Murder on the Alpha Centauri Express
writer: Steve Downes
Editor: John Monaghan
Sci-fi Murder Mystery Novel
Read the first chapter for Free here … Book available on all Amazon Book Stores from the 15th May 2017 (print and eBook).
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.”