Since we first discovered that the pinpricks of light in the night sky were in fact, other stars, humankind has been gripped by the desire to travel to those stars and see for ourselves what they are like. The discovery of the first exo-planets only heightened this need, and as we found more and more earth-like rocks orbiting numerous stars in our local region alone, it soon became imperative that we voyage to those stars, to see if humanity could finally leave earth’s cradle and remove the possibility of extinction from our equation. The biggest hurdle were the laws of physics – nothing could travel faster than light, and even at the speed of light, journeys of forty years, in some cases even longer, would be virtually unsustainable, save for multi-generational crews and long spells in cryogenic sleep.

So the aim of many scientists was to somehow defy, or redevelop our understanding of physics and the laws of the universe that forbade faster-than-light travel. Science fiction had presented fanciful ideas of warp space, subspace, hyperspace and all kinds of means of ‘cheating’, but the reality of these methods, once examined with any critical detail, suggested the energy requirements were going to be beyond us for a very long time – perhaps forever. Either a new source of power was needed – or the laws of the universe would have to be broken.

It was in the early 21st century when Luca Martinez, an experimental physicist living in Idaho, USA, made his unexpected breakthrough. The idea had been to generate energy through atomic friction, and to that end, he had been making hydrogen atoms resonate with one another. The introduction of dense matter (degenerate matter, in very small quantities, intended to match the density of a neutron star) led to a highly controlled resonation that for a very brief period, moved the atoms from one area of the carbon tube to the other in less time than was possible under the speed of light.

Such was Martinez’ excitement that he dropped his coffee over his lap and had to put up with the suggestion from his colleagues that he had actually wet himself. Decades later, he would laugh about it – at the time, he was said to actually be quite angry. Nevertheless, the development would lead to further study, and refinement, and this led to the production of the first small-scale probes, to test if the Res-Drive (or R-Drive if you’re lazy) was actually viable. The probes were sent under highly controlled conditions from the earth to the Moon, then from the earth to Mars, and from Mars to Jupiter, to see if they were exceeding the speed of light without being subject to relativity. When the results confirmed that the light barrier had been broken, champagne corks were popped and raucous celebrations held. We had done it – but one final test remains. Human pilots will soon take to the first ships fitted with the R-Drive to see if it is safe for people.’

Roxanne closed the textbook and ran a hand through her strawberry blonde hair. It felt unnaturally short, but having it cut had been a requirement of the United Western Alliance Space Agency. ‘We don’t want any entanglements, literally or otherwise’, the committee had said.

It felt like a lifetime ago that she’d been chosen for this. Somehow, she’d beaten hundreds of other candidates to be the first human to go faster than light. The prospect made her dizzy with excitement and sick with fear, all at once.

There was no turning back now though. In the crisp orange jumpsuit (that was turn covering the thinner body-monitoring grey jumpsuit), Roxanne was suited up and sitting in front of the controls that would, at her command, launch her at unprecedented speeds toward Mars. A short hop was all that was needed today.

One of the engineers who’d help build the Magellan had explained to her about the power source and the technical details of the R-Drive, but she’d barely listened. She wasn’t a physicist – chemistry and biology were her fields – so talk of quarks and Fermi principles had been lost on her. All she’d wanted to know – and had been assured of several times – was that the drive itself was perfectly stable and the power source perfectly safe. Nothing about that aspect of the mission could go wrong.

T-minus five minutes. Final systems check.” Came a male voice over the comm link that Roxanne recognised as Director Campbell. It wasn’t too much of a surprise that he was taking a personal interest in this. “Fuel line?”

“Check.” She replied.

“Life support?”

“Check.” The oxygen filter was keeping her breathing. Air circulated around the cabin in a never-ending loop, filtered repeatedly by the sophisticated equipment. A backup generator would kick it if the primary failed, and her engineers had scoffed at her request for a helmet with an independent oxygen supply, but said helmet sat behind her in the small space available in the cabin. Roxanne wasn’t minded to take any chances.

“Sublight engines?”

“Check.” Roxanne tapped a couple of buttons on the grid in front of her. The ion propulsion drive was all set to give her a decent kick away from earth once the clock stopped ticking.

“Sublight navigational controls?”

“Check.”

“R-Drive navigational controls?”

“Check.” In theory, Roxanne could override the controls and set a new destination, but she didn’t dare. Everything had been pre-programmed and that was fine with her.

“FTL comm system?”

“Check.” Roxanne would have to trigger the beacon to confirm the success of the mission – and it was a convenient test of the R-Drive’s long-range communication principle.

“We look good down here in Control. Four minutes and counting.”

“Roger that.” Roxanne gulped. The butterflies in her stomach had morphed into mini dragons that were belching flame. “Deep breaths girl, deep breaths…” She recalled her Yoga and her training, though more and more she wished the mission was over already.

The Yoga was kicking in. She could feel the edginess in her subside. A gentle hum of instruments distracted her from what was about to happen, and the march of time was briefly forgotten.

“This is Control, hey Rox, just wanted to wish you luck.” Roxanne smiled. Her jovial boyfriend lifted her spirits.

“Thanks Fred. Don’t forget to have dinner ready.” She chuckled.

“Oh, well, I was thinking we should go out for dinner when you get back. Celebrate the mission, our engagement…”

Roxanne had to check her comm link. “En… engagement?!”

“Yeah, oh crap, I meant to do the other bit first – you know, ask you and everything…”

“Oh God… the answer is yes, a million times yes!” In the midst of the impending mission, a different kind of excitement overtook Roxanne. “Yes!”

“So as if you didn’t already have a reason to come back, that’s another one.” She could hear the smile in his voice – and it wouldn’t at all surprise her if Director Campbell was pissed at the sudden interruption to his orderly proceedings.

“One minute. Disengage the umbilicals.” Came the deliberately stern voice of the Director. Roxanne complied, and Magellan floated freely in space, no longer berthed to the station where she had been constructed. The craft’s independent systems kicked in.

Autopilot took the ship slowly away from earth, at a relatively sedate 2 km/s. As the R-Drive fired up, the ship seemed to hum with power. This is really happening…

“From everyone down here, good luck. We’ll see you on the other side.” The Director’s voice was softer.”

“Roger that Control, here we go…”

The Magellan seemed to oscillate for several seconds, and then vanished.

There were not many rifles aboard Brent, and even fewer members of the crew knew how to use them with any confidence. Harkness had been joined by seven men, all older men, who had spent their lives at sea, and did not have families back home to mourn them. They were in various degrees of disrepair (grey hairs, old ankle wounds, bad backs and just plain old age), but they were willing to help Harkness, which was what counted.

Brent began to swing around just as the first 28-gun port-side salute lit up the darkening sky. That single salvo would have punched huge holes in Brent’s hull – but her quick turn saw her avoid every last one of the weighty cannonballs.

Glorieuse continued to close, now doing so at some speed as the wind was against Brent. What the crew of Glorieuse had not expected was for the galleon to raise her sails and swing hard toward her.

There was no time for the crew of Glorieuse to prepare another volley. Brent’s port quarter slammed hard into her own – shaking both ships and rattling their crews, but Brent’s crew had been prepared. Whilst several of Glorieuse’s crew were shook off their feet, Harkness leaped across from Brent and, landing with a thud on Glorieuse, immediately opened fire with his rifle.

His fire was joined by that of his fellows, who were also climbing across to board the Antyan vessel. Some of Brent’s crew were also firing from the rigging of the ship, trying to keep the crew of Glorieuse from getting organised.

