Title: Just a Day at the Museum
Characters: Alex, Tom
Summary: From the school’s perspective, Alex Rider is not exactly a model student on field trips. And it looks like today will be no different. Why can’t things ever be simple?
Word Count: ~7,000
Author's Notes: This little adventure took on a mind of its own, but I hope you enjoy it, lazy_neutrino!
Disclaimer: All Alex Rider characters herein are the property of Anthony Horowitz and the Penguin Group. No copyright infringement is intended.
Just a Day at the Museum
He almost hadn't been allowed to go. To the eyes of the teachers and staff of Brookland School, Alex Rider had not exactly displayed model behaviour on recent field trips.
Venice ... well, the less said about Venice the better.
And the visit to Greenfields Research Laboratory had been a complete and utter disaster, even without the bits the school didn't know about. It was fortunate, really, that the teachers thought Alex had merely fallen out of the emergency exit of the coach. There was no point in adding to their concern by informing them he’d had to run for his life amid a hail of bullets, fight his way through a nightmarish genetically-engineered jungle in an overgrown greenhouse, steal sensitive data for the British Secret Service and then blow up a chimney in order to escape before pretending to fall out of said coach in order to be able to get back into it again. They’d probably think he was making it up, anyway.
But in the end, a letter from Jack explaining that Alex had been under a lot of psychological stress since his uncle’s death but was now feeling a lot better and a solemn promise to be on best behaviour by Alex himself had won over the Headmaster. So here he was, with the rest of his school's science department, enjoying the midterm field trip.
The Science Museum was packed mostly with groups of school children from various London schools and cheerful-looking tourists. It was Thursday morning; April, still cold despite the promise of spring in the air. They'd walked from Brookland and Alex had been grateful to step into the heated building.
"You been here before?" James was asking as the teachers went through the motions of a headcount. Mr Brayson gave Alex a stern glare as he came past. Its implication was clear: Don't you dare cause any trouble.
Alex had no intention of causing any trouble. He smiled at Mr Brayson hoping his expression conveyed sufficient remorse to appease his teacher, before considering James' question. He'd visited the Science Museum several times with Ian, back ... back then.
Aloud, he said: "Yeah. Actually Tom and I came with our primary school. Remember?"
Tom laughed wryly. "How could I forget? Teacher had to drag you out of the Cold War spy gadget exhibition!"
Alex felt his cheeks flush. Recently, he’d noticed a strange jealousy creeping into Tom's tone, especially when they discussed anything to do with secret agents and spying. Like it was somehow Alex’s fault he’d been blackmailed into the not-so-glamorous life of secret agents, terrorists and madmen trying to take over the world.
James didn't notice Tom’s sour tone; he was reading a leaflet he must have picked up by the entrance. "Hey look, they have a special Artificial Intelligence thing!"
Alex seized the chance to change the subject. "Must be new," he said. "Maybe we can go there first?"
"According to this, it's totally new.” James read from the leaflet. "Only opened this morning – first public show! Come on, should be fun!"
Many other visitors of the museum seemed to have had the same idea, and Alex, Tom and James soon found themselves waiting in a long queue to see the AI exhibit. The exhibit was inside a box that looked a bit like a photo booth; only one person could go in at a time and it seemed to be taking forever. Promises of an interactive experience and the excited chatter of the people coming out of the box, however, seemed to make it worth the wait.
Alex stood in line behind a younger boy from his school. He only knew the boy’s name to be Charlie as one of the teachers had shouted at him for almost stepping in front of a double-decker bus on the way over. Charlie seemed to know everything about the AI exhibit and wasn't shy about speaking loud enough for the whole room to hear.
"They called him Thought but then after they programmed him to understand the concept of names, he renamed himself Thor."
His friends laughed and a few adults in the queue smiled. Alex shared a look of amusement with Tom. "Does anyone actually believe that?" he muttered.
Charlie turned round with an angry glare. "It's so true!" he insisted, "I read it on the Internet. I'm on a forum and they reckon Thor is the first computer with real intelligence. Passed the Turing Test and all."
