The Second Nexus

by David Clarke

Chapter Fifteen


The journey back to Maasjioleeme was interesting because I was able to listen to the four Konjässiem chatting about school and the various experiments they had been working on recently. They spoke Arvelan, which handicapped me a bit because I still didn’t speak it very well, but then it wasn’t the native language of Marlo or Caradoc, either, so I wasn’t the only slave having trouble following the conversation. Besides, we weren’t included in the discussion: all we had to do was to sit still and keep quiet.

The school had supplied us all with sandwiches to eat on the way. Ours were rather less exotic than theirs – the four of us got a thin slice of mousetrap cheese, while our masters’ were bulging with a wide variety of contents. Still, at least we were being fed. It was obvious that Marlo wanted to confiscate Killian’s sandwich, and equally obvious that he didn’t dare do it in front of the other three Konjässiem, though I have no doubt that Killian would have gone hungry had they not been there.

The train reached Maasjioleeme at around three o’clock (my watch was still in my bag, but Harlan was wearing his) and we went straight to the ship. My friends were taken straight to their cabins and locked in – Stefan, Alain and Oli in one cabin and the others next door – and Harlan took the rest of us up on deck. Marlo and Dannis had never seen the ocean before, and nor had Killian, so this was a new experience for all of them, and their excitement was obvious.

“Have you been to Europe before?” I asked Harlan.

“No. I sailed over to Arconia once with my family, but that’s all. And I’ve never flown. Have you?”

I nodded. “I’ve been in an ordinary aeroplane a couple of times,” I told him. “And when I was in Vogesia I went in an airship. That was amazing – it’s much quieter than a normal plane, and you get a great view. Maybe if we end up there you can try it – it doesn’t cost very much. We could fly over to Greater Bavaria and back, and then you’ll see for yourself what it’s like.”

“I’d like that. I like the idea of flying and seeing the whole world spread out below you. That would be cool.”

“You’d have to travel when the weather’s good, because planes go above the clouds, and then you can’t see anything at all. You need a fine, sunny day with no clouds. When I went to Crete with my family the Greek end was like that, but coming back into Heathrow it was really cloudy and we didn’t see anything much. Still, you might be lucky.”

We stayed on deck until the ship sailed, watching as it moved slowly out of the harbour, and once we were properly under way we went downstairs to the cabins. As Harlan’s father was paying most of the cost of the expedition Harlan had made the most of it, booking four first-class, single-berth cabins as well as three second-class ones for us slaves. Harlan and I went into the one he was going to be using and he closed the door on the outside world.

“So, how are you going to try to escape?” he asked me.

“I’m not, you know that. I’ve sworn I won’t desert you, and I haven’t changed my mind.”

“No, you haven’t… though I don’t really understand it. You’re strange, Jake – most boys in your situation would be trying to escape, so why aren’t you?”

“Because you’re my master, and my friend – well, sort of.”

“Yes, but… well, okay, I’m not going to complain. But I’m still not letting any of your friends go either, and if they try I’ll kill them if I have to. Just as long as you understand that – the fact that I like you won’t prevent me from doing what I have to do if they force me to. Anyway, tell me about the place we’re heading for – what’s it like?”

So for a while I described the Vosges to him, in general terms and without pinpointing where we were heading, and he said they sounded like the Taru Ugreni, the range of hills between Sanölja and Arvel, and after that we talked about his country rather than where we were going, which suited me fine. And then supper time came round.

“I imagine you’d prefer to spend the night with Stefan and the other two,” he said, “though you can go in with Dannis, Caradoc and Marlo if you want. No? There’s a surprise!”

He took me up a deck to the second class berths and let me into the cabin.

“We’ll bring you round something to eat a bit later,” he said, and he ushered me inside and locked the door behind me.

“I thought you’d be sailing first class, not slumming it with us,” said Stefan, hugging me.

