'...and this is the canteen,' explained Jason as the double doors swung open to reveal the large room. 'Contains all your basic amenities: tables, chairs, vending machines. Oh, and of course three square meals provided free of charge by Her Royal Highness, gods bless her heart.' He said as they moved past the empty tables. Jason made a small sarcastic bow towards the large Royal insignia above the serving stations. 'Although, I’d stick to packed lunches if I were you.' He said in a mock whisper. 'Except on Wednesdays and Fridays those are Edesia’s days and I tell you what, in comparison all other food will seem as bland and tasteless as cardboard. Then again you Aussies eat Vegimite, don’t you? Ugh, nasty stuff, give me Marmite any old day.’ Chris watched Jason chuckle at his own joke. A proper Londoner, Jason was firmly entrenched in British culture, sadly that culture was mostly from the eighties. The gaudy tie and grey sports jacket that adorned him was in direct contrast to the black tailored suit Chris himself wore. Not surprisingly, both outfits reflected the man wearing them. Jason the upbeat, jovial Londoner and Chris the boring librarian wishing to be more. After many exchanged emails the image of a portly, balding, slightly greasy man that Chris had built up in his mind was way off the mark. Jason was more like Chris, slender with a full head of hair and not all that unattractive, if you could get past his personality.
They had reached the vending machines in the far corner of the canteen and Jason began the process of choosing an early morning snack, something he seemed to regard quite seriously. 'Have you met Aaron yet?' He asked as he filled the machine full of coins.
Chris shook his head.
‘Head of our Ex Machina team. He’s Australian as well. Nice bloke but a bit weird, like all of Ex Machina I guess.' Jason offered his bag of Skittles to Chris. Politely declining, Chris watched a dozen coloured lollies disappear down Jason’s throat.
'Will I get to work with the other divisions much?' Chris asked, 'It’s just, I’ve heard...stories about your Ex Gladius team.’
'Ex Gladius? Bunch of pompous overpaid cretins with guns if you ask me.' Dismissed Jason through mouthfuls of Skittles. 'Don’t you guys have a G-Division in Canberra?'
'We do, but it's not exactly the same. Your team seems to be hardcore militant, Australia’s Ex Gladius is for the most part emergency services.'
Jason leaned against the vending machine. 'Oh yeah, didn't you have those bush fires a while back? The one with the koala on YouTube, loved that little guy.' He asked, between handfuls of rainbow lollies.
'Yeah. We lost a lot of good people in those fires.’ Including Lorna, he thought to himself.
Jason picked up on the sudden sombre look that fell across Chris's face. 'That why you left?' He asked, pushing off from the machine.
The question genuinely took Chris by surprise. He missed Lorna, a lot, but if the London transfer hadn't come up would he have left? Possibly. 'No, not really. I mean, I lost someone but it wasn't like that...'
A woman entered from the nearby exit, the clack of her heals echoed around the empty canteen as she made a direct line for the coffee machine next to Jason.
'Ah, unrequited love, cut down in it's prime. I know the feeling.' Said Jason looking sadly into his now half empty bag of Skittles.
'How is your cat, Jace? Still preferring the neighbours over you?' The woman said sarcastically as she made her selection.
'Xena is perfectly fine Carol, thank you for asking. I’ll have you know she loves me unconditionally, she just chooses to express it differently than most.' He replied in a tone suggesting this type of banter was commonplace between the two. 'At least she doesn’t run off with younger cats every chance she gets.'
Judging from the annoyed twitch above Carol’s eye, Chris guessed that Jason had hit a nerve.
'Jealous much?' She said removing the largest, blackest cup of coffee Chris had ever seen. 'Who's your new friend?' She asked sipping experimentally from the cup. Her dark red lipstick matched the long hair that flowed over her shoulders, spilling on to her white button down blouse.
'This is Christopher,' Jason said presenting Chris like a new car. 'Chris here is the new Ex Libris from Australia. Just so you know Carol, claws off this one, we want him to stick around.' He said pulling Chris in close to him. While the embrace was not exactly consensual, Chris didn’t mind, his nose filling with Jason’s surprisingly delicious aftershave.
Carol glared at Jason. 'Ignore him Chris, some people have issues with rejection, and possibly their own sexuality.' She said extending her hand and smiling.
