March 18, 1995 — the outskirts of Whitby, North Yorkshire, UK
Hermione Jane* Granger, somewhat dishevelled and slightly out of breath, walked into the meeting room and placed a small bottle of pills on the large oval table.
"Sorry we're late—" she began.
"We have it!" finished Nikolai Volkov, her colleague and boyfriend as he followed her into the room and shut the door.
For a moment, silence overtook the room. Those seated around the table switched their gazes between them and the bottle, confusion and disbelief written all over their faces.
"Excuse me," Vogel, a member of a German resistance cell, interjected in his heavily accented English. "But I thought we were here to discuss 'Project Liberty.' Not some . . . pills."
Harry Potter, the leader of their resistance cell, gave Vogel a dark look, but otherwise ignored him in favour of turning to Hermione and Nikolai.
"Are you sure?" he asked them.
Hermione nodded. "Absolutely. It works exactly as I told you it would."
Harry gave her a long look, and she could practically hear his brain cogs whirring around, churning out ideas of what this meant for the resistance, and what their next step would be.
She turned her gaze to those who had convened to discuss 'Project Liberty'—some of them had yet to be informed of the little side project that their resistance cell had been working on. She'd never been a fan of public speaking, but at the moment her grim sense of accomplishment outweighed any anxiety.
"Ladies and gentlemen," she said and gestured to the bottle of pills, "meet our best chance of infiltrating the Augments and obtaining the information pertaining to 'Project Liberty.' It may even be the key to destroying them entirely."
Bertelli, second-in-command of one of the Italian cells, leaned forwards to eye the bottle suspiciously.
"And how is this," she said, gesturing to it, "going to help us? Please, explain yourselves."
"Long story short," interjected Harry, "it's going to provide whoever takes one of those things with the same talents and features as an Augment—temporarily."
Voices exploded into the quiet room—some outraged, others fascinated. The loudest of them outright refused even to consider the idea of becoming one of them, even if not permanently, while others welcomed it, daring to hope that this might be the beginning of the end.
Hermione sighed as she sank into a cold, empty chair and leaned her head back. She closed her eyes and let all the noise wash over her, trying to empty her mind for just a moment. How long had it been since she last slept? Or ate anything other than those military rations that began to taste like gruel after the second helping. Running on sheer willpower—and caffeine—she'd barely had any time to breathe, so she took this moment to do just that, letting Harry handle the fallout of the metaphorical bomb that she'd just dropped. He was better at handling such things anyway; it was part of the reason why he was their leader.
Nikolai sat heavily in the chair beside her, favouring his right leg. He laced his fingers through hers under the table. She opened her eyes and met his gaze, squeezing his hand lightly.
"We make a good team, da?" he whispered, leaning into her ear.
She offered him a small, tired smile and nodded. Ever since Harry had brought Nikolai into their cell after rescuing him from under a collapsed building in Saint Petersburg, the twenty-nine-year-old brilliant Russian biochemist had contributed a lot to their cause.
"They burned my home to the ground, destroyed my capital city, killed everyone I love," Nikolai had said once he recovered from his injuries and was given the choice to return to his country. "I'm going to repay them with the same coin if it's the last thing I do."
So he stayed, saying that he'd have a better chance of revenge by collaborating with them.
But Nikolai wasn't the only non-Brit in their cell. War had a way of uniting people and making allies even out of old enemies when the fate of the world was on the line. He wasn't even the only one who sought revenge—there was hardly a place on Earth where people had not lost someone due to the Augments.
War had come as suddenly as rain on a sunny day, even as the world spun on, oblivious and content. A population of sheep, unaware of the wolves at their gate.
Hermione would never forget that day—September 8th, 1992—and not merely because it was also, coincidentally, her birthday. It was the day when the Augments, who'd been biding their time for decades and waiting for an opportune moment to strike, had finally made themselves known to the world. They'd boldly interjected themselves into the long-awaited denuclearization talks between America and Russia, and showed exactly what they were capable of in their disagreement.
Being a weapons system engineer herself, Hermione had to admit that the nuclear strikes the Augments had conducted to the heart of Washington, D.C.—where the talks had been taking place—and Moscow were horrifyingly brilliant. They'd detonated cascade nuclear bombs (a weapon previously unheard of) and positioned them so that they yielded maximally devastating results—not just from the bomb itself, but also from the resulting superheated tornado that vaporized everything in its path.
Then the Augments had appeared on every television and radio channel and announced the end of the old world and the beginning of a superior one, pronouncing themselves as the new regime. It'd been something like out of a children's cartoon, with the villain making an ultimatum—but infinitely more terrifying, if only because of the sheer death toll.
Targeting the capitals of the two most powerful nations had been both strategic and symbolic. Despite recent changes in their traditional adversarial relationship, the two countries had still possessed the largest militaries in the world. By removing their centres of authority, the Augments had not only made a tactically effective move, but had demonstrated their complete lack of concern with maintaining the status quo.
"There is no need to fear us," Noonien Singh, who was now known as simply 'Khan,' had said. "We seek only to lead the world into a glorious future. A future free from suffering, free from pain. A future of peace for all.
