The underpants festoon the branches of the trees like bright pennants, all fluttering in the fresh, promise-laden morning breeze. There are thousands of trees, in neat, orderly rows, stretching in all directions as far as the eye can see: trees and underpants, trees and underpants, trees and underpants. The orchard seems to be endless — ‘vast’ is a term that might spring to mind, ‘mind-boggling’ is another.
There are all kinds of pants. Men’s pants, ladies’ pants, pants for kids of all ages and shapes, and apparently pants for dogs and cats too. There are big pants, small pants, tiny pants and voluminous pants. There are sensible pants and sexy pants of all descriptions. There are frivolous and fatuous pants and stern ones to disapprove of them. There are sturdy pants and gossamer pants and all thicknesses in between. There are thermals and coolers. There are more colours and patterns and designs than even the fevered brain of the perviest underpants fetishist could imagine. No one tree has the same kind of pants; each tree carries a diversity, and no two pairs of pants are alike. The one thing they have in common — other than being on a tree — is that the fabrics are vibrant in hue and texture and seem to shimmer with a curious life of their own.
An observer of average attention to detail would note that the underpants do not merely festoon the trees, they grow from them, they hang by delicate green stems. The underpants have sprouted from the boughs like flappy and gaily-coloured fruit.
The observer should at this point start feeling considerable curiosity. What are underpants doing sprouting from trees? Or better, what are trees doing sprouting underpants? This does not seem a conventional act of nature.
Among the trees walks a man: by his bearing a gentleman. He has short, immaculate, black hair, with an absolutely straight side parting, at a mathematically precise point halfway between the crown of his head and his left ear. He wears a suit of a striking sobriety that wouldn’t be out of place at a funeral, which nevertheless shimmers with the same odd sheen as the underpants on the trees. Everything about him is neat and pressed and clipped. He is evidently a man who appreciates order.
His face wears a faint and beatific glow.
The gentleman stops and surveys his trees — for they are his; he put them there — and he smiles broadly because he sees that they are good.
In the distance, despite the bright and cloudless sky, there is a rumble of thunder.
And then the man goes on his way like someone who has much to do, which, indeed, he is.
Hades is in his testing house, testing out his underpants.
‘Three, two … one …’
The explosion fills the cavernous testing hangar with billowing smoke, flying debris and hurtling test staff.
It is Sir Hades Gousset himself, the most important man in the world, founder, president, CEO, head of research and development, chief of everything at Pants Corp, which, as everyone on the planet knows, is the power behind Hades Undies World. As everyone in the world also knows, everyone in the world wears Hades underpants.
More than an underpants magnate, Hades is a visionary, a proselytiser. ‘Whoever owns underpants owns the world!’ is his battle cry.
‘Oh, buggery bugger-bags!’ says Hades mildly as shrapnel from the explosion batters on the walls of his concrete bunker.
Sirens signal the arrival of the emergency services, which are on permanent standby just outside the hangar.
‘Well that was successful,’ said Hilda Titanium his personal assistant from inside her burqa.
‘Would have been a fantastic success had they been supposed to explode. As the underpants in question were absolutely not supposed to detonate, I think this constitutes an unmitigated balls up — quite literally for the test pilot, by the looks of him.’
Hilda does not wear a burqa for religious or cultural reasons. She is a woman of such striking appearance that men tend to injure themselves at the sight of her. She remains covered up as an act of humanity.
‘What were they supposed to do if they weren’t supposed to explode so effectively?’
Hilda is also the secret power within Pants Corp. If Hades is the head of the enterprise that bears his name, and his factories and outlets and research department are the arms, legs and internal organs, then Hilda is the spinal chord that links it all together.
‘They are supposed to make fertiliser,’ said Hades.
‘Yes. The trouble is, fertiliser is such volatile stuff. It’s all nitrates and phosphorus. One false move and it’s kaboom! You can make bombs from it, you know, if you are a terrorist or a schoolboy. We’re having the devil of a time getting the stuff to remain stable while we get it from the pants to the field.’
‘Excuse me for not seeing what I’m sure must be blindingly obvious, but why would anyone want to make fertiliser with their underpants?’
‘Goodness gracious me, Hilda! You really are not your rapier-sharp self today. Applications for the developing world, don’t you know: poor countries. Mobile fertiliser makers for the struggling parts of this planet.’