‘Oi, leave it out.' Jason replied, quickly putting distance between himself and Chris. He attempted to compose himself by adjusting his gaudy suit. 'Anyway,’ he said pulling on his tie, ‘I'm not the one with the issues if I recall.'
Chris suddenly felt the need to change subjects, and quickly. 'So, uh Carol, what department do you work for?'
She responded by simply holding up the manila folder in her left hand. 'Ex Mentis, and before you ask, no, it’s not a glamorous as it sounds. You get sick of listening to old blokes droning on and on about stupid things that happened five hundred years ago. It’s more like social work now, making sure these two don’t fight with this one, and she doesn’t sleep with that one.' Carol took a large sip of her coffee, clearly taking pleasure in the dark liquid.
'Who are you seeing this morning to warrant that caffeine induced heart attack waiting to happen?’ Jason asked, stuffing another handful of lollies into his mouth.
Carol yawned loudly, '...Somnus. Ugh, just saying his name makes me tired.' She took another large sip. 'I need three of these just to get through one session.' She said, stifling another yawn.
'Somnus? I thought most of them went by their Greek names.' Chris asked quizzically.
Carol shook her head, 'It’s suddenly back in vogue to go by your Roman name. They change names all the time though so it’s nothing unusual. I’ve got a few who assign different personality traits to different names. It all gets very...' she yawned again, ‘…confusing. Excuse me.'
This was exactly what Chris wanted. Somnus, or Hypnos in the Greek, is the personification of sleep. The god of sleep if you will. While amazing god-animals and spirit men chasing after star women was interesting, Chris had put in for a transfer some years ago. England was where the pantheons had ended up, and that was where the action was. The Romans brought the gods with them across the channel and most stayed on after the fall of the empire. Sure, a few ran off to the Americas or returned to Greece but the majority remained, making their home on the small island nation. Gods have lived in England for years, secretly of course, trying to avoid the rush of Christianity and other such monotheistic religions. People still worship them mind you, though most wouldn’t know it. Take Somnus for instance, every time you sleep you give power not only to him but also his sons. Basically they have existed long before any of us and it is more than likely that they will continue to exist long after we have all gone to dust. Nothing short of a divine nuke would change that, and for this reason Deus Ex was created.
It was after World War Two when the first delegation of gods introduced themselves to Parliament. As a result of the war in Europe, England was faced with an influx of deities who wanted no part of this mortal squabble, although there were plenty who did. For the most part it was not much of a problem, they continued living out their divine lives as normal. However, eventually a few of the older gods began to remember some age old indiscretions with their newly arrived neighbours. Petty quarrels became full arguments which soon turned into all out fighting, and if you’ve ever had the misfortune to witness gods fight… Sadly most bystanders are lucky to even survive, and the ones who do usually end up envying those who didn’t.
A handful of both English and European gods decided to form an alliance, putting an end to their centuries of hiding. Choosing instead to enlist mortal help in quenching the fires of divine wrath. Long story short, in 1946 a new section was secretly added to the Home Department - Deus Ex. The newly formed department’s chief objective was to manage and control all divine beings within England and her territories. The rest, as they say, is history.
Chris listened intently as Carol talked about Ex Mentis through fits of yawning followed quickly by large sips of coffee. Either it was that she reminded him of an actress he had once seen years ago, who’s name refused to come to him, or he was just a sucker for a grey pencil skirt and black stockings. Regardless, he was beginning to feel hooked. A beautiful smile, a deep kindness behind the eyes, and a mind that clearly dwarfed his own… it was Lorna all over again. Chris mentally scolded himself for cultivating a crush on his first day, this was exactly the kind of distraction that could cost him his job. Plus it was in no way appropriate, job or not. He watched as Jason and Carol were locked in a friendly, almost flirtatious battle of wits. Having no chance, Jason had now reduced the game to seeing how many Skittles he could throw at Carol before she drop kicked him. He was up to four and it was not looking good.
Lucky for Jason, Carol’s imminent attack was put on hold as several people crashed loudly through the canteen doors. Each dressed head to toe in black uniforms not dissimilar to an American SWAT team. Small machine guns slung behind their backs, the strap obscuring the white block lettering on their vests, GLADIUS. Talking and laughing loudly amongst themselves the unit made its way towards the canteen’s food service area, completely ignoring the other occupants of the room.
