The first story of Bathys
by Nial Thorne
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
By the time we had finished our meal the rain had stopped, and the whole cavern was glistening with it. The smells coming through the windows were delicious, primeval. We lingered over some coffee - even Paul had some - and then, with a shout to Martha and Dick, we left.
"That's a nice place," said Paul. "I'll go there again. But what if everyone wants to go there?"
"Oh, they won't," I said. "There's lots of other places, and people will pick their favourites. For example, that place doesn't play music. Some people won't like that."
We went by the clothes shop to pick up some more things for Paul, and I persuaded him to get some food as well. Then we left the Centre to find him a place to live in The Flats. They were arranged in pairs, with a common balcony, and steps down from each pair. Paths led from the Centre.
"Which one?" I said, as we turned towards The Flats to the east of Southwall.
"The first, of course. It's nearest the Centre."
Which was fair enough. We mounted about thirty feet of steps - I was certainly glad I was not obliged to do that every day - and entered the first Flat in the lowest row.
The door gave onto a pleasant, fairly long room, with a small kitchen at the back, a video console, a table and chairs, a sofa and a stack of shelves. On the right-hand side a small corridor led to a row of five little rooms, each with a bed, a table and chair and a wardrobe, and a window looking out over the cavern. On the other side, and windowless, were a bathroom and a room for storage. It was simple but comfortable, and Paul loved it.
"Oh, yes! This is great. This will be my room. And I can have four nice friends to live here, and we can watch our video and listen to music, and get up and call some flitters, and then we can go to the beach and come back in the evening and have a shower in our bathroom, and have supper at Martha's, and sometimes we can invite other boys round - can they stay? Can we have people to stay?"
"Sure, if you want. I told you, you can do anything you like."
"When do we have to go to bed?"
"Whenever you like. Sleep in the day if you like and get up at night. No one will care."
He stared at me. Until this moment, I think, he had not really understood.
"Anything at all?"
"What if - what if..." He blushed, but ploughed on. He was learning. "What if we want to have sex with another boy?"
"Go ahead, have sex with anyone you want, grownups too. Even though I've claimed you. Being claimed just means you can say 'no' to a grownup, that's all. But you mustn't do anything with a boy which he doesn't want. Bathys will stop you."
"What else will Bathys stop me doing?"
"Hurting another boy. That's all. You have to be careful with play fighting and stuff like that, because she doesn't really understand that sort of thing. You have to say to her, 'Bathys, we are going to play fight for a while.'"
"Or she'd zap us?"
"She might. You'll get the idea. She's quite dumb in some ways."
"What do we do about dirty clothes?"
A strange question for a boy!
"Put them in that box," said Michael. "The robots will come and take them away to clean, and bring them back for you. If there's anything you don't want, put it outside on the balcony and the robots will take it away and recycle it. Same with rubbish, put the bin outside."
"I can't sell things I don't want?"
"No, it doesn't work like that here. If you want anything, get it from the shops. When you've finished with it, put it out. You don't really need to have a lot of stuff, because you can get anything you want any time for nothing. See?"
"I'll tell you what," I said. "I've got to go and do some stuff now. Why don't you set yourself up here, get anything you want from the Centre, and come and see me for supper? Say, about seven o'clock? You can ask Bathys the time, or get a clock. And we can have supper, and you can look at my house and stay the night there. Just go to the houses and ask Bathys where I live. How about that?"
I could see that was just perfect. This was going to be his home, and he wanted to make it the way he liked. It was a new game, I suppose, playing at houses, but it was, all the same, real, and enormously exciting. Before I left him, to my surprise, he stretched up and kissed me on the lips.
"It's working, Michael, isn't it? It's really working," I said, as we walked back from The Flats.
"I think it is. Mind you, he's an unusual kid. But he's taking everything far better than I dared hope. How on earth did you manage to start something with him so early?"
"Did what you said, my friend. He just went with it. No problem at all."
"Hm. I think he must be naturally homosexual. The programming can't have kicked in yet."
"No. It would be rough if he wasn't. You know, after this morning, I think I feel a decree coming on." I stopped walking for a moment. "Bathys, here is a draft decree."
"Yes, your grace. This will be decree number 4."
"Decreed: One. No boy shall be the object of an involuntary sex act until a period of one month has elapsed following his arrival in the Realm. Two. No boy shall be the object of an involuntary sex act until a total of two thousand boys have arrived in the Realm. Ends."
"Communicating the draft decree to the Lords of Council," said Bathys.
Simultaneously I heard Michael's personal console sound, and he pulled it out.
"Yes," he said, as we continued to walk, "I think that's a good idea. In fact, we should have thought of it before. The idea of two thousand horny Knights attacking a handful of still exclusively heterosexual boys is not pleasant."
"Right. They can hold off for a while. We should have two thousand here in a couple of months."
"After today, I'm terrified. The thought of losing all this because of some foolish slip or other... Ten thousand abductions. It's still hard to think that someone won't notice..."
"Have faith, your grace. It'll be okay. Street kids, abused kids, neglected kids, kids in institutions... No one really cares what happens to them, you know. And it's all over the world. We've been over this a hundred times. Trust yourself, and trust your team. They're the best."
"I suppose so. Sorry."
"Results of the Council vote on decree number 4," said Bathys. "In favour, 24. Against, 1. Not voting, 2. The decree passes."
"Bathys, please enforce decree number 4."
"Democracy in action," I said.
"Oligarchy, at any rate. I suppose the one against was Ian."
"Were we wrong?"
"You know," said Michael, "I think we'll be asking ourselves that for thousands of years."
SUPPER WITH THE KING
I really did have things to do that afternoon, and I did them. I had just finished, and was setting about making some supper for us, when Paul arrived.
"Come in, kid, the door's open. Let me look at you. Wow!"
He'd obviously got some more clothes from the Centre, and he looked astonishing and exotic: baggy silk pyjama trousers, and an embroidered waistcoat, open to show his chest. Bare feet, and a golden fillet in his hair. He was clearly getting into this.
"You look fantastic!"
"The man in the clothes shop, he helped me. I said I was going to supper with my Dad, and he said - you're not going to believe this. He said, If the prince is going to have supper with the King, he must look the part. And he flicked my tags. I was so embarrassed! I said I wasn't a prince, and he just laughed, and called me Prince all the time!"
"I expect he enjoyed embarrassing you. You shouldn't be so sensitive!"
But that was not the whole story, as I would find out in the days ahead.
"I brought you these," he said, holding out a bunch of roses. "I know I didn't have to pay for them, but I thought..."
I was touched, touched more than I expected. And, in fact, I told a number of people, and this little act set a precedent: bring something when you visit. I had no flower vase, but I put the roses in a milk jug, and continued arranging the meal, while he chatted about what he had done.
"I got a lot of clothes, and some disks, and they play fine on the console in the Flat. Then I got a nice cover for my bed, and some cushions for the sofa, cos there weren't any. And I went to another shop, and asked the man to make me a picture of the Lake, and I stuck that on my wall, and there's an elephant in it too, and a giraffe, it's great. And I got another poster, it's not of anything, just a design, kind of orange swirls, and the man said it was by Lord Komo? Yes? And I put that on the wall in the common room. And I got some more food, and in the bookshop there's a bit called 'Bathys Books', and I got A Bathys Cookbook by Sir Desmond, it says he's a farmer in Easton, cos I don't know how to cook, and it'll be fun to learn about that. And I got a book called A Guide to Bathys by Lord Christian, which is neat, and it's got lots of interesting things in it, and Animals and Birds of Bathys by Lord, Lord Ortan? And the pictures in it are amazing! So I put the books on a shelf in the common room cos I thought everyone would want to read them. But I do know how to make tea, so I made some, and I took a chair out on the balcony and drank the tea and read A Guide to Bathys, and a Knight was passing by on the ground and he saw me and shouted out hello, and I said Hello, Sir, and he said, Can I come up and kiss you? And I said no, he'd have to wait cos you had claimed me, and he laughed. And then we both laughed, cos it was so strange to say things like that. Then Bathys told me it was nearly seven, so I came here."
Oh, God, how I loved him!
My house is quite small, all on one floor, with a sitting room, a bedroom and my office, where I was supposed to sit and reign, I suppose, and a kitchen and bathroom. But there is quite a nice garden, and we decided to eat out there. Paul loved my place.
"It's much larger than my Flat!"
"Well, yes, those are Flats. If you want a bigger house, you could always move to Easton or Hillside. Or you could look out in the country for a cabin, some of them are quite big."
"I don't mind. The Flat's nice, and it's got a great view. I hope I can find some nice guys to live with me. When are the next boys coming?"
"There's one coming tomorrow. His name's Amit, he's from India."
"Bathys?" he said. "Wake me tomorrow at half past eight, please."
"I'll be there and meet him," he said. "If I'm there, maybe he won't be so frightened. And it'll be fun to show him round, and maybe he can be my friend and live in my Flat."
"You're quite right, you know. That's a good idea."
I lent across and kissed him. I couldn't resist it, and he smiled.
"We'll go together," I said. "I have to go upstairs tomorrow."
"How long will I stay here?"
"You live here now. There's no limit."
"But... but in the end I'll grow up, and be a man. What then? So will the other boys, too. What'll happen then?"
I sighed. This was the big one, the extraordinary and incomparable achievement of Chang, Juan and Artur, which would turn my daydream into a nation, an epic.
"Son, are you ready to hear some big news? It'll be something of a shock. Because life in Bathys really is different. Really different."
His face was serious.
"I'm... I'm not going to die, am I?"
