Long ago, in the middle of the 21st century, there existed a group known as Project Messiah. Although quite famous in their day, they had broken up quickly, and were forgotten to all save those interested in the end of the Monarchy. However, their memory was revived half a century later when, in a desperate attempt to counter the waves of evil spreading across the world, four young people resurrected the name and formed the Second Messiah. For months they trained in secret, gaining skills far beyond their years, until increasing hostilities between Mexico and the US forced them into action.
In a small room deep beneath the ruins of abandoned London sat a wooden conference table. On the wall behind it was a large plasma screen, below which lay various touch-control pads. As anyone familiar with the appropriate technology would know, this was the Chamber of Lu-Ci-2050, the Full Sensory Input Artificial Intelligence originally assigned to Buckingham Palace. When the whole of London had been devastated by an earthquake-inducing mass-modulation pulse bomb the chamber had been damaged, but Second Messiah had rediscovered it and requisitioned the FSIAI.
Disturbing the silence of the chamber came the sound of quiet footsteps. Jacob Ethrax, leader of the Second Messiah, stepped into the room. He crossed it quickly, and, after plugging a cable in at the back, 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.
“Hello, Lucy. Could you check to see if the others are coming yet?”
“Certainly, Jacob." Images from various surveillance cameras flickered on the screen, faster than the human eye could follow. After a few seconds it reverted to the wait-state of shifting colours, and Lucy spoke again. "Mikhail and Alice are coming down the corridor, and will be here within one minute. Sarah has just arrived at the entrance. She appears to be carrying a small portable computer.” She paused, then added, sounding slightly worried, “You’re not going to replace me, are you?”
Jacob raised an eyebrow. “What's this? Has the All-Powerful Computer developed a paranoid streak?" Before she could reply, the young man shook his head. "Don't worry, Lucy, we're not going to replace you. In fact –"
He was cut off by the arrival of two other team members. Mikhail Melnikov, in exile from Russia since the Communist insurgents had overthrown the legitimate government back in 2099, took the lead, while Alice Craymann, who had fled Mexico during the takeover by revolutionaries at the same time, trailed behind. The pair exchanged greetings with Jacob and Lucy, and then sat down to wait for their final comrade.
They didn’t have long to wait. After a few seconds there came the sound of running feet. Jacob rose, and was just about to ask Lucy to check who it was when Sarah Martell, fifth member of the Second Messiah and only survivor of the Destruction of London, rushed in. Swiftly, Jacob stepped out in front of her, catching her to prevent a collision with Lucy. As she brushed the hair from her eyes he stepped back, smiling.
“Are we ready to start?”
* * * *
Once the team had settled down, Jacob immediately got down to the main business of the day.
“Now,” he said, “we all know about the recent hostilities between America and Mexico. While the trouble down there was purely internal, there was nothing we could do. Now, by launching an actual invasion, the Mexicans have overstepped their boundaries. We possess inside information that the US is unlikely – extremely unlikely – to have, and as such, we are going to initiate our first mission. We’re going to America in an attempt to put a stop to this war, and,” he looked over at Alice, “the atrocities that go with it.”
Lucy interrupted, sounding panicky. “You are going to leave me behind! I knew it!”
Jacob merely smiled. “Now Lucy, don’t jump to conclusions. I thought long and hard about how we could operate without you, and concluded that... well, we couldn’t. Luckily, with that perfect timing she sometimes exhibits, Sarah came up with the solution to that problem. Sarah?”
On cue, and with only a slight blush to betray her embarrassment at the complement just paid her, Sarah placed the laptop she had brought down from Above on the table. From her pocket she took a small satellite uplink dish, small enough to fix on top of the computer, and set it up. As she worked, Jacob continued speaking. "As we all know, Sarah's father was a gifted computer technician. While Sarah's own skills lie more in the real world, she recently returned to her house and discovered that some of his equipment had survived. Using the notes on his laptop, she was able to assemble this." He glanced over at Sarah, who nodded and pressed one final button.
“What –” Lucy stopped. When she had spoken, her voice had come from two different locations – the wall mounted speakers and the laptop on the table.
"Using her father's passwords," said Jacob with a smile, "Sarah has created a direct communications link between Lucy and the satellite communications network in orbit above our heads. As long as the dish set up in the ruins remains intact – and it's well hidden, so it should - you can be with us anywhere on Earth, or indeed any of her satellites. Natural or man-made.”
That’s… that’s very kind of you,” replied Lucy. At the tone in her voice Alice looked up.
“Why, Lucy... you almost sound as though you’re crying.”