Jason leaned over and whispered in Chris’s ear, ‘try not to stare, they can smell fear.'
Chris was far from scared, he was in awe. Here he was in the same room as the most famous Ex Galdius unit, the elite of the elite, poached from the tops of their respective fields, issued weapons and given carte blanche. These people were the sole reason England and the rest of the world was still standing. He wanted nothing more than to shake their hands and babble incoherently about how great they were. As if hearing his wish one of them turned and made their way towards the small group of three.
On reflex Jason and Carol turned away from the approaching mountain of a man and took up a conversation between themselves. Chris, slow on the uptake and still a little star struck, kept his eyes locked on the black clad figure making his way towards him. Being the geek he was, Chris knew exactly who was walking towards him, the hard chiselled face complete with deep scar gave it away. It was none other than Unit Commander Richard Lavin. Lavin was responsible for saving the world more times than Chris could count, even in Australia he was just as well known. Frequently, reports headed towards the archives would have Lavin’s name in bold throughout. If they had Ex Gladius football cards Lavin would have an entire deck to himself, and Chris would have the entire set signed in gold with little hologram Lavins. It was no surprise at all when Lavin pushed past him without even a blink of acknowledgement. Chris watched the back of Lavin’s shaved head walk to the coffee machine, punch in his order, collect the hot beverage and walk back soundlessly to join the rest of his unit.
Chris didn’t care that the Ex Gladius hadn’t acknowledged him. Why would he? To him, Chris was just some other pleb that happened to work in the same building, he was a lowly Ex Libris not even worthy of mention really. He sighed and looked over at Jason and Carol.
'Don’t worry man, you two will be best buddies before you know it. Heck, he might even let you touch his gun!' Jason’s attempt at reassurance caused Carol to cough violently as she choked on her coffee.
'Wow, I was just kidding about the latent homosexuality before, but I think I may have to upgrade my diagnosis.’ She said wiping spilt coffee from her top. Jason threw a Skittle at her, the green lolly striking her on the forehead where it stuck briefly leaving a bright green mark. She shot Jason a look as she wiped away the stain.
'Well it’s obvious I’ve become a third wheel here and I'm now running late for my appointment. Nice meeting you Christopher, I might see you around, yeah?' Dropping her smile she extended a nod to Jason, 'Jace.'
As Carol walked off Jason pulled a face at the back of her head. 'She loves me you know, poor thing just can’t handle it.' He said finishing off the last of his Skittles and throwing the packet in the nearby bin. 'Well, onward and upward my friend, or in this case, downward. Why they shove you Ex Libris guys under four thousand feet of concrete I’ll never know. You’re not all that bad.'
Jason, heading towards the far exit was still talking as Chris purposely hung back. He watched Lavin standing around drinking coffee, apparently oblivious to the rowdy antics of his unit. The Commander slowly turned his head and stared at Chris, those dark, almost black eyes seemed to peer right through to his soul. It took everything he had to break eye contact. Shaking his head, Chris hurried after Jason as he disappeared through the door, still talking. Lavin grinned slightly as he raised the coffee cup to his lips and watched the new Ex Libris walk out of the canteen.
'So,' said Jason after Chris had caught up to him. ‘This is the long way around, normally you would take the service elevator from the street right down to the main floor. Much quicker although I wouldn't recommend having anything heavy for breakfast, at least not for the first few times anyway.'
Chris half listened to his guide’s chatter as they both walked down the hexangular, gunmetal grey corridor. The London office had been refitted and expanded during the late sixties and as a result suffered from the maxim ‘less is more’. Large grey blast doors lined the hallway and helped to brake up the solid expanse. Each sported a stencilled yellow letter and number followed by large red letters stating ‘Authorised Access Only’ and the appropriate clearance level. Chris’s own clearance was L-10, one of the highest in the Ex Libris department, looking at some of the numbers on the doors it was a wonder he was even allowed to walk down the corridor. It was an entirely different world compared to the Canberra office, while all security guidelines and procedures were followed to the letter there was still a subtle, laid back attitude about the place. Possibly a result of Australian culture or due to the fact that everyone knew that the secrets they kept were not too earth shattering. London definitely had secrets, real secrets, and by the looks of things they were determined to keep them.
