Rick stood on a balcony at the back of the Roost, watching the Buhana Jungle vanish beyond the horizon. A fierce breeze whipped at his freshly showered hair. The Pacific Ocean stretched out in every direction, an azure blanket. Two thousand feet below him, waves rose and fell like the belly of the Snorivore monster in Animon Hunters. He searched the sky for any sign of Winterpole hoverships that might be chasing them.
Amazingly, Dad seemed to have given the agency the slip once again.
Most people would feel cold and isolated when looking at such a vast, empty sight. For Rick, however, it was nothing special. He felt cold and isolated all the time. Sure, he went to a pretty cool school, with sushi bento boxes for lunch and a third period class in video game design, but he had zero friends. Zero. The boys were mean, the girls were gross, and his teacher had less personality than a robot (and with parents like Rick's, he knew a thing or two about robots).
Evie was the only person who was halfway nice to him, even when it meant the girls at school would tease her for acknowledging the existence of a kid who preferred study hall to recess. He loved her for that. Evie once started a food fight at the mall with a high school boy who'd made fun of Rick's interest in obscure video games. The look on the kid's face when Evie catapulted a two-gallon barrel of grape pudding at him was something Rick would never forget.
This happy memory faded as Rick, ever the focused perfectionist, brought himself back to the present. What bothered him the most was this trouble with his dad. Lane Industries had been developing cutting-edge technologies since the time of Rick's grandfather, the company's founder. He had encouraged George, a genius scientist in his own right, to focus his research on robotics, engineering, propulsion, construction, climatology, and other cool fields like that. After Rick's grandfather passed away, Dad continued the Lane family tradition, creating robots and hoverships that were now used all over the world, includingas they'd only just discoveredby Evie's nemesis, Vesuvia.
Recently, however, Rick's dad had been spending more time on little pet projects, like saving rare birds and building them new habitats with roller coasters and birdbaths the size of Olympic swimming pools. Rick wanted him to focus on the important stuff, like keeping Lane Industries a viable business and not risking the future of the companyand their familyby breaking Winterpole's never-ending list of rules.
2-Tor's metallic voice blatted out of the splintering loudspeaker hanging over the door. "Richard! Your father would like to show you something important. Please report to the cockpit without delay."
Tardiness had been known to cause Rick to break out in hives, so he sprinted to the front of the Roost. The interior of the cockpit looked like a palatial living room, with fluffy carpets, leather sofas, a holographic display table, and a control console shaped like a pipe organ with ninety-seven various buttons and gauges. A sloped glass window stretched across the front wall.
Rick's father was sitting behind the flight stick, studying a few blips on the navigation monitor and letting his well-crafted hovership do most of the work. Evie sat in the copilot's chair, spinning in circles. Sometimes Rick didn't know how he and Evie were the same species, let alone brother and sister. That girl would rather scale the walls of their school with a grappling hook than sit inside and ace spelling bees. She was never happy in the moment, always looking for adventure. Meanwhile, Rick's own idea of adventure was swinging from vines in Jungle Joust 2, an awesome retro arcade game he had downloaded the week before. He was glad that the game gave him the opportunity to, as the advertisement for the game suggested, "live life on the wild side." He would never do something like that in real life. He might fall and break his neck.
"2-Tor told me it was urgent?" Rick said when neither his father nor his sister turned around to greet him. Still getting no response, he added, "I did a visual scan of the area. No sign of Winterpole hoverships anywhere. But that doesn't mean that they're not out there."
His father continued studying the display screens, ignoring Rick like he always did when he had one of his crazy ideas.
"Dad, I don't see why you insist on being Winterpole enemy number one. Is there some sort of prize? A coupon for fifty percent off birdseed?"
"Yeah, uh-huh," George finally looked up. "I want to show you my new project."
Rick breathed a sigh of thank-goodness. His father was actually involving him in Lane Industries' latest venture. The more Rick knew about the company, the better he would be at running the family business when he eventually took it over.
"What's the project, Dad?" Evie asked.
Garbage. That didn't surprise Rick at all. His father had made a fortune creating new engines, robots, and other incredible inventions, but his passion had always been for ridding the world of waste. Whether turning old landfills into public parks or recycling bottles and cans into motorcycles, Dad was always trying to make the grass greener, the ocean bluer, and the air clearer.
"What are we doing way out here, then?" Evie asked. "There's no garbage out here."
"Quite to the contrary," Dad replied. "Take a look out the front window."
