14 Worlds Apart
This is the ocean planet, shining like a sapphire inside its rings. The rings cast a gentle shadow that falls across the edge of the continent. Its soft refracted light falls across mangrove forests and wide beaches.
On one of those beaches a girl stands shading her eyes against the emerging sun. She’s wearing sharkskin leggings and a dress made of soft linen, and a silver clip to tame her wild mahogany curls.
This is Mera, looking up.
The sun was coming out from behind the rings, which would make it… about four o’clock, in earth terms. No wonder the tide was so far down. She walked down to the wet sand and tested it with the device she was carrying. The screen flashed blue: clean, no trace of the red virus here. Still, she tested the water before she plunged in.
Echoes came back from a pod of jali far out to sea. Onoelle had gone inland, probably to speak to the council.
The cove is safe, friends. I find no infection.
Thank you. Other searchers find danger.
The answer came in pictures, the shape of the coast as seen by echolocation, and Mera struggled to understand it. The virus was spreading; they’d lost a few miles since yesterday. They had time, but not much, before it reached the city.
The other searchers, Kal and his brother, and Kualtha, and Umi and Minnow, had all reached home safely. Rulmyr and Onoelle would be planning the final migration to the inland lakes, if that became necessary. They had a plan. They had… a little time.
Mera turned over in the water. Her hair came loose and the silver clip sank slowly towards the seabed. Mera dived after it.
Kal had made her jewelry. Here, metal wasn’t worked with heat and smoke, it was done with sound waves that somehow made the metal soft. Kal with his mother’s flute could always find the right note to curve a rod of gold or silver into the perfect shape. And now all the girls brought him shells and pearls to be turned into beautiful things and it didn’t matter that Kal was the way he was because everyone loved him anyway.
Mera grabbed her hairclip and attached it to her dress. A crab looked up at her from the sandy seabed. Ahead, the water darkened as the sea floor dropped away. Silver fish flashed against the deepening blue and Mera saw the blurred shape of an illonar, a dolphin-like creature. There was song all around her.
Neri hung deep in a silent ocean. Even her eyes were having trouble at this depth, and she could faintly see the glow of lightfish in the depths. She touched rocks and sand, disturbed a hagfish in its lair.
Charley hadn’t found anything. He said this depth was for sperm whales, not for him. He was going up for air. Neri sighed and followed. It took long minutes until the water lightened and they reached the surface. Charley lolled delightedly in the sunlight and whistled a question.
Neri answered him, “Because I am afraid.”
Mera came up outside the mangrove forest. She saw a fruit hanging over the water and leaped to grab it. The red fruit tasted like strawberries and salt water as she sat on a long silver root to eat it. The trees were good to her people. Mera spat out a seed and remembered…
“Dolphin-calf!” Mera sang, laughing at how her friend’s name translated into English. The kids loved to hear the English versions of their words, and when Mera had first arrived she’d sometimes been followed around by children chanting, “Opal planet! Opal planet!”
Mera looked up. Her friend was sitting on a branch just above eye level, her feet and hair dangling. She blended in, her dress the same color as the silver bark of the mangroves. Her expression was serious.
“What’s wrong?” Mera asked. “What did you want to tell me?”
“It’s… we… Mother and I are joining the rebels.”
Mera didn’t answer because for a second she didn’t understand.
“I’m sorry! I know it is, I know they are not good but… mother is not strong! The food is running out and if she catches the virus…” The girl’s shudder shook the branch she sat on. “Malakat says we can go to earth. We will be safe. We must!”
“No! We will help you travel to the mountains, it is safe there…” Mera tried, knowing it was hopeless. The hopelessness was there in her friend’s voice. The next words were selfish but she couldn’t keep them in. “We still… friends?” But her voice was so quiet nobody could have heard.
“Mera… Councilor Onoelle ask us not to tell you this. They want you to be happy. But I think now, better if you know. Queen Shalamorn, she… she is your mother, Mera!” And her friend dropped to the ground and ran, her feet splashing in the rising tide.
The shock was enough that Mera staggered back and sat down on a root. The queen… an echo reached her, If you stand before me now my daughter… “Mera?” Neri whispered.
Mera stammered, “Sister—I-“ And all the things she wanted to say crowded together until nothing was clear. She’d gone home and told her guardians, and couldn’t even manage to be angry at them because she knew she would have been happier if she’d never found out.
That had been a month ago, as the ocean people ruled time with their several moons. Most of her friends had evacuated since then so there was nobody to share a salty strawberry-fruit and a walk home.
Jason was waiting on the beach when Neri returned. He greeted her with, “Hey, where were you? We were looking for you.”
“Looking for pyramid.” Neri said.
“The pyramid’s gone, Neri. Why can’t you just put it out of your mind and be happy ok?”
He sounded angry, but Neri knew it was just because he’d been worried about her, so she smiled and said, “Ok. Winston is ready for the climb?”
Jason laughed. “Winston is ready for anything.”
They were going to climb the cliff to the highest point on the island, and set up an antenna to detect radar and—well, the way Winston had explained it they’d be able to detect just about anything that happened signal-wise around the island. It might even pick up alien transmissions.
“Good. Is good to see you all happy. Mother too, on Orca.”
“Yeah. Mum’s been so weird since then—Cass thinks she’s flirting with our dad, but that’s just too out there. And hey—Dad invited us all to the farm next weekend. Want to come? He said he promises we’ll get to ride the horses this time.”
