Wednesday, 3 August 2022

The Obscurati Chronicles- Chapter 6

This is Chapter 6 of The Obscurati Chronicles, a novel I am currently serializing. See here for Chapter 5:
Wilfred Ursall looked down at his baby daughter. Annabelle Rachel Ursall was curled up on her side. Her chubby legs were tucked up and one of her tiny soft hands was clasping the ear of her teddy bear. She smiled briefly as if hearing a joke in her dreams. Her father leaned down into the cot until he could hear her quiet breathing; then he reached down and gently stroked her curly hair. "My little love." he murmured. "I'm doing this for you." He heard a sound behind him and straightened up. His wife walked in. She walked up and put a hand on her husband's shoulder. "Hi, Lareen." he said. "Is she out for the count this time?"
    "Think so. After her active night and a hefty breakfast she'll probably sleep till lunchtime."
    Will kissed her cheek. "Why don't you do the same?"
    Lareen shook her head. "I have to wire mother about the holiday."
    "Well maybe tonight I can sit up with her."
    "No, Will. You always have a day's work ahead."
    He chuckled. "Well, I'm not going to try and talk you out of it." He looked down again at Annabelle. "I can't believe she's eight months old already."
    "Tempus fugit."
    He brushed his daughter's hair again. "And she's grown so much."
    Will left his home feeling strangely loathe to be parted from his daughter. He didn't believe there was such a thing as a soul, yet as he walked down the street away from his home he looked back at the window in his house where Annabelle's bedroom was and he was struck by the intense feeling that his own soul was now being carried around in somebody else's tiny body. Will normally drove to the station, but today was such a fine morning he decided to walk. Birds sang enthusiastically from the emerald green bushes and trees. The sky was bright blue with a few solid and well-formed clouds cruising overhead. He strutted confidently, letting his folded umbrella swing and tap against the cobbles of the pavement. He purchased the morning paper from a stall on the railway station and sat down on a bench to await the commuter train to Euston. A group of young women were standing a dozen yards away chatting and laughing at some joke. They were dressed in the modern "flapper" style with short skirts that exposed their lower legs. Their hair was trimmed high and they wore pastel-coloured round bonnets. A few of the older passengers on the benches were gazing at them with disapproval. Will feigned the same expression, but inwardly he admired them. Bucking old conventions was revolutionary on a cultural level. The train arrived on time and Will chose a window seat in the open plan cabin. The train pulled away from the platform. His eyes scrolled casually through the pages of The Daily Telegraph. There was a report on the conflict in Yakutia. Will glanced quickly around himself to make sure nobody was looking over his shoulder. It wasn't good tradecraft to let others see what he was reading; they might make guesses about his interests. The Red Army had the upper hand. Mikhail Korobeinikov, the Belarusian ringleader of the coup, had fled the Yakut region with all his White reactionary collaborators and was holed up in a little village by the Sea of Okhotsk. It was surrounded by comrades who would soon wipe out the last remaining opposition to the revolution. Then there would be peace in the Soviet Union... Peace! He couldn't hold in a sigh of contentment and relief. Those eighteen months of fear and danger he had endured in Russia had all been worth it. The revolution had been saved. He turned the page with a new feeling of contentment. When he reached the classified pages he noticed a new entry from "Signum": More is coming. Do you trust Baldwin? How do you show the public the truth? Sometimes you must walk through the darkness before you see the light. The light is above your heads; just look up. Signum. WYAGIGA. Will read the ad again. Signum whoever he, she or they were, had become more famous over the last few years. Several analytical articles had been penned about them and a few investigative journalists have tried to solve the mystery. Signum had become far more vocal from late 1921 onwards. Their newspaper ads were appearing in far more publications and they tended to be more frequent and longer; almost always multiple sentences now. One reporter calculated that the mysterious one was spending over five pounds a week on their classified ads. There was an appeal put out for them to get in touch and do a number of exclusive interviews, some with cash incentives; all had gone unanswered. Signum remained mute and nameless. One magazine had hired a private eye who found out that Signum ads were all submitted by mail. The envelopes had many different postmarks from all over the country and a few from abroad. This led to the current theory that they were a team of people, not just a single individual. However the issue was complicated by a few copycat fake Signum ads that the detective identified. Payment for the genuine articles was always in the form of cash or an anonymous postal order enclosed in the envelope; never a cheque, which could of course be traced. A columnist for The Manchester Guardian claimed that Signum's name began with Q. Their logic was that signum is a Latin word that means "cue" which is a homophone of the letter Q. Critics pointed out that the word also meant "sign" and "signal"; in fact both those words were derived from the Latin original. What was commonly regarded as straw-clutching by the Guardian reporter was symptomatic of the feverish curiosity Signum had ignited. An entire subculture was emerging of people desperate to decode Signum's abstract and nebulous messages. There were even Signum clubs being formed in some towns as well as correspondence circles for those more isolated. Members would meet up in a pub or cafe to discuss and debate everything Signum. The meaning of Signum's tagline: "WYAGIGA" was considered by most to be an acronym and was also the subject of much speculation with over fifty different component phrases proposed. Will decided to try himself, to pass the time on the journey. "Baldwin" must have referred to the new Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, who had been appointed by the king a few weeks ago. "More is coming..." More of what? After a few more minutes, Will gave up. It could be that Signum was nothing more than a prankster, somebody laughing their heads off at the mayhem they were generating from just random sentences they wrote.
    The Embassy of Lancombe Pond was housed in a typical three story inner city townhouse on Portsea Place in Paddington, just a short walk from Edgware Road. It was a modest front for an embassy, yet it included another building above the mews behind the street. The front door was a polished black slab of oak accessed by some doorsteps which were carried on a small bridge over a cavernous basement well. Above the door on an angled pole hung the Crooked Cross, the flag of Lancombe Pond. A brass plate was attached to the wall beside the door that said on it in block lettering: Embassy of the Duchy of Lancombe Pond- Lokktarpan Kaelvyrdos-des Koslan. Will opened the door and entered the neat, marble hallway. He greeted Paul as he hung up his hat and raincoat. Paul was dressed in a cheap grey suit and was sitting calmly behind his desk. His main function was to act as a receptionist and caretaker, however he was also a highly trained security expert who had been seconded from the "Forest Men", an elite special forces unit of the Lancombe Pond Defence Force. Will mounted the black wooden staircase. His office was on the first floor at the end of a corridor leading to the mews extension. All the junior staff were housed here, although nobody had to share an office. His smiling secretary stood up as he walked into the anteroom. "Good morning, Mr Ursall." She was a young Londoner with a thick cockney accent, one of the many "Westies" employed by the embassy.
    "Good morning, Nora. How are you?"
    "Alright thanks, Mr Ursall."
    "Could you make a pot of tea for me when I've finished morning meets?"
    "Oh, sir. There ain't no morning meets today. The ambassador ain't present."
    Will frowned. "What?"
    "The ambassador left about half an hour ago."
    "What's going on?" This was very irregular. Every working day at the embassy began with a meeting of the entire mission in a large conference room on the ground floor facing the street.
    "I don't know, sir; but he left me a memo for you." She handed him an envelope.
    Will opened it and read the familiar handwriting and terse language. Ursall, urgent meeting at the FO eleven AM. Bring files eighteen-BY-two-three-four. Netts. "Well, Nora. It looks like I have to head out now. Could you bring me these files please?" He handed her back the memo.
    The British Foreign Office was one of the largest and grandest buildings in London. It pushed itself arrogantly and obtrusively between Whitehall, Downing Street and St James' Park, a stone testament to the United Kingdom's global power and influence. Its white decorated walls with rows of arches gave it an almost castle-like look. On its roof stood a rank of haughty feminine statues, including a depiction of Queen Victoria. Will always felt small and unimportant as he approached it, especially as he was now; on foot. He was a junior secretary representing a tiny nation that lay within the very borders of Britain's mainland, and yet was almost ignored by it, like a splinter that had swelled, festered, scabbed over and then been forgotten. Mission staff informally shortened the Foreign Office's name to "FO", or when writing concisely, as with the memo Will had been left. However in more polite circles, especially in their dealings with the British, the abbreviation was never used because it so obviously was also short for "fuck off". In fact it was a bit of a joke at the embassy for somebody to tell another: "Oh, why don't you just Foreign Office!" Perhaps there was a slight inferiority complex involved, Will mused as he climbed the marble steps to the St James' Park entrance. He had had to go there by Tube and on foot, seeing at the ambassador and his assistant secretaries had travelled in the mission's only car. The receptionist escorted him to a conference room where the Lancine diplomats were caucusing before the meeting began. The ambassador looked up at him briefly. "Morning, Ursall. Thanks for coming so quickly. Sorry our usual schedule got to turned arse over tit. Take a seat and pass us those files. We need to flick through them; the meeting starts in an hour." Baron Victor Netts was a short and oddly shaped man with thick black hair that was perched on top of his head like a bird's nest. He never seemed to be able to shave properly and his cheeks were usually stained with lines of stubble. His voice was loud and despite his insistence on addressing Will by his surname, he was an affectionate figure, like an uncle. He was very close to the family and was Blanche's godfather. The title of "Baron" meant that he was a member of the Faithful Order of the Duke, the Lancine equivalent of a knighthood. Francis Ursall had been enviously seeking the honour himself for years.
