After a series of world wars brought the planet to the brink of collapse, the last man standing was the Neo-Communist regime of the United Kingdom. When the small island nation was all but wiped from the face of the earth during the third world war, many dismissed it as weak and unable to compete, a perspective the UK used to its great advantage in World War IV. Soon enough, all the remaining nations of the world, including the United States, China, and Brazil, were forced to submit to Britain’s rule.
The Royal Empire soon established a set of world-wide rules designed to uphold the status quo. They banned books, removed local authorities, eradicated entire religions. Countless villages rebelled, and countless more were razed to the ground. Small pockets of resistance sprouted, some of whom remained active throughout the Empire’s rule, and one of whom was even credited with bringing it down.
This most famous resistance group had been in existence since the very beginning of The Royal Empire, and was headed by a mild mannered young man who preferred reading rooms to war rooms and books to missile launchers. Jonathan Little rumored to be immortal. Those at the highest levels of his Underground Library spoke of a gentle and tailored young man who didn’t age.
The King’s Agents had a special division tasked with searching out and destroying Jonathan’s upstart information underground. The papers were filled with government-authorized tales of how the Library Division had managed to root out another branch of the UL, as it was called, but they never managed to catch up with Jonathan himself, a situation which only added to his mystique. As the years passed, he took on a sort of folk aura, and the public began using what little power they still possessed to help him and his librarians evade The King’s Agents.
One such librarian was Lydia Wausau. Before the wars, her family had owned a massive paper company, supplying the world with every kind of paper it needed, from newsprint to photo paper, from generic printing paper to specialty stationary, but the new Royal Empire had ruined that. In a generation, the Wausau family had gone from international business standard to beggars. Although Lydia had been born after World War III, she had heard enough stories to know what the powers that be had done to her family, and she took pleasure in doing everything she could to thwart them, including opening her own branch of The Underground Library. Her particular collection, not surprisingly, specialized on books about paper, and she had some of the most venerated texts on paper producing in the world. At the moment, however, she wasn’t concerned about that. Someone had burst through her front door, and he didn’t look like he wanted to hand out pamphlets.
What he looked, in fact, was innocent. His long hair was two tones, the top half a rich brown and the bottom a light wheat color, and his immaculately tailored pin stripe suit showed barely a wrinkle. If not for the wild look on his face, he might be mistaken for a shoe salesman.
“Where’s your library?” he demanded.
“Please, I’m not here to harm you, I’m trying to elude some Agents. Now, I know you have a Branch, where is it?”
“How do you know-“
“Where is it, woman?” he shouted.
Raising an eyebrow, Lydia pointed towards a room filled with books. This was her sanctioned library, the one she showed to government inspectors.
A car door slammed somewhere beyond the door, and Jonathan ducked into the library. Lydia stepped forward to the peephole in her door and spied a late model black sedan and two men in jet black suits striding towards her door.
“The People’s Guide to Citizenship,” she said into the next room. Pull it out, slip it back in and get out of the way.”
A few seconds passed and a metallic shunk filled the room. Lydia joined Jonathan just as the spikes were melting away back into the wall and the bookcase was coming away from the wall.
“That was nice,” Jonathan said over the Agents’ knocks.
“Keeps looters away,” Lydia said.
They both descended a staircase that led to a heavy metal door. Lydia put her finger in a small hole in the center the door, where a blood sample was taken and her DNA analyzed. A few green lights blinked on the door to signify a match, and the door began to swing open. Above them, the bookcase sealed shut just as the Agents burst through Lydia’s front door.
The two of them stepped through the door into a musty smelling vault. Lydia flicked a switch and the room filled with light, revealing stacks upon stacks of books and a small desk with a green-shaded lamp on it. Jonathan wandered forward into the room, taking slow steps as if in a trance.
“Amazing, huh,” Lydia said. “We’ve been getting pretty good business lately, too. You wouldn’t think many people would care to know about making paper anymore, especially on an industrial scale, but I guess there’ll always be people interested in breaking the law…” She shrugged.
Jonathan shook his head. “We found a couple of storerooms full of new books about three months ago,” he said. “We’ve got a few publishers in the ranks, but not enough to produce on a practical scale. Offers of help are pouring in. Everybody wants to learn.”
Jonathan turned suddenly and eyed the door. “How secure is that?” he asked.
“Secure enough,” Lydia answered. “Who are you?”
