"Fear no more the heat o' the sun…"
(William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, IV, ii)
Jonte faced playtime with mixed feelings. When the bell rang, the others would rush into the open air, laughing and chattering. He felt left out. Yet these were also times he enjoyed. He could daydream about how things might have been.
Sometimes, though, he would watch the play − not directly, that would have been impossible − but on the big screen in one of the classrooms. Cheering on his friends made him feel part of the action. Even through the screens, however, watching for long often made his eyes hurt. Sunlight reflected strongly off the silvery turf, and even more from the trees around the ground. Players in motion trailed flashes of light which left black spots in his vision.
It was during a tense game that the summons came through. The shelter Principal, no less, wanted him at once in his office. Jonte uttered a mild swearword, though realising that he had already been watching too long − his head was aching. He made his way to the admin sector; signalled his arrival; and went in.
The Principal was behind his desk directly opposite the door. He was a small man, with metallic black hair cut short, silver-grey hands in constant fidgety motion, and an expression of perpetual irritation. He waved in the direction of a chair placed in front of the desk.
But to Jonte's surprise, there were several other people in the office. It was difficult at first to see them all clearly: not only had the effects of watching the match still to wear off, but the lighting was poor. Perhaps the Principal had only remembered at the last minute to close the heavy shutters and switch on a lamp.
As his vision returned, Jonte's surprise grew. The six men and two women, who sat in a half circle to one side, judging by their job tags, were senior…very senior. Four were from the administration. The two women and the other two men seemed to be scientists from different research bodies.
Jonte was used to the fact that other people were inscrutable. He would have been able tell from gazing in a mirror into his own eyes, with their blue irises surrounding dark pupils, how he was feeling, even if he hadn't known already. But other people's eyes were silver discs, giving away nothing. He could sometimes see from the rest of their faces whether they were happy or sad, smiling or frowning; but their skin reflected the light, so that he could never be quite sure. From the way they were sitting, he thought, the visitors seemed anxious.
"Jonte", the Principal said, "these people have a favour to ask, and I hope you can help them. Please sit down."
Jonte's surprise grew. What possible favour could these people want from someone like him?
"I'll help if I can", he said.
"You know," the Principal went on, "that you have had to grow up here because going outside would be dangerous. Your body wouldn't be able to withstand the radiation, even at night-time. Ordinary people are born with protection; but in your case…."
"So you see", one of the women interjected quickly, "you are really a very interesting young man. We want you to let us get to know you better."
"The people here," the Principal resumed, "are from the government's science and research council. They would like to take you to one of their centres in the south, where the facilities are supposed to be better than we can provide…."
"But I'm quite happy here," Jonte felt he should say. "My friends….."
"….and in any case, "the Principal insisted a trifle sourly, "you wouldn't be able to stay much longer. The shelter is being closed down."
Jonte took this in. "So when do I have to go?" he asked.
"If you can pack your things together quickly, "one of the men replied, "we should like to move you this evening…say in an hour. Is that all right?"
An hour! The suddenness of it all puzzled Jonte. His condition had been known from the moment he had been born when his parents − so he had been told − had handed him over for special care. But it also excited him. Apart from a short journey when he had been much younger to a medical centre, he could not remember ever having left the shelter. He didn't really have much to pack anyway.
"OK", he said.
The transporter that was to take him south was a large one, larger than anything he had been in before. Even so, there was only one other person in the closed seating section besides himself: the woman who had said she wanted to get to know him better. Looking at her in the dim lighting that came from a single small unit on the roof, he thought she must be quite old. Her slightly puffy silver-grey face was framed by precise waves of bronze hair. The tag on her suit said she was chief psychologist at the Regional Institute for Human Research.
"Are you all right?" she asked. "Not too upset at having to leave suddenly like this?"
Jonte shrugged. "I'm fine", he said. "Where are you taking me?"
