COSMIC CAMEL: A free full-length children's SF ebook. Donal's trip to the zoo turns into a voyage through space
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COSMIC CAMEL

by Emma Laybourn

Chapter One

Donal had just beaten his own record.

"Half an hour!" he groaned. "I don't believe it!"

It was his fastest yet. Just half an hour: that was all it had taken him to get lost in the zoo.

"What'll Mrs Hendry say?" he wailed.

Mrs Hendry was fed up with Donal getting lost on school trips. Last term at the stately home he'd got left behind in the kitchens; but at least he'd managed to keep up for the first two hours.

And in the Science Museum, it had been three o'clock before his teacher tracked him down and said sharply that everyone else was up on the third floor and what was he doing down here in the basement?

Today, at the zoo, Donal hadn't even had his lunch. He hadn't even had his elevenses. And he was already lost.

Oh, he knew where he was, all right: he was in the monkey house. But nobody else was.

"Where did they all go?" he moaned. "I wish Mrs Hendry hadn't put me in Toby's group!"

All the other children in his group were quick and clever and impatient. They'd filled whole pages of their worksheets while Donal was still struggling with the first question.

"Is that all you've done?" Toby had jeered, looking over Donal's shoulder. When Donal had tried to cover his clip-board, Toby grabbed it and waved it around for everyone to see.

"Look what the donkey's drawn!" he cried. "It's an octopus! Why are you drawing an octopus, you donkey-brain?"

"It's a spider monkey," muttered Donal. Pulling the clip-board back, he began to rub furiously at the extra legs. He'd drawn several on the monkey because none of them looked right.

"Oh, leave it, Donal! We'll be here all day. Mu-um?" whined Toby. "Donal hasn't even done his picture yet!"

"Do stop dawdling, Donal!" snapped Toby's Mum, who was in charge of the group. "Get a move on." She'd been hustling her eight children round the zoo as if she couldn't wait for the day to be over. Twenty seconds per animal was enough for her.

"Donal's always like this," Toby complained smugly. "He's hopeless."

"Well, we can't wait all day for Donal! He'd better look sharp, or we'll leave him behind."

So Donal crouched by the spider monkey's cage and bit his lip as he drew. He concentrated really hard, trying to shut out the voices of Toby and the others.

And when he next looked up, they had gone.

Vanished. All of them.

Donal trudged hopelessly out of the monkey-house and gazed up and down the path. Not a soul was in sight. Toby's Mum had been wearing a pink coat, as bright as bubblegum: if she'd been anywhere close, he couldn't have missed her.

She wasn't anywhere close. Nobody was. It was a chilly Tuesday morning and the zoo was almost deserted.

"Not again," he murmured. "Mrs Hendry'll go mad."

He held his breath to listen for children's voices. But all he could hear were monkeys' screeches, the distant hoarse coughs of a lion, and donkeys braying - no, he thought, they must be zebras.

"The only donkey here is me," said Donal miserably. "Toby's right. I'm useless! I wish I hadn't come." He slumped against the nearest fence and slid dejectedly down the wire. "It's that spider monkey's fault. It kept on moving."

"Hharrourgh!" The ugliest noise Donal had ever heard came through the wire fence. Donal twisted his head, and found himself looking up a camel's nose.

"Well, it did," he said. "How can you draw something that keeps whizzing round like a sock in a washing machine?"

He began to flip through his worksheets. They might just tell him where to go next - although Toby's Mum was probably half way across the zoo by now. The camel blew down Donal's neck as he studied the next question on his clipboard.

"How would you describe the alligator's skin?"

After that came: "Which antelope has the biggest horns?"

Donal frowned up at the signpost. Alligators were to the left. Antelopes were to the right.

"Oh, help! I'll cheat on the alligators and go straight to the antelopes."

Remembering his Gran's horrible alligator-skin handbag, he wrote down: "The allgaters skin is Scaley, brown and rouh Rough Rougth."

"Hruh!" said the camel contemptuously.

"Hruh yourself," said Donal. "You don't have to spell. You can just stand around doing nothing all day but grunting and spitting. Lucky old scruff!"

The camel was scruffy. It was as shaggy as a bear, but not nearly as impressive. Startled tufts of black fur stood up from the top of its head and its two lopsided humps. From its sides dangled long tatters and tangles of brown wool.

