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The Neptune Promise

THE NEPTUNE PROMISE

Chapter One

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Today the waters of the Queen Charlotte Strait are rough and cloudy from churned up sediment, I hate days when I can't see where I'm going, and there have been too many of those recently. Mariah's sleek gray, white and black body glimmers through the green murk as she swims beside me. Her half-grown calf Tisi stays right near us both.

:I thought it was supposed to be calm for our patrol today,: Ree grumbles telepathically as she kicks along on my other side, her dark brows drawn together in a frown. :We won't see any 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 can barely see his red hair much less his face, but I can guess he's smiling.

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 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 main 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 canoe and Tsukwani, 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 Tsukwani wants,: I say.

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

:The Kwawaka'wakw gave us a good tip about that warship patrolling Blackfish Sound last week,: Sunny points out cheerfully, :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 Eden Island. The Kwawaka'wakw, like us, aren't supposed to be living in the Broughton Archipelago. 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 Tsukwani isn't a threat to us. If it makes you feel more comfortable, I will scan her thoughts before I swim up to talk to her.:

Most Neptune kids can only read thoughts sent directly to them, but I can read people's surface minds. I don't, though, unless I'm worried about the safety of my friends.

: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, but one with plenty of attitude.

:We don't have time for your tricks right now,: I tell her sternly.

:say 'please,': she teases me. I recently spent an hour trying to explain to her why humans say "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, Sunny and Ree all promptly let me know that they and their dolphin partners are ready.

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

: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, :Kay, everyone, let's get going.:

I tighten my grip on her dorsal, and Sokya pulls me through the cloudy sea far faster than I can swim on my own. It's weird to move so quickly and see nothing but green gloom 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 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, Ran Kuron.

A sharp, rhythmic slapping sound fills my ears, and I have to focus on patrol business. Reaching out with my telepathy, I find Tsukwani'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 Tsukwani, and I think she's worried about an entangled whale calf, but I'll know for sure 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 Tsukwani's handsome canoe. She carved it with her father from cedar wood. Tsukwani is strong, pretty girl with big dark eyes. Usually she's all smiles, but today she looks frantic as she searches the water all around her.

"Hey, Tsukwani, 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 Bonwick Island. We've tried to help, but the baby's mother is too upset to let us get close, and the rest of its pod won't leave it. Several 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 Bonwick Island into the nav system on my wrist computer. "How's your little sister?"

"Still getting into plenty of trouble," Tsukwani replies, "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."

My nav system indicates that the island lies 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 rocky, tree-covered islands that all look the same, which doesn't make navigating around here any easier.

After sending Tsukwani 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 pickup truck, and I'm worried that a frightened calf could 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.: Saving whales is not officially part of my job as patrol leader, but keeping every member of my patrol safe is. Still, I can't just swim away and leave a pod of humpbacks to the mercy of 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 blue layers, their southern portion shrouded in gray smoke. Even here in the Northwest, each summer is hotter and dryer than the summer before. How many more species will go extinct and how many more people will die before we manage to stop global warming?

I'm distracted from my worrying when a pod of mottled gray Risso's dolphins join us. Clearly they have never seen dolphins towing humans before, and they swim all around us in great excitement. The Risso's are much larger than our of Pacific white-sided dolphins, but I think Mariah and her family are prettier because of their dramatic gray, black, and white coloring. Tisi joins some of the younger Risso's 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.

A half-hour later, we reach Bonwick Island, and the wild dolphins leave us. 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. Right now the waters are 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 boats are relieved and pleased to see us. The fact we've been genetically engineered to live in the sea doesn't seem to faze them. 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 around the mothers. They sound upset.:

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

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

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

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

"The net must be caught on the bottom." Hemasaka speaks quickly. "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?"

"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 distressed whales, my mouth goes dry. "We'll do what we can. Let's hope the dolphins can convince them that we're here to help."

I nod to Hemasaka and slip under the water again. At least the visibility on this protected side of the island is 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 on the bottom. 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, 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 distant 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.: 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 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. A second later, I'm spun upside down, and all I can see are bubbles as I fight against crazy currents.


Chapter Two

I struggle 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 brash 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 have 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 the frightened calf gives a high-pitched squeal.

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

I take in a deep breath. My pulse 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 and send her an image of us cutting the net and setting her calf free. I'm hoping she might be able to read a visual message 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 backup plan.

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

:Right,: I say, trying to sound confident. I glance at Dai. His face is pale but he stays right at my side as we swim slowly toward the calf. Engulfed in the folds of the heavy black net, the calf strains 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 she does it!

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

:That helped,: Dai reports, :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 try to convince her to move again.:

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

:Got it!: Dai cries.

The calf lunges 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 studies the layers of net still wrapped around her. :Guess we have some more work to do.:

I glance at him quickly, wondering about his flash of pain I sensed, but he seems 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 send to the big mama whale hovering nearby an image of the six of us working carefully to set her baby free. I wince when I notice a terrible, deep, round scar high on the mother's side. It looks like someone harpooned her. No wonder she doesn't trust humans.

When Mariah returns with the rest of the patrol clustered behind her, the mother humpback 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 real progress. The dolphins help, too, 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 that 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 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, takes several pictures with her underwater camera.

:I guess we're done here,: I say.

:The calf is bleeding from where the lines cut into her skin,: Tobin says worriedly. :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. With slow majesty, they lower their heads and emit gentle squeals and 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, and the mothers swim away. I check in with Hemasaka before we leave the cove. Tsukwani is with him, and I smile at her.

"The calf is free and nursing now," I tell them. "By the way, 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 obviously wanted our help, but this big lady wasn't letting us anywhere near her baby."

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

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

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

Warmed by his words, I dive to share them with my friends. I blink when I notice that Tobin, who is a medic, is busy bandaging Dai's hands. Ton, Dai's big dolphin, hovers nearby and appears to be watching Tobin's every move.

