The Nexus - Chapter Nine

Now the boys are in trouble, and things don’t improve much as the chapter progresses, either – though Jake does discover a fast way to learn a foreign language…


The two Greys walked towards us, the one on the left taking his weapon, which looked like some sort of rifle, from his shoulder and pointing it at the ground in front of us, and the one on the right addressing us in a language of which we understood not a syllable. And as soon as they realised that – and in fact it looked as though they hadn’t expected to be understood – the one on the right shouted something over his shoulder, and a human in a dark green uniform emerged from the house they had just left. He joined the two Greys and spoke to us, but although this was obviously a different language we couldn’t understand him, either.

“Sorry,” I said, shrugging. “I’m afraid I can’t understand a word of what you’re saying.”

Gar nichts,” added Stefan.

Pige rien,” contributed Alain. And Oli just smiled.

Now they all looked surprised, and the human tried asking something – presumably this was something like ‘Where have you come from?’ but of course we couldn’t answer him: he didn’t understand anything we said. He turned and spoke to the two Greys in what seemed to be their language rather than his – their vowels were unmodified and there were a lot of ‘s’ and ‘th’ sounds – and the conversation went on for a minute or so while we just stood and waited for them to come to some sort of conclusion. I hoped that this would be to just let us go on our way, but of course we were never going to be that lucky. Although we did get our lift in a lorry, because they shepherded us into the back of one of them. The Grey with the gun got in with us, and someone else – we couldn’t see who, because the back of the truck was covered – got into the front and turned the engine on. In fact the noise it made was more of a hum than the usual sound of a diesel engine, but the vehicle still moved like a normal truck.

We headed away from the village – we could see out of the back of the truck and so we were able to watch it falling away behind us – and on down the road, still heading in the direction in which we had been walking. And now the road was a decent one with a proper tarmac surface, so at least the ride was smooth, even if we didn’t know where we were going (though Stefan kept an eye on his compass, so we were at least able to tell that we were now heading basically east).

We went through another small hamlet without stopping and then, less than ten minutes after starting the journey, we entered a larger place. The lorry stopped and the Grey soldier motioned us to get out, and we found that we were outside a low building constructed largely of glass and steel. Two more Greys and a couple of uniformed humans were apparently waiting for us, and the human who had spoken to us in the village was there, too: apparently he had been driving the truck, as he jumped down from the cab and spoke to the humans in the welcoming committee, one of whom then ushered us into the building. First he took us to an office, where he turned on a computer and typed something into it, and then he activated the drop-down menu for languages and stood aside to let us select one we could understand. Stefan clicked on ‘English’ and the on-screen language changed accordingly.

‘We need to implant our language into your brains,’ it read, which wasn’t exactly reassuring. ‘Once this has been done we will be able to speak with you.’

‘Will it hurt?’ I typed, and stood back to let him select his own language and so understand it.

‘No,’ he typed back. ‘It will take a while, though. You should not worry – this is an easy procedure and will not cause you any problem.’

‘Your language, or the language of the Greys?’ I typed, and he gave me a sharp look once he’d translated it.

‘Ours,’ he typed. ‘Once it has been done we will talk.’

And that seemed to be all we needed to know for now, because once we’d had a chance to read it he turned the computer off again. Then he escorted us to a room that held what looked like ten dentists’ chairs, all hooked up to several cables. And there was a sort of helmet device, too, and I was sure I could see needles inside it. I looked at him nervously.

“No hurt,” he said, so he’d obviously remembered some of the words I had used on the computer.

“What are these machines for?” asked Oli, who alone of us didn’t seem nervous – of course, he hadn’t been able to understand what our escort had typed, and he seemed to have an unshakable faith that every ‘magic machine’ he came across would be either fun or useful, or probably both. Alain was older and a bit more cynical, and he was looking at the set-up distrustfully.

“They’re to teach us the language people speak here,” I explained.

“Cool!” said Oli, and plonked himself down in the nearest chair, looking at our escort expectantly.

Well, I reasoned that we were going to have to do this anyway, both because we needed to be able to communicate and also because I thought they would do it by force unless we co-operated. So I sat in the chair next to Oli’s, and that galvanised Alain into grabbing the one on Oli’s other side. Finally Stefan came and sat in the one on my other side.

