The laboratory was spooky in the darkness, Barlowe thought. As if the restless spirits of past generations of scientists were flitting past the towering coils and scaffold beams. Restless because they knew what he was going to do.
Everyone was asleep. The whole faculty had been celebrating the breakthrough into the small hours of the morning, and Barlowe had waited with growing impatience as the youngest of the research assistants had refused to go to bed. The bookkeeper had offered them more and more wine in an attempt to put them to sleep, but for hour after hour it had only made them noisier and more boisterous. He tensed up with fear every time one of them went to stare in pride and delight at the Arc Oscillator, their great achievement, fearing they might replace the acids that powered the electric battery and turn the device back on. His head seemed to throb in anticipation of the return of the agony, but thankfully Barlowe had managed to tempt the young woman away each time with the promise of more drink.
He had almost collapsed with relief when the last celebrant had finally succumbed to fatigue and staggered off to find his or her cot in the institute's dormitory which, as luck would have it, was directly adjacent to the main laboratory. The building had originally been a clothes mill, back when this small town had been part of Carrow, and had been adapted to the pursuit of science when this whole part of the country had been taken over by Helberion fifty years before. For the most part the building served its new purpose very well, but the only room large and rainproof enough to contain the great coils and generators, the room that had once been the main textile storeroom, just happened to be next to the staff dormitory, and this couldn't be fixed without a major redesign of the whole building, an operation that would have wiped out the cost savings of using this building in the first place.
Assistants and junior technicians having their sleep disturbed by the noise of a major experiment was a common occurrence, therefore, but Barlowe didn't think there was much chance of their being woken tonight. And if the alcohol wasn't enough to make sure that their well deserved slumber went uninterrupted, Barlowe was on his way to take additional measures to ensure that it did.
He went along the length of the dormitory, past snoring faculty members collapsed on their cots in uncomfortable looking positions, and closed every window. The air in the long room soon became close and stuffy, but Barlowe doubted that anyone would complain. He then went to the rooms allocated to the senior staff, at the other end of the building, far away from the noisy equipment. Once again he closed every window, but he left the inner doors open, allowing the air in the whole building to circulate freely. He looked down at the gently snoring form of Maxine Hester as he entered the room of the Master Scientist. There was the woman who had caused his recent agony, the woman who had so recently become the single most dangerous member of the human race. For a moment he thought about simply cutting her throat. It would be quick and it would be certain. It would also give him a great deal of personal satisfaction. He put the idea out of his mind with an exertion of willpower, though. It had to look like an accident, or the threat would remain and another human might follow her work, forcing his masters to accelerate their plans dramatically.
He simply closed his window and left the door open, therefore, as he had with every other room. He paused in the doorway for a moment, looking back at the Master Scientist whose face was illuminated by a shaft of moonlight shining in through the murky window. Then he hurried along the corridor to the stairs down to the basement.
The wood burning furnace that heated the whole building was directly under the main laboratory. It was scarcely needed at this time of year, but a small fire was kept burning all year round, just so that it could be built up when needed. One corner of the room had been set aside as the caretaker’s office and mess room, the place where he ate his lunch and had the occasional cup of tea. There was a comfortable armchair there, its arms threadbare and the colours faded but probably twice as comfortable as a new piece of furniture, and beside it was a small table with a folded newspaper and a tin of tea bags. Sounds of shuffling was coming from somewhere in the dark room, and Barlowe felt his heart sink. He'd hoped the man wouldn't be here. This would complicate things.
“Who's that there?” came a gruff voice, and an untidy looking man came shuffling out of the darkness with a broom in his hand. Timmons, his name was, Barlowe remembered. He was wearing a grimy white shirt whose sleeves were rolled up to the elbows and his hair was matted and greasy. His words were slurred by the cigarette he was holding between his lips as he stood staring at the intruder.
“Ha!” he said in recognition, removing the cigarette. “It's Tiger Man, isn't It? What are you doing down here? Lost your way?”
“I thought you’d be home by now,” said Barlowe, struggling to think of a plausible reason for being there. “What are you doing still working at this time of night?”
“You get my age, you don't need much sleep, and there’s nothing to go home to since my wife went back into the ground last year.”
A faint bell tinkled at the back of Barlowe's mind. Yes, he remembered now. The news had rippled briefly through the building a few months ago, fuelling conversations for an hour or two before being forgotten. Most of the faculty members hadn’t even known that the building had a caretaker, let alone that he’d had a wife.
“I just popped by to see how you were doing,” he said therefore. “You keep the place running so quietly and efficiently that it's easy to just take you for granted. I don't want to be that kind of person. I care about the people who work here, and I wanted to make sure that you were coping with your loss.”
