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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1. Part 1: Home. T-10

 

Daniel stared through the cross-hairs of his rifle's telescopic sight as he paused to catch his breath. Everything he had been through so far had led to this, his team's final objective. The eight-man squad was down to five; they had lost Davy at the start when he failed to open his parachute properly, Oscar had been shot during the assault on the gun tower, and Leon – poor, stupid Leon – had stepped on a landmine crossing the no-man's land behind them. Daniel had felt every death as it happened, but right now he had to control his feelings and focus on the task in hand. He had accounted for some loss when planning the mission. He knew he could rescue the prisoner with just five men. Six would have been better; with eight it would have been a breeze. But, at a pinch, five would do it.

He cleared his throat and checked in with the squad. “Status report”, he growled.

“Rogue Two, clear.” That was Lucas, stationed at the cell-block entrance.

“Rogue Three, clear.” Jack, in the guard station, monitoring the cameras.

“Rogue Six, clear.” Mark, in a sniper's position north of the compound.

“Rogue Seven, clear.” Andy, likewise, covering the south.

Daniel's sights were also clear, the corridor ahead of him empty. He twisted quickly on the spot making sure no one had crept up behind him, his eyes never leaving the cross-hairs. Nothing – his escape route was secure.

He switched his focus to the prison cell that contained his target. The cell contained two men, but Daniel was only here for one. A door of thick iron bars was all that separated the two prisoners from their freedom, and Daniel from his prize. He signalled through the bars for the men to take cover. The pair crouched down behind the mattresses that they had turned into a makeshift shield in the far corner of the cell.

Daniel pressed the ends of the detonator wires into the plastic explosive surrounding the door lock and retreated down the corridor, trailing the wires behind him. He pressed himself against the bars of the next-door cell, and clicked the button on the detonator now in his hand.

The C4 exploded with a loud crunch, firing the lock across the narrow passageway, where it clanged against the bars of the cell opposite. The sounds reverberated around the corridor, ringing in Daniel's ears as he scooted back to the cell and pushed open the mangled door.

“This is Rogue Leader”, he announced to his squad. “I have secured the package. We are Oscar Mike.” He signalled to the prisoners peering cautiously over the mattresses, telling his target to follow him, then raised his weapon sights once more and began a rapid advance toward the exit. As he moved, he mentally checked off each step in the escape plan.

East along the corridor. Turn left.

North to the guard station; pick up Rogue Three. Jack falls in covering the rear of the party and the trio turn right.

East toward the cell-block doors. There's Rogue Two, Lucas, one hundred metres away, silhouetted in the doorway.

Advance towards...

Wait. Something's not right.

Daniel slowed his pace. He couldn't put his finger on it but something was off.

An alarm suddenly blared out, a banshee howl that rose and fell like an air-raid siren.

The silhouette raised its weapon. That's when Daniel realised…

“Rogue Two?”, Daniel yelled.

Silence.

“Rogue Two”, he repeated. “Report”.

Nothing.

Daniel toggled his HUD. The Head-Up Display confirmed his fears. ROGUE TWO: KIA.

Before he had time to react, he heard the sound of running footsteps echoing down the corridor behind him towards Rogue Three. From his position outside, Rogue Seven’s panicked voice came over the team comms. “Incoming!”, he screamed. “Enemy soldiers from the barracks. I can't take them all out from here!”

“Get down!”, Daniel pulled the rescued prisoner to the floor. He crouched down and took aim at the figure blocking their escape route, the character that must have taken Lucas out of the game.

Behind him, Jack fired off three short burst of automatic fire as a group of guards rounded the corner, blocking the way back into the prison block.

More figures appeared at the doorway. Daniel frantically scanned the corridor, but it was pointless. The long, straight passageway offered no protection, no means of escape. He fired off a few rounds of his own, but the enemy soldiers ducked out of sight.

Jack let out a battle cry. Daniel turned to see him on his feet, sprinting back down the corridor, firing continuously into the darkness, the flashes of gunfire revealing the shapes of the guards that had appeared. Out-gunned and exposed, Jack quickly took a fatal shot and crashed to the floor.

Daniel turned back to the exit to see a grenade bouncing down the corridor towards him. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. With nothing to do but accept what was coming he slumped back, let his hands fall into his lap and closed his eyes. His last thought before the grenade exploded:

What did I miss..?

* * * * *

“Never mind, Dan mate”. Daniel Armstrong opened his eyes. The remains of his pixelated body were just visible on his computer screen behind the stark message ROGUE LEADER: KIA

“Cheers, Luc”, he replied. Lucas and Daniel had been friends for almost all their lives. The two of them created “Rogue Company” to play Wetworks: Online and over the last few months had built a reputation as the team to beat. Technically they were five years too young to be playing the 18-rated game; but given the chatter about it at school, Daniel guessed that most of the top players were only just in their teens.

