This page has the first chapter of each of my published novels … hope you enjoy the read and find something you like …
*** spoiler alerts on chapters for Temporal Tome and Gadzooks Armageddon 🙂
The Cosmos and 27 Oakridge Drive
Where to begin?
I suppose the easiest place is the nature of the Universe, or to be more accurate, the Multiverse. Much debate has been had over the size and shape of the Multiverse; in fact the Multiverse is infinite and essentially flat. I say essentially because the tiny buttonhole depressions in the fabric of space-time which contain each individual Cosmos are as insignificant as compared to the vast empty spaces of Multiverse between them as to make no substantial number worth calculating.
This is all pretty standard so far and doesn’t really affect the events of our story, but this next aspect of the Multiverse’s nature does. The Multiverse as I have said has an infinite disposition and therefore all probable, improbable, possible and impossible events that could, have, are and will take place somewhere in the Multiverse can, did, are currently and most definitely will happen. Too much?
Let us simplify it down.
Desmond Decker is a man. He is a man walking down a street. It’s not a particularly interesting street and, if you met him at a sandpaper manufacturing convention, you’d know, Desmond Decker isn’t a particularly interesting man. He is dressed in a grey off-the-peg suit, carries a black umbrella, even in August, and is whistling the first four bars of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ over and over again.
With me so far? Good.
In another Universe
Desmond Decker is a man. He is a man walking down a street. It’s not a particularly interesting street and, if you met him at a sandpaper manufacturing convention, you’d know, Desmond Decker isn’t a particularly interesting man. He is dressed in a grey off-the-peg suit, carries a crested king penguin, even in August, and is humming the first four bars of the Zambian national Anthem (even though he’s never heard it).
In another Universe
Desmond Decker is a man. He is a man walking down a street. It’s not a particularly interesting street and, if you met him at a Flat Earth Believers Convention, you’d know, Desmond Decker isn’t a particularly interesting man. He is dressed in the back-end of a pantomime horse costume, carries a crested king penguin, even in August, and is humming the first four bars of the Zambian national Anthem (even though he’s never heard it).
In yet another Universe
Desmond Decker is an evolved Kangnasaurus. He is an evolved Kangnasaurus walking down a giant hamster tube. It’s not a particularly interesting hamster tube and, if you met him at a Flat Earth Believers Convention, you’d know, Desmond Decker isn’t a particularly interesting evolved Kangnasaurus. He is dressed in the back-end of a pantomime horse costume, carries a crested king penguin, even in August, and is humming the first four bars of the Zambian national Anthem (even though he’s never heard it).
… and so on and so on… infinitely and with all possibilities … you get the picture.
This phenomenon has of course huge ramifications for our own version of the humble Human Race, spinning as we do around the Sun on a lonely rock made mostly of iron, boiling magma and plywood. Firstly, God does not exist. And, of course, God does exist, in all his/her/its forms. Furthermore, all the Gods of lost cultures also exist, individually in some Universes, in clumps in others and all together in more than a few. Somewhere in the Multiverse, Zeus is transforming into a bull in order to pick up girls in a Tottenham Court Road nightclub. Khepri is rolling a ball of fire across the sky (literally) over the Super Bowl and Abellio is sitting under a tree crying softly to himself and mumbling about how none of the other Gods ever show him any respect.
Of course, in more than one Universe you’ve stopped reading at this point, so anything I write from here on in is pointless. You stink of rotting halibut and your father frequented bars with sailors. But, for those versions of you in other Universes who have kept going I shall endeavour to continue (and please ignore the previous sentence).
Desmond Decker IS a man. He is a man walking down a street. It’s not a particularly interesting street and, if you met him at a sandpaper manufacturing convention, you’d know, Desmond Decker isn’t a particularly interesting man. He is dressed in a grey off-the-peg suit, carries a black umbrella, even in August, and is whistling the first four bars of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ over and over again. He passes a house, which has a red door with peeling paint and a small garden filled with weeds, dustbins and piles of rubbish. This house is 27 Oakridge Drive, it is not pretty, or quaint, nor has it the playful whimsical air of a family home.
27 Oakridge Drive squats like a typical Victorian terraced house in greater London, thinking to itself, in whatever universe it can think, ‘I wish I was built a train station, it would be great to be a train station, with all those locomotives coming in and out, thousands of chatting people and the occasional steam train delighting children who’d never seen one before. Sod this! I’m falling apart, that’ll teach ‘em.’
What 27 Oakridge Drive does have is a quite interesting resident. That is, interesting for the sake of our story, not if you were his Council Clerk engaged as you would be in a legal battle to have him evicted for non (or never) payment of rates over nine years. Not if you were the utility companies who have cut off gas, electricity, water and bins; only to find those services continuing through a makeshift series of wires, pipes and backhanders. And, certainly not if you were the Postman.
Desmond Decker you see was just a literary device. Which this Narrator has now ruined by stating this. Apologies.
In some Universes you have begun to read a better novel and in many I’ve written a better one; but in this reality you’re stuck with this one. If this is a Universe where this is the best novel you’ve ever read so far, check yourself into the nearest psychiatric clinic immediately.
The Postman felt the same old sickly churning of his stomach as he progressed down Oakridge Drive. The road had normal letters from 1 to 26, number 4 got a reminder from the gas company, number 8 has subscribed to Littlewoods pools and number 17 received his monthly porno in a plain brown envelope marked ‘private’ and ‘fragile.’
As he got close to 27, the nauseating feeling grew. He’d been suffering chest pains of late, waking up in the middle of the night screaming and recently he’d found a number scratched into his bedpost by a bloody fingernail, ‘27’.
Perhaps today would be one of those rare days when he wouldn’t come to the door; the letters would just slip in the box and fall on the floor with a satisfying ‘plap’. Maybe he was out, maybe he was evicted or arrested or …
“Killed in a car crash or flattened by a steam roller or crushed by a comet or or or shot in the face by a bow and arrow!” The Postman froze in the middle of the street with his arms held out and his head tilted up toward the sky. Had he just screamed that or was it all in his head?
He gingerly looked around, no curtains were twitching and no doors opening, not that he’d expect them to open their doors, not this close to ‘27’.
As he neared 27 the street seemed to get darker, the road wasn’t swept clean. A thin arc of grime indicated where the council sweepers took their break (every week). Somehow the bricks of the houses here sagged and appeared depressed, their doorways were down-turned mouths and their windows half closed eyes, one was even weeping with a leak from the roof rolling down its terraced face.
His sweaty hand reached down and tipped gently the rusted garden gate. Thirty years of paint crumbled at his fingertips as he gave it an experimental push.
‘EEEeeeeeee’ it whinged.
“Bastard,” he whispered. The oil, he’d forgotten the oil. He reached into his overcoat pocket and drew out a can of spray oil and gave the hinges a liberal spray from about six to eight inches; just as suggested in the instructions. He extended a long skeletal digit and gave the gate’s frame a second experimental push inward. It accepted the motion with little more than a soft moan; he stood up and stepped across the low gate with his lanky legs.
