The Far Side Of The Galaxy - Parts 1 and 2

Daniel Armstrong is a teenage boy - slightly smarter than average, likes maths and science, but is otherwise just a regular kid. He likes playing online games with his mates, and is pretty good at it too.

Then, one night, Daniel is messing around in his father's study when he finds a strange mathematical formula on his computer. Something draws Daniel to it, and he starts tinkering with the code. And that's when strange thing start happening. Later that night he receives an unusual message from the makers of his online game; men in dark suits start following him and his family; his maths teacher has car accident and there's something suspicious about her replacement.

When Daniel starts digging into these events he discovers that the greatest mystery involves his father, a top-secret research project... and the greatest adventure of his life

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“Right”, said Daniel, the moment they stepped out of Doctor Llewellyn's office block into the fresh air. “Where's the wormhole?”

He looked round at all the different buildings as though he might be able to guess which way to go.

“That information is classified, Danielarmstrong”, said Reboot.

“Not to me.”

“Explain, please”, the robot asked.

“You heard your old man, right? Doctor Llewellyn, I mean. He said I have access to everything.”

“Yes. But - ”.

“So, 'everything' includes the wormhole.”

“But the wormhole is classified.”

“But that's not what the doc said though, is it? Remember?”

When Reboot spoke it was with Llewellyn's voice. “You-have-full-access-to-everything-now-that-I've-recorded-your-biometrics.” Llewellyn's words tumbled out of Reboot like a recording played at high speed. “Just-ask-Reboot-what-you-want-to-know-and-what-you-want-to-see-and-he'll-tell-you-your-father-and-I-have-a-lot-to-catch-up-on-anyway. Statement ends.”

“Wow.” Daniel felt like he needed to catch his breath. “And I thought Lucas had a good memory. But you see – he said full access to everything. Not full access to everything except for anything classified.”

Reboot stood in silence for a moment, as if considering this.

“C'mon”, encouraged Daniel. “You've got a brain the size of a planet. You know I'm right.”

“Yes, Danielarmstrong”, Reboot decided at last. “You are correct. Doctorllewellyn's comments indicate that you do have access to everything, including the wormhole. I have updated your personnel file accordingly.”

Daniel wondered if Reboot could update his exam results as easily and made a mental note to try that out some time. “OK then”, he said. “To the wormhole.”

* * * * *

Reboot led Daniel further into the maze of buildings that made up the site. He pointed out some of the monitoring stations and laboratories as well as the canteen and the accommodation block where Daniel and his father would each have a room.

Eventually they stopped at a small, concrete-block hut, not much larger than a police box. Reboot indicated the retinal scanner next to the door.

“You will need to look into the scanner to affect entry”, he said.

Daniel looked around and down the sides of the hut. It seemed far too small and ordinary to contain anything as large and exciting as a tear in the fabric of the universe. “Are you sure?”, he asked.

“Yes. The retinal scan will not cause you any discomfort”, Reboot replied, missing Daniel's point completely.

Daniel looked into the scanner. The light immediately changed from red to blue and the door unlocked with a click. Reboot grasped the door handle and pulled it open. Daniel peered through...

… to the inside of a plain, concrete-block hut. Part of him had been expecting to see something exciting and impossible, as though the hut was some kind of fantastical machine that was bigger on the inside. I've been watching too much Doctor Who, he thought.

He stepped inside, followed closely by Reboot. The robot's footsteps reverberated around the solid walls, clanging like dropped saucepans. Daniel looked down and realised that the floor was a large square of metal. Waist-high railings ran around the room, and the walls were covered with warning signs, many of which Daniel recognised from building sites back home: health and safety notices advising the use of hard-hats; instructions to wear high-visibility vests and to hold the hand-rail; warnings that the maximum weight load was 500kg. And then there was a sign that Daniel had only ever seen in science textbooks and movies – a black propeller shape on an orange background that warned of the presence of radioactive material.

Reboot opened a small cabinet on the wall beside the door and withdrew a hard hat and yellow vest. He handed them to Daniel and waited for him to put them on. Then he picked up a small yellow box that dangled from a thick black cable attached to one of the rails. The box held three buttons and Reboot's thumb hovered over one of them.