“I've googled it....”, began Jack.

Three voices shouted “No!” Mark, Andy and Lucas all thought it was cheating to look up mission details online, whereas Jack claimed it was 'gathering intelligence' and therefore a legitimate military tactic. Andy had wanted to ban Jack from playing with them altogether, and the two had almost come to blows over it during Mr. Wells' history class. But in the end the group agreed that Jack could play as long as he was was never allowed to be mission leader. Jack said he didn't mind as long as he got to shoot bad guys and blow stuff up.

“There must be a second guard station in the prison”, said Lucas. “Maybe that room we thought was a weapons store?”

“Yeah, maybe”, Daniel agreed half-heartedly.

“Try it again after school tomorrow?”, asked Davy.

“As long as you learn how to parachute by then”, said Jack. “Remember; open, good; closed, bad.”

Davy belched and disconnected, his status on Daniel's screen changing to OFFLINE. Oscar was already gone, having logged off once his character had been shot. One by one, Mark, Andy, Leon and Jack disconnected for the night. Only Lucas stayed online with Daniel, as usual, to chat with his best friend.

“You alright, mate?”, Lucas asked.

“Yeah”, replied Daniel. “Just annoyed that's all”.

“It is only a game, you know.”

“You know me; I don't like to lose.”

“Wouldn't know, mate – never seen it happen before.”

Daniel grinned. Good old Luc.

“Better go,” Lucas continued. “My mum's shouting me for dinner. See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, see you tomorrow.” Daniel took his headset off and tossed it onto his keyboard. Dinner. Good idea. He took his feet off his desk, rolled his chair back and stood up. Pins and needles tickled his calves as the blood rushed back down his legs. He walked gingerly out of his bedroom and across the landing toward the stairs.

As he passed the spare bedroom that his father used for a study he noticed the door was ajar. That was weird. Thomas Armstrong had been locking himself away in there every night for the past few months – so much so that Daniel was starting to forget what he looked like. Did he have a beard again? He'd had one when Daniel was a baby, but shaved it off a couple of years ago. Now, when Daniel tried to picture his father, the image in his mind flicked back and forth from clean-shaven to bearded and back again, like one of those optical illusions that looks like a duck one minute, then a rabbit, then a duck again...

Daniel shook himself. His mind was wandering now. He decided to have a peek round the study door – settle this beard question once and for all.

There was no one in there.

Disappointed, Daniel turned to leave.

But something caught his eye. His father's laptop was open on the desk, a strange image moving on the screen. A small, dark grey, translucent blob, pulsing and turning slowly. It looked like a sickly amoeba. Daniel would have dismissed it as some kind of screensaver, except for the pages of mathematical formulae scrolling through a window in the bottom corner of the screen. He was drawn by the hypnotic motion of the numbers and symbols. Somehow, he knew that the formula related to the actions of the amoeba.

He walked over to the desk and looked closer at the computer screen. Yes, definitely; the movement of the amoeba was controlled by the formula. But something about the formula seemed wrong. Daniel wiggled his finger on the mousepad, and a cursor appeared on the screen. He moved it and clicked into a section of the formula as it scrolled through the window. The line of text stopped, and the amoeba froze, paused in mid-pulse.

Daniel tweaked one of the numbers, turning a 50 into 500, and hit return. Immediately the formula started scrolling again and the amoeba resumed its pulsing. But it had changed. Instead of a dull, dark grey, the blob took on a lighter shade. Still grey, but more the colour of fog than rain-clouds. It seemed brighter too, more solid, and... yes, Daniel was sure it was pulsing faster. Not much, but enough to notice.

Daniel tried again. He clicked on another part of the formula, this time changing a power from 2 to 3. The blob grew brighter still and spun even faster.

Daniel grinned. He felt like he was breathing life into the shape on the screen. Briefly, he wondered why his father would have this type of puzzle on his computer. Is this what he had been doing behind closed doors all these nights? And his mother had the cheek to say that Daniel spent too much time on computer games.

He clicked into the formula once more and studied the numbers and symbols. There; that decimal point should be -

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”

Daniel jumped at the sound of his father's voice, bellowing from the doorway. He turned to see his father striding into the room, glaring angrily. In three swift steps Thomas Armstrong reached the desk and snatched the laptop out of his son's reach. He began to examine the screen, his eyes flicking left and right as the formula scrolled by, searching for signs of what Daniel had done.

“This isn't a toy”, he continued. “It's not one of your stupid games.”

Daniel tried to defend himself. “I just thought - ”

“No, you didn't think”, Thomas interrupted. “That's the problem.”

