8 Until the Celebration
Charley entered the bay, breached just for show, and whistled to Neri, Morning! Morning, Sister! Sister come swim today?
“Charley calling! Do you hear?”
Mera looked at her sister in confusion. She listened, but felt that it wasn’t the right kind of listening. But how else could you listen, besides with your ears? “No.”
“Maybe you hear him tomorrow. He says, will you come swim?”
Mera looked down the beach at the wide, choppy expanse of ocean. “Um... I think I’ll stick to the pond.” She said, and watched Neri’s smile fade.
So they went to get cocoanuts instead. Neri ran up the tree and perched in the crown, agile as a monkey. Mera stared. Then she had to jump back as two cocoanuts hit the sand in front of her. Then Neri jumped down. “Now we find some berries!”
They headed into the forest, Neri running ahead and Mera struggling to catch up. She stopped by the pond to catch her breath and saw a bunch of soft-looking red berries on a bush. They looked tasty. She plucked a few and looked at them.
“No!” Neri slapped the berries out of her hand.
“You just said we should find berries...”
“Bad berries. Make you sick. Very bad.” Neri said vehemently.
Mera felt like crying. But she just said, “Didn’t feel like berries anyway. It’s all I’ve had since I got here. I’m sick of berries!”
“What do you want then?”
The elevator door opened and the boys were surprised to see Neri and Mera inside. Jason leaned forward and said, “What are you doing here? What do you want?”
“Hamburgers.” Neri said sadly. “Mera doesn’t like island food. And I want to see Mother.”
“Great. Ok, Brett, you take Mera down to the galley. I’ll take Neri to the lab. And Vanessa, go and find Mick and make sure wherever he is, he stays there! Ok?”
Vanessa started, “Hey...” and gave up.
Brett grabbed Mera’s hand. “Come on, this way.”
“Um, did we cause trouble, coming here? Jason sounded mad.”
“Nah, he’s always like that. Worries someone’ll find out about Neri. But I think it’s great, come eat with us! Hey, Froggy, Zoe, look who’s here!”
The two kids pushed their trays aside to make room and waved. Froggy waved a tall glass with chocolate foam on top and Brett said, “Milkshakes! We hardly ever get those. You want one? And most of the menu is made with algae, I’ll show you which one’s the real hamburger.”
Brett swiped his id and ordered milkshakes, burgers and fries. A minute later everything appeared, hot and smelling great. Mera was actually smiling when she picked up her tray. They two of them sat down with Froggy and Zoe.
“Neri, you’ve got to understand your world is completely different from what Mera’s used to.” Dianne said kindly.
Neri looked around, her face pinched with worry. “But sister sad. Makes me sad. Makes me scared. Scared she leave.”
“Well have you tried talking to her about it?” Dianne got out a comb and started pulling it through Neri’s long tangled hair.
“What, you want me to talk to her?”
“I do not know what to say.”
The door opened and Brett and Mera returned. Brett waved a glass, “Hey Jase! Special of the day, double choc milkshakes!”
Jason and even Neri perked up.
“Neri, Froggy wants to talk to you—something he’s researching. Mum, can I borrow her?”
“Sure. Get me a milkshake too, will you? Ah- Mera, could you stay?”
Mera nodded and looked down while she sucked up the last of her milkshake. When the glass was empty Helen opened a waste chute in the wall. Mera blinked at it, then realized what it was for and dropped her glass down.
“I just wanted to talk to you a minute, see how you’re doing.”
Mera didn’t say anything, but she came and sat beside Dianne on a bench.
“I know you don’t know me, and this must all be very confusing but—I think I know what you’re going through, just a little. You feel like a stranger, don’t you. You see, the boys and I, when we first came to Orca that’s how we felt.
“At least you got to sleep in proper beds and eat proper food.”
Dianne tried a joke, “Have you seen the beds here? Seriously though, I wish Ubri hadn’t been trying to take you away right then. With more time we could’ve adopted you legally and brought you to Orca, passed you off as a result of Winston’s misspent youth or something... we might be able to get you a bunk here, but not for a while. Can you give the island a few weeks more? I think it’ll come to feel like home to you.”
“The island is Neri’s home. It’s not mine.” Mera said. Her eyes had gone moon-blank again.
