21 Water in the Desert
Wavelets tugged on Neri’s ankles as she stood in the sea. The water was golden with sunset. She felt tired. Not tired like needing to sit, or needing to sleep; a different kind of tired. It was good to stand in the sun, with no new thing wrong. But the ocean was still sick. There were still three pieces to find.
“Neri? Is something wrong?” Kal asked, wading out to her.
Neri turned and smiled. “No. Nothing wrong.”
“You look… sad. Scared, maybe.”
“No, I am not scared. Not anymore. I was sad when you went away. I missed you, Kal. Please do not go away again. Promise?”
“I promise.” Kal said. “Kal is here to stay.”
They watched the sunset as the gold left the water.
“I’ve got one!” Lena slung herself into a chair in the galley.
“Another piece of the synchronium?”
Lena laid out a map and pointed. “Somewhere inland. Outback, probably desert. But I think I’ve got enough for Kal to work from.”
“Well it’ll have to wait for tomorrow morning anyway. It’s too late to get out to the island tonight.” Jason said.
“Yeah, and after what the poor guy’s been through these past couple days he probably needs his rest.” Cass said.
Lena nodded, and stood up and stretched. “So do I after sitting over a terminal all day. I’m off to brush my teeth before you guys need the bathroom. That cabin is way too small for four people.”
“I hear ya.” Brett said.
“Oh, about that—Mum was talking about getting you a guest cabin but she doesn’t want to push it with the commander. She’s driving him crazy enough as it is.”
Lena nodded. “Makes sense. No worries guys.” She waved good night and headed for home.
The dream was night and stars, and Neri hardly knew when she woke up. She climbed down from her nest and stood in the pond, spray from the waterfall beading in her hair.
As the kids had expected, Neri and Kal turned up in the galley at breakfast. They all went down to the computer room to show Kal the maps.
“Ok Kal, go for it. Do your thing.” Brett said eagerly.
“Thing?” Kal muttered.
“You know, figure out where it landed.”
Kal looked at the map and the figures. It took a moment to remember how tghey wrote numbers here on earth, but once those came clear everything did. He knew where the piece had landed. “Can’t.” He said.
“You can’t? You found all the others.” Lena sounded worried.
Kal didn’t look at her. “This one hard. Much harder than others.” He lied.
Neri begged, “Please try, Kal.”
“Can’t. Need more time. Must think. We go back to island now Neri? I go for a swim. I think better when I swim.”
Kal headed out the door. Behind him he heard Brett whisper, “What’s up with him?”
Jason said, “Ok, come back when you figure it out Kal, or we’ll come find you when we get more information. Have a good swim.” He smiled at Kal and Neri.
Kal hurried, to get away from everybody.
Neri followed. “Wait, I will swim with you.”
“No, it is best I am alone.”
Neri looked really worried. Kal bristled. “You do not trust me?”
“I trust you. I worry for you. Don’t swim too long, ok? I will go back to island with Charley.”
The meeting place was on the mainland, a beach far away from anything. A big abandoned house perched above it, serving as a landmark. Kal walked out of the water. His friends were waiting. Their white suits were visible a mile away.
“I have news. They find another piece of synchronium.” Kal said.
“Where?” Kellar asked.
“Out in desert.”
“I’ll get the charts.” Kellar turned towards their car, parked a ways away.
Hellegren waved her back. “No. That will not be necessary.”
“Think, Kellar. If we were to locate this piece before them, they may begin to wonder where we got our information. We must protect our informant at all times.”
“I see your point. What are we going to do then?”
“Let them find it.” Hellegren said. “We will simply reclaim it along with the others just as soon a Kal finds out where they are hidden. Is that not right, Kal?”
“Yes, that is right. I watch. I find them soon.”
“Of course you will my boy.”
“I tell them where this piece is then?”
“Yes, as soon as you like.”
Kal nodded and walked back to the water. Hellegren wondered if they had pleasantries on his planet, hello and goodbye. Maybe the boy was just a sullen character. But it was amazing, watching him dive and vanish and not come up again.
Hellegren was pleased. With Kal on their side, this synchronium was as good as theirs. He’d find the other pieces… and if he didn’t, eventually the children would come after the two pieces held at Ubri headquarters. And then he would capture those children and Kellar would make them tell where their hiding place was.
