9 Shadow of the Past
“We have located the underwater pyramid of the ancients.” Malakat reported to his associate on the Planet of Oceans. “And we will take power as soon as the moon of this planet is full.”
Councilor Garron nodded in the projection. “According to the traditions of the ancient ones.”
“Precisely. We leave nothing to chance.”
“It is good this happens soon, Malakat. The council is troubled and Onoelle is gaining support.”
Malakat snorted. “That child’s keeper? She worries you, Garron?”
“What worries me is the thoughts she may plant in the minds of our people, as a council member and friend of the old queen. Given enough time she may become a danger to us. I await the day you hold the pyramid and the invasion of the opal planet can begin.”
Garron ended the call from his end and Malakat stood for a moment, thinking.
“What word from home?” Shersheba asked, wandering into the room with a bowl of ice cream.
“Nothing we did not anticipate. Shalamorn’s younger daughter may be gaining followers.”
“That girl?” Shersheba threw herself down on the couch, took another bite of her sundae, “She’s tiny, she doesn’t talk to anybody…”
Malakat thought, she isn’t tiny anymore, she is shy but that only makes people feel privileged when she comes to like them, and she cares fiercely for the world we are going to throw away. “Indeed highness. Unlikely to become a real problem.”
“Ugh—melting already. Such primitive technology.”
“You seem to be making the best of it.”
Shersheba tossed her head. “When I take the ankh from Neri and become ruler of this planet, its people will learn the meaning of real technology. Get on with your work Malakat, we shall never find her if you do not look.”
On Orca Jason had called an emergency meeting.
“They’re just like Neri. She thinks they’re from the planet of the oceans.”
“Well there’s no other explanation. No human could possibly have stayed underwater that long. And how could they have known Charley would call Neri to the rescue like that?”
Dianne sighed. “Looks like Shersheba had us all fooled. I’m sorry I gave her such a warm welcome- and I suppose I’m to blame for encouraging you to take her out on the reef.”
“Nah.” Brett said, “Shersheba had him sucked in from that first night in Egypt. You should’ve seen him, he couldn’t take his eyes off her.”
“Hey.” Jason offered token protest.
“She is very pretty. Now you said Professor Malakat wants the golden ankh you guys—Neri—found in the pyramid?”
“Yeah, looks like he’ll do anything to get it too.”
“It must be awfully powerful, whatever it does.”
“Well if she’s right and these really are Neri’s people, why are they so hostile? Why do they want to harm her?”
“Don’t know.” Jason said. “But they do. Maybe the hologram will tell us more, that’s all I can think of.”
“Ok.” Dianne stood up and straightened her uniform. “Whatever is going on, I still have work and you two have school. I’ll talk it over with Winston, and whoever sees Cass first can bring her up to speed. Act normal, guys, and we can talk over dinner. All right?”
“Right…” Brett headed out.
“I have work and school.” Jason added gloomily.
Their mother smiled a little smile. “Well that’s your normal level of enthusiasm.”
The day passed, with work and school and acting normal—which for Brett meant laundry surfing with Cass, and for Jason meant a long study session by computer with SallyAnn.
“History is evil.” Jason said as he finished and saved his work.
The microwave binged. Brett took out a bowl of something that looked strange but smelled good. “Ok guys, it’s ready.”
“Yeah, but are we?”
Dianne sniffed. “Mm, I love turkey.”
Brett’s face fell. “It’s fish soup.”
There was an uncomfortable pause, and then everybody tried the soup, and there was some uncomfortable nodding and saying that whatever it was it tasted pretty good.
The call screen lit up and their father said, “Not interrupting dinner am I?”
Jason stood. “Actually yes you are.”
Paul sighed. “Then I’ll get straight to the point. Jason, I need to ask a favor.”
Neri’s day was normal too. She swam with Charley, climbed trees looking for cocoanuts, and argued with a pod of dolphins about what were the best tasting fish. She walked out of the ocean carrying dinner by the gills and smiling.
“Jason! Is good to see you.” Neri dropped the fish to hug him, then crouched by her firepit to get cooking started.
“Are you ok?” Jason asked.
“I didn’t feel very good about you being here by yourself last night, after what happened with professor Malakat and Shersheba.”
“They do not know about island.” Neri’s quick hands stirred the fire and wrapped the fish in a big leaf for roasting.
“But they might find out. Neri, you shouldn’t be alone.”
“Am not alone.” Neri pointed to the baby wombat, curled up in the back of her hut, together with its mother and another puffball baby. “And I have Charley. This is how I live.”
