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Time passed, Armageddon never came and the project was mothballed. The lead scientist, now an old man, tells the stories to his grandson John who imagines Messiah as his robot companion. When John is fifteen, his grandfather dies and whispers to John; “find Messiah.”
The year is 2015 and John is thirty-five. War is again in the news. John decides to fulfill his grandfather’s last wish. His quest takes him to a village on the moors, where he finds Messiah just as war is breaking out. Using the secret code and key, he commands the robot to protect England and sets off to London, leaving Messiah to defend the country.
Along the way, John faces death several times and comes close to true love once. Finally the real reason for the war is revealed and his ultimate destiny plays out; he must use Messiah to save the world.
I looked at the tattered handwritten letter, the cursive script of another time. The words so precious and yet so secretive, it was all that remained of my family. I had sold my house in Bristol and disposed of all possessions. A loner for most of my life, I felt now somehow at peace with myself and at home here, on the moors, with only my solitary quest and my letter to guide me. All that I owned I carried.
Up the road was a village. Its local pub would be my source of information, for the simple map drawn on the back of the letter had no major landmarks, except for an old graveyard that I was sure would be well overgrown and abandoned. I was not far wrong it turned out, except for one grave that was kept by a woman who was said to be over a hundred years old. She lived in a small cottage at the end of a narrow lane.
I paid the innkeeper fourteen pounds for a nights stay. I planned to see the old woman first thing in the morning. Tonight I would dry my shoes and at the same time warm my feet by the fire in the cosy lounge of the pub. I made myself at home while I sipped at a glass of port and talked with the local few who worked the sheep farms in the area. Having spoken to some people about the village while hitchhiking my way here, I had an idea of the landscape and a vague plan of what to do. Of course, much was riding on the old woman and the location of the graveyard, if it was even the same one.
As I sat and pondered over the changes I had seen in my lifetime, it felt as though fate had led me here. The year is two thousand and fifteen and I am thirty-five years old. I have seen new technology, new governments and new nations formed. The British Nuclear Division has become a powerful governmental force in the military and has used creative marketing to cover up its focus of nuclear defence. "Briton on top again" slogans cover bumper stickers and bus stops everywhere. But with all of the change going on around the country and around the world,
I sit here in a place untouched by time, content, warm and thankful. I feel more at home and in my element than I ever have. I’m finally doing what my grandfather wanted me to do and I can feel his presence around me. I swear he sits beside me, pipe in hand, and will be my guide from this day on.
I suppose the threads of destiny have been woven from the beginning of time, mine started long before I was born. Just prior to World War II, a group of scientists and engineers formed a top secret company known only as M-CON. Its sole purpose was to build a post-apocalyptic rescue robot that would help an elite section of the population escape from hibernation after a nuclear war. M-CON stood for Messiah Control.
Messiah was made mostly of iron and steel. He stood twelve feet tall and weighed five tons. He moved with the aid of hydraulics and pneumatics and was powered by an atomic battery shielded with a lead casing six inches thick, located where the heart would reside if he were human, which his body loosely resembled. His brain was an intelligent analog computer, developed through years of research. The project was assigned the highest security rating: ULTRA TOP SECRET.
M-CON was funded by a secret division of the military. After World War II finally ended, its records were ordered to be sealed shut under the secrecy act and held for one hundred years. The only people that had access to the project during its operation were the M-CON team and General Ramsdan, a liaison between the military and the BND. It was General Ramsdan who came up with the idea of a machine/man that could free the men and women that might be trapped in a nuclear bunker and then be used to rebuild the world outside without fear of radiation. Messiah was to be sealed in a vacuum - tight sarcophagus. After an attack occurred and the atmosphere triggered a safe level of radiation on the attached Geiger counter, or the power switch in the bunker was activated, a signal would be sent to the robot, releasing it from its sleep state and alerting it to go into its rescue mode. Messiah was programmed to first awaken itself and then uncover the bunker.
