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

Author:Peter Hepworth

9. On Board

“We’re going to need a uniform and an ID card for her,” Jason said quietly to Brett over breakfast.

“How long’ve we got?”

“About forty-eight hours. I told her to be here at dawn two days from now.”

“You didn’t give us much time.”

“Listen, it was all I could do to make her hold off for that long.”

“OK,” Brett said, “but we’d better get moving pronto. You take care of the uniform. Leave the card to me. I’ve got an idea.” A cheeky little grin spread across his face.

“Fake an ID card?” Froggy said. “You’ve got to be joking.”

“Hey, that’s cool,” Brett replied. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Froggy bristled. “I could do it standing on my head. But what would you want a false ID for?”

“I don’t. It’s just that some of the kids were saying you could do anything with a computer and I bet them that was one thing you couldn’t.”

“Well, you lose. It’d be a breeze.”

Brett sucked in his breath and scowled thoughtfully.

“That’s easy to say, Froggy, and personally, I wouldn’t doubt you. All the same, I’d kind of like to see it for myself before I paid up.”

“You’re on. Meet me in the Lyceum after school’s out and I’ll prove it. Have you got any kind of computer cards?”

“Well, there’s the games programs from my Reality Helmet.”

“Perfect. But pick one you don’t want anymore, ’cause once I change the bar code, that’s it.”

“No worries, Frog,” Brett said happily. “I’ll be there.”

Jason knew the right time to enter the laundry complex. All of the cleaning processes were automated. Soiled uniforms rolled in one side, were subjected to ultrasound washing, and came cleanly out onto the racks at the far end. The only need for human input was to load and unload the racks. So at lunchtime, the staff all left for the galley and the place was deserted.

“Anyone here?” Jason called as he entered. He waited. As he had hoped, there was no reply, so he set about his task. He hurried to the racks of clean uniforms. Most were dark blue, though there were a few of the lighter shade that had only been issued recently. Jason walked along them, holding his hands up at what he judged to be Neri’s height, looking for something approximately the right size.

For what seemed like ages nothing appeared to fit. If the height was right, the width was three times too big. If the shape seemed lean enough for Neri’s slender body, the owner was apparently a midget. As he continued to search, Jason began to wonder if most of ORCA was staffed by mutations. Then he spotted one of the newer uniforms. It had a small tear in the coded owner’s label at the back but it looked perfect for size. Jason took it from the rack and held it up against himself to judge, double-checking in a nearby mirror.

At that moment, a man with a delivery of soiled uniforms walked in the door. Jason froze. The man looked at Jason, apparently trying on one of the girl’s uniforms, raised his eyebrows, and walked back out without comment.

Jason went scarlet to the ears. Then, tucking the uniform under his arm, and grabbing a matching pair of shoes from the deodorizing machine, he hastily departed.

Froggy punched a last sequence of buttons on the computer keyboard and spun around in his chair, holding the card out to Brett.

Brett examined it critically. “Are you telling me that HELEN’d actually accept this?”

Froggy smirked. “Not only that. She’d probably even say, ’Thank you, Mr. Duck.’”


“Well, I had to enter a name,” Froggy explained, “so I used Donald Duck. Who cares? It’s not like anyone’s going to use it, are they?”

“Yeah, right,” Brett agreed hurriedly.

“OK, so now for the final proof.” Froggy took the card again, slipped it into a slot on the Lyceum master console, and tapped into the security sector. There was a momentary pause, then the words came up on the screen: SECURITY CLEARANCE.

Froggy removed the card and waved it with a self-satisfied air. “There you are,” he said, “easy as pie.”

“Let’s just have one last look at it,” Brett asked.

“OK, but then put it in the disposal. I don’t want anybody finding it.”

Brett walked away with his back to Froggy. He had a piece of cardboard from the bottom of a chocolate bar ready, hidden in the palm of his hand. He put that into the disposal chute which whirred, shredding it. He slipped the ID card into his pocket.

“Thanks, Froggy,” he said as he left. “You don’t know how helpful you’ve been.”

But Froggy was too occupied in wrestling with some new problem with HELEN to even bother answering.

The light blue uniform and shoes lay on Jason’s bunk.