    Will handed the files out to the five other men around the table as if dealing playing cards. He withdrew the one he had kept for himself from the manila envelope it was stored in and opened the card folder. The pages were attached with a short string binding. He started reading, skipping a few lines at a time to cover as much as possible in the time allowed: Operation Partridge- Hazardous Chemical Removal and Decontamination. Introduction: On Monday the 7th of January 1918 a cart being drawn by two horses in Lancombe Pond overturned on a highway just outside East Mansfield. The vehicle was being escorted by two cars and was a logistics operation being run by the King's Third Brigade, Royal Regiment of Artillery. The convoy was en route between the Chetwynd Lines and Alma Barracks in Yorkshire... Permission had been given from the Lancine government for the convoy to pass through the Duchy... The cart was carrying four stainless steel canisters containing ninety cubic yards each of pressurized disulfer dichloride gas. One of the canisters was ruptured and the gas escaped into the environment... toxic and caustic... immediate concern for public health... Area isolated and local residents evacuated... Request for help from the British government by the Duke of Bellswill... The cleanup operation by specialists from the Army Corps of Engineers was highly successful. No lives were lost and no civilian or member of the Corps or LPDF personnel required any medical treatment at all... Letters of thanks and commendations from the Duke... "I remember this well, Baron." said Will. "It was the talk of the Pond for weeks. We were all worried at first. We thought the gas might have poisoned us."
    "I kept my little ones indoors for three days." added one of the ambassador's secretaries.
    "There was a public mob the next time the mere rumour of Westie military logistics convoy being shipped through the One-Oh-One circulated." added another.
    "Well, all's well that ends well." smiled Baron Netts. "I think we should look forward to this meeting. I imagine Curzon is preparing an official apology. I love it when the Westies grovel!"
    There was a knock on the door and a man in an unmarked black suit whose job description could have been almost anything introduced himself and informed them that the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs was ready to receive them. There was an air of chummy informality and equality among the Lancombe Pond diplomats whenever they were in the Foreign Office. Netts had just named the Foreign Secretary as "Curzon" without any titles, something he would never do in the embassy offices. The word "Westie", a nickname for a British person, was thrown about very casually. As the team were escorted through the grand corridors of the Foreign Office, Will could imagine them as plumbers or window cleaners, with Netts simply as their junior foreman. The interior of the Foreign Office had clearly been deigned to shock and awe. Its ceilings were the highest Will had ever seen. There were red carpets on the stairs, green velvet on the walls and arches every few yards above the polished walkways. It reminded him a bit of the Winter Palace in Petrograd. The suited man held a heavy wooden door open for them and they entered a chamber the size of a tennis court. It had soft settees and armchairs in one corner, large oil paintings on the walls and a grandfather clock ticking quietly away. However the mission's attention was directed to a conference table that was varnished as smooth as glass. It reflected everything around it like a mirror. Sitting at the head of it, above his inverted reflection like a king playing card, was the Foreign Secretary, the Rt Hon. George Lord Curzon, First Marquess of Kedleston. The grandiosity of his full name matched his regal appearance. He wore on his jacket all the medal ribbons and decorations he had gathered in his long career as Viceroy of India, Knight of the Garter, Knight Grand Commander of the Empire, War Cabinet award and a few other honourifics Will couldn't recall. "Your Excellency, gentlemen; welcome. Please take a seat." Curzon spread his arms out in a genial way. He was grinning and chirpy, but Will picked up an undertone of unease to his manner. Having been to many meetings like this, Will always found Curzon rather transparent in that way. For this reason, Will sensed that this was no ordinary meeting. There were other clues. Normally Curzon attended these meetings with about a dozen people on either side of him at the table; undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, interns and various other bureaucrats. This time he had beside him just two men, and they were ones Will had never seen before. That was strange because he knew more or less everybody in the Westminster community, be face if not by name. He sat with his colleagues on a soft velvet chair. Because there were so few people at this table he was sitting much closer to the Foreign Secretary than he had ever been before. He noticed a sheen of sweat on Curzon's high bald forehead despite the comfortable coolness of the room. A single butler came and served them cups of tea and then departed from the chamber, leaving them alone. Normally there would be two of them and they would stand beside the wall waiting in case anybody wanted some more. The usual notepad and gold pen that was always in front of every placement was absent this time. Will frowned to himself and saw that the others were equally expectant. "Thank you for coming, Baron Netts; gentlemen." Curzon continued. "I've called this meeting on the instructions of the Prime Minister to discuss the issues raised in the debrief from Operation Partridge. I take it you are all familiar with the incident of January the 7th 1918 when there was an adverse chemical pollution incident within the borders of your territory caused by British servicemen transiting, correct?"
    "Indeed, sir." replied Netts. "The Duke of Bellswill and our people are very concerned for the cleanliness of our natural environment and are grateful for the assistance your government provided."
    "Yes... yes." Curzon nodded cryptically. "However, the incident was not closed at our end and His Majesty's government has decided to initiate Lancombe Pond into the details of the aftermath from that unfortunate incident."
    "What do you mean? What aftermath?"
    There was a long pause. Curzon stared at them each on turn. The man sitting to his right handed him a dispatch box. "Gentlemen." said Curzon. "I have here copies for you all of a sample from a scientific study carried out on materials obtained during Operation Partridge. Please take a few minutes to give them a cursory examination." He produced a key and unlocked the dispatch box. He opened it and handed out folders to the Lancine diplomats in the same way Will had handed out Lancombe Pond's files for Operation Partridge to his colleagues. Will opened his. There were eleven pages inside, all neatly typed on smooth paper. The pages all had the header: TOP SECRET- EYES ONLY. (Royal Engineers) War Department- Experimental Station. Porton Down. He started reading the first page: Discoveries: 1. Metamaterials. 2. Metallic crystals. 3. Biomaterials. 4. Abnormal tensile properties. 5. Abnormal electrical properties. 6. Abnormal thermal properties. 7. Possible applications for aviation. 8. Possible applications for general industry. 9. (redacted). 10. (redacted)... Introduction: Regarding physical debris and (redacted) recovered during Operation (redacted)... Study carried out by Prof. (redacted)... Reverse engineering of the nickel-iron alloy... unknown ceramic additive... (redacted)... complex reflectivity coefficient... Will was broken out of his reverie by Nett's voice.
    "Excuse me, Lord Curzon; but what is all this?"
    "It is the result of our study into the effects of incident that led to Operation Partridge."
    "But Operation Partridge was concerned with alleviating pollution by disulfer dichroride gas. This document is addressing something totally different. Metals and crystals and 'metamaterials', whatever they are.... Are you sure you haven't made a mistake; mixed up two different eventualities here?"
    Will knew that in his position it was not his place to speak at a meeting like this unless spoken to first, but the ambassador for Lancombe Pond had asked exactly the questions that he had wanted to.
    The Foreign Secretary leaned forward on the immaculate tabletop and pressed his fingers together in front of his face. "Does this, or does this not, refer to the 7th of January 1918 incident?... There is no mistake, Baron Netts."
    "Then what does all this mean, Lord Curzon? It's scientific details; I can't fully understand it."
    "Your understanding is not required at this juncture, Baron Netts. All that is necessary right now is that you take possession of this information sample and communicate it to the Duke of Bellswill. Your government has its own experts who can assess it correctly."
    Netts fanned the papers he had been reading. "There are only eleven pages here, but the contents list suggests it should be a longer document."
    "These pages are, as I said, a sample. We have a far longer and more detailed edition of this document."
    "Could we see them?"
    "No, Baron. They must remain classified at this point."
    The ambassador shrugged. "It will be difficult to approach the Duke with this eleven page sample and tell him this is all he is allowed to see. He will probably not take your offer seriously. This is not least because it appears to be speaking at cross-purposes to what we know historically when it comes to Operation Partridge. He may well dismiss it as some kind of prank."
    "He will refer this to his scientific advisers and they will understand even from the limited content of this sample that it is no prank."
    "Very well, Lord Curzon. Can you confirm that the Duke will be allowed access to the longer edition of this document?"
