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The Trans-Tibetan Highway, AD 2259
The tower glinted against the sky. Zeke blinked in the fierce sunlight and searched for a glimpse of the top. But there was no top. The building zoomed up forever.
"I told you already, bro," snapped the fat geeky boy in the next seat. "The Televator's too high. Pack a telescope next time."
He was right, but Zeke needed a distraction from his fears. Perhaps the smell would do it. He breathed in the ripe air and grimaced. After two days of travelling the hover-bus was beginning to remind him of a zoo. The fat boy wrinkled his nose.
"Stinks worse than a gorilla's butt in here."
Zeke tensed up. Had the stranger been reading his thoughts? Some of them could, he knew that. If his lies were discovered now, six months of hopes and planning would be ruined. He focused on the grey Tibetan plateau, but that was as endlessly flat as their destination was high. The painful memory of Heathrow's Terminal Twenty bounced back into his head.
"You're going to be the best Star Mariner ever," his mum said, biting back tears. She didn't want him to go, naturally, but she had no say in the matter. Every child who passed the Exam, everyone onboard the bus, became government property.
She hugged him and walked away, fading quickly into the crowds. She didn't know. Nobody knew. Zeke had faked it through the Exam, the interview and half way across the world. Now the last hurdle waited for him, the Televator, brooding on the horizon like a hangman's scaffold.
They were nearing another roadside restaurant. The driver steered the gleaming bus off the road and into the car park.
"Oh great," the nerd groaned. "More yak burgers, more yak shakes! Any more Tibetan cooking and I'll morph into a yak!"
"Newsflash, yak-boy, you already have!" called a pimply boy from the front.
The others all laughed. The escort, a skinny sour-faced man, threw them a stern look.
"Quieten down folks," he said. "Okay, lunch. Then everyone back on the vehicle in thirty minutes. We've got an interplanetary travel schedule to stick to."
* * *
A cold Himalayan draught whistled through the deserted restaurant. As the last stop before the Televator, the place had been decorated in a space theme. Flimsy polystyrene rockets dangled from the ceiling. Tatty posters revelled in long ago glories of space exploration. Astronauts planted flags on the lunar surface, constructed space stations and lifted up the colossal Televator.
Zeke bought a Full Moon Pizza with Salami Craters and scanned for an empty chair. Most of the others were sat by the window, chattering like monkeys. A few looked in his direction but he quickly turned away. They seemed a smug lot, with their luxury ski-suits and designer boots. His cheeks burned as he glanced down at his second-hand coat. No doubt they all had successful fathers, he thought enviously. Zeke longed for a dad. An unsuccessful one would do just fine.
He spied the geek alone in a corner. The boy was gulping down Saturn Rings, really onions rings, and playing with a Laserlight Mini-Deluxe. The small console had transformed the tabletop into a holographic battlefield. Tiny glowing commandoes hunted among the dirty plates for a disgustingly ugly alien. Zeke recognised the holo-game as Blood Guzzler III, not due in the stores until summer. This geek was one very rich kid.
"Hey, I love that game," Zeke said in his coolest voice.
The boy said nothing, scowling intensely at his miniature figures.
Zeke persevered, flicking the nearest foam rocket. "These models are, um, neat."
"Neat! Is that a way for saying cheap, tacky garbage where you come from?"
"I guess so," he said quickly. "My name's Zeke Hailey, from —"
"London. Your accent's a giveaway."
"Where are you —?"
"Lakeville, outside Toronto."
"Sorry, never heard of it," Zeke confessed, taking the adjacent seat.
"No sweat, bro. It's in the dictionary under dead-end. A burger joint, a pizza place and you're done."
An awkward pause filled the air as they weighed each other up. The fat boy resembled a frog in a blond wig. His hair was long and greasy, his eyes too far apart, and his nose flat.
Zeke blushed as the nerd returned the stare. He awkwardly combed his fingers through his unruly blue hair.
