ever did. Stefan was the first person I admitted it to.”

“In my country it isn’t a big issue,” he said. “Most boys experiment with each other, and the few who stay interested in men when they grow up are treated the same as anyone else. Here in Arvel they pretend it doesn’t happen, because this place has a long macho military tradition, and they like to think that no Arvelan male is anything other than a red-blooded womaniser. The two northern countries couldn’t care less about it. In Rövissia, south of my country, people think it’s the same as wanting to have sex with sheep, so I wouldn’t admit it there, whereas in Bisvel, south of here, they think it perfectly normal. I suppose it’s like that in your world, too – perhaps if you had been born somewhere else it would have been easier for you.”

“Perhaps. What about your people? You said you used to be very religious, so I suppose it’s illegal for you.”

“That was centuries ago. These days hardly anyone follows the old religion, though two men living together are still frowned upon. But for boys it’s different, because we’re kept completely segregated from girls until a year after our adulthood ceremonies. There’s an academy for girls in Sanöve, but ours isn’t even in the same country. And that means that in our community boys learn about girls theoretically but get no chance to practise until they’re at least sixteen. So we practise stuff with each other, or with slaves. Of course some of us prefer it like that… I enjoy doing stuff with colleagues, and I think I’m going to enjoy it with you, too.”

“Have you done stuff with other slaves before me?”

“Well, obviously, but it was better with you. You’re more intelligent, for a start, and I can connect with you better to experience what you’re feeling. And you actually wanted to do it, which makes a massive difference.

“Anyway, let’s get some sleep, and tomorrow you can tell me about meeting Stefan and what his world was like.”

And he settled down, and so I did too.

When he woke me up the following morning I found that the usual thing had happened and that Harlan already knew about it, because he was holding it.

“Does this happen to you every morning?” he asked.

“Usually. Why?”

“Because it does to me, too. It's strange, Jake: a few months ago I wasn't at all interested in sex, but now I think about it a lot. Weird, huh?”

“Not really. I think all teenage boys think about sex a lot.”

“Well, I'm not a teenager yet – not quite, anyway. But I do find it really interesting, and I love doing stuff – you know, like we did. What I really like best is doing stuff with someone of my own race, because sex with another Konjässi is the best: you get to share your feelings mentally as well as physically. What I really want, though, is not just sex - okay, I've played about with a couple of my colleagues, but what I'm talking about is like the relationship you have with Stefan, where you're really close to each other emotionally. Apparently that's what a proper Konjässi marriage is like, except I want to find out if it's possible to feel as good as that with another boy...

“Anyway, sex games are fun, too, and I'm sure we can play plenty of those together. I'll even play fair with you and let you wear the metal band while we're playing – though one day I'm going to beat that thing... still, it means we'll be playing equally. Do you like me holding you like this, by the way?”

I nodded. “It feels nice,” I said. “Would you like me to do it to you, too?”

“Not yet. Just relax.”

A feeling of warmth and comfort swept over me, and then a sort of gentle sexual arousal: I was aware that a beautiful boy was holding me, and that he liked me. I felt my whole body tingling with pleasure, especially my penis, which felt hot and hard, and I was aware of his hand holding it, filling me with a gradually building pleasure... and then I couldn't hold it back any more and I spurted onto my chest.

“Wow, that was a good one!” he exclaimed as I finally stopped twitching. “You threw me out of your head there at the end: you got so out of control that I couldn't hold on. Did it feel good to you?”

“It was brilliant,” I admitted.

“And I didn't even rub it. Next time we'll try without me touching it at all. Grab a tissue and clean yourself up, and then we'll let you recover a bit before you do it for me.”

I wiped myself down and then he snuggled against me to wait for me to get my breath back.

“Of course, if you annoy me I could use sex to punish you,” he said. “I could keep you excited but not quite excited enough, and I could convince you it felt too sore to touch. And then you'd have to walk around with it stiff all the time, and if it felt sore enough you wouldn't be able to wear any clothes. Imagine having to go everywhere naked with it sticking out – that would be so embarrassing!”

“You wouldn't really do that to me, would you?”