“Did you ever get the new model installed or is that still the 1500?”
She narrowed her eyes. “No, it’s the 1700. Plus a few of my own mods. They won’t be getting through any time soon. Now who are you?”
He still didn’t answer her, instead turning back to the stacks. “But they will get through it,” he said. “I have to get out of here, to lead them away if for nothing else. Do you have a back exit?”
When Lydia gave no answer, Jonathan sighed and headed into the stacks alone.
Behind Lydia, the door beeped, and then there was a soft metallic shunk noise and some even softer gargled screams.
“They’re not going to get through,” she called to him.
“They’re more persistent than you give them credit for,” he called back.
“This library can survive a nuclear bomb,” she said, heading into the stacks after him.
“They don’t need bombs,” he said. “Just persistency and an unlimited budget.”
Lydia didn’t answer this time, instead creeping around the library until she found him, running his fingers lovingly over a particularly old tome open in his hands. “Who are you?” she demanded, coming around the corner to startle him.
He jumped slightly and slid the book back on the shelf like a child caught reading his sister’s diary. The two of them stared at each other for a moment before he spoke. “None of your business. Where’s the back door?”
Before Lydia could repeat her question, an urgent series of beeps erupted from the vault door. Her eyes flew open and the both of them raced back to the entrance.
“Shit!” Lydia muttered. The King’s Agents had somehow managed to breech the tunnel leading to the library. “Who the hell-“
“Where’s that exit?”
With a growl, Lydia turned from the vault entrance and led Jonathan to a spot along the back wall. The door was marked RESTROOM, which indeed it did turn out to be. The window on the far wall, however, turned out to be more than first imagined, as Lydia was easily able to lift it up, revealing what looked like a safe door, complete with number dial. She whipped the dial around once, twice, three times, and swung the door inward. “After you,” she said, motioning Jonathan through first.
With one last glace over his shoulder, Jonathan climbed into the tuned and started crawling. Lydia came after him, slamming the door shut behind her and pushing a few buttons on the wall beside it. The two of them crawled for a solid twenty minutes before reaching a ladder, which in turn let them out about a mile from Lydia’s house. Jonathan helped Lydia to the surface and then shook her hand.
“Thank you,” he said, a sad note in his voice. “And I’m sorry.”
“The library’ll seal itself off,” she said. “They won’t get the books.”
“I know.” He dug a card out of his jacket pocket, scribbled something on it, and handed it to her. “There’s a woman in the cafe at Fifth and Long. She’s got a red patchwork jacket on and she always wears black patent-leather boots. She can offer you some protection from the feds and maybe a new job in the Underground.”
He turned and started to leave, but Lydia followed close behind. “Mr. Director?” she whispered.
Jonathan stop and sighed. “No,” he lied.
“Jonathan Little,” Lydia insisted.
“Oh my God,” Lydia breathed.
Jonathan finally turned around. “Look, will you just go see Rebecca? She’ll be able to protect you.”
“I don’t want to.” Lydia’s eyes and grin were wide.
Jonathan, on the other hand, did not seem amused. “What?”
“I’m going to stay with you.”
“Aw, why not?”
“Because I don’t accept help,” Jonathan all but growled. “Now get yourself to Rebecca.”
Lydia’s mirth seemed undeterred. “Is that some kind of threat?”
Jonathan’s scowl was also undeterred, until he caught a glimpse of a black suit creeping around the corner, at which point he uttered a curse and grabbed Lydia’s wrist.
There was a shout from behind them, followed by a burst of gunfire. Jonathan yanked Lydia to the ground and they crawled into an alley, where a cherry red vintage Porsche convertible was waiting.
“Is this your car?” Lydia said, amazed despite herself.
“Yes. Get in.” He leapt over the door into the front seat, and, barely waiting for Lydia to do the same, started the car by turning the key, slamming the gear shift into place, and stomping on both the clutch and the accelerator simultaneously.
The car leapt to life and nearly flew out of the alley. Jonathan took the corner at speed and kept going, miraculously avoiding both pedestrians and other motorists.
After she’d managed to steady her nerves a bit, Lydia hesitantly turned to look behind them. Another black sedan had appeared to join the first in pursuit of them.
“Keep your head down,” Jonathan said.
She obeyed, turning forward again. Catching sight of the steering wheel, she frowned. The ignition was on the wrong side. “What the hell kind of car is this anyway?”