    The Foreign Secretary paused. Then, still looking at the ambassador, he said: "Could I ask your colleagues to leave the room? I'd like to speak to you in private."
    Netts turned to Will and all the others. "Gentlemen, could you please step outside?"
    They all obeyed. The suited usher escorted them back to the original conference chamber where they had been waiting. Will and the assistants sat at the table. "What was all that in aid of?" asked one.
    "No idea." said another. "Very surreal I must say." It was highly unusual for the ambassador to be in audience with the Foreign Secretary alone. It wasn't a breach of UK policy, but it was of Lancine. It left him in a more vulnerable legal position. Baron Netts returned to the anteroom twenty minutes later. Everybody looked at him expectantly, but he held his hands up. "Chaps, don't ask... Let's just go back to the mission and say no more about it for now. By the way, I don't need to remind you to keep all this to yourself; but I'm going to anyway because it is something exceptional."
    There was an odd pall of tension hanging over the office for the rest of the day. The embassy staff didn't speak to each other much. Will behaved the same way, but inwardly he was glad that this enigmatic meeting had happened that day. It made his next task easier. At five PM he made his way to the ambassador's secretary's office to pick up the files from all the day's work. He entered the office and was surprised to see the tray empty. He asked the secretary where the files were and she told him that the ambassador had put them into the safe himself. This was another strange deviation from normal procedure. Almost every day, just before everybody went home, everything the embassy did that was in any way sensitive had to be taken from the ambassador's office to a basement room where there was a vault. This was almost always Will's job. It was an unpopular duty seeing as it added an extra fifteen minutes to the working day, that was unpaid, of whoever was lumbered with it. Therefore when Will volunteered to take it upon himself, nobody objected. For Will this was the ideal opportunity. His job was to carry the documents down the two flights of stairs to the vault and file all of them in their correct category on the rows of shelves and cabinets behind the heavy cast-iron door. However Will would always extract any that he thought were particularly interesting and secrete them in a secret compartment in the lining of his briefcase. There was little risk in doing so. The files would probably be left for several weeks before the cycle of diplomatic bureaucracy rotated far enough for them to be audited or reviewed in whatever way some official or other wanted them so. Will had removed thousands of them during his eighteen months at the embassy; and returned them a few days later on the correct shelf or in the correct drawer and nobody could ever have known they had not been there the whole time. For the ambassador to store the files in the vault himself was unprecedented. It was manual labour way beneath his station. Will knew that the files were the sample documents presented to them all by the Foreign Secretary. Whatever they were, they were dynamite. He descended the stairs down to the ground floor and then the second flight to the basement. He looked around himself and listened the whole time, making sure he wasn't spotted. The office was almost empty at this time of day; everybody was eager to head for home or to the pub for an after work pint, however Paul or another security guard would be patrolling and it would look very suspicious for anybody to be visiting the vault after the working day had ended. Nevertheless, Will knew he had to risk it. This was obviously so important that he had to act. The vault door faced the bottom of the stairs. Will knew the combination, but before he could enter it he noticed that the timelock had been activated. He gasped. The timelock was never used, never. The ambassador must have done it. Wills shrugged. That was it; there was nothing more he could do. The timelock was set for eight AM the following morning. He would have to rely on what he remembered from reading the document at the Foreign Office earlier in the day.
    Will left the Embassy of Lancombe Pond and walked down the street to the bustling urban canyon of Edgware Road. He walked south towards Marble Arch, strolling casually, never looking behind him. Anybody who observed him would assume he was simply an average commuter who was heading for the Underground station, which indeed he was. His normal route home would have been to head for Euston station along the Central Line, changing at Tottenham Court Road for the Northern Line. Instead, he went all the way to Bank and then took a southbound train under the Thames to Elephant and Castle. There he joined the Bakerloo Line to Oxford Circus. He then alighted at Baker Street, waited until three trains had passed and then travelled to Marylebone. Here he left the station and took the steps up to the open air. He walked along a street looking casually at shop windows, as if window shopping. What he was really doing was monitoring the reflections in the glass to see who was around him. He had been trained never to turn his head and look over his shoulder if he suspected he was being followed. He had to find something reflective to see what was behind him. After a few minutes he saw nothing untoward and so returned to the station. He continued up the Bakerloo until the train emerged from the subterranean depths and broke out into the fresh air of Hertfordshire. He decamped at Carpenders Park and walked slowly towards the South Oxhey playing fields. He had to pace himself to make sure his arrival was timed precisely. He strolled across the grassy expanse, dotted by trees. In the distance were rows of houses and he heard the squeals of children playing football on a nearby pitch. He found a bench, sat down and waited. His open copy of The Times shielded his face. After about ten minutes Hargreaves sat down beside him and opened his own newspaper. "So, what do you have for me today, Comrade Ursall."
    "Nothing. I'm sorry."
    "Nothing? Then why come to our meeting? Your instructions are not to attend if..."
    "I know, but this is different. I couldn't get the documents, but it's something I can remember that I need to tell you about because it's important!"
    "What is it?"
    Will explained what had happened that day. Normally he would arrive at the rendezvous and hand over his hidden files to Hargreaves. Hargreaves would then return them to Will a couple of days later.
    Hargreaves raised his eyebrows in a quizzical way. "This is very strange, Comrade Ursall." He muttered something in Polish, the first time Will has heard him speak in his native language. "We've never told you this before, but Moscow considers Lancombe Pond extremely important. Comrade Lenin calls it an "anchor" into the British Empire. This is why your position is vital to the struggle. However, what you have just told me is very perplexing. I've not heard of such an eventuality before... What is obvious is that the story of the gas cylinder accident is probably not true."
    "What? Really!?"
    "Don't sound so surprised." Hargreaves chuckled kindly. "It's a very blatant cover story."
    "But it was in all the newspapers! There was a huge operation by the LPDF to..."
    "Comrade Ursall, such things can be falsified and they very often are. What I'd like to know is, what is the cover-up for? What really happened on that night four years ago."
    "All I know is what I can remember, Comrade Hargreaves."
    Hargreaves paused. "It all sounds very outlandish. I don't know exactly what the meeting proceedings really referred to. If you could obtain the sample document in future that would be very useful."
    "I'll try my best, Comrade Hargreaves."
    Hargreaves paused. "See if you can get your father to tell you anything."
    "What would he know?"
    "It's possible he might have heard something, a man in his position."
    Will said goodbye to Hargreaves and then returned to the Underground station. Something was lurking at the back of his mind that he was reaching out his mental hand to seize, but it evaded him, like a slippery bar of soap. The following day he waited impatiently until five PM, but once again Baron Netts insisted on storing the files personally again. Will did not want to draw attention to himself by checking, but he guessed that the timelock was on once more.
    As Will sat on the train back to Radlett, sipping a bottle of mineral water, the memory suddenly returned. This had often happened in the past. If he were struggling to remember something he found that if he stopped struggling and thought about something else for a while, the memory he wanted would dislodge itself automatically. It was something way back in that dreadful summer of 1918 when he had been guarding the deposed Russian royal family at the house in Yekaterinburg. Dr Botkin had shown him a newspaper story about an incident in Lancombe Pond involving the crash of an airship with strange men piloting it who some people thought were from another planet. However, it had later been retracted by the same newspaper. He remembered it well because it was the same time he had taken a phonecall from Lenin. He couldn't remember the dates on the papers, but all the Romanov contingent were supplied with were journals hopelessly out of date anyway. Did these articles refer to the infamous chemical spill he had been discussing at the Foreign Office? If so then why had the original story been so different, as well as outlandish? Will didn't believe there were men on Mars or Venus, but he did wonder if there was an element he was missing which might explain the cryptic behaviour of Lord Curzon. It was a pity he had not managed to pick up the documents for Hargreaves, but then again he might have another chance. After a few days had passed Netts may allow security procedures to return to normal and forgo the timelock. Will had never seen what happened to the secret documents he supplied to Hargreaves. However he guessed that the handler, or more likely another member of his network who specialized in the process, took photographs of the documents by putting them under a special camera rig. This was a camera placed facing downwards on a tripod above a white wooden board. Next to the camera was an electric light and the camera was a special one with a fixed focal length that was perfectly set to record the writing or imagery on the document. He had seen them demonstrated in Russia.
