It took almost no time at all to reach the facility's Command Centre. Nobody impeded their progress, largely since the regular personnel were lying face down in the corridors, obedient to the orders which had echoed over the PA system in the surprisingly fluid tones of Commandant Stable. Anyone who might have objected to the orders quickly rethought their resistance when Princess Evelynne's team came into sight, fully alert with submachine guns—and one full assault rifle—ready to defend their charge from anyone who even appeared to hint at a threat.
The Command Centre was a scene of controlled frantic activity when they entered. Four soldiers in Army uniforms were speaking urgently into headsets, performing the ordered roll-call of the base's personnel while a fifth desperately tried to keep up by continuously updating a list and schematic of every person's location on a large computer monitor. More officers were busy confirming the lockdown of every entrance and exit to the facility, while the unfortunate Lieutenant Akad was visually correlating the images of the vehicle bays on his monitors with the counts being given by the Vehicle Oversight Officers.
The bustle faltered momentarily as the Heir's Guard entered the room, Guards peeling off to take up defensive positions around the walls where they could see everything happening within the room. The noise quickly started up again when the tall, older gentleman with the Commandant's insignia cleared his throat loudly and glared. Satisfied, he nodded before walking briskly towards Evelynne and the core of Guards who remained close by their charge. He stopped a distance away that might have been considered rude had he not been so aware of the need to avoid even the appearance of a threat.
“Your Highness,” Commandant Stable greeted, his smooth, almost musical accent at odds with his brusque speech. “General. What is the situation?”
“We cannot confirm Lady Alleandre's location at this time,” Sir Arthur replied, his eyes flicking around the room, taking in the activity with a barely perceptible nod. “Colonel Nixon has also lost contact with two of her people, who were Lady Alleandre's primaries as of the most recent Guard change, and Claire Jones, Her Highness' Page, is also unaccounted for. I've initiated Condition White. Status report?”
Stable's face showed complete acceptance of Sir Arthur's assumption of command. “General, we have confirmed Stage Two lockdown of the base. All internal tactical doors have been sealed. All entrances and exits to this building have been sealed. All elevators have been shut down. All perimeter gates have been locked, all perimeter patrols are on heightened alert. I have three men using available surveillance cameras to scan for possible breaches. We are currently administering a full head-count, and I anticipate its completion within--” He paused, peering at a monitor. “--four minutes.” The Commandant looked back. “I have also ordered that all aircraft within a fifty kilometre radius be grounded immediately, and local Guard posts are co-ordinating with police to set up roadblocks.”
“Good. Video surveillance logs?”
“Major Sabah and Lieutenant Delmonte are performing a preliminary scan of the tapes now for any obvious suspicious activity, but I know you will want to go over everything with you own people.”
“I will. What about any anomalies?”
Stable shook his head. “Nothing so far, General. All perimeter and internal sensors read active, all video cameras are functioning, and all locks appear sealed on our end. However, I would like your permission to detail several units to perform visual on-site inspections of all doors.”
Sir Arthur looked at the Commandant shrewdly. “Are you thinking what I am, Commandant?”
“I'm thinking that if this really is a Condition White, then someone on the inside is involved, General,” Stable said bluntly. “While I can safely say that I trust my officers, I simply cannot vouch for every single person on this base. If Lady Alleandre has been... apprehended, particularly if nobody saw the incident take place, then they have a planned escape route, and would not count on being able to escape before a lockdown was imposed. Perhaps they did, but no professional operative would stake the operation on it.”
Sir Arthur nodded, while Evelynne listened to everything in a kind of distant daze. Ally had been taken. By whom and for what specific purpose she didn't know, and all she could do was hold onto her knowledge of her lover's soul within her own and take what comfort she could from the fact that it remained strong and stable. She had been sending her thoughts in her partner's direction since hearing the news, but Ally remained stubbornly unresponsive.
“Permission granted, Commandant. No more than two-man units, no more than three units per floor. Also have four-man units check the perimeter fences for breaches.”
“Yes, General. And--”
“Sir! I have a possible surveillance anomaly!”
