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IN THE LAP OF THE GODS
by Steph Bennion
There are those who would stop at nothing to keep Professor Krakenspreken's innovative extra-dimensional drive from becoming a reality. For the investigating police officers, reality stretched further than they expected...
PROFESSOR KRAKENSPREKEN had a lucky escape that day. Unconscious at the controls of his hired aircar, which in turn had crunched heavily to the ground on the West Coast mainline just south of Birmingham, he knew nothing of the tree that had fallen across power lines and thus turned all signals along the nearby stretch of railway to red, stranding the Inter-City Express a safe distance away. The very same train that otherwise would have sliced his aircar cleanly in two.
Detective Inspector Tanith Hardwick shifted her cap upon her bundled dark tresses and wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead, feeling hot under the late morning sun. Constable Rashnu Chambers, a fresh-faced young man straight out of police training college, stood beside her and scanned the scene with an air of keen enthusiasm. Together they watched as the turbo-prop ambulance dropped to the ground, ready to take the concussed Professor Krakenspreken to hospital. There was no evidence of foul play, but the professor was a very important man.
"Amazing thing, fate," Tanith remarked, singularly unimpressed. Her colleague frowned, not yet accustomed to her own morose version of the usual twenty-second-century world-weariness. "That's what you call leaving things in the lap of the gods."
"Yes, but which gods?" asked Rashnu. "And why is Krakenspreken so important to them?"
* * *
Unnoticed by the officers, a man dressed unimaginatively in black crouched low at the side of a nearby storage shed and watched in disappointment the rescue team at work. He was momentarily startled by a grey cat-shaped blur, loping unannounced from the shadows, then frowned in annoyance as the tabby intruder suddenly became that of a dark-haired women in a floor-length coat of black and silver fur. The apparition gave him a wink and went to sit on a nearby grassy rise to bask in the warm summer sunshine.
"You!" the man muttered. "Why do you haunt me so?"
"The game continues," she observed, ignoring his question. Her soft purring tones held more than a hint of venom. "But your dear master's tricks are becoming so weary."
"A bolt from the blue," he said slowly, "is no mere trick."
The woman idly scrutinised her highly-polished fingernails. "He lacks style," she complained. "Getting you grovelling humans to do his duty is so old hat. See what I did there? Do you realise how much work went into that lucky escape?"
"I don't care!" the man snapped. "Interfere no more!"
* * *
"The facts should speak for themselves!" grumbled Rashnu. "But they don't!"
Tanith did not need to be a detective to deduce that her colleague was irritated. Back in the comforting familiarity of New Lloyd House, the headquarters of Greater Mercia Police in the centre of Birmingham, not even Tanith's offer of a freshly-brewed mug of tea could ease the young man's frustration. What should have been a routine, five-minute report had turned into an intricate web of conspiracy and intrigue before his eyes. Tanith could almost see the cogs whirring in Rashnu's mind; he seemed in no doubt that Professor Krakenspreken was at the centre of something big.
"It was a lucky escape," she said, regarding her colleague sympathetically. "Nothing more, nothing less."
"But look at the facts!" Rashnu turned to the large wall-mounted holovid screen behind where he stood. Upon it were displayed various documents, next to which he had used an e-marker to scrawl various words and names. He pointed again at the first one.
"Krakenspreken. The renown German physicist, whose wife is one of the rising local stars of space, a Birmingham-born engineer in the aerospace industry. Both hold joint European and Chinese citizenship through their work on the Chinese government's space programme. The professor suffers from heart problems and it is possible that if he missed his medication he would experience a black out. So, no real mystery there."
Tanith shrugged. "As indeed suggested by the hospital's report."
"The aircar," he continued, pointing to the second word. "Krakenspreken was on his way to the university when the incident occurred. However, if he'd travelled from his lodgings via the most direct route, or allowed the automatic pilot to follow a standard flight path, he should not have been anywhere near the rail line. Also, both flight computers and the emergency back-up system all failed at the same time, which is supposed to be impossible."