"Die? Oh, no. Not that. But you won't grow up in the usual way. You'll always be a boy, son."
"Tell me, Dad. What happens?"
He was almost whispering, and his face was white.
"You'll grow up, but more slowly than usual. When you're eighteen, you'll be like a fifteen or sixteen-year-old. Then you'll stop growing, and stay like that till you're about twenty-five. Then... then you'll be reborn."
"Reborn? Dad, what do you mean?"
"This morning, Bathys recorded everything about you. All your memories, all your feelings, everything, all the way down, right to the roots. Now she's recording everything new that you think and feel and remember, as it happens, through your collar. Really, she's recording you; we call it 'registration'. Bathys has the whole you recorded; in a way, your soul. And when you reach twenty-five, all that will be transferred to a new body, exactly the same as this one, and you'll be reborn."
"What? As a baby?"
"No. It'll be your body as it was when you were six, roughly."
"So I'll be six, but knowing everything I did when I was twenty-five?"
"No. To start with you'll remember nothing, except how to speak and walk and some other things. As you grow older, gradually it'll come back to you, enough for you to understand at that age. When you're thirteen or fourteen, you'll have remembered it all. And then it happens again. And so on."
"Again and again?"
He just stared at me, too shocked to speak.
"So I'll never be a man?"
"No, son. You'll be a boy each time. Each time you'll discover everything new, all the excitement, all the freshness, a whole new world. Each time you'll have all that fun, all the fun of Bathys, all over again. And each time you'll have ten or eleven years or so to compare it with what happened before."
"How many times?"
"There's no reason for it ever to stop, son."
"I'll live - again and again - for ever?"
"Nothing lasts for ever. Bathys will come to an end, like everything else. But for a very long time."
"Hundreds of years?"
He stared at me for a long while.
"But - doing the same things again and again - won't that get boring in the end?"
"It won't be the same things. The people will be different."
"They'll all be different ages, because they'll all be reborn at different times. Someone you knew as a teenager may be only a little boy next time. You see, you may not be reborn straight away, because Bathys can keep you in her memory banks, and have you reborn years later. So every time you're reborn, things will be different, the people will be different, it'll be a different mix. And Bathys herself will change, too, although much more slowly. There are all kinds of possible changes. No, it won't get boring."
"What if I die in an accident, or get a disease, or something?"
"The same. Bathys registers you right up till you die, and then you're reborn."
"Dad... Dad, it frightens me."
"It's strange, of course it frightens you. But isn't it a bit exciting? To live so long, to always be a kid? To always have something new to look forward to? Can you feel that as well?"
"You'll be dead. In the end, you'll die, and I'll be by myself."
"No. I'll be reborn as well. But I'll live until I'm about sixty, and then be reborn as a six-year-old, just like you. So the next time, I could be six when you're twelve, and it'll be your turn to look after me. Then thirteen years later, you'll be reborn as six, and I'll be nineteen. And so on. We'll know each other in so many different ways, for so many years..."
"Yes," he whispered. "I can see it. It'll take time to get used to it. But... But I think it's okay."
I went and hugged him, and for a long time we were silent.
"Make it less frightening," he said.
I knew what he meant. We had done this when he was little, when he was starting school, or going to the dentist, or whatever; my own mother had taught me.
"Close your eyes... You're lying in the grass, on the side of a little slope, and you're a tiny kid. You can feel your arms and legs, and they're all small. It's sunny, and the grass is soft, and you're relaxed, your eyes are closed... Relaxed... The grass goes down to the Lake, to Lake Paul, and you can hear the little waves lapping and chuckling. And the bees buzzing. And the water birds calling. And far away, there's an elephant trumpeting. Just listen... And then you can feel someone sitting by you, and you're a tiny kid, and the other person is me. And you can hear me talking, and you're sort of listening... And then I fade away, and now you're ten... and there's a little kid lying by you, giggling, and it's me too. And the other side there's a girl, and she's about eight, and she's giggling too, and it's Martha... Then they fade away, and it's me again, and Michael, and we're all three of us about sixteen, and we're talking across you and joking... And we're all happy... Listen to it... It's still sunny... Years and years go by, and we're all happy..."
I let it hang, and there was silence, until finally he gave a great sigh, and smiled.
"My love for ever," I whispered finally.
He just hugged me tighter.
"Is it getting darker?" he said. "It seems to be."
We went round to the west side of the house, where we could see a vast, extravagant sunset display, orange and purple and red, sprawled over the western sky. It occurred to me that, just possibly, Komo was showing off to his new audience. Gradually the light dimmed, the sky turned a darker and darker blue, and slowly, one by one, the stars came out, then more and more, until the huge arch of the Milky Way hung above us; and finally, out of the east, the moon arose. The illusion was perfect, and around us, the crickets shrilled in salute, and clouds of moths danced about our lights. Night had come to Bathys.
"Shall we go to bed?"
"Yeah," he said. "I'm tired. Where shall I sleep?"
"In my bed, with me. If that's okay."
He smiled slowly.
I took him into my room, and slowly, ever so slowly, I undressed him, and he allowed this. Then we were naked, and on my bed, and the joy and beauty of him left me almost speechless. Unbidden, he reached for me, and it was almost too much to be born. I laid him gently on his back, and worshipped him all over with my lips and tongue, as he moaned beneath me, and finally I took him in my mouth. I took my son in my mouth; it was beyond belief, and the taste of him, the feel of him cured me of all the pain of my life, and consecrated Bathys and the future. I loved him, and exulted in the love, and caressed and absorbed him, and finally, after as long as I could bear to delay it, he came, and this time with shrieks and cries, and at the end he was weeping, clutching me and weeping, and my love poured out of me and all over him.
"I love you, Dad," he whispered, as we held each other in the warm Bathys night.
"And I love you, Paul. For ever."
And before she could interrupt, I whispered to Bathys: "Tags in the morning, Bathys, not now."
"Acknowledged, your grace."
Was it possible that there was something softer in her voice?
"Up you get! Lots to do today!"
Paul moaned and turned over, and once again I handed him a cup of chocolate. He blinked, and then smiled.
"Oh, yes! I remember!"
"Come on, I've got breakfast ready. Want a shower? It's in there."
This time he flung himself out of bed without a sign of shyness, and plunged into the bathroom. I could hear the toilet being used, and then the shower, and soon he appeared, just as I was putting the food on the table. He was completely naked.
"Well, I suppose Amit won't have any clothes, like me yesterday. So if I don't either, he won't feel so bad."
"You're remarkable," I said. "I hadn't thought of that."
"What's the time?"
"Nearly half past eight."
"Half past eight?" he said. "Oh, I forgot. Bathys, you needn't wake me. I'm awake already."
"Thank you for telling me, Paul."
Paul and I looked at each other and laughed.
"Did you just make a joke, Bathys?" I asked.
"I don't know, your grace. Should I have? Shall I tell a joke?"
"Er, yes, why not?"
"A man went into a pub," said Bathys. "He had a cucumber in his ear, your grace. He went up to the bar, and said, 'A pint of Guinness, please.' And the bartender said to him, 'Hey! Why've you got a cucumber in your ear?' 'Sorry,' said the man, 'You'll have to speak up. I've got a cucumber in my ear!'"
We both groaned.
"Is that supposed to be funny, Bathys?" I yelled.
"Why, yes, your grace. It is classified as a joke, and jokes are funny, are they not?"
"Jesus! They're not as funny as you!"
"Thank you, your grace. Your grace, I caused a robot to place Paul's new tag on the coffee table."
"My new tag?"
I went and got it.
"FI?" he said. "What does FI mean?"
This time, for some reason, it was I who was bashful.
"Well, kid, it means - it means what we did last night. What I did."
"And you're going to put that on my collar, and everyone will know?"
He looked horrified, and I shook myself. He would need help with this.
"Yes, they will. And I shall be proud of you. And of myself."
"Because you were brave enough to let me do it, and you liked it," I said. "And that I could do it so well, that you liked it. And you are this unbelievable, beautiful, kind, thoughtful boy, a boy who everyone will admire and love, and you had sex with me. That's why."
"Dad! You're crying!"
"Happy tears, son, don't worry. Shall I put it on?"
"O-okay. Do it. I love you anyhow, and I don't care!"
It clicked home under my own hand. It was a mad, wild moment. Bathys was really biting now, getting into us, drilling under our skin, and we both felt it. Probably no one but us, I thought, really understands yet what is happening here, and what it will do to us: it will turn us all inside out. Already I had changed, and so had he. We were on our way.
We finished our breakfast, and then we washed up. Paul thought this was hilarious; why not leave it for the robots? But he helped, and a few minutes later we called for a couple of flitters, and left.
The Reception Centre was twenty minutes' flight away, across a flat moorland, covered with heather and gorse, broken up by vertiginous rocky outcrops and little woods of silver birch and pinetrees. Once we saw an eagle high above us, and small birds and animals scattered as we rattled past. Finally, the grand portico of the Reception Centre appeared, set into the cavern wall, and to my surprise a little group of people were waiting. We swooped round and landed.
A little hill rose up from the grassland before the door, and sun fell square and clear onto it. High overhead, a skylark rejoiced.
"Good morning, Martin," I said, as a young man I knew as the leader of the Absorption Team came to greet me. "Is Lord Igor here?"
"No, your grace, he's upstairs. But I've got everything arranged, medical and dental checks and so on, and we should really have an intensive interview, sort out his sexual history..."
"Hold on, hold on," I said. "This is a frightened twelve-year-old from the slums of Bombay. He's never been outside his city, his English is pretty patchy, no one will have seen him naked since he was two. Do you want to scare him half to death?"
