V 13 - To Conquer the Throne, page 1
TO CONQUER THE THRONE
ATOM DOHERTY ASSOCIATES BOOK
Gabriella Nicks saw the flash of laser fire and heard screaming coming from outside her first-floor flat. She flung herself behind an overstuffed chair, scraping her knees as a standing lamp toppled to the hardwood floor, casting bizarre shadows about the room. As she crouched in fear, Gabriella smelled smoke and heard alarms ringing in the damp London night. She prayed that the police would hurry as a shadow fell across a casement. Someone was coming towards her door!
Scrambling across the carpet, she tried to get to the door before the intruder. She flung herself against the solid oak and fumbled with the latch, certain that she had left it unlocked. Her heart nearly burst when the pounding started a moment later. She looked around for a chair to
jam under the doorknob when she heard a familiar voice, muffled through the oaken portal.
“Gabby!” the voice shouted.
For a moment, she didn’t say anything. Heart pounding, her body pressed against the door, Gabriella thought she was hallucinating. No, it was Nigel. She would know his voice anywhere.
She tore the latch away and unlocked the door. Nigel Smythe-Walmsley, scion of one of the oldest families in Britain, sagged against her and fell inside onto the carpet.
Gabriella bent over his bloodied form, trying to help Nigel. He appeared to be both cut and burnt.
“Nigel, what’s happened to you?” she said.
“The door ...” Nigel flailed weakly towards the darkness beyond the threshold. A tendril of fog crept inside before Gabriella was able to slam the door shut with a resounding crack.
She hurried back to Nigel, cradling his head in her arms.
“I’m going to call a doctor,” she said.
“No!” Nigel gasped, his handsome, pale face distorted in agony. He clutched her wrist. “They’ll be able to trace me if you do that.”
Gabriella stared at his sweating, bruised face. She had assumed Nigel to be an innocent bystander up to now, just popping in to see her when this violence erupted on the street. Upon renting these rooms from a minor canon at St. Paul’s, she’d been told it was one of the quietest districts in London. Perhaps no neighborhood was safe now that the Visitors were here. But that sentiment didn’t explain Nigel’s predicament. If he was coming to see her, why hadn’t he rung her up beforehand?
“Nigel, are you ...” She couldn’t bring herself to finish, what with all the dangers implicit in what she was thinking.
“Yes, I’m in the resistance,” he told her quite simply.
She hugged him to her bosom. “Oh, Nigel, how could you get involved in something like that?” Hot tears welled up from under her eyelids and rolled down her cheeks.
“What choice did I have? Those frightful reptiles are destroying the land of my ancestors. England is no longer free, Gabriella.”
“I know, but it can’t last forever. There’s the Red Dust toxin.”
“Not good enough. England’s climate is mild enough for them to survive . . . and they’re developing methods to resist the toxin even as we speak.”
Nigel coughed up blood-flecked spittle. It occurred to Gabriella that he could die right here if she didn’t get him some help. She had to take him to a hospital. But she knew how stubborn he could be . . . stubborn enough to let himself die, she feared. Nevertheless, she must try to reason with him.
“We have got to get you to a physician,” she said firmly, “no matter what. You could die, Nigel.”
“We must all die, at some juncture.”
“Stop being so noble and philosophical, and cooperate with me.”
But Nigel’s head was lolling in such a way that she feared he couldn’t hear her at all anymore. “Nigel!” she cried.
He groaned, his eyes opening a little as he tried to look at her. He couldn’t seem to focus very well, but at least he was still alive.
At that moment, a knock sounded loudly on the door.
“Open up,” a hissing voice commanded. “Open up in the name of Her Majesty.”
“It’s the Visitors,” Nigel gasped. “They must have been searching the surrounding buildings all this time.”
“Well, they aren’t coming in here,” Gabriella said. “I’m an American, and I’m not subject to the laws of the Queen or the Visitors.”
“Out the back way, Gabby,” Nigel said. “They probably don’t know about the courtyard.” “Have you taken leave of your senses, Nigel? I can’t leave you here alone, with those creatures swarming around outside.”
“You must. There is no sense in both of us dying. I can’t escape, Gabby. You can get away to carry on the fight for both of us.”
She started to protest, but a flash of blue laser fire and the smell of burnt oak silenced her. The
Visitors were going to come in, one way or another.
Nigel was still now, and she looked into his eyes. She saw no recognition there; nor was there any fear. There was nothing at all. Nigel was dead, but she couldn’t quite believe it. Perhaps if she said the right thing, or kissed Mm . . .
But there was no time. A cobalt beam slashed through the door and cut a vase in half on a table across the room. They would be inside in seconds.
“Good-bye, Nigel,” she said, kissing him gently on the lips. She laid his head carefully on the floor and rose, not looking back. She heard the big oaken front door crash onto the floor as she slipped out the back and hurried away from her beleaguered apartment on Amen Court and into the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
In a small room on the grounds of Davies, Lang and Dick, Gabriella Nicks sat drinking a cup of tea. She had made her way in the fog along Tottenham Court Road to the tube. Then she rode the train all night long, fearing the crimson-clad Visitors who got on and off at virtually every stop. She thought their human disguises were even more disturbing than their scaly, green faces, and they invariably wore them when in London. At dawn she got off at Holland Park Station and made her way to a restaurant for breakfast and then walked to the “crammer,” as Davies, Lang and Dick was known.
