I got it done in time! Don't stop reading now though-- next week is the obligatory bonus chapter about Mera on the ocean planet.
Winston turned off the boat and set up his fishing pole, dropping the line over the side. There was no bait on the end, no hook, either. He opened a bag of chips and his book.
A short while later Onoelle came up beside the boat. Her hair was in two braids, with now-soaked flowers tucked in. “Hello, Doctor Seth.”
“Ah, Miss Onoelle.”
“Have the girls come to their decision?”
“Not yet. They will tell you tonight. You must understand, there are many things on earth that they hold dear. They have a very difficult choice.”
“I know. We would give them more time if we could.”
“Ah, I brought—Dianne thought you might want to try some earth food. These are Neri’s favorites. And I wanted to talk to you for a moment. You can probably guess what about.”
Onoelle boosted herself up onto the side of the boat. “I can. But speak, my friend.”
Winston blinked. Friend? “You know a lot about our civilization, so you know our technology is much less advanced than yours. Is there anything you could... I realize it’s probably rude to ask, but what kind of person would I be if I didn’t?”
“Well said.” Onoelle smiled. “What you ask has been planned for, but there is nothing we can give you now. When the time comes and we become known to all people of your planet, it is hoped that scientists from both worlds can work together to new discoveries.”
“Oh good!” Winston said, stupidly he thought, “I am glad to hear it, though I must admit I was hoping for a miracle cure or something. I suppose that’s silly. We are different peoples after all; there’s no way your medicines would work for us.”
“That is true. But there will be wonders, and we will see them while we live. So I believe.” She smiled, with something of the brilliant joy of Neri’s smile.
Winston nodded and smiled back. “I look forward to it.
Onoelle looked up suddenly. “A boat comes. I must go. Thank you for this!” She took the bag of food Winston had brought, well wrapped in waterproof plastic, and vanished into the water.
Winston waved. He couldn’t see a boat yet, but if Charley said one was coming, he believed it. Winston settled a hat on his head and sat down by the fishing pole. A few minutes later a Ubri boat came into sight, and pulled up alongside. It was a lot bigger than the little outboard Winston was in, so he had to look way up at the white-suited Ubri sailors.
Winston waved cheerfully and saluted with a potato chip.
“Doctor Winston Seth?”
“Hellegren, isn’t it? I’ve read your work on cetacean communication.” Winston replied. It was creepy as all heck, that Hellegren recognized him. Winston hoped he’d returned the favor.
“Not a bite, I’m afraid.” Winston kept up the innocent smile while Hellegren looked over the boat. There was no cabin, just a small storage space that was full of gear at the moment. No place to hide anybody. Hellegren turned away and gave orders to the captain of his boat. Its engines came up and it sailed away.
“Mera and I have been given this gift, and our people are in need of it.” Neri said softly, “So it seems I must go.”
Dianne looked away. “Well I, um... I think I knew all along that was the choice you’d make. We’ll miss you, but I understand.”
Neri leaned her head on her adopted mother’s shoulder. “My heart is torn. It hurts to think of leaving you forever. And Charley. Who will care for him when I am gone?”
“We’ll do our best Neri.” Winston said.
“We’ll watch out for him.”
“There is also Father’s mission. To watch over the sea. It would be ended and I will have failed him.”
Jason said, “Then stay and finish it! Do these guys really need both of you?”
Neri looked miserable, but she said, “I do not think Mera can do it on her own. And I could not stay unless she also wanted me to. Please don’t be angry. I have to go.”
Brett and Mera were on their way to join them after a walk around Orca, finding their way through the halls. Everything looked different in the red emergency light.
“But I thought you liked it here.” Brett said.
“I do. I love the island, and I like Orca, and all of you. But... this is our chance to go to our real home, be with our own people and learn who I really am... I have to take it. Wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah.” Brett admitted. “I see what you mean. And to get to see another planet!”
“I’ll come back and tell you about it, if I can.”
Mera thought for a second then held out her hand, pinkie crooked. They promised solemnly outside the cabin door.
“Hey Mum, we’re back.”
“What did you see?” Winston asked.
“Nothing interesting. Froggy’s still slaving over Helen, the gang’s holding a council of war in the rec room and Dave and the commander are arguing what model computer to get. Didn’t see Liselle or Forsythe anywhere.”
Sam came in behind them, “I think they’re laying low. If Forsythe really did break the main computer...” He whistled to indicate how much trouble that would be.
Jason sighed. “It’s gonna be weird, real weird, without you two around. But I guess me and Brett will just have to try to get used to it.”
“Yeah, it’s not easy giving Mum ulcers and driving commanders crazy, that sort of thing. But hey, someone’s got to do it.”
