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A Precarious Vantage Point
"It's out of this world," Zeke shouted, gazing through the shiny diginoculars. He and Pin-mei were perched on a ledge overlooking the red vastness of Mariners Valley. The size of the United States and five miles deep, the Valley was home to Earth's colonists. After two hundred years of terra-forming, it was the most hospitable region on Mars. Or rather, the least deadly.
"Which world?" the small girl asked.
He lowered the glasses.
"When you say 'out of this world', do you mean Earth or Mars?"
Zeke grinned his lopsided grin. "Both."
He lifted the glasses back to the empty sky. "I can see the GoShip in orbit. Even the scratches on its hull. Gosh!"
"A sycamore just dropped out."
Zeke adjusted the viewfinder, following the sycamore as it plummeted from the go-Ship towards the surface ninety miles below. Two wings popped out from the main pod and began rotating. The vehicle slowed to a safer descent speed, allowing the parachutes to release without ripping. Zeke could see two terrified faces peering from the window. He smiled, recalling his own near-fatal landing.
"I wonder what bright spark came up with the idea of copying sycamore seeds," he said. "Such a clever way of landing on Mars. Cheap and fuel-free."
"Zeke!" Pin-mei cried, pointing to a distant flashing light. Another sycamore, hanging from its parachute, was drifting on the thin Martian air.
"Oh, a red light," Zeke shifted the diginoculars. "Must be a medical emergency."
"The School has been alerted," Zeke's bike chimed from behind them, propped against the cliff alongside Pin-Mei's bike.
"Thanks, Albie," Zeke called out, then added, "I've programmed Albie to monitor all radio frequencies."
"I wish we could download Albie into every bicycle."
"Sorry, seems to be a special issue to my dad. I don't think even I should have a copy."
Zeke lifted his head to the heavens.
"Thanks, Dad. Wherever you are."
"No news yet?" Pin-mei asked in a soft voice.
Sadness filled his dark, burning eyes. "Not a single lead. Dad could be anywhere in the galaxy."
He handed the diginoculars back to Pin-mei.
"Well, nice of your parents to send you these."
Pin's usually indestructible smile faded at the mention of her family in faraway Shanghai. Pin-mei was only eleven, four years younger than most students. She had started at the school early due to her outstanding talent for precognition.
"Probably nothing serious," Zeke said. He nodded to the sycamore. "I bet some unfortunate newbie banged his head in the freefall."
"Why don't we help?" Pin-mei suggested.
"It's a good twenty miles away. The School will be there before —"
"No, I mean you could translocate there in an instant."
"You know translocation isn't allowed until Year Four. And us, just three months into Year One."
"Supposing it's something worse than a bruised skull?"
Zeke stared out at the endless dunes, then turned away. He pushed his fingers through his unruly blue locks. Pin-mei drew a deep breath.
"Still having the problems?"
"I just don't get it, Pin. That day, in the Infinity Trap, I did it. But ever since then nothing. However hard I try, not a shred of psychic power."
"You know, I think what you need to —"
Zeke jumped up. "Come on. The buddy lists should be up by now. Race you to the Chasm!"
A look of disappointment fleeted across Pin-mei's face, but she forced a smile.
* * *
The Ophir Chasma School for Psychic Endeavour took its name from the surrounding ravine, one of the many massive canyons that made up Mariners Valley. Zeke and Pin-mei paused on the steps to the Grand Hall, the heart of the school. It towered over them, a weird collection of parapets and steeples, like some mysterious ancient coral. The mariners' philosophy was chiselled into the concrete over its great doors.
Gravity, magnetism and thought are the greatest forces of the universe. Of these three, thought is the most powerful.
"This place knocks me out now as much as the day we arrived," Zeke said.
"Think of all the generations who have passed through its classrooms over the years," she remarked.
"Yes," Zeke agreed. "Every one a psychic, destined to study here and become a mariner. And then power a far-ship across the galaxy by sheer willpower."
She threw him a side-glance. "You still think it's suspicious, that nobody ever comes back from deep space?"
"I do. A big dirty secret, and the teachers are in on it."
"But Earth's government say the colonists are just too busy to return. Our leaders would never lie."
Zeke smiled. Pin-mei had a lot to learn. It was one of the many things he loved about her.
"Well, one day I'll get to the bottom of it. I'll have to if I'm ever going to track down my father."
Pin-mei grinned and squeezed his hand. "You will. But right now I think we're running late."
Zeke cursed. Together they hurried up, through the enormous doorway and into the entrance chamber. It looked like medieval castle crossed with an ant's nest. Fluted windows pierced the gloom with fingers of light. Arches hewn from the natural red basalt revealed dark corridors. Students in colour-coded uniforms, white-robed teachers and a wide assortment of robotic machines, or macs, bustled about their daily business.
A crowd of students were buzzing around the plasma screen.
"Ze buddy lists are oop," an older French girl explained to Zeke as he gently edged to the front.
Zeke scanned the two columns of names. Those on the left-hand side belonged to the late arrivals, newbies who had missed the flight to Mars three months earlier. On the right were the buddies, one for each newbie.
