|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)|
|Age Range:||13 - 18 Years|
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Mickey lay awake all night staring at the ceiling. When morning light seeped through the window shades, he eased out of bed, grabbed his clothes, and dressed in the bathroom. After making sure Vickie still slept, he tiptoed to the front door, slipped on his shoes, and activated a touchpad mounted on the wall that summoned an automated car already waiting for him at the curb with its door open and a woman's face smiling from the vid screen.
"Good morning," she said. "The ambient temperature is twenty-two degrees Celsius, wind four kilometers per hour from the southwest with no chance of rain today. Where would you like to go?"
Mickey slumped into the seat. "Five years into the past."
With a soft whoosh, the door closed. "I am unfamiliar with that address. Additional information is required to process your request."
"Never mind," Mickey muttered. "Take me to 16888 Catalina Street, Burbank."
The car started in motion heading for the main line to join a train traveling west. "Estimated time of arrival eight minutes. Would you like to listen to music en route?"
"The Fifth Dimension," Mickey replied sullenly.
"The universe has only four dimensions. Please restate your request."
"I am not programmed to respond to that request." A list of psychiatric facilities within a five-kilometer radius appeared on the vid screen. "Enjoy the ride."
Five minutes later, the car detached from the three hundred mile an hour train and resumed autonomous motion. It stopped three minutes later in front of David's old house on Catalina Street.
Mickey walked to the perimeter of the house's force field and stopped. He had been ten years old the day he moved in across the street, shy and painfully introverted. David had ridden up on his bike. "Hi," he'd said, peering inside the back of the moving van. "My name's David, but you can call me Davie. I live across the street." He'd spied Mickey's bike in the van. "Wanna go bike riding some time?"
The two boys had spent almost every day together after that, riding their bikes, lying on Mickey's bed jawing about life, and five years later hopping a ride on a flying saucer to the moon and then to Europa with Vickie and Pam. Mickey felt the embers of anger always smoldering inside him burst into flame. Thanks to the Europans and their Test, he'd never be able to go bike riding with Davie again. They'd taken his old life away and given him a new one, whether he liked it or not. He wasn't sure how much longer he could take it.
After a backwards glance at his old house, Mickey held up his palm, his silver disc implanted by the Europans flashed twice, and the force field extended around him allowing him inside.
As he started up the familiar walk the front door opened. For a moment Mickey half-expected to see David, but Ernie stood in the doorway instead sporting his signature smile. "Hey, Mick! Wasn't expecting you. Come on in."
Mickey rushed past Ernie into the house without exchanging greetings.
Ernie had occupied the house after David's parents divorced. He didn't change anything, except to bring along his favorite recliner chair and special television, the one he, Mickey, and Vickie used to stay in communication with Pam and David on Europa.
Mickey walked to the living room and picked up a framed photograph from the mantle. The photograph taken six years earlier showed he and David at the resort they visited every summer until David left for Europa. In the photograph, Mickey was holding up a rainbow trout with a grin on his face while David grimaced. Mickey stared at the photo fighting back tears.
Sensing his discomfort, Ernie dropped into his favorite chair and pointed at the couch. "What's on your mind?"
Mickey remained standing. "I have a few questions for the Sphere."
Ernie picked the Sphere off the coffee table. "Fire away."
"Start with this one. Why is what's happening on Earth now any different than what happened on Europa?"
Ernie frowned. "Not sure what you mean."
"The Europans almost became extinct when they ran out of things to do, right?"
Ernie nodded. "Everybody knows that."
"The same thing's happening to us."
"No it isn't," Ernie scoffed.
"Yes it is! Ask the Sphere what the human race is supposed to do next." Mickey's voice went up an octave.
"What're you talking about, Mick?"
Mickey paced around the room. "Ask it what humanity's supposed to do for our next big achievement. Build our own flying saucers and explore the solar system? Why bother? We can see a travelogue of the entire galaxy from the comfort of our easy chairs. How about finding a cure for cancer, or discovering the formula for cold fusion? Don't need to. That stuff's already posted on the internet." He stopped pacing. "And ask the Sphere what the human race is supposed to do with itself besides becoming fat and useless."
"You know you can't ask the Sphere that kind of stuff, Mick. You have to ask a straightforward question, like how to make strawberry pancakes." Ernie forced a smile.
"Then ask it why the Europans picked Davie instead of me."
"We both know the answer to that one," Ernie replied. "You wouldn't have gone."
"I never had the chance!" Mickey shouted.
"Of course you did."
"Remember the aura when Davie and Pam held hands?" Mickey challenged. "It started as soon as we got back from Europa, before the Europans told us about the Choice. How come nothing happens when Vickie and I hold hands?"
"I don't know, but what difference does it make?"
"It means the Choice was rigged. The Europans had already chosen Davie and Pam, and I want to know why."
