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Omega rising, p.2
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       Omega Rising, p.2

           Patrick Carman
 
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  Chris put up a hand and silenced Dash. Even the ZRKs responded to Chris’s motion for quiet, all of them stopping what they were doing at once. Chris was leaning into TULIP, the small robot slogger from Meta Prime, listening like a safecracker. Suddenly, he picked up a ball-peen hammer and slammed it against the side of TULIP’s hull. TULIP made an ACK GACK GARK noise and shook back and forth for about three seconds. Then she was silent.

  Chris set the hammer down and turned to Dash as all the ZRKs went buzzing back to work.

  “Looks like real precision work you’re doing there,” Dash said.

  “It’s more delicate than it appears,” Chris said.

  Dash found that hard to believe, but then, Chris had invented the sloggers. Chances were he knew what he was doing.

  “So about that shot?” Dash asked.

  Chris picked up a small kit and took out an instrument that looked like a futuristic thermometer.

  Dash cocked his head. “Dude, I am not putting that weird thing in my mouth.”

  Before Dash could say another word, the thermometer was halfway up his nose.

  “Don’t move,” Chris said stoically. “It’s quite close to your brain cavity. Just another second and we’re all done.”

  Dash froze, imagining the strange metal object next to the smooshiness of his brain. When Chris yanked it out, Dash felt a zing in his head like he’d licked an electric fence.

  “What was that?” Dash yelled. “It felt like you stuffed a Taser up my nose!”

  Chris didn’t say anything as he stared at the device. He picked up the ball-peen hammer with his free hand and thwacked TULIP again. TULIP made a loud FWEEEEEEE sound and appeared to sneeze.

  “Your vitals are holding just fine,” Chris reported. “But the rate we’re traveling puts us approximately seven-point-six days behind schedule. We need to get back into Gamma Speed as quickly as we can.”

  Dash rubbed the side of his nose. As Chris prepared the daily dose of the biologic that was designed to keep Dash alive in space, Dash seriously wondered if he could make up more than a week of lost time.

  Dash administered the injection himself as Chris prepared to go back to work on TULIP.

  “Unless absolutely necessary, do not interrupt me. This phase of work on TULIP requires a seamless attention to detail. It’s going to take quite a bit of time.”

  “We can handle Aqua Gen,” Dash said with more assurance than he was really feeling. If an alien of Chris’s intelligence needed that much space to do the work, it must be seriously complex—or dangerous. Dash didn’t really want to think too much about it.

  “Don’t underestimate what Piper can bring to this mission,” Chris said as he turned away, picked up the hammer, and stared at the slogger. “She may yet turn out to be more valuable on Aqua Gen than you think.”

  “Will do,” Dash agreed as he started for the Cloud Cat docking bay. He didn’t get very far before an audio message came in on his MTB.

  “Dash? It’s Piper. We’re at the docking station, but there’s no sign of Carly. She’s not answering my calls. Do you want me to go looking for her?”

  Dash paused before answering. Carly was a reliable second-in-command. If she was late, she would have a good reason to be.

  “Stay with the Cloud Cat, I’ll find her,” Dash said.

  —

  As Dash made a long tube ride through the inner workings of the ship, Carly sat alone in her room strumming the guitar she’d brought with her on the voyage. She played a soft, sad song her mother had taught her. She was thinking about leaving the Cloud Leopard for the first time and what she might encounter on an alien planet so many millions of miles from home.

  “Sounds nice.”

  Carly jumped at the sound of Dash’s voice. “Don’t sneak up on me like that! You scared me half to death.”

  “Sorry,” Dash said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

  She knew she’d overreacted, but her nerves were on edge. Carly went back to playing and tried to ignore Dash. There was comfort in playing music. She could escape into it and forget about all the dangerous things outside her room. Her fingers flew across the strings as she sensed Dash moving a little closer.

  “If I had a hundred years, I could never learn to play like that,” Dash said. “It’s a real gift.”

  Carly still didn’t stop, and as Dash got close enough to see her face, he could tell that she was really upset.

  “Hey, you okay?” he asked.

  Her hand strummed the strings one last time, and Carly let the guitar rest in her lap. “My sister is better. And she’s two years younger.”