    The memory set Will off on a daydream. The demonstration of the photocopying machine was a part of his training course. An oily fingered Muscovite had showed him how to calibrate the camera. "If the weather gets hot or cold it can warp the lens casing. That can sometimes produce a blurred photo." he explained. "It's important to develop a test shot first before starting a copy." Will had been at the institute for two weeks by then. "Institute" is what he called it; her didn't know what its official name was, or even if it had one. He had arrived there on a bright morning in June 1918. He was full of hope that he'd be served a huge hot meal because that was the rumour the Red Army squaddies in Yekaterinburg had been spreading, that in Moscow the food supply was a virtual cornucopia. This was not true; Will received the same rations he had always had, which seemed to consist mostly of potatoes and sunflower seeds, and not very many of those either. Before boarding the train, he had been ordered to change into a set of civilian clothes. As soon as he arrived at the railway station he was met by a nondescript and friendly man called "Ivan" who travelled with him on a local train to a station two dozen miles out of the city. From there they walked to a dacha nestling deep in a lush forest. It was a sweet house made of wooden boards and painted a natural green. Just beyond the back garden was a lake where cranes and ducks swapped calls with each other and frogs croaked loudly from the wetlands around the shore. As he walked up the steps to the front door, Ivan stopped him. "Comrade Ursall, your name from now on is 'Sasha'; you understand?"
    Will opened his mouth to protest or question, but Ivan's hard look silenced him. He merely nodded. Inside the building was a room that had probably once been a lounge, but was set up as a small lecture theatre. Eight other men and one woman sat in the chairs in front of a blackboard attached to the wall. None were in any uniform. There were introductions and Will was certain they were all giving false names. Ivan, or whatever his real name was, stood at the front and addressed the audience. "Welcome, comrades. You have been brought here because the revolutionary Soviet workers' state believes you all have special qualities and skills that mean you will be capable of building the revolution in other countries until such time as we have a socialist world. During the next six months you will be taught how you can help bring socialism to your homeland through the methods of covert warfare..." Will and his comrades did just that. They learned how to write a coded message, evade surveillance, resist interrogation, forge documents, destroy incriminating evidence and use the copying machine. One method that especially impressed him was the use of writing particularly sensitive information on sheets of nitrocellulose instead of paper. Unlike paper, nitrocellulose would catch fire very easily and burn up in an instant, leaving behind no ash or smoke; therefore it could be disposed of instantly if it was compromised.
    Will was so lost in his reverie that he almost missed his station. The train had pulled into Radlett and the guard began slamming the doors when Will jumped up with a shock and dashed onto the platform just in time. He chuckled at himself as he walked out of the station towards his home. He was approaching his driveway when he saw Lareen watering the flowers in the plant pots by the door. Her back was turned and she hadn't noticed that he was there. He smiled and warmth filled his body. She was sweet and beautiful in a way he had never known was possible. He hated himself every time he lied to her. He longed to be able to share his secrets. "One day I will." He hadn't intended to speak aloud and had muttered the words involuntarily. She turned round and grinned. "Will, hello. Pleasant day?"
    "Not bad. How's Annie?"
    "I've just got her off to sleep."
    "Good." The secrets he kept from her about his covert duty were one thing, but there was another secret, one he tried to forget but never could. It wasn't really that bad. It's not like he had cheated on her; yet somehow it felt as if he had. It was probably because both of them had assumed, and had acted as if they were each other's first lover. He had never revealed the truth, even though it may well not have mattered to their relationship even if he had. That thorny episode had begun in October 1918, halfway through his training course in espionage. Moscow was alive with celebration. Despite the war and the near famine conditions caused by the breakdown of farming, the people of Russia wanted to mark the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. There were street parties and fireworks. People held hands and danced. They braved the chill of night, the portent of winter. The ten members of the training course were sent to hear a lecture by the central welfare commissar, Alexandra Kollontai. They turned up at the Kremlin one morning with Ivan. They'd heard of her of course; what Bolshevik hadn't? Her writings and activism were legendary. She had been one of Lenin's most vocal supporters long before most of the other revolutionaries had joined her. She had travelled the world, opposing the war and fighting for the rights of the underdogs of society. She was also not scared to disagree with the Communist Party's leadership either. She was controversial and was destined to become far more so in the future. Will admired her tremendously. Kollontai strutted in looking haughty and elegant. The lecture was very strange though. She insisted on rearranging the chairs in a circle and then took on a more conversational mien. The forty-five minutes she spent with the team was more a dialogue than a lecture. She occasionally stood up and walked over to one of the participants individually and sat down next to them to address them directly. "What motivates you, Sasha?" she asked Will, using his pseudonym. "What are your values?"
    "Comrade, I..." Will hesitated because the question was so broad. "I value love. Love of one person for another, and for all people. For me, this is the basis of socialism."
    She nodded with a light smile and stood up. At the end of the lecture the students rose politely and gave her a round of applause. As they were trooping out of the room Kollontai called to Will: "Sasha, could you stay behind a moment please?"
    Will stopped and looked round.
    When the others had left she came over to him. "I was wondering if you'd like to take tea with me."
    The cafeteria at the Kremlin served tea in traditional Russian glasses with a metal frame. The brew was weak because the food shortages forced the caterers to reuse tealeaves. Kollontai was silent for a while and didn't look at Will as she sipped; then she suddenly turned to him. "What's your real name, Sasha?"
    "Wilfred. Wilfred Francheskovich Ursall." He had no idea why this senior commissar was showing him this special attention. She had not done so during the group discussion. "You have chosen a difficult path, a very dangerous one."
    "I want to do whatever is necessary for the revolution, Comrade Kollontai. An intelligence commissar recruited me. He thought I had the necessary abilities."
    "I know; I read Yurovsky's report on you." She chuckled at his surprised look. "Oh yes, Wilfred Francheskovich; I do my homework."
    "Then why did you ask me for my real name? You already know it."
    "I can learn a lot about somebody in your position by how they answer that question."
    Will laughed. "Are you testing me, Comrade?"
    She grimaced. "Not yet, but I hope to."
    Wilfred gasped. Following those words she had reached under the table and grabbed his knee.
    "I need you to come to my home this evening at seven o'clock."
    Will left Alexandra Kollontai's home at about eleven PM. He walked down the street trembling. He was fully dressed and to look at him, he was no different; but his life had changed. He could still taste her on his lips, smell her in his nostrils. He recalled the sensation of her touching him as if it was happening right then. He stumbled and leaned against the wall, breathing deeply. When he arrived back at the Institute, None of the others guessed what had happened. They asked him a few times if he were alright, concerned about how quiet he was. He had trouble sleeping that night. It was so different to what he had expected. He had only given a few thoughts over the matter of women and relationships. He sometimes wondered why he seemed to have such a very low sex drive compared to most other men he knew. He had never once considered joining the other Ipatiev House guards on their regular trips to the Yekaterinburg brothels. The act simply didn't appeal to him. However, he was not asexual. He understood attraction, and had indeed felt a lot of it for Maria Romanov. He knew that one day he might well meet a girl who felt the same way about him and have a relationship with her. Reality was very different. It was a much older and more mature lady whom he already knew by reputation. His admiration for her had previously been one hundred percent political. Even though he had seen several photographs of her, he had never considered her attractive. The following morning he found an excuse to return to Moscow and went straight to the Kremlin. He walked the corridors frantically, looking for her. He eventually spotted her leaving her office with a pile of folders under her arm. He ran up to her, grinning wildly. "Alix! It's so good to see you again!"
    She turned and looked at him, startled by his enthusiastic tone. Her face dissolved into a frown. "Do not call me that here!" she snapped and strode away from him.
    Will reeled back as if he had been struck. He was numb and speechless. He left the Kremlin and wandered the streets aimlessly. He felt as if every bit of energy had fallen from him and been replaced by acid. He tried to think about other things, to take his mind off it, but could not. Eventually he returned to the Kremlin and sat in the cafe, at the same table he had been at the previous day. After about twenty minutes one of the stewards came over to him. "Excuse me, Comrade." he said. "Were you the gentleman sitting here yesterday with Comrade Kollontai?"
    "Yes I was."
    "She has just called down and asked if you would go to her office please."
    Two opposite emotions shot through Will's mind. The first was relief and joy; the second was resentment and contempt. He decided he would not go; he would snub her invitation, but then changed his mind. He went to her office and knocked.
    "Come in Wilfred Francheskovich." she said as if she had recognized him through the door, although it had no window.
    "Good afternoon, Comrade Alexandra Mikhailovna." he said coldly, emphasizing the formality of the address.
    "Sit down, Wilfred." She sighed. "I really must apologize for my harshness earlier. It was actually something I affected; I wasn't really angry. How did it make you feel?"
    He paused, unsure of whether to be honest. "If you want to know the truth, it made me feel gutted. For you to... turn on me like that, after last night."
    "I understand the intense emotions you are feeling right now. Your youth and lack of experience always generates them. However bad you are feeling right now, fear not; they will eventually pass... I'm afraid it was necessary."
    "Why, Alix?" He had used her familiar name again before he could stop himself, but she didn't seem to mind now.
