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ROCK OF AGES
by Steph Bennion
Letters from the past were hidden for a reason. But breaking into the secure facility was child's play compared to an unexpected family reunion...
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KEDESH SWUNG HER LEGS through the open window, caught a glimpse of a torch beam on the far side of the dimly-lit courtyard two storeys below and froze. The creak of the rope attached to her harness sounded loud in her ears, but there was no danger of the distant guard hearing it against the din of downtown traffic wafting over the wall of the compound. After what seemed an age, the bobbing torch slipped behind the row of ornamental bonsai flanking the entrance to the neighbouring office block and was gone.
She pulled the rest of the rope through the window, dropped the trailing end to the manicured lawn below and heard it land with a soft thump. Her refraction suit had blackened to match the carbon-brick facia of the building, dark grease masked her pale face and her red tresses were bundled inside an old beret she liked to sport on such furtive occasions, completing the camouflage that made her just one more inky shadow in the gloom. A crescent moon hung in the dull red glow of the midnight sky but no stars were to be seen. The bright lights of the sleepless metropolis had joined with the noise to pollute the Shanghai night.
“Look at me,” she murmured. She grabbed her bag and swung it onto her back. “Barely started the final innings and the city is already partying into the night.”
Moments later she was on the ground and scurrying fast towards the fence at the rear of the compound, the only barrier between her and the wharf-side warehouses on the murky Huangpu River. The Que Qiao Corporation records storage facility in Pujiangzhen, a backwater of the corporation’s ever-expanding empire, had become a dumping ground for three generations of electronic and paper documentation generated by tireless administrators. The offices at this time of night were silent, yet the few security personnel on site were more than ready to greet strangers with a blast from a plasma rifle, even more so if they happened to recognise who it was climbing out of a second-floor window. There seemed to be nowhere left on Earth where Kedesh had not at some point annoyed local Que Qiao agents.
The boat was waiting for her, quietly bobbing upon the choppy waters alongside a secluded wharf. No sooner had she emerged from the shadows when the skinny Chinese boy at the wheel lifted the pistol in his hand, before lowering it again as he recognised her. Kedesh hurried for the ladder that led to the water and climbed down into the boat.
“See anyone?” she whispered.
“Just a cat,” he replied. “I hate it when they stare at me like that.”
“A cat?” Kedesh gave him a curious look. “Was it that evil bitch of a tabby?”
“It’s gone now,” he reassured her.
The boy slid into the pilot’s seat and with a deft flick of the throttle the boat’s electric engine purred into life. By the time Kedesh sat down beside him the wharf and warehouses were far behind. The open-roofed craft was a small amphibious hydrofoil of a type used by the river police, which once auctioned off at the end of their working lives were snapped up by black-market couriers who preferred to keep off the roads. Kedesh and her young accomplice would not be troubled by the local gangs, who watched out for disgruntled rivals as well as local law-enforcement officers and usually kept their distance at the sight of another boat. The police were a different matter. Kedesh kept a nervous watch on the river as their craft, riding high on its foils, raced upstream towards the bridge. She was anxious to be off the river and into the chaotic anonymity of the city streets as soon as possible.
“You look nervous,” the boy observed. “Everything go alright, miss?”
“It went fine,” she said. Her refraction suit flickered wildly as it tried to mimic the glint of the city reflecting off the dark water and she switched it off. “I was expecting the guards to bowl a few googlies but it was a smooth run. First time for everything, I suppose.”
The river was quiet and Kedesh began to relax a little. Back in the records facility, she had not stopped to examine what she had liberated from the storeroom, but now took the opportunity to dig into her bag and withdraw the stolen file. The printed summary upon the scuffed cardboard folder had faded and was illegible. Inside, she found a series of six hand-written letters, each one sealed in a flexi-glass sheath, a common method of preserving old paper documents. Curious, she cast her eyes over the first and looked for a date.
“Gosh,” she murmured. “Twenty-second century. These are a hundred years old!”
“Are they valuable?”
“Maybe. It looks like personal correspondence,” she replied. “I wonder why the client was so eager to get hold of them? Letters this old are no good to incriminate anyone today.”
The handwriting was in neat long-hand, though the writer seemed inordinately fond of exclamation marks and using smiley faces to dot every lowercase ‘i’. The lure of having a genuine piece of history in her hands was too big a temptation and Kedesh began to read.
Room 311 Victoria Hall,
Grange Road, Selly Oak, Birmingham.
