9 The Capsule in the Desert
Neri flew through the blue depths. She felt free, out here. It was nice to be away from Kal’s questions, his presence. She’d been lonely before he came, but now… now it was so nice to have no voices around but Charley’s. He came alongside her, his shadow falling over her, his song as familiar as a heartbeat.
Charley called a query.
We went to land to find a piece of the thing from my planet. And we find.
Thoughtful, Charley rolled in the water. Neri mimicked him and they spun over the reef.
Neri. Water changes because you have part of the Thing.
You can feel?
Yes. Water changes other ways too. Bad ways.
I know, dear one. I feel that too. Mother tries to help, but she does not find what is wrong. Orca people cannot see it. Why?
People do not see much. Charley said, and Neri laughed.
I go to meet friends now, to look for more pieces of synchronium. We must find quickly, to make the wrongness in the ocean right again.
In the dive pool Jason and Brett got their scuba gear on. “Why do we need all this?” Brett asked, “If this cave has air in it… which I don’t believe…”
“It’s tough to get to. Just stick close to me down there.”
“Someone’s coming up!” Brett stood and padded towards the pool, barefoot and carrying his fins in one hand.
Two anonymous divers shed their masks and turned into Winston and Dianne. Winston was grinning. “I could have stayed down there forever!”
“Hey Winston, hi Mum.”
“Hey you two. We were taking another look around, a thorough one. Still no sign of anything amiss.”
“Yeah but when have Neri’s instincts ever been wrong?”
Winston sighed. “It’s not a matter of trusting her instincts; the problem is finding evidence to present to the tribunal.”
“We’ll keep our eyes open. Where are you two off to?”
“Not far. Just a practice dive.”
“Shall I come?” Winston asked eagerly.
Jason laughed. “No no, we’ll be fine. It’s great you like diving now, but you don’t want to overdo it.”
“Yeah, you’ll turn into a prune!”
Dianne offered Winston a hand out of the pool, and they kicked off their flippers so they could walk. “Be careful down there boys. You’ve got full tanks? And panic alarms?”
“Dave checked our gear.” Jason reassured his mother. “Come on Brett.”
The two adults quickly stepped back out of splash range as Brett jumped into the pool. Jason waited until his brother was out of the way and followed.
Smiling, Winston said, “It is the clever duck that mimicks the fish.”
It was dark in the shadow of a coral outcrop near Orca. Jason knew the passage was there, but he had to almost touch the stone before he found it. He gestured to Brett, and they swam in. A dark minute later they surfaced in the damp of the coral cave.
“Unreal.” Brett whispered. “No one would ever know this place was here.”
“Isn’t it cool?”
“Wow.” Brett agreed. He felt for the edge of the pool and pulled himself up to sit. It was dark, the only light a blue glow coming from the passageway.
Neri was sitting in the curve of the wall, her legs pulled up to her chest. She turned when the boys entered. “You find out about another piece of the synchronium?”
“C’mon Neri, it’s only been two days.”
“You found out so soon about the first one.”
“That was just luck. Helen’s working on it but we haven’t had a chance to narrow down another hit. Brett can do some work on it this afternoon.”
“What? Why just me?”
“I’ve got cadet training on the bridge, all week. I’ll help you out after.”
“Yeah you’d better.” Brett grumbled. “Neri, the problem is there are lots of reports and we’re having trouble fishing out which ones might be any good. It takes a long time, and if we miss classes we’ll get grounded and not be able to search at all.
“I see.” Neri smiled at them, but her eyes were shadowed. “Please keep trying. The sea is changing, I feel it.”
“We will. We’re not giving up, just… it takes time.”
Brett pulled off his glove and felt the coral wall of the cave. Slimy. He wrinkled his nose. “Yeah, definitely wear suits in here. This is a great cave though. You think if we brought an oxygen tank down here we could refresh the air?”
“Maybe. Let’s just head back now. Neri, we’ll come tell you the minute we find anything ok?”
The boys put their masks back on. Neri waited until they left the cave safely before she swam after them. She watched them swim back towards the lights of the construction around Orca.
Kal reached for the synchronium piece and lifted it up, wonderingly. In full sunlight it glittered colors under the bluegreen shell.
“No, must not take from nest.” Neri said.
Kal turned the piece in his hands and put it back. “I study to see how it fit.” He explained. “Synchronium can change water of whole ocean, yes? Important to see how it work.”
“Yes. But be careful, and do not take it if I do not say.”
“Should try it.”
Neri considered, picked up the piece, and waded into the pond. While Kal watched eagerly she lowered it into the water.
For a moment, nothing happened.
Then the water began to bubble like it was boiling. Droplets danced, and drifted weightless into the air. Kal laughed, delighted. “Water moves!” Neri lifted the piece from the water and it calmed again.
