The Grid, as the spies called this place, was a place of wonders. Merlin spent most of the night sitting next to Malcolm, listening as the elderly man explained the technologies of the twenty-first century to him. Merlin soon learned that he shouldn't try to understand what made these devices all work. So instead he settled for trying to understand how they needed to be handled, which was difficult enough most of the time.
He had had moments during the last few hours when he seriously doubted the wisdom of his decision to ask these people for help in revealing Agravaine for the foul traitor that he was. He didn't understand most of the things Malcolm told him, but he did understand what he had been told about this organisation called Al-Qaeda ('a group of merry men who devote their lives to blowing up people in the name of their religion', according to Connie) and their plans for an attack on London, the city they were currently in. He had come to the unpleasant conclusion that life in Camelot wasn't always fun, but even with all their magical creatures, immortal armies and evil sorcerers it sounded a hundred times safer than this place. At least Morgana would not let a bomb explode on the streets of Camelot.
He forced himself not to lose sight of why he did this. They needed to catch Agravaine before he could cause any more trouble than he already had. These spies could help them do exactly that. And, if he was being really honest, it was not all bad. It was strangely exiting even. For the first time he would be able to use his magic openly in front of people, as long as Arthur was out of sight, of course. But still, it was a relief not to have to keep it a secret from everyone. It definitely made for a nice change.
And so they had worked through the night, but Merlin didn't feel tired at all. The excitement of being in the future, assisting in a real "operation" was keeping him awake and alert. Besides, this wouldn't be the first time he skipped a night of sleep.
The people here were nice as well. Malcolm had explained him the devices they used, multiple times if he needed it, the blonde woman, Jo, had fetched clothes and some hot liquid she called coffee for them both, Lucas had explained to them what the matter was on which his help was needed and Connie had commented every now and then, but always nicely. Ros had stopped by a few times, but Merlin got the idea that she avoided him.
'I think she doesn't like me,' Merlin told Jo in the very early hours of the morning. Ros had just marched past them and gave him a stern glare as she did so.
'Ros doesn't like many people,' Jo replied. She looked up from the reports she was supposed to be studying. 'It isn't personal.'
Merlin raised his eyebrows. That was not the impression he got.
Jo laughed. 'Really, Merlin,' she insisted. 'Try to ignore her. She's not a social person. She never was. And she recently lost someone she really cared about, so…' She let her voice trail off. 'Anyway, she's got some heavy emotional luggage. But then, we all have.'
Somehow Merlin doubted that. They all appeared so… normal, when you looked past the fact that they were all spies, that is.
She must have seen his face. 'We're good at hiding things.'
He saw a flash of something in her eyes. 'What happened to you?' he asked in a soft voice.
'I was abducted,' she replied, not meeting his eyes. 'Along with a colleague of mine. They got us out in the end, but it was hard.' From the way she told it Merlin got the idea that hard was something of an understatement. 'It was only for a day, so I can't really complain. Lucas, he's been a captive for eight years before we got him back.'
He frowned. 'Aren't they going to get angry when they find out what you're telling me?' He got the idea that these people were obsessed with secrecy.
'You signed the Act,' she replied, shrugging. 'And you're practically one of the team now. We don't need to keep secrets here.'
He glanced at Ros, who was standing at the other end of the room, berating some other colleague of hers for something. 'I'm not sure your boss agrees.'
'She's got her reasons.' Jo bit her lip. 'But she's a good Section Chief and Harry likes her.' From which I'm guessing that you don't. 'She has…'
'… Betrayed this country not once, but twice?' a sharp voice finished. Merlin turned so quickly he almost fell of the edge of Jo's desk. Ros was standing there, her cold eyes fixed on the now very ashamed looking junior officer. Merlin wondered how on earth she had managed to creep up on them so soon after they had been watching her. 'So good to see that you have time for gossip, Joanna. I take it that means you finished your analysis of those reports?'
Jo's cheeks coloured deep crimson. 'I'm on it.'
'I should bloody well hope so,' Ros said icily. She managed to make it sound like a threat. She then turned to Merlin. 'You, with me!'
She marched away to the room where they had signed the Official Secrets Act, which apparently was the meeting room. Merlin had no choice but to follow. He caught a pitying look from Arthur, who had heard Ros's command. The king of Camelot called a 'Good luck!' in his direction. Merlin couldn't escape the idea that he was going to need it.