"Well, your grace, what do you suggest?" said Martin, rather crossly.
"All that stuff can wait. What on earth's the hurry? We've got all the time in the world, and he's not going anywhere. Let Paul look after him, okay? He can get him some clothes, teach him to fly a flitter, find somewhere to live and have a bit of fun. How about that?"
"If you say so, your grace."
"I do say so. Now, my friend, my suggestion is that you take the morning to have a few drinks with a pal, go for a swim and kick back a bit. And when the kids start coming in their hundreds, try to take it easy, because the one thing we don't want to do is scare them. Okay?"
"I'm sorry, your grace. The whole thing just worries me sick. Ten thousand kids... They could get completely out of control."
"It's the most important thing at the moment. Everyone will help, son, the whole damn Realm..."
"Having trouble, your grace?"
Lord Ian's voice boomed across the grass, and I turned to him doubtfully. He was dressed magnificently, in a vast golden robe stretching from his shoulders to the ground, but covering only the sides of his well-muscled chest and belly, so that his substantial cock and balls, with their mat of red hair, were uncovered.
"No, Ian, everything's fine."
"Oh, good. Good. And this is your son?"
"This is Paul, yes."
"Hm." He lifted Paul's chin with one finger. "Pretty, very pretty. And I see he's already got some tags. Fast work, your grace, and so convenient that you can push through a decree to keep the rest of us from getting any, isn't it?"
"My father claimed me!" said Paul suddenly. "He's allowed to do that! I read it in A Guide to Bathys!"
"So," said Ian. "The pretty one speaks. Well, child, you need to learn some manners!"
And without warning, he grasped his strap and struck my son two ferocious blows, one on each hip, curling viciously round to the buttock. I saw the red stripes bloom, and I was on the point of attacking the man, as he doubtless intended. But Paul, to my utter astonishment, although caught totally unawares, made not a sound and stood completely motionless.
"Say 'my Lord' when you address me, boy! Or do you think the ordinary rules don't apply to the King's son? Is that it?"
"No, my Lord. I am sorry, my Lord."
His eyes were watering, but he did not flinch.
"But what I said was true, my Lord. The King claimed me, as anyone can do."
"Or could, till his decree. Can't you see he's using you, child? Because of his rank, and because he's your father, he can force his attentions on you, while the rest of us," and here he looked round to his audience, "must wait for months! He's abusing his position by cornering you for himself!"
And then my son did something truly remarkable, so remarkable that, looking back, I can scarcely believe that it happened. He stepped forward, and without a word, sank to his knees, and took Lord Ian's cock in his hands. Gently he stroked it and pumped it, and at once it began to rise, and I saw that although Ian knew what was happening, and what it meant, he was quite unable to withdraw. For after all, and I knew this, he had never had sexual contact with a boy, or, indeed, with anyone; unlike me, he had never been able to function with either women or men. He was entirely a boylover, and this, this was the stuff of his dreams. He could not resist. And my son, still working with his hands, had now taken the head of Ian's cock in his mouth, and Ian's own mouth was open to the sky in a soundless scream of ecstasy, his body arched, his red hair flung back, his hands clamped behind his neck; and then he came, all over my son's face and hair and body.
Paul stood, bespattered with Ian's juices; and something impelled him to bow.
"My Lord," he said, "I'm not cornered."
And the look Ian turned on him was one of the purest, deepest and most personal hatred, the hatred that plots and destroys and murders but still is not satisfied, still gnaws itself in anguish. Is it only hindsight, the endless tale of the years, that tells me that? Who knows? But that is how I remember it; yes, that is how I remember what happened that day, at the very dawn of our history, there in the morning sun on that little hill, with the skylark singing.
Without a word, Ian turned and left us; I saw him take one the flitters standing nearby, and then he was gone.
"Your grace," said Bathys, as Paul turned towards me, "I must update Paul's tags..."
And before I could intervene, one of her robots was between us, fiddling at his collar, and at the same moment it drenched him from head to foot with water, impelled, I suppose, by some electronic fixation on cleanliness; so that when he tumbled into my arms, he was spluttering and laughing with it.
"Oh, kid, you're wonderful!" I yelled, turning round and round, and only later did I think what an unlikely response that was, and how much Bathys had already worked her way into us. Because all around, the others stood uncomprehending and appalled.
All but Michael: he, at least, understood what had happened, and in a moment he was beside us.
"My God, Paul, that was devastating!" He laughed. "Did you see the look he gave you? He'll hate you for ever!"
"He hit me with his strap. And he said bad things about Dad and me. I didn't start it!"
"No, you didn't. And that's important."
"Who is he? And why is he a Lord?"
"I'll tell you later," he said. "It's a complicated story."
At that moment, the doors opened, and as we turned to greet the next citizen of the Realm, I noticed that Paul's tag had been amended: FIR. Fellatio, insertor and receptor. My son's education was proceeding apace, and this time I felt nothing but satisfaction. Indeed, we had both changed.
Standing in the doorway was a Knight I knew, Damon, one of the Gathering Team, and beside him a tiny, brown figure, quite naked, his hands clasped over his privates, his face wide-eyed, his eyes red. He took one look at the group of adults standing there, and at once burst into renewed tears.
Without a word, my son wormed his way to the front, and was beside the boy, not touching him, but whispering in his ear.
"Draw back, everyone, quietly," I murmured.
We walked away, maybe twenty yards or so, and watched the scene. Paul was still whispering, and finally the boy's face turned towards him, and his sobs died away to sniffles. I gestured at Damon, and he slipped through the doors and disappeared. Now Paul had slipped an arm over the boy's shoulders, and slowly they began to walk down the hill. Half way down, Paul gestured to something; the boy followed his gaze, and a tiny smile appeared. They turned towards each other, and the boy seemed to be asking a question, because Paul nodded in agreement, and continued to talk. Then, to my surprise, he beckoned me over.
"This is the King," he said. "And... and this is Amit."
"Hello, my boy," I said, adopting the most avuncular and friendly tone I could. "Welcome to my country. Welcome to Bathys."
Amit turned his face to me, and it was like sunshine on a rainy day. To say he was beautiful was nowhere near being enough; he was without parallel. Slowly he produced a tiny smile.
"This boy says that he is your son," he piped.
"Yes, he is. His name is Paul."
"Is he a good son?"
I was about to say that he was, when some instinct told me that this was not the right reply.
"I love him very much, but he does what he wants. In Bathys, all the boys do what they want. Nobody stops them. You can do what you want as well, and nobody will stop you."
The smile was broader now.
"That is good."
"Now, perhaps Paul will show you how to fly a flitter. Would you like that?"
"Oh, yes! I would like!"
"And then, if you like, he can find you some clothes? And some food? Would you like that?"
"Yes, please. I am very hungry. The men took my clothes. I am sorry."
"That's okay, Amit. Paul, lovey, I have to go upstairs now. Will you be okay? I shall be back in a few days. Are you okay? With Amit?"
"Yeah, no problems, Dad. He's a nice kid."
He flung his arms round my neck and kissed me, to Amit's astonishment, and for the first time my tongue entered his mouth. It left me gasping.
"Come back soon," he whispered. "Please. I hate - I'm sorry I did that to him, and not to you."
"It doesn't count, kid," I said. "When we do it, it'll be love. With him, it was war."
"Yes! I know just what you mean. Oh, Dad, I love you so much."
I hugged him again, and then, without a word, stepped through the doors.
I hated coming back up. Of course, I'd been down to Bathys scores of times before, but this time had been different. In just two days, Bathys had become my home, and the mansion in Scotland, all the outside world, a painful exile.
Damon and three of the others greeted me; outside, the chill March rain swept across the moors.
"Hey, I saw Paul look after that kid. That was fine."
"Yeah, he's doing well. Have you got upstairs clothes for me? Tell me the situation."
"Team 1 is in London, they've got two to get. 2 is in Sao Paolo, there's two to get there, and 3 is in Hong Kong, that's another three. Team 4 is in Kiev, and 5's in Shanghai. The other teams are still getting ready."
"So that's seven over the next three days. Not bad for the little teams, but we've got to keep the big shipments coming," I said, pulling on trousers and a shirt. "At this rate it'll take years. And we haven't got years."
"The little teams need bigger flitters. At the moment we're using five-seaters."
"Okay, go for it. I want thirty a day minimum from the little teams, regular as clockwork. I can't look after you, guys, I have to concentrate on the big jobs."
"Can they cope downstairs?"
"They have to. The longer we take, the more chances of problems."
"The more we take at once, the more likely people will notice."
"We've been through all this endlessly. I trust you guys, you know all the angles. They're bound to notice in the end; we just have to make use of the time we have. Let's get to it. Where's Igor?"
"That group in the Ukraine - there's a hundred and fifteen of them. We've got one of the medium scramliners ready, and we're dealing with the local mafia. It's a bit scary."
"I understand, but that's the scale we need. When?"
"End of next week. We gave the gang a complete list of names and locations, and they are most seriously impressed. But they're not beyond fooling us with the wrong kids, I'm sure."
"Have we got interpreters?"
"Igor himself. No problems."
I relaxed. He was the best.
"There's a really big one in Shanghai the week after - that's five hundred and seven, you wouldn't believe it, we're taking a big scramliner and this time it's the Shanghai local government we're dealing with. Kids for money. They think we're slave traders but they couldn't give a shit."
