POLY FELT A TEAR STREAK down her cheek, more gathered in her eyes, distorting her vision. She blinked and another one cascaded down as she glared through the airship’s window. Joey was gone; the airship that took him, gone. She pressed her face against the glass and stared at the spot he filled just a few moments ago.
The vibrations of the airship’s motor resonated through the window and against her cheek. The ship lifted, dust floated out like a cloud over the roof, covering the bodies of Compry and Nathen. That was their burial. It wasn’t fair, but nothing seemed fair anymore.
She closed her eyes and seared in her mind the man’s face who took Joey from her, the man who killed Nathen and Compry—Max Boone.
“I’ll find you,” Poly whispered. Her breath fogged the glass. The words were for Max and Joey.
“We have maybe ten minutes before they get the bomb out of Joey’s neck,” Harris yelled over the sounds of the aircraft.
Poly jerked away from the window at the mention of Joey’s name and wiped the tears off her face. Harris looked frantic as he ran around the aircraft grabbing bags off the walls and throwing them in a pile.
Thunder boomed and a bright flash of lighting pulsed through the windows. Heavy rain pelted the aircraft and dulled the roar of the motors. Poly peered out the window, the roof was gone, nothing but streaks of rain and dark clouds rushing by.
“What do we need to do, Harris?” Hank asked.
“Get those suits on, the ones in the gray bags,” Harris said as he rummaged through a steel box. He turned and none of them had moved. “Now!” He went back to the box and tossed out a couple more packs. “Where’s the water packs?” Harris mumbled to himself.
Hank yanked open one of the gray bags and pulled out a black jumpsuit, he held it to his large body and tossed it to Lucas. He tore into another bag, but it contained an even smaller jumpsuit and he handed it to Julie.
Poly opened a bag and pulled out a small suit, sliding her feet into the built-in booties, and then pushing her hands through the sleeves and into gloves. The rubbery material felt smooth and had a new-purse smell. She slid the zipper up the front, all the way to her neck, and then realized what she was wearing. “Wait. We’re getting off this plane?”
“Julie, how’s it going?” Harris asked, ignoring her question.
“Only have Hanks left.” Julie never looked up from her Panavice. Her fingers moved across the digital screen.
“Good, how much time do we have?”
“Poly, can you help Julie get her suit on?” Harris asked.
Six minutes until what?
Poly frowned at Harris for not answering her question, but he kept his back to her as he rummaged through another steel box. She stopped wasting her scowl and conceded to helping Julie. She knelt in front of her with the suit in hand. Julie’s transfixed face glowed from the light of her Panavice. Sighing, Poly took Julie shoes, grabbed the suit and slid her legs into it. She’d never dressed a woman before but—
“Done!” Julie yelled and almost knocked her down. “Sorry, Poly.”
“Nice job, Julie.” Harris climbed a net on the sidewall to get into a high up compartment.
Poly helped Julie get into the rest of her suit.
“Thanks. We’re going to get him back, Poly,” Julie said with fire in her eyes.
Damn right we are.
Poly nodded her head in agreement. She touched her knife and wanted to add ‘killing Max’ in the mix, but kept the anger stowed. She glanced out the window with rain rushing past the glass.
Julie studied her suit, inspecting the zipper and the lining around her neck. She probably knew exactly what the suits were for.
“We don’t have time for me to explain everything, but we need to put on the black backpacks and securely fasten the straps. Now.” Harris tossed more bags to the middle of the aircraft, and then grabbed one for himself and put it on, mumbling to himself about not finding water.
Poly picked up a black backpack and put it on. It had thick straps over her shoulders and waist, and they clicked together much like a seat belt. Her heart beat faster, as she put it together in her mind. The suits, the backpacks, the aircraft . . . no. She had to be wrong, they couldn’t be jumping. She opened her mouth to ask the question again, but Harris turned to face them with a grim expression.
“Okay, now comes the hard part. They are going to shoot us down in a matter of—”
“Four minutes,” Julie interrupted.
He nodded and continued, “We’re going to jump from the craft at high speeds and you need to follow my instructions to survive. First thing, at the back of your neck you’ll find a tag. Pull the tag up and this will activate your helmet.”
