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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2. - 9

 

That night, Daniel's dreams were filled with combat. Computerised soldiers lay siege to his bedroom. Computer programs in the form of amoeba-like viruses attacked him. He woke early the next morning feeling as though he'd been fighting all night, and was almost as tired as when he went to bed.

The first thing he did was turn on his computer and run a virus scan. Anxiously, he watched the display showing the number of files that had been scanned, chewing his fingertips as the figure steadily increased from tens, to hundreds, to thousands. Eventually, his fingers raw and tender, the scan finished and reported: no threats found.

Relieved, Daniel logged back in to his Wetworks:Online account. He opened the message page and clicked on the icon to recover his deleted items. The last few days' messages from his friends were all there, but the message from Wetworks Command was not. Daniel checked his inbox in case he hadn't deleted it after all, but it wasn't there. He sorted his mail by date, then by sender, and finally ran searches for “wetworks” and “command”. But the message he had read last night refused to be found.

A shrill ringing suddenly sounded – Daniel's morning alarm. There was no time to worry any further about the message; time to start getting ready for school.

 

The spicy-sweet smell of frying meat wafted round the house as Daniel made his way downstairs. Mary Armstrong had been busy, making a small mountain of Daniel's favourite bacon and egg rolls for breakfast. Her way of trying to apologise for her husband. “Your father's under a lot of pressure at work”, she said when Daniel walked in to the kitchen. He didn't respond. Daniel just sat down in silence, and reached for a roll.

“He knows you didn't mean any harm, and he's really sorry”, she continued. “He'll make it up to you.”

“Why doesn't he tell me that himself?” Daniel mumbled, grease dripping down his chin. He looked around the kitchen melodramatically. “I don't see him looking sorry. I don't see him at all.”

Mary hung her head, sadly. Daniel felt bad. He didn't mean to take it out on his mother, and he could see how upset she was. But he couldn't take it out on his father when he was nowhere to be seen.

Daniel finished his first roll and wiped his fingers and face on a tea-towel. Before his mother could complain he stood up and gave her a quick hug, then made his way out of the kitchen, grabbing two more rolls and his school bag, and left the house.

 

A familiar figure was slouched against the low wall at the end of the Armstrongs' driveway. The bright morning sun shone through Lucas' blond mop, and he turned at the sound of Daniel shutting the front door. A small frown crinkled Lucas' brow as he saw the look on his friend's face. “Alright, mate?”, he asked.

“Not really”, Daniel answered.

“The old man?”

“Yep.”

Lucas nodded sagely. He shoved himself upright as Daniel reached the street and the two boys began ambling to school.

“Did you get any message from Wetworks Command last night?” Daniel asked, offering Lucas a roll.

“Don't think so.” Lucas wedged the roll into his mouth and pulled out his mobile phone. He had set up his online account to forward any messages to his phone. He opened his message app. Seeing nothing there, he shook his head. “No”, he confirmed, as he ripped a large bite from the roll. “Why?”

 

And so, as they walked, Daniel began to tell Lucas about the message he had received the night before, how it was addressed to him by name, and why he thought that was unusual. Engrossed in the tale, neither of the boys noticed the man in the dark suit and sunglasses standing in the shadow of a tree at the end of the street. The dark, reflective lenses remained fixed in Daniel's direction as he walked and talked. Once the boys had passed by, the man stepped softly into the sunlit street and began to follow slowly along behind them.

* * * * *

A short while later the Armstrongs' front door opened again and Thomas Armstrong emerged. His laptop was safely stored in its case which Thomas carried by a strap over his shoulder. As usual, he glanced up at the clear blue sky and inhaled deeply through his nose. He reached back inside the house and grabbed an umbrella from the hook beside the door. Then he walked down the driveway, turned left at the end, and made his way toward the bus stop at the bottom of the street.

As was often the case, he arrived at the bus stop mere seconds ahead of the bus.

“Morning, Dr. Armstrong”, said the driver, cheerfully, his arm hanging lazily out of the open window. He glanced at the umbrella in Thomas' hand. “Smell like rain?”, he asked.

“I'm afraid so”, replied Thomas with an apologetic smile. The driver lifted his sunglasses onto his forehead and craned his neck to look through the windscreen up at the sky, where a few faint wisps of white cloud had started to gather.

“Not right now”, Thomas went on. “But by the end of the day.”

“Right you are”, the driver said, but he wound up his window anyway as he pulled the bus out onto the road.