“The Meekalinga Desert.” Kellar reported. “There is no doubt about it. Seismic records indicate the object was not a meteorite, and the entry trajectory into Earth’s atmosphere indicates it’s not space junk either.”
“Not random.” Hellegren said, looking at the data displayed across several screens in the Ubri building.
“And whatever it is arrived here around the time we’re targeting.”
“Well then, you had better get out there and find it.”
At least this time Jason and SallyAnn knew it was a simulation. That made it a little less stressful having Dave and Morgan barking orders at them.
“I have an airlock failure in level three dive chamber. Number of personnel in that chamber, Cadet Taylor?”
“Um, two, sir.”
“Situation, Cadet Bates.”
Jason read off the screen. “We have water entering the chamber at two thousand kiloliters per second. We have eighteen seconds to secure level three.”
“Eighteen seconds and two people trapped in that chamber. Procedure?”
Jason had it lined up in his head. He took a breath—and Brett popped up on the nearest screen. “Hey Jase, you in there?”
“Not now, Brett!”
“Get down here, we found something!”
Morgan hit a button and closed Brett’s call. “Focus, cadet Bates!”
“I told Brett not to—I mean, sound all alarms on levels three and below, alert on levels above, override the automatic airlocks until everyone’s out, and have Helen check for structural damage. Depending on the cause of airlock failure, all of Orca may have to be evacuated.”
Dave sighed. “Correct, but in reality while you were on the com level three would have been lost and we’d have lost twelve people.”
“Your personal business has no place on the bridge. Don’t let it happen again.”
SallyAnn gave him a sympathetic look. “At least it’s not me for a change.”
Jason smiled back and shrugged. “Better go see what he wants. See you later.”
Neri and Kal joined them as Jason was finishing up the yelling and Brett was finishing the apologizing.
Kal waved. “Brett, Jason. I come for bio-robics class.”
“Perfect timing.” Brett grinned.
“You have found more of synchronium?”
“Maybe. I found an unexplained hit on the mainland, right time. But there’s a catch. The closest Helen can get is within fifteen kilometers. That’s a bigger area than the last one, and it’s a desert. Unless Kal can narrow it down.”
“Can. Show picture?”
“Great. Come on Kal.”
Kellar had already searched most of the fifteen kilometers, with the help of twenty guys and ground penetrating radar. One of the guys with a detector waved, and Kellar came over. He pointed to the detector’s screen. “Registering an object. A strong signal—metallic, can’t identify it from here.”
“Good.” Kellar turned on her com, “Bring the digging equipment over here.” They planted flags and got out of the way as a backhoe rumbled towards them.
A delighted Lena followed her father out of the Orca elevator. She’d gotten up early to make sure she was dressed and ready in time.
“I don’t know why you wanted to come here again.” Hellegren grumbled.
“You know how Orca fascinates me, father.”
“My meeting may take some time.”
“No problem. I’ll wait in the galley for you.”
His tone was curt. Lena sighed and walked towards the galley. She’d wanted to ask her father if she might get an Orca id, but after that voice it wasn’t the right time. It might never be the right time, but Lena didn’t want to think about that.
“Ok Kal, those guys, they’re in the same class you are, so watch what they do. Stick with them and don’t ask any questions. And the guys in white jumpsuits, give them the big miss.”
Kal frowned, and Brett quickly corrected, “Stay away from them. Avoid them. Don’t talk to them.”
Kal nodded understanding. “Bad men.”
“You got it. They’re the ones blowing up the seabed.” Brett caught a glimpse of a strange color. Someone was out of uniform… oh.
“I was looking for you.” Lena said.
“Yeah, what for?” Brett answered, frantically trying to think of how to get her away from Kal.
“Could we talk?”
“I just wanted to know what you said about my father.”
Boy was she persistent! Brett said, ‘Look, let’s not go into that again, just forget what I said. End of story. Come on Kal.” They fled.
“Who is girl?”
“Nobody. Nobody you need to talk to.”
Kal looked back. He started to say something, looked at Brett’s grumpy face, and didn’t say it.
Brett hefted his backpack out of the elevator on the pontoon. Jason was sitting on the edge, his feet hanging over the side, showing Neri a map.
“We all set?”
“Yep. You and me take the next training flight inland, Neri will meet us… here.”
“…And from there it’s about twenty k, we’ll be back for the return flight at eight. Or earlier, if we find it soon enough.”
“You got all this ok-ed with Mum and Dave?”
Jason grinned. “I’m observing the pilot. First step to getting my license.”
“And how are we going to go the twenty k?”
Neri smiled and splashed water at Jason. “He will not say, only smiles.”
“It’s a surprise. I rented them.”
Three camels were munching placidly on a bush around back of the training facility. Neri, still wet from the river just downhill, looked at them with a very strange expression.
“What are they?”