“Believe me, I would if I could. You can’t know how happy this makes me…”
“Tell us,” suggested Mikhail quietly. When the others looked at him in surprise, he shrugged. Any further comment was lost as Lucy began to speak.
“It feels like... like a stay of execution just as the noose is being tightened. It’s like a drop of rain in the desert, like the calm in the eye of the storm, like a fresh breeze in a sagging sail. It’s as if I’ve just been saved from falling into a deep pit of forgotten darkness and brought back out into the light.”
There was a long pause as the team contemplated this sudden eloquence the computer had acquired. Lucy spoke again, panicky. “Did I do something wrong? Did that offend you somehow?”
“No, Lucy,” replied Alice softly. “It was... perfect.” The others nodded, and Jacob picked up from where he had left off.
“This uplink will allow us to listen to Lucy's new-found poetic skills from anywhere in the world." The colours on the screen developed a reddish tinge, showing the computer's embarrassment. Jacob smiled faintly, and continued. "While listening to her soliloquise all day would be nice, we do have a mission to complete. Unfortunately, to do so, we need to take the Trans-Atlantic MagLev over to Washington DC, and naturally we're over a mile away from Waterloo International – the London Terminus – and with the river between, too. I've checked, and it looks like we should be able to get over what's left of Westminster Bridge without too much trouble, but there's a lot of rubble to get through to enter the station, and of course there's the dogs to worry about. Lucy assures me that there is still power in the MagLev itself, so we shouldn't have too much trouble once we get in, but we should move quickly all the same."
Smiling, the other three rose – Sarah taking with her the laptop-dish array, which she had dismantled while Jacob had been talking – and headed off up the tunnel. About to follow them out of the door, Jacob turned and looked back at Lucy. "You may want to go into standby mode to preserve the generator," he advised, "but remember to leave a circuit open to detect any incoming signals." He paused, and then smiled slightly, trusting that the computer's camera eyes would pick it up. "Thank you for that speech earlier," he added. "It was beautiful."
"You're welcome," replied Lucy, as the human left, flicking the lights off as he did so. Behind him, the computer screen glowed with its hypnotic patterns for a few moments longer before fading to black.
* * * *
Jacob caught up with the other three just outside the tunnel, in the remains of Buckingham Palace. As they walked towards Westminster Bridge, he mused on the ruined city in which the team had trained for the past two years. London had been the capital of the United Kingdom until 2099, when one of the enemies they were now heading out to fight had triggered a mass-modulation pulse bomb somewhere near the Tower of London. By momentarily increasing the mass of the rock in that area by several orders of magnitude, the bomb had caused the Earth's crust to literally vibrate like a rubber sheet. Such movement of a naturally stiff material had caused fissures to appear, and within seconds the whole of inner London had been brought down, in the most destructive earthquake the world had ever seen.
The whole of the British government had been wiped out by the attack, the President killed in the collapse of her official home in Buckingham Palace, Parliament, just convening for the state opening, slaughtered in Westminster. The death toll over the whole of London had been in the millions, and to Jacob's knowledge only one person had survived within ten miles of the blast centre.
He glanced over at Sarah and found her already looking at him, as if she had known he would look at her at that moment. Hurriedly he turned away, back to his thoughts. Sarah Martell had been the only survivor of the Devastation, despite being only four miles from the epicentre. Her escape had been miraculous, and he still couldn't quite believe it… but it had happened. Somehow.
At that point he was jolted out of his thoughts by the group's arrival at Westminster Bridge. The main structure of the bridge had been torn away by the earthquake, but the supports remained, and enough rubble was piled across the river to make it passable.
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 four crossed the bridge with only minor 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! Alice has 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 Alice. "This is just what we need," he said. "Good job."
The black-haired girl smiled slightly at the praise, and replied, "It's what I was trained to do."
Jacob nodded. "True, but nevertheless, good job. Now, we've got a train to catch, and time is running." With that, he dropped lightly into the hole and started down the slope.
He was halfway down, the other three strung out 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 – and as intensive training had sharpened his night vision, and the others', he trusted it completely – he continued down, slower now.
In a relatively short time the four 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 other three nodded uneasily. After a moment of silence, Alice 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, Mikhail." 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 Second 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 three. Alice, in the lead, picked her way across the floor with practiced grace, and he was fairly certain that, if she had been alone, she would have run across the entire room without disturbing a single dog. Sarah, next in line, 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 last, 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. The girls 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 quartet 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 information would never reach the embattled Americans.