 

Neither the driver nor Thomas paid any attention to the black motorcycle that trundled along behind the bus and, despite its powerful engine, never once tried to overtake as it followed them all the way into town.

* * * * *

Mary Armstrong was alone in the house at last. She had always been an early riser and would be up, showered, dressed and fed long before the rest of her family. Every day she made a packed lunch for Daniel and Thomas, ironed each of them a clean shirt and then, if time allowed, prepared their breakfasts. Then she'd do a bit of cleaning or some laundry, make a shopping list or pay the bills – whatever most needed doing that day. That way, once the boys were off to school or work, she could have the rest of the day to herself. Once a week she'd go to the supermarket and stock up on food for the week ahead, but every other day was just for her.

Mary had been a professional athlete before an injury had forced her to retire. Not long after she was married she had torn the ligaments in her knee and they had never healed quite right. For a short time after Mary had been angry. But it wasn't in her nature to feel sorry for herself and she soon came to terms with the end of her sporting career. She would do the occasional bit of commentating on the big athletics tournaments for one of the sports channels.

But her second great passion, after athletics, was art. She spent hours painting while recovering from her surgeries, and over the last few years had built a reputation as an illustrator for children's books. Thomas had helped her turn their garage into an art studio and she would spend much of her days in there, either working on a project, developing characters or simply doodling.

Today was a shopping day. Mary picked up her shopping list from the kitchen counter, her purse from the pot on the sideboard and her keys from the hook by the door. She noticed that Thomas' umbrella was gone so, despite the bright sunlight streaming in through the windows, she decided to take her raincoat. She stepped out of the house with her coat draped over her arm, feeling good as the sunshine warmed her face. She locked the door behind her and climbed into her car, a new silver hatchback, placing her coat and her Bag for Life onto the passenger seat as she did so. Then she reversed the car out onto the street and drove off to the supermarket.

 

She didn't spot the large, black car with the tinted windows parked down the road from the Armstrongs' house. Its engine growled like a prowling panther as it eased carefully into the traffic behind her.

* * * * *

A second dark car rolled like an oil slick onto the Armstrongs' driveway, squeezing into the spot recently vacated by the tiny hatchback. The driver killed the engine and its soft, throaty rumble faded into silence. All four doors popped open together and a burly man unfolded himself out of each. The four men were dressed identically in sharp, dark suits and crisp, white shirts. With military precision they closed their doors together in one fluid movement, making a single soft click. They took a quick look around them, then strode over to the Armstrong house.

The front man reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a small hand tool. Shaped like a miniature pistol, the tool had a thin needle protruding from its barrel. The man inserted the needle into the lock on the front door of the house. A quiet buzzing noise came from the tool, then the lock clicked and the door popped open.

With a last glance around them the four men entered the house, easing the door closed behind them. The house had been empty for less than a minute and only the car hunched like a black bear on the driveway gave any indication that anything had happened.

* * * * *

“Maybe it's part of the mission”, Lucas suggested, as Daniel reached the end of his story.

“Which mission though? And that doesn't explain how they got my name.”

“ 'Strong-Arm-Dan'... Dan-Arm-strong... it's not exactly the hardest code in the world to crack, mate.”

“Well, yeah... but, even so”, Daniel persisted. “Why would they bother? And everything else I've ever got from them is addressed to my username.”

Lucas considered this for a moment. “That just makes it more likely to be legit”, he said at last “If your account had been hacked, all they'd have would be your username.”

Daniel couldn't fault that logic.

“I bet it is just part of the game”, Lucas continued. “What else could it be?”

“Yeah, you're probably right.” Daniel was less convinced than he sounded, but they had arrived at the school gates and were running out of time to discuss it any further.

“We'll check it out again tonight, yeah?”

“Yeah, OK”

A huge hand suddenly slammed down on Daniel's shoulder. A deep voice growled in his ear: “Don't move.”

Daniel didn't need to look round “Alright Jack”, he said.

“Aww, how'd you know it was me?”, Jack asked, disappointed.

“It's always you.” Daniel shrugged his shoulder out from under Jack's hand. As he twisted out from under his tall friend's grip, Daniel's gaze passed over a man in a dark suit and sunglasses, stood in the middle of the pavement as the tide of children on their way into school flowed around him. The man had been looking in Daniel's direction, but quickly turned his head away when Daniel looked at him. The man made no effort to move on though, and as Daniel followed Lucas and Jack through the school gates, he glanced back over his shoulder. The man was still there, looking once more in Daniel's direction. He lifted his hand to his face, as if to adjust his sunglasses. But he left his hand hovering by the tip of his nose, and Daniel was sure he saw the man's lips move.