“Well, I haven't lost her completely. When she went into the ground, I went back to visit her a few days later, took back a part of her.” He reached inside his shirt and pulled out a small mouse. It stared around, twitching its nose, peered around in every direction. It looked down at the floor and tensed itself as if about to jump from his palm, but the caretaker closed his fingers protectively around it. Barlowe came closer to see better, and reached out a hand, looking at the man for permission to touch it. The man nodded, and Barlowe stroked the soft, grey fur gently.
“I knew there were places where they did this,” he said. “I didn't know they did it here, though. Some people think it a bit macabre. To take a piece of flesh from your wife's corpse...”
“Weren't flesh. It had turned back to globs by then, all breaking away from her bones and wriggling away into the ground. The tough part is to get some small creature to adopt them. A worm, a beetle. Then, when the glob’s raised to a worm or a beetle, you have to get something bigger to adopt it. Getting it all the way up to mouse is quite an achievement, though I heard there were a man in Kelvon raised his father all the way back up to human!”
“But not the same human,” pointed out Barlowe. “A different human. His son, in fact, with no memories of ever having been his father.”
“Doesn't matter. It's still a part of her. Part of her flesh. It means a part of her’s still with me, you see?” He tucked the mouse back inside his shirt. He'd need a cat or something similar to take the creature up the next rung, the bookkeeper thought, but how would the caretaker feel if the cat ate his pet mouse before the parent bond could form? Would he be hit by the grief of losing his wife all over again?
“So, you were raised by a tiger, were you?” asked the caretaker, coming closer to stare at his face. ‘They say you got stripes under all that pink powder. Why hide them? If I had tiger stripes, I'd show them off to the whole world! Watch them stare! Ha!” He took a long drag from his cigarette, then dropped it and crushed it under his boot heel.
“Some people don't like being stared at,” replied Barlowe, taking a step back. He was aware that he was perspiring in the heat, and worried that his face powder might be washed away in little rivulets of sweat down his face. Of course, that didn’t matter here. He was going to kill this caretaker, so it didn't matter what he saw. “You do a very good job down here, and I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate it. You're a good man, and we're lucky to have you.”
“And you chose this time of night to tell me?”
“Well, you know how it is. Everyone was celebrating the breakthrough, me as well, and as everything was winding down and everyone was collapsing on their cots it occurred to me that I hadn't spoken to you for a long time. I thought I’d better do it right away or I'd forget again. So many things to remember, you know how it is.”
“So they made a breakthrough, did they? Wondered what all the noise was. Bloody scientists, making sparks fly and setting fire to the place. They'll burn the whole place to the ground one day, you mark my words!”
No, thought Barlowe. That's my job. He held out his hand to the caretaker. “Anyway, well done.” The caretaker stared at the outstretched hand suspiciously, then reached out and took it.
The moment the physical contact was made, Barlowe focused on forming a parent bond with the man. He had to make himself love him with all his heart and soul, as if they'd been family all their lives, as if they would do anything for each other, including kill and die. A normal man would have found it impossible to do such a thing in a mere moment of time, but Barlowe was a wizard and had practised the control of his emotions ever since he’d been declared human. The parent bond was two way, of course, and the caretaker felt it too, felt a sudden and total connection with this man he barely knew and had only spoken to on a handful of occasions. He had no idea what to make of this feeling, though, and could only stare in surprise as his eyes and that of the bookkeeper met in total love and adoration.
If Timmons had been less than fully human, Barlowe could have blessed him, raising him the rest of the way to full humanity. He could even have lifted him higher, sending him further up the rungs of life towards Radiancy, although without Radiant parents to raise him the process would have gone awry, with his body becoming deformed and monstrous and his mind warping to insanity. He had done this on occasion, for his own amusement, when it hadn't been necessary for his victim to die immediately, but this time he had no time to waste. The caretaker had to be disposed of, silenced, so that he could continue his work uninterrupted and without fear of reprisals from the authorities.
He twisted the parent bond around, therefore, and searched around in the other man's mind for the memory of the animal he had once been. Cursing a man, knocking him back down the rungs of life, was much easier than blessing someone, and the effects took place much faster. Timmons felt something happen to him, something bad, and he tried to snatch back his hand, but by then it was far too late and he could only wail in terror and misery as he felt, actually felt, his humanity being torn from him. Barlowe watched in fascination as years of uplift were undone in just a few seconds, the caretaker shrinking in physical size, his head narrowing and elongating, his hands turning into padded paws, and tough, wiry hair sprouting all over his body. Soon, the man was gone, and in his place was a dog, a whippet of some description by the look of it, whimpering in terror as it struggled to free itself from the caretaker’s clothes.