He had been the first to volunteer, for a very good reason. He wanted to show the school and a certain school principal that he was not evil. Although all accusations against him had evaporated when Pin-mei and the other teenagers returned from the maze of gullies known as the Noctis Labyrinthis, most of the school still shunned his company.
"Hey! My name's missing!"
"Something wrong, Mr Hailey?"
The group froze. Everyone recognised that voice!
Principal Lutz stood behind them as if she'd materialised out of thin air, as indeed she had. There was a look of stern disapproval on her African features. The students sloped off without a word, all except Zeke and Pin-mei.
"Why isn't my name on the list?" Zeke demanded.
Lutz held her head high, her ceremonial robes lending an aura of majesty.
"Because I deleted it. Why else?"
"You had no right —"
"Entschuldigen, but I have every right. I run the most important school in the solar system. It's my duty to protect our students from undesirable influences."
"How can you say that!" Zeke protested, his face flushing.
"Don't push it, Hailey. You're very lucky I was absent the day you crawled back here on your hands and knees, begging forgiveness. Mariner Knimble reinstated you, being far more lenient than I. Okay, the School has a duty to all psychic juveniles on the planet. But that's as far as it goes. Now au revoir."
Lutz blurred and vanished.
Zeke stared at the empty space left behind, seething. He had not 'crawled back to the school begging for forgiveness'. In fact he had rolled into the quad triumphantly, on top of the late Lieutenant Doughty's super tank, the Bronto.
And he was most definitely not a bad influence. How dare Lutz do this.
He turned back to Pin-mei who was staring at the plasma screen.
"That name." She tapped the screen.
Zeke looked at the text. Fitch Crawly. Just one name among many. It was then he noticed her eyes, filled with a soft pearly light.
"What of it?"
The light dulled. She looked up at him as if waking from a trance. "I don't know. For a moment I saw ..."
Zeke and Pin-mei exchanged startled looks and bolted for the door. The scream had a familiar Canadian accent.
Outside a vehicle was rocking violently, upside down, a few feet off the ground. A mop of blond hair dangled underneath.
"It's Scuff!" Pin-mei cried.
"On a gravscooter!" Zeke added.
He had never seen one before but recognised it from click-ads on the Mars-Wide-Web. It looked sleek, flashy and very out-of-control.
"Help!" their upturned friend wailed.
Zeke felt a hand on his shoulder, pushing him firmly to one side. A tall man stepped in between. His cheekbones were broad and his skin copper-red. He wore his hair in a long ponytail, its slate blackness all the more vivid against the white of his mariner's uniform. Zeke didn't know him.
The man aimed the palm of his hand at the bike. Electric sparks crackled from his eyes, a sign of immense psychic power. The gravscooter's engines died, the vehicle righted itself and gently landed in the tawny dirt. He nodded curtly and strode back into the school.
"I'm totally fine, guys," Scuff insisted, struggling out of his vehicle. He slipped and tumbled to the ground.
"Where did this come from?" Zeke asked as he heaved his friend up.
"Just arrived this morning, bought it on mBay. One careful owner, less than a thousand miles on the clock, a total bargain."
Scuff patted it fondly like a pet dog. The vehicle was an elongated bubble of welded plastic with two enormous blasters at the rear, and seating for a driver and two passengers. The bonnet and fenders were decorated with painted flames. Scuff pushed his long ungainly curls back off his frog-like face.
"The latest thing in Tithonium Central. This model's called The Fireball and goes five days without charging."
"Does it use quantum harmonics?" Pin-mei asked.
Scuff flashed her an impressed look.
"Sure does. A quantum coil underneath reflects the planet's gravity back on itself, lifting the scooter off the ground. Some of that gravity is channelled out through these blasters giving forward momentum. No more prehistoric bicycles for me. No siree!" "I love my bike." Zeke replied.
"Me too," Pin-mei chirped in.
"Whatever. But this is worth every Martian dime of the fivefigure price tag."
Zeke whistled. Pin-mei attempted a whistle, but could only hiss.
"No point having a fabulously rich father if I can't throw his money around."
There had been a time when Zeke found Scuff's financial arrogance most annoying. Now he understood it was the Canadian's way of concealing a deep hurt.
"Don't know why that mariner stuck his nose in. I had it perfectly in control."
"Who was that anyway?" Zeke asked.
"Must be the new psychokinesis teacher. Looked like an Inuit, didn't he?"
Neither Zeke nor Pin-mei were familiar with the native peoples of North America so they took Scuff's word for it.
"All this exercise is giving me an appetite," Scuff said. "Who's for a quick Marsburger before class?"
"Hailey! Hailey! I want a word with you!"
A lanky figure was hurrying across the yard.
"Oh no, Swallow!" Scuff said and pulled a face.
Poor Jimmy Swallow returned from the Noctis Labyrinthis a changed person. No longer the confident captain of basketball, Jimmy Swallow was now a blabbering, twitchy bundle of nerves. And he blamed Zeke for this sorry transformation.
