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THE NEPTUNE PROMISE

Chapter One

The Neptune Promise

Coming this fall!

Today the waters of the Queen Charlotte Strait are so rough and cloudy from churned up sediment, I can only see a few feet ahead of me. I hate days when I can't see where I'm going, and there have been too many of those recently. Through the murky green water, I can barely make out Mariah's sleek gray and white body as she swims beside me. Her half-grown calf Tisi stays near her.

:I thought it was supposed to be calm for our patrol today,: Ree grumbles as she kicks along on my other side. :We won't see sharks or boats until we're right on top of them.:

:That's why our dolphins stay so close. At least they can sense what's out there,: Tobin says.

I am grateful that the dolphins swim in a tight formation around us. We definitely don't want to blunder within sonar range of any boats. The Canadian government doesn't know about our secret colony, and we want to keep it that way. Safety Harbor is full of kids who have been genetically engineered to live in the sea, and Canada, like most nations around the world, has strong laws against genetic engineering. Most people see us as freaks or abominations.

Laki, one of several dolphins scouting ahead of our patrol, arrows up to me, sawing and whistling in her excitement. My belly tightens as I order the others to halt. Are we about to run into trouble? Our mission on patrol is to keep an eye out for any potential threats to our colony.

From Laki I pick up a clear visual image of a kayak and Toshi, a First Nation girl I know, striking the water with her paddle again and again.

:the paddler makes the signal she wishes you to come and talk,: Mariah relays to me moments later.

The other members of my patrol gather around me. :I'd like to go see what Toshi wants,: I tell them.

:Do you think that's a good idea?: Lena asks, tugging nervously at one of her long, dark braids.

:The Kwawaka'wakw gave us a good tip about that warship patrolling Blackfish Sound last week,: Tobin points out, :and their other tips have been helpful, too.:

Since Mariah and I rescued two young Kwawaka'wakw children we found adrift in a canoe several months ago, we've established a wary alliance with our closest neighbors, a small First Nation village on Johnson Island. The Kwawaka'wakw, like us, aren't supposed to living in the Queen Charlotte Strait. We let them know when we come across schools of salmon and lingcod, and they warn us when they spot Canadian vessels or Marine Guard ships from our former home, the Western Collective, prowling the Strait.

:I know you haven't met her yet,: I tell Lena, :but I can promise you Toshi isn't a threat. If it makes you feel more comfortable, I will scan her thoughts before we surface.:

Unlike most Neptune kids who can only read thoughts sent directly to them, I can read people's surface minds. I don't, though, to unless the safety of my companions is at stake.

:All right,: Lena says, and I sense her nervousness easing a little.

I tell Mariah we all need tows, and our dolphin partners rush to find us. After Sokya flashes up beside me, she rolls over on her back so that I can't grab hold of her dorsal fin. Mariah's youngest daughter, Sokya is almost like a sister to me—one with plenty of attitude.

:We've no time for your tricks right now,: I tell her sternly.

:say 'please,': she counters. I recently spent an hour trying to explain to her the concept of "please" and "thank you." Dolphins find human courtesy unnecessary and funny.

:Sokya, please, will you roll over and present your dorsal,: I say, fighting to hold on to my temper.

:thank you for asking nicely,: she says, her glee evident in her mental voice, and she finally rolls over and lets me take hold of her fin.

:Check in when you're ready,: I tell my patrol since I can't see them all through the hazy water.

Lena, Tobin, and Ree all promptly let me know they're prepared to be towed.

:Dai, what about you and Ton? Are you guys all set back there?: Usually I assign Dai to the most dangerous point or sweep positions with his dolphin because he's lived in the ocean longer than any of us.

:We've been ready for the past two minutes,: comes Dai's impatient response.

So much for listening to my orders. I sigh and concentrate on not sending that retort. Instead I say, :K, everyone, let's get going.:

I tighten my grip on her dorsal, and moments later, Sokya pulls me through the cloudy sea far faster than I can swim on my own. It's unsettling to move so quickly and see nothing but green murk in front of me, but I have to trust that Sokya's ability to echolocate will keep us from smashing into something. To distract myself, I reach out on a private send to Dai.

:Are you okay?: I ask him.

Dai is often moody. But during the past two weeks, he's been so withdrawn, he's hardly spoken to anyone at Safety Harbor, including me or the old friends he grew up with at Atlantia.