The young Sergeant's call drew both officers' attention. In a moment, Sir Arthur and Stable were by his side, looking over his shoulder at the monitor he was examining. “Explain, Matheson,” the Commandant ordered.
“Yes, Sir. Sir, this is the current feed we're receiving from one of the cameras in the north-west elevator.” The monitor showed an empty elevator car, apparently locked down with the rest of the base.
“Sir, the time is off.” The Sergeant tapped the screen where the current time slowly marched onwards. 17:45: 09... 10... 11... 12... “This is the current base time controlled by the central computers.” Next to the image a second clock appeared. Evelynne peered at it, seeing nothing at first... and then she saw that the seconds were ticking along almost three seconds faster than the video.
“It isn't just a glitch?” Sir Arthur asked.
Matheson shook his head. “Not like this, Sir. All surveillance cameras are tied into the central surveillance computer, which has its own independent clock. Every camera records the time within a 7.5 millisecond discrepancy of the others. This discrepancy is over two and a half seconds, Sir.” The Sergeant hesitated. “In my opinion, Sir, this is some kind of external feed.”
“Good work, Sergeant,” Sir Arthur said, straightening. Turning slightly, he activated his collar microphone. “Sorceress One, this is Phoenix One. Possible surveillance anomaly in the north-west elevator. Proceed with caution.”
The wait was nerve-wracking for Evelynne, and she couldn't help feeling an unjustified resentment that Sir Arthur and Commandant Stable appeared to be taking the situation with alert calm. That apparent relaxed state was a mask, she knew, created by years of training and utmost professionalism, but some part of her would have been reassured if they were both panicking as much as she was. On the other hand, Evelynne's demeanour was probably as stone-faced as theirs her self-control trained and honed by the very woman she was anxious for.
“Where are Ally's parents?” she asked in a low voice, hoping she wasn't disturbing her Guard's concentration.
“They are all being held in a secure room near Lady Alleandre's ward,” Sir Arthur replied. “Until we are clearer on the situation I feel it best to keep them as secure as possible.”
Evelynne nodded, even as she was stretching out with another part of her mind, painfully careful not to lose her grip on the link joining her to Ally.
Mrs Tretiak? Are you both alright? As much as she wanted to, she didn't attempt to contact Ally's father, as he had proven to be utterly impervious to any external psychic impulse.
We're both fine, Catherine Tretiak's mental voice replied, with only a hint that suddenly hearing a voice in her head was in any way unusual. Evelynne, where is my daughter? That voice was possessed of a firm, uncompromising tone audible to mental ears just as it was to physical ones.
We don't know where Ally is, Evelynne said bluntly, knowing that the other woman would not appreciate otherwise. Or Claire. Captain Benson and Sergeant Gyrus are out of contact, too. She felt Catherine's take quick intake of breath over her link to them, and the anxiety doubled. What happened down there?
A couple of nurses came by, Catherine Tretiak explained. They said they wanted to take Ally for a sonogram to check out some things they noticed during the procedure. Nothing serious, they said, but they wanted to make sure. Claire, Amanda and Rupert went with them, and that's the last I know.
Evelynne was about to reply when her more mundane senses showed her that Sir Arthur was listening intently to his earbud. “Confirmed, Sorceress One. Evacuate to Beta. Yellow-Four still in effect.” Without further ado, he turned to his avidly listening audience. “Colonel Nixon managed to get inside the elevator. She found the two medical personnel. They are alive and essentially unharmed,” he hastened to add at Evelynne's terrified expression, “but the Colonel suspects that a gas was introduced into the elevator which forced them all into unconsciousness. She is evacuating them back to the location of Mr and Mrs Tretiak.” He hesitated uncharacteristically. “Neither Lady Alleandre, Mistress Claire, nor her Guards were on scene.”
It was dark.
Drifting in Limbo, her only companions were her own slow heartbeat, and the background hum of thoughts, though whether the latter were hers or not was difficult to tell. It was warm, and there was no pain, but there was something... wrong as well.
