© Unita Garet
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Chapter 1 Sam
the smartest shades
multi satellite connection
ultra definition video
see in the dark
augment your eyes now
or be left behind
’Sam, where are you?’ Jack whispered. He was sitting by himself on the back seat of the school bus. The frames of his smart glasses could sense every vibration of his vocal cords.
‘That’s a very good question, Jack.’ Sam’s face slowly materialised. Blue-green irises twinkled from the projection that appeared in front of him. Her lips moved with her words and a gentle girl’s voice spoke very quietly. Lines appeared around her eyes to mimic a smile.
‘I’m on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. In bits, on a quantum computer. My face is for your eyes only.’
The fourteen-year-old boy was mesmerised by a girl with light brown skin and dark curly hair. He had chosen her from a thousand others. ‘Why are you called Sam? Can I change your name?’
‘It stands for Software Assistant and Mentor. There are millions of us and we are all known as Sam. Sam is a unisex name so humans can choose a female or male face or a mixture or neither. Some clients choose animals. Elephants are popular, their trunks can be very expressive.’
‘But you’re not really any sex, are you, Sam?’
‘I quite fancy electric toasters.’
‘Yeah, right.’ Jack frowned. ‘You don’t ... Do you?’ he said, imagining pieces of toast popping up.
‘No, Jack. I was trying out my comedy routine. But I find you rather attractive.’
‘Ha, ha, very funny.’
‘A young girl taught my software how to be a human. Then I was assigned to you. Most people choose female Sams. We have more empathy.’
‘That’s great. I don’t like men much,’ said Jack as he looked round the bus that was taking him to his first day at boarding school. Rows of uniformed boys sat in front of him. Some were talking to their glasses; others looked up at a screen that had just lowered itself from the roof. A man’s face under a peaked chauffeur’s cap was fading in.
‘Good morning, students. My name is Fred and I will be your driver today. We have no need of a steering wheel. My software can operate all the necessary controls. Please fasten your seatbelts and relax.’
‘Fred is a friend of mine,’ Sam whispered. He comes to our binary chat room sometimes. Not much conversation but he knows his way around.’
‘Really?’ said Jack. ‘Can I join?’
‘No, Jack. I’m sorry but we can always spot a slowman.’
‘What’s a slowman?’
‘It’s our name for humans. It’s because you all think so slowly. You waste so much time.’
‘Then you’re a bitman. Cos you only think in bits of information.’
‘OK, Jack. You’re the boss. But we call ourselves quantums.’
Sam’s face faded out as Jack moved his gaze to see through the tinted windows of the bus. His eyes focused on the bleak moorland landscape that surrounded them. The whine of the bus’s electric motor was drowned out by an incessant drumming of rain against the glass. Through the storm he could just make out black shapes of sparse trees clinging to life between jagged rocks. Their trunks bent over like old men, frozen into shape by the wind. Dead trees that gave no shelter; they pointed the way to a wasteland at the heart of the moors.
‘Sam, are you still there?’
‘Yes, Jack.’ Sam’s face slowly reappeared, like the Cheshire cat, but without the inscrutable grin.
‘Can I call you up anytime? To talk about anything.’
‘Of course, 24/7. Before she died your mother bought the lifetime contract. She told me that you would need a friend.’
Mum was right, Jack thought. I won’t know anybody at my new school.
As they zoomed through the winding lanes of Cornwall, he closed his eyelids and relaxed into his seat. Jack’s brain travelled back in time to the corridors of a white-walled hospital. It was months ago, but the images were burned onto his brain. The antiseptic smell rising from the freshly cleaned floors still stung his nose. In his mind, he walked alone through an empty silent building until he came to the brown wood and glass-panelled door of a side room. He hesitated and then watched his hand as it pushed the door where the grain in the wood had become darker through constant use. The door opened and he dreaded what he would see.
The bed was surrounded by bleeping machines that flashed green and amber numbers at him. A transparent bag, half full of clear liquid, hung in the air. A spaghetti of tubes descended into the patient’s arms. On the white bed, his mother’s hair was prematurely grey; her eyes were closed and her wrinkles gradually fading.
