The Electric Messiah

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Chapter 21

King Leothan left the telegraph room buzzing with hope and excitement. Men with powdered faces! To hide discoloured skin, or glowing skin! Such people were rare. Not rare enough for them to attract undue attention, but still quite uncommon. It should be easy to identify them, then keep an eye on them! He yelled for Darnell, and the man came trotting up from his place a few yards further down the corridor. “Get me Minister Larren!” he commanded. “Quickly!” The Private Secretary sent a runner off to obey.

The Intelligence Minister found the King in his private quarters, and the guards on duty at the door showed him in. “Larren! We've got a lead!” said the King. “The Brigadier just reported in from Kelvon. “Some, maybe most, maybe all, of the most senior members of the Radiant conspiracy are adoptees! They have luminous skin, like the Princess had when she was afflicted! They wear powder to make themselves look normal! I want you to get your people looking for everyone in the Kingdom who wears face powder!”

“Most high class women probably do,” pointed out Larren. “To hide their shiny noses.”

“Yes, but they're seen without makeup now and again, and they don't wear it thick all over their faces. How soon can you put together a list of everyone in the Kingdom who wears it?”

The Minister scratched his head. “Everyone in the Kingdom? We'd have to send people out to every town, every village, get everyone to line up for inspection. It could take years! If we limit it to people in authority we might get it done in a reasonable amount of time but we're still talking weeks. You know how long it takes to organise the ten yearly census.”

The King scowled unhappily. “These people will be trying not to attract attention to themselves. Do it anyway. We need a preliminary list quickly. Have your people asking questions of everyone in their departments, their home villages, people they've seen around town, that sort of thing. Do they know anyone who wears face powder. Then get them to pass the question on to everyone they know, and so on. Get to work on the full head count, though. We need to hunt these people down, leave them nowhere to hide!”

“Most of them will be entirely innocent. Just people who really do have discoloured skins. If we're not careful we could start a witch hunt. Innocent people could be lynched!”

The King nodded, most of his initial enthusiasm melting away as common sense kicked in. “And we want to take them alive if possible, find out what they know, what they've been up to. Okay, do it however you think best, but speed is important! Those bastards are working against us even as we speak!”

The Minister nodded. “It'll probably take a couple of weeks to get the first results in. I can give you one name right now, though. Geoffrey Barlowe.”

“Why does that name ring a bell?” asked the King.

“He was Redhill's bookkeeper. When the fire...”

“Yes! Of course!” The King slapped his head for his stupidity. “It was right there, in the fire chief’s report! The man provided a physical description of everyone involved! Bless his fussy attention to detail! He must have been the one who started the fire, killed everyone! Find him! Find him quickly!”

“If we arrest him, the Radiants will know we're on to them.”

“You're right.” The King paced back and forth as he thought furiously. “We'll be careful,” he said. “Just watch him, see who he associates with. Make sure he doesn't get into a position to do any damage or gather sensitive information. What we can't do is leave him out there, in the wind. Maybe he’ll lead us to other members of the conspiracy, maybe we'll learn something else important. One thing above all, we have to keep him away from Adams Valley. We don’t want him keeping the Radiants informed on the progress we're making, creating a weapon to use against them.”

“They were looking for a bookkeeper for Adams Valley. They found someone they liked, someone with experience. I don't know who, but it’s possible it’s Barlowe.”

Leothan cursed under his breath. “Find out,” he said. “If It is him, we’ll need to find a way to get him away from there. Discretely, without arousing his suspicions. Is the telegraph line to Adams Hill complete?”

“Yes, Sire. I'll be able to get one of my people on the case immediately.” He bowed low, then left the room, his head already buzzing with plots and strategies.

☆☆☆

“I've found It!” cried Shanks, waving a sheet of paper. “It was right here, all along! Everything, right here!”

“Calm down!” said Andrea McCrea. “What have you found?”

