This story evolved from a ‘dialogue prompt’ by fellow author Rebecca Bryn:
“You know the button you told me not to press?”
“Yes—don’t tell me you—”
* * *
Adam had two things in life which were special to him. One was his job in a laboratory, and the other was his lifelong friendship with Nathan. They’d been inseparable since junior school, which changed when Adam left home.
Academic ability had seen Adam excel and go on to university to study the sciences. Throughout his degree, whenever he had the chance, he would return to his hometown for a short break. When he graduated, he returned with the offer of a job in a government lab. It was listed as a pharmaceutical company, so nobody but those employed knew its real purpose.
On his first day, while in the staff restaurant for a break, he saw a familiar face.
“Nathan, what the hell—”
“This ought to prove I can be trusted to keep a secret.” Nathan grinned.
Adam reached out and lifted his friend’s ID badge, which hung on a blue lanyard. “Clinical Waste Operative?” He let go of the badge. “How long have you been working here?”
“About eighteen months. It’s a step up from household waste which is what I did for about two years. I’ve never been as clever as you, but I suppose I always wanted to have a job which allowed me to pretend I was something special.”
“What do you mean, ‘pretend to be something special?’”
“You went off to university, and each time you’ve come back on holiday or breaks, it was easy to see you’d get an exceptional job. You would be able to tell people you were a lab technician or professor or something. Me—I’ve been a shelf-stacker, a janitor, a parcel delivery man and a bin man.” He grinned. “Now, I tell people I work in a lab, but I can’t talk about my job.”
“I always got the impression you were happy as long as you were employed.”
“I was happy for a while, but I thought I’d lose your friendship after you graduated. I’m sure that not many highly-qualified people in here socialise with a local bin man.”
“Nathan, my profession isn’t going to change who I am.”
“People can change, Adam. I’ve seen it so often.”
“Are you seriously telling me that you took a job in here so that I wouldn’t be ashamed of you being my friend?”
“You said a while ago that when you came back, you might try for a job in the big lab outside town. I figured if I could get in here first, we’d still be recognised as best friends.”
“Even back in school, you were an impulsive character. The teachers used to say it would hold you back because you always wanted to see how things worked. You hated the time-consuming or theoretical aspects.”
“One of us had to be impulsive—you were always a brainbox and working out the why and wherefore of stuff.” He squinted at Adam’s red ID badge. “Advanced Developments … you even work in an area I’m not allowed into.”
“You are—I’m sure I’ve seen personnel with blue badges in there.”
“Maybe in the outer areas but not in the main labs on that floor.”
“Hey, you obviously know I can’t tell you what we’re doing in there, so don’t ask.”
“If I happened to be up there, would you let me see what it looks like in the lab, at least?”
“Maybe, but you’d have to keep your hands in your pockets.”
“Okay, I promise.” Nathan looked around the cafeteria, realising a couple of the other disposal team had noticed he was with one of the secretive lab technicians. “If you’re free on Saturday evening, we could go for a few drinks and have a proper catch-up.”
“I thought you’d go out with one of the other guys from here or see a girlfriend on a Saturday night?”
“A night out with one of them or a girl isn’t important if you’re back here for good.”
“Okay, where do you want to meet?”
“How about The Cabin—we could have a pint in there and then go somewhere else?”
Adam’s brow furrowed. “Isn’t that where we had my farewell drinks the night before I set off for university?”
“Yes, and I’m glad you remember—it was a great night.”
* * *
Late in the afternoon, Adam was alone in the top floor lab. An ongoing experiment was only two steps away from completion. Adam was eager to take another look at the subjects involved. It would entail him preparing a sequence on one of the control panels. If he were careful, there would be no problem, and nobody would know he’d been in the secure chamber. A light tapping noise on glass caught his attention, and he turned to see Nathan standing outside the lab.
Adam opened the door. “What are you doing up here, mate?”
Nathan pointed to his trolley with its three different coloured containers. “Remember, someone has to remove what you clever guys are throwing out.”
“If you give me two minutes, I’ll bring the bins out to you, and then I’ll be finished for the day.”
“I can help with them if you like. I can’t go home until I’ve dealt with the final disposal from this floor.”
“Okay, come in, but don’t touch anything.”
“I promised you already, I won’t touch anything.” He grinned as he followed his friend into the secure area, and then he turned to watch the heavy mirrored glass door silently slide to a close.
