When Misha (15) is recruited by an organisation who assess stewardship and security risks on developing planets, she uncovers a plot to grab world power. Only Misha, with her too close for comfort connection to the conspirators, can save Earth from dictatorship, or destruction.
Everyone knew it was dangerous. Flipping dangerous. Even Hawking had said so.
“But, sir, why would you be looking for carbon or oxygen? Or water?” Impatiently, Misha shifted in her seat. “Maybe they are completely different from us. Or they don’t want to be found. If they’ve been watching us, they’ll know our track record entering new territories isn’t exactly perfect.”
“Misha Greenwood ...” Mr Ochre, who’d dedicated this lesson to the search for extra-terrestrial life as a break from the curriculum, gritted his teeth. “I want you to stop this right now or I’ll need to ask everyone to open their books, page 37, motion with constant acceleration.”
“You’re spoiling it for the rest of us, Mish.” Jenny Waverly flicked her long blonde hair over her shoulder. “Sir, we really want to hear this, please.”
Misha rolled her eyes. Goody Two-Shoes, tall and thin, perfectly straightened glossy locks, big blue doe-eyes. Everyone loved her. Until they came up-close and personal with her alter ego, miss two-faced-I’ll-make-fun-of-you-when-your-back-is-turned.
“But, sir, I only asked a question. Why would ET need oxygen and water? Maybe he thinks chlorine and sulphuric acid are yummier. Or something we never even heard of. And what if they are listening ... and find us? Maybe they like grilled Homo sapiens chops for dinner. Like, hey, Jim,” Misha shrugged, “It's life, just not as we know it.”
Mr Ochre paled. As if she’d punched him in the gut instead of making a joke, he clutched the edge of his desk, his knuckles turning white. “Life on Earth is carbon-based; it requires oxygen and liquid water to survive and evolve. That is what we are looking for. Now, about the SETI—”
“Enough, Misha! Go and see Mrs White.”
After staring down the grey garden gnome – an addition to the school’s décor which, given the headmistress’s legendary aversion of kitsch, could only be the result of a prank – for fifteen minutes, Misha fished a piece of paper from her bag, scribbled a note and pushed it under the door of Mrs White’s office.
Moping down the hall, Misha mused SETI’s slogan – ‘Are we alone in the Universe?’ She’d only meant to ask ... wanted to know if they’d recognise life unlike anything on Earth. If they weren’t dismissing planets because they couldn’t sustain human life. Sometimes, what she said didn’t come out the way she meant it. Like the Star Trek thingy – ‘It's life, Jim, ....’ Mr Ochre seemed upset about it. And it wasn’t that funny, even if Mr Ochre’s first name was James.
Halfway down the corridor, Misha glared back at the headmistress’s office. Mum constantly reminded her she was only accepted at Blue Hill as a special favour – Mum played badminton with Mrs White. But ... so what!? There were more secondaries in Tunbridge Wells. Maybe, if she still had a dad, or grandparents or siblings, Mum wouldn’t be so uptight. But Dad died when she was three months old; her grandparents before she was born. Shivering, Misha wrapped her arms around herself. Mr Ochre should be the one reporting to the headmistress. He was such a stickler for the curriculum. What if Newton, Einstein and Hawking hadn’t dived headfirst into the deep, dark unexplored lake of science, but instead had continued sedate laps in the sterile, chlorinated pool of the syllabus? There was truth to the adage, ‘Those who can, do; those who can't, teach’. Maybe she should mention that to Mrs White ... if she was ever granted the privilege of an audience.
Turning right, Misha grinded to a halt and giggled. Another two-foot-tall garden gnome, an exact copy of the one outside Whitey’s office, stood by the French doors to the courtyard – someone was playing a prank!
As she moved on, the dwarf opened his eyes. Sclera, iris and pupils blended into shimmering, silvery almond-shaped eyes, it stared unblinkingly at her retreating back.
Misha shivered, a chill running down her spine. She loved physics. Astronomy and astrobiology. Searching for extra-terrestrial life. Maybe make contact someday, visit other planets. Why hadn’t she kept her mouth shut? Or ... if she’d asked why Stephen Hawking believed extra-terrestrials might be hostile, Mr Ochre wouldn’t have got so angry. Next year, she was old enough to join the astronomy club. But Mr Ochre organised it, decided who joined. Fat chance then, Misha sighed as she turned left into the canteen.
