Summerhouse land, p.12
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       Summerhouse Land, p.12

           Roderick Gordon
 

  ‘One, two, three, up,’ Jane says, as she and Blinks lift the chair, and Dagby’s crushed dark glasses drop to the floor. Dagby himself continues to let out wails interspersed with some choice cursing after he’s been put upright again, then ceases as he sees that Morgan’s there. The batman’s face is bleeding where it was grazed by the concrete floor and he’s looking more than a little befuddled, but then that was his general demeanor before the incident.

  ‘Good heavens! Look!’ Morgan shouts, pointing. ‘It’s regrown!’

  The top of his batman’s arm is still bound by bandages, but below this there is a healthy looking, if rather pinkish, limb. Dagby’s arm has been restored.

  ‘Yes, it would be,’ Curtis says, with a cursory glance at the batman before he turns and takes several steps in the opposite direction.

  Babbling to himself, Dagby opens and closes his new hand to form a tight fist, shaking his head. He’s drenched in sweat. ‘Son of a gun!’ he suddenly exclaims as the realization hits him. ‘I got the ol’ blighter back again!’

  Curtis’s mind is on other matters. He’s squatting by the hole in the Cube as he examines it. ‘We’ll need to take some precise measurements,’ he says, peering from one side of the circumference to the other, ‘but can you see … it’s oval, isn’t it? I think it’s almost perfectly ov—’

  Blinks is still beside Dagby in the chair as he and Jane see to him, but he notices Curtis has fallen silent. Blinks reaches over and taps Jane on the arm to alert her.

  ‘What is it, sir? Found something?’ she asks, hurrying to Curtis’s side.

  As she kneels beside him, Curtis leans forward and, very carefully, with his index finger and thumb, picks up a small transparent cylindrical object. He blows the dust from it. ‘What on earth is this?’

  Jane frowns. ‘Looks like a hypodermic syringe. See the plunger there.’

  ‘But it’s nothing like any of ours. It’s not glass,’ Curtis says, testing the weight, then scraping the surface with a fingernail. ‘I’d hazard a guess that it’s made from some sort of polymer, but far lighter and more refined than any material I’ve ever encountered before.’ He squints at the writing on it. ‘I’ve never heard of this make either.’ He holds it out so Jane can see. She sniffs at it.

  Dagby begins to laugh like a madman.

  ‘Look there,’ Jane is saying, pointing at the residue of clear fluid in the syringe. ‘It smells like …’ She sniffs at it again. ‘Like chloroform or some type of anesthetic.’ Jane and Curtis both stand up together, eyes still fixed on the object. Jane is frowning. ‘If it is a hypodermic, sir, there’s no needle, which would—’

  ‘Would mean that it was probably made of metal,’ Curtis finishes her sentence. ‘And if that’s so, it would explain the damage to the Cube.’

  Emma joins them. ‘One thing’s for sure, sir, we don’t have anything remotely like that in the stores.’

  ‘Dagby certainly didn’t have it on him – I checked him thoroughly,’ Jane puts in.

  Emma nods. ‘And none of us brought it in here. We all know the risks.’

  Dagby is laughing like a madman. ‘What’s up with him?’ Curtis snaps, irritated by the interruption.

  The straps have been released on Dagby’s head and upper body, and he’s staring at his raised arm. So are Morgan and Blinks.

  ‘Um …’ Morgan says.

  ‘Oh my oh my oh my ...!’ Dagby is shouting, laughing his head off. As he tenses his restored limb, the muscles bunch up impressively. Although the length of the arm is in proportion to the rest of his body, which is flabby and overweight, there couldn’t be more difference in the musculature. The new arm looks like it belongs to a weightlifter or body builder.

  Curtis immediately assumes this is what he’s finding so funny. ‘That’s often the case – the physical development is often far in excess of the recip—’

  ‘It’s not that,’ Morgan butts in. ‘Come and look.’

  Still with Dagby laughing hysterically, Curtis walks over to Morgan so that he can see for himself.

  ‘I flippin’ never had one there before,’ Dagby chuckles wildly.

  On the batman’s upper arm there’s a very colorful and beautifully executed tattoo of a large clown, with the full works – a red nose, striped pants, long shoes. And underneath this figure is the word Mother in large copperplate letters.

