19 On the Cliff
The ocean stretched the sound, echoing it back and forth. Neri listened, hearing her own shout flow farther and farther away. Other creatures heard and answered with their own sounds.
Charley moaned in annoyance. He is not anywhere. Stupid calf to leave the pod. He will get hurt by things with teeth.
Yes. I am afraid he will.
Not your calf.
But I must care for him. He has no one else.
Charley didn’t understand. Whales did it differently. But since Neri wanted to find Kal, Charley would help her look. They swam to the limits of their territory, and checked as many of the islands as they could. The other animals who would talk to Neri hadn’t seen another thing that looked like a land-walker in the water. And there was no sign of Kal.
“Not a trace.” Brett said as he caught up to his brother in the hall. “I just talked to Neri topside, she and Charley have been searching all day. Maybe Neri’s right, maybe something serious did happen to him.”
“Nah, he’s still just sulking.”
“But he hasn’t been on Orca, nobody’s seen him for nearly two days.”
Jason shook his head. “I still think he’s just trying to scare us. Probably found somewhere on the coast to hole up or something. Betcha he’ll be back tomorrow.”
Brett was still worried, but he had to admit Jason had a good point. They’d looked pretty hard but there was no way they could cover every place a sulking Kal might be hiding out. “I hope.”
“Neri coming in?” Jason asked.
“Nah, she was pretty tired. She’s going straight back to the island.”
Jason nodded, disappointed. “Well. Let’s get everybody’s dinner. Man, I wish we had a cabin big enough for a table!”
Brett laughed. “Yeah, eating in the galley or the lab gets kind of old. I think Mum would like a cabin big enough that Lena could leave her stuff out without it getting in the way!”
They got the trays and headed down to the lab for dinner with their mother and Winston and Lena.
Hellegren watched the boy through the two-way mirror. The boy was eating, ripping bites of flesh from the fish with his fingers. It was a grand sight.
“The first vital step has been taken.”
Kellar made a dismissive noise. “He still doesn’t speak. I think it is time we used some real…”
“He eats. Don’t you see? He eats my food. He depends on me for something. The next step is to find out what else this boy wants, that we can give him. And then he will be ours. It is only a matter of time.”
Neri slept, and words rippled through her dreams.
“…at this rate we will lose the opal planet… Queen Shalamorn’s legacy!”
The speaker was a lean, intense man with white hair and skin browned by the sun. Mera disliked him on sight. Since she’d come to this planet, he was the first person to give her the creeps.
Mera’s foster-father leaned over and whispered, “He is Malakat, a member of the council.”
“You do not have to stay, dear. No reason for you to be bored while the council deliberates.”
Mera was the youngest person in the chamber. The next youngest was the beautiful girl who stood next to Malakat, standing carefully, almost posing on the dais. Those two did not belong. Mera could sense it, she wondered why the rest of the council couldn’t. She stood up and slipped out, unnoticed. The council chamber was a buzz of conversation between the elders of the planet, some here in person and some communicating by hologram.
Outside was quiet and fresh air. The tide was halfway. Mera walked down until she stood knee deep in the water. Cool water, full of peaceful sounds.
Rustle of leaves. Sister, we sense new troubles for you! Danger is growing for your world! Something has… gone wrong…
Neri’s dreams too were troubled. Between them there was no peace.
“Something must’ve happened to him.” Brett said. It was breakfast time, and the kids were crowded around a table in the galley.
Lena’s pale eyebrows drew together in concern. “Jason said he was in a pretty bad mood last time he saw him.”
“Yep.” Jason said. “He thinks the island belongs to him and Neri and the rest of us can rack off.”
“So why isn’t he there?” Benny asked.
“Goo’point.” Cass said around a mouthful.
“Well don’t sweat, he’ll turn up when he wants to. Hey Lena, any news on the synchronium?”
“Yeah, Helen’s thrown up another sighting. It could be anything of course, but there are a few reports from about the same time. Helen’s scanning for more details.”
“Well keep pushing ok?”
“Aye aye, Cadet Bates.” Lena saluted teasingly and stood up and gathered her tray.
From behind Jason SallyAnn said, ‘Um, have you got a sec Jason?”
