The first story of Bathys
by Nial Thorne
This will be my playground. There will be a number of stories here, of a variety of different types. Please don't take all of them too seriously. A few people may recognise me; hello to them, and to everyone else, please make yourself at home.
This first Bathys story will be in four parts. All have been written already and will be posted over the next few days. Trust me.
Usual warnings. Reading further constitutes an unambiguous gesture of assent to the statement: I am not a minor person, nor in the company of a minor person. The story and the Bathys scenario are copyright © 2002 Nial Thorne. You may copy this for your own private use; all other rights reserved.
Comments very welcome at Nial_Thorne@hotmail.com
I was the richest man in the world, they said. Quite likely it was true. Not that it mattered.
The only thing that mattered was that I could do what I liked. Not just in small ways; I mean, if I used reasonable care, I could do extraordinary things, and I had. I had been born rich, of course; but that was nothing to what I had become. At thirty-eight, most of Earth's great monopolies were in my hands: mining, power, travel, electronics, bionics, food, robotics, the grid; yes, and my companies reached to the other worlds too, to the Moon, and Mars. It was all gathered under the one vast foundation which I owned alone, and to which I had given a name borrowed from one of my predecessors: Summa. I dealt on terms of equality with Earth Government, and in my own realms I had no peer.
Of course, it wasn't as simple as that. No matter how great you are, there are certain expectations which you can't avoid, because although money is necessary, it is not enough. They have to respect you too, or the chains of command go slack and unresponsive, and things start to slip away. In some things, that is easy enough: for many people, fear is the basis of respect, and if you are rich, you can buy fear, like any other tool.
But there are other things. There are prohibitions, and our society has a great many of them. I played my part in that, of course, because many of the prohibitions suited me and protected my interests. Others, although I too had to obey them, were painful, and the strongest was the most painful of all. It was only by the uttermost exertion of all my wealth and skill and resource that I could evade it. But in the end, I did.
One of the things about being powerful is that those closest to you become powerful too. Their power is a reflection of yours and devolves from you, but in the end it acquires an autonomy, an authenticity of its own; and you must treat it with care, because it is dangerous.
Our society, of course, depends on inheritance. That is what makes the great powerful houses work and persist, and enables their power and wealth to grow from generation to generation. And one of the requirements of respect of which I have just written is the engendering of children. One who has no children has neglected the future of his house, of his enterprises. He may be powerful now, but his power is built on sand, and can be, in the long term, discounted.
I knew this from an early age, because I had grown up as just such a child. My father, and my mother too, were good parents; they loved me and I wanted for nothing. But I knew that I, too, had my function, like everything else they owned: I, too, was an asset. And when my time came, I did what I had to, and provided myself with such an asset as well.
To do this, of course, one needs a woman, but a woman is a human being, and human beings can be bought. I bought myself the best woman that money could buy: that was Jeannette in those days, beautiful, intelligent and strong. And in due course, she provided what I required, although the necessary processes for reaching that end were not really to my taste.
This is where that great prohibition of which I was speaking makes its direct appearance. Ours is a society with very definite ideas about sex. Sex happens between a woman, and a man. Even the more usual variations are not permitted: not woman and woman, and very definitely not man and man. And - horror of horrors! - nothing to do with children. Not girls, and not boys.
And, as luck would have it, for me it was boys. Oh, Lord! Boys of any kind, say, eight to sixteen. I'm really not restrictive. For example, I have few racial biases: a fair, blue-eyed blond is very nice, but so is a doe-eyed Indian boy, or the blue-black, shiny limbs of Africa, the doll-like black-haired Chinese, the sultry Arab. And I like education and intelligence, but naivete also has its charms; the athlete, rangy, taut and bluff, as well as the soft, curious little bookworm. I loved them all, wanted them all.
And of course, as the years went past, the one I wanted the most grew before my eyes. My son.
Paul was as I had planned and hoped when I chose his mother. He was a bright boy, strong and wiry, but slight, and he was one of the fair, blue-eyed blond tribe, easy smiling, confident. He ran through life, that was impression he gave; he was light itself, bright, impulsive, lighting up all it fell on. That was what I saw, when I saw him.
The trouble was, though, that as the years went by I saw him less and less, because of that phenomenon of autonomous power of which I spoke. Of all the various satraps that gathered under my throne, the one who was the most autonomous and the most powerful was Paul's mother, Jeannette. She was, as I said, an intelligent woman, and she quickly realised that the twin foundations of the power she felt around her were myself, and my son; the present and the future. Me she could not tame: she had tried hard enough, but failed. So it was Paul. Paul was her insurance policy, her biggest weapon, her meal ticket, her passport to power. And she made it her business to wrest him from my control.
She didn't entirely succeed. But she enmeshed him in his education, which she controlled, she steered him into her own circle, she set about persuading and whispering and pushing him to withdraw himself from me. I was to become in his mind the great obstacle to everything he wanted be and do. Through him, it was her intention in due course to destroy me. By the time he was eight, we had become estranged. When we met, the laughing, playful child had gone, and in his place was someone guarded, sarcastic and spiteful.
It was when I realised this that the first inklings of the project came to me. I turned it over in my mind, at first just as a daydream, then a dream; then I started to think seriously, to investigate, and to consider. It was huge, and terrifying. It would mean the end of Summa, even, in many ways, the end of me, but it would be an achievement without parallel. And so, almost without realising, I moved from daydream to resolution. I would do it.
The first thing I needed, of course, was people, and it was obvious what sort of people. The trouble was that I did not know any. I had never revealed my own desires to a single soul. I knew how to find them, of course, knew the places both on the grid and in real life to look for them, but by the very act of going there, I would put myself in peril. Care was essential.
Fortunately, I had already the reputation of being my own man, of spending time in my own company, of being unpredictable. I often went to unlikely places by myself, or with very light protection. I took risks. It was a way of getting respect.
So it was not at all strange when I started to scan the personnel files of the Summa companies. I laid false trails as well as I could, but at the same time, I sifted and followed clues. It was surprisingly easy to make a short list of likely candidates for my first colleague. Nor was it strange when I started going to conventions and exhibitions and conferences connected with the grid, the electronic infrastructure of our society. It was the sort of enthusiasm I got, from time to time, and much of what I did in this period was intentionally misleading.
This exhibition was a huge one, with stands from most of the large companies, including many Summa ones. I visited them, and this was appropriate. But the day I chose was the open day, when thousands of people from the nearby cities came to see the wonders which the future would bring, and many of them were boys.
Darren was a prime candidate. I knew from the records that he had the skills I needed; on the stand I visited I quickly became aware of his keen, unconventional intelligence, and I confirmed his wide and profound knowledge of the grid. In addition, his history and profile hinted at the other characteristics I was looking for. And then our stand was invaded by a gaggle of boys, and his eyes told me all I needed to know.
I drew him away, a hand on his shoulder, into a small room. He looked at me oddly as I placed a privacy node on the table; it would suppress our speech and even our outlines to those outside its radius.
"You make your proclivities very apparent," I said bluntly.
"Mr Donner! I... My..."
"Please, don't try to deny it. And do not be concerned, because I share them. I am here to make you a proposition."
He stared at me, thunderstruck. Later I was to learn that he, too, had never mentioned his desires to anyone. He was a short man, thin, not much more than a boy himself, with a pleasant face and mousey hair. He was not exactly handsome, but he had that kind of winsome prettiness which people often call 'cute'.
"What... what kind..."
"I want you to work for me. No, more than that: I want your help for a vast undertaking which I am planning. More than your help: I want your total and unquestioning allegiance. And I think you will be prepared to give me that."
"Why? Mr Donner, you should know that I'm very happy..."
"You will do it, because I can give you the one thing you want."
"Mr Donner..." he whispered.
"Yes, boys. Boys of all kinds, and all the time in the world to enjoy them, without any chance of interference. Total security, for the rest of your life; and boys."
"What are you planning to do?"
"I can't tell you yet. You will learn gradually, as I think it appropriate. It's far too soon to tell you. Will you do it? I have to add, that if you say no, I shall take steps to ensure that you don't blab. No, no, I wouldn't kill you; I'm not a monster. But you would find it wiser to remove yourself to, let's say, Mars."
It was a considerable threat. The Martian colonies were not places where many people would want to live.
"Are you with me?"
I smiled at him. And slowly he smiled back.
"In the next few days you will be transferred to a new unit, working directly as part of Summa and housed in my own work compound, where you will live. You should mention before then to your colleagues that you may be leaving them, and you can hint that I have made you an offer. It's not too surprising."
"What do you want me to do, Mr Donner?"
"Please call me Max, Darren. Well, I need a grid expert, because everyone needs a grid expert. But your first task will be a bit different, and that is: to find people."
"To get on the grid, and find people who are like us, who love boys, and who have the skills we need. You will be a recruitment consultant, in effect, but you must use all your skills to do it: to ensure that we cover our tracks, that we're invisible."
He smiled again, that cool smile that speaks of confidence in one's own skills, repeatedly confirmed by success. I was reassured.
"Yes, I can do that. This is big, isn't it?"
"The biggest. Darren, it's going to be wonderful. We are going to have a ball."
"What's the project called?"
"The Summa group will be called Primrose. But that is a code name. The real name of the project, which you must keep secret, is: Bathys."
PLANNING AND BUILDING
Of course, I had robots, and they could do the drudge work, and quite a lot else. But we needed skills to direct them, and Darren found them for me. I was very particular; we had to go far and wide, and into some very unlikely places, I can tell you. Darren didn't approach them himself; I did it. My name went before me, they knew my power, and that if anyone could really give them what they wanted, I could. And they jumped. Not one single one said no.
