Flip – 9 – Injuries

The harness bit into me as the little motor accelerated me upwards. I’ll say this for Wiesner, he made decent gadgets. After a few seconds, I could see the top of the lift shaft approaching and eased off on the trigger.

The lift door opened jerkily above me. With normal night vision gear I’d have been blinded, but there wasn’t enough added infra red to overload the goggles. From my perspective it was no worse than stepping out of a dark room into sunlight.

As I say, decent gadgets.

Wiesner’s familiar face leaned into the shaft. I eased further on the trigger and drifted to a halt opposite the door. It was a stretch, but he leaned in and scooped me to him, unclipping my harness once I was safely out of the shaft.

I wasn’t all that sure how I felt about the good doctor right then, but I desperately needed a hug, and any port in a storm. I clung to him limpet like and let him carry me out of the place. Soldiers lay everywhere, both inside and out. Every now and then one would twitch indicating that they were still alive, but there were a lot of them.

“What happened here?” I asked. I could feel the last of my strength ebbing, and I really didn’t want to talk much, but this was hard to ignore. Outside there were dozens of them stretched across the entire base.

“The device in the car, I built into it a pulse mode. Much more powerful, but a recharge is required after. It is why I instructed you to remain at the bottom of the lift shaft. Your buckle would not have protected you from this.”

“They’re going to be alright though?” I asked.

“There is no reason to believe otherwise.”

I wasn’t sure if I believed him.

He opened the passenger door and settled me into the front seat before climbing behind the wheel. We drove in silence for half an hour, seemingly taking turns at random. It was still dark out, but there were hints of sunlight approaching from behind part of the horizon.

Eventually, one of the turns put us on a major road, and several miles more brought us to a lay-by. Wiesner pulled in and turned off the engine.

“You are safe now, little one. This is over.”

I didn’t trust myself to speak. I’m not sure I had words in me anyway. I desperately wanted to sleep, but my mind wouldn’t let me rest. The memory of sightless eyes and foaming mouths pushed at me. I dreaded to think what my nightmares would be like. I stared out the window at the growing light.

“Would you show me?”

I didn’t want to. Being Philippa was safe, comfortable. I didn’t want the pain in my ribs or the feeling of that thing up my back passage. Most of all I was afraid. I didn’t want Wiesner to look at my injuries and tell me they wouldn’t heal. Being Philippa I could pretend a little longer; hide from my future.

“Please, Mausebär. I must see this.”

“What does that mean, that mouse bear thing?”

“It is what it sounds like. It is a little nothing, a term of affection. Please, little one, show me Phillip.”

He’d probably just keep pestering. I undid my seatbelt — that was the last thing I needed pressing on my ribs — and reached for Phillip.

“Gott in Himmel! This is my doing, Phillip. My hubris and carelessness did this to you, my blind desire to obtain this last component. I should not have pushed you to do this. I should have tested the equipment more.”

“The sheet did protect me against the lasers though. Weren’t they hotter than the flames?”

“A higher temperature, yes, but with the flames there was more energy. There is a difference. I am not naturally a physicist, you understand, and did not think of this until after the damage was done.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The laser was very high temperature, but only lasted a brief moment, so not much energy was passed. The flames were lower temperature, but because they lasted so much longer, more energy was transferred, and so this damage was done.

“Phillip, I will not ask you to undertake another mission such as this again, and I will make this right.”

“I take it I’m going to be stuck like this then?”

“The burns will heal in time, but I fear there will be extensive scarring. I should not have made you do this Phillip. I am so sorry.”

I changed back into Philippa and turned to look out the window, at the crepuscular sky. Nothing would be the same after tonight. I didn’t want to think about it. The dawn colours were soothing, distracting.

“Will you come with me to my laboratory so I can conduct some tests?”

“I’d really rather just go home.”

“Er…”

“To my uncle and aunt. I know I can’t go back to my parents, not while I’m a wanted criminal.”

“Of course.” He started the car and pulled out onto the empty road. “It will take us perhaps an hour from here.”

Wiesner kept looking across at me, concern etched on his face. It felt like a minor victory to have him unsettled and wanting to speak while I didn’t. It wasn’t enough, not by a long way. I could feel despair squatting at the edge of my consciousness. It took all I had to keep it there, to hide in my numbness. I’d have to deal with it all in time — the horror, the deaths the pain and scars — but not right now.

Eventually, I started to recognise some of the scenery around me. I guessed we were about ten minutes away and sat up. Wiesner took it as permission to open his mouth.

“You should go to bed in one of your singlets,” he said. “If I am correct, your other body will take time while you are sleeping to repair itself in the same way that Phillipa emerged during the night while you were growing up. It will take longer for the healing to occur, since it will only happen for a short while each night, but you will be spared the pain. In perhaps a month you will be as well as you will ever be.”

I didn’t respond immediately. It was good advice. If I was going to turn into Phillip every night, I couldn’t afford to keep ripping my way out of my nightdresses. A question nagged.

“My burns are still kind of sticky. Won’t I end up messing up the sheets?”

“Remain as Phillip for a few hours. The scabs will form again. They will feel tight, but they will be dry, and you will not be aware of them since you will be asleep.”

We pulled up outside Uncle Mike and Aunt Sally’s house. It was still early enough that not even the joggers were out. Wiesner came round and opened my door for me.

“You will leave the belt, yes? It has what you went to retrieve?”

I undid the utility belt and left it on the seat. He removed the belt buckle and passed it to me before collecting a bag from the back seat. He took hold of my hand and walked me across the road, into the house where my uncle and aunt were still sleeping soundly. It hardly seemed possible that I’d only been away for one night, and that they’d slept through it all, while I… well, I hadn’t.

