Rule Zero – an extract

51XotH0VdSL._SY346_Here’s an extract from the first Harry Bacon book, Rule Zero. You can buy it here.

But go ahead and read the extract first. Helen Gordon, Scot and journalist (in that order) has been convinced to travel to a strange clinic in the southern counties of England to meet a woman who has (a) just saved Helen from being assassinated in her own flat and (b)  offered Helen some mind-blowing information about secret Government experiments.

Things start strange, then take a turn for the weirder.

 

It was possibly the largest, most opulent reception area that Helen had ever seen. Somewhere over an acre of richly patterned carpet stretched out in front of her, interrupted only by a grand oak staircase that curved up into the higher reaches of the house. It bore an uncanny resemblance to the exit ramp of a multi-storey car park Helen had once visited in Carlisle, except that it was finished with inlaid mahogany and lined with impressively large oil paintings, and wasn’t made of reinforced concrete.

The receptionist, in defiance of societal norms, chose to stand mid-carpet wielding a clipboard. Helen felt the woman’s eyes lock onto her the moment she had sidled through the solid oak doors at the front of the building and the sensation only increased in intensity over the long minutes that it took her to traverse the carpet.

A fixed smile of unnerving whiteness suddenly appeared on the receptionist’s face as if somebody had thrown a switch. Helen wondered if there was some kind of proximity rule; fifty metres – visual lock. Ten metres – smile with mouth. Helen briefly entertained the notion of backpedalling out of the fixed smile detection area just to see whether the woman stopped smiling just as suddenly as she had started.

‘Welcome to Saint Junipers Private Clinic visitors are respectfully requested to provide their name address telephone number and or other contact details on the form provided and at all times to respect the privacy of our permanent and temporary guests,’ smiled the receptionist.

You speak without punctuation, thought Helen as she scribbled her details in the glare of the woman’s teeth. How can someone speak through a fixed smile without punctuation?

‘I’m here to-‘ began Helen.

‘Your escort will be along momentarily,’ grinned the receptionist.

‘Oh. Right,’ said Helen, looking around. A moment passed, after which her escort – what or whoever that might be – remained stubbornly absent. ‘Are there any toilets?’

‘Your escort will be along momentarily,’ beamed the receptionist.

Helen winced. Wetting one’s pants was generally frowned upon, especially, she imagined, when visiting secure private hospitals. ‘Only, I’ve had a long and rather unexpected journey and I had to stop to buy shoes, luggage, makeup and a capsule wardrobe on the way. Could I just-‘

‘Your escort will be along momentarily.’

There was merest hint of a suggestion of an air of finality in the tone of her voice.

Helen had been on the kind of journey that she wouldn’t like to repeat in a hurry. The secret of good travelling, Helen had once written, was in the preparation. She was the kind of person who packed four kinds of nightwear for a weekend away on the basis that you just never knew. What it was you never knew she wasn’t sure, but in Helen’s book equipping oneself with a choice of nightwear went some way to mitigating the horror of the unknown. This journey, however, had commenced with Helen edging furtively towards Edinburgh’s Waverley station wearing the same Sunday morning attire she’d fled the flat in: a pair of faded green jogging pants and a pink t-shirt with a beetroot juice stain down the front. She had taken shelter in the tiny café outside the station, as Jane had instructed her to. Weirdly, the owner seemed to be expecting her. He’d put a cooked breakfast, a mug of tea and a brown envelope in front of her, grinning knowingly and tapping his nose in the time-honoured fashion before retreating behind the counter to repeatedly wipe the same mug whilst wearing an expression of forced nonchalance. Helen had emptied the envelope onto the table: a large wad of high-denomination banknotes and a map of deepest Surrey. There were instructions on the map:

I am here. Come now. Cannot guarantee your safety otherwise. Memorise this map and destroy it.

Helen had shot a glance at the café owner, who was now buffing the chrome on his espresso machine. Jane, it seemed, could pull more strings than a troupe of Burmese marionette operators. Helen had left the cafe, indulged in a little light shopping and then treated herself to a first class ticket to Godalming. It took the entire journey to eat the map.

