9 Sightings and Plots
The ocean sparkled blue in the morning sun. The water was so clear the bottom could be seen, rainbows of coral and pale sand. A dark shape swooped over it, two lighter forms following after.
The two girls surfaced then dived together. Neri pointed at a toothy green eel, and Mera swam down for a closer look, careful to stay out of biting range. They dove through glittering clouds of fish and danced in the sea.
In the galley on Orca, there wasn’t so much peace. Froggy slapped his id card on the food machine, scowled at it, and tried again. “What’s wrong with this thing?”
Zoe swooped the card out of his hand, slid it, and gave it back. “What’s wrong with you? You’re in a shocker of a mood.”
Froggy grumbled at her. “Lemme alone.”
“O-kaaaaaay.” Zoe muttered.
“Why can’t we come on Sam’s boat?” Kim asked and Rocky echoed, “Yeah, why not? It’s not fair.”
“It’s discrimination, that’s what. Old-timers against us new kids.”
“So not.” Vanessa said around a bite of cereal. She swallowed and added, “Mick’s on the crew isn’t he?”
“Hey, you can take my place anytime.”
“Yeah, please do!” Vanessa and Brett chorused.
“Seriously guys, Doctor Bates picked the crew so ask her—after you get your dive permits. Mick’s just on because his mom’s the commander.”
Zoe plopped her tray next to Froggy’s. “Ok, what’s the problem?”
“Look, have you been fiddling with Helen again? Done something you shouldn’t have? Not more chocolate is it?”
“No. Look, it’s nothing! I don’t know anything, and if I did I wouldn’t tell. He’d kill me.”
“Who? Froggy!” But Froggy had escaped.
In the boat cabin the team got ready for the day. Dianne had a paper map on the wall, with surveyed sections marked off. Brett stuck on the newest sections and stood back with a smile.
“I’d like to check out that canyon we spotted yesterday. Winston, have you got the co-ordinates?”
Winston flipped through a folder. “Nine four seven slash one oh. Yes, I’ve got it.”
“What we can do is ask Neri to dive deep...”
Jason cleared his throat warningly, and the captain appeared.
“Ready to go?” Dianne asked him.
“Yep. Same area as yesterday?”
“Yes, picking up from where we left off. Oh, Sam, did you get a chance to analyze those scans for us?”
Sam shuffled his feet. “Ah, no. I’ve been so busy...”
“Soon as I can.”
Dianne pinned him with the look she used on her sons. “Like tomorrow morning?”
“Right right, first thing. Slave driver. Right, I’m going to cast off.” Sam hurried up the stairs, yelling to the crew up top, “All aboard! Mick, are those sample boxes lashed down?”
Jason exploded. “You let him get away with anything! If we were goofing off you’d be down on us like a ton of bricks!”
“Jason he offered to help, the charts aren’t even his job... come on sweetie, I need your help. Up on deck and talk to Neri?”
“Yeah ok.” Jason stormed out. Dianne sighed.
“I have to go work with Mother and Charley.” Neri said, “You want to come, or stay here?”
“I’ll stay on the island. I want to explore some more, see if I can find any more plants from the papers Dr. Bates gave me. Maybe I can find us something for another feast. I’ll be all right, I won’t try anything new until you get back.”
“Good. See you later.”
Neri dove back into the water. Mera wandered up the beach, stopping to look at shells and bits of driftwood on the way. She started gathering a handful of wood for a fire. Wood from the beach was best; the salt in it made the flames crackle and turn colors. Now... where would sweet-tasting grass grow?
“Yes yes.” Winston said.
“Ok. Brett, keep a lookout on the stairs. We don’t want the wrong people coming down here when Neri arrives.”
“Yep yep.” Brett said and sat down on the steps.
“Ah, here she is now.” Winston pointed at the camera, but didn’t need to; every sensor had registered changes. The hydrograph needles were jumping as they picked up underwater sound.
Dianne smiled. “Charley’s there too, they’re chatting away like mad. We’re going to get some really good recordings today. Jason, go signal Neri we’re ready to start.”
