Flip – 8 Hell-hounds

“Gotta go right now, doctor. Kill the cameras,” I yelled. I didn’t wait for an acknowledgement, but ran from my hiding place, heading away from the lab as fast as I could.

I needed speed. Regardless of how much it was going to hurt, I’d never stay ahead of those brutes as Philippa. I wasn’t sure of my chances as Philip, but knew they were better. I touch the belt buckle and dug deep.

It hurt, but then I’d known it was going to, and the pain probably saved my life. Transforming into Phillip meant I had to manufacture a whole new load of adrenaline, and the searing agony that lanced through my limbs as half formed scabs stretched and tore gave my adrenal gland a much needed kick up the jacksie.

I could hear claws scrabbling for purchase on the smooth stone floor. My own bare feet did better and a sprang away down the corridor like a bullet out of a gun. This was the way I’d come, so I had a fair idea on where my bolt holes were. The first was a store cupboard similar to the one from which I’d just emerged. That meant the door opened out into the corridor and would take longer for me to get in. My next option, just a few yards further on, was a storage room, which was large enough for the door to open inward. With all non-military personnel under guard somewhere, chances of it being occupied were close to zero.

I could hear claws clattering away on the floor behind me, and they were getting closer. If the door was locked, I was in trouble. I reached for that extra few percent of reserve and charged.

My luck held. The door flew open as I jammed down on the handle. Bolting through the gap, I grabbed the edge of the door and spun around, slamming it in the face of a different monster dog. This one seemed to have a light and dark mottling of scales instead of fur over its muzzle and much of its body. In my brief glimpse, it was in mid pounce, jaws agape and teeth dripping with a viscous, discoloured saliva. The entire door frame shook as the creature collided with it, but the door remained shut, in part because I had my back hard against it.

I slid down until I was sitting on the floor. It hurt to breathe, almost as much it hurt to be in this body. I wanted to escape back into Philippa, but I knew I couldn’t afford to. Whatever had been chasing me was now yammering on the other side of the door and clawing at it. I raised a hand and braced the handle just as it found it on the other side. I managed to keep everything secure, but the dog kept trying. This wasn’t good.

“What’s happening?” Wiesner asked. “I have done as you ask. The cameras are disabled, but this means I cannot see what is happening.”

“The dogs,” I panted. “They got out.”

“Who let the dogs out?”

With the growling and barking on the other side of the door, it wasn’t hard to insert the syncopated barking. I laughed quietly, more from nervous exhaustion than anything.

“Phillip, this is serious.”

“I know doctor.” My breath was slowly coming back to me. “It was the occupant of the sixth cage. Looked like an orangutan.”

“Where are you know?”

“I turned right out of my hiding place. About fifty yards — forty five metres — Storage room just after the supply closet on the left.”

“I have it. Can you move to the back of the room so you are outside the camera’s view. I will need a few seconds after the surveillance system comes back up to loop the camera in that room.”

“Not possible, doc. I have at least one of those hell hounds outside in the corridor trying to get in. If I let go of the handle, it’ll most likely manage it.”

“This is not good Phillip.”

“Tell me about it.”

There was no other way out of the storage room, not even a ventilation shaft, and nowhere to hide. My only exceedingly slim hope was that the animals on the other side of the door would lose interest before the guards came along to subdue them, and from the sound of it, that wasn’t going to happen any time soon.

“Sorry, doc, it turns out you were right about improvisation being a bad idea.”

“This is not the time for ‘I told you so’, Phillip. We need to be thinking of options.”

The noise outside the door dropped to a quiet growling, and the dog’s efforts clawing at the handle stopped. It seemed like I’d run out of them. Options that is. Time for a bit of silent prayer.

The silence — relatively speaking — dragged. I could still hear the dogs growling, and there was more than one now. I held my breath and continued to brace against the door handle.

“Phillip?” The voice was loud inside my head, but shouldn’t have been audible elsewhere. The dogs growling grew briefly then subsided.

“Phillip?” Again the louder growling. I risked a very brief, quiet “shush” and the dogs fell silent. This was unnerving.

I felt the weight of a hand on the other side of the door handle and locked my arm. The force built slowly, and the handle started to turn despite my best efforts. The door pushed against my back, opened, pushing me along with it.

