Flip – 3 – Challenge

Part one of my plan was to try and get them to underestimate me. I was just a sixteen-year-old kid, and I looked fourteen, so I doubted they had a particularly high opinion of me. Hopefully when I set off round the track in the normal direction, they’d think I was expecting them to follow me. I’d be hidden in the undergrowth by the time I reached the first flag, and that would be when I’d take things up a notch.

Part two relied on correctly guessing what they’d do. Since they only needed to get ahead of me, their simplest course of action would be to run the track backwards, get to flag twelve and set up an ambush. Since there were Twenty of them, they’d most likely split up and leave four or five guys at each of the last few flags.

To beat them, I’d need to cut across from the first to the last flag without being seen and before my head start was over. As Phillip I had no chance. There were drainage ditches, but they were too shallow for me to hide in, and there were culverts, but they were kind of tight. As Philippa, I’d be able to squeeze through with no difficulty though, and even weaker and less fit as she was, I figured I’d be able to get across in less than five minutes.

Once at the twelfth flag, I’d replace it with one of my home-made ones that I’d constructed from a tent peg and a strip of tee shirt. I had no idea what the actual flags looked like, and I was gambling that the others wouldn’t either. I’d run on replacing flags until I ran out, and with any luck, they’d settled down to their ambush without knowing I’d already been there.

Part three would simply involve me running the track backwards until I had all the flags, then taking them to the sergeant. Again, the trick would be to do so before they got suspicious and changed tactics.

They say that no plan survives contact with the enemy, but mine did pretty well, probably because it involved having no contact with the enemy.

Getting to flag one was the easy bit. The first real hurdle was changing into Philippa under stress. I thought of that outing with Mum, but the joy of the experience was fading with the many times I’d brought it to mind. I focused on my first kiss with Stacey, and slipped right into girl mode. I stashed the first flag with my uniform and hung my trainers around my neck The dash from flag one to flag twelve wasn’t so straightforward either. Without shoes that fit me I was running over rough ground barefoot, and it was painful. Gritting my teeth and fighting through the pain threatened to change me back into Phillip, so I had to let the tears flow and suppress my squeals.

I didn’t have a watch, being the sort of person who uses a mobile phone for that kind of thing, but I hadn’t heard the sergeant tell the others to go. When I reached flag twelve, I used the pain in my feet to change back, switched the flags and ran on, still barefoot, replacing the flags in the next five positions.

I made it as far as flag three before things went pear shaped. I hadn’t counted on my adversaries splitting into two groups and running the course in both directions. It meant I’d deceived half the group, but now I had two flags left and both would be guarded.

Fortunately for me, the third flag had been planted under a tree. The branches were too thin to hold my weight as I was, but as Philippa, I had a good chance.

They’d positioned themselves on the path, concentrating their attention outwards. Once more I chased after the memory of Stacey’s first kiss to turn myself little again and snuck through the undergrowth to the base of the tree. I needed to change back to reach the first branch, but after I was in the tree I resumed girl mode and eased my way carefully out onto the branch.

It was a stretch, but my little arms were just long enough to reach the flag. A little more careful manoeuvring and I was back at the trunk where I sidled around until I was out of sight of the guys guarding the flag. I hung from the branch and turned back into my male self, which put me in contact with the ground. Turning back into Philippa made me small and stealthy enough to sneak away without being noticed.

The last flag, the second of the course, wasn’t so easy. It was surrounded by the inevitable undergrowth, but there was no way I’d be able to get to it without being spotted. I snuck as close as I dared in Philippa mode, then changed into Phillip and put my shoes on.

I ate a couple of energy bars and felt the much-needed sugar course through my tired veins. I’d need to run back via flag one to recover my uniform and the first flag from where I’d hidden them, and that would make the race really tight. I took several deep breaths, to oxygenate my blood, focused on the flag, and sprang out of hiding.

I grabbed the flag before they noticed me. In fact, the first they saw of me was as I ran past the two who were looking back along the path. I’d been tempted to kick the legs out from underneath one of them, as he’d been the one who’d tried to trip me the previous day, but that would have been a great way to lose balance and get caught, so I settled for running by him as fast and close as I dared. I left them in disarray and ran on, unencumbered by a uniform and younger by several years than any of them.

They called out to the rest of the troop as I’d expected. The four behind me would be closest, but I’d have guys coming at me from at least two directions now. I told myself not to look back. I’d learnt that early on when I’d lost a hundred metres sprint from doing so. You lost speed, balance and direction and gained nothing. I couldn’t hear footfalls that close behind me, and I was coming up on the site of the first flag. If they were closer than I thought, no amount of looking would save me.

I ducked off the path towards where I’d hidden my uniform. I lost a second slowing to pick them up, and heard someone swear behind me, though not too close. No sense going back onto the path now. I ran on through the thicket and out into open ground. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, I told myself and ran on. There were drainage ditches to cross, but I was back up to speed now and jumping them was easy. I could see the others coming from flags eleven and twelve. They were bearing down on me and tempting me to veer away from them, but my best bet was to run straight and fast, so I did.