“Mm!” Neri nodded hard, “I come.”
Winston had gotten a mountain climber’s hat from somewhere. It had a little feather in it. When she saw it, Neri giggled and had to try it on everybody before putting it back on Winston’s head.
“Ok, we ready?” Brett asked.
Neri nodded and looped a coil of rope over her shoulder. “I go first, tie rope, you follow.”
“Right. Thank goodness you climb like a monkey, Neri dear, for a fear I fall like a stone.” Winston said. He hoisted a backpack full of equipment.
Neri started up the hill.
The beach was empty as Mera walked home, around the beach and up the long hill to the cliffs. Only a few people were coming out of the water. It was strange, too quiet. A tiny girl passed her, racing up the slope in defiance of gravity. She turned back to wave and yell, “Little Queen!”
“Hello, Salali.” Mera answered. “Lali! Are you going with the next evacuation?”
“Yes.” The girl pouted. “My mother and father say we must, even leaving our companions behind. But what will we do in the mountains? Where will we swim?”
“There are lakes, silly. And it’s only until a cure is found. Lali, your sister is looking for you.” Mera pointed at the familiar silhouette on top of a rock. Salali bounced and waved and ran to meet her sister.
The trail wound on up the hill, between boulders and the long grass of the planet. Mera could hear noises in the grass, creatures she still thought of as mice and ‘otter-cats’ and ‘not-wombats.’ In a better time there would have been kids in there too, looking for the seeds that held all the plant’s sugar and were sweet as candy.
At the top of the hill she turned to look back. The green slope, grass bending in the wind, ran down to the beach and then to the ocean. The sun was setting. Down the coast the pyramid bulked against the sky. In the other direction, out of sight now, was the low marsh and miles of silver mangroves. Nobody lived down there, but everybody went there to fish.
And just over the ridge was the city. There were a few buildings made of stone or wood, and a lot of tents. Lanterns twinkled from the trees.
Mera’s home was cut into the stone of the cliff. She stepped up onto the smoothed stone and smelled dinner cooking. “Hello. I am back.”
Rulmyr was cooking fish on the hotrock. He flipped the sizzling meat and said, “Welcome home.”
“It smells wonderful. There is enough?”
“Yes, enough for today. This fish came from a pool that we know the virus has not reached.”
“But we have only enough for a few days, and then who knows what we will eat.” Onoelle grumbled. She was sitting on a pillow on the floor with a map projection open in front of her. “Welcome home, dear.”
Mera looked at the map. So much of it was stained red… “It has spread so far?”
“Yes. Reports come from everywhere that this virus is growing fast in the ocean.”
“And still no explanation? No cure?” Mera pulled up a cushion for herself and sat next to Onoelle.
“No. Our scientists work night and day searching for the cure to this virus, or any clue as to why it changed into this deadly form. They find nothing. All that we can do is tell the people to flee to the mountains.”
“I hear of more deaths among the jali and illonar.” Rulmyr said soberly. He turned off the map projection before handing the food around. “This day’s news has spoiled the taste of good food.”
Mera smiled, because Rulmyr had sounded just like Winston for a minute there.
“Do not be so sad, my love.” Onoelle told her husband, “Nothing could spoil the taste of your food entire. And tomorrow begins a new day to search for answers.”
The top of the island was amazing. Neri and the boys clung to the one tree that had perched itself at the very peak, and looked around. The emerald green slope ran down to the brilliant blue ocean. Neri grinned. “Is like flying! I never come up here before!”
Brett and Jason were still trying to catch their breaths after the epic climb. Winston had gotten right to work setting up the antenna. Brett went over to help.
Neri, serious suddenly, put her hand against Jason’s chest. “If you were like me, you could climb without this hard breathing?”
“Yeah. Or if I was an athlete or if it was a smaller mountain.”
“Praxis people… I think they want to take my breathing and give it to others. That is why they study me?”
“I don’t know.” Jason said. “We never really learned what they wanted. Maybe that.”
Neri was thoughtful. “Not a bad want, maybe.”
Jason only knew he couldn’t discuss ethics now. “Maybe. Let’s talk about it later, when we’re back on the ground ok? I better go help too. This is a great view but I don’t want to still be up here when night comes!”
That, Neri could agree with. She leaned on the tree, listening with half an ear to her friends arguing as they set up the antenna. Winston got on vidphone with Cass and they tested frequencies and that the readings were bouncing back to Orca all right.
This was almost a view from the sky. Had her father seen it, from the ship before it crashed? Her vision rippled and she saw a long hill of bowing, silvery grass before the bright green jungle reasserted itself.
A few hours later Winston called, “Ok! Everything seems to be working properly. I believe we can return to sea level.”
The climb down was as hard as the climb up, and Brett slipped halfway. He only fell a few feet before the rope caught him, but his face went milk-colored with fear. Everyone was happy when they reached bottom and could walk back to the boat. Brett and Winston loaded their gear and talked about dinner.
“Sorry Neri, we kind of took up your whole day.” Jason said as he handed his pack up to Brett.
Neri laughed. “Is ok! Was fun to climb to the top of the island. Father never take me. You come back tomorrow?”
“We can’t. Helen’s getting this big upgrade and all hands have to stay on Orca. The day after ok?”