No escape. I climbed to my feet and moved to the back of the room. I didn’t have a chance against even one of those creatures, but you never knew, maybe I could take them by surprise and run past.

No such luck. The five dogs formed a tight semi-circle about the door, all glowering at me and baring their teeth. In the doorway itself stood the orange furred ape I’d seen earlier, one hand casually resting on the door handle. This close, I could see that most of the back of its skull was shaved and the bald patch covered in scars and embedded electrodes. It stared at me for a long second, then bared its teeth.

“Oh fff…lip.”

I did. There was no helping it. Terror had started building in me the moment the door opened to reveal those five monsters, but somehow it was the ape that pushed me over the edge, specifically when it drew its lips back to reveal a pair of canines long enough to make any vampire proud. I imploded into my smaller self and ended up looking into its eyes from about the same level.

It put its teeth away and stared at me. If there was an expression there, I couldn’t read it. The eyes still looked sad, but for the rest, if there was shock, surprise, amusement, I couldn’t tell. It held my gaze for the same long second then, seeming to make up its mind, it reached out a hand to me.

Soft and leathery, like expensive gloves. I swallowed, hoping it couldn’t read my thoughts. Its eyebrows twitched up and down just once, and it gave me a brief rictus grin. Not at all encouraging. It pulled gently on my hand and I had no option but to allow myself to be led. The creatures strength lay hidden underneath a seemingly ungainly body, but I doubt the entire school rugby team could have resisted if it put its mind to it. The dogs growls grew slightly as I stepped out of the room. I tried to shrink back, but the ape’s grip tightened and held me in place. A long, furry arms swung out lazily, catching the dog with the most intense snarl across the snout. It yelped and closed its mouth, covering its teeth. A long, forked tongue emerged and licked at where it had been struck.

So, the beginning of understanding on how the orangutan hadn’t been torn to shreds by these things. Bravado combined with a little but of strength. Show no fear, chastise when necessary, look down on them. Dog instinct respects that sort of thing. My panicked running away had told them I was something they could attack, the ape was telling them something different, and I had to do my part.

“What’s happening?” the doctor asked. More teeth revealed, louder growling. I showed my own tiny baby teeth and growled back. It shouldn’t have worked, but the ape by my side showed its teeth as well, and the matter was settled.

“I appear to have made a friend or two, doctor,” I murmured. “I’m out in the corridor. It seems the dogs have accepted the ape as their alpha, and he — I think its a he — has adopted me into the pack.”

The dogs chose that moment to prick up their ears, looking back the way we’d come.

“I think we’re about to have company, doc.” Even as I spoke, I heard the faint and growing sounds of booted feet running.

I touched my new friend on the shoulder and pointed down the corridor in the opposite direction to the sounds. He seemed to agree. He made a single woofing sound and started to knuckle his way down the corridor in the direction I’d indicated. He continued to hold my hand, which meant I didn’t have any choice but to follow. The dogs came along too, showing an unlikely loyalty.

“Doc, I need a place big enough to hide us all and preferably with more than one entrance.” I’d started counting doors as we moved in anticipation of a response.

“Seventh right.”

We’d passed four. I picked up the pace and was almost pulling the ape with me when we came to the seventh. I pointed at it and headed for it. My simian friend didn’t seem so keen, but I insisted and he relented.

The door had a digital lock, but opened immediately to my key card decoder, apparently responding to the same code as had opened the lab. I pulled the orangutan inside. Well, I say pulled, he could have resisted easily, but he allowed me to lead him. Another short bark had the five dog hybrids in with us. I pushed the door closed and looked around.

“Move to the corner to your left,” the doctor said.

I did so and indicated that the ape dogs should join us.

“We’re there doctor.”

“Good. So the cameras are back on line, and… I have a loop running on your current location. Please move back into the centre of the room. Hmm, this is most interesting.”

“What?”

“Your canine companions. They are just as you described them. I would not have believed it possible.”

“Why not? Do you think I would lie to you?”