They were carefully chosen, and there were, in all, twenty-seven of them, the planners of my dream: the core team, we called ourselves then. Electronics, nucleonics, bionics, ecology, geology, engineering, psychology, systems, genetics, economics, the lot; even public relations. I took them into my confidence, and they were inspired. Our enterprise prospered.
The core team, of course, have become the heroes of our legends. Some you will hear about in this story, and in other stories, and all of them became important to me.
The first we recruited became my main prop and right hand man and, in time, my closest friend and confidant. He was Michael, psychologist extraordinary. Tall and saturnine, a man then in his early forties, he saw from the start what I wanted to do, and took the project to his heart. I knew, of course, that everything was subsidiary to the internal and personal dynamics of what we were doing; the rest, although vital, was just the scenery, the backdrop and the props. Michael taught me how to do it. He was not a simple man; not always a nice man - indeed, simple niceness was not a characteristic that many of us had, and to start with some aspects of his personality appalled me. But he was good, good through and through, and that was valuable to an inestimable degree.
Darren, whom I always thought of as little Darren, had also become a close friend, and with him, for the first time, I started to explore the world of sex between men. In some ways he was the exception, because he was, in fact, nice. Apart from his speciality he was a naive and rather simple person, and I found that attractive, because he was not stupid, and his opinions and feelings about things which were new to him were fresh and exciting. Never, over all the years, has he failed me or deceived me or caused me pain. He is a true friend.
In those early days, I began to appreciate more and more my good fortune in finding Derek, our main engineer. He was a man who throughout his career (he was now nearing sixty) had yearned for a really great project, something grandiose. The nearest he had come to it was, I discovered, the secret hideaway of the Government of Earth under the Alps. But even there, he had not reached his potential. With my project he would.
And there were the others: Chang and Juan, working the crucial bionic magic at the heart of our plan. Our ecologists, Ortan and Terry. Dan, our designer, whom I would bless so often over the years to come. Ben, who designed our central computer system, so important and with such an advanced AI that we simply called it: Bathys. Every one of them crucial, every one of them, I am proud to say, a succesful choice.
Let me mention, finally but in no sense dismissively, Ian, who became our philosopher and anthropologist, a tall man, then in early middle age, thin and tough, and with startling red hair. He it was who taught us how good is not complete without evil, and the importance of change, change as a thing to be pursued in its own right, not as a means to any end. He was, and still is, a deep and devious man, with many chambers in his heart, as they say, not all of them pleasant, and he reconciles them in complex ways. Over the years, we have danced many dances, have Ian and I; and this was the first.
Security was always a problem, of course, but that was a universally paranoid time, and the fact that I emptied the compound for the 'Primrose' project, and filled it with the best possible protection devices, and the fact that no one knew what I was up to, scarcely aroused even curiosity. We uncovered one attempt from a rival to infiltrate; on that single occasion, I was forced to kill. But even that was not unusual, and simply inspired more respect.
A site was our first requirement, and our geologist was very clear and specific: old rocks, seismically inert, hard, old and stable. We tried various places, and finally found what we needed in the Scottish Highlands. I owned a large estate there, I found, and in the middle of it, a huge old mansion: Glencoram. It seemed that my grandfather had acquired it, mostly for hospitality for his business friends and rivals; in those days, oddly, people enjoyed themselves by shooting birds and animals. I set up a small unit there, hinting that the geology, or possibly the weather, or the isolation, were needed for the project. Building a fairsized flitterport there was only to be expected. And we probed the site minutely, and quickly found that it was ideal.
I poured Summa's wealth into the project. I set no limits; everything had to be done excellently, and to last. My first outline of what we would do had been worked on, and enlarged to a grandeur that astonished me. My core team was surely one the most brilliant groups of minds ever to be assembled. We achieved things which if the rest of the world had known would have put our names into the history books for ever. The uttermost limits of the technology of our society were plundered. Their work was supported by complex computation systems beyond anything that had been attempted before. We developed whole new lines of research, we experimented, we tested, and we succeeded. Barely a year later, our plans were ready.
And then, for four furious years, we built. Tens of thousands of robots, billions of dollars of machinery and systems and structures, everything was provided. Summa's resources were gutted, and people began to notice; 'Primrose' began to be talked about. I didn't like it, but it was unavoidable. We spun, misinformed, and confused; and we were subtle. Right to the end, no one had any idea what was happening, just that it was big. And it was big. The total cost of what we did was never truly calculated, but it was certainly many trillion dollars.
And meanwhile we were recruiting again. This time it was easier, but we also needed many more: about two thousand, finally, and from all round the world. Doctors, nurses, careworkers, educationalists - men, and, yes, about two hundred women too, because they would be needed, and some of them were lovers of boys as well. Every trade you could imagine was represented: cook, bartender, gamekeeper, farmer, groundsman, interior decorator, hydroponicist, maintenance engineer, hairdresser, tailor, shopkeeper, boatman, butcher, builder, forester; dozens of them. And to them we added a few close friends of our team, people who would just be there; as well as some people with characteristics which Michael told us we would need. All these would have their roles, and to them all we made the same promise.
And that was the time when Ian came forward. We had many long and intense discussions, and in the end I came to understand the importance of what he had to say, how we needed the darkness as well as the light, complexity as well as simplicity, how we needed to expand the pack from which we shuffled our cards. Michael agreed with enthusiasm, and so our group came to include a few people who, as well as their trades, had some very strange characteristics indeed; mystics, religious enthusiasts, paranoiacs, anarchists and rebels, unpleasant people, even a couple whom you could, without too much of a stretch, call evil. I looked at the list, amazed at the reach of what we were attempting.
Over those four years, every single one of them was interviewed by me or Michael or one of the others, sometimes by more than one of us, and we went all over the world to do it. One of them can stand for all: his name was David Barnet, and Michael and I met him in a pub in London.
As usual, I started quite directly. He was sitting by himself, as we expected he would be, and we simply occupied the adjacent seats. He looked at us oddly: the place was almost empty. He was in his mid-twenties, and like all our prospects, a good-looking man.
"Mr Barnet?" I said openly. "Please excuse me for intruding on you like this. I have a proposition for you."
I placed my privacy node on the table between us. He eyed it with consternation.
"A - proposition? Er - who are you?"
>From the way he looked at me, he seemed to be assuming that I was some kind of criminal, as most of them did. It was not an unreasonable reaction. My response was to be completely truthful.
"My name is Max Donner. You may have heard of me." Of course he had; everyone had. I held out my hand. "Please feel free to check my identity."
He used his personal console to do this, pressing it against my thumb to check my DNA, as people do to each other several times a day. As I said, it is a paranoid society.
"I'm gobsmacked, Mr Donner. What on earth can you want with me?"
"What is your job, Mr Barnet?"
"I'm - I'm a youth club leader. I look after a bunch of boys and try to keep their lives from falling apart."
He looked at me seriously, and I could sense his weariness, his hopelessness. But he was good at his job, I knew this; I also knew that he was in every way a boylover. Although I don't think he had ever mentioned this to anyone, he was in fact astonishly indiscreet: anyone who was interested could have tracked him down on the grid in minutes. I suspected that someone in the local government agency he worked for was protecting him. He was, as I said, good at his job.
"I have a need for someone with your skills. You will have every opportunity to exercise them, and in return I can offer you everything you have ever wanted."
He looked at me very oddly.
"Everything? Are you sure?"
"Everything. Complete security, most of the usual material rewards, a wonderful environment - and boys. Boys, Mr Barnet."
He was almost whispering, his eyes looking at me in astonishment.
"Let us be honest. You are a boy-lover, as am I. I am also the richest person in the world, and I can get what I want. And you can help me..."
"How can I - I trust you?"
"You either do, or you don't. I can tell you no more at present."
"Supposing I trust you, what do I do?"
"You come with us now. You drop everything: your life, your job, your belongings, everything, and come now. You simply walk out of the door with us."
"And if I refuse?"
"Then I fear that my associates will arrange for your immediate dispatch to Mars. Either way, I'm afraid that your former life is over. I'm sorry."
He laughed briefly.
"I see. An offer I can't refuse? Traditional, at least. Very well, Mr Donner, I will come with you. I have little enough to lose in any case..."
We were good at selection. And none of the people we approached had much in the way of living families, or much else they would miss. Out of all the people whom we engaged in versions of this conversation, only three took the Martian option. I arranged for them to have as pleasant a life there as I could.
THE HILLSIDE PARLIAMENT
By now the camp at Glencoram had become quite large, a small town of temporary hutments, and the nearby work depot was gigantic. But still only my core team knew anything of what we were about. The rest knew just that they were boylovers, both the men and some of the women, and they gossiped and chatted endlessly, wondering about what was going on and getting to know each other. A fairly excited, if very puzzled atmosphere prevailed. I went to meet then often, and assured them that all was going to plan.
It was at about that time that the first really serious problem arose in the project, and in the core team itself. Michael and Christian, our sociologist, had discussed the issue with me endlessly; we had come up with a solution to the problems they perceived, but selling it was going to be difficult, Michael said, and so it turned out. A few people, including Ian and little Darren, supported us from the start; the others had to be argued round, and it took time. I offered safeguards, and made assurances, and by now they all trusted me. We had worked together, and we had grown strong, and close. In the end, they agreed.
It didn't take long for them to get used to being Lord Michael, Lord Darren and so on. It took me a bit longer to feel comfortable with being King Max.
And then we had to go through it all again with the others. They, of course, didn't have being called Lord to look forward to, or the other privileges. It was at this point, however, that I decided it was time to take them into our confidence. To start with they were even more alarmed, but I took three of them to have a look, and that did it. And after all, Sir David or Lady Janet isn't bad.
