Authors: Christopher Pike
What lies beyond the end of the world?
A stolen spaceship.
A joy-ride to the stars.
Five young thrill-seekers in a world of wonder.
But one of them has a more dangerous plan – to blast beyond the Tachyon Web, the iron boundary that bars mankind from worlds beyond.
Have they left this world forever?
Eric Tirel first learned of the plans for the illegal space jump from his best friend only a week before it actually took place. Had Eric longer to think about the immensity of what they were attempting, he might have backed out. Had his best friend told him half of what was planned for the trip, Eric probably would have turned him over to the authorities and asked for a reward. As it was, Eric found out the truth much too late to make any difference.
Eric Tirel’s best friend was Strem Hark, and besides being an established fun-loving con man, Strem was always late. Eric had been waiting over an hour at the window of the observation tower in the center of Baja Spaceport for Strem to show up. Yet the delay had not bothered him. The view from the top of the tower was fine company: long silver starships rising slowly – practically soundlessly – over the flat blue ocean atop the thrust of their gravitation drives, glistening in the orange evening sun like gigantic fireflies.
He often caught the bullet monorail down from Los Angeles to the spaceport simply to watch the ships disappear over the hazy edge of the Earth’s atmosphere. He had been to the moon and the planets more times than he could remember and had even once made a hyper jump to and from the Vega System, but it was as though he were a kid from the end of the twentieth century.
Spaceships always seemed somehow novel and magical to him. It had been his intention to join The Patrol and spend the rest of his life in space. That is, until the academy had returned his entrance application with a form letter that said they didn’t want him, without even saying why. Just thanks but no thanks, and with High Commander General Griffin’s
on the bottom. Well, it was their loss. He probably couldn’t have spent the rest of his life taking orders from those jerks, anyway. It was bad enough listening to his parents reminding him to study more.
“I’ve figured out what we’re going to do over spring break,” Strem said to his back, finally arriving.
Eric did not immediately turn around. One of The Patrol’s cruisers – easy to identify with their distinctive orange and black stripes – was approaching from the southwest. It was possible this very cruiser had hours ago been exploring outside The Tachyon Web, the network of ninety thousand hyper-spatially connected satellites. The Patrol had strung around their corner of the galaxy to prevent civilian pilots from making hyper jumps beyond the confine of The Union. Eric appreciated The Patrol’s desire not to have human beings hopping all over The Milky Way, but he often wondered what they might be hiding out there. Of course, there was the persistent rumor that the human race was engaged in a bloody interstellar war with a hideous alien race that the authorities were afraid to admit for fear of causing a widespread panic. He was not too keen on the war theory. He had come to the conclusion that the government only wanted to keep track of all the civilian pilots for tax purposes. But, since The Patrol had rejected him, he probably would never know for sure.
“Do I have any say on this?” Eric asked, not really offended at Strem’s assumptive planning. Strem always had a wild scheme going. Eric had decided a long time ago it was his purpose in life to keep Strem from accidentally killing himself.
“In that case,
are we doing?” he asked, turning around and wondering at his friend’s exceptionally broad grin. A good percentage of the girls at school were in love with Strem. Eric probably would have been jealous – actually, it did bother him occasionally – if Strem hadn’t so fully deserved their affection. Besides having the best physique strenuous exercise could build, and a face that was both humorous and strong, topped with uncombable blond hair and lit with wild blue eyes, Strem was always upbeat. It was in the record book that once when a lunar shuttle had lost its directional beam and was threatening to crash into the harsh moonscape, a passenger aboard had casually remarked that at least they would have a crater named after them. Then again, Strem had been his only witness when insisting that it had been himself who had made the famous comment.
“We’re going on a little trip,” he said, leaning with his back to the window. The observation corridor was dim, having only the late sun for light, and practically deserted. “How does Easter in the Tau Ceti System sound?”
“Your uncle?” Eric said automatically, feeling his pulse quicken. Strem’s uncle was a trader and had one of the next-to-impossible-to-get pilot licenses. He also owned an ageing twenty-second-century freighter named
whose gravitation drive still packed enough horse-power to push the ship far enough away from the sun to launch a respectable hyper jump. Strem’s uncle had never before offered to take them anywhere. Eric would kiss the old goat’s feet if he’d had a change of heart about passengers. When Eric had traveled to the Vega System it had exhausted a year’s savings in a weekend. But it had been worth it. A freebie was almost too much to hope for. Especially to Tau Ceti. There was a moon there circling the tenth planet that was one gigantic diamond.
Strem nodded. “Uncle Dan just signed a contract with a distributor on Ceti Six for several thousand fiber optic wardrobes. You know those new clothes that light up whenever you move or get excited?”
“I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing one of those outfits,” Eric muttered, not really caring what the cargo was. “What made him change his mind about taking on useless baggage such as ourselves?”
“It’s a long story.”
Eric had learned
line before. What Strem was really saying was, “
You don’t want to know.
“How long will we be there?”
Strem shrugged. “For as long as we like.”
“Your uncle is scarcely in one place two days in a row. How can it be for as long as we like?”
“Because he’s not coming,” Strem said matter-of-factly. Then he burst out laughing. Familiar with his style – Strem loved theatrics when revealing a secret – Eric let him finish.
“He’s being sued,” Strem said finally, chuckling. “A mining company on Titan is accusing him of failure to deliver much-neglected equipment after being paid in advance. Can you imagine? He’s to be in court from now until next month.”
he deliver the equipment?”
Strem waved away the question. “He tried. What else can a man do? Besides, it was the mining company’s fault that they didn’t get the stuff.”
