Flip – 6 – Foundation

He threw me one of the singlets my dad had brought with my other clothes. I disappeared under the duvet, removed the shredded remains of my nightie, and slipped the elasticated garment on. I found a pair of ballet shoes and slipped them on too.

“Follow me,” he ordered, and walked out of the room without bothering to see if I was doing so.

“What about my uncle and aunt?” I asked as we descended the stairs.

“They will sleep a little late tomorrow, but it is Sunday, no? This is not so bad.”

“They’ll wonder where I am.”

“And perhaps call the police. This is of no consequence. We will be far from here by then, and it is unlikely the authorities will do anything before you have completed your task for me.”

“Where are we going?”

“So inquisitive. You never asked so many questions before.”

“I trusted you before.”

He laughed, loud enough to wake anyone who might be sleeping normally.

“What did you do to my aunt and uncle?”

“A simple sedative in the form of an aerosol.” He showed me a small handheld spray of the sort that might contain Mace or perhaps mouthwash. “They will wake in a few hours, perhaps feeling a little unbalanced, but nothing more. Whatever you may think of me, my friend, I am not a monster.”

“You’re not my friend either.”

“I’m sorry you feel this way.” He held the car door for me, and I climbed in. -oOo-

We drove in silence for half an hour. Being in Philippa mode, this didn’t sit well with me, so I broke it.

“So, are you going to tell me where we’re going or not?”

“It wouldn’t mean anything to you, I think.”

“So what’s the harm?”

He sighed. “It is a research laboratory in the countryside. This is all you need to know.”

“And what do you want me to steal?”

“Acquire,” he corrected me.

“Does it belong to you?” I asked.

“No…”

“Would they mind if you took it?”

“Yes of course, but…”

“Then it’s stealing, isn’t it? When you take something that doesn’t belong to you without the owner’s permission, that’s stealing.”

“This didn’t bother you before.”

“I don’t remember you being so pedantic about what we called it. Besides, back then I thought you were one of the good guys.”

“Well, if you wish to have a discussion on semantics, perhaps we should start with this word, yes? What to you is good?”

“Good is when you don’t hurt other people.”

“Ah, this is a very clear definition; very black and white, yes? So, there is a man with a gun and he is pointing it at a woman. You can prevent him from shooting, but not without hurting him. What is the good thing to do here?”

“Well, I, er…”

“You have heard, I think, the saying that in order for evil to triumph, it is necessary only for good men to do nothing?”

“Sure. Yes, okay, so I would stop him, even if it meant hurting him. “

“Good. But the man with the gun is wearing a police uniform, and the woman is holding something in her hand which you cannot see.”

“You tricked me. Of course I wouldn’t try to hurt a policeman. “

“Perhaps this is a trick, yes. Now you hear the woman shout out, ‘He isn’t really a cop,’ and she holds up what you now see is a police badge. “

“You’re trying to confuse me. “

“Exactly so, because it is necessary that you understand, sometimes it is not so easy to see who is the good guy and who is the bad.“

“You’re still trying to convince me you’re one of the good guys,” I said. “Like I told you earlier, good luck with that.”

“Not at all, my young friend – and please, I do still consider you my friend – it is my hope that you will lose your simplistic understanding of what is good or bad.”

I tried sulking, but that backfired on me. The doctor had no need to talk, whereas I still did.

“I still don’t get what you’re trying to say,” I blurted, when I couldn’t stand the silence any more.

“I think you do,” he answered infuriatingly. “Think about the scenario I gave you. Your response changed several times. Why was this?”

“You kept changing the scenario,” I responded, miffed.

“But I didn’t,” he said. “At first, there was a man pointing a gun at a woman. Then the man had on a police uniform, but still there was a man pointing a gun at a woman.”

He fell silent, glancing across at me expectantly. Whatever else I might think about Dr Wiesner, he was a good teacher, and like every good teacher, he knew that lessons were best learnt by the student working things out for himself.

I turned my mind to the problem. What had changed? Still feeling the need to talk, I spoke my thoughts as they came to me.

“In the third scenario the man was still pointing the gun at the woman, and he was still wearing the uniform…”

The doctor nodded his head encouragingly.

“… but the woman identified herself as a police officer and said that the man was an impostor.”

“So what changed?” Dr Wiesner asked after a few seconds silence.

“You gave me more information to work with.”

“Would you say you had enough information to decide how to act correctly the first time?”

“Well obviously not, because I changed my mind every time you told me something new.”

“Good. How easy was it to make the decision each new time?”

That wasn’t a question I’d expected, and it took me a few seconds to process it.

“I guess it got harder, but I don’t know why.”

“Perhaps each time you gained more information, you wondered more about what else you didn’t know?”

“So, at the end I was wondering if the woman’s badge was real, and if she might be lying about the man.”

“Exactly. So why was it so easy to make decisions the first time?”

“I really have no clue.”

“And this is understandable, so I will tell you. It is in our nature not to think when we react. You saw for yourself that it becomes harder to decide if you think about it first, and to survive you must often react quickly, so it is natural for us to respond to our instincts. This helped our primitive ancestors to survive, many times even if they were wrong. In the army officers are taught it is usually better to act even if you are not sure how, because not to act is most often the worst thing to do.

