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This document is part of the Ocean Girl Archive — Last update: 2009-02-15 — sourcemeta

Author:Peter Hepworth

On the day after tomorrow…


The little island passing below them sat in the glittering sea of the Great Barrier Reef.

“Hey! Did the rest of you see that?”

Jason had to shout to be heard over the chattering of the helicopter’s rotors above them. The pilot eased his headphones off one ear and glanced back over his shoulder.

“What, kid?”

“I thought I spotted something in a clearing back there. Like someone running into the trees.”

The pilot grinned in the way adults do when they’re about to treat you like an idiot. At fourteen, Jason had seen that look many times before.

“I think you need glasses, son. All these islands are uninhabited. Always have been. Way too far from the mainland for anyone to want to live. You ORCA Institute people are going to be all on your own out here.”

Jason pulled a face. “Oh, great,” he groaned, and followed it up with a snorted, “Sheesh!”

Mom leaned over and gave him a cuff across the back of the head. She always said they were just playful, but sometimes they really hurt. They weren’t so bad now that she no longer wore a wedding ring on that hand, though.

“Oh lighten up, Jason,” she said. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“Yeah. This is going to be cool!” Brett piped in. It was typical of his younger brother. At ten years old, Brett still got excited no matter how dumb the place was that Mom was dragging them off to.

“Get real, will you?” Jason retorted, “Stuck in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of egghead scientists. You call that adventure?”

“Well, I really envy you boys,” the pilot said. “To be actually living on the bottom of the sea! I’d give anything for a place on board ORCA.”

“Well, you can have mine for nothing,” Jason muttered, slumping back into his seat to stare gloomily out the window. Ahead, the ocean stretched all around the to the horizon, only broken here and there by tiny specks of land like the one they had just passed over. He glanced back at it as it quickly receded from view. Funny. For a moment there, he really thought he had seen someone. Just a glimpse of a little figure that paused, stared up at them, and then disappeared quickly beneath the thick foliage.

No, he decided. It couldn’t have been. And he pushed the thought from his mind.

Neri stepped from the cover of the rainforest canopy back into the clearing. She watched the flying machine go with both fear and fascination. Its roar faded as it dwindled to a dot and disappeared from view. That had been too close. Though she had seen them in the sky nearly every day since the Outsiders started building the strange thing in the sea, they rarely flew directly over the island. So this one had caught her by surprise. She must never make that mistake again.

From the day she was left alone, she decided the Outsiders must not know about her.

Or about the giant in the ocean. Jali. Her friend.

“Jeez, she’s really done it this time,” Jason hissed out of the corner of his mouth. “What is this dump, Devil’s Island?”

The helicopter had lifted above their heads and was already swinging away back in the direction of the mainland. They stood with a jumble of bags and suitcases in piles around their feet, still clutching their caps against the buffeting of the downdraft.

Jason surveyed the scene with dismay. It was even worse than he had anticipated. Back on shore, Mom had tried to make it sound as if ORCA was the next best thing to Disneyland. What confronted them now was a vast, ugly, gray metal platform sitting alone in endless ocean. Boats of varying sizes bobbed at moorings alongside. The only thing that broke the dreary flatness of the platform itself was a large cylindrical structure in the middle. On its front was a symbol and the words OCEANIC RESEARCH CENTER (AUSTRALIA).

Mom walked toward it, looking rapt.

“I’m working out some way to get us off here fast!” Jason hissed to Brett.

“I heard that, Jason,” Mom said without turning. Her voice was calm but there was a note of warning in it.

They were interrupted by a soft whooshing sound. A door was sliding open in the side of the large central cylinder. A figure emerged, a small, sprightly man whose huge grin split dark Indian features. He was dressed in a blue uniform with the ORCA crest emblazoned on a top pocket.

“Hello, Dr. Bates,” he hailed Mom. “How was the flight?”

