CHAPTER THREE – Back in the real world
Three weeks later
Alex groaned and hit the snooze button without opening his eyes. 10 am lecture had sounded all right when he’d signed up for it. In practice, however, 10 am meant getting up at 9, which was four hours after he’d gone to bed, after drinking vodka in Paul’s room with Paul and some other mates. In practice, 10 am was early. Very, very early.
“Gnnnnhhhh,” he commented as the alarm went off again. This routine he repeated a few times.
Oh well, there was nothing for it. If he wanted to pass this subject, he couldn’t miss Prof. Jenkins’ lectures, dreary as they may be.
A quick shower and something that barely passed for breakfast later, he was out of the door. On his way past the mailbox, it suddenly occurred to him that he hadn’t checked it for a few days, so he prised the ancient box open, ignoring the voice in his head that said he would do anything to procrastinate from actually going to class.
He found two bills, another excellent omen for the day. However, there was also a letter addressed to him in an untidy scrawl, with no return address indicated. Something to read during the lecture then.
“Dear Alex,” he read as he had installed himself in the lecture room and opened the letter inside his book, “I hope I remembered your name correctly this time. You asked me to contact you if I ever thought of something that might be of interest to your studies. As a matter of fact, I think I have found something, though I’d much rather discuss it in person. Can we meet in your room at the university tonight at 8? I know how to find you. Best, Rhys.”
Alex stared at the letter, wondering about the strange feeling of excitement in the pit of his stomach. After all, the old man hadn’t given him anything worth his while last time, why would he be of any use now? He was probably just looking to rile him up again. Anyway, what did he mean, ‘tonight’? Surely he couldn’t have meant the night he’d sent the letter, and neither could he have known when the letter would arrive… unless he was already in Cambridge and had hand-delivered it? Alex turned over the envelope. No stamp.
He looked up. The whole class was staring at him, including Professor Jenkins, who had evidently just asked him a question. She smiled a sour smile. “I know we can’t all be as important as some of the people you go out drinking with,” she drawled. “However, it would be most gracious of you to grant us your full attention. Now, I seem to remember you doing some research on this particular war, so if you would you be so kind…”
Alex mumbled an excuse and gave a brief overview of the texts he had read on the subject, then let Prof. Jenkins get on with the stupendously boring enumeration of dates and war statistics and pondered her earlier comment. There was no doubt whom she had meant, of course, but how come even his most unworldly, unsociable teacher had seen that photo in the paper, the one everyone had been teasing him about for a week now, that picture showing him, Paul, and Paul’s best mate stumbling out of a bar?
“What about this Alexander Carter, then, Mr Hartnell?” Aurelia Thomas tore a new page from her block, the first one already full with all the info Hartnell had given her. Contrary to her colleagues, she stilled preferred the old pen-and-paper approach. “Has he been in contact with Mr Roshannon a lot?”
“Oh, we’ve been out drinking a few times,” Paul Hartnell shrugged. “No important player as far as I can tell, though. Student of medieval history at University of Cambridge, Faculty of History. Know him from our common home town Tawelfan. Pretty unspectacular fellow all in all. Bit of a mother’s boy, I’d say. But nice. I would guess nothing on his GIFT record either. Though I guess that’s for you people to find out.” He smiled expectantly. Aurelia raised an eyebrow.
“It is indeed.” It wasn’t as though she was going to share the information. “No insurgent tendencies?”
Hartnell shrugged. “Not as far as I can tell. I mean, he’s voiced the odd complaint or two about ID checks and such, but everyone does that.”
“Indeed.” Aurelia raised her eyebrow again, making a show of noting this last comment. It didn’t do for people like Paul Hartnell to feel too sure of themselves, and she was secretely pleased when she saw him fidget in his chair a little.
Merlin breathed deeply as he walked through the streets of Cambridge. He liked to explore a place by smells, although not all of them were pleasant here. He’d lived in a cottage on a hill for almost 90 years now; his forages into the world that called itself “civilized” had been short and, for the most part, violent. There were a lot of man-made smells that he didn’t particularly enjoy, such as exhaust fumes – though it looked like man was now making an effort to filter them, that was good news. But all in all, he had to admit to himself, he did enjoy the smell of human towns. It just made him feel alive, in a way he didn’t often feel.