“It is a benefit of age that instinct becomes more refined, and perhaps a gift of the female mind that your intuition is often better than when you are a man. Even so, there are many automatic assumptions we make that are naturally wrong, and so, when we have time to consider, it is better that we use deliberate thought.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, take your situation for example. Is it a bad thing that you can turn from being a young man to being a girl?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Were you ever tempted to tell your friends at school?”

“No way!”

“Why not? If it is not a bad thing, why not tell them about it?”

“They’d freak out. Most probably wouldn’t recover. A few might make my life hell because of it.”

“Because they react on instinct. Because it is unusual, so they do not trust it. If they thought about it for a while, they would realise you are the same person, their friend, and they would come to understand that, even though this thing is different, it is not a terrible thing.

“Now take our current situation. You do not trust me now. Why is this?”

“You lied. You don’t work for NATO or Interpol. It brings into question your motives for everything we’ve done together.”

“This is a fair response, but if I had told you, at the outset, that I was no more than a private citizen, would you have done what I asked? Would your father have permitted me?”

“No,” I conceded, drawing the syllable out longer than it deserved.

“So, perhaps it was a mistake to tell the lie, but it was the only way I could be sure of gaining your trust, and that of your parents.”

“And of losing it once we found out.”

“Something I now regret, but a risk I felt was justified at the time. Another question. You did not tell the authorities much when you were captured. Why was this?”

“Because I didn’t trust them. I learnt that from you.”

“Yes, like our little game with the man and the woman, you learn to question what is right and what is wrong; you learn to question whether the authorities you have been taught to trust instinctively actually deserve this trust, no?”

I had intended my comment to be accusatory, and it annoyed me that he’d turned it into a complement.

“I learnt to question whether or not he was telling the truth; whether or not he was what he said he was.”

“This also is a good thing.” Again, he turned my thorny comments into roses. “Though this Agent Keen who spoke to you, he is actually an MI5 agent.”

“Our lawyer said as much.”

“Do you trust his motives?”

“No.” The admittance was grudgingly given.

“Good. Very good. Tell me why.”

I thought back to my original interrogation. “I think more than anything it was the mood machine thing from that first mission. For one thing they all but admitted it was them using the machine. I thought you said it was some greedy corporate exec using it to manipulate the market.”

“I could hardly admit to you who the real culprits were, could I? You trusted me because I claimed to be a member of respected organisations. If our first mission was to be against your country’s own official defence network, it would shake your trust.”

“I suppose I get that. Agent Keen also said they hadn’t been able to make the machine work since that mission. It suggested that the scientist who developed it wasn’t too pleased with the way it was being used, and so wasn’t cooperating.”

“And so you take the first steps towards true independent thought. I am very proud of you. It is a considerable responsibility, but one more people should adopt, I think.”

“How do you know you’re in the right though?”

“What?”

“I get what you’re saying, it’s easy to trust the authorities, but they’ve proved they don’t always act in people’s best interests. If you choose to act on your own, like you obviously do, how can you be sure your motives are any better?”

The doctor turned introspective. When he didn’t answer immediately I looked across at him to see the usual infuriating arrogance wiped from his face. We continued in silence for several miles before he found a rest area to the side of the road and pulled into it.

“You make a good point. A very good point indeed. An individual working on his own – or her own, I should say,” he smiled at my little girl self, sitting beside him in what currently covered me like a catsuit, “would always be tempted to work in his or her own best interests. Power corrupts, I believe you say.”

“And absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

“This is a good saying, I shall remember it. It is also possible that a group of like-minded individuals might form an organisation together so that they might keep each other in check, and this has been done many times in the past. The problem here is that such organisations will elect one person to lead them, so that the organisation might function better. This leadership role then becomes a position of power, which attracts unscrupulous people, and many well-meaning organisations have been corrupted in such a way. This happened to the Christian church in the middle ages, I think you will find. But I digress.

“There is no easy solution to this, but one exists, thankfully, because of the power and anonymity of the Internet. Bear in mind that what is needed here more than anything else is accountability. There is increased strength to be had in the sharing of resources, this is for certain, but with any such collaboration, comes the possibility of losing control. So, what if a number of individuals choose to share only ideas online? To offer a suggested action for discussion before doing anything. For as long as each individual continues to respect the other members of the group, then advice can be given and taken, and actions can be moderated. There is even scope for occasional sharing of resources. If the majority of members of the group consider the proposed actions of one of their number to be appropriate, they can make resources available, by leaving them at dead drops and the like. Do you think such a thing would work?”

“I don’t know. If you’re all anonymous, it wouldn’t be that tough to abuse the system. Say I suggest one thing I’m thinking of and it gets approved. I ask for and collect a whole bunch of resources and then do something totally different with them.”

“Yes, but anonymity is not total. Individuals are only able to do so much alone. In the Second World War, resistance fighters solved this problem by forming cells of three or four people who knew each other but no-one else. If one was captured, or perhaps turned out to be a spy, he would only be able to give up information on his immediate cell. The cells worked together, making sure no individual worked against the whole. Groups of cells combined for larger operations. It worked.

“Also, you cannot simply become a member. In this organisation, to join you must be invited. An existing member will propose a new person to join, and he or she will be vetted by randomly chosen existing members from the rest of the organisation. If the consensus is that the new member should be invited, he or she will be approached, often by the person proposing them, and invited to join a cell.

“And what if a cell goes rogue? What if a small group, like your own for example, proposed a course of action, had it approved, asked for and gained resources, then went off and did something totally different, what then?”

