Chapter 2 – Eyes Wide Open
The guard fixed his weapon on Tom, Dave and Isla. His bulging eyes glared at them from holes cut in the balaclava.
Tom’s jaw tensed and his pulse raced. Dave froze, his eyes wide with terror. I should have listened to him, thought Tom. We could be at home now, getting stoned and listening to a Helter Skelter tape pack. Isla strolled closer to the gunman, as if having an AK47 pointed at her was perfectly normal. She lured us here, realised Tom. To rob us? Or worse?
“Inside,” the guard ordered. His trigger finger twitched, ready to open fire.
Tom’s thoughts raced, a potent synergy of fear and amphetamine. Part of him felt like giving the guard a big hug and telling him we’re all one consciousness, but the heavy-duty weapon the guard cradled scared him shitless. I guess this is the end.
“It’s okay,” said Isla, squeezing his arm.
Tom and Dave stepped into the building’s atrium and followed Isla into a lift, which resembled a cage. She pressed a button for the lowest floor and the doors screeched together, meeting with a metallic clang.
Tom grabbed Isla’s shoulders as the lift descended and shook her. “What the fuck is going on?”
She freed herself from his grip. “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine, you’ll see.”
“Why was there an armed guard outside?”
Isla shrugged. “Security.”
“Nightclub bouncers don’t carry frickin’ machine guns!”
As they descended, the music grew louder.
“I warned you,” said Dave, his lip quivering. “Didn’t I warn you?”
The lift doors flung open, exposing them to a deafening noise. As Tom acclimatised to the volume, thumping beats and raging basslines took form. The sounds were too complex to process, too fast and loud to filter. The skipping, playful drums teased his cognitive system. He closed his eyes and let the music flood his mind.
He stepped into a large, cavernous hall. It was cold and almost deserted, save for the odd dancing silhouette in the distance. Yellow strobes flickered against a mass of smoke, like a gigantic thunder cloud. Tom guessed the building used to be a manufacturing plant before Venom Empire stripped out the equipment. Multi-coloured festoons of half-cut electric cables hung from the ceiling, pipes and ducts stretched over the walls like scars. There was a vast wall of speakers, and the bass vibrated his ribs and the bridge of his nose.
Despite the dodgy situation, the spiralling chemical euphoria and industrial soundscapes took Tom’s breath away, and he struggled to contain a smile. Isla’s eyes shone in the smoky gloom. She winked, as if to say, “I told you so.”
The “DJ” was a brain in a jar of fluid. Post-modern art? Or what Venom Empire does to their enemies? Electrodes hooked the brain up to a Commodore 64 computer on a small desk. Tom’s breathing became shallow and beads of sweat formed under his lip. He struggled to make sense of it all. Grotesque art, a near empty rave, guys with machine guns.
“We need to leave,” shouted Dave. He had gooseflesh on his exposed arms.
For once he agreed with his friend. “Great music,” he shouted to Isla. “But we’re off.” He turned and walked away.
“Don’t go,” said Isla, running up behind him and taking his hand. As if on cue, the beats faded and ethereal chords broke through, filling him with warmth. He wanted her so badly.
“Are you going to tell me what’s with the bloody armed guards?”
“Don’t worry about that,” said Isla. “There’s someone important coming tonight.”
“You’ll meet him soon.” He hesitated, sensing danger, but he was desperate to stay with Isla.
“Let’s go,” shouted Dave, the veins on his neck standing out.
“You can trust me,” Isla said.
The lift opened and admitted half a dozen young men and women into the hall. Not the usual dirty ravers and toothless base monkeys that frequented The Black Swan or Thekla, these were moneyed, trendy Londoners. The debonair men looked too tanned to have spent the winter in freezing cold Bristol. Despite their swish clothes and coiffured hair, coke-fuelled affability flashed in their eyes. The tall, elegant women strode into the hall as if on the catwalk. Two identical oriental twins caught his attention. Their beauty sent his pulse racing. A brunette in a red, snake print dress eyed him up and smiled.
“See,” said Isla, taking his hand. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
The girl in the snake print dress kissed Isla on both cheeks. Both girls smiled with excitement. He wondered which of the pretty young things strutting their stuff to the beats required armed protection.
A flashy young man held his hand out to Dave and introduced himself as Toby, but Dave scowled and walked away.
“What’s with him?”
“Emotional issues,” said Tom. Dave sulked in the corner, away from the dancers. He’ll soon warm up, Tom thought.
