Flip – 10 – Juggling and Judgement
Dad launched himself across the room with a roar, arms outstretched, murder in his eyes.
“Dad, no!” I tried to get in the way, but I could never have moved fast enough.
Wiesner held up a small spray bottle and gave Dad a face-full, catching him as he collapsed and settling him gently to the ground.
“It is a much more dilute form than I used two nights ago. I estimate he will be unconscious for perhaps five minutes. Please I mean no harm.
“Phillip, I have found a way of keeping my promise. It is not a perfect solution and a little unconventional, but it is not so strange as that which I have already done to you. Will you hear me out?”
“You can fix his face?” Stacey asked.
“In a manner of speaking, yes. As I say, there will be an adjustment, but not so great a one as living with this.” He indicated my scars. “A cup of tea is calming to the nerves, and I think we could all use this. It will give your father time to recover, Phillip, and he should hear this too. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind?” This last he directed to Aunt Sally. Mum followed her through to the kitchen. There ensued a degree of clattering and the sound of a kettle approaching the boil.
“You have a lot of nerve,” Mike growled, still in his seat but looking for any opportunity the doctor might give him.
“You are correct. Please excuse my intrusion. I find that at times it is necessary to overlook the protocol of good manners you English seem to value so highly in order to do what is necessary. Please, I mean you no harm and I have no wish to use this,” he held up the spray, “on any one else. It would mean a delay, or that you would not be conscious for the explanation. Perhaps you would help me lift Phillip’s father into a chair. It is unpleasant regaining consciousness on the floor.”
“It’s alright, Uncle Mike,” I said when he showed signs of reluctance. “I think we can trust him, at least over this matter.”
“Ah, yes. You still have misgivings about my wider plans, do you not? It was very clever what you did with the two vials. I am correct that you are able to differentiate between them, and that you have the data drive?”
“The thumb drive is safe, and I have the parts of the labels I tore off.”
“So you can match the shapes and read off the numbers. Yes, very clever. This is another matter though. We will address it in time, but first I have a promise to keep to you. I will make things right for you first, so that what you decide over the other matter is not dependent on what we do now.”
“What’s he talking about Phillip?”
“The thing I stole for him the other night. I didn’t exactly give it to him.”
“Good for you.”
Dad started moving and groaning. Mike decided to accept my vouching for the doctor and helped him shift Dad into a chair. He was beginning to attempt words when Mum and Sally reappeared with the tea. Stacey had been standing back from the action with an unreadable expression on her face. I took hold of her hand and she turned hopeful eyes my way.
Teas distributed. Added sugar in Dad’s to help him recover. Wiesner invited us all to sit.
“Phillip,” he started, “do you understand what is meant by the term chimerism?”
“Er, no,” I said.
“Does it have anything to do with the Chimera from Greek mythology?” Sally asked.
“Just so. The name is derived from this creature. Will you tell us more about it?”
“Er, it was formed of a lion a goat and a snake. Killed by Bellerophon.”
“Oh yes,” Stacey touched me on the tender part of my arm causing me to wince. “Sorry,” she said, “but you remember Mission Impossible Two? They called the virus Chimera and the antidote Bellerophon.”
“It is of little consequence. The Chimera was a mythical creature made from parts of many animals, and chimerism in biology describes an organism formed of more than one genotype. This occurs when dizygotic twins merge in the womb to form one organism.”
“This is all very fascinating,” Dad interrupted, “but what has any of it to do with our son?”
“Do you not see? A chimera is a single organism made up of two sets of different DNA. Your son, who is also your daughter, has chimeric elements in his make up.”
“No I don’t see, and I’m getting pretty sick of you talking down at us.” Dad had a tendency to interrupt when he was feeling bolshie, and he definitely was no happy bunny.
“An organism that grows with two different types of DNA adapts so that both types can coexist in the one form. This also is true of your child. Cells from Philippa’s body will not be rejected by Phillip’s.”
“So, what? Are you proposing to graft Philippa’s skin on Phillip’s burns?” Mum asked. “What would happen to Philippa if you did that?”
“Nein, nein, nichts dergleichen. Nothing so crude. A skin graft is not a good solution. It improves the appearance of course, but the results are much less than perfect. With no other option, I would consider it though, with skin from Phillip’s body rather than Philippa’s. What I wish to propose is so much better though, so much more effective.
“You are aware there is a small amount of healing whenever Phillip transforms? I have pondered on this, and it seems to me that the only way in which this can occur s if there is some transfer of cells between bodies at the moment of change.”
“But wouldn’t the transfer go both ways? If I pass healthy cells changing in one direction, wouldn’t I pass injured ones switching back?” I asked.
“It is a good question, and there is much we don’t know about this process. We do not know, for instance, where the boundary of transference exists.”
“I may have some information on that doctor. I had grit in my wounds after the last adventure, which I tried to clean off as Phillipa. I didn’t quite get it all. I took photographs.”
“These I would very much like to see, and perhaps they will offer evidence to support my current theory. It seems to me that you have only experienced injury as Phillip, and it is only your larger form that has been healed. I believe that, perhaps because of the change in your size, when you change into Phillipa, some of the cells are lost, and when you change back new ones are created.”
“I thought my bodies sort of phased in and out to a different dimension or something.”
“I thought so too for a while, but I believe it is more complex than this…”
“How much longer are we going to listen to this rubbish?” Dad was in bull mode again.
“Doctor, could you sum up please?”
“The short version is that I have discovered a way to alter my machine very slightly. It will permit one time only for all of Phillip’s skin to be replaced with cells created from Philippa’s DNA. You will have the unusual genetic makeup of XX chromosomes in your dermis, but XY elsewhere.