However, that led on to a whole series of wide debates covering an astonishing range of issues. The circumstances in which we found ourselves forced us into new and adventurous ways of thought, and wild and wonderful theses were brought out before us all. It was a deeply satisfactory and exciting period. If the records of all those debates could be made public, people would be astonished at the standard and depth of the work that we carried out together among those hutments on that windy hillside. Some of the decisions that were taken were extraordinary, as we shall see, and were argued with deep and serious commitment, for and against. In that long parliament, in its committees and subcommittees and working groups and in its plenary sessions, the ethics and norms and constitutions of our endeavour were laid down. We have never had to change them in any important degree.
Certain extra things were added to the project as the debates wound down. Not everyone liked them, but all agreed; some, in fact, were enthusiastic. We were a varied bunch, but by now we had come to respect one another, and one another's needs.
And then, once it was all concluded, Ian came to me with his proposal, and for a while I was shocked. I talked about it with Michael, of course, and to my surprise, after thinking about it, he agreed; and in the end, I agreed too.
When I told Ian we would do it, subject to certain limits, he astonished me by embracing me, and I noticed that his eyes were wet. He told me that by doing this, I had shown that I was not merely a 'banal utopian', as he put it, but a true visionary. To Michael he said that no doubt they would cross swords many times, but on his side at least, it would be with relish and respect; and he named him his friend. Did I do right? Many times since I have cursed myself for that decision, but it is also true that some of the most wonderful things in our history have sprung from it. It has become a part of what we are, I suppose, and there is little point in regret.
But from that point, Lord Ian withdrew himself somewhat from me and the mainstream of our work, and I became aware of certain additions he was making to the project on his own account. I did not demur: it is trivial to agree to something, and then quibble about the results.
However, the project as a whole progressed, and now, finally, the time had come to start. We spent a while carefully clearing the site around the mansion. Then everyone was processed, as we had agreed, and apart from a sizeable team led by myself and Lord Michael, they left to take up their posts. About a month was spent bringing all the systems up; I was pleased to find that there were no problems of any significance. We had planned and built well.
And so, at last, just four years after my discussion with Lord Darren, Bathys, one of the greatest achievements of humanity, was ready to go.
Those of us who were left behind had a huge and crucial duty: to recruit the third and final class of members of our project. Just as before, we knew whom we were going to get; they had been researched endlessly. They came from all over the globe, about ten thousand of them, although in our day most would have at least some understanding of English, and they were a mixture of all races, all types, balanced carefully by Lord Michael and our other psychologists. Few would have much serious difficulty in making the transition, they told us, but there was no doubt it would be alarming for them, since these participants would be, had to be, involuntary.
It had been decided that they should not arrive all at once, but singly or in groups, large and small. In this way, we would have enough manpower to ease them into the project, and the early arrivers would be able to help the newcomers to adjust.
And the first? I had no doubt, no doubt at all.
It would be my son, Paul.
It had to be Paul. It was because of him, after all, that I had started the project. He was its unconscious patron saint, its inspiration.
He was now thirteen, and in many ways more distant from me than ever. But recently, his life had changed greatly; just over a year before, his mother had died.
It had been sudden and dramatic, and try as I might, I could not entirely keep the events out of the media. Jeannette had been driving herself, which was unusual, and her bloodstream was boiling with drugs, which was not, and she had piled her tranport into a highway bridge support. The destination she had registered in her computer I was able to suppress, which is just as well; it made it clear that she had associates who were both criminal and subversive.
I was surprised at my own reaction to her death. I had never loved her, never even liked her much, and over the last few years I had grown to detest the very thought of her. But the things we had shared, and in particular our early days with Paul, were something which could now never be retrieved. It was a loss, and it moved me to an amazing degree.
Paul and I went to her funeral together. That was necessary for the media, but he was cold and distant. The death of his mother of course affected him deeply, and I would have been dismayed if that had not been the case. But he held his sorrow private from me, and, in fact, from everyone.
You might have thought that with Jeannette out of the picture I would be in a position to move back into his life; but this was not so. It emerged that, for reasons that I could not guess at (though pure spite seemed quite as likely as anything else) she had arranged matters so that even from the grave she would keep my son from me. I challenged this legally, of course, but her estate could afford lawyers almost as good as my own, and it would all take years.
As it was, he was now controlled by a committee of lawyers and child-care specialists, and their view of the right way to bring up the heir of Summa could not have been more different from his mother's. From being cosseted and spoilt and deferred to at every turn, he found himself tossed into a regime of terrifying absolutism: rigidly timetabled from crack of dawn until night, an endless round of cold baths, morning runs, formalistic education, exercise and ceaseless moralistic badgering, all enforced by the liberal use of the cane and embalmed in conditions of monastic ascetism.
And still I could not get near him. He was surrounded by a phalanx of tutors, coaches and bodyguards, none of whom was answerable to me. Whenever we met, and it was rare enough, he was accompanied by a hatchet-faced woman named Robson; since the funeral we had never been together alone. Now at least when we met he would often plead with me to take him away; but this was a legal impossibility, and the purse-lipped Robson radiated vinegary disapproval if I so much as hugged him.
All this would now change. We planned Paul's abduction minutely.
Of course, it couldn't be me that did it. There must be absolutely nothing to connect me to what happened. Reluctantly, but unavoidably, I arranged for Lord Michael to contact and contract with a team of professional kidnappers.
Michael impressed upon the link man to this gang that their life was in their own hands. If they achieved the kidnapping well, they would be lavishly paid. If they injured Paul in any way, they were dead meat.
Inevitably, it took some planning, but, as the link man explained, in many ways the straightforward way is the best. They knew their business.
Paul was driving back from London to one of our country seats in an armour-plated car, with guards on board, accompanied by the awful Robson. The drive would take about an hour, and over the last half hour the car would have to pass along small country roads. On one of these the gang boxed the car in with several other vehicles and forced it to a stop. As expected, the guards started shooting, and to do that they had to open the windows, so it was easy for the gang to flood the car with a gas that rendered everyone unconscious. By the time Paul awoke, he was bound hand and foot, his mouth taped, in a black-glassed car and on his way to the North. They were a hundred miles away before the alarm was even raised.
The trip was a terrifying and uncomfortable one for Paul, although the men had bound him as gently as they could. They tried removing the tape from his mouth, but the screams were so alarming, despite their warnings, that they were obliged to replace it. Being professionals, they kept themselves masked, and this only frightened Paul the more.
In Sheffield, the boy was transhipped to another car, which made its way to Liverpool, where he was transferred again, and then again, on a remote hillside in Cumbria, to a flitter flown by Michael. Somehow he managed to persuade the boy to be quiet if he removed the tape, which allowed him to have something to drink. Already he had pissed his trousers, and was feeling very sorry for himself. Michael was as kind as he could be in the circumstances, promising he would not be harmed and would soon meet someone he knew.
Finally, after nearly eight hours in captivity, Paul was driven from our flitterport up the long drive to Glencoram, where I was anxiously waiting. By then, exhausted, he was asleep.
So I looked through the door of Michael's car at the little bedraggled sleeping body, and thought I would die from joy. At last I had what I wanted. Michael helped me to inject a sleeping draught, and I carried my child into the house, untied him and put him to bed. Tomorrow his life would change in ways he couldn't imagine, and I wanted him alert for the occasion. I left him to sleep, although I made sure to lock the door first.
Later, there was a massive hunt, of course, but nothing was found. There were no ransom demands or anything like that. Naturally, the police thought of me, and I spoke to them several times, going to London to do so. They couldn't prove anything; at any rate, not until it was too late. Paul's kidnapping made a brief flurry in the media, and was then forgotten.
The next morning I woke him in bed with a cup of chocolate.
He mumbled, sat up and grabbed the cup before he was even awake enough to look at me, and realise who I was. For the first time I was wearing my Bathys clothes, and I admit that I felt rather selfconscious.
"You! It was - it was you that - that kidnapped me!"
His voice had not yet broken, but it was beginning to develop the strength of adolescence.
"Yes, Paul. It was me. But you're okay now."
"Why? You - you - I hate you! I - I want to go home..."
"Kid, I did it because they never let me see you. And because there's something I want to show you."
"I want to go home!"
"Back to Ms Robson? Are you sure? You're going to live with me, now."
"I don't want to! You never come to see me! Ms Robson says - she says you hate me, you just want me for the Corporation..."
"They wouldn't let me see you. Paul, I don't hate you. Of course I don't. That's a wicked lie, and I'll never hate you. I love you, son, I always have and I always will. I've never loved anyone as much as I love you..."
I talked on and on. Slowly his anger subsided, and in the end he sat in silence.
"Hungry? Fancy some breakfast?"
He couldn't say no. Poor little tyke, he must have been starving.
He might as well enjoy the eggs. They'd be a rare treat where he was going. He couldn't stop himself from nodding.
"Up you get, then. Here's a towel - go in there and have a shower, and then come downstairs."
"Where are my clothes?"
"They were filthy, and we haven't got any more here at the moment. Just wrap the towel round yourself."
He did it, clambering out of the bed and carefully hiding himself from my prying eyes. I went to make the breakfast, and a few minutes later, glossy from the shower, his hair tousled, he joined me. The towel was modestly wrapped round his waist.
"Why - why are you wearing those clothes?"
He had some reason to be surprised. I was wearing a white cotton tunic, and on top of that an embroidered robe that fell to my knees, open at the front. On my feet there were just sandals, and round my neck a collar made of gold. I had a belt, too, of black leather, round the tunic; but the strap that hung from it, fortunately perhaps, was hidden by the robe.
