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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright © 2016 by PC Studios Inc.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.
ISBN 978-0-385-38673-9 (trade) ISBN 978-0-385-38675-3 (lib. bdg.)
ISBN 978-0-385-38674-6 (ebook)
eBook ISBN 9780385386746
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About the Author
For Chloe and Griffin—
I’d miss you if you went into space to save the world.
On board the Light Blade’s transport ship, the Clipper, the Omega team began shouting at the same time as they strained against their seat straps.
“Where is she? Where’s Piper?”
“How could we?”
Siena was the first to break down. Sobs racked her body. Tears flew out of her eyes.
Next to her, Niko began to rock back and forth in his chair, faster and faster. His mind sped back to the first day they’d all met. Piper had used her motorized wheelchair to pull him from the freezing water during their first competition at Base Ten. Then she had helped him recover from what should have been a fatal sting from the deadly Stingers on planet Infinity. That meant she’d saved his life twice. And he hadn’t saved hers. Not once. Both he and Piper had trained to be medics, to help people. It no longer mattered that he had planned to tell Anna that holding Piper wasn’t right. He should have acted.
With a gasp, Niko yanked himself free of his straps and began running up and down the length of the transport ship, a journey of about ten seconds. He knocked over the extra coats that Anna and Ravi hadn’t used on their failed mission to planet Tundra, now a hundred miles below them. He pushed through swarms of ZRKs that had raced into the Clipper alongside the crew, and got a gash on his arm courtesy of one of the many nails that hadn’t been fully hammered into the wall.
Niko knew Piper couldn’t be hiding anywhere, but he had to look. The Clipper was tiny in comparison to the ship they’d just fled, but it would have easily accommodated all of them plus Piper. The Clipper could have fit ten Pipers, along with the air chair that had been specially made to allow her to travel in space. But there was no doubt—she was not on board.
He began tossing aside the crates that blocked the small back window. Maybe the Light Blade had a safety feature that would isolate a fire. It was possible, right? After all, their knowledge of the ship was on a need-to-know basis, and Colin—the alien clone in charge of the Omegas—rarely thought they needed to know anything.
Siena, Anna, and Ravi joined Niko. “Maybe the ZRKs were able to put out the flames,” Ravi said, his voice tight with fear. “Those guys can do anything, right?”
But it only took one glance to see that the ZRKs—who did everything from cleaning up after them, to patching holes in the hull, to keeping the ship pressurized while traveling at Gamma Speed—must have had their limitations. They clearly couldn’t stop the super-hot liquid metal the crew had taken from Meta Prime from seeping through the floors and walls, igniting the oxygen that pumped through the vents. The Omega team members watched with sinking hearts as flames shot out from the back half of the ship, filling the sky with ash.
Colin was the only one facing the direction they were heading, rather than the direction they’d come from. He muttered and cursed as he piloted the ship toward the Cloud Leopard. All his careful planning, all their hard work, and they’d had to abandon their ship along with the elements they’d collected. The elements, when put together, would have created a source of power great enough to give him control over every living creature on Earth, or anywhere else he chose to take it. The safety of the little blond human was the least of his concerns. Now he’d have to figure out a way to wrestle the Cloud Leopard from the Alpha crew and from Chris, the brilliant alien he’d been cloned from and his arch-nemesis.
In the midst of his grumbling, Colin realized something. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that they were headed to the Cloud Leopard. He would have eventually had to go there to steal the zero crystals that his team had failed to retrieve from Tundra. And his team had also come up a few hundred Stinger spores short on Infinity. Once he had control, he would ditch the crew, turn the ship around, and go back to Aqua Gen to replace the Pollen Slither that was currently burning up back on the Light Blade. It was the only element so far that the Alpha team did not possess.
Colin leaned back in his seat to enjoy the last few minutes of the ride. Yes, this would work out just fine. Plus, the Cloud Leopard was a much nicer ship.
Anna heaved herself away from the window and ran up to the front. “Move!” she shouted at Colin. She tried to push his hand off the glass pad he was using to control the ship. Anna had made a lot of hard decisions on this trip—it was all part of being a leader—but this was an easy decision. No way they were leaving Piper behind.
Colin’s hand didn’t budge. His muscles were solid and unmovable, like a boulder. Anna realized she’d never actually touched him before. His skin felt cold. She yanked her hand back in surprise.
“Fine!” she snapped, flinging herself into her original seat. “I’ll just take over from here.” She slipped on the pair of flight glasses tucked into the armrest and prepared to wrest control of the ship. They were only a few thousand feet away from the docking bay of the Cloud Leopard. None of them had seen it up close before. If they hadn’t been breathing heavily already, the sight of it would have taken their breath away.
“Stop!” Colin barked. “If you’re trying to take us back to the Light Blade, that’s a suicide mission!”
The others had joined them near the control panel.