Dianne petted the girl’s hair. “You know what? You might be more like your sister than you think. I’m sure it’ll get better.”
“I used to think that about life on the mainland. It never did. Every time someone wanted me, I disappointed them.”
“Oh well, that’s because you were trying to be someone called Jane Seaforth, someone who didn’t even exist.”
“Right now I—” Mera sobbed, “I don’t know who I am. Where I belong. What—if—I find my real home and I don’t belong there either?” She cried without tears, just almost silent sobbing and her voice breaking. “I don’t know who I am!”
“Oh sweetie...” Dianne put her arms around the girl and held her and stroked her hair. “That must be so scary. But you’re someone really special, and it’ll be all right. We’ll all help you.”
The next day, at eleven hundred hours Sam was briefing his new crew. He wasn’t happy that it was a crew made up of kids. “..ok, those are the rules. Just remember, I make ‘em and you don’t break ‘em. That way we’ll get on just fine.”
Brett and Vanessa saluted. Jason, carrying most of the gear, didn’t bother.
Mick came up behind them. “Ok, funsters. You can relax. The Mick-miester’s here.”
“Glad you could make it.” Sam said dryly.
“Yeah, thanks for all the help.”
“Let’s get something straight. This wasn’t my idea. I’ve got better things to do than hang out on some crummy boat with the nautical dork squad.”
Sam grabbed the boy around the shoulders. “Don’t care what you think, mate. Help Doctor Bates with those.”
Mick muttered, but he picked up a load of equipment. Dianne thanked him politely.
“What an animal.” Brett muttered.
“Well, there’s nothing we can do. If his mother says he’s on the boat then he’s on the boat. All we can do is keep him up on deck and away from Neri.”
The elevator opened and Helen’s voice announced procedure for new residents. Brett was too busy planning to notice the new residents: a small neat man with glasses and a beautiful dark-skinned girl. Mick noticed the girl though, enough to stop him in his tracks. She waved shyly before vanishing around a corner.
Jason pointed at the map on the cabin wall. “We’re... here?”
“How long does this take?” Vanessa asked.
“Pretty much all day. It’d be a real pain if we didn’t get to dive.”
Winston and Brett were checking the equipment for the day’s survey. Mick was hanging around being in the way. He reached for the switch to the underwater camera. “What’s this do?”
Brett got in the way. “No, no!”
“Don’t touch that. I tell you what, why don’t you go up on deck and check the scuba equipment.”
“But it was checked before it was loaded.”
Vanessa got into the act, “Yeah, but we’re gonna be breathing through it. Let’s check it again. Coming, Jason?”
“In a sec. Mum?”
Dianne was definitely frazzled. “Tell Neri we’ll be ready for her in about ten minutes ok? I want you to ask her to stay under the sonar equipment.”
“And you guys keep your eyes out for any interesting marine specimens while you’re down there ok?”
“Yep.” Jason turned to go.
“And one more thing Jase. Would you make sure Mick stays up on deck?”
Jason almost asked how he was supposed to do that, but his mother sounded pretty stressed so he just said, “Ok.”
“Brett, would you sit on the stairs and warn me if either Mick or Sam come down?”
A few minutes later Neri appeared in the underwater camera. Immediately the sonar reading doubled in depth. Then the scuba-suited figures of Jason and Vanessa joined her. They signed to each other for a minute then Neri pointed and Vanessa and Jason swam off in different directions to look for marine life.
“Neri’s powers must be growing.” Winston mused. “Every day she’s influencing our readings more strongly.”
The computer loaded a picture from Jason’s camera, a lazy fat-lipped fish.
“I hope he doesn’t think that’s a new specimen.”
The next picture was of a swarm of tiny fish swarming Vanessa’s head where a tuft of bright red hair had escaped her hood. On the video Neri was laughing a cloud of bubbles.
“Come on Dianne, don’t you wish you were down there with them?”
Brett came in, waving for them to turn off the video. He sat down by his mother as Sam appeared.
“How’s it going? Talking Nobel Prize or what?”
“Not quite.” Dianne was blushing.
Sam leaned to look at the scan. “Amazing. Well if there’s anything down there we’re certainly going to find out what it is. What’s it like having a genius for a mum?”