"Oh, my hair?" he added with a half-hearted laugh. "Mum always says a cartridge of nano-dye fell on my head as a baby. Turned me bluer than a parrot!"
The geek didn't return the laugh. Instead he searched deeper, into Zeke's dark burning eyes and crooked smile, as if something was missing. Zeke shifted uncomfortably on the hard seat. He wondered if the boy could sense his secret.
At that moment the alien leapt out from behind a pepper pot and devoured a shrieking hologram soldier. The frog-boy stretched out his hand.
They shook manfully.
"So what was your score?" Scuff asked, an inevitable question. It was thanks to the ESP exam that they were going to Mars. The letters stood for 'extrasensory perception' and every fifteen year old on the planet sat the exam. And every fifteen year old who passed was onboard the rather small coach.
Zeke blushed. For all his boldness Zeke was a lousy liar.
"D-Doesn't matter. H-How about you?" he stammered.
"I'm not telling if you won't," Scuff barked. He shoved back the table and moved away.
* * *
Dusk was falling as they neared the Televator. The unending pillar caught the sunset in a blaze of orange and purple. Zeke strained his eyes, trying again to catch the vanishing point. He marvelled at its height.
"How come it doesn't collapse?" he asked Scuff, who was still sulking beside him.
The geek glared and said nothing. Zeke turned his attention to the plasma screen in the back of the next seat. He tapped in his question and text appeared.
Carbon nano-tubes, the strongest and stiffest material on Earth, are welded together molecule by molecule creating a strength greater than diamonds —
"Any time now!" the escort proclaimed, distracting Zeke from the screen.
A hush filled the coach as the Televator erupted into light. A million photon lamps raced up, into the twilight, glittering like a cosmic Christmas tree.
The sobbing of a little girl broke the silence. Zeke got up and stumbled through the darkness towards the sound. It was one of the Chinese students, a tiny girl with a short bob of hair and a face as round as the Moon.
He sat down beside her.
"They say space travel is as safe as crossing the road," he said, taking her hand.
"Supposing we die up there? My daddy told me there's no air on Mars," she replied in perfect English.
"No, no, that was in the past. There's plenty of air now, at least where we're going."
The girl pointed to a battered old teddy bear beside her.
"Mr Raffles is homesick."
"Aren't we all? I keep thinking about my mum."
The girl's tearful expression gave way to a puzzled frown.
"What about your daddy?"
Zeke gritted his teeth. She'd hit a raw nerve. He was cheating his way into the greatest school in the Solar System for the gravest of reasons.
"My dad's missing."CHAPTER 2
At midnight the students spilled out of the departure lounge into the cold crisp night. The impossibly huge Televator loomed across the tarmac. Zeke's head swam from the vastness of it all.
"Now I know how an ant feels looking up at a skyscraper," he groaned.
Pin-mei Liang, the little girl from the bus, clung tightly to Zeke's hand. She came from Shanghai and was only eleven years old.
"I'm going to miss school, won't you?" she giggled.
"Aren't you a bit young to be going to Mars?" Zeke said. He felt very grown-up next to her.
Her face dimmed.
"My grades were so high I sat my exams early. I never thought in a million light years I'd pass."
"How did your parents take it?"
The girl swallowed a lump in her throat.
"They told me to be brave. That they were so proud of me."
New tears were forming. Zeke squeezed her hand and she forced a huge grin.
"They said it was an honour to study at the Chasm."
The Chasm! Zeke's heart pumped faster at the sound of that word. The Ophir Chasma Academy for Psychic Endeavour was the name in full, but the media had shortened that mouthful to the Chasm. It was a legend, a dream, an aspiration. Those who graduated from its Martian classrooms made it into the Mariners Institute and became instant celebrities. For a brief time their faces adorned holomags and plasma-screens worldwide in a celebration of their bravery. Then they vanished into deep space, at the helm of a colony ship. The fact no ship had so far returned was no cause for concern, said the politicians. The colonists were too busy building new worlds to cross the galaxy for a social call.