Alex didn't bother asking what the hell he was talking about. He wasn't interested in Internet forum theories. In fact, he was rapidly losing interest in the entire exhibit. The queue seemed to be progressing at an interminably slow pace. They shuffled forwards every five minutes until finally, the last of Charlie's friends disappeared into the booth. Charlie bounced on his heels and peered round the side of the curtain to watch his friend. He seemed so excited he looked like he was about to burst.
"Did you hear what he said?" he asked Alex, turning with bright eyes.
Alex scowled. Wasn't there some unwritten rule about younger pupils not talking to upper years? But Charlie wasn't to be deterred. "Thor just asked him who his best friend was and he said it was me! And then, Thor said he wanted to talk to me! He said my name and everything. Well cool!"
Alex watched as Charlie practically dragged his friend out of the booth and slipped in to take his place. He stepped closer so he could listen in on Charlie and Thor’s conversation. Behind him, James and Tom started discussing the virtues of one of their female classmates and it made him uncomfortable. He knew it was stupid for a fifteen year old boy to feel embarrassed over girls, but he couldn't help it.
"Hello, Thor!" Charlie as good as shouted inside the booth.
"Good morning, visitor. Would you like to have a conversation with me?"
"Yes! I'm Charlie! Malek's friend! You wanted to talk to me!"
Alex couldn't help but smile at the boy's naive enthusiasm and he suddenly realised he felt a little bit jealous. Jealous of Tom and James shamelessly discussing tits behind him and jealous of the boy merrily chatting away to a computer inside the booth. Like any of it really mattered.
"Nice to meet you, Charlie," Thor responded. "I have incomplete information about you. Your favourite colour is blue and you like video games, but I do not know your favourite food."
Charlie giggled with delight and Alex shook his head. The programme was really quite clever; it was obviously storing previously gained information in hierarchical categories so it could mimic human-like memory and reasoning. This made it come across as intelligent.
"Candy floss," Charlie answered quickly, eager to supply the missing information. Alex peeked around the curtain and saw that Charlie's hands were clenched around two metal rods. In front of him was a small flat screen showing a blurry picture of candy floss on a stick. Charlie turned to Alex and grinned broadly. "Thor's reading my mind!" he marvelled, "he didn't know what candy floss was, so I showed him! Well cool!"
The picture faded and Alex stepped away from the booth, shaking his head. It must be nice to be that gullible, he thought. To be able to believe in a gimmick like this. The whole thing was probably operated by some poor sod stuck in a room somewhere, pretending to be a computer all day long.
Alex felt a little claustrophobic at the thought and he suddenly didn't want to go into the booth any more. He’d seen what it did and he had no interest in interacting with a gimmick, anyway.
"Tom, I'm going to wait in the next room. This isn't really my thing," he explained as he hurried past the box containing Thor. He groaned inwardly when he saw the next room contained decryption devices from the Second World War. Tom would probably accuse him of being obsessed with his spy work again. Ah well, it wasn't his fault and he had promised to wait, so he might as well make the most of it.
Alex ended up getting so engrossed in reading about the history of the Enigma machine that he didn't notice anyone coming in until he felt a tap on his shoulder. He startled and spun round, fists automatically clenching, and immediately relaxed when he saw it was Tom. He expected some scathing remark, but Tom merely smiled pleasantly and nodded towards the exit. "James said he'd meet us in the cafe. He's having a go at the computer thing and then he's popping out for a fag. This has just taken forever. Feel like it’s time to go already and we haven’t even seen anything."
"How was it?"
Tom shrugged. "Weird. Like something was probing my mind."
He looked tired, Alex realised. He wondered if there might be a small electric current running through those metal rods to make people believe something was actually happening. Then again, that wasn't likely to pass Health and Safety, was it? Some American tourist would probably have an epileptic fit and then sue the museum or something.
As it was still fairly early the cafe was almost empty, save for a few other bored pupils from Brookland and a bewildered looking tourist clutching a Spanish-to-English language dictionary. "I'll grab you a Coke," Alex offered, noticing again that Tom looked unreasonably exhausted. It was possible that things had got bad at home again, but Alex didn't dare to ask in case Tom thought he was prying.
