Deja vu, the sensation that one has seen this fate before. What would you do with that knowledge of the future if you were able to capture a war criminal?
Blue eyes, quickly fading.
A lion, unmoving, teeth visible.
The smell of burning flesh, acrid.
The sense of an ending.
I woke with a start and grabbed my notebook. I had to get the dream down before it began to fade; I’d need to be prepped for when I’d need the memory.
The Victorians firmly believed that dreams were real, that God was sending them insight; later, people used to call that feeling of having experienced something before “deja vu”. It was around twenty years ago that we discovered that it wasn’t random – it was quantum. Turns out our brains entangle with themselves over time, in the deepest cells. For example, grief in the future manifests in our reactions to a song in the past, unbeknownst to our linear experience; we cry not quite knowing why, until we finally reach that point in our journey. We actually dream the future, our subconscious being the only part of our minds powerful enough to transcend the present; we don’t always understand it because the connections between the entangled neurons and our subconscious aren’t always fulsome.
Then, eventually, came people like me. People who felt it more often, whose minds naturally made those connections, and who could be trained in the present to remember how to exist within the subconscious – lucid dreaming – so that the future could send back specific messages. It took fifteen of the last twenty to nail the process, but it’s revolutionised crime fighting. Sadly, it’s also revolutionised crime.
Five years. That’s how long I’d been chasing this warlord across the breadth of the ES. Initially, I was allocated the case when I was on a training sabbatical in Kyiv; Europol Intelligence had unceremoniously cut it short and dragged me to Ingolstadt for a late night debrief and reallocation. After a brief combat training stint in Berlin and a very dark night with some very shadowy handlers in Madrid (as physical documentation was the surest way to information leakage), I was to travel to Lisbon, the transport hub for our pterocar fleet – and I was to pay close attention to my dreams. I’d done all the research, all the boot work – but nothing moved things on like a dream.
Scribbling down this particular sequence had that feeling of difference that comes with an entangled dream. It was… raw, less narrative. It had flashes of scenes, pieces of information, nuggets of coherence. I wrote it all down in as much detail as I could remember – we rarely got the same dream twice. Limited flashes they were, but one thing was clear as day in all of them: I’d sent myself a vision of a sculpted lion with a concave back. Immediately, I knew where he was hiding – but I needed to speak to someone more senior.
After a deep breath, I tapped out the digits on my palm and my handler’s holding avatar manifested in my line of sight. After a couple of moments, the avatar gently clicking its fingers to show it was attempting a connection, and in a voice obscured by algorithmic encryption, the avatar remaining instead of, as was the case with consumer communicators, transforming into the real face of the called, they answered gruffly: “Explain.”
“Entanglement. A vision, London, Trafalgar Square. Requesting permission to attend.”
“Please confirm – did you say London?”
“Certainty? Britannia remains mostly radioactive.”
“Ninety percent sure that it was the square around Nelson’s Column. I remember it from my childhood, before the War.”
“It’s not just a memory?”
“No; I saw us both there, in a glimpse, outside the old Portrait Gallery.”
Another extended silence.
“If you go there, there’s no coming back. Even if we could authorise the border crossing, you’d be dead from the exposure within a month.”
“I know. But I have to end him before he eradicates another city.”
“He’s been on the run for thirty years. If he’s in London now, he’s already decided his fate.”
I had to force the point home: “That doesn’t mean he can’t radicalise others before he melts. He has dirty bomb material all over the States. Do you want a Britannia distributed over the capitals? Or, worse, for him to radicalise enough right-wingers that they congregate in Strasbourg, all strapped up with micronukes, looking like tourists? Do you want to be responsible for a crater the size of Tycho at the heart of Europe?”
“Stand down. We understand the threat better than you do.”
Adrenaline coursed relentlessly; I breathed deeply, gulping at the air as if I was drowning, a fish out of water – and similarly both as desperate and incapable without help.
Finally: “Approved. Your pterocar will be ready in one hour. Do not be late and do not take anything with you that… that you’d want somebody to have.”
Just over an hour later, I was two and a half thousand meters above La Manche, returning to the home I’d known as a child, as its waters (significantly expanded since the meltings of the last few decades) grumpily waved up. The pterocar masked the sound of the sea beneath, but I could remember its fierce hiss; the boat we’d used to sail across to France hadn’t masked any sound at all.