A frantic creak from the staircase signalled the hurried descent of a small middle-aged man wearing a white lab coat two sizes too large for him. He cantered down and drew to a breathless halt slightly too close to Helen. He carried with him a somewhat familiar chemical smell that she couldn’t quite identify.

‘Mrs or Miss Helen Gordon, they didn’t specify, which is it?’ he said, holding out his hand in a peculiar palm-upwards position.

‘Miss,’ said Helen, twisting her arm uncomfortably in order to grasp his hand and shake it.

‘Hand out, palm upwards, gesture indicating a polite question,’ he said.

‘Oh, I am sorry,’ said Helen, snatching her hand away. ‘Miss,’ she said again. Just to be clear.

‘Miss Helen Gordon, pleased to meet you, my name is Alan, we don’t use surnames here, spirit of informality blended with an overriding demand for the security of our patients, how do you do, right hand out palm left,’ said Alan, holding his right hand out with the palm facing to the left. Helen tentatively shook his hand. It was like shaking a dead eel.

‘Please kindly follow me to address the main purpose of your visit to St Junipers, walks purposefully onwards,’ said Alan, walking purposefully out across the enormous carpet. They appeared to be heading for a blank wall. Helen stole a brief glance back at the receptionist. The smile had vanished. Yep, thought Helen, ten metre radius. Nutcases 2, normal people nil. And I haven’t even met any of the patients yet.

A section of the wall slid noiselessly aside to reveal a brightly lit plain white corridor. Alan led her in and the wall closed behind her. It was all very science fiction, but Helen wasn’t particularly impressed. Invisible doors and sliding walls were all the rage in the upper echelons of the self-build community these days, and Helen had lost count of the number of puff pieces she’d had to write about wrinkly old rock stars and their custom-built eco-pads.

The brightly lit plain white corridor sloped down towards another brightly lit plain white corridor which in turn led into a large brightly lit circular room which appeared to be constructed from a brightly lit plain white corridor that had been gently expanded it in all directions. It all looked like it had been designed by a militant minimalist with an irrational hatred of colour. In the centre of the room was a white circular desk, within which sat a nurse in a plain white uniform. At least, Helen assumed she was a nurse. She was wearing a small paper hat of the type which nurses were wont to wear, the purpose of which seemed to be solely to indicate membership of the nursing profession. It certainly wouldn’t have kept off the rain. Helen couldn’t detect any of the other attributes that nurses tended to present, such as small fob watches, rectal thermometers and robustly positive outlooks.

The nurse, if indeed that is what she was, didn’t look up. After a long moment, she sighed deeply, acknowledged their presence by a pained rise of the eyebrows and reached under her desk. There was a distant clunk, as if a large steel girder had been dropped onto a carpeted concrete floor behind the sound-proofed walls of a distant room. Alan turned neatly around to face Helen.

‘You may now undertake your visit with Resident 5051. The door has been unlocked and disarmed. Please be aware that your presence was, is and will be monitored by an array of observation and detection devices including infrared, bioelectrical, nuclear, gamma and psionic arrays and other technologies that I am not at liberty to describe to you at this time. Mentally reviews visitor checklist, ensures all resident protection protocols have been observed.’

Alan took a step backwards, collided gently with the desk, looked a little surprised, took two steps sideways and stopped, his eyes fixed into the middle distance.

Helen looked around. Several corridors converged on the room, and it wasn’t at all clear where she should go next. The nurse took an extra deep sigh, frowned a little harder and pointed at a corridor. Above the corridor a small blue light was flashing.

‘Tell you what,’ said Helen brightly. ‘I’ll just wander down the corridor with the flashing light, shall I? Because that seems like the obvious thing to do, really, doesn’t it? I mean, what was I thinking? The room I’m meant to go to is just bound to be along there. Right? Yeah.’

Halfway along the corridor a similar blue light flashed above a nondescript door that sat slightly ajar. Helen peered inside. Rack upon rack of medical monitoring devices lined one wall of the dimly lit, windowless room and a beige sarcophagus-like unit that looked for all the world like a Modernist interpretation of an ancient Egyptian coffin filled the other. Clearly she’d been sent to the store room by mistake. For no reason she could divine, Helen felt as if everything was about to go dreadfully wrong. There and then she decided: she would turn around, walk out, leave the building and keep walking until she found a nice Spa Hotel where she’d… Her phone bleated, vibrating in her pocket. She emitted an involuntary strangulated mouse-like sound of surprise and fumbled the thing out of her jeans.

