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This document is part of the Ocean Girl Archive — Last update: 2009-11-05 — sourcemeta

Source: LiveJournal, DeviantART
Author:Judith “Stormdance” Kenyon
Copyright:Archiving permitted by author

16. A Gift

Dianne was bearding the commander in his lair. “We have the proof. There’s a fault line, and the blasting is disturbing it. I demand a tribunal hearing immediately.”

“We have stopped blasting, Doctor.”

“For how long?”

Hellegren appeared beside her. “Until it is clearly established that our construction work has nothing whatsoever to do with this natural phenomenon.”

“Who do you think you’re kidding? Of course it has!”

“Where is your evidence? Kellar asked from behind them.

The commander waved them off. “Please, all of you. There will be a hearing in due course. In the meantime, Doctor Bates, may I remind you we have a conference to attend on the mainland?”

“Of course. Life goes on.”

“Would you wish to stop it?” Hellegren asked dryly.

“This is serious!” Dianne snapped, “You didn’t feel that earthquake or you’d also be wondering if it was going to be stopped for us.”

Lena had all the screens on in the computer hub. She was sitting in the middle, eating cereal when the rest of the kids came in.

“Big news you said?” Brett greeted her.

“Have you been here all night?” Benny asked.

“Nah. Got up early. Is Neri here?”

“She and Jason are on their way down. Hey Lena, your father’s on board today—he’s up on gamma level ordering people around. In case you wanted to hide out.”

Lena made a face. “Thanks Cass.”

The door opened and Jason and Neri came in. “You find something?” Jason asked immediately.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s a piece of the synchronium.”

“Is good. We have only little time.”

Maps spread across the screens. “HELEN tagged a newspaper article about a bright blue light in the sky.”

“Where was it sighted?” Benny asked.

Lena pulled out the map until the coast came into view. “Along the western plains, somewhere in here. Can you get there? It’s further from the coast than the last one.”

Jason grabbed a terminal and pulled up the shuttle schedule. “I think we can swing it.”

“Great! So we get Kal to figure out the exact spot and we go get it!”

“Kal will not.” Neri said. “He will not come out of spaceship.”

“Still?” Cass asked.

“So we’ll go see him there then.” Brett said.

“You must, Brett. With me and Jason he is still angry.”

“Me? Ok, sure. Lena, want to come? Get out of here for a while?”

“Oh you bet!” Lena said immediately. She plugged in a portable unit to take the data to the island.

They walked across the beach, Brett and Lena, Jason and Neri.

“Kal’s still not talking to you? Since yesterday?”

“Only says, go away.”

“He’s just sulking. He’ll get over it.”

“I hope. I do not understand why he is angry, and he will not tell.”

“No worries Neri, we’ll talk to him.” Brett said.

Lena smiled and bent down to pick up a shell, rubbing the sand off it while she walked.

“You two go ahead.” Jason said, “Kal sure doesn’t want to see us.”

“Ok, see you later.”

Brett and Lena walked to the hatch in the sand. Brett called, “Kal, you in there?”


Brett shrugged. Lena sat with her feet dangling in the hole, grabbed the vine and let herself down.

They found Kal in the lowest section of the ship. They heard him first. He was playing the flute, an eerie series of notes that never quite became a tune.

“That’s pretty.” Lena said. “Hi Kal. We came to see you.”

“We found another landing site. Can you narrow it down for us?” Brett held out the portable computer and wondered why Lena was frowning at him.

“So, Kal useful.”

“You’re important. Nobody else can do it.” Lena said.

“That’s the general area, and here are the time and location of the sighting.”

“I find it.” Kal turned away, studying the display.

Lena hissed, “Brett, be nicer.”

Brett finally realized, and made ‘sorry’ gestures.

“Whisper whisper. Neri and Jason whisper too. All the time secrets.”

“That’s ‘cause they’re worried about you.” Brett said reasonably.

“You’re just jealous that’s all.”


“You want them to like you more than they like each other. It’s just a feeling, everyone gets it. It’s no big deal.”