“I could if I wanted to. And I wouldn't ever let you get excited enough to spurt, so you'd feel really frustrated, too. But I don't think I'd really do that to you, because I don't think you'll annoy me that much. Actually it's going to be a bit of a problem if I start to like you too much, because some of the experiments I need to do involve changing the way you think, both short-term and permanently.”

“Oh.” I didn't like the thought of that at all. “Do you have to do that? I mean, I wouldn't be really me if you messed about with my thinking, and... you're not going to make me into something nasty, are you?”

“Of course not. And maybe I won't do anything permanent to you after all – I can use another slave for that. It's just easier to monitor if you use a slave you see and work with every day.”

“Can you really do that without having to keep topping it up or something?”

“Yes, I can, and I already have. But I'll tell you about that another time. Do you feel up to making me feel nice yet?”

“Of course. Do you want to take your nightshirt off?”

So he did, and I gave him a nice, slow stroking that eventually made him experience something really good. I know, because I actually caught some of it: he was broadcasting his feelings strongly enough for me to feel it myself.

“You're really good at that,” he said afterwards. “I'm really glad I chose you... so, what are we going to do today?”

“Don't you have classes?”

“You've lost track of the days again, haven't you? It's Saturday – at least, that's what you'd call it – so we're free. What would you like to do?”

“Well... could I see my friends, do you think? I haven't had a chance to speak to them for ages.”

“Depends what they're doing – you know Saturdays aren't free for most of the slaves. But we can go and find out after breakfast if you like.”

“That'd be great. Thanks, Harlan.”

“Good. Now you'd better come and help me wash my hair.”

Harlan had quickly recognised how much I liked his long hair, and letting me wash it for him was something we both enjoyed. And once we'd finished in the shower and got dressed it was time for breakfast, which as usual I ate with him in the students' dining room. And then we went to look for my friends, some of whom I hadn't even seen since Harlan had chosen me.

We found Alain and Oli working in the kitchen, peeling potatoes. I was glad to see that they had managed to stay together, though I wasn't quite sure how: Oli had no relevant experience. Still, how much experience do you need to peel potatoes?

The kitchen was run by adult servants, which meant that Harlan was able to pull rank and demand to speak to the two slaves for a few minutes. We took the two of them outside into the back yard so that I could talk to them in peace.

“Are you both okay?” I asked, speaking French because I knew nobody on the staff would understand that language.

“Fine,” said Alain. “The boy who's using me hasn't done anything nasty to me or anything, and the work here isn't too bad. Where have you been, though? We've been worried because we haven't seen you. What's happening?”

“Harlan here has me with him all the time. He's nice, actually, though I wouldn't want to annoy him. What about you, Oli – how is your guy treating you?”

“He isn't,” said Oli, grinning. “He couldn't do anything with me, and neither can anyone else. They all think I'm immune – apparently once in a blue moon someone comes along whose mind they can't read at all. So they gave up on me and sent me here, because the kitchen operates morning and afternoon. Alain only works here in the mornings, but at least we get to see each other every day.”

“So you're immune? That could be really useful... let's test it. I reckon if anyone can get through to you, Harlan can.”

I turned to Harlan and told him what Oli had told me, and Harlan looked hard at Oli for a few seconds.

“He's right,” he told me. “I can't get through properly. But you can believe I'm going to want to try: I want the use of this slave. What's his name?”

So I told him Oli's name, and Harlan said he'd fix it with the senior instructor.

“Do you know where our other friends are?” I asked Alain.

“Sorry. I don't even see them in the dormitory, because there's a separate one for the kitchen workers: we get up earlier than anyone else to get breakfast ready, so we have our own small dormitory on the second floor. So we haven't had a chance to talk recently. I'm not sure where they work in the mornings. I think Stefan's working in the garage, and Tommi told me he's running errands for the instructors. I don't know about the others, though. Look, Jake... are we going to be able to get out of here? I don't like Oli getting shouted at, and I really don't like getting out of bed so early...”

“I can't see how we can, but I promise you that I'm thinking about it. And I swear that if I do think of a way out, then you two will definitely be coming with me.”

“I know that, Jake,” said Alain, quietly. “We both know we can rely on you.”

