“Here you are. Fake id for Mera.” Froggy turned away from his terminal and held out the card.
“Great. Thanks, Froggy.”
Zoe said, “Froggy told me she’s about my size. I’ll sneak a spare uniform up and hide it with Neri’s.”
“That’s all set then. Ready for this afternoon. I just hope it’ll be as easy to get back into the institute a second time.”
“This time I’m coming.” Brett said.
Jason gave him a look. “You can’t, Brett. We’ve got enough people already, it’ll make us too obvious.”
“Well, someone else can stay behind.”
“Like who? I’m the one that Mera talked to, we need Froggy for the fence, and there’s no way Vanessa will give up her spot.”
“Well she might.” Brett said, determined to hold onto hope. He followed the others out of the computer room. “It’s the dance after all.”
Zoe laughed. “Oh come on Brett, who’d want to invite Vanessa?”
“I just wondered if you’d like to come to the dance with me.” Mick said.
Vanessa looked at him over the manual she was reading. “Me?”
“Yeah. It’s time we buried the hatchet.”
“Well, because you and I, we’re the same in a lotta ways. Of course, I’m not as bright as you. Nobody is. But I think we’re on the same wavelength. So how about it?”
“You’re out of your mind, and the only thing I want to be on the same wavelength with is a boat license.” Vanessa very pointedly turned back to her notes.
“Is that a no?”
“It’s a no.”
Mick suddenly sounded serious, and sad. “Oh. That’s what I expected. Guess I just got my hopes up. You don’t know what it’s like, you probably have no idea...”
“Any idea about what?” Vanessa asked, caught by the change in tone.
“How it feels being me. The kid nobody likes. That always gets left out, or laughed at. You probably think I don’t care, I guess I put on a good act.”
“Mick, why are you telling me all this?”
“You’re right. It’s not your problem. I’ll skip the dance. There must be lots of guys wanting to take you anyway.”
Vanessa blinked. “Uh, well, some.” She lied. The thing was, Vanessa knew exactly how it felt to be the kid nobody liked. She knew exactly what Mick was talking about, if he was serious.
“So I guess there’s no chance you’d change your mind? ‘cause I’d make sure you had a really good time Vanessa, if you came with me. I may stink at running, but I can dance.” He grinned, a small heartfelt smile.
“I’d be really proud to be seen with you.”
“Well all right.”
Mick looked delighted. “Thanks.”
Vanessa rolled her eyes. “At least it’ll give the girls something to talk about.”
“Yeah. I’ll see you later then.” Mick got up and went back to the guys he was hanging out with. Vanessa shook her head and tried to get back to studying.
An hour later the others drifted in from their various jobs and games. Jason sat down next to Vanessa. “Will you tell these kids you’re definitely coming?”
“To the institute? To help us break Mera out?”
“I suppose we have to go today.”
“Yeah, of course. So nobody misses us when the dance is on.” Jason said, wondering why Vanessa was so distracted.
Vanessa sighed. “That’s just it, I’ve told somebody I’d go with them.”
“To the dance? Who?” Zoe leaned over the table, drink in hand, ready for gossip.
“Never mind. Well, I’ll have to put him off then.”
“No, I mean you can’t! It’d look suspicious.” Brett said quickly.
“I suppose it might.”
“Don’t worry. Zoe and me’ll go. You stay here and enjoy yourself!” Brett gave Vanessa a hearty pat on the back, then turned to high-five Zoe.
Vanessa gave Jason an apologetic shrug. “Actually he has a point. I’m the one that receptionist saw yesterday, it might be better to take someone else. Not that I meant to play into his hands.”
Jason rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry mate, nobody ever does.
In Dianne’s lab Froggy checked his gear for the tenth time. Neri was sitting on a stool watching. Jason came over to her and held up the amulet. “Let’s hope this does the trick.”
“I try and think what she will be like.” Neri said with a ghost of a smile.
“She’s awfully... awfully scared, I guess. But by tonight you’ll see her yourself.”
“Are you sure she wants to come?”
“She said she would if she trusted us, and I’m sure she will.”
