Only one boy can stop the bloodshed. Psychic teenager Zeke Hailey speaks the ancient Martian language. He alone can figure out the riddle of Electron’s Blade. This mysterious alien artifact may hold the secret to peace on the red planet. Both the Governor and rebel colonists seek Zeke’s help. But which side should he trust?
As old foes return, the conflict rapidly escalates. Zeke discovers that nowhere, not even his beloved school for psychics, is safe from the warfare. But is there a deeper conspiracy at work? Who are the shadowy Martian State Brigade? And what of the Spiral, still haunting Zeke’s visions? Is Zeke a pawn in a game played since the dawn of time? Will he stop the apocalypse, or release it?
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A Disturbingly High Ledge, Ophir Chasma, Mars
Zeke pushed down hard on his brakes. The bike skidded to a full stop, scattering dust into the valley below. He was a kilometre high, overlooking a stupendous view of the canyon.
The vast basin of Ophir Chasma gleamed red in the noonday sun. A petrified world, where everything was rock. Zeke's school, the Chasm, nestled among the northern cliffs like a concrete sea coral.
He took a deep breath of the cold Martian air. This far up, it reeked of a chalky sweetness. He glanced over the edge, to the sheer drop. His head swam. Any tumble would be fatal, low gravity or not.
A hologramatic dashboard flickered to life over the handlebars. Albie's name formed on its virtual screen. Albie was a unique travel app, left behind by Zeke's missing father. It could be downloaded into any vehicle to improve performance. It also gave Zeke total control of the vehicle. So far, Albie had been a bicycle, a gyrocopter, a grav-scooter and a Bronto.
"Please calculate how dangerous this route is for cycling," Zeke instructed. "Desired speed, Master Zeke?" Albie asked in a metallic voice.
Zeke scratched his chin for a moment.
"Recklessly fast," he replied.
The bicycle chassis pulsed with lights as Albie computed the factors. "Risk assessment complete, Master Zeke. Bicycle travel not recommended. Seventy percent chance of landslide."
Zeke felt temptation flutter in his ribs.
"Thanks, Albie, that's just the advice I need."
He shoved off with his right leg, immediately plunging down a steep incline.
"Wheeeeeeeee!" he cried as the bike hurtled downwards. The path was bumpy. Air whistled past his ears.
"Switch off rider assistance," he shouted.
"That is an unwise option —"
The bicycle clicked.
A dip in the ledge appeared out of nowhere. The tyres lost contact with the ground. Zeke landed on the far side and kept peddling. Thanks to the low gravity, his calf muscles could push the bicycle much faster than on Earth. Adrenaline surged through his brain.
That's what you wanted, isn't it? The thrill? asked his inner voice.
A stone appeared on the path up ahead. He steered around it. The bicycle wobbled. His breath froze. Was he going to topple? He gripped the handlebars, his biceps straining. Yes! The bicycle stabilised.
He dared to glimpse down at the sand dunes, at the plains, at the lumpy rock formations. The planet he called home.
The path was getting bumpier. Zeke eased off on the pedal and freewheeled. Still the bicycle gained speed, as the ledge plunged ever more sharply.
"Oh, no!" A spur jutted out from the rock face. The path vanished.
The word echoed through his synapses. His eyes burned bright. The bicycle lifted into the air, flew over the spur and landed on the other side, where the path resumed. Was it cheating to use psychic powers? Whatever.
On and on. He was lower now, about as high as a skyscraper. The way ahead smoothed out and cycling became easier. For about a hundred metres.
"Oops!" A bend was coming up. He hit the brakes. Dust spewed everywhere. Zeke took the bend full on, leaning inwards till the rock face was almost scraping his cheek. He regained balance.
The path curved back again. Zeke was pedalling furiously now. As if he wanted a crash. Faster and faster. Faster and faster. His left elbow bumped against a protuberance. Grshda! he cursed in the language of the long-dead Martians.
On and on. Now the way twisted like a snake. In and out, in and out. Zeke somehow kept the bicycle upright. The sound of his panting lungs filled his ears.
