Flip – 7 – Going Underground

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It took us more than an hour to reach the target, and Wiesner had spent most of it briefing me on what to expect. The more he talked the more I regretted my decision, but I wasn’t about to back out now.

The place we were heading for was a bio-research institute that had been built into an old cold war bunker, which meant most of it was underground. The points where it breached the surface were a small building that served as entrance providing lift and stairs access to the bunker, and a couple of ventilation shafts that had been drilled down when the place was extended. The original design had the place sealed off from the outside world so that no fallout could enter after a nuclear strike, but in its new guise, with an increased number of personnel working in it on a daily basis, the original carbon dioxide scrubbers were impractical. Besides, there was always the concern of radon build up, a problem that hadn’t been identified when the bunker had been built.

The shafts made the place less secure, both from the point of view of break-outs and break-ins, so extensive measures had been put in place to ensure that nothing could get in or out. Unburned gases from the site’s generators were ignited inside the ventilation ducts every ten minutes, effectively incinerating any pathogens that might escape the labs in an accident, as well as adding to the defences against incursion.

The ventilation shafts were the easiest way in, which wasn’t to say they would be easy.

First obstacle, unsurprisingly, was the guards. Both entrance and ventilation shafts were surrounded by barbed wire fences and well guarded. The shafts were isolated from the rest of the base though, so subduing the guards without raising an alarm was at least feasible.

The second was the depth and narrowness of the shafts themselves, dropping some four hundred feet into the ground, and barely three and a half feet across. I could squeeze in as Phillip but because of the rest of what I would face, it would be Philippa going down the rabbit hole.

Third, there were detectors at regular intervals down the shaft, which would need to be disabled before we could attempt entry. The doctor assured me this could be done from the guard station at the vent.

Fourth – though in my mind these belonged higher up the priority ladder – were laser grid defences. Criss crossed arrays of high energy lasers capable of slicing through anything smaller than a rabbit. Think resident evil and you’re getting close to the idea. Okay, I wasn’t smaller than a rabbit, so wouldn’t necessarily be diced, but they’d still cut deep enough into my flesh to cause serious damage.

Sure, I naturally repaired a lot of my injuries every time I switched between bodies, but I had no idea how far that restoration would go, and this didn’t seem like a great place to test my limits. On the plus side, the lasers used a ton of energy whenever they fired, so they only activated when there was something to slice up. On the minus side, the activation time was measured in milliseconds, and the lasers were entirely self-contained, so there was no way we could hack into them. Dr Wiesner assured me he had a solution and not to worry.

Fifth, assuming I made it to the bottom in one piece, there was a pool of acid waiting to dissolve anything enterprising enough to make it so far.

Sixth, the ventilation ducts that led from the main shaft were smaller than the shaft. Certainly, too small for Phillip, and even unnervingly tight for Philippa. If I managed to get stuck in there, chances were slim to nothing I could get unstuck before the regular burn.

Which was, of course, the seventh obstacle.

It struck me that burning off excess fuel like that was horribly inefficient, but then the military has never been particularly thrifty or planet friendly. Efficiency from their point of view probably meant a solution they could turn on and forget about. It certainly made maintenance of the ventilation shafts unnecessary.

Dr Wiesner assured me he had a plan that would allow me to enter safely. He wasn’t particularly forthcoming with details though. I tried to distract myself by raising a totally different subject.

“What I don’t understand is why the world’s leading governments don’t do something about this population problem.”

“What do you suggest they do about it? The governments of most of the world’s wealthiest countries do not have so much population problem, and those in the countries that do would not welcome interference from the rest of the world. Most would not admit that they had a problem in the first place.

“Besides, it is not a simple problem to solve. I have mentioned China, yes?”

“Yes, so did Dr Sellers.”

“Also, it is a sad fact that most governments are kept in power by those with wealth and influence. These people tend to be those who run big business, and they are aware that if the world population is reduced, so is the size of their market and also the size of their profit. For this reason they will not permit it.”

“That’s cynical.”

“I have found the dividing line between cynicism and realism is becoming increasingly narrow. To my mind the influence of businesses on the way the world is run is the second greatest danger to our planet at present. These market forces are like an illness, a true cancer, which threatens to eat away at all that is good and wholesome in human society.”

“Perhaps the next target for your Deus ex Machina once we’ve solved the population problem,” I said glumly.

“Perhaps, though I am not the person to lead that battle. Perhaps you might like to consider it once you are offered a place.”

Conversation ended. I asked the doctor again about his plans for this infiltration, but he liked the theatre of the big reveal, and assured me — again — that everything had been taken care of. Instead he directed me to the glove box of his car and left me examining blueprints of the place I was soon to break, into along with patrol routes and timings and a whole bunch of other information. -oOo-

We didn’t slow as we crested the rise and headed down into the hollow where one of the ventilation shafts was located. The half dozen guards on station turned their rifles in our direction.

