Martina Lowes sat with imperfectly assumed calm in the plain, stark interrogation room, wondering just what the Hell she had got into this time, and just how she had gotten into it. So far, to her surprise, nobody had asked any pointed questions, but that was about to change. She had been ushered politely but very firmly into this room, and informed that officials would be arriving momentarily in order to “discuss the situation.”
As if summoned by her thoughts, the door opened, allowing three persons to enter. Lowes took a moment to recognise Colonel Theodora Nixon and General Sir Arthur Ramirez, but when Princess Evelynne deMolay entered on their heels she was standing and bowing before the thought even had time to process consciously.
She held the bow while the Princess hesitated, then took a seat across the table.
“Please sit, Ms Lowes.”
The reporter took her seat with a murmured, “Your Highness.”
It was Colonel Nixon who spoke next. “Martina Lowes, we are here to discuss the telephone call you made approximately two hours ago to a maximum-security Guard communications network,” she began. “Because you are present without legal representation, no criminal charges shall be filed as a result of this interview. Should we decide that charges should be brought to bear, you shall be re-interviewed in the presence of your choice of representation before such charges are officially laid. You should also be aware that the matters discussed here are considered Realm Secrets, and publication of them will result in charges of Deliberate Intent to Cause Harm to the Realm, and you will be tried under High Justice. Do you understand?”
Lowes nodded soberly. They were certainly not kidding around. While the promise of prejudicial immunity was, as far as she could tell, absolutely genuine, there was also no mistaking the deadly seriousness of the promise of High Justice—personal prosecution before the King and Queen themselves, without the benefit of a jury—should she be foolish enough to print what they talked about. “I understand.”
“Good.” Colonel Nixon began the questions. “At approximately 2345 local time, you placed a call to a secure Guard switchboard. You then entered a nineteen-digit personal verification key of the highest level of classification. Simply put, Ms Lowes, where did you get the key?”
Lowes took a deep breath. There was no way they were going to believe her, but all she could do was tell the truth. “I was intending to call Maggie—Margaret Hollamby, Queen Cleo's personal secretary. We have a personal relationship, as well as a professional one, wherein she provides me with... a head start on certain stories related to the government. Although as far as I know, she has never violated any oaths by revealing confidential material.” It was bad enough that her own career was hanging by a thread; there was no way she was going to deliberately drag Maggie down with her.
Nixon nodded. “We are aware of your relationship with Margaret Hollamby,” she stated.
Of course you are. Somehow Lowes didn't think there was much of her life, personal or professional, that the Guard did not now know. “I was focused on my computer screen, and I was dialing by reflex. I honestly thought I was punching in Maggie's number. I didn't even know it wasn't until you answered, Colonel.”
“You're trying to tell me that you managed to dial a Guard extension, and an access code that should be known only by—at most—one person, by accident?”
The reporter couldn't blame Nixon's extreme scepticism. “I know how it sounds, Colonel, but all I can say is... yes.”
Colonel Nixon stared at her for several seconds before she glanced sideways at Princess Evelynne and Sir Arthur. The Princess did nothing, only kept her eyes firmly on Lowes, but the senior Guard leaned back and nodded. The Colonel's eye quirked briefly, and then she turned back to Lowes.
“I believe you, Ms Lowes,” Nixon said bluntly, and Martina nearly gaped in shock. “Or, rather, Sir Arthur believes you, and he has... a sense of these things.”
They believed her?! Lowes could barely even think. She wasn't even certain she believed herself! However, Nixon was still speaking.
“To be more accurate, we believe that you actually have no knowledge of how you came by that number. However, now the matter becomes discovering how you came to be in possession of this knowledge. I think we can safely say that it was not an accident.”
“It might interest you to know,” Princess Evelynne said, speaking for the first time, and still with that soul-penetrating stare, “that the number you dialled was my Consort's personal Guard contact code, which is designed to allow her to reach Colonel Nixon directly from any telephone on the planet.”
“I—Your Highness—I don't...”
