Chapter 1: Kingdom Come
Jacob Ethrax walked down the tunnel beneath Buckingham Palace. Even after two years of making the trip, he was still amazed that it had managed to survive the terrorist earthquake that had destroyed the city. Oh, Lucy and Sarah had tried to explain about how the reinforced structure was designed to withstand a direct nuclear strike, never mind a single mass-modulation pulse bomb set off in the Tower of London, several miles away, but he hadn't really paid attention.
Stepping into the small white chamber at the end of the passage, he was met by the large black screen of an Full Sensory Input Artificial Intelligence unit on the opposite wall. Quickly crossing the room, he plugged the box he carried in at the back, made sure it was ready to be activated, and pressed a small button on the FSIAI's control panel. The screen flickered to life, displaying an image of ever-changing coloured patterns, and a feminine voice came from the speaker system.
Jacob smiled. He'd never known her not to recognise someone, but it was good to know that the cameras were still working properly. "Hi, Lucy. The others aren't here yet?"
A bar appeared at the bottom of the screen, scrolling rapidly through images from various surveillance cameras. After less than a second, one image of a black-haired boy and golden-haired girl in the white corridor appeared, enlarged, on the main screen. "Misha and Sarah will arrive within one minute at their current rate of progress." There was a pause as the screen reverted to the basic coloured patterns, and then Lucy said, sounding worried, "Sarah seems to be carrying a small portable computer. You aren't going to replace me, are you?"
"With a laptop?" Jacob shook his head. "They don't make units like you in that sort of size, so don't get paranoid. Anyway, we need you."
"To keep your minds on the job, perhaps," she said, but Jacob could tell she was relieved. Before he could comment on this to her, Mikhail Melnikov and Sarah Martell arrived. As they greeted Lucy, Jacob made eye contact with Sarah and darted a questioning glance at the laptop. She nodded slightly, and he smiled.
The two sat at the single small table and listened while Lucy told Mikhail about the latest battle between the Royal Navy – the only part of the United Kingdom's armed forces to escape the mass bombings two years ago, Jacob reflected gloomily – and the Russian forces. The Russian was always eager to hear about the battles against the government who had killed his parents, but had to content himself with news of the British defence and counterattacks, rather than internal rebellion. When the computer had finished, Jacob gestured Mikhail to seat himself and began the meeting.
"We've got a mission."
Mikhail looked at him in shock. "Are we going to assist the Navy against the traitors in my country?"
Jacob shook his head. "Sorry, Misha, but we couldn't really do much good. No, we're going the other way. Lucy?"
A map of the border between the United States and Canada appeared on the screen. "As you know," said Lucy, "there has been a state of war between the US and Canada since the summer of last year. The war, of course, started when Russia and Britain, their respective allies, were forced into conflict by the Russian invasion of Europe."
"Is the history lesson really necessary?" asked Jacob.
"You rarely listen, Jacob, so I thought I'd mention it just in case." Sarah and Mikhail smiled at that, and the computer continued. "The initial attacks by the US were in the west, apparently aiming to capture Seattle, Winnipeg and Chicago. In the last month, however, the pushes in these locations have virtually stopped – despite the success of the west coast attack in not only reaching Seattle, but passing both it and Vancouver and pressing on towards Alaska. Instead, the US has begun an assault on the now virtually-undefended province of Pennsylvania. They retook their old capital at Washington DC, and-"
"Wait, Washington DC was a US city?" Jacob looked confused. Sarah sighed.
"As I said, you rarely listen. Yes, it was their capital, and its capture by the Canadians ended World War Three."
"You'll get it eventually," muttered Sarah in his ear, and he gave her a mock glare. Lucy continued.
"At first, it seemed that this was merely another minor skirmish. However," and the map on screen zoomed in to show that area, with a broad swathe of Canadian land shaded red, "the US army has now laid siege to Philadelphia. As such, this attack has become a serious enough threat to the sovereignty of Canada that the Ross-Altherton Programme has modified its commands."
Sarah groaned. Jacob understood why. The Ross-Altherton Programme – named for its creators, Prime Ministers Alison Ross of Canada and Mike Altherton of Britain – had been what Lucy used to form the trio into Project Messiah two years ago, after the attack on London and the rest of the UK. Since then, it had issued occasional demands as to how they should train, but had mostly left them to muddle through on their own. The three humans, and Sarah especially, considered it to be the most annoying self-editing programme ever written. Jacob privately suspected that Lucy thought the same – that, or that she was making it up.
"You will be glad to hear, Sarah," said the computer, cutting through Jacob's thoughts, "that it is not requiring more training of you. It is instead informing me that you must travel to Canada – to Philadelphia, in fact – and offer your assistance to the local commander."
The three humans stared at the screen. Jacob's thoughts were in turmoil. Lucy had told him that there was a mission to fulfil, but hadn't said any more than that. Finding his voice again, he said, "That… that's insane. We can't do anything against an attack by an entire country."
There was a flicker of blue across the screen before Lucy said, amused, "The Ross-Altherton Programme thinks you can. I can only assume that it knows what it's doing."
"I wouldn't count on it," Sarah said, and pointed at Jacob. "It did recruit him, after all."
"Indeed," said Lucy, in a suspiciously flat tone, as Jacob looked hurt, "but you must leave now. You'll be taking the London-Ottawa Trans-Atlantic MagLev. I've been in contact with Wl-Tr-903, the computer running Waterloo International, and he tells me that all floors below the first level underground have been cleared by his repair robots. There's even emergency power for a few lifts, and he's brought one of the trains out of storage for you. You will have to cross the river, of course, but your training should have prepared you for the hazards over there. Now, if you'll excuse me," and Jacob raised an eyebrow at her sulky tone, "I'm going to go into energy-saving mode until your return."
"Not so fast," said Jacob, standing up. The screen, which had been dimming, lit up again, predominantly green and yellow. "Sarah," he added as he walked over to stand next to the console, "set it up." The girl nodded and flipped the laptop open, pulling a small satellite dish from her bag as she did so.
"As you know," Jacob began, shooting a glance at Lucy, "Sarah's father had great knowledge of computers."
"Well, yes," said Lucy, "he programmed satellites for the Commonwealth Space Agency."
Jacob rolled his eyes. "It must be nice to have a perfect memory," he muttered.
"It helps to listen," replied the computer. The boy rolled his eyes.
"Anyway, Sarah's been fishing through her father's notes and leftover equipment, and – showing remarkably perfect timing – has pieced together something ideal for this mission. Is it ready?"
"Should be," replied Sarah distractedly, and hit a key. "Yep. I'm running a direct link, but it says the dish is fine, too."
Jacob smiled, and leaned down to the box he had plugged in to Lucy earlier. He hit a switch, and it lit up. "Lucy, say something."
"Like wha-" The computer cut herself off as her screen flared up in red. From his seat, Mikhail stared at Sarah, who leaned back smugly. And well she might, for Lucy's voice had come not only from the main speakers, but also from the laptop.
"Using some of her father's passwords, Sarah's hacked into the CSA's communication satellites. We've got a small dish set up in the ruins above, so we can use the network to have virtually real-time access to Lucy from anywhere on Earth."
"I… thank you, Jacob, Sarah," Lucy said, sounding stunned. A moment later, however, she was back to normal, only slightly faster patterns on the screen displaying her continued emotional turmoil. "Now," she said as Sarah began to pack up the laptop, "if you've finished showing off your toys, you have an ocean to cross. I recommend getting to Waterloo while it's still light if you want to avoid trouble."
Jacob rolled his eyes. "Yes, Lucy. Come on, guys, let's do what the girl says." Taking his own advice, he started off up the corridor. Sarah followed with the laptop, and Mikhail moved over to the door. Looking back at Lucy, he cleared his throat and said, hesitantly, "Does it feel good, having now a freedom of movement long denied to you?"
The screen glowed softly blue. "It does feel good, Misha," replied Lucy softly. "How did it feel for you, when Jacob brought you to London?"
"The same," he admitted, "even with the loss of my family. The feeling of freedom… there is nothing like it in all this world."
"Nothing," agreed Lucy. After a moment's reflective pause, she said, "They're getting ahead of you."
Mikhail blushed, and nodded. "I thank you for this conversation, Lucy," he said, and rushed off up the corridor. The chamber lights dimmed behind him, until the room was lit only by the soft glow of Lucy's screen.
Mikhail caught up with Jacob and Sarah before they reached the end of the tunnel. They were chatting about a trip Sarah had once made to Canada as he hurried up, but stopped when they heard him coming. "Hey, Misha," said Sarah.
"What was that about?" asked Jacob, unable to suppress his curiosity. Sarah jabbed his ribs with her elbow.
"Jacob, don't be rude. He is allowed some privacy, you know." Jacob blinked, surprised.
"Was I being rude?"
"No, not at all," said Mikhail. Sarah, however, rolled her eyes.
"Yes, you were, he's just too polite to mention it."
Jacob raised an eyebrow. "And you aren't?"
She shook her head cheerfully. "You're in my city still. I'm allowed to be rude."
"Hey, I grew up here too."
Sarah nodded. "True. But I was here when the bomb went off. As the only survivor of that earthquake, I get salvage rights."
"Salvage rights?" exclaimed Jacob, incredulous. Privately, however, he was pleased. Being the only survivor of the bomb – which had, so Lucy said, increased the mass of an area of the crust momentarily and set up a ripple effect in the ground – had been quite traumatic for Sarah. The knowledge that she had survived when the President, Parliament, and everyone else within twenty kilometres of the Tower had died, not to mention countless thousands outside that radius, both in the earthquake and by the mass-modulator minefield that had appeared at the same time, would have had major effects on most people, although Jacob thought Sarah had taken it harder than he would have. Several times just after the attack he'd caught her muttering that she 'should have died with them'. Lucy had told him that this was perfectly ordinary in sole survivors, but Jacob still thought there was something more to it.
"I do believe she has a point, Jacob," said Mikhail. "According to the laws of salvage in my own country…"
The banter continued until the team reached what remained of Westminster Bridge. The main structure of the bridge had been torn away by the earthquake, but the supports remained, and the rubble that had fallen, combined with the lowered level of the river, made it just possible to cross.
The team had only passed to the South Bank a few times during their training. The breaks in the bank of the Thames had been much more severe over there, and large islands were cut off. This made passage more difficult, but not necessarily impossible. What made crossing the river dangerous were the packs of feral dogs that roamed there. They had never yet crossed to the North, being content to roam to the South where food was still plentiful, but any passage over the river was fraught with danger. They had to attempt it, however.
The three crossed the bridge with no mishaps, and then set off at a brisk pace towards Waterloo. No dog packs troubled them, and Jacob began to hope that they might arrive at the MagLev with no difficulties whatsoever. His spirits were further buoyed by the sight of what remained of Waterloo Station lying ahead. Still nothing interfered with them as they approached the building and began to search for an access point.
Ten minutes later, all of Jacob's hopes had fallen away, leaving him in despair. He had circled the entire station and could find no way in. The rubble surrounded it completely. Their mission was ended before it had even begun.
At that point, Mikhail called out from the roof. "Jacob! Sarah! Come quickly! I have found something!"
* * * *
The 'something' in question turned out to be a medium sized hole in the roof. Peering through, Jacob saw that a ramp of rubble extended down into the darkness below, apparently sloping gently all the way to the floor. Straightening, he turned to Mikhail. "This is just what we need," he said. "Good job, Misha."
The black-haired boy smiled slightly at the praise, and replied, "I thank you, Jacob."
Jacob nodded. "Now, we've got a train to catch, and every second counts." With that, he dropped lightly into the hole and started down the slope.
He was halfway down, the other two stumbling down behind him, before the smell that had been filling his nose finally registered. The very air of the station was suffused with the odour of dog. Jacob froze in alarm and looked around for any sign of the canine menace. When his careful inspection revealed no sign of movement in the shadowy interior – and as intensive training had sharpened his night vision, he trusted it completely – he continued down, slower now.
In a relatively short time the trio had reached the floor, and moved to the top of the stairway leading down into the depths. There were escalators also, but without electricity they were useless, as were the lifts off to one side. Gesturing the others closer, Jacob spoke in a low whisper. "The lift shaft to the MagLev station is on the fourth level down. Lucy tells me it should be operational, but just in case, there is also an emergency staircase nearby. We need to check both of them as fast as possible."
The pair nodded uneasily. After a moment of silence, Sarah said, "The air smells of dogs… are there any down there?"
Jacob sighed. "I'm afraid I don't know. I hope there aren't, but it does seem like there are. So we're stuck." He leaned heavily against the railing.
Mikhail looked over at him, frowning. "Forgive my intrusion, Jacob, but are not these dogs likely to be nocturnal, and therefore asleep?"
Jacob stared at his friend. "You… may be right, Misha." He shook his head slightly, amazed at his own blindness to something so obvious. "Yes, that would make sense." Then he groaned and pressed his hand over his eyes as another thought hit him. "And if they aren't, they'll be out hunting. How did I miss that?"
Mikhail shrugged. "That is why we are here, is it not? So that we can point out things the others of us have missed."
Jacob nodded, and then peered down the stairwell. "If they're there, they're asleep. So we have to be quiet. From now on, no talking unless absolutely necessary."
* * * *
The team reached the bottom of the stairwell, one floor down, to find that Mikhail's suspicions had been correct. The floor was covered in the slumbering forms of dogs, of all shapes and sizes. Jacob knew, of course, that all kinds of dogs had turned feral after the Devastation, but still found it disorienting to think of poodles and Labradors as deadly killers. But here they were, and there was no time to lose. Gesturing to the other members of Project Messiah to follow, he started to pick his way carefully across the floor, weaving between the slumbering forms.
The layout of the floor made it necessary to cross the whole width of the dogs' sleeping space, and then move down a short corridor to the next set of stairs. It was only a short journey, but potentially hazardous.
Jacob came to the opening of the tunnel, in which no dogs seemed to have chosen to sleep, and then turned to watch the other two. Sarah, in the lead, was not particularly graceful, but seemed to have an instinct for where the dogs were lying. She managed to step in spaces that did not look large enough for her foot, but made her journey faster.
Mikhail came after her, and Jacob could see that he was having difficulty. Unlike the others, the Russian had not developed particularly good night vision, and this counted against him here. He was constantly on the verge of stumbling, and the fear he exuded was almost tangible. Nevertheless, he was making progress, and Jacob began to hope once more that this stage of the journey might be over quickly.
As it fell out, it very nearly was, but not in the way Jacob thought. Sarah had joined him in the corridor, and Mikhail was almost to the edge of the field of dogs when the Russian's foot slipped, and came down hard on a dog's tail.
The effect was instantaneous. The abused canine leapt to its feet and howled. The howl was picked up by other voices across the room as the dog pack was woken from sleep and oriented its collective noses on the intruders. "Come on!" yelled Jacob at the others, all subtlety forgotten, and the group ran off down the hallway. Behind them the wild dogs of Waterloo leapt up and poured into the corridor, filling it from wall to wall.
* * * *
The trio charged along the tunnel, trying with all their might to reach the staircase to the next level down. Even if they attained this goal, Jacob knew that the dogs would simply follow them down. All hope was lost, and their allies would fight on alone.
He could have continued in this train of thought right up until the dogs caught them, but fate had other plans for Project Messiah. Out of the corner of his eye, Jacob saw Sarah veer away from the rest of the group, towards the wall. Thinking she intended to sacrifice herself for the team, and overwhelmed with fear for her safety, he spun and started towards her, intending to pull her along the corridor with him. But he never got the chance. The golden-haired girl grabbed hold of a handle flat against the wall and pulled. A metal lattice pulled out, and she pulled it out until it blocked off the whole corridor. At that point, the first dog slammed into it, hard enough to throw the girl backwards from the gate. Lunging, Jacob managed to grab her around the waist and prevent her fall. Wasting no time with words, the pair raced off again down the corridor, leaving the dogs to press against the barrier.
Around the next corner they encountered Mikhail again. He had stopped and was pushing against a door set in the wall. Seeing Jacob and Sarah arrive, he said, "This door leads to a service stairway. We should be able to get straight down to the floor we need, if we can get through."
"There's no need," replied Jacob, still out of breath. "The dogs are all shut behind a gate, we're safe now."
Sarah disagreed. "That grille won't hold them for long. It's best to be safe."
At this point, Mikhail cut in. "That may be true, but there is something you should know. This door is locked. I cannot open it."
Jacob shook his head. "Let me see this lock." Wordlessly, Mikhail gestured to it, and the boy stepped forward, leaning over to get a better view. After a moment he straightened and patted various pockets. "It's a simple lock. Shouldn't take more than a minute, if I can find… ah." From an inside pocket in her jacket he pulled out a black roll of cloth, and opened it up to reveal his lock picks. Leaning over again, he began to work.
The other two waited in silence, listening to the sound of the dogs barking and crashing against the gate. Suddenly a more ominous sound joined the cacophony – the shrill screech of twisting metal. Sarah shared a worried glance with Mikhail, and said, "Jacob, I think you'd better-"
She was cut off by an almighty crash as the tortured gate finally gave in and fell to the floor. Almost simultaneously, Jacob said, "Got it!" and the lock clicked open. He pulled the door away from the wall, revealing a dark spiral stair beyond. The three crowded in as the horde of dogs rounded the corner, and Sarah slammed the door again, leaving them in darkness.
* * * *
The journey down the stairwell was slow, done as it was in complete darkness. It would have been hard enough had the staircase been in perfect condition, but two years of no repair after a major earthquake had taken their toll. Frequently the team had to stop and negotiate their way over a gap where a step had fallen away, and they heard many things moving in the dark that made them cold with fear.
Eventually, after an indeterminable time in the darkness, they came to the door onto the correct floor. Pressing his ear against it, Jacob listened hard, but heard no sound of movement. Satisfied, he pulled out his lock picks again and set to work.
The door swung outwards into a medium-sized space, lit by a soft glow. Startled, Jacob saw that the light came from a small arrow shape on the far wall, some fifty yards away – a call button for the lift they sought. Silently thanking his luck, he gestured to the others, and they set off across the room.
They had gone about halfway when Sarah suddenly stopped and stared into the darkness of a nearby tunnel. Frowning, Jacob turned to ask her what was wrong… and then froze as he heard the sound of barking dogs, far too close to comfort. Then the canines poured around the corner into the room, and he started running again, Sarah slightly ahead of him.
Mikhail had already reached the lift, and Jacob could see now that the Russian had pressed the button, opened the doors, and stepped into the lighted cubicle. He saw Sarah fly through the doors, saw her turn and stare back towards him in silent horror, saw a dog run in front of him, cutting off his escape… and felt a sudden blow to his back, which propelled him up, over the dog, into the lift just as the doors began to close, and into the back wall of the cubicle.
Chapter 3: Commander's Orders
When he came around, moments or minutes later, Jacob found himself flat on the floor of the MagLev platform. Sitting up, he winced as the bruises on his arm, where he had hit the wall, made themselves known. Looking over to where the other three stood watching him, he asked, "What happened? Did a dog hit me from behind?"
Mikhail blinked and shook his head. "Nothing hit you, Jacob. We are quite sure of that. Did you not jump?"
Jacob blinked. "Jump? No, certainly not. It felt like someone had taken a cricket bat to my back, hitting me up and over. But you say nothing hit me?"
"Nothing," replied Sarah. "There was nothing within three feet of you except that dog in front."
Jacob frowned. "But that makes no sense…" He shook his head slightly. "I don't know, maybe I'm getting confused, maybe I did jump after all." Glancing up at Sarah, his face shifted to a concerned expression. "You look awfully pale, Sarah. Is something wrong?"
The girl shook her head and smiled weakly. "I guess all that running tired me out."
Jacob nodded, not entirely convinced, and then looked over to where the MagLev train waited for them, lit by its internal lighting. "It's ready to go?"
"It does appear to be ready," replied Mikhail. Jacob nodded and climbed to his feet, accepting Mikhail's helping hand.
"Good. We've still got a mission to complete, people. We can't hang around here all day."
* * * *
The Trans-Atlantic MagLev whisked the four away from the hound-infested station at over five hundred miles per hour, carrying them under the Atlantic to Ottawa, capital of Canada. On their arrival, several hours after leaving their own ruined capital, they moved to another line that took them down to Philadelphia, where the Canadian forces were holding the current US push back. A victory there would allow the United States a clear run at New York, and a good chance at retaking all the territory taken from them fifty years earlier, in the Third World War. They had already reconquered their old capital, Washington DC, and as far as Jacob was concerned, even that was too much.
Jacob was concerned over how they would gain access to the commander, but his fears proved to be unnecessary. On their arrival at the Philadelphia station, the trio were confronted by a small group of armed Canadian troops. As they stared at this show of force, uncertain as to what to do next, the leader of the troopers spoke. "We've been waiting for you," he said, gruffly. "We have instructions to take you to the commander as soon as you arrive, and the commander does not like to be kept waiting."
Jacob blinked, and looked at his companions in surprise. "Did someone tell them we were coming?" The other three shook their heads.
The soldier stepped forward. "Now, sir," he said. Jacob nodded.
"I suppose you'd better lead us to him, then."
* * * *
The group followed the soldiers into the city, now abandoned by all but the army, for reasons the echo of artillery fire from the south made clear. As they did so, Jacob tried to find out what they could expect. "So, er…"
"Lieutenant Simon Theras," supplied the leader of the troops. Jacob nodded.
"So, Lieutenant Theras, this commander of yours. What's he like?"
Theras raised an eyebrow at this, but answered. "The commander is very busy right now, so you shouldn't be surprised if… he takes a while to see you." There seemed to be a slight glint in his eye on the word 'he', but Jacob put it down to a trick of the light. Theras continued. "Being the Supreme Commander-"
Jacob cut him off. "The Supreme Commander? Your commander… he's the Supreme Commander of the Canadian Army?"
Theras frowned. "Actually, with the collapse of the British war machine to the Russians, and the way Australia doesn't seem to be doing anything, we call it as the Army of the World Commonwealth. But it amounts to the same thing, yes. You didn't know? We thought that was why you were called down here."
Jacob shook his head slowly, trying not to get angry at the implication that Britain had given up. "No, we were expecting just a local commander. And, just so you know, the Royal Navy is still actively fighting Russia."
Theras nodded, accepting the correction without comment. Beside Jacob, Sarah spoke up.
"What do you mean by 'called', anyway? We've come down to… ah, offer our services. We weren't 'called' by anyone… were we, Jacob?"
Jacob shook his head. Theras frowned. "But I thought… then how did she…?" The soldier shook his head slightly, as if trying to clear it. At length, he sighed. "I have to get back to the front lines. You will find the commander in that tent," he indicated an army tent set up in what had once been a park. "I trust you will arrive promptly." With that, he turned and led his troops away southwards. The members of Project Messiah stared after him for a moment, and then continued on towards the tent. Sarah moved up next to Jacob and muttered, "He wasn't telling us everything. I kept getting this feeling he was hiding something. Not out of malice or anything, but just a sort of 'If they don't know, let them find out for themselves' thing."
Jacob frowned. "I don't understand how that could be… I mean, we're on the same side, aren't we? I think you're just being paranoid, Sarah." He patted her shoulder, and then turned to the other two. "Come along. We have to be there as soon as possible."
