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The Cranny Cafeteria, The Ophir Chasma School for Psychic Endeavour, Mars
Scuff gazed at the birthday cake. Nothing happened.
"Rats! Your turn," he said, pushing it across the table to Zeke.
"Easy as a piece of, um, cake," Zeke replied. He pushed back his blue hair and stared at the pink-frosted sponge. The candles remained spectacularly unlit.
"It's okay, really," Pin-mei said.
Zeke turned towards the window. The school's cafeteria was built into a crack in the cliff, high above Mariners Valley. The view was panoramic. Great canyon walls tumbled down from the sunset and into the shadow.
"Did you bring a fusion lighter?" Scuff asked.
Zeke didn't answer. He was staring at the land far below. A shape swirled across the bare valley. A dust devil, a small whirlwind of sand. They were a common enough phenomena on Mars. Yet Zeke's skin crawled. This devil formed the shape of a man.
"Scuff to Planet Zeke, are you reading me?" Scuff said loudly.
"What?" Zeke replied.
He looked again. The dust devil was gone.
"A lighter? For the cake," Scuff said.
Zeke shook his head.
"Never send a boy to do a girl's work," came a voice. It was Trixie Cutter, the school bully, sitting nearby with a couple of her cronies. They were hunched over a round of Moonshakes, plotting her next black market scam.
Trixie straightened her perfect blond ponytail, dabbed more blusher on her scarlet cheeks, and winked.
Twelve birthday candles burst into flames.
Zeke and Trixie's eyes met. She arched an imperious eyebrow, as if to say, 'beat that,' and returned to her group.
"Too big for her boots," Scuff said, but in a low voice.
"Happy twelfth birthday," Zeke said.
"Happy birthday," Scuff added.
Pin-mei beamed and clapped her hands.
"Go on, make a wish," Scuff said.
Pin-mei drew in a huge breath and blew out the flames. All three friends cheered.
"Here's for a splendid year, Pin," Zeke said.
"Ditto," Scuff added. "No rockbots, psychos, or intergalactic demons."
"I hope not," Pin-mei said, and started to carve the cake into segments.
Scuff waved to a nearby drinksomac.
"Another round of cherry blasters."
The trolley-like robot bleeped. It flipped open its chest console and pulled out three tall glasses, bubbling with red froth.
Scuff clinked his glass against Pin-mei's and then Zeke's.
"Four months ago we were in the bowels of that goddam volcano. And now look at us. On top of the world."
"Well, alive and out of danger," Zeke said.
"Don't be a wet blanket," Scuff replied. He brushed greasy yellow locks out of his froggy eyes. "We're doing well in psychic studies, even you. That evil goblin Fitch Crawly is safely locked up. Even your spooky Martian powers are quiet. We've got a lot to celebrate."
Pin sipped at her blaster, swallowed, and said, "You're forgetting one very important matter. Zeke's father."
"Okey-dokey, you've got a point. But one day we'll find out where he went in this big old galaxy. One day."
Zeke stirred his drink with the straw. He looked glum.
"So," Scuff went on hastily. "What's it like being twelve. Feeling different?"
Pin-mei's moon-shaped face frowned. "Not especially."
"You will," Scuff said. "It kinda creeps up on you. You don't notice at first but it's right there, under your nose."
"Under your nose," Zeke repeated, still stirring the straw.
Scuff nodded and puffed out his chest. "Exactly, you're growing up, Pin."
Zeke slammed his drink down. "No, that's what Fitch said. Under your nose. My father's whereabouts is right under my nose."
Pin-mei cupped her hand over his. "Don't let Crawley mess with your mind."
"After all," Scuff said, "we've scoured the school from rooftop to basement. Other than your father going on a mission called The Flying Dutchman Project, we found diddly-squat."
"Guess so," Zeke replied, sinking back into his seat.
"What could possibly be under your nose anyway?" Pin-mei asked, cocking her head to one side.