Tanith raised an eyebrow, wondering how long she should humour him.
"Consider the tree," said Rashnu, turning to the next word. "The sycamore that fell near the signal box appeared to have been struck by lightning." He stepped to the window and after an overly-dramatic pause, snapped open the blinds to reveal the bright summer's day. "Lightning that appears to have come from a clear blue sky."
"Stranger things have happened."
"Not on our patch," Rashnu retorted. He waved a hand towards the last entry on his scrawled list. "The power lines. All signals have a fail-safe circuit so that any power loss will automatically set them to red; again, no mystery there. Yet the falling tree managed to swerve around a parked freight wagon and a protective fence to hit an electrical junction box already weakened by corrosion and due to be replaced. The engineer who came while we were there was at a loss as to how the tree could have fallen in such a way. He laughed at your suggested 'freak gust of wind'. He reckoned the chances of it happening were a million to one."
"So he said," murmured Tanith. "Krakenspreken was lucky."
Rashnu gave an exasperated sigh. "It's more than just luck. It has to be!"
"Perhaps the professor switched off the autopilot and attempted some aerobatics to relieve the boredom," she suggested, smiling. "Or maybe a freak meteorite blew the aircar's systems and then struck the tree. Seriously, I think you're reading too much into this. And your tea is getting cold."
"What if it was attempted murder?" Rashnu returned to the window and gazed out across the car park. Tanith had already spotted the two small boys busy stealing the blue light from the roof of their patrol car. "This professor. Why is he so important?"
"Krakenspreken is working on some new type of spacecraft engine," she told him. "Birmingham University and Rolls Royce built the prototype here in the Midlands, but it's Chinese money behind it all. Look at this."
She reached behind to her desk and picked up her touch-screen slate, which was showing the morning's edition of a popular tabloid newspaper. She flicked through the pages, paused and then passed it to Rashnu.
"Big girl," he murmured appreciatively. The screen was dominated by a picture of the latest curvaceous celebrity to take the music world by storm.
"No, no!" she said irritably, pointing. "Further down."
Rashnu followed her finger to the headline beneath, which read: 'SKYLON TO FLY STAR TREK ENGINE TEST'. The article was brief; with limited information available, journalists had decided that Krakenspreken's new engine was something akin to the 'Warp Drive' as immortalised by the long-running science-fiction franchise. Whether this was in fact the case, neither Krakenspreken nor Que Qiao Enterprises, the Chinese state-owned asteroid mining operation heavily invested in the project, deigned to say. Coincidentally, below the article was an advert for Star Trek 200, the new holovid movie celebrating the two-hundredth anniversary of the show.
"Space is important to the Chinese," he said. "Tell me something I don't know."
"It's a cut-throat business," said Tanith. "Do you remember the fuss a few years ago when their space station refused to let a foreign spaceplane dock when it was in trouble? They were convinced it was a scam to get aboard and steal their secrets."
"So if Krakenspreken's invention is something special, maybe China is not alone in taking an interest," Rashnu said. "What if there's a rival who wants to make sure it never sees the light of day? Do you see what I mean about a conspiracy?"
There was a knock at the door. Tanith looked at Rashnu, stepped towards the door and then paused as it opened to reveal the sturdy frame and worn, unsmiling face of their Chief Inspector. The man greeted her with a weary sigh.
"Have you signed off the Krakenspreken report?" he asked, his voice gruff. "I have two suits from the Foreign Office breathing down my neck and asking why we're dragging our feet over a simple aircar accident."
Tanith hesitated before replying. "Constable Chambers believes there may be more to it, sir."
"It was an accident," he said carefully. "No matter what you, or indeed anyone else, may think. This is making waves at the top. Don't ask me who or where or why, just write the damned report. An accident and a lucky escape. No more, no less."
Tanith glanced over her shoulder at Rashnu's screen display. "Yes sir."
"Good. I want it ready to send in five minutes."