"We merely want to save you from yourselves," he'd added, before giving the old rulers, who still believed they had a grip on their power, a simple choice—peace or war.
Unsurprisingly, the world had chosen war. But it was difficult to fight openly against a force that was already occupying.
There were no concrete targets to strike, because the Augments were everywhere: in the governments, in the armies, offices, and schools. They'd first captured the major population centres—more for psychological effect than anything else. Their agents seeded within governments and armies had dispatched the nominal leaders. After that, they'd only needed to take care of the remaining opposition, which had been almost easy thanks to their superior strength and intelligence. And that wasn't even taking into account the machines they'd come with, which were so advanced as to be nearly alien.
Three weeks. That's how long it had taken them to gain control of the forty strongest nations on Earth. With their command structures compromised, the remnants of the various armed forces were no match for the Augments. In some places, they were even greeted as liberators.
But in the end, humans were a rebellious species at heart. Resistance cells formed all over, immediately going underground, living like nomads to avoid detection. And slowly, carefully, they reached out to each other to create a web of allies and resources in a hostile world.
Most recently, allied intelligence had discovered that Khan had acquired over 200 bio-warheads from the former Soviet Union. There was also a word of the redevelopment of some sort of flesh-eating bacteria and preparations to deliver a significant blow to the resistance.
But the most troubling of all was something called 'Project Liberty.' No one knew exactly what it was and what it entailed, though many members of the resistance had died in an attempt to get the information, but it was known that the Project was very important to the Augments and that it would be the crowning glory of everything that they'd done to date.
Given the Augments' ambitions and their idea of 'liberty,' it could only be bad news for the resistance. It was the reason why they'd assembled to brainstorm and to plan further course of action.
"—can't be serious!"
"—for the greater good—"
"And how long is 'temporary'?"
"Forty-eight hours," supplied Hermione, deciding it was time to jump back into the conversation.
"Only forty-eight hours?" asked Garcia of Spain.
Hermione offered a nod in confirmation.
"And then what?" inquired Bertelli.
"Then it's time for another pill," explained Hermione in a tone that suggested the answer was obvious.
"And how exactly," Vogel put in, his tone agitated, "would one do that in the presence of actual Augments? I'm sure they don't ever get ill, and there would be no justification for the presence of these pills in the first place!"
Hermione exhaled, rubbing at her temples.
"I have a plan," she said evenly, meeting Vogel's gaze and doing her best to remain calm, even though part of her wanted to scream in frustration and throw something against the nearest wall. Everyone was on edge, especially Vogel, who was the sole survivor of his recently obliterated resistance cell.
Vogel crossed his arms and stared back at her. "Wunderbar. And I suppose you'd want one of us to execute it? Be your guinea pig for a drug that I'm sure hasn't even been tested properly?"
"Hey, watch it!" cut in Nikolai, slamming a hand down on the table and startling a few people. "Instead of talking out of your ass and jumping into unfounded, baseless conclusions, why don't you just wait and hear out all the information first?"
"I think I've seen and heard all I need to know!"
"How could you have? Can't exactly listen if you never shut up!"
Nikolai and Vogel began arguing, shouting over each other. For a long while, no one bothered trying to stop it, either sitting back to watch or still discussing the new information among themselves.
"Everyone, shut it!" resounded Harry's booming voice, immediately silencing everyone in the room.
Hermione had to hand it to him. Despite his young age, Harry made an excellent leader—he had a natural talent for it. There were those, of course, who initially didn't take him seriously. But given his sense for justice and surprising cunning, it usually didn't take very long before they changed their minds and began following him loyally. There was a reason why their resistance cell was one of the more active and productive ones out there.
Harry turned to Hermione and indicated for her to speak.
She rose to her feet and placed a hand on Nikolai's shoulder. He immediately squeezed it, showing his support.
"First of all," she began, "no one needs to be a guinea pig or carry out this mission . . . Because the drug's already been tested, and I'll be the one to carry out the mission."
"What?" Juliet exclaimed. "No! Why does it have to be you?"
Hermione met her sister's gaze. "Li-Li," she began gently, "because of the way this pill had to be made . . . Nikolai and I have been working on it for a while and were getting nowhere. It wasn't until I had the idea to key the formula to a specific DNA that we began making progress."
"And you used your own," Juliet immediately deduced.
"Yes," Hermione confirmed.
"But why can't we change that and key it now to someone else's DNA?"
"Time, Li-Li. We don't have enough time. We need to act very soon, or else . . ." She didn't have to finish the sentence for everyone to understand what she meant.
Juliet turned to her husband. "You knew about this?"
Harry merely offered a nod.
"And you're okay with this?!"
"We're at war, Li-Li!" Harry's voice rose as did his ire. "Sometimes we have to do things even if we're not okay with them. Besides, Hermione is more than qualified to carry out the mission."
"Oh, I don't doubt that." Juliet crossed her arms and adopted a neutral tone, although Hermione could read the underlying frustration in her body language and facial features. "God knows there's probably very little she's not qualified for."