“No such luck. Even the first class bunks are too narrow for two. Anyway, I prefer the company here.”

“Good. At least we'll be together again for a few hours, then.”

“I wonder if this ship will be stopping in Ireland on the way back?” mused Alain, grinning at me.

“I knew you’d be the one to remember that,” I said, grinning back. “Well, you’ll have to wait until after supper, because I don’t want that door flying open while I’m paying my debts.”

“It’s okay,” said Alain, more seriously. “I mean, obviously I’d like you to do it, but maybe we should wait until we’re safely through the portal again… that is, if we are going to get through it. What are our chances, Jake?”

“Honestly? I don’t know. It depends on a lot of things: whether the portal opens at all, to start with, because I can’t see Harlan being willing to sit around in the mountains for more than about three weeks without giving up on it and taking us all back to the school. Then there’s the question of whether Aarnist and his men have already found it, because if they have I can’t see them letting us go through. And finally there’s the Greys: I’m assuming Harlan won’t be able to control them, but if I’m wrong we lose our strongest card.

“Our best chance will be if the portal opens, we can get through it and catch up with the Greys in Vogesia, because I’m counting on the local boys helping us if we make it back there – and hopefully Sergeant Schwarz and his men will help us, too. We need the Greys to be immune and there to be too many of the rest of us for them to be able to subdue us all at once. If we can knock a couple of the Konjässiem out we should be able to overwhelm the others.”

“Knock them out?” queried Stefan. “Don’t you mean kill?”

“No,” I said, firmly. “We don’t kill unless there’s absolutely no other choice, not only because I like Harlan and Terry and feel sorry for Killian, but because if we kill them – especially Harlan – they’ll never stop hunting for us.”

“So what? All we have to do is get the monks to block the portal from appearing again and they’ll never get near us. Jake, you’re too soft-hearted. You know what those bastards do to kids like us – we’ve just been lucky that they haven’t done anything worse to us than give us a headache yet. But if we go back to the school, sooner or later it’ll be one of us who ends up on the wrong end of a death experiment. Okay, if we can get away without killing them, fair enough, but I’m absolutely not going to let that hold me back if there’s no other way.”

“Me neither,” agreed Alain. “So far Oli’s been safe, but sooner or later they’re going to twig about his arm, realise it’s safe to take the brace out by now and do it, and that’ll leave him in the same danger as the rest of us. And that’s not happening if I can stop it, okay? I think we’re dead lucky they let him come with us at all – I can only assume Harlan forgot about him when he said we could all come with you. Next time they probably won’t, so if the remotest chance comes up on this trip, we’re taking it, no matter who gets in our way. Sorry, Jake, but that’s all there is to it.”

“And it’ll be easier for us because they can’t stop me,” added Oli. “With any luck Dervoran and Killian won’t realise I’m immune because as far as I know I’ve never met either of them before. And I’ve got my catapult in my bag. I’m like a secret weapon!”

“Okay, but don’t do anything unless I say, because if it goes wrong and they catch you I don’t think they’ll use mental power to stop you – they’ll just grab you and break your neck. Look, we have to wait until we catch up with the Greys, unless the portal isn’t there, in which case we might have to try on our own – but not until we’re sure there’s no alternative. Stefi, how did you get on with what you were trying to find at work?”

“No more, I’m afraid. Oli’s got what we have.”

“I’ve got Harlan’s, and Marlo’s got at least one of Killian’s, and I asked him to bring a spare so that two of us could work on him together if we got a chance. I haven’t had a chance to ask him yet, but from what I’ve seen of him and Killian both I would guess he has it.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Alain.

“Sorry, Alain, but if you don’t know they can’t see it in your head. Don’t worry, you’re first in line if we get a chance to use our second secret weapon, but it has to stay secret until then.”

