The Nexus - Chapter Twelve

Last time we left Jake on the point of taking drastic action to escape from Haless and Issin. Can he really bring himself to kill them in cold blood?


I stood beside the bed, a knife in each hand, and paused: maybe it would be safer to rely on my right hand, and so I should deal with Haless first and then Issin – there would be virtually no chance of Issin being able to react quickly enough even if he did wake up when I cut Haless. So I held the knife just above Haless’s throat…

Of course I had never done this before, but I reckoned that a quick, hard, deep slash would do the job. Okay, I told myself, on three: one… two… two and a half…

I took the knife away: my hand was trembling. I knew that I had to do this, because I didn’t think I’d get a better chance to escape, but it was so hard - in fact, my attempted bridge-building earlier in the day had come back to bite me, because I was starting to relate to them by now: when I looked at them I could only see two boys of my own age who were learning about the world, when what I should have been seeing was a pair of alien soldiers who were going to kill me if I didn’t kill them first.

I put the knife back close to Haless’s throat and tried to force myself to do it. Come on, I told myself, think about Stefan – do you really want these two to prevent you from ever seeing him again? But I still couldn’t bring myself to use the knife, and this time I recognised that I just didn’t have it in me to kill in cold blood like this.

“Oh, fuck!!” I shouted in frustration, hurling the knife across the room.

“Huh? What’s happening?” mumbled Haless, sitting up.

“You’re dead, that’s what’s happening,” I said, showing him the other knife. “You and Issin both.”

“So… why am I still here?”

I handed him the knife. “Because I can’t be like you,” I said. “I know if our positions were reversed you would have killed me as I slept, but I just couldn’t do that. You probably think that’s a serious weakness.”

“Well… you realise that if you had killed us you would still be stuck here? I mean, you do know about the guardians, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course. I was going to rub your blood all over me – that way they wouldn’t have recognised me as a human.”

He thought about it for a moment and then nodded. “I think that would have worked,” he said. “It would have been even safer if you had removed the skin from one of us and wrapped it round yourself… Anyway, since you had a proper plan, why didn’t you do it?”

“Because I’m not a soldier and I’m never going to be one. Maybe my friend Stefan could have done it, but I can’t – I’m just a kid like you, and I simply can’t see you as an enemy, even if deep down I know that you are.”

“Weakness,” said Issin, who had also woken up. “Those emotions of yours are another case of mammals being inefficient. Except… even if I think you were stupid not to do it, I’m glad that you didn’t. I’m not ready to die yet.”

“Nor am I, but sometimes it happens anyway,” I said. “Still, at least you know now that you don’t have to worry about me – if I couldn’t hurt you while you were fast asleep I’ll never be able to. So you might as well go back to sleep – you probably still need to digest most of the meat you ate.”

“Perhaps we should put you in your cage to be sure,” said Haless.

“If you want, though I’m not going to change my mind now.”

I went into the cage, took my glasses off and lay down. In one way I was mentally kicking myself for not taking the chance that had been offered… but in another I was glad I hadn’t done it: I think if I had done something like that it would have haunted me for a long time. Even if failing to act was going to cost me my life I still thought I had probably made the right choice.

In fact Haless had simply gone straight back to sleep and hadn’t even bothered to close the cage door, and so if I had wanted to I could still have carried out the plan. But I didn’t seriously consider it again: I would have to try to find another way out, one that didn’t involve hurting Haless and Issin.

Haless woke me up next morning by tapping on the cage, and when I woke up he handed me my clothes and told me to get dressed.

“We’re going to make a proper start on the tests today,” he told me, “and we can’t do that here, so we’re going on a journey. Hurry up – I want to get back to town so that we can try to arrange some transport for us.”

So I got dressed and walked back to town with them. They went to the Town Hall and spoke to one of the Grey officers there, and as a result of that conversation we found ourselves, an hour or so later, sitting in the back of a lorry with half a dozen Grey soldiers. The lorry headed out of town in the direction of the village where we had been captured, but it turned off before we got there and followed a narrower road up into the forest – and I realised that this must have been the one we had crossed on our way up to the summit. The road wound its way up the side of the mountain and eventually we came to a halt at the edge of the trees and we all got out.