I said goodbye, hoping that I wasn't going to let them down again, and Harlan took me out to the vehicle workshops. But we found them closed up: apparently the civilian staff that ran them didn't work on Saturdays. We eventually found Stefan up in his dormitory on the top floor, relaxing on his bed, and when he saw me he jumped to his feet, ran to meet me and threw his arms around me.

“Where have you been?” he asked. “God, I've been tearing my hair out because nobody has seen you – I was afraid you'd messed up somehow and were being punished or something...”

“No mess-up. I've been with Harlan here all the time.”

“And are you okay?”

“Perfectly. What about you?”

“I got an easy number working on the vehicles. It's mostly cleaning them, but because I'm interested the mechanics have started teaching me a bit about maintenance, too. And my Konjässi is okay, too – at least, he hasn't done anything except try to read my mind so far. And he isn't all that good at it, either.”

“Mine is,” I said. “Stefan, this is Harlan.”

“You two really do love each other, don't you?” commented Harlan in Arvelan. “When you hugged each other it was like a tidal wave. And you were right, Jake: he does feel the same way as you do. You're really lucky.”

“Have you been telling him about us?” asked Stefan.

“Well, I didn't exactly have a choice, did I? Besides, he's nice – he likes boys too, and he sympathises with us.”

“And is he looking after you?”

“Yes, I'm fine. Don't worry about me, Stefi. Anyhow, I've seen Alain and Oli – do you know where the others are?”

“Nicky's cleaning windows on the ground floor, I think. Tommi will be in the instructors' office, probably – he run errands for them. I don't know about Radu and Marc – I haven't seen them for about three weeks. They're in another dormitory, and they don't seem to eat at the same times as I do.”

“We'll see if we can find them, then. I'll try to get Harlan to let me come and see you more often from now on. I think he'll let me.”

“Good. But we're okay, Jake – you don't need to worry about us.”

We headed off to check out the junior slaves' dormitories. The first one was empty, and when we reached the second one we thought to start with that there was nobody there either, but then we heard a noise from through a door off to the side. We crossed the room and stepped through the door and found ourselves in a small side room with three beds in. There were four fully-dressed slave boys standing around the bed furthest from the door, and a fifth boy, naked, tied to it face down. And one of the others was beating him with a leather strap. And as we moved a little further into the room I saw that the naked boy was Marc.

I opened my mouth to protest – and suddenly it was as if a clamp had been slapped over my tongue: I couldn't utter a single syllable, and I couldn't move, either. I watched the strap come down on Marc's bottom and heard his yell, and there wasn't a single thing I could do or say to stop it.

“What's he being punished for?” asked Harlan, and the four slaves spun to face us. Marc, I was happy to see, didn't – I would have hated him to think I was doing nothing to help him.

“Laziness, inefficiency, not doing his work properly,” said the slave with the strap, a short, mousy-haired kid of about Marc's own age.

“Fine,” said Harlan. “Carry on.”

Quite unwillingly I found myself walking back out into the main dormitory, still unable to speak. Harlan closed the door to the side room behind us, closed his eyes for a moment, and then headed for the toilets and washrooms at the far end of the dormitory, with me, still unable to speak or even move of my own volition, following him. And here we found Radu, also naked, scrubbing the toilets.

Harlan released me from his control and stepped back, and as Radu stood up I was able to hug him.

“What's happening?” I asked. “Why haven't you got any clothes on – and why is Marc being beaten?”

“One of the other slaves says we're not proper boys because we've had our skin cut off,” Radu told me. “He says that makes us slaves to the slaves, and so we have to do whatever they tell us. We do all the cleaning, and they make us do other stuff, too... you know, sex stuff. And if we don't do exactly what they tell us we get beaten. And because we're not proper boys we aren't allowed to wear clothes... please, Jake, can't you do something to help us?”

I turned to Harlan and translated this into his own language, adding a plea for him to intervene.

“Which slave told them this?” Harlan asked.

“Rusta,” Radu told me, when I translated the question. “He said having the skin cut off is something that only happens to failures.”

“Rusta is the tribesman I told you about,” Harlan told me. “So, according to his own customs, he's right: this is pretty much what happens to boys who fail the manhood tests.”

