The driver hit the curve far too fast, but the handling of the car was more than adequate to cope with it. He braked at the last minute and swung the car round the bend. Had anything been coming in the opposite direction, he would have hit them head on, but this time at least, they were lucky. Over the past four years, Ben had travelled along these winding mountain roads many times a day, going back and forth to the laboratory from the home he had in town.
His driver, Stefan, had been bringing him along this route for the last eighteen months, and as usual, they were late. It had become a running joke with the rest of the team. Weren't teenagers supposed to spend all day in bed, moaning and complaining when asked to get up and get washed? Though he was far from a typical teenager, Ben liked his bed and every morning was a struggle.
Had he always been that way? Sometimes he struggled to remember what he did yesterday, the days blurring together as his great project moved forwards. At other times he could picture every detail in his mind, imagining that he could reach out and touch it. It had been almost three months since he had last seen his parents, but he could still picture every line on their faces, the slight limp his father now had when he walked, the tear in his mother's eye when he left for the departure gate at Heathrow.
Ben had first come to the attention of Excelsior Technologies at the age of five. They were responsible for pioneering new educational modules at his primary school, making everything computerised as part of a government pilot scheme. Whilst other children in his class were learning how to spell cat and dog, Ben somehow managed to hack and rewrite part of the code to allow him access to the internet. The techs thought it must have been some sort of fluke, until he did it again on request and explained where the errors in the code were.
By age six he was solving complex equations and reading everything he could get his hands on about physics and mathematics. Soon afterwards his parents were 'asked' to take him out of school, and that was when Excelsior stepped in with their fully funded private education package.
How exciting it had all seemed in the beginning, meeting professors and scientists, playing games that Ben later learned were detailed tests of his abilities. By age eight he could solve problems faster than any supercomputer, and at nine he had rewritten some of the foundations of quantum mechanics.
He was still living at home with his parents at that time. It seemed like he had met scientists and researchers from half the world, and words like savant or prodigy were often mentioned, though it meant little to him. He just liked the numbers, they made everything make sense. Then Excelsior had suggested that there was little more he could learn in England, but they had a shiny new research and development division being built in Europe. Ben jumped at the chance, he could finally bring the theories of his equations into reality. He hadn't realised at the time what the consequences would be.
At first his parents were coming with him, of course they were. On the day of the flight everything was packed and he was rearing to go. They were each allowed two cases and everything else would follow in the coming weeks. As long as he had his laptop and access to the internet, Ben needed little else. Then something happened at the airport. Passport and visa problems the official said. His dad was surprised, but said it would all be sorted in a day or two and he would follow on then. His mum would be there so that was okay.
Then two days after that his aunt fell sick. His mother had to return home straight away, the doctors didn't think that she would last the weekend. Sadly it turned out that they were right. Then there had been the accident after the funeral, shattering his father's leg and putting his mother in intensive care for a week.
The suits from Excelsior were all very sorry. They put him on the first flight back to London, sending Andre along with him to take care of him. Andre had been his first driver.
He had taken him straight to the hospital as soon as the plane had landed. His mother was still unconscious but his father was waiting for him, his leg in plaster with metal pins sticking out in all directions. He cried and hugged his father, swearing that he would never leave him or his mother again, his father insisting the same.
Then the nurse took him to see his mother and Andre stayed with his father. He wasn't allowed into the room, but he stood outside the window staring at the lifeless body of his mother, surrounded by tubes and machines. He could still see it now, every detail with pinpoint accuracy. He felt like he stood there for hours, but it was only minutes before the nurse returned him to his father.
His father was crying again, but he seemed different. He told Ben that they couldn't care for him whilst they were in hospital. He had to go with Andre, back to the airport and they would be together soon. Ben sobbed and held his father tightly until finally his father pushed him away whilst trying to hold back great heaving sobs of his own.
He had seen less and less of them since then. The last time had been for his fifteenth birthday. His mother looked so thin now and his father just looked lost, broken. He hadn't realised it for a long time but now he knew. He wasn't theirs any more, he belonged to Excelsior.