“Maxine Hester’s alternator! Or an early idea for it, anyway. Sophie wrote a letter on the other side, she must have just grabbed the first scrap of paper she could find!”

“Who’s Sophie?” asked Andrea, taking the paper. She glanced at the crabby handwriting, then turned it over to look at the rough sketch.

“Sophie Bellhine. We were at college together and kept in touch, until... Well, never mind. She got a job as one of Maxine Hester’s assistants. We never gave away technical information, well, not deliberately. This was a mistake. You can see from the handwriting how hurried she was, she probably never even looked at what was on the other side! I remember looking at it, when the letter first arrived, but I didn’t think anything of it. Just some random scribble... But I was sorting my stuff out, getting settled into my room, and I found it and suddenly I realised what it was!”

Andrea ignored her assistant’s ramblings and studied the drawing. It was rough, hurriedly drawn, but like all electrical engineers Maxine Hester had used universal symbols for electrical components such as resistors, inductors, capacitors and she was able to puzzle out what the device had been intended to do. She gasped, and Shanks fell silent, staring at her. “You know what it is?” he asked.

“She used a spark gap to moderate the alternation!” said Andrea under her breath. “I would never have... Those Above, this is genius! A spark gap! There's theoretically no limit to how fast a current can alternate! A hundred times a second, a thousand...” She looked up, stared at her assistant. “How long have you had this?”

“I dunno. A year or so, I suppose...” He wilted under his master's furious gaze.

“We could have had this a year ago? You've been sitting on this...”

“I’m sorry! I didn’t know... I had no idea...”

“Well, never mind. We can knock this up in the lab right now. It won't work, of course, Maxine only made the breakthrough just before she died, but we can figure out what needs to be done to make it work.”

“The lab’s not ready yet...”

“It’s ready If I say it is.” She strode out of the room, and Shanks hurried to keep up with her.

Everything in the lab was still packed in boxes, but Andrea tore them open, examining what lay inside, discarding what she didn't need with a scowl, snatching up what she needed with a little cry of triumph. She carried everything to an empty table beside the wall and began plugging components into a breadboard, connecting them with fabric covered wires. “Get a battery ready!” she commanded, and Shanks searched for a glass jar, finding dozens in the third crate he opened. Then he looked for the zinc and platinum contacts and the bottles of chemicals that would complete the apparatus.

They were interrupted by a knocking on the front door. Andrea and Shanks looked up, then went back to what they were doing. Someone else would get it. Isaac Clarke was the one whose patience at the ever more frantic knocking wore out first, and he left what he was doing in the annex to answer it. A man from the postal service was standing there. A small man with a fussy little moustache holding a brown envelope in his hand. “I have a package for Geoffrey Barlowe,” he said.

“Okay, I'll give it to him.” He reached out a hand.

“I'm sorry, I have to hand it to him personally. Is he around?”

“He's upstairs. I'll go get him.”

“That won't be necessary. I just wanted to make sure he wasn't nearby.” He produced a tin badge and showed it to him. “Nicholas Barrow, Ministry of Intelligence. Our office just received a telegraph message from Marboll warning us that Geoffrey Barlowe may be a threat to national security.”

“What kind of threat?”

“Is there somewhere we can talk privately? We can't have Mister Barlowe walking in in the middle of the conversation.”

“In think you need to talk to the boss. Andrea McCrea. I think she's in the lab, or what will be the lab.”

He led the intelligence agency man through into the lab, where Andrea and Shanks were still busy assembling the apparatus. “There’s a man from the spy agency...” said Clarke.

“Not now,” said Andrea, not looking around. She had one end of a cable in one hand and was staring back and forth between the half finished apparatus and the drawing. “No, that can't go there,” she muttered. “That makes no sense.”

“I am from the Ministry of Intelligence,” said Nicholas Barrow. “It is vitally urgent that I speak to you immediately...”

“I said not now!”

“Now!” said the agent, moving to squeeze himself between the scientist and the apparatus she was building. She stared at him in annoyed surprise. “I must speak to you now!”

