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Author Archives: Mike

About Mike

I'm Mike. I'm a Christian, and 14... I'm also known as skitee.

Topaz [Excerpt]

It was a dark and rainy night in West London. The rain pattered down in an uneven pattern, splashing against the hard pavement and spraying up onto the shoes and trousers of those who walked past. “Drat.” a man muttered to himself, as his expensive designer trousers started to get speckled with mud flecks.

He was a well-built man, with dark black hair and an oriental complexion. His body was of a muscular build, although fat was beginning to creep up on the muscles as he aged. He was dressed in a dark combat jacket and smart designer trousers. On the lapel of his jacket was a nametag, titling him “Topaz”. It was unlikely that was his real name. Confidently, he sauntered down the street for a short while, trying to avoid any unnecessary attention. Numerous people spilled out of the many clubs and pubs in the area, but he did not pay any attention to any of them.

He slowed his pace as he approached where he seemed to be wanting to go, pulling a baseball cap out of his bag over his head, despite the fact that it did not fit in among his designer shirt and trousers. As he walked onwards, a drunk stumbled up to him, asking for money to buy another drink. Topaz ignored him, but the drunk continued to want his attention. Topaz leaned over and squeezed the back of the drunk’s ear, and the drunk collapsed forwards into the gutter. Topaz continued, but that brief altercation had slowed him down and drawn attention to himself. He looked up and his eyes met those of a tall blond man who was just leaving the club. There was a brief flicker of recognition, and the blond man ran out into the night.

Kicking himself inwardly for such a stupid mistake, Topaz followed after a brief pause. He stripped down out of his designer trousers into combat gear he had been wearing underneath, and started to chase the blond man through the streets.

Making sure he kept his eye on the man, Topaz chased after him, hurriedly eating up the ground on the pavements in an attempt to make sure that the man did not get too far away. The man did not look behind him, but he was obviously aware that he was being chased. He turned and ran down a number of side streets in an attempt to lose Topaz, but he always kept a clear direction about his path, which unnerved Topaz – the man kept on heading east and north, and Topaz could not help but worry about what would be lying in wait for him when they got to where the man was aiming to get to.

For a moment, Topaz wondered if he had made a serious error in judgement by jumping into this so soon, but he brushed the thought aside as he thought of the prize which he could get if he succeeded this one time. He sensed it there, waiting for him, just out of reach. But do this, and his life would be complete.

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2012 in Action

 

We are the same (situation, prologue, and chapters 1-44)

Same target. Same motives. Same looks. Same lifestyles. We are the same, Jack… We are the same!

There are more chapters to come soon!

Author’s note: this story is still in a sort of “Beta” version. There will be some discrepancies, undoubtedly (minit/minute [minit is right], noon/hour [noon is right], contradictions here-and-there). This is not yet publishing quality. If it ever gets published, I assure you that I will correct the discrepancies and other errors that are in there. But make sure that you enjoy your read!

Situation

The world was a divided world by 2329. There were a few strong nations, but also quite a few weak ones. The continent that had been called North America up till about 2250 was now called North Wasidia, and it was divided up into many states.

Yukon was in the far North-West, with Canadia stretching from their eastern border to the Atlantic Ocean. Batwarstia was south of Yukon on the West Coast, and Toronto was east of them. Brunswick was the nation that was east of that, stretching all of the way from there to the Atlantic Ocean.

Missouri was south of the Great Lakes, which now spanned triple of the size they had been in 2000, with Mexico southwest of them and thus south of Batwarstia. South and east of Mexico was Texas, which sandwiched the nation of America in between themselves and the Greek colony in America, Greco-America. North of Greco-America was English Brunswick, another colony, this one held by England.

North Wasidia was a tense area, with America being constantly diminished in area by Missouri in the north, Texas in the west, and Greco-America in the east. North of that, Canadia’s ambitious war-based government was a threat to both Ontario and Yukon, who had allied together to combat the Canadians. Although both sides in the war were constantly bombing and invading each other, nothing was really changing in regard to land. Wars were so common in those times that no-one else felt they should interfere, and all of the other countries got on with their own business and paid no attention whatsoever to the war.

South of North Wasidia was Central Wasidia, or Nicuras, named after the two nations there, Nicaragua and Honduras. The two states were constantly claiming the other’s lands were theirs and continuously fighting loads of petty wars over lands and the islands in the east. Only one island was independent of these two, and that was Tobago, a tiny island just north of South Wasidia. Honduras and Nicaragua constantly tried to get allies with more powerful nations, but none of the stronger nations were willing to waste their resources on petty wars. So, like the Canadia/Yukon-Ontario war, it just went on deadlocked, with no side having an edge over the other.

South Wasidia was far more secure than North and Central Wasidia were. The whole continent was controlled by Columbia in the North and Buenos in the South, with a lot of puppet buffer nations around them. And although Columbia and Buenos mistrusted each other, neither side were really ready to go to war. The peace there was a welcomed breath of the fresh air of peace in the world of war that was 2329.

However, east of Wasidia, things were even more tense. All nations around the world spoke either English or Chinese and both the English block and the Chinese block never contacted each other, both grimacing and planning a prospective attack here or there.

In what was formerly known as Europe, land-bridges had formed all over the place due to the heat let out from the nuclear bombs in the third, fourth and fifth world wars, making the maps, even the land layout, very different from what they had been at the start of the millennium. Strong powerful nations had seized land for themselves and were not letting smaller nations have a chance to keep land. Smaller nations now only existed in Wasidia.

The most left-wing of all the nations was England, which was also the nation in the north-west of Europe, if there was such a place any more. To be honest, the whole world east of the Atlantic had fused together, making there no real continental divides.

England’s capital city was Copenhagen, being around the centre point of England. England held all land west and north of there, including what had been the Baltic Peninsula. England also held all the land to the east up till the bay of Murmansk: beyond the bay, which was thin but very long, stretching down from the Arctic to former Ukraine, was Chinese-speaking territory.

The English territory included the world’s largest lake, the saltwater Baltic Lake, where the Baltic Sea had been but which was no cut off from the rest of the sea due to the land-bridge between former Sweden and Denmark. England also held, stretching south, the land southward until Barcelona (the neutral city right in the centre of the Mediterranean Desert) in the south-west, to Rome in the South, and from there a straight line to Kiev marked the end of English territory.

England was rather independent politically but it did have a couple of small alliances in Wasidia with the smaller nations there and also an on-off alliance with Skiopia. There was also it’s colony in North Wasidia

South-east of England was Greece. Greece, the nation which was arguably the most powerful nation in the world due to its victory over the now non-existent Kazhakstania and her allies in the Fifth World War. Greece held narrow strips of land north, west, and south, so it had sea access to all three major seas of the world: the Atlantic Ocean, the bay of Murmansk, and the Skiopian Ocean (what was previously known as the Indian Ocean, until India was conquered by China in 2121).

In the centre of these three strips of land was the Greek central plain, including its capital of Jerusalem. It was vast: bordering England in the north all along the English border, it contained a stretch of land going from what had been the Black Sea in the North down to what had been Ethiopia in the South.

Greece was allied with Nigeria, with both nations agreeing not to fight each other but instead to co-operate together. Their alliance was committed to wiping China off the face of the earth, due to how the Chinese had committed so many atrocities in their war in 2294 and also because of the insane Chinese leaders, who wanted to open up the world of space again and make it safe for spacecraft to go into space.

(After the Third World War and all of the horrors because of space travel and space missiles in the war, a Greek robot craft was sent up there which destroyed all spacecraft in the vicinity of earth in space. It was still active, ready to bio-bomb any nation that sent spacecraft into space). Greece did not want the risk of having spacecraft again, and, as they were the only nation with the key to destroy the robot, no spacecraft had been sent to space since the Third World War.

Nigeria contained all the land south-west of Greece down to the southern wastes of Auntarthika and the Kalahari Desert. Nigeria spanned a huge area, yet the majority of it was vastly unpopulated. The Mediterranean Desert in the North and the jungle towards the south of the country was not highly populated, and in the far south, down near the Cape of Africa, was the huge Kalahari Desert, whose population was the epic total of one hundred. And then there was Auntarthika: the cold, icy waste south of Africa only joined to Africa by an extremely narrow landbridge. All in all, only a small area of Nigeria was actually reasonably populated.

So, despite being the largest country in the English-speaking world in terms of territory, it was neither very important nor influential. It was constantly in the shadow of its more powerful ally, Greece, and it needed Greek support to keep its land from breaking apart as the minority race-groups around the country clamoured for independence.

However, Greece also had a reason to rely on Nigerian support: the Nigerians’ genius scientists and science schools. The Nigerians were famed for their scientific ability, and the last 73 winners of the “World’s Best Scientist’s” award were all Nigerians. All of the outside world were sure that the Nigerians had some unnatural way of learning science but as yet no-one else had found out what, not even Greece. There was hardly a great amount of co-operation in those times.

South-east of Greece was Skiopia, with its capital of Dhaka. This nation had only grown up to a decent size after the Third World War, when a lot of the Skiopian Ocean dried up, but since then it had grown rapidly and become a superpower. It had an on-off alliance with England, but it was more than able to survive on its own. It was the furthest south-east of all the English-speaking nations and was dangerously close to China.

North of Skiopia and east of Greece was Iran. Iran’s capital, which had been its capital for hundreds of years, was Tehran. It was a very seclusive nation, with its boudaries stretching to the Everest Mountains in the North and East, and the Caspian Lake in the North.

But across from England on the other side of the Bay of Murmansk, North of Iran, and east of Skiopia, lay the vastness of China. China had suppressed all nations in its path thus far, conquering as much as it had wanted. Recently, though, there had seemed to be less advancement than before. It was still huge and vast however, and no-one in the English-speaking realm really knew how far North, South and East it went. All people had to tell were the maps drawn up in around the year 2100, and since then, the world had changed so much landwise that who knew where the land ended now? A couple of brave spies had been sent in but none had come out alive.

As a result of this all, China was a secret land, to the people of the English-speaking lands. It was totally separated politically from all the other nations. None of the English nations knew anything about it.

So, the political situation was very tense. China was a common enemy for the English-speaking countries, especially how it had been pushing its boundary further and further West and South, engulfing parts of Kazhakstania after it had been weakened, and threatening Skiopia and Iran.

But, to make it worse, all was not well in between the English-speaking countries. England and Greece and Iran and Nigeria and Skiopia were not closest of allies. Let alone all of the nations of Wasidia. Anything one nation did could break the tense political situation and plunge the world into World War Six, and after it would be officially declared a world war by the World of Nations (WoN) organisation, then nuclear bombs would follow, and the world could degenerate into anarchy all over. Peace had to be kept at all costs among the English-speaking nations…

Prologue

The year 2302

It was a very hot day by Missourian standards, the cars rushed by in the normal mid-afternoon rush hour. Most of them would be full of drivers rushing home to avoid the heat.

Precious few Missourians enjoyed the high temperatures: Missourian culture had revolved around cold for so long, that heat was no longer looked on favourably from the vast majority of the populations.

The animals, however, were enjoying the rare warmth, and cars were anxiously trying to avoid the stray rabbits that wandered onto the road. More often than not, they weren’t able to. Those drivers would have to spend the evening clearing the blood off their wheels. Or get their servants to do it for them.

Due to the heat, the shops by the side of the road were getting quite a lot of customs as well: the few tourists who had come from America or Batwarstia were spending the time in the outdoors now that they had the opportunity. They all clung in a pack, rushing in and out of one shop or another.

In the midst of the rush and confusion went a man and his wife. On first glance, they just looked exactly like a normal young Missourian couple. But what they were about to do would change the world as they knew it.

The man was a little bit taller than his wife, with light brown hair. His handsome face was speckled with chocolate-coloured freckles that blended in with his dark skin. He might just have been able to pass for an American tourist had he wanted to.

His wife was rather skinny and very beautiful. She also had light brown hair, with quite dark-tanned skin, rather rare for Missourians. However, the one thing that stood out on her was her upper arms. They boasted tough muscles, as tough as any man’s.

Despite not looking exactly normal, they looked innocent enough, and no-one gave them much of a second glance. Avoiding company, they walked along the road and turned off into the drive of a large house.

No-one gave the house a second look either: it just seemed like an innocent, normal, place. However, had anyone investigated further, they would have found out that the gates were in use a lot more than a normal house. Another thing was that there often seemed to be a lot of visitors at once, even when no function seemed to be going on.

But no-one was investigating further: who would when all of the road was bought up and owned by compliant people? And so the man and his wife were able to walk all the way up the drive to the main door in the open.

From there, they flashed their identity cards and were ushered through the corridors and staircases of the house – although it hardly was an ordinary house – to a small room deep underground.

The guard outside the room let them in on sight of their face, without needing to check their identity pass. He knew exactly why they were there and let them straight through into the room without a word.

The couple were greeted by a professor in a grey coat, who quickly scanned them, trying to see anything that could be taken as a threat. After being convinced that there was nothing suspicious, he then told them to follow him into yet another room.

There were another couple of people there, one of whom was one of the most powerful people in Wasidia. But both of the couple knew who he was, and didn’t bat an eyelid: they had met him numerous times before, and they had been expecting him.

You both know the consequences of what you are about to do.” the professor in the lab coat said.

They both nodded curtly. The had considered the implications long and hard, and had eventually come to the conclusion that they would have to do it. They didn’t want to consider all of the implications again, and certainly not now. Not now when they wanted to get in over and done with as soon as possible.

Good. And you know that any problem that could go on now will be at your expense for accepting to do this thing?” the professor continued, anxious to get the routine over and done with as soon as possible.

Again, they both nodded. It was just another way of the saying “it’s not our fault if you die”, but the couple knew that it wouldn’t be. After all, they knew the risks, but they were willing to take them. If it worked out, they knew that everything would be fine for the rest of their lives. If not…

Good.” the professor repeated, glancing around the room and being told to hurry up, “If you would like to come this way…” and he showed the couple into a large round container in the middle of the room.

They followed him, and stepped inside the container, without saying anything. They had yet to speak since they had gone into the building, and they didn’t intend to start now. They didn’t want to think of any of the consequences of what they were about to do. And they didn’t want to discuss anything intimate with anyone else around.

There was enough space inside the container – or cubicle – for both of them, but not much else. They left all of their belongings behind outside like they had been told to, and shut the door behind them.

They then took off all of their clothes and put on special suits. The suits had been particularly made for the job that they were about to be used for, and none others would work.

Still up for this?” the man asked his wife, his voice cracking. It was thick with anxiety, and his words were slurred.

Of course.” she replied. Her voice wasn’t much better, and they both knew exactly what they were about to do.

They sat down on the seats facing a screen and large white machine. The professor’s face came into the screen, and he gradually guided them through a countdown before what they had come for would start.

10… 9… 8…” his voice droned over the speakers.

I love you.” the man whispered to his wife. It was the only thing he could say.

Love you too.” she replied back.

7…”

And if you survive and I don’t…” the man shuddered as he considered it.

Yes?”

Enjoy yourself without me.”

I wouldn’t be able to….” she replied, and paused.

6…”

You are my joy.” she added.

They were silent for a few moments and the countdown went on.

5… 4…. 3…. 2…. 1….”

Good luck.” the man said to his wife.

You too.” she replied with a smile.

0…”

The man smiled at his wife as the countdown came to an end. In all of a sudden, the couple were hit with a wave of pain that was more intense than any pain they had ever felt in their life.

It felt as if they were being thrown into the sun and were somehow surviving. It was ghastly, and it didn’t relax. All of the pain was internal: their organs were screaming out in pain, and they felt like they would burn out, or explode, or disintegrate. Right from when it started, they were almost certain they would die. It was far worse than they had expected.

The first wave of pain lasted for ten seconds, but there was no time to relax as it was immediately followed up by a second wave, this time longer and even more intense.

The man yelled out in pain as one of his lungs felt like it had exploded. But the screaming didn’t relax the pain at all: only intensified it.

But it didn’t get any better: it got worse and worse over the minits that they were forced to endure it. One wave of devilish pain was immediately followed up with another wave, each of which lasted longer and was even more painful than the previous wave.

After five minits, the man wanted to die, and die immediately. The pain was now getting so hard that all he could feel was pain. No emotion, no feelings, no nothing. Just pure pain. Only pain.

Next to him, his wife was feeling exactly the same. She was screaming out loud and raving about all sorts of random things. The man couldn’t hear her as he was coping with his own pain, but he had known that it would be worse for her as she had to cope with the baby as well.

How could it be so bad?” she had screamed out loud “JUST LET ME DIE!I DON’T CARE! THE PAIN IS TOO MUCH! I WANT TO DIE! WHY CAN’T I DIE, WHY NOT?

But time and time again they didn’t die. They were repeatedly dropped straight through the tight web of pain that grabbed hold of their organs and threatened to yank each and every one out of their sockets. But still they didn’t die. Still the pain kept coming at them.

After nine minits – though it had felt like nine hours for the man and his wife – the pain eventually started to relax, but it was still impossibly painful. Their will to live, however, kicked in. It wouldn’t let cruel fate tale over, and strengthened them to defend the pain. It hurt as much as it had previously, but there was no fear of death anymore. They both knew that somehow, by some amazing sort of luck, they had survived. Somehow.

It still seemed like ages for the pain to stop coming as it died down from the machine. Eventually, it stopped. The machine turned off, and they both knew that they had survived.

Too tired to do anything, they both flopped back on their chairs – uncomfortable as the chairs were – and weakly stuck out their hands to hold each other’s.

They stayed like that for about fifteen minits as they waited for themselves to gain the trickle of energy that would enable them to get out of their seats and get out of the cubicle.

As they were waiting, the professor’s voice crackled back over the speakers. “I’m glad to see you both survived.” he said, clearly relieved.

This caused both of them to look at each other, and the feeling was incredible as they caught each others’ eye. They fell into each other’s arms, each crying after their experience of agony.

But remember now to watch your actions.” the professor continued, “All of your feelings, prejudices, and emotions could be sent into your boy, so make sure that nothing harmful is there.”

They both nodded, more in shock than anything else. They were still taken aback by the pain they had endured. Totally.

They sat there for a couple more minits until the doors swung open to the cubicle and the professor’s face looked in.

Come out now.” he said. It was an order, not a suggestion.

They both obeyed without a word, still dressed in their silly plastic suits. They stepped back on the floor, and immediately the man said to his wife,

So now…. for the easy life.”

Yeah.” she agreed with a uneasy smile.

Overhearing that, the powerful man – who had remained silent through the whole thing – suddenly interrupted, “Actually…” he said.

Yeah?” the man asked, hoping that what the man would say was not what he was expecting. But it wasn’t to be.

The powerful man continued with a – was that a smile?! – on his face,

We have a problem.”

Chapter 1

Jack Thorn stepped out into the Nashville street and walked north towards the city centre. The wind was bitterly cold and would not relent, coming down from Canada and Missouri in the north. Jack wished that the cold snap would stop, at least for a while. Although he normally liked the cold, it had gone on for a bit too long now, and it was way below average for February this year. Sometimes the weather was annoying, especially at times like this.

But at least it was better than the heat. In summers, Jack hated the searing heat. It was often rather oppressive to him. But as ever, Jack’s train of thought changed away from topics such as the weather, to heavier topics that not many people would expect a fourteen-year-old American boy to think about: namely, politics, history, and the future of America.

Jack’s interest in history originated from when he was five, when his history teacher told him and all the other children of Nashville (the capital of America, where Jack lived) the facts that “History is the most important thing you will ever learn in your life. The characters you meet in history can be your role-models, your friends, and even your teachers, as you look through the story of their lives. History is the only way you can learn of the mistakes, failures, and successes of other people and implement these into your lives. History is the most important thing you need to have a successful life: without it you will be in trouble and alone in life.” And despite now knowing the amount of prejudice in those words, Jack believed them, to an extent, and had always held an interest in history since then.

In history he found out how America had been such a strong country in times previously, and that now it was so weak. He really wished that America would go back to its former greatness, when it had a huge empire of most of the American continent. It had even reached as far north as the Great Lakes! But this was the year 2329, and ever since America had been defeated by Greece in the Fifth World War, it had not been anywhere near great, and now it was at its weakest ever point, holding only a small area of the Mississippi basin. It was now surrounded by other nations of equal size, and there was no real riches of America. All technological equipment now was made in England, or Greece, and America had no real main source of income. It looked that, unless something changed, America was going to be squeezed out of existence by the Texans in the West and Missourians in the north, both of whom were seizing American land for themselves on the border. Jack would do anything, anything at all, to manage to get his own back on those nations…

Jack especially loved the parts of history when America was really great, like when Dwite Eisenhower invaded France and conquered the evil Austrian dictator Adolph Hitlir in the Second World War, when Rhys Batwarst had bombed Nigeria , sacrificing his own life in World War III, or when George Washington declared America independent at the start of American history. He also loved hearing about when America was the strongest nation in the world, from 1900 to 2100, America’s “golden age”, due to its nuclear strength. But the treaty of Sydney after the end of World War Five had been really harsh on America, and the terms had included “no nuclear bombs for America”. Since then, America had never been even a shadow of what it was and now it was weaker than ever.

From history came a natural interest in politics, as in learning about history he read a lot about politics. His first election he could remember was when he was 10, and he remembered the frenzy that gripped the country. Jack was a passionate nationalist, and although the Nationalist Party only got 40,000 votes and twenty seats in the Greyham Building, the government building, Jack still enjoyed the election. And when, just two months ago, the Nationalists somehow turned the public’s hearts around and won the election, getting 70% of the vote and 62% of the seats, Jack had been overjoyed. Now an American government would no longer be a pushover for other nations.

However, the new government hadn’t really seemed to be doing anything, and Jack’s passionate support had died down a bit. There seemed to be next to no difference between the Nationalists and the former government, the liberals, except the Nationalists had got rid of America’s powerful alliance with England, which brought huge protests of outrage in the city centre. Jack was sure though, that the government would eventually bring a change in fortunes for America.

Jack was by himself as he walked down the street, and that was no surprise because he was naturally seclusive and kept to his own. He had not many friends, not because other people didn’t like him, more because Jack wanted friends who shared his interests, and not many people did. Jack’s only true friend had been a guy called Stervum Fall, who had been a few years older than Jack and had now left the house and was serving in the army. Since then, Jack hadn’t heard anything of Stervum, undoubtedly because of the harsh amounts of censorship in the army. With the amount of censorship there was, you’d expect them to be fighting a war! But they weren’t, they were just letting Missouri and Texas to push closer and closer to Nashville.

That day, Jack walked to the school where he studied every day. The first subject that day was Physics. All the nuclear bombs dropped during the Third World War had made chemicals rare, and Chemistry had been made pointless as a result. Also, people had given up on proper grammar ages ago, and English was also made redundant. Jack had only heard of these subjects from reading the classical books(another difference to him and most people of his age), but most people had no clue what they were.

That day was the final school-day of the term: and most of the students were glad of that. Jack was no different, and, although he liked studying, school had no real charm for him, and he had taken his final exams from the school that term, and was hoping he would pass and be able to leave school. He had taken the final exam a bit earlier than most people did, but Jack was bright and was sure to pass. He had no idea what he wanted to do later on, but he would like to get school over and done with, and then think about future life.

*******

In the centre of Nashville, the new foreign secretary, Jean Pineau, was talking to the new premier of America, Mustapha Blake.

“Mustapha”, Jean said, “We must attack the other nations. Greece do not hold much strength in this continent, and Missouri are really weak. Texas and Mexico should be soon defeated, same as Batwarstia, and then we can attack Canada, Ontario, Honduras, Nicaragua and the South Wasidian nations. Soon the whole continent will be under our command.”

“Our army is not that strong.” said Blake, “We are powerful but not that much, and you know it, Jean. How would you attempt to do such a big task?”

Jean looked at Blake and winked slyly. “We may be stronger than you think, my dear man.”

What do you mean?” asked Blake in reply, but Jean just turned around and walked out without reply. Blake sighed. He had thought that the arrangement allowing him to become premier would be secure and perfectly safe, with almost nothing to do all day, after he left everything to his ministers. But he was beginning to get second thoughts. It seemed like all of his ministers still wanted to tell him things all the time, some asking for his permission for something.

It was them who put me in charge: why do they need my permission when they more or less are in charge? They can get me out of my post whenever they want, why respect my so-called authority?” Blake thought. And now the foreign secretary, Jean Pineau, seemed to have a plan to conquer nations for America. Sweat touched Blake’s eyebrows. He had a bad feeling about this…

*******

Jack spent the few days afterwards in his room in his house trying to find out how to put his Zonestation- a little screen machine that all Americans were given when they became 11 that contained all of Jack’s games, communications (not that he needed much of that), documents, and music- back together. He had taken it apart a few days back and was trying to find out how it worked by putting all the parts together again. He hadn’t split up every component: he wasn’t confident he would be able to put it together from that, but he had separated the main parts, and he was surprised how long it was taking him to put it back.

Eventually, after a couple of days, he tired of that and one afternoon went outside to get a new screwdriver that would help him. He measured the size of the screw, wrote it down, and went outside. Once outside, the fresher air gave him a moment to clear his mind. He had never known his parents, the same as almost all American children in that time because all children, due to the Child Protection Act 2297, when they were 9 months old, had to be handed in to a house where they would all live until they became an adult at nineteen. Most parents, to the detriment of their children, didn’t come back to visit them. Jack made a mental point to visit his child often if one day he had a child. He wouldn’t want to go through life with the guilt of leaving his child alone, not knowing who their parents were.

He wanted to find out who his parents were but there was almost no way he could. He could not even guess his parents from their surname: all children were given a random surname from a mix of surnames, or the parents paid money to choose the surname of their child, although hardly any parents chose to do this. Jack felt a little bit sad as he thought of his parents, and how he had never known them. But there was no way to change anything, and why couldn’t Jack just be normal and forget about parents? No-one else in Jack’s house, not even Stervum, had seemed to care about their parents. Why did Jack have to be different?

He went into one of the shops, and tried to find the screwdriver, and when he got there, there was only one more of the size and shape that he wanted. He was a little surprised: hardly anyone bought anything from the hardware shop. But Jack had got what he wanted, and he didn’t mind about that.

As Jack left the shop, a girl who must have been about twelve or thirteen, barged past him. Jack was annoyed: people shouldn’t just barge past others like that: it wasn’t respecting other people’s human rights, but down inside him he was just glad the hardware shop was having better trade nowadays: previously Jack had had to buy things from there just for the sake of it to avoid the shop going into liquidation.

Jack walked away, and from his viewpoint he could see almost all of Nashville. The Greyham Building was right in the middle, and it was the only building of enough size to be called a tower. On the other side of town, the north, was the army barracks. He wondered if that was where Stervum was… There was only one real road in Nashville, and it was the main road. As the cars and trucks lumbered down the road, all of them 2290s models passed on from England or Skiopia, Jack felt annoyed at the poorness of his country. He would love to go to England one day and feel the wealth, the amount of material items there, and dream about them… But at the moment, there was no way Jack could view the wealth there. He was snapped back to reality as he had to get out of the way of a truck that wasn’t driving properly. Again, Jack felt some annoyance at the cheap models Americans had, and wanted to bring back American greatness…

*******

Inside the American science centre, Professor Tipe stared down at his papers. He struggled to breathe, such was his hope. He had spent so many years working on this, and now, could it really have been finished already? Yet here it was, the evidence was there, in the papers in front of him. He read through it four or five times, just to make absolutely certain. On his fifth read, he noticed one small issue. Yet he would be able to correct that, no problem at all.

He typed through to the government and got on phone to Jean Pineau, the foreign secretary. Funny, him being called something that sounded exactly like “Type”. But anyway, today was no day to think of such mere minor issues as that. This evening, he was going to be rich! Rich! Just think about that! His mind, which was said by his school teacher those years ago to be “one of the best he had ever seen”, was going to give him money! And he was going to be able to live the high life… Yes, when he got back home, Mrs Chestnut would be happy: very happy.

*******

Hello?” said Jean Pineau, bored. The last few days had been tiring for him and his personal assistant, Frankie De Bran. They had had to calm down the people in the city centre and show them why breaking the alliance with England was right. They had shown the people England’s human rights record and how disappointing it was (although the numbers were lies, actually, England’s human rights record was second to none), and England’s financial problems under the surface (again, England had no problems financially), and finally had shown how the English had not cared for America when the alliance was on anyway so it wouldn’t be any different when it was off (this, incidentally, wastrue), but the people didn’t care. Only when Pineau had said that by ending the alliance with England it had left them open to an alliance with Greece and that the government was pursuing that alliance, the people subsided. They were clearly very anxious about their own personal safety, and put that way above other matters of concern.

At least, though, there was some good in it though. The people were unlikely to make a large fuss if Pineau’s idea came to pass, because of their concern for their own security. And it would hardly do to have to conquer your own people to conquer the world, would it now?

Pineau had been expecting another boring call: he had had a number of calls from Blake, trying to find out what Pineau’s idea was. Of course, Pineau had told him nothing at all: how could he, when he wasn’t even sure whether it would come to pass? But this call was clearly different.

Yes Tipe?” asked Pineau. De Bran could hear no more, but he could see Pineau’s reaction. He had gone from bored and tired to happy and excited, and his hands were shaking, although he kept total composure in his voice.

Ok.” he said at last, “We’ll be there soon.”

There was some muffled speaking on the other end of the line., and then Pineau spoke: “yes, we. I’ll be bringing my personal assistant along too.”

Again, there was some more speaking, but Pineau didn’t change what he said: “I will be bringing him, whatever the dangers. It doesn’t matter you, at least, it shouldn’t. Not if you want a job tomorrow.”

Again, there was some reply, and Pineau seemed to get aggravated, and he said: “Yes, a job, your pay, whatever. You know what I mean!”

A few moments later, the two exchanged goodbyes, then Pineau put down the phone. His face showed no emotion, but he gestured towards De Bran to follow, and then they left, getting into the car and heading down to the scientific centre in Nashville.

Chapter 2

As Jack walked back to his house, he looked back towards the shop. He had no idea why he did it, but anyway, it wasn’t really that odd that he did it. As he looked, he saw the girl he had seen go into the hardware shop come out, and then run towards Jack. Jack stopped, intrigued, when he saw the girl was staring towards him. It wasn’t an unpleasant stare: just the type of stare when you want to catch someone’s attention. She slowly ran up to him, for she was clearly not a fast runner, and then, without saying anything beforehand, said:

Give me that screwdriver you just bought.” It wasn’t unpleasant or anything, just a statement, almost an ask for the thing.

What?” Jack said. He had anticipated a lot of different things, but not this. It took him a while to register this in his mind, and then he asked “Why?”

It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I want it as soon as possible. Please can I have it?” she said again.

Why? Why can’t you wait for a new stock?” asked Jack, “I bought it!”

I know that! Why do you think I’m pressing money into your hand then? And I can’t wait for a new stock because its urgent. I need it now, as soon as possible!” said the girl.

Jack blushed, humiliated. He hadn’t realised that, he was too surprised at what the girl had said. He looked down: the money there was about three times more than the screwdriver actually had cost Jack.

Why is it so urgent?” Jack asked, suspicious. This girl was already unnerving him. “What’s the issue?”

Look,” said the girl, calming down a little, “I want the screwdriver you bought, and I am willing to pay a lot of money for it. I need it for a project I’m working on. It’s really important, and if it waits longer…, well, things might happen.”

What things?” queried Jack, “and what project? What can you be doing that is that important?

The girl’s attitude snapped. Through gritted teeth, she said, “It is not your business! I’m using that!”

She tried to snatch the screwdriver. She clearly was really urgently needing it. Jack considered it: he was hardly needing it in the urgent future, and anyway, this girl seemed to be very adamant about getting it now. A little screwdriver like this was not worth getting into a fight about. But her attitude… it wasn’t right. And anyway, she said she was working on a “project”. Jack wondered what this “project” was. It could be working against the government, for all he knew, and Jack didn’t want to take the risk.

No, I got it, and I am keeping it. Look, I’m sorry, but I really want it. Anyway, these little things are hardly used for much.” he said.

The girl said back, angrily, “Well, if they are hardly used for much what are you using it for then? Not feeling so clever now are you?”

Well…, erm…, I know this sounds a bit silly, but I’m using it to put together my Zonestation. I took it apart because I wanted to see if I could put it back.” Jack said stuttering. He realised he was seriously unnerved by the girl and his confidence had dropped, and he wasn’t really sure what to say. He was wondering what this girl really wanted. Was it really the screwdriver she wanted, or something else?

The girl seemed rather surprised by Jack’s answer and she swallowed and tried to find the right words before saying, “OK, if that’s the case, I’m sorry.” and then she turned around and went away.

Jack smiled, laughing silently at how absurd that girl had been. He wondered whether he should go after her, but his sense of conscience told him not to. He went back to his house, trying to forget what had just happened. When he got back, he went into his room and read a book.

*******

Pineau and De Bran got out of the car. The car was one of the few cars in Nashville that was actually with its first owner. Almost all the others had come from overseas and were second-hand at best. However, the senior government officials had been able to get brand-new cars from England as that was a term in the treaty they had signed. However, it wasn’t clear whether that was going to continue now that the alliance with England had been scrapped, but Pineau wasn’t going to worry about that if his plan went ahead. And if it didn’t… well, he’ll find some way of getting America stronger somehow.

Where is Professor Tipe?” asked De Bran to the man outside the door.

He is inside, sirs. Would you like me to take you to him?” the man replied.

Yes,” said De Bran. Pineau said nothing, trying to conceal his emotions.

They followed the man for a few minutes, the only sound the rhythmic tapping of feet against the polished hard floor. They went past numerous laboratories, with multiple science experiments going on. De Bran wondered how many science experiments went on in this place a day. It must have approached a hundred, yet so little of them turned to be fruitful for future work… he would have to talk to the minister of science about the fact that so little of the science experiments turned out to be useful. But hopefully this experiment, no project, turned out to be an odd one out from the rest of the scientific studies. If not, Pineau would not be happy…

De Bran was one of the few people in the world to know about the project. Only Pineau, him, and the people working on the project knew exactly what it was. Others had a good idea of what it was, but they didn’t know the whole truth of the matter. Pineau had experimented with it at the election, and it had worked perfectly. Now that Tipe seemed to say that it was finished- although Pineau hadn’t actually totally said that that was the case- then nothing would be able to stop them now.

Come in.” said Tipe, when they finally got to his room. For the project, he had been assigned a room in the central area of the science centre, which was good, but a bit too long to get to by foot, De Bran thought.

So, Professor,” said Pineau, “How are you this fine day? But I must confess, now is not the time to exchange pleasantries. We must go straight to the point. Are you totally sure that this is complete?”

The Professor seemed insulted, as if part of him had been criticised. But then again, De Bran thought, it had. He kept his composure though, and said “Yes, Mr Pineau. I am quite sure that this is a complete project.”

Good.” said Pineau, “Are you sure I can trust you in this?”

I never lied to you before.”

True. But we have to be sure, just in case. If anything goes wrong, I can assure you that you will be in trouble… big trouble.”

Tipe nodded.

Pineau continued, “Now, about the payment-”

Oh, erm, yes. The payment.” Tipe said as if he hadn’t been thinking about it, although the truth of the matter was, he hadn’t been thinking of anything else.

-it was $50,000,000, am I correct?” said Pineau, a bit annoyed to be interrupted.

Yes,” said Tipe, and then, as Pineau was writing the cheque, “But I was thinking that as I had finished it so fast, maybe eighty million might be better?”

No,” said Pineau, “What you will get will be fifty million, unless of course you wish to take a cut?”

No!” said Tipe, “But surely a little more? Surely just seventy-five million?”

You will get forty million.” said Pineau. “Or less, if you keep going on.” And he took out his chequebook again and proceeded to sign it.

For a moment it looked as if Tipe would leave it at that. But then he said, “But that’s not fair! The project will be worth you almost ten times that amount!”

Pineau turned and looked at him, and then said through gritted teeth. “I say what’s not fair, not you. And then he took out his gun and shot Tipe between the eyebrows.

Tipe fell backwards, stunned. He hadn’t been expecting Pineau to take things that far. As he passed into the void, he gasped, “Red wire…. not connected…. mainstream core.”

What was that?” asked De Bran as they were walking back to the car. Someone had already cleaned up the body.

He was a fool.” said Pineau.

Yes I know that, but what was that he said as he went?”

Doesn’t matter. Stupid fool, thinking he could do that to me.”

De Bran suspected that what Tipe said meant more than that, but he didn’t say anything.

A bit later, when they were on their way back to the Greyham Building, De Bran asked, “What are you going to do about his wife?”

What does that matter?” said Pineau.

Well, if his wife doesn’t get the money or her husband returning from work, she’ll contact the media, and the last thing we want is public opinion against us.”

Pineau looked annoyed for a moment, and looked as if he was hating De Bran for saying that, and for a moment De Bran worried for himself (Pineau was hardly the most forgiving of employers), but then Pineau said, “Yes, you have a point. I will have her come to the Greyham Building today and I will give her most of the money we would have given to Tipe. From what I could remember, they weren’t very close and he won’t be mourned very much by her.”

There was silence until they got back to the Greyham building, from that time. De Bran thought about what Tipe could have said at his death: could it have been a problem in the project? It had seemed that way. But no, why would Tipe have called them if he hadn’t finished it? Maybe he wanted the money earlier? Anyway, it was all unlikely to be that, probably something else. De Bran put the thought out of his head.

*******

Jack, for the next few days, struggled to put his Zonestation back together. It was still eluding him. He wasn’t that patient, on the whole, and as a result he gave up, again. It was just far too difficult. He lay back on his bed, wondering what results he had had in the exams. The results came out on your Zonestation after two days, but as Jack had not got his Zonestation anymore, he would have to wait until they came out public and he could check the results on someone else’s Zonestation. The wait didn’t really annoy Jack though, he could wait in this matter.

The next day, Jack went outside, which he didn’t do very often. He was planning to go to the park and hopefully run for a bit, but as he walked, he saw loads of people, all heading towards the town centre. He was naturally interested in the amount of people going, and as the crowds thickened, he asked someone:

What’s going on? Why are you all going to the city centre?”

Why, mate, don’t you know? There’s going to be a public execution! Two people caught, Missourian spies, they were! The whole city’s going! It’s going to be a great time! They’re going to be stretched, then beheaded, and then their bodies are going to be chopped into pieces! It’s all going to be free public entertainment, it’s going to be great!” the man replied.

Jack felt sick and appalled, as the man walked off with his friends. He loved the government on the whole, but this was one area where he disagreed. And he hated how the people were going to watch as if it was just a public entertainment show. Then again, it seemed as if that was all they seemed to think it was.

It was… inhumane, how the government treated criminals. Death sentences was acceptable for serious crimes, but public executions… they weren’t right. And this, just for Missourian spies. Jack could understand why the spies had done it: for the country they loved almost as much as themselves, and he was sure a number of other people in Nashville could understand as well. Why all this, just for two people serving their country? It wasn’t right, not right at all. But who was he, a fourteen year-old boy in Nashville, who had barely finished school, to fight against this? One day he would, but not now. He silently promised that if ever he came into power, he would fight against this cruel practise of public executions. It wouldn’t make him popular, but it would be the right thing. And the right thing was all that mattered, wasn’t it?

*******

Pineau looked out over the square. Even more people than he had expected had turned up for the execution: it seemed as if most of Nashville had turned up. De Bran sat behind him, in the second row. On the right of Pineau was Blake, looking hot and flustered in his seat. Pineau hoped the people couldn’t see Blake’s nervousness, and looking down, he realised it was unlikely. The height they were at, odds were that the people couldn’t even see who was who.

De Bran tried to glimpse the emotions of the criminals as they were led through the crowds, taunted by everyone within seeing distance, which wasn’t very far. As they were led up onto the platform, a huge cheer went up through the crowd. This was the first execution they had had for a few years, and they were going to make the most of it. However, De Bran couldn’t see what the criminals, Jim and Selina Crop, were looking like. Probably really scared.

But then their face was shown up on the big screen, and De Bran saw that instead of being afraid, or even angry, they were instead scanning the crowd for faces, or at least that was what it looked like. It seemed as if they had an acquaintance they were trying to see. He mumbled that to Pineau, who said that he would remember that. But it seemed as if the couldn’t find their acquaintance, as they looked at each other and shrugged. De Bran was glad. Maybe the government had already caught the spy? Either way, it didn’t really matter. It might not even be another spy. It could be… anyone.

Then came the execution. De Bran wasn’t a great fan of public executions. He preferred killings to go on in private, short, fast, and deadly. He had heard too many stories of people escaping because the person planning to kill them had delayed too long. But, the people seemed to enjoy public executions, and the government had to try to keep public opinion on their side.

The two prisoners, husband and wife, died bravely. They said, when asked, that they were dying for their country, and they said that they were sure that quite a few of the people watching would understand how they felt. Then they were brought to the stretching rack. Selina Crop screamed a couple of times while she was being stretched, which brought huge cheers among the crowds, but other than that they both were without a sound.

The beheading was fast and quick. They both put their head on the block, and the executioner did the deed quickly and painlessly. Then he chopped the bodies into pieces and shouted:

This is what happens when someone goes against the state of America!”

There was huge cheers from the crowd as a result, but a lot of them knew that soon, unless something changed, it would be the Missourian government, not the American government, who would be executing people in Nashville.

*******

Jack heard the cheers from afar off, and felt sick. There seemed to be so many people there, all feasting on another person’s distress. It was horrible. Those poor people… He had been almost hoping that they had managed to escape, and so they could avoid the shame of such a horrible death. But it hadn’t happened that way, and anyway, at least two more enemies of the American state had been executed, that was for the best. But the manner in which it was done…. Jack tried not to think of it.

He needed a bit of fresh air to clear his head, and so he left the roadside and went toward the park in Nashville. There were three parks in Nashville, but both the central park and the southern park were too far away: anyway, to get there he would have to go past people who had gone to see the execu— no, don’t think of that! So Jack went the North Park of Nashville, which actually, like the rest of Nashville, was quite small, dirty, and old-fashioned: but it would have to do.

*******

Pineau was glad at how the day had turned out. The execution had turned out to be a great success. Everything had gone to plan, and far more people than Pineau had expected had gone to witness it. And now that he and the government had won over the people’s hearts, then he could pass a few laws to suit him, and soon he would be able to activate his grand plan. It would be fantastic, both for him and for America, especially for him.

Chapter 3

Jack got to the park, and he was expecting no-one to be there: after all, there never was anyone there at the best of times, and the only use the park had was making Nashville look a little nicer, because practically no-one ever used it. But instead, this time there was someone else there. The person, who seemed to look like they were a girl, was sitting on the other bench with her back to Jack.

Jack didn’t really mind about someone else, and he sat down on a bench and tried to breathe in the relatively fresh air. (He didn’t use a park for exercise; he had exercise machines in his house. No, he used the park just to breathe in the fresh air and to have peace and quiet.) He looked around. The park always gave him a sense of peace, and he had forgotten how much he enjoyed it.

Although the greenery was long gone, and all around was some cheap mud with green paints smeared onto it to make it look natural from a distance (obviously the government wasn’t catering for people who went into the park, as they were hardly expecting anyone to), Jack still thought the park was the nicest place in North Nashville. It was the only place to take stock, you see, and forget about the uselessness of life.

There was nothing in the park except for mud and benches, and the benches looked as if they had been produced all the way back in 2200, they were that old. Although the other bench (not the one Jack was sitting on) was in fractionally better condition, they were still very ugly.

Jack then looked towards the other bench: he was curious of someone else in the park, and then he noticed that he recognised the person – and yes, it was a girl – on the other bench. He was wondering where he had seen her, and then she turned around.

You!” she said, not loudly, but as a sense of surprise, “What are you doing here?”

I decided to come here. What does it matter to you?” asked Jack, for it was the crazy girl who had wanted to take the screwdriver of him when he had bought it from the shop. He was naturally very defensive, and he was worried that she was a bit… he struggled to find the word… not totally mentally secure.

But the girl seemed to be a totally different person today. She said, “Look, I’m sorry for how I acted the other day. I just thought that you were going to waste something that I wanted to use. I thought that something as useful as that was not going to be used properly.”

Ok.” said Jack, unsure what to say, “That’s fine. I’m ok with that.”

Anyway, can I ask why your here?”

What do you mean?” asked Jack.

What I mean is, I dunno, but I thought that most people would have been at the execution today.”

Oh, that!” said Jack, and paused for a moment, before saying “Don’t talk to me about that. It’s horrible. Executions shouldn’t be carried out in public. Its horrible, how people are treated that way. It’s not right. They should be killed in private, and fast, not like that-” Jack couldn’t say any more. Just saying that made him feel ill, again.

Ok, fine. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.” said the girl, “I hate executions as well.”

Oh.” said Jack. In his heart, he had somehow thought he would have been the only person in the world to have felt that way. He was kind of glad he wasn’t alone, even if it was only this girl who agreed with him, who one day seemed insane and another day seemed as if she was the nicest person in the world.

There was an awkward silence, broken when the girl said, “How are you getting on with putting your Zonestation back together? You said that you were doing that.”

Jack was a little embarrassed but he said that he had given up as it had been a little too hard for him to do. The girl made a sound similar to a scoff, and Jack felt insulted.

Why did you do that?” he asked, “It isn’t that easy, you know!”

Ok, if that’s what you say.” said the girl again, “but I’ve done it before, and it wasn’t too difficult.”

What? Really?” asked Jack, sceptical.

Yes, I have. I’ll show you if you want.”

Ok.” said Jack, “you come round to my house. Let’s go, before everyone comes back from where they’ve been.” He couldn’t even bring himself round to saying ‘execution’. “By the way, my name’s Jack.”

Mine’s Qwerty.” the girl replied, and neither of them spoke until they got back to Jack’s house.

********

All the people dispersed gradually, talking to old friends they hadn’t seen for ages. Not many people in Nashville had many friends to spend time with, or had much to do outside their homes. This was a main problem of the government: the people were all too seclusive they didn’t know how to do things together. As a result, the nation was becoming more and more divided. Pineau felt glad that the execution had done something, however small, to help solve that issue. It seemed that this event had worked wonders for the government, more than they could have anticipated. “Even if Blake had looked ill about the event,” thought Pineau, inside himself mocking Blake for his cowardice. Couldn’t he see that these people had wanted to take him off his role?

However, when Pineau got back to his office, De Bran was there waiting for him.

I have just got some interesting news about the criminals who were executed today.” said De Bran after a few minutes.

What is it?” asked Pineau.

Well,” said De Bran, “It turns out that they had been in America before now and that they had been granted American permanent residence.”

Why hadn’t I heard of that before?” asked Pineau, annoyed at such an important issue passing him by.

Well,” said De Bran, “it seems as if this time they came in under false names, and managed to avoid trace.”

Yes? So what is the relevance of their previous visit? They didn’t stay here did they?”

No, they wanted to go back to Missouri after a bit. But they stayed here for a while, and while they were here, they had a child. To avoid standing out, the couple handed the baby into the local house.”

What?” replied Pineau in an incredulous tone.

Yes. That’s right. If the public found out we executed the parents of an American citizen, they could be enraged and we will lose all credibility. At all costs we need to hide this information.”

Pineau took a while to take the situation in. “What house was the child put in?”

Nashville North.”

And the child’s name?”

We cannot find out at the moment.”

I see. Make sure you find out soon. That child could be…. troublesome if they find out the true identity of their parents. And, also, what was the proper name of the criminals?”

De Bran replied, reading from the notes he had written, “Thorn. Steve and Cynthia Thorn.”

*******

On the other side of Nashville, Jack Thorn got back into his house. His room was on the third floor, along with the rest of the thirteen-and-fourteen year-olds.

When they got to Jack’s room, Jack opened the door by his retina scan, and walked in.

What’s that for?” asked Qwerty.

What?”

The retina scan.”

Oh, that. No reason really, I just wanted to see if I could make one.”

Could you?” asked Qwerty again, as the one outside was clearly shop-bought.

No,” said Jack, “But I managed to change the settings in that one.”

How?”

Previously,” said Jack, “If it was wrong, the door wouldn’t open and a sensor would make a soft noise for me to hear. “Now,” he continued, “If its wrong, the sensor sets off a water gun that squirts the other person in the face.”

Qwerty laughed, which made Jack more relaxed. He had been a bit tense, although he didn’t really know why. Surely his body couldn’t be feeling nervous around this girl! Or at least, not that sort of nervousness. He looked around his room, and then took his Zonestation out from under his desk.

Here’s my Zonestation.” he said.

Qwerty looked at it, then she said, “You haven’t taken it all apart then?” she said it as if she was disappointed, as if she had missed out on something.

No.” said Jack, “I wasn’t confident if I could do that if I wanted to.”

Ok.” Qwerty said, “Shall I put it together for you?”

She said it in such a confident tone, almost mocking Jack for not being able to do it, so Jack began to believe that she was actually almost as good technologically as she said she was.

Yes, if you can.” said Jack, feeling a bit awkward, almost as if he was a stranger in his own room. He was still a little tense. He had never had anyone into his room for ages, not since Stervum was still at the house. And he certainly had never had a girl into his room before.

Qwerty, silently, as if she classed Jack as a lesser being, started to put the Zonestation together. Jack was shocked. She looked as if she had done it millions of times before. Within an hour, it was complete.

There,” she said, with a confidence in her voice. “Now believe me?”

Jack was speechless. Inside himself, he had held some hope that he was the smartest child in Nashville. He hadn’t really believed it, had he thought about it, but that faint thought, hope almost, had all but been blown away, within an hour.

That was amazing.” he said.

Thanks,” said Qwerty, “Now lets see if it works.”

Jack pressed the power button, and it worked, albeit a bit slower than before. He didn’t really know what to say. He had asked Qwerty to come over in a bit of anger at her apparent pride, but now it was clear she was far more advanced than Jack was. He was lost for words and not at all sure what to do. He couldn’t ask her to leave now, but neither could he really see a way he could do what he wanted with her around: namely, to check his exam results. Anyway, he thought, why not enjoy the company while you’ve got it? Because the company isn’t great company, he thought in reply to that, but there was no real point to argue. Just take the risk.

But actually, just at that moment, Qwerty asked, “What do you have here?”

As in?” Jack replied.

As in scientific stuff. Stuff to do with technology.” Qwerty replied.

Jack didn’t have much, so he thought of what he said, “A few physics books. A Zonestation. A bit of materials for measuring stuff. A large amount of screws, nuts, and screwdrivers. A few spare pieces of scrap metal, a workbench – if you call that a workbench” – and he pointed towards his small wooden table in the corner.

Qwerty nodded, and said, “Anything else?”

A few bits and pieces. Nothing worth mentioning. So, not much really.” Jack replied, feeling more easy now in conversation.

Its more than I have.” said Qwerty, “I think it’s quite a bit.”

Jack was surprised. He was sure that Qwerty had more than him, since she was clearly so much more advanced than he was. Now she said that she had less stuff than Jack, he was even more impressed. There was no real reason to lie – was there? – so Jack had to believe her and believing her made him more impressed at how she had learnt what she knew without much materials to help.

What house do you live at?” he asked, wondering.

Qwerty replied, mysteriously, “I don’t want to say.”

Jack was intrigued, but he didn’t ask further. He had known what it had been like for people to ask him questions he didn’t want to answer. However, he saw no real reason why Qwerty wouldn’t say what house she lived at: but then again, it didn’t really matter. And Jack wondered what it was about Qwerty: she seemed very…. he struggled for the right word… odd, a bit different.. Still, it was the first real company he had had for a couple of years, and he was grateful for that. Company was another thing he hadn’t fully realised how much he had missed for all this time.

Qwerty looked around Jack’s room, and then she saw, for the first time, Jack’s proper name, on Jack’s schoolbag. She stared at it for a while, and then she gasped, looking as if she had had a sudden mental revelation.

Have you taken your exams yet?” she asked.

I took them this year.” said Jack, “Have you?”

I took them this year too, so yeah.” said Qwerty, calming down a bit, “Do you know what results you got?”

No.” said Jack, “I hadn’t been able to check yet.”

Well, check it then!” said Qwerty. She seemed a bit excited, all of a sudden.

Ok, I will. Why do you want me to?”

It doesn’t matter. Just do it.”

Jack turned on his Zonestation, accessing his files. “What subjects did you do?” he asked, looking up.

Technology, Double science, Maths, English Grammar, Physics, and Mechanics.” Qwerty replied.

Cool,” said Jack.

What about you?”

Me? Double science, Physics, English Literature, History, Advanced History, and Geography.” he said. “I’m hoping for good marks in the history and english sections. What were your marks?”

Qwerty seemed surprised at something Jack had said, then she said, “I did all right. In Maths and English it wasn’t great. Mechanics and Technology were good, and Physics and Double Science I did pretty well.”

Okay, cool. Pretty good then.” said Jack, and then he opened his file showing his results.

At first glance he was shocked. On the front there was a message:

Congratulations Jack Thorn!

You have got the third-highest marks in Nashville in the subject: Science: Physics and Bioklas.

We congratulate you on your achievement. It is a great feat, to be top of such a huge bunch of top young scientists (at this point, Jack laughed – there was hardly a huge array of scientific talent in Nashville, but he read on). As a result of this great achievement, the government of America have offered to meet you and the four other young scientists who have got top marks in the exam.

It will be a huge honour for young people such as yourself to meet the people who are taking so many sacrifices to serve the people of this country, and we are sure that you will accept. The date will be the 7th of May this year, in the Greyham building, which I am sure you know. You will have to confirm this message and show your acceptance of it by the 31st of Marz. We hope to see you there.

At the bottom, there was a signature (copy of course, you can’t type signatures) of the education minister of the government and of the Premier. There was also a short postscript: in case you want to know, the young scientists who will be going with you are (unless anyone of them are foolish enough to reject) Klaus Pack, Hivan Lake, Fysel Hay, and Qwerty Rooke.

Jack looked at the date that day: it was Febuar the second: he had plenty of time to get back and reply. He got excited and he suddenly had a thought: he looked about, and saw that Qwerty had been looking at the message with him. “Is that you?” he asked, pointing at the last name on the message.

Yeah, that’s me.” said Qwerty. “I was way surprised when I saw your name and realised that you were one of the other people who had done so well in the exam!”

Its great, isn’t it? We can go into the Greyham building and see the government!” said Jack.

Yet Qwerty didn’t seem to share his excitement. “Its ok. What other marks did you get?”, and then she touched the button “Close” under the message. The message quickly dropped into the bottom right corner as a tiny image.

Jack wondered why she changed the subject like that. Why didn’t she want to talk about visiting the government? It was a great honour, and quite incredible as well! But then he looked at his results, and he noticed he had done as well as he had hoped in his history, but his English was far below what he had hoped for and his physics wasn’t great results either.

So, not really great then.” said Jack to himself. But he only really thought that because he was so shocked at how well he had done in the science, he had set himself high standards for the other subjects.

There was a short silence as Jack thought about what to say, but then Qwerty got up and said, “I’m going to go now. Its been a good time, thanks.”

Jack had a thought, and then said, “Do you want to come round next week, on Thorsday? You could maybe teach me how to put a Zonestation back together.”

Qwerty looked around at Jack, and then said, “Yeah, why not? That’d be fine. But not Zonestations. We’ll do something else, ok?”

What?” asked Jack.

Doesn’t matter.” she said. “See you then.”

Bye,” said Jack.

Oh, and another thing.” said Qwerty.

What?” asked Jack.

Don’t reply to that message at the moment, okay? Reply another time, ok?”

Fine by me.” said Jack, but at the same time he wondered why. Qwerty left the room, and then Jack heard her going down the stairs. He sighed, although he didn’t know why, then turned around and looked back at his Zonestation. He examined his results and then looked through his papers. He had had some detailed writing by a teacher on his science and history papers, probably because of his high results.

And on his science paper, he noticed that he had got practically every question correct, which was very good for him. He normally had at least two stupid errors, but on this paper he had none, and not actually as many of his marks as he had originally thought when viewing his score had come from lucky guesses: in fact, in only two of his questions he had no real scientific reason for his answer, and one of those was the one he got wrong.

His history papers were also exceptional, looking at them, but the other two were mediocre and nothing special. He noticed numerous errors there and he felt like he could do a lot better there.

*******

Jean” said De Bran. He and Pineau were rather close for what you would expect for Foreign secretaries and their Deputies, and they called each other by their first names.

Yes?” asked Pineau.

You know those children who you have agreed to meet in the Greyham Building in May? The ones who had performed well in the science exams?” asked De Bran.

Yes. What about them?” asked Pineau.

Have you looked through the names yet?”

No, not yet. Why?”

Well, one, from the North Nashville house, is called Jack. Jack Thorn.”

I see. And is he–.”

Yes. I looked closer into his files, and I can see that he is the boy that we have been looking for.”

I see.” said Pineau, and he stroked his newly-grown beard. “Let me think about this situation.”

Do you want me to do anything about this?” asked De Bran.

No, not really.” said Pineau, and then he added, “At least, not yet.”

Chapter 4

The next few days, Jack didn’t really know what to do. He mainly did a lot of games on his Zonestation, and as a result of this starting to make friends with a couple of other people in the house who he played against. He had tried to brag to a few people about how well he had done in the exam, but most of the other people who he told shrugged him off with either saying “liar” or “nerd” or anything like those two. So he gave up trying to convince people about what he had achieved. He would just have to wait until the results were published publicly. Anyway, Jack could wait. Although he wasn’t naturally the most patient, he had at least some perspective, and he knew a matter like that could wait.

Every morning when he turned on his Zonestation, a bubble popped up Remember! You have an invitation to the Greyham Building! Don’t delay: say yes as soon as you can! He wanted to reply all the time, but he decided to keep his word to Qwerty. As odd as she might be, thinking about it, Jack liked her as a friend and he wanted to keep his word to her.

Another thing Jack often did was read science books a lot. Although he knew that he was good at science, he knew it was quite a fluke that he had somehow managed to get the invitation to the Greyham building, and he didn’t want to risk being looked as out of his depth if they talked about advanced science stuff. So as a result, he spent quite a bit of time studying science, not only for the Greyham trip, but also, although he probably might not have admitted it, to show to Qwerty that he wasn’t so bad at science after all.

*******

De Bran sat at his desk, getting messages from all of the American spies about the movements of other countries. Just then, Pineau walked in, and immediately De Bran looked up. Pineau stared for a short time and then spoke to De Bran, “Well, Frankie, about that boy…”

Yeah?” said De Bran casually but interested enough.

I thought about it, and decided the best solution would be to leave it. But if anything at all looks like it would be able to get to… people… who should not find out about who the boy’s parents are, then I will have to know.”

So….” said De Bran, pondering for a moment, “Would the best option be to set up a guard to watch his movements?”

Yes,” said Pineau after a short time, “that would be the most practical an option, but it would have to be the best guard and only the best guard that we have. This is crucial to our survival in power.”

Okay.” said De Bran, “that shall be arranged.”

Also,” said Pineau, “about the weapon, I think that we should implement it soon. What would you think about that?”

M-hmm.” said De Bran, “That will be fine by me. But who am I to decide what the government does?”

Who are you?” said Pineau, laughing a little, “only the chief advisor of the most important person in the country! In fact, I would almost go as far in saying that you are the second-most important person in this nation of ours.”

De Bran was mildly surprised at this compliment from Pineau, not least because Pineau was hardly the man to give out compliments like that. But it wasn’t really something to trouble himself about. If Pineau valued his advice, then great. If not, well…. he was sure he could find a way to live, but there was no point thinking about that at the moment.

*******

That Thorsday, which was the fifth day of the American week, Jack woke up, and then he remembered that Qwerty was going to come round that day. He was a little annoyed: he hadn’t remembered that she would be coming round, so as a result he had set a plan for the day which would now had to be changed because of Qwerty’s visit. Still, he thought, it shouldn’t be bad, as long as she’s not as she was when she wanted the screwdriver. He then decided to go out for the morning, and then in the afternoon wait for Qwerty. He just hoped she hadn’t forgot, otherwise it would be a waste of a good afternoon.

That morning, he went out to the cinema with a couple of friends from his house. All the films shown in the cinema were English or Greek-made, so they were of some good quality, and Jack enjoyed the films, despite the awkward foreign accents. Watching a film was very cheap in Nashville, and the new government had made the tickets even cheaper, no doubt another attempt at making the people of the country to meet up more together. This hadn’t seemed to have had an impact: of all the seats in the sixty-seater hall, only about ten were filled. No wonder, really, though: watching the films at home on your Zonestations only cost a couple of Lincolns more: it was worth it, if you didn’t like going out.

Still, Jack thought, he didn’t really see why others didn’t like going out. He was finding it difficult to get others to come with him to watch films: most of the other boys complained about going out, preferring instead to stay in and be bored than to go out and enjoy the time. Jack couldn’t really understand it too much, but he left them alone to themselves on this issue.

After the film, (which lasted a couple of hours), Jack felt hungry. He didn’t want to go back to his house and order his food by takeaway, he decided that he wanted to get it himself, and maybe eat at the shop as well. But almost all of the others wanted to go back home: going out to watch a film was enough already, let alone eating out!

Only one boy, called France, went with Jack. They went to the local kaf, and they had a good time, despite the owner of the kaf not being used to sit-ins. Jack silently laughed at the fact that although they had seats for sit-ins, the kaf owners didn’t seem as if they wanted sit-ins at all. If they didn’t want sit-ins, why not just stop putting out tables? Jack thought. Anyway, it was hardly worth troubling your mind about.

After their time there, they headed back to the house. Jack left France alone to go back to his room, as he wanted to get back to his room quickly and the house was so big with its one thousand four hundred rooms. He then went up to his room.

He took a while to get up there, because of the slow elevators I should have remembered they were barely working, but when he did, he was surprised to see Qwerty already waiting for him. And what’s more, she was soaking wet.

Where’ve you been?” Qwerty asked angrily, after a short time of them staring at each other, Jack surprised, Qwerty angry.

Jack was absolutely shocked and he didn’t really know what to say. To say the truth, he hadn’t really been expecting Qwerty to have come anyway at all, let alone to be there at this time. So, lamely, he said, “Out.”

Out where?” asked Qwerty, “did you forget that I was coming round?”

Jack could have lied, and saved a whole load of trouble for himself, but he didn’t. Something inside him stopped him from lying. “No, I didn’t. But I wasn’t expecting you round this early.”

Well, even then, you should have stayed, in case I had come early.” Qwerty was fuming. “I came here almost TWO NOONS AGO!”

Jack checked the time. If she had come two noons earlier, that was shortly after Jack had left. He kicked himself for what he had done.

Qwerty was still furious, “And when I got here, knocked on the door, and got no reply, so I tried to look on the retina scanner in case it went wrong and let me in, but instead, it shot me! And why didn’t you tell me that when it shoots it almost shoots a bucketload of water at you?”

Despite everything, Jack couldn’t hold back a laugh. He almost wished he had been there to see it happen: he had actually never seen anyone being squirted by it close-hand.

He said, “Well, I didn’t think you would need to know? And why haven’t you gone down to wipe yourself dry?”

Because it only just happened. I waited for a couple of hours before I actually thought of trying the retina scanner.”

They were silent for a long while. Jack was feeling awkward: he was very guilty, but he wasn’t sure if he should say sorry: he was sure she could have done the same had it been the other way around. And also, he felt tense. He wasn’t sure if he should open the door to his room, although he had no idea why he was so nervous.

But then Qwerty, broke the silence, and she said, “Anyhow, it doesn’t really matter too much. I probably wouldn’t have expected you to come early if you had come to mine.”

Jack was relieved for some reason, and he opened the door to his room. The feeling that had been stopping him from opening his room – and from doing anything else in fact – had dissipated. at how the sudden feeling of nervousness had left him. He wondered how he could have felt like that. It was quite awkward, but he stopped thinking about it.

As they stepped inside, Qwerty added “-it was still your fault though, and you shouldn’t have done what you did.” Jack nodded. That was all he could do in reply.

Look at this.” said Qwerty to Jack as they sat down. Jack was glad that everything had calmed down, and that everything was far more relaxed. Qwerty was a very different character to what Jack was used to: maybe it was because she was a girl. The concept of the American “house” hardly had let boys like Jack talk to any girls, had they even wanted to anyway, which Jack hadn’t.

Qwerty took a large piece of wiring and metal out of her bag, which she had brought. The bag was very old, but the metal and wiring was brand new.

Where did you get that?” asked Jack.

I made it.” replied Qwerty.

No, the metal and wiring.”

I bought it.”

Where?” Jack asked again. Because the local hardware store of North Nashville barely stocked any new equipment, everything was very old and Jack was sure it was all second-hand, despite what the shop-owner claimed.

The shop in South Nashville.” Qwerty replied.

Which one?”

The big general store. It has everything.”

Oh, that one.” said Jack. He had seen it a lot, but had hardly been in. From what he had seen, the prices were very high, and besides, it was far from his house. He just thought of something:

Where do you live?” asked Jack, “If you go there often, do you live somewhere to the south?”