Neri laughed and ruffled Brett’s hair. “What about you, Mother? What will you do?”
“Oh, I think I’ll find a new field of work. Something more practical that’ll let us stay on Orca.”
“But the book of Charley’s words? The dictionary?”
“I’ll just have to forget it. I’d more or less decided to anyway.”
“No!” Neri cried.
“Neri, even with your help it was really just a pipe dream. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to make contact with them. It’s all right.”
Neri shook her head. “Not all right. Mera, come here. You also. Sit with us. I only hope, but perhaps with both of us this can happen. Join hands.”
Brett shrugged and sat down next to his mother, joining the circle on the cramped floor of the cabin.
“Think hard together. Mera, call to Charley.”
Mera closed her eyes and a smile lit her face.
And they heard...
Brett and Jason both gasped. They heard a soft cry, whale song, but heard without ears, as if it went directly to their minds, their bones, everywhere.
“Is that how you...” Dianne started, but Mera squeezed her hand.
“Now Mera, we must go further into his head. Further and further. Until we are looking out through his eyes.”
The ocean opened up around them. A blue, three-dimensional world of clouds of krill and ribbons of shining fish. A sea turtle drifted past, its fins waving lazily. Charley looked up at it and laughed at their wonder.
“I felt what he was singing about!”
“That was amazing!”
Winston said, “What is it? What happened?”
“Enough to convince me we should continue out work. We might not make the breakthrough in our lifetime Winston, but when it happens, it’ll be worth waiting for.” She was blinking away tears.
“I think they should just try and make a swim for it.” Mick was saying as Brett and Jason came into the rec room. All the kids who were in the know were gathered around a table.
“They’d never make it half way.” Zoe said.
“Those creeps will be monitoring the entire ocean.”
“Well what’s your idea?”
“I have an idea.” Jason said and pulled up a chair. “It’s just the classic switch, but I think we can get it past Ubri. Now, we need boats and drivers for starters.”
“Why not leave that to me?” Sam asked from the door. He caught the kids’ looks and raised his hands, “Hey, not trying to take over your show here. Just trying to help.”
Jason nodded, “All right. You’re in, and we need a second boat—the little sharkcat Winston uses should work. Froggy, are you sure Helen can identify who wrecked her?”
“If I can get her going.”
“Keep at it. It’s vital.”
Froggy saluted and left.
Vanessa said, “So what are our jobs then?”
Brett said, “You’ll like yours, it’s violent.”
“We need two decoys, and as many people as we’ve got to keep an eye on Forsythe and Liselle. Once things get going they have to be kept from getting a message out.”
“That’s the violent part?” Kimberley looked eager. “Us girls have got it covered.”
“What about me?”
“Well Mick, we also need a bodyguard. But first someone needs to fetch the girls’ clothes from the pontoon, hopefully let the Ubri spy see you, and we need some more clothes. And hats.”
Down in the computer room Froggy hit a few more keys, and... “Forget it.”
“You’re not giving up?” Rocky said.
“That was it, the last thing I could think of. Checked every connection, rebooted... everything. There’s nothing else to try! I’d better go let the others know we can’t rely on Helen for any help.”
As Froggy headed for the door, Rocky sized up the closest, dead, terminal. He kicked it.
Something binged and a few lights came on on the wall. Froggy yelped. “I don’t believe it! She’s up!”
“Not doing much though.”
“Doesn’t matter, now I know where the problem is...” Froggy was already hunkered down with the terminal open. “Right. Fried the circuit, I get another one and we’re in business!”
It was dinnertime but nobody was hungry. In the cabin the girls picked at their dinner. Topside Jason opened the compartment and got the girls’ dresses out. He tucked the bundle under his jacket and got into the lift. Forsythe was up there keeping watch, but he was looking out from behind the shed in the dark. Jason resisted the urge to wave.
“Spotted Forsythe. He’s up on the pontoon, keeping watch.” Jason said, down in the cabin.”
“Did he see you?”
“Had to’ve. But it was so dark up there he couldn’t make out what I was doing.”
“What about Liselle?” Brett asked.
“She’s still lurking around down the corridor. They’re keeping close tabs on us all right.”
The door opened and Zoe and Mick came in, Zoe griping at Mick for taking too long. Mick was grumbling back that she was lucky he’d come at all.
In the lab another part of the plan was unfolding, Sam talking Winston through some aggressive boating.
“Sam, there is an old Tibetan saying: A cat becomes truly nervous when instructed how to swim.”
Sam stared. “What the heck does that mean?”
“It means I would be rather more confident if I were a better sailor. I don’t know why you chose me for this task.”
