4 The Baby in the Water
Neri darted between two rocks. Her hand flashed out and grabbed a fish. Breakfast! She sang.
Back on the island Neri hummed to herself as she started a fire and plucked a few leaves from different plants. Leaves and fish were rolled in clay, and the drippy package shoved into the fire. It would bake through, and be ready to eat in a few hours.
Charley? Does a boat come?
Charley whistled back, no boat.
Of course, her friends wouldn’t have had time to learn anything yet. They’d only heard the message last night.
There is a third member of our family...
“There must be some way we can find Neri’s sister.” Zoe slid her tray onto the table and opened her orange juice.
Brett was eating cereal. “Maybe we could put an ad in the paper under missing persons.”
“Yeah—Wanted: girl who fell to earth in a space pod. Great.”
“Well I don’t know.”
Jason said, “At least holidays are coming up. We’ll be able to get to the mainland.”
“Yeah, check out the locals.”
“Talk to people.” Was Zoe’s suggestion.
“Somebody must have found that pod.”
“Would Helen have records of that sort of thing do you think?”
Froggy nodded. “Probably. If we can get her to access them.”
“If anyone can, you can.” Jason said and Vanessa tagged on, “So what are you waiting for?”
“’M eating!” Froggy protested.
Neri looked over the fire and remembered... Father sitting on that rock with a stack of cut reeds beside him and his knife in his hand. He cut a length of reed, and blew across the end. A low note sounded. Neri remembered her father’s grin. The mis-cut reeds and rejects cluttered the ground but by the end of the day her father had what he called a wind-flute and was playing slow tunes.
Father was always making things. He’d made her kites. He made a boat for bringing plants from other islands, but when it sank they hadn’t bothered to fix it. He made a little oven for cooking, but it was too close to the stream and washed away in a storm. It didn’t really matter; by that time they’d figured out how to do everything over a fire anyway.
Down in the computer lab, Froggy bustled between the banks of processors connecting things, putting in codes, trying to open the widest search area possible. “Come on Helen...” He muttered. Begging seemed to work; Helen flashed access granted. “Yes!”
“Hey buddy, how’s it going?”
Froggy looked up warily. What was Mick doing here? “Busy.” He said.
“You must get pretty hungry doing all that brain work.” Mick said, smiling. He put a candy bar on top of the terminal.
“Thanks.” Froggy said without taking his hands off the keyboard.
“Maybe you could do me a favor too.”
“You and that computer. I hear you can make it do just about anything you want.”
Froggy ducked past the bigger boy to reroute some boards. “Her. Her name’s Helen.”
“Yeah. So, what if somebody wanted to see their school report?”
“They’re coming out today anyway.”
“Yeah, I know. I just want to see it.”
“Well, I can give it a try.” Froggy ducked back to his terminal and keyed in a search. “Michael Byrne... wow, you really messed up this term.”
“Real bad, take a look.” Froggy angled the screen so Mick could see.
“I’ll take your word for it. What if someone wanted to—fix a report like that?”
“No way.” Froggy went cold.
“No way huh? Too bad.” Mick leaned over, putting a not-friendly arm around Froggy’s shoulders. “Cause—my mom’d get really mad. And you know what’d happen then?”
“No.” Froggy quavered.
“No? I’d get really mad.”
“Um, sorry, Mick.”
Mick gave the smaller boy a long look, then gave up. He grabbed the candy and headed for the door. “Remind me never to do you a favor, Froggy.”
It was after school, and Brett was puttering around the lab with nothing to do. “Mum... Neri’s sister has to be out there somewhere, doesn’t she?”
“I’m not sure sweetie. I hope so. I’m still trying to convince myself this is all actually happening.”
“The incredible is never easy to believe, Dianne. But we did see it with our own eyes. A message from the past, out of thin air! Still... we must not get our hopes up too high, Brett. Anything could have happened to that pod. A single storm...” Winston shook his head.
Sam Phillips leaned in the doorway. “You guys ready?”
“Yep, won’t be a minute.” Dianne grabbed her sweatshirt and tied it around her waist, and pointed to a stack of equipment. “Captain, could you give me a hand?”
Winston shrugged. “I shan’t be joining you today. I’m taking some sonar equipment on one of the shark cats to run some tests.”
“So it’s just you and me then.”
