Skye jumps back, grabs my reins and pulls me out of the way just in time as, with another loud grinding moan, a circle of grass and soil lifts out of the ground on hydraulic pistons. A hiss of steam adds to the desperately creepy effect. Gears clank, and the high-tech trapdoor slides out of sight under the stack of bales.
Skye and I creep nearer and peer down the resulting hole. Moonlight gleams on metal; a thin ladder extends down a two-metre drop that ends on a smooth, tiled floor. It’s a hole designed for humans.
“Well, this could pose a problem,” says Skye. “At least the lab worker wasn’t lying about the combination.”
Well done, I say, shaking a little. How am I getting down there?
Skye looks at me with a familiar laugh in her dark brown eyes. “I guess there are advantages to being a tiny little pony.”
She checks her spy watch and nods. “We take this passage.” Testing the ladder carefully with her weight, she climbs down into the hole. Something beeps loudly beside her and she spins around, furiously typing into a keypad that slid out of the wall with disconcerting silence. “Alarm disabled,” Skye says smugly. She peers into the tunnel. “Looks clear. Come on, Firn.”
Do you think there are guards? I ask timidly, shuffling closer to the hole. It looks like an awfully big drop.
“It’s the biggest laboratory in the world dedicated to species manipulation,” says Skye, “which is both illegal worldwide and top secret. No, I don’t think there will be any guards.”
You are one sarcastic horse, I tell her.
“Stop stalling and come down. It’s not too steep a drop. You’ll be fine.”
I might squash you.
“Firn Hyde, you’re twelve hands tall. You’re not big enough to squash anything.”
I take a deep breath, close my eyes tightly and jump. I feel the sides of the tunnel scrape against my sides and desperately stretch out my front legs; the tiles are hard and I feel them jar all the way up my shoulders, and I nearly fall. Just keeping on my feet, I clatter a few steps down the tunnel and then stand still, shivering.
Extending straight ahead of me, passages leading off to either side, the tunnel is so small that I hear my stirrups clanging on either side of me. A strange blue light seeps out of the walls, which seem to be made of a cross between glass and metal, and the tiled floor is laid out so straight that it makes my eyes water.
Skye pulls a lever behind me and I hear the trapdoor clank shut, but I don’t dare look behind me. My heart is pounding; I can feel it in my hooves and the tips of my ears. The walls and ceiling seem to constrict as I look at them, ready to crush me and swallow me down like the gullet of some enormous python.
“Whew,” says Skye, and I nearly kick out when I feel her hand on my rump, stopping myself just in time.
Skye takes a deep, fluttering breath. “I’m not,” she says, and I believe her. “Can’t be worse than a horsebox, can it?”
Horseboxes are that bad?
With my wide range of equine vision, I can see almost directly behind me, and Skye’s hand flicks into my sight as she waves it dismissively. “Don’t worry about it. Now let’s move before the guards find us and turn us into frogs or something. Go straight ahead; thirteenth door on the right. What’s with these people and thirteen?”
I have no idea, but it creeps me out, so I nervously count my way down the doors until we reach number thirteen, which I seriously don’t like the look of. There is no sound except for our breathing as we look at the arched double doors, sitting flush against the wall, the insignia of a dramatically muscular centaur etched into the door. A red light glows like a staring eye on the wall.
“What’s that?” Skye whispers, pointing at the centaur. “It looks like something half man, half horse.”
I shiver. Maybe that’s what these scientists are trying to create.
We give each other a nervous glance, but Skye doesn’t seem daunted. She never does. Setting her jaw, she looks down at her spy watch and taps the touch screen, bringing up the recording of the lab worker’s voice. I jump when his low, gravelly voice speaks suddenly in the corridor. “Luther Hansen,” it rumbles, and the red light above the door turns green. “Move!” hisses Skye, and we both jump back and pin ourselves against the wall on either side of the door as it soundlessly glides open.
What now? I ask.
Skye looks me firmly in the eye and squares her shoulders. I almost snort at how blunt and abrupt equine body language is in a human frame; you really do need ears to speak it properly. I get the message, though, and stay where I am, hardly daring to breathe as Skye peers cautiously through the door. Her face goes white, but she gestures to me and slips through the door.
Flinching at every ring of my hooves on the tiles, I nervously clop through the door after her. The sight of the lab beyond freezes me where I stand. We’re on a railed walkway that stretches across a huge room cut into the earth, all white and blue, the centaur insignia everywhere. Looking over the rails, shivering at the height, I see that the creepy blue light illuminates rows of lab workers in white coats, gloves and masks; robotic machines move with oiled smoothness over petri dishes and glass vials. It’s eerily silent but for the humming machines and the workers’ feet padding across the floor.
The smells are terrible. Chemicals, technology, disinfectant – there are so many that I can barely even detect the warm whiff of humans.