He was on the footpath now, a short cement strip which divided the jungle of grasses, trees and rubbish, piled as high as eye level. Sometimes he wondered what lived in there. From the outside its dimensions were that of an ordinary terrace garden; perhaps sixteen feet by twelve. But from in here … it had some kind of Tardis phenomenon. From inside it seemed to black out the rest of the street. It somehow grew into a wilderness, shadows moved and exotic creatures cried out. Once he was sure he heard the roar of a gorilla or something with enough teeth to present on daytime TV.
Each footstep was dropped on the dirty ground with careful forethought. He had to consider the terrain, how much initial noise would his size 10’s cause, would he be off-balanced and forced into a quick saving step that could send him into the bushes or the overflowing bins?… noise, noise, more noise … It was sure to draw him. Just get to the door and slip the letters into the box in silence.
The door was a grinning circus clown red; its peeling red lips puckered as he drew closer, the letterbox, a tarnished silver rectangle was the space between those cracked maws. This time he didn’t forget the oil; he sprayed the whole can, dropped down to his knees and placed his ear against the wooden lower lip of the door.
Nothing. Not even the familiar hum of a fridge. Perhaps he was dead, lying there, a rotting corpse just behind the door. He could look of course, lift up the letterbox flap and peer into the hallway to see the decaying body, riddled with maggots. How he hoped that would be the case, he could just drop the letters on the corpse. The stench wouldn’t bother him at all. He could keep up deliveries for months.
He reached into his satchel and pulled out a bundle of letters tied together with a shoelace. They were mostly bills, tax collectors’ notices and death threats. Inserted among these were letters he’d delivered before, many times before. A ‘Thank You’ card from the Royal Air Force for sterling work in overthrowing a Balkan dictatorship, an invite to the Queen’s garden party with ‘1973’ tipexed out and a begging letter from a mother in Croydon asking for him to come and perform lifesaving surgery on her septuplets.
He wanted to rip them up, burn them or eat them on the spot, but there was the Postman’s Code, that thin Navy Blue Line that kept his sanity, that made him do his duty.
He ran his finger around the rusted rim of the letterbox and made several aborted attempts to push the letters in. The spray oil was running in micro-rivulets down the door discolouring the paint from a peeling ruby red to a peeling hooker pink.
Finally his courage grew and he poked a bony finger through the slot.
The Postman jumped out of his skin or at least made a damn good effort to make his skeleton go skyward, the letters in his hand scattered into the air and it was only by hurling himself to the ground without regard for his own safety that he managed to save the last one from landing on the dirty wet ground. He lay there panting and shivering, mumbling under his breath ‘the Postman’s Code … the Postman’s Code …’
“That was some dexterity there Postie,” said Philip Philips standing behind him, “Makes me recall the time I saved a whole platoon of men in the Falklands. Argie grenade came flying into the trench, I caught it like a cricket ball, was just about to hurl it back on them when five more followed. Or was it six? I ended up juggling them ‘til I got to the lip of our trench, then fast-spinning the lot. Took out three machine gun nests and their forward HQ.”
Philip leaned down to the stricken postman and relieved him of the bundle of letters, “Is this all today, nothing from the U.S. Embassy I see. Will have to give them a ring. Ah Her Majesty’s garden party’s coming up; old girl would be gutted if I didn’t make it, best go in and clear some diary space. Ta ta Postie, watch the bins on the way out. I’m thinking of going private for them, council must be on strike again. See you tomorrow.”
He was gone. The Postman lay there in the dirt, crying softly to himself. “The lies, the lies. Every day the lies over and over.”
The door to 27 re-opened, “Ah Postie these bills are wrongly addressed again, must be for some other Philip Philips, take ‘em back there’s a good chap.”
The bills wafted down from above and landed stamp side down in the wet as the door slammed shut.
“I’ll kill ‘im.” said the Postman to himself.
“There’s nothing in the Postman’s Code about murder. So long as he gets his mail, being dead won’t matter.”
* * *
The Prime Minister of Great Britain was not a man given to rash decisions or indeed any decisions. After all, that was how he was chosen to be Prime Minister. The Civil Service felt safe in the knowledge that he would never make any real decisions for himself and certainly never consider a rash one.
“Are you sure this is the right thing to say?” asked the PM. Deep down he wanted to believe the lie, everyone wanted to believe the lie, even those who called into daytime TV shows wanted to believe the lie. I really must stop watching daytime TV shows, he thought to himself, it’s no way to conduct national policy.
“I’m sure, Prime Minister,” said the impossibly stunning Special Advisor to the President of the United States.
“What do you think?” the PM asked his own Principal Private Secretary who was, as always, hovering over his shoulder.
The PM mistrusted all Civil Servants. All politicians mistrusted Civil Servants; they were the enemy of democracy, and what’s more, they were the old aristocracy’s vanguard in government. In the PM’s opinion his Principal Private Secretary was no different than any other senior Whitehall official. They were all either Cambridge or Oxford men, all descended from good families who had been in control of the greater part of the countryside since William the Conqueror in 1066 and all Bastards like the ambitious William’s other pseudonym. This particular PM’s Principal Private Secretary was an Oxford man … well … almost Oxford.
“Prime Minister,” began the PM’s Principal Private Secretary in his accustomed condescending tone that grated on every politician’s nerves, “I think the American explanation as to the nature of the …shall we say … incident last month is more than satisfactory.”
“More than satisfactory!” exclaimed the PM loudly. “You want me to go on national television and tell the British public that a solar flare triggered a chemical reaction in the ozone layer that gave the entire world mass hallucinations!”
There was a silent pause from the collected Ministers, Officials and Military Officers in the room.
“Yes,” said the impossibly stunning Special Advisor to the President of the United States. “Yes,” agreed the PM’s Principal Private Secretary.
“But it’s … mad!” further exclaimed the PM as he shook the pages of the CIA report in his hand which offered this ‘solar flare’ solution.
“It might be mad Prime Minister, but this is the only explanation we can offer that will be in any way believable,” said the sexy voice of the Special Advisor to the President of the United States.
“Believable?! Who’s going to believe this? I don’t believe it!” protested the PM.
She must be levered into that skirt in the mornings, he thought to himself, and I think her blouse is sprayed on. Shivers ran up the PM’s spine as he tried to make himself concentrate on the problem at hand and not the gorgeousness of this angelic creature.
“Of course you don’t believe it, Prime Minister,” interrupted the Head of the Secret Service. “you know it’s not true and that makes you biased, but the people aren’t in command of that fact.”
“Can someone then find out what actually happened?” asked the PM to the collected group of advisors.
There was an uncomfortable silence that lasted for a second or two but seemed, to all present, to last a few uncomfortable hours.
“It could have been a solar flare,” offered the PM’s Principal Private Secretary.
“Yes,” agreed most of the room in a murmur.
“But we don’t know?” asked the PM.
“No, Prime Minister.”
“Why don’t we just say that?”
“Oh, Prime Minister!!” exclaimed his Principal Private Secretary. “We never admit that we don’t know something, even when it is blatantly obvious to everyone that we don’t know it.”