Another curse from behind me as one of my immediate pursuers missed a jump across a ditch. No time to gloat, don’t look back. I ran on. A hundred yards left, fifty and it seemed like I would be outrun by the group who’d been guarding flag twelve. I dug deep and found another spurt of energy. Twenty yards and I swerved and jumped to avoid an attempted tackle. Ten yards, and home.

Two bodies slammed into me and knocked me onto the tarmac. My singlet saved me from much of the road-rash, but I ended up with grazes on my arms and legs. More bodies landed on top of me.

“Hey, get off,” I yelled. “I made it back with the flags.”

“Looks to me like you got yourself caught,” the sergeant said, glaring down at me through the tangle of bodies.

“I made it back with the flags,” I said struggling to protect myself from my assailants. More bodies were landing on me, and several of them apparently thought I could do with a bit of a kicking. Fortunately, it wasn’t my first time being sacked by the equivalent of a rugby team.

“You didn’t make it round the track, squirt. By my reckoning you didn’t run the stretch from flag twelve back to here.”

“I ran to and from flag one though. I ran from flag one direct to flag twelve, then around the rest of the course. I ran more than the length of the course.”

“That’s still not completing the course, you little snot-ball. I say you lost, which means you belong to these guys tomorrow. Now go get a shower, all of you. Your smell offends me.”

And that was it. The rest of the troop climbed off me, cheering themselves and jeering at me. When I was able, I stood and dropped a flag. It silenced them, so I dropped another, then another. I dropped them all one after the other, then turned and limped off to my tent.

My arms and legs were raw from the grazing on the runway, and my torso was sore. I sat down on the bed and tried peeling the singlet off but found it too painful. Time to be practical. I let go my anger and reached for the tears that weren’t far under the surface. Moments later, my feet weren’t touching the floor, and my body was in considerably less pain. I undressed and twisted about to examine as much of myself as I could. The grazes were gone, replaced by red, raw rashes, and covered over with a layer of bloody, dead cells.

I reached for the anger – not far away after recent events – and turned back. Still the tenderness, still the sloughed off, damaged skin. It looked so much worse than it was, especially since it now felt so much better. Time to push the guilt trip. I slipped on my dressing gown, grabbed my towel and washbag and headed for the showers.

Most of them were there ahead of me. My arrival silenced the chatter and they watched as I stripped off my dressing gown and stepped into the shower area. It seemed like no-one moved or said anything for the two minutes it took me to wash off the filth and gore. I towelled myself dry, revealing the rawness on my arms, legs and back, slipped my dressing gown back on and walked out in silence.

I had an hour before lights out, so decided to make an attempt at some of my homework. Chances were I wouldn’t have much time in the morning. The geography involved a bit of reading and the writing of a short essay. I could at least get the reading out of the way. -oOo-

Waking to the sounds of reveille was becoming a habit. I was stiff and aching, but the raw tenderness in my skin had subsided considerably. I sat up in bed and my geography book fell to the floor. I couldn’t remember what I’d read from it, so I must have been more tired than I’d thought.

It’s possible that I took a little longer than usual to get up after the bugle call, because the shower block was empty when I reached it. By the time I’d washed and struggled into the fresh singlet Dr Wiesner had left for me, there wasn’t much time left for breakfast. I went over to the mess in any case, ready to be bombarded by a succession of orders from the guys.

Instead they all stood when I entered. One of them held a chair for me to sit in, two more picked up trays and went to fetch me a glass of orange juice and a bowl of cereal. The rest stood until I’d seated myself and then followed suit.

“I thought I lost,” I said, not a little confused.

“We talked it over,” the chair holder said. “Whatever the sergeant says, we reckon you won on points.”

“What were those flags you left made from?” another asked.

My breakfast arrived. I vaguely recognised the two who had tackled me at the end.

“We’re sorry,” one of them said. “We didn’t mean to hurt you like that.”

“Bang out of order,” the other said.

“You know,” yet another interjected, “you’re a tough one for all that you’re a scrawny little snot.”

“You’d best eat up,” the one who’d held my chair for me said. “We’re due on the parade ground in ten minutes.”

It was ten fruitful minutes. I didn’t say much, being too busy eating. I did give a brief summary of my tactics from the previous day, but for the rest of it, I let them talk. I didn’t get all their names, but I made a good start. It seemed I’d won myself some respect.

Out on the parade ground, the sergeant waited with a malevolent smile on his face. I jogged up with the rest of the troop, all of us arriving with a minute to spare. The sergeant came straight to me.

“Right, you horrible little maggot,” he said into my face, “it seems to me that since you are going to be this lots’ servant today, you ought to be more appropriately dressed.” He pulled out a frilly maid’s uniform and handed to me. “Get changed, maggot.”

I stared at the dress dumbfound. There was a part of me that wanted to put the dress on, but if she got her way, I’d end up changing more than my clothes in front of this lot. This was going to go badly whatever I did, but I couldn’t afford to let the secret out, Dr Wiesner had been quite explicit about that.”

“No,” one of my new friends said.

The sergeant wheeled on him and stared him in the face, anger and incredulity fighting for supremacy in his expression. “What did you say?”