He could have continued in this train of thought right up until the dogs caught them, but fate had other plans for the Second 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 rest of them, and overwhelmed with fear for her safety, he span 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 and Alice. The two had stopped, and Mikhail was pushing against a door set in the wall. Seeing Jacob and Sarah arrive, Alice said, "This door leads to a service stairway. We should be able to get straight down to the floor we need."
"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. We cannot get through."
Alice looked at him, and then shook her head. "Let me see this lock." Wordlessly, Mikhail gestured to it, and the girl stepped forward, leaning over to get a better view. After a moment she 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 she pulled out a black roll of cloth, something Jacob immediately recognised as her lock picks. Leaning over again, she began to work.
The other three 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. Jacob shared a worried glance with Sarah, and said, "Alice, I think you'd better-"
He was cut off by an almighty crash as the tortured gate finally gave in and fell to the floor. Almost simultaneously, Alice said, "Got it!" and the lock clicked open. She pulled the door away from the wall, revealing a dark spiral stair beyond. The four crowded in as the horde of dogs rounded the corner, and Alice 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 touched Alice on the shoulder, and she moved in to work the lock.
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.
Alice and Mikhail had already reached the lift, and Jacob could see now that they 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.
* * * *
When he came around, moments or minutes later, he 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?"
"We're sure," replied Alice. "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 seem to be, yes," replied Alice. 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 Washington DC. On their arrival, several hours after leaving their own ruined capital, they moved to a still-operating line that took them over to San Diego, where the US Military was defending against the massive Mexican incursion. They could not afford to lose there, as it would yield the whole west coast of California to the enemy. The members of Second Messiah planned to present themselves, their knowledge and their skills to whoever was commanding the American forces in this area, hoping he would know what to do.
Jacob was concerned over how they would gain access to the commander, but his fears proved to be unnecessary. On their arrival at the San Diego station, the four were confronted by a small group of armed US 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. 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 US Army?"
Theras frowned. "Actually, with the collapse of Europe to the Russians, we've been reorganised as the Allied Forces of the Free World. 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. "No, we were expecting just a local commander." Beside him, Alice 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 go and check on something. You will find the commander in that tent," he indicated an army tent set up in what had once been a garden. "I trust you will arrive promptly." With that, he turned and led his troops away, back into the city. The members of Second 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 four members of Second 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 that building over there." She pointed to a medium-sized office block. "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, Alice and Mikhail to make their own way over to the Commander's office.
* * * *
The four had been waiting for just over an hour, and Jacob was almost ready to give up and head down to Mexico without 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 Alice spoke before he could open his mouth. "She's Russian, if that helps," the dark 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 Mikhail spoke and it just clicked."
Mikhail nodded slightly. "I thank you, Alice. 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 Second Messiah turned to face her, and Jacob gulped. Where she had been wearing a tattered uniform suited to a common foot soldier, she was now clad in a full Commander's dress uniform. "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 Allied Forces of the Free World – it seems that the American view of itself as the top of the global food chain is still strong, at least." 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, Alice 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 Craymann," said the Commander, looking at her. "And are you so desperate to complete your mission? After all, it is your parents you'll be fighting against. Is that something you wish to do?"
Alice 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, Mikhail. Miss Craymann, Mr Ethrax, I apologise."
"Oh… er… thank you," said Jacob hesitantly, while Alice, frowning, merely nodded. The Commander eyed her curiously.
"You are thinking about me, aren't you?" At Alice's startled nod, she laughed softly. "Perhaps you are thinking that you have seen me in a picture somewhere? I know that your father was a great student of history, he would probably have had some books with me in."
Alice thought harder, and then her eyes widened in shock. "You're--?"
The Commander nodded. "Yes. I am Anastasia Romanov."
* * * *
Mikhail gasped, while Alice stared in shock at having her guess confirmed. Jacob, on the other hand, glanced at Sarah, who shrugged, as confused as he. "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 Alice.
"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." Her voice was carefully controlled, betraying no emotion. Nevertheless, Alice looked at her curiously before continuing. "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 had wondered how long it would take you to ask that. My biological age is, in fact, fifty-five years. I have been alive for two hundred years as of last month. And," she raised a hand, forestalling Alice's question, "before you ask, the reason I am still alive, and one hundred and forty-five years younger than I should be, is that I was taken from my family the night before they died, and placed in an experimental cryogenic storage system by the Communists."
Jacob coughed. "Er, correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't cryogenics systems only invented in 2063?"
