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 a terrorist-induced earthquake the chamber had been damaged, but Project Messiah had rediscovered it and requisitioned the FSIAI.
Disturbing the silence of the chamber came the sound of quiet footsteps. Jacob Ethrax, leader of Project 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.
“Hi, 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. "Misha is 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 another team member. Mikhail Melnikov, in exile from Russia since the Communist insurgents had overthrown the legitimate government back in 2099, stepped into the room, 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, fourth member of Project 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 Canada and the US. There have been small skirmishes over the past few years-"
"Since World War Three, you mean," interjected Sarah. "Fifty years is more than a few."
Jacob rolled his eyes. "All right, then. Anyway, the United States has just declared war and launched a full invasion. As the most organised military group in Britain," he ignored Sarah's snort of disbelief, "and in accordance with the Ross-Altherton Program, we are going over there to assist our ally and see if we can find a way to end this conflict."
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 Commonwealth Space Agency's 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 Sarah 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 Mikhail softly. “It was... perfect.” The other two 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, as well as her occasional commands, 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 Ottawa, 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 two 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 his two friends 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 an unknown enemy 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 watching 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 three 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! 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 time is running." 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, and the others', 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 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 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.
* * * *
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?"
"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 don'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!"
* * * *
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. Understandable, 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 span 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 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 program, 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.
* * *
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.
* * *
[Insert hike down mountains here. Include enough suspicious activity by Sarah – detection of approaching enemy troops, knowing the right path, an impossible save – that Jacob begins to get suspicious, but don't make him certain. Steal a car for the final stretch]
* * *
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. 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.
* * *
"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 her, 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 giggles. 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 the giggles, 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.
[Warning to use Russian accents. Scenes of planning where to go, and possibly travelling]
* * *
"So this is it?" whispered Jacob, 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 there. 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 giggled, and Mikhail looked hurt for a moment before realising it was a joke and responding with one of his eyes. "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 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."
Sarah 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 giggled.
"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."
* * *