“No, sergeant,” said a second of the troop, then a third, then all of them.

The sergeant had no idea how to handle things for a few second, then his eyes narrowed. “Fine, it’s a little rebellion in the ranks, is it? Well we can do something about that.” He snatched the dress out of my hands. “Double time, full length of the field and back.”

Which was how we spent the morning. The good thing was it loosened up some very stiff muscles. The not so good was that it was thoroughly knackering, and when lunchtime came around, we were all dehydrated and exhausted.

“You guys are going to get this after lunch as well. I mean I appreciate your standing up for me, but I hope you don’t end up regretting your decision.”

“Like I said, we decided you won yesterday. That means we get to do what you say, and we even get to protect you from sergeant dip…” He snapped his mouth shut mid-insult as the sergeant marched in. Fortunately for us, he didn’t feel like joining our table.

When he’d gone, one of the others picked up. “So what would you like us to do for you today, other than cover for you with his nibs there, and get you breakfast and lunch?” His words were emphasised as a large plate of whatever the canteen was serving landed in front of me.

“Er, well there was one thing I was hoping you’d be able to help me with.”

Everyone turned to look at me.

“I have a stack of homework to do before I go back to school next week, and I don’t understand most of it. I was wondering if any of you could help. My worst areas at the moment are science – that is all three sciences – history and French. I mean I don’t want you guys to do it for me, just help me understand what I need to do.”

“We can do that, can’t we lads? Francois here is French, so if he can’t help you with that bit of it, I don’t know what use he is. Frank, didn’t you say you studied history in college? And Doug and I are planning on pitching for the Royal Engineers when we’re done with this lot. Between us we should be able to help you out with the physics and chemistry. Not so sure about the biology, but we should be able to cope with, what is it, GCSE level?”

“Yeah, yes it is. Wow, thanks guys, you have no idea what this means to me.”

“If it’ll pay off an obligation, we’ll be more than happy to do so. Look, we’re all under orders in the afternoon and after dinner, so why don’t we agree to a couple of us helping you out after we’re dismissed this afternoon, then the rest at different times tomorrow? If we’re still all here over the weekend, we can arrange something for Saturday and Sunday as well.”

“I should be able to help you with the biology,” another one chipped in. This was Bill, who wasn’t much older than me, but I’d take help where I could get it.

“Anyone know much geography?” I asked and a different hand went up. I had more tutors than I needed now.

After lunch, Dr Wiesner set me running through a variety of obstacle courses he’d set up in his lab, first as Phillip, then as Philippa, then as either or both. By the end of the afternoon, he had me running courses that I could only complete via multiple changes. It was kind of fun.

I was done by five, which was usually when the rest of the guys knocked off as well, only this time, they were still drilling half an hour later with no sign of stopping. I didn’t trust myself to achieve anything without help, so I jogged over and joined on the end of the formation.

“What do you think you’re doing?” One of them whispered to me.

“I can’t do my homework without you guys,” I murmured back, “so I figured I’d join you til you were done.”

It took the sergeant a couple of minutes to notice me. He called a halt then came up and yelled in my face, asking me in no uncertain terms exactly what I thought I was doing.

“Drilling sergeant,” I yelled back into his face.

“You drill with this lot in the mornings and after dinner only,” the sergeant yelled. “Now fall out and go do whatever it is you do at this time.”

“No sergeant,” I yelled.

His face turned a satisfying shade of beetroot, and he bellowed, “Get off my parade ground!”

We were drawing attention, with even Dr Wiesner looking our way.

“No sergeant,” I yelled, then more quietly, “not until you dismiss these guys. They’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Over my dead body,” He snarled.

“I’m not sure if Dr Wiesner would go quite that far, but he’s coming our way.”

He stood up and spun about, marching off to intercept the doctor, but Wiesner wouldn’t be deterred. He came up to me.

“What is this Phillip? What are you doing?”

“I’m sorry doctor. Some of my friends here offered to help me understand my homework assignments. All this week they’ve finished drilling by five, so I just figured I’d join in until they were dismissed, because I’m sure it won’t be that long.”

The doctor turned to the sergeant, who had a somewhat constipated look, I suspected from keeping his feelings in check. “It does seem strange that you are still drilling the men this late sergeant,” Dr Wiesner said.

“It looks like I’ve overrun a little sir,” the sergeant said. “I’ll dismiss them right away.”

“Perhaps since you’ve kept them working over, you might forego the evening exercise as well. I would like Phillip to have his assignments completed before he goes back to school next week.”

“I suppose that should be possible, sir.” I thought he might burst a blood vessel from holding in his true feelings.

We were dismissed and Doug and Andrew followed me to my tent.

“You know, you’ve probably turned the rest of this week into a living hell for all of us, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I’m sorry, I guess I wasn’t really thinking. You guys are still going to have to deal with him after this weekend aren’t you? I didn’t mean to make your lives any more difficult.”

“No, it was absolutely worth it to witness that. We all rotate after this week anyway, so we won’t see him after the weekend’s up. He’ll really have it in for you though, so watch it.”

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I doubt he has permission to kill me. You don’t happen to know which is his tent, do you?”