The Chief Inspector turned and walked away. Just as Tanith closed the door, she spied two shadowy, nondescript characters loitering in the corridor beyond.
"Men in black," she murmured.
* * *
The dark-suited figures returned to their equally midnight-hued ground car, dropping their fake Foreign Office identification into a convenient street-side recycling bin on the way. Leaving New Lloyd House, the car sped along Colmore Circus Queensway into the afternoon sunshine. After a while, the car turned into a secluded side street and pulled to a halt.
The man sitting in the passenger's seat peered carefully through the windows. After making sure there were no curious onlookers in the street, he retrieved a palm-sized glass globe from the bag at his feet and placed it in his lap.
The sphere lit up at his touch, revealing the image of a numeric keypad against a cool white background. The man tapped a series of numbers and almost immediately the keypad disappeared to be replaced by a dark, indistinct face with yellow slit-like eyes.
"The police are suspicious," said the man. "What are your orders?"
He shivered as a voice as old as the hills, yet as fearsome as a volcano in heat, resonated from the crystal globe. The reply was brisk and to the point.
"Arrange another accident," hissed the dark shape.
* * *
Tanith disappeared on mysterious business that afternoon, but as promised met up with her young colleague that evening at The Old Royal public house in Church Street, a favoured drinking haunt of those based at New Lloyd House. The holovid screen upon the wall, having just finished showing coverage of Birmingham City's latest poor attempt at football, had switched to a rolling news channel. Rashnu sat on a tall stool at the end of the bar, nursing the dregs of his drink. Tanith nodded to the bartender, who caught her glance and poured a couple of glasses of bitter without a word. In her handbag, Tanith's purse beeped to let her know the automatic payment had been taken.
"Cheer up," she said, taking the seat next to Rashnu. She pushed a freshly-poured beer across the bar to her colleague. "I bought you a pint."
"You're showing your age," Rashnu told her. "Pints went out with the ark."
"I can't get used to these fancy schooner measures," she complained. "Why is it that when anything changes, it's never for the better? That's not what I call progress."
Her eyes were drawn to moving images of the holovid screen. The news was running a story from the asteroid belt, where two ten-kilometre rocks were being hollowed out and equipped with fusion engines as part of an audacious project to send humans to Barnard's Star. As she watched, the report switched to a recorded interview with crew members aboard the Edward Everett Hale, the largest spacecraft ever built in Earth orbit, which having departed for Alpha Centauri last year was already accelerating hard past the orbit of Neptune. This expedition was sponsored by a holovid broadcast company, which carefully edited the crew's weekly updates and personal journals to create what it hoped was the ultimate twenty-second-century soap opera. Speaking to the news cameras now was the star of the show, a bearded, jolly hulk of a man named Silenus Smith, who even at this early stage was favourite to win the audience vote to lead the first landing party. It would be another forty years before the two dozen crew members would know for sure if the Alpha Centauri system had any worlds capable of receiving them.
The report returned to the asteroid belt and lingered upon the image of two asteroids, each ringed in spoil spewed from mining machinery deep inside. The commentary revealed that the unorthodox colony ships would take fifty years to reach Barnard's Star, yet despite this the project had nonetheless received over forty thousand applications for the seven hundred and fifty one-way tickets available for each craft. Tanith found it hard to accept that there were people willing to sign up to leaving Earth for good, let alone a space journey lasting half a lifetime or more.
"Amazing," she murmured. "People are strange."
"It's those Chinese again," noted Rashnu.
"Everyone but the Chinese you mean," Tanith remarked. "The Robert Goddard is to have an American crew, the Dandridge Cole mainly Europeans."
"Hollow moons," he explained. "Those colony ships are just bigger versions of the crazy homes Que Qiao asteroid miners have been building for years. They hack out a chamber in the centre, set the whole thing spinning to create a bit of gravity and hey presto! One miniature world all to themselves."