“Hold on”, he instructed.

Daniel grabbed the nearest handrail as Reboot pressed the button. The floor juddered and began to descend slowly into the ground. Daniel realised that the hut was the entrance to an elevator shaft, the metal floor and railings forming a large basket that was now lowering him into the Earth.

The lift was surprisingly quiet and they descended in near-silence for several minutes. Daniel couldn't see below him, couldn't tell how far down they were going. He looked up and could see the sides of the square shaft lengthening above his head, the dim light from the hut that led to the outside world growing smaller, fainter, then disappearing altogether.

In the deepening blackness, Daniel cautiously took one hand from the railing and slowly, blindly, stretched out his fingers until they brushed against the wall. He felt the large concrete blocks, uniformly smooth against his fingertips, and the regular bumps where cement joined them together. He began counting the bumps, trying to get a sense of the distance they were travelling.

One...

Two...

Three...

He tried to picture how many blocks they had passed before the light ran out. Maybe fifty? Sixty?

Seven...

Eight...

Nine...

The distance between the bumps began to lengthen.

Eleven... …

Twelve... …

Daniel couldn't tell – were the blocks getting bigger or was the lift slowing?

Suddenly the texture under Daniel's fingers changed, the cold, smooth concrete giving way to something much rougher and grittier. The shaft had been carved out of the natural sandstone that formed this part of the Earth's crust, but the concrete reinforcements did not extend this far down. Daniel felt his ears pop, the sensation heightening his awareness of just how deep underground he was, and the weight of the earth above his head.

His fingertips lost contact with the wall and for a moment Daniel felt like he was falling through space. He gripped the railing tightly with both hands. A soft, amber glow appeared around the edges of the floor. In the weak light, Daniel could see that the shaft was starting to widen out, like an upturned funnel. The light brightened rapidly and then the lift dropped out of the shaft completely, descending through a large, man-made cavern. Daniel was hit by a wave of vertigo – his legs buckled and he plonked clumsily onto his bottom. A couple of seconds later, the lift reached the floor of the cavern, coming to rest much more gracefully.

“Are you alright Danielarmstrong?”, Reboot asked.

“Yeah, fine”, Daniel gasped. “Just a bit... I wasn't expecting... Where are we?”

“We are in the reception area for the LHC maintenance tunnel.”

Daniel struggled to his feet. Looking up he could just make out the lift cables snaking away through a tiny dark hole in the roof, way above his head. The cavern was about the size of a football pitch. Large trucks and digging machines were scattered around the space, along with metal lockers and toolboxes. A bundle of thick pipes, mounted on head-high pillars, stretched out across the centre of the floor and disappeared into brightly lit tunnels at either end of the cavern.

Daniel could hear the pipes humming, vibrating with the power that was coursing through them.

“Where next?”, he asked. His voice echoed around the rocks.

“We will need to procure a vehicle to take us to our destination”, Reboot answered, and began walking towards a small cluster of trucks.

Daniel looked at the large diggers. “You mean, 'we drive'?”

“Yes.”

“Awesome!” Daniel jogged past Reboot to the nearest truck. The wheels alone were almost as high as he was. He leapt onto the tyre treads so that he could see into the driver's cab and began examining the controls. “Can I have a go?”

Reboot continued walking, disappearing from view behind the oversized wheels.

Daniel jumped down and followed him.

The robot climbed into a tiny golf cart that had been hidden behind the massive earth-mover, and started the engine. The cart's feeble electric motor came to life with a barely-audible whine.

“If you wish”, he answered, and sat down in the passenger's seat.

Daniel scowled. “Never mind. I don't know where I'm going anyway.”

“As you wish.” Reboot shifted smoothly to sit behind the steering wheel. Daniel climbed into the passenger seat and sat there, arms crossed, while Reboot drove the cart into the tunnel.

* * * * *

Daniel looked at his watch. Two minutes had passed since he last looked. That made half-an-hour since they'd set off and all he'd seen so far were the sandstone walls of the tunnel and the pipework that ran through it.

“Are we there yet?”, he asked.

“No.”

“Can't this thing go any faster?”

“No.”