Qwerty’s attitude changed from the open, chatty, girl, to a far more sinister and closed character after Jack said this.

I didn’t say I went there often.” she said, “Anyway, it doesn’t matter where I live at the moment. Look at this. Do you know what it is?” And she changed the subject away from herself.

No, I have to say that I don’t.” confessed Jack, puzzling over what it was and about the mystery surrounding Qwerty.

What is it?” he asked, both to himself – about what Qwerty seemed to act like – and to Qwerty – about the device.

Qwerty handed it over to Jack, “Can you see anything telling on it? But make sure you don’t break it.”

Jack stared at the lump of metal and wiring. It was clear it was a prototype of some sort, but Jack could see a few things on it. There was an uberpink signaller, and also an uberpink receiver, so it was clearly some type of communications device. And at the bottom, there was something that looked like a mouthpiece, but it was far more complex than the one on Jack’s Zonestation.

Is it a communications device?” he asked.

Yes.” said Qwerty, “But its a bit more than just a normal ordinary machine that you use to speak to another person. It uses far less power, for one. And also, it consistently and constantly sends out sound waves to the other receiver, and vice-versa, without running out of power quickly.”

What’s it for?” asked Jack, “Because honestly, I can’t exactly see what real advantage it has over our normal handphones or Zonemasters.”

Well,” said Qwerty, “at the moment, no. But hopefully, it will eventually become better when I finish it.”

Ok, fine. Sorry about these questions, but can I ask another thing: what are you trying to make it so it will do on the finished version?”

I’m okay with questions.” said Qwerty, “But to be honest, I don’t really know what this is for. I kind of am just making it just because I enjoy making this sort of stuff”

Cool.” said Jack, and although he thought there was more to it than that, he didn’t press it.

But why I brought it here is because I needed a hand to connect these wires together. You see, these wires-” and she pointed with her hand “-need to be held back so that this wire can be affixed to the terminal which is on the left side of the uberpink transmitter…”

*******

De Bran followed Pineau through the large science laboratory. His footsteps echoed down the long corridors for each step he took. Eventually him and Pineau got to the door outside the office of the woman now in charge of the new project, Professor Oak Via. Without a warning, Pineau and De Bran went into the office.

The Professor was sitting at her desk, and she looked up as they went in. She looked as if she was about to say something angrily, but then she saw that it was Pineau who had just come in, and she stopped.

Hello.” she said, in a pleasant but still a none-too-pleased tone. “What do you want today?”

Pineau spoke, “I want to know about the new project.”

Yes?” Via replied, changing tone slightly and seemingly a bit interested.

Is it ready?”

Well,” she said, rifling through her papers, “It does seem like it. There is no reason why the late Mr. Tipe should have lied to me when he told me it was complete. It’s only a pity that he died in such a tragic accident. He would have been a great help, and he would have loved to see the project in action”

Pineau shuffled uneasily with the mention of Tipe’s death. “Yes, of course,” he said, “But I am sure that you can do a job just as well as he did. Now, about the project. When will it be ready for testing?”

Via glanced at a couple of other things in her papers, and then she said, “Why not now? I have it on hold all the time in case you or someone else wants to use it, if that interests you.”

Pineau seemed grateful at the fact that it could be done as soon as possible, “Yes, testing it now would be great. Who could we test it on?”

We could test it on Nashville High Street, but that would be rather risky… No, what would be best would be to test it on the people in the houses next to the building.”

Okay.” said Pineau questionably, “How would we do that?”

Well…” said Via, “I had a thought that maybe we could control Zonemaster programs being watched.”

Yes.” said Pineau, after a short period of thought, “That would probably be the safest way that we could do it.”

So, let’s move the control centre towards the window. That would be the way that we would be able to know exactly how much people we will be affecting. At the same time, you can connect to the Zonemaster board viewings. It will be the best way for us to see how well it works.”

It was clear to De Bran that Via had got this all planned, and she radioed through to one of her assistants, and within a few minutes the large and bulky control centre was in the room. Pineau turned on his Zonemaster (which was the adult version of a Zonestation) and connected into secret areas of the Webnet which only he and a couple of select others could view.

Which program shall we set?” asked Via.

Let’s see…” said Pineau, and then after a short time, “Why not the Sport? It’s on channel 43.”

De Bran could see the Zonemaster readings with Pineau, and he could see that in the local area where they were, only two people were watching the sport. No real surprise, really. America had not won a sporting triumph for thirty years now, not since Video Games had stopped being an official sport. It was so long that the public, once so keen on sport, had now stopped caring about it and no-one really bothered.

As Via and her assistant programmed the control centre, De Bran wondered what would happen if the test was a success. Would Pineau want to implement the plan as soon as possible, or would he wait a while? He wondered how the Prime Minister Blake would reply to the plan, and what would happen if he disagreed with Pineau and the Secretary for War, Steve Plains. Would Pineau want to get him out of power? De Bran wondered about what would happen in the near future of America. The future of his country depended on it….

After a while, Via had finished with her work, and they were ready to roll. Pineau pressed the control to start the machine. Within ten minutes it was ready and De Bran could hear the machine whirring.

De Bran then looked at Pineau’s Zonemaster. Within a few minutes, the counter for “Sport” in the local area had risen dramatically. Pineau’s eyes bulged at the amount it was going up. Within a few more minutes, Sport had all of the Zonemaster coverage in the area, and after about fifteen minutes, the number stopped and stayed constant at about four-hundred and fifty. Pineau turned to Via.

How many people were estimated to be in those buildings?”

Via stopped for a moment from controlling the machine, and then she said, “Around four-hundred.”

Pineau looked up, a bit surprised, and then put down his Zonestation and turned it off. He gestured towards De Bran telling him to follow and said, “Thank you Miss Via. You were very helpful today.”

Yes, thank you, Professor.” said De Bran.

No problem.” said Via, “I’m only glad I could have been of help.”

Then Pineau gestured towards De Bran and they left.

We have a lot of thinking to do…” said Pineau when they were in the relative privacy of the corridor. De Bran wondered if that meant that the plan would be implemented soon. He wondered about what would happen as a result, again.

*******

For the next few hours, Jack and Qwerty worked on the transmitter. Jack found that he really enjoyed it: it was almost the best time he had had for a long time. They had hardly any time to talk, they were so much engrossed with the work that they were doing. But Jack found time to think, as he followed Qwerty’s instructions and moved his hands from here to there, doing this, doing that.

He wondered what was the aim of this machine. Whatever Qwerty had said, he still was sure that she must know what aim she had for the device. Could it be used for illegal purposes? He looked up at Qwerty’s face, and he couldn’t rule it out, although it seemed unlikely. He wasn’t sure what he made of Qwerty, whether he liked her or not, he couldn’t really tell: it was a bit of both. But even with his thoughts bugging him, he still enjoyed what he was doing. He couldn’t remember what was the last time he had done something like that – he might even have never done anything similar.

Jack and Qwerty worked together for three hours in total, until it was quite late. Jack could tell that, although Qwerty was far more advanced than he was, the two of worked them worked far faster than she would have done on her own: the device had already gained shape and it looked like it would soon be ready to work.

But at about six noons Qwerty finally stopped and she stood up, “Thanks.” she said.

Jack looked up from what he was doing, screwing in another screw. “What? Are you going now?” he asked, somewhat sadly.

Yes,” she said, “I would have liked to stay a little longer and chat but I really need to go back now.”

Ok,” said Jack, “I really enjoyed that. It was tiring though.” He had only just noticed how badly his fingers ached. He was finding it hard to move his arms, and it was rather painful.

Yeah, I guess.” said Qwerty, in a hurry, “You’ll get used to it soon though. Would it be possible for me to come back tomorrow?”

Ok, fine, what time do you want? I’ll be in all day tomorrow, I promise.”

Umm, maybe at twenty-two noons?” asked Qwerty, slightly impatiently, as if she wanted to do something when she got back to her home, wherever that was, and Jack was delaying her.

Jack wondered. That would be rather early in the morning, and it would leave not much time for him to do other things… But then he thought of how much he enjoyed the day. It would be worth it, he felt, to spend more time working on the device, whatever the aim of it, even if he wouldn’t be able to do much.

Yeah, that’ll be great.” he said, “Although I’ll probably be way tired.”

Doesn’t matter really.” said Qwerty, “As long as I can come, it’ll be fine.”

Yeah, no problem. Do you want me to see you downstairs?”

No need,” she said, “Bye!” and she was gone.

*******

That evening, Jack reflected on the day. Qwerty had seemed very happy to be with Jack… it was almost as if her distrust was gone. Jack thought that he had been happy too, he had really enjoyed it. Yet another thing that I didn’t realise I had missed, he thought. How many things had he been missing without realising it?

He was so tired, he could hardly go on his Zonestation to tell France that he wouldn’t be able to be on that night and play games together because he was so tired. He could barely register the reply before he fell asleep, absolutely and totally worn out.

Chapter 5

Early the next morning, which was Friday, Jack realised that Qwerty had done not mentioned anything about the invite to the Greyham Building. He wondered about it: he wanted so badly to reply and get it over and done with, but Qwerty had told him not too, and he found that he liked Qwerty. She was the first person he had actually properly talked with for a long time. He hadn’t really been close enough to anyone to really care about anyone else for a long time, but he found that he cared about Qwerty, at least to some extent. So he decided not to do anything about the invite until that afternoon, when he would see Qwerty again.

That morning he went to France’s room in the house. He had realised that he really wanted to spend time with someone else, preferably in the house, so he had asked France if he could’ve come over. France had agreed, and Jack spent the morning with France. They mostly did computer games together, and Jack had a great time, despite losing practically all the time. Again, he got the feeling that he really enjoyed being with another person, talking together, and that he had missed it for so long without really knowing what he had been missing.

Jack managed to show France his achievement in the science exam and France was very impressed. They went on to talk about exams, even though France had not taken his end-of-school exams yet as he didn’t think that he would be good enough to take them yet. France seemed to enjoy talking, but Jack decided to go back to his room at twenty-one noons just in case Qwerty was a little early. France seemed to be a bit disappointed at that, but Jack promised to see him again the next day and also said that maybe that evening they could be able to do some games together.

As Jack walked back through the long corridors and up the dirty and slippery staircases, he thought about the fact that he had barely known France before recently. He had always known his name, and seen him, but had hardly talked personally to him. It was a little awkward, how he could see someone so much but not really know them at all.

These thoughts made him feel a bit weird: it was almost as if he had only just started to truly understand himself. It was almost as if he hadn’t been himself the past few years. He tried to pinpoint where he had gone wrong, the place where he had stopped to understand himself properly. He tried to think, but suddenly he felt something: something else was in his mind – something that was stopping him from thinking straight. He panicked.

He tried to clear his mind, but he couldn’t. It was almost as if a mist had fallen down all over his mind, and he couldn’t see through it. He couldn’t remember what he wanted to do, and this influence grew stronger and stronger as time went on. He started to almost stop controlling himself, it was as if this something was stopping him from taking control of his senses. He started to run, scared. He wanted to get away from this influence.

He ran faster and faster, blindly running in oppressive fear. He had no idea what was going on. He was just absolutely scared to the core of himself. He heard his footsteps echo on the hard floor. He heard his own heart pumping blood around his body faster than ever, but he couldn’t think. It was just like something was trying to attack his mind, and what was worse was that he had absolutely no idea how to fight against it or even what it was.

He felt sweat pour down his forehead. He had no idea what was going on. His mind grew dimmer and dimmer, his senses felt all different, not what they normally did at all. His consciousness seeped away from him, the more he ran. But he had a sort of feeling, deep down in his subconscious, that he had to get back into his room.

He sprinted down the stairs, almost slipping over numerous times. Then he turned the corner, and rushed back to his room, trying to get there. He realised – somehow – he had no idea whether it was himself or this influence that was trying to get him back to his room: his mind had shut down. He couldn’t think or even feel anything at all, he was even struggling to see properly.

He pointed his eyes into the retina scanner outside his room. He could barely see now, his eyes were starting to water, scrolling all over the place, outside his control. He got into his room, pushed the door shut, and fell on his bed. His eyes gradually shut. He tried to open them, but he couldn’t. He started to scream in fear. He yelled as he fell backwards, hitting the mattress, his body limp. His mind closed, and he slipped out of consciousness, mouth still open, but there was no sound coming out.

*******

Overnight, De Bran had kept on working, getting all of the input messages from the American spy network all over the world. There were only two countries that there was no American spies inside. They were Hysellia, one of the Columbian puppet states in South Wasidia, but that was only because of the fact that the country had a population of two hundred and fifty and Pineau didn’t think that it was worth spying on; and China, because of all of the forty-five American spies that had gone into China, only one had returned, and that was the one whose courage had failed him after ten minutes inside China.

It seemed from the reports that Nicaragua and Honduras had finally made a temporary peace. That didn’t really change anything to do with De Bran and America, despite America’s proximity to the two nations. They showed no aggression to America, and America didn’t show aggression back. It was a mutual agreement.

But De Bran had also heard of something from one of the other spies, and it did affect America. The Missourians had set up an alliance with the Texans and the two nations were planning on finishing off America. De Bran smiled, thinking about what the Missourians and Texans would come up against now. This time, America would be able to fight back. This time, there would be no feeble, timid, weakness from the American army now. Texas and Missouri would be in for a surprise.

De Bran got up from his desk to get another drink. He went towards the small drinks fountain that he got all of his drinks from. As he was pouring out some Hot Chocolate™ into his cup, Pineau walked into the room.

He sat down at his desk, and then he said to De Bran, “Me and Steve just had a talk together with Blake about the weapon.”

De Bran finished pouring his Hot Chocolate™ into the cup and walked back to his desk. “Yes?” he said as he sat down, “How did it go?”

Blake, the stupid fool, had some idea that it could go all wrong, and that we would fail.” Pineau scoffed, “But Steve and I finally got round to convincing him to sign the consent. Things about falling out of power and all that.”

De Bran nodded. It was all as he had expected. Blake wasn’t very favourable to the plan, but he was too self-conceited and selfish to risk losing his position as Premier by going against Pineau and Plains, and simple threats were enough to be able to force him to agree.

So what country will you be planning to attack first?” he asked.

Me and Steve considered it, and we decided the best country to attack will be Greece.”

De Bran was rather surprised. He hadn’t been expecting Pineau or Plains to want to attack Greece. “Why Greece?” he asked, still looking down at his desk. “Why not Missouri or Texas?”

Well,” said Pineau in reply, sitting back on his chair, “Missouri and Texas seem the obvious target, but they will be expecting a counter-attack from their attacks. However, Greece will be complacent and expecting and attempting a peace alliance, not an attack. Greece have slightly more land than the other two nations, and they have far less of an army in the continent than Missouri or Texas have, and maybe even if the weapon fails our army will possibly be able to overcome the Greek army anyway.”

De Bran considered all this. Now Pineau had said it that way, it looked like conquering Greco-America seemed like the best option for America. However, there was the huge question, the obvious problem with conquering Greco-America.

What if the Greeks decide to counter-attack? We cannot risk having Greece and then Nigeria against us. The Nigerians, at least, will surely be able to create a defence against our weapon.” he said.

Pineau nodded. “My sources have said that Greece do not seem to care too much about their small section of south-east Wasidia. They have far bigger concerns, such as the fact that China seems to be marching a large section of its army westward and such things as this. And even if they do decide to counter-attack, they will certainly not risk losing too many lives against us. They, at the very least, will take a long time before counter-attacking, and by that time, we could be in control of all of Wasidia! The small matter of us conquering their land in Wasidia will almost certainly be a minor concern in the map of Greece. I do not expect a counter-attack, but even then, we must be ready. However, I would say that the risk is worth it.”

De Bran nodded. It did seem like attacking Greece would be the best option for America after all, despite the huge risk. There wasn’t really anything more to say, so he looked down into his desk and started to scribble a few things down. It would be interesting to see what would happen and what the outcome of this would be.

There was silence for a few minutes and then Pineau, content he had De Bran’s approval in the issue, got out of his seat and walked out of the room.

*******

Jack opened his eyes. The room around him span and then came into focus. He tried to remember what had happened. He had no idea what had happened and why he had been lying back on his bed, but then after a while it all came back to him.

My mind!” Jack said. He was relieved to notice that he could think straight and clearly and even more relieved that he had no pain or ache anywhere, and that the only evidence that anything had happened was that he was still wearing his shoes on his bed.

Then he remembered another thing – Qwerty’s visit. He looked up at the time on his Zonestation. It was only a short time just before twenty-two noons. He hadn’t been unconscious for long at all.

Just then, the door-buzzer sounded. Jack suddenly got up, and walked over towards the door. He opened it, and Qwerty was outside. She didn’t look best pleased.

Why didn’t you open the door earlier?” she asked. “I rang twice, and I started to worry that you were out again.”

Sorry, seriously, I’m sorry.” replied Jack, “But the reason is confusing. Come on in, and I’ll tell you.”

Qwerty stepped inside, and her gaze caught Jack’s as she looked up from taking off her shoes. Jack looked away quickly. Her look towards him had been…. different, very different to any look Jack had ever been given before. It had been slightly awkward for Jack, though again he was unsure why. Could I ever be sure about myself? Will I ever fully understand myself? he thought to himself sadly.

Qwerty sat down on the chair next to Jack’s desk, and Jack sat on his bed.

So what happened earlier?” she asked, “Why were you so long in answering the door?”

Jack explained everything, including how he had lost control of his mind, of how he had been embleer scared, even how he had almost started to fear for his life, and of how he had rushed into his room and got onto his bed unconscious without being able to do anything else.

While he had been saying it all, Qwerty had been nodding, although from her look it was quite clear she couldn’t understand what Jack had experienced at all.

After Jack stopped talking, there was a short silence. It was clear Qwerty could do nothing about it, and she could not really give any real help at all. Jack decided to let the matter drop. There was no need to say anything more about it.

Anyway, did you bring anything to do today?” he asked, trying to brighten up his voice.

Qwerty’s reaction was as if Jack had snapped her out of a long train of thought. “Yeah, I did. I thought we could have a go at finishing off the device we were working on yesterday.”

Cool.” said Jack. “I’m fine with that. Can I just ask something: wouldn’t it be best for the central mainframe to be connected directly to the uberpink receiver, and not via the memory centre? Wouldn’t connecting it directly save a lot of energy?”

Yeah, I guess it would. I had actually never thought of that. Let’s do it now. If you could just take that purple wire out, and then we would be able to….”

*******

Blake looked around his office. It was not really an office: only in name only. There was no real work going on here. All the work went on in the offices of his government, Blake was just a…. what was the word?… puppet, and, despite how he hated it, he couldn’t really do much about it. He would stay a puppet in the hands of the puppeteers in his government.

But today, Pineau and Plains had come in and talked to him about this invasion…. Blake was nervous. He doubted that the weapon was as useful as Pineau had claimed, and then America would fail to conquer Greco-America, and then what? He would be executed, at least. The Greeks would hardly show mercy to the one who they thought would have personally had the thought of attacking them, whatever he would say.

So what could he do? There was no way he could fight against Pineau or Plains, as they would just have him killed. There wasn’t a way in which he would be able to complain against them really, what could he do? They would just get him out of power and into the executioner’s block. There was no real gain, he would just lose his life either way.

His only hope was that Pineau and Plains would be right and that it really was that great and that America would be able to conquer the Greeks. But, he conceded to himself, unless Professors Tipe and Via had done an incredible job, this was decidedly unlikely. It would be a fluke if he managed to keep his life by the end of the year, he realised, and anger started to enter his heart.

He fell back on to the back of his chair. He had thought that becoming Premier would have been such an easy arrangement: it had turned out it was anything but that. He wanted to scream with the agitation that had built up inside him: he didn’t even have anyone to talk with about the issue. He decided that he should get a wife as soon as possible that he trusted if he got a good idea for getting out of this, or, at the very least, a deputy that he trusted.

He hated Pineau and Plains for the situation that they had put him in. He hated Tipe and Via for creating this weapon. He hated the Missourians, the Texans, the Greeks, that had caused all this trouble. He hated the American public for wanting to conquer the other nations. In the mood he was in, he hated the world.

He was absolutely livid, and eventually he could hold it no longer. He screamed, long and hard, with the anguish he was in. The soundproof walls stopped others from hearing, but Blake heard it long and hard. He was totally, absolutely entirely angry. He was angrier than he ever had been, and at the same time more scared than he had ever been. All of this anger, this tension, this fear, it had all come out in one long scream, one huge scream. Some people walking on the road outside the Greyham Building would have found it funny to know that the American Premier had been screaming at that time, but Blake didn’t see the funny side. He was absolutely, totally, 100%, angry, scared, and confused.

*******

Jack and Qwerty had finished the device within a couple of hours. It had come to shape and came to look very much like a uberpink receiver or signaller. Jack found that he was proud of it. He knew exactly what was inside it, and this made him feel that he had achieved something. It wasn’t the first time he had ever done something like this: but this was by far more advanced than the others, and even with Qwerty’s help it was the most he had ever done on something like this.

Jack examined the device for a few minutes, then he put it down and looked up at Qwerty. They met each other’s stare for a few moments, and Jack didn’t feel at all like he felt awkward. He was surprised at that and he realised that he felt different, far more different than he had ever felt before. A brand-new feeling was inside him. He couldn’t place exactly what that feeling was – yet.

Eventually, Qwerty sat back, breaking the gaze. She said, matter-of-factly, “Did you know, it took me six weeks to make the first one of those, and we managed to do it in two days. Even with the fact that I already knew what to do, that is incredible.”

Jack nodded, although he kept silent. He felt quite proud about what he had done, despite knowing the fact that Qwerty had done the majority of the work.

Cool,” he said, and then he remembered he wanted to ask something. What was it? He wondered. And then he remembered, he wanted to reply to the Greyham building invitation.

So he asked Qwerty, “You know that Greyham Building invite we got? And how you said not to reply? Well, I haven’t replied yet, but I want to reply. So can I?”

He knew it was a bit awkward how he had asked Qwerty about that as if she was a parent who he needed permission from to do everything: but he felt it was what was right in the circumstances.

There was a short silence as Qwerty thought, and then she quietly got down off her seat, and looked at Jack, her eyes soft and kind. “Jack.” she said quietly, “Can I tell you something? Will you promise never to tell this to anyone, anyone at all, until I allow you to?”

Jack was a little bit surprised. He had been only expecting a simple answer, but he nodded, trusting himself to keep a secret.

You sure? You absolutely sure? You promise that on your life you will never tell anyone, even under torture?” Qwerty said, keeping the soft tone of voice.

Jack wondered what could be so important to be worth this amount, but he nodded.

Qwerty opened her mouth to speak, but then she looked as if she had second thoughts. “No,” she said, still keeping her voice very soft, “This is serious, and I don’t think I can tell you at the moment. But just,” she continued, “Please don’t reply yet. Honestly, there is a reason, I just can’t tell you yet…” Her voice trailed away. It had had a hint of pleading and sadness in it, as if she wanted to tell Jack but her sense of logic was telling her not to. Jack could just about see tears in her eyes as she was torn between two feelings.

Ok,” said Jack, “That’s fine.” But in his heart, he knew it wasn’t. What could be so important that she wouldn’t tell him, that she would make him swear to secrecy before she told him? Only something that could be illegal, and could he really allow that? Could he? Would he be able to keep it secret? Jack realised he was absolutely torn in two, just in the thoughts, let alone what could happen when, no, if,would be what would happen. But then, he snapped himself out of his half-dream and he realised, and he clung to this small hope, that it could be something totally different. For all he knew, it could be anything. Anything at all. He struggled to convince himself that that could be the case.

So what do you want to do?” he asked, “Do you want anything to eat?”

Nah, I’m not really hungry.” said Qwerty, “let’s just talk.”

What about?” asked Jack.

Anything.” said Qwerty playfully, “When someone says “let’s talk”, you don’t say “What about?” You just start a conversation.”

O-K!” said Jack. “No need to get so professional.”

Ha, whatever!” laughed Qwerty, “What do you do in a normal day anyway?”

Well, I often read and sometimes I play games. Today I went to see this guy, as I told you earlier. You know, we managed to…

*******

Pineau and De Bran were going to the science centre, again. They had been numerous times over the past couple of days, testing it on all sorts of things. Hopefully this would be their last time, De Bran mused. They were planning to finally collect the weapon from Via and bring it to the Greyham building and from there, the army base and then to the battlefront where they could use it for the first time properly.

De Bran was getting aggravated about the constant visits to the science centre. It smelt heavily of musk and moss, and the floors were dirty and old-fashioned, as well as looking so ugly. And what was worse, so many of the experiments taken in there were pointless and had no use.

But Pineau didn’t seem to be a bit regretful about coming to the science centre. It seemed like he enjoyed the place, though De Bran couldn’t understand why. Pineau hummed as he walked along the corridors towards the centre, where the project was being kept.

He and De Bran walked into Via’s office, again without any prior notice. Fortunately for them, Via wasn’t doing anything. She had just got a cup of Hot Chocolate™ and was just looking out of the window. Pineau wasn’t best pleased at seeing her not working.

Got nothing to do then, professor, do we?” he asked sarcastically.

Via turned around, and Pineau continued, “I’m sure that your colleagues downstairs slogging over tiring experiments could do with a hand, don’t you?”

Erm…” Via replied, awkwardly, a bit annoyed, “Yes, I guess they could, but anyway I was only taking a short break from my work. We all need that sometimes, you know, Jean.”

Hmm,” he said, “Make sure you don’t do it again. But, anyway, about what we were coming here today about, is this. We have decided that we want to finally move the project. We are planning to start to implement it and use it in its main aim.”

Really?” asked Via, “And what is that, may I ask?”

No.” said Pineau, “You may not ask. It doesn’t concern you. We just want to move it. That is all that matters you. You are not in the place to ask, and it does not concern you. And do not call me Jean, I am “Mr Pineau” or “Foreign Secretary” to you.”

No, I think I can ask, because it has everything to do concerning me. Because there is no-one capable enough to cope with it except me, is there? Not since Professor Tipe was… murdered.”

There were only two of us, weren’t there?” she continued, maliciously “There were only two of us able enough. Only two of us who could have been able to be in charge of such a powerful weapon. After you murder me, if you are planning to, who else will be able to take charge of such an important weapon to you? No-one. So I think that unless you tell me what is your aim, Jean, then you will be in a pretty large predicament, because it wouldn’t do to have your top scientist to walk out on you, would it? Not when the job is as important as this.” Via’s voice was full of poison, of cynicism, of confidence.

Tell me.” she repeated, with a voice like a viper’s. “Or else Missouri will be knocking at your doorstep and you will have no weapon to help you. Or I could give it to Missouri, you know. I have the right to, don’t you realise?”

Pineau’s face turned into total anger. He had not being expecting this, not at all. But he didn’t reply, at least, not at first. He just stared back at Via. She met his stare. De Bran watched, interested. He wondered who would be the one to react first. They went on staring, silent, angry, for a few minutes, and then Pineau, lightning-fast, pulled out a gun and fired at Via.

It would have hit Via right between the eyes, but, just as it was about to, a ray of light shot out from the wall and dissolved the bullet.

Your not going to be able to defeat me like that!” scoffed Via, “You didn’t think that after Tipe was murdered I wouldn’t have at least one security device for myself? Uberpink light beams, slightly modified, are the perfect defence for me.” And she laughed.

Pineau was now totally enraged. He let fire with a huge spray of bullets from his gun. Via didn’t move, absolutely confident. Immediately after Pineau shot each bullet, rays of light sprung from out of the wall, immediately dissolving every one of the bullets. None got to Via. Pineau constantly kept spraying bullets, none hitting Via, until eventually he was out of ammunition. He flung his gun towards Via, but that too was dissolved.

De Bran was amazed, both at Pineau’s wrath, and Via’s mechanism. A Hughton Mk IV, just dissolved like that! It was incredible, but he made sure that he didn’t show his surprise on his face. That would never have been sensible.

Pineau sprung towards Via, and Via attacked him back. They struggled for a few minutes, hand to hand, foot to foot, dead even, which surprised De Bran. There was no respect for life on either part, this was a fight to the death. He saw it in their eyes.

They were both totally and absolutely intent to destroy the other. No-one wanted to back down, none of them would until the other was dead.

Neither of them seemed to notice De Bran, neither of them seemed, to worry he was there or care about him. De Bran realised that if it looked likely that Via would be able to kill Pineau, he would be in the perfect position to stop her. He would only have to work out how to stop the beams of light.

And then, after another couple of minutes, he saw Via struggle to get a knife out of her pocket, he feared for Pineau’s life. Suddenly, he looked on the wall and knew exactly what to do to stop Via from killing Pineau. It would be painful, but hopefully worth it. He gritted his teeth, expecting all the pain he would get, and then he pulled out his gun, got into the exact position, and shot.

The pain he felt immediately afterwards was far more than what he had expected. His back felt as if it had been burnt by the strongest flame there was in the whole of America. It was absolutely huge. It jerked in his back. De Bran fell back, and around him he heard screams, felt blood, and tasted it too, but the pain in his back drowned out all of those feelings.

His back felt as if it had been broken into a hundred pieces. He lost control of his voice and screamed long and hard with the pain. Screaming loudly, the pain seeped all over De Bran’s body. His hands were immediately numbed, but that was an understatement to do with the amount of pain he felt.

His feet felt as if they had just cracked, and he had an immense headache. His stomach turned in pain. His breathing became more and more difficult, until eventually, he succumbed all of the pain and passed into the void of unconsciousness, unsure whether he would live or die. His only wish was that he hoped that, if he died, he had saved Pineau’s life and that America would become as strong as he had been hoping he would have made them to be. He tried to open his eyes to get a last, final, sight, but he couldn’t manage it.

Chapter 6

Jack and Qwerty talked for a couple of noons. Jack was surprised that they managed to go on talking for so long, and about so many different subjects. Eventually Jack realised that he had to contact France and he told Qwerty that. She decided that it would be best for her to leave, and Jack decided to walk with her to France’s room.

I’ll be there to help you if the same thing happens again.” she said when Jack said that he was worried about that what had happened that morning might happen again. Jack thought that even if it did happen again, there probably wasn’t going to be a way that Qwerty would be able to help him. But he was glad for the company. It made him feel that he wasn’t alone, that someone else cared for him. That someone else cares for me….

He looked towards Qwerty. Does she care for me? he thought. Does she? And then he thought Do I care for her? Do I? he thought to himself. But he couldn’t manage to think of whether or not he cared for her. The reason why he couldn’t think wasn’t because of the strange feeling he had felt that morning: instead, it was something else. Something within. He couldn’t tell, from his own feelings, from his own mind, whether he cared for Qwerty or not, and how much he cared for her. He cared for her as a human being and as a friend, at least: that much he knew.

After a short while walking (it took at least ten minutes to walk to France’s room), Qwerty asked Jack:

Do you feel it?”

Jack hadn’t really been thinking about that, but then he woke himself up from his train of thought. He felt nothing strange at all.

No, I don’t. I don’t think I’m going to feel it again now.” he replied.

Ok.” said Qwerty, and she continued, “If that’s the case, then I think I’ll go now. There’ll be no need for me to stay. And I want to do a couple of things when I get back to my place.”

Jack felt a pang of sadness. He had been somewhat hoping that Qwerty would have come with him to see France, but that wasn’t really going to be very likely. In America, you didn’t really go round to see strangers, even if they were friend of friends.

Ok, cool. That’s be fine.” he said, although in his heart he didn’t feel all fine. He knew he would have liked to spend a bit more time with Qwerty, but that could be left to another day. “You coming tomorrow?” he asked.

Yeah, that’ll be good.” Qwerty replied. “Same time, ok?”

Sure.” Jack replied.

Qwerty walked over to the lift that would bring her to the bottom floor. They exchanged casual goodbyes and then she was gone.

Jack walked on towards France’s house, thinking. He wondered what had been Qwerty’s secret that she couldn’t tell Jack. What had it been that was so important that she had told Jack not to tell it, even under torture. Why would she even mention torture? Was I likely to face torture if I knew this secret? He thought to himself. And why did it seem as if she so badly wanted to tell me her “secret”? Why?

His head was still full of questions when he got to France’s room. France was there, looking out of his door, waiting for Jack.

Hi.” he said, when he first saw Jack.

Hey.”, Jack replied, “How’s you?”

Cool.” France replied, “Come in. What do you want to do?”

You want to talk?” asked Jack after he had got himself a seat in France’s simple room. It only consisted of a bed, a Zonestation, and two chairs. Jack wasn’t sure if he would be able to survive in a room with no facilities to store anything.

Yeah, good by me.” France replied. He was almost exactly the same age as Jack, but he was a little taller and fatter. And a bit slower-minded, Jack thought to himself, a bit arrogantly. Still, he liked France and he wouldn’t lose France’s friendship for the world.

There was a short pause as Jack thought what to say, and then he eventually said, “You know, this morning, when I was coming back from your place to mine-”

Yeah?” France interrupted, “So what?”

Jack went on to explain all that had happened that morning and afternoon, including Qwerty’s visit and everything, despite France’s numerous interruptions. Jack didn’t leave out anything, except for his…. very personal thoughts.

France seemed to be extremely surprised at what had happened to Jack that morning, and as time went on he interrupted less and less.

When he had nearly finished describing to France all that he had done, Jack eventually stopped talking. He had found it really difficult to say what had happened that morning again: whenever he thought of it, he got really downhearted.

He didn’t know why: it just struck at a sad area of him. I don’t know why, he realised. I don’t know anything about myself. The words seemed to echo around in his head. I don’t know anything about myself. Jack Thorn, you don’t know anything about yourself. You don’t know anything about yourself. You don’t know anything about yourself. YOU DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT YOURSELF!

You ok?” France asked him. Jack suddenly awoke from the half-consciousness of thought that he had been in.

Yeah, I’m fine.” Jack replied groggily, staring at the floor. But he knew that there was nothing ok or fine about how he felt at the time.

No, you’re not ok. I can tell.” replied France, “What’s wrong, Jack?”

Jack didn’t reply. He didn’t know whether he could tell France. He was ashamed at how he felt at that moment. He wasn’t sure of what France would think of him. He stared at the floor, avoiding France’s gaze.

What’s wrong?” France asked again.

Jack still didn’t reply. He didn’t look up at France, but kept staring at the floor.

WHAT’S WRONG?!” France shouted. “Jack, look at me!”

Jack looked up. This wasn’t France as he had known him before. It was a bit more… forceful.

Jack, look at me.” France said again, a bit calmer, “There is something wrong. I can tell. What’s the problem? Is it me? Have I done anything?”

Jack suddenly felt another strange feeling, and, yet again, he had no idea what it was. He found his voice breaking and he started to cry.

It-it’s not you!” he shouted, “I hav-ve to go! Bu-ut it’s not you! It’s not you! Honestly, it’s not you!” he ran out of the room. He vaguely heard France shouting behind him for him to come back, but he knew that he wouldn’t be able to go back.

At least, not yet. He felt so sad. He knew exactly what people meant by heartbroken now. He was heartbroken. He felt as if his heart had literally cracked inside him. What’s going on?

He ran along the corridors, exactly the same as he had run that morning: but there was one difference. That morning, he had had no control of his mind, and he had felt different. Now, he was just brokenhearted. He was ashamed of how he had had to leave France like that, but he felt that he had had to. Why am I like this?

He was not sure at all about how France would have seen him as, in that amount of sadness. Would France stop being his friend? As he thought about it, he doubted it and realised how foolish he had been. He had acted just like the stupid child that he was trying to grow away from. He had acted without an ounce of maturity. Why? He considered going back to France and apologising, but his pride wouldn’t let him. Why did I act like that?

He ran along the corridor back towards his house. He didn’t acknowledge the couple of people he passed on the way as he normally did. He tried to ignore everyone and everything. He even tried to shut himself out from the rest of the world.

But, as he went through the long passageways, step by step, pace by pace, all of his confusion calmed down, and slowly, he started to relax and ran slower and slower until he was jogging and then walking.

He got back to his room after a couple more minutes, and he decided to chat to France on his Zonestation.

He sat down, made himself a sandwich, and opened up his Zonestation. He then opened up a chat with France and said,

Hey! Soz about how i acted earlier, got a bit carried away (xP). Want a game of anything?

France replied shortly after, telling Jack to forget about what had happened, and, although Jack doubted how honest a reply that was, soon after they were engrossed in a Zonestation game together.

They played for a couple of noons, although both in their own rooms, not in the same room, until eventually Jack decided it was time to stop and he told France that he would go round to France’s room the next day.

That night, Jack lay back on his bed, and as he shut his eyes he thought. What’s going on? he thought. Why am I feeling like I don’t know a bit about myself? Would it be different if I knew who my parents were? Is it really best for a child not to know who their parents were? Why am I thinking all these things? What’s the problem with me? Troubled but knowing that he would never be able to get an answer from his own mind, he fell asleep. It was a strange thing that he was able to do: to be able to just forget about something easily if he wanted to forget about it.

*******

The next morning, Jack woke up. He stretched, got out of his bed, and then checked the time: he was rather late at waking up that day. He rushed through a hurried breakfast, then thought about when he should go to France’s. Why not now? he thought to himself. So, after cleaning himself and his room up, he went out of his room, and then walked down to France’s.

He thought about what he would tell France about the previous evening. He knew he had acted stupidly, but what? Should he apologise? He decided to give a short explanation and then just forget the matter.

So when he eventually was able to leave the dirty corridors and get into France’s room, he just said,

Soz about last evening. I just was a bit sad because of something I thought of, you know. What do you want to do?”

France wisely didn’t pursue the matter any further, despite the fact that Jack could tell that he wanted to know more about what had happened.

That morning, Jack and France had a good time, despite not doing much talking together. Jack was starting to enjoy the Zonestation games more and more and he knew basically all of them.

Eventually though, Jack grew a bit bored and decided it would be time to leave. He felt like going home and reading a book, randomly thinking that he wanted to read one about the three states of water, which he seemed to have on his mind. Maybe because I’m a bit thirsty?

He was a little apprehensive about walking back to his room at first, wondering if he would feel the same thing as he had felt the previous morning, but after a couple of minutes walking, he relaxed.

He noticed that all the time when he walked through the house, he barely saw anyone else. Almost everyone always stayed in their room, which wasn’t great. He thought he should ask France to come round one day, instead of the other way round, just so France could get out of his room a bit more. Although Jack didn’t want to tell him, he did think that France was getting a bit too fat.

When Jack eventually got back into his room, he took a book off the shelf, titled “Ice: its uses and Properties” by Professor Tipe, who only until recently had been the head of science in America. He seemed to say that ice was an incredible substance that had immense amounts of energy stored in its on atomic structure.

It was a very interesting book. He made lots of weird claims about ice’s physical features, and explained how the nitrogen atoms combined with the sulphur atoms to create an immense of energy stored inside the electrons of ice and that, harnessed correctly, ice could be used to do a whole multitude of things, even controlling people’s minds if it was probed with a certain ray of light (Jack couldn’t recognise the name of the light).

Jack was so absorbed in his book that he barely heard the doorbell ring. Jack realised that that would have meant it was Qwerty. He got up and put his book down on to his bench, and then he opened the door lazily.

Hey.” he said to Qwerty as she stepped inside.

Hi.” she replied, “You okay?”

Yeah,” said Jack, “I’m good. Didn’t feel anything strange at all.”

Good stuff. You want to do anything in particular?” Qwerty asked, and she sat down. She then she saw the book that Jack had been reading. She jerked her head towards it pointedly, and said, “You been reading that?”

Yeah,” Jack replied, “Have you read it before?”

Yeah, I have.” replied Qwerty.

Cool.” said Jack, “Its quite interesting, isn’t it? A bit weird.”

Yeah, maybe.” said Qwerty, and then she seemed as if she wanted to get away from the subject of that book.

So you done anything?” she asked vaguely.

What, since yesterday?” Jack asked without really expecting an answer, “Not really, nothing special. What about you?”

Nah, not really.”

Where do you live, by the way?” Jack asked, the question suddenly appearing in his mind.

Qwerty looked a bit uneasy at that, and she replied, “Oh, a bit south of here. Not far at all to walk to and from though.”

Jack wondered why she was so vague. He wouldn’t be at all worried at giving away what house he lived in to a total stranger, let alone to someone he knew quite well, like Qwerty. But maybe it was because she was a girl, that might be why she was so protective of her location. Maybe that’s just what girls are like, Jack thought to himself. Either way, he didn’t give it too much thought.

Fine.” he said, and there was a short pause for a moment, before Qwerty said, “Do you want to stay in the house or do you want to go outside for a bit?”

Jack realised that he had spent the last couple of days without going outside, so he decided it would be best to go outside, maybe to the park. Within a couple of minutes they were already outside on the street.

*******

De Bran woke up in a hospital bed. Later on he would find out that it was the main and biggest hospital in Nashville, The Duke Fell Hospital.

He stretched and tried to sit up. As he sat up, he stirred the wrong muscle in his back, and he felt an immense pain sear up his back. He fell back on his bed, immediately, and then he wondered why he was there.

It all came back to him within a minute. He remembered all that had gone on, with Via and Pineau. He wondered what had happened after he had passed out.

He then realised he had lots of things that he wanted to find out. For a start, what was the date and time? He knew it wasn’t a short time: he was immensely hungry. Secondly, what had happened after he had passed out? Thirdly, how was Pineau? Even more importantly, how was he? How long would it be before he would be able to get back into work again? Who would be Pineau’s Deputy while he was off, if Pineau even was ok of course?

De Bran tried to call out to someone, as his room was deserted. But he found it extremely difficult to talk with the pain he was enduring. He looked around as best he could. He saw that, on a table to his right, there was a small red button and a sign affixed to it, saying “Press for assistance”.

De Bran tried to lift his hand up to press it, but as he did so, pain shot through his arm and it flopped back onto the bed, lifeless. De Bran swore silently to himself. He realised he had to manage to press the button if he was going to be able to get assistance soon. He didn’t feel like waiting too much longer.

He gritted his teeth and mentally prepared himself for the pain. Then, lifting his arm up, he managed to lift it up and let it drop down onto the desk beside him. Pain shot up through his arm and then down into the other parts of his body. De Bran managed to keep control of himself enough to avoid falling unconscious again in the pain. He turned his head round towards the desk that his hand was on. He was only a few centimetres away from the button. He lifted his hand up, not expecting too much pain, and pressed the button.

But pain again welled up inside his arm due to the movement and it was a bit too much for De Bran to bear this time. He lurched back into unconsciousness as he heard the door to his room open and footsteps come in.

*******

So.” said Jack, “where do you want to go?”

Qwerty looked up at Jack, “I don’t really care.” and she mumbled something under her breath. Jack caught something about “being” and “you”.

What?” he asked, “What was that?”

Nothing.” Qwerty replied, turning away, “Shall we walk down the road into central Nashville and do something there?”

Sure.” said Jack. He didn’t really care what they were doing or where they were going, he enjoyed the company.

Great.” said Qwerty, and she walked down the road ahead of Jack. Jack jogged forwards to keep up and they walked on.

They walked to the city centre, laughing and messing about together. Jack really enjoyed it: he had slightly turned up his nose at simple messing and playing about before, but now, when he was doing it, he enjoyed it.

So.” said Qwerty after a while of just walking and randomly chatting together, “What do you enjoy doing?”

Me? I kind of like playing Zonestation games, though not by myself, only with other people, such as France. Also, I read quite a bit and stuff like that. Not really too much I guess.”

Cool. I don’t really do that kind of stuff. I spend most of my day out at places really, just having fun going about places and also making electronic stuff, when I can afford it.”

Nice.” said Jack, coming up with an idea, “You want to go watch a film?”.

Qwerty looked around for a moment, and then she said, “Yeah, why not?” and then she added, “As long as you pay, I don’t have any money at the moment on me.”

Cool, fine.” said Jack, and they walked down towards the cinema.

What do you want to watch?”

That one looks good.” said Qwerty, pointing, “And that one doesn’t seem too bad, if you don’t like it. You know, we could also watch….

*******

De Bran woke up very soon afterwards. He heard voices around him, but he couldn’t open his eyes.

Pineau said, “How is he?”

Another voice, who De Bran couldn’t recognise, replied, “He’s okay and stable. It looks like he managed to press the button calling for us, but became unconscious again shortly after.”

Pineau clearly became a little bit annoyed, and he said, “Well, tell me when he becomes conscious again. I need to talk to him about something very important.”

Can’t it wait?” asked a new voice. De Bran recognised him as Mr Hugh, who was chief doctor in the hospital.

Not this, this can’t.” said Pineau again.

Oh. Can I ask what it is?” asked the first doctor.

No.” snapped Pineau back, and he added, “Not unless you would like to become like my friend here is, that is.”

There was an awkward silence. De Bran tried to wake himself, and with immense effort, he managed to finally get his eyes open and manage to make a sound from his lips, although he had no idea what he said.

Oh!” said Mr Hugh, a little bit startled. But Pineau didn’t blink an eyelid as the room came into focus for De Bran.

Can you go out now, Mr Hugh, Mr Bake?” Pineau asked.

Sorry, sir, but no.” replied Hugh, “We need to examine the patient’s condition first, sorry sir.”

He‘s not just a patient,” said Pineau, “De Bran is the deputy Foreign Secretary, so don’t mention about him as if he is nobody. But, if you need to examine his condition, do so. But make sure that you don’t take too long.”

Sorry, sir.” replied Hugh.

De Bran was surprised at how much Pineau had wanted to see him. There must be something very important he wants to tell me about, he reflected to himself. He wondered what it was. He was pleased at how much Pineau seemed to care about him, anyway. Pineau must consider him to be a great help.

Hugh asked De Bran a few questions, which De Bran managed to answer with great difficulty. He was glad that Pineau seemed to be totally unhurt except for a few bruises and a lump on his forehead, but nothing serious.

You have serious burns on your back.” said Hugh after De Bran had answered a few questions. “Can you remember what happened?”

Pineau interrupted, “Him and I were examining a new chemical plant, as I said previously. Some chemical splashed all over him and they attacked his back and clothes. It must have given him serious burns.”

De Bran realised that Pineau must be wanting to avoid telling as many people as possible the truth. It was wise, though, he thought. Any person could be an enemy agent in disguise. And we also don’t want the true information to get to the press or our whole government would be in serious trouble.

Can you remember anything extra, Mr De Bran?” asked Hugh again. The other doctor seemed to be doing nothing in particular, it was just Hugh examining De Bran’s condition.

De Bran shook his head.

Hugh seemed to accept that, and then he nodded goodbyes and left the room, with the other doctor, who Pineau had addressed previously as Mr Bake, following.

Chapter 7

Jack and Qwerty watched the film for a couple of hours. Jack enjoyed it – just as he normally did when he went to watch a film. It was something that he enjoyed doing, nothing more.

After the film, him and Qwerty walked slowly back towards Jack’s house along the road. It was slowly getting darker, and although the street lamps would keep the road light level at a very similar brightness to normal daytime, Jack felt like he wanted to go back to his room – although not because of the darkness.

C’mon,” he said, “Let’s go back to my room, ok?”

Cool,” said Qwerty, “Fine by me.”

They walked back to Jack’s room, up Nashville High Street. When Jack got back to his room, he switched on the light and sat down. Him and Qwerty chatted for a short while, and then Qwerty decided that she wanted to go back to her home, so she went.

That evening, Jack did the normal – he played some games with France. It was ok, nothing particularly special. Jack enjoyed the fact that now he was getting into a sort of routine of normal life in the holidays – he had been slightly worried that he wouldn’t be able to find any sort of rhythm in the holidays, but it turned out that it was all going ok so far.

*******

Yes, Jean?” asked De Bran in a little bit of pain, “What do you want to tell me?”

Well.” said Pineau, in reply to the question, and then he paused, and said reflectively, “Have you heard of what happened after you passed out?”

No.” said De Bran, “I don’t know anything at all. What I want to know is, how long was I unconscious? How did I become unconscious? Were you hurt in the process? What happened afterwards? What date is it today?”

Oh, so I see nobody has filled you in with anything.” said Pineau. “In that case, I’ll have to tell you everything.”

Firstly, I assume that you know how you got these burns. As you shot Via, the uberpink lights tried to dissolve the bullet, but instead they shot both your back and Via’s chest. Fortunately for you, the light beams managed to avoid a fewer of the more serious places on your back, such as your brainal cord and kidneys, but Via was not so fortunate.”

So Via is no longer around?” asked De Bran.

Yes.” said Pineau, “That would be the case, yes. We looked around her private study afterwards and we found some interesting papers. It turned out that she was a Missourian spy. We need to look closer into the history of our associates next time we hire them, methinks, Frankie.”

Yes.” said De Bran, uncomfortably, as he was one of the men responsible for the appointment of Via. To be honest, he wasn’t sure what was more uncomfortable, Pineau’s words or the burns on his back. “And what else happened? Have you moved the device back to the Greyham Building yet?”

Yes, all that happened. We are still not sure how long to wait, though. We are unsure whether to use it now, before Missouri or Texas could make an offensive, or whether to wait until events move on.”

If we wait,” said De Bran thoughtfully, “events could turn against us… Yet… the risk could still pay off. I have to say, if you still value my opinion, I still am unsure.”

Yes.” said Pineau.

And so, how long have I been unconscious?” asked De Bran.

Not too long.” said Pineau. “Only a couple of days. At first the doctors were predicting a week.”

How many days exactly?”

Three.” said Pineau, “with the size of the burns you have on your back, that was pretty good going.”

Now.” said De Bran, “In regard to my position as Deputy Foreign Secretary, I would like to know what the circumstances will be?”

Yes, I was considering this.” said Pineau, “Because you will be unable to walk, or at least unable to properly walk, for at least two weeks, I thought that at least in all formal occasions your presence could be replaced by Derby Görn. But he will have to report to you everything that would happen, and you will still be the personal deputy to me. Also, all matters that need the permission of either the foreign secretary or the deputy foreign secretary will still have to go through either me or you. Unless you have any major issues with that arrangement, that will be the case.”

De Bran thought. It would look like he would stay in power, and that he would still have all of the pressure of his job. Still, it would be good. He would not miss anything. And Derby Görn was a good man, so there was no need to worry he might hide anything from De Bran. In short, it looked to be a very good arrangement for himself, De Bran thought.

Yes.” he said, “that will be very good.”

Good.” said Pineau, “In that case, I’ll go now. I’ve got arrangements to make for a few things.” And with that, Pineau walked out of the room, leaving De Bran alone in his bed. He lay back and tried to go back to sleep. At least he would be able to catch back sleep now he was an invalid.

*******

For the next few days, Jack got into a very ordered rhythm to his life. It was all routine: in the morning he would go to France’s room or France would come to his room, and then in the afternoon Qwerty would come round and either the two of them or the three of them (if France was there, it was three) would spend some time together doing things together.

In the America of the 24th century, all the children aged over eleven had a very independent life, and Jack found it easy to plan his own days the way he wanted. He just had to make sure that his plans didn’t conflict with when he was needed to do things in the house, such as cooking and cleaning the corridors.

However, as the days went on other boys and girls in the house started to leave their rooms more often and meet up with Jack, Qwerty, France, and often everyone went out together, sometimes to the cinema, and once Jack managed to get ten other people to go down to the park together. Things were changing.

As time went on through the weeks, Jack realised that he was actually starting to spend less time with France and Qwerty alone. Often there would be only the three of them together, but also, Jack realised that lots of other people were starting to come out of their rooms to do lots of other things.

He wasn’t sure if he liked it that way. He preferred just being alone with France, Qwerty or anyone else so that he could talk closely, in a way. But at the same time he liked meeting up with everyone. It was a hard question of what to do.

For example, eventually Jack started to come to know a few people from around the house, by whatever way he managed to do it, sometimes by Zonestation games, but also by seeing them in person around the house. After he came to know them, he asked them if they would like to come out whenever Jack, Qwerty, France, or anyone else wanted to have a meet-up together with everyone, which eventually turned out to be about every other day.

And as they started to know more and more people around the house, then each gathering was far more attended from all of Jack’s friends. He seemed to be more and more of a popular person, with more friends. Qwerty, also, seemed to be coming round to Jack’s house more and more, sometimes all day, though not all the time to Jack’s room. Often she went to visit some of the other friends she had made in the house.

Jack finally realised that somehow he had made all of the other children in the house to enjoy coming out of their rooms when he had forty other people to come with him down to the cinema. He wondered how everything could have changed so much.

However, with all of this meeting-up, he had not actually been able to talk much with Qwerty. He still had no idea where she lived, and he also hadn’t yet replied to the Greyham Building invite: he hadn’t got to talk to Qwerty about it. He was a bit… too popular.

He almost laughed at the concept. Him, Jack Thorn, loner of the house, person who didn’t join in, toopopular? How did it happen, how did it manage to get like that? It was a joke.

An increasing amount of people were knowing Jack, and Jack wasn’t knowing what their names were. It was rather awkward for Jack. Everything seemed to be rather awkward, as suddenly he was now no longer unpopular, but instead he was a very popular guy. It was very humorous, about how everything had changed.

One day, Jack realised that he needed to find time to talk with Qwerty and ask her if he could reply to the Greyham Building invite. He so wanted to agree to going, but he felt he couldn’t, not until Qwerty said that he could.

So he asked Qwerty about it when they were all together again, and when he asked her, she stopped what she was doing – chatting to one of her friends – and instead stopped and looked at Jack, and said,

How about… let’s see…. tomorrow, we sit down and talk, okay?”

Jack was happy about that, and he agreed. He wondered what the next day would turn out to be. It was already Marz, and the letter had said to reply by the 31st. He felt a bit like he was running out of time.

France had been looking more and more happy as the days went by. He had lots of friends, and he was able to do whatever he liked with them. Jack found he was talking to France and chatting too him less and less as time went on, mainly because both France and him were spending a lot of their time with other people and not each other. Jack didn’t really mind, too much.

He was really happy about everything that had happened. He only wished that he would be able to tell Stervum all that had happened in the house. Stervum would never believe what had happened, if Jack managed to be able to tell him. But Jack realised that there would almost be no way to do it, as Stervum was isolated from ordinary life by the army barrier that surrounded his camp. Jack hoped that Stervum was having a great time, in his own way.

Jack read less, and studied less, and did less technological stuff with Qwerty, as the weeks had gone by, because he was getting more and more busy organising stuff. Still, he thought, its all good stuff doing this. It’s not bad at all. I do enjoy it. I like having all the friends.

Jack hadn’t felt any of the strange instances any more, he hadn’t felt the same “mental attack” again. He started to believe it was only a figment of his imagination, although he knew it wasn’t. He tried to convince himself that it had been not real, but to no avail. He knew that it had happened and that it could happen again.

*******

For De Bran, the weeks were very different. They were all based around two things: the launch of the weapon and recovery from his illness. Gradually, he was able to do more and more until eventually he was able to leave hospital, after a couple of weeks. When he eventually left hospital, he became far more involved in the work of transporting the weapon to the eastern part of America to get ready to attack Greece.

He, Pineau, Plains, and a couple of other ministers met in a small room to discuss plans for attacking Greece. How many troops should they use for the attack? Should they leave any behind, just in case? What should they use the weapon for? Should they use it from the start, or hold it in reserve for a while? All of these questions had to be resolved, and they all were. De Bran started to look forwards to the time when they would attack Greece, and from there Missouri and Texas.

He was also a member of the committee which was investigating Via’s betrayal to Missouri. They wanted to find out how much she had told the Missourians about American affairs, especially to do with the weapon. The results were vague but it seemed quite good: it didn’t look as if Via had told too much to Missouri, in case she had decided to betray Missouri and go back to the American side.

De Bran’s back was only hurting slightly within a few weeks, and he was able to get on with life as normal. He learnt how to avoid it from hurting him too much, and he got on with life as normal.

Although it was hard to call it life as normal. The whole secretiveness but yet importance of moving the weapon to the eastern borders of America was taking up all of the time, the resources, and the thoughts of all of the government ministers, including De Bran.

De Bran wasn’t given an important role in the operation: probably due to both his military inexperience and also his injuries.

One day, Pineau called De Bran into his study.

Frankie.” Pineau said.

Yes?” asked De Bran, expecting another conversation about the weapon.

You know that boy whose parents we executed?”

De Bran wasn’t expecting this. And then he thought of something, something that he suddenly realised the importance of. He groaned inwardly.

Yes, I know. What of him?”

Well, we still haven’t got a reply from him about coming to visit us, as we have from basically all of the other children.”

So what?” asked De Bran, although he knew all of the implications.

A couple of things are important about this. Firstly, if he is against us, which the fact that he has not replied seems to confirm, then he could tell the media, and you know what could happen as a result.”

De Bran nodded.

Pineau continued, “And so, we need your man, your spy, who you said would keep a close watch on him.”

De Bran groaned, silently. “I must say myself…. I forgot to hire a man to do the job.”

Pineau swore, and then paused for a while. “Frankie, you must do better next time. Now, I want you to get a man to do this job, now. It is vitally important that this boy does not tell the media or anything. If the media find out that we executed the parents of an American citizen, which is an act highly condemned in American Law as we both know, then our whole government is in huge trouble. We need to make sure that the boy doesn’t do it, at all costs.”

De Bran felt a little bit embarrassed. He realised that he had failed, and he wanted to make up for it somewhere along the line. Still, Pineau didn’t seem too annoyed at his failure. Was it because it wasn’t that serious, or just because Pineau was relieved to have him back? De Bran couldn’t be too sure.

Soon, the time came when preparations to the invasion were needing to be completed. The army was needing to move towards the eastern front of America, under pretence of a huge training program. It was going to be difficult to keep what it truly was – an invasion force – from the eyes of Greek and Missourian spy planes.

De Bran and Pineau travelled with the weapon up to the front from Nashville. It was a bumpy journey, but De Bran didn’t really care. All of the preparations that had gone into this plan, and now it was going to be finally activated into what they always had planned to use it for. The Mind Modifier was ready to be activated.

*******

Jack woke up. He immediately got out of his bed. He then – following his ordinary routine – thought of what he was going to do that day. He wondered about going round to France’s room, as he knew that France was organising a Zonestation competition. But then he remembered that him and Qwerty were going to talk together that day, and he thought, Zonestation games can wait!

So instead, he got out his Zonestation and instead got onto a chat with Qwerty. It was early-ish in the morning, but Qwerty was an early riser wherever she was and Jack was always up after her.

Jack: Hey

Qwerty: Hiya

Jack: You going to come round now?

Qwerty: is it ok to come now?

Jack: yh, sure. Have breakfast here if u want.

Qwerty: I’ve already had breakfast. I’ll come now tho.

Jack: k. c u later.

Qwerty: sure

Jack sat back, turned off his Zonestation, and then took out a piece of bread for his breakfast. The bread was made out of potatoes and tasted nicest if it was toasted, but Jack didn’t have a toaster in his room and he couldn’t be bothered to go all the way downstairs into the main hall just to toast his bread. He slapped some ginger spread onto his bread, and ate his breakfast.

About ten minutes later, Qwerty arrived. She helped herself in through the retina scanner (Jack had eventually got bored of so many people knocking on his door that he had let all of his close friends to come in with the retina scanner to avoid him opening the door.

Qwerty and Jack exchanged greetings, and then Qwerty disabled the retina scanner temporarily by turning of the power leading to it.

Why did you do that?” asked Jack after he had swallowed his mouthful.

Do what?” asked Qwerty

Turn off the scanner.”

Oh, that. I did it because what I want to tell you today is… very private, and I don’t want anyone else to know.”

Ok.” said Jack.

So.” said Qwerty, “How’ve you been? Its been a long time since we talked together last.”

Yeah.” Jack agreed, “I’m ok, feeling normal, but a bit tired. You ok?”

Yes, I’m fine.” said Qwerty, and then her face changed and she became far more serious.

Jack.” she said seriously, “I’m going to tell you something. You have to promise never to tell this to another person, ever. No-one can know this, understand?”

Jack nodded. He wondered what this was to do with the invite, but he didn’t mind. He wanted to talk, for as long as possible, really. It had been a long time since he had last talked properly to anyone: a

You promise that you won’t tell anyone else? No-one at all?”

Jack promised.

Ok, then let me talk. Jack, you and I are good friends, but yet you don’t know much about me at all. You don’t know where I live, you don’t know what I did before I met you, and you don’t know much about me at all.”

Jack nodded. He didn’t really know much about Qwerty, to be honest.

So I’m going to tell you. This is very important and private to me, as you will see.”

So why are you going to tell me if its so private?” Jack asked.

Qwerty smiled at Jack, a smile that meant everything and anything. “I’m doing it because your my friend, Jack. I’m telling you because your my best friend. I’m telling you because I love you.”

Chapter 8

To be honest, Jack was astonished. He hadn’t been expecting this. He had no idea what to make of it: Qwerty loved him? What? How? Huh?

So instead, he didn’t really know what to say, and he instead only said, thinking that he was sounding a little bit dumb as he said it, “Ok? So what is it that you want to tell me?”

Qwerty waited for a short while and then she said, rather softly, “Let me tell you about my past, and who I am.”

She continued, “I am only young like you, only 14, although I can’t be sure. Birthdays aren’t celebrated in Missouri, which was where I was born. I stayed with my parents until I was nine. They trained me to be able to look after myself, and when I was eight they applied to become spies and serve the Missourian state.”

Did you know anything about this?” asked Jack.

Yes, I knew everything. They barely hid anything from me.” replied Qwerty.

Jack wondered what it must have been like to live with your parents while you were young. It must have been a great privilege. He wasn’t really sure if Qwerty was making it up, but he doubted it.

So did you agree with them about being a spy?” asked Jack.

After they had explained everything to me about it all, then yes, I did agree with them.”

So what happened?” asked Jack.

They were accepted into the force, but they were not allowed to go into the field until I was 9 because that’s Missourian policy. So they stayed with me all the day in the months before my birthday. They were the happiest days of my life.”

Jack imagined it – he would have loved to have parents who loved him and stayed with him and did everything with him.

It must have been amazing.” he agreed, “But then, what happened?”

When I became nine, they were commissioned by the government to go and spy on America, this country.”

So they went? What happened to you?”

Yes, they went, and they brought me with them. They loved me too much to be able to leave me behind with other members of family, especially as I hardly knew my uncles, aunts, or grandparents.”

So what happened then?”

We all went together. My parents were told to spy on the government in power at the time, the Liberals, and see what their war plans involving Missouri might be.”

They told you what their mission was?”

Yes, they did. We were told to go and visit the resident Missourian spies in Nashville, Mr and Mrs Thorn, and then-”

Wait.” said Jack, thinking of something, “You said Mr and Mrs Thorn. Were they – could they – have been my parents? After all, not all that many people in Nashville are surnamed “Thorn”.” But then, as he spoke, he realised the unlikelihood of such a prospect. In actual fact, Thorn was a very popular American surname, and it would be extremely unlikely for Jack to be the son of two Missourian spies.

I’m sorry, Jack. I have no idea. But, in case you want to know, those were the two spies who have recently been executed in the town centre. Anyway, we were told to visit them, and we did. We – or at least my parents, I didn’t say much – got information about the government that way, but my parents wanted a bit more. So we stayed in a hotel near the Greyham Building and then from there my parents went into the Greyham Building, finding out information.”

What did you do?” asked Jack.

Me?” said Qwerty, “I stayed in the hotel room. I spent the day relaxing, sleeping, and playing about with anything I could find.”

So how did it go?” Surprisingly to himself, Jack wasn’t really feeling at all that apprehensive about knowing that Qwerty’s parents – and probably Qwerty as a result – were against America. Something inside him had seemed to get less supportive of the American government. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing.

How did what go?”

The spying mission.”

It went well. Within a few days my parents said that we were going back to Missouri, as they had got some important information.”

Firstly, though,” Qwerty continued, “they had to go and tell the Thorns, in case they lost their information somewhere along the way.”

They again left me behind in the hotel room, promising this would be the last time they did it, and they left, just to go down the road to see the Thorns.”

Ok.” said Jack, “Why is this so important?”

You’ll see.” said Qwerty. “But within a few moments, they were back in the room. I ran out to greet them, but they didn’t seem to have time for me. They had a hurried discussion with each other in their bedroom. I listened in through the door. I shouldn’t have, but I did.”

You see, it was the first time that I had ever seen my parents like that, you see. It was a bit too intriguing for me to miss out.” Qwerty carried on.

Anyway,” said Jack, “what were they talking about?”

It was hard to make sense of it due to the thick door, but I think I managed. It seemed as if the American Nationalist Party had got wind of my parents’ work. They had managed to get them to be trapped in their room, and the party were demanding that my parents would hand over everything that they had taken information from, or else the party would kill them. If they obeyed, they would be free.”

