Ewan led me to a private room off the hotel’s restaurant. A small group was waiting for us there: Bill, Susan, Max Margrave, a man and two women whom I didn’t know and, surprise on surprise: General Baxter.
I was introduced to Dr Marietta Borley, the Minister for Health; Professor Lakshmi Anderson, Science and Technology; and Admiral Sir Kenneth Parrot, Security. I took a deep breath and managed to greet them, and General Baxter, appropriately. Dr Borley was a motherly-looking woman of forty or so. Lakshmi Anderson looked as if she was not much more than twenty; she was possibly the most beautiful woman I had ever met. Admiral Parrot was Royal Navy from head to toe. The others were all wearing formal wear or uniforms, apart from Max Margrave, who seemed to have simply put on a clean pair of jeans.
“I see you put on a different lifesuit after that interview,” said General Baxter.
I gulped. There were six ministers in the room, half the Central Council. I was right at the heart of the régime, and it was overwhelming.
“Yes, sir,” I managed to say. “The one I wore for the interview was meant to look as different from school uniform as I could manage. I suppose this one fits in a bit better for the evening.”
We took our seats. I found myself sitting between Ewan and Dr Borley.
“I heard what you said about the implant,” said the general. “You’re really not reconciled to it, are you?”
The waiters brought us the first course: a soup based on chicken. I couldn’t remember ever tasting anything so delicious. I managed to collect my thoughts.
“I don’t have any option but to live with it, sir. And I do understand the reasons for it. But it’s an emotional response, I suppose: the thought of having an enemy right inside your own body. It makes my flesh creep when I think about it, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one feeling that way. I had a nightmare last night, that it was alive, and gradually eating its way deeper into my chest, into my heart. It looked like a little metal worm, with teeth...”
“We could arrange some help for you to get over these feelings,” said Dr Borley.
“Maybe,” I said. “But I won’t be the only one. I think maybe it would be better if it wasn’t an implant, if it was outside the body somewhere, a bracelet or a pendant or something. Then when you reached twenty, you could stop wearing it. It would be something to look forward to. Even when it’s deactivated, the implant will be in me for ever.”
“That’s always been a possibility,” said Professor Anderson. “As an addition to the Golden Circle project.”
I’d no idea what she meant, but Ewan nodded.
“In any case, I have serious doubts about doing medical procedures on children for non-medical reasons,” said Dr Borley. “It’s ethically problematical.”
“I remember that you predicted these psychological effects at Council, Marietta,” said General Baxter, “and so did you, Ewan. Why did the implant team ignore what you said and go ahead?”
Admiral Parrot cleared this throat.
“As I understand it, they felt that the extra information they would get from a pilot trial would justify any possible damage to the children involved.”
“Totalitarian thinking,” said Margrave. “I find it truly shocking. Haven’t they read any Padmore?”
“At least it seems to cause no physical damage,” said the Admiral.
“It’s certainly painful when it triggers, though,” I said.
“It’s just a pinprick, Jack,” said Margrave. “You make too much of it. I wish you hadn’t used the word ‘zapped’ in the interview. It’s not really justified.”
“I can only go by what happened to me,” I said. “It triggered this morning, and it hurt like blazes, badly enough to make me scream with pain.”
“Maybe you just weren’t expecting it,” said Margrave. “Can we try again?”
“I’d really rather not.”
“It would be useful to be sure,” said Ewan. “If it’s more painful than we thought, we need to know.”
I looked at him, and I could see the instruction in his gaze; I knew what he wanted me to do. Like that, then.
“Okay,” I said, putting down my spoon and pushing my chair well back. “Someone put a napkin on my head.”
“Is that all it will take?” said General Baxter.
“It did this morning.”
“Okay,” said Max, standing behind me. “Here we go.”
He put it on my head and held it there. And it was total agony. It was if I was being struck with a whip down the whole of the right side of my body, again and again, about every second. I screamed. Only my left arm worked; I swung with it, but didn’t hit anything. The room seemed to lurch round me; and then I was unconscious.
I came to lying on the floor; Dr Borley was holding a glass of water to my mouth. I gasped and coughed.
“Oh God,” I managed to get out.
