I woke up before Terry did next morning, and he still looked cute and harmless as he slept. But in another couple of years he’d be doing horrible things to the slaves, torturing them and even trying to kill them – and I recognised how perfect an assassin a Konjässi could be, standing innocently by fifty yards away while his victim’s heart exploded or his lungs shut down in front of a hundred witnesses. And I realised again how horribly I had underestimated the danger of this place – I’d been lulled into a false sense of security by Harlan’s kind treatment of me, while other slaves were being hideously abused all around me.
I desperately hoped that Harlan’s father would allow his son to take us to look for the Greys with him, though I was more determined than ever to make sure none of my friends was left behind here. If he turned us down… well, I simply didn’t have a Plan B. I was contemplating hopeless ideas like getting Stefan to steal a vehicle from the workshops, all of us piling into it, using it to batter down the gates and then just driving off and hoping to remain free. And I knew how completely unrealistic that was.
Terry started to stir, and I waited until he was awake.
“See?” I said. “I managed not to murder you in your sleep.”
“Yes, and I slept really well, too. Perhaps I should get a slave to sleep with me permanently. It’s a pity I can’t trust any of them the way I can you.”
“You probably could if you didn’t do nasty experiments on them.”
“Yes, but then I’d get really bad marks for my work. Anyway, I generally wipe their memories, like I said.”
“Yes, and Harlan told me that often wears off after a bit.”
“And he’s right, which is why I can’t trust any of the slaves I’ve worked with – at least, not enough to let them share my bed.”
“What about Caradoc?”
“Well, it would be nice to be sucked every night… and I’ve never actually used him for anything else myself… maybe I could trust him enough… I’ll think about it. Still, at the moment he’s not here – you are. And it’s Saturday, so we don’t have to get up, so what would you like to do?”
“You’re asking me? I’m the slave, remember?”
“Well, if I don’t agree with you I don’t have to do what you suggest, do I? What do you and Stefan do when you wake up in the morning and don’t have to get up?”
“Terry, it’s a bit different. Stefan’s my boyfriend, and we love each other – I mean, you know that from the other day.”
“I know, but you could pretend a bit, couldn’t you?”
“Well, we could dye your hair blond, give you some blue contact lenses, pump you full of hormones so that your voice breaks, stretch you so that you’re about thirty centimetres taller, triple your muscle capacity and make your cock about triple the length and thickness, and then you’d be close…”
“Now you’re being lippy again! But… is his cock really that big?”
“He’s bigger than me, so you should be able to get an idea.”
He took hold of me, and it quickly responded. Without waiting for permission I did the same for him, and I found that his little organ was already hard, so I stroked it slowly.
“I’m sorry it’s so small,” he said. “I know you’re used to something a lot bigger, but I bet even Stefan’s wasn’t very big when he was eleven. Or yours, come to that.”
“You’re right. I don’t think I ever measured myself at that age, but I don’t think it was very different to how yours is now. Actually I quite like yours – it’s really hard.”
“Yours feels really strange, but I think I like it. It’s different, anyway. So…”
He wriggled across and lay on top of me, so I put my arms round him and hugged him gently.
“That feels so nice,” he said. “And I can feel that you actually like doing it, and that you like me. You were right, Jake: it is sometimes a bit lonely for us. Once we leave here we usually work alone, and unless you get married – and it’s not easy to meet girls in our work, and we can only marry other Konjässiem – there’s nobody you can really get close to. I suppose you get used to it later in life, but it’s hard when you’re my age. I was still living at home with my family until six months ago… I couldn't ever relax with another Konjässi the way I can with you, because we all have to be on our guard all the time in case they try to break our shield and take control. With you I don't even need a shield, so it's far easier just to relax. I know I'm completely safe with you, and that feels really good. I'll have to try to train Caradoc up to be as good as you...”
“Terry, if you’re nice to people you don’t have to ‘train’ them to do anything,” I pointed out. “I like you, and as far as I know you haven’t done anything to force me to like you. And because you’re nice-looking, too – I mean, I don’t have to force myself to look at you or anything.”
He giggled. “I can see that you fancy me,” he said. “That is sort of flattering. But I’m not really talking about sex. Obviously I enjoy sex, but I can get that from Caradoc or any other slave, one way or another. What you offer is affection, and maybe that’s something we all lack. Harlan’s lucky to have found you… anyway, are you going to suck me, or what?”