“Exaggerate perhaps, or misunderstand what you were looking at. It is a simple thing to introduce the genes of one creature and put them in another. To make straightforward changes this works well. Resistance to disease, fluorescence, even such unlikely things as the production of spider silk in goat’s milk, all these we can do. More complex physical characteristics are the result of many genes working together though. To identify them all, to transfer them successfully, to activate them, to do it in a way that does not interfere with the natural processes of the host organism. All this is highly advanced, more so than I thought possible with our current understanding. Do you recognise what creatures have been introduced here?”

“I’m not sure…”

“The one to your immediate left. The colouring is black and either pink or orange, yes? Security cameras, they have no colour, you understand?”

The one he’d indicated was the monster that had chased me down the corridor.

“Black and sort of yellowish,” I said.

“Close enough. It has blue inside its mouth perhaps?”

The dog in question chose that moment to yawn.

“Yeah, it’s blue.”

“This I think is melded with a gila monster of Arizona. The next one, describe it.”

“Er, sort of greyish. It has scales, but they’re largely hidden under its fur. It has a really long forked tongue.” This was the one King Louie had belted on the snout. Yeah, I know it’s not a great name, but I needed to call him something other than my simian friend (or MSF) and Jungle Book was the only reference I had with naming orangutans.

“This one I am not so sure about, but I would suspect a komodo dragon. The next one has black and red bands separated by thin yellow ones?”

“Yes.”

“Coral snake. The other two. One has a small row of spines down its back and appears to look like a stone.” This was the one that had leapt at me in the lab. “And the other with the longer spines has thin brown and yellow cream stripes.”

“Correct on both counts.”

“Stone fish and scorpion fish would be my guess. All are highly poisonous. This, I think, must be an attempt to turn these animals into weapons. Dogs can be trained not to bite unless instructed. If the strength of the poison in these creatures is scaled up with their size, they would be formidable weapons. May I suggest you act with extreme caution around them?”

“Noted. Can we work on getting out of here now?”

“The dogs cannot come. They would be too dangerous and unpredictable in the outside world.”

“Yeah, I get that. Can we worry about it when we’re closer to the way out?”

“Of course. You must move now in any case, the base guards are very near to you.”

Again I didn’t need telling. Even a deaf person could have heard the boots running past the door behind us.

“So where to?”

“There should be two doors opposite you. Take the one to the left.”

“Where does it go?” I asked tugging on Louie’s arm. He seemed happy enough to follow me.

“This takes you through the control centre for the base.”

“I thought it was me coming up with the crazy ideas.”

“Perhaps it is crazy, or perhaps it is very clever. Remember, all of the civilian staff are detained in a single large room, which I can guide you around. Now that the camera feeds are restored, they can see that the animals have escaped, so they will confine their search to the unrestricted areas. They will not expect these creatures to bypass a security door, so they will not look where you are unless you give them reason.

“For the rest. It is inevitable you will meet some military personnel on your way, but they should be few and not well armed, and they will not expect you. If you allow the dogs to precede you into a room, there will be less chance that you will be seen. This is important since, if you are recognised, the authorities will increase their efforts to recapture you.

“But if the dogs go in first, they will kill whoever they encounter.”

“This cannot be helped. It is in the nature of the military that life is put at risk and sometimes lost. You did not create these creatures.”

“But I did release them. I’ll be responsible for any life lost.”

“Very indirectly. Besides, what else can you do?”

I had an idea. I made sure I was far enough away from the dogs not to be threatening and changed into Phil. The growls were back, but Louie looked at me oddly for a moment then quieted them with a woof.

I found an inactive computer screen that gave me a halfway usable reflection. I barely recognised the face looking back at me.

“I don’t think there’s much risk of them recognising me, doctor.”

“I cannot see clearly. Move closer to the camera in the middle of the room.”

I’d spotted the inverted glass dome when we’d come into the room. I moved as close to it as I could and looked up at it.

“Mein Gott! Was habe ich gemacht?”

I’d already noticed the doctor’s tendency to become more German whenever he was stressed. This wasn’t a great sign.

“Phillip, I am so sorry. I will make this right, I promise.”

“Save it for later. Right now you need to help me find a way out of this mess, preferably without anyone dying.”

“Of course. What had you in mind?”

“My needle gun. I have twelve needles per barrel and enough propellant in the base to fire off two barrels’ worth, right?”