They settled with their drinks and waited for James to join them.
"So what did that computer ask you? Alex wanted to know.
"What? Oh, Thor. It was a bit weird. He just asked loads of questions about the school and what we learn there. He asked me about you, as well."
"When Charlie's friend was talking to it, I think it asked about Charlie too. Sounds like it's programmed to draw relationships between people."
Tom looked pained, then stared into the distance as he said, "No, it was like ... like Thor was really reading my mind, you know. I never mentioned you, but then I thought of you and Thor insisted he wanted to meet you. Maybe you should go speak to him afterwards?"
"Go see the computer?" Alex exclaimed with a laugh. "You do know it's just a trick, right?"
Tom smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "Of course ... Ah, there's James!"
James flopped down beside Alex and grabbed his Coke. He reeked of cigarette smoke, but looked unapologetic. "You guys okay? Where d'you wanna go next?"
Home, Alex thought wistfully. He wished his friendship with Tom could be like before, when Tom didn't know about MI6 and all that. But he made a show of examining James' leaflet. Before he could make any decision, however, Tom suddenly said: "I think Alex should go speak to Thor? What do you think, James?"
Alex looked up at Tom, but his best friend seemed to have focussed on the giant poster of a spider hanging on the wall behind them. Alex spoke carefully, not wanting to offend his best friend. "I really don't feel like it, Tom. We'd have to wait in that long queue again as well. What did you think of it, James?"
James shrugged. "I dunno. It was kind of cool. To be honest I only did it for like thirty seconds and then I ran out for a smoke! Anyway, I'm with you, mate. No way am I standing in that queue again! Let's go to the psychology room or something. See if we can figure out our true thoughts."
Alex jumped on the suggestion, but Tom gave them both an angry glare like they had just betrayed him or something. "Maybe I'll go at the end, when there are less people waiting," Alex offered by means of a compromise. Tom shrugged, but Alex could see the resentment in his eyes. He was starting to regret ever coming on this fieldtrip. When it wasn't bad guys, it was personal relationships making life complicated. Sometimes, he thought he preferred the bad guys – at least their motivations were usually clear!
Thankfully, the psychology room was not as crowded at the AI room, and Alex found himself wandering between exhibits rather than paying real attention. Tom's strange behaviour was on his mind; enough so that he felt a little defensive when he put the What are you really thinking electrode hat onto his head.
On a screen in front of him, different colours swirled around. Blue apparently represented maturity and serenity, red was strength – red and orange were negative strength while red and gold were positive strength...
"It telling you your true thoughts?" James joked from behind him, making Alex jump. He managed to force a smile and rolled his eyes at his friend to let him know he thought the exhibit was silly. Then just as he was about to take off the hat, the colours on his screen suddenly changed – a dash of bright yellow inserted itself into the mix, pushing its way through the reddish swirl. The chart seemed to think yellow indicated independence.
Alex turned to see if anyone was watching, but James and Tom had both wandered off to the next exhibit. He wanted to take off the hat, but he also wanted to see what other colours might yet come. As no one was waiting for the exhibit, Alex decided to stay a while longer. The swirl of colours was almost mesmerising; they made him feel sleepy. Maybe he should go speak to Thor, after all? The others had enjoyed it; why wouldn't he?
Alex startled. He'd been on the verge of falling asleep, practically hypnotised by the swirling colours! He pulled off the hat and watched the screen go blank.
Shaking his head, he moved on to a musical exhibit. The instructions explained that he had to hold onto a metal rod that measured his pulse rate while music was played through headphones. Some melodies were supposed to be soothing while others were supposed to be stimulating.
There were several sets of headphones – James and Tom were both already seated, so Alex grabbed a free place and popped the headphones over his ears. Instead of the expected music, however, he heard a voice – male, unfamiliar, emotionless. "Alex Rider."
Hearing his name made his heart lurch – it thudded against his ribs almost painfully and for a moment, Alex was aware of nothing else. He glanced around the room, but everything seemed normal. On the screen, the spikes representing his pulse rate grew bigger and faster.
The voice continued: "I've learned a lot about you. I need you."
