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

Author:Peter Hepworth

16. UBRI

Inside the laboratory, Hellegren examined the results of monitoring on the whale overnight and shook his head.

“We can’t allow this to go on much longer,” he said. “The creature is hardly communicating at all now, and his vital functions are beginning to fail. At this rate, we’ll lose him by the end of the day. I think we had better prepare to insert the probe within the next hour.”

“What will you need?” Johannson asked.

“The boat plus two Zodiac dinghies with divers and crew. Oh, and the helicopter to help herd him toward us.”

“I’ll order them to start standing by.”

As Johannson went to the communicator screen, Hellegren began to prepare the probe. It was a cylindrical device mounted on a long thin needle studded with electrodes. It ended in a sharp, cruel point. Billy came over, looking at it, disturbed.

“Dr. Hellegren, isn’t there some other way? When we started out, you never said anything about this being done?”

“Young man, I agree it is unfortunate. But this animal is leading us toward the very key of his species’ language. The final clues may lie deep in his brain. And whatever the cost, we must try to get that information.”

Jason and his group peered at the UBRI building from behind a boulder, catching their breath. It had been an arduous climb, and more than once Jason had been tempted to heed Froggy’s pleas and use the dirt road that ran from the top of the cliff to the bottom. But the risk of being spotted was too great, he had decided, and they had kept to the shelter of the rocks.

The building was surrounded on all sides by a high wire fence. A thickset uniformed guard stood at the gateway. There was no way they were going to get past him without being challenged.

Froggy pulled a Superscope from the knapsack full of tools he carried on his back. He focused in on the front door of the building. “Uh-oh,” he muttered, “AZ 3000 computerized locking system. Even if we could get to it, overriding the program could be tricky.”

Jason looked back down at the bay below them. He could see the barrier jutting out of the water and knew that Neri was in position somewhere on the other side, waiting. But things weren’t looking promising.

Zoe slid over beside him. “Why don’t we just rush that bozo in the uniform?” she suggested. “There’s four of us and only one of him.”

Jason rolled his eyes. “Crazy idea, Zoe. The guy’s the size of a minibus. Anyway, he’d see us coming a mile off.”

“Jason,” Lee nudged him. A number of men were coming out of the building. Some were in uniform, others in lab coats. Many carried equipment of one kind or another. They paused and spoke to the guard, who joined the group as it started to move off toward the path. “Get set, Froggy, here’s our chance.”

Froggy looked anxious. “Is it too late to change my mind about this?” he asked.

“Yes,” Jason replied.

The group rounded the corner of the building and disappeared. “All right, now!” They ran forward, crouched low, passed through the gate, and made it safely to the front door.

While the others kept watch, Froggy pored over the electronic lock and then began to fiddle with it.

On one arm of the bay below, Daggy and Jodie began to make their way into a mangrove swamp. Daggy was armed with a laser cutter and pocket communicator. Jodie with a hairbrush, nail file, and lipstick, which she was using up with the aid of a hand mirror.

“Why are you bothering?” Daggy asked.

“You never know who we could meet,” she replied.

“In a swamp?” Daggy shook his head incredulously as they trudged on.

The bush on the other side was dense and scrubby. “You’ve got us lost,” Brett said accusingly. “Why did I have to be stuck with you?”

“We’re not lost, we just don’t know where we are,” Vanessa retorted. “And don’t think I like your company, either, you little jerk.”

“Don’t call me a jerk, you dipstick!” The insults continued to fly as they floundered through the undergrowth.

“Come on, Froggy, come on,” Jason pleaded.

“This isn’t easy,” Froggy pointed out. He had removed a plate from the side of the lock and was busy tampering with the circuitry within. “You’ll just have to be patient.” The others continued to keep watch, holding their breath.

“The boys have disappeared,” Dianne said to Winston as he arrived at the lab. “Some other kids, too, it seems. They’re just working out exactly who.” She was trying to keep her voice calm, but Winston was aware of the tension in it.

“But where would they have gone?”