The gnome behind her vanished. A boulder of the exact same shade of grey appeared by the double doors as she walked through. Misha didn’t notice.
“Hey, Gemma, any left-over doughnuts?”
Misha and Gemma – at nineteen, Blue Hill’s youngest dinner lady – had been friends since September, the first day of term, when Jenny Waverly had with high-pitched innocence accused her of short-changing her. Gemma, a former math’s student, saw through her. Unimpressed, she’d stood her ground. Misha then ‘accidently’ bumped into Goody Two-Shoes, spilling hot chocolate over her brand-new white blouse and maroon-trimmed, light-grey blazer. As Jenny’s tirade penetrated the depths of the kitchen, Cookie stomped out. At the sight of the forty-something amateur bodybuilder, armed with a ladle and recollections of tears spilled over similar incidents, Jenny cut her losses. At a table in the corner, she and her lackeys had sentenced Misha to a lifetime ban in Blue Hill’s social circle’s outermost ring.
“What was it this time?” Gemma grabbed a blueberry muffin from a wicker basket and marched Misha to a Formica table. “Here, that’s all that’s left. You need to get your act together, Mish. Do you want to end up like me? You’re far too smart for that.”
Misha shrugged and bit into her muffin.
“Jimmy Ochre, he’s got it in for me. I only asked a simple question and then—”
“Hey! What’s that?” Misha interrupted herself.
“Nothing,” Gemma said curtly, pulling her sleeves down.
But Misha kept staring at the bruises, which like bracelets of marbled, red and purple and yellow gemstones encircled her wrists.
“The door slammed, I tried to catch it,” Gemma crossed her arms on the table, hiding her wrists behind her elbows. “What did Mrs White say?”
“I didn’t see her, she’s on the phone.” Misha frowned. This wasn’t the first time Gemma brushed her off when she noticed her bruises.
“I left a note – said I was off to lunch.” Rolling her eyes, Misha wiped crumbs of her skirt. “Okay, I’ll go, see if she’s got time for me now.”
Misha kicked off her shoes and dropped Mrs White’s letter on the kitchen table. Mum would find it when she got home from the office. Mrs White had treated her to a triple dressing down. One for challenging Mr Ochre, one for the ‘insolent’ note and a bonus ticking-off for quoting the ‘those who can't’ maxim.
Balancing a tray with mini Battenbergs and a glass of coke, dragging her backpack behind her, she stomped up the stairs of their semi-detached townhouse.
Her bag banged into the back of her legs and coke soaked the pink-and-yellow cakes.
“Crap.” Grumbling to herself, Misha leaned on the door handle, pushing it down.
“Jeez!” As she stumbled into her bedroom, her glass sailed across the metal tray. She caught it, but cold, sticky coke sloshed over her hands.
Misha froze, her heart beating in her throat, as the door closed soundlessly behind her.
Worse than a trip to France
A grey-haired, grey-skinned dwarf, sporting garments in matching shades of grey to complete its ton sur ton guise, stared straight at her. The tiny-what-ever-it-was’s silver grey clashed spectacularly with the blue-slate upholstery of her desk chair. As it sat there like a drab garden gnome, glaring at her, unblinking, straight-backed, feet dangling of the edge, Misha flung her tray at the creature. Her heart racing, she shuffled backwards, her trembling hands feeling for the door handle.
“Sorry, I’m not supposed to frighten you. Is this better?” the thing said, morphing into a miniature version of Justin Bieber in his teens. “I was told this person is a trusted and admired figure amongst humans of your age group.”
“Get real, Bieb’s ancient. Nice meeting you, but I really have to go now,” Misha squeaked, catching hold of the door handle. She pulled, yanked, wrenched it.
It didn’t budge. She pulled again, eyeing the ... thing at her desk. Dwarfs like that didn’t exist. Whatever this was – dream, nightmare, hallucination –, she wanted it to end. Panic blazing in her chest, cottonwool stuffing her brain, jelly legs, Misha hung off the door handle.