“Why not?” pressed the PM.
“Because there would be panic. The whole system of society would break down or worse still the whole system of government would break down.”
“Of course it’s worse, Prime Minister. The general public are held in check by the single fact that everything they don’t know, we the Government know. If they lose faith in that then civilisation as we know it could collapse.”
The Prime Minister sucked in air through his teeth and said, “And what if they don’t believe me? What if the general public know that I don’t know that I know that I don’t know what happens then?”
A second moment of agonised silence sounded loudly in the room for an eon.
“I don’t know, Prime Minister,” said his Principal Private Secretary finally.
“Prime Minister,” began the picture of loveliness that was the Special Advisor to the President of the United States, “no matter what you say there will be the usual reaction. 40% of the people will believe you because they want to and just get on with their lives, 20% will contradict you because they are your enemies anyway, 30% won’t care because they’re too drunk or drugged or watching daytime TV to have noticed what was happening in the first place and 9.9% will put it down to aliens because they have nothing better to do with their time.”
These words comforted the PM. At last, he thought, someone with a sensible approach to the problem.
But something niggled him, “What about the other 0.1%?” he asked.
“Oh they’ll know it is all complete bullshit,” answered the Special Advisor to the President of the United States.
“Because they’re experts, but no one ever listens to them.”
“Gentlemen and lady,” spoke a voice from the doorway, “I think you all better look at the television. The President is about to speak to the American people.”
The collected group of politicians, officials and agents rushed from the PM’s Private office into the Secretary’s office, some of them getting jammed together in the doorway as they went and having to be shoved through by the bulk behind them. On a small portable television the background of The Oval Office could be seen with an empty chair sitting behind a wide shiny mahogany desk.
On the tiny screen the President of the United States appeared and sat down. He had no papers in his hand as it was his style to deliver speeches from memory. The bastard, thought the PM, as he considered how much safer his majority would be if only he could remember what other people wrote for him.
As the President began his address to the nation the PM had to push the head of one of the Secret Service men out of the way so he could get a clear view of what was happening.
“My fellow Americans …”
It was the traditional confident start, but the President’s voice seemed to waver slightly before he began properly.
“A month ago the world was shook by a series of unexplained events that left many of us confused and worried. I am here to tell you that those events, the seeming shift in our sense of reality, was due to a naturally occurring phenomenon which takes place every few million years.”
“Clever,” said the PM, “even the Democrats won’t have to fight an election in a few million years.”
“Shush,” said someone from the back of the room.
“Don’t ‘shush’ me, I’m the Prime Minister!”
“SHUSH,” said everyone else.
“ … and so you see,” continued the President, “a rare type of solar flare caused mass hallucinations which led us to believe that England was being invaded by aliens and that four days in June somehow rewound themselves. Both of those things did not happen. Man has once again been reminded about the power of Nature and the Cosmos.”
“Switch it off,” said the PM.
“You see, Prime Minister? The American People will believe their President,” whispered the beautiful Special Advisor.
“But will the British people believe me?” asked the PM.
“Are you suggesting, Prime Minister, that the Americans trust their President more than the British people trust the word of Her Majesty’s elected leader of Parliament!” spoke the Principal Private Secretary.
“No, of course not,” protested the PM, his over inflated sense of ego overriding his common sense.
The Principal Private Secretary and the American Special Advisor exchanged knowing glances.
“I think I should address the nation in a similar way to the President,” said the PM, “I owe it to my people.”
There was a general rumble of agreement from the collected politicians and civil servants.
As she left Number 10 Downing Street the Special Advisor to the President of the United Stated grinned the grin of a Cheshire cat who had just fallen out of a tree into a swimming pool full of cream. She took a mobile phone from her bag and held it to her ear. There was no need to dial, the phone didn’t actually work, but she felt it more fitting to be talking into something while walking down the road rather than just babbling to herself.
Her telepathy homed in on her target as she spoke into the non-functioning phone. “The Prime Minister is complying with our will and I see you have convinced The White House.”
No one else on the street heard the answer, but whatever it was it seemed to please her.
She sexily passed the guards at the gate and with great charm walked straight by the photographers camped outside to slip ladylike into the back of a blacked-out limousine.
“Done?” inquired the driver as he engaged the car’s engine.
“Done,” she replied.
The driver heard the gearbox grind as he forced the car into first. He wasn’t used to driving, let alone driving something as vulgar as a limousine.
“I think we’re going to get away with this, just like we got away with Cuba,” she said as the car gingerly rounded a corner in Whitehall.
“Good,” said the Driver, “so we can relax?”
The sexy American Special Advisor (who was nothing of the kind) reverted herself into a blob-like state of green oozing ooze that filled almost all of the back of the car and replied, “Yes, we can relax.”
“Where to now?” said the Dean of Botolf-almost-Oxford as he struggled still further with the size of the car and narrowness of the streets.
“I have business to attend to. There’s a lot still to be swept up and you have to see how James is getting along,” said Doris the Cherub from the back.
“Ah, home,” said the Dean and put his foot down.
Botolf-almost-Oxford college stood in the English countryside like a brown stone blister on the skin of the landscape (if the skin were green and seeking immediate medical attention). Inside its ancient and hallowed halls students were packing up their belongings for the summer break. Some would find solace in the fact they were to return to their homes and palaces as Botolf didn’t always provide the services it advertised in its prospectus. Too late, the young Arabian Princes and Indian Princesses’ would discover that studying medieval torture often involved actually having to be stretched on the rack, their cheques having already been cashed, spent, lost on a horse at Royal Ascot or stuffed under the Bursar’s mattress for a rainy day (the Bursar needed a step ladder to get into bed).
The staff of Botolf were packing too, not to move out of the college; for a Botolf Don that would be unthinkable; but to move from one room to another due to the death of a beloved colleague.
Professor Hancock had died, eventually, after several aborted attempts, and was now currently living as a supernatural entity on an old VCR tape, which up until recently had contained footage of the real moon landing in 1878. Hancock was supervising the removal of his possessions into Botolf’s attic storage space, while Professor Cecil, the Head of Megalithic Scrutiny, moved his possessions into Hancock’s old room. Young James Philips, Botolf’s newest Don and rightful heir to Hancock’s rooms, had wanted more modest and modern accommodation and was currently lodged in the student’s wing of the house. This had left Cecil’s rooms free, which the Professor of Military Failures happily occupied, whose rooms in turn, were now being occupied, with much swearing, by the Procurer of Ancient Technologies. And so down the academic line it went, every member of Botolf’s staff moving into slightly larger and higher up accommodation.
The Botolf staff had done this almost ceremonial shifting every time one of their numbers passed away since time immemorial.
Hancock was being transported by a 3rd Year student (if a student reached 3rd Year it was clear to the staff he was trustworthy and to the student that Botolf was not an ordinary institution) on a small portable television attached to a long series of wires, themselves attached to Botolf’s incomprehensible electrical system built by Nikola Tesla in his gap year. Hancock barked orders and tutted as students dropped unique and priceless books, the contents of which would turn a theologian into a Nihilist and a Nihilist into a Unitarian.
