Flip – 4 – Detained
Stacey was in the office with him when I arrived, which had me worried that she’d be in trouble too. She was still trying to change her image as well. Skirt very much at regulation length, and barely a trace of makeup. She looked stunning.
“Sir, Stacey had nothing to do with what happened at Crestwell. It was all on me,” I said as soon as I entered.
“That’s not what she’s been telling me, Phillip.”
I looked across at her, but she had her head bowed and wouldn’t meet my gaze.
“She didn’t do anything, sir,” I insisted.
“I’m sure you’re right, Phillip, but then she says the same about you, so we do have something to cover up here, don’t we?”
I looked at Stacey, whose eyes had risen to find mine. She was smiling, but there was a definite glisten of tears there.
What could I say? Turns out I didn’t have to.
“Both of you have something of a reputation in this school,” Mr Leighton said. “In the past, Miss Owen has been reported almost daily for uniform infractions, and on top of that has been insufferably cheeky to her teachers, however this past week, I have not received one single complaint, either for her dress or her attitude.
“As for you, Mr Merrick, you have equally been sent to me almost daily for daydreaming in class, for lack of effort, for not trying, and yet, Miss Fallon tells me last week you put in an exceptional amount of work during your detentions and have made impressive progress in just one week. What’s more, the teachers who set your assignments for last week tell me that at first glance the effort you have made is far beyond what they were expecting.
“Now, I don’t know what was going on behind the bike sheds at Crestwell, but it doesn’t seem to me that your recent endeavours are in keeping with someone who would do such an unpleasant thing as Mr Grimes tells me you were doing, neither does your past behaviour at other school sporting fixtures. Miss Owen tells me you said what you did in order to protect her, and I’m inclined to believe her. Since nothing actually happened, I’m going to mark down last week as an authorised absence for you to attend a sports training camp, which from the look of you can’t be far from the truth. There will be nothing in your record to say that you were being disciplined.
“As for Miss Owen here, given her change of attitude and your defence of her in front of me now, I will take it on faith that she wasn’t doing anything untoward either. Since it seems evident to me that you are both trying to improve your game, I believe you are owed a little faith on my part. You are free to go.”
He stood, and we followed suit.
“Thank you,” Stacey stammered, with me adding my own thanks.
“If you want to thank me, then make sure I continue to see less of you in my office.”
We rushed out before our luck changed for the worse. We had five minutes before break was over and spent it together.
“I missed you,” Stacey said. “Thanks for the texts though. I did get worried when you stopped sending.”
“They warned me the phone would be confiscated if I had it when I shouldn’t.” I wasn’t ready to admit that I’d forgotten all about my phone once the business with the fox hunt took off. “Why’d you go to Leighton over this?”
“I couldn’t let you take the hit for my sake, especially since neither of us did anything wrong.”
“Well, thanks. I appreciate your standing up for me. I’m glad it didn’t get complicated.”
“Leighton’s a good sort. He had a long talk with Grimesy last Monday morning and ended up calling me in. I couldn’t just sit there and say nothing, so I told them the truth.”
“That Grimesy was going to tell my parents what he thought we’d been about to do behind the bike sheds, and you’d come out with your thing to protect me. Grimesy wasn’t too happy, but he admitted to it, which was when Leighton put everything on hold til you got back.”
“What if he’d asked what we were doing?”
“Haven’t you noticed? He doesn’t ask questions when he thinks the answers might make the situation harder to explain. Anyway, if he had, I’d have said we were just having a snog.
“How was last week for you? I can see you picked up a few bruises.”
Trust a girl to notice details like that. I’d have to spend some time as Philippa seeing if I could pick up on such little subtleties.
“It was okay. A bit rough at times, and the sergeant was a bit of a tool.”
“Sergeant? It really was a military thing then?”
“Well, he said he was a sergeant, and we wore army uniforms and stuff. Whether it was really army, I don’t know. I made some good friends though. They helped me with my homework.”
“Don’t tell anyone else that. They think you did it yourself.”
“I did, after they’d explained what I needed to do. I didn’t skive off or anything.”
The bell rang.
“Gotta go,” she said.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Do you fancy meeting up at lunch?”
She smiled, and the world brightened. “How about round the bike sheds?”
“I’ll see you there.”
I hadn’t caught up with any of my mates yet, but they could wait. I mean they’d been the first to stop texting me.
Miss Fallon’s class, and we were giving algebra a break. Now it was all areas and perimeters. Simple stuff at first, which I finished ahead of the class, then some extension work which went into complex shapes.
“Miss, why are we doing this?” That was Jake Wallace. I mean this was pretty much the lowest set, and Jake was at the bottom end of it. “I mean when will I ever use this?”
“Well, let’s see. Any ideas?”
A depressing lack of hands. After a few seconds I put mine up.
“What if you’re painting a fence, Miss? And the tin of paint says it covers five square metres. You need to know how big your fence is to know how many tins of paint you need.”
“Excellent example. Thank you, Phillip. The same applies if you’re laying carpet or putting up tiles, or if you’re planning to build something. We’ll be looking at some questions like that later in the week.”
