6 The Mission
“Mother of you and Jason live on Orca?” Kal asked Brett.
“Uh-huh.” Brett said. Dianne and Winston had been fascinated to hear about Kal, and couldn’t wait to meet him.
Kal agreed. “When I meet her?”
“Um, later. Much later.” Brett said. Benny was still telling his story, so they had decided to give things a while to calm down before letting Kal visit Orca. In the past few days the boys had been out to the island a lot, to try to explain to Kal why he needed to stay away from people. But Kal didn’t understand, or he pretended not to. It was hard to tell.
On the other side of the pond Neri and Jason were sitting.
“I thought he would obey.” Neri said mournfully. “Now all the time he asks to go to Orca.”
“Well he can’t! Hellegren’s on Orca nearly every day, it’s way too dangerous! Can you think of anything here to keep him interested?”
“He swims with us, but he gets ‘bored’ because he cannot hear Charley.” Neri paused then said, “There is spaceship. Last night he ask about it. When we will go there again.”
“Yeah? After being there all that time?”
“He was asleep. Does not remember.”
“Fine, take him. Or—would you not want to go back?”
Neri smiled. “No, not afraid. Will take him. Today.”
On the other bank Kal flipped upside down, into an effortless handstand on a rock. While Brett stared, he lifted one hand and balanced on the other. “See many people on Orca do this?”
“Not so many.” Brett said weakly.
Back on Orca, Dianne had been called out of her lab to see the commander.
“I’ll come straight to the point.” He said, “It has come to my attention that your assistant, Doctor Seth, has no diving qualification. In fact his file indicates he can’t even swim.”
Behind the commander, Kellar was smiling slightly. Dianne looked at her. “I see someone’s been doing some very thorough research.”
“Your fieldwork demands activity underwater doesn’t it? I’m afraid Dr. Seth will have to go. I’m informed Ubri will be happy to supply you with a qualified assistant.”
“I see.” Dianne said dryly. “Well. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go break the news to Winston.”
Winston did not take it well.
“I’m dismissed, unemployed, thrown on the scrap heap!”
“Why now? Just when we learned of this strange boy on Neri’s island!”
“Look, I don’t think this is legitimate. Kellar was there; she obviously fed your secret to the commander. They want one of their own people in this department.”
“Ah. For obvious reasons: someone to handicap your efforts to protect the reef!”
“Or get rid of me altogether. We need to convince Commander Williams to keep you on board.”
Winston sighed and shut his program. “Let’s go to the galley. The boys should be back by now, and we can pick their brains.”
Dianne looked at him.
“Well, who around here is the master of outsmarting commanders?”
“Dismissed?” Jason said.
“They can’t do that.”
“It stinks.” Cass added. “You’ve got seniority!”
Dave had found himself and his hamburger sharing a table with the discussion. “Well, it’s the rules. I guess if you’re going to be working on an underwater installation you ought to be able to swim.”
“It’s true, my shortcoming. I am up the creek, no paddle.”
Benny said, “Mr. Hartley, are you familiar with section 14 of the Orca regulations? Dismissal of personnel, paragraph 23 sub-clause M?”
Benny opened his little notebook computer. “It’s about this—people not having the qualifications for their job. It says an exception can be made if training can provide the missing qualification in a period of time.”
“Let me see that.” Dianne said, and Benny slid the computer over. “This means if Winston can learn to swim he could keep his job, right?”
“If the commander agrees, and ‘in a period of time.’”
“Oh, I think Winston could learn to swim quite quickly. With the right teacher.”
Winston looked very worried.
Dave laughed. “All right, I’ll give it a try. If the commander agrees.”
“Oh, he’ll agree.”
“Mum’s on the warpath, duck and cover!”
By the time lunch was over they had the commander’s permission and Winston was making his appearance with towel, goggles, and neon green swimming trunks.
“Oh.” Dianne said, and Dave stifled a chuckle.
“I, uh, loaned him the board shorts.” Jason explained.
“I don’t possess a swimming costume, for obvious reasons. Ready when you are, Mr. Hartley.”
Managing not to grin Dave said, “Ok, let’s start you off in the swimming pool. The shallow end.”
“Come on Brett, we don’t want to miss this.” Jason was saying, when Neri leaned out from a hallway and beckoned them.
“Jason. We have found something new and strange in the ship.”
“What is it?”
“Ok. Hey, sorry you guys, we just remembered something we gotta do.”
“Yeah. Good luck Winston!” Brett waved, and he and Jason followed Neri to the lift.
“The Ubri computers have continued to check through any evidence of spacecraft landing in the area. So far, nothing.”
“Is that all you are reporting, Kellar?”