“Camels. They’re called ‘ships of the desert.’ Made for this country like Charley was made for the ocean.”
Neri circled the strange beast, smiling. She petted the camel’s fur, then sniffed her hand. “They can carry?”
“Carry anything. Plenty of water for you in those bags. Oh, here, so you won’t get sunburn.” Jason handed Neri a sheet, and helped her wrap it into a hood. She mounted her camel and laughed when it stood up on cue.
Brett checked the coordinates and they set off.
It was boring on Orca, without an id there wasn’t much you could do. Lena sat around the galley waiting and determined not to ever tell her father she’d gotten bored. What she really wanted to do was ask that boy, Brett, what he meant about the whale. There were all those whale files on the computer, so obviously Ubri had been studying them, but what could have made Brett think her father had done something illegal? Lena couldn’t correct him unless she knew what he thought.
But she couldn’t find him. She couldn’t even see the other kids she’d met before, they were all off at class or whatever kids did underwater.
Someone sat down next to her and Lena looked up. It was the other boy, the dark-skinned one she’d seen this morning.
“Hi, I’m Lena.”
“Kal, friend of Brett.” Kal was smiling, and looking at Lena’s hair.
“You’re a friend of his?”
“He brings me here. I do classes, very good. I like.”
“And what class are you doing?”
Kal thought for a minute. “Exercise. Bi-o-robics. Your hair is white like cloud.”
“Nordic. Both my parents, but they both ended up in Australia. Funny huh?”
“Thank you.” Lena said, surprised by the compliment. Usually people just thought her hair was weird. This boy was a little slow, obviously, but he seemed nice. Just then Helen announced the shuttle was leaving. Lena stood up. “Ah, I’ve got to go, my father and I are on this shuttle. Maybe we could talk again sometime.”
“I come too.” Kal said immediately.
Lena shrugged and they headed for the lift. Hellegren was in the corridor talking on his phone. “Don’t touch anything. I’m on my way.” Closing the phone he said, “Where is my daughter?”
“Good. But you should not be talking to strangers. You, take the launch, see she’s escorted home.”
“But where are you..?” Lena began but was hustled off to the boats. She waved to Kal.
“You doing ok Neri? You’ve been out of water for a long time.”
Neri’s hood nodded. “I am ok. Water you brought is good.” Her camel grunted and Neri laughed. “They complain about everything!”
“Can’t you just talk to them like you do with Charley?” Brett asked.
Neri’s laugh rang out. “No! Camel not like Charley!”
The laugh reassured Jason, Neri must be feeling all right. “Ok, we’re getting close, maybe twenty more minutes to the spot Kal told us.”
“Good, ‘cause I could use some shade and some ice cream!”
The camels plodded on, swaying smoothly along.
Neri looked up suddenly. “Listen!”
A second later the boys heard it, “It’s a chopper!”
“How come it’s out here?” Jason asked nobody as the helicopter sailed over them.
“Who knows? What do we do?”
“Keep going. We’ve come this far.”
“So? What have you found?” Hellegren barked as soon as the helicopter had powered down enough to make talking possible.
“Some sort of capsule. The metal could not be identified. The outer casting ruptured upon impact, but the contents may be intact. We scanned it with everything we have, and it appears completely inert. Not radioactive.”
They approached the long trench with the backhoe sitting at one end. In the bottom, still half buried, was a metal pod. Hellegren jumped down next to it. He pulled on a pair of gloves and started pulling the pod apart. Kellar handed down a crowbar.
A few of the workers gasped as Hellegren lifted out the bluegreen piece. It shone dully in the sunlight. A worker handed over an emptied toolbox and Hellegren and Kellar nested the piece inside it.
“Whoever, or whatever, sent this object here, did so for a purpose. I will take it back and study it. Bring the capsule.”
“We’re about three hundred meters off. So, other side of that dune.” Brett said, consulting the navigator.
“Is here. I feel it.” Neri said.
They reached the top of the dune and looked down. The valley was torn up with holes and one long trench. Equipment was everywhere, and a big yellow backhoe sat in the middle.
“Someone has been.”
Jason gave his camel the ‘sit’ command and slid off its back. “Nobody here now, let’s check it out.”
Neri jumped down and ran for the trench, her makeshift cape flapping. Jason and Brett ran after her. They found Neri kneeling in the trench, holding an empty pod. “It is gone.”
“We’d better look fast. Somebody’ll be coming back for this stuff.” Brett said, then they all heard engines.
“Hey! You!” Someone yelled.
Jason grabbed Neri and they ran. Looking back Jason saw the familiar white jumpsuits pouring out of two trucks. “Ubri!”
“Aw no!” Brett reached a camel and jumped on. The camels were groaning unhappily, not liking the trucks roaring towards them. “Come on, move!”
“Neri, you ok?”