Hello, Helen. Do come in.

Helen goggled at her mobile phone as if it had just sprouted tentacles and was trying to extract her eyeballs through her ears. Calm, thought Helen. Deep breaths. She stepped inside and the door began to close behind her. Instinctively she grabbed at the handle but the door accelerated out of reach and snicked shut, making a quiet ‘shoop’ noise as it settled into the doorframe. A small gust of air suggested that it had formed an airtight seal.

‘Ha! Yes, well. Okay,’ said Helen pointlessly. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and composed a reply.

Idjko.

She couldn’t help noticing that the adrenalin was playing havoc with her finger coordination. She took another deep breath and texted again.

Jane! I followed your instructions. I’m here. Where are you?

The response was immediate.

Sit down.

There was a gaudy orange plastic chair by the door, the kind that was moulded into a shape that provided comfort and support to less than one percent of the population and caused untold discomfort to everyone else. Helen dragged it noisily to the centre of the room and perched on the edge. She knew that any moment now Jane was going to walk in, waving her phone and smiling. They’d share a cup of vending machine coffee and establish some kind of working relationship. Helen would be friendly and professional and the world would start making sense again.

Jane’s absence continued. Helen shifted uncomfortably. A distant whine emanated from the sarcophagus-like unit, building steadily in volume. The sound became almost painful, rising in pitch and volume before it finally passed beyond human perception. Any dogs in the area, Helen thought, removing her fingers from her ears, would not be having a good time now.

A row of red LEDs lit up along the side of the unit, accompanied by a pleasant low hum. A small video screen unfolded itself from unit’s smooth flank like a flower petal greeting the first rays of the morning sun and flickered into life, revealing the peaceful-looking face of an beautiful middle-aged woman. Her skin was a washed out translucent white, in sharp contrast to the closely cropped jet black hair shot through with iron grey. Her eyes were piercingly blue, almost violet. She blinked once or twice, as if to underline their piercingness, and smiled beatifically. It was a moment or two before Helen noticed the small white box attached to her neck. A red LED on the side of the box flashed menacingly. A sentence appeared at the bottom of the video screen like a subtitle and a flat, artificial-sounding nondescript female voice read it out loud. The woman’s lips remained motionless.

Hello Helen. I’d shake your hand, but I’m afraid my restricted circumstances don’t permit it.

‘Jane? You’re in that box? I don’t understand,’ said Helen. Either this was the most elaborate practical joke in the history of everything or, well, Helen had just slipped another few hundred feet down the rabbit hole.

For my sins.

Before Helen had the chance to process this weird turn of affairs, a dull boom reverberated around the building. Distant alarms sounded. A voice somewhere near the very centre of Helen’s brain screamed something about explosions and running away, but the more advanced centres of her mind – the ones that dealt with important things like which jeans to wear, how to book a table at the most in-demand restaurants and exactly how long to wait before contacting that interestingly attractive tousle-haired actor she’d met at that vodka-tasting evening – told it to pipe down and stop being so overwrought and ridiculous.

‘What was that?’ asked Helen casually.

Pentaerythritol tetranitrate. Linear shaped charge, by the sound of it. I rather suspect the Clinic is under some form of attack. It’d be more helpful if you just did as you were told for the next few minutes rather than asking questions that’d take an unnecessary amount of time to answer and would only scare you witless anyway. Can you drive?

‘No! I can’t drive. Penta what? I, uh, I got a taxi from the-‘

Yes, okay, stop talking. Not to worry, you’re a resourceful girl. We’ll find an automatic or something.

‘An automatic what? And what’s a shaped charge?’

What did I say about asking questions?

Another dull explosion rattled the electronic instruments on the racks and dislodged a few wires.

‘Oh my god, we’re being bombed,’ said Helen flatly. It wasn’t a phrase she’d ever expected to hear herself saying, and she wished she’d taken the opportunity to be more melodramatic. A little scream, perhaps, or maybe some expletives. Instead she just slipped into a crouch and covered her head with both hands. She wasn’t sure what good it would do, but it felt better than nothing. A sound like a dozen sets of silver cutlery being fired into a steel drum filled the room. Helen took her hands off her head and covered her ears.

