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Omega rising, p.9
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       Omega Rising, p.9

           Patrick Carman
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  Somselia turned to Dash, and her eyes narrowed as if she was smiling beneath the veil.

  “They don’t know that,” she said. “And they never will. Can you go a little lower?”

  “Dash,” Gabriel jumped in. “Tell STEAM to initiate Operation Pancake.”

  “Initiate Operation Pancake?” Dash repeated.

  “Pardon me, sir,” STEAM responded. “I’m not aware of a pancake operation.”

  Gabriel rolled his eyes and spoke into Dash’s MTB. “Take it in closer. As close as you can. We need to scare these red pirates good.”

  “Understood,” STEAM said. “Initiating Operation Pancake.”

  Gabriel smiled and glanced at Dash. “I love getting STEAM to say goofy stuff.”

  The Cloud Leopard lowered even more, until it was nearly parked on top of the pirate ship. Its great turbine engines roared and sent waves of water across the sea. Dash could feel the sound vibrating all the way down his spine and into his legs.

  The last of the red pirates dove overboard and swam for their own ship, leaving behind the sails they’d come to steal.

  “Their ship has stopped advancing,” Somselia said. And then, with marked astonishment in her alien voice, she leaned forward with wide eyes and said something more. “They’re retreating.”

  When everyone looked back, Dash included, the pirate ship was indeed moving away from the AquaGen ship, but not in the way Dash expected it to. The ship seemed to vanish before their eyes. The water enveloped it on every side, and suddenly the pirate ship was simply gone. All that remained was the bubbling surface of the AquaGen ocean.

  “No way!” Gabriel said. “We’re not dealing with zombie pirates. They’re ghost pirates!”

  “That’s no ghost ship,” Carly said. “It’s a submarine.”

  “Oh, right,” Gabriel said bashfully. “Cool sub.”

  Dash finally understood why the AquaGens feared the red pirates so much.

  “They arrive without any warning and take your treasured sails,” Dash said to Somselia. She nodded.

  “What an unfair advantage,” Carly observed. “It’s terrible.”

  As the Voyagers and the AquaGen captain were helped off the platform and back onto the ship, a call came in from STEAM requesting orders. He still held the Cloud Leopard low over the water.

  Dash turned to Somselia. “How fast can you get this ship out of here?”

  Somselia called to the AquaGens standing nearby on the deck, then returned her gaze to Dash.

  “We can’t move until the storm passes. It’s too dangerous.”

  The sea was still churning with waves as the wind lashed the side of the ship and dark gray clouds churned overhead.

  As a hard rain continued to fall, Gabriel looked skyward and got an idea. He tapped into his communication with the ship. “STEAM? Listen, can you get right over the top of us again? Tilt your nose toward the water and cut some of this wind off the ship. Stay overhead when we move. Got it? Operation…uh, Windshield.”

  “Directive received,” STEAM said. “Complying.”

  The Cloud Leopard rose frighteningly fast, leveling out and turning toward the AquaGen vessel. Somselia told her frightened crew to stay calm as the Cloud Leopard moved back above the AquaGen ship, dipped its nose, and began to move slowly. The terrified crew understood it was an escape option and flew into action, hoisting countless sails overhead. The massive hull of the Cloud Leopard cut about half the wind and protected them all from the pelting rain.

  “Operation Windshield under way, yes sir!” STEAM said once it appeared the plan was going to work.

  “STEAM is awesome!” Gabriel said. “I’m so hanging out with our robot buddy when we get back. I gotta hear the blow-by-blow from the deck firsthand.”

  Dash was all business, watching the water for any sign of a returning pirate sub. “How many pirate subs are there?” he asked Somselia.

  The commander took a moment to ponder and then shrugged. “A hundred?”

  Dash imagined a hundred submarines, trolling the seas of Aqua Gen, searching for ships to destroy. He shuddered at the thought.

  “But I don’t think they’ll be bothering us anymore,” Somselia said. “I think you’ve made them think twice about the friends we have in high places.”