With a smirk and a brief glance sideways, the doctor flipped a switch. Each of the soldiers fell to the ground, twitching.

“An unexpected discovery when I was experimenting with the mood-altering device,” he said matter of factly. “Quite by accident I identified a means of inducing a form of petit mal seizure. There is no permanent damage, but those affected become immobile and unaware of their surroundings for perhaps five minutes.”

“Perhaps five minutes? No more precision than that?”

“A minimum of three in the different subjects I tested. It will be enough time for us to immobilise them all.”

He turned off his epilepsy ray and handed me a fistful of large cable ties.

“One each about the ankles and the wrists. As tight as you can.”

I’m not sure I needed instructions, and it only took only a minute to hog tie each of our adversaries. Wiesner dealt with his quota then checked the bindings on mine, adding a cloth bag over each head. All weapons were taken from them, unloaded and stacked in the guard house. Bullets and spare magazines were placed in a large canvas sack along with combat knives and anything else that looked like it could be used in a fight, and the sack tied shut with an impressive looking knot.

He threw me a cordless drill with a screwdriver bit already in the jaws and pointed at the shaft.

“Remove the grill while I hack into their computer system. I have a little worm that will put their detectors into a diagnostic loop, which should last for perhaps thirty minutes.”

“I still want to know what you have in mind for the lasers.”

“It is taken care of, go and watch for the venting of the gas.”

I did as I was told with some bad grace. I was halfway through removing the screws securing the grill over the shaft when I became aware of a growing grumble coming from the hole. I made the mistake of looking to see what was causing it and only just managed to dive clear in time as a column of flame came roaring out, forming a brilliant, swirling shaft that reached twenty feet into the air.

The grill was painfully hot to touch immediately afterwards, but by the time I’d removed the last of the screws, it had cooled enough for me to haul it off and throw it to one side.

The doctor appeared with a contraption that unfolded into a tripod with a motorised winch suspended at its highest point. He handed me my utility belt — bulked out with a few additional items — and a harness that was too small for my current body. I didn’t need telling, and following a brief touch to my belt buckle, it was little girl me that stepped into the webbing.

“What happens if I change into Phil while I’m wearing this?” I asked. The harness wasn’t made of the same stretchy material that made up the utility belt, for obvious reasons. I mean neither of us wanted a repeat of what happened at the top of the lift shaft in the Wexler institute.

“It will be uncomfortable but bearable. The harness will stretch enough to accommodate your larger form, but not without restricting blood flow to your arms and legs. This will lead to numbness and weakness in your limbs if you stay as Phillip for more than a few minutes. You will need to make this change when you reach the bottom of the shaft in any case, but it is imperative you should remain so only for as short a time as possible.”

He pulled a thin cable from the winch and attached it to my harness, then he took what looked like an emergency sleeping bag and handed it to me – you know, the sort that look like its made of aluminium foil.

“What’s this?”

“This is what will protect you from the lasers.”

“What?”

“The first laser grid is a little over twenty metres down. By then you will be falling about sixty kilometres per hour and it will take you seventy milliseconds to pass through the laser grid. This material will reflect seventy percent of the energy from the lasers and will conduct the remainder across its surface. At this speed, the lasers will not be able to cut into the material, and seventy milliseconds will not be long enough to raise the temperature significantly. The remaining grids are further down, by which time you will be moving faster, and so spend less time in passing through them.”

“I begin to see why you didn’t tell me about this earlier.”

“I have tested it in the laboratory. It will work.”

“And what happens when I get to the bottom? The lasers sweep backwards and forwards don’t they, and they’ll keep discharging because they’ll detect the cable. How much damage will it be able to take? I mean, if it gets sliced through, I end up in that acid pool, and there’s an end to it all.”

“The cable is made from the same polymer as this sheet. While you are falling, it will be the same as you, always a different part being struck by the lasers, and so they will be undamaged. But you are right, the hardest part will be when you reach the bottom of the shaft.”

“You think?”

He ignored my sarcasm. “I tested the rope with the most powerful laser I have, and it was able to sustain continuous damage in the same place for a little more than three seconds. Once you reach the bottom of the shaft, you will have this long to find your own means of holding on to the sides before the rope is cut through.”

“And how do you suggest I do that?”

“The shaft opens up at the bottom. It will be too large a gap for your small self, but still small enough for your larger form to reach across it. Once you have come to a rest, change into Phillip, and brace yourself against the sides of the tunnel. You know you can do this.”

“So, you want me to hang over a pool of acid with no rope with an undersized harness biting into my arms and legs until what?”