So I sucked him, taking my time about it. It was tiny compared to Stefan’s, but apparently I didn’t do a bad job at all.
Afterwards we went and had breakfast – by now the other students were so used to me appearing in their dining-room that nobody even noticed that Harlan wasn’t with me. And after breakfast we went back to Terry’s room, where he asked me to tell him a bit more about my world and what it was like going through portals into completely different ones, and so I started to tell him my story, the way I had told it to Harlan.
I’d got as far as our discovery of Hub Two when there was a knock at the door and a small redhead came in, and he took one look at me and his face lit up.
“Jake!” he exclaimed, jumping into my arms. “I haven’t seen you for ages! Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Tommi. What about you?”
“I’m okay. I’m lucky, really, because I’m used as a runner – it means I hardly ever get used for experiments. Anyway, I’m working at the moment…”
He turned to Terry. “Are you Terraxian ved Merlian?” he asked.
“The Senior Instructor wants to see you and Jake straight away.”
“We’d better go, then. Jake, I take it this is one of your friends?”
“That’s right – this is Tommi.”
“Perhaps he can come and play with us later. I like red-heads.”
“I’m sure he’d like that.” I translated that into Kerpian for Tommi’s benefit – he couldn’t understand Sanöljan, of course – and he said that sounded like fun, though as things turned out we had to postpone the fun for a bit.
“Harlan’s father wants to talk to Jake,” the senior instructor told us. “Obviously he can’t travel alone, so you’ll have to go with him. We’ve got a travel warrant here for both of you – you’re booked on the train that leaves at 1125. Can you handle him on your own?”
“Of course,” replied Terry.
“Make sure that you do. If he escapes we’ll take the cost of his recapture out of your funds, understand?”
“I won’t try to escape,” I said. “I wouldn’t know where to go if I did, and all my friends are here. I’m not going to run off and leave them.”
“I can see that you mean that,” said the instructor. “Nonetheless, I’ll expect Terraxian to keep you confined, just in case you change your mind. Terraxian, we’ll expect you both back in time for your studies on Monday morning unless I get a call from the Chancellor himself telling me otherwise, understand? Good. Then off you go.”
We went back to Terry’s room so that he could pack a small overnight bag (which I had to carry, of course) and then we caught a tram to the East Station, followed by an underground train to the Victory Station on the other side of the city centre.
“Will you promise me that you won’t try to run?” he asked me.
“Of course,” I said. “I won’t do anything to get you into trouble.”
“Good. I think the instructor wanted me to put you in the goods van for the journey, which you wouldn’t have enjoyed much. The travel warrant doesn’t specify how you’ll be travelling, so you can come and sit with me instead. That’ll be a lot nicer.”
I thought so, too, and even though we were travelling second class it was a lot more comfortable than a goods van would have been, especially as this turned out to be a very long journey – I hadn’t really grasped from looking at the map just how vast this continent really was. The train didn’t stop very often, but it still seemed to take a long time to get anywhere: the countryside I could see through the window rolled onwards, first long plains of agricultural country, then a range of rolling hills, then more fields, then some high hills or small mountains that we didn’t see too much of because there were a series of long tunnels underneath them.
Before we reached the mountains we flashed through several small towns and stopped at a couple of large ones, and once we emerged from them we ran through a huge forest and then returned to farm country. And then we came into a major city and I thought we’d reached our destination, though when we stopped in a huge station I could see that the boards on the platform read ‘Jellave’ rather than ‘Sanöve’.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“Jellave. This used to be the capital of the Eastern Empire. We’ll be here for a bit because this is where they do all the frontier stuff, even though the border is way further east. We actually crossed into Sanölja about an hour ago.”
The ‘frontier stuff’ turned out to be a bit of a problem, because of course I still didn’t have any means of identification. The grey-uniformed Arvelan guards were satisfied by Terry’s letter from the school, but the brown-clad Sanöljans were far less ready to allow an undocumented slave into their territory, and even when Terry told them where we were going and that my presence had been ordered by the Chancellor himself they still stood around pointing machine pistols in my general direction until one of their officers received radio clearance from Sanöve to let me through.
