The Seventh Element Read online

  Piper made her way back over to the group. “Whatcha doing?” she asked, curious. “Aren’t you guys a little old for Duck, Duck, Goose?” Or maybe they’d made up some new game in her absence. A lot can change in a few weeks.

  Chris tentatively reached out his hand and laid it on top of Piper’s. She was surprised at the warmth of it. “The mission is over,” he said, trying to put as much emotion into his voice as he could. He knew the others thought him devoid of it, but it wasn’t true. “We cannot make the Source,” he told her, “without the Pollen Slither. It could not have survived the blast.”

  Piper looked down at her three friends hunched over in their circle, and then up at Chris as his words sunk in. Her eyes widened.

  “You’re right! It couldn’t have survived the blast,” she said seriously. Then she twisted around in her chair and flipped open a storage space behind her headrest. “Good thing it wasn’t on the ship when it exploded. I took it from the engine room before I left.” She held up her hand to reveal an iridescent liquid inside of what looked like an ordinary mayonnaise jar.

  For the first time in his very long life, Chris felt like weeping as he hugged her and her chair at the same time. Carly and Gabriel jumped up so fast they bonked heads. Piper couldn’t tell if they were laughing or crying, and settled on a combination of both. Dash was a bit slower to his feet, but his joy at her news soon gave him enough energy to join the others as they jumped up and down.

  Chris beamed at all of them. “No doubt about it. Shawn Phillips picked the four best candidates in the entire world for this mission.”

  “No more surprises,” Dash ordered the crew, raking his fingers through his hair. “I honestly can’t take it.”

  As if the Omegas had heard his words, they chose that moment to chime in through the intercom system. “Request permission to board,” Anna said. She sounded weary. Dash really, really did not want to deal with her—or Colin. Especially Colin. Dash grimaced and closed his eyes.

  “What took them so long?” Carly asked Chris.

  “The shock wave likely knocked out their engines,” Chris explained. “They probably had to drift here.”

  Piper handed the jar of Pollen Slither to Chris and turned her air chair away from the docking bay. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to sit this reunion out.”

  “Yeah, me too,” Carly said. The two girls hurried from the room.

  Gabriel nudged Dash and gestured toward the docking bay. “Guess you should answer them.”

  “Guess so,” Dash replied, but he didn’t move toward the communication system.

  “They’ll need to know about Piper too,” Gabriel added. The Omegas had treated them all so poorly—both on the planets and in outer space—that a small part of him wanted to hold off telling them Piper was safe, just so they’d feel bad a little longer. He glanced at Dash and wondered if he was thinking the same thing.

  Then Gabriel sighed. He had liked them all back on Base Ten. He’d even grudgingly admired Anna’s drive to win all the time. They were dealing with that weird alien clone. He’d like to think he would have behaved better in their shoes, but who knows? He still regretted being kind of snappy with Dash those first few weeks in space.

  He was about to nudge Dash again, when the Alpha team leader took a deep breath and squared up his shoulders. Gabriel couldn’t help noticing that all the excitement of the day had taken its toll on Dash. His skin looked a little gray. Gabriel sure wasn’t going to point that out, though.

  “All right,” Dash announced. “Here goes. Chris, can you open the docking bay doors? Tell them they can park beside the Cloud Cat. Give them the good news about Piper and escort them all to the training room. They can buckle into the flight simulation seats to prepare for the jump to Gamma Speed.”

  Chris nodded and strode to the other end of the engine room to ready the docking bay. Dash spoke into his Mobile Tech Band. “Alphas, meet on the flight deck to prepare for Gamma Speed. Piper, I’m sorry you won’t have time to rest. We need to make up for lost time.”

  Dash hoped that last part didn’t sound too selfish; he hadn’t meant it that way. But for all the good news that day, he wasn’t getting any younger. He’d rest when they went into Gamma.

  Right after he figured out what to do with their “guests.”

  From the control panel on the arm of his flight seat, Dash switched on the large monitor above their heads that allowed them to see into most of the rooms on board. He pulled up the view of the training center. He wasn’t ready to see the Omega team’s faces yet, but he knew he had to do his duty as captain. He took a deep breath and forced himself to look at the screen.

  The Omega team were already strapped into the simulation seats. “Prepare for Gamma—” he began. His voice cracked on the last word. They looked so miserable! Anna’s face was as swollen as a boxer after losing a big fight. The other three looked pale and sweaty. His anger at them faded fast. He hadn’t considered they might be upset about losing their ship, but of course they had to be. He’d be devastated if the Cloud Leopard went up in smoke.

  He cleared his throat. They all looked up, clearly just noticing that the screen in front of them had been turned on. “I’m very sorry about your ship,” Dash said, meaning it. “I’m sure the Light Blade was a great—”

  “How can you even think about that?” Anna shouted up at the screen. “We’re the ones who are sorry. It’s because of us—me really—that Piper’s gone. And the Pollen Slither! How will we get home now if we can’t make the Source?” She said this last part as if just realizing it for the first time. Then she cried even harder. “This is all my fault! I’ll never forgive myself. Never. I don’t care if you believe me or not.”

  Dash’s eyes opened wide. He twisted around in his seat to face Chris. “Didn’t you tell them?”

  Chris shook his head. “There was no time. I had to ready the ship. You may have forgotten our time predicament, but I have not.”

  Dash opened his mouth to argue, but what was the point? Chris probably wasn’t trying to be cruel by withholding the news of Piper’s return. For all Chris’s decades on Earth, he still hadn’t quite picked up on appropriate social behavior.

  Dash turned back to the view screen and moved the controls to widen the angle. Now the entire navigation deck would be visible to the Omegas. All at once, they strained against their straps, gasping with wide eyes.

  Siena spoke first. Relief flooded over her usually guarded face. “Piper! Is that you? Is it really you?”

  Piper waved at the screen. “Hi, guys. Yes, it’s me.”

  Ravi spoke next. “You’re not some crazy hologram, just trying to mess with us?”

  Piper smiled. “That’d be cool, but no.”

  Anna and Niko stopped gaping long enough for Anna to stutter, “But…but…how?”

  Piper shrugged. “The same way I got to your ship in the first place.” She glanced at the others beside her and winked. “Well, mostly the same.”

  Next to her, Carly giggled.

  Dash spoke up. “Chris was supposed to tell you when you arrived, but there was a…” He glanced at the alien currently gesturing madly toward the Gamma Speed button. “A miscommunication,” Dash finished. “Once we’re safely in Gamma, we’ll explain about Piper and the plans for the rest of the mission.”

  “You mean our mission,” Niko said, speaking up for the first time. “We’re helping now.” Then he waved, almost shyly, at Piper. “Hi, Piper. Thank you for being alive.” He bowed his head at her. She saluted.

  Dash noticed the look of determination on each of the Omegas’ faces. In a way, Niko was right—the Alphas were going to need every advantage they could get on the next planet, and these four did have major skills. He wouldn’t turn down help from anyone. Well, maybe from Colin. Speaking of…

  “Chris! Where’s Colin? Wasn’t he on the Clipper?”

  “He is being held in my private quarters,” Chris replied. “We will discuss it later. Gamma Speed in five…four