I could see that we were close to the summit of the mountain and I realised that we weren’t all that far from the cave that held the emergency exit to Hub One – in fact, I thought it was only a short distance beyond the thin band of trees we were at the edge of. But the path we were following stopped before we got very close to the cave, and it led instead to a functional-looking building that appeared to be sitting on its own on the edge of the forest – well, not quite on its own, because there were some ruins a short distance beyond it, but that building seemed to have been almost completely demolished.

Inside there was a sort of checkpoint, rather like passport control at an airport. The soldiers went through first, and then Haless presented the Grey behind the desk with a piece of paper. The Grey looked me up and down and waved us off to our right, and after a wait of a couple of minutes another Grey took me into a small room, took a photograph of me, weighed me and measured my height (“I’m 3.44 kubs,” I told him helpfully, but he still insisted on checking for himself). Then he hit a couple of keys on his computer and a laminated card appeared from a slot at the side. He handed this to Haless.

“You’re responsible for him, understand?” he said. “If anything goes wrong it’ll be your fault, so make sure nothing does. And don’t lose his pass card, or we won’t let him out again.”

I was happy to hear that coming out again was still a possibility, because by now I had worked out where we were: this building had been put up over the Hub One Nexus Room. Apparently I was going to visit the Grey world.

We went through the checkpoint and then down a ramp that doubled back on itself a couple of times before ending in the middle of a slightly smaller version of our own Nexus Room: this one only had fifteen doors. The Greys were more helpful than the Kerpians had been, because each door here had a Grey numeral painted on it. One of the doors stood open (not surprisingly it was the one with a figure 1 painted on it) and Haless led us through it into the tunnel beyond. I was a bit surprised to discover that nothing had been done to widen it: it was exactly the same size as the ones at Hub Two. But perhaps the Greys had been worried that interfering with the access tunnel might in some way collapse the portal. The only thing they had done was to rig up some lighting at intervals along the tunnel: the original lights built into the walls by the Kerpians were all dead.

In due course we came to the end of the tunnel. It ended in a door that led to a ladder room (so clearly the tunnel extensions, at least for the ones that didn’t lead to the Hub, were a Hub Two addition), and the ladder in turn led to the usual trapdoor in a hut, though the trapdoor itself had been removed. Of course, the fact that everything had to pass through a small trapdoor, down a ladder and then along a fairly narrow corridor had made it really difficult for the Greys because they hadn’t been able to get any heavy equipment through from their side, and no doubt if the Kerpians had been equipped with tanks and the like they would have been able to repulse the invaders. But since the Kerpians were a peaceful people the invasion had succeeded.

Immediately outside the hut, and in fact built onto it, was another checkpoint, though this one was a rather simpler affair, presumably intended just to keep unauthorised people away from the portal. The guard on duty checked my pass in a rather cursory way and waved us straight through, and outside the checkpoint we found ourselves in a forest once more, though this one was a lot closer to civilisation than the ones I had visited previously at Hub Two: five minutes’ walk down a recent-looking road took us out of the forest and into a small town built on the side of the mountain. Most of the people we passed as we walked through the town seemed to be in uniform, and perhaps that’s why they didn’t stare at me: if they had served on the other side of the portal they would have seen plenty of humans before.

Another ten minutes brought us to a cable car station, and the cable car in turn took us down into the valley below. At about the halfway point we switched to another cable car and this one ended up at the edge of a town (I thought that probably this would be the Grey version of Hintraten, though this was a substantially larger place than the one we had left earlier today) in a complex that also included a railway station and a bus station. But Haless and Issin just walked out of the complex and along a wide road that led away from it.

All the vehicles we saw – and there weren’t very many – were moving almost silently, so apparently the Greys had something other than the internal combustion engine, and that got me thinking about the dangers of something like the Nexus Room: an aggressive species would have access, not only to the mineral wealth of several different worlds, but also to their technology, and that would doubtless lead to a large number of technological innovations that would in turn make their world even stronger. The Kerpians had not apparently tried to steal the technology of my world, probably because they were already in advance of much of what we knew, but I was sure that the Greys would simply grab everything and use it to develop their own world faster than would otherwise have been possible.