:Oh, Dai, what happened?: With a guilty start, I remember the flash of pain I sensed 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 that 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, :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.:

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

Warmed by Dai's words, I call the dolphins. Once Mariah and the rest of her pod surround us, we start the long swim back to our colony. As we travel, we watch constantly hungry sharks and for surface boats. Late in the afternoon, I finally spot the shimmering bubble wall that protects Safety Harbor.

I draw in a deep breath. Despite what I said to Ree, I'm not looking forward to telling Vival about the risks we took rescuing a humpback whale calf today.


Chapter Three

As we kick our way through the barrier that surrounds our colony and keeps out predators and scavenger fish, small silvery bubbles tickle my cheeks and fill my vision.

:I always feel like I'm swimming through a can of soda when we cross through this,: Sunny says brightly as she reaches out and tries to catch a particularly big bubble.

We enter Safety Harbor's main inlet which is lined with caves and coves. I smile as we swim past steep rock walls carpeted with scarlet corals, feathery pink sea fans and white sponges. Beyond the girls' and boys' dorm caves, we enter the wide cavern that serves as the Sea Rangers' headquarters. As I kick off my travel fins and rack my spear gun, I'm relieved Vival's not around.

The others leave to hang out with friends, but I have to stay to file our patrol report. Even though I'm tired and hungry enough to eat a whole king salmon, I make my way to a keyboard and screen set into the cave wall. I key in an account of our patrol and our efforts to save the humpback calf.

Soon, I pick up irritation radiating from someone behind me. Vival is reading the report over my shoulder through her scuba mask. A stern woman with short gray hair, Vival was an army officer for many years before she volunteered to join my father's helper staff. She frowns as she reads what I've written.

"You took quite a risk just to help some marine life," she says. I hear her words clearly through tiny earbuds we all wear. "Your main job on patrol is to watch out for threats to our security. Humpback whales hardly constitute a danger to this colony or a worthwhile use of Sea Ranger time."

I'm not sure Vival's ever forgiven me or my friends from the Southern Sector for passing our first Sea Ranger Simulated Patrol Challenge by bending her equipment rules. Still, she keeps assigning me to lead patrols, which means I must be doing something right.

I turn to face her. At our last Ranger meeting, you did say we should try to keep improving our relations with the Kwawaka'wakw, I key into the computer on my wrist. My words will appear on a screen inside her mask. It's an awkward way to communicate, but most of the helper staff at Safety Harbor aren't telepaths. Hemasaka asked us to help the whales, and he was very pleased we succeeded.

"That's the only worthwhile outcome of this patrol. Those whales could have crushed or crippled every one of you."

Our dolphin partners never would have let that happen, but there was some risk, which is why only Dai and I approached the whales at the start. I force myself to hold her gaze after I key in my reply.

"You report he was injured. Why wasn't Dai Kuron wearing his gloves?"

Because he's Dai, I long to retort, but I manage not to key those words into my wrist pad. Instead I type, I have discussed his injury with Dai, and I think he realizes now he should have been wearing his gloves.

"Very well," she says and swims away to talk to Janni, the head of another Sea Ranger patrol just in.

I let go a long breath and turn back to the computer to finish my report. There was a second worthwhile outcome from our patrol today, but I doubt Vival will believe it. I'm almost certain I was communicating with the mother humpback and her calf, at least on a very basic level. That's news I'm eager to share with our marine biologists.

By the time I finish my report, I'm starving and head to the mess cave for dinner. I pass through a line where Neptune kids supervised by an adult helper in scuba gear hand out white containers of food. Then I join a group of my old friends from the Southern Sector and several of Dai's friends from Atlantia.

Dai is looking a little strained, and I send him a sympathetic smile. Because both Dai and I are strong hereditary telepaths, mealtimes in the mess cave can be rough for us. Three hundred kids between the ages of ten and sixteen all sharing stories of their day create an intense babble of psychic noise.

I let Ree and Lena tell everyone about our humpback rescue while we dig into a delicious supper of king salmon and wakame mash.

Kalli, a slim, brown girl with a warm smile, looks at me when they finish and shakes her head. :So now you're into rescuing whales. The legend of Nere Hanson keeps growing.:

I make a face at her. :Our whole patrol rescued that calf, and Dai was the one who got his hands chewed up in the process.:

Penn looks thoughtful. :Maybe we need to design some sort of lightweight saw or clippers you Sea Rangers can add to your equipment. A cutting tool could have saved your hands today.:

:Or, the spongebrain could have worn his gloves like he was supposed to,: says Rad, one of Dai's old friends from Atlantia.

:It sounds like a whale of a rescue to me,: Robry says with a grin while we all groan.

Bria, Tobin's little sister, smiles at me, her big brown eyes shining with excitement. :Nere, I bet you did manage to communicate with that mother whale. Think of how amazing it could be if we figured out how to talk to more marine mammals. We could help them, and they could help us.:

:If any of us learn how to effectively communicate with other sea mammals, it will be you,: I tell Bria. :The dolphins love you, and you're doing a wonderful job with Tisi.: She's been teaching Mariah's calf new behaviors and new words in English.

:That's mostly because Tisi's so smart,: Bria says.

:So are you,: Tobin replies. He gives her a quick hug and listens patiently while Bria tells him all about her training session with several young dolphins today.

When Bria finally turns to talk to Robry, I meet Tobin's gaze. :By the way, thanks for volunteering so quickly to help the whales this afternoon.:

:I meant what I said out there,: Tobin says as he crosses his arms and frowns at me. :You don't always need to assign yourself the most dangerous job.: Usually Tobin's easy-going, but right now, I can tell he's truly angry with me.

:I do know that, but today I honestly thought I was the best person to approach the whales, and this time, anyway, I was right.:

:Just promise me you'll remember that your patrol members can handle tough situations, too.:

:I promise. So how is your EMC training going?:

I'm relieved when Tobin stops lecturing me and talks about the emergency medical care course he's taking with our friend Rohan. Someday all twelve Neptune colonies around the world will become completely independent of their shore helpers, but that means we have to learn skills like how to care for ourselves when we're sick or injured.

