Bass Bins

I’m continuing my series of sections that were omitted from the published version of Themis: Part one. This section features Sarah going to a nightclub with Henry and Fiona to watch Danny DJ, where she witnesses his ‘Godlike’ skills. Hope you enjoy:

Sarah felt the music before she heard it. The car rumbled from the sound waves that bounced inside the metal and oozed through the specialized bulletproof glass. The car could stop high caliber rounds and explosive devices, but apparently not bass.
They were parked in an alleyway by the back entrance of what used to be a clothing mill, then a warehouse, and now the infamous nightclub called Subland. Rave parties were not Sarah’s idea of a night out, preferring the wispy melodies of folk music to loud repetitive beats. Her perception was that it was seedy and she’d been reluctant to attend, but Danny was the DJ, and Henry had begged her to come. He was still under the illusion that she would fall prey to his irresistible charms, but the more she got to know him the less likely that became. He was attractive and charming in an over confident childish way, but she couldn’t help but think that he could fix those charms on someone else at any moment.
Fiona sat opposite in the back of the limo looking radiant in her clubland-meets-the-catwalk slinky black dress with sports shoes and a silver wrap in her long hair. Sarah had felt pretty good about the way she looked in her silk dress, but Fiona possessed a supernatural beauty that made everyone else appear dull in comparison.
Except Henry, who sat next to Sarah and squeezed her hand as they pulled in near the entrance. He was casually dressed, but possessed a similar quality to his sister, as if an air of heightened reality surrounded them, and a film crew continuously followed them around to witness the display of perfection. It was the same with all the siblings. There was something different, something difficult to quantify. They were a thrill to be around, and Sarah noticed that they had the same effect on everyone they interacted with.
They were ushered in through the back door by their Israeli bodyguards and greeted by club officials, who predictably fawned over Fiona and Henry, and ignored her. They climbed a dark stairway into a room that overlooked a large and packed dance floor.
“At least there’s no paparazzi,” Fiona said, as she sipped on a glass of champagne.
Sarah tasted her own glass of free, expensive bubbles. “It’s not as loud as I thought it would be.”
“It will be when we go down. Oh, wow, I have to say hello to someone.” Fiona walked over to a group of bald men, all identically dressed in black. Sarah noticed that nearly everyone was dressed in black.
Henry walked her to the glass wall that overlooked the dance floor. The VIP room they stood in contained various tribes of people. One corner contained the fashion group, and she recognized a few well-known models and designers. Sarah also recognized a film actor with his entourage. The rest of the room was filled with industry types: DJ’s, promoters, music producers, even journalists like her.
The dance floor itself was a cavernous room that had retained the structure of its industrial origin. The ceiling was constructed from steel-beams that stretched the length and width of the room. Huge colourful globes hung from them with pulsating lights, like planets floating in space. Giant banners were draped over the walls with a single word plastered over them in neon orange letters: Themis. The room they watched from must have been a monitoring station for whatever industry had last existed here, as it offered a perfect view of the entire complex.
“They call him God you know.” Henry pointed to a raised area where Danny fiddled behind banks of equipment.
She laughed. “Excuse me.”
“In the dance music press they’ve started calling him God, because of his supernatural ability behind the turntables. It started out as a bit of a joke, but now they’ve started to actually bill him as God. Danny gets a huge kick out of it, gives his tender ego a little boost.”
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Yes, his ego really needs a boost. Is he that good?”
“Well, he’s a genius composer, so he applies the same ear and feel for the music to his DJ’ing, and people seem to feel it.”
“Yeah, but isn’t he just playing records?”
“Danny loves his vinyl, goes on for hours about timbre and compression, puts me to sleep. But he also mixes it with his own music from digital files or cd’s. I’ve seen him create something original on the spot and then mix three separate vinyl records into it at the same time. And as you can see, they do love him.” Henry pointed to the dance floor and she saw something close to rapture on the faces of the dancers.
“But aren’t they all just on drugs anyway?” she asked, as she stared at the pulsating dance floor.
“Not here. Danny’s anti-drugs, and he attracts like-minded people, though he does love his wine.”
“I’ve been working for you for a month and I still have no real idea what Themis is.” Sarah nodded at the flashing orange banners.
Henry frowned. “We’ve told you, it’s a foundation we run, a charity thing, that’s all.”
Sarah shook her head. “Sooner or later you’re going to have to tell me. Sooner is better, or I’m out.”
Fiona put a hand on each of their shoulders. “Let’s dance.”
“I don’t know, it looks packed.” Sarah felt edgy and not at all like dancing.
Henry shook his head and Fiona laughed. “I think they’ll make room for us.” They took Sarah’s hands and pulled her towards a door. Hand in hand they walked down the staircase, followed by one of the bodyguards, and then through another door that bounced in its hinges from the bass.
It was loud, but a different kind of loud than at a rock concert. You could still talk and hear people, but the sound was full and it soaked everything in rich, textured layers. She knew the bass would be powerful, but it had become part of her. The sound was like nothing she’d ever experienced. Exciting, sexy, cool, dangerous. She couldn’t think of enough adjectives to describe it. She needed new words. Clean and yet dirty. Crisp and yet blurry. It was juxtapositions and contrasts, and slower than she’d imagined. Sarah thought of dance music as fast, but this was slower than most pop music, which made it sultry and seductive.
She hadn’t planned to dance, just hang out and watch, but right away she experienced an uncontrollable desire to move. She couldn’t resist the music that stuck to her limbs and moved them, at first in isolation from her will, then by choice, and then with full and total commitment. The music owned her and she allowed herself to be owned by it. The bass moved everything with a gentle rolling step. The beats were crisp, syncopated, and rhythmic. They were simple and minimal with chunks of space between them that emphasized their depth and clarity. On the off beats clicks and taps carved out a relentless train of rhythm. A church organ stabbed through the layers along with the occasional undecipherable word sung in a gospel voice. Above it all, an unusual sound bounced and weaved. A strange tone with an acidic quality that soared high then low, then high again.
Henry danced close and smiled, his eyes locked to hers. Fiona was lost to it and moved with total abandon and gleamed and shimmered on the dance floor like some angelic creature. Sarah looked around and watched the other dancers. They didn’t dance in couples, or even small tight groups like she’d seen at the nightclubs she’d been dragged to at University. The ones that played terrible music and that were little more than meat markets. This dance floor was like a giant organism sharing one mind and moved as if each person was a limb on a massive, undulating creature. People danced alone but at the same time together, as if they participated in a singular experience, which they clearly did.
Themis flashed on banners with other words overlaid by lasers. Justice, equality, balance, harmony and love, were superimposed over the orange letters.
Time passed in a vacuum for a while. The music would change incrementally, but kept its essence. It was hot, but she didn’t care. The idea of leaving the dance floor was abhorrent to her, as if she would miss something vital. At one point the beats and bass fell away and only a high string remained, which rose through chords in a melancholic melody that exuded emotion. A handclap sounded, then another, until it became the beat, and when the bass finally dropped back in, it was so powerful that everyone cheered. For a moment, the room dissolved away and she had a vision of dancing in a field filled with flowers and people in tableaus of ecstasy. It was a kind of beautiful madness and then she was back, the hallucination gone.
Sarah saw Danny as he put on another record and manipulated the equipment whilst he smiled at the crowd and made eye contact with the dancers. He nodded and laughed at their enjoyment, and they looked back in reverence. Yes, she could see why they called him God. He was being worshipped, and he looked down as a benevolent being unleashing rapture from thin air and bestowing it on his followers. Sarah turned to face Henry and Fiona who pulled her into an embrace. The music, the people who shared it, the three of them together.
Never had she felt so alive, and so loved.