“That better satisfy you, ’cause I’m not going back,” he said. “I tell you, it was really embarrassing.”

“You think you had the tough job?” Brett retorted. “Froggy’s not easy to con, you know.”

Then he grinned smugly, pulling the card from his pocket and flourishing it. “But I did it!”

Jason took the card and compared it to his own. “It’s great,” he declared. “You can’t tell the difference.”

“It’s only a day pass, though,” Brett pointed out, “so remember, whatever happens, she has to be off the base by 1800 hours. Otherwise, HELEN’s going to start asking questions.”

Jason found a spare holder, slipped the card into it, and attached it to the uniform. Everything looked perfect. When he looked up, he saw that Brett had a piece of paper in his hand.

“What’s that?”

“Another one of my brilliant ideas. We want her to have a really bad time, right? So, I’ve made a list of all the most boring places we could take her.”

He began to read. “Waste processing… the desalination plant… air-conditioning center… power plant control room…”

Jason peered over his shoulder at the list and chuckled. “She’s going to wish she never came.”

“Listen,” Brett said confidently, “in ten minutes, she’ll be begging to leave.”

There was one thing left to do. They put the uniform and shoes in a couple of fishing creels and took them in the main elevator up to the platform. Once they were sure they weren’t being observed, Jason led the way to one of the many large metal equipment boxes that were bolted to the structure at regular intervals.

“I’ve noticed that no one ever seems to use this one,” he said, “It’s just full of old boat covers and things.”

He opened the lid and stowed the clothes under a couple of layers of tarpaulin. “Well, that’s it,” he said as he closed the lid. “We’re all set. Everything’s under control.”

In the laundry room Vanessa was stamping about in a fury. “Some moron’s stolen my uniform!” she ranted.

“But Vanessa,” Jodie said, meekly, “you’ve got it on.”

“I don’t mean this old thing, idiot. I just got one of the new issue ones. My father had to pull all sorts of strings to have me put at the top of the list.”

“I’ve never noticed it on you.”

“I hadn’t even worn it yet! They say you should have it cleaned first to soften the fabric. And now, some cow’s ripped it off!”

“Maybe it got mixed up with someone else’s.”

“Don’t be stupid. It had my label in the back. There’s only two possibilities. It’s been stolen, or this is some sicko’s idea of a practical joke.” Her eyes narrowed. “Either way,” she vowed, “somebody’s going to be very sorry.”

Jason and Brett were feeling pleased with themselves as they strolled into Mom’s lab. They found the place a hive of activity. Crates were lying all over the floor and a youth was helping Winston to unpack and assemble a pile of strange-looking equipment.

“Hi, Winston,” Brett said.

“Hello, boys. Oh,” he added referring to the youth, “this is Billy Neilson from Computer Division.”

Billy nodded toward them and went on with his work.

“What’s all this?” Jason pointed to the equipment.

“This? It’s an image synthesizer, of course.”

“A what?”

“Image synthesizer,” Dianne echoed, coming over from where she had been comparing whale song recordings. “It’s all very experimental at the moment, but it’s supposed to analyze sounds and construct a picture of what’s making them.”

“You mean, like if it heard the sound of a lion roaring, it’d come up with a picture of a lion?” Brett frowned.

“Well, it’s not quite so exact, but that’s the general idea.”

“What are you going to use it for?” Jason asked, fearing he already knew the answer.

“Well, we’ve decided we’d like to find out more about our whale’s little friend. We’re hoping this might give us some clues. Maybe even enough to make a good guess what it is.”

A few minutes later, Jason and Brett were heading for the galley.

“You don’t think that thing could really work, do you?” Brett asked.

“I dunno,” Jason replied. “She did say it was only experimental. Anyway, we’ve got enough to worry about as it is.”

The sun was just coming up two days later when Jason and Brett stood shivering on the platform, staring out to sea.

Brett spotted Charley first. He was a good way off, but even at that distance they could make out the great spout that went up from his blowhole as he surfaced.

“Jeez, you don’t think she’s bringing him with her, do you?” Brett asked in alarm. “We’d have fun trying to get him in the elevator!”