“I don’t get it.” Cass said, between bats of her pingpong paddle. “Kal could find all the others, why can’t he find this one?”
Across the table Brett replied, “Who knows? Who knows anything about how his mind works? But we can’t do anything without him.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.” Said a voice. Behind them Lena sat up on the weight bench.
“Well, I did pick the general area. I’ve been thinking… I’m no match for Kal, but I do have this high-level point-mapping program I could try. It could probably narrow it down further, but it’ll use up a lot of Helen’s ram. Enough to slow down other functions.”
Cass’ eyes widened in appreciation of the power of a program with requirements like that. “Go for it, we’re breaking the rules anyway!”
Brett thought for a minute and shrugged. “I agree, we have to try it.”
“Ok.” Lena put her weights aside. “I’ll go shower and get the disk, meet me down there. And—does pingpong really count for your daily exercise requirement?”
Cass smiled a little nastily, “Sure it does. Question is why are you lifting weights?”
Lena smiled back. “Because I remember climbing that cliff.” She said, winning the exchange.
An hour later the cadets were assembled on the bridge. Dave handed down orders. “Ok, for the next two days you and your partner will be required to solve problems and perform complicated maneuvers-”
An earthquake hit, with the usual deafening rattle as everything in the room fell to the floor.
Dave yelled, “Get on Helen, find the epicenter!”
Even in an earthquake, Morgan said sir. Jason was too busy hanging onto a support with one arm and SallyAnn with the other and praying that the hull wouldn’t crack.
“Sir report, access to mainframe is occupied. Someone’s using-” A particularly loud crash cut Morgan off, then she finished, “-Helen without permission.”
The quake stopped, but Jason didn’t let go. “Aftershocks.” He said. The other cadets and the bridge technicians were all looking pale and hanging on for dear life. SallyAnn shifted to get a death grip on the same support beam Jason was clinging to.
“Well find out who!” Dave roared, yelling on adrenaline.
The floor rattled and a few people whimpered audibly.
“Yes sir.” Morgan saluted and left, not even walking close to the wall for stability. She seemed unaffected by the terror that was—quite reasonably, in Jason’s opinion!—getting to everybody else.
“Is she even human?” SallyAnn whispered, watching Morgan leave.
Winston hadn’t been close enough to grab onto anything solid; he’d been thrown off his feet and gone down in a pile of papers.
“Are you all right?” Dianne asked as soon as she could.
“Nothing seems to have fallen on me. That was at least a three-point-oh.”
“At least.” Dianne agreed, looking at the readout on the seismograph. “And if that fault line keeps opening things are only going to get worse.”
Winston got to his feet and gathered up the files. Earthquake reports, mostly. “But the blasting has discontinued. What more can we do to stop this?”
“I don’t know. And I don’t like to think about it. Our next step may be to leave Orca.”
“And Neri?” Winston asked.
“That’s why I don’t like thinking about it. Can that stuff wait? I’d like to get out there and get some video of the reef right after the quake.”
As the technicians on the bridge put their consoles back in order one screen was tuned to the news. The quake had been felt on the mainland.
The kids were in trouble.
The four of them were lined up while the commander delivered a lecture. He’d gone for a few minutes and finished up with, …a major violation of Orca rules and regulations!”
“Told you.” Benny whispered.
“Not only were you caught, you were caught red handed. Now, while I think of a suitable punishment you start with cleanup duty commencing oh-nine-hundred tomorrow. Clayborn?”
“Sir?” Morgan replied.
“You’ll be assigned to supervise.”
“My pleasure, sir.” Morgan smiled. Cass made a face at her behind the commander’s back.
Dianne surfaced in the dive pool and pulled off her mask. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s like a marine graveyard down there.”
“No fish in sight?” Winston asked as Dianne handed up the underwater camera.
“None to speak of. It’s like they know it’s only going to get worse so they’ve moved to safer waters.”
“Perhaps it’s only temporary. Maybe they’ll return in the near future.”
“If this continues… the ecosystem is being damaged so much I’m not sure there’s going to be a future Winston. For the fish or for us.”
Somehow Morgan had programmed Helen to wake the kids up at seven o’clock, bully them into uniform and to breakfast, and send them to the hall where Morgan met them and put them to work. Cass, who’d been planning to wake up fifteen minuted before their work duty began, was already simmering.