They dressed it up with empty promises and extravagant luxury. He lived in a big house with a heated pool and massive television. Every games console and game that was available. The best food. The constant presence of Andre. He had managed to get away from the house twice but they found him within hours. There was woodland surrounding the house for as far as the eye could see, but both times he found the helicopter hovering over him, blowing dirt and leaves in his face.
After the second time Andre had just disappeared, replaced with the straight backed, stern faced Stefan. The rest, as they say, is history.
The car turned off the road onto a dirt track leading further into the mountain, throwing up a cloud of dust and loose stones behind it. As it braked in front of the concealed doors to the research laboratory, the cloud of dust seemed to catch up with the car, engulfing it in a murky greyness, and then slowly dissipating to coat the vehicle in its fine layer of dust, dimming the once bright shine of the cars paintwork.
As he watched, a large section of the mountain moved slowly into the ground in front of the car, destroying the almost perfect illusion of natural rock. The pager all employees carried triggered the doorway, and Stefan's was currently attached to his belt.
The rock face was designed to move when a pager was within five metres of the doorway on either side, and close when out of range. Much to his disappointment, Ben wasn't allowed a pager of his own.
Stefan pulled the car into its allocated parking space at the far end of the cavern, and as they approached the lift, activated the car alarm with a beep.
The holding area was the uppermost portion of the laboratory, a natural cavern sixty metres at it’s highest, and the starting point for the remainder of the excavation. It had been reinforced with beams and panels of titanium steel designed to withstand a direct nuclear assault. In case of an emergency, two helicopters and an armoured all terrain vehicle dwarfed the expensive cars belonging to the lab’s employees.
A solitary lift shaft led down to the next level of the lab, where security ensured that there would be no unwelcome visitors, and from there the rest of the lab could be reached. A central stairwell gave access to the habitat and laboratory levels, with the self-sustaining nuclear reactor a distance below them. The stores held enough food and supplies to keep the lab’s occupants alive for twenty years or more, without them ever having to leave the complex, while the reactor could continue to provide power and purified water for as long as anyone required it.
Ben stopped in front of the elevator and waited. Above the elevator was the next part of the laboratory's security system, after the hidden door. The camera had a wide view of the entire cavern, equipped with an infra red filter to compensate for the low light levels in much of the cavern. Whirring as it moved to focus on the much closer targets, the camera looked Ben and Stefan up and down before opening the elevator doors and allowing them access. Like the rest of the cavern, the elevator was designed to withstand a colossal explosion and still not permit access to the lower levels. With no panel with which to call the lift, the only way to gain entry was if the lift was sent to you by someone from down below.
As the camera finished its downward sweep over Ben's body, he heard the hydraulic hiss as the elevator doors opened in front of him. The rear wall of the elevator bore the logo of the Excelsior group. The symbol was a sword crossed by a lightning bolt. This was the first indication as to who owned the laboratory, though on the lower levels, the emblem was to be found almost everywhere.
Ben turned to face the doors as they closed, and went again through the mental check list in his head. Today was to be the day when he would get the chance to test all of his radical theories, but as the lift descended, Ben thought more about the security systems and construction of the laboratory. Were they merely just to protect the lab from the outside world, or did the outside world need some protection? If he was right in his theories, Ben's work would no doubt change the world for ever, but if it went wrong?
Brushing his hair through with his hands, Ben stepped through the lift door as it opened, into the shiny metallic corridor beyond. About two metres away, a table obstructed half of the corridor, behind which sat Adam Lucas. He lowered his firearm and moved his hand away from the alarm switch as Ben smiled at him. Stefan glared as usual.
Adam was the stereotypical military type. Broad shoulders, square chin and a short shaved hair cut. He was also one of the nicest men Ben had ever met. Always quick to smile and offer a friendly greeting, Ben wondered how much he and the rest of team knew about the people they worked for. Adams granite face melted into a smile as Ben approached and picked up his security card to pin to his shirt.