Fear built in Poly. She blindly felt for the tag and pulled it up. A clear dome moved over her head and locked in around her neck. A puff of air hit her face.
“The suit will keep you warm and let you breathe, even underwater.” The helmet dulled Harris’s words.
“Underwater?” Lucas’s muffled voice could be heard through his helmet.
“Yes, we’re over the ocean right now.”
Poly gripped the straps on her shoulder and pulled them tighter. Her shaky fingers felt for any holes around her dome. She’d never seen the ocean, except for TV, and now she faced jumping into it from a plane. Was the man insane?
“At this speed and altitude, we’ll die on impact,” Julie said, searching for a spot to place her Panavice. She unzipped her suit and stuffed it in.
“That’s what the backpacks are for. We don’t have time for explanations, you’ll have to trust me and follow my directions,” Harris said. “When the back ramp opens, we’ll need to jump ten seconds apart to stay off their detectors. A parachute will deploy automatically and when you hit the ocean; your backpack will turn into your flotation craft.”
They all talked at the same time, muddling their questions. Harris didn’t respond and pressed a red button at the back of the hull. The back of the aircraft opened and the sound of the wind eliminated any chance of conversation. Harris walked to the edge of the large ramp. The wind tussled his hair and he motioned for them to come forward. The dark opening at the back of the aircraft lit up from a strike of lightning and the rain fell sideways as they flew through it.
Great, lightning. As if it wasn’t dangerous enough.
They formed a line with Poly toward the back. Hank staggered to the edge of the ramp and Harris spoke to him, but Poly couldn’t hear the words. Then, Hank jumped. She gasped and her heart raced. Was she really going to jump from the aircraft? Julie stepped forward to the edge of the ramp. She heard Harris yelling instructions to Julie and then he counted down from three. Julie jumped after he said one and Poly stepped forward.
The ramp vibrated under her feet and tilted toward the black clouds flying by. The wind swirled around her, making her take baby steps and spread out her arms to keep balance. She made the mistake of looking below the ramp, into the infinite darkness. She took a step backward and Harris put his hand on her back.
Harris yelled, “When you land, stay put and I’ll find you. But if I don’t, set the prop at one-thirty-two. You will reach the island in a few days.”
“Three, two, one,” Harris said and pushed her out.
Black clouds rushed by and she had a second to curse him before the wind hit and took any words she had left from her. Spinning, she moved her arms and legs out, trying to stabilize her chaotic descent. The wind slowed and she stopped tumbling. Rain smeared across her helmet in the free fall through the clouds. She flailed around, idiotically trying to grab the clouds to stop from falling. As she passed through the last cloud, she reached up, but it was long gone.
The dark ocean below rapidly moved toward her. She breathed in deep for the first time since the fall started, and with filled lungs, she screamed. Rational thoughts gone, nothing but fear and anger for Harris shoving her to her death.
Poly’s backpack popped and she jolted forward from the sudden slow down. She turned her head and behind her a thin parachute stretched out from cords on her backpack. She wasn’t going to die, but the feeling still filled every part of her body. Her shaky hands firmly grabbed the two cords rising above her. She let out a long breath, thanking the parachute above.
A missile screeched by, roaring through the dark clouds. A large section of clouds lit up in a flash. A few seconds later, the sound of an explosion hit her, crackling and resonating around her helmet.
“No!” She yelled into her helmet. She stared into the darkness, looking for a parachute from Lucas and Harris. They had to have gotten off the aircraft in time. She couldn’t lose any more people around her, even Harris. She wanted to hurt him for bargaining Joey away, but she didn’t want him dead. They had to be alive, she wouldn’t accept anything else. The merciless storm laughed at her with thunder and rain, making it impossible to see into the distance.
She turned and looked over her shoulder, searching the sky for Hank, or Julie, anyone. The storm shot a lightning bolt through the clouds. She winced at the massive thunder that followed. Frantically searching around, only dark clouds and rain appeared. She was alone, falling to the ocean.
Large raindrops ran down the face of her helmet and she swayed back and forth in the embrace of the parachute. Below her feet, she saw the swirling black closing in. A hundred feet down, then fifty. At twenty feet, she saw the huge waves splashing, crashing into each other. Ten feet above the water, her slow descent ended.