“I wonder if she does it just to bait Cass.” Benny said thoughtfully as they scrubbed floors.
Lena slopped some more cleaner on a stubborn spot. “At least no-one’s said anything about revoking my guest status. I was worried they’d kick me off Orca.”
Jason and SallyAnn came around the corner. Jason looked down at his friends on the floor. “What, again?”
“Hey, this is for-!” Brett started before the others waved him to be quiet. Jason crouched down and got the whole story.
Lena finished, “And we didn’t get anything. We had to clear the search fast when we got caught.”
Jason sighed. “Ok. And who knows when we’ll be able to get back in. Man, I hope Kal can find it.”
Neri appeared, separating herself from the morning traffic in the hall. She sat down next to the boys.
“Bad news Neri.” Brett said. “The situation here is that we’re all grounded.”
“And us cadets are on permanent standby until further notice.”
Lena added, “Which means we’re going to have to put the search on hold, at least for today.”
“No. Time is short!”
“We don’t have a choice.” Cass looked over at her sister, who was keeping an eye on them while she talked to some other cadets.
“Then I go alone.”
“But Neri, we don’t know where it is! The best we could figure, it’s in the outback near the dingo fence. Unless Kal could narrow it down..?”
Neri looked down. “Kal says nothing.”
“Then you can’t go. It’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s too dangerous.”
Neri shook her head and stood up. “The oceans become worse now. Need synchronium soon if they are to heal. I must try.”
They couldn’t stop her. Jason stood beside Neri and held her arm for a minute. “Just be careful ok?”
Neri grinned and saluted, and disappeared back into the crowd.
Morgan kept an eagle eye on her slaves all morning, letting them have time off only for bathroom breaks and to switch between jobs. Lunch was bites snatched while wiping down tables.
“She’s a real…” Cass trailed off as Morgan glanced their way.
“I hope Neri’s all right. I wish she’d at least taken Kal with her.”
“Nah, it’s too dangerous.” Brett said, “Besides, he’ll be having a great time. Until Neri comes back he’s got the whole island to himself.”
On the mainland Neri reached the top of a hill and looked around. The outback was orange and dusty, even the trees looked dusty. Every direction looked the same but Neri’s inner sense told her which way to go. She’d reached the area where the piece might have fallen, and now had nothing to do but crisscross that area hoping to feel where the piece was. Maybe she’d be able to sense its presence. But maybe not.
The sun was hot. Neri had her sheet wrapped around her shading her head. She’d soaked it in the ocean, but it was dry now, and scratchy with salt. Neri pushed the hood back and poured water over her head, then recapped her canteen and covered her head, and walked on.
Kal looked around the island as if seeing it for the first time. He took out Neri’s knives and cooking pots from their hiding place and held them like they were his, touched the three fishing spears and finally climbed into the nest bed. He could sleep up here, and make Neri sleep on the ground. Higher than Neri. Higher than anyone!
It didn’t feel right, but Kal convinced himself that it did.
Jason waved open the door to the lab. “Hi Mum.”
“Jase, SallyAnn. What are you two doing up here?”
“Just checking instrument damage on this level. I thought I’d stop by and see how things were going.”
SallyAnn looked around at the stuff still on the floor and moved to start picking it up. Dianne and Winston hadn’t moved anything but the seismograph and things wired to it.
“Things are not going well, I’m afraid.” Dianne said. “The fault’s not only widened, it’s begun to move northward.”
“Any further disturbances and there’ll be serious repercussions in the other hemisphere.”
“What’s that in English, Winston?”
“The mainland will be further shaken, and probably very much stirred.” Winston said somberly.
“And then, SallyAnn, we start praying for a miracle.”
Neri stopped beside a dead tree to drink. She’d crossed the patch on the map a few times, but she was nowhere near covering all of it. Her head hurt and she wanted to be home, and curl up in the pond and sleep there in the water.
An animal appeared from between the trees. The same color as the world around it, it was invisible until it moved. A dingo. Neri had never seen one, but she knew of them. Jason said they were not friendly, but this one just looked thirsty. Its tongue was hanging out and its ribs showed. Neri unslung her canteen. She could pour a little water onto a log and the dingo could drink.