“You’ll be okay in a moment,” said Dr Borley.
“I—I can’t move my right arm. Ugh! It still hurts all down my right side...”
“I don’t care where he is,” I heard General Baxter saying. “Get him now!”
I could see Ewan looking down at me, and his face was stricken.
“Well, I guess now you know, Ewan,” I managed to get out. “Could someone help me up?”
Ewan and Margrave helped me, one on either side, into a chair.
“Some pinprick, Mr—Mr Margrave,” I said.
“Jack,” he said, “Look, I...”
“Could you hold me up?” I said, as I started to slide off the chair. “My right leg doesn’t work too well either...”
“We’re getting Fred Martins,” said Ewan. “Maybe he can give us some answers about this.”
“Push me up to the table,” I said. “It’ll hold me up... Thanks. That’s better.”
“Does your right side feel any better?” said Dr Borley.
“Yes, it’s not so bad now. More pins and needles. I can move my arm a bit...”
“Okay, you’ll be all right a few minutes.”
“I thought I was going to throw up on the floor there,” I said. “That might have spoiled everyone’s dinner...”
“Jack—” said General Baxter; but at that moment someone came into the room. I recognised him at once: he was the white-coated man who had been there when I was implanted.
“I was asked to come here,” he said speaking rapidly. “I was in the middle of my supper. It’s really very— Oh, my. General Baxter.”
“Yes, Dr Martins. This is Jack Marchmont. He was implanted at Chedley High yesterday.”
“Oh yes, indeed.”
“His implant was triggered just now. After five seconds of screaming, he fell to the floor unconscious. That was twenty minutes ago. He still has not regained control of the right side of his body.”
“Really? That’s most satisfactory,” said Martins.
“Satisfactory?” said Margrave. “The specification was for a light prickling sensation. Did you even bother to read it?”
“Of course I did, but by displacing the implant site slightly so that it was laid next to a principal nerve I expected to greatly increase the effectiveness of the sanction.”
“It isn’t meant to be a sanction,” said Ewan. “Just a warning.”
“Yes, but by making this very small adjustment, we hoped we’d be able...”
“If we’d wanted a sanction, we’d have asked for a sanction,” said Margrave. “We didn’t. How many children did you do this to?”
“Did you do this to my brother?” I said, fury beginning to rise inside me.
“Only this child had the amended implantation site. We selected him as an experimental subject because he was so well known to the authorities. We felt it would be easy to keep track of him.”
“The implant laid him out for ten minutes,” said Ewan. “What on earth were you thinking of?”
“If the experience is unpleasant, then he won’t break the regulations again. Surely that’s elementary.”
“I’d better be careful for the next six years, hadn’t I?” I said quietly. “I mean, considering anybody can knock me out whenever they want, by throwing a handkerchief at me.”
“That’s irrelevant to the question of whether it’s technically feasible, which was my only concern.”
“Would you please look at me just once, Dr Martins?” I said.
With great reluctance, he did so. I could make out nothing about him; as a person he seemed completely opaque.
“Do you have any children, Dr Martins?”
“Yes. One. She’s four years old.”
“Due for the implant next year,” I said. I was really almost whispering now. “Will you be hoping for the amended version for her?”
His eyes flashed away from me; and without a word he left the room. I stared at my plate, shaking with rage, as he left. The others stood round, not knowing what to do. I drew a deep breath.
“Let’s carry on with dinner,” I said. “I’m starving, and I’m not missing a chance like this!”
The others came and sat down round me. I felt Ewan’s left hand on my right thigh, and it reassured me. Clumsily I picked up my soup spoon.
“Needless to say, we’re all very sorry,” said General Baxter.
“Well, thank you, sir. At least it was only me.”
“Do you feel okay now?” said Ewan.
“Yes, thanks, I’m fine.”
“I’m sorry we did that.”
I looked at him. He had doubted my word, and now I was in a position to really hurt him, just as I had been the day before. But this time I shied away from it in horror.
“Really, I’m okay,” I said. “There’s no damage. And it’s worth knowing that it’s only me who got the amended site.”
I saw Max Margrave and the general both looking at me with approval.