"Moulting, I suppose," said Donal. He wrinkled his nose. "You're a bit whiffy, too. And did you know there's a mouse on your foot?"

"Hnnngh," grunted the camel. It gazed down at him through long, sweeping eyelashes, ignoring the small animal rustling at its feet.

The mouse sat up and rubbed its nose. It was rather big for a mouse. Rat? wondered Donal. It didn't look like a rat either, but he had no idea what else it could be.

"I don't know anything," he groaned. "Donkey-brain, donkey-brain! I don't want to find Toby's group. I wish I could stay lost for ever."

As he spoke, there was a thud on the ground, just inside the camel's wire. Something had landed by the fence; a small, silver sphere no bigger than a tennis ball.

"Who threw that?"

Donal glanced around, but there was nobody near. It was as if the ball had just dropped out of the sky.

Then - very slowly - it began to sink into the ground.

"Weird," said Donal.

"Uraarghch," announced the camel with interest. With its long tongue slurping noisily around its lips, it bent down to nose at the sinking sphere.

"Don't eat it!" exclaimed Donal. "It's not a bun - it'll choke you!" He wiggled his fingers through the wire in an attempt to roll the ball out of the camel's reach.

His hand and the camel's nose met the silver ball together. For an instant Donal's fingers felt something wet and snuffly, and something hard and icy cold.

And then the ball blew up.




Chapter Two

There was a tremendous WHOOMPH.

At once the silver ball filled Donal's vision, expanding like a balloon - only a thousand times bigger and faster. A second later there was total blackness, as if the balloon had burst in a mighty explosion and left nothing in its place.

At first Donal could not feel anything but that WHOOMPH still charging through his body. He didn't know where he was, or why, or which way up. Then gradually he realised that he was lying face down, with his cheek pressed on a cold, smooth surface.

But it was dark. Had he gone blind? He certainly hadn't gone deaf, because he could hear someone breathing very loudly and hoarsely close by.

And his nose still worked. In fact, it was working overtime.

He could smell a cowshed on a hot day. He could smell damp dog-basket, and soggy straw, and the inside of old boots.

"Urgh," said Donal.

"Hgrrourgh," said the smell, clearing its throat with a noise like a cement mixer full of gravel. Donal squinted through the darkness in alarm.

However, it was slowly growing lighter. Soon he could make out a large grey shape looming in the twilight: a shape with four splayed legs, a proudly tufted head, and two shaggy humps.

"It is not Night," said a hoarse and rasping voice, "so I expect it is Inside."

Donal sat bolt upright.

"Say that again!"

"That again," said the camel obligingly. "Inside where? That is the question. A new and rather sudden camel house, perhaps."

Donal shook his head in bewilderment. It was definitely the camel talking, in a voice that sounded like stones being shovelled. But alongside the camel's words, he could also hear it snorting and growling, as if it was translating itself as it spoke.

"Can you understand me too?" he asked.

"I have long been acquainted with Human speech," the camel drawled. "I have had ample opportunity to study it, regrettably."

Donal rubbed his head. No bumps. He was fairly sure he wasn't dreaming. So what was going on?

He peered through the gloom. The growing light did not reassure him. For, apart from his rucksack and the camel, he saw nothing whatever that he recognised.

There were no fences. No tarmac path. No walls, no signs; no zoo.

He seemed to be inside a room, a curved room with one dark central pillar rising from top to bottom. As the room slowly turned from grey to silver, he saw that it had no corners; the sides arched straight into the ceiling.

"Freaky," muttered Donal. "It's like being inside a ball. A huge silver football. Except that footballs don't have cores..." He looked at the single column that joined the curved floor to the curved roof.

"Camel," he said hesitantly, "remember that silver ball in the zoo? I know it's a weird idea, but I think we might be inside it."

The camel drew back its head and glared down its nose at him. "My name is not Camel."

"What is it, then? I'm Donal."

"The zoo-keeper calls me Humphrey," said the camel in a tone of disdain.

"That's a nice name," said Donal politely.

"It is not a nice name. He calls all the camels Humphrey. I do not answer to Humphrey."

"Maybe he can't tell the difference between you and the others?"

The camel spat noisily and messily on the floor.

"Ptah! The others are mere dromedaries. I am a Bactrian camel, from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, a much rarer and more intelligent species. My name," it said loftily, "is Ulan Nuur."