“Right.” Jason headed upstairs to get his suit on.
“Ah, Vanessa, I need you on deck. I’m sorry. You’ve got to keep Mick from coming down here.”
Vanessa rolled her eyes. “Yay. I get all the fun jobs.”
“Ok, we all set?”
“Everything is under control.” Winston said a bit doubtfully.
A wallaby crouched in the bushes, rubbing its little hands. Mera held out a handful of grass, trying to sit very still. The wallaby sniffed, hopped slowly closer, and finally nibbled on the leaves in Mera’s hand. She wanted to pet it but wasn’t quite brave enough. Would it bite? Did wild animals even like being petted?
An unfamiliar noise pounded over the forest. Mera looked up instinctively before her brain provided the word: helicopter. She followed the sound, running to the beach. The chopper set down on the sand and Mera ducked behind a log. Why were they here? Who would come? There was nothing on the island!
People in white coveralls poured out.
A woman with dark hair seemed to be the leader. She pointed down the beach. “You guys, go along the beach to the opposite shore, then quarter back to the chopper. Any sign of habitation raise me on the communicators. You come upstream with me. Be thorough!”
Mera backed up, crawling until she was sure she was hidden in the trees. At the pond—their dishes were there, and the firepit. That was proof someone lived here. Mera ran, down the trail, over a log, jumping from rock to rock across the stream. She saw flashes of the searchers through the trees. Their white uniforms stood out from a distance. They’d get dirty too, Mera thought with a kind of panicked nastiness, wearing white in the mud and the stream, her stream, why were they here?
She got to the pond first, threw their dishes in the water, brushed at the fireplace with a branch and kicked leaf litter over it. What else? She couldn’t do anything about the nest; maybe they’d think animals had made it.
Footsteps were approaching, crunching over the ground. What else—her shoes! Mera grabbed them and ducked behind a tree.
A voice, way too close, “Hey lieutenant, we’re not gonna find any girls out here. I mean, how’re they gonna survive in this stuff?”
“Shut up.” The woman snapped. “Dr. Hellegren knows what he’s doing.”
Mera looked around. She had to find a place to hide, somewhere she could get to without being seen. Up a tree? Grownups never looked up. First she had to get away from here though. She took two steps—and a stone clattered beneath her foot. Mera was running before the invaders shouted, before they even looked.
“I heard something! Through there—over there!”
Mera ducked behind a bush, crawled, stood up and ran again. They were chasing her, and there were another two around somewhere. Mera climbed over a fallen log, then crawled underneath it. There was a little hollow carved out, enough room to hide in. Mera pressed herself against the dirt and listened, suddenly aware she wasn’t even breathing hard.
The woman was giving instructions over a communicator. The man with her started a halfhearted-sounding search through the bushes.
“There’s someone here. I can feel it.”
“I haven’t heard anything.”
A smaller sound made Mera look around the little hollow. A wallaby was in there with her, chewing on a handful of leaves and ignoring all the action. Mera gave it a poke with her foot and it hopped away.
“Ah, s’just a wallaby.”
The woman sighed. “False alarm.” She said into her communicator. “Return to the chopper. We’ll move on to the next island.”
“Roger.” Said a tinned voice from the other end.
They walked away. Mera listened to the receding footsteps and, now that it looked like she wouldn’t be found, shivered. Then she jumped up to follow them, just in case there was anything else to overhear.
There was nothing. Mera watched the white-suited figures climb back into their helicopter and take off. When the machine was out of sight, she ran for the water.
Vanessa stormed into the cabin. “That is it. I’ve had it with Mick!”
“What’d he do this time?” Brett asked with interest.
“I don’t want to talk about it. It’s too gross. He ought to be in a cage.” She sat down.
“Vanessa, we can’t leave him up there by himself. What if he finds out?”
“Don’t care! Take me back to Orca, maroon me on an island, I don’t care. I’m not spending another second with that revolting creep!”
Dianne looked at her oldest son.
“No way Mum, no way.”
Brett said, “Ice cream credit? Deal. I’ll go.”