Twenty teams, working flat out, that's just a hundred and fifty people, and ten or so in the backup group, and handling the kids at Glencoram. And working just by themselves, because no real communication was possible with Bathys; her electronic shields were perfect. The huge net of tiny fibres far under the ground which enabled us to monitor what went on in the world above was directed outward and away. So the twenty teams would work, and the boys would arrive, angry, confused, frightened half to death, and the lift would take them away, ten or eleven at a time, away, down, down seven miles through the boiling rocks and crushing pressure, down to Bathys.
The Gathering, we called it: ten thousand boys from all over the world, that was the plan, although in the end we missed four and got an extra two hundred and forty. It was terrifying and magnificent; we had checked every case, and not a single one was coming from anything better than misery. Most of them wouldn't be missed at all, and many of them, as we have seen, the powers-that-be would happily dispose of, especially in return for a bundle of ready cash. But with every single one we were risking everything, our whole dream, our liberty, our lives.
Ten thousand, two hundred and thirty-six kids, and ten thousand, two hundred and thirty-six stories. Here is just one from that week, as the boy told me later.
JOÃO AND JOAQUIM
João was nine, he thought, though he couldn't be sure. He'd been living on the streets of Sao Paolo for at least two years, though once again, he wasn't certain. He seemed to remember his mother and father; but his father less so, and he assumed that he had left. His home had been somewhere in the city, he couldn't be certain where, but he remembered a run-down shack, and scavenging for food for himself and his mother.
One day, coming home after such an expedition, he noticed two men he didn't know coming out of the shack. He waited for a good long while, and then crept slowly in through the back. His mother was lying on the floor; not dead, but dying, and what pathetic possessions they owned were gone. His mother, terrified that they would be back, sent the weeping child away, with a few words of farewell. When he returned a few days later, her body, too, had disappeared. And that was that.
He lived by his wits, and they were good. He knew all the fauna of the streets: petty crooks, hookers, drunks, drug addicts, muggers, dealers in this and that; and the really dangerous ones, too: cops, gangsters, gangs of vigilantes. He kept his skin intact. He was quick and invisible. He had survived all seasons and all weathers; he had survived an election, a perilous time, when politicians promised to abolish the likes of him; he had survived being caught and put in an institution, where they drilled him and beat him and told him he was going to be a soldier, till he slipped through a window and away. And he had acquired a friend, Joaquim, much the same age as himself. Together they watched each other's backs and minded their miserable joint property.
One day, they were approached by a man, an unusual man. João himself felt he was a North American, but Joaquim had known North Americans before, and said he wasn't. He spoke English with an odd accent, and Portuguese respectably, but in a way that was also difficult to understand, but somehow they got on. The man gave them money in exchange for their names, which they supplied readily enough - they weren't unusual; and hinted at the prospect of more. He said they were beautiful kids, which made João think he must be after sex; this was something they had avoided up to now, but they weren't going to make a point of principle of it, if the money was good. The man made an assignation to meet them a week later, which was odd, but on the whole satisfactory. It was pleasant to be able to look forward to a good chance of food.
On the day in question, they approached the meeting spot with care. It was in an anonymous backstreet, and the man certainly seemed to be alone. He asked them to accompany him, which was to be expected: a North American, or whatever he was, surely wouldn't want to have sex in the street. The possibility of spending the night in a good hotel was hinted at, and that was exceptional, and very interesting, if a little alarming. They followed him.
The attack, when it came, was completely unexpected, and overwhelming. It seemed to take only seconds, and they had their mouths taped, their hands and feet bound, and they were roughly pushed into sacks. João realised that the worst possible thing had happened: they had fallen into the hands of vigilantes, the killers who swept through the streets, scooping up kids and destroying them like vagrant dogs. He despaired.
Quickly they found themselves in the boot of a car, moving at speed. João tried and tried to loosen his bonds, but failed. It seemed certain he was on his way to death. Then the car came to a stop, and they were abruptly hauled out of the boot and into another vehicle, and when they heard the motor, João realised they were in a flitter. They were to be dumped in the sea, as often happened, and that was even worse, for João had a horror of drowning.
But once they were in the air, something strange happened. The bags were untied, the tape was removed from their mouths, and to João's astonishment, they were offered food. The man they had met was driving the flitter, and two others were sitting with them. They spoke calmly, and said the boys were safe - clearly a lie - and persisted in offering them food until, unable to resist, João ate some. It was delicious, beans and vegetables and meat flavoured with chillies, the best food João had eaten for years. And after that, worn out by fear and filled to the brim, he couldn't stop himself from falling asleep.
When he awoke, the flitter had landed, and it was dark. One man picked him up, ignoring the torrent of obscenities, and carried him through the rain to a huge house, standing all by itself. There were no other houses around, which was strange, and alarming as well, and the night was silent, and smelt peculiar.
The man took him inside, and up some stairs to a room. There Joaquim and he were untied and left on a bed. He heard the door being locked, which was not unexpected, and they explored the room, trying to find a way out. The window looked promising, but it was clear they were at least twenty feet up, and they didn't want to risk it. In the end they fell asleep on the blissful softness, and there they were when a man awoke them.
The new man spoke perfect Brazilian Portuguese and cheerfully answered their obscenities in a way that earned their respectful silence. Then he offered them more food, and they accepted, after which he said they would be going on a trip, but they wouldn't be hurt. For the first time, João asked what was happening, and what the men were going to do with them. Nothing, the man said, they were just being taken to a new place, where they would be safe and could do what they liked.
Obviously this was a lie, so João relapsed into resentful silence. He had offered a straightforward transaction - a request for information - and had simply been lied to. He wouldn't try again. The man seemed to understand this, and just smiled at João. Wait and see, little rat, he said, wait and see. João ignored him.
Then they were taken downstairs, and down again into a filthy room, and there, to his horror, João was told to remove his clothes. Once again it seemed clear that they were to be executed, but João didn't see what else he could do. He obeyed, but Joaquim fought viciously, and managed to bite one of the swearing men quite seriously, before they got him stripped. They were dragged, screaming and struggling, into a little room, which, horrifically, then began to drop. At this point João tried to remember the prayers his mother had taught him, as it was clear that in seconds he would be dead; but the men seemed completely unworried, apart from the bitten one, who was alternating between swearing in English and laughing. João thought they must be mad.
But the little room didn't crash; instead it came to a stop, and the door opened again. The men dragged them out, still swearing and protesting. There, the Portuguese-speaking man offered them a deal. They would do what they were told for twenty minutes, after which they would be set free. Once again, João assumed that sex was in the offing, but as they didn't seem to have much choice, he agreed, and so, this time, did Joaquim.
The men then covered their heads with hoods, and sprayed them with something, after which they were given a shower, an extremely thorough one, including their hair. It went on and on, an experience like nothing João had ever had, and after a while he found he was actually enjoying it. At the end, he realised that he was, to his surprise, clean. He had never been clean before; it was an unexpected and rather pleasant feeling.
Then they were asked some questions, most of which they couldn't answer, and strange red collars were put round their necks. After that, they were led into another room and one by one tied to a table, which was terrifying to an amazing degree, and left for a while. And after that the Portuguese-speaking man untied them, and talked to them very carefully. Now they were in a new country, he said, called Bathys. This country had Lords, and you could tell them by the kind of collars they had, and they must be obeyed. There were also Knights and Ladies, and they also must be obeyed, and he if disobeyed, he would be hit with a strap. This João understood; at least is was better than being shot. But if they were really seriously disobedient, the man said, they would be shocked.
And then he demonstrated what that meant. And that was so bad that João collapsed on the floor and pissed himself. Then he rolled up in a ball and screamed and screamed, and wouldn't unroll, and he cursed them all, and their mothers, and screamed some more. And the men knelt on the floor and held him, and said it wouldn't happen again, but he knew what they were now, killers and torturers, who had brought him to this place to kill him, and he stayed rolled up, and wouldn't move, and Joaquim did the same. And he screamed at them, calling them killers and vigilante sons-of-whores, and said they should kill him now, he wasn't going to be tormented any more, and he wouldn't move until they finally did it. Then he rolled up even tighter, and was silent, praying as best he could, and expecting to die any moment.
The men held him for half an hour or more, trying to get him to uncurl, but finally they stopped and left. And João stayed curled up, because he knew they would kill him any moment, and probably they had gone to get a gun, or fetch the man who did the actual killing. But after maybe another half hour the door opened, and another person came in. And peeping between his fingers, João saw that this was a kid, naked just like himself, but a bit bigger and with blond curly hair. And João thought that he was maybe the most beautiful person he'd ever seen.
And the kid sat down on the floor, and leaned against João's back, and for a long while he said nothing. Then he said that João's back was very hard. He spoke English, but very slowly and carefully, so that João could understand. And João said, so don't lean against it. And the boy said, okay, and sat up cross legged. Then he said to João, would you like a chocolate? And he held it up, and João could almost smell it and the thought of tasting it was too much. So slowly he reached out a hand and took it, and ate it, and it was the most delicious thing he could imagine. And João had been crying for so long now that he felt all quiet inside, and the boy had a box full of the chocolates, dozens of them, and he shared them with João one by one, telling him which were his favourites, and João didn't agree with him, and said so, and they argued a bit about this. And as this was going on, João slowly uncurled, and in the end he was sitting next to the boy, and Joaquim did the same, and they ate the chocolates together.
Then the boy said, let's get out of here, I hate this place, and João said, what about the men? And the boy said, they won't stop us. And João said, I don't believe you. And the boy said, well, why don't we try? What have we got to lose? And João could see the sense in this, and so could Joaquim, so they stood up, and carefully opened the door, and there was no one there. So they followed the boy into the next room, and that too was empty, but then João saw the Portuguese-speaking man who had shocked them sitting slumped in the corner, and João could see that he had been crying, and he couldn't make this out at all. But the boy ignored the man, so João hoped that in his grief, whatever it was, he wouldn't notice them, and they crept through the room. But the boy wasn't creeping; he was walking upright as if he had no fear, and João loved him for this.