Skye prods me in the shoulder, making me jump, and points down the walkway. I look and my heart rate shoots up. Guards. Dressed in the standard sci-fi armoured unitards, with helmets and machine guns, they stand at the other end of the walkway; only two of them, but I’m guessing those machine guns could out-shoot Skye’s 9mm without even trying.
They haven’t spotted us, though. They stand beside the door on the other end of the room, preoccupied with talking in low tones on their spy watches, which double as walkie-talkies. Skye glances around, measuring up our chances of escape, but we have nowhere to go except forward at the guards or back into the tunnel.
What will we do? What will we DO? My screams are silent, but desperate.
“Stay calm,” Skye says under her breath, much too quiet for any human to hear, but crystal clear to my equine ears. “Our best chance is to go for them. They’ll be surprised.” She takes a deep breath and pulls the 9mm out of its holster on her hip.
What are you going to do? I ask.
“I can’t just wound them. They’ll raise the alarm.” Sweat trickles down Skye’s face; she only ever sweats under pressure. “We’re going to have to get there and knock them out. I don’t want to kill anyone. Come. But quietly.”
I shuffle along as quietly as a horse on a tiled floor can possibly go, heart pounding. Skye, gun aimed, creeps at my side. My hooves sound so loud that I’m amazed they don’t bring the walkway down, but I remind myself that human senses would struggle to even pick up the sound.
Then the guards turn around and everything happens at once.
As Skye jerks up her gun, the doors behind the two guards slide open and a chestnut horse catapults onto the walkway, dragging three more guards on the ropes attached to his halter. I whinny and slam my shoulder into Skye’s body, making her stagger off balance; the bullet she fired that would have gone through the guard and into the horse shoots up and hits the wall instead, making one of the creepy lights explode in a shower of blue sparks. There’s a loud crack and the lights all go out. I freeze, shocked, and Skye slams into me, pushing at my side with all her might.
“Move, Firn, move!” she yelps, and I stagger sideways just in time as bullets rain onto the floor where we were a split second ago. My eyes have adjusted to the darkness, equine senses leaching enough light from Skye’s spy watch and the muzzle flashes of the machine guns. I see the chestnut horse on his hindlegs, straining against the one remaining rope that holds him; two of the guards lie unconscious on the floor, one hanging onto him, the other two shooting at us with everything they’ve got.
“I can’t see to shoot!” Skye gasps in desperation.
She can’t see my body language, so I have to neigh. Don’t! You’ll hit the horse!
“We’ll be killed!” Skye grabs my reins and hauls me aside; dust sprays against my legs from the bullets raining into the floor. We have nowhere to run; the doors behind us won’t work without electricity; bullets are everywhere.
The chestnut horse explodes. He whips around, locks his jaws around the shoulder of the guard holding him, and spins, throwing the man over the rails. Free at last, he charges. The guards don’t see him coming before he rears and comes down hooves first on one of the guards. The other stops firing and spins to face him, in time to receive two back hooves in the stomach. The horse’s ferocious kick sends the guard skidding across the floor.
After the roaring gunfire, the silence makes my head ring.
The chestnut horse shakes himself and trots over to us, ropes trailing from his halter. Skye raises her gun suspiciously. “Who are you?” she demands.
Someone who just saved your life, says the chestnut horse, giving her a flat-eared look. I study him curiously. Sleek and leggy, like an Arabian, he has a wide white blaze that goes over both eyes, making them blue. Recognition makes me squeal involuntarily with joy.
The horse turns to me. Only one human I know would turn into a twelve-hand Shetland pony.
I prance a little circle around him, too excited to stand still. B. C.! How did you get here?
My best buddy B. C. looks down happily at me. Quite a long way down; he’s about sixteen-two, a good four and a half hands taller than I am. I could run underneath his belly.
Kidnapped, he said. Like hundreds of others.
“Who’s this?” Skye demands.
Oh, you know B. C., Skye! He visited us, remember? And fell in love with Arwen?
Skye stares at him. “You’re the dude that Arwen is besotted with?”
B. C. pricks his ears. Arwen is besotted with me?
“You haven’t heard her yet,” says Skye, rolling her eyes.
Can we talk about this some other time? I ask. We have people to rescue. And the guards are going to wake up any minute.
“She’s right, for a change,” says Skye. “What do you know about this place? Where are the others?”
Wait! I squeak. Don’t make him part of this, Skye. He should get out of here before he gets hurt.
Skye and B. C. exchange exasperated glances. Here she goes again, says B. C. Skye sighs in agreement.
I’m serious! I say.
I know, says B. C. But do you really think I’m going to let you carry on by yourselves? It’s dangerous, Firn. And you’re a girl. Filly. Whatever. I’m right behind you.
Using you as a shield, we chorus, and both burst out laughing at the same moment, with silent, equine laughter. Great minds think alike, we chorus again and go into soundless hysterics.
Skye rolls her eyes. “I give up on you two. Come on. This way. We can walk and talk.” She switches on the torch of her spy watch, which cuts a thin white gash in the darkness, steps over an unconscious guard and walks towards the open doors.