:I'm fine.:

:You know if you ever want to talk, my door is always open.:

:Nere, there aren't any doors at Safety Harbor,: he points out dryly. :We live in a network of coves and sea caves.:

:You know what I mean,: I say, allowing some of the worry and exasperation I'm feeling to creep into my mental voice.

:I do know what you mean,: he says after a few moments, his tone warmer. :I appreciate your worrying about me, but I promise you don't need to.:

Before I cut off the send, I sense he's keeping his mind tightly shielded. Something is definitely troubling Dai, and it's something he doesn't want me to know about, which makes me worry about him all the more. I'm sure he heard the report that a Sea Ranger patrol spotted a triangular silver sub only fifteen miles from Safety Harbor last week, and there's only one person we know who pilots a sub like that... Dai's father.

A sharp, rhythmic slapping sound fills my ears, and I have to focus on patrol business. Reaching out with my telepathy, I find Toshi's mind at once. She's upset, and in her thoughts I catch a glimpse of a young whale terribly tangled in a net.

:Stay down here,: I order my patrol. :It is Toshi, and I think I know what she wants, but I'll tell you in a few minutes.:

Swiftly I kick to the surface and breathe out the water in my lungs so I can talk aloud, landliver style. Even though I've seen it before, I still admire Toshi's handsome kayak. She built it with her father from seal skin and cedar wood. A slim, pretty girl with big dark eyes, usually Toshi is all smiles, but today she looks frantic.

"Hey, Toshi, what's up?"

"Oh, Nere," she bursts out the moment she spots me. "I'm so glad you've come. There's a humpback calf badly tangled in a fishing net in the big cove on the southern side of Johnson Island. We've tried to help, but the baby's mother is too frantic to let us get close, and the rest of its pod won't leave it. Two Russian whalers are working the Strait, and we're afraid they'll catch and kill the whole pod if the whales don't leave soon. I thought you might have more luck getting close enough to cut that net off."

"We can try," I say as I start entering Johnson Island into the GPS on my wrist computer. "How's your little sister?"

"Still getting into plenty of trouble," Toshi replies wryly, "but at least she hasn't launched any canoes by herself recently. You go on, and I'll catch up with you when I can."

The GPS indicates that the island sits five miles to the south of here. Carefully I take a bearing with my compass, too. I love the Broughton Archipelago, but these waters are full of small rocky, tree-covered islands that all look the same, which doesn't make navigating around here any easier.

After sending Toshi a final wave, I hurry down to my patrol and tell them about the entangled whale. I'm not surprised when everyone, including Dai and the dolphins, promptly agree that we should try to help. After we set off again, I discuss the situation with Mariah on a private telepathic send.

:Can you actually talk to the whales for us and tell them we want to help?: I ask her. Even baby humpbacks can be the size of a big pick up, and I'm worried that a frightened calf could easily hurt or crush us. If its mother got upset with us, the situation could become a hundred times more dangerous.

:we cannot talk the way you and I talk now, but I think the old ones will sense you want to help,: she replies calmly.

:I hope you're right.: While saving whales is not officially part of my job as patrol leader, keeping my Sea Rangers alive is. Still, I can't just swim away and leave a pod of humpbacks to the mercy of Russian whalers.

When the dolphins are sure there are no boats nearby, we surface to make better time. Skimming over the swells, our bodies create less drag for the dolphins. The sky has a strange yellowish tinge to it from the terrible forest fires burning inland. Today's hot July winds must be fanning their flames.

Through a break in the islands I catch a glimpse of the rugged coastal mountains on the Canadian mainland rising in steep gray blue layers, their southern portion shrouded in gray smoke. Even here in the Northwest, each summer is hotter and dryer than the summer before it. Sometimes I wonder if there will be anything left alive before we find an effective way to stop global warming.

I'm distracted from my gloomy thoughts when a pod of curious Risso's dolphins join us. Clearly they have never seen dolphins towing humans before, and they swim all around us in great excitement. Tisi joins some of the younger dolphins as they leap and play in the waves. I laugh when the calves startle a flock of gray gulls resting on the waves and send the disgruntled birds flying.

Forty minutes later, we reach Johnson Island. The moment we round its southeastern tip, I hear the whales. Male humpbacks are famous for the songs they sing at mating time, but females are capable of plenty of vocalizations, too, and right now the waters of full of their distressed bass groans and grunts.