Finally they came to a big door, and it opened, and João realised they had escaped. And when he got out, he found himself in a place so beautiful that after a moment he decided he had died and gone to heaven, and he and Joaquim just stood there naked and looked at it. And the boy said, no, they were still alive, and this was their home now, and everything would be all right, and they would be safe and never have to be without food again, and everything they wanted they could have, and they could do whatever they liked. And three little flitters flew up, and the boy explained how to fly them, and it was the most wonderful thing that João had ever done. So they followed the boy in their flitters, and, what do you know? In the end, the boy was right.
When I heard the story about Paul and the two Brazilian boys, I was beside myself with pride and delight. How I longed to see him again! But by then I was in Kiev; a hitch had arisen about the 115 Ukrainian boys, and I was needed to twist the mafia men's arms. It was a pleasure. The kids started to arrive at the flitter hangar where they would wait to be collected, but more hitches arose. As Damon had expected, many of them were the wrong boys; many of them, even, were in fact girls. They were in the most dreadful state, and I devoted several days to finding places for the ones we didn't need, funding visits to hospital and getting them settled. Finally it was necessary to demonstrate our determination in the strongest possible fashion; and finally things started happening, and the boys arrived.
There was a further delay, getting clearance for the entry of the scramliner, one of Summa's fleet, although flown by our people; it was fortunate, in a sense, in that it gave us a chance to prepare the boys for travel. They were malnourished, many bore the marks of serious abuse; all were totally confused and terrified. Igor worked endlessly, day and night, trying to calm their fears and ease the most disturbed. For the rest of us there was little we could do except fetch and carry, and hug; few of the boys spoke anything but Ukrainian.
At last the scramliner arrived, and with enormous efforts we were able to persuade our passengers to board it. On the very runway, there were still problems, and bribes to be paid; and then finally we were on our way.
Once again it was dark when we arrived, and raining, and the boys were exhausted. It was in any case far too late to consider moving them downstairs that night. We managed to bed them down in the deserted hutments, and get them fed.
To my surprise, Martha and Dick were upstairs, helping to organise things and providing the food. It was a joy to see them, and once the boys were settled, we collapsed wearily in the kitchen with a bottle of whisky.
It was night by now, too late for the trip down, so we had supper and chatted for a long while.
"So, how's Paul doing, Martha?"
"He's been to meet every new group, did you know that? You heard about the Brazilian boys? They were just lying on the floor, wetting themselves and screaming, poor little wretches, after they'd been zapped, and poor Ernesto who did it, it doesn't seem like he'll ever forgive himself, they had to put him on tranquilisers..."
"Your grace," said Dick, "I dunno, but to do that to little kids like that, after all they've been through, really, I can't..."
"Yes. We never meant them to do it to them all; I thought that Tom and the others would show a bit more initiative, to be honest. Anyhow, for the present I've ordered it stopped. Heaven knows what would happen if they started zapping the Ukrainians, in batches of five, I suppose! Really, some people have no sense."
"Anyhow," said Martha, "The boys were screaming and lying there, all curled up, shouting that Tom and the others were vigilante murderers and cursing them, and Tom came out to the front, just to see if there was anyone there who could help, and the only person there was Paul."
"What? Where was the Absorption Team? Martin and company?"
"Ah. Well, that's another story," said Dick. "I think you'd better look into that yourself, your grace."
"So, Paul asked what was happening," Martha went on. "And they told him, and Paul just shouted at them to get out of there, and Tom lost his temper and started hitting him with his strap, and Jack, he was one of the upstairs group, he had to hold him back, and Paul just stormed into the Reception Centre and shouted at them all to get out, and they did, except for Ernesto, who was just a wreck by then, poor man. So Paul snatched up a box of chocolates which Tom had been eating and crept into the room, and Jack stood in front of the door and wouldn't let anyone in, and about half an hour later Paul brought them out. Then he got them onto flitters and took them back to Southwall, and now they're staying in his Flat. J & J, we call them, because, you see, they go around with Paul everywhere, his minders, we say, it's like they'd defend him to the death. No one else could get through to them to start with..."
"My God. Martha, I'm so..."
She patted my hand.
"Yes, dear. They call him the Prince, you know, the kids do. He doesn't like it, but they do. There're nearly thirty boys now, and they all worship him. And he's got it arranged so that there's always one or two boys there when new ones arrive, and they take them to Southwall and he has some clothes ready for them, and he finds them a Flat, and usually he takes them to the lake for a swim. And then they come and have supper with me, and if there're any problems I have a little chat, and after that, if they're old enough they go to the games arcade for a bit, and by bedtime they're usually as right as rain, bless him."
And why hadn't I arranged all this, I asked myself. What on earth were the Absorption Team doing, and why in Bathys' name was it left to a thirteen-year-old boy to carry out this vital task?
My fury must have shown in my face, because Martha hugged me.
"Don't blame yourself, me dear. You can't look after everything personally, with you in Kiev and heaven knows where, and he's having the time of his life. He'll always remember this, won't he? And the other boys that helped, they'll always remember that they did their bit. Now that's something."
"I suppose so. But I want him to..."
"You're forgetting. He's meant to do what he wants, isn't that it? Don't you think that maybe what he wants to do at the moment is to help his Dad? And he can't come up here..."
"And I can't go down. Not yet. Tomorrow I have to go to Shanghai..."
"I hope you don't mind me saying, your grace," said Dick, "But you should come down, you know. Soon. It's not the same without you."
I was touched. I didn't hear his warning, although it was clear enough.
"Thanks, Dick. I'll be back in a few days, I won't have to wait for the kids this time, and then I can take a couple of days off."
We chatted on, and it was late before we got to bed. I was getting an uneasy feeling; something wasn't right, that was clear, and I resolved to go down as soon as I could and sort it out. The world outside Bathys had lost its appeal, and I desperately wanted to see Paul again. But so far I had no idea of the extent of our problem.
Getting the kids downstairs the next day was a logistic nightmare. Igor was still asleep after nearly a week awake, and I gave orders not to disturb him, so we were left with sign language and a few words of broken English to communicate with our charges. We divided them into groups of five and sent them down, each with one of our team; after the first lot had disappeared into the bowels of the earth, the rest flatly refused to go. In the end we had to arrange for one of the first group to come back up and report, and then, at last, we could get the shuttle started; five boys every ten minutes or so.
After five such groups, our team members returned in alarm. It was chaos down there, they said; the Reception Team was completely overwhelmed, and tempers were getting frayed. They relayed an urgent request that Igor should come, and, reluctantly, I agreed. The exhausted man was awoken, dressed, and packed off downstairs, and the shuttle resumed; while it was still in progress, I had to leave.
Fortunately this time the problems were not so great. The Shanghai city authorities simply wished to meet the boss, and they did. Once the arrangements for transferring the funds were satisfactorily agreed, I left things to my team, and returned to Scotland.
Martha was upstairs again, making arrangements for feeding the Chinese boys when they arrived. When we had finished for the day, we once again settled in the kitchen for a few drams.
"You missed the Ukrainian mess," she said.
"No, I was here, remember?"
"Not downstairs, me dear. I didn't go down until the end, but I heard about it later. The boys started to arrive, poor naked lambs, and Tom had two or three helpers, but of course they couldn't speak to the boys, so they tried just to manhandle them. And when the first of them was put in a hood to shower him, all hell broke loose, they all thought they were going to be gassed, poor darlings, so they had two men keeping the kids at bay, using straps, while the other two dragged them through the showers and the registration and so on, one by one, screaming and shouting, and it was taking ages, and the little dears kept arriving and arriving, and there were more and more of them, standing there naked and terrified, with two men walking up and down, strapping them if they moved. And out the front there was Martin from the Absorption Team and about twenty of our boys, including Paul, waiting for them.
"So finally the Ukrainian kids just rushed the men and overwhelmed them, and charged out of the centre, about fifty of them. And for a moment they just stood on the grass and looked at our kids, and then Paul started to get things organised, and he divided them up into groups of five or six, with a couple of our boys, trying to explain. And they had that Russian kid, Andrei, who came last week, the one who's such a looker, and the Ukrainians could more-or-less understand him. So Paul explained what was going to happen and Andrei translated, and at last he got them to agree to be processed, group by group, with our boys going with them.
"So the first group started to go in, and Paul and Amit with them. J & J weren't there, because Paul had persuaded them to go to the dentist, finally, even though they were terrified, the Absorption Team had been hassling him about that. And the moment they came through the door, Martin started to shout, 'Now! Get them now!', and Tom and the others just descended on them, shouting at Paul and Amit to stay outside, and when they objected they started to strap them, and finally they were zapped. And the moment the other kids saw this, they all scattered to the four winds, of course, out into the countryside. And at that moment Igor arrived from upstairs, and Tom and Martin and the others were out, chasing them, screaming and threatening them, and Paul and Amit were just lying on the floor, sobbing."
"For God's sake, Martha!"
She held my hand.