“You will have to identify the correct ventilation shaft and open it, then waited for the flames to be expelled. This will be only a few minutes, and the sheet should also protect you from the flames. After it has passed, reach into the ventilation shaft, turn back into the kleines Mädchen and climb in.”

“As simple as that?”

“This is why you have trained for so many weekends. Perhaps we have not done anything exactly like this, but the exercises you have undertaken have given you the strength and versatility to do this. But you must go now. You must be at the bottom of the shaft with the vent open when the flames come next.”

“Carpe diem,” I muttered, climbing into the reflective sack. It was large enough to fit me in Phil mode, so I had to gather the excess and hold it in a bunch with one hand. With the other, I held the cable to keep me upright and pulled the material across my face.

The doctor winched me above the shaft and steadied me. He counted down from three and I fell. -oOo-

Plunging through darkness with a rock wall whistling past mere inches from my face was both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. I held tight to the terror and kept a finger on the girl mode side of my buckle. I was aware every time we passed through a laser grid. No fancy sci-fi zappy noise, but the material did crackle under the onslaught and despite the doctor’s assurances, there were definite hot spots painting streaks up the outside of my protective sheet.

I didn’t dare move. Even a slight twitch at this stage could bring me in contact with the rocks, which would both hurt and slow me down. It would almost certainly tear the sheet as well, after which I’d learn first hand what the laser grids could do to human flesh.

Three panic-filled seconds into the descent, the harness bit into my flesh and slowed me rapidly to a stop.

Trust the equipment, trust the plan. The shaft opened out at the bottom as the doctor had said, too large for the little girl, but not so far across that I couldn’t brace myself on the sides as Phil. The doctor’s precise planning should have placed me in that wider space a few inches below the ventilation shafts, and perhaps a couple of feet above the acid tank.

I swung myself horizontal and pressed guy mode on my belt. The shaft walls slammed into my back and feet, and the harness bit into my arms and legs. Not a moment too soon as I felt the tension in the cable give way and bits of it started falling on me from above.

I reached into my utility belt for my night vision gear — a headband incorporating infrared torches and IR sensitive image intensifying goggles. With them on, I eased my head out of the sack and almost swore. The good doctor’s calculation had been a little off leaving me a foot closer to the acid than I should have been. If I hadn’t flattened myself out before changing into Phil, I’d have dunked something in the fuming, oily liquid and I’m not sure I’d have got it back.

I located the vent I needed to use, a foot and a half above me, and just out of my reach. I’d climbed shafts like this before in my training, but not while encased in a thin polymer sack. It took me a minute to shuffle my way up until I could reach the screws holding the grill in place and another minute with my arm stretched awkwardly above me removing the screws from the grill. Both my legs and arms were aching painfully by the time I had the last screw loose. If they hadn’t been turning numb, I’m sure they’d have felt like they were on fire.

I heard the distant grumble I’d been expecting from the vent. It grew rapidly as I withdrew my arms pulled the opening in the sack closed as best I could. I felt more than saw the flames belch out of the vent.

Responding to the demands of physics, they mostly shot skywards. They were hot though, and enough of them eddied about me to push the material past its limits.

The singlet offered a little added protection, but in Phil mode my calves and forearms weren’t covered. I felt my skin bubbling and clenched my teeth against the pain. Even my face felt as though it was searing, despite having both my arms in front of it. The flames seemed to last forever, then very abruptly they were gone.

The pain in my arms, legs and face remained. I peeled whatever was left of my protective cover away, hissing as it stripped the tops off newly formed blisters, and let it drop into the acid beneath me. That done, I grabbed for the grill and pressed my belt buckle to change into Philippa.

There was only one screw holding the grate in place, but it was enough to support my reduced weight. All the pain went with my other self, leaving me sobbing with relief. The grill was hot, and my singlet had melted in places, but it was nothing compared to what I’d just experienced.

I allowed myself a few seconds to recover then climbed up to the top of the grill. It wasn’t easy as my six year old strength was still very limited, and when I reached the duct itself, I regretted dropping the cover as the metal inside the vent had absorbed and retained a lot more heat than I’d expected.

I clung there sobbing quietly. This wasn’t going to work. In less than ten minutes the flames would roar out again and I wouldn’t have any way to protect myself.

“Liebchen?” The voice tickled the tooth at the back of my mouth.

“I can’t do this?” I whimpered.

“You must Liebling. There is no time to waste.”

“I can’t.”

“What has happened Mausebär? Tell me.”

“The flames burned me — the other me — and I can’t climb into the vent; it’s too hot and I’m not strong enough.”

“You must Liebling. It is imperative that you move now. Whatever else is wrong, the flames will return in eight minutes. You still must crawl more than thirty metres before then to be safe.”

“I can’t. I don’t have the strength.”

“Phillip is. You must turn back into him.”

“I don’t think the grill will hold his weight. There’s only one screw holding it.”