The dog shrank away from him, its tail between its legs, no longer capable of understanding what had happened to it, only knowing that the man had done something to him, something terrible. Barlowe opened the door for it and the dog fled, whimpering, it’s claws skittering on the tiled floor. Barlowe watched it go, then put it out of his mind. Time to get back to work. He got busy, therefore, aware that the darkest part of the night was over and that dawn was getting perilously near.
He opened the furnace door and backed away as a wave of heat rolled out over him. Then he threw in some of the blocks of wood from the great pile that stood beside it. He watched as they smoked, then slowly caught fire. As the flames rose he threw in more wood, then more, until the furnace was filled with a blazing inferno. Then he closed the door again, lifting the latch with an iron bar that was leaning against the wall nearby and that he presumed was used for that very purpose. The furnace was glowing with heat now, and yellow flames lit up the room as brightly as the sun as they shone through the door’s sooty glass window.
There was an inspection hatch in the chimney above the furnace, just above where it bent to enter the wall up near the ceiling. Its purpose was to allow the caretaker to gain access to the interior of the chimney so that it could be cleaned and unblocked. Barlowe moved a chair to stand on and reached up to open the hatch. Inside, a thick column of smoke was rising from the furnace, and through it he was pleased to see a thick accumulation of soot on the inner surface. Clearly Timmett had been neglecting the furnace’s essential maintenance, and that made his job a lot easier. He searched around, saw a broom leaning against the wall nearby, and used it to prod at the soot inside the chimney. A great slab of it fell away in one piece and came to rest just below the hatch, blocking the bend. Barlowe coughed and spluttered as more soot issued from the hatch in a great black cloud, and he closed the hatch hurriedly, then went back to look at the fire through the door’s window. Some soot had fallen into the fire and was flaring as it burned, but then the inferno returned to normal, seemingly unaffected by the blockage in the chimney.
Nodding with satisfaction, he left the room, climbed the steps back up to the ground floor level, leaving every door open behind him, then left the building. He went around to the furnace’s emergency air intake, a safety feature that ensured that the building didn't fill up with toxic fumes in the event that the furnace’s chimney became blocked. It was hidden behind a clump of shrubbery, which the caretaker had kept pruned well back, keeping a wide open area around the six inch wide grated opening, and smoke was pouring out as it fulfilled its purpose. Preserving the lives of the slumbering scientists.
Barlowe looked around and saw that part of one bush had died. The thin twigs of which it was composed broke and snapped easily between his fingers. He took some and stuffed them into the air intake. He had to fill the smaller gaps with dead grass, but after a few minutes of careful effort he thought he had the pipe pretty well sealed, and anyone who saw it would take it for the action of animals or, at the very worst, mischievous half raised adopted animals.
The furnace would now be receiving very little oxygen but was, hopefully, far too hot to just go out. The wood would be burning incompletely, producing all kinds of toxic gases in the process. Barlowe thought that the floor to the furnace fitted closely enough to make a pretty good seal, but it had never been intended to be completely airtight. Deadly fumes would be leaking from it, therefore, filling the building by way of all the open doors, but unable to escape because of the closed windows.
Barlowe doubted there would be enough of the gas to kill everyone, and he wouldn't have trusted such an important task to such a hit and miss method in any case. Hopefully, though, it would keep them asleep, poisoned and unconscious, while he set the fire that destroyed the building. Returning to the main laboratory, he closed the doors between it and the rest of the building, then looked again at the Arc Oscillator. Most of it was made of metal and would be only partially melted and deformed by the fire. Other scientists would be able to reconstruct it with little effort, and so he spent an hour carefully disassembling it and placing the components at random around the room. By the time he’d finished, there was no way of telling what the scientists had been working on. When their notes were destroyed, their accomplishment would be totally erased from the world.
He used the notes to start the fire, crumpling them up and piling them up against a pile of discarded packing crates, smiling in amusement at the thought that their hard work and meticulous record keeping would now kill them. He found a spark igniter, put it against the driest part of the paper and clicked the trigger until the spark caused a small flame to rise. It spread rapidly, consuming the thin sheets with tiny crackles and a small coil of smoke, and Barlowe fed it bits of cloth covered wire until it was big enough to start burning wood.
Once he was sure it wouldn't just burn out, he opened the door connecting the laboratory with the rest of the building. The air that wafted in was thick with fumes from the boiler and the wizard backed away warily to the lab’s external door. This door he left open as he passed through, wanting to make sure the fire had a good supply of oxygen, and then he paused a moment to watch as the flames spread up the wall and across the ceiling. When it reached one of the bottles of chemicals the bottle exploded with a loud bang and the tinkling of flying shards of glass. The flames, consuming the accelerant greedily, reared up like a roaring monster, engulfing the whole room and causing more bottles to explode with a sound like machine gun fire.
