When I woke up the next morning, Neal was still asleep. I’d slept badly, with disturbing nightmares about the implant, and I woke feeling terrible.
Even though the water was always cold, I decided on a shower before the day. Getting the trunks off was strange, and exposed me as completely hard. The cold water dealt with that. I wanted a chance to beat off and relieve the enormous erotic tension I felt, but the opportunity wasn’t there; I could hear Neal moving around already.
So I selected another pair of the trunks, and the lifesuit with the swirling patterns in red, gold and orange. Getting into it again made me instantly hard; if you looked carefully, you could see it through the tight material. Blushing, I adjusted my cuffs to make them fall into line; then I put on the socks and boots and stood to inspect myself.
“Do your hair,” said Neal, from his pillow. “Use some of the gel.”
“There’s scarcely any left.”
We had been hoarding the one pot we had from before The Problems.
“Yeah, but this is important.”
So I used a tiny amount of it, and it did make a difference.
“You look good,” he said. “Sexy.”
I could hear his grin and jumped on him, tickling.
“You’ve got a stiffy!” he squealed. “I can feel it!”
I fell back on my heels, laughing with embarrassment, and he threw his trunks from the floor at me—he must have taken them off during the night—and they landed on my head.
“Ow!” I screamed aloud and threw them off me. “Shit! The implant! Ow! Fuck! That hurt!”
“What? What happened?” said Neal.
“It must have thought I was wearing them.”
“What—what do you mean?”
“That’s what happens. It pricks you, if you wear anything except your clothes. I thought it wouldn’t really hurt, but it’s quite painful.”
The whole of my shoulder and arm felt numb. I flapped it around, trying to get the feeling back. We looked at each other.
“It’s not going to be the same, is it?” said Neal,
“No.” I shook myself. There was no point in alarming him about something which couldn’t be changed. “No, but we’ll get used to it. It’s stopped hurting now. I guess I was more surprised than anything.”
“Wear your cloak,” he said, after a moment. “It’s a grey day.”
So I got it out, but didn’t wear it just yet. I noticed that his was different; black, with a bright red lining.
“You look stupendous,” said my uncle, when I came downstairs. “Ready for the day?”
“Yes. I suppose.”
“It was nice seeing you with Ewan in the end,” he said. “D’you think you’ll be able to make something of it?”
“I trust him. Maybe it doesn’t make sense, but if General Baxter trusts him, then why shouldn’t I?”
“I’ve heard dafter reasons for trusting someone.”
We smiled at each other.
“I love you, Jack,” he said. “If ever you need any help or just someone to chat to, you only have to ask. You’ll be staying overnight in London, Ewan said.”
“Get a bag ready. And—take it easy, okay? If he’s trustworthy, he won’t push you into anything.”
I blushed, of course, and my uncle laughed at me.
By the time that Captain Hart came to pick me up there was no one at home but me: Neal had gone to school with Uncle Alan, Aunt Judy had gone to look at her own house.
I opened the door to his knock, and for a moment we stood, grinning at each other. For some reason I didn’t feel in the least embarrassed.
“Come in,” I said.
“Got your bag ready?”
“Yup. Cup of tea before we go?”
“No, let’s get on. I’ve no idea what conditions will be like on the way and your interview’s at two o’clock.”
I swung my cloak round my shoulders—I had actually practiced the movement and I saw it caught his eye—and grabbed my bag. I locked the door and put the key into one of my belt pouches. He’d brought a Range Rover and I was glad we wouldn’t be driving to London in an open jeep. He let me in and took the wheel, and we set off.
“Is this a live interview?”
“No, it’s a recording. We can watch it afterwards, if you like. I’ve arranged to meet a few people at my office for lunch, and a few more this evening at a restaurant. I hope that’s okay.”
“Sure. If you think it’s worth doing.”
There was a short silence.
“I’m so sorry about yesterday,” he said. “I said I didn’t know it was going to happen, and I didn’t. But I didn’t react very well. What happened in that cubicle was horrible, the way I spoke to you and made you fear for Neal. And later I was horrible too. I’m really sorry.”
