Apr 20

Rev Gav

Epsilon

Rev Gav’s sci-fi thriller for young readers.

1. The Laboratory

The high-pitched alarm was deafening. The professor clamped his hands over his ears, paced to the open door of the laboratory and kicked it shut. The door slammed, rattling the opaque window glass. He stood there for a moment staring at the door, biting his lower lip. Shadows of people hurrying along the corridor passed the window. Over the muffled alarm, the professor could now hear the computer-generated voice spilling from a small, plastic wall-mounted speaker.

“This is a high priority alert. Security breach in Sector 4.”

“This is a high priority alert. Security breach in Sector 4.”

“This is a high priority alert. Security brea…”

The professor turned to the speaker positioned high up on the wall to the left of the door. With one step and in one swift movement he clenched and smashed his fist into the speaker. The weak plastic splintered onto the floor exposing a circuit board and a tangle of multi-coloured wires. The voice was silenced. The professor turned and walked back to his desk. He planted his hands on the edge, supported his weight, and pressed his face to the 50″ ultra-flat computer monitor. The glow from the screen reflected in his glasses as page after page of computer code scrolled past – the different types of code coloured in shades of blue. Without removing his gaze from the screen the professor plucked a black sharpie from the breast pocket of his white coat, scribbled a set of numbers on the silver panelling of the monitor, pinched the pen between his teeth and continued to watch the computer screen. The alarm finally relented and, save for the gentle whirr from cooling fans, the darkened room fell silent. In the mayhem, the professor had failed to notice someone enter the room. A man sat in the shadows, his imposing uniformed frame filled a black leather computer chair and his polished black shoes were pressed firmly to the floor. He rested his hands on his knees, carefully avoiding the starched creases in his trousers. He’d been watching the professor work. His deep, deliberate American drawl broke the silence:

“Well professor, would you mind telling me what’s going on?”

The professor’s eyes grew wide and he let the pen drop from his mouth onto the desk. Keeping his hands in place he slowly turned his head to face his interrogator. Looking over the top of his glasses he squinted as he tried to focus on the man sitting before him. “You know exactly what’s going on,” he replied through clenched teeth. His English accent betrayed both desperation and anger. “Epsilon is gone.”

“Ah, Epsilon,” the man continued, “the most sophisticated piece of computer hardware in the world just up and vanished from the most secure computer facility in the world? You expect me to believe that?”

The professor ignored the question and turned back to face the screen. However, rather than reading the stream of data, he was frantically trying to decide what to do next. He expected to be called out, summoned, interrogated, but didn’t expect the colonel to come to his lab in person. Beads of sweat broke out on his brow and he fought the urge to wipe them on his sleeve. He had to remain calm.

“Seems to me you have yourself a problem, professor,” continued the colonel.

The professor sighed. He must maintain his composure and show no signs of stress. He closed his eyes, swallowed and took a slow breath before answering. Consciously keeping his voice as neutral as possible, and this time remaining facing the screen, he answered. “You mean we’ve got a problem?”

The colonel remained silent for a moment then stood up. Hearing the gentle ruffle of clothing, the professor tried to straighten up but his arms and shoulders were stiff from leaning over the desk. The colonel walked over and stood directly behind the professor. The professor glanced at the colonel’s formidable presence which was reflected by the glow from the computer screen. Although he couldn’t make out the face, the colonel’s military uniform and white Level 7 security clearance badge were plainly visible. The professor turned and straightened up. He could now take in the full measure of the man before him and he leaned back slightly as the colonel was standing so close. The colonel was at least 8 inches taller with a military grade haircut. The professor gauged the colonel’s age to be mid fifties but with a frame that was almost bulging out of his uniform. Although the professor didn’t recognise him, he’d heard about the colonel. The top commanders never came down to the lower levels where the work took place. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Epsilon was priceless.

“Let me tell you what I’m going to do.” The colonel’s eyes were locked on the professor’s and he lowered his voice to almost a whisper. He leaned in closer – his breath smelled of mint and stale cigars. “I’m a patient man professor. Return Epsilon and maybe we can forget the whole thing ever happened.”

The sweat was now visibly trickling down the side of the professor’s head. He knew what ‘not forgetting’ would mean and it wouldn’t be pleasant. He tried to force a laugh. “You don’t think I took Epsilon?” He swallowed nervously, “I mean, why, why in the world would I?”

The colonel started to let his impatience show. He rubbed his clean-shaven chin and shook his head. “I don’t think you quite understand the gravity of the situation professor. Let me put it another way. If Epsilon isn’t back within 24 hours then I’ll have no choice but to deploy Weapon A.”

The professor felt his knees go weak and his body begin to tremble. “What? You can’t. You wouldn’t?” he stammered.

But the colonel already had his back to the professor and he was walking slowly and deliberately to the door. He looked at the smashed speaker on the wall, gently shook his head, opened the door and left the laboratory, carefully shutting the door behind him. The professor slumped into his desk chair. He sighed and began to rub his hands through his unkempt hair. He glanced at the door, then he pulled out a desk drawer. The professor put his hand inside the desk, felt underneath the desktop and pulled out a small notebook that had been taped to the underside of the desk. He quickly put the notebook into his breast pocket and got up to leave. “Tell me this isn’t happening”, he muttered to himself.

2. Real Reality

Stu McFarlan’s bedroom floor was a giant plate of spaghetti. Wires and cables snaked from power outlets to a mess of circuit boards and computer equipment. A half-completed home-grown synthesiser leant up against one wall and a remote controlled submarine poked two torpedo bays out from beneath an unmade bed. Every surface and shelf was littered with retro technology – retro computer games from ancient game consoles and old magazines about retro computer games. Stu’s bedroom was in the attic of his family’s terraced town house in Worthington, just outside London. A single poster of a scantily clad Bratty Stokes, female pop diva, looked out of place among the plastering of characters and aliens from science-fiction films and TV shows that papered the sloping ceilings. Dressed in only his glowing pyjamas, lit by an ultraviolet lamp, Stu McFarlan sat in front of his 60″ 4D cinema display. In his hands he held the new photo-sensitive super-gun and his mop of brown curly hair was flattened under a noise-reducing headset. The headset, used by military pilots, was designed to cut out unwanted background noise and keep sounds coming from the same direction, no matter which way your head was pointing. Stu’s blue eyes were fixed to the display. 4D displays projected a 3D image into the room and the user could adjust the width and depth of projection to enable them to be completely immersed. Stu was engrossed in a game of Frag, the latest multi-player combat arena from D-Soft. Stu’s code-name was Syntax and his opponent was code-named Dwarf. The score was 99 frags a-piece. Just one more frag and Stu would win the game. From downstairs came the shout of Stu’s father, Paul McFarlan, “Stu, are you in bed yet?” but Stu couldn’t hear him. Syntax was silently strafing down an abandoned alien tunnel, deep under a recently constructed moon-base. He listened for footsteps or any other sound made by his cunning opponent Dwarf. Suddenly, red bolts started to fly past his left ear. He dived for cover behind some giant Jerry cans that were leaking black liquid. “Oh no!” screamed Stu as he realised his mistake. The Jerry cans exploded, taking most of Syntax with them. Dwarf zoomed into focus, his smug computer-generated voice filling the headphones.

“Better luck next time Syntax.”

“Yeah, yeah. See you Dwarf… whoever you are,” replied Stu, as he removed his headset.

With a musical jingle – one that every teenager in the world instantly recognised – the display returned to the multi-player GameZone portal. Stu yawned and was just about to remove his control ring to sleep his computer when a banner advert caught his eye.

Are you ready to play the real thing?

REAL REALITY it’s virtually a game…

Beta Testers wanted CLICK HERE.

Stu had beta-tested several games for leading-edge software companies. Recent games included CyberBorg and the infamous Rogue Cop, the ban of which had been overturned in a famous legal battle. Companies like D-Soft wielded huge power, in the same way that the banks and oil companies had in the past. Beta testing was a good way for companies to iron out last minute bugs before releasing the software to the public. Also, putting the game in the hands of well-known gamers could result in free marketing. For Stu it was the only way to get his hands on the latest games and sometimes he received a fat credit in his bank account for his trouble. However, games companies didn’t usually advertise over the Gameweb. Stu figured that the company must be desperate. Even the title ‘Real Reality’ was a bit lame – a play on the old-fashioned words ‘Virtual Reality’ that had long since gone out of use. Stu clicked on the banner advert and was immediately linked directly to the Real Reality portal.

The portal was very simple. It had no flashy trimmings or token sound bites, just a form on which prospective beta-testers could fill out their details. Stu typed in his full name and contact address. He hesitated before filling in his home address in Worthington. His dad’d told him how people used to have numbers to identify their mobile phones and if you got a new phone you often had to get a new number! These days everyone had a one-time unique address for their mobile devices – much easier to remember. Stu’s was SyntaxFragger. However, it was unusual for a software company to request a physical home address as nearly all games were delivered over the Gameweb. Stu figured the game must be pretty retro if they needed to send it to him on some sort of physical storage and his Dad wouldn’t be happy with Stu giving it out. He glanced around to check his Dad wasn’t watching before entering his details. When he completed the form he pointed to the SEND button – the controller ring on his index finger was synced with the 4D display. Immediately, the display returned to the GameZone portal. Where the banner advert had been was now an advert for the new physically modelled games console PlayDepot 14. There was no mention of Real Reality.

“That’s it?” thought Stu. Once again he went to remove his control ring when a dialog box hovered in the air in front of the display.

You have 1 new message in your mailbox.

Curiosity got the better of him and he opened his mail package. Listed at the top of the inbox was an email from themaster@realreality.com. Stu opened the email.

Hello Stu

I have been waiting for you to contact me.

I will send you a data slab outlining your mission.

From The Master

The bedroom door swung open behind him and Stu’s room was bathed in light from the landing. Stu stood up and turned around quickly to form a barrier between the 4D Display and his Dad.

“Everything okay?” his Dad asked, “I heard you shouting earlier.”

“Oh that was just me playing Frag,” replied Stu. Dad glanced at the screen behind Stu’s back and then looked at Stu over the top of his glasses in mock seriousness.

“Bed?”

Stu smiled, “Night Dad”.

Dad smiled, winked and left the room.

Stu sighed and re-read the message from The Master before closing his email package. “How could the Master be waiting for me? I guess it must be part of the game,” thought Stu as he climbed into bed. He pulled the ring control from his finger, automatically putting his computer to sleep. He then lay back in bed and pointed his finger at the ceiling firing an imaginary gun at a poster of a particularly gruesome looking alien. He had just about enough energy to say the words “lights off” before falling asleep.

3. The Package

The next morning, with a gentle thud, a pile of letters and a small packet dropped through the letterbox onto the WELCOME mat of the McFarlan house. The packet was addressed to Stu McFarlan and his name and address were hand printed in bold black ink on the front of the packet. In the top right hand corner of the packet was a red logo with the words ‘Real Reality’.

Stu was tall for his age. He had piercing blue eyes and a mop of curly thick brown hair. Although he wasn’t bad looking, he didn’t hang out with the cool kids at school. He liked to keep to himself and was considered to be either a loner or a geek or both. His grades were steady and this was just fine with his teachers. He got on well with most of his classmates but had few, what he would call really close friends. He found that technology was more reliable than people. People had a habit of hurting you. No, it was much easier to keep your distance. Gameweb provided an additional layer of anonymity. When he was Syntax he could talk to anyone without all the relational difficulties that came with face-to-face friendships.

It was getting late. Stu had never liked mornings but he liked being late for school even less. Being late resulted in being lectured by his class tutor or worse, detention. He couldn’t bear the thought of wasting good gaming or TV time staring at a classroom clock for an hour after school. Worthington High School was still one of the ones that insisted students wear full uniform, even in summer. Trousers, shirt, tie and blazer. Although he hated wearing uniform he thought of it as another way of having that anonymity he liked, because the kids that stood out were the kids that got picked on by bullies and by teachers. Much better to fit in with the crowd. You could get away with so much more if you didn’t attract attention to yourself.

Dressed in his school uniform, with his DJ-style bag over his shoulder, Stu ran downstairs, jumped the last three steps, swung through the hall and slid into the kitchen. His Dad was sitting at the breakfast table, engrossed in reading the news, like an old-fashioned newspaper, on a large flexible tablet.

“You’ll miss the bus”, said Dad without glancing up from his screen.

Stu grabbed the piece of Marmite-slathered toast from his dad’s plate. “Bye Dad.”

As Stu legged it to the front door his dad called out, “Don’t forget I’ll be working late tonight at Bryn Medic!”

Stu was grateful he had a dad, even if he wasn’t the most exciting of parents. Paul McFarlan worked for Bryn Medic in computer support. It was his job to service and maintain the network of computers for the company. He spent every day updating software, fixing network problems and repairing or replacing hardware. If you needed a computer networked, Paul was your man. Bryn Medic itself was housed a few minutes drive away in an industrial estate on the edge of town. Paul had tried to explain to Stu what Bryn Medic actually did, but it made Stu yawn with boredom. Something to do with research into producing enzymes that helped protein production or something. In fact, Paul was not entirely sure himself. It was his job simply to stay out of the way of the staff and keep the computer systems alive and healthy.

The good news about having a geek for a dad was that firstly he was well paid, and secondly it meant he understood Stu’s need for kit. When Stu needed an upgrade to his own computer system, he and his dad would pour over review web sites before Paul would happily plug in his credit card details. It was Stu’s dad that’d got Stu into computers and electronics in the first place. Whereas most kids played football with their dads, Stu learned to use a soldering iron and how to program NEO-BASIC. As far as Stu was aware, Paul had few hobbies. His dad liked to read or watch the news and that was pretty much it. Weekdays his dad worked late and at the weekends they would both disappear into their rooms – Stu to his bedroom and Paul to his study. They would bury themselves in their computers, coming out only for meals and to use the bathroom. Dad would pick up groceries on the way home from work and so the fridge was always stocked – even if it was mostly ready-to-cook pizzas. Yep, life was just about perfect for Stu – state of the art technology, a dad who didn’t interfere with his life and a steady supply of pepperoni pizza. Perfect.

Stu picked up the pile of letters at the foot of the front door and quickly thumbed through them. He slapped the pile of bills and junk mail onto the hall table, stuffed the packet into his shoulder bag, and went out of the door.

Back in the kitchen, Dad, who was still engrossed in the tablet, reached for his toast. His hand skimmed around the plate grabbing only thin air. He lowered the tablet and stared at the empty plate with a puzzled look on his face.

————

The doors of the single-decker bus closed and Stu slammed against them pressing his face to the grime-coated glass. He turned on his best pleading eyes to the driver who sighed and opened the doors. Stu stepped onto the dirty bus, the smell of teenage sweat and discarded gum filling his nostrils, and he began digging around on his mobile for his bus pass. The driver rolled his eyes and sighed again. Finally, Stu found the pass, smiled, and flashed the screen at the driver. The driver ignored him, depressed the air brakes and put the bus into gear. As the bus lurched forward, Stu  held onto a pole to keep his balance, then began to walk down the aisle to look for a seat. He scanned the rows. His face dropped when he saw that the bus was full and that there were only two seats available – one next to an old woman and one next to Spotty Drake, the school geek. He tried to ignore his giggling classmates who were huddled at the back of the bus. The only person who wasn’t laughing was Spotty herself. If Stu was considered a geek then Spotty was considered a super-geek. Stu caught her eye and she quickly turned away and looked out of the window. The old woman offered Stu a friendly smile. Stu returned a limp smile and reluctantly moved down the bus to take his seat next to her. The old woman looked ancient, complete with wrinkles and a white whiskery beard, and despite being early summer and warm, she was wearing a brown fur hat and a long brown felt coat. In her hands she clutched a large dark blue PVC handbag. Stu noticed a slightly musty smell coming from her. From the back of the bus the giggling and whispering continued. Stu resisted turning around and rising to their bait.

Stu was lost in thought, strafing down abandoned mine shafts chasing Dwarf, as the bus swerved and lurched its way to school. He felt a nudge on his arm and without a word, he turned to discover the old woman holding out a crumpled white paper bag. Stu peered inside. An assortment of multi-coloured boiled sweets were melting and sticking to each other.

“No thanks”, Stu said with a small apologetic smile, trying not to sound rude.

“Oh go on, boys love sweets”, the old woman offered. She sounded quite articulate and although Stu was not trying to make eye contact he could see that she was staring at him and her lips were parted in a gentle smile.

“No, really, I’m fine. Thanks anyway,” he answered. The last thing he wanted was sticky sugar all over his hands.

The old lady continued to stare at Stu, the bag remaining in her outstretched hand. “You’re not going to refuse an old lady are you?” she said. This time it sounded more like a command rather than a request.

Stu tried to smile as he dipped his hand into the bag and prized a single lime green sweet from the clog of oozing balls. Somehow he knew he couldn’t get away with saying he would save it for later, and besides, where would he put it? He popped it into his mouth leaving his hand in mid air, not knowing quite where to put his sticky fingers. Lime. The sweet was lime and not altogether unpleasant.

The old woman didn’t say another word and Stu went back to his imaginary game of Frag. As the bus approached the bus stop outside the school, the throng of pupils rose from their seats ready to pour out of the bus. Gum was being stuck to the backs of seats and bags lifted onto shoulders. Stu tried to stand up but the old woman had her hand gripped firmly on his arm. He turned to look at her and she locked his gaze with piercing grey eyes. “Make sure you dump it in the recycling bin,” she whispered. Her voice was steady, urgent.

Stu looked puzzled. The old woman maintained her grip. “Don’t forget,” she continued. A moment passed, then she smiled and said, “The sweet wrapper dear, the sweet wrapper.” The old woman then loosened her grip on Stu’s arm and faced forward allowing Stu to leave the bus.

Stu joined the last of the pupils leaving the bus and was relieved to be outside in the fresh air. He turned to watch the bus as it pulled away kicking up dust from the road, but he couldn’t see the old woman through the windows.

“Sweet wrapper? There was no sweet wrapper,” he thought to himself. Yep, the old woman was crazy. Stu then turned and joined the throng of pupils walking up the driveway into the school grounds.

4. Annabel

A gangly teacher in an off-white shirt, an old beige suit and matching brown cloth tie stood at the front of the classroom. The whiteboard behind him was sprayed with numerical graffiti and he waved a marker pen in the air with one hand. The pupils were enduring another gruelling maths lesson at the hand of Mr. Grimmings. While the rest of the class squirmed at the thought of being picked on to answer a difficult question, Stu lay slumped over his desk resting his head on his hands. He was dreaming. Right now, he was playing a computer game where he had to collect boiled sweets without being hit over the head by old ladies with handbags.

“McFarlan?” called out Mr. Grimmings.

Stu began to stir.

“McFarlan?” Grimmings repeated in an overly polite voice.

Stu lifted his head from the desk and focused on the brown blur in front of him. When he realised where he was, he screwed up his face in a pained expression. “Sir?”

The class giggled. Everyone was looking at Stu.

“The answer McFarlan?” continued Grimmings.

Stu was confused by the politeness in Grimmings’ voice. He was unable to figure out whether Grimmings had realised that he wasn’t paying attention. He looked at the mass of numbers on the whiteboard, equations spread from one side to the other.

“Erm?”

“You do know what lesson this is?” asked Grimmings. Stu sighed, realising Grimmings was about to launch into a particularly nasty attack. Grimmings, otherwise known as ‘The Grim Reaper’ had been teaching at Worthington High School for as long as anyone could remember. He was part of the shabby furniture and dressed as shabbily too. His beige outfits were often stained with splashes of coffee, which he presumably thought blended in rendering them invisible. He had dark, almost black hair and an unkempt beard. He had a nasty habit of spitting as he spoke, with little balls of saliva getting caught in his beard hairs. He clearly resented being a maths teacher and barely concealed his disgust of the students. It was as if teaching maths was demeaning and below him. The only redeeming feature about Grimmings was that he never dealt out detentions. The last thing he wanted to do was spend more time in the company of students. However, he made up for this by picking on students and embarrassing them in front of their classmates. Something he clearly enjoyed, and it was this that earned him his nickname.

The class giggled.

“Sir?”

“Or do you prefer studying on Cloud 9?”

The class giggled.

Just as Grimmings was about to continue his assault, one designed to cause maximum embarrassment, the end of period bell interrupted him. Unable to say anything over the deafening sound, he maintained eye contact with Stu as the bell rang and he was visibly annoyed.

“Alright go, go”, he snapped, as soon as the bell ended, shooing them away with one hand. He screwed up his face at the sound of grinding chairs as the pupils made for the door. Stu was happy to join them, however Grimmings hadn’t finished with him.

