22 Finding The Key
“I am so glad you have returned, sister. We need your help.”
“I know.” Mera said. “I knew. But I could not come until others realized it also. Our people are very worried for the Earth.”
“We search for the synchronium. But it is not easy.”
“Much depends on finding it.”
A breeze swept across the clearing, stirring their hair. Kal came out of the woods. “Breakfast.” He looked at Mera. “Is really sister? Was a little baby.”
Neri laughed, “Like me, she grew up.”
“Hello Kal.” Mera said, smiling. “It is good to meet you. My foster parents are very excited to learn that you live. Everyone on our planet will be so glad to see you.”
“Why?” Kal asked bluntly. “Kal’s mother and father are passed.”
“Yes, but you have other family, and friends, who still live. All this time they thought you gone.”
Kal looked confused. He thought for a while, then turned away without answering. Mera shot a troubled look at her sister then, seeing a flash of movement, stood up and waved. “Rulmyr! Onoelle! Come eat with us! Kal, come back and sit down.”
Kal did, and Rulmyr and Onoelle came hesitantly over. “It is your home Neri. We do not wish to intrude.”
“Silly.” Neri stood up and hugged them both. “You are welcome here. You care for my sister. Now tell me what you know of synchronium.”
Onoelle shook her head and the beads in her hair tinkled. “There is little we can do. Mera tells us that the device to locate the pieces has broken. There is no other. And we cannot stay to aid you.”
Neri nodded. She wasn’t surprised. It was her task after all.
“And, Mera dear, we can only give you twelve of this world’s days for your task.”
Both girls gasped.
“So little time!”
“Why? It cannot be that’s all the time this world has!” Mera asked in growing horror.
“The council does not wish to risk you both, and Kal. Kal, will you return with us now, or when we come for Mera?”
“Kal stay.” Kal said. He didn’t sound too happy, and everybody looked at him, so he added, “Stay. Help Neri.”
“I am glad. Thank you Kal.” Neri smiled as bright as morning.
“Then we must go.” Rulmyr said. “You have a hard task ahead of you.”
“Yes.” Neri said quietly.
They walked Rulmyr and Onoelle to the ship. The two adults hugged Mera and said, “Be strong, my child.”
The ship took off in a cloud of steam that quickly dissipated in the morning air. It showed as a bright speck for a moment, then disappeared into the blue sky.
Neri took her sister’s hand. “Now much is on our shoulders.”
“Yes. But we will do it.”
Jason had been meaning to get to the island and check on Neri before classes, but he’d overslept and only woke up when SallyAnn called to say training started in ten minutes. They had a class, which Jason pretty much slept through, then Dave handed back their latest exam results.
SallyAnn opened hers, groaned, and shut the paper again. “No! I blew it for us again.”
“Hey, it’s a pass.” Jason said.
“Yeah, just… I’m sorry.”
Dave came over. “There was nothing wrong with your theory.”
“Yeah I just couldn’t put it into practice. I froze. I’m sorry.”
“Stop saying that.” Jason didn’t actually think the grade was too bad. Not great, but not the worst he’d ever gotten. “It’s no biggie. It happens.” He would’ve said more, but the door opened to let some kids out and Jason saw a familiar figure outside.
“Not to you it doesn’t, if you had a decent partner. Let’s face it Jason, you’re better off without me.”
In the hallway Jason caught up with Neri. Who was smiling. She hadn’t looked this happy in a while. “What’s up?” Jason asked.
“Something good happen. Surprise. Get Brett, come to island.” She slipped away.
Two sentences and no mention of the synchronium. It must be a really good surprise. Jason went back to look for SallyAnn and reassure her some more, but she was gone too. So he went to find Brett.
Under a tree by the pond, Mera changed into the dress that Neri had made for her, back when they first met. Her more elaborate robe and jewelry she rolled into a bundle and hid between the tree’s roots. Here, where the nights didn’t get chilly, she wouldn’t need her outer clothes. She was really glad Neri had saved the dress.