“I wasn’t much better,” I said. “I only realised later, but you must have had a really bad time yesterday, what with the implant people and me and my uncle and me again. We all really jumped on you. But you still didn’t give up on me. I’m sorry—I’m sorry I didn’t trust you.”
“It’s hard to see how you could. You should have heard what Tom Baxter said to me. He was furious.”
“With—with you? Why?”
“He said I should have asserted myself with the implant guys. ‘You’re a minister, dammit, Ewan,’ he said. I said, these other guys weren’t under me. He said it didn’t matter. I should have ordered it stopped and no sodding interdepartmental subcommittee had the authority to go against a member of the Central Council. Then he said I hadn’t looked after you at all and it was scarcely surprising if you were pissed off with me, and when he saw the scene in the cubicle he just blew a gasket...”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m over it.”
“Thank you,” he said. “Er—I like that lifesuit.”
I’d realised it was pretty wild when I put it on, but the impact of its colours and patterns was staggering. The cloak with its dark red lining hung loosely from my shoulders. I giggled.
“Yeah, it’s pretty much over the top. I wanted to make a bit of a splash. For the interview. Most people will be thinking the Standard Clothing is like a school uniform—maybe this will get over that.”
“You look—fabulous.” He blushed. “That cloak just does it. The Standard Clothing suits you.”
“Why, thank you, Captain Hart,” I said archly.
He looked at me and laughed.
“You do look fabulous. I’m not joking. And if you won’t call me ‘Ewan’ I’ll fucking kill you!”
I burst out laughing.
“I still don’t know what to say.” Which was true, although for some reason this time I didn’t feel embarrassed at all. “I’m—I’m still a complete beginner.”
“How lovely. So it’s all up to me?”
“I guess. Ewan.”
“Hmmm. So—I’m in control.”
My heart lurched. All I heard was the word; and once again, conflicting layers of feeling confused me.
“I’m—I’m not sure what that means. And you already know that I’m not sure what I feel about it. But—I’m willing to explore.”
“That’s good enough. And don’t worry—I’m not going to rush you. This is going to be slow and careful. But—I’ll challenge you. You’ll have to keep on your toes.”
Even this didn’t worry me, although it should have.
“That’s okay. I do trust you.”
I snuggled down into the cloak. It was strange: I had just, for the first time in my life, conceded the possibility of control to another person. And doing it I felt stronger and more in control myself than I had ever felt. I hugged myself and smiled.
We drove through the outskirts of Chedley, and now I could see with my own eyes the devastation which even the TV only hinted at, and it shocked me. The industrial area, completely destroyed. A housing estate, in ruins. Encampments where hundreds of people were living under canvas. Chedley College destroyed. But there were signs of things happening; I could see the students at the college working to set up temporary buildings, the encampments were being replaced with rows of military tents and temporary buildings. Suddenly I was overcome with anger.
“How dare they! How dare they do this to our town! Fuck them! Fuck them!”
I was shaking with rage.
“Yes,” said Ewan. “This was quite a nice country once. Not perfect, of course, nowhere is, but a place where most people led a reasonable life, where people on the whole put up with each other and rubbed along. And then... I agree with you, Jack. I really hate what’s happened.”
“Look at all those people, their flats all wrecked, living in tents. And the factories all smashed and burnt! What good can anyone see in doing that! All those poor people... Never again. It mustn’t ever happen again!”
He grasped my knee.
“When I think of the stupid things we were quarrelling about yesterday...” I said.
“Well, partly. It’s stupid to let disagreements get out of hand and out of proportion. But that doesn’t mean that the things themselves were stupid. We need to get things right. Like your uncle yesterday, helping you to sort out your feelings, that was so impressive, Jack. Is that what you always do?”
“Yeah. Our family’s always talking about things, what’s right and what’s wrong, and so on. I remember my dad asking me: What’s the point in being alive? I must have been about seven. How do you know that something’s true? What’s the bad part of being afraid? When should you say you’re sorry? Why does it matter if someone else is sad? And so on. We used to talk about things like that all the time with Mum and Dad and we still do it now with Uncle Alan and Auntie Judy. And stuff like yesterday, how we feel, how we ought to feel.”