“You should know this, but yes.”

“Give me a break; I’m having a bad day. So I’ve four shots left in this one and a full twelve in my spare. If I’m careful, that means I can put down a maximum of sixteen soldiers before having to resort to the dogs.”

“Remember, the range of the needle gun is very short, and the needles are not likely to pass through the soldier’s uniforms. You might also consider keeping the needles for your animal friends.”

“I doubt the needles would go through the dogs’ hides.”

“I was thinking this also. A shot into the mouth should work well enough. Although, with their altered physiology, you may need two needles for each.”

“So ten needles for the dogs and maybe two for the ape, that doesn’t leave me many for guards. Doctor, that part of the plan needs a bit of work.

“Right now, I need you to guide me through the route that has fewest people in it, and to let me know how many and where as we get to each room.”

“I can do this. As I said before, take the door to the left. The room on the other side is a conference room of sorts, and it is empty.”

We worked our way through four rooms. I was getting used to the pain from my burns, and Louie seemed to have accepted me in my new form, even if he seemed more reluctant to take my hand. Overall, my not having run off as soon as he let me go seemed to have increased his trust in me. He followed close behind, but gave me freedom to move by myself. The dogs followed him, each snarling and dripping its own form of toxic death onto the stone floor.

The fifth room wasn’t empty.

“Two guards,” Wiesner told me. “One immediately inside the door to your left, the other sitting at a console perhaps five metres from the door.”

I indicated to Louie to stay put and to keep the dogs with him. It may have been daft miming instructions to an animal, but Louie gave the impression of being smarter than your average orangutan, so I hoped he would understand and comply.

Needler at the ready, I eased down on the door handle and pushed it open. The guard by the door turned on me, reaching for the gun at his hip. I raised my own weapon and fired pointblank into his face. Without stopping to see what effect I’d had, I ran towards the centre of the room. The other guy was less grunt and more tech. He held up both his hands defensively as I approached and I shot him in one of his palms.

He slumped in his chair and I turned to see scorpion fish dog growling and salivating over the other recumbent form. Its spines flared out and its jaws opened.

“No!” I shouted in my best command voice. All the dogs flinched back and looked my way. Scorpion fish dog snarled at me and might have gone back to its original intent had Louie not barked at it.

“How much further, doc?”

“The next room is the last. It is also empty. Afterwards is a short length of corridor leading to the lift area, and Phillip, this is not something you will be able to deal with on your own. There are a dozen guards in this place, and they are all armed with automatic rifles.”

“There has to be a way past them.”

“Were you on your own, I would have you turn into Philippa and take to the ventilation shafts. There is one with an access in this room that emerges in the lift shaft ten metres away. You would be able to crawl this distance quietly enough in the time between flames, I think.

“It is unlikely that your animal companions will permit you to enter the pipe though. The ape might be able to follow you, but would not be easily persuaded into such a confined space. The dogs would struggle to fit. I do not think they would permit you to go somewhere they could not follow.”

“You’re not giving me any options, doc.”

“There is one, but I need to persuade you it is the only one, because I know you will not like it.”

“You’re talking about letting the dogs loose, aren’t you?”

“I am, Liebchen. I understand that you do not want anyone to die, and it is possible no-one will. An automatic rifle in the hands of a trained soldier is a formidable weapon. It is unlikely the dogs will reach the line of guards before they are all killed.”

“Then what’s the point of sending them?”

“As a distraction, Liebling. Also it is a means of making sure the dogs do not escape from the facility.”

“You have a ruthless streak in you doctor.”

“This is true. But what would you have done with animals such as these? They cannot be allowed free to live because they are too dangerous. You do not wish them to remain here because you fear they will be mistreated in the lab. It is in their blood to fight, so would it not be an end that would satisfy them to be killed in a fight such as this?”

“What do Louie and I do in the meantime?”

“Louie? This is the ape, yes? It will depend on how the fight progresses. If, in the confusion, you can slip past to the lift or the stairs, you will be able to escape this way. If this is not a possibility, you still have the ventilation shaft.”

“You said Louie wouldn’t go into the vent.”

“I would expect this of a normal orangutan, but perhaps this one you can persuade.