The cart trundled on.

* * * * *

Daniel's head lolled forward, waking him with a jerk. Finally, the cart had stopped. He rubbed the back of his neck as he opened his eyes and glanced at his watch. Nearly an hour since they'd set off.

Reboot climbed out. “We must walk from here”, he said, and turned smartly on the spot. He ducked slightly as he passed underneath the pipes and approached a plain steel door.

Daniel followed. The now-familiar retinal scanner was mounted by the door. Without waiting to be asked, Daniel stepped up and looked into the scanner. As light turned blue he heard a large, heavy, dragging sound of something moving behind the door.

Reboot pushed the door gently and it swung open on well-oiled hinges. The door was at least a metre thick. Metal discs the size of dinner plates were cut into the edge of the door, lined up with holes in the door frame big enough for Daniel to stick his head into. He realised that these must be huge bolts to lock the door, and the source of the dragging noise he had heard.

Beyond the door was a narrow corridor, much smaller and darker than the tunnel they had just driven along. Daniel followed Reboot over the threshold, the shiny white robot looking dull grey in the gloom.

The door closed behind them, the bolts slamming back into place with a sound that Daniel felt as much as heard. The deep bass rumble awoke butterflies in his stomach. He glanced back over his shoulder, confirming that they were now well and truly sealed in.

Daniel quickened his steps, a short jog bringing him level with Reboot. There was something reassuring about the robot's steady forward pace, the blank panel of his face impassive as he remained focussed on their destination.

They walked in silence for several minutes. The floor sloped gently downwards, taking them deeper into the Earth with every step. Daniel watched their shadows ripple around the rough-hewn walls, the images melding into the darkness between the puddles of light that dripped from the few working light-bulbs. He started to find something creepy about the skittering shapes, and almost preferred the pitch-blackness of the elevator shaft.

“So – piano, huh?”, he said.

Reboot tilted his head towards Daniel, but said nothing as he continued onwards.

“What kind of music do you play?”

“Mostly classical pieces. Piano concertos. Some jazz”

“Oh. Nice. And... do you have a favourite song?”

Reboot thought for a moment. “I like simple pieces, such as the works of Debussy. They are less demanding on my processors and performing them results in less wear on my motor functions.” He flexed his fingers.

Daniel chuckled. “They're easier to play”, he said, getting better now at interpreting the robot's formal speech patterns. “I guess even super-robots can be lazy.”

Reboot stopped suddenly. His head whipped around, the blank face pointing at Daniel. Even without features, Daniel could have sworn the robot was glaring at him.

“Hey, I'm only kidding”, Daniel said. “I tried learning the guitar a couple of years ago. Stopped when it got too hard.”

Reboot started walking again, his head slowly swivelling to face forwards.

I touched a nerve there, thought Daniel.

Suddenly the stone corridor came to an abrupt end at another plain, metal door. Daniel looked for the retinal scanner. There wasn't one. The only thing that disturbed the smooth surface of this door was a small box at waist height where a handle would normally be. The box was no bigger than a pack of playing cards, with a small slot in the top. Daniel bent over to examine it more closely.

“Ow!”, he yelped as something stung the back of his head. He clamped his hand over the sore spot and looked round.

Reboot had his hand in front of his face, his thumb and forefinger pinched together, as though examining something microscopic that he had trapped there. Then he reached over to the box on the door and dropped the unseen something into the slot.

“What was that?”, Daniel asked.

“Your hair. The lock on this door is released by DNA. Authorised personnel can bring swabs with which to extract saliva samples. I observed that you had no such swabs. A hair sample is the next least invasive source of DNA. I calculated the extraction of a hair sample to be a more expedient way to effect entry than to return to the surface for swabs.”

“Right”, said Daniel, rubbing at his scalp.

“You understand that I was seeking to maximise our efficiency?”

“Yeah.”

“Not being lazy?”

“Yes. Yes! Just warn me next time, OK?”

“Agreed.”

Daniel shoved his hands into his pockets. Definitely touched a nerve.

He heard the deep metallic grinding sound again as heavy bolts were released. The door swung slowly towards Reboot and Daniel and they took a step back to let it open. Bright light flooded into the corridor.