On the work of writing.

A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating. You’re there now doing the thing on paper. You’re not killing the goose, you’re just producing an egg. So I don’t worry about inspiration, or anything like that. It’s a matter of just sitting down and working. I have never had the problem of a writing block. I’ve heard about it. I’ve felt reluctant to write on some days, for whole weeks, or sometimes even longer. I’d much rather go fishing, for example, or go sharpen pencils, or go swimming, or what not. But, later, coming back and reading what I have produced, I am unable to detect the difference between what came easily and when I had to sit down and say, “Well, now it’s writing time and now I’ll write.” There’s no difference on paper between the two.[15]
— Frank Herbert

The three layers of energy and life force

In the this chapter omitted from the published book, Henry races once again and displays his divine athletic power that hints at his true identity as something other than a normal human.

Time passes as it always does—constantly and without reprieve. Autumn slipped into winter and a period of relative quiet and calm entered Charlton House and the family that occupied it. The Foundation that had become the center of everything was suddenly the focus of discussions around the world. The fascination into this organization that was growing rapidly in number, status and mystery, provoked many unanswered questions, especially their long-term goal to alter the fate of the poorest humans on earth. But all of this was to be revealed in a few months.

By the New Year they’d amassed over a million members and as spring approached that number was close to doubling. Demi was touring the universities of Europe with her message of ecological sustainability and Irena was reshaping the structure of the organization with hierarchies and manageable units of operations. Sarah was constantly amazed at how enthusiastic the members were for an organization that had yet to reveal their true purpose and this zeal was based on the identities of its celebrity founders. The families plan to capitalize on their fame was working exactly as they’d predicted.

