Note this is not the final version and may change when the book comes out
“Okay… Here we go… Don’t worry… Almost out… Gotcha!” Light flooded back into Numer’s eyes. He gasped for air. He was covered in dirt, and his skesh was ripped up. “Are you okay?” Professor Zeth asked. “I saw your feat from the grass.”
Numer coughed and brushed the dirt off him. “We don’t have feet.”
“I mean, I saw what you did. I was going through the fields looking for you when I saw you falling off Mount Chiphus. How did you get up there?”
“It’s a long story,” Numer said. “Where’s-”
“The Mallet Blaster’s right here,” Zeth said, holding it up. “The crystal’s in the Transpide.”
“What about the orb?”
Numer glanced around; the orb was gone. He looked into the hole his head had been in. The red orb sat at the bottom. Numer pulled it out. “What’s that?” Zeth asked.
“I’m not sure,” Numer said. “Like I said, it’s a long story.”
“Right, we’d better get back to Nottle,” Zeth said. “I’m afraid we have some problems to deal with.”
Numer and Zeth entered the Transpide. Numer sat on the back bench seat, a far improvement from the original Transpide’s steel plate bolted along the wall. The bench was now an extension of the wall, so it no longer felt near collapsing, and the edge was smooth so it didn’t jab the back of his tail. And the safety straps! The back seat now had two safety straps for passengers. Numer could hug them, and in fact, he usually did.
As they drove back to Nottle, Numer caught Zeth up on his activities—the crawber’s remarks on the crystal, and the giant fire bird and its orb. Zeth told Numer the situation at Nottle: Conrad left with the rest of the crystal and captured Cherry. Numer felt worse than before. He should never have left the town. All the way to Nottle, the worries of a new crisis hung over their heads.
“What were you thinking?” Merag Caleco gave Numer a verbal beating immediately upon his return to Nottle. “You sleeged away when our town needed you most! You allowed that Conrad to get over half the crystal and my daughter!”
“Merag, please…” Zeth said.
Caleco turned to Zeth, his arms scrunched and his hands in fists. “And you, you incompetent, goofy, goggled—why do you even wear those things? I can’t even see your eyes through them. And your machine; maybe if the things you made actually worked, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“Hey, they do the best they can,” Jake said.
Caleco opened his mouth, but instead of releasing a volley of words he sighed and bent over. “I couldn’t do anything either… Oh! My little Cherry blossom! What is that horrid, balloon-headed monster doing to you?”
“Merag, I’m sorry I didn’t stay,” Numer said. “I’m sorry; so, so sorry. I thought… that she could… and I didn’t know that Zeth… Well, I led that crawber away from town.” He sighed. “And that’s all I did. But if I had known that this would have happened, I would have stayed to protect her.” Even though he probably would have gotten captured, too.
“Not all is lost, though,” Zeth said. “We can track them down.”
“We can? How?” Numer asked.
Zeth leaned into the Transpide and pressed a few buttons on the dashboard. “Yes! When I built this new Transpide, I also built in the same radar that the first had. We can track down the crystals that Conrad has, which will lead us to Cherry, no doubt.”
“Then let’s go save her,” Numer said.
Caleco hugged Zeth. “Zeth, my boy! If this works, I take back what I said about you. If it doesn’t, I’m expelling you from Nottle.”
Zeth chuckled. “Even then, we’re not done yet. We need to get the crystal back into town.”
“Or at least away from Conrad,” Numer said. “Those past disasters may have just been caused by that crawber, locked away by the crystal, and it was destroyed by a fire bird… that then attacked me… and then disintegrated into ash… and left behind this orb… that is even more confusing now that I think about it at length.”
Caleco turned to Numer and glared at him. “You have someone to save. There is no time for that.”
Numer leaned back and stammered. “Um, yes sir.”
“In the meantime, we’ll clean up the town here,” Caleco said. He turned to the ruined stage. “This was supposed to be a pleasant day… It has been completely spoiled.”
Numer looked down. “Don’t I know it.” He and Zeth entered the Transpide, the crystal on the floor under Numer’s tail. “All right, where do we go?” Numer asked.