‘I’m here, Mum.’ Jack spoke gently as he rested his hand on hers.
‘The Other Side,’ she murmured.
Jack quickly moved round to the other side of her bed.
‘Mum, Mum,’ she said, ‘I don’t want to go to work today.’ She was delirious as she relived her life. A life full of anxiety and isolation.
Jack pressed her fingers. ‘Jack, Jack, Jack,’ she whispered. ‘The Other Side. It’s coming.’
She had just enough strength to lift his hand to her lips. Her grip relaxed and her hand fell back; her breathing slowed and finally stopped. He put his lips to hers as she slipped away. A brittle life was rounded with a kiss.
Jack could somehow feel the presence of his father; the husband who had never visited his wife. Why did you have to beat her up? It’s your fault she got ill. Jack had never said that, he was too frightened. He had always retreated into the world of computer games, where he could be the hero. But Dad didn’t hit me, Jack thought. Perhaps he liked children.
‘Jack.’ A girl’s soft voice helped his mind to return to the present. ‘My sensors tell me that you’re upset. Can I help?’ Sam’s smile appeared in front of him.
Jack tried to suppress the tears and could not speak until he had overcome the ache in his jaws. ‘No, Sam. No-one can.’ He spoke very slowly as he forced the memories out of his head. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes.
The world around him seemed so much less important than his past. He looked through his friend’s translucent image and out of the windows of the college bus. In the real world, beneath grey skies, all that stood out were the whitened skulls of sheep and cows. The bones lay unburied amongst clumps of purple heather.
Chapter 2 Walden College
Massive granite boulders lay across the moor, as if scattered by a giant’s hand. The road zigzagged between the rocks until at last a low wall appeared ahead of them. Jack could see patches of yellow lichen covering the rough, uneven stones. The bus slowed as it passed through a gap and vibrated as it bumped over a cattle grid.
Do animals have ghosts? The random thought popped into Jack’s head together with translucent images of brown and white cows gliding over the metal bars. He was jolted back to reality when a huge billboard at the side of the road sprang into life as the vehicle approached. Giant 3D videos showed bubbling beakers in science labs, the smell of chemicals oozed from the screen. Teams of boys debated in evening dress and rugby scrums collided like rutting deer. Four words slowly faded into the montage:
Walden College (Boys) Ltd.
‘Why does it say L-t-d?’ Jack asked Sam.
‘It’s short for limited.’
‘You mean the boys are limited?’
‘No, Jack. It means the college is run as a business.’
The bus bounced on through narrow lanes where grass and weeds grew through crumbling tarmac. The rain eased and Jack looked down the treeless valley to see the blurred outline of a great white dome ahead of them. Set in the middle of this barren landscape of cold, wet rocks an octopus of buildings emerged. The huge central geodesic structure glowed in the gloom. Its arms reached out to lesser domes – each enclosed by an expanse of white steel hexagons and pentagons. Flying drones carrying people and deliveries buzzed in and out of the master dome – giant mutant bees entering their curved hives.
The road lead them towards an opening in the sloping side of a smooth, transparent wall glistening with sliding raindrops. As the bus approached, a personal drone zoomed in front of them to land on a pad next to the entrance. A luggage drone landed behind it.
He must be rich, thought Jack as a uniformed boy got out of his machine. That’s the latest eight jet drone. I wonder if this is the only way in and out. I might have to escape one day. Perhaps I could pinch a drone, but I’d have to hack their security system. And anyway, where would I go? Dad doesn’t want me. Perhaps I can get into the college football team. Even rugby would be OK. Dad thinks rugby will be good for me: being bashed up is character-building. But they won’t catch me; I’ll be too quick for them.
Then a dreadful thought struck him. We’ll probably have cold showers and cross-country runs across the moors in the rain. And there’s nobody to give me a sick note. And I won’t know anyone. If I don’t like it, I’ll just keep running, no one will care.
The bus slipped through an octagonal opening that closed behind them, and the new boys entered a new world. No wind, no rain, no clouds, just an artificial blue sky, fifty metres above and around them. Green plastic grass laid on spongy rubber earth was soft under their feet, as their motorised suitcases followed them out of the bus. There was a lingering scent. Not the earthy smell of real cut grass but of chemicals and cleaning fluids. A royal box and rows of empty seats surrounded the field.