“Can't you do something?” I asked.

“No. This is a matter for the slaves to sort out. I'm not sticking my nose in where it doesn't belong, and nor are you. Come along.”

“But...” And that was as far as I got before the mental clamp descended again, and I found myself being forced to walk away. I fought it as hard as I could, but I couldn't utter a sound, and although I got the impression that Harlan was having to work to keep me moving, there was nothing I could do to stop myself, not even when Radu called my name: I was forced to walk out of the dormitory and all the way back to Harlan's room.

Once we were back inside he finally released me, and I collapsed to the floor: my leg muscles were temporarily unable to support me. But my vocal system was working perfectly.

“You bastard!” I exclaimed. “Why wouldn't you help? Or you could have at least let me try to do something about it...”

“It's slave business, nothing to do with me. And if you'd tried to intervene you'd just have been hurt, and I need you in working order.”

“But couldn't you at least let me explain that to my friend?”

“Why should I?”

“Because... because I thought you liked me.”

“I do like you. But right now you don't like me, do you? In fact you're furious with me, and you'd really like to attack me, wouldn't you? Yes, I can see that you would... You know, that was a really good test: I was able to control you even when you had a truly good reason to try to resist – and even though you're thoroughly mad at me. Here, let me help you,” and he offered me his hand. Of course I refused, instead levering myself onto my feet using the bed to support me.

Slowly my leg muscles recovered... and then I found myself sitting on the bed, my mind a complete blank as to what the time was or what I had been doing before.

“Sorry, Harlan,” I said. “I sort of blacked out for a moment. What did you say you wanted us to do this morning?”

“You said you wanted us to go and find your friends, to see how they're doing,” he reminded me. “We could do that if you like.”

“Could we? Thanks, Harlan!” And I stood up... and then sat down again sharply as the memory of the morning's events flooded back again.

“You see?” he said. “I could have made you forget the whole thing, or I could make you forget that your friends even exist. If I did that there would be nothing to distract you from me.”

“So why didn't you?”

“Because I like you. And because earlier you begged me not to do anything to change the way you are, and interfering with your permanent memories would be changing you. So would making you forget your friends, because the way you care about your friends is one of the most important things about you. Though, to be completely honest, it’s very hard to enforce a permanent memory change: things start leaking through eventually. Not for quite a long time, if I do the job properly, and even then you wouldn’t be sure if it was a real memory or just something you’d imagined. But in the end it would at least partly come back. I did some experiments on one of the other slaves about six months before you arrived, and his memories are starting to seep back now. It’s apparently very confusing for him, and I wouldn’t want to mess you about like that.”

“Well, thanks. But I'm still mad at you.”

“Not as much as you were. Look, Jake, you have to face facts: you're a slave, and that means you can't be responsible for anyone else any more. Your friends will have to look after themselves.”

“You could do something to help them.”

“Yes, I probably could, but you can't expect me to put their interests ahead of my own. This school works because everyone knows his place in it, and my place is not interfering in the running of the slave dormitories. If you think about it you'll see that I'm right. Now, I need to go and talk to one of my colleagues. I'll be back in ten minutes or so – just wait for me here.” And he left the room.

To say that I wasn't happy would be an understatement, and the worst of it was that I knew Harlan was right: I couldn't take responsibility for my friends while I was a slave. But I didn't have to like it, and I wondered how I could get Harlan to change his mind, because I hated feeling so helpless: my friends were in trouble and I couldn't help them. I had to do something.

Harlan came back about fifteen minutes later, and he found me wearing the metal band, which I had taken from his cupboard.

“Ah,” he said. “Okay, but now what? How is that going to help your friends – or do you just want to hurt me for not helping?”

To be honest, I hadn't really thought things through: when I put the band on I'd had some idea of forcing Harlan to come back to the dormitory with me and making him order the other boys to leave my friends alone. But now I realised that I'd never get him there without being challenged – after all, I couldn't stop him yelling for help to the first person we met. Maybe I can bluff him, I thought, and I advanced on him, trying to look threatening.

“You're not going to hurt me, Jake,” he said, making no attempt to back away or do anything to protect himself.

“How do you know?”