Shouts and screams greeted Harkness as he glanced around the deck of Glorieuse, looking for the entrance to the armoury. The green-jacketed Antyan officers were quickly getting themselves back to a firm footing and so he moved quickly, kicking out at a guard that tried to get in his way and knocking aside the other man’s sword with his rifle. One of his own men fired off a shot that put down a guard trying to stab him in the back and as Harkness looked back at Brent, he saw Captain Wade’s next surprise for the Antyans.

Barrels, some empty, some filled with fermenting alcohol, were tossed onto Glorieuse’s deck, men with flaming torches lighting them as they went. Fire was every sailor’s worst enemy, a thing of much fear, and it would at the very least buy Harkness some time.

Some of Glorieuse’s crew were firing back, and Harkness heard the screams of his colleagues as lead pierced flesh. Those who had joined him were trying to find different ways below deck, diverting Antyan attention still further – Harkness himself smashed an onrushing Antyan guard in the nose with his rifle, and then swung a punch that sent the man sprawling. He kicked at one of the doors to his right, that he hoped would lead to the stored gunpowder.

When the door would not budge, Harkness shot the lock with his rifle. That had the desired effect.

Charging down the stairs, Harkness nearly made the mistake of not looking where he was going. A guard was coming up them, baynet fixed to his rifle, and Harkness almost impaled himself upon it. Instead, he stepped to his left, and slammed the business end of his own rifle into the other man’s chest. The man stumbled, and tumbled back down the stairs, bashing his head upon a thick wooden chest at the bottom. He groaned, semi-conscious, and Harkness drew his sword. The Antyan would not be given the chance to wake up.

The lighting revealed that he had, by sheer luck, found the armoury. Barrels upon barrels of potent gunpowder and stored round shot were neatly lined up along the walls. It was time to complete his mission.

Harkness reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a pack of matches. With a sigh, he scratched one against the side of the box and took in the significance of the flame for a split second, before laying the match to rest beside one of the barrels. A shudder told him that Brent had disengaged from the Antyan warship and was starting to sail away. That was good; Harkness lit more matches, placing them by barrels, but not-so-close that they’d go up straight away. Brent needed a little time.

Then the very air seemed to take on a chill. The flames that were starting to lick their way up the wooden barrels and across the floor seemed to waver, but Harkness could see no reason as to why, and nor could he fathom why the hairs on his neck stood on end and his heart started beating faster. From the corner of his eye, Harkness thought he could see something… but when he turned to look, whatever it was was still only in the corner of his eye.

Until a shadowy hand reached out and placed black bony fingers over one of the fires, extinguishing it.

For a moment Harkness recoiled in shock and fright. Something was stepping into view, black as night. By his reckoning it was as tall as a man, but the wispy, smokey figure didn’t have a face – so why could he feel a pair of eyes looking right into his, piercing his very soul?

The… thing, then stepped onto another batch of flames, and Harkness realised its intent. The remaining fires were beginning to gather pace but if the creature put them all out…

“Not another step demon!” He cried, aiming his rifle right at it. He had no idea if it would even know what a rifle was, let alone if it would hesitate, but he had to try.

The creature did seem to stop for an instant, as though it heard Harkness and was weighing up its next move – but then it started forward again, and Harkness, despite the increasing fear in his stomach, squeezed the trigger.

The bark from his rifle was accompanied by a bright flash as a pellet shot through the air and pierced the blackness of the demon. It actually staggered a little, and Harkness could see little droplets of black fluid spill to the floor. Then it let out a low, scratchy sound, like a cross between a hiss and a shriek, and began forward again.

Harkness screamed – he summoned up every last drop of courage and charged forward, dropping his rifle and drawing his cutlass again. He swiped from right to left at the creature’s midsection, and though there appeared to be nothing there, he certainly felt the blade go in, and sweep back out. The demon let out another cry, but did not go down – instead, a black hand crashed across his face, sending him sprawling, and sent his sword scattering.

The creature started forward, once again bent upon putting out his fires. Harkness, despite blood leaking from a small wound on his left temple, snarled and scooped up his rifle, swinging it round and trying to smash it around the demon’s head. The creature brought up an arm to block the blow, and kicked out, catching Harkness in the stomach. He grunted, but refused to fall, and poked his rifle at the monster’s chest, feeling it connect and seeing it stumble.

Now the remaining fires were gathering pace and the barrels were not going to hold out much longer. He only had to distract the thing for a little longer…

He hurled himself at the creature, punching and kicking as hard as he could. It made strange rasping sounds as it fought back, kicking him so hard he skidded across the floor, the breath knocked from his body.

A surge in the flames caught the attention of them both. The gunpowder was about to go up – Harkness was certain of that, and ready for death. Was the demon prepared to die for its cause?

Apparently not. As Harkness watched, it spread its arms wide, and the space in front of it shimmered like water on a lake, the edges swirling around. Shapes were starting to take form within the large oval portal – it was escaping, and Harkness would not stand for that.

“You’ll not find solace from me, even in Hell!” Harkness yelled, and as the creature tried to step into the gateway it had made, Harkness jumped it. The two of them wrestled, with Harkness punching it repeatedly in the face. As they rolled, they teetered on the edge of the abyss, and as the powder finally ignited, the explosion blasted both of them through…

Back to Kingdoms of War

Brent was slicing through the waves at some speed, with the wash and foam and spray taking on new life as it swept over the deck. Captain Wade’s crew worked diligently, as he had come to expect, but as the sun finally began to set, and amber light bathed them, he was fearing the worst. Behind them came what they now could tell was a fourth-rate Antyan warship, which meant it had at least forty-six cannons and a crew well-trained in how to use them.

Would they simply blow an unarmed merchant galleon out of the water? Or would they try and convince him to heave to and surrender? Every second spent trying the latter was an extra second closer to possible friendly vessels, so Wade doubted they’d be so generous as to offer that chance.

He looked up at the masts, and the sails, and then to the darkening sky, and wished the Gods would somehow offer him a little favour – such as a sudden and unexpected bolt of lightening to the Antyan masts. No such favour came.

“We won’t make it, will we?” He said quietly to himself. One man however, Lieutenant Harkness, heard him.

“I don’t think so sir. They’re just too fast.”

“Could we take those bastards with us? Ram them?”

Harkness shook his head. “They’ll have an iron reinforced hull and copper plating – we’d damage them but that would be all.”

“Then we keep running, and hope that someone friendly spots us before it’s too late.”

****

The chase had lasted over an hour by Captain Vipond’s reckoning. At least it was finally drawing to an end. His crew were eager to attack, as they had been for weeks – theirs was a risky move, but for Antya to move out of Eshurg’s shadow, risk had to be taken.

He had to admit to himself that seizing unarmed cargo ships – and especially destroying them – was distasteful. The sailors his vessel now bore down upon were not naval officers, prepared to risk their lives – they were innocent bystanders that were about to become the first casualties of war. Unfortunately, if they raised the alarm, it would place other, more important operations at risk – and he had a duty to protect his nation and prevent that.

The Captain’s Office was small by the standards of the larger ships of the line he had served on, but huge compared to that of his last command. Vipond sat behind a magnificent mahogany desk, sipping the best brandy Antya had to offer from a glass completed by golden swirls. He ran a hand through his short brown hair and scratched the scar on the bridge of his nose (why does it always itch when battle was due?)

Then came the knock at the door.

“Enter.” His voice boomed.

“Captain…” Commander Gagnon, actually an older man than Vipond, and tall enough to have to stoop ever-so-slightly to get through the door, entered. His cutlass caught the light from the newly installed electric lamp and it gleamed where it had been polished. “We are in range.”

“Well then…” Vipond stood. “Let us complete this quickly.”

****

“They’re getting men into position.” Lieutenant Harkness said quietly. “Getting ready to fire.”