“Yes Kal. You can come back.”
Kal peeked around a big tree and Mera smiled at him.
“You look like Neri now.”
“I go swim now. I must see the damage in the ocean.”
Mera walked down to the beach, enjoying the smell of the forest and the sun between the trees. She’d missed the island. Earth wasn’t home, but here, just here, this was home.
Kal didn’t belong.
Something about him bothered Mera, and she felt bad about that. She didn’t want to dislike him, didn’t even know him yet, but something about him made her uneasy.
Then she entered the ocean and forgot all about Kal.
A song of welcome rang through the water, with a troubling silence beneath.
Charley! Mera shouted. A few minutes were taken up saying hello, and then Mera said, Show me where the ocean has gone wrong.
“Hi Kal.” Brett said as Jason secured the zodiac. “How’s it going? Neri was sure happy.”
“Sister come back.”
“Kal! Was supposed to be surprise.” Neri chided him, smiling.
“Mera’s really back? When? Where is she?”
Neri pointed. Mera walked out of the water. She pushed back her wet hair, saw them, and ran over. “Brett! Jason!”
Brett hugged her, then realized she wasn’t smiling. “Hey, aren’t you happy to see us?”
“I am. But what I’ve seen out there, it is so bad. I did not realize how much was already gone.”
Jason sighed and sat down in the warm sand. “Look, I know it’s taken longer than we’d like, but we’re doing the best we can. I swear we’ll get the rest of the pieces.”
“Including the ones Ubri’s got.” Brett added, suddenly gloomy.
“And then it’s just a matter of finding the key that makes them work.”
“Find?” Mera smiled. “But you already have it.”
“We do? Where?”
“Right out there.”
Brett looked where Mera did—out into the cove. He guessed. “Charley? Charley’s the key?”
“His voice. The synchronium is activated by the frequency of his song.”
“Weird.” Was Brett’s opinion.
“Maybe it isn’t weird to the people on the ocean planet.” Jason guessed.
Back on Orca that night they spread the word. Dianne was delighted.
“Neri’s sister? What’s she like?” Lena asked.
“Just as extraordinary, in her own way.”
“I can’t wait to meet her.”
“Oh, Brett,” Jason said, “Can you get a spare uniform off Cass and stick it in our locker? Mera’s coming aboard tomorrow morning.”
“’Kay, I’ll do it first thing. ‘Night Mum, ‘night Lena.”
When they were in bed Jason said, “Isn’t it great that Mera’s back?”
Pause. Then Brett said, “I thought she’d be… happier.”
“Aw, she’s just worried. Once we get the synchronium together she’ll be happy.”
“And if we don’t? We still have no locater, the grownups from the ocean planet didn’t stay to help us… we’re in the same place we were.”
“We’re doing all right. Tomorrow when Mera’s here she can meet everybody and we’ll come up with a plan. Don’t give up yet!”
A new morning, the island warm and gentle under the sun. It felt like nothing was wrong as Neri walked through the forest gathering breakfast. “Look, the good berries are ripe.”
“We need more now Mera is here.” Kal observed. “I will fish too.”
“Thank you. We eat together when Mera and I come back from Orca.”
Kal nodded and turned towards the beach, but Neri stopped him. “Kal. You do not feel bad that Mera comes? She is sister, but we are still friends.”
“And I be at both your service.”
“Kal, you do not need. I thank you for your help, but serve us only if you wish to.”
“But Kal wish to.” Kal said with a little smile. “I go fish now.”
Neri couldn’t tell if he understood or not.
Kal didn’t fish. He went to the meeting place and, since Neri and Mera would be gone all day, let his friends take him back to Ubri headquarters for lunch while he explained what he’d learned.
“The whale song. So that is the trigger! Good, Kal! We have tape upon tape of that creature!”
“But we will have to determine the correct pitch. That will take time.”
“Simple process of elimination, Kellar! Even a child could do it.”
“A child like this ‘Mera?’ Jane Seaforth, do you think?”
