George and Annie are off on another cosmic adventure inspired by the Mars Expedition in the fifth book of the George’s Secret Key series from Stephen and Lucy Hawking.
George and his best friend, Annie, have been selected as junior astronauts for a program that trains young people for a future trip to Mars. This is everything they’ve ever wanted—and now they get to be a part of up-to-the minute space discoveries and meet a bunch of new friends who are as fascinated by the universe as they are.
But when they arrive at space camp, George and Annie quickly learn that strange things are happening—on Earth as well as up in the skies. Mysterious space missions are happening in secret, and the astronaut training they’re undertaking gets scarier and scarier…
George and the Blue Moon Chapter One The pink-fringed coral waved gently in the soft blue ocean as a shoal of millions of tiny silver fish dived past it. Swimming as one, the swarm of fish jackknifed and suddenly shot upward and away, toward the turquoise water above George’s head. A larger fish lay up there, hovering between George and the sunshine on the surface of the ocean. The huge fish moved slowly across his field of vision, as stately and as well armored as any battleship.
On the floor of the ocean bed, where the coral reef dropped away to the sandy ground, little creatures scuttled along, waving their pincers furiously as though a catch would swim straight into them. Wriggly sand worms snaked around them, creating curly patterns in the loose material on the sea bed.
Another group of fish swam past, so close to George’s nose that he thought he could reach out and touch them! These fish were brightly colored, like a little carnival passing through, with stripes of red, blue, yellow and orange. In the far distance, George thought he saw an immense flippered turtle turn and stare at him with its ancient unblinking dark eyes. The turtle opened its mouth, and to George’s astonishment, it seemed to be calling him! It seemed to know his name!
George, the turtle said. George! Strangely, the turtle seemed to have reached out a hand and was shaking his shoulder.
A hand? How would a turtle have a hand? George was just pondering this from his underwater idyll when . . .
“George!” It was his best friend, Annie, standing in front of him, holding the cardboard 3-D virtual reality headset he had been wearing until just a few moments before.
George blinked, adjusting to the bright sunlight of a summer afternoon in Foxbridge rather than the murky blue gloaming in the depths of the Coral Sea, off the coast of Australia. He felt completely disoriented. A moment ago, he’d been floating by the Great Barrier Reef. Now he was back in the tree house at the bottom of his backyard, rather than at the bottom of the ocean. There was no turtle talking to him—just his best friend Annie from next door, and she certainly seemed to have a lot to say.
“I’m taking back my VR headset!” she complained. “I should never have let you have it! You spend all your time underwater now! And I want you to look at this.” She waved her tablet at him and then pressed a button so the screen came to life. George looked down at it, but he was still seeing fish-shaped blue clouds in front of his eyes so it took him a few moments to focus his vision. Compared to the marvels of the reef, it looked very dull.
“You made me come out of VR to read a form!” he protested. “Like you fill in to get a train pass.”
George looked again. “Oh!” he said, realization dawning like the sunrise on a planet with two suns in the sky.
“See?” said Annie. “What does it say?”
“Astronauts wanted!” he read. “Astronauts wanted!” he repeated. “That’s so cool!” He continued reading out loud. “Do you have what it takes to leave Earth behind and travel farther than any human being has gone before? Could you start a human habitation on the red planet? Could you save the future of the human race by helping it spread out into space and colonize a whole new planet? Do you have the skills to take us into a new era of manned space travel?” George rattled off quickly. “If so, apply here. . . . Hang on,” he said suspiciously. “If they want astronauts, don’t you think they mean grown-up ones?”
“No!” said Annie triumphantly. “This is for junior astronauts! It says so—between the ages of eleven and fifteen!”
“Bit weird, isn’t it?” asked George. “Why would you send a bunch of kids to Mars?”
“Duh!” replied Annie. “Any mission to Mars won’t be ready for years—by the time it lifts off, we won’t be kids anymore. But they must want to start the training now so they’ve got lots of time to pick the best candidates . . . can you fill them out?” She handed him the tablet.
“Them?” said George.
“One for you, one for me,” said Annie.
“Why am I—?” he started to ask.
“You can’t change what you’ve typed,” said Annie, who was getting more confident now about admitting she was dyslexic. “And there’s no autocorrect—the form goes automatically, as soon as you’ve typed it. So it would be way better if you did it.”
“Will spelling really matter on Mars?” questioned George. “There are far more important things for traveling in space, you know that.”
“No,’ said Annie firmly. “It won’t. But I might not get there if I call it the planet ‘Rams’ by mistake.”
“This form is quite long,” said George, scrolling down.