When we reach the mouth of the big cove, three kayaks float nearby. As we draw closer, I sense the Kwawaka'wakw men in the kayaks are relieved and pleased to see us. Still, I tell the rest of my patrol to dive and remain where it's safer for us under the waves.

:Please find the calf,: I ask Sokya and Mariah, :but be careful of the mothers. They sound really upset.:

:we are always careful,: Mariah reassures me, and the dolphins go racing toward the whales.

I swim up to the closest kayak. Toshi's father Tenuk, his face weathered from fifty years of wrestling a living from these waters, raises a hand in greeting.

"I'm glad Toshi found you, fish girl. There's the calf behind its mother."

A small whale breaks the surface, thrashing wildly. I wince. A big net is wrapped completely over its head and flukes.

"The net must be caught on the bottom," Tenuk adds hurriedly. "The calf has to fight to reach the surface to breathe. I don't think it has much time left before it drowns."

"How many whales are there?"

"As near as we can tell, there are four mothers and three calves swimming about beside the one that's entangled. We tried to get in close to cut that net, but every time we paddled near the calf, the mother got aggressive. She almost smashed our boats last time."

As I study the churning waves created by the agitated whales, my mouth goes dry. "We'll do what we can. Let's hope the dolphins can convince them that we're just here to help."

I nod to Tenuk and slip under the water again. At least the visibility on this windward side of the island is considerably better than it was out in the Strait. I can see twenty feet ahead of me now.

:a young female is caught in the net,: Sokya reports in, her mental voice filled with worry. :a cable from the net is snagged on a rock. the little one is very tired. soon she will drown if we do not free her.:

:We have to get in close and start cutting that net, but will her mom let us? She almost smashed the Kwawaka'wakws' boats. I really don't want her smashing us.:

Mariah streaks up to me, Tisi right at her side. :just two of you should approach the calf until her mother understands you mean no harm. if she allows it, then more of you can come.:

:All right.: I turn to my patrol and outline Mariah's plan to the others. When I finish, I look at Dai.

:Will you come with me? I'm not going to order you, but you're the strongest member of this patrol and our fastest swimmer.:

:Which means I can get out of there faster if Mama whale gets mad at us,: Dai says with some of his old arrogance. :Yeah, I'll do it.:

I think I like cocky Dai better than remote Dai, but it's a tough call some days.

:I swim fast, too,: Tobin speaks up, his green eyes full of his concern for me. :Patrol leaders don't always have to assign themselves the most dangerous job, you know.:

I pause for a moment to make sure my choice is sound. :I swim quickly, my dolphin handling skills are better than yours, and I'm a stronger telepath which may help me communicate with the whales. Dai and I are the best choices for this job.: I'm afraid my tone is curt, but there's no time to argue if we want to save that calf.

:Are you really going to try talking to those whales?: Lena asks.

:It can't hurt to try,: I reply. :If the mother does let us help the calf, we all may have to pitch in to cut that net, so please be ready.:

I call Sokya, and she appears by my side. :Stay close and be ready to tow me out of here if that mother gets mad at us.:

:I'm much faster than a whale,: Sokya says smugly.

:I hope you don't have to prove that in the next few minutes,: I say, my stomach starting to twist.

:Good luck,: Ree and the others call after us as Dai and I kick closer to the entangled calf.

Suddenly, a big whale appears out of the murk. Its head is HUGE and crusted with barnacles. My heart races as the mammoth creature surges past us. Moments later, I'm spun upside down.


Chapter Two

All I can see are silver bubbles as I fight crazy currents and try to get my bearings again. We must have gotten hit by the slipstream created by the whale's passage and its massive tail. I strain my eyes, afraid more upset mother whales are bearing down on us. For now, no more of them appear out of the cloudy green water.

:Whoa, there was some serious power there,: Dai says, sounding much less cocky all of a sudden. :You all right?:

:Yeah, but I feel like I just got rolled by a killer wave,: I say, still breathing hard.

Mariah swims up on the other side of us. :I've tried to tell the old one we mean her calf no harm, but she is scared and very angry. you must go slowly, now.:

Sokya leads us closer to the calf. My ears fill with the groans and creaking vocalizations of the agitated mothers. Occasionally I hear a high pitched squeal from the frightened calf.