“Ok.” Neri looked out at the water.
“See you soon then. And—forget about the pyramid.”
“Ok.” Neri repeated unconvincingly.
“You’re going looking for it again tomorrow, aren’t you? I wish you wouldn’t. It’s dangerous, it’s caused so much trouble… we nearly lost you.”
“I know.” Neri looked a little ashamed, and she hugged Jason quickly as if in apology. “But I cannot forget. My mother’s message was in there. She said there was much still to come, that my people will need help. I wonder what the rest of message was, if it is something I need to hear.”
“Well nothing else has happened so maybe it’s all right.” Jason offered.
“Nothing here. On ocean planet, who knows? I think of my sister Mera and I am troubled. I feel much sorrow from her.”
Winston leaned over the rail, listening. “If it’s any help, Neri, my instruments always have an eye on the ocean floor. If anything appears, we will know about it.”
“Thank you Winston.”
Jason sighed, beaten. “Just be careful ok? In case anyone’s still looking for you.”
Neri waved until the boat faded into evening, then she followed it out to sea. The water was dark but full of the sounds of life. A familiar voice distracted her—a female humpback, Charley’s mate from the last migration, returned and singing up a storm. Something must have happened to the calf for her to be back so soon, but to whales the sorrow was quickly forgotten when the future looked bright. Charley was singing right back. Neri had to smile. She caught dinner and left the lovebirds to their courting.
And so the planets turned.
Day brought the people of the ocean planet out to search for food. Mera, as representative of the government, stood outside the pyramid handing out preserved meat from the stores. The people looked thinner, and without hope.
“Mera, there are no fish.” Salali’s sister murmured as she accepted her family’s share. “All are dead.”
“Do not fear, Laeka. There is enough in the stores for all, and plenty to eat in the mountains.”
Laeka nodded, but Mera didn’t think she believed it. Nobody really believed it.
When no one else came, Mera went under the archway into the main chamber of the pyramid.
“It is not good, Mera.” Rulmyr told her, “What you see here is happening in many places. People fear infection. They cannot swim, or eat the fish. There is widespread hunger.”
“And fear.” Mera murmured.
“Fear is their everyday diet, Mera, and they are fed eagerly by Malakat and Shersheba.”
“Malakat and Shersheba. What news of them, Onoelle?”
“They are whipping up rebellion everywhere. Even the royal guards and some of the council have gone over to their side. Malakat is talking of an immediate invasion of earth.”
Mera gasped. “He speaks so openly? That is treason! If the virus can’t be cured we must plan a peaceful migration, a merging of our two peoples so we can live in harmony on earth…”
“According to the plan of our ancestors when they traveled to earth to build the pyramids, and of your mother when she realized the red virus had mutated.”
“And my sister Neri will be there to bring our two peoples together.”
“That was your mother’s plan, as Neri is her rightful heir. But that is far from what Malakat intends. He believes he can conquer the earth people and rule the earth through Princess Shersheba. She is of the royal bloodline but may be little more than his figurehead. I wish we knew her heart.”
Mera shook her head. “She hates me. That is all I know.”
“And well she should.” Rulmyr said quietly, “Shersheba is afraid of you, Mera. You have the heart of a true queen, which she will never have, and our people begin to see it.”
Not far away, Shersheba stood before a crowd. She tossed her beautiful hair and called out, “You have made the right decision, my friends, and you are welcome. Only I, the princess Shersheba, can save you from destruction!”
There were shouts of agreement. Shersheba loved this. The people were sad and ragged, but they were hers, they were looking at her!
Behind her, Malakat spoke up, “The authorities have said that the virus can be cured. But are there any signs of this?”
“Of course not.” Malakat shouted, “And what can you expect of a government led by an ignorant child advised by a group of old fools? But we will lead you to a new world. The opal planet, clean and new, safe from this pestilence! A world whose inhabitants are weak and easily conquered. And then, under Princess Shersheba, we will all be masters of a new, uncontaminated planet!” There were cheers. Malakat raised his hand, indicating the admiration was Shersheba’s by right. She drank it in.
“They flock to your banner, highness.” Malakat said as they walked home. They lived in the tent city against the cliff, Shersheba in a lavishly appointed tent and Malakat in a deep cave.
Councilor Garron met them at the door of Shersheba’s home. “Welcome, highness. Your meal is prepared.”
“What news, Garron? What does the council of elders plan?”
“I hear little since they learned of my allegiance to you, princess. I do know that they are sending the child to Thuron province to quell the unrest there. Do you wish me to take action?”
“Yes, Garron. You are to take a detail and follow her. Make sure this mission ends in disaster for her and triumph for us. Is this understood?”
“Perfectly, your highness.”
Malakat said, “You command well, highness. Your mother would be proud.”
Saturday on earth, the little boat putted up the river.
“Having fun?” Jason asked.
Brett was sitting on their packs in the front. “Dad’s really gonna turn it on. It’s Jason’s birthday tomorrow.”
“Birthday? You did not tell me.”
“Aw, it’s nothing.”
“He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s getting old. Nineteen.” Brett rolled his eyes.
“Silly. Happy birthday.” Neri chimed.
“Yeah well I’m just glad we’re away from Orca for the weekend. A bunch of guys are coming in from the mainland to do a total overhaul on Helen. It’s gonna be crazy.”