“Your next TV interview will be a doozey,” said Margrave.
“Not really,” I said. “It doesn’t change what I think about implants. Perhaps I should be pleased to be singled out for an extra special super implant.”
The waiters appeared to bring us the main course: a steak in a mustard sauce. Once again, I had never eaten anything like it.
“I don’t suppose you’re much impressed by our efficiency, though,” said the general.
“You’re good at big things; not so good at small things,” I said. “I suppose that’s what you’d expect to start with. I can’t say I’m impressed by Dr Martins though. Not as a human being, that is, I’m sure he’s very brilliant.”
“He is,” said Admiral Parrot. “The design of the implant is almost entirely his.”
“Hm. Then maybe some more tests wouldn’t be a bad idea,” I said.
“Such as?” said Parrot.
“What things trigger it. Like: sticking plaster. Slings. Plaster casts. Bandaged joints. Umbrellas. Shoulder bags and backpacks. Face flannels. Riding a horse with a saddle. Parachute harnesses. Handcuffs. Cuddling a pet. Someone sitting on your knee. I get the feeling that Dr Martins wouldn’t think of these things.”
“None of those things has been tested for,” said Parrot in a strangled voice.
“In that case the damn thing is clearly not ready to be deployed,” said the general. “I’m not pleased with this at all. I want a special committee, tomorrow morning, on methods for enforcing the Standard Clothing: Max, Ken, Ewan, Marietta, Lakshmi. Produce a sensible plan and submit to Council on Thursday morning. I’m particularly interested in the option of adding it to the Golden Circle project, but if that works we need to hurry. Distribution of the Standard Clothing and manufacture of the Golden Circle—both are on hold until we can work this out. Now, what can we do for Jack? It’s intolerable that he should spend the next six years terrified of every handkerchief. It’s our fault that he’s in this position, and we must do something about it. Can it be excised surgically?”
“Not really,” said Dr Borley. “It’s too risky.”
“The implant can be disabled when you’re in hospital,” said Ewan. “But as I understand it, you have to generate a special field round the whole body.”
“That sounds completely impractical even for hospital patients,” said the general. “Think how many children there are in hospital at any one time. What a mess! All these people on different layers are involved, but there’s no coherent output at all! Obviously, process is badly disarticulated at several metalytic levels. It’s shameful! Everyone needs to reread George’s article on The Matrix of Decision. I shouldn’t have to say this, people, there’s no excuse for it at all. Please put this to the meeting: any solution must be easily disabled in hospital and other emergency situations. And I want another special committee on Jack’s problem next week. We need a solution to that too.”
He looked at me.
“We planned this get-together to say thanks to you, Jack. Instead we just end up apologising to you again.”
“You don’t have to, really,” I said. “Nothing that’s happened to me compares to all the kids who died during The Problems. I support the Government, and that includes putting up with mistakes when they happen. I don’t need you to feel sorry, just to put things right.”
“Shall I tell them?” Ewan whispered in my ear.
“You’re the boss,” I whispered back.
“I’m going to apply to be Jack’s mentor,” he said,
“Oh yes!” said Max Margrave.
“Did you agree to this, Jack?” asked the general.
“He asked me to do it,” said Ewan.
“You did?” said the general. “Do you know what’s in the mentor rules?”
“No,” I said. “But Mr Margrave said that everyone’s going to have a mentor. I have a parent—that’s my uncle. I just can’t imagine Ewan not being an important person in my life, and having someone else there instead.”
“Most mentors will be of the opposite sex. Because, well, it is at least potentially a sexual relationship, at some stage,” said Dr Borley.
“I am gay,” I said.
There was a moment’s silence.
“That’s the first time I’ve said that to anyone,” I went on. “And I’ve just said it to half the Government, without any fear. Two weeks ago it would have got me burnt at the stake. Can you see why I don’t need your apologies?”
Dr Borley was on my left, and she was now holding my left hand. Margrave, Bill and Lakshmi Anderson were looking at me with delight; the general was smiling and even Parrot looked benign. Susan’s face was amused and inscrutable. And Ewan was squeezing my knee.
“Thank you for your trust, Jack, and for what you said,” said General Baxter. “I think it sounds like a tremendous idea.”
