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

Author:Peter Hepworth

12. The Meeting

As they wheeled Dianne through the ORCA corridors toward the infirmary, the boys followed the trolley. Although she still looked pale, she beckoned Jason closer. “You weren’t lying, were you? She really is out there?”

Jason glanced at all the medical staff surrounding them and tried to sound as natural as possible. “Don’t say anything, Mom. You’ve been through a bad time, that’s all. Save your strength.”

“Your son’s right. Dr. Bates,” the chief medical officer agreed. “For the next couple of hours you must do nothing but rest.”

Jason and Brett watched as she was wheeled away into the infirmary.

“Mother will be all right?” Neri asked anxiously, almost before the boys had stepped ashore.

“Yeah, they say she’s gonna be fine,” Jason replied, as he and Brett clambered out of the boat. “They’re just gonna keep her in observation for a few hours to make sure. But it’s only thanks to you, Neri.”

Brett began to interrupted him. She had a volley of questions she wanted answered. Why did Charley have two voices at once? What was Mother doing underwater? Why was she chasing him with another “little arrow”?

As they sat on the beach, Jason and Brett explained all. When they came to the need to replace the broken module on Charley’s tag, Neri appeared troubled.

“Is important?” she asked.

“Well, Mom’s job was hanging on it,” Jason confessed.

“Yeah,” Brett wailed, “and now we’ve blown it, we’ll be thrown off ORCA.”

Neri looked to Jason in disbelief. “You go away? Won’t come back?”

“We really won’t have much choice, Neri,” he answered glumly.

“Then I mend it. You show me how.”

With the aid of a crude diagram drawn in the sand, Jason demonstrated how the old module was released from the tag and a new one clicked into its place. But, he added, it was too late for that now, since Mom had dropped the only one left and it was not lying somewhere out on that vast ocean floor. It could be anywhere, he pointed out hopelessly.

Neri was undaunted. “Charley and I can find it. You go back and care for Mother.”

With that she strode into the sea, plunged in, and disappeared from their sight.

On the return journey, the boys agreed on their strategy. They would play dumb, admit nothing if possible. Perhaps, on recovering, Mom would think Neri was just a hallucination, part of the rapture that had overcome her. As for Winston, well, they would cross that bridge when they came to it. Maybe they could still bluff their way out of this.

Many miles away, Neri plucked the silver object from a rocky outcrop near the seabed and began to carry it up toward Charley, drifting near the surface above.

Dianne was already out of the infirmary when Jason and Brett arrived back at ORCA. They found her in her laboratory, arguing with Jan Slater. Commander Lucas looked on. In the background, Winston was still fiddling with their control panels, vainly trying to raise some sign of response.

As the boys entered, Mom shot them a look so intense that Jason was unnerved. But then she ignored them, turning back to Jan.

“You’ve heard how good our tapes are up to date,” she pleaded. “This is the most important project I’ve ever worked on in my life, Jan. You can’t let them close us down now.”

Jan sympathized and said she would do her best to convince the Board. “But I can’t hold out much hope,” she added. “If only you hadn’t had this major breakdown, things would be different.”

Lucas tapped his watch and told Jan Slater that her boat back to the mainland would be waiting. Jan nodded. “I’m sorry, Dianne,” she said in parting and turned for the door.

And just then, suddenly, all their equipment burst back to life. The sound of whale song erupted from the speakers. The recorders began to spin. On the locator screen, the large blip that was Charley could clearly be seen, with the smaller one moving alongside.

Slater stared, frowning. “How on earth did that happen?”

“There is a wise old saying,” Winston chimed in. “Do not question a miracle, for the truth may be even more unbelievable.”

Dianne looked Jan square in the eye. “Well, looks like you’ll have to change your report now, doesn’t it?”

Jan smiled. “It seems you’re going to be stuck with this lot for a while longer, Commander Lucas.”

And for once, even Lucas managed a slight grin. As Lucas ushered Jan from the lab, Jason and Brett began to follow, wishing to make themselves scarce. But Mom barred their way.