Fragmenting anti-personnel grenade in the primary access corridor. Now listen carefully. This is a self-contained life-support unit with multiply redundant nuclear batteries. I’m wired into it. Where it goes, I go and vice versa. All I need you to do is open the door and push.

Helen suddenly remembered two things. One was that she still desperately needed the toilet. The other was that the jeans she had brought for herself would utterly fail to conceal things if she were to wet herself. At this moment Helen felt very much like wetting herself. Another explosion reverberated around the room. This one sounded much closer. As if to underline the fact, more debris ricocheted down the corridor outside.

If you wait much longer you’ll be buried under five hundred tons of reinforced concrete. I’ll be fine. You’ll be dead. Shall we go?

Helen tried the door. It was still locked.

Monitoring radio comms. Attackers have hacked the locking systems. Down in three, two…one.

The door relaxed itself out of the airtight seal with a gentle sigh. The noise from outside immediately grew louder; a barrage of gunfire, shouted orders, screams.

‘Surely it’d be much safer to stay in here,’ said Helen.

The Clinic is under attack by a squad of heavily armed men whose sole aim is to either capture me or kill me. If you want to be safe, then go now. They probably won’t harm you.

Helen discovered she could run and crouch simultaneously. She got as far as the circular room. Chunks of dislodged concrete from the ceiling littered the abandoned nurse station and floor and the air stank of burning plastic. The sound of fighting echoed down the corridors. She swore under her breath and stomped back to Jane’s room.

‘’Probably’ doesn’t really cut it for me,’ said Helen.

Well done, said Jane. You made the right choice.

Helen grabbed a handle at one end of Jane’s sarcophagus and pulled hard. The box rose on a cushion of air and slid out from the wall. Helen instinctively let go of the handle and the box settled itself back onto the floor.

‘Okay, that could’ve been harder,’ said Helen to herself. Maybe she could do this after all. She opened the door, readying herself for escape. Alan was standing outside the room, incongruously armed with a compact and vicious-looking machine gun. A bank of rolling smoke was drifting along the corridor.

‘Residents will return to the safety of their rooms,’ said Alan, squinting into the smoke.

‘Look-‘ began Helen. Alan shoved her in the chest and she staggered backwards, sitting down hard on the floor.

‘Residents will return to the safety of their rooms,’ said Alan again. He flicked the safety off and aimed the gun into the smoke. Three figures in blue-and-white striped pyjamas staggered towards him. Alan raised the gun. ‘Residents will return to the safety of their rooms,’ he repeated.

The first pyjama-clad refugee was a perky woman with the kind of permanently etched enthusiastic grin that suggested she treated the highs and lows of life as one long jolly jape. ‘Just on our way,’ she grinned, bobbing up and down excitedly. She brushed a lump of shrapnel off her shoulder and shook concrete dust out of her hair.

A beanpole of a man with a hawk nose and a shock of wiry grey hair leaned out apologetically from behind her. He was hand in hand with a short, muscular woman. She had absurdly long arms and a simian brow. ‘Our room’s been exploded,’ said the tall man, by way of explanation.

‘And we were hoping to find the tea trolley on the way to my digs,’ said the perky woman. She seemed to be treating the whole affair as an amusing diversion. ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m as parched as a perch.’

‘Residents will return to the safety of their rooms,’ reiterated Alan.

‘Leave it to me,’ said perky. She leaned towards Alan, speaking in an over-loud whisper. ‘They got a bit agitated. You know Lord Henry here isn’t good with loud noises and Fatima’ – she gestured towards the short, ape-like woman – ‘well, it’s going to be her Special Time in five minutes and there’ll be hell to pay if I don’t find a moist towel and a steel bucket.’

She ushered them onwards along the corridor. ‘Come on, kids. I’ve got a sneaky packet of Custard Creams hidden under my pillow. Last one there’s a peanut.’

Alan switched his attention away from the receding inmates, cocking his head to one side as if he could hear something beyond Helen’s perception.