    "It was all part of the test, Wilfred."
    "What test?"
    She stood up and walked over to the window. She looked out, turning her back to him. "You are undergoing training to be a covert operative in an enemy capitalist nation with a false identity. Your duty will be to gain intelligence for the Soviet Union by any means necessary. We cannot afford to be sentimental in this war, Wilfred. What works is good, what does not is bad. One of the best methods of extracting information from a targeted person is sex. The tactic can also serve the purpose of entrapment and extortion. You've heard the term 'honey trap'?"
    "That term normally refers to a female agent targeting a man, the majority; however, we also like to have men trained to target women in the same way. We call these male agents 'ravens'. When I read your file, and when I met you at the lecture yesterday morning, I judged you had the potential to be a good raven; but it was essential to give you a trial run."
    Will sneered. "A trial run? Was that all I was to you?"
    Kollontai turned round and looked at him. "Again, Wilfred, I can only apologize. I've put you through a horrific experience of emotional turmoil. But I had to."
    Will chuckled sardonically. "Did I pass the test?"
    "No. You failed abysmally. You're too passionate, too empathic. Your genitals are chained to your heart. A raven must be totally insensitive and composed. He must be able to feign an emotional facade as cunning as if he were feeling it all for real, but inside his heart remains an unbreakable lump of stone."
    There was a long silence. Will broke it. "I don't suppose I'll be seeing you again then."
    She shook her head. "We've both done our duty for the revolution, Wilfred." She stopped for a long time, as if unsure whether to add anything else. "Wilfred... if it's any consolation, I found my interaction with you last night extremely pleasurable. You're a very attractive and pleasant young man. I hope you find true love one day in a situation of innocence and sincerity. And I wish you luck on your mission."
The doorbell rang. "Whose that?" Lareen frowned as she spoke. This was the last day they expected visitors. Everybody they knew would be in their own homes. It was the day after Boxing Day and Lareen's parents and siblings had departed that morning. Will got up to answer the door. It was the postman. "Good morning, sir. Telegram."
    "Don't you fellows normally just shove it through the letterbox?" asked Will.
    The postman pointed to a mark on the envelope. "Priority traffic, sir. I have to hand it to somebody."
    "Who's it from?" asked Lareen as Will returned to the kitchen. Annabelle was sitting in her highchair looking up at her father as if subconsciously understanding his curiosity.
    Will opened the envelope. "Father." He sighed. He was expecting a few lines of passive aggressive self-pity. Francis Ursall had been upset that Will and his family were not going to spend Christmas with him and Robin in Lancombe Pond. Francis now had a new partner. Well, he insisted she was just a "friend", but the two were inseparable. She had spent Christmas for the first time in the Ursall household. Will began reading: HAVE BARONY STOP COME NOW STOP.
    Will laughed. Despite the skeletonized language of telegraphese, Will could pick up his father's excitement.
    "What is it?"
    "He's finally done it. He's finally going to be a Baron."
    "It's been his greatest ambition since before the war. The Duke is going to honour him on New Years Day and he's invited us to attend."
    "That's wonderful; he must be delighted. We'll have to start making arrangements now. I'll go and pack. Do you have a railway timetable?"
    "Yes, in my study. I'll go and get it." Will jogged up the stairs. As he did so the idea came to him. This might be exactly the opportunity he had been waiting for.
Bellswill Castle was tall and narrow, like all the buildings in the City of Lancombe Pond. Its short curtain walls ran between the four corner rotundas and its entrance was a neo-mediaeval arch with a portcullis leading to a square inner courtyard. The ceremony took place in the Great Hall on the opposite side of the courtyard. The Duke of Bellswill stood with a grave expression on his face, respondent in his full regalia, as each "carver", the term for a prospective Baron, came forward and kneeled. When it was Francis Ursall's turn, he trembled slightly as he walked, showing his nervousness. He kneeled and bowed his head reverently as the Duke tapped each of his shoulders lightly with his silver sword. "Arise, Baron Ursall, faithful one." Ursall could hardly contain a laugh of joy as the Duke placed the crown on his head. He stumbled over to the row of crowned Barons with a rhapsodic grin.
    After the ceremony there was a formal banquet. Suited waiters ran back and forth carrying huge trays of meats, vegetables and sauces. Will picked at his upmarket food on its bone china plate with a silver fork. Robin was sitting a few places up the long table on the opposite side. Will frowned. Sitting next to his brother was Cassius Dewlove and the two of them were conversing in a friendly manner. "That's odd." he said to Lareen.
    "What is?" Her voice was slightly distorted as she swallowed.
    He pointed by nodded, not wanting to be too conspicuous. He also lowered his voice. "Robin and Cassius. The two of them together like that."
    "Why? Don't they get on?"
    "They never used to."
    Lareen was distracted by something else and pointed surreptitiously. "Who's she?"
    Will chuckled slightly. "That's Mabel."
    They got to speak to Mabel later when dinner was over and everybody was on their feet sipping brandies. She was a short and petite woman with her greying black hair in a high and neat pageboy bob. Her face was thin and her nose jutted forward like a ship's bowsprit, or maybe the ram on a Greek galley. Her close set eyes were small yet penetrating, as if studying whatever she was looking at narrowly but intensely. She was a retired mistress from a Nottingham grammar school and still radiated that sharp attitude of swift authority common to all schoolteachers. According to Will's gossip contacts in Lancombe Pond, Mabel was a friend of his father who over the last six months had become his constant companion. She had a broad toothy smile and liked to chuckle at almost every comment she heard. Will's father stood by her side looking down at her and smiling with adoration the whole time. After a few minutes they moved on to another conversation.
    "Are they...?" Lareen winked and raised her eyebrows to complete the question.
    "He says not." Will had met Mabel for the first time on his previous visit to the family in August and asked his father as much. Francis had replied: "No, she's just a friend... just a friend." but his cheeks had reddened as he spoke.
   Mabel's voice rose above the clamour of the dining room. "Oh, for goodness sake, Frank; just please do it will you!?" Francis nodded his head humbly and trotted away to carry out whatever command his friend had given him.
    "Well!" sighed Lareen. "She's certainly carrying his balls around in her handbag."
    "That's what my father likes in a woman... Personally, I think they're made for each other!" They both laughed.
    Things become more serious when Will finally got the chance to speak privately to Robin. He followed his brother to the toilet. "Robin, what are you doing with Cassius?"
    Robin sighed. "Things have changed, Will."
    "What!? What's changed? Don't you hate him anymore?"
    Robin shook his head. "I used to; I really did. I thought he was horrible, but maybe I was wrong. Perhaps we've misjudged him. I think it's time to let bygones by bygones."
    Will gasped. "Really, Robin!?... Have you forgotten what he did to you; what he did to our family?"
    Robin sighed and zipped up his fly. "Of course not! But I never saw things from his point of view before. Now I do."
    Will was so dumbfounded by this response that he was speechless. During the silence that followed he noticed something else about his younger brother. There was a strange look in his eye, a difference to his voice; an almost indefinable change in his general expression. As brothers, the two had grown up with intimate experience of each other's physiognomy and language. Will wasn't sure exactly what had changed with Robin, only that something drastic had.  "Robin... what have you been doing?" Will asked the question from almost subconscious thoughts.
    Robin turned away from him and moved over to the sinks to wash his hands. "Nothing!... It's just... I see the world differently now. Everything is so much clearer."
    "What does grandma think about your new perspective?"
    Robin glared at him for a moment; then he dried his hands on the towel and walked out of the door. Will watched the back of his LPDF uniform recede into the crowd.
    Will could not indulge himself with worry for his brother. He had work to do. He had had no time to arrange a meeting with Hargreaves in order to approve the plan; however his handler had told him: "See if you can get your father to tell you anything... It's possible he might have heard something, a man in his position." Will had been forced to improvise. He moved over to his father and spent the rest of the party chatting amiably to him, Mabel and their other friends. Francis Ursall had been drinking wine heavily all afternoon and was rather unsteady on his feet. Lareen had to return to the Ursall home in East Mansfield to relieve Annabelle's babysitter and so Will had a good excuse to encourage his father to drop his plans to push on till midnight and join her instead. As a new Baron, Francis was entitled to state transportation so an official limousine with the Duke's crest on its radiator cap drove the family to their home in Highmoor Street. It was almost nine PM when they arrived. Lareen headed straight upstairs to tend to her baby. Will knew that as soon as she had done that she would go to bed, sleeping beside Annabelle's crib. Mabel ordered a taxi to her hotel and as soon as it arrived, Will and his father were alone.
    "I told you, she's just a friend!" Francis laughed after Will made a jocular comment about his relationship with Mabel. "We like each other. We have similar interests."
