REPLICA
Available to buy for Kindle on Amazon UK, £1.99, Amazon US, $2.99, paperback, £6.99.

In early January 2010, my bike slipped on an icy speed cushion and I fractured my shoulder on the only bit of double kerb in the street. I wasn't able to ride my bike for ten weeks. During long, cold walks between home and workshop, the seeds of this novel germinated.

BLURB: Accidentally duplicated, homeless, penniless and pursued by MI5, Beth’s replica must learn how to survive on icy London streets. Unaware of what has happened, the original Beth falls for the agent hunting her double. As the replica proves difficult to catch and the stakes get higher, he has to decide whose side he is on.

CHAPTER 1

Probably not a good idea . . .

“It’s not like you to be difficult, Bethie. She hasn’t got anyone but me to ask.”

Beth bit her lip, staring unseeing at the computer screen on her desk. Was she being difficult? “What about her boyfriend?”

“He’s away.”

“Can’t she do it herself? With a glass and postcard, she wouldn’t have to touch it.” Beth remembered the self-help book she was currently reading, Just Say No: every woman’s guide to assertive behaviour. Rob could not read her mind; she needed to tell him what she wanted. “I was really looking forward to this evening.”

“Spiders freak her out.” Down the line, Rob’s voice took on a fond, indulgent tone. “A high-flying investment banker, and one tiny insect reduces her to a scared little girl.”

Beth started to say, “I don’t think spiders are insects…” but Rob spoke through her.

“We can go tomorrow, it’ll still be on. You’re free Saturday, aren’t you?”

“Yes…”

“So no problem. By the time I get back it’ll be too much of a rush, better to go tomorrow. We can have a pizza first.”

“I suppose…”

“That’s settled, then. I’ll pick you up at the flat tomorrow at seven thirty. Love you.”

“Love you.” Beth put the phone back on its receiver and reached into her desk drawer for her emergency Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. She tried to stifle a sense of failure – so much for asserting herself – peeled back the paper and foil and bit off a corner. It didn’t really matter. It was natural Rob should want to help Chloe; they’d lived together for two years, and it was nice they were still friends, even though she’d chucked him and made him miserable for a while. It showed what a kind man he was, willing to drive across London whenever her laptop played up, or her taps needed new washers, or she couldn’t put together some flat-packed furniture. Only the month before she’d bought a chandelier for her bedroom, with no idea how to put it up. Rob went straight over, and was gone all day. On his return, he’d taken Beth out to dinner, and spent a big chunk of the evening telling her what a tricky job it had been, and how he’d been about to admit defeat when he finally hit on the idea of accessing the joist from the attic.

He wasn’t cheating on her, she was sure, and she wasn’t exactly jealous, that would be silly; but it did seem to her that Chloe was taking advantage of him a bit.

She sighed and glanced at the clock. Twenty past six. The building was so quiet she could hear the hum of the air-conditioning; nobody hung about on a Friday, except the Professor, who viewed his home life as a tiresome interruption to his work. And of course, the security guards that came with a government research institute were still on duty. Everyone else had gone long ago. She was only there herself because she hadn’t wanted to arrive at the cinema before Rob. Beth slipped her shoes on, and rummaged below the desk for her handbag and the plastic bag holding the new top, skinny jeans and killer heels she’d planned to change into, wondering whether to treat herself to fish and chips on the way home. She glanced at the blackness outside the sash window and shivered. The forecast snow had yet to arrive, but beyond the building’s warmth, where her little car waited in the car park, the night was bitterly cold.

The door bursting open made her look up. Professor McKinnis stood there, eagerness overriding his usual air of abstraction; suddenly Beth could see what he must have looked like at her age. Beth liked her boss, demanding though he was. It amused her that he resembled the eccentric scientists portrayed in movies, with his rumpled hair, absent-mindedness, and habit of writing in black pen on the left sleeve of his lab coat. The laundry service never quite succeeded in getting the ink out, and behind the current jottings could be seen the grey ghosts of former weeks’ notes.