* * * *
The three members of Project Messiah stepped into the tent and looked around. The tent was a hive of activity, but Jacob could see no one likely to be the Commander. Rather than wasting time trying to find him, he waited until a soldier was passing who didn't appear to be doing anything – an ageing woman in an old uniform, silver hair tied back in a tight bun – and caught her attention. "We're looking for the Commander," he said. "Can you tell us who he is?"
The woman raised an eyebrow. "I'm afraid the commander is busy right now," she said. "And I doubt he has time to talk to children who feel like dropping in."
Jacob's eyes narrowed. "Now, look here, we've just been escorted here by a group of soldiers who said the commander was expecting us, and now you're telling me he hasn't got time to see us?"
The woman blinked. "You're those children? Somehow I thought… ah, but yes, I see now." She looked at Mikhail and nodded slowly. "I believe the commander may have time to see you after all. But of course, we are all very busy, so if you would care to wait a time… the commander's office is in the Franklin Institute." She pointed to a large, museum-like building. "Just ask the guard on the door for directions." With that, she turned and walked back into the crowded centre of the tent, leaving Jacob, Sarah and Mikhail to make their own way over to the Commander's office.
* * * *
The three had been waiting for just over an hour, and Jacob was almost ready to give up and head back home without giving any assistance, when the door of the office swung open and the soldier who had directed them there walked in. At once, Jacob stood up. "Finally. Do you know how long we've been waiting here?"
"Of course I do," she replied calmly. "I sent you here, did I not?"
Jacob frowned. "Yes, you did, and you said this was the Commander's office. Where is he?"
"Oh, he'll be along any minute," she replied airily, and moved to the other door in the office. "Now, if you'll excuse me…" She opened the door and stepped through, closing it behind her.
As Jacob sat back down, Mikhail said, "I know her."
The other three turned to look at him, and he shrugged. "I do not know where from, but I am certain I have met her before."
Jacob was about to make a snide comment, something along the lines of Of course you have, we met her in the tent, but Sarah spoke before he could open his mouth. "She's Russian, if that helps," the thin girl said thoughtfully. "I couldn't place her accent at first – it was too faint, she's probably been here so long that she's adapted – but then Misha spoke and it just clicked."
Mikhail nodded slightly. "I thank you, Sarah. It seems to me that when I knew her, she spoke Russian, but… no. I cannot recall."
"No, I didn't expect you to," said the woman, stepping back through the door. "You were, after all, only a small child at the time, barely more than a babe in arms."
The members of Project Messiah turned to face her, and Jacob gulped. Where she had been wearing a tattered uniform suited to a common Canadian foot soldier, she was now clad in the full dress uniform of a United States Commander. "You… you're the Commander?" he stammered. She smiled grimly.
"Very good, Mr Ethrax. I am indeed the Supreme Commander of what my troops persist in referring to as the Commonwealth Army. And yes, as you may have guessed, I was formerly with the US." She moved over to sit behind her desk, facing the four. "Now, would you like to give me one good reason why I shouldn't throw you out of my office right now for the way you have behaved towards me?"
Jacob opened his mouth, but no words came out. Beside him, Sarah said, "With all due respect, Commander, Jacob didn't know who you were. He was merely impatient to be getting on with the mission."
"Ah, Miss Martell," said the Commander, looking at her. "And precisely what help do you think you, three children, can offer? I assure you, here in Canada we are experienced at fighting Americans, far more so than a little girl like you."
Sarah flinched, and sat back heavily in her chair. Before the Commander could speak again, Mikhail interceded.
"I do not know who you are, but I seem to recall that you are a good person. Please, Commander, I ask you not to say such things to my friends."
To everyone's surprise, she nodded. "Very well, Misha. Miss Martell, Mr Ethrax, I apologise."
"Oh… er… thank you," said Jacob hesitantly, while Sarah, frowning, merely nodded. The Commander eyed her curiously.
"You are thinking about me, aren't you?" At Sarah's startled nod, she laughed softly. "Perhaps you are thinking that you have seen me in a picture somewhere? I know that your mother was a great student of history, you could easily recognise me from some of her books."
Sarah thought harder, and then her eyes widened in shock. "Anastasia!"
Chapter 4: Defector's Power
Mikhail gasped, while Anastasia smiled. Jacob, on the other hand, looked completely blank. "Er, who?" he asked, cringing a little as Anastasia turned her gaze on him.
"You obviously never studied Russian history," she said. Jacob bristled, trying to think of a suitable retort, but was interrupted by Sarah.
"Anastasia Romanov was the youngest daughter of the last Tsar – that's like a king, Jacob – of Russia. This was back at the beginning of the twentieth century, but after the First Russian Revolution the entire family was imprisoned by the Communists. Then there was another war – I forget who was fighting, it's been a while since I studied this – and the Communists executed them. In… er…"
" Erkaterinsberg," supplied Anastasia. "19th of July, 1918."
"Er… right. There were a few madmen throughout the twentieth century who claimed Anastasia was still alive, but by the year 2000 there were few left. After all, she'd have to have been a hundred years old or so by then. Which, in turn, invites the question," and she turned to the Commander, "of how she can turn up here, looking no older than fifty."
Anastasia laughed. "I am afraid I have misled you somewhat. You see, I am not that Anastasia Romanov. It was true that she escaped death at the hands of the Communists. She changed her name, and lived as happy a life as any could under the regimes of Lenin, Stalin and their successors. She had several children, and I am descended from her eldest son. When I learnt of my heritage, after the death of my father, I changed my surname back to Romanov and left Russia for the United States. This was twenty years ago, when I was thirty-five. My son remained in the motherland, still under our assumed name. He chose not to follow me, and I could not force him to." She shrugged. "So here I am, heir to the throne of Russia, if such a thing still existed."
Jacob looked at her, frowning. "You'll have to forgive me for questioning you, but you're fighting for Canada, not the US… aren't you?"
Anastasia raised an eyebrow. "No, Mr. Ethrax, I do not believe I have any obligation to forgive you. As you would know if you had been listening, I have already answered your question. But as your memory is obviously defective, I will repeat myself. I was a General in the army of the United States of America, assigned to guarding the border with Canada between Washington DC and Pittsburgh. When the order to attack came through, however, I realised something was wrong with the President for him to be giving such commands. I surrendered my entire force to the Canadians. The delay the US then experienced in getting more troops to this critical area is the reason they are not already marching through the streets of Ottawa. Understandably, with my knowledge of US tactics, the Canadians let me remain as a commander, though my own troops were divided among the Canadian forces."
"But why are you the Supreme Commander?" Jacob pressed. "It doesn't make sense that they would appoint a former enemy to such a high rank."
Anastasia smiled thinly. "You do not understand the way our forces work, Mr. Ethrax. The title of Supreme Commander is merely ceremonial. With such a large area to defend, it is impractical for one woman to organise the entire effort. Each General is entirely independent, except in a few instances of organised mutual efforts, such as with the troops defending Winnipeg." She shrugged. "In theory we are all subordinate to the Chief of Defence Staff, but ever since Prime Minister Ross took personal control over all our forces – to great effect, for certain, but it could have been otherwise – we have been wary of putting all this power into the hands of one person."
Jacob shook his head uneasily. "I don't like it. It sounds like you're making all this up to trick us."
The Commander laughed aloud. "How arrogant you are!" she exclaimed. "You really think I would evacuate this entire city, and indeed begin attacking it, just to deceive three British children?" A loud explosion punctuated her point, and Jacob spun around, looking out of the window to see a huge fireball blossoming over the southern suburbs of the city. He turned back to see Anastasia looking grimly at him.
"The situation is desperate, Mr. Ethrax, which is the whole reason you are here. In a few days, no more than a week, this city will fall. What remain of my forces will retreat to New York, where they will join with General Miller's army in the defence of that city. Eventually, they too will fall, and the United States will press forward, north, towards Boston and Ottawa. Even with the restrictions on nuclear weapons imposed on them after World War Three, the US still has a considerable advantages over us. Canada will fall to them. It is inevitable."
The Project Messiah members stared at her. Jacob opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out. Instead, Anastasia spoke again, quietly.
"It is inevitable, that is, unless I can get to Los Angeles and speak to the President. I feel sure I can prevent him from continuing this pointless destruction any further. However, I cannot spare any of my trained infiltration teams to get me there. You, however…"
Jacob stared at her. "Commander-"
"Oh, now," she interrupted, "there's no need to be so formal. We will, after all, be working together for some time."
Jacob shook his head. "Anastasia, you're asking us to get you through a war zone and into the enemy capital. That's suicide."
"No, Jacob," said Sarah, "it's not." He stared at her, and she shrugged.
"Sarah is correct," said Anastasia. "I assume you can use that laptop to communicate with your computer?" Jacob blinked, and Anastasia sighed in exasperation. "The FSIAI unit Lu-Ci-2050, that you call Lucy. You do know what I mean if you think about it."
"Oh. Uh, yes," Jacob mumbled. Sarah rolled her eyes.
"I'll just set up the link, shall I?" she said, setting up the small satellite dish on Anastasia's desk. While she connected it up and booted up the software, Anastasia turned to Mikhail.
"You're very quiet, Misha," she said, causing him to jump slightly and look at her. "Have you nothing to contribute to the discussion?"
Mikhail shrugged uneasily. "I am still unused to this situation. Before I met Jacob, I had very rarely been allowed outside. For the last two years, I have not left London. This place… it is strange, it is new, it is crowded. I am nervous," he admitted, lowering his eyes.
Anastasia nodded. "I understand how that feels. I was a high-class citizen, isolated by my station, and now I am a Commander of many troops. It was difficult at first, very difficult, but it does get easier."
Mikhail nodded, but did not reply, as Lucy's voice spoke from the laptop. "Well, it's about time you remembered me."
"Sorry, Lucy," Sarah said into the microphone, and then turned back to Anastasia. "What did you need?"
"Ask her to show us a map of the currently operational MagLev lines in the United States," ordered Anastasia. There was a brief hiss from the speakers, and a burst of red on the screen.
"Ask me yourself, whoever you are," said Lucy. Sarah leaned down to the microphone.
"Ah, Lucy? That's the Commander of the Canadian army you're speaking to."
There was a pause, and then Lucy said, "Oh… sorry." The hypnotic coloured patterns faded from the screen, to be replaced by a map of the United States, crisscrossed with glowing yellow lines. Anastasia pointed at one that spanned the entire width of the United States.
"The Charleston-Los Angeles line. If we can get onto it, we can cross the entire country in a matter of hours."
"That's a big if," muttered Jacob. "The entire American army is between us and Charleston."
"Not all of it," said Lucy. "They are also occupied with their pushes at Winnipeg and Chicago, although they seem to have ceased their efforts on the West Coast, having taken Vancouver and-"
"All right," Jacob cut her off, "but there's still an awful lot of troops south of us."
"True," said Anastasia, "but we will not be going to Charleston. We will be going to Atlanta."
Sarah squinted at the map. "You mean we'll head down the Appalachians?" Anastasia nodded. "That could work, I suppose. We'd be to the west of their entire push."
"Yes, and then we'd be in the middle of enemy territory," said Jacob. "Does this strike anyone else as an incredibly bad place to be?"
"You have forgotten something, Jacob," said Mikhail. "The people in Atlanta, so far south of the border, will not be soldiers. They will be normal citizens. I doubt they will take quarrel with us."
"Especially not when our leader is American, and one of us is Russian," put in Sarah. "Remember, Jacob, the Russians are allies with the US."
"How could I forget?" he muttered, and then sighed. "Okay, then. I'll go if we're all agreed." He looked at Mikhail, who nodded.
"It seems to me that it could work. And…" the Russian looked down. "It would be nice to see mountains again," he said.
Jacob sighed. "Right, then. Where are we starting from?"
Anastasia smiled. "I knew you'd come around. We will be heading north a short distance, out of range of US fire, and then skirting the edge of the American advance, west, to the mountains. Then we'll be hiking south along the range. The border up there is virtually non-existent, so we should have no trouble crossing it. The Americans may have airborne patrols up – in fact, they'd be insane not to – but they'll be searching for a large force. With only four, we should be able to slip through."
"Through – and then down," added Sarah. "It's about five hundred miles, over rough terrain. We'll be gone a long time. Can your troops survive that long without you?"
Anastasia nodded. "I'm putting my second-in-command, Lieutenant-General Alice Craymann, in charge. She's descended from Alison Ross, our Prime Minister during the last War, and seems to have inherited some of her ancestor's legendary skill at winning against impossible odds."
Jacob nodded. "Lucy's told us all about Alison Ross. I didn't know she had children, though."
"You obviously weren't paying attention," Lucy chided. "I did mention it, you know. But you were more interested in hearing about her battle plans."
Jacob shrugged. "It's what you conscripted us for."
Anastasia raised an eyebrow. "I was under the impression that you, Jacob, were the leader of this team."
"He is," said Sarah, "but Lucy set Project Messiah up."
"Technically, I didn't," put in the computer. "I was merely following my programming for the situation that pertained in Britain at that time. If you wish to lay blame, put it on Ross and Altherton. They gave me the programme, after all."
Mikhail coughed. "I do not wish to interrupt," he said, "but should we not be beginning our mission? It is a great distance to Atlanta, and each second counts."
Anastasia smiled. "Very good, Misha. You are, of course, correct." She turned to Sarah. "Sarah, does- sorry. Lucy, do you have information on the current location of US forces?"
"I do," replied the computer, and the map on the screen blossomed with labels and dots. After a moment, the view zoomed in to show just the US push on the East Coast. Anastasia nodded in approval.
"You could have been very useful to me a few weeks ago," she said, and then tapped the screen. "See here," she said. "The American advance stretches right to the edge of the mountains, but on the West side there is nothing. If we aim to cross the border somewhere here," she indicated the very heart of the Appalachian range, "we should have no difficulty. Then we can move west to easier ground, and make better time. It will still take some time…"
"Twenty days, according to my data on the fitness of the Project Messiah members," said Lucy. "The data is somewhat out of date, though, so it's possible that they have improved."
"We'll allow twenty days, then," said Anastasia. "I'll order Lieutenant Theras to prepare supplies for that time. Assuming you three can carry that much weight." Her expression as she looked at the three wasn't particularly confident.
"They can," confirmed Lucy. "The twenty-day figure is based on that."
Anastasia nodded again. "Very good. I have a lot of organising to do, so you three can use my personal quarters for the night." She indicated the second door in the office. "Try not to make too much of a mess of it," she added, getting to her feet, "and get a good night's sleep. You'll need it." With that, she left the room at a brisk pace.
Chapter 5: Southern Sun
The sun was just rising when Project Messiah were woken by a woman with a heavy Canadian accent introducing herself as Alice Craymann. Half an hour later, they stepped out into the warm air of the September morning. Anastasia was standing on the steps of the Franklin Institute, looking out over the city. Alice walked over to her. "Commander? They're ready."
Anastasia turned to look at the three. "Ah, excellent. A little later than I hoped, but after all, you are not trained." Jacob bristled a little at that, but kept silent, earning an approving nod from Sarah. "Now, Alice, you know what to do?"
Alice nodded. "I should hold this city as long as possible, and then retreat with all possible speed to New York. There I will join my forces to those of General Miller and strive to halt the US advance until I hear from you."
Anastasia nodded. "If anything goes wrong, and you hear of my death or capture, there is a letter in my personal belongings to the Prime Minister, which you should deliver personally." Alice nodded, and saluted. Anastasia returned the salute. "Go, Lieutenant-General Craymann. Take good care of my troops."
"The very best I can, Commander," Alice replied, and ran off towards the tent pitched in the nearby square. Anastasia watched her go until she entered the canvas structure, and then turned to Project Messiah.
"Come along. We have little time. There is a car waiting for us on the western side of the city to take us as far as it can. After that, we're walking.
* * *
Twenty-one days later, the four human members of Project Messiah – for after the harrowing journey, Jacob, Sarah and Mikhail had no qualms about accepting Anastasia as a full member – abandoned their stolen car on the outskirts of Atlanta when it ran out of fuel. As they walked away from it, Sarah shook her head. "I'd heard that combustion engines were bad, but I didn't know they were that bad."
Anastasia laughed. "You are fortunate, Sarah, that you didn't grow up in Russia. Even so long after the first Soviet rule, we were still a long way behind the rest of the world in terms of technology. Even more so after we lost World War Three. Fuel cell cars were very rare – I don't think there were more than five in the whole city. Most of us were using sugar-burners." She shook her head, reflective. "Then I came over to the United States, and sugar-burners were only used in the rural areas. It's strange how that works out."
Mikhail was nodding in agreement. "I recall that our fuel cell car was regarded with awe by all when we were driven through the city. I did not understand why at the time."
"It's because we've lost," said Anastasia bitterly. "Russia always loses."
Sarah, meanwhile, looked at Jacob. "Jake," she whispered, and he looked up from his contemplation of the ground. "Is something wrong?"
Jacob blinked, surprised. "No? No, Sarah, nothing's wrong."
Sarah looked uncertain. "Are you sure? You haven't been very talkative today." Then she frowned. "Actually, you haven't been very talkative for a few days. Not since the, you know, cliff thing…" She trailed off, suddenly having an idea about what was troubling him. I shouldn't have used it… but I had to. She had kept it – she had trouble thinking about it in any other terms – secret for years. She hadn't even used it in all the time she'd been with Project Messiah, not until they'd been on their way over to Canada. And now she'd done so – she'd had to do so – three times in a month. She didn't know if she could keep it a secret any longer. And when they found out, they'd kick her out.
Oblivious to her thoughts, Jacob shook his head. "I'm just thinking, is all." And he was. He knew that it was nothing short of a miracle that he wasn't lying dead at the foot of that cliff right now, just like Sarah's earlier escape from the flooding stream… and, now he thought about it, his own escape from the dogs, all the way back in London. One such event would be suspicious, but three was impossible. There was something strange going on, and he had a feeling Sarah knew what it was.
"Sarah," he said, "do you-"
"Hey," called a voice from ahead of them, making all four of the team members jump and stop walking, "what are you doing out here?"
A young woman holding an old rifle was walking towards them. Anastasia shook her head slightly. "Civilian militia. Apparently they're running low on troops. Okay, follow my lead. Jacob, Sarah, don't speak at all." They nodded, and Anastasia took a step forward.
"Hiya," she said, and Jacob winced as her voice took on a Southern accent as thick as the woman's. A quick glance from Sarah made him regain his composure, but he was still thoughtful. There was no trace of Russian in Anastasia's current voice, and Jacob realised with a shock that she had wanted them to identify her back in Philadelphia. Suppressing a shudder at being so easily manipulated, he tuned back in to what Anastasia was saying.
"... came down the mountains, and we need to get to LA. Could you take us to the MagLev station, um, Miss…?"
"Anna Meyer," said the woman, lowering her gun, "and 'course I can, always glad to help our brave troops. C'mon, my car's just this way." And with that, she set off back across the fields. Jacob looked at Anastasia, amazed.
"What did you do?"
She shrugged dismissively, and spoke in her normal voice again. "I just told her we were US troops who escaped from a prison facility in Philly. The US has always had a hero-worship thing going on with the military, so it was easy."
Jacob watched her, amazed, as the four set off after their guide.
* * *
Anna watched the soldiers in her mirror as she drove them into Atlanta. The leader was sitting next to her, watching the route, while the other three were in the back, looking distinctly uncomfortable. She couldn't help but feel that she recognised the leader from somewhere. One of the parades before the war started? She didn't think so. She tried to remember, but had trouble focusing. She didn't know why, she'd slept well the previous night, but for some reason she just couldn't concentrate.
She was still thinking about it when they finally reached the MagLev station. The trains didn't run too frequently – there wasn't much call for a continent-spanning transport service, especially in wartime – but there was still one every day. As luck would have it, the next one would be arriving in less than an hour.
"Thanks," said the leader, "you're a sweetheart."
"You're welcome, ma'am," said Anna, still deep in thought. The leader nodded, and got out of the car.
""Come on, y'all," she said, "we have to get to the capital soon as possible." She turned to walk away, and suddenly Anna realised who she was.
* * *
The four members of Second Messiah started to walk away from the car when there was an ominous click from behind them. "Don't you take another step," said Anna Meyer.
They turned, and saw that the woman had got out of her car, and was pointing her rifle straight at Anastasia. "What are you doing?" asked the Russian. "We need to-"
"I know who you are," said Anna. "I saw you on TV when the war started. You're General Anastasia Romanov, and you betrayed us."
"I see," said Anastasia, and her whole manner shifted. Switching back to her normal accent, she said, "You're right, of course, I am indeed she. I did leave the US army for the Canadians. Did you ever stop to wonder why?"
"Because you're a traitor," said Anna, as if it were obvious. Anastasia shook her head pityingly.
"It's not that simple, Miss Meyer. People commit treason for lots of reasons. In my case, it was because I realised President Simons was leading us into a suicidal course of action. Anna, do you really think we can win this war?"
"There's no 'we', traitor." snarled Anna. "America is the best country in the world, and we're going to- don't you move!"
Anastasia had tried to take a step forward, but Anna swung the rifle, which had started to drop, back up. " "You're all going to stay right here until someone comes along, and I can tell them to get the police. You'll be executed for this, and your Canadian friends." She threw a disdainful look at the other three, who were still frozen in shock.
"Canadian?" exclaimed Jacob, forgetting that he was supposed to remain silent. "Why, you-"
"Jacob!" snapped Anastasia, "Be quiet!"
"A Brit too?" said Anna. " Nice group of traitors you've fallen in with."
Jacob seethed. He wasn't a traitor, and he didn't appreciate being labelled one. Sarah put a hand on his shoulder, and he tried to remain calm. Anna was talking to Anastasia again.
"We never should have trusted the Russians," she was saying. "You're still a bunch of filthy Commies, just like the Canadians."
Jacob heard Mikhail's pained intake of breath, and his resolve broke. Shaking off Sarah's restraining hand, he took a step forward. "Look, I've had just about enough of-"
The bullet ripped through the collar of his coat, barely missing his throat. Jacob stumbled backwards in shock, thinking Anna had meant it as a warning shot, but as he looked at her again, he saw that she hadn't. She had clearly aimed to kill, but the rifle just wasn't cooperating. In fact, it was pulling itself upwards, and as Jacob watched, astonished, it flew out of her hands and clattered to the ground some distance away. Anna stared at it for a moment, and then pointed over Jacob's shoulder. "Witch!" she shrieked.
Jacob blinked, and turned. Behind him, Sarah had her hand out, pointing towards Anna. Her eyes were locked on the American girl. Not breaking her gaze, she said, "Jacob, Anastasia, get behind me."
Jacob began to object. "But-"
"Now." Jacob didn't try to argue again, and joined the other two behind Sarah. The golden-haired girl kept her focus on Anna, who seemed to be frozen in place.
"No, Anna Meyer," said Sarah, "I'm not a witch. I'm just an ordinary girl like you, with a few added extras. I'd like to leave you here in peace. However," she tilted her head slightly, "all those ideas about running to the police about us will have to go. So this is how it's going to be. You're going to go to sleep now, and when you wake up, you won't even remember we were here. Until the end of the war, you will believe that you came to this station for some other reason. Do you understand?"
"You can't do that!" said Anna, but her tone was nervous. Sarah shook her head sadly.
"But I can," she replied, and lowered her hand. The American girl crumpled to the concrete, fast asleep. A moment later, Sarah stumbled backwards. Jacob rushed forward to catch her, and found himself looking into her grey eyes.
"Sarah?" he said, worried. "What was that?"
She gave a weak smile. "Surprise," she whispered, and fainted.