Betrayed this country not once, but twice. Ros's words echoed in his mind. She had said those words in an angry tone. Angry, but not embarrassed. Nothing betrayed that she was ashamed of doing something that horrible. He found himself wondering why she was still doing this kind of work, why she had been allowed to do this kind of work after that. Apparently her treason was widely known, so why was no one doing something about it? But no, her orders were obeyed without question, without hesitation. Her colleagues even seemed to hold her in high regard, despite her total lack of social skills. The woman was a complete mystery.
'Lucas, Arthur!' Ros yelled, her sharp voice snapping Merlin out of his thoughts.
Arthur had demanded that he too would be allowed to take part in whatever they needed Merlin for. The warlock guessed this was because he wanted to keep him out of trouble and thought wryly that it would probably be the other way around. Ros had grinded her teeth in frustration, but after Arthur had shown them his skills in fighting and moving around very quietly, the result of years and years of hunting trips, Harry had overruled her and given him permission to go out into the field, arguing that they could use all the help they could get. Ros had muttered something about them not being in the Service, but Harry had told her that this was non-negotiable and she had backed off.
Harry was already in the meeting room when they entered, Lucas and Arthur following closely behind.
'Right,' he said when they were all seated. 'Ros, how late is that meet?'
'In an hour,' she replied.
'Are the newbies up to speed on the operation?'
Merlin nodded, trying not to grimace. Arthur had no such control, glaring at the head of Section D. He may be the king of Camelot, but he was new to spying, which made him a newbie in Harry's very experienced eyes. Jo had mentioned that he had been doing this job for decades.
'And the contact?'
'Not yet, Harry,' Lucas said. 'We needed to explain the technology as well.'
'Fill them in, Ros.'
She pointed something called a remote control at the screen on the wall and it flared to life, something that kept interesting Merlin even after a night of screens doing just that. It now showed the face of a bearded man, looking at them emotionlessly.
'Marlin,' Ros announced. 'Pakistani military intelligence. He was first run by the former Section Chief. Lucas, you're his new contact.'
Lucas nodded. 'I read his file.'
'Good,' Ros said. 'Arthur?'
The king of Camelot was frowning at the screen. 'Where is this so-called Pakistan?' he asked. Merlin was actually glad that he asked. He hadn't heard of Pakistan before, but from the way the people here had mentioned it, he gathered it was another kingdom. But what this land had to do with England (where they were now) had not yet become clear to him.
There was a short, almost disbelieving, silence, but then Lucas took over the report, pointing the remote control at the screen again, which presented them with a map. 'Here's England,' he pointed. 'And there's Pakistan.'
Merlin blinked, and blinked again. And so did Arthur. 'But that's what? The other end of the world! How could that probably affect us?'
Lucas smiled wryly. 'Welcome to the future,' he commented sarcastically.
'We have better means of transport,' Ros replied briskly. 'We travel a whole lot faster than you are used to these days, I'm afraid.' Remembering the van in which they were brought here and the speed with which it moved, Merlin believed that immediately. In this time it would probably take up hardly any time at all to get to the other end of the world.
'Pakistan,' Lucas repeated. 'It's situated in a very explosive region, mostly literally so these days. We have been not so nice in that region, so now they think they should stir up some trouble here as a punishment.'
'Explosive trouble?' Arthur asked. He had spent the better part of the night with Connie, listening to her description of the problems in this age. Merlin would almost say that he actually cared about what happened here.
'We believe so,' Harry said. 'So Lucas, Merlin and Ros, get yourself down there. Get that information. Arthur and I are going to figure out what we're going to tell the Home Secretary during our meeting later this morning.'
Ros's eyebrows shot up. 'He's coming?'
'Good experience for him. He's a politician, so is our king here.' Harry looked very pleased with himself. 'They should get along spectacularly.'
Ros's dismissive snort told him that she seriously doubted that. 'I'd like to see that,' she commented. 'I'll make sure I'm back in time then, shall I? Let's go.'
Merlin followed Lucas and Ros out of the meeting room. To his own surprise he was feeling nervous. This wasn't the first time he was doing some spying. He had been doing so in Camelot on a very regular basis. It also wasn't the first time that he was talking to someone who had information about an oncoming attack. But this was the first time he was going to do it officially. Maybe it wasn't so strange he was nervous, after all.
