A Darkness Past Midnight (The Merlin Protocol, Book 1)

By M. E. Mendrygal

Sci-Fi, Fantasy

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647
7 mins

"A Darkness Past Midnight" (TMPv1.1)

Pressed by Channel winds, a fog bank mounted the hillside to grapple with dervish columns of hot black smoke. Tangled air surged this way and that, neither giving nor expecting quarter; then a sudden gust separated the combatants and revealed contested ground: the broken and smoldering remains of Falmouth Castle.

From its hilltop perch the massive fortress had dominated the southern coast of Cornwall for more than seven hundred years. An array of crenellated gun towers presenting thick shoulders and a truculent chin to any seaward approach, the “Bulldog of the Coast” had welcomed Britain’s friends and repelled its enemies, safeguarding in turn kingdom, nation, empire and republic. Yet, within the past twenty-four hours, someone or something had accomplished what centuries of war and weather could not—the citadel was in ruins.

A ferocious attack had reduced mighty Falmouth to a sandcastle—one leveled by some monstrous beachcomber eager to preempt inevitable tides. Immense structures of stone and steel had been cracked and melted, chopped and tossed. Outer walls thirty-feet thick hadn’t simply toppled, but had exploded from within like lightning-struck trees. The huge metal alloy main gates had vanished beneath the fall of two great towers that flanked the causeway. Completing the epic devastation, incendiary energies had spawned firestorms that consumed the castle and its grounds, as well as everyone and everything inside them.

* * *

Visible now and then amid the desolation, a billowing of black fabric: a solitary figure in a hooded cloak was weaving a path through the rubble. Stature and carriage suggested an adult male; confirming the read, the hands that emerged from the drapes of dark cloth and threw back the cowled hood were broad and strong.

Steven Rayne, a black woolen beret riding his mane of auburn hair, calmly scanned the scene around him. The cool reserve concealed inner bedlam; the fractious voices of an oft-troubled mind were berating him with a rare unanimity: What the fuck happened here? What could have done all this?

Instead of the answers he (and his voices) sought, there was only the toxic stew of smoke, fog and wind-borne ash that singed his nose and bit his throat. Squinting shielded his eyes some from the air’s sting, but didn’t spare them from the horrific scene. This is bad, he thought. Very, very bad.

An inch north of six feet and a solid two hundred pounds, Steven had passed his fortieth birthday, without notice or celebration, almost two years ago. His hair showed some gray at the temples; his beard was a half-inch of copper-brown bristle, brushed with steel at the jowls. But as the cliché would have it, “He was in the best shape of his life.” War’s crucible had made it true . . . so long as one didn’t examine too closely its deleterious effects on his mental history.

Lacking a visible scythe, the modern Grim Reaper was dressed entirely in black. Part costume, part camouflage, the color suited Steven’s prevailing moods. At the moment, however, he was filled with their emotional inverse: a white-hot rage that was burning brighter, on a steep exponential curve.

Since he had an image to maintain, Steven made an effort to rein in his emotions. Despite the uneven light, uncertain ground, and constant threat of ambush, he wanted to appear relaxed and confident—a man in complete command of himself and the situation. It was getting harder to do every day, but once again he succeeded.

Now, his body language, loudly and without question, would inform whoever was watching (and someone was always watching), “Stand back. Here’s a man with limitless reserves of confidence and power. You do NOT want to fuck with him!” Since Steven actually did possess those things—in abundance—it was not a pose, it was fair warning.

His stalwart posture notwithstanding, what he saw when he turned the corner of one wrecked building nearly brought Steven to his knees. In an instant, bright fury was eclipsed by stygian darkness: memorializing a child’s flight through yesterday’s holocaust, a tiny handprint had been scorched onto the base of a broken brick wall.

Steven tugged off his beret and crouched to get a closer look. Frequent visitor to Falmouth in recent years, Steven felt a sudden dread that the hand that made the print might belong to a familiar face—a child he might know by name. With luck the youth had only stumbled briefly, during a flight to eventual safety. Perhaps a family member or friend had lifted the child away from danger then, and even now held it close and warded it from harm?

Without luck—by far the greater likelihood—he or she had risen and moved on, only to succumb elsewhere on Falmouth’s scarred ground. Steven’s mind didn’t let him stop there: the worst of all possible outcomes would have the child captured and carried off by the attackers. Surrounded by the evidence of their cruel and wanton destruction, he knew there were fates worse than death.

The grim prospects weighed on him, squeezing his lips to a bloodless cut. Now, it wasn’t only the fumes that caused his eyes to water, his throat to constrict. It was the unrelenting sameness of it all. This child’s life, indeed all the lives lost here, had joined an endless caravan of death—war’s mind-bending horrors scrolling everywhere to infinity. Welling grief made Steven’s head spin. He felt gutted—as if his entrails were being pulled from his body to decorate Falmouth’s smoking debris.

I can’t believe this is happening again!

Steven’s mind was struggling to find meaning in what he saw around him. The loss of the castle and its inhabitants was a calamity on so many levels, it was almost incomprehensible. An invaluable ally and thousands of his people had been wiped out by as yet unknown forces, as powerful as they were malignant. Compounding the horror was his growing conviction that New Britain’s last, best hope for peace had perished here as well.

Geoff Whitcomb—Steven’s closest (only) friend and strongest (only) supporter among the Directors—his family and friends, and all those under his protection, had either been taken captive, or struck from the face of the Earth. Shockingly, mighty Falmouth Castle—with its turreted long guns and armor-clad walls and battlements—had been no match for whatever did the striking.