“I can stand it if you can.” Dianne said, hoisting her last pack.
“Let’s go then. Who knows, we might even find something on the way.”
“Ah.” Sam grinned. “I’ve got a little deal going on with one of the mining companies. If I find any good mineral deposits, I’m on a percentage commission.”
Dianne gave him a raised-eyebrows look. “And does Commander Byrne know about this?”
“No. I’m certainly not on Orca for the pittance she pays me. And I’m certainly not here for the social life. This way I can get the cash I need for my own new boat. And when that happens... you won’t see me for dust.”
“And you expect me to cooperate?”
“Well it’s not going to kill you. It’s all in your line of work.”
“Winston’s, actually. I’m a biologist. What sort of things are you expecting to find?”
“Oh I don’t know. But I’m due for a bit of luck. This thing going too?”
“Yes, both of those. Thank you. Let’s get going captain, if you want to earn your new boat this year.”
The galley was full of kids relaxing after school. In one corner Froggy, Zoe and Vanessa had their heads together over a plate of snacks. Jason ordered himself a drink from the computer as Rocky regaled him with the plot of another video. “...so the guy’s got a uranium supercharger on his rocket, but he doesn’t realize the bad guy’s got a plutonium supercharger... or is it the other way around?”
“Rocky.” Jason said.
“I don’t want to know.”
Rocky shrugged amiably. “What’s eating you?”
“I’ve got to get out and about.”
“Sometimes I’ve just gotta get off Orca, you know? Cabin fever. But it’s hard since the commander canceled our boat access.”
“Hmm. Well, what about that old zodiac? The one round the back of the pontoon.”
“That old thing? That was decommissioned ages ago.”
“I could fix it.” Rocky said.
“Seriously?” Jason asked, hope rising.
“Sure. My dad taught me to strip all kinds of motors. And hey, then we could go to the mainland whenever we wanted.”
“Rocky, if you can get us a boat I’ll... twenty credits. And my eternal gratitude.”
Rocky grinned. “It’s a deal! Let’s go up and take a look at it.”
“Maybe you can teach me something.” Jason stood up and grabbed his drink.
“So Rocky just wired it together and it started!” Jason was saying to Brett as they walked through Orca’s corridors. “He says it’ll be done in a few days, then we can all get out to the island whenever.”
“Great!” Brett waved his id and the door opened. “Hey Froggy, any luck?”
“No.” Froggy’s voice came from the depths of a motherboard. “Helen’s tried the coast guard and the navy. Nothing.”
“It doesn’t look good, Jason.’
“Let’s just keep trying.”
“What next then?” Froggy asked, surfacing with his dark hair rumpled. “I’ve got Helen hooked up to every public records database we could find.’
“Newspapers.” Brett said.
“Not bad. Helen, access newspaper reports, previous subject reference.”
“Yes Froggy.” Helen said. Lights began to blink all over the room, and bits of Helen whirred into higher gear. “Operation will take approximately twenty hours. In three hours school reports will be delivered in the rec room. Please collect yours.”
Brett and Froggy groaned.
“What do we do if this doesn’t work?” Vanessa asked the room at large.
“Think of something else.”
Jason collected an armload of parts and went back upstairs to help Rocky with the boat. The others ended up in the rec room, to get their daily required exercise and complain about grades. Brett’s opinion was, “Mum’s going to hate me. No, first she’s going to kill me and then she’s going to hate me.”
“Sometimes bad school reports aren’t as bad as you’d expect.” Kim said hopefully.
“Yeah well, mine are always worse.”
Vanessa grinned. “I’m not worried. I studied.”
“Oh, listen to the genius.” Mick called.
Vanessa leaned in and muttered, “You think you’ve got problems? Froggy saw his results on Helen. They’re so low you’d need sonar to find them.”
“Can’t wait to see what Commander Byrne says about her sweet little boy then. She’ll probably feed him to the sharks.”
Brett cheered very quietly and Kimberley said, “Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
“Froggy said...” Vanessa began, and everybody huddled for the gossip.
They were still gloating when Joanne came up. “Has anyone seen my brother?”
“Rocky was with Jason. Try the lab, or maybe up on the pontoon.”
“Thanks. Fingers crossed for grades!”
Brett groaned. “Don’t remind me!”
The door to the lab hummed open. Winston looked up.
“Oh, sorry.” Joanne said, “I was looking for my brother.”
