“He’s what?” Mark demanded.
“Threatening to blow the door open with explosives,” Major Jones repeated. “I really think you should get over here, Commander. He’ll listen to you.”
“Okay.” Mark said. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” He stood up in the cockpit of the G-1 jet and waved to the technician. “Hey, Suzie! They need me over at Science Center. Sorry.” Mark braced a hand on the fuselage and vaulted out of the cockpit to drop and land lightly on the hangar floor below. “Gotta run!”
Center Neptune staff were used to seeing G-Force personnel running through the complex. Whether they were in battle gear or civilian dress, it was often said that G-Force seemed to have two speeds: stop and ‘whoosh!’ Mark was fortunately already on the hangar level and it didn’t take long for him to reach the airlock where the mini-subs were kept. An engineer waved him over to one of the tiny vessels with a thumbs-up. “It’s all prepped and ready to go, sir!” the engineer called out.
“Thanks!” Mark called back and jumped into the cockpit. The little sub rocked with the impact and Mark started the engine, then closed the canopy while the turbine spun up. He drummed his fingers against the console as he waited for the cabin pressure indicators to turn green, then engaged the drive and aimed the sub at the hatch. With the engines at full, it would take about five minutes to reach Center Neptune’s sister installation. Mark opened a channel on his communicator. “Zark, can you patch me through to Keyop?”
“I’m sorry, Commander,” 7-Zark-7 said. “Keyop’s communicator is off-line. It seems to have been rendered inoperative following exposure to some kind of chemicals in solution.”
“Okay. Let Major Jones know I’m en-route, and thanks for organising the sub.”
“My pleasure, Commander.”
The hangar staff at Science Center were ready and waiting to take the mini-sub in hand and allow Mark to sprint to the elevators and catch a ride up to level seventeen.
A number of people in lab coats and uniforms were clustered around the entrance to the Red Mist laboratory. Among their number were Captain Alban and Lieutenant Rossi from Chief Anderson’s security detail. The senior officer was tapping one foot impatiently against the antistatic vinyl flooring with an air of profound annoyance.
“Status report!” Mark demanded of the group in general.
Everyone turned to stare at him. The scientists and technicians hastily stepped aside to make room for the Gr09;Force Commander.
Shay Alban stepped forward and made an exasperated and helpless gesture with both hands. “Looks like your little buddy got bored, Commander,” she said.
Mark strode up to the sliding glass doors to the lab and surveyed the scene.
The normally clear glass panels were spattered with a reddish-looking film on the inside and the seam where the doors met in the middle had red bubbles oozing through. The bubbles appeared to have set solid but Mark wasn’t game to touch them with a bare hand.
Through the glass Mark could see the laboratory itself. The floor was also stained with the red material, the vinyl bubbled and distorted in places. More significantly, on the other side of the door was Keyop, messy and besmirched with streaks of bright candy colours. He was in the company of Security Chief David Anderson, who was wearing a lab coat over his suit and an expression of barely suppressed fury on his face. The other two occupants of the laboratory were Anderson’s security coordinator Major Alberta Jones and Lieutenant Josh Maxwell, another member of Anderson’s security detail. The security officers appeared somewhat anxious and were avoiding eye contact with their Chief of Staff.
Mark was fairly sure that it wouldn’t work, but as part of the process of elimination he pressed the face of his G-Force wrist-unit against the sensor plate. The lighting in the access panel flashed green and the door jerked, the motor made a grinding noise, and the light turned amber. The door shuddered slightly and was still. The access panel continued to flash amber.
Mark leaned against the glass, which was mercifully clean on his side. “Would someone like to tell me what happened?”
Keyop chirped and hiccoughed in his anxiety. “It was… accident!” Keyop stammered, his voice muffled by the doors. “Didn’t mean… to do it!”
“What exactly did you do?” Mark asked, keeping his voice level.
Keyop fidgeted and stared at his shoes. “Science… experiment.” He sniffled, seemingly on the verge of tears.
Mark glanced at Chief Anderson, who had removed his spectacles and was pinching the bridge of his nose with the thumb and forefinger of one hand.
The sound of running feet and rattling wheels preceded the arrival of a technician pushing a trolley bearing a large tea urn and a kettle. The spectators parted to let him through and he pushed the trolley up to the door. “This was all the hot water I could find, Major,” he gasped. Another technician hurried in from the opposite end of the corridor with a mop.
Major Jones approached the doors, carefully picking her way around the puddles of red on the floor. “Thank you,” she said. “I think it might be best if everyone except my officers were to leave now.” Jones’ tone left no room for argument and the laboratory staff quickly dispersed, leaving Mark with Shay Alban and Nino Rossi for company. At a signal from Alban, Rossi walked a short distance up the corridor and took up position while Alban went in the opposite direction, effectively cutting off the area to unwanted visitors.
Mark glanced at Anderson. “A science experiment?”