The drive down to the meeting place was a silent one, for which Ros was grateful. She felt like her head was spinning with all these new developments. It was a bit hard to believe that not twenty-four hours ago she had been sitting behind her desk with nothing more to occupy her mind than Ben's undercover operation. It could almost have been a normal day, until Lucas had come to her with his suspicions about the medieval dress-up party.
Now she was wishing she had ignored him. King Arthur and his clumsy sidekick were hardly a security risk and if she had done nothing, she wouldn't have needed to put up with them being involved with her operation, a development with which she was none too pleased. Apart from the fact that they knew next to nothing about them (the legend was apparently not a good source when it came to them), she had no idea if their abilities were up to her high standards. The last thing she needed was their temporary helper to trip over his own feet in the middle of an operation or the legendary king to announce his identity to an Al-Qaeda terror suspect.
Lucas parked the car nearby and they walked the last part.
'Do you think he'll show?' Lucas asked as they walked.
'I don't know,' Ros replied. But then, you were never sure that an asset would come to the agreed meeting until you saw him. 'Adam swore by him,' she added. That was good enough for her. He had gathered some very good assets over the years. She ran some of them herself these days and their information was always good.
Merlin frowned. 'Who's Adam?'
'Our former Section Chief,' Ros said curtly, hoping that he wouldn't be too thick to get the message that this was a subject she had no desire to discuss right now. Talking about Adam was still painful to her, so she rather avoided talking about him altogether. 'He died not long ago,' she added reluctantly when Merlin gave her a blank face.
She saw in his eyes that he understood what she was talking about, and a bit more too. It would seem that Jo had wasted no time in bringing Merlin up to speed on the officers' private lives as well as their professional activities. As soon as she had the time she would tell the junior officer exactly what she thought about that kind of behaviour.
Lucas, doubtlessly feeling that this conversation was headed in the wrong direction, intervened. 'It's a very good asset, Pakistani military intelligence,' he commented, which Ros believed was rather stating the obvious.
'Yeah, well, he was well connected,' she replied briskly, shoving her hands deeper in her pockets as they waited for Marlin to arrive. Thanks to the meeting with Harry they were already late, so she had expected him to be here before them. If there was one thing she hated, it was to be kept waiting.
Merlin was glancing around him as well, obviously ill at ease in a place that was so different from the one he was used to.
'All right there, Merlin?' Lucas asked.
The legendary warlock shot them a big smile. 'Why shouldn't I be?'
Ros could think of a few reasons, but she didn't get the time to list them, even if she would have wanted to, which she didn't. Marlin came walking down to them. Ros was tempted to roll her eyes. She had gone with Adam a few times to see him and she had yet to see him dressed in anything else than a crisp clean suit and tie. She doubted even the PM was dressed better.
'Marlin,' she acknowledged.
The Pakistani's eyes studied Lucas and Merlin with some suspicion. 'Who are they?' he asked.
Ros plastered a smile on her face. 'Your new best friends,' she told him. Please don't let him be difficult. The last thing she needed was for this man to distrust them.
'Friends are overrated,' Marlin replied.
Shit. It didn't happen very often, but from time to time an asset's handler changed and occasionally the asset didn't trust his new contact. When that happened there was every chance of losing the asset in question. Ros knew they could not afford to lose this one, especially not now.
It was Lucas that saved the situation. 'I agree,' he said with an air of nonchalance. 'Friends are either a nuisance or they're boring.'
Marlin let out a nervous laugh. 'Precisely. You can only trust your family.'
Ros didn't know why she glanced at Merlin when he said that, but she did catch the quick expression of suspicion that flashed across his face. He must have heard the same thing that she had. There was some kind of meaning behind these words. This wasn't just a small getting-to-know-each-other conversation. Maybe Lucas was sincere when he spoke about friends (she tended to believe so anyway), but Marlin had meant something else with his reply. Grudgingly she had to admit that the clumsy man was quick. Maybe they could work together, if only she could bring herself to trust him.
'Oh, I wouldn't even be so sure of that actually,' Lucas countered, trying to trigger a reaction from their asset.
Marlin did no such thing. 'Excellent,' he said admiringly. 'No faith in human nature at all.' He turned back to Ros, a smile on his face. 'A man after my own heart.'