Miss Fallon gave me an encouraging smile. Jake gave me a filthy look.
History was a discussion, and the class was still on the topic I’d written about the previous week. With the in depth talks I’d had with Frank, I had a lot to contribute, very much to my teacher’s and the rest of the class’s surprise.
Lunch came, and I headed for the bike sheds in a buoyant mood, until Jake Wallace cornered me.
“You trying to make me look stupid?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Miss Fallon asked a question, I answered it. Listen mate, I’m trying is all.”
“You’re not my mate,” he snarled, “and you carry on like this, you won’t have any.”
“What was that about?” Stacey asked when I reached her.
I looked back at Jake’s retreating form. “Nothing,” I said. “He wasn’t happy about my answering questions in Fallon’s class.”
She pulled me gently out of sight and put her arms around my neck
“Are you ashamed to be seen with me?” I teased.
“No, just don’t want anyone else to see you turn into a little girl when I do this.”
She kissed me. I could feel Philippa responding inside me, but the previous week had taught me a lot of discipline and control.
We spent fifteen minutes in various states of lip lock until we were chased off by the groundsman. He gave me a particularly dirty look, which had me suspecting that Grimesy had been spreading stories.
Out in the open, it wasn’t long til my mates caught up with us.
“Hey Merrick!” Slater called across at us. “What you doing slumming with that slapper, eh?”
Stacey gripped my arm. She looked hurt, but more worried.
“Well right now she’s holding me back from giving you a right good kicking, so I’d be a bit more respectful.”
“Are you serious?” He was incredulous. Always over the top was Jack Slater. “You and Stacey Owen?”
“Anyone can change, Slater. Even you, though I reckon it would take a massive effort for you to come back from git of the year.”
Jack was a good foot taller than me and carried a lot of muscle. He was one of our team’s prop forwards, and I didn’t really want to fight him, but he didn’t know when to let something go, so I needed to stand up to him now.
Fortunately, he was also pretty easy going. He shrugged and grinned. “Fair enough. Truce then. No hard feelings, Stace?”
“No,” she smiled. “I’ve called you worse things to my mates.”
He roared with laughter, then when he’d recovered a bit, he said, “You’re alright, you are. Be good to him though, right?”
“I have every intention.” She squeezed my arm. Crisis averted.
“So, what happened to you last week?”
So I told them. The expurgated version, of course. -oOo-
I started to enjoy school after that. I mean there was Stacey for one thing. For another, I kept doing a lot better in my lessons, and by the end of the term I had jumped from bottom set to second or third in most of my subjects. The one exception to this was maths where Miss Fallon bumped me from bottom set directly to the top. As head of maths she taught both top and bottom sets, and I wasn’t sure if it was that she saw something in me, or if she just wanted to keep an eye on me. Either way, maths became a lot harder, and a lot more interesting.
The incident with Crestwell blew over, thanks largely to Mr Leighton’s decision not to pursue it further, and I went back to being the sometime sporting hero of the school. Even the nickname that Slater came up with fizzled out, for which I was grateful. I didn’t fancy being known as the Turdmeister for the rest of my school career.
Roughly every other weekend, Dr Wiesner took me away for a couple of days’ training. Sometimes as Phillip, but mainly as Philippa in an effort to develop my underused muscles and to improve my suppleness. After the second, I suggested that ballet classes might help to achieve his ends, and with his agreement, Philippa enrolled for sessions every Thursday evening.
Every so often, Dad would take off with his friends and go fishing, as he had done for as long as I could recall. Those weekends usually turned into totally girly mother-daughter sessions, which both Mum and I thoroughly enjoyed.
When I wasn’t being Philippa with Mum or Dr Wiesner, usually I was being Phillip with Stacey. One exception to this was when she invited me – as Philippa – to her younger sister’s birthday party. Weirdly enough, Emma and I became good friends, and I ended up having to share my weekends between my girlfriend and her sister. It was complicated, especially when Emma had a sleepover, but we made it work somehow.
Eventually the end of term drew near, and Dr Wiesner arranged for Stacey to join me on a training weekend. I have no idea what he told her parents, but she was sitting in the car already when I left the house with my own weekend bag.
As usual, we drove in silence for a few hours before arriving at a remote location – a manor house this time – with its contingent of guards at the perimeter. The journey had been far more bearable than usual since Stacey and I had spent the trip snuggled together on the back seat.
We each had our own bedroom in the large and luxurious house. It was a far cry from the usual weekend away accommodation, which usually consisted of a cramped and uncomfortable camp bed under canvas, but I wasn’t about to start complaining.
After a delicious meal in a large dining room that could have accommodated ten times our number, Dr Wiesner led us through to the other side of the building where what looked like a ballroom had been set out for making presentations. The doctor dimmed the lights and turned on a projector.
“Hey,” Stacey said. “That’s the place we’re going next week, isn’t it?”
“The Wexler Research Centre, yes, and the site of your next mission. But, Phillip, this time there must be no deviation from the plan.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” I stammered, my guilty expression saying the exact opposite.
