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Omega rising, p.13
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       Omega Rising, p.13

           Patrick Carman
 
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  “Is it me, or is it harder to move than it should be?” Gabriel asked. He felt kind of like he was walking through water.

  “Oh, right. This is the gravity issue I mentioned,” Chris said. “The planet’s core is very dense. It’s the gravity.”

  “Seriously,” Carly said. “It’s kind of a workout.”

  It wasn’t too bad once they got used to it. By the time they reached the tall metal doors, they barely noticed the bit of extra energy it took to walk.

  Chris knocked on the door. The thick metal sheet thumped and rattled as he pounded.

  “I’m sure they’ve seen us by now,” he commented, pointing up at a massive fish-eye lens mounted on the upper edge of the door frame.

  They waited.

  And waited.

  Nothing happened.

  Carly glanced around, slightly nervous. Even though there was no specific threat on the surface of Infinity, she wanted to remain alert. On their last mission, the danger started the moment they set down on a planet.

  Chris pounded on the door again.

  Nothing.

  “Very strange,” he said.

  Gabriel shrugged. “We can greet the Jackals later. How do we get to the caves?”

  “There are many entrances, but the most direct route is through their outpost,” Chris answered. “They’ve built access tunnels. And mapped the interior.”

  Gabriel reached for the door handle. He twisted the knob, and the door swung open inward, revealing a dark foyer.

  “We can’t enter without permission,” Chris protested. “That definitely goes against Jackal hospitality protocol.”

  “We need those maps,” Gabriel insisted. “We’re on a schedule here.”

  “We don’t have a choice,” Carly agreed. She followed Gabriel into the dim space.

  As they stepped inside, a string of bulbous orange lights illuminated the space. They were like the strings of bulbs people put on their roofs around the holidays, only much bigger. The size of gallon milk jugs.

  The foyer narrowed to a corridor that wound slightly downhill. The lights along each row came on one by one, until disappearing around the bend at the bottom of the hill.

  Chris took the lead, apparently coming around to agree that they had to proceed.

  The corridor ended in a large living room. The space was full of institutional furniture, like you might find in a dentist’s waiting room. Rows of slightly cushioned chairs with upholstery that looked like leather, separated by low coffee tables. More of the bulbous orange lamps stuck out of the tables like crystal balls or neon pumpkins. The whole place had a warm, fiery glow.

  Gabriel touched the back of one of the chairs. It was slick, gray-green, and vaguely familiar. “Is it me, or does that look like…?”

  Chris nodded. “Sawtooth skin. Good for all-weather clothing and upholstery. Very durable.”

  Carly and Gabriel exchanged a glance. Skinning Saws didn’t sound like anyone’s idea of fun.

  Several dark corridors snaked away from the central waiting room. As soon as Carly walked toward the mouth of one hall, it lit up. Like the entryway, the corridor was lined with strings of colored lights on both sides. Instead of being all orange, it was only orange on the left. The string of lights on the right hand side was all green.

  Gabriel walked toward a different hallway, and that one lit up orange and blue. It turned out that the lights in each hallway had orange, plus a different color. Green. Blue. White. Brown. Red.

  “It’s for navigation,” Chris explained. “The left-hand lights stand for the room you are coming from. The right-hand lights tell you which room you’re going to.”

  “That’s smart.”

  “Jackals are an advanced race,” Chris said. “The team on Infinity is primarily explorers and research scientists. Everything is systematized.” He glanced around. “If I recall correctly, green leads to the research division. They must be down there working.”

  “Maybe that’s why they didn’t hear us knock,” Carly suggested.

  They followed the green lights. The corridor led to a cluster of glass-walled laboratories.

  Dozens of labs.

  None were occupied.

  In fact, none looked like they had been occupied for a very long time.

  The first lab they entered contained a lot of complicated-looking machinery. There were shelves of test tubes, graduated cylinders, and what looked like neon Tupperware. Lights glowed on some of the machines, but none emitted any sound. Not even the barest hum of a running refrigerator.