Daniel ducked out of the stream of kids and stood watching the man. “Luc”, he shouted at his friend's retreating back. Lucas glanced round. Daniel beckoned to him. “Come here a minute.”

Lucas duly trotted back over.

“Do you see that guy?”, Daniel asked, flicking his chin up and to the side to indicate where he wanted Lucas to look.

“You mean the weird guy talking to his sleeve? Yes, I see him.”

Daniel turned his back to the gates and lowered his voice. “I think he might be spying on me”, he said.

Lucas laughed – then realised that Daniel wasn't joking. “You're... serious?”

Daniel nodded again.

“You're getting carried away by this e-mail thing. Why on earth would you think someone is spying on you? And that guy in particular? If he is some sort of spy then he's not a very good one! I mean – who talks to their sleeve? If he wanted to talk to someone at spy HQ, he should just use a phone. No one would look twice at someone with a mobile clamped to their head, but putting a finger in your ear and talking to your sleeve just makes you stand out. You've been watching too many movies, mate. Too many old movies.”

Lucas shook his head and laughed. “He's walking away now anyway. Come on, 'Alex Rider'.”

Daniel looked round. Sure enough, the man in the dark suit was walking away from the school gates. Daniel watched him for a moment, until he was sure the man was leaving. Then he followed Lucas up the driveway into school. Jack was loping off to join a group of boys that were busy gawping at a large, black motorcycle that was roaring its way into the school car park.

“Alex who?”, asked Daniel.

* * * * *

Daniel forgot all about the man in the dark suit during assembly as the headmaster droned on about... something. Daniel wasn't really listening. Lucas was probably right – the man was far too much of a cliché to actually be a spy. And why would anyone spy on a thirteen-year-old boy anyway? Instead, Daniel decided to concentrate on solving the puzzle of the hostage rescue. What had gone wrong? Jack was sat on his left, and it was very tempting to ask him what he had found online. But Lucas was on his right, and Daniel knew Lucas would never forgive him. Winning the game was important to Daniel, but it was just as important to him to win it the right way.

By the time assembly was finished though, he was no closer to figuring it out and the temptation to ask Jack was growing stronger.

Luckily, the first lesson of the day was maths. Daniel always sat at the back of the class, doing the extra work Miss Gibson would set him, while Jack was under strict instructions to always sit at the front. The boys filed into class and took their usual seats. Miss Gibson, however, was nowhere to be seen.

After a few minutes of waiting the class grew restless. Conversations had spread from between neighbours, to across desks, to across the room, and the level of noise was rising. Jack was teasing Davy about his lack of parachute skills. Two other boys were arguing over football results, and the class were starting to take sides.

Just as things were starting to look like they might get ugly, the classroom door opened and the deputy head walked in, followed by a tall man wearing black motorcycle leathers. “Settle down”, the deputy head shouted. Mr. Bateman was a short man with thin, curly hair that was unnaturally dark for a man of his age. His large ears stuck out from his head at a sharp angle, earning him the nickname 'Mr. Batman'.

“Settle down”, he repeated. Slowly, the noise began to drop to a low murmur. “Thank you. Now, I'm sure you have noticed, Miss Gibson is not here today. I'm sorry to report that she was involved in a rather nasty traffic accident on her way in to work this morning and has been taken to hospital.”

The noise levels finally reached complete silence, the boys shocked by this news. Despite having only been at the school since the start of the year – and teaching maths – Miss Gibson was one of the more popular teachers in the school.

“Now, as luck would have it”, Mr. Bateman continued, “we have a replacement ready and willing to take on Miss Gibson's classes. Mr...” He turned to the man in the biker's gear and all eyes alighted on the stranger. He loomed at the front of the class, slightly to the side and rear of the deputy head. His face was a blank mask, his jaw clenched and his mouth tight. A small scar crossed his cheek, leaving a white trail of bare skin through the thick, dark stubble that peppered his jawline. His eyes tracked back and forth over the faces of the classmates, and for a moment he didn't respond. Daniel had the impression the man was scanning the classroom, searching for something – or someone – in particular. And there was something familiar about the man...

“Smith”, he said suddenly, his voice as deep and as dark as his leather jacket. He had paused in mid-scan, but his focus remained forward, his comments directed to the class. “Mr. Smith”.