“I say we let them light their cannons then swing hard to port…” Offered up Navigator Grant, a burly man with long ginger sideburns that never seemed see a razor. He stood at the wheel, ready to act upon his idea. “Should see to it we avoid the first volley, at any rate.”

Wade pondered the suggestion. Hard to port would work, but it always leave them dangerously out of the wind’s course. “The enemy will be able to line us up all too easily soon after – we’ll lose valuable momentum.”

“We won’t have any momentum if we’re dead.” Replied Grant, a trace of gallows-humour about him.

Something was coming back to Wade. “What if we swing completely about? They’ll come past us, we smack into the side of them? They won’t be expecting that. We just need to exploit that somehow.”

“We’ll end up entangling our sails and getting stuck. They’ll board us and cut us to pieces.” Responded Grant.

“Not necessarily. We’ll have the element of surprise and if we raise our sails…” Harkness thought for a moment. “We have rifles and swords aboard. I can lead a boarding party and ignite their powder magazines. Brent pushes off and returns to full sail and should get clean away.”

Wade shuddered. “How will you get to the magazine before they kill you?”

Harkness smiled thinly. “I know my way around a cutlass sir…”

“… and it would be a suicide mission! I would have to give the order to push off almost as soon as you and your team are on board that ship.” Wade did not sound happy.

“Sir, if we are destroyed or killed, Antya will blockade Eshurg successfully for at least a few weeks, seizing cargo and coin that will be turned to their own war effort whilst ours suffers. If we can warn Eshurg, we destroy their advantage and could even end this war before it even begins. If I have to give my life to protect the people I love, I’ll do it – but I’ll take those bastards out with me!”

Wade looked away, considering his options. Harkness was right, but Wade would be asking him – and anyone who helped him – to sacrifice their lives. He hadn’t signed up to the merchant navy to make this kind of decision!

He looked back at that young man, unable to keep the sadness from his eyes. “Very well, ask who of the crew will join you. We’ll try and create a distraction too, to help you. Get ready!”

Chapter 5

Back to Kingdoms of War

The imposing sight of several ships of the line was an unwelcome sight to the merchant galleons that were cutting through the waves at a ferocious rate of knots. The hope had been to make it to Jerry Peak before nightfall, and then sneak away into the night, but the sun had not yet sunk below the churning waves, and in the distance, Captain Francis Woodgate could see the dark red hulls of warships – warships that bore the green and golden-starred flag of Antya.

“Can we avoid them?” He asked his First Mate, Sebastian Rivers.

The taller man rubbed his itchy stubble. He kept finding grey hairs among the black, most displeasing for a man barely into his thirties. His one good, left eye surveyed the scene.

“I doubt it Cap’n. They’re too quick, and they’ll have spotted us for sure.”

Spray swept over the deck as the ship rocked a little, but neither man lost their footing, and neither man minded the cooling spray. Little damp patches were peppering Rivers’ ‘uniform’ (if you could call a dirty white shirt and old black trousers a uniform), but it ignored them.

Woodgate looked grim, his strong jaw set tight and grey eyes looking grim. “We can’t fight them – we have no weapons. Nor can we return to port.”

“Aye, tis a bad place to be in Cap.”

“I’ll be damned if I surrender my ship to those pigs.” Muttered Woodgate, more to himself.

“You’ll get no complaint from me or the crew Cap’n. We’d rather go down fightin’. We have muskets and rifles aboard ship.”

“And hardly anyone aboard knows how to use them properly. We’d be slaughtered. Damn them!”

Woodgate was not a man who compromised. He hadn’t become captain of his own ship by meekly backing down at the first hint of trouble. His unwillingness to tolerate dissent or slack work had sometimes led to dirty looks from his crews, but his willingness to muck in, to put in a shift, and his business acumen, had earned himself respect and his crew extra coin. That they were willing to risk death was unquestioned – but it wasn’t fair of him to ask that. He might not have had a family back home, but a lot of the Furor’s crew of some four-hundred sailors did.

“What if we signal another of our own? Get one ship to break off and head back to the Western Territories? They can get help.” Woodgate was talking to himself. Rivers looked at him.

“Would they get there before one of those bastards ran ’em down?”

“If the rest of us create a distraction they might. Have one of the crew raise the Semaphore. We need to get into formation, and quickly.”

****

Captain Henry Wade took note of the incoming Semaphore message and silently thanked and cursed Captain Woodgate. He had no desire to be in the clutches of the Antyan Navy, but fleeing for friendly ports with warships possibly bearing down after him wasn’t his idea of a plan.

He watched as the rest of the fleet – some twenty large galleons – began to form a line, spreading out to conceal his own vessel. It would be an unusual formation to the approaching Antyan ships – there was no reason for merchant vessels to sail in such a manner – but there was nothing in the Book that said they couldn’t do it.

His own vessel, the Brent, began to swing around as quickly as possible. The wind was, for the moment, in their favour – they could pick it up and get a boost back to the Territories – whilst any Antyan ships that spotted them would have to get around the rest of the merchant fleet. It was time to run, and run fast.

****

“There, there!” The lieutenant shouted. The Antyan officer, dressed in impeccable green and gold jacket, held the eyepiece and snarled at the sight of one lone vessel speeding away from the rest of the Eshurg scum. “One of them seeks to return to harbour!”

Captain Gaubert Vipond of the fourth-rate ship of the line Glorieuse moved his brawny frame to the port side of the ship, and took the proffered eyepiece. One quick look was all he needed. The Eshurg merchants were running, to try and warn their forces of the blockade. That could not be permitted.

“Give chase! Full sail!” He barked. Around him, his officers began to repeat his commands, and the crew erupted in a frenzy of organised excitement.

“Ready cannons! As soon as we close to range, open fire!”

****

Well, so far, so good. Brent was making good speed – though she was a large and heavy ship (especially laden with cargo), she had many sails, proper, large cotton sails that could catch even the slightest breeze. Wade smiled, feeling the spray of the ocean in his long brown hair, and the wind against his weather-worn cheeks. He wished the wind would batter out the lines of age from his appearance, but there was little doing about that.

“Captain Wade…” Behind him, a younger, and probably smarter, man stood to attention. Like his captain, lieutenant Jim Harkness wore a brown jacket and had it buttoned up to the top. Wade quietly envied the short, well-kept hair of blond hair, and the man had a face not yet marred by age or worry. His high cheekbones were something Wade particularly coveted. The deep blue eyes completed the look.

“Yes Lieutenant?” Said Wade as he turned around.

“An Antyan warship is trailing us sir.” Harkness always managed to sound calm.

“I see. Can we reach the Territories before they reach us​​?

“It will be close sir. The crew is giving it their all but I can’t guarantee it.”

Captain Wade sighed. “Well, we shall just have to hope for a lucky break.”

Chapter 4

Back to Kingdoms of War

“Lord Ashton is here to see you your Majesty.” The guardman, looking resplendent in his green jacket, buttoned all to the way to the top, stood to attention. His eyes, even though he and the Queen were alone in her official office, were always alert. The big glass window on the east side of the room always drew the majority of his attention. The risk of an assassin breaking in there was only marginally greater than elsewhere (thanks to the guards outside), but the Queen’s personal bodyguard did not like any risks, and had privately desired to board up the window. He knew the Queen, being as stubborn as she was, would never agree to that.

“See him in James.” The soft and gentle voice that had lured many a man to a false sense of security spoke.

“Yes, your Majesty.” James bowed, then ushered himself out of the office, and bade Lord Ashton in.

There she sat. Her office chair was a thing of Spartan beauty, a simple piece of wood with a plush maroon cushion but nothing like the ornate and beautiful golden throne of the palace. Her office too, was not what he ever expected, despite being a regular visitor.