“If this does not work as it should… well…”

“It will,” I said, with a confidence I didn’t really feel. “Implanting a language directly into the brain has to be a lot faster than studying it at school for six or seven years, and to judge from the language database on their computers, languages are something this world knows all about.”

A couple of men in pale green jackets came and got us into position, strapping us into the chairs and setting the helmets on our heads. By the time mine was on I couldn’t move either my head or my upper body, though my legs were still free. I wondered how long this procedure would take. I was still wearing my watch, and I’d had a quick look before my head was immobilised: it was around three-thirty on Friday afternoon.

One of the green-jacketed men sprayed something onto my arm and then stuck a couple of needles into it, and it didn’t hurt at all: probably the spray was some sort of anaesthetic, I thought. And then the man pressed a button on the console next to the chair and I went to sleep.

When I woke up the helmet had been removed and my arms had been unstrapped. I felt a bit woozy, but I supposed that was just the effects of the anaesthetic wearing off. I was rather more concerned to find that my shorts were undone, and I wondered who had been doing what to me while I was unconscious. I stood up, wobbling for a moment, and did them back up again.

“You had a catheter in,” said a voice behind me, and there was the man who had escorted us into this room. “Sorry, but it had to be done, or you would have made a mess of your clothes.”

“How long was I asleep for?” I asked, in the same language – which came easily.

“Oh, good, you can speak as well as understand,” he said. “Of course, there’s never usually a problem, but since we didn’t know exactly where you came from there was always a slight possibility that your physiology would be different. Obviously it isn’t. You see, we have an accurate map of the human brain, and we know which parts deal with language and communication, and how to implant information into the memory – for humans, at least.

“Anyway, to answer your question, you were asleep for four days, which is why you had to have a catheter – and if the chairs didn’t have a massage system built in you’d have fallen over by now. You've had a drip-feed in your arm, too. Four days is long enough to implant all the grammar modules and enough vocabulary to give you the ability to carry out all the usual daily activities a person needs. And there was an extra module, too, but you’ll find out about that later. Could you read this, please?”

He put an A4-sized card into my hand. It was written in Dead Guy’s right-to-left language, but I could still read it as easily as if it had been written in English – I just wished this method had been available when I was struggling to learn Hebrew.

’The mist rolled down the side of the mountain, covering the mine-head in a thick white blanket’,” I read. “’Before half a kend had passed it was impossible to see anything: even the coal wagons had been swallowed up, though the track was less than ten hersps away from where I was standing. I could still make out the entrance to the furnace-room because of the red glow that lit it, but everything else…’

“That’s fine,” he interrupted. “Now, if you’d just like to step out here for a moment…”

He led me past where my friends were still sleeping through a set of French windows onto a balcony and closed the door behind us.

“Now, how did you get here?” he asked. “And keep your voice down.”

“We came from Hub One.”

“What?! You mean it's still there? We thought we'd destroyed it!”

“Well, I'm afraid you didn't.”

He swore – at least, I'm fairly sure it was swearing, though for some reason they hadn't included swear words in any of the vocabulary modules they had installed in my memory. Then he went on, “When the last unit left they rigged up enough explosives to destroy the place five times over. It was wired straight into the generator, so that the Greys couldn't cut the power, and it was set to trigger if any of the barriers were disturbed or deactivated. We didn't set it off straight away in case we managed to push the Greys back into their own world, but as soon as they broke through into ours and we knew they were going to be too strong we sent the signal to detonate. And now you're telling me it didn't work?”

“Sorry. Probably the power went off before you sent the signal – Hub One is virtually dead now. Only the barriers are still working.”

More swear words. Then he asked, “And how did you get to the Hub?”

“In the Capsule. We found our way into Hub Two through one of the portals… well, through three of them, in fact, because we come from three different worlds, though ours are similar enough for us to be able to talk to each other. So... are you saying the Greys have taken over here?”

“How do you know we call them Greys?”

“We read some of what was on the computer in Hub Two.”

“So Hub Two is still functioning?”

“Well, just about. But the power is failing, and from what we can tell at least three of the tunnels have already gone, and another six are on the way out.”

“Probably that’s just as well – at least it’ll limit the number of worlds the Greys can invade if the Hub Two Nexus closes before they get to it. And if we ever manage to get rid of them we can always rebuild it. That’s the benefit of just mining the tunnels, as opposed to the Nexus Room itself.”