“Is.” Kal said immediately.

Lena grimaced. “You’re right, it is. Sorry, I shouldn’t have said it like that. What I really mean, it’s not as important as finding the synchronium. If we don’t get all the pieces in time we’re all going to be in trouble.”

Kal thought about that. “Is true.” He said, and turned back with the portable. He zoomed in the map. “Fell here.”

“Somewhere called… Dean’s Gully, whatever that is. Thanks, Kal!”

“Yes, thank you.” Lena said, then, “Hey, can I hang out for a while? I’d love to see the rest of the spaceship, or we could go swimming…”

“You want to stay with me?”

“Just for a while. I have to help Doctor Bates file some stuff this afternoon. And I can’t sleep out here!”

“Why not?” Kal asked like he really didn’t know.

“Because I’m not like you and Neri.”

Kal looked at her for a long minute thinking about that. Lena shrugged. Finally Kal said, “Ok. Stay a while.”

“Cool! Brett…”

“On it. Cass and I can go after the piece with Neri. Jase’ll get you home later.”

This time they didn’t have camels, or anything else. Just meeting Neri on the beach and walking inland. And then walking some more. Cass and Brett had backpacks with snacks and water bottles, and the three of them munched while they walked. Brett and Cass talked about Kal.

“At least he likes Lena. Maybe she can figure out how to get him out of this mood.”

“I hope so. Poor guy, it’s not like he can make new friends with all the UBRI guys all over ORCA. If he’s mad at us, who’s he gonna talk to?”

“Kal is angry because I talk to Jason.” Neri said, pulling her hood farther over her face. The sun was high and hot, and Neri was wearing her ORCA uniform in case there were people in Dean’s Gully.

“You can’t exactly stop talking to people. Kal will just have to deal, that’s what my parents say to me when I get mad at something Morgan does.” Cass shook her empty canteen. “How much longer?”

“About an hour.”

“We’re gonna have to get Neri more water before then. And get me more water before then too.”

Brett laughed at that, but nodded and looked around.

They were walking on a dirt road between fences, way out in the middle of nowhere. Ranch country.

“Let’s try up there.” Brett pointed ahead, where another dirt road met theirs. The trees were bigger there, so there was probably a well.

There was, a pump in front of a low ranch house. Brett gallantly worked the pump. Cass filled their canteens then Neri sat herself under the spout. Cass laughed. “At least your clothes’ll dry quick out here.”

They heard a door shut and looked up. A man in work clothes had come out of the house. “Hello?”

“Ah, sorry. We were thirsty.”

“I can see that.” The man said with a smile. “Where’d you lot spring from?”

“Um, we’re on an excursion from school.” Brett said.

“Geology. Fossils.” Cass added as Neri got up and straightened her clothes, not at all bothered by the wet fabric.

“How’d you get here?”

“Ah, bus to Emu Flat.”

The man’s wife had heard their voices and come outside. She was a pleasant looking woman wearing an apron with stuff sticking out of the pockets. “Well then, you must be tired and hungry.”

Brett and Cass visibly perked up, but Brett said, “We’re ok…”

“Well, you’re in luck, I’ve just made some scones and biscuits. Come on in out of the sun.”


“Thanks! That’d be great!”

“Wonderful. I’m Elsa Cade, this is my husband Doug.”

Doug said, “G’day.”

“Right on through to the kitchen.”

It was a nice house, for being out in the bush. Neri looked in fascination at the pottery knickknacks on the shelves and several colorful paintings. She stopped to study a picture of bright pink flowers. “Beautiful.”

“Yes.” Elsa said, her voice sad, “People always admire that one.”

“Doctor Bates?”

Dianne looked up. A girl smiled at her from the wall screen. “Sallyanne, if you’re looking for Jason I think he’s in the rec room.”

“It’s not that—he’s always complaining about how the commander never tells you about things so—UBRI’s unloading some chemicals on gamma level, and they’ve got pretty scary stickers. You might want to check it out before you go on shore. I gotta go, I’ve got bridge duty with Jason.”