General Ramsdan died mysteriously of a heart attack in his sleep in 1943. No one else was in a position to lead the project and so the team’s head scientist, Dr. Tom Drake, took over. He added a self preservation algorithm that would be triggered in the event the enemy was still in the neighbourhood, an element General Ramsdan found slightly unrealistic and somewhat critical of his position. Dr. Drake on the other hand was more concerned with the safety of his robot and therefore the safety of the group it was made to protect. First it would defend itself and then its creators and all humans with them.
The project was started in 1937 and continued through to 1951. Policies changed and history moved on. Nuclear war never happened and so the project was mothballed, leaving Messiah buried in a cavern somewhere under Dartmoor in South West England. All that remained was rumour and fear. Little was known of the project and everyone but Dr. Drake had passed away and only he was left to tell the story. Or so that’s how he explained it to me every time I went to see him in the old folk’s home that my Mother and Father had put him in.
I was twelve when he first told me the story. He swore me to secrecy and of course I agreed― secret handshake and all. By the time I was fifteen the story was like a part of history to me. The different stages of progress that the team went through, the failures and the victories, I could see it all happening right before my eyes. Then one day I was pulled out of class and brought to the Head Master’s office. There, I was offered a glass of warm milk and some scones. I refused, put off by the sympathetic looks I was receiving from the office staff. A little while later my dad came in and knelt beside me.
"Your Granddad is dying. He wants to see you."
With that I was taken to the home and to his bedside, his cold hand placed in mine and a kiss on the head from my Mum. I looked back and they beckoned me to move in closer, I did.
"Johnny, what I told you, about Messiah. There’s a letter for you. Make sure you get it. Be careful. Read the code, remember the key. Only you know. You’re old enough now." He whispered.
He looked at me and tried to do the secret handshake but couldn’t so I moved his hands into the positions for him, my tears falling onto his frozen withered skin until he stopped moving at all, and then he was gone. I looked up into his eyes as they closed before me and his head nodded to the pillow. My mother moved me away and his hand slipped from mine limply to the bed.
I did not cry or speak. I only stared out of the window as we drove home, the smell of the leather seats coating my memory of that day for years to come.
Now I sit here staring at the letter left for me first by my grandfather and then by my father, a widower for three years before dying himself of what could only be called loneliness. Like him and his father before him, I too followed the path of science and engineering. Global war is again a subject that is widely talked about. Seventy-eight years after the story of Messiah began; I have come here to this remote and forgotten place in hopes of finding him and at the same time, maybe even myself.
I looked up from my heavy thoughts to find Haworth, a tall slim man in a tweed cap and work pants, standing beside me as if waiting for an introduction. I obliged and asked him about the village. We talked for about an hour at the fireside. His knowledge of the area and its folklore was impressive. Like most of the villagers, he was born here and had land passed on to him from father to son. Tradition flowed thick like glue and bound all that lived here together.
When I asked him about the stories of the machine-man, as he had been called during the years after the war, he only nodded slowly and said, "Oh ah, I remember those stories. Frightening tales they were of a giant robot out of control, its inventor, mad as a hatter."
I stirred in my seat trying not to become too defensive of my grandfather. I didn’t want anyone to know of my relationship to the "mad inventor," at least not yet. One thing I knew is that I had come to the right place and that the authenticity of the letter, the stories and most importantly, my grandfather were valid. I talked more to the tall man before finally heading off to bed for a restless, dreamless night.
The morning fog seeped in through the open window in my room and chilled me out of bed. I got up and slid the window shut. As I looked down the road I could see the old lady tending her garden. It was only six o’clock and she was already hard at work. I decided to get up and talk to her. In the kitchen at the bottom of the stairs, breakfast was already being made. I forgot how early farmers rise in the morning. After a cup of tea and some sausages and eggs, I was ready to get started. I told the landlady that I would like to stay for at least one more day and she said that I was welcome to stay as long as I wanted.