Andrew pointed with his chin to a slightly crisper, cleaner one on the end of the row. “What are you thinking?”

“Pre-emptive strike,” I said. “You know I nicked half a dozen tent pegs from different tents around the camp? I really ought to replace them.”

“We didn’t hear that, right Doug?”

“Hear what Andy?”

Science was actually fun with those two. They managed to do something which no teacher had ever managed before, which was make me interested in it. For each of the tasks I’d been assigned, they explained what was going on with real life examples, and stories they’d heard from other army engineers. It was not a substitute for all the years I’d lost to poor teachers and worse concentration, but it was a start, and enough to get me through my assignments. After dinner I worked until the lights went out, then I lay in my bed until my eyes had adjusted to the night.

Once I could see clearly in the dark, I changed into Philippa and slipped outside. There was enough of a moon to see by, and I made my way unerringly towards the sergeant’s tent. Andy had suggested in passing – ostensibly as part of his tutoring – that a tent with no pegs on one side would be highly unstable, especially if they were missing from the side the wind was blowing from. The wind was due to pick up later that night, Doug had confided, and would be coming from the West, so no surprise, I pulled up all the tent pegs on the west side of the sergeant’s tent.

True to my original intention, I made my way to each of the tents I’d stolen from the previous day and replaced the pegs before returning to my own bunk. I stopped by the shower block on the way back. Little girl sensibilities I suspected. I did not like having dirty hands.

Some hours before reveille, a loud commotion woke the whole camp, and the troop, myself included, were lined up in front of an incandescent sergeant.

“Right, you miserable little ticks. None of you is going back to bed until I find out who’s responsible.”

It didn’t take long to realise he meant it, so I stepped forward. “It was me sergeant,” I admitted.

Doug stepped forward and said the same, followed by Andy, and in very rapid succession, the rest of the troop.

“Fine,” he hollered. “If that’s the way you want it, you can all stand out here til the sun comes up.”

“I don’t think so sergeant,” Dr Wiesner said from the entrance to his tent. “Phillip is a minor and to subject him to such a punishment could endanger his health, and I cannot allow that. Furthermore, I don’t see what you can achieve by punishing the rest of your troop for what seems very likely to be a young boy’s prank. Dismiss your men, and I will deal with the young fellow in the morning.”

True to his word, the doctor had someone at my tent as reveille sounded. I was marched across the grounds in my dressing gown to Dr Wiesner’s lab.

“Tell me everything Phillip. Leave nothing out.”

His tone offered no leeway, so I did just as he instructed. He already knew about the fox hunt since he’d approved my taking part, so I started by telling him how I’d approached the challenge, and why the sergeant had disqualified me. I told him how the rest of the guys had decided I’d actually won, and when the sergeant wanted to put me in a maid’s uniform, they had refused to let him. That in turn had led to the morning’s excessive exercise, and the long afternoon drilling. Which had led to my seeking a little retribution.

He heard me out and leaned back in his chair. “You have put me in a difficult situation, Phillip, though perhaps I should take some of the blame.

“It was me who suggested you take part in this fox hunt without considering the consequences, but now you have compelled me to overrule Sergeant Langham’s orders twice, undermining his authority, and if any person needs unquestioned authority in this world, it is a drill sergeant.

“I believe you have benefited as much as you can from his training, so you will no longer join his troop for exercises in the morning and evening.

“It will be told to the sergeant and the men that I am punishing you privately, and you will play your part. You will work with me all through the next few days, continuing your training specifically for your first mission. In the evenings your friends can assist you with your homework, if they still wish to do so. Sergeant Langham can then do what he needs to reassert his authority before the weekend, and all will be well.”

“He’s a bully though.”

“Yes, and chosen because of it. Soldiers need to learn to obey orders even when they do not wish to. You are not becoming a soldier, and I think you do not have the aptitude even so; you are too independent minded.”

There wasn’t much I could do other than accept and go shower before breakfast. When I made it to the mess, the guys had a place saved for me. I didn’t need to pretend to be miserable.

“So, what’s up?” Andy asked.

“Wiesner’s decided I shouldn’t drill with you guys any more. He thinks I’m too much of a disruptive influence. I’m sorry. I think the sergeant will end up taking last night out on you.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Doug said. “It was worth it to see him brought down a peg or two. What happens to you though?”

“I’m not sure. Wiesner’s going to be working me through the day now, so I probably won’t see you, except at meal times, and maybe after we knock off at five, that is assuming you still don’t mind helping me with my homework?”

“Depends on if the sarge gives us any free time,” Andy said, “but we’ll try.”

After breakfast, the doctor had me transform into my little girl self and put me through a gruelling series of exercises. As Philippa, I had very little strength, due to a combination of no exercise, six-year-old body and little girl muscles. It was hard work like I’ve never known, and when the determination to push through the pain grew strong enough, I found myself inadvertently changing back into Phillip. The doc was strict with me and worked me hard so that even once I’d changed back into my fitter, older self at the end of the day, I was still shattered.

Francois came and helped me with my French when he was dismissed a little after five. He and the others were pretty spent after spending the day route marching with full kit, but between us we managed to get me understanding things enough to make an effort at the homework.

