The room was just another government office. Its pale, institutional-green, painted walls contained no windows, but it did have an old metal fan slowly turning back and forth in a vain attempt to freshen the air. The door appeared to have a lock, but the key was lost after the second world war and had never been replaced. The lowest bidder provided the metal furniture and a single black telephone on the battered desk was the most modern thing in the room.
The desk top itself was currently filled by piles of paper so tall that it was only by leaning against each otherand the grace of gravity the piles remained upright and didn’t litter the floor. To the occupant’s credit, the floor was spotless.
The office was currently occupied by James Ross, the most junior officer in MI5, the UK’s internal security services. Officer Ross, referred to simply as Jamie by his friends but Ross by his superiors, had joined the service after a too-short career in the army. A bullet through the thigh in Afghanistan had knocked the twenty-six-year-old out of Special Forces and left him with a permanent limp. He’d been assigned to MI5 as a way to keep him in Her Majesty’s employ. Or, as he and his friends put it, they could pay him a pittance of a pension for doing nothing or they could pay him almost the same pittance and put him to work.
It was his second day on the job and he was already chafing with the dress code that called for a suit and tie. He particularly hated the tie that seemed to always flop where he didn’t want it.
The phone on the desk let loose with a jarring series of noises somewhere between a clanging fire bell and an air raid s
The voice on the other end of this antiquated system surprised him with its cultured tones. “Officer Ross, could we have a word please,” said a man’s voice in the telephone headset followed by a sharp disconnecting click. The owner of the voice didn’t feel the need to identify himself and Ross didn’t have a clue who had called or where to go. Finding his Team Leader, sounded like a good first step. But when he limped out of his office, his superior, Greg Smithers, was already standing out in the hall, beckoning him forward. When he reached him, Smithers said, “We’ve both been called to the Director’s office.”
The two men navigated the warren of rooms and hallways to the office. Smithers knocked once, opened the door and walked in. The young woman, sitting at the only desk in an office lined with filing cabinets, nodded at Smithers absentmindedly. But she straightened up when she saw Ross. She met the young man’s almost black eyes, tucked a stray bit of hair behind her ear and smiled as she waved them through an open office door.
Trailing behind Smithers, Ross saw an office five times larger than his with fashionably pale cream walls, ten comfortable arm chairs surrounding an oak table at one end and a massive matching oak desk at the other end of the room. There were a multitude of personal framed citations and mementoes hanging on the walls behind the desk but Ross didn’t focus on the those nor the three monitors on the wall at the end of the table. He did examine the telephone, a match for his own and he smiled at the sight.
The man behind the desk waved the two men towards the table and then joined them. Four other men and three women came in as well, nodded to the Team Leader and surreptitiously stole glances at Ross. Director Campbell did not, apparently, feel the need to introduce these people. After all had taken seats, the Director began without preamble.
“Gentlemen, are you aware of a theft from HMS Victory last night?” asked Director Campbell.
“No, Sir, I haven’t heard anything about it,” said Smithers taking the lead.
“Heard anything?” asked the Director raising an eyebrow and looking directly at Ross.
“No, Sir,” said Ross. He noticed a few eyebrows raise as his soft Scottish accent telegraphed his ancestry.
“Well, let’s show you then,” said Campbell. He reached into his pocket, plucked out a remote, flicked it at the video monitors on the end wall, and one lit up with the recording of the theft. It showed Merlin’s approach, the multiple views from the main deck of Merlin removing the staff, plus his subsequent casual stroll out of the Dockyards. It ended with the mage disappearing through the main gates.
“Your explanation for this?” asked Campbell.
“Hollywood film?” asked Smithers in a tone of voice suggesting it wasn’t.
Campbell only smiled gently and shook his head. He turned to Ross, raised his eyebrows and cocked his head inviting another effort.
Ross wasn’t a stupid man by any stretch of the imagination and he suddenly became aware he was far and away the most junior person in the room. Two days of service at MI5 didn’t even begin to register on the time-served counter when compared to the level of experience of those in this room.
The insight reminded him that new officers were often tested and sometimes in ways that guaranteed they’d fail or become the brunt of mistakes made by superior officers. I’m being set up, he decided. His next question was why this was happening and the answer rolled in quickly – nobody wants to be involved with anything having to do with “magic.”
He decided he’d face this as he faced most of the challenges in his military career, straight on. He locked eyes with the Director and began, “Well, Sir, if I may be so bold as to haul out an old chestnut, if all other technological explanations fail, then it might very well be magic. Technology beyond our understanding and all that”. He stopped talking after this. If he was about to be hung out to dry as a newcomer, he’d let them take it forward from here.
“Indeed,” said the Director. “Anybody else?”
The room remained silent.
“Officer Ross, our responsibility in this service is to find and solve problems before they become a national security issue. In simple terms, we’re the good guys who stop the bad guys. And, if this kind of technology is available, we need to find it and control it. We can’t allow it to fall into terrorist hands.”
Campbell took a deep breath, paused for a second, looked at Smithers and continued, “Officer Smithers, I want you to take command of this investigation. But I want Ross involved as well as the lead investigator. It will be a good way to break him into MI5.”
Campbell turned to Ross and continued, “We appreciate it’s your first week on the job, but all other senior officers are already involved in full case loads. We think your background in the military will be of an advantage as will your physics degree. You may be able to learn how this individual changes matter or at least, perhaps hacks video cameras to make it appear as if he is.”
Ross responded with the only two words available to him, “Yes, Sir.”
“Good, don’t let us stop you then, gentlemen,” said the Director. “And, good luck. I’ll look forward to some fast reports on this matter and a quick solution to this problem,” he said.
Smithers and Ross both recognized the dismissal, and rose at the same time, nodded their heads in acknowledgement to the other silent people in the room, turned and began their march towards the door. And then the Director spoke again, and they turned to face him.
“Officer Ross, when you talk to this individual, do ask him how he got his magic,” said Campbell.
“Sir?” said Ross turning back towards Campbell. He managed to keep his face straight with the question.
Ross recognized the meaning of the raised eyebrow. Campbell obviously wasn’t used to anyone questioning his commands.
“Mr. Ross. If we know how he got his abilities, we can replicate the process or perhaps develop some capacity to combat it,” said Campbell.
Campbell’s voice telegraphed his impatience at the temerity of having been questioned by a very junior officer. Ross knew then his status as a Junior Officer in her majesty’s government had just taken a downward turn.
The two men turned again and resumed their march away from Campbell who stared at their backs until Smithers closed the door behind them.
When they reached his office, Smithers stopped and looked at the young man. “I have no idea what they’re playing at in there, but it looks like we’ve been made the fall guys.” He shook his head slowly.
Ross silently nodded in agreement.
Smithers continued, “I’m not sure who I annoyed to get us into this but I’ll do my best to make sure we don’t get covered in what’s about to fall out of this bull of an assignment.” He took a breath, his eyes glazed over for a second as if he was thinking and then turned and met Ross’ eyes. “You know where the research section on our internal database is located. Why don’t you spend the rest of the day examining possible options? I’ll get you clearance for the video section for tomorrow so you can get an ID on the guy. We can chat further about this tomorrow,” he said. “I suspect this will be one of those hurry-up-and-wait operations when we do find him.”
Ross simply nodded, said, “Yes, Sir” and turned to his own desk. He recognized the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach warning him this wasn’t going to be as smooth an operation as it might seem. He had the same feeling just before he went out on patrol the night he wound up taking the bullet that shattered both his leg and active duty career.
Ross sat at his desk, flicked his mouse to bring the monitor to life and began.