Monday, October 3, 2011

At lunch, the professor launched into another one of his long-winded explanations, telling how the parts of our brains responsible for vision, movement and memory had been linked together by new strands of nerve-fibre. I listened with half an ear, paying more attention to the flavours of my food. My sense of taste was as enhanced as the rest of it, and there was something funny...

Professor,” I broke in when he paused for a mouthful of his lunch, “what exactly did you put in this? There’s a funny undertaste.”

Oh, if you’re talking about the pie, it’ll be the cyanide. The juice has the arsenic.” At his words, James made a truly magnificent spit-take, spraying his drink across the filing cabinets against the opposite wall. “They can’t hurt you, of course. I wanted you to know the taste, though.”

In case of emergencies?” It wasn’t really a question. The Professor just gave me one of his little smiles. “What’s the dose?”

Oh, quite enough to kill someone without your... special enhancements.” He nibbled at his sandwich, took a sip from his glass of water, and continued, “Of course, alcohol still affects you, because you’d hardly be very convincing university students if it didn’t, but I really will be very disappointed with myself if anything else does.” The arsenic might not have killed us, but it did lay low any attempts at conversation for the next few minutes, and it wasn’t until we were scraping the last of the food off our plates – the bitter taste of the poison actually enhanced the flavour a little, I think – that Alex piped up with a question.

Mr Professor, sir, if we could get back to what we were talking about before...”

Of course, my dear. No need to be so formal.” The man who said this, you understand, had actually tucked a napkin into his collar before eating his sandwich, and spoke with an accent that made my own, trained after years of Speech and Drama, sound almost rural.1

How exactly did we learn to shoot that well so quickly? We had to practise breaking down a few times, but we got the shooting right first time.” The Professor considered this for a few moments.

Well, I would assume that you did so well because you all had experience with firearms already. You yourself were trained by the US army to use weapons not too dissimilar to those out in the next room, and the boys here have both hunted rabbits since they were old enough to lift a rifle to their shoulders. That experience gave your brain everything it needed to provide the necessary skill.” I thought about that a lot over the next few days, wondering what other skills we had from before the change that might come closer to perfection now.

1Not that there’s anything wrong with rural, but people tend to take you more seriously if you sound like the BBC.

Monday, September 19, 2011

We were dripping wet when we knelt in the open space at the front of the building, between the Device and the big double doors. Alex was grinning like the cat that got the cream, and the Professor had wandered off chuckling, leaving us in the hands of one of the orderly orderlies. Each of us had a Steyr assault rifle and a Glock pistol in front of us, and the orderly was showing us how to take it apart and put it back together, so that we could take care of it inside and out. The idea was to practise it until we could do it blindfolded.

And this fits into here... and then like this... and like this... and it’s done. Now you try.” His attempts at hiding his American accent were both futile, considering one of our number was an American, and painful to hear, but maybe he thought that was how you were supposed to behave when you worked for the CIA.

I lifted the rifle resting on the mat in front of me, and my fingers started to move. It was automatic; I didn’t have to think what the next movement would be, and I only made a few mistakes on the first pass. I looked over at James, and he grinned at me. Looking at Alex, she smiled ruefully and said “I was never this good with an M4. I guess this is another one of the Professor’s tricks.”

To the orderly’s credit, he recovered quickly, and gave us all blindfolds. They didn’t make any difference. Learning to do the same for the pistol was even easier; less parts, and we knew what to expect. When our skill at taking apart both weapons had been tested to the satisfaction of our instructor, we learned how to use them, first with blank ammunition, then firing at a target in front of a pile of sandbags from the length of the hall. Each of us left a ragged-edged hole, nine millimetres wide, at the centre of our cardboard target.

The noise of the gunfire drew the rest of the small staff, and I’m sure the people outside wondered what kind of idiot would do firing practise inside when there were perfectly good ranges at the back of the camp. The nurse clapped when James’ second target came back with a smiley face drawn on it in 5.56mm.

What exactly is the point of this, Professor?” I asked when we’d finished, my earmuffs around my neck. “It’s not like we’re going to have any of these weapons down in Wellington, are we?”

Oh, well... actually, I have already made discreet arrangements for a small arsenal, including both the types of weapons you’ve practised with and a store of ammunition, to be placed at the bottom of the Corporal’s wardrobe. In case of emergencies, you know.”

Oh? And where exactly am I supposed to put my shoes?” The Professor looked so flustered that we all burst out laughing at the same time, but I never get so deep into laughter that I pay no attention to the world around me, and Crenshaw looked uncomfortable with the way the three of us were joking together, and standing as a group a few feet from the rest. Perhaps he’d thought he could put an eagle in a cage with a pair of kiwis, and she would stay in the trees while we grubbed in the undergrowth. More fool him, then. We weren’t kiwis or eagles any more. We were each of us a phoenix. The thought made me grin even more.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

All right, you lot, who wants to go for a run?” The professor’s face, peering around the doorpost at the little table where we were dining, was a study in jollity. After a breakfast like that I’d usually need to digest for a while, and I’ve never been one for athletics, but when I thought about it, I realised my stomach felt a lot lighter than it had any right to be, and I was looking forward to the wind in my hair, the sun on my face.

No such luck. When we left the ward, he led us across the big space in the front of the warehouse to where the torture boxes had been. In their place was a treadmill that looked big enough for a horse.

This is a horse-training treadmill. Human ones don’t go fast enough, if we’ve managed what we set out to do. Who wants to go first?”

James did, of course, while the professor slowly cranked up the speed dial on the little controller in his hand and lectured Alex and I about biomechanics.

There’s an upper limit, of course, to the speed the human body can go unaided, no matter what we do to the muscles. The Project worked it out some time ago. Quite an elegant experiment, really¸ and I’ve no doubt some civilian researcher will have the same idea soon enough. First you get people to run forwards on a treadmill, then backwards, then using only one leg. By comparing speeds and so on, it quickly becomes obvious that the amount of force put out running one-legged is greater than that even of sprinting at the fastest speeds possible, simply because the one leg must do the work of two in lifting and pushing. The limiting factor can’t be the amount of force used, then, but the time in which it can be applied. By using faster-firing muscle proteins, we can increase the speed of a human runner to the theoretical maximum of...” He checked the speed on the little digital display. “...there we are, sixty-five kilometres per hour. That’s forty miles per hour to you, Corporal.” Alex nodded mutely.

Within a few minutes, Alex and I were both put through our paces. It was a peculiar feeling; my legs didn’t swing much faster, but when they hit the ground it was like a rocket booster went off under the soles of my feet, shoving me forward not faster, but harder. It took me only ten seconds longer than James to reach a speed not even cars are allowed to travel at in built-up areas. Alex was the last of us to go on, and while she was picking up speed, the Professor told us what we’d be doing next. He seemed to expect some kind of response from us, so James and I both said “uh-huh, yeah, sure,” almost in unison, transfixed by the sight of Alex bouncing along at great speed. She noticed, and grabbed the water bottle on the front bar of the treadmill, sending us diving for cover.

Monday, September 5, 2011

So what made you want to join the army then?” she continued after we’d all calmed down a little bit. I thought about it for a few seconds.