    "I'm sure you do, father. All men share those particular interests." He chuckled mischievously.
    "Now then, now then, Wilfred! I've brought you up to be a good boy." Francis fell loudly into a chair by the kitchen table. "Goodness me, I have drunk rather a lot this evening! I think I ought to go to bed."
    "What do you mean, father? It's only nine-thirty."
    "Yes, but I'm not as young as I used to be, Wilfred. I don't have the capacity!"
    "Oh come now, father! Are those the words of a Faithful Baron?" Will produced a bottle of Scotch theatrically from behind his back.
    Francis gasped in delight. "Where did you find that, Wilfred?"
    "It's been at the back at the cabinet for years. How could you have missed it?"
    "Is that Bowmore?"
    He nodded. "The best Islay single malt." He looked at the label. "This one is eighteen years old. It's come of age and that only means one thing!"
    Francis took a pair of tumblers from the Welsh dresser and slammed them down on the table. "Pour 'em out, Wilfred!"
    Father and son chatted for an hour in an animated alcohol fuelled manner. Will's method was working. He had learned it at the Russian spy school. He was meant to avoid drinking himself if possible, but in this case that was impossible. Once a target was inebriated, their inhibitions dropped, their self-control was lost. They were an open book. All Will had to do was wait until his father had drunk enough and then find a way to steer the conversation in the right direction. "So, Wilfred, how are things at the embassy these days?"
    Will waved his hand in the air. "Not bad. Ups and downs. At the moment I'm trying to get to the bottom of a bit of a conundrum."
    "What's that?" Francis slurred.
    Will's own mind was clouded over from the whiskey he had drunk, but he related the story of his trip to the Foreign Office accurately.
    His father groaned and leaned on the table, burying his face in his hands.
    "As bad as that is it, father?" Will gave a strategic titter.
    "Oh worse, Wilfred! Much much worse!"
    "In what way?"
    He groaned and chuckled. "I'm not supposed to talk about this."
    Will laughed with him. "Bah! Damn red tape confidentiality rules!"
    Francis took another sip of Scotch. "This in another league."
    "Oh come on, father! Bureaucracy is bureaucracy is bureaucracy and it is always the same thing. Somebody has to take the rap for some miscalculated accounting error and you and everybody else in the City are drawing lots for who the scapegoat will be."
    His father gave a drunken half smile and dribbled slightly. "You learn fast, my boy. In almost every case that's the way it goes and the cause of the cover-up is exactly what you described... but not always. What you're talking about right now is a bit sticky...because... When you consider it's one of the most infamous incidents in the Pond's recent history."
    "What is meant by 'metamaterials' then?"
    Francis shrugged awkwardly. "Baron's honour, I haven't a clue."
    "But you were there, father. You directed Operation Partridge. You were in the field where the poison gas was."
    "There was no poison gas."
    Will pretended to gasp in shock. "What!?... No gas?"
    "We had to tell people something to explain why fifty-five acres of countryside were sealed off from public access and a main road closed for five days. Disulfer dichloride gas; brilliant idea, eh? I can't remember who came up with that; somebody in the press office I think." He took another sip from his glass.
    "So this disaster that everybody in the Pond was terrified and enraged about... never happened?"
    Francis laughed. "And it'll go down in all the history books nonetheless!"
    "So why...?"
    "Because what really happened was far far more... explosive."
    "What really happened?"
    "Ooh!" He groaned and hid his face in his hands. "I really shouldn't tell you, Wilfred. You know that."
    "Father, you know me. I can keep a secret. It'll never leave these four walls."
    "I told Robin and I shouldn't have."
    "Robin knows!?"
    "Probably not anymore. He'll have forgotten. It was the day you left for Russia so we obviously all had our focus on that."
    There was a long silence. "What happened, father?"
    "I shouldn't tell you." he said slowly.
    "I know, but you can. You know it's safe. There's nobody here but you and me."
    Francis gave him a lopsided alcohol laden grimace. "Yes, why shouldn't I?" His face changed and become contorted with anger. "The bloody Westies came in and took over! They didn't even ask first!"
    Will shrugged. "Well, maybe you should get some payback."
    He sighed. "Alright, this is what happened..."
Are you still looking up? Time to check what's down here too. Lights in the sky and lies on the ground. Sometimes the lie is just the truth in disguise. Have faith in your judgement. Signum. WYAGIGA. Will rolled his eyes as he caught the latest Signum ad in The Times. Enthusiasts were calling these ads "drops" with the shorter ones often known as "breadcrumbs" because that was all you got of something thought to be much bigger. A promo further down the page announced that a book would soon be published by Macmillan about Signum by a top Times journalist. No doubt that would fly off the shelves, he thought. Will was glad to have something to take his mind off the task that was making him nervous. He was on the train to Newbury and was watching his surroundings very carefully, using all the tricks he could remember from spy school. There were only two people in his compartment, both men. The one opposite was a fat man with a double chin puffing on an aromatic pipe which smelled like it contained more than just tobacco. Every few minutes he checked his pocket watch as if he were a train spotter, timing the service. To Will's left was a thin blonde individual with a hatchet-like face wearing a heavy tweed coat that came down to his knees, even though the temperature in the cabin was a little warm for it. Was it concealing a hidden camera? The man paid him no attention, or seemed not to. Will turned away and looked through the window. For the first time since he had returned from Russia, his confidence waned. He was taking a huge risk and wasn't sure he would get away with it. However, Hargreaves had been totally consistent that it was necessary to try.
    At Newbury station Will decamped from the train and traversed a covered footbridge to the eastbound platform, and then had his ticket checked so he could enter the small concourse. A chauffeur was waiting for him and he was driven in a plush company car to the headquarters of Nash and Wallace Ltd. He was greeted at the entrance by a small black-haired man whose name was Nash, indicating that he was perhaps related to one of the firm's namesakes, although he didn't say exactly how. He had a slightly sulky attitude and Will sensed that he was reluctant to take time out for this inspection; however the fact that they had sent somebody so prominent to deal with Will was an early indicator that his ruse had worked. Nash showed him around the factory floor where artillery guns, armoured cars and torpedo boats rolled along production lines in various stages of construction. Engineers in greasy boiler suits climbed over them like ants, shouted and gesturing. Welding arcs glinted and smoke billowed from furnaces. The air was hot and moist; it stank of oil and ozone. Will nodded politely under his steel hardhat pretending to be interested as Nash relayed the points of interest. "Of course now the war is over, business has been a little bit slower."
    "Never mind, Mr Nash. Perhaps a new war will start." replied Will.
    "Possibly." said Nash brightly, completely oblivious to Will's ironic tone. "So far though we've managed rather well by restructuring to the export market, mostly in the Empire, but a few places further afield; the United States, France, Sweden, South America."
    It was hard to breathe inside the building and Will was relieved when they moved outdoors. The factory was on the eastern outskirts of Newbury by the River Kennet. Its grounds consisted of a huge railway yard of about a dozen tracks. Rows of wagons were lined up on them, waiting for their deadly cargo. When Will sensed that Nash's shtick was coming to an end he interrupted. "This is all very interesting, Mr Nash; but now perhaps could we move on to Operation Braddock?"
    Nash paused uneasily. "Operation Braddock?" he chuckled. His initial tone projected the pretence that he didn't recognize the term, but then he seemed to change his mind. "You don't want to worry your head about things like that, Mr Ursall."
    "Yes I would actually, Mr Nash. That is the primary purpose for which the Lancine embassy sent me. It directly concerns Lancombe Pond and it is stipulated in the letter you received from Ambassador Netts." The letter had not originally stipulated that at all. Baron Netts had authorized Will to visit Nash and Wallace as part of negotiations for a possible contract with the LPDF to buy a line of machine guns. It was fairly easy to manoeuvre himself to the front of the queue for that task because none of the other staff wanted it. Before the letter was posted, Will had carefully altered it using a method he had learned in the spy school. He had stayed behind at the embassy after hours, making the excuse that he wanted to finish some tax returns and found the letter in the ambassador's out-tray. His secretary had just typed it up and had Netts sign it. Will scraped off the fresh ink gently using a razor blade and carefully edited in some replacement text: In addition it is vital that Mr Ursall be fully briefed into Operation Braddock as this concerns a matter related to a major incident on Lancine soil that your company is now involved in. His father had divulged the name of the operation; this was the key piece of information that made Will's endeavour possible. He made sure to use the secretary's own typewriter so that the font and ink looked exactly the same as that in the rest of the letter. He used several blank sheets beforehand to practice getting the alignment exactly right. Then he was faced with a dilemma. Should he put the letter in an envelope and post it? If so then it was possible that the secretary might remember where she had left it the previous day and wonder why it wasn't there. On the other hand, if he didn't post it, the secretary might re-read it, or even the ambassador himself, and notice that the wording had been modified. In the end Will elected to leave it in the out-tray, fairly confident that the finished article would just be sealed and mailed with no further scrutiny. He was right.