  Dash couldn’t see her face, but he was sure she was smiling.

  “How long have they been here?” Dash asked.

  “Since before I was born,” Somselia said. “But we rarely lose ships anymore. We’re good at keeping away from them. It will be much easier now.”

  Dash lifted his arm to speak into his MTB. “What’s the status of the pirate sub?” he asked STEAM.

  “It’s big enough to keep on radar up to seven thousand feet,” STEAM said. “It moved off about three hundred yards and dove. I lost its location approximately ten seconds ago.”

  Dash finally relaxed. He shared the good news with Somselia, who turned to the entire crew and spoke at the top of her lungs. “We’re safe. This group of visitors has saved us today. They are our friends.”

  Then Somselia raised her hands to the crown of her head and removed the silver band. It was solid, like a magician’s ring of steel. She splayed her thumbs and forefingers along the edges of the ring and began to rock her hands back and forth in the movement of a wave.

  “This, too, is Pollen Slither,” she told Dash. “It takes many forms and has many uses. In this form, after heating over a fire, it can be resized.”

  The ring became smaller and smaller, until it was only the diameter of a coffee cup. And smaller still, until she had forged a ring of silver before their eyes. She held it out to Dash.

  “I can’t take your captain’s ring,” Dash said.

  Somselia took Dash’s hand and turned it up, placing the treasure in his palm.

  “I know a good captain when I see one,” she said, closing his fingers around the ring. “Besides, I can make another one. We have plenty of Pollen Slither on Aqua Gen. Consider this a gift for helping us.”

  “Wow, dude,” Gabriel said. “I think you just got married.”

  Carly laughed so hard she snorted.

  But Dash knew better. One captain to another, this was the most important thing she could have given him. He slipped the ring on his finger and felt a sense of pride.

  Somselia gazed skyward, where the sky was blotted out by the great shadow of the Cloud Leopard. Then she turned to everyone on the ship and made a weird, watery sound that didn’t translate. It must have been a rare command that wasn’t recognized by the translation software. Everyone in the crew stopped what they were doing and looked at Dash, Carly, and Gabriel. And then they bowed, smiled, and turned to the sea all at once.

  Carly looked to the water too. “Why are they all staring out into the storm?”

  The captain took a deep breath of the sea air. “We have had many bad things happen to us on this water, but today is a victory. It is what we call a miracle.”

  “Oh sure, we know about miracles,” Gabriel said. “I once saw Winnie-the-Pooh’s head staring back at me on the surface of a waffle. True story.”

  Dash didn’t bother translating Gabriel’s “miracle,” but he did laugh.

  “Gabriel, you rock my world,” Dash said.

  “Mine too,” Carly said.

  Not long after that, with the AquaGen ship safely out of harm’s way, three hoisting cables were released from the belly of the Cloud Leopard. They danced in the wind until the Voyagers crew put the harnesses on and stood at the ready.

  “Will we ever see you again?” Somselia asked as she looked up at the ship with wonder in her eyes.

  “I hope so,” Dash said. “Would you welcome us?”

  She touched him on the shoulder. It felt like a cold, liquid hand. “You are always welcome here. You and your crew will be remembered.”

  Dash was feeling close to amazing as they rose up into the Cloud Leopard.

  By the time the Cloud Leopard broke through the storm and arrived
on the other side of the clouds, they remembered that Piper had been strangely silent. Where was she? Gabriel took control of the ship as STEAM tried to get Dash’s attention.

  “Can I see you privately, Captain?” STEAM asked.

  Dash didn’t respond as he watched the dark clouds swirl below the ship.

  “I’ve locked onto the Cloud Cat,” Gabriel said. “We can rendezvous in approximately seven minutes.”

  “I’m not getting any response,” Carly reported. “Where could she be?”

  “Sir, a word, please,” STEAM said again, nudging Dash with a mechanical arm.

  “What’s the problem, STEAM?” Dash asked, distracted. But STEAM didn’t answer. Instead, the robot moved quickly toward the boys’ quarters and Dash followed.