“Let me tell you a story about Jack,” said Ewan. “You remember the crazy that Jack accused of being a murderer? Well, he has two sons, and they’re in our care now. And Jack’s Aunt Judy is lining up to foster them, but there were problems, because these are two very damaged kids. They refused to talk to anyone for days, preaching and shouting anathemas at everyone. And they refused to have a medical, which meant they had to keep them in isolation, because there’s a lot of TB in Chedley. In the end they started talking a bit to Judy, because she’s an excellent person. So last Thursday we went to see them, and Jack came too. While we were talking to the nurse he went to talk to the kids, and when we arrived, he had both of them stripped to the waist and agreeing to go and see the nurse. He was sitting there, cuddling them, and they were covered in whip cuts and cigarette burns from their shoulders to their knees.”
“I think we’ll have more stuff for you to do soon, Jack,” said Max Margrave. “Welcome aboard.”
We’ll be sleeping in the same bed, I thought as we went back after the party. We’ll be in the same bed and I’ve no idea what’s going to happen or what to do or what to say. I’m more nervous and more happy than I can ever remember being.
After my revelation and Ewan’s story, the party had actually become fun. A bottle of fizzy wine had appeared—not really champagne, not these days—and our toasts had been drunk, and tales of the early days of their movement had been told, of the times in the Middle East when the war was on, the armed forces were seething with discontent and Rationalism had been born. I learnt a lot that evening.
“I’m so, so pleased,” Max Margrave had told me tipsily when we found ourselves together. “Ewan’s such a nice guy, and you’re so pretty. Pretty and intelligent, that’s what you are, and Ewan—he’s my best mate and he deserves someone who’s pretty and intelligent. Don’t you agree? Yes. He’s a good man...”
And now we were hand-in-hand as we walked, and it was wonderful.
“Don’t worry,” said Ewan. “Who’s the mentor here?”
“You are. Or you will be.”
“Right. So I decide what to do, and you just relax.”
“At least you aren’t very drunk.”
“I’m not drunk at all,” he said. “I had one glass of plonk, and that’s it. I don’t drink much these days.”
“Max was well away. It was hilarious.”
“Did he misbehave himself? He has a, er, bisexual streak which shows up on these occasions...”
“No, not at all.” I giggled at the memory. “He was telling me this story about you, him, George Padmore and a whorehouse in Iskenderun... It went on and on. I couldn’t get the point of it, though. It was hilarious! I couldn’t work out what sexes everyone was. I think Lakshmi Anderson was quite shocked.”
“Oh, Jack. Oh my God, you’re so perfect...”
“And you will look after me, and everything will be good.”
We had arrived at the door of our room now, and the nervousness came rushing back. He opened the door, and with a smile pulled me in.
“What are you going to do?” I said.
“Enough, but not too much. Relax. You don’t do anything.”
He sat on the edge of the table, as before, and his hands ran through my hair, and it was wonderful. That was almost enough for me in itself—and then he grasped my hair in handfuls and brought my head to his. I was being controlled, and I loved it, and then we kissed, and I could taste fruit and wine in his mouth.
“Now I’m going to take all your clothes off,” he said. “That’s if I can work out how...”
I sat on the bed.
“Pull my boots off,” I said. “And the socks.”
“Beautiful, beautiful feet, enchanting boy toes...” he intoned.
And he was caressing them and kissing them, and I almost came right then; but I stood up.
“Undo the buckle behind my neck,” I said.
I felt his fingers work there, and then his lips on the nape, his breath tickling in the little hairs, and he folded the two sides back a little and licked the top of my spine, his tongue going from knob to knob...
“Pull the two sides apart.”
I could feel him grasp the two sides, and then there was a rip, like cloth tearing, as he wrenched the velcro apart in one movement, right down my back to my arse. And then his tongue went all the way, slowly all the way down to the top of my crack...
“Come round here,” I whispered. “Ease it frontways off my shoulders, slide it off my arms.”
I tried to kiss him as he worked, but he stepped back with a smile, and wouldn’t allow it.
“Tiny boy nipples... Beautiful hollows under the arms, and the arms, so strong, so slender, the skin’s so fine...”