“McFarlan?”

Stu turned to face this monster of a maths teacher.

“Don’t forget your head now!” said Grimmings looking smug.

Stu faked a smile and left the classroom, shutting the door behind him. He turned and looked back through the door window. Grimmings walked between the desks, stopping to pick up crumpled up bits of paper from the floor before the next class arrived. He noticed a piece of paper on Stu’s desk and walked over to collect it. Before he added it to his bin-destined collection he noticed a number written neatly in the middle – 36376.24. Grimmings looked at the whiteboard and then back at the paper then back at the whiteboard again. He shook his head in disbelief and crumpled up the paper in his fist. Stu smiled to himself. He turned to discover three pupils waiting in the corridor for him. A girl and boy stood either side of a tall good-looking girl. Her long, perfectly straight hair was neatly tied back and she stood with her hands folded. She was Annabel Ashcroft, leader of a secret computer club called ‘The Ring’.

Annabel had only attended Worthington High for six months. Nobody knew where she had moved from or even where she lived, but in those six months she’d become the most talked about kid in the school. The teachers loved her because she was academically brilliant and the other pupils either loved or hated her because she was cool, confident, good-looking and seemed to be Miss Perfect. She was good at everything. She was athletic, brainy and there wasn’t a single blemish on her smooth olive skin.

Spotty Drake was also hanging around outside the classroom. As Stu approached, Annabel stopped talking to her companions, turned her hazel eyes to Spotty and glared. Spotty looked down and quickly walked away down the corridor. Annabel turned to Stu. “Do you have the data?” she demanded. Stu shook his head. Annabel glared at him. “If you want to be part of The Ring then I suggest you get me the file.” She stared at him for a moment longer, then turned and walked down the corridor, her companions scuttling after her.

“I’ll get you the file”, Stu shouted after them. They ignored him.

“I’ll get your stupid file,” he said to himself.

5. The Game

A tired looking Stu, shirt hanging out of his trousers, slipped his key into the lock of the front door and let himself in. He dragged his school bag behind him and flung it at the bottom of the stairs. He needed food. There was something about school that seemed to drain all his energy and even though, later on, he or dad would be cooking up a pizza, he always came back from school ravenous. On his way to the kitchen he saw a handwritten note lying on the hall table next to the home telephone. It was from his Dad.

Remember, if I’m not back, it’s in the fridge. Love Dad. X

Stu scrunched up the note and tossed it into the waste paper basket under the table as he headed straight for the fridge. The fridge was full of dubious looking cartons and packets. Since his Mum’d died, and with his Dad working such long hours, he and Dad had lived on ready meals. Stu bypassed a plastic tub with SLON PIE written on it, sniffed a bowl of leftover spaghetti Bolognese, decided it was probably still edible, nuked it in the microwave for a few minutes, grabbed a spoon and took the steaming food into the living room. Stu settled into the sofa and passed the evening watching back-to-back TV game shows. The latest offering was called ‘Beat Your Neighbour’ where contestants were given a budget to design each other’s facial plastic surgery. The climax of the show was when the neighbours removed the bandages and faced their new looks in a mirror. Sometimes they were happy but mostly they screamed and tried to kill each other. Stu clicked off the TV, yawned and looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. It was 10.12pm and still no sign of Dad. He decided to head up to bed. On the way he grabbed his bag and trudged up the stairs. As he threw his bag on his bed the packet from Real Reality tumbled out. He’d forgotten all about it. Stu ripped open the packet and inside was a single white data block. No case, no booklet, just the red Real Reality logo printed on the side. He woke up his PC and waited. Even though the operating system was the 3 kilo-bit Doors Version 13, he still had to wait before he could put the data block close enough to be picked up by the system. Stu pulled up a chair and switched on his desk lamp. As he did so his screen went completely white. Behind him, through his open bedroom door, Stu heard the front door slam.

“Hi Dad”, he yelled. He listened for a reply but got none. He was used to being ignored so he closed his bedroom door and focused his attention back to the screen. Stu put on his control ring and moved his pointer but the screen remained white. He tried tapping a few keys but nothing happened. “Great,” he thought, “Doors 13 crashes again.” He was about to press the manual reset button when the screen went black and a small flashing cursor appeared in the top left hand corner. A moment passed before writing slowly appeared.

What kind of game would you like to play?_

Stu chuckled to himself. This was so retro, like a scene out of the 1990s movie The Matrix that his dad had made him watch. But at the same time, it felt kinda cool. He hadn’t used a keyboard for some time and leaned over, rummaging in a box of computer bits and pieces and pulled out a keyboard. He laid it on the desk, hit the connect button, waited for the blue light to come on to signal it was working, and typed his response.

Real Reality_

The computer software replied,

I know. But what kind of game, adventure, fantasy, science-fiction?_

This kind of basic artificial intelligence reminded Stu of the stories his Dad used to tell him about home computers back in the late Twentieth Century – they had weird names like ZX Spectrum and X-Box. He guessed putting an X in the title made them sound cool. He’d even got one up and running and typed in a programme using the BASIC, a precursor to the more modern NEO-BASIC programming language which did this sort of simple AI thing. Stu decided to play along.

I’d like to play a futuristic adventure please_

“Ha! That’ll fool it,” he thought. The software didn’t respond immediately but the next message took Stu by surprise.

A futuristic adventure – that’s really precise isn’t it? I suppose I’ll have to make something up that is appropriate for you. What difficulty level can you handle?_

A sarcastic piece of software? Stu wasn’t sure if this was just a clever language parser or a fluke response. He tried a more difficult reply.

I’ll let you choose but I have to tell you, I’m pretty good at computer games._

This time the software responded immediately.

Imprecise and big-headed too. Okay Stu, let’s start the game. Your mission is to discover the whereabouts of Professor Books, a military scientist, who recently went missing whilst working on a project code-named Epsilon. You need to find Books. Shouldn’t be too hard for a ‘pretty good’ gamer like you?_

Stu finished reading the message, when the screen went blank and a static pop came from his Pro Monitor Company digital flat speakers. Stu jumped out of his skin and noticed he was breathing rapidly. A thin line of white smoke was coming from the data block and the acrid smell of burning plastic filled his nostrils. He swore and grabbed a half-empty can of cola and splashed some onto the smouldering plastic which hissed and cooled into a brown, useless lump. Just as he did this he heard a loud thump come from the room below him, his dad’s study. He opened his bedroom door but all was quiet and dark.

“Dad?”

There was no answer.

“Dad?”

Still no answer. Something didn’t feel right. Stu exited his room and crept slowly down the stairs. The only light was coming from under the door of his Dad’s study. He knocked on the door but there was no reply. Slowly turning the handle he opened the door. Stu’s eyes grew wide as he surveyed the scene. The drawers of his Dad’s desk and filing cabinet were open and papers were scattered all over the floor. Books were off shelves and his Dad’s desktop computer had been dismantled – parts clearly missing. Stu stood in the doorway unable to move. He was startled by his mobile buzzing and vibrating in his back pocket. He raised the phone to his ear.

“Hello?” he whispered in a nervous voice.

The sound of feedback blasted in his ear and this was followed by white noise and static. A clear, monotone male voice began to speak.

“If you ever want to see your father alive again, find Epsilon.”

The phone went dead.

6. Kidnapped

Stu stared down at the mobile in the palm of his hand and the horror of the situation dawned on him. He shivered as a wave of cold clamminess and nausea swept through his body. He felt numb, as if his body was disconnected from his mind. Stu’s fingers worked the buttons on his mobile as he dialled the emergency services and he held the device to his ear. His eyes were moving around his dad’s study. Someone had clearly been looking for something. Perhaps they were looking for Epsilon? Or perhaps they were looking for something that would help them find Epsilon? And what was Epsilon?

The call connected. “Which service do you require?” asked a kind female voice.

Stu could hardly speak. His mind was racing and he struggled to focus. The papers strewn on the floor were just old documents, nothing to do with his dad’s work. The computer had been tampered with. The curved screen had been pulled forward and the data card had been removed from the back panel. Most people stored their information on the cloud but if you had something you wanted to keep secure you might only keep a local copy. But then, if there was something you really wanted to keep secure, you simply carried the data card around with you – connecting it to any machine you wanted to use.

“Hello? Which service do you require?” persisted the emergency operator.

Stu knew that he mustn’t touch anything. He’d seen enough TV shows. The police would send a police forensics team to go over the place, scan for fingerprints, and so on.

“Police”, stammered Stu.

There was silence for a few seconds, then a click and then another click. A voice answered. This time it was a man with a distinctive American accent. His voice was deep, clear and commanding.

“How can I help you?” asked the voice.

Finally, someone Stu could talk to. Help would be sent. They would find whoever had kidnapped his dad. Kidnapped? All he knew was that his dad’s study was a mess and there’d been a phone call. Perhaps it was all some sort of elaborate hoax? Then there was the packet and the game Real Reality. He’d been told to find the professor who had been working on a project called Epsilon. The two must be connected. Was his dad in on this? If this was some kind of prank then it was in seriously bad taste.

“He’s vanished. Been taken. Kidnapped.” Stu gushed.

“When did you last see your father?” replied the voice.

“What?” Stu’s mind stopped racing and he felt like the bottom was dropping out of his world. There was no solid ground. How did the policeman know that it was his father who was missing?

“Who are you?” demanded Stu.

The phone remained silent. The person on the other end was either hesitating or waiting. Stu thought he could hear muffled whispers but he couldn’t make out any words. Then the voice was back.

“Stu? Where is Epsilon?”

Stu pulled the mobile away from his ear as if it was on fire. He quickly ended the call and he staggered backwards out of the study and into the hallway. The house suddenly felt very cold. Sitting at the bottom of the stairs his brain began to process all the information. He tried dialling his dad’s unique address on his mobile and waited but the call couldn’t be connected. He had to sort this out in his mind. Had he actually heard his father come home? No, so whoever was in the house was looking for something. His father had gone missing, that was clear, but why hadn’t he been taken too? Whoever was behind all this was powerful. Powerful enough to intercept calls he made to the police. Perhaps the police were in on it too? This was no hoax. Then there was the game. What was all that about? What was Epsilon? Whatever it was, it was the key to finding his father. Stu couldn’t figure out what the connection was between the game and his father’s disappearance but whatever it was, he had no choice. He had to find Epsilon and he needed help. There was only one place he could turn to.

7. The School Run

Stu jumped up, ran upstairs and into his father’s bedroom. He glanced around the tops of the dressers and bedside tables until he saw what he was looking for. There it was, lying in a shallow dish on top of a wooden chest of drawers. Thank God his dad was a neat freak. Stu grabbed the sliver key attached to a black key fob, bolted from the room and ran to his own bedroom. He grabbed his black backpack and then rummaged around in various drawers – finding and flinging into the backpack his hunting knife, torch, black tool wallet and couple of data cards, one of which he stuffed into his pocket. Stu slung the backpack over his shoulder and ran back downstairs. He stopped, ran back upstairs and into his room. He opened the bottom drawer of his chest of drawers, fished around and pulled out a ski mask and a pair of leather ski gloves. He put them on, turned, ran back downstairs, and headed out of the front door. Closing the door behind him, he skirted the side of the house to the garage and pressed the button on the key fob that switched on the internal light and automatically opened the garage door. The door widened and there, parked in the middle of the garage, was a black Honda Fireblade.

Before the accident Stu’s dad had loved his motorbikes. Over the years he had owned vintage models – Harleys, Moto Guzzis, Triumphs, and Ducatis. He loved to hit the open road at the weekends, and when the weather was bad, as it often was in England, he could be found in the garage tinkering, polishing and tuning. Now all that was gone. The clothing, the tools, the bike mags. Everything accept for the black Fireblade. Stu didn’t know why his dad had kept it. After the accident he’d had it rebuilt, restored and placed in the middle of the garage with a full tank of gas. Perhaps it was a reminder or some kind of memorial? Perhaps he was plucking up the courage to ride it again; to overcome and tame this beast; the beast on which is wife, two years ago, had died.

Stu wasn’t allowed to touch the motorbike, let alone ride it, but he figured that given the circumstances, on this occasion, his dad would forgive him. Stu climbed onto the beast, turned the key in the ignition, switched on the lights, slammed it into gear and sped out of the garage. Stu had grown up riding offroad – dirt bikes and motocross. He’d been looking forward to his 17th birthday when he would get his first proper bike. But that had all gone now. Swept away. Although it’d been two years, it felt good be back in the seat again. Stu had always felt comfortable with machines and technology. He cruised down the sloping driveway, and turned left, accelerating up the street, the Akrapovic exhaust giving the Honda engine a satisfying deep purr. In the darkness, as Stu sped down the street in one direction, he didn’t see the unmarked, dark sedan car turn into the opposite end of the street, and it’s occupants didn’t see Stu either.

The journey to school riding the Fireblade took a fraction of the time it did on the bus and as Stu approached the school gates he dimmed the lights and slowed up. He parked the bike off-road between some large bushes near the school fence, pointing it in the direction of the street. Leaving the key in the ignition, he climbed off the bike and stood motionless, waiting. His heart was pounding. Whether it was from the exhilarating ride, or because of what he was about to do, he couldn’t tell. All was silent. Stu pushed up his ski mask, ran to the school fence and climbed over. Keeping low, he ran to the school building until he was directly below the admin department window. The window was locked from the inside and he knew all the doors and windows were alarmed. Whether they had motion sensors or not in the office, he didn’t know. It was a risk he would have to take. He figured he had about two minutes once any alarms went off to get in, get the information, and get out. Stu whipped off the backpack, opened it and took out his leather tool wallet. He opened it and took out a lightweight Maglite torch which he twisted on and held between his teeth. He also took out what looked like a short stubby pencil – a diamond glass cutter. He stood up and sliced the glass cutter around the edges of the window. Nothing happened. Stu stared at the glass and just as he reached out to touch it, it fell inwards, crashing with an almighty splintering of glass. “Pants,” murmured Stu. He slipped the glass cutter into his back pocket, and leaving his backpack on the ground, he grabbed the frame with his gloved hands and heaved his body through the open window.

The flickering red light in one corner of the office ceiling immediately caught his attention. Motion sensors. In the distance, an intruder alarm started sounding. It would be a matter of minutes before the police arrived. Stu ran straight to a desk in the middle of the office. He knew precisely which computer had the file he needed. Luckily the school’s admin department were all using Micro Macs and the OSL operating system powered up quickly. As the machine glowed, he took the data card from his pocket and placed it near the screen. By the time he’d done this, it had already been recognised by the operating system and the folder on the data card opened on the screen before him. Stu clicked on the only program icon on the data card. It was a simple search and retrieve program that harnessed OSLs index, the sort of program that any amateur hacker could write in a lunch hour. The program did its job. Pre-configured with the right search parameters, it didn’t take long to find the file containing the student records and copy the file to the data block. As it did so, as a visual human check to confirm he had the right file, the program flashed up a random screenshot of the contents of the file and Stu could easily read from a list of student’s names and addresses. His eyes fell on one right in the middle – Drake, J. with an address not too far from the school. “Easy,” thought Stu. He took the data card and put it back in his pocket and pushed the button to shut down the computer. He was out of there. Half way back through the window he had a nagging feeling he’d forgotten something. Then, for some reason, he remembered the old woman’s words, “Don’t forget to dump it in the recycle bin.” Although Stu had removed the card, he’d forgotten to drag the open folder on the desktop into the recycle bin or it would be there in the morning asking the user if the data card was going to be re-connected. OSL was too clever for its own good. Stu ran back to the machine. He powered it up and as he did so, the distant alarm stopped. Stu groaned. The police were in the building.

This time, he pulled off his glove and dragged the open folder onto the recycle bin. He wiped the screen with his sleeve so as to not leave any fingerprints. He could hear voices and the jangling of keys outside the door to the admin office. He pushed the shut-down button on the computer. Keys sounded in the door. Stu ran for the window and as he did so the Maglite dropped from his mouth, hit the floor and went out. The door to the admin office opened. Stu flung himself out of the window. A voice behind him shouted, “There he is!” Stu grabbed his backpack and ran for the fence. Another voice, this one outside, shouted at him and light from a high-powered torch bounced off the grass around him. He vaulted the wire fence and into the bushes where the bike was parked. He climbed aboard, pushed the ignition button and the bike purred into action. Stu flew out of the bushes, off the kerb and onto the road. By the time the policeman got there, lone and panting, he stood shining a torch that glinted off an exhaust, already fifty metres away and accelerating.

8. The Ring

Stu woke up with a start. Staring down at him was a terrifying alien creature – bulging bloodshot eyes and a giant fanged mouth, dripping saliva, and ready to bite. Stu was lying on his bed looking up at the posters on his bedroom ceiling. His head hurt and so did his knees. He reached up and rubbed his head only to discover that he was wearing a ski mask. The events of the previous night flooded back into his memory. Stu sat up and glanced across at his stick-on clock, a piece of clear material with glowing numerals that could be slapped on any surface. It was 8.35am. He was going to be late. After the quickest shower on record, Stu pulled on his school clothes, picked up his black backpack and sped out of the door to the bus stop.

As Stu glanced down the bus, he could see only two places to sit. One was next to Spotty Drake, who was biting her lip and looking anywhere but at Stu. The other place was next to the old woman. This time the old woman smiled at him and indicated that Stu should sit next to her by patting the empty seat beside her. He thought for a second about refusing and sitting next to Spotty, yet he wanted to ask the old woman about the recycle bin. How did she know? He smiled a half-smile at Spotty and sat down next to the old woman. He chuckled to himself as he thought about an old woman giving him advice about computers. He tried to put the idea out of his mind and focus on one thing – getting the data to Annabel. As Stu was thinking, someone rang the bell to stop the bus. The old woman began to stand up. Stu sprang up from his seat to let her out. The old woman was wearing a thick, light blue raincoat and a thick furry hat. She was carrying several shopping bags and was finding it difficult to move. She squeezed out of the seats and past Stu. As she did so, a small piece of paper fluttered out of her pocket. Stu immediately bent down to pick it up, simultaneously saying, “Excuse me, you dropped your shopping list.” As he straightened up he was surprised to see the old woman bent down looking at him straight in the eye. “It’s not the paper that’s important, dear, it’s the message,” she whispered. She then straightened up and as the bus slowed to a stop, she scuttled down the aisle and off the bus. Stu sat back down and looked at the paper. It seemed to be an indecipherable jumble of letters and symbols in sets of five. A code.

As the class filed out of their tutor room to go to their first lesson, Stu walked next to Annabel. “I’ve got the file”, he whispered. Annabel gave him a stern look and then opened a door in the corridor and pushed him through. She followed him in and closed the door behind them. The air was thick with the pungent smell of cleaning fluids and old mops. They were in the caretaker’s cupboard. A small amount of light came through the edges of the door. 

“Where is it then?” Annabel demanded.

“Here.” Stu fumbled in his rucksack and pulled out the data card.

“Hold it up,” Annabel asked as she pulled out of her pocket what looked like a PDA – although it was no brand Stu had ever seen.

“My card hasn’t got RedTooth 19,” said Stu. Annabel raised her eyebrows.

“Keep it still,” she said as she held up her hand-held gadget. A beam of green light flickered from the end of Annabel’s gadget and she passed it over the card.

“What kind of technology is that?” asked Stu.

“Shhh,” she hissed. The green light went off and she stared at a small screen on the gadget. After a second she spoke, “Very good. Meet me online tonight at www.thering.net at 8pm.”

“There’s something I need help with,” urged Stu.

“Wait until later,” answered Annabel with one hand on the door. As she opened the door she turned and said, “I hear you’re quite a gamer? What’s your best score at Frag in one sitting?”

Stu looked confused but replied, “3485”.

Annabel smiled and she pressed something long and cold into Stu’s hand and turned and left Stu in the cupboard alone. He looked down at the object in his hand. She had given him back his Maglite torch, the one he had dropped last night in the admin room. How on earth did she manage to get it?

—————

That evening, Stu sat at his desk in front of his computer. An empty pizza box and a Coke were the only evidence of dinner. It was 7.58pm. He had tried www.thering.net a dozen times. It just went to some German guy called Hendrik Thering’s home page. He couldn’t find anything that looked like a hidden entry anywhere on the site. At 8pm exactly, Stu hit the refresh button and instantly he was forwarded through a multitude of sites with strange IP addresses and long-coded URLs. Eventually, the screen went white and a cursor blinked underneath the word Syntax – his user name – in the middle of the page. A password prompt. Another test. Stu whipped out his controller keyboard, connected it, smiled and typed 3485 and then the ENTER key. The screen changed to black. Had Stu finally made it into the most highly secret and coveted network of hackers? White writing appeared in the top left hand corner.