“It would depend on the severity of the action. You remember each member is vetted by randomly chosen individuals? Under such circumstances the organisation might choose to investigate the identities of the members of a rogue cell, then take action, either directly or indirectly against them. Philippa, this is not perfect and there are many flaws with the foundation, but for the most part it works and has been working for many tens of years.”

“So, before you went after that mood changing machine, you consulted with this, what is it called?”

“The name of the foundation is Deus ex Machina, the god in the machine. Pretentious, I feel, but the name was chosen before I was invited to join. Its chief purpose is to take action to ensure that no government or organisation gains technology to make them too powerful. Yes, I consulted the group before going after this machine, and before going after the vector, also before going after today’s target.”

“Did they approve of your methods for gaining my cooperation?”

He sighed. “Perhaps it is time I took a risk with you, Philippa.” He pulled out his phone and did something complicated with it. A live video feed appeared on the screen and he handed it to me.”

“Stacey?”

“Philippa, are you okay?”

“I’m fine. it’s you I’m worried about.”

“We’re okay. We’re kind of locked in here at the moment, but as you can see, we’re not suffering.” In the background I could see a well-appointed suite of rooms. Emma was happily playing with some plush animals, and Mrs Owen was sitting on a nearby couch, having paused her reading when the video feed activated.

“What was that picture of you tied up all about then?” I asked.

“That was when we were first abducted. I think Wiesner wanted us to look suitably terrified, which of course Mum and Emma were. He settled for furious on my part, but then after the photo-shoot, he came in and cut us free before bringing us through here. He let Mum call Dad to let him know that we’re all okay. The door’s on a time lock, so we can’t get out of here til tomorrow morning, but there are beds and food and TV. Tons of stuff to do, so we’re fine. Maybe a bit rattled, but we’ve been treated well, and I really don’t think he means us harm. Call it intuition, but he doesn’t give off a bad vibe.

“I take it what he wanted you to do went okay?”

“I haven’t done it yet. I get the impression he’s giving me the choice.” I looked over at Dr Wiesner. “Can you override the time lock?”

He took his phone briefly and again tapped at it in unlikely ways. There was a metallic clunk from the video feed. “When you get home, call me on this number,” Dr Wiesner said to Stacey and reeled off a string of digits. He repeated them while she copied them down, then said, “Your car is outside. It should take you twenty minutes to reach your house.”

“I’ll talk to you in a bit,” Stacey said. Her mum was already collecting a gently protesting Emma from her toys. The screen went blank.

“So, what’s changed?” I asked.

“A great many things,” Dr Wiesner said. “It was with Deus ex’s support that I completed my research to treat you, did you know this? It was through one of their members that I was able to filter through many referrals to find likely candidates.”

“Did you treat anyone else other than me?”

“Of course, and the treatment has alleviated the symptoms in a great many individuals. For the most, they reverted to one gender type or the other, with the cells removed somehow not forming a viable alternative organism. You are the only one who has been able to switch as you do”

“So, they all have that sense of incompleteness I felt growing up?”

“To some degree, I suppose, although I believe all have adapted to it completely. It is an unfortunate side-effect, but they are better off than if they had received no treatment, let me assure you of that.”

“I’m not sure I’m ready to take anything you tell me at face value right now, doctor.”

“Then I should continue to rebuild bridges, yes? I will admit, my reasons for treating your condition were to produce someone with your unlikely abilities. This, I realise will not please you, but it is important now, to build a relationship of trust, and at the heart of this is honesty.”

“A bit late now, doctor.”

“This is perhaps so, but not too late, I hope. When you finally transformed, I began to have such higher hopes for you than I had dared to dream. In you I saw a potential partner, not simply a foot soldier. I talked to the group about perhaps inviting you one day. They said you were too young, which is sound advice.”

“Aren’t you worried I might undermine the organisation, now that you’ve told me about it?”

“You know one of its members, and I know three more. The rest are safe. Whether they believe you about the existence of the organisation shouldn’t be a problem. I want to make up for not telling you all the truth before though, so I will tell you everything.”

“Including what you want me to steal today and how you plan to use it?”

“If that is required for your trust, yes. It is in keeping with the tenets of Deus ex in any case. I find I respect your judgement more each time I speak with you, so you will hear our plans, and you will decide whether it is right.

“Do you know what is the one greatest peril our planet faces at present? It is not global warming or any other environmental issue, though it does influence such things heavily.”

“Global warfare?” I guessed.

“If it involved nuclear weapons, it might possibly be, but a conventional war might help alleviate this problem to some degree. This sounds brutal, but it is true. You have no more guesses? Then I shall tell you. It is human population growth.

“Through most of the time humanity has existed on our planet, our numbers have remained below one billion. There were fewer than half a billion of us before the sixteenth century, then we reached one billion around eighteen hundred, two billion by nineteen thirty, four by nineteen seventy-five, and we are projected to reach eight billion by the mid twenty twenties. This means we are currently doubling in numbers every half century or so, and the world is already straining to support us all.

“Nobody speaks of it though, because there is no easy answer. The Chinese tried some years ago. They recognise that perhaps the greatest population growth is taking place in Asia, and they have made attempts to halt it. They implemented a one family one child policy, but this had undesirable side effects. Perhaps the harshest one they face is the prospect of having more people retired than working in some years, which will bring hardship on the current generation.

“Many animals have a way of dealing with this naturally. The tendency is always to have more offspring than will survive, so that the best adapted will ensure a species better able to live in its environment. You understand Natural Selection, yes?”