I guess because... I could see so much wrong with the world, and I figured in the army I’d have more chance to fix it. New Zealand does a lot of peacekeeping stuff and disaster relief... I mean, this was before 9/11, so there hadn’t been a decent war for twenty years.”

And you thought that everyone was just being stupid, and if they tried hard enough they could sort it all out so that everyone would be happy enough.” If James had said that, I’d probably have thumped him one for putting words in my mouth, especially ones that made me sound like a condescending twat. But Alex said them like the thought was familiar to her.

Yeah, but people are idiots. They’re always idiots. Even if smart people got in charge, the idiots who took the orders would still screw everything up, and smart people still do stupid things,” James said, summing up the most unwelcome lesson I’d learned since I was ten.

Yeah...” Alex sighed, in a way that said she’d learned it too. “But anyway, that’s half the reason I joined up. That and the whole patriotism thing after 9/11.” She grimaced apologetically; some of the things her country’s military had done since then hadn’t made the world a better place at all.

And the other half?”

I was... in a situation I had to get out of. If I’d stayed I just would have gotten sucked into the cycle.”

We didn’t pry any further. I’ve learned that people will tell you when they’re ready, and it’s quite possible James didn’t care very much at all. He looks to the future, and as the nurse who’d helped us the first day was wheeling a big cart into the room – I could see the infrared glow of the hot dishes on top – the immediate future looked like it was going to contain an enormous breakfast.

The bacon was better quality, and there was a lot of fruit, along with toast and hash browns done properly1 – one of the few cases where the Americans do things better than anyone else, as I remarked to Alex. She threw an apricot pit at me, but James snatched it out of the air with a twinkle in his eye before I’d even started to flinch.

1With grated potato formed into cakes and fried, rather than those pitiful little things sold under the same name made from potato offcuts and all sorts of additives to make them stick together. If you want to do them at home, boil potatoes for five minutes, then take them out of the water and let them cool. Grate them – I generally add grated cheese at this point as well, but they’re fine without it – and then scoop up small handfuls of the grated potato and fry them, pressing them flat with your spatula. The starch of the potatoes is sufficient to hold the whole cake together without adding anything.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

We woke early the next morning. I felt fully refreshed, and I reflected that for a soldier, being able to get by on two hours of sleep a night could be the difference between life and death. We sensed each of us awakening, too, and soon Alex and James had slipped through the curtains to join me sitting on the middle bed. James turned the seat beside the bed around and sat astride it, and Alex curled up on the end of the bed. Her standard hospital-issue pyjamas were fighting a battle against sexiness, and being utterly routed. I raised my knees and hugged them as a sort of topological camouflage.

So, Alex, why don’t you tell us about yourself? I mean, you heard all about us before we went under, but...”

What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?” I finished for him, in my best Bogart accent. She gave me a tolerant smile, and answered with a question.

Did either of you two ever consider joining the army?”

Yeah, sure,” James replied, “Join up, travel the world, meet interesting people, and kill them. Kind of looking like we’ve been drafted right now, in fact.”

What about you, Will?”

Well, when I was about ten... do you know the song ‘Army’, by Ben Folds Five? The first two lines of that song more or less describe it...”

I think I’ve heard it before, but... remind me?”

I cleared my throat.


Well, I thought about the army,

Dad said, ‘Son, you’re fuckin’ high’


He, uh, didn’t use language quite as strong as that, but that was basically what he was trying to get across.”

You’ve got a really nice singing voice,” Alex told me.

Quick! Get some eggs and a frying pan and we’ll do breakfast on his forehead!” James crowed. I threw my pillow at him, and he caught it nimbly.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Look into this light. Now this light. Which is brighter? Which is sharper? Now what about this? Can you smell a sweet smell? Flowers? Can you identify which type? This is sample A, and this sample B. Can you tell me which came from a man, and which from a woman? How old was the woman? The colour of her hair? How long had it been since her last period when the sample was taken? Take these two rods. Which is warmer? The difference between these two rods is precisely two degrees Kelvin. Can you tell me now which is the warmer of these two rods? By how much? Make a guess. To the nearest thousandth of a degree, perhaps. Which of the rods is aluminium, and which steel?

Neither. The left is pure tungsten, the right copper-nickel.” No smell, no difference in the finish, both were hollow. I could tell, even so, the information rising unbidden from hidden pockets of my memory.

Very good. Now, take these two rods. Which contains an electric current? How many milliamps? Open your mouth. Which of these two drops contains ginger, and at what level of dilution? What does the voice on this recording say? How many, how much, which, where, when, who... the questions went on and on, my head stuck in one box, my arms in two others, each part of my body isolated and provided only the sensations I was to assess. Days, months, years later, the box was cracked open, and tidy young men helped me out. Alex was leaning against the wall, arms spread, drinking in the unsegmented sensations available even here in the sterile warehouse. I went over and joined her. Our eyes met for a moment. I think if either of the orderly orderlies had declared we had to go back in to make one last measurement, both of us would have clawed their eyes out.

James was pulled from his box last. Say what you like about him,1 but he can shake off just about anything. He walked over to us on legs that were quivering, but still a lot surer than mine.

Do you think we get dinner?” As he spoke, the two looked up from the work of packing away, and the shorter one spoke in an American accent.

We’ll bring it in to you as soon as possible.”

All three of us ate like wolves, or at least like the wolves of the ancient metaphor are reputed to eat. We probably shouldn’t have, with our stomachs empty for two weeks, but somehow we managed to stuff ourselves without the slightest problem. Perhaps it was another gift from the Professor, like the way I could hear the tiny little moans Alex made as she dug her teeth into a leg of roast chicken, and again later that evening when she was snuggling into her pillow in our little hospital ward.

It took me a long time to get to sleep.

1Please feel welcome to, I’m sure I’ll agree with most of it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Eventually, we got dressed – the clothes were what we’d been wearing when we arrived, freshly laundered. Whoever the army had doing their laundry had tried to iron our Hawaiian shirts the same way one would a dress uniform shirt, which Alex found hilarious. Her own American army uniform looked amazing on her, but I’ve always been a sucker for a girl in uniform.

We all hobbled around to the office, where the professor plied us with pots of yoghurt and commiserations, and Crenshaw bombarded us with questions.

Well? What’s it like?” We all considered his query for a moment, then James spoke for us all.

It’s like going through puberty again, only without the spots.”

My god,” the professor breathed, “that bad?”

Well, whenever we smell someone of the opposite sex-” I began.

Or the gender we’re attracted to,” Alex broke in, which set me back. She’d experienced it when it was just us in the room, but... she must be bisexual. And then I realised I could actually smell James’ rising interest, and the way he was grinning at me meant he could smell me having the same reaction. Alex grinned at both of us in a way that told me she could smell it on both of us. It was going to be very hard to keep secrets from each other.

Anything else?” The professor broke in, jolting us back to the task at hand.

It’s... like a dream. Hard to take it all in. New colours, new smells, all the old senses and impulses turned up to eleven...” I trailed off.

It’s like a mind-bending drug you’re never going to come down off,” James added

That really is what it’s like. It reminds me of being on acid, though not quite so intense.” Well, well. Our soldier girl was becoming more interesting with every sentence. I tried breathing even more shallowly through the mouth. A smell shouldn’t affect me this badly...