“Thank you sweetie. Vanessa, would you take over from Brett?”
Winston waved from where he was looking at the video feed. “Hey look, come here! It’s Mera. The pupil is learning fast.”
On screen, Mera caught up with Neri, took her arm, and mimed ‘talk.’ Neri pointed away, and they turned together.
Vanessa said, “I thought Mera was staying on the island all day.”
“Yeah that’s what Neri said.”
“I hope nothing’s gone wrong.” Dianne said.
Suddenly Mick’s voice said, “Hey! What’d I just see?” He pushed passed everyone to get a look at the screen, empty now.
“Fish?” Winston suggested blandly. “That’s the underwater camera.”
Mick rushed back up on deck and looked around. Nothing but ocean in all directions.
“It was two kids!” Mick said again as they got out of the elevator on Orca.
“You need glasses. Or your head read.” Vanessa stopped to flash her id, checking back in. “No one else saw them.”
“Nothing.” Jason signed himself in and grabbed Brett’s id, nearly strangling his brother. Brett was carrying the scuba gear and didn’t have a free hand.
Sam joined them, with a cheerful, “Seeing mermaids now Mick?”
Dianne gave him a smile. “Well maybe you should give your imagination a rest for the night. Sam, feel like a coffee?”
“Love one.” The captain replied, and the two adults headed off to the galley.
Mick tried again, “Well if it wasn’t kids, what was it?”
“Seals?” Brett suggested.
“Dugongs maybe? Why ask us. We didn’t see anything.”
“It wasn’t! It was a couple of kids—with long hair, so probably girls, without diving gear or anything.”
Jason and Brett shared a glance. How could Mick have seen all that? “So they’d have had to come up for air right? Did you see them surface?”
“No.” Mick admitted.
Vanessa singsonged, “Nut-case.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone will think if you go ‘round saying you saw stuff like that.” Said Jason, who knew what he was talking about. “Come on guys, let’s see what Helen’s got in the way of movies. Wanna come Vanessa?”
“Sure.” Vanessa said, and left Mick with a final, “Straightjacket time! Mick the men-tal!”
In the galley Dianne flashed her card, “Coffee; sugar, no cream Helen.”
“And one black. Very, very black.”
“Good choice. You don’t want to know about the fake cream they use.”
Sam grinned. “Probably the same powdered stuff we get on the oil rigs. Of course, up there you drink coffee by the gallon to stay awake through storms.”
That was probably guy talk, and Dianne didn’t comment, just got her coffee and sat down. The galley was empty for the evening; dinner was over and the kids who usually crowded the room were all in the rec room playing games or watching Helen’s movie of the night.
“So. How’s it going?”
“That kid of yours is still pretty... negative.”
Dianne winced. “Sorry. I think he’s feeling just a little bit threatened.”
“Yeah, I figured that much out.”
“I mean, he seems to have accepted the divorce but... he was pretty close to his dad and the idea of me, you know, being interested in... Jason is very protective.”
“I’ve got to let him know somehow that I’m not such a bad guy.”
“Any ideas how?” Dianne asked dryly, and sipped her coffee.
“Well. I have to do some maintenance on the boat so maybe I could get him to help, just the two of us, and have a talk.”
“Sounds great. And Sam, thanks for putting up with him.”
Sam waved her off. “Ah, he’s a good kid. They both are. Credits to their Mum.”
“You are sure?”
Mera nodded. “Ubri logo on the helicopter, and suits like the people who came to the institute. And they were looking for us; the man said ‘girls.’ I knew they were looking for me, but how did they know about you? Anyway, they didn’t find anything. I made sure of that.”
“Good.” Neri said. She reached to give her sister a one-armed hug. “Good job. But it is not good they come here. I must tell Mother. Tomorrow, they will stay on Orca and I go see her.”
“Ok. I hope she knows what’s going on. It was scary. What if they come back?”
Neri put another stick on the fire and smiled reassuringly. “Charley looks after us. If anything comes close, he will hear and we have time to get away. Don’t be afraid.”