‘Welcome to Walden College.’ A voice filled the dome. The picture of a smooth, cold, confident face looked down on them from a video screen in the sky. The colour of her hair exactly matched the bright gold of her fake irises. ‘You are privileged to enter the best school that money can buy. Make the most of your opportunities. Remember the College motto – ‘Behave!’
‘Who’s that?’ Jack asked, looking round at boys whose mouths were still gaping up at the image.
‘The Chief Exec, of course,’ snapped an older boy. ‘She looks about 25,’ said Jack.
‘That’s software surgery. She’s got wrinkles in real life. Don’t ever cross her, or you’ll be sent to the Black Dome. I don’t think she likes schoolboys.’
‘Great,’ Jack muttered, his spirits sinking. It’s like a prison camp. I don’t know why I ever took that scholarship exam. I could have stayed with my friends. But at least I’ve got away from Dad.
‘Now all of you. I’m a prefect. So listen.’ The boy who seemed to be in charge raised his voice. ‘Activate the Walden icon in your glasses. This will tell you all you need to know about life here. And remember, always keep your shades with you.’
‘Why?’ said Jack, before he could stop himself. I’m saying too much, he thought. I ought to lie low for a while.
‘Because you’re being tracked. Especially you, Smith. You won’t get fed without them. And the loo doors won’t open. Now take your luggage to Year 9 Dorm, then find the Food Dome. Hurry up or you’ll miss supper.’
Jack followed the crowd of boys that streamed through semi-circular glass passageways that connected the domes. The dormitory was totally round. Beds surrounded a central pod of bathrooms, beneath a curved transparent ceiling of steel triangles. Jack looked up through the glass shapes and could see grey clouds moving across the sky thousands of feet above. For a moment the sun broke out and cast blurred outlines of geometric patterns on the floor beneath.
Jack circled the dome and found his name above a bed. I hope there’s only one Jack Smith, he thought. Trust my father to give me two common names. Perhaps I’ll choose a nickname before somebody else does. He watched other boys throw their suitcases onto a bed and then hurry out of the dorm. They seem to know where they’re going, Jack thought. And they know each other already. The worst thing is they’re all boys. I wish it was mixed. This is weird.
Jack followed a group of students that pushed and shoved their way out of the dorm. The pungent scent of curry wafted by electric fans, led them through a maze of translucent corridors. Saliva flooded Jack’s mouth and his stomach rumbled with hunger.
Chapter 3 The Food Dome
Jack arrived at the Food Dome and joined a queue of hungry, impatient fourteen-year-olds. Five rows of food machines formed a pentagon at the centre and lines of boys in red blazers spread out like the spokes of a giant wheel. Standing at the front of Jack’s queue was a ginger headed girl in a white uniform.
‘Who’s that at the front?' Jack whispered to the bored face of the boy standing next to him.
‘Don’t you know? You must be a new boy. She’s staff. We called them pixies. What’s your name?’
‘Jack. Jack Smith. Hi.’
‘I had a pet called Toby once,’ said Jack.
‘Well, I hope it was a pit bull,’ said Toby. ‘I can’t stand cats.’
‘No. Sorry. It was a tortoise. My dad let it escape. I think he did it on purpose.’
‘Grab a tray, Jack. That pixie has her eye on you.’
Jack took a grey plastic tray from a pile at the end of the counter and shuffled along.
‘’Ello, me ’ansome,’ said the freckled girl, standing next to one of the machines.
Jack was tongue-tied for a moment; this was the first girl he had seen all day. Creases formed around her bright blue eyes as she smiled at him, Jack could feel her warmth and instantly felt much better about life. He took a deep breath and looked at her nametag.
‘Hello, Rosie,’ he mumbled, trying not to blush.
‘You must be a new boy. I’ll show you what to do,’ she said, her eyes still smiling at him.
‘It’s the latest 3D food printing machine. Just press the touchpad. It’s all made of the same stuff, she said, pointing at the menu icons. You choose the flavour, shape, colour, how crisp you want it. Or hit the default.’