What the hell did you do to our vomeronasal organ, Professor?” I blurted out. He grinned at me, like a dog that’s just done a clever new trick, though I admit my perception of his facial expression might have been clouded by the stress I was under, or perhaps the fact that I could trace every capillary beneath his skin.

Our whatnow?” James asked, once again showing why he’d sat next to me with a crick in his neck all through our biology exams.

An organ in the nose, which some people didn’t even think humans had. It’s used to sense pheromones, and it’s more or less hotwired into the base of the brain.” Alex stuck her pink tongue out at me mischievously, and my chest tightened.

Indeed. Experiments showed some time ago that it – or rather, something that does its job - is in fact both present and active in ordinary humans. Yours has been enlarged, however, in order to allow you to read the unconscious signals given off by others. I hope there hasn’t been any trouble?”

The bastard. He knew from my tone that there was trouble, just like I knew from the curl in his smile – and his smell, I realised now he’d explained the rationale – that there was no way he’d admit it. Oddly, now that I knew why it had been done, it seemed to be a little easier to detach myself from the sensations each whiff caused, dissect them into... call them grounded intuitions. For instance, now I knew that neither the Professor nor Crenshaw was entirely sure who was the boss, and some deep part of me wanted to sit back and wait to see who had sharper teeth, so I could claim to have supported him all along. I bit down on the instinct the way my hindbrain expected the Professor to bite down on the back of Crenshaw’s neck.

It’ll take a while to get used to, I think. It’s like having a sledgehammer and a tack. Since there’s no hope of getting a smaller hammer, sooner or later our brains will learn to work with bigger nails.” James grinned at Alex and I as we glared at him. It’s so easy to look at James and think of him as a big stupid farmer’s son, so I understood her consternation. I was just pissed that he was stealing my thunder.

Well, it’s nice to see that the three of you are all on the same page,” the Professor said, smiling with genuine happiness, though whether at our ability to figure things out or at the success of his treatment I couldn’t say. “Now, what do you say to getting scientific about things?”

Monday, August 1, 2011

Removing the catheter was painful and embarrassing and I don’t want to go into it.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

So, uh... did you guys get all that from our scents as well?”

What do you mean?” James replied, failing to keep a slight quaver out of his voice.

All that instinctive stuff about mating and crap. Gods, I thought my ovaries were about to strangle me.”

There was a pause of about four seconds, and then the three of us all burst out laughing, more out of relief from tension than from humour. When the chuckling finally tumbled to a stop, we tried to figure out what else we could test from our hospital bed.

Hearing was an easy one. I found that straining to hear something sort of turned up the volume selectively. By concentrating, I could hear the rumble of engines moving around the base, and form a rough map of where they were, or listen for human voices – too distorted to hear conversations, but easy to tell directions from. Footsteps were everywhere, but I found that the most useful sound was the gentle sigh of wind, marking the corners of buildings on my worldview. After two minutes of quiet listening, I could have found my way around blindfolded.

It seems weird to say, but those minutes lying on our backs in a makeshift hospital ward on an army base were some of the most magical of our lives. I rediscovered every sense I had, and some I hadn’t even noticed. Who really pays attention to proprioception? You just know where each part of your body is, roughly, and it’s enough to reach up and catch a ball, and then one day you get an injection and suddenly you can sense exactly where your liver is. That time made things I’d thought were impossible seem ordinary enough that I could cope with them.

After half an hour, Crenshaw had obviously had his fill of microphone surveillance, and we all heard the latch as the door was opened. I followed each part as it slid and rolled into place, then turned my head as James’ curtains were pulled back a little, noticing two sullenly glowing shapes where the people should be. Infrared too, then. A female voice asked James a few inane questions, then footsteps moved down the ward towards me. The person drawing back the curtains was an attractive female orderly, about 25, and I realised my new senses gave me an excellent idea of the shape of her body under her clothes. I kept my eyes on hers and breathed through my mouth. This could get really, really embarrassing.

And how are you feeling, Mr Masters?”

Oh, just fine. Fine. Itching to be up and about, really.”

She was making notes on the little clipboard hanging at the end of my bed. I could imagine what she was writing: Patient seems extremely distracted and is pitching a tent. Observe for priapism.

I’ll bring you some clothes and get that catheter out soon. In the meantime, there’s a glass of water by your bed. I’ll just check on your friend there. Is there anything you need?” I shook my head quickly, focussing on her left earlobe. She gave me a smile and pulled the curtains to, walking down towards Alex, and I started concentrating on cold things and all my turn-offs.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Hey, Will, you awake again yet?” James obviously wasn’t feeling as lethargic as I was. “Take a look at the lights.” I looked up at the fluorescent tubes.

Imagine the deepest purple you’ve ever seen. Not the darkest, because this was blazing quite brightly, superimposed on the familiar white glare of the tubes, but a rich, deep purple, far beyond anything you’ve ever seen before. Much more than violet. Ultraviolet.

Holy crap,” Alex said, from my other side. “What is that?”

Fluorescent lights are called that because the tubes are coated on the inside with fluorescent stuff, which converts the UV light they make into white light. We’re seeing the UV that gets through.”

I thought Will was the facts guy.”

I usually handle trivia,” I explained, “but James aced physics and electronics.”

So... it worked? We’re... changed? Modified? What’s the right word?”

I like modified,” I told her. “It seems kind of specific, rather than wishy-washy like ‘changed’.1 And yeah, it seems like it’s worked, though we should check out the other abilities we were supposed to get first chance we can.” My words were followed by a few moments of silence, then the sounds of sniffing from the other sides of the curtains. Obviously the other two had both decided to test our olfactory senses next. I drew a deep breath through my nostrils, trying to catch up. New colours were nothing. This was intense.

I could smell the dew on the grass outside; apparently it was morning, but not too early, because the asphalt on the parade ground across the way from the warehouse was beginning to heat up, and the food smells from the mess hall were beginning to get a little stale. All around was the smell of sweat and canvas; from one end of the camp drifted reeking clouds of gunpowder I hadn’t even noticed two weeks before. Closer, stronger, I could smell ozone and a plastic sort of smell from the machine in the main room of the warehouse, and this room was a roil of disinfectant and less savoury hints, which hit my new nose like a sledgehammer covered in sewage. And the people... we don’t really notice that people smell. I don’t mean the armpits. It’s hard to ignore the armpits. But people have a smell, too, all their own, completely ignored by our tiny little scent organs. Now, for the first time, I was really aware of it. James, to my right, smelled earthy and imposing. Somehow I knew that was the smell of someone my age. I mean, I already knew James was my age, it would have been hard to be confused about that. But the smell underlined it twice and drew a couple of arrows pointing to it: male, about my age, prime physical condition, bulkier than I was without being fat. And to my left... it was maddening. Alex had a scent like herbal tea, and a hint of something like petroleum, but it was the other things in her scent that were driving me wild, little markers carrying information into my nostrils. Female, my age, perfect physical condition, good genetic compatibility, two weeks from oestrus and receptive to mating. I knew all that, knew it, and something powerful and ugly and ancient reached up through my torso, grabbed me by the throat and screamed. I stopped sniffing, guilt flooding through me. I could hear James panting through his mouth. Maybe this wasn’t going to be all joyful discovery. On top of everything else, my catheter was suddenly really uncomfortable.