‘The developing world? Not much of a market, one would have thought. The whole problem in the poor countries is that the people are, well, poor — which usually means they don’t have money to spend on things to the profit of the seller.’
‘Oh, we’re not chasing the profits with this one, Hilda. These are designed to be given away to help lift people out of poverty. I myself came from an impoverished background: a ditch in Essex, to be exact. But I was lucky. Underpants provided me an escape into a world of reward for my hard work. Not all people are as fortunate as me. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. Nearly 30 per cent of all children in developing countries are underweight or stunted. More than 80 per cent of the world’s population live on less than $10 a day. Pants Corp is just trying to help out a little. These fertiliser pants are just one technology on a whole new line designed to alleviate hardship in less fortunate parts of the world.’
‘Socially aware underpants, you might say,’ mused Hilda.
‘Might say? I do say.’
‘Pants Corp gives staggering amounts of money to the poor each year.’
‘Yes, we do, Hilda. With this project we are trying to do something more fundamental. We are trying to reshape the infrastructure of the poorer countries so they can flourish on their own. Give a man a fish and he can feed himself for a day. But give him a pair of underpants, eh? Know what I mean?’
‘You mean you’ve invented underpants that can catch fish?’
‘What does everyone need, Hilda?’ Hades asked, forgetting that he has already told everyone on the planet several thousand times already.
‘Food, water, air, energy, and underpants. That’s what everyone needs.’
Out of sight inside her burqa, Hilda was mouthing the words along with Hades.
‘Our development pants will take care of most of those needs simultaneously.’
‘Absolutely. It’s not just developing nations that will benefit. Oh, no. The western industrial way of life puts great pressures on the environment and we can’t go on living like this. I am reaching toward a new model in which we live with not on nature. Sustainability is the word; sustainable underpants is the way. Our new technologies will help people grow food and create energy while filling the need for underthings at the same time. Quite brilliant, don’t you think? I thought of it, you know.’
‘In that case I’m sure it’s completely brilliant.’
‘We have invented water divining pants. One problem people have is finding enough clean water for their fields and to drink and cook. The diviners will track down water sources hidden deep underground.’
‘They can do that?’
‘Oh, yes. They zoom downwards in the vicinity of water, even if it’s hidden. Then they drill.’
‘Drill?’ asked Hilda in some alarm.
‘Yes, they drill. They rotate at high speed and automatically dig a well. Sometimes they go off prematurely, though, and zoom and rotate upwards, which is not the best thing for the wearer. I can’t think why. But that’s just a glitch. We’re working on it.’
‘You can’t think why they sometimes zoom upwards when they are trained to search for water and are wrapped around the waterworks of a person?’
‘No. But we have the finest brains working on the issue. It’s only a matter of time before we crack it.
‘Now, in this time of climate change, the atmosphere of the planet is becoming increasingly unstable, and violent weather events have the biggest impact on the most vulnerable communities. We’ve invented a pair that will convert into extreme weather shelters, big enough to accommodate a family and livestock with one shake of the botty. Don’t wear them dancing, though.
‘Talking of climate change, we have the carbon sinkers. They filter methane and also trap carbon from the atmosphere.’
‘Trap carbon? Carbon can get a bit bulky, can’t it?’
‘Oh yes. We do have a small issue with the way they tend to acquire volume and wearers not being able to move or even stand upright, but we’re working on that.
‘Energy! There are the solars. They work like solar panels and collect energy from the sunlight. They’re made of a revolutionary new fabric that has the lightness and flexibility of cotton and fantastic photovoltaic properties.’
‘But don’t solar cells need to be out in the sun to work?’
‘Well, yields have been pretty disappointing so far. We are looking into the feasibility of transparent trousers to go with them.’
‘What about making hats with the material instead of underpants? Hats tend to be more exposed to the elements than underpants, and heads are usually closer to the sun than bottoms.’
‘Are you mad? We’re not hatters! The name of this company is Undies World, not Top of your Bonce World.’
‘Well, they do say “if you want to get ahead, get a hat”.’
‘Piffle and tosh, Hilda. It’s “if you want to get a hat, get a head,” that’s what they say. Now where was I?’
‘My apologies for thinking, Hades.’
‘Are you getting fresh with me, or do you mean ducks to eat? You’ll need a lot of them to feed the starving, and aren’t there other things more plentiful in the world? Like beans and rice?’