“Um. My Dad called last night. He wants me to visit the farm again, to keep an eye on some fancy goats he’s breeding.”
“When you go?”
“Why?” Neri asked, looking genuinely puzzled.
“It’s too far away. If anything happens I want to be around to help you.”
“Then I go too.” Neri said cheerfully, “I like farm. I would like to see these goats.”
“They’re like horses only smaller, and cranky.”
Neri laughed like water over stones. “I want to see them.”
“Ok. I… ok. I guess that’s the last place Praxis will look for you now.” Jason said, and immediately regretted it when Neri’s cheer dampened. But she managed a small smile and offered a half cocoanut.
Ellie Hauser handed printouts across the director’s desk. “These are the listening logs from the satellites sir.”
“Anything conclusive?” Richter asked.
“This appears to indicate the same type of two-way signals we traced to Egypt, but readings from the Southern hemisphere…”
“Spit it out, plain English Hauser.” Shelby said.
“The same type of signal, but coming from the area of the Barrier reef.”
Shelby grabbed a map. “Same latitudinal axis as Orca.”
Richter gave them both a look. “So you’re saying that Orca, a marine research colony, is a cover for an alien-run operation?”
“There was no evidence of aliens running-“
Shelby interrupted, “The commander there, Dianne Bates, is clearly hiding something. In light of this new information, sir, it is imperative that we return to the area immediately. We know from the dna tests this girl is an alien, sir. We've never been this close before. We cannot let her slip through our fingers.”
Richter glared. “On the contrary, you seem very good at doing that.”
“Yeah, well, we know more about her now. And after that stunt with the whale, it’s personal.”
Orange afternoon light slanted down on the dusty pens where the goats ran around. Actually, ran out.
Jason hung on the gate laughing and trying to shoo the goats back in the pen, to the barn where they slept. Neri ran around the herd, shooing them in the right direction. A cat-sized miniature goat bleated in alarm and Neri scooped it up. “Come, we find your mother.” She scratched its nubby horns and grinned. “They go back Jason, I think.”
“Well as long as they’re back before dark it’s all right I guess. I think the mother’s over here.”
Neri released the kid and watched it return to its mother. “I like goats.”
“Hey—you don’t have shoes! Are your feet ok?” Jason asked suddenly, with some alarm.
Neri jumped up to sit on the fence, dangling her dusty but unhurt feet. “They don’t step on me.”
“Wish they didn’t step on me, my shoes smell like- um- manure.”
They laughed, and went to feed the horses and clean up.
“I feel like an idiot letting Shersheba fool me and putting you in danger. I’m sorry, Neri.”
“Do not be sorry.”
“I’ve been thinking, if Malakat and Shersheba are from your planet, what are they doing here on earth?”
“Mother said many would come.” Neri chimed, “Perhaps they lead the way?”
“What, like an advance party? Checking things out before the others come?”
“Yeah, but it still doesn’t make sense. If you really are the chosen one like Queen Shalamorn said, you’re supposed to be in charge of the migration, of getting everyone settled in on Earth. They should be helping you, not trying to catch you.”
“Only mother will know the answer. We must return to the underwater pyramid tomorrow.”
As night fell over the ocean, Brett and Cass were playing 3d chess in the Orca lounge. Cass grinned as her piece jumped diagonally and took out a knight.
“It was a fluke.” Cass said with a straight face.
“I was thinking—Praxis is bound to come back for Neri sooner or later.”
“Well they won’t find her here.” Cass leaned over the board to whisper, “I made a master keycard, it’ll open the doors even in emergency.”
Brett goggled. “No way.”
“Ok, Lena and Froggy helped over a three-way link so I can’t take all the credit.”
“You officially rock. But what if they get in Helen’s data banks? We’d be in real trouble.”
“Why?” Cass blinked. “You’re not trying to distract me are you?”
“I’m serious. Neri’s fake id card for starters, and all the images from the security cameras. Of her walking around wearing a uniform—there’s no way anyone would believe Mum didn’t know about her!”
Cass started chewing her lip, getting that ‘working’ look on her face. “I’m sure there’s a way to wipe them. Let me think.”
“You’re going to lose.” Louis said, coming up behind Brett.
Brett shrugged. “I’m used to it. But Cass always loses at ping-pong so we’re even.”
Louis blinked, sidetracked for a second by the idea of someone who didn’t mind losing. Then he said, “I bet you were talking about that girl Praxis is after.”
Cass snapped back. “Oh, you mean the alien?”