Behind her blank eyes, the psychologist seemed to be thinking. Eventually she said: "I'm going to be open with you, Jonte. Something has come up which makes it very important for us to…to examine you, give you some tests, things like that. But don't worry. It'll all be quite painless. Even fun, perhaps," she added, smiling. "By the way, my name's Eden."
"But the medics from the centre come and test me all the time!" Jonte exclaimed, not responding to the offered name. "There can't be anything they don't know by now. Why don't you get what you want from them?" But at the same time the thought came to him that this suggestion was stupid: that wasn't at all what they really wanted. He should have known straightaway from the "being open" bit at the start.
"Oh, the tests we want to run are quite different from anything done here," Eden replied. "Besides, our facilities are much better than theirs. And I'm afraid the level of expertise in those places is extremely low compared to what it used to be. Only in centres like the Institute…."
She stopped abruptly, as both she and Jonte were jerked from their seats. The transporter seemed to swing crazily from side to side before making a sharp ninety degree turn, and then slowly overbalancing onto one side. Eden rolled into one corner. Jonte pulled himself up by one of the seats and made sure they were still sealed from the outside. Fortunately the small centre light was still working.
From the front there came sounds of shouting; then three or four muffled thumps; then nothing. Eden tried unsuccessfully to get up, so that Jonte felt he was now the one in charge.
"You OK?" he asked. "I suppose we've been in a crash or something, but it can't be too bad. I expect they'll get this thing going again quite soon."
On cue, with faint scraping sounds, the transporter began to right itself. Eden pulled herself back onto a seat, and sat for a moment gasping. Then, in a strained whisper, she told Jonte to keep as quiet and still as he could, adding: "They may not know we're here."
Jonte was about to object, when, all of a sudden, he caught on. They had been hijacked! This first long trip away from the shelter was turning out stranger that he could ever have imagined. He was just about to ask Eden what was really going on, when the transporter shot into motion, throwing them back against their seats. For a few minutes it travelled normally, then began to lurch and jolt about as if being driven over very rough ground. Jonte began again to ask what was happening and where she thought they were going; but the psychologist seemed not to hear. Instead she appeared in shock, gripping the sides of her seat tightly and staring straight ahead with opaque eyes.
The journey turned out to be a long one. After an hour of being tossed around as the transporter travelled at high speed over uneven terrain, Jonte had the impression that it had driven up a ramp and parked. Then it began to vibrate and lurch erratically from side to side. A loud, rattling engine noise came from outside.
"Oh my God!" Eden suddenly exclaimed, "they're lifting us out by helicopter!" The realisation seemed to revive her. She moved closer to where Jonte was sitting, and began talking in a rapid whisper.
"When we get there, Jonte, somehow you've got to escape. We can't let them have you. Jonte, this is terribly important. You'll have to hide until we can mount a rescue. Perhaps I should have said something earlier. As far as we know, you're the only one anywhere; and all the others want you too. I'll try and think of something."
Eden, it seemed to Jonte, had raised rather a lot of questions. He decided to ask the one he felt the most important: who were "they"?
"They could be any one of several," Eden whispered back. "In the Union, even, there are people who are acting behind our backs. Then there are the Chinese, the Latin-Americans, the Mid-East…all of them are running projects. Perhaps we'll get some idea from the time it's taken when we land."
This gave Jonte his second and third questions. "What exactly are these projects?" he asked; "and what have they to do with me?"
Instead of replying, Eden was suddenly very still. Her blank eyes were unreadable, but Jonte had the impression that she was regretting her first response. The projects, whatever they were, were meant to be secret; or at least secret from him.
Then he remembered Eden's earlier remark. The sudden removal from the shelter, and what had happened since, began to make sense. If it was true that he was unique, and with people after him, the administration would want to put him somewhere secure as soon as possible. But then: the only way in which he was unique, as far as he knew, was in being never able, for the whole of his life, to leave an environment shielded from the outside. And again: that had been known since his birth. So he was back to the question: why now?