“We’ve studied it, and yes I get it.”

“One potential problem is that a species might overpopulate an area, causing food to become scarce. When this happens, fecundity – the ability of the animal to produce offspring – naturally drops. It may happen with us when we begin to run out of food, but so far, our ability to shape our environment means we have, for the most part, been able to keep ahead of this.

“There is a military research facility near here that has identified the gene that inhibits fertility, and they have created a virus that will activate it in humans. It doesn’t stop children from being born, but it does make the occurrence considerably less frequent.

“Our understanding is that they are seeking to turn this virus into a weapon. You are aware one of the greatest perceived threats here in the West is the rise in militant Islam?”

“You mean all the terrorism?”

“Indeed. Terrorism is nearly impossible to fight because the small number of militants are able to hide in the far larger population, much the same as Deus ex is able to hide in the world population.

“The idea here is that, if the virus can be altered to target one gene type only – one specific to Middle Eastern people only, then within a few generations, their numbers will be so reduced there will be too few left to hide the terrorists.”

“That’s horrible! Most of those people are innocent.”

“I agree. Another consideration is that it will become far easier for the West to take over the Middle Eastern oil fields if the number of people living in that part of the world dwindles. Do you see why we must take this technology away from these people?”

“But aren’t you planning to use it?”

“In a far more general way. All the world’s people will be affected, and out of necessity, not for war or greed. If we can activate this gene in the global population for even a generation or two, we could bring our numbers down to a level our planet can manage more easily. With fewer people, there will be less need for energy, so we will use our resources more slowly, we will cause less damage to the environment, and we will give places like the Amazon Rain Forest a chance to recover.”

“I’m not sure there’s that much of a difference. I mean shouldn’t people have a choice about something like this?”

“The majority will choose without thinking, in much the same way we have discussed earlier, and they will choose what is preferred for the individual – to continue as they are. The long term consequences of this could well be our extinction, possibly the extinction of all life on earth. At the very least it will result in death and privation on an unprecedented scale when our population rises so much higher than the world can manage.

“Philippa, this is one of those decisions that it would be dangerous for one individual to take for all of humanity. We have discussed it in Deus ex for some years now, and we believe it is appropriate action.”

“So, because a few dozen people think it’s right…”

“More like a few thousand, Liebchen. Deus ex is a much larger entity than you can imagine, and its members are generally both moral people and deep thinkers.”

“I can’t believe you would consider this.”

“It was a mistake, perhaps, to tell you all this in your female form. If you change to Phillip, you will be able to see more easily the pragmatism of it all.”

“How many women are there in Deus ex?”

“It is not known, because we are anonymous, but it is estimated a little less than half. Although those who have stated that they are women have agreed it is a necessary measure. Women also can be ruthless when they see the wisdom of an action.

“Would you please change into your male self? I think you are safe to do so here.”

“I’m not sure I can.”

“Perhaps this will help.” He reached over to the back seat, bringing forward a new version of my utility belt. He detached the rather bulky belt buckle and handed it to me.

“What is it?”

“It is at least one of the reasons I wished to acquire the first device. Press here.” He indicated one side of the buckle.

I pressed it and grew in my seat. The seat belt didn’t let go though, and for a moment I felt I’d be cut in two. Wiesner pressed the other side of the buckle and I shrank back down into Philippa.

“I am sorry. A foolish mistake.” He released the seatbelt and offered me the buckle again.

“How does it work?” I asked, pressing it and changing more or less instantaneously into Phillip.

“I isolated the waveforms the machine uses to enhance what are considered to be the most masculine and feminine emotions, then I constructed only enough of the machine to promote these emotions in a very localised field. It is enough to initiate the change, as you see.”

“So why did you put me through all those exercises?”

“I did not know how simple it would be to develop this device. Besides sometimes you will need to change when you do not have the device, or unable to reach it, so it is good to be able to control the changes yourself without help. However, when it is necessary for you to change instantly and without fail, this device will allow you do achieve this.”

“What else have you done with it?”

He pulled out what looked like a wooden wand, similar to those sold in toy shops everywhere in wake of JK Rowling’s continued success, except it had a group of small studs along its length. “This is highly directional and has a range of perhaps ten to fifteen feet. These buttons will induce terror, euphoria, sadness and rage. You must judge which ones your target is most susceptible to and which ones will be most effective in any given situation. It is not so much a weapon as a versatile tool.”

“And it looks like it does because?”

“I can be whimsical,” he smiled. “It is also good disguise for a child of either Phillip or Philippa’s age. If someone tries to use it on you, the buckle will automatically activate to lessen the effect.”

As Phillip, I could quite literally feel the horror I’d experienced at our recent conversation recede. With less emotion involved, I could also see much of the logic behind it all. The more I thought about it, the more I saw things from his point of view.

Since I had two lifetimes to lead, I’d most likely be only half-way through in fifty years, and if the doctor’s prediction of a doubling population was even close to accurate, that would mean I’d be living among a world population of about fifteen billion by the time I reached middle age, and maybe getting on for thirty by the time my life (lives?) finally drew to an end. Assuming I didn’t meet with an accident, some violent end or dementia before then, it wasn’t a future to look forward to.

“I’d be a fool to take your word for all this after what you’ve put me through.”

“Gullibility and innocence are not the same as foolishness, but I understand this point of view. What might I do to lessen your doubts?”

