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Omega rising, p.5
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       Omega Rising, p.5

           Patrick Carman
 
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  “TULIP must be reprogrammed before we reenter Gamma Speed. We can’t afford to start over now.”

  “What’s the big rush?” Piper asked.

  There was another long pause.

  “I follow the chain of command,” STEAM said. “Dash Conroy has ordered me to keep Chris focused on this important task.”

  “But why do we need to leave Aqua Gen so quickly? Why couldn’t we stay on an extra day or two?”

  Piper waited for a few seconds while STEAM didn’t answer her.

  “STEAM? Are you there?”

  A few more seconds passed before STEAM responded.

  “I’m not authorized to discuss the medical condition of Alpha team participants.”

  And with that, STEAM was gone.

  Piper looked at Rocket.

  What was STEAM talking about? Piper was the ship’s medic, and she hadn’t been told about a medical issue. She let that idea roll around in her head like a marble, and then tried Dash once more.

  No answer.

  The sun went down, a whole day gone, and darkness enveloped the watery world of Aqua Gen.

  —

  When Anna entered the bridge of the Light Blade, she immediately felt the icy temperature in the room. So, word of her recent piloting work on Aqua Gen had gotten back to them already. She glared at Ravi, who quickly passed by and sat in his usual spot. He wouldn’t make eye contact with her. None of them would.

  If her crew thought they could take her down a notch by ganging up on her, they were wrong. They’d never met her dad, a taskmaster extraordinaire with a penchant for emotional and mental trickery. Ravi, Siena, and Niko had nothing on the master manipulator known as Mr. Turner. She’d learned the craft of holding the upper hand from the best of them.

  Anna strode down the center of the observation deck, putting off an icy coldness of her own.

  “Siena?” she asked, all business. “What’s the status on element retrieval mapping?”

  Siena didn’t respond to the request. She didn’t even look up.

  “All right,” Anna said. “I’ll take your silence to mean you’ve fallen behind the allotted time. I’ll have Colin do it. You are relieved of duty for now.”

  “But—” Siena blurted out.

  “Do you have results for me or don’t you?” Anna broke in. “Because Colin can do it if you can’t. Am I wrong about this, Colin?”

  Colin had enough brains to do almost any task on the ship. He felt, deep in the coldness of his beating heart, that it was he who was really in charge of the Light Blade and the mission. These kids were nothing but a set of tools he used to attain his ultimate goal: showing Ike Phillips that he was better than the alien he’d been cloned from. His greatest ally was Anna, but eventually he would need to show her how inferior she was. For now, he played along.

  “You are correct.”

  Colin’s cold words rattled Siena even more.

  “There, you see?” Anna said. “We don’t exactly need you, Siena. There are others on this team who can do the work if you can’t.”

  “Ravi told us what you did,” Siena shot back, looking at her wrist tech and bringing up a series of messages Ravi had typed in.

  Anna is taking us in close to a fleet of Aqua Gen ships….

  They’re taking chase!

  You guys, she led them right to the Alpha team.

  This isn’t right.

  Anna glowered at Ravi once more.

  “Do you deny it?” Siena asked.

  Niko and Ravi looked on with nervous curiosity. Colin smiled. He loved nothing more than seeing the Omega team turn on itself.

  “We told you, Anna,” Niko said. “We don’t want anyone to get hurt. Not on our team or theirs.”

  “No one is getting hurt,” Anna said.

  It was time to alter course, Anna knew. She’d threatened Siena’s utility on the ship, that seed had been planted. Now she must turn them in her direction.

  “No one is getting hurt,” Anna repeated. “You read the reports just as I did. The AquaGens are a peaceful people. They’re not going to hurt anyone, but they will detain them and slow them down. Aren’t you tired of being told we’re second best? If you’re not, there’s the door. Go join them. None of us were chosen, and we all should have been. We’re a better team. We deserve to lead. We deserve to be heroes. And they took that from us.”

  She could see by the looks on their faces that she was winning them over. They wanted out from under the Alpha shadow as much as she did.