“That’s pretty amazing.”
“Doesn’t stop us losing our temper sometimes though,” I said, “specially when I was younger. I could tell you stories... But it usually works.”
“Did this time. It’s the sort of thing that Rationalists are meant to be good at, but too few of us are. Most of the Council is good, some others. Others are dreadful.”
“Uncle Alan warned me. Dissension inside a military government, he said, and told me to be very careful.”
“Yes, well, I know the sort of thing he’s thinking of. Dissident groups being shot at dawn, and so on... Actually the Council is pretty close. Most of us have been colleagues and friends for quite a while and we’re good at resolving disagreements. The problem this time was at a lower level.”
“Should you be telling me this stuff, er, Ewan?”
“Yes. You’re—well, I’m not sure quite what yet, but you need to know the problems I’m dealing with. I know you won’t tell anyone. You didn’t tell anyone that I was a minister.”
“I told my uncle,” I gulped. “But he won’t tell anyone, because I asked him not to.”
“He never mentioned it to me, even. You had the right to tell him. It’s okay.”
We turned onto the motorway to London as I rejoiced in the feeling of his confidence. There were burnt out and smashed cars and lorries dotted all over the road, but in several places there were gangs working on clearing them, guarded by armed soldiers. At one place we came on the remains of a pileup of scores of vehicles and we were diverted onto the other carriageway.
“Ewan, tell me about the Standard Clothing. Who designed it?”
“It was a group directed by four of us: me, a psychologist working for Max, a fashion expert and someone from the economy group. Sorry: the Ministry for the Economy, we say now.”
“What are the lifesuits made of?”
“It’s called ‘tegumil’. It’s strong: very difficult to tear or pierce, so it’s hard to sew. The joints are made with a special chemical which has to be heated. It’s permeable, so the air can get to your skin and the sweat can escape. The material stretches quite easily, but a piece always keeps the same area. So round an elbow, for example, if you bend it it stretches on the outside and shrinks inside the bend. So it keeps tight all over your body.”
“I remember we talked about why you’re doing the Standard Clothing before, about it being part of your strategy for changing people. What else is involved?”
“Well, there’s an important new project, which will probably be announced today. There’s excluding religion from schools. And there’ll be more things soon: common curricula, non-factional schoolbooks and so on. And a whole new world of child and teen things, music, videos, clubs, you name it.”
“It’s always a failure when the government tries to change teen culture.”
“It has been. But the people who made teen culture in the past, they’ll be working for us now. There’s no one else to work for. It won’t be produced by people like me. Look at the Standard Clothing—that was a success, yes? Instant cool, because it was designed by people who know about fashion. And the new stuff won’t be puritanical. There’ll be lots of sex. We’re in favour of sex; sex breaks down racial and religious divisions, and teens like it. We don’t object to some of the drugs, either, in moderation. Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, courtesy of the government.”
“Yeah, I get it. The clothes are sexy, too.”
“I can see that all right!” he said.
“Yeah, but I meant sexy to wear. They—feel sexy.” I blushed. “The tightness is sexy. It—well, you know. I can’t ever forget them for long. Didn’t you know?”
“Course. That’s intentional. We want teens to feel sexy, and children to grow up expecting to feel sexy. Our country has gone slightly mad about sex, hating it and fascinated by it. We want to make it all much simpler. Sex is fun.”
“How much of this can I say?”
“Oh, I see. Thinking about the interview? Well, use it with care, let’s say. We’re not ready for the full campaign on sex yet, but there’s no harm in hinting that the clothes are sexy and feel sexy.”
“You’re compelling me to feel sexy. It’s compulsory.”
“Yes. Every day. No option. What do you think about that?”
“It’s—I...” I decided to be absolutely open. “It’s the hottest thing you can imagine. And it’s scary. And sometimes I feel just disgusted with myself.”