Jupiter's Moon Europa
The aquaski sped through Europa's ocean just beneath the thirty-kilometer-thick shell of ice. As the submersible the size of a two-man jetski banked back and forth, the Europan designated R141 nicknamed Romeo wrapped two silver appendages around the aquaski's saddle to hold on. The aquaski's pilot Al, short for Alpha, grinned and poured on the power. His twin sister Bet, short for Beta, radioed for him to slow down. The more cautious of Pam and David's twins, Bet was born one full minute before Al. She liked to refer to herself as the "big sister" which really ticked off her brother. The closer Bet's aquaski moved to the forest of ice stalactites, the more she reduced speed.
Al noticed his sister slowing down and increased power. "Why are you slowing down?" he sent to Bet on an open communication channel.
"Perhaps your sister's action is wise," Romeo said to Al on the aquaski's intercom.
"You chickening out?" Al asked.
Romeo pondered his response for two milliseconds, which qualified as serious consideration for an Europan. "Why would I choose to leave this location with a domesticated Earth bird?"
Despite the razor-sharp stalactites looming ahead, Al increased speed yet another notch. "It's an expression that means you're scared," he replied.
The colored lights on Romeo's face flashed with a riot of color. Al saw the colorful display reflected in his bubble helmet and tried not to laugh.
"Fear is an emotion. I have none," Romeo said.
Al chuckled. "Then explain why you're holding on so tight the ski's frame is bending?"
"My apologies, Master Al. I was performing normal maintenance by testing the frame's tensile strength."
Bet saw her brother pulling farther ahead. Frowning, she increased speed.
"Mistress Bet," said Juliet, the nickname for the Europan designated J232 riding behind her, "I believe it would be prudent to slow down." Although Juliet looked identical to Romeo, it acted differently, not only its pattern of speech but its mannerisms — if sentient robots had mannerisms. At times it seemed almost feminine. Bet had observed it with flowers draped over its head when the Europan believed it was alone. She had begun referring to Juliet as "she".
"Okay, I quit!" Bet sent to her brother. Her aquaski coasted to a stop.
"A wise decision," Juliet said.
Bet heard Al's voice, this time not via her helmet radio. The twins could speak telepathically. Nobody knew about their telepathic ability, not even their parents. Al stopped his aquaski within a meter of a giant stalactite. "I knew you would," he sent. He reversed direction and used the aquaski's thrusters to maneuver next to Bet. Romeo relaxed his grip.
"You're driving like a crazy person," Bet said to her brother on an open channel.
"It's boring skiing in circles in the same area day after day," he replied.
"I prefer boring to getting killed."
"There's nothing to see around here but water," Al complained. "Why can't we go someplace different for a change?"
"For your safety."
"I'm tired of being safe." Al turned his aquaski back towards the forest of stalactites.
Romeo sent to Juliet on a private channel, "The twins are about to engage in their favorite activity."
"What activity is that?" sent back Juliet.
"The best word in the Earth database is mischief," Romeo replied.
Al accelerated between two of the stalactites. "Come on," he shouted.
"We're not supposed to go in there!" Bet reversed thrust bringing her aquaski to an abrupt stop. "I'm your big sister and I order you to come back, now!"
"You're not my big sister, but you're a wuss," Al radioed back.
"That does it," Bet muttered. She started after her brother.
Al weaved his aquaski around the frozen pillars of Europa's ocean for several minutes and stopped. Bet's aquaski coasted to a stop next to his. "Why are we stopping here?" she asked.
"This place looks interesting," Al replied. They had stopped in a column of water free of stalactites large enough to accommodate a Europan flying disc. The column continued above through the surface ice and below to the bedrock of the ocean floor.
"I find it necessary to point out, Mistress, that it would be unwise for you to remain in this location," said Juliet. Geysers of water heated by Europa's core occasionally shoot to the surface melting the ice. Being caught in such a geyser on an aquaski could prove dangerous, possibly fatal to beings made from flesh and blood.
"Let's go down and have a look." Al pointed the nose of his ski downward and began to descend into open water.
Bet craned her head over the side of her aquaski following Al's path. "We're not allowed to go down to the ocean floor," she radioed. Al's aquaski had already shrunk to a small dot of light.
"Your sister is correct," Romeo said.
"Just a little farther," Al replied.
"This whole area's off limits." Bet switched to telepathy. "Mom's going to kill us if she finds out."
"Stop being such a wimp and get down here," Al radioed back. "I see something."
"No," Bet said.
"Dude, come down here!"
"This better be good."
Juliet sent to Romeo on a private channel. "I have heard the children use the term Dude before. Can you explain what it means?"
"The children communicate using a very complex linguistic algorithm," Romeo replied. "I am still analyzing it, but I have observed that within its structure a number divided by zero has a discrete value. It's called Dude."