“It looks like the closest energy reading is north of here, in the ocean,” Zeth said. “It’s not far from Sea Mountain; Conrad may be hiding out there.”
Numer crossed his arms. “I am not leaving this vehicle while on another mountain.”
“By the way, why are you taking along that orb?” Zeth asked.
“Oh.” Numer looked at the red orb sitting under his hand; it still felt warm. “I dunno; something about it just feels like I should keep it around. It’s so weird, too. I’m just… going to keep it around, I guess.” He couldn’t think of a real reason at all.
“Fair enough. Now, let’s go.” Zeth drove the Transpide north of Nottle and into the ocean; the machine’s wheels folded in, and a propeller emerged as it surfed across the water.
It seemed to Numer that Nottle had just gone out of view when Zeth said, “We’re nearing the location of the energy readings.”
“Is it Sea Mountain?” Numer asked, watching the nearby spire of rock called Sea Mountain that emerged from the ocean. He really could see it. It was quite visible.
“Nope. It must be underwater.”
Numer wrinkled his eyelids. “You mean when it explodes in the sky and falls everywhere it never lands in water, but when someone takes it to an intentional location it is underwater?”
“Well, I don’t mean that,” Zeth said.
“I know, I meant-”
“Dive, dive, dive!” Zeth plunged The Transpide into the ocean. He turned on the Transpide’s lights as they descended into the dark.
Deeper in the ocean, a gray, steel wall appeared in front of them as if conjured out of thin water. Numer screamed and jumped. Zeth pulled up to avoid it, and they hung by their safety straps under the seat. “What is that?” Numer asked. The wall looked so long that the ends disappeared in the ocean darkness. It appeared to curve above and below, but those directions also disappeared in the dark.
“It looks like a submarine,” Zeth said. “A very big submarine. The radar says a crystal is inside. Let’s see if there’s an opening we can sneak through.”
They circled the submarine. It had to have been at least as wide as Nottle. After driving alongside it for a while they found a hole, through which they entered a tank of water. “The sub isn’t sinking, is it?” Numer asked.
“Possibly,” Zeth said. “Af-”
“Then let’s not get onboard,” Numer said.
“No, I mean, it’s supposed to sink,” Zeth said.
“Sounds like a badly-designed machine,” Numer said.
“It’s a controlled sink. Water and air is exchanged among the outer hull to rise and sink. It sinks when it takes on water, but they can expel that water to rise back to the surface.”
“Oh.” Numer blinked. He felt he should contribute more. “That’s… interesting?”
“And that’s your science lesson for the day,” Zeth said.
“Can I have another?” Numer asked.
“What do I look like, I’m made of science lessons?” Zeth asked.
“K…Kinda?” Numer said. “I just want to know how we’re going to get inside the sub.”
Zeth shone the Transpide’s light onto the inner hull above them and illuminated a closed hatch. “That should do nicely,” he said. “Let’s bust through.” He rammed the Transpide into the hatch.
“Um, are you sure this is the best way to get in?” Numer asked.
“Not only am I not sure if this is the best way, I’m not sure if it’s the only way,” Zeth said. “Did that make any sense?” The Transpide bashed through the hatch, and the water gushed up, pushing them into a room with steel walls.
“Close it!” shouted voices around them. “Close it! Get it cloooosed!” The surge of water slowly receded; the Transpide fell and landed onto the hatch, knocking it shut.
The room appeared as big as a house, with glowing strips in the walls and ceiling lighting it. A group of miniature Wrodin surrounded them. Wro, Numer thought they were called. “Well, we’re at the right place at least,” Zeth said. The wro shouted and knocked against the Transpide but accomplished absolutely nothing. Zeth pressed a button. An electric spark the length of a slube’s body discharged from the Transpide into the wro, and they fell over.
“All right, let’s find Cherry and get out,” Numer said.
“Let’s find Cherry and get the crystal and get out,” Zeth said.
