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Authors: Keith Mansfield

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BOOK: Star Blaze
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Miss Harutunian was first to reply. “I understood Johnny's
grades were just fine. In fact, almost all your teachers tell me he is a moderately gifted pupil.” Johnny felt his face turning red. He tried to avoid drawing attention to himself during class where there was always a temptation to answer too many questions. Miss Harutunian had come to his last two parents' evenings. Like everyone else, the social worker thought that Johnny's mum was being treated in St. Catharine's Hospital for the Criminally Insane while his father was in a high-security prison, both incarcerated for the murder of Johnny's elder brother, Nicky. Only Johnny and Clara knew the true story and no one would have believed them if they'd told it.

For a start, no one else was even aware that Clara existed, apart from the mysterious Dr. Carrington who'd been treating Johnny's mum at St. Catharine's, which turned out not to be a hospital at all but a secret base belonging to the Krun. Sitting in the meeting, Johnny couldn't help thinking it was really unfair that Clara was able to do whatever she wanted and live on the
Spirit of London
, while he still attended school.

“Johnny's ability is not what we're discussing,” replied Mrs. Devonshire, “though I have no doubt his marks would be better were his attendance to become more satisfactory. It is his education that's at stake.”

Johnny thought all his real education took place well away from Castle Dudbury Comprehensive. He only went to the school at all to see his mates, play football (he was in the school team) and ensure he didn't get into trouble with the authorities. Clearly he'd not been going enough, but it was hard to combine studying for GCSEs with jetting around the galaxy.

Mrs. Irvine spoke next. “Here at Ben Halader House,” she said (the Manager was the only person who ever bothered to use the children's home's full title), “we believe the all-round development and well-being of our charges is far more important than marks in a school test.”

“But the boy's hardly here, either,” cut in Mr. Wilkins, before a firm stare from Mrs. Irvine silenced him.

The Manager continued, “Exactly how much time has Jonathan missed?”

“To be right up to date, I printed it out just before I left,” replied Mrs. Devonshire, reaching into a large beige shoulder bag on the floor and picking out the papers that Johnny was sure would spell his doom. All the pupils at Castle Dudbury Comprehensive were issued with a smartcard to register their attendance as they went in and out of lessons and the data was stored in the school database. The headmistress carried on, “Johnny has attended precisely …” but then she stopped mid-sentence. “This can't be right.”

“I'll ask you again,” said Mrs. Irvine. “How much school is Johnny supposed to have missed?”

“It can't be. It's not possible. I don't understand,” said Mrs. Devonshire. Everyone looked at her waiting for the answer, including Johnny—until then he'd been staring at his trainers. Finally the headmistress said, “It's three.”

“Gee, you guys are strict,” said Miss Harutunian. “In trouble for missing three days?”

“No, three lessons,” replied Mrs. Devonshire sheepishly, her face turning the color of her jumper.

“Well, I hardly think that merits Jonathan's removal from Ben Halader House,” said Mrs. Irvine. “If there's nothing else, would you excuse us? There are other matters concerning Jonathan that require our attention.”

“Yes, of course,” said a flustered Mrs. Devonshire rising to her feet and dropping the printouts on the floor. She picked them up, partly recovered her composure, and said, “I shall see you in class first thing Monday morning, Jonathan. And get there early. There's a new health visitor—a Dr. Carrington—coming to the school. You're down on his list for a medical.” With that,
she walked out of the room leaving Mr. Wilkins scowling silently at Johnny, clearly upset at the turn events had taken. Johnny tried to stare back, but lost the blinking contest as his mind drifted to the mysterious doctor—and on to St. Catharine's.

It was there that he'd finally discovered the strange truth about his mum—that, while she'd always appeared human, she was anything but. Comatose for many years in her hospital bed, while somehow held captive by the evil Krun, her human shell had died just months before. Johnny's dad died there too, sacrificing himself for his children by throwing his body in front of the Krun blasters. Johnny and Clara never had the chance to get to know their parents—their father had also been a prisoner of the evil aliens, who tortured him for over a decade before Johnny and his sister came to his rescue. Abandoned in the blood-soaked hospital ward, all had seemed lost until their mother miraculously reappeared, revealing herself to be the Diaquant, a powerful being able to travel through time and space and manipulate the laws of physics themselves. She revived her dead husband's spirit, transforming him, like her, into a creature of pure energy. For a fleeting moment Johnny's family was all together. But then his parents had to go, moving on into some unknown dimension, leaving him and Clara behind on Earth. He was brought back to the present by a cough from Mrs. Irvine.

“Jonathan. As I believe Katherine has told you,” said the Manager, nodding to Miss Harutunian, “she is returning to New York for a fortnight's well-deserved holiday.” Johnny vaguely remembered his social worker mentioning something about going on vacation. “As Mr. Wilkins has expressed an interest in developing his career here, this would seem the perfect opportunity. He will take over your day-to-day care for the next two weeks.”

Mr. Wilkins smiled, thrusting his beard across the table. It wasn't pretty.

Johnny's relief at being allowed to stay evaporated. How could this be allowed to happen? He'd almost rather have been moved to another children's home. Miss Harutunian mouthed a silent “sorry” in Johnny's direction as Mr. Wilkins stood up, revealing blue elasticated trousers around his massive waist. If it were possible, the cook appeared even larger than normal. Johnny hadn't thought anyone—not even Mr. Wilkins himself—could eat that much of his own horrible food.

“Let's make a start, shall we, sonny? You can come and help me get dinner ready.” The cook licked his lips in anticipation of the suffering he was about to inflict on his new charge.