Her friend Robert Walters had arrived a little before eight, and she had spirited him away from his classroom to tell him what had happened.
“Gabby, this is terrible,” Robert said. “Absolutely dreadful. Are you sure Nigel’s dead?” “I’m absolutely certain, Robert.” Tears sprang to her eyes at the memory. In a way it hardly seemed real, and yet there was no doubt that it had happened.
“There, there, darling,” Robert said, producing a handkerchief. “I’m awfully sorry.” Through her tears, Gabriella said, “I’m more than sorry, Robert. I’m angry as hell, and I’m not going to let them get away with it.”
“Spoken like the spunky American girl you are, my dear.”
In spite of her grief, Gabriella managed to smile a little. “I suppose I do sound a little like John Wayne, don’t I?”
“A little. More tea?”
“No, I’ve got to admit I really don’t care for the stuff. Have you got any root beer?”
“Root beer? I’m afraid the only alcoholic beverage I have is a bit of sherry.”
“Root beer isn’t alcoholic, Robert. It’s a soft drink, like cola.”
“Really? Odd that it’s called beer, then.” “Well, you have cider with alcohol in it.” “Doesn’t everyone?”
“Not in the good old U. S. of A. It’s more of a fruit juice, unfermented.”
Gabriella wondered how she could be chatting about trivialities after what had happened last night, but she found some solace in such light conversation.
“Yes, Gabby.” His long face was attentive as he leaned across the table towards her.
“What do you know about the resistance?” Robert glanced at her in surprise. Then he turned towards the window, facing out onto the drab commons of the school. “It’s against the law to have anything to do with the resistance, you know.”
“Oh, really?” Gabriella asked dryly. “I wonder why.”
“The government says it’s because of terrorist acts. I suppose that’s as good an explanation as any.”
“Come now, Robert, surely you don’t believe that nonsense.”
He shrugged. “Perhaps not . . . though there is some evidence to support such a position.” “People are fighting for their lives, their freedom, the future of their country and the world,” Gabriella shouted, her voice rising in passion. “Surely you can see that.”
Robert turned and stared at her with his piercing green eyes. “I daresay you didn’t see it until last night, Gabby. After the awful thing that’s happened to Nigel, you’ve suddenly become a
“Well, you know how Americans are, rabble-rousers one and all.”
“Gabby,” Robert said earnestly, “let’s not discuss politics just now. You’re terribly distraught, and I’m having some difficulty accepting what’s happened. Why don’t you rest here on the sofa, and I’ll be back in a little bit, after I’ve seen to my students. Does that suit you?”
“I really haven’t got anyplace else to go, have I?”
Robert smiled at her. “You know you’re always welcome here, Gabby, even if you do mouth radical slogans.”
Gabriella set her half-full cup and saucer down on the table and retired to the sofa in a comer of the room.
“I’ll get you a blanket,” Robert said.
Gabriella sat on the sofa as he left the room. She considered lying down and then thought better of it. She wanted to trust Robert, but something in the way he spoke of revolutionaries and radicals disturbed her. He didn’t seem entirely serious, and yet. . .
No, she was being silly. What she had witnessed last night had unnerved her, and she had hardly slept at all in the tube, what with the rattling of the train and her fear of being spotted by the Visitors. She had little money in her purse, so she couldn’t very well go wandering about London indefinitely; there was that to consider, too. Still, she really didn’t know Robert that well. He had been Nigel’s housemate, and was consequently one of the few people Gabriella could turn to in London. She had heard stories about “conversion,” a method of brainwashing that the Visitors used on their prisoners. Officially, there was no such process at all, of course, but the rumors were persistent.
She remembered that Robert had gone on holiday a few weeks ago—to France, he had said. He had tried to persuade Nigel and her to go with him but they were too busy. Nigel had remarked later that Robert had been very odd since his return. France often had that effect on people, she had told him, thinking that it was his imagination.
Now she wasn’t so sure.
Gabriella rose and went to the door. She quietly opened it and looked out into the empty corridor. Satisfied that she would not be seen, she tiptoed out of Robert’s office and made her way towards the building’s entrance. She hadn’t reached the end of the corridor before she heard Robert’s echoing voice coming from round the comer.
“She’s in my office,” he was saying. “Just down here a few doors.”
Gabriella shrank into an alcove. There was a door behind her and she slipped into a tiny broom closet an instant before Robert passed with four Visitors in red uniforms, their laser pistols drawn and at the ready.
Along Shaftesbury Avenue, in London’s West End, there are many theaters, and Shree Subhash made a habit of attending a play at one of them every Wednesday. Today, he was to see a farce by a noted British playwright. It was a very popular play, and he had waited quite some time for Ms tickets. Nevertheless, he had his reservations about seeing this particular play, since he was serious by nature. It was precisely this that made his Mends believe a bit of levity might do him good on occasion.