“Oh, right. There’d be one of those in here.” They drove to an iron door wider and taller than the Transpide. Zeth zapped the door’s electronic keypad lock with the Transpide’s electric spark, but the door remained closed.
“Not a problem; I can still get us through here.” Zeth pressed another button, and the Transpide blasted a flamethrower into the edges of the door. After heating it up, Zeth backed up the Transpide.
Numer covered his head with his arms. “Wait, are you going to ram it?”
“Bingo!” Zeth drove and slammed into the door. It broke off and left them with a very opaque shield to barge through the wro in the hallway.
The hallway was easily big enough for the Transpide to drive through—of course, since Wrodin was just as big. Numer watched wro thrown aside behind them as they sidelined them along the way. “Where are we supposed to go?” Numer asked.
“I have no idea,” Zeth said. “I can’t see where I’m going anyway.” Zeth hit the brakes. The Transpide screeched to a halt, and the door fell to the floor. They had driven into another big, empty room quite like the first.
“There’s no one here,” Numer said.
“I guess this isn’t the right room,” Zeth said. The door they had entered slammed shut. “I guess this definitely isn’t the right room.” A grated hatch the size of the Transpide opened on the floor, and water surged through. “I guess our enemies wanted this to be the right room.”
“They’re flooding us in!” Numer screamed, sliding out of the safety straps. He jumped to the front seat with Zeth and held him. “We’re going to drown! What do we do?”
“Calm down,” Zeth said. “We’re in the Transpide. We won’t drown.”
Numer blinked. “Oh yeah.” He quietly shuffled back to his seat.
“Since we’re stuck in here, we’ll eventually die from dehydration instead,” said Zeth.
Numer fell onto his side on the bench seat. That was no better than drowning.
Zeth said, “Kind of ironic since we’ll be surrounded by water.”
Elsewhere on the sub, iron bars separated half of a room. The iron bars sparked with electricity, just in case anyone thought they could break through the bars. Cherry hadn’t tried. She paced along the cold, steel floor. Conrad had brought her to the sub and dumped her in the cell as if he hardly cared. Well, she’d make him care. She couldn’t escape through the front, though. If she would escape, she had to find another way out. She surveyed the room. The walls were solid steel. She certainly couldn’t break through. She saw no weak points. She wasn’t caged in; she was walled in. Steel walled in.
Hold on—something was in the corner against the ceiling. Cherry looked closer; it was a grated air vent. Either Conrad was overconfident, or he needed a better designer. Maybe the sub was stolen and this wasn’t originally a jail. Regardless, she had an escape route.
Cherry sleeged and jumped in a circle, gaining momentum until she leapt to the grate and slammed her tail into it, knocking it loose from the vent. After another round of leaping she grabbed hold of the vent and pulled herself in. It was a tight fit, but she managed to squeeze through.
After pulling herself through the chilly air ducts, she shoved open another grate and pushed herself out, falling to the floor. She had gotten out—but now what? She couldn’t really get off the sub, could she? Maybe she could find some escape pods.
Cherry opened the nearest door and screamed; a flood of water rushed out and swung the door wide open, trapping her behind it.
“Okay, now the whole sub will start to flood,” Numer said. The Transpide sat in the hallway, the floor covered in shallow water.
Cherry pushed the door out of her way. “Numer! Zeth!” Looks like they’d followed to join the sub party.
“Cherry!” Numer said. “Are you okay?” Zeth opened the Transpide’s bubble roof, and Cherry jumped in.
“I’m fine,” she said. “Conrad got two of the fragments, and one of them is on the sub.”
“We know,” Zeth said. “The radar picked up the energy signal of the crystal. That’s how we found this place.”
“Cherry,” Numer said, looking down, “I’m sorry I didn’t stay to help in the-”
“Whatever,” Cherry said. She wanted action, not brooding. “What’s past is past. You guys will have to tell me the status of everything once we get out of here.”
Zeth drove down the hallway. “First let’s find that crystal.”
After a few minutes driving through the sub, Zeth suggested they enter a door bearing a symbol of a wro sitting behind a cannon.
“Are you sure we should go in there?” Numer asked.