“Yes, we read about it. How did the Greys get out of their world, then? Surely you’d have just triggered the explosives in their tunnel as soon as you realised they were aggressive.”

“There weren’t any mined tunnels at Hub One – we only installed them at Hub Two after the Greys broke through into the Hub One Nexus Room. And we couldn’t close the portal, because once a portal is established it powers itself: provided it is sheltered from the elements and protected from any other disruption – such as the explosives in the tunnels at Hub Two - it’ll stay open indefinitely. The only way to stop it being used is to remove the shafts and tunnels on our side, and we weren’t able to do that with any of the Hub One portals. We did our best to block them, of course, but once the Greys had established themselves in the Nexus Room we couldn’t shift them. We kept them bottled up for a long time by bringing down part of the tunnels that led from the Nexus Room to the Hub – though we didn't have time to blow up the tunnels completely - and by welding the doors shut, but they were still able to use all the other doors in the Nexus Room. And eventually they just dug straight up out of the room until they reached the surface, and of course that was in our world. And after that there was nothing to stop them pouring through. We’re a peaceful people and we haven’t needed a proper army for a very long time – all we had were a few militias, and the Greys had no trouble defeating them, especially as their weapons are more advanced than ours.

“So now this part of our world is under Grey control. So far they are unaware that Hub Two exists, and they’re not even completely sure there’s a Hub One, either. And provided things stay that way until Hub Two shuts down things won’t get any worse. Their main interest here is natural resources: there are small amounts of uranium in these mountains, and they want it, and anything else that might be useful. So for now we’re stuck with them. The good news is that the language implant system doesn’t work properly on them, and that means that they can’t understand our language, though we’re still a bit careful about speaking in front of them: they have computers that might be able to translate for them. Instead some of us have had to learn their language so that they can pass on their orders, and I’m one of those.”

“So what’s going to happen to me and my friends?”

“Well, first of all you must absolutely not tell the Greys that you come from different worlds, because then they would know there’s another Nexus Room somewhere. I’ve told them that you are from another country in this world, one that is a long way off, which is why you can’t speak my language. You’d better say that taking a long journey is part of the manhood rituals in your country, or something. Make sure your friends all say the same thing. After that… well, it won’t be me that decides, it’ll be one of the Grey officers. If you’re lucky he’ll let you continue with your ‘quest’, but if he doesn’t… anyway, you haven’t got to worry about that just yet.

“Just be careful what you say to each other inside the building. I don’t know for certain that the Greys have listening devices here, but it is possible – so stick to your own language if you talk to each other, and if you want to talk about anything dangerous – like the Hub, for example – try to do it outdoors, or somewhere where there is a lot of loud noise to cover what you’re saying. And now we’d better go and see if your friends are ready to wake up yet.”

Back in the room a couple of green-clad men were tidying the others up, removing the needles from their arms, taking the catheters out and finally undoing the restraints and removing the helmets. And one by one my friends returned to consciousness – first Oli, then Stefan, and finally Alain.

“It's okay,” I said to them in French, so that they could all understand me – I didn't think to use the new language. “You probably feel a bit strange because we've been asleep for four days. They've been drip-feeding us, and they had to do one or two other things too... anyway, our friend... I'm sorry,” I said to the man, in his language, “but what's your name?”

“I'm Narj Larzel,” he said. “And the language I'm speaking and you're all understanding – I hope – is Kerpian. We've given you the Western version, because this is a large country and there are quite big regional differences, although someone from here would still be able to talk easily with someone from the capital, which is nine hundred ezerhersps to the east. So, can you all understand me?”

All three of them nodded.

“Good,” he said. He picked up the A4 card he had used with me and handed it to Stefan. “Please could you read this?” he said. “Start from the third sentence.”

'I could still make out the entrance to the furnace-room because of the red glow that lit it,'” began Stefan, “'but everything else had totally disappeared. I had never seen mist as thick as this, and I wondered if it was natural, or...'

“Thank you,” interrupted Larzel. He took the card and handed it to Oli. “Carry on, please.”

“I can't read,” Oli told him. “I never learned how.”

“I think you'll find you can now. Try.”

Oli took the card and his eyes grew wide. “Oh, wow,” he said. “Hey, Alain, I can read! Listen to this: 'I wondered if it was natural, or if somebody had found a way to interfere with the normal weather patterns. I'd heard rumours that Lettrian scientists were working on ways to influence the weather, but it was hard to believe that they could produce such an impenetrable fog...' Gods, Alain, this is amazing! You have a go!”

