7 Beyond a Reaching Hand
Morning poured over the island, slow and clear. In the tree a girl slept, curled in a nest of leaves. She stirred, opened her eyes and looked at the jungle without comprehension. Birds were singing, and others were calling raucously. It was loud! And bright, not at all like waking up indoors.
Mera rubbed her eyes and sat up—and jumped, as she saw a pair of lovebirds watching her, just at eye level and maybe a foot away. She scooted away from them, felt her hand slip, and turned to look down, ten feet to the pond off the edge of the nest.
She remembered the institute, the kids who came for her, the weird, weird girl in the tattered dress.
Neri climbed into the nest, a sunny smile on her face. “We are lucky. The yellow fruit is ready. Come.” She grabbed a vine and jumped, swinging gracefully over the water before she dropped in. She stood waist-deep and threw the vine back up. “Come!”
Mera caught it and stood at the edge of the nest, very much against her better judgment. She stepped onto the air—and shrieked as her grip slipped, sending her down in a swinging tumble into the water. She landed in the pond, with one last yelp as her bottom hit the stones.
Neri offered her a hand up, seeming not to have noticed. “Follow.”
Mera stood on her own, and tried to wring water out of her shorts before she went after Neri.
In their bunks on Orca, Jason and Brett were waking up. “I wonder how it’s going for them.” Jason said.
Brett folded his arms behind his head. “Betcha Mera’s spun out. I mean, imagine waking up every morning in that gross institute. Now she’s in paradise!”
Dianne ducked into the room, a towel around her hair. “It may not seem like paradise to Mera yet. There’s an awful lot for her to get used to.”
“Aw, she’ll be all right.”
“I hope so. I hope we did the right thing.”
“Mum, don’t be such a downer! What, are you saying we should’ve left her where she was?”
“To be dragged off by those Ubri guys.” Brett added.
“Right right, point taken. I’m saying they’ll both need time to adjust is all—Neri to having company out there, and Mera to sleeping outdoors just for a start. Now would you two get up?”
There was a two-boy chorus of, “It’s Sunday!”
The wall screen binged and Captain Phillips appeared. “You there, Doc?”
Jason muttered, “Oh great, it’s Davy Jones.”
“Hush you. Yes Captain, I know, I’m running late.”
“You can relax; the engine’s playing up. Eleven hundred hours ok?”
“Fine. Oh, and I’d like to bring Jason with me.”
“You would?” Said Jason.
“Not too sure about having kids on board.”
Jason bristled. “I’m an experienced diver, in case you’re interested. With a permit.” He said, trying to be angry while wearing pajamas.
“Well, don’t get under my feet then.”
“Keep off my back then.”
“Enough.” Dianne closed the call. “Jason, that was very rude.”
“Huh. Well, I don’t like his attitude. Come to think of it, I don’t like him at all.”
“Oh come on, he’s not that bad.”
Brett sniggered, and his mother gave him a killing look.
“And how come I’m going on the boat suddenly?”
“Because we need someone to communicate with Neri.”
“I thought you’d want her to spend time with Mera, helping her settle in.”
Dianne sighed. “Yes, but we can’t stop the survey. It’ll just be a couple of hours a day I promise. We can go ask her about it after breakfast—and why aren’t you two dressed yet?”
Helen’s morning announcement echoed over the cafeteria. “Those on shore leave today please note departure times are eleven-hundred and fourteen-hundred hours. Finally, Orca wishes many happy returns of the day to Vanessa Lane.”
“Helen’s got a new birthday program.” Froggy said, “Good, eh?”
“You might like it Froggy, but Vanessa looks like she could fry Helen’s microchips.” Zoe said, gesturing with her bagel at Vanessa, who was scowling into her cereal bowl two tables away.
“Vanessa, you should’ve told us.” Joanne said, coming over.
“Yeah well, it’s no big deal.”
“Scared she’ll get no presents.”
“Mick, shut up. So, are you doing something special?”
“No. Yes. I’m busy.” Vanessa stood up, dropped off her bowl to be washed, and left the room.
Kimberley looked after her thoughtfully. “She needs to lighten up. Let’s put on a party. A surprise.”
“Brilliant! But where? Our cabins are too small.”
“How about one of the storerooms on delta level? No one ever goes there.”
Mick said, “Count me in.”
“Or not. You’re about the last person Vanessa wants around.”
The yellow fruit grew at head-height on some scraggly bushes. They looked like lemons, but were mealy inside. Mera picked at hers, pulling out pulp with her fingers. She tried it. Yuck!