The finish line was in sight. Where the path melted into the valley floor. Just another twenty metres to go ... no!
It was if Mars itself gave way. The wall beneath his wheels crumbled. Two billion years of erosion had left it as fragile as eggshells. A wave of ochre collapsed into the valley. Zeke and his bicycle were falling. Again, his eyes filled with light. He emerged from the dust cloud, pedalling thin air, twenty metres high and heading for a crash landing.
Slower, slower ...
His powers decelerated the fall, but he was still coming in fast. The ground was racing up. Zeke closed his eyes. He felt the bang, the tumble and the slide, as sand scattered in all directions. Then a standstill.
He sat up, coughed out a spit ball of dirt and opened his eyes. Dust was settling all around him. The bike was nearby, miraculously in one piece.
He laughed. No doubt there'd be bruises tomorrow, but no broken bones.
Why do you keep taking these risks? asked his inner voice. The answer was easy. Zeke had survived the Infinity Trap. He'd escaped Gravity's Eye. He'd defeated the Particle Beast. Everyday Martian life was becoming dull. And that wasn't the only reason. The thrills kept his mind off the deaths. And the terrible future that might be waiting for everyone.
Zeke sat and listened to one of the very few noises of the Martian landscape. The hiss of dust devils. These were little whirlwinds, created by warm air rising out of the ground. They were forever gusting across the surface of Mars, just as they did on Earth, in the deserts.
A chill ran down his spine. This particular hissing was loud. Too loud. He took a deep gulp and slowly turned.
A dust devil gyrated a few meters away. Its vortex blew inwards, making the figure of a man. Head, torso, legs. And a face. Yes, a face that once was shapeless now had features. Spinning sand formed thick lips, a prominent nose, and eyes. Blank sand eyes.
Goosebumps raced around Zeke's body. The likeness was exact. Jimmy Swallow, one of the missing school students. As though a sculptor had moulded a sand statue.
Zeke gulped and said, "Kshnmlnwa." Hesperian for hello.
The dust devil tilted its head to one side.
"Hello," it replied in English. And then, "you've changed colour."
Zeke frowned for a second. "Oh, my tunic. I'm a second year now. Blue's the colour for second years."
"How ... How are you?" Zeke asked.
"How am I what?"
"How are you feeling?"
Zeke could see the confusion on its shifting face. Arms emerged from the body, and it raised its hands.
"I feel with these."
Cultural misunderstanding, Zeke thought. He steadied his nerves. As fearsome as the Devil was, this was a rare opportunity to find out more.
"Why are you here?"
"You speak the old words. Only you and I. And —"
"And?" Zeke asked, scarcely daring to breath.
"You were Jimmy's friend."
"Didn't he hate me?"
"Yes. After you betrayed him."
Zeke opened his mouth to protest, then hesitated. From Jimmy's perspective, maybe there was a grain of truth in that sentiment. Zeke certainly regretted not taking Jimmy's illness seriously. The illness that was actually an ancient alien code turning Jimmy's body to sand.
"Is Jimmy alive?"
"No," the Devil replied. "His atomic signature mingles with mine. I see his memories."
The idea was fantastic. A two-billion-year old alien robot was crazy enough, but one spliced with a human boy ... Rather, with the ghost of a boy. Unbelievable.
Now the Devil lifted its head, as if staring into the distance.
"Hot buttered toast. A polished basketball court. Christmas trees. Girls."
Zeke bit his knuckle. Such everyday words, on the windblown lips of a monster.
It stepped forward, gliding a dozen metres till they were face to face. Zeke cringed. The stink of damp basalt was overwhelming.
"What about your memories? The Makers? Old Mars?" Zeke asked.
A spasm passed through its twisting body.
"Nothing? But surely —"
"I have replicated many times. When I wear out, my atomic structure rebuilds itself. Every new devil is both the original and a copy. A million incarnations. A billion. My memory cells are not big enough to store that much information."
"A copy of a copy, times a million," Zeke muttered to himself.
