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THE NEPTUNE PROMISE

Chapter One

The Neptune Promise

Coming this fall!

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."


Copyright: Polly Holyoke, 2017