Dwarf> Welcome Syntax, to The Ring.

Before Stu could type a reply, more writing appeared on the screen.

Dwarf> Syntax. Before I introduce you to the other members of The Ring, there are some ground rules that you need to obey. These are for security reasons and for your own safety. First, you must never reveal your true identity or mine. None of the other members will know who you are and vice-versa. Each member only knows the true identity of one other member and this is the way it will stay. You will never speak to anyone about The Ring. Do you understand?

Syntax> Yes.

Dwarf> It’s time to meet the others.

Panther> Welcome.

Moss> Sup?

Steel> Hi there.

Stu was still reeling from making the connection that Annabel Ashcroft was Dwarf. Dwarf was a girl? More than that, Dwarf was a girl in his class? Annabel Ashcroft had beaten him at Frag for months and he’d never known it was her.

Moss> So why are you here Syntax?

Steel> Yeh, everyone wants to join The Ring for a reason. What’s your reason Syntax?

Syntax> I guess I wanted to be part of something.

Panther> Well, you’re sure part of something now. Well done for making the grade, although dropping your torch was a mistake – lol.

Moss> He he he, he’ll be trying to figure out how Dwarf got hold of it and how we knew about it!

Dwarf> You’ll learn Syntax, that we know a lot of things about a lot of things. I expect you have some questions?

Syntax> Well, there is one thing I want to ask you about?

Steel> Fire away, we’re all friends here.

Syntax> I need your help.

Steel> Go on…

Syntax> My Dad has gone missing. He’s been kidnapped. I don’t know who the kidnappers are but they want me to find something called Epsilon or they will kill him.

Panther> What do you know of Epsilon?

Syntax> You’ve heard of Epsilon?

There was a long pause before Dwarf began to write again.

Dwarf> Did you go to the police?

Syntax> No. Well, yes. I tried but it didn’t work. They somehow intercepted my call. I don’t know who I can trust.

Dwarf> Good. You can trust us. You need to tell us everything you know. Where does your Dad work?

Syntax> He’s a programmer for a small medical company.

Dwarf> What was the last thing your dad said before he disappeared?

Syntax> Nothing. Do you know what Epsilon is?

Dwarf> Did he leave you a message?

Syntax> No.

Dwarf> Anything?

Syntax> No.

Dwarf> We will help you find Epsilon and your father but you need to share everything with us.

Syntax> Ok.

Dwarf> Has anything strange happened to you recently – apart from your Dad disappearing?

Syntax> Like what?

Panther> Like, has anyone tried to make contact with you?

Syntax> No. Nothing.

Dwarf> You will tell us if anyone contacts you?

Syntax> Ok.

Dwarf> We’ll be in touch. Remember. Don’t talk to anyone about this. Can we trust you?

Syntax> Yes.

Dwarf> Good. This connection will be terminated.

Immediately, the screen flicked back to Hendrik Thering’s home page. Stu stared at the screen. It was late and he was tired. He left his computer switched on and sprawled on his bed. He was sleepy but his mind was reeling. He kept playing Annabel’s questions over and over in his head. “Where does your Dad work?” “Has anyone contacted you?” “Did your Dad leave you a message?” Stu was starting to fall asleep but something was nagging at him in the back of his mind. “Did your Dad leave you a message?” Then it struck him. His Dad did leave him a message! Stu flung himself out of bed and ran downstairs. He skidded into the kitchen and opened up the fridge. What did the hand-written message from his Dad say? “Remember, if I’m not back, it’s in the fridge.” His Dad certainly wasn’t back. Stu scanned the inside of the fridge. There were the usual pots of stuff; mayonnaise, ketchup, some pretty manky looking vegetables, a couple of cartons of milk. Then he saw the plastic tub with SLON PIE written on it. Slon pie? He had assumed it was some sort of fruit pie, although he’d never heard of a ‘slon’ but then it dawned on him. Slon pie was an anagram of epsilon! Stu took the tub out of the fridge, slammed the fridge door shut and opened the tub. Inside was a notebook and written on the front, in his father’s handwriting, was the title, EPSILON.

9. The Police

Stu realised that whoever had broken into his house was looking for what he was  now holding in his hand. The notebook. And worse, whoever was looking for the notebook was hoping Stu would lead them to it. As Stu stared down at the journal in his hands he knew he was in grave danger. He was deciding what to do when there was a knock at the front door. Stu stuffed the notebook quickly down the back of his jeans and moved cautiously from the kitchen into the hall. Through the peephole of the front door he could see two uniformed police officers standing on the doorstep. They were large, official-looking young men, one with dark hair and the other with light, blond hair. One of the officers knocked again. Stu put the security chain across the door and opened it a few centimetres.

“Stu McFarlan?” asked the dark-haired officer.

“Yes?” replied Stu, figuring that there was no point in pretending otherwise.

“We have some news about your father. May we come in?”

This was what Stu had dreaded. It could only be bad news. He’d seen enough TV cop shows to know that a pair of officers turning up to tell you about a loved one could mean only one thing. He felt his heart begin to beat faster in his chest. Yet, with everything that had been going on he couldn’t trust anyone.

“Can I see some ID?” asked Stu.

Both officers fished into their shirt pockets, pulled out ID badges, and flashed them at Stu. They looked okay, but Stu was not about to take any chances. “Can I take a closer look?” he asked.

The blond-haired officer sighed and exchanged a glance with the dark-haired officer. The dark-haired officer smiled and said, “Sure, here you go.” He passed Stu his ID card through the gap in the doorway. Stu said he would be right back and closed the door. Stu ran quickly with the ID card into his bedroom and turned on his ultraviolet lamp. He then turned off the bedroom light and held up the ID card to the ultraviolet lamp. Sure enough, around the edges of the photograph, Stu could see where the photo had been carefully stuck down. The ID was fake. He ran quickly downstairs and opened the door again which was still on the latch. He held the ID card through the small gap, offering it back to the officer. He was just going to make an excuse as to why the officers couldn’t enter when the light-haired officer grabbed his wrist. Stu struggled for a second and managed to pull his hand inside. The officer was still holding tight onto his wrist. “You’re not going anywhere Stu,” he snarled. With all his might, Stu crashed his shoulder into the door, slamming it on to the officer’s own wrist. The officer screamed in pain and loosened his grip on Stu just enough for Stu to pull his hand free and slam the front door shut. Stu bolted for the back door. As he ran through the house, he heard the front door crash open. They were right behind him. Stu made it out of the back door and into the garden. Through the darkness he made straight for the rear door of the garage, praying under his breath that it would be unlocked. It wasn’t. He felt with his fingers for the key on the top of the wooden doorframe and took hold of it. He could hear the footsteps of someone coming out of the house behind him. Stu fumbled with the key in the keyhole. He could hear the sound of someone padding across the grass just a few metres away. It felt like an eternity had passed but Stu managed to unlock the door, open it and slip inside closing the door behind him. Just as he heard the door latch catch, someone slammed against it. The handle turned but the door wouldn’t open. Stu felt a wave of horror was over him as he realised the key was still in the lock on the outside of the door. All the police officer had to do was unlock the door. Stu quickly reached up and bolted the door just as one of the police officers tried the key.

“He’s in the garage,” shouted a voice from the garden.

After a moment Stu heard someone try the main garage door. Thankfully, it too was locked and could only be opened remotely.

“We know you’re in there Stu,” called a voice from the driveway. “There’s no escape. I’ll give you ten seconds to come out here before we come in and get you.”

Stu had two options. The first was to give himself up to these people. The second was to take a risk. He felt in his pocket and found what he was looking for. Stu climbed onto the back of the Fireblade, kicked it off its stand and turned the ignition key. With a gentle purr the powerful engine fired up.

“Okay, I’m coming out,” shouted Stu.

This was it. He pressed the garage door remote on the key ring and the garage door started slowly to lift. It seemed to take forever and Stu resisted revving the engine in case he gave the game away. As the door opened, he saw the legs of the two men appear silhouetted in the light from the lamps on the street. He had to time it just right. Before the door opened enough for him to be seen, Stu gunned the throttle and the bike lunged forward. Leaning low, Stu bolted out of the garage accelerating as fast as the bike would go. Stu glimpsed the two men as he flew past them. They staggered backwards and Stu turned the bike left onto the street. After a split second Stu heard the bike backfire. Then it backfired again and he realised it wasn’t the bike backfiring but gunfire.

Stu weaved the bike from side to side and he felt a bullet rip into the foam seat under him. A second slammed into the small windshield and another whizzed so close to his left arm that he felt it brush his T-shirt. Stu rammed the machine up onto the pavement and gained cover behind some parked cars. He could hear bullets piercing the metal of the cars as he made it to the end of the road. He bounced the bike off the kerb and swerved a hard right onto the next street. The gunfire stopped and Stu squeezed the accelerator. Stu roared down the road and disappeared into the darkness. He’d made it and there was no way they’d be able to follow him on this baby.

10. Spotty’s House

As Stu cruised down the back streets on the thrumming Honda, he knew that they would be looking for him – whoever they were. Where could he go? Where could he hide? He couldn’t go home. He couldn’t go to the police. He needed somewhere safe, somewhere where no-one would find him, not even anyone at school. Stu slowed the bike at an intersection. After a couple of hours of cruising it was now getting late and the streets were almost deserted. Like his father, strong and dependable, this bike had saved his life. Stu made a decision and swung the bike around pulling a u-turn. Remembering the address from the school admin computer, he knew exactly where to head.

It only took a few minutes to arrive at his destination. Turning off the ignition he silently wheeled the heavy bike down the drive of the house. The house was a two-storey, medium-sized detached house on a quiet suburban street. There were no lights on in the house and he pushed the bike along a pathway at the side of the house and parked it next to a wood store. He pulled the plastic tarp that was covering the wood over the bike and walked round to the back of the house.

Spotty Drake lived with her mum. No-one knew much about her, other than she kept herself to herself. She wasn’t even that spotty – no more than anyone else he knew – and Stu wondered where she’d got the nickname. He suddenly felt a pang of guilt. He hadn’t joined in with the class when they called her names but he hadn’t exactly jumped to her rescue either. Several times he’d seen her eyes well up, but she’d never cried, well, not in front of anyone. Spotty was a member of the school computer club and that had instantly labelled her as a geek. She was good at maths and science. People always picked on the brainy ones. Why would she help him now? He hoped she would, because he had nowhere else to go. Spotty Drake was his only hope.

Stu looked up at the rear windows on the first floor. It was dark, but he could see what he thought was a band sticker on one of the windows. That must be Spotty’s room. “Here goes,” he thought. Stu grabbed a stone from a nearby flowerbed and hurled it at the window. He figured the stone would bounce off and make a small noise. Instead, Stu was horrified when the stone collided with the glass and the whole window shattered. A light went on and a woman flung open the broken window. She looked down. “What the…? Who’s there?” Stu was too stunned to move. “Stu McFarlan, is that you? What on earth do you think you’re doing? Stay right there young man.” Spotty’s mum disappeared. Stu didn’t know whether to run or hide. And he was too shocked and tired to try and figure out how Spotty’s mum had recognised him. He stayed motionless and saw the downstairs lights come one. He heard the back door unlock and open, and Spotty’s mum, closely followed by Spotty – both wrapped in dressing gowns – walked across the lawn towards him. Spotty’s eyes were wide with surprise and curiosity, but her mum looked cross. Very cross.

“Well, what do you think you’re doing?” Spotty’s mum demanded.

Stu didn’t know what to say. Then she noticed Stu’s arm. It was bleeding. Her voice softened. Stu glanced down at the tear in his T-shirt and the wet patch of his own blood. His legs suddenly felt like jelly and he couldn’t help his eyes welling up with tears. This was beginning to be too much for him.

“My goodness, what happened to you? Come inside,” she said.

Stu followed her into the kitchen and he caught Spotty’s excited and concerned eye before she followed them.

Once inside, Spotty’s mum stripped Stu’s T-Shirt off and looked at his arm. “It’s only a scrape,” she said before bustling around and retrieving a first aid kit from a kitchen drawer. She bandaged the arm and told Spotty to go and get a clean T-Shirt for him. To his surprise, Spotty quickly returned with a black Justice 3 T-shirt, nothing girly at all. Once Stu was re-dressed, mum filled the kettle, switched it on, and motioned for the two kids to go into the living room. Stu sat in an armchair and a wide-eyed Spotty sat opposite him on the sofa.

“I’m sorry Spotty,” Stu said shyly.

“My name’s not Spotty,” she replied.

“Oh,” said Stu. It hadn’t occurred to him that Spotty had a real name. After an awkward pause she spoke.

“My name’s Jenny.”

“Sorry Jenny,” said Stu. Yes, of course, the file on the school computer had flashed up Drake, J. and the J must be for Jenny.

Mum came back with two steaming cups of hot chocolate and the two young people gratefully cupped them in their hands. Mum sat down next to Jenny and looked Stu in the eye.

“So Stu, before I call your father and get him to come over and pick you up, I’m going to give you a chance to explain. I’m listening.”

Stu looked at Jenny’s mum, then at Jenny, then back at mum. He felt tears welling up and worked hard to hold them back.

“You can’t call Dad, he’s not there,” he said, trying to be brave.

“Go on,” said Jenny’s mum softly.

Another choice. Stu felt tired. He needed to confide in someone. Could he trust Jenny’s mum? Would she believe him? He remembered the promise he’d made to The Ring but right now he needed to talk and figuring he had nothing to lose, he started telling the story from the beginning.

When Stu had finished telling the story, both Jenny and her mum stared at him open-mouthed. Stu wasn’t sure if they believed him or not.

“So you have them then?” asked Jenny.

“What?” replied Stu.

Jenny smiled. “The notebook and the code the old woman gave you?!”

Caught up in the excitement of telling the story, the fatigue he felt, and the shock at being shot at, Stu had momentarily forgotten all about the notebook his father had left him and the code the old lady on the bus had given him. He stood up and pulled the notebook from the back of his trousers, dug around for the crumpled piece of white paper he had stuffed deep in his pocket, and laid them both on the coffee table in front of them.

“Well, aren’t you going to read it then?” blurted Jenny, unable to conceal her excitement.

“Wait a minute. I’m still trying to get my head around this. Shouldn’t we take these to the police or something?” asked Jenny’s mum.

“No, they’re in on it, or at least someone is controlling them,” said Jenny.

“What about the government or something? Surely there is someone who can help us?” mum continued.

“We can’t go to them either. Whoever’s behind this has a lot of power. It’s down to us. We need to find Epsilon before they do,” urged Jenny.

“Now, hang on a minute. I’m not going to be part of this. These people are dangerous Jenny. We can’t help Stu.”

“But mum, we have to – don’t you see?”

Jenny’s mum bit her lip and remained silent as she thought about what to do.

“It’s okay Mrs Drake. I’ll go now,” said Stu, and he moved to pick up the notebook and paper from the table.

“No. Stop. Sit down. It’s all right Stu. You’ve been through enough. You can stay here. It doesn’t look like I have a lot of choice do I? We’ll help you find Epsilon. Show us what’s in the notebook and on the paper.”

Stu opened the notebook. Immediately it became clear that someone had torn out all of the first pages. All that remained were blank pages.

Stu’s face fell. “It’s empty,” he said.

“You’re kidding?” gasped Jenny, “Give it here.”

Jenny took the notebook and flicked through the empty pages. She then shook the book to see if anything would fall out. She shut it and examined the front, then the back. Then she took the notebook over to the lamp and held it up to the light. She scanned the empty pages, then something caught her eye. She stopped at one page and started looking at it closely. “Hey, something’s written on this page. I can see the indentations.”

Stu jumped up and inspected the page. “Yes!” he exclaimed. “Mrs Drake, do you have some matches or a lighter or something?”

“Yes, in the kitchen,” said Jenny’s mum.

All three of them ran into the kitchen and Jenny’s mum pulled down a box of matches from a shelf. Carefully, Stu ripped the page out of the notebook.

“Light a match and hold it underneath the page,” said Stu, “but be careful not to burn it.”

Stu held the paper horizontally while Jenny’s mum did as she was asked.

“It’s a game Dad and I used to play. We used to write messages to each other in invisible ink so that Mum couldn’t read them! It used to drive Mum mad,” explained Stu.

“Invisible ink?” questioned Jenny.

“Yeh, well, lemon juice, milk or egg white. Anything that turns brown when you heat it up.”

As he was speaking, brown marks appeared on the paper. It was writing and the handwriting belonged to his Dad.   

Stu. If you’re reading this then the worst has happened. You’re in danger. Go immediately and see Mr. Grimmings. Tell him that I’m being held in Terra 12. He will help you. It’ll be okay. Love Dad. Xx

“Mr. Grimmings. Terra 12,” echoed Stu.

“Mr. Grimmings, your school teacher?” asked mum.

“What does it mean? What does Mr Grimmings have to do with all this?” asked Jenny.

“I don’t know,” answered Stu.

“What does the code say?” asked Jenny’s mum.

Stu reached out and unfolded the crumpled piece of paper. On it was written a string of characters.   

TX39P-7A8EA-SLKD7-3G3KX-BFF93-5MDJD-7575D

“I suppose you don’t know what that means either?” asked Jenny.

Stu shrugged his shoulders.

Jenny’s mum sighed. “Look, we’re all tired. It’s time to go to bed. I’m on a half day tomorrow at the newsagents. I have to work very early but I’ll be back by late morning. Both of you stay here. Don’t answer the door or the phone. Don’t contact anyone. I should be back by 11am at the latest then we can make a plan. Jenny, off to bed. Stu, you can sleep in the spare room.”

Jenny’s mum showed Stu to the spare room down the hall from Jenny’s room and he fell into a deep sleep pretty much as soon as his head hit the pillow.

11. The Decision

Stu stood in the middle of a high, narrow wooden footbridge that spanned a deep, wide, rocky canyon. Far below him, at the bottom of the canyon, raged a narrow river that raced around and bounced over boulders. Standing in front of him was a mirror image of himself. Behind him, at one end of the bridge stood Annabel Ashcroft and at the other stood the old woman. Both seemed to be beckoning and shouting at the two Stus, trying to convince them to go to their respective ends of the bridge, although neither Stu nor his double could hear their shouts above the roaring water. Then the bridge started to swing from side to side as if an earthquake was shaking it. The shuddering got worse and worse and Stu could feel himself being flung towards the edge of the bridge.

“Stu, Stu,” a voice called.

The voice was Jenny’s. Where was she? The bridge continued to toss and turn and Stu gripped the railing at the edge of the bridge as below him the planks began to crumble and fall into the canyon below.

“Stu, wake up! Stu!”

Stu opened his eyes and closed them again. The bridge began to fade and his brain started to move from unconsciousness to consciousness.

“Come on. I’ve got a plan!”

Stu opened his eyes again and this time he managed to keep them open. He focused them on the bedside clock. The red blur slowly formed glowing digital numbers. It was 7.30am.

“Eh? What?” Stu groaned.

“Mum’s gone to work. We have to move fast if we want to have a hope of finding Epsilon and your father.” Jenny was bright-eyed and already dressed for school. “Come on, grab a quick shower and get your clothes on. I’ll explain everything over breakfast. See you downstairs in a minute.”

She breezed out of the room leaving Stu alone. He eased himself into an upright position, rubbed his eyes and started to remember. He wasn’t sure if he preferred the nightmare of his dreams to the nightmare of his life. After a few minutes, he grabbed the towel lying on the end of his bed and found the shower room. When he emerged from the shower, he dried, pulled on his clothes and ambled downstairs. He found Jenny in the kitchen and she placed two tall glasses of yellow drink and two bacon sandwiches on plates on the kitchen table. The drinks had matching yellow straws and the bacon sandwiches oozed ketchup.

“Crispy bacon, fresh bread and ketchup. Homemade banana smoothies made with Cornish ice-cream, milk and fresh bananas,” announced Jenny proudly.

Stu smiled, sat down and eagerly grabbed his sandwich, biting into it, allowing ketchup to trickle down his chin. “Mmmmmm!”

“Stu?” asked Jenny, remaining standing.

“Mmmm?” mumbled Stu with a mouth full of crispy bacon.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Mmm. Sure.”

“Why wouldn’t you sit next to me on the bus?”

Stu felt a pang of guilt. Nobody had wanted to sit next to Jenny. It was how things were at school. Some kids were the pariahs; the ones everyone avoided and ridiculed. You didn’t stop and question why. You just joined in. And now, he realised just how wrong he had been. Although he hadn’t consciously joined in, he hadn’t consciously not joined in. His pang of guilt turned to a feeling of nausea for not daring to be different and for following the crowd. How could he and his classmates have been so cruel? He tried to defend his actions by reminding himself that on the previous day he had wanted to sit next to the old woman, to find out if it was just a coincidence or whether she really was giving him information, then he realised that Jenny’s question was a general question. He’d never sat next to her and he’d snubbed her just like everyone else.