“She’s not really a—” Brett said immediately before Dianne, laughing, swatted him.
Sam laughed too. “So what’s the plan? We hang around here or head back to base?”
“There’s hours of material to analyze.” Winston said. “We probably should think about heading back to start collating it. Half an hour, to let the divers finish?”
Dianne nodded and Sam said, “Fine by me.”
He headed back upstairs. Dianne grabbed Brett in a hug calculated to embarrass any thirteen year old boy. “Now when someone says you have a genius mum, you might at least...”
Jason tossed his scuba gear over the rail. He was sitting on a low platform that went under with every dip of the boat. Neri hung in the water, her arms folded on the platform looking up at him. “Mother is happy with work?”
“Yeah, she says it’s great. Listen, you’d better go before Captain Bligh sees you.”
“You don’t like Captain Bligh?”
Jason laughed. “Well actually his name’s Sam, but yeah, he’s not my favorite person.”
“Why?” Neri chimed.
“Look, don’t you think you should go back to Mera?”
Instead, Neri boosted herself up to sit next to Jason. “No. I want to know why you don’t like Sam Bligh.”
On the beach, Mera sat and watched the little waves sweep in. She’d come down to the beach in a moment of courage, thinking she’d try swimming in the ocean. But she was afraid to try, all by herself. She was afraid to go into the jungle too. There were bugs, and thorns, and the animals were spooky because they weren’t afraid of her. And even ‘home’ was just a pond, nothing to do, not even any nice place to sit.
And the worst part was...
Having nowhere else to go. This was it, the place she belonged, and it wasn’t home either. It was worse than the foster homes, which never felt quite right no matter how hard the foster parents tried.
“Never belong anywhere, will I?”
She stood and wandered up the beach, up the hill into the trees. She grabbed a stick and whacked a few tree trunks, taking out her feelings on them. This felt better than pretending not to care.
A nasty buzzing started and Mera saw, too late, a nest hanging from a branch. Wasps! She shrieked and ran. The insects followed. Mera was thinking she had to get to the pond, which way—
The ground vanished from under her feet.
“He’s just not mum’s type.” Jason was saying.
“What type is he?”
“The type you can’t trust. And he’s nothing like my dad. Neri?”
Neri had gone pale. She stood suddenly and dived, vanishing under the water.
Jason stared at the spot where she’d been. He only just managed not to shout after her. Just as well, because Sam and Mick appeared above him on deck. “Oh, there you are. Get dressed, drinks below.”
Jason grabbed a towel and ducked into the little changing closet on deck as Vanessa came out. She leaned by the curtain and whispered, “Neri ok?”
“We were talking then she suddenly left. Hope nothing’s wrong.”
“Maybe she just heard the guys coming. Anyway, we can’t check it out now. See you downstairs.”
“Ok.” Jason tossed his towel over the door and started squirming out of his dive suit.
Downstairs Captain Sam poured drinks. “Don’t get too excited folks, it’s only apple juice. I guess the commander will be pretty happy with your progress.”
“Yeah.” Dianne sipped and said, “Um, Sam? Could I ask you a favor?”
“About the survey. It would be nice if the commander didn’t know how far along we are. Using this boat to conduct my whale research...” She gave a pleading look.
“Ah. No worries.”
“You can count on me to keep mum to Commander Byrne.”
Dianne hugged him. “Oh thank you!”
Jason came down the steps just in time to see that. He turned and left again.
Mera clung to a bush on the side of the cliff. She’d tumbled six feet before catching it, and she hurt all over. She couldn’t do anything but hold on, try again to find a foothold, and try not to look down. Below was a sheer drop to the rocks and waves.
Her voice faded. Who would hear? Neri was miles away out a sea.
Minutes passed. She struggled to get a better grip, called out again a few times. She heard rustling and shouted.
“Mera! Hold!” Neri called, and a vine unrolled. Mera reached for it—and felt her balance slipping.
Pebbles dropped as Neri climbed over the edge. She climbed down slowly, her feet against the cliff, holding the vine in one hand. “Mera!”
Mera reached again, slipped—and Neri caught her around the waist. Mera managed to brace her feet and they hung onto each other for dear life. At last Mera got a grip on the vine. Neri gave her an encouraging grin. “Up. Step here.”