  Gabriel ran his finger over the countertop and picked up a layer of dust. He wiped it quickly on his pants, and shivered slightly. This eerie outpost, with its abandoned labs, totally skeeved him out.

  “They’ve gone,” Chris said, sounding disappointed. “When they didn’t answer the door, I knew something wasn’t right.”

  “They left all their stuff, it looks like,” Gabriel said.

  Carly added, “Maybe we’ll still find something we can use.”

  The next lab appeared to be devoted to the study of Stingers. One wall had a grid of small and medium-sized animal cages, like you might find full of mice or birds in a biology lab back on Earth. They were empty.

  The wall held a series of anatomical pictures of Stingers: front view, side views, top view, belly view. A close-up on the wicked barbed tail. Framed beside it was a real live skeleton under glass. And beside that, a detailed artist’s rendering of the Stinger’s internal organs.

  Gabriel took a close look at the skeleton. “So this is what we’re up against.” He grinned. “Doesn’t look so terrible.”

  “Famous last words,” Carly muttered.

  Carly examined a rack of what appeared to be surgical tools—knives and scalpels, scissors and forceps, mallets and straight pins, tweezers and clamps of all shapes and sizes. “Yikes,” she said. “You could do a lot of damage with this arsenal.”

  Gabriel noticed a small jar of what looked like BBs resting on the countertop. “Hey, look!” he said. “Aren’t these the spores we need?”

  Chris glanced at the jar. “Yeah, looks like it,” he said. “But that is not nearly enough. We need a thousand, remember?”

  The jar contained maybe twenty. Gabriel shook it and the spores rattled like a maraca. “That’s music to my ears,” he said. “Twenty down, only nine thousand, nine hundred, and eighty to go!”

  Carly rolled her eyes. “Woo-hoo. We really put a dent in the spore count just now.” She laughed, raising her fists in mock-celebration. “But seriously,” she added, “maybe we should poke around and look for some more.” She started opening cabinets. It made sense to stay positive, but she knew there was no chance they could avoid facing down the live Stingers.

  “I doubt these will be fresh enough,” Chris warned. “The toxin’s potency will have faded over time.”

  “Better safe than sorry.” Jar in hand, Gabriel swung his backpack off and began to unzip it.

  “No,” Chris said sharply. “We cannot take that without permission.”

  Gabriel popped the jar into his backpack anyway. “The place is deserted. What’s the big deal?”

  A slight mechanical sound whirred from somewhere above and behind them.

  Carly spun around.

  The fish-eye camera mounted high in one corner traced a slow arc within its frame. Carly looked at it for a moment, wondering if someone was looking back at her.

  “This place gives me the creeps,” Gabriel said. He led the way back into the hall. “Let’s get on with it. How do we find these Sawtooth tunnels?”

  “Listen,” Carly said. A soft whinnying sound carried through the hallways from someplace out of sight. “Do you hear that?”

  Gabriel cocked his head and listened. “Yeah, what is it?”

  “Sounds like Weavers, maybe,” Carly mused.

  “It is bad enough that we are in their space without proper admittance,” Chris said. His usually monotone voice betrayed a hint of nervousness.
“We cannot take too many liberties.”

  “We have a job to do,” Gabriel said. “And no one’s here.”

  With Carly leading the way, they followed the sound. This corridor was lined with green and black lights. Before long, they found themselves at the edge of a deep, high-ceilinged cavern. The entrance to the large open space was protected by a narrow gate of two horizontal bars.

  “A quick look won’t hurt anything,” Chris conceded. “Since we’re already this far inside. But we cannot borrow them without permission.” Chris unclasped the gate latch at one side and swung it open.

  Carly and Gabriel stepped past him into the Weaver enclosure. The black animals roamed free in their allotted space. Two strolled around the stony pasture, while the other four dipped and swirled in the air, stretching their wings.

  “Whoa,” Gabriel blurted out. “They really are like horses with wings. Crazy.”

  The Weavers looked quite real to him, like a thing that could have been found back on Earth, unlike so many of the beings they’d encountered. And yet, they were so clearly “other.”