Friday was much the same. Two days wasn’t enough to build muscle, but I was finding ways of achieving what I needed with technique, so I was more with it at the end of the day. Frank and another guy whose name I couldn’t recall came to help with my history and geography homework, and they were able to speed up the learning bit by talking through the topics rather than have me read them. By the end of the day, I had all the work done. Not perfectly, but well enough, and certainly better than I’d have managed on my own.

Saturday the guys left for their next assignment, as did the sergeant. I was given a chance to say goodbye after breakfast, then Dr Wiesner told me to get changed and ready to leave, which was when I rediscovered my phone.

I turned it on and watched the screen fill with increasingly urgent text messages, some from Mum, the rest from Stacey. My mates had tried sending me stuff as well, but they’d given up when I hadn’t replied.

I did a blanket send to everyone, apologising and saying I’d had my phone confiscated, then I sent Stacey and then Mum a more detailed description of my week. The replies started arriving as I headed out to the car wearing my civilian clothes over the ever-present stretchy singlet.

Dr Wiesner handed me a bag with what looked like a month’s supply of singlets, which I didn’t mind since they were both comfortable and practical.

I slumped in the front seat and caught up on home news, while the doctor drove in silence. A couple of hours later, it occurred to me that we weren’t going to my home and I started taking interest in my surroundings.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“London. I thought tonight we should try you out. Please climb into the back and change into your other self, then take off the underwear and put on clothing more appropriate to a little girl.”

I’d figured that the doctor didn’t like talking much when he was driving, so I did as he asked without commenting. It felt oddly good to be back in a dress. I was beginning to realise I enjoyed being both girl and boy, and indulging in the pleasures of each. I suspected that if I spent too long as Philippa, I’d reach a point when I’d begin missing being Phillip.

“Good,” the doctor said, glancing at me. “We stay at a hotel tonight, and you will be my granddaughter. After we are checked into our room, I will tell you what is to be done after.”

Traffic was slow, so I took time to text Stacey as Philippa, and we enjoyed a girly exchange until finally the doctor pulled into a hotel car park.

“We’re here. Gotta go,” I sent and put the phone away.

We parked in an empty bay and the doctor took care of our bags, leaving me free to skip about like a… well like a little girl. It was an indulgence, and one I found I thoroughly enjoyed, once I’d overcome the slightly self-conscious feeling that came along with it. This was decidedly not appropriate behaviour for a teenage boy, but once I’d reminded myself I was neither teenage nor a boy anymore, I started to enjoy myself, skipping off to investigate everything that caught my eye.

“Philippa,” Dr Wiesner called. “Stay close now, leibchen.”

“Yes grandpa,” I replied, but stayed at the limit of his vision, ducking in and out of sight as I satisfied my curiosity every way I could think.

“Philippa, come here.” The doctor sounded angry. I came running. “Didn’t I tell you to stay close? Now stay where I can see you.”

“Yes grandpa,” I said glumly, but my head was already looking about for something new, something different. Just as he finished checking in, I drifted off again, having seen a fish tank over against one wall.

“Don’t overplay it,” he murmured in my ear, then louder. “Come on Philippa, our room is ready.” He took my hand and led me towards the lifts.

There was a security camera in one corner of the lift, so I stood quietly, twisting my body back and forth as we ascended. There were more cameras in the corridor, all of them standing out from their surroundings as though the hotel owners wanted to make a point of their existence, which maybe they did.

Finally, we were through the door and into our room. If there was surveillance in here, it was more subtle.

With the door closed, Dr Wiesner let out a long sigh.

“I take it we’re okay now,” I said wandering over to the window and looking out on London’s skyline.

“We are. You can change if you like.”

“No, I’m good,” I said.

He shrugged and put his briefcase on the coffee table.

“Is our reason for being here anything to do with the conference?” I asked. There had been a number of signs in the reception area mentioning it.

“It is good to know you are aware of your surroundings. And to answer your question, yes.”

“Did it bother you that all my school reports said I had such poor concentration?”

“Eh?” He looked confused by my non sequitur.

“You had this sort of thing in mind for me when you started treating me ten years ago, didn’t you? It must have worried you that I seemed to have such a short attention span.”

“It would be a lie to say that I wasn’t bothered, but I am quite impressed with how you’ve turned out. What changed, do you think?”

“I found my other self. And the freedom to express myself completely.”

“I’m sorry, I do not understand what you mean.”

“Your machine separated me into two distinct parts, then took one of them away. For the past ten years, I’ve felt that a part of me was missing. That sense of absence has been there for as long as I can remember, constantly demanding my attention.”

“Without my machine, those same two parts of your nature would have been constantly fighting, confusing you.”

“I suppose that’s true. Their combined influence would have turned me into something our society prefers to ignore, someone who is neither fully male nor female. By separating my two selves you helped me find a place, which I wouldn’t have had otherwise. But by cutting me off from a part of myself, you still made me less than I am. I’m not just a boy, any more than I am just a girl. I’m both, and both aspects of me need freedom to exist.