Alain didn’t look happy about being the only one of us in the dark, but it was a mark of how much he had matured that he didn’t question it

“Well, as long as you’ve got a plan, that’s good enough for me,” he said. “Like we said before, you’ve never let us down yet. So the idea is that we just go on doing what we’re told like good little slaves until we reach the portal, and then… well, I’ll leave it to you. I trust you, Jake, you know that.”

Once again I found myself worrying that I was going to let him down, the more so since I didn’t have a concrete plan at all. But that was deliberate: if I had a firm plan there would be a danger that Harlan or one of his colleagues would be able to pluck it from my head, so instead I’d got a number of strands worked out and would try to weave them together into a proper plan on the spot, once we caught up with the Greys, or at the portal site if it didn’t open before Harlan wanted to leave.

“Have you got your cards?” I asked Alain.

“Yes – and thanks for getting our stuff back, Jake: I thought we’d lost our bracelets, and as they were the first proper present we gave each other, well… Even if we can’t wear them at the moment, at least we know they’re not lost. So, what are we going to play?”

We sat and played a game Alain had taught us until the food arrived, and after we had eaten we switched to poker.

“I think if Jake loses he ought to suck us all twice,” suggested Alain, shuffling the pack.

“Okay, but if I beat all of you I get let off altogether,” I countered.

“Fair enough,” agreed Alain. “You might beat one of us, but you’ll never beat all three.”

And he was right, and in fact the cards treated me so badly I’d have suspected Alain of cheating if I hadn’t known him better… though, come to think of it, these were his cards, and he’d been playing for several years, and perhaps…

I put the thought out of my mind and kept playing until I lost my underwear, long before anyone else was even close.

“Hah!” crowed Alain. “That’s twice! Want to go double or quits?”

“Yes, okay,” I agreed, rashly. “As long as I can deal.”

“Fine,” agreed Alain immediately, which suggested that he hadn’t been cheating after all. But the bottom line was that he was simply a better player than me – we were playing a proper version with rounds of wagering, rather than just showing the cards straight away - and although I beat Oli and Stefan a couple of times as the evening went on, I couldn’t beat Alain. So when we finally stopped playing a couple of hours later I had still not managed to reverse my earlier defeat.

“Once tonight,” I offered, “and once to celebrate when we’re safely through the portal with the Konjässiem behind us.”

Of course, I didn’t expect to be making the trip through the portal myself, but I wasn’t going to tell my friends that just yet.

“Sounds good to me,” agreed Alain.

There wasn’t a lot of room in the cabin, but by putting all four mattresses on the floor we made ourselves a comfortable work area, and then… well, it was the nearest I’d ever come to taking part in an orgy. It was a lot of fun, to be honest, even if I was doing most of the work: all four of us were naked, lying on the mattresses and stroking each other while I sucked each of them in turn. I did it for Stefan first because I was used to him and knew exactly what to do to please him, and then I moved on to Alain.

“Hey, Alain, you’re getting some hair!” I told him.

“Is he? We can’t have that!” said Oli, grinning. “He’s not allowed hair until I get some!”

“Get lost! You won’t get any for another two or three years, and by then I’ll be nineteen – there’s no way you’re keeping me hairless until then!”

“Wanna bet?”

“Shut up, you two,” I interrupted. “You can discuss it later. But I’d let it grow, Oli – I think it’ll look good. And if it turns out like Stefan’s, it’ll feel nice and soft when you stroke it.”

I got back to work. Alain was definitely growing up: apart from the hair, it was bigger now than it had been the last time I did this back in Hub Two, and – as I discovered eventually – he had rather more spunk now than he had had back then, too.

Finally I moved on to Oli, who hadn’t grown at all: it was still as small as it had been the first time I’d seen it. But it was very hard, and he obviously enjoyed it, wriggling about and squeaking as I finished him off.

Afterwards they rewarded me for a good job: I lay on my back and Stefan sucked me while the other two snuggled up on either side of me, stroking me and occasionally kissing me, and it felt incredible, even better (if that were possible) than the orgasms I had when Harlan stimulated my mind and body at the same time.