“A racing model,” Jonathan answered, giving her a sidelong glance. “It’s my favorite one, too, so let’s try not to have an accident on it, huh?”
Lydia’s ire returned with ease. “I’m not a child.”
“Good,” Jonathan interrupted her tirade. He twirled the steering wheel around to avoid an oncoming vehicle and barely succeeded. “You know how to shoot?” he asked his passenger.
“In theory,” she answered warily.
“Time for testing,” he said. “In the glove box.”
Lydia touched the release on the glove box as if it were covered in slime, and was rewarded with a small, black handgun.
Jonathan reached over to flick the safety off. “Try for their tires.”
“I can’t aim!” Lydia protested. She would have protested further, too, except for the burst of what sounded like firecrackers and the bullet that lodged itself in the side mirror next to her. “Time for testing.”
She turned and aimed as best she could with Jonathan still weaving in and out of traffic. A though occurred to her, and she asked, “What if I hit a pedestrian?” Most people had decided to get off of the road, but there were still a few innocent bystanders left around.
Jonathan didn’t answer at first, and she thought she heard the slightest sigh from him. “Just,” he said, his voice much gentler now, “aim the best you can. Don’t worry about it.”
She raised an eyebrow and gave a sigh of her own, but as another burst of gunfire got dangerously close to her head, she decided he was right. She took a few shots, but didn’t hit anything.
Her opponents took their own shots, and Jonathan’s rearview mirror shattered, sending shards of glass all over the front seats. Jonathan swore again, and he put a hand to Lydia’s back. “Hold tight.”
She did as she was told, and the car took a swift turn, peeling out and turning a complete one-eighty. Jonathan stomped on the gas pedal, and they whizzed right past both sedans. The larger cars, built more for surveillance than pursuit, couldn’t make the same turn, and were forced to watch in frustration as Jonathan took a quick right, leaving them to their self-made traffic snarl.
Jonathan and Lydia were both still breathing hard when they came to a stop ten or twelve blocks from where they had left their pursuers. Jonathan sank down in his seat, his eyes closed and his head back. He ran his hands through his hair with a wince. “Glass everywhere,” he moaned. “My car’s a wreck. Are you okay?” he asked, turning to Lydia.
“Where the hell did you learn how to drive like that?”
Jonathan let out a small, near hysterical laugh. “It comes in handy more than I’d care for it to, really. Come on, let’s clean off this glass and go find Rebecca.”
This time, Lydia didn’t argue, instead stepping out of the car and helping him brush off the seats. After a few moments, she said, “You really are The Director then.”
Jonathan nodded. “Yeah.”
“Oh man,” Lydia said, her easy grin showing itself again. “To tell you the truth, I kind of didn’t believe you existed.”
Jonathan raised an eyebrow at her.
“Is it true you never age?” she asked.
“Yes,” was the answer.
She stopped fussing at the seat and stood up. “What?”
Jonathan moved on the back seat, picking up a few spent shells and prying a few bullets from the back of the seat.
“Yes,” he said again. He pocketed the bullets and took the driver’s seat again. “Let’s go.”
Lydia sat down and studied him in silence. He seemed sure of himself, and his words certainly gave every indication of an attitude problem, but just for a second there when he said yes, she’d been struck by the sadness on his face. It was if that one word aged him a hundred years.
“Stop staring at me,” he said.
She startled. “Sorry.” She turned to watch the street fly past. Rumor had it that The Director was well over two hundred years old, and some even said that he had strange powers. She had always dismissed them out of hand as the ramblings of over-stressed librarians who needed to get out more, but now she wasn’t so sure.
“So how old are you?” she asked at length.
“I don’t know. There wasn’t much point to counting after a while.”
“The Iranians tested something on Boston in World War III. Something biological. I used to live there.”
“I thought Boston was completely destroyed.”
“Will you just keep an eye out for black sedans please?”
Jonathan continued to drive aimlessly around the city for hours. He needed to be sure no one was following them, even if only temporarily. At length, he pulled over.
“Your stop,” he said to Lydia.
She only stared at him. “What?”
“Go to that address I gave you. Rebecca will protect you. She’s a reporter, she’s got contacts.”
“What about you?”
“I’ve got things to do,” Jonathan said.
Lydia gave him once last look over, but eventually sighed and stepped out of the car. “Alright,” she said. “Thank you. Take care of yourself.”