Today was Henry’s day to shine again. Sarah stood by the track as he stretched and warmed up for the races to follow. The two of them had become good friends after Henry had realized his romantic feelings for her were not to be reciprocated, and this friendship had become very valuable to Sarah since the brutal slaying of her brother. Another great solace had been David, who wasn’t present this day. Sarah and David had spent the majority of the last four months together at the house, entangled in deep discussions, walking the parks of North London, and finding themselves in surprisingly comfortable silences when words no longer mattered. Sarah had felt the powerful connection between from the very first moment in the desert, but after that awkward moment in his room when she’d kissed him and he’d seemed so taken aback and even embarrassed, she’d begun to doubt herself.

Today was a welcome diversion for everyone. Since that fateful day last April when Henry had won The London Marathon handsomely, some quarters of the athletics world still questioned the authenticity of his conquest. They argued that it was impossible for him to win, an unknown, untested eighteen year old. That some kind of performance enhancing drug must have been used. Even after he’d risen to prominence as a star striker for Manchester United the critics still wailed, whilst the selection committee courted him for the next summer Olympics.

Henry allowed the committee to rigorously test him for substances and the football team had pronounced him clean by every standard. Despite this, Henry wished to silence the doubters with a demonstration of his ability, to scrub away any tarnish from his position as a spokesman for Themis, and to solidify his identity as a role model for young people. The plan, conceived by Henry, and orchestrated by Sarah and Irena, was an exhibition race in London’s Olympic Stadium—a five thousand meter race against the top runners in the world. Then, two weeks before the race, Henry decided to up the stakes and added a ten thousand meters race back-to-back against another batch of elite competitors. This twist was reckless, ill conceived, and pure Henry at his finest. It was an impossible feat that he laughingly referred to as ‘a cakewalk’. To ensure that the result would be free of scrutiny he’d subjected himself to the most rigorous drug testing ever implemented in the world of athletics.

The stadium was packed to capacity and the event was simulcast all around the world by television and via the web, and all the proceeds were of course to be given to The Themis Foundation. Henry peeled of his tracksuit to his black shorts and shirt with an orange ‘T’ logo. The capacity crowd roared as he waved and blew kisses. He laughed and looked behind Sarah at the front row where Xan, Irena, Danny and Fiona sat and waved back. Henry pivoted towards a bank of camera operators and reporters where he gave a formal bow and laughed again. Henry was in his element. He strolled towards to a reporter from a Swedish television channel, her brilliant blonde hair gleaming in the spring sunlight.

The reporter smiled at the opportunity and moved in with her cameraman. “Mr. Baxter, if you could please tell us why this race today is happening.” The reporter spoke with a heavy accent but beautifully articulated English.

“Please call me Henry.” He winked at her and she giggled slightly. “Firstly, to set bang to rights those that say that my marathon win was done improperly, and secondly as a way of promoting The Themis Foundation of which I’m a founding director.”

“Ah yes, Themis is popular in Sweden with nearly fifteen thousand members, but could you tell us what the foundation really is, as there is some speculation that perhaps it has anarchistic tendencies.”

Henry laughed. “Anarchistic? No, quite the opposite, I promise you. The credo of Themis is that we’re an alliance of individuals, without borders, accepting all cultures and countries, without discrimination of any form, joining together to change our world for the better. We promote justice, equality and harmonious living for all, without influences from governments, corporations or other special interest organizations.”

“Yes, I’ve heard the credo but what does that really mean?”

“It means that we’ve a responsibility to all humanity to fight injustice.”

She smiled. “Thank you, Henry. Do you think you will win both races today?”

“Of course I will.” He laughed. “Now, I’ve a question for you. What are you doing after the race? Dinner?”

The woman blushed and shook her head, “Ah no, I’m sorry, I’m married.”

Henry smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “Can’t blame a man for trying.” He shook her hand then waved to the camera and jogged onto the track, waving to all four corners of the arena, earning a deafening response each time. The other six runners were already on the track warming up for the five thousand meter race. The invitations for the race had yielded the best in the world—two former world record holders, an Olympic silver medalist, an Olympic bronze medalist, the current world champion, as well as the top British runner and the fastest man alive at this distance—Miles Padwick.

Miles Padwick was a twenty-two year old runner from Oxford University and the current poster child for British athletics. He was also one of Henry’s most vocal critics and the epitome of athletic power, possessing the typically tall, long, lean strength of the champion long distance runner. If it wasn’t for Henry he’d be the most famous British athlete, and because of that fact he was in direct competition with him, at least in his own mind. Henry couldn’t care less about competition with other athletes, as he was only really competing against himself—a fact most people simply couldn’t comprehend.

As the runners started to move towards their lanes, Henry stopped and waved at a particular woman in the crowd and spent a few seconds smiling at her. She was red-haired and striking and sat near the front row sandwiched between what looked like two bodyguards.

“Who is that?” said Sarah to Fiona, who’d joined her on the track.