One of the oriental twins opened her leather bag, rummaged around in it, pulled out a small bottle and unscrewed the cap. At first, Tom thought she was going to sniff the liquid inside, but she raised her left hand, and, with her thumb and finger in a pincer movement, opened her eyelids wide and applied a single droplet straight onto her eyeball. She handed the bottle to her twin.
“What are they doing?” Tom asked Isla.
“Intra-ocular drugs,” said Toby. “It’s the future of narcotics!” He pulled out a bottle from his designer shirt and offered it to Isla. “Wanna try?”
She took the bottle. The girl in the snake print dress spurred her on. “Straight through the ’ball, babe.”
Tom watched Isla take the drug, then she handed him the bottle, stroking his hand. He looked deep into her cool blue eyes. The bottle contained clear fluid. He read the label. Metanox. It had the same skull and snake logo he’d seen on the Venom Empire flyer.
“What’s it like?” he asked Isla.
“Takes a few minutes to come on,” Toby answered for her. “But seriously, mate, it’s the dog’s bollocks.”
The ecstatic expressions on the faces of the trendy clubbers encouraged him. The twins embraced each other with wide-smiles. A sensation of déjà vu captivated his mind; as if he’d already taken the drug and was waiting for the altered reality to kick in. What the hell, thought Tom. It’s Friday night. He took off his glasses.
“Here,” said Isla, stopping him. “I’ll help.” She opened the bottle and placed her hand on his face, caressing his cheek with the warm, fleshy part of her palm. Her fingers approached his eye. He felt her pull down the skin underneath while holding the upper lid back.
“Keep still,” she said. Dave shook his head with disgust.
A single drop hit his cornea, and moments later he felt a cool numbness diffusing into his eye. She gave him a long kiss and then they danced. Suddenly a blissful sensation overwhelmed him; as if someone flipped a switch in his brain.
He lost himself in the music. Each beat contained an infinite universe of wonder. Like cells, each drum divided and metastasised into a million more. The savage bassline warped and dilated the fabric of space and time around him, pulling him closer to a sonic event horizon.
Bang! A noise jolted him. It hadn’t come from the sound system, it was as if reality itself was being torn apart by extreme gravitational forces. He felt himself falling, slipping between dimensions. Perhaps a portal had opened up within the music, a hidden place concealed inside the millisecond of fragile silence between the kick and the snare drum.
Then he realised someone was tapping him on the shoulder.
He turned to see a guard—a six foot two hulk in a balaclava.
“Come with me,” the guard shouted. Dave rushed forward, but the guard shoved him to the floor with one push like a rag doll.
The guard snatched Tom’s arm and pulled him away.
“What are you doing?” Isla screamed. Tom attempted to form words of protest, but his lips contorted and the sounds slurred. He stumbled forward, his vision hazy.
The guard led Tom away from the dance floor and down a wrought-iron spiral staircase. He entered a long dark tunnel, his body trembling.
“Keep going,” yelled the guards, turning on a flashlight. He could still hear muddy, distorted bass from the music above him and dried leaves crunched beneath his feet.
Cursing himself for getting in this mess, he progressed along the sewer-like tunnels. When he reached a junction, the guard barked directions at him. As they continued, the air became more and more stagnant. The guard’s flashlight illuminated decaying carcasses of rats. They approached a door at the end of the tunnel and the guards ushered him inside. He found himself in a cell. The door slammed shut behind him.
“Let me out!” Tom shouted. He banged on the door but received no response.
He sank to his knees. The darkness of the cell smothered him. Were they going to leave him here to rot?
Banging on the door, he shouted, “My friends will expect me home by now. They’ll call the police.” Worth a try, even though it was unlikely his housemates had noticed his absence yet and finding him would be difficult. There’d be eye witnesses outside the club who saw him leave with Isla. If he was lucky, they’d track him to the petrol station and perhaps trace the call in the phone box.
His limbs sagged on the cold, hard floor. It was hopeless. Given the time and effort Venom Empire spent setting up this trap, they’d have ensured the phone number led nowhere.
The door swung open. A hand flung a bottle of water in the cell.
“Sober up,” barked a voice. The door slammed shut again.
Well, at least they want to keep me alive.
The water was refreshing; he drank every drop. He sat down on the floor and settled against the wall. As the high faded, the cold crept in. He clasped his arms around his body, giving himself a hug.
His thoughts turned to Isla. Why had she done this to him? Because he worked for Elixium? He remembered her saying that her mother sued the company. Were they intending to hold him hostage?
“Wake up,” shouted a voice—a guard. The guard manhandled him out of the cell and directed him through the labyrinthine tunnels. The tunnels were pitch black, save for the guard’s flashlight and lined with puddles of foul-smelling water.