“Liebchen, this is the only option I have for you. If you can think of an alternative, please, I would be glad to hear it.”

My mind was a blank, and I didn’t have time to pummel it into coming up with something. When you’re in the thick of it, a bad plan is almost always better than no plan.

“Okay doc. Can I bring up the security feed on any of these monitors?”

“The room where you are at present, the station in the middle of the room where the soldier was working, it is still logged in?”

I checked. It was. I moved the mouse to stop it timing out.

“It is.”

“Do the following…”

All those hours spent familiarising myself with different operating systems paid off. I mean I didn’t have much clue what the doctor was asking me to do, but I could at least follow his instructions. After he’d taken me through a few back doors, it became apparent he had me setting up a new account with superuser privileges.

“How’s this getting me the video feed doctor?”

“This is not. It is giving me additional control which will permit me to show you the feed wherever you are. It will also enable me to offer you some extra help. Good, this is done. Go through to the next room.”

We did. With a large display and multiple consoles, it looked like the base’s main control room.

“Er, doc. Why isn’t there anyone in here?”

“Because this is a secondary control room. The main one is several rooms away, and there are a great many people there. What did you want to see from the video feed?”

I changed back into Philippa. For one, Louie and his dogs found me less threatening like this. For another, it didn’t hurt. For a third, I needed to show Louie the pipe, and this way I could at least climb in and show him it wasn’t so bad. Since I wasn’t going to be involved in any combat, I had no need of Phil’s skill set.

“I know you’re sending a loop of this room empty to the rest of the base, but could you show us live?”

“Look at the large screen.”

I put a small hand on Louie’s shoulder and guided him with pointing to the main view screen. It flicked on and there we were. The dogs were freaked out by it and might have barked had Louie not used his one-command-fits-all woof to quiet them. He took in the view with equanimity.

I pointed to the door out into the corridor. “Show us the way out, doc.”

The screen flickered and showed the dozen soldiers crouched behind every piece of furniture available, their weapons aimed down the corridor towards the camera. I took out my needle gun, then pointed at the rifles, miming something that I hope conveyed that they were much bigger, much worse. I didn’t much like Wiesner’s plan, but in the absence of anything better… I pointed at the dogs and then at the soldiers.

Louie looked deep into my eyes for some seconds, then shrugging in an all too human manner, he started ambling across to the door out to the corridor.

“Wait,” I said. He paused and looked back at me. “Doctor, you mentioned additional help. What did you mean by that?”

“Place your night vision goggles on your head and turn them on.”

I did so, and a moment later the room went dark, both the lights and the screen cutting out.

Predictably, the dogs growled until Louie barked them into silence. I could see them clearly enough through my goggles, either looking around at each other or, like Louie, staring at me. Animals, it seemed, could adapt to the dark far quicker than humans. Either that or they could see the infra-red torches either side of my goggles.

“Ready when you are doctor.”

I nodded to Louie, who opened the door just as the lights outside went out.

“What the f…” The voice sounded clearly down the length of the corridor until the last word drowned in the baying of the hounds. The five of them leapt almost as one through the door and charged into the black.

The darkness was filled with a cacophony of bullets and barking, of yelps and yelping. Through the doorway I could see bullets sparking off the walls – enough reason to stay where I was. Again, little girl hormones flooded through me, rooting me to the spot and filling me with a need to scream. I jammed my fist into my mouth and fought for control.

The storm of noise ended as abruptly as it had begun. In the sudden silence I could hear the last of the shell casings rattling on the floor. A dog whimpered quietly. There was a strange muffled, gagging sound, which stopped after a few seconds. It left me feeling both relieved and somewhat ashamed.

A soft, leathery hand took hold of mine and tugged me gently towards the door. The corridor was eerily quiet. There was no way that much noise hadn’t alerted someone, but so far there seemed to be no signs of anyone coming to investigate.

My night vision equipment didn’t provide me with a lot detail, for which small mercy I was exceptionally grateful. Three of the dogs lay still, as did every one of the dozen soldiers, sightless eyes staring in all directions. Many of them were foaming from the mouth, most had a rictus of terror etched into their features. All were immobile.

