It was that the tunnel smelt of human that so perturbed Zara. She had been feeling anxious anyway, there was still no news of the kittens and Mother Arap had grown unconsolably upset, so much so that everyone around her was now also upset. She had no answers, and knowing that it would only get worse gave time an edge that she rarely experienced. She was stuck in a trap and desperately needed a chance to turn things round. On finding the tunnel into the palace gardens smelling of human, the pressure she felt rose up into a sensation of panic. Things were so far advanced already on so many sides, and the distance between her and her opponents was widening. Now she also had to worry about this, and from the smell of it, the human that had passed through was none too nice. In all her life, since she had been given the role of interface, no one but her had ever come this way, so why should it happen now? Did these humans know about her relationship with the Sultan? She supposed so. Clearly they had known about their adventure to find the prophecy, for they had anticipated their voyage to the East. It prompted the question, was there anything that these humans did not know? They might be watching her now and about to attempt her capture. She shivered, it was horrible not to understand the abilities of one's enemies. However, for the time being at least, her position before the Sultan's chambers was safe.
Waiting for the meeting to begin, she cast her mind back over recent events, trying to place more clearly where she now was and where she had come from. It had all seemed so simple. The alley cats were plotting to throw the gutters against the rooftops. Longshanks feared the gutters, and thought they might one day rise up anyway, but he understood that the alley cats were driving the tension. They agreed that the humans might well be involved, for the behaviour of the alleys had grown so much worse. They had decided that pursuing the prophecy might help draw the alleys out into the open, and that it would distract the gutters from war in the short-term. Now she had lost two kittens and knew that the humans were anticipating her resistance. Not only this but they seemed to possess some strange new power that could cause storms and render witless a captain of thirty years' experience. The rationale she had previously held, of drawing the enemy out, now looked like utter idiocy. She had gained nothing.
Eventually the great oak doors of the summer throne room swung open and the Sultan entered, shuffling and hunched, followed by a group of four courtiers, a variety of aged men, each with a different expression on his face, but all of which suggested displeasure at each other's company. None of the men, neither Sultan nor courtiers, looked well, indeed they looked markedly unhealthy, all of them seemed caught within a negative air, a mood quite different to the manner of life around them - the scenes beyond the palace she could see on either side in the park and the gardens. Whilst the summer outside sang true of nature's joy, each of the five men before her were wrapped in a cloud of malcontent.
The Sultan sat down in his throne, a ridiculous object, gold and ornate so as to diminish the man sat in it, who anyway looked only barely awake. The four courtiers gathered in around him, each dipping forwards slightly to be sure of hearing well. Time for some moments stood still. The Sultan stayed silent, his head hung in lost thought. One courtier, the most energised man in the room, cleared his throat. The Sultan looked up bleakly at the man and then at the room around him. Finally realising where he was, he turned back to the courtier and sighed, 'Begin'.
A second courtier stepped forwards, the oldest man in the room. He too, like the Sultan, seemed much weighed upon, yet perhaps with greater strength, for with his aspect he seemed to condemn the context in which he spoke.
'The agenda today, Your Majesty, will begin with Mr Nadir' he said, motioning loosely towards the first courtier. 'He will deliver the security briefing. Following that, we have a presentation from a Mr Badford from MICE Systems, an American organisation, the supplier to the American state of "civilian defence systems". Afterwards we will discuss the offer of Mr Badford, and then finally we will receive applications from your kingdom.'
'Thank you Lord Yavuz' said the first courtier, stepping forwards quickly and with enough force to rebuff the others around him. 'Your Excellency, as you know, last night the homeland security outpost at Akdiken was attacked. It seems a combination of explosive devices were used, both projectiles from outside and bombs planted inside the facility. Nothing remains of it now, and over 100 are thought dead. The information we have is that Russian-backed rebels from the Madan region are responsible. As we noted last week, the latest report from our man in the rebel headquarters is that their leader, Samer Alwan, is planning to come over the border. The people near there we understand are sympathetic to his cause, they say Your Excellency that Istanbul is corrupt. We think they have been bribed with Russian funds but we cannot be sure.'