When we finish eating, we take our food containers to the wash and recycling nets.

:I still like not having to do kitchen patrol,: Thom says to me as he tips his food box into the nets.

:Yeah, we may have to clean a lot of barnacles off our boats, but at least no one has to wash dishes at Safety Harbor,: I reply. Instead, small crabs and fish scour our eating utensils clean.

I make a point of leaving the mess hall when Dai does. His expression is closed and distant again. A shiver goes down my back as I picture his father, Ran Kuron, the cold, cruel man who held me and my friends prisoner and plotted to take over Safety Harbor.

None of us have seen or heard from Kuron since the Sea Rangers destroyed Atlantia, his undersea base, a year ago. There's a chance he was killed in that attack, but my father's security staff monitor a radio frequency that Kuron's network used. Transmissions there are coded, but their frequency has increased ominously in the past few months, and that fills me with dread.

:How do your hands feel now?: I ask Dai while I carefully shield my worries about his father from him.

:My hands are still sore,: he admits, :but they already feel better. Where're you headed now?:

:I'm going topside to talk to my dad.:

:I'll swim you to the ladder,: he offers, his expression warming.

We fall into an easy rhythm, kicking through the water side by side to the sea cave that leads to our topside facilities. I laugh and show him a brilliant little red Irish Lord fish trying to hide under a white sponge, and Dai points out a rare lavender coral he discovered last week. Even though it's almost nine o'clock, the water has yet to darken because the sun sets so late this far north in the summer.

When we reach the cave, I swim to the base of the metal ladder set into its rocky wall. I turn towards Dai, sensing he has something he wants to say. I really hope he doesn't want to talk about us. Things have been complicated this past year. I know Dai cares about me. He's risked his life to save mine, and he betrayed his own father to save all of Safety Harbor. I care about him, too.

:But you still aren't ready to be my girlfriend,: Dai says, looking rueful.

:Stop reading my thoughts,: I snap.

:I didn't. This time, I just read your face. I've gotten better at that since living here. I am trying not to read people's minds unless they give me permission.:

:I know you're working hard to live our way,: I say, and he has. Strong telepaths at Safety Harbor are supposed to respect the privacy of weaker ones, but back at his old home, Dai's ruthless father expected him to read minds.

.:Thank you for coming with me this afternoon,: I say, hoping to change the subject.

He stares at his feet and tugs on one of his black braids. They reach past his shoulders and make him look wild and very different from everyone else at Safety Harbor. :I am glad we helped those whales. Maybe it evens the score, at least little.:

When he looks up at me, his eyes are haunted. It takes me a moment to realize he's talking about his former life. Dai and some of the savage kids he was raised with back at Atlantia used to hunt orcas and humpbacks just for fun.

:You did even the score today.: Impulsively I reach out and lay my hand on his arm.

Dai stares at my hand. When he looks up again, there's a longing in his gaze that makes my heart twist. I do like Dai so much, but caring about him scares me. At my old school I was used to being invisible and staying under everyone's radars, and Dai is a gorgeous, high profile kind of guy. I'm also still getting used to living in the sea and being part of Safety Harbor. Being someone's girlfriend sounds so complicated, and I'm afraid I won't know the rules and disappoint him.

:You don't have to keep making up for what you did at Atlantia, or what your father did,: I add softly and pull my hand back.

He lifts one dark brow. :Reading my thoughts now?: he asks.

:No, but I know your father must be on your mind sometimes.:

:Yeah, especially after those Sea Rangers were so sure they spotted his sub last month. If he's still alive, I can't help wondering and worrying about what he's doing.:

You're not the only one, I think to myself, but I'm careful to shield that thought from him. :I promise I'll check with my dad and see if we have any news of your father.: Dai can't come topside with me because his lungs are so packed with gill filaments, he can't breathe air anymore.

Taking hold of the metal rungs, I climb upward. Soon my head breaks the surface. I exhale the water in my lungs to breathe air again. It's hot and dry tonight, and the smell of smoke is worse which makes me feel all jittery. The winds must be blowing from the west.

I know I'm not about to burn up, but I worry about our topside facility, and Tsukwani's village, and I can't help thinking about all the poor forest animals that are dying or losing their homes right now. At the top of the ladder, I flip my wet braids over my shoulder and stride past the equipment shed where the helper staff hang their scuba gear on racks to dry. Beyond the shed lie several cabins and buildings, all painted green and gray to blend in with the trees and rocks of the Broughton Archipelago.

"Hey, Nere." My brother James hurries across the clearing and falls into step beside me. Six years older than me, James is my only sibling. He's tall and lanky, with sandy brown hair and a shaggy beard. He's always looked out for me, and I try to look out for him. "I understand you had an exciting patrol today."

"Word sure gets around fast in Safety Harbor," I say, shaking my head.

"You've definitely got Roni and Sall worked up. They can't wait to talk to you about your whale contacts. That's a lot more fun than talking about the results of our latest acidification tests."

"Why? What's up with your results?"

"They're grim," he replies. "The water in the warmer, shallower parts of the Strait is far more acidic than we thought, and all of the shellfish around there have abnormally thin shells. If we don't find an effective way to stop climate change and the oceans from absorbing so much carbon dioxide, there won't be any corals or shellfish left in the seas. Even the bodies of the tiny zooplankton we sampled are deformed. That means the whole base of the ocean food chain is in danger."

"I don't understand why we haven't started to seed the oceans with the c-plankton we brought back from Atlantia," I say. "We risked our lives to bring that stuff back here."

Last summer Kalli, Ree, Tobin and I infiltrated Ran Kuron's base to steal the c-plankton that Dai's mother developed to capture carbon dioxide. A brilliant marine geneticist, Idaine Kuron created a phytoplankton strain capable of sequestering a hundred times more carbon dioxide than normal plankton does. She hoped her genetically engineered c-plankton could be spread throughout the seas to turn them into a massive carbon sink that would finally start cooling our poor planet. But she died before she could convince the scientific world of the value of her discovery.