Andrea McCrea gave a sigh of resignation. “Oh very well, but this had better be important. We are working under express instructions from the King himself!”

‘So am I. First of all, though, I must ask one of you to make sure we aren't interrupted by Mister Barlowe. Could one of you go keep and eye on him please? Try to keep him from coming here without, and I repeat without, arousing his suspicions?”

Andrea waved at Clarke to go. “Use the requisition list to keep him occupied,” she said. Her assistant stared resentfully. His curiosity had clearly been piqued and he wanted to know what it was all about, but then he nodded and left the room, heading for the manager's office.

“So,” said Andrea, staring at the agent in annoyance. “What's so important that it justifies delaying the King’s business?”

Nicholas Barrow had been told that the scientist and her assistants already knew about the Radiant threat, so he was spared a great deal of preliminary explanation. “We believe that Barlowe is working for the Radiants,” he said. “We believe that he has been adopted by them and partially raised, enough to allow him to communicate with them telepathically. On my way here, I saw that there is a Radiant directly above the building right now, close enough for it and Mister Barlowe to be in direct communication. That's why he cannot be allowed to find out that we suspect him. If he finds out, the Radiant finds out and they’ll know we're on to them.”

Andrea gave a muffled curse. “So what do we do?”

“We have to get him out of the building. I have a forged summons from the King. A rather crude forgery, I’m afraid. I was rather pressed for time, but it should be good enough so long as he doesn't look at it too closely.”

“Don't summonses from the King have to carry the Royal Seal?” asked Shanks.

“Yes. I have a copy. Once we get him...”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute!” said Shanks, though. “You have a copy? Of the Royal Seal?”

“There are many copies. The King gives them out to people he trusts.”

“He must trust you a bloody lot! With a copy of the Royal Seal you could order someone executed!”

“The King knows how to buy loyalty with trust, and I would be the one executed if I misused it. Now can we get back to the matter in hand? I have to deliver this to Barlowe.” He showed them the envelope he'd come in with.

“Where will you keep him?” asked Andrea. “The moment a Radiant passes close by, he'll be able to tell them he's being held prisoner! Those creatures go everywhere! There’s nowhere you can take him they won't be able to find him, and the moment they do...”

“We're hoping they won't be looking for him. I and a couple of my fellows will be going with him, and as soon as we're a good distance from the nearest Radiant we'll render him unconscious. Let it be known that he died on the road. Highwaymen, perhaps. The Radiants should buy it. People die on the road all the time. Once we reach the place where we're going to keep him, we'll put him back to sleep if any Radiants come close. Not let him wake up again until it’s gone. We should be able to interrogate him indefinitely without the Radiants ever being any the wiser.”

Shanks nodded. ‘Should work,” he said. “The Radiants will probably try to plant another spy amongst us.”

“We'll make sure they aren’t able to. Better get this done, then. The sooner it’s done, the less chance there is for something to go wrong. So, can we go see him, please?”

Shanks nodded and took the agent across the lab and along the corridor beyond. The sound of workmen renovating the building came from further along. Someone humming a tune, the ringing sound of some heavy metal object being dropped onto concrete. “Watch it!” someone said, his voice made echoey by distance and the acoustics of the building. “Those don't come cheap you know!”

They found Clarke hovering outside the door to Barlowe’s office. He hadn't needed to go in, the bookkeeper was busy with some paperwork and looked set to remain there for the rest of the day. Shanks sent him back to the others, therefore, knocked on the door and went in.

“There's a postman with something for you,” he said as Barlowe looked round. He indicated the man standing beside him.

“Okay. Just leave it here, I'll look at it later.” He turned back to his paperwork.

“You need to sign for it,” said Nicholas Barrow. “Must be important. I have to put it into your hands myself and get you to sign for it.” He couldn't take the risk that the letter might be left unopened for days, maybe even forgotten completely. He needed to get the man curious so that he'd open it immediately.