The door opened and Brett and Zoe skidded in, dressed in civilian clothes. Zoe did a little spin, showing off. “Forgot what I look like in real clothes!” She said, and frowned when Froggy didn’t even look up.
Dianne came over. “You’re helping this girl leave without permission.”
“Mum, they won’t give her permission!”
“They must, Dianne. We cannot deny Mera knowledge of her true nature and heritage. What the children go to do may not be quite legal, but it is entirely right.”
“Thanks Winston.” Jason nodded. “Ok, ready? Let’s go.”
They headed for the door. Dianne said, “Ah ah, excuse me!” And inflicted kisses on both her sons. “Bye-bye. And you take care, all right?”
“You worry?” Neri chimed.
“No, no, I won’t worry. I’ll just work.”
The girls had crammed into Kimberley’s cabin with all the makeup, hairbrushes and fancy clothing they owned. Joanne had already voiced the inevitable complaint about the small closets on Orca; there wasn’t space for a lot of anything that wasn’t uniforms.
“Tell us who, Vanessa.” Kim begged as she brushed Vanessa’s hair into an upswept wave.
“You’ll find out soon enough. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
“Relax, she’s great with hair.” Joanne crammed herself into the free corner of the room with a dress. “Here, I think you should wear this one.’
“I thought that was your favorite dress.”
“Well, aren’t you going to wear it?”
Joanne sighed rather theatrically. “I probably won’t be going.”
Kimberley turned to look at her in shock. “What? Why not?”
“No point. The only interesting male on Orca won’t be there.”
Vanessa almost said several things, most of them about how Winston was as old as their fathers so he was kind of cute but so not in a dating way. But what she actually said was, “I was going to wear—can you grab it out of my bag? The dark green one. What do you guys think of it?”
In the lab Dianne and Winston were compiling the latest scans into the full topographic map. Winston was having raptures, in between noting down spots they’d missed. Neri was in the back of the lab, watching television. Helen had found her a nature program about the Amazon and Neri, who was usually bored by TV, was watching raptly.
Suddenly Dianne jumped and swatted Winston. “Hey!”
“What?” He pulled off the headphones.
“You know how I’ve been worried about getting behind on the whale studies?”
“Neri can help us kill two birds with one stone.”
“Kill birds? You are hungry?” Neri asked, perplexed.
Dianne laughed. “No, no. It’s just a saying. It means to get two things done at once. Listen, Charley will be with you while we’re doing the boat survey, yes?”
“Right. Well if you’re talking to him, I can collect the whale sounds you two make for the whale dictionary.”
Neri nodded enthusiastically. “Charley will like. He wants to help Mother make the ocean safe for whales.”
“Charley wants...?” Dianne trailed off in wonder, then returned to herself and took a deep breath. “Neri, what we do... it will take a long time for it to make a difference. It’s our hope that when people come to know more about whales they’ll see how important it is to protect them, but it takes a long time to change people’s minds. We may not see the results in our lifetime, no matter what we do.”
“I know.” Neri said softly. “Is like spreading seeds, you will not have trees for many seasons.”
“Exactly, Neri. I’m glad you understand.”
“We will certainly do our best. But taking the recording equipment on board—a little risky isn’t it?”
“Nah. It’s just another gadget to Sam Phillips.” Dianne waved that off, then noticed Neri’s downcast expression. “The river dolphins not interesting? Or thinking about the others?”
Neri nodded. “If they will bring Mera back.”
“I’ll tell you what. They will do the best they can.”
The kids arrived, hearts pounding, outside the long white building. Jason looked in the window. “Mera? It’s us, can we come in?”
Mera was sitting in the same place she’d been yesterday, with the same nonexpression. If she hadn’t been wearing different clothes Jason would have wondered if she’d moved at all.
But the girl looked up at him and spoke immediately. “They are making me go. Today. Someplace called UBRI.”
“UBRI!” Zoe gasped.
“You know it?”
“You bet we do!”
“It’s a bad place, Mera. They use science for the wrong things. They tried to trap Cha—a whale. They wanted to take him prisoner.”