17 September, 2168.
I hope you’ve settled in okay! University is so different after living at home all these years. I’ve been here a week now and I still haven’t quite got into the swing of things, although I have three party invites already! The workload for astrophysics looks heavier than I had expected, but there’s no going back!
Cassandra, my mad room mate, is into all those plastic fusion bands you rave about. She’s promised to drag me to see Deathstar Shuttlebus next week, who amazingly are coming here to play the student union bar. Apparently they’re doing a series of secret gigs to try out new material before their next big arena tour. If you want to come down, I’m sure I could put you up for the night.
Sorry this note is so short but I’ll write again soon. I’m single-handedly keeping the art of letter-writing alive! Keep in touch!!
“Hmm,” murmured Kedesh. She lowered the letter. “Not what I expected.”
They were slowing and settling back into the water. She glanced through the windscreen and felt a familiar jolt run through the hull as the foils retracted and were replaced by wheels. Ahead, a slipway beckoned beneath the bridge, bringing with it the uncomfortable roar of traffic from the Shenjiahu Expressway.
Her young pilot guided the car to the bank, onto the slipway and back onto dry land with well-practised ease. Once safely out of the water he brought the car to a halt while they waited for the fabric roof to unfold over their heads. Kedesh took advantage of the pause to retrieve her touch-screen slate from her bag. Its screen doubled as an image scanner and she got to work placing the sheathed letters onto the flat surface, capturing them one by one into the slate’s memory. Copying stolen documents intended for a client was a little underhand, but she knew better than most that Que Qiao archives often turned up prizes too valuable to ignore. Even if the letters in question looked innocent in the extreme.
“Do we need to swap places?” Kedesh asked the boy. She placed the final letter in position for the scan. “I can’t imagine they give out driving licences to fourteen-year-olds.”
“I’m nearly fifteen!” the boy replied haughtily. “Anyway, they do in Shanghai. They changed school leaving age to thirteen so there’s enough workers to look after you oldies.”
“Cheeky monkey! There’s only ten years between us, young man!”
The boy grinned. The roof clicked into place and locked to the windscreen frame. The amphibious boat on wheels now looked more like the ground cars speeding along the expressway ahead. Her young pilot-come-driver urged the vehicle into motion once more.
“The spaceport?” he asked.
Kedesh slid her slate back into her bag and nodded.
“No need to rush,” she told him. “My client won’t be there for a while.”
Traffic was heavy on the Shenjiahu Expressway as they joined the rush of vehicles heading east. Kedesh felt safe on the bustling highway, for although Que Qiao security agents patrolled the streets, neither they nor the local crime syndicates were stupid enough to take their petty squabbles onto the main roads. The slightest mishap could easily cause a city-wide traffic jam and while most of Shanghai did not care about the ever-increasing murder rate, disgruntled commuters before now had forced resignations at City Hall.
The thought of possible delays led Kedesh to mentally prod her cranium implant, the tiny processor chip lodged in her brain, to bring up the local traffic news. As the voice of the newscaster filled her head, she removed her beret, slipped on a jacket to hide her refraction suit and got to work wiping her face clean of grease. Her implant’s translator application struggled to keep up with the high-speed Mandarin chattering inside her skull but it seemed they would reach the spaceport in plenty of time.
Turning off her implant audio feed, Kedesh returned her attention to the letters in her hand. All six were written by the same person and each bore a date that fell within the final few months of the same year. The Selly Oak address told her the writer was a student at the University of Birmingham, back in Kedesh’s native England. As she began to read the second letter, she saw it was in a similar vein to the first.
Room 311 Victoria Hall,
Grange Road, Selly Oak, Birmingham.
3 October, 2168.
Sorry you couldn’t make it down for Deathstar Shuttlebus. The band came and joined us at the bar afterwards and I got a signed photo from singer Darrow Lightbane! It was a really good show. I never used to like plastic fusion stuff – me being an old dark hippy, I’m more into Melodious Black – but they got me dancing along with everyone else. They did mostly new numbers, but played all their hits in the encore, including a fantastic twenty-minute version of ‘Skeletal Requiem’ that quite blew me away! Pity you missed it.