“Then hold the edge of the vent. When you change, reach in as far as you can and brace yourself against the sides, then change back.”

“It’s hot though.”

“It will be much hotter in seven minutes and one half. Liebling, I know this is hard, but you must act now.”

He was right. If I was quick…

I reached for the lip of the vent. It was hot, but no longer hot enough to blister. I grabbed for the rage in me and felt myself growing. The acid wasn’t far beneath my feet, so I scrabbled up the wall and reached my arms as far into the duct as I could. There wasn’t anything to give me purchase, so I jammed my hands against either side. The skin on my arms, shins and face was still tight and painful, and the restriction of the harness continued to rob my arms of their usual strength. I felt myself slipping and let the rising terror turn me back into my smaller self.

I was half inside the tube with very little room for movement, but panic lent me energy and I managed to squirm and wriggle the rest of the way in. The duct was still hot enough to draw tears from my eyes.

“I’m in,” I muttered into my tooth mike, not quite suppressing a tremor in my voice.

“You should move then. Seven minutes remain.”

I started worming my way forward – caterpillaring might have been a better term had it not already been usurped by a distinctly unsavoury group of the human race to mean something entirely different. It was an effective enough mode of locomotion, covering space quickly and allowing me to limit the amount of time any part of my body was in contact with the hot metal. The more I moved forward, the more I felt my fears receding and my confidence returning.

I’d made about seventy feet of progress when the next problem arose.

“Er,” I sub-vocalised.

“What is it now?”

“Something’s coming towards me down the vent.”

“Be more specific, what is coming towards you?”

“At a guess I’d say an inspection robot. Long spindly legs – three at the front three at the back, equally spaced around the centre with wheels at the end. Central body seems to seems to be where the clever stuff is — sensors and the like.”

“Is there space to let it past you?”

“Tell me you’re joking. You know how tight this shaft is?”

“Look for a side passage you can squeeze into?”

“There was nothing on the blueprints, so what makes you think there’ll be anything here? All I have is one long, very narrow, metal tube all the way to the access port, now with an inspection ‘bot in the way.”

The robot was almost within reach now.

“Give me one minute to think.” Wiesner wasn’t great at thinking on his feet.

I didn’t have a minute. With my arms stretched out in front of me, I didn’t have access to my utility belt, which meant pretty much all I had to work with was my hands. Still, it didn’t look particularly strong. As it came within reach, I took hold of the central part and twisted.

“No time,” I muttered.

The robot evidently wasn’t designed to withstand any sort of punishment. The legs buckled under even my little girl efforts, scraping noisily against the side of the shaft as I twisted it and pointed it back the way it had come.

“What did you do?” Wiesner hissed. The sibilance made my teeth itch.

“I broke it. I’m moving again. How long till I get toasted.”

“Two minutes and forty seconds. The robot will almost certainly have reported a malfunction. You’re going to have company, which is not what we planned.”

“No escaping that. If not a malfunction, then a blockage. Either way I’d have ended up with company. How far to my exit?”

“Six metres now, but there will be people waiting for you.”

I was making the best speed I could, pushing the remains of the robot in front of me. The access hatch I was aiming for opened and a shaft of light filled the tunnel ahead of me. Ten feet, rapidly closing.

Your brain does amazing things on adrenaline . It reminded me of the wand I’d pushed up my sleeve earlier. I had enough room to pull it out and aim it. Terror, euphoria, sadness and rage. This guy was probably going to be a bit nervous wondering what had killed his toy. The moment the top of his head appeared above the hatch, I pressed the first button.

He screamed and fell back down into the room below the shaft.

“What the [redacted]’s the matter with you?”

Look, I don’t have to print an expletive just because someone said it. If you’re that bothered, insert the first thing that comes to mind, you’ll probably be right.

Still, it sounded like I had two people to deal with and very little time in which to do so.

“I don’t know. Something scared the [redacted] out of me just then.”

I made it to the hatch and eased over it. It gave me enough freedom of movement to reach my utility belt, so I slipped the wand back up my sleeve and retrieved the parts of my needle gun. They slid together smoothly, and I was taking aim when the first guy looked back up at me.

“What the…”

I managed to interrupt him before he got to the interesting words. He took a needle in the cheek and dropped like a stone.

That was going to make the next guy nervous and I needed to do something before he set off the alarm. I pulled the wand out and considered my options. It wasn’t quite right, but hopefully it would still work. I took a chance. Aiming in the direction I’d heard the second voice come from, I dropped my hand through the opening just far enough to clear the metalwork and pressed the third button.”

“Geoff, no!”

Sadness wasn’t the same as concern but it proved to be close enough. He ran forward and crouched over his colleague giving me a clear shot at the gap between his collar and the bottom of his buzz cut. A second later he was collapsed on top of his mate.

