3 The Last Message
“Hey guys, this is great. Come take a look!” Vanessa was flushed with effort and excitement. She’d unearthed a metal fin with a jagged edge, like some kind of wing. “You really think it’s a spaceship?”
“I know it sounds crazy.” Jason said, “But it does explain how Neri and her Dad got here, like from nowhere.”
“This... it has to be a spaceship.” Zoe said. She scooped more sand away from the wing stub. The broken edge glittered dark blue.
“I certainly can’t identify the metal with this. Helen probably could, if we could take a piece back.”
“Good luck with that Froggy.” Vanessa replied, “I thought of that already and hit that thing every which-way with the shovel. Couldn’t even scratch it.”
Brett cut to the real issue. “Now what? We can’t clear off the whole thing, not without a bulldozer!”
Neri surfaced from her latest underwater survey. She let the wave leave her on the beach and shook droplets out of her hair. “I find something more. Maybe way to go in.”
“Out past rocks. Deep. You come?”
Jason nodded and started getting his scuba gear out of the boat.
Vanessa grimaced. “You’ve lived here all your life and you never saw this thing before?”
“Never come this side of island. Badlands. Bad plants, ground sink, bad air.”
“Show me what you found.”
Underwater there wasn’t much to be seen of the spaceship. Sealife had found the blue metal a good home, and it had been covered with barnacles, baby coral and just plain mud. Jason saw a pointed structure he couldn’t identify, with a massive anemone on its very peak.
Neri pointed. Part of a round hatch protruded out of the seabed. A grate covered it, but Neri pulled that away easily. She pointed inside. Jason shook his head—bad idea, let’s wait and learn more, don’t just go in! But Neri did, so Jason pulled himself in after her.
They went down a few yards through a claustrophobic tube. At the bottom the tube turned and went up—into air!
“Here.” Neri held out her hand to help Jason out of the pool.
“There’s air! Weird. It’s like something’s holding the water back.” Then Jason saw where he was, and stopped wondering.
The light was faint and blue, like being underwater. The room was tilted, the floor at an angle that would have been dangerous if it had been slippery. But everything was dry.
There was a kind of multi-segmented chair, dark screens, what must be a control panel. “This place is amazing...” Jason was good with controls; he could drive anything on Orca except the helicopter. He had no idea what anything here was for. “Neri, do you-?”
The craft shifted with a sound of straining metal. Jason fell against a control panel. It lit up. “Hey, there’s power running through this thing!”
“Power is from the sea.”
“How do you know that?”
“I don’t know.” Neri murmured.
“We can’t stay. It’s falling apart.”
There was a softer groan from the ship. Neri was still looking around, heedless. She picked up a bundle of fabric that was wedged between two bars. “Look.”
“It’s the same fabric as your dress. Maybe your Dad left this stuff for you.”
Neri was looking into the dark, towards what must be the rest of the ship. She could see an archway, only darkness beyond. Had that been home, in the ship? Her father’s home?
The ship moved again and something fell with a crash. Jason grabbed her hand. “We have to go! It’s dangerous!”
On the beach Jason delivered the bad news. “It’s really unstable. It sounds like the whole thing could cave in any time. I don’t know how much exploring we’re going to be able to do.”
“Actually that makes sense. The structure is under tremendous pressure, and its integrity must have been compromised when it crashed. I’m not going in!”
“Don’t worry Froggy. But can you figure out what these things are?”
“Doesn’t Neri know?”
“No.” Neri said sadly. There had been two objects wrapped in the cloth, both mysterious. One was a short, six-sided wand made of a dark substance that glittered from within, like circuitry under glass. The other was a many-sided piece about the size of a baseball, plain except for a glass lens set into one side. The kids passed them around and looked at them. Neither object had buttons or controls, or opened like a box. They didn’t seem to do anything.
“I have not seen before. Froggy, do you know?”
“Not a clue Neri.”
“Ask Helen? I want to know!”
“Yeah, us too. Now, you think?” Froggy looked around for confirmation.
Jason nodded. He didn’t really want to go back into the ship today. The excitement of exploring faded quickly before the fear of being crushed if the whole thing fell in.
In the computer room, Froggy fired up his terminal. “Ok Helen! What d’you reckon?”
Helen scanned the smaller object. “Hexagonal rod, roughly ten centimeters long by three wide. Composition: carbon, titanium and lithium molecules in unusual arrangement. A break is detected here.”
“Any idea what it’s for?”
Helen paused, various bits of her electronics lighting up as she thought. “It appears to be a transmitter. Circuitry would plug into a power source.”
“Can we fix it?”
“You can fix it Froggy.”