I met this bloke at the gig. Before you start thinking smutty thoughts, let me tell you it wasn’t anything like that! I’m pretty sure his name was Miles (it was very loud and we were shouting to hear each other!) and he was just, well, weird! He was next to me while I queued at the bar after the band finished and we got talking about the gig. He was quite a music fan, though a bit of a walking fashion disaster. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a student. He reckoned he’d seen the Beatles at The Cavern in Liverpool and Elvis Presley in Las Vegas – I assume he meant nostalgia acts, like that stone-age disco comedy band Yabba Abba Doo we saw at Glastonbury last year – but honestly there were times I thought he was pulling my leg. He came out with the strangest things! For example, he confessed to being “fascinated by seventies music”, to which I pointed out it was ‘68 and we still had a couple more years to go. His response was to look at me as if I was mad, but in a really cute way!
To cut a long story short, this guy suddenly left as if I’d said something to upset him, or that he’d taken offence when I spilled my drink down his trousers (it was an accident, honest!). But when I later popped outside for a breather I saw him by the playing fields. You know how when people are queuing for a bus they keep looking up the road, waiting for it to come round the corner? Well, this guy was doing the same thing; looking, then glancing at this huge watch I’m sure he wasn’t wearing before, only he was standing in a field. I was a bit worse for wear and worried that I’d offended him, so I left him to it. He was gone by the time the union bar emptied so I guess I’ll never see him again.
Speaking of the awesome Melodious Black, a gang of us from our house are going down to London next weekend to see them at Wembley. It’s the final gig before they knock down the stadium to rebuild it all again, though the band have promised to demolish it with noise! I really want to see them live again – and they’re being supported by Roller Ghoster, who Cassandra reckons are the next big thing – but I’m not keen on stadium gigs and the only tickets we could get are up in the gods. But it’s a day out and studying is getting me down at the moment. Will it ever get any easier?
I’ll write again in a few weeks. See you soon!
Kedesh frowned. She was not impressed that she had risked life and limb to break into a secure Que Qiao facility just to retrieve ancient tales of university life. Yet her client had paid her very well indeed and she could not help wondering if she was missing something important. She looked at the letter again and scrutinised the text carefully to see if there was any sign of a hidden code, but saw nothing.
“What’s so fascinating?” asked the boy. Their car was in the line of traffic queuing for the exit for Shanghai spaceport and they had slowed to a crawl. “Top secret, I bet.”
“You’d be amazed how banal these are,” Kedesh said and sighed. “They’re letters from a student in England twittering about some bloke she’s met and bands they’ve seen, none of whom I’ve heard of. Apart from Elvis, of course.”
“She saw Elvis?” The boy looked impressed. “When he was still alive?”
“In 2168? Don’t be daft,” she retorted. “But she reckons she’d met someone who had. Probably one of those tribute acts. When you think of all those in music who have come and gone over the years, it’s amazing how Presley is still remembered today.”
“My brother went to Las Vegas a few years ago,” the boy remarked. “He said the whole place is a shrine to Elvis, like some holy city, even more than Graceland. He says everywhere they went it was as if Elvis was their god.”
“And they said religion would be knocked for six once we reached the stars,” Kedesh said drily. “Instead, it just becomes more fractured and bizarre by the day.”
With a sigh, she returned the folder of letters to her bag and settled back in her seat. Their vehicle crept onwards through the traffic towards the bright lights of the spaceport, moving like driftwood upon a swollen muddy river. The rolling of the car upon its soft springs, the gentle whir of the engine and the warmth of the night air at the open window invited her to embrace her weariness. Just then, a loud roar assaulted her ears, jolting her back from the edge of sleep. A silver Skylon Interstellar spaceplane appeared in the sky, blasting up and away from the runway ahead.
“I hate spaceports,” muttered Kedesh. “Not one of them serves a decent cup of tea.”
* * *
The winged geishas hovering outside the cafeteria were impressively-rendered holograms, but Kedesh was in no mood for their incessant and incredibly-annoying sales pitch about flight offers to Tokyo. The café was an American-run establishment, modelled in an industrial gothic style with bare brick walls, fake rusty-steel panelling and a mechanical arm at the doughnut counter that in a previous life had a better-paid job welding roof panels on a ground car production line. Nevertheless, it was a welcome if dingy respite from the clinical brightness of the spaceport terminal’s main hall. Kedesh bought a cup of tea and a blueberry muffin, retreated to a corner table and sat down with her back to the wall, making sure she faced the entrance. She was due to meet her client in half an hour on the other side of the spaceport and had no intention of being surprised before then.
Her young driver had disappeared with the car on some mysterious errand Kedesh did not need to know about. With no one to talk to and nothing but a dull baseball game showing on the large holovids around the room, it was only a matter of time before her gaze dropped to the bag at her side. She was convinced there was more to the letters than met the eye. It was with no great reluctance that she picked up the third of the six and began to read.