We walked for ten minutes or so and then left the main thoroughfare and headed off into smaller side roads, and in due course we reached a building that Haless said housed their school and home. I’d already seen that Grey architects liked round corners and curves, but even despite the lack of straight edges this building looked stark and unwelcoming. Maybe that was because the windows weren’t very big, or the colour was a dull dark grey, but I was still glad I didn’t have to live in it.

They led me inside and took me to an office close to the front door, and here they presented me to their study director, who was wearing the ubiquitous military uniform. I wondered for a moment if this was a bit like China under Mao, where everyone wore exactly the same clothes, but perhaps it was just because this was a military school a bit like Stefan’s, because when I was sent back into the hall to wait while Haless and Issin discussed their plans with the director I saw a couple of other Greys go past outside in the street, and they were wearing different clothes.

“Okay, Jake,” said Haless, emerging from the room, “come with us. After what happened last night we reckon we can trust you, so we’re not going to lock you up in a cupboard like we had been going to. Instead you can live with us between experiments: you can sleep in our dormitory and eat with us. I’ll have to try to arrange for some food for you between our meals, though, or you’re likely to get very hungry…. Anyway, come with us now and we’ll introduce you to the rest of our study group.”

They took me up some stairs – Grey stairs had shorter risers and longer treads than ours – and along a couple of dark corridors to what looked to me like a small classroom: there were ten desks informally scattered about the room and a large screen at the front, which was currently showing an adult Grey holding forth about the mineral deposits of Region Nine. Eight young Greys were following the program with a lot more attention than would have happened in my school if there had been no teacher present, as was the case here.

“Pause program,” said Haless into a microphone beside the screen, and the image froze. “Okay, put your computers away: I want you to meet our pet mammal. It’s called Jake, it’s a male and it’s going to be helping us with the experiments we talked about ten days ago.”

The other Greys looked at me with interest and I looked back: even without hair to help me differentiate I had found that I could see the difference between Haless and Issin straight away, and their eight colleagues were also fairly easily distinguishable – a scar on the cheek here, a split lip there, eyes closer together or further apart, a heavier jaw, narrower nostrils, slightly lighter or darker skin…

Most of the desks were set in twos or threes, presumably indicating what passed for ‘friendship’ in this world, though there was one Grey sitting alone on one side of the room. Yup, I thought, every class has its Invisible Jake: that looks like my counterpart in this one.

“We’ll be doing a whole range of tests over the next few days,” Haless went on. “Issin is going to be the control, so we’ll be measuring his results against the mammal’s. We’ve got Lab Four booked, and the director says he’d like us all to get involved, so come and watch whenever you want. We’ll get a timetable printed out later today.”

“Can it talk?” asked a Grey sitting in the group of three.

“Yes, it can,” I butted in before Haless could answer: I was getting irritated with being spoken about as though I wasn’t there. “And I’m a he, same as you lot. So you can’t tell rude jokes about me thinking I won’t understand, because I will.”

“What are rude jokes?” asked the Grey.

“Comments about the way us mammals have sex or stuff like that.”

“Really? How do you have sex, then?”

“Shut up, Rathyk,” said Haless, before I could answer. “You’ll get a chance to find out all about it later. And Jake has never had sex, because he’s still too young, he says. And he’s never even practised with another boy, so there really isn’t anything he can tell you. Anyway, we might as well continue with normal lessons for now: in the pause I’ll sort out which experiments we want to do first and then we can start on them after midday.

“Jake, grab a chair from the pile at the back and follow the lesson – in fact, try to remember as much as you can. We’ll test you later to see how good your memory is. Issin, don’t activate your computer, just try to remember without it.”

He and Issin sat down at the two empty desks and a laptop-sized computer rose up onto Haless’s desk; Issin’s desk remained empty. I took a chair from the pile and went and sat next to the boy I was already thinking of as Grey Jake, but as soon as I sat down Haless told me to move.

“Not there,” he said. “You don’t want to be sitting next to him. Anywhere else will do.”

“Why, what’s wrong with him?” I asked.