“Of course it is!” scoffed Annie. “You don’t think they are going to let just anyone fly to Mars?”
“Or Rams,” added George with a mischievous grin.
“Yes, Rams, the new home of the human race!” cried Annie. “Right, come on. What’s the first thing?”
“Um . . . Explain in your own words why you would be a great candidate to join a trial program for junior astronaut training in preparation for a Mars mission in 2025.”
“Easy!” cried Annie. “I’ve got a very high IQ, I’m excellent at problem solving, I have lots of experience traveling in space—”
“Can we put that?” interrupted George. While it was definitely true that he and Annie had traveled in space before, no one was supposed to know about their out-of-this-universe adventures. “When does training start?” he asked. “Hang on! It starts really soon. How are we going to get places in this? Haven’t they chosen people already?”
“Hey, chill out! It says that a few places have become vacant,” said Annie. “I can’t believe we missed the ad the first time. And it’s timed to start at the beginning of the school vacation.”
“That’s in a few days’ time!” said George.
At that moment, the screen pinged with an incoming message.
“Don’t read that!” Annie cried out.
Glancing up in surprise, finger frozen above the tablet, George saw that Annie had turned white. “C’mon, I . . . I . . . wouldn’t read your text messages!” he said.
“Well, don’t!” said Annie. “Just . . . don’t. Go back to Astronauts Wanted . . .”
But the screen pinged again. And again. And again, until there was a whole list of incoming unread messages, all from the same number.
“Right. Mars,” said Annie defiantly, brushing her long bangs out of her eyes, clearly determined to ignore the messages, which were piling up by the minute. “Let’s leave this planet behind. I don’t want to stay here with the horrible people.”
“What horrible people?” said George slowly. “Annie, what’s going on?”
“NOTHING!” said Annie. “Why has something always got to be going on? No Thing is Going On. Except me, leaving Earth forever to become a space superhero so I can look down on those earthy worm idiots.”
Silently George swiped one of the messages at random.
U R STUPID AND EVIL AND NO 1 LIKES U.
“Yuck!” he exclaimed, recoiling from the screen. “That’s nasty! I’m going to write back. . . .”
Before Annie could snatch back her tablet, George tapped out, WHO ARE YOU?
U NO, came a message only seconds later. U NO AND U R SCARED OF US COS U R WEAK AND SILLY AND WE HATE U.
WHY DON’T YOU SHUT UP, UGLY FACE? George tapped back furiously.
UGLY LOL! AS IF. U R THE UGLIEST PERSON ON EARTH came back at him.
“Stop it!” said Annie furiously. “Messaging back only makes it worse!’
“Have you told your mom and dad about this?” asked George.
“No way!” cried Annie. “They’ll think it’s my fault!”
“Why would they think that?” asked George. He was so disgusted by the messages that he flinched away from the screen as though it was burning hot. “I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either,” said Annie miserably. “I thought I was friends with everyone.” She seemed to find it hard to explain at first, but then the words came tumbling out. “This group of girls suddenly started whispering about me. As soon as I came into the room, they all started muttering behind their hands, and when I asked them why, they just laughed in my face and said they weren’t whispering about me and I had a really big head to think they were talking about me. But as soon as I went out of the room, they stopped.”
“Did you tell your teacher?”
“She just said that she would look into it—and it would help if I could identify the ringleaders, which I can’t. But the best thing is to be mature enough not to react, because if I ignored the bullies they would stop. And if I didn’t they would keep on bullying me. I figured that meant it was my fault for paying them any attention.”
“That’s stupid!” said George. “Bullies don’t just stop because you ignore them!”
“And then I started getting left out of everything,” said Annie. “Like, everyone else would be going somewhere at lunchtime or after school. And I’d be the only person who wasn’t invited. If I tried to sit next to anyone in my class, they would get up and walk away and everyone else would laugh.”
“But why?” said George, bewildered. “I don’t get it.” Annie was the coolest person he’d ever met and he couldn’t begin to imagine how anyone would think differently.
“I don’t either,” said Annie.
“It’s so random and weird!” exclaimed George.
“And, like, there are all these stories about me at school now.” Annie looked distraught. “I heard some girls saying that everyone knew I was actually really thick, but my dad did all my homework for me, which is why I’m top of the class.”
“Well, that’s not true!” said George. “They’re probably just jealous. Do you know who is sending these messages?”
“It’s one of them,” said Annie. “It’s got to be. But I don’t know which one.” She wrapped her arms around her knees and buried her head so that George could just see a blonde crown above shaking shoulders. “I’ve only got like one or two friends left now, and even they don’t dare hang around with me too much.”