  “Sounds like a competitive family,” Dash said. “I never had to deal with that.”

  Carly tried to smile; she didn’t want Dash seeing what she feared to be true: that somewhere up here in the middle of nowhere, galaxy unknown, she’d maybe lost something. Like her confidence.

  “Do you miss them, your mom and your sister?” Carly asked. “Do you miss home?”

  Dash took a deep breath. “I do. Always.”

  Carly looked up. “This is harder than I thought it was going to be.”

  Carly was pretty sure Dash would understand if she just told him the truth about how she felt, but what if she was wrong? What if he thought she was weak? It took her a few seconds, but finally she looked Dash in the eyes and continued.

  “I’m afraid we’re not going to make it back home. Actually, I’m just plain afraid. Aqua Gen sounds crazy, Dash.”

  Carly thought she saw a flash of concern move across Dash’s face, but she couldn’t be sure. Did Dash have the power to demote her to head guitar player or something like that? She was scared, but she still wanted to contribute. To do something important.

  “I feel exactly the same way you do,” Dash said, and Carly felt her spirits begin to lift. “We all do. But you’re part of a team, a family, and we’re going to get this done. And after that, I really do believe we’re all going home.”

  Carly wasn’t sure Dash felt the way he said he did about everything. But a leader had to be someone people would follow, and no one was going to follow Dash Conroy if he couldn’t even make himself believe. She had to give him credit for trying.

  “Okay,” Carly said as she stood up and set the guitar aside. “Point taken. We’ve done things as hard as this before. And just as dangerous.”

  “And you’ve always been an important part of our success. You can do it again. I’m sure of it. Aqua Gen is going to be okay. You’ll have your teammates to lean on. We won’t let you down, and we know you won’t let us down either.”

  Carly nodded slowly.

  “Can I meet you on deck?” she asked. “I just need a minute.”

  Dash nodded and moved for the door.

  “And, hey, Dash?” Carly said.

  “Yeah?”

  “Gabe’s right. You’re pretty good at this leader stuff.”

  Dash smiled as he left the room, and Carly reached under her bed to pull out a small box. Inside were pictures of her family, which she kept for times like these. She couldn’t always look at them or it made her too homesick, but sometimes she needed them.

  “I’m coming home,” she said confidently as she riffled through the pictures. “Count on it.”

  As Carly gathered herself for her very first trip to an alien planet, her mind shifted to being excited. She was going somewhere no human had ever gone before, and she was going there with her friends.

  —

  Meanwhile, Dash walked toward the main deck alone. His thoughts were anything but confident. His second-in-command was having a crisis of faith, and they were about to deploy on a planet full of pirates and sea monsters. Chris was basically off the grid. An alarming thermometer had been used to test his vitals, and he thought maybe his brain was leaking out of his nose.

  Suddenly, the lights on the ship blinked off, and Dash was in utter darkness. Just as quickly, though, they came back up, flickering twice. That was weird, he thought. Sys
tem glitch?

  One thing was clear: the mission to Aqua Gen was not off to a good start.

  Small beeps and whirls could be heard from inside a massive structure of computers and machines, but other than that, the room was quiet. Ike Phillips tapped out a few codes on a screen.

  “This is Command, I need Anna Turner,” he said.

  A static-filled pause followed, and then Colin’s voice shot back.

  “It’s good to hear your voice, Commander. What do you need?”

  “I just said what I need. Anna Turner. Everyone else, leave us.”

  “I assure you, I can—” Colin said. His voice, like everything else about him, was an exact replica of Chris.

  “I have my finger hovering over a console here,” Ike said. “It’s a kill switch. Do you know what that is, Colin?”

  “Yes sir. I’ll get Anna. Right away.”

  Colin looked across the bridge of the Light Blade with a wary eye. He was well aware of the kill switch, or at least the idea of the kill switch that Ike had theoretically planted in his head. Even across the galaxy, it was a switch that could supposedly put an end to Colin.

  “Everyone but Anna, out,” Colin said. Ravi, Niko, and Siena couldn’t believe their ears. They were all gathered for the Aqua Gen briefing. Even SUMI, their onboard training robot, was there.

