Authors: Roderick Gordon,Brian Williams
“You can really hear all that?” Will asked quietly.
“Sure. And as for my eyes, I can put up with sunlight, but only for limited stretches.”
“Me, too,” Will muttered.
Sweeney looked at him with incomprehension before continuing. “The real downside, though, is that anything with a current can play havoc with the circuitry in my bonce. So I’ve no choice but to live completely without power here in my cottage. I burn oil for the little light I need, and cook on a woodstove. Sometimes I feel like I’m back in the flipping Middle Ages.”
“And don’t try playing hide-and-seek with Sparks — he’ll beat you hands down,” Drake advised with a grin as he tried to lighten the mood. “He can locate you just by your breathing.”
“Come on, I let you win every now and then.” Sweeney let out a low, booming laugh, then swung his huge arm around Drake’s shoulders and squeezed him so hard his feet left the ground. Releasing Drake, Sweeney then leaned in toward him. “You and I need to talk,” he said, flicking his outlandish eyes in Will and Chester’s direction. “Very nice to meet you, lads.”
“I’ll see you two back at the car,” Drake said, and the boys set off up the incline, leaving him alone with Sweeney.
Once Drake had rejoined them, it was Chester’s turn at the wheel. When Will figured they had driven far enough that Sweeney wouldn’t be able to eavesdrop, he asked, “Can’t all the stuff in his head be taken out, so he’s normal again?”
“Maybe, but he didn’t want them tampering with his brain a second time. Yanking out the wires after so long might cause all sorts of problems,” Drake answered, glancing over his shoulder at Will. “Sparks is pretty highly strung and can get a bit crotchety at times. But he’ll be very useful to us if I can persuade him to go operational again.”
Will made a face. “Just as long as he’s on our side.”
Drake nodded. “Know what you mean. And in a way, he’s similar to your mother — with both of them on the team, we’ll have the next best thing to a Styx radar. All of which is rather apposite, considering who we’re seeing next.”
“And who’s that?” Will asked.
“Professor Danforth,” Drake replied. “He worked in defense electronics, in areas like low-level radar and fail-safes for nuclear weaponry. Now he just potters around at home. . . . Well, sort of. The Prof is the cleverest man I’ve ever known — an out-and-out genius.” Drake gestured at the last building in the row. “Stop over there.”
As the Land Rover ground to a halt, Will glanced at the rather twee cottage with its hanging baskets of red and yellow primulas beside the door and windows.
“Anything we need to know,” Chester asked as they got out and began toward the cottage, “before we meet him?”
“Not particularly — he’s pretty harmless, but he’s got a hang-up about being touched. Thinks he might catch something,” Drake said, going to the front door and placing his palm over what appeared to be a glass panel set into its surface. With a series of solid clunks, bolts retracted in the frame, and the door swung open.
As they entered the brightly lit interior, the boys were at once struck by the contrast with Sweeney’s cottage. The interior was warm and dry, and the walls were a dark yellow and hung with fussy little watercolors of rural scenes. More pictures were arranged on the mantelpiece above the fireplace, and the Georgian furniture in the room was so highly waxed, it shone.
A man rose from an armchair. Sporting a pair of thick spectacles, he was neatly turned out in a russet-colored waistcoat and fawn trousers. He’d been working on something by the light from the window, and placed it on the table beside his chair before he came over. He was birdlike in his movements and his shoulders stooped. He resembled some ancient uncle.
Drake towered over the diminutive man as the two faced each other. “After all these years, your palm scanner still works like a dream,” Drake said, holding his hand up and spreading his fingers as if the gesture were some form of special greeting between them. “And you left my imprint in the system.”
“Of course — unlike your father, I never believed anything untoward had befallen you. I knew you’d be back with us one day,” Danforth said, adding with a chuckle, “The devil looks after his own.” He turned away from Drake. “And these are the boys he mentioned. . . . I mean Parry, not the devil — although I sometimes ask myself if they’re one and the same.”