Anderson ventured closer to the doors in order to be heard. “It started out as popping candy and soda,” Anderson said, repositioning his spectacles on his face. “It seemed harmless enough, then while Doctor Collins was out of the lab and my back was turned, Keyop found a beaker of diluted Red Mist and thought it might be interesting to see what would happen when he added the popping candy. That on its own might not have been a problem if he hadn’t panicked when it reacted, knocked the beaker flying and stumbled into one of the emergency controls. Keyop somehow elbowed the ‘emergency containment’ button just as the beaker hit the doors. It turns out that when you mix Red Mist and popping candy, you get a really complex saccharide molecule which has remarkable holding properties when applied to laboratory doors. They’re glued shut.”
Inside the lab, Keyop hung his head.
Mark regarded his youngest team member for a moment. “And that was when you suggested blowing the doors open?” Mark asked.
“Zark says your transformer’s not working properly,” Mark recalled.
“Got… pop rocks and… soda in it,” Keyop mumbled, his words barely audible through the glass.
Mark glanced at the trolley. “So are you planning on making tea or is the hot water for the saccharide molecules?”
“I thought we might try dissolving the sticky stuff with it,” Jones ventured. “I’m no scientist, but ignorance got us into this mess, so I thought we might try using ignorance to get us out of it.”
“It makes a certain amount of sense,” Anderson conceded, folding his arms. “It probably won’t hurt,” he added.
“Okay,” Mark said. “Just how dangerous is this… stuff?” He waved a hand at the mess.
“Given that it’s got Red Mist in it,” Anderson said, with a quick nod toward the damaged linoleum floor, “I’d be inclined to recommend that you transmute.”
“Okay,” Mark said. He raised his left arm and took a breath. “Transmute!”
A moment later he was looking at the scene through the blue tint of his G-Force visor and picked up the kettle. Very carefully, Mark applied the spout of the kettle to the point where the doors joined in the middle. He dribbled hot water down the seam and with his other hand, attempted to wedge one blade of his sonic boomerang in to the gap in the hope that he might prise the doors apart.
“I think it’s working!” Mark said hopefully. The boomerang blade moved about ten millimetres in to the join and stopped. Mark paused in the application of hot water and stepped back out of the growing puddle of rapidly-cooling water on the floor, put the kettle back on the tray and applied the mop to get rid of the worst of the water, which had acquired a very faint pink tinge. He gave the doors an experimental shove. They didn’t move. Mark shrugged and made to move the boomerang again.
It wouldn’t budge.
“Uh-oh,” Mark said. He tapped the face of his communicator. “Zark, you got ears on?”
“Of course, Commander,” the robot replied.
“Do we have a steam cleaner in the lab section?”
“Naturally,” Zark said. “There are some laboratories where it’s extremely unwise to use chemicals of any kind –“
“Could you ask one of the cleaning bots to bring one to my location, please?”
“Affirmative. I’ll get on it right away!”
Mark closed the channel and stared at the boomerang for a moment. He took hold of it with both hands, braced one foot against the door and pulled.
When the robot cleaner arrived, it found the Commander of G-Force on the floor, holding his boomerang aloft in one hand.
“Mark!” Princess’ voice reached Mark as he picked himself up off the floor. “Are you okay?”
“Never better,” Mark said wryly. “At least I got my boomerang back.”
“Hoo boy,” Jason remarked. “Keyop’s literally stuck in the Red Mist lab?”
Mark shrugged at his colleagues, who had arrived in full battle gear. “Looks that way.”
“You requested a steam cleaner,” a squat robot intoned. It was similar in shape and size to 7-Zark-7 but was bright yellow and had six arms with various attachments. It was using one of them to tow a covered tank marked, ‘Water – Not for Drinking 50 L.’ A hose connected the robot to the tank.
From the other side of the doors, Keyop eyed the robot nervously. “Never… getting out of here!” he stammered miserably.
“Just stand back from the door,” Mark told him. “I’m going to try steaming it open.”
“Like… envelope?” Keyop asked.
“Yeah, like a giant envelope,” Mark said. “Okay…” he bent to read the robot’s nameplate, “Sanitation fifteen, do your thing.”
The robot approached the door and raised one of its arms. “Pressurising,” it announced. “Please remain clear of the area to be cleaned.”
A jet of steam burst forth from the nozzle at the end of the upraised arm and the robot applied the steam to the doors.
After a moment, it wielded another arm with what appeared to be a scraper at one end and attempted to prise the doors apart.
“Error,” it declared. “Error.”
“What’s wrong?” Mark asked.
“Error,” the robot repeated. “Technical assistance required. Error.”
Mark approached and gave the robotic arm a tug. “It’s stuck,” he said.
“Error,” the robot said. “Technical assistance required. Error.”
“Acknowledged,” Mark said. He stepped back and studied the situation for a moment. “I think we have a problem,” he said.