“This is fun!” said Oli, as I recovered. “We should do this again!”

“I suppose it is a bit strange that we’ve never done stuff together before,” I agreed. “After all, we’ve been together for a long time now, and we know we all like doing this sort of thing. If you all think it’s a good idea we can do this sometimes after we get back home…”

I tailed off, realising that I wouldn’t be going back home. I didn’t know how I could lose friends like these three, but if the only way to get them home safely was to stay behind myself I’d have to do it… though right then my resolve was as weak as it had ever been. I liked Harlan, but if it came to a free choice between spending the rest of my life with him or with Stefan, Alain and Oli there was absolutely no contest. The problem was that I didn’t have a free choice.

“What’s the matter, Jake?” asked Stefan.

“Huh? Oh, nothing,” I said – I didn’t want them to get any hint that I was going to be staying here. “I was just thinking about getting back to the Residence, that’s all. I mean, even if everything goes perfectly and we get rid of Harlan and the others, we’ll still be back at the monastery with no idea of how to get home. Either we’ll have to hang around until the Green World puts in an appearance, or we’ll have to get some proper winter clothing and have another go at the Frozen World. Maybe it won’t be quite so cold there in summer…”

“I hope not,” agreed Stefan. “If I’m right and anyone living there is underground, it’ll take us a long time to find them, and all that time we’ll be stuck on the surface. I don’t see how the Greys could survive in that place. Maybe we’d have to leave them in Vogesia until we found another portal in the frozen world and then come back for them.”

“Let’s worry about getting out of this one first,” I suggested. “I think that’ll be hard enough without worrying about where we go after that. And probably it would be a good idea to get some sleep first. I suppose there’s just about room for us all to sleep here on the floor – it would be a bit sort of cosy, but I wouldn’t mind that.”

So we collected our pillows and a blanket each and snuggled up on the floor, and although it took me a while to get to sleep, what with worrying about next day and having Alain’s elbow jabbing into my back, at least I got to sleep in the end. And I didn’t even wake up when the ship put in to Eastharbour, which I now knew was the capital of the island of Maasaarvi.

I woke up next day when Stefan kissed me, which is, as I’ve observed before, about the nicest way to wake up in the morning. The other two were still asleep, so we got up very carefully and quietly and put our clothes on and then tiptoed into the washroom and closed the door.

“Get Oli on his own at some point and tell him to keep those metal rings in easy reach,” I said. “The two he’s got go to you and Alain. One of us should try to get the spare one from Marlo if we can, but we’d better let him keep the one he uses himself – if we try to pinch it he’s sure to complain to Killian, and I don’t want any of the Konjässiem to know what we’re doing. If he does have a spare, we’ll give it to either Radu or Nicky. I want our strongest boys protected because they’ll probably try to use the unprotected ones against us, and I reckon you won’t have too much trouble against Tommi or Marc. If we’ve caught up with the Greys, try to get our unprotected kids into the tank, because they’ll be safe enough in there.

“After that we’ll have to make it up as we go along, but I know you’re good at that, so just do whatever you can think of. Make sure everyone only speaks English – we know the Konjässiem don’t understand a word of that. And… however you feel, try not to kill anyone unless there really is no other choice, okay?”

“I promise.”

We got washed and went back out to the cabin, where we found Alain still fast asleep but Oli awake and stretching.

“You don’t have to tip-toe around,” he told us. “It takes a lot to wake him up. We could chuck a bucket of water over his head – I’m sure that would do it – but it might be a bit cruel. I generally wake him up by dragging him onto the floor, but today he’s already on the floor, so I can’t do that. So I’m going to do something else.”

He moved the blankets off Alain’s body, revealing that Alain had an erection, and so Oli started to stroke it, very gently. Pretty soon Alain started to move about in his sleep.

“I’ve done this before,” Oli told us. “He says it gives him really nice dreams, so I think it’s a good way to wake him up.”