“I apologise most sincerely, Your Ladyship,” a new voice said, slipping into her consciousness quietly. “I truly wish this was not necessary. You have suffered as only the innocent can in this struggle to gain our potential. However, the destiny of my nation requires that I do this. I bear you no ill will, yet... Uresh senebu nu peter.”
Confusion rippled across the surface of her mind, and she tried to ask the voice what it meant, but she could make no sound, and then the voice was gone. After an eternity of consideration, she turned to the background thoughts.
Perhaps they could explain if she asked them.
Martina Lowes sighed in frustration, barely restraining herself from slamming down her phone. Leaning back in her chair, she rubbed her eyes and sighed. This was really not what she wanted to be doing this evening. In a rare event of co-ordination, both her husbands were at home on the same night. Joseph had promised a new recipe he was trying out at his restaurant, while Ahmed had been dropping teasing hints all week about a certain massage oil he had picked up on his last trip to India. Martina really didn't want to be wasting more time trying to track down a story that was probably nothing.
Except that a niggling sensation in the back of her head kept telling her that it wasn't nothing. After all, entire top-security Guard facilities didn't just go into emergency lockdown on a whim. Lowes had received that information from a source who had been just outside at the time, and while it was possible that the entire thing was a training exercise, other things just didn't add up. Like the fact that Guard posts across the Realm had suddenly gone to a heightened state of alert, and off-duty Guards were being called in as fast as they could be contacted. There had been absolutely no official word on the reasons for such an event, and Martina's calls to certain sources within the administration itself had met with an impenetrable wall. Not that the Guard had been a particularly forthcoming institution at the best of times, but since the Invasion they had been even more careful about what they said, and to whom.
Well, when all else failed, there was always Maggie. Picking up the phone again and absently dialling, Martina wondered how many times she would be propositioned by her besotted friend, and just what she could get away with offering in return for the information. Perhaps an invitation to join them for Joseph's meal this evening... although not to the promised massage afterwards.
The line rang twice before Lowes heard it picked up. Forestalling Maggie's inevitable initial come-on, she spoke up quickly.
“Uresh senebu nu peter.”
Martina stared at the phone in her hand with utter bafflement. What the hell did I just say?
The person at the other end of the line was obviously just as surprised. “Say again?”
“Uh... I don't... Maggie?” That voice was not familiar.
“State your identity.” The order showed none of the speaker's initial uncertainty, and it was definitely not Maggie.
“I... ah... This is Martina Lowes. I--”
“How did you get this number and code?”
“It was... I was calling...” Lowes trailed off, looking at the phone's LCD screen, which showed the digits dialled. Instead of Maggie's familiar 10-digit Palace number, a parade of at least twenty-five digits ran across the small screen.
“This is Guard Colonel Nixon, Ms Lowes. Do not leave your current location. Agents have been dispatched. You will co-operate with them in all matters, under the Charter of Realm Security.”
Colonel Nixon hung up the secure line, a frown on her face. She had just finished dispatching a Guard team with orders to detain Martina Lowes and immediately transport the reporter to the base.
When the call had echoed through her earbud, quick anticipation had been the Colonel's first reaction. That particular set of tones unquestionably signified a call forwarded directly from the secure switchboard which corresponded to the private verification code assigned to Alleandre Tretiak. In theory, nobody else had that particular set of numbers, which meant that Nixon was very interested in learning just how Lowes had acquired it.
“Ambassador Holt is requesting an audience, Madam,” Queen Cleo's personal secretary said quietly from the door, causing the Queen to look up from her discussion with her Foreign Affairs and External Intelligence Advisors and their aides.
“Just how urgent is he, Maggie?” Cleo asked shortly. “We're a bit busy here ourselves.”
“He seems quite interested, Madam,” Maggie said. “Apparently he wishes to go over some diplomatic and security arrangements for Lady Alleandre's upcoming visit to Canada, should her flight happen to take her through an American airport.”
And that was a total load of hes, as everyone in the room knew. Lady Alleandre had absolutely no plans to return to Canada in the forseeable future, and even if she did she would certainly be flying direct, without even the question of landing on United States soil. Which meant that Ambassador Holt had something very different in mind for discussion, and he had used all the right words to get the Queen's attention.