“I want to meet others from Deus ex Machina.”

“I will contact those in my cell and see if they are willing.”

He took his phone and pulled up something that looked like a messaging app. I assumed it was encrypted and not generally available to the public.

“One at least,” he announced after a minute. “Miriam Sellers is the person who brought me into Deus ex. I worked with her on the Klinefelter project. Her daughter was one of the first people we treated.”

“I thought Klinefelter only affected males.”

“Yes, the Y chromosome means that those affected present as males. Miriam’s son had a rare variant of the disease known as 48, XXXY which means that he had three X chromosomes and one Y. Following the treatment with my machine, there was insufficient of his male side to survive. The female part has thrived though.

“Miriam lives perhaps fifty miles from here, so we will meet half-way in about thirty minutes.”

“She’s prepared to come out in the middle of the night, just like that?”

“For Deus ex Machina we are all prepared to do much more than this. It should be no surprise.”

We drove in silence for a while, then the germ of a thought that had been niggling at the back of my mind started to sprout ideas.”

“This gene that’s supposed to reduce fertility when a population gets too large, you say it’s not activating in us because we’re not struggling to survive due to overpopulation, right?”

“Yes, this is what we believe is the case.”

“That’s not true all over the world though. Most of the overpopulated places in the world, like India, South America, Africa, they do have famines there. So why isn’t the gene kicking in in those places?”

“There is a great deal we do not understand about this gene, after all it has only just been discovered. We do not yet know what triggers it. Perhaps it is cannibalism, because some species resort to eating their own kind when there is little else available. Most human cultures have an aversion to this and even in famine, few would resort to such measures. Perhaps it is another thing we have not thought of yet. Whatever it may be, the conditions have not been met, or perhaps the gene is dormant and will not activate. Perhaps we are, after all, a cancer to this world.”

“I’m not sure I like thinking of us like that.”

The doctor shrugged. “A cancer is often a normal cell in the body that has mutated so the gene which tells it to stop growing no longer operates. When you look at us as a part of the world’s population, we are like this, no?”

I grunted. “Still, you’re talking about releasing a virus that will change the human genome so we don’t reproduce anywhere near as much. What’s going to stop our numbers from going down until there aren’t any more of us left?”

“It is possible when our numbers have reduced sufficiently the gene will deactivate naturally. We are, after all, not changing the human genome but rather activating a part of it that should already be operating.”

“Okay, but if the automatic process that should turn it on and off isn’t working, what’s to say that it will turn off when we’re down to a sensible size?”

“Perhaps it will not, but from tonights mission we will have genetic code that will turn the gene off as well as on. It will be as easy to combine each one with the vector you took from the previous laboratory. If the human population does not stabilise after perhaps two generations – this should be sufficient time for our numbers to drop to around two billion – then we will release the other virus to return the human race to normal.”

“And if we can’t reverse the effects?”

“There is no question of this. It is like I said, we are not doing anything more than flipping a switch. What can be turned on can as easily be turned off. This is certain, or we would be looking for another way.”

I lapsed into silence again. Dr Wiesner seemed inclined to leave me to my thoughts, so the quiet was well established when the abrupt ringing of the doctor’s phone almost scared me into a little girl.

“This will be your girlfriend, I think. Perhaps you will answer for me?”

I picked the phone out of the tray between our seats and slid the icon to answer it.

“Hello?”

“Phillip?”

“Yeah. Wiesner’s driving. You okay?”

“Yeah. Just got home. Mum’s just settling Emma, then we have an awkward conversation with Dad to get through, but we’re okay. You?”

“Better now I know you’re alright.”

“You don’t sound great.”

“Wiesner’s given me a lot to think about. I’m kind of trying to sort it out in my head.”

“You could tell me.”

“Yeah, and I will when I’m ready. I want to give these ideas time to settle first though.”

“Well…” She sounded a little disappointed. “I’m here whenever you feel like talking, okay? Either of you.”

A half smile quirked across my lips. That was probably what this was about. In Philippa mode, I’d probably have been more inclined to share rather than carry the burden myself. I considered going girl and running up Dr Wiesner’s phone bill, but it felt right to do this as Phillip, at least for now.

“Thanks,” I said. “That means a lot. What are you going to tell your dad?”

“That’s all a bit of a done deal, I’m afraid. Mum wanted to know how I knew Wiesner after the video call. Mind you he wasn’t hiding himself when he kidnapped us. No mask or anything.

“Dad had already reported us as missing before Wiesner allowed us to call home. The police didn’t want to know, but he had a visit from some guys from MI5 or MI6 or whatever ten minutes after he hung up the phone.

“I told them I met Wiesner shortly after I met you. Since then I’ve been letting them make it up for themselves. I don’t think they’re far from the truth though, sorry.”

“No that’s okay. I’m far enough up the proverbial polluted creek that nothing much you say will make things worse. I’d rather you kept yourself and your family safe. Just don’t let on you know anything about me. Except… aren’t they bugging your phone?”

“I kind of heard a weird click on the house phone once when I called your parents a few days back, so I’m not sure. I’m using my mobile at the moment, in the bathroom with the bath running, so I hope I’m safe. If I’m not and they do have my mobile tagged too, they’re going to have a fun time explaining to my dad why they didn’t go and rescue us after we were taken.”

“Well be safe and say whatever you need to in order to keep yourself and your family out of trouble. I don’t trust British Intelligence; they interviewed me after I was arrested, and I trust them a lot less then Wiesner.”