"And the kids in the Neptune Project around the world were supposed to play an important role in spreading that c-plankton," James adds. "Fighting climate change was always a major part of your purpose."

"That's what Dad promised us, anyway. So we all keep waiting to hear the big announcement that the c-plankton is ready for shipping and seeding, but when I ask Dad when it will be ready, he just keeps saying that the Neptune scientists are still testing the strains we brought back."

"I'm not positive," James says, "but I think their c-plankton tests haven't been going well."

I glance at him sharply.

"Don't look at me that way." My brother stops dead in his tracks, his face flushing. "I swear I didn't force anyone to tell me anything, but you know I can't shield well, and I pick up thoughts I'm not supposed to hear all the time."

James was genetically engineered to be a part of the Neptune Project, but his transformation failed because the gill filaments in his lungs didn't develop properly. His telepathy did switch on, and because our mother was a strong hereditary telepath, it magnified some genes he inherited from her with disastrous results. James became a Controller, which means he can enter people's minds and force them to do things.

"I know you wouldn't control anyone," I reassure him, "and I know you'd much rather everyone kept their thoughts to themselves."

"It can get a little embarrassing sometimes," he confesses as we start walking again. "At least I can't read Roni unless she lets me." His expression brightens as he says her name.

Roni is a brilliant young marine biologist and James' girlfriend. She also happens to be a hereditary telepath like me with particularly strong mental shields. She's definitely one of the reasons James is so happy here at Safety Harbor.

"Y-you haven't told her yet, have you?" I worry that someone will find out that James is a Controller. The more principled governments in the world would have him executed at once, and others would try to use him.

When the brightness fades from his face, I'm sorry I asked the question. "Would you want to hang out with a guy who could force you to anything?" he asks bitterly. "No, I haven't told her, but she's such a strong telepath, it's just a matter of time before she picks up something, and then it's game over for us."

"She might surprise you," I say.

We've reached my father's cabin now. I knock on the door, but he's doesn't answer.

"He just went to check on something in the bio lab," a tired-looking Doc Iharu calls to us. A warm, quiet man from Okinawa, Doc Iharu is Safety Harbor's chief medical doctor. He's in charge of keeping us healthy, which means he spends almost as much time as my dad does in his scuba gear.

I glance at my wrist computer. It's almost ten o'clock. My dad is working late again. We find him just as he's leaving the lab. Every day there are more gray strands in his sandy brown hair. Running a colony of three hundred Neptune kids is a lot of responsibility.

His face lined with weariness, my father gives me an absent smile and a hug.

"Are the fires getting worse?" I ask as we walk back to his cabin.

He nods. "There's a big blaze on Baker Island now, and that's only twenty miles from your friend Tsukwani's village. I'm afraid if the wind shifts, embers could land on Eden Island and burn them out."

He opens the door to his cabin and waves us inside. It's a tiny space cluttered with dive gear, scientific equipment, and stacks of reports and boxes. James and I shove gear aside and sit on the bed, and Dad sits in his desk chair.

"Can't we start spreading the c-plankton throughout the oceans?" I burst out. "We have to do something before our whole planet burns up."

"If only we could," my father says heavily and stares at his hands as if he's not really seeing them. He straightens his shoulders and turns to face me.

"Nere, it's time I told you and James the truth," he says, his expression somber. "Our scientists are certain now that you and your team did not bring home the right strain of c-plankton from Atlantia."


Chapter Four

Struggling to digest his words, I stare at my father. After all we went through, we brought back the wrong strain of c-plankton? I can't believe it. I don't want to believe it. I still have nightmares about the two terrifying weeks I spent inside Atlantia. Ran Kuron made us wear shock collars like animals. We worried constantly that the vicious shark mutates patrolling his base might tear us apart. A young boy named Mako even died helping us escape.

As I clench my hands into fists, Mako's sweet face appears in my memory. I'll never forget watching the life fade from his wide gray eyes. Wasp and Whitey, two of Kuron's most savage kids at Atlantia, killed him. Was his sacrifice for nothing?

"Are you absolutely sure we didn't find the right strain?" I ask, my voice sounding harsh in my ears. If I concentrate on feeling angry, maybe I won't burst into tears.

"Our scientists are certain," Dad replies. "Your team brought back over fifty different strains of c-plankton, and we've tested each one multiple times. None come close to producing the startling results Idaine reported in her log."

"Could she have been wrong about her results?" James asks.

"It's possible," Dad replies, "but Idaine was an excellent scientist. Unlike her husband Ran Kuron, she was disciplined and methodical, and hardly one to cut corners. She contacted all the scientists in the Project to announce that she had developed a strain of plankton that could absorb a hundred times more carbon dioxide than regular phytoplankton and sequester it. Unfortunately, she died before she could share the details of her research with us."

"Then where is the stuff?" I ask. "Do you think it was destroyed when the Sea Rangers blew up Atlantia?"

"I'm afraid it's likely," Dad replies, "and that's why we're determined to find her original research. Remember the notebooks Robry grabbed from that lab where you found the plankton cultures? Some of those notebooks were Idaine's original journals. From their contents, we've determined that her very last round of c-plankton notes must have been aboard her research vessel the Storm Petrel when it sank in the Johnstone Strait five years ago. If we can find her notes, there's a good chance we can engineer c-plankton just the way she did."

"But those notes would have dissolved years ago in seawater," James protests.

"That would be true if Idaine had kept only paper notes. But we know she owned one of the first hydro-computers ever built. Ran boasted to me about buying it for her."

I sit up straighter on the bed. "So, the moment the computer was submerged in seawater, a shell would have closed around the hard drive, and her data might still be intact."

"But wouldn't Idaine have taken the computer with her when she left her sinking ship?" James asks.

Dad looks down at his cluttered desk. "We don't think she was alive when she left the Storm Petrel that final time," he says heavily.