“You have ten seconds to get clear.”

No time to think. Sometimes you have to hope for the best and deal with what comes. I swung down into the room and changed into Phil, giving me long enough legs to brace myself on some of the nearby pipework. The harness dug into my shoulders and legs, squeezing me painfully in ways and places I’d rather not recall, and the blisters on my arms, legs and face came back tight and painful. Ignoring the discomfort I heaved the hatched closed, dogging it in place just seconds before the flames grumbled past overhead, the roar muffled and indistinct on the outside of the pipes.

I dropped down on top of my two recent victims, changing back into Philippa as I fell and took in my immediate surroundings. First things first. I stripped off the much hated harness. The blueprints had marked this place as a utility room, and that’s pretty much what it was. About ten feet by twelve, grey painted concrete brick walls, stone floor and half filled with cardboard storage boxes, the only half-way distinguishing feature was the wall furthest from the door, which was lined from floor to ceiling with pipes, trunking and ductwork, part of which had provided my means of ingress.

My first stop was a junction box in one of the conduits, which was easy enough to find, but not so simple to open. It was a press fit which held too tightly for my small fingers to prize off. In the end, I had to admit defeat and reached for my belt buckle. Turning back into Phillip hurt like a puppy.

You know what a puppy is the son of, don’t you?

Even with the recuperative effects my change seemed to bring, pretty much everything hurt. You know that ache you get when you’re trying to do something while holding your hands over your head? It was like that, but in both my arms and legs, and ten times worse.

I wanted to massage some life back into my limbs, but my forearms and calves were raw and glistening, and overly sensitive to the the least movement. The best I could do was get on with the job as quickly as I could.

The cover on the junction box proved to be a non-issue. I removed a collection of circuitry and wires from my utility belt and plugged the relevant plugs into their matching sockets.

“Good, good,” the doctor said through my bones. “I have access to the surveillance system. There is only one camera in this room and it faces the door. You are hidden, as are the individuals you have incapacitated. As long as you remain closer than two metres from the back wall, you should remain outside the camera’s view.”

I stayed as Phillip for long enough to drag the two technicians behind a stack of boxes.

“I could use a bunch of cable ties right now,” I murmured.

“Shoot them once more with the needle gun. This should ensure they remain unconscious for an hour or so.”

I did as suggested. I almost certainly wouldn’t have a whole hour before the techies were missed, but at least they wouldn’t wake up in the meantime.

“Okay doc, over to you.” -oOo-

Ordinarily at this point in a mission or training scenario, I’d have been looking for a ventilation shaft or false ceiling to use as a way of getting about unseen, but here I had neither option. There were no false ceilings or other small crawl spaces in this facility, and the vents would have been too tight for me to move about in silently even without the added challenge of avoiding the flame blasts.

Now that I was here, I could see the advantages of the flames. The pipes muffled the noise enough to reduce the roar to a gentle rumble, making the sound only a minor inconvenience. On the credit side of the balance sheet, the heat from the flames went a long way towards dispelling the chill that came from the rocks this far underground, as well as preventing any airborne pathogen from escaping the facility.

From my point of view it was a hassle though. My training combined Phillip’s speed, strength and stamina with Philippa’s small size and suppleness, but in this place, both my forms were more liability than advantage. I stood out like a sore thumb in a snowstorm in either of my physical forms. Phillip would ordinarily be a little faster getting about, but it wasn’t enough of an advantage for me to want to spend any more time than I had to coping with the burns.

Being the middle of the night, the lab was operating with reduced personnel. Most of the scientists who worked here were civilians, even if they were engaged in military projects, so they’d be home tucked up in bed. All I had to do was avoid any security patrols and technicians and other workmen wandering about. This was where the doctor came in.

I’d given him full access to the cameras meaning he could do the same with them as the security guard watching them. Doing anything overt with them like point them in the wrong direction or shut them down would be noticed immediately, and we were still trying to keep a low profile. What he could do was scout out my route ahead of me, and run short repeat loops on individual cameras while I was moving past them. An astute security guard might spot a camera jumping from live to looped and back, but the chances were slim to zero.

“Okay the room camera is looping and the corridor will be clear in twenty seconds. Stand ready by the door… and go. Turn right…”

In keeping with my training, I had the blueprints pictured in my mind with all my potential bolt holes highlighted. There was no guarantee that Dr Wiesner would be able to maintain contact, and I had to be ready to act autonomously if I had to. As it was I didn’t need to fall back on my memory. The doctor’s voice kept me company through the short but nerve wracking trip through to my destination.

We nearly made it all the way. I was in sight of the lab when the alarm finally sounded.

“Intruder alert, intruder alert.” A voice sounded over a klaxon, repeating itself over and over, and I could hear footfalls in every direction.