“I don’t believe it,” answered Fiona, sounding astonished.

“What?”

“It’s Percy Moulin.”

“The fashion designer?”

“She’s a lot more than that. She a legend in the industry and one of the biggest influences on fashion of all time. Up there with Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent.”

“So, how does Henry know her?”

“I’d say from that look he just gave her they’re a lot more than just friends.”

Henry had insisted on the outside lane, giving every advantage to the other runners. The announcements were made and cheers ricocheted around the arena like a sonic ping-pong ball, the loudest cheers reserved for Miles and Henry, the home team runners. Starting positions were assumed and the crowd relaxed into a low expectant hum. ‘On your marks’ was sounded and the firing pistol followed a moment later.

It was a clean start—Henry settled in at the back of the pack, seventh position trailing the Australian champion. Padwick settled into the number two spot behind the Kenyan runner who was setting a searing pace in an effort to claim the early lead. The line stretched out a little on the first lap as the pace was set, already signaling a fast race.

Henry looked different from the other runners—physically bigger, more muscular. He was lean but not thin and ‘stretched out’ like many elite distance runners. This garnered an almost comical image, as he looked unnatural—a parody of a runner except for one important point. He was incredibly fast.

Although running at a high cadence, they were still a few seconds shy of track record pace at the end of the first lap, and the Kenyan at the front was looking confident and strong. The Australian pulled away from Henry, gaining a few paces, and Padwick advanced to take a spell at the front. The Kenyan seemed to relinquish the lead voluntarily, possibly assuming that he could reclaim the lead closer to the finish, satisfied to take a spell in the drag of the tall Englishman.

Henry sat at the back and watched and waited. Padwick liked to dominate the front and set the pace. Henry preferred to cruise the draft of his competition and reserve himself. They had two very different styles, but both of them were determined to claim the win in front of the world.

Henry stayed in the back drafting the American, then the Nigerian for the next few laps, as Padwick and the Kenyan played chess for the lead. The pace slackened in the fourth lap and eased again in the fifth.

As the sixth lap began, Padwick was at the front with Henry at the rear about thirty meters behind. Padwick kept the lead the entire lap, which closed at six minutes and forty-five seconds at the halfway mark of the race, a respectable but unremarkable time. On the seventh lap Padwick accelerated in attempt to pull away, but the Kenyan and the Australian went with him, the trio opening a small gap from the other four runners. The increase in the pace drew huge cheers from the crowd, and Henry kept his pace constant at the rear, looking comfortable and unaffected by the movements at the front. In fact he even slowed his cadence slightly, allowing the number six runner to get few meters ahead of him.

As the gap widened, Sarah rose from her seat again to stand by the sideline. She was worried that Henry was getting stuck in the back. He looked comfortable, but at this level of competition she was afraid that he might not be able to catch the front.

Fiona joined her by the track. “What’s he doing?” she asked Sarah.

“He may be having trouble staying with them.”

Lap eight saw the status quo remain the same at the back, whilst at the front Padwick and the Kenyan had pulled away from the Australian slightly, as they upped the pace once more, the two of them battling for first position. Padwick settled in to second, drafting the fast Kenyan runner as lap nine began.

Lap nine closed and lap ten started, and Sarah’s fear that the race was getting away from Henry seemed to be becoming a reality. It was nearly a hundred meters from the Kenyan to Henry and he seemed to be making no effort to catch the rest of the pack. It was as if two races were taking place and Henry was losing the slowest of them.

Lap eleven began, the penultimate lap of the race. Henry looked up at the clock and smiled directly at Sarah and Fiona as he passed them. When Sarah saw his face, how relaxed it appeared, she also relaxed, and said to Fiona, “I think he’s alright.”

Henry pulled alongside the Nigerian runner that he was drafting then passed him. He stretched out his stride as if he’d been warming up for the first ten laps and had just decided to participate. His acceleration was astonishing, and the crowd reacted with a deafening roar, great swathes of the arena rising from their chairs to stand and cheer. Henry passed the next three runners within half a lap, his speed sudden and unexpected. The stadium itself seemed to be roaring, spreading into a tangible, physical sensation that each person felt. Sarah and Fiona were hopping up and down with pure joy and Danny, Xan and Irena were standing up holding hands tightly.

Henry edged in behind the Australian, the third place runner, and as the bell signaled the twelfth and final lap he passed him at a clip. A few seconds later, he breezed past the Kenyan runner and pulled alongside Padwick with a half lap to go. Padwick risked a glance to his right, his face a mask of shock as he dug as deep as he could for anything he had left. Henry looked back at him, winked, and pulled away as casually as if he was jogging in the park.

He sprinted down the final stretch accelerating even more and took the ribbon at just under twelve minutes and thirty five seconds, a new world record for the five thousand meters. The crowd went berserk as he raised his arms and waved. He was taking his victory lap as the rest of them were still finishing their race.