Before she could do so, the dingo growled and feited at her. Neri flinched back, dropping the canteen. The last few spoonfuls of water spilled into the dust. The dingo grabbed the canteen and gnawed it for a second while Neri watched. It wouldn’t find the canteen interesting; it was just a cocoanut shell bound with vines.
She turned and walked on, looking back a few times to make sure the dingo wasn’t following.
On Orca, Jason and SallyAnn catalogued the damage, Dianne worried, and Brett and the kids scrubbed. On the island Kal ate bananas until he felt sick.
After an hour Neri was staggering, her feet sliding in silty red dust. She was lost. There was no water anywhere.
Neri fell to her knees and collapsed.
Kal wouldn’t admit it, but he felt lonely. He dropped into the pond and splashed his face, thinking about what to do. He could go to Orca, except Neri had said all their friends there were busy and couldn’t talk to him. Kal didn’t know where Neri had gone. Well, he could guess that she had gone into the desert but he wasn’t sure what a desert was and anyway he didn’t really want to think about it.
So he thought about what it would be like when the island was his always. He and Neri could spnd all day playing and swimming and eating good food. Nobody would come and be a bother or take Neri away. Maybe they would go to Orca and see Brett and Lena and benny and Cass, and Mother. But not Jason. Kal would send Jason far away, onto land. Earth people belonged on land anyway.
And Kal would protect Neri, and Neri would always be smiling at him.
The four kids were cleaning the glass in the viewing tube with sprayers of cleaning solution and rags, while Morgan worked on a portable terminal at the end of the hall where she could observe. It was a little creepy being in here; the glass had cracked in the next to last earthquake. What if a bigger one hit while they were there?
“I’d probably be more useful debugging Helen.” Lena grumbled. Her arms ached.
“Nah, keep your head down. If you talk, Morgan might remember who you are and tell your dad you got in trouble.” Was Brett’s advice.
“Yeah, you’re right…”
“Hey, the hat looks great anyway.” Brett grinned, trying to cheer her up.
Lena smiled. She’d requisitioned an Orca baseball cap and was wearing it backwards while she worked. “The uniforms here are better than at any of the private schools I went to. No pleated skirts.”
Cass, overhearing, made a shocked face. “I have never worn a pleated skirt in my life. I don’t think I’ve even seen one!”
Morgan’s fun radar must’ve detected a conversation starting because she called, “Less yakking, more scrubbing! You’re being punished here!”
So the kids scrubbed, with nothing to distract them from developing aches and the smell of the cleaner, which wasn’t a bad smell but it was getting ingrained in their hands.
A half hour later Jason came by and paused for a quick word. “How’s it going?”
There was a mass groan.
“I get off in another three hours, dinnertime. Apparently we do get to eat and sleep while on standby, who knew? Any chance you’ll be free by then?”
“Who knows.” Brett said.
“Well I’ll come find you and then we can go check on Neri. I hope she’s back by then.”
The outback sun burned down. A breeze had started, and the orange sand shifted like murk in the ocean.
“Hey. Hey, you.”
Neri looked up through sticky eyes.
“What are you doing here?”
It was a girl, just a shape against the sunlight. She sounded very young and had an odd, fluting voice.
“This is no place to take a nap.”
Neri whispered, “Water.”
“You want water? Sure. We’ve got lots of water. Follow me. I’ll get you water. Then maybe some tucker.”
While the girl spoke, Neri rolled up onto hands and knees, and staggered to her feet. She couldn’t walk far. She gathered her voice for another word. “Tucker?”
“Yeah, you know, food. You hungry? You sure look hungry. Here, put your hand on my shoulder. Are you sick? Grandad will know what to do. Oh, my name’s Lilah. Come on.”
Lilah was one of the brown people. Jason had said the brown people were called Aborigines and had come to Australia first. One of them had helped Mera when she was a baby. That made Neri like Lilah already.
Down the road a truck was parked and an old man and a boy were sitting by it. They had a grill set up and were cooking. The man was saying, “How’s that tucker coming along, Bobby?”
“Nearly done, Grandad.” The boy said, turning something on the grill.
“Good. Hope you made plenty ‘cause it looks like we’ve got company. Where’d you find her, Lilah?”