  “You have to trust me. I’m not going to do anything that will get anyone hurt, not on their team and certainly not on ours. What I am going to do is lead this team. I’m going to make sure Earth gets what it needs. Because ultimately, I don’t think the Alpha team is up to the task. If we don’t get them out of the way, they’ll blow the whole thing, and do you know what that means? No energy source. And no going home.”

  Anna sat down in her captain’s chair and stared out into the stars. “I’m the best shot you’ve got.”

  Niko was the quietest of the group, but he spoke next.

  “You’re forgetting something, Anna. You need us as much as we need you.”

  Anna didn’t like having to count on anyone. Niko’s words stung more than they should have, because he was right. As much as she wished she could, Anna couldn’t beat the Alpha team alone. Her mind seized on the right course of action: They need to think I actually care about them. They need to think they matter. She turned to look at her crew.

  “You’re right, Niko. I do need you guys.” She gulped a big breath and faked the part of contrite leader. “I should have asked you all about the plan first. I shouldn’t have made that decision alone. I’m sorry.”

  Inside, Anna wanted to scream. She wanted to tell them to grow up and do their jobs. But she held her ground even as her hands were shaking with anger.

  “Did the universe just do a backflip or was that Anna Turner saying she was wrong?” Ravi joked.

  “Don’t get used to it,” Anna said. She turned her captain’s chair to stare out at the stars once more, signaling that this conversation was over.

  “Take back what you said,” Siena insisted. She had never once failed a task, no matter how demeaning. Anna could hear the venom in her voice. Siena wasn’t done fighting, not by a long shot.

  Anna wanted to tell Siena to leave the bridge. She wanted to humiliate her. But she held herself in check.

  “I meant what I said, Siena. If you choose not to do your job, someone else can do it. But there’s no question in my mind that you are the most qualified for the task I gave you. I would not have assigned it to you if I didn’t think you were the most talented person for the job.”

  “I think that was an apology, sort of,” Niko said. Mostly he just wanted everyone to get along.

  Siena sat back down at her station and tapped out a few commands on the glass before her.

  “We’re going to talk about some of these tactics at some point too,” Siena said. They were right on the edge of what she was comfortable with, and it had been happening more and more.

  “But now’s not the time,” Niko said, nodding and raising an eye at Siena as if to say “You’ve already gotten as much as you’re going to get today. Don’t push it.”

  “We’re hacked in,” Sienna said. “Everything is working as planned. Now all we can do is wait.”

  Anna sat in her commander’s chair and felt a mix of emotions. She wished she hadn’t been forced to fake an apology to anyone. But it had gotten the desired effect from her crew. She was beginning to wonder, Maybe there’s more to leading than my dad taught me.

  Only time would tell.

  —

  Piper’s head had lolled to one side on the backrest of her air chair. A bead of slobber was rolling down her cheek. She was a heavy sleeper, always had been, and when sleep came, it was hard to rouse her. Rocket heard a very small noise from the control panel and lifted his head off his paws. But he didn’t stir any mo
re than that, and a moment later, his eyes closed again.

  Even if Piper had been awake, she wouldn’t have understood the Cloud Cat system was being hacked into by the Omega team. STEAM 6000 would have noticed. The Alpha robot would have put up a defense or alerted someone. But Piper knew only the rudimentary controls of the Cloud Cat. She knew how to tell it what to do and let auto settings do the rest. She was primarily a doctor.

  The Omega team wouldn’t fall behind because Anna revealed the Alpha team’s position to the AquaGens. Team Omega would crack the code for finding the Pollen Slither source as fast as the Alpha team would. And once that happened, they’d have a serious leg up.

  Dash was sitting inside the belly of an Aqua Gen sailing vessel, thinking about everything that had gone wrong. As the ship lolled back and forth on the water, he was silently freaking out. He’d listened to Carly and Gabriel yell for help for a long time, but after a while, they gave up and sat down on the cold floor of the ship. An hour later, they had both fallen asleep. But Dash remained wide awake, cycling through the list of problems that needed solving:

  • The AquaGens had taken all their communication devices, so Dash had lost contact with Piper and the Cloud Cat. He had no idea where she was or how she was doing. He hoped she hadn’t chosen to come looking for them.