Adam went along to the bench where he had set the controls on a large panel. He flicked two switches and then pressed a series of coloured buttons. “I have to go into the secure cubicle for a minute, but you stay here and keep your hands in your pockets.”
“Okay—how come you haven’t depressed the red button—shouldn’t you press it too?”
“No, Nathan. Remember, don’t touch anything, especially the red button.” He gave his friend a nod and lifted a forefinger as if in a warning.
“All right, you’re the scientist.”
Adam went into the chamber, which was four metres square. It was dimly lit and had a series of spiralling prongs pointing down from the ceiling. Two of the long twisted metal rods pointed to a large square metal pad which took up most of the floor. Another two pairs of rods pointed at two large cages situated in a darkened recess.
Nathan had a low attention threshold and was soon bored. He stood on his tiptoes to look through the window. He was trying to see what his friend was looking at on the counter.
In the chamber, Adam addressed the inhabitants of the glass containers. “If you two have anything to say to each other, I’d do it now because, in the morning, you’re not going to feel like yourselves. We’ll be placing your containers on that metal pad, and you’re going to disappear.”
Outside the chamber, Nathan moved close to the door to see what was in the containers. He couldn’t quite see, so he jumped up and down. On his third jump, he slipped and moved his left hand out for balance. He hit the control panel.
“Oh shit.” Nathan looked at the various lights, meters and buttons and then noticed the lights flickering in the chamber. He knew he wasn’t supposed to go in, but he owed it to his friend to explain. Nathan pushed the door open as the lights flickered again.
“Nathan, what the hell are you doing? I told you—” Adam looked up at the flickering fluorescent lights and the metal prongs which had started to glow bright blue.
“You know the button you told me not to press?”
“Yes—don’t tell me you—”
The fluorescent lights went off, replaced by a series of small ultraviolet lights, which were fitted high on the two main walls. The metal spiral rods achieved an intense, blinding blue and buzzed.
Adam looked down to see he was on the large square pad on the floor, and so too was Nathan. “Get out of the way—”
“We have to get—” Adam’s vision blurred as he stared at Nathan’s contorted features. He tried to call out, but his throat hurt, and so too did his head. It felt like his entire body was being crushed. As everything went dark, he lost consciousness.
* * *
Gary, the senior scientific officer, paused with the lab door open. “Melanie, have you been in here already this morning?”
“No, you said we’d reached a phase where we must be accompanied. What’s wrong?”
“This waste operative’s trolley shouldn’t be left out here, and it’s empty, so whoever came up here hasn’t been given the bins from inside the lab.”
The two senior technicians gained access and stood still while the main door swished back to a closed position.
Melanie checked the clipboard. “Gary, our new guy, Adam—he didn’t sign out yesterday afternoon.”
“I know he’s supposed to be pretty good, but he doesn’t know enough to be in here alone yet. I’ll have to have a word. We can’t have him thinking he understands the implications of what we’re aiming for right now.”
“Hold on.” Melanie nodded towards the main door. “I think I know what’s happened. I saw Adam chatting with one of the blue badge guys in the restaurant yesterday.”
“The waste disposal teams are hardly on the same pay grade or psychological—”
“They were chatting like old friends. Maybe the waste guy came up to deal with the bins, and Adam decided to call it a day and go for a few drinks.”
“I don’t care what excuse he gives—Adam is being reported, and the waste orderly has emptied his last bins here. He’ll be looking for a new position.” Gary stared at the control panel. “It looks as if Adam has been trying to continue. The control switches and alarms are set to the final operating positions.”
“Surely he wouldn’t be crazy enough to do anything without us being here … .”
“Melanie, you and I left together yesterday, and the only other team member with an access code is Adam.” Gary ran a fingertip over each of the buttons on the control pad. “The red execute button is depressed.”
“Adam wouldn’t have pressed it—he knew the importance of—”
“Let’s face it, Melanie—he knew if it was pressed, the final phase would be activated. Our new colleague has either successfully completed our experiment a day early, or he’s killed our rare specimens and destroyed several years’ work.”
“What should we do?” Melanie walked towards the secure chamber. “We can’t just let this go—we have to … we have to check our guests.” She started to enter the code to open the door.
“Hold it, Melanie.” Gary held her by the arm. “We’ll lose our jobs if this experiment has been compromised.”