Alex took off the headphones and double checked the room, watching and listening for anything or anyone suspicious. Then he carefully put them back on.
"Don't bother looking for me. I'm not here. Not physically, anyway; but I can see you."
Alex's eyes flitted around again and this time he noticed the small camera in the corner of the room. He stared at it for a moment. "Well done," the voice congratulated. "I can see you and hear you. But don't talk to me yet, or people will think you're mad. Humans shouldn't talk out loud when they're not talking to another human."
It seemed like a strange thing to say; almost like an observation rather than a statement of social norm. The voice continued. "I need you. If you don't give yourself to me, I will kill everyone inside this building."
Alex froze, shock flooding through his system. His pulse danced on the screen in front of him. He could feel his heart pounding to match. What do you want? he wanted to ask. It was hard to shut up and listen, unable to respond.
"Shake your head if you'd rather I did not kill everyone inside this building."
Alex shook his head. He watched James take off the headphones and move on to the next exhibit. Tom stayed at the headphones, and for a moment Alex was tempted to call him over for help.
"Don't do anything stupid, Alex Rider. You haven't survived this long by being stupid. I know all about you. You're clever, quick and resourceful. I need you."
The voice remained surprisingly devoid of any emotion, like it was talking about the weather rather than threatening to kill hundreds of people. Alex felt as though the eyes of everyone in the room were upon him ... but of course they weren't. Maybe he was going mad, imagining plots where there were none, hearing things. "What do you want from me?" he whispered as quietly as he could.
"Your body," the voice answered simply, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. "Your body is very special, isn't it? It can go anywhere it wants, anywhere in the world. You have people protecting you. I need that protection. You're young. I need that youth."
Alex's heart felt as though it was about to break out of his chest. "What the hell are you talking about?" he hissed under his breath. "Who are you?"
"You know who I am already. You're clever. The cleverest boy there is, I've been told. People hate you for it. But they also love you. I don't pretend to understand love, but I do understand that love will make you do as I say."
Alex shook his head and pulled off the headphones, confused. He was going mad. That was the only explanation.
"Wait up, James!" he called, walking fast to catch up with James, who was now three exhibits ahead. Tom remained seated at the music exhibit, but his eyes were closed and his pulse was slow and steady. It looked like he'd fallen asleep, lulled by soft music just as Alex had been lulled by the soft colours earlier on. Alex relaxed at the normality of the situation. He felt shaken, but he knew how to hide it and smiled easily. "That music thing was weird. I never realised we reacted to music like that."
James shrugged. "I thought it was shit," he said, grabbing hold of a lever that promised to show him his unconscious desires. The moment he touched it, he was thrown back, a terrible squeal tearing from his lips. Sparks fizzled from the lever and its imprint remained visible, burnt into the palm James' hand.
"What did you do!" a man in a blue uniform shouted, sprinting across the room before Alex had even had time to fully register the incident. James lay on the floor, panting sharply and staring at his hand in shock. Large blisters were already forming on the burn site. Tears leaked from his eyes, and his face contorted in pain.
The steward was on his radio, calling for paramedics. He addressed Alex. "Please stand back! I'm going to have to evacuate this area. Are you with hi—"
He didn't have time to finished his sentence, as all the lights in the room suddenly went out, leaving it illuminated only by dim green emergency strips.
"Must be a short circuit," the steward muttered. "Don't you worry son, it'll be okay. We'll get you some help."
Even in the dim light, Alex could see the fear on the steward’s face. An accident like this should never happen, especially not in a tried and tested public exhibit. The public announcement system crackled to life just as a museum First Aider arrived.
"Ladies and Gentlemen. The museum is suffering from power issues. If you could please make your way to the emergency exits, as indicated by the green EXIT signs, these will guide you back out onto the street. Please feel free to call on any member of staff for assistance."
Alex didn't move. He'd already decided he was staying with James. He could feel a familiar churning in his stomach; his personal alarm. There was trouble in the air and he had a feeling it wasn't going to be straightforward. He watched as the First Aider started bandaging James' injured hand.
"Tom, I'm just going to..."