They both got to the top and Mera let herself collapse on the wonderfully solid ground.
“Are you hurt?”
“No. Ow. Um.” Mera said. She was banged up, everything from her feet to her chin seemed to have hit rocks, and every muscle was complaining. “Not badly.”
“Not good.” Neri finished. She turned and crouched down. “On.”
“You can’t carry me, I must weigh almost...” Mera said weakly as she was scooped up.
At the pond Mera washed up and Neri came back with a handful of twigs that cracked to release clear sap. “Good for hurt.”
‘Really?” Mera scooped some on her finger and wiped it on her scraped leg. “Ouch!”
“Sorry.” Neri said, then, “Sorry for other things too. I leave you here alone.”
“It’s ok.” Mera said halfheartedly.
“No. Not ok. My fault you are sad.”
“It isn’t! I keep telling you. It’s me, it’s... this stupid island.”
“Not stupid. If you want island to be friend to you, you must be friend to it. I did not realize you don’t understand. Now, I show you.”
“Here!” Neri’s voice drifted from the trees. Brett and Jason walked up the beach and followed the little path to the pond.
The girls were sitting on a log by the pond. Mera held the hologram device
“Your hand like this, and you will see Father.” Neri said, then stood up to wave to Jason and Brett.
Jason said quietly, “You guys ok? After you left like that.”
“Mera was in trouble. But better now, I think.”
The hologram appeared, faint in the daylight, and Mera gasped. Brett sat down next to her and the four of them watched the message in silence.
When it vanished Mera looked back, her eyes wide. “Our father? My father? Really?”
“Yes really.” Neri laughed.
“And check this out.” Brett said, and put his hand over the device. “It doesn’t work for us, just you and Neri. Froggy reckons that light looks at your dna and that’s what turns it on, but that’s just a guess and he made it after watching a lot of science fiction.”
Mera wasn’t actually listening. Jason quietly pulled his brother away. “Let’s give Mera a minute.” Neri nodded and followed them.
“Oh, Mum made this for Mera.” Brett handed over some papers.
Neri looked at them curiously. “Picture of berries?”
“Yeah, she had Helen print out a bunch of info about edible plants and stuff. Maybe Mera would like to have it all official like that, so she can tell what’s good to eat. Stuff that’s bad has red around the picture, see?”
Neri looked through the pictures with interest, if not much understanding. “Mera will like, I think. We get dinner now. Stay?”
“Um, I think...”
“No, stay.” Mera said. “Tell me about the spaceship. About everything.”
Neri built a fire near the bees’ nest. She took a reed and blew smoke into the nest until the buzzing faded. “See? Now they are still.” She broke off a section of the nest, gently brushed the bees off it and held it out.
Mera touched the edge. “It’s honey. It’s good.”
Birds screeched as the girls climbed around their nests. Neri explained, “Birds only raise one baby. So if you leave one egg, there will be more birds.” She handed two eggs down to Mera, who was wobbling on a lower branch.
Only... not as wobbly as she expected. Mera took a few steps as the branch dipped under her weight, then hopped neatly to the ground with her handful of eggs safe. Neri dropped down next to her, smiling.
“Earth give you food, when you know how to find it.” Neri said, rinsing off some shells. “Father say never take more than you need.”
Mera saw a bubble appear in the sand, and pounced and dug frantically. “I got one! Is this the right kind?”
“Yes. Very good!”
“Do you ever eat, um, birds or possums?”
Neri shook her head. “Only if I must. I do not like. Once when I was small, I get sick and Father thought furred meat would make me strong. But we were both so sad to do it we never did again. Now, if I want other food I can go to Orca.”
“Good!” Mera said, relieved they weren’t going to be killing animals. She didn’t think she could do that.
It was evening, the sky turning orange over the ocean. They walked up the beach.
“It’s so pretty here.”
“Not too much outside?”
“I’m getting used to being outside. I think, when I was little I liked to stay outside all the time but that wasn’t allowed. You have to go to school and stuff.”
“Brett told me about school on land.” Neri said and shuddered.