He saw her and smiled. “Bethany, you’re still here. Thank goodness for that. I can always rely on you.” His glance fell on the bags she was holding and he frowned. “Not rushing off anywhere, are you?”

“No, I was but then…”

“Good girl. Come into the lab, I need you.”

Beth thrust the remains of the chocolate in the carrier bag and put it back, slung her handbag over her shoulder, got up obediently and followed the Professor. She had to break into a trot now and then to keep up with his rapid stride. Cream paint, decorative mouldings and twelve-foot ceilings gave way to the bright aseptic corridors of the new wing. He turned to speak to her as they went. “I’ve finished the programming on the OMD7. Been working on it all week, and finally everything’s fallen into place. Thought it’d take the weekend, but then I saw how to do it. A simple matter of tweaking the spacer algorithm and adjusting the particle interchange ratio. A much more elegant solution.” He went into detail; it was part of his charm to speak as if everyone shared his specialized knowledge, though his field was unique and understood only by him.

He held the lab door open for her with distracted courtesy, and she walked into the brilliantly-lit laboratory. A pair of boxer dogs, crammed into the same dog basket, lifted their heads in unison, got up and came to sniff at her, wagging their stumpy tails.

“Thompson! And Thomson…” She put down her handbag so she could pat them both at once. “I still think you should have called them Fred and George. Less confusing.”

“I prefer Tintin to Harry Potter. It hardly matters, no one can tell them apart anyway.”

The dogs were the result of earlier research. The Prof had adopted them, though the guidelines governing this secret unit clearly stated all lab animals should be put down after the experiment was over. Beth liked the fact that the Prof had a softer side. Law-abiding to a fault herself, she also admired and envied his magisterial disregard for the rules.

He hurried over to his new obsession. In the eighteen months Beth had worked at the Institute, she’d seen several versions of these Organic Matter Duplicators, each larger and better-made than the last as success bred greater funding. The early prototypes, when the Professor had been working with invertebrates or mice, were converted pairs of fish tanks with a profusion of wires, transformers and cables soldered and clipped on. This latest was a gleaming man-sized tube, resembling a snug-fitting shower unit lying on its side, its workings contained in a steel box with multiple switches, dials and two computer screens.

“Where’s the twin unit?” Beth asked.

“In B lab. With people it’s going to be important not to confuse the results by letting the subject see the duplicate.”

Professor McKinnis pressed a button and the transparent curving door slid silently open. He turned briskly.

“Have you got any dental fillings?”

“No, why?”

“They won’t copy. I take it you haven’t got any metal pins, rods or plates in your bones from fractures? Replacement joints, pacemaker…no. You don’t wear contact lenses, do you? Best to take off your watch and jewellery. This won’t take a minute.”

Beth looked from the cabinet to her boss. She hoped he didn’t mean what she thought he did. “Uh…you’re not asking me to try it out?”

He nodded impatiently. “You’re the only person here. It’s perfectly safe.”

“But…it would be quite irregular. I’m not cleared for this, I’m just a research secretary. I don’t think the insurance covers me, for one thing.”

“A technicality. Nothing can happen to you. It’s like having your photo taken, just this is a cellular three-dimensional copy, life-size.” He gave one of his infectious chuckles. “It won’t steal your soul. It won’t affect you in any way at all. All the action happens in the receptor cylinder. We’ve done this with everything from fruit flies to macaque monkeys, tested them rigorously for years afterwards – well, not the fruit flies, obviously – and they’ve all been completely unaffected by the experience. You know this, you’ve typed the results. Some we’ve copied dozens of times.”

“What about the Fubars? Can’t you fetch one of them?” Beth would never have used this name for the six disabled Marines seconded to the Institute as guinea pigs, had it not been how they invariably referred to themselves. When she’d asked the Prof, in her first days working there, what Fubar meant, he had coughed and bowdlerized the army slang for her benefit; effed up beyond all recognition. They had their own living quarters in the grounds within the compound, and didn’t work nine to five. Nominally on call, they spent their days in the gym, the computer room, the local pub or chatting to Beth when she wasn’t busy.