    "Very well, Mr Ursall. I'll make arrangement to take you there."
    "Can't you just show me now?"
    "No, sir. Operation Braddock is dealt with at another location, our special projects facility."
    "Where's that?"
    Will was given a map which showed that Peasemore was a tiny village about seven miles to the north of Newbury. This surprised him, but he didn't remark on that as Nash and he returned to the company car. The drive was a pleasant one through the Berkshire Downs. The car stopped in the middle of a village and the driver got out and opened the door on Will's side. "Here you are, sir." he said.
    "Is this Peasemore?" asked Will.
    "No, Mr Ursall; this is Chieveley." said Nash from the seat beside him.
    "I thought you said your facility was in Peasemore."
    "It is." He pointed. "Follow that footpath; it's about two miles away. Use the map I gave you."
    Will gasped. "Why can't you just take me there in this car?"
    "I'm running low on petrol, sir." said the driver.
    Nash looked hard at Will. "I've phoned ahead so they're expecting you."
    Will didn't argue any longer. In a way he was not surprised. Ever since he had brought up the subject of Operation Braddock, the remains of the already meagre courtesy shown to him by Nash and his staff had vanished completely. He set out on foot for his destination.
    Luckily the weather was mild for January and the ground on the footpath was firm under Will's feet. The sun was shining and birds twittered from the trees and bushes. His time in Russia had made him very fit and so he arrived at the village quickly. Nash and Wallace's special projects facility was down a narrow lane leading southwest from the village. After a few hundred yards he came across a newly built redbrick wall topped by a loop of barbed wire rather like the military type used in the war. The wall was at least nine feet high. Such tight security looked out of place in such a quaint English rural idyll. He walked along the wall until he reached a locked gate. This was of a similar height and consisted of a metal grille reinforced by thick planks; again, very strange. It seemed to be designed to resist being rammed by vehicles. Because of the planks, Will couldn't see inside. There was a small bronze plaque on the gate pillar that read: Nash and Wallace SP, but included no further information. There was an electric intercom below the place activated by a button, which he pressed. "Hello?" said a voice.
    "Good afternoon, this is Wilfred Ursall from the Embassy of Lancombe Pond. I believe you're expecting me." Will put on a voice that expressed the irritation he should have felt being treated in a manner unbecoming to his status.
    There was a long silence which made Will tut. "One moment, Mr Ursall." A minute later there was the sound of a lock being turned and the gate opened a few feet. A face peeked out. "Mr Ursall? How do you do. I'm Dr Peter Farthing, director of N and W Special Projects." He reached out a powerful fleshy hand and Will took it. The man was big and bald with a deep educated voice. He had a friendlier face than those who had just left him and wore a white smock, like a doctor's. He invited Will inside, but was careful to lock the gates immediately behind them, glancing suspiciously outside beforehand, as if concerned that Will had been followed. "As you know, what we do here is... highly sensitive." he explained as he led Will across a gravelled forecourt. There were six large cars parked there and the two men had to weave their way between them to reach a two-storey house with a high roof. Its walls and big chimneys were made of the same brick as the wall. Will looked over and caught a glimpse of a thin flat lawn to the right side of the house. To his surprise he saw that it had a small set of standing stones in the middle of it, arranged in a circle like a miniature Neolithic monument. He only had a moment to study them before they reached the polished oak front door. To Will's surprise, Farthing had to unlock the door with a key. Even though he had only come out for a few minutes to open the gate for Will, he had locked the front door. Will felt a shiver of dread as Farthing opened the door. Inside lay darkness. He knew he had to keep calm, remember his training. He had to remember at all times that he was supposed to know already what was going on at this premises and needed to bluff everything he said and did.
    The house's unlit vestibule was dimly illuminated from some upstairs windows. It looked as if this had been a residential home once and had been converted into a working laboratory. There were oblong stains on the wallpaper where pictures had once hung. There was a corridor leading off in one direction with closed doors at regular intervals. Farthing made no attempt to show Will around and instead directed him immediately over to a flight of stairs leading down onto a basement level. Will's fear redoubled. He knew that his father's story couldn't possibly be true, but he had to remind himself again more vehemently. At the bottom of the stairs was a steel door like a prison cell. A nondescript man in a suit was sitting in a chair beside it. Will was shocked to see that he was armed with a pistol in a belt holster, although he wore no uniform or insignia. He stood as the two men approached and he thoroughly scrutinized Will's identity papers before opening the door with his own key and slamming it shut behind them. Inside was a short passageway leading solely to a second door exactly like the first. Here they stopped. Will stood beside Farthing and waited, pretending to be familiar with the practice. He decided to try a daring experiment. "So, Dr Farthing. How are the men from Mars?"
    Farthing chuckled, but answered in all seriousness: "Well, they're all dead except one. Didn't the ambassador tell you? Also, we're not sure they are from Mars. Their physical build suggests their natural habitat is one with weaker gravity than the earth, but that doesn't automatically mean Mars." An electric bell rang and the door ahead opened. Farthing walked forward. Will could barely stop himself turning back and hammering on the outer door, begging to be let out.
    Beyond the door the lights were bright and everything was painted white. There were a handful of other people around, all male and all dressed in lab coats as well. Farthing introduced Will to some of them. They passed through another door covered in warning signs that Will didn't have time to read. Inside were a row of steel cabinets with glass panes. Inside on the shelves were objects that looked like fragment of metal, twisted and ripped as if they had been part of a larger structure which had been damaged. "Professor Belsen's work on this material is still in progress, Mr Ursall." said Farthing casually as he walked along the aisles between the cabinets. "He sent me an interim report last week in which he states it had many properties not found in any substance we know of; tensile strength, conductivity of electricity and heat... In here is the largest piece. Stay close to me, Mr Ursall. It would be a very bad thing if you got lost down here!" He led Will through a door into another room that was quite sizeable. It was obvious this basement complex was far larger than the footprint of the house above ground, possibly extending beyond the walls under public land. The room was empty except for a single object placed on top of a collection of forklift pallets. It was a burnished golden coloured object about twenty feet across. It was shaped like an Olympic discus and was featureless except for some darker oblong markings near the top where its regular discus shape was broken into a squat turret with a flat roof about nine feet above the base. Farthing put his hands on his hips and shook his head in disapproval as he looked at the object. "I'm sure your government has told you, it wasn't easy moving this. We had to get it out in the dead of night. We're indebted to the LPDF for their assistance. Once we signed the contract and took custody of it from the government, we had to build that trapdoor specially to get it in here." He pointed at a square panel above the discus. Will forced himself to nod knowingly. He had his hands in his pockets to stop them trembling.
    There was a gaping cavity in the far side of the disk. It was invisible from the direction they had approached, but very plain to see as they walked round it. The gap in the hull was a good eight feet across and mostly on the lower half of the object, but it included some of its rim. A cable emerged from the hole and led across the floor to an electrical socket on the wall. The inside was as dark as an unlit cellar. "This is how we found it." said Farthing. He turned and faced Will with a completely new expression on his face, that of a passionate expert sharing a scientific wonder. "The strangest thing of all about it is its dimensional transcendence. We simply cannot explain it!" He wrung his hands.
    Will tried to copy his expression, as if he knew what that meant. "Well, I'm sure you chaps will work it out soon."
    "We don't know why it has this huge hole in the side of it. It doesn't look like damage from the crash."
    The cavity didn't look like a door; there was no mechanism visible, and it was very big and slightly irregular. The sides of the hole were smooth, as if it had been cut open with a blowtorch or a power saw. If this had been a normal aircraft involved in a crash, there would have been loose ragged edges to the hole, snapped struts sticking out, ripped flaps of skin.
    "Have a look inside." said Farthing. "I'll switch on the light." He walked over to the wall socket and flipped a switch. Electric light issued from the interior of the unearthly machine. The cavity opened onto a cylindrical cabin that was made of a very different substance to the outside. It was as black as tar and appeared to be a kind of wax. The light from the portable lantern within was swallowed up by the gloom of the bulkheads. The only features inside the cabin were four structures that looked a bit like small bathtubs about four feet long. These were built into the deck without any visible seams, welds or rivets. They were made of the same the material as the rest of the compartment. Will laid his hand on the side of the nearest bathtub. It has a slippery and greasy consistency. He let go with a start and looked at his palm and fingers, but there was no residue on them. There was something strange about the acoustics of the cabin. The noises he made didn't sound as they normally would in the compartment that size and of that material. "Have you found out how this thing works yet?" he asked.