“Oh, I quite agree that, by all logic, you don't know what it was. However, it's equally obvious that you do know. Now, Ally hates paradoxes, so I think I owe it to her to resolve this one.” The Princess paused for breath, and for the first time Lowes saw just how exhausted the Heir appeared. “You should also know,” she continued in a more subdued tone, “that Ally was abducted from this facility a little over eight hours ago.” Martina gasped. “Since that time we've had absolutely no contact with her, directly or indirectly, of any sort.” Princess Evelynne cleared her throat. “You can see why we're a little anxious to know just why you called Ally's number at this particular time.”
“Of course, Your Highness,” Lowes stammered. So that was why every Guard facility in the Realm was on alert! One didn't misplace the Heir Consort without immediately throwing every resource one had into discovering where she had been lost.
“First, though,” the Princess continued, leaning forward, “what does 'uresh senebu nu peter' mean to you?”
“Uresh...” Those were the words Martina had spoken immediately after connecting on the phone, and at the time she had no idea why she had said them. She still didn't know the why, but she had managed to figure out a what. “'Uresh senebu nu peter' is a common blessing used by followers of the Enneadic Temples,” Lowes explained, although it was general knowledge in Atlantl. “Roughly translated to English, 'those who sleep awaken.' It refers to the time when the Gods of the Ennead—Ra, Isis, Osiris, Set, and so on—will supposedly awaken or return from wherever they went in the aftermath of the Deluge and take up rulership of Atlantl once more. I'm afraid that's about all I can suggest as a connection to that particular phrase.”
The Heir nodded again. “That is what we came up with, although recently we came across a reference to a 'Project Awakening,' which seems to have ties to both Ally's abduction and the Invasion.”
“Based on the religious origin of the phrase,” Colonel Nixon added, “we're obviously investigating any possibility of religious extremists in the Enneadic Temples being responsible, but we haven't come up with anything.”
“But, if you'll pardon me, Colonel, even if you're right about 'those who sleep awaken,' why... I mean, I realise that all I can do is assure you that I have no connections to any religious extremists, of any stripe...”
“Oh, it was, and is, something we're investigating, Ms Lowes,” Nixon replied bluntly. “However, I don't think we're going to find anything directly tying you to whoever abducted Lady Alleandre.”
“What we think we'll find, Martina,” Princess Evelynne said, snapping Lowes' eyes back to her face, “is that there is... some kind of direct connection between Ally and yourself.”
Martina Lowes knew she was a very intelligent woman, but this was becoming far too confusing. “I'm sorry, Your Highness?”
The Princess leaned forward across the table, her expression deadly serious. “Martina, what you are about to hear is classified beyond Realm Security. If you ever discuss it with anyone besides those of us present right now in this room or those we personally designate, you will be summarily sentenced under Royal Decree, without the benefit of a trial.” Taking a heavy sheet of paper from Sir Arthur, Princess Evelynne slid it across the table along with a pen. “You will sign this Decree, acknowledging its existence and authority. The Decree has been penned by King Jad and Queen Cleo, and authorised by Dukes Avalon, Lyonesse and Hy Braseal, the Director of the Guard, and the Head of the Internal Security Division.”
Lowes' hand was shaking as she scanned the document. A Royal Imperative Decree was something that was used only in the most extreme circumstances, for the simple reason that it was such a powerful document. There was no appeal, and no recourse other than to have it lifted by those same persons who had originally signed it, or those who succeeded them to their offices. Another one of the reasons it was so rare was that, to be valid, it had to be signed unanimously by the King, Queen, and all three Dukes, and getting all five of those personalities to agree on something so important was a vanishingly rare occasion at best. However, this Decree did, in fact, bear all five seals and signatures, and then threw in those of the Guard Director and Head of Internal Security for good measure.
“This may seem heavy-handed of us,” Evelynne said, and her softened tone was enough to jar Lowes out of her daze. “Do I think it's absolutely necessary? No. However, to date no reporters have been entrusted with what we're about to tell you. If you wish, think of that as a benefit. While I can't promise it, I can say that it's my firm belief that, one day, this Decree will be lifted—that there will be no choice but to have it lifted, assuming it even matters any more. And when that day comes, you will have the lead on the single largest story to hit the planet in millennia.”
“Well, Your Highness,” Lowes said, her voice shaking slightly, “you make a persuasive case.” Without further hesitation, she picked up the pen and signed the Decree, pleased that her hand didn't shake at all.