“We’ll tell you later. Just take it from me, you don’t want to be too close to him.”

So I moved the chair a short distance away. ‘Grey Jake’ just sat there without saying anything, though he didn’t look happy.

Haless reactivated the lesson, and I sat and tried to take in how much iron ore a week was being mined in the north of Region Nine, what happened to it after it was out of the ground and why it was so important to the regional economy. Fortunately I’d learned a bit about iron and steel production the previous year at school, and while the words ‘Bessemer’ and ‘Linz-Donawitz’ were unsurprisingly missing from the exposition I was watching now, at least I could remember the basics of each and so could understand most of what this program was talking about.

And when Haless tested us on the content of the lesson later that afternoon I found that I’d remembered a lot more than Issin had.

“But I think that’s mainly because you’re used to relying on your computers,” I said. “Normally you just enter the important stuff into the machines and then you know you can forget it. We don’t do that at my school: we have to keep stuff in our heads. And, anyway, I learned a lot about steel last year, so this wasn’t a fair test. If you really want to see which of us is best at remembering stuff you should give us a test using random information or something later on.”

Issin looked grateful at that and I hoped it might have made up for witnessing his shame the previous evening.

The three of us were in the laboratory Haless had booked for us, and since we were alone I went on, “So what’s wrong with the boy who sits on his own, then?”

“His name’s Ssyrl, and he’s a fucking disgrace. To start with he works a lot outside normal study hours and that just makes the rest of us look bad. But the real problem with him is that he’s a pervert. You know how we help each other out by playing the female part in sex, but that we don’t really enjoy it too much? Well, Ssyrl never minded when one of us asked him to do it, and at first we thought he was just being helpful, perhaps to make up for working too hard. But then we compared notes and found that he’d never asked any of us to play the female role for him, and that seemed really strange. So we started watching him, and we found that sometimes he would sneak off to a cupboard in the basement, and once we knew where he went we rigged the cupboard up with cameras and microphones, and so the next time he went there we found out exactly what he did: he stripped off, bent over one of the storage racks, and pushed a piece of plastic up his cloaca. And he manipulated it until he got excited.”

“See, it’s normal for boys to practise together occasionally,” added Issin, “but if you only want to play the female role there’s something seriously wrong with you. I mean, we know that some people are like that, but we’re supposed to be training to join the army, and to be a soldier you have to be strong and brave and, well, masculine. And Ssyrl obviously wishes he was a female, and so he shouldn’t be in this school.”

“Would he be able to go to a different school if he asked?” I wondered aloud.

“Well, probably… I can’t imagine it having come up before, though,” said Issin. “But he shames all of us – if the other study groups knew we had a male who acts like a female among us they’d laugh at us.”

“We fixed him, though,” said Haless. “We challenged him, and he denied it, and then we showed him the film and he didn’t know what to say. We were going to beat him up for it properly - claws and all – but I thought of a better way to make him pay: we held him down and glued his sheath shut, and once the glue had set he couldn’t get his penis out. Then we all fucked him. He probably enjoyed that bit, but of course because he couldn’t open his sheath, every time he spurted out his seed it was trapped inside, and afterwards he couldn’t clean himself up. It itches like hell if you can’t clean it off, and after a bit it starts to stink a bit, too. But we kept him glued up for five days, and every evening we made him put his piece of plastic up himself and play with it until he spurted again. We tied him to the bed at night so that he couldn’t sneak off and try to find the solvent, and we supervised him all through the days, making sure he was never left alone, not even when passing waste. After five days he swore he’d never pleasure himself like that again if we let him clean himself up, and although we kept him like it for another five days, in the end we agreed, because by then he smelled awful. So we gave him the solvent and he ran off to open himself up and have a very long bath.

“And we thought he’d learned his lesson, but Rathyk tells me he’s found a new cupboard and he’s started doing it again, so obviously we’re going to have to do something more drastic this time. Maybe we’ll have to cut his penis off, or something.”

Obviously I found myself sympathising with Ssyrl: this was definitely not a gay-friendly society. Still, there didn’t seem to be much I could do about it, and I wasn’t going to open my mouth to defend him, either. I know that’s a bit cowardly, but my own position here was precarious as it was, and alienating Haless and Issin would be like handing them a scalpel and telling them which organ to cut out of me first.