Daniel felt his face flush hot and his hands began to twitch as his body flooded with adrenaline. He always hated how his body reacted like this when he got angry or upset and especially when he was being told off. He would clench his teeth and breath deeply through his nose in an effort to regain control. His parents called it 'dumb insolence' when he refused to speak, but it was just that he didn't want them to hear the tremor in his voice.

After a long, angry silence, Thomas looked away from the computer and faced his son. Daniel thought he looked tired. The anger still burned in his eyes, but there was something else there too. Something strange.

It looked like fear.

“Just get out”, he said quietly. He put the laptop down and wiped a hand over his face. “Go on; go to your room.”

Daniel opened his mouth, but could think of nothing worth saying. He turned, walked out, closed the door quietly behind him and went downstairs for dinner.

* * * * *

Later that night Daniel heard his mother shouting at his father. Not arguing – his father would have to shout back for that.

“He's thirteen years old, for goodness' sake. Before you know it he'll be an adult, off to university, moving out, and by then it'll be too late. You'll have missed it all. You can't get this time back, and you're throwing it all away, hiding in this bloody room!”

Daniel had never heard his mother talk like this. The atmosphere at home had been strange for a while though, since Dad had become so preoccupied with work. Maybe she'd also just found out that he'd been playing stupid games when he claimed to be working.

“You two used to be so close”, she went on, before her voice became inaudible. It was true. His father had always spent a lot of evenings in his study, but for years Daniel had been joining him in there, doing his own homework. Daniel never knew exactly what his father did for a living, other than he seemed to bring a lot of work home with him and would sometimes make business trips that lasted several weeks. But he always made room for Daniel to squeeze his schoolbooks onto the edge of the desk, and never seemed to mind when Daniel asked him for help. And Daniel had always liked spending this time alone with his father, and would sometimes take longer than he really needed to on his work, or ask for help when he didn't really need it. As he'd got older, Daniel had realised that his father knew when he didn't really need the help; but the fact that he played along just made Daniel love it all the more.

But in the last few months Thomas had changed. He'd become distant, hardly spending any time away from his desk, not even sitting down to meals with the family any more. Worst of all, he didn’t seem to want Daniel in his study any more. He’d been grumpy when Daniel asked questions, had tried to hurry him to finish his homework and had recently taken to locking himself away in the study before Daniel got home from school, making it clear that Daniel wasn’t welcome.

Daniel missed having this time with his father. He didn’t know what had happened to change things, and was hurt at being shut out of his father’s life. At first he was worried that he had done something wrong. Then he started to feel angry that his father was being unfair, punishing him for no reason.

Daniel had always been a good student. He studied hard, was well-behaved in class, did his homework on time and nearly always got top marks. But lately he'd stopped putting the effort in, had started messing about in lessons; and his marks had dropped accordingly. All his teachers had noticed, and while some of them had just written him off, the ones that cared tried to do something about it. His science teacher had contacted his parents and invited them to the school. Thomas brushed it off, saying Daniel was just bored, and refused to go. But Daniel's mother, Mary, went to meet Mr Malin. She'd come home that evening very upset with Daniel, and after giving him a long lecture on the importance of hard work, Daniel had promised his mother that he'd try harder. That was the first time Daniel had ever lied to his parents.

Daniel's maths teacher also thought Daniel had become bored – maths had always been one of Daniel's best subjects – so she started giving him extra work to do, teaching him as though he were in the years above. This worked well and Daniel had thrived on the extra work. Unfortunately, he'd done so well that Miss Gibson was rapidly running out of extra work to give him.

The truth was, Daniel was bored. He loved learning, but for a long time had felt that school was a waste of time. He was good at most subjects but a lot of them just didn't interest him. His favourites were maths and the sciences, and he had a real talent for them. But the 'homework' he used to do in his father's study was never that set by his teachers. Daniel always finished that on the bus on the way home. Instead he would spend his time reading books that he got from the library and searching the internet for things that really interested him. It never occurred to Thomas to wonder why Daniel never seemed to have homework for English or French, history or geography. Nor did he ever wonder why Daniel's homework included quantum physics, chaos theory or fractal geometry. Dr. Thomas Armstrong was an expert in a number of fields, including physics and statistics, so a lot of these subjects were child's play to him anyway.

Daniel admired his father and felt that he learned more by spending an hour with him in his study than in a week at school. But since Thomas had withdrawn from his family, Daniel no longer had that mental stimulus, had nothing to counteract the boredom.

Until he discovered online gaming.

This was a world that offered Daniel a whole new set of challenges. He'd never been interested until Lucas had got him into it, initially as a way to swap messages that was cheaper than using their mobile phones. But then, during a wet weekend in the summer when Lucas was on holiday with his family, Daniel had a go at one of the introductory missions, just to pass the time. And the more he played the tougher the game became – the missions longer, the puzzles more complicated. In just a few short months Daniel had progressed from idly playing solo shoot 'em ups to leading complex, multi-player, strategic assignments. The game had become Daniel's lifeline. It was safer than hanging round the streets, joining a gang or doing any of the other things his Mum used to worry about. OK, so he did meet up with other lads and get into fights – but the fights were online, the weapons virtual and no-one actually got hurt.