‘Energy ducks, Hilda. Things that bob in the water harvesting the endless power of tides and waves. Marvellous things. The wearer of these duck pants just jumps in the water and starts generating electricity. Amazing stuff. No need for huge expensive tidal barriers that require buckets of investment and spoil the view. Communities can now generate their own power from whatever moving body of water they have to hand by just jumping into it.’
‘But if these people are bobbing in the water making electricity, how can they farm their land?’
Hades was silent a moment. It was possible that he hadn’t thought of this. ‘Fisherfolk, Hilda! Farmers of the sea! Wear them while they’re working. Nothing simpler.’
‘Do they work?’
‘Of course they work. They come from Hades’ own laboratories. Bit of an issue with electric shocks, to be honest. A mixed blessing. Not comfortable for the wearer but they have the unintended affect of bringing boatloads of stunned fish to the surface for easy harvesting.’
‘With the energy producing pants, the energy has to be stored somewhere. Not much storage space in a pair of pants, in my experience.’
‘Depends on the pants, actually, but a good point. The power has to be stored in pretty hefty batteries, so where to stash them? We did have a solution, or rather we attempted to capitalise on a solution provided by nature, but that has proved somewhat unpopular with wearers, so we’re still working on that.
‘And then there are the Onan pants.’
‘The Onan pants? But —’
‘Yes, I think we’ll market them as the Onanisers.’
‘Is that wise?’
‘Of course it’s wise. The name comes from the Bible. How much wiser do you want? And it describes perfectly what they do.’
‘How on earth could that be related to development issues?’
‘Onan, Hilda! Onan the farmer chap. Threw his seed on the ground wherever he went. Famous for it.’
‘I don’t think —’
‘The Onanisers are going to be just as famous. They plough, furrow and seed the land as they go. Imagine! You take a stroll to the local shop and leave a fertile, nutrition-bearing field behind you. Just like Onan.’
‘No problem with these?’
‘Of course not. Only with the velocity of the seeds.’
‘And their unpredictable vector.’
‘And bystanders ending up in hospital.’
‘Is that all?’
‘And people laughing at the name.’
‘But you’re working on it.’
‘We are indeed. Onward and upward!’
‘Just like Onan.’
‘Absolutely! But you haven’t asked me how the fertilising pants make fertiliser.’
‘I think I’m OK not knowing, thanks, Hades. Another time perhaps.’
‘Amazing concept! The farmer just makes fertiliser as he goes about his daily business.’
‘Or would if the pants didn’t keep exploding.’
‘You really are quite an inspiration, Hades. All this effort and energy and technology and innovation to clothe the loins of the world’s poor; people you haven’t even met.’
‘Well, I have dedicated my life to the search for the perfect underpants — as you well know. As the years draw in around me, I feel I must hasten the search.’ Hades reached his hand dramatically to the heavens.
‘What would the perfect pants look like? What would they smell like? I feel they are just out of reach, but that they are there. And as for helping the poor, well, I have had a blessed life. I’ve been very lucky and I want to give something back. Underpants don’t grow on trees, Hilda. That’s what I like to say.’
‘Which brings us neatly to the point of me interrupting your busy test schedule.’
‘Really? Well, walk with me, Hilda, and tell me all about it.’
‘Walk in the wreckage, Sir Hades?’
‘Absolutely. A very salutary thing, walking in wreckage. It’s something I would like to impress on the world.’
They left the bunker and entered the hangar, stepping over what appeared to be a body part. Smoke and twisted steel girders hung in the air. Rescue workers scraped at stains on the floor and walls.
‘Well, yes, Hades. It’s about pants not growing on trees.’
‘Well, it appears that they now do.’
‘Say what, good lady? It’s a fundamental and universally accepted fact of nature that pants don’t grow on trees. Explain yourself.’
‘Well, they probably need a bit of encouragement but they seem to be getting that.’ Hilda’s hands appeared through a hatch in the burqa and showed Hades a tablet computer. She tapped open a file of photos. A splash screen told Hades in big scary, red letters: ‘Absolutely top-most secret. Don’t even look at this screen.’
‘We shouldn’t have this data, really. We had to break the encryption on it to view it.’
‘How did you do that?’
‘We typed 1234. The owners hadn’t bothered to reset the pass key.’
‘Where on earth did this come from?’
‘The NSA. One of our interns was hacking their servers for a laugh and found this.’ Hilda tapped open a photo. It was a satellite photo of what appeared to be a lot of trees.