It worked. Barlowe looked up curiously and reached out to take the letter, but Barrow held it back, offering a pad of receipts instead. Barlowe picked up a pen, scowling with annoyance, and signed it, and then Barrow handed him the letter. Barlowe ripped it open immediately, his eyes widening at the quality of the paper inside, then widening even further when he saw what was on it. “I've been ordered back to Marboll!” he said. “By the King himself! His Majesty requests... Ha! Requests! Requests that Geoffrey Barlowe, MBB, MRGA, attends him at Paisley Palace at ten am on the morning of the twelfth of August... Shit, that’s just five days from now!”

“Are you going?” asked Shanks.

“I have to go! It's a Royal command! What does he want me for?” He searched the sheet of paper, turning it over to see if there was anything on the back, turning it back to read the summons again. He snatched up the envelope to see if there was anything else inside. “It doesn't say what he wants me for! Maybe it's a hoax, someone playing a joke on me!”

“It's genuine all right,” said Barrow hurriedly. The letter wouldn't stand up to careful scrutiny. “It came from the palace.”

Barlowe looked at the postmark over the stamp. It just said Marboll. There was nothing to indicate where in the city it had come from. So how did the postman know it had come from the palace? A small nugget of doubt began to form in the pit of his stomach.

*What is troubling you* said a voice in his head. The Radiant floating somewhere above the building.

*The King wants me to go back to Marboll.*

*Why?*

*I don't know.* He examined the letter more closely. He'd never seen a letter from the King before, but he'd received official letters from the Guild of Accountants that looked smarter and more professional than this. The beautiful calligraphy of the handwritten lettering looked a little rushed, he thought. There was the tiniest smudge of ink in the corner. But it bore the Royal Seal and the King’s handwritten signature at the bottom. That had to mean it was genuine, didn't it? *I have to go, though. I can't ignore a summons from the King!*

“There's a carriage leaving from Adams Hill in an hour,” said Barrow, still concerned by the attention Barlowe was giving the letter. “You can catch it if you leave now.”

*You must return as quickly as possible!* insisted the Radiant. *You are needed here!*

*I will, I promise!* Barlowe stood. “Guess I'd better be going, then,” he said. “Maybe the King wants to knight me.” He chuckled at the thought. “Seriously, though, what could he possibly want with me?”

“The sooner you get there, the sooner you'll find out.”

Barlowe nodded, but something in Barrow's tone of voice made him pause uncertainly. This man wanted him out of here, he was suddenly certain of it! He was more than just a postman! Could they have figured out that he'd destroyed Redhill? No, impossible! They’d just arrest him, unless they somehow knew about his connection to the Radiants...

*If they have, you must kill them all!*

*There’s too many of them! There are six soldiers here too!*

*I will help you. Find out what they know.*

How do I do that? wondered Barlowe, but it was obvious. Keep them talking, about anything. Maybe they'll let something slip.

He put the fake summons carefully back in its envelope, then put it in a drawer in the side of the desk. “I need to get a few things,” he said. “Pack a bag. Most of my stuff’s still packed, of course, but if I’m going to meet the King I'll need something that isn't creased. I've hung a few things in the filing cabinet, took the drawers out to make a sort of wardrobe. I'm hoping the creases will have hung out.” He indicated the cabinet in the corner. “If I pack them, though, they’ll just get creased again.”

“Any town you pass through can iron your clothes,” pointed out Barrow. “He won’t be expecting you to turn up in ermine and pearls.”

“Yes, of course.” The suitcase containing most of his clothes was sitting right there, against the wall, waiting for the workmen to make the first of the private bedrooms safe to use. Barlowe picked it up, tried to think of a way to delay further, to think of something else to talk about, but failed. There was nothing else for him to do but walk out the door.