“You really should get Rocky up here.” Jason suggested. “He’s good with engines.”
Sam was half buried in the guts of his, actually Orca’s, boat. He said, “Don’t need someone good with engines, I just need someone to hand me things. Can I have that rag?”
Jason handed it over.
“Your Mum deserves a life too, don’t you reckon? I mean, I know you probably miss your old man. But just because things didn’t work out between him and your mom...”
Well that was expected. “She’s got me and Brett and-” He stopped.
“And who?” Sam asked curiously.
“And her work and everything. We do ok, all right?”
“You’re just making things tough for her, carrying on like this. Look, why don’t you—why don’t you just back off a bit? Let her have a bit of happiness? Look, it boils down to what’s best for your Mum. We’re on the same team here.”
Jason stood up. “No. We’re not on the same team, about Mum or anything. Look, get someone else to hand you tools. I have things to do.”
Froggy was in the viewing tube, standing there chewing his lips and trying to think. So far his conscience and basic cowardice were at a stalemate. He looked up when a uniformed figure walked past, then did a double take when he realized who it was. “Neri! Got time to talk?”
Neri shook her head. “I have to talk to Mother. People have come to island.”
“Talk after?” The girl asked.
“Um—never mind. I’ll come with you. There’s something else she needs to know.”
In the lab they explained, and Froggy pulled up Helen’s map to show everyone the find.
“Titanium?” Brett asked, hanging over Winston’s shoulder to look at the screen.
“A huge reef.” Froggy said gloomily.
“Are you certain?”
“I accessed Helen’s mineralogy files. The geologic profile doesn’t fit anything else.”
Winston whistled softly and turned the map, looking at the deposit from all angles. Dianne groaned. “No wonder he kept it a secret. That much titanium must be worth millions.”
“Hey, we’re rich!”
“No, Brett. But anyone who mined it would be. If it’s true.”
“Oh, it’s true all right. Look, smaller deposits here and here; it’s a classic pattern.”
Neri chimed, “What is rich?”
“Money. Big money.” Brett said. They’d tried to explain the concept of money to Neri, but she didn’t seem to understand it.
“There is money under the sea?”
“Uh, for the people who dig it up yeah.”
That, Neri understood. “They will dig up the sea? Just like Father warned.” She turned on Dianne, “You say our work does no harm!”
“I didn’t know... there will be no harm done, all right? As long as nobody else finds out.”
“How can I believe you? How can I believe you now? The ocean will spoil because of me! I have failed Father.”
Dianne muttered, “Thank you Sam.”
“Neri...” Winston began, “We won’t let anyone spoil the ocean. Give us a little time, all right? To think about what to do.
Neri gave him a long look, then nodded.
Froggy, even more miserable now, said, “Sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. He said he’d murder me if I breathed a word to anyone!”
“Well don’t you worry, you did the right thing.”
“I bet he was gonna tell you anyway, Doctor Bates.”
Dianne sighed. “You think so? I wonder.
Another evening on Orca. The kids gathered in the rec room to play games or finish homework. And Vanessa’s new favorite hobby: teasing Mick about what he’d seen on the monitor. She worked at it until actually driving Mick from the room.
Zoe warned her, “Cut it out will you? If you bug him he’ll just blab it around more.”
Vanessa whispered back, “He dumped bait in my shoes.”
Mick walked down the hall, grumpy. He heard footsteps behind him. The pretty new girl came up next to him. She’d gotten into the Orca style, done her dark hair up around rollers. “Hey, where you going?”
“Nowhere special.” Mick muttered.
“Mind if I come?”
“My name’s Liselle, by the way. I’ve seen you looking at me.”
“No law against that.”
“I didn’t say I minded.” Liselle replied with a little smile.
Well, the evening was looking better already! “So how you settling in?”
“It’s... kind of weird.”
“Tell me about it. Especially with all those airhead kids.”
Liselle nodded. “You want to go up to the galley and hang out for a little bit? It’s just for the company. It’s boring not having any friends.”
“I’ll be your friend.” Mick said quickly.