“Ok. Camel, go!”
The camels moved up the slope, not quite running but hurrying. All three children were yelling at them. The Ubri truck was gaining. Jason pulled on the reins and yelled, “Up the dune!” Looking back, he could see Kellar’s face in the window of the truck. And she could see them—or at least their uniforms.
The truck slowed down and finally stopped, its tires spinning in the sand. Kellar gunned the engine but only succeeded in burying her tires.
“We don’t, not until we’re back at the river. We have to get you out of here!”
The ride back was fast and tense. Jason was sure Ubri would bring the other truck around and get after them, but there was no pursuit that they saw. By the time they reached the river Neri was looking sunken-eyed and sick. Jason said, “Go home. We’ll come see you later, we can talk then.”
“Yeah, we gotta return these guys and look innocent. Maybe Hellegren won’t know it was us.”
That didn’t seem likely.
Neri nodded. “See you later.” She dived into the river, came up to smile at them, and ducked under and was gone. Jason and Brett returned the camels and waited for the flight back to Orca. There were other cadets waiting with them so they couldn’t talk.
On Orca they reported in, put in a request for a boat—Dave said, “Don’t you two ever slow down?”—and gave their mother quick hugs. Both boys really wanted to have a snack and a rest, but there was one other thing they had to do. Kal’s shorts were still in the locker, so he was still on Orca. Benny reported he’d seen Kal talking to “that Lena girl, the one you don’t like.” And Brett groaned.
They found Kal chowing down on a random assortment of food in the galley.
“Classes… that was all you were supposed to do, go to classes.”
“Talk to friends. I like.” Kal chimed.
Brett helped himself to some of Kal’s food. “Yeah, Benny said he saw you talking to Lena Hellegren. We told you not to talk to anybody, especially her!”
“Lena nice. Why not talk?”
“Because her dad isn’t nice and he’d love to know about you. Just ask Neri.”
“Back at the island.” Jason said, “Where you’re going.”
“Yeah, in a while. See you there ok?”
At Ubri headquarters the artifact had undergone four hours of tests. It was determined to be nontoxic, perfectly safe to touch. The computers couldn’t tell what it was made of, but the computer guy suggested it might be “complex circuitry inside a crystalline coating.”
“And that is all we could determine, Doctor.” Kellar finished.
Hellegren looked down at their find, currently sitting on a sterile cloth on a table. He picked it up and carried it out if the room, Kellar following curiously. Her boss took the thing to one of the big algae tanks used for Ubri’s biological experiments.
Hellegren held the piece over the water, turned it a few times to see if something would happen. Then he commanded, “Work!”
The water rose, bubbling and splashing in the tank. It was drawn up, a pillar of water under the artifact.
The water fell back.
“It generates some sort of tidal pull.”
“What on earth..?” Kellar began.
“Nothing on earth, Kellar! There is no question in my mind its origin is extraterrestrial.” Hellegren turned and walked back inside. He returned the piece to its table and locked the door. “We will run further tests tomorrow. No one is to go in there without my express permission.”
“Doctor Hellegren, you may be convinced this object is alien, but the scientific community will need proof.”
“Then we will give them proof.” Hellegren entered the computer room and woke up the machine. “Computer, open file “ocean girl.”
“Ah, your alien girl.”
“Yes. Part human, part cetacean.”
“Cetacean?” Kellar asked as grainy pictures and video files spread across the three screens.
“In a manner of speaking. What else would you call an air-breathing mammal that lives in the sea and could communicate with a whale?”
“A cetacean indeed, but human in form.”
“And like this device, she was not of this world. There may be some connection. Some detail in the file that will give us a link.”
They heard a sound and both turned quickly. Lena stood behind them, looking wide-eyed at the screens. Hellegren quickly blanked them.
“Oh, sorry father, you’re busy.”
“No, I was just finishing. Would you like a ride home?” As lena smiled, hellegren turned back to his assistant. “Oh, and Kellar, the matter of the intruders needs looking into. I expect two of those individuals will be known to us.’
“I believe so.”
“Ubri!” Brett groaned. He was sitting with his feet in the pond.
“What I can’t figure is how they got onto it.”
“Synchronium was secret even from my people.”
“But they knew exactly where to look for that capsule.”
“Which means they might be looking for the other ones.”
“No. They must not find!”
“I’m with ya on that Neri, it’s bad enough they’ve got one.”
Crouched in the water, Neri ducked her head under and came up, pushing her hair back. “They must not keep that one. Remember warning, synchronium in bad hands will do harm, not good.”
“And Hellegren’s are about the worst hands going.” Brett said.
“People who do not care for the ocean must not have the synchronium. We must stop them. I must carry out father’s task. You will help me?”
“Of course we will!”
“Yeah.” Jason said. “Of course we will. So it’s us against Ubri. Again.”