  ‘Never knew my ma. Popped her clogs when I was only a nipper,’ Dagby says, then launches into more peals of strained laughter, tensing his prominent bicep so the clown appears to dance. ‘And my old man never said nuffin’ about her being a clown. Sour old cow maybe, but not a clown.’

  Putting his head back, he launches into a keening, unnatural cackle. Dagby has clearly been unhinged by the whole incident – the shock of the blast, and the miraculous restoration of his arm with its outlandish tattoo have all pushed him close to the edge. ‘Cripes, I need a drink,’ he says, then smacks his lips together loudly.

  Morgan switches his gaze from the tattoo on his batman’s arm to the hypodermic in Curtis’s hand. ‘And you and I need to have a chat,’ he says to Curtis.

  ‘Jane, could you treat those abrasions on Dagby’s face, and give him something for the shock,’ Curtis asks. He turns to Morgan. ‘Yes, we should talk. Come with me.’

  Chapter Nine

  Bumping the door open, Jesse enters the hospital room carrying a bag from McDonald’s and two drinks in a holder. Although Sam can hear the tantalizing sound of the ice cubes clunking together, he doesn’t move, remaining quite still on his bed and feigning sleep. His head is very painful under the dressing from his operation, but he’s been looking forward to this so much.

  Sam can hear Jesse breathing as he lingers beside his bed. Then his brother goes to the trolley over by the wall, and Sam hikes up one eyelid a fraction to watch him. As Jesse puts the drinks down and then opens the bag, the smell makes Sam’s mouth flood with saliva, but still he doesn’t let on that he’s awake.

  Jesse begins to sort out the food. He’s always been very possessive and territorial about what’s his, throwing a tantrum once when their mother helped herself to a few of his fries. Both she and Sam have very different natures to Jesse, happy to share their food.

  Jesse positions a large portion of fries in its red cardboard carton beside a Quarter Pounder – that’ll be his because he’s made sure it’s dealt with first. And he’s very careful to make sure that the fries are leaned securely against the burger container so they don’t tip over. He’s particular when it comes to hygiene.

  Then he delves into the bag and takes out a small portion of fries, placing them at the far end of the trolley – that’ll be for their father. Sam can hear his guilty voice; I know I shouldn’t, but ...

  Next Jesse fishes out a Big Mac and another large portion of fries and stands them together in the middle of the trolley by the second drink. He glances furtively at Sam, almost catching him watching, but Sam shuts his eye just in time.

  Sam doesn’t know why he doesn’t speak and let his brother know he’s awake, but he doesn’t. He has such a strong premonition about what’s going to happen. Maybe his senses are scrambled after all the hours on the operating table and the work they did on his skull, but it still doesn’t make any sense to him. It’s as if Sam’s picking up a long echo, although this echo precedes the sound itself. A reverse echo. And this has nothing to do with sound.

  Jesse opens the container with the Big Mac, Sam’s Big Mac, lifts the bun, and musters up as much saliva as he can. Sam sees his cheeks hollow as he draws it into his mouth. Then he leans over the exposed burger and lets slip a glutinous string of spittle straight onto it. Sam could scream. There’s no way he’s going to eat it now.

  But he also knows there’s more to come.

  Jesse grins to himself. It’s a grin of pure malice, his eyes cold but somehow gloating, victorious. After another quick glance at Sam, he turns his attention to the French fries, picking his nose with gusto and then digging his snot-
covered finger deep into the carton. Several times he does this, at one point blinking and sniffing because he’s got salt from the fries up his nostril.

  You prize moron. Serves you right, Sam thinks, as Jesse shakes the carton and rearranges the fries to make sure they don’t look tampered with.

  Sam had had the strongest feeling that Jesse was about to do something unpleasant. He doesn’t know how he knew, but despite that Sam’s main reaction is now one of shock. He’s shocked by the intensity of his brother’s bitterness, or perhaps it’s simply hatred. And shocked that Jesse would take such delight in such a spiteful and underhand act. It’s almost worse than all the taunting and physical bullying from Jesse in the past because at that moment Sam is so vulnerable and in such discomfort after the procedure. Yet the younger boy is intent on doing him down in any way that he can.

