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Over the Top Secret - Chapter 20
AKA Out Snooping, Call Back Later
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Start at the beginning (Prologue - AKA Mission Report)
Read the previous chapter (Chapter 19 - AKA Into the Dungeon)
Read the next chapter (Chapter 21 - AKA Oh Rats!)
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The narrow winding cobblestone steps lead deeper underground. I move slowly, trying not to make too much noise with my footsteps, holding my torch a foot in front of me. I really hope the old lady didn’t hear all the raucous earlier. Maybe I should have gone back and found Eric before coming down here all by myself? I press my lips together in silent disapproval of myself. Oh well, too late for well-made plans and all that.
The bottom of the stairwell opens up into an ample dome-shaped cavernous space, ripe with the pungent smell of sewage. Holding back a gag, I pinch my nose for support. The pathway continues forward, turning into a narrow bridge slick with water from the pounding waterfall of sewage to the left.
It doesn’t look like there are any other paths, so I reluctantly step forward onto the bridge of poo.
Halfway across the bridge, a river of sewage snakes its way down a cobblestone sidewalk and out of sight into the darkness. Tied to a heavy-looking rock just at the edge of the obscurity floats a silver deck boat, minus the overhead covering.
Without slipping, I manage to make it to the end of the bridge, where my torch illuminates another rusted iron gate like the ones in the dungeon (that’s what I’ve decided to call it).
The handle sits next to a button pad identical to the one from my cell. And just like the one from my cell, this one looks like it’s lost its electrical charge, too. The power outage must have unlocked everything— it’s probably best to hurry before the power returns, I tell myself.
Yet I can’t seem to make myself grab hold of the crap-covered handle. I take a deep breath, pull my sleeve over my hand, and quickly pull open the door, trying to avoid as much fecal matter on my hands as possible.
The gate leads to a long, dark chamber, luckily with no sewage waterfalls (though, my nose wouldn’t know the difference based on smell alone). I step forward, right into a foot of slimy liquid. I yelp, dropping my torch into the liquid with a significant sizzle. Holding my breath and praying the sound didn’t make its way to the old lady and the doctor, I take a step back onto the cobblestone sidewalk behind me.
Crap! That’s precisely what I stepped in. A small little stream of crap. I try not to throw up in my mouth.
My eyes adjust to the darkness, and soon I can see a dim fluorescent light coming from the end of the hallway. Occasionally, a shadow flicks by.
I’m not alone.
A sick feeling grows in my stomach, and I try not to think about dying down here in this creepy sewage hellhole.
Sticking to the sidewalk, I keep my hands on the bumpy wall behind me, sidestepping toward the light and careful not to splash in the center stream. My thumb slides across a bump in the stones. I scrutinize it, my eyes once again adjusting to the intense darkness, and I realize it’s a plaque.
If my French is correct, it says, “Water Breath.” There’s a dome-shaped cutout in the stone wall just behind it, so I peer inside.
A giant fish tank sits in the center of the small cutout. It’s very similar to the one that was across from my jail cell earlier, but half the size. Lining the walls are black filing cabinets, topped with piles and piles of books. I step closer to read the titles. They’re all in French, of course, but the general theme seems to be fishing. Behind the tank sits a desk with a very outdated desktop computer attached to a bundle of wires leading out of the room.
This little domed room seems like an office of sorts.
A loud ZZZ echoes down the hall. Above, a fluorescent light flickers on and off, blinding me temporarily. Must have been another power surge. I get the feeling I should hurry up with my snooping.
I step back out into the hallway again, head toward the end of the tunnel, and pass by another cutout.
The plaque on the entrance to the room reads “No Electrocute.” Probably not that exactly, but it’s what I interpret the French as. A medium-sized rubber box with electrodes extending from it sits on a tire in the middle of the otherwise empty room, save for the piles of French books on electrocution that line the walls. Yeah, definitely not “no” electrocute.
I step back out into the hallway, thinking about what these clues could mean. My eyes adjust to the darkness a bit more, and that’s when I notice multiple other domed cutouts in the hallway.
Snap! The Backup could be in any one of them.
Time to take this snooping thing seriously.