"Morning, Ben,” Adam said as he handed Stefan his pass, “I hear today’s the big day? Everyone's been talking about it all morning, and here's you, late as usual"
"I bet if I got here on time, you'd think I was an imposter and lock the place down tight," Ben said with a laugh.
"You may have a point there,” Adam replied, “there was another email last week about corporate espionage. You sure you aren't James Bond in disguise?"
"That's me, shaken not stirred," Ben chuckled.
Stefan urged him forward as Adam flicked the switch for the lift door to close, not noticing as Stefan attached a small metal cylinder to the side of the desk. As Ben made his way around the security table he saw his car on the monitor screen, half-hidden in shadow. The infra-red image showed his car positively glowing compared to the rest of the vehicles. Exactly how long had some of his team been waiting for him?
“Good luck,” Adam called from behind him as they turned the corner.
The fluorescent lit corridor led to the stairwell, from which every other level of the complex could be reached. This was his domain and nothing Stefan could say or do could take away what he was about to achieve. Taking the steps two at a time, he soon passed the habitat level and was opening the door to the laboratory. The balcony on which he stood gave an overhead view of the banks of computers and the output of the particle accelerator beyond. The lab was a hive of activity, with people sat at computers, flicking switches and checking readouts while intermittently scratching their heads. Ben hurried down the last few stairs to his team below.
"About time. Have you any idea how long most of us have been waiting?" Klaus muttered as Ben took his place beside the main console. Klaus was the oldest of the team, a German professor of physics who was insanely jealous of Ben's position as head of the project. It was his work that had so intrigued Ben at age seven when he was soaking up every book and paper about physics that he could find. Klaus would always see it as his project, and he resented having a child coming in and telling him what to do.
"We had to stop for breakfast, you couldn't expect me to do this on an empty stomach could you?" Ben replied. Klaus grunted and turned to look back at the nearest row of computer screens.
"Ignore him, we're only just about ready to start anyway,” Susan said. “I've in-putted the refined equations and checked the seals on the coils. Are you sure about this? I mean, really sure?"
Susan pulled him over to one of the monitors so that he could check that all the equations were up and running correctly. She was the only other Brit on the team and keen to prove herself to Excelsior. She had a daughter two years younger than Ben and often seemed to mother him in front of the rest of the team.
"I've done everything I can think of. The only way we're ever going to know if this works is to try it," Ben replied. He chewed on his lower lip as he compared the equations on the screen to those in his head.
"I know,” Susan muttered. “It's just that playing with the laws of physics, well, kinda’ scares me."
There was a cough from the back of the room as someone called for silence. Susan squeezed Ben's hand before standing up straight herself.
“Ah, Benjamin, so good of you to join us,” Ezekiel Mustaine said as he stepped into the centre of the room. As usual, he was flanked by advisor's and personal assistants wearing suits that cost more than most peoples cars. Founder of Excelsior, advisor to governments and third richest man on the planet, Ben always wondered how much he knew about the actual running of the company. He was always friendly and keen to hear about progress, and he made a point of asking after his parents. Was it all a ruse or was someone else really pulling the strings?
“Ah, sorry Mr Mustaine, I think Stefan must have taken a wrong turn or something,” Ben replied, avoiding Stefan's glare.
“Well, no matter, no matter,” he continued. “Are we on schedule?”
Ben glanced over the equations again. “Yes, I mean I think so, Mr Mustaine,” Ben reassured him. “This screen monitors the flow of gravitons as they distort a localised area of space-time and tap into the energy of a pocket-universe.”
“Good, good,” he replied, nodding at the running equations as though they were pound signs. “I believe that you are going to make Excelsior an awful lot of money today my boy. Limitless free energy. We really will change the world!”
There was a half-hearted applause from the team before Ezekiel Mustaine turned and climbed the stairs to the observation room, his entourage in tow. Ben and Susan struggled to stifle a giggle.