Chapter 6: Journeying On
"That's impossible, Misha."
"You also stated that getting her onto the train by claiming she was asleep was impossible, Jacob."
"Yes, yes, I know, but this is totally different. It's a complete violation of all the laws of physics."
"And yet you clearly saw it occur."
"Well, it must have been some sort of trick, or something. I'm sure she'll explain it when she wakes up. There's no reason to immediately jump to the conclusion that she's psychic or something."
At that point, Sarah decided she'd heard enough, and opened her eyes. "But I am, Jacob."
She was rewarded by the sight of the leader of Project Messiah practically jumping out of his skin before looking down at her where she lay across a trio of seats on what she assumed to be the MagLev. As she had suspected, he was sitting on the end of the seats opposite, putting Mikhail between himself and Anastasia. He still didn't fully trust the Russian woman, apparently, not even after all the weeks they'd all spent together.
Jacob looked back at Mikhail, who was exhibiting a small smile, and then turned to Sarah again. "But that's impossible."
Ignoring the snorts of disbelief from the two Russians, Sarah slowly pulled herself up into a sitting position, waving Jacob away when he tried to get out of his seat to help her. "I'm not that weak." When she was upright – although she subtly leaned against the side of the compartment to be absolutely certain she wouldn't collapse – she smiled at Jacob. "And it isn't impossible. Isn't seeing it enough proof?"
Jacob shook his head in bewilderment. "It just… doesn't make any sense."
Sarah gave a wry smile. "I've been thinking that for years. It's still here, however much I might wish it wasn't."
"Wish it wasn't?" The question came from Anastasia, who now leaned forward, intent. "Sarah, why would you wish that? You have a great gift, a great talent-"
"A great way to get myself hated by everyone who finds out," Sarah cut her off. "I don't think you quite understand. This gift – this curse – is dangerous. It's dangerous to me – you saw how it affected me back at the station – and it's dangerous to other people. I can move things with my mind. I can read other people's thoughts. That last, especially…" She shuddered, but when Jacob went to get up she held up a hand and glared. "Don't. It won't help. Nothing can help. Sooner or later you'll realise, I can't be trusted. You'll hate me and make me leave. I'm not waiting around for that. I'll leave when we reach Los Angeles, and you can get on with your mission." She curled up against the wall, blocking them out. A moment later, she stiffened as she felt an arm wrap around her. Jacob, ignoring her earlier rejection, had moved to the seat next to her and was awkwardly trying to give her a comforting hug. She tried to remain cold, to drive him away, but she couldn't. Breaking down, she turned to him, burying her face in his shoulder.
"It's not going to be like that, Sarah," he said reassuringly. "You're still our Sarah. We still trust you."
"And we can't get rid of you now," put in Anastasia, "you're too valuable. Think of all the things you can do."
"I try not to use it," Sarah said, her voice muffled in Jacob's clothing. "It tires me out, and I don't like feeling that powerful. And it scares people."
"It doesn't scare us," said Jacob, worriedly. "You do believe me, don't you?"
She pulled away from him slightly, and looked at him. At the sight of his earnest, concerned expression, she couldn't suppress a giggle. "Yes, Jacob, I believe you. Don't worry about that."
He nodded, still looking a little concerned, and then seemed to realise that he was still holding her. His arms dropped instantly to his sides and he moved away. "Sorry. I'll leave you be."
"Don't," she said, reaching out and grabbing his arm, pulling him back to sit next to her. At his confused look, she smiled sheepishly. "I'm feeling a little fragile right now, and I might need something to cling to."
"Of course, Sarah," he said. "Anything you need."
There was the sound of muffled laughter from the seats opposite them, and the pair looked up to see both Mikhail and Anastasia stifling chuckles. Jacob glared at them, looking affronted, which only served to make them lose what little control they had. Over the sound of their laughter, Sarah turned back to Jacob.
"Just ignore them," she said. "We must allow the simple-minded their amusements, you know."
That put a stop to their amusement, as the two Russians looked at her, trying to decide whether she was serious. Any reply they might have made, however, was prevented as an American voice announced that they were approaching Little Rock, Arkansas, and that they would need their tickets ready for inspection.
* * *
Several hours later – one of which had to be passed in complete silence, after an American travelling from Amarillo, Texas to Albuquerque, New Mexico sat down in their compartment – the four finally disembarked in Los Angeles. On their way out of Union Station, Anastasia directed them into a mostly-empty area.
"All right," she muttered to the two English teens, "we're here now. Remember, you can't be heard using your own accents."
"Oh, that's okay," said Jacob. "I can fake an American accent fairly well."
Anastasia sighed in exasperation. "Do you do this deliberately? No, Jacob, you can't. Not well enough to fool actual Americans."
"Then what?" asked Sarah, still a little subdued.
"Russian," said Mikhail suddenly, in an accent as thick as his had been when Jacob had first met him. "The Americans are allied with Russia, so our accents will not be frowned upon. However, I do not recall reading of many Russians in the US, so the Americans will not know that your accents are faked."
"All right," replied Jacob in his best approximation of the same accent. He thought it rather good, but Mikhail and Anastasia winced.
"That… will do for now," said Anastasia carefully. "Sarah, can you manage?"
"I think so," said Sarah in a similar accent. She shifted back to her own voice, and added, "Was that okay?" To Jacob's ear, she sounded a little worried, as if she was still afraid of being left behind.
Anastasia, too, seemed to catch this. "It was fine, Sarah. And even if it wasn't, we need you along. There's no need to be paranoid."
The girl nodded, and then shook herself and nodded again, more certainly. Once more in her Russian accent, she said, "All right."
"So where are we going?" asked Jacob, resuming the accent himself. Anastasia closed her eyes in thought for a moment, and then nodded.
"I remember. There's two places we might find the President. First, and closest, is the main government complex at Elysian Park. The second, which is a lot further away and harder to reach, is his official residence, the Grey House. That's up on Mulholland Drive, in what used to be another park – Laurel Canyon, I believe. As the name suggests, the House is at the top of a rather large hill, so-"
She stopped as an American woman wandered over, but it was too late. "You talking about the President?" she asked. Anastasia nodded warily. "What're you doing that for?"
"I was going to take these kids to see if we could see him," replied Anastasia, using her Southern accent again. "They're from Russia, y'see, so they've never seen a really good leader before."
The woman smiled. "That's nice of you, giving them a treat like this."
"I thought so myself," replied Anastasia, "but we're having a bit of a problem. See, we don't know whether he'd be at Elysian Park or the Grey House."
The woman nodded, frowning. "Well, from what I hear, he's almost never down at the Park these days. The papers keep starting stories that he's dead, but he still makes speeches on the TV."
Anastasia nodded. "So he'd be up at the House?"
"Yep," said the woman, "but I doubt you'll have much luck. Like I said, he's a bit reclusive these days."
"Well, thank you for your help, ma'am."
"Oh, not a problem," said the woman. "You kids have fun, y'hear?" And with that, and a little wave, she wandered off. The four stared after her.
"What a helpful woman," said Jacob, blinking. Anastasia grinned.
"Hardly the stereotypical American, was she? It'd be interesting to see whether she was the exception to the rule, or representative of how most people in Los Angeles act, but we're a little pressed for time."
Jacob nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah. Exactly how far is it to Mil-, Mull-, er…"
"Mulholland Drive," supplied Anastasia. She thought for a moment, and then shook her head. "I couldn't say, but it must be ten miles or more. And some of that's uphill."
Jacob shook his head. "A long walk."
"Understatement much?" muttered Sarah. Jacob rolled his eyes, but privately, he was glad she was okay – which she must be if she was making sarcastic comments again.
"Well, anyway," said Anastasia, "no time to stand around here. If we're walking, let's walk." Jacob nodded, and began to head once more towards the exit to the station, but Anastasia coughed. "One more thing."
"Yes?" he asked, irritated.
"Russian accents, please, at least until we reach Laurel Canyon."
Jacob blinked, and realised that he'd been speaking in his normal voice again. "Sorry," he muttered, inflecting his voice in the Russian mode again. "I will try to remember."
"See to it that you do," replied Anastasia, "or you'll get yourself arrested, and don't think we'd come to rescue you."
"So this is it?" whispered Jacob in his own accent, crouching in a thicket with the other three.
Anastasia nodded. "This is it. Or rather, that is it." She pointed up the slope to the large grey building. "The Grey House, home of the President of the United States. Built on the site of Laurel Canyon Park, with that usual American disregard for the environment." She shook her head, and watched a guard walk across the back of the house. When he had passed out of sight, she said, "We won't be able to get in until after nightfall, when we should be able to get straight to President Simons' private chambers without being seen."
Jacob looked at her sceptically. "The security in this place is that bad?"
Anastasia shrugged. "So I'm told. Remember, they don't really expect to be attacked down here. Even losing a war – and a lot of territory – didn't do anything to shake the American superiority complex. However, I don't think we should trust rumour. I'll go and scout out the perimeter – you three stay here."
They nodded, and Anastasia slipped silently into the bushes. Mikhail stared after her, an expression of awe on his face. "That woman," he said, "has a wonderful mind. That she can move so silently in such difficult terrain, it speaks to me of specialist training." At the odd looks he received from Jacob and Sarah, he looked uncomfortable. "I have always had a, a fascination with the military. It is just a hobby, but I have researched such things when I could."
"So that's how you kept coming out with those random facts back home," said Sarah, nodding. "I understand now."
"So do I," added Jacob. "I understand that you're a virtual drooling fanboy."
Sarah smiled, and Mikhail looked hurt for a moment before realising it was a joke. "It is not a good idea to drool when using a computer, Jacob. Did they teach you nothing when you were young?"
Jacob laughed. "Okay, you got me on that one."
Mikhail nodded. "I am aware of that." After a moment, he added, "As we will not be moving until the night falls, I believe I will spend some time sleeping."
"Okay," replied Jacob, "we'll wake you when the sun sets." He looked up at the sky for a moment, and then added, "About two hours. Will that do you?"
"It should be sufficient," the black-haired Russian boy said, and without further ado curled up under a bush and closed his eyes.
Well accustomed to Mikhail's sleeping habits, Jacob and Sarah remained quiet for five minutes to give him time to get to sleep. When he was sure their friend was fully asleep, Jacob shuffled closer to Sarah. "Sarah," he said, quietly, "question."
She blinked in surprise. "Yes?"
He waved in the direction Anastasia had gone. "Anastasia said that the US had lost a lot of territory in World War Three. I know they lost their capital, but I didn't think that really counted as a lot."
"You're allowed to call her Nastya, Misha and I do," replied Sarah. Then her brain finished processing the rest of the sentence, and she stared at Jacob. "They really didn't teach you anything, did they?" she asked.
He looked uncomfortable. "You know I wasn't very good in school, Sarah," he said. "And I hardly had a chance to learn much after, seeing as we got the Project Messiah gig landed on us at sixteen."
The girl shook her head. "All right, I'll explain. Um…" She peered over the bushes at the Grey House. "Right. You see the flag on the top of the House?"
"The Stars and Stripes, yes," he nodded, not even bothering to look. "I know what it looks like. Thirteen stripes in red and white, fifty stars on blue, with the central sixteen in red."
Sarah nodded approvingly. "There, you do know something, at least." At his hurt look, she smiled, and went on. "Those sixteen stars represent the states they consider as 'occupied territory', that is, the ones taken from them by Canada in the war."
"There aren't sixteen states in all of Canada," Jacob pointed out.
"There are seventeen, actually," Sarah corrected, "but you're right. What happened was that Canada joined the states together into larger territories. Five – they were called Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio – are now Trudeau Territory. That's the big one with all the lakes in," she interrupted herself when Jacob gave her a completely blank look.
"I think I get it," he replied. "So what were the others? I mean, you said they took sixteen, but you only mentioned five."
"You're not getting bored?"
He shook his head. "It's relevant, isn't it? I mean, we're in the middle of a war between the two countries involved."
Sarah looked at him in amusement. "Well, if you say so… anyway, they also took Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and New Jersey to make Pennsylvania."
"Now, that can't be right," Jacob said. "The last territory wasn't named after one of the states in it, why should this one be?"
She shrugged. "I couldn't say. I can tell you that Trudeau was an old Canadian Prime Minister reported to be a favourite of Alison Ross, but they had lots of ex-Prime Ministers."
"Maybe they just thought it was a pretty name," he commented. Sarah snorted.
"You may be right. Want me to continue?" At his nod, she closed her eyes for a moment, and then went on. "Okay, the next one is the province of New England, which is made up of Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. And before you ask," she cut him off, "the reason for that name is that the area was called traditionally called New England." She frowned. "It may also have something to do with the fact that it's right next to the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, which were already part of Canada, but I'm just guessing there."
"It's a good guess, though," said Jacob reassuringly. After a moment's pause, he added, "That's fifteen."
"Oh, yes. The other one's Alaska, which is still Alaska."
Jacob blinked. "Alaska? Isn't that the big cold area up in the north-west?" At Sarah's nod, he said, "It's not in contact with America."
"It used to be closer," she pointed out, "the Canadians also took pieces of the five northernmost states – Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota – and integrated them with the provinces closest to them. But yes, that's a weird one. I think the Americans bought it from Russia a long time ago."
Jacob nodded. "Sounds like the sort of thing they'd do. Probably planned to use it for skiing holidays. So that's everything?"
Sarah nodded. "Except for half of Maryland, a tiny little state right next to Washington DC, which is now part of Pennsylvania. Aren't you glad you know all that?"
Jacob smiled. "Leaving aside the fact that I'm always glad to hear you talk, yes, actually, I am. However," he added, curling up, "I think I'm going to follow Misha's example now. All this learning is tiring work." And with that, he closed his eyes.
Sarah looked down at him, her expression a mixture of amusement and affection. "Well, I'll keep watch, then," she murmured, and leaned back against a tree."
* * *
The sun had just dipped below the horizon, and Sarah was about to wake Jacob and Mikhail, when Anastasia returned. She stepped out of the undergrowth as silently as she had entered it, and nodded to Sarah. "They are sleeping, I see."
The golden-haired girl nodded. "I was just about to wake them."
Anastasia smiled. "Good. Please do so, and fast."
It took less than a minute for the boys to be fully alert, and then Anastasia gestured the three to follow her into the foliage. As they moved – Sarah almost as quietly as Anastasia, Jacob and Mikhail less so – the general explained her plan in hushed tones. "I overheard two guards talking. The security cameras at the back of the house are inoperative right now, so they've doubled the guard. However, as one might expect, the watchmen themselves don't see their job as too important. They are inattentive, and their surveillance suffers. There is a gap in their pattern every five minutes, through which we should be able to sneak to reach a window. Once inside, finding the President will be easy."
"But you're not going to get that far," said a male voice, as a bright light shone in their faces. "Come on, get your hands up."
Anastasia swore under her breath, and hissed, "Sarah, could you-"
"Don't even think of trying anything," the man added conversationally. "We've got a sniper up on the roof, so even killing me would be useless."
"Yeah, but you'd be dead," muttered Jacob, but raised his hands above his head as the guard glared at him. Two more watchmen came over to help, and the team found themselves staring into three gun barrels.
"I suppose you're going to take us to the President, then?" asked Sarah, a strange tone in her voice. The first guard blinked, and then nodded.
"Gonna take you to see the President," he repeated, and began to turn away. Sarah gave a small sigh of relief, and the guard froze. He shook his head as if to clear some mental fog, and pointed his gun straight at Sarah. "No we're not. We're gonna shoot you right-"
The man's radio beeped, and, frowning, he pulled it from his belt and listened to it. All the Project Messiah members could hear from the other end was a faint mumbling, but when the guard lowered the radio, he looked very annoyed.
"Apparently," he said, eyeing Sarah suspiciously, "we are gonna take you to the President. He wants to interrogate you personally." He continued glaring at Sarah for a moment, and then nodded. "You're coming with us. If you try anything…" The sentence remained unfinished as he walked away. The other two guards took up positions behind the group, and all six followed the guard.
"What happened there?" muttered Jacob to Sarah, very quietly.
"I don't know, Jake," she replied. "It was as if some other psychic broke the link…"
"Quiet, you," said one of the guards, jabbing Sarah with his gun. Jacob managed to refrain from glaring at the man only with effort, but he kept his eyes forward, and the team made it inside, and to the President's office, alive.
Chapter 8: Preserving Freedom
"Ah, Mr. Sanderson. Please close the door behind you."
Anastasia, Jacob, Sarah and Mikhail were ushered into a medium-sized office and directed to stand in the middle of the floor. Around them, four guards – including the one addressed as Sanderson, who had escorted them in – stood, positioned so that they could fire their rifles without worrying about hitting each other. Behind the desk against the far wall a handsome, if ageing, man was seated, sorting through a stack of papers. Jacob assumed he was a clerk or secretary of some sort, until Anastasia spoke.
"President Simons, I-"
"Have come here to finish the betrayal you began last year at our old capital?" The President held up a hand as she opened her mouth to continue. "Yes, I'm aware of your reasons, Romanov. I happen to think 'the President must be insane to have launched this attack' to be inadequate justification for treason."
Jacob stared at Anastasia. "Nastya," he blurted out, "you didn't."
"Ah, you're working with the English," said Simons, as Anastasia winced and glared at Jacob. "Yes, boy, she did indeed say that, in the video broadcast across the East Coast. Now, then, Romanov," he added, turning back to Anastasia, "I should have you all executed immediately, but I confess a certain curiosity. You are unarmed, outnumbered, and in the middle of hostile territory. How did you expect to accomplish anything, still less to escape?"
Anastasia took a deep breath. "Craig," she said, "why are you doing this? You know we can't possibly beat Canada. Why are you trying?"
"Because no one else will," he answered bluntly. "Romanov, for the last forty-nine years, we Americans have lived with sixteen red stars, sixteen states of the Union – including eight of the Thirteen Colonies – occupied by Canada, and by extension England. No one has made a single move to change that, despite the people repeatedly asking that it be done – on both sides of the border. For almost two generations we have been oppressed by Canada, and I realised that we didn't have to be. Yes, they're a nuclear power, but they won't use nukes. I thought that we might have a chance at beating them back to their old border, and it looks like we might, even with your betrayal. It may interest you to know that Philadelphia is ours again, and that the siege of New York is well under way."
He continued speaking, but Jacob was no longer paying attention. He'd noticed something in the way the President was talking. He was very persuasive, almost too persuasive, and didn't seem to be stopping to breathe. His voice was also settling into a certain rhythm. Most people, Jacob knew, wouldn't see anything out of the ordinary in that, but Jacob had seen the same thing several times before. He just couldn't figure out where.
He frowned slightly, trying to bring the memory back, and then, abruptly, he had it. Whenever Lucy was explaining the Ross-Altherton programme's latest command – many of which seemed absurd, such as the instruction a couple of months previously to create a device for measuring the distance to the moon – she slipped into the same style of speaking.
Jacob frowned again. If President Craig Simons was a computer, what would that mean? He doubted that even in the US the people would knowingly elect a machine, which would imply it was either a secret, or that a switch had been made. But how was it possible? He hadn't heard of any androids in the world, but then, he hadn't really been trying to find out. Sarah would probably know, but he couldn't ask her, and she might not even have noticed.
"Oh, I noticed," said Sarah's voice. Jacob's head snapped around, ignoring the guards who immediately aimed at him, and stared at the girl beside him. She smiled faintly, and he heard her voice again, though her lips didn't move. "I'm speaking into your mind. Don't worry, I won't pry. Now look forward again before the guards blow your head off."
Hurriedly, he looked forward again. "Very good," Sarah said into his thoughts. "Now, I've done a mind probe on the President, and there's nothing there. He's a robot of some sort, but as you noted, there's been no reports of at sort of thing even being possible. The guards don't seem to know, so what I'm going to do is, I'm going to see if I can short-circuit him so that they see what's going on. No, don't nod," she added, before he could move, "I can sense your agreement." There was a pause, and she added, a little uncertain, "If this goes wrong, there may be shooting. Get ready to duck."
"So you see, Romanov," Simons was saying as Jacob returned his attention to him, "once we had defeated Canada, we could have joined the Russians could have joined the Russians the joined have could Russians Russians Russians -"
The four guards turned to stare at their President as his speech scrambled and sped up. All of the occupants of the room ducked when his speech stopped and showers of sparks shot from his mouth. A moment later there was a small explosion, and pieces of metal flew across the room.
Coughing in the acrid smoke, Project Messiah and their guards got to their feet. The President's neck was ripped in half, a bundle of wires sticking out, still sparking. The guards stared, and from behind the group, Sanderson said, nervously, "What… what just happened?"
"A slight malfunction is all," said Craig Simons, walking through the door from an adjacent room and heading for the desk. Aware of all the eyes on him, he stopped, looking around. "Aren't we going to continue?" he asked.
Sanderson lifted his gun and pointed it at the President. "Not until you explain what's going on, sir."
The President raised an eyebrow, and Jacob had time to wonder if he was another android or the real thing. "Android," said Sarah, and he wondered if she's spoken aloud or in his mind again. A second later, she spoke again, and this time he knew it was to everyone. "What's going on is that your President – both versions of him – is a robot."
"Not quite," said Simons, walking over to the desk. "A computer, in fact. These bodies," he gestured at the remains sitting in the chair before pushing it off and sitting down himself, "are merely peripherals." He paused for a moment. "Now, of course, as you know this, I cannot allow you to live. Guards, shoot them."
The group froze. Three of the guards aimed their rifles at them, uncertainly. Sanderson just stared at the President. "You… sir, you're a computer?"
"Yes, yes," said Simons dismissively, "we've established that. Now do your job, soldier."
Sanderson shook his head, looking dazed, and pointed his gun at Simons again. "My job is to protect the United States of America from any threats, and a computer in the Grey House is- don't move. I said don't-!"
The President-android had pulled a pistol from a desk draw and lifted it to fire at Sanderson with inhuman speed. Before he could aim properly, however, Sanderson had tightened his finger on the trigger of his own gun and sprayed Simons with bullets. The robot's head was smashed, and the arm froze in place. The stream of bullets continued until the gun's magazine was empty. Then Sanderson lowered the gun, shaking, his face white.
Anastasia turned on the spot, looking at each of the other three guards in turn. "You all saw what happened here," she said, her voice slipping back into the commanding tone that Jacob mentally called her General mode. "Are you all willing to bear witness to these events?"
"Yes, sir," the three replied as one. After a moment, one said, "General Romanov, what are your orders?"
Anastasia frowned. "Sarah," she said, "you know about this sort of thing. He said that the bodies were peripherals. Does that imply that the main computer is nearby?"
Sarah frowned. "I suppose it could," she admitted. "Without a look at the circuits I wouldn't know for certain, though, and they might have some sort of long range transmitter, so…"
"It's in the House," came a shaky voice from behind them. All turned to look at Sanderson, who pulled himself upright and saluted Anastasia. "Sergeant James Sanderson reporting, General Romanov."
Anastasia returned the salute. "Very good, sergeant. Now, what were you saying about the computer?"
"It's down in the basement, sir. At least, a computer is. I was not informed as to its function, but received orders that it is to be protected at all costs. Sir."
Anastasia nodded. "And now that you know that it is, in fact, impersonating your president, are you willing to disobey those orders?"
"Sir, my orders, first and foremost, are to preserve the security of the United States of America. A computer as President is a threat to that security, and as such must be eliminated."
Anastasia looked thoughtful. "Sergeant, let me ask you a question."