  When they arrived at Dash’s bedside, Dash suddenly remembered.

  “Oh, right, my daily injection,” Dash said, embarrassed that he’d forgotten something so important. “I’ve had a lot on my mind.”

  “I understand,” STEAM replied. “You are very much behind schedule. Please administer the shot immediately.”

  “Thanks, STEAM,” Dash said. He carefully set up the device and placed it against his arm. The shots didn’t hurt, but they did feel strange and Dash always cringed. He still hadn’t gotten used to giving himself injections. Or keeping the information from his friends.

  “You may return to active duty, sir,” STEAM said. “But I am going to reprogram your MTB with a reminder alarm so that this delay does not happen again.”

  Dash was about to leave, but he hesitated at the door and turned back.

  “Why do you think Piper isn’t answering?” he asked.

  STEAM made some whirling sounds, as if it was taking a moment to calculate its answer.

  “There are three possible scenarios,” the robot said. “She has fallen asleep, she has left the ship, or she is—”

  “Don’t say it,” Dash said abruptly, cutting STEAM off. “Option three is not an option.”

  He knew what option three was, how could he not? But there was no way things had gotten that bad, right?

  Dash looked at his MTB. “We’ll be able to board in a couple of minutes. You take the Cloud Leopard back into orbit, we’ll take it from here.”

  “As you wish,” STEAM said.

  When Dash arrived back on the main deck, Gabriel was already manually docking the Cloud Cat in the hangar.

  “The ship is yours,” Gabriel said, relinquishing command to STEAM.

  A few minutes later, Dash, Carly, and Gabriel arrived in the docking bay, where the Cloud Cat was waiting for them.

  “It doesn’t look damaged in any way,” Carly said, walking around the side and searching for problems. “It appears to be in good shape.”

  Dash pressed a series of commands on his MTB, and the door hissed open on hydraulic arms. It was a strange moment: they all wanted to go inside right away, but then again they sort of didn’t.

  “What if we find bad news in there?” Carly asked.

  “That’s not going to happen,” Dash said. “There has to be a logical explanation for why Piper hasn’t contacted us.”

  “Only one way to find out,” Gabriel said, and taking a deep breath, he started up the ramp. Dash and Carly followed. Once inside, they spread out looking for Piper.

  They didn’t need to look very far to discover the missing submarine.

  “She’s gone,” Dash concluded.

  “Looks like she took Rocket,” Gabriel said. “First dog to travel twenty thousand feet under the sea of an alien planet. I bet that will make headlines back home.”

  “But why would she do this on her own?” Dash asked.

  “She must have thought we might not come back,” Carly said. She looked back and forth between Dash and Gabriel. “We were offline for a long time. The location of the Pollen Slither must have calculated a while ago. She probably tried to reach us and then finally gave up.”

  Dash didn’t know what to say. He slumped down in one of the navigation chairs and tried to think. They had no Pollen Slither, and Piper had vanished into the deepest part of an alien sea.

  But that didn’t mean they were out of the game. Not yet. Dash had an idea.

  “How fast can you get this thing back down to the surface?” Dash asked.

  Gabriel just smiled, locked into his seat, and started the engines.

  Ship’s log 12.12

  [Alpha team member: Dash Conroy]

  [Comm link: audio feed, Cloud Cat]

  This is Dash Conroy, leader of the Voyagers Alpha team. Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. We’re lucky to be alive.

  [A seven-second break in the message occurs here.]

  We are currently missing one member of our team. The situation on the surface is too unstable for reentry. I’m on the deck of the Cloud Cat, staring down at a tornado churning the watery surface of Aqua Gen.

  [A four-second break in the message occurs here.]

  If I can’t bring our teammate back, I will resign my post effective immediately.

  [End of transmission]

  2 Hours Earlier.

  “I really, truly, totally cannot believe I’m doing this,” Piper said.

  Rocket barked once, which she took as the dog’s agreement that they were in over their heads. Literally. He sat in the front seat, which had a lower viewpoint out into the sea than the backseat. Piper reached up and scratched behind Rocket’s ear, where he liked it best.

