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Omega rising, p.3
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       Omega Rising, p.3

           Patrick Carman
 
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  The watercraft were shaped like a wishbone, with a single seat positioned in the center of the Y. Propulsion came from the twin jet engines at the tail ends of the Y, and all the mapping tools were in the long front nose. They were sleek, beautiful machines, cast in blue-and-green camouflage to match the surface.

  “Man, I love this gig,” Gabriel said as he stared at the most expensive watercraft ever created.

  Carly was a bit more cautious than Gabriel. “It’s too bad we can’t send the sub in without this surface work,” she said. “I don’t like being exposed any longer than we have to.”

  Dash agreed, but they all knew the limitations of the technology. STEAM 6000 had made sure to explain it in excruciating detail and test them relentlessly while they were in Gamma Speed. They would need to ride the surface of the water and search for an oily film of Pollen Slither. Once they found that, they could trace a direct path to the origin twenty thousand feet below.

  “Sure would be nice if we could just scoop up some Pollen Slither from the surface and use that,” Carly continued while they all put on life vests and boarded their own watercrafts.

  “No way!” Gabriel said. “All that training on the ship with these things. We’ve gotta ride ’em for real.”

  Dash knew he should reassure Carly, but he could feel himself being pulled into the gravitational force of Gabriel’s excitement.

  “I’m not going to lie. I’ve been looking forward to this.”

  “That’s my man,” Gabriel said, and he leaned out for a fist bump that Dash neglected to see.

  “Don’t leave me hangin’,” Gabriel said.

  Dash returned the bump, then shifted to his left, where Carly was seated, and offered a fist bump to her. She took a deep, nervous breath and put on her helmet, ignoring Dash’s fist. “Let’s do this.”

  Dash and Gabriel put on their helmets, and everyone buckled into their seats.

  “Ready?” Dash asked, testing the person-to-person audio inside the helmets. He got nods all around and tapped a command into his screen. “Piper, open bay doors.”

  “You got it,” Piper said from the deck. A hydraulic sound filled the Cloud Cat bay and light pierced Dash’s eyes. He stared down a forty-five-degree metal ramp, followed by open air and the water below. He tried to swallow and found a lump in his throat that felt like a walnut.

  “Gabriel, deploy in five, four, three, two, one,” Dash ordered.

  Gabriel’s watercraft flew down the deck like a stone in a slingshot: it arced up and swayed left, then straightened out and glided onto the surface of the water. Gabriel zoomed away from the ship and circled back, waiting for the rest of his team as he pumped his fist in the air.

  “Carly, deploy in five—”

  Dash didn’t get any further into the order before Carly’s watercraft flew out of the cargo bay. She took a sharp right and nearly flipped over, then went into a hard nosedive and pierced the surface, disappearing like a swordfish into the depths of the sea.

  “Carly!” Dash yelled. Just as the water started to settle and turn smooth and glassy, Carly’s watercraft burst out into the open again, achieved seven feet of amazing air, and landed perfectly on the surface.

  Gabriel was super jealous.

  “Aw, man, why didn’t I think of that,” Gabriel said. “Incredible!”

  “Thanks,” Carly said. The audio on her helmet communication flickered, but she caught the end of what Gabriel was saying. She tried to smile, but she was soaking wet and a little bit shaken up. Then she thought about it: it was kind of a sweet move and she was still breathing! Maybe this mission wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

  “Deploying now,” Dash informed Piper. His finger was on the trigger that would send him hurtling onto an unknown planet. He hoped his landing would be more like Gabriel’s than Carly’s. “Close bay doors when I’m clear, then move three-quarters of a mile off the surface and hold.”

  “Understood,” Piper said. “And, Dash?”

  “Yeah?”

  “You’re going to do great.”

  “Thanks, Piper.”