Rick wrenched his face in disgust as he peered down at the water. There was so much trash it made the Buhana Jungle look like the wastebasket under his bathroom sink.
What appeared to be the world's largest collection of empty drink bottles covered the water. They bobbed on the waves, gray weathered plastic reflecting the sun's harsh rays. The labels that had not fallen off the bottles were faded white.
"Did a Pepsi shipping freighter sink?" Evie asked.
2-Tor wagged a metal feather at her. "Evelyn, you know quite well that is incorrect."
"Any ideas, Rick?" George asked.
Rick adjusted his glasses. "According to the Roost's global positioning system, at the moment we are flying over what's known as the North Pacific Gyre. It's an area in the Pacific where a bunch of ocean currents swirl together in a kind of vortex. That must be what brought all this trash here. People litter, then the trash gets washed out to sea. The trash floats along with the currents until it ends up here. But Dad, we really need to talk about Winterpole. What's Mom going to say when she finds out"
His father interrupted, "Ocean currents! Exactly right, Rick. Well done!"
Evie scowled. "Give me a second and I could have come up with that answer too."
In the distance, what looked like a big island came into view. As the hovership got closer, Rick saw that it was a giant mountain of trash. It was so enormous, he couldn't see the ends of it. It stretched to infinity in three directions. Rolling hills of milk jugs, soda cans, car tires, and shopping bags. Vast plains of yogurt cups and potato chip cans, dotted with little green baskets that used to house strawberries and crumpled plastic sheets peeled off the back of fruit roll-ups.
There were a million specks of junk. Stretched and worn and waterlogged, the expanse of trash created a surface that looked almost dense enough to walk on.
"Oh, I've heard about this!" Evie said. "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch."
Rick had heard about it tooall the garbage in the North Pacific Gyre sticking together to create one immense island in the middle of the ocean. "Is it really the size of Texas?" he asked.
His father chortled. "Oh-ho, no. It's nothing like that. Well, sort of. This here, what most people consider the garbage patch, is actually just a tiny piece of it. It's not as large as Texas. More like...Rhode Island. But we've scooped up trash from all over the oceans and transported it here. Most of the garbage patch, which is twice the size of Texas, is more like a filmy soup of chemicals with little bits of weathered plastic floating in it. Smells awful!" He pinched his nose for effect.
"Are you trying to clean up the garbage patch?" Evie asked.
Hearing her question, Rick knew that this couldn't quite be it. If it was, then why would his father have brought additional trash here instead of just disposing of the trash that already existed?
Sure enough, Dad replied," Not exactly! Look over there!" He pointed out the window at what appeared to be a trio of enormous metal elephants floating on the water. Each machine was so big that just one of them could easily fill Rick's school gymnasium. All stood rigidly at attention, gray legs and trunks locked straight. As the machines moved over the surface of the water, they gobbled up the trash in their way, depositing blocks of plastic as they passed by.
"What are those things?" Rick asked, his eyes almost as wide as his glasses.
"Those are my garbage chompers," his father said. "Aren't they cute?"
Evie wrinkled her nose at the sight of the garbage-guzzling elephant bots. She patted Dad's shoulder. "Cute is not the word I would use, but sure, Dad. Sure."
"Have I ever told you my dreams of island building?" their father asked.
"A society on the sea?" Rick winked at Evie.
"Lane Industries' Ocean Empire!" Evie said in her best imitation of her exuberant father.
Rick rolled his eyes. "Only about two billion times."
"Children!" 2-Tor interrupted. "It's time for a quiz. Mathematics. What is two billion in scientific notations?" Rick didn't miss a beat. "Two times ten to the ninth power."
Evie stuck her tongue out at him. Rick made a mental note to design a mechanical grasping claw that could pinch her whenever she did that.
"Excellent, 2-Tor! Excellent!" George exclaimed, sitting up straight and smug. 2-Tor's job was to keep Rick and Evie's minds sharp with surprise quizzes when they missed school on their adventures. Dad looked quite pleased with the way the educational birdbot was working, but he didn't let his satisfaction with his invention distract him from the mission at hand. "Now pay attention, children," he continued. "This trash-gobbling venture is my latest attempt at island building. Just think, with the garbage processed into plastic blocks, we can use the pieces as building materials to construct a landmass, right here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Then all the world's birds will have a safe place to live, free of toxic, glow-in-the-dark fish and plastic booby traps."