I found the fourth dog – the one banded with coral snake stripes. It was lying in a slick of its own blood and didn’t look as if it had long to live. It turned it’s head my way, tongue lolling in the most dog like manner I’d seen from any of the. I fired a needle into its mouth and it slumped to the ground and lay still. At least it wouldn’t suffer in its last moments.

I spun around as a growl sounded from altogether too close. Spines rising with its hackles, the one remaining hound stood from where it had been crouched behind a nearby body. It was close enough for me to touch and it had its teeth bared at me.

It’s called fight or flight, but there’s a third option. My body took it, freezing me to the spot with terror. It’s unclear whether it felt threatened by my immobility or could simply sense my fear, but it didn’t take kindly to me. Lifting its head as high as it could — still an inch or so short of my reduced size — it moved closer to me.

I felt a familiar leathery hand on my arm, and Louie eased me firmly backwards, insinuating himself between me and the monster dog, all the while woofing gently.

Again the creature didn’t respond well. Perhaps it was being the last survivor with the rest of its pack laying dead or dying around us, but something emboldening it to make a bid for leadership. Whatever the reason, it directed its attention away from me and towards the ape now standing between us.

A flood of relief returned control of my limbs to me. Louie was still pushing at me gently whilst keeping his eyes firmly on those of the dog. Spike had crouched a little in involuntary submission, but continued its advance, prowling back and forth a little as it closed the gap.

Without warning, it sprang, but somehow Louie was ready and caught the creature in the side of the head with a solid haymaker. Spike flew through the air, twisting and spinning before landing awkwardly. Louie glanced at me and gave me an urgent bark before turning his attention back to his adversary. Only just in time; Spike was blindingly fast.

The bark had been enough to galvanise me into running. I’d already spotted the doorway into the stairwell and headed there as fast as my little legs could manage. It was locked of course.

Picking it in the dark would have used time I seriously didn’t have. I glanced at the still bodies around me and found one with a set of keys hanging from his belt. I unclipped them and set about trying one after another in the lock. The fight behind me carried on in full swing, producing a mix of snarling, yelping and crashing, with Louie’s quiet woofing noise adding an incongruous counterpoint. I didn’t dare look for fear of letting the terror take over again, but kept fumbling from one key to the next.

Capricious fortune decided to favour me for a change. The third key I tried turned in the lock. I pushed the door open and risked a glance behind. Spike stood over Louie’s still form, head snapping up at my sudden movement.

I panicked. I may have screamed, I don’t remember. I tried to slam the door closed, but Spike had already charged and was halfway through the doorway when it closed on him. I ran for the stairs, retaining just enough presence of mind to activate the control on my belt buckle. Even with the assist, it took several seconds for me to overcome the fear enough to allow my larger form to establish itself.

I charged up the stairs with reckless abandon, taking three or four at a time, grabbing the banister to swing myself around at the top of each short flight. I heard rather than saw the door crash open and my pursuer scrambling for purchase on the metal steps. I wasn’t sure I had the speed and stamina to stay ahead up four hundred feet of staircase, but I had to try.

Somewhere through the haze I heard voices ahead. Exactly what they were didn’t register with me until I rounded a turn to find myself facing a half dozen barrels. One of the soldiers barked out an order, but I was in full flight mode, aware that the monster hound on my tail was gaining ground.

Sometimes there are no good options. If I kept running, I’d end up with a chest full of lead, if I stopped I’d have Spikes toxic jaws clamped on my shoulder. Instinct took over and I dived to the side, launching myself over the banister.

It couldn’t have worked better. Spike was just rounding the corner behind me and faltered as he saw me jumping. I caught the beginnings of a few shocked expletives from the guards before the stairwell filled with the deafening noise and pungent smell of gunfire.

Time slowed. The cacophony behind me dropped to a base roar and my jump turned into a graceless flailing. I was going to make to the opposite stair, but I still had a fifteen foot drop onto the opposite staircase to survive. Again instinct directed me, deciding that Philippa had a better chance of making it through this, my fear was enough to initiate the change, then somehow my sixteen year old mind coordinated the ballet training my six year old body had received. The twisting pirouette that followed was more athletics than dance, but it worked. I landed on the third step up from the next landing down. I offered some resistance, but allowed my knees to collapse under the impact, tucking into a roll which bled off some of my speed. I was still going too fast as I rose out of the roll, and roared my way back into Phil mode just before I collided with the banister.