A black metal gate framed the entrance to a flagstone pathway that led the way to the old lady’s cottage. A stone wall choked with ivy surrounded the yard and completed the picture perfect country home. I said good morning and introduced myself, then told her of my grandfather’s last wish.
"Well you’d better come in then," she said.
I followed her as she walked slowly up the path to the house and sat at the kitchen table while she put on a kettle of water for tea. My hunch was right. She knew my grandfather and as it turned out, she also knew of my grandmother.
"Your grandfather Tom worked for a government sponsored project during the war," she said. "It was all very hush-hush. He would come out here and work in one of the cottages. It’s not far from here, been deserted since he left. Most people thought that he’d gone mad there, so they left it alone. Now it’s just an empty shell, the weeds got it years ago. You have to keep at it or they’ll take over before you can blink an eye. No weeds in my garden," she said and set the teacup down in front of me.
"Thank you." I said and sipped it slowly, the hot liquid burning off the coldness in my hands.
"Your grandmother Muriel was dead for two weeks before word got to Tom." She continued. "He was away in London working at the base. She was in Bristol. She was a seamstress making parachutes and uniforms for the troops. Her factory was bombed during an air raid. Bristol was hit bad, almost as bad as London. His job was so top secret that nobody even knew how to reach him. When he finally went home, he got the news. She’d already been buried. From that day on he devoted himself to his work. He pretty well moved out of Bristol. Most of his time was spent at the cottage here. The army trucks came and went for years, bringing in supplies and digging up the ground. The area was sealed off and soldiers guarded it day and night. Then one day they just left and never came back. He stayed though. The light burning all night. I’d see him passing back and forth in front of the window in the morning while walking my dog. He’d probably been up working the whole time. He was obsessed with his work. I’d bring him food from time to time just to make sure he was alright. We talked and we became friends. He told me things, strange things that I believed were just the thoughts of a lonely hardened man, stuff that they would now call science fiction, but back then they’d just call it plain crazy talk. So I’d listen to the stories and keep them to myself. He must have told some of it to other folk because word got out and it wasn’t from me. I kept quiet."
I listened intently. It brought back the feelings from my childhood. Things started to come back to me, things I hadn’t thought of for years. The secret handshake, it was more than just that, it had to be practised to precisely the right timing. Timing was everything.
"I’m sorry," I said, realizing that I had been drifting off into a memory for the last couple of minutes. "Did you just say something about a key?"
"Yes, your grandfather gave me a key for safekeeping but never came back for it. I suppose it belongs to you now." She left the room still talking and returned with a small wooden box. Inside, within a velvet compartment, was a long black key, the letters, MESSIAH stamped onto the shaft. My heart raced as I looked down upon it. It was as though I was watching myself from a distance and that I was merely an actor whose lines had just ran out. I was speechless. She was already walking away, muttering again about her garden, all trace of the previous conversation lost. I was studying the key when she came back in and startled me with what she said next.
"You know, the robot thought of him as his father."
I sat there listening, somewhere between belief and disbelief. She then went on to tell me of the conversations that she’d had with my grandfather. He would come over and air his frustrations and accomplishments on her, just as he had done with me all those years ago. She said that when the robot, or ’Messiah’ as she said he liked to call it, first opened its eyes, it imprinted itself on him. She said that this was some secret thing that he had programmed into the robot for safety’s sake. It would obey his commands without question and would protect him or anyone who used the code, to the end.
The code, as it was told to me as a lad, was a set of six words that had to be spoken at least three seconds apart. The robot would then kneel, allowing the key to be inserted into a slot behind a panel on the chest plate. Should any of these instructions not be followed precisely, Messiah would go into defensive mode, destroying everything in sight.
She started walking outside so I followed her, three steps behind in case she should fall. "What about the graveyard?" I said, pulling out the letter with the map on the back.
She turned and without looking down simply said. "It’s beside the cottage silly, at the church." She pointed down the road to the church tower about a half-mile away.
"See, that’s where he lived. It’s all overgrown with weeds now. Nobody goes there, weeds everywhere. The only place there isn’t is the one grave I keep clear. I promised him I’d do it and I haven’t gone back on my promise, just like I never told his secrets, except now, to you."