“Because Phillip and Philippa grew together for the first six years of their combined lives, there will be no issue with tissue rejection. This I have tested and it is certain. Your injured skin will be gone, and because you have not yet begun to form scar tissue, the skin that replaces it will be whole and healthy.”
“And it will be a girl’s skin,” I finished for him.
“How would that fit?” Mum asked. “I mean, the size and shape are so different.”
“The shape would be the same, Mum. I wouldn’t be getting a copy of Philippa’s actual skin, but a copy of her cells replacing my own. Doctor, you did say this would be a little unusual. What would you expect to be different?”
“It is difficult to anticipate the degree of change. For certain you would have the texture of a girl’s skin. There would be very little hair, it would be smoother, softer, perhaps not so thick. It is likely there would be some cosmetic changes to your face also.”
“What sort of cosmetic changes?”
“These I cannot predict. Bone structure gives much to the shape of the face, but the dermis affects it too.”
“You’re avoiding the question doctor.”
“Not so. Simply attempting to explain. There is a good chance your face will resemble an adult Philippa more than Phillip.”
“You’re talking about making my son look like a woman!” Dad wasn’t impressed, but then I think he’d long since decided not to be. “Isn’t it bad enough that you’ve messed about with him so that he turns into a girl now? You want to do more?”
“I only seek a way of giving Phillip back a body without scars. This would achieve it.”
“By making him look like a girl.”
“Again, I cannot say at this stage how much his appearance would be changed. The texture would be smoother, this is for definite, and he would have no facial hair. The rest, I have no way of predicting.”
“And if he comes out looking more girl than boy?”
“Then hormone therapy might help, Dad. I’ve seen female to male transexuals who look remarkably masculine after taking testosterone. That would work, wouldn’t it doctor.”
“Perhaps not. It would be dangerous to have too great an amount of testosterone in your system, and your body already produces enough.”
“Which means that the problem might correct itself.”
“Might is a good word. You must remember, this is not a matter of simply being a man or a woman who takes hormones. Your body will be genetically male, and your skin genetically female. This has not occurred before now, and your body has already adapted so that your female cells and male cells can coexist.”
“You are not going to do this.” Dad had risen back onto his feet, his fists clenched. “I am not letting you at my son again.”
“It’s not your call, Dad. I’m sixteen, which means I’m old enough to consent to my own treatment. Stacey, what do you think?”
“Now you ask me?”
“It was a mistake not to the other night. I can’t change that, but I don’t want to mess up again.”
“Don’t worry, I expect you will eventually. As for this, I’m not deciding for you.”
“No. I’ll decide, but I want your input. I mean, I don’t know how long things will last between us. I’m hoping a long time, maybe a lifetime. On the off-chance that we do work out, would you prefer to spend most of your life waking up to this,” Phil face, “or this?” I changed into Philippa.
“What will you do if you end up looking more like a girl than a boy?”
“Wearing a dress is no big deal. This is the twenty-first century after all. How do you feel about dating someone who looks more like a girl than a boy?”
“Like you said, this is the twenty-first century. I could get used to having a girlfriend, as long as she kept a certain souvenir from her previous life.”
“I can’t believe I’m listening to this,” Dad had a few prominent veins showing. He turned to Mum. “Are you going to let him do this?”
“It’s as he said, he’s old enough to make his own mind up now. Personally, I wouldn’t mind having another woman around the house.”
“What about your rugby?” he asked.
“Not a game I’ve ever enjoyed that much, Dad. Besides, as long as Phil is on MI5’s most wanted list, he’s not going to be able to play in any case. If I end up looking enough like a girl, I might give cheer leading a try.” The last was an intentional dig because he was being such a pain, but it backfired and I ended up feeling more guilt than pleasure at the way he winced.
“Yes, this also is true. To make this change would help with the trouble Phillip has with the authorities.” Wiesner attempted to regain control of the conversation. “It is very likely that the the change to his appearance will be sufficient that he will not look a great deal like his old self.”
“What’s the time constraint on this, doctor?” Sally asked. “How long does Phillip have to decide?”
“I feel the decision must be now. While Phillip is present in this world, his body will begin growing scar tissue. Because you have spent much of the previous two days as Philippa, this has not yet progressed far, but you will from necessity turn to Phillip for some hours every night. The longer you wait, the less effective the treatment will be. If you are agreeable, little one, I would take you to my lab straight away.”
I raised my eyebrows in Stacey’s direction.
“I’m sticking with you either way,” she said. There was something in the back of her eyes though, something more obvious to me now I was in Philippa mode.
“Okay doc, let’s do it.” -oOo-
It felt odd being back in Dr Wiesner’s lab, surrounded by all the tubes and wires, with his enormous machine humming against the back wall. A ghost of my previous fears drifted through me and I gave Threads a reassuring hug.
“Do not worry, Liebchen. I have been very thorough with my preparations. Dr Sellers has checked my calculations and confirmed they are correct. Nothing will go wrong today.”
“I’m not sure that’s what I’m worried about doctor. I’m a little scared of what happens if everything goes right. This is my best option, isn’t it?”
“I believe so, little one. Whatever else happens, you will have a normal life as Philippa to look forward to, but you do not wish to start this yet, hein? You wish to be Phillip for your Freundin, your girlfriend?