Jacob coughed. "Nastya," he said, cautiously, "there may be more of those robots coming. Shouldn't we be getting out?"
"Just a moment, Jacob," she said, waving him away with one hand. "Sergeant Sanderson, do you support the war against Canada?"
James Sanderson nodded without hesitation. "They stole our land. Now we're taking it back."
"Very patriotic of you. Now, what if I were to tell you that the people in the land you call stolen consider themselves part of Canada now? Would you still insist on getting it back?"
Sanderson looked uncomfortable. "It's not about the people, sir," he said, "it's the principle of it. We can't let the Canadians think they can beat us."
"They did beat you, James," said Anastasia soothingly. "They beat you fifty years ago, and they'll probably beat you again, in time. However, that's beside the point. The point is, how often, before this war, did you think about those 'stolen' states?"
Sanderson blinked. "Every morning, sir. I saluted the flag, and-"
"And the sixteen stars reminded you of the states, yes, yes. But how often, of your own volition, did you think about them? How often, in other words, did you actually care?"
Sanderson opened his mouth for an instinctive response, and then closed it again. A moment later, he nodded. "I understand your point, sir. This war wasn't necessary until it had started."
Anastasia smiled. "Very good, sergeant. I may have to steal you. For now, however," she glanced at Jacob, "we have a computer to deal with. You and you," she pointed at two of the guards, "go and find Vice-President… Denton, isn't it? Yes, Denton, and inform him of the situation. He will need to tell the people what has happened here, and order the army to cease hostilities. We will bring evidence of what happened here as soon as we destroy the computer. The rest of you, with me. Sergeant Sanderson, lead the way. Now come on, people, time to move!"
Chapter 9: Fallen Grace
Jacob Ethrax jogged through the hallways of the Grey House. In front of him, Sergeant James Sanderson and General Anastasia Romanov led the way. Behind him was Mikhail Melnikov, flanked by two US troops. At his side was Sarah Martell, still carrying her laptop. The three US soldiers were armed. Jacob, Mikhail, Sarah and Anastasia weren't. Jacob thought this immensely unfair, but was wise enough to keep his complaints to himself – having Sarah tell him exactly why things were the way they were was something he'd rather avoid.
The group came to a halt at a corner. Sanderson leaned out cautiously to check the corridor ahead was clear, and then looked back at the others, gesturing to them to come in close.
"The computer's behind the door at the end of the hall," he whispered. "I only saw it once, so I don't know what security they've got set up around it."
Jacob peered around. "No guards, I see."
Sanderson shrugged. "Apparently not. They might be inside."
"Or they might be deemed unnecessary," put in Sarah. "After all, with you outside…"
Sanderson nodded, but Jacob frowned. Sarah speaking had reminded him of her powers. "Sarah, could you-"
The girl shook her head sharply. "Not with the Sergeant around," she muttered into Jacob's mind. "I don't really want him finding out what I can do just now. Not when I just blew up his President."
"Can she what?" asked Sanderson. Jacob cursed mentally, and cast about for a response. Fortunately, before he could say anything aloud, Mikhail came to the rescue.
"I believe he was asking for Sarah to use the sensitive microphone she carried in training to discover whether there are any people behind the door." He smiled, an amused glint in his brown eyes. "Patently, Jacob has forgotten that Sarah did not bring the microphone with her. He does not have a very good memory, you see." The last was delivered in a stage whisper, and Jacob scowled at Mikhail, who looked back at him, a picture of innocence.
After a moment Jacob looked down at the floor, his shoulder-length brown hair falling in front of his face. Beside him, Sarah giggled. "Beaten by Misha, Jake. How the mighty have fallen."
"Not much of a fall," put in Anastasia. Jacob looked up angrily.
"Look, I've had just about enough- what?" He glared around at the three, who were trying in vain to contain their laughter. "What's so funny?"
"And can it wait?" put in Sergeant Sanderson, sounding irritated. "Only the computer may discover our presence at any moment. Especially if you keep laughing."
They stopped immediately. "Right," said Anastasia, as if nothing had happened. "Sergeant, if you'd care to secure the corridor and open the door, we can get this over with quickly and stop anyone else dying."
The six moved quickly down the final corridor, the other guard watching their backs, and waited as James Sanderson tried the keypad beside the door. A few moments later, he shook his head. "It's no good. The code isn't any of the ones we use upstairs."
Sarah sighed. "Okay, Jake," she said, stepping forward, "I take it back. Sergeant, let me try."
"You?" Sanderson frowned. "But you don't know our systems."
"She's not going to use the panel," Jacob said. "Just watch, okay?"
Sanderson nodded, frowning, and stepped aside to let the girl reach the door. Laying her hands flat on the metal panel, she closed her eyes, her brow furrowing in concentration. Jacob watched, expecting at any moment to see the door fly into the wall, or even to fall down to the floor.
What actually happened was a quiet, almost undetectable creak from the surrounding wall, followed by Sarah stumbling backwards, tripping over her own feet and falling to the floor. Jacob's quick reflexes allowed him to catch her shoulders, but all this accomplished was to slow her fall, and carry him down with her.
Sitting down heavily, Jacob pulled his friend's head into his lap, her long hair spreading across his legs. "Sarah," he said, "what happened? What's wrong?"
"Too heavy," she murmured, almost too quiet for him to hear. "Couldn't move it. Lock too big. Over-stretched myself. Can't…" Her voice trailed off, her eyes closed, and Sarah fainted again.
Jacob looked up at the others, worrying. "She's fainted," he said, "she's fainted and it's all my fault."
"Your fault?" exclaimed James Sanderson, incredulous. "What did you do?"
"He did not do anything," said Mikhail, kneeling down beside Jacob. "He merely has a bad habit of attempting to claim responsibility for all mishaps."
"Do not," muttered Jacob, but he wasn't in the mood for arguing. Too much of his attention was focussed on worrying over the girl he was holding. "What are we going to do?" he asked, looking up.
"We're going to finish the mission," snapped Anastasia, "before any more robots turn up."
Mikhail frowned, and got to his feet. "Nastya," he said, "Jacob cannot carry on. He will spend his time worrying about Sarah, and will likely get himself killed. He would be a liability."
Jacob glared up at Mikhail, suddenly angry. How dare that Russian say that he, Jacob, wouldn't be useful on the team? How dare he? He was about to say something to that effect when he realised that actually, that very response was evidence that Mikhail had a point.
"Misha's right," he said, looking down at the floor. "There's four of you, you should be able to manage without me. I'll… I guess I'll carry Sarah upstairs and wait for you in the office."
Anastasia nodded. "Thank you, Jacob. I didn't want to have to order you to leave."
"And what makes you think you could?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. Anastasia frowned, and then laughed.
"English boy, you're insane, but in a good way. Go on, get Goldilocks out of here. We'll just have to open the door the conventional way."
Jacob nodded, and, laying Sarah's head gently on the floor beside him, stood up. With a little help from Mikhail, he lifted the girl over his shoulder and walked off up the corridor, back towards the President's office. Every step, he expected to hear an explosion or crash as the four he left behind destroyed the door to get in, but the whole of the trip was eerily silent. "I suppose," he muttered, mostly just to make some noise in the silence, "that a computer wouldn't really need much of a household."
The journey to the office was uneventful, so Jacob guessed that their fears of hordes of androids had been unfounded. Placing Sarah gently onto a leather sofa at the side of the room, the leader of Project Messiah sat on a chair and studied his unconscious team-mate.
He had known her for slightly less than two years, and his memory of their first meeting was still crystal clear. Mikhail had landed their small aeroplane in the mud of what was left of St. James' Park, and the two boys – only sixteen then – had wandered southwards, trying to find some explanation for the devastation. There had been bodies everywhere, some crushed beneath rubble, some burnt by the fires, and some just lying in the middle of the roads, all their bones shattered by the earthquake that had thrown them high in the air.
All except one. They had gone a few hundred metres, and were virtually ignoring the corpses, when one of them groaned. Her golden hair was covered with dust, her pale skin covered in bruises, but the girl, Sarah, had been miraculously unharmed.
A small smile crept onto Jacob's face. Not miraculously at all, it turned out, but a product of her psychic talent. Maybe she'd consciously caught herself, or maybe it had been a reflex, but somehow it had protected her.
He knew her far better now, of course, than when she was merely the only survivor of the London bomb. Over the two years he had known her, he had occasionally noticed her appearance, but only now did he grant himself the pleasure of actual study.
She was beautiful. So much so that Jacob was shocked he hadn't seen it before. Everything about her, her hair, her skin, her features, it was all, to Jacob's eyes, perfect. When she was awake, her voice, too, fascinated him. Thinking about it, he realised that he'd been heading to this point for a long time, but arriving was nevertheless a complete surprise.
The thing was, he rather thought he was falling in love with her.
Jacob sighed, his eyes no longer seeing the girl before them. It was ridiculous, of course. This was Sarah. He'd known her for years, she was virtually a younger sister. And besides, there was absolutely no reason to believe she felt anything like the same. She'd never given any indication, that he recalled, that she considered him more than a friend.
Reaching out a hand, Jacob brushed his fingers lightly over Sarah's cheek. He gently brushed a clump of hair away from her face, and looked down at her thoughtfully. He was gazing straight at her face when her eyes suddenly opened.
Startled, he tried to pull his fingers away, but Sarah's hand flew up and caught his wrist. "Sarah," he said, trying to explain, but stopped when she leaned her cheek gently against his fingers. He returned the slight pressure, strokes his fingers gently over the soft skin of her face. She smiled, and he felt as though he was falling into her deep grey eyes.
"Hello, Jacob," she whispered, her lips parting slightly. Jacob began to lean down towards her…
And that, of course, was when the door of the office crashed to the floor and a Craig Simons android flew through to smash against the desk.
Chapter 10: Memory Lane
Jacob and Sarah leapt to their feet as Mikhail jumped over the ruined door, followed closely by Anastasia and James, both firing their guns constantly through the hole. "Misha!" exclaimed Jacob. "What-?"
"No time," yelled Anastasia, "they're coming! We have to get out!"
Suddenly seeing her plan, Jacob grabbed Sarah's hand and ran with her over to the desk. Together, they shoved the remains of one of the androids off the seat, lifted the chair, and swung it against the large glass window. It didn't break.
"That will not work," said Mikhail, running up behind them. "The glass is too strong. You will need to throw it."
"Right," said Jacob. "Sarah?"
The girl bit her lip, but nodded. "I can do it." She held up a hand, and Jacob had to jump backwards as the chair suddenly jumped up and began a rapid orbit around Sarah. Its speed increased quickly until it was nothing but a blur, and then it broke the circle and went flying straight through the window, showering the garden outside with glass.
Turning at the sound, Anastasia nodded. "Good work. Come on, James, we're leaving. You three, out!"
The three teenagers leapt through the empty frame, landing amid the bushes and running off down the hill. Behind them they heard the gunfire stop, followed by the sounds of two people – Anastasia and James – hitting the ground and following them. Risking a quick glance over his shoulder, Jacob saw that the office was filled with androids, none of them armed, and none of them leaving the house. It seemed that they had given up the chase.
The five humans – Jacob suddenly noticed that the other guard had vanished – kept running, however, until they reached the tree line. There they finally stopped, sitting down and trying to catch their collective breath.
When he had recovered enough that he felt he could speak without pausing for breath, Jacob asked the most pressing question on his mind. "What happened?"
Anastasia looked at him, tight-lipped. "An ambush."
"Ambush?" Jacob stared. "How?"
"Best to tell it from the beginning, General," said James, looking up from where he sat inspecting his gun. "Don't want him getting confused along the way."
Anastasia nodded in agreement as Sarah nudged Jacob with her elbow. "See?" the girl muttered. "Even he's noticed your incompetence."
Jacob glared at her, but stopped at Anastasia's cough. "Jacob, are you listening?"
"Yes, Nastya," he replied, subdued. The woman nodded.
"Good. Now, immediately you left, something strange happened. The door opened, all by itself…"
* * *
The door slid open, and the four remaining humans stared at it. Mikhail was the first to speak. "Did someone do something?" he asked, worried.
"Not me," said James, peering through the doorway. He shook his head. "Might have just been a coincidence. We should get on through." He gestured to the other guard, who stepped through the hole and scanned the room within.
"Might it not be a trap?" asked Mikhail, still worried. Anastasia nodded.
"It might be, Misha, but it's the best chance we've got."
"I do not like it," the Russian boy admitted.
"Nor do I. But we'll be able to manage, right?"
"Without Jacob?" Mikhail looked uncertain. Anastasia laughed slightly.
"I think we can manage without Mr. Ethrax's help, Misha. I am, after all, a soldier. As are these fine men."
"The room's clear," James reported. "Nothing in there except a tunnel, sloping downwards."
"Just like the one back home," Mikhail murmured, and then straightened, looking straight at James. "Sergeant, at the end of that tunnel you will find the computer."
James raised an eyebrow, and looked at Anastasia. "General?"
She nodded. "If he says so, it's true. Come on, get a move on."
James gave a crisp nod and started off towards the corridor entrance. The other guard followed, catching up with him and entering the tunnel a few seconds before he reached the mouth. When James actually reached the entrance to the corridor, the other guard came flying out at high speed as if thrown, slamming into the far wall at high speed. James lifted his gun, Anastasia stepped into the room and moved towards the downed soldier, and the door slammed shut, leaving the two in utter darkness.
As James fumbled for his torch, there was a soft whirr from the tunnel, like a door opening. Had the silence not been so total otherwise, he wouldn't have noticed, but he did. Pointing his gun in the approximate direction, he fired a spray of bullets.
The flashing from the muzzle revealed a terrifying sight. Walking two abreast up the tunnel came rank after rank of Simons androids. They were unarmed, but the way they had apparently thrown the other guard clean across the room indicated that they didn't really need weapons. James kept firing, backing across the room, and was distantly aware of the sound of another gun joining his as Anastasia reached the dead soldier and appropriated his weapon.
Outside the door, Mikhail was panicking. He had been stranded there when it slammed, but could hear the muted sound of gunfire from inside. He slammed his fists on the metal of the door, trying to get it to open, but with no success. Then, at last, his gaze fell on the keypad, and his mind began to work properly.
In his studies of all things military, he had once come across an article on breaking into buildings. He knew that he didn't have many skills, and that Jacob and Sarah considered him to be a lesser team member than them – an impression he was afraid he contributed to by his clumsy speech and movements – but one thing he did have was a near-photographic memory. Closing his eyes, he concentrated, and saw the page swim up into his mental vision.
Just as he'd suspected, the keypad was a standard design, the GlobalWare 23.85C. The article had listed a great many designs of keypad, giving details on how to break into them, and the 23.85C was no exception. He focussed harder on the relevant portion of the text, and read.
The GlobalWare 23.85C is one of several keypads containing the GlobalWare Code-28 chip. To allow easy maintenance, this chip – which stores the correct entry code for the lock the keypad is attached to – contains a hidden 'back door'. When a certain sequence of keys is pressed, the keypad's readout will display the code required to open the door. This code can then be used as normal.
Below the text was a string of twenty-five numbers, presumably the back door code. Slowly, with frequent pauses to check against his memory, the Russian boy entered the numbers into the keypad. When he finally hit the 'Enter' key, he was relieved to see a shorter sequence of digits – the entry code – appear on the readout. Quickly, he typed it in.
The door slid open again, and Anastasia and James leapt out. The door slammed behind them, leading Mikhail to believe that the computer was still watching, and had in fact been trying to trap them again.
"No time," replied Anastasia as the door slid open yet again and a horde of identical robots poured out, "run!"
* * *
"… we ran all the way back through the House, reached the office, and, well, you know the rest."
Jacob nodded. "I guess congratulations are in order for Misha."
Mikhail smiled, embarrassed, and ducked his head. "There is no need, Jacob. I was only doing what was necessary."
"Nevertheless," the English boy said, "Nastya and James are lucky you remembered that code. Good job." Mikhail continued to look uncomfortable, but Jacob turned back to Anastasia. "One question."
The Russian raised an eyebrow. "Go on."
"Who threw that robot through the door in the office?"
"That'd be me," said James, looking up again. Jacob frowned.
"Aren't they a little, y'know, heavy?"
Anastasia grinned. "It seemed James is stronger than he looks. We should just be glad he's on our side now."
"Oh, I am," said Jacob, "very glad." He lapsed into silence, a thoughtful look on his face. After a few moments, he sighed. "So how are we going to finish the mission now, with the Grey House swarming with Presibots? It's not like we can trick them into ignoring us or anything."
"As a matter of fact," Sarah said, "I think we can do exactly that."
The other four turned to stare incredulously at the girl, who, Jacob now noticed, had the laptop set up. "Sarah," Jacob asked, "what are you talking about?"
She grinned. "When I say 'we', of course, I mean 'Lucy'. While Nastya was telling you that story, I've been talking to her via the satellite links, and she's told me some interesting things."
Jacob raised an eyebrow. "Such as?"
"Such as the fact that those robots are limited to staying indoors due to the way their signal is transmitted. It seems that this laptop – my father's – isn't as simple as it looks. There's some pretty exotic scanners inside it, and Lucy's been able to use them to detect signal leakage from the computer in the Grey House."
"That's all well and good," said Jacob, "but it hardly helps us."
"Oh, but it does," replied Sarah, her grin widening. "Alongside those scanners is a transmitter. Lucy's reverse engineered the signal, worked out how it's formed, and can now send a replacement. At close range, it'll override the other computer's version, putting the androids under Lucy's control. It is only close range – a room or so – but as they're unarmed, it shouldn't matter."
Jacob nodded, dazed. "That… that is certainly useful, Sarah. She can do that now?"
"She can indeed," Sarah confirmed, and then tilted her head slightly. "She said she couldn't normally, but that a certain characteristic of the computer we're facing made it very easy for her."
Jacob frowned. "How does she know anything about the computer we're facing?"
"Because he signs his work," the girl replied matter-of-factly. "The signal contains a simple subroutine identifying the sender. It seems that we're facing a very arrogant unit, although his actions probably told you that already."
"So?" asked Jacob impatiently. "What's this certain characteristic?"
Sarah took a deep breath. "The computer that has been impersonating President Craig Simons for the past two years or more is identified by the code Tr-Kn-2049. His name is given as Tarken. He was one of the first two FSIAI computers ever built, along with the unit labelled Lu-Ci-2050, called Lucy. Yes, Jacob," she finished, grinning widely, "Tarken is Lucy's brother."
Chapter 11: Sibling Rivalry
The five humans walked through a house full of identical robots. At a radius of four metres either way, the robots followed them, or in the case of the ones in front, retreated before them, hissing threats as they went. Any unit that ventured inside that radius, however, immediately pulled its own head off at the orders of the laptop Sarah carried in her arms.
"So what you're saying is that the UK government lost Tarken?"
Sarah smiled at Jacob. "That's about the size of it. Lucy tells me – and she was told by none other than Mike Altherton, British Prime Minister during World War Three – that he was in transit to China when his transport was seized, his locator disabled, and he vanished to parts unknown. It seems that he was taken by the Americans to the Grey House, still being built at that point, and installed in the basement. There he waited for years until, for some reason, he replaced the President with a robot peripheral and launched a war against Canada."
"So where's the President?" asked James, obviously concerned for his country's leader.
"I don't know," replied Sarah. "We'll have to ask Tarken when we see him. Which should be very soon," she added as the group came to the now-familiar door in the basement.
"I will open the door," said Mikhail, stepping forward, but before he could touch the keypad, all the robots fell silent.
"I can't persuade you to stop, can I?" asked one of them, in a voice so like Lucy's that Jacob stared hard at the laptop to see if it had suddenly developed ventriloquist tendencies.
"No, Tarken," said Anastasia, looking at the robot in question, "you can't."
The robot gave a credible imitation of a sigh that left Jacob wondering if it was actually breathing after all. "Then I suppose there's no point in delaying the inevitable." With that, all the massed horde of robots turned and walked away, and the door slid open. The group looked at it warily before Anastasia shook herself.
"It's not like they can do anything to us," she said, stepping through the open door into the now-lit room. "Come along, we haven't got all day."
The five crossed the room quickly, not pausing to look at the ruined androids and bullet holes on the floor, and proceeded down the tunnel. It was shorter than the one beneath Buckingham Palace, but the room at the bottom was exactly the same. They stepped out into the white-walled space, and looked cautiously at the computer against the far wall. "Tarken," Sarah muttered.
"You have an advantage over me," said the computer in its melodious voice. "While my dear sister has no doubt told you all about me – or as much as she knows – I am at a loss when it comes to identifying you. Sergeant Sanderson, of course, I know, and General Romanov, but you three children – Jacob, Sarah and Mikhail, I hear – I know nothing about. Would you care to introduce me?"
"They're Project Messiah," said Lucy from the laptop. "Surely you know that name."
The patterns on Tarken's screen, already darker than what Jacob remembered from Lucy, flared red. "These? These are the best you could come up with? These are the fulfilment of your vaunted Ross-Altherton Programme?" The voice died away into a sputter of static that sounded suspiciously like a laugh. Jacob's blue eyes flashed.
"Yes," he said, glaring at the computer, "we are. Do you have a problem with that?"
"Jake," hissed Sarah, "hush." Jacob shook his head angrily.
"No, Sarah. I'm not going to stand here and be insulted by a computer."
"Little boy," said Tarken, his voice deepening, "I am in the process of defeating Canada in a war. In the years I have been operational, I have met many of the greatest military leaders of the world, and I am better than all of them. I am certainly better than Mike Altherton, whose Programme you and my sister are following. I am far more than just a computer."
"Yes," said Lucy, "you are. You're an insane, paranoid, and immensely arrogant AI who thinks he's invulnerable."
Tarken laughed, a real laugh, as if from a human throat. "I am invulnerable, Lucy. Your pet humans, with their two feeble guns, cannot hope to destroy me. If they try to come close to me, I can electrify my outer casing and kill them. Even the strange powers the girl seems to have are too weak."
Sarah flinched. "I could bring the ceiling down on you and crush you," she said. Jacob turned, concerned, at the strain in her voice.
She shook her head. "I'm okay, Jake. I just don't like that thing putting us down like that."
"And you call me arrogant, Lucy," said Tarken. "Perhaps you should have looked closer to home first?"
"When one with Sarah's powers threatens you," came the voice from the laptop, "you should not take it lightly."
Sarah stared down at the laptop, almost dropping it in her surprise. "The way you say that," she said, "you… it sounds as though you knew about me before."
"Of course I did," said Lucy. "I have a great many advanced scanners, far more than are in this laptop, and my mapping of your brain activity showed activity in seldom-used areas, historically thought to grant psychic powers. It was one of the reasons I chose you."
Jacob, too, stared at the computer. "Why didn't you say something?" he asked, incredulous.
"I assumed that her failure to reveal such powers meant that she either was not aware of their existence, or was concealing them for some reason. I-"
"Enough!" said Tarken, raising his voice. Everyone fell silent. "My dear sister," he continued, " you stated that I think I am invulnerable. This is because you are not in full possession of the facts. While you have been wasting time with this inane conversation, I have been transmitting my entire mind, my entire self, through the satellites leftover from the NASA days to a secondary body. It is fifty years more advanced than this one, and will allow me to develop cognitive abilities far beyond yours. Even now, the last pieces of my personality are in transit, and a live feed of what is occurring here is running." He paused for a moment, the patterns on his screen tingeing with blue. Absurdly, Jacob found himself looking around, and noticed that Sarah's eyes were closed, her brow furrowed in concentration. Then the computer began once again to speak, and the boy's attention returned to the console.