Ben turned to look over the lab one more time, conscious that every eye in the room was on him. "Okay people, what are we waiting for,” he announced with a smile, “we should have got this started hours ago!"
People moved to monitors and consoles, pressing buttons and flicking switches as LED's lit up and screens flickered to life. He could hear the faint pulsating hum as the particle accelerator warmed up and started firing the matter through the two-mile long magnetised piping that surrounded the mountain.
"Magnetic couplings check out, particle speed ten to the seven and rising," Susan said to his right. Ben looked over to a monitor that depicted the eddy currents surrounding the particle accelerator. The hum increased in pitch as the speed of the particles increased. "Okay Ben,” she continued, “we're at optimum speed and everything checks out, ready to go when you are."
"Safety measures in place?" Ben asked.
"Check," Susan replied.
"Right then people, here we go,” Ben said, crossing his fingers behind his back. “Start the hydrogen infusion."
The pulse grew faster and the hum pitched even higher as the hydrogen was injected into the portion of the accelerator visible in the laboratory.
"Hydrogen at peak concentration, Ben,” Klaus told him. “Time to combine?"
“Just give me a second,” Ben said as he took one last look at Susan's monitor to reassure himself that everything was going to plan.
Taking a deep breath, he addressed the room as one. “Okay, combine it now.” The pulse reached maximum intensity as the particles were combined and the first subatomic particles were released. "Right, initiate the containment field.," Ben ordered.
It started with a speck of light and then the faintest blue swirls became visible beside the particle accelerator, winding around themselves to form the faintest outline of a sphere. Ben stepped around the consoles and approached it, being careful to stay within the safety zone. Slowly, the rest of the room came to stand at his side, watching open mouthed as the sphere grew, first to the size of a tennis ball, and then to the size of a football, still growing.
"What's the reading now?" Ben asked.
Klaus stepped back around to his monitor, holding his head in disbelief. "Gravitational distortion equivalent to two earth masses,” he said. “I can't believe it, it's stable. It's stable!" He turned his attention back to the growing sphere, now the size of a beach ball. "My God, I can't believe that it works."
Ben thought that there was the hint of laughter in the old man's voice, but as he and the rest of the team knew, Klaus had no sense of humour.
Within one year of Ben's arrival on the team, his theories had allowed the group to prove the existence of the graviton, the particle accelerator producing three conclusive graviton particles for one millionth of a second. The remainder of Ben's work had involved finding ways of harnessing graviton particles to create a stable artificial gravity well that could bend space-time and draw power from the pocket-universe. It had taken a further two years just to realise the means of producing gravitons in sufficient numbers, and then the last two years to devise and construct the containment field to stop the surrounding area imploding as the gravity well grew. Now he could be within a few meters of the gravity well without being torn apart.
Klaus looked down at the monitor. "Ben, gravity distortions at point nine solar masses,” he said. “Do you think we should start winding it down?"
"Is it still stable?" Ben asked.
"As far as the readings show, containment's still holding," Klaus replied.
Ben finally took the opportunity to exhale and allowed himself the time to fully appreciate the beauty of what he had created. Susan was first to start the applause, though soon the entire lab was aloud with clapping and cheers. The blue orb continued to swirl and pulse away behind them with its own mystic harmony.
Susan pulled him close and hugged him for all she was worth. “Now this is time to celebrate!” she announced as she presented him with a large bottle of champagne and a strip of plastic cups. “Care to do the honours?”
Ben accepted the bottle and shook it slightly before popping the cork, imitating sports stars all over the world. The white froth ran down his hands as everyone cheered again, gladly accepting a cup as they were passed around.
When everyone had their cup, there was a loud shout of cheers. However, before anyone was able to take a sip of the champagne, the upper doors to the laboratory were suddenly kicked open. They turned as one to see seven or eight men descend the stairs brandishing assault rifles. They were all dressed the same, entirely in black with balaclavas covering their faces. Before anyone had time to react, they were staring down the barrel of a gun.