1Modified was always my first choice to describe our condition after it occurred, but to name the event itself I must side with popular opinion, which calls it the Change, because I can’t think of anything else that underlines just how simple, yet powerful, an effect it had on... everything, I guess.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Chapter 2


Sex, Guns, Poison.


To pee, or not to pee: that is the question: whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the pangs and strains of outrageous pressure, or to let loose and make a sea of... troubles?


Mmm. Half-not-there thoughts bumbled through my mind, trying to decide whether to exist or not. The light was bright enough for my eyelids to glow red on the inside, but the air was cool, and no warmth hinted at the sun touching me. My body was under some cover, probably the rough sheet I could feel under my arms. I noticed all this in the fraction of a second before my bladder started screaming for attention, that funhouse-mirror reflection of the point just before orgasm driving a lance up my torso. There was no way I’d be able to move, even onto such as a bedpan. Nevertheless, I would have to pee, and I hoped I was grown up enough to recognise the occasional necessity of doing what had to be done. But first, I’d make a valiant effort to hold it in and move far enough I could drop down over the bedpan, which I guessed at random would probably be on the right. I shifted my hips, just a little, and felt a tug in the relevant area. I had been catheterised.

Well, that was all right, then. I relaxed, and let things take their course with a clear conscience.

Yo, dude, you awake, or is that just your body on autopilot again?” James was sounding a little more chipper than I felt.

Hmn?”

Oh, cool. Professor said he’s got us on something to help our body flush stuff out, that’s why we need to piss so much.”

Indignity after indignity.”

James snickered a little, and I drifted off for a while. I’m not that good at sleeping on my back, but I was feeling in the mood to let the world slip past me. I guess James was too, because he didn’t say anything more either. An hour or two passed me by completely.

Monday, June 20, 2011

As the professor had explained, Darwin was going to be a genetically engineered supersoldier when he woke up. If we couldn’t keep up, that might cause... problems. We would be first response in any emergency, responsible for getting him away from danger, or neutralising any danger he might represent. Therefore, we would get simple training in the use of weapons and, more importantly, we would be given a few unconventional advantages, through the miracle of retroviral engineering.

A retrovirus is a type of virus that inserts its DNA directly into the genome of its victim, using the victim’s transcription mechanisms to make more copies of itself. HIV is a retrovirus. Some of the human genome, in fact the genomes of all animals, are made up of endogenous retroviruses, that got stuck in the genome and are now too damaged to escape. Without one of them, we wouldn’t even be able to breed; the gene the virus used to escape destruction by the immune system is used by babies for the same purpose, preventing the mother’s immune response from attacking her child. The professor reasoned that if one gene can get in that way, and be used by the body, why not more? Genes for more efficient and faster muscle proteins, regulatory modifications for more bulk and tone, changes to the type and density of nasal, auditory and optical receptors, changes to brain chemistry for faster learning, better concentration and stronger memory, all inserted into our cells by noncontagious retroviruses... physically, it would make us the equal of Charles’ engineered body, and with our extra knowledge we’d be able to control any situation.

I realised at the time that there had to be a reason why they didn’t just use this on American soldiers, and I came up with a couple of conclusions. One, it was probably new and untested; it wouldn’t have surprised me if we were the first human subjects. Secondly, it was probably a lot more risky than the professor made it out to be. He always was overconfident.

In any case, that was why we needed to be unconscious, with our bowels empty. For two weeks, our bodies wouldn’t recognise themselves, and what happened then... well, it wasn’t lupus.1 But it was close. Our immune system wouldn’t recognise half the body as what it was supposed to be protecting, we’d have organ rejection across our entire system. So we were to be packed full of immune suppressants and kept unconscious until it was safe for us to leave a sterile area again.

Hell of a way to spend your summer.

1

It’s never lupus.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

James and I were in the men’s toilets together, his cubicle next to mine so that he could shout out a score after each episode. After a while I loosened up a little1 and started giving scores for his, on what I called the Nesse-Williams scale. It was kind of historic, really. I know for a fact that we never had diarrhoea again.

About 10pm that night, when we were both wishing for swift and not-too-painful death, I gave up trying to figure a way to beat the bugs Crenshaw had almost certainly planted here, and just asked it straight out.

Do you think there’s something a little... weird... about all this?”

Oh, yeah. I definitely don’t think my Drake Passage is supposed to feel like that ever.

...I don’t want to know, dude. I do, but I don’t want to. Anyway, I was talking about the situation as a whole.”

You mean how in three weeks we’re bringing Charles Darwin back from the dead? Or how in two weeks we’re going to be genetically engineered super soldiers? You’re going to have to be a little more specific, bro.”

Uh, you don’t think it’s weird that we got hired for a top-secret program?”

Of course not. They obviously heard how cool I am.” His joke was only bolstered by the splooshing sound that followed it. “OK, yeah, we’re not exactly the people I’d trust with something this important. But maybe it’s, you know, believable dismissability.”

Plausible deniability.”

Yeah, that. It’s like the professor said, we’re just about the most unlikely employees of the CIA ever. I guess if they want to keep this as secret as possible, they hire people like us to do it.”

Finally, on the evening of the next day, the burning spasms ceased, and we walked through to the room we hadn’t been in yet, on the left at the back of the warehouse. In there were three hospital beds, with everything needed to keep us alive for two weeks. IV lines were put in place, pillows adjusted, and light floaty dreamy drugs pumped into our systems. I don’t actually remember dozing off.

1

OK, I’m sorry. Bad choice of words.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Sweet irony, how do ye mock me,” James intoned, looking at the little plastic bottle resting in the palm of his hand.

What do you mean?” Alex asked, glancing at hers with an expression of determination and distaste.

Long story,” James and I muttered. He was so distraught he didn’t even say ‘jinx’.

Resting on the table in front of us were three pitchers of apple juice. We were to mix the liquid in the bottles with the juice, drink the whole pitcher over fifteen minutes, then casually saunter in the direction of the water closets and stay there for a while. We wouldn’t be getting any sleep that night, but that was ok because once the draught had done its work, we were going to be put in an induced coma for two weeks.

None of us especially wanted to do it, but for James and me at least, I guess it was just karma. I ripped the plastic tab off the top and squeezed all the contents into the jug, mixing it with the spoon provided before pouring out a glass. James and Alex watched me as I lifted it to my lips. I took a sip.

It’s... drinkable. Like apple juice made from concentrate that’s been left in a can too long, with a weird sort of aftertaste... but we should be able to get it down.” I finished the glass and poured another. There was a second dose in a few hours, and I wanted to get this one done as quickly as possible.

We all knocked it back, identical expressions of distaste on our faces, then wished one another farewell and headed for the torture chambers.

You ever had really bad diarrhoea? I mean, writing-your-will-with-shaking-hands, last-words-a-wish-to-have-never-drunk-the-water bad?

This was worse.

Basically, the whole contents of my bowel found the drink even more distasteful than I did, and rushed to escape it, with burning speed.

I think that’s enough said about that. The next thirty hours weren’t pleasant. We drank a lot of liquids, avoided all food, and stayed close to the toilets whenever we got a break to stretch our legs.