The bag inevitably contained enough singlets to sort me out for the foreseeable future. The one I was wearing was in pretty bad shape so the doctor handed me a fresh one before putting the rest into one of my drawers.

“I meant what I said, Philippa. I will make this right.”

“How, doctor? How will you do that?”

“I do not know yet, but you have my word, it will be done.”

He let himself out. I watched from the window until he climbed into his car and drove away.

I was tired, but there were a few things I needed to do before I let myself sleep. High up on the priority list was retrieving the capsule, but then so was getting clean. I stripped off my singlet and gave it a short once over. Grubby in the extreme, part melted in places, it went in the bin without a second thought.

I slipped into my dressing gown and took the clean garment the doctor had handed me over to the bathroom. My aunt and uncle had a big mirror on the wall above the bath. They thought it made the room look larger, but it also gave you a good opportunity to look yourself over, at least before condensation obscured the view. I stripped bare and changed into Phillip.

I’d never watched myself change before. It looked like some cheap bit of CGI, the way things seemed to blur while I expanded and changed shape. What emerged from the change also looked like something from a cheap horror movie.

My face was a mess of blisters and deeper burns. Not quite Freddy Krueger, but it certainly had some elements of the look. Both my forearms and my calves were worse, mainly raw and glistening and embedded with grime. The rest of my body was mottled with areas that were inflamed, red and tender. I could understand the doctor’s reaction, and why he hadn’t given me much hope of a scar free recovery.

I set the bath running, as much to steam up the mirror as anything. While it filled, I settled onto the pot and waited. The thought drifted across my mind that I was sitting around with a thumb drive up my rear. It made me smile despite myself. I might have laughed but for the ache in my ribs and the tightness in my face. It took longer than I would have liked, but my body finally figured out that it had something to shift and an opportunity to do so.

I gave the capsule a thorough wash in the sink and cracked it open for long enough to assure myself the contents weren’t damaged. Back in Philippa mode with my dressing gown back on, padded across to my room. My phone was on the bedside cabinet where I’d left it at the beginning of the night’s activities. I used it to photograph the two pieces of label, then looked around the room for a convenient place to hide my contraband.

My eyes fell on Threads. He was an old style teddy bear I’d been given as a christening present. Inevitably he’d been named Ted to start with, but as the years of aggressive loving had taken their toll, the name transformed into Thread — as in Thread Bear — and eventually into Threads. He was missing an eye and his fur was worn away in places. Several of his seams had loosened and he had stuffing showing through the gaps, but I’d resisted any attempt to take him away and mend him. At first I’d simply refused to be parted from him, then as the years passed, I simply preferred the worn look. It reminded me of adventures we’d shared, and hinted at the memory of my life before Wiesner.

I picked him up and smiled. I seemed I did remember life before the doctor had changed me. Only snippets, but they were there. I remembered the vacant feeling in my mind, like it was out of gear and I was freewheeling. They were memories of a six year old, so how much that same feeling would have inhabited me today had I remained unaltered I didn’t know. I thought of Jamie’s description of how she’d changed and decided that maybe I was better off, even now. Phil may have been on the run from the authorities and looking forward to being unpleasantly scarred for life, but I could still be perfectly ordinary as Philippa for a whole lifetime, and who knew what advances might be made in cosmetic surgery by the time I was ready to try being the old me again? The worst of it would be how this would affect the relationship between Stacey and me.

I was beginning to see her as something special in my life, and I was pretty sure she was going the same way. She didn’t need another six year old girl in her life full time, and neither did she need a boyfriend with his face melted off. After tonight, I didn’t have a lot to offer her, and that was what hurt more than anything.

“You and me, we have a lot more in common now,” I told the bear. “Would you mind if I asked you to carry on where I started and look after this?” I held the capsule up in front of his one remaining eye, then carefully eased it into his body through a gap in one of his seams — incidentally, one that happened to be quite close to his bum.

A little squeezing and squishing, and he looked normal. I put him back on the bed and went to rescue the bath from overflowing.

The thought of exposing Phillip’s burns to the hot water didn’t appeal, but I did need to get the grit out. Thinking Wiesner might appreciate the data, I used my phone to photograph my bare arms and legs in both of my bodies, then bathed thoroughly as Philipa, scrubbing my skin till it glowed. I rubbed myself dry and repeated the photo shoot. It didn’t quite work. The amount of embedded grime had reduced considerably, but there was still some. I ran a fresh bath — I’d already turned the bathwater black from my first scrubbing — climbed in as Philippa then, gritting my teeth, reached for Phillip.

Hot water on fresh injuries is painful, but eases after a while. Encouraging the deep seated grime out of the wounds hurt like a puppy of questionable parentage engaging in the process of making more puppies. I persisted though, and managed to turn my second load of bathwater red before I was satisfied.

I didn’t want to risk a towel on my raw flesh, so changed into Philippa for most of the drying, then back into Phillip to allow whatever remained to air dry, and for the scabs to reform. I put the time to good use, giving the bath a good clean. I was probably still a little damp when I returned to Philippa mode, but I could only endure so much.

On with a fresh singlet and into bed. My head had barely touched the pillow and I was asleep.

-oOo-
A gentle shaking brought me reluctantly back to wakefulness. I stared blearily at my alarm clock which informed me that I’d enjoyed all of thirty minutes in the Land of Nod.

“Wake up sleepyhead,” my aunt crooned. “Your uncle and I overslept this morning as well. Must be something in the air. Whatever happened to your nightdress?” She pointed at the forgotten remains of what I’d worn to bed the previous night.

“Er, I kind of changed in my sleep,” I admitted.

“Oh. I thought you said you didn’t have any of those singlet things.” She indicated what I was wearing.

“I found one at the bottom of my bag of toys yesterday.” A barefaced lie which would come back to bite me when she went hunting through my drawers or emptied my bin, but there had been too much drama in my life in the previous twenty-four hours, and I didn’t want to start this day with hysterics over Wiesner’s visit, especially not on half an hour’s sleep.