“Thank you, Sallyanne.” Dianne said, surprised. “I appreciate it, I’ll check. Good luck.”

Sallyanne waved and turned off the call.

Winston stood up. “Shall we go?”

They headed up to gamma level, where there were a lot more people than usual. This was where the school rooms were, but with everybody out for holidays there were just a few kids playing video games on the school terminals. And UBRI guys pushing carts full of chemical drums.

Dianne looked them over, then did a double take. That was the symbol for radiation. She grabbed the list from the cart. “What’s this stuff doing here?”

Winston shrugged. “A very wise old saying: ‘Don’t look at me.’”

“Where’s the commander?”

Winston got out of the way.

They found the commander on the bridge. Dianne made sure her voice was loud enough that everyone could hear. “Radioactive heavy-metal isotopes being pushed around this complex on a trolley! Didn’t the safety team have something to say about this? And why wasn’t I informed?”

“I had to make a quick decision; there wasn’t time to consult you.” The commander said like that was normal.

“Is this for the reactor for ORCA City?”

“Yes. A minor glitch in the storage arrangements. Everything will be out of there in the next couple of days. And before you start, all the storage rooms are in use so the safest option I could find was the school section.”

Dianne grimaced. “That’s potentially lethal material. I’m not comfortable having it on ORCA at all, much less this close to residential areas.”

“Your complaint has been noted, Doctor Bates…”

Dianne made a rude sound, which went unheard in the bustle on the bridge. Winston offered, “It is only for a few days.”

Neri looked dubiously at the glass set before her. Seeing the others drink, she tried a sip—then drained her glass.

“Is good!”

“It’s called lemonade.” Brett told her.

Elsa came back with the pitcher and refilled Neri’s glass. “My, you have got a thirst.”


“That’s ok, there’s plenty. So, I thought this was vacation time?”

Cass answered, “It is, but we’re doing a special project. This is really good lemonade. We don’t have it at home; HELEN makes it with powder and it’s nasty.”

“HELEN? Your cook?” Elsa guessed.

Brett laughed. “HELEN’s a computer. We live on ORCA.”

“The underwater city?”

Brett and Cass nodded and got ready to talk about their home when they heard a voice behind them.


A girl stood there, holding the doorframe. She looked about Neri’s age, and her eyes were odd—gray and blank.

“Oh, hi darling. I didn’t think you’d want to come out.”

“Is someone sitting in my chair?” The girl asked.

“Oh, Brett, would you mind?”

Brett moved to another seat and the girl reached out to find the chair back and the edge of the table. Once she knew where they were she sat down gracefully. “Sorry. I’m just used to sitting in the same spot that’s all.”

Neri had been watching. “Why you feel the chair in that way?”

“She’s blind, Neri.”

“Blind?” Neri echoed.

“Ah, Patti has no sight at all, unfortunately.” The girl’s mother said.

“That’s ok. It’s no big secret.” The girl’s voice became rough and clipped, “There was a car accident. I hit the windscreen. I’m blind. End of story.” She grimaced and said more warmly, “So how come you wanted to keep the visitors to yourself? I’m Patti, hi.”

“I’m Cass.”



“Neri. That’s a strange name.”

Neri smiled suddenly. She reached out and gently caught Patti’s wrist, bringing the other girl’s hand to her face. “Cannot see—see this way.”

Patti ran her fingers over Neri’s face and smiled a real smile. “You’re beautiful.”

“People say.” Neri said in a voice that indicated she wasn’t so sure. Cass and Brett laughed.

Elsa had been watching this wonderingly. She jumped in, “These young people are on an excursion. Looking for fossils.”

“Yeah, we heard there’s some great ones around here, um, someplace called Dean’s Gully.”

Patti pointed, “Oh, see that picture up there? That’s Dean’s Gully.”

Cass got up to look. “It looks like a nice place. Who painted it?”

Patti shut down. “No one special.”

Cass and Brett looked at each other, realizing who’d painted the pictures. Elsa said hurriedly, “It’ll be really lovely out there now too.”