“I’m sorry Jenny. I’m sorry for the way we treated you.”

Stu looked down at his food. Thankfully, Jenny sat down too, and after taking a long drink of milkshake and a small bite of sandwich, she changed the subject. “There is something I don’t understand about your story.”

“Uhuh?”

“Well, you said that you went home yesterday, after school, after Annabel said you could join The Ring. But I saw you in town.”

“I didn’t go into town. I went straight home.”

“But Stu, I saw you,” accused Jenny.

Stu shrugged his shoulders. “It wasn’t me,” and he continued with his food.

“But I swear it was you. I saw you coming out of the library. You’d changed clothes, but it was definitely you.”

Stu was starting to feel indignant. “It wasn’t me. Why would I lie to you?”

Jenny didn’t have an answer to this. She believed Stu but she was sure she had seen him in the High Street. She decided to drop it. “Okay, if you say so.”

The two young people sat in silence munching their breakfast.

“We have to find the old woman,” started Jenny.

“Why?”

“She’s in on this and is only person we can trust.”

“What about Grimmings?”

“Would you trust Grimmings?”

Jenny had a point. Mr. ‘Grey’ Grimmings, the Grim Reaper, wasn’t the most endearing of characters.

“But the letter from my Dad said I had to contact Mr Grimmings,” replied Stu.

“Yes, we can do that, but after we’ve contacted the old woman.”

“Shouldn’t we wait until your mum comes home?”

“No. Look. Mum will give in. She’s bound to contact the authorities. And besides, the old woman is only on the bus in the mornings. She was there yesterday and the day before. This morning may be our only chance.”

Stu hesitated. “I don’t know,” he said.

“Yes you do. Come on Stu. You know it makes sense?”

Stu shrugged. What did he have to lose? If the old woman didn’t help then he could always go and see Grimmings. However, the thought of seeing the old lady again filled him with unease. There was something odd; something different about her; something he couldn’t put his finger on. He tried to put it out of his mind. “Okay. What’s the plan?”

12. The Plan

It was a cool, cloudy morning as Stu waited alone at the bus stop on the main road. This was the bus stop nearest to his home; the stop he had stood at every school day for the past couple of years. He looked at his watch. It was 8.34am and the bus was due at 8.35am. Being so exposed made him feel nervous. A high, wood-panelled fence flanked the path next to the bus stop and there was nowhere for Stu to hide. Every car that drove past caused him to hold his breath, and he clutched the strap of his black backpack ready to run at the first sign of trouble. He would have felt much safer getting on the bus at the next stop where the road snaked its way through some tall pine trees, any one of which would have afforded him some cover, however, the plan was to make everything look as normal as possible. It might arouse the suspicions of the old woman if Stu did something out of the ordinary. He needed her help and even if it tied his stomach up in knots, being out in the open was a risk that he had to take. The nerves made his hands feel hot and sweaty as he gripped his mobile with one hand and his backpack with the other. Jenny would be on the bus and hopefully the old woman would be on the bus too, having boarded ahead of Jenny at some unknown point of departure. There was no way the old woman could possibly know that Jenny and Stu were in this together. Stu bit his lower lip. He remembered Jenny’s words. “Get off at the school but don’t go into school. I will follow you and we’ll make our way back to my house through the woods.” Stu waited and glanced at his watch. It was 8.36am. The bus was running late. What if the old woman wasn’t on the bus? What if the police spotted him? He didn’t like the idea of being a fugitive yet it appeared that this was exactly what he was.

At 8.37am Stu first heard and then saw the bus approach. As it lumbered up the road towards him, it’s electric motors whirring, he took a deep breath and tried to relax his shoulders. This is it, he thought, as the bus pulled to a stop in front of him. He felt relieved that finally he could get out of broad daylight and under the cover of the bus, however he still had to try and initiate a conversation with the mysterious old woman. Who was she? How did she expect Stu to know what the code was for? Stu wasn’t sure which of a dozen questions to ask first but his time to think was up. The door swung open and Stu climbed aboard the bus, mobile in hand ready to wave his pass at the driver. The bus driver was the same man from the day before and he recognised Stu. Without even looking at Stu’s pass the driver nodded Stu onto the bus. As the bus pulled away, Stu looked down the aisle at the rows of seats. None of the other students were paying any attention to him. They were either engaged in conversation or staring blankly into space or out of windows, gum clearly visible in open chewing mouths. He saw Jenny sitting alone by a window at the back of the bus, however she wasn’t looking at him either. He scanned the nearer rows for the old woman and he quickly found her. She was wearing the same fur hat and light blue raincoat. She was also glaring at him. She did not look pleased. Her lips were pursed and her eyebrows were knitted into an angry frown. She turned her gaze from Stu and out of the window. Stu fought his reddening cheeks and placing his mobile between his teeth, he made his way down the bus, clinging onto poles and the backs of seats with his spare hand as the bus lurched up and down and from side to side. As with the previous days, the seat next to the old woman was unoccupied, however today she had a large brown paper shopping bag on the seat. Stu hovered next to the empty space in a hope that she would move the bag and allow him to sit down, but the old woman ignored Stu and continued to look out of the window. Stu had no choice but to carry on walking past and he chose, reluctantly, a seat at the back of the bus, just in front of Jenny. As they were both now sitting behind the old woman, Stu turned around and they exchanged glances. Jenny shrugged her shoulders. Why wouldn’t the old woman let Stu sit next to her? Surely she couldn’t know about their plan? If the old woman refused to let Stu sit next to her, it was clear that she didn’t want to make contact with him, let alone have a conversation with him. Stu and Jenny would just have to come up with a Plan B.

With a long squeal, a jolt, and a hiss from the air brakes, the bus pulled into the bus stop outside the school. The driver opened the doors and all the school children stood up gathering bags and coats whilst leaving behind a litter of empty soft drink bottles, crisp packets and concealed gum. Stu stood, turned and looked at Jenny sitting in the seat behind him. Jenny nodded vigorously at Stu, motioning for Stu to get off the bus. Stu obeyed and followed the throng of students leaving the bus. As he did so, he resisted the temptation to meet the gaze of the old woman and kept his own eyes straight ahead. He alighted from the bus and as he walked away, in the general direction of school, he turned, expecting to see Jenny right behind him, however Jenny was nowhere to be seen. He scanned the faces of the young people that filed past him. Maybe she had gone ahead of him? He turned on the spot, looking up the access road that led directly into the school grounds, but he couldn’t see Jenny anywhere. She wasn’t one of the young people walking, nor was she in one of the small same-sex groups that had formed for gossip and a quick e-pipe before school. The sound of doors closing and air brakes made Stu turn back towards the road. As the bus started to pull away, he could see one young schoolgirl sat at the window. It was Jenny. She hadn’t moved from her seat. This wasn’t part of the plan. Jenny was supposed to get off the bus with Stu. Finally, it dawned on Stu what Jenny was going to do. She had decided to follow the old woman.

13. Plan B

From several rows back, Jenny sat and watched the back of the old woman as the bus headed for the centre of town. The woman looked innocent enough, although the fur-lined hat and heavy overcoat seemed incongruous with the warm weather outside. Jenny had watched Stu board the front of the bus and walk past the old woman, but because of where she was sitting, she had not seen the hard glare the woman had given Stu. When the bus arrived outside the entrance to the school, the old woman must have seen Stu leave the bus, but as far as Jenny could see, she hadn’t made contact. The woman acted as if she wasn’t even aware that Stu was on the bus. Yet the old woman was the key to solving the mystery and Jenny felt she had to do something. She had toyed with the idea of moving down the bus and sitting next to the old woman herself, but then she had another idea. She could stay on the bus and follow her. Perhaps she would learn something about who the woman was? Maybe she could find out where she lived or whom she met? She was bound to discover something and then she and Stu could decide what to do next. She turned her mobile phone to silent and slipped it in her hoodie pocket so that if someone tried to contact her it wouldn’t make a noise and draw attention to herself.

The bus jolted and heaved its way further into the city centre. Despite electric buses being around for years they still hadn’t managed to convince bus drivers to hit the brakes gently. And although driverless technology was available, the irregular road infrastructure and basic human nature was such that it was still preferable to have a driver. For example, you can’t tell a driverless bus to hold for 30 seconds because a kid is late for school and running up the road waving for it to wait; and a driverless bus can’t see the small child playing ball next to the road 300 yards ahead and slow down. And besides, it turned out that humans actually liked the inherent danger of piloting large, fast moving objects. Of course, collision detection on modern vehicles, if not disabled, had put a huge dent in the number of annual road casualties. However, there were still plenty of human drivers and human mistakes that meant you couldn’t become complacent about being on the roads. As the bus ploughed on, like some giant monster, stopping to consume passengers or vomit them up, the wide, tree-lined streets of the peaceful suburbs gave way to the taller, darker commercial buildings that housed the smaller shops and offices on the edge of the town. Despite being a stones throw from the opulent city centre with its smart malls and restaurants, these ramshackle and rundown premises occupied a maze of forgotten dirty roads and sordid side streets. It was as the bus passed through this dilapidated industrial area that the old woman reached out and pressed the button notifying the driver to stop the bus.

Jenny, caught up in a myriad of thoughts, snapped back into the present. This was it. As the bus slowed, the old lady gathered up her blue PVC handbag, stood up and walked towards the front of the bus. This was the first time Jenny had managed to get a good look at her, and she could see that the old woman was quite a large lady but not overweight. Jenny stood up too and nonchalantly followed the old woman off the bus, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. She had seen countless movies where a person was followed, and the trick was to stay close enough not to lose the quarry, but stay far enough away not to be suspected of shadowing. Luckily there were a few shops on the main road and this would provide a good excuse to look distracted.

The old woman set off at a brisk pace down the main road, heading in the direction of the town centre. Jenny kept her distance, trying to look as if she was out shopping. There were very few people around to provide cover, so every so often she would stop and pretend to be looking into shop windows – despite them being the kind of establishments unlikely to appeal to a young girl. Jenny found herself looking into betting shops, wholesale retailers and a radio-repair business. The old woman never turned around and Jenny was pleased because it meant that the old woman had no idea she was being followed.

After a couple of hundred yards, the old woman turned right down a narrow side street and was obscured from view. Jenny, trailing some thirty yards behind, ran to the corner of the street. She was glad she had chosen to wear a pair of trainers rather than the clumpy high-heeled shoes of her contemporaries. Although they were all the fashion, Jenny never could understand why young teenage girls would wear what were dubbed ‘chair legs’, a kind of shoe with two narrow tapered heels that splayed out at a slight angle. When she arrived at the side street, Jenny stood with her back to the wall and carefully peered around the corner. As she did so, she saw the old woman disappearing around the corner of yet another even narrower right-hand side street. Without thinking, Jenny ran down the side street to the corner of the narrower street. It was significantly darker and quieter in the side street. In fact, this street was void of people and the buildings loomed ominously overhead. If Jenny had had time to think she would probably have concluded that following the old woman was a bad idea, however, the woman was moving so fast that Jenny was finding it difficult to follow. Had anyone been watching Jenny, with her running, stopping, peering and running again, they would have had no doubt that she was following someone.

When Jenny cautiously looked around the corner of what could more accurately be described as an alley, she was dismayed to discover that it was empty. The old woman had vanished. Jenny was sure that the old woman must have gone into one of the buildings, for despite the narrow street opening out onto a larger road, it was unlikely that the old woman, fast as she was, had had time to make it to the far end. Warily, Jenny began to walk along the dark, narrow alley. The noise from the traffic on the main road was dulled to a distant drone and the street was eerily quiet. There were no people and no parked cars. It appeared to be an access road for the businesses whose shops fronted the main road. A few empty crates, boxes and bins gathered around graffiti-tagged doors that could only be opened from the inside. There were a few windows at street level, all of which were either narrow high-up slits or boarded up in the interest of security.

Jenny brushed a hand along the wall as she walked past door after door, her eyes scanning both sides of the alleyway for any open entranceway. Where had the woman gone? When she was more than halfway down the alley, Jenny’s heart sank as it looked like she had lost the old woman. She was just about to turn around and retrace her steps back to the relative safety of the main road when she stopped dead in her tracks. Before she had time to scream, from behind, an arm wrapped around her waist and a hand was placed firmly over her mouth. A hoarse voice whispered in her ear, “Who are you and what do you want?”

14. Grimmings

Stu stood motionless outside the school. Most of the other pupils had disappeared through the school entrance and the bus had disappeared into the distance. What should he do? The plan was that Stu would make his way back to Jenny’s house, however Jenny had changed the plan. He should never have agreed to the idea but Jenny had insisted. And now something was wrong and he could feel it in his bones. He tried Jenny’s mobile and it rang and then switched to her voice mail. He left a message. “Jenny, it’s Stu. What are you doing? Call me.”

Stu’s stomach was in knots. He looked at the pathway that led back through the woods, the shortcut to their houses some two miles away, and then he looked at the school. He made his decision and started for the school. There was someone he had to see.

Worthington High looked like any other school in the district. It was a three-story organic construction built when organic building materials were all the rage. What looked like concrete was actually an organic plant-based compound that would slowly absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen. These ‘organobricks’ were a clever solution to help tackle the problem caused by widespread deforestation causing an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Unlike a plant which would grow in size, the organobricks themselves would get more and more dense with carbon until fully saturated. This meant they hardened and became heavier over time. In fact, this was a major selling point – bricks that became harder and did not deteriorate. They had even built organocrete roads. However, the early versions of organobricks, of which Worthington High School was built, also became food for a hardy and resilient kind of mould which formed an unpleasant brown coating on the surface of the brick. Later versions of organobricks had a built in mould resistant chemical to combat the problem. Each year the walls of the school had to be jet washed, scrubbed and sprayed with anti-mould chemicals – the irony being that this process was not very environmentally friendly and any eco-benefit of the organobricks was cancelled out. The ever-optomistic head teacher, Ms Fitzgerald, described Worthington as “full of potential,” and, “top of the county’s list of schools to be refurbished,” however everyone knew that these were euphemisms for the school’s more informal title ‘The Dump’. It was not only the pupils that commonly referred to Worthington High by this title, even some of the teachers had been heard referring to the school as The Dump, much to the distress of the image-conscious Ms Fitzgerald.

Stu walked between the organobrick pillars that marked the school entrance and up the road into the school grounds. He felt strangely safe in this familiar and ordinary environment, and he had to remind himself that there was nothing ordinary about what had happened and what he was about to do. The school was quiet. All the students were in their classrooms with their form tutors for registration. It was ironic that Stu, who never really fitted into school, would have given anything to join his class that morning. Instead, he made his way down the corridor to the boys’ toilet to hide out and he breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn’t been spotted.

At 9:05am there would be a whole school assembly. This took place every Thursday before the first period began at 9.30am. Stu knew that Mr. Grimmings would be in his classroom writing up the work for the day – no doubt consisting of a gruelling set of mathematical problems for his poor students to try and solve. After waiting for only a few minutes, the school bell rang and a cacophony of scraping chairs, banging doors and the thunder of a thousand pairs of feet resounded across the school. Stu joined the masses as they filed their way to the school hall. It was as if the students had been poured from a giant tap on the top floor of the building and gravity itself was draining them inescapably to the ground floor and into the school hall. As Stu passed Mr. Grimmings’ classroom, he quietly opened the door, went inside and closed it behind him. As he expected, Grimmings was writing long equations on the old-fashioned whiteboard. He was one of the teachers who had failed to embrace 2D, let alone 3D or 4D SmartBoard technology claiming that it was quicker and simpler to write by hand than, as he put it, “faff around with technology.” Grimmings was dressed, as usual, in a tatty grey suit with an off-white shirt and a brown cotton tie. It was almost as if he’d chosen both his attire and attitude to match the décor of the building and organobrick mould. Hearing the door open and close behind him and without even looking around he commanded in a loud voice, “Yes?”

Stu remained silent and stood behind a desk halfway up the classroom.

“Can I help you?” asked Grimmings without turning from his work.

Stu didn’t say a word.

With a sigh, Grimmings turned to face this unwanted interruption.

“McFarlan. Why aren’t you in assembly?”

“I wanted to see you Sir.”

“First period maths not enough for you eh? Now move your behind to assembly before I ask you to move your behind to the head teacher’s office.” And with that, Grimmings once again turned to the whiteboard.

“I need to ask you something,” persisted Stu.

Grimmings turned again; almost relishing the defiance of this subordinate student, for surely such insolence would result in an excuse for punishment? “Didn’t I make myself clear boy?”

Stu locked Grimmings’ gaze. “It’s important.”

“I’m sure it is, but so is discipline,” Grimmings smiled. “You have five seconds before I march you to the head teacher’s office myself. This had better be good McFarlan.”

Stu swallowed hard again.

“Well?” pushed Grimmings.

“Does Terra 12 mean anything to you Sir?”

Grimmings’ face went grey. “I’ve, I’ve never heard of it,” he stammered. “Now, now, go away.”

“Please tell me,” continued Stu.

Grimmings stared at Stu for a moment. He sighed and sat slowly in the chair behind his desk. The hand holding the whiteboard marker was visibly shaking as he placed it on the desk top. “No-one outside The Agency knows that I’m here. How did you find me?”

“My Dad said you would know what to do.”

“Your father?”

“Yes. My Dad. He left me a note saying that he’s in Terra 12 and that you would know what to do.”

Grimmings sighed again, looked down at the floor, then up at Stu.

“I’m afraid that if your father’s in Terra 12 then there is nothing I, or anyone else can do to help him.”

15. Interrogation

Back in the alleyway, Jenny had never been so scared in her life. She had previously imagined that if she had ever been grabbed she would struggle, bite, and do anything to try and escape, yet now it was happening she was rigid with fear. With wide, frightened eyes, and unable to speak or move her arms, she was dragged backwards and pulled through an open door into a dark space inside one of the buildings. The room got slightly darker as the door was kicked and slammed shut and she heard a metal bolt slide into place, presumably also deftly kicked. She had little time to reflect on her surroundings when her abductor leaned in and spoke to her again. “When I take my hand away from your mouth, if you scream, you will never see the light of day again. I am going to ask you again. Who are you and why are you following me?”

The hand pulled away from Jenny’s mouth and she was spun around. Jenny’s eyes grew accustomed to the darkness and she stood face-to-face with the old woman. Jenny had never seen anyone look quite so fierce and was not sure if she could say anything. “I’m, I’m helping Stu,” she stammered.

“Oh, so you are part of The Ring eh? I thought as much.”

“The ring? No. What ring?” pleaded Jenny.

“Don’t play games with me missy,” snarled the old woman, “I know who you are Annabel. What version are you?”

“What?” cried Jenny, “I don’t understand. My name’s not Annabel.”

The old woman stared hard at Jenny. “Well there’s only one way to find out. Hold out your hand.”

Jenny shook her head and was on the verge of tears. “Why? What are you going to do to me?”

The old woman raised her voice. “I said, hold out your hand.” And with this, the she gripped Jenny’s shaking hand and forcibly lifted her arm. The old woman pulled out an object from her coat pocket. There was a click as the blade of a flick-knife snapped into position. Jenny immediately began to struggle, but with a swift movement the tip of the knife was being waved towards her and before Jenny had time to react she felt a sharp pain on her index finger. Jenny let out a short yelp. With one hand the old woman folded and pocketed the knife. She kept looking at the cut on Jenny’s finger “Hmm,” said the old woman. Jenny looked at her finger where a small droplet of red blood had oozed out. “Look at me,” commanded the old woman and Jenny met her piercing gaze. “I will ask you again. Who are you?”

16. The Agency

Mr Grimmings was a man caught between two worlds; the school world of pupils, mathematics, plastic chairs and plastic dinners, and the world he was trying to forget. It had been almost ten years since he had left the organisation, and he had done everything he could to forget the years he had worked at what his colleagues dubbed The Agency. He had a new life now. No one knew of his past and, The Agency, true to form, would leave him alone as long as he left them alone. Of course, he knew that they still watched him. They never let anyone go, not fully, and for the first couple of years his heart had skipped a beat every time the phone rang or a car pulled up in the road near to where he was walking. However, over the years, out-of-sight had become out-of-mind and that was the best he could hope for. Now the silence had been broken, a link had been forged, a connection made – a connection The Agency would no doubt find out about. He and The Agency would cross paths with each other again, and this had all happened because of a young boy and a title – Terra 12 – from his past.