“Well, that was fortunate. So what do you fancy wearing today?”

That was nearly too much for me. After everything that had happened the previous night, I could not conceive of anything more inconsequential than what I should wear. I fought for control and won a temporary reprieve from the hysteria trying to bubble up inside me. I tried telling myself how much of a relief it would be to have nothing more challenging to think about for a while and attempted to focus on what my aunt was saying.

Fortunately she made it easy for me. She rummaged through my overstuffed wardrobe, apparently with a plan already in mind, and pulled out to two dresses. I liked them both — I mean I had chosen them after all — and after a moment’s consideration, chose a powder blue one with puff sleeves and white piping. My aunt seemed to approve and headed for the chest of drawers where I kept my underwear, and where Wienser had put the singlets. It seemed hysterics might be forthcoming after all, unless…

“I know it’s kind of hard to remember sometimes, but I am sixteen,” I said.

“Oh. Oh, yes, of course.” She looked a little disappointed. “I’ll, er, I’ll leave you to get dressed then.”

She walked to the door. It seemed like such a little thing, but apparently it mattered to her. I opened the drawer just enough to grab a pair of pants, a camisole and a pair of socks, and managed to slip out of the singlet and into the pants before she had a chance to leave.

“Actually, would you mind helping?” I asked. “I don’t really want to be alone right now.”

She gave me an indulgent smile, perhaps a little relieved as well. It put the morning back on track and set us up for a pleasant, relaxed day filled with nothing of consequence. Threads went with me everywhere. If I squeezed him, I could feel the capsule inside, and that was a reassurance I found I needed. It did illicit a bemused comment from my aunt about how I didn’t act like a sixteen year old. She also offered to wash my bear.

“Please don’t,” I said. “I’ve had him a long time, and I don’t know if he’d survive a wash.”

“I could mend him.”

“Mum offered too. I like him like he is. Please don’t change him.”

I flaked out in the afternoon and slept for a couple of hours. When I woke Threads was still in my arms and in the same grubby state of disrepair. Reason had won so far, but for safety’s sake I’d either have to reconsider my hiding place or do something to keep it safe.

The weather had turned for the worse while I dozed, so instead of the planned walk we played a board game. I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful it felt just to be doing simple, inconsequential things, but perhaps you might get the gist when I say I even found a game of Monopoly enjoyable. When we were done, and both Aunt Sally and I had lost to Uncle Mike’s ruthlessness, my aunt headed for the kitchen to prepare dinner.

“Can I do anything to help?” I asked, revelling in the role of little girl.

“Thank you for asking, but you’re a little, er, little. I’m worried you might get hurt.”

She disappeared leaving me and Uncle Mike to clear away the game.

“Your making the rest of us look bad,” he said to me with a twinkle in his eye.

“What do you mean?”

“Offering to help like that. It makes the rest of us guys look bad.”

I shrugged and smiled. “Right now I’m not a guy.”

“You know, I believe you. I haven’t seen the first indication that your a boy underneath all that. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were all girl.”

“It’s like I said Uncle Mike, I’m not a guy right now. I am all girl.”

“So how does that work?”

“I don’t really know. It’s all physics bordering on magic. I’m still the same me inside, but I kind of switch between one body and the next, and then I’m influenced by the physiology of the body I inhabit at the time. It’s partly the hormones, but I think there has to be something about brain structure or brain chemistry in there as well. I’m going to have to work harder at my biology if I ever want to understand half of what’s going on with me.”

“You’re saying that you asked if you could help because you are currently a girl?”

“Well not exactly. I mean if I’d been Phillip, I could have offered to help just as easily as you. It’s just that it felt more natural to do so like this.”

“This is going to take some getting used to.” He put the game back where it had come from. “What would you like to do now? Read or watch telly?”

Sunday afternoon TV has never been all that inspiring. It’s when I, as Phil, used to get most of my homework done. Two days of primary school hadn’t provided much of a challenge, either in the classroom or when I got home. I’d decided to do my best to keep ahead, and managed to complete all homework I’d been given within ten minutes of getting home.

“Do you have any biology textbooks?” I asked.

Uncle Mike laughed. “No, I’m sorry, but I’ll let you use my laptop if you like.”

“That’s okay. I’m not sure I’d know what to look for. What books do you have?”

“Well, your aunt studied English literature at university, so we have a lot of the classics.”

“Do you have any Shakespeare?”

I ended up spending the afternoon reading through Romeo and Juliette. We’d studied it at school before Philippa came into my life, and I’d loved it then. The re-read was even better. I could hear the music of the Bards words singing in my head, and seeing things from the female side brought a whole new dimension to the story.

Aunt Sally came through to lay the table and recognised the book. She didn’t say anything but I could just about hear the cogs in her head starting to whirr.

Dinner was spag bog, Sunday’s in my aunt and uncle’s house being ones dedicated to repose, so no stress of washing up etc. It met with the approval of my little girl taste buds too. I mean, I love a good roast as much as the next person, but nothing much beats a plate of worms and dirt.

It’s what we’ve always called it in our house. I mean, why wouldn’t you?

“So, Shakespeare?” my aunt asked.

“Mm hm.” Most of my concentration was going into transferring my meal into my mouth without messing my clothes.

A glance at my aunt indicated that my response wasn’t adequate, so I put my knife and fork down. Uncle Mike rolled his eyes at me over a mouth overflowing with spaghetti streamers. Yeah, only a woman would interrupt a decent meal to engage in conversation.

“My English teacher’s a fan. We put on Romeo and Juliet last year, and I could see why she liked it so much. I wanted to be part of the play, but it was before all this happened — I indicated my small body — and I kept getting distracted. I’m enjoying it more this time.”