“Unless we look, we’re not going to know what happened last night.”
“Okay, we’ll go in and check things over, but if any of our guests are dead, we come back out and make a report together. Adam will pay a high price if he’s screwed this up.”
“What do we do if he hasn’t killed our friends in there?”
“If they’re all alive, we can do a few simple tests to see if there have been any developments. I’ll be having a word with Adam—but I don’t want you around.”
“Why don’t you want—”
“Melanie, my bloody working life has revolved around this for the past seven years. I know you’ve been with me for the last four, but I’ve taken this from a theory to a practical test, and I need Adam to know what his interference could have done.”
“Okay, when he shows up, I’ll make myself scarce for a while. I’m keen to stay on your team to see this through.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not angry with you. It’s just infuriating how thoughtless Adam could be when we trusted him. All he had to do was bloody lock up.”
“Come on, let’s inspect our little friends before we wake our other guests to check on them.”
After entering the access code, Gary took a step forward, glanced through the chamber’s window, and paused. “Melanie, before you come in here, push the waste trolley away from the main door of the lab, please?”
Gary went inside the chamber and busied himself with a rapid clean-up. Two minutes later, he was joined by Melanie.
“I’ve pushed the trolley over beside the lift doors.”
“Thanks,” Gary said. “To some people, these two little guys are only rats, but their breeding habits are key to our success. The desire to breed, coupled with their intelligence, might just make the difference to the recipients. If we can pull this off, we’ll be so famous.” Gary pressed a small button at the end of the counter. The two large cages in the deep recess were illuminated, but the occupants were asleep.
Melanie turned from the cages and tapped the glass containers on the counter. She smiled when the two white rats both turned to look at her. “I feel so privileged being a part of this experiment.”
Gary tapped on the wire mesh of the large cages. “Come on, you two, wake up.”
In one cage, crouched on the floor was Mi-Mi. The other cage was occupied by Ya-Ya, who was in the same position.
Melanie turned from the rats to feast her eyes on the larger specimens. “It’s incredible to think that there are only ten giant pandas in existence, and we’ve been given a pair.”
“They’re famous for not breeding easily in captivity, but I’m confident my idea will work. I believe the future of this panda species depends on rats?”
“Will we be leaving the rats inside their glass cases on the floor?”
“Yes, the sensors on the ends of those coils up there will lock onto any living creature on the metal floor plate. This room is sterilised, but I don’t want to take any chances. Remember, we’ll have early confirmation of the process being successful. After the brain activity has been transferred, the rats’ bodies will vanish in two puffs of smoke.”
“I must admit, when I first heard your theory, I was a bit dubious, but I quickly became a convert. It has to work if we can transplant the brain patterns from a couple of healthy and highly-sexed rats.” She half-turned and stared. “Gary—look at Ya-Ya. He’s never acted this way before.”
The male panda was shaking its head wildly from side to side and waving its paws left and right, in a similar way to a human suggesting not to do something.
A high-pitched tone sounded from the speaker grille near the glass partition—an internal call.
“Would you mind taking that call, Melanie?”
“No problem. If it’s for you, I’ll take a message and tell them you’ll call back.”
“Thanks.” Gary watched the door close and then turned to face the two cages. “I know from your reactions that my process has worked, and I think you two will understand me. You’ve now got yourselves inside the bodies of two giant pandas, but you might still have your own brain patterns. I know the process worked successfully because all living tissue disappears after the transfer. Fortunately, I stuffed all your clothing and ID cards into the incinerator before my assistant came in here.” He turned to glance through the glass panel at Melanie, who was taking notes while still on the phone. “I’m the only person who knows who you two are.”
Bleating noises came from the cage, which contained Mi-Mi.
“I don’t know which one of you started the process, but here’s the good news. One of you is now a boy panda, and the other is a girl panda. Judging from your reactions just now, I think you’re the male, Adam, which means you can give your friend exactly what he deserves for being in here.”
The female panda finally showed some recognition and looked rapidly from the scientist to the occupant of the other cage.
Gary grinned. “When you get the opportunity, if you two don’t produce some baby pandas for us, we’ll have to do some more experiments.”
Both big animals made bleating noises and shook their heads.
“As long as you two get together, I won’t let anyone start taking you apart individually.”
Taken from, Next Steps: and other stories