Eventually, they reached a set of stone steps. At the top of the stairs, an oak door stood ajar. A vast yellow light glowed in the room beyond. His knees locked, and he stumbled, but the guard behind him jabbed the gun into the nape of his neck.
Inside was a makeshift temple. Unlike the dark, abandoned tunnel and icy, dingy rave, it was lit by hundreds of candles and adorned with red and gold furnishings. The brightness stung his eyes. It was decked out with maroon rugs, crimson satin curtains, and on the wall, a stunning mural of the Egyptian pyramids.
A large pool of water stretched before him, the black lacquer sheen of the surface reflecting countless flickering candles. In the centre of the pool on a small island, accessible only by stepping stones, a figure waited, dressed in a purple robe and wearing a mask—a ram’s skull with sharp, curved horns. Tom shuddered. A set of piercing green eyes stared at him through the skull.
“Welcome,” said the shrouded figure. An old man’s voice, but powerful.
“Who in the fuck are you?”
“I’m the Grandmaster, the leader of Venom Empire.”
“What’s with the mask?”
“I place a high premium on privacy, as should you, Thomas. Come join me here, we need to discuss John Toombs.”
Tom froze at the mention of his father’s name.
Tom carefully traversed the stepping stones, gazing into the dark pool of water, for a moment becoming lost in an inverted universe. Reflections of the temple’s candles pulsated like stars in the blackness of space. Pulling himself away, he tiptoed across the remaining stones and finally reached the Grandmaster, surprised he didn’t fall in the pool given the copious quantities of drugs in his system.
Up close, he realised the Grandmaster’s skull mask was fake—made of plastic, not bone, and beneath the robes was a frail old body. Thin, wrinkled hands jutted from the sleeves.
“I know your father is very sick,” said the Grandmaster. “Most unfortunate.” Tom struggled to tell whether the condolences were authentic. “There’s a way to help him, you know.”
“Elixium Pharmaceuticals are a truly disgusting company. They’re vultures feasting off human misery.”
Damn straight, thought Tom. Reuben Fenwick, his boss and the son of the Chief Executive Officer, was a total scumbag.
“I believe you feel the same way. That’s why I asked Isla to track you down and bring you here. She works for us.”
He clenched his fists; Isla had used him.
“Don’t be angry,” said the Grandmaster. “We mean you no harm. I want to help your father. But first, you must help us.”
“What do you mean?”
“Elixium Pharmaceuticals are concealing information, but not only embarrassing trial data. They’re sitting on new types of drugs; chemicals that can reprogram scarred brain tissue to create new cells. An ultimate cure.”
“How do you know this?”
“An insider. But I do not believe this person can steal the formula for this drug. That’s where you come in.”
Tom sniggered. “You want me to steal from Elixium? You’re nuts, man.”
“Venom Empire is powerful. We have the infrastructure, hidden laboratories and manufacturing facilities. Get me the formula and I will heal your father.”
“Look, dude, I get you have some beef with Elixium, but what you’re saying, it’s crazy.” There’s no ultimate cure. Just snake oil men selling sticking plasters.
“I hope you enjoyed taking Metanox tonight,” said the Grandmaster. “We produce the drug for the spiritual advancement of our operatives. However, Metanox is not something we blindly stumbled upon. We stole the formula.”
“You should already know the answer to that. Metanox is one of many compounds Elixium conceals from the public. That’s why we need to infiltrate their records.”
“Why are you doing this? What’s in it for you?”
“Venom Empire is a revolutionary organisation with an important mission: to destroy all private wealth and emancipate humanity. Smashing Elixium is a small step to achieving our goal: a bright new future, for everyone.”
“It’s a lot to take in, I know. How’s the Metanox? The soporific properties should be kicking in about now. You must be drowsy.”
Tom tried to get up and escape, but his body felt heavy. An irresistible urge to sleep, to close his eyes and rest overwhelmed him. The temple contorted, the spots of light from the candles bled into one another. He toppled over on his side. His body felt cushioned even though he was on the hard ground.
“When you’re ready, you’ll know what to do,” said the Grandmaster.
Despite his resistance, Tom settled into a deep sleep. As his consciousness faded, he thought he saw a man enter the temple. He had a very sharp face, and a patch covered one of his eyes. He was shouting, trying to warn him, but he sounded distant, as if underwater.
“Don’t take it!” the one-eyed man shouted. “Don’t take the Metanox!”
But it was far too late. A shadow crept over Tom, feasting on his body. The candles of the temple smouldered and faded one by one, darkness swallowing everything.