“Fine, thanks, Winston.” She motioned the boys forward. “Boys, my research assistant, Dr. Seth. This is…”

“Jason? And this one, Brett, right?” He guessed correctly. “Welcome to ORCA!”

“Yeah,” Jason replied flatly, “you’re welcome to it, too.”

Winston shot a look at Jason, one eyebrow cocked, before he plunged into the pile of luggage and began loading himself up with bags. Brett hurried to help him. They began to carry them toward the open door in the cylinder.

As they did, Winston fell in step beside Jason. “You know, Jason,” he said quietly, “there is a very wise old Japanese saying: The carp smiles on the surface, for he has seen the wonders below.” And he gestured downward under their feet.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jason challenged.

“How should I know? I’m Indian,” Winston said with a high-pitched giggle that continued as he led them through the doorway.

They found themselves in a circular elevator with one large seat running most of the way around it. Winston dropped the bags he was carrying and fished a handful of plastic cards from his pocket. He passed these in turn across a sensor plate on a panel by the door. After each there was a beep and then the words SECURITY CLEARANCE flashed across a screen above.

“Your identity cards,” Winston explained, handing them out. “You must wear them at all times. You cannot get in or out without them.”

Brett’s eyes were shining with excitement as he pinned the card to his shirt. “Dr. Seth,” he asked, “is it true that there’s like a whole city down there?”

“Well, more like a large town, I’d say, Brett. But you’ll find it has everything we need.” He took a seat as the door began to slide shut.

“Has it got a McDonald’s?” Jason asked.

Winston blinked in surprise. “No,” he confessed.

Jason nudged Brett. “I told you,” he grunted. “We might as well be going back to the Stone Age.”

With a gentle hum, they began to descend.

Neri knelt in the heart of the rainforest, clawing sweet young yams from the ground and eating them on the spot.

Then suddenly, she heard the call. Faint, from way out to sea. Her friend was coming. She stood and, still chewing, began to head toward the beach.

The elevator doors opened.

“Welcome to the ORCA Maritime Research Station,” cooed a female robot voice issuing from speakers overhead. “Would all new arrivals please report to the Berth Allocation Terminal located directly to your left.”

“That’s HELEN, our central computer,” Winston explained as they began to shuffle out with their bags. “Short for Hydro Electronic Liaison Entity Number 3000. She really runs this place. But don’t ever tell the commander I said that,” he added with a nervous giggle.

Nearby was a model of the ORCA complex in a glass case, it’s cluster of modules with connecting tubes looking like some nest of strange, gigantic shellfish linking arms on the bottom of the sea. Winston led them past it to where another sensor plate jutted from the wall and told them to lay their ID cards on it.

“Please wait while your cabin details are confirmed.” It was the same mechanical voice, but this time coming from a speaker on the wall.

Jason and Brett took in the scene around them as they waited. They were in a large-domed reception area from which tunnel-like corridors seemed to run off in every direction. It was clearly some kind of central hub, judging by the number of people constantly passing through. A lot were adults, but there seemed to be a good many kids of various ages, too. All wore uniforms with the ORCA symbol prominently displayed.

“Bates… Dr. Dianne Elizabeth… Jason David… Brett Michael,” the voice broke in again. “Residency clearance. Your berth allocation is Gamma module, level three, cabin fourteen. Have a nice day.”

Winston began to lead them toward one of the tunnels, but paused to speak to a tall, hawk-faced man with gold braid on his uniform.

“Ah, Commander Lucas, may I introduce Dianne Bates. Dr. Bates is one of our leading marine biologists. She’s here to study the songs of humpback whales.”

“Dr. Bates,” the man said, nodding to Mom. But his eyes were firmly fixed on Jason and Brett. “Are these two yours?”


He glared at them. “Well, just remember this is a vessel at sea as far as I’m concerned, not a kindergarten or a playground. Obey orders, don’t mess about, and you’ll have no trouble, Doctor.” He nodded curtly again in Mom’s direction before turning on his heels and walking off.