A huge, dark shape looms out of the gloom again, and a whale blocks our way. My whole body vibrates from the sound of her bass groan of warning. I swallow hard as I stare at her massive head. When you're close to a whale in the water, you realize just how enormous they are, and how puny we are.

I take in a deep breath. My heart pounding, I edge closer and hover where she can see me. Her pupil narrows as she studies me. I try to broadcast feelings of calm. I even send her an image of us cutting the net and setting her calf free, hoping she might be able to read a visual message from me the way my own dolphins can.

With another low grumble, slowly she shifts out of our way. Did she receive my image and understand it? I feel her watching our every move. When Sokya and Ton dart toward the calf, the whale groans again and blocks their way with her head.

:I think she wants you to go on without us,: Mariah says.

So much for having Sokya there as my emergency ride.

:I will come quickly if you need me,: she assures me.

:Right,: I say, trying to sound more confident than I feel. I glance at Dai. His face is pale but he stays right at my side as we swim slowly toward the calf. I can see her now, engulfed in the folds of the heavy black net and straining to keep her head near the surface. A cable stretches from the underside of the net and disappears into the dark waters below.

:See if you can free that cable,: I say to Dai, :and I'll work on the net.:

:All right. Be careful,: he says. With a flick of his travel fins, he dives for the bottom.

My heart lurches when I stare into the eye of the frantic calf. Even without using my telepathy I can sense she's hurting and terrified.

:Sweetheart, we're here to help.: Gently I touch her side and try to broadcast feelings of calm and reassurance, but it's hard not to feel overwhelmed. She's so tangled in black strands, I can't decide which part to cut first. I start with a line that seems to be holding the top part of the net together. The rope is thick, but my dive knife is sharp, and soon the line parts. The net relaxes a little, but the next line I really need to cut runs within a foot of the calf's eye. I move cautiously towards her head.

When I reach out with my knife, the mother lunges toward me, and I freeze. She could crush me in a heartbeat against her baby. I stare at her, willing her to understand that I have to do this. Grumbling, she backs off again. My hands are shaking as I set to work sawing through the second line. The moment the last strand parts, several feet of net fall away from her, and the calf manages to fight her way to the surface to breathe. One fluke, her back and her tail remain tangled in the section weighted down by the cable.

:How's it going down there?: I ask Dai.

:She's putting too much tension on the cable for me to be able to shift it,: he replies, his mental tone strained. :She needs to raise her head and lower her back.:

I gaze at the frightened calf. How can I possibly get her to raise her head? I bow and raise my head and shoulders, hoping she might mimic me the way the dolphins do, but she just stares at me helplessly.

Then I remember the time our pod played with some humpback calves during our long journey from the Southern Sector to Safety Harbor. Several times the playful calves tried to copy the dolphins' spins and rolls.

:Hey, Sokya and Mariah, can you come a little closer and bob your heads where she can see you?:

Moments later, all three of us are bobbing and ducking like crazy. The calf watches us, and I imagine how puzzled she must feel. I try sending her a visual image of her raising her head. Then, suddenly, she does it!

:You're brilliant, sweetheart,: I call out to her, even though I know she can't understand my words. But I hope she'll sense the warm feelings I'm trying to beam at her.

:That helped,: Dai says, :but it's still not free. Get her to do it again.:

:Are you all right down there?: I just picked up a flash of pain from Dai, but then he closed his mind to me.

:I'm fine,: he says tightly. :Just get her to move again.:

I dip my head and shoulders, and again the calf tries to follow me.

:Got it,: Dai cries.

Moments later, the calf struggles to the surface and takes a long breath. She's still tangled in the net, but at least she's not in immediate danger of suffocating anymore. I'm relieved when she doesn't try to swim away.

Dai appears beside me and eyes the layers of net still wrapped around her. :Guess we have some more work to do.:

I glance at him, but he appears to be okay. Together the two of us begin to pull and cut sections of the net away from the calf. It's such slow going that after a few minutes, I reach out to Mariah.

:Please see if the mother will let the others join us now. This will go much faster if the whole patrol can help.:

As Mariah flashes away, I ask Tobin and the rest to follow her back to the calf. In the meantime, I stare at the big mama whale hovering nearby and send her an image of the six of us working carefully to set her baby free. I wince when I see a terrible, deep, round scar high on the mother's side. It looks like someone harpooned her. No wonder she doesn't trust humans and our boats.