“No. The computers have, however, isolated a curious pattern.” Kellar pointed at the screen, which was sprinkled with dots indicating impact sites.”
“Elaborate.” Hellegren told her.
“Between fifteen and twenty years ago, there was an unusual concentration of objects impacting the earth in this area. None of them were big enough to be an occupied spacecraft, but the pattern of impact does not appear to be random.” Most of the dots cleared off the screen, leaving a tight line of impacts tagged with date and time. “Should I make this a priority?”
“No, not yet. Bring me that data, Kellar. I will make an assessment of these impacts when I have studied them for myself.”
“What did you find?” Jason asked Neri as they slogged up the beach.
“Is hard to tell. We find a room, Kal said was mother and father’s work place. Then something strange appeared. Come see.”
“Ok.” Brett said, and bowed aside so Neri could climb down into the spaceship first. The boys followed her inside, then into a room they hadn’t been in before. It looked like all the other rooms, dim and blue and foggy with unidentifiable furniture.
The strange thing was hanging from the ceiling. It looked like a mask, made of plates of beaten gold like flower petals.
“What does it do?” Brett asked the room in general.
“How do I know? Maybe it’s the intergalactic cartoon channel.”
“Ha ha. Where are the controls?”
“No controls.” Neri said. “I touch here, and it came down.” She pointed to a section of the wall, the same blue metal as the rest.
Jason poked at the wall but nothing happened. Brett said, “It’s like before! Remember how the hologram would turn on for Neri but not for us?”
“Genetic coded. I guess all their technology works like that. Doesn’t help us figure out what it’s for.”
“Head thing.” Kal said, pointing at his head. “Head… thing.”
“Well it does look kind of like a mask.”
Neri pulled the device towards her. Jason grabbed her. “Are you nuts? It could suck your mind dry or something!”
“Is of my people.” Neri said, smiling at Jason’s concern. She pulled the mask over her face. Its golden petals ruffled and the lighting in the room changed. The wall in front of Neri lit up like a screen and cleared to show a dark-haired woman. She began to speak.
“My mother.” Kal said. She looked like Kal, the same brown skin and inky-black curls.
“What’s she saying?”
“It is the book of the ship. My mother tells every day.”
Neri raised her hand to her head. “She is Luma, is… commander of ship. She says it is day seven of the growing of the summer moon. She says this will be the last day she will speak.”
“I get it. It’s the log book of the ship, like a diary.”
“Yes, that is my mother’s work.”
“She says the ship has trouble. The machines which power and guide it have broken—they cannot fix. Ship cannot stay in orbit. Earth, which they come to study, is now close… but they cannot make landing safely. She says ship will crash on opal planet, on earth, will crash soon…”
“That’s why she said it’s her last entry.” Brett whispered.
“Neri, are you all..?”
Neri interrupted, talking fast. “She speaks of her son, she speaks of Kal. She fears not to live through crash, or Kal’s father. They have put Kal in sleep box, only sleep box, will protect only one. She’s asking if anyone lives, they will take Kal from sleep box. She says Kal is fine and strong. Parents’ last thought is love for him, hope for him.”
On the screen the woman looked around, frightened, as red lights came on around her. The picture shook. She started speaking again, hurried.
“She says there is a task to do, important task. She says take up the crystal.”
Around Luma, the ship was shuddering. Red emergency lighting turned her face an awful color. She backed against the wall and from somewhere webbing covered her body, holding her to the wall.
“Ship tries to protect her, will try to protect all, but is falling fast now. They cannot stop, they cannot control! But there is task to do, important…”
Neri’s knees buckled and Jason grabbed her. The screen turned back to being metal wall.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes.” Neri said. She sat down and rubbed her head.
Kal was looking at them, his head tipped to one side. He explained, “Mother must learn to speak to book. Hurts head, first time.”
“I guess it’d take practice.” Jason said, but he was thinking that Kal had just seen his mother’s last minutes alive, and he didn’t even seem troubled. He should’ve been crying or freaking out, or something.
Neri shook her head as if to clear it. “They are gone but there is a mission, a task to do.”
“Sure, but how do we figure out what?”
“She said take up the crystal!” Brett said, “Do you guys see anything..?” He started feeling for cracks in the wall that might hide a drawer.
Neri stood up and pressed her hand to the wall. A drawer shot out, in front of Brett. That was definitely a crystal on it. Brett reached for it, then thought better of the idea and stepped back. Neri lifted the crystal out. It looked like a glass paperweight, except for the glitter of tiny circuits running through it. A beautiful object, like something you’d see under glass in a jewelry store, and it was the equivalent of a computer disc. Neri set it onto the top of a low pillar, where it clicked into place.