“Prisoner?” There was a hint of fear behind the word.
“That’s probably what you’d be too!” Brett exclaimed. “You can’t go with them!”
“You said if we brought proof.” Jason said. He reached into his pocket and held out Neri’s amulet. “I brought this. Your sister’s. It’s the same as yours. They’re from your father.”
Mera took off her necklace and held the two metal shapes, fitted together on her hand. She looked at them for a long minute, then handed Neri’s amulet back to Jason. “All right. I’ll come.”
“Yes!” Brett grinned and Froggy and Zoe cheered very quietly. Jason said, “We need to hurry. Is there anything you want to bring?”
Mera put her necklace back on and tucked it safely under her shirt. “Only this.”
Neri looked up at the bottom of the boat and twirled herself under the scanner hanging from it. She waved at the camera, then at Charley. We help Mother. After, Jason will bring my sister home.
Charley whistled the word for ‘family’ and the one for, ‘calf.”
Yes, like baby. But for always, not just a season.
In the cabin of the boat Dianne sat with her chin in her hands, watching the recording. “It works.”
“Seems to, yes. I wonder what they are talking about.”
“It’s fantastic, Winston. We’re getting our map of the ocean floor and recording Charley’s chatter at the same time. All thanks to Neri.”
“She is amazing. –quick! Sam!”
They got the monitor off fast as Captain Phillips stepped off the ladder into the cabin. “Just wondered how it was going.”
“It’s great, thanks.”
Sam stepped around to get a look at the map display. He whistled. “So this is what all the fuss is about. I’m impressed!”
“Well you’ve seen maps of the ocean floor before.”
“Sure, but not with this amount of detail and depth. I mean, look at those sideways elevations!”
“And we’re getting over some ground, no extra passes. That’s some equipment!”
“Oh well, you know, your gear’s only as good as those around you.”
“Sure. Well.” Sam turned the same admiring expression on her, “You’re not just here for decoration.”
“I’m not here for decoration at all.”
“No. Obviously. Well I’ll—let you get on with it.” The captain retreated.
Winston began to chuckle. “I knew it! I knew it!”
“You have won a heart!”
Dianne swatted him. “Oh for heaven’s sake, Winston!”
“Uh-oh.” Froggy said. He pointed. At the fence, a huddle of uniformed people were looking at his scrambler device. “They’re onto us.”
“Back-up plan? Anybody?” Brett asked.
“Bluff our way through the main gate?” Jason suggested.
Mera said, “You can’t. You need a pass.”
“Unless anyone can think of another way... we’ll have to risk it. Just keep walking, like you own the place.”
They walked, though everyone seemed to be hiding behind Jason. A guard at the gate looked up. “Hey, you lot. Just where do you think you’re going?”
“Just for a walk.”
“It’s just a walk.” Zoe said and Brett added, “We’ve got permission.”
“I’ll have to call. You stay right there. Don’t move.”
Stalled inside the gate, Froggy muttered, “This was a stupid idea, Jason. We’re dead.”
Just then a bus pulled in to the stop across the street. Kids began to pour off, others waiting to get on. Jason said, “Come on!”
They dashed across the street, the guard yelling after them. Brett grabbed Mera’s hand and pulled her along. Reaching the bus first, Zoe grinned at the driver and tossed him a handful of coins, and they ducked into some seats.
As the bus clanked and jolted into life Jason said, “We’re going the wrong way. Get off at the next stop, we’ll hide in the fields.”
“We’re going down to the beach.” Brett said to Mera, “Our boat’s waiting. Ready to run?”
Mera nodded. Her face showed only a ghost of a smile, but her eyes were sparkling.
The bus stopped, and the doors folded open. “Come on!”
They ran up the wide corridor between the rows. The corn was seven feet tall, and dense. Jason said, “Split up! Hide, they’re coming!”
Brett waved and dived into the hedge, vanishing between the stalks. Froggy and Zoe vanished in the other direction. Jason and Mera turned down a little path, turned off it, and crouched in a hollow. Jason put his finger to his lips, and Mera nodded and settled into stillness.