“Don’t right Wiesner off, Phil. I mean yeah, he hasn’t been entirely straight, but I have a feeling he’s one of the good guys.”

“Intuition?”

“Maybe a bit, but I think you feel the same thing, don’t you?”

“He has a way to go before he convinces me of anything, but I hear what you’re saying. Okay, my mind is officially open.”

“Take care Phil. I’ll let your parents know you’re okay and you’ll get in touch when you can.”

“Thanks.”

This would have been a good time for one of us to hang up, but it seemed both of us felt there was more to be said. The silence stretched taught between us.

“Stacey?” Yeah, so I caved first. What’re you gonna do?

“Yes Phil?”

The words were there, and I wanted to say them, but at the same time, I didn’t want to get her hopes up. My prospects were anything but good, and it would be unfair to suggest we might share a future when I wasn’t even sure I had one. I wanted to say thank you and sorry too, but I knew how inadequate that would be. She didn’t want either of those because it would feel like I was distancing myself from her.

I settled for honesty.

“I don’t know how things are going to work out from here, but I’m glad you’re in my life. If it’s at all possible, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure you stay in it.”

“I’m going to hold you to that Phillip Merrick, ‘cos I’m not done with having you in my life either.”

There, not quite what was in me to say, but near enough for now.

“I’ll be in touch.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

The call had to end somewhere, and this one felt like it was already degenerating into clichés. You already know how I feel about those. I stabbed the button to end the call.

Dr Wiesner’s eyes seemed a little too focused on the road ahead. I dropped the phone back in the tray between the seats and turned back to my brooding. I didn’t feel much like being Phil, so tucked my legs up on to the seat and shrank down into little girl me. I’d done what I could with logic and felt a bit of girly touchy feely might help. I’m not sure it helped bring me closer to a decision, but I did at least feel better for a while. -oOo-

“We’re here,” Dr Wiesner announced, rousing me from a sleep I wasn’t even aware had overtaken me.

I was still Philippa and looked out the windscreen at the approaching junction.

“It is perhaps safe to change now, but you must decide if you wish to talk to Miriam as Phillip or Philippa. In a few moments there will be other cars and curious eyes.

“Do I have anything more than this to wear?” I said pointing at my singlet/catsuit.

“I have clothes for both in the back seat. You can squeeze through to the back as you are and change as you like.”

So I did. Sliding between the two front seats was easy for six-year-old Philippa. I looked at the two sports bags – one blue one pink – and reached for the blue one. By the time the car pulled into a carpark, I was taller and dressed in a tee-shirt, sweater and jeans. I’d kept my Philippa form until I I’d climbed into the large clothes as far my small body could go, then I’d grown into them. It may have looked a bit odd, but it kept all the awkward squirming about to a minimum. I clipped the belt buckle over my existing belt and slid the wand up my left sleeve.

Wiesner got out first and an elderly woman stepped out of a nearby car. I followed suit and Wiesner introduced us. “Coffees for everyone I believe,” he finished off. “I will leave you to talk and return shortly.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you at last.” Miriam had a slight American accent and a strong grip I discovered when I shook her hand. “I’ve been wanting to for a long time.”

“I understand you worked with Dr Wiesner on my treatment.”

“You’re welcome,” she said somewhat out of sequence. It took me a moment to recover.

“I’m not sure how grateful I am.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Well, I’ve spent the best part of the last ten years feeling like I was missing a big chunk of myself. Just recently I turned into a girl in the middle of a school which, even though I managed to stay hidden, totally freaked me out. Since then I’ve discovered I’m going to age slower than most people because whichever part of me is dormant, doesn’t change. If I live half time like this and half time as my other self, whoever I share life with will age twice as quickly as I will.”

“And yet if you choose to live your life almost entirely in one body then the other, you will be able to live two lifetimes, you will get to see life from both sides of the gender divide, and when you reach that point most middle-aged people do when they realise that youth is wasted on the young, you will have a whole other life to live with the wisdom of the first to inform you how to spend it. The glass is either half empty or half full depending on how you look at it.

“As for your life so far, it was never going to be ordinary, and untreated your Klinefelter would have brought you considerably more misery.”

“How can you be so certain?”

She reached into her handbag and dug out a wallet, from which she pulled a photograph.

A young boy of perhaps ten years age smiled up at the camera. He looked odd somehow, considerably prettier than a boy should look, and with vacant eyes.

“This was my Jamie just before his eleventh birthday. I found out he had a similar condition to yours some years previously. When I had his IQ checked, it came back as seventy-eight – what in the days before political correctness would have been referred to as educationally subnormal.

“Don’t get me wrong, he was a delightful child, and he would have found a place in the world, except that once he reached puberty, he would have ended up looking a lot more like a woman than a man, and the strata of society he naturally inhabited would have had a hard time relating to him after that. He’d have had a massive change to accept at that stage and without the mind to cope with it.

“There were times I caught him staring at the mirror, and he’d ask me why he couldn’t’ have been born a girl. Honestly, I could have let him live as one and he may well have coped better with life – right up until someone saw him undress, and I don’t think I’d have trusted him to be able to keep that a secret.

