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

Author:Peter Hepworth

14. The Dance

Daggy was carrying a box of streamers as he passed Neri and the boys in a corridor. “Hey, we’re starting to set up the recreation room for the rage tonight. You guys want to come and help?”

“Sorry, Dags, can’t,” Jason replied. “We’ve got something else to do.”

“Oh.” He turned his attention to Neri. “Well, I’ll see you there, Neri. Might even get in a dance or two, eh?”

With a show of coolness, he stepped casually back and fell over a bulkhead. He picked himself up and, red-faced, continued on his way.

Jason happily led the way toward the main elevator. At last Neri had agreed to come with them to the island for the day. The boat was waiting above, fueled and ready to go. It would be like old times again.

And then Mom appeared. She wanted Neri to stay to do a few more tests, she said. To Jason’s frustration, Neri agreed.

“You don’t have to do everything she asks, you know,” he said, when Dianne was out of earshot.

Neri looked puzzled. “But she is Mother.”

“Ours, not yours,” Jason pointed out, but when he saw the stung look on her face, he was sorry he’d opened his mouth. “Well, we’ll still go out there, anyway,” he muttered to Brett.

“Maybe I come tomorrow,” Neri said.

“You’ve been saying that for ages,” Jason replied, disgruntled. He and Brett walked on, reluctantly leaving her behind.

“Fish… bird… star… tree…”

Neri sat in a chair in the lab. On her head was a cap that formed a blindfold, with electrodes attached. Dianne sat in front of her, holding up cards with simple pictographs on them. Although she could not see, Neri was right on every occasion. Dianne came over to Winston, who was watching the brain scan.

“How did she do it?” she asked quietly.

Winston shrugged. “I’m not sure, but it appears she’s bouncing some sort of signal through the mask and then receiving it back again. Almost like the echolocation her friend Charley uses.”

“Have we got the results of her blood tests yet?”

“It will be another day or so. I thought it was wiser to send them to the mainland for analysis. If we had them done here, someone might start asking questions.”

“You have more drawings?” Neri called.

“No, Neri,” Dianne said, returning to her. “I think that’s enough for the day. Let’s go home and start getting you ready for the dance.”

“I can go?” She sounded surprised.

“Of course. I’ve been thinking about what Jason said and perhaps he’s right. It’s time for you to have some fun for a change.”

Neri still looked a little doubtful. She knew everyone else would be wearing special clothes.

“You leave that to me,” Dianne smiled. “We’ll knock them dead tonight.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear you’re so enthusiastic about this shindig, Dr. Bates,” Lucas said as he entered, “because I need a couple of chaperones and you and Dr. Seth just volunteered.”

Dianne pulled a face, but Lucas’s attention was already distracted by the sight of Neri in the strange cap with its trailing wires.

“Who’s this?”

“Neri. The girl I mentioned to you.”

“What on earth are you doing to her,” he asked.

“It’s highly technical, Commander, it would take too long to explain,” she said. “Anyway, we’re finished now.”

As he left, Lucas paused in the doorway and looked back at the figure strapped into the odd apparatus. What he saw troubled him.

Back in their cabin, Dianne took several dresses from hangers and held them up against Neri. “I brought these because I imagined there might be occasions I could wear them,” she said wryly. “I must have been crazy. It’s a good thing for you that my grandmother taught me to sew.” She selected a dress, picked up a large pair of scissors, and began to cut.

Jason and Brett sat on the beach, watching Charley as he moved constantly back and forth between the arms of the cove. There was a long silence before Jason finally spoke.

“Let’s face it, the island’s just not the same without her here. It’s all, I dunno, different, somehow. The fun’s gone.” He looked out toward where the whale continued its agitated circling. “I reckon he’s missing her, too,” he added.

Some distance away, out in the ocean, Hellegren finished lowering a high-powered hydrotransmitter into the water behind the UBRI boat. He looked ever to where his team of audio experts were gathered around the sound deck, with the recordings already loaded.

“Very well, turn it on.”

Charley’s song, intermingled with Neri’s, began to ring out through the depths.

On the island, Brett frowned as he saw the whale suddenly breach, then turn out to sea. He nudged Jason. “Hey, look. Where’s he going?”

The both watched, puzzled as he dived and disappeared.

“He’s heading our way!” Hellegren called excitedly, poring over a screen. He turned to the helmsman. “Wait until I give the word and then start to cruise landward, nice and slow. With a bit of luck, he’ll follow us all the way in.”

Dianne circled Neri, examining the dress critically. “Well, the hem’s not perfect, but at least it fits, more or less. Now to tackle the rest of you.”

As she fussed with the hairbrushes and makeup, Neri laughed at the transformation she could see taking place in the mirror.

Dianne smiled. “You know, just between the two of us, I always wanted a daughter,” she confessed. “Not that I don’t love the boys, of course,” she added hastily.

“More than work?” Neri asked, her face suddenly serious.

“Well, of course. What a question. Why do you ask?”

“Because I think sometimes they do not know that.”

Dianne was rattled. At times the girl’s bluntness was breathtaking. And yet she couldn’t deny the seed of truth. Perhaps at times it did appear to the boys that she put her career before them…

A knock on the cabin door interrupted her thoughts. “Hey, we’re back,” Jason called. “Is Neri there?”