“What could do all this?” he snarled again, adding, “And why didn’t I hear about it?”

At least part of the mystery posed by the destruction hinged on the technology that had been deployed to prevent it. As was the case with many castles that survived The War, only to be pressed into service for the rich and powerful, Falmouth’s outer walls had been reinforced with a state-of-the-art poly-ceramic armor. Able to defeat antipersonnel munitions and light artillery rounds, the high-tech cladding also could absorb and diffuse the shaped charges typical of armor-piercing ordnance. It was an expensive but popular option, because it turned fading palaces into impregnable modern fortresses.

The armor was a binary system. Exotic polymer compounds were mixed, poured into molds and dry-cured. The resulting nano-foam blocks were infused with ceramic doping agents and affixed to a structure’s exterior-facing surfaces. In the final step the armor was baked by huge heat-lamp arrays, often for weeks at a stretch. Further hardened by every day under the sun, Falmouth’s walls and ramparts should have been durable enough to withstand almost any conceivable assault. Demonstrably they were not.

Bewilderment increased his frustration, and Steven had to battle an overwhelming urge to pace. What happened here made no sense. He suddenly looked up and screamed, “Holy Fucking Hell!” Then, taking a deep breath, he said quietly, “Okay, Merlin, think. Think! What the fuck did this?”

* * *

Whatever an observer might’ve gleaned from Steven’s carefully crafted public image, the spontaneous utterances were more telling. And more significant than his crude phrasing was the fact that he addressed himself as Merlin.

Steven was not the first computer scientist to appropriate the name of the most famous mage in Western culture (and possibly the entire world) to use as a nickname or computer-user ID. He may not even have been the first to use it as a nom de guerre. Yet, the way he was talking to himself, the self-reference didn’t sound like ironic self-mockery; whispered by an apparently bifurcated (at the very least) personality, it sounded like a prayer.

* * *

Though Steven might well be varying degrees of mad, he was hardly a stranger to coherent thought or pristine logic. He was a scientist, and many of his questions—profane or not—represented at their cores the serious inquiries of a gifted, trained mind. Yet, for all the voices inside his head, none of them had any answers to this day’s puzzle. Fortunately, he had access to external resources.

Steven was carrying an instrument that might go a long way toward revealing what happened to Falmouth Castle. It also would allow him to share the terrible news with the other Directors. And should danger threaten him while he was out and about, it had the most remarkable array of offensive and defensive capabilities. Oh, and it could play a mean tune.

Lifting his face to the ashen sky, Steven figured it was getting on 1 p.m.; his chron refined the guesstimate to 13:04 and change. No time to waste. He finger-combed his hair and restored the beret to a rakish angle, then he shrugged open the folds of his cloak. With a compact flourish, he reached behind his back and drew out a crystalline flute.

Depths gleaming with an azure glow, it was a thing of remarkable beauty. Overall dimensions suggested a conventional clarinet, or perhaps a straight soprano sax, but quite plainly it was neither of those things. It was a decidedly unconventional braid of three spiral tubes, each seemingly fashioned from an enormous, translucent, gem-quality stone. Predominantly blue-green in color and fitted with silvery piezoelectric keys and valves, its body swelled to a jewel-faceted bulge, six inches above the bell.

As Steven held it up for inspection, the flute caught the yellow-gray light and turned it into glitter. At once oddly familiar and utterly alien, the instrument seemed to promise a sound spectrum endowed with the same extraordinary qualities. For the moment, that promise would remain unfulfilled; music was not what Steven had in mind.

Steven quickly keyed up a broad-spectrum sensor array. Among other things, the scans confirmed that ambient radioactivity was only marginally above background . . . which meant he could rule out nuclear weapons.

Of course, he’d already done that. Even the smallest tactical device would’ve generated enough xenon gas to trigger his sensors before he got within a hundred yards of this place. He was standing at ground zero; his telltales were silent. So unless someone planted conventional high explosives—actually, quite a lot of conventional explosives, beneath not just the central keep, but under every wall and tower—standard weapons systems (even nuclear ones) couldn’t explain what happened here.

So, what did happen?

Steven’s questions were chasing answers. He would gather what evidence he could and go from there. Propping his flute over his shoulder, he used its Reality Capture module to record video and other elements of the scene. He also provided a commentary track that was, given the circumstances, remarkably restrained in both tone and language. Thirty minutes at maximum resolution filled his Recap’s memory matrix. Continuing in ordinary UHD, he added a closing statement.

“Brothers and Sisters of New Britain’s most exalted Directorate, despite our many differences . . .” Steven paused for a long second, tacitly acknowledging the number and magnitude of those differences. “. . . I implore you, set aside your distrust of me. The destruction you witnessed has such dire implications, all our conflicts over race, religion, and countries of origin are trivial in comparison. All our conceits—personal, political, social—count for nothing.

“As Lord Whitcomb and his people have learned already, armor cladding couldn’t stop whatever weapons were used at Falmouth. Someone has changed the game drastically.

“So, I beg you, in two weeks time, at dawn on December twenty-first, join with me again in council at the great circle of Stonehenge. We must learn who’s responsible for this outrage. We must do everything we can to prevent it from happening again.”

With a sigh so deep and weary it seemed to begin in his bones, Steven ended his recording and re-hung the flute behind his right hip. After a last look at Falmouth, his eyes moist, pupils glimmering with soul-deep wounds, he pulled his cloak about him and exited the castle through a ragged breach in one of the apron walls.


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