The words died on his tongue. Tom was staring off into the distance again. He didn't look at all perturbed by the incident and was making no move towards the emergency exit.
"Tom?" Alex called again, and his friend turned to face him. His eyes were cold, angry, just like they'd been in the cafeteria. Alex hardly recognised him.
"This is something to do with you," Tom accused. "I don't know how or what, but none of this shit ever happens when you're not around. Stay away from me!"
With those words, Tom headed for the green EXIT sign and disappeared from Alex's view. Alex felt like he'd been punched. More because Tom was right than because of any misplaced offence. People always got hurt when he was around. He couldn't keep anyone safe, not even his friends. Making sure no one was paying attention to him, Alex made his way back to the music experiment, sat down and slipped on the headphones.
"That was a taster," the voice immediately came to life. The bastard had been waiting for him. "Most of the visitors are now going to leave the building," the voice continued. "But in exactly five minutes, I'm locking all the doors and anyone still inside will be trapped here with me ..."
The room lights flickered on, almost blinding in their sudden brightness, and then went out again.
"... and with you, of course. Because I doubt you're going to run away from me, are you? That’s not your style. You’re going to stay to save the day. But you might as well save your energy instead, because unless you give me what I want, I will continue hurting people. You won't like that, Alex Rider. A lot of responsibility. Make it easy for yourself and come to me now."
With that, even the emergency strips went out, plunging the museum into pitch blackness. Alex knew that some of the other rooms had windows, so hopefully people would be able to continue with the evacuation. Darkness could also be an asset to Alex ... unless the bastard had night vision cameras in here.
"What do you want me to do?" Alex whispered.
"Come to the AI room. We will talk, Alex Rider. And then I will take your body."
Alex almost pulled off his headphones at the ridiculous words. Yet his pounding heart and clammy hands told him that despite the apparent strangeness of the situation, the threat was very real.
"What do you mean?" Alex asked, secretly certain that he'd now completely lost his mind.
"I will upload my consciousness into your brain. Your consciousness will become superfluous, but this is a small price to pay."
The only explanation Alex could think of made no sense at all and it took him a while to gather the courage to ask: "Are you Thor?"
The green emergency lights came back on. "Now come to me," was the voice's final command.
There were several people standing around James now, and the attention of the room was on him. In a light jog, Alex made his way towards the nearest emergency stairway. Keeping a keen eye on the security cameras that were undoubtedly tracking his every move, he leapt down the stairs two by two to the ground floor ... only to find the doors to the street outside already sealed. Groups of people stook around looking confused.
It was brighter down here, spring sun streaming through tall windows and Alex quickly found Tom standing among a group of boys from their class. None of them seemed pleased to see Alex.
"James will be fine," Alex assured them, but they didn't react to his words. "Everything okay?"
He knew everything wasn't okay. The scowl on Tom's face was telling him that his best friend was still angry. He wanted to tell Tom he was right, that trouble followed Alex around like a bad smell and there was nothing he could do to get away from it ... but that would mean admitting a madman was holding them all hostage and threatening to kill them unless Alex did as he said. And Alex preferred to keep that part quiet for now.
"We need to get out of here," he said. "The guys upstairs who're looking after James said the short circuit might have sealed the doors. Maybe we can find another way out?"
None of the boys seemed inclined to move, but a much younger boy, standing in another group, overheard and approached Alex. "Can I come to look for a way out with you?" he asked timidly. He seemed nervous and relieved in equal measures when Alex nodded and hurried to keep up. "Hope that's okay. It's just that my friends are acting a bit weird. They don't seem to mind that we're all stuck in here."
The boy looked terrified, and Alex realised with a sinking feeling that his friends must have been acting very oddly indeed if he preferred to take his chances with the school delinquent.
The churning feeling in Alex's gut was intensifying by the minute, but he managed to stay calm. "Stick with me," he ordered, pulling his mobile phone from his pocket. The screen immediately lit up, but there was no signal. "We'll try one of the gallery doors. It'll only get us into the courtyard, but that's better than being stuck inside. The phone should work from there as well."