For some time Jonte and Eden both remained silent, Jonte trying to work out possible answers, Eden inscrutable and unmoving. The vibrations and rattling engine noise continued to penetrate the interior of the transporter, though the lurches from side to side had stopped. Presumably they were in the air and moving forwards, though it was impossible to gain any sense of direction.
The silence between the two lasted about half an hour. By the end, Jonte had reached the conclusion that there must have been a sudden catastrophe or dramatic new discovery, with his peculiar condition significant in some way. Whatever the event was, it must have been a major one to justify what had happened. His own role, too, he realised with a mixture of sneaking pride and lurking panic, must also be major.
Abruptly, the transporter tilted forwards and side-to-side movements began again. Eden recovered from her apparent paralysis, and moved to Jonte's side.
"I think we're about to land," she said. "When we do, keep behind me if you can, and I'll try to find a way to get you hidden."
Jonte didn't think there was any chance of that happening. "Where do you think we are?" he asked.
"We've been just over three hours," Eden replied. "Not the Americas or China, then. Perhaps Africa; or the Mid-East; or still in the Union in the north or east."
The transporter began to level off; there was a sharp bump; the engine noise, together with the vibrations, stopped. At once the transporter began to moving again, as if being driven down a ramp. Jonte concluded that they had left the helicopter. After a short period of smooth motion, they once again began to travel over rough ground. Jonte saw Eden's eyes search the interior as if looking for a window or crack; but of course there could be no gap in the shielding. To know where they were they would have to wait until they arrived, though that place would have to be fully shielded too − that is, if whoever they were wanted Jonte alive and well.
At last they came to a halt. Eden moved to the rear door and signalled that Jonte should stand behind her. When the door opened, Jonte saw at once that he had been right about their destination. The transporter was inside a large, windowless, dome-shaped hanger, the only lighting provided by suspended neon strips. Three men faced them, one carrying a hand-gun of some kind, another a large reel of adhesive tape. The third silently beckoned Eden. It was possible they had not yet noticed Jonte behind her.
Shouting "Run and hide…now!" Eden launched herself at the man with the gun. She did not even reach the ground before being struck by what turned out to be a taser. Jonte stood still at the open door of the transporter, and looked down at the men. All three had metallic grey European faces, close-cropped metallic copper hair and were wearing nondescript over-suits without identity panels or other markings.
The third man silently signalled to Jonte to leave the transporter, pointing first to the man with the taser and then the crumpled figure of Eden on the ground. The message was clear enough. Jonte lowered himself from the rear of the transporter and turned to take a better look at where he had arrived. He was virtually certain that no immediate harm would come to him − not, at least, from the three in the welcoming party − given the trouble taken to get him there.
He was only partly right. His hands were quickly taped behind his back, a loop placed round his neck, and another strip attached to it like a dog-lead. Two of the men then led him to a doorway at the other side of the hanger, while the third, Jonte could just see, was taping Eden's arms to her side and hobbling her legs at the ankle.
Jonte and his escort reached the door, which one of them opened. The other went though, pulling Jonte after him.
As he quickly looked around, Jonte's first impression was that the room they had entered was vaguely familiar: rather like the medical centre to which he had been taken some years before. After a moment's thought, however, Jonte realised that this was bound to be the case. If Eden had not been entirely deceitful, both the authority she belonged to and its competitors wanted him in order to carry out some kind of medical research.
Still without saying a word, the third man led Jonte through an archway into a weakly-lit passage, turned to another door, opened it, and signalled that Jonte should go through. He did so; and at once his lead was slipped, the tapes round his neck and hands swiftly cut, and the door closed behind him. He hardly needed to confirm that it was also locked.
Looking round, Jonte saw that the room was much like his study/bedroom at the shelter − but of superior quality. Besides a bed and washing area there was a comfortable-looking easy chair and a low table; and one wall was almost entirely taken up with a video screen, almost as large as the ones in the shelter classrooms. A recess held a water spigot and a glass, besides a bowl of the specially-grown, unmodified fruit which Jonte had until now only experienced as special treat. This was not, Jonte realized, a randomly-chosen prison cell. It had been prepared − and that must have been some time in advance − for just him.