“Sure. See ya, Lena.” Jason motioned SallyAnn to take the empty chair, but She didn’t sit down.
“I just wanted to give you the reports back.”
“Oh, thanks. And thanks for covering for me at mapping yesterday. You’re a real…”
“Buddy.” SallyAnn put in.
“Friend.” Jason said. But SallyAnn just gave him an unreadable look and turned away. Then the boys saw Neri in the doorway, looking around for them. Jason waved, and he and Brett went to meet her. They caught up in the viewing tube, where Neri waited out of the way of traffic.
“Hi Neri. Did Kal..?”
“No, we have not found him. But my sister sends me another warning. There is new danger coming.”
“New danger?” Jason echoed.
“Like we don’t have enough already. You think she means Kal really is in trouble?”
Neri shook her head. “She does not know.”
“Why is everything about Kal all of a sudden?” Jason grumbled.
“’Cause he’s missing? Anyway, Neri, Lena said she’s found something. Let’s go see.”
Hellegren watched the boy devour his breakfast, a plate of fruit and some bread. “You enjoyed your meal?” He asked, not really expecting an answer.
Suddenly the boy spoke. “I want to go from here.”
Hellegren didn’t let his surprise show. “I’m afraid that’s not possible yet.” He said calmly, “We must know more about you first.”
“More food.” The boy demanded.
“You are still hungry?”
“More fish. And bananas and cocoanuts.” He sounded sullen.
“We can arrange this.”
“Better bed too. This like rock. I want soft bed, like on island.”
“Island? Which island?”
“My island. They want to take, but it Kal’s island too.”
So his name was Kal. And he was talking. Hellegren smiled. “Who wants to take it from you?”
“Better bed.” Kal repeated and turned away, ending the conversation.
“We’ll see what we can do, Kal.”
Back in the observation room Kellar said, “He eats like a horse.”
“He is not hungry for food; he is hungry for power. Over this island.”
“Island? Where the whale girl lives?”
“Probably.” Hellegren was on the computer, ordering more organic fruit and fish, and some bedding. “But where is the island, and who wishes to take it from him? I must make him talk more.”
“By giving him what he asks for?”
“Yes, Kellar. And encouraging him to want more.”
Lena looked up when the whole crew piled into the computer room. “Perfect timing guys, Helen’s just got the rest of the results. This thing was sighted over the coast, just north of here. There’s three different newspaper reports and one police statement, but it was never explained. I’m sure it was a piece of the synchronium.”
“Great! Now all we’ve got to do is work out exactly where it fell!”
Cass said the obvious: “How, without Kal?”
Lena was typing in a string of commands. Benny said, “Neri, can you..?”
“No. I do not see numbers like Kal.”
“Well maybe Lena can crack it.”
Lena hit enter and waited a minute. Helen said, “Insufficient data.”
“You’ve got the weather and the time lapses between sightings so that gives you a speed. Couldn’t you at least give us a possible landing point?”
“Repeat, insufficient data.”
Lena was running out of patience. “Couldn’t you speculate?”
“Speculation is a human capacity.”
Cass jumped in suddenly. “Couldn’t you… assess the probabilities? In order of likelihood?”
“Affirmative.” Helen said, and lines started to dance across the maps.
“Hey, she’s cookin’!”
“Good idea, Cass.”
The finished result showed several circles on the map.
“Bosun’s Bay. That’s not far.” Brett said.
“Steep cliffs. We’ll need climbing equipment. Neri, you want to meet us? You know where it is?”
“And if Kal comes back?”
“Well, he can worry about you for a change.”
Neri nodded. “Ok. Is important. Meet on beach.”
“The game, as you requested.” Hellegren put down the board. “Where did you learn to play?”
“On Orca.” Kal said, moving to set up a game.
“You have been there?”
Sullen again. Like he thought by saying maybe he was keeping Hellegren from knowing.
“You say they want to take the island from you. Who are they?”
“Neri and Jason.” The boy grumbled.
“Ah, Jason Bates? And Neri… the girl who swims with the whale, perhaps?”
“Perhaps.” Kal’s voice was quieter, like he knew he’d said too much.