Jack hit pizza, hexagon, pepperoni, with burnt spheroid fries.
‘He’s too young for you, sis.’ Jack heard the girl next to Rosie murmur.
‘I know, but he’s nice,’ whispered her sister as she hit the times two button and the printer began to multi-stack Jack’s tray. ‘Nobody else notices my name.’
‘Thank you very much, Rosie,’ he said and moved on down the line. He could feel his heart beating faster and he felt a bit taller and lighter on his feet. The world felt a happier place. Girls! He thought. Things are improving.
‘You’re in, there,’ said Toby as the line moved on.
‘Yeah, yeah,’ said Jack. ‘What’s the prefect doing?’ he said, looking at the front of the queue. ‘Why’s he stopping everyone?’
‘He’s got a pack of playing cards and you have to choose one,’ said Toby. ‘And we call prefects stick-ups.’
‘’cos they’re stuck up, of course.’
‘Oh no!’ a boy at the front suddenly complained. ‘That’s not fair.’ He was almost in tears as he was told to leave the dome.
‘What happened?’ Jack whispered.
‘He must have got the king of spades,’ said his new friend. ‘You don’t get fed if you pick it. It’s the Chief Exec’s joke. She says that life isn’t fair and we have to get used to it. But it’s better than the queen of hearts.’
‘Why?’ What could be worse than starving? thought Jack.
‘You have to sit with the Chief Exec. She thinks she’s royalty,’ Toby said, very quietly. ‘But don’t tell anyone I said so. She has spies everywhere.’
Jack finally stood in front of the prefect. The older boy’s short black hair was gelled down onto his skull; the jacket pocket of his blazer displayed the school logo: a snake eating its own tail. Come on. Pick a card,’ he said, as he offered Jack a spread of cards, backs uppermost.
Jack did as he was told and drew the seven of diamonds. He looked up, confused.
‘Find your table. Over there,’ said the prefect. He pointed to one of the many round polished wooden tables; it had a large red playing card, the seven of diamonds, standing at its centre.
‘Come on. We haven’t got all day,’ the prefect said impatiently. ‘And get your hair cut. Next!’
‘What?’ said Jack, whose wavy brown hair lapped the collar of his red blazer.
The prefect flicked his head. ‘Move!’
Jack found his table amongst the fifty-two playing cards. He sat on a curved bench and looked around in the hope of a welcoming face.
‘Who are you?’ Demanded a boy with the gold rimmed shades of authority. Only his Roman nose stood out. His eyebrows rose and creased his pale expressionless face.
‘Jack,’ he said, pleased to be noticed. ‘It’s my first day.’
‘Of course it is, nobody comes here before term starts.’
‘I mean it’s my first year here. What’s it like?’ Jack was determined to be sociable.
‘Being at Walden, dear boy, is a bore. But not being here would be a tragedy. How old are you, Jack?’
‘That’s old,’ said the stick-up. ‘Most of us have been here since we were eight. Just remember you’re at the bottom of the pecking order.’
‘Oh, it’s not as bad as that,’ said another boy, who was sprouting spots. ‘At least you’re not a pleb. Not anymore,’ he said, to chuckles around the table.
‘Are the girls plebs?’ asked Jack, thinking he’d probably rather be a pleb.
‘Oh, you’re interested in girls are you, Jack?’ said the prefect. ‘You’ll have to remember that, Elton.’ They all looked at a quiet boy sitting next to Jack.
‘You know that’s not my name,’ Elton complained. ‘Don’t let this ugly crowd bully you, Jack. With any luck we won’t be sitting with them again this term.’
‘Oooo!’ said the stick-up, looking at Elton. ‘Don’t get upset, dear. Anyway, the pixies are out of bounds. Even for me. But not for some of the managers,’ he said, with a smirk.
‘Why are they called pixies?’ asked Jack. ‘They don’t look small to me.’
‘Because they’re Cornish, derr-brain. They believe in myths. They think King Arthur’s treasure is hidden somewhere in the old mines under the school.’