I lean forward on the bed. "Dad, what happened the day Idaine's ship sank?" I've never dared to ask Dai. The moment anyone mentions his mother, he clams up tighter than an oyster.

"I wish we knew," Dad says with a sigh. "We did track down her first mate, a man named Yanis Sevier. The afternoon the Storm Petrel sank, Sevier claimed he heard Ran and Idaine having a violent argument down in their cabin. The next thing he knew, there was a big explosion, and the Storm Petrel started sinking rapidly."

Dad clears his throat. "Before the boat submerged completely, Sevier saw Ran emerge from belowdecks with Idaine's body slung over his shoulder. He lay her down in the runabout that she used to do her research. Then he went back below. The first mate ran to the runabout to see if he could help her."

"W-was she already dead?" I ask.

Dad pauses. When he speaks again, anger and sorrow tinge his voice. "Sevier got a good look at Idaine, and he could tell she was dead. He was also fairly certain her neck was broken. Then Ran appeared with Dai slung over his shoulder and threatened Sevier with a solar pistol. Because the ship was sinking fast, Sevier ran back to the last life raft and jumped on board. Ran drove the runabout away from The Storm Petrel, and Sevier never saw him again."

I rub my arms as chills skate down my back. Poor Dai. I wonder if he knows what actually happened between his parents that day.

"Do you think there's any chance Kuron grabbed Idaine's computer before he left the ship?" James asks.

"We don't think so, based on those notes Robry took from Atlantia and the large number of plankton strains Kuron was growing in his lab there. We think he was trying to recreate her c-plankton, too, which means he doesn't have her computer."

"So that's why you want to find the Storm Petrel now," James says. "But most of the Johnstone Strait is deep and its currents are fierce. Salvaging a wreck there will be impossible for divers, and we don't have any robotic salvage probes that could function at that depth."

"This salvage mission would be impossible for regular divers, yes," Dad says quietly. He looks at me, and then I understand.

"You're planning to use some of us to salvage Idaine's ship!" I jump to my feet and begin to pace. "That's why you started conducting deep-water tests on the older Neptune kids three months ago. You knew then we might have brought back the wrong strain. I can't believe you didn't tell me. I can't believe you didn't tell us."

"Sweetling, I didn't want to tell you until we were sure. Infiltrating Atlantia was hard on all of you, and I didn't want you to think your mission was a failure. It wasn't. You freed Bria and Robry, and you brought back Idaine's notes which I believe are going to help us produce the right strain of c-plankton at last."

"I just wish you'd trusted me with the truth." I cross my arms and scowl at him. "I can handle it, you know. Kids in your Neptune Project have to grow up fast." I certainly had to. Few kids back home had it easy living under the corrupt government of the Western Collective, but at least they didn't have to give up their life on land to live in the dangerous sea. Dad looks away first.

"When are you going to try to salvage the Storm Petrel?" James asks, trying to ease the tension between us.

"Next month," Dad replies. "In August the days will still be long and the weather as good as it gets in these parts."

"Which kids are you considering for the salvage team? Dai's the most comfortable of any of us in deeper water."

My father clears his throat again. "I'm glad you mentioned Dai. We'd rather he didn't know about this mission."

"You've got to be kidding." I stare at my father as I perch on the edge of his bed. "You think you can keep something like this from one of the strongest telepaths at Safety Harbor?"

"Good luck with that." James shakes his head.

"We have to keep it from Dai and all the other kids who came back with you from Atlantia. Thanks to Robry, we've broken part of the communication code Kuron's people use. From the radio chatter we've been picking up, it's pretty clear someone is reporting to them regularly from inside Safety Harbor."

"And you think that person is Dai?" I ask incredulously.

My father shrugs. "I don't know who it is. It's hard to believe it's him after all he risked to save you and this colony, but it's also hard to believe that Sunny, Rad, Ocho or Shadow would betray us, either."

I picture the four kids who, like Dai, chose to leave Atlantia to build new lives at Safety Harbor. "They've all tried hard to become useful members of our colony. Each of them hated Kuron so much, I can't believe they'd help him for any reason." I rub my chest. My lungs are getting dry and itchy, which means I have to return to the water soon.

"I can't believe it, either," Dad says, "but somehow Kuron's people know an awful lot about our schedules, projects and plans."

"Maybe they have some surface spies watching us again," James suggests.

"Maybe," my father says, but he looks skeptical.

Something else occurs to me as I get to my feet.

"You haven't had me tested yet for my deep water functioning, and none of my friends from the Southern Sector have been tested either."

"I know," Dad says with another sigh. "You're all scheduled to start testing by the end of this week. Honestly, I hope you don't do well on the pressure tests. You and your friends have already done enough for Safety Harbor."

"But Idaine's c-plankton is more important than our colony. If I do well on the tests, I have to help salvage the Storm Petrel."

My father smiles resignedly before he hugs me goodnight and kisses my forehead. "I knew you'd feel that way." When he steps back, he looks more worried than ever.

# # #

Two days later, Ree, Kalli, Penn, Thom, Tobin, Lena and I all report to Safety Harbor's underwater transport hub for the start of our deep-water testing. Topside, the hub consists of a dock built in the center of a sheltered cove covered with camouflage nets that hide our small fleet of surface boats and zodiac rafts. Forty feet beneath the end of that dock is a platform where we tie the underwater tows and skimmers we use on longer journeys.

My friends laugh and joke as they take their places around a powerful tow tied to the lower platform. Clearly they aren't too concerned about the tests. When we aren't assigned to chores, classes, or patrols, we often have to complete weird assessments by Neptune scientists who want to study how well we're adapting to the sea. Only I know how important the results of these particular tests will be.

I grab hold of a loop on the big group tow we nicknamed, "the Bus." Janni, a strong, stocky girl I've come to know well through the Sea Rangers, will be piloting it today. She powers up the Bus and soon we're being towed through the water almost as fast as the dolphins can pull us.

:Coming up on the bubble wall,: Janni announces, and a moment later, all I can see is silvery bubbles. Soon after we cross the wall, Mariah and her family swoop and swirl around us.