It seemed like my parents trusted them,” Qwerty went on, “And my parents didn’t seem to expect betrayal. So they decided to hand everything over. After all, the Nationalists had a feud with the Liberals and were hardly going to hand the information over to them, who were in charge of the government! And another thing was that it would probably help politically if they complied, for the good of Missouri. If they managed to get good terms with the Nationalist Party, maybe the Missourians could get more of an influence in America, especially if the Nationalists were probably going to be rather against the Missourians otherwise?”

But what happened?” asked Jack.

I quietly crept away from the door when I heard them getting up. As they went out, my mother gave me a kiss on my cheek, and my father said to me, “Stay calm, dear. Mummy and Daddy are only going to be a little while.” I watched my parents go out of the hotel from a window, as I always did. I saw them go out and meet the Nationalists. But what I saw then….” Qwerty started to cry.

I’m sorry.” said Jack, “What happened then? Do you want to talk about it?”

I’ll have to.” said Qwerty, between sobs, “You should know: anyway, my parents started talking to the Nationalists, and they handed over the papers. The nationalists seemed to be rather friendly. But then…”

What happened?”

In between more sobs, Qwerty continued, “My parents were talking, uneasily. It was a dark night and the street was deserted, it being a side street and all. Then, t-two of the Nationalists went away, behind my parents, pretending to be lighting a sigaret.” Qwerty paused for a while, tears welling in her eyes.

I’m sorry.” said Jack, “If you don’t want to talk about it we don’t need to.”

No,” said Qwerty, determined, “We need to talk about it. These two men…they- they- they took out two knives, and from behind, they s-s-st-st-stabbed each of my parents right through th-the heart.”

What?” exclaimed Jack, shocked.

Yes, it was all a pretence. All the Nationalists had wanted to do was to kill my parents, that was all their aim was. It had all been a cover-up. But what was worse – f-f-far worse – was w-what they did next. They t-tot-totally mutilated each body in hate. They totally messed e-each body up, stabbing h-h-here, tearing clothing there, ri-ri-ripping parts of the body off. The-they did it all in total hate. And-and I saw it all.” Qwerty cried in a combination of anger and sadness, with tears rolling down her face.

Why? Why did they do that?”

I don’t know, really. They must have absolutely hated my parents for some reason. And then I saw the men – and a woman – coming into the hotel. So I hid while they came in and took everything they could. The Nationalists didn’t seem to know about me, as they weren’t looking around for anyone.”

Ok.” said Jack, “What did you do after they went?”

Me? I cried. I cried and cried and cried. I couldn’t stop, not for six whole noons. I was totally angry, totally afraid, totally sad.”

But then?” asked Jack, “What did you do next?”

I realised I had to go and leave the room. Somehow, the hotel room wasn’t being cleared up for some reason, but it would only be a matter of time before the cleaners would discover me. So, I tried to get together all of my parents’ stuff that would help, and, that evening, I left the hotel via the window.”

But you were only nine!” exclaimed Jack.

Yes, but I was taught from a young age how to help myself to survive by myself. It was as if my parents had been expecting me to need to live by myself when I was young. And it turned out to be useful.”

So where did you go after that?” asked Jack.

Since then, I’ve lived on the street. I found a deserted house in Central Nashville that I could live in, and since then I’ve stayed there. I registered myself with the government a year ago, when I started to go to school. I pretended to be an immigrant from Honduras.”

But before then, for all of those three years, you managed to keep surviving alone?” asked Jack, surprised at everything he had found out.

Yes.” said Qwerty, “I taught myself, looked after myself, and did everything myself. I found out some very interesting things. I have promised to do two things: firstly, to continue my parents’ spying work; and secondly, to avenge the horrible murder of my parents. For them to simply kill my parents would have been ok, I would have understood why they did it, although I would still be angry. But in the manner they did it…. absolutely horrible.”

I understand.” said Jack, “Sometimes, I’ve felt the same, or at least similar.”

Similar?” Qwerty scoffed, “No thing’s similar to the emotions I felt. But don’t worry, I don’t want you to have felt the same experience at all.”

So…. what have you been doing with your time all these years? I mean, what have you done? To be honest, it must get pretty boring being by yourself all these years.”

A bit.” said Qwerty. “But I’m used to it, and I’ve been working. I’m telling you, my parents kept some strange things in their suitcase!”

Such as?”

Well, there were a few spy gadgets, as expected. But there was also a huge mass of wires ans things like that which I was able to use to make some stuff, from the practical, like lights, to the not-so-practical, like pointless gadgets. There was a lot of confidential information that had managed to not be taken by the Nationalists: I took that too. So there was lots of things to use for me.”

At first, I stole food.” continued Qwerty, “But then I realised that I could easily steal money and then buy food and not the other way around. I managed to create a few more spying devices to help me find out information about my parents’ death and the Nationalist party.”

Have you found out who was responsible?”

Oh, yes.” said Qwerty. “I found out ages ago. I got a good view of the people when they searched our room, you know. All I had to do was match faces.”

Who?”

Well, there were a few lesser people, who were not important in the mission aimed at murdering my parents. But one person was important: in fact, he’s now in a very important position in the government. His name is Jean Pineau, and he’s the Foreign Secretary.”

Ok.” said Jack. He was taking this all in. “Can I ask something?”

Yeah.” said Qwerty.

You know earlier you said that you promised that you would continue your parents work in spying on the government​?”

Yes?”

So, are you still a Missourian spy?”

I’m a spy.” said Qwerty, “But not a Missourian one.”

As in?” asked Jack.

Well, I spy on the American government.” said Qwerty, “But not for Missouri. I don’t send anything to Missouri. For all Missouri know, I’m dead.”

So why do you spy?” asked Jack.

To be honest, I don’t know. I know a lot about the American government’s ins and outs, and if I reveal it all to the media, then there will be a huge national outcry. But I don’t know why I don’t. Probably because I enjoy finding out things I’m not meant to know.”

How do you do it?” asked Jack.

You want to know? Ok, I’ll tell you. I have a device that can hack into any computer database and find information, and I use that a lot. I also have a small device that helps me to listen in on private conversations that go on in the Greyham Building, and other stuff.”

Cool.” said Jack, “I have to say, you aren’t what I expected.”

The truth was, he wasn’t sure if Qwerty was telling all the truth. He wasn’t sure if she was lying. He couldn’t really tell what the truth about her was. However, something inside him was telling him that she wasn’t lying. He wasn’t sure, not totally sure, whether he should believe her. But yet, it was so hard not to believe her. She said it very realistically, especially how she cried….. it didn’t look fake.

Yeah.” Qwerty said, “Your the only person I’ve ever told that, and I don’t want you to tell anyone else. Please.”

Jack agreed. There was no way he would ever tell anyone Qwerty’s secret just like that: it was a serious thing.

Can you tell me a couple of things that you’ve found out from the government?” he asked curiously, for no real reason in particular.

Yeah,” said Qwerty, “For a start, did you know that America are planning to invade Greece soon?”

They are WHAT?” shouted Jack. Surely this must be a lie! But the way Qwerty said it, and anyway, why would she make it up? “What are they doing that for?” Jack asked.

Qwerty said, smiling in a strange way at Jack’s outburst, “I can’t totally tell, as a lot of the file locations are securely protected and even I can’t access them, but it seems as if the government is pretty confident. It seems as if they have managed to get a new “Secret Weapon”. It seems to be called the “Mind Modifier”, or that might just be a kind of codename, I’m not sure. I can’t really tell from my information, as even the American Government has got quite tight cyber-security.”

Jack was interested. It would be interesting if this became true, but somehow, he doubted it. Still, Qwerty was an exceptionally interesting character, and she was certainly not all she seemed to be.

Then he suddenly thought of something. “Would it be possible for me to be able to -” he paused.

To be able to what?”

-Use your device to be able to find out who my parents were?” he finished, unsure.

After all,” he continued, “it will be stored all on the central core computer of the house, and I doubt that will be too securely protected.”

Qwerty thought for a while. And then she said, “Yes, I guess so. But are you sure? It could change your outlook on life dramatically.”

But Jack was adamant. “Honestly, I really want to know. I really want to find out. Its been the question that I want to know for the whole of my life.”

In that case, yeah, sure.”

Thanks.” said Jack, aware that he was close to finding out the big question that he had been caring about all of his life.

Can I come as well to get the machine to work it?” he asked.

I don’t see why not.” said Qwerty, “Shall we go now?”

Yeah, sure.” said Jack, “Just let me get a drink first.” He only just realised that they had been talking for so long – nearly three noons!

Cool.” said Qwerty, “Get one for me too, ok?”

Sure”

*******

Jack and Qwerty walked out onto the street. It was still quite cold, with the wind coming down from the north, but Jack didn’t care too much. A huge amount had changed since the start of the school holidays: in fact, basically everything about his life had changed.

And now he was going to be able to find out who his parents were and what they had done… Jack realised that this summer had been basically the greatest time of his life.

They walked for a few minutes south, towards Qwerty’s home. Both of them were quite sober: Qwerty, still solemn from the story she had told to Jack; and Jack, realising the huge amount of implications that finding out who his parents were would have on his life.

After about fifteen minutes of walking, Qwerty pointed down a side-street.

That way.” she said.

Ok.” said Jack, and he followed her.

They were close to the middle of Nashville, and Jack thought to himself about the slight coincidence that this was quite near to where he had guessed Qwerty lived all along.

Qwerty led Jack down along the road. Jack caught up, and jogged alongside the brisk walk pace Qwerty had set.

Why go so fast?” he asked.

I don’t like these roads.” Qwerty explained, “They remind me of the roads where my parents were murdered.”

Ok.” said Jack, and then he mused, “You really loved them, didn’t you?”

Yeah,” said Qwerty, “And they really loved me as well. I feel so sorry for you, never knowing your parents.”

Don’t worry,” said Jack, “It’s something that will never be changed. I hope that I’ll be able to meet them again though, when I know who they are.”

But inside he felt very sad as he realised the truth of the matter: that he was without his parents for his life, even if he managed to meet up with them one day. In reality, he envied Qwerty very much.

Soon, they got to Qwerty’s house. It was a small place – one room really. It was just a small room underneath another room on top.

They walked into the room. It was small and cramped, but Jack could see that for Qwerty, it was home. She seemed to really like to be home.

At least the place was warm. There was heating, and the walls were secure. You couldn’t get cold there that easily, that’s for certain.

But in a few moments, Qwerty had found what she was looking for, and they were back on the road, walking back up towards Jack’s house.

What is the range of the device?” asked Jack, when Qwerty had explained how it worked, which was by connecting up to the computer from a distance and then extracting all of the files.

Oh, the range. The range is about 1 kilometre, but we need to be as close as possible for best effects.”

So will my room be ok?”

Your room… let’s see… It will have to do. It should be fine, hopefully.”

Good stuff.”

When they both got back into his room, Jack turned on the device. He realised how close he was to finding out something that he had wanted to do for so much of his life: in fact, it was his lifetime aim, to find out who his parents were. And now he was so close, so close to finding out….. it was pretty amazing to think about it.

So, can you do it by yourself?” asked Qwerty.

Yeah, I guess so.” said Jack. “You’ve told me all what to do.”

Good.”

Jack turned the machine on. The machine was rather small, only slightly bigger than his Zonestation. It was black, and had something that looked like an uberpink receiver attached to its head, and it had a large screen on the front. It hummed as it tried to detect all of the computer memories that there were in the immediate vicinity.

The machine worked for about ten minutes before it came up with an answer.

Jack’s heart was pumping loudly, and when he eventually saw the results on the screen he was very surprised. Within a fifty metre radius, there was just over a hundred computer memories!

He showed this to Qwerty.

Is this a glitch?” he asked.

Probably not,” replied Qwerty, a little bit insulted that Jack would be considering the possibility of the device glitching, “Its just all of the Zonestations. I forgot about that.”

So, what shall we do?” asked Jack.

Well, if you really want to know….” said Qwerty, awaiting an answer.

Yes, I do.” said Jack.

…well, then we can try to get as close to the mainframe as possible.”

But where can we go?” asked Jack, thinking hard.

Qwerty paused for a moment, thinking.

Then she said, “The closest place I know where we can be private is the public toilets, but that won’t help us very much. Unless of course you want to be alone…”

Jack shook his head.

Well, then we could try to find someone who has a room close to the mainframe.”

Well, who lives close to it?” Jack asked, “See if they are okay.”

Jewel?” asked Qwerty, after a short pause while she thought.

No,” said Jack, “She’s not too careful with what she says.”

Dave?” asked Qwerty again.

He’s a bit too young,” said Jack, “could get carried away. And Ash’s too silly, but Arceus is okay, I think.”

No, not Arceus, certainly not,” said Qwerty, “he lives too far away. We need to be very close for it to be at all helpful, now I realise how many Zonestations there are.”

Well,” said Jack, “In that case, how about this idea?”

What?” asked Qwerty.

Well,” said Jack, “We could go downstairs, sit in the lounge for a short bit, and connect up to the mainframe. Then we could come back here and dissect the files up. Would that work?”

No, I don’t think so.” said Qwerty.

Oh.” said Jack, a bit disappointed.

There was another silence as they both thought. Jack wondered if he really wanted to find out so much… Yes, he persuaded himself, I do.

Actually.” said Qwerty, “I think that connecting downstairs and then coming back here to actually examine the files might work after all.”

Really?” asked Jack, “Well then, if it could, will it be the best option?”

Yes, certainly.” Qwerty said. “I’m not sure if we could look out of the ordinary like that. I think we should do that. It would work, I don’t really know why I said it wouldn’t earlier. To be honest, it might have been because I wasn’t concentrating and I was thinking a bit too hard.”

Good.” said Jack, relieved that now his wait would be over.

So, shall we go now?” Qwerty asked.

Yeah, why not?” said Jack.

It was in a mixture of emotions that Jack went downstairs. He was apprehensive, about whether it would work; he was afraid, if he would find out something horrible; he was worried, whether he would fail and be caught; he was happy, that he would now know what his parents were like. On the whole, the emotion that was the largest in his mind was happiness, because of the fact that he would finally find out the answer to the question that had been bugging him since he was as young as four.

Finally, they got to the bottom floor of the building. Jack had to say, it looked quite impressive when you first came in: but, after living there and seeing the large desk and the multiple Zonemasters and the fake waterfall every day, it wasn’t so impressive after all.

But still, it was a nice place to sit down and watch the world go by, in the lounge on the ground floor. Everyone was allowed to go there, and although there were strict rules, such as no food and drink, no noise, and a lot of things were banned as well, it was still rather enjoyable, or at least it was enjoyable for Jack. He didn’t know about other peoples’ opinions.

There was nobody in the lounge when Jack and Qwerty went in. They sat down on one of the large chairs that were there for lots of people to sit on.

Without really talking to Qwerty, Jack turned the machine on and it started working. Within fifteen minutes, results had popped up, and Jack examined them, searching for the right mainframe.

Sort them by memory size.” said Qwerty, “the one we are looking for will have the most memory in it.”

How do you do that?” asked Jack.

Qwerty touched a button on the screen, and the machine sorted all of the computers in order of the size of their internal memory.

Oh.” said Jack.

On the screen, the top computer in order of memory within the range of twenty metres was labelled with a random string of numbers and letters, converse to the other ones which were all “Zonestation 72378” or “Zonemaster 642648” or more numbers similar to that.

That’s the one.” nodded Qwerty.

Jack’s heart was pumping hard and loud as he connected the machine up to the computer mainframe. He was rather nervous, although his nervousness wasn’t really grounded in any real reason to be nervous, he reflected.

A message popped up on the screen: “Connection Complete. Extracting Files.”

Jack nodded to Qwerty, and they got up silently, heading towards the stairs.

Jack almost ran up the stairs, as he was rather anxious to find out the truth all about his life as soon as possible. He tried to calm himself down, but he couldn’t.

Slow down!” said Qwerty.

I can’t!” said Jack.

Huh?” said Qwerty, a little bit worried, “Are you losing control of yourself again? Do you need any help?”

No, I’m not losing control of myself!” said Jack, not dropping pace, “At least, not really! I’m just very anxious to get it over and done with!”

Slow down, can you?” asked Qwerty, a bit out of breath. “There’s no hurry, really.”

Jack realised there was no need to run, and he managed to force himself to slow down and to force his beating heart to calm down.

And within five minutes, the two of them were back in Jack’s room, looking at the screen on the device.

It had finished working and now showed a message:

SECURITY SYSTEM DETECTED.

DISABLE?

Qwerty touched the button “Disable” and then Jack and Qwerty scanned the files.

After they were through the normal, ordinary systems, which took about ten minutes to decipher as Jack had had no experience of a normal computer before and Qwerty had only limited experience, they found some interesting files.

It says, “Children”,” said Qwerty.

Try that.” said Jack.

They went into it, and looked at the folder’s contents.

It was a mixture of word files and folders. Jack and Qwerty didn’t care about the word files, but they were interested in the folders.

All of the folders were entitled “Floor 1” or “Floor 2”. Jack opened up “Floor 6”, which was where he lived.

Inside, there were more folders, sorting by which part of the floor it was. Jack selected his area, and then he looked in there.

There were a lot of database files, simple things, no doubt meant to be easily accessed by the people working in the house. Jack opened up the one that said “Jack Thorn”.

The machine worked for a minute as Jack waited for it to open, barely daring to breathe.

Eventually, the database file opened, and Jack looked at the contents.

There was a picture of him and then a list of all of his physical characteristics. He was a little shocked and also rather worried – how did they manage to get all of the information about his height and his weight?

Then he scrolled down lower in the file, under prompting from Qwerty, and he saw more and more information about himself. There was absolutely loads of information, from Jack’s school results to Jack’s Zonestation ID, to Jack’s exact Blood Group.

But then, about two-thirds way down, Jack saw what he had been looking for. There was the title “Blood Parents” and then underneath, two pictures of people and their names, and a list of information about themselves.

But Jack was shocked when he saw it. He saw the names: Steve and Cynthia Thorn. He saw the pictures: he didn’t recognise the pictures at all.

But something that made Jack gasp was that, under the heading of “Occupation”, it read “Missourian spies”. And even worse, labelled over the two images of Jack’s parents, was the word “EXECUTED”. Not “deceased” or “died”, but instead, “executed”.

Chapter 9

So they are.” said Jack, shell-shocked.

Yeah,” said Qwerty, softly, “it looks like it.”

It looks like it?” Jack said, suddenly raising his voice angrily, a bit senselessly, “It doesn’t just look like it, it IS it! I mean, how else could you explain that?” and he jerked his hand towards the screen.

Qwerty was silent for a bit, and Jack felt a bit guilty for his outburst, which had been very pointless anyway.

Sorry.” he said.

I’m sorry too.” said Qwerty in reply.

Jack nodded acknowledgedly. To be honest, he was shocked. He hadn’t been expecting this. Or at least, in a way he was but at the same time he wasn’t.

It had had a huge impact on him: all his life he had thought of his parents of being out there, alive, probably thinking of the son that they had and who was forcibly taken away from them by the government. But now, after finding out that the people who naturally would have been looking after him were dead, he was overwhelmed in sadness.

He started to cry, thinking about it. He thought about how they would have been if they had lived together in Missouri: what would it be like?

Would they have been a close family? Would Jack have loved his parents? What would have happened to them in the future? Would they still have been spies? Even more importantly, would Jack have been happy?

AARGH!” he screamed, eventually unable to bear with the pain of it all.

What’s up, Jack?” asked Qwerty, but Jack barely heard her. He was totally engrossed in his own thoughts.

He then fell back onto his bed. He was totally confused in his mind with his thoughts: he had no idea how to make sense of it all.

He tried to clear his mind and calm himself. It was a difficult process, such was the anxiety in his own mind. He had to try to forget about it all. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. But eventually, he managed to open his eyes and see Qwerty sitting on the bed next to him.

You ok, Jack?” she said, and Jack looked at her. He smiled.

He sat up, and then he stared at her for a while. They met each other’s gaze for a couple of moments and then Jack, tears still rolling down his cheeks, threw his arms forward and the two of them embraced, hugging each other as tightly as possible.

*******

Will it be ready to launch on Thursday?” asked De Bran to Pineau.

Hopefully.” was the reply, “It seems as if it will. I’m not sure if it will work perfectly though. We don’t have enough good scientists to manage to figure it out completely. If only Tipe and Via had managed to stay supportive of us, then we would be all right.”

De Bran nodded, and then walked away. Him, Pineau, Plains, and a lot of the American army were situated almost on the border with Greece.

The army thought that they were only on a training exercise, so there had been some training going on in the camp, but nothing challenging at all. Some of the army officers had been annoyed at the simplicity of it all, but that didn’t really matter. If they knew the bigger picture, that this was no training exercise, they would be content.

The government of American thought that they would fool the Missourians and especially the Greeks, especially how they were not telling the truth to their own army. There were almost certainly Missourian, Texan and maybe even a couple of Grecian spies who had joined the American army to figure out what was going on to them, so you couldn’t be too careful, De Bran thought to himself.

After all, the American spies inside the Missourian and Texan armies had found out a lot about those countries’ manoeuvres because the governments leaked too many secrets to the common soldiers. It was best not to tell too many people.

Although a lot of the ministers had wanted to see the weapon first activated, Blake had stayed back in Nashville, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it would look a little bit too obvious, or at least, suspicious, if the Premier went to the war front; and secondly, Blake was afraid that it would all fail and that he would be killed. The selfish idiot was staying back in Nashville to give himself more time to “live”.

Pineau and Plains had decided to try and attack on Thursday, and that was now only a couple of days away now. De Bran himself was going to reveal it all to the army at a conference only the evening before, to give any spies that could be in the army almost no time at all to reveal the information to their respective countries.

Until then, De Bran was anxious and rather busy, going about organising everything and personally making sure that everything was ordered properly, but being forced to act behind the scenes for fear of revealing the truth to anyone who ought not to know.

The thing was, De Bran was surprisingly anxious. He had seen the machine work numerous times first-hand, yet he was still rather apprehensive about it all. It might have been because he was there when Tipe and Via were killed and that the machine had an aura of death about it already, or that there were other things that he couldn’t really pick out in his mind. He wasn’t sure. He hoped that everything went well in the end, though. If it didn’t, though….. it wasn’t worth thinking about.

*******

I love you.” murmured Jack, through his tears.

Me too.” said Qwerty.

There was a silence for a moment or two, and Jack pulled himself away from Qwerty somewhat reluctantly.

Sorry for bringing this up.” said Qwerty, “But…. it’s just that… we’re both rather similar. Our parents were both Missourian spies, yet we have both lived in America for at least a large amount of our lives. Our parents are both dead, both killed brutally by the Nationalists. I’m sorry for saying this all, but it is quite a coincidence.”

Jack nodded. He still really was finding it difficult to get over, which wasn’t surprising. He wasn’t sure what would be the best way to be able to best get over it. For a start, he didn’t really want Qwerty around: she could accidentally bring up the subject again. Jack loved Qwerty, but sometimes he didn’t want her around all the time.

Would you possibly leave me for a bit? I sorta want to get over it all.” Jack asked.

Qwerty nodded, understandingly.

She got up, said a short and soft “Bye.” and she left, after giving Jack a small kiss. Jack blushed, and then he noticed that she hadn’t brought anything with her as she left, nothing at all.

After Qwerty had left back to her own house, Jack felt a little bit sad. He wasn’t really very sure if it was best if he was alone: he wanted to spend a bit more time with Qwerty. But he did feel that it would be the best for him to be alone.

Because….. he needed to get the better of it. He knew that the only way in which he would be able to come to terms with his emotions about his parents was by himself, alone. So, it probably was best after all.

But then his thoughts strayed, back to the file, back to the fact that his parents were now dead, and back to the brutally cruel fact that they had been executed in a violent way by the government who he had once loved.

And even worse: the government had broken American law in what they did. It was a well-known law: no American citizen and no close relative to a living American citizen, (even if the relative and the citizen are not communicating) is allowed to be given a public execution. Yet the Nationalists had given the parents of Jack, an American citizen, a horrible, inhumane public execution.

Surely they knew that those people were Jack’s parents? Surely they knew? After all, it was the government. They could find things out easily. So, they had willingly broken the laws to execute Jack’s parents in an ugly way.

All of Jack’s prejudices towards the Nationalists were falling down. First he had heard how Qwerty’s parents had been betrayed and then mauled; and then he found out that his parents, his own father and mother, had been given a cruel and humiliating public execution.

He was changing, no doubt about it. Jack’s preconceptions towards the Nationalists were turning around and now he was starting to be not just a little bit anti-Nationalist.

He realised the folly that he had done: he had trusted in the Nationalist Party to bring him what he wanted, and they had let him down. Why did he trust them like that? It was unfounded in any common sense. He needed to trust people that he knew were trustworthy. How could he have possibly known that they were trustworthy? He didn’t know them personally, did he?

What is happening to me? He wondered. Now he knew exactly what Qwerty had meant when she had said about finding out about his parents that “it could change your outlook on life dramatically”. It had.

His thought process then changed route yet again. He was still sniffing, sobbing, and crying, but he wasn’t concentrating on that. He wondered what his parents had been like: were they nice people? Had theybeen nice people, he corrected himself regrettably. Even more importantly, had they had any other children? Did Jack have a brother or sister back in Missouri, not knowing that they had a brother who lived in America? Did Jack have lots of brothers and sisters? He could be one in a large family.

He wondered what to do. Could he go back to Missouri and try to find out what his parents were like, whether he had any siblings, or anything else like that? Or could he try to avenge the violent deaths of his parents, maybe by releasing the news to the media? He was sure that the American media would take up any trace of a scandal.

But at the same time, he wondered if it would be best just to ignore it and get on with normal life. After all, it was only two other people in the world, wasn’t it? It wasn’t that relevant to him, was it? No, but it isn’t just two random other people, Jack reminded himself, It’s the two people who were your parents. It’s the two people who would have looked after you if it weren’t for the embleer American “houses”.

But what was so important about parenthood? After all, there must have been a reason why the American Government instituted the house system. But, Jack reminded himself, parents were natural. It was right, living with two people who loved you and cared for you until you were older and able to fend for yourself. Conversely, the house system just wasn’t right. It wasn’t the natural course of things.

Jack stood up, getting off his bed. He felt a bit more normal now, now that he had given it a bit more thought. So he went to get himself a slice of potato bread, with maybe a bit of turkey with it. He was extremely hungry, after all.

After he finished his sandwich, he got onto his Zonestation. He then sent a message to Qwerty, saying that she could come round again if she wanted to.

Within a couple of minutes, he had got a reply back, with Qwerty saying that she was on her way back to Jack’s room.

*******

Qwerty was only ten minutes: she was a little out of breath when she got to Jack’s room, as if she had been walking rather quickly.

She knocked on the door, and Jack opened it.

Best to fix up the retina thing again.” said Qwerty, as she walked in, and she proceeded to do just that.

Cool, thanks.” said Jack.

You ok, then?” asked Qwerty, after she had finished. She said it a little bit soberly and kindly.

Yeah,” said Jack, rather softly, “I’m all right. Not too bad.”

Good.”

Can I ask you something?” Jack asked.

Yeah, what?” Qwerty said, and she sat down on Jack’s bed. Jack sat down next to her.

Well,” said Jack, “It’s about the Greyham Building.”

Yeah.”

Well, you know the thing we were sent, the invitation.”

Yes, of course. I couldn’t really forget it.”

Well, I wasn’t sure if you had forgot, but anyway…. are we going?”

Qwerty paused and then she asked, “Do you still want to go, Jack?” Qwerty asked.

Yes, but for different reasons. I want to tell them what they did, and I want to…. I almost want to get my own back. I might see if there is a way”

Well, if you want to go, I’m going with you.” Qwerty said, “But we’ll have to be very careful. I know… these people are very violent. They could kill us if they find out that I’ve been spying and that you could release information that could ruin their government.”

Jack nodded. How could these people, who I almost worshipped a month ago, now be the people who I want to get revenge upon? What has happened?

Jack then switched on his Zonestation.

No time like the present,” he said, “and you can reply maybe tomorrow, so that it doesn’t look so much as if we are together.”

Even though we are?” asked Qwerty, although she probably already knew the answer.

Of course we are.” said Jack, “I’d never feel right about doing this separately.” Qwerty smiled back at Jack.

Jack replied to the original message he was sent. He said that he was coming and that he was really looking forward to it. He didn’t really mention about taking so long to reply: that was too hard to explain, so he didn’t bother. He added a couple of things as well about himself, just to make it look more friendly. Even though he felt anything but friendly to the Nationalists at that moment.

Done.” he said after he had finished.

Awesome.” said Qwerty, and then there was a short silence for a while.

What do you want to do?” Qwerty asked.

Let’s go outside, should we? Would that be ok with you? I mean, the weather’s pretty awesome. It’s a good time to go out.” Jack replied, after looking out of the window, the only window that he had in his room. He would have liked a few more windows, just to make the room a bit brighter.

Fine. That’ll be great.” said Qwerty, “Let’s go.”

Jack slipped on a couple of shoes, and then he followed Qwerty out of the room. He locked the door behind him, and then him and Qwerty went down the stairs, chatting together.

When they got down to the main desk in the main hall, Jack and Qwerty were surprised to see France and a lot of other boys and girls who they knew (at least, knew to some extent) just leaving the building.

Jack and Qwerty jogged to catch up with them.

Hey, where you going?” asked Jack to France when he caught up with France.

France turned his head and said, “Oh, Hi Jack! Sorry I didn’t call you. It’s just that you said not to disturb you today.”

That’s fine.” said Jack, “Only, where you going?”

Us?” asked France, “We’re going to the park. We got a bit bored of games.”

Jack was surprised. France, bored of Zonestation games? Something had changed. This wasn’t the France who Jack had known at the start of the holidays.

He kept silent, but Qwerty didn’t.

You, getting bored of Zonestation games?” she said, laughing.

France nodded, and laughed as well, which relieved Jack a bit, as he had been wondering if Qwerty had been a little too direct. He didn’t want his two best friends to fall out.

Yep. I dunno, but I don’t seem like them so much anymore. Since we’ve been starting to go out, I like going out more and more and like Zonestation less and less.”

All right,” said Qwerty, “Getting a bit of perspective finally, are you?”

France laughed and shrugged it off, “The thing is,” he said to Jack in particular, “Owen’s found a ball somewhere and we’re going to do something with it.”

Wow!” said Jack, surprised. He had been half-heartedly looking for a ball for the last two weeks, but there had been no real trace of any: at least, no good and suitable balls. “Is the ball any good?”

Yeah, it’s great.” said France, “At least, best we could get. Feel it if you like. It’s probably with Owen at the moment, if you want.”

Nah, no real need. How was your day anyway?”

Great!” said France, “There were loads of us all cramped into my room! What about yours?”

It was…. ok.” said Jack, as he thought about it, “Me and Qwerty were chatting almost all day.” Qwerty had walked off to chat to her friends, leaving France and Jack to talk on their own.

What about?” France asked.

Well….” said Jack, “I don’t want to say.” He wasn’t sure if he should tell France. He probably should, but not at the moment and in that context.

Okay.” said France, silently accepting that. Jack wasn’t sure if the France that he had first known would have been able to keep silent after that. France had certainly changed a lot since Jack had first met him and they had gone to the kaf together.

By this time they had all already reached the park, which wasn’t very far from the house. Jack looked around him. There were about thirty of them. He thought about the prospect of thirty of the kids from his house all coming down to the park at the start of the holidays. It was… amazing.

He walked away from France and went over to Owen. Owen was a boy about Jack’s age, but a bit louder and taller.

They shook hands, and Owen said,

Hey Jack, wasn’t expecting you. France said that you wouldn’t be coming.”

I just saw you as you were leaving, so I just came along.” Jack said, “Where’s the ball?”

Over there,” said Owen, pointing. A couple of boys were throwing it to each other. They kept dropping it though, which was rather funny to watch. It was clear none of the American children really knew how to use a ball.

Cool.” said Jack, “Where did you find it?”

What, the ball?”

Yeah.”

Oh, that? I found it at one of the junk shops. It was quite a find. Didn’t think they’d have many balls in Nashville. Still, it was in relatively good condition.”

Jack agreed, nodding. “You were lucky. Still, it was a good find for you to get. What shall we do with it​?”

Anything.” said Owen, “In fact, it looks that some of the others are organising something themselves.”

A couple of the younger boys were splitting everyone who wanted to play a game into two teams.

Owen and Jack walked over to them. “What you playing?” Owen asked.

We’re doing a game of football,” said a boy, who was a couple of years younger than Jack, and a couple of metres shorter as well.

How do you play?” asked Jack.

Well, you’re not allowed to use your hands, and….”

The little boy explained the rules to everyone. It was clearly a game he and his two friends had made up whilst they were walking down: he was even making up some of the rules on the spot, and there was a small argument between him and his friends. However, everyone got the general idea after a while.

Everyone was split into two teams, and they weren’t allowed to use their hands with the ball. The aim was to kick the ball at one of the big tall poles which were put in the park and meant to look like trees from a distance.

It was difficult but eventually one of the teams – which wasn’t Jack’s team, but the other team, hit the pole and the game finished. It had worked surprisingly well, Jack reflected. It had also managed to help him to forget about all of the events of the morning and afternoon, which he was grateful for. He had been surprised at how fun sport was and at how much everyone seemed to have enjoyed it

Jack walked over to the little boy who had introduced the game.

That game went very well, Matt.” he said, remembering the boy’s name, “Well done for that.”

Thanks.” the boy said. He looked as if he was bursting with pride.

As Jack walked away, Jack heard him talking to his friends, “Jack actually thanked me for the game! He said it was good!”

Amazing! We should do it again then.” said one of the other boys, as his voice trailed off and was drowned out as Jack walked further away from them and other people drowned out their voices.

What have I got myself into? Do I really have that much of an influence on the younger ones? Seriously? Jack thought to himself, smiling happily.

He walked up to Qwerty, “You okay?” he asked.

Yeah, I’m good. How was that?”

It was pretty good actually. It went very well. We need to do that more. Didn’t know sport could be such fun.”

Great.” Qwerty said in reply, “Did you know you are sweating?”

Really?” Jack asked, “Running about like that must make you very hot. I didn’t know that that was the case.”

Lol.” said Qwerty, “I’ve known that for ages. Seriously, you’ve never learnt that before? Have you ever run properly?”

Jack thought. “To be honest…” he said, “Not really, I have to say.”

Qwerty laughed. “That’s a joke.” she said.

Why?” retorted Jack, slightly offended.

Well, it’s just…. I dunno, I always thought that you would have done a bit of running, at least a small bit.”

Ok.” said Jack, shrugging it off, “You going to be coming back to mine, or are you going straight back home? Come to mine if you want.”

If you let me, I’d like to go to yours.” Qwerty replied.

Okay.” said Jack, “I’ll ask a couple of other people as well. Is that ok?”

Fine, I mean, it’s your room. Can I ask Lily?”

Sure.” said Jack. “No problem. Just a couple of people though, not too many. I don’t feel like it that much after such a tiring day.”

Tiring?” said Qwerty, scoffing jokily. “We didn’t do much at all.”

Ok, emotionally tiring. Not physically tiring.” Jack corrected himself. “See you later.” and he leaned down and pecked Qwerty on the cheek. She smiled at him, and Jack thought that that smile was the greatest and most meaningful he’d ever seen.

He went around and asked three other boys if they wanted to come to his room. France and a boy called Spence, who Jack was good friends with, agreed, but Owen wanted to go back to his own room as he was tired and a little bit dirty.

*******

Jack, France and Spence ran up the stairs back to Jack’s room, narrowly avoiding slipping over. When they got back to the room, they got inside and sat down.

Anyone else coming?” asked France.

Qwert and- I mean, Qwerty and her friend Lily.”

There was a pause for a moment as France raised an eyebrow at Jack.

What?” Jack asked.

You know.”

I know what?” Jack asked, laughing as he realised what France was implying.

You know what I mean.”

I don’t!” Jack defended himself, although in reality he did know.

About you and Qwerty.” France said.

What? That’s nothing!” Jack said, “Or at least, not much.”

You kissed her.” Spence said pointedly.

Jack blushed, and feeling a bit annoyed at himself, he said, “Oh, whatever.”, giving in. France and Spence laughed, though not nastily.

Fortunately for Jack, at that moment Qwerty and Lily came into the room, and France and Spence were unable to pursue the matter any further. It had all been in good heart though: that was good. Jack didn’t really mind. He knew that he liked Qwerty, there was no point denying it.

That evening, the five of them had a good time talking together and relaxing together until eventually they all decided to go back to their own rooms. By that time, it was late at night.

Bye, Jack.” Qwerty said after all the others had gone.

Bye.” said Jack in reply, and he gave her a small hug.

See you tomorrow.” said Qwerty.

See you.” Jack said.

That night, Jack went to bed shortly afterwards, thinking about the events of that busy, incredible, day. He had found out all about Qwerty’s past; he had played football; he had replied to the message about the Greyham Building; he had found out who his parents were; he had changed a lot of his preconceptions; and, maybe most importantly, he had given Qwerty his first kiss.

Chapter 10

The first thought Jack had in the morning was about Qwerty, which wasn’t really that surprising. He wondered how she was and what he would do when he saw her, and mainly, just about her.

But after a short time, he shook his head, waking himself up, and then he rolled out of bed. Not long after cleaning his teeth, he changed into new fresh clothes, as his old clothes were getting quite dirty.

He thought about all the things that had happened the previous day: about Qwerty, about football, and also about his parents. When he thought about his parents, he felt very sad and angry. He had to admit that he was still in quite a confused state about it all and he hadn’t fully come to terms with it at all.

After changing, he decided to get himself breakfast downstairs in the main hall. He didn’t normally go to the public house breakfast: he normally preferred to stay in his room and make his own. However, today he felt a little bit lazy and wanted to avoid cooking for himself; and he didn’t feel like making himself a couple of pieces of potato bread: he didn’t feel like another cold breakfast. Another thing was, he felt like talking to people, although no-one in particular came to his mind immediately.

He walked down the stairs and, as he was going down, he saw someone else who he knew to some extent, a boy named Fin. They got chatting a bit as they walked carefully down the slippery stairs. Jack didn’t like them at all, but as breakfast was in the main hall of the house on the ground floor, he had to do. The lifts were way too far from his room, after all.

Fin hadn’t been with them when they had gone to the park the previous day, and after conversing together for a short time Jack told him what a good time it had been. Fin seemed rather surprised.

Really?” he asked, “How could you have a good time outside in the cold? All of the dirt, and wetness!”

Jack inwardly laughed, and told Fin that outside, it wasn’t actually that cold at all, and it barely was wet: at least, it barely was wet in the Nashville summer, which would be coming soon. He also told him that it was really fun being out with your friends, playing together, especially in a game such as “football”, which was what they had been doing the previous day.

There was a short pause as Fin didn’t answer, and then Jack asked Fin, thinking about a possibility, “Have you ever been outside before?”

Me?” asked Fin, thinking hard, “Well, there was that time-” and then he corrected himself, saying, a little bit embarrassed, “Only for school.”

Yes, exactly,” said Jack, “But have you ever gone outside properly? I mean, have you ever walked outside and done things outside?”

Well,” said Fin, and then he waited for a moment before replying, “Not like that. I mean, I always go to and from school on the bus, and I never leave the house other than for school. So I probably haven’t been what you would call “outside”, I guess.”

Jack, to be honest, wasn’t really that surprised, as most American children had barely experienced the world outside their house except for school, but even then, he still felt sorry for Fin. Fin didn’t know what he was missing.

So how do you know it’s cold? And wet?” he said. “You can’t tell if you haven’t properly spent much time outside.”

People tell me that its cold and wet, although I’m not sure if they have ever been outside either,” said Fin, a bit lamely, “and also, when I go school it seems a little bit cold.”

Fin’s statements were clearly very lame: after all, he had no real way of knowing that it was cold if he had barely been in the open air. So Jack said, as kindly as he could, “How about next time you come with us to the park? See if you like it. I know lots of guys who thought they wouldn’t like going outside but actually loved it.”

Ermm…” said Fin, a little nervous at the prospect, “Okay, possibly. I’ll come. But I won’t like it, honestly I won’t.”

We’ll see.” said Jack, and as they had just reached the main hall of the house, he said, “Anyway, where shall we sit for breakfast?”

I don’t care.” said Fin, looking around, “Actually, I’ll sit over there.” He pointed to an empty seat near a couple of his friends.

Ok,” said Jack, “See you later.”

Aren’t you going to sit next to us?” Fin asked.

No.” said Jack, as he had spotted France alone on another table and he had just remembered that he wanted to talk to France about something, “I’ll find somewhere else.”

Sure.” Fin replied, “See you later.”

Jack muttered a goodbye, and then he looked around before walking over towards France’s table and then he sat down next to France.

Hi.” Jack said, as he seated himself. He hadn’t got his breakfast yet, he remembered. It was normally best to get breakfast before you sat down. But anyway, he could always get it afterwards. I mean, there was no real hurry, was there?

France looked up. “Hey, Jack.” he said, almost relieved to see Jack for some reason, “What’s up?”

Not that much really.” said Jack, “But I want to tell you something later.”

Okay…” said France, “How much later?”

Immediately after breakfast, if that’s ok.”

France thought for a moment. “Yeah, that’ll be fine.”

Good. What’s best for breakfast now? I haven’t had breakfast here for weeks.”

Well…. I like the sausages, especially the potato ones.” said France, “Toast isn’t bad either, they don’t make it too badly I guess. Another thing that’s pretty good is the afvi.”

Ok, I’ll probably have some toast with afvi as well. I don’t like sausages really, unless their made of cheese. And the house never make cheese sausages, as far as I could remember.”

Yeah, they don’t make them for some reason.” said France, and then he turned back to his food hungrily when Jack walked away.

Jack walked away from the table to the counter where you could get food. He handed in a couple of tokens, which were, to put it simply, the currency of the house. Jack had loads of tokens as he barely had meals made by the house and also because he rarely used the leisure facilities provided in the house. He would have liked to give his tokens away to other people, but that was not allowed and all tokens had the user’s picture on them, to stop people from doing that.

He walked along the counter slowly and then picked up a couple of large slices of potato toast when he reached them. He spread some random flavoured spread all over it, and then went along.

He also picked up a couple of pieces of afvi from one of the other counters. Afvi was a food that was mainly processed meat fried with egg, which helped it to stick together. Jack normally liked making it himself, if he had any egg or processed meat spare. It was one of his favourite foods.

After picking up his food, he walked back to his table, careful not to bump into anyone else and drop his food. The hall was basically full after all, with a vast amount of people milling everywhere.

He got back to his table and ate his food. He had only very limited conversation with France and the other guys at the table, as he could tell France for some reason didn’t really want to talk too much. He barely knew the other boys, to be honest.

Looking around the room, he noticed the number of people that were there: there must have been nearly a thousand. The house seemed to be getting more and more full every day, and Jack barely knew almost all of them. He felt a little bit humbled: he was only one in a bunch of hundreds of other children in the house.

After his meal, him and France walked back to Jack’s room. Again, France didn’t really say too much, but he seemed to be quite glad to come to Jack’s room.

After a short while, France and Jack were back in Jack’s room.

Want to drink anything?” Jack asked when they had sat down.

Not really.” said France, rather disinterested.

Jack sat down next to France and, without saying anything, he turned on his Zonestation. He sent a quick message telling Qwerty not to come before the afternoon, and then he switched it off.

What do you want to tell me then?” France asked when Jack had finished.

A bit about what happened yesterday.”

What, the football and all that?”

No, beforehand. The morning.”

Oh.” said France, “Didn’t think you would tell me about that, thought it was private, just between you and Qwerty. But anyway, what do you want to say?”

Well….” said Jack, unsure where to start. After all, Qwerty had told him not to say anything about her past. He didn’t want to dishonour his promise. At least, not this soon. Best not to dishonour it at any time, not just soon. Anyway, whatever.

He paused and then realised that he hadn’t continued what he was going to say, but just before he was going to continue, France said,

So….. What was it you wanted to tell me again?”

Jack looked up, and then waited a moment before saying, “Well… You know yesterday me and Qwerty were talking together for a long time, right?”

Yes.” said France.

Well, I’m going to tell you what we talked about.”

Ok….” said France, his voice trailing off.

There’s a lot I can’t say, as you’ll probably expect, as it’s very private, but I’ll tell you what I want to.”

Fine.”

So, where shall I start…. ok, at first, Qwerty was meant to come round to discuss about whether we should go to the Greyham Building – you know that message I was sent? About being all good at science and all that?”

Yes.” France nodded.

Well, Qwerty had told me an few weeks back not to reply to it yet, and I was asking if I could, because it was nearabouts the deadline. Did you know that Qwerty also got the invite?”

No, I didn’t.” said France, “Seriously?”

Yeah, I didn’t believe it at first either, but it does look like that. It’s good going with someone who you know, anyway.” Jack said, and then he continued,

So, she came round, but at first she didn’t actually answer my question at all but she just told me about her past. She made me promise not to tell anyone about it, so I won’t tell you about it, but, well…. she’s not normal.”

Lol.” said France, and then he asked, “What do you mean by “not normal”? Mentally disturbed, or just with an abnormal life?”

Erm… She’s certainly not mentally disturbed, that much I know…. I can’t exactly tell you much in detail, but… she’s not exactly an ordinary American kid, I’ll tell you that at least.”

Ok.” said France, seeming to take yet another “I can’t tell you” in his stride normally. Jack was glad of that. It would be so much harder to tell France everything if France took every “snub” personally.

Jack also was feeling slightly uneasy about having to hide so much from France, but he knew that it was for the best, having to avoid telling France, so that everything wouldn’t spread to the wrong ears. He knew Qwerty wouldn’t be happy if he told anyone, even France, so he continued without mentioning much about Qwerty,

But anyway, after she had told me everything, something she said was that she had a machine that could hack into computer systems and extract information for the user of the machine.”

Really?” asked France, naturally a bit sceptical.

Yes, honestly. It works too.” said Jack, “And then, I had a thought. I’ve been really wanting to know who my parents were all from my youth, and now I felt that I could, by using Qwerty’s machine to hack the computer system of the house.”

So did you do it?”

Hold on for that.” Jack said, “I told Qwerty, and we agreed, so then we went to her house to get the machine. After that, we brought it back to here.”

You went to see her house?” asked France, interested, “Where does she live?”

I’m not sure if I can tell you, as she didn’t tell me until yesterday. Just to be safe, I won’t.” Jack said, again feeling slightly guilty at hiding so much information from France.

France nodded, without betraying much emotion, or at least without betraying any emotion signifying anything remotely associated to any hurt or annoyance, much to Jack’s relief. He hadn’t been at all sure how France would have taken Jack repeatedly telling him that France couldn’t know everything, but it all seemed quite ok.

Anyway; we went back to my room and then we activated the machine. It didn’t work well in my room because we were a bit too far away from the computer mainframe downstairs, so we went down to the lounge.”

What if you were caught in the lounge? I mean, it’s a public place and I hardly think that hacking the computer system is something permitted from there!” said France worriedly, even though he knew that Jack and Qwerty were safe, “Didn’t you think of that?”

Anyway, we weren’t caught, so it doesn’t matter really, thinking about the “what-ifs”.” Jack said, “It was a risk though, I have to admit. But it went well and we managed to get the files extracted so then we went back to my room to view the files’ contents.”

Cool. That was brave,” said France, admiringly.

I guess so, a bit. But maybe a little rash as well.” said Jack, “But anyway, we then went back to my room, and we took a while to get to grips with all of the ins-and-outs of a computer system. Eventually, however, we found the database containing all of the information about myself.”

What did it say?” asked France.

Well, it had loads of information about me, like my weight and all that, which was a bit worrying, kinda making me wonder where they got all that info from.”

Ok….” said France, “But what about your parents?”

Well….. there was a picture of them, and their names. It somehow turned out that they were the two people who the Nationalists had executed at the public execution last month. They had been the Missourian spies.” Jack realised that talking about it still brought tears to his eyes. Suddenly, he wasn’t sure if he could continue telling France about it all, as he was so overwhelmed in his sadness.

What?” asked France involuntarily. He was very shocked, and he took a long time to answer before saying again, “Those people…. they were your parents?”

Looks like it.” said Jack, tears welling in his eyes as he thought about it all again, “Well, that’s what the file said. I don’t think the file would have lied, not like that.”

Seriously?” asked France, more rhetorically than expecting an answer, and then, “Wow. That’s big.”

Yeah.” said Jack, swallowing, and then he said softly, “It is very hard to take, especially for me. What I mean is, all my life I’ve been thinking about my parents, expecting them to be alive somewhere thinking about me, and now, finding out that they’re dead and I’m not going to see them… it honestly is extremely difficult to take.”

I’d expect so.” said France, “it must be very hard for you. Especially how that’s been such an important thing in your thoughts for all of your life.”

Yeah.” agreed Jack, “But I think I’m managing ok, sort of. I guess….”

Sorry, and I’m just saying this, but…. do you know anything else about them?” said France, “I mean, could you find anything else out?”

Well…” said Jack, “Qwerty knew them, albeit not very well, but I haven’t asked her about that-”

Wait, Qwerty knew them?” asked France, “What is she, Missourian or something?”

Jack realised he had probably revealed a little bit too much more than he was allowed, to France. He silently swore at himself.

The thing is, I obviously can’t tell you much, in fact, I’m probably not even allowed to tell you this as Qwerty made me promise not to tell anyone about what she told me, but I’ll tell you just this thing: yes she is.”

Ok.” said France, thoughtfully.

But don’t tell anyone else that.” said Jack, “We don’t want everyone knowing, after all. And also, don’t tell anyone else about my parents. For a start, I don’t want people finding out how I did it, and neither do I want people to know that I’m not American. It could cause some problems somewhere with a couple of people.”

Yes, I won’t.” said France, “I promise.”

Jack trusted France to keep his word. He wasn’t sure if he would have trusted the France he first knew to keep his word in such an important issue, though. He was glad he could now trust France more than he used to.

The thing is,” said France, “You and Qwerty are both Missourian, right?”

Yes…” said Jack, seeing where this would lead.

And…” France continued, “You both live in America, both in Nashville houses…”

Jack nodded, although he knew that Qwerty didn’t live in what France meant by “houses”.

…Both got great results in your science exam….. both got invited to the Greyham Building as a result…”

Yes? Your point is?” asked Jack, despite having a very good idea of France’s point.

And you two, by some coincidence, are….. What’s the word?” France said.

I don’t know.” said Jack, although he wasn’t trying to think about the matter. If he had, he knew that he would have got the word what France was saying.

Anyway, you know what I mean. About you two being best friends and all that thing. It’s quite a bit of a coincidence, isn’t it?”

A little bit, I guess.” said Jack, again not saying his true feelings. To tell the truth, he saw it as a massive coincidence he was still not totally to grips with yet, especially how there were even more similarities between them that France hadn’t mentioned.

Meh,” said France, “It doesn’t really matter. Only just a small thing that I realised.” And then he broke off solemnly. “I feel so sorry for you.” he said.

Jack nodded, without saying a word. Thinking about Qwerty a bit had at the very least changed the subject of his thoughts: he didn’t want to think about his parents again.

The thing is.” said France, continuing on, “I’ve never thought about my parents, but there are other things that I think about and I’m not sure how I would cope to know that they’ve disappeared or something. You know, I’d find it really really difficult. I’m assuming that that was what your parents were like to you: the thought that stuck in the back of your head for all of your life.”

Jack nodded, silently. From what he had just said, France seemed to have a sort of similar issue as he did, Jack guessed: the house system was limiting him a bit and he wanted something to be done another way and he had some kind of hopes for a change. And if France had this issue, which Jack also had, how many other people had it as well? How many people didn’t like the house system’s method?

Jack was kind of grateful to the house system, as it had helped him to meet France and all his other awesome friends, but at the same time, he hated it. I mean, it clearly wasn’t the best thing for a child and all that. It was just a way that the American Government, whether it was Liberal or Nationalist, was able to indoctrinate the children of their country with propaganda. That’s all that it was. There was no other way in which you could describe the house system: no way at all.

So,” said France, after a short while in which Jack was alone with his thoughts, “You all right then?”

Kinda.” said Jack, “I mean, it’s really hard to live with and come to grips with, but it’s ok. I’m starting to understand it all.”

Ok.” said France, awaiting another response from Jack.

The thing is,” said Jack, continuing on, “I’m honestly mad with the government now. I mean, honestly, didn’t they know that those people, I mean, my parents – I need to stop calling them “those people” – were my parents? Seriously, the government must have known. So thus, by giving them a public execution, they broke the law!”

They did?”

Yes, it’s a well-known American law, about not giving an American citizen or any relatives of an American citizen a public execution. And I’m an American citizen.”

Yes, I know that you are, even though I’ve never heard about the law before.”

And because they broke the law, and executed my mum and dad in such a…. vicious way, then I hate them for that! And I sort of want to get my own back on them, although I don’t know how.”

But I thought you liked the government,” said France, a bit surprised.

Yes, I did. But now, I found out about this, and Qwerty told me a couple of things about them as well, and now I don’t like them at all. They’re violent, selfish, all noobs out for their own personal power.”

Wow.” said France, more at how Jack had said that than at anything Jack had done. Not long ago Jack had been singing the praises of the Nationalist Government, even on issues where everyone criticised the government.

Yes, I’ve changed.” said Jack, still without losing a bit of the momentum of anger that had built up in him, “and now I realise what an idiot I was, to trust in the Nationalists. How could I be sure that they wouldn’t “betray” my beliefs? How could I be sure about these things? I couldn’t! Yet I trusted that the Nationalists could give me what I wanted: fairness, equality, and American power.”

France didn’t answer, so Jack continued, “They certainly aren’t fair at all, and I know that there’s basically no equality as well. And even if they bring American power, I won’t be out there celebrating. After all, I am Missourian, not American. The government is not giving me what I wanted: why did I trust them to do that?”

Well, you are kind of American.” said France, “What I mean is, you grew up in America and lived in America all your life. In fact, I’d say you are maybe more American than Missourian, due to the fact you’ve lived in America for so long and all that.”

Ok, so I am partly American.” said Jack, “But still, it doesn’t make a difference. I won’t celebrate any American success: it’ll be betraying the legacy of my parents at the very least, not to mention also betraying at least to some extent my indignation at the Nationalist Party. And even more importantly, Qwerty won’t want me to.”

Yeah, I guess. Still, it doesn’t matter really.”

Yes, it does matter, France!” Jack said indignantly, “The thing is, now I want revenge on the Nationalists. I want to somehow bring them down, although I don’t really know how to without putting myself in some serious danger.”

I wasn’t actually talking about that, I was talking about how it didn’t matter if you celebrated American success. But on the issue that you mentioned, I guess that it does matter after all.” said France, taking a slightly authoritative undertone, “In any case, Do you want to hear my opinion about this issue or not?”

Well,” said Jack, very grateful for France’s caring, “There’s no harm in hearing, after all.”

Ok, personally I think that you should stay low for at least a short time. This is because at the moment you are very angry and sad and you can’t really think totally clearly-”

I can think clearly!” said Jack angrily, but in his heart he knew that he was not totally clear of thought at all.

That’s what you might think, but I doubt it.” said France, speaking very wisely, “Anyway, you should wait for at least a week to calm down properly. And then do what you feel is best. In my opinion, leave it alone unless the Nationalists’ attempt something themselves.”

Jack was silent for a moment. France’s last words – “unless the Nationalists’ attempt something themselves” put another new light onto the matter. What if the government had found out that Jack knew and that he was planning to get revenge somehow? What would they do? Would they try to stop Jack as soon as possible? Would they – Could they – kill him? With respect to what had happened to his parents and especially what had happened to Qwerty’s parents, he saw that killing him was extremely likely.

But what if it’s too late?” he asked, “What if I wait too long and the Nationalists kill me to stop me from talking before I can say anything?”

If that happens…” said France, pausing to think, “And I don’t think that it would, then I promise that I will take up the matter and reveal it all to the press. And I’m sure that Qwerty will help me as well. So the matter will never die just with you. However, I don’t think this is very likely. I doubt the government would go as far as to kill you.”

That’s because you don’t know about Qwert’s parents, Jack thought to himself. Once you know about that then you won’t be so sure about the humaneness of the Nationalist Party. Still, he was glad that France was such a good friend to promise this. It meant a lot to Jack, despite his worry.

He also noticed that France hadn’t seemed to doubt him in everything that he said. There never seemed to be a moment when France hadn’t believed that he was telling the truth: France seemed to have always trusted Jack’s word. Jack felt really glad that his friend trusted him like that: it was very relieving to know that his best friend was that close to him.

Thanks.” he said, “It means a lot to me, that does, you know.”

Ok.” said France, “No problem at all. You’ve been good to me before when I’ve been in hard times, and now it seems that I’m repaying it back.”

Jack tried to think of a moment when he had been really good to France when France was in a hard time, but he couldn’t think of any. Maybe because France’s never had a hard time, he wondered.

Still, it seemed that France wasn’t repaying a debt, but instead creating a “debt” for Jack to pay one day. Jack reminded himself that he would need to help France if France was ever going to be in trouble. Somehow, he felt quite certain that one day France would be in trouble and that Jack would need to help him.

Not really.” he then said, “But to be honest, I’m not really sure how good to you I’ve been.”

Nah, you’ve been great.” said France, “Honestly, you’ve been an amazing friend to me. You can’t imagine how much your friendship has meant to me.”

Jack felt very proud. He hadn’t really expected France to like him so much, or at least to say that directly to him. He knew he hadn’t deserved all of the friendship and kindness that France showed to him.

Yours too.” he said, “Your friendship is great.” Understatement of the year. But he didn’t really know how to express it properly.

But not as good as Qwerty’s right?” asked France with a glint of jokiness, but also a bit seriously.

To tell the truth…..-” Jack said.

Mine’s not as important to you as Qwerty’s.” finished France, “C’mon, you don’t need to be too nice to me. Tell the truth. I don’t mind.”

Ok, it isn’t.” admitted Jack, knowing he liked Qwerty a bit better, but at the same time, he liked her in a different way and it couldn’t really be compared that easily, “Still, it’s really really really appreciated, your friendship. Honestly.”

Thanks.” said France, “You want to come round to my room and we’ll do some Zonestation?”

Thought you didn’t like it.” said Jack.

No, I didn’t like it asmuch as I used to.” said France, “I still like it.”

In that case, if you like it, then yeah.” replied Jack, “I’ll come. It’ll probably be pretty good fun. Anyone else?”

Yes, we could have a couple of other guys.”

So….” said Jack, “Who?”

France thought and then said, “Spence and Fin, ok or not?”

Yeah, great.” said Jack, as they got ready to leave, “I was talking to Fin this morning as I was walking downstairs, you know. He seems an ok guy, a little bit paranoid about going outside though.”

Yeah, I agree.” said France, thoughtfully, “But anyway, I was like that once, but now I’m not really that much like that. He’ll change.”

Yeah, I invited him to next time we go out. He promised to come.”

Ok, that’ll be good. Make him like the outside air.” said France in reply.

Yep.” said Jack. “That’s right.” He stood up, and said, “Let’s go now, ok?”

Then the two of them went out of the room. Jack locked the door and turned off the retina scanner behind him as France sent out a couple of messages on his Zonestation.

Chapter 11

De Bran again went through his plans for his announcement that evening. It had to be totally inch-perfect: after all, one slip of the tongue could cause utter confusion, chaos, and all sorts of other problems among the troops. Thus, every word needed to be thought out, every statement reviewed, every phrase considered, and every last sentence reasoned out.

It was an extremely difficult process: even though De Bran was being helpfully assisted by a couple of other important members of the government, he had to consider every suggestion of what to say personally. It was an extremely stressful procedure on his part, and he wasn’t sure if he was coping with it well.

He had to make sure that he included certain things in his speech: he had to give the impression that it was absolutely safe and had no risk of defeat; he needed to make sure that everyone knew exactly what their role would be; and he needed to try to prepare everything to make it almost impossible for spies to report back to their home country.

However, it only needed one mistake in what he said, one wrong impression, one false command, and then the whole mission could be jeopardized. The soldiers could cause a riot and maybe even some kind of mutiny if they felt it was too dangerous; spies could give Greece an advance warning, which would then result in the Greeks being able to get some strong defences up; and also, false commands could easily send lots of confusion throughout the troops and especially the commanders.

So there were huge stakes, and De Bran was the man who was going to be risking it. He knew that one mistake in what he said would endanger the whole invasion, so he needed to be wholly crystal-clear, making sure that no-one would get a false impression.

He was actually relying heavily on Pineau in regard to exactly what to say: although De Bran was going to be the man to be saying it, Pineau was the most important person behind the operation as a whole, and thus De Bran would have to follow his command.

In fact, Pineau wanted to give the speech himself, but most of the other members of government who were present felt that he was too much of a public figure and a little bit too old to be able to deliver what needed to be said effectively enough. As a result, De Bran, being Pineau’s deputy, was instead burdened with such an important task.

De Bran had no real knowledge of rhetoric: although he had got into an important position in the government, it was due to his moral, intellectual, and physical attributes more than his rhetorical attributes. He found he had to keep asking others how to phrase a certain thought a certain way, or asking which tone of voice to announce something in, and that sort of thing.

Although it was for the best and everyone else seemed to be expecting it, De Bran found it quite humiliating to be constantly asking others for their advice: he wasn’t used to it in the position that he was in. Being humble wasn’t really part of his whole outlook on life any more.

The whole of that day, De Bran was sitting at his desk or on his Zonemaster asking for advice. He had read through his manuscript a multitude of times, until he almost knew it by heart. Pineau had advised him only to make simple notes on his paper and instead to make the general speech up on the spot, thus making it sound far more real and informal. Although he knew that that was the case, De Bran hadn’t followed that advice as he wasn’t entirely sure if he would avoid making a mistake if he wasn’t reading from a pre-arranged manuscript.

So, due to that, he found that he was sitting in his room reviewing the speech he would make. It was a tiring procedure, yet hopefully it would be worth it. If he failed to give the right impression tonight, however, it was going to be extremely difficult for his America to be able to conquer Greece, and from there, the world.

*******

Jack and France had met Spence and Fin as they were walking down to France’s house, and the four of them had had a pointless but still fun conversation about random stuff before they got to France’s room.

When they eventually got to the room, they sat down and decided to play one of the more popular Zonestation games, one of the shooter games. It was one of Jack’s favourite games, and he won easily in their four-way battle, which went on for almost a noon.

After their game and also a little bit of talking about anything and everything, the four of them went down to have lunch downstairs in the main hall.

Spence, France and especially Jack preferred to go out somewhere for lunch, and they tried to convince Fin to come outside for lunch, but Fin wasn’t planning to comply. He didn’t want to go out whatsoever, and the others didn’t want to leave him alone. Eventually they all agreed to have lunch in the main hall.

It was surprisingly better than most of the food in Nashville, and the hall was also only approximately half-full, so Jack enjoyed it far more than he had liked breakfast. As they were eating, they messed about, having fun, so it was a great time, although the food wasn’t fabulous.

To be honest, Jack wasn’t sure about the American food served in the house and also elsewhere in Nashville. He and all of the other children had seen pictures in school of the rich food served in England, Greece, and all of the other large countries. Food in Nashville seemed so second-rate in comparison. If America was only a bit stronger, or if the other countries were fairer…… I’m Missourian! Why should I want America to benefit?…… But surely…wouldn’t it be for the best if the world was fairer, if the poorer countries in the world like America had equality? Why should countries be involved in fighting and war when they could be helping the poorer people in the world? Why not?, he thought to himself, the richer countries surely should care about the well-being of smaller, poorer, nations. Unless the smaller nations incense the richer nations, of course. But even then……

And, following on in this line of thought, war seemed so evil… what was the point of fighting when you could be caring? What was the point of gaining land for yourself and your people? Surely there was enough space for you all already! He knew that the Americans were trying to do it as self-defence, but surely all they needed to do was sign a ceasefire and then the Americans and Missourians could get on fine? Yet the pride of the American leaders wouldn’t allow it. Why wouldn’t they just think of the well-being of their people, and even the Missourian people as well?

Jack was confused and he eventually stopped thinking, as he was not really coming to any conclusions. Instead, he focused in on what was going on around him. Previously, whilst he had been caught up in his thoughts, he had seemed to be in a sort of blur, not really concentrating on what was going on.

France, Fin, and Spence were playing around, laughing and joking. Jack wondered, again, why it seemed like he couldn’t really concentrate on the world around him when he thought personally about anything. It was as if he couldn’t really recognise what was going on at the times when he was absorbed in his thoughts. Is this just me as a person, or is it what every other human being is like?

Hey, Jack!” said France loudly, again waking Jack up from his thoughts.

Yeah, what?” asked Jack, awkwardly loud, and he looked up to see France, Fin and Spence walking away.

You coming or you staying?” asked France again, calling as he walked away.

Going where?” Jack asked as he got up from his seat. He was silently mad at himself for getting lost in his thoughts. He found it very humiliating.

I dunno, really.” said France, and he stopped to let Jack catch up, “We were just going somewhere to talk about anything. Why, didn’t you hear?”