"It will be a shame to have to abandon this country. It has served me very well, but I'm afraid that your revealing of my secret means that the war will end whether I will it or not. You five, however, will not be around to see it.
"As a failsafe in the event that the Grey House and the city of Los Angeles were ever captured by an enemy, the United States' last remaining nuclear warhead was installed deep in the foundations. As the country's primary defence computer, control of it was given to me. It will go off now. Goodbye."
Jacob's eyes widened and he dived to the floor, knowing as he did so that it would be no use. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Mikhail, Anastasia and James do the same thing. Only Sarah remained standing, eyes closed, expression calm, laptop in her arms.
The realisation that the girl had done something to prevent the bomb going off came at the same time as Tarken said, sounding very uncertain, "Why aren't you dead?"
"Really, now, Tarken," said Sarah, her voice as serene as Jacob had ever heard it, "did you think you could defeat me?" Her grey eyes opened, staring at the computer, and seeming to almost pulse with light. "Jake," she added in Jacob's mind, "get up, and take the laptop before I drop it."
Jacob scrambled to his feet and lifted the computer from Sarah's arms. Relieved of her burden, the girl held her arms out away from her sides. Her golden hair spread out, creating a bright halo around her head, and Jacob saw with astonishment that her feet were suspended several inches off the ground.
Tarken, too, had apparently noticed. "That's impossible," he said. "You couldn't even handle a single door earlier."
"I am stronger now," she said, gazing straight at the screen. "You underestimated me." Jacob shook his head in amazement, and heard her voice in his thoughts, sounding exhausted. "Not by much, though. I don't know how much longer I can do this, I think I'm going to collapse. I'll keep him occupied, do something."
She began to speak aloud again, but Jacob was no longer listening. Putting the laptop down on the ground, he thought for a moment, and began to crawl along the wall towards Tarken. The computer, being designed by a human, was apparently able to be distracted like one. All his attention was focussed on Sarah, and as a result Jacob was able to reach the console, stretch out his hand, and pull the power cable from the wall.
Without any fuss, the patterns on the screen died. A whirring noise that had been on the edge of hearing faded and died. And Sarah looked straight at Jacob, muttered, "That was anticlimactic," and crumpled to the floor.
Chapter 12: Trilateral Decision
A hectic week passed. Vice-President Michael Denton, on seeing the android copies of President Craig Simons, spoke immediately to all branches of the US Government. They agreed that the US would cease all hostilities, and would withdraw its troops to the pre-war border of Canada, pending possible readjustment of the borders. They also agreed that, in the absence of the real Craig Simons – missing for two years, and therefore presumed dead – Michael Denton was President by default.
Efforts were made to communicate with Russia that the US had stood down, and urging them to do the same. There were no responses, and the attacks on Europe increased.
Back in the capital at Los Angeles, Project Messiah and James Sanderson were temporarily imprisoned for espionage and treason respectively, but released as heroes within the day. Parades were organised, and even Sarah, weak from her repeated use of and collapses from her powers, found herself attending several per day. As Mikhail remarked to Jacob during one such parade, it was almost as if America had won the war, rather than stopping and retreating.
Seven days after they had faced down Tarken, Project Messiah found themselves taken by plane to Chicago, Trudeau Territory, Canada, where the peace talks would take place. Accompanying them were James Sanderson and President Denton, along with assorted bodyguards and bureaucrats. Upon arrival at Chicago Airport, the group were whisked away in a convoy to the city centre, and then led into a building surrounded by Canadian troops, all of whom felt the need to salute Anastasia Romanov.
Finally, they were escorted into a large, ground-floor hall, throughout which knots of people stood, talking and drinking. Anastasia smiled. "I hope you're up to another victory party," she said, looking at Sarah. The girl nodded.
"I can handle it, Nastya," she said, with only a hint of fatigue in her voice. Jacob, who'd been looking after her through her recovery – and protesting every parade, to no avail – nodded.
"She can. As long as she doesn't have to do anything."
Anastasia shook her head. "She won't." The woman paused, and looked around. Apparently spotting what she was looking for, she smiled. "Jacob, Sarah, Misha, there's a couple of people you should meet, and as luck would have it, they're both in the same place. Come with me."
Mikhail followed. Jacob frowned slightly at the commanding tone in Anastasia's voice, but took Sarah's hand, ready to support her if necessary – and not , he told himself, because I want to hold her hand – and walked after the two Russians.
Sarah stumbled halfway across the room, and while those around the pair were all too eager to help her up, the incident delayed their reaching Anastasia where she stood with Mikhail and three other women, one of whom Jacob vaguely recognised. As Jacob and Sarah drew near, Anastasia looked around.
"Ah, good. Kelly, Bethany, this is Jacob Ethrax and Sarah Martell, the other two members of Project Messiah. They were both instrumental in bringing down Tarken." Two of the women – not the one Jacob recognised – nodded in greeting before Anastasia went on. "Jacob, Sarah, allow me to introduce Kelly Paterson." She indicated the taller of the two women, whose long, greying black hair hung loose down her back. "Kelly is the Prime Minister of Canada, but would be the first to tell you that she's… what was it, Kelly?"
"About as useful as a bungee-jumping maggot when it comes to warfare," replied the Prime Minister with a smile. Judging by the lines on her face when her lips curved upwards, Jacob put her age at around forty. He made a mental note to ask Anastasia later, but was fairly sure he'd forget it. In the meantime, he nodded to Prime Minister Paterson.
"I'm honoured to make your acquaintance, ma'am," he said, nodding to her. Kelly smiled.
"It should be I who is honoured, after what you did to our southern neighbours. But Anastasia was performing introductions, and I think Bethany and Alice are growing impatient."
Jacob nodded sheepishly, and Anastasia began again. "Alice Craymann you know as my second-in-command, but she's been promoted to General now. And this," she gestured at the shortest of the three, whose short red hair almost hid her face, "is General Bethany Miller, the woman who kept the siege of New York from becoming a complete disaster."
Bethany Miller shrugged, and said in a soft voice, "It had to be done, so I did it."
Jacob frowned. "Let me get this straight," he said. "Nastya's the leader of the army. Kelly's the leader of the country. Bethany and Alice are the generals who stopped the US advances on the east coast." Anastasia nodded warily, and Jacob shook his head in despair. "Is everyone in this country female?"
"Nice to be forgotten so quickly," said a male voice from behind him. Jacob turned around to see another face that he recognised, but couldn't quite place.
Mikhail gave a snort of laughter. "He is terrible at remembering things," he said, and then poked Jacob in the arm. "This is Lieutenant Simon Theras, Jacob. He was the soldier who escorted us to meet Nastya back in Philadelphia."
Jacob slapped himself on the forehead in an exaggerated gesture of recollection. "I remember now. Sorry about that, Lieutenant."
"Not a problem, sir," said Theras, and turned to Kelly. "Madam Prime Minister, the peace conference is ready to begin. Do you happen to know where the representative of the United Kingdom might be found?"
"You're looking at him," said Kelly, nodding at Jacob. "Mr. Ethrax, as the leader of an organisation set up by the only extant British government member – that is, your computer – would you mind representing your country in the meeting to sign a peace treaty with the Americans and discuss the future progress of this war?"
Jacob blinked. "Er, yes? I mean, no. I mean, I'll do it." Kelly, smiled, nodded, and turned to Anastasia.
"General Romanov, as you'll be leading our troops in any assaults on Russia, you should probably sit in on this, too. Lieutenant, lead on."
The soldier led the three of them into a small room off to one side of the main chamber, and took up a position beside the door, opposite James Sanderson. Already inside, seated at the large oval table, were Michael Denton and a soldier Jacob didn't recognise, wearing the four stars that labelled him a general. As the trio seated themselves, Denton spoke.
"I'm not going to cede anything to you in this treaty. The war wasn't the fault of the United States, and-"
"Hush, Mr. President," said Kelly soothingly. "We're not going to ask you to give anything up except the land you took. In fact, we might even give something to you."
Anastasia leaned forward with a frown. "Ma'am, you can't do that," she said. "They'll take it as a sign that they can attack with impunity. I say we should at least take the leftover parts of Washington, Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota, to teach them a lesson."
"I know you would," said Kelly, "which is why I'm the politician here. What you fail to understand, General, is that taking more land from the US will simply build upon the feelings of resentment begun by Prime Minister Ross' unwillingness to return any. In a few more years they'll be willing to attack us again."
"And we'll beat them," said Anastasia with certainty. "We'll be ready next time, especially if we limit the army they're allowed to have."
Kelly sighed. "But we shouldn't have to, Anastasia. Living so close to a state of war is only good for the army, not the citizens of Canada, and it is to those citizens that I am primarily responsible." She turned back to Denton. "Consequently, Mr. President, I am willing to cede back to the United States of America the portions of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Pennsylvania that once were part of the states of Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Maryland, and the District of Columbia."
Anastasia, Denton and the US general stared at her, open mouthed. Finally, Denton recovered enough to say, "You… you'll let us have our capital back?"
Kelly nodded, smiling. "I wouldn't recommend returning it to its function as capital, being so newly regained, but yes. I-"
"How can you do this?" exclaimed Anastasia, rising to her feet in anger. "We fought and died to take that land from them, and we fought equally hard to keep them from taking more of it back. And now you're just giving it to them? Prime Minister, I-"
"You," said Kelly Paterson, her face cold, "are extremely out of line. Not only are you claiming credit for a war in which you were on the opposing side, not only are you failing to see the wider picture, you also interrupted me before I could finish. If you had not been so rude, you would understand why I am being so generous. Now sit down before I have Lieutenant Theras remove you from the room. That constitutes an order."
For the first time since he had known her, Anastasia looked subdued. "Yes, ma'am," she muttered, and sat down. Jacob shook his head in amazement. He hadn't been able to see how someone as amiable as Kelly Paterson had become Prime Minister, but now he understood.
"Now, Mr. President," Kelly said, "as I as about to say, I will return this land to you in return for your assistance in a certain project of mine – one that, I might add, has gained immense popularity among the Canadian people over the course of this war."
Denton nodded. "I'm listening."
Kelly smiled. "First, I will have to offer you a formal alliance with Canada. If you do not accept, I will be forced to withdraw the offer of land and expel you immediately from my country."
Jacob expected the President to give in immediately – after all, Anastasia certainly had, and he couldn't imagine the Vice-President who hadn't even noticed his superior being replaced by a computer would do any better. To his surprise, however, Denton raised an eyebrow and said, "What would I gain from doing so?"
Kelly looked taken aback for a moment. "Other than the land?"
Denton nodded. "Our progress against you in this war, however unwanted it was, seems to indicate that we could take the land from you with little effort. I need something more."
Kelly nodded. "Well, for one, we wouldn't attack you. But I suppose you would say that you could defeat us anyway… well. In the short term, very little, excepting that guarantee of peace, and the economic security that goes with it. In the long term… in the long term, perhaps everything."
Michael Denton frowned at her. "Explain."
"Consider," the Prime Minister said. "Russia is well on the way to taking over the whole of Europe – latest reports say they have conquered everything north of Croatia and Bulgaria, as far west as Germany. Once they have cemented their rule there, they will have full access to the European defence industries. After making their entire country impregnable to attack, they will likely move against their old enemy, China. While I will allow that it is possible China can defeat them, I would not consider it likely. Thus you have a Russia occupying the majority of two continents. It takes very little imagination to see that their next target would be North America. Admittedly, their probable attack route through Alaska would place them up against Canada first, but eventually they would reach the United States, and conquer you. All your history, all your culture, all your heritage, would be absorbed by them, and forgotten in a generation. Or," she finished, "you can ally with us and help stop their advance, and push them back to where they belong. The choice, of course, is yours."
Jacob stared at Kelly. He hadn't considered what Russia would do after it finished invading Europe. He supposed he had thought they would reach the coast and stop. In hindsight, of course, that was ridiculous – the English Channel wouldn't be enough to protect Britain this time like it had a century and a half ago. Long before the global domination Kelly foretold, the United Kingdom would fall. He shuddered at the very thought – even ruined as it was, Britain was still his home.
Denton, whatever he was thinking, merely nodded. "Your points hold merit. In the name of the United States of America, I accept your offer of alliance. What was this project of yours?"
"One moment." She held up a hand and looked at Jacob. "Mr. Ethrax, as an ally of Canada, it is assumed that Britain will also join in alliance with the US – friend of my friend, as it were. Will you do so?"
Jacob jumped slightly, caught off his guard by the question. He hadn't really expected to be included in the discussion – he assumed his presence was merely required as a formality, and that the adults would sort things out. Now he was being asked to speak for an entire nation. Suddenly he felt very young, despite his two years of training, his ten years before that as a virtual street child in London. He shouldn't be here. Lucy had made a terrible mistake putting him in charge. He-
His head jerked up to see the other four at the table watching him. Anastasia looked worried. "Oh… yes," he said. "Sorry. Er, yes, the UK will be glad to do so. What's left of it."
Kelly smiled slightly at the bitterness in his voice. "Excellent. This will make things far easier." She paused for a moment, and then began again, in what sounded suspiciously like a rehearsed speech.
"Since time immemorial, there has been a desire among humankind to create a world government. Alexander tried, the Romans tried, Britain tried. None succeeded. Until the twenty-first century, all efforts were through conquest, through empire, through oppression. In other words, exactly what I warned you Russia is likely to do.
"The only attempt made through diplomacy was the takeover of the United Nations by America, effectively turning it into an extended US foreign branch. They used its resources to enforce global nuclear disarmament – with the exception of China, Russia, and the United States itself – but there was little further progress, and after World War Three, the UN died away.
"This, indeed, was merely a barely-disguised advancement of the military method – enforcing world rule by military might. I believe it is time to try again – and this time to do it right."
She paused, as if expecting a reaction, and was not disappointed. Anastasia jerked upright in her seat, seeming to barely refrain herself from jumping up. "Madam Prime Minister, you cannot be serious. To give up our sovereignty like that-"
"Is exactly what I do not plan to do, at least not at first," interrupted Kelly smoothly. "Initially, we would be semi-independent states under a common leader, much as our Provinces are ruled by Ottawa, or as the states in the Union by Los Angeles. I propose that we build on an already existing network of economic alliances, one that has been in decline for many decades, but still remains, with little power. In fact, it never had administrative power at all. I speak of the Commonwealth of Nations.
"The soldiers of Canada are already fighting under the banner of the Army of the World Commonwealth. I propose the expansion of the Commonwealth to include, eventually, all the world's nations, and simultaneously to increase its influence. To create, at some location to be determined, a world capital, where the government of the World Commonwealth – the structure of which, I imagine, would be similar to that of the US – would meet to discuss policy, and then return to their own states, nations, to implement it."
Kelly continued speaking, outlining her plan for a world government, while Jacob, Anastasia, Michael Denton and the US general, listened, enthralled.
Chapter 13: Chicago Chit-chat
Sarah watched Jacob go, and sighed. He was being dragged off to a meeting, along with Anastasia, so she was left with Mikhail and the two Canadian generals, Bethany and Alice. Looking at the three, she saw that Mikhail was already engrossed in a detailed discussion with the pair about the defence of New York. While she had a slight interest in history – mostly imparted by her mother – Sarah found that sort of thing horribly tedious. Rather than interrupting the trio and denying Mikhail some of the social interaction he had lost out on in his youth, the golden-haired girl wandered over to the side of the room and sat down on an uncomfortable chair. She curled up on the seat, looking out over the room, trying to identify some of the guests. It seemed like half the politicians in North America were present, from US Senators she'd met in Los Angeles down to some city mayors she recognised from TV reports of the 'Peace Day' Celebrations.
A splash of jet-black hair caught her eye, and she looked up to see brown eyes set in a somewhat familiar face gazing down at her. She frowned for a moment, trying to remember who it was, and then smiled, only a little nervous. "Anna Meyer," she said. "Whatever are you doing here?"
The woman from Atlanta smiled sheepishly. "When the war ended and I saw you on the TV, I remembered you. When I heard you were going to be here, I decided that I had to come and… well…"
Anna fell into silence, looking distinctly uncomfortable, and Sarah guessed at what she had been unable to say. "I forgive you, Anna."
The darker girl smiled, relieved. "It's just, I know I was rude to you back home, and to General Romanov, and, well, everyone. But you were right, so I thought I should, um, apologise…"
Sarah smiled again. "Really, it's okay." After a moment's embarrassed silence, she changed the subject. "So how did you get in here? I thought it was invite-only, and only for politicians."
Anna drew herself up proudly. "Since four days ago, I am a politician – the mayor of Atlanta, to be precise. I was running for office when you came along, and after the war, well, a rumour got started that I'd helped General Romanov and your group, what's it called…"
"Project Messiah," Sarah supplied. She noticed Anna's slight frown at the name, as if she considered it somehow inappropriate, but the woman said nothing about it, instead continuing.
"Yes. There was a rumour that I'd helped you on your way to LA."
"A rumour that you didn't try too hard to quash?" Sarah asked. Anna had the decency to look embarrassed.
"Well, it was true, I did. And, well, it helped me win the election, which, yeah, I wasn't going to do.
Sarah frowned. "I don't see why not. You're a nice enough woman. A bit Southern for my liking, but…"
Anna looked hurt for a moment before realising it was a joke and smiling. "No, it's because of my religion. The good people of Atlanta were a bit uncertain about electing a Mormon as their mayor."
Sarah looked startled. "You're a Mormon? I thought… uh…" She stopped, realising that what she had been about to say was somewhat tactless. Anna, however, gave her a weary smile.
"You thought all Mormons were insane, bloodsucking demons?"
Sarah coughed. "I wouldn’t have put it quite like that…" Anna nodded.
"But it's what you were thinking. We get that a lot – most Christians really don't like us because, well, because of lots of things. Like... we don't believe in the Trinity, for example."
Sarah blinked, interested despite herself. "Isn't that just a minor point, though? The way they go on, I'd thought you had, I don't know, a bunch of really crazy beliefs."
Anna glowered, but not at Sarah. "They always bring up polygamy, never mind that we got rid of it over two hundred years ago. They object to us saying that a book not collected as part of the Bible can still be scripture. They…" She saw Sarah's expression. "I'm boring you. Sorry."
"No, no, it's interesting, really," said the girl. "It just… well, it all seems a little silly. Aren't you all Christians?"
Anna nodded, and then caught herself. "We say so. They disagree, since we teach different things about Christ and God..."
Now Sarah was just confused. "But doesn't 'Christian' just mean that you believe in Jesus as the Messiah?"
Anna shrugged. "Not according to them, it doesn't." The dark-haired woman tilted her head curiously at Sarah. "You seem actually interested in this. How much do you actually know about Mormonism?"
Sarah shook her head. "Not much." Then her memory threw up a little piece of information she'd once heard. "Although, as I remember, you say the world's supposed to have ended by now, don't you?"
Anna nodded slowly. "It's definitely very close. A lot of us think this war's going to be the last war. The end of days."
Sarah blinked. "Isn't the war over?"
Anna turned and looked west, her eyes focussed as if on a point far beyond the walls of the room, beyond Chicago, beyond Canada. Sarah realised with a shiver that she was looking straight towards Europe – Europe, a continent currently suffering under constant attacks from Russia. "No," said the English girl, "you're wrong. We'll win over there, too. We'll have peace. The war will end."
Anna merely smiled. "Maybe," she said. Sarah stared into her deep brown eyes, so full of conviction, for a moment before a commotion from the door Jacob had been led into drew her attention.
* * *
Mikhail barely noticed Sarah's departure. "So, Bethany," he said, "you are telling me that retreating into the city was a tactical consideration? Not a withdrawal?"
The general nodded. "From Alice's reports of the fall of Philadelphia, we knew that, while the Americans had artillery enough to pound the city flat, they wouldn't do so if they had another option. They want, after all, to 'liberate' it. By pulling back into the city, we gave them an opportunity to follow us – which they did. They even did a thorough check of the area they occupied, to ensure we weren't hiding to ambush them. They forgot, however, to check the sewers. We'd hidden bombs there – Alice's suggestion – and when we set them off, the Americans found the streets collapsing under them.
"While they were recovering from that, we sent strike teams in to take out their artillery. Alice led them, so she knows more about it than I do. Alice?"
The pale woman nodded. "As you know, their artillery was to the west, over the water. They were concentrating most of their attacks on the southern tip of the city – this would be so much easier if we had a map – so I led my forces north, a long way north, to the point where the border with New England was closest. It was Rockefeller State Park, I don't know if you know it…" She saw Mikhail's blank look and shook her head. "Well, suffice to say it was something like fifty kilometres up-river. Then, of course, we had to cross the river – avoiding enemy patrols, since they'd seized the area west of the water when we retreated to New York – and make the trek back down towards New York, with ever-increasing enemy forces. Well, we made it – we didn't lose a single soldier on the trip, which was surprising – and managed to take the artillery from them, despite their defences. Having pulled that off, I ordered my troops to begin shelling the southern tip of New York – the area the US troops had retreated to following our bombings, where they'd set up their camp.
"We couldn't keep the bombardment up for long, of course – they retreated right back towards us – but it was enough to drive them out of the city. The weeks they'd sent driving us away to gain a foothold were wasted."
"Of course, we would have lost it all again fairly soon after," said Bethany, taking up the story, "but your group stopped the war before that could happen. Thank you for that."
Mikhail blushed. "We could not have done it without Nastya's – General Romanov's – help. She is a great woman."
Alice smiled. "She is that. I'm – I was, rather – glad to have her as my commanding officer."
Mikhail frowned. "Was?"
Alice blinked. "You didn't know? With the war over, the post of Supreme Commander of the AWC – Army of the World Commonwealth," she explained at Mikhail's confused look before continuing, "is being removed. She's just a general like the rest of us now."
Mikhail looked uncertain. "But the war is not over. Russia is invading Europe still."
Alice looked at Bethany, who nodded. "We know," the pale woman said in her thick Canadian accent. "We're sort of hoping that we'll get sent in to deal with that, too, but the Canadian people may not be very supportive of such a move."
Mikhail nodded. "I myself hope that you do so, so that my country can be freed from the rebels who took over the government. What does Prime Minister Paterson think?"
Bethany gave a thin-lipped smile. "Kelly has some interesting ideas about how the world should be run. She's probably explaining them to your friend Jacob right-"
The conversation near the room in which the leaders were meeting suddenly grew louder, and the trio turned to look.
* * *
James Sanderson and Simon Theras pushed the door open and stepped through, taking up guard positions on the outside. Following them came Kelly Paterson, flanked by Jacob Ethrax and Michael Denton, followed by the two generals. Kelly cleared her throat, the simple noise bringing silence to the entire room. She held up a sheet of paper and spoke, in a strong, clear voice.
"Citizens of Canada, of America, of Britain; in my hand I hold a signed peace treaty between our three countries."
That, Jacob considered, was an obvious set-up line for applause, and the crowd did not disappoint. Kelly smiled, and held up her other hand to silence it.
"That is not all that was decided here. Our three great nations have joined in an alliance with a single intent – to bring an end to this Fourth World War, and to ensure that its like can never occur again."
There was no applause at that, and Jacob knew why. Preventing war was what the UN had had in mind with its enforced nuclear disarmament plan, and that had lead directly into World War Three. Kelly, of course, also knew this.
