In this chapter Jake’s situation seems to improve – at least, he’s offered an opportunity to take a break from shovelling coal for a bit. But it turns out to be a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire…
Over the next couple of weeks I became good at stoking, and once I could be trusted to feed the furnace unsupervised we were able to function as a proper four-man team. On the second morning Markus produced a roll of tape and taped my hands for me straight after breakfast (a small roll and a cup of what I think was coffee), telling me that the gloves alone would not prevent blisters if I wasn't used to handling a shovel. And after that I was able to use the tape myself at the start of each day's work.
The first full day almost killed me, though: apart from the rotating two-huszak breaks (which we also had to use for toilet breaks if necessary: there was another basic three-hole set-up on the far side of the room) we never stopped work, not even at midday, when Tommi brought each of us a sort of ten-centimetre square rice cake to eat and a cup of something that might have been soup to drink. Each of us had to get it down in the space of a two-huszak break, so it's probably a good thing that the soup wasn't very hot. Every time I looked at the clock I thought it had stopped, but it hadn't: it was just moving very, very slowly. In mid-afternoon Markus told me to take a four-huszak break instead of the usual two.
“That's not fair on the rest of you,” I protested half-heartedly.
“You're not used to this yet. We all had to go through a first few days once, and there will come a time when I've gone to the mine and Frank is leader that they'll bring in another new boy, and then you'll be one of the ones working a little extra to help him to get used to it. What goes around, comes around.”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Fourteen and... about two seasons, I think,” he said. “You lose track of time in here.”
“So you won't be going to the mine just yet, then?”
“Not for a good while yet.”
Then I sincerely hoped I wasn't going to be here long enough for another boy to come to replace him – after all, I was painfully aware that the more time I spent here, the more likely it was that the Hub Two Nexus would have closed completely before we could get back home. And this was one world I really didn't want to spend the rest of my life in.
That second evening I fell asleep almost as soon as I lay down, and I was so tired that I didn't even feel it when Tommi pulled my boxers off and put them on the shelf again. After that I got in the habit of removing them myself before lying down next to him, and he liked that, smiling and nodding the first time I did it. But he never removed his own briefs, not even in the shower. I even wondered for a while if he was really a girl, but there was a small bulge in the briefs, and occasionally when he cuddled up to me at night I could feel that he had an erection, though he never let me touch him, not even through his briefs, and in the end I stopped trying. And it was still nice enough having him handle me.
Finally the first Ertday came round. We still got up and had breakfast at the usual time, but after that most of us went down to the changing room and got properly dressed. Markus showed me the way to a very large enclosed courtyard. There were already a number of other boys here, including, Alain and I were delighted to see, Stefan and Oli. We hugged each other and went off to a corner of the yard to talk, and even though there was nobody close enough to overhear us we decided to speak French.
“What is the furnace room like, then?” asked Oli.
“It's hard work,” Alain told him. “Of course, I can do it because I'm a strong, healthy town boy, not a feeble little yokel.”
Oli attacked him and they wrestled happily for a while.
“He's right,” I told Stefan, in English, “it's no joke in there. I don't know how long either of us can survive, because there isn't much food. We're going to have to get out of here soon. How are things where you are?”
“I am shovelling coal and pushing trolleys the whole day. It is hard. In fact, I should not say this as one who would be a soldier, but in truth it is too hard. As you say, the food is not special, and nor is there much of it. It will be hard to do this for a long time. But I can see no easy way to leave, because of those creatures. We see them sometimes as we work, so even when there are no Greys or adults around we dare not move beyond the small enclosure where we work. And I see no trucks coming into the site, so it would be not possible to take one.”
“There must be lorries somewhere to take away anything they get out of the mine. I know the actual mine is down the road, but don't the lorries have to come through here to reach the mine? And what about deliveries – food and parts for the generators, and so on?”
“I can only say that I have seen no trucks. Perhaps there is another road behind the buildings that we have not yet seen.”
“I suppose so. What about the railway? The coal trucks have to get here somehow – would there be any chance of hiding in an empty one so that a train takes us out of here?”
“Until now I have not seen a train arrive or leave – the coal trucks I work on were there when we arrived. But I will watch out for trains.”
Alain and Oli rejoined us, and so we switched back to French, though they had nothing much to add. Oli had a little more freedom to move about the site than Stefan because he had to go to the kitchen with the other water-boys to collect the midday rice cakes and to keep the water buckets filled, but whenever he did so he was escorted by a Grey, so he was unable to wander off on his own or look round very much.
Markus wandered over to join us after a bit and I introduced him to Stefan and Oli.
