The Seventh Element Read online

  The fact that Dash needed an extra layer to keep warm was a reminder that no matter how much fun they were having in Gamma Speed, time was their enemy. Or rather, his enemy. He asked Anna to tell Ravi, Niko, and Siena about his condition a few days into the journey. He had run into Ravi first, who said, “Tough break, dude,” and gave him an awkward but affectionate pat on the arm. Siena had squeezed his hands and slid over her portion of dessert at dinner. Niko took it the hardest. He’d seemed almost stunned at the thought that their new leader might not live to see the end of their journey. Ever since learning the news, he and Piper had been spending a lot of time together in the medical bay. Dash caught them whispering at other times too. He pretended it didn’t bother him, but he hated having people feel sorry for him.

  Carly cleared her throat. “I think we should all probably go to bed. Who wants to help me clean up?” She gestured to the array of snacks spread out on the table in front of them. Most of the popcorn bowls only had kernels left in them, and the only sign of the cupcakes Siena made were the crumbs on (and underneath) the table.

  “I will,” the others all replied at the same time. They jumped up and began carrying bowls or plates or cups out of the rec room. Dash raised a brow at their sudden need for cleanliness and was about to point out that the ZRKs did all the cleaning for them, but the blanket and the darkened room made him yawn instead. Then he was out.

  Anna glanced back into the room from the hall. “He’s asleep,” she whispered to the others.

  “At least he made it all the way through the movie this time,” Piper said as they scurried down the hall to the kitchen.

  “Let’s go over everyone’s job for tomorrow,” Carly said when they were safely out of earshot, in case Dash awoke. “Ravi and Gabe, you have the music lined up?”

  Ravi gave a thumbs-up. “STEAM was able to access the list of Dash’s favorite songs. We’re all loaded up and ready to rock.”

  “Siena, decorations?”

  She nodded. “After lunch, I’ll start hanging the streamers. Piper’s going to help me reach the high corners.”

  “Good,” Carly said. “Anna, you’re set with games?”

  Anna nodded. She’d been the one to suggest they go old-school on the games—nothing electronic. Growing up without much money had meant that she’d gotten very good at making up games out of whatever they had lying around the house. Now that Dash’s party was getting closer, she was second-guessing it.

  “Um, maybe we should just do the usual stuff,” she suggested.

  “Why?” Carly asked.

  Anna shrugged and mumbled, “Maybe my games are dumb and no one will like them.”

  To her surprise, Gabriel slapped her on the back and said, “Look at you, caring about the enjoyment of others! You’re really coming along.”

  At first, she was annoyed, but the truth of it was hard to ignore. She straightened up. “Hey, I’m Anna 2.0.”

  They all laughed.

  “We’re keeping the old-fashioned games,” Carly said firmly. “Moving on. Siena and Chris are going to make Dash’s favorite desserts. Niko and Piper, you still haven’t told us what you’re planning?”

  The two of them exchanged a glance. “We’re putting some finishing touches on it,” Piper explained, scooping the last few pieces of popcorn out of the bowl she was clutching.

  “Sorry for being secretive,” Niko added, but didn’t explain further.

  Carly was very curious, but she didn’t push it. She’d find out soon enough. “And everyone’s pretty sure Dash doesn’t know about the party?”

  “I’m sure Dash doesn’t know. He’s dreading turning fourteen,” Piper said.

  Carly nodded. “That’s why this party is so important. We have to make it a celebration, not…” She trailed off. She’d been about to say, Not a reminder that every day after that is borrowed time. They all knew what she was thinking anyway.

  Dash awoke the following morning in his own bed. It wasn’t the first time Chris had to carry him from the couch in the rec room. At first, Dash had been embarrassed about it. Then Chris said something about Piper that Dash couldn’t quite hear, but the point had been made. Piper knew when to ask for help. She may not have liked it, but she accepted this was a part of her life. She said thank you and moved on. He would try to do the same.

  A glance across the room told him the other boys were already gone, probably halfway through with breakfast already. He knew he should get moving but couldn’t make himself pull off the covers. He felt pretty good—physically, at least. Mornings were always the best; nights the worst. He should get up and take advantage of having energy before he felt the inevitable weakening. He still exercised in the training room every morning. But it didn’t keep the weakness at bay. Nothing did. The shots kept him alive, but at this point, that was the extent of what they could do.

  Fourteen. Such a big number. He didn’t expect to be awakened with a Happy Birthday banner stuck on the wall or anything, but somehow he thought the day would feel different. Maybe everyone had forgotten. Or maybe they thought he wouldn’t want to celebrate. He certainly hadn’t said anything about it.

  A knock on the door finally got him to sit up. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and pushed his hair out of his eyes. He waited, expecting one of the boys to walk in. Instead, the knock came again. “Come in,” he said.

  To his surprise, the door slid open to reveal Piper. The carpet under her chair bent and waved as she floated right above it. He couldn’t remember the last time one of the girls had been in the boys’ dorm. Piper had her eyes covered with one hand. “Everyone decent?” she asked.

  He laughed. “Yup. I should warn you; it’s kinda messy in here. I think the ZRKs are trying to teach us a lesson.”

  She dropped her hand and glanced around at crumpled uniforms, comic books, towels, and random sports equipment littering the floor. “Wow, I think you may be right.”

  “So…,” Dash said. “Are you lost? There are maps of the ship posted in the hallways. I could give you a tour.”

  She laughed. “Very funny.” Then she got serious. “I just came to check on you. It’s not like you to miss a meal.”

  “I’m fine,” he said, and jumped up quickly to prove it. He almost whacked his head on Gabriel’s bed in the process, but neither of them mentioned it.

  “Do you often sleep in your uniform?” she asked.

  He looked down at his rumpled clothes. “Apparently I do. Anything else you want to say, or can you leave so I can get dressed?”

  “Looks like you already are,” she said, stifling a grin. Then she got serious again. “Did you take your injection yet?”

  “You’re worse than my mom!” Dash said. “I just woke up!”

  Piper tapped her foot and crossed her arms. He sighed. Clearly, she wasn’t going anywhere until he took it. He had to admit it was nice being so well looked after. It made it easier to bear that they were too far away for Earth to get any messages. It was hard on all of them.

  He reached under the bed and slid out the box of prefilled needles. Seeing how few were left was an unnecessary reminder that his time was running out fast. He grabbed one, flicked off the lid, and stuck the small needle into his thigh. When he’d first started taking the serum, he had expected to feel a whoosh of energy go through his body, but it didn’t feel like anything at all. If it weren’t for the fact that he was still alive on what should have been his last day to survive in space, he wouldn’t know the serum was working at all.

  Satisfied, Piper turned her chair around and headed for the door.

  “You’re sure there’s nothing else you want to tell me?” Dash called after her. “Nothing at all?” If anyone other than Anna and Chris would know about his birthday, it would be Piper. As the medic, she made it her business to know as much as possible about the crew.

  She glanced back at him from the doorway. “Oh, right, there was something! I meant to tell you that you might want to hurry before Gabriel eats all t