He was licking and tasting me, I was seething beneath his touch; then the lifesuit fell forwards, and I was naked to the waist.
“Open the back right down to between my legs, then off my arse...”
He hadn’t known I was wearing trunks and I giggled at his disappointment; and then it was his mouth on my legs, between them, behind my knees, and gradually, gradually, the lifesuit fell off me, and it was just the trunks. Now he took charge of me, guiding me onto the bed, onto my front. I heard him tearing his own clothes off, and then he reached round and opened my trunks and eased them down my legs. And I felt his tongue in my crack, and on my opening, and then it entered me, and I lost my mind.
And finally he turned me over, and swallowed me, and instantly I came, flooding him; I was only thirteen, but it was more than two days, two days of constant arousal, since I had had relief.
I collapsed into his arms. He folded them round me; and then I astonished myself, but not him, by bursting into tears. He held me, stroking me, until I quietened. And when I was smiling again, he had me kneel between his legs, and put my hands on his, and he started to beat himself off. I watched fascinated as what seemed to me his huge dick swelled and slid within our hands, and at the last moment he removed his, and the soft-clad hardness was in my hands only, wrapped in my hands when he pulsed and came.
“I’m happy,” I whispered as we lay together. “I’m so happy. At last, I’m safe and happy.”
And then I fell asleep.
“You could have kicked me to death at the party yesterday, after I insisted your implant should be triggered. I didn’t believe you, and as a result you were really hurt. But you held back. You held back from them all, you could have rubbed our noses in it. But you didn’t. That was so—adult, Jack.”
“I couldn’t bear to hurt you any more, that’s all. And I honestly don’t want to undermine the Government. I just want them to be better.”
We were still lying together in bed, my head on his arm, and I was content in a way I hadn’t been even for an instant since my parents died. But I sensed that in a moment he would be up. It had been a single night, a brief interlude, and it was nearly over.
“You had that dream again,” he said. “I’m going to get that damn thing out of you somehow or other.”
“I have to be controlled just as much as everyone else. You know there can’t be exceptions for me.”
“I know. But there’ll be another way to do that. Not an implant. Look, I have to get up. I have to go to the special committee that Tom ordered...”
“Don’t leave me...”
It was pathetic and banal, but I couldn’t help it.
“Hey. There’ll be other nights. We’re going to be together, right? I’m going to be your mentor which means we’ll be together lots. I have plans for you, my Pupil, okay?”
“Yes, sir. Okay. I guess.”
“I’ve got no time for breakfast this morning. What I’d like you to do is to go down to the restaurant here and chat to people who come in. You’re well known, so it won’t be hard. They’ll all be Government employees, and I want to know what they’re thinking, what the feelings are, morale and so on. Can you do that?”
“Er—I guess. How much should it be known that we’re connected?”
“Most people haven’t heard of me. I’m quite low profile, you’re far more famous! You came here to do that interview, okay? I’ll meet you there at 11 o’clock, and then we’ll drive back to Chedley. You needn’t pack my things—I leave all this stuff here. Okay?”
“When will you be my mentor?”
“Soon. But you knew that. Here.”
He kissed me deeply; and then dressed at high speed, and left.
So I took a shower and dressed in my gold-red-orange lifesuit. I had a look in my bag, and I’d brought a book with me: Birds and Animals of the Midlands. I wrote my name in it and left it on his bedside table, and went down to breakfast carrying my bag.
I’d scarcely sat down with what was to me an unbelievable breakfast, an egg, some bacon and toast, when a man in his mid-twenties greeted me.
“Hey! You’re that kid—Jack Marchmont, that’s it. Can I join you?”
“Sure, take a seat.”
He held out his hand.
“I’m Doug Peters. I work in the Ministry for Science and Technology.”
“Really?” I said. “That must be an interesting job.”
“Yeah, it is, actually. After I left Uni, what with The Problems I couldn’t get a job at all. Then I started here about ten months ago, as the armed forces were just starting to work out how to take over. It’s good, you feel you’re doing something useful.”
“I bet. Are things getting better, you reckon?”