  Rocket barked his approval as well, and something about his decision to bring Piper along gave Dash the confidence he needed to press his thumb down on the button. He flew a straight path, hardly wobbling at all, and landed softly on the water below. Carly and Gabriel moved into formation beside him, and they all took a moment to gaze out over the endless water.

  “We are so far away from home,” Dash said.

  “It never gets old,” Gabriel added.

  Carly didn’t have any words. Mostly she felt relief—she’d done it. She was on another planet. Finally. A sun from another galaxy shone down on an aquamarine sea. She leaned over and looked into the endless depths, a void that seemed to go on forever.

  The water darkened beneath her, and she looked overhead out of habit. Had a cloud drifted by, blotting out the sun? No, there were no clouds in the cobalt-blue sky. When she looked back, it was gone. Or was it? Maybe all the water was darker beneath her.

  “Did you guys see that?” she asked.

  Carly couldn’t be sure she’d seen anything, and she was concerned Dash and Gabriel already thought she was being too nervous. Maybe it was a trick of light from the shimmering sun.

  “I don’t think it was anything,” Carly said.

  Then she felt something bump against the bottom of her watercraft.

  Dash looked to the sky, hoping to see the Cloud Cat still holding low to the water, but it was long gone. There was no time to call Piper back and complete the not-so-simple reboarding procedure. The water swelled up beneath him, like a blue whale was about to crest the surface. He felt his watercraft tilt to one side.

  “Evacuate protocol one!” Dash yelled.

  They’d practiced two types of evacuation plans during training. One meant stay together; two would have meant split apart and go in different directions. It had taken all of a few seconds on Aqua Gen to stumble into something.

  “Predator Z!” Dash yelled as he went straight to full throttle and the watercraft bucked and swayed beneath him. He looked back as the surface boiled higher, with Carly and Gabriel on the other side of the creature that was about to show itself.

  Dash hoped his team had heard the order through the helmet comm system, but as the Predator Z broke the surface, he couldn’t be sure. It was like nothing Dash had ever seen or imagined, twice as big as a killer whale but so much faster. The length of its entire body flew into the air like a dolphin, dripping water beneath its great hull of a stomach. It was the most amazing bright blue color, which only made the rows of teeth stand out more. Dash turned hard to the right, trying desperately to outrun the tidal wave the Predator Z created. A twenty-foot wall of water rose up behind him, pushing Dash faster and faster. The normal top speed of the watercraft was somewhere in the neighborhood of forty-five miles per hour, but the wave pushed his speed to sixty. He was literally flying along the surface, barely holding on.

  Dash looked over one shoulder and then the other, but all he could see was a wall of water. He turned the watercraft softly to his left and began a wide angle against the wave, preparing to rise up and over the cresting water, back toward Gabriel and Carly, he hoped. That was when he saw the Predator Z once more, its lizard-like skin just beneath the surface. It was moving as fast as Dash was, tracking him with a basketball-sized eyeball. A lightning bolt of fear shot through his body as he throttled the watercraft to full speed, pulling away from the menacing eyeball. The beast moved in behind Dash and took chase as Dash turned hard into the open sea and crouched down, creating the best airstream he could.

  “Show me what you’ve got,” he said as he hit the watercraft’s accelerator to speed up to seventy miles per hour. He’d seen footage of speedboats catching the wrong angle and going airborne, tumbling end over end and breaking into pieces. One wrong move and the same fate awaited Dash, and then he’d be Predator Z food for sure. The water lay like an endless sheet of glass in front of
him, and he glided along its surface in a perfectly straight line. A full minute passed, and he didn’t look back. It felt like he could go on like this forever in search of a distant shore and never find one.

  At last, he risked lifting his head and turning around, expecting to see the great alien creature of the sea bearing down on him. Instead he saw only the line on the water he’d left behind, like the third-base line to home. He throttled down and turned in the direction from which he’d come, then came to a stop, bobbing gently on the water.

  “Where are you?” he whispered to himself, searching every corner of the horizon.