My last checkpoint was a utility closet just a few yards ahead. This time of night it would be unlocked as the cleaning staff were out and about. I ran for it, ducking into the welcoming darkness and pulling the door closed behind me just as the corridors outside filled.

“What’s happening?”

“How should I know?”

“Shut-up and get to your stations.”

There were other similar exchanges, most of them less polite. SOP in a place like this would be to round up all non-military personnel as soon as something untoward came along. If my experience with military imprisonment was anything to go by, they’d all be kept in one place under guard until the powers that be were satisfied than none of them were responsible for the disruption.

Pluses and minuses. It meant there wouldn’t be anyone in the lab and I wouldn’t be dodging cleaners and techies on my way out of here. On the other hand, there would be more patrols and guards around the place, and they’d most likely shut off power to the lift. Not that that should bother me much.

Most of that was part three and I still had part two to sort out. Concentrate on current problems now and deal with future ones when the time comes. Keep an eye out for opportunities, but otherwise…

The corridor outside had fallen silent. I took a risk and eased the door open a crack. There was the door to the main lab, and there were a couple of armed guard standing either side. They were all about twenty feet away on the opposite side of the corridor.

I eased the door closed before one of the guards looked my way and spotted me. The corridor was well enough lit that it wouldn’t take much.

“Dr Wiesner,” I mumbled into my tooth, “you said the wand’s range is about ten to fifteen feet.”

“Three to four metres, yes.”

“How about is about? Might it stretch a little further?”

“Unlikely. When I was testing it, the range dropped off rapidly after about three and one half metres.”

“No way of boosting it?”

“With more power the signal becomes distorted. This is how I discovered the means of causing the small seizures.”

I’d had some vague idea of zapping one guy blasts of euphoria and the other blasts of rage until something kicked off between them. Giving them both a seizure would be so much better.

“Would I get more range though?”

“Perhaps, but it is possible you will also burn out the transmitter. And you would use up the battery very rapidly.”

“How rapidly?”

“You have used the wand already?”

“Twice.”

“Then you would have perhaps two more uses, if you do not fuse the circuitry with the first.”

“Tell me how to make the adjustments.”

It was fiddly. First the bottom of the wand had to be twisted off, requiring Phil’s strength. Still no change in the uncomfortable tightness in my skin. Then Pippa’s small fingers were needed to ease out the electronics and battery holder. Lastly, with the battery safely removed, I located a small potentiometer and twisted it all the way to the left as instructed. Minimum resistance, maximum current, maximum signal.

I reassembled my weapon and eased the door open a crack. On the doctor’s advice, I chose the rage setting as it brought about the best results. I aimed at the nearest guard and triggered the device.

He convulsed in a satisfying manner and fell to the floor. His companion ran to him as I’d hoped and I fired the wand a second time.

The smell of burning circuitry filled my nostrils and I muttered a curse — silently of course — before switching to plan B. With guard down and the second with his back to me, I had the element of surprise. I grabbed my needle gun and ran from my hiding place, jumping onto my victim’s back and firing a needle at point blank into his neck.

It took him a second to collapse and I fired another needle beside the first to keep him down.

“I have one guard having a fit here,” I mumbled to Dr Wiesner. “Is it safe to give him a needle or two.”

“Ja, it is safe,” came the impatient response.

So I put a couple into the first guard and watched him slump. It occurred to me then that Wiesner would probably have told me anything to get me to act. I hoped I hadn’t caused the guy any permanent harm.

I spent a decidedly painful minute in Phil’s body, introducing the two unconscious guards to the game of sardines. They had name tags on their uniforms and I made a mental note of the one I’d hit with both the wand and needle gun, and promised myself I’d look into his condition later.

A few excruciatingly long seconds with my key card decoder bypassed the lab digital lock and I was able to slip in, closing the door behind me. Not the greatest of hiding places since any patrols passing this way would want to know what had happened to the guard that had been posted, and would almost certainly check in here first. Now that the place was on lock down I had no idea how long it would be before the next patrol came my way, so I had to hurry.

“I’m in the lab,” I said, “but I hope you have a warranty for that wand.”

“It is easily replaced, but do not leave it there. Even burnt out it, may be possible for them to reconstruct it.”

“Understood.” I’d dropped it in the storage closet when it had gone up in smoke. I made a mental note to pick it up when I left, and set about searching the laboratory.

It was different from the rest of the base. Instead of the utilitarian grey paint on concrete bricks, it was all pristine whiteness. It was also different from what had been shown on the blueprints.

“Were there a few things you didn’t think I needed to know, doctor?”

“Such as what?”

“The animal cages? It looks like they’ve been doing genetic experiments here.”

“This is a laboratory for genetic research. It should not be surprising then that they are conducting genetic research.”

“Not like this.”