The screen came on again, the same woman but dressed differently, in a robe and hood. It looked like she was outside, on a foggy moonlit night. The picture didn’t move. Neri reached for the mask again. “It will tell us the task.”
“Wait, is it all right? You said it hurts.”
“But we must know of task.” Neri started translating. “She says task is very important—very hard. Can only be given to special person. Person with wisdom and strength. Father! She says Father is the one!”
“He was supposed to plug in the crystal.”
“She says before ship left our planet, nine pieces of a machine were sent to Earth. They were made to fall at different places on Earth. They are waiting there. Must be found and put together. Put together they become a powerful machine. Called syn…chron…ium.”
“Synchronium.” Brett echoed.
The air in front of Neri rippled and a hologram appeared. A bluegreen orb that separated into pieces and joined together again. Brett waved his hand through the hologram and it rippled like water.
“Synchronium will make Earth well. Make oceans of Earth well. Must do. Oceans may soon be in much danger, our people foresee this. People of earth are not wise. They make the sea poisoned. Oceans will die, reef will die, fish, whole planet will die. Opal planet so much like our own, its life must not be lost. One who draws the crystal must build synchronium and make oceans well again. It is great danger…”
The hologram synchronium turned from bluegreen to angry red. Neri stopped and shook her head. Jason started to say something, but Neri took a deep breath and started translating again. “Synchronium in hands of bad men can do much harm, evil. Make danger very bad. That is why secret only for the wise. She now talks of last secret. Machine to find the synchronium. Machine works like map, to find the nine pieces. To do task.”
On the screen, Luma made a formal gesture, and her image vanished.
Neri put her hand on the crystal and it lit up, scanning her dna. Another drawer slid from the wall. There was a machine inside—or there had been. Now it was only shards of blue metal and bits of wire, and crystal dust. Brett picked up the biggest piece and Jason poked at the rest.
“It’s totally smashed.” Brett shook the piece he was holding. It rattled, and pieces fell out. Kal was shaking his head mournfully.
“Well.” Jason said, “I think that’s enough for one day. Let’s get out of here, we can talk outside.”
They climbed up the vine and sat on a log outside.
“You sad to see your mother?” Neri asked gently, after a while.
Kal gave her a confused look. “I did not see her. Only picture, yes? Mother has passed.”
“Yes, she has passed.”
Jason thought aloud. “So Neri’s dad was supposed to watch that video, it was his mission but he didn’t know about it. Didn’t even know this part of the ship survived.”
“Mum’s going to freak when she hears about this.”
Neri turned to him. “Mother must not know.”
“What? Why not?”
“She has too much work already, too much worry. Her task is to guard the oceans from Ubri. My task is to find synchronium.”
“How, with the locator smashed?”
“We will find a way.” Neri was looking out to sea. She sounded very certain.
“Jason—Winston’s test. We have to get back.”
“Oh, right.” Jason shook himself. “We have to get back, sorry.”
Neri tipped her head. “Test? Winston is in trouble?”
“Well he has to learn to swim… hey, Neri, you couldn’t do us a favor could you?”
“Neri?” Winston asked.
“Yup. She’ll be there, right under the surface looking after you.”
“So you just keep swimming. She’ll make sure you don’t go under.” Brett said proudly. It had been his idea after all.
Winston was smiling now. “With my own personal mermaid, how can I lose?”
On the beach, Neri molded a dome of sand and drew lines across it.
“Nine pieces.” Kal said.
“Yes, still out there somewhere. My father’s task, but he could not do it. Now I must. But first I must help Winston swim. He is a good friend.”
“You go to Orca?”
“This time you stay here. Promise?”
Neri nodded, and stood up and brushed sand off her dress.
On the pontoon everyone had turned out to cheer for Winston, even Benny and Cass who didn’t really know him. Dave, wearing the quiet smile that meant he was finding the whole thing hilarious, was giving Winston some last minute pointers.
Neri came up, waved at Brett, and ducked under again.
The commander appeared, with Kellar hovering over his shoulder. “Let’s get a move on, Hartley!”
“Ready, Commander!” Winston said cheerfully. He was looking very unprofessional in Jason’s trunks and Brett’s goggles. “Out to the buoy and back, yes? All right, here I go!” Winston dived off the pontoon and everyone was yelling, “Go, Winston!”
Winston reached the buoy and grabbed it, waving with his free hand.
Brett was down on the lowest platform just above the water. He was watching Winston when water splashed his knees. He looked down. “Neri?”
“Kal is here.”
“I must take him back. I am sorry.” Neri said quickly and vanished under the water. Looking hard, Brett saw her pale head and Kal’s dark one under the water. Brett looked away from them quickly. “Um, come on Winston!”