“You know, you don’t have to hide in the corner like this if you want to talk on your own,” he said. “Go through into the garden – there are plenty of benches and shelters there, and nobody will disturb you. In fact, come with me now and I’ll show you.”
So we followed him through a door in the far wall and found ourselves in a proper garden, with grass and lots of bushes and small trees. There was still a high wall around the outside, but it was a lot nicer than the dusty courtyard. Here and there small huts could be seen.
“Any hut that is in use has a magenta flag outside,” Markus told us. “We stay clear of those – quite often they are used for sexual purposes, and if you’re going to do that you don’t want to be interrupted. Find one without a flag if you want to talk in private, and if you set the flag nobody will disturb you. You’ll know it’s time for the meal when you hear the bell.”
“You mean it’s okay for boys to… well, do stuff together?” I asked. “Or are there girls working somewhere on the site?”
“No, there aren’t any girls here, but there’s nothing wrong with boys playing together. It’s normal for boys of our age to form that sort of friendship. Doesn’t that happen where you come from?”
“Well, yes, it does happen, but it’s not supposed to. If people find out you’re doing stuff with other boys you get given a really hard time – you’re called names and bullied and stuff.”
“That sounds really primitive. In this country we learned years ago that there’s nothing wrong with sex, whoever you choose to do it with. I’m glad I don’t live in your country… well, I suppose right now it might be a lot better than here, but we hope the Greys will go and leave us in peace once the uranium runs out.”
“Have you got a boyfriend, then?” I asked.
“Not at the moment. To be honest I prefer girls, but I suppose there won’t be much chance of that in the near future. Anyway, go and find yourselves a hut. I’ll see you at the meal.” And he wandered off.
So we followed the path through the bushes. The first couple of huts we came to were showing a magenta flag, but the third one was not and so I opened the door – and walked in on two of the boys from Team Four. I didn’t know their names, but I worked in the same area and so I recognised them easily enough. They were still dressed, but they had their arms round each other and were kissing.
“Oh, shit, sorry!” I said, backing out again. (By now I’d learned a few swear words to add to my implanted vocabulary).
“Did we forget to set the flag? Oops!” said one of the boys, grinning at me and not looking at all embarrassed. He broke free from his friend’s embrace and pulled a lever beside the door, and the magenta flag dropped down outside. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, seeing that I was still looking a bit flustered. “We’ll see you at the meal, all right?”
And I backed all the way out and allowed him to close the door.
“That was interesting, was it not?” commented Stefan in English. “Perhaps we should find two free huts, and not just one.”
And I thought that was a brilliant idea, and so when we came to a free hut I suggested to Alain that maybe he and Oli would like to use this one while Stefan and I found another, and Alain accepted that offer like a shot. I showed him where the lever was to set the flag and then Stefan and I walked on until we found another free hut.
There must have been eight or nine huts dotted about the garden, and I thought that this was a really thoughtful gesture on the part of whoever had built the facility – after all, for the whole of the working day and night we were sharing accommodation with more than a dozen other boys, and everyone needs a little privacy now and again. Maybe the builder hadn’t had adolescent boys in mind, but then again, given what Markus had told us, maybe he had. Clearly in some ways this really would be a good world to live in, but only if the Greys could be got rid of, and there seemed no way to achieve that.
We went into the hut and set the flag. There was a bench along one wall, a couple of chairs, a small table and a folded mattress in one corner, and we decided that we really ought to try out the mattress, just to see if it was comfortable…
We didn’t get completely undressed: instead we just took our shirts off and cuddled for a long time.
“I didn’t like being apart from you,” said Stefan, and now that we were alone he was speaking Kerpian, which was easier for him than English. We both knew to stay away from any contentious topics, even though I was confident that there would be no listening devices here. “We’ve been together every day since the time you rescued me, and I’ve got used to having you beside me. It’s weird – I’ve never felt like that before. At school we generally do some things in a team and others on our own, and it’s never bothered me much which I do, but now… now when you’re not there I miss you a lot.”
“Thanks, Stefi,” I replied, hugging him. “I thought it was going to be really bad when they said we’d be working in different places – I thought I might not see you again for ages. But now we know we can see each other – and in private, like this – every five days, it’s not so bad.”
We stayed like that, just quietly holding each other, until a bell rang loudly, and at that we put our shirts back on, cleared the magenta flag and walked back to the main building. Today everyone was eating together, which meant that Stefan and I could sit next to each other, and so could Oli and Alain. And today the food was better, a proper piece of meat and some vegetables, and while it wouldn’t have won any prizes it was still a lot better than the usual fare. We even got an apple each for dessert.