“So, for her you have only a few choices. You can allow your body to recover as far as it is able. It will look better than it does now, but there will be a great deal of scarring and once it is formed, there will be little anyone can do to change it. You can have a skin graft with healthy skin from elsewhere on your body. You have seen how this looks, and it is also better than now, but not good. Lastly, Your third option is available to you only because of your unique condition. It will give you a normal face, but how much it will resemble a girl’s cannot be predicted.”
“You’re not going to try and influence things one way or the other, are you?”
“You still find it hard to trust. Perhaps this is a good thing, little one. Distrust permits you to question that which others take for granted, and in this lies a great deal of wisdom and new understanding. To answer your question, I have no way of influencing this process. It will be as much a surprise to me how you appear after.
“There, we are ready. Permit me to take from you your Teddybär. The treatment will not take long.”
I passed Threads over, complete with his hidden secrets.
“You remember that this is best done without clothes?”
I’d already changed into one of those ridiculous backless hospital gowns, so there wasn’t a lot of dignity to lose.
“And I will need you to begin as Phillip.”
I stripped off the gown, transforming as I did so, and climbed up onto the treatment couch.
“If you recall from your previous visits, there will be some flashing lights and noise, then you will lose sensation in your body. This is normal. It will last only a few seconds, but because you have not sensation, it may seem longer. In the past, I recommended you count backwards from ten, but this is a more extensive treatment which will take longer, so start at one hundred and we shall see if you can reach zero before the procedure is concluded.”
I lay back and waited. The promised flashes and bangs came and went and very abruptly I was floating in darkness and silence. I couldn’t feel anything except a kernel of panic growing deep inside me.
“One-hundred,” I started. “Ninety-nine, ninety-eight. Come on Phil, you wouldn’t be able to feel panic without an adrenal gland, would you? Ninety-seven…”
It occurred to me that if the good doctor had been sufficiently angry with the stunt I’d pulled during our previous outing, this would be an easy way to get his revenge. If my vague understanding of how the machine worked was even half right, I didn’t have a body in the real world right now, and there was nothing to say Wiesner had to make one reappear…
Why was it my paranoia about the guy only surfaced when I was no longer in a position to do anything about it? Top of the Wexler building, bottom of a ventilation shaft in some secret military research bunker, now in limbo in the middle of nowhere.
I’d wanted Stacey here with me, but Dad had promised her mum she’d be home that evening at a reasonable time. Mum could have come, but Dad insisted she go home with them. No sensible reason just an ultimatum. Dad can be quite the Neanderthal sometimes, and Mum’s not modern enough to stand up to him, at least not when he’s in a proper strop.
Uncle Mike and Aunt Sally had appointments they couldn’t break for the following day, which meant I was on my own. With the decision made and not much else to discuss, Mum, Dad and Stacey soon took their leave and headed for home. Wiesner was eager to be on the road too, so Sally had packed me an overnight bag and she and Mike had waved me off. What had possessed me to bring Threads, I cannot fathom. He was a source of much needed company and comfort, but all Doc Wiesner needed to was give him an accidental prod in the wrong place and he’d have all he needed. Perhaps he already had, in which case, why bother bringing me back from wherever I was?
A light flickered into existence in front of my eyes. The machine gave out a disconcertingly loud bang which sent a scattering of terrified memories through my mind even as the return of my senses flooded me with relief. I could feel the hardness of the treatment couch under my back and let out a long breath. It turns out sometimes paranoia is just paranoia.
The tightness had gone from my skin. I lifted my arms so I could see them. Smooth as alabaster and pale as a ghost, slightly slimmer than they had been with long slender fingers. It was like looking at someone else’s hands, except they responded to my commands. I lifted them up to my face — also unsurprisingly smooth. My nose felt smaller and my lips bigger, fatter. I needed a mirror.
I sat up wincing at the ache in my chest. Something felt off. I looked down. Oookaay. That was new.
“Doctor, why do I have boobs?”
“What was that?” The doctor’s head appeared around the door. “Mein Gott!”
I slid off the couch moving slowly, careful not to aggravate the pain in my ribs. I didn’t feel any weaker, which I guess made sense. It was my skin that had been replaced after all, not my muscles. I did feel a little lighter, and oddly off balance courtesy of the jigglies on my chest.
The doctor’s point of focus was lower than I would have anticipated. I self consciously moved a hand in front of my groin and his eyes rose a couple of feet.
“A little further, doc.”
He lifted his gaze upwards another foot, meeting my eyes at last. To be fair to him, I couldn’t see any more in his expression than surprise and curiosity.
“I wouldn’t mind something to wear, doctor, and a mirror would be good.”
“Of course.” He disappeared for a second, returning with a thin, cotton dressing gown in his hands, which he thrust in my general direction, keeping his eyes averted. It didn’t help much against the cold, but I felt better with my modesty covered.
“Mirror?” I prompted.
“Er, yes. This way.” He indicated I should follow and led me across the lab to an appropriately marked door.
The smell of soap and aftershave triggered memories from my youth. The place appeared larger in my mind, but it was still a fair size. More a shower room of the sort you’d find in any modern home than a public convenience, it contained all the pieces of porcelain you’d expect and still had enough room for both of us to enter without feeling cramped.
A fair sized mirror hung over the sink, large enough for me to see my entire upper body. I could understand why the doctor had been so shocked; I did not look like Phil anymore.
My new breasts dominated, drawing the eye. I pulled my dressing gown tighter and concentrated on my face. I’d been wrong about the nose. It looked about the same size, if perhaps a little slimmer. My lips had a natural pout to them, presenting a distinct Cupid’s bow, and my skin was smooth and unblemished, like a baby’s. Hints of Phil showed, but only enough to suggest we were related, never that we were the same person. Even with my short and distinctly masculine haircut, there was no way I could have passed for a boy.
