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

Author:Peter Hepworth

10. Into the Lion’s Den

“I didn’t think there were so many people in the world!”

Neri stood at the galley door, staring in. The lunchtime crowd of kids were milling around, punching orders into the electronic menus on the counter or waiting at the other end for them to materialize down the dispenser chute.

Jason and Brett guided her toward the counter. Lee was just finishing ordering as they came up.

“Oh, hello, Jason.”

“Hi, Lee.”

Neri echoed with a big smile. “Hi, Lee!”

Lee looked a little nonplussed, but nodded to the stranger before heading off to the dispenser. Jason sounded a caution from the corner of his mouth. “Don’t talk. Just choose something to eat.”

“That looks good,” Neri said, pointint to a triple-decker hamburger going past.

“Er, Jace, why don’t you grab a table and I’ll do the ordering,” Brett suggested, adding in an undertone, “I’ll get her a plate of revegiton.”

Revegiton was a thick green substance made from recycled vegetable matter and seaweed. It was cheap, highly nutritious and tasted like moldy old socks. Some parents insisted that the galley computer issue at least one serving a day to their kids, but it was almost always pushed aside. There was nothing guaranteed to cure an appetite as fast as a good big plate of revegiton.

Brett tapped in their credit code and ordered a double helping. They’d be out in no time, he thought, pleased with himself.

There was a disturbance in the next line. Two very large girls known as Valma and Valerie were pushing into the line in front of Zoe and Froggy.

“Hey, we were here first,” Zoe protested.

“Buzz off, Shorty,” was Valma’s response, as she held her fist under Zoe’s nose.

Zoe knew she stood no chance against the older girls. Disgusted, she turned to Froggy. “Thanks a lot for sticking up for me,” she said, sourly.

“Hey, what could I do?” Froggy said in injured tones. “I couldn’t hit a woman.”

“You! You couldn’t punch a train ticket,” Zoe retorted.

Jason had located an empty table. Brett came over, bearing a large plate of green matter and set it in front of Neri. She sniffed it.

“Smells good,” she said. She reached out, grabbed a handful and struck it in her mouth. “Tasted lovely!” she exclaimed and started to reach for another handful.

“No, Neri!” Jason hissed. “Use a spoon. Like this.” He picked one up from the table and quietly demonstrated. Neri reached for her own spoon to follow suit.

Across the galley, Jodie, sitting with Vanessa, wrinkled up her nose in distaste. “Yuk! Did you see that? That girl was actually eating revegiton! And with her fingers!”

Vanessa looked around. “What girl?”

“The one over there with the Bates brothers. Who is she, anyway?”

Vanessa’s eyes narrowed as she peered at the unfamiliar face. Then something else caught her eye--the uniform the girl was wearing. Vanessa’s eyes grew narrower still.

“Mind if I sit down?” Jason jumped. Lee had come up behind him.

“Well--er--” he began.

“Yes. You sit down.” Neri beamed.

“You’re new, aren’t you?” Lee asked as she sat.

“She’s just started on the cleaning staff,” Jason intervened hurriedly. “Part-time, so she’s only on a day pass. Her English is still a bit rough because she’s--Latvian,” he added in an inspired afterthought.

“Oh. So Jason and Brett are showing you around?”

“They are my friends,” Neri said, happily chewing.

Lee looked questioningly at Jason.

“We--we knew her before, you see,” he explained.

“Back on land,” Brett added. “You could’ve knocked us over with a feather when we saw her here.”

“Where did you meet?”

“At school,” Jason replied.

“On a holiday,” Brett said at exactly the same time.

Jason chose the best of both worlds. “On a school holiday,” he corrected himself.

They were interrupted as Froggy and Zoe joined them, unasked. A moment later, Daggy materialized, pulling a chair right up beside Neri and gazing at her with unabashed interest. Oh, no, Jason thought.

“Hello, I’m Damien,” he said eagerly. “What’s your name?”

“Neri,” she said, scooping up the last of the green residue on her plate. At the same time, she toyed with the tomato sauce container in front of her with her free hand. She turned it upside down and watched with fascination as great glops of the red mixture inside began to run out onto the table. Jason belatedly grabbed the container and pried it from her fingers.