“Maybe it’s an ammunition storage,” Cherry said.
“Only one way to find out,” Zeth said. He charged the Transpide to the door at full speed.
“Wait, can’t you just zap the door lock to open it?” Cherry shouted.
“Tried that! Didn’t work! Gotta ram it!” Zeth said. The door opened just before they hit it, and the Transpide shot through, bashing a wro aside. Zeth screeched to a halt inside.
“Well,” Cherry said, “it’s not ammunition, but…”
“It’s much worse,” Numer shouted. Wro filled the wide room, most of them lined up to the center. There sat a cannon nearly as big as the Transpide, though it also could have been an overturned stew pot. A few wro sat at a control panel next to it. On the right wall stood another door, but the room was otherwise bare—it seemed to just be used for the cannon.
A wro slammed shut the door behind the slubes. “Look, guys! We’ve got a target for our target practice.”
“It’s a pretty big target; don’t you think it’s a bit unfair?” a wro said.
“Yeah! They should get out, and then we’ll shoot them.”
“You’re a big target, too,” Zeth said. “Quick-draw shoot!” He hit a button, and a gray missile shot from the Transpide. Before it hit the cannon it dissolved into smoke.
Everyone stared at where the missile dissolved. “Psst,” Cherry whispered. “Zeth. What the hex was that?”
“I built a new air burst weapon for the Transpide,” Zeth whispered; “one that wouldn’t be limited to the ground. But… I admit… it still needs work.”
The wro’s cannon swiveled to face the Transpide and blasted a wro at the slubes. The Transpide’s wheels squealed as Zeth drove back, and the wro glanced off it. “What the hex was that?” Numer yelled.
“The wro cannon,” a wro said.
“You’re firing yourselves at us?” Cherry asked.
“Well, what else would we fire at you?”
Cherry rolled her eyes. “If I was Wrodin, I’d want to fire you, too.”
Another wro jumped into the cannon, and it fired. Zeth circled the Transpide around the cannon—he had to keep ahead of its line of fire. Maybe if he disrupted the line of wro they couldn’t get into the cannon as quickly. He careened through the wro but swerved out. Another wro fired and glanced off the Transpide. “Okay,” Cherry said, “new plan: attack it!”
“Then fire!” Zeth said. He drove at the wro cannon and fired the flamethrower. The cannon shot another wro through the flames. It slammed into the Transpide and knocked it against the wall.
“Ow…” Numer muttered, rubbing his head. “Um, then electricity?”
“It’s worth a shot,” Zeth said. The wro cannon fired again; the Transpide sprung over the wro and shocked the cannon with an electric spark. Electricity crackled around the cannon, and it spun wildly like an overcharged carousal.
“Haha! Thanks for increasing the cannon’s power,” a wro said. “Fire!”
“Um, we can’t actually aim the cannon anymore!”
“I don’t care! Just try to fire when it’s pointed at them.”
The cannon fired about ninety degrees away from the Transpide. The wro flew twice as fast and crashed through the wall. Steel ripped apart as water gushed into the room like through a broken fire hydrant. “Oh, carp, we broke the hull!” a wro screamed.
“Wrodin’s really going to fire us, now!”
“We need to find the crystal fast,” Cherry said.
“You’re not going anywhere,” shouted a wro. “We can still fix this. Fire again!” The cannon fired about two hundred seventy degrees away from the Transpide and hit another wall, leaving a gaping hole into another room.
“Here we go,” Zeth said, springing the Transpide through the hole. In this room sat one of the chunks of crystal on a pedestal, surrounded by a force field. “Ah, how serendipitous.”
“I’ll bet that cannon was there to guard this room,” Cherry said.
“Ah,” Zeth said, “then how stupendously ‘stupidous’.”
“Come on,” Numer said, “let’s get it before that water sweeps us away.”
“How do we deactivate the force field, though?” Zeth said.
“We’re not through yet!” A wro shot through the wall and crashed into the force field, shattering it.
Cherry grinned. “That worked.” Zeth opened the Transpide’s bubble roof, and the three slubes grabbed the crystal.