I picked up knife and fork and went back to the careful dissection of my dinner.

“I could suggest a few more books I think you might like. Not just Shakespeare.”

“I’d like that, thank you.”

“Not to take to school though,” Mike said, placing his cutlery on an already empty plate. “You’re supposed to be lying low. The last thing we need is a child prodigy getting everyone excited. If they start digging into your background, it won’t be long before they start asking questions I’ll find very hard to answer.”

It had been in my mind to ask about school. It felt like such a waste spending all that time doing all the banal nonsense that goes on in primary schools.

“I wish there was a way round that.”

My aunt twitched her eyebrows at my uncle and he sighed. “I’ll see what I can do. Don’t do anything until I say though.”

“Thanks Uncle Mike.”

“Just Mike, or if you feel you can manage it, Dad. Remember, you’re not related to us.”

“Sure.” I tucked into my meal with a little more enthusiasm after that, somewhat to Uncle Mike’s relief. It meant he didn’t have to wait so long for dessert, and we were done in time for the Grand Prix.

Aunt Sally let me help put some of the things away. Pots and pans mostly which were stored beneath the counter, but also cutlery since I could reach the drawer with only a little awkwardness. My last chore consisted of taking a cup of coffee through to where Mike was sitting watching the cars line up.

“I don’t suppose you’re interested in this?” he asked.

“Not really, but thanks for asking.” I gave him a peck on the cheek and went back to find Sally, who was busily perusing a bookcase and already had an armful of books.

“That’s a lot of books,” I said.

“You don’t have to read them all at once,” she replied. “It’ll give you a bit of choice. Ask me before you start one, and I’ll let you know what it’s like. I won’t tell you what happens of course, but generally.”

The pile grew a little larger, then I helped her carry them with me to my room.

“Oh,” she exclaimed putting down the books and picking up my singlet. “I was going to wash this thing.”

“It’s alright. I er, I actually didn’t wear it for very long last night. It’ll be alright for one more time.”

She was giving out a suspicious vibe. I was either going to have to come clean or come up with something more convincing.

“I’ll tell you what. I’ll run you a bath and we can wash that gorgeous hair of yours. It is looking a bit grubby.”

A bath wasn’t particularly high on my priority list, but I’d avoided washing my hair when I’d bathed in the morning, unwilling to go to bed with it wet, and uncertain when the rest of the household would rouse. I put a hand up to it and recoiled at the feel of it.

“Thank you,” I said, smiling.

“Get undressed and into your dressing gown. You can put this thing on after you’re clean.” She dropped the singlet back on the bed and headed for the bathroom.

My phone buzzed and I picked it up. Thirty-seven texts and thirteen missed calls, unsurprisingly all from Stacey. Undressing would have to wait.

“Hi Stace. I’m sorry, I kind of left my phone in my room. It’s been a bit of a spacey day; I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.”

I got the scolding anyway. Probably a toned down version after my apology and brief explanations, but I’d earned it and she evidently wasn’t in a mood to let me off the hook completely.

Aunt Sally popped her head back in to the room. I mouthed “Stacey” to her, so she showed me five fingers and tapped her watch. I let Stacey have three of them, just enough time for the tirade to start easing, and interrupted. “I have to go, Stace. My bath is ready. I’ll call as soon as I’m out.”

I owed her a complete explanation after what had happened the previous night. At least the bath would give me some time to come up with one. I’d thought it would in any case. Sally kept up a running banter all the way through , asking what books I had read — pretty much only Shakespeare — and what had I thought of the different bits of his work that we’d covered. She even kept it going over the drone of the hair dryer afterwards, talking about different books in the pile she’d given me, saying which ones she thought I’d like given my response to the different bits of the Bard’s work I’d studied. It was seven by the time she was done.

“Half an hour to read, then lights out.”

“What?”

“You’re a six year old child in body if not in mind, and from the way you zonked out this afternoon, you still need a lot of sleep. So, you’ll go to bed at a reasonable time. If you wake early then you can use that time as you want. Half an hour.”

I called Stacey back and told her about my curfew. She laughed in a sort of serves you right way, which wasn’t entirely fair, but I had to accept that she was still a little annoyed with me.

“So what did happen last night?”

Short version then, and no sparing the truth.

Except, maybe not the short version. If I took my time over the conversations I’d had with Wiesner and Sellers, there was every chance we’d run out of time before I had to start talking about what had happened on the mission.

I didn’t have to procrastinate. Stacey had so many questions, wanted so much detail, that I’d only just reached the point when Dr Sellers had called her daughter when Aunt Sally’s head appeared round the door.

“I thought I said half an hour to read.” Emphasis on the last word.

“But it’s Stacey. She wanted to know what’s been happening.”

“And how long does it take to tell her about everything you did today? You were asleep for half of it.”

“I was telling her about the books.” I wasn’t particularly convincing.

“She doesn’t know?” Stacey’s voice sounded in my ear. “How can they not know?”

Aunt Sally held her hand out for the phone.

“Stacey, I have to go. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“As soon as you wake up.”

“That may be kind of early.”

“I don’t care. I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight anyway.”

We exchanged a little of the saccharine that passes between teenage couples and I hung up. I dug the charger out of my bedside cabinet and handed it over along with the phone.

“Will you leave it in the living room where I can find it tomorrow?” I asked.

“Tonight I will, but if I find out you’ve been sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night, I will keep in in our bedroom overnight. Do you understand?”

I nodded and settled back onto the bed.

Sally knelt beside me and kissed me on the forehead.

“Hey, we all have a fair bit of adjusting to do. Mike and I have to get used to having a little girl around the place, and you have to get used to being her. I doubt you’ve spent much time as Philippa since this all started, have you?”

“I guess half a day here and there.”

