17 The Words on the Wall
The golden ankh glowed at the bottom of the river. Neri held it to her cheek for a moment, then hid it beneath the stones again.
“Everything all right?” Brett asked when Neri surfaced beside the inflatable.
“I told you it’d be ok. How could Malakat and Shersheba know where we hid it?”
Neri hopped into the boat, still looking pensive. “Last night I dream the ankh in Shersheba’s hands.”
“That wasn’t a dream, that was a nightmare.”
Neri gave him a look. “Dreams are important, Brett. Sometimes they are a warning.”
“Hey, could we get some positive vibes here?”
Neri tried to smile.
As soon as the Praxis agents learned about the pyramid, they wanted to go there. At least Shelby did, loudly. And now their authorization had come in. Dianne looked it over.
“I don’t sign out a million dollar piece of equipment to anyone, Agent Shelby, without written authorization. If this artifact is really there-“
“We know the pyramid’s down there, Commander. I’m sure you’re just as surprised as the rest of us.”
“I presume you’ve piloted a minifin before?”
“I can handle anything you can put in the water.” Shelby replied. Ellie looked at him and cleared her throat loudly, and Shelby added, “However, I don’t want any distractions on this surveillance mission. I’ll need a pilot.”
“Very well.” Dianne turned to the transportation officer, “Dave, who’s rostered on the minifin today?”
“Jason, Commander.” Dave replied and, out of the agents’ view, raised his eyebrows as if asking if this was a good thing or a bad thing.
Jason looked up from his station and gave his mother an incredulous look.
Shelby agreed. “Is this some kind of joke? I’m not going down there with a kid pressing the buttons!”
“Jason is an Orca officer and a fully qualified minifin pilot. I can’t spare anyone else. That’s why we have rosters.”
Jason stifled his first reaction and managed a polite, “Permission to speak, commander?”
“Permission denied. You’ll pilot the minifin. That’s an order.”
Jason sighed and headed for the submarine port to start pre-dive checks on the minifin.
On the beach Mera dozed against a palm tree. She’d had a long swim with Charley that morning, and now resting here was like heaven.
Neri knelt beside her. “Come.”
“Must I? I can’t get used to the clean, clear sunlight. No red virus and no death in the oceans. Such peace.”
“But come inland, out of sight of ocean, where it is safer.”
“I thought you said the whole island is safe?”
“Jason says we must be careful now, stay where it is hard to find.”
Mera grinned. “And if Jason says so, it must be right, hmm?”
“Jason cares for us.”
“Almost as much as you care for him.”
“You make big talk about nothing.” Neri said with mock sternness.
“Ok, ok.” Still smiling, Mera followed her sister into the forest.
“Let’s get one thing straight, kid.”
“Jason.” Jason said.
“Just don’t forget who’s running this mission. Let’s do it.”
They were in the minifin bay. Jason carded open the doors into the little sub. “You’ll be in the aft navigation position, Mr. Shelby. Getting into a minifin can be a little tricky if you haven’t done-”
“Spare me the written instructions and the patronizing, huh?”
Jason looked over at Dave and shrugged. Dave muttered, “Good luck.” And he gave Jason, but not Shelby, a hand down the ladder.
Jason buckled himself in and started to warm up the engines. “Once we’re in motion, please try not to move about. The minifin can be hard to steer.”
“State of the art.” Shelby sneered.
“Yes, that’s exactly what it is. Designed to survive at different depths and withstand pressure that would otherwise crush us like bugs.” Jason said politely, mentally tallying up how many ice creams Mum owed him for this.
“Yeah, ok, kid. When I want information I’ll ask for it. Let’s just move it.”
Jason added another scoop to the mental sundae and answered levelly, “Agent, there’s only one skipper on any boat. So once we’re out there I give the orders and you do as you’re told.”
“Any other pilot would tell you the same, but if you don’t like it we can call this off right now.”
Shelby finally folded. “Ok kid, we’ll do it your way. Just get going.”
“Right. Buckle up.”