“Maybe we should hold him down and let you fuck him,” suggested Issin. “I should think even he would die of shame if he got fucked by a mammal.”

“No, thanks,” I said. “If I ever do that it’ll be with someone I like, not with some boy I’ve never even spoken to – and preferably not with a member of another species, either.”

“Okay, but we could threaten him with it,” insisted Issin. “You could play along a bit even if you‘re not really going to do it. It’d be interesting to watch his face if you put your penis against him.”

“Well, I suppose I could do that,” I agreed. Especially if it keeps you two in a good mood, I didn’t add.

That afternoon we started the tests, beginning with mental exercises and tests of reactions. In general I did a bit better at the head work, while Issin had slightly faster reactions. I gave a blood sample and allowed them to take me to what I supposed was a clinic or hospital and put me through a scanner, though this one produced a final photograph that even I could understand: it showed clearly where each of my vital organs was situated. On the way back to the school they stopped at a small kiosk and bought me a snack, which was basically a rather undercooked beef-or-some-other-meat-burger on a small round of unleavened bread.

“We don’t usually eat the bread, though it is edible,” Haless told me. “Generally we just discard it, though – scavengers will clean it away.”

I ate it anyway and thought it didn’t taste too bad, but the meat could have done with a couple more minutes on the grill.

That evening they moved another bunk into their dormitory for me. When I got undressed they all gathered round to look at me, making comments about the stupid way I kept my genitals outside my body and wondering why on earth I had those pathetic wisps of hair in a place where they were doing nothing useful at all. Haless toyed with me until I went hard, and that drew some more comments along the lines of ‘call that hard?’ and ‘that’s really ugly’ and ‘do you even know what it’s for, little mammal?’

“You’re all just jealous because it’s bigger than any of yours,” I retorted.

“I suppose it’s not a bad size,” said Haless. “Hey, Ssyrl, what do you think of it?”

Ssyrl didn’t seem to want to comment, but he had been staring at me ever since my boxers came off.

“It’s a lot bigger than yours, isn’t it?” Haless went on. “I bet you’re wondering how nice it would feel inside you, aren’t you? It’d certainly be better than that piece of plastic you use. Go on, Jake, put it up him – he’d really like that.”

There was a trapped look on Ssyrl’s face, but I could also see that if we’d been alone he might have wanted to try: he kept casting glances at my erection. But he was never going to admit that in front of all the others, so he just shook his head hard and tried to back away. The others grabbed him and held him down across one of the bunks.

“Go on, Jake, give him one!” encouraged Issin, and the others joined in, calling for me to show them what I could do. I let them push me into position, close enough for the tip of my penis to actually touch Ssyrl’s opening (and it even twitched open for a moment in a reflex that I don’t think he could control). But that was as far as I was going.

“No, thanks,” I said, backing away. “I only want to do that with females, or with friends.”

“Ssyrl’s almost a female,” said Rathyk. “He acts like one, anyway.”

“I meant a human female. And I don’t fancy Ssyrl at all.”

They didn’t exactly roll on the floor laughing – I don’t think the Grey sense of humour was like that – but they seemed to appreciate it, as one or two made a sort of snickering sound and a couple more clapped me on the back. In any case they let me move away, and at the same time they released Ssyrl, who scuttled back to his own bed looking chastened. I wondered how much of this he could take: even though friendships weren’t important here, it must be hard being disliked by everyone around you. I felt sorry for him, but I thought I’d done my own position a bit of good – the more the boys liked me, the less likely I was to get dissected. At least, that’s what I hoped.

I slept fairly well, and the next day we got properly into the tests, both physical (tests of strength, speed and stamina) and mental (the sort of puzzles I’d seen on IQ tests back home). In between the tests I went out of my way to chat to the various Greys who came to watch, doing my best to act in a friendly way towards them, and in the evenings I joked about with the Greys, having impromptu wrestling matches with them (I always lost, but sometimes lasted longer than at others) and answering their questions as best I could. Haless kept me fed by taking me round a variety of kiosks and stalls that sold snacks for Greys who were away from home and so have missed their normal eating days, and I shared a proper meal with them when their eating day came round on my third day at the school.