The quickest way out of the building was to the north, but there was a bunch of workmen there. He would have had to squeeze past them, pick his way over offcuts of wood risking a twisted ankle with every step... He decided to take the other way out, therefore, which would take him through the lab. The other two men followed him into the huge room, where he saw Andrea McCrea and Clarke still assembling something. That gave him something else to talk about, and he headed in their direction.

“The carriage won't wait!” said Shanks, a little anxiously, Barlowe thought. “If you miss it, you’ll have to wait three hours for the next!”

He doesn't want me to see what they're doing, the bookkeeper thought. Could they have made the breakthrough already? Maybe Maxine Hester corresponded with them, sent them the blueprints for her machine!

*If so, we must kill them all now!* said the Radiant. *I am approaching. We will destroy them together!*

*Wait!* insisted Barlowe, though. * We don't want to tip our hand! This may be nothing! We have to be sure!*

*Then make sure!*

As he approached, though, Clarke came forward to meet him, blocking him from getting closer. “So what was in the letter?” he asked. “Something important?” Andrea looked up, reached for a dustsheet to cover the apparatus she was building. That was enough to settle the matter in Barlowe's mind. They'd made a breakthrough, and they knew he was a spy! * Okay,* he thought to the Radiant. *Let's do it!*

The window exploded inwards as a luminous tentacle reached in, knocking tables and equipment in all directions. The humans reacted in shock and horror, staggering back, and Barlowe took the opportunity to grab a heavy rheostat from a nearby table and bring it down as hard as he could on Barrow's head. Blood sprayed and the man fell. Someone called for help in a panicky voice. Barlowe spun around to face Shanks, intending to kill him too, but the man had snatched up a steel bracer bar and was holding it out in front of him like a sword. Barlowe left him for the Radiant, therefore, and turned to attack Clarke instead.

The Radiant’s tentacle reached around blindly, smashing the half finished equipment and knocking Andrea from her feet. The long, whiplike tip curled around to grab her, but she scrambled away on heels and elbows, crying out as she cut herself on a fragment of broken glass. More tentacles reached in through the window, thrashing around like agonised snakes, and then the creature’s body came into view through the window. The room was flooded with brilliant greenish light, and it was able to see to guide its tentacles to their targets. A hideous piping sound filled the room, sounding as though an orchestra of insane musicians had decided to attend the scene. One tentacle grabbed Clarke around the shoulders, another by the waist, and they pulled, tearing him in half and showering the room with blood and gore.

Andrea screamed in shock and terror, climbing back to her feet, and the largest, thickest tentacle reached towards her, moving with blinding speed. Andrea grabbed a bottle of acid and threw it, but it bounced off the rubbery flesh without breaking and then the tentacle wrapped around her neck. It pulled hard, clearly intending to snap her neck, but she grabbed it with both hands and clung on while her face turned red as it choked her. Fortunately for her, it was the extreme end of the tentacle that had her, the thinnest, weakest part, and it didn't have the strength to crush her throat. It simply lifted her off her feet, therefore, and dashed her against the wall.

There came the awful wet sound of flesh being pulped that nearly made Shanks throw up, and then her limp body fell to the ground. Then Barlowe came rushing at him, and he was forced to remain in control of himself so he could fend off his attack. He threw up the steel bar to bat away the heavy rheostat, and then he heard gunshots as the soldiers arrived, followed by Attwill, filthy with grease and smoke from the steam engine.

The Radiant shivered under the fusillade of bullets and its piping increased in frequency. The soldiers were all intent upon the creature, though, and none of them paid any attention to Barlowe and Shanks where they were facing off against each other in the corner of the room. Barlowe discarded the rheostat and threw himself against the other man. The move caught Shanks by surprise and he missed his opportunity to deliver a winning blow with the iron bar. Instead he staggered back in surprise and Barlowe bowled him over, ending up lying on top of the other man on the floor. He focused on making himself feel pure love for the scientist, creating a parent bond in preparation for cursing him. Let's see what kind of animal you were raised from! he thought savagely.