“Don’t bother, it’s locked,” mini-Bieber grumped, studying a poster over Misha’s bed and morphing into mini-Einstein. “Enough time waisted, you don’t want to be late.”
With surprising speed and agility, the wild-haired-creature jetted to Misha’s side.
Misha kicked at it, opened her mouth to scream.
“Don’t do that,” It said, before squeaking mockingly, “Help, I’m a damsel in destress. That’s so passé, my dear.” The dwarf bounded up. Clutching a fistful of school jumper, he stuck to her like Sticky Willy. “By the way, my name is Quade.”
Trying to shake off clingy Quade, Misha lost her balance. Tumbling back against the bedroom door, her soggy socks sagged down her toes as he lifted her off the wet carpet. Misha, her mouth agape, a scream caught in her throat, folded her arms over her head. But the impact stayed out.
Quade pulled her into a funnel, that burrowed through the ceiling, the roof, the clouds, and on and on.
The walls of the funnel twisted, turned and squeezed like an errant giant kaleidoscope. The colours were astonishing, dazzling, and dizzying. Misha wanted to close her eyes, but the polychromatic gallimaufry was hypnotising. The glow and the intensity were soothing and electrifying simultaneously. Every colour, every shade, every hue Misha had encountered in the full fifteen years of her existence was there. And more. Much more. A rainbow augmented with everyone of Earth’s pigments – earth, sky and ocean – wouldn’t come close. Despite her queasiness, Misha reached out. On her outstretched hand she felt the warmth of the ambers, the chill of the arctic blues, the sting of the neons.
The funnel widened and – with a dull plop – spewed Misha out onto a rich brown-ochre stage-like elevation. She glimpsed into the vast, chairless auditorium. It swayed, and she tried to blink it away. With mini-Einstein clinging on, the neckband of her jumper strained against her windpipe. Tugging at her collar, Misha dry-heaved. This was worse than carsick. Even the trip to France with her mum, last year on her birthday, on a ferry, in stroppy weather, hadn’t been this bad.
“Everyone gets sick the first time.” The knee-high creature, back to its grey dwarf appearance, let go and landed beside her. Taking a precautionary step back, it straightened its jacket and bowtie. “Don’t be sick on me. And don’t eat before I collect you, you weren’t supposed to have that muffin. If they sign you on, it might be a good idea to stay away from Gemma anyway. Follow me.”
Misha trudged after Quade, off the podium, across the auditorium, through tall double doors into a long, high-ceilinged moss green corridor, leaving behind a trail of size-four, sticky-coke sockprints. “What’s Gemma got to do with it? And I’m not sick.” Misha swallowed. Then trying to breathe away her nausea, she sniffed. It smelled like a forest. Earthy and fresh and real – unlike her mum’s plug-in air fresheners. Slowing down, she scanned the tall green walls for a window.
“This way.” Not slowing down, Quade turned right into an azure corridor that smelled of the seaside – silty and slightly fishy, like freshly washed-up seaweed.
“Don’t be slow. We have no use for loafers.”
“You shouldn’t have taken me then,” Misha gruffed. If, instead of jogging after Quade, she’d refused to leave that podium, the dwarf who was obviously in a hurry to get wherever he was supposed to get to, would’ve had no choice but to take her home.
At a reception area, Quade stopped abruptly. “Wait here,” he instructed, disappearing behind a semi-circular desk and through a door tall enough for a giraffe to mosey through without having to stoop.
Misha looked around her. No receptionist, no papers, no screens. No phone, no company logo. Not even the obligatory Ficus or orchid.
“Where am I?” she demanded when Quade reappeared after a couple of seconds.
“Parsidus. BASTA – Basic Audit Selection and Testing Agency. I got you here on time.”
Stamping his grey-booted feet impatiently, Quade glared at the door. “They’re running late. Why don’t you park your bum ...” he nodded sharply at a row of silver-grey wooden seats that lined the halfmoon-shaped area’s wall, “And wait like the good girl you’re supposed to be. I have better things to do than babysit applicants.”
Misha blinked. Quade had vanished, transposing himself halfway down the blue corridor.
“Don’t go looking for food.” Quade turned on his heels. “There isn’t any.”
Then he was gone.