How did such long-term planning fit in with the abrupt move to get him away from the shelter, and his guess that people were after him as a result of some unexpected event?
The next few hours brought no answers. Nor did the next few days. One of his three captors would silently bring his meals at appropriate times. At first, he had expected that the large screen would quickly provide him with information; but when he switched it on all he received were instruction videos in his own language, hardly different from those he would have been seeing back in class. Once, he had been told, it had been possible to access many hundreds of channels, sounds and pictures too, sent out from anywhere in the world and without cable connections. The radiation had ended that. Communications were now quite difficult − almost, he had heard, at the level of the telegraph systems existing two or three hundred years before.
Remembering what he had learned on the journey, he expected at any moment to be taken for medical examination. Nothing happened. As the days passed he began to feel in need of some different surroundings, and also some company apart from the three silent men. What, he wondered, had happened to Eden?
This started as a casual thought. Bit by bit, though, it grew into something more: a question to which he really wanted to know the answer, and then a plan of action. Instead of spending day after day in one room, following school courses for anything better to do, he would get out somehow and find the psychologist. She would be able to go out into the open, and find out exactly where they were. Then they could work out how to get home.
The best way to escape, Jonte thought, was to make sure that the door could be unlocked after he had been brought a meal. He knew a trick with a piece of cloth and a fork or knife which worked on the simple locks on cupboard and bathroom doors in the shelter. Fortunately the lock to his present room was virtually identical.
He decided to try out his plan on the next day as soon as breakfast had been delivered − the trick was to insert the cloth before the door was fully closed. Nobody would be coming again until lunchtime.
Jonte looked through the archway; and then back down the passage in the other direction. It led to a dead-end. However, opposite his own room, from which he had escaped without difficulty was a second door of much the same type. Jonte tried the handle, but it was locked. If he was not going to be trapped, he would have to risk the medical centre.
Then he heard a sound coming from behind the door. He put his eye to the keyhole and pulled back in surprise: a silver eye was about to look through from the other side. A quiet voice said: "Jonte, is that you?" Then "yes, I can see it is."
He had found Eden at the first attempt!
"Are you all right? Can you get me out?" Eden went on.
"I'm OK," Jonte replied. "But I don't think I can open the door." Then, after a pause, he realized he needed the answers to some questions of his own.
"Do you know where we are?" he whispered. "And why are they keeping us locked up? I thought you said they were going to do tests on me; but all I've had so far is school work."
"Listen," said Eden rapidly, "this is important. We're in the Ukraine. They let me have some medical things with writing on the packaging. So we're still in the Union. They seem to be using you as a hostage to get whatever it is they want, and I'm supposed to contact the authorities and put terms to them."
"What should I do?" Jonte asked.
There was a pause before Eden replied. "I think the best thing," she eventually said, "is for you not to do anything rash. I'm going to agree to get in touch with council headquarters; and if I can let them know roughly where we are they may be able to send a rescue team."
To Jonte, this did not seem very heroic. His first thought had been somehow to steal a transporter and find help − admitted, he had no idea how to drive; wouldn't, in any case, be able to sit in an un-shuttered driving cab; and didn't speak a word of Ukrainian. Then a second thought came to him: he had only a few hours either to hide or escape, because the man coming to deliver his lunch and take away his breakfast tray would discover that he wasn't there. He could, or course, go back. But what would happen when they found the door unlocked?
Jonte cautiously slipped through the arch into the medical examination room. Opposite was the door leading to the domed hangar. At either end of the room were two more doors, both shut, but with glass panels to see through. In the room itself were various pieces of equipment, some display screens and terminals together with a couch and racks of bottles, boxes and small instruments.