“I hope you’re listening, Jake,” commented Stefan. “You can try waking me up this way any time you like.”

“Problem is, you’re a light sleeper,” I pointed out. “You generally wake up before I do – so maybe you could try it on me.”

“Maybe. Depends what sort of mood I’m in.”

“You’re always in a good mood with me,” I said confidently, and I sat beside him and hugged him.

Oli kept going, and still Alain didn’t wake up, though he was starting to make little gasping noises. I’m not sure what he was dreaming about, but he seemed to be enjoying it. And then Oli pushed him past the edge and he spurted onto himself – and now he was spurting properly, three or four little jets of the stuff. Only then did he wake up, looking at us all blearily.

“Nice dream?” asked Oli, smiling at him.

“Oh, yes,” said Alain, using a corner of one of the blankets to clean himself up. “Almost as good as the real thing – though not quite.” And he grabbed Oli and hugged him hard.

“Come on, you two,” I said, eventually. “Break it up – they’ll probably be coming to bring us breakfast before long, and we ought to get the mattresses back on the bunks before they get here.”

Breakfast duly turned up about half an hour later, by which time Alain and Oli were washed and dressed, and not too long after that we docked in Paazi-Beretokheeme, which I was pretty sure was called by the substantially shorter and easier name of Brest in my world.

Harlan and Terry came and escorted us off the ship, through customs – which was as empty as on our outward journey – and into the railway station, and soon all eight of us were again locked into a compartment on a train. Now that we were all together again it gave me a chance to talk to Radu and Marc, who were both okay – Rusta had kept his promise to make sure nobody abused them any longer – though they were both keen to get out of this world. Marc wasn’t happy that Marlo was in the party, because he had been one of the ones to have beaten him before, but so far Marlo had ignored him completely, and I assured him that in any case he’d be safe now that we were all together again: now Marlo was the one who was outnumbered.

All four of them – Radu, Marc, Nicky and Tommi – wanted to know if we were going to be able to escape, and I told them that I hoped so, but that it would depend on whether we could use the portal and whether we could catch up with the Greys.

“You just have to stay alert and keep an eye on me and Stefan,” I said. “If we get a chance to do anything you’ll soon know. We’ll speak English, because we know the Konjässiem don’t understand that and all of you do, at least a bit. But don’t try doing anything on your own – I don’t think they’ll be happy if any of us just try running off. If we’re getting out of this we have to work together.”

The trip back to Lottentaale, or Strasbourg, took about seven and a half hours and we arrived there in mid-afternoon. I wasn’t sure what would happen next: I thought we would probably have to catch a local train back to Sélestat and walk from there, but Harlan had already decided that he didn’t want to start his holiday with a long, unnecessary walk and so he had hired a minibus and driver to take us to the foot of the mountains. We loaded up the kit and climbed into the bus ourselves, and Harlan kept me up front with him so that I would be able to tell the driver where to go. We headed south out of Lottentaale and joined the motorway, which we followed until we were a short distance south of the town that was called Oberehnheim on my map but something unpronounceable on the Arvelan one, and there we took a smaller road that ran along the base of the mountains. And we had only been on that road for a couple of kilometres when we were stopped at a police checkpoint.

I was a bit worried about us being recognised: if Aarnist’s men knew who we were and where we were heading it would point them in the direction of the portal, assuming they were still looking in the wrong place. But I didn’t recognise either of the officers manning the checkpoint, neither of whom had red hair.

“Where are you heading?” the senior one asked the driver, who told him he was just following Harlan’s instructions.

“We’re going into the mountains for a training and control exercise,” Harlan told him. “Why? What’s happening?”

“Where exactly are you going?” asked the cop, ignoring Harlan’s question.

“Show him, Jake,” instructed Harlan, so I got the map out and pointed to a place a little north of where we were actually going.