It was surreal watching this attractive girl matching my movements in the mirror. I felt detached and light headed and oddly excited. You’d have thought I’d be used to this sort of thing by now with changing into Philippa, but this was different. Before now I’d always had the option to change back, but this was who I was now. I thought about my mates in the rugby team, how differently they’d react around me now, how freaked out they’d be if a change like this happened to them. Okay, from my point of view there was considerable relief that I no longer had the burns, but there was so much more. There was a very real sense here of coming home, of things having been not quite right for a very long time, before Philippa even. Philippa had been an improvement, but this was like the last piece of a jigsaw fitting into place.
“So, how do you think I ended up with these, doc?” I cupped my two newest acquisitions. I didn’t know how to gauge sizes of such things, but they definitely more than filled my new slender hands.
“I have no clue, Phillip. I will have to investigate. I must say, you are handling this very well.”
“It’s kind of what we expected, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps, but not to this extent. I had thought the results would be more androgynous. This is quite a surprise.”
“A good one though,” I said. “I mean there’s no way the authorities will recognise me now.”
“This is for certain.”
“It feels right, doctor. Decidedly odd, but right. What you gave me in the first place, with the Phillip/Philippa thing, was the ability to be either one thing or the other, either male or female, but inside I’ve realised I’m not either one, I’m both. This way I get to be both at the same time without anyone being freaked out about it.
“Except maybe my parents, and I have no idea how Stacey will react to this.”
“You will find, I think, that your girlfriend is in love with the part of you that resides here,” he prodded my head, “and here,” he pointed cautiously between my breasts. “What is on the outside is sometimes a challenge, but you already have seen how she rose to the news of your disfigurement. She is aware that further changes are to be expected, that in place of your scars will be a different appearance. In this you were wise to include her in your decision to undergo the treatment. She may be shocked by the extent of your transformation, but I believe she will stand by you. Strong relationships are formed in adversity, and you two have already experienced enough for your roots to reach deep.
“Your mother said she has always wanted a daughter. She will need a little time to adjust, but she will be content, I think. Perhaps your greatest challenge will be in telling your father.”
“You’re not wrong there. It’s his birthday next weekend too. Happy birthday Daddy.”
“If I might offer a suggestion, perhaps this would not be a good thing to tell him on his birthday.”
“I wasn’t planning to, but I’m not sure when I’m going to have an opportunity beforehand. This is hardly something you announce over the phone.”
“We will have time tomorrow. It is a long way, but I can take you to your parents’ house before returning you to your aunt and uncle.”
“What if you-know-who is still watching? They’re after you as well you know?”
“I am aware. However I do not need to approach the house. You could do so in your new form.”
“Yeah! Wouldn’t that be a great way to tell them? Besides, I have nothing to wear.”
Wiesner bit down on an amused smile. “As I say, we have much time tomorrow. We can purchase for you some clothes, find a hairdresser to see what may be done with this,” he indicated my short back and sides. “We do not have to do any of these things. Perhaps you have another thing in mind.”
“I’m not sure I’d be confident shopping on my own. Besides, what would I wear going into the shops?”
“If you wish, we could prevail upon the good nature of Dr Sellers. I imagine there will be some of Jamie’s clothes at her home, and I feel that, at the very least, I owe you a new wardrobe.”
“I guess it’s a plan. I’d like to talk to you more about Deus ex before we go anywhere.”
“Then it is settled. Tonight we will travel to Miriam’s house, tomorrow morning you may talk to us both as much as you wish about the foundation, and afterwards Miriam will take you to the shops before I drive you to your home to speak to your parents, and perhaps your girlfriend. This is a plan?”
“How far away does Dr Sellers live? It’s getting kind of late.”
“She is waiting for a call from me to learn how tonight’s venture progressed. I think she will be pleased to see first hand. She does not live so far away. Perhaps a little more than thirty minutes.”
“Alright. Where are my clothes?”
He fetched them for me and left me to get changed. With only the singlet on, I tried changing into my new other self and didn’t care much for the result. The material stretched to accommodate my new anatomy, but what showed through the thin material could not be described as suitable for public viewing, especially the bulge between my legs. I switched back to Philippa and slipped the dress over my head.
“I think the singlet’s going to need a little work doctor. My nipples show through the material, and it doesn’t hide anything down here.” I pointed at my groin.
“I will give it some thought. Miriam has said we are welcome. There will be food when we arrive, I hope this will be suitable.”
“I think I can survive for half an hour. Can I have Threads please?”
“My bear?” I pointed to the high shelf where he’d put it out of the way. I could have transformed and reached it, but not without taking off my dress and giving Wiesner an eyeful of what I’d just described.
He lifted it down and gave it to me. A quick hug reassured me that the capsule was still there and, as far as I could tell, in the same place. If he’d found it and removed the drive, he’d been thorough about putting things back exactly the way they were.
Once we were in the car and underway, Wiesner glanced over at me. “We have some things to discuss. Perhaps you would be willing to do so as we drive?”
“Sure. What did you have in mind?” I thought I knew. I was at least partly wrong.
“You will wish to return to your proper family now, I think. As matters stand, the authorities are searching for Phillip without making his escape public, your father has been convincing in his assertion that he believes you still to be incarcerated. Before this matter is resolved, there needs to be evidence either of Phillip’s death or his escape from the country.”
“Perhaps we should have done something about that before fixing me up.”
“It was imperative that your transformation be done at the earliest time, before your body was able to develop even a little scar tissue. No, there are ways to manufacture the evidence we need, but I must ask your preference in this matter.”