“Your machine has given me the physical forms to be entirely male and entirely female, which is a more magical, more precious gift than you can possibly imagine, but my whole mind, perhaps my whole soul, is made of those two natures combined. Take one away, or suppress it, or whatever you did, and you make me less than I am. Then, aware of that loss, what remains of my mind will spend every waking hour, and quite possibly many sleeping ones, distracted by the search to find wholeness.

“I am only fully me like this, doctor, possessed of both my natures and able to express them both. I do owe you a considerable debt of thanks. My life would have been a confused muddle without your machine, but it would have been easier if I’d known my true nature earlier.”

“You must excuse me,” he said laughing nervously. “To hear a six-year-old girl speak this way is truly unsettling. You don’t even sound like a sixteen-year-old.”

“I suppose it’s my reaction to this change. Living with loss matures you. I have a friend at school who changed dramatically after his mother died. “

“And how is it you are living with loss?”

“Oh, I’m not anymore. But I have lived with loss for the last ten years. I’m living with found now, and that’s better than living with neither.”

Dr Wiesner looked confused.

“One of my teachers showed us a documentary once about an American teacher who taught her class about prejudice by separating them into blue eyed and brown eyed.”

“I know of this. The teacher was named Jane Elliott, yes? But how is this relevant.”

“During the experiment, the persecuted kids did worse in class, and the privileged ones did better, but after the experiment was over, they all improved. That’s kind of what I feel right now. It’s been a hard experience, but now it’s over, I think perhaps I’m better off than those who haven’t experienced anything like it. It’s like my brain has bounced in the opposite direction, from super distracted to super alert.”

“Well, if this is the case, we should take advantage of it, yes?”

“Sure.”

“So, you noticed the cameras, yes?”

“About half a dozen in the reception area, one in the lift, several down the corridors. I’m assuming none in the rooms.” I looked around but nothing was obvious.

“This is so. All public places are monitored. There are a very few blind spots, but we should be able to make use of them to do what we have come to do.”

“Which is?”

“To steal a device.”

“I thought we were the good guys,” I said nervously.

“We are. I said to your father how we live in a world of science fiction now, where many of the more unbelievable inventions remain hidden and in the hands of unscrupulous corporations or individuals, you remember this?”

“Yes.”

“Here is an example. There is a small research lab whose chief executive has, in this last few months, become very rich on the stock market.”

“Why is that particularly unusual?”

“Because of the way it has happened. He made some very risky decisions with his buying and selling of stocks, but each time he proved to be correct.

“At first we suspected insider trading, but we have no evidence of him having contact with people who know the markets ahead of time. Furthermore, some of his biggest pay-outs have been over changes in the market no-one expected.

“So, we thought perhaps he is influencing people, and our investigations showed people he has association with booking into hotels where there are business related meetings that affect the market.”

“Like the trade union conference here on Monday.” I stated, confirming my earlier guess.

“Yes, we think they mean to influence the delegates, perhaps persuade them to go on strike for no good reason. If he knows this ahead of time and sells his stock, then buys back when it reaches a low value, just before the strike ends…”

“Then business is disrupted, people lose jobs or income, and he makes a pot of cash.”

“Yes, and without appearing to break any laws.

“We need to have information on how this device works so we can build something to cancel its effects, or at least detect its presence, so we can stop him in the future.”

“Meanwhile he gets away with everything he’s done so far?”

“Sometimes you can only limit the damage, not reverse it.”

“Fine, so what’s the plan.” It was anything but fine, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. -oOo-

I spent the rest of the day running around the place; just a naughty little girl making a game of hiding from her grandfather.

Dr Wiesner kept coming to look for me, then he would go to the hotel reception to ask for help. They always found me, of course. Running through the surveillance footage would show where I’d gone, and sometimes even where I was hiding, so they came and fetched me soon enough.

By the end of the day, the hotel staff were heartily fed up with me, which was part of the reason for the exercise, and I had a much clearer idea on where all the blind spots were, which was the rest of it.

I was sent to bed early, and made enough of a racket over that to drive our immediate neighbours into making a complaint.

The next day the doctor headed down to breakfast alone.

“I allowed her to stay up late in the end,” he confided with the receptionist. “She will sleep late now, so I thought I would have breakfast early.”

Of course she didn’t sleep late. She snuck out of the room a few minutes later and wandered down the corridor towards the lifts and stairs. She was wearing a pink dress over what looked like a pink top and leggings.

At the end of the corridor was a supply closet. It was under the occasional watch of a camera tracking back and forth. I waited immediately under the camera until it was pointing away from the closet door, then dashed forward to open it. The doctor had supplied me with a master key without telling me where he’d acquired it.

Inside the closet I was free of surveillance but had to get to a ventilation grill above a top shelf. The shelves were firmly bolted into place, so I stripped of the dress and changed into Phillip to make it easier to climb. The pink singlet didn’t exactly look masculine, but I rather liked it, and with no one there to watch…

Agility and strength got me to the top shelf where I changed back. The doctor had also provided me with a belt of tools made from the same stretchy material as the singlet/catsuit. I pulled out a multi-tool and swiftly unscrewed the ventilation grate. The shaft was a tight fit even for little me.

