Trusting people is the second hardest thing in life. The hardest is finding parking in town on a Saturday.
Raffo was leading me on a mission to kill a demon. There are worse things you can do in the middle of the night, as I’m sure your browser history can confirm.
In my head, I had painted a picture of Archie as a classic Bond villain with a doomsday device being constructed on the sly by a gaggle of mad scientists, but it turned out he was more of an old school master of the dark arts, meddling with powers he could not possibly contain.
People don’t normally throw themselves into harm’s way, but if Raffo saw him as a representative of evil and himself as some sort of white knight, that would account for why he was happy to go against his boss. It’s how we Brits are. The coming confrontation would require risk and sacrifice, but since he was in the process of passing on the risk and sacrifice to me, I completely believed he was acting genuinely.
If the demon in question really was Cheng, then my luck was in. I had no intention of killing him, obviously. A powerful ally who had no problem killing people was just what I needed. Although, first I needed to find out why Cheng was here. Was he willingly assisting Archie? Was he also trapped here? Was it even the real Cheng?
“My work here is not something I take lightly,” said Raffo as he led me through the house. He was keeping his voice low, which made it hard to understand what he was saying through the distortion of the masks we were both wearing. “They seduced me with the idea of feeding an impoverished world in need of help, and then they tricked me into creating seedless tubers designed to enslave an entire alien race. I will not allow the exploitation of my darlings.” He stopped in the darkened corridor as footsteps approached. “You can’t grow a potato without a soul,” he whispered through his mask at me. “It isn’t right.”
Basically, he was taking me to destroy a demon while complaining about how poorly they treated him at work. Can’t get more British than that.
The footsteps receded and we carried on. He guided me through various hallways, all of them dark with the occasional slant of pale blue through a window, taking a circuitous route through the house. There was some noise from other people in the distance but no one caught us.
Once we exited the main house, the night sky provided us with enough illumination to see by. Enough to see all the security guards wandering about.
“How do we get past them?” I asked as we stopped in a shadowy alcove at the back of the house.
“With confidence,” said Raffo, as he set off across the open area between us and the buildings where all the top secret research was carried out.
I followed, as we crunched across the gravel with no attempt to hide our presence.
The guards, in jumpsuits and baseball hats, turned to watch us march past, making no attempt to stop us. A couple of them nodded at Raffo, obviously recognising him. They seemed to be in no rush to confront us, in fact, they sort of backed off. Who was Raffo and what made him so intimidating?
To me, he seemed a bit of an idiot, but that’s how I felt about most people. I was now in a completely new arena and I would have to be careful I didn’t let the fact that everyone I’d ever met had lived up to my incredibly low expectations blind me to the possibility of competence existing in this world.
As we approached the doors to the building Neil had shown me around earlier, Raffo pulled a card out of his pocket and waved it at the sensor, which turned green. He pushed through the doors like he was coming to work like any other day. Once inside, the lights came on their own and revealed an empty and silent foyer.
“There are no cameras or microphones here,” said Raffo, taking off his mask. “Any information that can be captured on a transferrable media is considered a security risk.” He held up the card he had used to activate the door. “This ID belongs to Tammy. It will confuse the system for now, but it will only buy us some time, not save us from facing the consequences of our actions. We may be found out any time so be prepared.”
“Prepared to do what?” I asked him. He stared at me for a long time until I regretted asking. “And didn’t those guards all recognise you?”
“They won’t say anything. They are mute.”
“I’m pretty sure I’ve heard some of them speaking.”
“You are mistaken. They are mute, and neither can they read or write.”
“Wait, Archie’s whole security staff is comprised of illiterate mutes?” I’m all for hiring from disadvantaged communities, but that’s a pretty small pool to choose from. “Where did he find so many of them?”
“He didn’t find them, he made them that way. Follow me.”
Raffo walked through doors that slid open when he waved Tammy’s ID in front of them.
“He made them unable to read or write? And they didn’t mind? He must pay really well.”
“He can pull strings and bring people together,” said Raffo. “He can pull strings and make people do things.”
Lights came on where we walked and turned off where we’d been. I’d been here earlier with Neil but there had been a lot of people back then — many of whom, I’m pretty sure, were holding conversations and reading things — and Neil had been using a lot of jargon so I didn’t really understand what sort of work was conducted here. I didn’t particularly care, either. Just a lab where people ran tests in computers.