Jonte decided to see what was beyond the doors with the glass panels. He tiptoed to the one on the left and looked through; then immediately retreated in alarm. Beyond the door he had seen what seemed to be a small conference or dining room, and had caught a glimpse of about ten people sitting round an oblong table. That was not the main reason he had run back, however. The room had been lit, not by the artificial lighting he was used to, but by direct sunlight coming through an un-shuttered window.
He crept to the door on the right. Beyond was another passage leading to a further door. The passage was lit by low-power bulb; but the light coming from under the far door was too bright to be artificial. There was no way out for him there.
That left the hangar, and the possibility of, perhaps, stowing away in a shielded transporter. This time, his luck was in: beyond the hangar door it was pitch dark. There was still time before lunch, he calculated, to talk again with Eden, and perhaps work out some joint plan. If it hadn't been for the fact they would find him missing at lunch-time he could even have told her how to get out when her own meal was delivered.
Then a solution occurred to him. He went back through the arch and tapped on Eden's door.
Once again in his own room, Jonte sat with a dry mouth and the sound of his heartbeat loud in his head. The odds, he told himself, were mathematically 50:50. But his instincts told him they were probably better: they would serve Eden first. As the usual time for lunch approached. Jonte put his ear to the door. The sound of footsteps drew near and at first appeared to stop just outside. Had he lost the gamble? But then Jonte heard the key turning in the door opposite. If Eden could carry out the trick with the cloth and a knife, they would have a few minutes to get home free.
The footsteps receded down the corridor. There was a click. Jonte opened his door and stepped into the corridor to see Eden there on the other side. Rapidly he led through the arch and across the still deserted examination room to the door leading to the hangar.
Then it all began to go wrong. Jonte confidently pushed the door wide open; but, instead of darkness, bright light from the suspended neon strips illuminated the entire hangar. Beside the parked transporter a group of men were sitting on a bench, eating. Worse: in probably less than a minute the man with Jonte's lunch would appear. Going back to their own rooms would involve explaining why they were unlocked. They had only seconds to take the remaining option: the door to the second corridor.
They listened as footsteps delivered Jonte's lunch, discovered that he was not in his room and ran back to report. There was a rush of other footsteps, and a short while later a loud shout, as − presumably − Eden was also found to be missing. They probably had only a minute or two before someone thought to look where they were hiding.
"I suppose you'd better get out," Jonte said miserably. "There's nowhere I can go now except back to my room. Do you think they'd believe me if I said I'd been hiding under the bed?"
"No," Eden said. "Not when I'm missing too." Then: "besides, you must come with me. I can contact the Council office in Kiev, and they should be able to locate us before we're caught."
Jonte looked at Eden in disbelief. As soon as there was no shielding from the sun's radiation he would quickly fall ill, and probably die within days. Wasn't that what all this was about?
"But, Eden, you know I can't!" he cried out
All Eden replied, though, was: "Trust me". Turning, she grasped the lever-handle of the door at the corridor's end; pushed it down; and pulled the door open. Raw sunlight poured in. He threw his arms over his eyes and sank to the floor. Was Eden trying to kill him?
The psychologist seemed unruffled. She bent down, put her hands under Jonte's shoulders and lifted him to his feet.
"Here, swallow these," she said, handing Jonte three pink, oval pills. "They'll keep you safe for a time. I'm afraid I've no water, so you'll just have to get them down without." After nearly choking on the first, Jonte managed to swallow all three.
"Now keep your arms over your eyes," Eden said, steering him through the open door. "In a while, though, you'll be able to take them away"
Jonte staggered forward into what he knew must be the outside. He could feel the heat of what must be direct sunlight on his head and hands, and waited for the expected harmful effects to strike. How long before he burned up, or fell unconscious; or died?
"Try to keep moving as fast as possible," Eden said, pulling him along by one arm. "We're going to turn right. Then we need to get over a fence, and make for some trees. See if you can look directly now."