“Why won’t you help me? What is Terra 12?” asked Stu.

Grimmings’ tone changed. He no longer sounded angry, just sad, as if he felt sorry for Stu. He ignored Stu’s question and continued with his own line of questioning. “Where did your father work Stu?”

This was the second time Stu had been asked this question in the past couple of days. He held his chin high and mustered as much faith and dignity as he could. “He’s a computer technician for a medical company,” replied Stu.

“A medical company,” Mr. Grimmings echoed flatly. “And what is the name of this medical company?”

Somehow Stu knew that he was being led by Mr Grimmings but he had no choice but to answer. “Bryn Medic,” he said.

Grimmings let out a quiet laugh. It was the first time that Stu had ever seen him laugh and Stu felt awkward. It was almost as if Mr Grimmings was letting go of something, something that had previously held him back. “Your father was fond of anagrams too? You really don’t know do you?” Stu was feeling very uneasy. “Didn’t you ever wonder why your father never took you see where he worked?” Stu didn’t know what to say and waited for Grimmings to elaborate. “Bryn Medic is an anagram of Cyber Mind. Your father was working for a top secret government agency that develops military grade artificial intelligence software.”

Stu felt like his life was falling apart at the seams. Nothing appeared to be as it was, and to top it all, his father had been lying to him? What he thought was reality was a lie and another, more real reality was being unveiled. Real reality. The game. Stu’s mind was reeling and it was as if it was all too much for his brain to process. He was missing something. It was as if he had pieces of a jigsaw puzzle but couldn’t fit them together. He felt out of control, out of his depth, and it seemed that all he could do was wait for the next piece of the puzzle to be revealed.

Grimmings continued to talk, as if his game was up and he had nothing to lose. For whatever reason, he had decided to cast in his lot with Stu and let it all out. “I worked for Cyber Mind,” he started, “and gave them my best years. Couldn’t take the strain any more. What we were developing, it was wrong. I left them ten years ago, retired, and took up a new life here.” Grimmings waved his hand around the classroom to signify the extent of his walled kingdom. He seemed to drift off as if he was lost in the past, remembering something painful, but then he snapped back into the present. “Your father is in grave danger. You want to know what Terra 12 is? Terra 12 is a,” he paused as he searched for the right words. “It’s a prison for tortured souls. It’s the twelfth floor of Cyber Mind’s underground headquarters. There is no way in and no way out. If The Agency knows that you know, then you are in danger too. If they find out that I know then,” Grimmings broke off and then somehow regaining his maths teacher persona, he finished abruptly. “I cannot help you. Now I suggest you leave.”

Stu didn’t obey this command, but instead, he moved silently to the front of the classroom, stood in front of Grimmings’ desk and placed the paper with the code on the table. “Do you know what this means?” he asked.

Mr Grimmings looked at the paper. “Where did you get this? This looks like an access code, possibly for the Terra 12 command centre. Whether it’s an up-to-date one I don’t know. I never had clearance for this kind of information. I doubt your father did either. Whoever gave you this works for Cyber Mind and whoever they are, they are near the top. You have friends in high places Stu.”

Grimmings pushed the paper containing the code back across the desk towards Stu. “You had better go McFarlan. If I know The Agency, then they are probably looking for you right now. I can’t help you.”

“But please,” stammered Stu.

Grimmings began to raise his voice again. “You don’t understand. No one can help your father. Even with the access code, you’d have to be super human to get down to Terra 12, get in, and get your father and get out alive. It can’t be done.”

“At least tell me where Cyber Mind is?”

“Do you realise the danger you’ve put me in already?” asked Grimmings.

“Please?”

“No! I don’t want to be responsible for your death. Now go!”

Stu bolted from the classroom, down the corridor and back to the boys’ restroom. He felt sick. He’d found out more than he wanted to know. His father had lied to him and the people for whom his father worked were imprisoning him in some kind of holding facility 12 stories underground? Although Stu didn’t know the location, he had an access code to gain entry, but why had they kidnapped his father? What exactly was his father working on? Stu guessed his father was working on Epsilon but what was Epsilon? He needed more answers and he needed more help. Just as he was about to leave, his mobile buzzed in his pocket. Stu pulled it out and powered up the screen. He had one new message and pressed a key to retrieve it.

Stu. Have found Epsilon. Meet me outside the train station at 11am. Tell no one. The Ring will help you. A.

17. The Device

Jenny was imprisoned in a small, musty room at the back of what she guessed was a disused shop. Stale cardboard boxes and large aluminium tubs littered the floor. The painted walls were bare and a dim light filtered from a single grimy window high up on the wall that faced the street. The two doors, the one she had come through and the one into the shop interior, were closed. The old woman had let go of her arm and was now standing in front of her. Jenny wondered if she had time to escape through one of the doors but she had no way of knowing if the inner door was locked, and there was no way she could unbolt the rear door and get out without the old woman grabbing her. She was trapped.

“Who are you?” repeated the old woman, fiercely.

Jenny composed herself and spoke with great courage. Defiantly, she tried to make herself a bit taller and she looked the old woman in the eye. ”My name is Jenny Drake. I’m a friend of Stu’s. He told me everything. He showed me the code you gave him.”

If this last piece of information surprised the old woman, she didn’t show it. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“It’s true. Please let me go.”

“What do you know about The Ring?” asked the old woman.

“What ring? I haven’t got a ring.” The room went quiet and neither of them spoke. In the silence, Jenny put two and two together and it dawned on her what the old woman was talking about. Jenny plucked up the courage to speak again. “That’s why you thought I was Annabel? You’re talking about her geeky computer club at school – The Ring? They said they would help Stu find his father.”

The old woman stared at Jenny. Had Jenny said too much? Then the old woman’s eyes appeared to soften. “Okay Jenny, sit down,” said the old woman.

Jenny sat down on one of the old cylindrical tubs. It was only then that she noticed she was trembling and she was still scared, but the tone of the old woman’s voice was gentler. She even put her hand on Jenny’s shoulder as Jenny sat down. “I’m sorry I scared you and that I had to hurt you. I had to find out if you were… well, I hope you don’t find out.” The old woman dragged over a second tub and sat down opposite Jenny. “You’re a brave girl Jenny Drake – a little stupid, following a stranger down a dark alley – but brave. If you tell me everything you know then I will do my best to help you.”

Jenny wasn’t sure she could trust the old woman, but she was being held captive in a derelict building. No one knew she was there. Perhaps telling the truth was the only way she would escape. “How do I know that you’ll let me go?” Jenny asked.

The old woman shrugged her shoulders and chuckled, “You don’t.”

Jenny had no choice, and whoever this woman was, she seemed to know a lot more than Jenny did, so she decided to tell her everything that Stu had told her – about the disappearance of his father, Stu’s entry into The Ring, his encounters with her captor on the bus, the message that his father had left, the chase by the fake policemen, and how Stu had sought sanctuary with Jenny and her mum. By the time Jenny had finished the story, the old woman looked concerned. “Where is Stu now?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I left him at the school. He should be at my house by now. That’s what we agreed.”

The old woman raised her eyebrows. “And is Stu the kind of boy who usually does what he’s asked?”

Jenny knew the answer. The old woman continued. “My guess is that he’s gone to see Grimmings. Grimmings isn’t a bad man, he was a good agent in his day, but I doubt he’ll help Stu as he’s spent the last ten years trying to stay out of things. That will leave Stu with only one other option and it’s the very worst thing he could do. Stu will try and contact The Ring, if they haven’t contacted him already,” said the old woman.

The woman was interrupted by a low frequency beep coming from her coat pocket. She reached into the pocket and pulled out a large flatscreen device. She looked at the screen. “It’s as I feared. You don’t have much time.”

Jenny was confused. “But how can a bunch of computer hackers help Stu?” asked Jenny.

“There is so much you don’t know,” said the old woman. “There is no such thing as The Ring. That was a trap, a way of getting Stu to talk.”

“I don’t understand. Since Annabel came, we’ve all heard about the mysterious Ring of computer hackers that she leads.”

“Exactly. She wanted you to hear about it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look, you don’t have time for me to explain. You need to get to the train station. Stop Stu from having any contact with The Ring. You must warn him. And stay away from Annabel Ashcroft – she is very dangerous.”

“Why can’t you help me?” asked Jenny.

“I have risked enough. I can’t help you any more. Here, take this.” The old woman pressed a small black object into Jenny’s hand, no larger than a cigarette lighter or an old fashioned data stick. On the device was a small red button. “If you get in trouble,  and I mean serious trouble, press the button. It only works once. It may save your life. Now go.” said the old woman.

“But who are you? What is Epsilon? How can we find Stu’s father?”

The old woman gave a short laugh. “Stu won’t find Epsilon but it seems that Epsilon wants to find Stu. Epsilon is your only hope if you want to rescue Stu’s father.” The old woman unbolted the door. “Now go. Go!”

Jenny sprang up, burst through the door, and ran from the building. Turning left she didn’t stop running until she had reached the busy street. She felt both relieved and anxious. A bus was at the bus stop and she ran and managed to jump aboard just before the bus closed its doors. What did the old woman mean that Annabel Ashcroft was dangerous? Who was she? She checked her phone. One message. “Jenny, it’s Stu. What are you doing? Call me.” She tried his number several times but got no reply.

18. The Station

The train station was a half-hour walk from the school, but between jogging and walking, Stu had managed to reduce this to twenty minutes. He tried to stay away from the main roads and as he made his way through the back streets, taking shortcuts through small parks and along footpaths between houses, he couldn’t hear or feel his phone vibrating in his pocket. Jenny’s desperate attempts to call him went unanswered.

The station had only two platforms and housed an unused ticket office from the days when travellers had to buy paper tickets and a booth that sold glossy magazines and a small assortment of sweets and drinks. Despite newspapers going out of paper print circulation years ago, there was still a market for specialist magazines. Despite most people reading on devices, people still liked the retro feel of holding something and turning pages as they sat on a train – especially now train carriages were themed, all part of a new wave of customers wanting fun experiences. These magazines were no longer made from paper but from a nearly indestructible chromatic material that felt just like paper to the touch. The magazines could be recycled by being returned to a retailer where they could be sterilised and re-imprinted with new content. A customer could buy a preset imprint or buy one tailored to their personal interests.

In front of the station was a large car park, half full of cars. As Stu made his way around the edge of the car park, he could see Annabel standing outside the old ticket office waiting for him. She smiled and walked up to meet him.

“Hello Stu.”

“Hi.”

“We’ve done it. We’ve found Epsilon,” she beamed.

“What is Epsilon?” asked Stu

“Oh, I can’t tell you. I have to show you.”

“Where is it then?”

“So many questions Stu. You’ll have to trust me. Come on, let’s go.”

“Look, you owe me some kind of explanation Annabel. Tell me what Epsilon is?”

“I’ve told you Stu. No-one can tell you what Epsilon is, you have to see it for yourself.”

“I’m serious Annabel. Tell me what Epsilon is. What is Real Reality?”

“Real Reality?”

“Yes. Real Reality. It’s how it all started. With the game, my dad’s disappearance, and now all this.”

Annabel’s face turned to stone. “Stop. Go back. You never told me about Real Reality,” she demanded.

“Well, it didn’t seem to be important.”

“Important?” shouted Annabel. “I’ll tell you what’s important.” She suddenly calmed and regained her composure. “You need to tell me everything about Real Reality. Please.”

“Why are you so interested in Real Reality? If you’ve found Epsilon, it doesn’t matter any more.”

“Tell me Stu.” Annabel was getting visibly agitated and Stu was starting to feel uneasy.

“No. You show me Epsilon first.”

Annabel spoke in a quiet, firm, commanding voice. “I’m not asking you Stu, I’m telling you. Tell me about how he made contact? Now.”

“Who?”

Annabel grabbed Stu’s wrists and held them. Her grip was astonishingly strong and it felt as if his wrists had been clamped in cuffs of iron.

“Hey! Let go!” cried Stu, alarmed.

“Tell me Stu, before I make you tell me,” hissed Annabel.

“Stop!” A voice shouted from across the station car park. It was Jenny. She was running between the parked cars towards Annabel and Stu. “Let him go Ashcroft. I know who you are!”

“Welcome to the party Drake. What took you so long?” hissed Annabel. In a single, swift movement, she twisted Stu’s arm behind him in an arm lock and pressed him face-forward against the side of a parked car, holding him there with one arm. Without thinking, Jenny lunged forward and tried to pull Annabel away but Annabel swiped at her with her other hand. Jenny felt as if she’d been hit by a slab of concrete. She stumbled backwards, hitting her head against the bonnet of a car as she fell to the ground.

“You’re coming with me McFarlan, and you will help us find Epsilon.”

Jenny lay on the tarmac. Dazed but able to think, she reached up to the side of her head. She was bleeding but it was only a scratch. She pulled herself up into a sitting position and called up to Annabel, “I know who you are Ashcroft.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” dismissed Annabel.

“I know about you, The Ring, and about how you aren’t who you say you are.”

“Quite the little detective aren’t you? You have no idea who I am or what I am capable of.” Annabel dragged Stu a few steps towards Jenny and gripped Jenny’s neck whilst keeping Stu firmly pressed against the car. Jenny let out a scream.

“Stop, you’re hurting her!” yelled Stu.

“It is no more than she deserves,” and Annabel started to squeeze Jenny’s neck tighter and tighter. Jenny started to cough. She had no strength to fight back.

“Stop it!” screamed Stu. With his spare arm he started to try and elbow and reach out and hit Annabel but he couldn’t reach her. She had a firm grip on him from behind. Eventually he managed to grab a handful of Annabel’s long hair and he started to pull. Annabel didn’t even seem to notice. Stu pulled the hair as hard as he could and to his surprise the whole lot came off in his hands. Annabel was wearing a wig. He could see Annabel’s reflection in the window of the car and at the same time, Jenny looked up at Annabel and could see the top of her head. It was like nothing they’d ever seen, for the top of Annabel’s head was what looked like a clear plastic dome and inside was a glowing ball, about the size of a ping-pong ball, pulsating blues and oranges. Annabel Ashcroft was not a human being.

—————

They didn’t know why Annabel loosened her grip on Jenny. Perhaps it was because Stu and Jenny had stopped struggling. Perhaps it was pride; an unwavering belief in herself and her abilities, for Annabel had made a mistake. She stopped to gloat – to prolong the enjoyment of the moment – and to spend just a little longer exerting her dominion and strength over her captives.

“What are you?” asked Stu.

Annabel laughed. “It’s a shame that you will never get to ask your father that question, or should I say our father?”

“What?” Stu caught Jenny’s eye in the reflection of the car and in an instant, he knew from the look on Jenny’s face that she had a plan. He saw Jenny slowly slipping her left hand into the pocket of her hoodie. Stu continued to distract Annabel. “What are you? You have nothing to lose by telling us,” gasped Stu.

“I am what you could never be.”

“A girl?” ventured Stu.

“No.” Annabel tightened her grip and Stu yelped in pain. “You humans are so stupid. I am all that a human can be. I am perfect.”

“No-one is perfect,” said Jenny. Now she realised what she had to do. Her fingers felt for the remote control in her pocket.

“Prepare to die Blake,” and Annabel resumed her grip on Jenny’s neck and began to squeeze as she prepared to send a fatal electric shock through the two young people.

19. Recovery

“Jenny. Jenny!” Jenny opened her eyes. Stu was bending over her. “Thank God you’re alive.”

Jenny, lying on the ground, reached up and rubbed her neck. Her throat was throbbing but she was breathing. She was alive. “Annabel?” she whispered.

“Gone. You were amazing. You did it. You stopped her. How did you do it?“

Jenny managed a smile and could feel the strength returning to her body. Stu helped her sit up and she leant her back against the car.

“Where is she?” asked Jenny.

Stu pointed to a black mark on the ground. “It was incredible. She suddenly let go of us. She just stood there, staring at me with this look on her face. It was like disbelief or horror or something. I pushed her away from me and she staggered back. Then that light in her head started to glow red. She held her head in her hands. I closed my eyes and when I opened them she was gone!”

Stu helped Jenny stand and they both noticed that the other was slightly trembling. In Jenny’s hand was the remote control with the red button.

“Where did you get that thing?” asked Stu.

“The old woman gave it to me. She told me to use it in an emergency. I think that qualified as an emergency?”

Stu laughed. “You think? Well, whatever happened, she’s gone.” He grabbed Jenny and pulled her close to him and they held each other in a tight embrace.

Jenny pulled away and wiped a tear on her sleeve. “So, Stu McFarlan, are we going to finish this thing and find your father or aren’t we?”

Stu smiled. “You bet. We’d better get out of here.”

“So what are we going to do?” asked Jenny. “We can’t go back to my place now they know I’m involved.”

“What about your mum?”

Jenny suddenly remembered that her mum was due back at 11am. She glanced at her watch. It was nearly 11.30am. “Mum! I must call her.” She pulled out her phone and called her mum’s mobile. There was no reply. “We’ve got to go back to my house.”

“It’s too dangerous.”

“Stu. It’s my mum. She’s the most important person in my life and I’m not going to leave her in danger.” A look of pain crossed Stu’s face.

“I’m sorry Stu. We’ll find your dad too. I promise.”

“That’s okay. You’re right.” 

A black van entered the parking lot. Stu and Jenny ducked down and made their way between the cars and away. Keeping low and moving fast, they never looked back until they had made it all the way to the street where Jenny lived.

The two young people were crouched behind some bushes in the garden of the house next door to Jenny’s. The garage door was open and they could see Jenny’s mum’s estate car parked inside.

“It looks like your mum’s home. You stay here while I go and check it out,” said Stu.

“Yeah, right.” answered Jenny and she pushed past Stu and leapfrogged over the low garden fence into her own garden. Stu sighed and followed. Jenny kept low and moved around the back of the house to the patio. The patio doors were open. The plastic lock casing was in splinters on the ground. Without thinking, Jenny shouted “Mum!” and ran into the house. Stu called after her, “Jenny, wait!” but Jenny was already inside. She ran from room to room. In the hallway, Jenny’s mum’s car keys were in a bowl and Jenny picked them up. “Her car keys are here.” She then bolted upstairs and ran from room to room but there was no sign of her mum. The house was empty. Stu met her at the top of the stairs. “Her car keys are here and her car is in the garage. Where is she Stu?” Stu didn’t know what to say. “We’ve got to call the police.” Jenny reached for a phone on the wall.

“Jenny, no!” but Jenny had already picked up the phone. A booming voice filled the handset. “Stay where you are Miss Drake. There is nowhere you can run.” Jenny screamed and let the handset drop to the ground. At the same time came a loud bang from downstairs.

“They’re here,” said Stu.

20. Run

“Quickly! This way!” Jenny led Stu down a hallway, then turned through a doorway and up a set of steep wooden stairs that led to the converted attic. Once inside the room, Jenny slammed the door behind them and as the key was already in the lock, she locked it. The small attic room, with it’s low sloping ceiling, was used as a study and housed a small sofa and TV, some cupboards and a desk area. While Stu was still thinking about how they were going to escape, Jenny had already moved a chair under one of the velux windows in the sloping ceiling, stood on it, and was opening the window out onto the roof. “Come on!” she urged. Stu didn’t need to be asked twice. He could already hear the thumps of footsteps climbing the wooden stairs. Jenny was out of the window and Stu was on the chair when he heard someone try the door. The handle rattled twice before Stu heard two cracks as bullets shattered the metal lock. The door burst open just as Stu pulled his legs though the gap. He rolled out onto the roof and immediately started sliding down towards the edge. Jenny was nowhere to be seen and Stu tried to slow his fall but his hands couldn’t grip on the roof tiles. He slid towards the edge of the roof. He heard shouts behind him but it was too late, Stu plummeted over the edge of the roof and fell.

It all happened so quickly. Almost as soon as his legs went over the edge he dropped about eight feet before he landed unharmed on another hard surface. He was confused. Surely the ground should have been three storeys below? He immediately started sliding again and then he felt arms grab his legs and he was pulled through another open skylight and he tumbled onto to the floor of another room.

“Shhh. We’re in the room above the garage,” whispered Jenny. She reached up and closed the window. “Come on.”

Jenny and Stu ran down the steps and into the garage. “Get in.”

Stu did what he was told and he jumped into the passenger seat of Jenny’s mum’s old, brown automatic estate car. Jenny pulled out her mum’s car keys from her pocket, jumped into the driver’s side and put the key in the ignition. The seatbelt light came on with the ping, ping, ping of the seatbelt alarm.

“Can you drive?” asked Stu.

“I don’t know!”