Well, erm…. no, not really.” said Jack, “I dunno, but I often get really wrapped up in thoughts so much that I can’t concentrate on what goes on around me.”

Oh.” said France, and then he said, as if a passing remark, “Weird.”

Yep, it is that.” said Jack, “Can be very humiliating as well.”

Certainly can.” said Spence, as the four of them walked away. Jack wasn’t sure if he meant that as a joke or as serious. Jack didn’t really understand Spence sometimes. “It was pretty humiliating there as well, us having to shout over the hall for you, absorbed in your thoughts.” Spence continued. Jack laughed graciously, a bit confused, and then changed the subject.

Yeah, whatever.” and then he said, “So, where are we going again?”

Well….” said Fin, after a pause of silence, “I thought your room would be a good idea….”

Maybe,” said Jack, and he thought about it. He suddenly remembered something: that Qwerty would be coming round, so he said, “But…. I actually need to go. Qwerty’s actually going to be coming round soon. Hey, thanks and all that, but she’ll be coming any moment now.”

Oh.” said France, as if he was regretting saying or doing something, “You going to be going now then?”

They had all reached the steps to go up, and they started to make their way upstairs.

Yeah, I guess. Might as well.” Jack said. He didn’t see the point of hanging around for a couple of minutes before going.

Oh, sure.” said France.

The four of them walked until Jack had to go his other way. They said goodbye and Jack hurriedly went off. It had been a good morning, he reflected, talking to France and then afterwards having fun with his friends. Although it had been mentally difficult to talk to France about all of the things, he now knew that he had two friends who knew about his problems and that he could rely on them.

He felt really appreciative of what France had said, about Jack being a great friend and all that. It had touched him, although he thought that it was a little bit dumb how he could be so affected by such a little thing as friendship………. No, it’s not a little thing, he corrected himself, It’s a huge thing. Even if everyone else says that close friendship doesn’t matter, it does. It matters. Don’t be influenced by the stereotypes around you, Jack. Be yourself. Friendship matters: never forget it. Never forget it.

By this time, he was almost back to his room. The house was huge, and as Jack walked past people’s doors he realised how few people he actually knew in the house. He didn’t even know the person who lived next to his room! Come to think of it, he couldn’t remember ever seeing them before. Was there even anyone who lived in the room next to his? He wasn’t sure, and, to be honest, he didn’t care.

When he got back, he used the retina scanner to get into his room and then he got himself a seat, after doing the toilet. He picked up his Zonestation out of his bag, and then turned it on. Unlike most people he knew, he didn’t leave his Zonestation on all the time. To him, doing so was a distraction and a waste of energy.

It took a while for the screen to light up, but when it did, Jack noticed that he had got a reply to his invitation from the Greyham Building,as well as getting a reply from Qwerty. Getting his priorities right, he opened Qwerty’s message.

All it said was confirmation that she would be coming round that afternoon, around the time which it actually was when Jack read it. He was a little bit relieved, as he had been wondering whether she would actually come round after all. It was just paranoia though, he told himself. He should stop imagining things to happen that would never happen.

Then he opened up the message from the Greyham Building. It also didn’t mention much: just the date, time, and place of the visit. It did contain one interesting thing, though: in the list of important officials who would be present, it contained the name JeanPineau, ForeignSecretary.

Jack would be meeting the man who personally was in charge of the operation to horribly murder Qwerty’s parents. But not just that: Jean Pineau was the man who personally issued the warrant to execute….. no, that sounded too humane a term. Jean Pineau was the man who personally issued the warrant to murder Jack’s own two parents.

At that moment, before Jack could think any further on the subject, Qwerty knocked on the door and then walked in. He stood up from his seat, saying hi.

Hi.” she replied, informally, “What’s up?”

Jack replied, “Nothing much really. Nothing worth mentioning.”

Qwerty leaned forward, gave Jack a gentle kiss on the cheek, and then sat herself down on one of Jack’s chairs – he had got himself a couple of new ones recently, so that he could accommodate more people in his room.

Look at this.” Jack said after a bit, and he showed her the message he was sent and especially the name at the bottom. It was clear that she hadn’t been sent the message yet, and that it was new reading to her.

After she had finished reading, she paused and then said angrily, “So that noob’s going to be there, is he? Well, I’m going to tell him what I think of him when I meet him.”

For a moment, Jack was about to say something similar, but then he stopped, and said, “We’ll need to be careful, though, not to say anything that could put us in danger.”

Qwerty calmed down a bit, and agreed, “Yes, I guess.” She then added, “But they’ll deserve any comments I give them!”

I know.” said Jack, feeling the same but not showing it, trying to keep control of his emotions, “However, we’ll have to remember that they are in control, more or less, and they could easily just simply deal with us in any way they want.”

Yes.” said Qwerty, swearing under her breath and then continuing, “that is embleer annoying. We’re on the morally right side, yet we can’t do any frigging thing because our enemies, who have done so much wrong, are so much stronger than us.”

Whatever.” said Jack, trying to calm Qwerty down. There was no gain in getting angry, after all. There was a silence for moments, and Jack smiled at how now he was the one calming Qwerty down, instead of the other way round.

What did you do this morning then?” he then asked, attempting to change the subject.

Qwerty waited for a short while before she replied, “Not really that much, honestly. Didn’t feel like doing much. You?”

I did a bit – France came round and I told him about my parents and all that-”

Didn’t tell him about me and all that, did you?” interrupted Qwerty.

A tiny bit, just the vague details. Not much, honest.”

Good.”

But anyway, yeah, France came round, we talked to each other, then we went to his house with a couple of other guys and played stuff. We had lunch, and I came back here really.” Jack said, quickly summing up the events of the morning.

Cool.” said Qwerty. There was another long, awkward, pause, before Jack broke the silence.

The thing is…” he said tentatively.

Yeah?” said Qwerty.

I’m wondering what to do.”

About what?”

Just…. I’m wondering what to do.” He realised he had been a bit repetitive, so he said, “What I mean is, part of me wants to go back to Missouri, to find out if I have any family, and to learn about myself.”

But?”

But, at the same time….. I’ve grown up in America, I know America, I have so many friends here in the house, and… I want to get some kind of revenge.”

Qwerty thought for a moment, and then she said, “I feel just the same. I want to go back to Missouri, and see the places there that I used to love, and still do love, but……. this place is now my home, and, the same as with you, I want to get my revenge. It’s even worse for me, you know. I watched it happen. I saw how the Nationalists absolutely abuse my parents. I dunno…..”

Yeah.” said Jack, “It would be worse for you, I expect. I didn’t even know my parents, and I feel this way. They never showed any love to me, really, and yet I feel so angry about this. I don’t know….”

They did give you your surname, you know.” said Qwerty.

What do you mean? What’s that got to do with it?” Jack asked.

They did show you some kindness, actually, you see. Do you know how much it costs to change the surname of your child in one of these houses?”

No.” he had never thought of it. He hadn’t expected it to be much, and he hadn’t cared.

It costs a vast amount of money. I can’t remember how much exactly, but it’s nearly a year’s wages for each child. If the income is average of course.”

And….”

They gave you your name. They gave you their surname, so that you would know them in some way. So that somehow, if ever you were looking for them, there was a way for you to find them.” she paused for a moment, before adding, “It came at a huge cost to them, you know.”

Jack nodded, acknowledging what she had brought up. What Qwerty said made him all the more adamant to avenge the brutality, or at least the humiliation, of the death of his parents, as now he knew that they had somehow cared for him, in an awkward kind of way. He was glad he hadn’t been there at the execution, and most people who witnessed it had said that they died bravely. Jack was glad at that. His parents were no cowards. Neither would he be. He would be no coward, not at all.

Did you know them?” he asked.

Barely.” said Qwerty, “Like I said, the only time I met them was when I went with them with my parents. I did almost nothing, but they seemed to be nice people. Sorry, I can’t say more. As I said, I hardly knew them.”

Yeah.” said Jack.

But, there’s just something I came across this morning….”

What?”

Just… there was this file in the government computer, which contained some weird information.”

What?”

I don’t know if this is real, but it seems as if the American Government is aiming to conquer the whole continent.”

That’s not too surprising.” said Jack, “That’s been the Nationalists’ aim since they were founded back in 2231.”

I know.” replied Qwerty, “But the thing is, they’re trying to do it in a year. They’ve set dates for all of the nations and they are lining them up one by one. The last country is assigned to fall this Desembre.”

Jack was very surprised at this, but after thinking about it he scoffed, “Must be a fake, surely. I mean, I doubt they could do it at all, even in a hundred years! As far as I can tell, the American army can’t even conquer this room off me for all they’ll try, let alone the continent!”

I thought it could be a fake as well. But it seems quite serious, and I doubt they’ll put a fake in their own system.”

Yeah, whatever.” said Jack, a bit embarrassed at how easily Qwerty had argued against his claim, “It’s not something that matters us, really.”

What?” exclaimed Qwerty, “It totally matters us! Look at it this way – America wants to conquer Wasidia, no surprise. But they seem so confident. At the moment they are marshalling troops on the Greek Border. They seem so confident, it’s scary!”

And then they’ll go marching on to Missouri.” she continued,” They’ll rid all memories of your parents. They’ll conquer the lands. And the person who has done so much evil things against us, Mr Pineau, is going to be the most powerful person in the world! Hear me? The world! Not just America! Not even just Wasidia! There will be no doubt about it: if he conquers the whole of Wasidia, then he will have enough power to conquer the world!”

Jack sat, silent, for a few minutes, letting it all sink in. What Qwerty had said put a whole new light onto it. He would have to act – soon​. There was no doubt about it – although this outcome was almost certainly never going to happen, if he still let events run their own course things somehow would go against him and his plans. And if America went on to conquer Missouri, how could he then find out about his parents? More importantly, how could he avenge his parents that way? How could he put everything right?

So what do we do? What should we do?” he asked.

In regard to what?”

In regard to this. I mean, if this is the case, what shall we do?”

We’ll need to check if this is their plans and if they have any good reason to hope this. I mean, for all we know they could all just be hoping, with no solid reason to actually believe that they will conquer the world like this.”

Ok…..” then Jack looked down at himself and his own small puny body. He was only a young guy after all, he was no superhero. He started to doubt himself, and he said, “Are you sure we can do this?”

We’ll have to.” said Qwerty, “As far as we know, we are the only people outside the government who have any inkling about this idea. We’ll have to do it. Can you, Jack? Can we attempt to stop this plan, if it is a plan?”

Hmm…” Jack nodded. Could he do it? Surely he could. He would have to be brave, and he had Qwerty with him. He looked up at Qwerty, and smiled at her. “Let’s do it.” He satisfied himself in the knowledge that it was what his parents would have done.

*******

You ready?” asked Pineau. It was almost the hundredth time that day he had asked.

De Bran scanned everything on his papers. “Yes, I’m done.” he said eventually, and then he muttered under his breath, “I think.”

Pineau didn’t reply, but instead went out of De Bran’s room. “It will start in a noon, remember.” he added as he left.

De Bran nodded. How could he forget? The biggest moment of his life so far, how could he forget it?

He tried to relax himself. Everything would be easy, he told himself. There was no big deal if he failed, was there? No. It’s a big deal. Don’t hype it down. It’s vitally important. Don’t underestimate it, no way. He had no idea about what state of mind to go out in. It wasn’t something he had learned as a budding young politician. He had always been meant to be a deputy, after all. He had never been a natural leader. Perfect deputy, maybe. But not a leader.

There was one noon left before he had to do his stuff: what should he do in that time? De Bran didn’t know particularly, but he decided eventually that it would probably be best to help set up for that evening, just to relax his body and convince himself it was no big deal.

*******

The soldiers all filed into the hall and the hall gradually filled up. They all had no idea of what they would hear, De Bran thought to himself as he sat on the platform. They wouldn’t just hear any normal thing: what they would hear tonight would change the world: it would be one step, the first step, towards the new world: the American world. Pineau, him, and everyone else involved will go one better than the American Empire of old: they would conquer the whole of the world. Every last island.

He was still reflecting on these bright thoughts when one of the army commanders at the back signalled that all of the soldiers had arrived and that they were ready to start. Pineau then silently walked to the platform and opened the talk.

He didn’t give anything away: he was going to leave De Bran for that. He just simply implied that De Bran would give them a plan of the next day’s activities, which was true in itself. When one of the senior officers in the army asked if it would be “a challenge; not like what we’ve had so far this week”, Pineau frowned but answered, politely and wisely, “It will be… different from the activities so far, I assure you. As for whether it is a challenge, I leave you to decide that for yourself. And now I will invite my deputy secretary, Mr De Bran, to outline what the plans shall be.”

De Bran stood up, getting out of his seat. He tried to look calm, despite the fact that he was in reality very nervous, as anyone knowing the huge implications of everything that he would have to say would.

Welcome, gentlemen,” he said, and there were small grunts of greeting from the audience.

I hope you are all doing well on this camp. It is very important for our American security in this very insecure moment in time that you can be here to help to defend our nation from the invading forces that are around.” Again, a couple of nods and grunts from the soldiers that were there.

This is the difficult bit, thought De Bran to himself. Make sure you get this one right or else…

However, this is much more than just a simple training camp.” he said, hoping that his emotions of worry, nervousness, and apprehension weren’t betrayed in his voice. “This is an invasion party.”

He paused for a moment, and thought to himself, had he been too direct? Should he have dumbed down his words a bit more?

But it didn’t seem like there had been much wrong with it. Everyone seemed to be awoken by those words, which was precisely what De Bran had intended by what he had said.

Yes, this is an invasion party.” he confirmed, “You yourselves are going to help to make America strong! You are going to be the people to take control of the Greek possessions in Wasidia for the power of the American nation!” he tried to be as enthusiastic as possible as he spoke, as if making it an absolutely amazing thing.

Greco-America is a weak province in comparison to the strength of the Greek mainland.” De Bran said, ignoring the gasps, complaints, and general hubbub that had risen up due to his words. “It will not be a difficult area to conquer, and is one step towards the bigger picture: our actual aim, your aim, is to conquer not just Greco-America, not just Wasidia, but the whole world!”

There was a collective astonishment that settled over the room. De Bran waited for the noise to calm down, and then he continued, “Yes, the world.”

We will be conquerors, but more than that, we will be honourable conquerors! There will be no reason to doubt our moral abilities, for we will be the greatest rulers of the world that there has ever been! It will be a happy world, with peace reigning and us Americans in charge. All of you, every one here, will be given positions of authority if you survive until that day.”

For it will be difficult,” he went on, “It will be very difficult. But not impossible. For our brilliant heads of science have created a new weapon, one that will allow us to be able to succeed in our task!”

It is an amazing device,” he carried speaking, ignoring the noise that was rising up in the auditorium. The person controlling the sound at the back turned up De Bran’s microphone until it was booming out his voice over the whole, hall, despite all of the noise.

Yes, an amazing device.” he said, “It will enable us to succeed for certain. For certain. Our tests have carried it out in secret and we have had a 100% success rate. There has been no failure, hear me? No Failure whatsoever!”

The noise in the auditorium had reached breaking point, and everyone was shouting out, asking questions, shouting abuse, yelling anything they possibly could.

De Bran shouted as he continued, “This weapon that is so amazing, so brilliant, is our Mind Modifier! We can use it over a large amount of space to control anyone to do certain general things! Our previous studies have confirmed that we have a 96% chance of success here as we invade Greece.”

From here, we will be able to march into the Greek land easily without facing any resistance. We will then meet the bulk of the meagre Greek army in a couple of noons after the time of our invasion.”

When we do this, we will activate our weapon!” De Bran screamed over the noise, “And there will be no possible way for the Greeks to defend themselves! Whatever happens in the future will be anyone’s guess, but this is for certain: No doubt about it, we will conquer the Greek lands to our east for the might and power of our great country of AMERICA!”

PROVE IT!” came a cry from the crowd. The whole contingent of soldiers seemed to be buoyed further by that and their rowdiness turned into doubt as they asked for proof to what De Bran had said.

De Bran didn’t know what to say. His job was to keep speaking, not to reply to anything. Instead, he looked to Pineau, who was starting to stand up to come forwards to talk. Pineau nodded, and De Bran stepped down.

Pineau came up to the plate, and he cleared his throat He paused for a moment, adjusted his tie, and waited for the noise to calm down. When it had, he said, rather informally, “You would like proof of this claim, I gather?”

There was a long period of confusion, as no-one knew who to answer. The head of the army eventually nodded to Pineau discreetly, after he had consulted with his chief officers, “Yes….. we would…… I mean, this rumour does seem a little……” he paused, searching for the perfect word, “far-fetched.”

In that case….” then Pineau turned to the large bulk of soldiers that were still saying all sorts of meaninglessness, though far less than before.

The officers of the army have asked us to demonstrate, as they are not convinced about the prospect.” he said, simply, before going on.

So, we will demonstrate it here in the tent, on you. It will take around a noon to start up the machine, but should be fine.”

There was a bit of an uproar as people were worried about the prospect of being controlled. De Bran watched Pineau, stand, silent, until everything had calmed down again. He marvelled at Pineau’s wisdom at doing such a thing. It wasn’t something he would have done, but it was clearly the best option. De Bran made a mental note to follow what Pineau had done if he was ever in a similar scenario: wait for anger to fizzle itself out.

When it had all died out, Pineau continued, “There will be no danger whatsoever to you: none at all. As far as we can tell – and we have made lots of in-depth research – it leaves no permanent or long-term damage. Also, we cannot control everything that you do: what movements you take and that sort of thing. The technology can only allows us to bury a general line of thought or an idea deep into your mind that you cannot resist, but must do.”

I considered it beforehand in case of this scenario taking place, and I came to decide that the best possible way in which to prove this case would be to impel all of you to simply take out your Zonemasters from your bags: nothing difficult at all.”

He signalled to a few people to go out and boot up the machine, but he continued talking. De Bran listened, interested in the ins-and-outs of the device. He hadn’t understood much of what Pineau spoke to other people about the device, normally: he had never been the most techno-geeky. Hopefully now he could understand about it all.

While we activate the machine, you will have very limited control over your own body. Some of you, knowing that you will be attacked, could defend your mind against the influence and avoid taking out your Zonemasters, which of course is the control we have set in the device.”

This does not mean, however, that the device is flawed. After all, tomorrow the Greeks will have no idea and no warning of what will be upon them. And, another thing, it is far harder to block out a repeated impulse than a one-off influence. Tonight, in case of tiring you out or damaging the machine, the impulse sent out will only last for a minute, long-enough for you to get your Zonemasters, but not too long that you get over-tired trying to resist it.”

Tomorrow, however, we will constantly be sending out the signal for at least a couple of noons. To resist a signal like this over such a long time as two or three noons would be highly impressive and extremely unlikely.”

I am sure you have many questions about this. I will answer the few basic questions before you ask them, to avoid the awkward and annoying silences in between questions that you know will have to be answered sooner or later.”

There were a few small grunts from the audience. Pineau’s speech had seemed to be far more convincing than De Bran’s had been, De Bran thought to himself, slightly regrettably. He would have to improve. He had plenty of time to learn, though.

Pineau picked up a paper of notes, and walked away from the mike and platform, to give a more informal feel to it all. He told one of the senior army officers to stand up and ask Pineau questions from the paper.

De Bran frowned. He didn’t really approve of this. He would have preferred it all done in the right and proper way, with Pineau just saying all of the facts normally, like Pineau had been doing earlier. It wasn’t really De Bran’s style and taste for it all to be more…… playfully. But who am I to argue? After all, doing it in a more informal way would be probably better for morale as well.

So, what about us?” read the man, whose name-tag read “Jack Nail, Warrant Officer 7”, “How will us American soldiers be prevented from the influence of the machine?”

By your DNA.” Pineau replied, “If we get a sample of your DNA, then we can program it into the machine and make that DNA immune to the waves of sound sent out by the machine. For example, tonight me and the other people on the platform-” and he indicated at all of the others, “-will be immune to the effects of this device.”

And, later on tonight, we will take a sample of all of your DNA, and then make you immune to the effects of the machine. You will still feel it, of course, but it shall be only as a background influence, instead of being at the forefront of your thoughts.” Pineau continued.

Nail continued on reading with the next question, without any show of emotion, “How is it powered?” and then Pineau replied. The next few questions were all about the ins-and-outs of the device, and then Nail continued reading with more and more questions. It seemed as if there would be no more questions for people to ask, ask Nail had asked them all, but when Pineau turned, requesting for questions, he got quite a few more, though none of any important relevance.

Eventually, notification came that the machine was finally ready for the test. The new chief scientist, Marble Blue, came to Pineau from backstage and told him it was all ready. Pineau announced that to everyone, and De Bran saw some looks of concentration appear on people’s faces, as if they were trying to resist it.

Stupid fools. De Bran thought. He had once been under attack by the machine, on purpose of course, and he had not been able tor resist it whatsoever. There was no way that these common soldiers would ever be able to do so: they hardly knew how it worked, for a start.

Mr Blue came out from the back, wheeling the large device. It was humming quite loudly, as it normally did, and everyone on the upper stage crammed in to see what Pineau and Blue would be doing with it. De Bran, however, sat back in his seat, planning to look at all of the audience and their attitudes after it had all gone on.

Ready?” asked Pineau.

Ready.” confirmed Blue, and then he tapped in a short string of commands on the command deck of the machine. It made a slightly louder humming sound, and within a few seconds De Bran could feel himself being pressed to open his bag and take out his Zonemaster.

As he had been made immune to the effects, however, he could simply resist what was going on. To everyone else in the hall, though, they were finding it far harder to resist. De Bran saw two men, scientists, standing at the side counting everyone who had been successfully affected; or everyone who was able to resist: De Bran didn’t know which.

After they had finished, they then came back on-stage and recounted the amount to Pineau and Blue.

Everyone?” asked Pineau. De Bran couldn’t hear everything that was being said, so he edged closer.

Almost.” said the taller man. He had lightly blonde hair, and he continued, looking at his notes, “In fact, all except for one person.”

Really?” asked Pineau, surprised at two things: at how it had been so successful, and at how only one person resisted it. He was also interested in who this one was, “Do you know the name of the one person who could resist it?”

There was a pause as the taller man stepped aside and the shorter man went through his files. “Yes.” he eventually said. De Bran walked closer to hear what he said next, “His name is….. let me see again…. yes, here it is.” He seemed to have a very unfortunate tendency to speak to himself a lot. Eventually, though, he came out with the name. “Jaime Thorn.”

Thorn?” asked Pineau thoughtfully, and after further confirmation from the man, Pineau replied, cryptically, “I see… This is most….. interesting.”

Chapter 12

Yes, Jaime Thorn. The son of Steve and Cynthia Thorn and thus Jack’s brother, now somehow in the American army. Somehow he was there….. he was a Missourian spy, which was no real surprise. After all, it ran in the family. But how had it happened? How had he applied to become a Missourian spy, and thus got into this situation, listening to the mad foreign secretary of America claim that they were able to conquer the Greeks? Yes, the device seemed solid evidence enough, but hey, surely the Greeks had defence against this? After all, they were almost overrun by this technology in the third world war! But no-one ever learnt from history, and Pineau seemed to know this.

Jaime had grown up with his parents until he was nine, and then his parents went into the field. He was left behind in Missouri, on his own consent. He hadn’t wanted to leave his home in Missouri, and he could live with his grandparents at home anyway.

After all, he was the star of his school. He was the fastest, strongest, tallest, cleverest, and overall, the best. The only problem on his report card was his behaviour: but even that was only “C”, and Jaime hadn’t really cared about how he acted anyway. He had been too cool to need to be good.

But when he was eleven, his parents had come back from another trip in America. This time, though, they had come back different. They had kindly told him that they had accepted the job of permanent spies in America, and Jaime had been totally shocked. His parents had always consulted him about something this important, but now they hadn’t! He had felt abandoned

And then his parents had told him something further. They told him that before he was born, his parents had taken part in a top-secret mission run by the government. His mother had taken a special radiation screening as she was pregnant with Jaime,and that had led to Jaime being able to have extra senses, as well as being physically strengthened as well. The main use about him for the government was being able to be totally controlled, by the government officers, from a long distance away. There had been hopes that Jaime would be the first of a new bunch of “elite spies”, that would make Missouri the strongest country in Wasidia.

But that had not happened. On the next attempt to radiate a pregnant woman, about two weeks later, the machine had exploded due to a mechanical failure. The woman had died, and due to the risk of loss of life, the Missourian government decided not to attempt to create any more of these spies, and instead hope for Jaime to come good.

When Jaime had first heard of this, he had felt two things: proud of being special, but worried at the possibility that the government could just exploit him at their own whim and fancy. His parents had told him that they had promised to hand him over to the government when he was eleven years old. And as a result of this, they now had no need to care for him, and they were accepting the permanent post.

In a week’s time, both Jaime and his parents had left their home, Jaime to the government base and his parents to Nashville to begin their new jobs. Jaime had been excited at the prospect of being specially trained by the government, and he, right from the start, had thrown himself into getting to grips with both his mental and physical studies.

He had met with the leaders of Missouri, and they had not seemed as if they would ever exploit him unnecessarily. He trusted them, and they seemed to respect him as an equal. Learning this made him more and more anxious to please the government in any way.

He had changed fast in those five years of learning, from eleven to sixteen. He stopped all “normal” studies aged fourteen, to specialise in things that would be practical for his future job. He had learnt about the ins-and-outs of the governments of the local countries, and about the human mind and how he would allow the government to control him the easiest and safest way.

He tested out his abilities every day, each day lifting heavier weights, running faster times, and seeing further distances than he had done before. This had made him feel good. He felt special, and being special and knowing that he was suited him.

But in all of that time, there were things that he yearned for and could not have. He remembered that, back when he was a child (he no longer considered himself a child), he had a crush on a certain girl. And though he no longer had any feelings towards her in particular, he had wanted a girlfriend or at least friendship with somebody, anyone at all, around his age. But he could never have one, no friends at all, as the only people who he had seen were his trainers and the occasional government official.

He hadn’t even managed to see his parents. He had been told that they were too busy to care about him, and that they were getting on with normal life without him. Although that hadn’t rung totally true, he had trusted the government, who told him, and hadn’t doubted that report one bit. Instead, he had been angry at how his parents had seemingly forgotten him, and he had been furious at this.

When he had become sixteen, he was summoned before the Missourian leaders. They had told him that he had passed all of his tests, and that he was ready to go into the field as a spy. He had felt elated at this, and had jumped at the chance.

The government decided to send him on a simple spying mission to Toronto. He had been meant to get in through the lines without being seen, and give a message to the resident spies there.

It was a piece of cake for someone of Jaime’s ability: he had been utterly confident in himself, and that confidence was not unfounded. Within a couple of days, he was back in Missouri.

The government had decided not to send him on another mission for a while, and he was allowed to do whatever he liked in the Missouri government HQ, having being given total right to do so when he had passed his training.

He had been able to go out of the HQ a bit as well, but as he went he noticed how different he was. He noticed how everyone got out of the way of his muscular body, and how they stared at him from a distance. On top of that, his grandparents had died, although he hadn’t been told whilst he had been having his training.

It had been the start of a kind of change inside him. He wondered whether him being isolated for so long was for the best for him personally at all, or whether it was just because the government felt that that would be the best for themselves and their own personal plans.

And then he had seen the files. He was looking through the government mainframe one day, when he saw the file about himself. It had been hidden away at the back of the computer, in a remote location, but by some fluke he had managed to find it.

He read it eagerly, very interested in the contents. But as he read, he had found out horrible things about himself. He had found out that the government had lied to him numerous times about multiple things, and that he wasn’t actually such a success as they told him he was. Even worse, it turned out that they had been blocking off people from visiting him, such as his grandparents, friends, and even his parents, who had actually asked numerous times to visit.

It took Jaime a couple of days to get over this fact: the government had lied to him, not just once or twice, but numerous times about a whole range of subjects. He was angry, at how they had tried to use him just for their own schemes, but at how they had lied to him and made him feel as if the government were the only people who cared about him.

A week later, he had confronted the King of Missouri. The King was elected once every twenty years, and he had a very important position in the government. Jaime, in a fit of rage, pointed out how many times the government had lied to him. Utterly surprised by Jaime’s outburst, the king had been silent in return. He had had nothing to say. The thing was, he had been hoping that the five years of training could have changed Jaime to accept being a puppet of the government, but it seemed as if that hadn’t worked. And now…. the king was paying the consequences for a misjudged risk.

Jaime had stormed out of the HQ, promising never to return. He knew that the government had attempted to use him, and he wanted to be himself, not anyone else’s puppet. He had been utterly furious.

But he didn’t go back to his old life before the training. He was too different for that. He had known that he would never fit back in. There would be no hope for him there, so he had to have a different lifestyle.

Instead, he had lived in the open. He had stolen to survive. His training about how to break into other countries’ government buildings had enabled him to be the best robber that Missouri had ever had, and he had never been caught.

The odd thing had been that hadn’t seemed as if the government were looking for him or even caring about him. They didn’t seem to have set up any scouts to find him and bring him back. There had been no reward set up for his capture, and strangest of all, there hadn’t been one attempt whatsoever to control his mind and bring him back to the government forcibly. Jaime wondered if the device had broken, or if, somehow, the government had managed to get someone else to replace him and they were focusing all of their attention on this “new” person.

Intrigued, he had stolen a Tablet, which was the Missourian equivalent of a Zonemaster, though far more advanced, and accessed the files in the government’ computer. His own account in the system had not been blocked or even lost any of its privileges, such as being able to access all files on the computer.

It had all seemed weird and strange: were the government just hoping that one day he would come back and take back his old post? It seemed unlikely, and the first time Jaime thought of that he had scoffed at the idea. He knew that he would never return, no matter what they tried. He would sooner kill himself than go back to the people who had back-stabbed, lied, and blackmailed him.

He kept looking at the government files, to see any news concerning their plans about him, but it seemed that either they were keeping everything secret, or that they weren’t caring at all.

For the few years in which he had lived away from society, he had lived alone. He didn’t talked to anyone in all that time. He kept secluded, and moved about as much as he had been able to, so that he could have avoided any secret government hunters, in case there had been any of course. He had stolen from wherever he could, and kept as secluded as possible.

He had wondered about what he would do. Should he go back and return, and forgive the government for all they had done? Should he go and assist his parents in America? Should he get his own back on the government in some way, maybe even assisting another country? After all, his strength and speed would be an amazing help to any country. But, in the end, he had decided to stay as he was. He decided to stay living alone, doing nothing, and not making himself publicly known. He wondered if the government had thought him dead.

But they must have known about him accessing his account on the computer of the government. After all, they kept a close track on who had been recently online. So why didn’t they close his account? It wasn’t hard to do. Yet they left it running, and more than that, they left it with total authorisation rights to do anything on the computer, short of closing it down and deleting the most secure files. It was very difficult to work out why they were doing this, letting him do what he liked on their computer.

And another thing had been that in all the time he had been alone, he also struggled with depression and considered suicide multiple times, but all the times he had decided against it, instead living in his painful state. It had been mentally painful, as he had had no way of a social life. He knew he would have stand out too much, and he just was simply not used to it any more.

He struggled with the point of life, the point of love and all that sort of thing. He tried to work out why he was living, but he had no idea why himself. But still, he had kept himself alive, keeping on strong, and his own physical situation got stronger and stronger. He was starting to make the hundred metres in eight seconds, seven seconds and a half, and then seven seconds. The sense of achievement whenever he did this was one of the things that enabled him to have enough strength to resist suicide.

He had kept up with the news, especially news to do with the local governments in North Wasidia. His time while he had been learning had made him especially interested in that, and it was something he had never let go.

He had noticed how the Nationalists had come to power in America and immediately cancelled the truce with England. He found out that the Missourian-American border was pushing further and further south as time went on, and that the Nationalists were committed to pushing it north again. Jaime hadn’t been sure what he wanted, whether he wanted Missourian success or American success, whether he wanted the government of Missouri to get stronger or weaker. After all, his parents were still associated with Missouri.

He had also wondered about his parents: were they missing him, where were they, did they have any other children? He hadn’t been able to find out anything about them from his sources and eventually he had made himself stop thinking about them.

Until. Until he had looked inside the main system of the government, yet again. Yet this time, he had seen some news about his parents. It seemed as if they had been captured by the Nationalists and were about to be executed soon. As soon as he had read this, he drew in his breath. He would have to make a decision – now. He had thought about it for a few seconds, but he knew that there was no decision to make: it was a no-brainer, totally simple. Setting his targets, he started to make his way south.

It hadn’t been very hard to make his way into America and then Nashville. It had only been a week’s worth of heavy travelling. It still had taken its toll on Jaime, more than he would have liked, but he still was feeling rather fresh when he got into Nashville.

There had been no time to waste whatsoever: he would have to do what he had committed himself to doing straight away. He had walked through the Nashville streets, trying to avoid as much attention as was possible with his frame.

And then…. when he had got to the Greyham Building, he had waited until night-time and then climbed up the wall, using all of his training about that. He had then broken in through a window on the second floor. He had carefully replaced the window he had opened exactly where it had been, and then he was ready, and also still undetected.

That night, he had played a game of hide-and-seek: he had to find his parents, wherever they were, and manage to talk to them: and he had also had to hide from the guards that were patrolling the building.

Avoiding the guards was easy: his advanced senses of hearing heard them coming when they were still very far away, and he was easily able to avoid them. However, by half-way through the night, he was still no closer to his parents.

Eventually, however, he had found where all of the political prisoners were kept. He, knowing that that was where his parents would be kept, knocked out the guards with a silent series of actions, the like of which he had been trained to do, and then he went on to the cells.

It hadn’t been hard to find his parents from there: there were only ten or so cells, and only three of the cells had been full. The two full cells that were next to each other were obviously containing his parents.

He had drawn in his breath, and then whispered to his parents. “Mum? Dad?”. He noticed how hard it was to talk: he hadn’t talked for so long, nearly four years. But they had been asleep, so, he made a bit of noise, and kept repeating, “Mum? Dad?”

After a couple of minutes of whispering, Jaime’s Mum, Cynthia Thorn, had woken up. Jaime still remembered her emotions when she had first seen him. She had been totally overjoyed, and had given Jaime a kiss through the bars.

But as Jaime had seen her, he noticed what horrendous conditions they had been in. His two parents were only dressed in white cloths in a cold stone cell. It was inhumane, and he had felt totally nauseous when he saw it.

He had mentioned it to his mother, but she had shrugged it off. She didn’t care about herself: she only cared about Jaime. She had thought that he was dead, and she was over the moon now knowing he was alive and safe.

But when Jaime had told her that he would release them, he had been shocked when she, and then his father when he had woken up, refused. The thing was, they had been implanted with a tracker device inside their body and if they escaped they would be caught, and then Jaime would be too. It was a certainty for that to happen. So, no, they had said that they would accept the end of their lives, and that they just needed to tell Jaime some things, some crucial things.

Jaime had tried to get as close to his parents as he could, and then they told him all they wanted to say. They first told him that they had had another child and that he was in North Nashville House, and the government didn’t know; they had told him that the Nationalist Government in America had evil intentions and that he would have to stop it; and they had told him to go back to Missouri and help them.

When they had told him the final thing, he had felt torn. He had sworn never to go back, but now that was the exact thing his parents were telling him to do. Even after telling them what the government had done to him, his parents’ word hadn’t changed. Jaime eventually had to give in. It was the type of command from his parents that he could never resist, so he had accepted to bite his pride and do exactly what they had said, whatever the cost.

They had talked for another noon, with no guards coming near, and then his parents had told him to go. They wanted him to go back to Missouri as fast as possible. Although he hadn’t wanted to, he had knew it was for the best.

So with regret in his heart, he had left his parents alone in their cells. They had wished him well, and then he had gone. It was the last time he would ever see them. Many times afterwards, he wondered if he had done the right thing in doing that. Almost all of the times, he was convinced that it was for the best. His parents had wanted him to do that: in that situation, it was not possible for him to consider that he would disobey their wish.

He hadn’t stayed to watch the execution: he couldn’t have bore the pain. So instead, he went straight back to Missouri, thinking about the fact that he had a brother and wondering what his brother was like.

It had taken him a bit longer to go back than he had gone at first, but in two weeks he found himself walking up towards the Missourian government HQ.

When he had got in, no-one had asked him about anything. They had all known who he was, and he had been able to walk straight in. No-one had obstructed him, no-one had got in his way. No-one had even talked to him. He had been able to go straight into the king’s chamber. His fingerprints had allowed him to be able to access through all of the doors, and it had been simple to get in.

And then, Jaime had walked in through the door into the king’s apartment. If the king had been surprised at Jaime’s appearance, he did not show it. He had merely showed another official out of the room. Jaime took a deep breath as he thought about what he had to do.

Don’t do this! Jaime’s voice inside him had told him, He tricked you! He lied to you! He back-stabbed you! But Jaime knew what he had to do. Biting his pride, gritting his teeth, and narrowing his eyelids, he seethed, with as much hatred as he could muster, “I’m back.”

Chapter 13

Within a couple of days, Jaime was back into his old routine. The king had seemed to be totally expecting Jaime – link to my parents? Jaime thought – and there had been almost no time to settle back in before Jaime was sent back to training, with the same old teachers.

Much remained the same as beforehand, but he was now treated less like a pampered child with all the privileges that he wanted and instead, more like an ordinary employee.

The King of Missouri and his government seemed to have learnt from their previous experience: Jaime was certainly not their puppet, and they would have to be more careful when dealing with him.

Jaime knew that he was a very important person for them to keep on their side, but he also knew that he was still a person and they were not going to risk the fact that he could turn against them again one day and, this time, reveal all of the secrets they allowed him to view to someone else.

So, in light of this, they were careful around Jaime. He was still given his special room inside the HQ, in contrast to the other spies who all lived outside the HQ, but he was never given back the privileged position that he had had previously, of total freedom around the HQ.

Jaime was almost glad of this, as it strengthened his pride: they were afraid of what he might do, so they were wary. Jaime knew that this was the right thing for them to be. He could do anything…. anytime.

The controller device that could be used on Jaime, however, was still very much usable. Jaime never found out why they didn’t use it on him while he was living alone: maybe so that if he came back, he would have done it of his own free-will and thus feel much better about it. Maybe that was the reason.

Nevertheless, most of Jaime’s training – if it was still called training, Jaime liked to call it practice – was based around how Jaime related towards the device and was able to use it to maximum extent. All of the other features about him – his speed, strength, agility, sight and the rest – seemed to be as good as they would ever be.

But it was all going back over previously learnt information – there was nothing new, and Jaime itched to be sent into America and be able to work on his own. After all, he had no loyalty whatsoever to the Missourian government, after what they had done to him. He was only working with them because his parents had told him to, and because it would be the only way to have enough support and power behind him to attack the Americans and avenge his parents.

He repeatedly asked the Missourian King about the matter, asking to be sent into America on a mission, trying anything to get away from the HQ. He was getting tired about being constantly trained inside the HQ and he wanted to be able to get away from the HQ and be alone again, at least, alone to some extent. But the king wouldn’t let him on a mission that soon. He seemed to have some suspicions about Jaime: maybe fearing Jaime was actually a spy from another nation trying to take information out of Missouri. So Jaime, despite his constant pleas, was cooped up for another few months.

Eventually, however, the Missourians got news from America about plans of the new government, apparently led by the Premier Blake, although the King had some suspicions that he wasn’t the most important figure in the government. Anyway, the message came that the Americans were planning a sort of invasion force in the east of their country, maybe to attack Greece or even Missouri.

Jaime knew nothing of the message until when the king summoned him into his private office. The king went through all of what he was planning, stage-by-stage.

He first outlined the potential situation in America: how the new government seemed to be planning an invasion force in the east of the country. The king also told Jaime that the Americans seemed very confident and that there must be something else behind the force as well: surely America weren’t hoping that they simply were going to be able to conquer Greco-America or Missouri, or even English Brunswick?

The king also told Jaime that, although some other members of the government were very apprehensive about sending Jaime, due to worries about Jaime’s loyalty to Missouri, he would have to be sent. This was because he was the perfect fit for the job that the king had planned for him, of entering the American army and spying from the inside.

He was perfect for numerous reasons: for a start, he was young and could easily look like a budding young recruit for the Americans. They would find it difficult to turn away a man of his build and strength from their army.

The reports said that lots of new recruits were coming into the American army from the countryside, and Jaime could easily pretend to be a man from Northern America whose land was soon going to be conquered by Missouri and who wanted to fight back.

Once Jaime was in the army, he had no need to actual send any messages home: the Missourian government could “control” him whenever they wanted to and then they would be able to spy that way and see what the Americans were doing, instead of the older conventional way.

And if it eventually did come down to an invasion, then it wouldn’t be hard for Jaime, in all of the confusion, to slip away undetected. Even if he was detected, he would be fast enough and strong enough to get away as easily as he could. Jaime was the perfect man for this job.

Jaime had accepted without delay. It was just what he wanted: a chance to get away from the HQ and also to attack America in the process. Even better, he could work alone. The only issues he had with the plan was the fact that it seemed like he would be controlled quite a lot, it seemed. Notwithstanding that, he was glad that he could be able to get free from the Missourian HQ.

His mission was very urgent, so he left the next day, kitted up with most things he would need – but not everything that would help, he noticed; the government still was a bit edgy about him.

He was driven to the border and a little way beyond by an ordinary agent. The agent didn’t converse with him at all: no doubt told about everything Jaime could do and was afraid. But Jaime didn’t care, he was glad of the silence. It enabled him to get perspective in line and let him focus on the importance of his mission, not just to Missouri but also to him.

He also considered how he would be able to see his brother, trying to find out some way in which he could do that. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to. He didn’t even know his brother’s name. All that he knew was what his parents had told him: that he was in North Nashville House.

After a noon or so in American territory, the agent transporting Jaime stopped and told him that was how far he would go. From there, Jaime just had to walk into the nearby town and try to get a truck to Nashville.

Jaime spent half and hour to walk to the town, which was called “San Dansisco” in honour of the great city which used to be the American capital. It took him so long to get into the town because he saved his energy, and because he was somewhat distracted due to how he tried to change his appearance and make himself look like a tough manual worker from the nearby farms.

He had eventually walked into the town in mid-afternoon and, after getting a drink of some sort – he didn’t know what the liquid in his glass was – he looked about for some way to get to Nashville.

He asked about a bit, but the people who he asked all said, a bit mysteriously, “Use the trucks.” Jaime had no clue what they meant by that, and when he asked further they just laughed at his foolishness, so Jaime tried to find another method.

He asked the small information centre in town about how to get to Nashville, and they told him to ask about among the truck drivers, as one of them might give him a lift.

Taking that advice, Jaime, thinking apprehensively that he looked a bit too obviously Missourian,he went towards the truck depot of town. It seemed to be the busiest place in San Dansisco, and he soon found a truck driver willing to drive him down to Nashville, even for free.

The journey to Nashville had been long by Missourian standards: almost three noons for such a short journey in terms of distance, but the truck driver seemed to think that it had been a good journey in terms of time and eventually got Jaime round to agree as well. The American roads, Jaime noticed, were in appalling condition and badly needed a sort of refurbishment. The American trucks were slow as well. It seemed like everything in America was old-fashioned in comparison to the Missourian equivalents: Jaime felt proud at that.

Once in Nashville, Jaime had obeyed orders to immediately recruit for the army, which had been very easy to find. To his shock, however, when he had finished writing out his form, he was not told to wait for them to get back to him, but instead he was immediately assigned to a battalion!

This shocked him and his plans: he had been hoping to spend a short time in town finding his brother, but it didn’t look like that would be happening after all. He had felt some indignation at the Americans who recruited him as he reflected back that evening in the battalion, but he had to say that it wasn’t actually too bad: everything could be moving earlier than possible.

Him and his battalion were brought to the large,camp in the east of the country, apparently for “training” . Jaime hadn’t got a tent to himself, so he had to go to the toilets whenever he sent a message back to the Missourian government on his Zonestation – another reflection of Missourian dominance to America: Tablets (which were far better) were not allowed on the mission. Obviously, the message wasn’t direct to the Missourians, but to a contact in North America, and also the message had to be subtly coded as well.

The government had sent a message back, praising him, but also telling him of the secret devices they had hidden on his rucksack and Zonestation. No doubt they had not told him about those earlier because of their fears of his betrayal of them.

That evening, only about fifteen minutes after he received the message, he felt the control of the Missourian device on his mind. It only lasted a few minutes, with them testing out a few aspects of the control, such as arm co-ordination, eyesight usage, and that sort of thing: nothing special. Jaime guessed it probably was just a test to make sure everything was working ok, which it seemed to be.

Jaime still wasn’t decided about situation towards the Missourian government: was he loyal to them? He certainly hadn’t forgiven them for what they had done to him before, but they did seem genuinely sorry about it. They couldn’t have fundamentally changed, though, couldn’t they? They must still wish that Jaime would be their puppet to do anything they wanted him to, surely? Or had even their wishes changed now?

Later on that evening, the Wensday, all of the soldiers had been summoned to the main tent. There, they had been told of what would happen the next day. It all didn’t seem too interesting to Jaime: he was sure it would all be below his ability, he would just have to try and find out as much as he could.

His false identity seemed to be working ok: he had given his real name, but other than his “accent”, him being a “farmer”, and other things such as that he had kept everything secret. It had all been taken in hook, line and sinker, anyway. Jaime got the impression that the government didn’t really care who they got in their army, they just wanted as many people as possible.

As Jaime had feared, the next day was totally simple for him, but, to his surprise, it even seemed quite simple to the soldiers he was training with. Jaime even overheard a few complaints from the officers about it being far too simple for their liking.

That afternoon, he had tried to find out things about the true motives of the operation, whether it really was for training, or if, being consistent with the reports, it was actually an invasion party.

He was given a noon of free time in the afternoon, and he decided to spend that time trying to find out some information for the government of Missouri: even though he had no loyalty in his body for them, he knew that the only way he could avenge his parents, find his brother, and obey his parents’ wishes would be to go with Missouri: at least, it was best for now.

Jaime was very confident in his abilities, so he went straight to the top. He knew that there would be at least one thing worth finding out in the tent of the most important person on the camp, who,as it turned out, was the foreign secretary, Jean Pineau.

Jaime had examined the tent from a distance. It was hardly a tent really: more a cabin. The fact that it was a cabin made it a lot easier for Jaime to break into: a tent was too flimsy for Jaime to use a lot of his ways of getting into buildings: it would easily fall over if Jaime tried to climb up to a window, for example – if there even was a window in a tent.

The cabin was big enough for it to be a simple feat for Jaime to get into it: he could easily get onto the roof when someone wasn’t looking – even professional guards lost concentration for a second, and a second was all that someone like Jaime needed.

From the roof, Jaime could swing down and get through a window, or climb in through any opening that there was. To get into Pineau’s cabin, Jaime used the convenient skylight. It had been left open, so was an easy task.

Of course, before he dropped into Pineau’s study, Jaime had to find out if anyone was inside, and where the cameras were that were guarding the room.

Both took just a minute: there was nobody in the cabin as far as Jaime could hear – and Jaime knew that he would be able to hear anyone who was in the cabin – and Jaime’s camera detector could detect whereabouts the camera mechanisms were.

Jaime made sure that when he dropped down through the skylight, he dropped into one of the “blind spots” of the cameras. From there, it was no big deal to disable the cameras and then look at Pineau’s desk and at what he was working on.

Jaime slipped on some gloves, to mask any fingerprints if they were examined, and then he took out his small but expertly manufactured camera. It was perfect for the job: taking care not to move too much of Pineau’s papers, he took small pictures of each sheet of paper. He didn’t examine each paper much: even though he was confident in his own abilities, he was still worried about anyone coming it and finding him there.

He didn’t have to worry, however: he had finished in around fifteen minits, and there had been no sign of anyone. He arranged everything as it had been when he came, and he re-activated the cameras, after feeding the system a loop. He then left the cabin by the same way he came in, and within five more minits he was well away from Pineau’s cabin, leaving absolutely no trace of himself behind. It had been a routine job: even the Foreign Secretary of America’s residence was no hard task for him.

He went to a secluded area on the camp and printed out the pictures that he took: that was one of the features of his camera. Once he had done that, he examined them all. Most of them were of no relevance to what Jaime was looking for, and Jaime discarded those without reading through them.

There were others, however, which Jaime was interested in. There was the program for the week (including things that only foreign secretaries were allowed to look at of course), a list of American spies in countries including Missouri, and a “plan for American conquests in the year ahead”. Jaime read these eagerly.

The list of American spies meant nothing to him, but he knew that it would mean a vast amount to the Missourian government, who could now catch all of the American spies in Missouri. He stored that on a private and remote government cloud somewhere on the Interweb, and looked onto the “plan for conquests”.

That file meant a lot more to Jaime: it was a list of dates and countries. Missouri was lined up for one months time, Jaime read. Jaime wondered why they had written this. Was it a hoax? But Pineau had it on his desk. Yes, but surely America aren’t this strong, are they? They wouldn’t be able to conquer the whole of….. Wasidia in a year, would they? Surely not. Yet why did Pineau seem to think this?

Jaime was running out of time, so he stored that on the cloud as well and left the thinking to the experts back in Missouri. And then he looked at the final one, the plan for the week. Not much of it seemed interesting to Jaime, at least not at the start, and that day (Thorsday) was the last day written down on the plan. However, that evening, there was something scrawled in by Pineau: “19:50 – De Bran says invasion plan”.

Jaime didn’t know who De Bran was, but he was sure of one thing: this was where he was going to find out what the plan was. He didn’t need to find it out himself: he was going to be told it. He stored that file on the cloud as well, although he wasn’t sure if it would be of much use to the Missourian government, and then he wrote a message to the Missourians.

He didn’t directly send it to them, of course: for a start, it wouldn’t be possible to do so with a Zonemaster; and the Americans were certainly monitoring the Zonemasters of everyone in the camp, as well. The cloud being used on the camp was a risk in itself, but it was a risk worth taking, if it paid off. It was the easiest way to send information to Missouri without being detected.

So instead of sending the message direct to Missouri, Jaime had to send it through an agent in North America who was covering as Jaime’s brother. From there, that agent could use his Tablet to send the message to Missouri.

Jaime had more to say than he expected, and he had to code it all. He followed the agreements they had taken before he left: mention the weather to say he had stored something on the cloud, mention another soldier in the army to say that he was in danger, mention about “home” to say he was running away, and mention a time and say that “something interesting is happening at _:__ noons” if he wanted to be controlled at that time. If there was something that he wanted to say other than these, he would have to say it as a file on the cloud. Following these instructions, he wrote his message:

To Marsh

I’m at the army camp, and having quite a good time actually. Activities are ok, a little bit simple but still fine.

The weather’s very good, nice sun all day long, and that helps all of the activities that we do. Talking about activities, there’s something quite interesting tonight at around 19:40s noons, which I should enjoy. It’ll hopefully be all cool.

Anyway, hope that your ok,

Jaime.

Jaime re-read it and then, confident that he had mentioned everything worth mentioning, sent it off to the contact called “Marsh”.

After that, he went back to his small barracks, thoroughly pleased with the job that he had done, and waiting for the evening. It wouldn’t be pleasant to be controlled, but it would be useful for the Missourian government and that would be what they would want him to do. After all, he would have to think of their greatest interests whenever he did something in the field, wouldn’t he?

*******

At about 19:30, him and all of his battalion were called into the main hall for a “list of the next day’s activities”, although Jaime wasn’t sure how accurate that was.

He got into the main hall very quickly: he wanted to be there already before he lost control of himself, so that the people who were controlling him wouldn’t be too confused about their whereabouts.

He took a seat somewhere towards the side of the audience, so that if it was needed he could get away easily. The seats were made of some cheap, hard, plastic, and it was rather uncomfortable, but Jaime wasn’t a man who liked too much comfort.

After about five minutes of sitting down – in which he saw nothing really unusual – he felt the feeling of the Missourian government attempting to take control of him. Jaime could have attempted to resist it – and maybe succeed – but he knew that that would be pretty pointless, considering that he had told the Missourian government to do so.

So he let them in, and after he had felt that, he felt, as he always did, as if he was now a background character in his own body. It was rather annoying, especially to someone as proud as Jaime, to know that you didn’t have control of yourself.

However, Jaime had felt it loads of times before and he wasn’t afraid at all, and he had learnt to button down his pride. So instead, while someone a long way away controlled his body, his actions, and his senses, he just looked through his eyes and tried to see what was going on.

At 19:45, the foreign Secretary Jean Pineau spoke, saying nothing telling, and then he handed over to his deputy, Mr De Bran. So that’s who Mr De Bran is, Jaime thought – he could still think, even in this state.

Mr De Bran talked for quite a while, and this was what Jaime and the Missourian government were waiting for. De Bran spoke about how the Americans were so great – all propaganda and lies; how the Americans would be able to conquer Greece, and then about how they would do it. He mentioned about a “new weapon”, and then described it.

To Jaime, it sounded extremely similar to what the Missourian government could do to him, but with a couple of key differences: first of all, it could reach over a huge area of people; and it seemed to only be able to give general commands, not take control of people.

Jaime was shocked when he first heard of it. He had always considered America to be a very backward country, incapable of creating any advanced technological creations. But it seemed that now the Americans had made something that was a large threat to Missourian safety.

Then De Bran stopped talking for some reason, probably due to the general hubbub in the auditorium, and Pineau came back onto the microphone. He talked through the machine and the process of how it worked, but Jaime had no interest in that. All he wanted to do was to check if it worked on him, especially when he was in the situation he was in at that moment – under the control of the Missourians.

But Pineau spoke for a lot longer time, nearly a noon. Jaime thought that they weren’t going to have a demonstration after all, but eventually Pineau stopped. A couple of seconds after he had stopped, a large device, about the size of a washing machine, was wheeled out and turned on. After some further explanation from one of the scientists, the device was activated.

But, to be honest, Jaime felt nothing at all – it didn’t seem to be a very powerful device in contrast to the Missourian one, or maybe the government was protecting him from feeling anything. Either way, it didn’t really look very powerful until Jaime looked around him. All around him, everyone was succumbing to the power of the device and were taking out their Zonemasters. Jaime was immediately quite surprised at his apparent mental dominance to the people around him, but, considering it, it wasn’t actually surprising. After all, he had been trained in all of this kind of mechanisms before hundreds of times, whilst these people barely knew what part of their head their brain was.

After the machine had stopped being activated, Mr Pineau had then gone through all of the preparations and regulations for that evening. All of his orders were clearly based upon making sure that no spy could possibly get any type of message out to another country. Tough. Jaime thought to himself inwardly, Missouri know everything already, and you can’t stop them from knowing, no matter how hard you try.

There was rules for everything: how you would walk back to your lodgings, how you should dress, what time you had to go to bed, and all sorts of other things.

Most of the other soldiers around Jaime seemed to be shell-shocked. They were too surprised to really get into any conversation, and instead, they were just listening to Pineau silently. Jaime wondered if it was just a side-affect of the machine, or whether the soldiers were actually feeling like that, for whatever reason.

In around a noon’s time, Pineau had finished with all of his announcements. He then got a couple of his attendants to hand around a couple of sheets of paper to each person. Once Jaime got his sheet of paper, he noticed that it contained all of the rules that Pineau had mentioned in his talk.

The Missourian contact seemed to had lessened, and Jaime had got some control of his body back, and as he read through the papers, the Missourian influence faded until eventually it was no longer there. Undoubtedly the king and his officials had seen all they wanted to see.

After a couple of minits, Pineau called the hall to silence and he spoke.

Now,” he said, “We need your DNA samples for you to be immune to the machine tomorrow. To do so, could you all come up here, onto the platform, and we will cut off one strand of your hair to take. Form an ordered line please.”

Jaime wasn’t entirely sure how to act in reply to this, but he decided it would only do to comply. It would look way too awkward if he wouldn’t. He stayed in his seat for about a minit more, and then he got up and joined the long queue.

The scientists on the stage seemed to be extremely effective: a few using scissors to take the samples of hair, and then carefully placing them into machines where they could all be examined. After that, the samples were taken into the back for further examination, probably.

Jaime wasn’t sure what to make of it all. He knew that he was obliged to be against it and supportive of Missouri, but it seemed very impressive, and Jaime had now been won over and was absolutely convinced that it would work and succeed, unless him or the Missourians would stop it somehow.

But the question that was more bugging him was how he made of it, the attitude that he felt towards it. He realised that it seemed as if he didn’t actually feel any emotion towards it, which worried him. These were the people who viciously executed his parents, after all! But he didn’t see any hatred in his soul, he felt no feelings towards these people. He almost saw them as a case study, as a job to be done, not even as enemies! For goodness sake, Jaime! He told himself, these people are your enemies! Look at what they have done to you and your family! And yet you’re betraying the memory of your parents with these attitudes! But no matter how hard he tried, it was impossible for him to escape from the feeling of “I don’t care” in regard to these people. He knew it wasn’t right to be indifferent, but he was. Why?

Eventually, however, it came to Jaime’s turn to go up onto stage. The scientist casually cut off a couple of strands of hair and then ushered Jaime down off the stage: simple as that. It was a very quick procedure, and it was no wonder how they could finish that night if they were acting that quickly all the time.

Jaime stepped tentatively down the steps off the stage, still not trusting anything American. He saw the foreign secretary of America, Pineau, standing by the stage, shaking hands with everyone who went past.

Even though Jaime knew that it was Pineau who personally issued the death warrant of his parents, he still stuck out his hand – he was anxious not to look out-of-place, maybe a bit too anxious.

However, to the surprise of Jaime, Pineau didn’t immediately shake Jaime’s outstretched hand, but instead, asked, whilst examining Jaime as if trying to see if he looked like someone else, “Jaime Thorn?”

Jaime nodded, suddenly anxious as a thought came to his mind. “Yes…” his voice trailing off.

Good.” said Pineau, and he suddenly grabbed Jaime’s outstretched hand, pulling him along, “Then follow me.”

Chapter 14

Are you sure that this will work?” asked Jack for the tenth time.

Qwerty laughed and smiled before repeating, “Yeah, it’ll be fine. Like I told you, it’s not hard.”

Jack brushed away his fears. He was anxious to impress Qwerty, and so he tried to assure himself it was not a hard leap to make.

It was the evening of that Thorsday, and him and Qwerty, after spending the day in consultation, reconnaissance, and plans, were now going into the Greyham Building.

They had realised that spying using Qwerty’s devices wasn’t actually good enough: instead, they needed to be there in the person. After all, there was only so much that a machine could show you: seeing things in the flesh was so much better and more accurate.

The two of them had been assured by the government reports that Pineau and Plains, the two men who seemed to be in charge of the government, were away from the Greyham Building that day, as they were making sure that the invasion of Greece went well. Because of this, Jack and Qwerty had decided to go for it that evening.

They had got some grapple hooks with them: one of the things that Qwerty had salvaged from her parents’ equipment; and they were abseiling up towards one of the windows on the second floor of the Greyham Building.

Jack knew that he normally wouldn’t be worried about doing such a relatively easy thing, but that day had been different. He had felt a lot of twitches at his mind, similar to the one he had felt all the way back when he had gone to France’s house and been “attacked”, as he liked to put it. The difference was, these had just been very small impulses, whilst that time had been rather strong.

But Jack was still worried: after all, there could be a “strong” one soon, and what could he do then? What if it happened when Qwerty and him were in the building? Him going could endanger both of their lives.

Jack had talked about it with her, but Qwerty had encouraged him that it would be ok, so Jack had agreed to go with her. Now, thirty metres up in the air, with a difficult swing from the rope onto the windowsill to make, he was having second thoughts.

Come on, Jack! It’s not difficult, and we need to be moving as soon as possible!” Qwerty shouted as loud as she could without alerting a guard.

I know!” said Jack, but he was still very afraid. He didn’t move, but instead gripped his rope ever tighter.

C’mon, someone could find us!” Qwerty said again, a little bit softer than she had spoken just beforehand.

That blew Jack’s fear away. He suddenly knew what he should have done a long time before. Whether or not he would endanger Qwerty by going in, he would undoubtedly endanger her far more by staying out. So, gripping up some courage that he realised had been there all along lying under the surface, he leaped across onto the windowsill, and then clambered in. He didn’t even need Qwerty’s help.

You see?” Qwerty said, “I knew you could do it.”

Yeah.” said Jack, changing the subject abruptly “What now?”

Hmm….” said Qwerty, “The best, like we agreed on, would probably be to get into Pineau’s personal study and see what’s there. We need to protect Missouri and all of the other nations from this hideous American weapon, if, of course, it is a real weapon and if it is as bad as it seems from the reports.”

Ok.” said Jack, and he looked around the room. Just as they had figured out beforehand, they were in a small storeroom with solid walls. The room led out onto the main central corridor of the Greyham Building. From there, Qwerty and him would be able to easily make their way into wherever they wanted to go.

Jack steeled himself up as he thought of what he would have to do. The whole day he had been rather paranoid and nothing had changed. He was still a little bit worried about guards and all that.

How many guards do they have in the Greyham Building at night?” he asked Qwerty.

Qwerty replied, “Normally four. But tonight, I guess they’ll only have two because of Pineau and all of the other people leaving. They’ll also have one other person in the control room, watching the cameras.”

Jack noticed she said the name “Pineau” with as much contempt as she could muster. Jack had to admit to himself that he felt the same way about Pineau: he felt pure hatred.

All right.” said Jack, relieved at the small numbers of guards, “That’s good. And how won’t they have been able to detect our appearance into the building?”

C’mon Jack, we worked out all this earlier!” said Qwerty, “Are you scared or something? Anyway, like we said, the cameras on the area of the building which we scaled are very weak, unable to detect much at night-time. There was no way they could have detected us, in these dark clothes. And there are no cameras in this store room. But whatever, let’s get moving.”

Jack felt a pang of annoyance at himself for his fear. Why was he scared? Why did he have this feeling? Him and Qwerty had worked it all out beforehand: it was all going to be fine. There was no way it could go wrong. So why did he have these reservations? Why didn’t he feel as confident as he should have been feeling?

Jack looked on in admiration and envy at how calmly Qwerty was able to activate the loop to be fed into the cameras before she went out of the room through the only door. Jack picked up his rucksack and silently followed her.

As he walked silently through the corridor, he wished that he had Qwerty’s calmness under pressure, or that he would be able to efficiently get about doing this sort of thing – spying. He also wished that he could be able to break into places he wasn’t meant to be without a feeling of guilt. In some weird kind of way, he felt very envious of Qwerty, especially about how she felt about certain things.

The two of them crept through the main corridor, knowing exactly where to go: they had mapped it all out beforehand and memorized the route in case of any potential mishaps that might happen.

As they were moving, Jack listened to the sounds that were around him and the building: the low humming of the cars outside on the road; the throbbing of the machines that had been left on overnight; the soft patting of Qwerty and his own feet on the floor; the calls of the nocturnal birds and animals; the hard shoes padding distantly on the carpet. The shoes padding distantly on the carpet? Jack listened closer. Yep, there certainly was a noise of feet quite a way away, and it was getting ever louder and closer, though was still far away.

Qwerty.” Jack whispered anxiously.

She turned around, “Yes?”

Someone’s coming.” Jack said. “Probably a guard.”

Really?” Qwerty asked, and she strained herself to hear. After a couple of seconds she said, sceptically, “I can’t hear anything. You sure?”

But I can.” said Jack, “And they’re coming closer. We need to hide, or at least, get away. I’m totally sure.”

Are you sure it’s not imaginary?” Qwerty asked. “I mean, are you imagining it?”

No way.” Jack said, “It’s as real as you are, and the guy’s coming closer!”

Yeah, but I can’t hear any guy! Are you sure that you haven’t mistaken another sound for footsteps? Like the cars, or the animals?”

No!” said Jack, indignant, “I haven’t mistaken anything! C’mon, come in here!” and he got away and hid himself in a small alcove that was conveniently situated around a corner. He only hoped that the guard – if it was a guard – wouldn’t look in the alcove and see him and Qwerty.

I still can’t hear anything!” said Qwerty, but she reluctantly came across and crammed herself and her equipment into the alcove.

Are you sure?” she said again when she had got herself into a comfortable position.

Yes!” said Jack, annoyed at being forced to repeat it, “Positive. Can’t you trust me?”

Yes,” Qwerty replied, “It’s just….” and her voice trailed off. Jack didn’t pursue it, but he knew what she was saying: It’s just because your paranoid today. If anyone would hear anything, it would be me, not you, Jack. And I can’t.

They were silent for about thirty seconds, as Jack heard the footsteps get closer and closer. But it didn’t seem as if Qwerty could hear, not even now.

Are you sure?” said Qwerty, “Are you sure it’s not just your brain throbbing or something?”