“No, like this one. When the green is gone from it.”
Mera found an all-yellow fruit, split it open in her hands and tasted the pulp. It was not much better. “Thanks, it’s lovely.” She said without enthusiasm.
“But you wish for corn flakes?”
“How did you know?”
Neri smiled gently. “Know what sister thinks. Time you meet Charley.”
“You will love him.”
“Wait, someone else lives here? Where’s his house?”
Neri laughed, “Charley’s house! Come, you will see.”
They went down the hill. Mera finally noticed they were walking on a faint, foot-wide trail. There were little heaps of dung here and there, and Mera saw something rat-sized but roo-shaped watch them for a minute before hopping slowly away.
The jungle opened up and Neri ran down the beach. Mera took a step—and tripped and fell full length into the sand. She looked up, glaring—at nothing because Neri was leaping into the surf, agile as a deer. The younger girl picked herself up and followed.
The girl called Jane loved swimming, and she was good at it. Even now, when she was hungry and unhappy, the water felt good. She dived under, after Neri, and the blue world opened up. For a second she almost... but then she ran out of air and had to come up. Neri surfaced beside her, a confused expression on her beautiful face. “Mera cannot swim?”
“I can! Just not like you.” The girl protested, hurt and almost angry. Swimming was the only thing she was good at, but compared to Neri...
“Is all right. Mera cannot swim to Charley, so Charley swim to Mera. Look. Charley.”
The girl turned, and a huge blue bulk heaved up out of the waves. She screamed and thrashed backwards.
Neri heard Charley’s questioning call, but could only answer that she didn’t know, as she followed her sister back to land.
“You believe now Charley is friend?”
“If you say so.” The girl said miserably. She was sitting under a tree, hugging her knees to her chest, after hearing a long and confused explanation.
“Charley did not mean to scare you. He was excited to meet you Mera.”
“Mera...” The girl said softly. “All my life I’ve been called Jane. Plain old Jane. Now I’m Mera suddenly.”
“You don’t like Mera? Father called you Mera.” Neri sat down comfortably in the sand.
“What was he like, Neri? And why did he bring us from... so far away?”
“Because we must give message to earth people. We must warn them.”
“Warn them? About what?”
“Not to be greedy. Not to spoil the sea that he loved. He was so wise.”
“It’s so—so weird. So hard to believe. Neri are you really—are we really from—up there?”
“Father say so. Friends say it makes sense; that is why we are not like them.” Neri looked up, listening. “Friends come, Charley tells me.” She rolled ho her feet and ran down the beach as a boat came into view.
Mera didn’t move. She was thinking about being an alien, and how the thought was almost a comfort.
“Hi Neri. Mum wondered when you might be able to come to work.”
“Mother want me to go now?”
“Well—yeah.” Jason said, confused by the instant reply.
“Then I go now. Charley too?”
Neri nodded and walked past the boat, into the water. Brett said, “Hey, talk a minute? What about Mera? How’s it going?”
“Mera not so happy.”
Brett dropped into the surf. “Maybe I’d better, you know, go talk to her.”
“Ok. We’ll come back for you when we’re finished on Sam’s boat.”
“Good luck.” Brett waved.
Neri dived into a wave, and Jason revved the boat’s engine. Brett waved to Mera and slogged up the beach.
Froggy looked up with trepidation as Mick invaded his lair. “Hey, kid. Can you show me counseling room five?”
“Can’t. They’re restricted.”
“Oh come on.” Mick said, draping a not-friendly arm over Froggy’s shoulders. “You can bypass stuff like that.’
“Yeah maybe. Why should I?”
“’cause if you don’t, I’ll tell Mom how much you mess around with Helen. Like you’re in here all the time when you’re not supposed to be. I think she’d be reeeeal interested.”
Froggy sighed and put in the code. “All right. Why do you want to see a councilor anyway?”
“I want to see who ‘s seeing one. Hah! I knew I saw her go in there!”
“Vanessa?” The hair was unmistakable. Why was Vanessa seeing a councilor?
“Where’s the audio? Come on.”
Froggy brought it online. The councilor was saying, “How’ve you been? Have you made any new friends?”
“Sure, loads.” Vanessa muttered.
“What about the dance? Did you go to it?”
“That’s my business. Look, no offence, I wouldn’t even be here if my parents didn’t make me come.”
