The Seventh Element Read online

  “Shouldn’t we wait for them?” Piper asked. “You know, to be polite?”

  The three boys all had forks heading toward their mouths.

  “Oh, never mind,” Piper said, reaching for her favorite—a peanut-butter-and-Nutella cookie. “You snooze, you lose.”


  “If you won’t tell me what you know about me, then tell me this—why did you guys really take Piper?” Dash demanded. “You knew we wouldn’t leave you behind. We’d proven that each time. And then when you got the Pollen Slither and we didn’t, you had your ‘insurance’ right there. So why do it?”

  Anna knew he’d eventually ask her point-blank. She could blame it on Ike Phillips, and Dash would probably believe it. But lies had a way of coming undone, and she didn’t want to risk it. She had no desire to be stuck on the sidelines while the Alpha team completed their mission. She took a deep breath. “Making sure you guys didn’t get the Pollen Slither was Ike’s idea. He wanted to make sure you needed us. I guess I wanted to one-up him. To come up with something even bigger and bolder.”

  Dash didn’t say anything. Anna felt her cheeks grow hot. Saying it out loud made it sound pretty bad. She cleared her throat. “The others didn’t know about it. I knew they wouldn’t want to, so I didn’t give them a choice.”

  “And you’re surprised they wanted to leave?”

  Anna shrugged. “My father always said that successful leaders don’t have friends; they have employees.”

  “You talk a lot about your dad and his opinions.”

  Anna crossed her arms. “Don’t you listen to your father? I’ll bet he—”

  “My dad is gone,” Dash said, his jaw hardening. “I don’t know how he’d feel about leadership or success or anything, really.”

  “Oh,” Anna said, taken aback. “Sorry.”

  Dash could see in her eyes that she meant it. He softened. “Look, it’s over now. Piper’s back, and we have a chance to make a new beginning, as one big team. If there’s something you know about me, just say it. If we’re going to work together, we have to be open and honest with each other.”

  “Is that what you’ve been doing?” she asked. “Being honest with your crew? Do they even know?”

  “Do they even know what?” He was pretty sure he knew what secret she’d been referring to, but how did she know? He had planned to tell the Omega team about his situation but had hoped to do it later on in the trip so they didn’t question his ability to lead the team.

  Anna sighed dramatically. She could keep him guessing, but the smells drifting in from the dining hall next door were really amazing and she was starving. “Fine,” she snapped. “Does your crew even know that you have approximately sixty-five days left to live?”

  Dash cringed. “Do you have to put it quite so…bluntly?”

  “How else should I put it?” she replied.

  “Yes, they know,” he said. “Admittedly I didn’t tell them for a long time because I didn’t want to worry them or make them think anything was wrong with me. But now…” He trailed off.

  She assessed him carefully. Not much got past her. They all looked exhausted, but Dash had deeper circles under his eyes, almost like hollows. And his light brown hair—usually so full and wavy—was matted to his head. She finished his sentence. “But now you’re starting to show signs. You’re breaking down.”

  “I guess I am,” he admitted. “It’s not too bad, just a tiredness that sweeps over me sometimes. I take shots every day that keep me healthy, but as it gets closer to the deadline, they’ve started to be less effective. Anyway, how did you know about this? Did you eavesdrop when Commander Phillips told me about it?”

  She shook her head. “Nope. I knew you guys had some private talks, but I put the puzzle pieces together myself. When we first got to the base and I finally met my competitors, I looked everyone up on the Internet. Knowledge is power, you know. I saw everyone’s birthdays but didn’t think anything of it. One day, Colin mentioned Chris had developed some kind of serum that allowed older people to survive Gamma Speed. Then I remembered what the commander had said about why they needed kids our exact age, and I remembered your birth date. I’m smart that way, remember?”

  Dash rubbed his eyes. So tired. “You’re smart in a lot of ways, Anna,” he said wearily. “I just wish you’d use your brain for good, instead of…well, the opposite. If we’re going to work together—and I hope we are—then no more games.”

  Anna put out her hand. “No more games,” she said.

  Dash hesitated. Could he really trust her, after everything she’d done? But Chris had told Dash that he wasn’t going to have enough strength to go on this last mission. What if Anna had to replace him as the leader? He was going to need someone who could make tough decisions. And Anna had a history of making some really tough decisions….

  Dash finally took Anna’s hand and shook it firmly. “Okay, then,” he said. “Now let’s go see if they left us any food. Piper’s been known to eat all the cookies if you don’t get there fast enough.”

  Anna’s eyes brightened. “You have cookies?”

  Dash grinned. “Race you?”

  “I don’t know,” Anna said. “In your present weakened condition, it might not be a fair fight.”

  But Dash was already gone. Anna smiled. For the first time that she could remember, she would let someone else win.

  Everyone sat around the long table in the training room the next morning, waiting for Chris. Dash checked the time. “He’s usually very prompt,” he assured the new crew members. Having a meeting like this was unusual for the Alpha team. Unless there was a lot of specialized training necessary, Chris usually didn’t bother to brief them about their next mission until they were much closer to their destination. The earliness of this meeting was making everyone feel a little on edge.

  While they waited, Niko asked Piper to show him the medical bay after the meeting. Dash knew it would be fun for her to compare notes with someone. Ravi and Gabriel had a total nerdfest talking old video games, new high-tech stuff on the ship, fantasy novels, and how they would beat the other in chess and Pac-Man. Siena sat quietly. Dash could tell she was churning something over in her mind. Only one scowl and a grunt had passed between Anna and Carly. He decided that was progress.

  In fact, it almost felt like old times. Back at Base Ten, they’d shared a feeling of camaraderie. And at dinner last night, Dash could sense that feeling start to return. They still couldn’t help exchanging stories and joking. On a serious note, Niko had admitted that he only got through the nine months on the Light Blade by meditating whenever he was alone. This time no one made fun of him. Dash asked him if he’d show them how to do it, and he’d agreed. But all Dash heard before he fell asleep was Niko instructing, “Now close your eyes and relax your body.” Dash looked forward to catching more of the lesson that night.

  Finally, Chris hurried into the room. “Thank you for waiting. I’m sorry I’m late.”

  “Let me guess,” Gabriel said. “Dealing with your evil alien clone took longer than you expected?”

  Chris looked surprised, which for him was a big deal since he didn’t often show emotion. “Yes!” he said. “Colin is proving to be quite difficult.”

  “He thinks he should run the ship, right?” Anna asked. “It must be killing him to be kept in one room like that, away from all the action.”

  “Yeah,” Piper said. “That must be the worst.”

  Anna turned to face her. “Hey, I said I was sorry.”

  “Did you really?” Piper asked. “I don’t seem to recall that.”

  The two stared at each other until Anna said, “Well if I didn’t, I’m saying it now.”

  When Anna didn’t say anything else, Piper asked, “That was it?”

  Anna gave a groan. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry times ten. Is that good enough?”

  Piper grinned. “It’s okay. You actually did me a favor.”

  “Huh?” Anna (and everyone else) said.