“Now you’RE having to be her full time, you will tire more easily. You’ll thank me for putting you to bed this early.”

“And the phone?”

“Well, I remember what it felt like to be in love, so I’m not angry that you were talking to your girlfriend. I am going to take this out of temptation’s reach though. In the future, try and get your calls in earlier. Reading is more restful than using one of these gadgets. You’ll fall asleep easier.

“We’ll make a deal. You try to remember you have a little girl’s body and accept that its needs are different from your older male self, and Mike and I will try to remember that you are older than you look. Okay?”

“Okay.” I reached up and gave my aunt a surprise hug. “Thank you.”

She hugged me back and kissed me again. “You’re welcome sweetie. Sleep now. See you in the morning.”

I didn’t last long after the lights went out. I snuggled down with Threads in my arms, squeezing him hard enough to reassure myself that the capsule was still in there, then turned my mind to thinking about how I was going to break the news of my injuries to Stacey the following morning. I hadn’t made any headway before the lights went out in my head as well.

-oOo-
I’d more than half expected a visit from Wiesner in the night. I tried to imagine his reaction when he discovered the absence of the USB drive and the messed up labels, but then the angriest I’d seen him had been with the drill sergeant on that first boot camp. He always seemed to be in control with a head full of contingencies and consequences for every decision or action I made.

Actually, that wasn’t quite true. He had seemed genuinely shocked and uncertain when I’d shown him the extent of my injuries. Maybe he felt I was owed something, that my withholding his precious gene triggers was a justified consequence of his putting me in harm’s way.

You could waste a lot of time on maybes. Right now I had no idea what was going on in his head.

I’d also half expected to be troubled by nightmares, but Sally had been right. Despite the afternoon nap, I was tired enough that I slept too deep for dreams.

I woke at just past three o’clock in the morning in quite a lot of pain. The bedclothes were rough against my burnt skin, and my ribs hurt. I was also ravenous.

Despite the extreme discomfort, I felt a need to stay as Phillip. I threw back the sheets and lifted my arms and legs off the bed. The cool night air was better than the scratching of cotton against my injuries. I settled my feet onto the sheets, and put my hands behind the back of my head. It was comfortable enough, except for the ache in my ribs. After a few moments I tried sitting up, and that seemed to work best of all.

There wasn’t much I could do about my hunger. I had no idea how lightly my uncle and aunt slept — when they weren’t drugged at least — and I didn’t want to risk them seeing me with my burns before I found a way to tell them. It would be worse tomorrow though, so I put my mind to finding a solution.

The answer was simple enough and would probably have come to me sooner had I not been distracted by the various pains that kept twinging at me. All I needed to do was tell Aunt Sally that if I spent to long in one body, I tended to switch in the middle of the night, and that each body needed feeding separately. If I could have a stash of energy bars in my room, it would keep me from disturbing anyone.

The next pressing problem was what to tell Stacey. I wanted to be honest, but I knew it would hurt her. I picked up a hand mirror from my chest of drawers and looked at myself. There wasn’t much light in the room, but the shadows and silhouettes only served to make my appearance more grotesque. This was something I had done to myself without consulting her. It would hurt all the more for coming out of the blue.

It felt a bit underhand, but I had to see if she would reach the same conclusions about Dr Wiesner, Dr Sellers and Deus ex as I had. If she sided with me, then she would find it easier to accept the decision I had made to be a part of the mission. From there it wouldn’t be such a giant leap to accept the consequences when things had gone wrong.

It felt like I would be tricking her, and maybe I was, but to do anything else would be to present her with my ravage face as a fait accompli and that would invite a wholly justified outrage, or just plain rage. It would likely achieve what I’d attempted the last time we’d been alone, but I no longer wanted to end our relationship. In the long run things would be easier, but easier isn’t better, and what we had was worth fighting for.

So, I had the vaguest of plans in mind. I wouldn’t force the issue, but I would give her all the same information as I had and let her make up her own mind. If it sided with mine, then I had a way ahead that might keep us together. If it didn’t then nothing was likely to.

It was enough. I felt the need to be Phil subsiding. I held on a while longer until it was all but gone, then reached for the girl inside me. She was still tired, so it didn’t take long to fall back into a deep sleep.

-oOo-
I woke at six-thirty. No alarm, no noise disturbing me, just a natural waking to a feeling of freshness. First business inevitably involved the toilet, girl plumbing being very much less well thought out than the setup I had as a guy. Next was to go find my phone. Stacey might not appreciate being woken up this early, but she had insisted. Aunt Sally had left it in an obvious place on the dining room table, and it was fully charged. I retrieved it, helped myself to a glass of orange juice and a couple of slices of bread, which I turned into a quickly cobbled together chicken sandwich with other things I could reach in the fridge, and retreated to my room.

With my back to the door, I changed into Phillip and gobbled down the sandwich and glass of OJ. It quietened the wolf in there even if it didn’t satisfy him. Back as Philippa, I settled onto my bed and hunted for Stacey in my contacts.

“Murgh?”

“Stacey? I guess you did get to sleep after all. Sorry I woke you.”

“No, it’s okay.” I could almost here the cobwebs being cleaned away. “Where did we leave off?”

“I was telling you about Jamie.”

The story continued with my account of that phone conversation, and what I’d talked to Dr Sellers about afterwards. Part way through, Sally popped her head in, collected the empty glass from my chest of drawers and withdrew mouthing something that I couldn’t quite make out. I nodded anyway.

I finished my description of the encounter with Wiesner’s challenge.

“So what did you do?”

“What do you think I should have done?”

“You could have asked me what I thought?”

“Yeah, I wish I had. It was nearly two in the morning by then. I know that’s not much of an excuse. I guess I was too focused on the issues. I’m asking now though.”

