London. Admiralty Arch. Within sight of Buckingham Palace. The black ministerial Mercedes turned out of Trafalgar Square and purred smoothly to a halt. The driver leapt out, opened the passenger door, and snapped to careful attention as his passenger emerged.
David Sinclair had been Britain’s prime minister for less than twenty-four hours. Already he’d found something about the job that he didn’t like.
‘Why the hell don’t I know about this already?’ he asked, setting off for the Admiralty’s entrance without waiting. ‘Why wasn’t I told about this before?’
‘Because,’ said Dr Alice McKinsey behind him, for what had to be the thirtieth time at least, ‘it’s classified. What you’re about to see, Prime Minister,’ she added, only just catching up, ‘is the single most sensitive scientific project that the UK has ever been involved in. Only myself, my team, and a very select few others have the slightest idea of its existence. To keep it that way, it was decided early on that only the most powerful person in the land could ever be let in on the secret.’
She looked at the PM as she held the Admiralty’s door for him, waiting for the flattery to work its magic. David Sinclair was the third prime minister to discover what she’d been working on all these years: she was getting used to the breed and the way they operated. Sure enough, this one seemed no different.
‘I understand that, Dr McKinsey,’ said Sinclair. ‘There’s not much you need to tell me about national security, believe me. But I was expecting . . . I don’t know, key codes to our nuclear arsenal, access to special bunkers in case of attack, that sort of thing – not what you’ve been telling me. I mean,’ he added, his voice rising again, ‘it’s fantastic! You couldn’t make it up!’
‘One moment, Prime Minister,’ said Dr McKinsey. By now they had reached the life-size portrait of Winston Churchill that stood at the end of one of Admiralty Arch’s echoing passageways. Long years of habit made her check her surroundings before she touched a certain spot on the picture’s ornate gold frame.
‘Identify yourself, please,’ said a voice from Churchill’s mouth, making Mr Sinclair flinch.
Dr McKinsey leaned towards the painting. ‘Dr Alice McKinsey plus one. Password: Leviathan.’
‘Voice pattern accepted,’ Churchill announced. ‘Password verified. Stand by . . .’
Titanium bolts slid back in their sheaths with a sound like distant thunder. The painting swung forward to reveal a small room behind it, luxuriantly upholstered in comfortable-looking old red leather with thick pile carpet underfoot.
‘Shall we?’ asked Dr McKinsey.
‘After you,’ said Mr Sinclair.
Dr McKinsey pressed a button on the brass panel on the wall. Churchill’s portrait – now revealed as the front of a thirty-centimetre-thick door of what looked like solid steel – swung back into place. Then the lift began its descent.
‘How long has this project of yours been going on?’ asked Mr Sinclair. The acceleration was smooth, but he could feel they were travelling at high speed.
‘It was Stalin who gave Churchill the idea originally,’ said Dr McKinsey, glad of the rare chance to explain the history of her life’s work. ‘In 1926 a group of Russia’s top scientists were assigned to the task of producing a kind of “super-soldier”, bred and trained from birth to be incredibly strong, insensitive to pain, indifferent to what they ate – in other words, invincible. Imagine it, Prime Minister,’ she went on, her eyes lighting up as she warmed to her theme, ‘an entire army capable of marching for days on only the most minimal of supplies. Soldiers who could fight tirelessly and unstoppably without pain or fatigue. That was the original basis for our programme.’ She smiled.
‘So . . . this creature,’ said Mr Sinclair. ‘Are you saying it was once . . . a man?’
‘No, no,’ said Dr McKinsey. ‘Stalin’s scientists experimented directly on living humans and animals, but since I came on board, we’ve never attempted anything like that here. What we’ve done instead is directly manipulate DNA – the building blocks of life – to create something completely new: a creature based on living, or once-living, things but that is in fact entirely different. Up until sixty-five million years ago, dinosaurs walked the earth. But while the superficial resemblance is definitely there, nothing like what you’re about to see has ever existed before.’
‘Indeed,’ said Mr Sinclair with a thin smile. He was perfectly certain that what Dr McKinsey was talking about couldn’t be even a quarter as impressive as she was making it out to be. Whatever trick she’d managed to pull on previous PMs to make them carry on providing such massive amounts of funding for her ludicrous scheme, it wasn’t going to work on him. But Dr McKinsey, for her part, had seen similar thoughts go through the minds of two of Mr Sinclair’s predecessors. She knew that the prime minister’s air of cynicism would vanish once he saw what she’d brought him here to see, so she wasn’t worried – not yet.
Seventy storeys below the centre of London, the lift slowed smoothly to a halt. The door opened, and Dr McKinsey watched Mr Sinclair’s expression carefully as he took in the scene beyond.