“I think you do.” His voice was stern.
“How did you find out?”
“It became evident after Monday when the trade union voted to accept the deal they were offered. It was unexpected, even though the deal was a fair one, and especially with the machine present. Our friend definitely did not expect it as he lost a great deal of his wealth when the markets did not swing in the direction he had anticipated.
“Your mission was to take photographs of all the workings of the device and to copy the software, not to interfere with what they were doing.”
“My original mission, as I recall, was to steal the device.”
“Which we couldn’t achieve because of its size. Making a copy of the device was a good alternative, and if we could do it without them knowing, we could start to influence their use of the machine also without them knowing.”
“I thought that’s what I did anyway.”
“You took a risk. I imagine you changed the settings on the computer? What if they’d checked the journal?”
“I changed the settings in the journal as well. There were a lot of crossings out. I just added a few.”
“And what if they’d noticed your changes?”
“I don’t know.”
“They would have known we were investigating them. They would have gone into hiding. They would have suspected we took photographs and copies, and they may have found a way to modify the machine so we could not affect it, or perhaps detect it.”
“Instead they tried to use it and it didn’t work. They lost a lot of money and they think it’s broken.”
“Except now when they try to find out why it didn’t work, there is a good possibility they will discover your alterations. And if they consider them to be sabotage, we will again have lost our advantage.
“Phillip, sometimes it is necessary to allow a battle to be lost in order for the war to be won.”
“Even if that means innocent people get hurt?”
“Yes, even so.”
“I don’t like the way you think.”
“No, neither do I sometimes, but you must obey my instructions, without deviating. When you are older and more experienced, perhaps you will make a better leader than me, but for now, if you cannot obey my instructions, I cannot use you.”
Stacey’s hand snaked out to take mine. She nodded her agreement with the doctor’s words.
“Okay, but I don’t like it.”
“You don’t have to. Just do it is all.”
The rest of the weekend involved going over the plan for our school trip. It seemed straightforward enough, but then so had the hotel job. Stacey’s part in it was mainly covering for me while I was out of sight, and she was coached in a number of ways of doing so. Meanwhile, parts of the mansion had been altered to mock up certain rooms and areas in the institute where I would be going. Stacey got to watch some of my exercises, I think to give her a better understanding of what I would be doing and why I wouldn’t be able to respond to her communications at times.
Yeah we were given some really cool gadgets, like bone transduction communicators, at least that’s what I think the doctor called them. They fit over our back teeth and picked up and transmitted sub-vocalizations, ignoring anything that wasn’t. You heard what was sent to you through vibrations in your teeth and bones. It tingled a little and it was eerie hearing someone else’s voice in our heads, but cool at the same time. Mine had the added feature of resizing itself automatically to fit when I shifted between me one and me two.
Most of the other stuff was extra gear for my utility belt. The thing was bulky when I was in Philippa mode, but quite well hidden under my school uniform as Phil.
It was a long weekend. What I was being asked to do was involved, tricky and likely to take every moment I had in the place. By comparison the job at the hotel was very much a kiddie wheels training exercise.
Late Sunday afternoon, Dr Wiesner declared us – referring to me mostly, I think – as ready as we were likely to be, and he drove us home. There was additional stuff we could do to prepare during the week, but essentially that was it. We were on our own. -oOo-
The Wexler Institute was truly impressive. A finger of steel, concrete and glass that stretched perhaps twenty floors above its nearest neighbour. It stood towards the edge of the built-up city centre, and somewhat arrogantly declared its presence to the world. It didn’t help much that it sat in – or near – one of the most depressingly rundown city centres in our nation, but then again, we have so many depressing cities, the odds were pretty good that the Wexler Institute would end up as a diamond shining in the excrement.
Anyway, short version – long and depressing coach journey, pretty jaw dropping arrival. I mean they had a fountain out front, which thus far had not been noticeably tagged by the local graffitiatsi, and they had an immense sign in embossed stone over the entrance. Whoever ran this place was filthy rich, and into bold statements.
“You’re up,” Stacey’s quiet murmur made its way into my head via my vibrating teeth.
“Sir,” I called to Mr Hennessy. “I could use the loo, sir.”
“Sounds like a good idea.” Our head of science had warmed to me since my grades had started climbing. I was no longer a statistic in a long and depressing career, but had now been upgraded to a potential feather for his cap. “It was a long coach trip. Okay, everyone, toilet break before we get started. I don’t want the route to be interrupted by a long succession of urinary crises. Go now or hold it in til lunchtime.”
So instead of just a few of us breaking off to find the facilities, we had the entire year group milling about looking for them. Downside, I didn’t get to make as quiet an exit as I’d planned. Upside, there was enough mayhem that I was still able to slip away. Double upside, I ended up with a ten-minute head start.
I founded a deserted copy room in which to change – not clothes, bodies. My uniform and abruptly oversized shoes went into my bag, and, left mini me wearing little more than the tight-fitting cat suit that had recently been a singlet.
The copy room had its own ventilation, which put me just four screws away from the inevitable ventilation shaft.