“Any word from the Dean?” came the voice of the Bursar as he rumbled in through the doorway of Hancock’s old rooms.
“Turn me around boy,” grumbled Hancock, who was grumpy when he was alive and didn’t like being in a moving TV. He was much happier in a stationary one contemplating the universe as was his hobby in life, and death.
“Now, Bursar, what did you say?” asked Hancock.
“Any word from the Dean?” stressed the Bursar. He was still annoyed he hadn’t gotten Hancock’s old rooms, as they were right at the top of the building, the higher up a Don was the further from his students (this was considered a good thing).
“Yes, I believe they have done it,” said Hancock, “the usual conspiracies will apply.”
“No doubt,” continued Hancock, “half of our staff are busy penning books to fuel these conspiracy theories?”
Botolf staff made a healthy living from penning such books. They were of course looked down upon by the established academic community, but Botolf had always pursued the policy of hiding the truth out in the open.
“You know they are. I believe the Master of Invisible Geographies has a book deal already with some American publisher.”
“Where is young James?”
“Ah, young Master Philips,” answered Hancock, “He needed distraction from all his troubles while we search for his brother and missing wife, so I sent him on a little mission.”
“Nothing too dangerous I hope!”
“Nothing that would kill him …at least not fully.”
* * *
Botolf-almost-Oxford is a college with many traditions. The Annual Cheese Eating Contest between the college’s various academic houses has been going on since records began. Keeping a ferret in your trousers during Pentecost may have dubious roots in the college’s history but it is observed by senior students and junior staff passionately. And the end-of-year whipping of the groundsman may violate several acts of the Human Rights Convention but stopping it would be unthinkable to anyone at Botolf (except the groundsman).
Among Botolf’s most beloved traditions are the bi-annual examinations (beloved that is by staff not by students. The staff tend to use the exams to show how clever they are, how witless their students are, and also to gauge how many students there actually are in their respective departments, which can be a mystery at times).
Botolf sets its collective watch by the bi-annual college exams. They take place in the first week of December and the last week of June, with no exceptions and no excuses for students not to attend. Non-attendance at exams is one of the few things, just ranking above the murder of another student and below the impersonation of a staff member, which can get someone expelled from Botolf-almost-Oxford.
No one has actually been ejected from the college since 1563 and even then he had to murder several students with a pickaxe during evening-song (one murder could have been put down as boyish hi-jinks but nine bludgeoned to death was deemed just to be over the line of acceptable social behaviour at Botolf).
Exams at Botolf have sometimes been held under the most stressful and sometimes dangerous conditions; over a hundred students died as a result of the plague during one particularly long classical history paper; the end of year papers were almost ruined when a flaming cannon ball shot by the Roundheads besieging the house during the Civil War landed on the Dean’s desk; and the Royal Flying Corp was denuded of its best officers for the 1917 December exam because the then Head of Inquisitions (Exams) forged their leave papers so they could be present.
The Dean watched from the balcony of the grand stairs as dozens of gowned and bleary eyed students were frog-marched by the staff into the Great Hall, which had gone through its own bi-annual tradition of being cleared of dining tables in favour of small writing desks and uncomfortable wooden chairs. He winced at his own memory of having to sit for hours, day after day, in those small wooden chairs. Whoever the ancient Botolf carpenter was who designed and built them could only be presumed to have been born without a bum.
First exams of the week were always Geography and Invisible Geographies; they were two of the mandatory subjects at Botolf. Geography was kept simple; capitals of the world which, the Dean reminded himself, desperately needed revising as it still had Zomba, Samarkand and Winchester as national centres of government. Other than that the subject and exam was pretty well informed and up to date. Invisible Geographies, Professor Turner’s sphere, was a different fish of kettles altogether.
He never pretended that he understood any of it. Even as a student, under Three Elbows Maguire, he’d been confused as to what Mapping the Mind really was and as for Landscapes of Mythology, he’d failed to see how you could mark students on their drawings of Atlantis. But the subject persisted. Turner seemed happy and, after all, who was he to interfere with the customs of the college. In fact, it was his job, as Dean, to maintain them … at all costs.
Walking through the interlinking halls of the Great House of Botolf, students who are coming to and from exams pass the college library, where many of them risked life and limb to study some of the more bizarre subjects that Botolf offers. A much safer choice for the budding academic at Botolf was to closely interact with their appointed tutor. In the weeks building up to exams many of Botolf’s corridors would fill up with bustling lines of undergrads waiting at the doors of the Masters’ rooms in order to ask questions, retrieve notes, borrow books and, in more than a few cases, look for an explanation as to what the Course was about in the first place.
Among one of the more popular doors for students to queue outside in recent years was that of Professor Hancock, who, until a short time ago, was the Head of Medieval Thought. This was largely due to his amicable nature and the fact he was nearly always sober after noon (which could not be said for all Botolf Dons).
There had been no queue outside Professor Hancock’s rooms this round of exams, largely owing to the fact that a new man had taken the reins of the department (and was missing in any case) and also due to the fact that Hancock was mostly dead.
Inside Hancock’s former rooms an eerie silence had settled, like dust spread across many old books. Another member of staff had moved into the rooms after Hancock’s appointed successor had indicated that he didn’t really want the honour. To the uninitiated, the main chamber where consultations were given looked pretty much the same as it had, stuffed with books, papers and oddities from around the ancient world.
Beyond the main chamber lay a small bedroom, made smaller still be the enormous Queen Anne four-poster bed which dominated it. A small brown door led on from the bedroom to a tiny lavatory. The lavatories in Botolf’s upper floors had been fitted in the 18th century by one of greatest students of the time. Cecil ‘Skin’ Burns was a pioneer of steam power and had, for his Doctoral thesis, installed a fully functioning heated water system in the college decades before one existed anywhere else. Over the centuries the system had been repaired and bodged many, many times, which left it temperamental and liable to leaks and explosions. (They were generally small explosions; except for one in 1923 which left the department of Pan-Global Egyptology mostly on the 3rd floor when it had more traditionally been on the 2nd).
The lavatory in Hancock’s old rooms was, at first glance, no different than any other hissing and spitting lavatory on the upper floors of the building, but for one variance. It had a further door inserted into its far wall. The door in question was a simple and rather crude wooden affair, more like a broom closet than an actual entrance to anything; but looks can be very deceptive.
Beyond the crude little door was something Old Hancock had been working on for a very long time. It was a Room of Magic. It was vast, far too big to fit in the physical space provided by the mass of brick and stone that was Botolf. The room itself existed in a sort of abscess in space and time. It was here that certain objects could be stored for safekeeping, and Old Hancock, with the help of the rest of the staff, had amassed a huge collection, partly for study but mostly to keep them out of the hands of those who would use them.
Beyond tables of ancient weapons, vats of bubbling potions, and suits of armour that would often walk around on their own, stood a full length mirror in a dull mahogany frame. The mirror was engaged in a conversation, despite having no facial features to do so, with a television which sat facing it on a small, largely unremarkable stool.