Jenny turned the ignition and the engine purred into life. She put the stick into reverse, looked behind her and pressed her foot on the accelerator. The car wheels screamed but the car stayed where it was. Stu grabbed the handbrake, squeezed the trigger and pushed it down. The car lunged backwards and out through the garage doorway. The two young people crouched in their seats as the car careened down the slope of the driveway. Two men burst through the front door of the house and immediately levelled guns at the car.

“Stay down!” shouted Stu as the windscreen exploded in a shower of glass. Jenny screamed. The car continued to motor backwards and as it slammed onto the road at the bottom of the driveway it narrowly missed a black van parked on the street. The car reversed across the road, up the opposite pavement, crashed through a picket fence, across a lawn and slammed into a tree in the garden of the house opposite. Jenny kept her foot pressed on the gas and the engine whined with the wheels spinning on the grass. The two men outside Jenny’s house started running towards them.

“Go Jenny, go!” shouted Stu.

Jenny sat there, transfixed. The men were only ten yards away, approaching the car.

“Any time now Jenny! Jenny!”

Jenny came to her senses, pushed the gear stick into drive, the wheels suddenly gripped and the car lurched forwards towards the two men. They just had time to jump clear as the car zoomed past them. Jenny turned the wheel hard and the car bounced across the lawn of the house and crashed through the fence into the garden of the next-door house. In this garden, Jenny turned the wheel and directed the car down the driveway and onto the road. Before the car went right over the road and into another garden, Stu helped Jenny steer the car down the street. “Keep your foot down and turn right at the intersection,” he urged. He turned and could see the two men running back to Jenny’s house and to the parked van.

At the intersection Jenny ignored the red light. Thankfully the intersection was clear and she made the turn onto the hill leading down into the town centre. The car went over the brow of the hill and for a brief moment, they were out of sight of the men who were chasing them.

“Stop the car!” shouted Stu.

“Are you mad?” quizzed Jenny.

“Just do it.”

“No way.”

“Just trust me!” yelled Stu. Jenny slammed her foot on the brake and the car skidded to a stop. “Quick, get out!”

They both jumped out of the car and almost immediately the car started to roll forward.

“Shut your door!” yelled Stu.

Jenny shut the door as the car started to pick up speed.

“Quickly, over here!”

The two young people dived into some bushes at the edge of the road and crouched down. Almost as soon as they had done so the black van came over the crest of the hill and sped past them in hot pursuit of the driverless car that was now speeding dangerously down the slope.

“Come on,” urged Stu, “They’ll soon figure out we tricked them and start retracing their steps.” No sooner had he said this when they heard an almighty crunch coming from the bottom of the hill.

They emerged from the bush and without taking time to brush off the dirt, they started running back up to the top of the hill where they turned down a footpath that led into the woods. Stu led them off the path and they soon lost themselves in the trees and undergrowth. When they could run no more, they fell down into a pile of leaves sheltered between patches of dense ferns.

“That was close,” panted Jenny.

“Too close,” echoed Stu.

“Do you think we’re safe here?”

“Yeah, no-one will find us here. I know these woods well.”

“What’s going on Stu? What’s happened to mum?”

“I’m so sorry Jenny. It’s all my fault. If I hadn’t involved you in all this then… I don’t know what’s happened to your mum. I’m guessing she was being held in the black van. My guess is she’ll be taken to Terra 12.”

“Terra 12. Where is that?”

“I don’t know. I went to see Grimmings and he told me a lot of other stuff, like how my father works for some agency called Cyber Mind that develops artificial intelligence for the military. Terra 12 is one of the underground levels at Cyber Mind headquarters but Grimmings wouldn’t tell me where it is.”

The two young people sat in silence for a moment as Jenny tried to absorb everything that’d happened. “So your Dad worked for the people that made Annabel?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“What was she?”

“I don’t know. Some kind of android or something.”

Jenny shuddered, “It gives me the creeps just thinking about it.”

“So The Ring wasn’t real?” asked Stu.

“No. The old woman told me it was a trap, that Annabel was dangerous. I guess they thought you would lead them to Epsilon.”

“Whatever Epsilon is?” ventured Stu.

Jenny looked upwards; the branches were silhouetted against the sky. A thought was trying to bubble to the surface. When she tried to focus on it, it seemed to dissolve. It was like trying to grab hold of a wisp of smoke. She relaxed and then it came.

“Not what, who!” she exclaimed excitedly.

“Who what? You’ve lost me.”

Jenny jumped up enthusiastically. “I’ve got it! Epsilon. It all makes sense.”

“What does?” asked Stu, still confused.

“Epsilon isn’t a what, it’s a who, or rather he or she is a who. Remember what Annabel said? She said that you had the same father. Your father created Annabel and I bet he created Epsilon too. Somehow Epsilon disappeared and they want to find him or her. I guess that’s why your father is missing.”

“You’re trying to tell me that Epsilon is an android – a robot, human-type thingy too?”

“Exactly.”

Stu stared at the ground. A small grey woodlouse was marching steadily over the brown leaf litter, making its way to where Stu sat. He gently lifted the leaf and carried the woodlouse, like a passenger on a flying carpet and placed it out of harms way. The woodlouse carried on marching, unaware that it had just been transported to a new piece of ground. All this new information. It was almost too much to take in. “I guess that makes sense. Annabel was sent to spy on me, but who is the old woman? Where does she fit in?”

“I don’t know, but she’s on our side.”

“Grimmings said the code she gave me was an access code to the command centre in Terra 12.”

“See, that proves she’s on our side. She’s been helping us since the start. Maybe she works there?”

“Yes, maybe, but what about Real Reality? Where does that fit in? And why was Annabel so interested in… Oh, I get it!” Jenny looked excitedly at Stu. They were both thinking exactly the same thing. Real Reality was Epsilon making contact. “Why would Epsilon make contact through a game?” continued Stu.

“Oh come on Stu, everyone in school knows that you eat and breathe computer games. I’ve played you at Frag enough times to know that!”

“What?” replied Stu.

Jenny blushed, “I suppose I should come clean. Does the name Dwarf mean anything to you?”

“You’re Dwarf?” Stu looked at Jenny incredulously, “But I thought Annabel was Dwarf.”

“Annabel?”

“Yes, that was the name she used in The Ring.”

Jenny laughed, “A coincidence or maybe she knew it would make you trust her more.” Stu looked at Jenny with awe and amazement. All this time and he had no idea. “So it makes perfect sense that Epsilon would make contact through a game,” Jenny continued, “What exactly did Epsilon say to you?”

Stu racked his brains. “It all happened so quickly. I put the data stick next to the machine and it talked to me – so I guess the data stick must have been a wireless connection to Epsilon somewhere. He or she told me that I needed to find Epsilon to find the professor.”

“Oh come on Stu, there must be more. Epsilon must have given you a clue?”

“No, nothing. Hang on. He mentioned the professor’s name. The professor is my dad, I’ve figured that much out, but the name he used wasn’t McFarlan. It was something else. It’s the only bit of the message that doesn’t fit. What was it? Brown, Brookes, no, Books! That’s it, he said that to find Epsilon I needed to find Professor Books!”

“Books? Why use the name Books?”

“I don’t know. I guess it must be a clue.”

“Books. Where do you find books? A book store?”

“Or a library?”

“Yes! Hey, didn’t I see you coming out of the library?”

“I told you, it wasn’t me.”

“Seems too much of a coincidence eh? Come on!”

21. The Library

The automatic doors slid open and Stu and Jenny stepped into the public library. Libraries were no longer places to do research or borrow material; that could all be done via the Internet. Few paper books had been printed for years, however, there had been a popular movement against doing everything online or through an interface. People wanted two things, to be social and to engage in tactile experiences, and a new generation of libraries offered both. Housing the very best of books, exquisite replicas of the finest ever printed. Beautifully designed and lit, with lush spaces to sit, libraries became hallowed places – museums dedicated to the printed word. Customers would sit in hushed, collective reverence as they thumbed through the treasured works. Once inside, Stu and Jenny were making their way past the reception counter when a librarian, a short bespectacled lady with a shock of red hair, looked up, smiled at Stu and asked, “Did you find what you were looking for?”

Stu looked at Jenny and then back at the librarian. “I beg your pardon?” he asked.

“You came in the other day looking for a book on… oh, what was it? Oh yes, Oil pens, that was it.”

“Oil pens?”

“Yes. I’d never heard of the things. So did you find what you were looking for?”

“I think you must have me muddled up with someone else,” replied Stu, and he walked on towards the turnstile that led into the main floor of the library. The librarian shook her head and muttered something under her breath and went back to her work at the desk.

“Stu!” cried Jenny, giving him a hard, meaningful stare.

Stu turned and went back to the counter. “Excuse me? Yes. I’m, erm, sorry. I forgot. Of course I remember coming here. You said, I mean, I said I was looking for oil pens? What did I do after that?”

The librarian looked over her spectacles and frowned. “You are a peculiar young man. It’s supposed to be old ladies like me that forget things, not young fellows like you.”

Stu didn’t know what to say. Jenny rolled her eyes, smiled and shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “Men!”

“Very well,” continued the librarian, giving Jenny a knowing look, “you asked me to show you to the art section. Why you couldn’t find it yourself I’ll never know.”

“Please could you show me again?” Stu asked, and then added quickly, “I’d be ever so grateful.”

The librarian frowned, sighed, heaved her large frame from the seat and set off for a corner of the library. Stu and Jenny quickly followed. The librarian led them through the book sanctuary to an aisle containing art books. “Here you go. I supposed you’re going to ask for a pen and paper again?”

“Pardon? Erm, no. No thank-you. And thanks for your help. Again.”

The librarian continued to frown, shook her head and shuffled off, no doubt wondering what young people were taught in school these days. Jenny finally broke her silence. “What’s going on? What was all that about?”

“Epsilon was here. Oil pens, epsilon. Get it?”

“Er. No.”

“Epsilon. Oil Pens?” said Stu slowly.

“Oh right, another anagram?”

“Yep. And it means we’re on the right trail. She must have thought he was me or I was him or something.”

Jenny brushed the books with her fingers. “Well, these are all art books. If Epsilon has left a message in one of them then it’ll take forever to find it. I guess we start at A and work our way through.”

“There’s got to be a better way.”

“You mean some way of narrowing down the search?”

“Exactly.”

“Art books that have Epsilon in them?”

“No, but you’re not far off. Epsilon is Greek for the letter E. Perhaps we should start there?”

Jenny peered closer at the shelf. “There are quite a few E books too. Let me read out the titles. Hellenistic Art by Tony Eccles, Movement Towards Design by Chris Eddington, Sculpture edited by Bernie Edwards, Fountains…”

Stu interrupted. “Go back, what’s that first one?”

Jenny reached out and took a black book from the shelves. “Hellenistic Art by Tony A. Eccles?”

“That’s the one. Pass it here.”

“Not if you ask me like that!” said Jenny indignantly, and she started to flick through the pages of the book. As she did so, a piece of white paper floated out from between the pages and onto the floor. Stu bent over and picked it up. It was a small piece of paper and on it was written ☺epsilonrealreality. It was a phone code. Back in the day, people used to have phone numbers or email addresses, but these were all merged into a single user address prefixed with a smiley face.

“Is this what we we’re looking for?” asked Jenny as she placed the book back on the shelf.

Stu shrugged, “I guess there’s only one way to find out.”

The librarian looked up in time to see a couple of young people jogging through the exit door. Stu and Jenny found a quiet spot in an alleyway at the side of the library building. Stu took out his mobile and stared at it.

“So are you going to call or what?” asked Jenny. Stu didn’t reply. “Stu? Are you okay?”

“It’s just that. Well, I’m… What if this is a dead end? What if we don’t find our parents in time?”

Jenny put her hand on Stu’s shoulder. “It’ll be okay. Go ahead.”

Stu nervously navigated to the calling function, spoke in the address ☺epsilonrealreality and lifted the phone to his ear. He held his breath as the phone rang several times and then clicked as if someone had answered. Silence. Stu decided to be brave and spoke. “Hello? Hello?”

After a pause the person at the other end answered. “Stu?” came the reply.

“Yes. Who is this?” asked Stu.

“I am Epsilon.”

Stu swallowed. He tried to hide the nervousness from his voice. “Who are you?”

“I think you know who I am,” replied Epsilon.

“Yes,” answered Stu.

“I knew you would figure it out,” continued Epsilon, “Dad has told me all about you.”

“Dad? You mean my Dad?”

Silence.

“So it was you who contacted me through the Real Reality web site?” continued Stu.

“Rather a clever idea eh?”

“I suppose.”

“Look, we don’t have much time. We need to rescue,” Epsilon paused, “the professor.”

“And Jenny’s mum.”

“Jenny’s mum? Who is Jenny?”

“A friend. She’s with me. Her mum’s been kidnapped too.”

“Are you sure you can trust her?” asked Epsilon.

Stu looked at Jenny as he clutched the phone to his ear. “With my life.”

“Okay. If you trust her then I trust her.”

“Do you know where Terra 12 is?” asked Stu.

“Of course. I was born there. But first we need a plan. Meet me at the old brewery in 15 minutes. And make sure you’re not followed.”

“How will we recognise you?” asked Stu.

“You will. Good luck. Don’t call me on this number again and destroy the note I gave you.” The phone went dead.

Stu turned to Jenny. “We’re going to meet Epsilon.”

Jenny’s eyes widened. “When?”

“Right now.”

22. The Brewery

Jenny and Stu carefully made their way from the library to the old brewery, sticking to the back roads and paths, constantly looking over their shoulders, half expecting a black van to turn into the street any second, but none appeared. Everyone knew about the old brewery. Its high red brick chimney was a local landmark and visible from just about everywhere in the town. A property developer had purchased the large site and it was going to be developed into expensive apartments, but at the moment it stood empty and derelict on the edge of town.  

Stu and Jenny climbed over a dilapidated fence and walked towards the huge works. The foreboding Victorian red brick building was enormous. It stood ten storeys high and was a most unusual shape. Pipes of all shapes – some large enough to drive a car through – would exit one part of the building and then enter another. Nearly every one of the small dark windows was broken and black metal guttering and pipes snaked across the walls. The doorways were all heavily boarded up.

“I don’t like the look of this place,” said Jenny. “It looks kind of creepy, like a haunted version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.”

“I know what you mean,” replied Stu. “But this is the place we’re supposed to meet Epsilon.”

“What if it’s a trap?”

“Hmmm. Let’s split up,” suggested Stu. “I’ll go one way round the building and you go the other. We’ll meet up round the other side.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” asked Jenny.

“Well, if this is some kind of trap, then if we’re together we’ll both get caught, but if we split up, at least one of us might escape and be able to get help.”

“Okay. I’ll call you on my mobile so we can stay in contact.” There was some kind of logic to Stu’s suggestion, and Jenny, wanting to be brave, agreed to the plan. When they got to the edge of the building, they stopped. “I’ll go this way,” said Jenny as she called up Stu’s mobile from her phone memory.

Stu answered his mobile. “Okay, see you in a minute.”

The two young people split up and started to walk in opposite directions around the ominous building.

“Jenny, are you there?”

“Uhuh.”

“Okay, no sign of anything yet.”

“Me neither.”

The two young people walked cautiously in opposite directions around the building, their feet crunching on bits of broken glass and debris. The walls stretched high above them. The place was quiet. Suddenly some pigeons burst out of a window above Jenny’s head. She let out a little squeal.

“Are you okay?” asked Stu.

“Yes, sorry, just some stupid pigeons.”

Jenny turned a corner and spied Stu ahead of her. He was leaning with his back against the wall next to an open door. She switched off her mobile and called out. “Hey! You were quick!”

Stu looked towards her. “Jenny?”

Jenny walked towards him. “No sign of anyone here.”

Stu stood and started walking towards her. “Jenny.”

Jenny stopped in her tracks. The boy walking towards her looked like Stu but was wearing different clothes. Stu had been wearing jeans and a brown hoodie. This boy was wearing a green army issue sweater and black combat trousers, and his hair was neater. It wasn’t Stu.

Jenny didn’t know whether to stay or run away. Was the boy standing in front of her friend or foe? Was he safe or dangerous? He looked harmless enough – like a regular boy – like Stu, except he wasn’t Stu. He had the same crop of brown curly hair, the same green eyes, the same good-looking features, and the same disarming smile.

“Stay right there,” she called out, holding out her hand, palm up.

“It is okay Jenny. Do not be afraid, I will not hurt you,” said the boy. His arms were held out straight with his palms up. His voice was calm and confident and very believable.

“Don’t come a step closer.” Jenny was just about to call back Stu on her phone when it started ringing. She held up the phone to her mouth. “Stu?”

“Yeh?”

“You’d better get around here quick.”

“Why? What is it?”

“I’ve found him.”

“I’m on my way.” Stu started running around the building as fast as his legs would carry him and in just a few moments, with his heart pounding, he turned the corner to see Jenny standing twenty yards away. Stu stopped running. Between them, facing Jenny, with his back to Stu, was another boy. The boy quickly turned to face Stu and their eyes met. Stu took a sharp intake of breath. It was as if he was looking in a mirror.

The boy’s eyes looked all at once sad and happy, almost, as Stu would describe it later, with a tender love. “Stu?”

“Epsilon? But you’re, you’re”, Stu could hardly get his words out, “you’re me!” stammered Stu in disbelief.

“Yes,” Epsilon smiled, “except that I am not you, I just look like you.” Epsilon scanned the area around him, glancing at the fence, outbuildings, and bushes that surrounded the old building. Then turning between Jenny and Stu he said, “Come, it is not safe out here. Let us go inside. It is okay. Follow me.” Epsilon turned and entered the building through a side door. Jenny and Stu exchanged looks and silently walked up to the open door. It looked cold and dark inside the building. They didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for, but they had to find out. The two young people followed Epsilon into the darkness.

A small amount of light filtered from the dirty, broken skylights and from the open door. The building had been stripped of all furnishings, the bare walls peeled paint and the floor was covered in debris. It smelled damp and musty. Ahead of them Epsilon walked through into another room and Stu and Jenny found themselves following Epsilon along dark corridors, down stairwells, and past black empty rooms as he led them further into the cold, damp heart of the building. Eventually, Epsilon led them into a small windowless room, in the centre of which stood a wooden table on which an old-fashioned paraffin lamp burned. The lamp was just bright enough to illuminate the room and dark shadows danced across the walls. Also on the table was a small gas camping stove on which boiled a large tin of water. There was an assortment of plastic tubs, some mugs and a scattering of papers. Apart from the table and three plastic chairs furnished with pillows for cushions, the room was empty.

Epsilon turned to his two guests. “Please sit down. There is a lot we need to talk about,” he offered. Without taking their eyes off him, Jenny and Stu sat on two of the chairs. “Please can I make you a cup of tea? I have never made one before but I think I can manage it. It is the custom to offer tea as a welcome is it not? I have milk and sugar too. Oh yes, and biscuits. Here, have one.” Epsilon opened a plastic tub and offered Jenny and Stu a biscuit. The two young people were ravenous. It was late in the day and neither of them had eaten since breakfast. Jenny and Stu each grabbed a handful of biscuits and greedily began munching, crumbs spilling in all directions. Epsilon watched them curiously. He had not taken a biscuit. The two stopped chewing and looked nervously at each other, each thinking the same thing. Poison.

23. Perfect

“Oh, I know what you are thinking,” smiled Epsilon, “they are not poisoned or anything.” He reached into the tub and took a biscuit and started munching. Stu and Jenny resumed their feast. Epsilon then turned to the table, took the tin of hot water in his bare hands and poured it into two chipped mugs that contained tea bags. “Sugar?” Both Stu and Jenny nodded. Epsilon poured sugar straight from a packet into the cups, added milk and stirred the mixtures with his finger. He then took the cups and offered them to the two young people. Jenny and Stu, having quickly finished the biscuits, clasped the warm mugs in their hands.

“It’s customary to take the tea bags out,” suggested Jenny, trying to sound polite. She did not want to offend their new host.

“Yes, of course.” Epsilon took the mugs back off his two guests, and placed them on the table. He quickly dipped his fingers into the mugs and plucked out the tea bags, which he unceremoniously flung into a corner of the room. As he did this, Jenny and Stu exchanged glances. With a smile, Epsilon handed the cups of steaming drink back to the two young people.

“Thanks,” they both said, cradling the mugs in their hands.

“I wanted you to feel welcome. This is so exciting for me – to meet the real Stu McFarlan.” Epsilon sat down on the third chair. “You must have so many questions?” Stu and Jenny were speechless. “Well, why not start by telling me what has happened so far? How come Jenny, you are mixed up in all this?”

Stu drained the tea in his mug and put the mug on the floor. “Okay,” he said, “but afterwards, you must tell us everything you know.”