I don’t know what prompted me to make that last change. Maybe I figured the Phillip me was already bust up badly enough, and a little more wouldn’t do much harm. It turned out to be a good call again as I was able to absorb quite a lot of my excess momentum in my longer, stronger arms. I still hit hard, and it hurt like a puppy of questionable parentage. I’m pretty sure I felt a rib or two crack and the impact knocked the wind out of me.

The world spun back up to normal speed. I could hear soldiers yelling and running down the stairs. I picked myself up, changed into mini-me and disappeared downstairs as fast as I could go. Spike was still in his death throws though — I could hear his snarling and snapping — and I was most of the way back to the bottom of the stairwell before they could get past.

Back at the bottom, I pulled the stairwell door closed and locked it, leaving the key half turned in the lock. Odd to have such an old fashioned style of lock in an advanced facility like this, but the whole stairwell had felt like something from the past, most likely from when the bunker had been built originally. It would give me a few minutes head start. I doubted they’d want to risk shooting at a steel door in the confines of the stairwell.

I ran over to Louie’s still body. Miraculously, he was still breathing. He had a few claw marks on him, though his fur had provided some protection, and a deep bite in his shoulder. He woofed at me gently and looked up from those incredibly sad eyes of his. He looked at peace, but I don’t know how much that was wishful thinking on my part.

“Oh, Louie!” I could feel the tears running down my cheeks, dripping off my chin. I buried my face in his fur and let the dam burst.

I don’t know how long I lay there. I was roused by the sound of the soldiers on the other side of the door. One of them was applying brute force and ignorance to a problem that none of them had been able to solve in a more creative way. It would take them a while to get through the door, but I couldn’t afford to be anywhere near here when they managed it.

Louie’s body was still and cooling. There was no doubting that he’d gone. I let go of him and stood up.

“Doctor?” He’d been quiet for a while.

“Liebchen.” Well at least he was still there.

“All the guards are dead here, and you don’t have to worry about the dogs. Or Louie for that matter.”

He had the good grace to pause. “I’m sorry, liebchen.”

“I have a bunch more guards trying to get in through the stairwell. Any thoughts?”

“Open the lift. As Phillip, you should have strength enough to prize the doors apart. There will be an access hatch in the top.”

“And what do I do when I get there?”

“The back pocket of your utility belt.”

It was one of the new additions and quite bulky. I reached into it and retrieved a bracket with several pulley wheels attached to it.

“Is this…?”

“It is strong enough only to lift you as Philippa, and has sufficient stored energy to raise you perhaps one hundred and fifty metres. You still have your harness?”

I’d wanted to leave the cursed thing behind in the first room, but it was little girl sized and would have raised questions we didn’t want asked in the aftermath.

“What do I do when I get to the top of the lift shaft?”

“Remain where you are for now. I am on my way to the main entrance as we speak. When I have secured it, I will call you.”

“Please be quick. I’ve had enough of this place.”

“Five minutes, no more. You have my word.”

Opening the lift door with cracked ribs was painful but doable. I managed to persuade them to close behind me so hopefully no-one would look for me in here for a while. The hatch was another problem that didn’t need me to do much more than grit my teeth. One jump knocked it open, the next had me hanging onto the edge of the opening, from which point it was simple enough to change into Philippa’s smaller, lighter form and clamber up into the space. I closed the hatch after me and set about attaching my new toy to the lift cable.

I didn’t put the harness on immediately. What it would feel like turning into Phil with that on and the damage I’d taken to my chest I did not want to find out. Instead, I let my mind free for the first time since I’d dived down that ventilation shaft. It had thoughts it wanted to bring to my attention, and I had time to allow it.

For all his friendly nature, I had to wonder about Wiesner. Yes, he had seemed genuinely contrite when he’d caught a glimpse of my burns, but then he hadn’t had many qualms about sending a sixteen year old boy into a place like this. The end justifying the means didn’t ring true, even considering that the material I’d stolen didn’t exist anywhere else in the world, and I was the only person with the special skill set necessary to enable me to access this place.