“Regimental dinner. Away till tomorrow.”

“Oh yes – I’d forgotten…”

“It’s annoying, the day I’m ready is the one day they’re not here, and Ray’s got flu. I’d do it myself, except I need to work the thing and monitor the results.”

“I wouldn’t know what to do…”

“My dear girl, you don’t have to do anything. Just lie in the send unit for thirty seconds. The macaques had no problems with that. Or the mice.”

“I’m sure Sir Peter wouldn’t approve.” Sir Peter Ellis was head of the Marling Institute, and everything had to be run past his piercing blue eyes.

“That’s where you’re wrong. He’s been ringing my direct line every day this week for progress reports. With the casualty figures rising, and public opinion turning against the war, the P.M. needs this up and running quickly. I’ve left a message with Sir Peter’s wife to tell him what I’m doing. I’m one hundred per cent certain he’d give his approval. You’ve signed the Official Secrets Act. He knows you’re a responsible person.”

Beth made a stand. “Even so, if I agree then you’ll still need me to operate the duplicate, and I’d have to stay here for hours. I’m really sorry, but I’m tired. I want to get home and have some supper.”

“Bethany, one hour, that’s all I ask. And you can take Monday off, if you like.” He glanced at his watch. “You’ll be out of here before eight.”

Beth recalled the advice in the book. Don’t discuss it, don’t explain, just say no, pleasantly but firmly. “I’m not going to do it, Professor.” She picked up her handbag.

He saw she meant what she said, and the spark seemed to go out of him; he sighed deeply. With a visible effort, he squared his shoulders, smiled and patted her arm. “Quite understood, Beth, I hope I haven’t pressured you unduly. You toddle off home. It’ll keep till tomorrow afternoon when the Fubars come back.”

His hand went to the on/off switch and hovered reluctantly over it. As he stooped, she saw with a pang the lines in his middle-aged face, obvious now the animation had left it, worse after a week of late nights working in the lab.

She felt mean.

“I guess an hour wouldn’t really make any difference.”

She took out her ear studs, removed her watch and lay down inside the machine.

CHAPTER 2

Beth Two

I’d shut my eyes as the Prof flicked the switch, and now I opened them. It was dark, the only glimmer of light coming from the LEDs on the control panel. My heart fluttered; I was no longer in the Prof’s lab. As my vision adjusted, I could see the accumulated clutter stacked on the benches and in corners, and recognized the surroundings beyond the receptor unit: Lab B, which no one uses except as a convenient dumping-ground for oddments not currently needed.

I looked towards my feet. Everything about me was the same. Except this wasn’t me; just a physical copy inhabited by my mind. Funny, because I felt no different. Even my clothes were identical. I tried to think myself back into my own body, and couldn’t. Weird, and a bit frightening. I don’t know what I’d expected, but it wasn’t this: I suppose I’d imagined that it would be, as he’d said, like having my photograph taken, then I’d have had to think my way into the copy so I could try to control it. A bit like learning to drive, or recovering the use of a broken bone with physiotherapy. Gradual. But actually I felt as if I’d been beamed into Lab B, rather than replicated. Like waking up in another room after a general anaesthetic. Had the Prof invented a matter transporter by mistake? The thought made me smile and I felt better. I tried to sit up, and hit my head on the lid; I tried to open the door, but there was no catch on the inside. That made me feel worse again. I couldn’t hear anything at all. It was claustrophobic. But the Prof would be along in no time…

Minutes passed. The reason for removing my watch was that metal and plastics, because of their low levels of internal molecular structure, didn’t replicate properly and could be messy – my skirt felt loose where the zip had failed to copy, and only the button held it up. Then I felt the button give; of course, it was plastic. I remembered my phone was in my cardigan pocket, and banged my elbow getting it out. The familiar case dented slightly as I held it, as if it was made of Play-Doh. Strangely repellent; I recoiled and it slipped through my fingers down the gap at the side of the padded surface I lay on, and there wasn’t enough room to retrieve it. Panic began to nibble at the corners of my mind. I suddenly wished I hadn’t agreed to be the first guinea pig. That was just stupid of me, especially when he’d been all right about my saying no. By now I could be in my car driving home, instead of locked in a booth in a dark room, a prey to doubts and fears.