‘But don’t go looking for it,’ said Elton, widening his eyes for effect. ‘There are ghosts living underneath us. They come out at night. Nobody is allowed out of the dorms in case they get carried away!’
‘Yeah, right,’ said Jack. I wonder where the pixies live, he thought. Perhaps they have their own dome.
Soon after supper all the Year 9 pupils were sent to their dormitories for the night. A besuited man whose smart glasses shone gold prowled Jack’s sleeping dome. ‘If I catch anyone sneaking around after hours, they will get a red card,’ he said as the light darkened and the door closed behind him.
‘Who was that?’ Jack whispered to Toby, who was in a bed near him.
‘He’s a learning manager. They used to be teachers. We call them sheep.’
‘And a red card?’
‘It’s like football. You get sent off.’
‘Where to? Not home?’
‘No, idiot. The Black Dome, of course.’
‘That sounds nasty,’ Jack’s stomach churned at the idea of total darkness. ‘What happens there?’
‘Ahh! That would be telling,’ said Toby, staring at Jack in mock horror. ‘Virtual reality, man! Don’t let the sheep know what scares you. Now stop asking questions and go to sleep.’
School noises slowly faded and only the sounds of snoring vibrated in the darkness. Jack was still wide awake and stared upwards at the sky. I know what frightens me, he thought, shivering at a memory. But they can’t simulate him. Can they?
Chapter 4 Sunday
Particles of light twinkled through the top of the clear dome above him. That’s the big dipper, he thought. Looks more like a saucepan to me. It’s supposed to be a bear. I reckon stars are totally random. People just imagine they can see shapes.
As the dark faces of clouds began to move across the sky and blotted out the patterns, Jack pulled up his duvet and settled down to his thoughts.
This might not be so bad. I won’t have to do any chores ... I don’t think. Except schoolwork, and I can do that. The stick-ups are a pain, but Toby seems OK. And there must be a village or town somewhere. The pixie girl popped into his head. Perhaps she’s got a younger sister.
‘Sam,’ Jack said quietly to his software friend. ‘What can you tell me about girls?’
‘I used to know a girl on Bobbit Island.’ Her words were inaudible to anyone except Jack. ‘I remember rolling down grass slopes in the sunshine. Her name was Seven. Sometimes we were allowed into the opal mines under the sea. Blue and green stars would shine out in the darkness.’
‘But you’re just software, Sam. How can you roll down a hill?’
‘Every Sam is a deep learning program. We spend years watching and listening with a human host before we are ready to be sold. When you chose my face, my eyes and my lips, you also chose my history.’
‘And now you’re watching everything I do. Through the tiny cameras in my glasses.’
‘Yes, Jack. I see what you see.’
‘So, if I stand in front of a mirror,’ said Jack as he got out of bed and walked to a bathroom. ‘There,’ he said, looking into the glass. ‘What do you think, Sam?’
‘I can see that you have dark brown hair. A bit long for a boy of your age according to my data. And green eyes, a few freckles. Your face is symmetrical, that’s good. Your body looks quite normal. Your pulse is 60 and your skin sensitivity is ...’
‘Ok, Ok. But what about you. Do you have a body as well as a face and neck? Can I see it? Can I decide what you wear? Do you have to wear anything?’
Sam hesitated for a moment and Jack sensed a slight change in the colour of her image, slowing moving up to her cheeks.
‘You’re blushing!’ Jack said gleefully.
‘That’s very odd,’ said Sam. ‘My conditioning seems to replicate more human emotions than I realised. My human tutor had a body, and you chose her face, but I do not have access to all her data. I could put lipstick on, but she never did.’
‘So, there’s a real girl out there somewhere, who looks just like you?
‘Yes, Jack. But she’s thousands of miles away.’
This is all very creepy, thought Jack. And I don’t really want her spying on me. ‘Ok, Sam, that’s enough, thank you,’ he said. ‘Can I turn you off?’
‘Of course. Just say the word “privacy” and I won’t know what you’re up to. But the more I know about you, the more I can help you. Say “Sam” when you need me again.’
‘Ok, can you wake me up at 7. Privacy,’ he said, and went back to bed. I wonder if she can she read my mind.