Hellegren nodded slowly. “Yes. And what has spurred her return I wonder.”
“It is our backers you should be wondering about. They become impatient for results.”
“Perhaps Kal’s news will return them to good humor.”
Kal looked up from his lunch. “You make me ruler of island now?”
“Patience my boy. You must wait and watch. Follow these girls, listen to what they say. One slip might reveal where they’re hiding the other components. When I have all of the synchronium, then you will have earned your prize.”
Neri and Mera surfaced in the dive pool. Jason was waiting to give them a hand out of the water, while Brett watched the door.
“Hi guys. There’s a uniform for Mera in our locker.”
“Good.” Mera replied as the two girls ducked into the changing room.
“Remember, say nothing of synchronium to Mother.”
They came out dressed in uniform, Mera squirming in the unfamiliar clothes and shoes, and the two of them went down to the lab while the boys went to round up their friends.
“Mera!” Dianne cried, and jumped up to hug her. “It’s so wonderful to see you again.”
“And you, Mother.”
Winston grinned. “’The lark sings sweetest when all her chicks are home.’”
“It is good to be back, Winston. There are many things I missed about your world.”
“And we can do with your help to protect them.” Dianne said sadly. “Have the boys told you what’s been going on?”
“Yes.” Mera said and her eyes went hard. “Your people have caused this. The sea is dying and your whole world will die with it.”
“Sister.” Neri said softly.
Mera shook her head. “Sorry. I do not blame you. But there is so much to lose!”
Helen’s voice broke in. “Attention. Incoming seismic disturbance.”
Winston grabbed his terminal as the floor began to jolt. Dianne folded Mera in her arms. “Hold tight darling, it won’t last long. Darn Ubri.”
When it ended Mera looked up, her eyes gone wide and silvery. “Ubri made this start.”
“They’ve stopped blasting, but the quakes continue. I don’t know what else we can do.” Dianne’s head drooped.
Neri took her hand. “Do not lose hope, Mother. Not yet.”
“If you say so, Neri. Can you two stay? Dinner maybe? Not that the food’s improved much since you were here, Mera.”
Mera shook her head. “I should go. Brett wants to introduce me to all his friends. I’ll stay for dinner if I can. And when the earthquakes stop, come to the island and we will cook for you!”
Neri nodded. Winston said, “That is a meal I’ll look forward to!”
The door opened and Lena looked in. “Everybody ok in here? Oh, hi Neri! I’m on my way to the rec room, we’ve got it all to ourselves.” She saw Mera and stopped talking.
Winston sighed. “I’ll call in. We’re fine. Everything in here that could break has already broken.” He hit a few buttons on his computer to report “no injuries” through Helen.
Dianne gave Mera a last hug. “Go on, meet everybody. I’ll see you later.”
In the hall, Neri started the introductions. “Sister, this is Lena. She is…’
“I’m the bad guy’s kid.” Lena smiled at that, then her face went tight. “I saw your picture, on my father’s computer. He wanted to adopt you?”
“Not adopt!” Mera said quickly, shuddering. “That was just a lie to get the institute to let me go. He wanted to keep me at Ubri and do experiments on me and I don’t even know what. I did not know of you.”
“Father doesn’t… talk about me.”
The two girls looked at each other. They were the same height, eye to eye.
“This is Benny, and Cass.” Jason said.
“Computer hacker in training.” Lena added.
“It is good to meet you all. My sister and I need your help.”
“Hey, that‘s what we’re here for.” Cass said, motioning Neri and Mera to sit down. The rec room was empty except for them, and Benny had brought snacks.
“What has been done about getting the pieces back from Ubri?” Mera asked.
“Well, we tried a raid on their headquarters.”
“We got back one component. But the alarm in the strongroom went off and they all came down on us.” Benny finished.
“Isn’t there another way in? A key or something that wouldn’t set off the alarm?”
“You don’t think we would’a tried everything?”
