Disclaimer: all characters and events belong to Jonathan M Shiff Productions and are being used without pemission. No money is being made, though if anyone at JMS would like to negotiate for officialdom, say the word!
2 Where no Whale Swims
Neri woke before the sun was fully up, awakened by the change in the birdsong. She sat up and shook leaves out of her hair, smiling when a gecko ran away from her. She grabbed a vine and swung down, her feet sweeping the surface of the pond before she dropped into the water.
Out in the cove Charley hummed contentedly. Play? He asked.
Eat first. Neri replied. The reeds around the pond had grown back well during the migration. Neri pulled one up, rinsed dirt off the root and took a bite. A little sour, but it would do.
A small, long-nosed animal appeared on the bank. Neri held out the top leaves of her breakfast and the creature snatched it and sat there nibbling, wiggling its nose. Out loud Neri said, “Wallaby.” Then, “Maybe.” Mother had names for all the animals on the island, even the different birds and fish, but Neri didn’t remember most of them. It was easier just to say, ‘tiny, sharp teeth, eats bugs’ or ‘many many green birds.’
The birds were... “Parakeet.” Neri muttered as she wandered towards the beach. It would be good to have all the words, good to remember how to speak to people. “Fruit-bat. Wom-bat. Crocodile, bad. Snake, very bad. Frogs.” Tiring of words, she ran, crashing into the surf. Play!
Jason caught the others in the viewing tube, a popular place to stop and chat. It was the biggest window to the outdoors that Orca had. “Guys, just so you know, Neri’s coming here to Orca today. She’ll be here third shift.”
“You got her fake id and uniform ready?”
Brett scowled at Vanessa. “Duh. Yes.”
“Well it’s nice to know you can do something right for a change.”
Zoe rolled her eyes. “What about that twelve step program?”
“Doesn’t apply to you boneheads.” Vanessa said immediately.
Zoe was squaring up to fight but Jason stepped in between them. “Hey, can we reschedule? Get yourselves grounded when we won’t miss Neri’s visit.”
There was a general cooling down and Zoe and Vanessa made apologetic noises at each other. Then they all went to class.
Neri surfaced under the pontoon and looked around.
Brett waved. “Hi Neri. It’s ok, the coast is clear.”
“Hi Neri.” Vanessa gave Neri a hand up, and submitted to a wet hug. “Your stuff’s in here.”
Neri opened the compartment and pulled out her uniform, shoes and Orca id. She ducked into the boat shed to change while the other two stood guard. When Neri reappeared, squirming in the uncomfortable shoes, they took the elevator into Orca.
“Right to the lab? Mum and Winston want to see you.”
Helen let them out on the right level and they squeezed through the shift-change crowd to the lab.
“Look who’s here!” Brett announced.
“Neri! Welcome back!”
Neri grinned her sunny smile at Winston and went to hug Dianne.
“It’s so wonderful to see you Neri!”
“Come over here, there’s something I’ve been dying to show you.”
One corner of the lab was full of audio equipment, notes, and a whiteboard with complex musical scores drawn on it. Dianne touched a button and whale song filled the room. “Recognize someone?”
“It’s an idea we’ve been working on while you were away. We want to match up specific parts of Charley’s song with different words and emotions. These are some we’ve figured out already, written down.”
Neri touched the board. “Can write what it sounds like?”
Jason came up behind them. “Watch out Neri, she’s still on about the rest of us talking to whales one day.”
“Well it might be sooner than you think, Jason. You see, these are simple examples. He’s saying ‘hello,’ ‘danger,’ and ‘food.’ We want to work on more and more as we go along.
Winston put in, “Eventually we’ll have a dictionary, a book, listing the different sounds and their meanings.”
“And now you’re back you can help us if you like.”
“Yes Mother. I... may still call you Mother, yes?”
“Of course, Neri. Always. Now, Jason tells me that you would like to find out who your people were. Is that true?”
Neri nodded solemnly and Brett said, “Yeah, and we’re going out to the island to help her look for clues.”