Room 311 Victoria Hall,
Grange Road, Selly Oak, Birmingham.
25 October, 2168.
Roller Ghoster are LOUD!!! The concert was incredible! I’m still not that keen on their music, but I can see why people love them so much. And guess what! He was there; the weird guy I met at the Deathstar Shuttlebus gig! His name is Nilus (not Miles!). He recognized me straight away and we soon got chatting. He’s really nice but did say some funny things at times. When I asked him what he thought about Roller Ghoster he said, “They were one of the greatest bands of their time,” using the past tense. He also seemed to think it was the third time we’d met, not the second and insisted he had seen me at a Dead Pirates Society gig a while back, but I’ve never seen them live. Coincidentally, Cassandra has been begging me to go with her to see them at Villa Park next month.
How’s your degree going? I’ve been asked to start thinking about possible subjects for a research paper, but I haven’t a clue where to begin. The stargazers have already block-booked the Uni’s telescope and competition is fierce for the few places up for grabs on the space station. Someone suggested I revisit Einstein’s theories to see how they fit with my father’s own work, but mum is trying her best to dissuade me from getting involved with the extra-dimensional drive project. I do miss my father. Mum isn’t coping well and has pretty much taken up residence at the research centre on Ascension Island. I don’t blame her; I still get the occasional visit from the police, asking me again about what happened. They never did find Professor Braithwaite or those two detectives.
Enough of my woes. Until next time...
“The extra-dimensional drive project,” murmured Kedesh, but that was not what had captured her attention. “And Nilus...?”
She once had an uncle called Nilus, a promising young exobiologist who disappeared twenty years before whilst exploring the icy wastes of Ascension, a planet in the Barnard’s Star system. That the letter mentioned a place called Ascension Island was confusing; given the date of the letter, the mysterious isle and its research centre had to be somewhere on Earth. Kedesh wondered if one had been named after the other.
Her thoughts returned to the writer’s unexpected mention of the extra-dimensional drive project. It was the first clue as to why the letters were worth stealing. Krakenspreken, the inventor of the famous interstellar drive, had opened up the cosmos in a way only science-fiction writers had ever imagined. He was a legend in a similar vein as Newton or Hawking and now she imagined her client as a shadowy antiquarian, supplying the desires of wealthy history buffs and collectors, for she guessed artefacts such as these letters would be worth a lot to the right buyer. To hold in her hand a letter written by Krakenspreken’s only daughter that mentioned the great man himself was a little awe-inspiring.
“I’m not charging enough for this job,” she grumbled and reached for her tea.
What intrigued her was the reference to detectives, who did not appear in the story taught at school. What she did recall is that Krakenspreken’s daughter too disappeared in mysterious circumstances a year or two after her father’s death, with most historians postulating that the grief-stricken student had taken her own life. Kedesh knew researchers could not have seen the letters in her hand. The friendly tone of Freyja’s words were not those written by someone on the edge of despair.
Kedesh closed her eyes, prodded a mental switch and considered the time display her implant caused to appear briefly in her mind’s eye. She picked up the muffin and took a bite. She still had time to finish her tea and read one more letter before she met with her client.
Room 311 Victoria Hall,
Grange Road, Selly Oak, Birmingham.
19 November 2168
Hello again! I was going to call but needed to write this down and sort my brain out. Things are getting seriously weird! I met Nilus again; at a Dead Pirates Society gig, would you believe! The Pirates were playing Villa Park (music, not football!) as part of their European Tour and Cassandra dragged me along to check them out. And at the bar, there he was! Nilus didn’t recognize me at first, which was puzzling since he knew me straight away at the Melodious Black gig.
He seemed more distant this time and it took a while to break the ice (even the ‘ten-tonne penguin’ joke didn’t work). He got mixed up again and thought it was only the second time we had met when of course it was the third. Funny thing is, at the last concert he said he had seen me at a Dead Pirates Society gig and here we were! Very confusing. The gig itself was awesome. When I made a comment on the mad antics of the singer, Nilus said something strange: “a great loss to music,” he said. I told you things were weird.
How’s studying going? Analysing Shakespeare has to be easier than doing likewise with neutrino signatures of decaying black holes. A friend of mine in her third year asked me to proof-read her history thesis on ‘Sociological change to Britain and Europe during the expansion of the Roman Empire’, which sounds very impressive – and she was able to do all her research without leaving the Uni library. On the plus side, I might get a trip to Hawaii if I’m lucky enough to be offered a slot on the telescope there.