"Ah, well, I wear these clothes because, well, because I'm the King."
"You're what? Dad - have you - have you gone loopy? Kidnapping me, and..."
I laughed. Just at that moment I felt as stupid as he obviously thought me.
"I suppose it does sound a bit strange. But look - you've seen Lord Michael before? See, he's wearing his clothes as well, because he's a Lord."
Michael was wearing clothes to fit his persona, of course; they weren't specifically a Lord's clothes. Like anyone else, Lords would wear lots of things, depending on what they were like, or what they felt like. In Michael's case, it seemed that the spirit had moved him to wear black leather from neck to knee, and leather boots. His strap hung from his belt, quite open and obvious, and his collar, with a Lord's stone, was round his neck. He was quite a sight, and intimidated, Paul backed against me. It was his first gesture of friendship, and it touched me. At any rate as against an unknown threat, I was to be preferred, it seemed.
"Hello, Paul," he said. "Feeling a bit better today?"
Paul turned away from him.
"Son, you should answer when Lord Michael speaks to you," I said.
"I'm okay, Lord Michael," said Paul quietly, without looking round.
"That'll do for now," he said. "We'll get acquainted later. Shall we have breakfast, your grace?"
Together we served the food, as Paul sat in increasing impatience. Then we all dug in, and for a while there were only eating noises. All of us, for various reasons, had been on short commons the day before.
"Why did you call Dad 'your grace', Lord Michael?"
"Because he's the King. I suppose as he's your dad, you can call him 'Dad', or 'your grace'. You should call me 'my Lord', or 'Lord Michael'. You can tell I'm a Lord because I have a collar with a stone in it."
"What's - what's that strap thing for?"
"That's to chastise boys who forget to call me 'my Lord' or 'Lord Michael'."
"You - you wouldn't really hit me with that, would you, my Lord?"
Michael smiled at Paul, who to my astonishment, smiled back.
"You wouldn't! It would really hurt, er, my Lord!"
"Well, yes. There's no point in doing it if it wouldn't hurt, is there? But I won't do it to you until you've had a while to learn."
"You wouldn't hit me! My Dad would never let you, my Lord."
"I would," I said. "Paul, you have to understand this. We are going to have a lot of fun, more fun than you can imagine. In a moment we're going on a trip to somewhere really special. But part of it is, you have to do what the Lords say, and later you'll meet Knights and Ladies, and you have to do what they say too. It's just part of being kid, really. Grownups tell you what to do. And you have to speak to them respectfully as well. And if you don't, well, they'll use their straps."
Paul looked at me solemnly.
"I don't - I don't like it."
"It's not as bad as it sounds," I said. "People won't be lashing out with their straps all the time. You'll soon learn to speak the right way, and you probably won't be strapped very often. And even when you are - well, being strapped isn't as bad as it sounds. Nothing like as bad as the cane which that lot used on you. Now look. Suppose we do the washing up, and then how about we go on that trip?"
"Okay. I guess."
He still looked a little doubtful, but I was quietly astonished and delighted at how easily he was taking it. He had only been here for a few hours, and I had had him kidnapped, dragged terrified through the country and dumped in the back of beyond, but he was taking it. He had not had a very good time of it these last few months; now I hoped I could put that right.
He started to clear up the dishes, and we helped him. It was clear that he was used to this task, and we got the washing up done quickly.
"Okay," I said. "Now, off we go!"
He started to move to the front door, and I called him back.
"Not that way! Come with me!"
I led the way out into the hall, and through the door that led to the basement. I flicked on the light, and went down the steps. The basement was dusty, full of old broken furniture and filthy tools and boxes - the guys had done a wonderful job.
"Dad! Where are we going? This is just a dirty old basement!"
"Oh, Dad! Ugh!" A cobweb brushed over his head. "Yuck! Dad?"
I stood in front of what seemed to be a brick wall, crumbling with dampness, and spoke.
"Open, Sesame!" I said, with just the right intonation.
At once a line of light appeared in the dust of the wall, from above my head down to the floor. Slowly it broadened, and then we could see it was a sliding door. It opened to reveal a brightly-lit chamber.
"Okay, son! In you get! But wait, leave your towel behind, okay?"
"My towel? But - but..."
"Remember what we said about doing what you're told? I have one of these as well," I said drawing back my robe to reveal my strap. "Just take the towel off, son."
There couldn't be any compromise on this: we had decided that no one could bring anything personal, not one single thing, into the project (although in the end I did bring several things myself). Blushing bright red, he obeyed, revealing his dick. Although shrivelled with embarrassment, it was, of course, larger than I remembered, but then I had not seen it for at least eight years; and it was garnished with an adorable ruff of golden, curly hair. I regretted intensely that I would never have the chance to comb it with my fingers. He was perfect. I looked at my son, naked before me, and loved him.
"Well done!" I said, ruffling his hair. "Come on!"
The lift was big enough for about twelve. We got in and the doors closed. There was a short pause, and then our stomachs flipped into our mouths, as the lift dropped noiselessly like a stone.
"Yow!" yelled Paul. "Where're we going? Is this a lift?"
"Yes, it's a lift," I said, as we continued to drop. "And - we're going to Bathys!"
"Bathys? Where's Bathys?"
"Well, in a minute you'll find out!"
"How long is this?"
"The lift is about seven miles deep. That's where Bathys is - seven miles underground."
"He isn't, Paul," said Michael. "Your Dad and his friends built Bathys. That's why he's the King. King Max of the Realm of Bathys. That's where we're going."
Paul just stared at us. Then he edged closer to me, grabbed my hand and pressed close. As the lift plunged onwards for the next two or three minutes, he said nothing. Michael looked over his head and winked at me.
Finally, the lift slowed abruptly, and our stomachs plumetted down to our feet. Paul made a grunting noise as it came smoothly to a stop, all without a sound. Perfect engineering.
The door slid open, to reveal a brightly-lit room. Opposite the lift, someone had put a large sign:
WELCOME TO BATHYS
"Where are we?" said Paul in a daze.
"Bathys, silly," I said. "Look at the sign! This is the Reception Centre."
"Oh. Do I have to call you 'your grace' here?"
"Or Dad. 'Your grace' sometimes. You'll know when."
"Oh. It sounds, well, pretty daft. Your grace."
"Come this way, kid. We'll get you ready."
THE RECEPTION CENTRE
I led the way out of the Bathys terminal of the lift, into a room with a number of chairs and several doors. A middle-aged man with a beard sat behind a desk; he had a neat black collar with no stone, and smiled at us.
"Welcome back, your grace, Lord Michael."
"Hi, Tom," said Michael. "And here is our first boy citizen: his name is Paul."
"Nice to meet you, Paul. Of course, we were expecting you. I'm Sir Tom."
"Uh - hallo, Sir Tom," said Paul hesitatingly. "Is - is a Sir the same as a Lord?"
"No, kid," said Tom. "The King is at the top. Then the Lords. Then the Knights, who are called 'Sir', and the Ladies. You can tell us, we have black collars without stones. After the Knights and Ladies, it's you."
"You mean, all those people are on top of me?"
"Son, you're the first," I said. "There'll be others soon."
I saw Michael, who with Christian had devised our social system, smiling as Tom tried it out on this, the first member of its fourth Order.
"Now," I said, "Come with me."
I led the way through one of the doors, into a white-tiled room with several shower heads. The stuff I needed was ready on a table.
"Okay," I said. "The first thing is to put this on. It's a bit uncomfortable, but we'll take it off soon."
He stood uncomprehending as I put the thing over his head. It covered his hair, eyebrows and eyes, and gripped tightly across his face.
"It pinches. What is it? What's it for? Dad - Dad, I can't see!"
"Don't worry, son. It'll protect your hair and eyes. I'm going to spray you with some stuff, now. Keep your mouth shut, it tastes vile! That's it..." I started spraying him, spraying my son with the fluid which would remove every trace of hair from his body, and ensure that it never grew again. "That's it, turn round, now... Spread your legs... Good... Now lift your arms... Well done, son. Now, this is the worst bit - you have pull your bum cheeks apart, so I can spray in there. That's it... yes! All done. Now - come over here - I'm taking you to the shower, it'll wash it all away."
I waited the necessary minute, and then turned it on, and it swished and cleansed, and Paul's golden ruff, and the fair hairs of on his arms and legs, swirled away, never to return. This was what had been decided: head hair, eyebrows, eyelashes - and nothing more. Not ever. I had voted against it, but had been overruled; and now, just for a moment, I mourned.
"I feel all funny," he said as I dried him. "Oh my God! Dad, what's happened!" He looked down at himself. "My hair, it's gone! And the hairs on my arms! And... and my legs!"
"Yes, my love. You're all smooth now."
"Dad! It'll take ages to grow back! What - what's the idea?"
"It won't grow back, little one. You'll be smooth for ever."
"For ever? But Dad - you're all hairy. Your legs are hairy, and everything!"
"Yes, son, but you never will be. That's what that stuff does to you. All the boys who live in Bathys will be smooth."
"I don't live in Bathys!" There was a slightly hysterical note in his voice. "I live in London!"
"No, Paul. You live in Bathys now. This is your home now."
"But - but I hate it here! I don't want to live here! I don't want to be smooth for ever and ever! I want... I want to..."
I sat down and pulled him towards me.
"Hey, don't cry, little man. This is just the Reception Centre. The rest of it's much nicer."
"Why did you take all my hair away? You didn't ask me! I never said you could do that!"