“There is-” Lena began, then stopped as everybody looked at her. “No. There’s no way we could get at it.”
“But if there is a chance?” Neri said with sudden hope.
“My father always keeps it with him. Either in his pocket or on a chain around his neck. There’s no way!”
“Yeah you would say that.” Cass muttered.
Jason waved his hand between them. “Not now, ok? Later.”
“Well then what are we gonna do?”
Lena stood. “I’m going to the computer lab to see if Helen’s got another hit.” She left.
The others started talking about what to do, and Nei and Mera slipped out of the room.
Lena looked up as the door opened. She wasn’t really surprised.
“Lena? Mera and I, we have a plan.”
“To get the key while your father sleeps. You can get into the house?”
“No. I mean yes, I have a key but—no! We can’t!”
“It would just be us.”
Lena was shaking her head. “It’s too dangerous. I don’t want… anyone to get hurt.”
“Lena, you can’t put loyalty to him over the harm that will be done if we can’t use the synchronium!”
There was no choice. Lena wasn’t surprised by that either. But there was nothing that said she couldn’t be angry. Fists clenched she said, “All right. Ok. The house is right off the beach too, nothing but the best. Let me pull up a map and we’ll figure out what to do.”
On the bridge Helen was playing the news. “Reports from Kungchou indicate first seismic activity detected in mainland China. Stand by for further information.”
“It’s getting worse.” The commander said. “Every time we have a quake, it’s felt further and further north.”
“According to Doctor Bates, that fault line is just going to continue to open.” Dave said.
“And the local intensity is steadily increasing.”
“Sir, have you considered evacuation of nonessential personnel?”
“I’d like to hold on a bit longer.”
Dave grimaced. “Not too much longer I hope. People are scared. SallyAnn? What’s up?”
SallyAnn was hesitating by the bridge door. She stepped forward. “I just wanted to give you this.”
“It’s my resignation. From the cadets.”
“Yeah? Not until tomorrow it isn’t. You’re on standby until the end of this shift.”
“I know.” SallyAnn said and ducked out.
“Lena! Hello! It’s dinner time.” Brett called into the computer room.
Lena looked up. “Oh. Right. I’ll eat later. Hey Brett, I won’t be back tonight. Tell your mum I’m staying in Kylie’s cabin, pajama party or something.”
“And where will you really be?”
“Just do it ok!”
Brett shrugged. “You owe me.”
“Thanks.” Lena picked up a backpack and left.
Cass leaned around Brett. “You know what? I still don’t completely trust her.”
Brett rolled his eyes. “Oh come on.”
“No, Lena’s nice, she’s great. But when it comes down to it, what would you do if it were your mum?”
“SallyAnn!” Jason called.
SallyAnn winced. She’d been hoping to avoid him by coming to dinner late, but now they were alone in the empty hall.
“Wait up, I want to talk to you. I heard you’re quitting on me. Resigning from the cadets.”
“I bet you’re cheering. Who wants to be partnered with a klutz like me?”
“You’re not a klutz.”
“Whatever you reckon.” SallyAnn said, trying to get away.
Jason stepped in front of her. “SallyAnn, you’re a good cadet. You’re a whiz at theory, I’d never have passed the written without your help.”
“And rotten at everything else. Face it, I can’t make a decision to save my life—or anyone else’s.”
“Are you giving up on interning with your idol? Give yourself a break, it takes time.”
“Yeah. Well.” SallyAnn looked suspiciously teary. “I think I’ve wasted enough of that trying to be something I can’t. Your time and everyone else’s. So just drop it ok?” This time she ducked around Jason and made a successful escape. Not that it counted, since they still had duty tonight.
Lena had moored the zodiac in a little stream where it wouldn’t be found, and snuck down to the beach. From inside a bush she watched the house. It was dark, and she was dressed to blend in so she wasn’t worried about being seen. There was nothing to do but wait.
As the moon rose, Neri and Mera appeared out of the water. They moved silently and joined Mera sitting in a thicket under a tree.