‘It’s a lot of trees,’ said Hades.
‘Quite so. Now look closely.’ Hilda zoomed onto just one tree.
‘Good Lord! Looks like the tree is festooned with underwear. All different kinds. What would be the point of that?’
‘Exactly. Now look at this photo.’ This one was much better resolution. ‘This would not appear to be a normal festoon of underpants. This would appear to be underpants actually growing on trees.’
‘Nonsense! Looks like a perfectly normal festoon to me. Ah! Dr Pickles!’ Hades bellowed at his head of research who was frantically searching for his colleagues in the rubble. ‘You’re a scientist, aren’t you. Does this look like a normal festoon of underpants to you?’ Hades shoved the tablet in the face of his employee.
‘Well, sir, that would depend on what the correct answer is. What do you want me to say?’
‘I want you say that this looks like a perfectly normal festoon of underpants, and I want you to say that underpants don’t grow on trees.’
‘In that case, I can say with confidence, sir, that this looks remarkably like a perfectly normal festoon of underpants, spread over what appears to be several thousand acres. And I’d like to say, sir, apropos of I don’t know what, underpants don’t grow on trees. Normally.’
‘There you go. Right from the scientist’s mouth.’
‘May I get back to scrabbling frantically in the rubble looking for my colleagues, sir?’
‘Oh, yes. You’d better jump to, Pickles. I don’t think colleagues survive long under piles of rubble. You’ll want to be pulling them out with all haste. I recommend frantic scrabbling as a technique. And don’t let anyone interrupt, you hear?’
‘Consider my fingers worn to bloody stumps with uninterrupted frantic scrabbling, sir.’
‘That’s the way! Good show! You see Hilda. No higher authority than a boffin, what? Nothing unusual about thousands of acres of trees festooned with underpants. Perfectly normal.’
‘It would be perfectly normal Sir Hades, but for one perfectly abnormal thing. The underclothes do, in fact, seem to be growing on the trees.’
‘Blazes Hilda, if underthings don’t grow on trees it follows quite logically that these underthings aren’t. Why are you insisting that something can’t be happening is happening just because of a pile of photos suggesting it is happening? Have you suddenly got religion or something?’
Hilda met Hades glare evenly and unfalteringly.
‘Wait a minute!’ Hades swivelled on his heel and marched back to his head of research, whose frantic scrabbling had uncovered a pair of legs, which he was now tugging with all his might.
‘Pickles! You said “normally”,’ accused Hades.
‘Yes, sir, I did,’ the scientist agreed between tugs and plumes of dust.
‘You said, “underpants don’t grow on trees”.’
‘I did, sir. You said you wanted me to say that.’
‘And then you added “normally”.’
‘I did, Sir Hades.’
‘And why did you add “normally”?’
‘Because that’s the case, sir. Underwear doesn’t grow on trees, normally.’
‘Not normally. But you said “normally” quite clearly, which suggests to me that this case is lacking normality.’
‘That’s right, sir. You said you wanted me to say “underpants don’t grow on trees”, and I said that. Was there something wrong with the way that I said it, perhaps?’
‘There was indeed. The what was wrong with the way you said it was the “normally” you appended to it.’
‘Do you want me to say it again without the “normally”?’
‘No, blither it! I want you to explain why you had to add “normally” to the “underpants don’t grow on trees” as if in this case they were.’
‘Ah, well, normally, I would agree that underpants don’t grow on trees, but in this case, it looks like they might be.’
‘Dammit, that’s what Hilda said too.’
‘Er, has Ms Titanium seen the photos?’
‘Yes, she showed them to me.’
‘Ah, well it might not be a coincidence then that they look to her like the underwear might be growing on the trees, as it does to me.’
Hades looked furiously from Pickles to Hilda and back again. ‘Well, would you like to tell me why you think something is the case that can’t possibly be the case?’
Hilda and the scientist exchanged glances. Or the scientist exchanged looks with the implacable face of Hilda’s burqa, while Hilda offered Pickles a view of the photos on the tablet.
‘Well,’ began Pickles, ‘if this clothing is indeed growing on trees in a manner inconsistent with what we understand about clothing, then I would say they’ve had some help.’
‘Had some help?’
‘It probably isn’t a natural phenomenon,’ said Hilda. ‘Underpants have not been observed growing on trees in nature.’