‘Please take cover,’ he said. His voice was as passionless as ever, but a hint of a smile played at the corner of his mouth. ‘Releases safety catch, braces against recoil, aims.’

Two shadowy black-clad mercenaries stormed through the churning wall of smoke. Alan fired – once, twice, a pause, then twice more. It wasn’t a ramboesque spray of bullets, but the precise action of someone who knew the best place for the bullets to go. The men dropped to the floor, vanishing beneath the thickening swirls. Alan sprang forward, aiming his gun at what Helen presumed was one the supine figures’ heads.

‘Ensures life is sufficiently extinguished,’ said Alan, firing into the smoke. It seemed barely necessary, but Helen wasn’t about to debate it with him. Alan crouched quietly for a moment by one of the bodies, then stood to face Helen again. He had smeared thick, glutinous streaks of blood across his face.

‘Reveals war face,’ said Alan, and his features creased horribly as he emitted a prolonged, guttural howl. Helen became warmly and unpleasantly aware that her bladder had dispensed with the normal procedure of politely requesting a little metime and gone straight for emergency evacuation. She tried to stand up, but her knees weren’t picking up the phone, so she resorted to a supremely undignified bottom-shuffle back into Jane’s room.

Get up, said Jane.

Jane’s sarcophagus was preventing Helen carrying out her plan to hide under anything with a gap. She pushed her back against the box and slid up into a shivering crouch. Another bomb thud reverberated around the room, and the power blinked out. For a few brief seconds, the only light in the room was Jane’s display screen. It extended and rotated to face Helen.

Look at me.

Helen didn’t have much choice. The glow of the screen burnt into her eyes, carving an image of Jane’s impassive face on her visual cortex. Jane’s mouth moved.

Do what I say. Nothing more, nothing less.

Helen squeaked in the affirmative. The emergency lights flickered on, bathing the room in a lurid orange glow. The crack of gunfire and shouted orders echoed around the corridor outside. Alan was gone. Several black-clad figures ran by.

Grab the handle. When I say go, walk out, turn left and run.

Helen found her voice. ‘I’ve wet myself,’ she said.

Good. It means your bloodstream is full of adrenalin. You will be able to run faster. Let’s go.

Helen ran faster than she’d ever run in her life. Faster than she ran on that ill-advised shortcut through the park one night after the pub when it seemed that every shadow harboured a rapist. Faster than the 100 metre dash on the school Sports Day back in 1990 when the only thing that mattered was beating that lanky bitch Fiona Campbell. Faster than last one to the sea’s a bampot down the sand dunes every summer holiday. She was speed personified, her feet barely touched the ground, and Jane’s sarcophagus skimmed along in front of her like a Japanese bullet train. Grenades exploded near by. Helen didn’t even turn to look. They flew through billowing clouds of smoke. Screaming, bleeding patients threw themselves out of their path. Gunshot echoed around.

The corridor branched a few yards ahead. ‘Which way?’ screamed Helen.

Left.

Helen veered left, leaning the box into another long corridor. At the far end was some kind of service lift, but between her and the lift stood a black silk-clad mercenary. His attention was entirely on his gun, which he was wrestling with. Helen knew next to nothing about guns, but if pressed she’d have said that he was having a problem getting the box of bullets plugged in. The man looked up at a rapidly approaching woman who appeared to be pursuing some kind of flying box. He froze momentarily, desperately trying to process what he was seeing, and then redoubled his attempt to load his gun. It was too late for Helen to change her mind; she’d either get past him – or she wouldn’t.

Helen’s vision narrowed and the colour drained away. She was running faster than the wind, but seemed to be making no progress at all. She could see his expression change from one of anguished frustration to triumphant joy as the cartridge snicked into place and he raised the barrel of the gun. He had all the time in the world. Time to fire and step neatly out of the way. I’m about to die, thought Helen. I wonder how long it’ll hurt for. The man hesitated. He seemed to be aiming past Helen rather than at her.

The man’s eyes rolled upwards, as if he’d just seen a really interesting bird, and a black dot appeared on his forehead. He let go of his gun and it hung in mid-air as Jane’s box slammed into him and propelled him along the corridor like a rag doll. Helen tried to stop running, but it felt like applying for a large mortgage; convoluted, with little chance of success. Her legs pummelled onwards, carrying her, the box and the very dead mercenary towards the service lift. She brought herself to a halt by the doors, and the man’s body made an unpleasant crunching sound as the flying box crushed it against the back wall.