“But since you are here, what bout those nasty spider dreams? Have you had any more of them?”
“Vanessa? Any more bad dreams?”
“Yes. No.” Vanessa said.
“What do spiders signify for you, do you think?”
“They signify great black, hairy, creepy, probably poisonous... this is stupid.”
“Unreal!” Mick hooted.
“Big, tough Vanessa. Scared of spiders.” Froggy said with wonder, and sympathy because he thought the same thing about spiders.
“Oh man. Pinch me and tell me I’m not dreaming!”
“What’s good about it?”
When they turned back to the screen, the picture was gone, replaced by a warning notice. Mick said, “Hey, what happened to the picture?”
“What? Come on, get it back, man!”
“I said, get it back!”
Froggy rolled his eyes. “Helen’s started a scan. We’ll be detected. What’s the matter, can’t you read?”
“Yeah, of course I can.” Mick blustered, but the danger had gone out of his voice.
“Didn’t look like it to me.”
“Yeah well, I’ve seen enough. I’m outta here.”
“Hey, how’s it going?” Captain Phillips leaned in the door of the cabin. This was the third time he’d come to check on them. Up on deck Jason was fuming.
“Going fine.” Dianne replied.
“Wow, you guys tune this thing up or something? The scan looks clearer than yesterday.”
“We haven’t found any priceless mineral deposits for you yet, though.” Winston said.
“No, so you’ll have to endure life with us on Orca a while longer.”
“Aw, you can get used to anything.” Sam said bashfully.
“Even women on boats?”
“You’re not going to let me live that one down are you?”
Dianne smiled. “Well, I can get used to most things too. Even salt-hardened old sea dogs.”
“Not so much about the old.”
Jason, coming down the steps, dropped the tank he was carrying. Sam turned to him, “Hey, get it together mister clumsy.”
Jason glared. “Gonna string me up from the yard arm?”
“Only for a second offence.” Sam clapped Jason on the shoulder and headed back upstairs. Jason seethed. The other two adults ignored him, Winston turning the underwater camera back on. Neri smiled up at them from under the boat.
Brett pointed across the stream. “Let’s go over there. There’s a good spot to sit.” He stepped from rock to rock.
Mera stepped on the wrong stone and wobbled. “Aah! You’re as bad as Neri. She goes like the wind and expects me to keep up.”
“It’s just like Jason and me.” Brett gave Mera a steadying hand and pointed at the right path. “That’s the trouble with being the youngest. You just gotta show them you’re as good as they are.”
“I can’t do anything like Neri. I don’t—don’t think I belong here.”
“Sure you do! Once you get used—look out!”
Mera had almost walked into a vine hanging at head-height. She blinked at it for a minute, then suddenly sank to her knees, sobbing. “I’ll never get used to it! Bumps and bugs and no proper bed, nowhere to go when it rains. No way of knowing what’s true anymore!”
“It’s not that bad...” Brett said helplessly. He sat down and put his arm around Mera, his first time doing that with a girl ever, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“I wish I’d never come here!”
“You don’t mean that.” Brett tried.
“I do!” Mera turned to him, her face miserable but her eyes dry. “At least-” She stopped and didn’t say anything else.
Brett guessed, “Real food? TV?”
Mera laughed a sobbing little laugh. “I miss TV. I hated TV. The other kids would always have it on and it gave me a headache but now I miss it.”
“Well... come to Orca. Tomorrow. We’ve got TV, and food and soap and real toilet paper and you can meet our friends. You’re not stuck here.”
Silence. Then Mera nodded and stood up, expressionless again. She managed a tiny smile. “I do like being able to swim whenever I want.”
Brett grinned. “Yeah, nobody cares if you get wet.” He kicked off his shoes and walked back into the stream, and Mera followed. She didn’t say anything else so after a while Brett said, “I met Neri when I got washed up on the island. I was messing around in a boat and Vanessa untied it—she didn’t mean to cause actual danger, and anyway me and the guys arranged for all of Orca to see her bare butt. So anyway there was a storm and I wake up here and I’m soooo hungry.”
“And you met Neri? Look, what are those? I saw one before.”
“Um... Mum told me... brushtail possum. No, Neri was hiding. I found these berries and stuffed myself and then, whoooooaaaah.” Brett mimed wobbling and crossed his eyes. “I got so sick I don’t even remember. Neri fed me medicine and towed my boat out where people were looking.”
“Medicine? Out here?”