    "I'm afraid not." replied Farthing apologetically. "There's nothing apparent with any of the fragments, including this primary one, which suggests a propulsion system or power plant, at least any kind we're familiar with... Let me introduce you to our guest." Farthing led Will through a door into a third chamber. "Mr Ursall." he said in a slightly embarrassed tone, almost a whisper. "Erm... Have you seen our guest before?"
    "No, I've never been here before."
    "You may find him slightly alarming. You'd better prepare yourself... He is completely harmless though I assure you."
    This next chamber was different in ambiance. It had linoleum floors and tiled walls; and it smelled of bleach and detergent, similar to a hospital. Farthing instructed Will to dress in a white overall and pull rubber overshoes onto his feet. He also donned a dry-smelling gasmask. Farthing's mood became very solemn as they passed through another door and entered a chamber with heavy metal doors on one side that looked like a refrigerator. Two assistants were already in the room and after conversing with Farthing they opened the doors. A waft of freezing air filled the room and Will clasped his arms around his chest from cold as much as fear. The assistants and Farthing worked together to withdraw three caskets on trolleys. Icicles dangled from their undersides. Farthing beckoned him over. "Come and have a look, Mr Ursall." His voice was muffled by his own gasmask.
    Will leaned over and saw that the casket was covered with a sheet of glass. "Holy shit!" He couldn't help himself. His heart pounded. He vividly recalled his father's description. Francis Ursall had wept in terror while sipping his whiskey. The enormous head, the large eyes and the featureless mouth and scalp. As he'd said, it had four fingers on its hands which had flat flared tips like suction cups. The creature was real; it was lying right in front of him. It was the size Francis had said too, about three foot six. Its skin was grey, like milky coffee. From a distance it appeared smooth, but when he looked again, Will could see scales or a mesh-like texture to it. The body had no external features at all; no nipples or navel, no genitals or hair. It was slightly built with skinny limbs and it also was proportionally smaller than normal. Its child-size feet had no toes; the foot just led to a rounded-off end without nails. The most remarkable features were its eyes. They were huge, oval-shaped and deep black, without pupils, iris or whites; or else they were just all pupil. Their corneas reflected the light like black billiard balls.
    Farthing sighed sympathetically. "It's always a shock when you see these fellows for the first time."
    "Dr Farthing! What the hell are these things!?"
    "We don't know. They're some kind of biological organism, but they are nothing like anything alive on earth today, nor do they resemble any extinct creature we find in the fossil record. We have our best biologists examining them right now. They have some vague features that resemble primates, fish, even some species of insect, but they can't be fitted anywhere into the taxonomy of life as we know it."
    "Are they associated with that thing we saw back there?"
    "Yes, sir. We found them lying on the ground at the site not far from the debris you saw."
    Will moved to the second body. This one's skin was patchy; some areas were blackened, as if burnt. The third one's left arm and right leg were missing. Scraps of ragged flash hung at the points where the limbs would normally be. Its interior tissue was chocolate brown in colour and there was no blood.
    Farthing's tone of voice changed. "When I first saw these things, I reacted exactly as you did."
    "Why are they covered with glass panels?"
    "These caskets are hermetically sealed so we can fill them with dehumidified air. This prevents ice from forming inside the caskets. It's also for safety. We're still not sure if these entities are harbouring any kind of harmful infectious agent."
    "A disease?"
    "Possibly. We are treating them in accordance with barrier biohazard regulations just in case."
    "The disk you showed us had those four things inside that looked like bathtubs."
    "Yes, we call them 'capsules'; we don't know what their function is."
    "Could these creatures have come from inside the disk, and the capsules are intended to house them?"
    "It's a possibility. They're about the right size and shape; but we don't know for sure."
    Will paused, dreading the inevitable next step. "Well there are four capsules, but only three creatures."
    Farthing smiled. "I know; I was just coming to that." He beckoned. "Come with me, sir. We have one more place to visit."
    They went down another flight of stairs to a lower basement level. After traversing another threshold upon which rolled a sliding door, they entered what looked like a hospital ward. There were several people dressed in doctors' coats mixing medications and writing in card folders. They paid Farthing and Will little attention, as if they'd been expecting them. Ahead was a floor-to-ceiling plate glass panel that split the ward in two. There was no way to pass around the window and the other side of it was completely sealed off. They moved forward and Will noticed that the sealed area was filled with a thick fog that had a light green tinge. Inside Will could just make out a few objects through the murk. One was a single hospital bed placed against the far wall of the room. It had its back rest pulled up. The lighting was low, adding to the indistinct nature of the interior. A man sat beside the bed on a chair. He was wearing what looked like a diving suit. Lying in the bed was a corpse identical to the ones they had seen a few minutes earlier in the ice box. By then Will must have built up a tolerance for shocks because he only started moderately when the creature in the bed moved. It tilted his head slightly to the right and shifted its spindly arm on the bed sheet covering its lower body. "We didn't realise one of them was alive until after they all arrived here." said Farthing; his own voice was laced with fear. "It... woke up in the middle of the PM; scared the shit out of the poor pathologist... We had no idea what to do with it. What does it eat? What does it drink?... It turns out it has some kind of circularity system. It has some organs that are the equivalent to a heart and lungs. It can't breathe normal air for long periods of time. This is a nitrogen-helium-chlorine mixture with a very high humidity rate, hence the fog. This seems to be as close as we can get to the atmosphere of its home world... But it has no digestive system. It hasn't eaten or drunk a thing, but it doesn't seem to need to... We've been trying to communicate with it, but it doesn't speak. Some of the men who spend time with it get feelings like..." He broke off abruptly, as if he were going to add more, but then changed his mind. "We've invented a simple sign language and we've tried to teach it to him... I know it's strange to say 'him' when it appears to be asexual, but... we can hardly keep addressing our guest as 'it'." He smiled warmly. "We've started calling him 'Jimmy'."
The Special Projects staff were far nicer to Will than Nash had been. He didn't have to walk back from Peasemore; they gave him a lift in one of the cars parked outside. When they dropped him off outside Newbury station Will wandered around for a while in a daze, looking at all the ordinary things around him. A newspaper seller, calling from his kiosk; a luggage porter carrying a trunk, a bakers' van parked up outside the station cafeteria. The trees rustled in the light breeze. A young toddler cried at her mother in infantile rage. All these normal things were still here, after everything he had witnessed during the past hour and a half. Had it been real? Had he imagined it? How could it be real? How could all these people live their ordinary lives; and at the same time, just a few miles away in a dark cellar, a being from another planet sat in a tank of green mist?
    As soon as Will got back to London he arranged a meeting with Hargreaves. The Pole was as composed as always. He listened carefully as Will related his experience, frowning in concentration, never interrupting. Will felt enormously self-conscious as he spoke and guessed Hargreaves would have picked that up. "Comrade Ursall." his handler finally said. "What you've described... cannot possibly be true."
    "Comrade, I saw it! I swear!"
    "I believe you, Comrade Ursall." Hargreaves waved his hand gently in a pacifying motion. "But you have been fooled. This must be a disinformation attack."
    "What? You mean they... made it all up."
    "Stagecraft. Everything constructed deliberately to fool you. Rubber dummies, balsawood replicas. The monster in the green room was a man in a suit... Men from Mars do not exist. Therefore, the question we should be asking is: why do the British government, and their agents in the private industries, want the Lancine government to think men from Mars do exist?"
    Will shrugged, unsure of what to say.
    "We should think about that for a while... See what you can find out along those lines and get back to me."
    "Yes, comrade."
    Will sat on the bench for a long time after Hargreaves had left. On the surface he felt relieved. How horrible it would be if such disgusting creatures were real. He also felt embarrassed. He suddenly recalled an incident many years earlier when he'd been talking to his brother after Robin had claimed to have seen an extraterrestrial spaceship: "Load of bourgeois superstitious poppycock! Robin, you've been reading too many of those silly storybooks of yours." This was true. Belief in epiphenomenal nonsense like aliens, demons, angels and ghosts was being used to replace religion as the Opium of the People, in a world where the church was not as powerful as it once was; where atheism and agnosticism were in the ascendant. Will got up and walked away along the boundary of the playing field, watching the children kick a football around. Inside, he admitted, he couldn't suppress a twinge of discomfort, of regret. Would humans be happier if we were not alone in the universe? He quickly shoved such utopian daydreams aside. We were alone, and that was all that mattered. "Spacemen don't exist." he muttered aloud. "Do they?..." He stopped walking. He frowned for a few moments at his rhetorical question, and then he looked up at the sky. He saw nothing but the low winter overcast that promised some light snow. He shook his head and walked swiftly away towards the Underground station.
See here for Chapter 7: (coming soon).