“Please, show him in,” Cleo instructed after a split-second's hesitation.
A few moments later, the American Ambassador was striding into the room, a briefcase held in one hand, and a smile on his face that could very nearly be mistaken for genuine. “Your Majesty,” he greeted, bowing shallowly.
“Mr Ambassador,” the Queen replied with an equally disingenuous smile. “Thank you, Maggie.” As soon as the door closed behind the secretary, Cleo's expression dimmed perceptibly. “So, Mr Ambassador, you wished to discuss security arrangements?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. I realise that you are very busy, since Lady Alleandre is... travelling as we speak, but there were some concerns that I felt I had to bring to your attention immediately. I truly wish I could have discussed this with you earlier, but Her Ladyship's recent change in travel plans caught us somewhat by surprise.”
Only years of experience prevented the Queen from drawing in a sharp breath. Holt knew, somehow, that Alleandre had been taken, and he was either attempting to convey that his own government had taken her, or he had some idea as to who had.
“Of course, Mr Ambassador. Given the new atmosphere of cooperation that we're striving to build, I'd be happy to discuss matters with you. Although I hope you realise that with events overtaking us somewhat we find ourselves acting with some urgency.”
“Naturally, Your Majesty. In fact, perhaps it will be more convenient if I were to leave with you some of the proposals the State Department has drawn up,” Holt suggested, reaching into his briefcase and pulling out a thick manila folder. Politely, he bent down and placed it on the desk before the Queen.
Her face still expressionless Cleo opened up the folder and leaned back, brows quirking as she saw two unlabelled DVDs on the very top.
“Your Highness, General, you have a video conference request from Mr Chorus Tladi.” Commandant Stable's quiet tones coming over the intercom threatened to wake the Princess. “Shall I accept the connection?”
“Of course, Commandant,” Sir Arthur said quickly. “We'll be to Command momentarily.” He cut the line and looked over at his charge.
Evelynne had not moved much from her spot on the couch where she had finally slipped into a light, exhausted doze a half hour before. The Princess was sleeping with her head in the lap of her future mother-in-law, who had likewise succumbed to the anxiety-driven drain on her energy. It was therefore with some reluctance that Sir Arthur set about waking his charge.
In the heart of Sir Arthur's commandeered domain, activity continued at a bustling pace, if not the frantic speed it had been in the minutes after Alleandre's disappearance. On the largest screen in the room, set in the communications area, Chorus' promised video link had been set up, and simultaneous connections had been made to General ab-Warat, Director of the Common Guard; Helena Klaussen, Head of Internal Security; and King Jad's personal office. The King smiled at his daughter in an attempt at reassurance before taking command of the virtual meeting.
“Mr. Tladi,” he began without preamble, “what do you have for us?”
Even over the video link, Chorus' eyes were bloodshot, and it was easy to imagine that for the past hours he had been glued to a computer monitor, trying to coax information from every computer system he could connect to. “I've been trying to connect any link I can possibly find, Your Majesty,” the young man confirmed. “In fact, I've been rather cavalier when it comes to dropping your name and authority, Sir, so that I can get access to the data I need.”
“Young man, if you find Alleandre, I won't care if you've been reading my personal diary, and I will personally have you promoted to Chief of Guard Cryptography.”
Evelynne's eyes flickered to General ab-Warat's face, but the Director didn't even flinch. Despite the friction between him and Ally's team, he had been working just as hard as everyone else over the past while, and there was probably some small part of him that wouldn't object to having someone, anyone, be promoted to take his own job.
“Thank you, Your Majesty, but when I find Ally I think I'm going to resign and work with her on developing the best recipe for chocolate.” Despite everything, Evelynne couldn't help but feel a surge of relief at Chorus' confidence. “In any case, I'm afraid I haven't found out where Ally has got to, but I do have some solid evidence on who has taken her.”
Evelynne inhaled briefly, while all three of the others on the screen showed diamond-sharp interest.
“Who?” Klaussen blurted.