Slowly, he started expanding his senses, and realized after a while that something new inhabited the air, something he hadn’t felt before to this extent. As he walked slowly here and there, across bridges, through passageways, everywhere he felt the tingle of electricity in his veins. It was really everywhere now. How long had it been since man had made himself so entirely dependent on it, he wondered? He couldn’t tell, and he already knew he wouldn’t bother to look it up. For a while he’d tried to keep up to date with current events, be knowledgeable about the milestones in civilizational developments. But it had just become too much, and too frustratingly repetitive.
No, there was something else, he decided. It wasn’t just electricity. It was a very specific kind of wave emanating from… everywhere. He stopped right where he stood (there was a car horn and a shriek of tires, which he barely heard) and focussed.
There. He opened his eyes and looked up, straight into a small rectangular box attached to a lamppost. A tiny red light shone in its lower right corner. He walked on slowly, looking around for more of these boxes. They were everywhere. And if he was right... they were a lot smaller than the last models he’d seen, of course, but…
He shook his head, a bitter smile playing around his lips. “I told them when they invented the bloody thing,” he muttered. “I told them it would be used for this kind of thing one day…”
“Can I help you, sir?”
He looked up. A young man dressed in a casual, but stylish outfit stood in front of him, smiling a smile that Merlin knew at once was supposed to look puzzled and winning at the same time. Oh great. This was a secret service agent. He could usually smell them from a mile away. Well, unless he was muttering to himself, obviously.
“Help me? I doubt it,” Merlin sneered. The man just continued to smile, unfazed, and Merlin checked himself. This was obviously no newbie.
“You were just looking a little lost, sir,” the agent said. “Are you new in town?”
“Not really,” Merlin said. “Haven’t been here in a while, though.” He made to walk on, but the man blocked his way, his manner not aggressive, but decisive.
“Would you mind showing me some ID, sir?” Now every bit the businessman, the agent whipped out his badge. Merlin made a show of studying it, then looked up into the agent’s eyes.
“I don’t think so.”
The man raised his eyebrows just a fraction. “I’m afraid I must insist, sir.” Still that gentle, insistent tone. “You do know it is compulsory to show ID when it is demanded by an IST employee.” It wasn’t a question. The agent assumed that everyone knew. So this had been going for a while.
“I’m sorry. Of course.” He smiled, and put his hand in his pocket, drawing out nothing at all and holding up his bare palm to the man. Unseen by the cameras, his eyes flashed gold –and the man let him walk on undisturbed.
“What they won’t do to maintain order,” Merlin grumbled. He couldn’t help thinking about the last time he had tried to actively involve himself in human affairs. He wondered if it would end the same way this time – with him turning away from them, dispirited, cynical. But then again…
He really needed to get going and find Alex Carter.
The alarm clock went off, and James turned it off at once. Feeling unusually rested, he glanced at the alarm clock. Right. He had set it to 7 last night instead of the usual 6 and had gone to bed unusually early, which meant he’d had six full hours of sleep. An absolute luxury at this point.
The peace only lasted for a few minutes, though. Once up and under the shower, everything came creeping back into his mind, slowly but surely. All the meetings he had scheduled for that day, all the emails he had to send, all the figures – well, nearly all – that he had memorized the day before. And, of course, the most overwhelming fact of all: that his boss, Mr Howen, the one behind whom he’d been able to hide for so long, had been dead for a week and he was now head of Britain’s national, its only bank. He shook his head slowly, massaging the shampoo into his hair. How the bloody hell had it come to all this?
In the office, his secretary was waiting for him with an updated schedule – several cancelled meetings, several new ones (more, obviously) – and, as he had requested for every morning now, a fact sheet summarizing last night’s stock market activities and a national and international monetary overview.
He scanned the sheet quickly, looked up and smiled at Susan. She was really very good.
“Your 3 o’clock meeting is with Mr Williams of the Daily Telegraph,” she pointed out. “He seemed to hint at wanting to discuss those pub pictures.”
“Right.” James grimaced, earning a smile from Susan. “One little drink, too many reprints. I guess you’re going to tell me not to get caught doing something like that again.”
“Oh, no, sir. I think it adds to your resume. I think it’s harder for those two friends you were with, I bet they’re getting pelted with interview requests.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll handle it. They’re sturdy, those Welsh.” He gave her another smile, then passed through to his office. Another long, dull day ahead.
There was a knock on the door. Alex got up and opened it. And stared at the man standing outside.
“Well it’s a good thing I turned off those bloody boxes in the corridor too,” muttered the young, dark-haired man standing it front of him. “Are you going to let me in at some point?”
“It’s… you,” Alex managed, and stepped aside just a little so the other man could squeeze through.