“So you admit it!”
“Of course. Everyone knows. Where do you think the meat in the cafeteria comes from? Alien cows!”
They laughed, but then through the door glimpsed a pair of familiar figures getting out of an elevator.
“Now we’ll see who’s laughing.” Louis gloated.
“The Praxis agents? Better go report.” Brett said. The moment Louis had gone, the two of them dashed for the other door. Brett was calling Winston on his vidphone, and Cass was wailing, “I needed a little time to think!”
The Orca techs had learned to avoid Praxis agents like the plague, but someone had to carry their gear to the guest cabin.
“Careful, watch it! That gear’s worth ten times your salary!”
“Making friends again.” Ellie murmured. The tech just grunted and put everything down, but carefully.
Louis stepped into the cabin. “That’s neat. What is it?”
“It's an S.A.R. -- Synthetic aperture radar. Same as they use on the space shuttle. Step outside, I'll show you how it works.”
Louis stepped outside, and Shelby keyed the door closed, locking him out.
Ellie looked over, then back at what she was doing. “The transmitter needs to be set up and calibrated. Give me a half hour, then we’ll be able to get an exact triangulation on where those radio signals are being received.”
“Bet it’s right here on Orca.”
“It’s certainly nearby.”
“And once we get a fix on that we can be sure the target’s not too far away.”
On the beach, Jason got ready to dive. “Here Neri, look what Mum got us.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a deep water helmet. It gives me a special air mix so I can do deep water dives.”
“Deep as the pyramid?” Neri asked, taking the helmet and looking in through the eyeholes.
“Yep. See this? It’s a micro-oxygenator. It equalizes the nitrogen in my blood so I don’t get the bends when I come up. You’re lucky, your body does that naturally.”
“Put it on.” Neri said, and helped with the seals in the back. Then she stood back and looked at Jason in his wetsuit and helmet. “Now you look like an alien. Come, we go to the pyramid.”
“Ok.” Ellie said, “It’s reading normally, ready to start the scan.”
Louis burst into the cabin, “Quick! If you hurry you can catch them!”
“Will you stop bothering us!”
Louis stood his ground. “I know you think I’m a nuisance but I can be very useful to you Agent Shelby.” He counted on his fingers, “I can see into small places, I can spy on people. And right now I know something you want to know.”
“What’s your interest in this, kid? I mean why are you so ken to get in on things?”
“I want my father to get the commander’s job.” Louis said baldly. Shelby nodded. That he could understand.
“Ok, what have you got?”
“First, you must promise never to slam the door on me again.”
Shelby twitched. Ellie said, “I’ll keep him in line, Louis. What do you know?”
“Right at this very moment, Brett bates and his friends are deleting all orca security images of that girl you’re after.”
“Hmm. We’ll see about that. Nice work kid.” Shelby headed for the bridge.
“I want complete access to all functions in process on your Helen 3000.” He snapped at the nearest person.
Dianne answered, “That won’t be possible Agent Shelby. We have a life support systems check in progress.”
“If we interrupt the scan we’ll lose an entire morning’s work.” Dave added.
“This is a matter of international security.” Shelby managed to get up in Dave’s face, though the tech was a good few inches taller. “If your commander has a problem with that, she knows who to call.”
“It’s all right Dave.” Dianne stepped back and gestured to the terminal. “Feel free.”
Down in the main computer center a warning icon popped up.
“What’s that?” Brett asked.
“We’re being watched.”
“Praxis. They can’t hack us from the bridge but…”
“Oh man, there’s no way we can finish before they get down here!”
Winston sighed, “Game’s up, I suppose.”
Cass spun the terminal to face her, “I have an idea. Helen, go to graphic input.”
About a minute later the Praxis agents arrived, trailing a silent Dianne. Shelby said, “Hold everything.”
Cass stepped back from the terminal, hands raised innocently. “Be my guest.” She said as Shelby sat down and got a look at the screen. She’d pasted neon green alien faces over every person in the surveillance shot.
“Oh ha ha.” Was Shelby’s opinion.
Cass laid it on thick, “You know, you guys were right. We’ve been doing our own research and this place is full of aliens!” behind Shelby’s head Dianne shot her a smile.
After hitting a few buttons and discovering he couldn’t immediately undo Cass’ edit, Shelby stood up. “Come on. We’re not here to play vid games with a bunch of wacky kids.”
Brett and Cass looked at each other. Wacky? Nobody used that word anymore for, like, ever!