The backpack made a pop sound as it detached her from the parachute. She yelped at the free fall and hit the water. Her whole body submerged into the ocean. She held her breath inside her helmet, as she swam back up to the surface. The buoyant backpack pulled her most of the way up. With her head above the surface she breathed in and felt her helmet puff air around her dry face. Large waves rolled by, splashing water over her head. She slapped her arms, trying to keep her head above water. After a few terrifying moments, she stopped panicking, realizing her helmet was providing protection from the water. Her backpack acted as a life preserver, but it began to shake and she turned, trying to look at it.
Another pop sounded and her backpack began to grow. Poly felt it move down her legs, as it lifted her feet out of the water—laying her back, strapped to the expanding backpack. It inflated around her and in a few seconds, she found herself in a small teepee-like hut, floating on the water. A wave pushed over the teepee and it rocked, but no water came in.
Poly lay on the floor with her back strapped to it, staring at the black fabric peak of the ceiling. Taking the straps off, she sat up just as a wave hit the craft, sending her tumbling into the inflated wall. She flattened her body out on the floor and stretched to touch all sides, stabilizing herself, as each wave wanted to catapult her around. It was like she was in a bouncy house with someone jumping next to her.
I’m alive. The thought pounded in her head. Her friends had to be alive as well. She had to find them.
Attempting to get up so she could look around, another wave crashed into the small craft, sending her to her butt. How could she find them when she couldn’t even stand? She gripped the fabric on the wall and forced herself to her knees. Moving around the perimeter of the craft, she found a zipper and moved it up. A gust of wind and rain entered the opening. She raised a hand and squinted past the deluge long enough to see a wave crash into her. Water poured into the craft and she slammed the zipper back down. The calf-deep water sloshed around in the craft.
She took deep breaths, trying to stop imagining the craft sinking into the ocean with all the extra weight. Rapid puffs of air pelted her face, but it didn’t feel like enough air. Poly felt like she couldn’t breathe with the stupid helmet on. She reached for the back of her neck and pulled the tag. Her helmet retracted into her suit and the noises of the ocean rushed to her. Cold, salt water splashed her face.
What was she supposed to do? Her friends were in the same ocean as she was, they could be a hundred feet away and she wouldn’t know—ten feet, even. She could scream, but the ocean and thunder would drown her out. Poly had no clue what direction she was going, left to the mercy of wherever the ocean took her. She’d never felt so small, so insignificant.
Slumping down, she put her back against the craft as the cold water splashed against her and thought about everything Harris had said. He’d find them. But, did he make it off the craft?
She shook her head and refused to think about it. Harris said if she were alone, to set the prop . . . the craft must have had some sort of propulsion system. She waded through the water, feeling the edge of the craft, and then found a flap on the inflated edge.
Poly peeled the flap back with the scratching sound of Velcro detaching. She slid her fingers over the digital panel and it lit up. A flashing label read Water Bilge and she pushed it. A faint humming sounded and the water level lowered in the craft, until a small puddle in the middle remained. Okay, good. One problem solved.
Searching the screen’s glowing labels, it wasn’t much different than her tablet. Poly pressed the one labeled Prop, and the screen changed to an arrow. She slid her finger over the screen and moved the arrow. As the arrow moved, the number below spun around. She moved the arrow slowly, until the numbers one-thirty-two were displayed. The boat hummed much louder than the pump. She braced herself as the boat pushed forward. But what direction was it going? She took her finger off the screen and unzipped a couple of inches of the front of the boat.
Peeking through the small hole, she watched the dark blue waters splash the front of her boat, as it bounced over the choppy waters. In the horizon the clouds were breaking up, revealing the moon.
With the boat bouncing along the surface of the ocean, Poly slumped against the inflated insides of the craft. Sitting on the tubular edge, she put her face in her hands.
At least when she was falling to her death, there was a moment she didn’t have to think about Joey. Images of him being zapped by Max filled her thoughts, followed with jumping from the plane and seeing it explode. Then came images of Nathen, Almadon, and Compry being murdered.