After lunch we went back out into the courtyard, where Markus asked Stefan if he would like to join in a game of team handball, and Stefan agreed at once – well, as soon as he’d checked that I didn’t mind, that is. Markus asked me to play, too, but I’d never played handball in my life, and so I declined. I watched for a few minutes, trying to work out what the rules were and coming to the conclusion that, while some rules certainly existed, I was never going to work out what they were. It was certainly a fast game, and it looked as if Stefan knew how to play, too, but it was still incomprehensible to me.
And then Tommi appeared at my side.
“Hi, Tommi,” I said. “Do you know how to play this game?”
He shook his head, though even if he had known the rules he could hardly have explained them without speaking, something he still hadn’t done so far.
“Me neither,” I said.
He took my hand and jerked his head towards the garden, and I allowed him to lead me off, through the gate and into a vacant hut. I hoped this might be because he wanted to talk to me without anyone else hearing, but apparently not, because as soon as we were in the hut with the flag set he started undoing my belt.
“Tommi, wait,” I said, gently taking his hands away from me. “I’ve already told you that you don’t have to do that to make me like you. I like you already, and I won’t like you more just because you make me feel nice.”
He looked at me, but as soon as I let go of his wrists he went back to undoing my belt, and this time I didn’t try to stop him. I simply stood there and let him undress me completely, though once I was naked I decided that this time I wanted him to join in properly. He let me remove his tee-shirt, but when I tried for his shorts he stepped away, shaking his head vigorously.
“Why not, Tommi?” I asked. “I mean, I really like it when you touch me, and I’d like to make you feel nice, too.”
But he just shook his head again.
“Okay,” I said. “It’s up to you – we’re friends, and I’m not going to do anything you don’t want.”
At that he smiled and stepped back towards me, so I unfolded the mattress and lay down on it, and he came and lay down beside me. I still wasn’t entirely happy about the situation: as far as I’m concerned, sex should be something you share completely, and not a one-way exercise. So as soon as he reached for my penis I said, “Tommi, are you absolutely sure this is what you want to do?”
And he nodded vigorously, and at that I decided to stop arguing and let him do what he wanted. And he did it really nicely, first stroking me and then rubbing me steadily until I spurted. But not being able to return the compliment somehow left me feeling sort of selfish, even though it was clear that Tommi didn’t want to be touched.
I got up and put my boxers, shorts, socks and shoes on, though I didn’t bother with my shirt because Tommi had made no attempt to put his on. Then I sat on one of the chairs and pulled Tommi onto my lap facing me, his legs on either side of my thighs, and once he was comfortable I hugged him. And I was glad to find that he hugged me back equally hard.
“Thanks, Tommi, that was really nice,” I said. “Why did you want to do that for me, though?”
I hoped that putting a question like that would get an answer, but he just hugged me again without saying anything. So I gave up once more, just holding him quietly, and we sat like that for around ten minutes. Then I let go.
“Come on, let’s go and see how the game is going,” I said, and he stood up and put his shirt back on. I did the same thing and then we walked back to the courtyard, where the game was still going on. We watched until it finished, though at the end I was still none the wiser about the rules.
Stefan came over to where we were standing.
“I haven’t played handball for a while,” he said. “We played a bit when I was younger, but we generally play football at school. And the rules here are a bit different, too. Still, it was nice to get a game like that. I like your friend Markus, Jake. And who’s this?”
“This is Tommi. He’s our water-boy. Tommi, this is my friend Stefan.”
Stefan offered his hand and Tommi took it, though he didn’t say anything.
“He doesn’t talk,” I explained to Stefan. “I’m not sure why not, he just doesn’t.”
“Maybe we could persuade Alain to imitate him?” suggested Stefan. “He generally talks too much.”
“I don’t think there’s any chance of shutting Alain up, somehow. And to be honest if he didn’t talk all the time I think I’d worry there was something wrong with him…”
I tactfully passed Tommi on to Markus so that Stefan and I could go for another walk, and this time we followed the wall all the way around the garden, looking out for any cracks or weak spaces, or any part of it that was close enough to a large tree to allow us to get over it. But there was nothing: the wall was in good repair and there weren’t any trees close to it.
“And even if we did get over it there would probably be guardians waiting on the other side,” I said, gloomily. “I think we’ll have to forget about this and start thinking about hijacking a lorry again.”
“We could try getting to the other side of the main building,” suggested Stefan. “Then we can see if there’s a road there or not.”