“That is why Cass could not come?” Neri asked, watching the banks of the river slide past.
“Right. She wants to be there in case someone crashes the place trying to upgrade Helen.”
Jason added, “Though just what she thinks she’d be able to do…”
“But hey, when we get back we’ll have a six-thousand level computer, we should be able to make our own games, watch TV from all over the world… it’ll be great!”
Neri tipped her head, considering. “Helen will still be our friend?”
“Yep. Same Helen, just better.”
They pulled up to the dock next to the borrowed waverunners. Jason tied up the boat and they grabbed their bags and wandered up towards the house. Paul met them at the gate. “G’day guys, Neri.”
“Dad!” Brett hugged his father, Jason just shook hands. “So when do we get to go riding?”
“Look you’re not going to believe this, I’ve just had a call from work…”
Brett finished, “and there’s been some emergency and you’re leaving. As usual.” Brett walked past his father and Neri followed.
“I’m sorry, Jason.”
“It’s ok. It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes it does! You promised we’d get to go riding!”
“Ah, well that at least is still on. I’ve hired a wrangler, Luke, he’ll get you set up. He’s good people.”
“Ok!” Brett perked up—either he really only cared about riding, or he was being the one annoyed at Dad for a change. “C’mon Neri, let’s get changed. You need to wear pants for riding, Dad got you some. I’ll show you.” They went inside.
“Look, I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Paul said. “I feel terrible about this.”
“No, it’s ok. I mean it, dad. Get Orca Two on track ok?” Jason said, and meant it. The air between them finally lightened.
“Ok then. Keep your brother out of trouble until I get back.”
Jason laughed and ran after the others.
Neri appeared on the porch in slim cut jeans and a checkered shirt. She plopped a cowboy hat on her head and grinned.
“Wow.” Was Brett’s reaction.
“You look amazing.”
“It was good of your father to give me these.”
Luke looked down at her bare feet. “Except the shoes. The boots didn’t fit?”
“Ah, Neri doesn’t like to wear shoes much.” Jason offered Neri a hand up onto the corral fence. She climbed up and sat watching the horses. A big yellow horse with a round belly came up to say hello and Neri rubbed her long face. “This one is mine?”
“Ah no, you’d best not ride Shadow. She gets a bit silly before she’s about to foal.”
“Foal?” Neri asked.
“Have a baby.” Luke explained, “You can ride Cinnamon here.”
“A baby? I would like to see a baby horse.” Neri patted Shadow’s round tummy and smiled, then went to say hello to Cinnamon. Luke showed her the stirrups and she hopped right up. Cinnamon seemed happy. She whuffled, turned away and circled the corral. The horse’s tail and Neri’s hair streamed in the sunlight.
They rode along the trail by the river in the afternoon light. Whenever he could, Jason watched Neri’s happy face.
“You really like horses huh?”
“Yes. They smell good, and their feet make a good sound.” Neri explained. Suddenly Cinnamon stepped down into the river to drink. The other horses followed. Brett squawked as his feet got soaked.
“It’s really shallow here. This must be where they usually cross.” Jason guessed. “The trail continues on the other side.”
“Don’t you reckon we’ve gone far enough?”
“Chicken? You’re the one who couldn’t wait to get on a horse.”
“I’m not chicken—hey!”
Jason had slipped off his horse and threw water at his brother on the bank. “You’re such a wimp!”
“Am not!” Brett dismounted and jumped in, splashing right back. Neri went under and came up shaking her wet hair at both of them.
When they returned, wet but happy, Luke greeted them with, “Sorry guys—I just talked to your father and-“
“He isn’t coming.”
“No no, he’s just been delayed until tomorrow. Something about shady hiring practices that he has to get sorted out. Look, I have to go back into town for the night. Your Dad said you could take care of yourselves. That all right? I’ll be back first thing tomorrow.”
“We’ve stayed out here before.”
“Ok, well, make sure you turn everything off before you hit the hay.’
“We will, bye.”
Neri waved, “Thank you for lesson!”
Inside, Luke had gotten dinner ready while they were out riding. Neri grabbed a roll and took a big bite. Brett waved and she tossed one to him. Jason ignored the food and went and sat down by the wall.
Brett tried, “He said he’ll be back tomorrow. So what’s the big deal?”
“You wouldn’t know.”
“He’s got a hard job. Things come up sometimes.”
“Yeah, things always come up.” Jason grumbled. “He blew it, again.”
“Hey he’s my dad too and you don’t see me complaining.’
Jason shot back, “Well that’s because you just cop it all the time.”
“Don’t take it out on me because you let him get to you!”
Neri stood up, “Stop. Please.”
After dinner Neri went outside and stood with her head tipped back, looking at the sky as if she might look through it to the ocean planet. But all she saw was the bright moon. In the barn, one of the horses whickered.
When the flashlight beam swept over her Neri tensed, automatically ready to run. But it was Jason. “Hey, look. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Is all right, Jason.”
“No it’s not. We’re here to have fun, not fight. What are you doing out here?”
“On your own in the dark?”
“I like dark.”
They sat down on a big rock that radiated the day’s heat. After a while Jason said, “You’re right. It is nice. The stars are amazing.” But he was thinking how beautiful Neri looked in the moonlight. They watched the sky. Finally Jason stood up, “I better go in before Brett comes looking. Stay out here as long as you want, just come inside to sleep ok? I know you’re used to sleeping outdoors but it’d freak Dad out.”