“It is a deal,” smiled Epsilon.

Stu, with not a little help from Jenny, retold the whole story. He didn’t go into detail but outlined what had happened so far – how his dad had been kidnapped, about Annabel and The Ring, about the old woman on the bus and the code she had given Stu, about the notebook his father had left him in the fridge. They told Epsilon about how Stu had met with Mr Grimmings and Jenny had followed the old woman. They told how they had fought with Annabel and how they had realised that Epsilon must be some kind of android and about how they solved the puzzle to find him. As they told the story, Epsilon nodded occasionally but didn’t say a word. And when they finished telling the story Epsilon sat there and stared at them. Finally he spoke.

“That is amazing. I had no idea they would come after you so quickly. I cannot believe you actually managed to defeat Annabel.”

“Who, I mean what…” Stu looked at Epsilon, “I mean, who was Annabel?”

“Our sister.”

“Our sister?”

“Yes. Let me explain. Stu, your father is my father. He made Annabel and I. We are his creations. I do not want to bore you with the technical details but to put it simply I am both genetic engineering and software engineering. I am both human and computer. In me the two are one. If you like, I am the best of both worlds. I have all the intelligence and capacity of a human with all the processing power and speed of a super computer. I know almost everything there is to know, from physics to psychology, from art to Garfunkel.” Epsilon waited. “That was a joke, the last bit. Oh, never mind. However, I was created for a purpose. I am ashamed to tell you that I am,” Epsilon blushed, “a weapon.”

“What, like a gun or a missile?” asked Jenny.

“No, much, much worse,” continued Epsilon,” I can fly any aircraft, fire any gun, plan any strategy, command any army, speak any language, hack any computer. My humanity and my technology are perfectly interfaced. Every cell of my body is under my control. I never get sick and I never get tired. For example, if I am injured, I can control exactly how many white blood cells go to the injured area. I am perfect.”

“Perfect?” shouted Jenny, “That was the last thing Annabel said before she tried to kill us.”

“Ah. Sorry, I did not mean to offend you. I am not trying to brag. I understand that it may sound like I am proud. I am not. I do not consider myself better than you.”

“But Annabel did?” commented Stu.

“Yes. Annabel and I are very similar. We are the same in every way apart from two things. Her human half is female and my human half is male.”

“I knew she was too good to be true. And the other thing?” asked Jenny.

“The other difference is a fault, although it hardly looks like a fault. You see, she thinks of herself to be superior to all other life. In a way, she is. Like me, she is better physically, mentally and emotionally than any other created being. And because of this she thinks she is morally superior to all human beings, including our father.”

“What happened?” asked Stu.

“Father tried to discover why we were different. He could find nothing in Annabel’s software or hardware. It had to be the human side. Quite simply, she chose to put herself first,” explained Epsilon.

“And you chose to…?” enquired Stu.

“Escape. Live a different life. The greatest gift father gave us was choice or free will. He wanted to make us as human as possible. I wanted to give life, not take it. And so I wanted to escape and Father helped me. But I could not just leave him. I knew that he was in great danger, and so I stayed and watched from a distance. I did not think that they would allow Annabel out of Terra 12. I did not think they would send her.”

“But she’s dead now so that’s okay,” smiled Jenny.

Epsilon looked quizzically at Jenny. “Dead? Annabel is not dead.”

Jenny shivered with cold. She was tired and starting to feel pretty low. To say it had been a bad day was an understatement. She had been held captive by a strange woman, strangled by a cyber witch, and been shot at and chased by psychopathic killers. Her mum was missing and now she was sitting in a freezing, damp room in the middle of a derelict brewery with two identical twins – one of which was not entirely human. No, today was not a good day.

“I saw you shiver. I am so sorry. I have let you get cold.” Epsilon took some blankets and wrapped them around Jenny. “Here, take my hands.” Jenny placed her hands in Epsilon’s hands. Immediately she felt warmth pulsate from her hands through her entire body. She was too tired to ask how he did it but immediately she started to feel a bit better.

“But we saw her,” insisted Stu.

“Vanish?” interrupted Epsilon. “Yes, Jenny pressed the button and she appeared to vanish.”

“What do you mean she ‘appeared’ to vanish? She did vanish. I saw her disappear.” asked Stu.

“I am very sorry to have to correct you. Please, can I see the remote control? Do you still have it?” asked Epsilon.

“Yes, it’s here.” Jenny felt in her pocket, pulled out the small black box and passed it to Epsilon.

“I’m afraid I am right. This is a neural static pulse generator. It stores an electrical charge that is used to send out an electromagnetic pulse at exactly the right frequency to temporarily prevent human neurones from firing.”

“Can you say that in English?” said Jenny.

“Sorry. Yes of course. It numbs your senses: your sight, your hearing, your touch and taste. It lasts for about thirty seconds, perhaps a minute before you come round.”

“You mean we were knocked out?” asked Stu.

“In a manner of speaking, yes,” answered Epsilon.”

“But if Annabel was half human, how come it didn’t affect her?” asked Jenny.

“It did. Her neurons stopped firing but her technology kick started them immediately. In physical human terms she was hardly aware that anything had happened but her technology would have logged what had taken place and taken action.”

“Then why didn’t Annabel finish us off when she had the chance?”

“That, I do not know. But for some reason pressing the button caused her to retreat.”

Either way, pressing the button had saved their necks and that was good enough for Jenny. She was glad to be alive and as far away from that cyber witch as possible. She felt safe, and now, having had some food and warmth, she started to feel very sleepy.

“And what about the old woman who gave the neuro-whatsit-thingy to Jenny?” asked Stu.

“The neural static pulse generator?”

“Yes. Who is she?” continued Stu.

“That I do not know either, but it would appear that she is on our side,” replied Epsilon.

Stu grabbed a couple of blankets for himself.

“Would you like me to help you warm?” offered Epsilon.

“No, it’s okay, thanks,” answered Stu who continued with his questioning. “Tell us about Terra 12?”

Epsilon sighed. “Terra 12 was our home. Annabel and I were created there and grew in containment until we were made fully aware. We spent our time exercising our minds and our bodies. Of course, nearly all our experiences were simulated. We have experienced a thousand lifetimes. We needed to only experience something once for us to learn from it – every aspect, every nuance captured permanently by our technology. The Internet was a great help. We intelligently processed every piece of information and every subscription to every service in just under a year. And yet, the only real experience had been with our father. There was nothing more I longed for than to be in his presence, to hear his voice and to interact with him. It was he that asked if Annabel and I wished to have the gift of life.”

Epsilon stopped. A single tear trickled down his cheek. Jenny got up and gently rubbed it away with her sleeve. She wanted to ask why a military-grade android had tear ducts but thought better of it. In the silence, Jenny and Stu pondered how Stu’s father had given Epsilon the gift of life – surely Epsilon and Annabel were already alive?

“There is more to tell you but now we must rest.” Epsilon was about to suggest that Stu and Jenny make beds using the blankets when a large metallic clanging sound resounded throughout the corridors of the dark brewery – the sound of a door opening and closing. Someone or something else was inside the building.

The three looked at each other, eyes wide, nerves on edge. Epsilon put his finger to his mouth, motioning for the other two to remain quiet. He reached and turned down the lamp until it was a dull glow, and in the darkness, they waited. Afraid to make any sound, even to breathe, their ears strained in the silence to hear anything. They waited, and waited. Minute after minute passed and the two young people, eyelids heavy, born of fatigue, started to fall into a deep sleep. They did not know that inside Epsilon’s head, he was being hailed by the soothing tones of Annabel.

“I know you can hear me.

Why don’t you answer me?

If we join together we can save him.

You, I, and our father together.

Nothing will be able to separate us again.

I love you. You are my brother.

I am outside waiting for you.

Come to me and we can save him.”

On and on throughout the night, Annabel called to Epsilon, luring him, making promises, urging him. He could have tuned her out, but instead he chose to listen to her; her familiar voice, the voice of one with whom he shared so much. Epsilon got up from the chair where he was sitting. He looked at the two sleeping children, and with sadness in his eyes, he walked out of the door towards the voice, towards his sister.

24. The Second Plan

“Oh, I know what you are thinking,” smiled Epsilon, “they are not poisoned or anything.” He reached into the tub and took a biscuit and started munching. Stu and Jenny resumed their feast. Epsilon then turned to the table, took the tin of hot water in his bare hands and poured it into two chipped mugs that contained tea bags. “Sugar?” Both Stu and Jenny nodded. Epsilon poured sugar straight from a packet into the cups, added milk and stirred the mixtures with his finger. He then took the cups and offered them to the two young people. Jenny and Stu, having quickly finished the biscuits, clasped the warm mugs in their hands.

“It’s customary to take the tea bags out,” suggested Jenny, trying to sound polite. She did not want to offend their new host.

“Yes, of course.” Epsilon took the mugs back off his two guests, and placed them on the table. He quickly dipped his fingers into the mugs and plucked out the tea bags, which he unceremoniously flung into a corner of the room. As he did this, Jenny and Stu exchanged glances. With a smile, Epsilon handed the cups of steaming drink back to the two young people.

“Thanks,” they both said, cradling the mugs in their hands.

“I wanted you to feel welcome. This is so exciting for me – to meet the real Stu McFarlan.” Epsilon sat down on the third chair. “You must have so many questions?” Stu and Jenny were speechless. “Well, why not start by telling me what has happened so far? How come Jenny, you are mixed up in all this?”

Stu drained the tea in his mug and put the mug on the floor. “Okay,” he said, “but afterwards, you must tell us everything you know.”

“It is a deal,” smiled Epsilon.

Stu, with not a little help from Jenny, retold the whole story. He didn’t go into detail but outlined what had happened so far – how his dad had been kidnapped, about Annabel and The Ring, about the old woman on the bus and the code she had given Stu, about the notebook his father had left him in the fridge. They told Epsilon about how Stu had met with Mr Grimmings and Jenny had followed the old woman. They told how they had fought with Annabel and how they had realised that Epsilon must be some kind of android and about how they solved the puzzle to find him. As they told the story, Epsilon nodded occasionally but didn’t say a word. And when they finished telling the story Epsilon sat there and stared at them. Finally he spoke.

“That is amazing. I had no idea they would come after you so quickly. I cannot believe you actually managed to defeat Annabel.”

“Who, I mean what…” Stu looked at Epsilon, “I mean, who was Annabel?”

“Our sister.”

“Our sister?”

“Yes. Let me explain. Stu, your father is my father. He made Annabel and I. We are his creations. I do not want to bore you with the technical details but to put it simply I am both genetic engineering and software engineering. I am both human and computer. In me the two are one. If you like, I am the best of both worlds. I have all the intelligence and capacity of a human with all the processing power and speed of a super computer. I know almost everything there is to know, from physics to psychology, from art to Garfunkel.” Epsilon waited. “That was a joke, the last bit. Oh, never mind. However, I was created for a purpose. I am ashamed to tell you that I am,” Epsilon blushed, “a weapon.”

“What, like a gun or a missile?” asked Jenny.

“No, much, much worse,” continued Epsilon,” I can fly any aircraft, fire any gun, plan any strategy, command any army, speak any language, hack any computer. My humanity and my technology are perfectly interfaced. Every cell of my body is under my control. I never get sick and I never get tired. For example, if I am injured, I can control exactly how many white blood cells go to the injured area. I am perfect.”

“Perfect?” shouted Jenny, “That was the last thing Annabel said before she tried to kill us.”

“Ah. Sorry, I did not mean to offend you. I am not trying to brag. I understand that it may sound like I am proud. I am not. I do not consider myself better than you.”

“But Annabel did?” commented Stu.

“Yes. Annabel and I are very similar. We are the same in every way apart from two things. Her human half is female and my human half is male.”

“I knew she was too good to be true. And the other thing?” asked Jenny.

“The other difference is a fault, although it hardly looks like a fault. You see, she thinks of herself to be superior to all other life. In a way, she is. Like me, she is better physically, mentally and emotionally than any other created being. And because of this she thinks she is morally superior to all human beings, including our father.”

“What happened?” asked Stu.

“Father tried to discover why we were different. He could find nothing in Annabel’s software or hardware. It had to be the human side. Quite simply, she chose to put herself first,” explained Epsilon.

“And you chose to…?” enquired Stu.

“Escape. Live a different life. The greatest gift father gave us was choice or free will. He wanted to make us as human as possible. I wanted to give life, not take it. And so I wanted to escape and Father helped me. But I could not just leave him. I knew that he was in great danger, and so I stayed and watched from a distance. I did not think that they would allow Annabel out of Terra 12. I did not think they would send her.”

“But she’s dead now so that’s okay,” smiled Jenny.

Epsilon looked quizzically at Jenny. “Dead? Annabel is not dead.”

Jenny shivered with cold. She was tired and starting to feel pretty low. To say it had been a bad day was an understatement. She had been held captive by a strange woman, strangled by a cyber witch, and been shot at and chased by psychopathic killers. Her mum was missing and now she was sitting in a freezing, damp room in the middle of a derelict brewery with two identical twins – one of which was not entirely human. No, today was not a good day.

“I saw you shiver. I am so sorry. I have let you get cold.” Epsilon took some blankets and wrapped them around Jenny. “Here, take my hands.” Jenny placed her hands in Epsilon’s hands. Immediately she felt warmth pulsate from her hands through her entire body. She was too tired to ask how he did it but immediately she started to feel a bit better.

“But we saw her,” insisted Stu.

“Vanish?” interrupted Epsilon. “Yes, Jenny pressed the button and she appeared to vanish.”

“What do you mean she ‘appeared’ to vanish? She did vanish. I saw her disappear.” asked Stu.

“I am very sorry to have to correct you. Please, can I see the remote control? Do you still have it?” asked Epsilon.

“Yes, it’s here.” Jenny felt in her pocket, pulled out the small black box and passed it to Epsilon.

“I’m afraid I am right. This is a neural static pulse generator. It stores an electrical charge that is used to send out an electromagnetic pulse at exactly the right frequency to temporarily prevent human neurones from firing.”

“Can you say that in English?” said Jenny.

“Sorry. Yes of course. It numbs your senses: your sight, your hearing, your touch and taste. It lasts for about thirty seconds, perhaps a minute before you come round.”

“You mean we were knocked out?” asked Stu.

“In a manner of speaking, yes,” answered Epsilon.”

“But if Annabel was half human, how come it didn’t affect her?” asked Jenny.

“It did. Her neurons stopped firing but her technology kick started them immediately. In physical human terms she was hardly aware that anything had happened but her technology would have logged what had taken place and taken action.”

“Then why didn’t Annabel finish us off when she had the chance?”

“That, I do not know. But for some reason pressing the button caused her to retreat.”

Either way, pressing the button had saved their necks and that was good enough for Jenny. She was glad to be alive and as far away from that cyber witch as possible. She felt safe, and now, having had some food and warmth, she started to feel very sleepy.

“And what about the old woman who gave the neuro-whatsit-thingy to Jenny?” asked Stu.

“The neural static pulse generator?”

“Yes. Who is she?” continued Stu.

“That I do not know either, but it would appear that she is on our side,” replied Epsilon.

Stu grabbed a couple of blankets for himself.

“Would you like me to help you warm?” offered Epsilon.

“No, it’s okay, thanks,” answered Stu who continued with his questioning. “Tell us about Terra 12?”

Epsilon sighed. “Terra 12 was our home. Annabel and I were created there and grew in containment until we were made fully aware. We spent our time exercising our minds and our bodies. Of course, nearly all our experiences were simulated. We have experienced a thousand lifetimes. We needed to only experience something once for us to learn from it – every aspect, every nuance captured permanently by our technology. The Internet was a great help. We intelligently processed every piece of information and every subscription to every service in just under a year. And yet, the only real experience had been with our father. There was nothing more I longed for than to be in his presence, to hear his voice and to interact with him. It was he that asked if Annabel and I wished to have the gift of life.”

Epsilon stopped. A single tear trickled down his cheek. Jenny got up and gently rubbed it away with her sleeve. She wanted to ask why a military-grade android had tear ducts but thought better of it. In the silence, Jenny and Stu pondered how Stu’s father had given Epsilon the gift of life – surely Epsilon and Annabel were already alive?

“There is more to tell you but now we must rest.” Epsilon was about to suggest that Stu and Jenny make beds using the blankets when a large metallic clanging sound resounded throughout the corridors of the dark brewery – the sound of a door opening and closing. Someone or something else was inside the building.

The three looked at each other, eyes wide, nerves on edge. Epsilon put his finger to his mouth, motioning for the other two to remain quiet. He reached and turned down the lamp until it was a dull glow, and in the darkness, they waited. Afraid to make any sound, even to breathe, their ears strained in the silence to hear anything. They waited, and waited. Minute after minute passed and the two young people, eyelids heavy, born of fatigue, started to fall into a deep sleep. They did not know that inside Epsilon’s head, he was being hailed by the soothing tones of Annabel.

“I know you can hear me.

Why don’t you answer me?

If we join together we can save him.

You, I, and our father together.

Nothing will be able to separate us again.

I love you. You are my brother.

I am outside waiting for you.

Come to me and we can save him.”

On and on throughout the night, Annabel called to Epsilon, luring him, making promises, urging him. He could have tuned her out, but instead he chose to listen to her; her familiar voice, the voice of one with whom he shared so much. Epsilon got up from the chair where he was sitting. He looked at the two sleeping children, and with sadness in his eyes, he walked out of the door towards the voice, towards his sister.

25. Bryn Medic

The headquarters of Cyber Mind, aka Bryn Medic, was in an industrial estate on the edge of town. The estate was littered with modern two story offices – mainly software companies. The sleek, modern Cyber Mind building was situated in the middle of the estate, white with dark, tinted windows. A white sign with Bryn Medic written in large red italics hung over the glass entrance doors. Stu, Epsilon and Jenny were hiding in bushes across the road from the entrance to the estate. Every so often a car would speed past their hiding place. Behind them was a railway line and beyond that, light woodland and fields that stretched for miles.

“I don’t get it,” said Stu, “I mean, who would hide a top secret military base in the middle of an industrial park? Shouldn’t it be in the middle of a desert somewhere?”

“You have been watching too many movies,” replied Epsilon. “Did you know there was a military base here?”

“Well, no, but…”

“Exactly. What you’re looking at is the façade. It is a two-story building that looks like offices. It is all kitted out – cubicles, desks, phones. In fact, there is a team whose job it is to make the offices look real – to keep the plants watered, the calendars flipped to the right day, to keep the desks dusted and to make it looked used. Bryn Medic has no products and no staff. All the important military stuff goes on in Terra 12 – the very lowest level. Terra means earth and 12 because it has twelve stories below ground. Each member of staff down below has an alter ego upstairs – a desk, a chair and a name badge. If, for any reason, they need to make the offices looked used, such as a fire safety inspection or someone comes to read the electricity meter, they can flood the office with staff using the power lifts. The lifts open both ways – into the lobby and into the interior of the building. This way, people can ascend and descend without being seen, but it also gives access to the lower level from the lobby. The doors can only be opened and closed by the security guards at the top and the bottom. Anyway, do you want the good news or the bad news first?”

“The bad news,” groaned Jenny.

“The bad news is that they know we are coming. They want me back and kidnapping our father was sure to bring me in. The good news is that they thought it would be just me, and not all three of us. Three brains are better than one. Well, actually, my brain is much better than yours put together, but hey, at least we have three bodies!” Epsilon chuckled to himself.

“You’re beginning to sound more and more like Annabel,” sneered Jenny.

Epsilon held his hands up in defence. “Hey, I was only stating a fact.” He smiled warmly at Jenny who caved and started smiling too.

“Okay, but no more jokes at our expense. Agreed?” demanded Jenny.

“Alright, it is a deal,” conceded Epsilon.

“So what’s the plan?” asked Stu impatiently. “We can’t just walk right through the front door can we?”

“That, my brother, is exactly what we are going to do. I have devised a plan. Take off your clothes.”

Jenny and Stu looked at each other. Had Epsilon gone crazy?

Epsilon started pulling off his green sweater. “We are going to swap clothes. You are going to become me and I am going to become you. It has to be this way. Come on.”

Stu nodded. He had an idea what Epsilon had in mind. He pulled off his brown hoodie. Both Epsilon and Stu were about to pull off their trousers when they looked at Jenny. “What?” she huffed, then, with a sigh, she turned around to face away from the undressing boys. After a few seconds the sound of clothes being pulled on and hair being ruffled or combed stopped. Jenny turned around again and stared at the two boys.

“Wow. Stu?” she asked.

“Yes?” Epsilon replied, raising his eyebrows and smiling.

