Fiction by Todd Strasser
Illustrations by Michal Lisowski
“Will you look at that,” Daggoo muttered.
“What is it?” Elijah asked.
The big sailor with the dyed yellow hair and flame tattoos rising from his eyebrows didn’t answer. Instead, he quietly crept toward the bow of the chase boat.
Fifty yards away, a creature floated on the blue ocean surface as if napping while it absorbed the sun’s heat through the black hide of its back. The span of its black wings was at least 12 feet.
In the bow, Daggoo silently wrapped a large, rough hand around the grip of the tag pole.
“Get us closer,” he hissed.
Elijah had never operated a chase boat. Back on Earth, anything this large was strictly autonomous. Otherwise, there was far too much likelihood of accidents.
“But –” he began to protest.
“Do it!” Daggoo snapped impatiently.“It’s a terrafin. No one’s ever tagged one before.”
His heart beating its way up into his throat, Elijah stepped uncertainly behind the controls. Back on the ship, he’d heard talk of terrafins, rare and mysterious creatures only recently discovered here on Cretacea.
He placed one hand on the cold steel wheel and the other on the thruster lever. As he gradually nudged the lever forward, a humming sound came from the engine compartment and the boat began to slowly creep ahead.
Daggoo frowned, then nodded sharply, signaling that he wanted to go faster. Elijah pressed the thruster harder. Suddenly, the engine’s hum became an angry whine and the chase boat lurched forward. Daggoo stumbled backward, just managing to catch himself before he fell.
Elijah quickly yanked on the thruster. The chase boat shuddered, and the next thing he knew, they were starting to reverse! He pushed the lever forward again. This time the engine coughed and stalled.
A small cloud of white smoke rose from the engine compartment. The chase boat drifted silently on the ocean’s surface. Daggoo glared at Elijah, and then at the spot where the beast had been. All that remained was a circle of ever-widening ripples.
“Way to go, greenhorn,” the big sailor snarled angrily.
Elijah knew it wasn’t his fault.
You couldn’t expect someone who’d never driven anything to know how to operate a chase boat. Nonetheless, he felt bad and wished his parents had never sent him to this planet to begin with.
His father said it would be an exciting vacation with Uncle Ahab, the captain of the Essex, a research vessel studying the migratory habits of large seagoing creatures.
But now Elijah decided that as soon as they got back to the ship, he would tell his uncle that he wanted to go home.
A few moments later, Elijah sat on the bench seat and held tight while Daggoo stood at the controls, steering the chase boat toward the Essex.
The exotic sensation of wind and spray was in Elijah’s face as the boat splashed over the waves. It was a far cry from the protected, quiet world of his domed city back home.
Too bad. Cretacea might have been an infinitely more beautiful and interesting planet than gray, arid, environmentally devastated Earth, but it wasn’t for him.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, Elijah thought he saw something leap into the air and splash back into the sea.
He turned just in time to see the terrafin’s long rope-thin tail disappear below the surface. Elijah glanced back at Daggoo, but the sailor’s eyes were fixed on the Essex in the distance.
When the beast leapt a second time, Elijah quickly pointed. Daggoo swiveled his head and, an instant later, cut the engine. Riding the ghost of momentum, the chase boat drifted forward.
Was Daggoo thinking about trying again? Elijah looked up into the big sailor’s eyes and saw uncertainty, as if he was debating whether another attempt would be a waste of time.
Elijah tried to tell himself that he didn’t care whether they tried for the beast or not. But it didn’t feel right. His father had always said that quitting was never the answer. Deep inside, he wanted another chance. Not because he felt he needed to prove anything to Daggoo, but because it was the right thing to do.
He stood up and gestured silently for Daggoo to get the tag pole. The big sailor rolled his eyes doubtfully, but proceeded to the bow.
A moment later, Elijah was once more at the controls. A hundred yards away, the terrafin had again settled quietly on the surface. In the bow, Daggoo turned to Elijah and gave him a curious scowl as if wondering what the boy planned to do.
“Hold on,” Elijah warned and pushed the thruster forward.
When the chase boat jumped ahead, Daggoo had to grab a rail to steady himself. It must have seemed to him that Elijah thought he could speed straight up to the beast without spooking it. But just as the big sailor angrily swiveled around to yell at him, Elijah cut the engine and let the boat glide.
An instant later, the chase boat was slipping silently ahead, getting closer and closer to the unsuspecting beast. Daggoo blinked with astonishment, then again kneeled down in the bow, gripping the tag pole tightly.
They glided nearer. …
Suddenly Daggoo heaved the pole forward, harmlessly pinning the positioning and data storage tag to the base of the small dorsal fin near the terrafin’s tail.
With a splash, the startled creature vanished into the deep blue depths, leaving a swirl of froth on the smooth surface of the ocean. But no matter where it went, the marine scientists aboard the Essex would now be able to track it, and learn about its feeding and migratory habits.
Standing in the bow with his hands on his hips, Daggoo turned to Elijah, a smile slowly working its way into his lips. With an approving nod, he said, “Good work. Take us back to the ship, sailor.”
Elijah returned the smile and pressed the thruster lever forward. “Aye aye, Sir.”
Todd Strasser is an award-winning author of more than 140 books for tweens and teens, including The Beast of Cretacea.