“I don’t care!” Anna focused all her might on getting the ship to turn around. It bucked and shook but didn’t change course.
“Go, Anna!” Ravi exclaimed. He almost offered to take over, but Anna had mad flying skills and a look of determination on her
face like he’d never seen. And he’d seen lots of determined looks on her face.
“Do it, Anna,” Siena whispered, her heart pounding.
The Clipper swerved and bounced, finally slowing a tiny bit.
“Stop it!” Colin repeated.
But Anna only doubled her efforts. Her head pounded with the strain. She’d ridiculed the Alphas many times for not putting their individual needs first. Time and again she’d seen them risk their lives to help someone else, even if it meant losing a competition or even one of the precious elements they’d come so far for. Heck, they’d just saved her life down on Tundra after she’d been nothing but cruel to them this entire time. And arguably her cruelest act had been to kidnap Piper. She knew the girl was resourceful. No doubt Piper had been plotting a way to escape the training room. Maybe she’d found a place to hide that was still intact. If there was any chance of Anna redeeming herself by saving Piper, she had to try.
The Clipper suddenly soared upward, as if grabbed by an invisible wave, and then flung forward with such force that they nearly collided with the Cloud Leopard.
“Why did you do that?” Colin shouted, banking hard to the left to keep them from crashing into the hull of the massive ship.
“I didn’t do anything!” Anna screamed back. “I’m trying to turn us around, remember?”
Ravi stretched out a shaking arm and pointed wordlessly out the back window.
They all looked out at what, in their current position, should have been the Light Blade. All that remained were pieces flying out in every direction.
The ship had exploded.
Team Alpha watched in horror from their navigation deck as the Light Blade exploded, sending chunks of the ship into the frozen white atmosphere of Tundra. Piper wasn’t only their teammate; she was family. Carly fell back into her flight seat and began to sob. Gabriel sank into the next seat. He hugged his knees to his chest and buried his head.
“Chris!” Dash called across the room to where their resident alien was pounding on one of the keypads, trying to reach the Light Blade in case there was anything left to reach. Dash wiped at his eyes furiously. “Can you patch into the Clipper? Maybe Piper’s with them after all.”
Chris gave a nod, and a second later, they could hear the Omega crew shouting at each other. “Anna!” Dash screamed above the noise. “Do you have her? Did Piper make it on board with you?”
Instantly, the voices stopped. Dash thought they’d lost the connection. Then: “I’m so sorry, Dash,” Anna said. “I wanted to go back, but—”
“Turn it off,” Dash ordered. Chris complied. “STEAM,” Dash said, “what are the odds of surviving that blast? Maybe it looked worse than it was?”
STEAM did not hesitate. “I do not think you want the odds, sir. No sir.”
Dash sank into the seat next to the hunched-over Gabriel. Piper was so strong and brave and kind, and they were finally about to get her back. Why was time always their enemy? He felt something inside himself begin to break. He couldn’t handle this.
No one spoke. No one knew how to comfort anyone else.
Through the sound of Carly’s sobs, Gabriel’s brain half registered a vibration through his Mobile Tech Band. He ignored it. Probably an alarm telling him it was time to exercise more. He didn’t want to exercise. He didn’t want to do anything. He never wanted to move from that chair.
Then he heard a ding. Then another ding. As his finger moved to turn the sound off, his eyes flitted over the screen out of habit. He sat bolt upright. “Guys! Guys! Look at this!”
No one moved. He reached out and shook Carly and Dash until they focused on him. Then he held up his arm so they could all read the words on the screen.
Opn th pid bat doos, hak.
Dash looked at Gabriel like he was crazy, then turned away. Carly could barely see the screen through her tears. Why was Gabriel showing them some garbled old message? How could he even care about anything other than Piper right now? Carly, too, turned away.
But Gabriel jumped to his feet, heart pounding. He shouted into his communicator, “Hello? Hello?”
Sorry, hrd to typ in space suit.
SUMI translating to speech hang on.
A second later, a high-pitched voice echoed through the navigation deck. It said only one sentence: “Open the pod bay doors, Hal.”
Gabriel burst out laughing and crying at the same time. Leave it to Piper to use the famous line from science-fiction film history. The others looked at him with shocked expressions. They still didn’t understand. How could they? No one knew he’d hacked into SUMI’s system (which was a lot like STEAM’s) in order to communicate with Piper on the Light Blade. And now the robot was telling him she was alive! Not only alive, but outside the ship right at that moment!
“Piper needs us to open the docking bay doors!” he shouted. “She’s outside!”
Chris ran to his station and quickly activated the doors. Dash grabbed Gabriel’s arm. “Do you mean it? It’s really possible?” His eyes were so wide Gabriel thought they might bulge out of his face. Chris and Carly gathered around for Gabriel’s answer. Carly held her breath, not ready to let herself get excited. STEAM spun in circles repeating, “Open the pod bay doors, Hal, open the pod bay doors, Hal.” Behind him, TULIP turned in circles too.