“She made it. With leaves and stuff. Tasted really bad, I remember that.” Brett grinned and swung himself around a tree trunk. “I was really scared. But I met Neri, so...”
Back on Orca the boys carried the last of their gear back to the lab. “We talked—well, mostly I talked because Mera didn’t. She’s not happy, that’s for sure.”
“Well, why not?”
“I don’t know. I think Neri might be bossing her around too much. “
A bag slipped off the pile in Jason’s arms and hit the floor. “Can you get that?”
Brett picked it up and grumbled, “Like you boss me.”
“Well fine, if you don’t want to take it give it back.”
“No, fine.” Brett grumbled a bit more, on principal, then said, “I told her she can come to Orca to hang out and, y’know, eat real food. Maybe Mum can talk to her.”
Jason nodded. “Ok. Hey, did the guys tell you where they’re having Vanessa’s party?”
“They hadn’t decided before we left. But hey, free cake!”
“Yeah, let’s get this stuff put away then we can look for it.”
In the storeroom Kimberley and Joanne put up streamers and Froggy fiddled with the computer’s music program. Zoe opened the cake box. “It was the best I could get.” She said defensively. The cake was... small. And green, just green icing but still, green. She stuck in some candles anyway.
Kimberley saw the cake and snickered. “I couldn’t find anything good for a present—what does Vanessa even like?”
“Well there was this one time,” Zoe began but just then there was a noise outside. “Everybody, quick!”
It was Mick.
“Who invited you?” Zoe asked in disgust.
“I did. You got a problem with that, shrimp? ‘Cause we could take this outside. After all, it’s supposed to be a party in here.”
Rocky was following Mick. “Oh great, I’m in time. Where are Jason and Brett?”
“They’ll get here. I left a message.” Froggy told him.
“Here she comes. Ssh!”
Everybody ducked again. This time it was Vanessa. “Surprise!”
Vanessa jumped, then laughed. “You guys are such dorks for keeping it a secret!”
“We didn’t have time to get you anything, but there’s a cake—sort of.”
Zoe finished lighting the candles and presented the cake with a flourish and a shrug.
“It looks great.” Vanessa said with as much enthusiasm as the cake could expect.
“Oh hey—looks like somebody’s got you a present.” Kim said, picking it up from the table. “You want to open it?”
“Sure. Thanks you guys.” Vanessa opened the box. It was a big, black spider. She froze.
Kim started, “Hey, who-?”
The spider moved. Vanessa shrieked and flung the box away. Zoe jumped to avoid getting spidered and there was a confused moment where everyone was yelling and shoving and then the cake fell over and the streamers were going up in flames.
“Everybody out! Out!” Vanessa yelled, but the door was sliding closed as Helen’s fire announcement came over the speakers.
“We’re trapped!” Kimberley cried.
“Stupid Helen!” Froggy went for the computer terminal, but the keyboard was melting with burning paper on it.
“Mick, fire extinguisher!”
Mick wrestled it off the wall, muttering, “Just let me get this straight...”
“Just read it! Do what it says!”
There was a lot of smoke now, and the stink of burning plastic was strong in the air. Most of the kids were huddled by the door. Kimberley was trying to muscle it open.
“Hurry! Can’t you read?”
“He can’t!” Froggy yelled. The little guy grabbed the fire extinguisher and turned it on the fire. Foam boiled all over everything.
“Ok. Ok it’s out.”
“Um.” Froggy said, in a way that made everyone look. A barrel had fallen over and come open, and something oily-green was spilling out. Steam rose from it. Mick started coughing and pulled his shirt over his face.
“What is it?”
“Mct!” Froggy squirmed away from it. “Poison!”
“Some cooling system additive. Fumes are toxic. Can you guys think of another way in?” Sam asked. He’d found Brett and Jason on their way to the party.
Brett nodded. “Air shaft, delta three. You won’t fit but we will.”
“Right. Meet you there in a minute. Hurry!”
Jason and Brett ran. They reached the vent first, and wrestled the grate off it before Sam arrived with an armful of masks and oxygen bottles. “Here, get these in and get everybody out.”
“Right.” Jason put a mask on and pushed two small tanks ahead of him into the ventilation shaft. It was about ten feet, with a bend in the middle. Then he had to get the grate on the other end out, levering it with a screwdriver. He dropped out into the storeroom. “Guys! Here!” Brett pushed more masks through and turned around while Jason helped everybody get some breathing gear on. He boosted Zoe into the vent.