  Jesse moves a chair to beside the trolley and Sam listens while he eats his burger.

  ***

  ‘So how’s my brave boy doing?’ Mr White asks, after his wife has left to take Jesse home because he has school the next day. Before Sam has time to reply, Mr White adds, ‘You haven’t even touched your food. Not hungry?’

  Sam tries to focus on his father’s face but everything is a little fuzzy. ‘My head hurts too much,’ he lies, glancing in the direction of the burger and fries his brother ruined. That aside, he really doesn’t feel much like eating anymore; the pain from his head is coming in waves and he’s lost his appetite even for his favorite food.

  But more than this, a sense of foreboding is building in him. Something disastrous is going to happen. He has no idea what it is, but the waves of dread are making him break into a cold sweat. He’s never known such a feeling of anxiousness and fear. Maybe it’s simply a reaction to the operation he’s just had, but he’s never experienced anything like this after previous ones. With a finger Sam indicates the dressing over the new plate in his head. ‘Are you sure they did this properly? It doesn’t feel right, Dad.’

  ‘You were in very good hands, Sam. He’s one of the best neurosurgeons in the country,’ Mr White replies.

  ‘It just doesn’t feel right,’ Sam repeats, his eyesight blurring again.

  ‘The surgeon said it might take a little time to settle down. He told me it’s similar to having a tooth capped – after a while you won’t even know it’s there.’

  ‘This is a bit different, isn’t it?’ Sam says quietly, attempting to smile but instead wincing as intense pain arcs across his temples.

  Mr White can see how his son is suffering and sits on the bed by him. ‘I’m so sorry.’ All of a sudden he looks very old and deflated, as if he can’t take much more. ‘This is my fault,’ he slowly repeats twice. He’s looking at the floor now. ‘You won’t remember but when you were much younger they ran tests on our genotypes, and you and I have exactly the same markers for this condition – same as my father’s too, they reckon. So by rights I should have it too.’

  Sam begins to say something to make his father feel better, but Mr White cuts him off.

  ‘I passed it on to you. I’ve given you this illness, but I didn’t think it would be this bad. It shouldn’t be like this,’ he mutters. ‘I wish there was somehow I could go back and undo it. Make it stop.’

  Sam doesn’t pay much attention to his father’s words, just grateful to have him there.

  ‘So where did you come from?’ Curtis mutters to himself, holding up the plastic hypodermic. He and Morgan have passed back through the Generator Square on their way out of the laboratory and are now in the corridor again.

  ‘That explosion … have there been any similar incidents?’ Morgan asks, putting his shoes back on and collecting his possessions from the Bakelite tray while Curtis makes sure the reinforced door is pulled shut behind them.

  ‘Implosion,’ Curtis replies absently, as he considers the hypodermic again. ‘It was an implosion. Yes, we had the one I reported, but it was on a much smaller scale.’

  ‘Can I take a look?’

  Curtis passes the hypodermic to Morgan who studies it from several angles. ‘Very curious indeed. I’ve never seen plastic quite like this either,’ he says, handing the hypodermic back. ‘If you’re confident that none of your team brought it in, we shouldn’t rule out espionage. Maybe someone’s been snooping around,’ he suggests.

  ‘No,’ Curtis replies decisively, as he and Morgan begin down the corridor. But Curtis appears to be in no hurry, still deep in thought. ‘I really don’t believe we warrant that sort of scrutiny. Not yet anyway. It’s not as if we’re involved in weapons research.’

  ‘So are you saying that syringe was somehow magicked into the lab by your device?’ Morgan asks. ‘In the same way that Charles Atlas arm with the fruitcake tattoo was grafted onto my undeserving batman? You think there’s some logical, scientific rationale behind the syringe turning up, and it’s not simply just a slip up by someone on your team … operator error?’

  Curtis answers with his silence.

  ‘You’ve got a theory, haven’t you?’ Morgan says, as they follow the corridor around a corner.

  Curtis exhales. ‘Several, actually.’

  ‘Look, why don’t you let me help you get to the bottom of this?’ Morgan offers. ‘They say two heads are better than one and, as I keep reminding our mutual friend, Bob, whenever he loses faith in the Death Ray project, it’s good to have a problem.’