“Well, Her Majesty managed to get the computer files from that AFB raid in the States into my hands. Nothing else was panning out, but I figured that if the same person who had paid the AFB was in charge of this, there might be a link between them. So I set the Choir to work looking for matching patterns between the AFB data and every other system I could get my hands on. And I found one.” Chorus took a breath. “Now, I can't promise that this would stand up in a court of law, because the pattern isn't exactly... rational. It's far more intuitive. I can see it, but I'll need a lot of time to nail it down for you.”
“Fine, but what does that mean?” King Jad asked impatiently.
“Essentially I was able to look at the pattern of money transfers from whoever paid the AFB to the Brigade itself. The database Queen Cleo managed to, ah, acquire filled in a lot of the missing pieces, and I had already programmed the basic pattern-recognition criteria, so it was simply a matter of scanning in the new data and letting it run. So far as I can tell, the money went through a painful number of routings, and it was Hell to trace, but I got a pattern. And then I found another pattern in another place that matches.” He hesitated. “Whoever paid the AFB used some of exactly the same techniques that the Guard uses for its own covert transactions.”
“The Guard?!” General ab-Warat repeated, his voice strangled.
Chorus nodded soberly. “I got into the Guard financial database, and I've been able to narrow it down more to a file called 'Project Wakening'. Don't ask me how the match works, because it's more of a pattern than an exact match, and I honestly don't think I can explain it in terms you'd understand.”
Evelynne's face turned to Sir Arthur's in shock. “Wakening...” she murmured.
The General's gaze went distant as he obviously ran through every Project and Mission of which he was aware. “I've never heard of any Project by that name,” he said after a moment. His face turned to the side as he accessed a computer. “It's not in the main database, and...” He paused. “I can tell you it's not in my black files, either.”
Evelynne nodded, believing him. The Guard Director's so-called “black” files were those that contained information so sensitive that it was kept only as hardcopy in the Director's, King's, and Queen's personal vaults. Evelynne herself had seen only one of the documents found there: Ally's own “black” file, containing what was known about her superhuman abilities. By now, though, she wouldn't be surprised if her a description of her own telepathic talents was resting in the vaults.
“It's hidden away in one of the tertiary databases,” Chorus said. “There's not much in it, but it looks like it was masquerading as a legitimate Guard training Project. I was able to find a link to the money trail used to pay the AFB and most of the other mercenary groups. I was also able to find other matching money trails. Two of them led to sums deposited in the personal accounts of two personnel from the medical facility where Ally was taken. A Lieutenant Giorgio Ferrarra, and a Medic Sergeant Jonas Sylvan.” Sir Arthur looked quickly at Commandant Stable, but the Base Commander was already talking urgently to a data technician, who was pulling up the relevant files. “And... I was able to find the electronic fingerprints of at least one of the people running it. Everyone has their own particular signature methods when it comes to using computers, and the Choir can recognise them. And then when I set it to trying to find a match with anyone who could have access, it found one.” Chorus' face was completely serious. “Your Majesty, it was in your own office network. The login matches Mohammed al-Shan.”
Evelynne had never seen her father so stunned, not even when she had told him she wanted to marry Ally, and knew that her own expression was no better. Mohammed?! The King's personal secretary had worked in his position for over twenty-five years, albeit first as personal secretary to Prince Jad. He always maintained a certain professional distance, but Evelynne knew that there was nobody her father trusted more with the day-to-day running of his administration. And who else would have such unfettered access to nearly every document that crossed the King's desk? a small voice whispered in the back of her mind. Who else would have the opportunity to learn the King's personal access codes, obtain information... even speak with the King's authority in certain situations?
The same thoughts were visible on King Jad's face, which was, for the first time Evelynne could remember, white instead of its customary red. It was with pure willpower that the Diarch pulled his thoughts together. “Moha--” He had to clear his throat. “al-Shan took the day off from his duties this morning in order to attend the wedding of his nephew,” he said hoarsely. “General, I want you to find out if that is where he really went, and if not...” The King drew in a long breath. “If not, a Royal Imperative Warrant is hereby issued for the arrest of Mohammed Jésus al-Shan on suspicion of High Treason.”
Continued . . .
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