The door opened, showing the Professor silhouetted in the light from the corridor. Foolish relief flooded through me. After a moment, he switched the lights on, then paused again before approaching the unit. He peered at me, and for an odd few seconds we gazed immobile into each other’s eyes. I smiled uncertainly. He clicked a switch and the door glided open. I sat up, swung my legs on to the floor and stood, holding my waistband to stop my skirt falling round my ankles. The Prof was looking at me strangely, not saying anything.

“I was getting anxious,” I said. “I thought you’d forgotten me.”

“What’s your name?”

Now I was giving him a funny look. “You know my name!” Silence. “Beth Chandler.”

“And where are we?”

“Lab B, the Marling Institute. How do I stop being here and get back to the real me?” He still didn’t say anything. “It has worked, hasn’t it? Tell me what you want me to do now. I really don’t want to stay longer than an hour.”

“Don’t worry about that.” He rubbed his face, as if trying to get the wrinkles out. “It’s worked…fine. Just stay here two minutes, don’t move, I’ll be right back.”

In his absence I rooted around till I found a paper clip in an otherwise empty desk drawer, which I unbent to fasten my skirt. I didn’t worry that I had to make holes in the fabric, as after all, it wasn’t my real skirt. I pulled my cardigan back down, and holes appeared; when rubbed between finger and thumb, it fell apart. Polyester, not wool, it had copied no better than the phone. While I was thinking about this, the Professor returned.

“Come with me and I’ll just get you to do a few tests.”

I followed him into the corridor and along to the office next to his lab. He sat me down at the computer, switched on the desk lamp and brought up a questionnaire. An intelligence test. It said at the top it took forty minutes. I supposed that was okay, as long as he didn’t want me to do much else.

“Now you get on with that, and I’ll pop back shortly and see how you’re doing.” He headed for the door.

“Professor!” He turned. “It is all right, isn’t it? I will be able to get back into my own body, won’t I? Because I just feel normal, and that sort of doesn’t feel right…”

“Don’t worry, everything’s under control.”

He shut the door behind him. I read the instructions, and began the test.

Question 1: Rearrange the following letters to make a single word and then choose the category in which it belongs.

LEGEZAL

person

country

sport

animal

flower

I clicked animal and moved to the next. I could hear the Professor’s voice through the wall. He must be making a phone call. I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I reread the second question, and answered it. There didn’t seem much point in doing this, but the Prof must have his reasons for it. In any case, it wasn’t my problem, and I’d be out of here within the hour. No way was I going to let him persuade me to stay a minute longer than I’d agreed to – assuming there wasn’t any difficulty about getting back into my body.

That was a nasty thought – suppose I couldn’t, and I was stuck in this one? It seemed exactly the same as my own, so maybe it wouldn’t matter, as long as it didn’t pack up after a few weeks, or something. And what would happen to my old body? Maybe for some reason humans reacted differently from animals, and it would never recover from the coma, its mind having left for good. The idea frightened me. I half got up to go next door and find out. Then I sat down again; not because I was afraid of disobeying my boss, but because I was scared of what I might see. I took some deep breaths to steady myself, and got on with the IQ test, feeling uneasy.

It was bound to be all right.

If the day before yesterday is two days after Monday then what day is it today?

I couldn’t think. The Prof stopped talking, and almost immediately the phone rang and he started again, his voice rising and falling as if he was trying to keep it down but kept forgetting.