Alain took the card, found the point at which Oli had stopped reading, and continued, “'I ran to the furnace room and darted into the communication kiosk, but before I could hit the button the supervisor called me.'

“Thank you, that's fine,” said Larzel. “We'll find you something to eat shortly, but I expect you'd like a little time to recover and to stretch your legs. There's a courtyard at the back of the building, so why don't you go there and have a walk round? I'm sure... actually, I don't know any of your names, either...”

“I'm Jake Stone,” I said. “This is Stefan, and Oli, and Alain.”

“Right. Well, I'm sure Stone will tell you all about this place once you're outside.” And he looked meaningfully at me.

“Okay,” I said. “But my first name is Jake. Stone is my family name.”

“Oh. Here we do it the other way about: family name first, personal name second. Larzel is my personal name, Narj is my family name. So here you would be Stone Jake.”

Somehow I liked the idea of being Stone Jake: it was a lot better than Invisible Jake, anyway. Maybe I'd have to try to persuade everyone to call me that when I finally got back to school – if I ever did, that is.

Larzel – or Mr Narj – led us through a corridor to a door that led into a garden. I saw that there were high walls around the sides, which meant that we wouldn't be tempted to disappear before the Greys decided what to do with us. Still, at least we could be fairly sure there weren't any microphones out here, and so I led the others off to the far side of the garden, and there we sat on the grass while I passed on everything that Larzel had told me.

“So what are we going to do?” asked Alain.

“Well, there's not a lot we can do at the moment. I think the best thing would be to wait until we've spoken to the local Grey commander, try to convince him we're just boys on a sort of gap-year trip... sorry, that's taking time out from your studies to see the world. A lot of kids do it in my world, though usually when they're a lot older than us... Larzel said we should claim to be on a manhood ceremony journey, which is something boys of our age do in some cultures in my world. We could say we started out in my country, which is a long way north of here, and... what, sailed down the Rhine, or something?”

“I think that would work,” said Stefan, using French as we all were. “And we could say that we left the river near Basel, crossed the mountain and are now heading for the Donau – the Danube – to continue our journey east.”

“But we want to go west,” I pointed out. “Back to the Vosges.”

“Then perhaps we could say that our experience here has been too much and that we wish to go home – so back to the Rhein.”

“I think that would work,” I said. “Originally we wanted to see more of this country – Larzel said the capital was a long way east of here – but now we've chickened out and want to go home because we don't want to be in the middle of a war. I think he'll buy that. Then we stick to our original plan of crossing the Rhine and getting back to the Vosges as fast as we can. All we'll have to do then will be to find the way into Hub Two – it's probably another hut in the usual place – and get back to our own worlds. I think I could probably take Alain and Oli – they'd be better off with me than with you, I think.”

We walked round the garden for a bit – Larzel was right: our legs were a bit stiff – and then just sat on the grass until he came to fetch us.

He handed each of us a chunk of dark bread and a piece of cheese and waited long enough for us to have finished most of it, and then he took us out of the building to the Rathaus, or Town Hall, which was a bit further along the road. It was a bit worrying that we were escorted by two Grey soldiers: clearly nobody was ready to trust us just yet. At the Town Hall we had to wait for about ten minutes, and then we were taken into an office where a Grey soldier was sitting behind a desk. Larzel explained where we had been found in the Grey language, the officer asked us what we were doing there, and with Larzel acting as interpreter I gave him the story we had concocted in the garden. The officer and Larzel then spoke to each other for a couple of minutes, before Larzel gave us the verdict.

“He says he's sorry, but he can't let you leave the area,” he said. “There are too many spies around as it is. And neither can you just sit around doing nothing: you're going to have to work for your keep. So I'm sorry, but you'll be sent to the mine.”

“Mine? What mine?”

“I told you, we're mining uranium, and there's a mine just down the road. Don't worry, you're too young to do any actual mining – we don't send anyone under fifteen into the tunnels...”

Alain had the sense to say nothing at this point.

“...not least because exposure to the radon gas is dangerous enough for adults, let alone children. But there are plenty of other jobs on the surface. As we're short of workers, all orphaned kids and those who have broken the law are having to work there at the moment, and you'll be joining them.”

“How long for?” asked Stefan.