'Worse still' he continued, now leaning down towards the Sultan and almost blocking him from view, 'we have this new power to contend with, Your Excellency, remember the thing we talked about yesterday. The problem we have is that the Russian communication lines are now clear between Moscow and our southern border. I fear that this new power is being used on the local population, driving them towards an uprising against you. So, of course, we must see what America can offer us when Mr Badford comes in, but in any case, as a basic precaution, I will be proposing in parliament tomorrow that we redeploy the army to the frontier.'
Here a third courtier looked up, grew immediately incensed and tried to voice his objection, but instead fell into a coughing fit that left his face purple.
The first courtier moved swiftly on.
'There are no other major developments for now. I will bring in Mr Badford.'
The doors swung open again and a rather ordinary-looking man walked in. He looked friendly, even apologetic for his presence, but did so with a degree of confidence that spoke of complacency, as if his tone was bound to be accepted, no matter the reality of his behaviour. Zara was sure, the man was both false and dangerous.
He looked up quickly at the first courtier. 'Nadir' he said, abruptly and dismissively, before turning to face the throne directly.
'Sultan listen, we're real appreciative of you taking the time today to listen to what we have to say. We can imagine you're dreadful busy, what with the Muslim crisis and all. To be honest, we, on behalf of the United States, are a shade embarrassed to be so frank with you, for we must admit that we've been rather slow on the uptake here. Fact is, Russia has stolen a march on us, and we're going to have to act mighty quick if we want to save this situation from getting out of hand.'
'Now let me tell you a story' he said, opening his hands and then turning away to pace the floor, 'let's go back to the latter years of the second world war. The Allied forces have landed in France and are set about liberating Western Europe from the Nazis. The Russians are on their way towards Berlin, knocking out the old capitals of the East one by one as they go. On the Pacific front we drop the nuclear bomb. The second world war, the war of mechanised transportation, on the land, under sea and in the skies, ends with the advent of the next war, the Cold War. The Cold War brings a trinity of conflicts to the fore - one, that of nuclear weaponry, two, culture, or society you might say, and three finance, or money. To a degree the war is carried out as the one before, on the land, under sea and in the sky, but this time it is about more than that, it is about the hearts and minds of people. Now of course, we won that war. In the end the Russian people chose freedom and comfort over communism, but sadly it didn't end there.'
Mr Badford turned back towards the Sultan and looked at him intently, impressing sincerity and heartfelt remorse.
'Now here comes the bit we don't like to admit. You see, the end of communism in Russia was just a neat dummy. They let us think that we had won the war for hearts and minds with our good old-fashioned American values, but we didn't understand the level the Russians were prepared to go to. Russia had understood some time before that it couldn't compete on traditional battlefields, it couldn't win the fair fight, so it invested in a new, dubious discipline, an area of interest let's say, that we knew of at home but refused to engage in, indecent as it is.'
'Well, what is this discipline? Well, let's take a step back. With the arrival of atomic and then subatomic physics, what we understood is that the universe, and everything in it, is made up of all manner of particles, which ultimately are connected together, across a multitude of dimensions, and to a great degree independently of the visible forms they are apparently supporting. You see, all of this mass, well it's energy, and this huge energy structure we live on top of and within supports all sorts of change. When the wind blows it causes a billion waves to go rippling through the molecular structure that makes up the atmosphere. When lightning strikes, we see a big flash, but in reality there is an overcharge of energy flowing through the same particles that get moved about in the wind. It's just the conditions that make the difference. These are just examples from nature, but with technology, it is now possible to understand the particles in the body and the mind.'