I peer into each of the domed offices as I make my way toward the end of the tunnel, taking in as much as I can and storing it for future reference, just in case I do make it out alive.
The next little domed room is called “Animals.” It contains miniature cages full of different kinds of creatures, mostly moths, lizards, rats, and dead birds. Multiple cages are empty, and my heart drops when I notice a hamster wheel, unmoving in solitude.
The office after that is labeled, “X-Ray Vision.” Inside are tons of x-rays of what looks like arms with multiple bones extending from a single joint, hands with too many fingers, and a handful of human bone structures that don’t look very human to me. More books on bones, growth, eyesight, and night vision. But no Backup.
I pass another room called “Regrowth” full of images and, you guessed it, more books on anatomy and the human body. Hand scrawled notes on the epidermis, boxes of shed skin from both snakes, and what is labeled as “human.” I shiver and move on.
I keep moving, past multiple domed offices labeled “Fire Expel,” “Weather Control,” “Sickness Dispel,” “Mind Influence,” and “Take Flight.” Glancing in each room, it appears the one thing they have in common are the stacks of books and the old computers connected to some sort of shared power source. And a lack of T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T. Backups.
The second to last room in the hallway is larger than the others. It’s full to the brim with piles of clothes, tools, backpacks, and other random kinds of junk. Upon closer inspection, it appears a lot of this stuff seems to be handmade tools put together from technological devices throughout the last ten years. iPods connected to floppy disks, metal helmets welded to kitchen supplies, wires protruding from things I doubt conduct electricity.
What’s even more bothersome than the mismatched tools is that none of them appear to be labeled. They’re all thrown into hills of more crap (thankfully not the human kind). Perhaps they are discarded experiments. But what about all the clothes and backpacks?
Something glitters in the flicker of fluorescent light down the hall. I step closer—it’s a silver T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T. pen!
It’s sitting on top of a pile of soiled clothes, alongside another silver T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T. pen and my T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T. cell phone. What is our stuff doing here? Did the old lady take it from me when she knocked me out, and then drop it in a collective pile of crap? I find myself feeling slightly offended that she’d consider anything of mine to be “crap,” especially considering her fashion choices.
I check the signal on the phone—none. There will be no calling Eric or Simon for help.
How many pens did I have to begin with? Did the old lady steal any? Has she realized they belong to T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T.?
But there’s another question that bothers me more than the rest.
Where is my fanny pack?
Do not cry, I tell myself. It’s here somewhere, and so is The Backup. Stay focused, Julie!
I shove the two pens and the cell phone into my jean pockets and continue on to the next area. The shuffling sounds of footsteps and muttering echo toward me, growing louder as I near the end of the hallway.
The last hallway cutout is square-shaped and contains a bunch of books, a scanner, and what looks like some kind of computer engine, but there’s no monitor. I use my phone’s flashlight to scan the area, and it seems like your typical “office.” Manila folders overflowing with loose-leaf papers sit on top of the cabinet, which is missing a few drawers. Twenty or so piles of books, DVDs, and even old cassette tapes sit on the desk.
Briefly scanning, I manage to make out a few of the French book titles: “How to Instill Fear in Others While Maintaining Respect,” “The Evil Villain’s Guide to a Balanced Life,” and “How to Succeed in Evil Without Really Trying.” There are DVDs and even old cassette tapes about “The Art of Persuasion,” “When to Run and When to Fight,” “How to Stay Strong, Mentally and Physically,” “Flight and Aviation— Helicopter Edition.” There are even cookbooks and high-school chemistry books.
Whoever this Evil Villain is, he’s loaded with all sorts of information. I’ve got to give it to him, he’s done his homework. I briefly wonder whether I’d make a good Evil Villain, given my propensity for studying. I shake the thought off. Focus, Julie. Save the world.
I check over my shoulder to make sure the coast is clear before looking through the pile of manila folders. I find photos from inside real human bodies, lined up next to cell counts and different stats. These subjects were apparently being tracked as they entered different stages of experimentation. I flip through more and more of these case files until I recognize the Asian girl who was in the cage next to me.
“Cellular Regulation for Extreme Temperatures.” I flashback to her body with the goosebumps and then the sweating. The file contains information about a doohickey that you stick in someone’s chest. I can’t quite make out the French scrawl, but it seems to be an effort to regulate the temperature in extreme conditions.