No!” said Jack, as loud as he dared to speak, “I know that it’s somebody! I can’t be mistaken like this! Seriously, you’ll have to trust me. I don’t know why you can’t hear them, but seriously…”

Ok.” said Qwerty, “I trust you.” It was evident that she didn’t believe Jack, but she loved him too much to let go. Jack was glad: he didn’t want any of them to get caught, never. The consequences would be….. unthinkable.

In another minit of time, the footsteps suddenly became much clearer to hear. Jack wasn’t sure how he had been able to hear the footsteps so afar off – the man had taken so long to get to the place where they were; and also at how the sounds suddenly became clearer. The experience almost seemed as if up to that point he had been relying on a sixth sense for his hearing, and then suddenly the sounds became loud enough to be heard by his normal hearing ability.

It seemed as if Qwerty was able to hear as well, for she whispered softly, “I’m sorry.” Jack nodded in acknowledgement, although he wasn’t really sure if she would be able to see his nod in the dark alcove.

In a few seconds after that, the man walked past. His suit clearly marked him out as one of the guards. As he went past, Jack stiffened in fear, but it didn’t matter. The guard had grown very complacent and didn’t really care, so he didn’t look around very thoroughly. After all, what was the chance that there would be spies that night in that particular part of the building? Instead, he just walked slowly along the aisle towards the next part of the building.

A short time after he had gone past, Jack and Qwerty crept out of their hiding place, confident it was safe to do so. They picked up their bags and went on their way.

Thanks.” whispered Qwerty.

For what?” Jack whispered in return.

For warning us about the guard.”

Forget it. I just heard, it was no really hard thing for me to do.”

Yeah, I guess. There’s just one thing I don’t understand though…”

Yeah?”

Well, how did you hear him from so far away? It must have taken him about five minits to get to the place where we were, yet you heard him from all that distance?”

I don’t get that either. Of course, he could have stopped on the way, but still…”

You must have incredible hearing.” Qwerty stated.

Maybe, but I’ve never noticed it before… I mean, if I had had such strong hearing before then I would have noticed it.” Jack replied.

Whatever. Let’s be grateful and get on. We can think about it when we get back to our homes.”

Our homes. That led Jack to another thought. What about at the house, would they be worried for him? He had said that he was staying the night at the room of a friend, but what if the house authorities had wanted a confirmation message from his Zonestation? Or from the other “house”?

Paranoia again. Stop being like that! If you’re paranoid then you could be caught due to you losing concentration. If you’re caught then they might kill you or…. STOP IT! For goodness sake, stop being paranoid Jack! Why am I embleer like that today? Why? Why me?

Which way now?” Jack asked. He had been following Qwerty and now she had stopped.

It should be around here.” she whispered. “Let me check the maps that we made.”

I don’t see a door…” said Jack, and he looked around at the walls, “Wait!”

What?”

Can you see that there?” Jack said, pointing at the wall.

No.” said Qwerty, “What is it? Are you sure there’s something there?”

There’s a faint outline of a door. It must be his office, carefully disguised to stop people like us.”

Hmm….. it couldn’t stop you though!” said Qwerty, “Anyway, wait a moment. Let me check the maps.”

She took a folder out of her bag, and laid it out on the floor. At first, Jack was afraid that a spy camera might see the maps they had made, but then he remembered that all the way through the house, they had fed a loop into the area they were just going into. Because of this, there was no real fear of camera detection.

Yes.” she said, after poring over her map for over a minit, “It does actually seem as if Pineau’s office should be in that exact spot.”

She folded up her maps, stored it away in her bag, and got up. Jack had waited for her to do all these things before he made a move.

So where was it again?” she asked, groping awkwardly on the wall.

Jack’s eyes faintly made out an outline of a door on the wall. “Here.” he said, moving over towards it.

How can you see that?”

I don’t know… I just can. In any case, let’s forget it. Just get inside. How should we do it?”

So you’ve not just got super-hearing, you’ve got super-sight as well, have you?” said Qwerty jokingly, “But I think the best way to get in would be to simply push hard. After all, there can’t be a too difficult way to get in: Pineau would do it all the time. There’s probably a security system inside.”

Ok.” said Jack, a little surprised at her answer. “If you say so, then I’ll push and see how that works. But the doorway could be alarmed, so get on hand with the silencer. And are you sure it would work with a simple push?”

Maybe. But either way, it’s worth a try.”

Jack gave the door – if it was a door – a big shove. As he was doing it, he suddenly realised that it might not be Pineau’s office after all, and could actually be something altogether different. It mightn’t even be a door.

But he didn’t need to have worried: he shoved the door and it flung open, leading out into a large, spacious, office. There were numerous chairs, and at the entrance, a keypad for an entry code, except that was already open and unlocked. Then Jack suddenly realised something. He looked around to make sure, and then he turned to Qwerty, and then he said what he had suddenly worked out,

There’s someone else in there.”

*******

Jack backed out of the doorway and partially shut the door, wedging it open with his foot.

There was then a long pause as Jack waited for the message to sink in. Eventually, Qwerty replied, “Who?”

No idea.” Jack replied, and then he went on, “It looks as if we’re about to find out.”

What should we do?”

Well…. They probably already know that we’re coming in, so we should be armed, for certain.”

Yes.” said Qwerty, and gave Jack a dart gun: a lethal invention of hers that shot out tranquilliser darts from the end. It was far more accurate and made less noise than a normal gun, as well as not actually killing the target.

She took one out for herself as well. “We’ll need these, if there’s a confrontation.”

Jack nodded his agreement. “Try and be as quiet as possible. We don’t want to attract attention, if the person somehow didn’t hear my approach. It’s a good thing we’re still in our black jumpsuits. They will help if there’s any hiding to be done, as it’s very dark in there.”

KK, will do that.” said Qwerty.

Jack turned toward the door. His heart was pumping. He had come so close, so near, to finding out about this weapon. But who could be in the office? It was only the early times of night, so it could easily be a member of the government working overtime in Pineau’s office. Maybe his deputy? That is, if he had one. And if Qwerty and him were caught…. this was risky. Too risky.

But Qwerty nodded encouragingly, and Jack was reassured. He strengthened himself, and then pushed open the door.

Him and Qwerty tip-toed through the doorway, shutting it behind them – they didn’t want any guards walking past to see it and draw attention to it.

They had come out into a large open room. Jack looked around. It was dim and he could see that there were loads of places to hide, but Jack still couldn’t see a soul. Silently, he signalled and agreed with Qwerty to search opposite parts of the room from each other.

Jack walked around, seeing different papers on the desks around – each marked with a different label. He saw one called “New Weapon” – if he managed to survive this, then that would be the one to look at.

He turned away from that desk, and looked towards the other desks, anxiously scanning for another person in the room. Jack was absolutely positive there was someone else in the room – there was no other way for the keypad to have been left undone, and also, and more creepily, he could feel another set of eyes watching his every move, though he had no idea from where.

Suddenly, he felt a fresh weight jump on his back and attempt to throw him to the ground. Jack kept his footing, but his gun went flying across the floor. Jack let it go, and instead he tried to come to face with his unknown assailant. But he couldn’t turn towards the person’s face, and he found that he was suddenly swung away from looking at his gun, which had come to stop a few metres away.

Stop it!” the person said, “Don’t kill me!”

The man sounded scared, not bold – it wasn’t what Jack would have expected from a member of the American government in that situation.

Why?” Jack asked. It wasn’t really the best thing to say, but he couldn’t help it.

I’m only suspicious!” the man replied, “Trust me, I wasn’t doing any bad! Pineau should have told me more! Seriously, don’t tell him I was here! Please!”

Huh? Jack thought, This guy seems worried that we’re the guards!

Jack tried to throw the man off his back, but to no avail. The man was clinging onto Jack’s backpack, and was talking extremely quickly and softly. Jack couldn’t understand a word he said, but Jack knew one thing: he really wanted to find out who the man was.

Jack heard Qwerty approaching, but there would be no time for her to be there in time – and she didn’t seem like she was going to take a shot just in case she got it wrong and accidentally shot Jack.

So, instead of relying on Qwerty to act, Jack slipped his arms out of his backpack, reluctantly, – there were lots of important things in there which he couldn’t bear to lose – and then threw himself on top of the man.

They struggled for a few seconds, before Jack managed to pin the man to the floor. Jack managed to hold him so that the man’s two arms were being held by Jack’s hands and his two legs were being squashed by Jack.

The man had a balaclava on, disguising his identity. Jack was surprised how easily he had won out: he didn’t think that he would have been able to pin a grown man that easily. It seemed to him as if a burst of strength had suddenly come out of nowhere.

Who are you?” Jack asked, “Tell me!”

The man muttered an unintelligible response. Whatever he had said, it seemed to have been muffled by his balaclava.

Tell me!” Jack repeated, louder just in case the balaclava affected the man’s hearing.

Again, Jack couldn’t understand whatever the man said, although the man again did reply.

Oh, this is hopeless!” Jack said, and he shouted into the man’s face, “TELL ME YOUR NAME! WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”

He didn’t get a reply, so, in a fit of anger, Jack ripped off the man’s balaclava. Jack exploded in anger at the man’s unwillingness to talk, even though Jack was quite certain from the things he had heard from the man that he was on his side – at least, the man did seem to be an enemy of America. Why else would he be afraid of guards?

Jack grabbed the balaclava between his hands, and then threw it away furiously. He quickly turned back to the man, and froze, gawking in astonishment.

The man who had attacked him, the man who Jack had pinned to the floor, the man who had been in Pineau’s office, and the man who had seemed so guilty was none other than Mustapha Blake, the Premier of America.

Chapter 15

Jack jumped back in astonishment. Was this seriously the Premier, or just a lookalike? He couldn’t be sure in the dim light. The two of them met each other’s stare for around a minit, neither of them giving way.

That minit gave Jack time to think of what he should do. He was very scared of being captured, and if it really was Mr. Blake, then the best option would be to get away as fast as possible. But there was still numerous questions: why did Blake seem so scared of the guards? Why did he tell them “not to tell Pineau”.

Jack turned towards Qwerty in guidance for a moment, but the jumpsuit didn’t allow him to detect any emotion at all on her face. At least that means that if we do get away the jumpsuits will hide our identity from Blake. Jack thought to himself.

Eventually, the decision was made up for Jack as Blake broke the stare, saying, “W-Wh-Who are you?” The voice clearly pronounced him to be the Premier.

Jack paused, unsure what he should say in reply. Fortunately for him, Qwerty answered instead, her voice confidently ringing out and echoing around the dark room.

We’re the guards of the Greyham Building, Mr. Blake. Mr. Pineau told us to personally guard his room as closely as possible. What are you doing here?”

Jack marvelled at Qwerty’s wisdom. It was the perfect thing to say: it was also the perfect cover. If Blake was perfectly entitled to be there, he wouldn’t think anything suspicious of Jack and Qwerty; if he wasn’t, then the two of them could find out why he was there before telling him they were actually on his side.

Blake fell down and started to – was that a tear? He also started to mumble things under his breath. He seemed really scared for some reason. What had happened to make him like that?

Qwerty repeated, in the same harsh undertone, “What are you doing here, Mr Blake? Are you meant to be here?”

Finally Blake mustered up some courage, and blubbered out some words, “Pineau should have told me!”

Told you what?” said Qwerty. The harsher tone had gone, and curiosity had crept into her voice.

It seemed like Blake had detected that change, and that gave him fresh confidence. Thus, he stopped explaining why he was there, and instead, he said, “It doesn’t matter. Arrest me if you want, execute me if you want. That’s what you do with traitors isn’t it?”

Immediately after he had finished talking, he went back to his old state, falling back down onto the floor, and weeping bitterly. Jack wasn’t sure what to make of it. Was this really his true emotions? In all his wildest dreams, he had never imagined himself to be in this situation.

Qwerty looked at Jack, and shrugged. Jack signalled to her silently, “Shall we tell him?”

She nodded, and then pointed, “Me or you?”

Me.” Jack signalled, and then he opened his mouth to speak, “Mr Blake, we are not actually the guards. That was a lie we said just to get information from you.”

No!” said Blake, “That was not a lie! This is the lie! You are the guards! Stop lying to me and just hurry up and end my miserable life!”

No, Mr Blake.” repeated Jack, trying to speak as calmly as he could in front of an apparently insane man, “We are not the guards. We are spies.”

No, don’t tell him that! Qwerty shot Jack a look, but Jack ignored her,

We have come here for the same purpose as you, to find out things about the government of America and take them for ourselves.”

Blake seemed to perk up slightly.

So we will be getting the information that we need now.” Jack said, and he turned away from Blake and towards Qwerty.

Are you sure you should have told him all that?” Qwerty whispered, as the two of them walked to the table “Secret Weapon.”

Yes, I think so.” Jack whispered back, “He seemed genuinely scared that we were the guards, and he’s clearly insane as well. How could an insane man give us away?”

Maybe.” said Qwerty, “Make sure we don’t say anything too important while we are here. We can’t give anything away, even if what you say really is the case.”

Jack nodded. He walked to one end of the large table, and sifted through it, using gloves in case there would be any fingerprint detection used later.

A number of papers were strewn all across the table in a haphazard manner. Jack assumed this was because Blake had already been through a lot of the papers that were there. He wondered what Blake meant by “Pineau should have told me”. Was it that Pineau had hidden something from him? If so, what? Was it about the weapon, or something totally unrelated to that?

Jack looked towards Qwerty, and then Blake – who was still lying on the floor – , and then to the rest of the large room. As he was looking around the room, four shadows suddenly materialised from behind areas in the room. He blinked, but he wasn’t imagining it: there were four other people in the room.

Scared, Jack pointed them out to Qwerty. She gasped, afraid. Suddenly, one of them started to speak loudly and with an evil undertone, “So you’ve seen us, have you? Then well done with that. But it shall be the last thing you see. For we are the private guards of Pineau’s office, and all of you spies shall die!”

*******

Jack threw himself and Qwerty down, as the guards opened fire. As soon as the guards saw that their prey had dodged their shots, they stopped shooting and then moved around the room to get a clearer sight of their target. They circled around the edge of the room, sticking together as they moved.

Suddenly, Jack felt a rush of blood, and he ran out from under the table. He heard a couple of bullets whiz past, but there wasn’t many – the guards were probably too worried about damaging Pineau’s office.

Jack jumped from table to table, dodging the occasional shots and intent on getting the guards. He kept his balance as he ran over all of the tables that Pineau had in his office. Jack had no idea why he was suddenly doing this, but he now found that he couldn’t help himself: he was intent on doing only one thing: getting the guards.

The guards had noticed Jack coming, so they had backed off, keeping him in sight and gunshot range. The closer Jack got to them, the harder it was to fling himself out of the way of the bullets. Fortunately for him, the guns were old, slow, and American-made: so it wasn’t too much of a chore to avoid the slowly-travelling bullets.

As he reached the end of the line of desks, he launched himself towards the guards, who had taken out knives. That made it all the more dangerous for Jack, but somehow he kept on going.

All too late, Jack realised how exposed he was: no weapon, and no armour. He didn’t even have his rucksack of stuff with him: he had left that under the table.

So what am I doing? he thought, but somehow he couldn’t stop himself. He flung himself down off the table, and ran towards the guards.

The one closest to him made a lunge towards Jack, attempting to pierce Jack’s heart with his knife. However, Jack casually side-stepped out of the way – it somehow seemed very easy. As he did so, he grabbed onto the guard round the neck and swung him around.

There was a loud crack as the guard’s neck broke. The man started screaming loudly, and Jack threw him down on the floor. Within a few seconds, the man was silent, probably dead.

The guards backed off from Jack, scared at Jack’s sudden display of strength. In fact, Jack himself was astounded: he had no idea of his ability to do such a thing.

He had a sick taste in his mouth as he realised, appalled, that he had killed a man. But there was no time to reflect on that, as the rest of the guards had backed away and were now starting to take shots at him.

Jack acted quickly, picking up the dead man’s gun and taking random shots towards the guards. One fell down, blood sprouting from some part of his body – Jack assumed he was dead.

As time went on, Jack found that he was having to move quicker and quicker to avoid the spray of bullets that were coming at him, and he knew that he would have to act quickly to avoid dying.

So he threw himself along the floor, under the level of bullets, and crashed into one of the two remaining guards. The guard fell down, and fell onto his gun, which was still active and firing. The man screamed in pain as his own gun killed him.

The final guard, seeing the plight of his colleagues, tried to run away but Jack was too quick for him, and tripped the man up. Jack got up and looked down at the guard. He tried to stop himself from doing the final blow, but somehow – and he had no idea how – he couldn’t.

His hand went for the man’s knife, and, despite trying as hard as he could to stop himself from doing the horrible deed, he couldn’t stop. Before he knew it, the knife was through the man’s back. The guard slumped down on the floor, dead.

Jack looked up to Qwerty, who was a few metres away. They met each other’s eyes, Jack with a pained expression on his face. He couldn’t bear the thought. I am a murderer. I killed men. But the worst thing was, he hadn’t seemed to hate it too much when it had happened. He had seemed to have been taken over by something else. He knew that he still had had total control over his body, it was just as if…. there had been another part of him, a primitive, violent part, that had taken over and done those deeds. Jack hated himself for doing such things. He couldn’t bear the thoughts, and he wondered what Qwerty would say about it.

Wow.” she said. That was all. Nothing else.

There was a pause, before Jack said, “I’m sorry.”

What for?”

For killing them.”

Qwerty flared up in anger, and she said, “Why are you sorry, Jack? These people were about to kill you! They were working for the people who killed your parents! I saw these kind of people kill my parents! That man there-” and she signalled to one of the men lying on the floor, “–Was there when my parents were murdered! You shouldn’t be sorry Jack, but instead, you should consider it as part of life.”

Yes, I know, but…” Jack said, “It’s just… the thought of killing doesn’t fill me with much joy.”

Good.” said Qwerty, “If it did, then you would be a vicious, cold-hearted killer. But you should consider it as part of your job, as it were. If the world is going to become truly fair again, then all of the bad people will have to be killed.”

Jack stared at Qwerty. What she had just said made total sense, it was just…. he found distaste inside himself at how he had ended the life of four men, even if it was four men who had been trying to kill him. There were four people who had had people who loved them and cared for them, and Jack had just ended that all.

Suddenly, he heard a loud gunshot and then a searing pain up his right leg. He fell to the floor in agony. The pain seared up his body, disabling him of all control over his body.

He roared in pain, and a man jumped on top of him. Jack realised it was the man who Jack had left for dead when he had shot him. The man had probably not been hit in a vital part, but had recovered. As he shut his eyes and tried to keep out the pain, Jack heard Qwerty screaming as she fell down as well, and then he heard,

I’ll embleer kill you!” the man swore, “All spies deserve death!”

Suddenly, Jack heard an electrical buzzing sound. A millisecond later, the guard fell down off Jack’s back. His helmet fell off, and he fell down, unconscious, a few metres away.

There was no time for Jack, still in lots of pain, watch Qwerty shout at the man’s unconscious body, “You killed my parents!” He could still see and hear clearly enough, even if he still couldn’t do anything else.

She then took out a knife and stabbed the man repeatedly, crying feverishly and shouting. Only when she had eventually finished did Jack finally attempt to sit up.

When he had finally succeeded, he looked around for the person who had saved his life. He saw Qwerty, but she clearly had not done anything in regard to that. However, he then looked across and saw Blake, holding the stun gun that Jack had dropped when the two of them had been fighting together. There was no doubt that it had been him.

Thanks.” Jack said. The word hardly conveyed the whole message, but the tone of his voice did.

Blake nodded in appreciation and walked over towards Jack, stretching out a hand to help him to get up. He seemed a different man from the blubbering idiot Jack had first seen earlier that night.

Jack tried to stand, but pain seared through his whole right leg and he fell back down on the floor.

You all right?” Blake asked.

I think so.” Jack said, “Should be ok.”

He then turned to Qwerty, and said, “What about you?”

I’m fine.” she said, getting up off the floor. Her face was still red with mental exhaustion.

Good.” said Jack. He then turned back to Blake, and said, “You saved my life.”

I know.” said Blake, “But only because you saved mine first.”

How?”

If you hadn’t been there, those guards would’ve killed me.”

Yes,” said Jack, “But I wasn’t fighting to save you. I was trying to save myself and Qwert.”

I’m sure.” said Blake, “But you still saved my life, so I owed you something.”

Maybe.” said Jack, and then Qwerty interrupted abruptly,

Can I talk alone with Jack for a moment?”

Sure.” Blake said, and he turned away, composed. He went over to one of the desks and sifted through it, trying to find anything he could get.

When she was sure Blake was out of hearing distance, Qwerty said, “That man killed my parents.”, gesturing down at the dead man.

Was he just there, or was he the one who did the stab?” Jack asked.

He was the one. No doubt about it. It might have been dark, but I still remember his face. I’m sure.”

Ok.” said Jack, “You must be glad to get that over and done with, but now what should we do?”

Us?” Qwerty asked rhetorically, before continuing, “We should talk to Mr Blake about everything, get our information, and then go. We better see what to do about your leg as well. That wound looks nasty”

Clear this mess up?” Jack asked, gesturing around at the dead bodies.

No, we shouldn’t.” said Qwerty, “Let them know someone came in, I doubt they’d be able to trace it to us. After all, there is no detection of anything in this room. Pineau’s so worried about spying from fellow members of government that he’s made this room with no cameras whatsoever and soundproof walls. As far as I can remember, there’s absolutely no security whatsoever inside this room. Outside, there’s loads, but inside, no. We should still check the guards, though, in case they had anything.”

There was a pause for a moment, Jack unsure what to say, before Qwerty added, “I’m sorry, Jack. I should have been braver.”

What do you mean?” Jack asked. He was still shell-shocked from the events of the last ten minits, as well as quite unable to do anything, due to his injured leg.

When you went running out after those guards, I was too scared to follow you. I didn’t want you to endanger your life, but I was too scared to follow.”

It doesn’t matter.” Jack said, “I did it, we’re safe, and now we should forget about it. I love you just as you are, no different. Remember that much.”

Qwerty smiled back, and then she added, “I love you too.”

Chapter 16

Qwerty got up and bent over to investigate Jack’s wound. It was still bleeding, so she got a large plaster out of her bag and put it over the cut.

You’re lucky it’s not deep, Jack.” she said, “The bullet only grazed your flesh.”

Good.” said Jack, relieved. At least the bullet-wound wasn’t too bad.

Can you walk?”

Jack tried to stand up, imbued with fresh confidence now that he knew that the wound wasn’t too deep. He pushed himself up with his hands, and then rested his weight on his left leg, and then carefully put down his right leg as well. He then hobbled about a bit. A fresh burst of pain shot up his leg the first time he made a step, but after that, it was fine.

Just about.” he said, “I might make it.”

Good.” said Qwerty, “In that case, let’s go over and talk to Mr Blake.”

Jack held onto Qwerty’s arm and hobbled forwards over the floor. He felt a bit embarrassed at suddenly being an invalid, but he was sure that Qwerty didn’t care too much about the extra work.

When they were about halfway across the room, Blake looked up from what he was reading.

You ok?” he asked to Jack, and Jack replied with a hopeful nod.

Blake then casually walked over towards them. He still seemed very nervous about something, and his eyes kept darting from place to place.

Can we ask you something?” Qwerty asked, as politely as she could.

Sure.” said Blake, with apparent ease with the two of them. “But first”, he said, before Qwerty could answer, “Can I ask you something?”

Ok.” said Jack before Qwerty could say anything. Qwerty gave him a short glare, but Jack shrugged his shoulders and grinned sheepishly, making Qwerty turn away.

Well…” started Blake, a bit unsure of what to say, “I don’t mean to be rude, but the two of you aren’t very old are you? What kind of country hires teenagers for their spying work?”

Jack looked to Qwerty for encouragement, but she didn’t say anything, so he replied, “Well… we don’t actually work for a country. We spy for ourselves.”

What do you mean?”

I can’t really tell you the details, but… Let’s put it this way: we both have personal feuds against the Nationalists and we’re trying to stop them in their plans. If that involves telling another nation, so be it.”

What type of plans?” asked Blake, as if he was testing them to see how much they knew.

Don’t say too much! Qwerty mouthed to Jack, as he spoke, “We heard about a secret weapon of the Nationalists’ and we wanted to find out about it and try to stop it. We found out a little bit from some sources, but we wanted to come in the flesh.”

I see.” said Blake, and then stopped himself from pushing a bit further, “Now, I assume you want to ask me a couple of things.”

Yes.” said Qwerty, interrupting, “What were you doing here, first of all? And why are you acting so friendly towards us?”

Why am I here? Because I wanted to find out things I didn’t know. You see, (you’ll probably be really surprised at this), but I am only a puppet Premier. I am not the most important person in this government at all. In fact, I’m probably the weakest. They all just use me so that they don’t draw unneeded attention to themselves.”

Yes, we knew all that. At least, the bit about you being a puppet.” said Jack.

In fact, we knew that long ago.” added Qwerty.

Really?” Blake asked, “How?”

Neither Jack nor Qwerty were willing to answer, so Jack just said, “We knew. Does it matter?”

Not really, I suppose.” said Blake, “But anyway, you see, I am always ignored whenever the more important people in the government want to do something. Recently, Pineau, (you know him? He’s the foreign Secretary), said that (and you will be surprised at this) we, the Americans, were going to invade Greco-America.”

We knew that as well.” said Jack.

How do you know all these things?” Blake asked again, “C’mon, there must be some way. Or are you just having me on and don’t know anything at all?

Even though Blake had shared a bit with them, Jack still wasn’t entirely confident in trusting him, so Jack just repeated the answer he had given previously.

I wasn’t sure about Pineau’s plans.” Blake continued, “I wondered how the weak American army could do such things. So I was suspicious, and now, when Pineau and some of the other government officials have gone to the front, which you probably already know–”

Jack nodded in confirmation.

“–I thought it would be perfect to try and find out what this plan was all about. I didn’t know that Pineau would have hired guards to protect his room from spies.”

I see.” said Qwerty, “It seems like you came for probably the same purpose as we did.”

And that is…”

To find out about the weapon and how to stop it.”

Ok.” said Blake, “Can I ask, what is your exact purpose? What are you planning to do after this?”

Well,” said Jack, “We both are Missourian but have lived in America for most of our lives, and we were thinking that we could possibly give the information we get to Missouri, who might be able to stop it from happening.”

Blake had a thoughtful look on his face, “I wonder if you could….”

*******

Around half-a-noon later, a deal had been arranged and Jack found no reason not to trust Blake. Him and Qwerty shared snippets of their life and what they had done, and then they got on with finding out information about the weapon from the desk that Pineau had.

They got up, and walked – or hobbled, in Jack’s case – over to the table of information. Blake and Jack sifted through the papers on the desk, whilst Qwerty went over to search the dead men for anything useful. After finding nothing there, she came over to help Jack and Blake.

The desk was a mess: it didn’t seem as if it had been properly tidied up before, and nothing seemed to be in the place where it should have been.

Most of the papers were coded, and were impossible to decipher in such a short amount of time, so they left them alone, but of the ones that were not coded – letters, and so forth – they took pictures of and made notes about them. A few of the diagrams they also took pictures of, and some of the coded papers that seemed more important. When they got back, they could examine the pictures.

Jack found he was really interested at the things he read about the weapon: how it could control people’s actions and all that. He was also interested in how it worked, by connecting up to the person’s mind and gradually disabling it until the mind did as the signal told it to do. He wondered whether that was the thing that had attacked his mind all those weeks ago when he had been going home from France’s house.

He picked up a sheet of paper that read about the history of how the weapon had been made. He read the first few paragraphs, and then Qwerty brushed past him, accidentally knocking the sheet of paper out of his hand.

Sorry.” she mumbled, before getting on and looking for anything else to find.

Jack bent down to get the paper. It was only a small sheet, with nothing interesting on it, but he picked it up all the same. The paper had floated underneath the table, so Jack got onto his knees. He reached out, and took hold of the paper. He pulled himself from under the table. He tried to lift himself up and get back up onto his feet.

Suddenly, he lost control.

*******

It was identical to what happened those weeks ago: he felt an “attack” on his mind. Only this time, it happened quickly and abruptly. There was no warning, and absolutely no way he could defend himself: before he knew it, he was sent into a trance-like state.

This time, however, it was different. There was no compulsion to do anything except nothing. He just was forced to do… nothing. He could still see and hear, and even feel, but he had no control over his body: when his head was turned, he wasn’t trying to control himself to do it.

He couldn’t move: he was left in his original state of what he had been in when he was attacked: the paper was still outstretched in his arm, and he couldn’t move.

But he was scared: he knew that now, if he was forced to, he could stab Qwerty or Blake and not be able to stop himself. He wouldn’t even be able to say anything to warn them.

What’s going on? He thought. He wondered if the weapon the Americans had started on the coast was starting to work, and that he was controlled by it. But surely it wouldn’t have so large range? He wondered whether, if that was the case, Qwerty was being affected as well.

His voice, however, clearly told him that she wasn’t. She exclaimed suddenly, “Jack, what’s up?”

Jack badly wanted to turn his head and scream “I’m Being Attacked!” but he couldn’t. He couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t even signal to her. Forced to stare out blankly, it seemed like he had blankly ignored her.

What’s up?” she repeated, “Jack, you got a problem?”

She bent down to look at him. Jack smiled internally when he saw her, but his face didn’t change. Scarily, he couldn’t control anything about himself, and he certainly couldn’t move.

Mr Blake, what’s wrong with Jack?” Qwerty asked after a couple of seconds, “He’s not moving, and he’s staring out blankly.”

I’m being attacked! Jack wanted to say, I don’t know what you can do! Just get away so I don’t stab you! But Qwerty, obviously, didn’t hear anything. Jack started to panic as he wondered if he would be forced to attack either Qwerty or Blake: what would happen? Would he kill them? Would they kill him?

Jack heard Blake reply to Qwerty, “Why, what’s wrong?”

Qwerty replied, “He’s not moving. He’s not acknowledging me.” and then she said to Jack, “If this is a joke, stop it now!”

But it wasn’t a joke. And, worst thing was, Jack knew that he couldn’t stop it. It pained him to see Qwerty being so worried, but he knew that he personally could do nothing about it. He would just have to hope that somehow Qwerty did something, anything, to stop it.

Afraid, he thought of how long it would go on for. The last one had gone on for about ten minits before Jack had fallen asleep, but then it could have been on for about three noons. If this went on for three noons….. he dreaded the thought. What could happen?

AARGH! He screamed inside himself, Can’t this stop or something? What’s going on? WHAT IS GOING ON TO ME? Why am I like this, and why now? Why couldn’t it have happened at another time?

Afraid, he wondered if it was a trick defence set by Pineau to catch people who spied on his study: a defence to stop spies from taking any information. But if that was the case, then why had Jack felt it before? Why had it happened?

Outside him, Jack heard Qwerty – he couldn’t see her any more – get into more and more of a panic.

What if he can’t breathe?! Is he going to die? What’s happened to him? Is Pineau going to come back and kill him? Will he ever recover?”

I’m sure he will recover.” said Blake, calmly but uncertainly, “He’s probably just fainted or something. That happens a lot to people who have just had a serious injury like he has.”

In that case, will he wake up if we pour water on his head?” asked Qwerty, panicking.

I’d expect so. But it would be best to leave him for a few minits in case he wakes up normally.” Blake replied.

But the last sentence was wasted on Qwerty. She ran to her backpack and took out a bottle of water, dumping the water all over Jack’s body.

Jack felt the cold liquid running down his head and then his body, but it didn’t make a difference: he didn’t “wake up”. He had almost given up hope and was waiting for it to wear off. Inside himself, he could feel himself getting more tensed up and afraid all the time.

And then, very suddenly, Jack panicked internally. He lost control over all his feelings and started internally screaming. “WHAT’S GOING ON?” He had no idea. He didn’t understand what was going on, and he started going crazy until eventually he blacked out.

*******

When he came to, the first thing he heard was Qwerty’s sobbing tears, “Is he going to die?”

I’m not sure.” repeated Blake, and it seemed from his voice like the hundredth time he had answered that question.

Jack tried to gasp for breath, and he was overjoyed when it actually worked. Yes, I can control myself again! He thought to himself in joy. His joy was so sudden, so unexpected, that he threw himself up off the ground, flinging Qwerty, who had been lying down on his body, onto the floor.

You’re alive!” she said. The immense delight in her voice was apparent. “What happened?” she said.

I don’t know.” said Jack, “How are you? What time is it? How long has it been?”

But Qwerty didn’t listen to all of his questions. Instead, she threw herself onto his shoulder, hugging him tightly, and speaking through her tears, “You’re alive. You’re alive. You are alive.” It was almost as if she didn’t believe it and couldn’t believe it.

Yes I am.” said Jack, before pausing and then stating boldly, “And now we can go on together and do what we’ve got to do.”

Yes.” sobbed Qwerty in happiness, “Yes we will.”

With Qwerty’s head still resting on his shoulder, Jack turned to Blake. “What happened?” he asked.

That was what I was about to ask.” said Blake, “You go first. Then we’ll be able to understand fully what really happened.”

Ok,” said Jack, and he repeated all of what he was going to say, explaining about what had happened the weeks ago when he was going back to his room, and all that had happened, and how he passed out after a couple of minits.

When he had finished explaining, there was a short pause, and Qwerty said, “Wow. You are one weird guy. Super-hearing, extreme sight, able to take out four grown men by yourself with no weapons, and now this.”

Jack laughed, brushing it off as a joke. He didn’t understand it either, and he felt it would be best to keep silent. It was something he had to learn about himself, but he had no idea how to do it – that was the worrying thing.

Blake then outlined what had happened while Jack had been “unconscious.”. He explained how Qwerty had panicked and how he had been unsure about it all, and then he said how they had waited, worried, for about two noons, before finally Jack had come round and woken up.

Sorry.” Jack said, as he heard of the amount of emotional suffering he had put the two of them into.

No,” said Blake, “There’s no reason to say sorry. It’s clear that there wasn’t anything you could do about it.”

Even then, I still feel a little guilty.” said Jack. He then turned to Qwerty, “But anyway, how shall we get back to your house?” He had decided to stop investigating for the night: it was too late for that.

Before Qwerty could answer, Blake interrupted, “Oh, I’m sure that I can arrange it.”

*******

About a noon later, Jack and Qwerty, totally tired out, stumbled back into Qwerty’s house, after being brought home in a car from the Greyham Building.

They threw their backpacks down on the floor and rolled to where they were sleeping: Qwerty in her bed, and Jack in his sleeping bag on the floor. They were too tired to do anything else, and, in about ten minits, they were both fast asleep.

Chapter 17

Jaime followed Pineau down the corridor, afraid. Could he have found out….? More than once, Jaime considered his prospects of escaping, but he could see that there would be no chance of succeeding. There were far too many guards about and he would almost certainly be caught or killed.

His last and only hope was that Pineau wasn’t calling him because he was going to frame him as a spy: after all, as far as he knew, Jaime was the only person who had been able to resist the effect of the weapon. Pineau could be asking him about that. But still…. it’s unlikely. And this is very worrying.

If only the government were watching….Jaime considered to himself. At least they would know what was going on, and then Jaime could try to get out. But they weren’t watching. And Jaime would have to use his own instincts to get out of it.

Although he wouldn’t have liked to admit it to anyone, Jaime knew that he was scared. He was scared. Never before had he ever been scared, not even when he had gone through the Greyham Building to free his parents or when he first heard that his parents were going to be executed.

But now, he was scared. What’s so different about now? But Jaime knew. Now, Pineau probably knew. They knew. All the time, Jaime had had the benefit of surprise: when he was breaking into Pineau’s cabin, when he went into the Greyham Building to free his parents, when he revealed his presence to Missouri: he had had the element of surprise. But now… it was Pineau with the element of surprise and all of the plans: Jaime just had to try to get out of it.

Pineau, with his vice-like grip, led Jaime along the corridors towards his own private office. Jaime scanned the corridors for any escape route or anything that he could use but there was none. The walls were blank The only way out was back – into the main hall and all of the guards. Jaime realised that Pineau had a genius mind – this would make his room almost impossible for spies. Unlike his cabin.

Eventually, Pineau opened the door of his office, which must have been about 10 metres underground, from what Jaime could tell. They had been going downhill from the main hall, and they had travelled quite a distance, so it must be approaching ten metres underground.

At this depth, Jaime thought, surely there wasn’t just one way out? Surely Pineau had built in a second exit, a fire exit, an exit to be used if there was any disaster? He would have to look out and find it.

Pineau led Jaime through the doorway and then shut the door behind him, leaving the guards outside. If it goes to a one-on-one fight, at least it’ll be me against him. If it comes to that, and it’s a big if, then I’ll win.

Pineau placed himself down on one of the chairs in his office, and Jaime sat across him on the other side of the desk. Pineau – or someone working for Pineau – had carefully made sure that none of the important documents that Pineau had in the room were exposed to Jaime from where Jaime sat. So, from Jaime’s position, he couldn’t see anything.

For a moment, there was silence. Pineau stared at Jaime with his inscrutable gaze, not betraying anything: hate, malice, pride, or any other emotion. Jaime tried to show the same in return: a gaze giving nothing away. No fear, no hate, no emotion.

At that time, Pineau had not yet explained to Jaime what they were doing there: Jaime was still not sure if Pineau was exposing him, or just giving him an extra command as an ordinary soldier.

Although, the more Jaime thought of it, it seemed more and more likely that Pineau knew: the guards, no escape routes, and now this examination.

But Jaime had hope: as far as he knew, Pineau had no evidence of Jaime breaking into his cabin. Jaime’s pride wouldn’t let him to consider that he had not missed an aspect of security in Pineau’s cabin. Thus, as there was no evidence, if Jaime could hide everything about himself well enough, he might, just might, be able to get off scot-free. Maybe.

After about a minit of meeting each other’s gaze, Pineau started speaking, in a very emotionless tone of voice.

Jaime Thorn?”

Jaime nodded.

Pineau went on, with a low voice that reminded Jaime of a viper, “You were the only person to avoid control by the machine today.”

There was nothing Jaime could really say in reply to that, so he just stated, “Really?”

Pineau didn’t answer, but went on, “You see, this is a very interesting thing to me. Have you any idea why you managed to resist this whilst numerous others succumbed?”

Jaime knew exactly why that was the case: the Missourian control, but he didn’t say the truth, “Not really.”

No reason at all?” Pineau asked, almost daring Jaime to come at him with any excuse possible.

Jaime racked his brains to create a valuable excuse, “I remember something now. It might not be of any relevance, but there might be something that contributed to that.”

He paused, trying to buy some time for himself. Pineau told him to get on with what he was going to say.

When I was young,” Jaime finally said, “my uncle tried to get me to learn to ignore pain. I was jabbed in parts of my body until I learnt how to not feel them anymore. I don’t know why he did it: I was very young then, only about six or seven. I guess that this is something like this: I somehow learnt how to resist it.” He sat back on his seat, proud at how reasonable his excuse sounded.

I see.” said Pineau, again betraying no emotion and giving Jaime no hint of whether Jaime had convinced him, “The reason why I brought you here, if you want to know, is because there has been a couple of security breaks on the site recently. And I wanted to ask you to see what you knew of them.”

Ok.” said Jaime, “But why pick me? Why not anyone else?”

Well, I wanted anybody.” said Pineau, his tone of voice not changing but still flickering out of his voice viciously, “But I felt that, if I chose you, then I could congratulate you on your achievements at the same time.”

Ok.” said Jaime, “Thank you.”

Pineau ignored his thanks, and continued on,“Like I said, There has been two major security incidents on the site, and we want to find out the culprit. I want you to tell me if you know anything about them.”

Jaime looked into Pineau’s harsh gaze, and suddenly realised what Pineau was trying to do. Pineau was trying to see any emotion on Jaime’s face, and trap him that way. It would be a perfect way to see whether Jaime was guilty or not. Knowing this, Jaime steeled himself up, attempting to control his emotions as well as he could.

The first,” Pineau continued, staring straight in Jaime’s eyes and not letting him get away with anything, “was when a man took off from the camp. He managed to get straight past the guards at the exits without them noticing him. This might not seem too odd, but the thing that makes this so worrying is that the man managed to escape using an important one of our American gadgets: a gadget that seems to make the man invisible by bending the light rays.”

Jaime tried to hide his emotions and appear mildly surprised as he said, “Oh. I’m sorry, but I know nothing about that. What are you going to do about it?” Invisible? He would have to tell the Missourians about that – if he made it out.

Pineau ignored Jaime’s question. Instead, he stared inscrutably at Jaime and continued, “The second one was when my own personal cabin was broken into. The person left absolutely no trace of themselves except one thing, which I cannot tell you.”

Jaime’s thoughts moved quickly, and he panicked inwardly for a moment. However, he tried to control himself and appear with exactly the same look as he had had previously. It was difficult, but he thought he had succeeded.

Pineau then said, “Do you know anything about that event?”

No,” said Jaime, hoping that his voice wouldn’t betray him, “If I did, I would tell you.”

Hmmm,” said Pineau, sitting back in his chair in an attempt to give a more relaxed feel to the conversation. It failed. “Let’s talk about you.” he said, “Were you sent into a house as a child, or were you raised by your parents?”

Jaime quickly tried to remember his cover story he and the Missourians had made up. “No.” he remembered, “In the area where we live, there are no houses within close range, so my parents had to bring me up.”

And how are your parents?” Pineau asked, “What is their names?”

They were killed by a Missourian raid when I was four.” Jaime said, “And then I was brought up by my uncle. I can’t remember their names.”

Oh, I am sorry to hear that.” said Pineau, although his eyes betrayed just the opposite emotion, “And what was your job before joining the army?”

And so it went on. Pineau was constantly asking Jaime questions, trying to catch him out in some way and get Jaime to admit to being a spy, but at the same time Pineau made sure that he acted close to normal, in case Jaime was just an innocent citizen: which he wasn’t.

Jaime had to use all of his mental self-control to control himself to avoid betraying anything that would prove to Pineau that he was not what he said he was.

Pineau kept it up for nearly a noon, without relenting in any way. Jaime wondered how Pineau could do it: how he kept pressing for a weakness in Jaime’s defence from hiding his true identity. It must have been tiring work for Pineau, yet he showed no stress or annoyance on his face.

Eventually, however, Pineau stopped. He ushered Jaime to get up from his seat and out of the room – where the guards were no more – and sent Jaime on his way, following him all the way up to the main hall.

It was nice talking to you, Mr Thorn.” Pineau said when they had got there, politely but untruthfully.

And you too, Mr Pineau.” said Jaime in return, equally politely and equally untruthfully.

There was an awkward silence, and then Jaime went on his way back to his barracks. When he got there, he was told off by the commander of his barracks until Jaime told the man what he had been doing. After that, the man regretted what he said. Jaime, however, didn’t feel like an argument and ignored the fact that he could have reported the commander had he wanted to.

Instead, he went back to the small area where he had his bed and belongings. Soon after, he got into the bed, and wondered about what he should do the next day: what would be the best thing to do? Should he run away or should he see how the invasion would go?

*******

So.” said De Bran to Pineau, “How was it?”

It was very difficult,” Pineau said, “What he said makes me in doubt, but still… I am still quite convinced that he is the one.”

I see.” said De Bran, “What makes you think that?”

I’m not sure.” said Pineau, “His name, for one. The fact that he managed to resist the weapon is another. The excuse that he gave was inadequate as well.”

How are you going to act?” De Bran asked, “What will you do about this issue?”

I think I’d leave it for now.” Pineau said, “If he is what he says he is, then doing anything against him would be immoral. I wouldn’t want to kill an innocent like that.”

You’ve done it before.” De Bran pointed out, “Many, many times.”

That was because they were in my way.” Pineau said. “This man isn’t. But the name Thorn….. surely the boy isn’t this old? Or did he have a brother?”

We shall see, later in the month, when we see the boy. And if there is any resemblance… we will then know.” De Bran said.

And talking about the boy, what has he been up to?” Pineau asked further.

I haven’t talked to my man for a while,” said De Bran, “But as far as he says, the boy has not got up to anything as yet.”

Ok.” said Pineau, “pay a closer watch on his actions, will you? The consequences if the boy says anything could be… meteoric.”

I will do.” said De Bran, making a mental note to do so.

Good.” said Pineau, “And by the way, I need you to go back to Nashville to clear up a couple of things.”

When?”

As soon as possible, preferably now.”

Now? But it’s so late at night. And I’ll miss tomorrow.”

Relatively, it doesn’t matter.” Pineau said, “The thing is, there seems to be some type of commotion in the building tonight. I just go the messages coming in. Blake seems to have left his room…”

Is that all?” said De Bran mockingly, “You want me to go back to Nashville for THAT?”

No, there is more.” Pineau said, “The code for my room has been unlocked, and I have had no routine response from my guards who have looked after my office. One of the government cars was sent out by Blake, but not driven by Blake, and the cameras seemed to have been fed a loop somewhere along the line. It seems like a lot has happened.”

Ok.” said De Bran, “What do you want me to do when I get back?”

Investigate immediately, no matter how tired you are. And tell me everything you find. If my suspicions are correct, a lot more is worse than it seems.”

Ok.” said De Bran.

Get kitted, and leave straight away.” said Pineau, “Get one of the motor cars. They are the fastest we have, and I want to get this cleared up as soon as possible.”

Sure.” said De Bran, limiting his speech to as short as he could.

He then went back to his office and got everything he needed. It seemed as if the Greyham Building had had an invader, but whoever it was seemed to have avoided leaving a trail. Or, of course, it could have been a short security failure. Either way, it was best for him to be back at the building, even if it was just to keep control. He would regret missing the big day, but still…. duty comes above enjoyment.

Soon enough, he was on his way, moving south-east towards Nashville. There was no traffic on the roads, and he would hopefully be back there in three noons, which, whilst not long enough to be able to catch the offenders – if there was any – red-handed, he would still be able to be seeing things soon after they had happened.

Chapter 18

The journey back to Nashville was uneventful, as De Bran had been expecting. There was hardly any traffic, and the sleek car that he had been given was easily able to make the journey in just a couple of noons.

After entering Nashville, De Bran’s car purred through the streets, heading towards the Greyham Building. De Bran kept his eyes open for anything interesting, but he saw nothing that got him intrigued. After all, it was a bit too late now if there had been any disturbances in the Greyham Building earlier in the night.

When De Bran parked the car in the garage, he looked around for the car that Pineau had said Blake had taken. It was there, parked in the place where it normally was kept. Wherever Blake had been, it was clear that he hadn’t been out long. Seeing a woman perhaps? It wasn’t really De Bran’s place to speculate.

He walked into the house, making as little sound as was necessary. De Bran didn’t really want everyone to know of his appearance: best to catch anyone who wasn’t expecting him by surprise.

Once he had shut the door behind him, he climbed up the staircase to the areas of the Building where everything was. As he was walking up, he yawned, tiredly. He corrected himself, however: he knew that he shouldn’t be tired, despite the long day. It was his job not to be tired.

The first place that De Bran went to was the control desk of all the cameras in the building. It was on the third floor, and was a very small room. A man called Hugh Lewes had run it for the last five years, and had done a very good job, keeping out all intruders. Until today.

De Bran eventually got to the control room after quite a brisk walk through the corridors and staircases of the Building, which was a maze to all who didn’t know it. When he got to the door of the room, De Bran pushed in without knocking.

Mr De Bran!”, Hugh Lewes said after seeing De Bran, seemingly relieved that it was only him and not another intruder, “Mr Pineau said that you would be coming, though I wasn’t expecting you so soon. I was expecting you tomorrow, after… the demonstration.”

Yes, Hugh.” De Bran replied, “But he told me to come to examine the mysterious happenings that happened this night immediately.”

Hugh looked a little bit aggrieved, and he said, “He could have told me to.”

I know he could have, but…” said De Bran, “he told me to do it. Anyway, what is this about a loop?”

Yes, a loop.” said Hugh, “All of the cameras in the building were fed a loop in succession. We can trace the route of the invaders from it, as they only looped the cameras in the area of the building they were going through.” As he said this, he drew his finger along a map layout of the building.

When did you find this out?” De Bran asked.

About three noons ago.” said Hugh anxiously, “Way after the invaders had left, so, unfortunately, I couldn’t do anything. But there is something interesting about today.”

What?”

Can you keep a secret?” Hugh asked, “We don’t want everyone knowing this. If this falls into the wrong hands…”

Yes,” said De Bran, impatiently, “You know that I can keep secrets! What is it you want to say?”

Well, we have surveillance of Mr Blake tonight. He left his room, which was of no real interest really, and went downstairs. He then, and this is the interesting bit, walked directly to Mr Pineau’s office. This was a separate incident from the loops that we got later on, so we could see all that he did on the cameras.”

What? Blake went into Jean’s office?” De Bran asked, surprised.

Yes,” said Hugh, sighing from the events of the evening, “But that’s not actually the odd part. The odd part is that he never came out.”

But that’s impossible! That’s him, there, isn’t it?” De Bran pointed at the surveillance camera of Blake’s bedroom, where Blake lay in his bed asleep.

Yes, it is. That is certainly Mr Blake, unless there is something serious.” said Hugh.

Isn’t it serious enough already?” asked De Bran. “A loop and intruders and Blake going into Mr Pineau’s office isn’t something to be trifled with, you know!”

I suppose that, yes, it is. But if that isn’t Blake it is even more serious.” said Hugh, “You see, we lost him as he went into Mr Pineau’s room and found him again about four noons later, walking into the building after being outside.”

This means,” Hugh continued, “that we have three options. One, that Mr Blake is still in Mr Pineau’s office and that it is an imposter in his room. But that seems highly unlikely, because why would the intruder just go into Blake’s room and lie down to sleep?”

The second option,” Hugh continued, “is that Mr Blake was in the office and came out with the people who fed the loop (from what I can tell they went into the office too), feeding a loop on the way out. He then went outside for some reason, and came inside. When he came inside the loop was no longer being fed. This seems the most likely option.”

Yes, it does.” said De Bran.

Thirdly,” continued Hugh, “Mr Blake could have somehow got out from Mr Pineau’s office onto the ground outside and then come in that way. Again, this is unlikely, especially how the office has no windows that Mr Blake could have fit through.”

From what you say, it is clear that the second option is the only one that could have realistically happened.” De Bran said, “Is there anything else you know about this? Because this is a serious incident, you know. It could be catastrophic to our nation if you don’t tell me everything you know.”

To be honest, there is not much else.” Hugh said.

Not much?” De Bran asked.

All right, nothing else.”

Have you examined everything?”

I haven’t but Jung and Vince have. They saw nothing, but of course they couldn’t get into the office because of the security code.”

Ok.” said De Bran. He was about to tell Hugh about there being no reply from the private guards, but he decided not to. Hugh might have felt a little bit aggrieved at Pineau apparently showing not total trust in him by hiring other guards, and it was also best not to tell Hugh anything that he didn’t need to know. The only way to keep power was to hide every last bit of information that a person didn’t need to know. If you only said what was necessary, then you were unlikely to let enemy agents to know things that they shouldn’t know.

I’m going to go into the office now.” De Bran said, after making his mind up, “Watch if anything happens to me on the way.”

Will do.” said Hugh, “Would you like to take a camera on your body, in case anything happens to you in the office?”

No.” said De Bran, “Pineau won’t let any cameras into his office, so he won’t want me to do that.”

Sure.” said Hugh, and De Bran turned away, out of the room. “Good luck.” Hugh said as De Bran was leaving.

De Bran thought about the issue he was faced with as he walked out of the room. It was certainly more than just a system failure, that much was certain. How Blake had avoided the cameras showed that there was much more to it than that.

But, the question was, would there be any evidence about who had got in, apparently so easily? They must have been skilled spies. If only he would be able to find out which country they were from. It was probably Missouri anyway, but still…. it would be better if there was some concrete evidence.

So what was Blake doing?, De Bran considered as he was walking down the stairs onto the second floor. Why was he wanting to spy on Pineau? Surely he wasn’t working for another country as well? He was surely too weak-minded for that. Either way, I’ll tell Pineau and we’ll see what will be best to be done.

De Bran had worked out nothing more by the time he had got to the office. Nothing new had been learnt. He pushed open the door, as he always did, and then keyed in the security code. As he was doing so, he wondered how Blake would have known the code. Probably by seeing it somewhere Pineau or himself had left lying about.

When the long chain of numbers that formed the code had been keyed in, De Bran pushed the second door forwards, making as little noise as possible. There was still the likelihood of enemies being in there after all.

Nothing met him immediately, so he moved his hand over to the switch, and turned on the light. Immediately, he gasped, his worst fears confirmed. He cursed loudly, and then got out his Zonemaster. He immediately tried to get on a video conversation directly to Pineau.

Soon afterwards, Pineau answered. “What is it?” he asked.

I’m back in your office.” said De Bran in reply, “and we have a problem. A big problem.”

*******

Jaime stretched his arms as he woke up. His training told him to immediately wake himself up because he had important things to do, so he did.

He tumbled out of bed, changed his clothes, and then drew back the curtains that had surrounded his bed. He took his Zonemaster and other important things with him, and then went out of the room.

He had a noon of spare time before breakfast and then the invasion, and so he checked his Zonestation to see what his orders were from Missouri.

Again, the message was subtly coded. Any mention of home meant to come home, any mention of a time meant that that would be the time they would control him, any mention of a camera meant that he would have to be on surveillance, and any “thanks” mean true thanks.

To Jaime

Good to hear from you. All of us back home are keeping ok, it’s all been very good on the farm recently, with some good weather as well.

Theo wants me to tell you how thankful he is for the gift that you gave him for his birthday: apparently it’s coming in handy.

Anyway, hope to see you soon,

Marsh and all of the others at home.

Jaime went over the message again: it meant that he should be going back to Missouri, as soon as possible, because of the amount of references to home there was. There also was some appreciation for what he had done, it seemed.

Jaime sent a message back,

Hi Marsh,

Good to hear that the farm’s being getting on well. I’m quite missing the farm and all of the animals there.

Anyway, tell Theo that it was no big deal: I was only doing what a good “uncle” should do to their nephews: it was not hard work at all.

From, Jaime.

Jaime sent the message on after examining what he said: he would be coming back, and that he was only doing his duty. He thought the last bit would appease the Missourians and make them happier with him and his whole attitude.

Jaime then did some body-building for about half-a-noon, and then he went to have breakfast. He thought that it would be for the best to make an escape after breakfast, when nobody would be expecting it.

After breakfast, which was okay, the whole of the army was told to go to their barracks and pack everything away. Jaime had already done all that, but he was still told to go to his barracks anyway. There was no way to argue without causing unnecessary and unwanted fuss, so he had gone and obeyed the command.

That delayed him further: he wanted to escape as soon as possible, but at the same time without drawing much attention to himself and causing trouble for himself as a result.

He got his opportunity about half-a-noon afterwards. It was quite an obvious method, but it would still work for himself, Jaime felt.

The whole army was assembled on the edge of the camp to march. Jaime’s group was towards the back, and there was a large area of open ground behind them.

Jaime mumbled something about needing the toilet to his commander, and the commander let him go reluctantly. He gave Jaime a loud ticking off, but Jaime was free to go, “as long as you will be back in five minits.”

Jaime wasn’t planning on being back in five minits: in fact, he wasn’t planning on being back. He walked to the toilet cubicles and, when he was out of sight behind a truck, he sprinted away northward, to where the Missourian transport should be.

Jaime ran for only about twenty seconds before he saw the first guard: it was a young guy, about seventeen to eighteen years old.

Hey!” the guard shouted from a distance, spotting Jaime. He seemed to be alone, so Jaime didn’t want to kill him if possible. “What are you doing?”

Jaime ignored him, and continued on, running in the direction of the guard as that was the quickest way northward.

Are you escaping?” asked the guard when Jaime was close enough.

No!” said Jaime, racking his brains to think of a reasonable excuse, “I’m meant to look north for a Missourian spy who escaped last night.”

Ok.” said the guard, who by now was level with Jaime. “But why are you by yourself?”

Because I’m the only one fast enough.” Jaime said impatiently, “Now, I’m going, we mustn’t let the spy get away.”

Yes.” said the guard, and Jaime heard him mutter, “You look like Jack… Sounds like Jack too, just bigger.”

Jack? Jaime wondered whilst he was running, hoping that nobody was chasing him. Must just be the guard’s imagination. He didn’t seem to be a terribly good guard, letting Jaime through that easily. However, the thought kept bickering on his mind, until he suddenly had another thought. Jack. Is that my brother? We might look similar. And sound similar.

Jaime turned around, and ran back to the guard, who was taking up one of the tents. In fact, he didn’t seem to be a guard at all but instead he seemed to be someone left behind to clear up the site.

Wait.” said Jaime, “You mentioned Jack.”

You know him?” the guy asked.

Jaime didn’t answer, “Who’s Jack? He might be someone I’m looking for, that’s all.”

You mean Jack is the Missourian spy? Jack wouldn’t do that! He’s a loyal American!” the man said. He seemed a little bit crazy.

No!” said Jaime, “The Missourian spy is another guy.” Me. “Jack is someone else I’ve been looking for for ages. We were best friends, until he went somewhere. Since then, I’ve been looking for him. The reason why I was wondering was that Jack was very similar-looking to me. I’ve been looking for him for ages.” Not exactly true. In fact, not true at all. I’ve only been looking for him the last few months anyway.

Huh?” said the guard, surprised. “No, you haven’t got the right guy. Jack’s a dude in North Nashville house who I knew until I joined the army. He must be about fourteen now.”

Thanks.” said Jaime, “No, he’s not the right guy.”

Jaime then ran off, leaving the bewildered man behind, unsure about who Jaime was. Jaime wanted to leave it that way.

But Jack… it seemed like it was his brother: it was around the right age, and the right house: North Nashville was the closest to where his parents had stayed. And they looked similar, apparently. There was no harm in just going to Nashville and checking if it was the right person, was there? It would only take a couple of minutes to locate “Jack” in one of the small houses. Jaime knew that if he was wrong, then there was no problem – and he would be able to stay away from the Missourians for longer.

And if he was right, then he would have found his brother: it was a win-win. If Jack was the one, then Jaime would be able to tell him about who his parents were and try to convince Jack to come back to Missouri.

Jaime decided to go to Nashville for Jack, and he altered course, heading south-west towards Nashville. He thought that he would be there that afternoon, if he managed to keep up his pace.

Chapter 19

Jack woke up very late. The previous night had been really long, and he was absolutely tired. When he eventually awoke, Qwerty was already up, and, from the smells that he could sense, she was cooking breakfast for the two of them – at least, he hoped it was for both of them.

Jack, still very tired, felt like staying in his sleeping bag for a bit longer, and so he did. As he dozed, he heard and took in all of the sounds around him: there were a lot more sounds here than by his house in North Nashville. This was mainly because Qwerty’s house was very proximate to the main Nashville street, and the sound of the cars on the main road from her house was painfully loud.

When Qwerty finally noticed that Jack was awake, she said, “You getting up?”

Jack pulled himself out of his bag, and said, “Yeah.” When he pulled his body and clothes out of his sleeping bag, he saw that he was wearing his ordinary clothes instead of his pyjamas. Remembering why, he thought back to the events of the past night.

Do you think they can trace us?” he asked, more to himself than to Qwerty.

Who?”

The government. Tracing what we did yesterday.” Jack replied.

Doubt it.” said Qwerty, “I was very careful, and the systems weren’t hard to block. But, just in case, I guess we should just check on the computer of the government.”

Haven’t you done that already?” asked Jack, surprised.

Stupidly, no. I forgot to think of it until just then.”

Hmm.” said Jack, putting on a disapproving tone of voice.

Folding up his sleeping bag, he then went over to where Qwerty was turning on her hacking device. As she was doing so, she patted it lovingly, saying as a matter-of-fact,

This is my best creation.”

It’s done a fine lot of good for us.” Jack agreed as the large grey box whirred, “What does it consist of? I mean, what did you put together to make it?”

Qwerty went into a geeky monotone as she explained, “The main part is an advanced receiver that can connect to all signals sent out. All computer systems send out a sort of signal, however well concealed. And this receiver can connect up to every one of those signals. Once connected, it just has a simple automatic download onto its hard-drive. It also has a inbuilt hacking system to hack through password-protected files.” It was clear that she was really pleased to be able to talk about what she liked best – making that sort of thing.

But as he thought about this, Jack suddenly realised how much the events of the past week had changed his whole life. Previously, he would have gone over the moon to be able to talk of such things such as this, but now… he felt no real excitement therein. There were far more serious things to deal with. His life, for example.

He talked to Qwerty about how his life has changed whilst she programmed the hacker to lock into the central core computer of the Greyham Building, at the same time as making sure that the breakfast wouldn’t burn.

To tell you the truth, I’ve certainly felt the same way,” she replied, “But personally I know that it is certainly a change for the better.”

Why do you say that?” Jack asked, interested. He hadn’t thought it to be a change for the better at all: in fact, he certainly felt it was a change for the worse. He just wanted to be normal and live a normal life, not mix with all of this sort of things, such as spying and the like.

Isn’t it clear?” Qwerty asked with a kind of surprised expression on her face.

She waited a few moments for an answer, and when one didn’t come, she continued, “Jack, me and you are no longer little children. Is it right anymore for us to be sitting at home, only interested in having fun with our friends and learning about stuff? Yes, these are important things, but the only things?”

Surely,” she continued, “The two of us should be interested in far more important things than just this. I think that the fact that we are trying to change history is not something to be ashamed of, Jack.”

I wasn’t being ashamed of it.” Jack mumbled, but suddenly Qwerty had helped him to realise something he had never considered before. Why had he just been thinking that he should be back in the house, studying and organising trips to the park? France could do that, and he had far more important things to do than just that. Didn’t he want to do things? Yes, he wanted to be normal, but why not just a normal adult? Or could he never be normal?

Want some afvi?” Qwerty asked, walking back to the cooker and waking Jack back up to reality.

Yeah, that’ll be great, thanks.” said Jack, “I was just thinking of what you were saying.”

And? Do you agree?”

I couldn’t agree more.” Jack replied, smiling.

Qwerty smiled back, and Jack’s heart leapt as they met each other’s gaze. Her smile made him so… happy. It made him forget all of his other troubles.

They stared at each other, suddenly overjoyed, for around half a minit, until there was a loud mechanical beep as the machine came up with the results of the hack into the Greyham Building computer.

Qwerty turned around to go over to it. Jack followed, suddenly realising something. It was just that Qwerty… made him happy. Without her, he knew that he would never be able to survive.

Suddenly, she gasped at something she had just seen. Jack forgot all of his other thoughts and ran over to her.

What’s up?” he asked.

The invasion of Greece.”

What about it?”

It’s today.” Qwerty replied.

Today? Where does it say?” he asked, worried. All of those Greek people…

Yep. It’s today. That’s what it says here, and that’s what we should have known from the other stuff that we found out. It was obvious, really.”

Let’s see.” said Jack, but he knew that Qwerty was telling the truth. What will happen to those people?

Here.” Qwerty pointed out an announcement by De Bran, to be read by all of the employees at the building.

Jack read it quickly, his heart rate speeding up as he realised the implications. The Americans would be one step closer to Missouri. And how many innocents would be killed?

Oh no.” he said, “Please, please no.” His heart gripped in his mouth as he thought of all of the people that would be killed by the weapon that day.

Alas.” said Qwerty, “We should have done something to stop it last night.”

What could we have done?” Jack asked bitterly, “we should have stopped it a long time ago. When it wasn’t too late.”

Yeah.” Qwerty agreed. She looked as if she was going to say something, but she seemed to have thought better of it.

They stood, side-by-side, for a few minits, considering what was going to happen as a result of the weapon. Neither spoke, and Jack’s thoughts strayed from the invasion of Greece to Qwerty. He stared into her eyes, and found all sorts of happy emotions flowing into his heart – the direct opposites of what he felt of Greece.

She noticed him looking at her and turned to look at him.

I love you.” she said through tears that had come up due to her thoughts of Greece.

I love you too.” Jack replied, and he took her hand in his and squeezed.

Suddenly, Qwerty said loudly, “Stop that!”, and she pulled his hand away from his.

For a moment Jack was worried that Qwerty didn’t like him or something like that, but then he realised that she had only said that because he had been squeezing too hard.

Sorry.” he said.

What were you doing?” Qwerty asked, “Trying to break my hand or something?”

No.” said Jack, “I was just holding your hand like I normally would. I just seem to have got far more stronger recently.”

As well as having far stronger hearing, eyesight, and fighting ability.” Qwerty said seriously, “What’s happening to you Jack? Why are you changing like this?”

To tell you the truth,” said Jack, unsure whether Qwerty would believe him, “I have no idea. If I knew, I wouldn’t have squashed your hand like that.”

Ok. But how could it be happening? We don’t just naturally become far stronger like this.”

I know.” said Jack, “I just don’t understand it at all.”

She wasn’t trying to hurt his feelings, but Jack felt pained all the same. All he wanted was just to be normal. Super-strength and hearing might be fun sometimes, but he would do anything to be normal again, to live a normal life. And he certainly didn’t want another fit like what had happened the previous night.