Jonte risked opening his eyes and glancing between his arms. They were on a path beside the wall of a building, the corner of which they immediately rounded. Ahead was the promised wire fence − fortunately a low one − and beyond a strip of silver field and then some woodland, which sparkled in metallic greens and polished copper as the leaves moved in the breeze. It looked very much like the countryside round the shelter which he had seen through the screens.
By the time they reached the fence Jonte risked lowering his arms completely, and was able to get over without difficulty. Eden still held on to him as they ran across the field, but let go as soon as they reached the cover of the trees. They kept going for some minutes to get completely out of sight, then stopped for a rest.
Eden said: "It's time I told you the truth."
"I'm sure you've been taught about the environmental crisis of the mid-twenty-first century," said Eden: "the floods, the storms and so on. But the worst, of course, was what no-one had predicted: the rise in solar radiation. At first they thought it would be enough to build huge shelters, or go underground; but that didn't deal with the dying of the forests, the grass, the animals − in fact practically the whole of the natural environment."
"I've often wondered," Jonte broke in "what would have happened if they hadn't made the changes."
"We would have become extinct," Eden replied shortly. "It's been calculated that nothing would have survived much above the level of bacteria."
Both remained silent for a moment. Jonte hadn't realized until then how enormous a problem the people then had faced.
"Fortunately", Eden went on, "the science of biotechnology was making great progress at the time; and you know what was done. In a single generation, not just human beings, but plants and animals too, were genetically engineered to live with the higher radiation. It worked for most species − though not all" she added, more to herself than to Jonte. "Actually, we probably lost more than half the biosphere."
They had reached the crucial question.
"Why hasn't it work for me?" Jonte asked.
Eden paused again for several seconds before replying. "We don't know," she eventually said.
"Perhaps you've wondered, Jonte," she went on, "why everyday things we use like video-screens and transporters are much the same as those you read about in history books? They're not. They're worse, a lot worse. The Great Crisis caused huge disruption, and resources had to be put into saving our and other species. Did you know men were about to build a settlement on the moon then, and even travel to the planet Mars? That had to be abandoned. So did practically every other attempt at progress in science or technology."
"And now, it seems", Eden concluded with a trace of bitterness, "we've gone backwards. We can recreate the original vegetation and most animals from seeds and zoos. But we can't sequence the human genome any more, let alone change it!"
"Why do you need to?" said Jonte.
"Why do you think I let you come out here in the open?" Eden responded. "Why do you think every science centre in the world wants you? It's been kept from you in case you tried to leave the shelter."
"Because the radiation is dropping, of course; in fact has dropped so suddenly and so fast that it may soon be back to where it was before the Crisis. In that case, we'll all be freaks, hopelessly unsuited to the environment. That is, all except you, Jonte − you and your DNA."
Jonte found the walking among the trees an amazing experience. Though he had of course seen scenes like it on the screens, they were nothing compared to the reality. He could hear birds calling from among the branches, and even saw a couple, their varicoloured metallic wings catching the sunlight that filtered down. If it was really safe for him now, he thought he wouldn't mind staying outside.
After no more than ten minutes' walk, however, they came to the other edge of the woodland. Looking out, Jonte saw a complex of single-storey buildings on the other side of a sloping field, with more trees beyond. Several small transporters were parked along access roads, and every now and again someone emerged from one of the buildings to cross over into another.
"I need to find a terminal quickly and contact Kiev," Eden told Jonte. "You stay here and wait. It shouldn't take long if I can make them understand. Then I'm afraid you'll have to get back into a shelter: even with the radiation lower and the pills, you shouldn't be outside for more than an hour or so."
Leaving the cover of the trees, she quickly crossed the field and went to a side entrance to the nearest of the buildings. The door opened and she disappeared inside.
After about half an hour, Jonte began to get anxious. Even with the language problem, it couldn't take that long to get the use of a terminal; and then, surely, she would come back or at least signal him to join her? After an hour his anxiety had grown considerably. He began to wonder what he should do: stay where he was as Eden had said, or go down and find her?