“Yeah, with the gum trees in blossom.” Patti said quietly.

“You come with us?” Neri asked, “We would like if you come.”

Patti turned towards her, but Patti’s father had come in in time to hear. “Ah, no. That’s impossible I’m afraid. Patti never goes anywhere without us.”

“We have to be careful you understand.”

There was a short pause, uncomfortable because of Patti’s stormy expression that nobody wanted to comment on. Then Brett said, “Sure, we get it. But we really should get going if we want to get out there and back in time.”

“Stop in on your way back. I’ll feed you again.” Elsa said, smiling. “Guests are rare out here.”

“We will. Thanks Mrs. Cade. It was nice to meet you Patti.”

“Yes, good to meet you. We talk again I hope.’

“I’d like that, Neri. Goodbye.”

They didn’t talk much on the walk out to Dean’s gully, just a few words about how sorry they felt for Patti. Neri didn’t say anything, and seemed deep in thought.

They found the spot, a creek flowing into a small ravine. A big gum tree dripping pink starburst flowers stood over the spot where Kal had marked the landing. The kids poked around, searching. It was hard, because the spot was right on the edge of the creek, and the banks had eroded away. They saw no sign of the capsule.

After an hour Brett said, “It’s no use. Kal must’ve been wrong.”

“No. He is not wrong.”

“Yeah Brett, maybe it’s you that’s wrong.” Cass reached for the locator to check it herself.

Brett pulled away. “No, this is it. Look, coordinates north one, east—whoa!” He missed his footing and slid down the bank, landing with his feet in mud.

“Good one, klutz.”

But Brett had seen something. He reached up and brushed mud away. “Guys! I found it!”

Cass and Neri jumped down next to him. The capsule was buried in mud, visible only from below where the stream had eaten away the bank. Brett pulled it out and it fell open.



“Someone’s been here.”

“UBRI again?” Cass guessed, looking around.

“Can’t be. It’s been buried, it’s been gone a long time.” Brett sighed and sat down. “So now what?”

Neri ran her hands over the inside of the capsule, looking stricken. “Where has it gone?”

“Who knows? It’s not out here, that’s for sure.” Cass took a deep breath, “Ok, maybe someone reported finding it, put it in a museum. That’s what I’d do with it. Now we know what we’re looking for we can have HELEN scan for reports of, I dunno, strange minerals or something.”

They hiked back to the ranch house in heavy gloom. Brett knocked on the door. “We’ve come to say goodbye to Patti.”

“Ah, welcome back. Patti’s in her room, come on in.”

“Thanks.” Cass said and the three of them filed down the narrow hallway.

Patti was sitting on her bed, listening to a music player on headphones. She didn’t hear them coming. Neri smiled, put her finger to her lips, and held out an armful of gum tree flowers.

Patti smiled suddenly and lifted her hands to take them. “Neri. Thanks.”

“For you.”

“Did you find any fossils?”

“Nah, no luck at a…” Cass actually stopped mid-word. The piece of the synchronium was sitting on Patti’s dresser.

Cass took a step towards it and Brett said, “Hey, where did you get that?”

“Don’t! Sorry. I never let anyone touch that. Ever.”

There was a moment when nobody said anything. Then Neri said, “Will you tell me how you found?”

Brett added, “Yeah, we’d better call home anyway, figure out how we’re going to get back tonight.” He shooed Cass out the door, whispering, “let’s let Neri work her magic.”

In the kitchen Elsa greeted them with, “Any chance you three could stay for dinner? It’s so rare Patti has visitors her own age, and she really seems to have taken to you.”

“Wish we could, but we’ll have to hurry to catch the last shuttle as it is.”

“Stay the night?”

“Well…” Brett and Cass looked at each other, weighing propriety against homecooked food.

“You’re welcome to kip in the barn.” Patti’s father said behind them. “We have three cots.”

Unspoken in both parents’ voices was their worry about Patti. She must really be isolating herself. Well, the invitation was certainly sincere. Brett said, “Let me call Mum and ask.”