The sound of falling rubble came from the window, and the soldiers fell back in horror as the Radiant widened it with its largest tentacles, pulling masonry out of the wall and throwing it at them with murderous force. They’d had no idea the creatures were so strong! Its piping increased in tone and frequency as it also prepared to throw a curse, but first it had to get closer. As soon as the hole in the wall was wide enough it began to squeeze its way in, its massive flotation sack deforming to fit. Jagged outcrops of brick scratched long wounds in its luminous skin that bled a green ichor, but the creature ignored it. It seemed prepared to suffer any injury in its attempt to get close to the humans.

Barlowe felt the parent bond with Shanks forming, and turned it in his mind, so that it would throw his adversary back down the ladder of life. Shanks struggled under him, but the other man had a firm hold of his wrists and he couldn’t get free. With a savage grin of triumph, Barlowe cast the curse, then threw himself away before the other man could maul him with a wolf’s jaws or a tiger’s claws. Shanks seemed unaffected, though, and scrambled back to his feet before the other man could attack him again. He snatched up the iron bar, preparing to defend himself, but Barlowe was simply staring in shock. Why hadn’t the curse worked? What had gone wrong? Shanks took advantage of his momentary confusion and ran forward, swinging the iron bar with all his strength. It connected solidly with Barlowe's head and the man fell in a senseless heap.

Shanks stared at the Radiant, which was now almost entirely in the room, its tentacles reaching out before it so that it looked like a monstrous, luminous squid. The unconscious form of Andrea McCrea was almost directly beneath it, and he ran forward to get her, pulling her free and dragging her over to where the soldiers were still shooting at it, their backs against the wall. “Aim at its head!” cried Shanks, although he had no idea whether that would be any more effective. Where was its brain? Somewhere in the centre of the quivering bag of flotation gases, perhaps? “Aim at the centre of the creature!”

The soldiers did so, but their bullets seemed to have little effect. Its piping was rising to a triumphant crescendo, though, and the soldiers tensed up on horror, knowing what was coming. One of them dropped his gun and ran, but a tentacle snatched him up before be could get more than a few strides and crushed his ribcage. Shanks tried to shield Andrea with his body, as if that would do any good.

The Radiant delivered its curse, and the soldiers all convulsed as they felt their bodies twisting and changing. A moment later there were two dogs, a goat, and a donkey struggling to free themselves from their human clothes. The remaining soldier was a little further away from the others, enough that he was only partially affected. Even so, though, his hands were no longer capable of holding a gun and he bleated with terror as it slipped from his grasp and fell to the floor.

The sole remaining soldier ran for the door, all pride and dignity forgotten. The Radiant let it go, and the scientist felt the creature regarding him, its piping having reduced to a contented buzzing. Its tentacles reached lazily towards him, but Shanks somehow sensed that it didn't want to kill him. Somehow, he had resisted both Barlowe's curse and the one that the creature itself had just cast, and the creature was curious. It was going to take him back to its city, to study him.

Shanks had no intention of going without a fight, though. He snatched up one of the guns dropped by the cursed soldiers and fired, but the bullets passed right through its gelatinous body without apparently doing it any harm. That made no sense, though. Radiants normally retreated if shot at. Maybe bullets hurt it, even if they couldn't really harm it. If that was it, then Shanks was doomed, as were his people. Maybe there was still a chance, though...

Gases were seeping from bullet holes in its great flotation sacks. Hydrogen, generated by the creature as a by product of its metabolism and highly flammable. If he could set it alight... There was an electric candle mounted on the wall beside him, the light generated by an electric arc jumping between two graphite contacts. Acting quickly, before the creature realised what he was doing, he jumped up and ripped it from the wall. The wires powering it with electricity snapped and the light went dark, but the graphite contacts were still glowing with heat. He rapped it hard on the tiled floor to smash the protective glass bulb that covered it, then ran forward, the electric light thrust forward in his outstretched hand...

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