By the fifth day I thought I was making excellent progress: the other Greys seemed to like me, teasing me about my perceived mammalian shortcomings (by now they had all witnessed the ‘disgusting’ way I unloaded waste water, for example), and I thought that I now had a genuine chance of getting out of this alive.

On that fifth day we started investigating my reaction to extremes of temperature: Issin and I were put in a small room naked, and the room temperature was then raised steadily. We had to keep working at IQ test puzzles for as long as we could, though we had both been told we could leave the room when we felt too uncomfortable. Neither of us enjoyed it, but my ability to sweat helped me to last a little longer than Issin.

And then they reversed things and made the room get steadily colder, and this time I was definitely better equipped to survive. But Issin was reluctant to leave because, having in his view lost the hot challenge, he didn’t feel he could accept defeat on the cold one, too. He sat at his machine, but slowly his hands stopped moving over the keys.

“Hey, Issin, are you okay?” I asked, shivering but still functioning fairly well.

“Fine,” he said, still without moving. But a couple of minutes later he didn’t even respond to my voice, and at that point I got up and called to Haless to stop the experiment and turn the heat back on. But nothing happened.

When I touched Issin his skin was cold, and he didn’t react to me at all, and at that point I decided that enough was enough: I grabbed hold of his chair, which fortunately was on castors, and towed it to the door.

“Why didn’t you turn the heat on?” I asked Haless, once I got outside. “Issin’s really cold – is he okay?”

“What, you care about him?” asked Rathyk, who was there watching with three of the others. “Why?”

“Well… I suppose it’s just that we’ve been through all the experiments together, so even if we’re probably not really friends, at least I’ve got to know him a bit. And I don’t like seeing people I know in trouble.”

“He’ll be fine,” said Haless, putting one of the padded shirts they wore onto Issin and pressing the button in the corner – apparently these were like a sort of portable electric blanket, very useful if the weather was cold. Not that it was cold here very often – in fact it was rather hot most of the time – but for trips into the Kerpian world, or any other that could be reached from the Nexus Room, the heated shirts would probably be a sensible idea.

“Any chance of one of those shirts?” I asked, and they found another one for me. It worked very well, too: within a couple of minutes I was feeling comfortable again, and it wasn’t too long before Issin was back to normal, too. But we decided to stop work for a bit until we were both fully recovered.

At midday Haless took me out to a small restaurant not too far from the school and bought me lunch, which consisted almost exclusively of a steak, though the sauce it was served in was really nice. And as I ate he talked to me.

“I suppose you know we’re not actually going to cut you up now,” he began. “I asked around, and none of the boys wanted to do that to you, even before you pulled Issin out of the cold room this morning. You seem to have become our pet mammal, like a mascot or something, and nobody wants you dead. To be honest, Issin and I knew we couldn’t really do that even before we brought you back here: like Issin said, not killing us was a weak way to behave, but I’m glad you didn’t. So once we’ve finished the tests you’ll be able to go back to shovelling coal – unless you want to stay here with us?”

I thought about that for a few seconds – after all, I didn’t exactly enjoy working as a stoker. But:

“No, thanks,” I said. “I sort of like you and the others now, but I’d still sooner be with my own species – and I’ve got friends there I’d like to get back to. Plus, I’m not sure that what I’m eating here is really good for me: we’re designed to eat meat, but I like eating other things, too.”

“And you don’t mind working in that furnace room?”

“It certainly isn’t my idea of a perfect career, but, like I said, at least I have friends there. I can handle it.”

“Okay. I reckon another couple of days will be enough to finish the tests, and then we’ll take you back.”

That evening in the dormitory they were giving Ssyrl a hard time again, openly debating what would be the best way to punish him for being a pervert: permanently sealing his sheath, cutting his penis off, ramming broom handles into him and similar appalling suggestions. And suddenly I had an absolutely brilliant idea.