  • His team was trapped inside an alien ship with no apparent way to escape and the clock was ticking.

  • Speaking of clocks, Dash had no idea what time it was. He thought it was getting close to morning, but he couldn’t be sure. He hadn’t planned for an extended stay on Aqua Gen, so he hadn’t brought a shot of his elixir with him. What if they got stuck on this planet for more than twenty-four hours?

  • The AquaGens didn’t trust Dash or his team, and he had no idea how to change their minds.

  • And most troubling of all, a sound like nothing he’d ever heard in his life had begun. It was both terrifying and weird. All around him there was a growing reverberation of teeth biting against wood. Not one set of teeth, but many. Thousands.

  “Hey, wake up, you two,” Dash said, nudging Gabriel and Carly awake.

  “How long were we out?” Carly asked as she rubbed the sleep out of her eyes.

  “Couldn’t tell you,” Dash offered. “They took all our tech.”

  Carly felt along her lanky arm and remembered how they’d removed her MTB. She felt naked without it.

  “Man, I got used to that thing,” Gabriel said, touching his own wrist.

  “What’s that awful noise?” Carly asked, her face souring like she’d swallowed a bad pickle.

  “I hate to tell you guys,” Dash said. “But I think this boat is being attacked by a school of—”

  He didn’t finish, as a door opened at the top of the winding metal stairway and the room was illuminated with watery light. Dash looked at the ceiling and saw that it was shimmering with color, not unlike the Pollen Slither he’d seen on the surface of the sea. It was casting a soft glow on the room. Pollen Slither must be some powerful stuff, he thought. It was what they’d used to make the iridescent sails on the ships and probably so much more.

  Down the stairs came three AquaGens, all hidden behind the same flowing fabric, the arms and legs fluttering like waves. One, presumably the leader, also wore a silver band around his or her forehead.

  When they arrived at the bottom of the stairs, the leader tossed the translator to Carly and nodded.

  “Looks like they’re ready to talk,” Dash said.

  Carly quickly turned the device on.

  “Tell him he’s got a nice place here,” Gabriel said.

  “Gabriel, this is no time for jokes,” Carly said, shoving him in the shoulder and giving him a look.

  “You have led us into dangerous waters,” the AquaGen leader said. It came out all gurgles and squeaks, but the translator turned it into that reassuring female British voice. “We had hoped to avoid Thermites, but we have not. Come with us. It’s not safe here any longer.”

  The sound of a million teeth biting at the hull brought the training images into Dash’s mind. Each Thermite was up to twenty feet long, with suction cups like an octopus filled with thousands of sharp teeth.

  “How many are there?” Dash asked.

  One of the AquaGens at the leader’s side unsheathed a blade that looked like a samurai sword and moved in Dash’s direction.

  Gabriel couldn’t help himself: “Was it something we said?”

  Dash pushed his teammates back, blocking them from the oncoming threat.

  “We come in peace!” Dash said, repeating a line they’d already tried and failed to get much use out of.

  “Stand aside,” the blade-wielding AquaGen gurgled as he strode past the Voyagers.

  The sound of teeth biting at the hull was coming from every corner of the room, growing in volume.

  “To the deck!” the leader yelled. “Now!”

  Dash pushed Carly and Gabriel forward and followed as quickly as he could. He heard a new sound, like water exploding through a fire hose, and turned back.

  A Thermite tentacle had breached the hull, thrashing three feet in the air through the hole, searching for something else to sink its teeth into. The AquaGen moved quickly, slicing the sword through the air and cutting the tentacle clean about a foot above the hole. The lopped-off section flailed around like a fish out of water and what remained of the Thermite arm retracted. Water began pouring in through the hole. Seconds later, a second Thermite broke through. Then a third. Then they were breaking through the wooden underbelly of the ship like popcorn in a microwave.