“It’s beyond my capabilities,” protested the Mirror.
“I don’t need to see him, I just need you to find any trace of him,” came a crackly voice from the television. The voice was that of Professor Hancock himself, even though he was not quite himself. He had, through a series of experiments, managed to record his own soul onto a video tape which was now playing on a VCR and television. He had not meant it to last this long, it was only going to be a temporary measure to help his apprentice and replacement, James Philips, his most gifted student, take up his metier.
“I can’t see anything. It’s like someone has pulled a veil over the entire linkway. The other world is just darkness to me now,” spoke the Mirror.
“But the linkway is still there?” asked the Professor.
“Yes, it is,” said the Mirror, “but it has been obscured. Someone, or something, doesn’t want us to see.”
“Great powers are against us. This is not the work of two minor Gods with their eyes on the big leagues. Even the Tome lacks this power,” mused the Professor.
“Are they going to bring that horrible thing back to the college?” asked a squeaky voice from beneath the television.
“No,” answered the Professor, “It must be stored somewhere away from magic and young prying minds … far away.”
“Oh good,” spoke the squeaky voice from beneath the television, “because that thing gave me the willies.”
Hancock pondered for a while, “Keeping looking, Mirror,” he finally said, “we must find James in the other world. I must help him or all I have done here is for nothing.”
“I will,” said the Mirror solemnly.
“Take me to the door,” said Hancock and his face disappeared as the screen turned to static.
The squeaking stool beneath the television began to move its legs and walk slowly toward the small open brown door on the far side of the vast room of magic.
“I think you’re putting on weight,” the Stool complained.
Philip Philips stepped out of a taxi and surveyed the street. It was much as he had left it, several months ago now. Those months seemed to him like years, almost lifetimes. He paid the driver and for the first time since he could remember he didn’t stiff him on the fare through sleight-of-hand. The Dean had given him a generous amount of cash for no apparent reason, so he tipped handsomely too.
A walk down Oakridge Drive was much the same as it had always been; afternoon suburban life twitched behind curtains as he passed. No doubt, he thought, they think I’ve just returned from a spell in prison or another ill-fated adventure to a war-torn nation to buy or sell cheap stocks of cigarettes and alcohol. A curtain gave a flicker and he could see a face pressed against the glass behind it. He waved cheerfully and half-strutted, half-skipped his way down the rest of the street toward Number 27.
“Home,” he said to himself. He stepped over the rusted gate onto a thin strip of concrete that divided the two halves of his front garden; it was less a garden and more a jungle of plants and old bikes. He could hear a rustle in the tall grass and wild shrubs.
“Hello boys,” he said to the rats and other assorted wildlife that made his garden their habitat.
There was a second loud rustle then silence. Philip smiled to himself and carefully picked his way along the path to the front door. He caressed the peeling red paint of the door as if it was an old friend. Flakes of the paint came off under his finger nails and he rubbed his hand on his pants. On the ‘to-do’ list, he said to himself. He examined the letter box. It had an oily residue around the hinges that had leaked down the metal of the flap. He expected the letter box to be crammed full of letters but there appeared to be none. Perhaps, he thought to himself, they’re all sitting in a big pile just inside the door; that wasn’t unusual.
Just as he was about to push the letter box with his finger to see if it moved he spied something scratched on its surface that he hadn’t noticed before. Someone had carved letters into the dirt and oil with their fingernail. He made them out one at a time. H. A. T. R. E. D. He wondered which of the many utility companies could have left that, or could it be? That demented Postman!
“I wonder where he’s got to?” he said softly to himself and automatically fished in his pockets for his keys.
“What a silly thing to do!” he added; of course he had no keys, the house keys had been in his original clothes which he’d lost a long time ago on the way to ancient France with Fred and Chrom.
It wasn’t difficult to break in, he’d broken into houses before, not as a thief but occasionally to retrieve contacts or compromising photographs. His house had no alarm and when he dropped onto the carpet of the stairwell the only noise was his coughing as a huge cloud of dust rose to greet him.
The inside of the house was pretty much as he had left it, filled with out of date magazines, hundreds of boxes of unsmokeable cigarettes made of cat litter and bits of machines that if fitted together carefully could make a doomsday device; but Philip was unaware of that. He stumbled down the stairs and gawked in amazement at what lay on the other side of the post-box … almost nothing. A single yellow slip of paper sat on the black, dirt encrusted mat.
“Don’t tell me the post office have cut me off!” He rolled his eyes and reached out a hand to the light switch. His expectations of success weren’t high; he’d fiddled the numbers of the meter as it was and his account was at least six months in arrears.
“And then there was light,” he laughed to himself. He supposed that it wasn’t beyond the Dark Stranger or the Dean of Botolf to arrange for his electricity to be working. He wondered if they’d paid the bill in full; that would be nice.
Philip twiddled the tap but nothing was forthcoming in the way of water. He guessed the electric was all they thought he’d need, so he filled the kettle up from the hot tap as the tank in the attic would still have some water it. He listened to the kettle fight its way up to boiling point as he fished around for other ingredients: cup, spoon, sugar …. teabags … teabags!
The bin had formed its own ecosystem and Philip hoped that removing the used teabag from the top wouldn’t kill off the miniature rainforest of life that was flourishing there. He stirred his tea and hoped for the best. As it turned out it only took a sniff rather than a taste to turn his stomach. He poured the hemlock mixture down the sink and sighed to himself. What now?
After a long while sitting in his chair and staring at daytime TV, Philip, almost absent-mindedly, picked up the yellow slip of paper at the door and read it. It took a while for what was written on it to go from his lips to the surface of his brain, get sent back for confirmation, get lost again in the ears for a moment and finally get comprehended.
‘Please Pick Up Your Tiger At The Post Office Depot.’
Doris had taken the form of a standing lamp. She didn’t like taking the form of inanimate objects but it was necessary to watch Philip, to see if he had been compromised. So far she could see that he was deeply depressed and despondent but not an agent of evil.
She considered what the Dark Stranger was going to do with the Temporal Tome. He hadn’t confided in her, he’d said it was best no one on or off this Earth knew. Then her mind drifted to James and the others lost somewhere in the alternative Earth. She had said to the Dark Stranger that every adversary they had fought so far in all of this mess had been defeated too easily. At first the Dark Stranger had dismissed her concerns but eventually he too conceded that it was as if some great power was testing their defences, looking for weaknesses. The God of Apples, an ambitious warrior-king, a Cat-God, minor demons, even the Tome’s sudden awakening … what if they were just the forerunners for something to come, something much, much bigger?
* * *
Prologue: Sleep Means Death
Sleep means death. He ran the words through his mind over and over. His lips were now so frozen that he could no longer form the sentence with his mouth. On the ice, sleep means death. In his mind’s eye he could see the letters in bold print standing out from the paragraphs of his Aerial Navy Survival Book. He wished he had the book now, perhaps he could find a way to help himself or better still, burn the book for warmth just as suggested in its final lines.
