The Star Dunes

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of "The Star Dunes," Book Four of the Explorer Academy series from National Geographic.
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Fiction by Trudi Trueit
Illustrations by Scott Plumbe

A drop of water splashed onto Cruz’s forehead.

“Emmett,” he moaned, feeling the bead roll down his temple. “One more minute.”

Cruz was drifting off again, when another drop tapped him on the bridge of his nose.

“OK, OK.”

His roommate was right. They’d be in big trouble if they were late to class. Cruz yawned, his eyelids fluttering.

“You win, Emmett. I’m …” The creamy white ceiling he expected to see was, instead, a forbidding black hole. “… up,” he gulped.

He remembered now. Cruz was not in his soft, warm bed in cabin 202 on board Orion, Explorer Academy’s flagship vessel. Not even close. He was huddled at the bottom of a cold, damp cave somewhere outside of Aksaray, Turkey.

Cruz’s neck was tipped back. His head, rather than being cradled in his cloud of a pillow, was awkwardly butted up against unforgiving rock. The last thing he recalled before falling asleep was peering up into the stone well he’d fallen down. Cruz had scanned the void for any hint of light, any sign that help was on the way. He had seen only darkness then.

And now.

“Achoo!” With the sneeze, Cruz’s head snapped forward. A cramp shot through his neck.

“Ow!” he yelped, and his cry echoed back to him. “Ow … ow … ow.”

Still, Cruz was lucky. His Organic Synchronization (OS) band indicated he’d suffered only a slight concussion and minor bruises. It could have been worse. Had he landed a few feet to the left, he would have hit solid rock instead of hard-packed dirt.

Cruz suddenly sat up. There had been something else, too … before the fall. A jolt. It hadn’t come from beneath him, not like an earthquake or a landslide. It was more like … pressure. Yes. When he’d leaned into the space to look down, Cruz had felt a pressure between his shoulder blades. The fog of uncertainty was beginning to clear. His fall was no accident. He’d been pushed! And there was no doubt in Cruz’s mind who was behind it: Nebula.

Several weeks ago, he’d received an anonymous note warning him that Nebula’s spies were out to steal the journal and kill him before he turned 13. Yet, Cruz still had the journal safely tucked in the upper-left pocket of his jacket. And today was November 29 — his 13th birthday.

“You’re zero for two, Nebula,” Cruz shouted into the empty cavern. “I’m still alive!”

“Alive … ive … ive,” proudly proclaimed his echo. But for how long?

This was not how he’d planned to spend his birthday. Cruz gazed at his stone prison. It was his own fault. Cruz had broken the two most important rules of exploring. Rule number one: Never go by yourself. Rule number two: Always tell your expedition leader where you’re headed. Cruz had done neither of those things.

Cruz slid over a bit farther to avoid the dripping water, which was now a steady trickle. Listening to the water was making him thirsty. He wished he could put his mouth under the flow but knew better. The water might contain bacteria, parasites or chemicals. A powerful rumble came from the pit of his stomach. How long could he survive without food and water? Emmett would likely know the answer to that (probably to the minute). Cruz knew the more general one. Without fresh water, he could survive three to four days. Four days of sitting here waiting to die? No thanks.

Getting on his hands and knees, Cruz began to crawl around the perimeter of the cave. There had to be a way out.

Ten minutes later, Cruz was huffing and about to take a break when he realized his shoes were wet. If water was getting in, it had to come from somewhere. This could be a way out! The grotto was quickly beginning to fill. Cruz had to get to higher ground. Fortunately, Orion’s science tech lab chief, Fanchon Quills, had designed their uniforms to be waterproof, but Cruz had a feeling Fanchon hadn’t expected he would have to swim in the thing. In another few minutes, however, that’s exactly what he was going to have to do.

Closing the collar of his uniform, Cruz felt something scrape the back of his neck. He reached behind him, his fingers closing around a metal tab. That’s right! Every explorer’s jacket was equipped with two critical survival items: a parachute, which wouldn’t help him here, and a flotation device, which most definitely would! Except Cruz wasn’t sure how to inflate the thing. He could almost hear his advisor, Taryn Secliff, say, “You’d know what to do if you hadn’t glossed over the uniform instruction manual.”

“I know, Taryn, I know. …” Cruz yanked open his belt and unzipped his jacket. Wrestling free of the sleeves, he whipped the coat inside out. He found a small plastic tab near the collar. It was engraved with a P — for parachute, no doubt. Cruz moaned. “I could have really used a label in here to tell me how to activate the flotation device!”

“Personal flotation device deployment confirmed.” The calm, female voice startled him. It was Fanchon!

“Cruz Coronado, please prepare for PFD deployment,” said Fanchon. Her instructions were coming from his OS band! Smart. He should have known when all else failed, he could count on his OS band for help. “Please fully secure jacket, pockets and cuffs. Beginning 10-second countdown sequence now. Ten … nine … eight …”

“Hold on!” Cruz threw his jacket over his shoulders and shoved his arms into his sleeves. The water was edging up past his knees. A current was beginning to form.

“Six … five …”

Cruz yanked the buckles tight on the bottom of each sleeve then jerked the zipper on the front of his jacket up.

“Two … one. PFD deployment commencing.”

The hem of Cruz’s jacket tightened against his hips. His cuffs and collar were sealing, too. A sudden rush of air down his back sent a chill through him. Cruz watched his sleeves slowly swell. As they did, his arms automatically rose from his sides. His chest was puffing up, too. His jacket took less than 15 seconds to fully inflate. Trapped inside the bubble of air, he felt like a giant marshmallow. This had better work. The water was still rising … up to his hips … his stomach … his ribs …. It did! He was buoyant. As the flood waters inched upward, they took Cruz with them. Cruz wasn’t sure how far he had fallen into the shaft. He strained, looking for the gap in the rock he had fallen through.

Uh-oh. Trouble ahead.

Cruz was heading for an opening on the opposite side of the cave wall. No! He needed to go up, not down. Kicking hard, he thrashed his arms to move away from the hole. Nothing he did was working. The current was too strong. He was going in!

Water went up his nose and down his throat. Cruz came up coughing, trying to spit out water while gulping in air. When he could see again, Cruz realized he was riding the rapids through a narrow tunnel. Of course! This must be a lava tube.

The river was powerful and choppy. The swift flow tossed him from one side of the tube to the other.

Almost immediately, he felt the force of the water easing up. The water level was dropping, too. A few hundred yards downstream, Cruz was able to touch bottom. Dragging his soles, he skidded to a stop on a sandbar. Exhausted, Cruz could only lie on the wet gravel, heaving.

Everything was going in and out of focus. His stomach was demanding food again. His lips were dry, his throat parched. The inside of his head felt like a cotton ball, all fuzzy and soft. He would close his eyes. For a minute. One minute became two, two became three. … Cruz heard a noise. It sounded like static and was coming from his OS band.

“Em … to … onado.”

“Emmett?” Cruz’s eyelids flew open. “Emmett, it’s Cruz! It’s me. I’m here! I’m here! Can you hear me?”

He could hear cheers.

“I tracked your location through your OS band,” said Emmett.

Cruz clasped his hands. Thank you, OS band!

“It took me forever to lock on to you,” said Emmett. “I don’t want to lose your signal again. Stay put.”

“We’re going to hike in.” That was Dugan.

“I’ll call your dad,” said Aunt Marisol. “Sit tight. We’ll be there as soon as we can.”

“OK. Cruz out.”

“Wait, Cruz! I … we almost forgot,” said Emmett. “There’s one more thing. …”

What was wrong now? “Yeah?”

“Happy birthday!” came the chorus from his fellow explorers.

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