"No, I didn't ask you. Look, son," I said. "I'll tell you something. When I show you round, you'll really love it here. Bathys is a place where you can always have fun, and you will. You can have fun all the time, you'll have friends and there are loads of things to do. But the grownups are in charge, and you have to do what they say. Mostly it'll be okay, because they're mostly okay people. But sometimes things will happen to you which you may not like, especially to start with. But that's just the way it is here. Kids are kids, and sometimes grownups get to decide. But I'll look after you, and you'll be all right. Okay?"
"Things I may not like?"
"Yes. But don't worry, it'll be okay. But you must do what the grownups say. The Lords, and the Knights and Ladies, you must always do what they say, and then you'll be okay. Do you see?"
"You've got to be kidding me!"
"It's no different from anywhere else. Like when you were in London. You had people who told you what to do, right? It's just the way it is when you're a kid."
"Y - yes. I guess."
"Okay, there are just one or two more things to do here, and then we'll go and see the nice part. Okay? Shall we go?"
He walked close beside me as we left the shower romm.
"Hi again," said Tom. "Okay?"
"Yes, sir," sniffed Paul.
"Don't worry, kid," said Tom. "I promise you'll love it here. Now, let me just take a few details. What's your full name?"
"Paul Godson Donner."
"And how old are you?"
"When's your birthday?"
"The 10th of August."
"That's fine. Now, we have this for you... See, it's a collar. Let me just put it on you... That's right. You see, everyone wears a collar. Mine's black, because I'm a Sir, and Lord Michael's has a stone on it, and his grace's is gold. And yours is red. And just like all the others, like ours too, you can't take it off."
Paul put his hands to the collar, the meshed metal collar that really bound him to the Realm of Bathys, that made him mine.
"No, not ever. Now, Paul, I'd like you to come over here."
We followed him into another room. This one was quite different; it was quite large, with calm colours and soft furniture, as well as the console on a desk. But you couldn't disguise the padded table in the middle, or the shackles at each corner, or the straps. I could feel Paul shrink.
"Up you get," said Tom, patting the table.
"Dad," said Paul, uneasily. "What..."
"Don't worry, kid. This won't hurt at all. But it's important, so do what Tom says. And remember to call him 'Sir', okay?"
Hesitantly, him climbed onto the table.
"Now lie down on your back, and stretch out your arms and legs. That's good..."
Tom was fastening his wrists now, and I stroked his hair, looking into his eyes, trying to feed him calm.
"I promised, it won't hurt. But you have to stay absolutely still, which is why Tom's doing this."
He was completely stretched out now, and Tom was buckling the straps across his body. Then he moved the blocks against his head. He was completely immobilised.
"Dad! I don't like it!"
"Hang on, now, kid."
Tom moved to the console, now, and started the process. There was no sound, and no sign that Paul felt anything. But for four minutes the systems worked, and the contents of my son's mind, his memories, his feelings, everything that made him himself, right to the depths of his unconscious, were read out and registered. And in the future, the collar would continue to do the same, updating the record with everything he did and experienced and felt. My son would be known to the absolute depths. As was I; as were we all.
And it was not only one way, what the systems were doing. They were working in his mind, and right at its centre, changes were being made; and in his body too. They would not show for a while, but they were effective, and permanent. Whatever happened, Paul was now part of Bathys, and Bathys was part of him.
"Okay!" said Tom, finally. "That's it!" He released Paul; I noticed he was able to do this all at once, with one lever. "Up you get!"
"Is - is that it? Nothing happened!"
"Oh yes, it did," I said. "I'll explain one day. It was very important."
"Now, Paul," said Tom, and his eyes flicked at me, "The next bit isn't very pleasant, but you have to know about it. Look at me. You see, on my belt, this little knob. Every Knight and Lady and every Lord has one; so does the King. And if I press it in a special way, this happens."
He did it. And from my son came one awful shriek, and he flopped to the floor, convulsing, his eyes rolling, unable even to breath. At once I knelt beside him, holding him, stroking him, till he finally calmed down. And then the tears came again, and slowly I helped him back onto his feet.
"Okay now, son? You okay?"
"Why did you do that?" Paul yelled at Tom. "Why did you do that to me?"
"So you'd know," said Tom, quietly. "I hope I never have to do that to you again. And that no one else does. But you had to know."
"You see," I said, "If you don't do as you're told, if you don't obey, and if the strap doesn't work, that's what will happen. Don't cry, kid, it's not as bad as it seems. If you do what you're told, it'll never happen, okay? And you'd have to be really seriously disobedient for that to happen, because people would use their straps first, okay? Do you see, son?"
"Yes," he whispered. "I see, and I hate it here. I hate the straps and the collars and everything. It's horrible, and you're horrible, and I want to go home."
I hugged him to me, and he didn't resist.
"People strapping me and shocking me, and taking away my hair... Horrible, horrible place..."
"Come on, kid," I said. "Let's go see the good stuff. You'll never have to come in here again."
Of course he was frightened, and hated it. Of course he did, and he was meant to. His responses had been awful to witness, but they were, in fact, perfect. It was all going well. And after the stick, now it was time for the carrot.
THIS WAY TO THE BEST PLACE IN THE WORLD said the notice on the door. It was wide and dramatic, and as we approached, it slid open by itself. And we stepped through.
It was like going outside, that was your first thought. We were on the top of a slight rise, and beneath our feet, in front of us, the grass swept away, and your eyes went across, over a huge flat grassland dotted with bushes and trees and clumps of plants and flowers, to a large wood, perhaps a mile away. Beyond that, the plain swept away into the haze of distance, and at the limit of your sight you could catch maybe just a glint of water. Overhead, it was blue, as blue as the sky, and against it shone the artificial sun, nearly as hot on our faces as the original. A flight of budgerigars swept over our heads, and not far away, a family of deer looked at us, startled.
Paul stood, as if frozen, gazing out over the landscape. And it was not surprising, for the Great Cavern of Bathys, the creation of Lord Derek, is one of the greatest wonders of our age. Circular, fully fifty miles across and a two miles high at the centre, it is the largest single-dome structure ever built, blasted and cut out of the solid, red-hot high-pressure granite, surrounded above and below by the unbelievable capsule of Bathys, a yard or more of c-steel and force fields and insulation circuits; and all seven miles down. Just the sun itself was a miracle, giving enough heat and light for everything below. For in this cavern my team had built an entire landscape, an entire ecology, grasslands and moors and marshes and forest, meadows, streams, hills and mountains and cliffs and ravines and waterfalls, little pools and valleys, rivers, and the great lake with its islands; and right at the middle of the circle, the central range, and atop its highest peak, the tower from which the lights of the sky are projected.
The great forest and the woods, yes, and plants and trees of every kind, and also animals; birds of all sorts, including birds of prey, even eagles, and deer, rabbits and hares, little rodents and insectivores of a dozen species, elephants, giraffes, zebras and wild horses, deer, wallabies, foxes, cats, koalas, llamas, ostriches, possums, snakes, bats and the creatures of the forest, chimpanzees, monkeys and lemurs, squirrels and stoats and pine martens and badgers and beavers and skunks. And freshwater fish, Baikal seals and otters, and in the margins of the lake, toads and frogs, wading birds, ducks, geese and swans. And then there were the insects, bees and beetles, butterflies and dragonflies, and crustaceans and molluscs... I was told that in all there were twenty thousand species of plants here, and nearly five thousand of animals. And that does not include the pens of chickens, the pigsties, the fields of cows, the paddocks of tame horses and ponies and donkeys. Even that was not enough, because my geneticists had been at work, and there were little dinosaurs in the woods, pterosaurs in the air and dodos, porpoises with freshwater modifications in the lake, and hidden away, stranger and wilder things, things which had never existed before, conjured out of nothing, or out of the myths and dreams of humanity - or its nightmares. And although we couldn't support a population of large predators, no more than our small pack of European wolves, once in while, at random, once every few years, a sabre-tooth would emerge from the vats, or a velociraptor, a large crocodile or a grisly bear, because there had to be danger; it made life worth living.
It's 1963 square miles, but even that isn't big enough for a completely uncontrolled environment. That's why thousands of robots were at work, tended and curbing and encouraging, helping, guiding, even culling. But still, it was large enough for us, large enough for the two thousand adults who were already here, and the ten thousand boys who were to come, enough for them to fade away and get lost, if they wished, and to seek out the wonders of every sort that were hidden here. And the first of those boys stood by my side, his hand in mine, and gazed entranced over what he saw.
"It's - it's huge! Is it - is it really underground?"
And the smell, the lush greenness of the warm Bathys spring, the diamond clarity of the virgin air, seemed to tell us it was impossible.
"Yes. Seven miles down."
"But - but the sky!"
"Look behind you. You can see, it comes down to the ground."
Of course, it wasn't still blue when it did that; it shaded off into grey. In front of it Dan had placed little stands of trees, small hills and outcroppings of rocks, to break it up visually, and you had to be quite close even to see it. But where we were, standing right in front of it, we could look at it from the ground up, up and up, until your eye got lost in blue overhead.
"What - what keeps it up? Why doesn't it just fall down?"
"It's an arch. Do you know how an arch works? And it's really strong, it's made of c-steel. They think that even if a nucleonic bomb was dropped on it, it would be okay. It won't fall."
"How big is it?"
"Fifty miles across. Nearly two thousand square miles. And you can see - there's everything here. Trees and a lake and mountains and everything. And animals, all sorts. It's a little country all of its own."
"And you're the King! Who lives here?"
"The Lords and Knights and Ladies. There are about two thousand of them. And now you do too, and soon there will be more boys. One or two to start with, and then ten or fifteen every day, and then hundreds and hundreds. In the end, if it all works out, there'll be ten thousand of them."
"Ten thousand? Really? Won't it be full?"