Gabriel filled them in on what he’d done while they were down on Tundra. “She must have figured out a way to power her chair and took off before the explosion!”
In quick succession, they all launched themselves into the tubes that connected most of the rooms on the ship. This was one time no one wanted to compete for the longest route. They arrived in the engine room just in time to see the cargo bay doors close behind Piper’s air chair. They ran onto the loading dock and surrounded her, all leaping and crying and grabbing at her. SUMI got some of this affection too, since she was sitting sideways on Piper’s lap.
Chris undid the straps holding them in, lifted SUMI off, and plopped the shiny black robot down next to Piper’s chair. SUMI nodded her oversized head at them and chirped happily. “Quite a ride,” she said with a giggle. “Quite a ride!”
Carly rushed toward Piper, with Dash right on her heels.
Piper pulled off her round helmet and beamed at them. “Miss me?”
“More than you can imagine,” Dash replied as he scooped her out of the chair. Even with the added weight of Piper’s space suit, it felt like carrying air. He ran in circles with her while Carly and Gabriel laughed.
“Put me back,” Piper commanded, but she was laughing too. Normally she’d never let anyone carry her, but right now, somehow, she didn’t mind.
Dash gently placed her back in her chair, noting it had gotten pretty banged up. Good thing they had spares. “How did you escape?” he asked. He checked around the back of the air chair. “I don’t see the rocket canisters we sent you with.”
“I couldn’t get to them, but I found another way.” Piper gestured at SUMI. “Show them,” she said.
SUMI giggled and hopped up and down on her springy legs until her back was facing the group. Then she unhinged a flap over her rear end, and a puff of steam blew out.
After a few seconds of stunned silence, the Alpha crew—including STEAM and Chris—roared with laughter.
Piper wiped her eyes and said, “It was a surprise to me too. And I’ve spent a lot of time with her these past few weeks.”
“Her?” STEAM asked.
Piper grinned. “It’s not like we paint our toenails together or anything. But, yeah, I think of her as a girl.”
“I think STEAM’s jealous,” Carly declared. “He’s used to being the only robot on board.”
TULIP made a disapproving clicking sound, and Carly bent down to rub the tiny robot’s warm belly. “Sorry, TULIP.”
STEAM’s blue lights flickered on and off, and he hovered away in a huff. SUMI hopped after him.
“Looks like the start of a beautiful friendship,” Gabriel said with a grin
Piper reached over and gave his arm a squeeze. “Thank you,” she said. “If you hadn’t hacked into SUMI, I wouldn’t have thought to go back to the training room for her. We both would have gone down with the Light Blade. Or if I managed to power over here some other way, I wouldn’t have been able to let you know I was outside. You totally saved me.”
Gabriel blushed. Then he frowned. “I should have done something sooner.”
“There was nothing you could do while we were in Gamma Speed,” she said. “I know that. I shouldn’t have been so trusting of Colin and Anna in the first place. I should have insisted on proof.”
“C’mon, Piper,” Carly said, swooping in, “let’s go back to our room. It’s been way too quiet in there without you.”
“Sounds good,” said Piper, giving Gabriel’s arm one more squeeze. “I can’t wait for my comfortable bed.”
“We should probably check in with the Clipper,” Dash said reluctantly. Chris nodded.
“I’ll tell you all about our adventure on Tundra as a bedtime story,” Carly said as she and Piper started across the room. Piper stopped short, spinning her air chair back around. “That’s right! In all the excitement, I actually forgot the point of the mission! Did you guys get the zero crystals?”
“You better believe it, sister!” Carly said, holding out her fist to Piper.
“That’s great!” Piper said, returning Carly’s fist bump. “I don’t think Omega’s got them. They came back in a really bad mood. A worse mood than usual, that is.”
Carly and Dash exchanged a surprised look. “Are you sure?” Dash asked.
Piper nodded, then coughed. “Be right back.” She floated across the room to one of the water stations that the ZRKs kept stocked with cold water. Traveling through space with only a butt-propulsion robot made a girl thirsty!
Back on the dock, Gabriel whooped. “That means we beat them. They can’t get all six elements now! And we…we…” He trailed off as the realization hit him. The Light Blade had exploded. He sank down to the floor. “We can’t either!”
Dash and Carly were only realizing it now. The Pollen Slither—the only element they’d failed to retrieve, the only element Team Omega had gotten instead of them—had been on the Light Blade. Blood drained from their faces. All the adrenaline that had kept Dash from crashing seemed to seep from his body. Not only had the mission failed, but he would have no way to get home. None of them would have a way to get home at all. Utterly defeated, he slunk to the floor beside Gabriel. Carly joined them. They sat in a circle, heads bowed. Nobody said anything. What was there to say? They’d let everyone down. The entire human race.