Footsteps crunched down the middle of the field. Jason saw a flash of black. Someone in a suit, passing by. There were more footsteps. How many of them?
A man’s voice barked, “I want the girl.” Corn rustled as one of the grownups tried to squeeze between the stalks over on the other side. More rustling and cursing, as whoever it was gave up.
Silence. After a minute Jason pointed and tried a step. At the first sound someone yelled, “Over there! Something moved!”
Jason and Mera ducked and held still, Jason at least trying not to breathe loudly. Someone came crashing towards them.
Jason whispered, “You go-”
Brett’s voice rang out, “Wrong way, suckeeeeers!” And people were running and Jason didn’t know where anyone was. But there was no more yelling so nobody got caught. After way too long the same man said, “Those children didn’t disappear into thin air. Back this way.”
Retreating footsteps. Jason started breathing again. After a minute Froggy and Zoe joined them in the hollow, Froggy with a theatrical hand on his chest. “Yeah, thanks, just about had a heart attack.”
“Oh, you’re fine.”
“What about Brett?”
“Looking for me?” Brett, grinning and not even out of breath, appeared.
Jason swatted him, which was his way of saying, ‘glad you’re ok.’ Out loud he said, “Froggy, you studied the map longer than I did. Any idea how to get us out of here?”
“Um...” Froggy thought. “Yes. Automated train for taking corn to processing. It’ll take us to the other side of the farm, away from the road. We can hide there at least.”
Helen had done a pretty good job turning the rec room into a dance. The exercise equipment was folded away and the pool table had been converted into a dj station where Nicos was “laying it down” with more enthusiasm than skill. The lights were off, and colored strobes and spotlights were on. Girls in glittery dresses were dancing, mostly with each other, and guys were eating and talking.
Kimberley had had one dance with Rocky before retiring. “Sorry Joanne, I mean I like your brother and all but...’
“I know. Nerdiness levels at critical.”
“Aaaaand now I have proof that you’re related.”
“What? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Quite a crowd.” Vanessa said as she came in, rather self-consciously, with Mick. The girls saw her and gaped.
“Yeah. You want a drink or something?”
“Oh, no thanks. I’m fine.”
“Might get one myself then.” Mick said, and wandered off towards the food. Vanessa waited, not wanting to face Kim and Joanne yet. She tweaked her dress, knowing at least she looked good.
“Where’s Mick? Did he bring her?” Someone said, and Vanessa pricked her ears up. The guys were on the other side of a support pole so she couldn’t see who they were.
“He sure did. Guess we’re gonna have to cough up, Steve.”
“What’s all this about?” That was Nicos, wearing a tie over his uniform.
“Oh, just a bet we had.”
“What sort of bet?”
“”It was ten credits to the guy who brought the biggest dog on Orca, and next thing we know Mick’s got Vanessa lined up.”
“I dunno how he talked her into it.”
“But we didn’t even have a chance, I mean in the nerd stakes Vanessa’s way out in front.”
Nico said, “That’s sick. Excuse me, must go spike the punch.”
Vanessa stood still for a minute, then turned to follow Mick across the room. Joanne and Kimberley fell in beside her. “Did I see right? You actually came with Mick?”
“Talk about a partner from hell! ...what? Vanessa?”
Vanessa stalked around knots of kids dancing or talking. Neri was there, in her uniform but not dancing. “Vanessa, do you know if they’ve come back?”
“No Neri, I don’t. But excuse me won’t you? There’s something I have to do. ...Ah, Mick, there you are.”
Mick turned and smiled. “Hey, sorry. I got to talking with the guys. So, you want to dance or what?”
Vanessa smiled sweetly, picked up a pitcher, and dumped it neatly over Mick’s head. “Or what!” She said and left. Mick stood there dripping and smelling of lime while everyone laughed and Nico made a ‘bada-bing!’ with the sound system.
Vanessa had reached her room, thrown her box of makeup at the wall, and burst into tears. Neri sat down next to her.
“How could I? Me! I’m supposed to be bright! How could I be so stupid? I don’t believe it!” Vanessa sobbed and felt around for something else to throw.