“I’m sure it’s something to do with Neri,” she replied, then added bitterly, “So, of course, they wouldn’t confide in me.” Suddenly her emotions spilled over. “Am I that big of a risk? Do they actually believe she’s just a specimen to me, that I don’t really care about her?”

Winston came over and sat beside her. “I think that is the very question you have to ask yourself right now,” he asked quietly.

“What do you mean?”

“I have given the matter some thought. We cannot prevent Commander Lucas from informing his superiors about Neri. But all the evidence of her powers--even the proof that she actually exists--is in those files over there.”

He nodded toward the computer. It took Dianne a few moments to realize what Winston was getting at. When she did, she stared at him in disbelief.

“Are you suggesting we destroy our own research? As a scientist, I couldn’t do that.”

“As a scientist, no. It would mean concealing the greatest discovery of your career. But as the person that girl trusts and thinks of as a mother, you must. To protect her from the rest of the world.”

She put her head in her hands. “Oh, Winston, what am I supposed to do?”

“I am afraid,” he replied softly, “that is something only you can decide.”

Froggy punched the air in jubilation as the door slid open with a soft hiss. Jason led the way as they slipped furtively inside.

They found themselves passing a series of empty laboratories. Clearly, the people who worked in them had been part of the group they saw departing earlier. But they could hear the muffled sound of voices coming from behind one door at the end of the corridor.

Jason cautiously edged up to it, the rest flattening themselves against the wall behind him. He reached for the door handle and slid it open an inch. Then he put his eye to the crack.

A tall man with silver hair was talking to half a dozen others. He was referring to a thin, spiked metal object on the bench in front of him.

“Remember, it must be driven all the way home in one thrust. And artificial stimulus must begin immediately.”

Jason looked around the room. It was a large laboratory, much bigger and better equipped than any of the others they had passed. He felt a shock of recognition as he saw Billy Neilson, standing a bit apart from the others, but that was quickly forgotten when his eye fell on what lay beyond. In one corner of the room, a huge power plant hummed. Cables leading from it trailed across the floor and out a side door toward the cliff. They had found the power source for the fence.

At that moment, there was the clatter of a helicopter passing overhead. Hellegren glanced at his watch.

“Well, gentlemen,” he said, “it appears the time has come. Only Johannson need stay here to keep an eye on the monitors. All the rest of the staff are already in position. Shall we join them?”

Carrying the metal object, the men began to come toward the door. Jason pulled his head back and quickly indicated to the others to get out of sight. They scattered down the corridor, looking for somewhere to hide. Zoe slid a door open. It was a cleaner’s cupboard. They piled in and got the door shut just as they heard the party emerging from the laboratory. Sitting in the dark, the kids listened to them pass and head out through the main door. Then they began to make plans.

On ORCA, Dianne sat in front of the computer screen, looking at the files she had called up. There they were, all the records they had ever made that contained any information about Neri. One jab of a finger and they would be no more.

She looked across to Winston. “This is your work, too. Are you sure you want to do this?”

Winston nodded. Dianne sighed and pressed the delete button. “Now I just want my kids back safe and sound,” she muttered. “All three of them.”

Neri lay low in the water on the far side of the fence, watching the growing activity inside with concern. Men had been gathering, more and more of them. Boats had been put in the water. And now, a helicopter was hovering overhead. She could not hear Charley’s calls anymore, just weak, low babbles of fear. What was happening? And where were her friends?

In the mangrove swamp, Jodie lost her footing, grabbed Daggy, and they both sprawled face first into the murky, brackish water. Jodie came up spluttering and wailing. “My hair! My makeup! It’s all ruined!”

Daggy looked at her, critically. “Actually, you know, I think you look better without all that paint on you.”

“Do you?” Jodie regarded him in turn. “Well, now you mention it, you don’t look too bad yourself messed up a bit. Sort of rugged in a daggy kind of way.”

“Yeah? That’s the first time a girl’s ever said that to me.” But then he realized she wasn’t listening. She was looking at something over his shoulder.

He turned and saw a thick metal stanchion driven into the ground. Connected to it was the end of the electric fence, extending out toward the bay.