"Pretend you didn't hear him," Scuff whispered. Giggling, the three friends bolted back up the steps and dived into the Grand Hall.CHAPTER 2
Somewhere in a Dream
Zeke stood on high ground, looking down onto the red wilderness. It was Mars, unmistakably, but where? The pebbled plain stretched to the horizon, without a single canyon to box it in. He was no longer in Mariners Valley. "I thought these dreams had finished," he said to himself.
Zeke spied something in the distance, something like a bloody rag. The back of his neck tingled. It was crawling towards him!
What! Zeke wheeled round. Someone had whispered in his ear! He scanned his surroundings. No one! He was alone on the slope of a vast mountain. The ground rose steadily for miles, fading into the ochre haze. Definitely no one.
He glanced back. The creeping rag was nearer. Zeke could make out its limbs shuffling through the dirt. It mustn't catch him. He took a step and then another, uphill and away. He picked up the pace. A sudden light dazzled his eyes, as though sunshine was bouncing of a mirror.
"Dthrznii fgakah thrthtzt," whispered a voice. The words were Hesperian, the language of the long dead Martians.
"Not ready to see, what?" Zeke replied in the same alien tongue.
That phrase again. It bubbled up from the swamp of his subconscious over and over. But never with meaning. What on Earth, or rather Mars, did it mean?
"No!" Zeke cried.
Hands grabbed his feet, horrible rotting human hands. He toppled over, screaming as the rag thing pulled him down ... Zeke opened his eyes to darkness. As one of the 'officially poor' students at the Chasm, he was allotted a windowless, subterranean cave. When the photon-lamps were dowsed the room went as dark as a black hole.
He lay under the sweaty sheets, waiting for his heartbeat to calm down. Just a nightmare, nothing to worry about, he was alright now.
But even as those thoughts formed Zeke had a sense he was not alone.
"Lights on," he shrieked.
The stark radiance of the photon lamps revealed something so mad Zeke wondered if he was still dreaming. A seven-foot tall boulder towered next to his bed. It had a rich orange lustre, a little too polished to be natural, scarred with deep veins of white. Slowly, Zeke inched away and up, out of his bedcovers.
The thing was humming. Zeke stared at it, too shocked to talk. He had the strangest feeling he'd seen it before. But where? With a sinking heart he remembered. At the Infinity Trap! There had been a boulder just like this one, marking the way in. This was bad news, but maybe he could communicate with it?
Summoning up the alien expression he needed he said, "What are you?"
The rock's veins glowed deep to its core.
It spoke with a deep rumble.
"When you destroyed the Guardian the Failsafe activated. It protects against the threat."
Zeke gulped. He didn't like the sound of that.
"The Failsafe does not reveal the Makers' secrets. Not to the threat."
"You think I'm a threat, but I'm the one —"
"Who must be made safe."
"And how exactly?"
"Protocol Dthoth-Thrith-Thrith recommends heat blasting."
The boulder was transforming to a glassy translucence.
"This is a misunderstanding! You've got the wrong boy."
"Only the threat can speak the Maker's language."
"Because one of their orbs filled my head with their language. I've done nothing wrong!"
A hum filled the air. Fire began building in the boulder's heart.
"NO! NO! NO!"
Zeke squeezed his eyes shut and desperately wished himself out of the room. Nothing! His translocation skills were useless. Zeke leapt clear over the bed towards the door. But at the same time the whining noise faltered.
"Failsafe unable to secure target. Energy levels weak after the long hibernation. Must recharge."
The auto-door swished across. Zeke hesitated in the threshold. Trembling he glanced back. The room was empty.
* * *
"So, it was some kind of rockbot?" Scuff ventured. Zeke, Scuff and Pin-mei were hunched over their breakfasts at the far end of the Cranny Cafeteria. Condiments flew between tables as the students warmed up their psychic senses for the day. Bulky cleanomacs trundled to and fro collecting dirty plates.
Zeke shot his friend an impatient look. "Well, if you like. I believe all these Martian creatures are living machines; the orbs, Lutz's Engraving, the Dust Devil and now this. Probably two billion years ago they looked very different. Over the aeons they've petrified."
"Where do you think you saw this 'rockbot' before?" Pin-mei asked.
"Outside the Infinity Trap. Remember?"
Recognition dawned in her eyes.
"That boulder, Professor Magma called it a marker."
"Yes, only maybe it was more of a guard," Zeke said. "Perhaps it was dormant and we woke it up."
Scuff frowned. "And it's out to get you, bro? What are we going to do?"
Zeke bit his thumb. "I don't know. Lutz thinks I'm a liar. There's no way she'd believe me. I'm not going to her unless I have some kind of proof."
His gaze drifted over to the students, queuing for their meals at the servomacs. A small blond boy returned his stare. His ice-blue eyes burned through the dim Martian morning. He smiled, revealing a set of huge teeth. Then he waved as if he had known Zeke forever.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Gravity's Eye"
Copyright © 2015 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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