“All that’s to be expected at this stage. You’ll get over the disgust. I’ll help you with that.”
“The implant still scares me. I can see why you want it; otherwise kids would just go back to wearing their old clothes the moment they went home. But it still scares me. I triggered mine by mistake this morning and it was really painful.”
“Course it wasn’t,” Ewan scoffed. “It’s just a pinprick. Some people don’t even notice it.”
I shut up about it. Maybe I was just being a baby.
Parts of the outskirts of London were far worse than the worst of Chedley. It was clear even to me that what had been going on here was not much different from all-out war.
“That’s right,” said Ewan. “The different areas were run by different groups and factions. Some of them were really just people banding together to defend themselves, which is entirely understandable. Others—others were as bad as the Hand of God, or even worse.”
“Where are we going?”
“A place we call The Centre—it’s where the government is for the present. We’ve been based there for months, and it’s huge; there’s a military base, a strip, a massive communications setup, offices for all the ministries and other organisations, accommodation for hundreds of employees and all the stuff they need, shops and so on, warehouses—it’s almost a self-contained town. And the TV studios are there too, of course. Also a couple of hotels where we’ll be staying.”
And a few minutes later we came to a heavily-guarded gate in a high barbed-wire fence. A soldier checked Ewan’s papers while several others stood ready.
“Okay, Captain Hart, sir, thank you. And who is your passenger?”
“This is Jack Marchmont. I think you have a notification for him?”
“Er... Yes, sir, here it is. Picture complete—yes, that’s him. This is your card, son. Don’t lose it. Why are you wearing those clothes?”
“It’s the new Standard Clothing,” I said, putting the card in my belt pouch.
“Really? Never seen it before. Okay, pass through, gentlemen.”
We drove through the gate, straight into a large military base, with rows of barracks and parks of vehicles: lorries, armoured transports, tanks, ramchoppers. Next to that was the strip, then a group of tower blocks, various other buildings and a TV tower.
“Okay, let’s go to the Council block first. My group is based there.”
We parked in a large car-park which was mostly empty. It was only a couple of hundred yards from our destination, a ten-storey modern block, but it was now a cold, drizzly day. I clasped my cloak at my neck and pulled it round me.
“The romantic hero in the rain!” said Ewan.
I gave him the finger. We walked to the block, the movement once again arousing me; the figure of Ewan walking in front of me caught my eye, the line of his back under his uniform. I wanted to hug him. I wanted to kiss him. I wasn’t quite sure what else I wanted, but I wanted it.
The block had a squad of soldiers at the door and they checked our papers again. However, most of those going in and out were civilians. We took a lift to the fifth floor, where we were greeted by a sign: Ministry for Public Education. A man and a woman were waiting for us.
“Hey! It’s Dr Goebbels! And his fucking poster boy!”
“Sod off, Bill. Fancy a nice long tour round the oil platforms? Hi, Susan.”
“Has he been this grumpy all morning, Jack?” said Bill.
“Er, no. He’s been quite cheerful, actually.”
“Welcome. I’m Bill Tansley and this is Susan Morris. We’re Ewan’s immediate underlings.”
“You look great, Jack,” said Susan. “What do you think of the Standard Clothes, then?”
“The design’s great,” I said. “They feel good as well as looking good. Much better than I expected. I still don’t think much of the implant.”
“Yes. Well. You see,...”
“I understand the reason for it. I may even agree with it. I still don’t like it.”
As we were speaking I was being ushered down the corridor and we ended in a largish room which I realised was Ewan’s.
“So? You guys doing naughty things yet?” said Bill.
“Oh, for God’s sake...” said Susan.
I took my courage in both hands. I was not going to be intimidated by these people.
“No, we aren’t,” I said. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Don’t underestimate that boy. Ever,” said Ewan. “Because of him, the Boss tore me to shreds yesterday. Jack himself destroyed me on TV and after that his uncle swept up the pieces. All because of Martins and his gang. Where is that man?”