From there it was slow going. A pair of vision enhancement goggles showed up a grid of laser trip alarms every Twenty feet or so. The grids would have been impossible to pass for even a small adult, and they weren’t that easy for my little girl self. The few weeks’ ballet lessons had done wonders for my strength and flexibility though, and I made it through.
I needed to get to the building’s atrium. It was a vast central space that extended all the way to the top of the structure and provided fresh air to its many floors. The lifts operated in the same space, which meant heading back toward the reception area where most of my schoolmates and teachers were still waiting
“Right, all done? All present and correct? Where’s Merrick?” I heard Mr Hennessey ask.
“I think he went on ahead.” Stacey’s voice replied. On the coach, I persuaded a small group of keener students to talk one of the other teachers into breaking away from the masses and starting the tour early. It would mean they’d get more out of the trip as they wouldn’t be with the inevitable troublemakers and foot draggers, and for my part it would offer plausible ambiguity as to my whereabouts.
“You think, or you’re sure?” Mr Hennessey asked. “The way you two have been joined at the hip this term, I’m surprised he’d leave you.”
“He was talking about going with them sir. He wanted me to go as well, but there was a long queue for the girls’ loos, so I guess I missed them.” She sounded suitably upset.
“Okay, well it can’t be helped. If we run across them, feel free to join them, but tell me first, okay? I thought I had the names of everyone in Miss Langley’s group.”
“Yes sir.” She really didn’t sound like she was going to be enjoying the visit. Quite the accomplished actress, my girlfriend.
I suppressed the now familiar feeling of my male side trying to reassert itself and continued on my way to the atrium.
It was a truly immense space, yards across and extending up to a tiny patch of sky, hundreds of feet above. It was shaped like a square with one irregular wall where the steel enclosures of the elevator shafts broke up the straightness and gave me some shadows where I could hide from the building’s control room, which had a window on the opposite side, overlooking the base of the atrium. Just ten feet above was an immense fan, perhaps thirty feet across, turning lazily and providing the building with its life’s breath.
I needed to get to the fiftieth floor. Not quite at the top, but definitely not something I wanted to climb myself, not even if there were stairs. From my briefing, I knew there was only one lift that reached that high, and looking around the atrium, it was obvious which one. Most of the shafts ended at the fortieth floor, with only one continuing all the way to the top.
Each of the lift shafts had a maintenance door. Locked of course, but not for long thanks to the lock picking skills I’d learned on one of my weekend training sessions.
The inside of the shaft was dark, too dark even for my goggles. I activated the infra-red torch on the side of my headband, and my environment sprang into view.
No lift. It was somewhere in the darkness above. I’d have to call it, but then I had a way to do that. It was a small box of electronics, based on a Raspberry Pie minicomputer apparently, with a small set of wires coming out of it. I didn’t understand exactly how it worked, but I’d trained on how to connect the wires. Once linked, the little box would recognise which controller it was attached to, after which I could direct the lift using a small remote control.
Two minutes to open the access panel and attach the device, then a single button press on my remote and I could hear winches starting up high above.
I pressed myself against the maintenance door. This was the bit I hated. In theory there should be easily enough room between the lift and where I was standing. In practice it always felt way too close. As with my training though, the lift arrived with room to spare.
It was difficult to turn into Phillip when I was scared, so it took a few seconds of deep breathing to get my emotions under control. I could hear the lift car filling with noisy school kids. Here was an opportunity. It gave me the focus I needed to change, then to jump and pull myself up onto the top of the lift.
I overrode the lift controls, cancelling the button press for the eighteenth floor, and choosing the fifty-second instead.
The lift shot up. As we passed the eighteenth floor, I heard Mr Hennessey’s muffled voice a few feet beneath me. “Slater, what did you do?”, and Jack’s reply, “Nothing sir, honest.”
We reached the top floor and I quickly slipped into a harness and found a place to attach a carabiner while a short conversation unfolded below.
“What are you doing up here?”
“I’m sorry, one of my students must have pressed a wrong button or something.”
“You shouldn’t even be able to get up here without a key.”
“What can I say? Some kids have a knack for this sort of thing. Please, rest assured I’ll deal with the culprit. We should be on the eighteenth floor though, so if you’ll excuse us.”
There was a ding as the lift door closed and the lift disappeared into the darkness beneath me.
I unwound enough thin rope to reach down two floors. It really was thin and didn’t look strong enough to support me, but I’d trained with it and I knew it was. There was a small access panel that opened into the atrium here as well. I’d need to get to the roof, so it made sense to open it now when I had time. A couple of bayonet fit screws and the panel moved to one side.
Bright sunlight poured in through a wide grate just a few feet above me and illuminated the four-hundred-foot drop to the bottom of the atrium.
Very abruptly, I was six years old and hanging in a very loose harness. -oOo-
I muttered something very unladylike under my breath.
“What’s up?” Stacey’s voice sounded in my head.
“Oh, nothing much. Just swinging over several hundred feet of empty space in a harness that’s too big for me. The view down into the atrium is kind of breath-taking.”