"The quotient of any number divided by zero must be zero," said Juliet.
Juliet vocalized the sound a hinge makes when it needs oil. "Grreech."
"What was that?" Al sent to Bet.
"She's pretending to clear her throat." Bet sent back.
"Europans don't have throats."
"Don't say anything. She gets defensive if you ask her about it."
"Why do you keep referring to Juliet as she?"
Bet started downward. "The water's getting warmer," she said on an open channel.
"Because we are descending over an active volcano," Juliet replied.
Bet radioed Al. "Are you crazy?"
"Stop worrying. I don't detect any seismic activity." Al coasted to a stop in the heated water of the volcano's caldera.
"It is unwise to stop here, Master Al," cautioned Romeo. "Seismic events can be unpredictable."
"What's that?" Al's aquaski shot past the caldera's rim and down to the ocean floor. Bet stopped her descent well above.
"Your brother's actions are most unwise," Juliet said.
"Come on! You gotta see this," Al sent. "There's something weird on the ocean floor."
Before Juliet could protest, Bet pinpointed her brother's location and engaged her forward thruster.
The two aquaskis hovered side by side with their spotlights aimed at a pyramidal mound of rock jutting from the ocean floor.
"You brought me down here to see that?" Bet asked.
"Does that rock pile look right to you?"
"I don't spend a lot of time staring at piles of rocks, baby brother. Let's go home."
"Romeo, is that a natural structure?" Al asked.
"The probability of a lava protrusion assuming that precise shape and proportions is estimated at zero point one percent," Romeo replied.
"See, I told you," Al said.
"Great." Bet turned her aquaski around. "Can we go home now?"
"Wait a minute." Al stared at the rock pyramid. "Romeo, check the database. How long has it been here?"
"The database shows only flat ocean bottom at this location for the last one hundred thousand years," Romeo replied, "but seismic activity can alter the local topography at any time."
"Which is why your mother warned you not to aquaski here," Juliet added.
Al nosed his aquaski closer. The rock pyramid loomed over him measuring twenty times as tall as the ski. "I see an opening like a door," he said, "that shouldn't be here. Let's see what's inside."
"Master Al ..." Romeo cautioned. Al's aquaski disappeared inside.
"Get's weirder by the minute," Al radioed to Bet. "Come take a look."
"I'll give you three minutes, then we go home. You got that?" Bet engaged her forward thruster entering a chamber inside the pyramid. The lights of Al's aquaski ascended above her and disappeared.
Al radioed to his sister. "Get up here. I see something."
Bet accelerated after him until her aquaski popped out of the water inside a hollow space. Al's aquaski rested several meters away beached on a ledge of rock. The aquaski's spotlight illuminated a rock wall carved with lines of symbols. The wall appeared to be tinted blue.
Bet beached her aquaski next to Al's and dismounted onto the ledge. She shined her helmet light around the chamber. "What is this place?"
"Haven't seen writing like that before," Al said. "Romeo, analyze those symbols."
Romeo dismounted and approached the blue wall. He projected a beam of light illuminating the symbols.
"Figure anything out?" Al asked.
Romeo didn't reply.
Juliet dismounted her aquaski and moved beside Romeo. She shined her light on his face. "Respond," Juliet said. Romeo remained silent and motionless, his face showing a static field of blue with a black square in the center of it.
"Is he malfunctioning?" Bet asked.
"No malfunctions have been recorded in these forms since they were created," Juliet replied.
"Great. Fix whatever's wrong with him and let's get out of here."
"And make a recording of those symbols," Al added.
Juliet moved closer to the wall of symbols. When she played her light across them, she too became immobile with the same pattern on her face.
"Juliet?" Bet said. When Juliet didn't answer, Bet turned to her brother. "What's going on?"
Al shook his head. "Not a clue. But it must have something to do with this place, and those symbols. I'll make a scan so we can decipher them later."
"Do it fast," said Bet. "If we're late, mom's going to kill us."
Al looked around the chamber. "Remember mom's story about King Tut's tomb? Maybe this place is cursed."
"Mom told us about the Tooth Fairy too," Bet replied. "What do we do about Romeo and Juliet?"
"How may I assist you?" Romeo asked.
A moment later, Juliet became active too.
"I register a reboot of my neural nexus," Romeo said.
"As do I," Juliet added. She switched to a private channel with Romeo. "Why did this occur?"
"I have no explanation," Romeo sent back.
"We're going home, now," Bet said.
Al frowned. "Bet's right. You two go straight to the skis and don't look at those symbols,"
"Why?" Juliet asked.
"We'll explain later," Bet replied. "Just do it."
Excerpted from "The Next Step"
Copyright © 2016 Michael H. Burnam.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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