"Six people per square mile? I don't think so! Anyhow, they won't all be here at once. There are other places as well and lots of them will go there when they want."
"What other places?"
"I'll show you later."
"What will we all do here, then?"
I looked at him.
"Paul, my love, you can do just whatever you want. Whatever you want, you can do. Provided you do what the grownups tell you. But most of the time they won't."
"Isn't it dangerous?"
"Yes, there are dangers. You could drown in the lake, or fall off a cliff or crash a flitter, or lots of other things. And there are dangerous animals and other things in the Northern Forest. It's up to you to keep yourself safe. There's a hospital, and some of the Knights and Ladies are doctors. But really it's up to you."
"No one will stop us?"
"No one. Bathys is yours, kid. Help yourself."
"Why did you put dangerous things here, Dad?"
"Because it's exciting."
He looked at me for a long moment, and gradually he started to smile.
"Yeah!" he said quietly.
"I knew you'd get it," I said.
"Where do we go to school?"
"No school. Not unless you want."
"No school? No tutors?"
His look was so comic that I laughed.
"If you want to study things and learn, there's a library, and the grownups will help you, and teach you if you like. The library has got most of the books ever written, on paper or on disk, and there are video disks, too, and all the music and pictures and films we could find, and lots of other stuff. It's all there."
"All the books are there? Even - even dirty books?"
I was delighted by his question, and the blush that went with it.
"Yup, they're all there. Read them if you like."
"I can read the dirty books?"
"Sure, if you want. Why not? In Bathys, grownups aren't always telling boys not to do things. Just do what you like. No one will care if you read dirty books. Go ahead. Watch dirty films, too, if you want. There's really only one thing you mustn't do, and that's hurt the other boys."
"But Tom hurt me, and there's those straps..."
"We're grownups. Grownups are allowed to hurt people, son. Of course, there are all sorts of rules about that, but if you disobey them, they'll hurt you. That's the way it is. But if you do what you're told, it won't happen... Tell you what. Let's ask Bathys to send us some flitters."
"It's the name of our computer too. She listens through your collar, and you can talk to her whenever you like. Listen. Bathys, please send us a couple of flitters."
"Yes, your grace," said Bathys.
She had the voice of a friendly middle-aged woman. We wanted the boys to trust her. It came from the collar, of course, and she always seems to speak right into your ear.
"Bathys?" said Paul, tentatively.
"Er... Where are we?"
"Just outside the Reception Centre. Radius 225, 25 miles."
"What does she mean, Dad?"
"Due north is radius 0. Radius 225 is 225 degrees round from that. 25 miles means 25 miles from the centre of the Cavern."
"She's sending us flitters? Real flitters?"
"Well, they're quite small. They only carry one person. But they're useful to get around. Look, here they come."
The two little machines, their rotors whirling, set themselves down beside us, and I showed him how to get onto the saddle.
"I... I don't know how to fly it!"
"You just point this thing. And pull it back to go up, and forward to go down. Don't worry, Bathys will usually stop you from crashing. Unless you're really stupid. If you do up your belt, you can't fall out and she'll keep you safe."
"What if I don't do it up?"
"Your funeral. No one's going to make you. Come on, let's go!"
I pulled back my stick, and the flitter lifted. A moment later, Paul followed suit.
"Ya-a-a-ah! Yes! Whe-e-e-e! Dad, this is marvellous!"
I laughed, and followed him as he whirled around. He was quite right; it was marvellous. I hadn't had such fun in years. Finally we swooped inwards, in towards the centre of the cavern. The little machines had a top speed of about fifty miles an hour - we decided to fly to the lake. It would take us half an hour or so.
"How high can they go?" he yelled over the rattle of the rotors.
"Don't get too close! The rotors might bash each other!"
"They go as high as you like. But Bathys won't let you get near the sky, or the rotors might hit. And don't get too near the sun. It'll kill you. Do you know the story of Icarus?"
He ignored my question.
"Can anyone ask Bathys to send a flitter?"
"Sure. Any time you like. But there are only three or four hundred of them, so if they're all in use, you'll have to wait."
We passed over a family of elephants, moving sedately round the edge of a wood.
"Look! Elephants!" he shrieked. "Just walking around free! Dad, this is all just so cool!"
"So, Bathys isn't so bad after all?"
"It's great! It's just so great! Look! It's the lake!"
We rounded the top of a low hill, and there it was, spread out before us, more than six miles across and dotted with islands, a hundred square miles of it, glinting in the sun. At this height we could see far away the sheer cliffs where the mountains, nearly ten thouand feet high, loomed over the lake, and the great waterfall fell a mile or more into its waters.
"Come on!" I shouted. "Follow me!"
For some time we skirted the edge of the lake until we came to the place I wanted, and there, gently, I set down. Paul came diving in behind me, but before he could pile into the ground, Bathys must have taken control, and he landed without fuss.
ON THE BEACH
"It's a beach!" he shouted. "Wow! Can I swim?"
The beach was the purest golden sand, and several miles in length, curved between two rocky points. In places, more rocks sprang out of the sand, and just off-shore there was an archipelago of little islands and under the water, I knew, reefs and caverns to be explored. Of course, there would be no tides here, but occasionally there would be storms; and the robots would be out every night, cleaning and turning and raking it. Just at the moment, apart from ourselves, it was empty; I expected that generally it would be teeming with boys, but that was all right too. And there were other beaches, quieter and smaller, for those who wanted them.
"Sure. You don't have to ask, kid, just do what you want. But remember - if you drown, it's your own funeral."
So in he charged, naked as he was, and after a moment I slipped off my clothes and followed him. The water was perfect, slightly cooler than the air, which was warm enough, and for some time we played in it, racing to a little island a hundred yards off-shore, diving and ducking each other. It was so precisely what I had always wanted to do with my son that it almost made me weep with joy.
Finally we were out, and lay side by side on the beach under the sun.
"We should watch for sunburn," he said. "But you're not as fair as me."
"Actually, it's quite hard to burn under this sun," I said. "It's not really hot enough."
"Oh, wow. This is all just so great."
"There's endless things to look out for. There's this whole cavern to explore, all this side, and when you've done with that, there's the Northern Forest, although I hope you'll be careful there, and you have to go by foot, Bathys won't let you take a flitter. Underground there's a huge network of caves, I don't know much about them at all. And there are other caverns as well, much smaller than this one, with all sorts of things in them."
"How does it all work? How - how does the sun keep shining?"
"All the power comes from a nucleonic reactor. Lord Danosh built it. It's in another cavern, well away from this one. There's a lot of stuff happening behind the scenes, mostly underground - factories to make everything, all run by robots, and workshops for the robots themselves and everything else. Anything that breaks we can mend it. And there are the hydroponic vats where most of our food comes from, and more vats to make new animals and plants if there's problems with that, and the stores, stores for all the materials we need. Of course, we'll recycle everything, but you still use some stuff up. We think there's enough stores to last for a quarter of a million years, if we like. Maybe more."
"Wow. We could stay here for ever!"
"Yes, we could. At the moment I have to keep going upstairs, to get the boys. It'll take quite a while, months."
"Shall I come with you?"
"No, son. You'll stay here. I'll see you when I can, I promise. You've got enough to do, haven't you?"
"Yeah. I suppose that'll be okay. But it might be nice to come with you sometimes."
"Sorry, lovey, but you can't. Your collar won't let you - if you try to go in the lift, it'll zap you. Just like it will if you try to hurt someone."
He looked at me, and his face was solemn.
"That's the part I don't like. The whole of Bathys is so great, but still... I don't know why you do that."
"It's necessary. I don't like it much, but we have to have that. It's not just you, you know. The Knights and Ladies, even the Lords in the end, they're in the same boat. If they try to leave, Bathys will zap them too. And there are rules for the grownups, and there has to be some way to make sure they keep them. So it's fair, isn't it? It isn't just you."
"Would Bathys zap you too?"
I laughed to myself. My kid had gone straight to the heart of that great debate in the core team. Well, he might as well know.
"Not yet. But in the end, once everything is going properly, there will be some rules which I have to follow. Different from the rules that other people have, because I'm the King, but I won't be able to do just as I like. So yes, then my collar will be turned on too, to make sure I don't become just a dictator."
He lay for a long while, staring up into the sky. I could almost feel him thinking.
"Okay, it's fair. I suppose I'll get used to it."
"Do you like the lake?" I said, to give him a little prize for this.
"Yes! It's beautiful. I'm going to come here every day. For a while anyhow."
"You should like it. It has a name. It's called Lake Paul."
"After me?" he screamed. "You named the lake - after me?"
"Yes. A beautiful lake, named after a beautiful boy. I so hoped I'd be able to bring you here, because you were the inspiration of the whole thing, in a way. A place - a place you could be with me, and be happy as well."
"Beautiful? You aren't meant to call boys beautiful, are you?"
"Why not? They are, some of them. You are. The other boys will be, too, but you'll be one of the best."
"Why? Why boys?"
He looked at me, and I could see he was thinking. Michael's advice was to be completely open and straightforward about all of this; a culture of total openness about sex, he said.
"I like boys. Especially the beautiful ones. They attract me. Do you understand what I mean?"
There was a long pause. Suddenly this had turned into a critical conversation.
"Yes. I guess."
"The Lords and the Knights, and most of the Ladies too, they're the same. They're attracted to boys. In a sex way."
"Oh. I see."
"Does that frighten you?"
"Yes. No... I dunno. Ms Robson always told me to be careful, because there are people around who might want me for - for sex. She said I could be polluted and ruined, but I never understood, really."
"Well, it doesn't have to be a bad thing." I rolled over on my side to look at him. "Your dick's hard."