“We’re going to have to get you chipped,” commented Terry once they had finally left us in peace. “I suppose they didn’t bother because they thought you wouldn’t be leaving the school, far less the country. But if you’re going to be travelling across this border on a regular basis they’ll have to fix you up with some ID. They’d never let you cross on your own, and I’m sure Harlan’s father won’t want to get calls from the border guards every time you move.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted some sort of implant in my arm, but I could see that Terry was right. Hopefully I wouldn’t have to cross this border again after our return trip.
The train eventually set off again. To start with the scenery was the same as on the other side of the border – farm country with occasional small towns. Then we came into a region of fruit trees and hop farms, and then, after another stop, we crossed a massive river, before following a slightly smaller one for the remainder of the journey. We finally reached the capital at around seven o’clock in the evening.
I have to say that I wasn’t particularly impressed: the station was in a poor state of repair and the tram we took into the city centre was old and rattled, unlike the modern ones back in Arvel. I made some passing comment about it to Terry.
“The problem is money,” he told me. “We lost the last war with Arvel, so they’re the ones that get all the investment from the Japanese Empire and New Holland. You might not believe it, but things here are actually improving – if you’d been here twenty years ago apparently three-quarters of the shops were boarded up, the streets only got cleaned on an occasional basis and all of the trams were like this one. Today half the fleet has been replaced by modern ones and most of the shops are open. I’d have to admit that Harlan’s father is doing a pretty good job.”
We changed trams in the city centre, and the second one was indeed a much newer one. This one took us to the Imperial Palace.
“I thought this was a republic?” I asked.
“It is now, but it was an empire until the end of the last war, when the Arvelans deposed the last emperor. There’s still a claimant to the throne living in exile in Rövissia, but I can’t see him making a comeback any time soon. Now we have a president. Actually the job of Chancellor was much easier with an emperor – then there was only one person you had to influence. Now it’s anything up to twenty.”
The palace was a fairly new building – apparently the Arvelans had bombed the old one flat during the war – and Harlan’s room was large and comfortable. We found Harlan playing games on his computer.
“We’re not allowed games at school,” he explained, “so I make the most of it while I’m at home. How was the journey?”
“Okay,” I said. “I hadn’t realised how far away this place was.”
“It’s a big continent. I hope Terry let you travel with him, not locked in a cage in the goods wagon?”
“Of course I did,” said Terry. “It would have been boring for me without someone to talk to. Look, will it be okay for me to go home and see my family? I mean, you won’t need me for the rest of the day, will you?”
“I shouldn’t think so. Off you go, then – come back after breakfast tomorrow.”
Harlan took me straight off to meet his father. The Chancellor didn’t seem to be wearing anything special to mark who he was – in fact he was dressed exactly like Irfan had been back in Schlettstadt, or like the instructors at the school: white Japanese-style robe, black sash around his waist, white headband restraining his long dark hair.
“So you’re Jake,” he greeted me. “My name is Istian ved Lorcan of the Clan of the Founder and, as you know, Harlan is my eldest son. He’s told me about your reptiles and the means by which you came to this world, and about how he wants to go and look into it and to try to read the reptiles. In principle I have no objection, but I want to be sure it won’t be dangerous before I give my permission – after all, Harlan will follow me into this job one day, and so obviously he can’t be allowed to put himself at serious risk. So I want to hear all about it.”
And, over the next two or three hours, he did, except that this time I was aware of what I was saying. As far as I was aware he didn’t try to compel me to answer, but then he didn’t have to, because I was happy to answer his questions. I didn’t tell any lies, either: I replied honestly that I didn’t know whether Harlan would be able to control the Greys or not, but I said that there would be no danger if we were there because the Greys knew and liked us. I told him a bit about Vogesia, too, and I obviously did a good job as a travel agent because he said it sounded splendid, and that if the portal back to the monastery could be made less erratic he’d be interested in visiting it himself. And when the question of us escaping through the portal was raised I told him I had promised Harlan I would be loyal to him and not leave him, and that seemed to impress him, too.
Eventually, some time after midnight, the questioning ended and I was sent back to Harlan’s room to wait for him. I presumed that father and son were discussing the proposed trip further, because it was another twenty minutes before Harlan came back.
“The trip’s on,” he told me. “He was quite impressed by you, for some reason. He suggests that I don’t take too many slaves with me, which is probably good advice, but otherwise he said I should do whatever I think sensible. But there’s no question of doing it in term time, so we’ll need to wait until the end of the school term.”
“When’s that?” I asked.
“The fourteenth day of the seventh month.”