The halls in Ubri headquarters were blindingly white. Walking down them made Lena feel like spilled paint. Maybe next time she’d wear white clothes… and disappear completely.
Lena heard her father’s voice and stopped outside a half open door. She paused, then decided to eavesdrop.
“…the records that caught my attention.” Kellar was saying. “These are reports of meteorites and space junk impacting earth in this region. The computer is eliminating reports in which the object was recovered or positively identified. Also random patterns… but this is what I wanted you to see, this line of impacts.”
Peeking around the door Lena saw they were looking at some kind of map on a big screen, the background dark, with lights marking off a ragged line.
“So these could be landings?” Hellegren asked.
“What’s the time frame?”
“Between fifteen and twenty years ago.”
“You could be on to something, Kellar… ah, Lena.”
Lena shrank in the doorway. “Ah, Father. They, um, let me pass at the gate. There is so much I want to know about your work.”
Lena wasn’t sure what she’d been hoping for, but her father turned off the screen and escorted her from the room. “This is not the place for children my dear.”
“Father, I’m curious why…”
“My work is confidential. I don’t discuss it with anybody.”
A dripping Winston pulled himself up onto the pontoon. Dianne gave him a towel and a, “Good job.”
“Yeah Winston, all right!”
“You made it!”
Winston grinned and saluted the commander. “Sir, I have swum!” He announced.
Commander Williams was the only person on the pontoon not having fun. He stepped out of the way of any stray drops. “Good enough I suppose.”
A cheer went up.
Dave said, “Not to be a downer, but there’s still the diving side of things to attend to. You can join the kids getting their certification.”
Benny gave Winston a pat on the back. “Congratulations, you can get terrorized by him and Morgan along with the rest of us.”
“I shall anticipate it with terror.” Winston said. The elevator arrived and they all piled in.
At the bottom the kids wandered off, with final congratulations to Winston. Dave gave everybody his best stare and reminded them when the next diving class would be.
“He has way too much fun scaring us.” Brett muttered.
“Officer Hartley is only concerned over our safety.” Winston told him, then reconsidered. “…and he enjoys being scary. He is a good teacher however. Boys, will you thank Neri for me? I couldn’t have done it without her.”
The boys shared a look, and decided not to tell. “Sure, we’ll tell her.”
“We’re going back out to the island now, as soon as we sign out a boat. Neri’ll be happy to hear you’re staying on Orca. Come on Brett.”
Winston said goodbye and headed to his cabin for a hot shower and dry clothes, and Jason and Brett went to get a boat.
“You think we should’ve told him Neri had to leave halfway through?”
They thought about it. “…Nah.”
Neri was frowning as she walked out of the water. Kal followed her, looking ashamed.
“When you promise something, you must do.”
Neri sighed. “You are like baby.” She sat down next to the synchronium she’d molded in the sand. “Did you know of this task?”
“No. Was secret. You will find?”
“I must.” Neri said meditatively. “Must find a way, is important. More important than you.”
“Is more important than me? No.” Kal said and wandered off.
Neri was still sitting there when Jason and Brett came.
“Hi Neri. Winston said to tell you thanks.”
Neri smiled, and Jason sat down next to her. “What’s this?”
Brett sighed and sat down in the sand. “Neri, those capsules will never be found.”
“Father’s task is my task, Brett. I held the crystal and it worked for me. So I am trusted as he was. I must find all the synchronium. I must build it. And I must work it so it will save the oceans of this earth.”
“Yeah I’m all in favor, but how? That locator thing was smashed to pieces.”
“But you will help me search.”
Kal leaned over them. “Banana?”
“Not now Kal.” Neri said. She looked at Jason. “Well? You help me find synchronium?”
Jason smiled. “What do you expect us to say? Sure, we’re in.”
“Of course!” Brett added. He took the banana Kal offered, and motioned for the older boy to join them. But Kal didn’t sit down, he wandered off into the forest. Brett glanced at his brother—Neri was leaning on Jason in a suspiciously cuddly pose. Brett got up and followed Kal, but never found him.
That night, in their beds on Orca Brett spoke some of his thoughts. “What do you suppose she’s getting us into this time?”
“Nothing.” Jason said. “She doesn’t have the faintest idea where to start looking and neither do we. It’s a dream that’s all.”
“You heard her today! This isn’t a dream, it’s a mission. She’s serious.”
“Well maybe we will think of something. Those capsules aren’t gonna run away and it’s not like anybody else is looking for them.”
“Yeah. Suppose so.” Brett said and turned towards the wall and closed his eyes. He sort of hoped that the mission would get somewhere. Last time had been scary, but they’d met Mera and that made it worth it.