Basta ... Parsidus ... Applicants?... A grey dwarf who liked Bieber? Staring down the empty hall, Misha pinched the sensitive skin at the bottom of her lower arm.
If she was asleep or unconscious or whatever, she was imagining this all, pinching included, Misha scolded herself. If it was real, she was in for a whopper of a bruise and not – she blew a strand of hair from her face – a hairbreadth closer to home. Sliding on her socks over the gunmetal, stone floor, she stole back into the corridor.
Misha spun back around, trying to look casual, as the door swung open, and a stubby, dark-haired boy of her age, with an accent that darted between American and English exited the office.
“Has Quade been giving you a hard time? Don’t take it personally. Quade’s always cranky, but he’s worse since his boyfriend dumped him. Besides, it’s Pimullio teatime. I’m Ethan.”
“Misha. Did they,” Misha nodded in the direction Quade had disappeared in, “kidnap you too?”
“Kidnapped?” Ethan laughed. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing like that, it only feels like that the first time. They ...” he thumbed at the door, “asked me to tell you they’ll be ready for you in a minute. Amica will come and fetch you.”
“Ethan!?” A tall bespectacled boy stuck his head out of another office. “You ready?”
“Sorry, gotta go,” Ethan said. “When you’re done, they’ll arrange transport back to Earth. See y’ later, Misha. ... Maybe.”
Back to Earth? Misha rolled her eyes at Ethan and his friend disappeared around a corner. Did they really think she’d believe she was on ... another planet?
“Not on your nelly,” she huffed under her breath. There was something seriously wrong with these people or, in case of the grey dwarf, these whatevers. But who, what, or wherever, she had to get out of here.
Hearing someone mentioning her name, Misha looked at the door. Ethan hadn’t closed it properly. Parking mission escape from planet whatever, ignoring Quade’s instruction to park her bum – dwarfs weren’t supposed to be that rude –, she listened. But whoever spoke now, spoke too softly. Biting her lip, Misha inched closer and lowered herself on the floor beside the door. If this was a dream, nothing bad could happen; if it wasn’t, she should hear.
“… they’re too close and there are the other complications to consider. Anyway, it’s too near the date,” said an obstinate male voice.
“She is the most promising candidate. A diamond in the rough, I admit, but we have three months to polish her into a lustrous gem,” another man said in a kinder voice.
“Not quite three months,” grump grumped.
“Vicus is right, Marcus. And, don’t forget, you are in line to lead this project; you need an assistant. Don’t dismiss her out of hand.” Metal scraped over stone, and the soft melodious voice sounded closer, “Talk to her, she’s the final applicant for today. I’ll call her in.”
Frantically, Misha slid across the floor to the bank of silver-grey bucket seats. She pulled herself up on an armrest and dashed to the reception desk.
A petite brunette with a bob cut appeared at the door.
Holding her breath, so the woman wouldn’t notice her panting, Misha leaned nonchalantly against the desk.
“Hello Misha. We are ready for you now. Please, do come in,” Amica said pleasantly, looking her up and down, like Mum did, checking for missing buttons or encroaching food stuffs.
Uneasy, Misha pulled at her school jumper.
“Thank you.” Amica’s gaze lingered on her wolf-grey skirt. “But we would have swiped the floor tonight, anyway. Brush your skirt and follow me, please.”
Crimson-faced, Misha patted a thin layer of dust.
The ceiling of Amica’s office was high, like the corridors and auditorium she’d arrived in, – twenty feet, at least. And ...
A job offer
A five-foot deep, 3-dimensional hologram of planets, stars and galaxies covered the entire far wall. Gaping at it, Misha resisted the urge to walk over and step inside.
“Impressive, isn’t it.” Amica steered Misha to an oval, polished steel ten-seater meeting table.
From across the table an older man with a twinkle in his eyes smiled at her. The younger man beside him ignored her, flipping through a virtual leather-bound folder that drifted inches above the table’s steel surface.
“Please, sit down, Misha. I’m Amica, coordinator of UWAP’s Earth division. Vicus ...” Amica nodded at the grey-haired man, “... is head of species’ resources. Marcus, if you are accepted into the program, will be your mentor. Is there anything you'd like to ask before we explain why you are here?”