I realize the people in the dungeon aren’t just prisoners, they’re lab rats.
My morbid curiosity propels me to keep digging. Photos of people with gills, people with exploded eyeballs, people with giant bags under their eyes and veins popping out of their heads. Each file is labeled a failure.
I turn away, sick to my stomach. I need to get out of here before this creepy man turns me into another one of his unsuccessful experiments.
As I head for the exit, I trip on something— the missing filing cabinets (damn disorganization)— and make a loud crash as I stumble onto the floor. My tumble sends a pile of books scraping across the stone ground. Crap. I quickly re-assemble them (unable to leave a mess in my wake) and head for the hallway. As I do, I step on a small black journal on the sidewalk. Shoot, I missed one.
I reach down to pick it up and notice an old piece of paper protruding from the journal. A heavy feeling in my gut tells me it’s significant.
My heart races. Someone yells an unintelligible curse from around the corner, and I recognize the clacking of Chantal’s footsteps heading my way.
Without thinking, I dart into the hallway, grab the journal, jump over the stream of poop, and race into one of the domed cutouts on the other side of the alleyway.
It takes a ton of energy to calm my breathing, but I manage to do it while Chantal races past. She places a pair of sunglasses on her face (why sunglasses in this dark tunnel?) and then taps a button on the side.
The high-pitched whine of battery-operated mechanics initiates a green light in her glasses. She sniffs the humid air like a search dog and takes a step forward, right into the little stream of sewer water.
“Ack!” She shakes her soaked heel and continues forward, muttering something I can’t quite make out.
I wait for her to pass with bated breath. Luckily, she keeps her eyes on the other side of the hallway. When she’s out of sight, I angle the black journal toward the dim light at the end of the hall and flip through the pages.
The thing that stands out most is a large black sheet of paper— like one of those cheap bookmarks you get at the Scholastic book fair. Except this one doesn’t have smiling faces or encouraging phrases.
It’s entirely black, save for a logo in the center— an image of green snakes all slithering in between each other, intertwined and hissing, forming the shape of a sphere. The moment I see this image, I half expect to be triggered by The McGuffin. After all, it seems the sort of mysterious thing that might send an international database of secrets into a frenzy.
But the only thing that’s triggered in me is a massive sense of dread.
Whatever this symbol means, it can’t be good. Perhaps The McGuffin hasn’t been exposed to this symbol before. I flip the bookmark over. The back is entirely black, except for a single line of text that matches the green of the snake symbol. It reads, “You’re invited.”
For whatever reason, I decide to fold the paper and slip it into my pocket. Then, I quietly flip through the pages of the journal, knowing full well that Chantal is still sniffing for me somewhere in these dark tunnels, and if her nose is anywhere as strong as her muscles, it doesn’t look too good for me.
The interior flap of the journal says, “This book belongs to:” and on the dotted line is a tiny signature stating, “Dr. Souris.” Seems a little odd for an Evil Villain to call himself “Dr. Mouse.” Then again, he did choose the sewers as his hiding spot.
My eyes quickly scan each page as I flip through the tiny black notebook. The pages begin as an accumulation of little scribbled doodles that all seem to be of the inner workings of mechanical devices, paired with phrases like “increase flux capacity” and “reverse polarity.” However, not a single page mentions anything about The McGuffin or T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T.
As I continue through the pages, they become more and more populated with paragraphs of scribbled text. My quickly scanning eyes pick up bits of familiar French vocabulary, but Dr. Souris’ scrawl is so messy I can’t make anything out. I flip another page, almost deciding this is a waste of time before the next journal entry catches my eye.
It’s three lines of text are written in a much less hasty scrawl, and I can actually read the heading.
“An Invitation to the Rest of My Life”
“It has finally come! My golden opportunity to impress The N.E.S.T. is here, and I shall not waste it. I am already formulating an army of possibilities in my mind. I must get to work if I am to become a Python.”