When Mariah returns with the rest of the patrol clustered behind her, the female makes a high crooning noise and actually retreats several feet. I take that as an encouraging sign and wave my friends forward. Once the six of us set to work, we make quick progress. The dolphins help, pulling and tugging at portions of the net when we ask them. Soon half of the net hangs below the calf. I worry she might bolt before we're done, but she seems to understand we are helping her.

Finally, when Tobin cuts through a line wrapped around the baby's belly, the whole net slides away from her and my friends cheer. I ask the dolphins to drag the net to shore where the Kwawaka'wakw will likely recycle parts of it and safely dispose of the rest.

The calf flicks its tail once as if to make sure it really is free and then races to its mother. My patrol gathers around me, and we watch the mother and calf nuzzle each other so tenderly, my throat tightens up. Then the calf begins to nurse.

Sunny, who loves photography and art, snaps a couple of pictures with her underwater camera.

:I guess we're done here,: I tell my friends.

:The calf is bleeding from where the lines cut into her skin,: Tobin says, his green eyes worried. :I hope orcas don't get her.:

:At least she's with a loyal pod,: I point out. :The other mothers wouldn't leave her. Hopefully they'll keep looking after her while she heals.: I lead the others toward the mouth of the cove, but I pause when three adult whales appear out of the cloudy water, facing us. With slow majesty, they lower their heads and emit crooning sounds.

:I think they're trying to thank you,: Lena says in hushed tones.

:I think they're trying to thank us,: I reply.

We raise our hands and wave, Sunny takes another picture with her camera, and the mothers swim away. I check in with Hemasaka before we leave the cove. I grin when I see Tsukwani is there now, too.

"The calf is free and nursing now," I tell them, "but the mother has a terrible, deep, round scar on her side."

"If she was harpooned once, that would explain why she wouldn't let us in close," Hemasaka says. "I've freed two entangled humpbacks that clearly wanted our help, but this big lady wasn't letting anywhere near her baby."

"I wish we could be sure they'll stay away from those whalers," I say.

"We'll keep an eye on them, and if they turn south, we'll bring out a power boat and herd them north," Tsukwani assures me.

"You and your friends did a good work today, fish girl," Hemasaka says with a smile.

Warmed by his words, I dive to share them with my friends. I blink when I realize Tobin, who is a medic, is busy bandaging Dai's hands. Ton, Dai's big dolphin, hovers nearby.

:Oh, Dai, what happened?: With a guilty start, I remember his flash of pain before he blocked me.

Dai just shrugs and looks away.

:That cable was sharp and he had to grip it pretty hard to move it,: Tobin answers for him. :It shredded the skin of his palms.:

I stare at the bandages that cover his hands now. :You should have told me you were hurt,: I say to Dai. So much for being aware of the welfare of everyone on my patrol.

:At the time you were a little occupied talking to a large, upset whale,: Dai counters.

:Vival would say this is what you get for not wearing your gloves,: Lena teases him.

Vival is the head of our Sea Ranger program, and she's all about her rangers following rules and using the proper equipment.

:She probably isn't going to be muy thrilled we risked rescuing a whale, either,: Ree says glumly. :I don't think she'll see that as proper patrol business.:

:Vival I can handle.: I say with more confidence than I feel. I've gotten to know Vival better during this past year I've lived at Safety Harbor, but there're still times she scares me.

:At least we have a great story to tell the rest of the Sea Rangers tonight in the mess cave.: Lena brightens at the thought.

When Tobin finishes putting his med gear away, I keep Dai in the middle of our travel formation and ask Ree, who is a capable fighter, to swim sweep just in case sharks pick up the scent of blood from his hands.

:I really hope your hands don't hurt too much,: I say on a private send to Dai.

:They hurt worse after he smeared his slimy ointment all over my palms.: Dai shoots Tobin a dark look. He and Tobin have never been friends.

I must be looking stricken because Dai adds quickly, :I heal so fast, though, they should be fine again in a few days.:

Neptune kids do heal quickly, but we still feel pain when we're injured.

:I'm sorry you got hurt helping me,: I say.

:Don't be. It was worth it,: Dai says with a smile that lights up his face. :That little whale was such a fighter. I'm glad we gave her a chance to grow up.:

Once Mariah and the rest of our dolphins surround us, we start the long swim back to Safety Harbor, keeping a careful eye out for hungry sharks.


Copyright: Polly Holyoke, 2017