His heart gave a startled jump as his eyes opened, he hadn’t even realised he had closed them. Sleep means death … sleep means death … sleep means death. He raced that single thought across his mind. Forcing his eyes wide open with fear, he surveyed his position. It was bleak. He was going to die here on the Ice Wastes of the Northern Sea, hundreds of leagues from his homeland. The ice floe on which he sat, as a black dot on a blank white canvas was about ten feet in length and eight wide, was mostly flat on top and stood a foot or so from the lapping waves of the forbidding ocean. This ice had saved his life, if only to drain it away again slowly by freezing or starving. His crewmates had not been so ‘lucky’. The sea had taken them quickly and in the soup of night-fog their calls and cries had died within minutes. With all his strength he had screamed out for them, “Over here …. Over here …. Swim to safety over here!” He even cried out some of their names as he bent his ears to define individuals among the chaos of drowning.
Forgael, gunner’s mate second class, tall lad, dark hair, serviced guns one to eight on C deck, good swimmer, champion twice over – now dead. Captain Leonide had once told him if he played his cards right he could be an officer in three years – dead! Ottoway, gunner first class, number seven gun-pit. Number seven was his own gun-pit; Ottoway was his partner and friend. You get to know a man when you share a small space with him twenty hours of the day on a three month tour of duty. You know a man when you recognise the scent of his woman from her letters, when you know his aspirations and dreams, when you argue and make jokes to pass the time. You know a man when his next bullet could kill the enemy aiming at you, when his or your mistake could get both of you killed or take down a whole ship. Ottoway was dead too, he was sure of that. Ottoway was dead before the ship hit the water; the hole in his chest was as big as a fist. The bullet had passed through his body and into the armoured deck behind.
They were all dead. “They’re all dead!” he screamed, stirring up within himself a deep resolve he didn’t know was there. He tried to sit up a little more; it was hard to move now. “You won’t kill me! Do you hear me, you bastard, I’m going to live, bastard! Bastard! I’m going to live!” The lie and the screaming made the adrenaline flow around his gut, “Sleep means death.”
He tightened his arms around himself. He knew he was going to die, but he wasn’t going without a fight, that wasn’t the way a gunner for the Spectre should die. He should have perished the same way as Otto, with a Quat bullet in his chest. That’s the way a gunner from the Spectre should die. He thought about his ship, and it was his ship, just as much his as her Captains or any other man on her. She was probably directly below him now. How far down, he wondered, how deep is this part of the Northern Sea? Over three leagues straight to the bottom anyway. She’d be crushed by the weight, her armour buckling, her superstructure bending under pressure. The guns would survive, thrown clear by the impact, and the engines were almost solid, the batteries of course could not break, but everything else was designed to be light, reduce her weight, and keep her in the sky where she belonged.
He wanted her to be up there now, over Leisia, his homeland, protecting his people with her sisters of the Fleet beside her.
If only he’d thought of grabbing something useful on his way out before she hit the water, but in the scramble to survive his only thought was for the exit. Just like three hundred others he’d jumped from the burning decks into the Northern Sea. He supposed many of his crewmates didn’t get to jump and their ship became their coffin. He’d rather freeze than be under the waves with no way out.
Dawn was coming. Through the thick sea fog he could just make out the red and orange suns creeping over the horizon. The suns would be hours up in the sky back home. His sister would be fixing up a breakfast: toast, fried meat and maybe a soup of yesterday’s leftovers. His younger brother was the only man in the household now. He’d still be lying in bed trying to squeeze the last few moments of sleep in before the carriage ride to the Academy. The boy would be late and get extra duties for it, but he was used to it. He was strong and liked physical work. The young lad still had a year to decide which of the forces to enter: Army, Aerial Navy or Submariners. Sitting here, waiting to die on the Ice Wastes, he had made the decision for his younger brother; it would have to be the army. The boy’s chances of survival would be greater there, sent to a quiet part of The Line or better still the Home Guard. But he knew the young boy would want the Navy, all young boys wanted the Navy, the prestige, your picture in Guts and Glory and the girls loved a Navy man.
He wanted to talk to the boy once more and tell him all he had seen, the realities of war, the truth. Most of all he longed to see his mother, to say sorry. When the war took her husband, his father, she had been right in everything she had said about the stupidity of this ceaseless fighting and he, ever the good soldier, had chastised her for it. Now they didn’t speak or write and his sister was the only form of communication between the three boys and the old reclusive woman.
His eyes were half closed, the weight of his eyelids was almost too much to bear now; he was losing. At the edge of his hearing, through the rushing winds and the constant lap of waves, he detected a low hum. At first he thought it was his imagination, perhaps his eyes were closed and this was death approaching. The sound grew until it was clear and dominant over the din of nature. Despite his weakness he was still a Navy man and all Navy men knew that sound. She was slow, less than five knots, that meant she was engaged in a search pattern over the crash site. This far into the Wastes she must be a cruiser or battleship class. Maybe Captain Leonide got a message out just in time. By the sound of her engines and slow swish of her propellers he could tell she wasn’t far off, half a league or less. He didn’t move, he couldn’t, but he knew he wouldn’t have to. Every man on that ship was looking for a black dot on the white Wastes, hoping against hope – just as he would do for them.
* * *
Murder on the Alpha Centauri Express
Luxuries and Arrivals
Today was my first (and perhaps only) journey as a First Class passenger aboard the most famous interstellar ship in the galaxy. I never dreamt that someone born as Low as me would ever travel on the Alpha Centauri Express.
Despite all of our technological advances, interstellar travel has remained the privilege of the Highers in human society, and even then, only the very rich can afford to travel outside of a cramped suspended-animation vessel.
As I passed through the layers of security, I was grateful that my police passport didn’t give any notion that I was not born here on Earth, among the Highers. I was born a Lower on one of the vast floating space stations that accommodated hundreds of millions of factory workers. I had become used to walking in a certain manner, a strut that denoted my position of authority. Despite my relatively meagre wages I dressed in the very finest clothes; a tailor-made suit, antique leather boots that rose to my knees and were in fashion several decades ago, and a wide-brimmed hat with a low crown, because hats were essential to a Higher gentleman’s look.
I had taken great care over the years to hide my birth accent, which would give away the fact that I came from the worst Lower station of them all, colloquially known as ‘The Slum’. As I checked my baggage in, I spoke in clear and deliberate neutral tones, so the handlers and security guards, themselves Highers, born here on Earth, didn’t suspect my humble origins. To them it would be inconceivable for a Lower to be traveling on the most luxurious liner of them all, impossible that they could be serving the likes of me; it did make me smile inside.
The departures lounge of Europe Central was a vast, low ceilinged, sorting room, where both Highers and Lowers stood in long (but separate) queues waiting for their shuttle transport to the various orbital stations or bases on the moons of Jupiter or the mining colony on Mars. It was a smelly, noisy and chaotic scene I was leaving behind as the travelator whisked me along a glass fronted corridor, then behind a concrete wall and down into a new section of the complex.