He nodded. “You too. Tell Rebecca I said hi.”
With that, he started off again. He hadn’t gotten halfway towards the next intersection, however, when a flash of movement in his sole remaining side mirror caught his eye. He slammed on the breaks and whipped his body around just in time to see a pair of black suits approach and shoot Lydia.
A half choked “No!” slipped from his throat and was joined by shouts from the few people on the street. Normal citizens, however, knew enough to leave The King’s Agents to their jobs without question, and no one moved to alert the authorities.
One of the suits spoke into a device attached to his sleeve cuff while the other began searching Lydia’s body. As Jonathan watched, this second suit found the card he’d given her. Jonathan’s stomach sank through to the pavement. Without another thought, he put the car in gear and took off as fast as he could, not caring if the suits saw him or not. He had to make it to Rebecca.
He used the same technique getting there as he had eluding the suits earlier that day. Swerve and pray. He knew there were Agents everywhere, and that the cafe where Rebecca normally spent her days was likely to be crawling with them. He tried not to think about how probable it was that they had already arrested her, and concentrated on making his little car go as fast as it could.
He blasted on the horn and tore down the street, taking corners at speeds more likely to be found on the Autobahn of the twenty-first century than the modern urban thoroughfare of the twenty-third, but the Porsche had been built just for such circumstances and it performed admirably.
Just more than three minutes after he’d witnessed Lydia gunned down in front of him, he screeched to a halt in front of the cafe and jumped out of the car. He burst through the glass doors, shouting. “Rebecca!”
A woman who didn’t look much older than Jonathan was already on her feet at a booth against the far wall. “I’m coming. Get in the car.”
Jonathan didn’t move. He waited the two seconds while she threw her bag over her shoulder and the two of them raced back to the car together. He peeled out again just as a fleet of black sedans turned the corner behind him.
Rebecca didn’t waste any time in fishing a semi-automatic handgun out of her bag and putting it to good use. She disabled three sedans right in a row before ducking behind the seat as a flurry of shots flew over the car.
Jonathan took them around blind corners, one, two, three, in quick succession, hoping to lose them, but there were simply too many of them. Rebecca took out two more sedans and turned around in the seat.
“Take that third left,” she said, taking a small metal sphere from her bag. “And be ready to run.”
Jonathan did as he was told, taking the turn at top speed as usual. He turned into a short alleyway, the end of which had been bricked up. He slammed on the breaks, but it wasn’t going to be enough.
“Jump!” Rebecca ordered, and they both did at once, rolling away from the car just as it crashed into the brick, sending the front seats into the trunk.
“This way!” Rebecca barked out another order, shoving Jonathan through a door and into a pitch black room. Once inside, she found his wrist and pulled him after her up a flight of stairs and across another dark room.
They climbed three more stories this way, Jonathan’s eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness. They were in a disused factory, broken machinery strewn about the place and sharp implements hanging from the ceiling.
At last, Rebecca led him to one end of the building and told him to wait. She went to peek out a window at the other end of the room and then came back. “Come here,” she said, tucking the both of them down behind one of the larger machines. She had a squeeze trigger in her hand, and all at once Jonathan understood. She’d set a bomb in the car. His face paled, but he didn’t say anything, instead just hunkering down as best he could and covering his ears. He felt her put her arm around him and then…
“In other news, a massive explosion wracked Birminghamshire this afternoon. King’s Agents said at a press conference this afternoon that the incident was still under investigation, but that it was likely an accident caused by the poor state of the many factories in the area.”
Jonathan, from his place on a hotel bed, hit the power button and threw the remote across at the TV.
The door opened and Rebecca came in, holding a tray of sandwiches and crackers. She set it down on the bed next to him and started in on her own lunch. “Come on,” she said, her mouth full, “you’ve got to eat something.”
Jonathan gave a heavy sigh and pulled a cracker from the tray. He ate it slowly and then flopped backwards onto the bed. “Are you okay?” he said at last.
Rebecca eyed him suspiciously. “Have you ever asked me that before?” she said.
He turned his head to look at her, but didn’t answer.
“Then don’t start now,” she said. “Eat up. We need to get going.”
Staunchly stiffening his upper lip, Jonathan took another sandwich. She was right. They had to find another safehouse, find out what kind of damage had been done to Lydia’s library and what options they had for retrieval. And Jonathan Little was going to have to disappear. Jonathan Wausau had things to do.