Another half an hour passed. The sun he had feared so much was falling below the horizon − a sight he watched, for the first time, in some awe − and it was beginning to get both colder and darker. Artificial lights began to come on in some of the buildings below. He had already been outside more than double the time that Eden had said was safe.
Crouching down where he could behind tussocks of silvery grass, now turning black in the dusk, he made his way cautiously over the field to the nearest building. The side door was half-open, with light coming from inside, and Jonte flattened himself against the wall next to it to listen. He heard nothing. Leaving the wall, he pulled the door fully open, and went inside. A man was standing only a few feet away.
"Welcome back," said the Principal.
In the Principal's study, Jonte sat looking out of the now only half-shuttered window. He had been out there only a few minutes before, looking down at the shelter without recognizing it; but, of course, he had never seen it from the outside before. The Principal, on the other hand, had been able to see him coming without difficulty − and, of course, Eden coming before him.
"You have caused a lot of trouble," the Principal said. "And that psychologist has been criminally irresponsible. We shall have to give you a thorough medical examination as soon as possible."
"Is Eden all right?" asked Jonte.
"As well as can be expected," replied the Principal curtly.
"And what's going on? Why all this?" Jonte continued.
The Principal's silver-grey hands, which had been lying twitching on the desk in front of him, became even more agitated.
"Do you think I was going to allow those people down there to take all the credit?" he said, as much to the room as to Jonte. "When it's me, my team here, who have brought you up, provided your special food, studied you, done all the basic research? I suppose you know now what the situation is. We're about to save the human race − and they want to close us down!"
The Principal hands sank back to desk and he appeared to calm down.
"You're bright," he resumed. "No doubt you've worked out by now what happened".
Jonte had. The long journey in the transporter and the helicopter had been intended to convince him that they had taken him somewhere far away, whereas it had merely circled back to where they had started. But why?
Then the answer came to him. He wasn't the one who needed to be deceived. The long journey had been for Eden's benefit. Once she was convinced they were in the Ukraine, she would get a message through asking for help. No-one would guess that he, Jonte, was back near the shelter.
Jonte said what he had deduced.
"Nearly," the Principal replied. "Actually there was no helicopter. We couldn't have got hold of one anyway. But we did find an old training machine that would simulate being in one; that and a noisy engine." For the first time Jonte could remember, the Principal smiled.
"So now, while the authorities are scouring the Ukraine − yes, we arranged for your psychologist friend to get off a message before she guessed where she was − I shall be left in peace to complete the project," he said. "If we could only get the equipment, it would be a matter of just months."
"What if you can't?" said Jonte.
This time the Principal did not reply. Instead he pressed a button on his desk, and one of the school assistants, a woman whom Jonte recognized, came into the study.
"I think it would be best if you went back to your old room now," the Principal said. "Hanna here will take you."
It was not until he had been lying in his bed for about an hour than Jonte began to feel sick.
He knew immediately that he was back in the medical centre from the smell. Looking round, he recognized the room from which he and Eden had escaped, it seemed to him, only hours before. The room was now full of people: three doctors whom he recognized, two of the men who had served him meals, two nurses….he looked for Eden, but she was not there. He found that was loosely tied down to the couch and that a tube was feeding something into his right arm.
Jonte remembered waking up in the night with a bad headache, and then throwing up violently while trying to reach the washbasin. He had then slept badly and been sick twice more before the normal waking time. He had tried to get up, but had felt disorientated and weak. The last he remembered after that was falling backwards as he pulled open the study/bedroom door.
The doctors, together at one end of the room, were arguing. One of the nurses noticed that Jonte was awake and quickly came to the side of the couch.
"How do you feel?" she said to Jonte; and then to the doctors: "He's round at last."
Jonte felt terrible, but said feebly: "OK, I think. What happened?"
"You passed out," one of the doctors replied, checking Jonte's pulse and smiling. "Don't worry; you probably ate something that doesn't agree with you. You'll be all right."