Henry ended his celebration alongside Sarah and Fiona who were hugging each other and they pulled Henry into the embrace as he approached laughing. “I did it,” he said, his breath quick but not laboured.

Fiona said, “Of course you did.” Sarah passed him an electrolyte drink and some energy bars and Xan walked over with a fresh shirt and socks.

Miles Padwick approached them still breathing heavily from the race. He had his arm outstretched for Henry. Henry shook it and Miles smiled and said with his upper class Eton and Oxford accent, “That was bloody outrageous.”

“Thanks.”

“I was wrong about you. I said your marathon win was impossible but you proved yourself here today. It was the most incredible performance I’ve ever seen.”

Henry just shrugged and grinned.

“You know I broke the previous world record myself just trying to catch you,” said Miles.

“It was a tough race. You’re all amazing competitors and it was an honour to run with you,” said Henry with a serious face.

Padwick stared at him with en equally serious face and broke into raucous laughter. “I almost believed you for a second, Baxter. But that part about it being a tough race is absolute rubbish. You looked like you were walking the bloody dog out there, and that frightens the hell out of me.”

Henry nodded and said; “Now I’ve got to do it all over again.”

“Call it off. You’ve already proven yourself in my eyes.”

“Can’t do that.”

“Then the best of British luck to you, and what do say to the two of us training together sometime in the future?”

Henry took his hand again and grinned. “It would be an honor and I mean that.”

Miles patted him on the shoulder as he walked away. Henry changed his shirt and socks, drank a couple of bottles of fluid, gobbled an energy bar, and took the track once more as the crowd heaped pure adoration upon him from above.

*              *              *

It was the twentieth lap of the second race and Henry was dangerously low on energy. After the first race ended he was more tired than he cared to admit, and because of that he’d decided to take an aggressive approach to the second race. His strategy of hanging back and watching was replaced by leading from the front. After calculating that it was better to lose by a hair than to trail the entire race unable to catch the pack, he’d spent all twenty laps as the pacemaker and was now beginning to think he’d made the wrong choice. The real possibility of complete humiliation was allowing doubt to seep into his limbs making them feel heavy and sluggish.

Henry had taken the lead very early and had hung on to it for ten laps, setting a blistering pace that shredded the field and kept him at the front. Now at lap twenty he was sharing second place running side by side with Calvin Oldmanroyd, the Welsh bomber, and former Olympic gold medalist at this distance. Calvin was in the twilight of his career with nothing to lose and everything to gain, and he’d set his cap at beating Henry in what could be his final race. In the lead was the Kenyan born, Ngobe, the fastest ten thousand meter man in the world.

Behind them was carnage. The other four runners were strewn back over a lap, unable to keep up with the crippling cadence set by Henry and then Ngobe. With five laps to go Henry was wondering how much he’d left in the tank. If Ngobe or Oldmanroyd decided to go for it at the end, as they surely would, he wondered if he could keep up, and that doubt was eating away at his morale and as his ability to race. Henry’s legs were shaking and cramping, the pain diminishing his last remaining reserve of energy. His breathing was too fast and ragged, the effort crushing his chest— his normal techniques were not working, his will dissolving, panic taking its place.

At four laps to go, Ngobe added pressure at the front and Oldmanroyd struggled to stay within reach. Henry was now three strides behind the next to last man and steadily losing ground. The front stretched out from the back, the pace at the front quickened and at the rear it slowed.

In the midst of all of this pain and panic a memory popped into Henry’s head. He was twelve and Titus had taken him to Athens, the quick way through the house. It was at the point when he was beginning to train seriously as an athlete and his uncle had wished to show him the ancient route from Marathon to Athens, the original twenty-six and one tenth of a mile race. Titus had Henry running the hills leading into Athens again and again, up and down, faster and faster until he was at the point of total exhaustion. It was in this exhausted state that his uncle had explained the three layers of energy and life force that was a hidden mystery of the ancient world. He explained that the first layer was the pool of energy used in isolation that provided energy derived from the chemistry of the human body with limits and barriers. The second layer was the one that only a few great athletes knew how to use, derived from the mind and was another interpretation of will. Mind over matter. The third layer was outside of normal human experience but through advanced techniques could provide limitless, concentrated energy.

Henry began to breathe deeply from his center focusing on the beating of his heart and the depth of his breath. Gradually the roar of the arena dissolved from his consciousness, and the pain in his legs and chest lessened then disappeared followed by any feelings of doubt, replaced by a surety of purpose and absolute control over the moment. He’d long depleted his normal energy and his second layer (his will) had become compromised amidst the layers of pain and exhaustion. But this third level, his divine well of energy, was now coursing through him like a powerful cocktail of stimulants fired into his veins.