“Materiel is of unknown origin but conventional solder should still function as a conductor.”
“Well, I’ll give it a try.”
Froggy opened a hatch in the floor and got out the quick-repair kit.
In the rec room Brett and Zoe had been trying to do homework. Trying, in between saying ‘you think Froggy found anything yet?’ to each other.
“Ok, done!” Zoe snapped her terminal closed. “I swear, I’m all about coral but if I never have to write another report on it it’ll be too soon!”
“I hear you.”
“Well I’m going to see what everybody’s looking at. See you when you finish!”
Brett muttered something about Vanessa-like cruelty.
What everybody was looking at was Kimberley, going for a record on the stationary bike. After the first few hours she’d gathered a crowd. Zoe joined in as Niko called out, “Record in five! Four, three, two, one!”
“All right Kim!”
Kimberley, grinning, got off the bike and grabbed her water bottle.
“It’s just a dumb machine.” Mick said.
Joanne smirked. “You could always have a go.”
“And be a jerk?”
“Take a look.” Joanne spun the bike’s display. Some quite impressive numbers were revealed.
“So, what does that actually mean?”
“It means Kim here could try out for the state squad.”
“Riding the road to nowhere. Get a life.”
Kimberley turned, settling a wet towel on her neck. “So, being a guy, you could do so much better?”
“Any day of the week.”
“’Cause you’re stronger than I am. You’d win hands down every time.”
“Um, yeah. Unless we’re talking about playing with dolls or something.”
By now they were in a circle of kids looking at the most excitement they’d seen all day.
“I’m talking about a race. You and me, one on one.”
“You hear that Rocky? She wants to race moi. What a joke. If it was worth my while—say, having a few bets...”
Rocky immediately said, “Five on Kimberley.”
“Me too. Five credits on Kim.”
Niko bet ten, and everybody piled in. Joanne got out a notebook to write it all down.
Mick actually looked a little upset for a second, then, “Ok, you want to chuck ‘em anyway? You’re all on.”
“Hey Froggy.” Jason said, as he and Brett breezed into the computer lair.
Froggy jumped. “You’ll give me a heart attack!”
“Sorry. Helen get anything?”
“Um... she reckons this thing might be to send out a signal. She thinks it’d fit in a socket. By the way, she found a broken circuit and I fixed it.”
“You did? Excellent! What about the hexagon?”
It was still sitting in the scanner. Helen said, “Apologies, Brett. I am unable to gather any information about this device.”
“Forget it, she’s got no clue.”
“Well we’ve got this one. So we take it to the ship and find something to plug it in to.”
Jason and Brett went to the island the next day, and only Jason had Scuba gear. He’d argued Brett out of trying to bring a set. “Neri, we can’t stay down there long. If the structure gives way any more we’ll be in big trouble. We have to find where this fits, see what happens, and get out in a hurry, ok?”
Jason checked his mask and they dived.
The inside of the spaceship was even more of a mess, Jason thought. A big beam had fallen across the archway sometime during the night; nobody was getting into the rear section of the ship now.
The two of them looked over the front console. “There’s got to be something here somewhere.” The ship groaned and shuddered.
“Here!” Neri had found a hexagonal shape among the controls. The inner point was a hole. Neri grabbed the wand and fumbled it in. It seemed to fit, to click into place. The symbol lit up faintly, then the light died.
“It didn’t work?”
Neri was already looking around for something else. “Must do something. Father left it here for me to find.”
“We have to go!”
Neri swung herself up into the strange chair. Immediately a series of round screens swung down in front of her. Jason gaped. Neri, a strange blank look on her face, touched a screen with her hand. It blazed white for a moment and there was a sound like revving engines.
But then the floor lurched, tossing Neri out of the chair. That was enough for Jason. “Come on!”
She came. As they reached the tunnel something crashed and broke, and there was a sound of water coming in. Jason shoved his mouthpiece in and dived, with Neri just behind him.
“The whole beach moved!” Brett exclaimed as the two of them came out of the ocean. “It was crazy! Are you all right?”
“We’re fine. But it didn’t work.”
“What? Why not?”
Jason shrugged off his airtank. “Just didn’t, that’s all.”
“I haven’t got nearly enough.” Dianne said. She was pacing the lab.
“Whale song. And to record more I’ve got to get closer to Charley. Winston, we have to talk Commander Byrne into giving us a boat.”
“Mm.” Winston was glued to his screen.
“Hello? Why do I get the feeling you’re not even listening to me?”
“Because—I am looking at that. And listening to that.”
Dianne looked. It was one of their sensors, a listener on a buoy in mid-ocean. Usually it picked up nothing but the occasional pod of dolphins. “What is that? It’s the same frequency as the whalesong.”