“Cables!” on the other side of the bay, Brett and Vanessa shouted simultaneously and ran over to where the thick insulated pipes were snaking along the ground.

“It’s easy from here,” Brett crowed. “Just follow them toward the sea and they’ll lead us right to the fence!”

“Don’t you think I figured that out for myself, Einstein?” Vanessa scoffed. They hurried off, following the trail, still arguing over which of them had seen it first.

In the UBRI laboratory, Johannson was watching the monitors when he became aware of the little figure standing in the doorway. He turned to see Zoe, smiling at him cheekily. “Who the devil are you? And how did you get in here?” he demanded, moving toward her. Zoe let him approach and then darted back out the door. Johannson hurried after her. He got out into the corridor just in time to see her run into the cleaner’s closet and slam the door. He walked steadily up to it and pulled it open. The light wasn’t working, but in the semidarkness, he could make out the shoulder of an ORCA uniform jacket behind some boxes at the far side of the little room. He went over and grabbed it, only to find it was empty, propped on the back of a chair. Zoe suddenly appeared behind him. “Sucker!” she cried as she dashed back out the door.

Jason and the others, running from the lab opposite, dragged the door shut. Lee started to wedge a broken broomstick between the handle and the door jamb, sealing it shut, as Johannson made futile efforts to pull it open again from inside.

“We’ll finish this,” Jason said to Froggy. “You go and work out how to turn that power plant off.” Froggy and Zoe headed back to the main laboratory.

They walked in the door and stopped aghast. It was not empty, as they had expected. Billy Neilson stood between them and the power plant, frowning, alerted by the ruckus outside.

“Hey, I know you. You’re ORCA kids. What do you think you’re up to?”

To Zoe’s astonishment, Froggy took a couple of steps forward, beginning to roll up his sleeves. “We’re here to set that whale loose, pal. And if you try to stop us, I’m going to have to spread you all over that wall.”

“Froggy!” Zoe exclaimed, impressed.

Jason and Lee came running in, having secured the cupboard door. But Billy was already stepping aside without an argument.

“I’m not going to stop you,” he said. “The reason I stayed behind is because I didn’t want to be part of what they’re going to do to him. I might be a thief, but I draw the line somewhere.”

They hesitated for a second.

“Well, come on, hurry!” Billy urged. “Once they get that probe in, he’s done for. So make it fast!”

“What controls power to the net?” Jason asked.

Billy pointed. “Red button on the left.”

Froggy got to it first and hit it. With a whine, the power plant rapidly wound down and died.

Jason pulled out his pocket communicator and held it to his mouth. “Are you guys there?” There were two replied. “Now!” Jason yelled. “Cut the fence now!”

On both sides of the bay, laser cutters began to slice through the main cables like butter.

The combined UBRI forces had managed to corner Charley. With Zodiac dinghies on either side and the helicopter above, the already weakened whale had run out of fight. Hellegren was moving in on the main boat, with the probe in readiness.

Neri watched, powerless to stop it. No, no, no.

Suddenly, Hellegren heard the report as the cables snapped, sending a sound like a cannon shot echoing across the water. For a moment, the fence seemed to hover in place. Then with a groan of twisting metal it crashed into the sea and sank.

On either side of the bay, the two groups danced jigs of triumphant jubilation. Daggy and Jodie threw their arms around each other.

“I did something right!” Daggy yelled. “I’m not just a dag anymore!”

Vanessa even hugged Brett until they both realized what they were doing and quickly jumped apart.

“Let’s just forget that ever happened,” Brett said stiffly.

Here, Charley, Neri called. I am here. Come to me now.

With a last burst of effort, the whale suddenly made a charge. Scattering the surrounding boats like toys, it cleared a path and drove through it, racing for the mouth of the bay. Neri came to meet him and then turned, guiding him out toward deeper water.

The UBRI vessels, in total disarray, had no chance of attempting pursuit. Even the helicopter, which followed for a short distance, quickly gave up the chase as futile.

Neri and Charley, side by side, dived together, sliding beneath the surface and heading for the open sea.