"First Luna, then Mars and now inside asteroids! I know this planet's seen better days, but is it really that bad on Earth?" asked Tanith. "Yes, I know all about the so-called urge to explore. It was all Krakenspreken could talk about this afternoon."
"So that's where you went! The Chief will have your guts for garters if he finds out you visited the professor in hospital. He wants nothing more to do with the case."
"I was off duty for the rest of the day," she said coyly. "So I decided to visit an acquaintance of mine who was in need of tea and sympathy."
"I was stuck with boring paperwork. If I'd had known what you were up to..."
"You'd have come along too?" Tanith realised she had somehow finished her drink far quicker than usual. "You're a new recruit, still on probation. I didn't want to get us both into trouble."
"Fair enough." Rashnu motioned towards her empty glass. "Another?"
"Best not. We may be called back into the office before the night is out."
"Sounds ominous. Anything I should know?"
Tanith side-stepped the question. "You haven't asked me about Krakenspreken."
"What about him? Is he giving the nurses a hard time?"
"I think what you said earlier is right. Someone is out to get him."
"Now you're onto the conspiracy theories!" laughed Rashnu. "What secret plot have you uncovered? An assassin lurking in his wardrobe? Poison in his hospital tea?"
"I never thought of poison," mused Tanith. "He certainly looks a lot more poorly than I would expect following a gentle aircar crunch. His daughter Freyja was there. She firmly believes her father's life is in danger; and all because of his invention. Although he designed it, she says he never fully appreciated what it could do and it's only now the prototype is up and running that he is starting to get scared. Really scared. His wife is leading the Skylon launch," she added as an afterthought. "She's rushing back from the research centre on Ascension Island as we speak."
"What is this invention of his?" asked Rashnu. He looked intrigued. "Some sort of super-fast engine for spaceplanes?"
"Not even close," she said. "Krakenspreken said something about speed and distance being irrelevant if you use extra dimensions, assuming they were ours to use. That's how his engine works: it allows you to jump from A to Z without bothering the rest of the alphabet, using other dimensions as a short cut. He tried to explain the principle behind it but the science was way beyond me."
"Extra dimensions! He's winding you up."
"If he was, his daughter was in on the joke too," retorted Tanith. "Freyja's following in the old man's footsteps and reading astrophysics at the university. She was so earnest when she tried to explain her father's theories I had to believe it." She leaned closer to Rashnu and dropped her voice. "Freyja told me later that what her father was really worried about was the effect his invention was having on these other dimensions. She said that in the past, Krakenspreken spoke about 'not wanting to upset our neighbours'. He referred to them often, sometimes as extra-terrestrials, but also as the 'old gods'."
"Now you're winding me up," muttered Rashnu. "I think father and daughter are perhaps losing their grip on reality."
"Maybe. But before I left, the professor gave me this." Tanith reached into the inside pocket of her jacket and withdrew a slim data rod. "He made me promise that should anything happen to him, I was to take this to his assistant at the university, Professor Braithwaite. Even in hospital he believed he wasn't safe."
"Scary stuff." Draining the last of his beer, Rashnu glanced across the bar and stiffened. Two men in dark suits stood at the far end of the room, looking their way.
Tanith had seen them too. "I think it's time we left," she said.
* * *
They left the snug confines of The Old Royal and slowly made their way to Tanith's ground car in the New Lloyd House car park, where Rashnu accepted her offer of a lift home. After taking their seats in the upholstered interior, Tanith switched on the car's network link to catch the evening's headlines. The top story, as it had been for the past week or so, was about the increasingly-violent anti-corporation demonstrations in London. The second item shocked them both and they listened in grim silence to the news that Professor Krakenspreken, esteemed astrophysicist, had relapsed and died in hospital. Tanith realised she must have been one the last few people to see the professor alive. With a sad shake of her head, she activated the controls and guided the car towards the road.
"Poor professor," murmured Rashnu.
Tanith pressed the speed control buttons on the steering wheel and frowned. The vehicle had stopped responded to her fingertip commands, but to her alarm continued to accelerate, despite fail-safe systems supposedly making that impossible. Her voice remained remarkably calm as she told her colleague the bad news.