"And now and again, an atom reforms in the wrong place. That mutation is passed on forever. Slowly getting worse."
It was inevitable that the Devil would get corroded, damaged, forgetful. Zeke's head swam with questions. "And the Infinity Trap? It is sealed, isn't it?" The Devil's purpose was to guard the Trap.
The Devil scratched its ear. Zeke shuddered. It was one of Jimmy's mannerisms.
"Yes," it answered.
"So, the Spiral can't get out?"
"We didn't only seal the Infinity Trap here. We sealed it across time and space. The entity you call the Spiral cannot escape. Yet, the Trap is a dimension in its own right, as big or small as it needs to be. Sometimes walls wear thin."
"Right, that's how I was able to see him in the pocket universe. But those walls won't break though, will they?" The Devil shook its head. "Impossible. The Makers made sure."
"You said once you could still open the Trap."
The Devil nodded.
"But why would you? And surely you'd need five psychic brains."
An expression spread across the sand face. Zeke wasn't positive, but it seemed like a smirk.
"I could do it with one of your human psychic brains."
"B-but," Zeke stammered.
The smirk grew into a cruel smile.
"Five brains to open without my consent. One if I agree. Your professor did not understand that."
"But why? Why would you do that?"
"The day will dawn when you'll want me to unseal the Trap."
"Not in a month of Martian Sundays," Zeke said firmly.
The Devil swivelled a hundred and eighty degrees and took one step. A step that took it ten metres.
"Hey!" Zeke cried. "Why are you going?"
The Devil said nothing.
"Wait for me," he cried, breaking into a trot. "Please, there's so much I want to ask you." The Devil soared another ten metres.
Oh, no you don't, Zeke thought and translocated. He reappeared beside the Devil.
"Why can't you stay? You can help me."
The Devil whooshed further away. Again, Zeke translocated and caught up.
"When will I see you again?"
The Devil gazed blindly at him. The face creased into a new expression. Sadness.
"You won't" it said. "You will die."CHAPTER 2
The Congregation Hall, Ophir Chasma, Mars
Zeke hesitated before the great, steel door. Overhead, the digital sign proclaimed: Welcome to our freshers. Once upon a time that was him. Not any more. But would his second year be any easier?
The Hall was packed with students and teachers. The walls were festooned with streamers and balloons. Macs scuttled around, serving snacks. A hologram of Country and Martian band The Radiation Brothers played in the corner.
The freshers were easy to spot in their silver uniforms. They all looked shell-shocked. Zeke smiled. They'd lived through their first translocation to Mars, the petrifying landing, and the principal's introductory lecture. No wonder they were shattered.
It was Scuff, beside a punch bowl. Zeke decided to say nothing about his encounter with the Dust Devil. Not till he'd thought it over.
"A bit dead," Zeke remarked as he joined his friend.
Scuff nodded. The party was a quiet affair. Everyone was standing around, awkwardly trying to think of something to say.
"We need an icebreaker," Scuff said, and guzzled a glass of red punch.
Zeke glanced around the crowd.
"Looking for you-know-who?"
Zeke threw his friend a filthy look. No, he wasn't looking for her. Just checking who was there. Mariner Knimble, the translocation teacher, was chatting to Doctor Chandrasar. They both looked uncomfortable. Mariner Chinook, the psychokinesis teacher, towered above the teenagers, silent and brooding. Trixie Cutter, the official school bully, was working her way around the crowd, handing out business cards. Mariner Kepler, the telepathy teacher, was performing mind-reading tricks.
"Same old, same old," Scuff said.
Zeke nodded. "I like it."
"Yep, that's the thing about home," Scuff went on.
"No matter how boring it gets, you never want it to change."
Zeke gazed at all the faces. Eating, drinking, chatting. Were they free of danger? Did he stop the Spiral for good, or was there a chance ...?
A shadow passed over him.
It was Mariner Ariyabata, the astral projection teacher. He was a tall, gangly man with a stoop and long black hair.
"I hear you've enrolled for my class."
Astral projection was an optional subject that began in Year Two.