So we headed back to the building. We couldn’t get around the outside of it because the walls of the courtyard kept us in, but the building itself was open, so that boys could go and rest on their bunks or take a shower if they wanted, and so we went back inside. But we found that we only had access to our usual rooms: the dormitory, the shower room, the dining room and the changing room. Beyond our dormitory the corridor led on to the one used by the night shift, but nowhere else. Every other door we tried was locked. Stefan’s team had their own living quarters on the other side of the cloakroom, but the situation was exactly the same there: we couldn’t get through any door that would take us to the far side of the building. In the end we gave up and settled for spending the rest of the afternoon sitting on one of the benches in the garden watching the clouds rolling by overhead.
There was another quite decent meal that evening – obviously the idea was to fill us up a bit on the Ertdays to make up for the crappy meals during the working week – and by the time I went to bed I had decided that, as labour camps went, it would be hard to ask for a lot more than one that gave you a totally free day every five days and also supplied discreet accommodation where you and a personal friend could… well, do personal stuff. And I even had another cute boy to cuddle up to at night. But it was hard to ignore the passing of time for very long: every minute we spent here was another minute when the power at the Hub would be getting a little more unreliable.
The next four days went by exactly as the previous working days had – a lot of hard work, inadequate food, a shower and bed. By the end of that week I was at least managing to work my share – no more four-huszak breaks – and I had learned how to shovel the coal into the furnace in the approved matter, so as to ensure the best use of the fuel. And each night I slept without my boxers so that Tommi could get at me easily if he wanted to (and he usually did), and each night went by without him uttering a sound. The next Ertday was spent much like the previous one, too, except that this time Stefan and I got a little more physical when we spent half an hour – or call it half a kend – in one of the huts. But none of us had found any information that would help us to get out of this place.
Another working week started. By now we were well into August – today was August 6th – and so it was over five weeks since I had first stumbled upon the hut in the Vosges. Heaven only knew what my parents were thinking had happened to me, but I’ll bet they never envisaged me working as a stoker in a power station under the control of a race of reptiles from a parallel version of Earth…
And then, on the third working day of the week, something different happened. Shortly after I’d eaten the midday rice cake Hass Eri came into the furnace room and told me someone wanted to speak to me. I shrugged apologetically at Markus, Frank and Shander – they would obviously have to carry on as a three-man team until I got back – and then followed Mr Hass out of the furnace room. He didn’t allow me to either have a shower or get dressed, so obviously it didn’t matter that I was going to meet whoever wanted me covered in coal dust and wearing only a grubby pair of boxer shorts.
He took me through one of the usually locked doors (and he locked it behind us, too) to an office on an upper floor. There were a number of monitors on one wall, and I realised that this was the CCTV room – we knew there were cameras in the furnace room, and indeed here and there in other parts of the building, and this was obviously where they were monitored. There was a human operator on one chair in front of the monitors and a Grey soldier on the other, but neither seemed terribly interested in me.
However, there were two other Greys in the room, and they seemed particularly interested in me, because they were staring at me. They were smaller than any other Grey I had seen so far – in fact they were slightly shorter than me – and that suggested that they might be… well, whatever the Grey equivalent of the word ‘boys’ might have been, juveniles or adolescents or cubs or chicks or something.
One of them spoke in Grey to Mr Hass. His voice, though a little higher-pitched than the other Greys I had heard, was nonetheless not what I would have thought of as ‘unbroken’, the way mine still was, so perhaps they were older than I had initially thought, or maybe they developed more rapidly than humans.
“These two are doing a study into the differences between humans and Greys,” Mr Hass told me. “They’ve been watching everyone work for a while and they’ve chosen you to help them. They didn’t tell me why you, and it might just have been at random for all I know, but you’re the one they’ve picked, so you’ll have to go with them. I did say I couldn’t really spare anyone, but they insisted. And you might be lucky: maybe it’ll be easier than shovelling coal for a day or so.”
“Right. I am coming back, then?”
“I should think so. They haven’t actually said, but I don’t imagine they’ll need you for too long, so you’ll probably be back here soon enough. Anyway, first you’ll have to go to the clinic to have their language implanted. I don’t suppose they’ll want to bother with more than the basics, just enough for you to communicate – that’s pretty much all any of us have got – so it won’t take long.
“I’ll take you downstairs for a quick shower, and then you can get dressed and wait at the outside door – you can’t go outside because of the guardians, so I’ll tell these two to come and meet you there.”
He spoke briefly to the young Greys and then took me down to the shower room.
“I’ll leave you to it,” he said. “I’ve set the shower for two huszaks, which should be enough to get all the dirt off. Once you’re clean go and get dressed and then wait at the outside door. And try to get them to bring you back as soon as possible!”