Something large passed in front of the sun, casting Rick, his father, and his sister into shadow. Rick looked up to see two hoverships fly overhead. "Winterpole! I knew this would happen!"
"Incoming message," Evie said, reading off the communicator screen. "George Lane! We are locked on to your vessel. Attempts to escape will prove fuh-tilly."
"It says futile," Rick groaned.
The Lanes had no choice but to set the Roost to hover mode and listen to Winterpole's demands. George pushed away from the console and headed out of the cockpit. "Come on. Let's go see what they want."
Rick followed Evie and their dad through the winding, wooden passageways and returned to the balcony overlooking the garbage patch.
The Winterpole hoverships looped around the Roost, pulling up in front of the Lanes' hovership. A sliding door on the side of the lead ship opened, revealing a middle-aged man in a trim gray suit. His eyes were the color of faded jeans, and he wore a fedora that covered his hair, save for his graying sideburns.
"George Lane!" the man shouted over the wind and the roaring engines. "I have caught you at last."
"Who are you?" George asked.
The man looked offended. "What? It is I, Mister Snow."
"Sorry, the name doesn't ring any diamonds."
The offense on his face turned to annoyance. "I'm a penalty enforcer for Winterpole."
George continued to stare at him blankly.
"Mister Snow? We've met six or seven times."
"Never mind!" snapped Mister Snow. "You are in violation of Winterpole Statutes 23-12, 41, A-76, and 31-B. Statute 31-B is kind of a big deal."
George snorted. "Your alphabet soup doesn't mean anything to me. What was my crime?"
"You removed a bird from its protected habitat."
Evie couldn't contain her fury. "But the bird couldn't live in the habitat anymore! He'd die there. We saved him! Why don't you go annoy the people who created the dumping ground?"
"Winterpole has rules against removing birds from protected habitats. There is no such rule against dumping waste on a protected habitat."
"Well there should be," Evie spat in disgust.
"Careful," Mister Snow replied. "There is a rule against suggesting new Winterpole rules."
While Evie screamed for a while about double standards and justice, Rick wondered what his mother would say about Dad's latest run-in with Winterpole. Sometimes Rick thought his dad was the dumbest genius he had ever met. Rick never had trouble following the rules, but his dad was a different kettle of fishsticks. It was almost like he enjoyed behaving badly. The thought of acting that way made Rick sick from his nostrils to his knuckles.
Mister Snow continued. "The penalty board has evaluated your crimes and determined that the price you will pay is the immediate destruction of these machines. You will be placed under house arrest pending further case review."
Rick had to restrain Evie to keep her from leaping off the balcony and attacking Mister Snow. She shrieked, "You can't do this!"
"I'm just doing my job, miss. Your father is a known bird thief. He must be brought to justice."
"Bird? What bird? I don't see any bird around here, do you?" It was one of Evie's obvious ploys. Rick didn't know what she hoped to accomplish.
The squawk made Rick stop short.
Mister Snow made no effort to hide his smug expression. A colorful fan of feathers had burst out the bottom of George Lane's shirt. The luminescent blue head of a Buhana of Paradise poked out the top and looked around.
Mister Snow had made his point. The hoverships rocketed away from the Roost, heading toward the garbage chompers. Trapdoors opened in the canopies of the hoverships, and sledgehammers the size of city buses emerged.
"No!" Rick's father cringed. "I knew I never should have invented the flying hammer arm."
Without hesitation, the ships swung their hammers at the garbage chompers, smashing out the legs of the machines, breaking off the trunks, and caving in huge pieces of sheet metal. When the brutish Winterpole agents were finished, hardly anything remained of the incredible chomping devices. Bits of broken shrapnel bobbed on the ocean surface, blending in with the rest of the trash.
Rick felt his chest burning up. He hadn't been this angry since Evie had deleted his saved game of Animon Hunters after he'd finally reached the last boss. But this was so much worse. His dad's dream, destroyed in an instant.
George Lane cradled the Buhana of Paradise, disturbed by the sight. "All my dreams...my years of work...gone..."
Rick clenched his fists, refusing to cry. He wasn't sure whom he was more incensed at, Winterpole or his father. Even if they had busted him on a technicality, Dad had broken the rules, and that was wrong. Still, Rick felt an obligation to fix this latest disaster, for the sake of his mom and his family's legacy. He was pretty good with technicalities too, and if there was a way to get his dad out of this mess, he would find it.