At that moment, Charley began to turn. He made a slow, graceful arc in the water then, with a flick of his tail, he dived again and was gone.

Neri broke the surface right at their feet. “Hello. I here,” she said, with an excited grin.

“Just wait a moment,” Jason muttered. He made a last check to see that nobody was around. “Okay. Up you come.”

She scaled a ladder with ease and stood in front of them, dripping water. “Now you show me ORCA,” she insisted.

“You can’t go in looking like that. You’ll have to change.”

Jason led her to the equipment box and pulled out the uniform and shoes. “Quick. Put these on. We’ll leave your own clothes in here and you can get them as you leave.”

Neri nodded and started to pull her dress over her head. Jason’s eyes popped, and Brett intervened hastily.

“Uh… it might be a good idea if you did that behind the equipment box.”

Neri looked puzzled but went behind the box and swapped the clothes. When she emerged, she was wincing and frowning at the shoes on her feet.

“Must I wear these?” she asked. “They hurt.” She squirmed in them uncomfortably.

“Yes,” Jason said, adding hopefully, “unless, of course, you want to change your mind about doing this?”

Neri shook her head. With a sigh of resignation, Jason led the way toward the elevator. Neri clumped along behind, the unfamiliar shoes causing her to walk with a strange, stiff gait.

She looks like she’s got a broomstick shoved down each trouser leg. Brett thought, as he brought up the rear.

“There seems to be an unauthorized person in the elevator,” HELEN’s voice said. “Please identify yourself.”

Neri jumped, then peered around, looking for the source of the voice.

Jason crossed his fingers, took the ID card from her uniform, and held it on the sensor plate.

SECURITY CLEARANCE flashed across the screen.

“Thank you,” HELEN responded. “Welcome aboard ORCA, Mr. Duck.”

“Whao!” Neri shouted in delighted alarm as the elevator hummed and started to descend.

“That was fun. Can we go again?” Neri asked as the elevator doors opened at the bottom.

“No,” Brett said.

“Come on,” Jason took her by the arm. “Let’s get this over with.”

As they stepped out into the reception area Neri halted. Her jaw dropped and her eyes were wide as she stared at the bombardment of unfamiliar sights and sounds. Brett took her other arm and, flanking her, they propelled her toward the corridors. One or two passing people frowned at the sight of the girl with the odd walk, but they made it safely through reception and moved on into the heart of ORCA.

Dianne arrived at the lab to find Winston peering at a screen. He looked up at her approach. “Pity you weren’t here fifteen minutes ago. You just missed something rather strange.”


“I switched the equipment on and suddenly there was the whale, right on our doorstep. Much closer than we’ve ever seen him venture before.”

“Perhaps he’s growing curious about us. Did you activate the recorders?”

“Of course. And he was singing. However, that was another odd thing. To my ears, it didn’t sound like one of his inquisitive songs. It was more like those you have identified as him saying farewell.”

Her brow furrowed and she began to move to the recorders.

“The wisest owl hears all before he flies,” Winston quoted, stopping her.

She looked irritated. “Where on earth do you get these sayings from, Winston?”

“That was in a fortune cookie, actually,” Winston confessed, “but I’m just trying to tell you I haven’t finished yet. His little friend was with him.”


“The whale turned back, but the smaller blip kept moving toward us. In fact, it appeared to come right up to our front door, so to speak. And then it disappeared from the screen.”

“You mean, it’s come inside the minimum range of our equipment?”

Winston nodded. “Which suggests it must be somewhere right on top of us.”

“Well, don’t just stand there, Winston,” she said urgently, grabbing a pair of binoculars. “Let’s go and see what it is!”

They spent the next hour up on the platform, scanning the surrounding water for any sign of life, but they saw nothing.

Meanwhile, things had not gone quite as the boys had hoped. Far from being bored by the power plant, Neri was hypnotized. She gazed in wonder at the huge pipes through which water circulated with the motion of the tide to generate hydroelectricity. Finally, she pressed her ear gently against one pipe and listened. A smile came over her face.

“It’s beautiful,” she said in awe. “It sings like the sea.”