“There’s not much to tell. I found it a few years ago, by the stream.” Patti held the piece in her lap, arms around it, resting her chin on it. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s pretty, don’t you think?”

“Yes.” Neri chimed.

“I really… well, I just like having it. It smells like the ocean, and it’s so smooth and blue, I can feel the blue even though I can’t see it. Isn’t that stupid?”


“Really?” Patti turned towards Neri, as if trying to see her.

“Really not stupid.”

Patti was stroking the bluegreen surface, the same way Neri would.


“No.” Patti said immediately, tightening her grip.

“Did you explain to her how we really, really need it?” Cass asked when Neri explained.

“No. Not know way to say.” It was evening, and they were outside by the stream where it ran past the back of the house. Neri sat dangling her legs in the water. Brett was playing with the mud by the stream.

“Problems huh? Well at least UBRI haven’t got it. And Patti’s parents invited us to stay the night and we’ve got permission from ORCA.”


“There must be something we can say to her…” Cass tossed a stone into the water.

“I will ask her. When time is right.” Neri said with certainty. She pulled her feet up and brushed water off her legs so she could put her shoes back on.

“Good luck. What’s that supposed to be?”

Brett had rolled the sticky mud into a cartoonish human figure with a tiny body and giant head with a big frown. He added a blob for a nose. “Doctor Hellegren. On a good day!”

Cass laughed.

The elevator door opened. Lena took a deep breath and started straight ahead as her father joined her in the lift.

“What are you doing on board ORCA?”

“I live here.” Lena replied without turning.

“With whom?”

“Doctor Bates.”

Hellegren took a sharp breath.

Lena added, “She made me send you messages. Did you get them?”

“Huh. Daily texts of ‘I’m all right.’ Are hardly informative. You will not be staying here long.”

“There’s nothing you can do about it.”


“I’m on work experience, assisting Dr. Bates with her work and I’ve been registered as a guest of the family.”

“I can easily change all that.” He sounded very confidant.

Lena was getting angry, but she kept her voice calm. “Father, if you don’t leave me alone I will go public with the hidden files I copied from UBRI’s computer. And not just to the commander of ORCA—I’ll tell the global union police force and the UBRI board of directors and anyone else who might be interested. And that’s a promise.”

“You’re bluffing.”

The door opened. Lena stepped out and turned back. “No I’m not.”

The door closed. Lena slumped against the wall, breathing hard.

“Lena? Are you all right?”

Lena jumped. “Doctor Bates. Yes, I’m fine. I just talked to my father.”

“Oh dear.” Winston said from behind Dianne.

“And what did Hellegren have to say?”

“About what you’d expect.” Lena said, falling in between them on the way to the lab. “That he’d take me out of here. I told him if he tried I’d go public with everything I found out about UBRI.”

Winston said, “Probably the best thing you could say, under the circumstances. We have a delicate balance here—we don’t reveal what we know about UBRI, and UBRI doesn’t reveal what they know about our friends in the ocean. Any information getting out would change the whole situation in ways nobody can predict.”

Lena nodded. “I understand. I don’t think he’ll try anything. He values… the project… more than…”

Dianne put her arm around Lena. “I’m sure that in time your father will realize what’s really important.”

Dinner was roast chicken and green beans, both fresh and delicious. Between bites Brett and Cass told the family about living underwater and what their parents did and the ORCA charter.

“So why colonize the oceans? You’ll only pollute them even more.” Doug objected.

“No way. ORCA’s there so we can research ways to solve all the problems. It’s just a big laboratory basically.” Cass said.

“That makes sense. Make sure the people who abused the earth so much out of ignorance don’t do the same in the oceans.”

Patti’s silverware clattered as she tried to cut her meat. Her mother reached over to help but Patti pushed her hands away. “I can manage. So Neri, do you live on ORCA too?”

“I go there often.”

“Sounds wonderful.”

“It is a good place.”

“Out there near the reef…” Elsa said, “I remember I went there once when I was really little. Oh, millions of fish and the coral. So many colors and shapes.”