"And Igor got them to explain what had happened, and they went outside, and Igor yelled at Tom and his group and Martin to go the fuck inside and threatened to zap them. So they did. And of course the Ukrainians knew Igor and trusted him, and in the end he and Paul and Andrei, with the rest of our kids helping, got them all rounded up, and they stood round and reassured them while they were processed, and at last it was over, all 115 of them. So Igor got a couple of transports and shipped them all to Southwall, and Paul and Andrei got them divided up into Flats, mostly three Ukrainians and one of the original kids to a Flat, and gradually things quietened down. Igor is absolutely spitting blood, I can tell you. But he's just in love with Paul, you can see it when they meet, it's so sweet, because he's such a lovely man."
At the end of this recital I was in tears, tears of pride and love and fury. I was going to sort this out and make changes! I went to bed in anguish, wondering what on earth I was going to find downstairs and desperate to see Paul. But still I was unaware of the the full depth of what we faced.
A TRIP TO EASTON
Martha woke me for breakfast, and I dressed in my Bathys clothes with relief. A few minutes later we entered the lift, and we were down.
Tom looked a little shame-faced, I thought, and with some reason.
"Good morning, your grace, welcome back."
"Yes, Tom. I hear that Paul has had several encounters with your strap."
"Your grace, I'm sorry, I know he's your son, but in many ways he is the most vexing child..."
"He's a boy, man. It doesn't matter who the fuck he is, a boy is to be treated with kindness and respect. Have you forgotten all the stuff we decided upstairs? The boys you meet, they've been treated like shit all their lives, they don't need any more of that stuff. I'm not pleased with what I hear, Tom, and I'd thought better of you."
"Your grace, we have regulations..."
"The regulations are to be applied with humanity and common sense. I thought this went without saying, but seemingly that isn't the case. You'll hear more of this."
Wisely, Tom was silent, and I felt a little ashamed of my outburst. We went outside, and the land of Bathys, stretched out before us, calmed me down.
"Bathys? Could you tell me where Paul is just now?"
"He is in Easton, your grace."
"In Easton? Why's he there, for heaven's sake?"
"I do not know, your grace. He went there yesterday with five other boys."
"Really? Who were they?"
"Jess and Kev, your grace, and three new boys, Akpi, Toko and Ngolo. They arrived yesterday."
"Oh, yes, the little Nigerians. Could you relay to Paul for me?"
"Yes, your grace, but he is still asleep. I expect he is tired. It was a long walk."
"A long walk? Where did he walk?"
"He set out for Easton, your grace, with the five others. Jess and Kev came from Southwall at his request; then they left their flitters here, and walked. Part of the way they went by transport."
"He walked to Easton? It must be forty miles! I don't get this. Shall we go to Easton, Martha?"
"Oh, that'll be fun. I've never been there!" she said.
We called for flitters, and I giggled as Martha mounted hers.
"Now you just stop that, your grace, laughing at a Lady, the liberty!"
And then, shrieking with laughter like kids, we took off. Even flying it took us nearly three-quarters of an hour. I'd never been on such a long trip, and I fell in love with Bathys all over again: the huge open grasslands, the lake itself, spread out beneath us and dotted with islands, the margins alive with birds, and then, new to me too, the farmlands of the east, the orchards and the fields of wheat and oats and barley, cows in their paddocks, little winding lanes and here and there a farm with its barns and sheds, and a robot or two, plodding stolidly through their tasks. It looked as if it had been there for ever, and yet none of it was more than a couple of years old. And then, finally, the village of Easton, nestling in its valley, the little houses curled round the narrow roads, the short row of shops facing the green; and there we landed.
"Oh, my," said Martha. "It's... it's just like home. Oh my..."
To my surprise, two tears were running down her round, comfortable face, and I was glad of a chance to hug this valiant woman, and comfort her for a moment.
"Where's Paul, Bathys?"
"Take the road in front of you; the third house on the left."
A trio of boys were playing football on the green, shouting in Ukrainian. It was a happy sight, and I was reassured. The house was on two floors, and the door was wooden, a cheery red. When we knocked, a man of about twenty-five appeared.
"Hello? Oh, my God! Your grace, I didn't... Please, come in, come in, Lady Martha..."
He led us into a comfortable-looking kitchen. Two boys of about fifteen were making the most of their breakfast, and looked up when we came in. They were both dark haired, totally indistinguishable, and as bright as buttons, and I remembered about them: twins, snatched from the not-so-tender care of their father in London.
"I'm Desmond," said the man, "And these are Jess and Kev."
"Martha!" said the twins together, and then they were hugging her, and she them.
"Now boys," she said, "This is the King, so mind your P's and Q's!"
"Hello, King!" said one.
"You the Prince's Dad?" said the other.
Their accents were pure Cockney. I laughed.
"Which of you is which?"
"...and e's Kev!" they said, pointing at each other, and then fell about, shrieking.
"And where's Paul?"
At that moment, a side door opened, and there he was: I could see the wooden stairs behind him, and the three tiny jet-black kids, holding onto his legs.
He stepped towards me, his face twisting, and I folded him into my arms. I could feel him sobbing, and I comforted him, comforted his loneliness, and let him be a boy again. Then he let me go, and helped Martha and Desmond get the kids, chatting happily to each other in Yoruba, into three chairs.
"Prince!" yelled one. "Please Prince, juice!"
They must have been five years old, or at the most, six.
"Juice?" said another. "Sir Des-mond, yes, sir! Good morning!"
"Hello, lady!" shouted the third. "Nice lady? Yes?"
We all burst out laughing. Desmond brought me and Martha and the twins some coffee, and poured apple juice for Paul and the three little ones. Our second breakfast was uproarious, and through it all, Paul sat beside me, holding my hand as if he were scared I would run away.
"We walked!" said one of the little ones. "We walked and walked and walked. Then Jess carried me!"
"Yes," I said, "What was this? Walking from the Reception Centre? Didn't you get tired?"
"Oh, Dad," said Paul, and for a moment I thought he was going to cry again.
"It wasn't the Prince's fault!" said Jess (or Kev). "Don't you go strappin im, King!"
"I'm not strapping anyone," I said, quietly. "Just tell me what happened. Nah!" I held up my hand as both the twins started shouting. "You, son."
"I went to the Reception Centre to get the kids, cos it was my turn, and Kev went the day before. And then the kids turned up, and they were terrified as usual, but at least Tom hadn't zapped them." He sniffed. "But he said they had to go to Easton to stay with Sir Desmond, the - the Absorption Team had decided."
"Useless fucks," muttered Kev (or Jess).
"Wasn't there anyone else there?"
"No, course not. There never is now. So I had to work out how to get them to Easton."
"Didn't you ask Bathys?"
"Yes, but she wouldn't help."
"Bathys? Why didn't you help?"
"I sent some flitters, your grace."
"Those kids can't fly flitters!"
"Yes, so Paul said. But why not?"
"Because they are only five years old."
"Paul said that, but I do not understand. It is clear that they are easily strong enough to manipulate the controls."
"Bathys, a five-year-old does not have the necessary coordination, concentration or understanding to navigate a flitter safely over such a long journey." I sighed. "Please record this fact."
"Why did you not send a transport?"
"Your grace, all the transports of appropriate size were in use, in connection with the timber planting programme, which was designated as of higher priority than Paul's request by Sir Oliver, the leader of the Timber Team. The larger transports I considered inappropriate, considering the size of the load, and seeing that flitters were available. Paul disagreed, but as he is a boy, Sir Oliver outranks him."
I lost it; I found myself hitting the table.
"Bathys. Record this. Regardless of what anyone says, the care of newly-arrived boys, and their transport, is of higher priority than anything! Than anything at all! This instruction can only be countermanded by myself!"
Jess and Kev looked at me in amazement.
"So, why didn't you call anyone?"
"I tried. I called everyone I could think of, but you and Martha and Dick and Lord Michael were upstairs, and when I tried to call Arnold and Laurie and Big Tim and Little Tim and Mark, Bathys said they were all working, and she wouldn't accept my call, since I was only a boy."
"But e ain't only a boy!" said Jess (or Kev). "E's the Prince, ain't e? Sometimes Bathys ain't got no sense, King, God's truth."
"She's a computer, kid, she does what she's told and that's all. Okay, son, so what did you do?"
"I called Jess and Kev, cos they're quite big and strong, and I kind of knew what we would have to do. And they came on flitters, and we talked about it. And I talked to Tom but he said it was none of his business. But in the end he spoke to the Absorption Team and they said I was just being a nuisance as usual, and to send me away, and Tom strapped me and pushed me out of the door. So we talked about it some more, and in the end I decided we had to walk."
"Why didn't you walk to Southwall? It's much nearer."
"But the moors are in between, and I thought we might get stuck."
Yes, he was quite right; they could well have done.
"I spoke to Bathys and she agreed we'd better walk."
"Bathys? Why did you say that?"
"It is 42.3 miles. Walking at three miles an hour, a fairly easy pace, they should have been able to get there by midnight, your grace. I cannot understand why they did not."
"Oh, Jesus! I give up. So, what happened?"
"We walked and walked, and the kids got cross and thirsty, and so did we, thirsty and tired. But Jess and Kev were great, they carried two of the kids, but I wasn't strong enough to carry the other for long, I tried. And I wanted to call for another of the boys to help us, cos none of the grownups would, and I wanted to call for a flitter to go and get some water for us, but Bathys said I'd used my daily allocation of calls to her, cos I'm only a boy, and after that she refused to answer me. And I thought in the end we'd get to the lake and have a drink there, so we went on, and on, and on, but in the end the sun was going down, and I could see we couldn't go any further. So we found a little group of trees and lay down there, and we hugged the little kids between us, cos they were really cold now, after all, they come from Africa, don't they?"
"And you spent the night there?"