Winston nodded. “At first I thought it was just random interference, but it keeps repeating. It started a few minutes ago.”
“That’s very strange.”
On the lowest level of Orca the kids squared up to race. Vanessa said, “Ok. The course is from here up to the rec room. Any problems with that, Mick?”
“Yeah, won’t even give me enough time to warm up.”
Vanessa groaned. Kimberley said, “Oh please. You’re the one losing a year’s worth of credits. You ready?”
“Maybe I should give you a head start.”
“Can we get this over with?”
Vanessa stepped in front of them. “We wouldn’t want Mick to wear his mouth out. Ready? Three, two, one—go!”
Kimberley darted away. Mick stood still. Vanessa said, “Oh you have got to be kidding me!”
Mick waved and swaggered away, slowly. Once out of sight he ducked into an elevator. “Level alpha, and don’t open the door until I tell you.”
Helen’s voice said, “Negative. Operational functions require authorization codes.”
“Z-4-0-5. Commander’s code.”
A minute later Mick said, “That should do it. Ok, open the door.”
The door opened.
Vanessa was standing in the opening, arms folded. She rolled her eyes. “Come on. I took the other lift. Did you really think you’d get away with it?”
“Get away with what?”
“Hey!” Kimberley came past, out of breath, and skidded to a stop. “What’s he doing here?”
“Simple. He hides out in the lift until you’re about due and then he bounds out and says he ran all the way up. Without raising a sweat.”
“Oh, he’ll raise a sweat all right!” Kim made a fist and stepped forward.
Vanessa cheerfully got out of the way.
“Now, listen! We can work something out can’t we?”
“Sure we can. We can run the race again.”
“Oh, that’s ok. Just hand over all your credits for the next twelve months. And don’t think I won’t tell everybody what you did.”
“A whale dictionary? That’s fascinating.”
“Yes it is, Commander. We’ve actually collected over two hundred seperate pitches and inflections. All we have to do now is connect them with meanings.”
“But to do so we need to study the whale’s behavior from a much closer range.” Winston added.
“Which is why I really need a boat at my disposal permanently.”
Byrne nodded. “I’ve already assigned you a boat, starting tomorrow.”
Dianne blinked. “You have?”
“Come and look at this, Dr. Bates. Helen, bring up the Orca structure visual please. Here is our present Orca. Helen, add OC schematic.”
On the screen, Orca... blossomed. It multiplied itself, a dozen more structures radiating out from the central one.
“This is Orca City.”
“Orca City.” Dianne echoed.
“It’s the future, Dr. Bates. The largest submarine structure ever undertaken. And the authorities are about to go ahead with it.”
“Why weren’t we told?”
“Oh, it’s being kept top secret. I only found out myself this week. And that’s because we’ve been instructed to carry out a survey for a suitable location. That’s where you come in.”
“I don’t understand...”
“Hence the boat.” Byrne said right over her. “I’m entrusting the survey to you and Dr. Seth.”
“Oh, now just a minute!”
“It’s hardly my field.” Winston protested.
“You’re a qualified marine geologist aren’t you? Who better to chart the topography in search of a stable site? And you, Dr. Bates, will conduct the environmental impact study.”
“Commander, that’s not why I’m here!”
“I’m afraid it is, if you wish to remain. Of course I have no objection to you carrying out your whale studies on the side.”
Dianne, aware she’d been totally steamrollered, managed to keep her angry, “On the side!” quiet.
“Ah, Captain Phillips, right on time.”
The captain had appeared on the bridge. “Commander. You said something about taking a survey team out beyond the reef?”
“Yes. Dr. Bates will be leading the team, with Dr. Seth here. You’ve met, I think.”
“Yes yes, we’ve met.”
Sam swaggered. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Well, it gets a bit rough out there.”
Dianne smiled way too sweetly. “What’s the matter? Bad sailor, Captain? Don’t worry, Helen can prescribe you something.”
“Whoa, peace lady!” Sam muttered.
Byrne said, “I expect you all to co-operate. This is an inspiring project. The beginning, perhaps, of permanent colonization of the ocean.”
Kimberley crashed through the rec room door. Vanessa clicked the stopwatch and cheered. Someone yelled, “We’re rich!” and Niko and Rocky actually hoisted Kimberley up on their shoulders for a victory lap around the room. Vanessa couldn’t tell if the cheering was more for Kimberley or the money. She had to admit, the prospect of some extra credits for ice cream...
“You were fantastic!” Joanne was saying as Mick arrived, panting and red-faced.