I already knew that the local calendar had thirteen months of twenty-eight days each, plus a separate day for New Year, which took place at the Winter Solstice. And a quick calculation in my head told me that school was due to end for the summer on June 22nd or thereabouts. That was less than four weeks away, so although I would have liked to leave before that I supposed it wasn’t too long to wait.
“Okay,” I said, taking his clothes as he removed them and hanging them up in his wardrobe or putting them out to be washed as appropriate. “If we go to Vogesia it’ll be really hot there at that time of year, so you’ll need to bring lots of sun-screen and stuff.”
“I’ll pack plenty. You’ll be carrying it, so I won’t care how heavy my bag gets.” And he grinned at me, handing me his underwear to put in the laundry bin.
He got into bed and waited for me to get undressed and get in with him, and then he put out the light.
“It’s a pity Terry didn’t stay,” he commented. “We could have had fun with three of us sharing. Still, I suppose there’s more room with just you and me.”
“So who’s coming with us?” I asked. I know that question might have been better unasked, at least for now, but I had to know.
“You’re still thinking about sneaking off through the portal when I’m not looking, aren’t you?” he said.
“No, I’m not. You can see that for yourself.”
“Okay, but you’d like some of your friends to be able to, all the same.”
“Wouldn’t you?” I countered.
“Probably. I don’t think I can let it happen, though – slaves cost money, and I don’t want my father getting the bill because I let some of them escape. That’s mainly because he’d pass the bill on to me, so I wouldn’t get any more allowance for years.”
“That’s why you should bring enough of your colleagues to make sure we keep doing what we’re told.”
“Yes, I could do that, but it would be a lot easier to leave everyone else at the school and just take you, plus maybe a couple of other slaves chosen at random to do the heavy work.”
“But if we’re really going to leave this world and go to the monastery, or Vogesia, you’ll need slaves who can speak the local languages,” I pointed out. “And we’re the only ones who can do that.”
“I suppose so. That doesn’t mean I have to take all of you, though.”
“That depends how much of the work you want to do yourself.”
“Don’t push it, Jake! I’ll decide exactly who is coming when I know which of my colleagues are definitely available and allowed to come. At the moment the only one I’m certain of is Terry.”
That was clearly a signal to back off, so I just said ‘Okay’ and settled down to sleep.
The next day I met Harlan’s mother, who also gave me a mental check-over and declared that I was acceptable as a slave for her son. We weren’t able to stay too long after breakfast because we had a train to catch – in fact we headed back to the station as soon as Terry arrived. The return trip was a little more comfortable than the outward one because Harlan had booked us a four-seat compartment in First Class, but that didn’t prevent us from being harassed by the border guards at Jellave once more – even though Harlan had a cover letter from his father, the guards were clearly unconvinced of its authenticity until another phone call had been made.
“You’d think we were still at war,” was Harlan’s comment.
Once we were safely over the frontier we closed the door, lowered the blinds and had fun playing strip card games. The only problem was that they wouldn’t let me wear the metal band, which meant that unless I was able to generate enough interference they were often able to see my cards, and the result was that I lost most of the games. I was then given forfeits that generally involved sexual stimulation of one sort or another. But since they were both good-looking boys whom I liked, I have to say that I didn’t mind too much.
Two more weeks went by, and then it was June 12th, my fourteenth birthday. Harlan bought me a small cake and then he and Terry ate about half of it, but at least the thought was there. And he also gave me a present: he lent me his bedroom.
“I’ll spend the night with Terry,” he said, “so you and Stefan can do whatever you want, and this time we won’t be sitting here distracting you. I promise once we go we won’t come back until tomorrow after breakfast.”
“Thanks, Harlan,” I said, and I meant it: while I appreciated being allowed to spend time with Stefan, it was still a little off-putting having the pair of them watching us and sharing the experience. Being able to relax and actually sleep together without being observed was a rare treat.
“You’re spoiling him again,” commented Terry.
“I know. But this won’t cost me anything, except having to listen to you snoring all night.”
“I don’t snore.”
“Well, if you do I’ll just seal your mouth and nose for a minute or so. That should stop it.”
“Hey, if you’re sharing my room you’ll have to swear not to use your powers on me. Otherwise you can sleep in the cleaning cupboard.”
“Okay, I swear. But that goes for you, too: no using your powers, no trying to break my shield, nothing. Okay?”