“Phillip’s never coming back after this makeover. If the powers that be think I escaped, they’ll keep an eye on my parents, and that wouldn’t be great.”
“I agree. So Phillip sadly will die. The authorities will have to admit this has happened, and manufacture whatever fiction they think will bring them the least aggravation from your family. It will require your parents and your girlfriend to perform a little theatre. Mourning, sadness, a funeral.”
“I get that. I’ll talk to them about it all tomorrow.”
“It will seem unusual if your parents were to change the habits of their lives very soon after the death of their son, so there will have to be a delay before you are able to return. Perhaps six moths or a year. You will have to remain as Philippa for this period under the care of your aunt and uncle.”
“That’s a long time.”
“It cannot be helped. However, I will attempt to make this period easier to endure.”
“There are ways. Your girlfriend is too young to drive still, but perhaps she can be offered a weekend job with a live in position. This will explain to her parents and anyone watching why she is away from her home at weekends. If the job is a fiction and instead she is brought to a flat near to your uncle and aunt’s home, which I will provide, then you will be able to spend weekends together. Long distance relationships are a good test of the strength of commitment, so it will work out for you or not.”
“That’s a generous offer.”
“I feel I owe you a great deal, Phillip.”
“You still don’t have everything you need to complete your plan.”
“No, but I believe you would not have withheld this without reason. You are, in some ways, a moral compass to me.
“When the time of mourning is over, we will manufacture a pretext for you to return home.”
“I’ll be seventeen this year, and looking at sixth form in September. There’s a decent college near home, so maybe if Mum and Dad let out my old room, I could live there as their lodger.”
“This had not occurred to me, and could work very well. It would reduce the delay before you return to your home.
“You will need a life history. This is something we can provide for you. Once you have decided on a name, we will create the documents for you.”
“Slight problem. If I’m going to go to college, I’m going to need GCSEs. I’m not going to be able to study for them at primary school.”
“Allow me to think on this. We provided you with tutors before now, perhaps we can do so again. If Philippa is a little precocious, perhaps there will be reason to have you withdrawn from at least some of your lessons at school. Depending on your aunt and uncle, we may be able to arrange for you to be home schooled.”
“Both Mike and Sally work, so that would be a bit of a hard sell.”
“There are things that can be done. So, we arrange for Phillip to meet his demise, we prepare you to take your GCSEs this year, we give your new persona an identity, we arrange for your girlfriend to come to you at weekends until you are ready to return to your parents as a lodger. I believe this is enough for now, unless you can think of anything else?”
“Not at the moment.”
“Well, you know how to contact me so, as and when you think of something, you will let me know, yes?”
“Sure.” I’d had the doctor’s number in my phone under an alias since the first boot camp.
Conversation lapsed and we drove in silence for ten minutes before I cracked.
“What about the vials and the data I stole?”
“The vials I have, and they are stored safely until you are ready. The data is still in your possession and will remain with you also until you are ready.”
“How long will the contents of those vials remain viable, doctor?”
“They are like viruses, so not living. They can survive in the vials for some months or perhaps years. I took samples from each of the two vials and have dessicated and frozen them. There is a small possibility that this process may have caused damage, but if not, they will last for decades.”
“Well, assuming you’d rather not take any unnecessary risks, that realistically means you’ll want this resolved by the end of the summer.”
“Yes, but this should be time enough. As for deliberations over such important matters, they are best left for a time when your head is clearer. I imagine you are tired. Try to sleep. I have matters of my own to consider. I will wake you when we arrive.” -oOo-
“Here we are.”
I fought blearily for consciousness. It didn’t feel like more than a few seconds had passed since I’d snuggled into the seat and closed my eyes, but the scenery was quite different, and we were slowing, pulling up into a driveway. I still held Threads in my arms; I gave him a quick reassuring squeeze.
My door opened and Miriam smiled down at me. “Come on in. Henning, you’ll bring the bags. I’ve some food in the dining room. It’s only sandwiches and biscuits I’m afraid, but you didn’t give me much warning.”
I followed her blearily into a beautifully appointed hallway, and from there to a dinning room set with the promised goodies.
“Don’t be shy. I know you’re hungry. Tuck in. Would you like some fruit juice? I have apple or orange.”
“Apple please,” I said piling my plate high.
Miriam poured a glass of clear amber liquid and handed it to me. “You always were hungry after the treatments. I imagine they take quite a lot out of you.”
“I didn’t eat much of my dinner yesterday either.”
Wiesner joined us and we ate in silence. I was the last to finish, having eaten twice as much as either of them.
“Your other self will be hungry also,”Wiesner said, “and I know Miriam will be interested to see what our activities tonight have achieved. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind?”
I was suddenly self-conscious. “I’m not sure…”
“It’s alright, dear. We’ve both seen you naked before now.”
I’m not sure how that was supposed to make things alright, but since they were asking for it, I stripped off my dress and…
“Oh my word! Oh good God!!”
Miriam’s first exclamation had been a first impression, her second a response to what was shoeing through the singlet. Wiesner had spun around to face the wall, but I could still see hints of beetroot between his collar and his hair. Miriam dashed out of the room, returning a moment later with a lightweight floral robe, which she helped me put on. By then I was halfway through my third sandwich, having discovered that the new me was indeed ravenously hungry.
“We are going to have to do something about that, dear.”
“I know. I tried to tell you.”
“Easily fixed. Henning, do you have any more of these singlets with you? I’ll need at least two”
Dr Wiesner opened my overnight bag and found a couple inside, which he handed over wordlessly. His colour had improved, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes.