“Oh are you just?”
“Yup. Helen cleared us a waverunner for recreational use, four hours. Maybe tomorrow afternoon too, if there’s one free. We’d better get going.”
“Yes. I will come again, Mother.”
“Well have fun guys.”
“Just remember the old saying—the wise fox is always prepared to find more than he is looking for!”
“Winston!” Brett groaned.
“Talk about a needle in a haystack.” Jason said as they waded through the underbrush on the island. “We’ve checked the beach and the waterfall. Anybody have another idea?”
“Well if we’re looking for something Neri’s Dad left... where did he live when he was here? In the tree with you?”
“No... Tree was my place. Father made a house, but it fell down in the big wind, after he went away. Was over here.” Neri pointed, and the three of them splashed through the pond. It was a hot day, and the water felt good on the boys’ legs.
There wasn’t much left of the little house. It must have been very small, just room to sleep out of the rain. All that was left was a patch of cleared ground and some flat stones, fitted together like puzzle pieces, that had been the floor. Jason dusted them off but didn’t find anything. He was thinking about what it would be like to be stranded here, with no boat and no way to call for help, and a little kid to care for. “He never told you where-”
“Hey that reminds me!” Brett burst out. “I’d forgotten all about this. I found it while you were away so I hung onto it for you.”
He held out the strange metal amulet. Neri’s eyes went wide and she spread her hands to take it. “Where did you find this?”
“Inside one of those never-bloom plants.” Jason said.
“Well you should know, you put it there didn’t you?”
“No. It belonged to my father. He would wear here, on belt. I have not seen it since he went away forever.”
“So you mean he was the one who hid it? Why?”
Jason took a step away and thought. “...Because he wanted her to find it someday. This could be the clue we’ve been searching for, and you’ve been carrying it around in your pocket the whole time!”
“Well I didn’t know that.” Brett grumbled.
“Let me see it? You know, now that I look at it, the shape reminds me of something. But I can’t put my finger on what it is. Neri, would it be ok if we take this back and run it by Helen? I’m sorry to take it away right after you got it back, but...”
“Is ok. Ask Helen, maybe she see... clue?”
“Right, a clue. You know... your Dad knew when the flower would open again, right? So he wanted you to have this when you were, well, not a kid anymore. Like, when you were old enough to do something about it.”
Neri looked down at the amulet, then gave it to Jason. “Do something?”
“I dunno.” Jason shook his head. “Just thinking, probably nothing. Hey, what time is it? We were supposed to be back for...”
“Hydroponics at sixteen hundred hours.” Commander Byrne barked. “Where were you?”
“We, ah, got held up at sea. It won’t happen again.” Jason answered, as he and Brett squirmed under the commander’s scowl. They’d been summoned to the bridge as soon as they arrived.
“No young man, it won’t. Because I am severely restricting the use of boats for recreational purposes from now on. Particularly for junior license holders. And I will be personally keeping an eye on it. Is that understood?”
Jason was staring past the commander at a transparent map against the wall of the room. He managed to nod and say, “Yes, Commander.”
“Commander.” Sam Phillips interrupted. He was holding a plastic-wrapped Orca uniform.
“Yes, Captain Phillips?”
“You don’t seriously expect me to wear any of this...”
“Brett!” Jason hissed.
“Look, the chart here. That’s Neri’s island. It’s the same shape...” He held the amulet hidden in his hand, looking from it to the map. It matched, the outline matched perfectly. The two boys escaped the bridge.
In Froggy’s lair they waited while the boy set the amulet in a scanner. Laser lights wove around it and a three-dimensional replica appeared on the nearest screen. Froggy had the hotseat in range of all the keyboards. Jason was leaning on the wall, while Brett sat on the floor with Zoe and Vanessa. The girls had liberated a tub of popcorn from the galley and were chowing down.
Helen’s synthesized voice said, “Confirm. Match with satellite chart is complete. Exact match with satellite photo dated ten years ago.”