Five minutes later my increasingly distracted efforts were interrupted by the sound of a car driving up the road that led from the high-security gate to the Institute, unusual on a Friday evening. I got up and squinted out of the window, then turned off the ceiling lights to see better. A silver Jaguar crunched to a halt in front of the floodlit main entrance, its number plate PME 1, and Sir Peter Ellis got out and strode up the steps to the big door, opened it and slipped inside. He was wearing a dinner jacket and black bow tie. My anxiety increased – something must have gone wrong, something important enough for him to come here when he was clearly due at some social function.

I left my seat and crossed the room to listen by the door. If I opened it a crack, I’d hear better. It wouldn’t open. My heart went into overdrive. Why had the Prof locked me in? I heard Sir Peter’s crisp steps go past outside in the corridor, and then subdued voices. My eyes went to the phone. I could ring Rob…or I could climb out of the window. The office was on the ground floor. I tried the catch, and the window opened, letting in a blast of icy air. I hesitated. Was I being ridiculous? Anyway, I didn’t have my handbag with my car keys. And I needed to get back into my own body. A noise made me shut the window again hastily, and as I turned a cleaner opened the door, pushing her trolley full of cleaning equipment. She looked surprised when she saw me.

I smiled reassuringly and walked past her out of the office. I slipped off my shoes and sidled towards the lab. Only a strong sense that something was wrong made me do this; I’m not normally devious or underhand. I remembered the security camera too late, and hoped the guard hadn’t been watching my curious behaviour. The lab door was not quite shut; between the door and the jamb I could see a narrow vertical slice of empty lab, and hear voices.

“…any idea? Surely there must have been some indication?”

“None at all.” The Prof, sounding defensive. “I was most careful. We did a series of tests to eliminate the possibility that the latest outcome was independent duplication. The results were quite different from the earliest experiments, as you’d expect given that I totally revised my methods. All the recent evidence suggested consciousness switched from one animal to the other, with the original in overall charge. When the original was given hypnotics, the replica temporarily ceased to function. After its death, the copy remained inert until it died from dehydration. We tested this with every species we duplicated. There was no reason to believe the result would be different with humans.”

“So what happened?”

“I don’t know. Conceivably something I missed in the programming, or a unique function of the human brain not shared with animals. Further research will reveal the reason, no doubt. But you must admit, it’s an intriguing development. Probably as valuable to you in its own way as what we expected.”

“You have to be joking.” Sir Peter’s voice rose, exasperated. “Have you any idea how much this has cost, so far? We thought we’d get it back over the first couple of operational years. A priceless PR coup – expert soldiers in the field, but zero risk to our heroes, as the tabloids call them. An end to the constant drip of casualty lists. That’s worth one hell of a lot of money to the government. This is another thing altogether. Replicas that aren’t expendable, that we’ll have to provide everything for, plus pay on top of that, are no good to us – and have you considered how the originals, and their families, will react? How would you feel if you suddenly had an identical twin, except this twin thinks he’s you and your house, your car, your wife and your bank account are his? Or suddenly you haven’t got one son, you’ve got two identical ones? Both of whom remember their past perfectly, and expect to be treated as they’ve always been? It’s a disaster.”

Sir Peter crossed my field of view, across then back again. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance the duplicate has a limited life expectancy?”

“I can’t prove it without doing physiological tests, but I’ve no reason to believe there’s any difference at all between the two girls.”

“Where did you put Beth?”

“Which one?”

“Richard, get this straight right now, because it’s important: there is only one Beth Chandler. The copy is an error that will have to be dealt with, though we’ll run some tests on it first – you never know, that might help you understand what went wrong. You can start thinking what might be useful. Whatever you do, don’t get sentimental about it. That’s if you don’t want your contract cancelled and the Institute closed.”