“It’s not often that Deus ex allows us to pursue personal agendas, but Jamie wasn’t more than five years old and recently diagnosed when I first encountered Dr Wiesner. I could see how my own field of research in quantum physics matched with Dr Wiesner’s expertise in gene manipulation. I suggested him as a member of the organisation and once he was in and a part of my own cell, we talked about possibilities and presented them as a joint project.

“Deus ex agreed to it, and we spent a few years developing the treatment. Jamie was getting close to puberty by then, which meant he had to be one of our first subjects if he was ever to be helped. Being the first in something like this has it’s risks, sure, but I doubt I’d have been happy using our technique on another human being if I hadn’t had enough faith in the outcome to try it on my own child.

“And he was actually the first human to go through the process. There are animals which exhibit a form of genetic variation similar to Klinefelter, so we already had some idea what to expect. In every case only one of the animal’s separated aspects ever survived, so when Jamie’s male self turned out to be so underdeveloped that it couldn’t sustain itself, we weren’t surprised. Her female side turned out to be everything we could hope for though.”

She pulled out a second photograph of a young woman, perhaps four or five years older than me. She was stunningly beautiful and laughing at the camera from the middle of a group of similarly pretty girls.

“Does she have a sense of missing part of herself?” I asked.

“Not much. She remembers being Jamie the guy, but says it was like living in a fog. She feels that she should always have been female, so she looks on the part Dr Wiesner’s machine took out of her as being something that should never have been there.

“I had her tested a few weeks after she was treated, and her IQ came out as one-hundred-forty-seven. She’s adapted entirely to being a woman and is currently studying nuclear physics at the University of Surrey. She wants to help develop nuclear fusion reactors. Jamie the boy might have been able to get a job as a janitor or tea lady at one of the labs. Jamie the girl could end up running one of the projects. Jamie the boy had very underdeveloped sexual organs, which would almost certainly not have matured fully in puberty. If he’d managed to find some girl who’d accept him as a man after what puberty would have done to him, he’d still have had almost no chance of becoming a father. Jamie the girl is fully formed and has every prospect of becoming a mother. So ask me if I regret turning my son into my daughter.”

“I’m not sure…”

“Ask me.”

“Do you…”

“Absolutely not. And neither do I regret the changes we made to every other child we treated. Yes, we have noted that many of them are aware of a missing part of themselves, but all of them – no exception – all of them are happier since the treatment.”

“I have to take your word for that, I suppose.”

She dived into her bag and retrieved her phone. “Doctor patient confidentiality gets in the way here – I mean I’m sure you wouldn’t want just anybody finding out about you, would you? It’s late, but my daughter is a bit of a party animal, so I’ll see if she’ll talk to you.”

She tapped in a short text while she was speaking, pressed send and looked up at me. A few seconds later the phone rang. She answered it on hands free. There was the sound of laughter and music in the background.

“Hi Mum. You’re up late.”

“It’s work related. Jamie, I have someone here who went through the same treatment as you with Dr Wiesner, I wondered…”

“Oh cool, let me talk to her.”

She handed me the phone.

“Hi, er, Jamie. I, er…”

“Oh, you ended up as a guy. I’m tempted to say sucks for you, but I guess you’re happiest this way. I mean you wouldn’t have turned out as a guy if you hadn’t been mainly a guy inside, would you?”

“I’m not sure…”

“How old were you when you were changed? I know Dr Wiesner was looking for younger patients, so they wouldn’t remember much of what things were like before, but I was about eleven when he put me into the machine. I mean wow, it was like waking up fully for the first time ever, and I was so excited to be all girl.”

“So, you don’t regret…”

“You’re kidding, right? It was like they took out everything that was holding me back from being me. I know I lost a bit of me, but I don’t miss it. You sound like your experience was a bit different though.”

“I was changed when I was six, and most of the last ten years I’ve always had this feeling that a big part of me was missing.” It felt like a triumph to reach the end of a sentence.

“Yeah, I guess I have that a bit, except I’ve always seen it as being something that should never have been there. I remember what it was like before the change, and that part of me was always getting in the way. It was like he was tripping me up. Not on purpose, just couldn’t help being clumsy and stupid.”

“But he died.”

“I don’t see him as a separate person, more as an extra bit that had been chucked in as an afterthought, kind of a piece of machinery that didn’t work with the rest of what was in there. Listen, the bit that was taken out of you was holding you back. You’re better off without it.”

“I don’t suppose you met any of the others like us who were treated?”

“Well…”

“It’s alright dear, you can tell him.”

“Okay. Kind of a perk of being related to one of the scientists who developed the process. In the early days I got to look after the kids while Mum and Dr Wiesner talked to the parents. They all felt they were missing a part of themselves, but I told them what I just told you, and it seemed to make sense to them. Overall, they seemed to think they were better off. I don’t think I ever met you though…”

“You didn’t dear. He went through the program after I left Dr Wiesner to run it on his own. Tell me you’re not neglecting your studies Jamie. I mean why are you out on the town in the middle of the week?”

“Mum, I’m fine. It’s Mandy’s birthday today so we came out to celebrate. I don’t have any lectures till eleven tomorrow, so it’s cool.”

“I worry about you.”

“Well that’s your job. Mine’s having a good time and learning about physics, and I’m at least as good at mine as you are at yours. Phil, it was great chatting, but I have to get back to killing off a few brain cells. Mum gave me too many and my friends don’t like me showing them up in class. Bye, love you Mum.”

The phone went dead. Dr Sellers shook her head.

“You kept calling her Jamie after she changed?” I asked, looking for some way to take the conversation forward.