  Colin was the angriest among them, but he didn’t let it show. Ike had put him in charge of every mission so far. Why this sudden change? Didn’t Ike know that Colin was the only real leader of the Light Blade? He begrudgingly left with the others.

  Anna remained, a smug look on her face as everyone else marched off the main deck.

  “The bridge is clear, sir. What can I do for you?”

  Ike only stared blankly, and Anna wondered if the audio feed had been compromised. She was about to ask again when Ike spoke.

  “You’re the only one I completely trust, Anna. The only one who understands how important it is that we retrieve all the elements before the Alpha team does.”

  Anna loved having the keys to the kingdom.

  “I love my son, but he’s been tricked by this Chris character,” Ike went on. His tone turned gloomy at the mention of Shawn Phillips. “It can’t be helped. Shawn was always a dreamer. It will be his undoing.”

  “I understand” was all Anna could think to say.

  “This power source we’re racing to find, it will change the world forever. Whole nations will be reordered. It’s imperative the Source end up in the right hands.”

  Anna felt a wave of satisfaction that she was on the right side of things.

  “We need some insurance,” Ike said, coming to the point. “A way to make sure the Alpha team won’t try to lose us in space. Do you understand?”

  Anna thought she did. She had always hated having to follow the Alpha team, but there had never been anything she could do about it. They had the coordinates for all the stops, she didn’t. Still, Anna had little worry about being left in the cold outer limits of the universe. “Dash would never—”

  Anna could see she was about to disappoint her commander before she finished, and changed course. “I get it, sir. What were you thinking?”

  As Ike explained what needed to happen on Aqua Gen in order to assure their success, Anna listened to every detail.

  “It’s very important that you get this right,” Ike said once he’d finished. “Can I count on you?”

  “I can handle it,” Anna said. “Consider it done.”

  “Very good! I knew you were the right person for the job.”

  Ike Phillips closed out the feed and looked about the room, satisfied. As a final act of treachery, he flipped the kill switch. Nothing happened to Colin, of course. The kill switch was a lie Colin had come to believe over many years. How else was he going to keep a cloned alien on a leash this far from home? It was one of many symbols of Ike’s authority. It was a command he felt would grow by leaps and bounds very soon. Supremacy of the known world was within his grasp.

  “Time to show my son what real power is.”

  As his crew drifted back into the command center, Ike Phillips plotted his complete takeover of the Voyagers mission.

  —

  Anna wasn’t the only one who noted Ike’s every word. Someone else was listening too: Colin. He had done some communication rewiring in the Light Blade that allowed him to listen in on conversations throughout the ship. He smiled at the thought of how it was he who was really in control. How Anna and Ike had a lot to learn about what Colin was capable of.

  One thing was for sure.

  His day would come.

  —

  Something about seeing Piper in the docking bay as the Cloud Cat prepared to lift off made Dash wonder if he’d made the right choice leaving her behind. Test scores didn’t always determine the best person for the job—he’d learned that from personal experience. What had Chris said? Don’t underestimate what Piper can bring to this mission.

  “How would you guys feel about bringing Piper with us in the Cloud Cat?” Dash asked Carly and Gabriel. “To have her closer to the surface if something comes up.”

  “I thought we were going for an in-and-out extraction, nothing complicated?” Carly reminded him.

  “Yeah, totally. We are. But Chris and STEAM are already on the main ship. We’ve got them to navigate if we need to move the Cloud Leopard. Nothing’s going to happen there. Why not bring her along, you know, just in case?”

  Carly and Gabriel smirked at each other.

  “What?” Dash asked.

  “We knew this wasn’t going to be as easy as you were hoping,” Gabriel said. “Never is.”

  Dash shrugged. “If there’s one thing I’m learning out here, it’s that things are always more complicated in real life than they are on a tablet.”

  “Especially in outer space,” Carly added.

  “Sure, bring Piper along for the ride,” Gabriel said. “Can’t hurt.”

  Dash felt his shoulders relax, as if everything just got lighter.

  “Hey, Piper!” he said into his MTB.