  Dash doubled back in search of his teammates and hoped they hadn’t been capsized. He saw nothing. No Predator Z. No Carly or Gabriel. He drove the watercraft in a circle, feeling a sudden loss of direction. Everything looked the same. Water, water, and more water.

  “Carly! Gabriel!” he called out. The quiet unnerved him. He felt a loneliness he hadn’t experienced for weeks. On his second spin around, Dash saw the Predator Z rise once more, about a hundred yards to his left. It was cutting a path in the distance, and he felt a pang of hysteria at the idea that one or both of his friends were clutched between its teeth.

  Dash double-checked the helmet communication system and tried again.

  “Gabriel, come in! Carly, answer!”

  Dead air. Dash changed frequencies. Then he tried switching to his MTB. Still no word from Carly or Gabriel.

  “Piper, come in!”

  A few seconds of silence followed, then Piper’s voice came through. “Piper here.”

  “We’ve been separated,” Dash said. “But all three watercraft have GPS signals. Where are they?”

  “Checking,” Piper said. “I’m out of Aqua Gen’s atmosphere, but I can return if you need me to. Sounds like things are off to a rocky start.”

  Dash thought about it. He remembered the briefing; the last thing they needed was the AquaGens discovering they’d been visited by humans from another galaxy.

  “Hold your position. Any sign of Carly or Gabriel?”

  “Okay. Yeah, I have them both. I also see your signal. They’re together, due east. Not moving. At top speed, I’d say you’re three minutes away.”

  “Try to hail them. I’m on the move,” Dash said.

  He throttled the watercraft and headed east, pushing the machine as hard as it would go. A minute passed as water sprayed up on both sides, then another. Piper’s voice returned.

  “No answer from Carly or Gabriel. I’m coming down there.”

  “Stay put!” Dash ordered. “I’m almost there. We can’t risk another Cloud Cat entry already. Give me another minute or two.”

  Dash was back at over sixty miles per hour in no time flat, following Piper’s instructions from above.

  “A little more to the north—you’re off course,” Piper explained.

  Dash adjusted his direction too quickly and began to fishtail across the surface. He was losing control of the watercraft. Throttling down slowed his weaving back and forth, and he was able to steady himself. A few more seconds and Dash saw two dots on the water in the distance. He couldn’t tell if they were carrying his friends or not, but at least he’d found the watercraft.

  “Come on, guys. You have to be there.”

  A minute later, the two watercraft began to move toward Dash and he knew—he and his crew had found each other. They were okay.

  “I have them,” Dash said on Piper’s frequency. “We’re good. Just a little brush with a Predator Z.”

  “That took all of four seconds,” Piper said. “I hope it’s not a sign of bad things to come.”

  Gabriel broke out in a smile as he and Carly approached Dash, and the three of them did some whooping and hollering.

  “Nothing the Alphas can’t handle,” Gabriel said triumphantly.

  “You had us worried,” Carly said, searching the surface of Aqua Gen as far as she could see. “It’s bigger than I thought it would be.”

  “Why didn’t you answer when I called?” Dash asked. “You can’t do that—we’re a team!”

  Gabriel had heard one of Dash’s calls flickering in and out, but hadn’t taken it seriously. He thought Dash’s nerves were getting the best of him.

  “Chill out, Dash,” Gabriel said. “We both overturned, totally soaked our helmets and our wrist tech. They’re starting to come back online now, but there was no signal for a while there.”

  Gabriel could tell Dash was already calming down now that he understood what had happened. Besides, he’d worked alongside his friend long enough to trust him even when he was acting kind of like a jerk.

  “Mine was already dunked once from the launch,” Carly added. “Everything happened so fast. I didn’t even realize the audio had shut down.”

  “That was seriously insane, though,” Gabriel said to Dash. “You went down one side, and we went down the other. Predator Z wave is a wild ride!”

  Now Dash was smiling. Gabriel’s energy was infectious. “I got lost there for a minute,” Dash said. “Sorry.”