“Yes. Smith. Right”, Mr. Bateman continued, somewhat uncertainly. “Mr. Smith has agreed to take over Miss Gibson's class while she recovers.”

“So she will recover then?”, a small voice shouted out from the side of the classroom.

“Yes, yes. She'll be fine.”

“What happened?” Another voice, from the opposite side.

“I don't have all the details, but it seems she lost control of her car and crashed off the road.”

“Was she drunk?”, asked Jack, then laughed noisily. Davy, sat next to him, punched him on the arm. “I was only joking”, Jack defended himself.

“No”, Mr. Bateman snapped harshly. “She most certainly was not drunk.” He fixed Jack with a harsh stare. “That kind of comment is not funny, Mr. Barnes”.

“Sorry, Mr. Batman”, Jack replied. A few of the other boys chuckled, glad to let off a bit of tension. The deputy head could see that the mood needed to be lifted, so he decided not to react to Jack's use of his nickname. For now.

“Miss Gibson's partner was in the car with her. He's been released from hospital already, so you can see it wasn't too serious an accident. Miss Gibson has a few bumps and bruises and is being kept in for observation, but we're expecting her to be back very soon. According to her boyfriend, Miss Gibson swerved to avoid a motorcycle that was driving too fast on the wrong side of the road. So it most definitely was not Miss Gibson's fault.”

Daniel glanced toward Mr. Smith, who had seemed to react to the word 'motorcycle'. It was barely noticeable, but Daniel was sure he saw Mr. Smith flinch slightly, and a flicker of something disrupt his otherwise impassive stare. Guilt, perhaps? But then he realised that most of the class were looking accusingly at Mr. Smith. It was not a good day for him to have ridden a motorcycle to school. It was hard enough being a supply teacher and probably though that being a biker would have made him seem cool. On any other day, he'd have been right. After all, Jack and Leon had been drooling over the powerful machine.

“Anyway”, Mr. Bateman was wrapping up. “I will leave you in the capable hands of Mr...”

“Smith”, Mr. Smith finished for him.

With a shallow nod the deputy head handed over responsibility for the class and left the room.

Mr. Smith resumed his sweep of the classroom, his eyes finally coming to a stop on Daniel as the classroom door closed with a click. A sly grin tugged at the corners of his mouth, his scar flashing white as the skin grew taut. Daniel immediately thought of a predator that had trapped his prey. Their eyes locked for a moment. Then Mr. Smith looked away and addressed the class.

“I have reviewed Miss Gibson's lesson plans”, he began. “She has left some very detailed notes on her classes.” He glanced back towards Daniel. “Very detailed notes. I see that you have just started covering quadratic equations, so if you will all turn to page 89 of your text books, we'll begin.”

 

Creepy he may have been, but Mr. Smith clearly knew his subject. Within the first few minutes of the lesson he had reviewed everything that Miss Gibson had taught them about quadratics so far and had set the class working on some exercises. His stern demeanour had effectively deterred the usual disruption that most supply teachers have to deal with and the boys all had their heads down concentrating on their books. All except Daniel.

Daniel had played along, opening his copy of the class text book at the right page, but he had completed all the exercises while Mr. Smith had been recapping the subject. His mind was starting to wander – thinking about Miss Gibson; about the online game; about the strange puzzle on his father's laptop.

“You must be Danny Armstrong.” Daniel jumped as a voice hissed in his ear. Mr. Smith had been walking round the classroom checking over the boys' work, and was now leaning forward, hands behind his back, his face next to Daniel's. He nodded toward Daniel's work book where the exercises were all completed. “Good work. Miss Gibson told me about you.”

“Told you?” Daniel asked. “You've spoken to her?”

Mr. Smith shook his head. “Her notes”, he explained. “They told me all about you.”

“Obviously not everything; no one calls me 'Danny'.”

Mr. Smith ignored him. “They say you have potential”, he continued. “That you've been doing extra work. More challenging work.” It wasn't a question, but he looked at Daniel with one eyebrow raised as though waiting for a response. Daniel pursed his lips, saying nothing.

“Fair enough”, said Mr. Smith, standing up straight. “Let me see if I can find something to really test you.” His arm suddenly whipped round from behind his back. He was holding a sheaf of papers, brandishing them like a magician finishing a trick. Is this your card?

“See what you make of these”, he said, and placed the papers on Daniel's desk. With a smug smile, he walked back to the front of the class.

Daniel watched him go. As he passed Jack's desk, Daniel saw that Jack was looking back over his shoulder. See what you make of these, Jack mouthed with a sneer, then made kissy faces at Daniel.