  ‘How do you figure that?’ Curtis asks, hiking a quizzical eyebrow.

  ‘Well, then you’ve got something to work away at, like being stuck on a clue in a crossword puzzle.’ Morgan describes a quick circle by his temple. ‘You know how it is … your mind is churning away at a solution even though you’re not consciously thinking about it. And isn’t it really the best thing in the world when the answer finally pops out of the ether?’

  As Morgan pauses for a moment, Curtis thinks he can detect something in his face. Sadness, possibly. ‘You don’t know how fortunate … privileged you are to have the caliber of problems you do,’ Morgan says, his gaze downcast. ‘The real problem for ninety-nine point nine nine nine nine percent of the human race is that they never get close to having your problems.’ He clears his throat, then raises his eyes to Curtis. ‘I tell you, the worst problem is not to have a problem.’

  Curtis stops where he is in the corridor, and for a moment looks at Morgan, as if he’s seeing him for the first time. He nods to himself. ‘Wait here a moment,’ he says, then rushes off. He’s back very shortly with a set of keys, using one to unlock an unremarkable door behind Morgan which he hadn’t even noticed was there.

  ‘There’s something you should see,’ Curtis says, pushing the door open. Even though he switches the lights on, they don’t do much to illuminate the long room with black-out blinds pulled over the windows.

  But Morgan can’t fail to see the large wooden casket standing on trestles in the middle of the room. ‘No? Is that what I think it is?’ he asks.

  Constructed from lengths of planed oak, the object is slightly reminiscent of a pair of rather angular dinghies, the smaller of the two turned upside down and fixed on top of the larger, with what are obviously hatches at either end.

  ‘Yes, that’s my battlefield prototype,’ Curtis replies.

  Morgan goes up to it and runs a hand over the surface, then moves to one end. ‘All right if I have a look inside?’

  ‘Be my guest,’ Curtis answers.

  Hinging open the hatch, Morgan peers in, then reaches an arm inside. ‘So the wounded soldier is placed in this chamber for healing. I’m impressed; you’re already a long way down the road on the mobile version we talked about.’

  Curtis goes to the opposite end and opens the second hatch so he can see Morgan through the interior. ‘Yes, it’s almost there,’ he answers. ‘I just need to make the final tweaks and then put it through its paces with some field testing.’

  Morgan can’t stop himself from chuckling. ‘I assume this casket will need to be positioned out in the ope
n, well away from any other equipment, particularly anything ferrous?’

  Curtis is rather put out by the other man’s amusement. ‘Yes, but what’s so funny?’

  ‘Can I suggest you design it to look a little less funereal? Catching an eyeful of their badly wounded chums being slotted into a whopping great coffin wouldn’t do much for morale.’ Morgan’s expression turns serious as he assesses the width of the casket at the top and bottom. ‘Would I be wrong in guessing that the anode and cathode arrays are positioned above and below?’

  ‘You would. I incorporated them into these doors at either end,’ Curtis says, resting a hand on the hatch by him. ‘The armature is in the bottom section, and the lenses are positioned around the central cavity.’

  Curtis turns on his heels and moves farther into the room, still talking. ‘On paper, at least, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work. The real challenge out in the field is making sure the unit has enough power to kick it over the threshold, which unfortunately adds to the logistics. We’re going to need one lorry to haul a whole load of lead-acid batteries around, and another two insulated lorries for the transportable version of the Generator Square.’

  ‘For the benefit these machines will give our troops on the front line, that’s not much to ask,’ Morgan says, his eyes flashing with the prospect. ‘I’ll call London and get you three brand new Leyland ten tonners delivered tomorrow. Just let me know if there’s anything else you need. Anything at all.’ He whistles through his teeth. ‘Curtis, I really am impressed, but just how far along are you with the mobile Generator Square?’

  ‘Look behind you.’

  Morgan turns in the opposite direction, screwing up his eyes because the end of the room is almost in darkness. ‘Got it,’ he replies, as he makes out the six crates the size of substantial wardrobes, and begins toward them. He’s hardly covered any distance when Curtis calls to him.

  ‘No, over here. I want you to see this.’ Curtis has used another key from his bundle to open a large safe bolted to the wall. There’s a loud clank as he turns the handle, then swings the door open.

 
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