Princess Evelynne took the document solemnly and spent a moment seemingly lost in thought, her gaze on the thick paper. Then she looked up, tilting the sheet towards her Guards with a slight lifting of her eyebrow. Both looked over the document, and there was something there which caused mirror expressions of surprise.
“Well, Martina,” the Princess said, “I think you've already answered a question or two. And posed several more.” A breath. “Do you believe in telepathy?”
Whatever Lowes had been expecting, that hadn't been it. “Telepathy?” It was something she had rarely considered seriously before. Once, several years before, she had written an article on a private research facility which had been dedicated to studying ESP, telekinesis, and the like, and while intriguing, the result had been less than convincing. Especially when, some time after, it had become known that at least two of the chief scientists had been falsifying data.
“Yes.” A pause. Do you believe in telepathy?
It took Martina Lowes a moment to comprehend that Princess Evelynne had not repeated the question aloud, but that the words had simply... echoed through her mind without touching her ears at all. That was when she jerked back, nearly knocking her chair to the floor. “What the Hell?!”
There was a slightly wry smile on the Heir's face. Believe me, I know how you feel.
The 'what' is, as you already know, that I am projecting my voice directly into the auditory processing centres of your brain, bypassing, as Ally would say, the conventional aural pathways. The 'how' is, frankly, still a mystery to us. However, we have come to accept that it is a very real phenomenon.
Lowes took a deep, shaky breath and moved back to her seat, not quite sure when she had leapt out of it. “I think...” She swallowed. “I think your question just became redundant.”
“I thought it might.”
“So... can you all do this?” Martina asked, looking at all three people on the other side of the table. Though a part of her was still in absolute shock, the reporter within Lowes was now utterly awake.
“No.” Princess Evelynne shook her head. “This is my particular Talent, although it's quite possible that there are others somewhere who can do the same. We are aware, however, of certain other individuals who have other gifts.”
Lowes' mind whirred. “And Lady Alleandre is one of them,” she concluded. “And you think that she's somehow... communicating with me.”
The Princess nodded. “Up until now Ally has never shown the ability to project her thoughts as I do. And even now I'm not quite sure that is what she's doing. No, in this case... You should know that one of Ally's gifts is the ability to read others' thoughts. That is something I cannot do, unless you deliberately project yours to me in return. At the press conference upon our arrival, Ally scanned every reporter present in an attempt to see if any of you had passed on information to the persons responsible for the Invasion. Including you.”
“That--” The invasion of privacy issues were staggering. Within one's own head was the only place where one could be guaranteed that nobody was listening, and if someone like Lady Alleandre could violate that sanctity of thought...
“I don't need telepathy to know what you're thinking,” Princess Evelynne broke into Lowes' thoughts. “And I'd like to say that both Ally and myself are fully aware of the ethical questions involved. All I can say in our defence is that it was something we felt was necessary at the time, and that we have never taken the issue lightly, nor have we ever acted upon any of the information we have received unless there was an immediate threat of harm to some person of the Realm as a whole. If it helps, I can also say that Ally cannot access memories or anything other than the surface thoughts of an individual at any particular time. I can't say it's impossible that some other Talented person might be able to read memories, but that is not one of Ally's gifts.”
It didn't really help, because Lowes was only too aware of the “surface thoughts” any person could be thinking at any given time, but at least there was no wholesale rummaging through private memories. Assuming that the Heir was telling the truth, and her gut feeling was telling her that Princess Evelynne was.
“Very well, Your Highness,” Lowes said with deliberate calm. “Faced with the evidence so far before me, I must now agree that... telepathy exists.”
The Princess smiled, although there was still a visible amount of tension in her face and frame. “Good. Now, as I said, at the press conference upon our arrival Ally scanned your thoughts. She had been doing similar scans for some time before arriving in Jamaz, and she was already suffering from... echoes. The feeling as though little pieces of those she had scanned were somehow lodged within her mind. There are techniques we have developed to alleviate such symptoms, and we believed the echoes were under control, although we were still concerned. One thing we did not consider, and I suppose we should have, is whether little bits of Ally's psyche were being left behind in those she was scanning.”
“So... you think that somehow Lady Alleandre is... inside my head, literally?” That was a very disturbing thought.