‘Yes, I bloody well know that! That’s what I have been saying! Now tell, me, if underpants don’t grow on trees why do you think these are?’
‘They appear to be on stalks, Hades, and attached to the branches.’
‘And you can see,’ added Pickles, ‘by their odd shape and size, some seem to be in the process of forming.’
‘Appear to be? Seem to be? Aren’t you two sure of anything?’
‘Well, no, Hades of course not. Clothes are just not supposed to grow on trees.’
‘Now you’re going round in circles. Why am I listening to you?’
‘Because,’ said Hilda firmly, ‘Whatever the truth behind these photos, there’s something odd going on with underpants, and anything to do with underpants is of extreme interest to us. And the odder it is, the more of interest it is.’
‘Suppose,’ said Pickles, ‘someone really had learned to grow pants on trees. Think what it might do to your business.’
‘Exactly,’ continued Hilda. ‘Uncountable hours of research and development go into Hades undies — the technology, the fibres, the applications, the design, the marketing, the manufacture, the distribution … Now imagine a world in which when you want clean underthings, you just lean out the window and snip them off a tree.’
Hades looked grim. His face darkened.
The scientist took up the story. ‘And if these pants are not growing on trees, then someone somewhere has gone to a lot of effort to make it appear they are. Thousands of acres of lavishly festooned trees is not the product of an idle whim. No one got out of bed one morning and suddenly decided to kill an hour or two by creating massive orchards and draping millions of pairs of underthings on them.’
‘Very well,’ announced Hades. ‘You have my attention. Where are these trees exactly?’
‘Well, that’s another odd thing,’ said Hilda. ‘They appear to be in Antarctica.’
‘Antarctica?’ asked Hades.
‘Antarctica,’ confirmed Hilda.
‘Antarctica?’ Pickles wanted to know.
‘Antarctica,’ Hilda insisted.
‘What, you mean the Antarctica at the bottom of the world?’ asked Hades with no little incredulity.
‘The same Antarctica,’ assented Hilda.
‘The Antarctica that’s a barren wilderness of snow, ice, the coldest temperatures on Earth and homeland of the penguins?’ asked Pickles with no little incredulity of his own.
‘Yes, that Antarctica,’ said Hilda with only quite a lot of impatience in her voice.
‘But that’s impossible,’ said Hades. ‘Trees couldn’t grow there. They need sunlight, and rain and fertile soil, and insects to do the pollinating and general mollycoddling by nature. They don’t need an environment that is completely inimical to any kind life other than the short, black and white, comically waddling kind.’
‘Yes, it would be impossible, normally.’
‘So that’s two impossible things you are asking me to accept before elevenses.’
‘Well, it seems that whoever arranged for these trees to grow clothes has also created a very local, very artificial environment right there in the snowy wastes. Presumably in order to grow these trees,’ Hilda told them.
‘Greenhouses, you mean,’ said Pickles. ‘A geodesic dome of some sort.’
‘No. I mean a local, artificially maintained climate in the open air. Where all around you have the snowy wastes we associate with the bottom of the world, we can clearly see in these satellite photos a large green valley that can only be described as verdant and idyllic and there is absolutely no indication of how this was done.’
‘But —’ said Pickles.
‘Oh. Artificial environment, is it? In the middle of an icy wasteland? That would explain it.’ said Hades. ‘Fair dos.’
‘But —’ said Pickles, whose scientific curiosity had been thoroughly aroused.
Hades was moving on. ‘We now need a course of action,’ he said in a decisive and action-oriented tone.
‘But —’ said Pickles.
Hilda was moving right along with him. ‘Well, I think it’s our priority to investigate and find out just what is going on with these things.’
‘But —’ said Pickles even as he realised he now had to move along too. ‘I can help you out with that. Us boffins can get down to analysing the pictures and see what we can infer from them.’
‘We can try to get better pictures, but … isn’t that right, Hades.’
Hilda and Hades had worked together a great many years and knew what the other was thinking.
‘We need people sniffing around these pants. Properly,’ said Hades. ‘We need some hands-on investigation of these undies. We need to do a bit of snooping. And I know just the man for the job.’
‘Not you, Hades,’ said Hilda quickly, anticipating her boss’s next move.
‘Why ever not? If you want something done properly, do it yourself. And can you think of anyone more qualified than me to go sniffing around suspect pants?’
‘It’s far too risky,’ said Hilda. ‘Imagine you were caught with your hands in someone else’s undies. The scandal would be too horrible to contemplate.’