"No, your grace," said Desmond. "I was expecting the three little ones, and they didn't show up, so in the end I called the Absorption Team. They said they had no idea where the kids were, but they supposed Paul was looking after them. They were quite annoyed with him. And with me, in fact, and I'm afraid I was a little short myself. So I asked Bathys where the kids were, and she told me they had stopped in the downs south of Lakeport, and I got a transport and went and picked them up. They were all in, really, naked, cold, shivering, hungry and thirsty, but I had a couple of folk to help me."
"I thought all the transports were in use."
"Well, I'm team leader of Easton, so I outrank that dolt Oliver. I comandeered one."
"Thank God! At last, someone with some kind of sense. Thank you, and thank you too, Jess and Kev, for looking after Paul and the kids, and as for you, my little son, I'm so proud of you that I could just burst!"
"I thought you was goin to strap im!" said a twin.
"Why should I do that? He did what he had to. At least he tried to help."
"E elps all the kids, King. No one else does a thing, them Absorption guys are just shite, and that Tom, e's dead from the neck up, that's the truth. But the Prince, e sorts it all out, e was there to get us, and now there's always one of us lot there, no one else, and the Prince, e gets a Flat for em and finds out oo they'd like to be wiv, and as cloves and stuff for em and lets em cry and shit and ugs em till they feel better, and only Martha and Dick elp us. Like wiv them Uk - Ukrainians, you eard about that? All of us was out there, tryin to talk to em, the Prince, e set that up. Like wiv J & J, they was in some state; we was at the lake and they was back at The Flats, but Amit told us about it. See, the Prince, e was oldin em and whisperin to em, like e does, and they was just startin to feel better when this arseole from Absorption turns up, and e says they've gotta go to the dentist, for fuck's sake. So the Prince e says no, sir, not today, all quiet like, and the Absorption guy, e just loses it and e starts to strap the Prince and J & J, and all ell breaks loose, cos J & J, they attacks im saying no one urts the Prince, and they don't look it but they're really strong, and dead vicious when it comes to fightin. And the Absorption guy yells to Bathys to get some more guys, and Amit runs to Martha's, and Dick comes along and finally e gets em to fuck off."
"Yes, that's pretty much what Dick said," said Martha.
I picked Paul up and sat him astride my knees, with his head on my shoulder. All three of them were wearing long, baggy tunics, obviously some of Desmond's, and under it I could feel his wiry body, and as I held him, I could sense the responsibility and tension flow out of his body, and he relaxed, giving it to me to sort out.
"So, you call him the Prince, eh?"
And Jess (or Kev) looked at me holding him, and drew breath, and his eyes flashed. And then he told me, he told me the truth, told me what was happening to the boys of my Realm.
"Yeah, cos e's our Prince, King, e looks after us, and makes sure we look after each uvver. Cos in Bathys, no one bovvers wiv us kids, do they? You've gotta look after yerself ere, the grownups eether strap you or just ignore you, and no one gives a fuck. I can't count the times I've seen the Prince strapped, and just fer tryin to elp! Okay, there's a few, like Sir Desmond and Martha and Dick and Lord Igor, but most of em, they aren't worth shite. And that sodding computer, she'll scarcely give us the time of day cos we're kids. So it's all up to us, ain't it? If it wasn't fer the Prince, them little African kids, they'd still be sittin on the fuckin grass outside Reception, freezin to death, wouldn't they? And God knows what would've appened to them Ukrainians. Fact is, cos they can't ave us fer sex yet, the grownups just ain't interested, that's about the size of it, I reckon. Once there's two thousand of us, and it's allowed, they'll be all over us, like fuckin wasps in summer."
And I looked at him, and I looked at Martha, and Desmond, who was staring at the kid open-mouthed, and realised that my whole dream, everything we had done, our entire tremendous enterprise, was teetering on the brink of ruin; and that if it had not been for my son and his friends, it might well have toppled over already.
THE ABSORPTION TEAM
"It's - it's not meant to be like that, Kev," said Paul quietly into my shoulder, and instantly the angry boy was all ears.
"Yeah, well, what is it meant to be like, Prince? Cos I'm buggered if I know."
"It's meant to be a place where boys and grownups love each other. For thousands of years we'll be here, and we'll be boys over and over again, and they're meant to love us, and look after us, and we'll learn to love them too. And we'll have fun, and adventures, and sometimes it'll be dangerous, and sometimes our favourite grownups, they'll be kids too. And we'll swim, and climb the cliffs, and fly in our flitters, and crawl through the labyrinth, there'll be games, and books and videos and things, and we'll learn all sorts of things, maybe learn to write our own books and play music, and we'll camp and lie out in the country in the night, and come back, and all the time, the grownups will love us. Not just sex, but there's nothing wrong with sex. I know, I've done it and I want to do it some more, and there's nothing to be afraid of, that's what they have to teach us. And it'll go on and on and on, getting to know and love each other, and how it'll end, who knows? But it'll be the best thing ever, in the whole, whole world. That's how it'll be, if the grownups just learn - to love us."
"Thank you, son," I whispered.
My son has caught my dream, I thought, and for this he has worked and worried and put his youth aside, and in return he has been shouted at and beaten and disdained. Well, enough! I would not let my dream be lost, nor what he had done be discarded. There would be action.
I stood up.
"You gonna strap me, King?" Kev yelled, "Is that it? Cos after yesterday, I can tell you, I've ad just about enough of that stuff, and I've ad it from experts, me!"
And with that he hauled off his tunic, and Jess did the same; and they turned their backs and I saw that from their shoulders to their knees they were covered in ridges and scars, overlaid, twisting and livid, some of them clearly years old.
"Oh, me dears! Oh, me dears!" said Martha.
For a moment I was speechless, and my rage at the fools and brutes who would beat such boys in my own Realm rose in my throat like vomit.
"No, Kev, I'm not going to strap you. I've never done that to Paul, and I won't to you. But you know what Paul's like, and today you're going to find out what his father can do. Will you come with me to Southwall? You too, Jess, and Martha. And you, son."
"Okay, King," said Kev. "I'll come. But I'll tell you straight: I don't trust the grownups round ere, and don't tell me you're the Prince's Dad. I know what our Dad did to us."
"Just stick close, kid."
Paul and the others kissed the little kids, and to my surprise they all hugged Desmond, and we were off. I walked to the village green, calling Bathys as I went.
"Send a transport to the green, Bathys. Big enough for five. And don't tell me they're all busy."
"Yes, your grace."
It was ready when we arrived. As we set off for Southwall I called Igor and Darren and told them to meet us there. Then I summoned a general meeting for that evening, and sent Tom upstairs, against his strong protests, to relay the announcement. We landed in front of the Southwall Centre just as I completed this; Martha looked at me curiously.
"Going to box their ears, are you, dear?"
"Just watch me, Martha. People forget I was the chairman of Summa. I know this stuff."
Igor and Darren were there. We gathered them up, and I led the way inside.
"Where are we going?" asked Igor.
He was our child psychologist, a short, intense man with dark curly hair. Michael and I had chosen him, and it was inspired. I had never before or since met anyone with his instinct for kids.
"To the Absorption Team."
"Your grace, I am totally dissatisfied with their work. They..."
"Don't tell me again, Igor, or I may end up hitting people."
We went up the steps which led to the administration floor, and along the corridor. The Absorption office was at the end, and I charged in.
Martin looked up from his desk in amazement. Around him, six or seven other people stopped work.
"Y-your grace! I thought..."
"Sir Martin. What were you doing yesterday?"
"I - I was here, drawing up schedules for the Ukrainian boys for the next few weeks."
"Certainly. Intensive English tuition, medical checks, dental checks, haircuts, psychosexual counselling (with Lord Igor's group, of course), safety lectures, sexual indoctrination..."
"And who was at Reception to meet the African kids?"
"No one. We don't find it necessary to meet them."
"Because Paul and his friends do it."
"Your grace, I need to talk to you very seriously about that child. Obviously you care about his wellbeing, and I'm obliged to say that he is simply running wild here. Some of the boys are taking extraordinary advantage of the lack of adult supervision, and regrettably he is one of the worst. Obstructive, impertinent, conniving - really, he's becoming a kind of gang leader, and he interferes with our work at every turn. It's intolerable!"
"The boys don't seem to understand or accept their role down here, and in my view we need to impress it on them very firmly indeed. They are here to provide sexual entertainment. Far too many of them are getting away with every kind of insubordination by whining about their past misfortunes. Those twins, for example, are two of the worst of your son's henchmen, and I have had to chastise them repeatedly..."
"Jess and Kev, take your tunics off and turn round."
They did it, and the entire room gasped.
"Those are the bodies you were chastising, Sir Martin. And yesterday my son was left with three five-year-old kids, without transport of any kind, outside the Reception Centre, and all of them were obliged to walk to Easton, through the heat of the day. He is only thirteen, Sir Martin. It is abusive to load him down with that kind of responsibility."
"Your grace, I..."
"You're relieved of your duties. You are transferred to the surface, to the gathering teams, where I hope you will review your understanding of these kids, and where they come from. Lord Darren, your grid job has in effect ended, so I ask you to take charge of this team, and I think we'll call it the Welcome Team. You will take charge of Reception as well, and I designate you Doorkeeper of Bathys. The team needs at least twice this number of members; choose only people approved by Lord Igor. Work closely with him. And check the existing team carefully, I don't trust them. Darren, I have only one directive: make sure that the broken kids who come off that lift are loved. That's all."
"I understand, Max. It'll be a privilege."
"Paul and his friends will help. But don't weigh them down, Darren, that's cruel. Let them be kids, that's all that's needed. Okay, I'll take this lot away and you can get on."