“That’s not fair. It makes no difference to what you actually did.”

“I know, but I’d still like to know, before I tell what what I did. It kind of lets me know how much I screwed up.”

She laughed. It was musical, delightful, painful. “Well, I told you last night I had a feeling Wiesner was on the level. This kind of confirms it.”

“I thought so too. I mean all that stuff he said about the woman and the man with the gun, he was trying to get me to see that real life is never as easy as black and white, and it seemed he’d gone a long way to trying to regain my trust. Letting you go was kind of an essential part of it, and talking to Jamie meant a lot too.”

“You did the mission, didn’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s okay. I’d have agreed with you.”

Suddenly I couldn’t speak. The next words I had to say were just too hard.

“Pip?”

I liked the diminutive. I wondered just how many times I’d hear it from her lips now.

“Stacey, it’s not okay. Things didn’t go as planned.”

Now it was her turn to stay silent.

“There was a fire, Stace. I had protection, but it wasn’t enough.”

“How bad?” I could hear the fear in her voice.

“My arms, legs and face were all burnt. Dr Wiesner thinks there’s likely to be permanent scarring. He kept saying he’d put it right, but I don’t know how.”

“I want to see. Send me a photo.”

“No. I mean, I’ll show you, but not like this. In person. I get that this is important. I’ll talk to Mum and Dad or Aunt Sally and Uncle Mike. I’ll fix it so either you come here we come to you.”

“You’d better, ‘cos if you don’t, I’m jumping on a train and coming to you today.”

“You can’t. There aren’t any direct connections. It’ll take you forever.”

“You watch me Phillip Merrick. One way or the other, I will see you tonight.”

“I’ll text you when I get something arranged. I’d better go though, I need to tell Uncle Mike and Aunt Sally.”

“You still haven’t told them?!” Her voice was loud and high pitched enough to melt the wax in my ears.

“Stacey, please,” I wailed. “Wiesner managed to knock them unconscious without them knowing last night, and they were still out of it when he brought me back here. I desperately needed some normal after what happened, and the only way I was going to get it was if they didn’t know anything was wrong.”

“I guess I can understand that, but no more messing around. Fix this Phil, I’ll be waiting for your text.”

She hung up. I guess it would have been a bit much to hope for a ‘love you’, or even the opportunity to offer one back.

“Is everything alright?” Aunt Sally stood in the doorway. “I didn’t hear any of what you said, but it didn’t sound great.”

I shook my head. Enough to encourage her to come the rest of the way into the room. “Is Uncle Mike up?” I asked. “There’s something I need to tell you both.”

-oOo-
There followed another painfully awkward conversation. Hardly surprising given what I was telling them. First, the man who put their nephew on MI5’s most wanted list had come into their home last night, rendered them unconscious and induced me to go with him by showing me photographic evidence of the kidnapping of my girlfriend’s family. Second, he had further persuaded me to take part in a highly dangerous and equally illegal theft from a military research base. Third, that during the course of the raid, I had been severely injured. Fourth, and perhaps my worst crime of all, I hadn’t said anything to them for an entire day after coming back.

Sympathy trumped outrage when I transformed into Phil and showed them the extent of my injuries. Aunt Sally started crying and made a move to hug me until I put up my hands.

“Still kind of painful,” I said and changed back. As Philippa, I was more than ready for a cuddle though.

“I’ll call your parents,” Uncle Mike said. “They should come as soon as they can.”

“They have to bring Stacey.”

“She’ll be at school.”

“Dad will be at work. If he can take a day off, so can she.”

“That’s not our call.”

“I know, but if Mum and Dad don’t bring her, she’s threatened to take a train as soon as she gets out of school.”

“But there are about three changes. She won’t get here till midnight.”

“I know, but she’s made up her mind. Look, nothing has happened that’s so urgent Mum and Dad have to drop everything and come now. If they wait till the end of the day, it’ll look less suspicious to any goons who are still watching, Dad doesn’t have to miss a day’s work and Stacey gets to come too.”

“So what do we do in the meantime?” Sally asked giving me a gentle squeeze.

“Business as usual. I go to school and get bored out of my mind, and you two do whatever you do during the day. This evening we sort out enough food for everyone, and when Mum, Dad and Stacey arrive, I do my little show piece.”

“I wish you wouldn’t be so blasé about it.”

“How do you suggest I act? I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, but I’ve had longer to come to terms with this than you have. I’m probably still in denial about the whole thing, but right now I’m coping as best I can. If I let myself think about it, I’d realise how much I’ve let everyone down, I’d realise that the girl who loves me is going to have a hard time looking me in the eye, I’d realise I’d made a humongous mess of at least one of my lives…”

Like I said, it was a mistake thinking about it. I buried my face in Sally’s bosom and let loose a flood to rival Noah’s.

Sally rocked me and made soothing noises while Mike called through to my parents. I only caught one side of the conversation, but it was enough to satisfy me. “Something’s happened with Philippa, you need to come this evening. No, she’s fine, but it is important. No this evening’s soon enough. Philippa’s asked if you could bring Stacey with you. Yes, can you check with her mother and pick her up from school. Okay, that sounds good. See you around six then.”

My tears were the first things to dry up. “Tissue, tissue,” I said urgently with snot dripping from my nose and nothing suitable to wipe it with.

My aunt grabbed one from a box on a nearby table and pinched my nose with it. “Blow,” she said after she’d given it a good mashing. I obliged, but I wasn’t at all grateful for the intervention. “All better?” Sally asked, I suspect meaning after the cry rather than after the nasal brutalising she’d given me.

I nodded.

“Are you sure you’re okay to go to school today? I’m sure we could come up with an excuse to keep you home if you like. It’s not as if you’d be missing out on anything important.”

I shrugged. “Don’t you have to work?”

“I could take a day off.”