“Yes, but we’re going to be a while longer. You two get dressed and go on ahead. We’ll meet you at the dance.”

Jason and Brett exchanged a shrug and went to change.

“Slowly, slowly,” Hellegren warned the helmsman. They were approaching land, and though the whale was still trailing them, they did not want it to take fright and run back to deeper water.

He punched in the UBRI headquarters code on the communicator. Johannson answered.

“We are approximately ninety minutes out from the base and closing,” Hellegren informed him. “Lower the fence and have all personnel standing by in position. No mistakes. This may be the only chance we get.”

ORCA’s recreation room throbbed to the beat of music. On the dance floor, Brett, Froggy, and Zoe bobbed in unison while Jodie came past with an ever-changing series of partners. Even Vanessa, who’d spent most of the evening so far sitting alone, had finally been asked to dance. She now stood in one spot, shuffling self-consciously, while Winston pranced opposite her like a demented grasshopper.

Jason and Lee were chatting with Daggy at the refreshment table when Neri entered with Dianne. Jason turned, saw her, and gaped.

She stood in the doorway, looking around her uncertainly. The dress was familiar--Jason vaguely remembered Mom wearing one very like it--but everything else was different. Her hair, normally an unruly mass of tangled curls, was drawn back and piled upon her head. The ruddy glow of her bronzed skin had been softened, somehow, showing up the green of her eyes and the arch of her high cheekbones. On her feet were a pair of Mom’s heeled shoes, in which she teetered slightly.

Jason crossed the floor and walked up to her. “Neri,” he said in wonderment. “You look like a real girl!”

She smiled. He nodded toward the floor. “Want to dance?”

She let herself be led away as someone turned the music up.

The biology department was silent and there was a faint click as the master key card unlocked the door of the Bates laboratory.

Lucas let it close behind him and turned the lights on. There was something strange going on up here; he felt it in his bones. People breaking in to steal material. That odd experiment with the girl. There was more happening than met the eye, and it was his duty to find out what it was.

He seated himself at the computer terminal and, overriding the code, unlocked their research files. He scanned the list. None of the labels made sense to him. Except one. The girl’s name, wasn’t it?

He tapped in N-E-R-I and entered it.

“He’s in!” Hellegren called. “Raise the fence! Now!”

There was a simultaneous hum from both sides as huge drums began to turn, winding in the cables that supported the fence on either side. As they tautened, they began to lift the fence up out of the water until it formed a solid barrier across the mouth of the bay, blocking it off from the sea beyond. When it clicked into place, it stood ten feet above the waterline and extended below the surface almost to the seafloor.

“Now turn the power on,” Hellegren ordered. In the main laboratory of the UBRI headquarters on the cliffs above, Johannson threw a lever. There was a faint crackle as power surged through the cables and into the mesh of a fence.

On the deck of the boat Hellegren flicked off the whale song and instructed his helmsman to head the vessel into dock. He looked back with satisfaction at the great dark shape beginning to circle in the water behind them.

The sudden silence confused Charley. He had followed Neri’s call all the way to this strange place and now she was not singing anymore. He began to search for a way out. It was only then that he realized he was trapped.

On ORCA the music had slowed to a gentler tempo, and Jason guided Neri carefully around the floor. She moved unsurely, but she was laughing and her eyes shone with pleasure.

And then she thought she heard a faint call from very far away, a barely audible cry of distress.

Jason frowned at the change that came over her face. “Are you all right?” he asked. She didn’t answer. Puzzled, he took her hand again and continued dancing.

A bank of flood lights lit up the bay. Hellegren looked down with satisfaction from the UBRI laboratory above. Johannson and Billy were with him. The whale was beginning to thrash the water with its mighty tail.

“I think he’s going to make a run for it,” Johannson observed.

“Let him try,” replied Hellegren. “He’ll soon change his mind when he touches that fence.”

Charley could see the open sea beyond. He summoned all his strength to give one great cry of anguish.


Then he launched himself toward the barrier.

As the call burst into Neri’s brain, she saw the fence beginning to loom up in front of her eyes. She reeled back with a gasp, tearing free of Jason.

“Neri, what’s the matter?”

“Charley,” she said, in a voice numbed with fear. “I must go to him.”

She could still see the fence as it came closer and closer. And then, Charley touched it.

Neri was flung back by the burning, searing shock, scattering dancing couples as she went. She grabbed at a metal wall to steady herself. As she touched it, sparks shot from her fingers and showered to the floor. Jodie screamed. Froggy dived for cover. In the ensuing mayhem, Neri ran for the door. It took Jason and Brett several moments to recover and run after her. By the time they reached the main elevator the doors had closed and she was on her way out of ORCA.

Neri ran to the edge of the platform, kicked off her shoes, plunged into the water, and headed for the island.

Charley was gone. She stood on the beach at the cove, calling his name, listening desperately for an answer. But none came. Finally, she sank to her knees on the sand and fell silent, staring out to the sea with hollow eyes.

She was still there when the boys arrived at first light the next morning. As they clambered out of the boat, they saw her, a forlorn and bedraggled figure still in the remains of Mom’s dress. They came and sat on each side of her.

“I stayed too long in your word,” she said finally, without looking at them. “I stop hearing Charley. And now I have lost him forever.”

“No, Neri,” Jason said quietly. “We’re going to find him again. And when we do, I swear we’ll help you bring him back home.”