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

Author:Peter Hepworth

6. Charley

Once they had discovered the way to Neri’s island, Jason and Brett took every opportunity they could to slip away from ORCA and spend time there. This meant inventing imaginary fishing expeditions or other official ORCA duties that allowed them access to a boat. In this, they were aided by Brett’s friend Froggy.

Froggy had a way with computers. He lived, breathed, and loved them. And above all others, he adored HELEN, the giant brain responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the ORCA complex.

Froggy’s fascination with HELEN was well known. Commander Lucas had banned him from the bridge for tinkering with her. Even so, Lucas had, on occasions, been forced to come to Froggy when some technical hitch had defeated his own experts. He knew Froggy would come up with an answer. What he didn’t know was that Froggy had discovered how to tap into HELEN from the terminal in the Lyceum after school hours. He would spend many a happy hour there after class fiddling and experimenting with her programs.

Froggy had one weakness other than HELEN and that would be chocolate. For a Giant Whoopee Bar he would have been prepared to instruct HELEN to release the entire ORCA fleet to Jason and Brett. So he was only too happy to get her to officially issue them a single boat. As far as he was concerned, it was enough to prove that he could do it – and the Whoopee Bar was a bonus. So, with transport made easily available, Jason and Brett were free to travel whenever their onboard duties allowed.

They liked to get an early start. Even the speedy ANT boats took an hour to get to the isolated island group, and they wanted to make the most of their time.

Only Vanessa ever seemed to question their comings and goings. One day she caught them by the main elevator just as they were about to leave and asked where they were disappearing to all the time. Brett muttered something about a fishing trip and they pushed past her. As she watched them vanish, Vanessa’s beady eyes narrowed. Ever since the initiation incident she had determined that no one would ever catch her off guard again. So she was always ready to smell any hint of trouble. And, right now, the smell of it was thick in her nostrils.

Time passed at a different pace on Neri’s island, Jason noticed. One hour just seemed to drift into the next, with never any shortage of things to do.

In the morning, they would swing out on vines over the stream, ride the natural mudslides on its banks, or go exploring the hidden nooks and crannies of the rainforest. Then Neri would announce it was time to eat and head for the inlet they had dubbed Charley’s Cove, since that was where he would be found, wallowing near the mouth, if he was home.

There Neri would plunge in and gather fish. They boys had been astonished the first time they saw how she did this. When she was after larger prey, she would carry a barbed spear she had fashioned herself. But mostly, she went for the small sweet fish that flitted in giant schools through the reef. These she simply caught with lightning fast movements of her bare hands as she swam amongst them.

When she had gathered enough, Neri would lead the way back to her nesting tree. While the boys cleaned the catch, using sharp-edged shells, she would squat by the little circle of stones nearby. Using two rubbing sticks and a tinder of dried grass, she would soon have a fire crackling merrily away. Then they feasted on grilled fish, along with the nuts and berries Neri gathered from the surrounding forest.

Afterward they would sit around the embers of the campfire talking. As Neri spent more time with the boys, her speech improved. She still left words out from time to time, but she was less hesitant and stilted. She began to revel in this newfound ability by asking endless questions of them.

“Where your father?” she inquired out of the blue one day.

Jason flinched. “He… he doesn’t live with us at the moment,” he replied awkwardly.

“They’re going to be getting a divorce,” Brett piped in.

“They’re just separated,” Jason corrected him with an edge in his voice. “Dad said there were some things they had to work out and it was best we stayed with our mother.”

Neri’s eyes glittered excitedly. “You have mother?” she asked.

“Of course,” Brett said with a snort. “You reckon we were found under a cabbage or something?”

“I not remember mine,” Neri said reflectively. Then she turned again to Jason, eagerly.

“Tell me of her. Is she beautiful?”

Jason’s face screwed up. He’d never really thought about Mom in that way. “Yeah, I guess so,” he said finally. “But she’s not much of a one for dressing up and stuff. She’s too caught up in her work for that most of the time.”

“That’s a fact,” Brett agreed. “It’s always work first with Mom. That’s the whole reason she volunteered for ORCA.”

Neri pondered for a moment. “One day maybe I like to meet mother,” she said quietly.

“I don’t think that’d be a really good idea, Neri,” Jason hastened to say, “at least not for a while yet.”

But there was something in Neri’s tone, a hint of determination, that made him feel suddenly nervous. He was very glad when she changed the subject. “I feel dry,” she said, passing one hand over her brow.

It was yet another odd thing the boys had noticed about Neri. If she was out of water for more than a few hours, she seemed to weaken and grow pale. However, a quick dip in the ocean or stream revived her almost instantly.