And the game was something to focus on, to test himself against. It had a built-in leaderboard showing the scores of every team and every individual that played the game across the globe. Rogue Company only needed to complete two more missions to claim the top spot. His father may think it was just a stupid game, but Daniel was good at it – really good at it – and he wanted the whole world to know. Even if the world would only know him by his username, 'StrongArmDan'.

Daniel decided to take one more look at the hostage rescue mission details before bed, to see if he could work out where it had all gone wrong. He had read somewhere that working on a problem before going to sleep was a way of engaging your unconscious brain – that your mind would then continue to work on the problem while you slept and that you would wake up knowing the answers. Not that he had ever tried it before, or even really believed that could work. But the elusive top-spot was taunting him and, right now, he'd try anything.

Daniel tapped his computer keyboard to bring the screen back to life. He was still logged into his Wetworks: Online account from earlier. The menu screen presented itself for him and habit made him click the button to open the international leaderboard. He growled when he saw Rogue Company still languishing in second place, then chastised himself for it. What did he expect – to have conjured up over a thousand points from nowhere while he was having dinner?

He closed down the leaderboard and went to open the mission profile section. He noticed a flashing icon in his message inbox and, assuming it was from one of the lads, he opened it. It had better not be Jack with cheats, he thought; while he agreed that getting help from the internet wasn't playing fair, he was worried that he wouldn't be able to resist using any information that fell into his lap.

It wasn't from Jack, or any of the Rogue Company. It appeared to be from the makers of the game, and it read:

Dear Daniel Armstrong,

Congratulations on your progress so far! Your Company have progressed further than most, and the number one slot on our leaderboard is within your grasp.

In recognition of your team's achievements on the field of battle and the outstanding quality of your leadership, you personally have been specially selected to take part in an exclusive, top-secret mission. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, can be found by clicking on the link at the end of this message.

Good hunting, Mr Armstrong.

The message was signed off: Wetworks Command followed by a blue hyperlink. Daniel read the message again: ... number one slot... outstanding quality... specially selected... Daniel knew better than to open attachments or click on links within e-mails from people he didn't know. But it was all too tempting, almost like it had been written specifically for him, to be irresistible to him.

He read it one more time. Wetworks Command. That sounded familiar. That was what the game designers called themselves. It must be legitimate, surely? Daniel decided to risk it, and clicked on the link.

Nothing happened.

He clicked it again, watching the cursor to see that it registered. The arrow changed to an egg-timer for a few moments, then back again. But nothing else happened.

Daniel started to get worried; what if it was a virus after all. He was just about the run a virus scan when a new screen appeared. It was blank except for the game logo in the corner and a message: Thank you for volunteering for “Wetworks: Covert Operation 1”. This mission briefing is still being prepared. We will be in touch...

Daniel was annoyed. Why invite someone to take part in a game that hadn't been created yet? He deleted the message and logged out of the game altogether – he was too wound up now to concentrate on any mission briefings. He'd just have to read up on the hostage rescue again tomorrow.

He shut down his computer and lay down on his bed. Staring up at the ceiling, he listened again for any sounds from his parents. He didn't hear anything; either they had gone to bed themselves or were sat in silence, sulking at each other.

Daniel got up and crept out of his room. The door to his father's study was closed once more. He inched along the landing, imagining himself back in the game with his HUD set to night-vision. He paused outside the study door and leaned in to listen. He could just make out the faint tapping sounds of fingers on a keyboard. Normality was restored; Dad was back at work. Daniel went on his way.

Imaginary goggles off, he slipped into the bathroom, turned on the light over the sink and began brushing his teeth. He leaned forwards and angled his head so that his chin nearly touched the mirror. Turning his head slowly in the bright, white light, he examined his face for any signs of stubble. Nothing. It wasn't fair; Leon had had a wispy beard for nearly a month now, and Lucas said he was shaving once a fortnight. Jack claimed to be shaving twice a day, but no one actually believed that.

Daniel spat, rinsed and spat again. One last check for luck. With a sigh he clicked off the light, left the bathroom and slouched back to his bedroom where he closed the door, slipped off his jeans and got into bed.

He lay there for a few minutes, deciding whether to read or not, until his eyes grew suddenly heavy. He rolled over, clicked off the bedside lamp, and started drifting off to sleep.

A final thought fluttered briefly through his mind – the last few neurones firing as his brain logged off for the night and sleep claimed him:

I've never used my real name online.

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