But to get to the Chasm the new intake first had to escape gravity.
Around the base of the Televator sat a donut–shaped cabin large enough for a hundred passengers. A fat uniformed woman emerged through the open door and ushered in the teenagers. The digital badge on her breast read, Stella Gates, Space Stewardess-in-Chief. She reeked of garlic and coffee.
"Zeke Hailey, Mr," she remarked, collecting his boarding chip. She ran a disdainful eye over his blue locks. "No running in the aisles. No backchat either or you'll find yourself dangling from the safety exit like a conker on a string. A very cold dead conker. Do I make myself clear?"
"Per-fect-ly," Zeke replied, gagging on a cloud of bad breath.
"Good, and have a pleasant flight."
"Can I stay with you?" Pin-Mei asked, once they were inside.
Zeke nodded, putting on a brave smile.
As they claimed the nearest seats, Scuff stomped past, hunting for a spare place. He saw Zeke, muttered something grumpy-sounding and turned away. He glanced back to check they were still watching him.
"Come and join us," Zeke ventured.
Scuff coloured slightly but accepted the invitation.
"About lunchtime, bro, sorry I blew my stack. Never been into space before and I'm as edgy as a man with a beehive down his pants."
"Um, I know what you mean, I think," Zeke replied, trying hard not to think about bees and underwear.
"Your exam score is your business," Scuff said in an awed voice. "Guess you're a top ten percenter, bro!"
Zeke lowered his head. If only Scuff knew the truth, he thought guiltily.
Stella Gates cleared her throat. A couple of youngsters at the front went a very pale green.
"Boys and girls, soon we will be travelling up one of the greatest wonders in the world. The Televator! For the scientifically minded let me explain this miracle. A magnet the size of a small city lies buried beneath our feet. This is called the Base Magnet and acts as a catapult."
"Must have one hell of a rubber sling!" jeered a pimply boy. It was the same joker who had called Scuff a yak-boy. Stella raised a haughty eyebrow.
"No, darling, an electromagnetic catapult. Tremendous magnetic energy shoots up inside the tower. The Cruiser is divided into two rings. The inner ring houses our magnetic dynamo, while the outer ring serves as the passenger deck. Once the inner ring starts rotating, it creates a magnetic field."
Scuff raised his hand. "Which is the same as the Base Magnet."
A volley of sneers passed through the compartment.
"Ah, I see we have a scholar among us," Stella beamed. "Opposites attract but alike repel. It's the same principle."
"All that spinning will make us throw up!" the pimply boy protested.
"The passenger deck remains constant," Gates explained through a strained smile. "And it's a lot cheaper and safer than those primitive rockets our great-grandfathers travelled in. About as sophisticated as sitting on a ton of dynamite and lighting the fuse. No wonder they were always blowing up midair."
At that moment a violent banging interrupted Stella's speech. Someone was trying to get in. Hastily she threw open the airlock.
An enormous man waved his tickets at the flight attendant.
"Entrance woman, I demand entrance!"
The man stormed inside carrying a crocodile-skin suitcase. He was unusually tall with the large flaring nostrils of a horse. His hair flowed in grey oily curls. His black coat billowed around him like a vampire's cape. He cast the youngsters an icy glare.
"These are tomorrow's heroes? Still wetting their panties if you ask me."
His eyes met Zeke's and a cold tingle danced somersaults down Zeke's spine.
"Straight on for First Class," Stella Gates indicated with a wave.
"Yes, yes, I've done this journey countless times," the tall man hissed, and strode off.
Scuff whistled softly.
"You do know who that is?"
Zeke and Pin-Mei shook heads.
He rolled his eyes.
"Wow, bro, don't they have newscasts in merry old England? That was Professor Tiberius Magma, the world famous archaeologist. The first man to explore the Earth's core and discover the lost ruins of Atlantis. Maybe he's off to the Big Pumpkin too?"
"Where?" Zeke and Pin-mei asked at the same time.