Simple cream paint covered the walls and a large portrait of her father, the dear King Edward VI (in full military trim, with gold sash and sword) covered the west wall. Behind her was a map of her kingdom, and her desk ( a simple beech product) was nowhere near as large or fancy as his own. The chair in front of the desk looked marginally more comfortable.

Suddenly Ashton felt overdressed. He always made a point of wearing military dress uniform when meeting the Queen – impeccably clean black jacket, gold buttons done up completely, several gold and silver medals gleaming, and gold shoulder sashes provided a dab of extra colour. Brown shoes (polished to within an inch of their lives) completed the look of a man who took great pride in his appearance.

Queen Anna II did not go to the same elaborate lengths. A simple light blue dress, patterned ever-so-slightly with birds, was all she needed. Sorrowful blue eyes looked at him as she pushed a wavey lock of brown hair out of her face. For a moment Ashton forgot she was the Queen, and saw a young woman, young enough to be his daughter (hell, granddaughter!).

“Good afternoon Antony. How are your wife and children?” She asked pleasantly.

“They are well your majesty. My wife reminds me that we will have been married some thirty years next month.”

Those blues held a brief sparkle of happiness. “I imagine she will expect a gift or two.”

“That is distinctly possible your Majesty.”

“Please…” Queen Anna gestured to the chair in front of her desk. “Sit down Antony.”

For a moment Ashton hesitated, always reluctant to relax in the Queen’s presence. He relented after a second, squeezing his frame into the seat.

“You look worried Antony.” Obviously his furrowed brow wasn’t doing much to disguise his concerns.

“I’m afraid I am your Majesty. I bring bad tidings – a letter, from the First Sea Lord of Antya. Quite why he wrote to me is beyond me, but it is a disturbing letter in both content and tone.”

Queen Anna sat up in her chair and clasped her hands on the desk. “How so?”

Guilt ran through Lord Ashton’s body. This young woman had inherited the burden of leadership when she was far too young for it, and didn’t deserve to be dealing with a diplomatic crisis, let alone the threat of war. His eyes flickered to that portrait of her father, and not for the first time, he wished King Edward were still here. He had been a good father and a friend, and Ashton knew both he and the Queen missed him, very much.

His eyes returned to the Queen’s. “Antya believes we are using our links and trade partners in the west to build up anti-Antyan sentiment, stifle Antyan trade opportunities, and… that we are transporting weapons with which to directly threaten Antyan interests. They are threatening a blockade of our merchant ships and the seizure of our vessels if we do not grant them considerably greater access to the western trade hubs.”

Queen Anna sat back. “It’s no lie that our sailors do not like Antya and probably sing colourful songs about them when drunk in local bars. We’re not exactly encouraging people to like Antya, after all.”

“True your Majesty. However, it is not official policy of any office in government to promote or encourage such sentiment. Nor are we preparing to attack them, as their letter implies. This blockade, if it goes ahead, will be bad for us your Majesty. Very bad.”

“And if we grant them what they want, how does that affect us?”

“I am no economist your Majesty, but right now we get a lot of revenue from the western empires. We get a significant share of the unique crops and goods from that part of the world. This in turn, allows us to barter and trade from a position of strength, and that in turn allows us to fill our coffers, build more ships, equip our navy and army with the best weapons, and so on. A dent in that, coupled with a growth for Antyan interests, could undermine our position of strength considerably.”

With a thoughtful look, the Queen stood, and turned to face the map behind her. She traced the lines of her kingdom with a fingertip. The isles that made up the Eshurg Kingdom were at once bolstered by their very nature and hampered by it – traditional land-based attacks were pointless against the three islands, but a blockade could lead to starvation and poverty before long. Eshurg depended on its merchant fleet, not only to remain powerful but to stay alive.

The the east, some two hundred miles away, the coast of Antya loomed. Unlike Eshurg, Antya shared land borders with other nations – and their relations with those nations was not always friendly. Expansion to other territories, and the benefit that could bring, was almost certainly vital to Antya’s long-term defensive plans… but the Queen had no desire to yield to those plans, not if it meant compromising her kingdom. She turned, to face Lord Ashton. Her eyes were resolved.

“You know what the Antyans desire in the long-term, don’t you?”

Ashton nodded. “Security. They’re not exactly having much joy with the Frequestians right now. They need resources and money to raise more armies if the need arises.”

“And something that undermines us at the same time can only be good for their long-term ambitions. Weaken us without firing a shot, whilst simultaneously putting down another enemy.”

“Yes your Majesty. I suspect their end-game is war with us – and if we cow to them now, that war will be so much harder to win.”

The Queen’s eyes became harsh. “If we refuse to acquiesce to their demands, what then? Have they the means to blockade us successfully?”

Ashton shook his head. “No your Majesty. They can hurt us, certainly, but our navy is bigger than theirs. It would be an uncomfortable diversion of our fleet, but their fleet is going to have to divert too, if they are to follow through with their threats. If they try to seize our ships or hold them in port, we can blast through their forces.”

“Which means war now, instead of later.” Her voice sounded heavy.

“Unfortunately so your Majesty. A war now though, is one we have a much greater chance of winning. It would not be easy, and I cannot predict what sort of casualties we’d face, but I am confident of victory.”

Queen Anna sat back down, looking at her hands for a moment. When she looked up at Lord Ashton, she did not look so young anymore.

“Inform the Antyans that we will not accept their demands, and inform them that if they proceed with their plans, we will consider an act of war and respond appropriately. In the meantime, I want our navy fully prepared to sail at a moment’s notice.”

“Yes your Majesty, it shall be ready.” Lord Ashton nodded.

“Very good. Is there any other business?”

“No, your Majesty.”

“Very well. You are dismissed Lord Ashton.” As he rose from his seat, the Queen uttered one more sentence. “And Antony… enjoy your anniversary.”

Lord Ashton turned, smiled, and bowed. “Thank you your Majesty.”

The guardsman opened the door from the other side, and Lord Ashton slipped out. The Queen sat there, heart full of regret that she could not find another way.

Chapter 3

Back to Kingdoms of War

Lord Ashton of Brixley studied the lines on the letter that now sat on his expensive oak desk, and looked at the blank piece of paper beside it, fountain pen in hand, poised to write a response. The gold tip nearly – nearly – pressed to the page, but restrained himself, remembering the sage advice his teacher back at the academy had given him – ‘never write in anger’.

It was hard advice to follow, especially as he read the letter again, feeling the anger swell in him even more, despite knowing the words to come.

Damn the arrogant Antyans, and damn their demands! They had no right, none whatsoever, to the sea lanes they coveted. They knew that, but still pressed anyway.

Ashton stood and moved his portly frame around his desk, and gazed at the bookcase. Behind tempered glass resided entire volumes of exquisite bound novels; some reminding him of his childhood, others were documents of wars and battles gone by – tactical and strategic masterpieces from his predecessors. In his reflection, he wished he had taken the time to maintain the physique of his younger days – he had been lean back then, but now, years of over-indulgence had caught up on him – his chin now had a chin of its own, and his face was permanently red from too many glasses of brandy.

My moustache needs a trimhe idly though to himself. His hair was rather in need of cutting too. Curly ginger locks were unbecoming of the Lord of the Eshurg Navy.

He wanted to open up the case and take a look at them – especially the ones about warfare. Oh how he wanted to stick a round of grape shot up Antyan arses…

Deep breath Antony, deep breath… he steadied himself, knowing full well her Majesty did not desire war. It was in everyone’s best interests to find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.