I managed to limit myself to the three sandwiches and one biscuit. Hunger still gnawed away at my innards, but it was bearable, and I’d eaten as much as I needed if not wanted. A yawn took me by surprise.
“Bed then, both of you. Henning, you’re in the guest room. You know where that is, don’t you? Philippa, I’ve put you in Jamie’s room. If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you where everything is. When you wake up, have a look through her wardrobe and see if there’s anything in there you like. Breakfast will be when everyone’s awake. My word but you turned out well. You don’t mind looking like this, do you?”
I shook my head, but I was out of words for the day. I managed to stay upright for long enough to brush my teeth and empty my bladders — both Phil’s and Philippa’s. I stayed as my little self and climbed into bed with Threads still clutched tightly in my hands. I don’t remember my head touching the pillow. -oOo-
I woke with Philippa’s plumbing sounding off its early morning alarm. In the time it took me to ablute and make my way back to the bedroom, Miriam had found time to go in ahead of me and dig out a few things.
She held up a navy blue dress made of some stretchy fabric for my inspection. “What do you think? Jamie never much cared for it, and I think it’s more your colour. I did what I could with the singlet,” she indicated a significantly altered piece of clothing on the chair by the bed. “It’s a long way from perfect and no substitute for a decent bra, but you’re quite a bit bigger than Jamie, so I don’t think we’d be able to squeeze you into one of her old ones. I’ll just go downstairs and get breakfast started. Give us a yell if you get into any difficulty.”
She was gone before I could say anything. Somewhat bemused, I set about looking through the stuff she’d left me. It seemed sensible to dress as my big self to make sure everything fit properly, so I slipped out of the singlet I’d worn through the night and changed.
I found an unopened packet of tights under the altered singlet. I’d wasn’t used to tights as Philippa, having worn socks for the most part. These looked about half the size they needed to be, but they were good and stretchy, so I shrugged and got on with it.
Television doesn’t leave you having to imagine much these days, and such mundane things as how women get dressed did make up part of my extracurricular education, so the whole process of bunch them up slide them on didn’t phase me. What did take me by surprise was the delicious cool sensation of wearing a second skin brought me. I arranged my meat and two veg as best I could, then stepped into the singlet. The legs were gone, cut off and hemmed, so the bottom half fit more like underwear than anything. The arms were the same length, so just over the elbow in my larger form. A second band of material had been sewn into the top part, providing extra thickness and extra support. It was tight, but not uncomfortable. Lastly, the Miriam had converted the remaining material from the other garment into a full skirt sewn on just above the hips and falling in generous folds down to about mid thigh.
I had a look in the wardrobe mirror and couldn’t help smiling. It wasn’t exactly conventional for outside wear, but it could do at a pinch. The hair was wrong still, but there was not a sign of masculinity there. I twisted about, examining myself from every angle, then had a quick rummage through the contents of the wardrobe before accepting that the blue dress was the best of Jamie’s cast offs. It slid over everything else I was wearing, and after a twitch or two, looked just right.
All I needed now was shoes and a purse.
Downstairs, Wiesner was working his way through a pile of the best grease and cholesterol a British kitchen can produce. Miriam was busy plunging a cafetiere. She paused when she caught sight of me.
“Oh yes. We’re going to have to do something with your hair as a matter of urgency, but you look lovely.”
Philippa was the one who always got those compliments. Somehow it was different as Phil. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had said something nice to me in Phil mode, and this felt like something I’d been missing. I felt a blush climb up my face.
“Coffee? Or fruit juice. Same choice as yesterday.”
“Orange would be good, thanks.” I still wasn’t too keen on the smell of coffee, so hadn’t tried it yet.
I sat as a large fried breakfast landed on the table in front of me.
“Is this to share?” I asked.
Miriam laughed. “I may have been a little overzealous. Leave what you don’t want.” The orange juice appeared next to the plate. I tucked in.
It turned out I was hungrier than I’d thought. I emptied two thirds of the plate before putting down my knife and fork. I’d always enjoyed a fast metabolism and hoped that things hadn’t changed in that regard. I sipped at what remained of my orange juice, clearing my palate.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Miriam said as she removed my plate from in front of me, “but I took the liberty of making an appointment at my local hairdresser. I told her it was an emergency for a friend, and she’s agreed to work through her morning coffee break. She’s expecting us at about ten-thirty, so we have an hour or so before we have to leave. I think it would be best to do the clothes shopping once she’s done what she can for you. So that gives us an hour to answer your questions. I think we’d be more comfortable in the lounge, so…” She indicated the door and I preceded her and Wiesner out of the kitchen and into a comfortable little room overflowing with shabby chic furniture. I settled onto one of the overstuffed armchairs and let them arrange themselves where the wanted.
“I don’t actually have any questions for you. What I would like is to meet more people from Deus ex Machina. I hope you’ll excuse my paranoia, but so far the only evidence I have that Deus ex even exists is conversations I’ve had with the two of you. You could have made the whole thing up to convince me to help you.”
Wiesner and Dr Sellers exchanged looks. Wiesner answered.
“I am proud of you. You are thinking more and accepting less, which is the beginning of awakening. However, there is a flaw in your thinking. If we were to arrange for you to meet with a number of people, how would you know they were members of a secret organisation and not actors paid by us to convince you?”
“I probably wouldn’t, not if they were decent actors. That goes for pretty much anything that’ll take time to set up. I need you to show me evidence without having time to arrange it first.”
“How do you propose we do that?”
“Deus ex is a global organisation, which means there’s always going to be someone on-line, yeah?”