He had an extra ticket because he had planned to take his friend Jamella with him. At the last minute, she had phoned to say she wouldn’t be able to go. He had been disappointed, and his efforts to find someone else to go with him had come to naught. Perhaps the theater management would give him his
money back if he explained what had happened. If not, he would give the ticket away before going in to see the play.
While queuing up, he noticed a young, blonde woman, looking terribly furtive and alone. That was understandable, what with these reptilian invaders occupying the city. Even now he could see the curve of the alien Mother Ship over the chimney of a permanent assurance building. Such a sight was difficult to avoid in London these days. The woman looked down at the pavement, away from the enormous spacecraft. She was walking along Shaftesbury Avenue towards him. Subhash found her very attractive, and something in her manner moved him. When she was near enough to hear him, he spoke softly to her.
“Miss, I do not mean to be forward,” he said, “but I have an extra ticket to this performance. I would hate for it to go to waste. Would you accept it, please?”
For a moment, she didn’t seem to realize he was speaking to her. She glanced over her shoulder, as if to see if anyone else might be the addressee. Seeing no one, she looked into Shree Subhash’s face and smiled.
“Why, that’s very kind of you,” she said in a distinctly American accent. “I haven’t been to the theater in a long time.”
Charmed by the way she spoke, he gestured for her to join him in the queue. “I am honored,” he said, “to accompany such a lovely young lady. My name is Shree Subhash.”
Again, she smiled. “You’re really very kind. My name is Gabriella Nicks.” She grasped his hand and shook it. “Are you from London?” “Oh, yes—bom and raised in this great city. My parents were from India, however. Bhaktipore. You, I believe, are from America?” “Yes, Philadelphia. Have you ever been there?”
“No, but I hope to . .
Something in the young woman’s face changed. She seemed to look right through him at something behind his back. He glanced over his shoulder to see what it was.
A skyfighter, its bird-of-prey prow pointed in their direction, was floating over Shaftesbury Avenue. It moved slowly, as if looking for someone. Perhaps, thought Subhash, it was this very girl for whom they searched.
“It’s very frightening,” he said.
She shrank against him, and he put his arm around her protectively. He noted the nervous reactions of other people in the queue and on the sidewalk.
“You are not the only one who fears them,” he said.
“You don’t understand . . . the Visitors killed my fianc6. It was monstrous. They murdered him right in front of my flat.” She looked up into his eyes, perhaps fearing that she had made a mistake in telling so much to a stranger. He must try to reassure her.
“My dear girl, how terrible for you,” said Subhash. He squeezed her shoulder. “You have been fleeing from them ever since?”
Their conversation was interrupted as the queue began to move. In a few moments they were inside the theater. Subhash purchased a glass of wine for her in the lobby, and she gratefully accepted.
“Shall we go in?” he suggested.
“Of course.” She downed the wine and went with him into the theater auditorium. “For the past sixteen hours, I’ve gone from one end of London to another and back again. A man I thought I could trust betrayed me. Come to think of it, he may have betrayed Nigel, too.” “They have their ways, these Visitors. Perhaps he could not help himself.”
Gabriella sat down in the fourteenth row, Subhash taking his sea
“There are, however,” he said, “those who are working to restore autonomy to humankind.” “But there are so many who believe the propaganda,” Gabriella said. “I was one of them myself until last night.”
“It is often true that people do not understand the suffering of others until they have suffered themselves.”
At that moment the lights went down and the curtain rose. A few minutes into the first act, Subhash began to think of the play as little more than an American television situation comedy done up for the stage. He wondered if Miss Nicks would take it amiss if he said as much. He had never cared much for such silly entertainments, and he wondered why he had bothered to buy tickets for this one. Oh, yes, to please his friends who thought he was too somber . . .
Suddenly the house lights came up, the actors looking as puzzled as the audience by the unexpected brightness. Responding to offstage instructions, apparently, they left the stage. An announcer emerged from the wings and urged everyone to remain in their seats.
The doors to the lobby flew open a few seconds after the announcer finished speaking. A complement of fully armed Visitors marched down the aisles, flashing a strange orange light at the frightened spectators.
“Oh, God, they’re looking for me!” Gabriella said.
“Calm yourself,” Subhash told her. “There are many who flee the Visitors. You are not the only one.”
The orange light flickered in the row just behind them. Subhash sensed that Gabriella wanted to jump out of her seat and run, but it would do her no good. There were dozens of Visitors, all with laser pistols. Nobody would get past them unless they permitted it.
The orange Sight crept down the row of seats towards them. It touched Subhash’s hand and crept up Ms arm towards Ms face. It provoked a numbing sensation as it washed over him, but then it passed, leaving him a bit lethargic but none the worse for the experience.
As the light stole over Gabriella, it changed its tint, subtly drained of yellow until it was a crimson glow to match the Visitors’ uniforms. The Visitor holding the pencil-sized device rasped smugly.