Do they have anything about last night?” Jack eventually asked Qwerty, who was looking at her hacking machine for any extra information.

No, none at all. Either no-one has gone into Pineau’s study and found out or they all want to keep it hush-hush.”

The news worried Jack. “De Bran’s in the Building, isn’t he? Otherwise he wouldn’t have announced that other thing. Surely he must have gone into Pineau’s study…”

So it almost certainly isn’t the first option.” Qwerty finished.

And if it is the second option…”

Then they must know exactly who are the culprits: us and Blake. Otherwise, they wouldn’t want to keep it hidden.”

They might only think that it was Blake.” said Jack, more hopefully than anything else.

So you think they’d expect Blake to have been able to take out four guards alone?”

Well, the fact was that I did it, almost single-handedly.” Jack said, thinking back to when Blake had saved his life with the gun.

Yes, but that’s because you’re… special.” Qwerty said, hurting Jack as she said that more than she could have imagined. He just wanted to be normal, not special!

Maybe.” said Jack. “But there is a way we’ll find out.”

What?”

Well, De Bran is at the Building, isn’t he?”

Qwerty worked out what Jack was implying very quickly. “So you want us to hack into his Zonemaster?” she asked.

There’s no real other option. And we know exactly what number it is from our research, anyway.”

But we’ve never done a Zonemaster before…”

Why not now? What does it matter about his personal details? This is our safety, Missouri’s safety, we’re talking about!”

I know, but…” Qwerty was still reluctant.”

Why should we care about the personal preferences of one of our enemies?” Jack said, his feelings of stress and worry rising up to the forefront of his emotions, as he said, “This is important! His personal security and privacy isn’t. Get your perspective in line!”

Qwerty was a little bit offended, but she said, “Now you put it like that, I suppose we have to.” She then went over to the machine and keyed in a couple of controls.

Jack left her to it and ate the rest of his afvi, in an attempt to calm down. He was expectedly very hungry, considering how he hadn’t eaten for over twelve noons. It was very late for breakfast: more like lunch time!

Whilst he was eating, he considered what would be best to after the events of last night. If the government hadn’t found out, and it was a big if, it would probably be best to wait until they were meant to go to the Greyham Building due to their science results. Whilst there, they might be able to find out some things, and then maybe go to Missouri? It was just a good thing he had done well in the science exam.

The science exam. That now seemed an eternity away, in light of all that had happened since then. Jack wondered how he would describe all of the events to Stervum, if they even ever met up again. Stervum…. will I ever see you again? And if I do, will I enjoy it? What will you think of how I’ve changed?

Qwerty called Jack over as soon as the device had finished working. It was far quicker for the machine to get everything out of the Zonemaster than how long it had taken to connect to the main computer system, and after only a couple of minits it was finished.

Jack got up from the chair he had been sitting in and walked over. He looked over to where Qwerty was struggling with the file folders in the Zonemaster.

As more folders popped up onto the screen, Jack pointed one out to Qwerty,“Try “Recently Sent”.” he said.

Oh, that’s where it is.” said Qwerty, and she tapped into that folder on the screen.

So, what subject?” she asked when the folder loaded, “ ‘Re: Jaime Thorn’; ‘Re: A collection of funny animal pictures’; ‘Intruders’?”

Before Jack could reply, she had already opened the message titled, “Intruders”. But Jack’s heart had already leapt. “Jaime Thorn”? Could that be, could that somehow be…. his brother? And what was he doing in De Bran’s Sentbox? Jack wanted to know… everything. Even if it was just a random other person surnamed “Thorn”.

Could you go back?” Jack asked, wanting to find out what was contained in the other message.

Why?” Qwerty asked, “Isn’t it all here?”

I just wanted to look at one of the other messages, that’s all. The subject looked a little interesting.”

Do it later.” Qwerty answered, a little bit abruptly, “Read this now.”

Jack looked at the message that Qwerty had opened, and he read it, his heart pumping loudly in fear. He was afraid that the government might have been able to pinpoint it down to him, and that now they would have to escape for their lives.

The message was quite long, and addressed to Pineau. It was written in a pretty informal style, with some text formatting throughout.

However, it did not seem as if De Bran had managed to have been able to address the crime to Jack and Qwerty. He had mentioned to Pineau the dead bodies, and about Blake, but it seemed that he had not been able to trace anything to anybody but Blake.

That’s a relief.” said Jack, when they had finished reading. “I wonder what they’ll do to Blake though.”

Hopefully, not much.” said Qwerty, “But knowing them, something quite bad, unfortunately.”

Now we can just wait.” Jack said.

For what?” Qwerty asked in reply.

I was thinking…” Jack said, stating what he had just thought up, “about what we should do now that we have. I mean, I don’t see much of a need to go into the Greyham Building again, or to go to Missouri now. So what should we do?”

I don’t know, but you seem to. What’s your idea…?”

Well, I don’t know what you think of this, but I thought just to live a normal life again until we go to the Greyham Building for the science thing. We’ll try to find out stuff then, and then we can go on to Missouri…” he trailed off, unsure about what Qwerty would make of the idea, “Anyway, that sound any good to you?”

Qwerty thought about it for a while. It all seemed good to Jack: he would be able to live a “normal” life – or as normal as you could get in his situation – for a while, and in that time he could mentally prepare himself for life in Missouri.

It sounds good.” she eventually said, and there was silence for a couple of seconds, before Jack remembered the other message.

Could I check one of the other messages that De Bran sent?” he asked.

Sure.” said Qwerty, handing him the device.

Jack looked at the device for a couple of moments, trying to work out how it worked. He worked it out within seconds, and touched “Back” to De Bran’s Sentbox. From there, he opened the message.

It was also sent to Pineau, and contained the same blue text that De Bran had written in in the other message, but only was made up of a couple of sentences: “Ok. Will do that. I understand. But watchers don’t do nights, so won’t know.”. It was undoubtedly just a simple reply to Pineau’s original message.

Jack needed to find the original message, so he skimmed through the Zonemaster’s files whilst Qwerty had a shower. Jack was trying to locate De Bran’s Inbox. It seemed to be in a totally different location on the Zonemaster to the Sentbox, and it took him about ten minits to find it. Eventually, when he did locate the Inbox, he found the message that he was looking for quite easily. It was also from Pineau to De Bran, and wrote:

Frankie

Hope everything is going fine back at the building. I’m sure you could take control of everything, if needed.

The thing is, Jaime Thorn escaped from camp this morning: I am now certain he is a Missourian spy. We still have no idea how he managed to escape, but it seems like he did a simple trick to get past his commander and then past the guards on the frontier. We needed more security: the amount we had was pitiful if he could do so so easily.

If Missouri find out about our weapon, the results could be devastating, but at the moment it doesn’t seem as if Jaime Thorn is heading that way. Instead, he’s going back to Nashville from what our reports and pictures say.

He could be a Texan spy going through Nashville, but I doubt it, considering his parenthood and upbringing. He’s probably going to see his brother. Double the amount of watchers on the boy, and make sure the boy’s every movement is watched.

(And where was the boy last night? Something inside me makes me wonder if he could have been the one who managed to be the spy. If he is consorting with Missouri, then he needs to be eliminated immediately as well.)

Try to catch or kill Jaime if possible, but if not just make sure that you stop him from going to Missouri or to his brother. That is vital.

Jean.

Jack’s first thought was, “His brother?” Was that him, Jack, or someone else? But was Jack being watched? Pineau said to “double the amount of watchers”. That meant that he was – if he was the “brother” in mention – being watched already, and that somehow they might have been caught going into the Greyham Building. Pineau seemed to have his suspicions, at least.

However, it didn’t seem as if De Bran would have any solid evidence: after all, he said in his reply that the “watchers don’t do nights.”. Just as well.

After Qwerty had finished having her shower, Jack showed her the messages. She was originally worried to find out that Jack was probably being watched, but she told Jack that “now we know, we won’t do anything obvious where we could be seen.”

Jack agreed, and mentally told himself to be careful, just in case. But he wondered why the government was watching him. Was it because they were suspicious of things he had done, or just because of who he was. He asked Qwerty what she thought.

I expect it’ll be because of who you are.” she said, “After all, they know that if you find out about your parents, which you have, you could get really angry and maybe go on to do things against the government. I don’t think that we have done much worth being watched.”

No.” said Jack, “Only hack into the Greyham Building’s computers repeatedly, take important information out of the office of the most important person in America, and break into a system of a Nashville house. Not much at all.”

Yes, but, how would they have traced it to us?” Qwerty laughed, “we might have done that, but there isn’t really a way in which they could have found out it was us. And if they had known, they would have arrested us way before.”

Yeah, I guess.” Jack agreed, “What’s for lunch?”

*******

Jaime had been running for about two noons straight, and was about halfway to Nashville, which was pretty good going. The shrubland that he had been going through was very barren, with only hints of grass shoots coming up, probably due to the extended cold that year.

Jaime felt the slightest twinges of tiredness on his body, but he still did not feel as if he needed to relax his pace. He wanted to get into Nashville before the American fools even realised that he had gone from their invasion force, if that was possible.

It would be good to be able to see his brother, even if he didn’t talk to him. It would just be good to respect his parents that way by just going to see him.

There was a small town on his right: Jaime could see the faint grey outline of the buildings, and far off on his left, the south, Jaime could just make out the mountain range that cut across the extreme south of North Wasidia. Other than that, however, there was nothing really to see that would take his mind off the running.

Jaime didn’t need anything to see though. He had been trained by the Missourians not to care about trivialities but to only focus on the job ahead, and that was what he was doing. Focusing on the job at hand.

He stepped from foot to foot over a series of rocks that had covered his path. They still were covered in frost, despite it being nearly midday, but there was no ice to slip on, which made it a lot easier for Jaime to keep up his pace.

Suddenly, Jaime felt the Missourian control pushing on his mind. He was expecting this: the Missourians would want to bring him back home, and not disobey orders as he was doing at that moment.

Jaime, however, didn’t want to go back to Missouri, at least, not so soon, so he tried to push away the control in his mind. Immediately when they realised he was resisting, the control got stronger. Jaime tried to resist it harder, by focusing his mind on one thing: his mission.

The force got stronger and stronger, but Jaime managed to keep pushing it out. He skipped from stone to stone as he ran down a rocky hill, trying to be able to somehow stop the Missourians form going on and taking hold of his body and bringing him back to Missouri.

Jaime struggled with the control for a few more minits, until he was absolutely worn out. The way he was trained, mental exertions made him far more tired than physical exercise, and eventually the Missourian control won over.

Jaime, tired as anything, fell asleep, as the commands forced his body to run northward, heading to Missouri. Leaving his brother back in Nashville.

*******

Jack stayed at Qwerty’s for another noon, before he decided to go back to his room. So much had happened since he had left his room the previous afternoon, and it seemed like an eternity since he had last stepped inside the only place that he could truly call his “home”.

He stepped from pavement slab to pavement slab along the old, grey, Nashville roads. A couple of people shuffled past him, trying to get out of the cold as quickly as possible. Most people, however, were already firmly shut up in their homes, not knowing that the country they lived in had just conquered Greco-America – and probably not caring too much either.

Jack smiled for a moment with the realisation that he, a fourteen-year-old schoolboy, knew something that approximately only about a hundred other people outside the American army knew.

But this was just another way to remember that he was now no longer any normal person. His life would never, could never, be normal again. All his life, he would be a spy. No matter however hard he tried, he would never be able to settle back into the house lifestyle. He knew that it would be for the best if he left, which he was going to do when the Greyham Building visit was over.

It was quite awkward for Jack knowing that he possibly had people watching his every move. It was just another reminder, yet another reminder, that he was not normal, that he would never be able to go back to the normal life that he had once had.

Soon enough, he got back to the house. The first thing that met him was the impressive show of brilliance that the entrance hall was: full of a tall waterfall, numerous fountains, and beautiful exotic plants, it probably was the most impressive room in Nashville – outside the Greyham Building, of course.

But Jack walked straight past it all, knowing it was all fake – as well as the “gold” signs that dotted the entrance hall. The “exotic” plants were just made of paper and wood, the “waterfall” was just water pouring out of tank above the hall and just out-of-sight, and the beauty of the fountains, whilst being working fountains, were a far cry from the ugly halls upstairs – all aimed at giving an impressive first view of the house, even if everything else in the house was pretty hideous.

Where the rooms were, it was only grey walls and corridors, grey like the rest of Nashville. Jack walked down a few of these corridors before he got to his room. When he got there, he unlocked the door and went in.

He shut the door and looked around what had been his home for the past two years, since he had moved up from the junior halls below. He would have a couple of weeks to say goodbye to it and his friends in the house, and then he knew that he would be off.

It was a sad thought, but he knew it was for the best. He would never be able to settle back into a normal lifestyle again, not after the events of the past night and day.

Jack went to his bed and climbed under the covers, feeling tired and trying to forget about the future. He still wasn’t sure if he really wanted to leave Nashville and his friends, especially France, behind, and he knew that he would never know whether he really wanted to do so in the mood that he was in at that moment.

Jack knew that he wasn’t tired enough to be able to sleep, but he just dozed in his bed. It was one way of forgetting everything, forgetting who he was and what he had done, and, most importantly, forgetting what he was going to do, in the near future and the far-off future.

America had gone one step closer to it’s aim of world domination, and Jack had done nothing to stop it. He knew that next time, if there was ever going to be a next time, he would have to do more to stop the insane Americans from conquering another innocent country.

Chapter 20

What do you think you were doing?” the king of Missouri thundered at Jaime. It was about the tenth time he had said that. Up to that point, Jaime hadn’t let anything slip.

I-I don’t know.” lied Jaime, again. Immediately after returning from America, he had been summoned into the presence of the king and was now facing the king’s wrath. As he didn’t want to tell the king about his brother, he didn’t say anything.

Yes, you certainly do know what you were doing.” the king said severely, looking down at Jaime, who was standing pitifully in front of the king, “Jaime Thorn, I command you to tell me why you were disobeying our orders!”

As if you expect me to tell you. “I’m not going to say.” Jaime said adamantly, “But I tell you this: what I was doing was not, by any means, anything that was going to directly jeopardize the security of our country of Missouri.”

The king thought for a moment, seeming to ponder all of his potential possibilities.

In that case,” the king said eventually, “Why don’t you tell me what you were doing?”

I have a reason for what I did, and there is no need for you to know.” Jaime said, defiantly. He knew he would get punished, but kept on speaking. The king had gone to far in his pushing for what Jaime had been doing, and that made him furious.

Remember”, he continued, “that I am not a willing servant of your hand. I am only serving you because it was my parent’s last wish, no other reason.”

Just in time, he stopped himself from saying about his hatred of America as another reason, because he knew people as ruthless as the Missourians could exploit that. The more unwilling they believed he was, the better.

As a result,” he continued, ignoring the king’s demand to stop, “I am willing to disobey your orders if it helps my personal cause and honours my parent’s wishes.”

Your parents would have wanted you to obey us!” the king said.

Maybe.” Jaime said, enjoying the king’s face turn a little shade of red, “But maybe not. After all, I know them better than you do.” He managed to keep a calm tone of voice all through, infuriating the king.

There was a long silence as the king seemed to think of what to do. Jaime knew that he had gone too far, but he no longer cared about his well-being. He was so furious at how the Missourians had stopped him from doing what he wanted, treated him like a slave, and were now punishing him. All he wanted now was just to cause the Missourians as much awkwardness and pain as possible.

Jaime Thorn,” the king eventually said, attempting (and failing) to speak in an emotionless tone of voice, “I punish you for voluntarily disobeying commands.”

Just like expected. Seriously, did I expect to avoid punishment?

As a result of this,” the king said, “You shall have solitary confinement for a month.”

Ouch, Jaime thought to himself. That was worse than he had expected. For a moment he was tempted to break away and ignore it, but he humbled himself to accept his punishment. He knew that going through the punishment and then serving the (@#&%) Missourians would be the only way he would be able to get back to his missions – revenge against America and freedom for his brother.

So, humbling himself unwillingly, he allowed his arms to be buckled together by the guard who arrested him, and followed the guard – who was shaking in fright, knowing all that Jaime could do – out of the hall and down into one of the cells.

*******

De Bran sat at his desk, sucking his thumb. He looked back on all that had happened in the past couple of days. Yes, the invasion of Greco-America had been a success, but apart from that, he saw no reason for any personal celebration.

Some spies, from whatever embleer nation, had broken into the Greyham Building, killing the guards in the process. Somehow, they had managed to stay unnoticed all the time. Somehow, it seemed like Blake, who, apparently, was vital for the government to be a puppet Premier, was involved.

And, what was probably even worse, Pineau had just confirmed that Jaime Thorn had gone back to Missouri with all of his information about the weapon, where he would undoubtedly be treated like a hero.

All of these security breaks just made America look pitiful, and the truth of the matter was that that was just what they were. What kind of security was there in the building? Or in the camp, for that matter. Whatever words of bravado De Bran had said, even his four-year-old son would have been able to invent lots of ways of getting into the Greyham Building and avoiding detection.

So that was what De Bran was doing now: trying to work out as many ways as possible to spy on the Greyham Building, and then to counter against those methods. At present he had worked out forty-six. Even though a lot of those were pretty similar to each other, that was still a dismal amount.

He had been in Nashville for three days, and was no closer to finding out about the invaders and who they were. They certainly had done their job really well. De Bran had even tried to watch Blake’s actions for anything odd, but had not seen anything abnormal from him. In fact, De Bran was starting to wonder how much of an influence Blake really had in the breach. Was he just someone who got taken up with it? It didn’t actually look like that was the case.

Pineau had told him not to delve into anything before he returned, and De Bran had been told to act like it was a normal day and relax.

However, “normal”, combined with the word “relax”, had lost it’s understanding for De Bran when he had been elected into power, and a “normal” day was spent in his office – not relaxing at all.

During that time, had looked at the international reaction to the invasion of Greco-America, but, other than in Greece, the invasion had not been given much press.

It seemed as if the whole of Europe didn’t care a thing about Wasidia, and all of the foreign news was about the apparent Chinese build-up of forces, although how they knew about it was beyond reason. What type of spies on China did they have?

And even in Greece, the press wasn’t really caring about the invasion, with numerous opinions in the news talking about how Wasidia no longer mattered in the consequence of the world. There were a few letters to the editors asking how it mattered if America conquered their possession in Wasidia, saying just to let them fight.

De Bran laughed as he saw these comments. They will change their mind soon, he had muttered to himself. One day, they will look like fools for ever saying that. One day.

Other than looking at the foreign news, De Bran just got on with trying to stop any future security breaks. He knew and was confident that America would succeed… one day. A day that was coming ever closer by the minute.

Chapter 21

The next few weeks before when he would go into the Greyham Building for his science thing was a very emotional time for Jack.

He had not told anyone, not even France, about the fact that he was going to leave: just in case it was spread to the wrong ears. Keeping it all in was a painful experience for him.

He was also very stressed up by the fact that he would be leaving all of his friends behind. He didn’t want to think about it.

So, to try to ignore all of his feelings, Jack did as much as he possibly could to fill up his itinerary: going to the park, technology, books, Zonestation, cinema, lectures: anything and everything.

Even at nights, he tried to get himself as tired as possible before he went to bed, so that he would avoid thinking about leaving before he got to sleep. It was difficult and painful, bit it worked.

Whenever he met Qwerty, it was always a very emotional time, especially for Jack. He constantly spoke out his heart to her, and very often broke down in tears, sometimes for a couple of noons straight.

The worst thing for Jack was that she didn’t have the same problems: friends had never been so important to her, and she couldn’t really feel with him. This made it so difficult because he had to go through it all on his own.

Eventually, the time came when he had to tell France everything. He struggled with it for a few days, but eventually he knew that he had to say it. When it came, it was the hardest thing that Jack had ever done. He broke down in tears numerous times, and it was only after a few noons when he had eventually got the whole message across.

France’s original reaction was surprise and then sadness, but, to Jack’s surprise, France asked Jack to take him with them. When Jack asked why, France said that Jack was the only true friend that he had ever had. Without Jack, France said that he knew that he would no longer enjoy anything about his life. Jack asked what France meant, and France said that he meant that Jack had been the only friend who cared about France, instead of just caring about how France could profit them in their lives.

Jack consulted with Qwerty about bringing France, and she agreed that it would be possible to do. However, she was very apprehensive about the idea, although she more had a problem about sharing Jack than anything else. However, France was adamant, and Qwerty eventually agreed to bringing France along.

As the day came closer, they made plans for what would happen if everything went ok in the Greyham Building, which was not really all that likely.

The plan was for Jack brought as much things to Qwerty’s as possible without attracting suspicion from the “watchers”, and then, immediately after they had gone from the Greyham Building, they would make their move.

About three days before they were due to go to see the government, Jack asked Qwerty, “Are you sure about this?”

Yep. Why, aren’t you?”

Not really.” Jack admitted, “Too much seems like it could go wrong. What if they know that it was us who had spied on them and this was just an excuse to catch us? Or they want to catch me – or you – about our parents? Or anything else?”

Oh, I’m sure that won’t happen.” said Qwerty, although her voice hinted that she was hardly sure about it.

There was silence for a couple of moments before she added, “And, anyway, I’m sure that, if there is, we’ll be able to escape.” She leaned over and kissed Jack on the cheek, “Together, we’ll do anything.”

Jack wasn’t so sure about being able to do “anything”, but he kissed her back anyway. It made him feel far better and more confident. Despite the fact that he was quite apprehensive of their plan and what might happen, he knew that, whatever happened, he would always have Qwerty by his side. Always.

*******

Jaime spent the next few weeks in solitary confinement, brooding over what to do. Of course, he had absolutely no idea about Jack’s plans to go to Missouri himself. Thus, Jaime wanted to be free as soon as possible so that he would be able to “rescue” his brother from the poorness of America.

What he really wanted was the license from the government to go into Nashville. That way, he would be able to do what he wanted without disobeying the government and facing the consequences again: and next time it would be far worse.

However, the only way he could see that he would get the licence would be to tell them about Jack, or to lie, neither of which he really wanted to do. Torn between the two, however, he decided to lie.

The time alone went quickly for him: being able to control his body as well as he could, it was not difficult for him to stop himself from feeling any pain or annoyance at being limited so heavily in all ways. Instead, he acted calmly and just let the time pass away.

And anyway, a lot of that time was spent spinning an intricate web of lies that he was going to weave: mixing truths, half-truths, and outright lies, he managed to create a story to get himself into Nashville.

He decided that whilst he was on the camp he had met Pineau (that was true, and he had evidence about it, and that was the least likely thing to have happened, so if he convinced the government about that, they might believe everything else), and then Pineau had let something slip about a location tracker of all of their spies.

He decided to say the lame coincidence that apparently this location tracker was kept in tight security on the edge of Nashville, and if the Missourians controlled him, his reactions would be too slow and it could involve him being caught.

It’s not perfect, but it’ll do.”, Jaime thought. Fortunately, he had been trained in lying by the Missourians – oh, the irony! – but not creating lies. However, this lie would hopefully be good enough once he managed to get out: hopefully.

*******

De Bran’s weeks were as normal as they were going to get. Pineau hadn’t been able to get anywhere in his examination of his office, and that matter was soon laid to rest. Blake kept his position, though Pineau had to hire someone to watch his every move.

However, in De Bran’s life, nothing really happened of any consequence. Pineau was pretty busy, dealing with the politics of Greece and all that, but he didn’t need help for a lot of what he did: at least, not De Bran’s help.

So De Bran was able to spend a lot more time than before with his family. As he played with his two young girls, he realised how much the life of politics had taken over his life and how little time he had been spending with his family.

Just something to remember. It isn’t good to go for so long without a rest. I mean, even when I was recovering from my back problem I was still trying to be too involved in politics! Couldn’t I just relax for a while?

Relaxation. De Bran, in his times of relaxing, knew that he really needed to relax a lot more than he had done previously. It had taken far too much of a toll on him, and now he needed a good rest and sleep.

Even so, his times of relaxation didn’t take away from his interest in politics. He still kept going back and asking Pineau about all of the latest updates, and his excitement for the American control of Wasidia was not abated, it was just: I’m getting a little bit more perspective.

It was humbling, that. He hadn’t really thought that he could learn anything knew: but he just had. Never be too confident in yourself, Frankie…………….. Ha! I’m starting to sound like a crazy Missourian philosopher!

One thing, however, De Bran was involved in: the arrangement for the children to come to the Greyham Building. Pineau had told him all of the plans, especially involving the boy, and De Bran was all set about what he would have to do.

He didn’t like what Pineau would be doing, but in his job, he had to obey those who were higher up than him, and this was one of those situations. He tried to convince Pineau off it, but to no avail: Pineau had created his trap, and wouldn’t be convinced against setting it down.

Chapter 22

It was early in the morning of the day when the children – including Jack Thorn – would go into the Greyham Building. De Bran had woken up rather early, and he was meant to be getting breakfast ready for himself and his wife.

However, he just could not concentrate on what he was meant to be doing. His thoughts kept wavering towards the meet at the Greyham Building that afternoon, and so he sat down on one of the chairs. It struck him as odd why such an insignificant thing kept forcing his mind to think about it, but it did. Probably because he had had such an important role in it.

De Bran was still reflecting on that fact about ten minits later when his wife, Carmel, came down after waking up. They had had quite a rocky relationship when De Bran had just gone into politics, but recently their relationship had levelled out, and De Bran felt at utmost ease with her.

He got out of his chair, and gave her a kiss. They got breakfast together, and, just as they were just sitting down, she said to him, “What’s wrong?”

What do you mean?” De Bran, or Frankie, replied.

You just don’t seem to be like what you have been normally.”

In what way?”

Well… I don’t know if I’m wrong, but you don’t seem to be concentrating much on anything. Your thoughts seem to be drifting elsewhere.”

Oh, I don’t know.” Frankie said as he spread some butter on his bread, “You see, darling, my thoughts keep coming back to this thing with these children this afternoon.”

Which children? Our children?”

No, no, no. The children who got top marks in the science exam, you know.”

Oh, that. Was it the one where you wanted to congratulate them?”

Yeah.”

Oh. So what about it, it’s not a big deal, is it?” she asked, whilst scooping some cereal into her mouth.

It shouldn’t be. I mean, it should just be a simple congratulation for the children for doing well, but…” Frankie said, pausing for a second.

But what?”

Pineau is making it more than just that.”

In what ways?” she asked, a little bit more interested now.

Well, it’s just that in a couple of ways, our government is getting quite desperate.”

Desperate about what? In what aspects?”

More or less everything, I suppose.” groaned Frankie, “And Pineau wants to use today as a way to get rid of a couple of these problems.”

Oh? What problems?”

For a start, we are needing more scientists to work on the weapon and make it stronger and more penetrating…”

And Pineau wants to get these children to do it? That’s just wrong!”

Well, they are around fourteen to sixteen, after all. So I can understand why he is doing it. But still… I don’t feel right about it at all.”

And for good reason too.” Carmel said sharply, “You should tell Pineau what you think.”

I have. But he won’t listen. He thinks its too good an opportunity to miss.”

Well, make sure that you have no involvement in it anyway. It’s just wrong.”

I’ll try not to.” said Frankie, “But I may not have the option.”

There was a silence for a minit or so as they ate their breakfast, and then he added,

The other problem Pineau hopes to resolve is about a boy.”

Who?”

A boy. One of the boys who is coming to the building. We have traced him as the son of the spies who were executed a few months ago, and he could be an enemy of America. We know that for certain he is seriously clever, and we are pretty sure that he at least knows something of his past by hacking into places from his Zonestation.”

That’s against the law, isn’t it?”

What is?”

Executing a relative of an American citizen.”

Yeah, it’s meant to be. But we had no idea about it when we did it, so I think it is ok.” Frankie felt bad about all he had hidden from his wife for all of this time. It was good that he could make up for it now, at least.

Oh…” it was clear Carmel was thinking the same thing, “Anyway, what’s Pineau trying to do about this now?”

Frankie took a couple of bites of his toast, then continued, “Pineau wants to trap the boy into showing allegiance to America or not.”

How does he intend to do this?” she asked, matter-of-factly.

Well… Pineau’s idea is that, in asking the boy whether to work on the weapon, Pineau wants to see whether the boy does know anything or not. And if he does, whether he is still loyal to America.”

Carmel’s face changed quickly, from indifference to horror to surprise. “What if the boy has perfectly normal reasons for his refusal?” she asked, sensing what her husband was implying.

That’s the bit I really don’t like. Pineau seems to say that he will throw the boy into the prison whilst they examine him thoroughly. He seems pretty convinced that the boy is against the government.”

Wait… so Pineau is just going to hold this thirteen-year-old-”

Fourteen year-old.” Frankie interrupted.

Whatever. So Pineau is going to hold this fourteen-year-old in custody, even if he is completely innocent?”

That’s what he says, and I bet he’ll do it.” Frankie replied, “I tried telling Pineau that, but he won’t listen. He’s set his trap and won’t be convinced otherwise.”

Dear oh dear.” said Carmel, shaking her head.

Yeah,” he agreed.

But it’s wrong!” she kept muttering. Frankie saw the old Carmel in her: the Carmel he had originally married, who had had such a strong sense of right and wrong. Where had she lost it all?

Of course, he knew. She had got it from living with him. It made him feel bad about what a bad husband he had been to his wife. He knew that he would have to do something to make up for it.

She looked up into his eyes, and said “Frankie dear, please don’t go, will you? All of it just seems full of intricateness and traps.”

Is this the way, one of the ways, to make up for it? He wanted to do what she wanted so much, but he knew the implications. You do not take such a public stand against the government if you want to stay in any good government position the next day.

Darling, I have to.” Frankie replied, and the words hurt him as he said it, “Even if it’s just to try to stop Pineau, I have to. Otherwise, I could be under some serious questions.”

What type of questions? Surely it’s not so important that you can’t just do this one thing?”

She kept up staring into his eyes, and that made it ever more difficult for him. She seemed so loving, so innocent… Frankie wanted so badly to do what she wanted, but fear of Pineau held him back. He broke the stare, and replied.

I hate to say this, but if I stay at home, knowing Pineau and Plains, I won’t just be out of a job, I might be in the same place as the boy. It just won’t be safe.”

Frankie watched his wife’s eyes. He watched her battle with what was right and what was safe. It was really difficult for her to accept it, but eventually, she sighed.

If you have to, you have to. But make sure you don’t get involved in anything. Nothing.”

I won’t.” he promised. “I won’t.”

She flashed a smile at him, a beautiful smile, and then got up, clearing the breakfast table from the empty dishes. She then went into the kitchen to do the washing up, turning on some music.

Frankie sat back for a couple of minits, taking it all in. He was really glad at the new-found intimacy he now could share with his wife, and, whilst uneasy sometimes, it was still great.

Eventually, he got up and went into the bathroom, where he got changed and got himself ready for going out to work.

After spraying on some deodorant and flossing his teeth, he went out and picked up his briefcase. “I’ll be going now.” he called out to her.

Just as he was turning to leave, Carmel came rushing out of the kitchen – something she had previously rarely done – and kissed him on the cheek.

Do you really have to go?” she asked pleadingly.

I do. Much as I dislike Pineau’s plans, I do. I’m sorry.” the words stung his cheeks as he said them, and the pain was almost too much to bear.

Ok then.” she replied. “But make sure that you be careful. I have a bad feeling about this.”

*******

That same morning, Jack woke up very early. Immediately, as he always did, he thought about all that would happen that day. This time however, it literally felt as if a sword of pain had been thrust through his heart.

He threw himself on the pillow and sobbed for about ten minits. He knew that he would be keeping Qwerty and France, but otherwise… it was far too much to think about, and he cried long and hard.

The tears seemed to clear his mind, and eventually he tumbled out of bed. Looking around, he looked at his more or less empty room. Gradually, everything had been moved out of his room and it was now pretty empty, with all his stuff at Qwerty’s. Qwerty… if it weren’t for you, I’d never ever be able to do this.

He didn’t bother to check his Zonestation, and instead he had breakfast whilst running through their plans for the day. Him and Qwerty would go to the Building to find out what they could, which would hopefully end around mid-afternoon.

They would then go back to Qwerty’s place, where France would be waiting. From there, they would leave with as much of their belongings as they could carry.

That was the plan. But Jack knew from experience that all plans so often go horribly wrong, especially when the plan is as crucial as this.

After breakfast, Jack opened his Zonestation up. Again, he just skimmed through his Inbox without opening up any messages.

All he did was just send off two messages, one to France, one to Qwerty. To France he simply said, “You up for it?”, and to Qwerty he told her that he would be round to her place in a few minits. He didn’t feel like it was the right time for long-winded words.

After that, he took the last look at his room, knowing that, no matter what, he would never return, could never return. It was a scary thought, but one he had thought enough of before to be able to get over.

After finishing off his last rites, he wrote out a note on a sheet of paper for anyone who would see it. He simply stated that he was gone to Missouri. He avoided the bother of writing a reason. It just wasn’t the time and place to lie, and the truth would be too much bother.

After completing all of that, he knew that it was time to leave. He changed the setting on the retina scanner to allow anyone and everyone in, and then he left, taking his Zonestation and a couple of provisions with him.

*******

Fortunately, he didn’t meet anyone he knew all the way until he got to Qwerty’s. It would have made saying goodbye – hard as it was – ten times harder.

Eventually, constantly being in the fear of being seen by anyone from the house, he made his way to the back streets where she lived. He knocked on her door and then, before any answer, opened it with the key she had given her.

Hey.” Qwerty said as she saw him walk through the door.

Hi.” Jack replied, dropping his bag on the messy floor. “You ok?”

Never better.” Qwerty replied, “You?”

I’m ok. Saying goodbye, even to nobody, was difficult and all that, but otherwise I’m fine.”

Yeah. I guess it might be hard for you. I certainly won’t miss this place, anyway.”

All right. I envy you very much.” Jack said, realising yet again the difference between his and Qwerty’s attitude to leaving. She was going back to the best place she had ever been in, whilst he was leaving what had been his home for all his life.

You really want to leave, don’t you?” Jack asked.

Qwerty thought for a moment before answering. “Yes, I do. But I would only do it with you and if it will help me to one day get my revenge. Both of which today includes. So yeah, I really want to leave.”

Jack was glad at least one of them had no regrets. “What’s Missouri like?” he asked, walking over to Qwerty and sitting on the chair next to her. “Or can’t you remember it?”

Oh, I can certainly remember it, I know that.” Qwerty replied, “though not as much as I would like to. The main thing I remember was that it was, and probably still is, a lot richer than America.”

What do you mean by richer?” Jack asked.

I mean that it just had a lot more in it than America does. Everything just seemed to be of higher quality, and everyone was happier, though I’m not sure if that was because of the riches or something else.”

Oh. Anything else you remember about it?”

I remember how so many more people stayed outside and did exercise.”

Sounds good.” Jack noted. What Qwerty said made him a bit more glad to leave the laziness and ugliness of America behind.

Well, it’s not all good. I also remember how there seemed to be a lot more arguments and less government control in the country. The government didn’t seem to keep the law very well compared to like here.”

Well… on the whole, it still sounds far better than America. Anything else you remember?”

Well…. I remember the places I went to, the greenery, the house we lived in, the people we met, and my parents….” tears welled up in her eyes, and she thought of her parents.

I’m sorry.” said Jack, thinking that they were tears of sadness.

Don’t be.” muttered Qwerty, rubbing her head and hair on him to dry her tears, “They were so-so-so…. so very happy memories. I’m just crying in delight at the awesome times we had.”

And you’ll have more, maybe even better ones, with me.” Jack whispered to her in her ear, and kissed her.

Yeah.” she replied, perking up slightly. “I will. Oh yeah, I will.” and then she corrected herself with a slight smile, “We will.”

*******

The two of them spent the next noon or so getting ready before they left to go to the Building, taking as little as possible with them. They didn’t want anything that was able to searched. They didn’t even take their Zonestations, which was a risk, but a risk worth taking.

It was nearly a noon’s walk to the Building, which was towards the south of Nashville, but they walked it all the same instead of taking public transport.

It didn’t need to be said, but they both knew that it would be a good time just to take in the last moments of life in America that they would have in peace.

I can’t wait to leave this place.” Qwerty muttered as they shut the door behind them for the second-last time.

Good for you.” said Jack ruefully and enviously, “I so wish I felt the same.”

Don’t worry about it.” she replied, “Missouri is awesome: you won’t miss America.”

I hope I won’t.” Jack muttered, but he was doubtful. He knew it was probably because of his nerves, but, not only that, because he was unsure of what life in Missouri would be like. It was better for Qwerty, for she had grown up there: but he was culturally an American, and he hoped that that wouldn’t limit him too much once he was there.

When they had just reached Nashville main road, Qwerty looked towards Jack, who was trudging along behind her.

What’s up?” she asked.

Not much.” he replied, searching for the right words, “You see, I don’t really know why, but I don’t feel a right feeling about this at all.”

What, leaving to Missouri?” she asked as softly as possible, to try to avoid anyone hearing it.

No, going to the Building.”

The Building?”

Yeah.”

Which building?”

The Greyham Building, obviously.”

Oh. What’s wrong about it?”

I don’t know. Just a feeling.”

Ok, sure.” she said, a bit surprised, and then she added,

Don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll wear off,”

Hopefully.” Jack replied.

Qwerty laughed, saying, “It will.” She then stretched out her arm and draped it around his shoulders, reaching upwards slightly. Jack replied by doing exactly the same round her, and, arms round each other, they walked down the Nashville street to the Building.

*******

Eventually, they got up to it. They were a little early of when they were told to be there, but only by about ten to fifteen minits. Before going in, they decided to sit down on a nearby bench and talk together before going in.

It was still pretty early in the morning, and not many people were about. However, that didn’t stop them from trying not to talk about anything that would let anything slip, in case someone – anyone – heard.

So, we going to do this?” Jack asked matter-of-factly.

Of course. Why not?”

I dunno. Just something I randomly said.”

Qwerty replied with a smile, and Jack felt compelled to lean over and kiss her. She kissed him back on the lips, causing Jack to gasp at the brilliant feeling that it caused him. It was better than he had ever had before, and he knew at once that he would eternally remember that moment and relive it time and time again.

Thanks.” he said.

No problem.” she replied, and then she added, “Wait, was that sarcasm or serious?”

Serious, of course. What else?” Jack replied.

I don’t know.” she laughed.

Jack laughed back, and they just laughed along together for a couple of moments.

Eventually, Qwerty spoke up, ending the bliss that they had been sharing, “Shall we go now?”

Of course.” Jack said, “Why not?”

Well… I dunno. Just something I randomly said.” she replied, bursting out in laughter.

Jack laughed too, causing another kiss, before they both eventually walked into the Greyham Building, hand-in-hand, together.

*******

De Bran had been watching it all from an upper window of the Building. Pineau had told him to watch out for Jack, and De Bran was doing so.

He had numerous pictures of the boy that had been taken in secret, and when Jack eventually came into view with what seemed to be his girlfriend, De Bran was in no doubt that it was the boy.

De Bran watched intently as the two of them sat down on the bench. Despite not being able to hear them from his vantage point, he still knew from their actions more or less what they were saying.

They were clearly madly in love, even at their age. It was ruefully reminiscent of what himself and Carmel had been like at that age. Thinking about it, and about Carmel, made him feel even worse when he thought of Pineau’s plans.

Eventually, after repeatedly kissing each other, De Bran saw them get up. He was expecting the girl to leave him there, but, to his surprise, they both went into the building.

Could it be that the girl one of the girls invited to the building? None of them were in the same house as Jack, and it was almost certain that Jack would have a girlfriend from the same house as him.

Intrigued, De Bran rushed down the staircase to the entrance in order to find out, and, when he did, it was confirmed that was very much the case, the girl being “Qwerty Rooke”, who had got the most marks out of all of the children. Considering that coincidence, he wondered how the two of them had met in the first place. The first thing he thought was that he might like to hear that story.

But thinking about that only reinforced the idea in his head that what Pineau was planning was evil. This boy had someone who clearly was crazily in love with him, and he was human. He deserved to be treated humanely, whether or not he refused to help them on the weapon.

What could he, Frankie De Bran, Deputy Foreign Secretary, do to stop it, however​? It was clear that Pineau would never change from the plans that he had initiated, and that made it far more difficult for De Bran to stop this appalling and inhumane plan.

Of course, nothing might happen: the boy – and his girlfriend, now it turned out, – could both agree to help. But he had a subtle feeling seriously doubting it, and, combining that with Carmel’s “bad feeling”, he just knew that something would go wrong.

And when it did, De Bran knew he would have to stop Pineau. Somehow. Just for Carmel.

He had gone along with Pineau for all of the last couple of months at her expense, and he knew that now the tables would have to be turned. Just for her, he would stand up against Pineau’s inhumane plan.

Chapter 23

The first thing that Jack noticed when he had got into the Building was the grandeur of it all. It was certainly a far posher building than anywhere he could remember that he had ever been in before. Of course, he had been in the Greyham Building before, but he hadn’t been able to see any of the grandeur in the dark.

Him and Qwerty told to sign in their names on a sheet of paper, and were given some sheets of paper containing some facts of the Building – none of which he was interested in.

After that they were checked by security and then ushered into a large hall where they would apparently be meeting the government officials. They were seated down on chairs at the back of the hall and then left alone.

Jack could tell who was who from their name-tag on their chest, and he looked them up and down, trying to work out what he could see about them.

As Qwerty and Jack were sitting down, the boy – Klaus – greeted them, but the other two girls ignored them scornfully. Klaus, who was on Jack’s left when Jack had sat down, was very fat. He had light blonde hair which went down to his shoulders over his chubby cheeks.

His face looked clearly intellectual, but there was no emotion in his eyes. Jack thought that he seemed an okay character, probably better than the other two.

Sitting on Klaus’ left was the girl called Fysel. She had very long, dark, hair, and her face was extremely beautiful, causing Jack to feel embarrassed for noticing it. Fysel also looked quite foreign – probably European.

She was writing something down on a scrap of paper vigorously. When she sensed Jack looking at her, she glared up at him with a look full of scorn. Jack turned away, embarrassed. But that glare told it all: she considered herself far superior to any of the others there.

Qwerty’s right was the girl who was called Hivan. On first glance, she seemed just a normal American girl. Jack noticed a small sapphire necklace around her neck, which signified some kind of wealth, but that could mean anything.

When she looked up, Jack noticed that the look on her face was identical to Fysel’s: both of them considered themselves superior to the others.

The two of them will come to a head soon, Jack thought to himself, as he stretched his arm around Qwerty’s shoulders to reassure her, And when it does, I better make sure I’m not part of it.

Do you know what we’re going to be doing today?” he whispered into Qwerty’s ear.

She shook her head, and said under her breath, “No-one told me anything. What do you think will happen?”

Hopefully not too much. Maybe just a certificate-giving thing or something. I dunno.”

Whatever. I’d like some sort of test or something.”

What, so you can beat the other two girls?”

Qwerty smiled at Jack, “Yeah.” she whispered, “And because I want it anyway.”

Jack smiled back and looked around the large hall. It was big and had a grand layout, with some doors on both the back and the front.

The doors were in constant use from the people who worked in the building, but none of them paid any attention to the children, even though the government officials had been meant to have come ten minits earlier.

Typical American, late like normal, Jack thought, remembering how the house was constantly late for everything: meetings, meals, activities… The house….

Eventually however, a lady came in through the double doors that were in front of them and walked over to them. She was dressed in the normal uniform of an employee at the Building – not a government official, which was a little bit odd.

Hi.” she said when she was close enough.

Hi.” Jack replied. None of the others said anything, but both Qwerty and Klaus responded with short nods.

The lady smiled at Jack, and continued,

I’m Leah Frey, one of the secretaries here at the building. I’m meant to take you to the lab, where all of the officials are waiting.” she smiled. She spoke with an oily voice – just what Jack hated.

So,” she continued, not letting her smile slip despite the fact that no-one seemed the least interested, “if you would like to follow me…”

All of them stood up in unison, causing Jack to stifle a grin. Fysel noticed him and sent him a curt look.

What a nice company of people.” he whispered into Qwerty’s ear, and she nodded back with a short smile. He pressed his hand into hers and they followed Miss – or Mrs – Frey along the corridor.

As they walked, she pointed out where everything was in the building. Jack tried – and failed – to avoid looking bored by this. He had looked at the blueprints of the building enough to know it by heart, and she was hardly making it more and more interesting.

As they walked on and Frey nattered on, it became more and more clear that Frey was getting more and more hurt by the lack of a response she was getting from the children. Her voice became shaky and she lost a lot of composure.

Her smile was shattered and she kept looking all about the place, as if trying to get away from them. But none of them showed any emotion whatsoever, Jack intent on keeping his face straight in front of the others.

They kept walking for thirty minits and in all that time Frey lost more and more composure. By the end, she was visibly shaking and tears were starting to run down her cheek.

When they all eventually got to the lab, it was clear she was totally shattered. None of the children had shown any emotion since Jack had said “Hi.”, and she seemed totally put off by that fact.

This is teh-teh-the laboratory, children.” she stuttered awkwardly.

Jack heard Klaus mutter under his breath, “We are not children.” but other than that, there was still no response.

She opened the door, with her hand shaking like an Autumn leaf in the wind. Jack he felt no sorrow at how she felt. Anyone working for the American government certainly did not have his pity.

The me-me-members of teh g-g-government you will be m-m-meeting n-now, child-chil-children.” she said, stepping into the room and getting her act together, “will be the head of science, Mr Brewn, and the foreign secretary, Mr Pineau.”

With the last word, Jack felt Qwerty visibly shake. Frey seemed to notice it too, but fortunately she did not say anything further.

So, if you would please come this way,” she carried on, and walked into the lab.

They all followed her, and, Jack saw Pineau behind one of the desks with his deputy, Frankie De Bran. For encouragement, Jack grasped Qwerty’s hand even tighter.

The five of them were all told to stand at one end of the room as Frey whispered something to Pineau. They had a short discussion before Frey walked out of the room, crying with tears running down her cheeks.

From there, Frey would hurriedly go home and take two months out for stress. However, Pineau personally was so appalled by her behaviour that he fired her. She went about trying to find a job that wouldn’t involve working with children. She couldn’t find any and went further into depression until she eventually committed suicide three months later. But enough about Frey:let’s get back to what happened after she left the lab.

Pineau turned to face the five of them. He looked them all up and down. Jack felt that Pineau was particularly looking directly at him and Qwerty.

Pineau whispered something hurriedly to De Bran, and De Bran nodded. Fysel and Hivan were clearly getting impatient by Pineau’s keeping silent. Even Jack was starting to shuffle awkwardly wondering what would happen.

Eventually, after another minit of silence, Pineau eventually opened his mouth to speak. Jack wondered what he would say…

*******

De Bran’s first impression of the children was that they all seemed so much more mature than he had expected. There was no childish excitement, as he had predicted that they would have. Instead, they all seemed very reserved in their actions and none of them showed much emotion.

In fact, the only one with any emotion whatsoever was the Missourian boy, but even he was pursing his lips and showing more or less nothing on his face or in his eyes.

They all walked in, and then the woman who had led them into the lab – Miss Frey – came up to Pineau, and whispered to him, “I can’t do this.”

De Bran heard Pineau whisper back. “Why?”

It’s too freaky.” she said quickly and anxiously, and then she ran out of the laboratory without another word, causing Pineau to have a worried frown run across his face.

De Bran knew that Pineau would undoubtedly have some words with Miss Frey later, but for now it was best to focus on the matter at hand. He would have to stop Pineau. Somehow.

*******

Jack had hoped that he might be able to get away without meeting Pineau whilst in the building, but that hadn’t happened, and this was the moment.

Jack knew that he would have to work on keeping his temper He hoped he would control his anger for long enough to avoid giving anything away.

Welcome, children.” Pineau said, glancing from one to another. No-one replied, but kept sullen-faced.

Pineau didn’t look fazed one bit by that – he had probably been warned – and he continued, “We at the government congratulate you on your success.” Klaus nodded, making Jack copy him. The three girls still showed no emotion, but it was clear from their eyes that they were listening.

Pineau nodded back at the two boys, “And so, we would like to test the five of you on your scientific ability before we can get on with the rest of our plans for today.”

He signalled to the head of science, who up till that point had been standing near the front of the laboratory silently.

The head of science, Mr. Brewn, will now hand each one of you a short test.” Pineau said, as the man walked forwards with papers in his hand.

Mr Brewn – whom Jack had never seen before, but heard of multiple times – walked forwards and handed each one of them a paper, walking along the aisle. He looked pretty disinterested, as if he wanted to be elsewhere.

He was a youngish chap, who didn’t seem to suit the stereotype of old-man-with-glasses that head of science’s seemed to have. Jack had heard that he was just out of university and had been given the role as a puppet.

Of course, he was still the head of science, and Jack was sure that he must still be very good at it to be in the position he was in, even if he was just a puppet.

Brewn didn’t say anything but just walked back to where he had been standing, near the door. He kept glancing to the door, as if he wanted to leave, and looked totally bored.

Pineau, however, looked in his element, and he continued, “You have all been handed a paper.”

Obviously. Jack thought to himself, You think we’re blind or something?

On it are numerous questions on the areas of science you performed extremely well in – physics and bioklas. The questions are far more advanced than what you had in your exam, and we are not expecting you to do very well.”

That last statement caused the first sign of emotion on both Fysel and Hivan’s faces, both of whom were clearly determined to do very well indeed.

Whatever you may think, you will do them for around half a noon. To make it more interesting, both me and my assistant De Bran will do it as well, and we will see how well you can do. Take a seat and get working.” Pineau said, and he turned around and started working on his paper. He didn’t seem interested in what they did.

There were numerous desks along the sides of the room, and Jack sat down on one. Qwerty came up next to him. The other three all sat alone on desks across the lab.

Do you think it’ll be hard?” Jack whispered to Qwerty nervously. He didn’t want to look foolish, but he doubted that he would be as good at science as the others.

Probably. Just try to do it, but don’t use up all of your energy.” she replied.

Jack nodded, and opened his paper. Immediately, he inwardly groaned. Pineau certainly hadn’t been exaggerating when he said that it was a lot harder than the exam: a lot of the issues covered Jack had never even thought before, let alone learnt in school.

This is going to be hard, he thought to himself, I’ll be lucky to get a quarter right, but I’ll try my best. It doesn’t really matter really.

The other four, however, seemed to be quickly working on theirs, and it was only half a noon for the test, so Jack got on with working out the questions.

*******

De Bran stared at his paper. What was Pineau thinking, getting him to answer that? The maximum level of science he had got up to was the eleven-year-old exam, and even that he had failed dismally. Since then, his level of science had not gone up but dropped.

So now, faced with a Nigerian – for it was a Nigerian paper – fourteen-year-old’s paper, he had no chance. What was written on the paper made as much sense to him as Ancient Spanish or Japanese. He gave up immediately on the test, and decided to sit back and make his plans.

The test had been Pineau’s idea to see how advanced the children were scientifically. He had tried to look for a Nigerian science paper, and had managed to find one somewhere.

Pineau’s hopes was that it would be neither too hard nor too simple, and it seemed like that was what it was from the faces of the children. They all seemed to be acting just as if it was the perfect level.

Also, the Missourian boy – Jack Thorn – seemed to be acting just like the rest, except a little bit more open to the government. Did he really know who his parents were? De Bran’s bad feelings weren’t gone, but, by the way he was acting, De Bran doubted that the boy really knew.

He dropped down his pencil, drawing a sharp look from Pineau, which De Bran replied with a look that showed I can’t do this, did you expect me to be able to?

The plans for the day were intricate and interwoven, as well as pure evil. Any of the children who got under 20% in the exam would be driven home immediately, due to the fact they would be of no use for Pineau’s plans.

The rest would be given certificates and then led to another series of disguised tests. They would be provided with extremely difficult experiments and that sort of thing, to make sure that they were of an advanced level and of use to Pineau’s plan – Pineau’s evil plan.

After that, with the students who remained, Pineau would activate his plan and try to get them to help on the machine. Just the thought of it made him sick.

Why would he force, yes, force, the children to do that? And that was ignoring his plans for the boy. De Bran knew he would have to stop it from happening – if he got the chance that is. It was looking increasingly likely that he wasn’t going to get it.

*******

Jack had finished all of the questions that he knew the answer to – about two-thirds, as it turned out – with five minits remaining. He hurriedly double-checked over his answers, and then scribbled in random answers to the multiple-choice questions.

The test hadn’t been what he had expected to happen. He had expected to have been greeted by most of the government – not just three or four – and then to have been given a sort of certificate or something. Not a test – just a couple of scientific questions to make them feel good.

But that hadn’t happened. And it wasn’t as if it was a simple test – this test was extremely difficult, even for himself. He was forced to stretch all of the limits of his mind to answer a lot of the questions.

It almost seemed like the five of them were there doing the test for a kind of job interview. And the more it was like that, the more Jack got a feel of a more sinister thing going on…

Ok, time’s up.” said Pineau after forty minits had gone since they had started.

He sent De Bran – who had not done the test at all in the end – around to collect the tests from all of them. Jack noticed that Mr De Bran seemed very edgy, and that he almost dropped one of the papers as a result.

After all of the papers were with Mr Brewn – who had stayed in the room all the way through, despite continuously looking really bored – Pineau said,

We’ll have a short break now whilst Mr Brewn marks the papers. Take a drink from outside and in a couple of minits we’ll come back in.”

There was no reply, but they all got up and walked out of the room, following Pineau. Once outside, they were shown by Pineau to a small lounge where there were a few soft drinks.

Pineau showed them in, and then he left them alone. Once he had left, all of them seemed to breathe out a sigh of relief and relaxation.

Fysel said loudly and proudly, “That was sooo easy!”

It was the first time Jack had heard her voice, and he was surprised by it. It had a very distinctly European accent about it, possibly Nigerian? That would explain the scientific ability.

Hivan agreed with Fysel, saying “Yeah. If I get any less than 95 marks out of the hundred, then I’ll be really disappointed.”

Well, if I get any less than 100 I’ll be disappointed!” Fysel shot back, suddenly making an innocent conversation an argument.

That’s what I meant.” said Hivan, “I just wanted to be humble.”

Oh, I bet you weren’t!” said Fysel loudly, “You knew you couldn’t get top marks, and you tried to sound strong by saying 95. I’m sure that was what you meant!”

Hivan shot back a reply, and, before Jack could even blink, they were already shouting at the top of their voices at each other.

He tried to see where Klaus and Qwerty were in all of the commotion. Looking around the room, he saw that Klaus was eating the whole tray of biscuits that had been put out, and that Qwerty was sitting on a chair in the corner. Jack walked over to her.

She made a space in the chair for him, and he gratefully sat down in it.

Girls…” he said, signalling at the two in the middle of the room who were still yelling at each other.

Eh-hem.” Qwerty replied, attempting – and failing – to feign to be aggrieved at Jack’s statement.

Jack laughed, making sure that nobody could hear him other than Qwerty, “How’s it been so far?”

Not bad.” Qwerty said under her breath, “The test was quite difficult and very unexpected, but still… Do you think that the two of them really found it that easy?” she asked, signifying Fysel and Hivan.

From the little I know of them, no way. They’d just be trying to sound all proud and cool.”

Good.” said Qwerty. Jack noticed that she felt that her pride as best science student in Nashville and as a Missourian was at stake here, and she was anxious to perform better than the other two girls.

I feel as if something a bit sinister is going on.” he whispered to her.

In what ways?”

I don’t know. Just the test and all that seems as if we are just being set up for something.”

Oh.” said Qwerty, and she thought for a moment before replying, “I don’t see it that way. I think it’s just an innocent thing to see how good they are and maybe brag about it.”

I hope so.” Jack said.

But we still need to be careful.” Qwerty continued, “If we have a lapse in our concentration….”

We could find ourselves trapped in all sorts of problems.” Jack finished, “We really do need to be careful.”

Yep.” agreed Qwerty, smiling.

Jack smiled back at her and put his arm around her.

I really love you.” he whispered.

Me too.” she replied.

If they do anything to you,” Jack promised in her ear, “they’ll regret it. I swear.”

Qwerty smiled back at him, “Same if they do it to you.” she promised.

Chapter 24

Okay children,” Pineau said, walking into the room quietly, “Everything is ready now.”

Fysel and Hivan immediately calmed down from the argument they were having and pretended – very badly – that everything was fine.

I bet I beat you!” Hivan whispered and turned away towards the door.

No, I did!” Fysel said back, not bothering to whisper.

Whatever.” Hivan said, turning around “we’ll see, won’t we?”

Jack and Qwerty got out of the seat they had been sharing and stood up, following Pineau and Klaus – who was asking why there had been so few biscuits – out of the room. Fysel and Hivan took the rear, trying to stay as far from each other as possible, which wasn’t very far.

It took only ten minits to walk to the lab, but when they had got there the Jack’s feeling that something would go wrong had returned. And it was more than a feeling: Jack felt so confident that it would go wrong It was very awkward, but more than that: Jack wanted to go as soon as possible.

But go? Now? That was just not possible. So he nervously followed Pineau into the room and sat down where he had been sitting. His paper was closed in front of him, so he was about to open it to check his results. Pineau spotted him and told him not to, but instead to wait for a minit.

Mr Brewn had already left the room, and it seemed pretty empty without Mr De Bran as well. But Pineau told them all to sit down in their seats and he picked up a small scrap of paper, probably containing the results.

He waited for a moment for Mr De Bran to come in, and then Pineau said, “I must say I am disappointed by your performance. I was expecting you children to do better.”

He waited for any response, but none came, all of them having reverted back to showing no emotion at all.

I mean, only one of you managed to get a better result than me, and I haven’t done any science since I was your age!” Pineau continued.

That was me.” Jack heard Fysel whisper under her breath. No it wasn’t, Jack thought, trying to reassure himself of that fact than anything else, it was Qwert. If Fysel or Hivan had won, Jack was worried about the amount of showing off they would make.

Pineau again waited for an aloud response but there was none, so he continued again,

And three of you got results under forty percent!” Pineau said, “So I’ll list out the marks of all of you, starting from the last.”

It’s very good to see that you are all competitive and care, and I’m sure you all would like to win.” he continued, “but there is only one winner. I’ll start from last to first position.”

Jack looked around the room, and saw that all of the eyes of the others had perked up. Even he felt the same, with that will to win that the others also had.

With zero marks is Mr De Bran.” said Pineau, clearly in an attempt to get a bit more life into the class.

Klaus laughed, only to stop abruptly when he noticed that no-one else was doing the same.

With thirty-one marks is Fysel Hay.” Pineau announced. Jack actually heard Fysel’s jaw drop, and he just had to turn to look at Hivan’s scoffing look. Fysel was hanging her head in her hands, ashamed, and Jack laughed inwardly at her empty boasting.

But Hivan’s joy was short-lasting, as Pineau continued, “with thirty-three marks is Hivan Lake.” Hivan also looked embarrassed at such a low score and how she had been beaten by the others.

They deserved it. Self-conceited little things.

Pineau continued in a monotone, though he was interested in the reaction of the children, “with thirty-nine percent is Jack Thorn.”

Jack wasn’t surprised. He knew he had done quite badly, and in fact he was surprised that it was that high. It was hardly his greatest performance in a test.

Qwerty shot Jack a compassionate look, but Jack didn’t need it. He wasn’t feeling bad at all, and sat back on the plastic back of the chair.

Pineau looked a little surprised at Jack’s apparent indifference to his results, but said nothing and continued, “With forty-eight marks is Klaus Pack.”

You did it! Jack mouthed to Qwerty. She smiled back with her beautiful smile. Jack wasn’t sure if she understood what he was saying, but she hopefully got the general idea.

Klaus looked quite disappointed that he hadn’t won, but not distraught. To tell the truth, Jack wasn’t sure if anything other than a lack of food would have been able to make Klaus actually distraught.

I got fifty-nine marks,” Pineau continued, “and Qwerty Rooke got eighty-four.”

Wow.” Jack whispered to Qwerty, “That’s huge.”

It was nothing.” Qwerty replied modestly and she turned away.

Fysel and Hivan also looked shocked, but Qwerty didn’t. She probably had known that she was that good anyway. Pineau noticed that and his face creased into thought. It looked as if he was trying to examine Qwerty for something.

*******

The rest of the morning was quite different to what Jack had been expecting. They did have a certificate “ceremony”, but that was far less of a fuss than Jack had been expecting. It almost seemed like a simple intermission between another set of experiments.

The experiments and tests that they did were very different, ranging over all sorts of things, and certainly very challenging. Jack wasn’t sure if he had ever done any harder scientific studies, not even with Qwerty.

And all the time, Jack’s feeling of something sinister didn’t let down. The way that Pineau looked, the way that they were being tested so vigorously…. Jack didn’t know what for, but they were certainly being tested. He just knew it.

When Jack told her about his feeling, Qwerty played it down, thinking Jack to be a little paranoid, so he left her alone and thought about it himself. But he was sure that something was going on: absolutely positive.

Qwerty was fully immersed in the experiments and beating the other two girls – which she did with ease – to actually really think of much. So Jack let it be as just a feeling: after all, he could be badly wrong and everything could go fine.

The experiments ranged in all ranges: some in bioklas, some in physics, others in technology. Jack was best at technology, but in the other fields he also found he could hold his own.

He found it annoying when he had to work with one of the others, except Qwerty of course. They were all so arrogant and all were out for their own self-proclamation. It appalled Jack, but he knew the type. A lot of the people from back at the house were just the same. The house…… the house……. I’ll miss ya.

Jack’s favourite experiment was when he had had to take apart a Zonemaster. It was clear the others had never done it before, but he certainly had. The feeling of actually being so much better than the others for once was an incredibly pleasant feeling.

Jack was getting more tired and anxious for lunch where he could take stock and work out what to do. He was starving and really wanted to go home and go to Missouri as soon as possible.

The experiments kept going on: bioklas after bioklas, physics after physics. But he wondered who was it being experimented on: the equipment, or them?

He knew it was them – the children. But what for? And why?

*******

The longer the morning drifted on, the worse a feeling De Bran got. He knew what was going to happen and he couldn’t see a way to stop it. The problem was that Pineau was so intent on doing it, and that Pineau had always known that De Bran wasn’t in favour of the plan.

As a result, Pineau didn’t seem to be trusting him the way he normally did. Thus, De Bran wasn’t getting the opportunities that he had hoped for…. he hoped that he would get one, just one, way to manage to get the boy to safety, away from Pineau’s grasp. He swore by Carmel’s pride and that he would take the chance – when it came, if it came – for her, no matter what the consequences were for himself.

De Bran looked for Pineau’s emotions, and waited for a weakness to let him in. But it didn’t come. Instead, he was closing up even further. Pineau was getting frustrated at the children’s failures, and as a result was steeling himself up.

The Missourian boy – Jack Thorn – and the two girls – Fysel Hay and Hivan Lake – were certainly not living up to expectations. For being the best children in America at science, they were very disappointing – and humiliating too to De Bran, who had at least thought that America was reasonably advanced scientifically.

But at least the other two were performing reasonably well and adept with advanced equipment, and keeping Pineau appeased. He was clearly impressed at how Klaus Pack and Qwerty Rooke, especially Qwerty, were so obviously advanced at science.

But this wasn’t good for De Bran at all: he had now not just got to save one boy from Pineau, but three children, all of whom were unwittingly putting their head between the jaws of the crocodile of Pineau. Knowing Pineau, he would not allow such talent to go to “waste” and would force them to work for him.

By the time that they got to the technology experiments, De Bran wished that he could read Pineau’s mind and know what he was thinking. Pineau had his lips tightly pursed, only opening them to talk, and his eyes were clearly irritated at something.

At what? De Bran couldn’t think what. Yes, Pineau could be annoyed at the disappointing performances at some of the children, as De Bran had thought previously that had been the cause, but that now seemed unlikely.

Seriously, why would Pineau be so annoyed? Was he really putting so much trust in these young children to solve the problems of America’s lack of scientists? Or was it something else, something far more… sinister?

*******

But eventually, all of the experiments were over and it was time for lunch. It struck Jack as surprising at how few government officials he had met but how many experiments they had done. It was nothing like what Jack had been expecting, and that made him uneasy.

Even when they met someone important in the corridors, they weren’t singled out but just treated as normal employees, just given a greeting glance, nothing special.

That gave Jack a chilling thought. Were they just simple, normal, employees? Had there been something else in the message saying that they would be hired or something? Or was this just what had been planned?

Jack hoped that all of his bad fears were not grounded in anything, but the more he looked at Pineau and considered what they had done, the stronger his fears became. Pineau’s whole manner of holding his body looked very suspicious, as if he was treating them all as just some kind of testing material. It was all very worrying. Very worrying.

They had lunch in one of the small kafs in the building, and were all forced to sit together because it was apparently going to be very busy in the kaf.