Neri offered a pillow.
“Should’ve known. Neri, I actually thought he wanted to take me to the dance. As if he would. As if anyone would.”
“No, Vanessa, not true.” Neri said.
“Yes it is. I’m trying to be nice, but I scare people! I put them off. I want to be gentle like you but I don’t know how and everybody seems to think I don’t need friends!”
“I am your friend, Vanessa.” Neri put her arm around the other girl and they leaned on each other. Comfort offered and accepted. “I am always your friend. And Mick—he is very wet!”
The automated train coasted to a silent stop and the kids jumped off the back. The road was out of sight now, blocked by two fields and the bulk of the processing center. There was nobody following them. They headed across an empty field.
“Brett was really good back there wasn’t he?” Zoe said, “When he led them away from you and Mera.”
Brett bumped his brother, grinning.
“Oh all right.” Jason laughed, returning the shove.
“So no more calling me a little creep, all right?”
“Fair enough. From now on you’re a big creep.”
Mera walked behind them, watching. They were... nice. Nice, ordinary kids. On the other side of the field they climbed down a small slope to the beach. Brett started wrestling with the rope it was tied by, while Froggy and Zoe jumped in. Jason said, “Mera, you want to wet down before we go?”
Mera gave him a blank look. Jason said, “Sorry—have a quick dip. Neri calls it wetting down. It’s a short trip.”
“Orca!” Brett called, “Underwater!” He turned on his com watch and spoke into it, “Mum? Mission successful—yeah, we’re fine. Listen, find Neri and get her topside in a half hour, ok?”
Mera stood gazing at the waves while Jason went to help get the boat loose. Wet down? She sat down and pulled her shoes off, then waded in and cupped water to splash her face. Nobody said anything. Nobody even glanced at her until Jason said, “Ok. Ready to go meet your sister?”
“My sister.” Mera murmured, and let water run through her hands and climbed into the boat.
The sun was sinking towards the sea when the children returned to Orca. Brett said, “Wait here. Everyone’s coming up.”
The girl waited, afraid but not showing it.
The elevator opened. Neri stepped out and walked slowly across the platform, gazing at her sister as if filling her eyes. She whispered, “Sister? Mera?” And enfolded her sister in a warm embrace. Mera didn’t hug her back, just stared with her face expressionless once more.
“Come on, check it out! This is our cabin.” Brett said, “What do you think of Orca?”
Dianne shooed her son away. “Let me talk to Mera for a minute. Why don’t you go help Froggy sneak his gear back into the storage room he snitched it from?”
Brett made a ‘yikes’ face and fled.
“Mera, we are so glad you’re here. Ever since Neri heard of your existence, we’ve been looking forward to meeting you. I’m Brett and Jason’s mother, you can call me Dianne if you like. Neri calls me ‘mother.’ I hope you’ll be happy with us, With Neri. And if you need anything, you can always come to me. Always.”
The girl nodded. She’d heard that sort of thing before.
The door opened and Neri and Jason came in. Neri was putting her necklace back on. She looked at it and at Mera’s, and smiled. “Family.”
“The boat’s fueled up and ready to go.”
Mera blinked. “We’re going to the island now?”
“Oh yes. Neri won’t be happy until she gets you home.”
“Home.” The girl said softly.
“It’s beautiful there. And you’ll be safe, I promise. Why don’t you go and see?”
Jason let them off on the beach and left, to get the boat back before curfew. He waved goodbye.
The girls walked up the beach.
Neri spread her arms. “My home.”
It was beautiful. So... clean. Pale sand sloping gently up to the beginning of the jungle. Tangled green and brown. Sounds of birds, and the waves lapping the beach. Delicious outdoor smell of salt and growing things. Calm.
“But... where do you live?”
“Here. All around. You’ll see.”
“Tell me about our family.”
“I can tell you about father. All the family I remember. He was strong. Good.”
“Where is he now?”
“Gone now. For always. But sometimes, here—I can still feel him near. You will too.”
“I don’t understand.” The girl admitted. “Anything!”
“I will tell you. Slowly. But for now, just be happy—sister.”