“Oh, this is just great!” Jason moaned as they continued on their way. “We’ve signed on with Captain Bligh.”

They followed through a series of gently winding narrow corridors and voice-operated elevators. At one point, the gray metal walls gave way to thick pressure-proof glass and they found themselves standing in a viewing tunnel, from which they could out at the seabed spread before them. Permanently lit by great banks of lights, the ORCA structure stood perched on the edge of the continental shelf, beyond which everything disappeared into permanent darkness.

The cabin was small, awfully small. Hardly the size of the little study Dad had back home when they’d all lived together. Against one wall was a cubicle the size of a telephone booth which appeared to be a toilet until Jason tried to find the flush button on the control panel. He emerged, wet and spluttering, to announce that it was also the shower, obviously designed by an idiot.

Against another wall, stood a giant screen, which Winston explained was the internal communication system. “If you wish to talk to your mother in our laboratory – or if she wishes to contact you – all you need to do is punch in the number and you can talk to her face-to-face,”he said enthusiastically. “Although, of course, you can push the nonvision button so she can’t see what mischief you’re really up to.”

He was about to demonstrate, but the boys were already examining the sleeping berths. One led off to either side. They were identical. A double bunk and no room for much else. Since one had to be Mom’s, obviously that meant they were to share. Two ORCA uniforms laying side by side, still wrapped in plastic, confirmed it.

Mom followed them to the doorway.

“Well, time to get out of those street clothes and into uniform,” she said cheerfully.

Brett already had the wrapping off his, but Jason turned defiantly. “No way, Mom, I’m not walking around looking like some geek space cadet. No way, no how.”

“Orders, Jason,” she said with that look in her eye that mean she was serious. “And then, we can all go up together while Winston show me our new lab.”

Brett was actually parading around, showing off his outfit to Mom, when Jason finally emerged, reluctantly wearing the cotton trousers and T-shirt with the ORCA symbol.

Winston had news for Dianne as they headed out the door. “I think I’ve already picked out our specimen. A big humpback who’s been hanging around the area since I arrived to set out equipment up.”

Jason could see the flash of excitement in Mom’s eyes. Funny. She often got like that about work, but hardly ever about anything that happened at home. Perhaps that’s why Dad…

“Don’t worry. It always takes newcomers a few days to settle in here, but you’ll get used to it.” He realized Winston had dropped back and was walking beside him.

“I don’t want to stay long enough to get used to it,” Jason replied, looking straight ahead, “and I sure didn’t ask to come. I just got dragged along to bag you guys a whale.”

Neri stood on the beach, staring out to sea.

Suddenly, the water at the mouth of the cove in front of her shimmered and then erupted as Jali’s great body broke the surface, and a plume of spray jetted into air. She heard his voice, singing in her head.

I have returned, Neri.

She ran into the sea and plunged beneath the sea. One, two, three powerful kicks and she was zooming through the coral groves at high speed. Shoals of rainbow-colored fish darted desperately out of her way as she plowed through them. She surfaced beside the huge head and ran a hand under his eye, stroking him in welcome.

Come. Time to play, he sang, and he started to dive. Neri waited until he was nearly submerged. Only his tail remained out of the water, towering above her head. Then she, too, dived.

His giant flukes dwarfed her little feet as both slid under the surface. Then, together, they turned back out toward the open sea.

Jason lay in bed that night listening to Brett’s regular breathing from the bunk below. Sometimes he wondered if Mom didn’t have a bit of a screw loose. He knew it was true humpback whales sang to each other underwater. Everyone knew that. But she had this idea that if you recorded the song and the whale’s brain waves at the same time, you could eventually work out why the whale made certain sounds. Sooner or later, you’d be able to understand their language.

“You never know, Jason,” she said once. “Some day we might actually be able to talk to them.”

That was the crazy idea which had led them to being stuck in this hole for the next six months.

Jason snorted and rolled over to go to sleep. People talking to whales, he thought drowsily. Yeah, sure, Mom. In your dreams.

In your dreams.