They wished me a happy birthday again and then left us to it. It was only eight in the evening, so we had loads of time.
“What’s happening with the expedition?” Stefan asked me.
“Well, we’ve got the go-ahead, but I still don’t know exactly who’s coming – Harlan’s having trouble finding enough of his colleagues who are free, and he won’t bring all of us if he isn’t sure he can control us.”
“Then you might have to decide who goes and who stays.”
I stared at him. “Stefi, I can’t do that!” I protested.
“If Harlan says ‘We can only take four of you – who do you want me to take?’ you’ll have to. You need to think about it, Jake, because it could easily happen.”
“Oh, God,” I said, sinking onto the bed, because this simply hadn’t occurred to me.
“You’ll have to pick the ones who most need to get out of here,” he went on. “I’m strong enough to stay – shut up and let me finish! – but I don’t think Marc is. Oli is fairly safe here because he’s immune, but that might change if they find out about his arm and take the support out – which they can probably do now, anyway, because the bone has probably healed by now. Tommi’s too young to be left here. So I’d say those three should go, plus you, obviously. Alain, Nicky and I are strong enough to stay, and I think Alain and I would both feel better if we knew you and Oli were safe. Probably Radu will be okay to stay, too, as long as he knows Marc is safely back home. That’s what I’d suggest, anyway.”
I shook my head. “I'm not going until everyone else is safe,” I said stubbornly.
“I know,” he said, quietly. “But I had to try. I know you, Jake – you'd still insist on coming back even if everyone else was out except for one of us. So, okay, you and me are last out, then. And there's no point in arguing about that, because I'm not leaving until you do. As for the others, you have to put them in order of priority, like I said. So: Marc, Tommi, Oli...”
“No,” I said. “Oli's older than he looks, don't forget, and he won't want to go without Alain. And he's safe, at the moment anyway. Nicky goes next. I know he's technically a senior, but he didn't expect this – all he wanted was to find a better life than he had in Vogesia. So he's third. Then Radu – he's been through enough already. Then Oli, Alain, you and me. I'm the leader, so I'm last, and that's final. But, God, I hope it doesn't come to this. Do you actually know what really goes on here?”
“I've a pretty good idea. Sometimes boys come back with unexplained injuries – nasty ones, sometimes – and they can never remember what happened. And occasionally a boy doesn't come back at all. I'd guess some of the experiments are terminal.”
“That's right. Terry took me to see some of it on Friday. It's horrible, Stefi! I can't stand the thought of leaving any of our friends here.”
“I know. You'll just have to smile at Harlan a lot. Now, let's think about something nicer, like how we're going to spend the rest of the evening. It's your birthday, after all – so are we going to... you know?”
I thought about that. Surely this would be the perfect time – on my birthday, when we had a bed and a room to ourselves... and there was a strong possibility that we wouldn't get another chance, either. Either of us could be left behind while the other made it back through the portal, and this time there was a real chance that we might not ever see each other again. What better reason could there be for finally doing this while we still could? And yet...
“No,” I said. “We're going to get home, Stefi – I'm not ready to give up yet.”
He smiled at me. “I'm really glad you said that, Jake – not that I don't want to do it with you, obviously, but I was afraid you were starting to lose hope. As long as you still believe there's a chance, you won't stop trying to find a way out of here for us. And we need you to do that, because you're the only one of us who is clever enough to think of a proper plan. So, are we still agreed: we'll only do that when we're back home in our own bed at the Residence?”
”Agreed,” I said. And although I would really like to have found out what it was like to connect to each other like that, I was even happier to find that Stefan felt the same way I did – he wasn't ready to give up yet, either.
So although we still didn't take the final step that night we nevertheless did pretty much everything else we could think of, and when I finally fell asleep in his arms sometime after midnight I felt better than I had at any time since Terry had taken me to visit the basement. And even if the odds were very much against us, I still felt ready to fight on.
By Thursday of the following week Harlan’s plans were more or less set, but he was still short of one colleague – the one he’d originally asked had been summoned home by his family. He’d decided to take four, including himself, and he only had three – himself, Terry and Dervoran, whom I’d met previously. I tried hard to persuade him that three would be ample to deal with eight slaves, but he was worried about what would happen if he or either of his colleagues fell ill. Also, it wasn’t eight slaves, it was ten, because both Terry and Dervoran wanted to bring a personal slave with them.