“Why do we suck so much?” a wro shouted. Several of them jumped onto the crystal. Numer knocked them away with his mallet, and the slubes pulled the crystal into the Transpide.
“Why were we designed without limbs?” screamed another wro.
The hole in the hull grew as water gushed in faster, and the inner walls cracked. The pressure was pushing through the sub. It would soon sink without a way to rise. “Come on, let’s get out of here,” Numer said. Zeth drove out of the sub through the gaping hole and rose towards the surface.
“Something’s rising out of the sub,” Numer said.
“I’m pretty sure it was just the wro and Wrodin in there, and none of them look like they can swim,” Cherry said.
“Perhaps it was ballast of some kind,” Zeth said. “A container of air?” The Transpide resurfaced; the sun was already dipping towards the horizon.
“What a day this turned out to be…” Numer said.
Zeth figured with two of the three crystal chunks, they were in a good position; they could return to Nottle for the night and then locate the other crystal Conrad held tomorrow. He was about to say as such to Numer and Cherry, but the water splashed nearby, and a round object about the Transpide’s size surfaced. “You!” Wrodin floated on the water, a large outboard motor bolted onto its back.
“Okay, maybe it can swim,” Cherry said.
“That’s two submarines you’ve destroyed,” Wrodin shouted.
“Actually, your wro destroyed that sub,” Cherry said.
“And technically, you destroyed the first one,” Numer said.
Several holes opened on Wrodin’s top half, and rockets emerged from them. “I still blame you. Now it’s your turn to sink.” A repeated beep sounded from Wrodin. Its eyes dimmed and then flared. “Now what?” The beeping stopped, and it shouted, “What do you want?”
“Is that any way to speak to your commanding officer?”
“Oh, The Conqueror. My apologies, sir. I am ready to blow my top off.”
“Do it after you get the submarine to Shellport. It’s time to get going.”
“That will be…” It paused. “Those slubes have ruined it.”
“You mean you sank the sub again?”
“It was those lousy wro! They sank the sub. The red slube is free, and those slubes grabbed the crystal.”
“You’re not going to be the top general of a plastic toy soldier army at this rate, Wrodin!” Conrad screamed. “Stop them from escaping, or I’ll sink you!”
“I’m on it,” Wrodin said. It turned back to the Transpide, which was sailing away. “What? No! You get back here and let me blow you up!” Wrodin’s outboard motor roared to life, and it shot through the sea after them.
Merag Caleco looked across the ocean north of Nottle. The sun had nearly dipped under the horizon, but Numer and Zeth still hadn’t returned. Was Cherry okay? Would they find her? Could those nitwits even save her? Caleco sighed. It was happening all over again. He thought he had been getting less strict over the past year, but he worried as much as ever. They had stopped Conrad before… but, not really, apparently, since he’d returned.
No, he thought. He had to have faith. He had to believe that they would be safe and would return, Conrad could be stopped for good, and they could have a peaceful- Caleco heard a scream from town. Now what had happened? Oh, a brick probably dropped on one of the workers’ tails or something. Caleco turned and wogged to Nottle. He saw a crowd gathered at the center of town and sleeged over. A brick wouldn’t draw this many cleeple.
A machine emerged from the hole made by Zeth’s machine near the remains of the stage. Caleco stumbled back. Its six legs and long, curved tail concerned him enough, but the two drill arms really worried him. Caleco’s heart flipped. Some townscleeple had been in the underground shelter covering up the hole. What had happened?
Inside the machine sat a clerpson with tan skin and a blue bandana with bows fitted on its head. “You have terrible guards,” said the clerpson. Caleco cried out—was someone hurt? He rushed to the hole to see if everyone was okay, but the machine pointed a drill arm at him. “Don’t try anything. I already tore into one of you.” The machine leapt up and landed on a house, collapsing most of the roof and cracking the walls. Another jump landed it in the farmland, where it knocked trees out of its path as it left Nottle.
“Oh no… Quick! Someone get some medical supplies!” Caleco shouted. “We may have wounded slubes!”