He turned the shower on and went back the way he had come, and I removed my boxers and sandals and got in, doing my best to clean myself up properly – if I was representing the human race I thought I ought to look presentable. Ten minutes later I was waiting by the door that led to the outside, fully dressed and with my hair as neatly combed as I could manage without a mirror.
I didn’t have to wait too long: the door opened and the two Greys beckoned me to come out. I looked around nervously, but I couldn’t see any guardians and so I stepped out, closing the door behind me. Of course I knew the guardians were not supposed to bother me while I had Greys with me, but having seen one in action I was still a little anxious. But the Greys strode off towards the gates and I stayed alongside them, and the one guardian that I saw, close to the gates, ignored me completely.
We walked up the road towards the town. The Greys chatted to each other, ignoring me completely, but since they couldn’t talk to me – at least not if they expected an answer – that didn’t bother me at all.
We walked back to the glass and steel building and they took me inside, and in due course Narj Larzel appeared. They spoke to him briefly, and he appeared a little surprised, but they obviously repeated the instruction and so he nodded and took me though into the clinic. Today a couple of the chairs were in use, but he installed me in one at the far end of a row and told me to get comfortable.
“What am I getting, a crash course in Grey for Beginners?” I asked.
“No. That’s what surprised me: they want you to have the full Grey package. They didn’t say why, but I suppose you’re going to be spending a lot of time with them or other Greys and so will need to be able to communicate properly. And…” He lowered his voice. “I’m also giving you another module – it’s one we gave visitors in the past, and it’s a brief history of our country and its customs and culture. If you are going to be spending any amount of time with Greys I don’t want them wondering why you know so little about this world – even someone from a different country would have a basic knowledge. I’m not going to bother implanting everything – the full package would take too long - but this one will allow you to talk about this world without having to make things up or keep saying that you don’t know the answer.
“So make yourself comfortable. You know how this works by now, so you know it’s nothing to worry about.”
That was true, anyway. This time I undid my belt and lowered my zip, which would at least make it easier to get the catheter in, and then I sat back and offered my arm to the medical technician with the spray. And then I fell asleep once more.
I woke up with the same wobbly feeling as on the previous occasion, and when I checked my watch I found that I’d been in the chair for three days: it was now August 11th.
“Feeling all right?” asked Larzel, who appeared as I was doing my shorts up again.
I nodded. “I probably need another walk around the garden because my legs are feeling numb again, but otherwise I’m fine.”
“Good. When did our capital move from Budd to Temishar?”
“In 2217, after the plague wiped out half of the population,” I told him.
“Excellent. Now, where do you come from?”
I envisaged a map of Europe as it existed in this world. “I’m from Albia,” I told him. “I and my friends are on a manhood journey. We got here by sailing down the Rajna, and originally we wanted to walk to the source of the Duna and follow it east. We thought we’d be able to travel by boat again after Ulm. But when we found what was happening here we got scared and wanted to return home.”
“Good. Right, now…” He switched to Grey and asked where I had been for the past ten days and I told him in the same language that I worked in the furnace room of the power station just down the road from here.
“Very good,” he said in Kerpian. “Everything seems to have taken properly. This town is called Hintraten, by the way – you ought to know the name of the place where you work. Come with me – I’ll find you a snack and then you can go and wait for the Greys in the garden. That’ll give you a chance to get your legs working again.”
He took me back to the garden, found me a bottle of water, another chunk of bread and some cheese, and then left me to stretch my legs, and while I ate I thought about what I now knew about this world.
Here Christianity did not exist, and nor did Islam. Rome had remained committed to its Classical pantheon to the end, and when Rome fell those who had been a part of its Empire continued with a belief in Jupiter and the rest of the ancient gods, though by modern times this country was entirely secular. As in my world, the Eastern Roman empire lasted longer but was eventually brought down by pressure from the Horde of the East, which I thought probably corresponded to the Mongol Empire of Ghengis Khan and his successors. After that there were several wars between the nations of what is now Europe, with the Kingdom of Kerpia and Transkerpia finally emerging as the major power in the south, and gradually it had established a large and ultimately peaceful realm that stretched from the Black Sea to some way beyond the Vosges Mountains. Reviewing the history I had just accumulated I realised that ‘Kerpia’ was probably Carpathia in my world, and so the origins of the country would have been in the region of Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.
Which was interesting, but didn’t really help me very much with what was looming ahead of me now: what did the two young Greys actually want me for? I was pretty certain that it wouldn’t be to discuss history…
By the time they came to fetch me my legs had more or less recovered, and so when they simply led me out of the building and out of town I was able to keep up with them.