"Rashnu, we have a problem," she murmured. "I think we're about to crash."
"What?" he cried. The car had almost reached the end of Steelhouse Lane. Tanith's frantic tapping on the buttons was having little effect. "Turn the bloody engine off!"
Out of control, the car sped onwards. Ahead, the road ended at its junction with James Watt Queensway, a major arterial route through the city and one predictably heaving with slow-moving traffic. Tanith glanced at the console and saw their speed had crept up to nearly fifty kilometres per hour. They had just a few seconds before their car careered into the huge articulated truck blocking their exit.
"We're going to die," Rashnu said quietly.
What happened next only became clear after the event. An aged pressure valve gave way and released thousands of tons of water into the main pipeline running under the road ahead. All of a sudden, dozens of iron access covers began exploding into the air upon a barrage of municipal geysers. It just so happened that two offside wheels of the articulated truck's trailer were sitting squarely upon a particularly large cover just as it too decided to launch aquatically towards the heavens. The force of the surge tilted the trailer right over, shedding the lorry's load of hospital mattresses across the end of Steelhouse Lane.
Tanith's speeding car ploughed through the scattered beds like a victim of a gigantic pillow fight and shuddered to a halt barely a metre away from the overturned lorry. Bruised, shaken but otherwise unhurt, Tanith and Rashnu clambered from the car.
"That's what I call a lucky escape," gasped an incredulous Rashnu. All around, people ran screaming as jets of water cascaded into the air to fall like monsoon rains.
Tanith nodded. "I've got a feeling that someone somewhere likes us."
Rashnu ran across the road to commandeer a taxi that had screeched to a halt to avoid the avalanche of beds. Abandoning her car, Tanith hurried in his wake, pausing only to curse at a silver and black cat that dashed before her and tried to trip her up. Filled with a sudden sense of purpose, they wasted no time leaving the scene of watery devastation behind. Their brush with death had shaken them both more than they cared to admit.
Twenty minutes later, the taxi deposited them outside the Birmingham University campus in Edgbaston, where the late Professor Krakenspreken had taken over much of the astrophysics department.
"What are you hoping to find here?" asked Rashnu.
Tanith held up Krakenspreken's data rod. "An answer."
* * *
A man in black observed the chaos at the road junction with ill-concealed delight. His thumb moved across the facia of the discrete remote-control unit in his hand and found the switch marked 'off'.
His colleague was not so amused. "That accident was supposed to be fatal."
"It was in the lap of the gods," the first man said. "You know that."
"Yes, but which ones?" The second man scowled, his face creased in annoyance. "Clearly not the same lot we work for!"
* * *
Tanith feared Krakenspreken's workshop would be deserted at this time of night and so was pleased to find his colleague, Professor Braithwaite, busy at work in a small computer room next to the main laboratory. Well aware their visit was unofficial, she and Rashnu were relieved when the russet-haired woman accepted their intrusion in good faith. After hasty introductions, Tanith handed Braithwaite the data rod the late Krakenspreken had bequeathed upon his death bed. The professor had just heard the news herself and looked pale.
"If Krakenspreken trusted you enough to give you this, that's good enough for me," she said, holding up the rod. Tanith found the woman's soft Scottish lilt somewhat reassuring after their recent traumas. "I can't understand why our project has attracted such unwelcome attention. I just hope we can make sense of what's going on before it's too late."
"Too late for what?" asked Tanith.
"For us," said Braithwaite. "As it was for Professor Krakenspreken."
She fed the rod into a nearby computer and examined the file list.
"I was hoping to see the encryption key to his personal diary," she told them, sounding subdued. "All that's on here are control settings and space-time destination data for the prototype. It's almost as if he wanted to guide you to somewhere in particular."
Tanith looked at the screen, but the various icons displayed meant little to her. "Guide us somewhere? How exactly?"