So…I wasn’t me, I was a duplicate? Not real, merely a manufactured copy, like the second boxer dog, Thomson? There was another Beth identical to me, somewhere in the building; maybe in my office, eating the last of the chocolate… Sir Peter had referred to me as it. A very disagreeable sinking feeling settled in the pit of my stomach. But…I didn’t feel any different, that couldn’t be right. Could it? And dealt with? After tests had been run on me? That sounded bad – very bad. Terminally bad. My mind wrestled with this nasty information, disbelief well to the fore; surely even if I was a replica of myself, I was still a human being, they couldn’t just kill me, we were in a civilized country, it would be murder; but my body got the message all right and began to sweat and shake.

The Prof stammered, “But…for God’s sake, you can’t…it wouldn’t be…”

“What do you suggest? Give her a lump sum and a council flat and turn her loose? Ask her nicely not to tell anyone? Imagine the furore when the media got hold of it – and they would get hold of it, make no mistake. There’s no way we could ensure the replica’s discretion. Then what you’re doing here would get out. Once what you’re about to achieve gets in the public domain, every tinpot dictator in the world will want to get his hands on it. Think what that would cost in human life.”

“Yes, but…”

“Where is Beth?”

“She’s in her office, doing an IQ test, like the other one. I can’t leave her there much longer. Either of them.”

“Go and talk to her. Keep her there until we’ve got this mess sorted out. Can she see people coming in from her window?”

“No, it faces the other way.”

“That’s fortunate. The last thing we want is her getting wind of this. Go now, before she finishes that test and starts wandering around.”

“But what can I say? I told her she could go in an hour, it wouldn’t affect her.”

“With luck it’ll only be for ten minutes, she’ll be able to go the time you agreed. If not, make something up. Some scientific gobbledegook. Take her blood pressure, temperature, weigh her. Make it plausible. Let her phone her boyfriend or whatever. She’s an amenable young lady, I’m sure she won’t be awkward about it. The spec ops will be here any minute. I’m going to the gate to brief them. As soon as they’ve got the other one off the premises, I’ll let you know it’s safe to let her go.”

Bloody hell.

I stood irresolute, unable to accept what I’d heard, mutely protesting that this couldn’t be happening to me. Could I have misunderstood? Perhaps if I spoke to Sir Peter and the Prof…or I could go to my office and tell the other Beth. I had to make up my mind, before they came out and saw me. They were still talking, going over the same ground; the Professor was protesting that he couldn’t pretend I needed medical tests, I – Beth – the other Beth wasn’t a fool, and would ask lots of questions he’d be hard put to answer. The cleaner emerged from the office, and paused to rearrange the cleaning materials on her trolley. At any moment she’d go inside the lab, and no doubt be shooed out again; but it might cross their minds where she’d just come from. If I didn’t want to be dealt with, maybe I should go now.

Getting going was hard. Part of me thought if I did nothing I’d be safe. Back in the office, I opened the window and hesitated. Was jumping out into the night the best course of action? It seemed such an extreme thing to do. Nothing in my life had prepared me for this. Footsteps sounded then receded in the corridor; Sir Peter. As I stood motionless, gripped by indecision, the door opened and the Professor came in, looking furtive and agitated.

“Beth, there’s something I have to tell you.”

“That I’m a copy? I know, I was listening to you and Sir Peter.”

I hoped he’d deny it, but he nodded. “Then you also know you need to leave. Fast.” He rummaged in his pocket, and came up with a handful of bank notes and change, which he thrust at me. He grabbed a pen from the desk and a post-it note and wrote. “This is my home number. Go and stay with a friend, not anyone obvious like Rob, and when you’re safe give me a ring. I’ll do what I can to help you. I’m really sorry about this.”

“But – do I have to? Sir Peter wouldn’t really…get rid of me, would he?”

The Prof gave me a sharp look, his grey eyebrows drawn together. “He said he would. And he won’t be running it past an ethics committee first, either. Go on, run for it. Quick as you can. Don’t go through the gate, Peter’s there, you’ll have to climb over the wall.”