  If not for Rocket, Piper didn’t think she would have the courage to even sit down inside the sub, let alone launch it into the sea. She hovered next to the watercraft, staring at the two seats while her heart pounded and her hands shook. The V for Voyagers blazed across the side of the otherwise sky-blue submarine. No glass dome covered the cockpit, just open air, and Rocket had leapt into the front seat.

  “I see what you’re doing,” Piper said. “I’m not getting in.”

  Rocket whimpered and set his sad face on the edge of the submarine.

  Piper had tried the extraction crew over and over, waiting for a response that was not going to come. The future of the entire world rested on making sure they retrieved all six elements and created the Source. And without Pollen Slither, there would be no going back home. What if she was their only hope of retrieving it?

  “You’re not getting out, are you?” Piper asked. Rocket barked but remained in the seat.

  Piper took a deep breath. Then another. She drove in a circle around the whole sub, checking it for problems like she was about to buy a used car. Everything looked perfectly fine.

  “I can do this,” Piper said.

  But saying you could do something and actually doing it was like standing on the edge of a bridge attached to a bungee cord. There was a lot of talk of jumping and very little actual jumping. Until finally you really did jump, which is exactly what Piper did. Without even knowing how she’d gotten there, she found herself sitting in the Alpha sub, setting the various controls she’d learned in training.

  “I hope Chris was right about this cover,” Piper said, pressing an egg-shaped icon on the screen in front of her. It went from red to green as a clear dome rose up around her. It covered the whole cab of the Alpha sub like honey spilling over the back of a spoon. But unlike honey, this dome was crystal clear and, apparently, as hard as iron. It was a substance Chris had invented called Energy Glass. It protected them from the pressure the depth of the sea created. They could travel deeper and faster than they could under normal circumstances. And when the time came, they could launch to the surface quickly, without the risk of pressure sickness.

  She opened the bay doors and looked down at the angry clouds below. She saw lightning flashes inside the clouds and worried even more.

  She remembered covering this potential situation in training on the Cloud Leopard. It had involved a virtual simulation with a far longer descent through the sky. The solution was already programmed into the sub. There was an icon for it: a parachute.
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  Piper’s finger stayed poised over that button for a long time before she finally gave in.

  She jumped.

  She pressed the button.

  The bay doors opened, and the Alpha sub launched into the open air. It felt like Piper had just reached the top of a roller coaster, plummeting back to Earth on the other side. The storm lashed the Alpha sub through the clouds and the open air beneath, turning it like a corkscrew as the sea rose up on every side.

  “This was a bad idea!” Piper screamed. “A really, really bad idea!”

  Rocket barked happily.

  The sub plunged into the sea, rocketing straight down into the depths. Piper gazed out into clear water as the sub slowed. When she’d reached five thousand feet below the surface, her MTB lost its connection to the outside world. Darkness lay at the edges all around her.

  The Alpha sub was equipped with a powerful headlight. Piper turned it on, and as the light illuminated the black water, she saw the many creatures of Aqua Gen for the first time. There were strange fish in bright colors, swimming in schools far too big to count. They rolled over the sub, parting and reforming, moving along the deep currents of open space.

  “Rocket, look there,” Piper said, pointing over the dog’s left shoulder. Rocket’s head turned in that direction, and through the distant light, a wall of alien-like creatures, thousands deep, moved quietly across their view. They looked alarmingly like sharks, and Piper had always feared sharks in particular. She felt a thunder of dread roll through her body as they passed through the wall of teeth and fins. The Alpha sub bumped back and forth, cutting a path. One of the creatures opened its mouth and tried to bite into the sub, knocking it sideways as teeth slammed down.

  “This is the worst day of my life,” Piper said, her eyes clenched shut as the sub spun back on course. When she opened them again, they had cleared the way, going deeper still.

  Piper gathered her nerves and checked the map. They were fifteen thousand feet below now, and looking up, she saw something that took her breath away. It was like the northern lights underwater, a shimmering wave of every color rising like a ribbon through the sea.

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