“What would we do?”

“Anything you like.”

“Thanks for the offer, but I think what I’d really like right now is another ordinary day, even if it means spending a day pretending to be ten years younger than I really am. Having a teacher telling me what to do for a few hours will stop me from worrying about this evening.”

“Well, if that’s the case, we’d better get you dressed and ready to go.” She stood up, easing me off her lap, and guided me to my room and the boring uniform with its hideous pullover.

There were still quite enough opportunities for distraction during the day. None of the tasks kept me occupied for more than a tenth of the time my teacher alloted to them, which meant I spent a lot of my day looking around me listening to the thoughts in the back of my mind.

I drank in the sounds of the kids around me, sharing my classroom, my school. There was an innocence to the noise, an abandonment to the joys of the moment. In a few years, they’d be growing into adulthood and making plans for their lives, most likely including plans to have a family. If I gave Wiesner what he’d sent me to retrieve, most of them would never know what it meant to be a parent. When it came down to it, Stacey and I were among them. I didn’t really know what all the deal was — I guess I was still too young — but I’d seen something of it in Aunt Sally and Uncle Mike’s eyes.

It hadn’t really registered before, but in so many of my memories of them there had always been a hint of sadness about them, a hint of longing whenever I caught them looking at me in an unguarded moment. Then there had been that suppressed eagerness when Mum and Dad had suggested they look after me as Philippa for however long it took to sort out the mess I was currently in with the authorities.

It was part of being alive, part of being human, to want children and grandchildren. All those stories about the elves and their sadness over the lack of children, their rejoicing whenever one was born, their looking forward at a doomed future where their race would dwindle. That’s what I would be inflicting on my generation and the one to follow it. Perhaps not the same doom that hung over the elves, but still the same deep despondency over the rarity of their children.

“Philippa? Perhaps you’d like to come up and show how this is done?”

The generic teacher’s method of punishing dreamers. Invite them to explain something when they evidently haven’t been paying attention. It doesn’t always work though. The generic teacher ought to take a leaf out of the generic lawyer’s playbook and never ask a question in public when they’re unsure of the response.

I hadn’t been listening, but I hadn’t needed to. What was new to my classmates I’d done so often over the previous ten years that it had become pretty much second nature. I took the pen from Miss Dempster and gave her an obliging smile in return before providing as comprehensive an answer as I could to the problem on the board.

Miss Dempster made a halfway decent effort to hide her frustration. She gave me a commendation for a job well done and let me go back to my seat.

This wasn’t a problem I could solve on my own. For one, I didn’t want the weight of all that responsibility. For another, I wasn’t qualified to make the choice. Which meant I couldn’t choose to do nothing either. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. But I couldn’t just give the stuff to Wiesner either. That would be another choice I wasn’t qualified to make.

“Philippa!”

I started and looked at Miss Dempster.

“What did I just say?”

One of the things about being a long term space cadet, you can sometimes access the temporary automatic recording your subconscious makes.

“You asked if I would choose a book for story time, miss.”

“Well?”

“Oh! Sorry.”

I was surrounded by mutterings of “The Hungry Caterpillar.” More choices. Give in to peer pressure and add to the teachers stress, or give her a treat and the rest of my class a chance to learn something, if only they could overcome their disappointment that it wasn’t going to involve a gluttonous insect larva. At least this wasn’t so hard a choice. I’d loved A A Milne growing up — still loved it. I found Now We Are Six and passed it to the teacher. “Forgiven?” I suggested.

It was a delight to see the emotions playing across her face. Confusion, surprise, amusement, several more I couldn’t quite interpret. She flipped through the book.

“I found a little beetle; so that Beetle was his name,” she began. “And I called him Alexander and he answered just the same…”

No caterpillars, but perhaps I’d be let off with a beetle. I thought about what Wiesner had said how people don’t really think, but always choosing the familiar. It had just happened here with everyone wanting that same story. It was the same story chosen on the two days I’d spent in school thus far. People tend to hide behind the familiar, to settle into a habit and remain there forever. That was why the doctor — and Deus ex, if they existed — figured we needed something other than democracy. In times past a sort of democracy had existed when not everyone had the right to vote. It had worked in that decisions were made by people who understood the problems more deeply, but it had failed because the decision makers hadn’t made right decisions on behalf of the non-voting majority, partly because they didn’t understand their lives and partly because they didn’t care.

I’d just bucked the system by choosing a story no-one wanted — except the teacher and me. Tomorrow we’d almost certainly be back to the Hungry Caterpillar, so had I actually achieved anything? Was I right to try and introduce something new when no-one wanted it? Were they right to insist on the same old thing because it was what most people wanted?

“…because its difficult to catch an excited Alexander you’ve mistaken for a match.”

I looked around at a class filled with disappointed faces. I couldn’t even make a right decision about something this small.

The rest of the day went much the same. Me chasing will o’ wisps through my thoughts, never getting any closer to an answer. Miss Dempster snapping at me whenever I drifted away and inviting me up to the front to demonstrate how little I’d been listening. Me answering the questions anyway. The rest of the class acting in banal and predictable ways throughout. It came as a relief when the bell rang at the end of the day.

“So, how was your day?” Sally asked.

“Don’t ask,” I replied, despite her having done just that.

“What should we have for dinner?” She changed the subject. She has a wise head, my aunt.

“Toad in the hole.”

“Really?”

“Dad’s favourite.”

“Mike’s too. Alright, we’ll need some sausages then.”

Shopping provided the distraction school hadn’t. Perhaps my aunt had been right. Perhaps I should have taken a day off school.

Sally relented and let me help prepare the meal, but once the potatoes had been peeled and the Yorkshire mix had been put together, there wasn’t a lot left I could do. I entered into full fidget mode.