The minifin’s top sealed, and all readings showed green. Jason unlocked the sub from moorings and let it sink out the dive pool.
“Ok, set a course for the pyramid at the following coordinates...”
“Already locked in.”
“Or maybe you know them off by heart.” Shelby shot back.
“No, I sent them down via Helen while the minifin was warming up.” It was true, but what were the chances of Shelby believing it?
The next half hour went by in strained silence. Shelby was looking out the windows trying not to gawk, and Jason kept all his attention on the instruments. Finally the minifin hung over the dropoff. Jason said, “We’re on the edge of the Mako abyss. Communication doesn’t work down there. I advise caution.”
“I’m not in the mood for your advice. Take us straight in and straight down.”
“Ok.” Jason angled the sub down and leaned on the engines, slowly picking up speed.
He was watching their depth when Shelby said, “Willya look at that! What is that?”
Jason looked up and his eyes widened. There in the forward screen, five people swimming. One of them turned to look at the minifin, black hair flaring around her head. Jason said a word his mother didn’t think he knew. “They’re not sharks. We gotta get out of here.”
Shelby leaned forward and snapped, “You touch that helm buddy, and you will be charged. Now you take me in closer.”
The ocean people didn’t seem to mind being seen. The commandos shaded their eyes from the minifin’s headlights but Shersheba stared in the forward window as if she could see through it. Shelby whistled. “Willya look at that. A whole bunch of ‘em. No suits, no tanks, just like that girl. Aliens.”
“Yeah well, maybe you noticed they’re armed. Let’s get out of here!”
“No way they can outrun this baby. Take me in closer.”
They could. Neri could swim rings around the minifin, but there was no way Jason could tell Shelby that. He eased the sub closer, slowly.
Shersheba gestured and one of her soldiers took aim. The bolts from the weapon shot through water just as they did through air. The minifin shuddered as its fins were hit.
“What’s going on?”
“Wild guess, they’re attacking us!”
“Well fire back!”
Jason was trying to back up, but it was taking a second. He said, “The minifin doesn’t carry weapons Mr. Shelby.”
“What!” Shelby barked. The commando finally hit something vital. The minifin rocked and the control under Jason’s hands sparked. He yelped and gave everything a quick spray with the fire extinguisher.
“Ok ok, just get us out of here!”
“Too late.” Jason said with his attention still on the controls, “Our main propulsion drive’s just died.” Gravity changed direction as the minifin nosedived. The screens were eaten by static and all the lights went out.
“We’re going down? Can’t you do something about it?” Shelby asked desperately.
Jason flipped switches. “Trying to pull us out of this dive—flatten our descent.”
“Come on do something. Pull us up!”
He wasn’t helping. Jason ran through the minifin’s specs in his mind. The sub groaned as pressure increased. From the readouts... “Our only chance is the auxiliary power unit. It’s the only thing that hasn’t been hit, I think.”
“You think? Just crank it up!”
“It’ll be like trying to start a car with a flat battery. We have two, maybe three tries. If that doesn’t work...” Jason hit the sequence. There was a hopeful sound of engines, then it died away.
Shelby said, “Ok, maybe we should wait.” The minifin made an alarming noise and he changed his mind, “Ok, just do it, try again!”
Jason tried twice more. They didn’t even get sounds this time. “It’s no good.”
“I said try again! That’s an order!”
“Shut up and let me think!” Jason snapped.
“There’s no time to think!” The hull creaked and Shelby whimpered. Privately Jason didn’t blame him.
“We need...to boot it! That gps monitor you brought, battery powered right?”
“Well, give it to me!” Jason got out a tool and started opening the front console. He’d never actually done this, but he thought he knew how. Connect the battery here...and... he hit the button. The engine whirred, coughed, and came online. The lights came back up and Jason breathed a sigh of relief. “Ok. All right. I’ve jumped it off the battery.”
Shelby made an inarticulate noise of gratitude.