“Where are we going?” I asked as we left the town behind us.
“Hey, Haless, it speaks!” said one of them, stopping and looking at me.
“So it does,” said his colleague. “How strange!” And he bared his teeth in what I suppose was a grin, although with his large jaw it was hard to be certain of his intent.
“We’re going to a place we found in the forest,” the first one said. “To start with, anyway. And there we’re going to find out all about you, little mammal.”
“Oh, yes,” agreed his colleague. “Absolutely everything about you. It’s going to be interesting.”
We walked about a kilometre and a half out of town and then left the road to take a track off to the left, and this eventually led up to a cabin in a small clearing.
“Nobody seems to have been here for a long time,” the first one told me, “so we thought it would do nicely as a place for us to work. It has power and running water and there’s enough room for us to sleep, and that’s about all we need. And we’ve fitted up one corner especially for you, too.”
He opened the door and took us inside. It had a small kitchen, an even smaller shower-room, a separate toilet and two larger rooms, the first of which was obviously a living room, with a couple of chairs, a two-man sofa, a television, a couple of bookcases and not a lot else, and the second of which was a bedroom. And it was in the bedroom that I saw what he had meant about a corner for me, because one end of the room was now a cage – a proper one with solid bars all around.
“You don’t need that,” I said. “I don’t mind helping you at all – it has to be easier than shovelling coal for ten kends a day.”
“That’s what you think now,” said the first one. “You might easily change your mind later, though, so we’re going to play safe. Besides, we wouldn’t feel safe sleeping with a wild mammal on the loose!”
They took me back into the main room. There was a folded dining table against one wall and they set this up, collected three dining chairs from the kitchen and sat me down at the table opposite them. One of them opened a case that was leaning against one of the bookcases and took out what looked like a laptop computer, and after he had turned it on he set it on one side of the table and spoke into it.
“Mammal study project, Day One,” he said. “The date is 470820 – or, in the mammal calendar…”
He gestured at me, and I consulted what I had learned over the last three days and supplied, “6 Kinnik 2762.” I could have added that it was also August 11th 2009, but I didn’t want to muddy the waters.
“Thank you,” said the Grey. He turned to the laptop again and continued, “Conducting the study will be Haless Three Four Two Seven Seven One Nine Two and Issin Three Four Two Seven Seven One Nine Five. And our subject’s name is…?”
“Stone Jake,” I said.
“Is that all?” asked Issin Three Four… whatever he had said. “No numbers?”
“We don’t use them. I’m just Stone Jake – though in my country we put the names the other way around, and so at home I’d be called Jake Stone. Stone is my family name, Jake is my personal name.”
“What’s a family?” asked Haless-plus-numbers.
“Well… in my case I have two parents, a mother and a father. The three of us are a family.”
“I don’t think I understand that, but we’ll come back to it. If there are no numbers in your name, how will people know how old you are?”
“Well, they can ask. I’m thirteen, if you want to know.”
“That seems strange. If you know my full name you know how old I am. We’re thirteen, and you can tell because the first two figures of our title are the year we were hatched. So we were hatched in 7834 and it’s now 7847, so we’re thirteen. And you can also see where we come from in the next three digits: Region Two, Hatchery 77. The rest of it tells you the fine detail: we were hatched from Batch 19, and then I was the second of the batch to emerge from the egg and Issin was the fifth. That’s why I’m stronger than he is.”
Issin made what I can only assume was a rude noise and that at least suggested that the Greys had a sense of humour.
“But do your friends just call you Haless and Issin, or are they supposed to use the numbers every time they speak to you?”
“Obviously not. Most of the time we’re just Haless and Issin. But you can see that our full titles explain everything about us, whereas your short name tells us nothing.”
“Well, it tells you that I’m Jake, just like you’re Haless, and that my family name – that’s the name of our family unit – is Stone. But that’s all – there’s nothing about age or place of birth or anything.”
“That’s inefficient. And I still don’t understand this ‘family’ thing. Explain.”
“Well, fourteen years ago my parents had sex, and nine months later I was born. So I’m here because of something my father and mother did.”
“They don’t have eggs,” Issin put in. “They’ve viviparous.”
“I’d heard that. So you stayed inside your mother while you developed?” asked Haless.
“For the first nine months,” I said. “After that I was born, which I suppose is like you hatching. But didn’t your parents stay around to protect the eggs?”