“Up the road.” Lilah said.
Neri stopped listening. Beyond the road was water, an oasis surrounded by green trees. Neri left Lilah behind and walked into the water.
After a minute she remembered she ought to surface every now and then, or they would worry.
When Neri felt well enough to come out of the pond, she found the family had gotten dinner ready. They’d set out a plate for her and the old man motioned for her to sit and eat with them. Neri smiled. “Thank you. You are called Grandad?”
He laughed. “Yeah, that’ll do. Lilah you met, and that’s Bobby.”
The boy said, “Hi.” With his mouth full.
“What’s your name?” Lilah chirped.
“Good to meet you, Neri. I never saw a white girl swim like you before.” Grandad commented.
‘White’ was the word for people who were less brown, or pink.
“Guess you must have been real tirsty to stay under for so long, huh?”
“Yes. Thank you for bringing me here, Lilah.”
Lilah smiled, her dark eyes sparkling. “I was just bringing you back home.”
“Sure. This water hole is your home. You can’t fool me. You’re a water spirit.”
Bobby rolled his eyes. “What are you going on about, Lilah? There’s no such thing as water spirits.”
“Yes there is. Grandma said so.”
“If you want water you get it from a tap, simple as that.”
Lilah frowned at her brother. “Hmmf. Tell him, Grandad.”
“Lilah’s right. Good thing you come back home when you did, young man. Been spending too much time at that posh city school. Fill your head up with all kinds of rubbish. Now we’re going to have to start teaching you all over again about the old ways, the dreamtime, the land spirits… and the water spirits.”
Neri was fascinated. “Tell me more about water spirit, Lilah.”
“Grandma said she came out of the sky one night a long time ago.”
“From the sky?”
“Yeah, like a big ball of fire. Crashed to the ground right here in the middle of the desert. It made this big hole, and then she called water to fill the hole and make this pool.”
“How long ago?” Neri asked.
“A long, long time ago. Before I was even born. Fifteen, or maybe twenty years ago.”
Neri smiled and stood up, and went back to the waterhole.
It was there, in the deepest part of the pool, buried under silt and weeds. Neri opened the capsule and took the piece out.
Lilah was waiting on shore. “Ooh! What’s that? The treasure of the water spirit?”
Neri thought about that. “Yes. Do you want to see? Put your hand here, and the water will dance.”
It did, and Lilah squealed with delight.
They walked back to the road, where Bobby and Grandad were packing up after their dinner. Grandad saw the synchronium piece and nodded, seeming unsurprised.
Neri said, “When I take this, maybe the water will go.”
“We’ll keep an eye on it. Change the maps if it dries up.”
Bobby said, “Hey, Neri. We’ll be finished fixing the dingo fence in a couple of days. If you stick around, we can give you a lift back to town.”
“You’ll be able to catch the bus from there. The bus comes by once a week now.”
Neri shook her head. “No, I must go now. People are waiting for me.”
“Aren’t you afraid to leave the water?” Lilah asked.
“Yes. I am.”
“Take this.” Bobby held out one of their canteens.
“But what if you need?”
“Nah, we’ve got plenty in the truck.”
“It belongs to you anyway.” Lilah said.
Neri shook her head and smiled at the girl. “No. Water belongs to everyone. Thank you Lilah. I will never forget your kindness.”
“Bye Neri.’ Lilah said cheerfully and hopped up into the truck.
Neri filled the canteen and wet down the sheet she wrapped over her head, the other end of which was tied around the synchronium piece. She started walking towards the distant sea.
“She’s gotta be crazy.” Bobby said, watching the slender figure vanish in the distance.
“No, she’s not crazy. Different, but not crazy.”
“She’s a water spirit!”
Since she didn’t have to search, Neri could walk straight back to the ocean. It wouldn’t take as long. She had the canteen. She thought she could make it.
In the end, she did, staggering the last few steps into the ocean before she fell. In the water, it was all right. Neri was too tired to swim far, but Charley heard her calling. He whistled angrily.
Now you act like stupid calf! You are more important than the Thing!
Had to hurry. Neri said, cuddling for comfort against his face. Must make the reef well. But no more today. Help me to the cave? I hide this piece, then go home.
Charley turned, letting Neri catch hold of his fin. Good. Rest, get better. Make useless boy bring you food.