  “Forget about it!” Gabriel said. “We’re all getting off this giant swimming pool together. No one gets left behind!”

  “What’s up down there?” Piper asked from the Cloud Cat. She was coming in clear for Dash, but it was a sputtering mess on Carly’s and Gabriel’s equipment. “I’ve got my finger on the return to Aqua Gen button.”

  “We’re all fine,” Dash called back. “You did a great job, Piper. You got us back together.”

  “So, do we know where we’re going?” Carly asked.

  Gabriel nodded. “This Predator Z encounter had one positive outcome. We’re closer to a Pollen Slither deposit.”

  “Point the way, Navigator,” Dash said. He gunned the watercraft and did a full circle, like he was riding a dirt bike back home.

  “This way,” Gabriel confirmed.

  He sounded like his usual confident self, but as he led the way, Gabriel began to worry—the radar system pointed them even farther east. They were getting pretty far from their original insertion point. If the radar led them miles and miles away, there was no telling what they might encounter.

  Anna scanned the skyline as they flew the Clipper a mere ten feet above the water line. It was an agile craft, much smaller than the Light Blade, which waited for their return in the atmosphere above.

  “Where are you hiding?” Anna wondered aloud, scouting for signs of alien life.

  “Why are we doing this again?” Ravi asked as he examined a wide screen of data pouring into view. “Shouldn’t we be searching for Pollen Slither?”

  “Don’t worry about that. Right now I need to find whoever’s living in this swamp.”

  “This is not swamp water,” Ravi said. “More like a glacial melt. It’s very pure.”

  Anna rolled her eyes. What she wouldn’t give for a crew that didn’t question every little thing. As far as she was concerned, they were all too busy proving they were the smartest person in the room to be of much use.

  “Wait, I have something,” Ravi said.

  Anna thought she saw it too: a series of marks on the horizon.

  “And we have a lock on the Alpha team position?” she asked.

  “Yes, we’ve had that for a while. Easy to tap into their GPS.”

  “How far from here are they?”

  Ravi did some quick calculations.

  “The objects in the distance are approximately seven miles west of us. The Alpha team is due east, about five miles.”

  The Clipper was traveling at over two hundred miles per hour. At that speed, they’d be on top of whatever they were seeing in just over two minutes.

  “Okay, time for you to take a break,” Anna said.

  “A break? What do you mean, break?”

  Anna got right up in Ravi’s face, leaning down and staring at him sharply.

  “I need to navigate this ship. Now.”

  Ravi knew that look. That determination. He’d seen it at least once every
day since they’d left Earth. He’d seen the look as recently as that morning, when she’d waited for him to relay coordinates for their entry point and it had taken a few seconds too long. There was no place for distractions on Anna’s Omega team. You either did your job quickly and efficiently, or she did it herself.

  And yet Ravi had long ago decided he liked Anna. She was strong and smart, and she could be funny when she really wanted to be. He liked funny. Like when she used withering sarcasm that wasn’t pointed at him. “You’re not always messing up the orders I give you,” she’d said to Siena a few days before. “Sometimes you’re asleep.” Siena had it the worst—she was second-in-command, a possible threat to Anna’s hold on power.

  But there were times, such as the moment he found himself in now, when Anna truly scared him. Ravi got up and moved off.

  “You might want to buckle up,” Anna said. “This could get a little bumpy.”

  Ravi knew better than to take an order like that lightly. He switched seats with her and secured himself for whatever Armageddon was about to happen.

  —

  “This is good,” Dash said, staring at the surface as they waited. They had gone several miles and stopped, waiting for the water to go as calm as possible all around them. But it wasn’t turning glassy as it had when they arrived.

  “There are clouds moving in,” Carly said, staring off into the distance.

  Gabriel sniffed the air. He had a keen sense of weather patterns.

  “It does smell like rain,” Gabriel said as he looked over his shoulder. “It’s coming from that way.”

 
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