“What sort of a place do you think we come from, a jungle? Once the eggs are laid – which happens at the hatchery – the staff make sure they’re protected. There’s no need for the one who laid the eggs to stay around. And as for the male who fertilised the eggs, why would he want to stay? Once he’s engaged in the reproductive act with the female, his job is done, and once the eggs are laid, so is hers. They play no part in watching the eggs afterwards. Okay, I know that some lower reptiles are different, and sometimes the female stays around to guard the eggs, but we don't need to do that.”
“So how are you raised? Who teaches you to speak and stuff like that?”
“Schools, of course. Don’t you have schools? You mammals are weird… anyway, we start to learn at the hatchery, but as soon as we're able to get about on our own we go to the nursery, and from there to school once we are big enough.”
“So where do you live?”
“Hey, do you mind? We’re supposed to be asking the questions!”
“Yes, but if I know what you’re used to it’ll be easier for me to explain what’s different. I mean, we have schools, too, but at the end of each day at school we go back to our parents' houses. What about you?”
“We don’t go anywhere. We live in the school, and we stay at the school until we are ready for job training, whether that is manual work or using our brains. Then we go to a suitable training establishment to prepare us for that job.”
“Yes, we have those, too. And we do have schools where you live full time, though most children don’t use those.”
“Okay, we’ll just get a broad view for now: we can come back and talk about schools in detail later if we need to. So the main difference between us so far is that the adults who fertilised your egg stay with you after you’re born and in fact you live with them until you train for work – is that right?”
“I suppose so.”
“How weird! And does the same thing happen with each year’s batch that those adults produce?”
“No – in fact most couples only have one or two children. A few have more, but not many families have more than four kids.”
“What a waste of effort! You mean that your females only ever produce one or two viable eggs?”
“Well… in your terms, I suppose that’s right.”
“That seems insane to me. And how do the males stand it? If you told me I could only ever engage in sexual activities once or twice in my life I think I’d go mad.”
“Oh, they can engage in sex as much as they want, but if they don’t want any more children they have to use contraception.”
“What's that? Something to do with being in season?”
“It’s a way to stop eggs being fertilised,” I said, trying to think in reptilian terms. “Either the female takes a drug that prevents her eggs from being fertilised, or the male puts a cover over his penis to prevent his sperm from entering the female.”
They looked at me in absolute disbelief.
“I need to make something very clear here, little mammal,” said Haless. “You’re here to tell us the truth. If you lie to us we have ways of hurting you very, very badly.”
“I’m not lying,” I said. “You’re right – no adults would want to go through their entire life only having sex once or twice, so we’ve developed ways to let them have sex whenever they want without the woman getting pregnant. Do you mean that your adults only have sex in order to produce fertilised eggs?”
“Generally, yes. Of course, our females are only in season for part of the time, and so you can have sex out of season without eggs being produced – though some females don't like that, apparently. Or it's also possible to have sex with males instead of females if you want to experience sex without fertilisation, but not many adult males enjoy being used in that way.”
“What about non-adults?” I asked. Well, I had to ask: I wanted to know if gay sex existed in their world.
“Of course sometimes boys…” (and the word used clearly meant exactly the same as it does in English) “…practise sexual congress together. It leads to sexual pleasure exactly as entering a female does. And it is often pleasurable for the recipient, because the penis lies alongside the cloaca and so is stimulated by the contact. But, like with adults, a lot of boys don't like to be used like that, so we don't often speak about it.”
“And do you two do that?”
“That’s enough! You are not here to investigate our conduct!”
Which I was pretty sure meant ‘yes’, though I had the sense to let the subject drop.
“I think we should start to take a physical record,” said Issin. “We need his measurements. Do you know how tall you are, little mammal?”
“Well, yes, but not in your measurements,” I said. “In my country I measure five feet two inches, or one point five seven metres. Here I am counted as being one point six eight hersps.” One thing I had learned while I had been asleep was how Kerpian weights and measures worked.
“You’re right, that means nothing. Stand against the wall.”
So I did that, and Issin marked the wall at my head and produced a measuring line.
“Three point four four kubs,” he announced. “That makes you point one seven five kubs taller than me.”
To me it looked like about three inches or seven and a half centimetres or eight and a half shardihersps… I’m going to stick to metric from here on in to keep it simple.
“And your weight?” he asked. “No, just stand on the scale – I don’t want to know all the stupid names you have for it.”
So I stood on the scale and was told I weighed 44.25 hulsks, which obviously meant nothing to me at all. Issin took my place and found he was 50.75 hulsks, which to me just meant he was heavier.
“And now we get to the real differences – the internal ones,” said Haless. “We already know you mammals are viviparous, but the other obvious difference is in the blood. Later we’ll take you to a clinic and run a full scan of your internal organs, but before that we’re going to be looking at your blood. So you’d better take your clothes off or you’ll bleed all over them.”