“So that’s why you haven’t wanted to do anything lately!” George realized. Every time he’d asked Annie to go skating or to the movies with him, she’d made up some kind of really obviously flimsy excuse. “In case you see any of those girls?”
“Yup,” said Annie’s muffled voice. “It would just make it worse.” She sounded like she was crying now. “I don’t want to go anyplace or do anything.” She swallowed, then added fervently, “Except space. I still want to go into space.”
“Right, that’s enough,” said George fiercely, snatching up the laptop. “C’mon.”
He scaled quickly down the ladder, the tablet under his arm pinging all the time, while Annie followed him at top speed shouting, “Where are you going?’
George jumped through the hole in the fence that divided the next-door backyards belonging to his and Annie’s families, and ran up the overgrown path to Annie’s back door. “Eric!” he hollered.
Annie’s dad was on the phone. “Yes, I know, Rika,” he was saying rather testily. “I haven’t been a scientist for all this time without understanding how experiments work. I’m just saying that I don’t think your suggestion is going to produce the kind of results we need.”
The two friends heard a furious high-pitched squeaking from the other end of the phone.
“If you’ll just let me make some simple changes to your plan for the space mission . . . ,” he said. “Rika . . . ? Rika? Are you there?” He put the phone down. “Can you believe it?” he said, spotting Annie and George. “Rika seems to have hung up on me. We used to get along so well. I don’t understand why she’s changed so much.”
He took off his glasses and started cleaning them on his shirt, a process which only seemed to make them filmier. “I do wish I had a second-in-command who liked me a little more,” he complained. “It is making everything incredibly complicated, not to mention embarrassing now, that my deputy treats me like I am some kind of dangerous fool.” He put his glasses back on and looked at Annie and George and noticed they were both very upset. “But that isn’t what you’ve come to see me about it, is it? What’s wrong?”
“Eric!” said George. “Annie’s getting nasty messages! And she won’t tell you because she thinks you will blame her.”
Annie stood beside George, unable to wrestle the tablet back from him as he was now holding it with both hands over his head.
“It’s all right, Dad,” she said bravely. “George is making too big a deal out of it. They’re jokes. It’s just silly. A lot of it is my fault really. And I’ve got it all under control.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” said Eric. “Give me the tablet.” He took the computer and looked at the messages on the screen. His face changed instantly from sunny and friendly to thunderous.
“Don’t!” wailed Annie, who was mortified. “I don’t want you to read them.” She collapsed into sobs while Eric read the contents of her inbox, his eyes widening in disbelief.
“These aren’t jokes,” he said angrily. “This is not funny. And it’s certainly not your fault. Have you told your mom about this?”
Annie shook her head and said nothing.
“What can we do?” asked George.
“I’ve got an idea,” said Eric. “Follow me.” The two friends trooped behind him into his study, where Cosmos—the world’s greatest supercomputer—was humming to himself on the desk.
“WAKEY WAKEY!” Eric summoned his high-tech helper.
“Professor!’ replied Cosmos cordially, his screen springing into artificial life.
“Cosmos, my old friend,’ said Eric, leaning on the desk. “The youngest member of the Order of Science, Annie Bellis here, has an issue with which we require your assistance.”
“My pleasure.” Cosmos glowed. The supercomputer had a special fondness for Eric’s daughter. “What can I assist you with today?”
“Annie is receiving malicious communications,” said Eric seriously. “On this tablet, through an Internet messaging service.”
“Has this matter been referred to you by another member of the Order?” asked Cosmos.
“Thank you, yes, by George Greenby, also a member of the Order, the second youngest scientist in our number.”
“In that case, under the International Agreement for the Use of Supercomputers in matters pertaining to the Order of Science, part two, paragraph three, sub-clause B, amended in 2015 by annex K,” reeled off Cosmos. “I find . . .” He paused while his circuits muttered.
Eric waited, as did the two friends. They knew from Eric’s constant grumbling that he and Cosmos—since new regulations over supercomputer use had come into force—now had to work with far more rules and regulations about everything he did than they had done in the past. Before, Eric had been pretty much free to be as creative with how he used Cosmos as he had wished.
“I find I can act on your behalf!” said Cosmos delightedly. “Please attach the tablet so I can download the information.”
George ran forward and plugged the tablet into the supercomputer.
“What’s Cosmos going to do?” Annie whispered to her dad.
“I don’t know!” said Eric gleefully. “But I bet it will be fabulous! Within,” he added hastily, “the provisions of the International Agreement for Response to Defamatory Statements about scientists within the Order, as mandated in—”
“Yes, we know,” said Annie. “Paragraph Y, annex X, and sub-clause Z.”