'So, what have the Russians done? Well they've released a huge amount of particulate matter into the air, all sorts of different things, which for the most part are there to support energetic transfer from their machines into the air and then onto our bodies and minds. If you like, human life has been rewired, so whereas before we were pretty much closed systems, or at least our brains were, now they are all part of a big computer circuit that pretty much runs through our entire ecosystem, particles in everything with energy pumped through them, and then pumped through us and then back out and then round and round. The issue of course is that the flow carries information with it. It carries our thoughts out of our heads, and where normally we would give ourselves feedback, the Russian supercomputer selects a response for us instead. You say hungry, it says you're fat and that makes you unhappy. Well yesterday you didn't care that you were fat it didn't make your steak any less tasty. Today Russia has decided you shouldn't enjoy your beef anymore so tough shit. Imagine how much worse it can get. Your peasant in the mountains says I'm hungry, the computer says well that's because Istanbul is stealing from you. You can start to see where I'm heading with this.'
'We actually think this technology is responsible for much of the disruption in the world today. In America we're a bit better off because of our commitment to domestic defence systems, but in the East you're really seeing a big impact. The whole thing has taken us by surprise, we really didn't think they had the capabilities, but suddenly we find they've rolled it out everywhere. Sultan you understand our concerns here. It's too early to say, but certainly the initial evidence we have back stateside supports the view that this technology is being used to recruit and condition the terrorists that have so plagued us in the West.'
'What do you do? The first thing we do' he said, once again turning aside to walk the length of the chamber's floor, 'is to protect your citizens'. He swung round to point his finger directly at the Sultan, who looked up briefly before letting his head sink back down to his chest. 'Sultan, we have to stop this madness from spreading...'
'The solution, let me tell you we've only just finished our first version of this product, and I think we're going to be making updates for some time, but anyway we're awful pleased with the results so far. What we're proposing is a high energy shield. What it does is to lock all those energy transfer particles in the air with a high level of tension, so high that they can't communicate Russian signals - imagine a guitar string that's too tight to pluck - that's the way my engineer back in California described it. It's also so high that there is just no risk at all that your citizens are going to interact with them. They'll just carry on their normal lives underneath the shield, just as they did before, thinking whatever they like, which is no doubt something more palatable than Russia would have it.'
He laughed and slapped his thighs.
'Actually the solution is rather simple in principle' he said, suddenly serious and confidential, 'the only real difficulty is covering all of the different particles out there. I mean you wouldn't believe how many there are - just making one finger twitch requires a hundred different molecules! It really isn't one size fits all - you need to send out a lot of different blocks to cover the main functions of the mind and body. The Russians keep sending up new materials and we keep updating the system. That's the way it is for the moment.'
'It goes without saying, these things aren't cheap to run. But then, we couldn't pretend that we don't have an interest in this, of course we do, it is a priority of ours to stop Russia from gaining ground in the Near and Middle East, and anyway we feel morally obliged, as Christian men, to stamp out this disgusting technology. As it is, the CIA is offering co-funding for the right sort of customer.'
'Let us not forget the other benefits. Not only will you stop other countries from interfering with your citizens' minds, you will also be able to tell if they're in trouble and need your help. We've decided not to include mind-reading functionality in this version, but if one of your people shows real agitation, it will show on the energy readings, and we will know who to help, and not only will you know who, but with our unique DNA tracking system, you will know where they are.'
'Okay so that's it from me. Nadir here has all the details - Sultan let me thank you once again for your time, and let me just also say that we cannot wait to work with you.'
Mr Badford turned to Nadir, 'Do we have time for questions?'
The third courtier, cross and impatient, cut in before Nadir had time to answer.
'What would Russia tell me if we told them the same story? I will ask them you know.'
'Lies' replied Mr Badford unhesitatingly, 'they would do anything but admit to this. You must understand, the idea of interfering in the mind is highly controversial, but what they're doing with the technology well it would ruin their image forever. They would have no place left in international relations. Of course they will lie, but you ask them, we have nothing to hide here.'
'And why should we trust you Mr Badford?' the first courtier asked. 'How can we be sure that you are not lying to us?'
