CHAPTER FOUR – In the flesh
Two weeks later
Aurelia Thomas had been head of UKNB surveillance for no more than three weeks when James Roshannon made his first public appearance as head of UKNB. This presented her with no little stress. Public appearances of important players meant extra security – and not the kind you saw, not the muscle, although that was there too; it meant an optimum of surveillance, establishing a complete history of everyone who would and could be present and making sure nothing unforeseen happened. Basically, Aurelia hadn’t slept in ten days. All in all, though, she appreciated the new position. It meant not only more pay but also more responsibility, a greater chance to prove that she could really contribute to a more peaceful, ordered society. That was, after all, why she had joined the International Security Taskforce.
Roshannon was giving a press conference, a presentation of UKNB’s current strategies and goals in stabilizing national and international transactions – lower interest rates on credit, employment incentives for companies, all those things that Aurelia had been trying to cram into her brain for the last few weeks. She certainly couldn’t claim to understand it all, but from what she could glean, it was all fairly positive: lots of new jobs, less homeless people, that kind of thing. Roshannon obviously seemed to know what he was doing, and to share her and her employers’ general goals.
So why didn’t she trust him?
Oh well, she told herself for the umpteenth time, she probably just recoiled instinctively from the way all her female (and some male) colleagues seemed to swoon whenever Roshannon was on the telly, everyone talking about how handsome he was and how clever, and how lucky she was that she got to watch him all day long… it just made her want to puke. And Roshannon obviously didn’t seem to mind using his good looks to charm people into doing his bidding. She’d just never liked that kind of man.
“There was a last-minute request from a junior journalist last night,” her assistant informed her as she arrived in her office that morning. The press conference was two hours away. “Susan Clarke was going to deny it but Roshannon happened to see the email and said yes.”
Aurelia rolled her eyes. “He really likes to demonstrate he’s in charge, that one. Have you done a check-up on the journalist?”
Fred nodded. “We have a lot of data on him already, actually. It’s Alexander Carter, that friend of his from Wales he went out drinking with.”
“Interesting.” She raised her eyebrows. “What’s he doing playing journalist? I thought he was studying history or something.”
“Medieval history,” Fred confirmed. “Seems he’s also chief editor of his college newspaper, though. Personally I don’t think he’s a problem, we’ve compiled enough data about him – I mean, a lot of data,” he corrected himself, before she could reply with the unofficial company slogan – There’s No Such Thing As Enough Data. “The thing is, though, he’s bringing a fellow student, Roshannon okayed him too, and we didn’t have a lot on him yet. I’ve been doing a basic check-up though and I’ve asked Dennis Farthing to keep an eye on him.” He held out an impressively-sized folder, and Aurelia took it, smiling at him.
“Good work, Fred.” It was shaping up to be an interesting day, but she felt well-prepared.
“So explain to me again why we don’t have to worry about IST,” Alex muttered as they exited Canary Wharf station and started walking slowly towards UKNB headquarters.
“Because I look like your classmate Tom now,” said Merlin, “and Tom hasn’t had any dealings with them in the past, or only the standard ones like everyone else. Tom is also very conveniently your collaborator on the college newspaper.”
“And Tom has also very conveniently existed for a whole day,” said Alex. “How did you wing that, then? And please don’t say ‘it’s all just waves’.”
Merlin grinned. “As you wish. I went into their database and falsified their records, created Tom Anderson and some history on him, using magic.”
“That’s better, I guess,” said Alex, sounding a little weak. “At least I was already chief editor of the newspaper. Or wasn’t I, and you changed that as well?”
Merlin looked at him seriously. “I wouldn’t change your memories without your permission, Alex.”
Alex smiled faintly. “But you could.”
“Of course.” He shook his head. “I don’t know how I got myself into this.”
“Yes, you do.”
They’d arrived in front of the huge building, UKNB headquarters, where the press conference was being held. Alex checked his watch and found they were half an hour early, so they sat down on a bench in the park opposite the building.
Alex had spent enough time with Merlin now to recognize the look on his face (even though it wasn’t his face at the moment, but Tom’s) when he was accessing his magic; in this case, probably sensing for nearby cameras and feeding them false images and sounds, so they could talk undisturbed.
“So remember,” Merlin said without preamble, confirming his suspicion, “James mustn’t meet me. He can see me from afar, just as one unfamiliar face in a crowd, but he mustn’t come face to face with me. If he comes up to you, don’t be surprised if I run off.”
Alex nodded. “I get it. We’re just here so you can find out if you’re right about him, but you don’t want him to know yet.” The thought that this was all just a very, very weird dream still hadn’t left him, but he’d decided a few weeks ago that he was just going to play along and see what happened. “There’s one thing I don’t get, though. You keep saying you’re worried what will happen if he recognizes you. Would it be so bad for him to… you know, find out who he is?”
Merlin suddenly looked as though he’d rather be somewhere else, and took a long time to answer. “Not necessarily. I just don’t want him to find out in the middle of a hundred cameras. I can stop a few of them at a time but not all, and I definitely can’t take on IST on my own. I haven’t been… well, back in the civilized world, so-to-speak, for long, but I’ve seen enough to know that IST is very, very powerful, never mind their mother organization, er-“
“GIFT,” Alex supplied.
“GIFT,” Merlin nodded. “A euphemism if ever I heard one. What’s it stand for, anyway?”
“Global Institute for Fund Transactions.”
“Institute.” He snorted. “You of all people should know they’re not a real institute. They just make themselves look academic to have more power. Power, that’s what it’s always about, you…” And he went of into one of his old man muttering fits again.