“Swim,” she said, jumping to her feet.

As usual, they headed back to Charley’s Cove after eating. Not to hunt this time, but simply to frolic in the sparkling blue sea. If Charley was around, Neri would often dive in and emerge out to sea alongside him. There they would sport together, Neri playfully leaping from the water in front of his nose or swimming circles around him to tickle his belly as she passed. In the meantime, Jason and Brett would content themselves with bodysurfing between the shallows of the reef or simply lazing in the sun.

However, this afternoon was different. Charley was there, but Neri just waved from the beach. Then she took Jason’s hand and began to lead him out toward deeper water. “Come,” she said.

“Where?” Jason sounded unsure.

“I show you Charley’s world.”

The tug on his hand was insistent. Jason just had time to suck in a lungful of air before he found himself underwater, being towed along in her powerful grip.

It was not until his lungs were nearly bursting that he managed to tear his hand free and kick for the surface. As he trod water, spluttering, Neri appeared, frowning at him. Jason had to explain that he could not hold his breath the way that she could. A minute or two at the most, he told her.

This information seemed to amaze Neri. However, she agreed that Jason would squeeze her hand when he was running out of air and she would release him. It took a little practice. At first, Neri had a habit of taking him down again before he had properly caught his breath. But soon enough, they got it right and Jason found himself comfortably zooming along hand in hand with her under the sea.

For the next hour they soared through giant canyons of coral, flashed past sleepy-eyed turtles, and sent brilliant clouds of multihued fish skittering at their approach. Each time he came up for air, Jason could hardly wait to fill his lungs so that he could dive again. With Neri as his guide, it was like flying over a fantastic landscape of ever-changing shapes and colors.

Suddenly he became aware of something moving alongside them. He looked over. Charley was a little distance off, matching their pace with idle waves of his tail. From above the water, his size had been impressive. From underneath, it was staggering. And yet the huge creature escorted them along like a placid dog at heel.

Later, as he sat on the beach watching Brett take his turn to swim with Neri, a smile started to creep over Jason’s face. To think he hadn’t wanted to come to ORCA because he was convinced life out here would be too boring. And he had just been exploring the bottom of the sea with a girl and a humpback whale as companions! He lay back on the sand and laughed until his sides hurt.

Vanessa was waiting on the ORCA pontoon when they returned late that afternoon. As they clambered up the ladder, she looked down into their boat and sniffed.

“I thought you went fishing?” she said, suspiciously.

“We did,” Jason replied.

“Then were are the fish, eh?” Vanessa pointed to the empty creel in Jason’s hand.

“So, we had a bad day, they weren’t biting.” Brett hurried in, adding, “Not that it’s any of your business, Big Nose.”

But Vanessa was not going to leave it at that.

“Well, I’m making it my business, you little creep,” she called as they headed for the elevator entrance, “because I think you two are up to something. And I’m going to find out what it is.”

On the next trip to Neri’s island, Jason came alone. And, it seemed to Neri, he was strangely troubled.

He explained to her that the day before had been Brett’s birthday. Egged on by his friends Zoe and Froggy, Brett had eaten a record-breaking seven slices of birthday cake. He was now confined to bed with a record-breaking stomachache.

“What is birthday?” Neri asked when he had finished. Jason tried to make her understand, but Neri simply looked mystified. In the end, he gave up.

“It’s not important,” he said with a shrug, “not to Dad, anyway,” and he walked away, biting his lip.

Jason was unusually quiet that morning, showing little interest in their usual pursuits. Instead he sat quietly by the river, lost in his own thoughts.

Finally, Neri came and sat in front of him. “You hurt inside, Jason. Why?” she asked.

Jason had not meant to tell her. In fact he had come to the island to try to forget what had happened. But suddenly, he found the whole story tumbling out.

He told her about Dad forgetting Brett’s birthday, not even sending a present. How he had tried to contact Dad at his new place, only to have some strange woman answer the call. And how Mom confirmed that Dad had a new girlfriend and they were going ahead with the divorce. Jason knew what it all meant. He could no longer hold out any hope. Dad was never coming home.

Then, to Jason’s shame, he heard his own voice break and felt tears stinging his eyes. He tried to turn away, but Neri put a hand on his shoulder, stopping him. She leaned forward, reached out and plucked a tear from his cheek with the tip of her finger. She stared at it, fascinated and confused.

“What is this?” she said.

Jason realized he had never seen Neri cry. Not even when she talked about losing her father. Regaining control and wiping his eyes with the back of his hand, he asked her about it. Didn’t she ever feel sad about him not being around anymore?