“So I think we’ll have to leave some of yours behind after all,” he said. “You know I’ve thought all along that would be sensible…”
“There has to be another Konjässi somewhere in this place who’s free!” I protested.
“They’ll mostly want to get home to their families,” said Terry, who was with us again. “Even if you dangle a sunny beach in front of them you’ll probably find that most of them prefer to get back to their mothers’ cooking. About the only one I know who isn’t rushing off back home is Killian, and he hardly counts.”
“Who’s Killian?” I asked.
“The one I told you about – you know, the mouthy one who Harlan fixed up. He’s probably hoping to spend the summer being whipped by his slaves.”
“But he’s still a Konjässi, isn’t he?” I asked.
“Well, yes, but…”
“Didn’t you tell me he was still perfectly capable of controlling slaves, and that he kept his sex life separate?”
“Yes, but even so… I’m not sure he and Harlan could actually work together.”
“Why not? Do you really think Harlan can’t adapt when he has to?”
“Shut up, Jake,” said Harlan. “I know what you’re doing, so just stop it. If you really want to know, the main reason I’m actually contemplating taking all of you is to show you once and for all that I can handle you, and that there’s no point in thinking about running away. And then once we get back here afterwards you’ll have all got any idea of escape out of your system, and you won’t let it distract you ever again. And that’s why I’ll talk to Killian, and if he can come with us I’ll take him. With four of us we’ll have no problem keeping everything under control even if one of us falls ill, or something. I know I can keep six or seven slaves quiescent on my own, and I know Dervoran can manage at least that.”
“I can probably do four,” said Terry. “And even a feeble failure like Killian should be good for two or three.”
“So we’ve got plenty of cover,” continued Harlan. “Besides, I already know you’re not going to betray me, Jake – you’re still determined to stick with me. I can see that. And even if your friends don’t feel the same way – though I’d be willing to bet that Stefan at least won’t want to go anywhere without you – they won’t be able to do anything about it. Of course, if they’ve got any sense they’ll just accept that from the start, and then we’ll all be able to enjoy a nice holiday – but maybe that’s too much to ask.”
I was trying to keep my thoughts under control here, because apparently a combination of my persistence and Harlan’s own slightly arrogant desire to prove that he could handle all of us was going to mean that all of my friends would be coming with us, and that was all I could possibly ask. Of course, that would by no means be the end of our problems: the portal might not be there and might not appear before we had to return to school, or Aarnist and his men might have already found it and sealed it off. The one thing that kept me optimistic on that issue was that neither Marc nor Nicky had actually been asked exactly where the portal was – both had simply referred to it being in the mountains near a monastery. And when Aarnist had first interviewed us we’d told him that we’d set out that morning from the monastery in Oberehnheim. Provided he remembered that he would hopefully be concentrating his search up there, a long way north of the real site.
“Come on,” he went on. “We’re going to talk to Killian. You can tell him about Vogesia if he needs a bit of a spur.”
He led me to a corridor in the East Wing, paused in front of a door halfway along and then just went in without knocking. The only person in the room was one of the Bisvelan slaves, the ones who looked like North Africans, and he was lying on the bed reading a book. He looked up as we came in and jumped up from the bed, obviously not wanting to look idle in front of another Konjässi, even though Harlan couldn’t have done anything to him had he stayed on the bed, because he was wearing a metal band.
“Where is he?” asked Harlan.
“In the cupboard,” said the slave, grinning. “Nevis wasn’t happy about the standard of cleaning in the shower room, so he’s being punished: no meals until supper.”
“Get him out,” ordered Harlan.
The slave went to the small cupboard in the corner of the room, unlocked it and called to whoever was inside to come out, and a boy of about Terry’s age crawled out, wearing only a torn pair of underpants and with his hands handcuffed behind his back. The boy saw Harlan and struggled to his feet.
“Killian,” said Harlan. “What have you got planned for the summer?”
“Well, I’m going to go home for part of it, probably for the last four weeks or so, because Altur can come with me then. Nevis won’t be able to because he’s been grabbed to help with the redecoration, and at the start of the holiday Altur’s got to go with a couple of the instructors who are going to Bisvel on school business, because they need an interpreter. Nevis says I’ll have to stay here until Altur gets back so he can look after me. Why?”
“How do you fancy a holiday by the sea on a hot, sunny beach?”