Patti’s hand jerked and knocked over her glass. “Oh, sorry.”

Her mother grabbed a towel. “It’s ok, I’ll get it.”

“Mum, please don’t fuss.”

Cass said, “Ah, if you’re interested Patti, there’s some information on ORCA we could send you. In Braille I mean. You could come visit.”

“No, that’s ok, thanks. What’s the point of finding out about something if I’m never going to see it?”

“Oh Patti…” her mother sighed.

“I think I’ll go to my room. Good night everyone.” Patti stood up and left, her hand on the wall to guide herself.

Cass shrugged helplessly.

“It isn’t you. Patti’s been like that since the accident.”

An uncomfortable pause, with clinking silverware as everyone finished their food, then Brett said with forced enthusiasm, “That was a great dinner. Since you were nice enough to cook for us, we’ll do the dishes.”

“Thank you Brett, that’s very polite.”

“Yeah, way more than he is at home.” Cass said.


Neri was looking past them, at the picture on the wall.

Patti sat on her bed, without turning the lights on because she didn’t need them. Even though her mother made sure the bulbs always worked. She heard the water running and clattering dishes as people cleaned up the kitchen. She heard her mother laughing at whatever Brett and Cass were saying. She heard her father talking about getting out the camping cots; the screen door slammed and it got quieter. Then light footsteps came down the hall.


“Neri. I can talk?”

“If you want to.” Patti said. The bed creaked as Neri sat down, close. She smelled like clean seaweed.

“I know you hurt.” Neri said quietly.

“They treat me like I have to be wrapped up in cotton wool and then I go and do a thing like that.”

“There was no harm.”

“Except I spoiled the evening. I just wanted to be like a normal person. But I’m not normal, am I?”

Neri smiled. Patti could hear it in her voice. “Is so important to be normal? You are special, I can tell. But I do not think you know it.”

“You sound so gentle. I know you have a lovely face.”

“And these pictures. You made them, yes?”

Patti grimaced. “Mum insists on putting them up. I don’t care one way or another.”

“And you are angry because you cannot make these pictures anymore.”

“Wouldn’t you be? I loved painting, loved it more than anything, I was going to go to art school with my friends, and then suddenly it’s all gone. Why should I bother about anything?”

“Not all gone.” Neri said after a minute. “You see more than you think. See with ears, nose, hands.”

“It’s not the same.”

“No, not the same.” Neri agreed, and they sat in silence for a minute. Then Neri said, “I want to show you something. Tomorrow. Will you come?”

“Sure, of course.”

Sallyanne ran for the lift, bagel in one hand, papers in the other. The door closed. She skidded to a stop. “Missed it!” She took a bite, and took a step out of the flow of people in the hallway. “Hi Benny, you’re up early. Studying again?”

“Always. Bridge duty again?”

“Always.” Sallyanne sighed. So much for the holidays.

Benny waved and followed a bunch of UBRI guys into the school room, where he set himself up at one of the terminals and got to work.

Sallyanne got to the bridge in time to finish her breakfast and stand to attention when Morgan and the commander appeared. The grownups were heading to a conference on the mainland. While they waited for the shuttle the commander gave a pep talk. “Before we return to the conference, a brief reminder to keep on your toes. The routine monitoring of a complex like this is never quite routine. Carry on.”

Morgan nodded. “HELEN, full systems check. Backup confirmation from every post, starting with you Taylor.”

“Ready when you are.” Sallyanne said. From his station Jason smiled at her.

Brett came out of the barn and stretched.

Cass was outside too. “Ah, nice to see the sun first thing in the morning!”

“Good morning you two. Sleep well?” Elsa asked from the house door.

“Yes, thanks.” Brett said and Cass nodded.

“Oh, good. Guess I’d better get some breakfast on, eh? Where’s Neri?”

“I think she’s already up.”

“Probably went for a swim in the creek.”

“Where’s Patti?” Her father demanded. Everyone looked at him. “She’s not in her room and she’s nowhere in the yard!” Doug gave the children an accusing look and bellowed, “Patti!”