When we’d studied genetics at school, our teacher had started us off by showing a picture of a mouse with a human ear growing on its back, then set us a homework putting forward ethical arguments for or against genetic modification. Predictably the responses had been highly polarised with most of the boys caught up with how cool it would be to have genetic enhancements allowing us to become real life superheroes, while most of the girls argued about how cruel it was that we should do such horrible things to animals.

I’d always had a natural tendency to side with the girls in ethical debates, and this was no exception. As it happened, there were more lads than usual arguing against the practice, which pleased Mr Harris all the more, because once he’d given us back our homework, he went on to explain to us that the Vacanti ear mouse had nothing to do with gene manipulation, that it had been grown using cow cartilage in a biodegradable mould.

He told us that we should take time to find out what we were arguing against before we allowed ourselves to become so passionate about it, that most genetic manipulation, in both plants and animals, was designed to make them more resistant to disease, and wasn’t that a good thing?

Most of the girls relented at that stage, but I stood my ground, arguing that we still couldn’t know what affects those genetic alterations might have on us as the consumers. Wasn’t it possible that the altered organisms could develop defencive toxins which might trigger allergic reactions?

Like I said, genetics was one topic that clicked with me. Mr Harris conceded that I’d made a good point and gave me a merit. He still assured us that the sort of B movie horror show hybridisation we’d all been imagining did not happen. He’d have been a lot less smug if he’d seen what was in this lab.

There were half a dozen cages lined up in a separate room behind a large observation window. Five contained what I could only guess had once been German Shepherds or Rottweilers, but now looked like the punchlines from five highly deranged ‘what do you get when you cross a fierce dog with…’ jokes. The dogs, or whatever they were now, paced back and forth restlessly with their teeth bared in a permanent snarl. The sixth cage I couldn’t see clearly. The occupant kept to the shadowy part at the back. I thought I saw a vaguely simian shape, but that was about as far as it went.

I described what I saw as well as I could to Dr Wiesner. It shut him up for a while.

The wall opposite the animal enclosure was given over to a large array of shelves lined with vials of mainly clear liquid. Again the whole lot was behind a glass wall with a robotic arm retrieval system and three remote handling booths. A computer at one end appeared to control it all. The rest of the lab was filled with equipment and materials the function of which I couldn’t begin to guess. A least for the most part. I did recognise a centrifuge and one or two other things.

There were bio-hazard warnings everywhere.

I climbed onto the chair in front of the computer and tapped the keyboard to bring it to life. Unsurprisingly, it asked for a username and password. A quick rummage in my utility belt rewarded me with a small grey USB drive, which I inserted into the port on the side of the keyboard. Nothing seemed to happen for a while, then the login screen cleared and I was looking at what I guessed was the inventory of the stuff stored on the shelves beside me. I started scrolling through it.

Ebola, Rabies, Smallpox, Influenza, Dengue — those I recognised, but there were dozens, possibly hundreds. I didn’t know if they were all lethal, though I suspected not as what I was looking for wasn’t, even though it did still have the potential to decimate the human race.

“Do you know what they have in here?” I asked.

“No, but I can imagine. Remain focused on what you are here for.”

“Why would they need Smallpox? I thought it was supposed to be extinct.”

“As far as we know, it is, but perhaps it is lying dormant somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered, or perhaps there is a lab somewhere else in the world where it is being turned into a weapon. It is essential that we have a sample of it somewhere so we can engineer a defence if it breaks out again.”

“What if it’s these guys turning it into a weapon?”

“This is unlikely. Research centres such as this one are subject to control over such matters.”

“There was a documentary we watched at school which said viruses could be stored safely at low temperatures in the absence of water.”

“So?”

“Everything here is in a little test tube of water.”

There was a pause. “Perhaps you cannot see everything. Perhaps there is cryogenic storage elsewhere and those vials are simply that which is being worked on now.”

“You’re not convincing me doctor. This computer controls the retrieval system, so why are things like Smallpox and Ebola in it?”

“I cannot say for certain without seeing the screen at which you are looking. They would not want to make a new entry every time they placed a live virus in storage, so perhaps there is a code that indicates where the virus would be held.

“Philippa, we cannot concern ourselves with such matters. We are here for one purpose, and we must focus on that.”

I’d just found what I was looking for. Human fertility inhibition activator, and deactivator. I selected the first and opened a screen with a selection of files relating to it. There were options to retrieve the material and send it to one of the remote handling booths, and to copy the files to another location. I chose the copy and was challenged for an authorisation code. It didn’t stay on the screen long as the clever bit of programming in the USB key found its way through.

The gizmo did more than passwords. Somehow it hijacked the copy process so that whatever it transferred to the USB, it then randomly altered any numbers, equations, chemical formulae and substance names in the copy on the computer. At a casual glance the files would seem to make sense, and hopefully the changed wouldn’t be noticed until they had overwritten any backups the lab had.