"Dunno," Zeke said with a shrug.
Scuff put an arm around Zeke's shoulder. "Exactly, bro. But ask Albie if it makes you feel better. As software goes, he's pretty smart."
Albie was a unique transport app, left behind on a DVD by Zeke's missing father. Zeke had downloaded Albie onto his mountain bike and various other vehicles to improve their performance. Albie came with his own personality and was devoted to Zeke.
He sat bolt upright, his eyes as round as circles. "What did you say?"
Scuff frowned. "Nothing. Just go ask Albie if that helps. He's tuned into every database on the planet."
Zeke grabbed Scuff 's arm so hard the Canadian winced. "Albie! Albie's under my nose."
"Zeke, you're getting your hopes up!" Scuff said.
"I'm going to find out," Zeke said. He jumped up sharply and his chair tumbled over. "Right now!"
* * *
As Zeke hurried across the dusty courtyard, he recalled his arrival on Mars all those months before. At the time, the Ophir Chasma School for Psychic Endeavour reminded him of a city of termite mounds. Even now, as he approached the lofty Grand Hall, the parapets and alcoves looked like ancient coral. The Chasm, as the school was nicknamed, used to seem forbidding. Now it felt like home. Every psychic teenager came here to train for the Mariners Institute. Principal Lutz's claim that it was 'the most important school in the solar system' was no idle boast.
Zeke passed through the huge arched doorway and down into the subterranean tunnels. A prehistoric river carved them from the bedrock two billion years before. The river dried up and for eons they lay empty. Then humankind arrived and converted them to store rooms and cubby holes. As well as bedrooms for the poorest students. Students like Zeke.
His bike was propped against the wall of his room, charging its magnetic coils. Just as he had left it.
The bike lit up.
"Yes, Master Zeke?" the bicycle replied in its metallic voice.
Zeke paused. His pulses were racing. He was dying to find out if Albie knew anything, but he dreaded the disappointment if it did not.
"We've never talked about my father."
"Coleridge Hailey, born —"
"Yes, Albie. I know when he was born. The crucial thing is where is he now."
Albie's circuits hummed for a split-second before it answered. "Current location unknown."
Zeke chewed on his thumb. "Because ...?"
"He went into Deep Space fifteen years ago. We cannot deduce where he has travelled since that time."
"Yes, but where was he going when he began his journey?"
Zeke sank into the chair. The answer he had sought for so long. Something that appeared so out of reach was actually there all the time. The room swayed.
"You mean, the constellation of Cepheus?"
"Affirmative, Master Zeke. Alpha Cephei to be precise, the brightest star in the constellation."
Albie hummed for an interminable time. "Would you like Master Coleridge to tell you himself, Sir?"
The words stuck to Zeke's tongue. "Y-y-yes!"
The bike's headlamp glowed into life, casting a holo-field into the centre of the room. Electric greens and blues shimmered and rippled before condensing into a shape. A tall, handsome man stood before Zeke. A man with blue hair and a lopsided smile. His father!
The hologram spoke. "My name is Cole Hailey. In case I don't return, I am recording this for posterity. And for my son. What I am about to say is strictly classified.
"I am volunteering for a mission of extreme importance. For years now the Mariners have translocated into Deep Space. It's a matter of urgency that we get the human exodus underway. But there is one huge problem. None of the Mariners translocating into Deep Space ever come back. Whether they go alone or at the helm of a colony ship, no one returns. For over a century we've been translocating inside the Solar System without the slightest of setbacks, so what's going wrong with our longer trips?
"The Institute initiated Operation Flying Dutchman to find out. I'm to captain a far-ship into the heart of the galaxy and back. A crack team of scientists will accompany me and one way or the other, we will solve this. We must.
"My only fear is that I will not get back for my son's birth."
Cole stared directly into the camera. His eyes were watery.
"If you are watching, son, please know I do this because the fate of billions hangs in the balance. Unluckily for me, I'm the most qualified for the job. But duty is tearing my heart apart. Understand this, I —"
The hologram crackled and faded.