Did we get him? asked Jane.

Helen considered the bloody hole in the man’s forehead. ‘Someone did. I don’t think it was us.’ She turned around and looked back along the corridor. Alan stood at the far end, his gun to his shoulder and his eye still in the sights. He was naked from the waist up, his soft white torso smeared with blackening blood. He’d evidently been collecting trophies, because there were several automatic weapons slung over his shoulder.

‘Residents will return to the safety of their rooms,’ he shouted, the echo bouncing up and down the corridor.

Press G, said Jane.

There were only two buttons. B and G. Helen jabbed the latter. For an awfully long moment, nothing happened. Alan tilted his head to one side, improving his aim. Helen was quite literally out of ideas. The doors began to close, moving like they had all the time in the world.

Duck.

Helen ducked. The bullet spanged into the metal wall of the lift immediately behind the spot where Helen’s head had been. The doors clanged shut and the lift jerked upwards, hauling them towards ground level.

It was the biggest fire engine yet, a massive articulated affair with folding ladders and critical life-saving appendages. Helen heard it long before she saw it, the roar of the engine trumped intermittently by the wailing siren. It approached the roundabout at a speed that suggested it intended to travel directly over it, but somehow the driver managed to put the vehicle into a slide, the enormous rear wheels juddering and protesting as it drifted gracelessly around the curve. It roared off towards the Clinic, vectoring in on the pall of grey smoke that hung in the air over the Surrey countryside.

Escaping from the mini-warzone of the Clinic, Helen had spotted a gap in the near-constant stream of police cars, fire engines and ambulances, and taken the opportunity to manhandle the sarcophagus into the centre of a lightly wooded roundabout. It had seemed like a safe place to sit down and wait for her ears to stop ringing. The smell of explosives permeated her clothes, her hair, her skin. She could taste explosives. The stuff was probably baked into the enamel of her teeth. She made a mental note to step up her flossing regime, and briefly considered the merits of a double-page spread on the dental hygiene of bomb disposal experts.

‘I’m rambling,’ said Helen.

I didn’t hear you ramble, said Jane.

‘Rambling in my head,’ said Helen. What she wanted, more than anything, was a cuddle. Maybe if she waited long enough, one of the nice armed policemen would come back and give her a squeeze. There’d been lots of armed policemen heading towards the Clinic. Surely they could spare just one?

You’re in shock, said Jane.

‘Stop it,’ said Helen, wrapping her arms around herself and rocking slowly.

Stop what?

‘Figuring everything out! Telling me what…what I’m feeling! Just…just stop it, okay? I’m meant to be asking you the questions.’

There was a long silence, punctuated only by the passing of several ambulances travelling away from the Clinic.

I’m sorry, said Jane. I don’t get out much.

Helen muffled an inadvertent snort of laughter. A gobbet of soot-blackened snot shot out of her nose. ‘Sorry!’ said Helen, covering her face with her hands.

🙂 said Jane.

A young woman on a scooter pulled up next to the roundabout, deposited a large ham and pineapple pizza at Helen’s feet and then rode away. Helen chose the largest slice, rolled it up and stuffed it into her mouth.

You don’t have to do this anymore, said Jane. Things are getting out of hand. Go home. I’ll make sure you’re safe.

Helen swallowed. ‘You are joking, right? You are going to explain all this,’ Helen made a complicated gesture that somehow managed to encompass the idea of narrowly escaping horrible death, travelling the length of the country to an underground asylum to meet an apparently telepathic woman encased in an atomic box and an assortment of other edge cases, and then narrowly escaping horrible death all over again. ‘And you’re going to explain all the other weird genetical conspiratorial political stuff you alluded to and then I’m going to write that article. No, I’m going to write a book, dammit. A big fat hardback book with a launch party and a tour and signings and film rights and everything.’

I hope so. I really hope so. I want to tell you everything.

Helen jabbed an accusatory pizza crust at the sarcophagus. ‘Damn right you are. Jesus! Look at the state of me!’