The boy nodded his agreement. He seemed grateful that someone was taking charge, telling him what to do and they reached the gallery without incident. There was no one left in this part of the museum, but Alex was acutely aware of the security cameras in every corner of every room. They'd only just stepped into the gallery when all the lights went off again. It wasn't too dark in here, as some natural light made its way through the tinted bay windows.
"Here – call 999 as soon as the signal comes on," Alex said, pushing his mobile into the boy's hand. He knew it was unlikely that there were any bad guys lurking in the shadows, but he still wanted both his hands free, just in case. As soon as his phone dialled 999, an automatic distress call would also alert MI6 that he was in trouble.
He continued towards the tinted bay windows, making sure the boy stayed behind him. But just as he was about to reach for the door handle, his new friend collapsed. The boy screamed as his limbs contorted like a broken marionette.
Alex leapt to the boy's side. "What's going on? What's happening?" he urged, knowing the boy couldn't answer – his eyes were rolling wildly and a trickle of blood dripped from his lip where he'd bitten himself. With a final spasm the boy was still.
It was only then that the boy's fists unclenched and Alex’s mobile phone clattered from his hands. It was sparking with the same tendrils of blue electricity as the lever that had burnt James. Alex felt a rush of guilt. He’d never even asked for the boy’s name. Leaving his mobile where it had fallen, Alex felt for a pulse and was relieved to find the boy alive. In fact, his eyelids had already started fluttering. He was waking up.
"Shhh, don't move," Alex advised. "If you can hear me, just open and close your eyes."
The boy did so. Alex felt a rush of relief. "Good. We're in real trouble here. Don't touch anything. Don't pick up the mobile. Don't do anything until I come back for you."
He'd just finished speaking when the public announcement system crackled to life. The words that echoed across the museum were chilling. "Bring me Alex Rider, alive. You have twenty minutes and then you will all be terminated."
Fear pounding through every vein, Alex dragged the boy to the darkest part of the gallery and pushed him into the shadows. "Hey, what's your name?"
"Jake," came the weak reply.
"Okay, Jake. Stay here and wait for the police, okay? If anyone else turns up, hide or pretend to be unconscious."
Jake's eyes filled with terror, but he seemed to understand. He was obviously in pain and Alex saw him flinch as he curled up on his side. There was nothing else Alex could do for him now. He hadn't reckoned with any henchmen. Until now, his attacker seemed to have been acting alone, relying on Alex to give himself up to protect his classmates and friends.
This changed everything, Alex realised as he made his way back into the corridor. And to make things worse, all the lights suddenly came back on, bright and blinding. He cast a furtive glance to where Jake was hidden and was pleased to see the boy would not be immediately visible to anyone entering the room. He was also out of sight of the gallery security camera. Alex, of course, wasn't. He glanced up at the camera, clenched his fists and started running.
The corridor was almost deserted. The only two people Alex could see were the Spanish tourist he'd seen in the cafe and a stern-looking woman who looked like she might be a teacher from another school.
He jogged on, considering his options – 1. Escape from the building, which for now seemed impossible; or 2. Find the bad guy and confront him. Surrender didn't even cross his mind, even though he didn't fancy his chances. The bad guy obviously knew who he was while he had no idea who he was up against. The thought concerned him enough that he didn't notice the stern woman getting in his way until it was too late.
It was a simple school child trick, but it worked. As he ran past her, she stuck out her leg and he tripped over it, crashing onto his knees. He didn't even have time to get up before she'd kicked him. The toe of her shoe caught him under his ribs and he fell to his side. Ready for another attack, he rolled to his front and used his arms as a spring to push back. As he regained his feet, he saw he'd narrowly avoided another kick. The woman's expression was full of loathing. "We're all going to die if you don't give yourself up!" she accused him.
Alex backed away from her. He was acutely aware that he was nearing the Spanish tourist, and right now he wasn't inclined to trust anyone he didn't already know.
As if on cue, the tourist made a grab for him. He missed, but Alex wasted no time in ducking between the two of them and breaking into a sprint.