“He’s not allowed stuff like that!” declared the slave.
“Shut up, Altur. Killian, if you were allowed to choose, would you want to take a holiday like that?”
“Well, yes, obviously. But I’d need to bring someone to keep me under control, and neither of my slaves would be able to come until the end of the holiday. Can we go then?”
“No, but I expect we can find another slave to come with you. Give me the names of all the ones who know about you and have helped with you before – I’m sure at least one of them will be able to come. And if not we’ll train up one of Jake’s friends. See, I need another Konjässi to come with me and help to control the slaves, and you’re about the only one who’s available. And I know you can work normally, just as long as there’s a slave with you to give you what you need at night…”
“Of course I can,” said Killian, straightening up and looking more business-like. “I can do a full control on two at once now – just about… I mean, that’s why Nevis and Altur have to wear metal all the time. And I can probably manage three or even four if you just want them immobilised. And I’d really like a holiday – otherwise I’ll just be stuck here for the first six weeks of the holiday, like I said.”
“All right, I’ll take you, but if you let me down I’ll give you a punishment you won’t enjoy. Altur, get the cuffs off him and clean him up, and then I want to see him in my room straight after lunch. Oh, and send him down to get something to eat – I don’t want his stomach rumbling all afternoon.”
That afternoon I sat in as the four Konjässiem sat down and made plans for the journey. I kept a list of what we would need – food, water, tents, sleeping bags, and so on. We’d need to arrange transport, and I was able to explain how we had travelled from Schlettstadt on the outward journey.
“There’s one more thing,” said Harlan. “Jake, you and your friends need to be chipped. We can’t have eight slaves outside the school with no ID. I’ve spoken to the senior instructor, and we’ll take you all to the hospital to get your chips inserted over the next three days.”
I wasn’t very keen on that, but I supposed it would be a price worth paying if it got us all away from the school. And in fact when it was done to me on the Saturday it didn’t really hurt at all, though the scar itched for a couple of days afterwards. Harlan told me that my chip gave my name and date of birth (translated into the local calendar, of course), my address (the school), the contact phone number for my next of kin (the senior instructor) and my status (slave, together with the details of my owner). Non-slaves' chips also held a lot more information, including financial records, so that they could use their chips to operate a bank account.
“If you stay with me after I leave school we’ll get that bit changed to say that I’m your owner,” he told me. “I’d like that, actually being officially responsible for you… the chips are updated every six and a half months anyway, even if nothing much has changed. But wouldn't you prefer to belong to me, rather than to the school? It would sort of mean us being together is official.”
“Well, you know I like the thought of staying with you and being your slave, but having it on a chip in my arm... it makes it seem like a metal disc on a dog's collar.”
“Okay, I can see that... but you know I don't think of you as a dog, Jake.”
“I know. And if I have to wear a little identity thingy I'd sooner it said 'My name is Jake and I belong to Harlan ved Istian of the Clan of the Founder' rather than 'Property of the Central Konjässi Academy, King Juuniss XIV Street, Laztaale'. But really I'd prefer neither. After all, I am capable of telling people who I belong to.”
“You've got a good memory, Jake – I'm sure I only told you the address of the school once. And you got my full name right, too.”
“Of course I did. I belong to you, even if it isn't official yet.”
I was laying it on a bit, but the core fact was that I did intend to stick with Harlan, and I wanted all four of them to recognise that – it would mean, I hoped, that I'd be under a bit less scrutiny later on.
“I think we should make him wear a dog-collar with his name on, too,” said Terry.
“Shut up, shrimp,” I said. Terry merely put his tongue out at me, but Killian looked at me with interest and Dervoran practically fell off his chair.
“Aren't you going to do something about that?” Dervoran asked.
“Nah. It's just Jake. He's sort of different,” said Terry. “I know, it's weird having a slave back-chat you like that, and when I first heard him I hated it. But now I sort of like it. It's weird, but...” And he shrugged. “You'll get used to it.”
“Not if he does it to me, because if he does I guarantee he'll never do it again.”
It seemed safer to keep my mouth shut at that point, so I did.
A bit later Harlan told me to go with Killian while he went and found a slave to bring with him. Killian was fully dressed in his robe this afternoon, making him look exactly like all the other Konjässiem, and I wondered if he was actually aware of what had been done to him.