I held my ticket in my hand; it should have been a ticket to a journey and experience of a lifetime, but it didn’t feel like that, it felt more like a sentence, a punishment for a failure. The travelator continued into the twilight of the corridor, while classical music echoed around me, a nice touch but nothing to prepare me for the enormous arched space into which I suddenly emerged.
I had to shield my eyes with my hand for a moment as bright yellow rays of what looked like natural sunlight dropped like giant spears from several circular windows high up in the roof. The roof itself was held up by gothic steel arches, rooted into the ground in columns the width of a small house, so I would guess that the circular windows above must have been a hundred and fifty feet in diameter.
I entered the first class departures hall, the waiting area for interstellar travellers. It had coloured marble floors and an array of statues and art, both human and alien, lining the walls. The travelator came to a gentle halt in the centre of the hall and a small man wearing a peaked cap stood at the end smiling at me.
“Ticket, Sir,” he said softly and held out his hand.
I passed him the ticket I had been holding. I probably lost some of my demeanour as I was still gazing about in amazement at the scale and opulence of the hall; and the fact there appeared to be so few people in this immense space.
“Thank you, Sir,” said the Ticket Inspector as he handed me back my ticket. “If Sir will care to follow me, I will escort Sir to the Express waiting lounge,” he continued.
“Thank you,” I said sternly, trying to recover some of my sureness.
As we walked across the marble floor (which I was sure was made of some synthetic material), his shoes clicked as he stepped, my boots made a slight but embarrassing squeak, I couldn’t help but ask a few questions of the man.
“There don’t seem to be too many passengers today?” I asked in as dispassionate a voice as I could muster. I was still looking up at the windows, which seemed to defy gravity; the roof somehow appeared to have too much glass to be able to stay up on its own, and the space was just too wide. I looked across the floor to my left; there were a few men in similar peaked caps to my guide, but they were so far away as to be just dots in the distance. I had called into some luxurious villas belonging to rich Highers during my police work, and the occasional gothic-style civic building, but nothing compared to this scale.
“The Express,” explained the Ticket Inspector, “is the only vessel departing today, Sir, you are the second passenger to arrive.”
I didn’t ask who the first was. It was true I was early, I am always early, it is just part of my nature; I deeply detest lateness of any kind.
After several minutes of walking under the arches we reached a building within the building. It was a long narrow structure made up of roofed arches, in the same gothic style as the main hall. It had no doorway, just an open end and inside were all manner of chairs, different shapes and sizes. I recognised some of the chairs as being for alien bodies, but a few were unfamiliar. Perhaps today I would meet someone, or something, I had never met before.
“Will the gentleman require anything else?” asked the Inspector.
“No,” I replied.
“Very well, Sir. There is a refreshment robot inside the lounge and an attendant from the Express will be along shortly.” He turned and began to click away across the hall again.
“One moment,” I called after him.
“Sir?” he spun on his heels.
“Is there a book stand?” I asked.
“There is a download point at the service area inside the lounge, Sir.”
“No, I mean for print books,” I said, his facial reaction was predictable.
He raised his eyebrows and made an O with his mouth. “Emmm,” he stuttered, “I don’t … think so, Sir, we would have to send out …”
“It’s fine,” I interrupted and held my palm up to him to make sure he knew I was annoyed.
“I do believe,” he took a few steps back toward me, “there are some print books in the lounge itself, Sir, beside the drinks dispenser on a low table. Shall I look for you, Sir?”
“No thank you,” I ordered, “I’ll look myself.” I turned and walked into the lounge.
I smiled to myself as I heard the hurried click of his departing shoes. I liked making Highers uncomfortable; there was something of a Lower-class rebel still in me despite living on Earth for most of my life.
The lounge was decorated with what appeared to be real oil paintings, crystal light shades and, apart from the alien chairs, a lot of mismatched antique furniture. I couldn’t help but feel it was all rather thrown together and tasteless, but then, I always found wealthy Highers to be tasteless.
I found the low table the Ticket Inspector had described. It did have some print books on it but the options were not very exciting. Given that I was going to be spending several days stuck on an interstellar ship with an alien ambassador, I should have thought to bring one of my own print books. I had a small but interesting collection. I could of course download a book from library in my palm-reader, but I hated reading from it, I hated even turning it on, especially when I was away from work.
I sifted through the dozen books on the table, a few dull guides to Earth, a novel by an actress I’d never heard of and three copies of the same Politician’s biography. I wondered to myself if he had left them there on three separate interstellar trips; it wouldn’t have surprised me.
The last book was one I already had at home. The Brief Modern History of Earth, written, unusually, by an alien. I had read it many years ago, but put it in my jacket pocket anyway, it being the best of a very bad bunch. I sat down in a comfortable wing-backed chair and stared out of one of the high windows into the great hall of the main building.
I sat there mulling over the events of the last two weeks that had led me, a low ranking cop in Earth’s Homicide Department, to be travelling on the world’s most famous liner. I watched a small eight-wheeled vehicle slowly crawl passed the window of the lounge. It caught my eye because my case rested on its flatbed , a mustard yellow suitcase filled with my clothes and a few personal belongings. It was dwarfed by the others around it, some of them the size of wardrobes and covered in exotic skins or framed in gilt or silver.
A second eight-wheeled vehicle came close behind the first. It had only one item on its low flatbed, which I recognised as a cold fusion battery. It stood upright, the size of the largest of the suitcases in the first vehicle, with a series of black tubes emerging from the front and re-entering the battery at the sides. Low down on the front was a large control panel that glowed green with the occasional red or yellow flashing light. That thing is on! I thought to myself. Who the hell is bringing a live cold fusion battery that could power a small city onto an interstellar liner, and why? A third flatbed passed by, with a second cold fusion battery on it. There seemed to be some fuss around it, and several officials were arguing with a man in a bright suit. They were too far away for me to hear what was being said but the man in the
bright suit appeared to have got his way and the flatbed, with its expensive load, rolled on.
My thoughts were interrupted by the arrival in the lounge of another passenger. He was escorted to the entrance by the same Ticket Inspector who had brought me. At first I thought he was a human, a Higher, because of his dismissive attitude to the Ticket Inspector. He waved the man’s questions away, so much so that the Ticket Inspector stopped talking abruptly, gave a small bow to the man, turned his back sharply and walked away. As this new arrival sat in the furthest possible seat from me and immediately sank his head into his palm-reader I noticed he was not fully human, and therefore could not be a Higher from Earth. He must have had an alien grandparent because most of his features were human but only a look into his eyes betrayed an alien background. They were jet black. I knew of two of the nine sentient species in the Galaxy who had jet black eyes. They came from planets that were far from their respective Suns, dark places, cold places, that bred cold species.
Because this grumpy looking fellow passenger seemed intent on paying me no attention I paid no more to him. Within a few minutes two more passengers arrived.