Reboot stepped through the doorway, leading the way once more. “Be careful”, he warned.

Daniel raised a hand to shield his eyes from the glare and followed his companion. Squinting, he tried to take in his new surroundings.

He was in another man-made cave, many times bigger than the reception area; where that had been the size of a football pitch, this could have held an entire stadium with room to spare. The cave seemed perfectly round, a giant bubble in the Earth, the walls curving away in all directions and disappearing into distant shadows. Daniel felt like an ant on the inside of a beach ball.

Daniel and Reboot were on a raised metal walkway that ran around the edge of the room, providing a level floor in the hollow sphere. A short distance to their right, anti-clockwise from where they stood, the path widened out into a large, square platform. Banks of computers, monitors, cameras and recording equipment were arranged neatly on the platform. Looking to his left, Daniel could see a second platform, similarly laden with technology. All the recording devices were pointing into the middle of the room, where the light was at its brightest. Cautiously, Daniel tried to peek between his fingers.

“Here”, said Reboot, handing Daniel a pair of heavy, welder's-style goggles that he had retrieved from a hook beside the door. “Put these on.”

Daniel slipped the goggles on and looked up. A wall of electric-blue light filled his vision. He pressed himself back against the sandstone walls of the room, trying to take in the shape in front of him. A massive ball of plasma filled the centre of the room. Huge metal rods extended from the walls at regular intervals all around the room, jutting out several metres. Electricity crackled along them and arced across to the glowing sphere, as though they were giant needles knitting the ball out of raw energy. Sparks danced and power rippled around the ball, weaving tight, intricate patterns on its surface.

Re-focusing his eyes, Daniel found that he could see through the web of light. Hanging in the air, in the dead-centre of the room, was... nothing. Not just dead air or an empty space, but an absence so complete that it dominated the room. It wasn't simply nothing – it was Nothing. The glowing ball surrounded the Nothing, containing it in a cage of light. It pulsed like a beating heart, shrinking and expanding rhythmically as the cage and the Nothing pulled on each other, engaged in a finely-balanced tug-of-war.

The blinding light that poured out into the room also rained down onto the Nothing, but instead of illuminating the hole it just drained away. It made Daniel feel like he was looking down onto a waterfall from high above, the light becoming fuzzy like water whipped into foam as it vanished. The effect was disorientating, blurring the boundary of the hole, making it impossible to tell where the world ended and the Nothing began.

Daniel felt another wave of vertigo as he stared into the hole. It seemed as though the Nothing was reaching through the light-cage and pulling him. In his mind he could see himself tumbling over the edge of the walkway and falling, down through the light, down into the void, ever downwards, on and on, falling down, faster down, further down, down, downdowndown...

Suddenly he felt pressure on his chest. Five hard points, holding him back from the Nothing. Without realising it he had drifted towards the edge of the metal walkway and only Reboot's hand was keeping him in place.

“Be careful, Danielarmstrong”, he said. “The wormhole can have a powerful effect on people. We have been here too long. We should leave.”

“But we've only just got here”, Daniel protested.

“We have been in this room for over forty minutes.”

Daniel checked his watch. Reboot was right. How could so much time have passed without him noticing? He glanced cautiously back towards the heart of the room, trying to understand the strange, alien mix of light and void. Daniel moved slowly to his right, toward the nearest of the broad platforms, hoping to see the edge of the Nothing. But as he moved the hole seemed to turn so that it continued to face him straight on, an enormous eye glaring at him.

“Reboot, stay there a minute”, Daniel said. The robot stopped and the boy took a few more steps.

The hole continued to turn.

“Does that thing look like it's turning to you?” Daniel asked.

“No.”

“So how come I can't see around it?”

“It exists across more than just the three dimensions we can perceive”, Reboot said, his lilting Welsh tones making it sound like it should have been obvious.

As he reached the platform, Daniel caught a glimpse of one of the monitors. The large display appeared to being showing a CCTV image of the light cage, the massive object condensed to the size of a dinner plate on the screen. At this scale Daniel could begin to make sense of the image, the amorphous shape being given artificial form by the two-dimensional rendering. It looked very much like the image he had seen on his father's laptop.