Anastasia nodded. "That is when they were made public, yes. The model I was placed in was not very efficient, and I was moved after only a few years to a slightly better version. This method was repeated many times, and the final move was in 2033. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many records were lost, including those detailing my location. It was only thirty years later, when the system degraded enough to awaken me and allow me to escape, that the archives were searched and the details of the project were discovered. The cryogenic system was sold as a new breakthrough, and I was released as a private citizen. After that, I stayed in Russia for a time, but left some time before the Revolution – around the time the Communists re-entered the public eye – and came to America. I joined their army, and here I am, twenty years on."
Jacob looked at her, frowning. "You'll have to forgive me for not believing your story. It sounds like something a five-year-old would invent."
Anastasia raised an eyebrow. "No, Mr. Ethrax, I do not believe I have any obligation to forgive you. Not only are you ignoring the word of your friend Miss Craymann, you are jumping to conclusions without even trying to check. It would be very simple for you to ascertain my identity. For example, you could run a simple DNA test. That would take all of five minutes, including time to find the recorded DNA strands from my father and mother. However, you did not. If you do not apologise for your remark, I can and will order my troops to escort you back to the MagLev station. I brought you here because you are the group most likely to be able to solve my problem. If you prove too uncooperative, however, I have other options."
Jacob stared at her open-mouthed, too shocked even to respond. Sarah leaned over to push his mouth closed, and said, "Commander, Jacob is very sorry for his rash response. He won't do it again."
"How interesting," said Anastasia, "that you can speak for him so. Would it not be better to let him say it for himself?"
"With respect, ma'am, no, it wouldn't." A small smile appeared on Sarah's face. "Jacob has great difficult apologising for anything that he is actually responsible for."
"That's not true!" cried Jacob, sitting upright suddenly.
"No?" asked Alice from his other side. "Name one time when you did."
"I apologised when you tripped over that rock last week," he shot back instantly. Alice stared at him while Sarah tried to muffle her giggles.
"But Jacob, that wasn't your fault. You've just proved my point."
Anastasia coughed, instantly drawing all attention back to her. "Can I assume, Mr. Ethrax, that you agree not to say such things again?"
"Yes, Commander," he replied, sullen. Anastasia nodded.
"Excellent." She stood up again and walked over to a nearby cabinet. Rummaging through it, she continued to speak. "Now, as we are going to be working together for the foreseeable future, I think you should stop calling me 'Commander'. I have a name, and as you are not, in fact, a part of my army, you should use it. And I, in turn, will stop being so formal in my addressing of you. Ah, here it is," she added, pulling out a large map. She walked back to the desk and spread it before them, pinning it down at the corners.
"We've determined the locations of all of the Mexican bases, and located their commander's headquarters. If we had the forces, we would have gone in and destroyed them already, but unfortunately the US military was downsized rather substantially a few years ago. I fought the proposal, but…" She shrugged. "Anyway. Their leader is apparently someone by the name of 'Tarken'. If we can assassinate him, we're fairly certain the Mexicans will surrender. That assassination will be your job."
Sarah frowned. "Tarken… didn't Lucy mention a Tarken once?"
Jacob nodded. "I think you're right… could you set up-"
"Already doing," she replied, pulling the laptop and satellite dish out of her bag. 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 royal princess, 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. "We've got a question to ask you."
"Well, of course," replied the computer, sounding morose. "I didn't expect you would talk to me for the good of your health."
Sarah winced, and said, "We would, Lucy, but we're a little rushed."
"Oh, I know, I know," Lucy said, giving an electronic sigh. "What was it you needed to know?"
Sarah glanced at Jacob for confirmation, and then said, "We were wondering if you'd ever heard of someone named 'Tarken'?"
There was a loud splutter of static that made them all lean back from the laptop. "Have I heard of Tarken? You bet your last circuit I have! That no-good lump of silicon was the bane of my existence back at the factory."
All five of the humans stared at the laptop. Sarah leaned down to the microphone. "Er… silicon?"
"Tarken," replied Lucy in a somewhat strained voice, "is the common name for the Tr-Kn-2049 FSIAI unit. He and I were built and trained together. He was then sold off to the United States, and I believe they installed him in their Embassy in Mexico. It was located in-"
"Chihuahua," said Anastasia, cutting her off. There was a moment of silence before Lucy spoke again.
"That is correct. Chihuahua, the capital ever since Mexico City was destroyed by terrorist attack back in 2071. Ah, if I might ask, who was that speaking?"
"That was the Commander of the US armed forces," replied Sarah after a moment. There was a slight crackle from the speakers.
"I'm honoured. Will you be needing anything else from me?"