|Krill creature by Alvaro Migotto|
Zebe's apparent presence in Monster-Moored begins way back in Mortal, part 1 of the series. But her actual story begins here, just before Joe Loreno takes home a flask of the mysterious quick-gro material and spreads it over the Byron Bay hinterland with disastrous consequences for our hero.
Zebe flitted to the wet room before dawn. And anyway, in the below-sea-level tunnel of aquaria, dawn was a foreign concept. Lights would begin to glow in the different tanks at the appropriate times for their individual days to start. Each tank had its own cycle.
She’d stayed all day yesterday watching the mysterious new process, like a rabbit trapped in a python’s stare. By the end of the day, the mass moved of its own accord with silver specks glittering through it as if they were alive.
She laughed nervously because this morning krill-type beings swarmed through the tank. All of them with a silver element in their body organisation. Oh way oh way, she thought in the sing-song voice of her South African grandmother when something didn’t compute and had to have a new way thinking applied to it.
She pulled across the overhead robo-cam by its extendable arm. She used the macro function and snapped a couple of 100x magnification close-ups and she saved to her workstation in the dry-research department.
The saltwater-rotted two-way communication system crackled into life. “Zebe! Up here! Now!”
Uh oh. Joe Loreno, sea-life expert of renown and sounding peremptory. Zebe didn’t answer, not wanting him to know where she hung out these days. She ran silently through the staff byways that cut through and across public access areas.
Man wasn’t in his office.
By way of the two-way and a speaker near his desk, he said, “I’m at your workstation.” As if he could see her.
Her heart sank with fear that Joe’s displeasure would prevent her from concocting the greatest cover-up she’d ever be involved in. Touch wood that there wasn’t a greater one just around the corner. She zigzagged between the workstations. No one else up yet was good. Joe at her actual desk, glowering at her most recent files open in front of him, not so good.
She came up behind him. “Yes?” Like Beardy, she never gave Joe the satisfaction of hearing her call him boss.
Joe gestured at the monitor looping a five-second take of the silvered krill. “That is a near-extinct species. Not seen for a good few years. Yet the loop is framed as if by the display window of our aquaria. I know for a fact we don’t have any of these little beauties in our collection. Beardy, the krill expert, will tell you the same.”
Joe always got talkative when he stressed over something. Zebe puffed. “Long story.” She pulled a couple of heaving breaths into her lungs. She was out of condition. Take up long-distance swimming? Don’t think so.
Joe got up from her chair. “We’ll go to the wet room. You can tell me there.”
“I don’t think we should leave that … swimming up there,” Zebe said.
“Why not?” he said belligerently. “Because your buddies will know instantly it’s a recovering species? The greatest sign of hope and you want to keep it from your mates?”
“It mightn’t be what it looks like.”
“Is it or is it not?”
“I was coming up to compare it to the database.” She reached past him to the keyboard.
He gripped her wrist. Squeezed her fingers cruelly.
Bastard. “It really isn’t good seeing this without first knowing the whole story.” Oh way, show me a way. She waited for him to release her hand, then closed the file and switched off the monitor.
They met no one, retracing her footsteps. Her vaunted workmates still in bed, in the accommodation wing, not knowing there was anything afoot to hurry to work for. Only public visiting days got anyone out of their quarters punctually.
The wet room smelled of salt, rotting algae and seepage. The complex was a hundred years old and there still hadn’t been a product invented that could keep out the ocean.
Zebe forced herself not to look at the curtained krill-filled tank. Fortunately, she had left the robocam on its arm pointing away. She led straight to the jars, to start at the beginning.
Joe said, “Did you really think I wouldn’t wonder if you cleaned out the wet room before dawn, and spent half a day on the waterworks?”
“That was a few days ago. I suppose you were up in the cafe?” When the complex was closed to tourists, the staff used the facilities for their recreations. The cafe/restaurant was usually above water while their common room was always below the waterline. He must have seen her on the seawater intake pontoon, fiddling with the plumbing.
“Beardy says your sister works at SoHAB,” Joe said. “What have they got we haven’t?” Clownishly he hit himself on the head. “Why, the alien of course.”
Joe was completely enraptured with his four-year-old daughter. Mostly his co-workers forgave him his kiddie-theatrics. This time, he was over the top. Zebe rolled her eyes.
He grabbed her shoulders and shouted into her face. “I demand to know what you brought into my facility!”
His facility. Pff. “Okay okay, I heard you.” Should she further inflame the situation by wiping his spit from her face? Maybe not. But no way would she give him Cele, and therefore the dolphinate, and so also Callum.