Hellegren pressed, “So they…”
The door opened and Kellar beckoned. Hellegren went to see what she wanted. “Can’t you see I’m occupied?”
“Doctor, our instruments confirm another impact of an unidentified object. Could be another piece of the device.”
“Take a team. I shall be busy.”
“Always secrets.” Kal said unexpectedly.
Hellegren turned to him. “No. An administrative discussion. Who keeps secrets from you?”
“Play?” Kal pointed at the trigammia board.
Hellegren sat down across from him. “Why not?” He wondered whether it would be better to lose and flatter the boy, or win to prove his own power. It was a simple game after all; it should be easy to beat a new player.
A few moves later he realized it would not be simple. The boy played like a demon, making moves so fast he didn’t seem to think about them. He didn’t gloat either, or even smile. The gloating was the best part. When Lena had learned to play—
Hellegren shook that unwanted image from his head. The game had moved up to the second level. He moved a piece and immediately Kal’s hand shot forward to move another. And somehow the boy had jumped to the third level and won. Hellegren could hardly believe it. He circled the board, looking for another move to make. There wasn’t one.
“My friend, that… that was ingenious.” He sat back. “I wonder if you know I am your friend. Do you even know what a friend is?”
No expression in the boy’s black eyes. “Jason said he was my friend.”
“Ah, yes. You have had bad experience. This makes you wary and a little sad, yes? Don’t worry, I am a real friend. I will not let you down. This game is a gift—it’s yours now.”
“Yes. Don’t you own things in your world? Let me tell you about it. You own the game, so no one can touch it without your permission. I own a house, and no one can come inside without my permission.”
The boy looked confused. “Not even in storm?”
“No. So if you owned the island…”
It took a while, but finally Kal said, “No one comes there unless I say?”
“That’s right. You understand things quickly.”
A faint smile. The boy liked to be flattered. While he was happy Hellegren tried, “About this ocean device I hear you are trying to assemble…”
It worked. “Synchronium.” Kal supplied.
“Ah yes, the synchronium. Of course.’
“You know of it?”
“Of course. I am a scientist. I am deeply interested in this device. It will have great power, yes? Which is why it must come into the hands of wise men. And clever men too, like us. I assume you’re aware of your own remarkable intelligence, that allows you to win these games so easily. You should not concern yourself with these foolish children.”
Jason pulled the zodiac up onto the beach. He looped the rope around a rock. Neri was already there, looking up soberly at the orange sandstone cliffs that towered above the thin strip of beach.
“Hi Neri. Reckon that’s it.”
“Up there?” Lena squeaked.
“Yeah, I guess. Come on, there’s a path over there. We’ll probably have to set anchors up top and rappel. It’s gonna be a long day.”
“So, the synchronium was sent down by your people to harness the powers of the ocean.” It had taken several hours, another game and a break for lunch to gather the story from the one-word snippets Kal gave.
“Can fix sea.”
“Just as I thought. Think, my friend, of the power of that. Whoever commands the tides commands the world. Wouldn’t you rather be master of not just your island, but the whole earth?”
“Not just island.” Kal muttered. There was certainly something wrong with that, but he didn’t feel like figuring out what.
“Yes. Why just fix the damage you say has been done lately, why not fix all damage, all pollution? Direct the waters into regions suffering drought, or away from those in flood? The people of earth would be very grateful to you. Shouldn’t you, one of the wiser people, be the one to mend this planet?”
Brett sagged and took a slug from his water bottle. “Aw man, I give up.”
The others were sagging on top of the cliff in similar attitudes of sweaty exhaustion. Cass said, “Nothing, not a trace. You and Helen must’ve goofed.”
Lena was holding the portable terminal in one hand and a loop of climbing rope in the other. She took a tired breath and said, “Since we’re here I think we should try over there. It’s lower on Helen’s probability scale but it’s possible.”
“It’s getting late.” Benny argued. He wanted out of his climbing harness and into the cool hallways of Orca.
“We have come this far. A little more won’t kill us.”
Benny, Brett and Jason, who were the lucky ones in the harnesses, all looked about to argue. Then Neri said, “We go.” And that decided that.