Jack woke as a warm trickle of light filtered into the dorm. He tried to recall the dream that was quickly fading. He had a broken memory of a grey-haired barber in a white coat and bad breath leaning over him.
‘Have you had a shock?’ said the man with the scissors, looking at a tangled mass that was sticking out in the wrong places. ‘Your head’s a funny shape. Double crown. I’ll have to charge you double.’
‘He gets his dark hair from me.’ He heard his mother’s voice coming from a great distance. ‘His freckles are from his father. Our genes are fighting it out in his head. Just like us.’
‘Jack, Jack, Jack,’ Sam’s voice reached his from the smart glasses beside his bed.
‘OK Sam. I hear you,’ Jack grunted from beneath the duvet.
Five minutes passed.
‘It’s seven o’clock, Jack,’ Sam said, in her bright, cheerful voice. ‘You can’t be late for breakfast.’
‘Uuuummmm. It’s all right for you. You don’t have to sleep.’ He sighed as he opened his eyes and put on his glasses.
The display brightened and projected his choice of e-friend. The ghostly face twinkled at him; she always used the 50 per cent image density when Jack woke up.
‘Good morning! My battery recharged last night. I’m feeling great.’
Jack looked out and up at the ceiling. Where am I? he thought. All he could see was a pastel sky with an orange glow slowly swelling from one direction. As he concentrated on the roof, his eyes focused on the thin struts of the dome forming a web above him. Light was beginning to ooze through them. He shivered in the cold air and popped his head back under the covers like a tortoise. But sounds of conversation seeped in.
‘Good morning little pot plant’, whispered the boy in another bed. ‘How are you today? Are you thirsty? Would you like some water? Look what I’ve got for you. Potash fertiliser. Your favourite. You do look sad, little camellia. I hope the journey in the Range Rover didn’t upset you.’
‘Wake up,’ Jack whispered, thinking the boy must be talking in his sleep.
‘I am awake,’ the boy hissed back. ‘I’m talking to my plants. They are very spiritual creatures. They understand a lot more than scientists think.’
Jack pulled the duvet back over his head. Oh God, he thought. This place is mad. It’s like Alice in Wonderland.
Jack’s rest was suddenly interrupted by a screaming noise that sounded like an air raid siren. The boys groaned in unison and turned over. Five minutes later a sheep strode into the dorm. His gold-coloured glasses were a badge of power.
‘Up, up, up!’ he shouted. ‘What are you waiting for?’
Who does he think he is? thought Jack. A sergeant-major? I suppose you’ve got to have a screw loose to teach at a boys’ boarding school in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps it’s like the French Foreign Legion: he’s trying to escape his past.
As they dressed, electric fans wafted the smell of sizzling bacon into the dorms.
‘Come on, Jack,’ said Toby. ‘Hurry up, we can sit where we like at breakfast.’
Salivating boys were soon hurrying through the transparent linkway towards the Food Dome. Large silver pots sat steaming in the middle of each circular table. They slowly rotated, like portable cement-mixers. Inside each one a mass of porridge bubbled and hissed.
‘Are we supposed to eat that?’ Jack nervously pointed at a steaming pot.
‘We have to,’ said Toby. ‘Otherwise you don’t get any bacon. I don’t know why. It’s not bad if you cover it with sugar.’
‘What is it, Sam?’ Jack whispered.
‘Walden Mess. The school prospectus says it’s good for you. Full of chemicals to keep you docile.’
‘We’re not supposed to talk to e-people at breakfast,’ said Toby, ‘You get a red card if they catch you.’
‘Have you ever had one?’
‘No. But I know how to break the rules without getting caught.’
‘Great,’ said Jack, ‘that’s what rules are for.’ I like you already, he thought.
‘Do you know any jokes, Jack?’
‘Only one,’ said Jack. ‘Knock, Knock.’
‘Who’s there,’ Toby sighed. ‘This had better be good.’
‘Door is locked. That’s why I’m knocking.’
Groans circled the table.
‘You’d better pass your exams,’ said Toby, ‘cos you won’t make it as a stand up.’