He attacked. By the start of the next lap Henry was five strides ahead of Ngobe and accelerating to even faster speeds. He’d sprinted past everyone and by the time he crossed the line he was half a lap ahead of the second placed runner. It was another world record, a full fifteen seconds faster than the previous one. Henry raised his arms to the arena and they praised him like a god.

 

Does life imitate art?

Today I heard on NPR that researchers were close to creating an efficient technology for extracting clean potable water from dry air, using a combination of solar energy (or heat energy) and a compound. Previously we required very moist air to achieve this, but the new technology can do this in arid environments, hinting at a real possibility of helping those in water scarce areas such as deserts.

Interestingly, I wrote about this in my novel, Themis. Science fiction writers often predict technologies in their writings, which poses the question: Is our imagination an accurate predictor of things to come? I personally think so and its one of the reasons why I write. To exercise ones imagination is in a way communing with something greater, something massive and far reaching. Where the divine and science mingle. That’s the realm I like to play in.

MIT article–On water from air.

Titus and The Blackburn’s: 18 years before Themis begins.

I am publishing elements of Themis that were omitted from the published book. This section was originally the prologue and is set 18 years before the story begins.

 

Titus stared at the disappointing paper cup of hot water from the airport café. From the lack of steam he could tell that the temperature was incorrect, but he tested it with his finger. It was tepid, hot at best, but not the boiling temperature required for the black or fermented teas. Reaching into his coat pocket he pulled out a small steel container that was lined with Chinese characters on the façade and separated into three sections. Dismissing the first section, his fingers hovered over the second that contained an exceptional green tea from Japan. Shaking his head and acknowledging that the water wasn’t even hot enough for the green, he opened the third section. Inside was the delicate white tea from a Northern Chinese plantation with subtleties that always delighted him. He poured a measure into the cup and counted to five before straining it back into another cup through a fine mesh. Titus smiled as he drank the tea slowly, allowing the tender liquid to soothe him. It didn’t approach the delicacies of a mountain stream brew, but it was adequate. A man sitting at the next table watched him and after looking at his own cheap cardboard brewed airport tea, slid his paper cup away. Titus winked at him before strolling over to the Quantas Airlines counter on the opposite side of the lobby.

“Paris, please, one way economy class.”

After she flicked through his passport the woman behind the ticket counter smiled up at him. “That will be $1760 including tax, Mr. Richardson. Any luggage to check, sir?”

“Just a small carry on,” he replied.

The flight from Sidney to Paris changed in Singapore, and Titus decided to discontinue the flight, instead purchasing a first class ticket to Hamburg. He sat next to an elderly German lady who inquired into the reason for his trip in accented but good English.

“I’m a pharmaceutical executive travelling on business,” he replied, in perfect German.

Not being overly suspicious of her routine conversation, he nevertheless spent the flight questioning her, looking for inconsistencies in her stories. He found none. She was as advertised—a wealthy German lady returning home from visiting her son in Hong Kong.

In Hamburg, he caught a taxi to a downtown bank where he accessed a safety deposit box, changed passports, and picked up new credit cards and a stack of euros. An hour later, in Dammthur train station, he boarded a train to Cologne. It was November and bitterly cold, so he bought some warmer clothes and a small travelling bag in a gentleman’s clothing store. It began to snow and Titus found Cologne as charming as ever. He purchased a quick pastry and coffee in a nearby bakery and caught another taxi to Koln-Bonn airport, then purchased a ticket to Stockholm under the identity of a Luxembourg national called Hans Bakker, travelling to Scandinavia for spa treatments.

The flight to Stockholm was half-empty and uneventful, but despite three days without sleep, he remained watchful and alert for any unwelcome surveillance. He detected none.

It was snowing hard in Stockholm and he was glad of his fur-lined coat and hat. He caught a taxi to a café on Kraakgrand. After ordering a coffee he went to the empty bathroom and opened the first stall. He closed the door, stood on the toilet seat, looked up at the ceiling, counted three panels across and tapped hard. The panel moved slightly and he was able to remove it. He reached his hand up to the left and grabbed hold of a package wrapped in a waterproof material. From inside he retrieved a passport, new cards, and a stack of crisp, fifty-pound notes. Titus put his old passport and cards in the package and placed them in the ceiling before he reclosed the panel. He drank his coffee and caught a train to Malmo.

Titus rented a car using his new identity, Michael Decker, and drove across the bridge to Denmark. He arrived in Copenhagen at dawn and found himself nostalgic for a time many years ago when he’d lived in the old city. He’d been very happy here and even took a wife for a while.

Titus drove straight to the port and boarded a ferry to Bergen, Norway, and spent the trip on deck watching the passengers. Nobody paid much notice of an old man with a cane in an overcoat.