He blushed deeply. Erect, he was not enormous, but nothing to be ashamed of for a boy his age, and the loss of his pubic hair made him seem larger. I was fascinated.
"We're talking about sex things, and it responds to that. Look, mine's just the same."
He lent up and looked.
"Wow! Just look at it! It's huge!"
"I'm a man, and you're a boy, that's all. Want to touch it?" I asked.
My heart was in my mouth. I remembered what Michael had said: just treat it as something ordinary and everyday, something that anyone might do. Because in Bathys, that's just how it would be. But a lifetime's conditioning and care were screaming at me to stop, to dissemble, to flee.
His face was solemn. But slowly he reached out his hand and touched the side of it, just with the fingertips, and at that point, I nearly came.
"It's - it's soft!"
"Hold it. It isn't really."
His little hand tried to grasp it, but it was almost too big.
"Oh, yes! Underneath it's hard, really hard, but on the top it's so soft and smooth..."
Gently he moved his hand up and down, and the skin shifted smoothly. I groaned.
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing! It's - it just feels so good."
"I know," he said, and giggled.
"You do that? To yourself?"
"Course. Everyone does, don't they?"
"Can I do it to you?"
He paused for a moment. The answer, when it came, was no more than a whisper.
So I took his dick between my fingers, and slowly wanked him, as he did me. It was total heaven. Just this little act, just this moment, made everything worthwhile.
Slowly I speeded up, and tiny grunts and moans started to come from him, and his body bucked upwards into the air, and down again onto the sand. And then, without warning, he froze, silent for a moment, and then screamed out his pleasure. I could feel his little dick throbbing and pulsing in my hand, and a small trickle of his seed ran over my fingers.
He collapsed onto the sand, gasping. I grabbed my own dick and pumped frantically, and in seconds I erupted, all over me, and all over him, over his chest and belly.
"Hey! Your stuff - it's - it's all over me!"
"Yeah. Er - sorry."
Slowly he smiled.
"Does that mean I'll be pregnant?" he joked.
"I... don't... think... so," I said. "Well? Did you like that? Or was Ms Robson right?"
"I think," he said carefully, "That I want to do that again. Later today. And again tomorrow. Twice. Every day. It was the best feeling ever. And Ms Robson was wrong. She was wrong about lots of other things, anyhow."
We looked at each other for a moment in silence. Greatly daring, I lent forwards and kissed him gently on the lips.
SEX AND THE LAW
"Hi, guys!" said a voice. "That looked like fun!"
"Lord Michael!" said Paul, mortified. "I - I'm..."
"Don't worry, kid," he said, sitting cross-legged on the sand beside us. "You enjoyed it, King Max enjoyed it, and it was nice to watch. So who cares?"
For a moment, Paul looked at him. Then, slowly, he smiled.
"Yeah," he said. "Who cares? You're right, er, my Lord. Who cares?"
"The first boy to come on this beach," said Michael. "The first of thousands, let's hope."
"Well, after all," said Paul, "It is my lake!"
"Your grace," said Bathys suddenly. "I gather that you masturbated each other?"
She gathered! As if her cameras weren't everywhere!
"You gathered correctly, Bathys."
"Paul does not seem to be distressed, so I am registering him as available for that act. Do you have a tag? I can bring one, if not."
I looked at Michael. Bathys was doing as she had been programmed, but it wasn't a pleasant thought, just then.
"Available? What does she mean?" said Paul.
"Well," said Michael, "You and King Max just wanked each other, didn't you? And you seemed to like it, yes? So Bathys is saying that people can do that with you."
"Any of the grownups."
"And - and I can't say no?"
He looked appalled and terrified.
"That's right, kid, you can't. If anyone says 'do it', you have to do it. That's the rule. But actually, I don't think that's a very good idea just now, because there are so many grownups, and only one of you. So I think the best thing would be if King Max claimed you."
"Yes, he just has to say to Bathys that he's claiming you, and if you agree then no one else is allowed to have sex with you if you don't want to, for up to six months."
I jumped at it, almost as if I was afraid that someone else would get in first.
"Okay. Bathys, please register that I am claiming Paul."
"Do you agree, Paul?
"Er... Yes, of course I do! Yes!"
"Registered, your grace. Do you have the tag?"
"I have some, Bathys," said Michael. "Don't worry."
He pulled the little tags out of his pocket. He must have guessed that something like this would happen. One tag was silver, and bore the letters 'MAP' - masturbation, active and passive. The other one was red. He lent across and carefully fixed them to Paul's collar. The silver one folded round it with an audible snap.
"The silver one shows you're available for wanking, but the red one shows you're claimed. The silver one never comes off."
"So I'm still available?"
There was a hysterical note to his voice which alarmed me.
"No!" I said. "Not while you're claimed. Not for six months."
"But after that you could claim me again?"
"Paul, you need to think about this," said Michael. "Don't be frightened. You did it with your Dad, and it wouldn't be so terrible to do it with someone else. You just aren't used to the idea, that's all. You'll never be available for things you don't like doing. That's the rule. But if you're okay with doing it, then anyone can do it with you. Unless you're claimed."
"I - I don't want to do it with anyone except Dad! I love him, not anyone else!"
"Doing it with someone else won't stop you loving him, will it?"
"No, of course not."
"Then there's no real problem, is there? Or rather there is a problem, which is that you don't like the idea. But I know that in fact you'll actually quite like it when you do it. It's a question of attitude. And after you've done it with other people, doing it with your Dad will be even better."
"I don't like it."
"Well, you won't have to for six months. But after that, your Dad can't just claim you again. You can't be claimed at all for six months after that. If he claims you for three months, then it's for three months afterwards, and so on. That's just the way it works."
"I - I don't want to do it with anyone else!"
"No, you don't, kid. But I can tell you, I can promise you, that when you do do it, it won't be so bad, and in fact, you'll like it. And after a bit you'll want it, you'll really want it. So, if someone asks you, you can say 'no', and then maybe he'll make you, he could even use his strap, and only if things get really nasty will Bathys interfere. Or, you can give it a try, and see if I'm right. Which do you think is more sensible?"
"I know you want me to say 'give it a try', er, my Lord, but - but I'm frightened..."
"Well, you have six months." He tilted Paul's face upwards with a single finger. "Personally, I'm looking forward to when they're over."
He smiled. Paul looked at him, and their eyes met. And slowly, ever so slowly, my son began to smile as well.
"You'll have to catch me first, my Lord," he said, astounding me, at any rate. "I can fly a flitter, you know!"
Michael flung back his head and laughed.
"Oh, you'll do, kid! Well, I can fly a flitter too, and I think I know a few tricks. You see, your grace? It's going to work."
"I'm amazed," I said.
"It's elementary," he said. "Boys like sex, it's as simple as that. And a good thing too. Paul, you're a bright kid, and you're the first here, so you need to understand, because this is important, and I suspect that many of the other boys will take their lead from you. The boys in Bathys are here to keep them safe, and to have fun. Most of them will have had terrible lives, awful frightful lives, and this is what they need. There'll be lots of fun, amazing things to do, and nothing to stop them doing it. And all the time the grownups will love them, and look after them. But part of that, down here in Bathys, is sex. That's the way Bathys works, and after you've got used to it, it won't seem so surprising at all, because people are built to enjoy sex. But it'll be something new to most of them, and frightening at first. But ever so gently, we'll teach them that that's the way it is."
"But you said I wouldn't have to do things I didn't like, my Lord."
"Yes. Well, you might try something new with someone, because you both want to, like you just did with your Dad. And if you're not distressed by what happens, you become available for that. Do you see how it works?"
"It sounds really horrible."
"It won't be like that. The grownups who are here, have come here because they love boys. Mostly they would rather do anything than harm a boy, and mostly, if you are unhappy with what they want to do, they'll back off at once. It will only be very, very rarely that you are made to do something you don't want to. And remember, there are five times as many boys as grownups."
Paul sat on the sand saying nothing.
"C'mon, kid," said Michael. "How about we go and get some lunch? I'm still starving."
"Me too," I said. "Where shall we go? It sounds a bit daft, but I'm still not sure where everything is..."
I slipped on my clothes and Paul washed himself off in the lake. He was still glistening with the water when we mounted our flitters and followed Michael to the south. The country here was mostly downland, low hills and valleys, with small streams, little lakes and woods. A path snaked through it, down to Lake Paul, and once or twice we passed near little groups of three or four cabins, usually in valleys, close to water.
After about twenty minutes, I could see that we were approaching the side of the cavern again. The dome stops at about a hundred feet up, and from there it drops vertically, like a cliff, and at its foot there was a small town. Now I knew where we were. We landed nearby, and at once the flitters took off and disappeared.
"We call this place Southwall," I said. "Lots of the grownups live here. My house is round the back there, for example, and Lord Michael's."
"How about the boys?" Paul asked.
"Do you see the rows of windows up there, and the balconies? That's one of the places you can live. It's called 'The Flats'. Each Flat has room for five boys. You can see there are stairs from the balconies down."
Four rows deep, the thousands of windows stretched for more than a mile in the wall of the cavern on either side of Southwall.
"Won't I live with you? I'd like to live with you."
"Well, that's okay for a day or two, but once the boys start arriving, I expect you'll want to mix in with them, and in any case for the next few months I'll be upstairs a lot of the time. Why not choose a nice place in The Flats and get it ready? You can stay with me tonight, anyhow."
"Okay, I guess."
"You can visit me any time, love. I won't be far away."
"Is there anywhere else to live? Does everyone live in Southwall?"
"Well, there are three villages so far. Maybe there'll be more later. There's one over to the East, near the edge of the forest, so it's called Easton. It's surrounded by farms and at the moment there's room for about a thousand people there, boys and grownups, mostly in little houses for four people or so."