Still, as he sat back down and read the letter a third time, his fury boiled. The gall, the nerve, of the Antyan government! They had never liked Eshurg or its stranglehold over the western sea trade routes, but Eshurg had worked hard to create and protect those routes, and spent the best part of a century developing good relations with the empires beyond the Crest Islands. Why should they give up any of that?

Illegal goods, weapons shipments, the undermining of Antyan reputations and status in the west… it was rubbish. Eshurg had never shipped weapons to anyone, let alone people with anti-Antyan sentiment (well, not that Lord Ashton knew of, at any rate). And he knew the Antyan ambassadors in that part of the world were not shy of undermining Eeshurg influence whenever they had the chance! Posturing was part of the game after all… but Eshurg had never sought to stifle Antyan activities; instead, they sought only to counter the more extravagant and outrageous claims. Like claims of illegal goods and weapons shipments. Claims Antyan officials were making more and more.

Hence their desire to demand more access to hard-won trade routes. Ashton wanted to write two very blunt words to the Antyan embassy, but he restrained himself. No, he decided. The Antyans will not manipulate their way into our trade routes, greedy dogs…

Chapter 2

Back to The Kingdoms of War

“He is here. I will dispatch him.” The computerised voice said over the secure phone line. “I have also taken steps to end the police investigation.” The line went dead as Lanker’s contact hung up. Lanker rubbed his eyes, took note of the time (3.30am), and decided to try and get a little more sleep.

****

Bevin opened the door for Harris, who held a glass of water and a small plastic packet. He still looked disgruntled, and now bruising was showing up around his nose. Despite himself, Eric was quite pleased – he’d rattled the younger man thoroughly, and could work with that.

“Now then Mr Cooper…” Bevin began as Harris sat back down and placed the water in front of Eric. “I would rather not force you to take the drugs. However, it is crucial that we learn the truth. I therefore ask that you cooperate.”

For a moment Eric sat in silence, then took the packet and scooped out a small white pill, that could have easily passed for an aspirin. He clasped the glass in his free hand, and Harris tensed. Eric almost laughed.

“Don’t worry son, I’ll spare you another beating.” He couldn’t resist a bit of mockery. Harris went red, cheeks flushing with anger, as Eric popped the pill into his mouth and swallowed it with a big gulp.

“It’ll take a few minutes to start working.” Remarked Bevin. “Perhaps then, we can finally get to the bottom of all this.”

“You know what you can do to get to the bottom of this?” Eric sat back and crossed his arms. “You can investigate One Touch Security, thoroughly.”

“I can assure you, they were vetted in every conceivable way.” Replied Bevin with a wry smile.

Without warning, the sensation of swimming through treacle nearly knocked Eric sideways. His eyes went wide, then he felt the world bottom out from under him. As Bevin, Harris and the meagre contents of the room began to blur together, Eric slipped off the chair, coughing, suddenly feeling a sharp pain in his chest. As Bevin raced around the desk, Eric shuddered, starting at him accusingly. As his world faded to black, his last thoughts were for Mary. She would never know…

****

“He’s having a heart attack! Harris, get the defib kit, now!” Bevin knelt by Eric, clutching him by the shoulder and rolling him onto his back. Eric was unconscious, barely gasping for breath, as Harris charged out of the room, going for one of the emergency medical kits stationed around the building. Bevin somehow knew it wouldn’t be enough. Already Eric was going still, but as the old man lay dying, the conversation was as clear as day in his mind. He can’t be right, he just can’t…

Harris rushed back in, holding the portable defibrillator. The two wide pads were attached by wires to a box roughly half the size of a microwave oven – Bevin ripped open Eric’s shirt and Harris slapped two green plastic stickers to the man’s chest. “Clear.” He said, then he pressed a button on the machine and pressed the pads to the stickers. Electricity punched its way through Eric’s chest, and his body arched, but fell flat again moments later. Harris upped the charge, delivered another one, but again Eric fell limp. A third, final charge surged into Eric’s body, and then Bevin shook his head. The man was dead.

“Shit, shit shit shit!” Harris was pacing. The younger man was flustered, hands going to his head. “Fuck!”

“Calm down! First things first, we need to notify any next of kin, we follow procedure, as always.”

“He’s dead, that USB is still out there, and our only lead is dead!”

“I said calm down!” Bevin stood, raising his voice then immediately regretting it. Telling someone to calm down by shouting was counterproductive at the best of times. “Now, deep breath, did you get the right pill?”

“Yes, I got the right fucking pill.” Harris spat.

“Okay, then we know it was natural causes. An autopsy will find out the reason. Don’t panic.” But what if…

Bevin wasn’t going to give voice to his thoughts, not in front of Harris and not with microphones listening in. Paranoia was a good quality for a spy, but it was also paralysing.

“Go and get some rest. I’ll call you once I know more.” Bevin herded Harris out of the room, looked at the camera, and pursed his lips thoughtfully.

****

The little Honda Civic had avoided any of Peter or Rob’s usual haunts. Paranoia was a quality not only found in spies, and the former SAS operatives had found themselves driving around at random. Exhaustion had kicked in – in a few hours it would be sun-up, and they couldn’t trundle down London’s streets forever. Coming up with a plan, a way forward, was proving challenging.

“So, we can’t go to the police, the Army, MI5, MI6, any government office – where do we go then?” Rob was doing a good job of narrowing their options.

“I need some time to figure out how to get into this data without being tracked. My bet is the USB has a tracking device – it powers up whenever the stick is plugged in, very clever. We can’t use it without giving up where we are.”

“So how do we get into it?”

“I’m gonna crack it open and find the transmitter.” Peter rounded a corner and parked up. “Then we can look at it to our hearts’ content. We need to expose what this does, and then go to the right people.”

“Who are the right people?” Asked Rob.

“Fucked if I know.” Peter turned the small white stick around in his hands, looking to see if he could prise it apart. A small seam, where the silver rectangle met the casing, was a vulnerable point. Using his thumb nail, Peter began to gently ease the casing apart. There was an audible crack as the plastic came apart, and another crack as a fracture appeared down the line of the case. Peter winced, but then let out an ‘aha’ as the casing fell away, revealing a small green board with gold lines, and a criss-cross gold structure on one side, with a small, red bulb on the other.

“Is that the transmitter?” Asked Rob curiously.

“Dunno. The light comes on when the USB is plugged in and getting power. I’ll have to have a proper look at this, but we’ll do it in the morning. We need a place to stay. You got any cash?”

Rob groaned. “Why?”

“I’m not slumming it in a car until this blows over. We’ll book into a hotel.”

“I don’t have unlimited funds you know.”

Peter shot Rob a dirty look. “I’ll get some cash too, we only need a few days, we’ll be alright.”

Rob sighed. “Ok, so, assuming you can figure out exactly what this code is, how it works and who’s behind it, who do we actually trust to help us?”

“Like I said, fucked if I know. First things first, we get into a hotel as soon as we can, and get some kip.”

To Chapter 13

Back to Techno Fail

 

 

He opened his eyes.

Took a gasping breath, and leaned up, coughing as he did.

A sharp pain jolted through his left side, and he grimaced. His hand went to instinctively clutch at the hurting region, met with cloth that had been torn or sliced through. The dull grey and beige rags adorning his body looked threadbare, and stained with… blood? Blinking, the man took stock of his surroundings.

Wheat, and lots of it. The plants and their fruit were still green, and they waved languidly in the gentle breeze. It was then that the man realised he was in fact laying upon some of it – several stems had been bent over where his body had fallen upon them. Others had snapped completely, and now the rough form of the seeds was irritating his back and neck. He sat up again, slowly, attempting to brush straggling bits of wheat from his back, though that was proving difficult.