“Illegal migration,” the cavernous voice of the boat’s owner, a huge man whose accent betrayed his Kentish roots but whose skin suggested a heritage from beyond Northern Europe, “is what the British Government would have called this a couple of decades ago, if we’d been making the same journey of refuge in the opposite direction, you know.” The other thirty-four occupants of the craft each looked at one another in turn, wondering who might, in the past, have agreed with this viewpoint. Nobody had admitted to it. Nobody had dared.
That boat had barely made it. The shockwave from the bombing had caused a destabilisation in the tectonics of the area; the sea had responded in turn, with rain that pierced skin and waves, tall and travelling like boulders, unlike anything that had been seen before in the channel. I’d watched half a dozen people go over the side, unable to find purchase in the violence of the storm; I’d watched children wail like banshees as the lands they knew, the families they’d once had, were abandoned, this terrible fate yet still less terrifying than that which would be met by staying behind as the once-clean air of our formerly-green-and-pleasant-land betrayed their lungs; I’d watched as the Captain of our cramped little craft had wept, not quite masked by the rain, as we’d approached the beaches of Dunkirk, his relief palpable amongst those of us who’d, at his hand, made it alive.
The next few years had been a blur. I’d been processed – which was as clinical as it sounds – into a refugee camp. The French had been more welcoming than anyone could have imagined, though; each person suffered a decontamination, a month of quarantine, and more vaccinations than our veins should have been reasonably expected to take – but, after that, we’d been offered homes. Initially, these were huge estates, like retirement villages, with staff to ensure we settled well; however, a few weeks later, I’d been introduced to a Parisian couple who had a spare room and wanted to help out – apparently, being fostered was a pretty normal experience for British refugees across the ES, regardless of their age. Thus, at an age more formative than anybody should have to endure, I’d moved into a delightful, quiet little apartment in Montmartre with Dieudonné and Mathéo, who, between them, brought me from the depths of despair to my graduation from Sorbonne Université. I will never forget the kindness they showed, particularly when I was at my… worst. Without them, I’d not have got my degrees, I’d not have considered a Government graduate scheme and been accepted onto the Refugee Reintegration Programme, and I’d never have, eventually, found myself in Kyiv, learning how to investigate and prosecute the worst kind of crime, only named after the Tsar Bombas fell on Birmingham, Luton, Newcastle, and Preston; when Europe realised these cities had been chosen for maximum fallout – the winds causing the irradiation of anywhere east of Shrewsbury, including most of the Baltic states (ostensibly for the ‘crime’ of wanting freedom from neocolonial oppression) – and the blasts had been planned just far enough away from London to leave it as an “edifice to the decadence of the West”, as the online video circulated afterwards informed us, they had decreed this as a ‘Treason, Against Humanity’. A crime considered greater even than genocide.
The pterocar descended into what had once been Covent Garden. The remains of the market had been looted long ago; I felt sorry for those who’d received that toxic kiss. The terminal dose of radiation they’d absorb for such an escapade must have seemed worth it to prevent alternative fatality.
At least I’d chosen this.
I put on the suit they’d given me at the launch site. Apparently, it might give me enough time to do this job and get to somewhere like Anglesey, where (at least) there was a fighting chance. It was looser than I wanted, but it was at least lined and sealed. The oxygen meter suggested at least twenty-four hours of functional use, so I could have a decent search.
Bathing me in yellow light, the pterocar responded very visually to its horror at my attempting to step outside in these circumstances. I had to enter the override code that had been hastily shoved into my hand on a scrap of paper by the handover team. They’d looked at me through anxious eyes, fully aware.
I stepped out.
The warmth hit me first.
My visor misted; I activated the automated systems using a quick voice command, which also birthed an augmented reality display. It helpfully pointed out that the level of radiation outside, in bold, red numbers – I gracefully, rapidly, swiped that number away.
Perhaps I’d survive this.
Perhaps that was wishful thinking.
I climbed over the crunching glass that had once been the ceiling of the market and made my way out into the open. A short walk took me down the rubble of the Strand, towards Trafalgar Square. The buildings, blown out by the initial explosion, remained upright but uninhabitable, the bricks pulsing waves into the air; The Savoy, Coutts, Charing Cross – memories of a once great nation, now purveyors of certain death..