Neri didn’t feel up to an argument, and wasn’t sure if Charley was talking about Kal or Jason, so she just said, Don’t worry. Friends will take care of me.
“You guys done yet? Any word from Neri?” Jason asked, not leaving any space between the questions.
“No and no.” Brett answered.
“Not that we’d’ve seen her if she did come, with the chief commissioner of the clean police looking over our shoulders all day.” Cass said with a dirty look at her sister.
“Well, I’m going to head out to the island now, see if she’s back.”
“Wait for us!” Brett yelped, and turned to Morgan. “Give us a break, enough’s enough!”
“Yes. We’ve finished.” Lena slopped her rag back in the bucket.
“Well, have you mopped the floor?”
“Twice.” Benny said.
“Cleaned down all the glass surfaces?”
“Cleaned and polished.” Brett held up an empty sprayer to demonstrate.
“And what about inside the turbolift?”
“All done. Now can we go, please?”
“We’ve got important things to do!”
Morgan looked her bedraggles crew over, taking her time. “I don’t know. That would depend.”
“On whether or not you’re sorry for using Helen without authorization.”
“Yes, we’re sorry.” Brett said and Lena added, “Very sorry!”
“What about you, Cass?”
“Yeah.” Cass growled.
“What was that? I didn’t quite hear.”
“Look, I said I’m sorry ok!” Cass yelled.
“Good. You’re all dismissed.”
“Thank you!” Brett said and headed for the lift in a hurry. “Come on guys.”
But Cass had snapped, and she had a lot more to say. “Yeah, I’m sorry, sorry I have to look at you every day and know we’re related. Sorry there wasn’t some mixup at the hospital when you were born, sorry…”
Benny and Lena grabbed Cass between them and towed her into the lift, still yelling. She yelled all the way up.
Jason had the zodiac ready and had signed them out. Lena stopped to grab a bag from her locker and joined the others in the boat.
Neri hadn’t come back. Kal didn’t admit to being worried, but he was sitting on the beach when they arrived. The kids piled out of the boat and more or less collapsed. “Look Jason, everything you checked for damage, we scrubbed. We’re beat!”
Lena said, “Kal, would you make a fire? I brought a treat.”
Cass raised her head from where she was literally flat on the sand. “What’ve you got, Lena?”
It turned out to be a little pot on stilts, and some candy bars. Lena blushed. “Well my favorite food is chocolate bananas, and since the fruit out here is so good… I ordered this from the mainland. I figure we deserve a treat.”
Shortly there was a small fire going and bits of candy coating were melting in the pot. Brett came back with an armload of bananas and found Lena explaining that she’d first had chocolate bananas in a ski lodge, and then she had to explain skiing, which led to explaining snow. Kal did not believe her about the snow.
They ate, keeping an eye out for Neri. As time passed the mood became more worried.
Finally Kal said, “Been gone a long time.”
“We’re worried too, Kal.” Cass said. “I hope she didn’t get lost out there.”
If she had, there was no way they could find her.
Then Jason shouted and ran down to the water. “Neri! Quick, help her!”
Neri fell to her knees in the surf, and Jason put his arm around her and helped her up. “Neri! Are you all right?”
“I got it. I found synchronium.”
“Never mind, you’re home now.” Jason murmured to her. Neri was leaning hard on Jason and Kal, too weak to walk on her own. But everybody was there to help.
They finished the evening by the pond, Neri resting with her head in Jason’s lap and eating fruit while the others talked quietly around her.
The kids returned to Orca just in time for curfew. Jason was still distracted while the boys got ready for bed. “I feel bad just leaving her out there like that.”
“Yeah, but what else could we do? Neri’d got food and the fire, and Kal will take care of her. She said she’ll be fine in the morning.”
“Yeah well, first thing in the morning I’m going straight back to the island to check on her.”
In the depths of the night, the sky stirred. The spaceship set down almost without a sound. Steam billowed out as the door opened and three pairs of bare feet walked down the ramp.
If she hadn’t been so tired Neri would’ve wakened to the footsteps, but as it was she slept on, until a hand touched her shoulder. Neri turned and opened her eyes, not believing what she saw. “Sister? A dream?”
Mera shook her head and smiled. “I’ve come to help.”