Someone made a ham-fisted attack on The Clinic. It’s safe to assume they followed you, probably to get to me.

‘Come on, it’s got to be the SAS, right? The Ministry of Defence rumbled your plan to tear up the Official Secrets Act and they sent a death squad to wipe us out.’

It’s not them. Not their style.

Helen flipped the pizza box shut. The grease had begun to soak through the bottom and was mingling with the gritty soil below. ‘Come on! Not their style? The Special Forces? Guns-r-us? Death-u-like? Seriously?’

Helen, The Clinic is where the Establishment hides their dirty little secrets. A specialist Ministry of Defence team sealed me into this box, handed me over to The Clinic and walked away. If anyone tries to open it, if anyone tampers with it, I die spectacularly. And I mean spectacularly.

‘Why?’ asked Helen. ‘I mean, why go to all that trouble? They could have just, I don’t know, tied you in a sack and chucked you off a battleship in the South Atlantic?’

Lots of valuable information locked away in my head. Too useful to lose, too dangerous to set free.

‘What information? How to make genetically engineered babies?’

Yes. Augmented human hybrids.

‘Meaning?’

Superhumans. I created the first ever British superhumans for the Ministry of Defence.

Helen wanted to laugh. She wanted to poke fun at Jane’s ridiculous assertion. She wanted to make jokes about flapping capes and lycra. But she knew that if she did, she’d only be distracting herself from the truth: that Jane was part of something deep and weird and terrible and that she, a lifestyle hack from the expensive bit of Edinburgh sitting on a small Home Counties roundabout smelling of urine and explosives, was about to slither right into it too. She tried to think of an intelligent question, or indeed any question at all, but nothing came.

An ambulance arrived from the direction of the Clinic, circled it the wrong way a couple of times and then pulled up next to them. In the driver’s seat was the perky woman from the Clinic. She’d exchanged her stripy pyjamas for a paramedic jumpsuit. She wound down the window and hung out, grinning.

‘I thought I’d head home,’ she said. ‘Would you and your box fancy cadging a lift?’

Tell her yes, said Jane.

‘Are you mad?’ whispered Helen. ‘She’s just escaped from, you know, an institution.

So have we.

The woman in the ambulance smiled disarmingly. ‘It’s okay, really. I’m fine, really I am. You’re completely safe. I’m going to London.’

See? London is good. I have friends there.

She held out her hand to Helen. ‘Erica,’ she said. ‘Nice to meet you in calmer circumstances.’

Helen shook her hand. It felt dry and strangely normal. ‘Helen Gordon. Nice to meet you too. Again.’

‘Helen Gordon. Right. You’ll have to forgive me,’ said Erica. ‘Only I’ve forgotten my own surname. Oh, hang on.’

Erica jumped out of the ambulance and opened the rear doors, revealing Lord Henry and Fatima. They stood there holding hands, staring fearfully at their surroundings like a pair of lab animals seeing the outside world for the first time.

‘You’re free,’ said Erica. ‘Run! Run for the hills!’

‘You really don’t have to-‘ began Helen half-heartedly. Then she noticed that they weren’t holding hands at all. Fatima’s arm merged seamlessly into Lord Henry’s arm. Erica followed Helen’s gaze.

‘Non-identical slightly-conjoined twins,’ said Erica. ‘Very rare. There were four of them originally, two Henries and two Fatimas. They were joined in a circle, like ring-a-ring-a-roses. They looked like life-size cut-out paper dollies.’ Eric smothered a laugh. ‘Mustn’t really. They’re terribly sensitive about it. Anyway, they’ve been pining for a bit of fresh air for ages.’ Erica hustled them out of the ambulance. ‘Come along. If the nurses catch up with you they’ll take you for a session in the Water Room.’

Lord Henry and Fatima flinched.

‘What’s the Water Room?’ asked Helen.

Erica shook her head. ‘Doesn’t matter.’ She clapped her hands. ‘Off you go.’

They took a quick look around and suddenly fled like wild animals, their pyjamas flapping in the breeze.

‘Will they be okay?’ asked Helen.

‘’Course,’ said Erica. ‘If there’s one thing the Clinic teaches you, it’s to be resourceful.’

Want to read the rest? You can get Rule Zero here.

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