“Oh no, you don’t,” she said, closing the door. “Now it’s time for us to have a long talk about your strange little girlfriend. Sit down.”

Within minutes, Jason sensed they were doomed. Their attempts to look vague or stupid were met with hard looks of disbelief from Mom.

“I want the truth,” she demanded with dangerous calm.

“Where on earth does she come from,” Winston asked, more gently.

Jason made one last-ditch effort. “She’s just a cleaner,” he lied. “We don’t know anything else about her.” But Mom’s reaction was cool and skeptical.

“Oh, really, Jason? I’ll tell you what I know, then.”

She began to count off on her fingers.

“I know she can swim to extraordinary depths at unbelievable speeds without any breathing apparatus. Correct?”

The boys sat silent. Mom tapped another finger.

“Since she managed to lift me to the surface alone without any effort, I’d have to presume she’s unusually strong.”

No reply. Mom touched the third finger, then paused for a moment, as if unsure of voicing it herself.

“And she is the little creature on that screen, isn’t she? She can… communicate with the whale!”

She waited for an answer. When none came, she sighed and crouched so her head was level with theirs. “Boys,” she said quietly, “if you don’t give me the answers, I’ll have to get them another way. One word about this to Lucas and he’ll have half of ORCA out tracking her down. Believe me, it’s the last thing I want to do, but you’ll leave me no choice if you won’t level with me.”

Jason and Brett exchanged a glance. They were trapped. And so, with reluctance, they began to relate the whole sequence of events from the beginning. They told of Neri’s island, though refused to reveal the location. They explained what they had learned of her strange and unclear past, and the childhood accident that led to her long friendship with Charley.

Mom and Winston listened in silence. Only when they had finished did Mom finally speak. “Tomorrow, first thing in the morning, I want you to go to this island and ask her if she’ll come and meet me here.”

Jason opened his mouth, but she cut him short. “Don’t tell me you can’t get her on board, Jason, because you’ve obviously done it before. I just want to talk to her, that’s all.”

“I’ll see what she says. But first, you both have to swear that you won’t tell anyone else about her.”

Mom pointed out that she and Winston had more reason than anybody to keep the secret. “This girl could help put our research miles in front of anyone else in the field. Do you really think we’d want our competition getting wind of what she can do?”

Brett still looked uneasy. “You wouldn’t hurt her at all, would you?”

“Don’t be silly. Of course not.”

“Just go easy on her. Neri’s kinda special.”

Mom put her arm around his shoulders. “She’s more than special, Brett.” Her eyes met Winston’s as she continued. “She’s potentially the most amazing thing biological science has seen this century.”

Neri stood in the lab doorway, wearing the ORCA uniform that had once been Vanessa’s. She was flanked on either side by Jason and Brett. Dianne walked over, a little unsurely, Jason thought, and held out her hand.

“Neri? I’m…”

“Mother.” Neri finished the sentence for her. She took the proffered hand awkwardly and stared closely, as though comparing the paleness of it with the sun-bronzed skin of her own.

Dianne led her across and introduced her to Winston, then placed her in a chair and sat down opposite.

“First of all, I want to thank you for what you did for me yesterday.” Neri just shrugged with a smile. “Secondly, I want to ask for your help. You’re a phenomenon, Neri.”

Neri looked to the boys. “What is phen-omen-on?”

“Something really different,” Jason explained.

“Ultraradical,” Brett added.

“You could be of great assistance to us in out work,” Dianne went on, “but first, we’d like to find out a lot more about you. They’re just routine test. We’d never try to make you do anything you don’t want to. Trust me.”

“Of course I trust,” Neri replied simply. “You are Mother.”

“Then you will help us?”

Neri nodded. And so Dianne set to work.

Jason and Brett insisted on staying to keep a watch on proceedings, but nothing happened that first day to cause them any alarm. Neri was measured, weighed, and had her eyesight and hearing examined. It was during the latter that she suddenly stiffened, and cocked her head to one side, curiously.

“Is something the matter, Neri?” Dianne asked, noticing the movement.

“Charley is calling me. Is worried.”