“You have trouble getting away?” Neri asked.
“Not really. I don’t like having to lie though.”
“We will tell them tomorrow.”
“Yeah. Here, sit you guys. We can talk, there’s no security out here. I figure we’ll have to wait about an hour after all the lights go out, to make sure he’s asleep.”
“Good.” Mera settled silently to the ground. “That’s your house? The whole thing?”
“Is very big.” Neri observed.
Lena chuckled mirthlessly. “Yeah. Father practically lives at work, and I’m at boarding school but he has a house like that.”
“How sad.” Mera said. She was thinking of her home on the ocean planet, a series of caves carved in a sandstone cliff. They were open to the air and sunlight, with lots of windowsills for lying around with a book.
“You know, Doctor Bates is being better family to me than my own father.” The lights from the house went out, leaving them in faint blue moonlight.
Neri hugged Lena with one arm and the girls waited in the darkness.
After a little while Lena said, “So what’s it like on your planet? Do you have jetpacks?”
“Is not the time.” Mera chided her gently.
“Yes it is. What else are we going to do while we wait?”
After a minute Mera said, “No jetpacks. We have floating sleds for moving things, and the ships. What else do you want to know about?”
That conversation got through a little time, then petered out as they all became too nervous to talk. Finally Lena looked at her watch ad said, “That’s an hour. Let’s go.” She stood up and slipped out of the bushes.
“Ssh. Someone comes.”
Lena gasped and froze, then relaxed. “Kal.”
“Why are you here?” Mera asked him
“I want to know where you go. Maybe I help.”
“You were asked to stay on the island.”
Neri put a hand on her sister’s arm. “Mera. He wants to help. Let him come this once.”
“If you say. Perhaps he can help.”
Lena took Kal’s hand. “You must stay with us and be very quiet. We’re going to get the strongroom key from my father.”
Kal looked uncertain. “This is stealing?”
“We don’t have a choice. I’ll explain later.”
“We go now.”
It was after dinner and Jason and SallyAnn were checking the storerooms. After the almost-nuclear accident it had been decided that everything needed looking over every night. So the cadets had to do it.
Jason had been talking away the whole time. “It’s not all life and death you know. Some duties are downright simple.”
“Like me you mean? Give it a rest.”
“You’re making a big mistake.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time.” SallyAnn said. She ducked around Jason and opened the next door. “Check this one off.”
The floor jolted and Helen’s alert message went off. Jason and SallyAnn hugged the wall and waited for it to be over. After a few shuddering aftershocks things held still and the kids relaxed.
“Sounds like that’s it this time. You all right?”
“Yeah, can we just get on with this?”
“Would you just listen to me for a minute?”
Jason rolled his eyes and started to open the next door, but SallyAnn grabbed his hand. “Quiet.” She put her head down and listened. “There’s water in there. A lot of water. This door won’t hold!”
Now Jason could hear it too.
“Run!” SallyAnn yelled as water started to leak around the door.
They pelted for the exit, and careened into the main corridor just as Dave got there. “Ok, seal the bulkhead! Jason, SallyAnn! Good man, you got her out.”
“She got me out.” Jason corrected between gasps as he tried to get his breath back.
“Well, after the quake I remembered procedure. Always check the doors before you open them, and I could hear the water and…”
“And you saved my life.”
SallyAnn blushed. “Yeah I did, didn’t I?”
“Still want to resign?” Dave asked.
Lena turned her housekey in the lock. It clicked open and a green light under the knob showed that the alarm had been disarmed. She eased the door open, slipped inside and pointed to the stairs. “First door at the top.”
“You will lead us?” Neri whispered, her voice no louder than a breeze.
Lena flinched and shook her head. “I can’t.”
Neri nodded. “You do enough.”
Lena waited downstairs, staying by the door. She tried to grab Kal’s hand, keep him out of the way too, but he got away. Neri and Mera climbed the stairs quickly, their feet silent on the carpet. Kal was a step behind them.
Lena waited in the dark, silent house. It felt like a long time.
