THE WORLDS OF
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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...
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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.
* * *
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