'Is that Carol’s office?' Chris asked as they passed a door marked with the clearance 'MEN008'.
Jason replied without looking or even slowing down. 'Sort of, it’s the counselling rooms. I’d tell you more but as you can probably guess we’re a little strict on security here.'
'Yeah, I can see that.' Chris said looking back at the counselling room door, 'Uh, Jason.'
'You haven’t said what unit you work for. I figured you for an Ex Libris but...' Chris trailed off as Jason remained awkwardly silent. 'Lifts are just down the end here,’ he eventually said.
Chris decided to drop it, he had obviously asked a question well above his station and Jason was trying to be as polite as he could. The lift door was now visible at the end of the corridor, it carried no stencilled number or warning and as far as he could tell, no call button. In fact, all the doors he had passed had no swipe card panel, no key pad, not even a security camera. It looked as if there was no way to enter the doors from the outside. He looked down at his freshly issued pass card hanging form the black lanyard around his neck. Apart from name, department, clearance level and a photograph that made his passport photo look like a glamour shoot, the card was blank. It had no barcode, visible microchips and the plastic was too thin to hold an RFID tag. As he was about to ask how he was expected to open any doors Chris noticed a man standing by the lift.
Dressed in a khaki jump suit the old man was slowly mopping the floor near the lift. His blue plastic cleaning cart sat motionless in the hallway. Jason walked casually up to the lift avoiding the freshly mopped areas.
'Morning Janus, how’s things?'
Janus looked up at them both, his long grey beard hung in large curls about his face in contrast to the short cropped hair on his head. 'Morning Jason, you’re late.'
His thick Italian accent made it hard for Chris to understand. It forced him to concentrate on the old man’s voice.
'This the one?' Janus said, motioning his broom handle towards Chris.
'Chris, this is Janus, our Caretaker. You need something fixed, cleaned, or unlocked he’s your man.'
Chris extended a hand towards Janus, the old man gripped it firmly and looked intently into Chris’s eyes.
'Pleasure.' He said eventually releasing his grip but not his gaze.
Chris rubbed his hand and nervously tried to avoid eye contact with the Caretaker.
Jason coughed breaking the uncomfortable silence between the three men. ‘We’re just headed downstairs Janus, would you mind...' Before he could finish his sentence the lift doors opened with a soft ding. 'Thanks old man. Coming Chris?' He said moving into the lift. Chris followed his guide, flashing a nervous but confused smile back at Janus. The lift doors shut suddenly in his face, blocking any exit.
Turning Chris found himself face-to-face with the old man. The air was heavy with the odour of cedar and bleach, punctuated by Janus’s stale breath. Jason had started banging on the elevator doors, his voice too faint to hear through the thick metal. Chris already off-side, began to feel nervous as Janus leaned in close.
'I know who you are boy. I’ve seen what you have done and what you will do.' His thick accent stripped away in a deep threatening tone. Straightening up Janus ran a large rough hand over his beard. 'I’ll be keeping my eye on you, son of Libris.' He said nodding towards the elevator.
Jason’s banging stopped as the doors opened. 'Janus! What the hell? You ok, Chris?’ He asked, holding the elevator door open with his hand.
'Yeah...yeah, I’m fine.' Chris replied wearily, still looking at Janus.
'OK, good. Let’s go. That is if it is all right with you.' Jason raised his eyebrows and looked at Janus.
The old man just shrugged and returned to his mopping as if the whole incident had never occurred. Now safely in the lift, the two men waited for the doors to close. Glancing nervously around, Chris could have sworn he saw Janus looking directly at him, despite the old man clearly facing the opposite direction. Something registered in the back of Chris’s mind as the doors closed and the lift began it’s decent. 'Wait, was that The…’ Chris began, pointing to the now closed doors and looking at Jason.
'Mmhm.’ He replied. 'I don’t know what you did, but try not to annoy him anymore, otherwise you’ll never get through another doorway again.'
Chris leaned against the back of the lift and smiled to himself, it was only his first day in London and he’d already had more excitement in the first hour than in the last seven years in Canberra.