In Bergen, he had his first real meal in four days, enjoying a superb salmon dish in a charming restaurant by the port. An hour later he was on another ferry, this one destined for Newcastle, England. On deck, with the frigid North Sea air biting at his face, he had his first view of Britain for many years. Titus had spent significant time on the British Islands, both bad and good, knowing that one day his fate would lead him back.

He made sure he was the last passenger to exit the boat and carefully scanned the dock for any unwanted attention.

Without spending any time in the town, he caught a bus to the train station and then spent forty minutes on a cold platform waiting for the express to Leeds. The train was cozy, and a paper cup of hot chocolate revived Titus as he watched the countryside of the North of England speed by. A group of rough looking youths came in to the car with open cans of lager, chanting football songs. Titus pointedly ignored them. All the other passengers moved from the car, clearly intimidated by the youths. The ticket collector looked on nervously, eventually leaving Titus alone with the group.

“Oye, Grandpa, why don’t you let me have a go on that hat,” said skinhead hooligan number one, a tattooed muscle-bound man of about twenty. Titus didn’t even move his eyes from the window.

“He’s talking to you old-timer,” said another skinhead, this one a little older with a scar from ear to chin.

Titus slowly fixed his attention on both of the men. “Cave quid dicis, quando, et cui.” said Titus, in a low deliberate voice.

“What you saying?” said the first one, fear creeping into his voice, infecting it like a virus.

Titus smiled up at them. “What I said you filthy waste of oxygen is, ‘beware of what you say, when, and to whom.”

Both skinheads became pale, and with slack-jaws they backed slowly down the car towards the rest of their group. “Come on, out now!” one of them shouted at the rest, and as they hurried from the car Titus could tell that at least one of them had soiled himself. Titus wrinkled his nose and allowed himself a brief smile at this fleeting but amusing distraction.

Sometime later the train pulled into Leeds station and Titus walked around the bustling city for a few hours, circling around squares and looping around the downtown, checking constantly for anyone who might be following him. The city had changed vastly since the last time he’d visited many years ago, but he recognised much of the distinctive Victorian architecture carved from the pale Yorkshire stone.

At two-thirty in the afternoon he caught the four eight two from the bus station to the market village of Otley, at the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. In Otley, he jumped on an empty bus to the tiny hamlet of Wharfvale, a collection of stone houses, a pub, and a post office, pinned to rich farmland at the beginning of the Yorkshire Dales that stretched many miles into the Lake District. It was picturesque and desolate and served as the terminus for the bus service from Otley. Any further and you would be wandering rough moorland for days on end. Titus got off at the terminus outside the post-office and walked up the hill until he came to the entrance of a narrow lane, partly hidden by a hedgerow with a signpost that announced: Dovecote Lane.

Titus paused and circled slowly. He could see the village below, a few cars snaking down the road towards Otley, and the bus returning. Above him, in a pasture field where sheep grazed idly, a tractor ambled along with a farmer at the wheel. But the driver was focused on his field and paid Titus no mind. Titus took a deep breath of bracing country air and found the tranquil scene soothing after days of constant travel. He walked up the lane for five minutes before stopping in front of a large rambling cottage with a well-kept garden and ivy snaking up the old stone walls.

Titus rapped on the door with the back of his walking stick.

The door was opened after a few seconds by a grey-haired dapper man in a tweed jacket with pens sticking from his front pocket. “Yes, may I help you?”

“You are Arthur Blackburn.” It wasn’t a question.

“I am. Do I know you?”

“Have you forgotten who put you here, Arthur? It is I. Titus,” he said.

After a lengthy pause the man became pale as his face registered the shock he was clearly experiencing. “My God. We thought you’d forgotten about us. It’s been so many years.”

“Forgotten? Of course I haven’t forgotten about you. Well, are you going to ask me in or shall I converse on the stoop like a salesman.”

Arthur nodded quickly and swung the door wide. “Yes, yes, of course. Isabella?” he called up the hall. A handsome woman in her mid-fifties emerged from the kitchen with a tea towel in her hands. “We have a visitor,” Arthur told her.

“Tea then?” she said, with a smile stretching across her face, as if a neighbour had popped in with scones.

“Tea would be lovely,” said Titus, placing his hat and coat on a rack and putting his bag and stick on the floor.

As she fussed in the kitchen, Arthur showed him into a comfortable sitting room. “I should have recognised you instantly because you look exactly the same,” said Arthur.

“It has been number of years.”

“Thirty one years to be exact, Titus.”

“Goodness.”

Arthur took off his glasses and cleaned them with his tie. “You haven’t aged a day.”

“I’ve been taking in the Mediterranean air, Arthur. It’s rather good for the constitution.”