Vanessa smirked. “Not so easy when you play by the rules, huh?”
“I think I broke my leg. I tripped over something!”
Yeah right he did. “Probably your tongue.”
Mick was still puffing. Rocky sidled up to him, “Hey Mick, you want to settle up the credits now in case you drop dead or something?”
“Hey Rocky, you know the pontoon dock?”
“Why don’t you go jump off it?”
Silence fell. Kimberley rounded on them. “You are going to pay up?”
“In your dreams.”
That sank in. Someone boo-ed. Niko said, “You agreed!”
“Didn’t sign anything did I?”
“You think you can get away with anything just because you’re Commander Byrne’s son!”
“You know Rocky, you’re not so dumb after all. See you, losers!”
Mick went out, leaving the cursing to begin. After a second Vanessa followed. She caught up to Mick a hall away from the commander’s cabin. “Hey.”
“What? They send you to get their money? As if.”
Vanessa scowled. “I don’t know why I’m even bothering. Look, Orca isn’t such a bad place. If you stop being such a jerk and give the guys a chance—well, I had a lot more fun after I figured that out. I’m just saying.”
Mick gave her a look that said ‘pa-the-tic!’ without a sound. Vanessa shrugged and went to see what Brett and Froggy were up to in the lab.
Everyone was there. Neri, in her uniform, watched solemnly as Froggy scanned the hexagonal device. Jason, Brett and Zoe were hanging around.
“No luck?” Vanessa asked generally.
Froggy shook his head. “Nothing. I’ve been trying it on Winston’s gear while they’re out, but Helen still hasn’t got a clue.”
“Neri, you sure this doesn’t mean anything to you? If you think your father left it for you, he must’ve had a reason.”
Neri reached out to take the device. It sparkled under her hand, and she jumped back.
“What was that?”
Neri reached out again. As she passed her hand over the object it glowed, and intense white light raked her fingers.
Behind them the door slid open and Dianne and Winston came in. They looked around in surprise at the lab full of kids.
“What’s going on?”
“Do that again Neri.”
“What is that?” Dianne asked, angling for a better look.
“We found it in the spaceship.” Brett muttered, and his mother gave him a look and opened her mouth to speak.
The device sparked, spat out a bright ball of light that hovered in the air. It hung there for a moment, then the air rippled and an image appeared.
A man, tanned but pale beneath, beardless, with brown hair going to gray. He wore a long robe made of layers of rough fabric.
“Father!” Neri gasped. She reached out, and the image rippled as her hand went through it.
“Hail Neri, my daughter.
“I leave these words for you to find. There is much that you will need to know, if this illness takes me from you. My child, we are not of this world. We came, with others, on a mission of peace to share our wisdom with the people of the Opan Planet. But at the end of the journey our craft developed a fault and we fell, helpless, toward the waters of this planet.”
Brett whispered, “He must mean Earth!” and Vanessa shushed him.
“The other survivors perished one by one until only you and I were left on this alien shore. I taught you all I could of the ways of the opal people, knowing you must someday contact them. If there is nothing else, we must bring our message to this world: that as they move into the oceans they must treat them with care, not despoiling their bounty for personal gain. The fate of their world hangs in the balance. This lesson was bitterly learned on our own world.”
Neri’s father paused for a moment and tucked his hands in his belt. Nobody else spoke, not wanting to miss a word.
“There is something else you should know. I always told you that when you were old enough we would visit the land and walk among the people there. The reason for that—there is a third member of our family. Your sister, Mera. Once I knew we would crash, I sent her down to the earth in an escape pod. She was only a baby, too young to risk the crash landing. The pod was strong enough to survive landing, but there was no way of tracking it. I am sure she was found; I feel in my blood that she is alive. But I do not know how she fares, in this strange world. Please, find Mera. Find your sister.”
Neri nodded, her eyes wide.
The hologram rippled and its colors faded. Neri’s father reached out, just as if he could see her. “Farewell, my beloved daughter.”
“Farewell.” Neri whispered. Her hand and her father’s seemed to touch, then the hologram broke up and vanished.
Silence. Froggy’s mouth was hanging open. Winston murmured, “Most extraordinary.”
“You have a sister.”
“Mera.” Neri said. Two tears had traced glittering paths down her cheeks.
“We’ll start looking for her tomorrow.” Jason said. Vanessa opened her mouth to ask how, but didn’t. “I’ll help.” She said instead.
“We all will, idiot.” Zoe shot back.
“Neri, you all right?”
“Yes.” Neri smiled, hugged Jason, and took the message device. “I go back now. I want to think. See you later.”
“Ok. C’mon, I’ll walk you up to the pontoon.”