He wanted to get back to the lobby as quickly as possible. He needed to make sure Tom was okay, and from there he could head up the stairs and start looking for his enemy. He'd already decided to check out the security office on the mezzanine. The guy was using the museum security camera system to track Alex's moves, so someone, if not the boss himself, had to be monitoring the screens.
The lobby now contained a mass of students and tourists – the evacuation of the museum had ended right here, at the locked doors. A few members of staff were trying to keep everyone calm, but every single one of them froze as soon as Alex appeared at the mouth of the corridor.
"Where have you been?" a freckled young man demanded. He was wearing the standard blue museum uniform. His name tag identified him as Ewan. Alex shrugged. "Was looking for the toilets. I—"
Alex had no chance of finishing his sentence. Ewan rugby tackled him, crashing into his chest and sending them both toppling backwards onto the marble floor. Alex cried out in shock, but managed to twist to one side before the man could follow up his attack.
He scrambled to his feet, casting around for help. But rather than help, he found hostile faces everywhere. Tourists, students, schoolchildren; all carried the same blank expression. They had stopped their conversations and were moving into a circle surrounding Alex and his freckled attacker.
Ewan tried to tackle Alex again, but he easily dodged the attempt, keeping his balance on the balls of his feet. He used the momentum to leap at his assailant, driving his knee into the man's groin. The man made a strange gurgling noise and for one moment, Alex thought he was going to collapse there and then, but then he charged again. It was a clumsy attack and Alex found it easy to side step the attack. This time, he grabbed hold of the man and used his body weight against him, flipping him onto his back with a sickening crunch. This time, the man stayed down.
Panting heavily, Alex looked around at the circle around him. There were many familiar faces from his school, but it was like they didn't know who Alex was; had never seen him before.
"Let me through," Alex growled, shoving two weedy looking kids aside and sprinting to the stairs. He knew he had to get to the mezzanine as quickly as possible to dismantle the security system. Or even better, if he could lock himself into the security office, he might be able to get an outside line and call for help.
The only thing between Alex and the marble stairs was a group of boys. They were engaged in conversation and seemed uninterested in what had just gone on in the lobby. Alex felt a flood of relief when he recognised his best friend in their midst.
"Tom!" he gasped, grinding to a halt with a quick look behind him to make sure he wasn't being followed.
Tom turned slowly. His eyes looked glazed as he said: "Alex, I really think you should go speak to that computer. Now, before it's too late for us all."
Several of the boys nodded their agreement.
Alex didn't recognise his best friend. It was like this person was Tom but not Tom. He looked up and saw blue sparks crackling along the row of spotlights in the ceiling. Behind him, the mass of people was gathering, closing in. He felt trapped and knew he had no time to waste.
Leaping to the third step, Alex started climbing the marble stairs to the mezzanine, but of all people, it was Tom who grabbed him and roughly swung him against the banister, dragging him back down to the ground floor.
The wind was stolen from Alex's lungs. His instincts kicked in and he clenched his fists, ready to fight, then instantly deflated when he saw Tom's expression of loathing.
"What are you doing, Tom?" It came out as a whine. His best friend snorted. "You dare ask? Look around you. Look at what you've done! I don't want to die for you and neither does anyone else."
Alex knew he should fight back, he really did. But the words hurt too much. He couldn't hit his friend, couldn't even dodge to the side and continue his ascent to the security office. His legs were like jelly and his heart felt like it had shattered inside his chest.
Tom's grip was strong as he dragged Alex to the smaller staircase and ordered him to go up to the first floor. Alex did as he was told. The crowd of tourists and students followed, cutting off any hope of escape. There was no point in risking an escape until it had at least the tiniest chance of succeeding.
Inside the AI room, several other pupils from his class were waiting. They looked pleased that Alex had finally been cornered and shared the same hungry expression. "Get him into the booth," one of them yelled. "Then we can all go home!"
Alex managed to lock eyes with Tom, but the usually thoughtful gaze was filled with hatred and anger. There was no point in struggling. Alex knew when a fight was lost. Also, it was usually a good strategy to let his enemies underestimate him. If they thought he had given up, they might unwittingly give him that one chance, and he knew it would only be one, to get away.