“That’s fine,” said the cop. “But you mustn’t go very far north of that area: there’s a police operation under way north of Puha-Martiin and Uusikirik and civilians are not permitted north of those two settlements. As long as you remain south of there you have permission to continue.”

Harlan thanked him and told the driver to drive on, and I relaxed a little, because if there was a police operation going on north of those two villages it sounded as if Aarnist still had his eyes fixed on the area south and west of Oberehnheim, which was a safe distance from the real portal site.

With some help from Stefan I directed the bus driver to the closest point on the road to the portal site, and he stopped at the side of the road while we unloaded. The bus turned round and headed back towards Strasbourg, and Harlan told us all to listen to him.

“Okay, the real holiday starts here,” he said. “And I want to make it absolutely clear to all of you that you have to do what you’re told straight away. I’m sure some of you are thinking about running off, but that would be a major mistake, and I’m going to tell you why. First, because any slave who runs will be hunted down and caught. You know that’s true – slaves are always recaptured, because at the end of the day there’s nowhere to run to. And that will even be true if we find Jake’s portal and are able to use it: I give you my word that any slave running will be recaptured and punished, no matter where he is. And the punishment is likely to be terminal: we’ll give you to those of our colleagues practising extreme interrogation techniques and induced medical failures.

“Second, because if one of you does run the rest will all be punished by being whipped morning and night until the runner is caught, so if you do manage to sneak off it’ll be your friends who pay the penalty until you give yourself up or are recaptured.

“And third, because we’ll be making it as difficult as possible for you to run. You probably think you’ll be able to sneak away at night, but you won’t, because before you go to your tent for the night you’ll strip completely naked and leave all your clothes locked in a metal-mesh sack that will be kept in one of our tents. In fact, since the weather isn’t too bad I might decide to keep you all naked permanently – you won’t get far in bare feet, and even if you did you’d find having no clothes a serious handicap. I’ll decide that when we get the camp set up, depending on what the surrounding area is like.

“On the other hand, if you’re sensible you can enjoy this as a holiday, because none of us is going to use you for anything other than minor experiments while you’re with us, and we’ll make sure that none of those are painful. So you can relax and enjoy the change of scenery. Now, get the kit on your backs and let’s go. Jake and Stefan, lead the way.”

So Stefan got his compass and notebook out, worked out where we were by taking a reading on the town of Sélestat that we could see off to the east, and led us up into the hills. By now we’d done this so many times and in so many worlds that he could probably have done it without the compass, just by following contours, but once we were in the trees it was obviously sensible to make sure we were going the right way.

On we went, around the base of the hill on which Haut-Koenigsbourg stood in my world and on towards the valley where the portal appeared. I’d expected to get all the way to the portal-site without seeing anyone at all, so I was completely taken aback when someone called my name from off to our left – and there was Torth. His appearance drew gasps from the Konjässiem and the three other slaves, but personally I was delighted to see him.

“Why are you still here?” I asked him in Grey.

‘”Because the damned portal hasn’t reappeared yet. It disappeared a day after you left us, and we’re still waiting for it to come back. We didn’t dare go into town because we were certain it wasn’t safe – after all, we were sure you’d have come back otherwise. So we’ve been stuck here, living on rabbits and squirrels and tinned meat. I’ve never been so bored in my life – though at least having Sarleth with us gave us something to do. So who are all these people?”

“Torth, we’re in trouble. The boys in the robes are really powerful – they can get into your head and make you do things you don’t want to, and we’re their prisoners, more or less. I’m hoping they won’t be able to get into your heads because your brains work differently to ours, but if it looks as if they can you need to get something metal to protect yourselves – they can’t work through metal. And…”

“Aren’t you going to introduce us?” asked Harlan, looking at Torth with interest.

“Harlan, this is Torth. As you can see, he’s a Grey. I was just telling him who you are.”