“I don’t think that’s me.”
“I didn’t mean to interrupt...” Joanne said. The door had closed behind her and she took a step forward to see what Winston was working on.
“Oh, no no. Actually I could use a hand. Could you hold this?”
“Sure.” Joanne took the tool. It was a mirror on a long stick, that Winston was using to see the wired inside the machine he was fiddling with.
Free to use both hands, Winston got his pliers in place and fastened the wires. “There. You are most kind. Perhaps one day evolution will catch up and provide an extra hand for complex tasks.”
“More arms, more legs, where would it stop?”
“Suction pads for our fingers?” Winston suggested.
“Like an octopus with a fashion problem.’
“You have a twisted sense of humor.”
“You’re also an excellent assistant.”
“Thanks. What are we working on?”
“A side-scan sonar unit. Very powerful. For our geologic survey of the ocean floor.” Winston turned it on. Readings normal.
“What do you have to do next?” Joanne asked.
Winston’s face fell a little. “Hook it up to a boat and see if it works.”
“Can I go with you?”
“I thought you wanted to find your brother.”
“No hurry. If I wouldn’t be getting in your way...”
“You’re hired.” Winston said immediately. “An extra pair of hands would be most welcome, and perhaps you could expand on your theories of octopus fashion.”
Neri walked into the waves and dived. In the cove, Charley waved at her.
Too much sad. Charley said.
Not sad. I think about my sister. All this time I do not know of her. Where is she? Is she well? Does she have friends? These things I do not know.
Charley grumbled. Worrying about people who weren’t there was not part of a whale’s thoughts. He just knew his favorite person was sad for an incomprehensible reason.
Neri kicked for the surface and leaped into the air, hanging half out of the water for a minute before she fell back. She reached Charley and twined around his long body. Let’s go. Explore.
Winston lowered the sonar unit off the boat, on a bundle of cables. It was hooked to the power source, the boat’s engine, and a computer that analyzed the results. “There’s that—whoa!” He nearly slipped, caught himself on the rail.
“You all right?”
“Yes. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’m not very good on boats.”
“I’m a land creature. The swift gazelle on land has no legs at all in the water.”
“Well it doesn’t matter. You’re so good at everything else.” Joanne sounded a bit smitten. Winston wasn’t sure what to make of that!
“Ah, thank you. Now we’ll just give this a test run and see if it works as intended.”
A splash distracted them, and a huge shape surfaced beside the boat. Joanne gasped and stepped back.
Winston smiled. “It’s all right. It’s just a whale. Beautiful isn’t he?”
Charley dived slowly, his tail coming down with a mighty crash. Joanne stared, entranced. “Yes.”
“And such a show-off.”
“He’s not coming up.”
“Oh, they can stay down for a long time. We’ll let the tow array down now.”
“I’ll do it.”
“Thank you. I’ll watch the monitor.”
Joanne stood on the step at the rear of the boat and threw out coils of cable. The sonar unit had vanished into the blue water behind them. Suddenly—
Winston saw her go down and heard the splash. “Joanne?” He shouted. “Joanne!” She was gone, there was nothing but the line trailing out behind the boat. Panicking, Winston tried to pull it up, then gave up and jumped overboard. He ducked under, couldn’t see anything, and came up. “Joanne!”
Neri surfaced beside him, holding Joanne.
“Oh Neri, thank goodness.”
Winston hauled himself back into the boat and Neri helped him get Joanne on deck. The girl’s eyes were closed, but she turned her head and coughed. Neri nodded and hurriedly slid back into the water.
Joanne moaned and opened her eyes. “...what happened?”
“You hit your head. How do you feel? Any nausea? Are you seeing double?”
“No.” Joanne shook her head and winced. “I think I’m ok. I... was in the water. You saved me!”
“Ah, oh no, I... let’s get you back for some first aid and dry clothes!”
The hour had arrived. The kids sat in a circle, looking at the dreaded yellow envelopes. Froggy and Zoe traded glances, daring each other to go first. Finally Brett grabbed his, and everyone else raced to get their envelopes open as fast as they could.
Brett whooped. “Yes! I don’t believe it! I’m having this framed!”
“Really? Let me see!” Zoe leaned over for a look, then went back to her own report.