He focused on Will through his pebble-thick spectacles. “Albinism . . . so you’ll be Will Burrows . . . yes . . .” The Professor’s gaze became distant as he recited, “
His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire
Then the full force of Danforth’s scrutiny was back on Will. “Albinism . . . aka achromia, achromasia, or achromatosis. Occurrence about one in seventeen thousand, a recessive inherited genetic condition,” he said, the words pouring out in an uninterrupted gush.
“Er . . . hello,” Will mumbled when the Professor finally fell silent, more than a little taken aback by all the attention he was receiving. Will automatically offered the man his hand, but Danforth immediately retreated a step, muttering what sounded like “Egg . . . breaking my egg.” He cleared his throat at great volume and switched his attention to Chester. “And you’ll be Rawls. Good, good.”
Annoyed with himself that he’d forgotten Drake’s advice about the Professor’s dislike of physical contact, Will was examining what the man had been working on when they’d entered. Laid out on a small cushion some ten inches square was a piece of lace, with many bobbins dangling from its sides. It was largely unfinished, but in the completed areas, Danforth had stitched the most involved and intricate geometric patterns.
“An anachronism, I know, but it assists my mental processes,” the Professor explained, noticing Will’s interest. “I find that cogitation is a largely preconscious activity.”
As Will nodded back at him, Danforth flicked his eyes in Drake’s direction. “I taught this whippersnapper everything he knows. Tutored him in basic electronics when he still couldn’t tie his own shoelaces. I took him on as my apprentice.”
“Merlin’s apprentice,” Drake said, an affectionate smile on his face. “How could I forget; we began with a cat’s-whisker radio when I was three or four, then quickly progressed to robotics and exploding drones.”
“Exploding drones?” Chester inquired.
“Remote-controlled airplanes to military spec, which carried our home-made explosives,” Drake replied. “Parry put a stop to our test flights on the estate when one crashed into the greenhouse and nearly blew Old Wilkie’s head off.”
The Professor twitched impatiently as if all this had begun to bore him. “Yes, well, I received your package with the components and the drawings. Fascinating stuff, I must say.” He removed his glasses and began to polish them with an obsessive thoroughness. The mannerism was so familiar to Will that he nearly gasped; it struck him that there was much about Danforth that was reminiscent of Dr. Burrows, Will’s late father. And the similarity wasn’t lost on Chester, who seemed to pick up on it at the same time. Catching Will’s eye, he gave him a small nod.
Danforth was in full flow, as if he’d launched into a lecture. “The Styx — by pursuing a parallel evolutionary course to us with their scientific development — have come up with some truly groundbreaking technology. Their accomplishments in both subsonics and mind control are something the U.S. military were frantically trying to develop in the sixties. And, I can tell you, the Americans would pay a pretty penny to get their h —”
get anywhere with the Dark Light?” Drake interrupted.
“Did I get anywhere?” the Professor said as if Drake’s question were an affront. “What do you think? Step this way.” In his strange gait, he hopped toward the rear wall of the room, where there was a bookcase and — as Drake had done when he placed his hand on the scanner outside — Danforth now pressed his palm against what appeared to be an ordinary mirror. The middle section of the bookcase clicked and swung open, revealing a hidden room.
“I swear it’s
,” Chester whispered irreverently to Will as they all followed Danforth into the room, which, from floor to ceiling, was filled with electronic equipment. A bewildering array of lights blinked on and off in different sequences on the various units.
But they clearly weren’t stopping there, as the Professor headed for a set of narrow wooden stairs in the corner, at the top of which Will and Chester found themselves in a long attic. At more than a hundred feet from end to end, it evidently ran the full length of the row of cottages and, again, was filled with equipment, although much of this was obscured by dust sheets. Beyond some test benches, at the very end of the attic, was a metal chair bolted to the floor. As Danforth reached it, he wheeled a trolley into view, on which were many boxes of electronics.