“Good. Make sure he knows what’ll happen to you and the others if he doesn’t obey us, won’t you? And…” There was a pause. “Hmm. I have to say I can’t get in there right away, but there is something… if we work at it I think I should be able to get there. Anyway, let’s get the camp set up – how far are we from the portal site?”

“Only two or three hundred metres. The valley floor is fairly flat near the portal, so we can probably set the tents up there.”

It was also a little distance away from the vehicles, which were, I supposed, still camouflaged where we had left them. I didn’t want Harlan knowing about the tank.

We pitched the tents – one large one for us, four smaller ones for the Konjässiem, a stores tent and a kitchen where Alain and I would be preparing meals – a short distance from the portal-site, which Torth had sensibly marked with a couple of spare tent-pegs, and we got all the kit put away. Once the camp was set up to Harlan’s satisfaction he got all of us to get on our hands and knees and clear the ground around the tents of fallen leaves and tree debris, and then he made us all remove our shoes and socks and put them into the stores tent.

“You won’t need footwear unless you have a legitimate reason for leaving the camp,” he told us. “Stefan’s dug the latrines not too far away and you’ve cleared a path to them, so that isn’t an excuse. Any slave caught wearing shoes without permission will be whipped. Now I’d like Jake and Alain to start making us a meal, and I’d like Tommi to come and help me speak to our Grey friend… incidentally, Jake, I thought you said there were three of them? So where are the other two?”

“He wants to meet Verdess and Sarleth,” I told Torth. “And I don’t want him knowing about the vehicles, so you’d better bring them here, rather than making him go look for them. I’ll tell him they’re out hunting at the moment.”

“That’s true, actually,” Torth told me. “I’ll go and find them if you like.”

“Good idea. And maybe after that it would be a good idea if the three of you bring your tent up here with the rest of us – when we get a proper chance to escape it’ll be a lot easier if we’re all together.”

“It shouldn’t be too hard to kill those four,” he commented. “All we have to do is shoot them.”

“I’d prefer to avoid that if we can,” I said. “Besides, it might not be quite that simple – this lot usually have a trick or two up their sleeve. But it would certainly be a good idea not to let them know you’ve got guns, so don’t use them for hunting from now on and it might be better if you leave them with the vehicles when you bring your tent up here. And – nobody has come up here since we left, have they?”

“No, but there's been a flying machine come over a couple of times. They didn't see us – we kept under the trees while it was around – and I suppose if they were carrying special equipment it couldn't see us because we're cold-blooded.”

I told Harlan that Torth had gone to find the others and then headed for the kitchen tent before he could ask me anything else – after all, the fact that we had rifles was something I really didn’t want Harlan getting wind of, because they were our one major advantage. On the other hand I didn’t want the Greys just to start shooting, because I was sure Harlan and his colleagues would respond to that violently – and in any case I had no wish to see any of the Konjässiem shot.

I think we’d been lucky that Harlan had never asked if we had weapons, though I suppose there was no reason why he should have done: after all, kids of our age don’t generally walk about the place carrying guns, and if we had they would no doubt have been confiscated by the police when we were first arrested.

Alain started boiling some water ready for the pasta, and I began preparing a sort of Bolognaise sauce for it, using tinned ingredients, which wasn’t the way I generally liked to do it, though I supposed that when you’re cooking miles from anywhere you have to use whatever is available. And then Torth came back into camp with his two colleagues, and I got Oli to keep an eye on my sauce while I went out to greet Verdess and Sarleth. They looked happy to see me, insofar as Greys ever look happy.

“Does this mean we’re going to get out of here at last?” asked Verdess.

“I hope so. Torth will fill you in later, if he hasn’t already. We’ve got a problem here, but I’m hoping you can help us with it. Anyway, you’d better come and meet our master.”

I left Torth to explain what I meant by that and went and found Harlan, and once I’d done the basic introductions I left Tommi to handle the interpreting and went back to my sauce.