Daniel turned his back on the wormhole and pushed his goggles up onto his forehead. Now he could see the lines of formulae scrolling underneath the image. He looked closer. The changes he had made on his father's computer weren't reflected on the screen in front of him now.

He reached out and tapped the screen. Just like before, the formulae stopped scrolling and a cursor appeared under his finger. A virtual keyboard opened in the corner of the screen. Daniel moved the cursor. “That 2 should be a 3”, he muttered to himself.

Reboot suddenly sprang to life, his attention snapping to Daniel. “STOP!”, he commanded, and began running towards the platform where Daniel stood.

Daniel flinched at the sound then froze, his hand hovering over the keyboard. He looked round to see Reboot thundering towards him, the towering white bulk moving surprisingly fast, like a charging rhino. The robot's heavy footsteps vibrated along the walkway, rattling the metalwork.

Reboot slammed to a halt a hair's breadth from Daniel. His momentum dissipated through the platform, shaking it violently and knocking pieces of equipment to the floor. Daniel's touch-screen bucked and began to topple forward.

Daniel saw the movement and instinctively reached out to catch the falling monitor. His fingertips pressed against the keyboard and the 2 changed to a 3.

Instantly the lights in the room turned red, casting everything into shades of black and blood. A honking alarm began blasting over and over, penetrating and urgent. Something large and heavy slammed into the ground on the far side of the room. A second loud slam came from Daniel's left. Then another, getting closer, like giant dominoes toppling.

Reboot grabbed Daniel's arm. “Come”, he shouted over the noise.

Daniel tried to put the monitor back upright but the brackets holding it in place had broken.

“Come”, Reboot shouted again and pulled Daniel towards the door. The monitor fell to the floor and smashed.

“What's going on?”, Daniel yelled.

“Lockdown.”

“What?”

“Unauthorised adjustments to any controls in this area will activate an immediate lockdown protocol and the Lewis-Henry Cage will be resealed.”

“I thought that was the Cage”, Daniel said indicating the glowing ball of plasma. He was running to keep up with Reboot's urgent strides.

“That is only the inner seal”, Reboot said. “The Cage is this entire room. Reinforced steel plates will now completely enclose the room making an impenetrable sealed ball. Then all the air will be evacuated from inside the ball to form a vacuum. Finally, the plates will be polarised to create an electric field that reinforces that plasma layer. Only then is the Cage fully secured.”

“How long can we survive in here with the air all gone?”

“I can survive indefinitely. You would last no more than a few minutes. But that won't be a problem.”

Daniel skidded to a halt at the door through which they had entered the room. “Good”, he said as Reboot pressed the door release button.

“No. The polarisation process creates a massive electric charge that will kill you instantly.”

A lump formed in Daniel's throat. His mouth felt dry but he forced himself to swallow. He drew a shuddering breath.

“Best get out of here then, eh?” He tried to sound light-hearted, but the crack in his voice betrayed his fear.

Reboot pressed the button again. Nothing happened.

“We were not quick enough, Danielarmstrong. The door is locked. We are sealed in.”

Daniel stared in horror at the door, his heart racing.

He knocked Reboot's arm away and pressed the button himself. No response.

He stabbed again at the button. Nothing.

Daniel's heart pounded furiously, his blood thumping in his ears. He slapped his hands against the door, then beat it with his fists, the sound of the blows ringing out like explosions.

Then he realised – it wasn't his fists he could hear. Nor his heart. It was the Cage locking.

The thumping sound grew louder still, the steady rhythm advancing towards him. Giant steel plates slammed down on his left and right. Daniel leapt back as the final plates locked into place, covering the door.

Sealing him inside.

Then the alarm stopped. “Thank god”, Daniel said. “Someone must have realised we're in here.”

Something clunked down below the walkway, on the floor of the cavern, followed by a soft swishing sound, gradually building in intensity. A fan starting up.

“No”, Daniel whimpered, as he realised – the alarm had only turned off because there shouldn't be anyone left in the Cage to hear it.

The sound of the fan grew louder, faster.

Daniel felt a breeze ruffle his hair as the air began to leave the room.

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