Neri shrugged, but her voice was steady. “Things go. New things come. That is the way of it all.”

She touched his hand lightly.

Somehow, sitting there alone with her, Jason felt that perhaps she was right. That the pain he was feeling would pass in time and be replaced by other things. It was as though she had already started to lift a weight from his heart and he felt glad that, of all people, he had talked to her.

But the realization that Neri would not – or could not – cry had caught him by surprise. It was not to be the last surprise that day.

Later, as Neri was busy collecting fish for their lunch, Jason donned the mask, snorkel, and flippers he had brought with him and headed out into Charley’s Cove. It was not as exciting as swimming with Neri, but still he felt a sense of peace coming over him as he drifted languidly through the coral, working his way into deeper water.

About halfway out, he surfaced and looked around. From a distance, he could see Charley basking out near the mouth of the cove. What he failed to see, as he submerged again, was a dark torpedolike shape moving in from the sea, drawn by the flapping of his flippers.

Neri was wading ashore when she heard the urgent call.

A fanged one is among us!

Then she saw the vision. The sleek, deadly form with its curved dorsal fin slipping past Charley as it honed in on its prey. She dropped the fish she was carrying and raced back into the water. With a series of mighty kicks, she began to streak out toward where she had last seen Jason.

He was just beginning his third descent to an undersea grotto when Neri appeared from nowhere, grabbed him, and hauled him to the surface. “Out! Quick!” she yelled. The next thing Jason knew, he was being dragged through the water toward the beach.

“What the heck’s going on?” he asked as he staggered up the sand.

“Shark! There is a shark!”

“What are you talking about, Neri?” Jason said, pointing out at the unbroken surface of the bay. “I don’t see any…”

He froze in horror. At that moment, the fin of a great white shark broke the waterline right where he had been diving.

“But you were so far away,” Jason said, when he finally found his voice again. “How did you know I was there?”

“Charley told me,” Neri answered. And then she stopped, and her hand flew up to her mouth. Her father had warned her many times. Warned her that if she met Outsiders one day, there were things she should not tell them about her and Charley. They would not understand, he said. And now she had let that last secret slip.

Jason gaped. “Charley told you? How?”

Neri looked hard at Jason’s face. He was not really an Outsider, she thought. Not anymore. And when he had shown her how water came from his eyes, surely he had shared his own secret.

“He sings to me,” she said, “and I hear it in here.” She touched her forehead near the temple. “He tells me where he is and what he sees. And sometimes, when he hurts or fears, he sings very loud. Then I see, too, through his eyes.”

“And you…,” Jason croaked, “can you sing back to him?”

“Of course.”

Jason sat down hard on the sand, as if deflated. He put his head in his hands and was silent for some time. Then, finally, he gazed up at her intently. “I don’t understand this,” he said in puzzlement. “What are you?”

“I am Neri,” she replied.

She walked down the beach and picked up the string of fish she had dropped. When she turned back, it was with a smile on her face. “Come,” she said. “We go eat.”

Afterward, as they sat around the campfire, Neri told him how it had begun.

She was only a little girl, she related, when one day she wandered away from her father and up onto the clifftops that flanked the cove. Venturing too close to the edge, she slipped and tumbled from the cliff into the sea below. She floundered for a moment, then began to sink like a stone.

Charley must have been in the bay and heard the splash to have arrived on the spot so soon. All she recalled was a great dark eye appearing beside her. Next thing, she was being lifted on his broad back up to the surface, where he nosed her into the safety of some rocks until her frantic father arrived.

He continued to haunt the cove and, by imitating his actions, Neri found she was soon able to travel safely through the water with ease.

“Then it was Charley who taught you how to swim the way you can?” Jason interrupted.

Neri nodded. It was in the course of these lessons, she went on, that she realized she understood him and they started speaking to each other. At the same time, their friendship was sealed forever. She fell silent.

“You didn’t have to tell me all that, you know,” Jason said quietly. “So why did you?”

“We are friends also, Jason,” she replied, looking him in the eye. “Now I have seen what is in your heart, I know I trust you.”

From that day on, Jason felt that a special bond existed between himself and Neri. When he headed back home that afternoon, she and Charley escorted him, cruising along in the wake of the boat. It was only when the ORCA platform came in sight that they heeded Jason’s warning gestures and turned back.

In the laboratory, Dianne and Winston watched as the two blips on the screen swung around together. Nearby, the recorders hummed softly as they picked up the sound of the whale song issuing from the probe. Winston tapped at the smaller of the blips with a finger.