The other two doctors, however, were not smiling. One looked very angry.
"Wouldn't it be better to face the truth, Komar?" the angry one said, his voice loud enough for Jonte to hear clearly. "Good God, this is radiation sickness! No-one's treated a case like this for more than a century. Have you any idea what to do?"
"The first thing is for you to be quiet!" the first doctor replied in a harsh whisper. "We can handle this if we keep our heads."
The third doctor gave a discordant laugh. "If we can't, we'll certainly lose them," he added.
"Let's discuss this outside," the first doctor responded; and all three went through into the meeting room.
Jonte had heard enough to know that he was in very bad trouble. For his whole life it had been drummed into him that going outside could prove fatal, and he had always taken care never even to go into a room unless the windows were heavily shuttered. Until the day before. Why had Eden done it? Why had he believed her? To his shame, he found himself beginning to cry.
Jonte was not sure how long it was before open dispute broke out. He still felt sick and weak, and remained tied down. Doctors and nurses came and went, and from time to time angry shouting came from the meeting room. Suddenly there was a commotion in the passage from which he had left the building, and one of the doctors and a nurse were violently pushed back into the room. Following them were the two men who had been there earlier; and following them, the Principal.
"I'm taking over here," the Principal announced. "There will be no question of calling in any outside help."
The doctor − the one who had laughed − got up from the floor.
"And what will you tell them when Jonte dies?" he asked the Principal.
"Jonte will not die," the Principal replied. "Dr. Komar assures me he can handle it."
"If Dr. Komar told you that," the other said, "he's a bigger fool than I thought."
So that's it, Jonte said to himself. Everything about being special and being able to help save humanity is fantasy. Between them, the Principal and Eden have condemned me to death.
He felt a new rush of tears coming.
And then chaos broke out. There was a loud explosion behind the door leading to the hangar, some gunfire, and an amplified voice demanding that arms be laid down. Simultaneously the door to the meeting room burst open, and the angry doctor, accompanied by two orderlies, came in.
Behind them came Eden. Her silver-grey face was no longer puffy, but gaunt and streaked with dirt, and her bronze hair was dishevelled. At the same time she seemed somehow younger and more forceful. She went up to the Principal.
"You are despicable!" she told him. "How did you think you could get away with keeping Jonte to yourself? You've got no equipment and no proper staff here. You could have damned us all. Fortunately this doctor had the good sense to let me contact the authorities."
She turned to Jonte. "How are you doing?" she asked.
Jonte looked at her through his tears. "I'm going to die," he said. "Because you took me outside".
The room suddenly filled with more people: military personnel in helmets, a number of those whom he had first seen in the Principal's study before the journey. Everything seemed to have turned out well…except that he was dying.
"Nonsense," said Eden. "You'll be perfectly all right once the effect of the pills wears off. I'm sorry you had to go through all this; but it was our insurance."
"Which worked just as well here as it would have in the Ukraine," she added, turning to the Principal. "Even better, in fact. − your people have no idea what radiation sickness is actually like, do they?"
"On this occasion," she added, with an apologetic half-smile in the direction of the doctor who had come with her, "Dr. Komar's diagnosis was quite correct."
Jonte was extremely surprised to find that he would be staying in the shelter for at least a time. Eden − who appeared to be a great deal more important than mere chief psychologist at the Regional Institute for Human Research − explained that an inter-regional agreement had been reached to provide samples of his DNA to every research centre working on the retro problem. It wouldn't hurt at all: as little as a hair or a swab of saliva from him would do.
Meanwhile it would probably be better for him to continue his education where he was, where his special needs could be met and among people he knew. The Principal and a number of others would be gone; but the teachers and, of course, his contemporaries, had not been involved.
Jonte felt a little let down. And then the thought came to him that at least he would be able to get outside with the others at playtime. He wouldn't need to watch every game through the screens any more. Was it possible he might even be able to join in…?