“Do you know what would be the best way to punish him?” I said. “Send him back with me and have him work in the furnace room for a couple of weeks. You can bet none of the kids there like you Greys too much, so he’d have a really miserable time. And he’d have to try doing some honest work. It might even toughen him up and make him a bit more masculine.”

And they liked that idea a lot, speculating on how many times a day he’d be whipped by ‘the mammals’ for not pulling his weight, laughing when I explained that he’d get no opportunity to stick things up himself because we were always together (I didn’t mention Ertdays or huts in the garden because I didn’t want to spoil the effect) and happily trying to guess how long it would be before the constant hostility there drove him insane. Personally I thought that if he could cope with the hostility here he would find the furnace room a doddle, but I didn’t say so.

“Why just a couple of weeks, though?” said Rathyk. “I reckon we should ship him there permanently – it’s not like he belongs here, is it?”

And they liked that idea, too, and apparently they didn’t take long to get official approval (I wasn’t too surprised that the director of a military school would be keen to get rid of ‘perverts’) because next day Haless told me that the training would be interrupted while he and Issin transported Ssyrl to the mine at Hintraten.

“Can I come, too?” I asked. “I can’t do much here without you, and I’d like to see some of my friends again, even if it’s only for a few minutes.”

“I don’t see why not,” agreed Haless.

I hoped I would get a chance to talk to Ssyrl alone before we reached Hintraten: there were a couple of things I wanted to explain to him. And I also hoped I’d get a chance to talk to Markus when we got there, for the same reason.

The four of us walked back to the cable car station. Ssyrl didn’t seem to want to talk to anyone, and it was obvious that Haless and Issin weren’t going to let him out of their sight, which meant I wasn’t going to get a chance to talk to him just yet.

We walked back up to the checkpoint, where we were once again quickly waved through into the hut.

We went down the ladder. I went first, and while I was waiting for the others I noticed something very interesting indeed: there were cobwebs strung between the edge of the open door and the wall ten centimetres away. And I remembered that the trapdoor had been removed completely, which I supposed made sense, since there were soldiers using it regularly. So now I had another idea. I wasn’t quite sure how to put it into action, but it gave me something to think about as we walked through the tunnel to the Nexus Room and up the ramp into the frontier post. My pass was scanned by the soldier on duty and we went outside into another fine day.

There were trucks running between the post and the town twice a day to ferry troops to and from the Nexus Room, but we had missed the morning truck. So, rather than wait for the afternoon truck, Haless said we should walk. But even the long walk back down the mountain to Hintraten didn’t give me a chance to speak to Ssyrl, and we had almost reached the town before the last piece of my plan fell into place.

“I’ve been thinking, Haless,” I said. “Why don’t we take Tommi back with us? If you have a slightly younger human to compare me with you’ll be able to add a section on how mammals mature and what happens to us as our bodies change from child to adult. And Tommi knows you now, so he wouldn’t be worried about coming with us, especially if it’s only going to be for a couple of days.”

“Yes, why not?” agreed Haless. “It might be interesting to include that, especially since you don’t really see it with us: most of our changes are internal.”

We went on to the mine. This time I was scanning around carefully, and I was delighted to see only two cameras outside the building: one on one of the gate-posts pointing at the road outside the mine as it approached the gates, and one on the outside of the furnace building pointing at the yard. Inside there were rather more of them, but I already knew where most of those were.

Before we got to the furnace building we went to the mine office so that Haless could explain to Harsen Karel that he was getting an extra worker (though he didn’t go into a lot of detail as to why) and subsequently he gave the same explanation to Hass Eri when we reached the furnace building. Mr Hass seemed surprised, but he didn’t seem remotely inclined to turn down the offer of another worker. He sent for the senior Grey on duty so that Haless could explain things to him, and this time Haless gave him the real reason, and the Grey clearly approved.

“I’m glad to see Stone back, too,” added Mr Hass. “We’ve been short-handed for too long.”

“I’m afraid I’m not quite back yet,” I said. “I have to go back with them for another couple of days, and I’m afraid they want Tommi the water-boy to come with us. But they have promised it’ll only be for two more days.”