They were in a laboratory. It wasn’t the biggest laboratory in the world, but it was a decent size – six rows of long worktops filled with computers and equipment. Eighteen technicians stopped what they were doing and stood up – white coats rustling – to look in the prime minister’s direction.
But he wasn’t looking at them.
Mr Sinclair’s mouth had fallen open. Like a zombie, he shuffled forward straight past the lab and its contents while Dr McKinsey and her teams exchanged knowing smiles. When at last the prime minister reached the thirty-metre-long strip of reinforced glass that was the laboratory’s far wall, he stopped and stood there, gaping at what lay outside it.
‘It’s . . .’ he said finally, turning to Dr McKinsey and pointing at it. ‘It’s a monster. A giant monster. Here, under London.’
‘That would be one way to describe him, yes,’ Dr McKinsey answered. ‘But we call him something else. Prime Minster,’ she went on. ‘allow me to present the Tyrannosaur: Improved Model. Tim for short.’
Mr Sinclair just stared. What he was seeing seemed to stop at his eyeballs and go no further: his brain simply couldn’t take it in.
Beyond the glass lay a vast concrete chamber. The observation window where Dr McKinsey and the PM stood was about halfway up one of the smaller sides: the sheer drop into the colossal space outside the window was dizzying by itself. But the creature the chamber had been constructed to contain took up a full third of its volume.
It was a dinosaur – or it looked that way to Mr Sinclair’s eyes. The creature’s skin was grey-green and scaly; it had two hind legs, each one the size of a battleship, and a long and muscular tail. Its shoulders were surprisingly broad and powerful-looking; arms the girth of redwood trees led to huge hands with curving claws. The creature’s head alone, with its elongated jaws full of stalagmite-like teeth, was bigger than any living thing the prime minister had seen before this moment. A ridge of short bony plates led up along the creature’s tail and spine, culminating finally in a small lump on its bony forehead, a little above its eyes. The giant was lying on its side. Its eyes were closed. Its legs were drawn up; its arms were crossed on its chest; its sides heaved in and out colossally. Dimly, the prime minister began to be aware of how closely Dr McKinsey was watching him. He turned.
Dr McKinsey was more than seventy years old, but at that moment you would never have guessed it. Her smile was like a young girl’s as she savoured the prime minister’s reaction.
Mr Sinclair cleared his throat. ‘It . . .’ he began.
‘He,’ Dr McKinsey corrected gently. Her smile widened.
Mr Sinclair blinked and frowned. ‘He, then,’ he said. ‘He’s . . . drugged? You keep . . . “him” – drugged like this? So he can’t escape?’
‘Oh no,’ said Dr McKinsey. ‘Tim’s not drugged. He’s just sleeping.’
She gestured out of the window – and just then, the enormous beast stirred. Leathery lips peeled apart, exposing more fangs. One huge clawed forelimb slashed listlessly at the air, and the sinuous tail lifted – curled – then slapped the floor. There was a distant rumble, and Mr Sinclair felt an impact tremor through the soles of his expensive shoes.
‘Ah, look!’ said Dr McKinsey. ‘He’s dreaming again. Isn’t that sweet?’
Mr Sinclair did not reply.
‘Tim first hatched back in 1995,’ Dr McKinsey explained quickly, collecting herself. ‘It had taken us well into the eighties to create a DNA chain that was stable enough, and to get him to the egg stage took even more work, as you can imagine – but that was the date he hatched: August 7th, 1995. And now’ – she paused – ‘Tim is reaching puberty.’
‘Puberty,’ the prime minister echoed.
‘That’s right,’ said Dr McKinsey. ‘Tim’s a young teenager. He’s growing extraordinarily fast: in fact, he’s more than doubled in size in the last six months alone. It’s not surprising that he needs a lot of rest.’ She gazed fondly out of the window.
Mr Sinclair examined the face of the woman standing beside him. Dr McKinsey’s smile was filled with pride. Not just pride in a job well done, either: her pride was more like . . . it wasn’t, was it? It was! She looked like she felt almost maternal towards this creature, this leviathan slumbering below the streets of Britain’s capital. And the beast had ‘doubled in size in six months’! What (Mr Sinclair wondered with rising dismay) was supposed to happen in another six months? Or the six months after that? Was Dr McKinsey insane?
He swallowed. Time to get a grip on the situation.
‘Am I right in thinking,’ the prime minister began, ‘that this . . . “Tim” is the only one of his kind?’
‘That’s . . . true,’ said Dr McKinsey. She tried to keep her smile in place, but she could feel it slipping a little. She knew what was coming.
‘So in all this time, only one of your . . . experiments has produced anything like the result you wanted, and this “Tim” is it. Am I correct?’