With my dress hidden on the top shelf – I didn’t want to get it dirty – and the grill loosely in place, I went off in search of a way down to the first floor; six floors down.

The schematics the doctor had shown me the previous evening had indicated each floor’s ventilation was linked to the next by vertical shafts. First hand inspection now showed them to be too narrow for big me and too challenging a climb for little me.

After checking and rejecting all potential routes in the ventilation, I made my laborious way back to the supply closet.

Where I found a pair of overalls hanging on the back of the door.

I changed into big me, climbed off the shelf and slipped the overalls on. They were a bit loose, but they’d do. There was a peaked cap too, which would help me hide from the cameras.

With my little girl dress secreted in a case of cleaning materials, I ducked out of the closet and onto the stairwell, keeping my head down all the way, and turning it away from where I knew the cameras to be.

On the first floor, I found an equivalent supply cupboard and stripped down, climbed up and entered the ventilation as before.

This time it was just a matter of following directions. Third left, second right then immediate left and follow it round. I found myself looking through a ventilation grill into a room where something unrecognisable, except that it had an obvious pointy end aiming in the direction of the conference hall, had been set up in the middle of the room. Several people wandered about, checking things, tapping on keyboards, adjusting knobs and dials. I needed them out of there.

I backed off from the grill and called Dr Wiesner. “Can you set off the fire alarm?” I asked.

“Not easily. Why do you ask?”

“Three technicians, all looking busy.”

“Any chance they’ll be coming down for breakfast?”

“I doubt it. I think I saw a room service trolley in there.”

“Can you see the device?”

“Oh yeah.”

“What does that mean?”

“It’s pretty big, about as big as me, standing on a tripod in the middle of the room. There are three laptops connected to it, and a sizable rack of switches and twiddlies.”

“Okay, so we cannot take it with us. We’ll need pictures inside and out, and we’ll need a copy of whatever’s on those computers.”

“I think we need to get these guys out of the room first.”

“Yes we do, but before that we need a plan for what to do when we achieved this.”

Well duh, I hadn’t thought of that.

“You have a clone drive in your belt, but you’ll need one for each computer. I have more in the car. How many shelves are there on the rack?”

“I’m not sure, I think maybe five our six.”

“Are they open or closed?”

“Open I think. Why does that matter?”

“Open means easy access to the electronics, for repairs or modification. It usually means they are still working on it. It is also better for us. We can photograph the circuits more quickly. The device itself, it has a cover?”

“Yes.”

“How is it fixed?”

“Screws I think.”

“Don’t think. Make sure. Have the correct tool ready before you start. My guess, they will be quick release, so only a quarter turn to remove them. Is there anything else in the room?”

“I don’t know.”

“Go back and look. Make sure there is nothing you have missed, then meet me in the ground floor toilets in ten minutes.”

I sidled up to the grating again and examined the room bit by bit. The only thing I’d missed was a handwritten journal sitting on one of the bedside cabinets. The only reason I spotted it on the second look was because one of the technicians went to check it. It was thick with more than a hundred pages.

Once I was as sure as I could be that I hadn’t missed anything, I withdrew quietly to the janitorial cupboard, changed into Phillip and put on the overalls, then, mop and bucket in hand, I made my way down the last flight of stairs and into the gents.

Dr Wiesner was there already. He handed me two USB drives and asked if I’d noticed anything else. I told him about the journal.

“You’d better take this as well,” he said, handing over something half the size of my phone.

“What’s so special about this?” I asked. From the looks of it, it was nothing more than a compact camera.

“Hi definition in low light, records at one hundred frames per second, has enough solid state memory to record for one week continuously,” he responded nonchalantly. “Press this button here when you are ready to enter the room, then just point the lens at what you wish to photograph. Press and hold the same button for five seconds to turn it off. When filming, every few seconds it uploads its images via burst transmission.

“Here also is a magnetic monopod so you can attach it to ferrous surfaces.” He handed me the gizmos. “You will have to set a real fire, I think.”

“What! Why?”

“From your description, it is unlikely the technicians will leave there post unless they believe there is danger. Also, you will need time to photograph the book. A false alarm would give you less than five minutes, whereas if there is smoke, they will have to wait outside for the fire department.

“So, drives first. Just plug them in and they will copy all automatically. Second, open and photograph the inside of the device and the circuits in the rack. Third, set up the camera on the pod and turn the pages in the journal as fast as you can. The high frame rate of the camera should mean you can video the journal in perhaps two minutes. The whole operation, from the moment everyone leaves, should take between five and ten minutes.”

And it did. The whole operation ran with clockwork precision. I found a tin of grease in the janitorial closet and wiped a few paper towels with the stuff, before screwing them up and adding them to a bucket. A packet of cigarettes and a lighter provided me with my igniter.

I took the time to secure the grill behind me when I entered the vent in the cupboard. With the fire, it was doubtful I’d be coming back this way. My utility belt provided me with the perfect tool in the form of a magnetised screwdriver bit that turned back on itself. Apparently vents and grills like this would be a common feature in my future career.