Mera laughed a little. “It’s not that bad... well, actually, it was for me. I was always getting sick, I was so thirsty. I couldn’t figure out why everyone else wasn’t running into the sprinklers whenever they could. Everybody laughed at me. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t need to know all the stupid things that happened to me.”
“But if you say them, they hurt less maybe.”
“Yeah maybe.” Mera said and walked on. “Neri... would you teach me to swim like you?”
Neri’s face lit up. “Of course! Come on!”
Mera had been thinking of doing it tomorrow, but she laughed and let herself be dragged into the water. The tide was high and calm, and they could walk out quite a long way. Neri dived, hands first, her feet going under last. Mera tried to copy her. A minute later she came up sputtering. It didn’t work!
“Not hands.” Neri chimed. “Move whole body, like Charley.”
“You learned to swim from Charley?” Mera asked, shoving wet hair out of her eyes.
“He showed me, when I was small.”
“Ok.” Mera dived. For a moment the water curled around her body and it seemed to be full of sound. Long rich notes without a tune swept past her—and then she was out of air and had to come up.
Neri was crouching on the bottom, looking up. She pushed off and sprang through the surface like a dolphin. Mera tried to do the same, got more of a bellyflop, but then current caught her and swept her along.
By the time they got out, night had fallen and the moon was lighting the sea from the other direction. Neri collected the shellfish, and they went back to the pond. Mera collapsed in exhaustion and Neri lit a fire and cooked dinner—meat from the shells, grilled on sticks, and all the eggs scrambled with leaves and seawater for seasoning. Dessert was bananas and honey.
“You like? Good.”
“I really had fun, today and yesterday.” Mera said.
Mera stepped to the edge of the nest and grabbed the vine in a death grip.
From the pond Neri said, “You can climb down, if you want.”
“No way. I can do this. Maybe. Look out below!” She jumped, and loosened her grip just enough to slide down in a semi-graceful curve. Neri caught her, laughing.
“Knew you could do it.”
“Here, breakfast. What you want to do today?”
Breakfast was half a cocoanut, and the question was delayed while Mera worked out how to eat it. “Go swimming.” She said finally.
“Ok! Charley want to know if he’ll see you today.”
Mera grimaced. “It’s... just such a long way out, with such big waves! Aren’t you afraid you’ll get tired and not be able to get back to land?”
“No.” Neri said simply. “You do not need to be afraid either.”
“If I could hold my breath for hours... but I can’t, Neri, really! I’ve been swimming a lot, and I always had to come up just as often as everybody else.”
“Ok. I’ll try.”
“I’m glad you got to swim before.” Neri said hesitantly.
“Um.” Mera said, eating. “One of the foster homes had a pool, it was the best. The parents didn’t mind if I wanted to swim all afternoon.”
“They were good to you? The parents?”
“Yes. The ones with the pool, especially. But they were old, and then something happened so they had to move out of their house so they couldn’t foster anymore. None of the homes after that kept me very long.”
“They did not let you stay? Why?”
Mera shrugged. “I wasn’t what they wanted.”
Neri frowned. “You are what I want.” She said, closing the issue and tossing her empty cocoanut into the bushes. Mera gave a doubtful smile and tossed hers too. She waded into the pond and splashed water over her head. It felt so natural to just do this, better than trying to sneak into the bathroom and stick her head under the faucet.
Neri dived, rolled under the water then stood up. “Try again now?”
In the deepest part, the pond was only four feet deep. Neri ducked under and sat on the bottom. Mera took a deep breath and crouched so her head was under water. She counted thirty before her head began to feel tight and she needed to breathe. She came up gasping. “I can’t do it!”
“You can. Believe you can and you will.”
Believe. Mera took a breath and ducked under. Forget the foster parents freaking out, forget the classmates laughing at her behind their hands, remember—a father. And suddenly she didn’t need to come up. There was plenty of air, like her lungs had opened up a new room. She opened her eyes. Neri was grinning.
“I can do it!” Mera shrieked, coming up after long minutes, “I can! That’s amazing! Can I try it in the ocean?”
Sam Phillips leaned in the door of the cabin. “All ashore who’s going ashore, especially you landlubber. Winston vanished down the elevator fifteen minutes ago.”
Dianne looked up from packing her gear and sighed.
“Oh, just homework.”