After supper I went and joined Harlan: he and Terry were working together to try to penetrate Torth’s mind, and to my alarm it seemed that they were actually getting somewhere: Torth was reporting that he could feel something inside his head, and Harlan reckoned he was getting a faint view of what Torth was thinking. The last thing I wanted was the Greys coming under Harlan’s control: I was counting on them to remain free agents – even though they wouldn’t normally have put themselves at risk for anyone except themselves, I was hoping that in this case they would see that it was in their interests to help us.

By the time Harlan was ready to turn in for the night he was convinced he was making progress, and I was getting seriously concerned – maybe we would have to try to break free sooner rather than later…

Before we were sent to our tent for the night we were all made to put our clothes in one of Harlan’s metal bags, and that left all eleven of us naked in a tent that otherwise contained only our sleeping bags and some inflatable pillows, because our bags had been taken to the stores tent along with our clothes. I suppose having eleven naked boys in one tent ought to have resulted in some form of sexual entertainment, but I really wasn’t in the mood for an orgy, and neither, it seemed, was anyone else – they were too tired from the journey to do anything except sleep. Only Marlo seemed reluctant to settle down: he was complaining about having to sleep here with us when he should have been giving Killian a hard time in his tent. However, that reminded me of something.

“Did you manage to bring two metal bands with you?” I asked him, quietly. “So that someone can help you punish Killian, I mean?”

“Yes, but they’re in his tent at the moment. I can get them if I need them, though…”

He broke off and stared at me. Up until now I’d just thought of Marlo as a bit of a bully, a boy who liked dominating other boys, be it Marc or Killian, and with not too much upstairs, but apparently I’d been wrong.

“Right,” he breathed. “Except… you’re not to hurt Killian, understand?”


“You’ve got a plan, haven’t you? You’re going to escape, and you need the spare band to do it. That’s fine by me, and I really don’t mind what you do to the other three – your pet lizards can eat them for all I care – but I don’t want Killian getting hurt. I know you think I’m just a thug who gets his kicks from beating him, but it’s not really like that. In a way, we’re friends – he needs me and I give him what he wants, and underneath it all he’s a decent kid. I know the story, obviously, how he came to the school and started boasting about how good he was, but he’s changed a lot since then, and not just… you know, what he likes us to do to him. His head is a mess and it isn’t his fault, and… well… he doesn’t deserve to get killed.”

“I don’t really understand him at all,” I said. “I sort of get that he enjoys it when Nevis and Altur abuse him, and I suppose you’re here to do the same thing – and you enjoy it, don’t you?”

“Of course. You’ve been here long enough to understand why we hate the Konjässiem, and being able to piss on one and fuck him and stuff is great… except Killian isn’t anything like the rest of them – he’s had all the arrogance knocked out of him. Yes, I still enjoy doing stuff to him, but I probably wouldn’t if I didn’t know that he enjoys it too. I’d enjoy pissing in Dervoran’s face a lot more, but obviously I can’t. Anyway, I don’t overstep the line with Killian, and neither do Nevis and Altur, because deep down they like him, too. I keep hoping one of them will get moved so I can take over full-time – I’d be safe from the real bastards like Dervoran if that happened… that doesn’t matter, though. What matters is that if you try to hurt Killian I’ll fight you, but if you try to hurt the others I’ll help any way I can. So if you’re okay with that I’ll find a way to pass you the spare band tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I don’t suppose we’ll be trying anything for a day or two yet – I’ll need a bit of time to organise things with the Greys. But when we’re ready I’ll give you the nod, and you should keep your own band close by when we get to that stage. You’ll probably need it.”

I settled down, thinking that another metal band would certainly improve our chances, provided that Harlan didn’t manage to take control of Torth too quickly. I still needed time to try to make a proper plan, but in the event I didn't get the time I needed, because something happened that I hadn’t foreseen: when I emerged from the tent the next morning there was a thin bank of mist starting to appear further up the valley. The portal was reforming.