"The prototype we have here is fully operational," said Braithwaite. She ejected the rod from the computer and slipped it into her pocket. "It is unlike any other propulsion unit you would have ever come across. I won't blind you with the extra-dimensional physics, artificial wormholes and quantum computing that makes the thing possible. Just think of it as a machine for getting you to where you want to go by the most direct route possible. On the rod are instructions to do just that."
"It can take you anywhere?" asked Rashnu. "Anywhere in the world?"
"Actually, no. It's not designed for travelling across the surface of a world," the professor replied, sounding apologetic. "The drive creates a transitory Einstein-Rosen bridge to a distant gravity well, so we're talking space flight. The vehicle to be launched on Skylon will be using Jupiter as a test target. This is instantaneous travel," she added, to emphasise the point. "Halfway across the Solar System in a blink of an eye."
"You can do that?" remarked Tanith, eyeing the professor doubtfully.
"Krakenspreken started out trying to design an extra-dimensional pump for the cloud-mining facility at Saturn," Braithwaite told her. "Que Qiao Enterprises is putting more rigs out there and want to get shot of the tedious mucking around with tanker ships. The idea was that if a stable wormhole could be generated, helium-three from the mines could flow directly through extra-dimensional space to fusion reactor plants in Earth orbit."
"Freaky," murmured Rashnu.
"Sounds a bit far-fetched to me," Tanith muttered.
"A fixed wormhole proved impossible to achieve," admitted Braithwaite. "Instead, Krakenspreken managed to develop a way of creating a temporary wormhole big enough to drag a vehicle through in one piece. What's more, he was confident that fusion technology would soon be sufficiently advanced to provide the power to give his drive a range not of light hours, but light years."
"Light years?" Rashnu's eyes went wide. "Wow."
"Krakenspreken couldn't stop talking about his dreams of journeying to the stars," said Tanith. "But instantaneous interstellar travel? That's a hell of a prize."
Rashnu looked puzzled. "So all you have to do is tell this machine of yours where you want to go and it does?"
Braithwaite nodded. "The extra-dimensional drive requires a gravity well near the destination, not to mention very precise coordinates for the targeting computer, but yes."
"And is that what's on the rod?" Tanith looked thoughtful. "I think it's time you showed us this prototype of yours."
* * *
Two black-clad men stepped unnoticed out of the shadows haunting the corridor outside Krakenspreken's laboratory and watched the three figures walk away.
"They know too much," the first man said. "We can do without clever coppers."
"We can do without all of this," his colleague replied, taking in the whole laboratory complex with a casual sweep of his hand. Stepping across the corridor, he opened a door and scrutinised the room beyond. A humourless smile spread across his face.
"I see a Bunsen burner left unattended, right next to a precarious stack of paperwork," he declared, then patted his companion on the shoulder. "Or I will soon enough, once we have completed our business here. An accident waiting to happen."
* * *
After Braithwaite's talk of experimental star drives, Tanith and Rashnu were bitterly disappointed. They had expected to find a gleaming space capsule or futuristic spaceplane in the adjacent hangar-like workshop. Instead, parked neatly in the centre of the huge space, sat a short-wheelbase lorry, its faded green cab rusty and dented. The truck had bare chassis rails where the cargo area should have been, attached to which was a spherical contraption some three metres in diameter, surrounded by what looked like the innards of a small electrical substation. To the rear of the vehicle was a bulky assemblage emblazoned with high-voltage warning symbols, with thick electrical cables running between it and the sphere.
"You've fitted your warp drive to a truck?" Rashnu asked incredulously.
"This is the laboratory prototype," Braithwaite said testily. "The actual test vehicle has been shipped to the Commonwealth Space Centre on Ascension Island, ready to be loaded into the Skylon launcher. And don't call it a warp drive again. I hate Star Trek."
"Does the other one also look like a scrap-yard lorry?" asked Tanith.