“It’s just not like her, she hasn’t been herself lately.” Elsa was instantly worried.

“She was all right ‘til yesterday.” Doug growled.

“Hey…” Cass began, then bit back her annoyance and yelled Patti’s name.

Faintly they heard, “Over here Mum!” from near the creek. They all ran over.

The girls were sitting down by the stream, Patti sitting uncaring in the thick mud. In front of her she was smoothing the mud into shape—a reflection of Neri’s face looked up at her. The real Neri was sitting next to Patti, smeared with mud, her face alight. She looked up.

“She makes my picture.”

On the bridge, they’d actually finished all the drills and checks Morgan could think of. Jason stood up and stretched and looked around the bridge. Dave had a video game loaded in the corner of his screen, where Morgan couldn’t see it. Jason grinned. Sallyanne was reading a familiar-looking site.

“The journal of marine biology? My mom reads that.”

“Yeah.” Sallyanne blushed. “Well I want to get a good internship when we leave ORCA so better read up.”

“You want to be a marine biologist?”

“Yeah. How about you?”

Jason hadn’t really thought about it so he said the first thing that came to mind. “Commander of ORCA.”

“You aim high.”

“Yeah well, Mum’s job isn’t my thing but I want to stay out here, so why not be on top?”

Sallyanne laughed.

Suddenly HELEN’s warning lights came on. “Attention, seismic activity detected. Tremor imminent.”

Jason had time to say, “Oh no.”

The bridge shook. Over the alarms and rattling HELEN said, “Tremor now occurring. Please secure all unsecured objects.”

“Keep your eyes on those monitors!” Morgan yelled. Everyone was clinging to their terminals as the shaking calmed, then started up again.

“Attention. Radiation leak on gamma level. School section, storeroom one-seven west.”

“HELEN, confirm location.”

“Confirmed, gamma level. Bulkheads will now be closed.”

“Must be those canisters Mum was talking about.” Jason said, “Lucky there’s no one down there.”



“He’s in there, I saw him go in.”

Morgan said, “His entry isn’t registered.”

“He didn’t use his card, people were going in and out…”

“HELEN, cancel. There’s someone in there!” Jason barked.

“Negative.’ HELEN said calmly. “All personnel are clear. Fatal contamination level in that section in four minutes twenty-three seconds.”

Benny yelped and jumped up as the tremor rattled through. It calmed, then everything suddenly jolted. In the corner, a canister fell over. Something green and glowing began to drip out. Benny gave it a bugeyed look and ran.

He got out of the classroom in time to see the section bulkhead close. “No! HELEN, open it!”

Benny flashed his card and tugged on the door, with no success.

“We can’t override HELEN unless I notify the commander, and I’m not gonna drag him out of the conference on some wild theory.”

“We gotta go down there.” Jason reached past Morgan and opened a drawer in the wall.

“What are you doing?”

“Taking the daily code. HELEN, send Lena to gamma level. Come on Sallyanne.”

“That’s against orders!” Morgan sputtered, “Get back here!” But she found herself ignored. Everyone else on the bridge was working to control the problems caused by the earthquake, and Jason and Sallyanne were already out the door.”

“Theory is, in a code two emergency this can override anything.” Jason was explaining, out of breath as he and Sallyanne reached the sealed door. Jason flashed the override.

“Please state your requirements.” HELEN said.

“Open the bulkhead door.”

“Negative. Fatal contamination in thirty-two seconds.”

Jason looked around in panic. Where was Lena? She had the best chance to override the door.

“Tell her you’re authorized.”

“HELEN, this is acting first officer Jason Bates. You have my authorization. Open the door!”

A few seconds passed, then the door began to slide open. Benny squeezed himself out. “What’s going on?”

“Anyone else in there?”

“No, close it, close it!”

“HELEN, seal the section!”

The door reversed, closed and locked. Sallyanne collapsed against the wall.

“You all right?” Jason asked Benny.