Awkwardly, I swung one leg then the other over the window sill, and jumped out. The cold air made me gasp, and the freezing earth under my feet made me realize I’d left my shoes in the corridor. I turned to ask the Prof to get them, but he’d shut the window and was leaving the room. For a second I stood, dismayed; and a sudden spurt of anger at Rob surprised me. It was his fault, if he hadn’t cancelled our date this wouldn’t be happening…

I darted round the building and across the dark grass in my stockinged feet towards the perimeter fence. To my left was the car park, where my Micra waited for me. I looked at it longingly. No good, no car keys, and anyway I’d be stopped at the barrier. I’d have to get over the wall like the Prof said. Unfortunately, he hadn’t told me how. The Institute was surrounded by high-tech mesh equipped with movement sensors, except for one segment which was old brick wall built at the same time as the original part of the Institute. That would be my best bet. The lowest bit of the wall was about eight feet – dauntingly high. How could I possibly get over it?

Trees grew by the old wall; their dark branches swayed and creaked above me in the gusting wind. None was near enough the wall, even if their lowest branches weren’t too high to reach. Come on, don’t just stand there. The shrubbery gave me cover as I hunted for anything I could climb on, while I kept a wary eye on the building and the gate. I had an improbable vision of finding a ladder lying around. I could go back to the office and fetch a chair…no I couldn’t, the Prof had shut the window. Nothing.

I felt completely futile, defeated before I’d even begun. They were going to find me here, shaking in the darkness, and take me away.

I looked around in despair, and my gaze fell on the fallen tree blown over in last week’s gales – the wail of a chainsaw as they’d cut it up into manageable lengths had been bugging me only that afternoon. Now it seemed the answer to a prayer. I put the money down, encircled a log with my arms and heaved. It didn’t move at all.

Oh God. There was nothing else. I’d have to get back into the building somehow. Running towards the window I’d come from, I passed the rubbish area. Yes! A row of recycling bins complete with handles and two wheels. I chose the lightest and trundled it across the grass to the wall, the rumbling noise it made worryingly loud. I had nowhere to keep the money, and needed both hands to climb. I couldn’t tuck it in my bra, which had come loose, its underwiring and fastenings having disintegrated, so I put the coins in my mouth, and held the notes between my lips. Then I found I couldn’t climb on to the bin’s high slippery lid.

I’m no good at this sort of thing; I shouldn’t be having to do it; they’re bound to catch me. I took a deep breath. Come on, pull yourself together, stop being feeble.

I went back for another bin which I put on its side and this time climbed precariously to the other one, expecting men to emerge from the shadows at any moment. I managed to haul myself on to the top of the wall.

I paused, the sour taste of metal heavy in my mouth, nerving myself for the irrevocable drop to the other side of the wall, shuddering with cold and fear and wondering if I was crazy. What was I doing sitting on a wall in the icy darkness, intending to go on the run, when I should be at the cinema with Rob? It was insane. But the Prof hadn’t thought it insane. He’d told me to run for it.

Movement at the gate caught my eye. The barrier swung up with a clunk; a black jeep drove through and stopped a few metres inside. Its headlights went off. Branches swayed in the wind and fleetingly obstructed my view. I craned to see. Two shadowy figures got out of the jeep, closing the doors gently behind them. They wore dark casual clothing and didn’t look particularly sinister or threatening. Again, a feeling of incredulity overwhelmed me. A tall figure I recognized as Sir Peter joined them and they stood talking for a minute. Sir Peter pointed towards the building, apparently giving directions. One of the men opened the back of the jeep and got something out, something about the shape and size of a handgun. He passed it to his colleague, got out another and attached it to his belt. After a moment, they moved purposefully, not towards the Institute, but alongside the wall towards me.

Panic paralysed me; I literally couldn’t move. Then they turned to their left, heading for the building across the grass. I realized Sir Peter had told them I was in the Prof’s office, and they were approaching in such a way that they could not be seen from its window.

So they were spec ops. Secret, anonymous, answerable to no one except the top government personnel who gave them their orders. Unbelievable as it seemed, they’d come for me. Shit. I lowered myself till I hung by my hands, dropped into dry scratchy brambles bordering the edge of the road, and began to run.