“Because you're too decent to do that – and because you know you'd get punished really badly if you did.”

“You think I care what happens to me?” I said, raising a fist.

“Hmmm. I suppose maybe you're angry enough not to.”

And now I could feel something tickling inside my head: he was trying to get past the metal and take control again, but it wasn't working. But of course he didn't need to: I couldn't actually hit him because I knew it wouldn't help my friends, and because deep down I knew it wasn't his fault anyway. So I removed the band from my head and handed it to him.

“You're right,” I said. “Sorry. It's just that I hate feeling like this.”

“I know,” he said, putting the band back in its cupboard. “I hope you realise I'm going to have to punish you for using this without permission?”.

“I suppose so. By the way, I actually felt you back there – it wasn't getting through, but I could tell you were trying.”

“Really? That's great – we'll have to work with the band some more, then. Sooner or later I'm going to beat it. Look, let's go and have something to eat first, and then we can have a proper go this afternoon.”

“I'm not hungry,” I told him.

“Yes, you are. Being angry and unhappy and frustrated doesn't stop you from being hungry.”

I really wasn't very hungry, but I went to the dining hall with him anyway. And in the course of the meal I noticed him talking quietly with a couple of his colleagues, one of whom I recognised as the one who had picked Radu to work with on our first day here.

“I asked them both to keep an eye on their students, and to find something to occupy them in the mornings if possible,” Harlan told me on our way back to his room. “If your friends are working with my colleagues they'll be out of the reach of the other slaves. It won't help them at night, but at least they'll be a bit safer during the day.”

“Thanks, Harlan,” I said, and I meant it. It might not have been a complete solution, but it was a lot better than nothing.



Another couple of weeks went by. Our work together now regularly included sessions where I would wear the metal band and he would try to defeat its inhibiting effects, but although I occasionally felt that tickle in my head he still couldn't break through. Nor could he do anything with Oli, who had come to work with us a few times. By now I had worked out that Oli was protected, not by any natural immunity, but by the metal rod that was still holding the bone of his right upper arm together. Harlan had said it was only metal on the head that formed a complete block, but I thought that a fairly large piece of metal actually inside the body might well have a similar effect. I didn't mention this to Harlan, and he never caught me thinking about it – after all, I didn't want them to try surgically removing the rod, just in case the bone had not yet fully recovered. Of course Harlan had made Oli strip naked to make sure he wasn't wearing anything metal, but naturally that hadn't made any difference.

Harlan liked Oli, who was still his naturally happy and optimistic self, even though he was doing boring work like washing vegetables and cleaning pots and pans. Sometimes Harlan would have wrestling matches with Oli, with whom he could fight as an equal: when he and I wrestled I had to wear the band to stop him cheating and using his powers on me. And Oli liked Harlan, too, who he said was fun to be with, and a lot nicer than the miserable kid who had initially been chosen to use him.

Harlan had also arranged for me and Stefan to get together a couple of times in his room. He'd even left us alone for a while, in exchange for being allowed to sit in the rest of the time and examine our mental response to each other. On both occasions he congratulated me afterwards on the strength of our attachment to each other, but the second time he also told me that Stefan was worried about me.

“He's afraid I'm messing with your head,” he said. “As you know, there is some of that goes on, and he's afraid that, because we're together all the time, I must be doing something nasty with you. You'll have to tell him that I'm innocent.”

“I'm not sure that 'innocent' is the word I'd use.”

“Perhaps not.” He grinned at me. “I want to try something new with you this week – I think we're bonded enough by now. See, we have a sort of training club – not all of us, just me, some friends and their friends – where we do stuff that isn't on the school timetable. We have sort of mental fights with each other. And I want you to come with me because... well, you'll see.”

“When you say 'stuff that isn't on the school timetable' – do you mean that the teachers don't know about it?”

“That's right.”

“Well... how can you be sure? I mean, they're mind-readers, aren't they?”