  Piper clicked on her comm. Rocket was barking excitedly, doing his canine best to wish them well.

  “Chris and STEAM can manage things here,” Dash said. “We need you with us.”

  Piper hesitated. It was a water planet, and there was nothing she could do to suddenly become a swimmer. No amount of wishing was going to change that, even if things got out of control.

  “You’ll stay in the Cloud Cat,” Dash said, reading her silence. “I just think you should be close by, in case we need something. We’ll position you right outside the atmosphere, where the AquaGens can’t see you. STEAM could pick us up remotely, but you’ve gotten so good at backup navigation. Better if we have a real person on deck.”

  In space—real outer space—Piper had fallen in love with navigation training almost as much as medicine. STEAM had put her through her paces on the long journey, and she’d mastered the Cloud Cat controls. She would never have the natural skills Gabriel had—he was off the charts—but she had to admit Dash was right.

  Piper’s apprehension seemed to fade away, and she drifted her air chair up the length of the ramp into the Cloud Cat with Rocket close behind.

  “Welcome aboard, Piper,” Dash said. “And, uh, Rocket.” Dash, Carly, Gabriel, and Piper exchanged a look, then laughed.

  “It looks like this will be Rocket’s first voyage to a distant planet too,” Carly said with a smile.

  Rocket wagged his shaggy tail and barked.

  “Ready to get this show on the road?” Gabriel asked.

  “Ready,” Carly and Dash said at the same time. Carly shook off what little nervousness remained, while Dash looked at his team, feeling good about every one of them.

  “Ready,” Piper echoed.

  “Bring us in at zero mark fifty,” Dash said. Gabriel already plotted out their options and found a location entirely empty of life. No one on Aqua Gen was ever going to know they’d been
visited by Voyagers.

  “Zero mark fifty,” Gabriel said, pushing the Cloud Cat into high gear as it blasted away from the docking bay. The smaller ship, about the size of an average house, wobbled under the power of its thrusters.

  “Take it easy, Gabriel,” Dash said. “Remember what Chris said: low profile.”

  But as usual, Gabriel was unable or unwilling to tone down his use of the Voyagers equipment. He was like a NASCAR driver; if Gabriel was behind the wheel of a race car with a track in front of him, there was only one choice: gun it.

  “I’m bringing us in about twenty feet from the surface,” Gabriel reported. “We’ll deploy the watercraft from there.”

  “I tested all the watercraft instruments in the pre-mission phase,” Carly said. “Best I can tell everything checked out okay.”

  “It’s a good thing we can’t locate the element from up here,” Gabriel said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have a chance to take those babies out for a spin.”

  The crew stopped talking as the ship accelerated. Dash gripped his armrests as his back pushed firmly into his seat. They were coming in hotter than Dash liked, nose down toward the watery surface of Aqua Gen.

  “Pull back, Gabriel. You’re heading in too steep.”

  “Oh, ye of little faith,” Gabriel said as he expertly tilted the front of the Cloud Cat. They hovered precisely twenty feet above the surface of the water.

  The pressure the crew felt instantly subsided as the ship leveled and slowed. Rocket, who had been sitting on Carly’s lap, barked once with what Carly felt sure was appreciation.

  “Piper, take the helm,” Dash said.

  Piper moved her air chair to a predetermined location at the front of the Cloud Cat. After she’d cleared level 9 navigation training, STEAM and a team of ZRKs had retrofitted a locking hub for Piper to dock her chair. She settled in, and Rocket leapt from Carly’s lap to sit obediently at Piper’s side.

  “I have the controls,” Piper said, and she couldn’t help smiling as she stared out at the serene surface of Aqua Gen.

  The rest of the crew moved off the main deck and into the cargo hold at the rear. There Dash saw three personal watercraft and one submarine. The submarine was shaped like a twelve-foot torpedo, with two seats and controls that were dug into the center, like a kayak. It was a two-person vehicle, but the element extraction controls were only in front of one seat. Dash planned to complete the extraction himself because it was more dangerous than he’d let on. There was nothing safe about finding yourself twenty thousand feet under the surface of an endless sea. But the sub would have to wait; it was the watercraft they needed now.

 
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