“You were right, it’s definitely a map of the island.”
Vanessa looked up at Jason. “What is the matter with you?”
“Well, we always thought Neri’s people were shipwrecked.”
“But that thing’s the island from above. Like they’d seen it from the air.”
“Maybe it was a plane crash.”
From the floor Zoe said, “That’s not the weird bit. Who makes a map into jewelry?”
“Jewelry?” Froggy repeated.
“Well what else would you call it? Shiny, with a string attached. It’s a necklace.”
“Helen, is there anything more you can tell us about that thing?”
“Affirmative. There is a mark scratched on the surface that appears to be a deliberate indentation.”
“Neri’s dad must have made it.” Brett said.
Jason nodded, as the idea bloomed in his mind. “Tell you what I think. He’s left a trail for her to follow. He’s telling her where we’ll find the next clue!”
“I’m on it. Helen, superimpose the image over the map and print a copy, would you?”
Robert ‘Rocky’ Rhodes was a tall gangly boy with the misfortune of being a little clumsy and a little slow. And he was a big science fiction fan. Right now he was regaling his sister with the plot of a new vid series.
“I remember—they kidnapped the girlfriend first and then him. So anyway, back on the planet everyone was going nuts because...”
Mick came up behind him. “What is this idiot talking about?”
“It’s this video I saw, it’s so cool.”
“Who cares.” Was Mick’s opinion.
“I know one you’d really have liked. It’s called Galactic Warrior and it’s about a robot from Neptune...”
“Ok Jason. Ready to go.” Vanessa said. She was carrying a backpack with a shovel poking out the top, and had her life jacket slung backwards around her neck.
Jason nodded and turned back to Helen’s communication screen. “You hear that?”
Brett, down in quarters with Zoe, was unhappy. “But I still don’t see why she gets to go instead of me.”
“Commander’s clamped down on boats and we can only fit two on a waverunner.”
“Yeah, and you went yesterday so it’s my turn.”
“Well what about me? I haven’t been out to the island at all yet.” Zoe complained.
Jason sighed. “All right, how’s this? If Froggy can get Helen to release another waverunner, we’ll all go tomorrow. Even him, if he fits.”
“But only this once! If a lot of us keep disappearing at the same time, somebody’s going to get suspicious. We don’t want the commander finding out!”
Zoe backed off. “All right, tomorrow. And the commander’s down in your Mom’s lab. Hey Brett, want to go spy on them?”
Brett considered. There was nothing else to do, except homework. “Ok.” He said and cut the call off.
Jason shrugged, grabbed his life jacket, and followed Vanessa out to the waverunner.
Down in the lab Commander Byrne was looking around, making Dianne squirm. It was the way the woman seemed to dismiss everything as soon as she saw it: the racks of carefully labeled tapes, the whale migration maps, the listening equipment.
“What’s this do?” Mick asked, picking up a piece of machinery.
“Ah, it’s called a U-cam.”
Winston took the camera from the boy’s hands. “Basically it’s a directional camera. It allows us to watch a whale’s behavior while recording its language.”
“There’s one whale we’ve tagged with a monitoring device...”
Byrne spoke over her. “There’s a limit to the amount of this whale business you can do now, of course, but the camera could still come in handy for other things.”
“I’m sorry commander, I don’t quite understand.”
“Didn’t I make it clear? The condition of your staying here on Orca was that you should make yourself and your equipment available for commercial uses, too.”
Dianne blinked. “Well, yes, but my research must come first.” She glanced over her shoulder to see Winston steering Mick away from a delicate switchboard.
“Dr. Bates. Dianne.” Byrne said, trying to do a caring voice, “Orca can no longer operate for a few scientists to conduct pet projects. Now my job is to make it pay. And yours is to do whatever extra work you’re assigned.”
“What sort of extra work?”
“All in good time. For now Michael and I would like to look around the rest of the lab.”
“Certainly. But Commander, I don’t think you understand the importance of our work.”