“Waiting to see you. He wants to know how the implant worked out. He was delighted that Jack was coming—he wants to check it over.”
“Later,” said Ewan. “What’s the time?”
“Twelve thirty. Time for some lunch before the interview,” said Bill. “Let’s go to the restaurant. You going to leave your cloak here, Jack? I want to see the rest of you.”
I slipped my cloak off and draped it over the back of a chair. Bill and Susan both looked at me in amazement.
“Jesus Christ, that’s wild,” said Bill. “I was expecting them to be black. Or dark green, or something.”
“That would be boring,” I said. “The idea isn’t to be boring, is it? Boring doesn’t convince.”
The others laughed, and we filed out into the corridor, down a flight of steps and into a canteen. Everywhere I went people stared at me. It was funny that they were all working for the goverment which had made the clothes compulsory, but they’d never seen them before. The canteen was still only half full. We lined up and collected food. I was enchanted.
“My God, when did you last eat, child?” said Susan, eyes wide. “It can’t be good for you to eat canteen food so quickly. Yuck!”
“I haven’t had such good food for a year,” I said. “We’ve been living on baked beans, potatoes and porridge—and we’re quite well off. Any kid in Chedley would long to be here.”
“Hmm. I suppose we’re favoured here,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “But what do you expect? You’re the Government.”
“Ouch,” said Ewan, and Bill looked at me with a grin.
“Not a yes-boy.”
“Nope,” I said. “You could try bribing me, though. Ewan gave us half a pound of tea and a dozen chops. That was a start.”
“Trickle-down,” said Bill.
“Spread the corruption around,” I said. “Get more people involved. Get them identifying with the régime...”
“Do we really want to put this child on TV, I ask?” said Ewan.
“I think he’ll do,” said Susan. “He’s cuter than Tom and far funnier than Rajan...”
The others laughed. I was enjoying myself. When I went to the counter to get some water, I could feel the eyes of the entire room on me. To me surprise, I didn’t mind. Shortly after that we went back to Ewan’s office.
“So, what were you saying about boredom not convincing?” said Bill.
“I’m not a free person,” I said. “I have to wear this clothing whether I like it or not. If I wear anything else I get zapped by an electronic gizmo which has been put right inside my own body. The clothes are specially designed to make me randy. Like I said, I’m not a free person, and I’m sure that Ewan and Mr Margrave have got some other ideas up their sleeves. If the kids really thought about that there’d be hell to pay. But so long as the clothes are wild and look sexy, many of them won’t even notice that they’re no longer free.”
“Kids never have been free,” said Susan. “It’s just a fact about being a kid. Adults rule you and rule the world.”
“This is different. It’s quite different. I’m being controlled every second of my life. And not even by a person—by a machine. It’s saying, you’ll wear what I say, you’ll feel the way I decide, or I’ll phone the cops, and it says that all the time, day and night. It’s a bitter pill if you think about it too hard. The design of the clothes makes it taste better.”
For a moment there was a pause, and I notice Bill looking at me keenly.
“It is an imposition on kids,” said Ewan. “Max said that right at the start. We think it’s necessary, to break the factional and crazy nonsense in our society and get us thinking straight. But if we’re going to do that, we have to make it as good for the kids as we can. It’s compensation, that’s how I look at it.”
“I didn’t say it was wrong to do this to us,” I said. “I suppose you could say it’ll make us freer in the end, because a lot of kids are full of the same craziness as their parents, and that restricts your freedom in itself, and I agree with taking action against that. Just don’t fool yourselves, that’s all.”
“Yes, but how about you?” said Susan. “You can see all this, so how do you put up with it?”
“I enjoy these clothes. They make me feel good and I like it that people find them attractive. In the canteen just now, everyone was looking at me and someone groped my bum, and actually I like that sort of thing. I get back some of the freedom by being able to affect other people. So it works on me too. Partly.”
Ewan was looking at me with a completely inscrutable face. For a moment I couldn’t make out what it was; then I realised: he struggling not to laugh.
“We need to get over to the TV block,” said Susan, looking at her watch. “Are you coming, Ewan?”