Neri laughed. “Ok. I come in soon. Good night, Jason.”
But Neri did doze off lying on the warm stone, under the sky. She woke hours later with a bad feeling. At home, she’d have asked Charley what was in the water. Here something was… in the air. Neri looked around quickly, listening for any sound under the endless insect song. Then, faintly, a horse’s cry.
Shadow was lying down in the straw in her stall. Her huge belly rippled. Neri knelt by the horse’s head. “Your baby is coming, isn’t it?”
The horse strained and squealed in pain. Neri stroked her head. “Is ok. I will help.”
It was a while before the noise woke Jason and Brett. When they reached the barn they found Shadow nursing her still damp foal, and Neri with her hands and clothes bloody but her face alight.
“Wow!” Brett whispered. “What happened?”
“Baby would not come out. I had to pull.” Neri said with some pride. “But is all right. Baby is fine, now that is out.”
The boys goggled. “How did you know what to do?”
“I know from… Charley’s wives. They too sometimes need help.” Neri wiped her hands on her pants and made a face.
Jason said, “Why don’t you go in and take a shower and I’ll call Luke? Brett, you watch the horses ok?”
Brett nodded without taking his eyes from the amazing scene. The foal tottered around, its tiny tail flapping. It tumbled, and was subjected to a serious licking before Shadow let it get back up for some more milk.
So Neri washed and put her usual dress back on and went back to the barn. All three kids were there when Luke arrived, Neri and Brett asleep on straw. Jason helped Luke do all the post-birth things the foal needed, and then it was morning and time to muck out the other horses and feed everybody.
“We weren’t expecting her to foal for at least another week.” Luke explained, “Or I’d never have left. I was worried she might have trouble.”
“Yeah, Neri said—I guess Neri helped pull the foal out.” Jason poured grain in front of the horse Lucky Star, while Luke hosed down the water trough.
“Well tell her thanks, when she wakes up. Without her, a breech birth… we’d probably have lost the foal and maybe Shadow too.”
“Yeah, Neri’s… pretty amazing.”
Paul got home after lunch, with apologies and presents and a cake. Luke got the grill fired up and there were experiments with barbecue. Brett brought Shadow and her filly out to the corral and got his vidphone working to send video back to Orca.
Jason unwrapped a present that turned out to be a shirt.
“You can exchange it if it doesn’t fit…” His father said.
Unfolded, the shirt… was small. Jason held it up to Brett. “You can have it.”
Neri laughed. Jason was grinning as he said, “Thanks Dad, but… nineteen, remember?”
“Sorry son. This might suit you better then. It belonged to your great-grandfather Angus Bates.”
“Cool.” Jason lifted a gold pocket watch out of its box. “Thanks dad. It’s great.”
“Cake!” Brett announced, “Dad, this is a huge cake. Can we give Luke some to take home? He said he’s got a sister with like, ten kids.”
Luke protested, but quietly. Jason protested, “Hey, don’t give away my cake! Of course Luke can have some, there’s only us here. It’s the principle of the thing…” and on principle, Jason chased his brother around for a bit.
“Our people are dying!” The crowd shouted.
Mera shrank, and hated herself for it.
“The elders have failed us! The virus is spreading!”
Mera took a deep breath. She tried to stand tall in her blue-and-gold robe. “The elders know of your fears and your suffering, but it is their promise that a cure for the virus is not far off.”
“And if the cure fails?” Asked one voice, but the question was soon taken up by the mob.
“If the cure fails, the lawful government will begin a peaceful migration to Earth, as was planned by my mother.”
“When? Who will go first?”
“How will we eat in the meantime?”
“What if we die first?”
Mera tried to shout over them but couldn’t make herself heard. It was like a nightmare. There were answers! The plans were made, people were evacuating from the other provinces… but no one would listen.
Garron stepped to the front of the crowd, “It’s all right for you! Living fat and happy under the protection of the pyramid, feeding us only idle promises—All of you, this child has betrayed us! She grew up on another world, why should she care about our needs? Princess Shersheba and the statesman Malakat have a plan to save us all! Let us put them in power and leave the council of elders and their little queen behind!”
“No!” Mera wailed, “Listen to me! Shersheba is a fraud and Malakat is a traitor…”
But they were leaving. All of them, and they’d return and tell their families that the ‘little queen’ had no answers and no help to offer. Finally Mera let herself fall to her knees on the speaking platform, hugging herself to keep the pain in. ‘Fat’ hadn’t hurt, it wasn’t even an insult on this planet. ‘Traitor’ had hurt.
Neri stood on the beach, looking out over the water, waiting. Ugly words echoed at the edge of hearing but nothing came clear. Charley also had a bad feeling. Neri called to him, Do not worry, dear one! Swim with your lady. I will watch.
Instinct won out. Charley was thinking about the next migration resulting in a whole flotilla of baby whales. Neri laughed.
Later Jason arrived, pulling his inflatable up the beach he walked to meet Neri. “Hey Neri. You all right?”
“I am. My sister—things are not well with her.”
“Why do you think so? Everything seems fine here.”
“Yes, but something is wrong on the ocean planet. I can feel it.”
“And there’s nothing you can do from here.” Jason pointed out. “Why don’t you come to Orca with me? It won’t do any good to mope around the island all day. Come on, we’ll stop and have a swim with Charley on the way.”