I didn’t like the sound of that at all, but when I hesitated Issin threatened to hit me, and so I removed my shirt, shoes, socks and shorts.
“And those,” demanded Issin, pointing at my boxers.
“But… okay, then,” I agreed as he advanced on me again.
I pulled them off and stood up straight, and they stared at me.
“Look at those stupid external organs,” commented Haless. “Do you really walk around with those bits flopping about in front of you all the time?”
“Why? It looks ridiculous.”
“That’s just how we are,” I said. “Don’t you have a penis or testicles, then?”
“Of course we do, but our testicles are kept safely inside, and so is the penis, until we want to use it. Show him, Issin.”
Issin didn't seem remotely embarrassed, removing his clothes – boots, jacket, trousers (both in the military red-brown of the adult Greys we had seen) and a padded shirt. He was wearing nothing else, so no underwear or socks.
I looked first at his groin – I was understandably curious. And there was nothing there but what looked like a vertical fold in his skin. As for the rest of him...
His body was much the same as mine apart from the lack of visible genitals, though he had no belly-button and no nipples. His arms and legs were like mine, too, though his feet had only four toes and his hands had an opposable thumb and three fingers – which was another reason why the Kerpian barrier controls needed a spread hand to operate them, because the Greys were a digit short. And apart from the colour his skin looked quite like mine, too – there were no obvious scales, though the ridge of his backbone was a little more pronounced than mine. We walked around each other looking each other up and down, so I got a chance to see him from both sides.
The main difference was his head. There was no hair at all, the skull was a little longer than mine, and the way the jaw protruded for an extra five centimetres or so made his head look even longer. The lips were very thin, and when he grinned it was clear that he had rather more teeth than I did – probably that's why the jaw was longer, to accommodate all that extra biting equipment. There were no external ears, the nose was rudimentary, just two nostrils on top of the jaw and the hint of a ridge of bone above them, and the eyes were black, with an oval-shaped iris like a cat's. There were no eyelashes or eyebrows.
He allowed me to run my hand along his arm, doing the same thing to me, and he felt smooth and cool (in the temperature sense!)
“My testicles are here,” he told me, pointing to the base of his groin. “Kick me there and I won't feel a thing. If I kick you there, will you feel nothing, too?”
“No, it'll hurt like hell,” I admitted.
“And if I grab your penis and dig my nails in, will it hurt?” he asked, flicking his wrist and making a set of two-centimetre-long claws appear at the end of his fingers.
“If you do it with those I should think you'd rip it off,” I said, looking at the claws nervously.
“So you see already how superior we are to mammals,” said Issin. “You can't damage my genitals because they are protected, whereas yours are very vulnerable.”
“Let's get back to the blood,” said Haless. “That’s what's really different about us, after all, because you are primarily endothermic and we are ectothermic.”
“Do you mean warm- and cold-blooded?” I asked.
“That's an inaccurate term,” Haless reproved me. “Our blood is frequently warm. The difference is that we use external means to control our body temperature, and you use internal ones. We'll be spending a lot of time investigating the difference. We'll start off by taking a small sample of your blood for analysis, and then later we'll be able to examine your internal organs in detail. It'll be interesting, for example, to see whether your heart is heavier than one of ours or not.”
“How are you going to find that out?” I asked.
“By putting it on the scales, of course.”
I gaped at him. “But... I mean, you can't do that!” I protested. “I'm using it!”
“Oh, don't worry, you won't be by the time we come to weigh it. Or your liver or stomach or kidneys, come to that.”
“Oh, I get it,” I said, after a moment. “You're winding me up, right? Obviously you're not really going to do that, because if you were just going to kill me and cut me up you wouldn't have wasted all that time implanting me with your language, would you?”
“That wasn't a waste of time. After all, how are you going to be able to tell us what it feels like when we cut you up if you can't speak our language? It's well worth a delay of a couple of days: this will be the first time ever that anyone has dissected a specimen while it tells us how it feels to have its skin cut open and its organs removed. If we're careful you should still be able to speak right up to the point where we disconnect your heart. You're going to make history, little mammal – and we're going to be famous!”
Fame... it's overrated, I think, and I'm pretty sure Jake would agree with me, at least if this is the way to get noticed. So how is he going to avoid losing his liver?
You might have some thoughts about this. If you have, feel free to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll be happy to get back to you.
Copyright 2009: all rights reserved. Please do not repost, reprint or otherwise reproduce this or any part of it anywhere without my written permission.