:We don't need your help today,: I say to her, :but you're welcome to come along and watch the tests.:

:we want to come, but I do not want you to swim deep to find that wreck. it is dangerous down in the dark.

:I don't want to dive down to Idaine's sunken vessel either, but if I can handle the pressure down there well, I'll volunteer.: I've already explained climate change to Mariah, Sokya and Densil and told them how the c-plankton could help our warming oceans.

A chicken part of me hopes that I'll flunk these pressure tests, but I don't send that thought to Mariah.

An hour later we reach the Carly Sue, a battered old fishing trawler the helper staff has anchored over the test site. They picked a sheltered spot behind a nameless island where the water is very deep and there's little boat traffic. We surface and gather around the back of the Carly Sue to hear Doc Iharu's briefing.

"For the next few days," Doc Iharu tells us, "we will test how each of you functions in deeper water where the pressure is much greater than it is here near the surface. We still don't know why most people black out or lose their ability to think when experiencing greater pressure. We just know they do. But one or two people out of a hundred seem to be able to function fine in high-pressure environments."

"Are we going so deep today that we might pass out?" Ree asks, suddenly looking sober.

"It's possible, but unlikely. Rohan is going to pass out sensors that will monitor your heartrate and blood pressure. If we see signs that you're in distress, we'll have you ascend to shallower water immediately. For every thirty-three feet you descend, your body will experience another atmosphere of pressure. So at two hundred feet, your body will experience roughly six times the pressure you're experiencing now. By the end of these tests three days from now, we hope a few of you will be descending to a thousand feet below the surface where the pressure is thirty times what it is here."

"We won't have to worry about getting the bends on the way back up, will we?" Lena asks as Rohan starts handing out sensor bracelets that we clip on our wrists.

"No," Doc Iharu replies, "the bends, or decompression sickness as it's more properly called, isn't a problem for any of you Neptune kids because you don't breathe air when you're under water like scuba divers do. You're more like fish in this respect than marine mammals."

I don't dare look at Lena. She really doesn't like to be reminded that we all have some fish genes in our DNA.

"The fact that you don't breathe air," Doc Iharu continues, "also means it's easier for you to dive deeper than your dolphin friends, who have to expel much of the air in their lungs before they go deep. If they didn't, the greater pressure outside their bodies on the less dense air inside their lungs would crush them."

I start chewing my lip. Going deep is sounding scarier by the moment, although Dai has taken me down into the Twilight Zone several times. I wish he were with us today. He actually seems to relish the dark.

For the first phase of our testing, Doc Iharu has us swim down the boat's anchor chain to one hundred feet. When no one else seems to want to go first, I start kicking my way downward. Because there's a fairly strong surface current here, I save my energy by holding on to the chain, and the others follow my example.

We've descended twenty feet when a school of shrimp drifts by, and the water fills with their noisy crackling. Tobin shakes his head and smiles at me. :Before I lived in the sea, I had no idea shrimp could be so loud.:

:I didn't either. I'll be happy when this current carries them someplace else.:

:Hey, Janni, maybe you can net some,: Thom calls out to Janni who is waiting with the Bus. :I'd rather eat 'em than listen to the noisy little suckers.:

:I'm already on it, Bigfoot,: Janni replies.

Thom's Safety Harbor nickname makes me grin. He is a big kid, and his feet are huge.

My friends stop chattering when we start losing light at fifty feet, and by eighty, we're about to leave the Sunlit Zone. Below us the water is totally black, and it's way too easy to imagine I see creatures down there that would like to eat us.

:Hey, look, it's the cavalry.: Ree grins, and seconds later, all the members of Mariah's pod dip and dart around us. Everyone brightens as we greet our dolphin partners.

:Um, Sokya, you don't sense anything dangerous below us, do you?: I ask.

:the waters beneath you are clear for now,: she reassures me, and I relay that information to my human friends because I can sense their rising nervousness.

Especially at times like this, I envy the dolphins' ability to echolocate. We descend to a yellow flag on the chain that marks one hundred feet. The water here is so dim that, even with my genetically engineered eyesight, I can see only about fifteen feet in any direction. The dolphins return to the surface while we answer a series of questions on our wrist computers. Fortunately, there's much less current at this depth, so we can hover instead of wrapping our arms around the chain while we key in our answers.

:I feel like I'm back in school again,: Penn says ruefully.

:Or Atlantia,: Ree adds, looking somber. While captives in Kuron's undersea base, we spent much of our days there being tested and studying on computers.

:They're just trying to establish a baseline for our cognitive functions before we go deeper,: Kalli says, her mental tone cheerful as always. A true scientist, Kalli is actually excited about these tests.

:My cognitive functions aren't so great to begin with,: Thom mutters. :I like to do things, not think about them.:

After we've all finished our mental tests, we perform a series of coordination tests with our dive partner recording the results. We have to do everything from executing a somersault to touching our noses with our index fingers.

:That is one of the worst somersaults I've ever seen,: Penn kids Thom. "You look a spastic humpback whale trying to do a flip.:

:I didn't have a lot of time to work on my gymnastics when I was little. I was trying too hard to keep up with Kyel's dad and his guerilla fighters up in the mountains,: Thom grumbles good-naturedly.

I often think of Kyel, a boy who died during our long journey to Safety Harbor from the Southern Sector. He was Thom's best friend, and I wish he'd had a chance to be a part of our new community. Thanks to his military experience, Thom has risen rapidly to the rank of captain in the Sea Rangers, and Kyel would have done the same.

When we finish our coordination tests, Doc Iharu tells us to descend to two hundred feet.

:Load your spear guns now, and do not turn on your dive lights unless absolutely necessary,: Janni orders us from above.

She didn't need to add that last command. We all know that down in the vast, black depths of the sea, lights can attract unwanted visitors such as large sharks and squid. Carefully we load our spear guns and sling them across our backs.

:Next stop... the Twilight Zone,: Thom says trying to make us laugh, but I hear the tension in his tone.