“Charley has a girlfriend.”
Jason saw through that one. “What, did Charley get all boring, like Mick and Vanessa did when they hooked up? C’mon Neri.”
Neri followed Jason down to the boat and they set off for Orca, talking on the way about their friends who were now living on land.
On Orca, Winston was studying one of his computers. Brett and Cass hopped up on the table. “Whatcha got Winston?”
“This pattern. It’s intermittent but it keeps cropping up—centered on Neri’s island. It’s been going on since we put the antenna up, and maybe before that.”
“Like someone’s trying to get in contact with her?” Brett guessed.
“Or keeping an eye on her.” Was Cass’ idea. “We know there are some people in space who don’t like Neri much.”
“A troubling thought, Cass. But since we cannot block a signal from space there’s nothing we can do but keep watch.”
Helen binged and opened a screen showing Jason and Neri walking through the hall. Brett grimaced. “Jason didn’t tell me Neri was coming to Orca. They better stay out of Louis’ way. Hey Helen, is Neri’s new id card ready?”
“Affermative.” Helen said, and the new card spit out of the wall.
“Thanks. Where’s Louis?”
“What are you asking me for? Helen, location of personnel Louis Danton please.”
The computer replied, “Louis Danton has just ordered a hamburger in the galley, Cass.”
Brett took the id and told Cass, “You go keep an eye on Louis while I take Neri her card.”
“Hey why do I have to-“
Brett slipped out the door with Cass in hot pursuit.
Jason jumped when Brett came up behind them.
“How come you’re here?” Brett said, not very politely.
“What’s the problem?’
“You’re kidding me. Here Neri, your new card.”
“Louis’stuffing his face. If you catch this lift you’ll miss him even if he leaves now. It’s not safe for her to even be here!”
“Neri needed a break.” Jason said defensively.
“Fine. You go babysit Louis then.” Jason shot back. He and Neri stepped into the lift, leaving Brett outside. “Gamma level please, Helen.”
Neri chimed uncertainly, “Was not nice to Brett?”
“He’ll live. I’ll do his dishes tonight.”
Neri grinned. She didn’t use dishes. “I will help. Thank you for bringing me here, Jason. I would like to talk to Mother a little.”
“Mum’ll be glad.”
Mera raced through the mangrove forest, hopping over roots and under the low branches. “Traitor” had spread. She was under arrest, by order of Princess Shersheba and the new ruling council. Shersheba’s commando police were tracking her down, ‘for trial.’ Mera didn’t know what that meant, except that ‘trial’ would certainly mean she couldn’t go to earth. And she had to get to Earth, to Neri.
But Mera wasn’t thinking about herself while she ran. She thought of her friends, Laeka, Kualtha, and the little ones, Salali and Minnow. Kal and his family. If she was a traitor and Onoelle and Rulmyr were dismissed from the council, what would the rebels do to her friends?
The searchers were quiet now. They were spreading out, trying to surround her. Mera could hear them move, no matter how quiet they were trying to be. But she couldn’t outrun everybody. On a sudden inspiration she pulled off one of her bracelets and tossed it towards the city. Then she hid while the circle closed in.
Mera was above them, crouched in the branches of a tree. Even here, grownups never looked up. Whispers—they’d found her bracelet. They were leaving. She waited for a while more, almost falling asleep. When she’d heard nothing for a long time she dropped to the ground and set off for the last safe place—the pyramid.
They saw her when she broke free of the forest. There were shouts, and bolts of energy exploded around her. They were shooting— Mera ran for her life. Behind her a shot hit a piece of driftwood, which exploded in salty green flames. Mera felt heat on her back before she outran it. She chanced a look back. Nobody was following. They’d stopped shooting too, startled by the fire. Garron was surely reporting back, to Shersheba and the new council.
But she’d gotten away, it seemed. Mera could see the doorway of the pyramid now, and a tall figure outside, waving to her.
“Princess!” Rulmyr shouted.
Mera ran right into him, collapsed over his arm gasping for breath.
“Thank the stars you are safe. Come inside.”
In the Bates quarters Jason made dinner—seaweed soup, Neri’s favorite. Brett hadn’t turned up yet. Jason wondered if the laundry surfing had gone bad and they’d have to fish Brett out of the washing machine again.
Neri sat with Dianne at a little table, just resting and enjoying feeling safe.
“You are kind to me, mother.”
“You’ve been through so much. We have to look after you, keep you strong.”
“What is the use of being strong when I cannot help my people?” Neri murmured.
“Neri didn’t Shalamorn, your real mother-“
“You are my mother. For always.”
Dianne smiled. Her eyes shimmered for a moment. “You’re very precious to me Neri. When the spirit of your mother spoke to you, didn’t she say you would find a way to save your people?”
“Yes, but I fear she was wrong. Mother did not know future. What can I do now that the pyramid has gone?”
“Maybe you need to have patience.”
“My sister calls me. Mera needs me.”
“How is it you can talk to her?”
“Here.” Neri said, putting a hand to her chest. “Inside. Few words, we feel the same feelings sometimes. I know she is afraid. And I cannot help.”
“Maybe you just need to have faith. Mera is a very strong person. Whatever’s happening, she won’t let it beat her. Somehow things will turn out as they should.”
“I will try to remember, Mother. And be patient.” Neri smiled one of her heartbreakingly beautiful smiles.