In the laboratory, Keyop burst into tears.
“Keyop!” Mark called out, feeling the first unwelcome stirrings of panic. “Keyop, we’ll get you out of here, I promise!”
“Hooooow?” Keyop wailed.
“Well…” Princess approached the door. “If hot water and steam weaken the polysaccharide structure enough to get a blade stuck, then it follows that if we increase the amount of steam, we might be able to weaken it enough to get the doors open.”
“Or,” Jason said, “we could let it cool and I could try drilling through.” He wielded his gun hopefully.
“I’d rather avoid damaging the doors if we can help it, Jason,” Mark said. “We’ll try Princess’ idea first. We’ll ask Zark to send us all the available cleaning units and hit the seal with as much steam as we can muster.”
Half an hour later, Mark found himself listening to an electronic chorus:
The four cleaning robots were all tugging at bladed arms which were stuck fast in the door seam. In the laboratory, Anderson was leaning back against a work bench with one hand over his eyes while the two security officers stared at the doors in dismay. Keyop was nowhere to be seen.
A familiar voice sounded from down the companionway. “Hey!”
Mark, Princess and Jason turned to see Tiny Harper strolling toward them carrying a bucket in each hand.
“Hi, Tiny,” Mark said. “We’re, uh… well…”
“Zark filled me in on it,” Tiny said. “I think I might have a solution to your problem.”
“You do?” Mark tried not to look surprised.
“Essentially, what you got here is burnt sugar, right?”
“Yeah,” Mark said. “We tried hot water, and that seemed to soften it up some, so then we tried steam, and the cleaning bots got stuck.”
“And what do you do if you get burnt sugar on the bottom of a pan?” Tiny prompted.
Mark, Princess and Jason exchanged blank looks.
“What did you have in mind, Tiny?” Mark asked.
“Bicarb and salt,” Tiny said.
“Oh,” Mark said. “Is that how you get burnt sugar off the bottom of a pan?”
“It’s one way.” Tiny held up one of the buckets and Mark peered inside to see a white paste and a spatula. “This stuff should help with the burnt sugar, and the Red Mist is designed to work in seawater, which is salty, and salt can also help with burnt sugar, so hopefully we’ll get a result. Then there’s this.” He held up the second bucket, which contained a plastic bottle marked, ‘Anchor brand white vinegar.’
Mark’s brow furrowed as he thought back to his high school chemistry classes. “What’s that going to do?” he asked.
“It should react with the bicarb,” Tiny said. He put the bucket with the vinegar down and pulled the spatula out of the other bucket. He stepped over to the door and squeezed through the little crowd of cleaning bots. “Can you guys budge over a little?” he asked.
The robots swivelled slightly on their wheels, managed to move about six inches each to clear a space and said, “Error.”
“That’s fine,” Tiny said and eased himself into the space. He began to use the spatula to work the paste into the door seam. “You know, I never expected to be doing this today,” he quipped.
“I just hope it works,” Mark said.
“Hey!” Tiny called out to his unseen colleague in the lab. “Don’t you go mixing any more popping candy with anything, you hear me?”
There was no reply.
“Go easy on him,” Mark said.
“Yeah, right,” Tiny said.
Once the sodium bicarbonate and salt paste had been worked the length of the door seam, Tiny emptied the contents of the vinegar bottle into the second bucket. One of the cleaning robots had recovered enough of its wits to begin pumping the vinegar into one of its arms and then into the door seam through a pressure nozzle without saying, “Error,” every few seconds.
A strong smell of vinegar permeated the air and the white paste turned to a pungent froth.
“Well there’s certainly something happening!” Mark observed.
“Apply the steam!” Tiny said and the other three robots complied. Tiny grabbed one side of the door. “Ready?”
Mark grabbed the other door. “Ready.”
“Heave ho!” Tiny said and both young men hauled with might and main.
The doors slid open, both Mark and Tiny lost their balance and fell backwards, and Jason and Princess leapt out of the way as the four robots shot across the corridor to bounce off the opposite wall, all declaring, “Error!”
“Whew!” Mark said and picked himself up off the floor. “Keyop! Get yourself out here! The doors are open!”
“Over… here!” Keyop chirped from behind Mark. The boy was besmirched with dust and smeared with candy.
Tiny stood up. “How’d you get over there?”
“Used… ventilation duct,” Keyop said. “Had to… remove grilles and… disable laser grid. Got out just now.”
“You…” Mark took a deep breath. “You got out via the ventilation duct?”
“Yeah.” Keyop’s shrug was all the more expressive for his gangly limbs and skinny shoulders.
Tiny lunged forward. “I’m gonna shove you back in the ventilation duct!” he growled.
Keyop spun and took to his heels.
“Error,” one of the cleaning robots said plaintively.
“You got that right,” Mark agreed.
Which was how popping candy was banned from Center Neptune and Science Center in perpetuity.