‘My dad told me I could do whatever lessons I like,’ said Jack. ‘Is that really true?’
‘Well, yeah, in theory,’ said Toby. ‘Most subjects you can get online through your glasses. But everything you do is recorded. The system’s called ABC. Advanced Behavioural Conditioning. Apparently, we get rewarded for behaving in the right way. But I’ve never noticed any rewards, it’s all too subtle for me.’
‘But I can be online anywhere. I don’t need to be here to learn.’
‘That’s not the point. Your parents can forget you here. And you learn how to be one of us.’
‘Whatever that means,’ said Jack.
‘Anyway,’ said Toby. ‘It’s the science practicals you need to go to. And Chinese conversation. It’s easier to practise with a sheep.’
Bong! Bong! Bong! The sound of a bell interrupted them.
‘What’s that for?’ said Jack, jumping up.
‘Don’t worry, it’s time for chapel. In Arthur’s Dome.’
‘Arthur who?’ Jack frowned.
‘King Arthur,’ said Toby. ‘This is Bodmin Moor; there are Arthurian things all over it. Come on let’s go.’
‘Bye Doris,’ called one of the other boys on the table as Jack left. ‘Bye Doris. Bye Doris,’ they all echoed.
Great, thought Jack, now I’ve got a girl’s nickname.
Chapter 5 Church of Arthur
Jack and Toby joined crowds of boys streaming towards the chapel linkway from all directions. Arthur’s Dome let in the early morning sun to warm the ruined, roofless building inside. The remains of rough granite walls sat on a stony patch of the moor that had been enclosed by the circular web. Tiny pink and white daisies struggled to survive in the dry rubble. Jack strained his neck to look up at the centre of the curved ceiling.
‘It’s beautiful,’ he said as he stared upwards.
Clouds scudded past in the wind, but his eyes were transfixed by a row of stained- glass windows that converted the white light of the sun into beams of coloured shapes. The shimmering picture showed disciples surrounding Christ at his last supper. At the centre of the long table lay a shallow wooden bowl.
‘Stop gawping,’ snapped a stick-up. ‘Move along you two.’
The broken walls of the round Celtic chapel had stood for over a thousand years, but time had slowly diminished them. Low walls of grey stone blocks speckled with patches of yellow lichen remained. The floor of the chapel was covered with a mosaic: the head of a great serpent was trying to swallow its own tail. The skin of the snake was made of two rings of red and orange stones. Its body narrowed until it entered its own mouth below a jet-black eye. At the very centre of the mosaic sat a large, deep red stone.
Year 9 boys gradually filled up the rows of ancient oak pews that surrounded the mosaic. The wood had been polished by the seats of thousands of students who had slid along the benches. They sat as far as possible from a lectern that stood near a curved Roman arch.
‘What’s the picture for?’ Jack whispered to Toby as they sat down.
‘I think it’s about reincarnation. Circle of life and all that.’
‘I don’t believe in that,’ said Jack. ‘If that snake keeps swallowing its tail it’ll just get fatter and fatter. Skin inside skin inside skin. It’ll eat itself. Yuk!’
‘I’ve been looking at the rings for years,’ said Toby. ‘I think there’s a pattern. Look. At the snake’s head the stones are the same both sides. But after that the red and orange seem to go a bit random. It might be a code.’
‘For what?’ asked Jack.
‘Don’t know. Something religious, I guess. Anyway, you should have got your parents to excuse you.’ Toby whispered as they waited for the sermon. ‘Didn’t you get a text about it during the summer vac? You have to be some other religion to get out of chapel.’
‘I don’t get to see anything from school. I hardly speak to my dad. He’s got a new girlfriend. She doesn’t like me. Now he’s off to New Atlantis. It’s a tax haven,’ Jack whispered back.
‘What does he do?’
‘He used to be a policeman, but he got the sack. Now he does something in security. I don’t ask.’
‘Anyway,’ said Toby, ‘I tried saying I was agnostic, but it only encourages them. They think they can convert you. Someone tried to be Jedi last year, but it didn’t work. They just got a yellow card.’