“Yes highness?” Malakat said. He’d been counting up their recruits and coming up with some very nice totals.
“I have matters of great urgency to discuss with you.”
“Very well. We’ll find somewhere discreet.”
“And out of this sun.” Shersheba complained. “Your private quarters would be suitable.” She looked towards the entrance to the cave dwellings.
Malakat paused. “The atmosphere in there isn’t exactly conducive to talking, highness. Perhaps one of the communal caves?”
Shersheba tossed her hair. “You don’t honestly think anything in there would frighten me, Malakat? If I want to enter your home, I will do it. But fortunately for you, I am in a good mood today so you may keep your secret.”
“Thank you, your highness.” Malakat replied blandly. “What was it you wished to discuss?”
They had reached the caves, and Malakat steered his companion into one of the public areas, a round chamber with a sandy floor and the walls painted with fantastic pictures. Malakat hardly glanced at them, and Shersheba scowled at the whales painted high on the wall. “That child has escaped to the pyramid of the elders. We will have her and the remnants of the old council in custody by tonight. I will go in after her myself.”
“Very good. I look forward to having that nuisance safely contained. What of the chosen one? Have you any new plans for her?”
Shersheba smiled. “Perhaps the simplest plan. We have an advance party on Earth after all...”
“So it has come then.” Onoelle said sadly. “We are hunted.”
“Yes.” Mera blinked back tears. “Many people believe Shersheba’s lies—that the earth people will not welcome us. That the only way to save ourselves is to take the planet by force.”
“And it pains you, child, to be hated so.” Rulmyr said quietly.
“Yes.” Mera admitted and made herself stand straight. She had nothing to be ashamed of.
Onoelle shook her head, tendrils of black hair coming loose from the bun she wore it in. “Have our people learned nothing? It has long been proven that the violence of war brings only pain and destruction. They will poison our future on Earth just as the red virus has poisoned our planet.”
“Very few remain loyal, perhaps none who have not fled to the mountains. Our cities are under siege. I believe the rebels will try to take this pyramid, maybe soon.”
“We were hoping your news would bring hope, Mera, but the situation is grimmer than we thought. You must prepare to journey to the opal planet alone. To join the chosen one.”
“Goodbye.” Neri smiled, hugged both Jason and Brett, and dived out the submarine port into the nighttime ocean.
The two boys wandered towards home, loitering in one of the windowed corridors. Orca’s lights illuminated the coral outside, and a diver swam past checking the hull. The diver waved and Brett waved back.
Then he turned to his brother. “She’s putting up a brave front isn’t she? She’s worried about Mera.”
“Mmhm. And I’ve never known her instincts to be wrong. But there’s nothing we can do.”
Louis appeared in the crowd of people on the way to their quarters. “Where you two been?” He asked.
“Nowhere.” Said Jason.
“Where are you going?”
“Nowhere.” Said Brett.
Louis gave them a killing look. “Of course, nothing ever happens around here.”
On the bridge everything was pretty much wrapped up for the night. Cass hovered over a terminal checking the receipt for data backup to the mainland. Dianne was finishing paperwork. Dave was enthusiastically killing zombies in his quest for level three hundred, and Naoko had a call window open and was chattering away to the two kimono-clad miniature versions of herself on the other end.
Cass stood up and stretched. “Ok commander, backup successful. Headquarters says good night.”
For a moment Cass looked around with a proprietary eye. This was what she liked, a normal night, no disasters. Everything had been running smoothly since the pyramid vanished. Cass wandered in range of Naoko’s camera and waved. “Hi Natsuki, hi Nanami. Cute kimonos!”
One of the girls began, “Ima omatsuri kara-“ and Helen added in subtitles, “We’ve just come from a festival. Cute huh?”
“Look what they got me.” Naoko said and rolled her eyes. On screen the two girls held up a kimono, patterned with fish, in the exact colors of an Orca uniform. “As if I have room for extra clothes in my quarters!”
“I bet Commander Bates would let you wear it on duty.”
“I bet she wouldn’t.” Naoko laughed and went back to talking in Japanese with her sisters.
Cass stopped off in Winston’s lab. He was still up, and tinkering. “Hey.” Cass said, “Do you even have sleeping quarters? What’s that?”
“The readout from the antenna on Neri’s island.”
And, because it wasn’t that late and Cass wasn’t looking forward to going back to her family’s empty quarters, Cass went to look closer. “That’s a weird report. I don’t understand...”
Winston was only too happy to explain. “Think of it as a bouncing ball, Cass. The sound of, say, Charley’s whale song rises to the surface of the sea then bounces back down. The sound changes as it hits objects, so we can tell what’s out there.”
“Convergence zones.” Brett said from the door.
“Yeah, I just don’t understand them.” Cass scooted over to give Brett and Jason room to sit.
“I don’t either, really. It’s a little easier if you can see it.”
“I was just about to show her, Brett.’ Winston fired up a screen. “This is realtime footage. See, there’s Neri going home.”
“And... what are those?” Cass asked as four more dots appeared on the screen.
“Dolphins maybe? They’re heading right for her.”
Winston gasped. “The echo-confirmation is the same as Neri’s. They’re not dolphins—not human either!”
“Minifin. Come on Brett.” The two boys headed for the door. They hurried down to the submarine bay and raced through the setup procedures. It was becoming routine, doing this at breakneck speed.