  “Run!” the AquaGen leader shrieked, pushing Dash up the staircase.

  As he came around the second turn of the spiral, Dash glanced down once more. The two AquaGens who remained were both mowing down Thermite tentacles as fast as they appeared, but this only seemed to hasten the demise of the ship. They were taking on water fast.

  “Enough!” the leader yelled at the crew. “There’s nothing left to be done. We must abandon ship.”

  “I’m sorry,” Dash said, and while he couldn’t see the captain’s eyes, he did catch the smallest head nod under the mask of watery fabric.

  When they reached the deck, the sun was just coming up over the dome of Aqua Gen. There were three ships stationed nearby in a cluster about a hundred yards off. Everything was cast in light and shadow as Dash pulled Gabriel and Carly together. “Whatever happens, stay close to each other.”

  There were a dozen or more AquaGens on the deck, all of them working feverishly at tearing down the sails and rolling them up into tidy bundles. They were much thinner than Dash expected, like wet rice paper pulled from a pot of boiling water.

  “Why are they taking down the sails?” Carly asked.

  “Yeah, we should be hoisting them so we can make a run for it,” Gabriel added.

  Dash shook his head. “There’s no saving this ship. The sails must be the most valuable asset they have.”

  Carly and Gabriel stood at the rail and looked down.

  “This is so bad,” Carly said, her voice cracking with fear. She nervously pulled her black hair back into a ponytail and tied it off with a rubber band.

  Dash looked over the edge of the boat too. The water was churning with Thermites. Thousands of them thrashing the surface of the water. How many more were attacking the ship itself?

  The captain of the ship came up beside them and spoke.

  “Do as we do or die by the teeth of these vile creatures.”

  The captain moved off quickly, gurgling orders at its crew.

  “Wait!” Dash said. He touched the captain’s arm but quickly pulled his hand back. The cloth felt like a pool of water.

  The AquaGen turned and tilted its head.

  “Where are the things you’ve taken from us?” Dash asked. “They’re very important.” Without their wrist tech, they couldn’t contact Piper or the Cloud Cat. They might not ever get off the planet.

  The captain turned sideways, and Da
sh saw a small sack hanging from a rope. “I have them. Now do as we do!”

  Dash was glad to hear they hadn’t lost their communication to the outside world, but he didn’t understand what the captain meant.

  “There’s too much chatter,” Carly said, working the screen on the translator. “I can’t tell what anyone is saying.”

  “You guys,” Dash said, “they’re fitting entire sails inside those small bags.”

  The AquaGens all had small white bags with ropes they could sling over their heads. The bags were the size of a backpack, but round and bunched at the top in the shape of a teardrop.

  “But that’s impossible,” Carly said. “Those sails are bigger than fifty of my bedsheets back home.”

  They watched as the last of the sails were rolled and stuffed into bags. What remained was like a grove of trees in winter, the skeletal spines shooting into the air unable to take on wind and forge their escape.

  “They’re climbing,” Gabriel said. “They’re all climbing.”

  Dash and Carly looked up into the series of masts empty of sails and saw that Gabriel was right. As the nose of the ship began to tilt downward and the sound of angry Thermites grew louder still, Dash knew what they had to do.

  “Climb!” he yelled. “This ship is going down!”

  The three of them were the last ones on the deck. Everyone else had already fled up into the highest reaches of the mainmast and foremast.

  Dash hoisted Carly up onto the first rung of the mainmast, and she started to climb. Gabriel was next, and once he was on, he reached his hand back for Dash. “We’re not done yet, buddy. Let’s not go down without a fight.”

  Dash hesitated and took a last look around the ship’s deck. If today was going to be his last day, at least it was going to be with his friends on one of the most exciting day of their lives. Dash took Gabriel’s hand, and his foot left the deck of the ship.

  “Are you guys seeing this?” Carly asked. The sun was far enough up now that the ships in the distance were more visible. One of them had just used what appeared to be an enormous slingshot to fire a cannonball from its deck.

 
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