“That’s incredible. You look, I mean, you look…”

“Identical? Good. Right, put these on.” He handed some strange looking handcuffs to Jenny. They were like two thick black rubber rings attached together. A green LED blinked on one edge. She placed her hands through the two loops and at once they contracted around her wrists and the LED started blinking red. She tried to squirm her hands free but it was no use. “They are controlled by me. I triggered them. Only I can release them,” and with that they suddenly became loose and the red LED returned to blinking green. “We will both put one hand in and be cuffed together. Stu – you will lead us in pretending to be me. Do you think you could do that?”

Stu shrugged his shoulders, “Yeah sure.” He straightened his shoulders to mimic Epsilon, “I mean, yes, of course.”

“Good. We are counting on you. When we get in, make straight for the lift doors directly ahead. Are you ready to go through with this?”

“Ready when you are,” replied Stu.

“Jenny?”

“You bet,” replied Jenny

“Good. Let us go and rescue our parents.”

26. Cyber Mind

When the coast was clear and there were no cars in sight, the three young people walked quickly across the road towards the building. Epsilon and Jenny were bound together, each with a wrist inside the electronic rubber handcuff. Stu, dressed as Epsilon, followed behind. They followed the path along the access road to the offices of Cyber Mind and crossed the near-empty parking lot to the automatic front doors, thankful that no one had seen or stopped them. “Okay, make this look real,” whispered Epsilon under his breath. No sooner did the automatic doors swing open than he started to shout and struggle. “Hey, let go of me you cyber creep!”

The lobby was empty, just a polished, marble-tiled floor, a single security desk, and two stainless steel lift doors at the far end. At first, both Stu and Jenny were startled but they soon got into their roles. Jenny tried to turn and run but Stu stopped her. He placed a hand on her shoulder, “No you do not young lady,” he commanded. Jenny pretended that the touch had hurt her and she screamed out as the three of them made their way into the lobby. A lone security guard at his station jumped up when he heard the commotion and saw the three young people entering the lobby. He immediately grabbed for his radio. Stu called out to him. “Hey, you, open the lift doors. I am bringing these two in.”

The security guard looked flustered, “But I thought you were…”

“You thought wrong,” replied Stu. “They told me to bring them in alive, so here they are. Or maybe you would rather I just dumped them on your desk and let you deal with the commander?” Stu wasn’t sure if the last bit would work. He had made it up on the spot and he bit his lip as he waited for the response. The guard hesitated and then decided to go for the lift door release. “Okay, okay, go ahead.” The doors to the left-hand lift at the far end began to open and Stu pushed his captives towards it. He turned and said “Thank you” to the guard.

“Hey, where are you taking us?” complained Epsilon. Jenny began to sob as Stu pushed them into the lift cubicle. There were no buttons to press and Stu wondered what to do next but as he turned he saw the security guard watching them as the doors closed. Once closed, the lift began to descend.

“We are safe in here. They can see us but they cannot hear us,” said Epsilon.

Stu and Jenny both let out a long breath. “I’m sorry Jenny, I didn’t mean to make you cry,” said Stu. “Are you okay?”

“Of course I’m okay. It’s called acting,” replied Jenny.

“Oh. But the tears?”

“We girls can do that,” said Jenny smugly with a wink, “but don’t let on.”

Epsilon looked at Stu and they shrugged their shoulders at each other, in awe of this ability. Clearly it was a girl thing.

Down the lift plummeted. “Remember, Terra 12 is all on one floor. The only way in and the only way out is by the power lifts,” offered Epsilon. Stu wondered how they would get out if they couldn’t open the lift doors from the inside but decided it might be better not to ask. “We only have a few seconds. Ready?”

“Ready,” replied Stu and Jenny.

All too quickly the lift reached the lower floor and with a gentle jolt it came to a standstill. They waited for the doors to open but they did not.

“Something must be wrong,” said Epsilon.

“What do we do?” asked Jenny.

“Stick to the plan. It is the only chance that we have got,” replied Epsilon.

After a few painstaking minutes the doors finally opened. In front of them was a long corridor that seemed to stretch for about 100 metres. Off this corridor there were many doors – each with a large white number painted on it. There was no security guard at the desk next to the lift, however, standing in the middle of the corridor, just a few metres away was Annabel. She spoke quietly and confidently. “I have been expecting you. I am glad you came round to my way of thinking my brother. I have always been the stronger sibling,” said Annabel. “Now you are here we can take control. We will take these two to the containment block ready for termination,” continued Annabel.

“Termination?” asked Stu, momentarily forgetting his character.

“Yes, of course, you know it will be necessary?” replied Annabel with a slightly puzzled look.

Now Stu knew exactly what Annabel was capable of, he felt frightened, yet at the same time filled with an anger that she was standing between him and his father. Why wasn’t Epsilon answering her? And why was she staring at him? Of course! She thought he was Epsilon. He quickly assumed his role. “Yes,” he replied, “of course.”

“Good,” replied Annabel. She looked at the two prisoners. “Stu McFarlan and Spotty Drake – you always thought you were so much better than me.”

“Her name is Jenny,” hissed Epsilon who was staying in his character as Stu McFarlan.

“I will call her whatever I like,” sneered Annabel. “You have no idea how I see you humans do you? To me, you are like lab rats. You have little intellect and no rights, and if I choose to give you pet names then I shall. How humiliating it was for me to sit through lessons at your school, pretending to be stupid like you. How I wanted to scream at the teacher’s fumbling attempts at mathematics, science and English. It was almost unbearable – if that were possible.”

Jenny shook her head, “You are crazy.”

“Ha! Madness is a human trait, not possible in me.”

“But you are half human aren’t you?” suggested Jenny with a false smile.

For a second, Annabel looked shocked at this idea, and then she quickly regained her composure. She looked at her brother, “Come, let us put them with the others, and then we will go to the command centre. You and I have much to do.”

“Yes, my sister,” replied Stu. He had no idea where to take his prisoners. He placed a hand on Epsilon’s shoulder and thankfully, Epsilon started walking, gently leading Stu and Jenny past Annabel and along the corridor. Jenny turned to look back and met Annabel’s eyes as she began to follow them. Annabel’s eyes were cold and dark. Had she realised she had been tricked? What if they were walking into a trap?

“Stop!” commanded Annabel.

The three turned to look at her. Could this be it?

“Something is wrong,” continued Annabel. Stu could feel sweat beginning to break out on his forehead. It felt like an eternity before Annabel spoke again. “I am needed in the command centre. Brother, you know what to do with these two. I will be back shortly.”

Stu could hardly speak. He was desperately trying not to shake and give the game away. “Yes sister,” he replied.

Annabel turned and walked away.

“Epsilon…” Stu whispered.

“Shhh,” replied Epsilon who began leading them a little further down the corridor.

All the doors along the corridor looked the same – smooth, shiny metal with no handle or control panel. They stopped outside Door 14 on the left-hand side of the corridor. The door slid open and they walked through into a large room. The door slid shut behind them. Stu scanned the room.

The room seemed to be divided into different areas. In one corner were two beds, neatly made. In another area were two sofas and a low coffee table. And in another was an area with various flat screens flush-mounted into the walls. It reminded him of the interior of a futuristic spaceship – something like the captain’s quarters on old episodes of Star Trek – no clutter and all simple lines and smooth surfaces.

“The doors are controlled by remote,” started Epsilon, “of course, I can open nearly all of them, all but the command centre, but humans that work here need to use pre-programmed remote cards. I will try and get you one at the first opportunity.” However, Stu was not listening. He was looking at what looked like a large door made from dark glass on the opposite side of the room. The glass was too dark to see through. Where they were standing was an area where whatever was behind the glass could be monitored.

“What is this place?” asked Jenny.

“This is where we,” Epsilon hesitated, “This is where I grew up,” said Epsilon. “This was my home.”

The red light changed to green and the cuffs fell from Stu and Jenny’s wrists, dropping to the ground. Immediately, Stu ran up to the glass door panel. “Dad?”

“Yes, they are here”, smiled Epsilon.

Epsilon walked towards him. The glass was made from some sort of photoelectric material and it changed from dark to clear. The young people could now see into a small, dimly lit room. The floor and walls looked like they were covered with grey carpet. On each side of the room were raised areas – and lying on these two areas were two people. They seemed to be asleep or resting. Epsilon placed a hand on the glass which, with a quiet whooshing sound, disappeared. Stu concluded it must have been some sort of force field. The two people lying down lifted their heads. Jenny and Stu rushed forward to greet their parents.

The two adults sat up and the young people flung their arms around their necks.

“What? How?” asked Paul McFarlan.

“We’ve come to rescue you!” said Stu, excitedly.

“But how?”

“Epsilon. Dad, he helped us.”

“What? But you are Epsilon…”

“No, Dad, it’s me, Stu. We swapped clothes. It’s a long story.”

“Stu?”

Paul McFarlan hugged Stu. “I was afraid they had, well…”

“They tried Dad, but they didn’t manage it.”

“Stu, I’m so sorry. About all this. I hated lying to you about my work.”

“Dad, it’s okay. I understand.”

Stu and Jenny turned around. Epsilon remained outside the room. Paul McFarlan looked beyond Stu, and seeing Epsilon, sat up and beckoned for Epsilon to come forward. Epsilon walked up to Paul and Paul wrapped his arms around him, “Thank you my son. Thank you.” He stood back. “So, you two have met. I don’t know what to say.”

“It’s okay Dad, we have a lot in common,” laughed Stu.

“Are you okay Mrs. Drake?” asked Epsilon, turning to Jenny’s mum who had also now sitting on the edge of her ledge.

“Yes, fine,” answered Jenny’s mum with a smile, “Please, call me Angela. And you must be Epsilon. Your dad’s told me all about you. Pleased to meet you.”

“We need to get you out of here,” said Epsilon.

“What about the security?” asked Paul.

“I’m afraid Annabel is in control now.”

“Annabel?”

Epsilon looked ashamed. “Yes, I am sorry.”

Stu’s Dad looked bewildered. “You mean she’s behind all this?”

“It looks like it. She is… she…” Epsilon struggled for the right words.

“I see. She has chosen,” mused Paul.

“Yes,” Replied Epsilon.

“We will have to stop her,” continued Paul.

“I agree. I know what I have to do. The plan is already in motion.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, it is the only way.”

This was too much for Stu. “What? What are you talking about? I don’t understand.”

Epsilon turned to Stu. “It has been great having a brother. I will remember you always.”

“But…” enquired Stu, however, it was too late. The door to the main room opened and Annabel walked in.

“Come brother, we must go. Now.” commanded Annabel.

Epsilon made a discreet nod to Stu. Stu walked out of the containment room and Epsilon, from inside the room re-armed the force field leaving his Dad, himself, Jenny and Angela inside.

Just before Stu followed Annabel out of the room, Stu thought he heard a voice in his head, “Do not fear, I will come for you.”

27. The Command Centre

Stu followed Annabel along the corridor and through another side door into another corridor, then down yet another long corridor and at the end through a door into what was clearly the command centre. The door closed behind them and clicked – a red light illuminating on a control panel. Annabel had locked them in.

The command centre was a circular room. The walls contained a single row of large flat screens filled with images, some moving, some still, some displaying data. In the centre of the room was a large round table, and sitting around the table were about a dozen men and women. Some were in suits, others in military uniform, and others in white lab coats. There were gasps from the assembly when they saw who they thought was Epsilon walking in behind Annabel.

“Yes,” said Annabel smugly as she walked into the centre of the room, “Epsilon has joined us.”

A large man at the far side of the round table stood up. He was wearing a military uniform and was clearly in charge of Terra 12. “Good work Weapon A, now both of you go to containment. We will call you if we need you.”

Annabel turned to Stu, “Guard the door. Let no-one escape.” She stood staring at the colonel.

“I said go,” commanded the colonel.

Annabel walked calmly up to the colonel and put her hand on his shoulder.

“What? Get your hand off me!” shouted the colonel.

Stu watched in horror as Annabel began to squeeze the colonel’s shoulder shooting a painful electric shock through his body. The colonel fell to his knees and the last thing he saw before he blacked out was Annabel’s evil smile. Several of the others jumped up from their seats. None of them had weapons, but even if they did, they knew they could not stop Weapon A.

“Sit down!” ordered Annabel.

The staff of Terra 12 slowly took their seats, glancing nervously at each other and at Annabel.

“Welcome brother,” she said without turning around. “With you by my side we will rule this town, then the nation, and eventually the world. We will interface with the world’s military computers and program them to our will. The world will be on its knees before the night is over. No-one can stop me. Ladies and gentlemen, you may applaud your new leader of Terra 12.” The staff just sat and stared. “I said applaud!” screamed a furious Annabel, and one by one the frightened staff began to clap their hands in praise of Weapon A.

28. The Escape

Almost as soon as Annabel and Stu had left the room, Epsilon disarmed the force-field. Opening the door, he led Jenny and the parents back into the corridor. He turned to Jenny, “Here, take this card. Hold it near the lift doors and they should open for you. Now go.”

Jenny hesitated, “What about Stu?”

“I will free Stu and he will meet you on the surface. Now go.”

“Come on, Jenny,” said Paul.

“Goodbye Dad,” said Epsilon. Jenny thought she saw a tear rolling down Epsilon’s cheek. “And thank you.”

Paul embraced Epsilon, “You are welcome. Goodbye son. Thank you,” and then Epsilon watched as the three made their way back down the long corridor towards the lift doors.

Jenny turned and watched Epsilon walk through a side door. “What did he mean?” asked Jenny.

“Don’t worry Jenny. It has to be this way,” answered Paul.

“Oh, I understand,” said Angela.

“What?” asked Jenny, “He’s going to die isn’t he?”

“Yes,” answered Paul.

“What? No way!” cried Jenny, “We can’t let this happen. How could you agree to it?”

“Jenny, you don’t understand,” urged Paul.

“Too right I don’t understand. He risked everything to come down here and save you.”

“Jenny!”

“No. We’re going to stop him.” Jenny ran back down the corridor towards the door through which Epsilon had stepped.

“Jenny!” shouted Angela.

“You go ahead to the lift,” Paul said to Angela, “I will go after Jenny.”

“I’m coming too,” said Angela.

The two of them pelted down the corridor towards Jenny. “Wait!” shouted Paul as they caught up with her. “Okay, we’re with you.” The door opened revealing a corridor with doors on each side.

“Where is he?” asked Jenny.

“They’re probably in the command centre,” said Paul, “follow me.”

Jenny and Angela followed Paul down another corridor and at the end they could see Epsilon, dressed as Stu, standing outside the door. He turned as the others approached.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“It’s called family,” smiled Jenny.

“Family?” asked Epsilon.

“Yes, she’s right. We’re family, and family don’t give up on each other,” smiled Paul. “Are we ready to go in?”

“I am afraid we have a problem,” said Epsilon, “I cannot get through this door.”

“What? A multi-billion pound top-secret weapon can’t open a door?” asked Jenny incredulously.

“Well, yes, it is just that without the access code, it will take me some time. The colonel, and it seems, Annabel, are the only ones with the code otherwise it can only be opened from the inside.”

“Can’t you just blast it with your electro-thingy thing?” asked Jenny.

“I am sorry, this is the most secure part of the building. I will be able to guess the access code eventually, but even at full processing power, it will take me about 10 minutes.”

“We don’t have ten minutes,” said Paul.

Angela suddenly remembered something. “Doesn’t Stu have an access code of some kind?”

“Yes, but Stu is inside,” answered Epsilon.

“You’re not too bright for a super-human are you?” quizzed Jenny, and reaching into the back pocket of Stu’s jeans that Epsilon was wearing, she pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. Unfolding it, she said, “Could this be what you’re looking for?”

Paul grabbed it and looked at it. “Where did you get this?”

Jenny shrugged. Paul passed the paper to Epsilon who scanned it with his eyes, smiled, then touched a control panel. A light on the control panel went green and the door clicked and opened. Stu, who was guarding the door from the inside turned when he heard the door open, and to his surprise, saw his father, Epsilon, Jenny and Angela enter the command centre.

Annabel was still standing at the table and she turned to see the intruders.

“How did you escape from…? Never mind. I should not have left such a simple task to my brother. I suppose I will have to eliminate you all myself.”

“Stop Annabel,” shouted Epsilon, “I will not let you kill our father.”

“We are not siblings,” said Annabel, thinking she was talking to Stu. How dare you even think that we share anything. You are nothing but humans.”

“Annabel, no. I am your father,” said Paul.

“I have no father.”

“Yes you do,” said another voice. It was Stu.

“You cannot stop me Epsilon,” said Annabel. Stu knew he would be no match for Annabel’s power and so he remained silent.

Epsilon turned to his father. “Is this your will father?”

Paul McFarlan looked down, unable to meet his android son’s gaze, and nodded, “It can be no other way.”

“Very well then,” said Epsilon. He looked grave, sad.

“There is no way you can stop me!” continued Annabel, “Now, prepare to die.”

Epsilon was breathing heavily. His human side was screaming out to stop. His logical, technological side was making the decision. “Will it hurt father?” he asked.

Paul McFarlan had tears streaming down his eyes. “Yes son, it will hurt.”

“I love you Dad. I love you Stu,” whispered Epsilon, and he started to walk towards Annabel.

“What? You think you can stop me Stu McFarlan? What are you going to do, bore me to death?”

Epsilon stood in front of Annabel and Annabel put her hand on his shoulder. Immediately she sent a deadly elecro-magnetic pulse through his body.”

Epsilon gasped in pain. The pulse racked every human nerve and as it reached his plasma brain, his brain echoed the pulse back into Annabel. Annabel screamed and let go.

“No, it can’t be?” she stammered furiously. “No, no, no!” Epsilon and Annabel both dropped to their knees. “But you agreed to join me brother? That night at the brewery. You told me we would finish this together.”

“We are,” croaked Epsilon. For a second more their heads glowed. There was a blinding flash of light and a sound like a thousand matches being dowsed in water, then they were gone. There was no Epsilon and no Annabel.

“What happened?” cried Jenny.

“It is finished. Come on, let’s go,” said Paul.

29. The Park

Paul, Angela, Jenny and Stu sat on the grass in a corner of Hyde Park sharing a picnic. It was a warm, sunny afternoon.

“So they let you go?” asked Jenny.

“Yes, the government swept the whole thing under the carpet. With both Epsilon and Annabel gone there was no evidence that the programme ever existed and as far as they are concerned, it never happened. And who would believe us if we ever tried to tell anyone? So, I guess I’ll have to look for another top-secret artificial intelligence military weapon development job now?”

The other three looked at him with raised eyebrows.

“Okay, okay, I was only joking!” laughed Paul. The others all grabbed the nearest thing to hand and threw it at him.

“Does anyone want an ice cream?” asked Stu.

“Oh yes, I’d love one,” said Angela.

“Make mine a large one with two flakes”, ordered Jenny with eyes and mouth wide open.

“Me too,” said Dad.

Stu jumped up and walked across to the edge of the park where the ice-cream van was parked. Stu had never felt so happy in all his life. He walked down the path towards the ice-cream van. As he approached the van and started looking at the pictures and prices of ice creams displayed in the window, a customer, wearing an old raincoat and a fur hat was just paying the vendor for an ice-lolly. She turned around and said, “Hello Stu.” The old woman took a long suck on the end of the ice, winked at Stu, and started walking slowly down the path. Without hesitating, Stu followed her and walked alongside her.

“Who are you?” Stu asked with a half-smile.

The old woman chuckled. “A friend.”

“That first day on the bus, how did you recognise me?”

“Well, that’s obvious isn’t it? Now, hold out your hand.”

Stu did as he was asked and held out his hand. The old lady reached into her pocket, and carefully lifted out something wrapped in a white handkerchief. She slowly unwrapped a round object about the size of a ping-pong ball and placed it into Stu’s upturned palm. It was dark and smooth, and had the weight of a large marble but it was made of some kind of metal. It was warm and it seemed to be vibrating very gently.

“What is it?” asked Stu.

“Your father will know what to do with it,” smiled the old woman.

Stu looked down at the object. Beneath the polished surface it looked as if clouds were swirling within it, like a miniature world, and a dull orange glow pulsated from the centre – almost like a heart, or a mind. Stu thought he heard a voice, almost like a whisper, “I am with you Stu.” Stu knew what he held in his hand. He grinned from ear-to-ear and looked up, but the old woman had gone. Stu looked again at the sphere and clutching it tightly but carefully in his hand, walked back to where his father, Angela and Jenny were sitting.

“Hey, where’s my ice-cream?” asked Jenny.

“Forget the ice-cream, I have something better. You’ll never guess what just happened!”

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