I’d only been here once or twice before the bombing; my memory of the place wasn’t at all like the amber reality. I moved at speed, as I couldn’t bear to hang around. The bleak shadows were long enough to hide in; I couldn’t just walk up to his hideout, obviously, so instead I shifted furtively from one empty doorway to another, keeping an eye out for drones or any other such monitoring mechanism.
That feeling hit me hard as I reached the square itself. Nelson had been toppled, but the lions were there, resplendent, staring at me through dead eyes. I stared back at the closest one for a short while, taking in the furrowed brow and slightly extended tongue; it was as if it were attempting to breathe, as the population had.
“Magnificent, aren’t they? Cast from the ships of their enemies.”
From behind me, the voice had come, slightly muffled, whispering into my ear through the suit. I spun; he stood right there, too close for comfort, no suit, his repaired face ravaged by time, invading my space and smiling as if this were normal. I replied, as calmly as I could muster. “Vladimir.”
“Please, do call me Vovo. Here at the end, let us not stand on the pomp and circumstance and ceremony of the English as we stand upon their bones.”
“You… you…” I couldn’t catch my breath. “You murderer!” I screamed it at him. I couldn’t help it.
He smiled, victoriously. “Ah, my dear. Sadly, you are quite right. However, here, according to my dreams, is where we both complete our journeys, so the only person I’m planning on murdering today is myself. And you, you’ve sentenced yourself too.” He tipped his head to one side. “Why on earth would you do such a thing?”
“I cannot allow you to indoctrinate anybody else.”
“For sure, there is no chance of that. I’ve left my instructions elsewhere, my followers ready to do what is needed, my weapons are gone. I do not have any connections here, everybody is dead. There is no network. I came here to die, at the site of my greatest victory. What did you think you would achieve here?”
Time stopped. That feeling again – I knew precisely what I would say and do. I’d jotted it into my diary before embarking on all this.
“Nothing more than this.” I looked him dead in the eyes as I discharged the phase pistol, which had been concealed within the suit’s sleeve, into his chest, punching a hole right through his body and leaving a porthole to view, down what was once Whitehall, the distant and broken Elizabeth Tower, its peak and face shattered, the bell visible, glinting in the afternoon sun. His smile faded as he fell to the ground. “That’s for my parents.” Uncharacteristically, I spat on the still twitching corpse.
Back in the pterocar, I activated the seals and futilely pressed the decontamination cycle; it wasn’t rated for this level of radiation, but I figured that it might give me a few more weeks. I dialled in the coordinates for Anglesey and reclined into the seat as the car took off and sped away from the remains of London.
I pressed the button for HQ; my erstwhile handler picked up almost immediately. “How did it go?”
“Perfectly. It’s done.”
“And the remains?”
“You can martyr a corpse; you can’t martyr coal. Even if they somehow find him, they won’t be able to figure out it’s him. There’s no DNA left courtesy of the immolation, or a visual. I also removed the teeth, obviously.”
“We didn’t think this day would come. Well done.”
“He was ready to go. There wasn’t anybody here with him.”
“Surprising. We’d expected something of a contingent.”
“Me too – but, in fairness, I don’t recall dreaming of a crowd either. He said he’d left instructions elsewhere for others.”
“Leave it with us. You get off now; speak to your family.”
Abruptly, the line went dead. I was used to this sort of behaviour; Intelligence was not known for its soft serve. I took the advice (and the free use of the satphone) and called Didi and Mat. In that moment, I realised how much I was going to miss them. I’d left Britain with no parents; I’d come back leaving behind two perfect fathers. Unbidden, the tears cascaded and flowed relentlessly as we spoke, for the first time in a few weeks, and possibly the last. I didn’t say goodbye – I didn’t have the heart to say the words.
Anglesey is beautiful. It’s smaller than it once was, courtesy of the recent melts, but it is still mostly green. The pterocar registered, here, only a similar level of background radiation to Calais; before exiting the car, I practiced my routines, remembering over and again the day I’d experienced, forcing the necessary neurons to fire repeatedly, forging the connections, until I was certain this was the moment I’d cast those memories back. Then, I set up camp alongside the lighthouse by which I had landed. Whilst the Irish Sea lapped gently against, almost adjacent to the lighthouse, what was clearly new shoreline, I watched the sun set gently on the horizon.
There are worse places to lay oneself to rest. Soon, I’ll sleep. Perchance, to dream.
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