The Professor hit a switch, and a green line skittered across a small circular display, settling down into an undulating sine wave. Then he held up what was evidently some form of harness for a head, with two pads to cover the eyes, and numerous wires connecting it to the equipment on the trolley.
“Did I get anywhere?” Danforth said once again with indignation, waving the device in front of Drake. “Of course I did. Here’s what you asked for — an antidote to the Dark Light.” He pressed a switch on the back of the harness, and with a hum the eye pads began to glow an intense purple. As Danforth turned with the harness still in his hands, Will caught sight of the purple light. He felt a prickling behind his eyes, then a rapid swell of pressure as if something — a traction beam — was trying to drag both his eyeballs from their sockets.
He let out an involuntary breath and staggered back. He’d only caught the briefest glimpse of the light, but it was as though the spiked ball of energy had pushed its way inside his cranium again. “No,” he grunted, overwhelmed by a welter of unwanted memories of the Dark Light sessions that the Styx had put him through when he and Chester had been imprisoned in the Hold.
After he recovered, he found Drake was watching him. “It affected you, too?” Drake asked.
As Will swallowed a “Yes” in response, Danforth was making a trilling noise. “Good, good. It’s far more potent than the Styx’s efforts,” he said, sounding delighted.
Keeping his eyes shielded from the glowing pads on the headset, Drake addressed Danforth. “So you’re saying this apparatus will purge anyone who’s been Darklit?”
“Theoretically, yes,” Danforth replied as he turned the headset off. “The ancillary sensors take a reading of the subject’s normalized alpha brain activity,” he said, glancing at the green wave flowing across the small screen. “Then I employ a feedback loop to erase anything extraneous — anything extra the Styx might have implanted.”
“And you’re sure it works?” Drake asked. “Without any unwelcome side effects? No memory loss or mental impairment of any kind?”
The Professor gave an impatient sigh. “Yes, according to my calculations, it’ll work. And when have I ever been wrong?”
“I suppose there’s only one way to find out,” Drake decided on the spot. Shrugging off his jacket and dropping it on the floor, he immediately climbed into the chair. “Let’s do it.”
Will and Chester were flabbergasted. “Drake, do you really think this is such a good —?” Chester began.
Drake cut across him. “How else can we tell if it works? We can hardly test it out on a rabbit, can we?”
“But we could try it on Bartleby first,” Will suggested. “He was Darklit, too.”
Danforth had no time for such objections. Gingerly proffering the harness to Chester because he didn’t want the boy too near him, he inclined his head toward Drake. “Put this on him. Make sure the sensors are fixed firmly on the temples or the readings won’t be reliable,” the man ordered.
“OK,” Chester agreed reluctantly. He seated the harness on Drake’s bald scalp while Danforth made adjustments to the controls on the boxes of electronics.
“Help, will you?” the Professor snapped at Will. “Strap him in. Make sure he’s buckled tight.”
Will looked at Chester with a blank expression, then he did as he’d been told, making sure Drake’s arms and legs were secured to the chair by the various straps.
There was a moment of silence as the Professor made the last adjustments. Again it struck Will how much like his dead father the scientist was �� it didn’t seem to matter to him one jot that there was a person in the chair who, if the process backfired, could be hurt. And, more than this, Danforth had known Drake from the time he was a child, and had evidently had a huge influence on him. Drake’s specialization in optoelectronics and his time studying it at university must have arisen from Danforth’s influence, and yet the Professor was only interested in finding out if his contraption worked. Dr. Burrows had been the same, sacrificing anything and anyone around him if it was necessary in his quest for knowledge and discovery.
“All systems go,” Danforth announced, clicking a switch. For several seconds nothing happened. Drake remained still in the chair, his eyes covered by the pads.
Will’s anger and resentment grew to the point that he felt like punching Danforth. He wanted to call a stop to the proceedings and free Drake from the chair, but then the birdlike man spoke.