"Oolan Nore," repeated Donal carefully. The name convinced him, more than anything else, that he couldn't possibly be dreaming. His donkey-brain would never come up with a name like Ulan Nuur. Tom or Fred, yes; Humphrey, maybe. Ulan Nuur - definitely not.

The camel lurched to its feet and began to walk with an awkward, rolling gait. It ambled over the floor, up the curved wall, and kept on going across the ceiling. It stopped directly over Donal's head.

"Quite a spacious camel house," it commented, upside down, "but they appear to have forgotten the door, and there is an absence of Hay."

"How did you do that?" gasped Donal.

"Do what?"

"Walk on the ceiling!"

"I have legs," said Ulan Nuur.

"Yes, but..." There was only one way to find out. Donal stood up, feeling rather shaky. Then, expecting to fall off at any instant, he set off warily after the camel.

As he walked up the wall, it became floor. Donal gritted his teeth and kept going. He reached the camel, only to find the ceiling turning into floor as well. What had been Up was now Down. His abandoned rucksack was lying down overhead on the bottom of the ceiling.

"This is doing my head in," said Donal. He leant dizzily against the top, or bottom, of the central pillar. As he touched it, something glowed suddenly under his elbow.

He pulled back in alarm. A long, glimmering white panel appeared, running from one end of the pillar to the other. Donal heard a faint, deep hum start up, as if the grey core held a hive of bees.

"Whoops!" he said. "Wonder what I've pressed? Hope it wasn't anything important..."

The silver-grey walls began to change. They became speckled with pale dots like spatters of white paint.

Luminous white paint, thought Donal. The dots were shining. He stood pinned against the central pillar, and felt his hair rise on end.

For he was looking right through a transparent, glassy wall into endless space: and billions of stars were looking right back.




Chapter Three

Donal clung to the pillar, not daring to move.

He was inside a giant, clear bubble ten metres across. He felt that the smallest step might burst it and send him hurtling out into that huge, black, star-riddled space.

The camel, with no such qualms, stamped on the floor as if trying to put the stars out. Amongst them hung a great disc; a globe of swirling blue and white.

Donal gulped. Donkey-brain he might be, but he knew what that was. "Earth!" he croaked. His voice had disappeared.

"Earth? I see no earth," grumbled Ulan Nuur in his gravelly rasp. "Earth is brown and crumbly. But I observe that somebody has painted the moon blue." He put his head between his legs to glare down at the sun, which blazed beneath them. "And that is in the wrong place."

"We're out in space!" said Donal huskily. "That's not the moon - it's Earth. We're on a spaceship!"

"Spaceship?"

"You know what a ship is, don't you? You must have been on a ship, on your way from the desert to the zoo!"

A thoughtful look came into the camel's liquid brown eyes. "Possibly."

"Well, we're inside a ship now, floating through space. Only it's not ours! I don't know whose it is. We've stolen it!" Donal whirled round guiltily, half-expecting to see a tentacled Thing crawling up behind him.

"Or it has stolen us. In either case, if this is a ship, it will come to land eventually," answered Ulan Nuur, quite unperturbed.

"Land? Land where? We're out in space!" Donal began to panic. "We've got to get back to Earth! What should I do?"

He clenched his fists, but he felt helpless. What could he do?

The glowing panel might hold the controls. But there were no switches or buttons, unless they were well hidden.

Donal put out his hand to touch the panel; and then froze. Supposing he pressed the wrong bit and set off the wrong control - like the ejector button, or the self-destruct-in-thirty-seconds switch?

He jumped backwards as if the panel had burned him. He dared not risk it.

"Think, donkey-brain!" he muttered. "What would Toby do?" Running his hands through his hair, he tugged it in desperation. It didn't help.

"This would never happen to Toby, though," he sighed. "If Toby found an empty spaceship, it'd be a Galactic Starfighter bristling with laser guns - not a giant football with a talking camel!"

"And a lemming," added Ulan Nuur.

"A what?" Donal followed the camel's gaze to his rucksack. There was a small, furry backside sticking out of it.

"Get out of there!" he bellowed, and the front end appeared, clutching half a biscuit. It twitched a stubby nose apologetically.

"It's that rat!" cried Donal.

"I think not," corrected Ulan Nuur. "Observe the small ears and short tail typical of the Norwegian lemming." He bent to address the cringing ball of fur. "You are a lemming, are you not?"