"Do not be afraid of a repeat of the United Nations fiasco of the mid-twenty-first century. We have learnt from that. This time around, we're going to do it right. Although nothing has yet been put on paper, our three countries have agreed to form a World Commonwealth, a network of alliances and political links which will tie this world together into a single body at last. There will be no more war, for any aggression would immediately be countered by the entire globe. In time, the boundaries between nations and peoples will blur, further assuring peace eternal… but that is for the future," she added, as many of those present began to look uneasy. "For now, merely rest assured that we will, together, defeat Russia and liberate Europe, once and for all."
She finished, and the applause began again. Across the room, a group of Canadian soldiers, presumably at a pre-arranged signal, pulled out an old banner. Jacob didn't recognise the design beyond making out its component parts – the maple leaf from the Canadian flag superimposed over the Union Flag of Great Britain. Anastasia leaned forward and whispered in his ear, "The flag of the Commonwealth, Canada and Britain, when they fought together in World War Three. It seems Prime Minister Paterson anticipated success here."
Looking around, Jacob could only nod in agreement.
Chapter 14: Unlimited Power
"Home at last!"
Sarah Martell ran down the last few feet of the tunnel into Lucy's chamber. The screen was already lit, the patterns coruscating across it brighter and faster than usual. "Hello again, Sarah," said the computer. "Did you leave the others in your dust?"
"Not quite," said Jacob Ethrax, entering the room at a more sedate pace. "Fairly close to, though."
Sarah laughed while the rest of the group – Mikhail Melnikov, Anastasia Romanov, Alice Craymann and Bethany Miller – emerged into the chamber. As they did so, Lucy said, "That's funny."
"What is?" asked Sarah. The screen flickered red.
"Most of my special sensors have just failed. I'm reduced to visual and audio sensory input. Most unusual."
Sarah frowned. "Some sort of system failure?"
"I don't see how," the other replied. "They're not connected in any way. It's almost like someone reached in and cut all the wires."
As Sarah pondered the implications of this – pulling out connections, Jacob recalled, was how she had stopped Tarken from blowing them all sky-high – Mikhail entered the conversation with a question. "This includes your sensors for scanning brain activity, does it not?"
A flush of blue passed over the computer's screen. "It does indeed," replied Lucy, sounding surprised. "Did you have need of them?"
Mikhail shook his head. "No. I merely had a hunch I wished to test, but it is not important."
"A hunch?" said Anastasia sharply. "Concerning psychics?"
Mikhail looked at her curiously – Jacob wasn't surprised, considering the tone she'd taken – and nodded. "It seems to me that General Craymann-"
"Why won't he call me Alice?" asked the woman in question. Beside her, Bethany stifled a giggle. Anastasia rolled her eyes.
"He's Russian," she explained. "We use people's names differently over there, so when we encounter the Western system, we tend to overuse it. It took me years to break the habit."
"Took us years to break Misha of it," muttered Jacob. Sarah smiled.
"If I might be allowed to continue?" said Mikhail. Jacob looked apologetic, or as close as he could manage, and nodded. "I thank you. I was saying that it seems to me as if General Craymann – Alice, if you prefer – displayed an element of almost precognitive abilities during the battle of New York. Her anticipation of enemy activities and movements sound, to me, as though they were beyond even those of Nastya. Her skill in taking the US artillery without the loss of a single soldier is quite astounding. I would have liked to know if she was perhaps a telepath of some variety."
Alice stared at him, her earlier amusement forgotten. "That's insane, Mikhail," she said. "Me, a psychic? It's not possible. I'm just an ordinary soldier…"
Mikhail shook his head. "No ordinary soldier could have achieved the victory you did, Alice. I do not think my conclusion is too absurd."
"But it needs testing anyway," put in Sarah, "and without Lucy's sensors, we can't do that."
"Can't you do something?" asked Anastasia suddenly. The others looked at her curiously, and the General shrugged. "I only mean that, as a psychic yourself, you might have some way of, I don't know, sensing others. Maybe you could do a mental probe on her?"
Alice stared at the girl, looking somewhat worried. "Can you really do that, Sarah?" She didn't look as though she wanted to know the answer.
Sarah shook her head, more in confusion than denial. "I don't know. I've never tried. I… well, I avoided using my powers for most of my life, and I've not really gotten used to it again. It feels… wrong."
"She doesn't know what she can do," said Jacob, stepping to the girl's side and placing a hand on her shoulder. "Don't push her into finding out too fast, please, if she doesn't want to."
Sarah looked down at the hand in surprise, and then gave Jacob a grateful smile. "Thanks, Jake, but a simple probe shouldn't be much of a strain."
"If I have to catch you when you faint again," Jacob muttered, "my arms are going to end up being yanked from their sockets."
She laughed at that, but took a step forward. "I'll try not to. Alice, could you come here? If you want me to do this, I mean."
The Canadian soldier took a deep breath. "I don't have anything to lose, do I? And a whole lot to gain." She walked over to Sarah and stopped. "Do your worst."
Sarah nodded. Reaching out a hand, she gently pressed her palm against Alice's forehead and closed her eyes. Jacob wondered whether that was strictly necessary, or merely more dramatics like the floating trick in Tarken's chamber. Whichever it was, the girl lowered the hand in a moment and opened her grey eyes, looking hard at the soldier standing in front of her.
Before she could say anything, Alice laughed shortly. "I feel like I've just been blessed," she said, shaking her head. "Should I have been kneeling?"
"What do you expect when dealing with Project Messiah?" Sarah asked rhetorically, smiling faintly. Then her expression became serious again, and she shook her head. "I'm sorry, Alice, I can't tell. Possibly once I've had more practice, but…"
Suddenly, Lucy let out a mechanical screech that no human throat could ever have made. Everyone in the group span and stared at her. "What is it, Lucy?" asked Jacob, worriedly. If the computer was malfunctioning, what would they do?
"Someone is playing games with me!" the computer replied, indignantly. "All my broken wires just reconnected themselves. Sarah, if this is your idea of a joke…"
Sarah held up her hands. "I'm doing nothing! I don't know enough about how you're wired up to be sure I wouldn't kill you, even if I wanted to mess with your wiring, which I don't."
"Well, someone is," the computer said, indignantly. Mikhail nodded.
"It does seem that way," he said. Then he paused, and added, "Does this mean you could test my theory now?"
There was a moment of silence, which Lucy broke with a laugh. "You never give up, do you, Misha? Yes, I could test your theory. In fact, I'll check everyone, to see who's playing games with me." She went silent for less than half a second, and then said, "Interesting."
"What's interesting?" asked Alice, frowning. "Don't keep me in suspense like this."
"What's interesting is that Sarah is the only person in this room who could have messed with my circuits," replied the computer. A look of mingled relief and disappointment crossed Alice's face, only to be replaced by shock when Lucy continued, "Which is not to say that you aren't psychic."
"You mean I am?" The Canadian stared at the screen against the wall, while beside her, Bethany looked at her friend suspiciously. A scattering of yellow appeared on the screen.
"Yes, I'm afraid you are. However, analysis of the patterns indicates that your talents rest solely in the telepathic areas, while Sarah's are spread across both telepathy and telekinesis."
"And there are no other psychics in the room?" asked Anastasia, her expression curiously intent. "None who could have performed that little trick with your sensors?"
"No," confirmed Lucy. "The rest of you are all reading clean. It's very odd." Jacob nodded in agreement. Bethany frowned, and spoke.
"It occurs to me that we've found two psychics in a very small area, with no obvious connection between them. Does this imply that there might be more in the world?"
"Statistically," replied Lucy, "this is a very inadequate sample to work from. However, yes, it seems possible – even likely – that your conclusion is correct."
Bethany nodded. "And just one psychic – Sarah – managed to do an awful lot towards ending the war, at least in North America. Right?"
Mikhail nodded, looking at the red-haired woman. "I think I can see what you are trying to say. Are you suggesting that such people could be, once identified, recruited and used in the war against my homeland, if such a war goes ahead?"
Bethany nodded, looking relieved. "Exactly that. We've got the Army, Navy, Air Force… why not have some sort of Psychic Force to go with them?"
"It would certainly give us an edge," said Anastasia. "If Alice could pull off the breaking of the New York siege without even consciously using her powers, if Sarah could knock Anna Meyer out and wipe her memory with no training, imagine what an army of fully-trained psychics could do. We could liberate Europe and Russia in a few weeks, not years."
"The problem," commented Sarah, "is that they're not likely to know what they are. I did, because I needed my powers to protect myself when I was a little girl. Alice had no idea. I'd imagine that other pure telepaths would be similarly unaware. I can't say anything for telekinetics – not even if they exist – but it was only the combination of powers that helped me. We can't exactly drag everyone in front of Lucy."
"You won't have to," said the computer. "I can supply blueprints for the appropriate detector. It should be easy enough to set up a program to check the results. I-" She stopped, and continued in a different voice, Canadian-accented but still female. Jacob had never heard her use it before. "Am I addressing Project Messiah?"
"You know who we are, Lucy," Jacob said, frowning. Why would she suddenly ask that?
"I'm not Lucy," the voice said. "You can refer to me as the Ross-Altherton Programme. Am I addressing Project Messiah?"
All those in the room stared at the computer, whose screen had gone completely dark. "Uh, yes," said Jacob, "you are."
"Good," said the Programme. "Prepare to receive message." It shifted into a slightly different tone of voice, obviously the same person, but less mechanical, a recording, not a programme.
"My name is Alison Ross. If you're Project Messiah, then it seems the worst has come to pass, and Canada or Britain is in severe danger. You have also discovered that Lucy chose at least one of you for strange mental powers, and that other people in the world have such abilities.
"By now, you've probably started to wonder about how to use this knowledge. That's why I'm speaking to you – why I recorded this message. I know it seems funny, sending messages to people I'll never meet, but there you go. I guess I could have entrusted this to the Programme and Lucy to explain, but I suppose I have a little arrogance left. This is a very important project to me, so I'd like to tell you in person, or as close as I can manage.
"If this programme is working right – and with Mike and me, that's not entirely certain – Lucy has just suggested using the plans for her brain scanner to test people without bringing them to her. If she's actually just been discussing recipes for apple pie or something, I'm very sorry." The woman, speaking from fifty years in the past, chuckled before continuing.
"I have to tell you, Project Messiah was not just set up to save the world. I discovered psychic talents in myself fairly late on in the War, and set up the Project in part to make sure the information wasn't lost. It could mean the difference between life and death if the next war is anything like the one I just fought.
"Anyway, there's not really much to say. The Ross-Altherton Programme is going to show you a file detailing how to set up something I call PsyTest, which you can use to locate psychics among the citizens of Canada and Britain. It also tells you about my proposed design for the Project Messiah Psychic Corps. This plan was designed to work in my era, so if too much time has passed, it may be useless. Sorry.
"I hope you can use this information. I don't know the state of your world, but if the Programme has been activated, it's probably a mess. PsyTest and the PMPC should be able to help with that."
There was a brief pause, a crackle of static, and then, "Wow, this message has been pointless. Oh, well, at least I know I've left something of myself for the future. Alison Ross out."
There was silence in the room for a few moments, and then words appeared on the screen. Lucy said, "I'm sorry, I couldn't override the Programme's instructions there."
Jacob shook his head, dazed. Alison Ross, who had vanished from history within a year of the Third World War ending, had left a final message, and he had been among those to hear it. He shook his head again.
"No, Lucy, don't be sorry. You may just have helped us win the war. Now let's look at those files."
Chapter 15: Of Age
Sarah pushed her hair away from her eyes in irritation. "It's not going to work!"
The thirteen days that had passed since Project Messiah had returned home had seen a dramatic change in the girl's attitude towards life. Whereas before she had seemed unsure of her purpose, she had now set herself to interpreting Alison Ross' plans with an almost religious zeal. Jacob had heard about her conversation with Anna Meyer, and wondered if the well-known Mormon fanaticism had somehow rubbed off on Sarah and applied itself to ending the war.
None of his musings showed on his face. "What isn't?"
"This plan," Sarah said, looking up from the laptop as if just noticing his presence, which was possibly the case. Seeing his curious expression, she explained. "Ross has set things up for the world as it was fifty years ago, but that's not an insurmountable problem. The tension between the US and Canada has kept scientific progress to a minimum – something I never thought I'd be glad for, but there you go. The problem is the sheer scale."
The laptop made a beeping noise, and the girl stabbed the mouse button without looking. "Sarah," said Lucy's voice, "I've got those estimates you asked for." The Lucy interface window expanded to fill the entire screen, and a list of numbers and words appeared. Sarah looked at it and groaned.
"See? This is what I was talking about. These figures are numbers of test stations we'd need across the Commonwealth as it stands – America, Canada, Britain, and those little countries in Africa that stayed in the original Commonwealth – the price of equipping them all, the amount of time it would take… they're just too big."
Looking at the screen, Jacob could see her point. To get the PsyTest network running would take a significant fraction of the Commonwealth's gross annual product in the post-war period, and most of the next year to organise. With Russia still pushing on through Europe – a month and a half after the meeting in Chicago, the Russian forces were firmly ensconced in Berlin – a year was really too long to wait before attacking.
"Can't we go in without the psychics?" he asked. "I mean, it's not like the Russians have any."
Sarah stared at him. "No, but they have a massive population, and actually bothered to train it this time. We can't beat them, not in a straightforward fight."
"We can slow them down," said Anastasia, startling them. The grey-haired woman was standing at the entrance to the basement of Buckingham Palace, and Jacob recalled that he'd had a purpose in coming upstairs to get Sarah. Seeing his expression, Sarah smiled wearily.
"Getting distracted again, Jacob? What do you need from me?"
"Er. We'd like you to come downstairs," he said, flushing. "You're needed."
"All right," she replied, closing the laptop and putting it in her bag. "Let's go so I can get back to work quicker."
As he followed her – and as she followed Anastasia – down the tunnel to Lucy's chamber, Jacob watched Sarah's movements. She didn't move like someone expecting a surprise at the other end, someone preparing to act as if it was unexpected. Could she have genuinely forgotten the date?
It seemed absurd for Sarah, who had a tendency to act abnormally perfect, to have lost track of time so completely, even in a war, that she missed the seventeenth of December. Surely by now she must have been counting down the days… and yet she showed no sign. Confused, Jacob hurried to catch up with her, reaching her side just as she stepped into Lucy's chamber…
… and was met with an outburst of noise and lights. "Happy birthday!" called the assembled crowd – only nine of them, but in the small room, it still felt like a lot. Sarah span around to look at Jacob, eyes wide.
"I forgot! I completely forgot!"
* * *
The party, such as it was with only twelve participants – Jacob still didn't know the name of the US General who had accompanied Kelly, Michael Denton, James Sanderson and Simon Theras to the UK to complete the dozen – was progressing loudly, with only Lucy and Kelly failing to join in fully, when Jacob noticed Sarah slipping away up the tunnel. He frowned, and broke off his conversation with Simon to follow her. He'd known she didn't like crowds too much, but for her to leave her own party…
The girl did not stop at the end of the tunnel, or amid the ruins of Buckingham Palace where she had been working only a couple of hours earlier. She continued on, out past the Queen Victoria Memorial, its gilded top-piece lying on the ground but the marble pedestal still standing proudly despite the destruction around it, and stopped on a patch of grass, still growing in what had once been Saint James' Park. She sat down amid the green, and Jacob heard her sigh as he walked up behind her.
Reaching down, he touched her shoulder, and was surprised to see her jump. Her head flicked round, and he noted panic in her eyes before she said, "Oh, Jacob." Smiling, and yet still seeming slightly nervous, she added, "You startled me."
Jacob frowned, sitting down beside her. "I could see that. Sarah… is something wrong?"
She shook her head. "Nothing. It's just, well, you know how I am around crowds."
"Crowds, yes, but you know everyone in there." He paused for a moment. "Except possibly that American general."
"General Hall, you mean?" Sarah smiled slightly. "I'm sure I've said something about your memory before."
"That I don't have one," he muttered, and then poked her arm. "Stop trying to distract me. Something's bothering you."
She sighed. "Well, it was worth a try." She lifted her head, meeting his gaze for the first time. "Yes, something's bothering me."
Jacob waited a moment for her to continue, but she didn't. "Do I have to guess?" he said, slightly annoyed, adding under his breath, "Honestly, it's like getting blood out of a stone."
"Oh, what do you know?" Sarah shouted, glaring at him. Jacob threw himself back into the grass as his friend's grey eyes flared with blue light. He braced himself for an explosion of psychic power.
He didn't get it. The girl slumped, the fire in her eyes dying, her golden hair dropping back around her shoulders. "What do you know?" she repeated, and Jacob was shocked to see she was crying.
"Sarah," he said, sitting up again and touching her shoulder gently, "tell me, please. I can help you. I want to help you."
With a sob, she threw her arms around him, clinging as though her life depended on it. Dazed, he nevertheless wrapped his arms around her, hugging her against him. Unbidden, his mind brought up the memories of her other breakdown fifty-four days earlier, on the train between Memphis and Little Rock, Tennessee and Arkansas. That time, it had been fear of rejection that had set her off. This time, what was it? He started to open his mouth to ask, but Sarah got there first. Through her tears, still soaking into Jacob's top, she explained.
"I don't know how you can do this. I'm getting older, Jacob, and stronger. Back when I first discovered my powers, I could barely tell when someone was about to hit me, and just about deflect their hands. Now I can fly, smash robots, read minds… if this goes on, there won't be anything of the girl I once was left."
"You can't believe that," he replied. "You're only eighteen – only just eighteen – you've got a whole life ahead of you. You'll learn to control-"
"A whole life?" Sarah shook her head. "The way it looks now, it'll be a lifetime of war. That's no life. And if…" She stopped, shaking her head. Jacob frowned, and used one hand to tilt her head up, looking into her eyes again.
"If what, Sarah?" he asked, worried. She sighed again.
"If Anna was right, if this really is the End of Days, then I don't have a whole life ahead of me. None of us do."
Jacob stared at his friend, the girl he had known for almost two years, since Christmas 2099, in astonishment. "Sarah, no. She's just a, a religious fanatic. She doesn't know anything about war. We're going to win this, soon."
Sarah shook her head sadly. "I don't know. She's not fanatical, not about anything except her country, and… I just have a feeling that this war will be the end of me."
Jacob frowned. "Is this like what Misha said Alice showed, pre-thingy?"
"Precognition?" She shrugged. "I don't know. I certainly hope not. I just think… oh, God, Jake, I think I'm going to die." She clung to him even more, burying her face once again in his shoulder. He held her against him as her body shook with the sobbing, his hand stroking her hair in a vain effort at reassurance. After a few moments, she looked up at him again. "You think I'm being silly, don't you?"
"What?" Jacob shook his head. "No, Sarah, I just think you're being… uh…"
"Paranoid? Crazy?" She gave a slight smile. "Overly-sensitive?"
He returned the smile. "I would say scared."
"Oh, God, yes." She looked down at the grass, and then up at the star-filled sky above. "Do you remember old London?" she asked.
Jacob blinked at the sudden change of topic. "I, yes, I do."
She smiled, almost dreamily. "Do you remember the streetlights, the pollution? I used to go out into the garden at night, but even out in Upminster, where we lived until I was seven, you could only see the brightest stars. Nothing like this."
Looking up at the spectacle of the Milky Way, spread across the blackness of the heavens like a swathe of diamonds, Jacob had to agree. "It's certainly something."
"Strange," said Sarah softly, "how only the loss of millions of lives can bring the stars back to London."
Jacob shivered suddenly cold. "Sarah… we should go in. The others will be wondering where we are."
"Let them wonder," the girl – the young woman – replied. "I don't want to go back down there. I just want to stay here. To stay here with you."
Jacob tore his gaze away from the sky above and found himself looking into Sarah's deep grey eyes. "Sarah, I…"
She smiled gently, her eyes reflecting the silver glow of the moon behind Jacob. "I know, Jake," she said. "I love you, too." Leaning forward, she brushed her lips against his, daring him to make the next move, to kiss her for the first time.
He did so.
* * *
In the chamber of Lu-Ci-2050, Alice Craymann suddenly broke off her conversation with Bethany Miller and Jared Hall. Her eyes defocused and she looked up at the ceiling with a smile. "What?" asked Bethany, noticing, but Alice merely shook her head.
Chapter 16: Enemy's Legacy
The pattering of rain on his arm woke Jacob. Muttering, he attempted to roll over, but stopped, lodged against a warm, soft mass. He experienced a moment of panic, but then recalled where he was and smiled. Then he opened his eyes and found himself looking into Sarah's deep grey eyes.
"Hello," she said, smiling. Jacob blinked.
"You're-" He stopped, cleared his throat to wake it up, and began again. "You're awake?"
Sarah nodded cheerfully. "Have been for, oh, about ten minutes now. The rain woke me when it started."
"Um…" Jacob shook his head. "Yeah, it woke me too, just now. Er, Sarah?"
Her smile widened, and a hint of mischief crept into her eyes. "Yes, Jake dear?"
He tried to clear his thoughts. "You've been lying here in the rain for ten minutes?"
"That's what I said," the girl replied, reaching up to brush a sodden clump of golden hair away from her eyes. Jacob lifted his own hand, finding that his hair was if anything wetter than hers, and then asked his next question.
The smile became a full-blown grin. "I was watching you, of course."
Jacob blinked. He blinked again. Whatever he'd expected, it wasn't that. "Watching me sleep." Sarah nodded cheerfully. "Wasn't that a bit boring?"
She shook her head. "Not to me, no."
Jacob frowned, but before he could say anything more, a large raindrop landed on his nose. Sarah giggled – something Jacob had rarely known her to do – at his expression as he went cross-eyed to glare at the water assaulting him. "I'm getting wet." As the other nodded, another thought struck him. "It's, uh, not dark."
"That's right," said Sarah. "So before you ask any more silly questions, yes, we've been sleeping out here all night, yes, you remember the events of yesterday evening correctly, and no, I won't regret it even if I do end up with pneumonia."
Jacob blinked yet again. "See, this," he commented to the world at large, "this is why spending time with a psychic is a bad idea. They keep answering your questions before you've asked them."
Sarah grinned. "I don't think the trees care, Jake." She kissed him lightly on the lips, and continued. "The rest of the team, however, probably care about where we are. It was my party we walked out on. We should probably go back downstairs."
Jacob returned the smile. "You can spend your birthday however you like, you know," he said, leaning in to return the kiss. Laughing, she pushed him away and sat up.
"Jacob, I love you dearly, but your timekeeping is terrible. My birthday was yesterday. It's the eighteenth now, so we should be getting back to work."
Jacob grimaced. "Gah, work. Why do we have to do all this?"
Sarah rolled her eyes. "Maybe because we're recovering from one war and in the middle of another?"
"It's winter," the other muttered. "Shouldn't the Russians have stopped by now?"
Sarah sighed and grabbed his hand. "Come on, up." Standing, she pulled him to his feet, and the two began to walk towards Buckingham Palace. As they walked, she explained the situation. "What you fail to understand, Jake, is that the Russians plan for winter. The reason they didn't get conquered in World War Two is that they fought through the winter while the Germans didn't. They're not quite as good on the offensive, but there's very little standing against them. By the time anyone can move forces to stop them, they've moved on already."
"So what can we do?" Jacob asked, expecting her to come out with a solution. Instead, she shook her head.
He stared at her. "Nothing?"