“What on Earth are you doing as Philippa? Change back you idiot!”
“Can’t. Kind of terrified out of my wits right now.”
“Close your eyes,” she said, her voice deliberately calm.
“Done,” I squeaked.
“Do you remember at Emma’s sleepover a couple of months back, when you came into my room and we had a cuddle.”
“You mean when I tore my way out of my dress?”
“That’s the one. Imagine you’re back there now, and I have my arms around you, telling you how much you mean to me.”
I felt the harness tighten and strain as my size and weight more than doubled.
“Thanks, I’m back.” Very much in Phillip’s voice.
“Okay, so try not to look down again.”
It was advice worth taking. I turned away from the panel and concentrated on my two-level descent to the fiftieth floor. It didn’t bother me looking down from in the lift shaft as there was only light enough to see down about twenty feet.
With my nerves calming and my emotions back in control, I rappelled down, then eased my way round to the lift door. One of my new gadgets allowed me to listen through to the other side, where I could hear sounds of movement. I waited for silence, then set my remote to open the doors on my level.
I’d changed into Philippa before the doors slid open. For one thing, I felt a bit awkward wandering around where people might see me dressed as a WWF wrestler. For another, if anyone had caught sight of me, they might later be able to identify me as one of the visiting school kids. For yet another, it was easier to hide with Philippa’s small size. For still yet another, I figured there was more shock value in coming across a six-year-old girl in your secret lab, than if they’d met a sixteen-year-old boy, especially during a school visit. Mainly though, it was because it felt right.
The corridor was clear, so I scurried down the memorised route to the lab where the thing I’d come for sat waiting to be stolen.
There was the lab. Key card entry as predicted. Yet another of my gizmos went in the slot. No flashing lights or whizzing numbers like in the movies; just a plain white card that seemed to do nothing for nearly a minute, then the door clicked open. Wiesner had said my gizmo would remember any codes it cracked, so next time access should be instantaneous.
There were people in the lab. They turned my way when the door opened, but I managed to duck in and out of sight before they spotted me. One of them came to check the door, shrugged at his companion and went back to work.
“Should we report it?” He asked.
“Add it to the snag sheet. I mean it’s not as if we’re being attacked, is it? They say you know you’re using cutting edge tech…”
“… because it never works properly,” the first one finished. He started writing something in a book.
It had always been a possibility that I’d find myself sharing the lab with people who worked here and gave me an opportunity to try out my weapon. It really didn’t look like much – just a cheap plastic pen and a cheap plastic cigarette lighter – but they joined together to make a pistol of sorts with a small trigger springing out of the lighter part.
The fuel in the lighter provided the propellant and the pen contained a small compartment with small needle shaped crystal projectiles. The range was less than ten feet — three metres Dr Wiesner had said — and the needles would only go through thin material like cotton or nylon, but if only a third of the crystal dissolved into the target’s bloodstream, he or she would be out cold within seconds. I’d have to take out my two targets more or less simultaneously, which would require some careful positioning, but first I needed to knock out the surveillance.
That required a different piece of technology. From one of my belt pouches I dug out a mini catapult consisting of two rubber bands that fit over my fingers and a small plastic cup into which I could drop any of a number of paper spit balls. The cup helped improve my aim, but more importantly protected me from whatever was impregnated into the paper, some of which was decidedly nasty stuff.
There were two cameras I could see in the room. One over the door – which I hoped hadn’t caught sight of me – and the other in the centre of the main lab’s ceiling. I chose a pellet impregnated with hydrofluoric acid, dropped it into the cup and squeezed it to release the acid.
My first shot went wild, and I bit back on an expletive. I didn’t have a lot of ammunition. Philippa me wasn’t the best shot with the catapult, which had been designed more for Phillip’s hands. I made sure I was well hidden and changed into my bigger self.
My second shot landed squarely in the middle of the camera dome in the centre of the room. The acid laden pellet sunk into the smoked glass and spread outwards, crazing the surface as it went. A third shot took out the camera over the door.
My next two shots were with my little gun in Philippa mode. Smaller hands fit the makeshift pistol much better, and the girly me seemed to be more coordinated as well as small enough to sneak closer. I put one needle in the ankle of the nearest lab tech and another into the neck of his companion when he came to investigate.
Check the refrigerated units, looking for a glass vial with a particular label on it. There it was. It also had a bio-hazard symbol on it.
Which was why I had what looked like a cigar tube. Aluminium, screw lid, padded interior. I used tongs to transfer the test tube into the case, then screwed it shut. For good measure, I wrapped bio-hazard tape around the lid.
Time to get back to the lift. A little ducking and dodging to avoid prowlers in the corridor, use my fancy remote control to opened the door, careful not to fall into the gaping hole, grab the rope, door closed.
Harness on. Back into Phillip mode. Manual climbing out to haul myself back to the top floor. Don’t look down this time.
Yet another pocket in the utility belt, yet another new piece of equipment. It looked like a long sock made of material so thin it might tear if you looked at it wrong, and a small cylinder of helium.