“She’s always been a real clown,” he explained to the others with a forced laugh. But there was a harsh note in his voice as he added quietly, “Stop fooling around, Neri!”

In the meantime, Daggy’s mind was working overtime. He was trying to think of something to say to this pretty new girl. Something that would impress her. He found it.

“Did you know that there’s an animal called the bongo antelope that has a tongue so long it can stick it right up its own nostril?” he said. “It’s true. When it wants to clean its nose it just…” And he proceeded to attempt to demonstrate. He was greeted with gagging noises and complaints of “Do you mind? I’m eating!” from the others. But Neri considered what he had said in grave silence.

“Interesting,” she pronounced at last.

Daggy’s heart soared. “Oh, I know lots of things like that,” he told her. “Listen, I could tell you some more while I show you around, if you like.”

“We’re already doing that,” Jason said firmly. “So, if you’re finished, Neri…” He started to rise.

“No,” Neri said, pushing her plate forward. “Still hungry. More of this, please.”

Daggy scrambled eagerly to his feet, reaching for the plate. “Allow me.”

But Brett beat him to it. “No, I’ll get it.”

In sudden close proximity to Brett, Daggy gave a sniff. His eyebrows raised at the whiff of Mom’s perfume emanating from him.

“Hey, I like your perfume. Just gorgeous!”

“Get out of it, Dags,” Brett countered, and gave him a light thump on the shoulder. Neri looked alarmed.

“Why do you hit him?” she asked.

“It’s not serious. Just being friendly,” Brett explained.

“Ah, you hit to be friendly,” she mused, “I will remember that.”

From the other end of the galley, Vanessa watched the goings-on at the far table with an eagle eye. “I think that’s my uniform,” she muttered.

Jodie looked up from her magazine. “What?”

“The one that girl’s wearing. I could swear it’s mine.”

“But they all look the same.”

“To you, maybe. But there’s something about that one…” She trailed off, then added accusingly, “Besides, I’ve never seen her before. She’s new on board. Those uniforms were supposed to be issued to the long-timers first. So how come she’s wearing one?”

“I dunno. Maybe her dad pulled strings like yours did. Anyhow, there’s no point stewing about it. It’s not like you could prove it or anything.”

“Oh, yes I can,” Vanessa’s eyes were firmly locked on the girl on the other side of the room. “And the moment I get the chance, I’m going to.”

“He’s still circling, Dianne,” Winston said, tapping the screen.

She came across and looked over his shoulder. The large blip was about a half mile away, tracing a steady orbit around them. The whale had been doing this without stop since he had reappeared on their equipment.

“There’s no way this is random behavior,” Winston said, checking his watch. “He’s been at it for two hours now.”

At the same time the lab was filled with the sounds of his singing. But there was something strange about the song this time, a plaintive, haunting note almost as if he were calling to someone.

“I don’t understand,” Winston said with a frown. “What’s his sudden interest in ORCA?”

It was a question neither of them could answer.

The rest of the kids had drifted off about their business and only Jason and Brett were left at the table with Neri as she finished her fourth plate of revegiton and sat back with a satisfied sigh.

“Had enough now?” Brett asked, incredulously.

Neri nodded.

“Then let’s get out of here,” Jason said, getting to his feet. They had, he thought, managed to steer a course through rocky waters only with a good deal of luck. Their friends had found Neri a little strange, perhaps, but they had successfully pulled off the charade. Nevertheless, he was keen now to get her away from public scrutiny and off ORCA as soon as possible.

They were out in the corridor heading for the elevators, when he realized they had company. Looking back, he saw Vanessa coming up behind them with Jodie trailing at her heels. Vanessa was watching Neri closely, as though sizing her up.

“Hang on, I want to talk to you,” Vanessa called.

“Yeah, well, we don’t want to talk to you,” Brett replied as they continued on to the elevator well. Jason touched the call sensor on the panel.

“I want to know where you got that uniform,” Vanessa demanded, as they waited.

Neri started to open her mouth but Jason quickly cut her off. “Like that’s any of your business, Vanessa?”