“We have a saying at sea: Any port in a storm. Means using the best of what you’ve got. Now, you got this? The sharkcats are pretty idiot-proof and you have a realtime map to help you find your way back. All you need to remember is the gas pedal.”
Winston nodded, still not looking very eager.
Vanessa appeared in the door. “Winston, ready? Your passengers are waiting in the lift.”
“Ready. Ready!” Winston jumped up and headed for the door. Sam waved.
In the lift were Mick and Zoe, wrapped in the girls’ rough dresses and wearing wigs. Mick muttered something about ‘bodyguard work’ and Zoe grinned and said it was just as well she didn’t have a camera. Winston gave them a stern look. They nodded, and the lift shot them up to the surface.
Orca’s outdoor lights were down to emergency power too. Winston shone his flashlight around. “All clear, come on. The boat’s over here. Come on, girls!”
Two silent, long-haired figured jumped down into the boat, the smaller one pausing to cast off as Winston started the motor.
The coast hadn’t been clear. They were hardly clear of the pontoon when spotlights came on and motors started behind them. Winston said, “Hang on!” and stepped on the throttle.
Froggy had the terminal closed up again. He drummed his fingers nervously on the cover.
“Well?” Rocky asked.
“I think I’ve finally got everything reconnected right.”
“So go on.”
“But if I haven’t, I could fry whatever’s left of Helen, this time forever.”
Pause. Then Rocky said, “Well there’s only one way to find out. Look, if you’re not going to do it...”
“I’ll do it.” Froggy reached out slowly and hit the switch. A few little lights came on, then a few more. A blank screen lit up, and displayed the Orca logo. Froggy whooped. “Yes! We did it! I can’t believe we did it!”
“Hello, Froggy. I am fully operational. Would you like me to restore normal on-board power supplies?”
“Diagnostics first Helen, just in case I did something wrong. Then bring things up one section at a time.”
“Affirmative.” Helen replied. The room’s other screens came on, running a diagnostic program, and the room’s normal lighting turned on.
Ten minutes later the power must have reached the bridge, because the commander and Dave and most of the technical crew came storming in. Froggy said, “Could you not touch anything please?”
“...He did this?” Byrne asked, looking down at Froggy.
“It’s amazing, ma’am. The whole system’s coming back online. Good job, kid.”
“Thanks, Officer Hartley.” Froggy said humbly, because there were grownups around.
Rocky spoke up, “Not only that, she’s going to identify who messed her up. Right Froggy?”
“I hope so. She’s searching her memory banks now. Any luck Helen?”
“Searching personnel files.” Helen said. The identification pictures of the crew flashed across the screen. At the other terminal Dave was checking Froggy’s work. Byrne was still incredulous. Finally Helen stopped. “Positive identification. Forsythe, Parker. Orca identification number 009983.”
The lights came back on in the Bates cabin. Brett cheered. A minute later there was a call from topside. “Ok, they’re gone.” Sam said, “Took off after Winston. I think now is our best chance.”
“We’re on our way.”
Neri was sitting on the bed, Jason helping her tuck her hair up under a hat. Mera stood by the door, ready to go. Jason said, “You heard the man. Let’s go.”
The only person in the hall was Vanessa. She hugged Neri quickly and said, “All clear, Liselle’s watching the chaos in Helen’s room. Froggy left the pontoon lights off for you. ‘Bye Neri.”
“Goodbye.” Neri chimed, and Dianne hurried her on into the lift.
It was dark up top. The five of them ducked across the pontoon into Sam’s boat. He had the engine idling, and fired it up as soon as they were safely on board. “Anybody see you?”
“Couldn’t tell. Too dark out here.” Jason replied.
Sam grunted at that. “Well, all their boats are off chasing Winston, so we should have a clear shot straight to the island. You two be ready to hop overboard if anything comes up at us ok?”
Mera nodded. “Ok.” The kids were tucked down out of the wind. With the boat’s engines on full it was too loud to talk. Sam looked like he was having a great time; he was grinning and his hair had come loose from its ponytail.
Rocky and Froggy watched and gloated while the commander arrested Forsythe for, “Sabotage. Plus I believe there’s the matter of an unauthorized transmitter in your cabin. False representation, criminal damage, and I’m sure I’ll think of a few more while you’re locked up in the brig. Take him away.”
Dave put his large hand on Forsythe’s arm. “This way, Doctor.”
“Let me go! You don’t understand, I have to get a message out!” Forsythe squirmed, and looked surprised he wasn’t immediately released.
“Or we could do it the with-handcuffs way. Up to you.” Dave said mildly.
Liselle reached the door of her cabin to find Joanne parked firmly in front of it.