"No, it doesn't!" snapped Braithwaite. "University funds were limited and the haulage firm down the road happened to have an old unit going cheap," she said, with a weariness suggesting she had defended this aspect of the project many times before. "We need to be able to move it around campus, you see. The extra-dimensional drive and fusion reactor combined weigh over twenty tons, so they have to be mounted on something hefty."
Braithwaite hastened across the workshop to the truck. Opening the driver's door, she indicated for Tanith and Rashnu to enter on the other side, before climbing up to take her place behind the steering wheel. The officers were amazed to discover that the truck cab's interior, rather than being that of a humble delivery lorry, was more akin to the flight deck of the high-speed patrol aircars they rarely got to use. Braithwaite inserted Krakenspreken's rod into the truck's onboard computer and studied a monitor screen before her.
"This is amazing," murmured Braithwaite. "The rod gives destination coordinates, but the data is unlike anything I've seen during trials. If I understand this correctly, it's pointing to a set of dimensions beyond normal space-time!"
Tanith frowned. "Beyond space-time? Now you've really lost me."
"I'll initiate the engine to make sure," said Braithwaite. She saw Tanith's worried face and smiled. "Don't worry! I'm not planning on going anywhere. I'll just run the warm-up procedure to double-check the coordinates for our current location."
She selected a series of switches, waited while various screens and monitors came to life across the console, then ran her fingers across a small keypad. There was a sudden jolt and the vehicle began to vibrate. A thin, high-pitched whine from behind slowly grew in volume. Krakenspreken's extra-dimensional drive was coming to life.
Tanith had other concerns. "Can anyone else smell burning?"
Rashnu pointed towards the workshop door. "Look!"
Smoke drifted from the crack beneath the closed door. Perturbed, Tanith climbed from the cab and hurried to take a closer look. The door handle felt warm to the touch and faint sounds of crackling came from the other side. After taking a deep breath, she released the lock and opened the door just enough to get a view of the corridor beyond. One glance at the orange flashes of flame and thick smoke was enough to confirm her fears. Closing the door, she turned back towards the truck and saw Rashnu and Braithwaite clambering from the truck to meet her, both looking as worried as she felt.
"There's a fire down the corridor, blocking the way we came in," Tanith said urgently, raising her voice against the accelerating whine of Krakenspreken's drive. "We need to get out of here. Is there another way out?"
"A fire?" Rashnu took on the expression of a rabbit in headlights. "Here?"
Braithwaite was more collected. "There's a roller-shutter door that opens onto the road," she said, pointing across the workshop.
"What are we waiting for?" cried Rashnu. "Let's go!"
Braithwaite quickly led them to the far end of the workshop. She went straight to the door control, then turned to them in panic. "I need the key to switch on the power!"
"Where do you keep it?" demanded Tanith.
"There's a safe on the wall, next to the door we came in by."
Before Tanith could stop him, Rashnu dashed across the workshop to grab the key. He was within a few metres of the door when it exploded in a torrent of fire and smoke, catching him by surprise and throwing him to the floor. The entire doorway and wall of the workshop were suddenly aflame. Moments later, there came a groaning of steel joists as the roof of the workshop began to sag. Tanith knew without a doubt it was arson, for the fire had spread far too quickly across the roof and now surrounded them on all sides. With a crash, a heavy beam crashed down across the shutters, wrenching the controls from the wall in a shower of sparks. Tanith and Braithwaite rushed forward, grabbed the fallen Rashnu by his arms and dragged him across the floor towards the truck.
"You brave idiot!" Tanith scolded.
"What's happening?" he asked woozily.
"We're taking the only exit left open to us," declared Braithwaite.
In no time at all, they were back inside the truck, all too aware of the fire taking hold around them. Braithwaite went over the console controls like a women possessed. Behind, the whining of the engine reached fever pitch. Finally, the professor flipped up a switch cover and paused. Her finger hovered over a large red button.
"Hold on to your hats," she said. "This may be a bumpy ride."
"You're going to ram the doors?" cried Rashnu, his eyes wide.