“I happen to think it might be. You don’t mind if I have a closer look?”

Jason moved to keep her at bay. “Yeah, she does as a matter of fact. What is your problem?”

“I want to see the code tag.”

“What are you, the Clothes Police?”

“I’m the owner of a new uniform that’s mysteriously disappeared. And it was exactly the same size as the one she’s wearing.”

Oh, no, Jason thought to himself. God, no--not Vanessa’s uniform. Behind him the elevator doors opened. He edged Neri into it. Vanessa moved to follow, but he and Brett stood firmly in front of the doors to prevent her. Vanessa confronted them.

“I tore the tag on mine getting it out of the wrapping. So let’s have a look at that one.”

Down on Delta level, young Billy Neilson, on his way to a routine service job, pushed the elevator call sensor.

“Buzz off, will you?” Brett chimed in. “It’s not our fault if you go around losing your clothes.”

Then they heard the soft click as the doors closed behind them. Jason made a desperate lunge for the control panel but the elevator was gone, bearing Neri away without them.

“On, no!” Jason cried. He and Brett exchanged a look of alarm, then raced for the next elevator.

At Delta level, Neri stepped out of the elevator and looked around her. She had not meant to become separated from the boys, but now she was, she thought it would give her a chance to look around without them always hurrying her on. She chose a direction at random and wandered off down the corridor.

Jason stopped the elevator at Beta level. Both heads popped out. There was no sign of her.

“She could’ve got off anywhere!” Jason said urgently. “You search here. I’ll go down to the next level.”

Brett jumped out and began to scour the maze of corridors. Down at the next level, Jason was doing the same.

Meanwhile Neri wandered aimlessly, taking in the marvels around her. She meandered along, occasionally stepping into an occupied elevator to change levels. It wasn’t until she started to feel faint that she realized how time was passing. And fortunately, right at that moment, she saw a familiar face. Daggy was coming around a corner just ahead.

“Hey, Neri,” he greeted her, the pleasure on his face obvious.


“So… what’s happening?”

“I feel dry. You have water?”

“Sure. There’s a cooler just down here.” He led her to a drinking fountain. Neri looked at the strange device unsurely.

“Oh, let me,” Daggy hurried to say. He turned the fountain on. Neri smiled with wonder at the jet of water arcing through the air. Then she put her head under it. She did not emerge until she was completely soaked.

“Better now. Thank you,” she smiled to Daggy and continued on along the corridor. Daggy watched her go with his mouth open and a look of complete puzzlement on his face.

Further along, a stifled cry of protest caught Neri’s attention. She looked. In an alcove, she saw Zoe with her back to the wall. Advancing on her were the two large girls, Valma and Valerie.

“Hey, Zo Zo, you little shrimp. We’ve been looking for you,” Valerie said with a smirk.

“Give me a break,” Zoe protested.

“Sure. Which arm?” Valma said, reaching for her arm and twisting it. As Zoe tried to struggle free, she lashed out, hitting her tormentor on the shoulder.

“Get off my case!” Zoe complained.

Neri smiled. She remembered this from the galley. It was how people showed they were friends. She walked up to Valma. She would show that she was a friend, too.

“Get off my case!” she cried cheerfully and punched her in the shoulder. Valma shot across the alcove, hit the back wall at full speed, and losing her footing, slid to the floor. Valerie immediately dropped Zoe’s arm and started to back away warily.

“You are friend, also?” Neri asked, approaching her with a fist already cocked. Valerie took to her heels and fled. Neri watched her go, confused.

“Wow! Stick around,” Zoe said. “You can be my bodyguard any time.”

“No, I must go now,” Neri said, still bewildered. “I must see everything. Good-bye.”

As Neri disappeared, Valma was still picking herself up off the floor.

Riding the elevator to the next level, Neri found herself in a wider corridor with many doors leading off it. There were people in white coats in the rooms beyond and some looked at her questioningly as she passed. She began to feel as if she was not welcome here and was about to turn to leave when she heard something familiar.