Mick swaggered up between them. “That good huh? Give me a look.” As he bent down, he accidentally-on-purpose spilled orange soda all over the table, and Brett’s report card.
“Gee, I’m sorry.”
Brett fished out his soggy report while Froggy reminded him they could just have Helen print another copy, and Brett said it was the spirit of the thing...
Vanessa poked them bout and pointed. The Commander had arrived.
“Michael! I’ve just read your report. And I must say I got a shock.”
The kids made various smirks and expressions of delight.
“It is extremely bad.’
Mick put on a hangdog face. “I’m sorry Mum. I really tried.”
“Yes. Well—I know you can do a lot better than this. But obviously settling in here has been a lot harder on you than I thought.”
“Yeah. Really hard.’
“After all, making new friends takes a lot of time and energy. And that’s important too. So we’ll just forget about this, shall we? And make sure you make up for it next time.”
Mick nodded very sincerely then, when his mother turned away, grinned and made a victory sign.
“No way!” Brett groaned.
Zoe nodded solemnly. “Life isn’t fair.”
“Actually I feel sorry for him.”
Vanessa shrugged. “Well my Mum would flatten me if I failed a semester. You gotta wonder if the commander even cares.”
“I see what you mean.” Froggy said. “Not that I’m going to stop enjoying scenes like that!”
There were nods of agreement. Brett suggested victory ice-cream for everybody who hadn’t flunked this time, but when they tried to order Helen said it was dinner time and they couldn’t have dessert until after.
Jason caught up with Brett on the way home after dinner, and heard the day’s news. “Don’t worry. Guys like Mick, sooner or later they get what they deserve.”
“I wish it was sooner.”
They paused in the viewing tube to look out at the reef by evening. Orca’s lights attracted tiny creatures to swarm about them, and bigger fish came to feed. “So we won’t get a lead until tomorrow?”
“Froggy told Helen to search all newspapers—he didn’t realize how many all is. You should’ve seen his face when Helen told him why she couldn’t deliver earlier. Where were you?”
“Helping Rocky with the zodiac. Actually, mostly cheerleading and asking stupid technical questions.”
They both looked up as footsteps approached, and their mother stormed down the hall. Jason said, “That bad huh?”
“Worse. Phillips is an obstinate, pig-headed—I only had to say ‘go to port’ for him to go to starboard.”
“Well Rocky’s fixed the old zodiac so we’ll be able to get away without any hassles...”
“Jason, I don’t want to hear about it. I don’t want to hear another word about boats for the rest of the evening!”
Jason and Brett shared a look. Definitely time to go and do homework. Very quietly.
Morning in the lab, Dianne was looking over data and Winston was explaining. “...of course I couldn’t tell her it was Neri who saved her. So unfortunately, I’ve become Joanne’s hero. Totally under false pretenses.”
“Sounds like she’s quite taken with you.” Dianne teased.
“It is not funny.”
“No, I suppose not... Winston, look at this. It’s the scan you did yesterday, but look...”
Winston looked. On the screen, a detailed topographical map of the seabed spun. Dianne moved to lever and the picture collapsed to a crude pixelated view. Winston blinked. “That’s the level of image quality I would expect, but what was that just then?”
“The image suddenly enhances. For about twenty minutes, right before the end of the tape.”
“Wait. That must have been the exact time that Neri arrived. And look, it reduces back again.”
“You mean Neri’s presence enhances the scan? How?”
“I have no idea. Perhaps something in her physical makeup magnifies the effect of the equipment. If she were swimming directly under the sonar array... well, it’s a theory worth testing further.”
“It is indeed!” Dianne said, excited. “Winston, do you realize what this means? If we could get this kind of detail and depth constantly, we could do the survey in half the time!”
“You mean—ask Neri to help us?”
“Yes! Why not?”
Froggy hung out the door of the computer room, waving. “Guys!”
“You got something?” Vanessa speeded up. Brett and Jason followed her.
“Jackpot. There was an article.” Froggy waited until the door was shut before pointing everybody at the screen.
“A baby! A baby girl found in the water!”
Froggy nodded. “Helen found it. It’s about ten years old, right time, right place.”
“What’s it say?”
“Not much. Someone found a baby floating in the ocean.”
“Does it say who? Is there a name?”
“Johnny Mack.” Vanessa read. “A fisherman from Cape Tribulation. Hey, that’s right up the coast. Froggy, read the whole thing.”