Zeke leapt to his feet. "Albie, where's the rest of it?"
"That is all, Master Zeke, the holofile terminates there."
Zeke threw himself onto his bed and cried.
Minutes passed. Zeke sat up and rubbed his eyes with his knuckles.
"There's only one person who can help me now."CHAPTER 2
Zeke fell through the door and into the shiny classroom. Thirty heads turned and stared.
"I'm disappointed," boomed a deep voice from the front. It was the psychokinesis teacher, Mariner Bobby Chinook. He stood before the holoscreen, as tall and broad as a tree. Zeke looked into his Inuit face, the deep-set eyes, the prominent cheekbones, the aquiline nose.
"Sorry, Sir, overslept."
Chinook raised a solitary eyebrow. "I could give you a tardy slip. Or I can use you in this experiment. Come here."
Zeke gulped and walked through the sea of desks to the front. A medium-sized boulder rested beside the holoscreen. A feather and a dumbbell were on the teacher's table.
Chinook gestured for Zeke to stand beside him.
"Face the class, Hailey. Take a deep breath and clear your mind."
"That won't be difficult," Scuff called out from the back.
Chinook caught Scuff with his eagle-eyed gaze. Scuff coloured deeply and buried his head among his electrobooks.
Chinook placed both hands on Zeke's shoulders. "Now young man, I want you to lift the feather. With your mind."
Zeke glanced at Pin-mei, sitting in the first row. He winked. She grinned. He looked at the rest of the students, all frowning at him. Despite his claims of innocence, Zeke was still regarded as a coconspirator in Fitch Crawley's brief reign of terror. He sighed and focussed on the task at hand.
The feather fluttered upwards, one, two, three metres off the tabletop. It hovered in mid-air then drifted down again. Zeke flashed a cocky smile to friends and foes alike.
"Now the dumbbell."
"What?" Zeke exclaimed.
"But Sir, it must weigh ten kilos."
"Twenty. Hurry up."
Zeke pulled a face. Lifting a feather by thoughts alone was one thing. A twenty kilo weight was another. In his mind's-eye he visualised the dumbbell slowly levitating off the table. But it wouldn't budge. He concentrated, feeling the heaviness of the object in his mind. He began to sweat. Still nothing happened. The dumbbell weighed too much. Zeke gritted his teeth and clenched his fists.
"Up, up, up," he muttered.
The dumbbell jerked upwards a couple of centimetres It wobbled above the table and rose another centimetre and then one more still. Zeke felt his biceps straining, as though he were physically lifting.
The dumbbell clattered back onto the table. A few sneers hissed around the room.
Puffing, Zeke went to sit down, but Chinook kept a firm grip on him.
"And now the boulder, boy."
Zeke eyed the hefty chunk of basalt. It was around three metres tall and five wide, jagged and ochre red. Chinook was asking the impossible.
"Sir, I couldn't lift that in a month of Martian Sundays."
Zeke closed his eyes. He pictured the rock. He thought how heavy it must be and tried to imagine heaving it up. Every muscle in his body tightened. He thought harder and harder. His armpits grew sticky. Harder and harder. He could actually feel the rock's weight now. It was crushing him, overwhelming him.
"No!" he cried, and fell back into his teachers arms.
Chinook pushed Zeke onto his feet. "Why couldn't you lift it?" Zeke hesitated. Was it some kind of trick question? "It's too heavy, obviously."
Chinook turned to the classroom. "Hailey is right and wrong. When we use our bodies for lifting we are subject to the laws of physics. But why he couldn't lift it psychokinetically? Belief. Hailey believed the rock was too heavy to be lifted. Therefore, he failed. But when we use our minds the power of imagination is our only limit."
Pin-mei put her hand up. "So Sir, are you saying we can lift anything if we have faith?"
"Sure. Faith, after all, can move mountains."