From a four-wheeler on the beach, Kellar watched the children through binoculars. She motioned to her team. “Park over there, out of sight. Let them do the hard work and find it. We shadow them from above and below. Stay out of sight.”
“You realize, my friend, I already have a piece of the synchronium in my possession.” Hellegren made a move. They were playing another game, and Kal was again winning.
“You are Ubri.” Kal said as if he was only now realizing it.
“Yes. I’m sure the boys have told you things about my company. They are not…”
“You are Lena’s father.”
That was a shock. Hellegren tried not to let it show, but his eyes widened behind his glasses.
“How many pieces of the device do the children have?”
“Four pieces. Very hard to find.”
“Of course. Who is responsible for finding them?”
“I do hard part.” Kal made a move, back to the bottom level of the board.
“Where are these pieces now?”
“Secret place. No one tell me.”
Hellegren feigned surprise. “They do not even trust you for this? Where would they be without you? You find the pieces. You do the work!”
A ghost of a smile crossed the boy’s face. “That is right.”
“Some friendship, Kal. Should this great and powerful machine be entrusted to some silly boys and an uneducated girl? Even now I am on the track of another piece of the synchronium. I tell you this because I trust you. Soon I hope you will learn to trust me. As your friend.”
They walked along the top of the cliff first, hoping to find something before they had to anchor the ropes and scour the whole thing. Suddenly Cass waved and yelled, “Bulls-eye! Guys, over here! I found it!”
The children crowded around. Twenty feet down on a little ledge they saw the dull glint of the blue metal.
“Yes!” Brett cheered.
“I will get.”
Jason grabbed her. “No, wait, Neri. It takes two hands to open the capsule, and with this gear I don’t have to hold on. Hey Lena, that stump sound?”
Lena shoved the stump and gave it a good kick, then fastened Jason’s line. “Check my knot. I’ve only read the cadet manual.”
Jason checked it, tugged on the line, “Good job. Be right back!” He casually walked backward off the ledge.
“Showoff.” Benny muttered.
“Don’t you wish you could do it that easily?”
They were looking down, watching Jason descend towards the ledge, so they were almost caught. But Benny heard something and turned in time to see a flash of white up the trail. “Guys, someone’s coming!”
“Jase, they’re onto us!” Brett called down.
“What about you?” Lena asked. There was no way Jason could get back up in time.
“I’ll be fine, get Neri away! Go!”
Brett cast a look back down at his brother then nodded, “Everyone, go! The beach!”
The children fled, Brett hurrying Neri along.
Jason dangled in his climbing harness, listening to the footsteps up above. He was within arm’s length of the capsule.
He heard Kellar bark, “You two, after them! The rest with me.”
Neri had gotten away then.
Kellar’s face appeared over the edge. She looked down at Jason and tossed down a rope with a sling on the end. “Open the capsule. Tie the device onto this rope. Carefully.”
“And if I don’t?”
Kellar reached back out of sight and came back with a knife in her hand. She drew it across Jason’s rope, cutting a few fibers.
Jason looked down, gauging the odds. If there had been water below he might’ve chanced it, or at least thrown the synchronium down. But this far down onto rocks… he pried the capsule open and attached the piece onto the rope. Kellar’s people carefully lifted it up and out of sight.
“What about him?” Someone asked.
Kellar leaned down with her knife and for a horrible moment Jason thought she was going to cut the rope anyway. But she just smiled, enjoying scaring him, and turned away. “Leave him. We already have his strange young friend.”
Jason started climbing, hurrying too much so he slipped and scraped his knee. She must mean Kal.
“Go on Neri, dive! We’ll be ok!”
Neri was looking up. When she saw that Jason was all right she turned. “Tonight, at island.” She dived.
“Now what?” Cass asked.
Benny saw the fourwheelers the Ubri team had come in on. “Can anyone drive one of these?”
“I can. Kinda.” Cass said.
“I’ll give it a go.” Brett hopped on another.
“Wait, gotta fix the others. Benny?” Lena popped the hood of the third buggy and Benny got at the fourth. Each of them did something quick that, with Benny’s, resulted in a lot of smoke. They jumped on behind Brett and Cass. “Ok, floor it!”
Two engines started up and they roared away, Brett whooping in excitement.