Monday, May 30, 2011

I didn’t sleep so well that night. I mean, I’ve never slept well. My brain starts buzzing when there’s nothing to distract it, and I can spend an hour trying to mentally design a new kind of aeroplane, or rerunning conversations until she’s literally swooning in my arms. It never has any effect the next morning, but that doesn’t stop my mind from doing it every night. That night, though, it suddenly had a whole lot of new material. I spent a little while thinking about the possibilities inherent in the resurrection machine, and a long while wondering how I could get Alex to like me. I still had no idea how long she’d be around. Maybe a few weeks, to keep an eye on us while we were training?

At least she was there the next morning...

HANDS OFF COCKS AND ON WITH SOCKS! MOVE IT, MOVE IT! WE’VE GOT A LOT TO DO BY MIDDAY, SO GET YOUR ASSES INTO GEAR!”

Did the Professor put you up to that?” James groaned.

Maybe...” she replied, twirling out of the room with a cheeky grin.

James and I dressed quickly in the white t-shirts and khaki shorts provided, slipping our personal belongings into our pockets. For me, that meant the little case that mostly held breath mints, my wallet, with its Fresnel lens and three business cards which seemed just a little thicker than they should be, my Zippo lighter with the Pioneer engraving, and the knife the professor gave me, with its many useful tools of a nature entirely suited to the innocent pursuits of a teenage boy. James packed a case containing just breath mints, a wallet that contained at all times no less than three condoms and a slim calculator, his souvenir Zippo engraved with the Bridge of Sighs, and his knife, which had a different but complementary set of tools to the one in my pocket. We had an interesting childhood.

When we were dressed we walked down to the mess, both piling high a huge breakfast of institutional bacon1 and scrambled eggs on toast with sausages on the side. Her Majesty’s New Zealand Army looks after its officers. I can’t comment on the enlisted men, but they probably get it pretty good too.

After breakfast we went back to the warehouse. First order of the day was a lecture on security by dear old Crenshaw. He explained, at length, in bureaucratese:


  1. Don’t tell anyone about this. Seriously.

  2. If you tell anyone about this, you will get into trouble.

  3. The third rule of Resurrection Club is, you DO NOT talk about Resurrection club.

  4. Don’t tell anyone about this. We mean it.

  5. The CIA is an open, friendly, family-oriented organisation and if you have any concerns, don’t hesitate to raise them with me AND NO ONE ELSE.


Since it was just the three of us, we couldn’t even play the Penis game to pass the time. Luckily, after two hours of this (I later realised, probably intentionally) hypnotic droning, the professor explained what we’d be doing in the afternoon, which woke us right up.

1

Ah, institutional bacon. Unless you’ve encountered it I’m not sure any description can really do it justice, but I’m pretty sure the pig wouldn’t consider it worth dying for. Nevertheless, it fills the gaps.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Man, that’s just insane,” James told me that evening, as we were dropping our bags off in the barracks room we were sharing. “Insane.”

I heard the first time,” I said, taking my toilet bag from my duffel and chucking it onto the bed, followed by pyjamas. “And yeah, I noticed too.”

I... do you think it’s true?”

We’ll find out in three weeks, I guess.” James knew what I was thinking, though. If anyone could do it, the professor could.

After a while, he spoke again.

What about that Alex, eh? In all my life, I have never seen such beauty.”

Yeah, she’s pretty,” was all I could manage.

Pretty? Pretty? You have no poetry in your soul, man.”

I...” I tried to explain, “I have it in my soul... but it’s bloody hard to translate.”

James barked a laugh as he strutted towards the door, heading for the mess for dinner. I followed after, I hope a little less arrogantly.

I guess we were just overawed. It was too much to think about. So we spent the whole dinner telling Alex about the place we grew up, instead of discussing the implications of what we’d seen and heard. James flirted with her outrageously, of course. She listened intently to everything we had to say about the place we grew up, and at some point I found myself telling her about the things I loved most about our home.

Well, yeah, James and I had a treehouse out back of his place, looking west across the fields, and I’d often go up there to read. One time I was up there reading Lord of the Rings and I kind of-”

You seen the films?” James interjected.

Oh, yeah, loved them.” Alex replied, taking a spoonful of the jelly we were having for dessert.

The Shire scenes were filmed not too far from where we live,” he said, with the kind of grin he usually reserves for saying “Eight inches”.1

Fascinating. So, you were saying, Will?”

Uh... oh, I was up there all afternoon, and when I finally looked up – I think the Company had just arrived in Lothlorien – the sun was setting. The most amazing fiery orange, with thin lines of pink cloud painted across it, silhouetting the row of poplar trees at the back of the farm. It was... well, I’ve seen a lot of things, but I think it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.” Like you, I didn’t say. Well, you don’t, do you? Not unless you’re both naked and wrapped up in a single sheet.

I’d love to see that some time, it sounds amazing,” she replied, obviously with no idea of what was running through my head.

I... I’d like that,” I said, and blushed into my jelly. James picked up the baton again, explaining the rules of rugby.

1 Complete lies, of course, but who’s going to get out a tape measure in that sort of situation?


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Scene change: The warehouse sort of thing we were in had three rooms. The big one out front contained the Device, and the wall behind it had two doors. We went through the one on the right, into a combination office/conference room with a big table and a lot of complicated-looking filing cabinets. If I had to bet, I’d say the mechanisms built into them were for destroying the contents at need.

Crenshaw, the CIA man, was arguing with Professor Kavanagh over whether we should be told any more than we need to know. The professor was sticking to the same story: we needed to know everything, because if we didn’t know something, we couldn’t use it to help our employers. Alex was standing at ease by the door , with an expression of disinterest I didn’t believe for a second.

Bro,” James whispered to me, leaning from his seat, “do you think this is all real?” He nodded towards the door, in case I’d somehow got the idea he was questioning the authenticity of the plastic tree in the corner.

Well, this Crenshaw guy isn’t exactly what I’d expect on something important like this, but that machine is definitely complex enough, and the professor’s involved...”

Hell yeah. I could definitely believe he’d manage it if anyone could. Remember those pigs?”

I just nodded. Of course I remembered. It hadn’t been anything as huge as this, but it had definitely hinted that the professor was willing to break the rules to follow his curiosity, a fact that had only endeared him to us.

Boys? We’ve agreed that you should know as much as possible. It’s a long story, though, so you should probably make use of the facilities if you need to.” Crenshaw glared at the professor as he told us this; obviously he hadn’t agreed as such, but he wasn’t going to stop it either.


It... was a long story. The professor didn’t help, using long-winded constructions and veering off on tangents. On the other hand, the minifridge in the corner held a variety of cooling drinks and delicious snacks, and we had nothing better to do. Alex sat down after a while, and Crenshaw left to file paperwork or something.

It went a little something like this.

Way back in ’42, the US was more than a little desperate. You know this story. It ends with Hiroshima and Nagasaki reduced to radioactive rubble. But the nuclear program wasn’t the only superweapon effort to come out of the war; it was merely the least deniable. After all, it resulted in huge mushroom clouds, flashes of light... and an awful lot of pathetic, charred corpses. The US simply couldn’t tell everyone it never happened. But there were other things that were a little easier to keep secret. The Philadelphia project, for one; an effort to produce invisibility and teleportation. I got the idea from the way the professor talked about it that that one didn’t turn out too well, but he didn’t give any details. He gave us a lot of details, however, about the project that led to where we were: the Chicago project.