"Mars of course! It's orange and round! Like a pumpkin," Scuff barked at them. "Sheesh, I'm wasted on you two!"
"But why would an archaeologist be going to Mars?" Zeke asked.
"To dig up more ruins?" Pin-mei suggested.
Scuff rolled his eyes again.
"There aren't any ruins on Mars. Nobody ever lived there before Mankind. Most of its still a dead planet. Outside Mariner's Valley."
"Mariners Valley?" Pin-mei said, rubbing her button nose.
"Where the school is," Scuff snapped. "Biggest canyon in the Solar System."
The cabin lights dimmed. An uneasy silence settled on the passengers. Pin-mei glanced nervously around for something to distract her. She focused on Zeke's head.
"Why is your hair so blue?" she asked in a trembling voice.
Zeke managed a sympathetic smile.
"Mum always says a cartridge of nano-dye dropped on my head as a baby."
"Oh, how awful!" the Chinese girl cried.
Zeke was about to explain it was a joke and blue hair was a family trait when the engines started whirring.
"Buckle up!" Stella bellowed across the aisles.
The grinding noise grew louder.
"We're rising!" someone gasped.
Zeke peeped through the nearest porthole. The rooftops of the departure terminal dropped from sight. A dark canvas of stars and vacuum filled up the aperture. The cabin was lifting.
Pin-mei cried again. Scuff grabbed a copy of the in-flight holomag and pretended to read it. Nobody spoke. Only Zeke, of all the travellers, gazed out at the constellations with a smile.
A whole galaxy lay on the other side of the glass. Planets and nebula and red giants and comets and binary stars. Worlds of fire and worlds of ice, all waiting to be discovered. And somewhere, out among all that coldness and radiation, across thousands of light years, he was going to find his father.CHAPTER 3
The Upper Stratosphere
"We're going to stop!"
Zeke swivelled in his seat. Sparks of electricity were dancing in Pin-mei's eyes.
"Sheesh!" Scuff exclaimed. "She's a precog."
Zeke had done his research on all of the psychic senses. Pre-cog was short for 'precognition', people who were able to see quick flashes of the future. But that meant —
"We're going to stop!" she wailed again.
"Miss!" Zeke called out.
"Tsk, tsk, what's up with you two?" Stella snapped, hurrying over.
"We're going to stop," Zeke and Pin-mei cried together.
"Nonsense! This vehicle is unstoppable."
At that very moment the grinding noise of the engines died. The Cruiser slowed, hesitated, and dropped a few feet. It stopped with a loud clang.
"We're going to fall!" the pimply boy shrieked, running his hands through his spiky hair.
A voice boomed from the speakers.
"This is your captain speaking. Do not be alarmed. We are experiencing a minor hitch and have come to a temporary stop thirty miles up. Our magnetic brakes activate automatically at times like these. So lay back and relax while we fix this little inconvenience."
Zeke's stomach churned. The tower was swaying.
"Refreshments anyone?" Stella said a little too loudly, and scurried off to find the hover-trolley.
Pin-mei's eyes had returned to a healthier shade, but she hadn't finished.
"It's in First Class."
"What?" Scuff asked.
"The thing's that stopping us. It's in the bad man's case."
Scuff and Zeke traded baffled looks.
"We'd better tell the attendant," Scuff suggested.
"She won't listen," Zeke replied. They all knew he was right.
"Zeke, why don't you check it out?" Scuff said, biting on his knuckles.
"Well ... you're the oldest."
"Um, I suppose, okay."
Zeke unclipped his safety belt and stood up.
"Be careful," Pin-mei said, in an anxious voice.
"Don't worry about me," Zeke replied, in the bravest voice he could muster.
He made a feeble attempt at a carefree grin and began to walk away. After a few steps he hesitated. Scuff had no idea when his birthday was! But it was too late to turn back. Zeke took a deep gulp and walked on.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Infinity Trap"
Copyright © 2013 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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