Isabella Blackburn came in with a tray and distributed cups and saucers. Titus took the time to study the couple. Arthur had matured into the studied look of the venerable university professor, which of course he was. He was a distinguished man with salt and pepper hair and fine wrinkles across his face. Isabella had the grace of a ballerina, which she had been earlier in her life. She’d retained much of her youthful features and looked a good deal younger than her husband.

Isabella poured the tea and offered scones and cakes from a silver tray. Arthur nibbled nervously while Titus sipped his tea and happily gobbled up several of the cakes.

“Home-made?”

Isabella nodded and smiled self-consciously.

“I’m pushed for time so let me get down to brass tacks.” Titus put his teacup and saucer down and arched his fingers, as he leaned back in his chair and paused to gather his thoughts. “Three days from now, twelve babies will arrive. Their names will be sewed into their blankets and you must use those names. Please don’t mix them up. You’ll adopt them and raise them as your own. They’ll attend the local schools until they’re ten, and then I’ll return and finish their education. You’ll need help, especially in the beginning, and I’ll leave you the number of a friend in York. She’s one of us—absolutely trustworthy, and she’ll provide anything you require to aid you in this endeavour. Your stipend will of course be increased to accommodate the changes in household expenses.” Titus picked up the cup again and sipped his tea. “You’ll not mention my name or hint at my existence to anyone, including the children, until I return in due course with further instructions. There is the possibility that the children will begin to show signs of their individual gifts before they’re ten. If that happens, advice will be provided. Now you’re beginning to see why I asked you to purchase this large house. I apologise for the delay in starting your mission. The arrangements took longer than I anticipated. Questions so far?”

The Blackburn’s shook their heads and Titus poured himself more tea from the pot and ate another scone. “Darjeeling?” he asked.

“Yes, single-estate,” answered Isabella.

Titus savoured the tea and looked around the room at the various souvenirs from their earlier lives as archaeologists. He recalled the day he met them in the foothills of The Himalayas over three decades ago, and he smiled at the memory. Isabella was haggling with a tea merchant on a market stall and he’d struck up a conversation with her about which mountain estates were providing the finest selections that year.

“Korukunda, if I’m not mistaken. The tea from the Nilgiri mountains is really quite splendid,” he said, finishing the cup.

“Of course, you’re correct,” she answered.

“Titus, when you recruited us for this mission, you explained that it could prove to be very dangerous. Is this still the case,” asked Arthur.

“More so. The danger is tangible and omnipresent and they’ll stop at nothing to destroy all of us if they learn of our plans. However, I’ve been extremely careful and am confident that at the moment we’re safe. I’ve put into place certain contingencies and I can assure you that you’re being guarded. Eventually, we’ll have to face these enemies, but with the God’s luck and protection it will be on our own terms. You’ll have the insulation necessary to raise these children.”

“Twelve babies,” Isabella said quietly, and shook her head.

Titus nodded and looked at his watch. “Time to leave already, I’m afraid. Arthur, you’ve a Land-Rover, I believe.”

“Yes.”

“Please get it ready for us.”

After Arthur bounded out of his chair and from the room.

Titus handed Isabella a plain business card with the name, Edith Mithlewright, written on it and a phone number. “Isabella, think of this person as an extension of myself. Edith is absolutely trustworthy.” He rose, kissed her on the cheek, and walked to the hallway to retrieve his belongings. “I have absolute confidence in the both of you.” Titus doffed his hat and left the house.

 

“Where are we heading,” asked Arthur, as they drove down the lane.

“Left at the end and then out of the village towards the Ripon road. And you’re going to speed up a bit, if you please,” answered Titus, looking out of the rear window as they made the sharp left. “Any regrets, Arthur?”

“We’ve been waiting for so long, we just thought it was never going to happen. No. We talked about and we both agreed we’d be ready whenever and if ever it happened.”

Titus grunted in appreciation of his conviction, a demonstration of the steel in the Blackburn’s that he’d observed all those years ago. It was that combination of courage, education, empathy, and loyalty that had made them, in his mind, the perfect candidates.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that what you’re about to do is the most important task any humans have undertaken for millennia, and the implications of which will be far-reaching and without compare.”

“We’re ready, I assure you of that,” said Arthur.

“Left here.” Titus pointed to a dirt road that led to a large open field. As they entered the field and crested a hill, Titus motioned for them to stop. Ahead of them, in the middle of the short grass, a small passenger aircraft waited. A man in military fatigues stood beside it and watched them. Titus waved at him and the man got in and started the aircraft’s engine, blasting the ground with hot air.

“This it for a while,” said Titus, pumping Arthur’s hand.

“Is there any way to get hold of you, if anything comes up?” asked Arthur.

“Isabella has Edith’s number and she’ll help you with anything you can’t handle.” Titus lifted his walking stick and tapped the ground twice. “I will see you in precisely ten years.”

Arthur nodded at the old man and Titus smiled and walked briskly to the roaring plane.