“Oh, yes,” he said, matter-of-factly, when I asked. “But there's nothing I can do about it. I don't suppose you can possibly understand, but the way I feel when the slaves are doing stuff to me is sort of addictive, like a drug. I love it and I can't live without it, even if it's deeply humiliating and often very painful. I'd be lost without a slave to run my life. As long as I can keep it apart from my studies I'll be fine, though I have no idea how I'm going to explain away Altur when I take him home with me. Maybe my father will be able to find a way to put me straight again, though I'm afraid it's much more likely he'll disown me instead. At least now I'll get a decent holiday first... Hey, Jake, are you really feeling sorry for me?”
“Well... yes, I suppose so. You're right, I can't imagine what it's like for you, but I'd hate to need to be hurt in order to feel good... even just saying it like that feels insane.”
“That's about how it feels to me, too... anyway, I've got a short-list of three here. They're none of them as good as Nevis and Altur, but then the three of us have got used to each other by now. As long as one of them can come with us I'll be fine. If not I'll have to ask you or one of your friends to do it.”
“Not me,” I said. “Sorry, but I hate hurting people, and I don't think the fact that you'd want me to would make any difference. Let's try the ones on your list first.”
In fact he got lucky with his first choice, who had not yet been assigned any specific tasks for the summer by the school. I’d seen him before, as it happened: he was one of the ones who had been beating Marc when I had first learned what was happening to him and Radu. The slave’s name was Marlo, and he was a small, sharp-faced boy from Lostan in East Sanölja. And he was very enthusiastic about being in sole charge of Killian for the first half of the summer holidays.
“I want to talk to Nevis and Altur before we leave,” he said. “I’ll want to borrow some of the toys they use on you.”
I didn’t ask because it really wasn’t any of my business. But Killian seemed happy enough, and so I left the pair of them to their planning and went to find Stefan.
“I haven’t had a lot of luck with metal,” he told me. “I’ve only managed to make a couple of makeshift headbands, and I’m not sure they’ll stay on unless you keep completely still while you’re wearing them. But I suppose it’s better than nothing.”
“It certainly is. And I reckon I can get a couple more from Killian, because his slaves won’t need them while he’s away.”
“Never mind. Give yours to Oli, and we’ll try to find a way for him to carry them without anyone else knowing he’s got them. And if you can find him a decent-sized knife to carry as well, so much the better. I don’t want to hurt anyone if I don’t have to, but we might need to do some threatening.”
By the end of the day everything had been finalised: Harlan had booked the trains and the boat and he’d assembled the tents and other camping equipment we would need. And I had taken the opportunity to ask if our own property – well, former property, officially – was still here, because if it was we probably had some kit in it that would be useful. And it turned out that our kit was still here – it had just been put in a storage cupboard and forgotten – and so Harlan allowed us to retrieve the bags and everything in them except for our clothes: he said we could only wear our slave uniforms. He checked my bag fairly thoroughly but didn’t find anything dangerous, had a cursory look at Radu’s and Nicky’s and then gave up, just saying we could use our bags and anything that might be useful, which meant that we once again had access to Stefan’s compass, notebook and various other bits and pieces, everyone’s water bottles and, best of all, Oli’s catapult. We also had our jewellery back, though it seemed sensible to leave it with our other valuables in our bags, because I was fairly certain that if any of the Konjässiem caught us wearing it they would confiscate it.
I was nervous right through the weekend; convinced that someone was going to prevent us from going – the Senior Instructor, perhaps, or Harlan’s father – or that something else would stop us in our tracks, maybe an earthquake or a German invasion of Eastern France. But none of that happened, and on the Monday morning the whole party was driven to the East station in one of the school minibuses.
There were fifteen of us altogether: myself and my seven friends, the four Konjässiem and the three extra slaves they had brought with them: Killian had brought Marlo, Terry had chosen Caradoc (which didn’t surprise me at all), and Dervoran had brought an Arvelan slave called Dannis. Once we were on the train my friends were locked into a separate compartment, just as had happened on our outward journey, while I joined the rest of the party in the next compartment along. And that meant that I wouldn’t get a chance to talk to my friends during the journey. But that didn’t really bother me too much because, finally, we were on our way back to the portal.
So the first part of Jake's plan seems to be working – at least nobody has been left behind. But there's a long way to go yet, and things aren't going to go quite as smoothly as he might hope...
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