Winston began, “These creatures, they are essential to human-”
The door opened. Sam stood there, looking disgruntled in his blue and aqua uniform. “You wanted to se me?”
“Well Captain, in uniform I see.”
“Yeah, well let’s get this straight commander Byrne. The only reason I’m on this tin can is because the bank repossessed my boat. As soon as I’ve got a deposit for a new one, this costume gets deep-sixed and I’m out of here.”
“That’s good. But in the meantime I think we’ll put you temporarily on the mail run.”
“Fine by me lady. I look like a postman in this outfit anyway.”
Dianne looked at Winston. “Charming fellow.”
Vanessa didn’t seem to be enjoying the island. Or maybe she was. She wasn’t complaining, but she wasn’t exclaiming about the beauty of the place either. They’d split up the gear, Jason carrying the pack while Vanessa took the shovel and a multipurpose scanner she’d liberated.
Jason held the map. “See, Neri? The lines on the map get closer together when the hill gets steeper. That’s the cliff you like to dive off.”
Neri nodded, looking at the map uncertainly. “Where now?”
Jason pointed. “About here. That’s where your father made the mark on the amulet. So it could be anywhere around here. Let’s spread out and start looking.”
“For what exactly?”
“Something, Vanessa! Anything that doesn’t belong.”
“...And this is the test area for our underwater equipment. New rebreather tanks, underwater surveillance, that sort of thing.”
“What’s this?” Mick asked. He was pointing at a little room with windows and a sealed door.
His mother answered, “It’s to judge individual responses to low air pressure levels, no doubt?”
“Exactly so. Also as a remedy for decompression sickness.”
“What’d happen if, say, somebody got locked inside this thing?”
“Hardly a pleasant experience. It could be some time before someone finds you.”
“Guys!” Vanessa was yelling, “Neri! Jason, come here! I think i found something.”
Jason cane running, panting and out of breath. Neri just sort of appeared between two trees. “What?”
“On the rock. I saw something so I got the vines off...”
Carved into a slab of dark stone Jason saw... something. Writing? Symbols, anyway. There was a column of simple pictures and a paragraph of elaborate looping letters in an alphabet Jason didn’t recognize. They were carved a good half-inch deep in the rock and the letters... glowed. Jason bent over and cupped his hands to block out the daylight. Each figure glowed faintly.
“Father write this!” Neri exclaimed, stroking the letters.
“He had...” Neri paused, searching for a word. “Pencil. Write like that, on rocks. Then it break.”
“A blowtorch or a laser cutter maybe.” Jason muttered.
Vanessa was more interested in the message itself. She pointed to the top symbol, clearly an eye. “That’s see, or look for.”
“The second one must be water.”
“So... look for water with a whale?” Jason guessed.
“The whale’s crossed out, thickhead. Look for water where whales don’t swim.”
“There’s another eye and an arrow. Look for an arrow?”
“It make any sense to you Neri?”
Neri nodded. “Water out from bad lands. Charley will not go there. No whale will come close.”
“Bad lands?” Vanessa asked.
“Um, a mangrove swamp. Nasty and muddy.” Jason pulled out the map and pointed it out.
“That’s where we look then.”
Jason looked at his watch and grimaced. “Well we can’t go now. I’ll never make it back in time as it is, Byrne’ll kill me if I miss again.”
“Tomorrow?” Neri asked.
“It’ll have to be. First thing after school. Hey, did you bring a camera? Let’s get a picture of that other stuff, maybe Froggy and Helen can make some sense of it.”
They took the picture, then hurried back to the beach where they’d left the waverunner.
“Where does Jason go all the time?” Rocky asked.
Brett shrugged. “Oh here, there, around the place.”
“Well he could take me with him couldn’t he. I thought we were going to be mates.”
Rocky sounded so sad. Brett wasn’t sure what to say. He was sure Jason would rather hang out with Rocky than, say, Vanessa. But Vanessa knew about Neri, and Neri was... well, nothing is more important than Neri.
“Hey, I’ll be your mate Rocky.” Mick said.