Froggy took a deep breath, “‘A baby girl was found under strange circumstances at Cape Tribulation yesterday. Local fisherman Johnny Mack says that he found the baby in an unusual raft floating about six hundred metres off shore. Police have yet to confirm his claim, but spokesperson Tara Trotter said they were “mystified” as to how the baby came to be there. She said that there had been no reports of kidnaps recently, and can only assume that the baby was abandoned at sea. The girl is said to be about five months old, and according to Ms Trotter, “hasn’t cried once.””
Listening, Jason nodded to himself. She doesn’t cry...
“School’s out, we can go tomorrow.” Brett said.
“Yeah, but can we find him?”
“We have to.”
What they did was pull the zodiac up on the beach at the place where the baby had been found, and walk around. The only person around was an old Aboriginal fisherman. He looked at them curiously as he carried gear to his boat. Jason, Brett and Vanessa stood around, trying to get up the nerve to say anything.
Finally the fisherman said, “You kids going to say something or you gonna stand there all day?” His voice was deep and resonant.
Jason said, “Ah, we were looking for Johnny Mack?”
“Oh? What would you say to him if you found him?”
“We heard he might know something about a baby girl found floating out on the coast a long time ago.”
“Why would you want to know about that? Even if it is true.”
“We promised a friend we’d find out.” Brett offered. “It’s important.”
“It really is. Please Mister, if you know anything...”
The fisherman sat down on the side of his boat and nodded to them. “Well that’s different then. Friends have a right to know. Now that you mention it, I did hear Johnny Mack tell the story once. He was out fishing. He used to go out fishing every day before sunup. But this day—everything was still. No fish were biting. Like there’d been some big ruckus in the night. He couldn’t figure it out.”
The water gleamed like molten silver in the first sunlight as the young man waded out, pulling his boat behind him.
“And then out of nowhere this—thing bumps into his boat. And do you know what Johnny found inside?
Grey metal, heavy but floating. It was rounded like a giant seedpod pushed by the waves. The young man touched it and it unlocked and swung open.
“A baby.” Jason said.
The fisherman nodded. “Beautiful as a frangipani bud. All by herself.”
The child lay on the pod’s lining, wrapped in a white blanket, and calm as if she were in her own bed. She blinked and squinted when the light hit her face but didn’t cry. Johnny picked her up carefully, wonderingly, and she made a cheerful baby-noise at him. Johnny settled the child in his boat and turned back to get the pod, only to see it sink and vanish impossibly in the shallow water.
“What happened to her? Do you know?”
The fisherman shrugged. “The authorities came and took her away to a foster family. She was a white girl, and things were different then.”
“You never saw her again.” Jason said, his heart sinking.
“Johnny Mack never saw her again. That’s all I can tell you.”
“Thanks. We’d better get going.”
“Like I said. Friends have a right to know. That little girl... she was a bit different.”
Jason nodded and held out his hand. “If she met Johnny Mack, she’d want to say thanks for all the help.”
They shook hands. “If I see Johnny, I’ll be happy to pass on the message.”
The children returned to their boat, Brett and Vanessa pushed it off the beach and they all waded out to get in. A little paddling and they were far enough out to start the engine. Everybody waved.
A few minutes later Brett yelled over the noise of the motor, “Let’s go tell Neri! Right now!”
Jason nodded so he could see.
Vanessa said, “Ok, did that conversation strike any of you as weird?”
Jason shrugged. “Good weird.” He said. The Aborigine had reminded him of Neri somehow, a person who fit into the world perfectly... but Jason didn’t know how to say that, and didn’t want to try while driving anyway. Instead he pointed off to starboard, where Charley leaped from the water in a cheerful breach. A smaller splash might have been Neri, too far away to see. Brett waved like crazy.
When they reached the island Neri was waiting on the beach. As soon as the engine shut down Jason was yelling, “Neri! She made it, Neri! She survived the landing.”
“Where is she?”
“The authorities took her.” Brett said, “People in charge, like the commander on Orca but for land. They’d take care of her, find a family for her to live with.”
Neri nodded. “I am glad.”
“And!” Vanessa broke in, “Now we know where and when she was found we can start looking for her properly.”
“Yes.” Neri hugged Vanessa in delight. “We will look for her. We will find her. And we will bring her home!”