“Yeah, but something’s leaking in there. Smells bad.”

“It’s radioactive.”

Benny turned white.

“Come on. Let’s get up to medical to get scanned.”

“It’s amazing, it’s so lifelike. I can’t get over it.”

The clay portrait had been carefully carved from the ground and brought inside, and everybody was still gathered around it. Patti was smiling and her blank gray eyes sparkled.

“It’s great, Patti.”

“Not bad at all.”

“Don’t make a fuss.” Patti blushed. “It probably won’t even survive being baked. It’s just river mud.”

Patti’s father put his hands on her shoulders and hugged her. “But tomorrow we’re going to town to get some real modeling clay and armature wire and everything else the store has.”

“And you will make more hand pictures, yes?” Neri asked intently.

“Yes. Lots.” Patti answered.

“Um, we really should get going.” Brett said, herding Cass and Neri towards the door. “To catch our bus.”

“Yeah, thanks for letting us stay, and all the great food and everything.” Cass said.

“Oh, it was our pleasure.” Elsa said.

Doug added, “If you ever come back this way, stop in to see us.” Patti had gone off to her room.

In the front yard Cass and Brett paused to fill their canteens at the pump. It looked like being another hot day. Neri ducked under the water to wet her hair, then wrapped the sheet she used as a sunshade over her shoulders.

“Neri.” Patti said. She was holding out the synchronium piece. “This is yours isn’t it? You need it?”

“Yes. But I no like to take from you.”

“It’s all right. You’ve given me something better.”

Neri took the piece, and passed it to Brett. She hugged Patti, stroked her hands over the girl’s face, her closed eyes. “Thank you.”

Then they left. Patti waved.

A little ways down the road, when they could no longer see the turnoff, Brett burst out, “Did you use the gift? You did, didn’t you?”

Neri was looking down at her hands. “Perhaps. I try to, but I feel nothing. Maybe it only works if there is need.”

“Or maybe it just takes a while!” Brett was optimistic.

Neri turned, grinning her brilliant grin. “Maybe! Now tell me, all land houses like that? Why they have dry moss on ground?”

“Moss?” Brett repeated.

“She means the carpet.”

“Car-pet. Why there? Why not ground?”

“Well Neri, not everybody wants plants and bugs and lizards in their house…”

The resulting explanations lasted all the way to the coast.

Medical had waved a Geiger counter over the three of them, shoved Benny in a decontamination chamber and told Jason and Sallyanne to shower and change, just in case any radioactive particles had gotten on them. But the doctors said this was just a precaution and the three of them were fine. Jason and Sallyanne had been ordered off the bridge by Morgan, so Jason spent the rest of the afternoon helping Lena wrestle with HELEN’s search results. Sallyanne took a nap. She figured she deserved one.

That evening the commander got back, and the two of them were called to the bridge. Jason wasn’t sure if they were going to get a lecture or a medal, especially since his mother and Winston were there. Sallyanne looked like she was expecting the lecture.

The commander was holding a stack of files, the reports on the day. “Acting contrary to orders. Leaving posts without permission. Unofficial use of the daily code. Word on the boy, Doctor?”

From a wall screen the doctor said, “We’ve run several tests. He’s in the clear, and has been released.”

Sallyanne and Jason both twitched slightly, wanting to jump around and cheer but busy standing at attention.

Dave said, “The cleanup team has resealed the broken container and sent all of them back to the mainland pending investigation.”

Dianne muttered, “Where they should’ve gone in the first place.”

The commander continued, “Doctor, can you tell us what would’ve happened to Benny if he’d stayed down there any longer?”

On screen the doctor shook her head. “With an unshielded isotope? A few more minutes could have been fatal.”

The commander nodded and turned back to the two cadets. “There’s a lesson here. In an emergency the rules don’t always fit the case. Something which cadet Clayborn, perhaps, forgot in this case. You two, job well done. Congratulations.”

Released from attention, Sallyanne hugged Jason and they were immediately surrounded by the rest of the bridge crew and Dianne and Winston, all offering congratulations.