“Well, until the situation here changes. And I'm afraid that could be a long time. Sorry, boys – I did try to persuade him to let you go, but he won't budge.”

We were escorted out of the Town Hall and the two Grey soldiers marched us down the road for about one and a half kilometres, and here we could see a pit-head – at least, the winding-gear was visible, more or less the same as in pictures I had seen of mining in England and Wales before most of the pits shut down. There was also now a railway line running alongside the road and heading into the mine.

As we walked into the mine – there were gates at the entrance, though these were open – I noticed movement in the long grass beside the road. I wondered what sort of creatures could be responsible, because it couldn't have been guard dogs unless someone had hit on the idea of using dachshunds or chihuahuas for the purpose.

We were taken to the mine office, and here another human was sitting behind a desk. One of our escorts spoke to him in Grey, and the man looked us up and down.

“My name is Harsen Karel, and I'm the supervisor here. I understand you're going to be working here,” he said. “I can't say I'm not glad to see you - we need the workers, because all the men who are fit enough to work are in the mine. Normally we wouldn't sink a mine for the small amounts of uranium in the area: it's too deep to be strip-mined, so normally we'd leave it, because of the costs involved. But of course here the labour is free, and so we've sunk the mine anyway. That means we have to use boys like you for all the surface jobs. We run a small power plant here to power the hoists and lights for the mine – we had to, because the main power lines have been sabotaged several times. So the main jobs are keeping the furnaces burning and running the turbines.

“I should warn you that it's hard work, especially if you're not used to it, and if you don't pull your weight you'll be in serious trouble: our Grey friends have already demonstrated their willingness to kill anyone who they think is a waste of food and water.

“The rules are fairly simple: you don't leave your designated place of work without specific instructions, and you don't go anywhere outside the site without a Grey escort.” He said something in Grey, and one of the soldiers stepped outside the door for a few seconds and returned carrying what looked like a large plastic insect... no, it had too many legs. Arachnid, then – in fact it looked like a scorpion with no claws. It was about twenty-five centimetres long. And then he put it on the floor and I realised that it wasn't plastic at all, because it moved, skittering along the floor as far as the door, where it stopped.

“We call them guardians,” the man told us. “They're alive, though they're also partly artificial – the Greys developed them as watchdogs long before they came to our world. That one is a Type One – you'll notice that it has a grey-green carapace. Further outside the mine premises there are Type Twos, which are a little larger and have black and red carapaces. They are trained, or programmed – I'm not sure to what extent they really are animals, because the Greys haven't explained it to us – to attack any human who does not have a Grey with him, which is why you must never move anywhere without an escort. If a Type One stings you it will simply cause a temporary paralysis, though I'm told it's painful when it wears off, like a bad case of cramp. If a Type Two stings you, you die.

“Now, you might be thinking you can probably outrun something like that, and maybe you could, though they're faster than you might expect. But they have an extra advantage.” He spoke to the Grey soldier again, and the soldier left the office. A minute or so later he called from outside the office and we were taken outside. What looked like a shop mannequin had been set up twenty-five metres away from the office.

“The dummy has been sprayed with human pheromones,” the supervisor told us. “Watch what happens when the Grey gets too far away from it.”

The soldier walked towards us, and the guardian moved towards the dummy, though it made no threatening move until the soldier was fifteen metres away. Then it raised its tail and moved closer. The Grey took another couple of steps and the guardian's tail started to quiver; two more steps, and the tail drew back and snapped forwards. We couldn't see clearly what had happened, but when the Grey took us to the dummy we could see what looked like a large black thorn sticking into the dummy's leg.

“They can project their stings at least ten hersps,” the man told us. Obviously we still didn't know exactly how far a 'hersp' was, but from where the guardian had been standing I guessed it wasn't too different from a metre or a yard. “And each guardian carries five stings. Once they've all been used the Greys have to change the tail section, but that's a simple job. Right, come back to the office and we'll decide where to use you.”

He sat down at his desk once more and turned on a computer.

“Let's start with your names,” he said.

“I'm Stone Jacob,” I said.

“Kohler Stefan,” added Stefan.

Neither of the other two said anything, so I asked, in French, “Do you have any name other than Alain and Olivier – a family name, perhaps?”

“Not really,” said Oli. “I was just called Olivier, the son of Maxime, at least until my father died. Since then I've just been Olivier.”