She slapped the side of the boat and stared at the zipper on the door. Where was she even going? Some island? She was in a foreign world, apart from her friends, and in a tiny boat, flopping around in the angry ocean. She wouldn’t allow tears to fully form in her eyes. Taking a deep, cleansing breath, she lifted her head. There was more she could do, she needed to keep busy.
Going back to the screen, she examined the other buttons. Pressing the camouflage button, the boat turned a dark blue color. The one next to it read Open, and when she pushed it, the top of the teepee opened, forming a parapet wall. Poly crawled on her knees around the inside of the tiny boat, if you could call it that—more like an inner tube with a four foot wall around it—and scanned the expanse, looking for any of the others. Her friends were out there, somewhere.
After an hour, the storm clouds grew and she closed the top, sealing the rain out of the craft. Her whole body felt weak, drained. She slumped against the edge of the boat. It wasn’t possible to find her friends and they weren’t going to find her. There was nothing she could do, but wait for her boat to hit land, or for a wave to take her to the bottom of the sea. At that moment, she didn’t know which she’d prefer.
Feeling weary, Poly laid down on the floor and felt the ocean push against the bottom as it moved along. A wave crashed against the craft, rolling her on her back, the rain outside peppered the fabric lining, making an orchestra of noises.
At some point it had to end, didn’t it?
TWO DAYS PASSED.
The boat hummed along across the ocean. The boat seemed to have endless power. It was the only positive. She lay with her face bouncing off of floor, staring at the sliver of blue sky peeking its way through the zipper slit. The first day she spent in the bright sun, yelling, searching for her friends, seeing nothing but ocean.
At least it stopped raining. Ha! There are all kinds of positives, if you search long enough. Of course, the rain brought fresh water . . . too bad she hadn’t collected any of it.
Her swollen tongue stuck to the dry sides of her mouth. She hadn’t drank anything in two days. How long could a body go without water? Getting up on her knees, Poly pulled back the Velcro panel protecting the screen that ran the boat. The arrow still pointed in the same direction, but what did it even mean? She’d lost all sense of direction. She blindly hoped and feared the boat wasn’t traveling in a large sweeping circle, perpetually sending her dying body on a round trip.
Her mind played through awful scenarios. She’d be found dead, dried up and shriveled, ten years from now. They’d run finger prints, DNA samples, and dental records, before she’d be declared a mystery person who didn’t have a place on their planet. Her withered body would be dumped into a mass cremation. After spending many hours going through different scenarios, this one seemed the most likely.
She slapped the flap closed and jerked the zipper, blocking out the sun. Poly was sick of the sun.
Spending much of the last two nights trying to find a comfortable spot, she’d finally found it—a soft spot near the door. She lay there for the next few hours. It could have been longer, or it could have been ten minutes. Alone, with nothing but thoughts to occupy her, made time impossible to tell. She decided not to get up anymore; laying there until the mass cremators found her and disposed of her shell. The urge to open the craft and feel the salt water hit her face and the sun burn her skin, faded.
Her chapped lips ached, but she didn’t think about that anymore. Poly wished she could say Joey and her friends consumed most of her thoughts, but she had to be honest with herself, it was water. She would push Joey to the ground to get to an ice-cold lemonade with extra sugar. She groaned thinking about it. No. Joey was in the hands of MM, probably being experimented on at that moment. She shouldn’t have such selfish thoughts.
After Joey, her thoughts went to the plane exploding and if any of her friends were still alive. Were they waiting for her on this supposed island? Even if she lived to see it, she didn’t know what she would do there.
Forests, grass fields, even school, seemed like a dream. Preston felt like a distant place, somewhere made up by Hollywood. Her mom had to have been an actor, and her dad was still alive, just kept away from her. Why did they take her dad away? Everything Poly loved was gone and she was stuck on some stupid boat, alone. She pulled out a knife and stabbed the tarp above her head. She kept stabbing it, her dry lips splitting as she screamed, watching the slits of light shoot through each new hole.
Poly dropped the knife onto the floor, exhausted, letting her body fall down next to it. She couldn’t hold back the tears, but there wasn’t anything left to spill forth. She brought her knees close to her chest and hugged herself, her body wracked with tearless sobs.
She would die here. Her body would float on forever.