Last to exit, Louis turned back, “You may have got lucky this time, but it’s not going to last. Praxis and I know what you’re up to and when you get caught, you’re dead meat!”
Brett said, “Yeah, shakin’ in my boots.”
“Well you should be.” The venom in his voice was startling. When the door was closed Brett and Cass looked at each other.
“We gotta watch that guy.”
“Yeah no kidding.”
They surfaced inside the pyramid. Jason pulled off the helmet and set it to recharge. It would replenish its air supply from the air inside the pyramid.
“Hey—Neri, why is there air in here anyway?”
Neri shrugged. “Pyramid makes, I think.”
Jason pushed his wet hair back. “Ok. Let’s go see the queen.” Neri grinned and grabbed his hand, pulling him along the dusty passage to the central chamber. The blue lights came on when she entered, not much light but enough that Jason could see the statue, the door to the water passage, and the table—no, a control panel, he thought. It looked like a computer control panel carved out of stone. Jason didn’t touch it. “Do you know what-?”
But Neri had touched the trigger for the hologram. The statue came to life.
“Neri, as queen of the ocean people, it was my wish that our migration to the opal planet should be a mission of peace.”
“Your mother’s so beautiful Neri.”
Neri smiled. “Yes.”
“My beloved child, it was my great hope that our people could live together in harmony with the people of Earth. Many of our people wanted peaceful migration. I was saddened to discover a powerful minority with other desires.”
“Perhaps she speaks of Malakat and Shersheba.” Neri murmured.
“They believed we might not be welcomed, that humans would destroy us for our differences.”
Jason glanced at Neri, but she didn’t look back.
The queen spoke, “As leader, I believed our migration would be blessed if we came in peace. Alas, the rebel group was growing stronger with each new day. My daughter, these people may prove a threat to you. They believed our expedition would not be safe unless the earth people were weakened, rendered incapable of harming us.”
“Weakened?” Jason whispered.
The air inside the pyramid seemed to shudder. The hologram broke up as malakat stepped out from behind the statue. Neri jumped and cowered back.
“It’s really quite simple.” Malakat said, “There is a power built into this pyramid. When activated by the golden ankh, it is capable of melting the polar ice caps. More than half the land mass of this planet would be submerged. Including major centers of government.”
“And population.” Shersheba stepped out beside him.
Neri whispered, “Earth people would drown.”
“Earth will become like our planet. Human society will be decimated.”
“The earth threat to our arrival and habitation would be totally removed.”
“That was not my mother’s wish.” Neri said, looking back at Shersheba, suddenly steel.
Malakat didn’t blink. “But the queen has left us. How unfair of her to leave the care of her duties to one who is so obviously unfit. I’m sure that you are at least clever enough to know you’re not capable of carrying out her plans. If you will surrender to me the golden ankh, I am prepared to guarantee your safety and that of your… human friend.” He made it sound like, ‘pet.’
“Wait!” Shersheba scowled at him, “Have you forgotten, Malakat, that a man cannot bestow mercy? Only a woman such as myself can make such promises!”
“Of course. Forgive me, highness.”
“If anyone guarantees the safety of these people it will be me. Where is the ankh?”
“…no.” Neri said quietly.
“Your mother has gone!” Malakat snapped, his face twisting, “You cannot stand in the way of princess Shersheba!”
Jason glanced back, measured the distance to the way out. No chance. It would take time to get the helmet on.
Neri chimed, “No. The people of the ocean planet trusted my mother to guide them. I will not surrender her wishes.”
Malakat stepped forward and said clearly, “Against me your queen was powerless. She was powerless to stop the crash of the ship carrying her family to Earth.”
“One of Malakat’s greater navigational reassignments.”
Neri went white. “You caused the crash? There were other people on that craft! Many passed—died!”
“That’s right. And you, child, are not invincible. If you would just hand over-“
“I will not give it to you! I have a duty to protect the people of our planet, and the Earth!”
“We’ll soon see about that!” Shersheba raised a –gun!
“No!” Jason got in front of her. The bolt hit his arm and he yelled.
After the first blast of pain Jason realized there was no bullet. His arm hung numb, but wasn’t really hurt. “I’m ok. I think.”
“One shot won’t cause permanent damage.” Malakat told them, “Or two. But we can see how many it will take, if you don’t-“
“All right.” Neri said. “I will get.”
“I thought you would be reasonable.”
Neri took a few steps—and jumped up and opened the gateway. As it swirled behind her she turned and held out her arms.
Jason grabbed Neri with his good arm, and hung on as the water passage took them.