‘You do have a point. What do you suggest? We use Dr Pickles here?’
The scientist gulped and paled under his covering of soot.
‘You would know funny undies if you saw them,’ Hades reasoned.
‘I don’t think so, Hades. Imagine if Dr Pickles were caught. We need plausible deniability. You wouldn’t need a scientist to figure out that this man works for you. He is the lead scientist in your rather famous research and development division.’
‘We could fire you first, then send you out snooping, couldn’t we Pickles? Wouldn’t work for us then.’
‘Or,’ pressed Hilda, ‘we could use a third party. Someone less easy to connect to us.’
‘The Pope,’ suggested Pickles eager to deflect discussion of his own involvement and employment status.
‘The Pope? Why the Pope?’ asked Hades, utterly baffled.
‘Do you have any connection with him?’
‘Well, there you are, he can’t be traced back to you.’
‘How about,’ said Hades carefully, ‘Maul and Flay?’
‘Maul and Flay?’ asked the scientist.
‘Yes, Maul and Flay.’
‘Are you seriously suggesting Maul and Flay?’ You could hear Hilda’s hands on her hips under her burqa in her tone of voice.
‘Maul and Flay?’ asked the boffin again, hoping someone would fill him in.
‘Jeremy Maul and Davinia Flay,’ obliged Hilda, ‘are a pair of fixers of dubious morality and improbable provenance who specialise in doings of doubtful legality — and by Maul’s preference, involving bodily excretions. Hades used to use them for all sorts of sensitive jobs that involved skullduggery and violence.’
‘Used to use them?’ asked the scientist picking up on the past tense.
‘Until they crossed Hades and kidnapped his daughter Victoria, that is. Twice.’
Hades scowled horribly at the mention of this episode. Maul and Flay having kidnapped Victoria, then managed to lose her into the hands of various unsavoury people, none of whom had his daughter’s best interests at heart. She had been spirited across the planet and into outer space and back again before he caught up with her. In the process the world had nearly come to an end through nuclear war and a stolen alien spaceship. Hades’ retribution had been emphatic. He doubted Maul or Flay would cross him again, not that they could do so much as make a cup of tea where he had them.
‘Tenacious people,’ mused the scientist, his analytical skills going to work on the story. ‘But it sounds like they have a known connection to you. If they were caught wouldn’t it rather give things away? And if they kidnapped Victoria, one would wonder whether they currently have any working limbs or any other viable faculties left to use on this task.’
‘Well, there’s the cunning of it,’ Hades explained. ‘No one would think I had hired a pair of incompetent losers to do another job for me after the unholy screw up they created in kidnapping Victoria not once but twice.’
‘But how can you trust them?’ asked the scientist reasonably.
‘Because,’ answered Hilda, catching the thread, ‘They owe Hades big time, and if they screw him over a second time, they know what will happen to them.’
‘Sounds nice and idiot proof,’ said the scientist.
‘And, as an added incentive, this job will be their only way out of the cryonic chambers I stored them in after they messed up the last time.’
‘Well, if that’s settled, I’d like to get back to pulling my colleague out of the rubble. It seems a long time since I started.’ The scientist gestured at the legs in the improbably bright socks sticking out of the pile of smashed masonry and tortured metal.
‘Be my guest,’ said Hades, ‘but I do believe that’s a crash test dummy you’re trying to rescue. You might leave him there. They rather enjoy being in dire straights, you know, crash test dummies. Gives their lives meaning.’
Lights flickered grudgingly on in the long concrete tunnels under Porton Down. Metal doors clanged irritably. Chains and locks rattled irritatingly. The sound of feet echoed aggravatingly.
Hades, Hilda and a retinue of burly armed guards and scrawny scientists armed with tablets and laptops made their way to the cryonic storage facility, which was in the deepest, bunker-iest bit of Porton Down’s underground bunker system. They paused before the biggest set of steel doors yet, which opened with more clangs and rattles than any other and entered the cryo-chamber itself.
The cryo-chamber was science so much at the cutting edge, touching anything inside could draw blood. Here boffins with domed heads had created a science fiction fantasy. In this chamber, deep under the downy green hills of Wiltshire, and only here under the downy, green hills of Wiltshire, existed the capacity to freeze humans into a state of suspended animation for as long as you wanted and then revive them, bringing them back just as they were before freezing, only perhaps in need of a good hot mug of cocoa.