He looked around him. The wheat had grown quite tall, and obscured his view of anything except more wheat, with the exception of a patch of sky. Above him the heavens were varying shades of red and orange; either the sun was coming up, or it was going down. He couldn’t tell. A few lazy wispy clouds were travelling eastward of him. Though it was unclear, he thought he could pick up on a few twinkling stars.

Pain continued to be a companion of his, but he propped himself up on his elbows, taking stock. His pain, thinning top was indeed ripped, and around the hole the fabric was mottled a dark red. My own blood? Trousers, a dull, faded brown, and flimsy shoes with brown leather that was starting to cure and peel, completed his meagre outfit. The man stole a glance around him, trying to find any clues as to why he’d ended up unconscious in a wheat field, with an apparent wound in his abdomen (though his body was without said wound, another mystery to solve). It was as he stood that he caught sight of the other body.

At first, all he could make out were the legs. The shoes and trousers were similar to his own, but as his eyes progressed along the other person, he noted that the top was cleaner than his own, save for one, glaring detail.

Around the collar and neck, blood had soaked the material. As it became apparent that he was staring at a man, and a corpse, the cause of death also revealed itself. The other man’s throat had been all but ripped out – it was a shredded mess of flesh, windpipe, and skin. The face was contorted in pain and fear, eyes still open, but devoid of life.

He recoiled in horror, stumbling backwards and tripping over, ending up on his backside. It was then that he became aware of how dry his throat was, and the hammering of his own beating heart as adrenaline surged through him. He wanted to retch, but he pushed the acidic sensation down, trying instead to focus. Something metallic glinted in the light (which by now was fading – night is setting in). One of them had brought a sword, which looked remarkably well-made. The blade was long, smooth and conveyed a sense of deadly sharpness. The hilt was simple – a plain black leather, easy to grip, but big enough to require both hands, with gold cross-guards. How do I know this?

Blood was still congealing on the sword, a marker that whatever had transpired between these two had happened quite recently. Some deep instinct stirred within him, told him he needed to leave, immediately. To linger would be folly.

As he stood again, his eyes fixed to the sword. There was no scabbard, and he himself had no belt upon which to secure the weapon, but he felt the urge to take it. The fallen man had a belt, a simple black leather one with a small hoop to contain the sword. Though he felt it wrong to rob the deceased, he hastily unclipped the belt and took it for himself. Next, he carefully wiped the blade against the wheat, no doubt spoiling a small portion of the farmer’s crop, but not too much. It wasn’t a perfect job, the sword was still stained, but it would have to do.

A question that had been floating around his mind since he awoke came to the fore. What happened? Why don’t I remember? Why didn’t he remember anything? Yet, he knew what a sword was, knew he was in a wheat field, knew the difference between night and day…

Now he was standing he had a clear view. A scare-crow made of straw had been crucified upon wooden beams, and stuffed into old cream-coloured clothing, but the blackbirds had been undeterred, and pecked at the exposed straw, occasionally squawking. Their noise increased sharply as he approached, and the birds took flight, annoyed that their surveillance had been interrupted. He ignored them and made for the small path he could see in the distance.

A crumbling stone street waited him, with several of the cobbled paving stones bearing the mark of cracks, water saturation and scratches from animal hooves and claws. It hadn’t been maintained for years. The path also offered no clue as to where to go next – did he go right or left? With the sunlight almost gone and the moonlight doing a wholly inadequate job as a replacement source of illumination, he had to make a choice. With a deep breath he started out to his left, not truly knowing if he were heading north, south, east or west. He just knew he had to put some distance between himself and the event behind him.

There was no one else around, not a hint of civilisation to be seen, or heard, or smelled. To his right was another field, filled with barley. A faint scent still carried from it in the wind, that was starting to pick up as night fell. Like the wheat, it wasn’t yet ready for harvesting. He couldn’t explain why, but he got a faint sense of dread when he thought of the harvest, as though a bad memory lurked underneath the veil of amnesia. Picking up his pace, he decided he wanted to be clear of the fields as quickly as possible.

After an indeterminate length of time, he became aware of a sound, the quiet but unmistakable sound of water, gurgling as it rushed along a river or a stream. The noise brought with it a reminder that he was parched, his throat feeling as though he’d swallowed a rusty razor blade. Ahead of him the path was bearing to the right, and starting to slope downward, which brought into view a welcome sight – thatched roofs, wooden slates, and a small windmill, with a brook running by it. He had stumbled upon a village!

It was then that he had to check himself. His top was blood-stained, and he carried a sword. What would the people in the little hamlet make of him? Maybe they know me…

If they did know him, was that a good thing? His mind was tying itself in knots trying to figure out if he should keep going forward, or whether he should simply turn around and seek solitude. No, I can’t run away, what will that accomplish? He went onward, for the first time spying people, putting away barrels and clay bowls, and closing up wooden shutters on their windows. So far, no one had noticed – or appeared to have noticed – his approach. With the sword gently slapping his thigh, and the leather soles of his shoes tapping the bumpy surface beneath him, the man wandered into the village…

With more than a little trepidation Peter opened the door. He managed to put on a false smile for Dalton, who wore a deeper scowl than he had earlier. Behind him stood Stanton, who shuffled nervously on his feet. Two other men, one short-haired dark-skinned man who looked like he’d been going to the gym all his life, and one wiry, beady-eyed pale-skinned man, stood a little further back. They weren’t in military uniforms; black jackets, ties and trousers were the order of the day for them, even in the middle of the night. They screamed spooks.

“Captain Myers, these men are from MI5. They have informed me that Eric Cooper is in possession of highly sensitive material that he shouldn’t have. They are here to arrest him.”

Peter did his ‘shocked’ face and looked at Eric with incredulity. “You fuckin’ wanker, I trusted you…” He took a step toward Eric but a restraining hand on the shoulder from Dalton stopped him.

“Not now Captain, he’ll be dealt with.”

Rob was wearing the same stunned expression. He shook his head at Eric as he walked out of the room, letting the MI5 officers head in.

“This isn’t true!” Eric shouted, kicking out at the wiry agent. The officer grunted in pain but moved quickly, yanking Eric’s hands behind him whilst his partner moved to slap on handcuffs. With practiced experience he delivered a head butt to the smaller of the two men, who gasped and grabbed at his nose. Peter and Rob both sprang into action, grabbing Eric, holding him still.

“Come on mate, don’t do this…” Rob said through gritted teeth as he tried to hold his struggling friend. “Just go with them.”

The other agent had pulled a pistol from a concealed holster. He held it by his side, eyes fixed on Eric. “Don’t do anything like that again.” His voice rumbled with threat. All Eric could do was to stare back, but his eyes held defeat.

Rob pulled the injured agent back to his feet. “Can we get this fella a towel, some tissue or somethin’?”

“Stanton, see to it.” Barked Dalton. The corporal scurried away. Other guards had clustered around, curious to see what was going on – a stern glance from Dalton saw them move on. “Captain Myers, you say you know this man?”

“Yes sir, we served together, as I said earlier. I can’t believe he would do this…” He began, as the MI5 agents began to haul Eric away. “I thought he was a decent guy.” His voice raised an octave, making sure Eric could hear.

“We’ll need to speak to you two as well…” The broader of the two agents said over his shoulder. By now Stanton had returned, handing a bunch of tissue paper to the wounded agent. Dalton rolled his eyes at what would inevitably be a messy scene. “Colonel, would you take their contact details for us?”

“Of course. I’ll have someone escort you out of the base.”

“Thank you for your cooperation Colonel.”

****

“Did you order it?” Peter asked Rob quietly as they climbed back into Rob’s car.

“Yeah, got the Chinese on order.” It was a code, in case anyone had planted a bug on his car. “You wanted the beef in black bean yeah?”