“You have that communications app on your phone, I imagine you both do.”
“I think I understand what you wish. Will you sit here on the sofa with Miriam and I on either side? Miriam, you will need your phone.”
She retrieved it from her handbag while I changed seats. They sat either side of me and tapped in a complex sequence of codes on their respective devices. Both of them opened up a plain chat window. White text on black background with a grey-green border. No logo, standard looking keyboard at the bottom. I looked at Wiesner expectantly.
“This may not appear all that impressive on the surface, but underneath it is a masterpiece of engineering. This application is built into the hardware of the phone. If you were to search for it, you would not find it, and it can only be activated by the complex sequences you saw Miriam and myself entering.
“Deus ex has a team of technicians who’s primary role within the organisation is maintenance of the infrastructure. There is a part of the team responsible for constructing and distributing the modified phones to all members.
“Each phone is authorised for only one user. Anyone can use it as an ordinary phone, but when this application is running, it regularly checks the fingerprints of whoever is typing and if does not recognise them, it unloads from memory. If there is no typing for a short period of time, a pixel will light up. You see there?” A single pixel had indeed just lit up. “If the authorised user does not touch the screen within five seconds, the application unloads from memory.” He touched the screen and the pixel went dark. “The application learns the the typing style of the authorised user over time, and if there is too abrupt a change, it unloads from memory.”
“There was me thinking I was the one with paranoia,” I said.
“There is more. Whatever is typed in here, the application first encrypts then hides using steganography — you understand, to hide data inside another file? It then connects to one of a number of legitimate chat servers that have been hacked by programmers from Deus Ex. The servers continue to operate as intended, but they also check incoming messages with attached files for hidden data. When they find it, they divert the messages to a program running on the dark web.
“Deus ex has a number of dark web servers, which permit us to monitor and interfere with certain illegal activities. The communications program this connects with is diffused over the cloud between them all. This means that if one or two of the servers cease operating for any reason, the rest are able to continue without interruption until new servers can be set up.”
“Wow.” I said.
“Now, if you look here,” he clicked the single three bar icon at the top of the screen and chose a menu option, “you will see all the topics currently under discussion, listed by priority.”
World population increase was about fourth down underneath Foreign government interference through social media, Resurgence of fascism in Europe and Industrial pollution from China and Korea. Because of the long topic names, there wasn’t room for much else but scroll bar suggested there were quite a few.
The pixel appeared again and Wiesner touched the screen. He then tapped on the World population topic and a familiar chat window appeared. No names, only numbers. Wiesner typed in ‘#priority conference’ and pressed enter. It was prefixed with the number 73791.
“Over seventy thousand members?”
“Perhaps, but it is not so simple. Numbers are not reused and there are a many members who are no longer with us. Also easily recognised numbers with multiple repeated digits are reserved for administrative users and have not all been assigned. I estimate there were about fifty or sixty thousand active members when Miriam arranged for me to be invited twenty three years ago, and there have been perhaps another twenty to twenty-five thousand added since then, so there are between seventy and eighty-five thousand today.”
“That’s a lot.”
I glanced over at Dr Sellers’ screen which matched Wiesner’s. The number of people in the chat had been steadily increasing while we talked. There were about seventy in the session but the rate at which they were joining had started to slow. Wiesner started typing.
‘Miriam and I have previously suggested a future member for DeM.’
The message appeared in the main window, substituting the number 70229 for Dr Sellers’ name.
“The app will not permit names, but you can preset some aliases,” Wiesner chipped in.
‘43166: The sixteen year old with special abilities? It was decided he was too young.’
Weisner responded. It was hard to see past his fingers as he typed so I looked to Dr Sellers’ screen.
‘73791: His training and use in missions was approved, as was informing him of the existence of DeM if necessary. It has become necessary, and now he requires proof beyond my words. He is with me now.’
Several web addresses appeared on the screens, which split into two halves, the lower half opening the phone’s browser and loading each link into a separate tab. The one I could see seemed to be a conspiracy theory website.
‘52199: Not possible to hide completely, so we leak some data to sites where poor reputation means the information will not be taken seriously by anyone who might threaten us. These are some DeM activities from the past two decades. If you look, you will see a pattern.’
“That’s not proof,” I said. Wiesner typed in my words verbatim.
‘88211: Can’t give you proof. If you had it, you could pass it on to anyone, including those who wouldn’t be happy to know we existed.’
‘95941: What do u know about 73791. What resources does he have? How do you think he’s funded?’
It still wasn’t proof, but it was compelling evidence.
“I want to see what you’ve discussed about the world population problem.”
Again Wiesner typed it in, substituting ‘Agent wants’ at the beginning.
‘20012: Not happy with this. Too much exposure.’
‘73791: Agent requires compelling evidence before continuing assistance. I need this. Request limited time access to transcripts from my phone only.’
‘20012: #vote50: Y-approved, N-not approved.’
Brackets appeared next to each option and steadily climbing numbers in each. The number after Y-approved climbed faster than the other until it reached thirty-nine and the other eleven. The final result flashed a couple of times and was still. Underneath a new line formed. ‘78% approved from 50 votes. Action approved.’
‘20012: Anything further?’
“Can you give me the names of any former members of Deus ex?”
Wiesner passed on my request.
‘21952: You would be unable to verify the information. We could tell you what we thought you wanted to hear in order to impress you, but this would be dishonest.’
‘98225: You won’t have heard of most of us anyway.’
Fair enough. Probably as good an answer as I could have hoped for. Wiesner looked at me.
“I think I’m good.”
‘73791: Propose multiple face to face encounter in three months.’