“I don't know the exact circumstance or mechanism,” the Princess replied, shrugging. “We don't know far more than we do know about Talents like these. Perhaps a small piece of Ally is literally within your mind, perhaps a... resonance simply exists between the two of you, or perhaps this is the product of some ability that you have, and Ally has simply been the catalyst in its emergence. All I do know is that somehow you are linked.” She paused. “One of the aspects of the relationship between Ally and myself is that we are... Linked. We are always aware of each other's presence and, to varying degrees, each other's mental state. And the reason I know Ally is tied to you somehow is because I can feel her sitting across the table from me, right where you are now.”
“Claire? Claire, I need you to wake up.”
The voice penetrated the total absence of thought, bringing with it sound, and consciousness, and--
Light. Claire's eyes protested as her eyelids—each one weighing at least three hundred pounds—blinked open slowly. She was so tired, and wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep, but then the headache lurking behind her temples made itself known, and she winced heavily.
“Claire, I need you to look at me,” the voice continued. “Talk to me, Claire.”
Claire blearily peered up—she was lying down, she realised—and ever so slowly the worried face of Sergeant Gyrus slowly swam into focus. “Rupert?” she mumbled thickly.
The form above her sagged visibly in relief. “Thank God,” the Guard breathed fervently. “Here, can you sit up?”
That was a trickier question than Claire had expected it to be, but after some fumbling she managed to get herself semi-upright, leaning her head back against the wall in exhaustion. That made her headache worse, and she lifted a heavy and sluggish hand to her forehead with a groan.
“Here.” A cup appeared in front of her, and she took it, managing to bring it to her lips with a minimum of spillage. “These too.” Two small white tablets followed the water without Claire even bothering to wonder what they were.
Feeling marginally better, she managed her first look around the room in which she found herself. It was had once probably been a storage room of some sort, with slightly grimy white-painted brick walls with lighter patches that showed where shelves had likely once been bolted. Those shelves, and anything they may have held, were long gone, replaced surprisingly with three small cots, one of which had been serving as Claire's own bed. Another, across the room, held a pale, prone form that she recognised after a moment as Captain Benson.
Sergeant Gyrus looked over his shoulder to where Claire's gaze was aimed. “I can't get her to wake up,” he said grimly. “Her breathing's fine, but her pulse is shallow, and she isn't responding to light or pain stimuli.” He turned back. “I was about to try pinching you before you woke up.”
“But why? What happened? I remember walking down the hall with Ally, and then getting in the elevator, and then...”
“I'm guessing it was some form of soporific gas,” the Sergeant explained, his own hands going to his head and massaging. “Almost certainly something military-grade. Considering how fast we went under, I'm guessing something in the Khed-Beta series. Puts you down in less than two seconds. It's still experimental because it's been known to cause brain damage in a small fraction of cases.” Another glance at the still woman in the other bed. “I'm hoping that this is a milder reaction.” Gyrus' tone showed that it was a faint hope.
With immense willpower, Claire forced her own voice to hide her fear. “So where are we?”
Sergeant Gyrus shook his head. “That I don't know. I don't know how long we were out, so we could be anywhere.” He nodded to the door. “The door's solid metal, and there's no lock on this side. I'm assuming that whoever took us doesn't specifically want us dead, because they put us in here with cots and bedding, and there's food, water, and basic medical supplies in the box in the corner.” He sighed. “I don't know where Lady Alleandre is.”
Claire closed her eyes against the bolt of panic that shot through her chest. “We weren't the target,” she said dully. “Ally was.”
“Almost certainly,” Gyrus agreed solemnly, his own expression showing the professional pain he was feeling as a Guard who had failed in his protection of his charge, and also the personal worry for someone he knew well. “I was hoping you could... take a look around...” He trailed off, vaguely gesturing to Claire's head.
“Oh. Right.” Claire took a couple of deep breaths, then opened up her perceptions with a confidence which, while far from complete, would have amazed her a year before.
And immediately curled into a tight foetal position as sheer agony ripped through her skull.
It took some time before she was able to unfold herself, blinking up at a concerned Guard through her tears. “Ah... maybe I should wait a bit,” she said hoarsely.
Continued. . .
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