Vanessa was cursing through her mask, “Stupid Mick, stupid spider, my birthday!”
“You next, Froggy.”
“Hey, why do they get to go first?” Mick interrupted.
“In case you get stuck! You’re the biggest!”
“Heck with that!”
They did all get out, eventually and all of them stinking and coughing. After a stop in medical the whole group was summoned before the commander.
“I’m ok Mom.” Mick said.
“None of you should have been there in the first place. Now, I’m not going to penalize you any further, seeing as you’ve had the fright of your lives already. But any future transgressions will be severely punished. I am aware that Michael is particularly at fault for playing a stupid practical joke. I’m sure he is very ashamed of himself.”
Mick did not look ashamed.
“Huh. He wasn’t very useful with the fire extinguisher either.”
“No.” Vanessa continued. “We might have put the fire out much quicker if he hadn’t wasted so much time.”
“He couldn’t read the instructions.” Froggy explained.
The commander nodded. “I see. You haven’t told them.”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of. And it does explain the delay. Michael has a reading disability similar to dyslexia.”
“What’s that?” Zoe whispered.
“None of your business!”
Froggy answered, “It means he sees letters all wrong. Can’t understand words.”
“Exactly, Mister Reilly. So, perhaps you could all try to be a little understanding.”
“Yeah well, don’t bother ok.”
“Don’t take that attitude Michael. It is not an excuse for bad behavior. I’ve decided you need some discipline. I’ve already talked to Captain Phillips and he’s agreed to have you on his boat for the remainder of the survey. Dismissed, all of you.”
“Mick on the boat? That’s all we need!”
“You said it.” Jason replied.
“It’s hard enough keeping Sam from noticing Neri. What if Mick sees her?”
Jason could only shrug. He carded open the door of the lab. “We’re back.”
“Ta da the heroes!” Winston greeted them.
“So, how’d it go?”
“We’re fine Mum.”
“Yeah, the doctor said we should stay quiet for twenty-four hours in case of any funny symptoms but we didn’t breathe enough gas to do any damage.”
“Funny symptoms?” Winston asked.
Brett and Jason broke out in fake-coughing and groans of, “I don’t feel so good.” They slumped over to a bench and sat down. “So—can we have the day off?”
Dianne laughed. “Well sure, since you’re that sick. But I was about to tell you Commander Byrne’s approved your upgrade to crew status and as of tomorrow, you’re on the survey boat.”
“Yes!” Brett crowed, and he and Jason jumped up and slapped hands.
“So, why you all dressed up Mum?”
Dianne turned away quickly. “I’m not.”
“Oh yes you are. That’s your best shirt.” Brett said, not giving up. His mother was blushing.
“It’s no big deal.”
“Ooooh! Who is he?”
Winston started, “Brett, don’t tease-”
The door opened and Sam Phillips leaned in. “You ready?”
“Yep.” Dianne said with forced casualness.
“You look nice.”
Sam waved to the boys and escorted Dianne out. Brett and Jason stared at the closed door, Jason’s expression thundery.
Brett was just confused. “What does she want to go out with him for?”
“Search me.” Jason muttered.
“Oh don’t worry, my friends. He’s an old sea dog. His bite is much worse than his bark.” Winston said cheerfully, then stopped to think. “Or is that the other way around?”
Mera cupped a handful of water and looked at it doubtfully. It was from a stream. Was it really safe to drink? Getting sick out here with no bed and no real medicine, no matter what Brett said... but she had to drink something. Neri drank the stream water all the time.
The water smelled all right. It smelled like a pond, but not bad. That time, when the school cafeteria got some salad that had been washed in bad water Jane had been able to smell that something wasn’t right, so she’d been fine while half the class had been home sick.
She shook her head sharply, dipped her hands again and drank. Delicious.
Neri was sitting in her nest sewing a bundle of fabric she’d gotten from somewhere. She shook out the result, then jumped down into the pond. “For you! Try it?”
The pleading tone was too much. Mera ducked behind a tree and tried the dress on. It looked—like Neri’s. The fabric looked rough but it was soft and light, and the ragged hem stood out when she twirled.
“You like it?” Neri asked timidly.
“Yes. I like that you made it for me.”
“Now you look like my sister.”
“Look like. Maybe. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do the things that you do, Neri. You’re—amazing. And I’m not.”
“You are.” Neri said. She smiled a warm smile and ruffled Mera’s hair. “We are the same, you and me. You will be able to do everything I do, soon. I am sure.”