"Dunno," said the lemming in a furry voice.

"What is your name?"

"Dunno," said the lemming, after some thought.

"How did you enter my paddock?" asked Ulan Nuur sternly.

"Dug a hole," said the lemming. "Dug lots of holes. Dug more lots of holes. Dug lots more lots of-"

"Yes, we get the idea," said the camel hastily.

The lemming scratched at the invisible floor. "Ugh," it said. "Ice." It sprang back into the rucksack, where there was the crackling of a crisp packet.

Donal was suddenly furious. Wasn't it bad enough that he was trapped in an alien spaceship, without small furry animals eating his dinner?

"Oi!" he yelled.

His shout echoed round and round the chamber. As if in answer, the ship filled suddenly with crimson light. The glowing panel burned fiery red.

There was a sigh like the rustling of a thousand unseen leaves. And through the rustling spoke a soft, breathy voice: the voice of the spaceship.

"Artificial gravity," it said. "Check.

"Universal translator. Check.

"Radiation shields. Check.

"Hyperdrive standby. Check."

It fell silent again.

"No mention of Hay," said the camel regretfully.

Donal's stomach was busy turning over. Gravity he understood. And Translator - well, that explained the talking camel.

But Radiation? Hyperdrive? What was Hyperdrive? He had a horrible feeling that he was about to find out.

"The thing you called the Earth is getting smaller," commented Ulan Nuur, looking down his nose through the floor. "Like a hailstone melting in the desert sun."

It was true. The Earth was slowly shrinking. From behind it peeped the crescent moon, like a shy smile.

The ship began to vibrate. A deep rumble, so low he felt rather than heard it, thrummed up Donal's legs and through his body.

"Hyperdrive on," rustled the spaceship. "Hyperspace jump in fifty seconds. Forty-nine. Forty-eight. Forty-seven..."

"What's it saying?" asked the lemming, popping out of the rucksack.

"Lots," said the camel. "And less lots. And less lots."

"This is my fault," whispered Donal. "I must have started it up. Where's it going to take us?"

Ulan Nuur cleared his throat importantly. "I expect I am returning to the Land of my Fathers," he proclaimed. "This ship has been provided for Me."

"I've got to stop it! I've got to switch it off!"

Donal threw himself at the pillar, pounding recklessly on the panel, desperate to find a way to halt the countdown.

It was in vain. The red glow did not alter, and the soft voice continued its steady, inexorable chant.

"Thirty-one. Thirty. Twenty-nine."

Ulan Nuur raised his head high, his eyes half-closed in rapture. "At last I shall behold my Homeland!" he declared ecstatically. "The vast and windy plains of the Gobi Desert, where the sun shines on rivers of ice-"

"Eighteen. Seventeen. Sixteen."

"-where mighty sand-dunes rise like mountains, and mirages hang shimmering over the salt-pans-"

Donal stopped pounding the pillar and kicked it instead.

"Ten. Nine. Eight.

"-where the dust-storms howl like demons," intoned the camel, "raging for days on end-"

Donal dropped to his stomach on the transparent floor. Beneath him the swirly blue and white globe was shrinking more rapidly than ever. Pressing his hands against the floor, he gazed out at the disappearing Earth, willing it to come back to him.

"Three. Two. One."

There was the faintest of judders. And the stars were gone. Every single star. The walls turned black.

"Night night," squeaked the lemming.

"What's happening?" breathed Donal.

"It is probably a Karaburan, a black sandstorm of the desert," came the camel's confident answer out of the darkness. "Fear not. It will pass in a week or two."

No sooner had he spoken than with a blinding flash, the stars returned.

But they were different stars. The Earth had gone.

* * *

Donal is about to meet two very different alien species: the furry, friendly Meerie and the terrifying, spiky Gyzols. Donal and the camel are sent on a mission across the desert - but can they survive it?

The whole book is too long to fit on one webpage, but you can download it as a free ebook:
for Kindle (Mobi file) click here,
for other ereaders (epub file) click here.

You can read all of COSMIC CAMEL on screen, or download the ebook, at Smashwords here.
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the cover of the free children's science fiction ebook COSMIC CAMEL

Copyright Emma Laybourn 2012




the cover of the free kids' ebook COSMIC CAMEL by Emma Laybourn

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