Alex knew those well by now. “I never said I approved of GIFT.”
Merlin passed a hand over his face. “Sorry. Sometimes I just get so tired with people and their irritating habit to always choose the leaders that are worst for them.”
The press conference was a frightening affair. Merlin had experienced cameras, and had experienced journalism, but neither at this level; the frenzy of flashing lights and the deafening roar of the journalists’ questions and requests and comments was almost too much for him. He closed his eyes for a moment and willed himself to imagine he was in a thunderstorm. A huge, frightening, wonderful thunderstorm. That helped.
“You all right?” whispered Alex, sitting next to him, and he nodded.
Some of James Roshannon’s assistants and heads of department had given addresses first; Merlin had seen James enter the room but couldn’t see him now. However, after the first flurry of questions had died down, he saw him get up and walk towards the podium in quick, confident strides.
Merlin looked at the head of UKNB on the podium, who had begun to speak in his calm, measured voice.
He blinked, once, twice. It shouldn’t come as such a surprise. He’d kind of known it ever since he’d seen the picture. Perhaps he hadn’t wanted to believe it. There had been so many other moments of wild hope and bitter disappointment, it had been too much.
But James - even though he didn’t look like him - was Arthur.
His face was different, his hair was dark, his body was less muscled, and he was wearing one of those modern suits, of course; but it was him. Merlin took a deep breath and reached out with his magic, just to make sure.
As his senses reached the man on the podium, it was like a physical shock coursing through his body, and he thought he must have gasped audibly, because the man in front of him turned round, frowning at him, and Alex grabbed his arm.
As Merlin came back to his senses, of sorts, he realized that James Roshannon had also faltered briefly in mid-sentence, frowned slightly, then shook his head as though to clear it and continued.
“Are you all right?” Alex whispered again, and Merlin could only shrug.
Merlin hadn’t spoken a single word on the train back to Cambridge. Alex had thought about starting a conversation once or twice, but then, everything he really wanted to talk about was impossible to mention inside a public train. Never mind the cameras, there were people who said (in whispers, of course) that IST employed people to sit on a train all day and listen to other people’s conversations.
As they got off the train and walked slowly back to Alex’s dorm, Merlin still didn’t speak. He looked as though he was in a completely different world, actually. Back in the past, perhaps.
“Cup of tea?” Alex suggested, at last, as they’d arrived in front of his dormitory building.
“Why not,” said Merlin, almost wearily.
As they walked up the stairs to his room, Alex watched in fascination as Merlin gradually turned back into himself. “Cameras taken care of?” he asked, just to make sure, and Merlin nodded.
Tea was a quiet affair, too. Merlin barely said three words, and made a couple of assenting grunts, in reply to Alex’s careful questioning. It was enough, however, to find out that James was indeed who Merlin had thought him to be, and that Merlin, for some reason, was scared out of his wits.
Alex sighed. Well, it looked like his destined role didn’t end at arranging a meeting between those two then.
“So what’s wrong?” he asked, finally.
Merlin just stared into his cup.
“Look, Rhys… Merlin.” That got him a look, although he wasn’t sure what it meant. “You told me it was destiny that I came to see you, and that I was introduced to James through Paul, and that I made the connection. Surely that means you’re supposed to do something about it now.”
More cup-staring meant more frustration building up inside of Alex, who tried his best to remember that this man was very, very old and had very likely seen a lot of terrible things in his life.
“Or do you just need time to process it?” he tried again.
“Process,” Merlin muttered. “Such a modern word. Turning human beings into computers. Numbers, that’s what it’s all about, eh?”
Alex held himself back (but just about) from rolling his eyes, and decided to ignore that remark. At least the other man was talking.
“Did you sense something in him that you didn’t like?” he guessed, wildly.
Merlin frowned at that. Finally he looked up. “No. He’s just as good as he was.”
“Well, good,” said Alex, who did wonder what such an eminently good man was doing in that kind of job, but didn’t think mentioning this would be such a great idea.
Merlin, however, seemed to have read his expression – something he was very good at, Alex had remarked, whenever he bothered to pay attention to the person opposite him. “I know that doesn’t seem to fit very well with that job he’s doing, but there’s got to be more to it than meets the eye. This incarnation might a bit cleverer than the original.”
Alex snorted. “Excuse me?”
“Oh, sorry to burst your bubble, medievalist,” sneered the old warlock – which was the term Alex had come to associate with him whenever he started talking like this. “Arthur may have been a great warrior and king, but he was never exceptionally bright.”
Merlin shrugged. “I know. James is Arthur. And yet he isn’t. I’m not really sure how that works, yet.”
“So are you going to find out?” Alex asked, tentatively.
Merlin took in a deep breath, and let out a very shaky one. “It’s just…”
“It’s just?” asked Alex, when he fell silent again.
Merlin got up very suddenly and started pacing the room, his voice agitated. “It’s just, what if he isn’t who he used to be? And what if the timing is all wrong? It’s not as though the gods of destiny always made the best calls. And look at this world, I mean, do you think it’s ready to be saved? I mean, it’s not as though this whole GIFT thing was a coup d’etat by some power-crazy individual, you told me it was a thing that developed sort of on its own, people want to be controlled, Alex, they want to be monitored! Who are we to tell them otherwise? And what if I’m not -”
He stopped himself suddenly, and sat down heavily on the sofa.
Alex got up and slowly walked over.
“What if you’re not ready to bear this burden again?” he asked quietly, sitting down next to him.
Merlin stared into space for a while, breathing heavily, then shrugged. Alex put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it. Suddenly, the fact that Merlin had postponed meeting James again and again during the past few weeks made a lot more sense.