"There are farms? I thought you said that the food was grown in vats."
"Mostly it is," said Michael. "But it's nice to have some natural food. Especially eggs." He licked his lips. "No one's ever grown a hydroponic egg. So there are lots of chickens there, and pigs, and cows for real milk, and wheatfields, potatoes, beans, vegetables of all kinds, you name it. Some Knights and Ladies will work there, farm people, as well as the robots, of course, and lots of them will probably live in Easton. I expect it'll be a quiet, country sort of place, and maybe quite a few of the little kids will live there, and the farm people can look after them. It'll be nice."
"Some of the kids will be as young as five," I said. "They're kids with no one to look after them upstairs."
"There's another village on the west side," said Michael. "It's in the hilly area there, and it's more like a kind of hobbit village, really, with holes dug into the side of a hill. So it's called Hillside. There's room there for about five hundred people. That's the area where there are plantations of trees to cut for wood, and where there'll be workshops for people who want to make things. Also there'll be sheep on the hills.
"And then there's Lakeport, which is along the coast from the beach. They have a little harbour and boats, and they'll go fishing out on the Lake."
"Apart from that, there are the farms round Easton," I said. "Some people will live there. And there are cabins out in the country, in little groups of two or three. Maybe groups of friends will want to live there, we can't tell, and perhaps some of them will grow into villages. But we expect that most boys will want to live in The Flats, especially to start with."
I noticed that at that moment Michael refrained from mentioning his own home in the Castle, deep inside the Northern Forest, or what people who lived there could expect.
"Let's go and eat," said Michael. "We've got somewhere really important to show you."
We walked through Southwall, past the pleasant suburban houses where the grownups were starting to live, separated by grassy roads and paths and shaded by trees, and then along the streets, with their little cafes and shops and squares. Between the town and the wall itself there was an esplanade of a hundred yards or so, paved, on the other side of which we could see a large, arched door in the cavern wall, with a sign proclaiming: SOUTHWALL CENTRE.
"Let's go in there," I said. "You'll like this."
Up to this moment, we had encountered no one close to during our tour, but now we could see people coming in and out of the Centre doors. Paul shrank to me.
"Dad, I haven't got any clothes!"
Michael and I laughed.
"It really doesn't matter, kid," I said. "No one in Bathys has to wear clothes if they don't want to."
"Yeah, well, I want to. This time. Look, I don't know any of these people, right? I'm new."
"Okay, well, the clothes places are in there, so you'll have come that far."
"O - okay..."
He was unhappy with this, and I could understand that. Our society is unbelievably prudish about nudity, and in reality he had done well to get this far without losing control. But we had to go in. Michael and I closed round him.
"You'll be okay, kid," said Michael. "Here we go..."
We passed through the doors into a wide gallery leading straight ahead, with brightly-lit shops and other places on either side. Music was playing; at the moment is was one of Lord Dmitri's own compositions, I noticed, a happy, jaunty number, and the walls, shop fronts and ceilings were decorated in bright colours and swirling patterns. It put a skip in your stride; it busy, noisy and exciting.
"What is this?" said Paul.
"Well, some of these places are shops," I said. "Let's see, now - over there, they have clothes. Let's go!"
The shop was huge, and the clothes they carried were wild by the standards of the time. Most of them could only be called openly, even aggressively, sexual and revealing; Dan and Komo had really gone to town. Whether they went naked or clothed, our boys would never be permitted to forget that they were sexual creatures, with a sexual role. Paul picked along the racks in consternation.
"I can't wear this stuff! These clothes are weird!"
"They're Bathys clothes," said Michael. "That means they're sexy. Bathys clothes are sexy clothes. May as well get used to it, kid."
The look Paul gave him was extraordinary: half distaste and half fascination. However, he said nothing, but continued to search. In the end he fixed on a white cotton tunic which went half-way down his thighs; it came with a multi-coloured sash, which he tied round his waist. The cotton was so fine that you could easily see every detail of his body. He looked incredible, at once chaste and alluring.
"I feel like a dork."
"You look fanastic," I said. "Beautiful and sexy. Come on, let's find something to eat before I starve. You can pick up some more clothes later."
"I haven't got any money!"
"You don't need money," I said. "Just take what you want. You never have to pay for things in Bathys."
"I don't get it."
"I'll explain later."
Out of the shop, Michael led us along the Centre gallery, and slightly more at ease, Paul began to enjoy himself.
"Look! It's a games arcade! Look! And a cinema, wow! Fantastic, there's everything here!"
"Yup, well, when you don't feel like going to the beach or flying round in your flitter exploring places, you can come here."
"What's that place?"
"It's a club. For dancing and stuff. I suppose it's more for the older kids and grownups, but you can come if you like. Or you could go to the sauna over there, it's got a huge swimming pool too. Or there's a gym - where is it? Over there."
"Hey, look at that shop! What's that?"
"Toys for the little kids, and other equipment, swimming things, things for fishing, all kinds of activities, sports things. You can get food next door if you want to cook yourself. Remember I said there was a library? There it is. Or you can get books and disks and so on in that shop. Really, it's all here."
"Hey, what's that place?"
"You can get things for sex there," said Michael. "I'll show you round - in six months' time..."
"If you can catch me!"
My boy would be all right, I thought. He's learning how to play the game. He will be fine.
"See the door?" I said. "That one there?"
"It leads to the labyrinth. It's a huge game place, really. You can explore in there and get lost and be scared by monsters..."
"Oh wow. There's too much here. I'll come back later..."
"You'll have lots of time. There's lots of places to eat here, too, or hang out with guys. Let's go in here."
The door gave onto a passage which wound round several corners, and then went up some stairs and opened into a large restaurant with open windows giving out onto the Great Cavern. I led the way to the front, and we took a table with an astonishing view: we were high enough to see right across the cavern, and in the distance there was just a glint of the lake.
"I'm sure the sun has moved," said Paul, as we took our seats.
"Well, yes, it does. Today it came up in the east, and it'll go down in the west, just like the real sun. When it goes down, it dims and goes out, and it's night."
"There's night? It gets dark?"
"Yup. You'll see tonight. Actually the days are longer than upstairs, because the sun isn't so bright, so that the plants can get extra light. It's a bit odd, really, because tomorrow the sun will rise in the west and set in the east, and so on, but I suppose we'll get used to it."
At that moment, a woman came bustling up to our table. She was in middle age, stout and motherly, and she greeted us with a smile.
"Hello, your grace! And Lord Michael! And you must be Paul, dear. I'm Martha. What would you like?"
"Hello there!" yelled a man from behind the counter, who I knew was her husband, Dick. We waved at him while we waited for Paul to order.
"I'd like a burger with cheese and fries, please, er, Lady Martha..."
"Oh, you needn't Lady me, my love. Martha will do fine. And you, gentlemen?"
To my amazement, Michael asked for the same thing as Paul. I ordered a salad and a bottle of white wine.
"Look!" I said, as she bustled away, "It's starting to rain!"
Sure enough, the sun had dimmed, and huge drops were starting to fall.
"It rains? It really rains here?" yelled Paul.
"Yup, it rains enough for the plants and trees. Bathys decides when - no one ever knows when it'll be. And there's wind, as well. And there's winter and summer; the sun's not so bright in the winter, so it gets colder. You have to - the plants and birds and animals get confused if that doesn't happen. In the winter there'll be snow."
"Snow? Real proper snow?
I knew what he meant: proper deep snow, deep enough to roll in and sledge on and make snowmen, snow that lasted for days and covered everything inches deep in bright, crystal whiteness; snow that changed the light and made the world an alien place.
"Yes, real proper snow. You'll see."
The rain was pelting down, now. I reached across to close the windows.
"Here's your food, me dears!" said Martha. "Shove up a bit, Paul dear, let me take the weight off me pins. That's better. Now. Are you having a nice time here? Do you like it?"
"It's really great. Do you know they have elephants? And it's going to snow! But... but I'm not sure about the zapping and so on, and the straps..."
"Mm. I see you've got some tags already. That's nice!"
Paul went absolutely purple.
"Don't worry, me dear, I don't mind. Was that with your Dad?"
"Yes," he whispered.
"Was it nice? Was he nice to you?"
"Sure he was. I don't think he's ever be nasty. Not that way."
She gave him a sideways hug.
"Nor he would. I wouldn't either. Nor would Lord Michael, do you think?"
"No! He's a good person."
"Right, me dear. So you needn't be afraid, need you? I can tell you, nearly everyone will be nice, really."
"Well, it'd be a bit boring if there weren't one or two, don't you think, me dear?"
Paul gave her a long, slow look, and then hugged her, and she hugged him back. I looked over his head and smiled at her, but her face was serious.
"Now, if there's ever anything wrong and you want to talk about it, you just come here to me, me dear, all right? And we'll see what we can do. Okay? Promise?"
"I promise. Thanks," he said. I could see he was the slightest bit teary. "Are you - do you, I mean, do you like boys?"
"Not the way you mean, lovey. I just love children, but the good Lord decided that Dick and I couldn't have any of our own, so I like to help where I can. Now you boys just enjoy your meal, because I must get on..."
"She's nice," said Paul, when she'd left. "I really like her."
"I'm glad," I said, and indeed, I blessed the day I had chosen her.
"Do you know, when I lived in London, I had Ms Robson to look after me, and tutors and so on, but none of them ever hugged me or anything. I never told any of them if something was wrong, but I think I'd tell Martha anything. I can't remember when anyone hugged me, and today everyone's doing it." He looked a bit shamefaced. "I - I like it here."
What a wonderful day.