“I'm just Alain – though you can call me 'Alain the Great' if you prefer!”

“I don't think so.” I switched back to Kerpian and said, “This is de Columbarier Alain and d’Irtengarde Olivier.”

“Strange names,” commented the strangely-named Harsen Karel. “Well, Kohler, you look fit and strong, so you can go to the railhead and help with unloading the wagons. Stone, you and de Columbarier: you can go to the furnace room. And... excuse me asking, but are you a boy or a girl?” he said, looking at Oli. “Because we don't allow girls to work here.”

“I'm a boy,” said Oli, and he lifted the front of his dress to prove it.

“Right. Then... you're too small for anything too physical yet. You'd better go with Kohler to the railhead – they can probably use another water-carrier.

“You'll work the usual pattern of four days on, one day off. Our Grey friends weren't too keen on that at first because they want the mining to go on non-stop, but we persuaded them that if we didn't observe the Ertdays the workers would quickly become too tired to work – and we need downtime for maintenance. We compromised by agreeing to run non-stop through the working days, so there's a night shift as well as a day shift. We'll start you all on the day shift, though, because adapting to night work takes a while. So you'll work a standard ten-kend day.

“If you work hard, we'll look after you. If you don't, we won't – and, as I said, the Greys don't have a lot of patience with lazy boys. If you don't work hard they'll take you out into the forest to give tracking practice to the Type Two guardians. Remember that and you'll have no problems with us. If you have any questions, your team leaders will be able to answer them when you get to your work stations.”

“Just one question,” I said. “We're friends, and we've been together for a while. Will we be able to see each other when we're not working?”

“Of course. You'll be too tired to socialise on working days, and you'll generally go straight from work to the dormitories, but you'll be able to get together on the Ertdays. Now, let's get you to your workstations.”

He spoke to the Greys in their own language, and one of them shepherded Stefan and Oli towards the door.

“Be good, little yokel,” called Alain in French. “If you let anything bad happen to yourself I'll be angry, so try to behave for once.”

Oli made a rude noise at him. Meanwhile Stefan broke away long enough to shake my hand and to tell me in English to keep out of trouble until the next Ertday, whenever that would be.

“You, too,” I said. “Good luck. I'll try to keep Alain out of trouble, Oli.”

“That's a difficult job,” commented Oli as he left.

The other Grey took me and Alain further into the complex, until eventually we went into a building, along a couple of corridors and then down a long flight of stairs into what looked like a changing room, with a long line of lockers along two walls and a number of benches across the room.

The Grey handed me a piece of paper on which was written the single Kerpian word 'Wait' and he went through another door, leaving us alone.

“What's the plan, Jake?” asked Alain.

“There isn't one yet. We'll just have to see what happens and hope we get a chance to slip away. But you saw what those guardians can do, so I think there's no sense in trying to walk out. We'll have to try to pinch a truck, or something.”

“It'd better be soon. I don't like my Oli being out there somewhere without me.”

“Stefan will look after him. We've just got to keep out of trouble ourselves until we find a way out. Anyway, we'll get to see them every five days, so we'll be able to plan properly next time we're all together.”

The Grey returned with a human, who was reading a piece of paper as he came in.

“My name is Hass Eri, and I'm in charge of this part of the plant,” he said. “It says here that you're going to be working in the furnace room. I'll take you inside in a moment, but it's noisy in there most of the time and there are a few things you need to know. First, you'll be given a pair of gloves: wear them. It's hellishly hot in there, but if you don't look after your hands you'll get blisters, and then you won't be able to work, which would be bad for us and a hell of a lot worse for you. Second, wear your breathing mask. It's up to you, but I really don't recommend breathing in a lot of coal dust. Third, watch your team leaders and handle the shovels the way they show you. And fourth, just keep your head down, do your job and you'll be fine. Mess about and you won't. Have you got any questions?”

“Yes, please,” I said. “We've been travelling for a while and we've lost track of time. When is the next Ertday?”

“In three days' time. Your team leaders will tell you more about the Ertdays this evening, I expect. And, in case they didn't tell you before, it's a straight two shift system, so you work ten kends on, ten kends off. You'll eat before and after your shift, and there'll be a bite around the middle of the shift that you'll eat while you work. Water isn't normally rationed, so signal the water-boy when you need a drink, but try not to drink too much. And one other thing: you won't see me or any other adult very often, but there are cameras everywhere, so don't mess about. There are Greys in the building, and they get annoyed if they see boys not working hard, so just get on with your job. Right, now get undressed and put your clothes in one of the lockers – there are a few empty ones – and make sure you remember which locker they're in, all right?”