"I never thought of that," said Braithwaite, a mischievous smile upon her lips. "We're taking another way out. We're going wherever Krakenspreken wanted us to go!"
She hit the button. In a blink of an eye, the view through the windscreen became an infinite kaleidoscope of vague shapes spiralling away into the blackness. The burning workshop imploded, turned itself inside out and then unravelled before their eyes into an immeasurably-long thread of quanta, flung across the abyss. Tanith gripped her seat and tried not to be sick. It felt as if they were falling in all directions at once.
"Let me out of here!" shrieked Rashnu.
"Yippee!" yelled Braithwaite. "An extra-dimensional roller-coaster!"
"My god!" Tanith cried. "Is that a cat?"
Back in another dimension, the workshop shook beneath an almighty crash of thunder as the crude tear in the fabric of the universe sealed itself shut. When the roof of the hangar-like space collapsed a split second later, the truck and its three occupants were gone.
* * *
The luxurious foliage of the neands' ancient bio-engineered habitat made a welcome change from Earth. The chamber was a near-perfect sphere, hewn inside a massive tree trunk, with a suspended marble floor and walls lined with tiers of scented flowers. Above a central pool, water tinkled gently from an ornamental school of bronze fish that seemingly hung in mid air, held in place by cunningly-concealed extra-dimensional plumbing.
The traveller abandoned her feline alter-ego and reverted to the dark-haired female form that had served her so well over millennia. To those with secret knowledge, she and others were known as watchers; there had been a time when they were instead taken for gods. In her mind she was again Pallas Athene, albeit in full-length fur rather than the drafty tunics the sculptors of Ancient Greece were so fond of portraying her wearing. Free of the tedious constraints of conventional space-time, Athene had no need to take a physical form at all, but knew she looked damn good in her favoured attire.
The other watcher present, perhaps to mock her, had adopted a similar persona, one he had not worn since the days when humans had wisely kept their deities at arms length on Mount Olympus. Strutting his stuff as feisty warrior Ares, he looked rather pleased with himself. His gaze was upon the pool, which shimmered with an image of the burning university, far below in another dimension. Athene peered into his mind and saw what he gloated upon: the scientist was dead, his knowledge and invention seemingly destroyed in a fire. She thought him a fool, for he truly believed their cosy existence was safe from human eyes once more.
"I'm amazed you managed to achieve anything, using those followers of yours," Athene remarked, before Ares could start his boasts. "It is so typical of you to leave the messy work to others. I prefer to be more traditional in my interventions."
"But where did it get you?" he sneered. "You only postponed the demise of your pet humans. Their ultimate fate remained in my hands."
"You're getting ahead of yourself. Their deaths are unconfirmed."
"Bah!" Ares looked away in disgust. He was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder and turned to see a squat grey figure awaiting his attention. It was a young neand, one of the funny-looking alien humanoids who were so easily pressed into slavery.
"What is it?" Ares asked testily. "Can't you see I've had a busy day?"
"Thranaak," the slave screeched. "Thranaak thranaak!"
Ares looked past the slave towards the door of their scented chamber. Athene followed his gaze. Parked incongruously in the leafy courtyard outside was a rusty green truck, next to which stood a bemused red-haired woman whom she recognised from Earth. Two police officers walked towards them, their manner suggesting it was not a social call.
"My so-called pet humans!" Athene laughed. "With the professor and her, err... chariot. How interesting!"
"Curses!" growled Ares. "I thought they were dead."
"The long arm of the law just became a little longer, don't you think?" said Athene, smiling. "Dear me! Homicide, arson... They're going to throw the book at you!"
Ares sighed. "Get me my lawyer. Now!"
~ THE END ~
* * *
|THE WORLDS OF HOLLOW
MOON came about through my love of space opera and science
fiction. I enjoyed writing these books so much that more are sure
Worlds Of Hollow Moon
All content (c) Steph Bennion, WyrdStar and Danse Macabre 2007-2020.
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