Ariyabata eyed Zeke from head to toe, his wide, dark eyes glistening.
"I hear you're a difficult student," he said, after a long pause.
Zeke's feelings boiled to the surface.
"Who told you that?"
The Indian gave a slight shrug and looked at the ceiling.
"Maybe nobody. Maybe I observed it myself. On my wanderings."
Zeke was too flustered to reply. Ariyabata placed his long, bony hand on Zeke's shoulder.
"Consider yourself warned. Any bad behaviour and you'll be in for a month of detentions."
With those words, the Mariner strolled off.
"Totally nuts, that one," Scuff said when the man was out of earshot.
Zeke was about to reply when someone tugged on his shirt. A small boy with dirty cheeks, freckles and tousled brown curls stood before them. He was clutching his glass nervously.
"You Zeke Hailey?"
"Yes, how did you —"
"I looked you up, on Salford's Virtual Library. You being the last English boy before me to come 'ere like. Your 'air really is blue."
"Yes, it really is,"
"I thought we could be besties, both being English and all."
The boy stared at Zeke, a stare that was anxious and bold at the same time. They shook hands.
"Are you a Yank?" the boy asked Scuff.
"No," Scuff replied frostily. "Canadian."
"Alright, they're all dead polite up there, and eat maple leaves."
Without a word, Scuff filled his glass with punch and walked into the crowd. Zeke searched for something to say.
"So, what's your name?"
"Gary. Gary Aspeck."
"And how are you settling in?"
"My room is minging. A proper cave," Gary replied with a frown.
"Ah, the catacombs. I'm there too. It's where all poor students go."
Gary pulled a face.
"And ... What did you make of the principal's lecture?"
"She's a right old boot," Gary said. "But it made sense. Earth's dying, so everyone's gotta move to the stars. And that's our job, or will be when we graduate."
"Yes, every Mariner translocates a colony ship out to deep space. Did you ever wonder why they don't come back?"
Gary looked confused. Zeke went on.
"We translocate ships around the solar system all the time. But every far-ship that's gone further, into deep space, never returns."
"Aw, you daft apeth. Why would they bother coming back 'ere?"
Zeke bit his lip. He knew there was something the Mariners' Institute was covering up. And that it was connected to his father's disappearance in deep space all those years before. But how to explain that to an innocent fresher?
"Gary, actually there's more to it —"
The voice boomed across the Hall. Zeke turned to see the school principal materialising on the stage. He whistled. Projecting her voice in mid-translocation was quite a feat.
Principal Lutz glared at Zeke.
They don't keep me here because I'm beautiful.
Zeke blinked. Was she thinking in his head? Surely not!
Principal Lutz stood at her lectern, back straight, head high. Due to her rank, she wore cream-coloured robes instead of the white uniforms of the teachers. Her broad African face had a serious expression. Teachers and students alike fell quiet.
"This party is cancelled."
A chorus of disappointed sighs filled the air. Lutz's frown deepened.
"I have news. Terrible news. In all my years of running the school, this is the worst."
Zeke traded looks with Scuff. What was she going on about?
She cleared her throat.
"At 7.20 am, local Earth time, terrorists attacked the Televator. It was destroyed in a missile attack. The so-called Martian State Brigade claimed responsibility."
This time it was a chorus of gasps.
"Thankfully, the Televator cabin employed its parachutes. It landed intact with only a few casualties. But the consequences are immense."
Mariner Knimble raised his hand.
"The Televator is the only route from Earth into Space. Without it, all space travel will be brought to a halt. The colonists, supplies to Mars, everything."
The principal nodded.
"UNAAC is taking emergency action. They may even dig those antiquated rockets out of mothballs. But all that will take weeks, even months."
"Then Mars is cut off?" The panic in Mariner Kepler's voice was unmistakable.
"That's the least of our worries," Lutz said.
Zeke clenched his fists. What was she saying?
"Mars is at war."
For one sticky moment, nobody spoke.
"With those bandits, the Unpro?" Knimble asked.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Electron's Blade"
Copyright © 2019 Ian C. Douglas.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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