"Sure, but could you stay, Igor? And Paul? Could you come round here tomorrow morning? We need to have a chat and a plan."
"In the afternoon. There are two kids arriving in the morning. Can I bring J & J? And Amit and the twins?"
"Bring whoever you like, kid. I want to meet them all."
He and Paul exchanged a look, and then Paul was in his arms. I was ecstatic. Now we'll see something, I thought.
LUNCH WITH THE TWINS
Soon we were at a table in Martha's place, Martha, Paul and the twins, and myself. Paul was delighted.
"Yes! It'll be so good, we can go there, some of us kids and some nice grownups, and we can be right in the Reception Centre and help the kids as soon as they get out of the lift and explain how they're going to be okay now, and we can take them outside to look before we process them, so they can see how nice it is, and we can organise some kids back here to arrange clothes and things, and the grownups will be able to get Bathys to call transports and things, so there won't be any trouble... Do you know Lord Darren, Dad?"
"Oh yes, son, I know him well. He's one of the best, a really nice guy, that's why I chose him."
The twins looked at me sceptically.
"Well, we think..."
"...e just wants to get into the Prince's knickers!"
"Well, do you honestly blame him? Paul's a very cute guy, don't you think?"
The twins simultaneously blushed purple, and I knew I'd scored a hit. Paul noticed too, and laughed at them.
"Actually, you're wrong," said Martha. "It's you boys that Darren was looking at. The one who's smitten with Paul is Igor. He has been ever since the mess with the Ukrainians."
"No!" said a twin. "Igor's a good guy! He ain't like that!"
"He is like that, son," I said. "We all are. Why do think he's here?"
"Sex doesn't have to be bad. It's like anything else: you can use it to be a bastard, or you can do it because you like someone, and then you'll enjoy it. If you're lucky, you'll find someone you love to do it with, and that's excellent."
"Paul's got tags," one of them said. "I never asked..."
There was a slight pause.
"Don't lose it, Kev," said Paul, "But that was with my Dad."
They stared at me, their mouths open.
"It was," Paul went on. "I did it because I love him, and I'll do it again, too. I wanted to, Kev. I still do."
"You bastard," whispered Kev, looking at me with hatred. "You make all nice to us... All the time, you're just like our Dad! Doin it wiv yer own kid!"
"No he isn't," said Paul. "He's nothing like your Dad. He loves me, and he's never hurt me. Not once. It isn't the same thing at all."
"But - you're tiny. It's gotto urt. Ow could..."
"...Ow could e get it in?"
Paul looked at them with puzzlement.
"I've never done that, boys," I said. "Not with Paul."
"What? What did you do, then?"
"It's on my tags," said Paul, astonishingly, and without a trace of embarrassment. After all, I suppose, he was looking after someone; it was too important to be embarrassed. "Look. Masturbation, active and passive. And fellatio, insertor and receptor."
"What's fell - fellatio?" asked one twin.
"Blowjobs, dummy," said the other.
"Oh. Then you aven't ad proper sex, ave you?"
"What's proper sex?"
"You know. E puts is thing up yer bum."
And now Paul did blush.
"No, he's never done that," said Paul. "Not yet," he added.
What an amazing conversation this was! I saw Martha look at me, and she winked, but said nothing.
"Why aven't you?" said a twin, looking at me.
"I don't know if he'd want to," I said. "We've - we've only ever had sex twice."
The twins looked at each other.
"You ain't the same as our Dad," said one. "The Prince is right, you ain't. I dunno what you are yet, but it ain't the same, that's fer sure."
"Yeah," said the other. "E used to ave one of us at least every day. Ever since we was six. And e let is mates, an all."
There wasn't anything you could say; Martha just hugged them.
AN AFTERNOON SWIM
So later we went to the lake, Paul and the twins and I, and we played in the water, and gradually they eased up and acccepted me, in a guarded kind of way. And there, a couple of hours later, Michael joined me, lying on the beach.
"Got your message through Tom," he said, as he slipped his clothes off. "I was just in from Jo'burg."
"Thank God. You have no idea what's been going on down here."
"Igor filled me in. I've been concerned about the Absorption Team for some time, but I haven't crossed paths with you. Darren is just the right person, Max, it's great."
"That isn't the worst of it, though. We have big, big problems."
And I filled him in on what Kev had said, and worse, what Martin had said, and everything that had happened. For a while he was silent.
"I was expecting something like this, but not quite yet. And you're right, it can't go on. What are you going to do?"
"The mother of all rockets. Everyone's going to catch it. And... Well, wait and see."
"Are you going to start being the King, Max?"
"Maybe it's about time. I've been upstairs concentrating on the Gathering and leaving the most important thing that's happening down here to my thirteen-year-old son and a raggle-taggle international gang of street kids. Remember those Brazilians? Who freaked out when they were zapped? They call them Paul's minders now, they go everywhere with him and attack no holds barred, if ever they think he's in danger. Then there's those twins, they're two years older than him and hard as nails, but they'd follow him to the ends of the earth and jump at his every word. It's extraordinary! Kev said he'd lost count of the number of times he'd seen Paul strapped, mostly by Martin and his minions. I... I was hard put not to strap him, to tell the truth."
"I'm not surprised. We'll see if we can knock some humanity into him upstairs."
"The kids call Paul the Prince."
"I'd heard. Not just the kids, either. You shouldn't knock it when people do something like that spontaneously."
I said nothing, and for a while we lay in the sun, listening to the shouts of the boys and the splashing water.
"What a great sound that is," said Michael, finally. "Makes it all worth while."
A moment later we heard feet running, and to my surprise it was the twins who thumped down on the sand beside us.
"Hi, twins," I said. "This is Lord Michael."
"Hi, kids," he said. "Not always you find a naked King and a naked Lord lying on the sand."
"Yeah, well, e aint an ordinary King, is e?"
"King, we - we wanted to ask you something."
They were sitting cross-legged on the sand, and I sat up and followed suit. They were still glistening with moisture, with big patches of sand on their sides, their teenaged dicks hanging from their newly-hairless bodies, and they looked like some kind of beach spirit, wild and untameable.
"Sure, go ahead."
"That Lord Darren. Is e..."
"...is e nice, really?"
"Well, like I said, I've known him for a while, and yes, he is nice. Very nice; in fact one of the nicest people I know."
"Can sex ever be nice? Really? For kids?"
"Paul seems to like it."
They were silent for a while. I didn't press them.
"Do you - do you know if Darren is nice, is nice, when, when e's avin sex?"
I didn't even smile; it was too touching for that, a frightened and so, so tentative reaching out through their pain.
"As a matter of fact I do know. He's very nice. Very gentle and kind."
"How do you know?"
"I've had sex with him myself. Several times, in fact. Don't tell anyone, will you?"
I could see they valued my confidence, and thought better of me for giving it.
"Are you going with Paul to see Darren tomorrow?"
They'd forgotten, and their faces lit up.
"Yeah, we are!"
"He is nice. Not everyone is, not even good people. I mean, I'm not always nice, for example."
"No? You ain't?"
"Well, I wasn't very nice to Martin, was I?"
"No, spose you wasn't. But e's an arseole."
"Kings have to be nasty sometimes. It's part of their job. But Darren isn't, you see. He's nice right through, which is great for his job. So that's why I picked him. Picking the right people is part of what kings have to do."
"Yeah. The Prince is good at that, too. Like e picked Amit to make the rota for meetin kids and stuff, cos Amit's good at all that, not forgettin things and so on, and the Prince takes im along when e argues wiv the grownups, cos e can argue the arse off a donkey, that one. And e made a list of all the languages the kids speak, so sometimes we can send someone oo speaks the right language. And the Prince found this Ukrainian kid who'd been the oldest of eight kids, so e knew all about lookin after little kids, so e's got four in is Flat now and five next door..."
"Why aren't they in Easton?"
"Dunno. We think the Absorption guys, they forgot em. And we didn't know ow to arrange it."
"Boys, I'm so grateful to you for helping Paul with the kids. It's really, really important, and no one else was doing it."
"There'd be no problems if there wasn't so many arseoles around."
"Yes, kid. Well, we'll start to do something about that now, and things will start to get better. And in the future, if anyone gives you grief, or Paul, you tell me, okay? Because you know Paul, he doesn't always tell me that sort of stuff, because he doesn't like to worry me."
They looked at each other.
"Okay, King, you're on."
"We've got 507 Chinese kids arriving next week," I said. "I'm relying on you to make sure the Prince doesn't kill himself, okay?"
Jesus, I thought, they've got me saying it now...
"Yeah, we know what you mean."
At that moment, Paul ran up to us, with three brown-skinned kids behind him. I recognised one of them.
"Oh, my God!" whispered Michael.
"Hello, your grace," he said in his precise subcontinental voice. "How nice to meet you again."
I could say the same thing. I swear he had grown; his body had filled out, his teeth were white and shone in the sun. To me, he was still the most beautiful boy in Bathys by a long, long way. The two other boys closed round Paul, as if in protection.
"And who are you?"
"I am João, and he is Joaquim. Who are you?"
"I'm the King. Paul is my son. I hope the dentist didn't hurt you."
"No, the Prince he say - he said the dentist not hurt - will not hurt, and he not. Didn't!"
The other kids fell about.
"All you boys are wonderful," I said. "Thank you so much for everything you've done. Now I'm sure everything will be better, and you can have some fun too."
Six naked boys, their bodies shiny with lake water, smiled at me bashfully. It was a beautiful moment; the future of Bathys stood before me.