Jason turned their nose up and headed for Orca. They’d have radio contact in a minute. “Steady as she goes. If nothing else goes wrong we should be able to make it back. Sorry if things got a bit scary back there, Agent Shelby.”
Shersheba and her troops walked out of the water. A splash made her look back, and she smiled when she saw a whale breach in the sunlight. The half-dozen commandos with her looked out to sea with longing, but Shersheba did not notice.
Neri and Mera were wandering uphill along the stream, looking for food and enjoying the day. Mera stopped mid-story when Charley’s words reached them.
Others come! No boat!
“We must see.” Neri murmured, “Come this way.”
They watched from the top of the waterfall as the commandos surrounded Neri’s little house. Shersheba stormed in, and came out carrying the communicator Jason had insisted be kept on the island. Shersheba said something and tossed it into the sand.
Just then a soldier shouted and pointed. Neri and Mera ducked down, and slipped away into the bush. They ran.
Neri pointed and Mera followed her, running silently as deer. They could hear the commandos spreading out behind them.
Mera hissed, “Trees?”
Ahead of them the ravine narrowed, finally vanishing into a cave. Mera recoiled. Neri took her sister’s hand and drew her into the darkness. They squeezed between rocks until they reached the back of the cave.
Outside they heard Shersheba say, “Nowhere left to run.”
Neri tucked her sister behind her in the depths of the cave. “Be brave.” She whispered.
The bats detached from the ceiling and swarmed the commandos. There were shouts. Shersheba yelled, “You fools! There’s no one there!”
By the time the minifin reached Orca, Shelby had recovered hiss poise—and arrogance. Jason managed not to tell him about all the things that could still have gone wrong.
“Dave—can you fix it?”
The minifin was out of the water and Dave was looking it over. He nodded slowly. “I think so. We have enough spare parts. It’ll just take time, and Doctor Seth to get the computer rewired.”
Jason winced. “Sorry. Only thing I could think to do.”
“Probably saved your lives. Did that snot thank you?”
Only now Jason realized Shelby wasn’t in the minifin bay. “No, and I better go see where he’s got to. I’ll send Winston down!”
Shelby was in quarters, on the phone with Richter. “No breathing apparatus, inhuman speed and maneuverability through the water, just like that girl.”
“It’s beginning to sound like she was some kind of advance scout.”
“They’re using the pyramid as a base. Who knows what else they’ve got down there.”
Ellie said, “Sir, while I cannot completely confirm Agent Shelby’s report, I believe it. The minifin was badly damaged by some kind of energy pulse that fried the onboard computers including all records. Obviously they are hostile. Decisions have to be made and delay could be fatal.”
Shelby jumped in with, “We go to red alert, sir. We can’t afford not to.”
“A complete mobilization could not be kept secret Agent Shelby, and Praxis cannot afford the worldwide panic that will occur if this news leaks out.”
“Containment then. Orca must be handed over to Praxis immediately. That way if extermination is required, we’ve got a fire base to operate from.”
Richter nodded on the screen. “There may be a compromise we can work with. You will have your orders within two hours.”
Outside the Praxis cabin, Ilona stepped quickly away from the door.
“So you are convinced the girls are not on that island?” Malakat said.
Shersheba tossed her wet hair. “The Orca children go there to play with their simple technology, that’s all. I found a primitive communications device. Neri and Mera are not there or I would’ve found them.”
Malakat pulled up the map projection. “One island eliminated from our search.” The screen flashed silver and the picture changed. Malakat smiled. “Ah, Orca.”
“Report.” Shersheba said lazily.
A flat voice said, “The minifin you fired on survived. There was a Praxis agent on board. Now Praxis have proof we exist, and of our location. They are speaking of extermination.”
Malakat and Shersheba looked at each other. Malakat ordered, “Keep close surveillance. Inform me immediately of any developments. Is that understood?”
A door hissed open. Ilona hissed, “I have heard, Malakat.” She turned off the projection and turned. “Hi, Miss Hauser. Are you working for Orca now?”