“Course it’s me.” The man, after a cursory glance around his room, looked back at him and frowned. “I asked if we could meet, you said yes, here I am.”
“But…” Alex thought he might as well sit down before he fainted. It was impossible. He knew who this was, but it couldn’t be, because he’d last seen him twenty years ago, when peering through a gap in the bushes up on the hill outside Tawelfan. A memory that had just come back to him in a flash. A young, dark-haired man, standing in the garden in front of his house, speaking in a language he didn’t understand, and making daffodils grow out of bare earth.
And yet… He also knew that that wasn’t the last time he had seen him. Somehow, he knew for certain that this was the old man who lived in the cottage. This was the man who had called himself Rhys. Except he wasn’t old now - he looked not a day older than Alex himself.
Something like a flash of realization passed over the man’s face, and he walked over to the mirror on the door of Alex’s wardrobe and studied himself.
“Ah. That wasn’t planned.” He scratched his head. “Sorry about that.”
“But… how can it be you?” Alex whispered. “I know who you are. But you’re old now. You’re not…”
“… young?” Rhys supplied. “No, can’t say I am. Haven’t been young for a very, very long time.” He glanced at Alex, with what Alex thought was a rather pitying look on his face.
“Look, sorry about that and all, but can we get to the point? I need to talk to you about this picture I saw.” And drawing a folded newspaper cutting from his trouser pocket, he advanced towards Alex. “Because the thing is, I knew there was something about you. Why would you find me so easily? Why would you even come to see me about your studies? I knew there had to be a connection. And then I saw you with him, in this paper, and-”
“Stop.” Alex screwed his eyes shut for a second, then opened them wide again. “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about and I need you to stop and tell me what the hell is going on.” He got up.
Rhys tutted impatiently. “I haven’t got time for this. Just tell me where –“
“No.” Alex stood in front of him, crossing his arms. “You tell me. Everything.”
Rhys stared at him for a while, then smiled. “Fine. I guess you deserve to know.”
Alex suddenly felt nervous. Somehow he hadn’t believed he’d be successful in changing the other man’s mind, at least not so quickly. And somehow he also knew that what he was about to hear was not fit for other ears. “Let’s go for a walk then.”
“What, you don’t want to talk in here because of the camera surveillance?”
Alex stared at him meaningfully, but the other man just smiled. “Don’t worry. I’ve fiddled with them a little. They think they’re seeing an empty room.”
“You… fiddled with the cameras?” Alex shook his head as if trying to clear his ears of water. “You good at IT then?” He didn’t know why he believed the other man, but he did. It definitely made for a nice change to be able to say what he wanted inside a building.
“IT,” said Rhys, “that’s the modern name for maths, right? Nah, never been great at that. Anyway, it’s all waves. Don’t worry about it. It’s sorted.”
Alex, feeling like his head was about to explode, made a conscious decision not to worry himself with little things. What he needed was to understand the bigger picture, and he had a feeling that was going to be confusing enough.
“So.” He sat down on the chair on the other side of the room, facing Rhys.
“So,” repeated the old/young man.
“You’re the man I met the other day on the hill, except you were an old man then.”
“I looked like an old man,” Rhys corrected. “I still am old. I just… well, I seem to have made myself look younger without noticing.” He looked as embarrassed as though he had accidentally put on his jumper backwards or knocked over a vase. “I guess it’s the excitement, y’know.”
“Right,” said Alex, even though so many things weren’t. “I’ve seen you like this before. That was twenty years ago. I went up the hill, and I saw you in your garden, and you…” He faltered. Was it really a memory or had he dreamt it? But then how would he have dreamt this man’s face, and his dark hair?
“… I did something weird?” Rhys guessed, and Alex nodded slowly. “Well, that would certainly go a long way towards explaining why you sought me out again.”
“Would it?” asked Alex, faintly.
“Sure. You were looking for information on the Arthurian legends for your studies – never mind why for now – and something in the back of your mind linked me to that. That actually makes a lot of sense.”
“If you say so,” said Alex, whose life was starting to make less and less sense.
“The question is,” said Rhys, while Alex suddenly wondered why it wasn’t him asking the questions anymore, “how did you meet this man?” And he raised the piece of paper in his hand again. Alex looked at it more closely. It was a cutting of another one of those articles about the night out with Paul and his friend from Oxford, on whose face Rhys had just placed his finger.
“James Roshannon?” Alex frowned. “What’s he got to do with it?”
“Everything,” said Rhys, in a soft tone Alex had never heard from him before.