Then something crashed and her father shouted and Lena slammed open the door and the children ran.
A branch snagged Lena’s hat and she knew her hair would stand out like a white flag in the darkness. She was the slowest runner too. Kal grabbed her hand and dragged her along.
They had to stop finally, because Lena couldn’t run anymore. While she tried to get hr breath Mera said, “We could not get the key. Kal knocked a table over and your father woke.”
Kal looked down at his feet.
Lena sighed. “Well let’s just get out of here before the police come.”
“No one is coming.” Neri said, and indeed there was no sound but the wind. But they might not be able to hear sirens this far from the road. “You all right Lena? Then we go.”
In the morning Brett brought his brother up to speed on the way to breakfast. “And Lena wasn’t where she said, because Kylie came down to watch the video with the rest of us. So where’d she go?”
“Very weird.” Jason said and waved open the galley door.
“Hey guys.” SallyAnn waved from behind a tall stack of pancakes.
“Hey.” Jason answered and sat down next to her.
“It’s the big hero!”
“Don’t…” SallyAnn blushed.
“Yeah well, you did save his life didn’t you? Personally I wouldn’t have bothered.”
Jason swatted his brother and SallyAnn laughed.
“Um, Jason, I’m not sure what you’re going to think of this, but after last night and what Dave said, I’ve decided not to quit.”
“Great!” Jason grinned.
“So I guess you’re stuck with me then.”
“Well I reckon I can handle it. So who got you the fancy breakfast?”
“It was anonymous. Thought it might’ve been you.”
Jason shook his head. “Nope, sorry.”
“Oh. Well, that’s ok. Still delicious! You want to go through the exercises or something after we eat?”
Brett came back with their breakfast—bagels. Jason gave a longing look at SallyAnn’s food. “Sure but, uh, maybe later. We’ve got something else to do.”
SallyAnn sighed and took another bite. “Yeah, so what else is new?”
Jason shrugged. “Well, see ya.”
On the island the boys got caught up on last night’s events, and found out where Lena had slept over.
“What’d you take him for in the first place?” Brett grumbled.
“It wasn’t our idea! He just turned up.” Lena said. She and Mera were sitting by the fire, Lena looking disheveled from being out all night.
“I have said sorry.” Kal said. He was standing off in the trees.
Jason snapped out without thinking, “Fat lot of good that does now. What if you’d got caught?”
“I do not mean to make noise. Was accident.”
“Please.” Neri reached out to both of them. “Could happen to anyone. Do not blame Kal. He try to help.”
Neri stood up. “There is something I need to show Mera, alone. You will stay with Kal while we are gone?”
“Yeah sure, no worries. Kal, you want to ride back to Orca with us?”
Kal nodded sullenly but came along on the general walk down to the beach.
Brett added, “And next time, Kal, I think it might be better if you don’t try to help.”
The girls surfaced inside the coral cave. Mera climbed onto the stone shelf and touched the five synchronium pieces arranged there. “You have done well, sister.”
“But we are to do more if we are to save this world. Come, we call to Charley. Tell him how we need his song.”
“Let’s.” Mera smiled, and they joined hands.
The haunting sound of whale song filled the cave. And it was in Lena’s thoughts as she rode back to Orca with Kal, Brett and Jason. Lena was trying to think of their next move, and of how to cheer Kal up. He looked very grouchy, like he didn’t want to be with them at all.
The same eerie sound filled the lab at Ubri, where Hellegren had a piece of the synchronium hooked up to as many sensors as he could attach. His computer was playing taped whalesong and he was watching the readouts.
From behind him Kellar said, “These children are becoming bold. And who led them to your house and disarmed the security system, I wonder.”
The graphs jumped and Hellegren held up a hand. It was working. This particular sound. He changed the intensity and all the instruments redlined. The piece was lighting up, sparks swarming beneath its bluegreen skin.
The floor rumbled.
Hellegren quickly cut the sound. He was smiling. “Progress at last.”