Suddenly this sounded really, really bad: I'd read enough about the gas chambers to know that one of the tricks the guards used to persuade people that they were just going to have a shower was to tell them to make sure they didn't forget which peg their clothes were on. Was the whole set-up just a way to disarm us into walking into a gas chamber or something like one?

“Can't we keep our clothes on?” I asked.

“I'd advise against it. It's dirty in there, and very, very hot, and you'll want to keep your clothes fairly clean and decent for Ertdays. If you're especially modest you can keep something on around your waist – some of the boys do like to do that. But I strongly advise you to take everything else off.“

I still wasn't entirely convinced, but by now Alain had started to strip, and so in the end I did, too, though we both kept our boxers on. We put the rest of our clothes and my bag, which of course Alain had been carrying, into a locker and I made a mental note of the symbol on the door.

“You'll find pairs of sandals in the cupboard by the door: find a pair that fit, and take some gloves and a paper mask, too,” said Mr Hass, and so we did that, and once we were properly kitted out he led us through the door, along a short corridor, and then through another door into the furnace room. And he was right about it being quite hellishly hot.

I looked around. At one side of the room were four furnaces in a row, each being tended by a team of three or four boys. On the other side was a pile of coal, and it was apparent that it was arriving through a hopper that disappeared into the ceiling. I did a quick head count and saw that there were fifteen boys in the room, mostly around my own age, though there were two smaller boys who were obviously the water-boys that Mr Hass had referred to. Eight of the boys were stark naked except for their sandals, and the remainder wore only briefs, though in a couple of cases they were so torn as to be almost falling off, and none of the others looked very clean.

Still, at least it was what Mr Hass had said it was, and that was a step up from what my imagination had been telling me, so in one way I was relieved.

“De Columbarier – you'll join Team One,” said Mr Hass. “That's the one nearest us. Stone, you'll be in Team Three.” He took us across and told the team leaders they had new workers, and then he turned and left us to it, no doubt keen to get out of the heat as fast as he could.

“What's your name?” my leader asked me.

“Stone Jake,” I told him.

“We only use personal names here,” he said. “I'm Markus, and that's Shander and Frank. And our water-boy is Tommi – he's the one with red hair. We share him with Team Four.”

Markus was fourteen, he told me, and the other two were twelve and thirteen, and he didn't know how old Tommi was but he guessed he was about ten. And I thought all of them worryingly thin: somehow I didn't think gourmet meals would be anywhere on the menu.

Over the course of the afternoon they taught me how to hold a shovel, explained that keeping the furnace at an optimum temperature (there was a gauge above the door) didn't mean shovelling in as much coal as we could manage, but rather a controlled amount in an even layer, and demonstrated how to move coal from the heap under the hopper to the feet of the stokers to ensure that they didn't have to move too far while they were tending the furnace. As that was the easiest job, that's the one I started on, and I very quickly learned that shovelling coal is not a relaxing occupation.

After a bit I got thirsty and called Tommi over. Markus had explained that in order to keep coal dust out of the water, only the water-boys were allowed to handle the ladles, so Tommi held the ladle while I drank from it, and – no doubt because I was new – he tilted it faster than I could drink and spilled water down my front. And that started a game between us that went on for the rest of the day: I tried to drink quickly and he tried to dribble water down my chest.

There was an arrangement that, now that we had a full four-man team, three would work while the fourth rested. There was a large clock on the wall divided into twenty segments, and this had two hands, the same as the usual hour and minute hands, though according to Markus these hands indicated kends and huszaks – twenty huszaks to the kend and twenty kends to the day. So each person worked for six huszaks and then took the next two as a rest break, though he was expected to keep an eye on the temperature gauge while he was resting. According to my calculations that worked out as approximately twenty-one minutes working, then seven minutes off, which wasn't too bad, though by the end of the shift I thought it was definitely bad enough.