Now it felt eerie and cold. There were a lot of machines and odd pieces of equipment I couldn’t identify. There were contraptions that looked like they might be designed to hold something (or someone) using straps and bindings.
“This is my lab,” said Raffo. He swiped the card and nothing happened. “Oh.”
“Tammy’s card doesn’t work on your door?” I asked.
Raffo stared at me again. Seemed to be his default reaction to being called out. Better than bursting into tears, I guess. Slowly, he took out another ID card and used it to open the doors.
“It was just a delaying tactic,” he said defensively. “It served its purpose.”
The lab was white and sterile-looking. There were a lot more plants here than the other labs, huge trays covering every surface, leaving very little floor space. I pushed through foliage to keep up with Raffo.
“Is this all potatoes?” I asked.
“No, potatoes are just the tip of the iceberg. This is where we develop the next-generation of food-like products. We call them frood, for copyright reasons.”
“Are you not allowed to call them food?”
“Technically, no. But they are better than what Mother Nature has seen fit to bestow on us. Or they would be, if Archie hadn’t other plans for my creations. In terms of resistance, durability and nutritional value, everything here is far beyond what you can buy in a supermarket. They grow aggressively under any conditions and cannot be killed by normal means.”
“Not organic, then?” I asked.
“Better than organic, Newganic.”
“Yes, but the whole organic movement is nothing more than marketing. This is better. Engineered with a full range of vitamins, minerals and mood stabilisers.”
Raffo pushed through his indoor forest until he reached what looked like a kitchenette. Breaktime in the rainforest. He opened the door of a microwave oven.
“The potato I gave you earlier.” He held out his hand.
I gave him the potato. He put it in the oven.
“You’re going to eat it?”
Raffo gave me a bemused look. “I would never eat one of my potatoes.”
“Because you think of them as your children?”
“No, because an unmodified potato contains toxic solanine, which can cause headaches, diarrhoea, cramps, and in some cases, coma and death. Imagine what a modified one could do.”
The microwave pinged and then the door lit up with streams of numbers.
“I was right,” said Raffo. “You have the same energy signature as the demon.”
“You can tell that from a baked potato?”
“This isn’t a microwave oven. This is a very advanced quantum spectroscope that can analyse the energy this potato absorbed from you while you held it. This confirms my theory.”
He opened a drawer and took out more potatoes which he put in his pockets.
“Don’t I get one?” I asked.
“Just a precaution. This way.”
We set off again until Raffo parted some large leaves to reveal a locker. He scrolled through the combination lock and opened it. He took out a metal helmet and a machete.
“Is that a Nazi helmet?” It was like a bucket with a spike coming out the top.
“No, it is from the first world war and predates the National Socialists by several years. It is hard to smuggle in appropriate protective gear without raising suspicions.” He handed me the machete.
“Flew right under the radar, did it? And what am I supposed to do with this?”
“Kill the demon. It is the only weapon I could get hold of that has a blade.”
I swung the machete around. “Why do you want me to kill the demon?”
“I am an agrochemist, biotechnologist and bioengineer. I am not a demonslayer.” He put the helmet on.
“Shouldn’t I be the one wearing protective headgear?”
Raffo reached into his locker again and took out a sheet of plastic. He opened it to show it was actually a waterproof poncho. “This is all you will need. It will keep the blood off your clothes.”
I put it on. I was back in England, land of the incessant drizzle. A waterproof anything would always come in useful.
“You may encounter some slight discomfort in your brain. This is nothing to be alarmed about. It is merely an electromagnetic field used to keep the demon sedated. The effect on humans is very mild.” He adjusted his helmet and headed into the jungle.
We reached a big metal door which Raffo pulled open. A blast of cold air hit me in the face. Raffo walked into a cold room with a table with metal cuffs where your wrists and ankles might go.
“What’s this for?” I asked Raffo.
“Microfabrication technology for vascularised tissue engineering,” said Raffo. “Over here.”
He went to the back of the room where a large vent hummed as freezing air came through it. Raffo pulled off the cover and set it down on the floor.
“This is how I was able to discover what they were really up to. This way.”
Raffo climbed into the vent. It wasn’t quite big enough to stand in so you had to crouch or crawl. It was very uncomfortable and my view consisted mainly of Raffo’s large backside. Raffo tapped the side of his helmet and the spike on top lit up. Archduke Ferdinand would have been amazed.