It started, in 1943, as an effort to understand the basis of life in hopes of producing some sort of biological weapon specific to people of Japanese ethnicity, the idea being that it would save a lot of decent, white, American lives. However, it outgrew its roots, and became something almost, and then truly, admirable. By 1944 the US secret research establishment had an idea of the structure of DNA at least as good as the public efforts of Crick, Watson, Wilkins and Franklin a decade later. With the war’s end, the project became a string of Cold War-related experiments which culminated in the mid-80s with the creation of... well, super-soldiers. By that time the professor was involved personally, and he’d led the team that created the first specimens of genetically enhanced fighters in tanks like the one in the next room... and that was when the project nearly collapsed.

For forty years, the secret project had been working towards producing a biological product capable of fighting and winning wars. What they had at that point seemed perfect; built for speed, strength, endurance and adaptability. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t do anything. The bodies were perfect, but there was no volition, no drive. Their brains were exquisite, but dead.

The cavalry arrived in the form of a young, brilliant physicist by the name of Jens Eriksen. He developed a way of scanning brains at any distance, and with amazing accuracy, using an arcane energy field capable of detecting something called Time Independent Transmissions. I freely admit that I completely lost the thread here. Physics isn’t my strong suit. James is better at it, but he kind of drifted off after seeing the acronym. Point was, though, that this technique could, among other capabilities, provide a perfect atomic-level scan of any brain in history. Couple that with a nanoscale manipulator, and those brains could be replicated. You could put together a division of military heroes, Victoria Cross and Medal of Honor and L├ęgion d’Honneur recipients, and have them all led by Napoleon or Alexander, their weapons designed by Kalashnikov and Browning. Such a force would be unstoppable... except by the outbreak of peace. In 1993 the project was downgraded, perhaps six months from finally achieving transference. Eriksen died three months later, the victim of an ordinary drunk driver, and the professor semiretired back to New Zealand to pursue other hobbies.

Apparently, a few months ago, Crenshaw paid him to pick up where he’d left off. With the War on Terror, military research was up again, and the ability to wage war without casualties was something the US government wanted to have. Their own efforts had met with limited success, and so they’d called on the Professor, who could actually read Eriksen’s handwritten notes, and was the one and only world expert on reconstructing the entire contents of the human brain. And when he succeeded, he called on us to look after the product of the process during the one-year observation period. I felt more than a little proud about that. We were being asked to help with a real, functioning effort to cure death.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

So are you guys really in the army?” Alex asked as we stepped into the building.

Nah, we’re just two wild and crazy guys fresh out of high school,” James replied from behind me, his confidence returned now that he was in his natural element of talking to hot chicks. I was staring up at the machine that dominated the open space that filled most of the building.

It was about ten metres long, a rough cylinder made out of gleaming pipes and spheres. A hatch had opened in the side, and some sort of pod was swung out on an arm. I probably don’t need to describe the pod, really. The professor always was a bit of a traditionalist about these sorts of things. The lid was crystal or glass, a transparent half-cylinder covering the liquid-filled interior. Two metal bands strapped across the top, one approximately halfway along its length, the other closer to one end. In other words, they were at genital and nipple height on the body inside, for the benefit of any cameras.

OK, what the hell is this all about?” I asked, projecting my voice into the centre of the building. It would probably seem odd to someone who didn’t know the professor that I wasn’t worried about the guy in the tank. Well, I was, but I knew there would be some sort of explanation. Prolonged exposure to the professor is an excellent method of immunization against surprise.

Dude... think he’s dead?” James said, tilting his head to the coldly-lit tube.

No. I’m... not entirely sure he was ever alive.”

Technically false, Mr Masters, but certainly a step in the right direction. Our dear Mr Darwin might not be breathing, but his heart is making thirty beats per minute and on a cellular level he is positively lively.” The professor was wiping his hands on a forest green silk handkerchief, and tottering towards us. His appearance of decrepitude was largely an act, of course, but probably not for our benefit; a grey suit stuffed with some sort of bureaucrat was walking a few steps behind him.

What exactly are these gentlemen wearing, Corporal?” the suit’s occupant said, as though – a happy thought - Alex had been personally responsible for dressing us.

Hawaiian shirts and board shorts, sir,” she replied, her husky voice suddenly underlain with steel, and I think a little contempt, though that might just have been me projecting.

Oh, do lay off, Crenshaw. Are you really that much of a civilian? They’re wearing brightly coloured shirts – decorated with guns and knives, I see-“

Thought it might be appropriate, professor,” James piped up, as though he’d been the one who’d found them.

...and it is, after all, the height of summer, when only someone with a stick so far up their ass all their food has a distinct woody flavour would possibly consider wearing a suit, and only a CIA desk jockey trying to look professional in the field would do so with a walkie-talkie in his pocket to make it look like he has a gun.” The professor, you see, was regarded as something of an asset for the whole of the Western World, which meant that he could be as abrasive and rude as he liked, a situation which suited him immensely. “Now, shall we explain to them what this is all about?”

Let me guess. Human cloning?” James was being flip, to reinforce his own confidence, but he also had to know what effect it would have on me...

Can’t be. First off, that can be done without all this... machinery, and secondly, you’d get a foetus, not a full-grown adult.” Pedantic was the case they gave me.

OK, smartass, what do you think it is?” He grinned at me, the one-sided corner-grin he used for challenging people.

Uh... well...”

Come on, now, Will, spit it out,” the professor encouraged me. “Don’t be shy.”

I looked again at the device. Sure, it looked complex enough for it, but did we know enough to make it happen? I kept my eyes fixed on a ring-shaped device near the top of the tangle as I spoke, steadying myself by avoiding the eyes of others.

I think it’s a resurrection machine.”

No one laughed, and that was when I knew I was right. I looked down from the machine. Alex was leaning against a corner of it with her arms crossed, looking at me with perhaps a hint of respect. James, of course, had realised it was true as soon as he saw the others’ reactions, and was looking at the machine now with renewed interest, though still glancing from time to time down to where Alex was standing. The professor was congratulating me, in that calm, affable, old-world way he has, and Crenshaw interrupted him to ask me how I knew. All of this happened in a bit of a blur. I mean... a resurrection machine?

You called the guy in the tank Mr Darwin, professor, and... well, he looks like the young portrait of Charles Darwin.” As I finished speaking, the professor chuckled.

Trust you to know the face of a man dead more than a century, Will. Though, of course, you resemble him a fair bit yourself, so perhaps that gave you an edge.”

So... it actually works?”

Well, we won’t actually know for certain for another three weeks, but all indications are that it does indeed work quite well. With luck, we should be decanting Mr Darwin by the end of January.”

I looked down into the tank. The fluid was circulating gently, and the thin, sandy-blond hair covering the scalp of the... body... was swaying like willow branches in the breeze.

He does look kind of like you,” Alex told me. It was true, though my hair was a little thicker and my cheeks a little less plump.