Miriam tapped away briefly.
‘20012: #bgdvote5000: Y-approved, N-not approved.’
‘73791: Nothing further.’
The number of people in the chat dwindled rapidly until just three remained. I assumed Wiesner and Sellers were two of them. The other…
The five fives appeared again with an obscure link starting with an ip address. The web browser on Wiesner’s phone opened a new tab.
‘55555: Link active for thirty minutes.’
The number in the chat dropped to two then one as Wiesner double tapped his screen and the Deus ex chat application closed leaving only the web browser. He handed me the phone.
“Read the transcript first. Thirty minutes is not long, and you will have no longer. At the end of the alloted time, the link to the web page will be broken and the cache wiped on this phone.”
“We’ll leave you to it,” Miriam said, standing. “I’m going to put the kettle on. I don’t know if you’d like a cup of tea? I have some ginger and lemon if you don’t like the normal brew.”
Not something I’d ever tried before. I decided to give it a go.
For half an hour I read through an in depth discussion on the problems of world population. Hundreds of different members had contributed, covering ideas I’d never have considered. There was a lot of it and I’d managed to skim read my way through maybe ninety percent of it when the page turned blank. I looked up.
“Thirty minutes precisely,” Wiesner said from the doorway. “It was enough?”
The promised cup of tea sat on a coaster in front of me, untouched and now cold. I hadn’t even noticed when it arrived.
“Yeah. I mean I didn’t finish it, but I managed to read enough to be convinced.”
“We have perhaps twenty minutes before you must leave for the hairdresser. This should be enough time to read through the other websites.”
It was. On the surface it seemed like the usual paranoid rubbish you’d expect from that sort of organisation, but there was an underlying sameness to the different reports. The sort of thing that had been done in each case, the way it had been done, the resources used, the lack of evidence. I was done reading by the time Miriam appeared carrying a bundle of assorted stuff.
“We should go, dear. I don’t want to end up in Marjorie’s bad books.”
“My hairdresser. I didn’t think to ask what your shoe size was. You look a little larger than me, but I think these might fit at a pinch.”
She dug a pair of flats out of the bundle and passed them to me. They were more pinch than fit, but would do until I could find something better. The rest of the bundle consisted of a coat and handbag, both, like the shoes, in shades of blue that complemented the dress. I accepted them and followed her out to her car. -oOo-
Marjorie was amazing. She wanted to know what had happened, of course. I told her I was done with the whole tomboy thing. She arched her eyebrows at which point I shrugged and mumbled something about she’d never believe me if I told her. Which, fortunately, was enough for her. She indicated the seat and after thirty minutes of fussing and snipping, including some weird thing she did with foil and something that smelled awful, I was the proud owner of a short pixie cut which made me look like I’d been dragged through a hedge backwards. It was a highly sculpted and stunningly flattering dragged-through-the-hedge-backwards look though, which somehow made the figure she rang up on the register seem justified.
Next visit was a nearby shoe shop where my feet were transferred into a pair of cheap flats that fit. At size eight, my feet were just inside the large end of the normal scale for women’s shoes, which restricted my choice a little, but not much.
The rest of the morning slid into the afternoon by the time we were done. I hated to think how much everything had cost, I mean the hair appointment had been eye-opening enough, and as for the cost of bras!!! It was incentive to make sure I worked hard at school though, because I was going to need a serious income if I hoped to maintain a lifestyle like this.
Back at Miriam’s we packed my booty into a couple of suitcases she assured us she didn’t need anymore. I changed out of the blue dress and into a burgundy skater dress which worked better with my new hair. Pretty much everything we’d bought had been dresses skirts and blouses. In part so that the modified singlet would go under them, and in part to give me a better chance of hiding my little guy. Most of the skirts were short, about mid thigh, which meant if I changed into Philippa I wouldn’t end up tripping over them. Miriam added the blue dress to the packing, explaining that Jamie would never wear it. Threads was the last thing to go in, once I’d reassured myself that he was still holding onto our secret.
“Why don’t I take her to see her parents?” Miriam suggested over lunch. “There’s no sense in you risking exposure, Henning.”
He conceded the point. “I will go to your aunt and uncle’s house then,” he said. “We have a few matters to discuss, and I will be able to reassure them that all is well and you will be a little later than first anticipated. I will also take your new acquisitions. You should keep with your Philippa’s overnight bag for when she returns.”
Dr Sellers was considerably more vivacious a travelling companion. We kept a lively conversation going the whole way to my home. She talked quite freely about Jamie and the work she had done with Wiesner. She was a little more guarded when speaking of Deus ex, but spoke openly enough to convince me further of the existence and good intentions of the foundation. Certainly if she was making it up, she was a consummate actress and had an amazing imagination. She talked of Wiesner, too, with considerable affection, though she didn’t think they would ever have more than a professional relationship. I asked about Jamie’s dad, but she didn’t want to talk about him. The sour expression mentioning him brought to her face was enough to persuade me not to ask further. Apparently, he left shortly after Jamie was diagnosed.
We arrived in my old neighbourhood shortly after four-thirty. Dad wouldn’t be home yet, but I expected I’d find Mum there. It would be easier if I talked to her first. Miriam straightened my clothes and gave me a quick hug.
“Good luck,” she said. “I’ll wait in the car. Call me when you’re ready to go home.”
I added her number to my speed dials and turned towards my parents’ house. Feeling more nervous than I had in a long time, I walked up to the door and rang the bell. I had my opening lines all rehearsed and ready.
The door opened and my mind went blank. What on Earth was Agent Keen doing here?