This time Tobin insists on going first, and after our talk at dinner a few nights ago about my taking too many risks, I let him. The water turns darker and colder as we work our way down the anchor line. By the time we reach a luminescent flag at two hundred feet, the sea is inky black all around us and the glowing screens of our dive computers seem incredibly bright.

:Everyone doing okay?: I ask even though we're not on patrol and I'm no one's leader today. :Hold your wrist computers up by your faces while you check on your partner.:

:Th-the surface sure feels like it's a long ways away,: Lena says.

:The good news is, we can be back up there in just a minute or two,: Kalli reassures her. The dark doesn't seem to be bothering her much. :We don't have to stop and decompress like divers do since we aren't breathing air.:

Tobin's my dive partner today. His face looks pale in the gray wash of light from his wrist computer. :This brings back a few memories,: he says with a crooked smile. He's probably remembering the awful time back at Atlantia when Wasp shut us in a tiny, dark sensory-deprivation room, and we had to use the light from our dive computers to see each other. Although I used to be terribly claustrophobic, I can handle being in dark, close places now because Tobin helped me fight my phobia.

:At least we don't have to stay down here for the next two days.: But I can't help wondering how long the kids who are picked for the salvage mission will have to stay down in the Storm Petrel.

When we've all checked our buddies, we start on our next set of computer tests. I'm on the fifth question when Thom stiffens beside me and grabs his spear gun.

:We've got company!: he warns everyone.

I look up just in time to see a huge sevengill shark appear out of the blackness.


Chapter Five

My heart is in my throat as I reach for my spear gun. The shark is only ten feet away and getting closer by the second. After a moment's hesitation, I switch on my dive light. I need to see the shark clearly.

:Stay as still as you can,: I tell the others, :and no one shoot unless it charges. I think it's just curious about us.: I hope I'm right.

I shine my light on the massive shark. The beam plays across the creature's expressionless black eyes and the unusual seven gills in its neck. The shark's large, undercut jaw is studded with dozens of sharp teeth. The sevengill turns and glides past our group. We hold our spear guns at the ready, but we don't shoot as it swims a slow, silent circle around us.

:Whoa, that is one big boy,: Thom says. :It's gotta be at least fourteen feet long.:

:I'm thinking he's probably a she,: Kalli says, :because she's so large.:

:Whether it's a he or she, it has muy big teeth,: Ree mutters.

:Are you all right, Penn?: I ask him on a private send. Right after their Neptune transformation, Penn and his girlfriend were attacked by sharks.

:I-I'm okay,: Penn says, but obviously he's struggling to control his fear.

"What's going on down there?" Doc Iharu asks us through our earbuds.

:I bet our sensors all just went crazy,: Tobin says.

:My heartrate probably tripled,: Lena confesses.

And I know I'm not going to take my eyes off that shark to key a reply to Doc Iharu. After circling us a second time, the sevengill disappears into the dark.

:Maybe that big girl just isn't hungry today,: Thom says hopefully

:Or maybe we don't look like food to her,: Kalli says.

I keep scanning the black water all around us. Suddenly, a gray shape barrels down at me from out of the midnight gloom. I jerk my spear gun higher. The shark must have decided she was hungry after all.

An instant before I press the trigger, I realize it's... Densil!

:DON'T SHOOT!: I shout to the others. Then I yell at my dolphin friend, :WHAT ARE YOU DOING DOWN HERE? You just scared me more than the shark did.:

He sidles up to me, looking as apologetic as a dolphin can look. :I sensed you were frightened. I came to see if you needed help.:

Densil and I grew up together, and he's always been able to tell when I'm scared or sad.

:Thank you,: I say, lowering my spear gun, my pulse still racing, :but next time please warn me first. I almost shot you.: I reach out and give him a quick rub to show I'm sorry for yelling at him.

:I will warn you next time. I forgot that you would not be able to see me.:

:Well, as long as you're down here, can you tell us if the shark is gone?:

:she still swims away from you,: he reassures me. :she is not hunting. I must return to the surface now.:

:I didn't think dolphins could dive this deep,: I think at him as he swims away.

:most do not, but I like to eat the crabs I find down here.:

:Thank you for wanting to help.:

:I am glad you did not shoot me,: comes his practical response.

:Someone had better contact the doc. He's getting a little worked up topside,: Thom says. Doc Iharu is shouting at us all now through our ear pieces.

:We're fine down here,: I tell Janni while Kalli keys a similar message to the testing staff. :A big sevengill just came by to check us out, and then Densil decided to pay us a surprise visit.:

:That shark looked like she was from another time,: Tobin says, looking in the direction the sevengill vanished.

:In a sense, she is,: Kalli says. :Sharks have been on this planet for over a hundred million years.:

We take turns keeping watch with a dive torch set on dim while the rest start our tests. As I work my way through the questions, I don't think the pressure is affecting my thinking, but I can't be sure. The shark doesn't return, and when we finish our mental and coordination tests, Doc Iharu lets us come back to the surface.

That night at dinner we find out that Lena and Penn have been excused from further testing, but Thom, Ree, Tobin and Kalli and I all have to report to the transport hub at 6 AM.

:They probably flunked me because my heartrate went nuts when that shark came by,: Lena says. :It's so creepy in the Twilight Zone, I'm totally fine with not going down there again. I like working in the kitchen and teaching my jewelry classes better anyway.: Lena has started a seashell jewelry craze and most of the kids at Safety Harbor now wear shell necklaces or bracelets.

:And I have plenty to keep me busy in engineering,: Penn says.

:Come on, Lena, aren't you sorry you won't have a chance to run into some hagfish?: Dai teases her.

:I honestly don't want to meet a fish that burrows into dead whales and eats them from the inside out, thank you very much.:

:Have you encountered hagfish before?: I ask Dai on a private send.

:I ran into several schools of them when I was poking around in some deep spots closer to Atlantia. They left me alone, but they would have torn me apart if I'd been bleeding,: he says soberly.