It was kind of cool watching the robot arm whizz across the shelves, retrieve the vial and bring it back, but this was not a game, and it wasn’t that cool.

My utility belt furnished me with an aluminium tube similar to the one I’d used in the Wexler institute. This went into the remote handling booth via a clever sort of drawer with a lid that would only open when it was fully one side or the other. It meant I could potentially have retrieved one of the more dangerous samples without any safety precautions, but then I supposed the people who worked here were responsible enough not to do anything that stupid.

I put the first vial into the tube with a piece of padding over it and put it to one side. Next I filled an empty vial with water, added a bung and tape and put it into the rack where the computer had deposited the original. A few taps on the keyboard and the water returned to its the shelf the sample had come from. Another weak point to the whole system, but then again with decent vetting and overkill surveillance — which the doctor was currently overriding in the lab, I hoped — theft of a sample like this shouldn’t be possible. I mean they had really good security here, and who could blame them if they hadn’t factored in a thief who could change into someone small enough to fit through the ventilation shafts?

I repeated the process for the second vial, closed and sealed the protective tube with bio-hazard tape — which they had in abundance — and retrieved it back through the nifty draw/airlock thingy.

“Report!” Wiesner’s voice sounded in my bones. Evidently I’d been silent for too long.

“I have the vials and the computer’s about finished transferring the files.”

“Tell me when you are ready to leave, but be swift. I have noticed a slight anomaly in the looped video of the lab, so the guard watching the feed may spot it also.”

I took one last look about me. None of this should be allowed to exist, but I couldn’t do anything about it. Quite apart from the risk of releasing some of the most dangerous viruses in existence, it was imperative that no-one realised what we’d done.

“Doctor, when they find the two guards, they’re going to know we were in the lab.”

“Yes, so?”

“They’re going to be looking for what I did in here. What are the chances they’ll find it?”

“Unknown, but we have no time to do anything else. You must leave.”

“What if we let the animals loose? They’ll tear the lab up and there’s a chance these guys’ll think it was an animal activist attack.”

“From your description, these dogs are highly dangerous. Releasing them would be a reckless action.”

“Not if they were contained in the lab. The virus storage cabinet looks like it’s made out of the same material as the observation window into the animal enclosure, so they’re not going to be able to do any serious damage, and it looks like the cage doors all have magnetic locks, so I should be able to open everything and get out of the lab before they discover their freedom. If you reinstate the video feed Once I‘ve left, it’ll keep the guards distracted enough I should find it easier for me to escape.”

“I do not like these improvisations, Philippa.”

“And yet sticking to the plan isn’t always the best option, is it? Remember last mission?”

The doctor’s long drawn out sigh buzzed on my molar. “So long as you are certain you can do this safely, I will allow it.”

It took a few seconds to identify the controls for the cage doors then I opened the door into the animal enclosure a small amount. The animals inside were very still, watching my every move. It was unnerving, but I was still confident I could get away from them safely.

“Ready when you are doc.”

“The corridor outside remains clear. Inform me when you are ready to exit the laboratory.”

Now’s good.” I flipped a half dozen switches and ran for the door. I heard the dogs start clamouring the moment I opened their doors. Don’t look back, I told myself, although the rising terror inside me increased the compulsion to do so. The volume of their barking increased just as I reached the door. I hauled it open, spinning around as I did so. I caught a glimpse of something nightmarish — still looking a lot like a large dog, but bulkier and seemingly made of living stone with a ridge of spines down its back — bearing down on me with alarming speed, and I only just managed to slip through the door and slam it closed before it crashed into the other side.

I crossed to the supply closet and insinuated myself between the two unconscious guards. My heart was beating like a rabbit’s and I sat down to let the adrenaline rush subside. My hand landed on the defunct wand and, remembering the doctor’s instructions, I slipped it up my sleeve.

“You must go, Leibchen,” the doctor said with some urgency. “I must reinstate the video feed and this will bring the guards.”

I didn’t want to move. The dark felt safe, and I needed safe after what I’d just seen. From somewhere I found the courage, climbed to my feet and reached for the door handle.

“I’m ready. Which way and how far?”

“Turn to the left. There is an empty storage room after thirty metres. You are clear to proceed.”

As usual, I translated Wiesner’s metric into imperial. I understood metres, but for some reason I found it easier to visualise feet. Probably my dad’s influence. I opened the door and peaked out. The entrance twenty feet to the lab was to the left. Even as I watched, the door eased open and I found myself staring into a pair of the deepest, saddest brown eyes I have ever seen. Behind the orange furred face I could hear a medley of deep throated growls. Almost apologetically, the creature pushed the door all the way open.

“Oh sh…”

Chapter 8