“You know for someone who’s been a boy for nearly all his life, I’m surprised at how well you’ve adapted to being a girl,” Sally offered by way of distraction.

“Yeah, Uncle Mike asked me about that yesterday.”

“I heard, but being a girl isn’t just about how your body reacts. There are things you learn too, and you seem to do them naturally.”

“What do you mean?”

“Tucking your skirt under you when you sit…”

“I don’t always do that.”

“No, but you do it quite a bit. Then there’s taking small bites when you eat.”

“I only have a small mouth. Besides, I don’t want to get my clothes dirty.”

“I don’t remember my nephew matching the size of his forkfuls to the size of his mouth when he was your age, or caring how much of his dinner he ended up wearing for that matter. Quite apart from all that, most young lads your age are decidedly averse to anything girly. I thought you saw it as a sort of challenge to your manhood.”

That set me thinking — and stopped me fidgeting, but then my aunt has a wise head.

I may have mentioned that.

“I suppose Philippa’s been with me all my life. I mean even in the early days when she only came along for a couple of hours a night while I was sleeping. I guess she’s influenced me through all my life in some subconscious way. You know, when I think about it, I’m not much like any of my mates. We get on and stuff, but there’s always been something. I’ve never laughed at most of the things they find funny…”

“You are different from most boys.” Sally said. “Quite apart from your ability to turn into a little girl, I mean. You’re more mature. I think what you have is balance.”

“What do you mean?”

“You seem to understand things from a girl’s point of view as much as from a boy’s. I had a quiet chat with Stacey when she was here on Saturday and she told me what you did for her.”

“What did I do for her?”

“When you told her the truth, but did so in a kind way. I can’t think any lads your age who would have done that, or many girls for that matter. We’re all too preoccupied trying to be that stereotypical man or woman in order to fit in. Your uniqueness means that you’re not trying to fit either mould, so you’ve become uniquely you — a bit of both worlds, probably the best of both worlds. I rather envy you.”

The doorbell rang, saving me from having to find a response. I ran to answer it, beating Uncle Mike by a couple of yards. It was Mum with Stacey standing just behind her. By dint of being closest, Mum got the first hug.

Dad appeared while Mum was still trying to peel me off. He got the second.

“Will you let them in before the neighbours wonder what’s happening?” Mike laughed.

I stood back and allowed them all to pass. Mum and Dad followed Mike back into the living room, leaving me with…

“Got one for me?”

Of course I did. It lasted long enough that Stacey eventually picked me up and carried me through.

“Dinner will be on the table in ten minutes, so get washed up,” Aunt Sally announced from the kitchen.

Enough reason to let go of Stacey. She needed the loo, and I needed to change. I chose a dress that didn’t look out of place with one of my singlets under it.

-oOo-
“I didn’t think we’d brought any of those,” Mum said when I appeared. I could always trust her to notice things.

“Eat first. Explanations after.”

So we ate. Dad and Mike dug in with considerable gusto, Mum, Sally and Stacey with more decorum. Me, I kind of shuffled my food about my plate a little. One or two forkfuls did make their way into my mouth, but the general turmoil in my stomach left no space for more.

Eventually all plates were emptied — well okay, five out of six — and Dad decided he’d been patient enough.

“So what’s this all about?” he asked.

Sally nodded at me and I stood. I’d been rehearsing this moment through most of the meal, except that the script had changed with each reading. I still wasn’t sure how it was meant to go.

“Er. Something happened on Saturday night after you left. Er, Dr Wiesner came back…”

“He what!” Dad interrupted.

“Let her speak dear.” Mum put a restraining hand on his arm.

“That man has a gall.”

“Yes he does, but just listen. Go on sweetheart.”

“Erm, okay. He, er, he had this kind of spray thing he used to knock Uncle Mike and Aunt Sally out, then he sort of persuaded me to go with him.” There didn’t seem much point in telling them how. The people who needed to know about the abduction of Stacey and her family already knew.

“And just how did he do that?” Dad wanted to know.

“He can be very persuasive when he tries. He asked me to do another mission for him.”

“I hope you told him where he could shove his mission.” Mum squeezed his arm again and he waved her away.

“Actually, it seemed like the right thing to do.”

“Why would you…?”

“Dad, I did okay. We can talk about why later. What’s important now is to say that it didn’t go quite as planned. There was a fire and I was burned.”

“Oh no!” Mum’s hands were at her mouth.

I slipped the dress off. Another reason for choosing it. It didn’t have any fiddly clasps or out of reach zippers.

“It’s not very pretty,” I said. “There was a little healing from the first time I change to Philippa and back, but other than that any additional recovery only happens when I’m in Phil mode. I haven’t been him much since this happened, so I still look rather raw.”

Sally had moved to put her arm around Mum, for which I was really grateful. Have I mentioned how wise my aunt is?

“Well, here goes nothing,” I said and changed.

Mum’s reaction was predictable — she clung to Aunt Sally and cried noisily into her shoulder. Dad sat stupefied for several seconds before muttering something along the lines of, “I’ll kill him.” I left them to deal in their own way. My eyes were locked on Stacey’s.

“Wow.”

“Yeah,” I admitted.

She took a breath and forced a brave smile. “Hey! After a brief adjustment period and a bunch of drinks, it’s a face I’d be happy to sit on.”

The room fell silent. I looked around at a bunch of shocked expressions before turning back to Stacey. I quirked a half smile of my own. It pulled at the scabs on my face. “Have you been practising that?”

“Kind of.”

“Probably not the best quote to use in front of my parents, or my sort of adopted parents.”

She blushed to her roots, leaving me to explain about one of my all time favourite Stan Lee creations.

The sound of the front door closing turned all our heads in confusion.

“Ah, you are all are here,” Dr Wiesner said. “This is good. Saves time.”

Chapter 10