  They smelled musky and dark—if a thing could smell dark—and they radiated calmness and grace. One of the Weavers cantered straight toward Carly. It pressed its damp muzzle against her shoulder, sniffing curiously. She reached up and stroked its silken black mane. The strands felt liquid smooth, like passing her hand through a flowing stream of water.

  “Hey, you,” she whispered. “How are you? Nice to meet you.”

  The Weaver whinnied, sounding so much like an Earth horse that Carly grew homesick. She reached up and hugged the creature’s sinewy neck, and the Weaver stood still and allowed it. This is the one she would ride, Carly decided then and there.

  Gabriel looked around the edges of the pen. A row of six saddles hung on one wall. Helmets, reins, bits, crops, and other riding gear rested on a set of shelves. Beside that hung a rack of wicked-looking swords.

  “Yikes,” Gabriel said, upon seeing those long swords. These were definitely not dulled and blunted for sparring. They were the real deal. Each saddle had two fat sword scabbards, one on each side. “Maybe the Jackals sword-fight two-handed. That’s nuts.”

  He backed away from the arsenal slowly. He headed over toward Carly and the Weavers.

  “We’re going to have to borrow them, permission or not,” Carly commented. “Unless there’s something you’re not telling us about the Jackals, in which case, now would be a good time to clue us in, Chris,” she added, turning around.

  But Chris was nowhere to be seen.

  Far on the other side of Infinity, a second small landing craft skimmed the rocky surface.

  “Set down over there,” Siena determined. She pointed toward a craggy mountain range jutting up against the sky in the distance. She consulted the hand-drawn sketch of the planet’s surface that Colin had given them.

  “At the base of those hills, right?” Ravi confirmed.

  “Right.”

  “Is there going to be a door or something?” Niko wondered.

  “Probably just a hole in the ground,” Ravi said. “I’ll try not to set the ship down right in it.”

  “Yeah, let’s avoid getting stuck in a pothole,” Siena said.

  Silence returned to the Clipper landing craft. Pre-mission tension. Everyone had their game face on.

  There were plenty of other entrances to the caves that didn’t require going through the Jackal compound. Colin’s map led to one of them.

  From there, they’d have to record their progress through the tunnels carefully so they could find their way back out. Maps were useless underground, Colin had insisted, since the tunnels changed so often.

  The Omega crew didn’t need any help from the Jackals. They could do it all on their own.

  It was better this way.

  They’d get in and out, no problem, Colin had assured them. Quick and clean and, hopefully, unnoticed.

  “Where did Chris go?” Carly asked. The Weaver cavern seemed bigger and stranger all of a sudden.

  Gabriel shrugged. “We’d better find him.”

  They wandered up the hallway, back in the direction they had come. The empty labs seemed even eerier now, if possible. Other hallways spun off in many directions. Chris could have gone anywhere.

  “He can’t have just vanished,” Gabriel said.

  “Or so you think,” Carly said, trying to make her voice sound mysterious. It wasn’t hard in these surroundings. “Maybe he’s been concealing alien teleporting technology from us all this time.”

  “Ha,” Gabriel said. “You think he’s going to reappear, in a tuxedo or something?” He laughed and made jazz hands, shaking his palms out to the sides. “Surprise!”

  Carly laughed too. It felt like they needed to fill the silence. The quiet in the labs was too eerie otherwise.

  It was extra odd being just the two of them. Gabriel Parker and Carly Diamond, alone in the vastness of Infinity…The words echoed in her head like a movie-trailer voice-over.

  Carly took the opportunity to contact the Cloud Leopard. She raised her MTB and tried to radio Dash and Piper.

  No luck. The connection failed to produce even static.

  Chris had been right—the rock blocked all radio signals to the surface. Plus, the part of the Jackal outpost that was on the surface must have been relatively small. They were definitely deep underground now. The walls here appeared to have been carved straight out of the stone.

  “Hey, look at this,” Carly exclaimed. She entered one of the labs they hadn’t explored yet. It was mostly empty, except for a battered-looking metal safe the size of a mini refrigerator.