Mr Badford laughed airily, 'History is very clear on this point. America has guaranteed world peace for the last fifty years - you see us out there everyday fighting to keep this world safe. And trust me, we have many days when we feel like we'd rather stay at home, but we know that the American way of life must be preserved. Now we have nothing to gain from disruption. That's not what we believe in. Our focus is still the same. We want stable partners for trade. Where a country can trade freely, America will receive its fair share of sales, that's all we expect in return.'
Both courtiers seemed unsatisfied by Mr Badford's responses. Indeed, they were more agitated now than before. However, for some subtle reason, because of some force that lay beyond articulation, neither were able to continue with their objections.
'Well thank you Mr Badford' said Nadir, 'we will let you know our answer shortly.'
Mr Badford nodded in return and then gave the Sultan a final look. 'Sultan' he said again, smiling at the slumped figure in the throne, 'my pleasure', before turning around and leaving.
'I suggest a quick break before beginning the next session' said Mr Nadir, 'as you know, the Sultan has been left very tired by his illness.'
'Guards!' he shouted, without waiting for an answer. Several men in black uniforms came in and helped the Sultan out of his throne, then leading him out of the room. In silence, the four courtiers followed: on the face of Nadir, a light smile; on the faces of the two objectors frustrated grimaces; the final courtier, who had not spoken, remained impassive, the only change a sickly flicker that now danced behind his eyes.
As the last humans left the room Zara sighed heavily - so many were the implications of what she had just heard that the whole world now seemed changed. This idea that the humans had understood the building blocks of life, and could now affect their energy remotely, it explained everything - it must be this new power that had caused the storm, and that had so upset the captain on the ship. If they could read her mind, then she could also understand how they had anticipated her plan to pursue the prophecy, and in this way too they must have discovered her secret tunnel. Of course, it also implied that they, whoever they were, knew that she was sat before the throne room and had just spied on their meeting.
Suddenly, she heard a voice in the air - the sound of laughter, human laughter.
But why then had they not attempted to stop her? She would have run immediately if the guard had come.
The door to the chamber swung open again. The second and third courtier, those that had objected, returned into the room.
'He must be stopped Yavuz, "send the army out of Istanbul" - can't you see what is happening? There'll be a coup against the Sultan as soon as they've hit the road.'
'I agree Hamdi, of course I agree, but how? The question is how. As you well know, the decision to do so or not no longer rests with you. It is the law that Nadir now holds that responsibility. Because neither of us are able to change this, nor stop him, we should not worry about whether it will happen, but about what we will do when it does happen.'
'Are you saying that we just let the kingdom fall? How can you?'
'Hamdi the kingdom fell the day the new security powers were passed. Because they were passed without question, we should assume that it was anyway already lost. Clearly, this new technology they talk of is already in control. As such, we must conclude that either Mr Badford and the Americans are far short of understanding reality, or that they are lying, and are themselves to blame for our misfortunes.'
The doors to the chamber swung open again and Nadir walked back into the room.
'How wise of you Lord Yavuz. It is for such insights no doubt that you have maintained your position as the Sultan's counsel all these years. Unfortunately, as it is, the Sultan is obliged to retire early today. Suddenly he is feeling unwell.'
With that he turned around and left.
'Prepare for the worst' said Lord Yavuz and then followed Nadir out of the room.
Lord Hamdi remained for some moments longer before too departing.
Zara now faced an unenviable choice. Should she enter the palace and attempt to find the Sultan? She could not be sure, but he was probably in bed. The doors to his room she supposed would be guarded, but the windows might be open. They had been last time she had come to see him, but then, as she supposed too now was the case, there was a nurse sat with him. Still, she had to try - if there was a chance that she might make him see sense...
Feeling stiff and unusually nervous, Zara slowly skirted the garden walls, staying in the shadow and hiding behind bushes wherever possible. Arriving below the Sultan's bedroom, she darted across and began climbing.
She had reached about half way up when behind her she heard a sound, a click and then a swoosh, as if something was moving through the air towards her. Realising what it meant, that her life now faced its end, she released her claws from the wall and dropped down to the floor.