‘We’ve never been able to replicate the original gene sequence,’ Dr McKinsey answered. ‘We’ve tried everything to simulate the exact conditions of the experiment, but . . . something’s missing somehow. It’s as if, that one time, something strange took place. Something extraordinary. Something unique. But . . .’
While Dr McKinsey was talking, Mr Sinclair turned his back to the window. The sight of the giant monster outside was putting him off, and he wanted no distractions while he made his next point. It was time to say what he’d come to say – what he’d wanted to say ever since one of his civil servants had taken him to one side and explained how, for the best part of a century, a full ten percent of Britain’s tax revenue had been siphoned off into a top secret military project.
‘But all your other experiments in this direction have failed,’ he put in.
‘In that direction,’ Dr McKinsey admitted, ‘yes. We’ve tried thousands, possibly millions of different DNA combinations, but Tim is the only one that has resulted in a living creature.’
‘I must say, Dr McKinsey,’ Mr Sinclair continued, ‘that’s not a terribly high success rate for all these years of work – and funding,’ he added with heavy emphasis.
‘Tim may be the only living result of our work here, Prime Minister,’ said Dr McKinsey carefully, ‘but I think you’ll agree, he’s quite . . . impressive.’
‘Indeed,’ said Mr Sinclair. ‘But impressive or not, in view of the costs involved, one could be forgiven for expecting something more by way of benefits.’
‘I mean, this creature of yours . . .’ said Mr Sinclair. ‘What does he actually do, apart from sleep?’
Dr McKinsey took a deep breath. ‘In the course of this project we’ve made some staggering scientific advances, Prime Minister. Why, in the field of gene research alone, we’re far in advance of anything the rest of the world has to offer, and—’
‘Yes, yes,’ the prime minister interrupted. ‘But if I remember correctly, the original purpose of this programme was a military one. Am I right?’
‘That’s true, but—’
‘Well?’ asked the prime minister.
‘We . . . haven’t had a chance to test Tim in the field,’ Dr McKinsey admitted. ‘Frankly – as you can imagine – the security implications make that pretty difficult. It’s not as if we can just take him out somewhere and put him through his paces. Not without the world noticing.’ ‘Quite,’ said the prime minister.
‘So for the last ten years – before we pursue that particular line of enquiry – we’ve been waiting for him to . . . mature,’ said Dr McKinsey. ‘At this point, we don’t know what he’s capable of. The potential, as you can see, is staggering. But . . .’
She took another deep breath.
‘Well . . . as you may have noticed, he’s beginning to outgrow our current facilities. To be honest,’ she added, ‘we’re not sure how much longer we can keep him here. Like any youngster, Tim can sometimes become’ – she paused – ‘well, rather exuberant.’
The prime minister stared at her.
‘So,’ Dr McKinsey rushed on, ‘if you’ll only agree to the next bit of extra investment, then I think we’ll be seeing some very real developments very soon. The next few years ought to be thrilling!’ she added enthusiastically while wincing inwardly at the pleading in her voice.
‘Dr McKinsey,’ the prime minister began. ‘Alice,’ he added, striving for a little intimacy to soften the coming blow.
Her heart sank.
‘I want to congratulate you – and the rest of your team – on everything you’ve achieved with this project. Really: I’m quite staggered by what you’ve done. It’s a great shame in a way that your work has remained such a secret, because the whole of the scientific community owes you a huge amount of respect and admiration for your lifetime of selfless work.
‘But I’m afraid I must be frank with you,’ he went on. ‘Britain can no longer afford to support you in your endeavours. I simply cannot,’ Mr Sinclair said, ‘in all good conscience, allow such a fantastic amount of this nation’s taxpayers’ money to be spent on . . . a giant monster. Especially,’ he added darkly, ‘a teenage one.
‘I’m afraid this project can no longer be allowed to continue. I’m transferring your funding to an alternative programme. You are to close down your facility here and, naturally, ensure that all evidence of your activities is prevented from ever reaching the hands of anyone outside our shores.’
‘What does that mean?’ Dr McKinsey asked. ‘What about Tim?’
‘I’m afraid that means destroy it,’ said the prime minister bluntly. ‘Unless you can think of something else to do with your . . .’ Words temporarily failed him. ‘Pet. Good night,’ he added, and started walking back towards the lift.
‘Wait!’ said Dr McKinsey. ‘Prime Minister! Wait!’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Mr Sinclair, ‘I’ll show myself out.’
‘But I have to ask . . .’ she cried, ‘what “alternative programme”? Who will our funding be going to?’
In the lift, Mr Sinclair turned. He smiled bleakly as he pressed the button on the brass panel. The doors began to slide shut.
‘It’s classified,’ he said.