Hellegren and Kal were partway through another game when a guard came to the door. “Sir, the team has secured the object. It is another piece of the device.”
“Good. Thank you.” Hellegren turned back to his guest, who was watching with bright black eyes. “You see my boy, we are getting closer all the time to our objective.”
Kal moved a piece then turned away. “I am tired. Want to sleep.”
“Of course. I’ll leave you.” Hellegren glanced at the board. Kal had won again.
Jason reached the beach and found it deserted. At least the Ubri guys hadn’t wrecked the zodiac. He shed the climbing gear and packed it up, then heard the roar of fourwheelers returning.
It was his friends.
“We watched them go then doubled back. Are you all right?”
Jason said, “I had to give it to them, I mean…”
“We know.” Benny said quickly. “I mean, who here thinks Kellar’d really have cut the rope?” All hands were raised.
That brought a tired smile to Jason’s face. “That’s not all. I heard them talking. They’ve got Kal.”
“What?” Lena gasped.
“Aw no. That’s bad.” Was Cass’ opinion. “What do we do?”
Brett said, “Whoa, wait, less talking more getting out of here. In case those guys come back for their rides. Figure it out later!”
They piled into the zodiac and pushed off. Cass waited until they were a good ways away before saying, “You know, if Ubri doesn’t find their buggies quick the tide’ll come in and…”
Nobody had really been planning on vandalism but it was a pleasant thought.
“The operation went off without a hitch.” Kellar said. The synchronium piece sat on a table, glowing under a light. On the screen, nightvision showed Kal as a motionless shape, sleeping.
“I had a rather good day myself.” Hellegren told her.
“I almost had him Kellar. He is giving way, bit by bit. Just one more step. And he will belong to us.”
Neri had been pacing on the beach when Brett and Jason arrived. N Jason said immediately, “We’re fine, but they got the piece. Kellar threatened to cut my line.”
“I saw. Is all right. More important to have you safe.”
“But Neri… they have Kal.”
Neri went silent.
The three of them walked to the pond where Neri stirred up the fire without saying anything. The light revealed she had gone very pale.
Finally Brett tried, “We’ll do something. Anyway they can’t work the synchronium without all the pieces, and we have most of them.”
“We must get Kal back. They will hurt him! Make him tell about synchronium!”
“I know, Neri.”
“Look, we can’t do anything tonight. We’ll talk to the guys, make a plan. Come to Orca at lunchtime ok? We’ll see what we can do.”
“We’ll get him back. Promise.” Jason made the ‘promise’ gesture and Neri smiled a little. Jason stood up and helped his brother to his feet. “We gotta go. This‘ll be a long night.”
It was late, but Hellegren saw no reason to go home. He’d had dinner delivered and continued doing tests on their find. A second piece of the… synchronium, Kal had called it. Sounded like ‘synchronize,’ a device to line up the elements of the world. But it couldn’t be; it was an alien word, wasn’t it? Aliens who spoke English was beyond belief.
Wondering about the name was just a background thought. With most of his mind Hellegren was drawing a schematic of this piece, measuring it. It was the same bluegreen crystalline material of the first piece, but he couldn’t see how they would fit together. They must be from different parts of the device. That was a disappointment; he wanted to know if the two pieces joined together would have more power than a single one. He returned the first piece to the vault; no sense having them both accessible.
A knock on the door. Hellegren looked up. “Yes?”
“The young man wanted to see you.”
“Show him in.”
“I come to see synchronium.” Kal said. He didn’t even look around at the office.
“Of course. It is ours. Mine and yours.”
The boy lifted the piece in his arms, holding it like a baby. He seemed to want to stroke the smooth surface, a kind of unconscious impulse. Hellegren wondered if any of his team had felt that. He certainly hadn’t.
“Take it with you if you like. You have been honest with me. You are free to go. Or, we could acquire and assemble the whole synchronium together and use it. And be the most powerful being in the world.”
No answer. The boy’s black eyes flickered in thought. “I could have…”
“You make promise?”
Hellegren held out his hand. “Take my hand, the promise is sealed. Come, friend.”
Kal muttered, “Shake hands, earth people culture, ‘shake on it,’ ‘word is his bond.’ Yes. Friend.”