Jason and Brett exchanged a concerned look and quickly moved her on. To their dismay, however, Neri’s interest and excitement only seemed to grow with each passing minute. In the air-conditioning center, she danced about in the constantly moving atmosphere, praising the warmth of the “winds.” In the desalination plant she became fascinated by the low-slung lighting and kept trying to blow out the “little fires.” At the waste-processing depot, she had to be dissuaded from diving into the huge tanks of steaming effluent undergoing treatment.

As they emerged into the corridor, Froggy and Zoe were approaching.

“Hi, guys,” Froggy greeted them. “Coming up to the galley?”

“A bit early, isn’t it?” Brett asked.

“Not for me. I’m starving.”

Jason was aware of Zoe’s questioning look at the strange girl beside them. Better to say nothing, he decided.

“We’ll – er – catch you up there,” he said, and Froggy and Zoe moved off.

“Why is he starving? There is no food?” Neri asked anxiously.

“Yeah, of course,” Brett said. “It’s just getting near lunchtime, that’s all.”

“Maybe time for you to leave, Neri,” Jason suggested.

“No. Now, I wish to see where you live.”

Jason’s heart sank further. “You wouldn’t like it. It’s really nothing interesting.”

Neri turned her plea to Brett. “But I want to. I like to see where my friends live. I showed you my home,” she pointed out and looked from one to the other in silent appeal.

Jason sighed and led the way.

Neri stood in the cabin slowly rotating as she took it all in. “It’s wonderful,” she pronounced at last.

“Huh? You’ve got to be kidding,” Jason said.

“Comfortable,” Neri insisted. She peered into the shower stall, and frowned at the toilet. “But not this chair. This chair looks not comfortable.”

“It’s not a chair, exactly,” Jason shifted uneasily.

“What is it?”

“Well, it’s… um…”

Brett tried to assist. “You sit on it when… you… ah…”

Jason changed the subject by tapping a button on the control panel. “This is the shower,” he said. Neri laughed with delight as the water began to cascade down.

“Inside rain!” she cried in disbelief. Then she was off in search of new wonders. “What is in there?”

“That’s just Mom’s quarters.”

“Belongs to Mother? I must see.” Before they could stop her, she was through the door.

She circled around the small table that held Mom’s toiletries. “Pretty things,” she muttered as she examined them. Glancing up, she caught sight of her reflection. For a moment, she was startled, but then she smiled. “Is me. Like in a rock pool.”

“It’s called a mirror,” explained Jason, but Neri wasn’t listening. She picked up a small bottle from the table and examined it.

“Drink?” she asked.

“No, perfume. It smells nice. Women squirt it on themselves.”


Brett indicated the button on the top. Neri immediately pushed it, dousing him with perfume.

“Go easy,” Jason said. “That’s Mom’s one big luxury.”

As he took it from her, Neri spotted the framed photograph of the boys with Mom standing nearby. She peered closely at it. “Very good drawing. This is Mother?” She pointed.


“Very beautiful,” she said quietly.

“Look, come on, let’s get out,” Jason interrupted, “otherwise Mom’s going to suspect that someone’s been in here.”

“Yes,” Neri agreed, “I hungry now. You take me where the starving boy has gone.”

“No, that’s not a good idea.”

Neri gave Jason a hurt look. “You will not share your food with me? I share all mine with you.”

“You don’t understand. It could be tricky.”

“I understand,” Neri said flatly. “You are shamed for your friends to see me with you.”

Jason groaned. This was becoming more complicated by the minute.

“Jace,” Brett beckoned him aside and spoke quietly. “If she’s gonna stay all day, we can’t let her go without anything to eat.”

“You want to let her loose with all those other kids around?”

“Hey, we’ve got away with it this far, haven’t we? No one’s really noticed anything. Get a table by ourselves and we could be in and out again before they’re any the wiser.”

It was against his better judgment, but the hurt look on Neri’s face made Jason finally concede. “All right, we’ll take you to the galley,” he said reluctantly, “but you have to keep as quiet as possible. Let us do all the talking. You just agree with anything we say, all right?”

Neri nodded enthusiastically.

As they trooped out, Jason hissed in Brett’s ear. “Just remember, this isn’t my idea. I only hope we’re not making a major mistake!”