He laughed. “The first thing my father ever taught me was how to shield my mind from others of my race,” he said. “In politics you don't want the other side's Konjässi picking information out of your Konjässi's head. And when you're a kid you want to have secrets from other kids. Part of our club is trying to break through each other's shields, and sometimes it works, but if someone did get past my shield I'm pretty sure I'd be aware of it. Anyway, we shield ourselves from the staff, especially when we're thinking about doing something we're not supposed to. And we wipe the memories of any slaves we use at the club – okay, it doesn't do a perfect job, but the teachers never bother trying to read the slaves' minds anyway. And you needn't worry, because I won't let anyone mess about with your memories.”

So that evening, an hour or two after supper, he took me with him to a large room in the basement, where there were a dozen other Konjässi and fifteen or so slaves, though none of my friends was there.

“There are two sorts of fight,” Harlan told me. “One using slaves that we control and one directly between ourselves. You'll see both tonight.”

First came the fighting by proxy, using slaves: two Konjässiem stepped forward and selected a slave each. The slaves stood facing each other, having first stripped to their briefs.

“We have to do make them strip like that,” Harlan explained to me, “because otherwise some sneaky bastard would kit his slave out with a metal belt under his shirt. See, the idea is that the slaves fight, and you try to hold the other guy's slave back – you know, make him stand still so your own slave can knock him out. The Konjässi with the best control will render the other one's slave defenceless.”

It was a fascinating spectacle, although I felt bad for the two slaves, who were obviously getting hurt in the process, though at least the one with the less competent Konjässi got knocked down fairly quickly. There were two more bouts like that, and then the direct fights started – except that there was no fighting as such. Instead two Konjässiem lined up facing each other and then proceeded to stand still and, so far as I could tell, do nothing, until suddenly one dropped to his knees. His opponent acknowledged the cheers of the crowd while I looked confused.

“It's a compulsion fight,” Harlan explained. “You try to force the other boy to his knees while he does the same thing to you. The boy with the strongest shield wins. I'll be doing one a bit like that later, and you're going to be helping me.”

“I am? How?”

“Never mind. All you have to do is be there holding me upright – after all, I've hurt my knee, remember?”

“Huh? When did that happen?”

He just grinned at me and tapped his nose, and so I shrugged and watched the next fight. Of course, there wasn't much to see, just two boys staring at each other – all the actual fighting was taking place in their heads.

The fight after that was between two of the younger boys, and they announced that they were going to attempt to make each other strip, which went down well with the audience: this time the loser would suffer rather more humiliation that just being made to kneel. And once one of them had succumbed he was further made to walk around the room naked and with his hands on his head, exhibiting himself to everyone, including the slaves, who clearly enjoyed being able to see one of their masters exposed like this.

“Right, we're on,” said Harlan, in a whisper. “Just keep hold of me for as long as you can without fainting, okay? You'll feel weak and tired, but you must absolutely not faint. If you think you're going to and can't hold out any longer, let go of me, but not until the last possible moment. Got that?”

“Sure. But why...?”

“Because I'm going to be using some of your mental energy. Now keep quiet.”

He put his arm round my shoulders and I supported him while he limped to the mark on the floor where one of the fighters had to stand, and there he issued a challenge. A rather older boy stepped forward.

“Have you lost it, Harlan?” he asked. “You know I can have you on your knees inside ten seconds.”

“I don't think so. And I'm not challenging you to kneel: I'm challenging you to strip.”

“Don't be so ridiculous! Only the juniors do undignified stuff like that!”

“What's the matter? Scared we're all going to see you've got even less than him?” And Harlan pointed at the loser of the previous fight, whose conqueror was keeping him naked in front of the slaves. And since that boy looked about ten, and the boy Harlan had challenged looked nearer fifteen, this was quite an insult.

“All right, you arrogant son of a bitch, you're on – and when you lose I'll make you blow your slave in front of all of us!”

Harlan grinned at him. “Counting your chickens a bit, aren't you?” he said.

“No, I'm not. What's with the slave, by the way?”

“I've hurt my knee,” Harlan told him. “I don't want to have to worry about falling over.”

I felt a touch in my head, which I supposed was the other boy just checking to see that I really was a slave and not a disguised Konjässi, and then he stepped forward onto the other fighter's mark. One of the others gave the two contestants a three-two-one countdown and the fight presumably started, though I wasn't aware of anything happening. I kept my arms around Harlan, standing just behind him with one hand inside his shirt and so in contact with his bare skin as he had instructed me, and he ignored me completely, as far as I could tell.