Ellie turned on the lights. “No, but when my duties take me somewhere, I like to know the place back to front.”
“Well this is one of the storerooms. Cleaning supplies, repair stuff...”
“And it has a sign outside, Authorized Personnel Only. So what are you doing here?” Ellie regarded the girl with a not-unfriendly expression, “And in the dark.”
“I’m on maintainence duty. The supervisor gave me a card in case I needed more polish. And I did.” Ilona snagged a jar without looking and headed for the door, flashing her maintenance pass at the agent on the way.
“Well don’t let me keep you from your work Ilona.”
“No Miss Hauser. Nice to see you.”
Mera sat in the front of the cave, hugging her knees. “Have they gone?”
“Charley see them leave.”
“But will they be back?”
“I don’t know. We are safe a little longer.”
“Well, I guess...” Mera stood, then stopped and looked back into the cave. She ducked back in. “Neri, what is this? On the stone?”
Neri crouched next to her sister and scraped mud off the cave wall. It revealed writing carved into the rock. Neri smiled and stroked it. “Father write this, one day long ago. I forget where it was until now. I cannot read.”
Mera wiped at a whole wall with her hands. She whispered, “I can.”
Neri stood up and went out, returning in a moment with a bundle of sticks to use as a broom. It took a long few minutes to get anything clean enough to read. The words were carved shallowly, but the bottom of each groove gleamed faintly. Mera finished dusting off a separate block of text. She whispered in the language of the ocean planet, then laughed. “It says, ‘Here hid Braevan and Neri on the night of the big wind. Neri had a tantrum because she could not find any bananas.’”
Neri laughed. “Yes, I remember. I was very small. What else?”
“It’s...” Mera gasped softly. “’Here passed from life...’ Neri, it’s the names of the people on the ship. And...”
“What?” Neri touched the stone as if she could read through her fingertips.
“’Here was lost to me my precious child Mera.’ Neri, Father was thinking of me! But why did he never tell you about me?”
“Silly. If I knew of you I would search for you. I was too small. Probably Father mean to tell me later, but then he get sick and could not.”
There was no more writing, just a rough sketch that might have been the statue in the pyramid except that the writing tool had run out of power partway through. And, so faintly Mera could hardly read it, ‘My precious Shalamorn.’
Neri went outside, leaving her sister alone for a while. She washed up in the stream, and found some of the weeds with the tasty roots. Those and a fish would make dinner. Or maybe some shellfish, if the commandos had truly gone and they could dig on the beach.
It had been so good... to see Mera happy in the morning. But Shersheba had come, and Mera’s smile disappeared. Always, something came to take Mera’s smile. Why did that have to be?
Mera appeared, and washed her hands downstream of Neri. She lifted her head and smiled, a real smile. “I am happy to know Father’s words. We go home and eat now?”
Ellie had seen—well, she wasn’t sure. A flash was all, really. And Ilona getting supplies in the dark, and then being not-quite-rude about it. It wasn’t enough to justify an interest, but Ellie’s instinct said there was something about that girl.
For one thing, Ilona moved like an athlete, back straight, no motion wasted. She stalked through the hall. Ellie followed her, just watching. Ilona looked back, and Ellie passed her. When she returned, the girl had vanished. And the only door was... Ellie unlocked it and stepped into the minifin bay. Empty. Another ‘Authorized Personnel Only’ door. But Ilona wasn’t in here. She must’ve gone the other way...
Ellie’s com rang. “Yes?”
“Hauser, where are you?”
“Well get back to the cabin, we’re wanted online.”
“On my way.” But before opening the door she hesitated and looked around. There was nobody in here, just the minifin on blocks for repairs and the pool, shimmering.
“We’ve got a crisis on our hands, guys.” Dianne said. “Praxis is planning to take control of Orca. No one asked my agreement or my opinion. This came directly from the president of the Global Union.”
“What about dad?” Brett asked.
“If he could have done anything, he would’ve. He’s been outranked too.”
“We’re toast.” Was Brett’s conclusion.