Ros could only just keep herself from exhaling in relief. At least he had accepted Lucas as his new contact and if he was hiding something, they would find that out later, after they had dealt with the current crisis. And besides, it could be nothing more than a healthy dose of fear. Ros doubted his superiors would like him talking to them. If they found out, Marlin would find himself in more trouble than he could stomach.
'The way things are in Pakistan at the moment, I imagine you have to watch your back,' Lucas assumed. How strange, they had thought about the same thing at the same time.
'Things are certainly… interesting.' Marlin hesitated for half a second before saying that last word.
'Are things going to get interesting for us?' Lucas pressed.
'I gave you Nadif Abdul Rashid. He's a big fish, al-Qaeda's new European coordinator.' Marlin pointed out, as if he wanted to say that he had already given them everything he had. And Ros didn't believe that for even a second. There had to be more, there always was.
She was tempted to say that Samir was actually the one that had given them Nadif, fairly quickly too as soon as he had been given accommodation in their cells. But Samir only had Nadif's name. He didn't know anything else, which was the reason they had turned to Marlin. He had some very good assets in Al-Qaeda itself and they usually provided him with useful information. And he had best give them some of it now.
'We're on Nadif,' she all but snapped. 'What else can you tell us?' She noticed that both Merlin and Lucas were on full alert now too. Lucas's attitude was tense and alert, but Merlin's was still suspicious. Ros wished she could say that was not necessary, but there was something about Marlin that made her uneasy as well. And if they had both a feeling that something was off, it usually was.
'It will start with a waterfall,' Marlin replied.
Merlin frowned. 'A waterfall?' Ros also failed to get the meaning of this. The only thing she could picture was a literal waterfall and she didn't think that was what Marlin meant.
The Pakistani was clearly looking for the right words. 'An explosion of internet chatter,' he clarified eventually. 'Threats of every type, noise.' Ros nodded to signal that she got that and Marlin continued: 'And right after the noise comes the dry run, which Nadif will mastermind.'
'Okay, noise, dry run,' Ros summarised.
'Then they bring in a second team for the real thing and…' Marlin snapped his fingers. 'Boom,' he finished.
Merlin looked uneasy. The thought of bombs, yet unknown in his precious Camelot, was probably terrifying for him. But apart from an uncomfortable look in his eyes, he was firmly in control. Maybe he really would make for a good spook, at least a better one than his noisy friend.
'Why now?' he demanded. 'There must be something that triggers such an action.'
That was a good question. He didn't only ask the usual questions of who, what, where and when, but he also wanted to know the why, the reason behind it. Harry had probably been right to bring him in on this one.
'You've dealt them some blows, so now they've got to get nasty,' Marlin replied. 'Civilian casualties, of course, but also something that undermines confidence; banks going under, homes repossessed… People are frightened.'
Tell me all about it, Ros thought wryly. She could all too clearly picture the result of a bomb explosion of Al-Qaeda magnitude. Unfortunately, they didn't do small attacks. Bloody fanatics.
'How do you know all this?' Merlin questioned, his eyes never leaving the other man's face. His distrust of his almost namesake had not lessened one bit. How strange, he had not struck her as a suspicious type at all.
If she'd have blinked she might have missed the uneasy expression that flashed across their asset's face. 'I have my sources,' he said reluctantly. 'Sources deep inside Al-Qaeda. I can't reveal their names. I am sure you'll understand.'
Her intuition flickered. He definitely was hiding something and as soon as this crisis was dealt with, she would find out what that was.
But she also knew when to stop. 'We understand,' she said, earning her a glare of Merlin's for interrupting his questioning.
Marlin nodded, turning to Lucas. 'Stay on Nadif, my friend. He is the key to everything.' Before they got the chance to say anything else, he had turned around and walked away, leaving them with the information they had been looking for.
'He's hiding something,' Merlin said as soon as the Pakistani was out of earshot.
Ros shot him a very insincere smile. 'Is that the pot calling the kettle black?' she wondered. And when Merlin gave her a death glare that could rival her own, she added: 'We'll deal with Marlin. Let's just handle this crisis first.'
'But…' he started to protest.
Since he was now one of her officers she was probably not allowed to slap him, no matter how much she wanted to. 'Multitasking is seriously overrated,' she snapped. 'And I have a Home Secretary to meet.' She turned on her heels and walked back to the car, leaving the two men with no choice but to follow.