I’ll try and write again before Christmas, if I can find time between the parties! (Those in the physics department involve lots of lasers, dry ice, lab-brewed alcohol and very bad dancing.) We have to meet up during the break!
All the best,
“Interesting stuff?” purred a nearby voice.
Kedesh jumped. Engrossed in the letters and a very sticky muffin, she had not noticed she was no longer alone. The tall, raven-haired woman perched on a nearby stool wore the smug smile of a conspirator and an equally-brazen floor-length coat of silver and black fur. The eyes that gleamed from her smooth olive features had yellow irises with dark vertical slits for pupils, which most people would have dismissed as fancy contact lenses, albeit after a hasty move to another table. Kedesh suspected the truth was far more disturbing. She eyed the woman warily.
“That’s just not cricket, creeping up on people like that,” she complained, stuffing the letters back into her bag. “It’s bad for my digestion.”
“Marion Kedesh,” remarked the woman. “As I live and breathe. Did I frighten you?”
“People like you don’t live or breathe,” Kedesh retorted crossly. “And no. It’s merely your presence that makes my stomach turn.”
The woman ran her tongue across her teeth in the manner of a predator contemplating its next meal. Kedesh shuffled uneasily on her seat. She had crossed paths with the woman twice before, yet had no idea who she was or what she wanted. On both occasions, reports to her superiors had been met with wary glances and perturbed frowns.
“Hilarious,” the woman remarked dryly. She nodded to the bag. “You found Freyja’s vacuous dispatches, I see. Have you read them all?”
“They are for a client and not for my eyes!” protested Kedesh, though not entirely convincingly. She wondered how the woman knew about the letters. “And I’m not about to discuss them with some shadowy femme fatale who won’t even give me her name!”
“I thought I’d stick with Athene. It was good enough for Braithwaite and those policemen. The way they turned up on our doorstep was quite unexpected.”
Kedesh gave her an odd look. “What on Earth are you talking about?”
“It’s wasn’t on Earth at all, my dear,” Athene replied. “Please try to keep up.”
“You’re talking in riddles,” Kedesh retorted. “As for the letters, they’re just the usual teenage nonsense. Apart from possibly revealing a hopeless crush on some guy called Nilus, I’m not expecting any surprise curve balls from the two I’ve yet to read.”
“Some guy called Nilus?” The woman raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Coincidence! Nilus isn’t that uncommon a name.”
“It was a hundred years ago. And so much more interesting than Marion.”
“I chose that name myself,” grumbled Kedesh. “Anyway, these letters were written long before Uncle Nilus was born. Don’t try and get all mysterious with me.”
“Mysterious?” The woman looked more sly than ever. “You’re the one who stole the letters from a secure facility. You’ve now worked out that they were amongst the last things Freyja wrote before she disappeared. Don’t deny you’re not intrigued.”
“I’m playing a straight bat with this job,” snapped Kedesh. “You won’t catch me on the back foot again. Or are you just here out of the goodness of your heart, to guide yet another unsuspecting pawn along the path of enlightenment? It’s like having a personal demon on my tail, though admittedly one with a bit of style.”
Athene smiled. “Thank you! It’s not easy when you get to my age.”
“And how old is that?”
“In aeons or galactic years? I’ve lost count.”
“As enigmatic and unhelpful as always. Do you ever give a straight answer?”
“That would spoil the game,” Athene said, speaking in mock confidence. “You lot can be just as bad. The king of Ithaca couldn’t open his mouth without lying and would steal the clouds from the sky given half a chance. Wonderful physique though,” she added, with a wistful sigh. “I could stare at him all day. You, on the other hand, should watch that sarcasm. You’ll end up lonely and bitter.”
“If the alternative is sitting here listening to your babble, lonely is fine,” said Kedesh. “Let me know when your psychiatrist publishes his book on mythical delusions of grandeur. You must excuse me. I have an appointment to keep.”
“Fine,” grumbled Athene.
Kedesh reached for her tea, drained the last tepid mouthfuls and turned to pick up her bag. She caught a brief flash of silver in the corner of her eye as a cat-shaped blur leapt away across the cafeteria. When she looked back, the woman had gone.
“Maybe the delusions are mine,” Kedesh muttered. She made a mental note to grill her boss about Athene at the first opportunity. “I’ll be glad to get back into space.”
* * *
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All content is copyright Steph Bennion, WyrdStar and Danse Macabre 2007-2017.