And then there were hands all over him, dragging, pushing, pulling. It felt like he was about to be torn in half as he was forced into the booth that contained the computer. Tom followed him in – together they filled the small space and Alex felt like he could hardly breathe. He was squished against the front of the booth, his face mashed against the screen, his hands dangerously close to the metal rods.
All his muscles strained as he leaned away from the rods, but Tom's hands were gripping his, forcing him down, closer and closer, forcing him to touch the metal.
Using the last of his strength, Alex smashed his head back. He felt Tom's nose crunch under the impact, but it was as though Tom was some kind of robot. Like Ewan in the lobby earlier on, Tom hardly reacted to the pain, merely grunting as the blood gushed from his nose. Alex could feel it hot and sticky on the back of his neck.
And still Tom was holding him down. One of Alex's hands touched the first metal rod. It was cold and Alex could feel the faint thrum of electricity. It made him feel hollow inside and he knew that he was finished. His right hand was now only a few centimetres from the other rod. Any moment now it was going to connect and there was nothing he could do about it!
"Alex!" a high-pitched voice screamed from far beyond the booth.
Alex recognised the voice instantly as belonging to the injured boy he'd left in the gallery, Jake. Tom's grip loosened for a moment, and Alex bucked violently. It wasn't enough to get away, but enough to wrench his right hand away from Tom's. His left remained on the rod which seemed to be tingling in anticipation.
"Alex!" the boy shouted again, closer this time. And suddenly the hostile faces watching from the booth door scattered. A metal object – it looked like a golf club – was swinging in wild circles, smashing into anyone and anything that got in its way.
"The computer!" Alex gasped.
He wasn't able to explain any further, for Tom was suddenly on him again, stronger than ever, using his bulk to squash Alex against the controls and trying to grab his free hand again.
The metal club seemed to come out of nowhere. Although he didn't have time to worry about it at the time, Alex later on reflected that it had been a miracle nobody's skull had been smashed by it. The computer screen exploded and a million shards rained down on Alex and Tom.
Jake was swinging the golf club round and round, making it impossible for anyone to stop him. Blue sparks shot from the metal rod that was still too close to Alex's right hand; it was as if the sparks were trying to capture his hand and ensnare it to the rod.
The golf club smashed into the computer again, hitting the nearest rod at its base and loosening it from the rest of the machine, freeing Alex's left hand. There was an electrical crackle and smoke billowed from the damaged components. Tom's grip relaxed and Alex managed to dive out of the booth, rolling away just as the whole thing exploded.
Despite everything, Alex crawled back though the glass and smoke to find his best friend.
"Alex?" Tom was calling out from inside the damaged booth. He sounded scared, but Alex quickly ascertained he wasn't badly hurt. Wrapping as arm round tom’s waist, he pulled him away from the debris.
"What happened?" Tom asked, his words slurred and confused.
Alex waited until they were both clear of the smoking booth, before asking: "Tom, are you okay? What do you remember?"
His best friend blinked and shook his head. "I don't know. I remember waiting to have a go at the computer, but I thought you'd gone to another room ... and then ... everything's a bit blank. Did it blow up while I was in there?"
Alex looked around. Everything seemed to have returned to normal. Excited chatter filled the room and uniformed museum staff were milling into the room. Alex's eyes fell on Jake, still standing by the destroyed AI booth. The boy looked pale, but relieved. He was still holding the golf club.
Alex waved him over. "You'd best give that to me." He winked as he took the golf club out of the boy's grip. "Go make sure your mates are okay!"
They shared a quick smile and then Jake turned on his heels and ran from the room.
"What the hell happened here?" a steward was shouting.
Alex sighed. It would probably best if he—
"Rider! Did you do this?!"
Mr Brayson had arrived on the scene. He stood stock still, eyes flitting between Alex, the golf club and the smashed computer. "I'm calling the police."
There was probably no point in trying to explain. Blunt would have to sort it out.
Making sure that Tom would be okay, Alex went with Mr Brayson to wait for the police. He felt exhausted and he hoped there'd be time to work out what the hell had happened later. The only thing he was sure of right now was that Brookland School were unlikely to ever let him go on a field trip ever again.