“Something like that,” agreed Eric. “Annie, perhaps you should be a lawyer when you grow up.”
“No thank you, Dad!” exclaimed Annie. “I’m going to be a scientist! I told you already.”
“Okay, okay,” said Eric, shaking his head. “Just saying—maybe there will be more jobs in the future for lawyers than there will be for scientists. . . .”
“Well, don’t,” said Annie firmly. “I bet Nana and Grandad didn’t say to you: ‘Don’t be a cosmologist, little Eric, because you’ll never get a job that way.’?”
“Actually they did,” said Eric mildly. “But I didn’t pay attention.”
“Well, now you know how that feels,” said Annie firmly. George was very pleased to see how much more cheerful she looked.
“I don’t think I ever spoke to my parents the way you speak to me,” complained Eric.
“Perhaps they inspired respect?” asked Annie innocently.
Eric gave her a mock frown, but George knew he wasn’t angry with Annie. It was just how they were, bickering endlessly about everything but in a funny and friendly way. Mostly.
Standing right next to Cosmos and Annie’s tablet, George was the first to see an outgoing message on the tablet screen, sent by Cosmos via the tablet to the same number that had been harassing Annie. But there wasn’t just one message; there was a first one, which was followed instantly by another and another and another.
“Cosmos, what are you doing?” asked George in wonder.
“I,” the supercomputer replied happily, “am sending over, in one-hundred-and-sixty-character chunks, the full text of Principia Mathematica, the great work of Isaac Newton. Once that has been sent, I will continue with Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which will be superseded by the collected works of Einstein. It should take around one hundred and fifteen hours for all the text to go through. I do not think you will hear from this correspondent again, not given the amount of interesting reading matter we have supplied.”
“Genius!” cried Eric. “You have invoked the ‘Respond by Education, Not Threat’ clause of the agreement!”
“To the very letter,” said Cosmos. “Would you like me to show you from whence your messages originated?”
“Yes!” said Annie. “You know who sent them then? Oh, Cosmos, lovely Cosmos, I wish I’d asked you to find out stuff about this for me before.”
Cosmos didn’t answer, but simply posted a map on his screen with a big red arrow pointing to a nearby address. “Is this location known to you?” he asked.
Annie had turned a sickly whitish-green again. “That’s Belinda’s house! I thought she was my friend,” she whispered, sounding brokenhearted. “I thought she wasn’t joining in with the others. She said they were awful and should know better.”
Her dad put his arm round her. “I’m sorry, darling,” he said. “We think we know people, but . . .” His face brightened up. “Cosmos! Can you continue performing this action and open the portal at the same time?”
Cosmos snorted. “Of course, Professor,” he said. “This task uses around 0.000000000001 percent of my full capacity.”
“Good!” said Eric. “Under the ‘Entertainment and Welfare’ section of the agreement in relation to scientists suffering from distress, I have a request!”
He winked at the two friends. They knew he was treating them like real grown-ups, like proper members of the Order of Science in order to cheer them up—and it was working! They both loved pretending that they were adult scientists with important experiments and ideas that might change the future of the world. Annie and George looked at each other, not daring to hope.
“Dr. Bellis, I presume,” murmured George.
“Professor Greenby,” replied Annie politely. “Such an honor to know your work.”
“Put your space suits on,” said Eric firmly. “Cosmos, open the portal. I will give you the coordinates. Because, fellow scientists of the Order of Science, we are going on a field trip.”
Stephen Hawking was a brilliant theoretical physicist and is generally considered to have been one of the world’s greatest thinkers. He held the position of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge for thirty years and is the author of A Brief History of Time, which was an international bestseller. His other books for general readers include A Briefer History of Time, the essay collection Black Holes and Baby Universe, The Universe in a Nutshell, The Grand Design, and Black Holes: The BBC Reith Lectures, as well as the books in the George’s Secret Key series. He died in 2018.
Lucy Hawking, Stephen Hawking’s daughter, is a journalist and novelist. She is the coauthor of the George’s Secret Key series for kids, as well as the author of the adult novels Jaded and Run for Your Life. She lives in Cambridge with her son.
Garry Parsons is the award-winning illustrator of many books, including George’s Secret Key to the Universe, George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt, George and the Big Bang, George and the Unbreakable Code, and George and the Blue Moon by Lucy and Stephen Hawking; Billy’s Bucket by Kes Gray; and What’sCool About School by Kate Agnew. He lives in London. Visit him at GarryParsons.co.uk.