A squirt in the open end and the balloon partly inflated and rose to squeeze through the access grill above the atrium. Tie off the bottom of the balloon to the cylinder with the test tube. Add more helium until it starts to rise, activate the homing beacon and let it fly.
With the difficult achieved, now it was time for the impossible. Whatever was in the test tube, they couldn’t be allowed to make it again. That meant finding and destroying specific pieces of equipment and corrupting the relevant part of their data storage, including backups, then removing all traces of my having been there and rejoining the advanced group.
“How’s it going?” Stacey’s murmured question reverberated in my head.
“So far so good,” I responded. “Part one complete, just working on two. You found the advanced party yet?”
“Not yet. Beginning to wonder if we’ll ever catch up to them.”
“Don’t need to catch up. Just find them and join them.”
“Have you seen the size of this place? They could be anywhere.”
“Do what you can. If you can’t find the other group, I’ll come up with something.”
Back in Philippa mode, I headed back to the lab with the two dozing technicians. One had been working on a computer, which meant I already had access to the network.
The computer had timed out, so needed unlocking. There was a fingerprint scanner though. I switched to Phil and used his strength to hold the unconscious man up while I swiped his digit across the scanner. One long-standing weakness of biometric security. If you had access to the relevant body part, you didn’t need anything else.
Corrupting the data was easy. Having logged on, I simply inserted a USB drive which uploaded a worm to seek and overwrite all relevant information. It was designed to copy itself into any offline storage and do the same there, so part of the job was done. The other part involved finding and destroying the machine that had made the substance in the first place.
Part of my weekend training had involved familiarising myself with different computer systems. I already knew Windows pretty well, and a friend at school had given me a brief tour of his Mac, but there were a lot of others to look at. Unix, Linux, OS2, MSDOS, and a ton of others I’d never heard of. They all did pretty much the same thing though, so it hadn’t been hard once I’d grasped the basic concept.
It didn’t take me long to hunt out building schematics and run a few searches. The machine I was looking for was large, and as far as I could make out, only one lab was big enough to contain it, and that was up on level fifty-one.
And so to the trickiest part of the mission. A lab the size of that one would have quite a few people in it, and I didn’t have needles enough to take them all out. I’d just have to figure out a way of sneaking about in broad daylight and setting half a dozen charges on the machine in question.
What came after would be straightforward by comparison. Call the lift and ride it to the eighteenth floor, use my control to detonate both the remote override and the charges on the machine. Stacey could tell me where her group was, and I’d join them, saying I’d lost contact with the advanced lot. It wasn’t elegant, but it should work.
Level fifty-one was busier than I’d anticipated. Waiting for a clear corridor took longer than I liked, but I found enough of a window to dash unchallenged to a nearby room. From there, I climbed up into the narrow space above the false ceiling and turned into my smaller, lighter, alter-ego. It was all taking way longer than planned, but I found my way into the larger lab and, by occasionally lifting ceiling tiles and peeking through, I manoeuvred my way over the contraption.
I had four charges to place. I’d been trained on where they should go, but at this stage I figured that dropping them as close as I could would at least damage it, and delicate as it was, it would take a long time to repair.
“Where are you?” Stacey’s murmured question almost had me losing my balance.
“Nearly finished,” I replied.
“Well, so are we,” she said. “I reckon we have another ten minutes before we head back to the ground floor.”
I dropped the last of my charges and made for the lift, but I rushed it.
“What was that?”
“There’s someone up in the ceiling.”
It was all over. The whole mission had relied upon me remaining unobserved. They’d lock the building down, part of which would mean shutting down the lifts. Eventually I’d be trapped, so I might as well give in early.
So pretty much the shortest career in industrial espionage ever, which was disappointing given my abilities. All I could do now was decide if it would be better to be captured as Phillip or Philippa.
There were obvious advantages to letting them capture Philippa. It would be totally unexpected and should be impossible to link with the school, so Stacey would get clear at least. They wouldn’t be able to arrest me, being as young as I was, and I could say I was only doing what the ‘bad man’ had told me.
On the down side though, Philippa didn’t officially exist. Without a birth certificate, my parents wouldn’t be able to claim me as their own, and without any legal guardians, I would be lucky if I ended up in foster care. If I was unlucky, I’d simply disappear. After all, people who don’t exist don’t have rights.
There would also be the problem of explaining what happened to Phillip. He was on record as having entered the building with the school visit. If he didn’t reappear, they’d tear the building apart looking for him, and when they couldn’t find him, there’d be hell to pay, and only my parents to pay it.
No, on second thoughts, Phillip was pretty much the best way. He was involved either way, whether he reappeared or no, and it would be easier if he did turn up, even as the culprit. It also meant I had Philippa in reserve, if the opportunity arose to make use of her abilities to help me escape.
“Intruder on the fifty-first floor,” an amplified voice came from somewhere beneath me. “This building has been locked down, you have no means of escape. Surrender yourself now or we will use force.”
I could hear boots running in every direction below me. These guys were serious.