“What do you think you’re doing here?”
“Making sure you don’t get inside your cabin.”
“And do you think a soppy little thing like you is going to stand in my way?”
“Yes I do. Because the only way you’re getting in is over our dead bodies.” Joanne smiled cheerfully as Kimberley and Vanessa appeared on either side of her.
“Still fancy your chances?” Vanessa asked.
Liselle wavered, balled her fists, and then thought the better of it.
Kim nodded. “Good choice. Now, you know about the scholarships for Orca kids, right? You haven’t been here long enough to qualify, but Mick agreed to have a word with his mother about you, if we get your word on a few things. Your uncle’s under arrest. Ubri’s sunk. It’s the best deal you’re gonna get. Parlay?”
Liselle finally nodded.
And then, too soon, they reached the island. The visitors were waiting on the beach. “Come, we must hurry. It is time.”
“Farewells now, quickly.”
Silence fell as Neri and Mera turned to look out at the ocean. Nobody heard what they said, but when they turned back Neri had tears on her face.
The spaceship was parked in a clearing, hidden by the darkness and wreathed by fog. All that could be seen was the door, made of blue metal, and an intriguing bulk between the trees.
“Whoa!” Brett said.
“Oh man this really is goodbye. Come here you two.” Dianne pulled the girls into a hug. “Safe journey, my darling. Take care. Neri you have brought... so much joy to our lives. Come back soon if you can.”
“Mother.” Neri whispered.
“Thank you for finding me. All of you.” Mera quickly hugged Jason and Brett.
“This is such a bummer Mera. We could’ve had so much fun together.”
“Yeah.” Mera said. She was crying, and she turned quickly and vanished into the fog around the spaceship. The clouds blew apart for a moment and they saw Onoelle put her arm around Mera as they walked into the spaceship.
“Neri, only a moment more.”
“Neri, I never really told you... what I’m trying to say is...”
“I did not ask to go.” Neri whispered, and kissed him until time stopped.
When time began again Jason said, “Well then stay! We need you.”
Neri stepped back and mist flowed around her. The clouds billowed and grew, blowing gently around them. It smelled like sea fog, not smoke or exhaust. Dianne pulled her sons close as the forest around them disappeared. There was a gentle hum, and the spaceship was suddenly above them floating on a small white flame. It unfolded stubby little wings and sailed away across the sky.
The Orca boat was surrounded. It happened so suddenly Winston had to spin the wheel in panic to avoid a collision. He turned off the engine and hung on as the little boat bounced on a grumpy ocean. Someone in a Ubri jumpsuit was yelling through a loudspeaker, “Cut your engines, I repeat, cut your engines. Prepare to be boarded.”
“Yes yes...” Winston said under his breath. “I’m afraid the jig is up, you two.”
An Ubri boat pulled up alongside and Hellegren jumped down. “Well, Doctor Seth, you gave us quite a run for our money. Now I will take charge of your passengers. I have been waiting for the two young ladies for a long time. If you’ll accompany me.”
Mick emerged, wig in hand. “Sure, but we don’t kiss on the first date.”
Hellegren’s mouth dropped open. He spun and grabbed Winston by the collar. “Where are the girls?”
Winston smiled and looked up. They could hear the ship, faintly, and see it as a distant shooting star. “Up there.”
“Where are they going?”
“Somewhere you will never reach them.” Winston stepped back, extricating himself from the other man’s grip. “Now, my dear sir, there’s nothing for you to do but go home. It’s over.”
Mick and Zoe had shed their disguises and were looking up watching the spaceship as its spark faded into the night sky. Winston turned away from the lights of the Ubri boats and watched with them.
The strange clouds still foamed over the island, though they’d started to dissipate in the breeze. Dianne had recovered enough to say, “Do you think it’s fueled by water?”
Sam joined them, crunching over the leaves on the ground. “I saw it go overhead. Wow. Just wow.”
“Time to go?”
“Yep.” Dianne said. She wiped her eyes, and leaned her head on Sam’s shoulder as they walked away.
Brett turned back, one last time. A veil of mist blew aside. Someone was there, standing looking up.
“Guys... guys! She stayed! Neri!” Brett yelled, and ran to grab Neri in a hug. She grinned down at him before everyone else arrived for their hugs and shouts and happiness.
“But you said...” Jason said finally, and shrugged and didn’t finish.
“Mera told me to stay. Just at the end, she said I must. She said she believes in our people, that she will not be alone. That we are family, even apart.” Neri touched her amulet. “Sister wishes in her heart to return home, but she wishes me to stay with you.”
“I’m... glad.” Said Dianne. “Really glad.”