“Well, it was James on his birth certificate, but then as he grew into such a beautiful child, Jamie became more natural, and worked just as well after she was treated.”

Time for the hard questions.

“What do you think about what Dr Wiesner is trying to do at the moment?” I’d just spotted him coming out of the service station with three cardboard cups and a paper bag in his hands.

“Reducing the world population? We need to do it.”

“Shouldn’t everyone have a say in what Deus ex are looking to do?”

“They wouldn’t have a say about how many died from famine or disease or war if it came to that. This is the most humane way of doing it. Besides, the worst thing about democracy is that most people vote in their own immediate best interests. Very few people are forward looking enough to see the long-term consequences of their selfishness.”

“How can you say that?”

“Because if they were, people around the world would already be taking measures to stop the runaway population growth we’re facing. Did you know, China actually tried to address the issue?”

“Yeah, Wiesner said as much.”

“Yeah, did he tell you the details? The Chinese government imposed a one family one child rule back in 1979. Then, because Chinese culture values male children more than female, a lot of families who ended up having daughters allowed them to die so that they could eventually have that more valuable male child.

“Horrible thing to do, and with additional consequences. Now seventy percent of young Chinese are male. If that doesn’t count as enough reason to take the decision out of the general population’s hands, I don’t know what is.”

“But if Deus ex Machina is made up of so many deep thinkers as Dr Wiesner tells me, why can’t they educate the world rather than keep trying to change it?”

Dr Wiesner caught up with us and handed out the coffees. The paper bag contained pastries, which we also took with gratitude. I hadn’t realised how hungry I was until then.

“It’s not what Deus ex is about. You know what the name means, don’t you?”

“God in the machine. Dr Wiesner thinks it’s pretentious. I tend to agree.”

She smiled and sipped at her coffee. “You evidently don’t know where the name comes from then. It actually a literary device. When an author backs his main characters into a hole from which there is no escape, if he – or she I guess – is lazy then he’ll introduce an unexpected random event that resolves the problem. You know, like when you have a cliff-hanger at the end of a TV series and can’t see how they’re going to get out of it, then the first episode of the new series comes up with some totally awful way of resolving the tension and then they get on with the story they want to tell.”

“Yeah, I hate it when they do that.”

“Because it’s unrealistic and unsatisfying. However, we at Deus ex Machina feel that the real world needs some unexpected, unexplained random events to stop it from imploding completely, so we see our place as hiding in the background and being the source of those unlikely events.”

“This is the meaning of the name?” Dr Wiesner asked. “I had no idea. With understanding it is an excellent choice.”

“We operate covertly, Phillip,” Miriam continued. “We can’t trust the world as a whole to make the right decision, and there is precedent to support our point of view. Look at the last four decades of presidents in the United States. Not just the most recent offering, but all of them. We’ve had one, maybe two, worthy of holding the post out of the last seven. I mean some of them have barely been able to tie their own shoelaces. And I doubt I have to mention anything specific about what’s been happening here in England recently.

“But what gives us a right to make decisions on behalf of the human race?”

“Individually, nothing. There has to be accountability, or we start sliding into fascism. As a worldwide organisation with proportional representation from all peoples, cultures and genders – including the alternative ones – and we agree only to act on majority agreement – significant majority if the matter is sufficiently important like this one – then we have the best of our kind thinking and acting in the best interests of us all.

“Phillip, Winston Churchill once declared, ‘It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ It shouldn’t, and it doesn’t, prevent us from trying something different, and perhaps we have found something less worse than democracy. This makes sense to a great many people, a considerable number of whom are more intelligent than any of us three standing here. It would be a mistake to dismiss it out of hand.

“You are uniquely placed to help in our efforts at this time.”

“And if I don’t, you won’t let me into your secret club?”

“Actually, this has been discussed. You are short-listed to be approached in the future, and what you decide now won’t change this. The general consensus within Deus ex is that people of your age are typically too impetuous to bring true wisdom to the group, so you cannot be considered for a position at present, and whether or not you are offered one in the future should not depend on any decisions you make it this age.

“Your decision to help us should be based purely on whether or not you believe it to be right. We don’t want you to be involved in something now that would have you feeling guilty for your involvement in the future. I’ll tell you right now, you have both a proposer and a seconder for consideration as a member of Deus ex in the future. Both Henning and I are impressed by your thoughtfulness and judgement, and this won’t change if you decide not to go ahead with tonight’s plan.”

“However, “Dr Wiesner interrupted, “the decision needs to be made soon. Our window of opportunity for this current venture is narrow. We are aware that what we are looking to steal is due to be transferred from its current location after tonight, and we have no idea where it will be going, though quite possibly to somewhere we have no possibility of infiltrating.

“Phillip, I must place this on you now. Take your coffee. There is another pastry here if you wish it,” he offered me the bag, “go and sit in my car. I shall talk with Miriam for a while longer. Your decision, whichever the outcome, must be made within the next thirty minutes if we are to have any possibility of success.”

I didn’t need the half hour. I’d already decided. I didn’t want to leave a world heaving with thirty billion starving humans. I’d just wanted to assure myself that I was siding with the right people, and between Philippa’s intuition and Phillip’s logic – perhaps with a little input from Stacey as well – I’d made up my mind.

I took the pastry anyway.

“We’d better get on the road doctor,” I said. “Thank you for your time Dr Sellers.”

Chapter 7