The terribly top secret facility had been secretly built decades before by the army. It was so secret it didn’t officially exist.
On completion of the elaborate and mind-bogglingly expensive facility, the prime minister had been delighted. What a feather in Britain’s cap! What an achievement! What god-like powers, the ability to bring people back from near death (having frozen them into that state first)!
Surrounded by the finest military and scientific brains of the nation in his top-secret war room, the PM bashed the top-secret conference table in triumph. ‘Just think of the applications!’ he boomed.
No one could.
‘I thought we might use it to send astronauts on impossibly long space voyages, to other solar systems and what not,’ suggested the chief of the space agency.
‘Brilliant!’ boomed the PM, who liked booming and was good at it.
‘But it turned out not to be feasible.’
‘Why ever not? This is technology way ahead of our time.’
‘We can’t get Wiltshire into a spaceship,’ explained the man.
‘Can’t really afford any spaceships,’ chipped in the chancellor of the exchequer, ‘of Wiltshire-bearing capacity or otherwise.’
Porton Down’s cryo-chamber was put on ice.
Eventually, it found a function as a store for the cabinet’s emergency reserves of ice cream, which, because of the impenetrable secrecy of the place, went uneaten until Hades bought Porton Down from a cash-strapped government, thereby saving the country from bankruptcy again, and discovered and scoffed the stash himself.
While the government of the UK had never found a use for these fiendishly clever devices that could freeze whole people without killing them and then revive them any time, Hades had.
It was a discreet place to stash inconvenient people until they became convenient. And stash more ice cream out of sight of nagging doctor and wife.
The wall of the circular chamber was composed floor to ceiling of silver, metallic doors. Serried ranks of trunk freezers filled the floor space. Monitor screens glowed coldly like the icy life they were watching. Hades always thought it was like a branch of Iceland where the customers rather than the food were kept in the freezers.
The duty technician, whose name was Perseverance Popsicle, sprang to her feet, administrative tablet held in her hands like a weapon at port.
‘Sir Hades, sir.’
‘At ease, Popsicle. How are our patients doing? Are they ready for thawing? Get these fish out of the freezer, then, shall we?’
‘Sir,’ asked the technician. ‘Are you absolutely sure you want these two out of here? There is a jolly good reason you incarcerated them in the first place.’
‘Yes, I am absolutely sure,’ said Hades trying to sound patient and failing. ‘As I seem to have to keep explaining to people, Maul and Flay will have had it frozen into their brains that they won’t cross me.’
‘Very well, Sir Hades.’ Popsicle led Hades and his entourage to a large chest freezer.
‘And this is Davinia Flay,’ she announced.
‘I know I’m not a techie, said Hilda Titanium, ‘and I wouldn’t presume to comment on your job, but Flay’s cryo-thing doesn’t seem to be turned on. I mean, the computer screen is showing her vitals and an inside temperature of -273 degrees centigrade — more or less absolute zero — but the plug for the freezer is out of the wall and on the floor.
‘Good Lord, so it is,’ put in Hades.
‘Quite so, Ms Titanium. You would make a fine scientist, because your powers of observation are acute. You are right. The cryonic mechanism is indeed disabled. A very interesting case, Davinia Flay, from a scientific point of view.’
‘Leaving the freezer unplugged is interesting from a scientific point of view?’
‘It most certainly is,’ confirmed Dr Popsicle. We have not needed at any point to actually freeze Davinia Flay, and yet the temperature has been consistently near absolute zero since we locked her in there. We sedated her and placed her in the cryopod, in the usual way. We sealed the chamber following the established procedures and protocols, but before we could initiate the freezing process, ie, plug it in, we noticed the temperature plummeting. Within minutes it hit this absolute temperature. And there it stayed.’
‘Good Lord, what’s that about? Is there a Nobel Prize in this for someone? A new market in thermals?’
‘It seems, Sir Hades, that the temperature fall was entirely a product of Ms Flay’s personality. So utterly devoid of charm, compassion, love or any kind of human feeling, so utterly lacking in anything we might describe as warmth, and with the absolute insulation of the chamber, she killed all the latent heat energy in the molecules of the air in the chamber and put herself into cryonic suspension with no help from us.’
‘Good Lord,’ said Hades, showing no signs of boredom with repeating the expostulation. ‘And what happens when we open the chamber?’