Four hours later, Johnny was finally released from the kitchens. He didn't think he'd ever worked so hard. Dinner had been burgers and chips, which sounded OK but meant that Johnny had peeled and chopped about a million potatoes, as well as covering himself in oil, which he'd had to pour from giant, greasy drums into the deep-fat fryers, only for it to spatter and burn him as it heated and began to bubble furiously. All the time Mr. Wilkins sat in an armchair in the kitchen watching television and occasionally shouting instructions. There was a stash of beef burgers at the back of the grimy fridge, but when Johnny took them out he found most of them had started to go moldy. He showed one to Mr. Wilkins who told him to scrape any spots of fungus off and not be such a baby. Johnny served the food, but only managed a couple of cold chips himself. After dinner, he had to do all the clearing away and washing up. Mr. Wilkins had told him to start preparing breakfast once he'd finished, but the bearded cook fell asleep in front of the TV, holding a can of beer, and Johnny was at last able to escape.

He went straight out of the back door to find Bentley. Despite sheltering in his kennel, the Old English sheepdog's coat felt
freezing cold and he looked pointedly away while Johnny untied his lead. It was late and Johnny wanted nothing more than his bed, but there were things he had to do before turning in. So, with Bentley sulking behind him, Johnny tiptoed along the ground-floor corridor until he came to the Halader House computer room. As always, the door was locked, with a magnetic card reader by its side for access. Nowadays Johnny didn't even have to get very close. He waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the access point and sent the electrons embedded within its wires to their desired locations. There was a soft click, Johnny turned the handle and the door opened.

Inside the computer room was a long central table that housed eight computers. Johnny walked over to the one at the head of the table, switched it on and said, “Hi, Kovac.”

“I suppose you've come to say thank you,” the computer replied. Kovac stood for Keyboard- Or Voice-Activated Computer. Originally, it had simply been a fun and powerful operating system Johnny had written himself but, once Sol had designed a quantum processor for him to fit, the Halader House computer had very much taken on a mind of its own—and not always for the better.

“Thank you for what?” Johnny asked.

“It's not like me to make a mistake,” replied the computer, “but it seems I over-estimated your intelligence. Who else did you think had adjusted the Castle Dudbury Comprehensive School attendance records for you?”

“So that's what happened,” said Johnny. “Thanks. I didn't think.”

“Clearly the thinking around here is best left to myself,” replied Kovac. “So tell me. What taxing mission have you interrupted me for? Perhaps you need me to send a message to one of your friends?”

Johnny felt a pang of guilt—that was mainly what he asked
Kovac to do nowadays and the reason he'd come to the computer room tonight. He missed being away from his ship. Johnny was sure Sol would be fine, but he wanted to send a message just in case. Sensing, though, that it would be better to wait, he suggested Kovac continually monitored all the computer records he could find about Johnny, editing any data that might look suspicious. He also asked the quantum computer to research what would happen to Earth if the Sun became a supernova, and send the information to the specially adapted games console in Johnny's bedroom. He was too tired now but he'd take a look first thing in the morning in case there was anything that might help stop Nymac.

His train of thought was interrupted by Kovac announcing, a little huffily, that there was an incoming transmission on a secure channel. The monitor dissolved into a video image of a teenage girl with brown curly hair and lots of freckles, and a red setter squirming on her lap.

“Hi Louise, hi Rusty,” said Johnny.

Rusty barked so loudly Johnny was worried she might wake Mr. Wilkins along the corridor. At least Bentley stopped sulking and started tapping Johnny's leg, wanting to be picked up. Johnny obliged, but with the sheepdog in his lap, it was difficult for him to see the display.

“Johnny!” replied Louise. “I can't believe it's you—you're impossible to get hold of.”

“I had to come back,” said Johnny. “Stuff at school—all dead boring. So Clara's off on Pluto while I've been scrubbing out the kitchens.”

Louise laughed, but composed herself and said, “Hey—it's good for you to do something normal for a change.”

Johnny smiled. He knew Louise was right and he shouldn't moan. “What's going on with you?” he asked.

“That's why I called—the Proteus Institute's been sold.”

At this Johnny sat up, forcing Bentley onto the floor (the dog gave an offended whine). The Proteus Institute for the Gifted in Yarnton Hill had been Clara's “school,” until Johnny arrived to rescue her. Like St. Catharine's, the place had been another Krun base—and one where they experimented on human children. It was also where the aliens maintained a secret space elevator, a highly efficient way of transporting packages to and from Earth orbit. Johnny should know—he'd been one of those packages.

Louise began to tell him about the new owners. Johnny remembered how lucky he'd been to meet her and wished she'd wanted to stay onboard the
Spirit of London
when he'd asked. She'd been living in Yarnton Hill when she came across Johnny and Bentley and helped them break into the school. As a result she, too, had been captured by the Krun. After Johnny had rescued her, she'd returned home but promised to keep an eye on the institute. For six months the redbrick building, sited in its vast grounds, had been boarded up, with the space elevator dismantled and removed long before Johnny returned to check it out. Hopefully the sale was final proof that the Krun had gone for good. As Louise continued talking, Kovac's screen dissolved into static and the signal was lost.

“Kovac, what's going on? Get Louise back,” he shouted, but the computer didn't reply. Instead the image of a young black-haired man slowly formed from out of the noise. It was difficult to make out his face, as most of it was in shadow.

“Johnny? Is that you?” asked the figure. At the sound of the man's voice, Bentley leapt up, placing his front paws on the table. The sheepdog barked and wagged his tail. “It must be. That's got to be Bentley,” said the man.

“Who are you? How did you find me?” Johnny asked. Although he couldn't see the man's face clearly, from his surroundings Johnny was certain of one thing—he was transmitting from a spaceship.

BOOK: Star Blaze
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