“Yeah. Me, the big Mickmiester. The big Mickaroonie.”
Rocky sensibly asked, “Why?”
“Well, we’re both kinda cool guys. And hey, I love hearing about those video discs you watch.”
“Yeah. I want you to see something. You can tell me about another movie on the way.”
“Um, ok. There’s this really cool one, it’s called The Annihilator. “
Mick steered Rocky towards the door. Brett managed to close his mouth. He looked over at Froggy and Zoe. “What do you reckon?”
“Smells to me.” Froggy said.
“Me too. Let’s follow them.” Zoe snapped her book closed and they both saved their files. Homework accomplished, time for action.
A few halls away Rocky was explaining. “Well no one ever suspects he’s got a fake head. No, hang on, his wife does, but he locks her in the cellar and...”
“Just through here.”
“And she can’t get out.” Rocky continued, “Anyway, while she’s trying to get out of the cellar the annihilator starts to destroy everybody in town.”
Mick smiled an insincere smile. “Yeah? Fascinating. Now go in there and look upwards. You’ll see something really interesting?”
“Yeah?” Rocky ducked through the small portal door and looked up, still talking away. “Anyway what happens, you see, the wife ends up escaping, you see, and gets this big gun while he...”
The heavy door of the recompression chamber shut with a clang. Mick leaned against it and laughed. “Ha! I got you, you big sucker! Now, see if you can stay in there a couple of hours without boring yourself to death!”
Rocky couldn’t hear him, actually, but didn’t really need to. Mick’s expression spoke volumes, then the big boy walked away. Rocky tried the door, but the chamber had sealed itself. He looked at the set of buttons by the door. One of them had to open it.
The kids passed Mick in the hall. Zoe asked, “Hey, where’s Rocky?”
“Don’t ask me. Why don’t you find him yourself?” Mick said, and kept going.
Zoe and Brett looked at each other. “Well that wasn’t suspicious. What’s down this hall? Hey, Joanne! Help us out for a sec, I think Mick did something with your brother.”
Joanne just said, “Aw no.”
It was a good five minutes before the four of them reached the dive lab. The room was filled with a hissing noise and behind the glass Rocky was clearly panicking.
“Hey, here!” Brett yelled.
“He’s got the pumps on! Froggy, how do you open this thing?”
Brett and Joanne heaved on the door and Froggy attacked the control panel. The hissing faded and the door suddenly unsealed. Rocky tumbled out, gasping for breath.
“Are you all right?” Joanne asked immediately. She grabbed her brother in a protective hug, much to his embarrassment.
Rocky protested that he was fine, and tried to laugh it off as he got his breath back.
“Honest Jace, with Mick around anything could happen. He’s dangerous!” Brett said. He and Jason were headed down to the computer room after dinner to see if Froggy had any news.
“Ok, I’ll try to spend more time with Rocky. I suppose someone has to keep an eye on him.” The door hummed open in front of them. “Hi Froggy, what’ve you got?”
Froggy hit a button and Helen answered, “Material submitted includes two distinct writing systems. The first are simple pictograms similar to early hieroglyphics. The second is a form of script unrecorded in my memory bank.”
“Can you read it?”
“Negative. Repeated symbols and other characteristics indicate it is a valid language, but I have nothing comparable on file.”
Vanessa snorted. “I thought you had every known written language!”
“But... that’s impossible.”
Jason said slowly, “Not if the person who wrote it didn’t come from Earth.”
“I know it sounds crazy, but think about it. The amulet is a map of the island but only if you look at it from above, their language isn’t human. What other explanation could there be?”
Zoe thought for a minute and suggested, “It was a Tolkien cruise and they write in elvish?”
“Negative, Zoe. My files include fictional scripts.”
Zoe shrugged. “So... what are we going to find tomorrow, you reckon?”
Jason shook his head. Brett said, “Could be anything.”
Mick Byrne, you would have to be the biggest idiot I ever met in my life!” Kimberley shouted, advancing across the rec room.