Windows exploded and the flames leapt out as if trying to escape. A wave of searing heat swept over Barlowe who jumped back in alarm, almost tripping in his haste. Bits of molten glass flew past his face, something sharp stung his side, and he turned and ran, suddenly afraid of what he’d unleashed. The fire was spreading faster then he’d ever imagined, fed by a bewildering variety of chemicals, and was already jumping to neighbouring rooms and up to the second floor. Everyone in the dormitory was almost certainly already dead, and the fire would reach the rooms of the senior staff within minutes. At least they’ll feel nothing, Barlowe told himself. They may even have died already from the fumes from the furnace.
He turned and ran towards the small town at the end of the road, shouting for help, already composing in his mind the story he would tell the fire fighters.
The fire burned all the next day and all through the night, the flames reaching so high into the sky that they were seen from twenty miles away. Volunteers from three nearby towns came to pump water from the nearby river but it did nothing and in the end they could only wait for it to burn itself out.
“Did anyone get out?” asked Pieter Rell, the assistant district fire chief. The blaze was almost too bright to look at and waves of heat washed over them every time the wind changed direction. All around, his men were forming a line and trying to push back the gawping spectators.
“Nobody from the main building,” replied Jorn Tellern, his boss. “A couple of junior staff who lived in outbuildings. Cleaners, accountants and so on. All the brains slept in the building itself. Hopefully they were overcome by the fumes before the flames reached them. It spread fast, though. Very fast.”
“Yeah.” There was a crash as part of the ceiling collapsed and gasps of awe came from the crowd of spectators. Jorn stared at them in disgust.
“Where'd all these people come from anyway? We're in the middle of nowhere!”
“Fires draw people, it has some kind of hypnotic fascination for them. They see a glow on the horizon and they've got to go see what it is.”
“But it's only four in the morning! Why aren't they all asleep?”
“We’re here, aren't we?”
“We got the night shift. What other occupation has a day and a night shift?” He saw that some of the spectators had gathered in small groups and were chatting with each other as if they were at a party. He laughed aloud in disbelief. “The biggest fire for years, and they'd rather chat about the latest kickball match.”
“They're probably talking about the town crier. One passed through yesterday, apparently. News about the war.”
“Good or bad?”
“Dunno. Guess we'll find out when we get back.” He went over to where his men were working the water pump and told them to stop. “There can't be anyone still alive in there,” he said. “Might as well leave it to burn. The sooner it consumes everything there is to burn, the sooner we can get in there.” The men nodded and stood back from the machine.
When the last flames did finally die, Jorn organised men to damp down the still smoking embers, and then they began the long process of sifting through the wreckage for any clue as to what had started it. Finding human corpses for decent burial was out of the question. Not even bones would have survived the heat of the inferno.
To his surprise, though, they did find bones. Blackened, crumbling, but still recognizably human. Jorn’s first thought was that they must be the remains of an artificial skeleton, one of the ceramic skeletons used by medical students too squeamish to want a real human skeleton in their dorms, but closer examination of them where the heat had cracked them open showed them to have a complex internal structure with intricate voids in their centres criss crossed with delicate strands of the same substance. There was also the hint of growth rings, as if they had started out smaller and grown, like tree branches.
He removed the mask from his face, revealing a patch of clean skin around his nose and mouth. “What do you make of this, Pete?” he asked, holding one piece carefully between the soot stained tips of his thumb and forefinger.
Pieter made his way over to him, holding a twisted, half melted coil of copper wire in his gloved hands. “What on the name of Those Above did they do here?” he asked. “What is this?”
“Never mind that. Look at this.”
Pieter took the cracked and blackened fragment of bone from him. “One end of a human femur. Wait a minute...” He held it closer to his eyes and examined it more closely. “What on earth...”
“They kept all kinds of chemicals in there. Maybe one of them did this. Some kind of chemical reaction. Turned the collagen into something else.”
“Maybe.” Then he looked up. Some of his men were moving perilously close to a miraculously still standing brick wall that towered twenty feet over them. The heat had cracked and weakened it, though, and it was leaning inwards at a perilous angle. “Get back from there!” he yelled. “Stay in the safe zones!” They waved back and moved away from it.
“You don't sound convinced,” said Pieter.
Jorn sighed. “I've seen chemical fires before. I've never...” He began coughing on the fine particles of ash that filled the air and replaced the face mask while scolding himself for an idiot. “I've never seen anything like this. I don't know. Maybe. Get the photographer in, get him to take some shots of this whole area. Then I'll send the whole skeleton off to Poonwell. Maybe they'll know what it is.” He laid the bone carefully back down on the ground where he'd found it, then stood over the site to protect it from the other workers while his assistant picked his way carefully across the field of ashes and half melted scientific equipment.