My father is crazy not to use Dai on this salvage mission. He knows so much more about the deep than the rest of us do. The moment I realize what I'm thinking, I tighten my mental shields, but not before Dai sends me a puzzled glance. A group of kids start yelling next to us, and I'm relieved when Dai looks away from me to frown at them.

The psychic noise in the mess hall is so intense right now because everyone's excited about Ocho and Shadow's concert tonight. It's taken them months to recreate the omniphone and water organ they built at Atlantia. With Penn and Rad's help, they've finally completed both instruments.

:So, how are you feeling about your big concert?: Ree asks Shadow.

:I'm so nervous, I can't eat anything,: Shadow confesses.

Her eyes look very dark in her pale face. Tonight she wears her beautiful long, black hair loose, and it floats about her head like a living cloud. Kuron mixed octopus genes with Shadow's DNA, which makes her incredibly strong, and she can change the color of her skin at will. When she wants to hide, she can blend in perfectly with any background. She and Sunny spend most of their working hours teaching and supervising the younger kids in the colony, and those kids love when Shadow agrees to play hide-and-seek with them.

:Everyone is going to love your music,: I promise her and Ocho. His round, good-natured face also looks tense.

:There's no reason to be nervous,: Sunny says to them both. :You used to give us amazing concerts all the time.:

:Yeah, but there's a big difference between playing for ten people and playing for three hundred,: Ocho says with a grimace. With his five arms and two legs, his octopus genes are more obvious than Shadow's. He used to have six arms, but one had to be amputated after he helped us fight our way out of Atlantia. Tonight, the color of his skin keeps shifting from pink to pale gray, a sure sign he's anxious.

:Hey, we'd better head out if we want to get primo viewing spots for the concert,: Rad says.

When we arrive at our new official concert cave, I'm glad that so many of the helper staff, including my father, are already here. Dad waves at me and I smile because he looks just as excited as the kids about this concert.

Shadow's keyboard sits on a platform raised above yards and yards of black tubing that funnels water and air through organ pipes. Ocho's new omniphone is even more spectacular than the one he had at Atlantia. On four long, metal twisting arms, he's fastened a variety of objects including hubcaps, metal sheets and spoons.

When Shadow and Ocho nod to show they are ready, my father swims out in front of them to address their audience. "Tonight we're in for a treat. Shadow and Ocho have worked hard to build their instruments and to create the music you are about to hear. We are proud of each and every member of the Neptune Project because, in a very real sense, you are all pioneers. Shadow and Ocho are talented pioneers in the field of sea music. Creating your own music is another positive step toward building a real home for yourselves beneath the waves. And since I know you don't want to listen to me talk anymore, here they are!"

A psychic hush falls over the crowd as my father swims off to the side. Shadow raises her head and says clearly, :We call this song, "Summer Storm.":

She bows her head and begins to play. I shiver with pleasure as the first deep, rich notes from the water organ envelop me. Music beneath the waves feels more intimate and intense than on land. Seawater, which conducts sound well, fills our eardrums and surrounds our bodies.

The wordless melody starts out slowly and majestically, and I imagine massive Pacific rollers smashing against a rocky shore. Then Shadow adds more complicated harmonies, and I can picture the waves frothing against the rocks while summer rain falls in torrents.

I jump the first time Ocho strikes a big piece of sheet metal, adding rumbling thunder to Shadow's storm melody. All five of his hands hold hammers that he uses to clash and bash the objects on his omniphone. Toward the end, the water organ fades away, and by striking forks, spoons and glasses, Ocho creates a shimmering scale of high notes that sound like sprinkling rain.

We go nuts after Shadow and Ocho finish their first song. Clapping doesn't create much noise under water, so we all just yell and cheer mentally to show much we liked the performance. Shadow and Ocho smile shyly, obviously pleased and surprised by our enthusiasm.

Penn and Rad grin and give each other high fives. They've spent a ton of their free time helping Shadow build her new organ.

Next our musicians play a rollicking tune that reminds me of sailor songs, and then one that is so achingly sad that it makes me think of people I miss, like my mother and Mako and my friend Cam. Then they play a funny song that showcases all of the weird sounds Ocho can make on his omniphone, which earns another huge round of applause.

Shadow holds up her hand to show she wants to speak, and everyone quiets down again.

:Ocho and I want to thank you for being such a great audience tonight. Before we play our last song, we want to dedicate this concert to Dr. Hanson and his helper staff. I know I speak for Dai, Rad, Ocho, Sunny and myself when I say we love our new home, and we are so grateful you allowed us to live with you here in Safety Harbor.:

As I listen to Shadow, I want to believe she truly feels grateful and happy to be with us. But I know she's a powerful hereditary telepath like Dai and me and has the strongest telepathic range of all the kids from Atlantia. That range would make it easier for her to relay information about us to the telepaths working for Kuron.

Then I remember the way Shadow looked out for Bria while she was held captive at Atlantia, and how Shadow rushed to help Tobin after Wasp stung him with the poisonous stingers on her fingers. If it weren't for Shadow, he'd be dead now. I look down, feeling ashamed for wondering if she's the former Atlantian relaying information to Kuron.

:Now it's time to rock out,: Ocho declares, and their last piece has such an infectious rhythm, everyone starts dancing including the helper staff. I grin when James flaps about looking like a lanky stork as he dances with Roni, and Vival and Doc Iharu do the Twist. Dancing with my friends, I laugh when Robry and Bria attempt some 1950's jitterbug twirls and flips. Several curious dolphins flash in and out of the cave, excited by the music and all the commotion.

The cheering is so intense that when they finish, Ocho and Shadow have to play two encores. At the end of their performance, my dad goes up to congratulate them.

"I hope you two will teach others how to play these instruments, and I definitely think we need to have a series of dances. I had no idea Doc Iharu could bust moves like that."

As I look at Ocho and Shadow smiling as they are besieged by their new fans, I can't believe either of them would betray us to Ran Kuron.


Copyright: Polly Holyoke, 2017