Hivan and Fysel’s bravado was all gone, especially Hivan’s, ashamed at how difficult they had found the experiments that morning. That was a relieving thing, and it gave Jack far more breathing space.

Fysel and Hivan had a conversation with Qwerty about science and how she knew so much, and they were much nicer people now than they had been before.

Klaus sat by himself with his numerous plates of food surrounding him and pushing into a lot of Jack’s space. Jack didn’t have the heart to push it away, and he didn’t want to talk.

He held onto Qwerty’s arm and thought apprehensively of what was going to happen. He now was absolutely positive that something was going on, he just knew. And he wanted to get away as soon as possible. Preferably now.

Whenever he looked at Pineau’s face, it rung with something sinister. Jack knew that Pineau had something up his sleeve, and he didn’t intend to let Pineau use it. He would have to get away with Qwerty and go off to Missouri…. now. Why wait? It would only increase the risk.

Looking about, he saw two guards around, watching the corridor, but that was it. Other than that, the coast was clear. Jack knew that with his new-found abilities, he would easily be able to escape, but Qwerty…. he wasn’t so sure.

Qwerty.” he whispered.

She went on for a moment describing how light travels through vacuum and sound doesn’t before she turned to Jack.

Yes?” she asked, a little bit annoyed at the interruption.

We need to talk.”

Why?” she asked, telling Hivan and Fysel to wait a moment without her.

We just do.”

What’s the matter?” she asked, softer this time.

Fysel, Hivan and Klaus were all still within hearing distance, so Jack kept quiet, “I want to tell you something.”

Jack saw in Qwerty’s eyes that she knew what he was wanting to talk about, and she replied, “Now?”

Yes! It’s urgent!” Jack replied, tense.

Can’t it wait?” Qwerty asked, bored.

No! If we don’t talk about it now, it could pass!” Jack pleaded with her.

But Qwerty didn’t listen, and said, “It doesn’t matter. Seriously, there’s no problem, Jack. I know what you want, and trust me, there’s nothing.”

There is! Honestly……!” Jack said, anxiously, knowing Pineau could return any moment, “Come on!”

In a couple of minits.” Qwerty said and turned away.

Jack’s heart sunk with fear, and he repeated, having worked himself up into a frenzied panic that Pineau could return, “No! Not later! Now…”

Qwerty turned around.

Please…” Jack asked tentatively, hoping with all of his heart that Qwerty would come around.

Ok.” she gave in. “What do you want?”

Jack’s heart lifted in temporary relief, “Let’s go to somewhere no-one can hear us.”

The bathroom?” Qwerty suggested, a little bit easier now she had finally given in and no longer had a hanging conversation to distract her.

Ok.” said Jack, “sounds ok.”

They walked towards the toilets which were on the side of the kaf. They then pushed open the doors and stood there, looking at each other. They didn’t go into the male nor female bathrooms, but just stood in the small hall outside.

What is it, Jack?” Qwerty asked eventually.

Jack paused to let a man going to the toilet go past, “I have this serious feeling that something is going wrong.”

Why?” Qwerty asked, a little bit bored, “What’s going wrong? I can’t see anything going “wrong””

I don’t know.” Jack noticed how much his theory was based on assumptions, “Just the way Pineau looks, and…”

How does he look?” Qwerty interrupted.

He looks very suspicious, and looks like he is testing us for his own ends. And also there is the experiments and that test…”

Yes?”

They make it seem as if the government wants to do something to us.”

How?”

Erm… Maybe they will make sure that we are up to a certain level, and are then planning on getting us to do something for them?”

Qwerty was clearly sceptical, but she carried on asking, “What do you want us to do?”

Jack paused to wait for the man who had gone past previously to return, and then he said forcibly, “Run away. Get as far away from this place as possible, and then escape. Now.”

Why now?”

It’s not safe any more. You said we need to be careful, well we’ll be careful! We’ll go away and run to Missouri now! What’s the need to stay on? We’ll get no profit, but we could get loss.”

Leaving now could draw unnecessary attention, which we don’t want.” Qwerty pointed out.

Does it matter?” Jack asked, “We’ll be in Missouri before they can blink an eyelid.”

No, we won’t. It’ll take a lot longer than that.” Qwerty said, and she paused, then looked Jack right in the eye. There was a terrible pause before she continued, “I’m sorry Jack, but I want to stay. And all of your fears seem founded in nothing but just feelings. If any more trouble becomes clear, I promise you I’ll leave with you.”

But by then it could be too late!” Jack pleaded with her, but she wouldn’t listen.

Look Jack, I really want to see what happens and as far as I can see it there is no problem. What you say is all based on feelings. I find it hard to rely upon your feelings.”

Jack could understand what Qwerty thought, but he couldn’t help thinking about what would happen if they stayed behind. He just knew that something would go wrong.

But I can’t leave without Qwerty…

Qwerty went out of the room after being sure that, whilst not agreeing with it, Jack was ok with it. So she went out and sat down at the table.

Jack spent the next couple of minits in the bathroom thinking about it, but came to no certain conclusion. Eventually, he knew he couldn’t leave without Qwerty, so against his better judgement, he went to sit down next to her.

He knew nothing of the consequences of the actions that he had just done. Had he known, he would not have been anywhere near as hasty with his actions. He would have left… straight away.

*******

De Bran followed Pineau to a small meeting after leaving the children in the kaf. There would be no lunch for him today: he would just have to wait until dinnertime.

He didn’t want lunch however, so just followed Pineau to the room where the small meeting would be held. A few people were already there, including powerful people such as Mr Plains and a very half-hearted Mr Brewn.

They sat down and kept silent for a few minits as more people filed in until the small room was full to capacity. Then Pineau stood up to speak.

You have all been invited here today,” he said in a grand voice which certainly wasn’t needed, “to decide what to do with the children who are here in the building.”

They all already knew that that was the purpose. Most of them nodded.

You all know my plan, and I am sure none of you have a problem with it.”

De Bran could have sworn Pineau glanced his way at that time on purpose. De Bran looked away towards the doorway, trying to get out of Pineau’s glare. Did Pineau know he was hoping to sabotage it? De Bran hoped not, but couldn’t be sure.

The first question is this: of the five, which are of any decent calibre to be involved in this plan?” Pineau asked, again with unneeded grandeur.

All of them had been watching their performances from cameras and screens, and they all had different ideas of who were good enough to work on the machine.

Some said all: others said none. Some said only the girl Qwerty, whilst some went for two.

There was starting to be a big argument when Pineau told them all to calm down.

We’ll have a vote.” he said.

From there, it was a long process getting the votes together and counting them, but eventually it was done, and they had decided on the girl Qwerty and the two boys – apparently.

From the votes De Bran had seen Jack Thorn hadn’t been voted for very highly, and De Bran was pretty sure that Pineau was biasing it so that the boy would have to go in. Further evidence that Pineau was so firmly set on his line he would do anything to further it.

But who was De Bran to fight against it? He had no evidence, and the other members of the government would quickly trump it down, and maybe accuse him of being anti-American, which he certainly was not. He began to feel more and more like a fish swept away in the tide, with no hope to control their own destiny and choices. It was very annoying.

The next thing to decide.” Pineau said, after all the votes had been counted and announced, “Is who will be interviewing who.”

A few people backed out, but most of them all wanted to be given a role in the interviews, no matter what role. De Bran put himself forward as well, intending to sabotage the meeting that he was in if the child said no and was about to be “punished”.

Yes, I know you all want to do it.” said Pineau, as if he was talking to little children, “But who will do which?”

I personally will be doing the girl Qwerty.” Pineau continued without listening to anyone of the multiple people that spoke up, “She reminds me of someone I once knew, and I suspect her. I think that, if she resists, I will give her the same treatment I will give the boy, for she is clearly a very suspicious character.”

No-one replied to Pineau, but De Bran was shocked and appalled, and he hoped others were too. Now, on someone who there was even less evidence on that they were an enemy of the government, Pineau was planning on being just as inhumane!

But the girl must make Pineau very suspicious if he decides to choose her, De Bran felt, interested, We were all expecting Pineau to go for the Missourian boy.

So now who would take the primary role in interviewing the Missourian boy? De Bran wondered, and hoped that it would be him. Knowing Pineau, he doubted it, but still…. there was hope. Small hope.

*******

Pineau and a couple of other people went aside to decide who would do what. They were there for a few minits, and De Bran realised that this meeting was being treated very different to most meetings. They were all being treated as…. children.

Decisions were being made without any common consensus, and Pineau was asking simple rhetorical questions like De Bran asked his children. It was just another sign of Pineau wanting it exactly his way, and not caring about what anyone else wanted. Typical Pineau.

Pineau, Plains, and another man who had been with them who De Bran couldn’t remember the name of, eventually came away from the wall where they had been discussing, and came to the front.

Pineau pushed a few people away, and then announced who would be doing what. Nobody else was able to have any say in the matter, as De Bran had feared.

Pineau went through the list of “applicants”, leaving out most people from any role. Eventually, only a few names had not been listed out, and the role of chief examination of the Missourian boy was not assigned yet.

De Bran hung onto the fact that it could be him. If it was, if it was, he knew that he would stand up and go against Pineau’s wishes. He would have to.

Pineau went on for a couple of minits, rejecting most people and giving insignificant roles to others, roles they would prefer not to have. De Bran, however, still hadn’t been chosen and his hopes were getting stronger.

And the role of chief interviewer of Jack Thorn…” Pineau said dramatically, and then he waited for a couple of seconds for effect.

This is it. Make or break. Will I get it, will I?

Goes to Steve Plains.” Pineau finished. De Bran could feel the frustration whooshing all out of himself.

Chapter 25

What should I do? The question still rang in Jack’s head uncontrollably as he sat on his seat at the table, and there was no escape from it. Even though he knew precisely what he was going to do.

He couldn’t just endanger Qwerty in something that he knew was dangerous. It would be outrageous and disloyal. Inside him, he knew he could not and would not endanger Qwerty’s life like that. It just wasn’t possible for him to think of now.

Jack was positive that something would go wrong, but he had no idea why, what, or when. There was just this feeling inside him of danger. Was it one of his new-found abilities? Did he have a “danger-sensor” as well as everything else?

From how he felt, it seemed very likely, now that he considered it. After all, he was so certain that there would be trouble… so certain. He sighed, at put his arm down on the table. If only things went easily in his life. But they just didn’t seem to.

But the idea of the “danger-sensor” changed everything. If he got Qwerty to look at it that way, then he did nowhave a good solid reason for his fears. Qwerty would never be able to argue against it now…

Qwert.” he said in a soft tone of voice when the conversation she had been having died down.

Qwerty turned to him, “Yes?” she asked.

They got out of their seats and walked over to a corner of the kaf, where they stared at each other for a moment.

Jack opened his mouth to speak, but in that instant, Pineau and Mr De Bran came into the kaf. Jack swore aloud, very frustrated.

There was an awkward moment where Qwerty thought he had been swearing at her, until he explained. But he didn’t manage to talk to her about his feelings, and he again felt that shuddering feeling that it had already gone too far and was now too late…

Come with us.” Pineau said sternly. He wasn’t expecting a reply, and didn’t get one. They all stood up off their seat and followed him.

*******

They all followed Pineau through the corridors and halls towards an area of the building which was very posh. The quality of everything was a lot better than Jack was used to, and he wasn’t even sure if he should touch anything.

Pineau didn’t show any emotion on his face apart from the same hard look that he had had the whole day. His footsteps were a lot heavier than was necessary, and he had a wrinkled frown above his eyes that was gradually impressing itself harder into his face.

Jack would have just loved to know what he was thinking, and then just to be able to show it to Qwerty. Just to be able to rescue her from the impending danger. But was it too late?

Mr De Bran, however, ran a completely different look to Pineau. Whilst Pineau was calm and stern, De Bran was very nervous and very apprehensive about something. His eyes were coated with fear and he was clearly thinking very heard about something or other.

What was he thinking? And why was he so apprehensive? From what Jack knew about his relationship with Pineau, it was so close that De Bran was in no way going to lose his job or anything like that. So why was he so nervy?

Jack was not sure, but he knew why he himself was nervy: something was going to happen, and it wasn’t going to be a good thing. If only Qwerty had let them escape earlier…

But she hadn’t, and she still didn’t believe Jack. It was heartbreaking, but Jack now knew what he had to do: at all costs, he had to protect her. Otherwise, the consequences would be devastating.

Pineau walked for quite a long time, and the corridors seemed to get harder and duller. His feet were starting to ache, and he felt an itch up his right leg that he didn’t dare to scratch.

It still took twenty minits before Pineau eventually stopped and walked into a rather small hall, signalling to the five to follow him, which they all did.

When they walked in, Jack looked around. It was a smallish hall, which could hold about fifty people at maximum. But it seemed like it was absolutely full with important members of the government. The fear in Jack’s stomach went up another notch, and another, and another, as Jack saw more and more people and realised just how hard it would be to escape. Now what, Jack? Still got a plan?

Too late. Too late. Too late. The words rang in Jack’s head like bullets from a gun as somebody led them to five seats right in the middle of the hall. It took a few minits to get there due to the crowdedness of the hall and the amount of handshakes they had to do. The five of them were treated like celebrities, and Jack enjoyed the feeling. It was a nice change from anxiety

This is more like what I expected to happen. But not with so many people. Why so many? Is there a reason?

Eventually, they were able to sit down. Jack seated himself on the far left of the five, next to Qwerty. He held her beautiful hand in his and squeezed tight. Looking in her eyes, he saw apprehension, fear… and love. Jack knew that he couldn’t let anything happen to her. Nothing.

There was a minit where nothing happened before Pineau stood up on a make-shift platform at the front of the hall. Jack had thought that he had seen enough of Pineau making announcement after announcement, but it hadn’t changed. Either the man had a massive ego or he wasn’t creative enough in methods of conveying messages. Probably both.

Jack was bored and afraid, so he barely heard Pineau when he ran a few introductions, saying well done and all that type of paraphernalia. He had heard it enough anyway.

Then Pineau talked specifically to Hivan and Fysel. He praised them – can the man not stop spouting false, empty praise? –beforehe told them that they would be returning back to their homes.

He spoke as kindly as he could, but underlying his artificial front of cheerfulness was stern eyes and a clear evil nature. The two were hurriedly give them certificates with some polite clapping, and then told a couple of men waiting outside the door to drive the two girls back to their homes, wherever that was.

They themselves were clearly very disappointed, and Fysel had to brush away a few tears but Pineau stayed emotionless and showed them the door heartlessly, without even allowing them to say goodbye to Qwerty. Looking at Pineau, Jack considered what he saw: an evil man, full of evilness with no sense of pity. It chilled him to the bone.

Why did he do that? What was that all about? What had they done to him? Or was it….. because they weren’t good enough for what he wanted? And what does he want with us? More importantly, what does he want with Qwert, who was clearly the most able at science? What will he do? Will he… kill us? For being a threat?

The knot of fear just had just gone one step tighter on Jack, and he was starting to suffocate and panic. But he kept his hold on his body…. just about.

But he was anxious, and he knew it. He knew that something was up, and he wanted to get away as soon as feasibly possible. But it just wasn’t possible. Is it too late? Was it what Jack had been dreading all along? Had they stepped too far into the trap?

Pineau continued, and from his next sentence Jack knew instantly why they were there. Precisely why what had happened had happened. In a split-second, it had all made absolute sense.

Jack, Qwerty, and Klaus, you have heard of the brilliant weapon that helped us to conquer Greece, have you not?” Pineau said.

Jack couldn’t nod. He felt sick. In that second, he could read Pineau’s thoughts like a book, and he could see exactly what he was thinking. Here… All the way…Wanted to escape…. Didn’t…. All those tests…. For this!?

It suddenly became so obvious that Jack had no idea why he had not noticed it before. They had been absolutely conned into coming to the building just so that they could be the government’s little servants! That was the purpose of the tests! That was why Fysel and Hivan had been sent home! That was why this all had happened. And now… there was no escape, not any more. Not when Pineau was like this, and was intent on getting them to help him on his little plan.

Next to him, Jack knew that Qwerty had realised the same… but for her, it was worse. She knew that she was the cause of why they were in such a difficult position…

She stared into Jack’s eyes, absolutely petrified at what Jack would think and at the impending disaster. Not only would they be serving the American government, but they would also be helping America destroy Missouri. Unless, of course, they got a way out.

Pineau continued on with the scientific side of the weapon, but Jack couldn’t care less about it. He was trying to formulate a plan – any teeny tiny plan! – that would help them to manage to escape.

I forgive you.” he whispered to Qwerty.

I’m sorry.” she whispered back.

It doesn’t matter. You didn’t know.”

I should have done.”

Please. Don’t blame yourself. It’ll only do harm. Do you know a way out of this?”

Qwerty leaned onto his arm. Jack could feel her shaking in fear, and he knew that he felt the same as well. Suddenly, he had just known exactly what Pineau had been planning, and he didn’t like it.

Jack looked around, but there were guards all around the room. He doubted whether even he could manage to get away, let alone Qwerty as well. And then there was Klaus… Would Klaus want to help on the weapon?

Pineau continued on about how the machine managed to manipulate people’s minds so brilliantly. Jack knew that Missouri would have liked him to listen and take information that way, but he was too anxious to bother about what Missouri would have wanted.

Was there really no escape route? None at all? He glanced back at Qwerty’s face, and his worried glance told it all.

I’m sorry.” she whispered.

We’ll have to see how it goes.” he replied. “see what happens, and try to escape.”

She nodded. “If you get a chance, escape without me. Go to Missouri and get some help or anything. But make sure you take any opportunity you get”

Jack knew that he was meant to say “No, you’ll come with me or I will die.”, but he knew that his and Qwerty’s rational minds would know that actually getting away for help would be a far better option than to risk trying to rescue the other. So he nodded in agreement, and said,

I love you.”

Me too.” she replied.

They spent a couple of moments looking at each other in love, both afraid and wondering in apprehension if this would be the last time that they would ever manage to talk together again. It was unthinkable to consider what the Americans would do, if any of them would refuse to help on their weapon.

Unless they found a way to escape, they would have no chance. No chance. Was there a way to escape? Jack hoped that one could open up, and that he would take it. He would have to take it.

Pineau raised his voice up a notch, interrupting Jack and Qwerty’s thoughts.

So now, all three of you, if each of you would like to stand up and come over here.” he said in yet another grand voice.

What did he say before?” Qwerty mouthed to Jack.

No idea.” he mouthed back, suddenly wishing that he had paid some more attention.

They went over to where Pineau was standing with a few certain members of the government. He waited for them and then stared at them.

Jack felt all sorts of emotion inside him, but he made sure that none of them managed to take the better of him and that he could resist them. Losing his temper now would be far too costly, and any small hope of escape would be gone.

Pineau stared them up and down in what seemed to be an attempt to unsettle them. Jack didn’t care: let him do whatever he liked! Jack knew that he would never now be able to be put off.

Eventually, after what must have been about three minits, Pineau opened his mouth and spoke,

The three of you have shown incredible scientific ability over the course of the day, and that is why you are specifically here.” he said.

Klaus nodded proudly, but both Jack and Qwerty were too petrified to do anything. They held onto each other’s hand as if they were on a sinking ship.

They were standing in a corner of the hall, with numerous doors leading off from that corner alone. They were surrounded by important members of the American government, so behind them there was no escape.

But what lies through those doors? Jack was considering trying them to escape, when he heard Pineau say, “And we would like to talk to you each separately.”

This was exactly what Jack had feared, but expected. He would have to be split up from Qwerty, and now, it was unlikely that they would be able to get away together.

So, if Qwerty would like to follow me, Klaus to follow Mr De Bran, and Jack to follow Mr Plains, then we can talk about what we want to say to each of you.”

Jack felt sorry for Qwerty, that she would have to be with Pineau, but he knew that the result would be the same either way. Unless he got away, Plains would ask him to help on the weapon, which he would have to refuse.

Then, the Americans would probably take him prisoner and eventually kill him when they eventually found out all the spying that he had done. It wasn’t a nice thought.

He felt Qwerty’s beautiful body brush against his arm. “Good luck.” he said.

You too.” she said, and then whispered, “Get away without me. I know you can, Jack, you can. It’s our only hope. But come back for me.”

He nodded. “I will. I promise.” he whispered back.

As he walked away after Plains, he wondered if those would be the last words that he ever said to her, and fear gripped his soul. He loved her more than he loved himself, and if anyone so much as hurt a hair on her head… they will pay. They will pay. I swear on my life that they will have to pay.

*******

As De Bran led Klaus into one of the small meeting rooms that led off the hall that they had been in, he felt a little bit ashamed at himself. Why hadn’t he taken some initiative for himself and tried to stop Pineau in a more drastic way?

But he already knew the answer. He was a coward, and unwilling to risk losing his job for the sake of what was right. Pineau had an evil streak about him today which he didn’t normally have, and De Bran knew that he should have stopped his plans earlier. But he hadn’t, and now it was probably too late.

The two children in question were now out of his hand. What would he tell Carmel, that he had failed her? Or should he lie? He couldn’t think which one would be worse.

He positioned himself at the back of the table in the centre of the room and waited for everyone else to sit down in the positions that Pineau – Pineau! – had set for them to sit down in.

Then, he looked at the boy Klaus. Klaus’ chubby face looked over the moon, and he was clearly relishing being in the limelight. De Bran thought that Klaus was certainly not the sort of boy who would refuse. But if he did, then he consoled himself with the fact that he would be able to protect him. But he knew that he had failed. Unless….

*******

Jack was sitting down on a chair in front of a desk in one of the small meeting rooms. Around him were all sorts of people: some government officials, but mainly guards, although most of them were unarmed. When he had got to escape, it would be no easy fight: but he might make it.

Plains sat down on the chair opposite Jack, and he waited for everyone to be in their positions. Then he spoke, and Jack found him to be a totally different man from the guile and slickness of Pineau.

Now, I’m not going to congratulate you, as you’ve been congratulated enough already.” Plains said gruffly but seriously.

Jack was glad of that. He wanted it over and done with as soon as possible, and to be away and running. Preferably with Qwerty, though how he could get to her now was unknown. He would try. He would have to.

So straight to the point: Mr Pineau has told you all about the weapon, and you were listening, right?”

Yes.” Jack lied, his eyes not portraying any emotion.

Basically,” Plains said, his shaven head having trickles of perspiration run down it, “We are out of scientists. I’m not going to lie, or make anything sound nice: we are desperate. And we need you to help us on this weapon.”

Jack tried to look surprised. He didn’t think that he did it very well, and neither did Plains, who wasn’t fooled one bit.

I’m not going to give you time to think, because you clearly knew ages ago what you were going to be asked. Will you help us?”

Plains seemed almost bored in his speech, and it was obvious that he knew what Jack would say. How??? Plains drummed his fingers on the table. “What is your answer?” he asked. “Get on with it, and don’t pretend that you just considered it just then.”

Stand up for what is right, Jack. Don’t back down, not now. Just get on with what you’ve got to say and go and rescue Qwerty. Do it, Jack. Do it.

No.” Jack said. “I won’t.”

Chapter 26

Plains didn’t even bother to ask “Why?”, which threw Jack off his plan a bit. It was plain that Plains had already known exactly why and what Jack was going to say.

Before Jack could even stop to think, Plains had clicked his fingers, and the guards who had been standing behind Jack closed in on him. “This is what happens to those who are enemies to our state.” Plains said, expecting Jack to be soon gone.

The guards closed in and were about to grab Jack. They had thought they had the element of surprise, but Jack had heard their every move and had already known precisely how far away they were.

They were all moving in sync with each other, and that made it easy for Jack to hear how close they were. Just as the front man was about to grab him by the shoulders, Jack leapt out of they way, leaving the man grasping at air.

Jack had leapt up on top of the desk, and he looked for a moment at a shocked Plains, who had no idea how Jack had done what he had just done.

They locked eyes for a couple of seconds, before Jack gave Plains a flying kick in the face. Plains had no chance, and he went toppling back over the back of his chair onto the hard floor, screaming. Jack felt no pity at the pain of the man who had just been about to send him to his death.

Jack bounced off the desk onto the floor and spun around to face the guards. There were six of them coming close to him, but all of them were nervous after what he had done to Plains. They stood off for a couple of seconds, a little bit wary.

Those seconds were all Jack needed, and he threw himself into the middle of the guards. Two of them went clattering to the floor with a loud crash, and the others backed out of the way, now afraid at the sudden strength of what had seemed to be a normal fourteen-year-old.

Jack looked about where he was now. The door lay right in front of him, but between him and there there were already four guards, who looked far tougher than the guards Jack had just taken out. However, Jack knew that he could do it.

Behind Jack were four other guards, but they were nervous and standing out of the way. Plains was still on the floor, probably unconscious, and that looked like all who were in the room.

But Jack had forgotten about the two guards he had sent to the floor. One of them took out a gun, and fired a shot at Jack. At the last moment, Jack sprung aside and the bullet flew harmlessly at the ceiling. But another bullet was already on the way.

Jack dodged that one as well, and he knew that he would have to escape straight away if he wanted to get away with his life, now that he was facing gunfire.

Knowing that, he made a beeline for the doorway that would lead to the exit, dodging the few bullets that came his way. They soon stopped: undoubtedly the gun had very limited ammunition.

That made it a lot easier for Jack, and when he got to the doorway, the guards there had no chance. They were already shell-shocked by how fast Jack had moved, and he was able to break through them with only a nasty bruise on the upper arm.

Then, Jack was through into the hall. The hall was, surprisingly, practically empty apart from a couple of scared cleaners, so he stopped for a couple of seconds to create a plan and how to rescue Qwerty.

As he was doing this, he heard something that chilled him right to the bone: in one of the rooms by the side of the hall, there was a really high-pitched scream that Jack knew was Qwerty’s. Before Jack could even think of the implications, that was silenced by a loud gunshot, identical to the gun that Jack had been shot at with.

No. No way. Never. Surely not.

No way. Surely Qwerty hadn’t been shot. Surely it was all going to go ok. Surely it was all fine. Surely, surely, surely……

Jack suddenly blew into a fit of rage, and he was about to go into the door and kill whoever had seemed to kill Qwerty, but then he remembered what she had said. “If you ever get a chance go without me. Then go to Missouri and get some help.” Well, Jack had a chance, and he knew what to do. Like it or not, he would have to obey Qwerty’s commands and escape. But he would be back.

*******

De Bran had been hoping that Klaus had decided not to help and so De Bran would be able to somehow defy Pineau, but that hadn’t happened. Klaus’ eyes had lit up even brighter when he had heard that he would be able to help, and De Bran knew that it would be morally wrong to deny the boy what he wanted.

Klaus had been taken immediately by one of the science team to what he had to do, and De Bran was just relaxing on his chair and trying to hide his disappointment when he heard the first gunshots.

That made him shoot right out of his chair. This was a way in which he would help whoever it was to escape! He ran towards the exit of the rooms, past the scared cleaners, and looked out of the small window.

There was nothing there for a minit or so and De Bran was tempted to go out and see what had been going on when the boy – Jack Thorn – ran out of the room he had been in. De Bran was impressed. Had he taken out all of the guards, single-handedly?

De Bran was planning on finding out when he heard the chilling scream, followed up by the gunshot. He knew exactly what that was. It was murder, and De Bran knew what he had to do: protect the boy.

De Bran was enraged, and he rushed out of the room at the same time as Jack Thorn turned to run out of the hall. De Bran wondered why he wasn’t going back into he room to take revenge. Was there something even more important? Whatever it was, his future was in De Bran’s hands and De Bran was intending to protect him

Three guards ran out of the room where Jack Thorn had been. Two of them had nasty bruises on their face. The three were soon backed up by a number more

Where’s the boy gone?” asked the one in front, who seemed to be upper-ranked.

De Bran thought fast. “Which boy?” he asked, buying time for both himself and the boy.

You know, the boy! Jack Thorn!” the man said.

Oh, him. Why do you ask?” De Bran replied casually

The man was already angry, and he replied in a fit of rage, “He ran away, and injured most of the people who were in the room, including Plains!”

He ran away?” De Bran asked, feinting surprise.

Yeah!” the man growled. “And where did he go, dumbo?”

Don’t call me any dumbo. I’m Mr De Bran to you.” De Bran said back sternly, hoping that he had bought enough time for the boy.

The man gulped, aware of his mistake and how what he did probably meant some serious punishment. “Where’s the boy?” he asked, a lot of his bravado gone.

The boy? He ran out that door.” De Bran pointed to the door where Jack had run out. He had just got a plan in his mind.

The men turned to follow, but then De Bran added, just for good measure, “But don’t go out that way. Go out that way.” De Bran pointed to a door that would lead to another part of the building.

Why? That’s-” the man pointed to the door that Jack had run out through, “the way to the exit!”

But the boy will be exiting by Viola Street. I overheard his conversation with his girlfriend.” De Bran lied, “I don’t know how he knew about it, but he’s going by Viola Street. If you take the other door you could get there before him.”

Are you sure?” the man asked doubtfully, and for good reason too.

Yes, I am sure! Now go to the Viola Street exit! That’s an order!”

As the men ran off, De Bran felt a sudden sense of peace. Of course the boy wasn’t going by Viola Street. He would take the main exit, and by the time the guards realised that, Jack would be long gone.

And just in case, De Bran was going to the Viola Street exit himself. He wrote a message telling all guards to block off the boy at the Viola Street exit, and then ran off from the hall.

*******

Jack ran out of the hall, unawares of De Bran spotting him. He went through the door, and was about to turn left towards the main exit when he remembered the Greyham Building blueprints that he had memorized.

Everyone would be expecting him to go to the main exit, and by the time he got there it would be swarming with guards. But what was the name of that small exit by the side of the building?

Viola Street? It was actually pretty close, and the guards wouldn’t expect him to go there. If they had known, then they might have been able to get there quicker as the hall led out more or less right onto it whilst Jack had to take a long route, but they wouldn’t have known, would they? Surely not.

Yes, Viola Street was the best option. It shouldn’t be hard to get through the feeble amount of guards that they have there, and he could escape and avenge whatever they had done to Qwerty. Qwerty….

*******

De Bran followed the guards through towards the Viola Street exit of the building. Within two minits, they were there, and De Bran was soon surprised to see about twenty-five more guards arrive as well, all armed with guns. If the boy came this way, he would be dead.

But he wouldn’t, would he? No, De Bran would have just made a horrible mistake. Poor him. He had heard “Viola Street” wrongly, the boy had just whispered to his girlfriend “Fire Street”, the other side exit of the building. Oh dear. What a mistake.

De Bran knew that he had done the right thing. Carmel would be proud of him, and now he could go home with a clear conscience. The boy was surely saved, thanks to him.

*******

Jack ran along the corridors, drawing on his memory, which was as fresh as ever. He knew exactly where he was, and it was only a couple of minits till he got out of the building.

He was on the first floor, running past the lodgings of the cleaners of the Building. From there, he could run down the stairs and then get out through the small exit that most people had no idea existed.

*******

De Bran was standing with the guards casually, trying to blend in as well as he could in a suit and tie among all of the armour-plated guards.

Suddenly, he heard a crackle in the static of the guard’s radio next to him. It was the head of security in the Building. “He’ll be there in a minit, get ready.” was the message to the guard.

He’ll be here? In a minit? This isn’t meant to happen! De Bran thought to himself. No, the boy was meant to escape through the main exit! But the cameras showed he was coming this way.

Something had just gone terribly wrong, and it was all De Bran’s unintentional fault. The boy had known about Viola Street after all, and he was going to try to get out that way. But he was running into a trap accidentally set by De Bran. Now De Bran didn’t feel so good. What’s your plan now?

*******

Jack got to the staircase, and he looked behind himself. He still didn’t see any guards pursuing him. He knew that the Viola Street guards would have some warning of him, but that didn’t bother him. After all, there weren’t going to be many of them, and three guards were no match to him and his special abilities.

He went down the staircase, three steps at a time, knowing that when he got to the bottom he would be in clear view of any guards that were there. He prepared himself for the zig-zag run that he had been planning to dodge the bullets with.

Jumping to the bottom of the staircase, he turned the corner, and was suddenly petrified. There were about thirty or forty guards standing there with their guns at the ready.

All plans had to be aborted now except for one word: “Escape.” He spun around, dodging the first burst of gunfire that flung itself at him. One bullet grazed his arm, but nothing else happened. He jumped back up the stairs three-at-a-time, and he knew that somehow everything had now gone wrong.

He heard the charge of the guards following him, but he tried not to let himself become afraid. He just had to get away: somehow. Something had gone wrong. What was it?

*******

De Bran saw Jack come straight down the stairs, and his conscience turned to ice as he saw the desperate fear in the boy’s face. And it was all his, De Bran’s fault.

At least the boy got away from the first burst of gunfire, so there still was some hope. Some little hope. As orders were sent out,De Bran snatched a gun from the hands of a poor man and followed about ten other guards upstairs. The rest were meant to stay down in case the boy escaped.

De Bran followed them and chased the boy along the corridors. They didn’t shoot, as they thought that they had their prey cornered and he couldn’t escape. But De Bran knew that he would try to stop them, whatever the cost. He had gone too far to back down now.

*******

Jack ran along, looking backwards. He saw ten or so guards, and was that Mr De Bran? He couldn’t be sure, but it did look like him.

If it was, then that made it even worse. Pineau’s assistant, closing him down? There was no way in which he could manage to change their mind. Not that he would have planned to.

So where should he go? He considered the blueprints he had in his mind. There was the lake to the south of the building…. there was probably a window there as well. He might be able to get out that way, somehow…

*******

De Bran and the guards were led around the house by the boy for about ten minits, who didn’t seem to be getting any more tired. The guards were getting tired though, and they had no backup to help them to keep up. Gradually they were dropping back, and it was only a matter of time before the guards with him starting using firearms. When they did, the building might get badly damaged, but the boy would have it worse.

De Bran would have to stop it when it eventually happened, but for now there was no need to think about it. The boy was heading towards the Southern side of the building, and he seemed to know it really well. Had he been in the building before? He seemed to have.

The guard in front of De Bran took out his gun, but De Bran told him to put it back in.

Why?” the guard asked.

It’ll damage the house.” De Bran answered, “And we can take him out normally as well.”

The guard wasn’t happy, but he sheathed his gun whilst still maintaining his pace.

De Bran was gradually getting more and more astounded at the speed that the boy was still going at. He seemed to have vast resources of strength and energy, whilst only the thought of Carmel and protecting the boy enabled De Bran keep going on.

*******

Jack knew where he was now. All he needed now was a window to jump out from, and he was safe. The guards – and De Bran, if it was him – would never be able to follow him there. He was safe.

*******

They were now running along the southern edge of the building, and there was still no sign of any other guards. Maybe taking care of something else, for all De Bran cared. He was just intent on saving Jack here.

*******

Jack turned the corner and saw a window right in front of him. It was the perfect size, and easily breakable. Probably double-glazed, but that didn’t bother him. He just had to smash through it into the lake and he was safe. Hopefully the guards just wouldn’t be sensible enough to use their guns now. That was all Jack needed.

*******

De Bran saw the boy turn the corridor, and followed him round. The boy had picked up pace and De Bran saw his exact plan: to jump out of the window into the lake.

But the guards had seen it as well. They unsheathed their guns and picked a shot at Jack, not bothering to move closer. They knew that they had got him now.

*******

Jack sprinted along the corridor, knowing exactly what speed and strength he needed to smash through the window and get into the lake. He didn’t care about the guards now: they were no longer a threat. It was too late for them now.

*******

Everything suddenly seemed to go into slow-motion for De Bran. The boy – Jack – was sprinting along the corridor faster than De Bran had ever seen anyone go, and the guards were lining up their shots.

They all started firing but none of them hit with their first round. The boy was getting ever closer to the window, and De Bran, from his expert gun training, pinpointed one of the guards lining up a perfect shot on the boy.

*******

Jack was unsure when he first heard gunfire. That made everything so much harder, but the bullets had at least all missed. There was only a few metres to go now… surely he couldn’t fail, not this late. He had come so far…

Jack smashed through the window. There was a sharp pain in his shoulder, which had had the contact with the window, but apart from that it didn’t hurt a bit. All he needed to do now was splash into the lake safely.

*******

The guard paused for a moment and there was a massive smash of glass as Jack broke through the window. The guard realigned up his shot, and De Bran tried to open his mouth to shout.

But he just couldn’t speak, and the words “Don’t shoot!” just didn’t come out. His voice was dry, and nothing was there. He couldn’t say a thing. In a sudden, chilling, thought, he knew exactly why: he was just far too scared about losing his job and role.

And in that instant of De Bran’s indecision, the guard took his shot. The boy, who had been halfway through leaping out of the window, suddenly span wildly in a different direction. Blood spurted from his chest in all sorts of direction, and his eyes, when they turned to the window, were absolutely panic-lined.

His body dropped down towards the lake, and De Bran knew that the boy’s life was over. It couldn’t not have been. De Bran knew from his training that that shot had been perfectly true and it had shot the heart perfectly. Alas….

The boy was dead, and it had all been De Bran’s fault for not stopping it earlier. He needed to have stopped it, nipped the plan in the bud when it had started. But he hadn’t. He hadn’t. And now what? What would you say now to Carmel? That you failed?

And whilst all of the guards around him were congratulating their colleague who had taken the shot, De Bran could only think of one thing. Failure.

You coward. You absolute coward. Whatever will Carmel think of you when she hears how you let him be killed? What will she think? What? What? What?

Chapter 27

There was nothing for it. De Bran knew that, in his state, there was no way that he could face anyone else in the Building. Instead, he decided to go straight back home.

Trying to avoid all the areas where Pineau might have been, he got all of his belongings and then signed himself off, claiming he had something to do back at home. Whatever Pineau might think of that, De Bran no longer cared. His mind was running in circles and he just couldn’t think straight.

He hurriedly put on his long, black, jacket and dark-tinted sunglasses, and then walked out of the building the deserted car park. He hurriedly got into his car, revved up the engine, and gunned the dark grey car out of the car park into the empty streets.

He drove straight back to his house, wondering all the way what he would say to Carmel. The truth? Or a lie? He knew right away that he would have to say the truth. There would be no way he could lie.

Eventually, he got back to his house in south Nashville. It was an impressive three-bedroomed house, with two stories. It was very posh by Nashville standards, and the pebble-dashed front with a small porch sticking out was very stylish. There were a few pots of flowers hanging from either side of the porch, and it looked all very nice on the outside.

But De Bran couldn’t care less about how his house looked at that time. Often when he came home he would examine the house and look around for what needed touching up, but not this time. He didn’t give the exterior of his house a second glance, and it was with a very heavy heart that he turned his small brass key in the door.

Hello?” he asked nervously, his heart pounding as he waited to hear Carmel’s voice, but there was silence. Carmel was out – possibly shopping. She certainly couldn’t have been expecting him back so early, and so she must have gone somewhere.

But the fact that she was out gave De Bran even more tension in his spirit, and it was absolutely unbearable for a man who had previously had everything going for him. He really needed to get all of his feelings off his chest, but there was just no-one he could feel close enough to do it with – except Carmel. But Carmel was out, and she never kept her Zonemaster with her: De Bran saw it resting on the kitchen table as he walked in.

He had no idea what to do, but somehow he managed to drop his briefcase on the floor with a loud crash and keep himself going all the five metres into the lounge.

He then fell down into one of the large armchairs that were there and hung his head in his arms in front of him. He was still in his dark suit and had his shoes on, but he couldn’t care less.

After all, he felt so so depressed. His mind kept playing over and over again the panicked face of the boy as he plunged to his death. The guard lining up the shot, the shatter of glass, the gunshot, the spurt of blood….. it was unbearable to even happen just once, but to be replayed over and over again… more than once during the noon-and-a-half whilst he was alone did De Bran consider suicide, but one thought, and one thought alone just about managed to stir him on and keep his self-control: Carmel..

One of the questions that came to him as he was thinking was Why did you do that? Why did you want to protect the boy? It was so sudden, and so different to all of the other questions that he had been thinking of, that he kept it in his mind and thought about it. But he knew the answer within a couple of seconds: it was Carmel. He loved her and wanted to do whatever she wanted.

But his new train of thought led him onto another, new, thought: So is Carmel more important to you than anything, than your job, than even yourself? He, internally, knew that the answer was yes. He had gone through so much pain previously for ignoring Carmel and his feelings for her, and now he was a better and a far more experienced man for it.

His intellect then forced up a third question: Would you do anything for her? And De Bran felt he knew that answer as well: yes, he would try. Although his inner demon of self-failure told him that he wasn’t going to be able to do such a thing. De Bran tried to not let himself think about that, and the voice returned, with even more power behind it.

Even kill Pineau?, it asked him, and the question hit home at De Bran’s core of loyalty and pride.

Why do you ask me such a thing!?!? he thought in reply, but the voice was still there, and it kept repeating itself over and over again, in that aggravating tone: Even kill Pineau? Even kill Pineau?.

Eventually, De Bran lowered himself to answer. Possibly. I might. In fact, probably…. but she would have to give you a good reason. Now stop asking these questions!

But his mind – or was it, could it possibly be, his subconscious self? – wouldn’t stop asking yet another awkward question, You said Pineau was “evil” today. How different was he from normal?

De Bran had no idea where these questions came from –himself?–, but they hit him at his core of loyalty and hurt him very intimately. He grasped his head in his ends as he battled with himself to find an answer.

The answer, when he considered it, was difficult to face. He didn’t really seem all that different, really. It was only my perception of him.

Which led onto another question that hit deep inside De Bran: Is he really evil all the time, then?

De Bran shuffled awkwardly in his seat, trying to escape from the scary thoughts that jumped out at him. But he couldn’t, and something he suddenly realised scared him: he realised that he actually wanted to have his perceptions changed. He wanted to question who he was loyal to, and he even wanted to consider his situation in all aspects of his life. The thought chilled him, and hit right at the heart of a man whose main pride was in his loyalty, no matter what the circumstances had been.

So is he evil? the question bugged at De Bran. It was something that he didn’t want to answer, because he knew the answer: from how Pineau acted in regard to the weapon, human life, and even how he treated own personal self, Pineau was “evil”. But De Bran just didn’t want to think about that. The implications were huge, far far too great.

But he couldn’t hide from it for long. It was just as if, suddenly, a switch had been turned on to look at Pineau a certain way, and the switch was irreversible. There was no hiding anymore from the truth: De Bran himself now knew the horrible truth, the truth he had been trying to hide from for so long. Pineau. Was. Evil.

Just like the weapon, Plains, and the rest of the American government. It was obvious that they themselves didn’t care about the people of America, or anyone else for that matter.

They were willing to lie, bribe, and control people to get their way. They didn’t have any care for any people other than themselves. It just wasn’t right, and De Bran knew that he himself had been an integral part of that as well.

Now, the thought chilled him, and as the minits ticked by, De Bran realised that his whole perception of life was changing, and changing extremely fast. Quicker than he thought it could even happen to anybody, let alone him. He grasped harder onto the hair of his head, which was still in his hands, and considered all of the implications of his new ideals.

What are you going to do? he asked himself. If Pineau is evil, are you going to kill him? Or what? Will it still be right to work for him?

De Bran tried to find an answer to that question, but he couldn’t find any inside himself. Just what was he going to do with his life now? He knew that now he could never be involved with plans as heartless as the weapon, but what should he do?

If he handed in his resignation, Pineau already had one idea of De Bran’s views, and he would put two and two together and it would just be a bullet in the head and a body over the cliff. So what was he going to do? Go to Missouri? As much as he felt the government was now evil, the thought of going to Missouri was impossible for his patriotic heart to consider. Or should he go on the run? Again, this was a no-go. He would have no chance against the Americans to keep hidden all the time. So what wasn’t an impossible option?

De Bran had no idea in his clouded mind what to do, but, right on cue, Carmel arrived back home.

It looked like she hadgone shopping after all, and she carried back in a couple of heavy bags. De Bran managed to lift his head out of his hands and his body off his seat and went over to help her.

She was surprised to see him back home so early, but, without a word, she walked into the kitchen with him.

It was only after they had put all of the groceries away when Carmel eventually turned to him, and asked, delicately,

How did it go?”

De Bran paused, wondering what would be the best thing to say.

Eventually, he decided, “Let’s sit down.” he said, and, hand in hand, they walked over to their small lounge. The words came hard from his throat. He hadn’t said anything for so long that he had forgotten how it felt, and his throat felt dry.

De Bran sat himself down in one of the large armchairs, and Carmel sat herself down on his lap, causing De Bran to smile a little smile of love.

So how was it?” she asked after a minit or so of silence.

De Bran replied immediately, without letting any sound of the wavering doubt he felt into his voice, “It was terrible.”

Why?” she asked ominously.

Well, first of all…”

*******

Once De Bran – Frankie – had started to speak his heart out, he just found that he couldn’t hold back. It all came gushing out like a bubbling brook, and there was nothing that he didn’t say or left out.

He went over everything that had happened, naming every minor detail, and talking about every single action, every last emotion. It was the first time that he had ever talked in detail about his work to Carmel, and as he talked he wondered why he had never done it before.

It felt so good to be able to converse in such a way, a way he had never been able to have before. In such an… intimate way. Yes, it felt good. Probably the first thing that had felt good for so long.

And the thing was, Carmel didn’t criticise his faults in any sort of way, which Frankie had been expecting her to do. It was surprisingly relieving to know that he wasn’t under the pressure that he had been expecting to face from her.

As he described everything in detail, he realised how little actually was his fault. He had been feeling so depressed at how he had, apparently, failed, that he hadn’t realised that he couldn’t really have done all that much more than he actually did.

And the guards were chasing the boy around the building, and I was with the guards.” Frankie said, explaining with words that became increasingly strained as time went on, “A few things seemed very odd: how the boy was able to run at such a pace – faster than some of the fittest men in Nashville – for such a long time, and how he seemed to know the exact layout of the building. It certainly seemed like he had been there before.”

Carmel was still sitting on his lap, and she turned to look at him, intrigued at what had happened. Just like any good storyteller, Frankie had left the ending out of the story so far, and so she was still totally captivated – though Frankie was sure she would still have been had he let away the ending previously.

Eventually, we got to the south side of the building, you know, near the lake.”

Uhuh.” Carmel replied, one of the only sounds she had said since Frankie had started speaking.

He ran along from east to west, and then, about three-quarters-way towards the south-east corner of the building, he turned one of the bends that there was. We all followed him round the corner.”

Only, this time,” Frankie continued without letting his wife answer, “the boy was planning to jump out of the window into the lake. You could see it from the way that he ran.”

Did he succeed?” Carmel asked. Frankie realised that was the first question that she had asked all the time, and he took that to realise just how engrossed she was in his story.

Frankie didn’t give a direct answer but squeezed her hand reassuringly, “The guards saw it too, and they took out their guns and started shooting in order to stop him. They mostly missed with their shots, but as the boy was jumping out, I saw one of the guards line up a perfect shot into the boy’s back.”

Carmel nodded for him to continue, but she looked as if she knew what had happened.

I tried to scream and get him to stop, but I was too cowardly…. I didn’t……….. He fired his shot, and the boy was hit in mid-air……” Frankie’s masculine macho stopped himself from crying, but the emotions that he felt inside him were of tears. He couldn’t continue, but there was nothing left to say.

There was a long pause, and Frankie wondered for a long moment what Carmel would think of him. What would she think of him?

What she thought mattered so so much to Frankie. He knew that, without her, he would be lost in the world of politics and evilness. It was only for her that he managed to keep his sanity, and he knew that she mattered.

But he was afraid of what she would think of his failure and cowardliness. He had told the truth, and knew that now he was facing the consequences of the action. What would she think of him?

But Carmel did none of the things that Frankie had been expecting her to do. Instead, she leaned around and kissed him gently on the cheek.

It was so surprising and so relieving for Frankie that for a moment he lost all sense of the tension and fear that he had previously felt. But then it all came back.

Why did you do that?” he asked,a nasty thought coming into his mind: that it was a false kiss.

But all of his fears were blown away as Carmel smiled at him, and said, “Why not?”.

Frankie laughed. Carmel might now be thirty-five but she hadn’t lost any of the charm she had had back when she was fourteen and they had started to date.

She just made it seem so obvious that she had kissed him, and it was incredible, how she just made it sound so natural. Frankie was so glad that she loved him as much, or even more, than he loved her: without that it would be impossible for him to last a moment through life.

But aren’t you angry at me or something?” he asked after the short moment of bliss.

Carmel looked surprised. “Angry?” she asked, “Why should I be?”

Frankie had thought of lots of reasons why she should be angry, but they all flew away as he tried to think of them. So he kept silent.

You tried your hardest, Frankie.” Carmel stared into his eyes, “and for that I am not angry but proud of you. Whether your hardest was enough is another matter. You tried, and for me, that is more than enough.”

Frankie nodded, looking at the situation from yet another view. He had, right from birth, felt that if he had failed then that meant that he hadn’t tried hard enough. The thought that his best wasn’t good enough was a new thought, and a hard one to swallow for his proud self.

Carmel continued, like a schoolteacher talking to her pupil, “What you did was your best. You tried. You attempted to stop the guards from killing the boy, and you wanted to stop the guard from shooting but just weren’t able to. For standing up for what is right, I am proud of you.”

Frankie finally managed to be able to say something, “But – but aren’t you disappointed in how I failed? Or how the boy and the girl were killed and Pineau’s brutal plans were a seeming success?”

Carmel paused for a moment, and Frankie could see her wise mind working away to get an answer.

About twenty seconds later, she said, “Of course I am disappointed that an innocent was killed in an evil set-up. Especially that it happened in our country and it was our government that set him up. But that’s basically as far as my feelings go.”

Explain further….” Frankie asked, puzzled at her seeming indifference.

What I mean is this.” Carmel replied, leaning back on Frankie’s chest, “I probably have never seen this boy and his girlfriend, and even if I had I certainly haven’t known them in any intimate way. I have no personal attachment to them.”

She paused, and Frankie signalled for her to continue. He still didn’t quite understand precisely what she meant.

She kept silent for another few seconds before continuing, “Well, look at it this way: innocents are murdered by the governments all the time in places like China and Missouri. I don’t feel a sense of serious compassion every time that happens, because I didn’t know the people who were killed. Just the same here. The fact that it happened in this country and that it was our government who fixed it doesn’t make it any worse for me. It is evil, undoubtedly, and we really need to stop this, but… it’s not something we should get really worked up about.”

Frankie nodded uncertainly. What Carmel said made absolute sense, but he wasn’t all that sure about it. He knew it was different for Carmel as she hadn’t been there on the scene. But he was,and he could have stopped it from happening. But he hadn’t.

There still was a sense of personal feelings from Frankie, and he knew it, and he was almost grateful for it. Without them he wasn’t sure if he would consider himself to feel like a heartless monster who could take part in a murder and feel absolutely fine about it.

So what do you think?” Carmel asked lovingly, “Am I right, or what?”

I don’t know.” Frankie confessed to his wife, “I feel guilty, and I know that I could have stopped what happened from happening. It’s a hard thing to take. And it’s still hard.”

As it should be.” she said, still leaning onto his chest and clutching his arm in hers.

Yes. And I feel wrong if I don’t take it personally. It’s just… I don’t know, but… I can’t help my feelings.”

There was a long pause, and at the end of it Carmel stood up and stared at him. Frankie found that he looked stupid just sitting in the chair looking up at her, so he stood up too.

Only then did Carmel speak. “My dear Frankie, I find that I am having to advise you today, instead of the other way around.”

Frankie nodded. Why was she saying this? What was she driving at now?

I know that you are far wiser than I–”

Now you know that’s not true!” Frankie interjected.

Whatever. You are far wiser than I, believe me, and you honestly need simply to look inside yourself and find the answer.”

What do you mean?” Frankie asked, but Carmel didn’t reply. She knew that he knew what she meant.

Look inside yourself. What would Carmel say about the fact that I’m struggling with my feelings? What about you, Frankie, what would you say?

There was a moment of silence in his mind, before that flash of brilliance that he got only about once a year came. His mind suddenly flashed all the way back to college, where he had taken his degree in politics. What was it that his lecturer had said all those years ago?

Your a fool, Mr De Bran. Your a fool.”

Apart from that. The other thing he said. In that lecture….

When it comes to your mental frame, everybody has different rules and react differently to circumstances. Don’t consider yourself badly because of that.”

That was it! That was what he had been searching for. Whilst it might be right for Carmel not to have any emotion, Frankie knew that he did have a right to feel bad about it. Because he had had so many ways to stop it…. feel bad about it, yes. But don’t let it get the better of you. And try to stop anything and everything else that is clearly evil that Pineau plans….

Now what?” he said, mainly to himself, but Carmel, who was still standing right in front of him, heard as well.

What what?” she asked.

Frankie was put a little bit off his line, but he continued and said, “What about now? What should we do?”

As in?” Carmel asked.

As in our future. Should you get a job? Should I resign from my post as deputy foreign secretary, or even the whole government? Should I stay?” Frankie sighed. There was so much to think about.

You want my opinion?” Carmel asked.

Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?” Frankie replied with a small smile, the best that he could manage to give.

Then….” Carmel paused to think. Eventually, she seemed like she had come to a decision, “I would want you to stay in your job at the moment.”

Frankie nodded. He would have to think about it himself as well, but it was interesting that Carmel wanted him to stay in his role in the “evil” government.

Why?” he asked.

Carmel looked beautifully thoughtful as they held each other in their arms, Frankie thought. She was about six inches smaller than him, and he loved her. It was a great feeling to have, one that he had had for so long but hadn’t dimmed one bit.

I’m not all that sure.” she replied eventually, looking up into his eyes. “But I don’t see why you should resign such a perfectly good job because of this.”

Why not? After all, like you said earlier, it’s evil.”

It? The job? Did I say that was evil? One thing associated to it might be evil, Frankie, but it doesn’t mean that everything is evil. The job is not evil in itself – in fact, it is good –, but only one area of it. It is not worth resigning just for this, the way I look at it.”

But surely if he can plan, manipulate, and carry out one evil scheme so far then Pineau is evil?” Frankie asked, looking to his wife for wisdom that he found seriously lacking in his own mind at that time.

Really?” Carmel asked, “Really? Surely it could just be a one-off blip in his character? And even if it isn’t, then does it matter if you are working for a man who is this evil?”

It could be a blip, I suppose… but it would matter very much if it isn’t. However, it could be…”

Frankie wrestled with himself over whether or not he should stay in the government and politics on the whole. He knew that staying in was a risk of getting caught up in all sorts of intricate evilness and the like, but still… the wage was good, and he knew that he would have to think about Carmel.

But she didn’t know about it all about the government… how they had manipulated the way to power, how they had only cared about their own ends, how De Bran had such an important role, how he had to do whatever Pineau wanted him to do…. what if he told her that? He knew that she would certainly want him out of the government in an instant.

But he didn’t. Because he knew that if he left the government it would be impossible for Carmel. She would find it so difficult, so so difficult….

Seriously, if he left the government, then where else could he go? He knew for a fact that not many jobs were available, and the transition from government wages to unemployment benefit just wasn’t going to be very easy on Carmel.

For her, it would probably be best to stay in the government but no longer get to involved in their plans and all sorts. For her. Again.

Although this time, there was a key difference. Last time he knew he had been in the right, this time he just wasn’t sure if what he was doing was the right thing… in fact, he was quite certain that what he was doing was going against his conscience… but he had to care about Carmel.

It was uncertain, and very painful. He had no idea what was totally right and what was wrong… and there was no way he would be able to work out which was it at that time. So instead, he spun his mind around and attempted to break free of all of the troubling thoughts that overcame him.

What’s for dinner?” he suddenly asked, for that was the time.

Carmel looked quite surprised at the sudden change of subject, but quickly replied, “I don’t really know. Would you like some roast chicken, or would grilled steak be…”

Chapter 28

Eventually, the time had come for Jaime’s solitary confinement to be over. Jaime was sure that it was a bit shorter than one month, but he was fine with being released early.

After being let free, he had been given a couple of days to do whatever he wanted before he was arranged to meet the king again.

He had spent those days all around Missouri, going up north one day before heading down towards the south-east the next. Missouri wasn’t a very large country, so it had not been hard to travel all over it in a couple of days.

But then had come the time when Jaime had had to go to see the king again. Jaime wasn’t sure how his lie would hold together, but when the time had come, the king had swallowed it hook, line, and sinker – a little bit too easily, which made Jaime feel a bit uneasy. The king looked as if he had something up his sleeve, but Jaime didn’t care.

After all, what he was doing wasn’t wrong in any way, he just didn’t want to tell Missouri beforehand he went in case they manipulated him and his brother before Jaime could even talk to him. But once the of them had talked, Jaime was sure it would be all cool.

Jaime had been given two days before his “mission” before he would leave, but he had asked to leave straight away and been granted leave to do so – another thing that caused Jaime to feel uneasy about Missouri’s plans.

But he didn’t really care. He was on the way south to Nashville, having stopped off on the way in a small kaf in south Missouri, and it didn’t bother him what Missouri were planning. As long as they wouldn’t control him – and he was pretty sure they wouldn’t, even if they were watching him somehow – , it would be fine.

Getting through the border should be fine, as he knew where to go, and from there it would only be a day or so till he got to Nashville… anyway, he had plenty of time, though it was interesting Missouri hadn’t provided him with a car. Maybe it was because it was too short notice. Or because of something else… he couldn’t care less.

********

As Jack jumped, he had been bracing himself for the splash into the lake and then the frantic swim to the shore. He had heard the gunshots but had not been expecting any to hit him, especially none when he was falling.

So when the bullet struck right into the left side of his back, it had come as a total surprise. He lost all control over his body as the pain attacked him. But Jack could feel all sorts of tingling forces all over him to defend himself from the bullet, and he just about managed to avoid himself from splashing right on top of one of the marker buoys in the lake.

Jack could feel the bullet, and it hurt an ahit amount, but Jack somehow didn’t feel as much pain as he probably was meant to. Was that because he was about to die? He had no idea, and was for a sudden petrified he would die.

And that fear suddenly stopped his defences, and the pain just rushed over him like a tsunami of pain. There was nothing for Jack to do except let it roll over him and hope for the best.

He was floating in the middle of the lake when he was hit, and the pain lasted for a good few seconds before he passed out. It was just too intense, too strong: far more painful than anything that Jack had ever felt before.

*******

He come to a short while later and had found himself still floating out in the middle of the lake. When he felt over to his wound, he found it had started to miraculously heal itself, though not very much. It still hurt like hell to move his left arm, and he didn’t intend to move it soon.

He floated, half-asleep, for ten more minits before he suddenly realised everything that had happened, and the implications of it all: Qwerty – dead. Americans – thought he was dead. France – at Qwerty’s house.

Those thoughts shocked him awake and he looked around and got his bearings. He then swam, right-handed, to the northern perimeter of the lake.

Once he had got there, he ran as fast as he could – which wasn’t all that fast in his state – to Qwerty’s house, where he knew France would be waiting.

He got past the security fence easily, despite only having one hand to climb the wire gate, and from there it was all plain sailing, but he kept his senses alert, just in case.

He avoided all of the large streets, or the only large street as it was in Nashville, and managed to get back to Qwerty’s house in a noon-and-a-half since waking up: pretty good going, considering.

All the way he had been running, internally sadness had been screaming out. His whole body, soul, and mind was absolutely shattered and he could do nothing. He had no idea of what would happen now to America, the nations around, or even Blake – now that Jack thought of it, he hadn’t seen Blake at the Building that day, despite Blake’s promises to be there. Was something happening to him as well? Jack was too tired to consider it.

Jack had worked himself up as he had panicked about what had happened. Suddenly, the outlook on life no longer looked all bright. Qwerty was dead, or at the very and unlikely least a prisoner, nowhere was safe anymore for him, and he had an injury, that, whilst not being life-threatening as such, was still a massive worry for Jack. Would he be able to avoid the American government like that? Before too long, they would realise they couldn’t find his body and then come to take him.

Still just outside the door of the house that had been Qwerty’s, he knew that he had no idea what to do. The sun beat down on him, but Jack felt like he wanted to murder the bright sun himself. How could anybody want so much light, so much happiness, on days such as this? Where could anyone find happiness in this?

He eventually took the plunge. He knew that he would have to see France and talk to him, despite anything that might come about as a result. Who cared what France thought? All Jack needed was a bit of First Aid and a good rest.

When he had got in through the door, Jack was able to even hear the shock in France at Jack’s state. Jack had looked around at his back and almost fainted. His shirt was covered and stained in blood all over, and the dark red looked gross on the sky-blue shirt he had been wearing.

You look appalling.” France had said when he had finally got his tongue around the words. It was an understatement, and France himself clearly knew that. “What the hell happened?” he asked again.

But Jack had no idea what France was saying. Totally taken out with his own appalling state and also the hopelessness of his situation, there was only one thing he could think of: his bed. He threw himself into his sleeping, not bothering to care about the fact that it was going to get stained with blood. France was left bewildered.

*******

He was awoken by France about two hours later. He had a splitting headache and his whole screamed out in pain when he moved his left arm.

He was confused about what had happened for a few moments, but it all came to him within seconds. Qwerty… shot… Pineau… coming?

He was lost in his thoughts for a few moments before France asked him, realising he was now awake, “What happened, Jack? Why are you like this? And where’s Qwerty?”

Jack managed to stutter out a few words in between the tears that flowed out of his eyes. “Qwerty- d-d-dead… Me- running… jumped… shot… think I’m dead… government… coming… need to go.”

His words dried up, and he knew that he really needed a drink. He got out of his sleeping bag, and got himself a drink. He then picked up a backpack and then signalled to France to get whatever he wanted and for them to go. It was too risky to stay in the house: the government might be coming any moment.

But France was confused. He had no idea what Jack was talking about. He was only able to understand a few words, and had no real way of knowing what had gone on.

Whilst Jack was getting himself a drink of water, France lost all patience and said, in an aggravated tone of voice, “Look Jack, this is just stupid. I’ve no idea what’s going on, and just look at yourself! You are in absolutely no fit state to do anything. You tell me what happened and what’s going on, and then we do what he have to. But not before I know everything that’s going on.”

Jack looked across at France, and realised that there would be no way out. He would have to tell everything… everything. They couldn’t just leave like that and tell the message later. Leaving would have to wait for later, despite the risks.

Jack just about managed to shuffle over to one of the seats. France was right: he was in absolutely no state to even move about, let alone travel.

France sat down across him. Jack paused for a while, unsure where to start.

Don’t leave out anything.” France said, “Nothing,”

Ok.” Jack mumbled, and then he opened his mouth to speak.

*******

Jack found it almost impossible to get his tongue around all of the words. Every single one bore straight into him, deep into his consciousness, and made him wish that he had done more, far far more, to get the two of them to escape earlier. But it was now too late… Qwerty was dead, and he was severely injured.

As he described the conversations they had had, he kept regretting what he had done – or more specifically, not done – and it hurt him.

It hurt his soul massively as he began to realise that, had he tried harder, Qwerty would be free, they would all be safe, and on their way to Missouri. But he hadn’t, and they were far from free.

But, despite the pain it caused him, Jack knew what he had to do. Willing himself onward, he described every last action, emotion, and thought all the way until he had come stumbling in through the door into what had been Qwerty’s house.

His words just came on and on through his tears, and he was too obsessed with his own thoughts to notice what France’s reaction was. He did hear some sobs from France, but Jack didn’t really take it in.

By the end, he was absolutely worn out, both mentally and physically. All of his thoughts of guilt, pain, and anger had tired him out until he was nothing more than a shrivelling wreck.

Got any food?” he asked, too weary to get up and get it.

France looked thoughtful for a while, clearly lost in his thoughts, and then he snapped right open and asked, “What was that again?”

Can I have some food?” Jack asked, anxious not to look too selfish, but he was really hungry.

Sure.” France said, still with the thoughtful expression on his face. Jack had no idea why France looked that way, and was still far too tired to wonder why.

Within a minit, France had taken out a loaf of potato bread and gave it to Jack, who ate it greedily, not caring about anything about it except the fact that it was food! He was too hungry to bother what food he ate.

Whilst Jack was eating, France examined Jack’s wound and looked at it. He didn’t touch it, much to Jack’s relief, but just daubed it with a cloth.

Ouch.” he said.

Jack nodded, “I know, right?” he agreed, keeping his head bowed low.

I have no idea how you survived.” France said, almost sounding quite impressed, “I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure that for anyone else they would be six feet under by now. But you survived.”

Uhuh.” Jack agreed. At least there were a few things good about not being “normal”. If only Qwerty were the same…

There was another long pause as France struggled to take it all in, “Now what should we do?”

In what regard?”

Should we still go to Missouri? Or stay around here? What do you want to do, Jack?”

Jack considered it. He had been so captivated by his sorrow – and rightly so! – that he hadn’t considered the other option – of staying in America – yet. Which would be better to do? Which would be right?