No one spoke for what seemed like an eternity. The gunmen continued to point their weapons at the bewildered scientists, and the bewildered scientists passed terrified glances between themselves. It took the entrance of a third party to break the silence.
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen,” a man said from the top of the stairs. “Please relax. If you do as you are told, no one will get hurt.”
The man was dressed in a military uniform, but Ben didn’t recognise the rank or country. He stood at the top of the staircase, surveying the laboratory with calm precision, taking in every detail about the room around him. Just like everyone else in the room had done, his gaze lingered longest on the sphere.
When Stefan stepped forward, Ben thought he was going to help, wrestle the gun from one of the soldiers, save them all. It was when Stefan saluted the soldier and went to stand at his side that Ben realised all was lost.
“What's the meaning of...” Ezekiel managed to say before he was shot expertly between the eyes, his assistants running back towards the observation room.
The soldier cleared his throat. “Everyone here is alive by my will,” he bellowed, “and my will alone. My orders are to take this complex by any means necessary, and I fully intend to carry out my orders. I have no qualms about killing each and every one of you if you make me, so just bear that in mind.”
Everyone was silent, exchanging more furtive glances. It was Klaus who had the courage to speak up. “Who are you working for?” he asked. “What do you want?”
“That really doesn’t matter,” the soldier replied, “but let us just say that there are people who don’t like to see this sort of power in the private sector.” There was a faint murmuring from the team that was quickly silenced as the soldier descended the steps and moved towards the sphere.
It was then that Ben thought of Adam at the security desk. After four years of friendly greetings, he was probably his closest friend. “What, what happened to the guard at the desk?” he asked.
“He managed to wound two of my men before I killed him,” the soldier replied, his voice devoid of emotion.
Ben looked down at his feet, his anger growing. The thought of Adam’s body lying dead at the lift entrance made him sick. He looked back towards the soldier, meeting his gaze. “Look, you can’t just do this,” Ben demanded. “You can’t just walk into here and...”
There was a loud crack and the soldier’s chest blew outwards in a shower of blood and bones. Adam stepped through the doorway, pistol held loosely in his hand, his once clean white shirt now a dark shade of red. He was obviously weak, but he managed to squeeze off two more shots before the surprised gunmen finished him off. The gunmen reacted in accordance with their training, turning their weapons on the scientists and opening fire.
Susan pulled Ben to the ground as the bullets started flying. Monitors exploded and people were thrown in all directions as their bodies were torn apart. From his low vantage point, Ben saw most of the rear wall of the lab explode as bullets ripped through the housing of the particle accelerator, showering the survivors with rubble and twisted metal.
Ben was crawling toward the stairwell when a piece of the ceiling fell away from its supports, striking many of the gunmen who had begun to make their escape. Klaus was littered with bullets as the remaining gunmen fired wildly in all directions, not even looking for targets any more. Ben felt his shoulders being lifted off the ground as the floor where he was lying was also peppered with bullets that made an array of sparks as they struck.
Susan pushed him away from her as she was killed and Ben met the gaze of the gunman as he fell backwards, understanding for the first time what the whites of their eyes meant. It mere moments his life had changed irreparably, good friends lost forever and now he was set to join them. He felt nauseous, angry, terrified and a hundred other emotions all at once as the gunman turned the rifle towards him.
His life was spared as another explosion blew rubble in the direction of his assailant, causing him to shoot off target. Ben had the impression that he could actually see the bullets in flight, slowing down as they passed by the side of his head and then accelerating again. He made his way to the ground in slow motion, where he would no doubt be littered with bullets as everyone else had been.
An empty plastic cup flew past his head as the containment field began to fail and another explosion shook the laboratory. Ben had not realised how close he was to the sphere until he saw the blue radiance wash over his flailing arms, or maybe it was just that the sphere had grown in the last few moments since the containment field collapsed. In any case, it was no longer of any consequence to Ben.
As he fell into the blue light, he experienced the world around him expanding and contracting, the laboratory both exploding and imploding. The last thing he remembered seeing was a flash of light, and then the purest darkness.