He scanned the forest of puzzled faces. "The feather, for example, did Hailey lift it using muscle power?"
Thirty heads shook vigorously.
"Muscles exist on the material plain, where things have mass and weight. With me so far?"
Thirty heads nodded slowly.
Chinook went on. "But with the feather he used his brain cells. He imagined the feather hovering. Absolutely nothing to do with weight. Therefore, think that the boulder is light as a feather and have confidence. You'll be able to lift it as easily as the feather. See!"
A light kindled in Chinook's dark eyes. The boulder steadily ascended till it nearly scraped the ceiling. It bobbed for a few seconds, before spinning around three times. Then it gracefully lowered itself back to the ground.
The students clapped. Chinook motioned to the one empty seat. Zeke ran for its sanctuary.
Have you been up all night? You got eyes like a panda.
It was Scuff, speaking by telepathy.
Zeke peered over his shoulder. Scuff was sitting two rows back, half reading a comic, half paying attention.
Yes, Zeke thought back.
Scuff shrugged as if to say, go on.
Everything's changed. Albie told me where my father is. In the constellation of Cepheus. I'm going to get him.
Whoa there, cowboy. Congratulations and all that. But how are you going to commute across the Milky Way?
Zeke bit back an urge to snap. Sometimes Scuff was a pain the size of a gas giant. That's why I was up all night. I sent out a long distance T-mail.
Scuff sent him a quizzical look. You used the Mariners' solar system-wide communication chain?
Yes, passed telepathically from Mariner to Mariner. From Mars to the asteroids to Jupiter, and then via the odd space station to Saturn.
Who lives there?
Edward Dayo these days.
Scuff frowned. Who?
Edward Dayo, the Apprentice Mariner who translocated us to Mars. I'm begging him to take me.
The dreadlocks guy? Bit of a big favour.
He'll do it. He's got to.
Scuff's mouth dropped. Wait a cotton-picking minute. You're not leaving us, are you?
Zeke shifted round to face the front.
Chinook was rubbing his temple with his forefinger. "I'm getting a message from the Principal's office. Oh, you again. Hailey, you're wanted right away. Pronto."
"What have I done now?" Zeke implored his teacher.
A trace of a smile creased the Inuit's lips. "Nothing, for once. Seems you have a visitor."CHAPTER 3
The Office of Principal Lutz
Zeke stood as near to the school secretary as he dared. Marjorie Barnside was pounding away on her keyboard. Surely, if he listened carefully, there'd be a sound. The hum of a circuit or the squeak of a pulley. Anything that would betray her secret. The school secretary was an android.
"Ach, would you stop breathing down my neck!" she snapped.
Zeke stepped back.
But the curiosity was too much. He leant forward. And then some more. Any further and he'd fall into her lap.
"That's it!" Barnside cried in her thick Belfast accent. She pushed the digi-writer away and swivelled in her chair to face him.
"Look, big lad, you know. And I know you know. And you know I know that you know. Are ya with me?"
"Oh, definitely, Miss," he replied as convincingly as he could.
"So is this what you want to see?"
Barnside placed both hands around her neck and gave a hard tug. Her head came clear away from her shoulders, revealing a mass of wires inside.
"Happy, are we now?" asked the severed head. A strand of iron-grey hair slipped across the face.
Zeke flopped into a nearby chair. It was more disconcerting than he'd expected. He nodded feebly. Barnside clicked her head back into place.
"Will ya give me some peace now?" Zeke nodded again, lost for words.
"Look, I'm just a humble school secretary. Doing what I love. I didn't ask to be who I am."
"I guess nobody does," Zeke replied.
"My role in life is to be here for Madam." Barnside gestured toward Lutz's door.
"She has one of the most important jobs in the Solar System. And I assist her in that. Who else would put up with the tantrums?" "Sorry, Miss. I didn't mean to pry."
"That's exactly what you were doing."
Zeke lowered his gaze.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Particle Beast"
Copyright © 2017 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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