“Mission’s blown,” I said to Stacey. “Get rid of your communicator, but don’t let Hennessy leave without knowing what happened to me.” However much trouble I was in, it’d be far worse if the bad guys were able to make me disappear.
I changed into Phillip and gingerly lifted a ceiling tile. The corridors were filled with jackbooted security types. The two closest had Tasers pointed at me.
“It’s a kid,” the closest yelled. “Come on down, you, and no sudden moves.”
Clichés again. I wondered if he was a sporting type.
I lifted a ceiling tile out of the way and lowered myself through the gap.
“How d’you get up here, kid?” my captor asked.
“I used the lift. Am I in trouble?” Playing the innocent card wasn’t likely to win the trick, but it was the best one I had for now.
Actually, I did have one more. I still had the remote control, which was currently linked to the explosives I’d dropped on the machine, as well as my lift override. Setting off the charges would give me a small distraction, but not enough with this many guys around.
Besides, I’d lose control of my only way off the floor, and between the damage and injury I’d most likely cause, I’d end up in a lot more trouble.
“You are in a lot of trouble, kid. Why are you dressed like that?”
“I didn’t want to get my uniform dirty. Look I just wanted to see how far I could get before you guys caught me. Can you take me to see my teacher?”
“You aren’t going to see anyone anytime soon, kid. What you got in your hand?”
“It’s what I use to control the lift,” I said. It would require a specific sequence of button presses to set off the charges. Chances were they wouldn’t figure them out. Maybe Dr Wiesner could come by at a later time and finish the mission.
“And where d’you get it?”
“I made it. This is just a transmitter. The rest of it’s connected to the control board on the bottom floor.”
“And how would you know how to build something like this?”
“Electronics is a hobby,” I shrugged. “I thought it would be a cool project, and I could try it out here.”
“And what about the two guys you knocked out downstairs.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” I said. If you’re going to lie, keep it simple, keep it vague, keep it plausible. I’d probably overdone it with the home-made controller story, but it was the best I could come up with.
“Well, we’ll see about that.” He took the controller from my hand and led me towards the lifts. -oOo-
It took a while, but I outlasted them. They put me in a small room with a mirror – one way at a guess – a table and a few chairs.
They left me alone for what felt like hours. Every so often, a couple of them would come in and fire questions at me, trying to intimidate me.
Yet again, I was prepared for it. At least two of my weekend camps had been on resisting interrogation, and I’d learner well. Mind you it wasn’t hard. They couldn’t use force on me while I was a minor, and the yelling wasn’t much worse than Sergeant Langham had dealt out at my first boot camp. All I needed to do was weather the decibels and the flying phlegm until they ran out of steam, then quietly ask for a lawyer.
They eventually complied when they realised I wasn’t responding to their techniques. My mum and dad came as well, but the fourth person who entered the room came as a surprise.
He was tall, well built, and moved like a cat, and he was so handsome I almost flipped into Philippa mode at the sight of him. He dropped a photograph on the table.
It showed Dr Wiesner.
“Do you know this man?” he asked.
I glanced at Mum and Dad. Dad had his eyes down and wouldn’t meet mine. Mum’s eyes were brimming with tears, and she nodded at me gently.
“His name’s Dr Wiesner. Henning Wiesner, I believe. He performed a medical procedure on me when I was young.”
“I’m sorry, who are you?”
“Martin Keen, MI5.” He dropped a thin leather wallet on the table with some very authentic looking paperwork in it.
I picked out up. “I don’t understand.”
“Phillip,” the lawyer said. “I’ve checked Agent Keen’s identity directly with the Security Service, and he is genuinely an agent with MI5.”
“But Dr Wiesner works with NATO and Interpol. Surely you know him.”
“Did you check his credentials?”
I looked at Dad, who still wouldn’t return my gaze. “Well no, but they looked good.”
“Like these, perhaps?” He placed a thin briefcase on the table and started removing identity cards. “It’s astonishing what you can do with a decent laser printer and a laminator these days.”
“Are you telling me…?”
“That your Dr Wiesner has never worked for anyone but himself.”
“But the training…”
“It seems he considered you worth a significant investment, and from what you achieved today, I can see why.”
“How much trouble am I in?”
“Well, that depends on how cooperative you are now. How did you meet Dr Wiesner?”
“I already told you. He treated me about ten years ago.”
“And more recently?”
“I was having complications with my condition. My mum called him, and he showed me how to handle them.”
“I’d rather not say. It’s kind of embarrassing.”
Somewhat to my relief he let that drop. “Tell me about your involvement with Dr Wiesner.”
I described the training week and the weekend mission that followed it.
“That was you? We’ve been trying to figure out what went wrong.”
“That was you?” I parroted. “Why would the British Secret Service want to incite a bunch of people to go on strike?”
“Suffice to say that we had our reasons. You’ll have to tell us what you did to the machine.”
“Rubbish. We haven’t managed to get it working since.”
“Who invented it? The mood machine thingy?”
“One of our scientists, not that it’s any of your business.”
“So why can’t he figure out what’s wrong with it?”
“You remember when I said how much trouble you’re in depends on how cooperative you are now?”