“Yeah. Let’s go home.”

****

The black Mercedes trundled down streets that were still surprisingly full of traffic, even though midnight had come and gone. Bright Christmas lights, hung between buildings, showed off the warmer spirit of the season, though Eric felt cold, and not from the weather. Will they torture me? Do they know anything of this code, or are they just following orders? He was handcuffed, and all too aware that the driver would probably have a gun in the glove box – MI5 agents and SAS soldiers were different in so many ways, yet alike in others.

The injured agent was muttering about his ‘broken nose’, to which the driver had told him – more than once – to stop moaning, and to not get blood on the light-brown leather interior. That was proving tricky, as the agent had nearly used up all the tissues.

Eric clung to the hope that Peter and Rob had avoided arousing suspicion and that they were safely away. The decoy USB was now in the pocket of agent ‘Harris’, the one nursing the broken nose. It wouldn’t take them long to realise what had happened once they arrived at their destination, but Rob and Peter were dab hands at evasion techniques. He watched as the car came down Horseferry Road and turned right into Thorney Street. Bollards protecting an underground car park to the left lowered and the security barriers retracted, allowing the car entry.

After heading down a couple of levels, the car parked up, next to another, similar vehicle. Eric was pulled from the car and marched toward a set of lifts.

“Am I actually going to be charged with anything, or is this all off record?” He said slowly.

“How about being charged with GBH you old fart.” Growled Harris. The other agent rebuked him with a look.

“Come on. And to answer your question…” He paused to slide a security pass into a reader by the lifts. “You’re facing charges pertaining to breaching national security.”

“Ah.”

The lift ride was quiet. They went up several floors, then the doors opened up into what could have easily passed for any average London office. A few private offices with their shutters down, a few rows of desks, a few of which were manned, even gone midnight (made sense), and several people walking around with folders. The water cooler looked nearly empty, and there was a half-empty vending machine too.

Toward the end of the bright corridor was a turn to the right, that Eric was led down, to see yet more offices. He was steered into one of them. Awaiting him was a simple room with a grey MDF desk, and three basic chairs that looked like slightly scaled up versions of what he’d been used to from his school days. A single fluorescent tube light was protected from tampering with thin grating, and Eric took note of the extractor fan in the corner, farthest from the door. A small camera poked out of the wall facing Eric.

Eric was manoeuvred into the chair, whilst Harris and the other agent sat down opposite him.

“I’m Agent Bevin, you’ve met Agent Harris…” Bevin’s voice was quite deep, a voice that commanded respect. “And you are Eric Cooper, formerly a corporal of the SAS. Currently working for One Touch Security, and residing in Upminster. Married, but no children.” Bevin leaned back. “You are also said to be in possession of highly classified material that compromises national security.”

Eric shrugged as best he could; he was still cuffed, with his shoulders starting to ache where his arms were crossed behind his back. “Given someone’s already tried to kill me to get it back, I’d say it’s very serious.”

Bevin and Harris exchanged a confused glance. It was very subtle, but Eric caught it.

“According to our report, an agent was sent to apprehend and arrest you.” Replied Bevin.

“Well, your report is wrong. Either you’re lying or someone is lying to you.”

Harris leaned forward. “You stole something you shouldn’t have, and killed to keep it.” Harris failed to keep the irritation from his voice.

“I found something, a backdoor, right into your systems, MI6, every government authority, every power grid and more. One so good you wouldn’t even know it was there.” Eric kept his voice calm and level. The camera would be recording every second, which meant anyone watching who was involved would be thinking of how to shut him up. If these two are compromised, I’m dead.

“Bullshit.” Spat Harris. “You’re lying…”

“Shut up Harris.” Bevin ordered. “Idiot…” He muttered. “Mr Cooper, we’re working to make sure we can defend this nation against any threats, internal or external, through the cleanest, quietest means possible. In this day and age, that includes computers and hacking, obviously. Let’s loosen those cuffs…”

Is this a ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine? Eric wondered as Bevin got up, walked around and unlocked the cuffs, offering welcome and blessed relief to Eric’s sore shoulders. He rotated each one to get some blood flowing again.

“The fact is Mr Cooper, your employers are working on something for us. They’ve been working quietly for years to develop the tools we need to stop our enemies from getting into vulnerable systems. They have powerful corporate enemies of their own, to say nothing of other countries who are trying to develop similar systems. This is deep espionage, I’m sure you understand how far this rabbit hole goes.”

“Then why the backdoor into our own systems, including MI5?” Eric asked. “Why would you need a code so secret hardly anyone could find it or exploit it, in your own system?”

“There’s no ‘backdoor’. Our systems are completely secure, and sit outside the remit of One Touch. Has it occurred to you that one of their rivals, or ours, is trying to undermine us? Or perhaps you took the data in order to sell it.” Bevin stepped back in front of the table and stared at Eric. “A code like this is worth huge sums of money, and people will pay it. You’d be very wealthy.”

Eric sneered. “You know my history. You know what I’ve given for my country. I’m not about to sell out, and I’m telling you the truth. I’m sure you have ways and means of verifying if someone is being honest with you. Give them a try.”

Bevin exchanged a sideways glance with the pouting Harris. “Perhaps we will.”

There was a knock at the door. With a grunt Bevin walked over and opened it. A mousey-haired man in a suit whispered into his ear, but Eric could see the man’s lips. They’d discovered the USB he’d been carrying was a decoy.

The door closed again. Bevin stepped back to the desk. “Where is the USB with the code?”

“You took it.” Eric said simply.

“You switched it. Right now, the means to unlock every major electronic system of our country’s competitors, a vital tool to this nation’s security, is out there, who knows where, because of you. Where is it?” Bevin’s voice had taken on a harder edge.

“I have no idea.”

Bevin’s hands slapped down upon the table with an audible whack. “You’d better get an idea, and quickly. If that code falls into the wrong hands it can be reverse engineered and…”

“Ha. Someone’s already done that. You should be more worried about that than me.”

“Harris, get the drugs.” Bevin didn’t take his eyes off Eric. “I have the utmost respect for those who served their country, but you are playing a dangerous game sir. If you are telling the truth…” He said as Harris stepped out of the room. “Then why not come forward, to us, to me, right now. Why the cloak and dagger routine?”

Eric leaned forward. “Because I don’t know who to trust. I’ve already had one attempt on my life, and it cost me the life of a good friend. That tells me there’s someone in your organisation, feeding you disinformation. For all I know, you’re involved.”

“We need to verify your claims. I don’t act on someone’s word,  not unless I am very sure of that person.”

“Hence the drugs.”

“Hence the drugs.” Repeated Bevin.

Chapter 12

Back to Techno Fail

A red Astra trundled up to the sleepy London street, with only a couple of people milling about. A few other cars were parked up on either side of the road, and only a couple of the street lights were on, casting a slightly disconcerting orange glow. In the distance Eric could hear the sound of traffic – London never truly slept, even on cold December nights, and as he got out of the car, that buzz of activity seemed closer than it actually was. The rows of white-walled terraced houses all looked alike, with steps leading up to each door. Some of the steps were quite clean; others were spattered with bird droppings and wrappers from crisps and other items. Black fence poles cordoned off several steps that led to low-level flats. At least, that was how it was meant to look.

Attention to detail was everything, that Eric knew. These people operated in shadows; they knew how to misdirect. Peter pulled his grey duffel coat tight around his waist. “This way.” He drew curious glances from the other people in the street, and Eric knew why. A couple of them were starting to walk closer, quite briskly, but Peter wasn’t hurrying. He led them down one of the small, curving staircases to a black door, and slid a key card between a pair of bricks. The door clicked and Peter pushed it open. He looked up as the two approachees came over and flashed his card. They looked a little uncertain, but nodded and walked off.