“That’d be nice.” They got into the lift, up one level to the galley. “Vanessa was really giving you a hard time back there.”
“What was it about? Something you saw on..?”
“Nothing. Vanessa’s just determined to be the biggest jerk on Orca.”
Liselle didn’t reply to that one. “Come on, you can tell me if we’re going to be friends.”
“Yeah, ok. It just, I caught something on the monitor while we were out on the boat. There were these kids swimming around in deep water, without diving gear or wetsuits or anything. I know how stupid that sounds, but I saw it!”
Liselle smiled. “I believe you.”
Captain Phillips had gotten his hopes up when he was summoned down to the lab. But when he arrived he was pounced on by a furious Dianne. She slapped him across the chest with the printouts. “That’s why you were stalling on the scans, isn’t it? Because you knew there was a fortune down there!”
“I was trying to work out...”
But Dianne was on the warpath. “Does everyone know what they make with titanium? Bombs, mostly.”
“Oh come on, settle down willya?” Sam pleaded.
Brett, sitting backwards on a desk chair said, “Ok, explain then?” He was glad Neri wasn’t still there to hear about the bombs.
“It was an accident me even seeing the scans in the first place. I was trying to help out, remember?”
“Mmhm.” Dianne said.
“I had a bit of a look-see at the scans and there was this formation. I’d seen stuff like it in the north sea, only that was oil. This was different. I asked Froggy to check it out and he said it as titanium. I was just waiting to see exactly how much there was...”
“Before doing what?” Winston asked.
“Talking to my people. The finder’s fee for this is huge, enough for me to buy my own boat.”
“So you’re happy to let them mine here, rip up the reef so you can eke out a pleasant little existence for yourself? Well I won’t let that happen.”
“Dianne.” Sam said patiently, “Our illustrious Commander Byrne is going to see the results of the survey. She’s not an idiot. And as soon as she does, she’ll be on the phone. For her it’s another step up the corporate ladder. For me, it’s freedom. So...”
“We’re not going to tell Byrne. All right? We’re not going to tell anybody. Because we can’t risk it.”
“Everything. Everything we’re here on Orca for. The environment, the ecosystem, the ocean.”
“They’ll wreck the reef!” Brett added, “They’ll get out here with drilling rigs and explosives. Please Sam, don’t tell.”
Sam shook his head. “Look mate, it’s not something I could keep secret even if I wanted to.”
“Who else have you told?” Dianne demanded.
“Can you promise me one thing?”
“That you won’t tell anybody, not for a while. At least until we’ve had time to think about it. And I promise that if anybody has to break this story, you’ll get to before Byrne does. Please?”
“Yeah all right.” Sam said with another big sigh, and left before Dianne could lay into him again.
Winston said, “Well I guess that went as well as it could have. Now what are we going to do?”
Brett stated the obvious: “Get Froggy to edit the scan, risk you guys losing your jobs and getting arrested?”
His mother gave him a look. “We do something. We don’t let Neri down.”
The girls walked along the beach. Neri said, “Spaceship is here. Can you feel it?”
“No.” Mera replied. She looked at the rather large dip in the sand where the spaceship had collapsed. “Can we go inside?”
“I think no. It fell in, from weight of the sand. We can go to door though.”
“I’d like to.”
They ran into the waves together. The passage into the spaceship was closed, crumpled in like a tin can someone had stepped on. Mera hung in the water outside it for a while, running her hands over the alien metal. Then she pushed off the bottom, surfaced in a splash and flipped onto her back to float under the sky.
“I’m sorry we can’t go inside.” Neri said as she surfaced.
“It’s all right. It’s enough. To know... all the way.” Mera made a circle with her hands and smiled at her sister. Her eyes sparkled, no longer blank moons. “Look, there’s Charley. What’s he saying?”
“He says come and swim. He does not like the water here.”
“Ok!” Mera dived.
Neri hung in the water for a moment, worried, thinking about the titanium and mining in the ocean. It was so good to see her sister happy, even if she couldn’t be entirely happy herself.