“What’ve you got to do?”
Dianne held up the disk of the day’s scans. “Run these through gridmaster and run a mineral analysis. It’s what I do every night, but we covered so much ground today I’m not sure how I’ll get it all done.”
“Can I help?” Sam asked. “You could leave it here and I’ll run it through the computer.”
“Sure. I’m not completely computer illiterate you know; I did this sort of thing on North Sea rigs for years.”
“Well... if you’re offering.” Dianne stuttered, “I’d love a break. It’s all on here.”
“Right. Go home.”
“I will. Thank you.” Dianne picked up her pack and headed out.
“Bye.” Sam said, then turned to the other end of the room. “You hang around a few minutes, Jason.”
“Why?” Jason asked. He had not liked the conversation he just heard.
“Because I think it’s about time you and me had a little talk. You don’t like me, do you?”
“I don’t like you hanging around my Mum, no.”
“I can see that. But you know, that’s her decision not yours.”
“Exactly. So butt out where you’re not wanted.” Jason shot back, and left. Sam looked after him, and sighed.
As soon as he was off the boat, Brett headed for the computer room. “Froggy? You got... oh yeah!”
The room was rocking with muffled explosions as Froggy and Zoe shredded animated tanks across three screens. They paused the game and Zoe said, “Ok, make your character fast. We’ve only got a week to beat this thing before Froggy hacks into it!”
“What? You’re gonna hack TA3?” Brett sat himself in front of a spare terminal and got started on character creation.
Froggy explained why. The explanation included phrases like, “top of the line” and “nonlinear programming engine” and “customizable interface” and nobody else in the room understood it.
Brett’s stomach rumbled. “Um, new plan. How about I get food and you make my guy? I’m starving.”
“Me too.” Zoe said, standing up and stretching.
“All right, you stay here.” Zoe said cheerfully, “We’ll be back.”
They headed out, Bret asking as the door closed, “So how long have you been at it?”
Froggy shrank the game and stood up and stretched. “How’s it going, Helen? I’m not using too much processing power am I?”
“Negative, Froggy.” Helen said from her speakers. “As instructed, I will warn you of any low resources.”
“Great! Ooh, what’s that?”
“Scheduled data upload.” Helen said unnecessarily as Froggy dived for the terminal.
“Hey Helen, I think there’s a more efficient way to route this, how about...”
They were discussing it when the door opened. Froggy looked up, and was immediately on guard when it wasn’t Brett and Zoe.
“Are you the one they call toady?”
“Froggy. You’re the boat captain.”
“Sam. Hi. Listen kid, I hear you know all about computers. I’ve got some data I want you to analyze. What’s that, there?” Sam pulled up the scan and pointed at a patch of seabed that glowed oddly.
“Let’s just say I’m curious. Very curious. So come on—and I won’t tell anyone you’re here without authority.”
Froggy scowled. “Ok, give me a minute. It’s some kind of marker, the scan detected an anomaly.”
“Well, what is it?”
Froggy queried, the answer came up, and the boy’s jaw dropped. “Titanium! That stuff’s worth more than gold. We’d better tell Doctor Bates, this is her data isn’t it?”
Sam reclaimed his disc. “Listen kid, I’ll make you a deal. How old are you?”
“Do you want to live to be thirteen? Don’t tell anyone.”
“But...” Froggy said weakly.
When he was alone again Froggy said, “I’m really tired of being a coward. But I don’t want to die young either.” And he got back to making sure Brett’s character was the perfect complement that would allow maximum slaughter of enemies in the game.
Neri wandered up the beach after a long evening swim. For a moment she was surprised to see the small figure standing at the edge of the trees, then she smiled. She’d never been lonely, but still it was nice not to be alone.
Mera waved and ran down to grab Neri’s hand.
“Why you smile?”
“Come and see.”
On the rocks by the pond, a feast was laid out. Mera said proudly, “While you were playing with Charley, I’ve been getting dinner ready. See, good berries. Honey from hive. And I opened the cocoanuts just like you showed me.”
Neri beamed. “Good.”
“You were right, you know. Once you get used to it, your island’s a pretty great place.”
Neri sat and pulled Mera down next to her. “No, not my island. Our island. Your home too.”