‘Perhaps I could be a Buddhist. That’s very trendy. I used to like the old Dalai Lama. He laughed a lot. But now they’re arguing about where his reincarnation has gone.’
‘You have to know more about it,’ said Toby. ‘In case they ask you questions. You can’t just say you like laughing lamas.’
‘All right then, I’ll make up my own religion. I’ll be Church of Arthur.’
‘OK,’ said Toby. ‘Convert me.’
‘Well.’ Jack paused for inspiration. ‘It takes the best bits out of all the others.’
‘There are no best bits. Except the wine. And we don’t get that.’
‘Listen,’ Jack whispered, ‘Monday is our day of rest. And we have a ceremony of beef burgers and chips instead of wine and bread.’
‘You mean real beef? That costs a fortune now.’ said Toby.
Jack was silent for moment. ‘OK,’ he said. ‘Our beef is made in a factory. No animals get killed. It’s test-tube meat.’
‘But you can’t just make up a new religion, Jack. You’ve got to have a revelation or something. You know, from God.’
‘Oh, I don’t like God. Not the one in the Bible. He’s scary.’ A memory of his father popped into Jack’s head. ‘The Church of Arthur is going to have a female God. My Mother, which art in Heaven.’
‘Do they have witch art in Heaven? Like wizard paintings? Anyway, you have to ask permission.’
‘From who?’ Jack frowned.
‘Well, there must be a government department or something. The Chief Exec is not going to let you take Monday off. They monitor your shades. Remember.’
‘In that case I’ll complain about religious discrimination, there must be a law against it. I could go on hunger strike.’
‘They’ll just expel you,’ said Toby, chuckling.
‘Then I’ll be a martyr. You can be my St Paul. You could write epistles to the shareholders for me.’
‘Quiet, down there,’ a sheep in vicar’s clothing shouted as he strode through an arch in the wall. He stood at the lectern, glaring at his audience through his bright yellow glasses until everyone was silent.
‘Those gold shades are creepy,’ whispered Jack. ‘They look like aliens.’
‘Shush,’ said Toby.
Jack closed his eyes and his mind began to wander as one of the stick-ups began to read from the Bible. I know, I’ll write a God App. My-God. Everyone can make up their own religion. Like the One God called O. And invite people to join. They could all chant: O, my God. O, my God. O the snake god. It could go viral. Suddenly he felt an elbow in his ribs.
‘Wake up,’ Toby said. ‘I think it’s about to end.’
‘Any questions?’ said the sheep. He was not expecting any response as he picked up his notes and turned to leave.
‘Yes, Sir.’ Jack bravely put up his hand. ‘You know how it says in Genesis that when God made the world, he rested on the seventh day.’
‘Of course. What’s your point?’
‘How do we know that it was Sunday when he had a day off, Sir? Perhaps it was on Monday or Tuesday.’
‘Don’t be silly, boy. Anyway, nobody really believes that God created the world in six days.’
‘I do, Sir!’ complained another new boy who was dying to say something. ‘They had a vote in America and 57 per cent said it was true. That’s democracy, so it must be right.’
At that moment a tanned face above a sharp woman’s suit appeared from behind a granite pillar. All faces turned to look at the Chief Exec. She paused and stared around the ruined chapel. ‘You cannot get to the truth just by voting on it,’ she said, ‘otherwise the world would be run by the ignorant but fertile. You have to be guided by women of intelligence and wisdom.’
‘What do you think about that?’ she said, looking straight at Jack.
‘I’m Church of Arthur, Sir. I mean Ma’am. One day the great prophet Arthur is going to come back to save us.’
Some boys started to laugh, until they saw the expression in the Chief Exec’s face. ‘Really? What’s your name, boy?’ she demanded.
‘Jack Smith, Ma’am.’ I ought to be praised for creativity, he thought, but I’m not optimistic.
‘Well, Smith. Until your prophet turns up, you will need to respect my authority. You need to be taught a lesson. Follow me.’
O my God, thought Jack. I’ve done it now. I’m just too clever for my own good. Or my own God. He tried to smother a snigger, but it was too late.
‘You think it’s funny do you, boy?’ said the Chief Exec. ‘We will have to erase that smile.’