“No, better not. I don’t want Jack to appear with the minister in tow. Bring him back here after, okay?”
“Can I—can I speak to you for a moment?” I said. “In private?”
“I’ll wait outside,” said Susan. “Don’t be too long.”
She and Bill left. I caught Bill’s eye, and he winked.
“Well!” said Ewan. “You like people groping your bum?”
“Kiss me,” I said, surprising myself. “Please...”
“Oh Jack, you sweet boy...”
I’d never done this before, not this way. He sat on the edge of the table and I stood between his legs. His arms ran through my hair and over my shoulders and down my back, and I felt weak from the feelings that ran through me, terror and excitement; he gently pulled me to him, and his lips were on mine. And somehow I knew what to do: I opened to him, and his tongue entered me, and the world disappeared.
And then, who knows how long after that, he was looking at me, smiling that smile I had thought was just amusement, his hands resting lightly on my shoulders.
“You delight me,” he said. “Whatever you do delights me. Go and knock them to pieces. I’ll see you back here.”
Not knowing what to do, I gave him another tiny peck on the lips, gathered up my cloak and left.
“You’re mussed up,” said Susan.
I swung the cloak over my shoulders, and she laughed.
“You’re good at doing that. It’s very beguiling, that cloak... No, I don’t disapprove, Jack. I’m a Rationalist, and we don’t disapprove of things like that, in that way. It’s much simpler than that. Ewan and I—well, we had our time.”
I thought I understood what she meant.
“But Ewan—I didn’t think that—I mean...”
“He’s bisexual,” she said. “At least, he had no trouble with me, although I always knew he was attracted to boys. But that was years ago, in the Middle East during the war. We’ve both had people since, but still... Well, you know... Were you, I mean, are you?...”
“He kissed me,” I said. “He’s never done that before. Apart from that we’ve hardly touched each other at all.”
“You kiss? None of his other boys would ever allow that.”
We were walking side-by-side across the carpark, now swept by a cold fierce wind. My cloak billowed behind me, but the lifesuit kept me warm. I looked sideways at her in puzzlement.
“I don’t understand.”
“Have you ever—well, been with a man before?”
“No. This is all new to me.”
“Often, a boy won’t kiss,” she said. “You’d be amazed at what they will do. All sorts of other things, sometimes, but not kissing. It implies an emotional involvement, and often they don’t want that.”
“If you give him that, you’ll make him very happy. But you should know—I’m not sure how to put this—he’s a very controlling sort of person.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’d kind of realised that.”
“He’ll take your life over. He’ll want to—he’ll want your submission, Jack. All or nothing. Your complete submission. If he gets it, he won’t misuse it, because he’s a very humane person. But he’ll want it. And he’s a powerful man; he may just decide to take it.”
“Oh, it would be done gently and kindly,” she said. “It’s just that you may find you don’t have a choice.”
“How could he justify...”
“You’re a child, Jack. Rationalists really do believe that adults should take important decisions for children, because children are not always motivated by their own best interests. They won’t eat up their spinach, even though it’s full of iron. If he really thinks that it’s in your interest, and that you’re the kind of person who would flourish under his control, he’d feel justified in acting. I would, too. Kids can’t be left to run their own lives. That’s not kind; it’s irresponsible and uncaring.”
It swept over me again, the divided feeling, only this time with ferocious strength. The idea of being overborn like that, to have my wishes simply ignored, revolted and horrified me, filled me with indignation and rebellion. But the attraction was there as well: to be taken, to be folded into his arms and looked after, to surrender...
“Like the government and children as a whole.”
“Yes. Exactly. You’re bright, Jack.”
“Why are you telling me this now? Right before the interview?”
“It’s a recording. There’s no risk, except the inconvenience of finding someone else.”
I could hear it in her voice.
“You’d be quite pleased if it went badly,” I said. “If Ewan felt I’d messed it up.”
She laughed shortly.
“It’s not as simple as that, Jack. Even adults have mixed feelings sometimes about what they want to happen...”