  The small safe looked like it had been dropped from a great height. It was all crinkled and crushed, like an empty juice box. The smashed metal door had rings for a padlock, but there wasn’t one. It didn’t appear to be locked—just so damaged that it had become impossible to open.

  Gabriel tugged on the door. It didn’t budge.

  Carly examined the safe from all sides. “There’s writing over here.” She tapped the MTB on her wrist and brought up their translation program. The crew had a special translator device, but as a safety precaution, Chris had downloaded the program to their MTBs too.

  “It translates to ‘tunnel navigation system,’ ” she reported. “Approximately.”

  Gabriel grinned, excited. “Wait…it says ‘approximately’?” he asked. “Why would you want to navigate approximately?”

  “I think it means it’s an approximate translation.”

  “Oh. That’s even weirder.” Gabriel took off his backpack and rummaged inside it for a minute. He pulled out a small black pouch.

  Carly knocked on the safe’s metal walls, as if hoping someone might open it from the inside. “We have to open it,” she insisted. “Maybe we can pry the door loose with a screwdriver?”

  “Yeah, I have one right in here—” Gabriel unzipped the black pouch. “Yahh!” he cried, jumping back in surprise. His padded Simu Suit loomed over him like a ghost.

  Carly laughed at his stunned expression. “Why’d you even bring that?”

  “I didn’t mean to,” Gabriel said. “I thought it was my tool pouch. Shoot. I must have picked up the wrong one when I was packing.” They were both small black zippered pouches. He could easily see how he’d made the mistake.

  “Oh,” Carly said. “So we don’t actually have your tool pouch on planet?”

  Gabriel rummaged in his bag. “I guess not. Sorry.”

  “It’s not a big deal,” Carly said. “This place is pretty well stocked. We can probably find any tools we need around here.” She scanned the shelves while Gabriel set about refolding the Simu Suit. He squished the foam flatter and flatter and zipped it back into place. He returned the pouch to his backpack, still feeling kind of embarrassed over the confusion.

  Carly pulled a scraper from the bottom of a shelf. It had a flat metal head about two inches wide and a thicker blue plastic handle. “Here—why don’t we t
ry this set?”

  “That works.” Gabriel helped Carly position the lip of the scraper in the space along the edge of the safe door. He pushed all of his weight against it.

  The door inched open.

  The contents of the safe were…utterly disappointing.

  “It’s paint.” Carly said. Several stacks of fist-sized canisters. Except they were all the same pale yellow color. Barely yellow, more like a saltine cracker. Each can had a pair of hooks looping off the rim, like quotation marks. Or fangs. A stack of clean brushes accompanied them.

  “Well, that was anticlimactic,” Gabriel added dryly.

  “I guess they’ve repurposed this safe.” Carly poked at the lid of the paint can. “And it’s not even a good color.”

  Gabriel rolled his eyes jokingly. “Haven’t you heard? Neon pale is the new black.”

  “Like I’m ever going to trust your fashion sense,” Carly quipped.

  He grabbed three cans and started juggling them, only to watch them crash onto the floor and flop in all directions. “Whoa, that is some heavy paint,” he said.

  “Extra gravity, remember?” Carly reminded him.

  “Right.” Gabriel bent down and picked a can up by the fangs. He twirled it around his finger. It was heavier than swinging a ceramic mug.

  “Let’s go,” Carly said. “We have to find Chris.” She went into the hall. A minute later, Gabriel joined her. He was still messing around in his bag.

  “Careful,” Carly warned. “You got any other surprises in there?”

  Gabriel grinned. “I just might.”

  They walked past additional labs. Gabriel looked in the door of each, in case anything caught his eye. He felt torn between the creepy fun of exploring the labs, and the need to find Chris and get on with the mission. There might be other useful things to find, but they had a job to do here too.

  The corridor dead-ended in a T. The new hallway was wider than the others had been. There was a row of red bulbs mounted high on the far wall, but that was it. Several appeared shattered.

  “Which way now?” Carly asked.

  “I guess they stopped putting in lighting at some point,” Gabriel said. He flicked on his flashlight and pointed it both ways down the dark hall. Then he shrugged. “This way.”

 
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