Mick just said, “Well considering your friends, I’m sure you know a lot of them.”
“My brother could have been killed!”
“Hey, it would’ve been his own stupid fault for turning the power on.”
Joanne seethed. Kimberley said, “Well, someone ought to report you.”
“Report him for what?” The commander asked from behind her. “What’s going on here, Michael?”
“Why don’t you tell her the truth? Commander, he nearly killed Robert Rhodes yesterday. He locked him in the recompression chamber.”
Mick went innocent. “Oh come on, they got it all wrong. Rocky and I were just kidding around. Do you really think I’d do something to hurt him, Mum?”
“No, I’m sure you wouldn’t Michael. Now, you girls should check your stories before you start spreading them around.”
“Young lady, I know my son. Come on, Michael.” As they walked away, Mick turned and smirked at the girls.
The kids looked at the island from the inflatable Helen had managed to get them. Neri was leaning her head and arms on the side of the boat. She lifted herself up to point at the swamp. “Bad lands. Father say not to go there.”
“I’m not sure we should risk the motor in that mud either.” Jason said. “What about that beach?”
“Yes. Charley will not go near, whole cove. He says water tastes bad.”
Jason looked at his crew for suggestions. Zoe pointed, “Maybe one of those rocks? We’re probably looking for a carving; anything else would have washed away by now.”
“Sounds good to me.” Brett said. He was sitting in the bottom of the boat, crowded with Zoe, Froggy and Vanessa. It had not been a fun ride.
“Ok. We’ll start there. Meet us on the beach, Neri?”
Neri nodded and vanished into the water. Jason gave her a minute to get clear, then started the motor.
They pulled the boat up onto a slim gray beach. Jason got it tied while the others started looking. Froggy swung his scanner around, while the others just poked around climbing on the rocks looking for anything like an arrow.
The sun climbed in the sky.
“Are you sure this is the place?” Jason asked.
Neri nodded. “Badlands. No other good rocks near.”
Vanessa sat down next to them, fanning herself with her hat. “How long are we going to keep this up?”
“Until we find an arrow.”
“We can’t look at every rock!” Brett called.
“Just keep going.”
“Hey!” a voice called from above. Zoe had climbed the cliff behind the beach. She was sitting about halfway up, propped against a tree. “You’re wasting your time.”
“It’s not on any one rock, it’s all of them! All over, all together. They make the arrow!”
Everybody had to climb up far enough to see. Neri got there first, in two deer-like leaps and the rest crowded after her. It was all the rocks. From above, they made an arrow pointing across a small inlet at a beach on the other side.
“Well, let’s go!” Vanessa yelled.
They careened down the hill. Zoe shouted, “Hey wait for me!”
The beach was long, pale yellow sand and a few fallen trees. The kids ran down it. “Here, over here!”
“What are we looking for?”
Neri stopped, stood still and looked around. There was something... not sound or smell, almost... she crouched and combed her fingers through the sand. And remembered.
“Here! Is here, all around! Jason!”
Neri was digging with her hands. Jason grabbed the shovel from Brett and ran over. “Here, let me. Guys, over here!” He scooped out sand, just a shallow hole, and hit metal.
An hour later they had holes up and down the beach. Zoe waved from the last one. “It goes all the way up here!”
Froggy reported, “Under the swamp as well. I can’t tell how far without going in, and no way am I doing that.”
“It’s huge.” Brett said, plopping down on the sand. He pointed to his furthest hole, in the opposite direction from Zoe’s. “The whole beach.”
Neri walked out of the water. “Under the rocks and into the water also.” She frowned, trying to find the words to say how far and then giving up. At the bottom of the first hole metal gleamed dully, a bluegreen color like patina on copper.
“If this is a plane, it’s the craziest.” Was Zoe’s opinion.
“No. It’s not a plane.”
“Huh?” Brett looked up at his brother.
“Neri...” Jason said, “I think this is it, the ship that brought your people here. And this—it’s not from Earth. It’s a spacecraft.”