The doctor’s idea about reducing world population had me worried too. I mean, yes I could see it was necessary, but there still seemed something wrong with just doing it to the human race without giving people a say. Both Dr Wiesner and Dr Sellers had been extremely persuasive about that, but in the end, neither of them had given me even proof other than their words that Deus ex Machina actually existed. Which meant that I could well be the most gullible fool going for letting them persuade me do what I was doing.

Okay, I understood what Wiesner meant when he said gullibility and innocence aren’t the same as foolishness, but fool me once and all that.

I pulled the USB stick and the tube with the vials out of my utility belt. Could I afford to let Wiesner have this stuff? I couldn’t leave it here. For one thing, they’d most likely do a sweep of the base covering every place they thought I’d been, meaning they’d most likely find it and I certainly didn’t want them to have it. For another, even if I did manage to find an decent hiding place, there was no way Wiesner or any of his friends — me included — would have an opportunity to come back in and recover it. The problem was, if I still had it with me when I left here, there was little or no chance of preventing Wiesner from taking it if he chose to. Neither six year old Philippa nor injured Phillip would be able to offer any appreciable resistance.

I did have one option. It was something I’d been squeamish about doing when I’d been captured at Wexler, but it had been in my bag of tricks since the early days of my training. The whole shifting bodies thing had been an area of considerable interest to Wiesner. He was primarily a biologist and didn’t have much idea about what happened when I phased from one form to the other, so we’d experimented a bit. We already knew from my early experiences that nothing outside my skin shifted with my body. That was what had necessitated the development of my singlet as a base garment. He wanted to know where the shifting ended though. In one of our early sessions, he’d asked me to turn into Philippa mode immediately after lunch, then he’d wanted to know if I felt bloated at all. If anything, I felt hungry, which suggested that the contents of my stomach and digestive system shifted with me.

That gave him an idea which I really didn’t care for. He told me about how prisoners often hide contraband by inserting it where the sun don’t shine — those weren’t the words he used. He presented me with something that looked considerably like a tampon dispenser and asked me to shove it up my bum. It took a lot of persuasion, but I eventually relented just the once. When I shifted, the capsule did not exist in my new form, but reappeared when I shifted back. It raised a lot of exciting scientific questions apparently, but also gave me a hiding place that could defeat any cavity search. I’d had the small escape kit on me when I was caught in Wexler, but it had felt like the last indignity to make use of it, so I hadn’t.

This was different though. My dad had a phrase he used in such situations. Needs must when the devil drives. It didn’t make any sense to me, but essentially it seemed to mean you do what you have to when you have to. I pulled out the little plastic capsule. If I emptied it of all the escape aids, it should be big enough for the thumb drive. It was watertight too, so there would be little or no risk of damaging our only source of data.

The vials were different though. They were too delicate to risk putting in a place like that, not to mention that I didn’t want any of that stuff floating around in my system should it leak out. I removed the bio-hazard tape off the top and unscrewed the lid. The vials were identical except for the labels, and those differed only in the last digit of the number printed on them. With a little picking, I managed to get one label to start peeling. I made sure I knew which number was which and tore most of the number off the label. I did the same with the second, making sure the tears were a different shape. The bits I’d removed I then stuck onto the USB drive. Now the only way of telling which of the vials activated or deactivated the gene was to retrieve the label fragments. I returned the vials carefully to the safety of their container and put it back in my belt.

Now for the unsavoury bit. As predicted, the thumb drive fit snuggly but comfortably into the capsule once I’d emptied it. I screwed it down and sealed it, then shifted into Phil mode for a very brief and uncomfortable interlude.

I’d done what I could. I climbed into the harness and attached it to the little cable climber. It occurred to me that the banging had stopped in the hallway below. Either they’d found a way in or they’d given up, I wasn’t sure which. I kept as still and quiet as I could waiting for whatever came next.

Which was Wiesner’s voice buzzing through my tooth.

“All is clear. You may come up.”

I suppose James Bond would have had some clever pun or sarcastic quip ready for that moment. All I wanted was to get out of there. The gizmo had just the one trigger, which I squeezed.

Chapter 9