“Don’t say that.”
“This is out of our league now, Jase. It’s grownup stuff. How do we fight it?”
“Well it’s not definite. They’ve just told me to prepare is all.”
Jason shook his head. “Agent Shelby saw Shersheba and the commandos. Praxis is going to turn this base into a battle station.”
“We’ll be reduced to spectators while they start some kind of holocaust.” Dianne murmured, looking at a bleak future.
Jason headed for the door. Dianne looked up, “Where you going?”
“To stop it.”
Jason caught Agent Hauser in the hallway. “Hey. I need to talk to you.” He said grimly.
“I’m rather busy at the moment.” She said without pausing.
Jason followed. “Not too busy to turn this base into the start of world war three.”
Ellie stiffened and turned to look at him. “If you think I’m going to discuss-”
“Top secret materiel?” Jason didn’t lower his voice, “It’s gone past that hasn’t it? No one’s got time to play those stupid games anymore.”
Ellie had to look up to meet his eyes. She said clearly, “You may not like us, you may not like the way we operate—and—I’m sorry about what happened. But there are aliens down there and they are hostile. Or can you guarantee that they’re not? Come on, tell me. What are we supposed to do? Ignore them? Declare it an intergalactic marine park?”
“Hold your fire. That’s all I’m saying.”
“And give them time to organize?”
“Time might give us a peaceful answer to this mess.”
“How?” Ellie asked. He’d sounded very certain.
Jason’s voice was flat. “I can’t tell you. You’re still the enemy. You’ll just have to trust me.”
And it hung between them. The alien must have died. Ellie started, “I never told...” but Jason was already walking away.
Richter was on screen, so was the president of the Global Union, an imposing woman in a business suit. She greeted Ellie with, “Director Richter has briefed me concerning the details of this situation. Now I would like your input.”
“Yes, madam president.”
“Describe what you saw, Agent Shelby.”
“Amphibious aliens with superior weaponry.” Shelby said immediately. “Their base resembles an underwater pyramid.”
Richter added, “This is the base we know of. There may be others.”
“Do we have an estimate of their numbers?”
“They attacked a minifin without warning! Our concern should be their capability, not their numbers.”
“I only saw half a dozen individuals. If they are a small force, even better. If we move fast we can eliminate them before they attack.”
Ellie stepped in, “Madam President, the aliens haven’t commenced hostilities. They defended territory outside their base, that’s all. I think we should hold fire until we know more.”
“We could win a war and still be the losers. History would take a long, hard look at who pulled the trigger first.”
“Thank you for your opinion, Miss Hauser. Director Richter, you will prepare for a military assault on the alien base. Orca will serve as firebase and general headquarters. But you do not have the go sign. That will be my decision and mine alone.”
Ellie and Shelby nodded, Shelby grudgingly. “Understood, Madam President.”
“Good. Keep me updated.”
Down in the computer hub Cass disconnected her bug and looked around. “Well guys. What now?”
Neri and Jason sat together on Orca’s pontoon. All boats were in, and helen would warn them if the elevator came up.
“The Global Union will attack Malakat and Shersheba?”
“Using Praxis. And Orca.”
“Jason, we must stop it.”
Jason shook his head. “I don’t know if anyone can, now. Helping you and hiding you, that was one thing, but they know Shersheba’s attacked people. It’s big this time. Like—Mum’s commander of Orca, so she can make decisions without asking the kids who live on Orca for school, right? Well the president can make decisions without asking Mum. That’s how important we’re talking about.”
Neri took that in then asked, “How will your people fight?”
“I don’t know, but if I had to guess I bet they try to blow up the pyramid with weapons.”
“In the ocean?”
“Jason, we must stop them!”
“I told you, I-”
“But Shersheba and Malakat have weapons of the pyramid. Great power. They will fight back. And...”
“It’s a nightmare. The president is doing the worst possible thing.”
“Malakat will win. And all this—Orca, the island, the whole ocean—all will be destroyed.”