The same tool let me into the room once the technicians had left, the grill swinging out of the way on its last screw. The filming of everything took less time than the copying of the drives. While I was waiting, I flipped through the journal, giving special attention to the pages which opened naturally. They described the settings required to influence different emotions, and looking at the computers, they were set to induce aggression.

Out of curiosity, I looked to see what the settings were for submissiveness, and they were remarkably similar. Just a couple of dial settings different.

The journal was full of crossings out, especially the settings pages. I found a pen and altered the two pages so they read the opposite, then changed the settings on the computers.

Everything went back where it had been. The alarms died about the time the computers finished copying. I retrieved my equipment, used my Phillip form to climb back up to the vent, then turned into Philippa to squeeze in. I was just putting the last screw in place as the techs returned. I lay still and held my breath.

One of the techs looked at the computer screens, checked the journal then shrugged. It had been a gamble, but it looked like it had paid off.

The layout of the hotel was the same on each level, so I headed for a grill that I knew opened out on a blind spot on the seventh floor. A quick check with a small dentist’s mirror showed the same here. I had to wait a while until all the hotel guests had finished returning to their rooms or wherever they had been, then I emerged into the dead spot, cleaned off the worst of the grime from my arms, legs and face, put my dress back on and headed for the lift, where I was captured by hotel staff a few minutes later having pushed every single button.

“Where were you?” a frantic Dr Wiesner asked, scooping me up into his arms. It felt strangely uncomfortable, even though I knew he was just playing a part.

“I was playing hide and seek, Grandpa,” I answered master of factly. “It was so much fun; there were so many people.”

“There was a fire, Liebchen. Didn’t you hear the alarm?”

“Oh yes, it was very loud.”

“This is why you should not run away, Liebchen. You could have been hurt.”

We kept up the pretence all the way back to our room, Dr Wiesner holding me in his arms, and me looking just a little worried.

He put me down as soon as the site was closed. “Did you get it all?”

By way of answer, I handed the USB sticks and the camera back to him. “The computers took the longest time.”

“And they suspect nothing?”

“I don’t think so. I waited after they came in, but no-one showed any signs that anything was wrong.”

“It’s a shame we could not stop their plans for Monday. The fire engines arrived very quickly and put out your fire before it spread. The damage is not enough to close the hotel.”

“They’ll probably sack the janitor.”

“If they can find him. All they saw was a young man with a cap on.”

“If he loses his job, you make sure he’s okay,” I said putting on a determined face that might have been more effective had it not been my six-year-old self making it.

“We cannot afford…”

“You will if you want me to work for you. Nobody innocent gets hurt if we can help it.”

He held my gaze steadily for a few seconds, then dropped his eyes. “I will do what I can,” he agreed. Maybe the six-year-old face was more effective than I’d thought. -oOo-

We checked out the following morning, the bill including a number of Disney princess movies, from Beauty and the Beast to Frozen. They’d been intended to maintain cover and explain why I hadn’t gone running off around the hotel again, but I found my little girl perspective changing the way I appreciated them and could barely pull my eyes from the TV.

The journey back home was uneventful. The doctor insisted I change back into Phillip, which was a shame as I was enjoying being a girl.

“What will your neighbours say if, having taken you away on Monday, I bring back your cousin today?”

It made sense, and so with some reluctance I turned back into Phillip.

“I have a lot of girl time to catch up on,” I said when I was back in boy mode.

“I would ask you to use it only a little,” Dr Wiesner said. “Whichever of your bodies is out of phase does not age, but when you inhabit it, it does. This means two things. The more time you spend as Philippa, the more slowly Phillip will age, and this might raise suspicion with your friends and teachers. Also the more you are Philippa, the quicker she will grow, and for now it is convenient to have someone so small on the team.

“Since I conducted my procedure on you, you have spent perhaps two hours of every day as Philippa. She has grown a year for the nine you have grown. If you remain as Phillip all the day, then Philippa will come in the night, so you must be her sometimes, but please, no more than two or three hours of the day. We have an agreement here, yes? I do as you ask when I can, like you asked with the janitor, and you do what I ask.”

“I’ll do what I can. Mum may want to take Philippa out for longer than two hours at a time, but I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.”

Mum and Dad were glad to see me, Dad especially showed relief that I was still Phillip, plus all the exercise had made its mark, and he approved of the better muscle tone. Mum, I think, was a little disappointed that it was her son and not her daughter, or niece or whatever, who came back, but I’d make it up to her with evening cuddles as Philippa during the week. -oOo-

School was a bit of a let-down after the previous week. I’d not realised how the teachers looked at me until I took their assignments back to them. Each regarded me with suspicion and left me wondering how much of my poor performance might have been down to their having more or less given up on me.

Classes were actually better now. Since I’d discovered Philippa and let her into my life, I found I wasn’t distracted any more. I had a lot of catching up to do, but I was determined to do it. It would take time to overcome my reputation, but I took the wary looks most of my teachers were giving me as a good sign.

Morning break saw me summoned to the head’s office. This would be my official dressing down for crimes admitted but uncommitted at Crestwell. I sighed. There was always something waiting to ruin my day.

Chapter 4