Okay, so he’s big on snake talk. Must be a Slytherin. I read on…
“Eager to begin experimentation with my new batch of subjects. The cafe provides a perfect abduction location, as I am not seen, and the subjects are rarely prepared for a fight. Tourists turned out to be an interesting and varied selection, perfect for preliminary testing. Off to a great start. I have begun administering small doses of strength serum into a frail woman with similar muscular makeup to my own. If this results in the outcome I anticipate, my chances of winning the competition increase tenfold. Must initiate simultaneous testing to be ready by deadline. Hopefully, the woman will prove to be a helpful assistant.”
That explains Chantal, then.
“Money, time, and subjects. Three things I am in desperate need of! Not one of my subjects has responded positively. Half of the subjects have died, and the other half are either insane or unresponsive. Time is still running out. N.E.S.T. has complicated things immensely with their latest update. There is nothing but problems on the horizon. If I cannot make this work, I fear this chance may be lost to me.”
“Today marks the first successful execution of my strength serum. The old woman has responded positively. She almost succeeded in ripping my arm off, which might have worried me if it weren’t an accident. The woman calls herself Chantal and is surprisingly eager to please me. However, I attribute this to her spiking hormone levels— an unexpected result of the serum, but hardly an issue. More promising is subject three thirty-three.
Though horribly disfigured and terribly close to death, he has continued to adapt to each upgrade I administer. I can test multiple updates at once without a loss of brain functionality. Though, I don’t believe there was much of that to begin with.”
Something about that last entry makes me think of Greyson. I shiver at the possibility that he could still be out there somewhere, or more likely down here somewhere. Shake it off, Julie.
“Time is Running Out”
“I’ve used all my funds in creating these experiments. I must find a solution to my problem before I lose power. If only I were already a member of The N.E.S.T. I wish I didn’t have to waste time proving myself through such barbaric a system. I must hold on to the dream— when I become a Python, my problems will dissolve, and I will have access to all the laboratory equipment and testing subjects I could ever want. I must not fail.
Should it come to it, I would even use my last resort.”
The rest of the pages are empty. I close the book, my mind racing with an entirely new batch of questions. What’s The N.E.S.T., and what is their competition for? Why didn’t Dr. Souris mention anything about The McGuffin or The Backup?
Re-examining the last entry, it becomes apparent the numbers are dates, and the previous entry is marked March 12th— two days before Spring Break. Maybe that’s when he got the brilliant idea to hack The Backup. But how would stealing The McGuffin help him with his horrific science experiments?
My thoughts are cut short by the loud BUZZING and RINGING of my cell phone! My heartrate hikes and my breath cuts short as I fumble for the phone in my fanny pack, it’s ring echoing through the tunnels.
There’s no way Chantal didn’t hear that.
I pull the phone out of the pack, its LED screen blinding me momentarily, to see Simon Zedler’s name. How in the world did he manage to get signal down here? I answer in a hushed tone, trying to hide the brightness of the screen by hunching over against the wall.
“Simon! I’m so glad to hear from you, you have to help me! I’m—”
“Julie! You’ll never believe what I discovered! After our last mishap at The Safe House, I got to thinking about alternative methods—”
“Simon? Simon!” He can’t hear me.
“—and, well, without boring you with all my science talk, let’s just say I’ve been monitoring your brain patterns remotely, and I’ve discovered you have a capacity for even more information than that which The McGuffin contains!” He lets out a childlike giggle, revealing his actual age, which is perhaps even more frightening than all his science talk. A teenager holds my fate in his hands.
Then again, I’ve got the world’s fate in mine.
Guess I shouldn’t be one to judge.
He pauses for a moment. “Julie? Julie, are you there?”
“It seems the signal is poor. Where are you now?”
“I’m underground somewhere— you have to tell Eric—”
“Since you can’t hear me, I’ll just tell you not to be alarmed. I’m fully confident this next test will be a success.”
“Please, not another test!”
“You did say not to use needles!”
“Send help! There are prisoners down here and some kind of evil experimentation—”
From out of the shadows, a wrinkly, bony hand snatches my wrist, and long red nails dig into my skin.
“Found you, little mouse,” the raspy old woman’s voice grates my ears. She rips my phone out of my hand and crumples it in her iron grip like the whole thing was made of dust. Her wicked grin is extra off-putting in the dim green glow of her night vision goggles as she says, “You’re in trouble.”
I about pee myself.