Going to Missouri would be how to understand all of himself and to uncover the secrets he was coming to understand more and more, he was sure: but there was still unfinished business left in America.

He was undecided for a while, before, in an instant, he knew what he had to do: what option would be right to do. There was just no question any more, once he had looked at the issue in that way.

We’re staying.” he said resolutely.

Jack wondered whether France would be surprised, but nothing showed on his face: if he was surprised, he was keeping it in very well.

There was another long pause. Jack’s anxiety to leave was over now that he had realised, whilst he was speaking, that the government probably wouldn’t be coming to Qwerty’s house : at least, not sometime soon.

Eventually, France spoke up again, “So are we going back to the house then? Or staying here?”

The house…. it was only the early evening of that day that Jack had left the house, but that morning already felt like an eternity away. Either way however, there was no way of going back to the house.

No.” Jack said. “The government thinks that I am dead, and I want to keep it that way. If they know that I am alive, anything could happen. They’ll certainly know if we go back to the house, and they’ll probably come looking here soon.”

So where shall we go?”

Jack thought fast. He needed to stay close to Nashville, but not too close. He needed somewhere he would be able to hide, and to be untraceable.

Well…” he said uncertainly, “if the government somehow knew that I am alive, they would expect me to go north to Missouri, but I’m – I mean, we’re – not doing that.”

Yeah, so…?”

So we shouldn’t go north, just in case.” Jack knew what he said was an absolute lie: he wanted to go south because it was closer to the Building, but he wasn’t going to let France, not even France, know that.

And thus you want us to go south, to Honduras?” France asked.

No.” said Jack, “Nowhere near that far, only just outside Nashville. I’m pretty sure I know a place we can go and be safe.”

France took a while to take it all in. And, once he did, whilst Jack was all for leaving immediately, France needed to make calculations and work things out.

What should we bring?” “How should we go?” “Should we do this or that?” he asked.

Whilst it was annoying for Jack to put up with the questions when he was anxious to leave before America arrived to examine Qwerty’s house, he knew that France dealt with very important things, and without thinking about those issues could have caused trouble.

Eventually, when it was very late at night, they were ready to set off. They had brought their Zonestations with them (taking out the tracing devices Jack had found out in the Building), and were both strapped with heavy bags, lots of money found in Qwerty’s house, and large, very powerful, torches.

France had thought it would be best and safest to head out east of the city (or town) first before cutting round south, to avoid any other human life, and Jack had agreed. He knew that they would have to avoid all other humans at all costs. His wound, for one, would just stand up like a sore thumb, and there would be no hiding from the government that way.

******

Whilst Jack was treading through the back streets of Nashville, he finally got some time to himself to think. The whole time since Qwerty was murdered had been action action action, and now he was feeling the pain of sorrow that hit him.

Qwerty was dead! And in a way, it was his fault for not trying hard enough to get them out of the Building. He knew that it wasn’t, but… it blew a hole in his heart.

All those times that they had spent together, all the things that Jack had planned for them to do together, all over? Because of one man’s evil plans?

Why did Pineau have so much evil in his heart? Why did he have to plan such things? Jack’s feet trudged through the slimy streets, and he contrasted the slime to Pineau’s dark heart.

Pineau was a monster, and Jack knew that he was going to do something about it. No matter what, Jack would go to Pineau’s bedroom himself and kill the man. Even if the whole world told him not to, there would have to be no change now. Jack swore in his heart to go to Pineau’s bedroom himself and kill him.

France and Jack trudged on for a few more minits, and Jack’s heart was totally obsessed with the hatred inside him. He knew that it was there, and he didn’t care. He wanted to get his own back on Pineau, to fight back.

Yet his thoughts couldn’t hang on to hate for so long. Very soon, he found his thoughts wavering again to Qwerty, and the memory of her face burned its way into Jack’s heart. Tears started to run down his face, and before long he couldn’t see. It was a peaceful, bright evening, but for Jack, it was anything but fine.

He could only feel anger and sadness inside himself. There was no other emotions, no other feelings. He was absolutely furious with Pineau, and felt so sad about Qwerty… but sad hardly captured any of what Jack felt.

He felt worse than he had ever been before. He felt absolutely rattled. It was not a nice feeling. All of his body was screaming out, Qwerty! What happened? But he could get no answer.

Him and France were now heading out towards the countryside, but Jack didn’t notice. He just followed France wherever France led and was lost in his emotions.

He kept screaming out for peace, but got none. He screamed out for justice, but justice didn’t come. He screamed for happiness, but happiness didn’t arrive. He screamed for Qwerty, but she was nowhere to be seen.

It was far too much to bear, and, had he not had previous experience of such pains, he knew he would have either gone unconscious or insane that night. But he didn’t, and kept going on, keeping on pursuing, keeping going, keeping onward.

Even the wound in his back now no longer mattered. Everything else no longer mattered. The fact that he might die no longer mattered. Only one thing mattered to him now: Qwerty. Was. Dead.

And each and every step became painful. Every step was a reminder of all of the steps that him and Qwerty had had together, arm in arm, heart in heart, together. But they were over.

Each and every breath was difficult to take. Each breath was a remembrance of the many kisses that the two of them had had together, lip to lip, chest to chest. But they were over, all finished. What now?

Where would he go now? Jack contemplated suicide a number of times, but put it off, waiting until he killed Pineau to think of such things. Could he have a life without Qwerty anymore? It was a hard thought, but Jack knew that he could. That didn’t make losing Qwerty any easier, but he could survive without her: somehow.

Jack followed France as France led them to the southern end of Nashville. France hadn’t said a thing either, and Jack expected that was because he was dealing with other thoughts in his head: thoughts that he wanted to think about. Thoughts not for Jack to know and that Jack didn’t want to know.

They eventually got round and saw a small hut. It was clearly unoccupied and very run-down, but anywhere would do for the two of them. Jack simply just dropped his bag on the floor and lied down on the hard stone and fell asleep.

Chapter 30

Jack sat down on the floor, wincing as he took off his shirt. It scraped against his scar, forcing a massive jolt of pain up to his nerves. “Ouch!” he yelled as a result, .

“Sorry.” France said. He was just about to examine Jack’s wound and see how it was, but Jack was having trouble taking his shirt off.

It was very difficult taking his shirt off without the use of one arm, but eventually Jack managed to manoeuvre it off his body – just about.

“Good.” France said, attempting to sound like he knew what he was doing. He didn’t fool Jack.

“Just get on with it, France. What does it look like? How well has it healed?” Jack replied, a little bit aggravated by the pain.

“And,” he added, “don’t try to pretend your a proper doctor.”

Jack heard France gasp in shock, and then say, “I might not be a good doctor, but I’ll tell you one thing:”

“What?”

“it’s healed an insane amount since yesterday.”

“How much?” Jack gasped, with his chest pressed to the cold floor and without the arm strength to push himself up.

“Like, massive amounts.” France said, sounding incredibly surprised, “Look!”’

“I can’t.” Jack replied, “It’s my back.”

“Oh.” France replied, and then paused, “I’ll take a picture with my Zonestation and then I’ll show you. It’s barely a wound anymore. It’s almost just a big cut now.”

“Good.” Jack said, and dropped his head onto the stone once more.

France took his Zonestation out of the bag, “Jack, it’s, like, almost impossible, for a human to heal so quick. A normal guy would be dead for sure.”

“So…”

“Have you any idea why you heal so fast? Is it something about you?” France had now turned on his Zonestation and was heading over to Jack.

“I’m not sure.” Jack replied.

“Oh come on, there must be something.”

Jack considered it, and then replied after a pause, “But recently, I’ve been finding that my physical attributes are a lot stronger than they have been before.”

“And you mean by that….?” asked France, coming over and taking a few pictures of Jack’s back.

“I mean that I’ve suddenly become a lot faster, stronger, and have had stronger hearing and eyesight as well.”

France paused for a moment, wondering, “Hmm… that’s probably it.”

Jack laughed. France sounded so funny in the way he was talking. It was just so professional, so… un-Francey.

“What?” France asked.

“Nothing.” Jack said, and France left it at that.

There was a pause, before France continued, “Do you want to see what it looks like then?” he asked, having finished all of the pictures.

“Of course.” Jack replied.

“Ok, sure.” France said, “Can you get up by yourself?”

“I think so.” Jack replied, and tried. But he couldn’t do such a thing one-handed, and, after a lot of trying, he realised that he needed France’s help.

“I can’t do it.” Jack said, a bit ashamed.

France stopped what he was doing on his Zonestation and looked up at Jack. Noticing Jack’s problems, he went over and helped Jack up by his armpits and lifted him up.

“There.” he said.

“Thanks.” said Jack humbly.

“Any time.” replied France, and showed Jack his Zonestation with the images.

Jack straightened himself up and took the Zonestation from France. He then looked at the picture of his wound. France had been right: it looked absolutely nothing like it had done the previous day, and felt nothing like it as well. It had healed so suddenly, before Jack had even known it had happened. It looked as if he would be able to get on with his plan earlier than he had expected.

Which was a good thing. Because he knew that he really wanted to be in Missouri as soon as feasibly possible, and to find out about himself there.

“Wow, this has healed real fast.” he said in surprise, and then realised what an understatement.

“Uhuh.” said France, “Just like I said.”

“Yep.” said Jack, and then continued, without thinking, “Then I can get on with..-”

He stopped himself from going on. France was a great friend, but Jack didn’t want to get him messed up in all of this business and to risk him that way, which would happen if France knew about what Jack was going to do.

“With what?” France asked.

“Nothing.” Jack replied quickly. France’s face turned into a different shade and Jack could tell he was interested, but fortunately he didn’t ask anything. Which was good for Jack, but Jack could feel the suspicion seeping out of France.

“What you doing today?” France asked after a short awkward silence.

Jack paused, trying not to give away anything that would give France a hint of what they were actually doing.

“Well, we will be going to find a more permanent place to stay first.” Jack said.

“Ok.” France replied, “How long will we be staying around here?”

“By “here” you mean….?”

“As in, around Nashville.” France replied.

“I’m not really sure.” said Jack, “But I’m expecting at least a week.”

“Why, what do you have to do before then?” France asked pointedly.

“Stuff.” Jack replied vaguely but pointedly, “It’s too dangerous for you to know.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want to put you in danger. If you know concequences could happen and I would hate that.”

“Oh.” said France, disappointed.

“Sorry.” Jack said, but he knew that it was for the best if France didn’t know.

“Meh.” France said, “So what you gonna be doing after we find a place to stay?”

“As I’m almost fully healed, I’m going into Nashville to get everything I want to be done to get done.”

“Almost fully healed?” France looked sceptical.

“Ok, maybe not.” Jack admitted, “But I’m healed enough to be active this afternoon, honest.”

“If you say so.” said France, but he was clearly still tentative and unsure about what Jack was going to do.

“Honestly, I am!” Jack said, misunderstanding what France had said.

“I’m not doubting that.” said France, “I would just like to know what you are doing.”

Jack was about to say something when France interrupted, “Yes, I know we’ve had this conversation already, and I know you have a reason, and it’s a good reason. It just makes me uneasy not to know where you are going anyway.”

Jack nodded. He hadn’t really expected France to be ok with not knowing, and he was expecting France to be disgruntled. “But it’s for a reason, you know that, right?”

“Of course.” sighed France, and he turned to walk out of the small shack. Jack left him to it, knowing that France had to calm down and that would be a good way to do it.

“By the way.” he added as he left the tiny hut, “What’s it like out there?”

“Fabulous!” said Jack, enthused, “I just love it. So much better, and so different, to Nashville and the boringness there.”

France winked at Jack, “Great. I’ll be looking forward to it.” But there wasn’t much enthusiasm in his voice, and Jack knew that France was only going outside to let off steam: not enjoy the scenery.

Fine. Jack thought to himself, let him do it. I can get on with clearing up myself.

He stood himself up and looked around the small shack. Last night, him and France had just grabbed everything they had seen inside Qwerty’s room, and so the bags were really messed up in no order whatsoever.

Jack wanted to sort it out, and so he carefully got himself down on his knees and began unpacking each of the bags.

France’s one contained slightly more of France’s belongings inside, but as Jack sifted through it, there was nothing that Jack knew that he would deem of any value. But other people had other ideas about value, which he knew.

Jack, after he had taken all of the stuff he and France had brought out of the bags, got all of Qwerty’s devices which he had been able to bring together. He packed them all into a heavily sealed bag, which he tightly shut up and then put it at the bottom of one of his rucksacks. He knew that it was the most important thing that he had brought, for a number of reasons. But it wouldn’t be best to use it immediately.

He knew he had to get on with clearing up, and so, for the next noon or so, he just packed all of his equipment up and put it into one of the bags, making sure that he was keeping everything organised. He liked being organised: he found that it helped.

France came back around a noon after Jack had started “packing”, as he put it, and joined in to help. He too had been taken aback by the countryside and couldn’t stop raving about it. Jack didn’t try to stop him. He knew exactly how France felt.

It was awesome! They were finally free from Nashville, and free to live their own lives! Jack could only see the bright sparks, and kept suppressing the clouds that threatened to break into his thoughts. He knew what he needed to do, and would do it.

*******

France and Jack went on for a while afterwards organising everything and putting it together, before eventually everything was put away.

“How do you feel?” France asked Jack, after they had finished and were standing up against the walls of the shack.

“Tired.” Jack said, “My arms hurt quite a bit now, especially my left, and my back aches from squatting so much.”

“No.” said France, “That’s not what I meant. I meant, how do you feel now? How do you feel emotionally? Angry, hurt, pained, guilty, what?”

Jack thought for a moment. It was a hard question, and he felt tempted to ignore it. But he didn’t know he would have to fact up to it, and if not now, then afterwards, which he didn’t want to do.

How did he feel? He felt… sad. And angry, very angry. But determined. The anger inside him whipped him up until he was determined, totally determined, to do what he had to do: namely, get revenge on Pineau and the other members of the government.

After a long pause, he told France how he felt, and France nodded, and picking up one of the rucksacks, testing it’s weight. Jack was expecting France to ask another question, or at least, reply, but he didn’t. Jack shrugged and picked up two of the rucksacks, swinging them onto his back.

“Shall we be off?” he asked.

“Yeah.” France agreed, after a moment of thought. “We need to find a better place. Let’s trek around the South of Nashville till we find somewhere.”

“Ok, cool.” Jack replied, and they left the hut and went on their way. Jack got his map out and tracked their progress around the southern rim of Nashville.

They walked through the deserted shrubland for a while without seeing anybody or anything. Nashville was to their right, but other than that there was no sign of any settlement.

It really seemed like Nashville was an urban island in the middle of the ocean, for around Nashville there was absolutely no sign of human life. None at all.

“This is creepy, isn’t it?” France said after a few noons of still not seeing anybody.

“What is?” Jack asked.

“The desertion. How nobody is here.”

“I don’t find it very creepy.” Jack replied, “I love it.”

“Oh.” France said, and they kept quiet as they kept trekking along paths to find a place to stay.

As they walked, Jack tried to control his emotions over Qwerty. It was so hard on him how she was now dead, and he would have to live his life alone. Well, not exactly alone: he had France, but he was nothing compared to Qwerty.

Tears crept into his eyes as he replayed the events of the previous day. How it had been so happy at the start, but then… he should never have gone to the Greyham Building. Why hadn’t they just gone to Missouri straight away? Or ignored the invite? Or this? Or this? Or that?

Guilt hit into Jack’s heart, though he knew it wasn’t his fault. It was the government’s, and nobody else’s. They were the one who caused his pain, they were the one who made him so hurt. Not himself. He just had to control his feelings that way.

The sun stayed out for a while that afternoon, and Jack felt the heat beaet down on him. It was the first time he had ever felt the sun so heavily on his back, and he loved the feeling. It took him away from all of the other thoughts that murked his mind.

They took a break under some shade after a couple of noons of still not seeing any potential settling positions. Jack knew that they were both getting tired and needed to find somewhere permanent for them to stay as soon as possible.

After a bit of water each, they continued on their way, and, in mid-afternoon, they found an old run-down house that seemed to have been deserted for a while. It was still in some sort of average condition, but wasn’t amazing.

“Is this good enough?” Jack asked France, throwing down his rucksack on the floor and aggravating his arm as he did so.

“Looks ok to me.” replied France, following Jack’s lead and throwing his rucksacks down too.

Jack looked around the house. It clearly had not been used for a very long time, but was still in reasonably good condition. Jack assumed the previous owners had, like so many others, migrated into Nashville to avoid the economic downturn that had hit so much of America.

All of the people who had done that had left their old lives behind had left all of their property untouched, and had gone into Nashville leaving their old lives behind. Jack knew that most of them had regretted it, but he was reaping the benefits of one person’s mistake.

There were two floors of the house, and the moss that was creeping in through the windows hadn’t yet touched the centre of the rooms, leaving a dry area in the centre of the rooms to sleep in.

The windows had all been long blown wide away and there was no glass in the small metal frames, giving them a morbid and dank look.

The floors were hard, and the walls were quickly being eaten away by dampness, but they were still solid enough to hold the house up: for now, Jack felt. Hopefully it would hold long enough for them.

“Yeah, this is a good place.” Jack said to France, as the two of them looked upstairs, “Not amazing, but it does the job. And it’s not as if anybody’s going to be coming round this way anyway.”

“Yeah, it is quite deserted, which is very good.” France agreed.

“So where should we put our stuff? Bottom floor, or upstairs?” Jack asked France.

“Upstairs I think.” France replied, “Just in case someone comes in.”

“But it looks drier downstairs.” Jack replied, “Up here it’s all mossy and damp.”

“I suppose.” said France, following Jack all the way to the top of the stairs, “But is there enough room upstairs for us to put all our stuff?”

Jack went up, and looked about. There were two rooms upstairs, both old and unfurnished, and the moss was creeping in both towards the middle. The room closest to the stairs had had the roof caved in, so that wasn’t really an option in case of rain.

Jack stepped up and went through the doorway into the other room. There was a roof over it, and it was quite dark, but overall it was fine. It was quite a big room, “This one’s ok, France.” he called down, “A bit dark but it’s a good place to store our stuff.”

Soon, France was next to him in the room, and France agreed, “Yeah, it’s perfect. It doesn’t seem to have been affected by dampness at all, which is a good thing.”

“Uhuh.” Jack agreed. “So shall we bring our stuff up?”

“Go on.” France said.

They went out of the dark room and headed down the stairs, apprehensive but confident about their new home and what they would have to do there. Jack knew he could do it, for Qwerty. Just for her.

Chapter 31

De Bran had woken up very late that morning. His thoughts had troubled him deep into the previous night, and so it was not until mid-morning when he woke up.

When he woke up, Carmel had already woken up, and Frankie had got out of bed and dressed quickly. He had considered taking a day off work, but Carmel thought that it would look too suspicious and it would be best to go in. Also, Frankie wanted to find out about what had happened since the previous day.

Had the government found the body of Jack yet? And had they found anything interesting on it? Anything odd, different or suspicious? Frankie knew he needed to find out, and the only way to do so would be to go to the Building that day.

So, after a hurried breakfast, he had gotten into his car and gone to the building. When he had got there, he had parked his car in the car park and gone quickly upstairs to his office. On the way up, he tried to stay out of view of everyone and quickly went to his office.

He seated himself down and then sent his daughters a couple of messages on his Zonemaster. After that, he opened up his computer and got on with his normal work: tracing the American spies, and planning security for the nation.

He continued this for nearly a noon, just quietly getting on with his work. Only once he left his office, but that was just to get a drink.

Soon after he had returned and was getting on with his work on his computer, the door of his office was unlocked from the outside and Pineau came in.

He walked across the floor towards the desk, and Frankie, knowing it was Pinuea, did not look up from his work in order to just get Pineau to lost that little bit of composure. It was only when Pineau was sitting in the chair opposite Frankie that Frankie looked up.

He looked into Pineau’s eyes, and they both locked stares for a moment. Pineau didn’t show any emotion, but he seemed colder and harder than Frankie had last seen him. Frankie wasn’t sure if that was a difference in Pineau or in his own perception of Pineau.

A couple of beads of sweat rolled down Frankie’s forehead. He knew that Pineau would have every right – or at least enough right, the way the American government did things – to throw him into prison immediately, on just simple assumptions. But Frankie wasn’t going to back down easily.

There was silence and starting for yet five more minits, until eventually Pineau broke the silence. Frankie shuffled in his chair as Pineau said,

“So you came to work today.”

“Of course.” Frankie replied, feigning innocence, “Why wouldn’t I?”

“I’m not sure…” Pineau said carefully, “You seemed very… shaken up by the events of yesterday.”

“Did I?” Frankie asked, trying to avoid Pineau’s intense stare that was putting him off, “I’m sorry if that was the impression given. I just decided that I would like to go home early yesterday, after everything was over.”

“I didn’t mention anything about you going home early.” Pineau replied, and Frankie knew he had just made a mistake.

“Oh.” he replied, feeling the ground carefully, “I just assumed that was what you were talking about. Sorry if it wasn’t.”

“No, it was.” Pineau replied, “I just didn’t mention it in particular at first. Are you sure that that was the only reason why you left to go home early?”

“Of course.” Frankie replied, “I just needed to get home to my family quickly.”

“You previously didn’t care too much about your family.”

“Things have changed.”

“Like what?”

“You don’t need to know.” Frankie replied, “it’s my personal life and does not involve you.”

Pineau could see he wasn’t going to get any headway like that, so he reverted back to his original case, “You missed the discussion afterwards about how the day went. Your contribution could have been very useful.”

“I thought that was today.” Frankie lied, “Had I known, I certainly would have stayed behind.”

“Really?” Pineau asked. Frankie didn’t answer so changed the subject.

“So what issue was it that you came to ask me about?”

“Nothing other than that.” Pineau replied casually, breaking the ice for the first time in the conversation, “And you’ve given me an answer, so now I should better be getting on with getting on.”

“Oh.” Frankie replied. The atmosphere in the room was stifled, to say the least. “In that case, goodbye.”

Pineau stood up and turned around, leaving the room with nothing more than a muttered “Bye”.

Behind him, De Bran sighed. He wondered with a very heavy heart what the long-term consequences would be for him about the events of the previous day and that conversation. Pineau certainly was extremely suspicious, and Frankie was worried about that. He would have to tread very carefully, but at the same time not compromising what Carmel wanted him to do.

He hoped that Pineau would let the issue rest. It would make things so much easier for him, and enable him to be able to easily provide for Carmel and the daughters. However, Frankie just couldn’t help feeling that Pineau was not the sort of person who was going to let the issue die an early death…

*******

It was approaching the end of the day as Jack looked out of the place that he now had to call “home”. It felt strange as he looked to the skyline of Nashville and looked back on a place where he had had so many happy memories. But now, they were all over, and he was returning to Nashville for another reason.

He swung the pack he was carrying – containing a lot of Qwerty’s spying gear and also some other essentials for himself – over his back, and then set out on his way. Making sure France was not following, he then hurriedly set out on his way.

The sun was starting to set as he started out, and he knew that he needed to be quick if he wanted to be in Nashville before dark. He knew that he would have preferred to have had a vehicle to help him on his way, but he knew that if he searched for one it was likely to take him far longer than he would take without wasting time for searching for trucks of some sort.

The weather was pretty fine as he jogged towards Nashville. It was only about seven or so miles, but Jack knew he wasn’t up to his normal fitness levels. Seven miles would be a lot more than it was normally.

He had set off at a brisk pace – but not too fast, just in case – for the first three miles. But as he travelled, the sun started to sink behind the horizon, and Jack anxiously willed himself on faster.

The scar in his back started to hurt as he kicked up speed, but he knew that there was no option: pain or not, he had committed himself to that night going into Nashville and scouting for his plans, which would have to be heavily adjusted if he was going to put it off for any longer.

The weather was fine that evening, and as Jack looked around he could see the lush red sky of sunset, which was an amazing sight to behold for Jack.

For a moment, he had taken it all in and stopped for a moment… until he had remembered his purpose for his journey. But the scenery was all so beautiful, so amazing… Jack loved it. The scenery was breathtaking, and it was just one of those moments that he knew that the image of was going to stay with him in his memory for ever. It was just so beautiful.

He quickly got himself back together to running, though, and set his mind on the task before him. As he ran, the image of Nashville on the horizon in front of him got bigger and bigger, and Jack’s heart broke inside him as he saw the city where he had grown up in and now was only having to go in illegally.

All the memories of Nashville…. they were just plain fantastic, totally amazing, wholly beautiful, especially all the times with Qwert…. but she was now dead, Nashville was a no-go, and he was fighting for his life…. what had happened to him?

As he ran towards one of the small roads that led into the city, his heart roared in anger towards the government who had messed up his life and forced him into this position. He hated them and he wanted revenge. Especially on Pineau, the man who had built him up into this position…

Jack’s fury upped his pace again, and eventually his feet were pounding in wagonwheels, round and round, faster and faster. When he entered the edges of Nashville, he was moving at over 20 miles a noon, and it was not long before he got to the Greyham Building.

When the Building first came in sight, Jack’s heart gave an involuntary leap. This was the place of so much pain to him, this was the place which he hated… this was it. It was only right for it to be the place of so much pain to those who had caused Jack his pain as well, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it?

Jack managed to walk up to the building as innocently as possible, and then walked down one of the side-streets next to the building. There was very little light, but Jack didn’t take any chances of being spotted, and had covered up his face in a scarf anyway.

Once Jack was in the side-street of the Building, he knew he had to act wisely and quickly. He would have liked a bit more light to enable him to scale the walls easier, but it was too late now for him to worry about that and think about what could-have-been. He needed to act as soon as possible.

Jack knew the camera layout of the wall-face by heart, and knew exactly how to avoid the cameras as he climbed up. There was no time to feed loops into the cameras this time, as he needed to be in and out as soon as possible. All he needed to do was to place all he needed to place and to get out of the Building as soon as possible.

His aim was simple: set the plans, and come back another time to activate what he needed to do. If what Jack expected happened, Pineau would have no chance. Before he knew it, he would be soaking on the floor in a pool of his own blood. But not too soon. Not before Jack would have his revenge… in full.

Jack made sure nobody was watching, before giving himself a run-up and quickly scaling the wall up onto the first window-ledge. From there, he hoisted himself up via a hanging plant onto a small grey pipeline. He then balanced along it, scaled up a metal grille, and climbed in through a small window: very simple, and so far, very effective.

He knew that there was only one tiny camera in that room, and when Jack dropped himself down, he made sure he was in the cameras blind spot. Then, looking and listening out, he quickly avoided the camera’s glare and made his way to the door.

Listening out to make sure nobody was coming, he then stole into the hall that made up the majority of the Greyham Buidling’s layout. Jack laughed at the irony of the halls that were so easy to break into to: the American government wanted to consider themselves impregnable, but even in their own government building they had lots of long corridors which were just so easy to infiltrate. Far too easy when the enemy was someone like Jack.

Jack knew the camera layouts by heart, and he stole his way through the Building managing to avoid detection by them easily.

He went through the Building as fast as he safely could without any chance of detection, and very soon came outside Pineau’s office. Last time, he had examined the layout, and he knew there was a safer way to get in than the main entrance: the vent above the door. It was the way to get in untraced by the security team inside the office.

Jack leapt up inhumanly onto the wall and slid the grille open before sliding his body into it. He then took out the grill on the other side silently, and softly dropped down into the room. It took him a minit to get his bearings, but soon he knew exactly where everything was: including where Pineau kept his security team in his office.

Like a cat, Jack stole towards where the guards were, and pulled on a gas mask he had kept in his bag. He could hear them talking from afar off in the massive office, and it wasn’t hard to position where they were hiding behind one of the large pillars in the room.

Still staying undetected, Jack lobbed a poisonous gas grenade into the area where the guards were. Within seven minits, they were all unconscious. Jack could have killed them had he wanted to, but he didn’t want to: he wanted to remain undetected.

Jack smiled at how easy it had been so far. Up to then, the government’s apparently tough security had not been able to stand anything of him. It had just been so easy to get right past the security of the Building – a part of him wondered whether it was just too easy.

After dealing with the guards, Jack walked across quietly to the tables where Pineau kept most of his stuff. There, he went scanning through Pineau’s papers, not reading anything in particular but simply destroying anything that seemed of importance. Jack didn’t want to make it obvious, so he left the papers that seemed of the most importance untouched. He picked his papers carefully,

As Jack was going through his job, he wondered why Pineau didn’t keep all his important stuff on his computer. He probably was too paranoid about hacking, and Jack knew that he had good reason for that: Jack had hacked his computer on six separate occasions. But Pineau also needs to be careful about hackers into his office, Jack laughed to himself.

After about thirty minits of enjoying himself by causing discomfort to Pineau, Jack knew that time was up. So he quickly placed down a few simple spying bugs before he left the unconscious guards behind in the room.

In half-an-hour, the guards would all wake up and remember nothing of what had happened. They might get some serious questioning in the morning from Pineau, but Jack wasn’t going to lose any sleep because of that. They work for the Nationalists: they pay the price. That was the way jack felt.

Jack left the room the same way he had come,confident that so far he had avoided detection. He still had a large piece of the night to go, but he was anxious too be in and out as soon as possible, so he hurried up and went along on his way.

He danced from spot to stop, looking out for all the cameras and avoiding them with instinctive ease. Within minits, he was outside Blake’s door, which he opened secretly with a loop fed into the cameras. He lost precious time doing that, but he needed to get in, and there was no other way this time.

Once in, he placed on Blake’s bedside table what he had planned: a short note, and a prototype of one of the gadgets him and Qwerty had just started to work on. Jack had no idea whether the device would work, but one thing he knew was that Blake needed it. And if it didn’t, it was harsh but Jack knew that he didn’t care all that much.

It was a device that automatically fed a loop of both sound and sight to any camera or spying device that was listening in. Jack placed it by Blake’s bedside table along with a note saying what it did and signed “A Friend – you know who I am.”

After he had done, which didn’t take very long, Jack left the room, de-activated the loop, and hurried on his way to his final destination he needed to go to this time in the Building. It was Pineau’s room.

Jack knew that all of the senior government officials lived inside the Building – yet another example of bad security from the government – and he knew exactly whose room was where.

From the blueprints he had seen often of the Building, it was not hard to find where Pineau’s room was and make his way there. It was only another couple of minits away, and Jack was soon there.

He fed another loop and made his way inside. This time, Jack found it hard to avoid reaching his arm back and thrusting a knife through Pineau’s chest. Jack knew it would be so easy to do so, but he would have to cause Pineau more pain before then. Pineau’s death would come, but not before the time was right.

Jack placed more bugging devices and cameras all around the room. He tried to hide them as well as possible, behind holes and in closets. There were surprisingly many areas of where to put them, and so Jack didn’t find it hard to find places to bug Pineau. He also attatched a minute location tracker on Pineau’s left foot. It was a device to make sure he knew exactly where Pineau was, all the time. Hopefully, Pineau wouldn’t notice it.

And then for the last thing he had planned. He knew that he hoped to kill Pineau personally with a knife or a gun, but just in case that wouldn’t work, he placed a few dangerous gas canisters and grenades in very hidden locations around the room.

They were able to be activated from distance by Jack, and Jack knew they were his last option, in case in the future all other ideas of his failed. He knew he would prefer to kill Pineau personally, but just in case, he had put them in the room. He was immensely confident that he would succeed and saw no need to use them, but nonetheless… it would be best to hide them as well as he could.

Job done, Jack hurriedly made his way out of the room. He knew that he had effortlessly just taken out all of the American government’s hope in their apparently impregnable security measures, and he knew it would be just plain easy to assassinate Pineau when the time came. When faced by his power, wherever it originated from, the American government had no chance against him.

Jack stole one last glance at Pineau, and then suddenly his emotions which he had been blocking out so well for so long seized him. Suddenly he felt himself totally engulfed by his total rage against the man. He felt over into his pocket where he had his knife, and he yanked it out viciously.

He then ran quickly over to Pineau and all his feelings of rage, anger, and pure, ugly, pain felt so badly like coming out. He thought of Qwerty, the house, his parents… all amazing relationships ended viciously and heartlessly by this man.

This man certainly did not deserve to live. He had sent so many innocent people to their deaths, and Jack knew that very soon he would be joining them.

He shoved down the knife, but an inch from Pineau’s throat, he stopped. He had no idea of where they came from, but the thoughts of his plan came through, and he realised that Pineau was going to get a lot more pain if Jack let his plan run. Let Pineau live for now, and send him to the grave later. Now, he deserved more than simple brute death. He deserved more, and he was going to get that much more.

So Jack left Pineau asleep, and silently slipped his knife back into his sheath. He crept out of the room, leaving Pineau sleeping quietly, blissfully unawares of how close he had come to death. And unawares about how dangerous an enemy he had, an enemy who was able to kill him at will and whenever he wanted to.

Chapter 32

That night, Jaime didn’t bother with trying to sleep, but instead he stayed awake all night trying to work out what could have happened to his brother. Seriously, what would make the pretty – by American standards, that is – clerk – ok, if Jaime was being serious with himself maybe she was a little pretty – at the desk become suddenly so defensive when Jaime asked to see “Jack”?

What had happened to Jack? Like, something must have happened serious. Why else would his picture be taken down in such inglorious fashion when it had clearly been on some kind of hall of fame or something? Had something happened to do with him that the house wanted to separate themselves from?

Jaime walked through the park all night trying to work out what could have happened to Jack. He tried to work it out, but as he considered everything, he knew that he wasn’t really being very logical in the way that he thought out what could have happened.

As he paced from each side of Central Nashville Park, he knew what the problem with his picture in his mind was. It was that he was only working on simple assumptions. How would he be able to know about what could have happened to Jack with only what he knew?

Anything could happen to a teenage boy. Jaime knew, he had only been one not so long ago. Jack could have… Jaime didn’t even list through the possibilities, there were so many. Jaime didn’t know what had happened, and without that he would never be able to find his little brother. He would have to first find out exactly what had happened… and then, once he knew that, he would have to then locate his brother.

But how could he find out what had happened on the information that he knew? It was so little, so small. He didn’t even know anything of what Jack acted like, whether he was wild or calm, clever or stupid, logical or frenetic, careful or instinctive… Jaime had no idea of what his brother was like. He would have to find out more.

For a while, Jaime sat down on a bench. His mind was messed up and he found it extremely difficult to think clearly. He really needed to find a way of finding out what Jack was like, but how?

It took Jaime a couple of noons of the night to get a half-decent plan together in his mind about what to do. He knew that he needed to find out what Jack was like and thus the most likely reason why he fell foul of the house, and thus where Jack would be.

A harsh and sudden thought hit him as he was thinking about it – was he, could he be… dead? Could that be the reason why the house was taking down his picture, and why the girl behind the desk was so defensive? Jaime considered it, but eventually realised in a very relieving thought that it was quite unlikely. Seriously, why would a clerk go so “denial” when just finding out the person in question was dead? Surely she would just have mention the fact he was dead?

Think all he could, Jaime eventually realised that he just could not get any ideas about what could have happened to Jack at all during the night, so he gave up.

Jaime wondered why he couldn’t think straight. He had never really had that problem very much before, but then again he knew for a fact that he was still very much put off by the fact that his plans had not gone according to what he had expected to have happened.

For example, when he had planned for meeting Jack, he had not expected Jack to have been “doing” anything. He had just expected Jack to be almost there, sitting, getting bored, waiting for him. Jaime knew he had been very wrong in this respect, and he could be wrong in anything if he was wrong once.

For the first time in his life, Jaime felt nervous and felt like he didn’t know anything, suddenly. All of a sudden, he realised soberly that he had made some rash assumptions which had turned out not to exist at all.

For a start, he had expected Jack to be in the house, and it seemed already that even that had not turned out to be the case. Even such an obvious thing as that had turned out not to have happened, and Jaime was already reeling.

He had also noticed about how stand-out he had looked, asking to meet up with one of the children in the house. This was a thing that he had expected to have been happening all the time from parents. It turned out it was nothing like that.

These couple of mistakes, and others, put him off, and made him… – Was it? Could it be? – nervous?

Self-doubt was an emotion so alien to him, that when he first felt it it was so uncommon and out-of-place that it felt so powerful and scary. Jaime was just so used to being completely confident in all of his own actions that, now that he was starting to have some doubt his assumptions, the emotions hit him very personally.

How could he, Jaime Thorn, have gone wrong? Jaime Thorn never made mistakes. Or did he? Could, somehow, the impossible have happened? Could he, however it happened, have gone wrong somewhere along the line? Was it possible? Jaime, of course, knew that it was, but he had never actually seen himself as fallible before.

But once he was wrong, then how wrong could he be? Could he have not just made one or two mistakes, but lots? Jack not want to go to Missouri? Could Jack be liking the house system so much he didn’t care about his parents, who they were, or what nationality they were?

Or, picking up a different but still possible line of thought, could Jack, somehow, have discovered about his parenthood by himself and thus taken a stand against the government? Jaime knew that he himself would feel very embarrassed about telling Jack about his parents, had Jack already found out himself, but it was seriously unlikely. However, Jaime knew that anything is possible…

Anything s possible. That thought was very much a new one to Jaime, a thought he had not considered very much in his life on earth. He had considered anything he imagined to be possible, but not anything. Now, he felt that anything was possible. Anything. It was a humbling thing.

But at least Jaime knew he had some sort of plan. He was thinking about trying to ask any boy about Jack’s age from the Building who left it about Jack and what he was like. From the little snippets of Jack’s life he might pick up, Jaime wondered if he would find anything that would give him a lead on what happened on Jack.

Jaime knew that it was risky, but he just had to find out about Jack, and with the limited information that he had, it was just about the only chance he had.

There was only one other lead: “Greyham Building Meet 2329” but nothing came up when Jaime searched it on his Zonemaster. The only things Jaime could assume about was that it was an impressive event, impressive enough to warrant a place on the Hall of Fame of the house, and it was some kind of meet-up at the Greyham Building.

But what exactly it was, Jaime could know nothing and he was pretty sure that he wouldn’t find out by asking around either. It would have to be by assumptions, and Jaime didn’t want to work on that again: not if possible. So that left only one option: to go asking around the boys from the house and see what they knew about Jack. Like it or not, Jaime would have to do it.

When Jaime had eventually decided all that, the sun had already begun to rise, and Jaime decided to grab himself something to eat and then get on with watching the house for any boys, and to, as innocently as possible, try to get information out of them. How he was going to do that, he had no idea, but that could wait. For now, he just wanted to grab some food and maybe some rest, as he was tired… very tired. That was another first, what was happening to him? He hoped that it was nothing major.

Jaime felt so low, and he sighed. This was turning out to be way more than the little “go-find-my-brother” thing that he had planned for himself. This was a lot more, and whilst he was not in danger, he found that he was changing very much and it was very scary. Although Jaime Thorn was never scared. Never.

*******

That night, Frankie didn’t go back home until very late. He had worked until very late in the office, in order to try to allay any suspicions that Pineau might have.

He turned his car into his drive, and smoothly turned off the engine. It purred softly for a moment and then stopped. He then stepped out of his front door, taking his briefcase with him. He went to the front door and unlocked it, opening it. Immediately, he saw Carmel, who was there waiting for him just inside the door.

She jumped on him and hugged him tight. Frankie could feel the relief oozing out of her, and then she asked him worriedly, “Where have you been?”

Nowhere.” he replied, and when he could see that she wanted more explanation, Frankie replied, “I just stayed at work longer today.”

Carmel looked a little peeved, and replied, “You could have just told me. It would have saved me a whole load of worry.”

I’m sorry.” Frankie said sincerely, “Doing so just didn’t cross my mind. I’ll do it next time, I promise.”

Thanks.” said Carmel, letting go of his neck and taking his coat and briefcase from him. She went over and pit them on one of the dining chairs, before following Frankie into the sitting room.

He sat down on one of the armchairs, and Carmel sat down opposite him. She had got a couple of hot chocolate drinks from somewhere, and she handed one to him. He took it from her gratefully.

There was a few minits of silence, and Frankie picked up his Zonemaster and surfed through the news from the public’s point of view, which always amused him because of the assumptions the press so often made.

After a few minits, Carmel cleared her throat and asked casually, “So what did Pineau say? Did you find out anything?”

Frankie put down his Zonemaster, and looked up at her. He stared her in her eyes and replied,

No, he said nothing.” he said, “He actually was a lot more suspicious than I had expected him to be, so I couldn’t get anything out of him. Also, I only saw him once all day.”

And all he asked when he came into my office, which was the only time when I saw him,” Frankie continued, after Carmel did not say anything, “was about why I left to home so early yesterday. Although he did seem very suspicious about that.”

Oh.” Carmel replied, “But did you go looking about for any information? Did you find anything?”

No,” Frankie replied, feeling a bit guilty now that Carmel was asking it that way, “I just wanted to try to make sure that there was no suspicion, so I didn’t do anything abnormal.”

Ok.” said Carmel, clearly a bit disappointed, “Do you think that tomorrow you’d be able to look about a bit more?”

Possibly.” Frankie replied, “I’ll try to test the water and feel what Pineau is feeling, and then I might go fishing a bit more. I’ll see.”

Carmel looked doubtful. “I really want to know about what happened.” she pleaded.

For you, I’d do anything.” Frankie replied lovingly, “I’ll try to, I promise.”

Good.” Carmel replied, looking palpably relieved. “For our sake, we need to know exactly what has happened.”

I suppose that that is true.”

Good.” she replied.

There was a long silence for a while, and they spent a while just staring at each other in passionate love. It went on for a long while before Frankie murmured, “I will do it. Just for you, I will. I love you.”

*******

Jack’s short journey back from Nashville was uneventful and very simple. He had met nobody at all, going through the streets in Nashville, and he was comfortably able to jog his way back to the house very quickly.

The bright moonlight which lit up his route enabled him to keep a good pace, and it had not been very long before he had made his way into the house where him and France were staying.

As he walked in, Jack’s shadow shone down into the empty room. He walked into the room, and then carefully made his way up the creaking but solid staircase. At the top, he listened out for France’s breath. It came, and Jack was assured that France was safe and asleep.

But Jack didn’t feel like sleep just yet. His whole self was still adrenalin-pumped from what he had just achieved, so he knew that he would never be able to go to sleep like that. And he didn’t feel like any sleep, not at all. He just was not tired.

Instead of sleep, he decided to look through all the stuff that he had with him in his bag: mainly all of the spying gear that Qwerty had made. He knew that it had been a risk to take into the Building, but he had decided it had been a risk worth taking, because of how they could have come in use at one point.

Like always when he saw the machines, he was amazed at how Qwerty’s mind had been so amazing to be able to combine such apparently primitive wires and connectors into such useful gear. It was just quite incredible.

She clearly had a talent… no, that was wrong. She clearly had had a talent, Jack reminded himself painfully. Very painfully. Jack knew that, as long as he lived, he would never ever be able to face up with the fact that Qwerty – the love of his life – had died. Just thinking about it once just made the rage just overcame him, and he felt so much more rage than even when he had first found out his parents had been killed by the government.

If he was being honest with himself, that was why Jack had enjoyed the evening so much. Just being able to gain revenge, sweet revenge, on the government that had totally messed up his life was just something that he loved.

Up to this point, he had been totally outplayed by the government, out-manouvered, and beaten. They had the manpower and the force, and he had had no chance in the Building. He had barely got away with his life.

But today, in the dark, when it was just plainly down to skill, brains, and gadgets, he knew that he had the upper hand, the upper advantage of surprise. All he just needed was to use those advantages that he had all the more in his quest to avenge the government for all that they had done with him.

As he was thinking, Jack turned each gadget over in his hands, examining every little feature of each one. His hands felt over the metallic cold steel with lots of affection in his heart, as he remembered each and every feature of each gadget. Each one seemed so perfect to him, just perfectly complete.

To most people, they may have been looked upon as quite ugly machines, but Jack knew better. To him, they were efficient marvels. He knew the exact uses of each one, and he loved each and every little part of each machine.

They were one of the many things in his life that reminded him of Qwerty, and particularly her exceptional ability with technology and machinery. He wished that he could be able to replicate some of the things she had made, but, like it or not, he did not have it. But at least he could use her devices to gain revenge on the people that killed her. It would be just one tiny, little way in which he could honour her memory.

And he hoped, as his hands felt over each little model, that when he killed Pineau it would fill a lot of the void in his heart about how he felt in regard to his parents’ and Qwerty’s deaths.

There was that massive hole in his heart which had been there all along. He felt all the more now that Qwerty was dead, and he could feel that he needed it to be filled. It was a great longing of his heart, which he knew he needed to resolve once and for all.

True happiness as a human being could never come without it. But he had no idea what could fill such a hole. Would friends? He didn’t know, but the truth was that he didn’t think so.

He felt such a longing and a passion to be that happy. To solve the problem of happiness and how he couldn’t feel it so much in his life, he, more than ever, was yearning to find some happiness somewhere in his life.

The question was: where would it come from? Jack didn’t know, and he hoped it would come from killing Pineau, but he wasn’t sure. For now, anyway, he didn’t want to think about it.

He had one thing he was aiming to do, and didn’t want anything, nothing at all, to sidetrack him from it.

His aim: kill Pineau and gain revenge on the government he had once put so much hope in for his life, which he now knew it had all been folly.

Chapter 33

Jack eventually did manage to catch some sleep, but he was up within just two noons. Even so, he did feel quite refreshed. It was surprising, but Jack shrugged it off, getting on with what he had to do.

He was planning to create a file that listed out and proved a lot of the crimes of the American government. He was sure that he could manage to get it together, with all the evidence and devices that he already had.

He would have to dig about for other, more incriminating, evidence, of course. But if he managed to deliver the file to the media, all the work would certainly be well worth it.

The government would be totally and permanently ruined if Jack succeeded. It would be an international crisis, one similar to the one that had hit America forty years before, when an anonymous reporter had proven that the leader of the Conservatives was in league with the Missourians. Since then, the conservatives had never been able to gain anywhere near the popularity that they had previously been able to gain. They were still very much on the edge of American politics and were yet to recover from such a blow.

Jack knew that this would be the same, or at least very similar, to what had happened back then: the Nationalists would never again be able to gain any kind of popularity. Or at least, not for a long time. The weapon and all their plans in that way would be totally and permanently finished.

In that way, it would be a multi-victory for Jack: the government would be finished, Pineau would be dead, and Missouri would be protected. Despite the fact that it would involve a lot of work, Jack knew that it would be worth it. He would have to keep himself safe, though: if he was captured then there would be no chance that it would go ahead.

Jack walked down the stairs, to where all of his machines were. France was still asleep, so he tried to make as little noise as possible down the creaky stairs.

Once he had got to the bottom of the stairs, he picked up all the memory drives that he had. He arranged them all out in a line, and picked up the one that he had put first. He pushed it into his Zonestation, and started to look through the files.

*******

As he searched, though, he realised just how disorganised his files were. He cursed himself about how he had not thought of the plan earlier and sorted out everything he had found all the way back then. Now, it was so much harder to find the information about the government that he remembered he had.

There was no index for his files, and similar files had not even been stored in the same position as each other. It was nigh on impossible to find what Jack wanted to find.

He knew that he had a picture of the weapon somewhere, but where? He had so much that he had stored all sorts of things all over the place. There were so many hard drives that he and Qwerty had had, and as he looked at all of them, in an aggravatingly long line, he sighed. It would be one massive task.

Jack didn’t have a good feeling about starting on this, but what was his option? He would have to wipe out all of the chances of the government somehow, and this seemed like the perfect way. The governments in America had always been afraid of the press, and the Nationalists were clearly no exception, from what Pineau said in his articles around the Building. If Jack managed to get the files to the press, he knew that the government would have no chance at all.

Finding all the files that he needed, and then manipulating them in such a way that they incriminated the government in such a way that there was no way that it could be denied was the aim. It would be extremely difficult though, and Jack would need France’s help, especially once he had got all the files that he wanted and was choosing which ones to use.

But Jack wasn’t sure if France would be willing to help, considering the amount of things that Jack was hiding from him. Jack knew that he himself would feel very annoyed if he was being hidden some things like that, and he wasn’t sure if he would help a friend who had done that to him.

Telling France everything was out of the question, but Jack knew that he would have to ask very carefully. France’s help would be very handy, but it wasn’t certain.

Jack knew he had to wait till France woke up anyway, so he pushed thoughts about France out of his mind. He still had to go through hundreds of other locations finding things anyway. So he picked up his Zonestation and opened up yet more folders and files, working away in the dark room as hard as he could.

*******

Jaime was watching North Nashville house right from the earliest hours of the morning. Of course, he knew that nobody, let alone a teenage boy, was going to be awake for still a long while. But still, he watched the house, just to pass time and actually do something. He was a little bit bored. There was nothing he had to do.

Well, enjoy it while you can, Jaime told himself. He was still very much a loner at heart, and being able to have some time to himself was going to be a good thing. Just to take stock of life.

For a couple of noons in the early hours of the morning, he just sat, watching the house half-heartedly. Mainly, though, he was just revelling in being able to take time out for himself. He was normally so busy, and times like this when he was in control of himself was so good. Who cared what Missouri would think about his relaxation? Not him.

Anyway, they knew what he was looking for, if they were spying on him, which was a no-brainer. They, surely, would be humane enough to let him look for his younger brother… even the Missourians would do such a thing. It seemed like they were letting him get away with it, although Jaime could just imagine the heated arguments back in the HQ of the government about him… not that that bothered him.

They could do what they like. If they let him do what he wanted, Jaime would be fine with that; but if they called him back, then they would regret it, and he would just go out again to find his little brother. Simple as that.

Thinking about Missouri, however, was just ruining a lovely morning. Jaime turned his head to look at the rays of the sun peek above the horizon. He continued to watch, enthralled, as the sun grew higher and higher and brighter and brighter until it had gone over the horizon. Jaime was fantasised. The sunrise was something that he hardly saw in his normal life, and it was so beautiful. Jaime loved it.

When the sun had eventually risen, Jaime got himself a bite of breakfast out of his bag. As he was doing so, he realised that the “hiding place” that he was in at that time was a pretty useless one and a shame for someone like him to choose. It was a tree just across the road from the house, and Jaime figured that if a teenager saw someone drop out of a tree and chase them, then they’d be scared: not what he wanted.

It was quite shameful, really, that he hadn’t considered that earlier, but Jaime put it down to the fact that he had been tired.

Jaime looked around for a better hiding place, and he saw a few tall buildings not far away which he thought might do, if he could get on top of them. They were at the perfect distance from the house: well within Jaime’s sight, but at the same time, on the edge of the range of a normal person’s eyesight. No-one, unless they were looking out for him, would see him drop down off the top of the building from the house.

He climbed down quickly from the tree, and then walked innocently down the street and went to the back of the buildings that he had spotted. They were warehouses for something, but he didn’t really care about what they were. He quickly climbed up to the top of one of the seven-story buildings, and took a lookout of the house.

*******

France didn’t wake up until very deep into the morning, nearly midday. By then, Jack had already looked through hundreds of file locations all around his memory sticks to find what he had been looking for.

He had a lot less files which made up anything worth mentioning than he had thought that he had had, though. That annoyed him. There didn’t seem to be many pictures of the government files or of the weapon, or of the blueprints, or letters from Pineau to someone, or nothing.

He had already gone through the majority of his standalone memory drives, and found next to no evidence. He knew he had a lot more files, but it was just where they were, which drive they were on. His memory was horrendous and he just could not remember.

If only he had built an index or something…. but alas, there was none, and his files were too many to do a simple Zonestation search on. It was annoying, but he had to work with what features he had. Why couldn’t he just forget about what might have been and relax out a bit?

Jack smiled at the irony, and stretched his arms back. He, Jack Thorn, not relaxing, needing to be laid back? Not so long ago he would have been laid back about totally everything… Jack knew the pressure of his situation was starting to work its way into him. He would have to keep it in check, and make sure it didn’t eat too much away at him.

Eventually, though, Jack heard the unmistakable sound of France waking up, and before long, France was walking down the stairs. Jack put his work to a side.

“Morning.” said Jack.

France didn’t reply immediately, but yawned before saying, groggily, “How long have you been up for?”

“A couple of hours.”

“Oh.” said France, seating himself down on one of his bags.

“Have you had breakfast yet?” he asked, after a minit.

“No, I was waiting for you.” Jack replied.

“Oh. Sorry.” France replied.

“Don’t worry, I’ve been doing things.”

“You’ve been outside?” France asked.

“No, I was doing stuff inside.”

“What?” France asked, a little bit more awake. He stood up, and walked over to where Jack was taking the food out of one of the bags.

“I’ll tell you later.” Jack replied.

“Ok.” France said, “We don’t have much bread left, do we?”

Jack looked at the pack. They only had about five slices left of bread, and a small hunk of meat, a little bit of water, and not much else.

“Nope, we don’t. We don’t have much food left, actually. We need to buy some more.”

“You don’t say.” France replied, jokily. “When are you planning to buy some?”

“This afternoon?” Jack wondered out loud.

“Ah, ok.” France replied. “What are you planning for the morning?”

“I’ve got something I want to do. I’ll tell you after breakfast.”

“Ok, sure.”

There was silence for a while as the two of them munched on their slice of bread.

“Do you want to come with me to buy food this afternoon?” Jack asked.

“Sure.” said France, surprised, “But I just thought I’d slow you down.”

“You would,” Jack admitted, “but the company would be worth it.”

“Thanks.” France replied.

*******

Before long, the two of them had finished breakfast. Jack noticed that France had not asked anything about the previous evening: he was just acting as if it had never happened, which was probably for the better. Jack really did not want to have to tell France what he was up to, not yet.

He would, of course, tell him one day. When everything was over hopefully, and they were safe. Maybe even when they were already back in Missouri.

Once they had finished their pieces of bread, the pushed their plates into the bag where they were kept. They were both still hungry, but Jack was content. Too much food often dropped his concentration levels.

“France?” he asked, as he was folding up the bread bag.

“What?”

“You know my plans for this morning?”

“Yeah? You going to tell me now, are you?”

“Uhuh.” Jack nodded, “Just let me put this away and I’ll tell you.”

“Sure.”

Jack put the bread back inside the bag within a minit, and then he sat down on the floor, facing France, who was on a bag.

“I need your help with something this morning.” Jack explained. Please say yes, please….

“What do you want me to do?” France asked, curious. Jack sensed that he had not been expecting to have been involved in the plans.

“It’ll take a while to explain.” Jack said.

“Well… sure.” France replied, and for the first time that morning showing a little hint of bitterness, “It’s not as if we’re going to be very pushed for time, here in the middle of nowhere.”

“Basically,” he­ explained, “my main aim before we go off to Missouri, and the main reason why we’re still in America, is because I want revenge. I want to get back at the government, and do it myself.”

“On your own?” France asked.

“Well, with your help of course.”

“No, what I meant was that you’re not going to want Missouri’s help or something?”

“Yeah, that’s right.” Jack replied, “I want to do this myself, I think it’ll be more satisfying that way.” Satisfaction – again an issue.

“I understand.” France said.

“Good.”

“But how do you intend to do that? Call in flying monkeys?” France asked sarcastically.

“Of course, how else would I do it?” Jack joked. “That’s by far the best option.

“No, seriously Jack.” said France, with a smile on his face.

“I intend to, at the moment, try to get a file together of loads of evidence against the government about their crimes.” Jack said, “After that I can give that to the press, and hopefully knock the government off their perch.

“Wow, if that works, then I have to say that it’s gonna be very effective.”

“Yep.” replied Jack, “that’s why I’ve planned that.”

“Ya, you’ve got everything planned out, haven’t you?” France laughed.

“Not really.”

“Anyway, how do you want my help on this?” France asked.

“Well, I’ve got lots of file locations and memory sticks that I need to go through….” Jack paused.

“So…” said France.

“Well, this morning, I’ve started to go through the files that I have on all my memory sticks, my Zonestation, and, like, everywhere.”

“So you want me looking through these places?”

“Yesh.” Jack replied, nodding “There’s just so many places to look, all over the place, and seriously, I can’t do it alone. I need you to help me to look through some of my memory sticks and find evidence that will prove the governments’ crimes. I know that I’ve got a lot of stuff which I haven’t seen yet.”

“Ok…” said France, “What classes as “evidence” then?”

“I don’t know…. basically anything, I think.” Jack replied, “Anyway, I’ll look through all the stuff you put to a side afterwards, seeing if it is good or not. So for now, really anything, anything at all, that could be used as evidence is preferred.”

“Ah.” France replied.

“So you helping?”

“Of course I am.”

Jack felt relieved. “Great.” he replied, “Would you be ok about looking through the memory sticks? That would mean that I could go through the government computers with some of Qwerty’s hacking gear.”

“I’ll be cool at doing anything.” France replied.

“Good.” Jack replied.

And then France added, spitting out each word with scorn, “Anything to get revenge on those bastards who killed my best friend’s girlfriend and screwed up my life.” Jack felt exactly the same way.

*******

Jack and France got on with what they had to do for a couple of noons. The conversation between them was very limited, but Jack knew that lots of things must be racing through France’s mind, just as they were going through his.

What would be the results of this plan? Could he, could it, manage to succeed? Just how would he be able to get the files to the press?

And, and if he was being honest with himself this was the most important thing, would he manage to find satisfaction at the end of it?

Satisfaction. Jack knew that he was yearning for it, and had been for all his life. He had only just realised it recently, but that didn’t meant that it was a new thing. In actual fact, that had been the thing he had been striving for. If only he could become satisfied… that was the main longing that he had had for ages.

He wondered if it was the same for everyone else: was everyone else in the world looking for that satisfaction as well? Or was everyone different, liking different things and searching for different things out of life? Like happiness, or love?

Jack wasn’t sure, and he wasn’t sure if he was close enough to anyone, not even France, to ask them what they were longing for in this way. He knew that he himself was yearning to be satisfied, but he had no idea why he felt that way. After all, what would be so good about being satisfied?

There was nothing, and no reason why. It was just his longing.

*******

The mutual silence carried on for a few more noons, and even around midday as the two of them continued to tap on their screens, searching for anything that could prove the deeds of the government.

Jack looked up at France. He seemed to be intent on doing it, just like Jack was, which was good and encouraging. Jack had been worried that France would be only half-hearted at it, but it seemed like those fears were allayed. France did seem to have the same hatred of the government that Jack had, and that passion and fire seemed to stir him on. Which was very encouraging.

Confident in France, Jack looked down at his screen and the results of his latest search. He was searching through another of the computers in the government building, this one the agricultural mainframe. It wasn’t as if Jack was expecting to find anything there, but he knew he had to search through everything. Knowing the government, they could easily be hiding important stuff in unimportant locations.

Jack was finding it so easy to hack into the government computers. Him and Qwerty had one afternoon bookmarked all the government computers on their hacking device, and now, even from this distance, the small brain inside the computer was able to break into the computers.

If Jack was being honest with himself, it was all pretty easy to hack into, although the government did have far less information on their computers than Jack had expected. And too many locations were blocked by too much security for the small device to break through. It was good enough on simple ALT password-protection, but too much stronger and it was difficult.

He had already gone through three of the government computers – one the education department, the defence department, and now the agricultural department – and so far, he had found nothing. Not one tiny little thing, no mention at all about the weapon or anything else. Totally nothing.

Of course, he had only, relatively speaking, skimmed through each computer, and only searched the main locations. There were also, loads of locations which were tightly secured and Jack could not break into, which was probably where everything was stored.

But still, finding nothing, especially in the defence department, was disappointing. Everything there seemed very innocent, as if the government had been expecting a hack – which, considering the amount of enemies that America had – and was hiding any reports of their crimes against humanity. Jack had at least expecting there to be at least one mention, one lapse, one mistake, one fault, that he could pick up on… as yet, there were still none.

Suddenly, France said, “Jack?”

“Yes?” Jack asked, in reply.

“Forgive me for asking, dude, but… was this what you were up to last night?”

Jack paused for a moment, wondering whether he should answer or not, and whether he should tell the truth.

“Not really.” he eventually replied, telling the truth, “In a way it was, but saying so would be pushing it. In reality, what I did last night was not the same as this at all. ”

“Ok.” replied France. “Can I ask what you did?”

“You can ask… but I don’t want to tell you.

“Ok.” France replied, keeping silent for a while, before asking, “Have you found much then?”

“Nothing at all.” said Jack, “I’ve been looking through the government computers, but there seems to be nothing there. It’s really disappointing, but everything seems to be hidden or protected.”

“Really? Nothing at all?” France asked, surprised.

“Yes, nothing. It’s not that surprising, considering how many locations have too tight security for me to break through.”

“Ok, it’s just that I’ve found loads of stuff.”

“How much?” Jack asked.

“Well, I’ve already set aside nearly forty files.”

“What?” Jack exclaimed, shocked. He hadn’t expected France to have found anything, especially when he considered that he himself had found nothing.

Although, if he had given it much thought, he would have realised that France had had an easier place to look through. Still though, forty files?

“Yeah, look at this.” France said, twisting his Zonestation, with the memory sticks attached to it, around to Jack. Jack was really interested to see what this “evidence” would be like, and he was disappointed.

A lot of what France had set aside as evidence was not evidence at all. Things such as him (Jack) writing notes to Qwerty about what the government had done, or photos of officials going into the Greyham Building, and all sorts of other, similar, things were included as well.

These files were relevant, true, but they would have no help in incriminating the government of their crimes. There was no such “evidence” in them.

Jack mentioned to France about that, and France was naturally disheartened and sorry, but there was no other, less reasonable, reaction, which again heartened Jack. France didn’t seem in a mood which he would give up. Hopefully it would happen all the time like that.

“But some of this stuff is valuable, if not that special or “evidence”.” Jack added, trying to put a positive slant on it.

France mumbled back an agreement, but when Jack looked back to him he was already looking for more files through Jack’s hard-drives, much to Jack’s astonishment.

“Meh.” Jack told himself, and shrugged it off, turning back to his work.

Chapter 34

Frankie was, again, up late the next morning, and he hurried down to work in a rush. He promised to Carmel that he’d try to find something out that day. Pineau was still going to be suspicious, and just for the sake of his own job he would have to find out what the situation was and what would be the wise way to act.

When he got into work, he made his mind up not to coop himself up in his office, as he had done the previous day. It was not something he normally did, and Pineau would be even more suspicious than he already was.

Not that he had any reason to be suspicious, except that Frankie’s morals might be holding the government back: Frankie knew he was still a loyal American and that he wanted the best for the government: as long as they weren’t inhumane in their treatment of others.

He got to the Building in good time, and walked straight to his office. He just left his jacket and a couple of very private folders in there though, and then went off into the communal workroom where most of the government members worked on their desks and with their Zonemaster.

He walked from his office to the main room, looking through the glass windows into each of the rooms he walked past. Each and every one was different, but at the same time, the same. The same floor, the same look, the same ambitions, and the same corrupt nature that seemed to be found all over the Greyham Building and needed to be purged.

He soon got to the central office, and as he pushed through the glass doors, one of the senior members of the security staff looked up and came across to greet him.

Ah, Mr De Bran.”, he said, “Just the man I was looking for.”

Hello, Mr Bean.” Frankie replied, continuing to walk towards his desk, and letting Mr Bean follow him, “How are you today?”

Not so good, thank you. There’s this little puzzle I need you to help me with.”

Oh, dear, that’s not good.” Frankie replied, not really meaning it, “What do you want me to help you with then?”

Mr Bean was not the sort of man to dwell on pleasantries, and he went straight in, “Well, I knew that you were the man with the security guards who chased Jack Thorn around the building.”

Frankie hoisted his Zonemaster and his briefcase onto the top of his desk, and then turned to face the security man, “Yes, I was. What about it?”

Do forgive me if this sounds like a stupid question, but… is there any chance that the boy could have survived?”

Why, haven’t they found the body? Or have they even seen video evidence of him alive? A few glimmers of hope flickered through Frankie’s body. “Why do you ask?” he said, hoping to find out more.

The thing is, sir, we still haven’t found the body yet.” said Mr Bean in an undertone, clearly trying not to let anyone else hear.

And you’ve been looking?”

Of course!” Bean replied loudly, causing a couple of heads to turn his way, “Pineau has forced us to scour the whole of that lake in and out for the last two days, without any rest.”

Oh.” said Frankie, seating himself on his seat, “And I suppose that you’ve already been briefed by the guards about everything that happened…?”

Yes I have sir, but, as you very well know, they are only common guards. They could very easily be lying, for a whole range of reasons.”

Most certainly.” said Frankie, although he felt that Bean’s distrust was a bit too old-fashioned.

I am sure, however, that I would certainly get the truth from someone of slightly more… stature.” Mr Bean said nervously.

Ah, I understand.” Frankie replied, and then paused in thought, “If you would want to know, I see no way in which the boy could have survived. I have taken courses in marksmanship myself, and I know that-”

Yes, I know that you have, that’s why I asked you.” Mr Bean interjected.

-the bullet hit,” Frankie continued, not pleased at being interrupted, “one of the twenty-nine areas in the body where a human could not possibly survive