“What you are about to see will shock you,” said Raffo. “It will appal you and fill you with terror.”
“I doubt it,” I said. “Not unless this shaft comes out somewhere in Moss Side.”
We went along until we came to a shaft that went straight down. There was a ladder welded to the side. Raffo began climbing down, no hesitation at all. I followed with the scary thought filling my head that we would have to climb back up.
It was a long way down. The ladder I had just descended seemed to reach up to the heavens.
“You’d think someone as rich as Archie would have had a lift installed.”
“Money is not the important thing here, even though he is a self-made millionaire.”
“Worked his way up, did he?”
“No,” said Raffo. “He was born a billionaire and worked his way down. Lost most of his family’s wealth on unlikely enterprises until he found one that produced results. He won’t stop until he sees this project through to the end, no matter the cost, so he can prove all his detractors wrong.”
Raffo turned off his helmet spike-light and edged towards a soft glow up ahead. The shaft ended in another cover like the one we’d entered through with slats we could see through. On the other side was a room full of machines, beeping and flashing. A screen on the far wall showed images of hills and fields. Wires and cables ran from the machines over to a figure strapped to a table. It really was Cheng. A purple glow surrounded him, like he was radioactive in an old sci-fi movie.
I had seen him in many forms. Young man, winged monster with horns on his head, husband — each rendition more horrifying than the last — but this version seemed to be a mixture of human and demon. His skin looked withered and old, like dry parchment. His body was emaciated but he still had a six-pack, so not all bad.
“What are they doing to him?”
“They're trying to download information from his brain,” said Raffo. “He’s resisting. When they’re drawing out his memories, no one can approach him. He releases a strange form of energy that is lethal if you’re exposed too long to it. But you should be fine.”
My head started to buzz, like I was coming down from a good time, only without the good time. I retreated from the cover, wincing.
“That’s the dampening field,” said Raffo. “You will hardly notice it after a few minutes.”
“Feels like the right side of my brain is melting.”
“The right side of the brain is very overrated,” said Raffo. He pushed down on his helmet to make sure his ears were covered. “Now you only have to go in there and kill it.”
“Won’t there be alarms and things?” I asked.
“Yes. You will only have a few seconds.”
“Hey, Cheng?” I whispered through the slates. “It’s Colin.”
“No, don’t ahh-ahh-ahh.” Raffo scrambled back from the vent cover.
Cheng had opened his eyes and looked at me. I wasn’t sure if he could see me. His eyes were pitch black. He lifted his head slightly. It was definitely him. He grunted unintelligibly.
“Nice to see you, too,” I said. “You look good. Been working out? Cheng, what happened? How did you get here?”
“Mandy,” he whispered.
“Did she betray you? I always knew she couldn’t be trusted. I mean, I know I set you up with her, but I don’t think you can blame me for any of this. Women, eh?”
“Mandy’s here, too?”
“They have her. Save her, please.” His head dropped back down.
Being able to hold Cheng here meant they either had some amazing tech that always worked and never shut down or blue screened when it was auto-updating (seemed unlikely) or they had some kind of leverage over him. Keeping his all-too-human wife as hostage would about do it. Although the poor hostage-takers probably weren’t having a great time, either.
“What’s he saying?” asked Raffo. “Don’t believe his lies.”
“He’s asking me to rescue his wife. Do you know where she is?”
Raffo looked confused. “He has a wife?”
“Yes. Blonde girl called Mandy. She was one of the twenty. Not a real blonde, though. Roots never showed, I’ll give her that, but there are other ways you can tell.”
Raffo didn’t seem to be able to take in what I was saying. Some men want the illusion more than they want the truth.
“You’re the first one to return,” said Raffo. “How can there be another without us…” His face changed. “There was one...”
“A victim. Of his. He nearly killed her when he first arrived in this world. She is in Neil’s section. In a coma.”
“Save her…” muttered Cheng. His skin flickered with purple light like he was on fire.
“Get back,” said Raffo, crawling backwards to get away as the shaft filled with a purple haze.
I put out my hand and touched the air around me. My skin tingled. It felt familiar. I looked at the palm of my hand and there was flame sitting there. It disappeared.
“So,” I said to Raffo, “where do I find Neil’s lab?”