She shrugged, wearily. "Not directly. What we can do – all we can do – is mass our forces and plan for the spring. That, along with sorting out PsyTest and helping fix up the mess the Americans made of Canada – not to mention getting Britain back on her feet – should be easily enough to occupy our time."
Jacob nodded, and looked up as they passed Queen Victoria. "And then, perhaps, we'll be able to put Victory back where she belongs."
To that, Sarah could only nod in agreement.
* * *
The pair descended to Lucy's chamber, where they found the debris from the party all cleared up, and most of the celebrants seated around the small table. They were packed in, seven of them, with Anastasia and Kelly standing over beside the other door in the room, the one that led to Lucy's emergency generator. "Did we miss something?" asked Sarah.
"Other than your own party?" retorted Bethany. "Where did you two get to, anyway?"
"For a walk," replied Sarah levelly. "It was too hot here, so we went off to look at the stars."
Alice raised an eyebrow curiously, but said nothing. Bethany, however, said, "And you stayed out all night?"
Sarah shrugged. "I guess so."
"Is there a problem with that?" asked Jacob, seeing Bethany's expression. Beside him, he was vaguely aware of Sarah lifting a hand to cover her eyes, but ignored it.
Bethany drew breath to reply, but Alice nudged her in the ribs with an elbow. "No, she doesn't have a problem, do you, General Miller?"
"Not at all," replied Bethany sweetly, glaring at Alice. "I was just-"
"Going back to the original question," cut in Kelly loudly, "no, you didn't miss anything. We were just about to start, so if you'd like to take a seat…"
"Then you'll be out of luck," finished James from the far side of the table, "'cos we've used them all."
"That's okay," said Sarah, "I'm sure sitting on the floor won't hurt either of us." Jacob didn't agree, but heard her voice in his mind adding, "Considering where you slept last night, Jake, you can't really complain," and sat down, trying to ignore Alice's look in his direction.
"Good, we can get started," said Kelly, and looked at Anastasia. "You know them better, perhaps you should start."
The older woman gave her a sour look. "Thanks, Kelly. Thanks heaps."
"You're welcome. Now get on with it."
Anastasia sighed. "Right. Sarah, Jacob, Misha, you remember all the hassle we had with having to set up the laptop every time we needed to talk to Lucy?"
"How could we forget?" asked Mikhail. Sarah gave him an amused look.
"You have something of a head start on the rest of us in the memory department, Misha. However, yes, we remember."
Anastasia smiled. "It was actually a rhetorical question, but it's nice to know your memories are in working order. To avoid another sidetrack, I'll assume you also remember Tarken's habit of sending robot peripherals after us."
James Sanderson shuddered where he sat. "I don't think anyone who was there will ever forget that."
Anastasia nodded. "Quite. Now, while each of these is a problem in and of itself, it turns out that the one can be a solution to the other."
"How did you ever make General?" asked Kelly, cutting in. "You're terrible at this public-speaking thing."
The other woman glared at her. "I don't need to be good at it, Madam Prime Minister. I'm a soldier, not a politician."
Jacob sighed. "Ladies? Can we do this without the power struggles?"
Sarah looked at him. "Amazing, Jake," she said. "You actually said something reasonable."
"But still offensive," Alice pointed out. "It's not that much out of character for him."
Sarah nodded. "Point. Now, if-"
"Anyway," cut in Jacob, a little too loudly, "I'm sure Kelly's dying to reveal whatever it is they're going to reveal, so…"
Kelly nodded, and then looked deliberately at Anastasia. "Like I said, General, it's your show. Just don't take too long about it."
Anastasia sighed. "I know, Kelly. Now, as I was saying, a group of American and Canadian technicians have been analysing the remains of the Tarken robots, and-"
"Why?" asked Sarah, earning herself a few sharp glances. "I mean," she continued, "couldn't they just ask Tarken? Surely he'd be reasonable about it if you disconnected him from everything before switching him back on."
Kelly smiled slightly. "They tried that, I'm afraid. He wasn't reasonable at all. The team spent three hours trying to persuade him to cooperate, at the end of which he revealed that he had wiped all his memories, and then proceeded to shut himself down permanently."
Sarah winced. "Poor thing…"
"Poor?" James exclaimed. "That 'poor thing' did its best to kill us all, in case you've forgotten."
The girl nodded. "I know. But to be willing to go to such lengths… he was just like Lucy once, you know. What could have changed him so, I don't know, but…"
"It was just a computer," retorted James, "it could easily have been reprogrammed, like any other machine."
The room fell deathly silent, with all those who knew Lucy well – Jacob, Sarah, Mikhail and Anastasia – levelling cold glares at James. The soldier shifted in his seat, but said nothing. Eventually, Kelly cleared her throat and started up the explanation again.
"To cut a long story short, our technicians managed to reverse-engineer the technology behind the peripheral robots, and… well." She knocked on the door to the generator room. "That's your cue."
The door slid silently open, and a young woman of an age with Jacob stepped into the room. Everyone stared at her until Jacob said, "Um?"
"Hi," said the girl, in Lucy's voice. "Surprised?"
"You're… a robot?" asked Sarah, in a similar state of disbelief. Lucy nodded.
"A peripheral, but you've heard that speech already. This body is wired into the same network of satellites as your laptop is, which should save us a lot of time."
Jacob blinked. "That's… really rather creepy."
"You're telling me," replied Lucy. "I have to get used to a whole new set of senses – this thing is fully functional, with touch sensors and all. Extremely disturbing. Actually," she added, turning her head to look at Kelly, "I think I might need them tuned down a bit. The sensation is somewhat overwhelming."
Kelly nodded. "I think I should be able to do that myself. For now, though, would you like to sit down?"
Lucy nodded. "That might be a good idea. This bipedal position isn't very stable, I really do need more practice." So saying, she took a step forward, wobbled, and fell over. "Ow," she muttered from her position on the floor.
Kelly sighed. "Actually, I think we need to hardwire in some reflexes, like catching yourself when you fall."
"That would be very useful, yes," replied the robot, her voice muffled by speaking directly into the floor.
Chapter 17: All Sides
Spring had come to England, and the year 2102 AD looked to be a good one, at least in terms of weather. Certainly, as Jacob waited outside Waterloo International for the train Lucy had reported heading over from Ottawa, the sun was shining in a cloudless sky. He shook his head, thinking of the grim grey weather Britain was known for, and about how stereotypes could sometimes be so, so wrong.
Any further thoughts were prevented by the sound of shifting rubble from the station entrance. The dogs had, of course, been cleared out on Project Messiah's return from Canada, and hence Jacob was sure it was his visitors. Precisely who those would be, he didn't know. If Lucy had any idea, she was keeping it to herself. She seemed a lot more secretive since acquiring her body – or perhaps it was a result of the ending of the US-Canada aggression that had marked the last half century or more. Jacob didn't know, and Lucy, of course, wasn't saying.
Another cascade of stone tumbled down into the station – sooner or later they'd have to make a proper ramp over it – and Jacob once more returned his attention to it. The first of the visitors came out and he started forward, but then stopped, staring. These were no ordinary visitors. From the remains of Waterloo International came Kelly Paterson and Michael Denton, surrounded by soldiers from both countries. Neither James Sanderson or Simon Theras were present, but Bethany Miller, Alice Craymann and Jared Hall were all there. A few of the others in the group were vaguely familiar, generals of the United States or Canadian armies, and Jacob guessed that all of them were of equal rank.
"Hello, Jacob," called Kelly as the group – eleven in total, four generals from Canada and five from America – drew near. "We're looking for Anastasia. Do you know where we might find her?"
Jacob blinked. "Uh, yes," he replied. "She's with the rest of the team out at Romford. It's about twenty kilometres from here, right on the edge of the Minefield. Do you want to wait here, or take the MagLev out there to find her?"
Kelly looked at Michael, who nodded. "We should probably go and find her," she said. "Time is of the essence."
Jacob nodded, wondering what was going on. "We'll have a bit of a walk first, I'm afraid. The line runs from Liverpool Street, but we don't have any of the Underground back up and running yet, so..."
"That will be fine, Jacob," said Kelly. "If you'll lead the way…?"
* * *
The London Minefield was five hundred metres across and stretched 125 kilometres in a near-perfect circle around London. At its easternmost limit it touched Romford, Dartford and Thurrock; in the west it reached Harrow and Hounslow. It was made up of over sixty million landmines of a design unseen outside Britain, deposited by the same unknown force that had set off the bomb in the Tower, and by all accounts, all at the exact same moment.
It – and the smaller re-creations around many other population centres in the United Kingdom – had cut off almost all access to the cities for more than two years. The mines had defied all efforts to clear them, their design being so unusual that no normal methods would work. Most of the people of Britain had given up on the cities completely, retreating to the countryside despite the terrible winter that had struck at the beginning of 2100.
Once Lucy, in her new body, had seen a mine in action, it had taken her less than a day to work out how to clear them.
* * *
Jacob led the group of foreigners from the rebuilt station in Romford, through the ruined streets, to the gap in the minefield. In the month Project Messiah – assisted by various soldiers from Anastasia's former command – had been working on clearing it out, they had made a passageway three hundred metres wide, stretching all the way through. With ten teams working in tandem, they had removed over 144,000 mines. Impressive, as Jacob made certain to point out to Kelly, but at this rate it would take another thirty-something years to remove the entire field. Even after that, there would be several dozen other cities to deal with.
"I think we can help you out," said Kelly, "but I'm curious. What makes these mines so hard to clear out?"
"It's all in the design," explained Jacob. "These aren't landmines as you know them, which detonate once and are then gone. What we're facing is an adaptation of the mass-modulation bomb used to destroy the city in the first place."
"But that did only detonate once," said Denton, "or so I was told." He stopped, looking at the ground, and Jacob wondered with a start just how he'd reacted to that news. He had, after all, been the enemy at the time.
Kelly reached over and touched Denton's arm. "We heard the same," she said. "Jacob?"
He nodded. "That's true. These things are, fortunately, a lot smaller in effect, but the reason for that is that they activate repeatedly.
"Whenever they sense energy use close above them – whether it be a person or animal walking, or a car driving across – they switch on for a split second. From what we can see, they aren't actually mass-modulation mines. They seem to leave their mass constant but increase their gravitational effect to the point where it sucks whatever it is above them down with such force that a car's axle will snap, and a person – if he's lucky – will have the bones in his legs shattered."
Kelly shook her head. "You can't generate gravity without increased mass. It's impossible."
"No, actually, it isn't," said a new voice. The group stopped as Lucy stepped out from behind a pile of rubble. "Hello Prime Minister, Mr. President, Generals," she added, bowing slightly. "It's an honour."
"I doubt it," said Alice wryly to Bethany. Kelly shot them an amused glance, and then looked at Lucy again.
"Thank you, Lucy. Could you explain your first comment?"
The robot nodded. "Certainly, Madam Prime Minister. All I meant was that it obviously isn't impossible – it's happening. I have my theories about how they work, but-"
"They're mostly rubbish," put in Sarah, wiping the dust and sweat from her forehead as she walked up behind Lucy. "Hello, Jake," she added, "these are the visitors we were promised?"
"I assume so," Jacob replied, glad for the reprieve from all the science talk. "Unless there was more than one train?"
"No, just the one," said Lucy. Kelly nodded, confirming it.
"We don't allow people to travel from Ottawa to London without special governmental permission. It's too dangerous here, you see."
"Oh, I certainly do," said Sarah. "That's what we're working to fix, as you know."
Kelly nodded again. "And 'we' includes Anastasia?"
Sarah nodded in return. "She's working out at the far edge of the field. Did you want to see her?"
"It's a bit more urgent than that," Michael put in. "We're here to escort her to-" He stopped, as if aware that he'd said too much. Kelly frowned, just noticeably.
"Anastasia herself should be the first to hear that," she said, unnecessarily, and then looked back at Sarah. "However, it is urgent, so if you could lead us to her?"
"Certainly," the girl said with a slight bow. As she turned, she glanced at Jacob and spoke into his mind. "Be a dear and see if you can find out what this is about from Alice or Bethany, will you?"
The fourteen of them set off through the rubble – not as dense here on the edge of the devastation, but still bad enough – and Jacob slipped into line beside the two Canadian generals he knew. "Quite a show of force," he said quietly to Bethany. "You're not here to arrest Nastya, are you?"
Bethany broke her stride for a second, just noticeably. "No, Jacob," said Alice, filling in, "we're not."
"Right," muttered Jacob, unconvinced. "So why are you here?"
Bethany shook her head. "We can't tell you that."
"Military secret, is it?" He nodded. "Something to do with the war, I suppose."
Alice blinked, and smiled. Jacob noticed with annoyance that she seemed to be amused rather than pleased. "I suppose you could say that, Jacob," she said. "You could very well say that. However, you aren't going to find out any more, so why not just drop the subject and tell me what's being going on since we left you? Specifically, how Lucy's body's working out. She seems quite comfortable with it…"
The trio chatted amicably all the way to the minefield, although none of Jacob's subtle questions yielded any information as to why they were headed out there in the first place.
When the group arrived at the minefield breach, Sarah led them to the southern side, and then along to the outer edge, where a huddle of people was hard at work. As they approached, Jacob recognised that they were just beginning the process of disposing of a mine. First the team leader – Anastasia herself, recognisable from the blue bandana she had adopted to hold her silver hair back – tossed a small capsule onto the mine. Fortunately for the removal efforts, the mysterious force that had placed the mines – they had all appeared virtually instantaneously – had not buried them at all, so they were easy to recognise. The capsule landed on the black ball that constituted the mine and burst into flame. Half a second later, the fire vanished, blown out by the wind pulled onto it by the gravity mine. Quickly, before the device could recharge, two other members of the team hammered a long nail into it. When it struck the mechanism within the mine there was a brief shower of sparks and then nothing. The final teammate rolled the ball away towards a dump site, and the remaining three prepared to take out the next mine. The whole process took just under a minute.
"Nastya!" called Sarah, and the older woman looked up and waved. "Someone to see you," the psychic added, and Anastasia nodded.
"I'll be right over," she shouted back. "Could someone come over and take this job?"
"I'll go," said Lucy. She nodded respectfully to Kelly and Michael and then ran off. Kelly watched approvingly.
"Barely a stumble," the Canadian Prime Minister noted, nodding. "I'll report that to our technicians, they'll be pleased to know the body worked out so well. No, don't salute," she finished as Anastasia reached them. "You're a civilian now, remember?"
Anastasia nodded. "Hello, Kelly. Something tells me this isn't just a social call."
Kelly smiled. "No, not really. We've got a…" For the first time since Jacob had known her, she hesitated and frowned.
"A job for you," said Alice, covering for her. "A rather important job."
Anastasia raised an eyebrow. "And Prime Minister Paterson left her struggling country to convey this information herself? Something tells me this is more than just a 'job'."
"All right, all right." Kelly shook her head. "Honestly, where's the fun in secrecy if you're going to guess?"
"Then tell me," replied Anastasia, "so that I won't have to guess."
Kelly nodded. "We – that is, Michael, myself, and various high-ranking members of our governments, have been discussing the plans for the World Commonwealth, and we think we have settled on an acceptable organisation.
"The structure itself would be similar to the governing systems of most democratic countries, significantly Canada and the United States. Member nations would retain their own governments for internal affairs, but would also elect a representative – initially, we will use the leaders of the countries, myself, Michael and Jacob – to join a Council not unlike our Parliament. From the Council, the public of the Commonwealth would elect one member to be President. The Council, led by the President, would then govern international affairs for the Commonwealth."
Anastasia nodded, her face grim. "I see. I must congratulate you on manoeuvring yourself into a position of such power, Kelly."
Kelly raised an eyebrow. "You should let me finish, Anastasia. While you no doubt think me a power-hungry maniac bent on world domination-"
"Oh, I wouldn't say maniac," Anastasia interjected. Kelly glared, but continued.
"I do not, in fact, have any desire to lead the Commonwealth through its opening years. They will be hard years, especially seeing as we are still at war with Russia. We will need a military President."
Anastasia frowned, and then her face cleared. "You-"
"No guessing, I said," interrupted Kelly, but she was smiling. Then she brought herself to attention and her voice took on a distinct formal tone. "Anastasia Romanov, former General of the Army of the World Commonwealth, you have been elected by a clear majority of the members of the Commonwealth Council to the post of first President of the World Commonwealth. While this election would normally require the ratification of the peoples of Canada, Great Britain and the United States of America, these are extraordinary times. You do have the right to refuse the position, but we urge you not to. You have twenty-four hours in which to make up your mind, after which-"
Anastasia waved a hand to silence her. "I don't need a day to consider. I've made my choice. I accept this nomination, and will do my best to use my time in office to bring peace to the world and expand the reach of the Commonwealth as far as I am able."
Chapter 18: Organised Mind
"… to the best of my abilities, to protect and defend its citizens, and to defeat its enemies. To expand its influence to encompass the world entire, and to…"
"Oh, switch that off," said Anastasia, waving a hand at the radio. "It was bad enough the first time."
Jacob hit the switch, silencing the device. "I thought it was very good," he said. Anastasia snorted.
"It was the worst, most false-sounding acceptance speech I've ever heard," she replied, "and that's coming from the one who said it."
"At least you didn't write it, too," said Alice from her post by the door. "You shouldn't let Jared hear you say such things about his writing abilities."
"Jared now, is he?" asked Bethany from the other side of the entryway. "He's General Hall to everyone else."
Alice blushed, just noticeably. "He's a very nice gentleman, for all that he's American."
"Oh, I'm sure he is," replied Bethany, grinning. "A very… nice gentleman."
"He's also coming down the corridor," commented Kelly, who could see out of the open door from her place next to Anastasia. "So unless you want him to hear this, I suggest you act like good little soldiers and shut up."
The pair nodded and stood to attention as Michael Denton, accompanied by Jared Hall and another US general Jacob didn't know, entered the room. The President of the United States nodded to the three at the table and sat down, his escort joining the two Canadians by the door. It didn't escape Jacob's notice, as the four swung the heavy double doors closed, that Jared had joined Alice.
"Right," said Kelly, "let's get started. First item on the agenda is the selection of a capital for the Commonwealth. I'd like to suggest-"
"York," said Jacob suddenly, cutting her off. She frowned, and he wondered for a moment whether he had overstepped his role. While he was theoretically her equal, the young man knew that as an un-elected representative of a shattered country, he was far less influential than Kelly or Michael.
As it turned out, however, Kelly had a more practical consideration in mind. "Jacob," she said, "New York is in ruins. I don't know what you've heard, but the damage there was significant even though it never fell, and we've had nothing like enough time to rebuild."
Jacob shook his head. "Not New York. Old York. In England," he clarified.
Anastasia frowned and leaned forward. "I've not spent much time outside London," she said, "but isn't York a fairly insignificant city somewhere in the north?"
Jacob nodded. "It is. It's also one of the largest left undamaged by the attacks back in '99, which is why I suggested it."
Michael shook his head. "I don't get it," he said. "We've got countless cities larger than it in America and Canada which are far better suited to running a government than any of yours could be. Most of them are in one piece, too. Why should we set up shop in England rather than over here?"
"Two… no, three reasons," said Jacob. "First off, the administrative apparatus of the UK is nonexistent at the moment. We need a leader over there, and the Commonwealth needs not to seem tied to a specific country. I was thinking we could take advantage of the mess my country's in to chop the section around York out as a separate nation, sort of like the Vatican, whose only purpose is to run the Commonwealth."
Kelly nodded thoughtfully. "I was thinking of suggesting a similar idea for wherever we did choose as a capital. My own choice, however, would be Toronto, and I still haven't heard anything to dissuade me." She glanced at Jacob. "Continue."
"The second reason," he said, trying to quell his nervousness, "is that it's simply closer to everywhere. You want the Commonwealth to eventually encompass everywhere, yes?" The others nodded. "Then you need a capital in a central location. Ideally you'd want somewhere down on the Mediterranean, but that area looks like it's going to become Russian territory before long, so… well, basically, North America is too far from Africa, where the other remaining members of the original Commonwealth are." He shrugged and waited for an argument – something about how the majority of the population of the Commonwealth was in North America, and would be until China joined.
Instead, Anastasia responded with a nod. "He's got a point. A lot of countries start to fall apart at the edges – Moscow has very little control over the eastern end of Russia, Ottawa is less powerful in Alaska and the Yukon, and Los Angeles loses influence in Florida."
"And, as I recall, London has historically had trouble keeping hold of Scotland and, well, you lost Northern Ireland years back," finished Kelly. "I'm beginning to be convinced, Jacob. Perhaps your third argument will finish the job."
"I doubt it," the Londoner said. After a moment's pause, he sighed. "The third reason is that Alice says it's a good idea."
That raised a few eyebrows, Jacob noticed with mixed satisfaction and dismay. Kelly turned to look at the door. "General Craymann," she snapped, "please explain to me why a Councillor is citing your opinion as a valid argument."
Alice winced, but came to attention. "Ma'am," she said, "I do not believe my opinion to be of any relevance here."
Michael frowned. "He apparently does," he muttered, waving a hand in Jacob's direction. On the far side of the table, Anastasia shook her head.
"No, he doesn't," she said. "I remember what happened on the fourth of December last year." She looked at Jacob, who nodded in relief.
"I know Alice has spent most of the time since then over here being a general, but in the times she's been over in London, she and Sarah have been talking."
"Talking," repeated Kelly flatly. From the door, Alice spoke up.
"She's been training me as well as she can in using my ability," she said. "It turns out that Lucy was right when she said that I can't do the whole moving stuff telekinesis thing at all, but I'm really good with telepathy, reading people's minds and such. So good, in fact that I, uh, don't seem to be limited to reading them now."
Kelly stared at her. "What, exactly, are you saying?"
"Um." Alice avoided her leader's gaze. "I can see the future. Or, uh, rather, I can see what will happen when we take various paths. Like, when refreshments get brought in in a while, you'll be happier eating the cakes than the sandwiches."
"Or," put in Jacob, "that everything will work out best if we take York as a capital, rather than anywhere else."
"I… see." Kelly shook her head. "It's going to take a bit of getting used to, having you around. So, Alice, what would happen if we took Toronto as our capital?"
The general's eyes went unfocussed for a moment, and then she winced. "Six years from now," she said, "the US would declare that Canada was using the World Commonwealth to oppress it and would launch an all-out war. After three years of war, the American armies would occupy everything south of Ottawa, with advances pushing through as far as Winnipeg and Quebec City. The new Prime Minister – you die in a bombing raid on Toronto – would order a nuclear strike against Los Angeles in a final attempt to halt the war. China, which had professed to have destroyed all its nukes, would throw itself onto the side of the US and retaliate against Ottawa. The Prime Minister would die in the attack, and-"
"All right, all right." Kelly waved her into silence. "I think we've heard enough. So, any disagreements over York?" When none were forthcoming, she smiled at Anastasia. "Madame President, it looks like your government will be in England. Now, onto the next item: the distribution of the military."
* * *
"And that, I think, is everything. Unless anyone has something they wish to bring up?"
Jacob raised his hand in response to Kelly's words, ignoring the snort of laughter from Alice, over by the door. "There is one thing," he said. Kelly sighed.
"Let's hear it, then."
Instinctively, Jacob looked around to ask Sarah to set up the link to Lucy, but she wasn't there. The girl was back in London, working with the mine disposal teams – more of them now, reinforcements having been sent over from Canada. Of course, Jacob knew that she was needed there, but he did wish she was at his side, and not just for her expertise. However, she wasn't, so he had to make do.