She turned her hard gaze back to Hermione. "And what about side-effects? There are bound to be some, right? With a drug like this."
Hermione exchanged a glance with Nikolai before replying, "I haven't been exposed to it long enough to notice anything, but the preliminary primate testing hasn't thrown up any significant red flags."
Nikolai sighed and looked down on his hands.
'Liar,' she could read in his eyes before he averted his gaze.
À la guerre comme à la guerre, she thought at him grimly, and then continued, "The truth is: we need to carry out this mission—not just to find out about 'Project Liberty,' but also to acquire the crucial final bit of information for the completion of the bioweapon."
"I'm assuming this is where you share the details about this mission?" interjected Balogh, the Hungarian representative.
Hermione nodded, preparing to share her plan of action. "I might be the one directly in the line of fire, so to speak, for this mission, but I can't carry it out without all of your help. So—"
"Hold on for just a moment!" Juliet interrupted, her gaze flicking between her sister and Harry. "And what about the bioweapon? Who's going to finish it, if we send our best weapons system engineer on that mission? The one she may not come back from?"
"Attendez! Attendez, s'il vous plaît!" cut in Mermillon of France, gesticulating wildly. "What are you talking about now? What bioweapon?"
Hermione met his gaze steadily. "The one that will ensure the Augments' superior biology to be their downfall." She turned back to her sister. "And to answer your question, Li-Li, I haven't been idle here while you were on a mission in Belgrade. The weapon is mostly finished, and once we get the information we need, any decent geneticist will be able to finish it. I've left sufficient instructions for its completion, so even if I die today—"
Whatever else she might have said was suddenly cut off by the blaring of the alarm. A moment later, the building shook, making dust fall off the walls and ceiling—they were under attack.
Harry was the first one on his feet, weapon ready in his hands.
He pressed a button on the wall panel to activate the intercom. "Attention everyone, engage all emergency procedures. Active Protocol 33 Code One Bravo Zero One. This is not a drill! I repeat: Active Protocol 33 Code One Bravo Zero One."
He terminated the connection and turned to the people in the room. "Everyone knows what they're supposed to do?"
"Then move it!"
By the time Hermione and Nikolai arrived at the lab to pack up what they could take and destroy the rest—they couldn't afford any of it falling into enemy hands—dozens of booby traps had been set off by the Augment forces, the gunfire had picked up, shouting and screams had intensified.
"Go, I'll catch up to you!" said Nikolai, carefully attaching C-4 blocks to their computer systems.
"Just a moment," she replied, walking over to the cages that contained the animals—rats, rabbits, primates—they'd used as test subjects during their research.
She opened the cage doors one by one, freeing the animals. Before they could scamper off, she pointed to the patch on her sleeve, an encircled fleur-de-lis that served as the symbol of the resistance.
"Friends in danger," she told them.
The animals, augmented over the course of their research, were intelligent enough to follow her direction, as well as strong and aggressive. Hopefully, they would be able to provide some distraction and extra help so the members of the resistance could get out safely.
The animals skittered away—most of them anyway. Three of the cages remained occupied. One of them contained very recently (probably the past 30 minutes, Hermione estimated) deceased Bluebell the bunny, another with Lucy the rat, and the third—still alive but barely moving, Philip the monkey.
"I'm sorry, Philip," Hermione whispered, gently petting it.
The monkey looked up at her, its eyes glazed over, and attempted to sit up, but failed.
"Hermione!" Nikolai shouted. "You're still here? Let's go!"
Together, they hurried down the winding corridors towards the nearest evacuation point in the low, emergency lighting—the Augments must have taken out the main generator.
"This is no good," said Nikolai breathlessly a few moments later, gesturing to his leg.
He'd broken it back in Saint Petersburg when he'd gotten trapped under a collapsed building; the bones hadn't quite healed properly, leaving him with a limp.
"Leave me and go. I'm only slowing us down."
"No!" protested Hermione. "We can make it! We can both make it!"
He shook his head. "We both know that's not true. In fact, we knew it from the very beginning of our relationship." He shoved the case he was carrying into her hands. "You must continue alone and finish what we started. Make sure those radishes get what's coming to them."
Their little inside joke of calling the Augments radishes, or rediski in Russian, after a Soviet comedy film that referred to 'bad people' as such, failed to make her smile this time.
He made a face and pulled her in for a quick, chaste kiss.
"Kolya—" she attempted, even though she knew he was right.
A series of explosions went off in the distance, and he took the safety off his rifle. "Now's not the time to be stubborn, solntse."
The gunfire was very close now—it seemed just around the corner.
Stifling her tears, she swallowed, and said, "Kolya, I just wanted to say one last thing. Thank you—for everything."
He nodded and practically pushed her through the door to the next passage and sealed it behind her.
"Go now and don't look back," she could hear his muffled voice through the door. "S Bogom!"
Then Hermione heard him shout, "Idite syuda, svolochi!" followed by more gunfire.
A few seconds later, her ears were ringing from the result of several grenades exploding, and she heard no more from Nikolai.