The stalemate lasted two or three minutes, and Harlan's opponent looked, first surprised, then worried, and then he started to sweat. Then his hand twitched, and at the same time I began to feel a little tired.

Harlan's opponent gave a strangled gasp and, hands trembling, undid his sash, allowing his robe to fall open, and a murmur of surprise ran round the room. And slowly the other boy removed his clothes. By now I felt I needed to sit down – it felt as if I had been standing there for hours on end – but I stuck to my post and kept watching as the other boy stripped right down to his briefs. And there he stopped, presumably digging into his reserves to avoid taking the final step, while Harlan stood impassively, staring at him – though I could see that Harlan was sweating, and starting to tremble a little: clearly this was costing him a considerable effort.

Another wave of exhaustion swept over me, and I felt myself sway a little, but still I held on. I was starting to see dots before my eyes... and then the other boy seemed to break, and he wrenched his briefs down and threw them across the room, and a burst of cheering broke out. But Harlan hadn't finished yet. To cement his victory he forced his opponent to face the slaves and fondle his own genitals, which were a lot bigger – not to say hairier – than the younger loser's, until he got at least a semi-erection. And then finally Harlan released him and sagged back against me, and how I didn't collapse I really don't know. But somehow we managed to get back to our seats without falling over.

“Well done, Jake,” breathed Harlan. “Are you still okay?”

“Just about,” I replied.

“Good. We'll go back to my room as soon as we've got our breath back.”

Another fight started, but before it finished we got up and left. Once back in Harlan's room we took our clothes off and got into bed, and tonight Harlan didn't even bother putting his nightshirt on.

“I didn't know for certain that would work,” he admitted. “Maybe you didn’t realise before how exhausting doing this sort of stuff can be – just because I’m not running about using up physical energy it doesn’t mean it’s easy. I don’t know if they play chess in your world, but at the top level chess players find it extremely tiring and demanding, even just sitting in a chair for a couple of hours, and it’s the same for us. But I've got so used to working with you that I thought I'd be able to use some of your energy as well as my own – and it worked. We make a brilliant team, Jake!”

“Yes, but isn't it cheating?”

“Well, technically. But it was only me doing the work – you were just sort of like an extra fuel tank. And now I've won that fight my status will definitely have gone up. That boy's only about three months away from his manhood ceremony, so he's nearly two years older than me. After those comments about him making me blow you in front of everyone I really wanted to make him play with himself until he came, but I was too tired. Still, I think I did enough. People will really take notice of me from now on.”

“I wouldn’t have minded too much if you had blown me,” I said, grinning.

“Sorry, Jake, but that isn’t going to happen. Well, not in public, anyway…”

I thought that sounded promising. And as for him getting a higher profile, I thought that if it was true it wouldn't do me any harm, either – if Harlan came to rely on me, maybe I could use that to make sure my friends were well-treated. I hadn't seen them in the last couple of weeks, but I hoped that Radu and Marc had at least got their clothes back. It was entirely possible that they hadn't: every now and again I'd see naked slaves about the place, who were presumably either being punished or forced to do it as an experiment in control by their masters. I certainly intended trying to persuade Harlan to let me see them again, anyway.

Next morning we were both feeling a lot better, and as we were naked it seemed entirely sensible to start the day by rubbing each other. I still felt a slight twinge of guilt about it, but I told myself that a happy Harlan would be more likely to allow me and Stefan some more time together, so I put my guilt away and concentrated on making my master happy. And apparently I succeeded in that.

I had intended mentioning Stefan's name that afternoon, but before I got a chance to do so – we were barely back from lunch - there was a knock at the door and the senior instructor himself came in.

“Harlan, we need to borrow your slave for the afternoon,” he said.

“Certainly. May I know why?”

“I've had yet another reminder from that policeman, and I've decided to get it over and done with. I think all of your slave's party speak our language well enough by now, so if you'd like to come with me, Jake, we're going to take a full memory recording from you. You're going to tell us everything you know about that portal you came through, and any others you might know about.”