The room was silent. All the equipment had been switched off so as not to interfere with the high frequency sounds with which Neri was being tested. Dianne nodded to Winston. He walked over and flicked the controls. A low, moaning call issued from the speakers. The large blip hovered near the very edge of the screen. Dianne looked back at Neri.

“You could hear him? Even at that distance?”

“Yes,” said Neri, as though puzzled at the question. “I tell him to go home and wait for me.”

She seemed lost in concentration for a few moments, humming under her breath so softly it could hardly be heard. In response, the blip began to move away, out of range.

Dianne stared at it, awestruck. “If I wasn’t seeing this for myself, Winston,” she said in a whisper, “I’d say it was impossible.”

Winston gave a little smile. “I think this young lady is about to teach us that impossible is a word we scientists should avoid”

At 1730 hours that afternoon Jason called a halt. Neri had to be off ORCA before the other day-pass workers left, he explained. He and Brett escorted her up to the platform.

After she had changed and the uniform was safely stowed, they walked together to the edge. “I come again tomorrow,” she said.

“You don’t have to, you know, Neri,” Jason pointed out, “I only said I’d ask you to come once.”

“Oh, but I want to! Now I can be with you and Brett and Mother, have… family.”

Her eyes glittered like rays of sunlight dancing on waves. “Tomorrow,” she repeated, smiling, and dived into the ocean.

Jason stared after her, bemused, then turned to Brett. “Of all the families you could choose,” he mused, “who the heck would want ours?”

It was late in the evening and Brett was hurrying back to their cabin. He had been air-surfing with Froggy and Zoe. This was a totally illegal activity entailing crawling out onto a grille over the main ventilator shaft and letting the powerful upward draft lift you off your feet. Once airborne, you could hover, spin, even do somersaults. Froggy was too chicken to attempt it himself, but acted as judge of the best performance. Zoe always won.

Anxious to be home in time in case Mom started asking questions, Brett took a shortcut through the biology department. The corridor was in semi-darkness and Brett was just passing the door of Mom’s lab when he heard faint sounds from within. He stopped, paused, then put his ear to the door. Yes. There was the soft shuffle of feet and then a click as though some piece of equipment was being turned on. He knew it couldn’t be Mom or Winston because they’d closed up for the day. Someone else was in the lab, and they had no right to be there. Brett moved away on tiptoe until he was out of earshot and then ran for home.

“If this is one of your jokes, Brett, you’re going to be sorry,” Jason hissed as Mom led them up to the lab floor, the key card in her hand. She unlocked the door and turned on the lights. The room was empty. No sign of life at all. “Honest, Mom!” Brett insisted, as they looked around.

She raised an eyebrow. “The door was locked, and nothing’s missing. So how and why would anyone be in here?”

“I dunno,” he insisted, “but they were.”

She considered him wryly. “I think we’ll put it down to an overactive imagination, Brett. But let’s not have it happen again, hmm?”

Locking the door again, she led the way back to their cabin.

Johannson switched off the latest whale song recording and put it back in its cover. “This one is dated only three weeks ago,” he noted to Hellegren. “Very soon we’ll have caught up to Dr. Bates’s current work. Your contact on ORCA does a good job.”

Hellegren did not answer. He was intent, pouring over a mapping screen, making calculations at the same time. Johannson strolled across and peered over Hellegren’s shoulder. On the screen was a satellite image of the UBRI building and the cliffs leading to the bay below. But a further detail had been computer imposed, a straight line connecting both arms of the bay, sealing it off from the ocean beyond.

“What is this?” Johannson asked.

“An electronic fence,” Hellegren replied calmly, “similar to the sort of the sort of thing some farmers still use to stop cattle from straying. Except this one can be raised or lowered as the need arises. Installation is to begin immediately.”

“Is this to stop something from getting into the bay?”

“It’s to stop things getting out I’m concerned with. Once the net is raised, nothing inside that fence is going to escape back to sea.”

Johannson started to understand. “Not even a whale?” he asked.

Hellegren bared his teeth in a mirthless smile. “Oh, especially not a whale.”