“You two had better be right, because if you’re not I’m completely fucked.” He almost snarled as he quickly pushed Eric and Rob inside. The narrow corridor was lined with florescent tube lights, several of which flickered pathetically. Despite the appearance of cold brick walls, the corridor was quite warm, enough to prompt all three men to remove their coats. Eric made sure the USB drive stayed in his pocket.

Before long the corridor turned right and became wider. The lighting improved; big, circular LEDs ensured everyone could see. Several doors were lined up on both the right and left side of the corridor, each one with a key card access slot for entry. Sentries in green military fatigues shot Eric and Rob suspicious stares, but backed off when they realised they were with Peter. He slid his card into one of the doors on the right. “Corporal Stanton…” He asked of the closest guard, a young man with shaven black hair and hard, grey eyes. “Could you sort out proper clearance for these two? Ex-SAS that Colonel Dalton wants given Level 1 access.”

Stanton looked Eric and Rob up and down. Eric felt very sheepish in his tatty, stolen clothes, but years of training kept him cool under pressure. Rob smiled pleasantly.

“Very good sir.” Stanton headed off down the corridor. Peter pushed open the door.

“Why did you go and do that?” Rob asked as the door closed with a click. “We want to be discreet not obvious!”

“Yeah, and I want to keep my job, besides, sneaking around this place without proper clearance is pretty damn obvious.” Retorted Peter. Eric had to admit that the man had a point. “Besides, Dalton won’t refuse me, he owes me.”

“I dread to think why…” Said Rob under his breath.

The room they were in was reasonably sized, with a desk and two computers at one end – big towers hooked up to 19″ widescreen monitors. Headsets with microphone attachments allowed for private communications. The walls were plain white – repainted recently, judging from the faint smell in the air, though a fan whirred in the top right corner of the room. Two small black leather chairs with armrests were in front of either computer.

“Right, let’s get to work.” Said Peter as he slipped into one of the chairs. Eric and Rob both gestured for the other to take the other seat, before Rob more or less pushed Eric into it. “You might as well sit, you’ve been the one doing all the walking.” Rob insisted.

Peter picked up a small crosshead screwdriver from a little rack of drawers beside his terminal, and began to take the screws out the side of the computer, making sure to carefully stow the screws as each one fell out. With practised hands he then disconnected the wireless card, and the network card for good measure. “This will likely trigger an alert when I switch it on, so we best work quickly.” He said, more to himself. “Give me the USB.” He ordered. Eric didn’t argue and handed it over.

Peter fired up the PC, and it hummed into life. Lights flickered and the screen flashed up with familiar corporate logos that even the Army couldn’t avoid. Peter tapped in his login details – guarding them quite severely – and a series of icons appeared on the monitor. He stuck the USB drive into one of the slots, and tapped on the keyboard at a speed even Eric envied.

“What do we have that’s so important…” Peter opened up folders and sub-folders, clicking on random files. At least, it seemed random. There was a knock on the door.

“Answer that would you please Rob?” Asked Peter, never taking his eyes off the screen as lines of code appeared. Rob sneered but did as asked.

Stanton was standing there, his eyes as stern as before, and behind him, in standard Army khakis, stood a tall man with a crown and two gold stars on his shoulders, signifying the rank of Colonel. Whisps of silver snaked through his thick black hair, that was nonetheless starting to recede from his forehead. His blue eyes looked tired; Eric suspected that was from the weight of command, though tiny red lines and flushed red cheeks indicated Colonel Dalton was a man who had over-indulged at one or point or another. A small moustache was technically a breach of protocol, but here, of all places, it went unquestioned.

“Who the hell are you?” Asked the Colonel, unimpressed with a complete stranger being in his base. The anger in the gravely voice deepened when he spotted Eric. His eyes turned to Peter, who had yet to turn around.

“Captain Myers, what do you think you are doing?” Dalton didn’t quite shout.

“Apologies sir…” Peter span the chair around. “Please meet Corporal Rob Dennings and Corporal Eric Cooper, formerly of the Regiment. I needed their help sir.”

“With what?”

“Again, apologies sir, I cannot say with uncleared officers present…” Peter nodded at Stanton, whose scowl remained unchanged. “… It pertains to the Ivory Coast.” There was something in the way Peter spoke the last two words that just slightly drained the blood from Dalton’s face.

“Understood. In future, perhaps you could run your plans by me?” It was less of a question and more of a warning.

“Of course sir.” Peter came across as far too nice.

“Very good. Carry on, inform me of your progress.” Dalton was all business now.

“Yes sir.”

Dalton gave them each one final, searching look, before stepping away. Stanton closed the door.

“Thank fuck.” Peter span the chair back to the screen. “Can’t stand that arrogant prick. Still, he knows I can fuck him over. This is interesting. Very interesting.” He tapped on the keyboard again. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“Well, don’t keep us in suspense!” Rob walked back over. “What is it?”

A 3D box had appeared on the screen, with different-coloured lines arching out of it and streaming off toward various icons. Eric squinted, making out a few words, including ‘power grid’ and ‘communications’.

“Eric was right, it’s a backdoor alright, the mother of all backdoors. Whatever this is, it allows unseen and complete access to anything with a chip made by One Touch, and fuck me do they get around. They’re global. They can get into the Pentagon if they want to. Access MI5 databases, the Kremlin’s computers, and Lord knows how many mobile phones, and no one – at least, not unless they were very sure of what to look for – would even know they’d been hacked. The coding is very well hidden. You said this was sent to you?”

“Yeah. Someone inside the company sent it to me. No idea why they chose me.” Eric wished they hadn’t.

“Probably hacked your personnel file, knew your history.” Said Peter casually. “God knows why they didn’t just go to the police or something.”

“Maybe the police are compromised, or they think the police are compromised?” Rob said. “After all, you said this software is everywhere, it must have taken one hell of an effort to do that.”

“Come to think of it…” Peter kept tapping on the keyboard. “One company managing to get all those contracts is very odd. I reckon someone up high is pulling some serious strings.”

“All the more reason to find out as much as possible before we go to the authorities.” Replied Eric.

“Yeah yeah. The USB only has details of this backdoor, it doesn’t seem to have anything else on it, no files on who’s involved or anything like that. Sorry mate…” Peter sounded apologetic. “You can suggest One Touch is up to something dodgy with this, but anyone might be working with them. Plus, if I were them, I’d just deny all knowledge. Easily enough done. Worse, you might get ‘plausible deniability’.”

“So, we’ve achieved nothing.” Muttered Rob.

“Oh, no.” Peter said with mockery in his voice. “We now know we face an enemy we can’t link anything to, stop, or even identify. That’s progress.”

“Don’t give us that sarcastic crap Pete. It’s not helpful.” Rob allowed disdain to enter his voice.

“Well what do you want me to say? That’s the boat we’re in, all of us, including me now you’ve dragged my arse into it. Only thing is, this code might…”

The sound of raised voices cut Peter off. An angry discussion started up, that quickly died down again. Someone started hammering on the door.

“Captain Myers, open this door, that’s an order.” Colonel Dalton sounded annoyed.

“Is there another way out of here?” Asked Eric, scanning the room for any options.

“Nope. Well, not from this room, but there are ways out of the base. You won’t like them.” Peter grimaced. “Fuckin’ dangerous but I don’t think we have a choice.” He yanked the USB stick out of the terminal and handed it to Rob. “They’ll want Eric, they’ll assume he has this.”

Rob smiled. “Diversion and misdirection. Just like old times.”

“Yeah, well, here’s where you go…”

Chapter 11

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