It was Charley’s song. And it was coming from the last room. She made her way toward it and looked into the open doorway. It was like a magical place, a cave filled with unknown objects that beeped and shone and gave off lights. And in the air, she could hear Charley’s song clearly, too, calling to her. Irresistibly drawn, she entered. She began to answer Charley, humming reassurance softly under her breath.

Don’t worry. I am well and I will return to you soon.

And then Neri realized that she was not alone. A man and a woman were at the back of the room, watching her curiously. The man she did not know, but the woman she recognized instantly. She began to come over.

“Hello, I’m Dianne Bates. Can I help you?”

It was Mother, and she was even more beautiful than in the good drawing.

“Are you new on ORCA?”

“Yes. Today.”

“Ah, then you shouldn’t be wandering about by yourself. You’ll get lost. Or are you already?”

A voice interrupted from the doorway. “Young lady, do I know you?” Commander Lucas stepped in, looking Neri up and down. “Who is this girl, doctor?”

“She’s new here. I think she’s lost.”

Lucas glared at her ID badge. “Day pass only. Must be a worker. Well, go back to Reception, call your supervisor, find out where you’re assigned, and go there. Don’t let me find you wandering around again.”

He pointed the way and Neri fled. She rode up in the elevator again and found herself finally at a place she recognized, back at the galley. She peered in, looking for the boys. They weren’t there, but Vanessa was, sitting with Jodie.

“Well, well,” Vanessa said, “look who’s here. Why don’t you and I go and have a little chat?”

Neri looked uncertain. “I must find Jason and Brett,” she said. “You have seen them?”

“Yes, I know where they are. In the recreation room. Come on, I’ll show you the way.” She took Neri’s arm and led her off.

A minute later the elevator doors opened again and Jason and Brett emerged.

“Well, I searched everywhere,” Brett said as they headed into the galley. “No sign of her.”

“Me neither. It’s like she disappeared.”

Jodie looked up as they entered. “What are you doing here?” she asked innocently. “Vanessa just said you were in the rec room. She’s taken that girl there to find you.”

“You don’t mean Neri?” Jason stammered.

Jodie nodded.

The boys flew back out the door.

“Where are they?” Neri asked, looking around the empty room.

“They were here a minute ago,” Vanessa lied. “Just wait, they’ll turn up. So, they’re old friends of yours, eh?”

“Yes.” Neri was starting to feel a little nervous.

“Quite a coincidence. You look pretty young for a cleaner. How did you get the job on ORCA?”

“I must go now.”

“Sure. Soon as you’ve told me where exactly you got that uniform.” She began to circle around behind Neri.

“I must go,” she repeated.

“Why?” Vanessa’s hand reached for the back of the tunic. “Unless you have something to hide…” She began to edge the neckband over. A half an inch and she would be able to see the tag.

The boys burst through the door. Jason grabbed Neri and pulled her toward him. “Neri, we’ve been looking everywhere! Come on, time’s wasting!” Jason said urgently.

“Not until you tell me what’s going on!” Vanessa wailed. “That’s my uniform!”

“You’re a very confused person, Vanessa. It’s not yours.”

“Then let me see the tag!”

HELEN’s voice suddenly floated through the air. “Your attention please. Would all day pass holders report to Reception prior to departure from ORCA.”

“That’s you, Neri. Gotta go. Sorry, Vanessa. Right now.”

“Yeah, right now,” Brett echoed as they bundled her out the door.

They managed to get her up to the pontoon before the boat arrived to take the day staff back to shore. She hastily changed back into her dress behind the equipment box.

“It was a good day,” she chirped, handing the uniform to Jason.

“You reckon?” he said flatly.

Neri pointed to the equipment box. “You will hide it there? For when I come again?”


Brett was pointing, agitatedly. “Jace, the boat’s coming in!”

“All right, I’ll hide it! Just go!”

“See you soon,” Neri said in farewell. She slipped off the platform and disappeared under the water.

Jason looked at Brett, exhausted. “She wouldn’t really come back, would she?”

“What do you reckon?”

Jason met his little brother’s steady gaze. Then he put his head in his hands. “Oh, my God,” he moaned. “What have we started?”