"Why did he ask you to keep the one grave clear?" I asked.
"Don’t know," was all she said and walked into the cottage.
I went through the gate and stared down the lane, shading my eyes from the morning sun with my hand. I was about to go, to walk straight there but thought again before leaving. I decided to get my things from the inn first, for I knew that I might not be coming back.
At the inn, talk of war and bombs were on the lips of everyone. The place was full and each had a cup of tea or coffee in hand or on the table in front of them. Some were shouting, some were slamming their fists onto tabletops, others just listened, but all were very serious. I walked in, bringing with me a stream of sunlight through the door that illuminated a path down the middle of the floor and set all eyes on me.
"What do you know of this?" The tall man from the previous day demanded.
"I don’t know what you mean, I’m sure. What’s happening?" I asked.
"War’s broke out all over the place," said the landlady, her flabby face giggling as she spoke. "France, Germany, London, won’t be long ’til it hits here."
"But why, what’s going on, what caused it?" I said. My mind now racing.
Talk of war and threats had been in the news for years it seemed. Most people just ignored it and got on with their lives. The eastern and western nations were in competition for global trade. The United Nations had been dissolved two years ago when corruption had been discovered. The only way to clear all involved without causing global war was to dissolve the alliance completely. It was soon replaced with the "World State of Defensive Affairs," which had its main conference center in London. Rumours of corruption again surfaced. War was now more than just talk. Trust had been broken and tempers flared. We were quickly approaching the danger zone.
With my father’s death, I had made up my mind to fulfill his father’s last request, thereby bringing closure to both deaths at the same time. I never married and chose work over social activities. Some would call me shy, some might say I was dedicated. I would say that I’ve been lost for many years and only felt comfort in working. The company I worked for was changing their focus from deep space exploration in the form of plasma engines, to a new form of plasma weapon. I could not be a part of this and so left before becoming involved with any of the preliminary discussions and therefore was of no threat to anyone.
My only plan now was to complete my quest. People in the pub looked at me with distrust. I went upstairs and gathered my things. On my way out, the landlord asked where I was going. I told him that I was called away. He looked at me questioningly and asked me to wait while he went to the lounge. I listened through the door. I heard anger in their voices. They wanted answers and needed someone to blame. I left quickly and made my way towards the old church and the grave where I hoped that I would find some answers.
I passed the old lady’s house. She was nowhere to be seen. I headed towards the churchyard feeling for the key box in my coat pocket. It was there, thank goodness. I kept walking, looking back as I went. I knew it wouldn’t take long for them to figure out where I was headed, after bringing up the old stories again, so I quickened my pace.
The graveyard was as broken down as the old lady had described it. Headstones crumbling, the pavement cracked and crooked. I walked towards the church doors. They were arched and studded with metal pegs. The handles were two large metal rings. I pushed the door but it did not budge so I walked to the side of the building. There was another archway, the door long since missing judging by the growth around it. I walked cautiously into the dark church. The only light, that which managed to penetrate the dirty stained glass windows, illuminated the weed covered pews an eerie green. I backed out before going much farther, deciding it might be a wasted effort and instead went outside to the graveyard.
Again, nature had erased what Man would have had last forever. Weeds grew everywhere. Vines covered the stone perimeter walls and even the trees. I walked around the outside of the church. A path led to a clear spot in the far corner under a sycamore tree, its large leaves flapped freely in the breeze without restriction, an oasis in an English jungle. At the end of the path was a grave, well kept and clear of all foliage. There were no flowers or wreath, only a cleared spot as promised a long time ago. The headstone read:
1937 - 1951
REST IN PEACE
It was the name of my grandmother, though the date was incorrect. She was born long before 1937 and died during World War II. This date described the period of the MESSIAH project. I had forgotten most of the secret code that I was taught, under strictest security from my grandfather. Now seeing the name and the dates, pulled it all together