Daniel scowled back at Jack, then looked down at the papers. He was all ready to dismiss them – he didn't want to look like he was sucking up to the supply teacher – but something caught his eye. The papers contained nothing but complex mathematical formulae; no questions, no explanations, just symbols and numbers. But there was something familiar about them, something that Daniel had seen before. Absent-mindedly, Daniel picked up his pen and started twirling it through his fingers, the way he always did when concentrating on maths.

He crossed out a digit, replaced it with another. He changed a symbol. He didn't know what he was working on but he could tell it was wrong. It was like... That was it, that's where he'd seen this before: it was the formula that had been on his father's computer the night before. The one that controlled the strange animated amoeba-like thing. Daniel started wondering – what was this formula? Some kind of new puzzle game for grown-ups; the new sudoku?

And was it just a coincidence that he'd seen it twice in the last two days?

Just then, the bell rang to announce the end of class. Daniel had become so engrossed by the formula before he recognised it that he'd lost all track of time. He found it much more difficult to solve without the animation.

With a scraping of chairs the boys all started packing away their stuff and leaving the room. Mr. Smith just watched them all, silently, then made his way through the departing horde towards the back of the classroom. Daniel got up to leave, and was just about to stuff the papers into his bag when Mr. Smith's hand slammed down on top of them.

“I'll hang on to these, thanks”, he said. That predatory look was back in his eyes as he looked down at Daniel's work. Whatever this game is, thought Daniel, it must be pretty addictive to adults.

* * * * *

The rest of the day passed without incident through geography, art and history. The rumour mill had kicked into overdrive and by lunchtime everyone had heard a different story about what happened to Miss Gibson and the mysterious Mr. Smith.

Smith is an undercover school inspector.

He's an undercover detective, investigating Miss Gibson for drug smuggling.

The police were chasing her – that's why she lost control.

Her brakes had been cut – by MI5. And Smith is her handler.

By hometime Daniel had heard at least a dozen different stories about the two teachers, each more outrageous than the last, and he didn't believe any of them. But as he was leaving for the day, he heard a story that had some evidence to back it up. And maybe it was part of the general weirdness of the day, but for some reason that story seemed frighteningly plausible.

With his bag slung over his shoulder, Daniel was making his way down the drive towards the school gates. The wind was picking up, bringing dark storm clouds with it. Daniel was turning the collar of his coat up when Jack came running over to him from the direction of the car park. “Dan, Dan”, he panted. “You have got to come and see this.”

Daniel started to follow Jack back towards the teachers' cars. “What have I got to see?”, he asked grumpily.

“You remember Mr. Batman said that Gibbo had been run off the road by a motorbike?”

“He said she swerved to avoid one”, Daniel corrected. “It's not quite the same thing.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever.” Jack was clearly following a particular train of thought that wasn't going to be de-railed by something as trivial as the facts. “So this bike runs her off the road, and within minutes a biker turns up at the school, looking for a job. Suspicious?”

“Within minutes? Where did you get that from?”

“It can't have been that long. She was on her way to school right? And Smithy was here in time for first lesson...” Jack looked expectantly at Daniel, as though he had proved his point beyond all doubt. Daniel was not convinced at all... although, now that he thought about it, it was a bit of a coincidence that Mr. Smith had turned up just when he was needed...

Jack had led Daniel over to where Mr. Smith's motorcycle was parked. Leon was stood by the front wheel, his back to the bike, arms folded, facing Daniel.

“Just because Smithy's a biker - ”, Daniel began.

“What kind of car does Miss G. drive?”, Jack interrupted.

“I don't know”, Daniel replied. “A Fiesta? A Clio? Something small anyway.”

“A Clio”, Jack confirmed. “A red Clio. A special edition, metallic red Clio.” He looked excited, and stared hard at Daniel.

Daniel didn't know where Jack was going with this. “Okay”, he said slowly, conceding that Jack was correct.

“Exhibit A!”, Jack shouted in triumph. He spun towards Leon, his arm sweeping out to direct Daniel's attention to the motorcycle. Leon took a step to his right, exposing the front of the motorcycle. Daniel could see that the fairing had some damage; the otherwise perfect, jet-black vehicle had a dent and some deep scratches running along the side from the headlights towards the handlebars. It looked like the bike had been in an accident.

Looking closer he could see the scratches had some flecks of colour embedded in them. Paint from another vehicle perhaps.

Red paint.

Limited edition, metallic red paint.

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