“They should have known better than to pay him in advance.”
Eric shook his head. “I don’t understand. We can’t take
to Tau Ceti.”
“Yes, we can!” Strem said, his hands becoming animated. “I can pilot the freighter, especially with Sammy’s help. There’ll be no problem.”
Sammy Balan was a good friend and the younger brother of the well-known Lien Balan, who was responsible for many of the sophisticated capabilities of the navigational computers in the most-advanced space cruisers. As far as computers were concerned, Sammy was perhaps as gifted as his brother. If left alone, Sammy could probably get them to Tau Ceti. Nevertheless, Eric was beginning to have his doubts.
“This isn’t going to work. We can’t––”
“The distributor needs the goods next week,” Strem interrupted. “If he doesn’t have them by then, the deal’s off.” He put a hand on Eric’s shoulder. “Don’t worry.”
“Aren’t you overlooking a few minor details? How can we get past customs and out of the solar system? They’ll want to talk to your uncle, and if he’s not aboard, they won’t give us clearance.”
Strem stashed away his merry manner and glanced around to be sure no one was listening. Their nearest company was a passionately kissing young couple and they obviously had other things on their minds. “Sammy has been working on tying a holographic film in the
computer,” Strem said quietly.
“And the film is of your uncle,” Eric muttered, catching on fast. Strem was implying that they were going to try to make Central Control believe that Uncle Dan was aboard when he wasn’t. With the quality of present-day recording equipment, a holograph was practically undetectable from the original, especially when transmitted to a point far away, as it would in this case. The visual technicalities of the plan did not trouble him. It was the programming of the image’s responses to Central Control’s variable questions during customs procedure that would be dangerous. Others had tried it in the past and they were now working in chemical factories on Mercury. “Is Sammy’s older brother helping with the programming?” he asked.
Strem shook his head. “This is just between us, believe me.”
Whenever Strem said, ‘
it was always a bad sign. “This illogical. If your uncle is in court and is also supposed to be on his ship going to Tau Ceti, someone somewhere will put two and two together and blow the whistle.”
“He’ll be in court in person. Who’s going to check to see if he’s elsewhere? Central Control will have no reason to check with the judicial system.”
That made sense, sort of. “I’m surprised your uncle is taking such a risk, having us deliver this shipment. If we get caught, he could lose his pilot license.” And what would happen to
, Eric wondered, if Central Control hauled them in? He had never been particularly fond of Mercury. Air-conditioning or not, it was always hot there.
“From the hints he’s dropped, the miners on Titan are going to make sure he loses it, anyway. This shipment is worth a small fortune. He may as well get in one last big score while he can.”
Strem always had an answer for everything. “What’s our percentage?”
“That’s still being negotiated. Come on, what do you say?”
Eric had a dozen objections to raise, but none came out. What he was going to do over spring break, had been weighing on his mind. He hadn’t been looking forward to a couple of weeks of watching movies and hanging out at the beach by himself. Strem had previously mentioned that he would be spending the vacation with his latest girl, Jeanie Clayway, and Sammy had also indicated he would be busy with his girlfriend, Cleo Rettson. If the exotic scheme came off, Eric figured the two girls would also be coming to Tau Ceti.
He hoped he wouldn’t appear the odd guy out. He didn’t have a girlfriend at the moment. Actually, he had never had one, though he dated fairly regularly. He liked to think he hadn’t found anyone that measured up to his standards but in reality he would have been very happy to have a relationship with either of the last two girls he had taken out. Unfortunately, neither Carol nor Barb were returning his calls. He wasn’t sure why. Both of them had appeared to enjoy his company. He suspected that he just didn’t do it for them, physically that was. He wasn’t every female’s fantasy but he knew he wasn’t ugly. He wasn’t as tall or as strong as Strem but regular running had given him a firm wiry frame and he saw a lot of sun and had an excellent tan. His features were dark, his black hair long and curly. Others often remarked upon how thoughtful he appeared, even deep, and he did, in fact, excel in school. The potential was obviously there. Carol and Barb just didn’t know what they were missing. A shame
was missing; they had both been gorgeous.
What the hell, The Patrol didn’t want him and neither did the girls. He needed a change of scenery. “Okay,” he said.
Strem did a double take. “What do you mean?”
“I’ll go with you. It sounds like fun.”
Apparently Strem had expected to have to spend more time convincing him. “You’re not worried that we’ll get arrested?”
“I’m worried that we’ll get killed. Why should I worry about getting arrested?”
Strem slapped him on the shoulder. “I can see I’ve been a good influence on you, after all.” He glanced at the necking couple. It reminded him of something. “I guess you’ve figured we’re taking Jeanie and Cleo?”
“Fine with me, as long as Cleo doesn’t bring her snake.” Sammy’s girlfriend had a ten-foot-long python. Sometimes it seemed she liked her snake more than Sammy, which didn’t bother Sammy one bit. He was obviously more attached to his computers. The two had an interesting relationship. “Do their parents know?”
“Are you kidding?
our parents are going to think we’re safely on Mars. Record a couple of videos and give them to Clark. He’s heading out that way next week. He’ll send them over the ordinary channels to our parents.”
Eric nodded. Tachyon or instantaneous transmission between Earth and Mars was expensive. Their parents would expect them to use standard electromagnetic broadcasts, and traveling at only the speed of light, such an old-fashioned medium would disallow two-way communication. Their parents would never know. Eric was not crazy about lying to their parents but neither was he going to lose any sleep over it.