Oh, yes. I didn’t actually have a copy of Darwin’s genes lying around, so I used yours, since you look quite a bit like him in any case. It only took a little tweaking to give him a body he'd be familiar with. I hope you don’t mind?” The professor was casual about it. Someone who didn’t know him might think he was almost being mocking. I straightened up and looked at him, not really sure what to say. He makes these assumptions... but if he’d asked, I’d have said yes.

Ok, let’s take a little break and compare notes. Start from the top, kind of thing, so that I actually have some idea what’s going on.” James gave his disarming grin, the one that almost makes me think he might actually be innocent in some cases, which gives you some idea of the effect it has on people who don’t know him.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Hey mama, look at me,

I’m on my way to the promised land...


James and I left Te Kainga on the 6th of January, 2008. James was driving, and I was choosing the music. Everyone else on the road was assigned the vital task of reacting with terrified bafflement as Mabel, James’ beloved “Nissan Pulsar” (so far removed from the factory model as to have a doubtful claim to the name) tore past them at half again the speed limit, the roar of its mighty engine mingling with the strains of two teenagers singing about their asses getting them down1 at the top of their lungs. It was the height of summer, and we had the windows open, the smell of the pines blasting in as we rocketed down the long avenues through the plantations on the hills between Rotorua and Taupo.

We stopped in Taupo for lunch, eating burgers by the water, and James regaled me with a tale of the girl he’d hooked up with on New Years’ Eve, who was “so hot” but “a bit of a ditz”. I kicked back and mentally filed his story; just a few more and I’d be able to figure out an alphanumeric category system for his 'relationships'. James was a great believer in quantity over quality, and his careful creation of a persona of almost godlike coolness had allowed him to live the dream for years.

Across the water, the peaks of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu loomed in their dark summer plumage, just a few hints of snow remaining near their cratered peaks. After lunch we headed in their direction, and James moderated his speed for the sharp curves of the coast-hugging road between Taupo and Turangi, before letting rip on the straights down what’s called the Desert Road. A little melodramatic, really. It’s closer to a heath than anything else, though scarred by both the remnants of the area’s volcanism and human efforts to tame the watershed, guiding the flow of rivers through canals into Lake Taupo, and hence to the multiply-dammed Waikato River.

The other thing you see on this part of the road are the signs. There’s one every so often, on both sides of the road, warning passersby that this is a live fire area.

Waiouru is a smaller town than Te Kainga, though there is the museum, constructed to architecturally represent a fortress without actually being a fortress, the better to go with the tank and artillery piece in the front yard. We turned off before we reached the town or the museum, and almost immediately ran into a security checkpoint. James rolled his window down and leaned out to talk to the fatigue-clad private on duty.

Hey, can we come in?” From this angle I couldn’t see his face, but I knew he’d have his shit-eating grin turned up to 11. James loves playing games with those who have apparent authority over him.

I’m very sorry, sir, but this is, uh, military property, and we can’t let any, uh, civilians in without the right, uh, right clearance.” The private was obviously becoming aware of the disconcerting qualities of James’ grin. It seemed vaguely idiotic, and somewhat infuriating, and it showed an awful lot of teeth.

You mean... this clearance?” James flourished the card he’d received in the mail a couple of weeks after we sent away our NDAs. I held mine up, too, in the view of the poor sap, and gave him a thin little smile. I can’t be absolutely sure, given that the clearances were all given in code words, but I have the feeling, looking back, that they cleared us to go more or less anywhere. That was Crenshaw’s style through and through.

You guys, uh, you can go right along,” he told us, shock evident on his face. “Oh, wait! I need your phones and, uh, any other photographic devices you have.”

James immediately whipped out his phone and pressed a few buttons, then paused for a few seconds before speaking.

Hi, you’ve reached James’ phone. I’ve had to hand my phone in to security, but if you leave a message, I’ll ring you back as soon as I get it back. And if it’s you – and you know who you are – I’m thinking of you and I am definitely putting those thoughts into action as soon as I see you again.” He tapped the button and handed it over to the guard. “If you get a call from Marama, answer it before it stops ringing and tell her you’re looking after my phone for me. She likes shy guys.”

The private thanked him on automatic, then mutely accepted my phone, his eyes thanking me for not manifesting any more eccentricity or confidence than was necessary. The bar lifted, and we drove in, windows open, with our sunglasses on and our arms resting on the doors in calculated nonchalance.

How many would the ‘you’ in that message refer to right now, James?” I asked, just out of casual interest.

Just two. Marama, who knows the score, and Kelly from New Years' Eve... I haven't managed to let her down gently yet.”

He was like that. It annoyed me, but he was never cruel with it, so I couldn’t exactly disapprove without seeming jealous. But then, he knew that when I asked him those sorts of questions, I was registering my disapproval without actually disapproving, and he generally cut it down to one at a time for a couple of months. He also knew that if he ever really hurt someone, I’d rip off his balls while he was sleeping.

James has a memory for directions which is as good as my memory for quotations, and we were soon gliding up to a long, low building with blacked-out windows. We sat for a few seconds, after he turned off the ignition, and stared at the half-open door. We could feign confidence in front of the guard, but now we were up against the real deal.

Weeelp,” said James, “I guess we’d better go in.” We both grabbed our bags from the back and were halfway to the door when she pushed it open and stepped out.

It would be nice to say that I felt something special the first time I saw Alex, but the truth was that all I felt was a certain amount of awe and a rising erection.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Then, and now, Alex is and was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. She... hell, I could write a hundred pages just about her eyes, deep green pools I could sink into forever quite happily, or about her hair, a rich, smouldering auburn, though when I first saw her it was trimmed short under her uniform cap. I was in awe, yes, but at that point it was nothing more than the awe I feel in the presence of anything truly filled with beauty. As for the erection, she had more curves than Pikes Peak, all in perfect proportion, and in the words of the ZZ Top song, she had legs, and she knew how to use them.

You’re the new guys?” she asked rhetorically. “Nice shirts.”

Thanks. This is Will, and I’m James Campion. It is... well, it’s really a pleasure to meet you.”

You guys are brothers?”

I, uh, no, uh, I’m, well, uh, I’m... Will Masters. Nice to see you.” Smooth and cool, that’s me. I even remembered my name on the third go. James gave me a look of pure amusement, then smiled again at the angel who, at that point, I could only have identified by looking at the name patch on her chest, which I didn’t especially want to be caught staring at.

Nice to meet you two as well. I’m Alex Teague, I’m the US representative on this little project of ours. Which unit are you with?”

James and I looked at each other. We could tell the truth, of course. We could. Any time we wanted.

Her Majesty’s Te Kainga Irregulars,” I invented madly, cursing whatever feature of my brain made it easier to create an army unit out of thin air than to remember my own name.

Those shirts part of the uniform?” she asked, a twinkle in her eye.

We’re highly irregular,” James answered, his grin returning.

Oh. Well, in the US, people have to keep that kind of thing secret if they want to join the army. It’s a shame, but that’s the way it is,” she said, her voice perfectly regular. It was then that I decided that I liked her, as well as lusting after her.

Dude,” I said, turning to James, “She just called you gay.”

I noticed that...” he paused, “darling.” His delivery was perfect dead-pan, and we all burst into laughter. Partly out of relief, I think; it was nice to know that the person who met us first, out of whatever organisation was running this show, was someone we could get on with.