Two ladies were shown into the lounge by the Ticket Inspector with as much pomp as the little man could manage. The first woman was young, very pretty and was wearing her hair and clothes in the outlandish style that the rich Highers of Earth had taken to recently. Her blond hair was tied up in a tower of decreasing buns and her face was covered in a rainbow of colours. I’d always found the fads of Earth’s rich Highers to be tacky and I’m sure the girl would have been much more attractive without her makeup. The only thing that took attention away from her multi-coloured face was the shiny suit she wore. I’m sure it was made of some overly elaborate material, engineered to be expensive rather than useful. It was silver, except when she turned away from the light, then it took on a dark purple hue, so that while she was moving the suit itself was swirling from bright to dark. It had overly large cuffs, pants bottoms and a collar that almost touched the girl’s ears. I didn’t allow any change in my facial expression as I nodded to her glance down the lounge, yet inside I couldn’t help but giggle at the impractical fashions of the day.
The second woman, who was chatting to the Ticket Inspector constantly in a low whisper so that he had to lean his head toward her, was older, Human, Higher (like the younger lady) but dressed in a more conventional black dress with a blood-red jacket over it and a hat perched sideways on her head. Her clothes were expensive, traditional, and she had the classical demeanour of the wife of a rich and powerful man. If she was a self-made woman she would have carried a business case, worn something more practical for travel and carried herself with that almost butch gait that such women have adopted.
I presumed that the two women were together when they first arrived but as they took separate seats, it was clear they had just arrived at the same time. The younger woman sat on a high chair as a service robot drifted up to her and took her order for refreshments. Other service robots, small floating screens really, began to buzz around the room.
“Would you like refreshments, Sir?” asked the voice from the screen in front of me.
“No, thank you,” I replied.
“Can I upload a virtual book, film, game or experience into your palm-reader, Sir?”
“Nothing, thank you,” I answered sharply.
The service robot drifted off again just as the next passenger arrived. To my astonishment it was someone I knew.
“Thomas!” said Kax 4512 in an annoyingly loud voice across the lounge. Each of the two women looked at him with distaste as he made his way to my table and sat opposite me.
“How the hell did you get in in here? This is for passengers of the Express only,” I asked lowly, “and keep your voice down.”
“Sorry old chap, I just wasn’t expecting to see a celebrity like you,” Kax’s mouth gills opened wide and I knew that in his species this was a sign of laughing or smiling.
“Very funny,” I replied, genuinely annoyed at the presence of this paparazzo on what was supposed to be a ‘getting out of the limelight’ trip for me.
“Perhaps you are on a case?” Kax 4512 pressed.
I changed the direction of the questioning, “How did you get here?”
“My editor paid for my ticket,” answered Kax 4512, while his webbed hands drew a palm-reader from a satchel around his neck. His species hands were unsuitable for permanent insertion of the device.
“Don’t you worry,” he said noticing my concern as he produced it, “this is not to record your trip on the Express, it’s to record his.” He nodded his green head toward the entrance of the lounge.
There was much fuss at the entrance as a tall man with a palm-reader glowing a 3D image on his face was barking orders to the Ticket Inspector and several other attendants from the station.
“We’re not waiting here,” he yelled, “we were told we could board straight away, now sort it or I’ll sort you.”
A second figure was standing behind the first man, humanoid in shape but clearly mechanical. On the head of the figure, where the face should have been, was an oval screen that had, when I squinted to see, the face of a young human man.
“Is that the pop singer?” I asked Kax 4512.
“Have you been living under a rock?” he replied, “this is his first journey outside of Earth since he was murdered.”
Suddenly the cold-fusion batteries made sense. Jos J. Jones was the lead singer with the galaxy’s biggest ever band, The Decayed Animal Matters. Their music was a mix of alien trance inducement and Earth electro-bass; not to my taste. He had been murdered over a year ago but his personality and consciousness had been saved onto a hard drive and downloaded into a new mechanical body. This procedure was ludicrously expensive, but lucky for Mr. Jones he was one of the few Beings in the galaxy who could afford to maintain his own life in this way.
As the attendants led the pop star and the tall man away, still barking orders, presumably to board the ship early, I watched the movement of this cyborg man. His walk was almost, but not quite, natural and as each joint of his body shifted a small white jet of gas would spit out.
“How horrible,” I said under my breath.
“What? Are you crazy?!” said Kax 4512, “living forever! If only I could afford that. They say he used all his wealth just to get it up and running and now he has to keep working to stay alive. But I don’t buy that, he’s playing bigger gigs than ever. He’s the most famous man who ever lived.”
“Or died!” I added.
“There is someone famous,” I said as I pointed to the next passenger to arrive and sit down to consult with his palm-reader, “but I don’t suppose a celebrity reporter like you would care.”
Kax 4512 looked up from his typing for just a second, “Politicians, they’re not news,” he tutted and went back to filing his story.
The politician is question was a half-alien-half-human colonist leader called Ros Hya-Smyth, who had recently succeeded in gaining localised autonomy for AC (Alpha Centauri), although it was well known that full independence from Earth was what he really wanted.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” called out the Ticket Inspector over a rather crackly Tannoy, “it is time to board the Express, if you would care to follow me.”
As I followed Kax 4512 and the others out of the waiting lounge I suddenly remembered my reason for being here in the first place. Where was the dignitary I was supposed to be escorting to Alpha Centauri?
“Excuse me,” I said to one of the attendants, “Is this all the passengers for the Express?”
“No Sir, there is one more. A gentleman arrived early and said he wished to stretch his legs. Another attendant has gone to fetch him,” replied the attendant before he rushed after everyone else.
Our strange parade of passengers and staff continued under the monstrous arches of the great hall toward a rather small stained glass door. By the time I arrived at the door the others had gone through and the door was wide open. Through the gap I caught my first glimpse of the famous Alpha Centauri Express, the oldest and most opulent space liner in the galaxy.
“Well that is a sight to be seen,” I said to myself and stepped from the great hall into a cavern of equal size, its space filled with the bulk of a cylinder-shaped ship. The outer ring of the cylinder had wide, beautifully cut windows and the grey-black skin of the vessel seemed to stretch like expensive leather over a skeleton of ribs, which could be just made out beneath.
In the centre of this hollow cylinder was a solid tower on its side, slowly rotating. It was connected to the outer shell by several joists. It was oddly shaped, full of bumps, tubes, hissing exhausts and antennae arms. This centre was the ancient engine of the ship, a thousand times bigger than anything any modern vessel would require. It still had hydraulics, vacuum chambers and, I had read somewhere, even the heating systems were run by burning some exotic fossil fuel that had to be imported from a distance system.
“Sort of handsome, isn’t it,” said a strange voice beside me, “in a peculiar way.”
“Yes,” I answered, my eyes still fixed on this magnificent ship, so unusual in a time when all space craft were square, white and generic.
I turned to see the tall figure beside me, cloaked from shoulder to feet and wearing a shiny ebony mask, which portrayed a face with gentle sleepy eyes and mouth that looked almost like it was sporting a soft smile, but I couldn’t be sure.
If this was the alien dignitary I was supposed to be escorting, then he needed no introduction to me. I’d read about his exploits as a child but never guessed I would actually meet him.
He held out a gloved hand, “Ketteridge,” he said.
“I know,” I replied in a daze, “oh, excuse me. Inspector Wozinak, Thomas Wozinak.”