“Lucky you’re rostered on for maintenance.” Brett muttered, “We won’t get yelled at this time. Okay, ready.”
The canopy locked down and the little sub dived. Jason gunned the motor and they powered away from Orca. The minifin’s computer directed them to where the computers had seen Neri. It was a tense, silent few minutes. Jason had all the spotlights on full power, shining around. The ocean was almost totally dark.
“I can’t even see—there!”
Neri swept past at full speed. Jason turned all lights on her pursuers. He saw four people—people! Hiding their faces from the light. They turned and swam away in a hurry.
“Whew! The sub freaked them out. They’re leaving.”
“Who were they?” Jason muttered, “They weren’t even in scuba.”
After a few minutes Neri appeared in the window. She smiled to show she was all right, then swam away towards the island. Jason turned the minifin to follow her. When the boys arrived they found Neri building a fire outside her little house. She greeted them with, “Charley look for them now. He say they are gone for now.”
Jason sat down next to Neri and put his arm around her.
Brett opened his mouth, closed it again, motioned like he didn’t know what to say. He sat down too. The island night enfolded them.
“And so, more people come from my planet.”
“Trouble is, they’re the wrong ones! Where are the good guys?” Brett asked.
“Malakat and Shersheba must be alive.”
“Guess so.” Jason threw a stick on the fire. “The way the pyramid disappeared I thought they were goners for sure.”
“These guys weren’t Malakat and Shersheba. I saw their faces enough for that. So—what, soldiers? Minions?”
“There could be more of them, Neri. You’re in a lot of danger.”
Neri shook her head, not looking at him. “The ones in danger are Mera and my people on the ocean planet.”
“And you.” Jason insisted.
Neri gave him a smile. “Ok. I be careful.”
Mera, curled in the statue’s lap, watched the projection screen. People were milling at the edge of the forest. Shersheba’s black hair flashed and she hoisted a spear.
“They come.” Mera said, “Shersheba speaks to her forces, to make them angry so they will attack the pyramid. We have little time.”
Rulmyr stood beside her. “Too many of our people have been fooled by Shersheba, and now we all pay the price. Soon this pyramid will be no more.”
Mera looked at him swiftly. “What?”
“It is time for you to leave. Take this, my child. To replace the ankh that was destroyed on Earth. It will take time to make a third key, time I think we do not have. This is the last chance for the pyramid on Earth to be made safe.”
Mera tucked the package under one arm. Onoelle handed her down from the statue and gave her a quick hug. “Go now. To your ship.”
The pyramid shuddered. “They are inside! We will hold them here, go, Mera!”
“But—what about you-“ Mera began, but Rulmyr pushed her into the escape pod and sealed the door. He smiled in through the glass then turned away. The pyramid shook again, and Mera heard engines starting up. And then she realized what they meant to do.
“No!” Mera shouted, fumbling at the door of the escape pod. “My friends, do not do this! Get out! There must be another-“ The door wasn’t budging and Mera could hardly hear herself over the roar of engines. “Rulmyr! Onoelle! The queen would not ask this—“
The pyramid exploded.
Mera was flung against the door of the tiny ship, crushed as acceleration fought gravity. For now it was all she could do to force air into squashed lungs.
Neri leaped to her feet. “Fire.” She whispered.
“I see fire. Another place.”
The boys followed Neri out to the beach where she stood looking over the water and listening to something they couldn’t hear.
“What is it?” Brett whispered.
Then they heard a soft rushing, far away, and the waves on the beach seemed to skip a beat.
“The pyramid. It is returning.”
Sometime later gravity released its grip. Mera pushed herself up and moaned. Nothing was broken, but she hurt! The ship’s computer was scolding her. “To be unsecured during takeoff is very dangerous. Please use restraints for your protection.”
Then she remembered. “Onoelle! Rulmyr! Computer, status of the pyramid of the elders...”
But she could see it, even from orbit the black smoke was visible.
“Computer, turn back! Now!” Mera snapped.
The engine sound didn’t change. A hologram formed in the air in front of her. “Dear child.” Onoelle said. “If you are viewing this message, the pyramid has been destroyed. Long had we planned this last resort to keep the power of the pyramid out of Shersheba’s hands. We have passed without regret, only joy that for a time we could have been as parents to you.”
That was all, for a while.
When Mera could think again, the computer was chirping a warning: “Passenger, you are advised to enter sleep. I carry insufficient air and water for the full journey to Earth.”
Mera unwrapped the bundle Onoelle had given her. A golden ankh shone up at her. And—they’d packed her dress, the dress Neri had made her years ago. In the cramped cabin Mera squirmed out of her robes and put her dress on. She’d grown since Neri made it—the fabric was tight across her chest and hips. Mera grimaced. But this would be better for Earth than her alien clothing. She put the ankh inside her dress, then put the gold fabric collar from her councilor’s robe over it. That would do.
“Passenger, you are advised to enter sleep.”
“Yes, all right.”
The sleep cabinet was set in the floor in the back. Mera climbed in and sealed the top. She was afraid—no matter how safe it was or that this was the only way to get to earth, some part of her was afraid of being lost for years like Kal. But at least she wouldn’t remember Onoelle saying—
Mera hit the button. Tears froze on her cheeks. She took a breath of suddenly icy air, and—