“There’s his little friend again,” he said. “And, listen, our chap’s singing like a bird”

She nodded. “We’ve certainly got all our best recordings when that thing’s with him. I wonder what the devil it is?”

“I recall an old Tibetan saying,” Winston mused. “A wise man looks first for solutions in his own backyard.”

“And just what is that supposed to mean?”

“That perhaps you already have the answer. In those boxes over there.” He indicated the steadily growing pile of whale recordings stacked in cartons on a shelf.

“You think there might be some clue on these as to what kind of animal we’re seeing.”

“Who can say?” Winston replied, “but it’s worth a try isn’t it?”

Without answering, she walked over to the boxes and began to take them down.

“Neri can talk to Charley!” Brett was sitting up in his bunk, his stomachache forgotten in the excitement. Jason signaled him to keep his voice down.

“But how does she do it when she’s swimming?” Brett went on in a whisper. “Wouldn’t her mouth fill up with water?”

“It’s not like ordinary talking, thickhead,” Jason said. “It’s more like with their minds. Some kind of telepathy.”

“All the same, what’s Mom gonna do when she finds out? She’ll flip!”

“Mom’s not going to do anything,” Jason replied steadily, “because we’re not going to tell her.”

Brett scowled uncertainly. “We’ll have to sometime, won’t we, Jace? I mean, she is sitting up in that lab with a trillion dollars worth of equipment trying to figure out how to speak to whales. And Neri actually can!”

“Right. So what do you reckon’s going to happen if we spill the beans? All those eggheads in lab coats would be taking Neri apart to see how she does it. There’d probably be bits of her in specimen jars all over the place before we knew it.”

“Mom’d never let ’em do that.”

“You know what she’s like about her work. Besides, she mightn’t have any say in the matter. You want to take the risk?”

Brett thought about it for a moment, then glumly shook his head.

“All right,” Jason continued, “and if we can’t tell Mom, we can’t tell anyone else, either. Especially not your friends.”

Brett objected. “My friends!” he said. “What about yours? Like Daggy and Jodie and that Lee you’re always making goo-goo eyes at?”

“I do not make goo-goo eyes at Lee!” Jason said tautly, then added, “Anyway, most important of all, it’s got to be kept from Vanessa. She’s already sniffing around. If she ever found anything out, it’d be all over ORCA in ten minutes.”

There was a little more discussion, much of which centered on the nature of goo-goo eyes and the fact that Lee was the commander’s daughter, but in the end it was settled. Neither would breathe a word about Neri except to the other.

Satisfied at last, and tired from a long and eventful day, Jason rolled over and happily closed his eyes. But if he had known what was happening on the mainland at that very moment, his sleep would not have been so contented.

The sign on the fence near the guardhouse appeared to say UBRI, but closer inspection revealed that it actually read UNDERWATER BIOLOGICAL RESEARCH INCORPORATED. And underneath was written the warning: AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.

Beyond the fence a complex of white brick buildings was clustered on a rise overlooking a bay, and in the window of one of these, a light was still burning.

In that room, a tall thin man with silver hair was talking to a fellow in a lab coat. “I can’t say I’m very happy with the way this project is progressing,” the silver-haired man was saying. “Don’t you people realize how important it is to the company’s future?”

“Of course, Doctor Hellegren,” the other replied, “but it is difficult to get results when your specimens keep disappearing. And humpback whales can be surprisingly elusive for such large creatures.”

“Apparently not for our rivals on ORCA.”

Hellegren picked up a file from his desk and waved it. “This is a report from a Dr. Bates in one of their marine biology labs,” he said. “If it is to be believed, they have not only placed a tag on a specimen, they are making constant and clear recordings of his songs and brain patterns.”

“But… how did you get that file?” the other man asked.

“At a good deal of expense, believe me. And not with their knowledge. The point is, they are already leaving us far behind. If there is a way to communicate with cetaceans, they are going to find it years before we do at this rate.”

“Well, of course, if we had their facilities…”

“It is not their facilities we need, Johannson,” Hellegren interrupted coolly, “it is their current research.”

He threw the file down. “This information is already several weeks old. We must catch up with them and then keep pace.”

“I don’t see how that is possible.”

“I do. I’m arranging for someone to work for us inside ORCA. They will make copies of Dr. Bates’s recordings and smuggle them out. With high-speed equipment, it should not take too long for us to duplicate what they have to date. After that, it is simply a matter of sending us each day’s results.”

He leaned back in his chair with his hands behind his head. “And then, my friend, no one will discover anything about this whale without us learning about it at the same time.” He grinned, showing teeth like a barracuda.