“We’ve been preparing for months, you know? Now we’ve taken over, it’s time to actually do it, and it’s amazing how quickly things are happening. There are some really good people here. We’re working with the Economy Ministry, setting up industry again, some high-tech stuff included. And we’re helping the services people, getting telecoms off the ground and so on. I heard you talking about the implant business... Hey, Mary? Over here!”
As Ewan had said, it was easy—they introduced me one to another, and all of them seemed happy to stop for a chat with the TV celebrity. And the lifesuit prompted a lot of attention.
“See that guy over there?” said Doug, a good while later. “That’s Ewan Hart, Man of Mystery.”
“Man of Mystery?”
“Yeah. He’s in with people on the Council, does something on the fifth floor in Building 6, which is propaganda, you know? But no one knows what.”
Ewan was coming our way, so I had to say something.
“Really? I know him. He works for the TerrAd in Chedley, where I live. He’s going to give me a lift home.”
“I see. More to you than meets the eye, little guy!” he said with a smile.
“Hi, Jack!” said Ewan, coming to the table. “Ready to shift?”
“Yup—here’s my bag. Nice to meet you guys! May be back sometime...”
I got a good round of goodbyes, and we left.
“Heh-heh,” I said, as we got into his car. “You’re apparently Ewan Hart, Man of Mystery. Your comings and goings and connections with the Council are well-known.”
“Are they? Well, well. What did you say about me?”
“That you worked for Chedley TerrAd and that’s how I knew you. My friend was not convinced. Although it’s true, actually.”
“Oh well. What else did you pick up?”
“Morale is high. Everyone thinks they’re doing a useful job and they’re keen. Some are reading up on Rationalism and think that may help. Others just want to get back at the crazies for various reasons. Some people complain about little things but I suppose that’s usual. Doug Peters works in Science and Technology and he had some thoughts about the implants.”
“He did? What?”
“He said they were developed in Security, and there’s someone there who has a thing about implants. I suppose that must be Martins. Doug thought it should be done outside the body and he mentioned doing it in the Golden Circle. He wouldn’t say what that was, just that it was part of the mentor programme. He said there are lots of spare circuits in the Golden Circle and they could easily fit the clothes-checking stuff in that. He said they could do it in a few hours if someone gave them the word, they could probably use the same coding as the implants. And the good thing is that as it’s outside the body they could reprogram it later if they needed, if there were mistakes, for example, and it would be easy to disable in hospital.”
“He said they could do it in a few hours?”
“Yup. It wouldn’t delay the production of the Golden Circle at all.”
“Thank you. Thank you a lot, my Pupil!”
He leant across and kissed me.
“But he works for Lakshmi Anderson,” I said. “Why didn’t you ask her about it?”
“She was being careful. Not making commitments. I don’t blame her, actually. She’s only twenty-five and I think she sometimes feels a bit overwhelmed by us lot. We’ve mostly known each other for years.”
“What is the Golden Circle?”
“That you will find out pretty soon.”
“Oh God,” I said. “When can we have some time together?”
“Probably not till Monday.”
“What happens then?”
“It’s your birthday, idiot. I’ll be round after school. After that—I don’t know.”
“I’m terrified of being without you. I felt so good in bed with you. So safe and peaceful. Please—please don’t stay away too long.”
“I’ll try not to. I know it’s hard. We’re working on the mentor programme, though, so think of it that way...”
“How long are you staying in Chedley? Why are you there, anyhow?”
“I was there to see what was happening on the front line, as it were. And I won’t be there for much longer—just till the mentor programme is up and running.”
“Hey, if you’re my Pupil, you’ll be spending a lot of time with me. Probably four or five nights a week, averaged out. Sometimes you’ll stay with me for weeks.”
“So either I’ll be away from you, or from Neal and my uncle...”
“Well, I’m looking into that. We’ll see.”
“I kind of knew that things were going too well. How much of this can I talk about with my uncle?”
“Anything. I trust him, Jack, and I really want him to learn to trust me.”
“Thanks. Okay, I’ll be good, I promise...”
“And I won’t leave you alone, I promise that. Believe me, I won’t be away more than I have to.”
“Okay.” I touched his knee. “Thanks.”