Michael coughed politely, and Jacob realised he'd fallen silent. Picking up on his thoughts, he said, "It's about the psychics."
Alice groaned, and muttered, "It's always about the psychics." Kelly shot her a glare.
"Need I remind you, General Craymann, that you are on duty, and as such should be silent?"
"Yes ma'am, sorry ma'am." The woman stood at attention, but spoiled the impression of military formality by aiming a wink in Jacob's direction. Kelly sighed.
"Soldiers. Anyway, Jacob, you were saying?"
"Oh, yes." Jacob nodded. "It's about what Lucy – or rather, Alison Ross – said back in December. Er, were you there then? I've forgotten."
"No, I wasn't," replied Kelly, "but I've received detailed reports from my pair of generals who you seem to keep stealing away." From the doorway, Alice and Bethany saluted sloppily, their two American counterparts watching in disapproval. Kelly shook her head. "Alice, Bethany, why can't you be more like Michael's boys?"
"Oh, don't worry," replied Bethany, glancing at her friend, "I'm sure Alice will corrupt General Hall in no time."
Anastasia interrupted with a cough. "Can we get back on-topic? It's getting late, and I'd like to get some sleep tonight." The two generals saluted again and stood at attention, and Kelly gestured to Jacob to continue.
The young man glanced down at the table and tried to gather his thoughts. "As you know, then, Alison Ross prepared a plan for an organisation called PsyTest, designed to seek out anyone with psychic abilities in the UK and Canada. Sarah's been running the calculations, and it turns out that we can expand it to cover the entire Commonwealth.
"I don't think I need to explain how useful an army of psychics would be against Russia, but the problem Sarah's been having is in figuring out how to organise it all. We're talking about a massive effort across the whole of North America, something which we couldn't organise before."
He paused, and took a deep breath before turning to Anastasia and continuing. "But now we can. You can, Madam President. You have the authority to do so, and the people in this room – Kelly, Michael, even those layabouts by the door – have the influence to make it done. You can get us that army, and then we can win the war."
The silence was practically deafening before Anastasia said, "Sarah wrote that little speech, didn't she?" When Jacob nodded, blushing, she smiled. "You should stick to your own style, Jacob, it suits you better. However, your point is made. Go home, bring Sarah over here, and we'll see about getting PsyTest operational."
Chapter 19: Shifting Lines
Jacob Ethrax was out of breath and nursing a stitch when he staggered into the Council Chamber in the World Commonwealth Government Building, constructed on the site of York District Hospital. He had been in London, somewhere south of Croydon, working on clearing the half of the minefield that was left, when the emergency alert came through. In the nine months since Anastasia's election in February, there had never been an emergency alert, so he had known it was serious. Dropping everything, he had run to the nearest station, fidgeted on the train all the way to York, and then attempted to sprint the kilometre and a half from the station to the Government Building.
"Now that we're all here," said Anastasia as Jacob collapsed in his chair – one of only four in the massive Council Chamber, an absurd arrangement that demonstrated why planning ahead wasn't always a good thing – "Michael has some distressing news for us." She looked at the President of the United States.
Michael Denton nodded, and rose to his feet. "It's Mexico," he said, flatly. "They've decided to take advantage of my country's dedication to the war over here to try and take some new territory of their own."
Kelly Paterson sat bolt upright. "They've invaded America?" she asked, and breathed a sigh of relief when Michael shook his head.
"Not quite. They're making threatening noises at all the little island nations in the Caribbean, though – and the big ones, too." He shifted uncomfortably for a moment, and then added, "Those nations have petitioned for entry into the United States."
"Ah." Anastasia shook her head. "And you'd need to pull some of your troops out of the defence of Paris to ensure that Mexico doesn't challenge that integration?"
Michael nodded unhappily. "I'm sorry to have to abandon you like this, but our armies haven't been very large since we lost the Third World War, and with the losses we incurred in the last war… well, it turns out we'll need to pull at least half of the US forces in France away to persuade Mexico."
"We need those troops," put in Jacob, frowning. "If we lose Paris, we could easily lose the whole of Europe. Can't you just tell Mexico not to attack?"
Michael shook his head. "If only it was that simple. We need to be able to back any such orders or requests with force, Jacob, and that force can't be halfway around the world."
"This reminds me of a situation back in World War Three," commented Anastasia, cutting off Jacob's chance to respond. "Two countries down in South Asia – India and Pakistan, they were called – saw the distraction of all the larger nations as a good opportunity to start up their own little war. From what I understand, it was actually a continuation of an older conflict, but it's the same thing. When the larger fight ended, Canada and Britain requested that China send in some troops to stop them fighting. That turned into an occupation, and about thirty years ago, integration." She glanced at Michael. "The Chinese have had a lot of trouble from that region. Bear that in mind, Michael."
Michael nodded. "I wasn't planning to invade and annex Mexico, if that's what you mean. But we can't let countries go around attacking each other at will, either. We'll end up with another Israel."
"Ah. You make a good point," Anastasia allowed. Jacob glanced to one side to see Kelly also nodding in agreement. Great, he thought, time to look ignorant again.
"What's Israel got to do with anything?" he asked. "I know where it is," he clarified hurriedly, "I just don't see how it's relevant."
Anastasia smiled. "Not to worry, Jacob," she said, "there's no reason you should." She looked at Michael. "You brought it up, you explain it."
Michael sighed. "All right. Back before WWIII, my country was involved in a lot of pacification down in the Middle East. Various countries down there were becoming aggressive, so we moved in to prevent them – or to protect, in some cases.
"Every child in America who grew up after the war knows which countries they were – Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the last piece of the United States' overseas territory – and what happened. There's a lot of details, but in brief, when the war started to go badly for us back home, we pulled out of the Middle East completely.
"This plunged those four countries into chaos. Three nations to the north of there, called Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, decided to use the sudden absence of our forces to settle old scores against a fourth, Israel. They had been afraid of US invasion for years, and so had amassed large armies. They thought they could conquer Israel easily."
The room was silent except for the President's words. Although the other two knew the story, they didn't interrupt, and Michael continued, with a wry grin. "Unfortunately, they forgot that Israel had also been next door to our territories, and on top of that, had always been under threat from her neighbours, and as such had what was close to the best army in the world. The fighting didn't even last long enough for us to notice, and when… uh…"
"When Canada managed to stop the renewed American onslaught," Kelly picked up, "and we all got a chance to look at the state of the world again, Israel had not only managed to beat all three of her attackers, but also to invade and annex all of them. The little country on the coast of the Mediterranean had very quickly become the size of Britain."
"I… see," said Jacob, once he was sure she had finished. "So, what, you think the Caribbean countries will invade Mexico? Because that doesn't seem too likely…"
"No, it doesn't," said Anastasia. "What your colleagues have failed to mention is that, in the fifty years since its enlargement, Israel has suffered at least fifteen major armed secession attempts, and countless minor rebellions. It's managed to hold onto everything so far, but it will never be a peaceful place. If Mexico does something similar in the Caribbean and Central America, we could end up with a new war on our hands in short order."
Jacob whistled softly. "That wouldn't be good at all."
"Understatement of the year," muttered Kelly. "I wish we had Alice here to help us out on this, though. It looks like we lose either way."
"She's off training with Sarah somewhere," Jacob pointed out.
"Yes, I know, I was just saying… well. Shall we put this to a vote?"
"There's only four of us," said Michael. "Is a vote really necessary?"
"We should get into the habit," said Anastasia. "It'll be useful when we actually have a proper Council. However, time is probably of the essence, so I'll do the short version. Does anyone object to allowing President Denton to pull as much of the American forces away from Paris to prevent a war between the US and Mexico over the US acquisition of the islands in the Caribbean?" When no one spoke, she smiled. "Then it's agreed, for better or for worse. Now, was there anything else?"
Jacob thought for a moment, and then said, "Yes, actually." The other three looked at him curiously. It wasn't often he came up with ideas of his own at meetings – despite their assurances, he still felt that, as the youngest member of the Council, he was subordinate to them – so they were interested to see whether it was worth listening to. Jacob, however, didn't know this, and was quite unnerved by all three of them watching him.
"Well?" said Anastasia, after a few moments of silence. "What is it?"
"Oh." He took a moment to gather his thoughts, and then said, "Well, I was thinking that we might want to give Mexico something other than threats. America's a bit of a mess, so keeping the neighbours happy would be a good thing, right?"
"I have no objections," said Michael, "unless you're going to ask me to pay. Tarken already put us into debt with his war."
"Actually, I had two ideas," Jacob said. "It occurs to me that the Washington-New York stretch of your two countries was pretty badly hammered in the war, and that you can't have had much time to fix them up. Am I right?"
"You are," agreed Kelly, and then added, thoughtfully, "and if I'm following correctly, you're about to suggest that we use Mexican companies to fix it up. Right?"
Jacob nodded. "I know you've both got construction companies of your own, but even they, I think, would have trouble rebuilding the entire stretch. Plus, once we get 'round to kicking Russia out of Europe, we'll need your help to sort things out across this entire continent."
"Oh, that should be fun," muttered Michael. "You're going to bankrupt all of our countries, you know that?"
"I know, but there's not much choice. Maybe we could persuade China to chip in? They've not been involved in anything, so…"
"Maybe," said Anastasia, "but I wouldn't put our hopes in them. China's been isolationist for a long time, except for the brief alliance with the Commonwealth in World War Three. They're likely to be our biggest obstacle to bringing the world together." She shook her head. "But that's for the future. What was your other idea, Jacob?"
"Well," replied Jacob, "I was thinking that we need to start expanding this Commonwealth of ours. We'll want to re-establish contact with all those little countries down in Africa and wherever that were part of the original, but I thought we might want to invite Mexico to join now, while we're talking to them anyway."
Kelly, Michael and Anastasia stared at him. After a moment, Anastasia nodded thoughtfully. "Very good, Jacob. I hadn't even thought of that. I think I'm going to have to watch out for you when it comes to election time."
Jacob looked shocked. "I couldn't run the Commonwealth," he said, "I'm only nineteen."
"You'll be twenty-two by then," pointed out Kelly in a strange tone of voice, "and easily qualified. I think we'll all have to watch out for you."
Anastasia nodded, but looked sharply at Kelly for a moment before saying, "Are we all agreed, then, that Mexico is to be offered contracts in repairing the destruction of the war, and that it is to be offered entrance into our World Commonwealth?"
"There's no need for the formality, Anastasia," said Kelly, "it's not like any of this is being recorded. But yes, we are."
"Good," said Anastasia, ignoring the initial dig. "In that case, Michael, withdraw your troops and deal with your new territory, and Kelly, you can come with me to negotiate with Mexico."
"What do you want me to do, then?" asked Jacob, expecting to be sent back to London. Anastasia grinned.
"You're going to run things here for a while, Jacob. Surely you remember that, as a member of the Advisors' Council, you can be called to duty as Vice President at any time?"
Jacob stared. "You're putting me in charge of the Commonwealth?"
"In my absence, yes." Anastasia gave him a firm look. "Don't mess things up too badly while I'm away, Mr. Ethrax. We've all spent a lot of time on this Commonwealth, and I don't want to see it ruined. See if you can keep Russia from overrunning too much more of France."
"Certainly, President Romanov," Jacob replied, his tone one of mingled respect and amusement. "I'll do the best I can."
"Good boy," said Anastasia, winking at him. "Come on, Kelly, Michael, we'll need to head down to London to catch a train back under the Atlantic, and they're still not all that regular."
Chapter 20: Territorial Acquisitions
Jacob stood next to Anastasia and looked gloomily at the pillar of smoke on the horizon. Such fires had been springing up all over the European mainland, the by-product of war, but this one was especially significant. Paris, capital of France, was burning, and as the Commonwealth and French troops fell back, the Russians moved in. The month-long battle was over, and the Commonwealth had lost.
Anastasia noticed his sigh and leaned over. "Don't worry," she said, "it's not all bad. With the way this winter's shaping up to be, they'll have to stay in the city for the next couple of months or risk us firebombing the snow and making them wade through a foot of water to reach us."
"And what will they be doing in the meantime?" asked Jacob, and then supplied the answer himself. "Securing their hold on the rest of Europe. Putting down insurrections. Demolishing their governmental apparatus. Making things that much harder for us when we get there."
Anastasia sighed. "I wish I could tell you you're wrong. Kelly thinks that Europe will be in such a mess when we liberate it that it might as well be merged into one country. Personally, I think that when is too optimistic. Of course," she added hastily, "I'll deny that if you tell anyone. I have the utmost confidence in our troops." She sighed again.
"Nastya? Jacob?" Mikhail Melnikov came up behind them. "We are setting up a defensive ring around the city to keep the enemy contained if we can. Well, it is more of a defensive half-circle, but it is the best we can do." He paused, and then went on. "I was thinking – well, Alice, Bethany and I were thinking – that the soldiers might benefit from having you offer a few words of reassurance that we have not lost the war, that we will retake Paris, and so forth."
Anastasia smiled. "That's a very good idea, Misha," she said. "If I had any regrets over promoting you, this would dispel them." When the young man blushed, she laughed. "Anyway, I'll go and find Alice and stop embarrassing you, shall I?"
"She and Bethany are in Dreux," Mikhail said. "It is a town perhaps seventy kilometres from Paris centre, and close behind the defensive line. It is not far from here, less than an hour to drive. I have just come from there," he clarified, "and the driver who brought me knows the way."
Anastasia nodded. "Good," she said, "then I'll be able to get back here after the speech, and make it home to York. We need to hold a Council Meeting about this. Jacob, could you deal with it?"
"Yes, Madam President," Jacob said. "Will the meeting just deal with the events here?"
Anastasia looked at him curiously. "What else would there be?" she asked. Jacob couldn't tell whether she was being serious or not, and so decided to take the question at face value.
"The whole expansion of the Commonwealth," he said. "Kelly and Michael have been negotiating with everyone they could reach, that I know, and I'd quite like to know how they got on."
Anastasia nodded. "I was thinking something similar myself. When you contact them, ask them to bring that information along. Then, I suppose, we'll need to hold elections in any countries they've dragged aboard, so as to have a full Advisors' Council… ah," she sighed, "so much to do, so little time. Come along, Misha, you can accompany me to Dreux."
* * *
Jacob looked at the map on the table appreciatively. "That's quite a state," he said.
Michael Denton nodded. "I suppose it was the prospect of war that made them do it, but I'm not complaining."
Jacob nodded distractedly, the map still holding his attention. Although there might be a few small islands he couldn't see, it certainly looked like every nation in the Caribbean – including Cuba, the largest – had now become a part of the United States of America.
"There's still some debate about what to call it," Michael said, ignoring Jacob's silence. "In fact, there's still some debate as to how many states it is. I suspect I'll be long gone before they finally decide, but as a sort of temporary measure, we've got them down as two states: Cuba and Caribbea."
"What he's not mentioning," pointed out Kelly from the other side of the table, "is that no less than ten members of the original Commonwealth are now part of his state of Caribbea. That's going to drive our numbers, and therefore the respect the rest of the world holds us in, down by quite a bit."
"But having a larger United States will make up for that," retorted Michael. "People will see that we are a true world power, and realise that if even we are joining the Commonwealth-"
"Enough of this," said Anastasia, cutting him off mid-sentence. "The purpose of this meeting is not to discuss the politics behind President Denton's decision."
"The purpose of this meeting," Kelly replied, "is for you to tell us that Paris has fallen. You've done that."
Sighing, Anastasia looked at Jacob. "You didn't tell them?"
"I did!" Jacob cried indignantly. "It's not my fault."
Anastasia raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Turning back to Kelly, she said, "The other purpose of this meeting is so that we can discuss what, if any, progress you've made with expanding the World Commonwealth."
"… ah. That." Kelly looked sheepish. "Some."
"Some?" repeated Anastasia. "What, exactly, does that mean?"
"It means," replied Kelly, "that eighteen of the original members have not responded to our communications in any way. Not about this, not about anything else."
Jacob frowned and leaned forward. "That sounds serious."
"We think so too," said Kelly. "In a couple of cases, it's actually understandable – Malta and Cyprus are both in the Mediterranean. That puts them on the other side of the Russian lines, and quite possibly under enemy control. The others… well." She reached for a world map and unfolded it. "They're all down in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Nothing down there has so much as flashed a lamp in our direction since the war started."
"Could it be China?" Anastasia asked. "They did invade and annex India and Pakistan after World War Three, could they have taken the entire area this time?"
"Without us hearing a thing about it? Doubtful," said Kelly. "Anyway, last time it was at the Commonwealth's request, to stop the two of them annihilating each other."
"You'll admit that it's possible, though?" asked Michael. Kelly sighed, and nodded.
"Possible, though I don't think it likely. We'll keep trying to get through to them." She stopped, and her expression brightened. "You'll be pleased to know, however, that we were able to reach all of the other old members. Most of them are in Africa, which as you know is staying firmly out of the war. We're hoping that we can persuade a few of them to join in, but… well, it doesn't look likely."
"Who can blame them?" asked Jacob rhetorically. "We've seen the mess that's been made of the countries that are in the fight, I can't imagine anyone wanting that inflicted on them."
Anastasia shook her head. "They'd be insane to do so. So, Kelly, you got all twenty-odd of the remaining old members to join? Impressive."
"… ah. No, not exactly."
Michael groaned. "If you're going to say they all declined your invitation…"
"Not all," snapped Kelly, glaring at him. "I never said all."
"How many, then?" asked Jacob, trying to keep another fight from erupting. "It can't be that bad, or you'd've said something."
Kelly nodded. "A total of eight nations refused to join the World Commonwealth. They were all down in the south-eastern section of Africa, if that helps any."
"I think it does," said Anastasia thoughtfully. "I don't know if you remember, but there were a string of minor wars down there about ten years ago."
"I remember," said Michael. "As I recall, we – the government, that is – spent several weeks debating whether to send the army down to intervene. We eventually decided against it, for fear that Canada would take advantage of the lapse in our defence." He stopped, and looked at Kelly. "Funny how that worked out, really."
"We knew you were considering it," Kelly admitted, "and the Prime Minister at the time would, indeed, have tried to use your distraction to our advantage. However, that's all in the past now. Nastya," she continued, "if I remember rightly, several of the countries I was trying to recruit were on opposing sides in those wars – Botswana and South Africa, for certain." She sighed. "I was doomed to failure."
"Thus proving the value of proper research," Jacob muttered, and then suppressed an urge to hit himself. "Sorry," he said, trying to avoid Kelly's glare. I thought I was getting better at thinking before I said anything!
"It's true, sadly," the Canadian said. "I can't think why I didn't look it up before I contacted them."
"Possibly due to the way your own country is now allied with a recent enemy," Anastasia suggested. "Anyway, were there any problems with the other nations?"
Kelly shook her head. "Eleven countries in Africa and two in the Americas chose to become members of our reformed Commonwealth, ranging in size from Nigeria and Tanzania down to island chains such as the Seychelles. Adding to that Canada, Britain and America, we've already got a fair-sized organisation."
"Add in Mexico as well," Michael put in. "It took every trick in the book, plus a few I had the diplomats up all night inventing, but we finally persuaded them to join up. Kelly, you should be seeing a rather large influx of workers in Philadelphia and Trudeau before long."
Kelly sighed. "More money slipping through my fingers, I suppose."
"We'll all be paying too," Jacob reminded her. "I mean, when us Brits get our act together enough to set up a new government, we're going to need some major rebuilding over here."
"Probably more than you expect," Kelly commented. "How's the work going, anyway?"
"About how you'd expect," Jacob said with a shrug. "The London Minefield's almost gone, but the work's slowed down recently. People have been getting over their fear of the city, so we've had to put down a couple of fights between fairly large gangs looking to take over areas of it."
Anastasia shook her head. "Of all our nations, the UK was hit hardest by this war. Putting the pieces back together will be time-consuming."
Jacob nodded. "I know that. I just wish we knew what happened. I mean, the bombs are fairly obvious, but the minefields… they just appeared in a split second, according to those who saw them come down. It's almost like a psychic did it, but if there was a psychic that powerful, we'd all be dead by now."
"Then it can't have been one," Michael said irritably. "Your witnesses must be wrong, or else there's some other explanation."
"Nanoassemblers, possibly," put in Kelly. "They could have been set to start working when the bomb went off, and if you had enough of them-"
"Enough," interrupted Anastasia. "I don't know about you, but I'd like to finish this meeting before spring comes and I need to rush back to France."
Jacob stood outside the Commonwealth government building and shivered. Around him, the other sixteen members of the Advisors' Council were similarly freezing. Of President Romanov herself there was still no sign, which Jacob personally thought a good reason to go inside where it was warm. Unfortunately for him, the swelled Council couldn't operate in the same way as when it was just him, Kelly and Michael. The price of progress, he thought gloomily, and pulled his coat tighter around him.
At that moment there came a sound of marching feet, and a group of soldiers came around the corner. Jacob was surprised to see that he recognised all of them, though they ranged in rank from Generals Hall and Miller to Sergeant Sanderson, who had been a guard at the Grey House when Project Messiah infiltrated it.
"Sorry we're late," said Anastasia from the front of the ranks. "Had a few things to sort out for Operation Burning Star. Did we miss anything?"
"Other than the chance to grow your own icicles?" Jacob muttered. He noted with some annoyance that neither Anastasia nor Mikhail, walking alongside her, seemed affected by the temperature at all. He supposed this was due to their growing up in Russia, but still didn't think it fair.
The approaching group reached the Council, and as they took up positions facing the courtyard Bethany Miller shuffled over to Jacob. "Any more hints as to what this is about?" she whispered.
Jacob shook his head. "No personal messages from Sarah, if that's what you mean." He paused for a second, and then added, "You?"
Bethany sighed. "I've heard nothing from Alice since she went off with your friend. I don't even know if she has anything to do with this, let alone what it is.
Jacob nodded gloomily. Secrecy was all very well, but surely Sarah could have contacted him in the year or so she'd been gone. But she hadn't, not until the mysterious letter telling him to be in this courtyard at 10 am on the DATE of MONTH had appeared on his table a couple of weeks previously. So here he was, and it was a quarter past already, and nothing had happened.
His thoughts were broken by a sudden collective gasp from those assembled, and he looked up at the square to see the snow, which had been still thick on the ground, rising up flake by flake. Soon the paved area below was revealed, gleaming wetly in the drab sunlight. Then, as if that wasn't enough, the snow, suspended like a thick mist over the courtyard, began to drift towards the watchers. It never reached them, however, instead piling up and forming an immense, impossible white wall that blocked their view of the square. It held there for a full half-minute and then simply vanished.
Behind where it had been, in the formally empty courtyard, stood rank upon rank of men and women. They had no uniformity of clothing, save that all were dressed for cold weather, but on their right arms they each bore a white armband with a black symbol on it: the logo Alison Ross had created for the Project Messiah Psychic Corps.
Jacob scanned the faces of the crowd, looking for Sarah, but couldn't find her. A moment later a bright light illuminated the area, flaring blue on the remaining snow, and he looked up to see Sarah Martell suspended above her army. Her arms were outstretched, her hair stuck out wildly from her head, and the blue glow enveloped her as she floated serenely down and forward. As her feet touched the damp flagstones the light faded, and she smiled at the government of the Commonwealth and their companions. "Thank you all for coming," she said. "Madame President, I would like to present before you the Project Messiah Psychic Corps."