He wasn’t quite so happy about that, but accepted it – not that he had a lot of choice, because it was a Grey giving the orders. I’d hoped to be able to go down to the furnace room, but instead Haless took Ssyrl downstairs, with Mr Hass alongside to translate for him, while I stayed outside in the yard with Issin.

“Make sure you explain to them why he’s being punished,” I said just before they left us.

“Oh, don’t worry, I will,” promised Haless. And I hoped that if he did my fellow stokers would go easy on Ssyrl – after all, I knew their sexual attitudes would be far more accepting of him than his Grey colleagues’.

Around ten minutes later Haless reappeared with Tommi, who ran to greet me and hugged me hard.

“Our Grey friends have agreed to let you come and help with their research for a couple of days, so you’re going to see another world,” I told him. “I’ve been there, and it’s really interesting.”

There was only one more hurdle to get over if my plan was going to succeed, and this seemed to be a good time to try to deal with it.

“You know,” I said to Haless, “it would be worth giving Tommi the basic Grey language program. That way you could do experiments with both of us at the same time and you wouldn’t have to keep getting me to translate for you.”

“Well… I was hoping to get back today.”

“Okay, but if we could put him on it overnight that would give him enough vocabulary and grammar to get by, and it would also give me a chance to cook you another meal. And if we’re going to shop for something to eat tonight I can stock up with food to take back with us, and then you won’t have to keep taking us out to a burger stall three times a day. And we could make sure we were ready to take the morning truck back up to the border, too, which would be better than walking.”

“Okay, I suppose you’re right. Let’s do that, then: we’ll go to the shop and get some food for you and some meat for us for tonight, and then we can drop the red-head off at the clinic for the night.”

So we headed to the supermarket. It was all I could do not to let my state of mind show, because as long as everything worked the way I hoped it would I might really be able to solve a whole lot of problems over the next couple of days. Of course, there were still some fairly large obstacles to get past, but at least now I had a viable plan.

We stocked up with enough food to keep me and Tommi fed for at least three days – I felt it was better to play safe – and we also found some more steaks for Haless and Issin to eat that evening, together with the ingredients for a good pepper sauce. And then we walked up the road to the clinic.

I was delighted to see that Narj Larzel was still there, and I waited while Haless told him that he wanted Tommi to have the basic Grey package, together with any additional vocabulary they could get into him overnight. Larzel said that shouldn’t be a problem, and that he’d make sure Tommi was fit to travel in good time to catch the morning truck up to the border post.

“I’d better stay with Tommi and get him settled in,” I said. “He doesn’t like needles much and it’ll be easier for him if I’m here. You head on up to the cabin and I’ll catch up with you as soon as Tommi’s asleep.”

“You can't walk up there without us,” Haless pointed out. “Or have you forgotten the guardians?”

Oh, crap, I thought, because that's exactly what I had done.

“Don't worry, we'll wait for you,” Haless went on. “Go and deal with the red-head; we'll wait in the reception bit at the front. There are some decent chairs there.”

That was lucky, I thought: if they'd wanted to come in with us it would have been really difficult to talk to Larzel – I'd have had to risk talking to him in Kerpian inside the room, and I know he'd have been very nervous about doing that, especially when he heard what I wanted. But now that the Greys had decided to wait for me in Reception I wouldn't have to worry about that.

I went with Tommi and Larzel into the room with the chairs and we strapped him in, told him not to worry and said we’d be there when he woke up. The technician applied the anaesthetic, implanted the needles and hit the button, and Tommi went straight to sleep. And at that point I grabbed Larzel by the elbow and steered him out onto the balcony.

“I need you to do something for me – well, for all of us, really,” I said.

“What’s that?”

“I want you to find me a bomb.”


To quote Inspector Clouseau: “A berm? Were we expecting a berm?” Well, probably not, but Jake thinks he's come up with a Cunning Plan, and in the next chapter we'll find out exactly what this is.

If you want to speculate – and I know some of you do enjoy doing that – feel free to send your speculations to and I'll write back to you – though I don't promise to confirm or deny anything you suggest!

Copyright 2009: all rights reserved. Please do not repost, reprint or otherwise reproduce this or any part of it anywhere without my written permission.

David Clarke