“You’re not doing particularly well so far.”
“Well I’m not sure you’re being particularly honest with me either.”
“We’ll come back to this. What about the rest?”
“Several weekends training over the last term, then this.”
“What was your mission here?”
“Steal a vial of something, corrupt the data storage related to that substance, destroy the machine that made it.”
“And how far did you get?”
“What’s in the vial?”
“A bit late now to be acquiring a conscience.”
“I thought I could trust Dr Wiesner. Now I don’t know who I can trust.”
“I represent the government, young man.”
“If that’s so, then how come the government wanted to influence the trade unions to strike? I thought they’d want to prevent something like that.”
“That’s not your business young man.”
“Isn’t it? I’ve already been tricked into doing something for one crook.”
“Yes, and he’s likely to get away with some very dangerous stuff if you don’t start cooperating.”
“Phillip,” Mum said quietly, “please don’t make things worse than they are.”
“I put the vial in a sealed, padded tube and released it, via helium balloon, through the vent at the top of the lift shaft, I uploaded a worm to destroy all files relating to the substance in the vial, and I dropped four thermite charges onto the big machine in the lab where I was caught.”
He responded with a string of expletives. “How were the charges to be set of?”
“By remote control. The same remote that controls the lift.”
“Five digit code on the remote.”
“What’s the code?”
“Why? Do you want to destroy the machine yourself?”
“What’s the code?”
“Tell me why you want it. I decided not to blow it up when I was caught, and right now, I’m not sure whether I trust you.”
“If we activate the controller in a shielded cage, we’ll know which frequency to block, or do you think your Dr Wiesner might not have bothered putting together a backup plan to detonate the charges himself?”
“Oh. Seven, seven, nine, one, four.”
Agent Keen pulled a slim phone out of his pocket and started dialling on his way out the door. As soon as it closed, my parents started speaking.
“Son, I messed up. I’m sorry, but you’ve got to cooperate,” Dad said.
“Darling, please answer the man’s questions,” Mum said over the top of him. “This really is serious.”
“Mum, Dad, I’m sorry, but I don’t trust him. I’ve already apparently been tricked into doing something wrong by Wiesner, and it scares me how easily he fooled me. Whatever the consequences, I’m not going to do the same thing again.”
“I have checked his credentials though,” the lawyer weighed in. “I phoned MI5 myself and they confirmed Agent Keen’s badge number.”
“And yet they don’t know enough about the first machine I sabotaged to fix it, and I really didn’t do much.”
“What did you do, dear?” Mum asked.
“Oh no, I’m not getting you involved. This is my responsibility, and I don’t like that the government were already using that machine covertly against our own people.”
Agent Keen returned, his face the same shade of grim it had been since we started. He looked around at us all before sitting down in front of me.
“Okay, that’s the first sensible thing you’ve done today. Let’s see if we can make it the first of many.” He held up a USB drive. “Is this what you used to upload your worm?”
“Yes, but I don’t know if it’ll do you any good. As far as I’m aware, the worm erases itself from the dongle once it’s uploaded.”
“We’ll see what we can find. Tell me more about the tube and the balloon.”
I gave him approximate dimensions of the kit I’d used to launch the vial and asked him again what was in it.
“Didn’t you look while you were in the computer.”
“I remember seeing something about a viral vector in all the gobbledegook. Is it something to do with gene manipulation?”
“You’re not daft, are you? Yes, it’s just that. More easily adaptable to different gene codes than most. Wexler was developing it as a treatment for genetic illnesses, like cystic fibrosis and Downs Syndrome.”
“What do you think Dr Wiesner wants it for?”
“A man like him? Heaven knows. Genetically targeted biological weapon, genetically enhanced super-soldiers, something most of us haven’t even thought of yet.”
“You’re suddenly way more friendly,” I said suspiciously.
“And you’re way too astute for someone your age. What are you, fourteen?”
“Sixteen. And I’m not going to tell you how to fix that other machine. It’s not something anyone should have.”
“Your friend Dr Wiesner has it.”
“There’s not much I can do about that. He said he wanted it so he could figure out a way of detecting or blocking its effects. Can I suggest you work on doing the same, then no-one has the advantage?”
“Why don’t you tell me how you made it past the laser detection in the ventilation shaft.”
“What can I say? I’m pretty limber.”
“Wrong answer.” He was grim and angry again. “You may be a minor, but there are special accommodations for people who take deliberate action against the interests of the country, regardless of their age, and I can lock you up without trial for as long as I like if you continue not to cooperate.”
“Well, I guess that’s what you’re going to have to do then, because I don’t trust you enough to tell you what you want to know. Once bitten and all that.”
Which is pretty much where the interview ended. Keen stormed out of the interrogation room, and a few minutes later, a couple of burly soldier types came and frogmarched me out to an armoured prisoner transport. I was padlocked into the back with a guard on either side. I didn’t have any chance of escape whatsoever, and a couple of hours later, I was stuck inside a prison cell on what looked a lot like an army base. Concrete walls, solid steel door, tiny barred window.