1My Neighbour's Ass” by Tim Minchin.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Chapter 1


The Dancer


Sing, O muse, the driving of James son of Bill, that brought countless ills upon the Sunday drivers. Many a timid soul did it set quivering behind the wheel, and many a traffic regulation did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of The Professor fulfilled from the day on which the son of Jim, king of geeks, and great James, first went on a road trip with one another.


So yeah... hi. I guess I should probably introduce myself properly, seeing as I’m expecting you to read my logorrhoea.

My name is William Masters. William Tell Masters, actually. Yeah, my parents had an awful sense of humour, but James’ were worse. That’s a story for another time, though. It might help you understand things if you know that I’m named after his father, Bill Campion, and he’s named after my father, Jim Masters, and that our middle names are basically childish insults delivered by birth certificate, with the full agreement of our mothers, who both found it incredibly amusing. And these people were our role models.

I was born on March 31st, 1990, in Hamilton, New Zealand, and James was born five minutes later, on April 1st. It’s kind of typical of our parents that they had kids born within five minutes of each other. We grew up together, and when I say that, I don’t just mean we hung out every once in a while. We were basically joined at the hip. People thought we were actually brothers sometimes, despite our different appearances. He was your typical muscle-bound rugby player, at least outwardly, and I was your typical weedy geek. Despite our differences, though, we got along. We’d known each other so long we didn’t have much choice in the matter.

Our little group of friends always seemed a little larger-than-life in a small town like Te Kainga. We itched, bored in class and constantly poking our noses places we probably shouldn’t have in our own time. To amuse ourselves, we experimented with a variety of recipes off the internet, built a trebuchet capable of flinging a coconut half a mile, devised a hydroponics system for a group of stoners we knew... we had capabilities, and our environment wasn’t challenging them enough.

So, really, it was no surprise we leapt for the chance. We knew it was going to be something secret, and probably dangerous, when the NDAs arrived in the post. And even after I’d read the whole thing, looking for the clause about our eternal souls, I still signed and initialled where indicated.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Now’s your chance, before our other guest arrives,” I continued, hoping he’d make the connection. I could tell he knew I was trying to get something across, but it looked like it would take him another hour or two to regain higher cognitive function. I gave up and turned towards her.

He’s obviously too hungover for the subtle approach. Here’s how it is. The guy you were going to the ball with last night-”

The freak with the bowel control problem?”

...Yeah. He dumped his girlfriend of two years to go to the ball with you, and she stayed here last night because she lives quite a way out of town. Do you want to be in the same room with her?”

He what?” her surprise and outrage obviously not feigned, which probably helped.

He dumped me. For you.” Hannah is a very smart person, and had obviously had a lot less to drink than James; her anger was palpable, and I didn’t especially want to be there when it erupted. Considering my proximity to the blast zone, there was only one option. I more or less dove between them.

Look, stop, stop. Listen for a moment. You guys both got burned by someone else, ok? He fucked things up and if you two keep fighting, you’re just going to make it worse. Now... just, sit down, have some pancakes. If you two really insist on fighting, hold off until I can get a vat of jelly and a crowd of paying spectators, but I think you two have more in common than you know. Uh, Mary, was it? I think you said something at the party last night about how much you like the Beatles?” I guided them to their seats at the breakfast table. What I’d said wasn’t actually that important. It just served to break the natural flow of the confrontation.

I headed back to the kitchen, where the pancake I’d been pouring when Mary walked in was beginning to get a little crispy, which made me chuckle a little to myself. James asked me why, and I explained in a mutter, keeping one ear on the tones of the girl’s voices. When they reached the right level, I handed James two of the plates, and took two myself, grabbing the carafe of coffee with my other hand.

Oh, yeah, and he always farts when he comes.”

Oh my god, I noticed that too! It completely grossed me out the first time, but after the third...”

Yeah, I really can’t remember why I stayed with him for so long.”

And so we make progress,” I muttered to James.

I really didn’t need to know about that particular habit,” James replied.

So you and... I’m sorry...” Mary began.

Will.” Hannah supplied.

You and Will are together now?”

Oh, no, we’re far too close as friends for that.” I winced a little, but I’m kind of used to hearing that now.

The conversation drifted around for a while, and I let it. James is good at small talk, but for me, it’s big talk or nothing. When the talk zeroed in on stories of our exploits, though, I had to join in. James never gets the details right.

So all we had to do to change the chimes was switch CDs -”

Tapes. It was tapes. Which meant I had to go into the attic and find an old cassette player to make the recording.”

Ha, yeah! You came out covered in cobwebs!”

I looked like our town council were supposed to. I mean, tapes? I bet they even use fax machines...”

So yeah, we got the tape, went in there one night -”

I had to pick the lock so we’d be able to shut the door after us, took me ten minutes while James stood watch with a flask of brandy for the cold...”

I shared it with you!”

The last mouthful, maybe. Anyway, we changed the tapes, locked the door again and bolted.”

Next morning, all over the town at the quarter hour you could hear it. Everyone was humming it for days. Took the fire brigade four hours to break in... what was it you did, Will?”

A speck of thermite in the lock, melted everything into a big lump.”

You guys use thermite?” Mary interjected, a shocked look on her face; evidently she’d heard of it, or seen an internet video of a baseball-sized lump of it going through a car’s engine block.

Oh, yeah, the recipe’s all over the place. Handy stuff.”

Go on,” Hannah said, eager to get to the punchline, “Tell her what you changed the song to.”

Well, every quarter hour you got two more lines, starting with ‘It’s astounding...’ and all the way up to ‘And the void would be calling’, and the hour was counted by repetitions of ‘Let’s do the time warp again!’”

You do realise you don’t actually have to sing it, right?” James told me, interrupting my enthusiasm. “Anyway, everyone got the song so stuck in their heads that the seventh form that year learned the whole dance so they could do it at the ball.”

Like you guys did the Macarena this year?” Mary asked, apparently in all innocence.

Um, well... actually...”

We all learned it at primary school,” Hannah interjected, coming to James’ rescue.

Deep psychological scarring,” I agreed.


Eventually, breakfast was finished, and the girls departed; Hannah had forgiven Mary for what was, in hindsight, probably a good idea in any case, and was going to show her the hot springs on the other side of town. I was scrubbing the dishes, and James drying, when the phone rang.

Uh-huh, yeah... Sure... Yeah, he’s here... uh, yeah... well, uh, of course. Glad to. Anything we can do to help.” James hung up the phone and beamed at me, filling me with dread.

Who was that and what have you got me into?” I asked, knowing the important questions from long experience.

That was the Professor,” James replied, “He’s offered us a job looking after a foreign student next year. Basically we get paid to do what we were going to do anyway.”

How?”

He said we just need to go to class with him – he’ll be doing the same courses we are – and keep an eye on him, help him get used to kiwi culture. There’ll be some sort of training course in Taupo this summer, and we get five hundred bucks a week, each.”

I wasn’t exactly convinced that this wouldn’t lead to carnage, but since our plans in any case had a decent chance of causing trouble, it wasn’t like I could complain. Besides... it was the Professor. I trusted him as much as I trusted my parents. Certainly I trusted him more than I trusted James not to have scored us some sort of gig as drug mules.