‘She gets up and gets out, I suppose. And then asks for a nice hot mug of cocoa. That’s what usually happens.’
‘And what about Maul? Anything unusual there? Did he freeze his box too?’ asked the ever-alert Hilda.
Popsicle led them to another chest freezer.
‘Well, yes, in fact, Maul is an odd case too.’
‘We didn’t need a scientist to tell us that,’ chortled Hades.
‘Did he freeze himself?’ asked Hilda.
‘Not at all,’ said the techie. ‘We put him under in the usual way, but … well, put it this way. He seems to be a restless sleeper. There have been lots of alpha waves — associated with consciousness — and some distinctly odd noises. We were tempted to infer that he didn’t enter a state of suspended animation. But at these temperatures and under general anaesthetic that is of course, impossible.’
‘It is impossible, so it didn’t happen even though it seemed to.’ Hades scratched his head. ‘Where have I heard that before?’
‘Well,’ said Hilda brightly before cognitive dissonance could cause her boss’s head to explode. ‘Shall we get on with the job in hand?’
‘Indeed,’ agreed Hades. ‘I must say I’m rather looking forward to seeing these two chumps agree to do anything for me rather than go back in the freezer.’
‘If you think I am going to do just anything for you as a condition for being let out of this box, you can just close the lid and leave me here until doomsday,’ said Davinia Flay as soon as her chamber was opened.
She lay in a billowing eiderdown of frozen gasses, like a snow queen. Her eyes had opened, blue and icy, as the lid of the chamber swung up. She took in Hades and his party and she had spoken. Her voice sent shivers up and down the spines of everyone more than the icy gasses that escaped.
‘Oh,’ said Hades. ‘Fair enough.’ He turned and strode over to Maul’s chamber. ‘I expect that means Maul will get the whole fee for the job.’
He glanced round. Flay was out and standing by the chamber.
‘But I will get out to suit my own purposes.’
‘That’s the spirit!’ enthused Hades.
‘Would you like your hot cocoa now?’ asked Popsicle.
Flay looked at her as if she were mad.
‘I’ll take a vodka. Neat. Frozen.’
‘That’s the other spirit!’ quipped Hades.
‘I think we have one of those keeping at just the right temperature in one of the cryopods,’ chirped Popsicle, delighted at her own unintended foresight in keeping Stoli at two degrees kelvin and cold enough to freeze the gates of Hell, should the need arise, as it just had.
‘Right. And now for Ms Flay’s partner in diabolic scheming, Mr Jeremy Maul.’
‘Is it strictly necessary to let Maul out?’ asked Flay.
Hades drummed his fingers on the top of the chrome casket and thought about it. ‘See your point. But sadly, yes. I mean, who is going to do the dirty work? The truly dirty, vile, rolling-in-poo dirty work? Who’s going to immerse themselves in the ordure and actually relish it? Who’s going to do that stuff so you don’t have to? Who is going to do the things you’re too cool to do?’
‘The question was rhetorical. Nevertheless, someone had better top up my glass before you let young master Jeremy out — no top it up with the whole bottle. Use that crystal vase there as a glass.’
Hades broke the seal on the chamber and the lid whumped open. A terrible stench escaped. A green stench of rotting, and every foul thing that can come out of a human body, and every foul thing that can come out of a warthog’s body, and every foul gas that might emit from a fermenting whale as it explodes. And there was Maul, all green and blotchy and in only his underpants. The interior of the chamber had suffered massive trauma and was mostly wreckage.
‘Oi!’ said Maul, ‘You’re letting a draft in.’
‘Emergency clean up in Chamber 23,’ ordered Popsicle into her intercom between heaves and gags.
‘Good grief! What happened to you? What happened to the inside of the chamber? What happened to your clothes?’ demanded Hades.
‘I ate them,’ said Maul petulantly.
‘The insulation on the inside of the chamber too?’ asked Hilda incredulously.
‘I was hungry. No one left any food in here. Once I’d finished my bogies I had to eat my pubes. When the pubes had gone, I had to eat my nails. Once they were gone, the clothes had to go. After the clothes there was nothing but the insulation. I was planning on my legs next. I was quite looking forward to them.’
The clean up crew arrived with steam hoses and the kind of industrial detergents used for breaking up the most stubborn, toxic and massive of oil slicks. Maul howled in protest. ‘Oi! I’d just got this place comfortable!’
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