At last a bell rang and we put our shovels down, waiting by the door until the night shift teams came in to relieve us. Then we left the room, but instead of going into the changing room we went through another door and up some stairs to a shower room. I and a couple of the others still wearing underwear removed it and left it with our sandals and gloves outside, though five others kept their underwear on in the shower, and then... well, I can only say that the shower felt even better than the one in Hub Two, with the one failing that this one didn't also contain Stefan. But it did have liquid soap in a dispenser beside each shower-head, so I was able to wash the dust out of my hair and get the grime off the rest of me.

I lingered for as long as the water lasted – two huszaks, according to Markus – and then went out, where I took a thin towel from the pile by the entrance and dried myself off. And then I went back to where I had left my clothes and discovered that my boxers had disappeared.

I hunted round for them and then had a thought, and I was right: Tommi was trying unsuccessfully to hide them behind his back. I cornered him, grabbed them back and pretended to hit him, but he just grinned and ducked away from me.

“He's like Oli, that one,” said a voice in my ear, and there was Alain. “And I think he likes you, too.”

“He's out of luck, then, because I'm spoken for,” I said.

But when we reached the dining room Tommi squeezed onto the bench next to me, and although he didn't say anything he did smile at me a lot. We were given a rather basic stew to eat, which was at least hot, though I thought I could have done a lot better myself. And there was a roll, too, which wasn't stale, exactly, just a little hard. And finally there was a cup of something which I think was probably some kind of tea, though I wouldn't swear to it. And after that we went along another corridor to the dormitory, and this was even more basic, with nothing in it but a row of double-decker bunks, though Markus showed me that through a door to the side there was an equally basic toilet consisting simply of three holes in the floor.

I'd hoped to be able to sleep next to Alain, but Markus said that the teams slept together, so that if there was an emergency and they needed a team to replace one of the night teams it would be possible to rouse one team without disturbing everyone else. Teams One and Two had the bottom bunks, and Three and Four had the top, so I climbed up and found that there were six mattresses to accommodate eight boys – eight, because Tommi slept with us and his counterpart slept on the bottom set. It should have been nine of us, but Team Four was still one person short. On the other hand, we had a blanket and a small pillow each, and I was tired enough that I thought I'd be able to sleep even if it was a bit of a squash. So I settled down with Markus on one side of me and Frank on the other, only to find that a minute or so later Tommi had somehow managed to wriggle between me and Frank.

Frank obligingly squeezed a bit closer to Shander to make a space, and Tommi parked his pillow between mine and Frank's, pulled his blanket over him and settled down facing me.

“He likes you,” said Markus. “That's good – maybe you can get him to talk to you, because he never speaks at all. I don't think he's mute and he certainly isn't deaf, so perhaps it's just that he doesn't want to speak. Maybe if you make friends with him he'll open up to you.”

The lights went out, though there was a window high up on the opposite wall and there was enough light coming in for me to be able to see Tommi's face. I wasn't sure why he'd latched on to me. Maybe it was my glasses – I was the only boy in the shift wearing specs. Or maybe I reminded him of a brother, or a friend, or something like that. Well, I thought, we're all in this situation together, so maybe I should try to be a friend, if that's what he needed. So I put my arm around his shoulders and pulled him close to me, and he smiled and wriggled in closer.

And then he did something that suggested it wasn't a brother he was missing after all: he put his hands on my waist and pulled my boxers down, and when I was too surprised to resist, all the way off, putting them on the shelf just above our heads with our sandals and gloves and my glasses. And then he slid a hand to my groin and took hold of me, and even though I'd said I was spoken for it was immediately clear that part of me didn't care, because soon I was nice and stiff. And then he started stroking it, very slowly.

“You don't have to do that, you know,” I said, quietly, but he just smiled and kept going. So I thought I should return the compliment, but when I tried to pull his little briefs down he grabbed my wrist and shook his head vigorously.

“Are you sure?” I said. “I'd like to share.”

He shook his head again.

“Well, okay,” I said, moving my hand away. “But if you change your mind you only have to say... let me know, I mean.”

He smiled and shook his head again and then got back to what he'd been doing before. He wasn't doing it fast enough to make me spurt, but it still felt really nice... and gradually he slowed down until finally he stopped and fell asleep. And so, eventually, did I, wondering what exactly I was getting into now.


So what's the deal with Tommi? Why doesn't he speak? The next chapter... won't answer that question, I'm afraid: you'll have to wait until Chapter 11. But quite a few other things will be happening in Chapter 10, not all of them welcome....

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David Clarke