The Neptune Challenge


By Polly Holyoke

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Danger lurks beneath. . . .

Genetically engineered to survive in the ocean, Nere and her friends are recovering from their treacherous journey to Safety Harbor, an undersea refuge founded by the scientists of the Neptune Project. But plenty of enemies prowl just outside the colony's boundaries, and when two of the children are kidnapped, Nere, her loyal dolphins, and the other Neptune kids must set out on an expedition even more perilous than their first.

Tasked with infiltrating the kidnapper's high-tech undersea base, Nere soon discovers that rescuing the missing Neptune kids isn't all there is to her mission: the secret to saving the world's oceans is hidden somewhere deep inside this vast fortress, and she and her friends will have to risk everything to find it.

With bloodthirsty shark mutates and savage kids roaming the corridors, will Nere and her companions find a way to save their friends, themselves, and their underwater world? The stakes couldn't be higher in this thrilling sequel to the award-winning The Neptune Project.

Praise for The Neptune Project

2016-2017 Sunshine State Young Readers Award winner 
2014-2015 Texas Bluebonnet Master List
Maryland Black-Eyed Susan Book Award nominee
Bank Street Best Children's Books of the Year, 2014

"Holyoke keeps her prose well-pitched to her audience . . . this suspenseful, undersea dystopia should keep middle schoolers hooked." —Kirkus Reviews

"The book revels in the beauty of the underwater world and the creatures that inhabit it. The relationship between the teenagers and the dolphins — who actually become characters themselves-is especially well crafted. The Neptune Project will attract male and female readers." — VOYA



The Neptune Project

Copyright © 2015 by Polly Holyoke
Cover illustration © 2015 by Christian Fuenfhausen and Shane Rebenschied
Cover design by Christian Fuenfhausen

All rights reserved. Published by Disney • Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Disney • Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.

ISBN 978-1-4847-1944-2



SOMETHING NIBBLED at my nose. Forcing my eyes open, I spot a persistent little yellowtail rockfish swimming in circles over my face. Impatiently, I brush the fish away and check my dive watch. I groan when I see it’s only 5:00 a.m. We don’t have to be up for another hour, but I know I won’t be able to fall asleep again. Even though I’m finally safe at my father’s colony, I’m still wired from all the nights I spent in the open ocean alert for predators.

Staring at the black rock ceiling over my head, I punch the small pillow built into my sleeping hammock, then turn over on my side. The light in our dorm cave is dim, but I can see Bria curled up like a little kitten in the hammock next to mine, her fine brown hair drifting about her face. Ree sleeps on the other side of Bria, her speargun within easy reach. I’m not the only one still adjusting to Safety Harbor.

I unclip its fastenings, slip from my hammock, and tug on my seasuit, grinning when I realize my friend Lena is sleeping with her mouth wide open. She wouldn’t like it if the boys at the colony could see her now. Beyond Lena, dozens more girls sleep in hammocks tied in neat rows.

Trying not to think about how many girls I have to live with now, I pull Bria’s blanket up around her shoulders and swim to the surface to watch the sun rise. Even without travel fins, I cut through the black sea easily. Popping my head out of the water, I draw in a breath of air. It feels dry and strange in my lungs.

Since surviving the Neptune transformation two months ago, I mostly breathe water now, but I still surface to watch sunsets and sunrises whenever I can. They’re one part of my old life on land I won’t give up.

Our Safety Harbor inlet is calm this morning. Small swells lift and lower me gently. Already the sky overhead is starting to gray, and clouds along the horizon blush pink and red. I can just make out the hardy spruce trees that cling to sharp outcroppings along the shore. The morning is quiet except for the rush of the nearby surf and the cry of a gull winging its way across the dawn sky.

Mariah, the leader of my family’s dolphin pod, finds me bobbing on the swells. Her little calf, Tisi, swims a tight circle around me while her daughter Sokya rushes up and flips water in my face.

:what worries you this morning?: Mariah asks as she cranes her head out of the water so she can see me better. At forty, Mariah is a grandmother several times over. Her teeth are a little worn, and her right side is scarred by an old shark bite, but her eyes are still bright with intelligence.

Mariah is also amazing at reading my moods.

:There’re so many people at Safety Harbor,: I try to explain while I rub Sokya’s favorite spot, in front of her dorsal. The slick, rubbery feel of her skin is familiar and comforting. :And they all think Dad’s awesome and great at running things. I’m afraid they expect me to be just like him. That Janni girl wants me to join her Sea Rangers and help fight the Marine Guard and sharks, but I just want to work with dolphins.:

:you led us safely here through many fights and many miles of sea,: Mariah reminds me.

I wince, remembering the dangerous journey my friends and I had to make from the southern sector to reach my father’s colony. I hadn’t really led everyone here safely: two of our group died on our trip to Safety Harbor, and we lost sweet Pani, one of Mariah’s granddaughters, all killed by Marine Guard divers sent by the Western Collective to capture or eliminate us.

:We never would have made it here without your help,: I say to Mariah.

:I helped the most,: Sokya declares. She leaps out of the water and lands on her side, dousing me with a wave.

:we helped each other on that journey,: Mariah replies, and I reach out and gently scratch her melon.

Moments later, Tobin surfaces nearby. Even wet, his hair glints cedar red. His green eyes light up when he spots me and he swims closer. Sokya and Mariah both rush to greet him. All the dolphins in our pod like Tobin.

“Hey, Nere, you’re up early,” he says with a smile.

“I couldn’t sleep in.” I smile back at him.

“Me neither.”

We say little as we float together and watch the skies brighten from gray to lavender to blue. Just being around Tobin and the dolphins relaxes me. I let my mind drift.

Suddenly, on the very edges of my awareness, I sense a mental touch. :Nere!: I think I hear someone call me. The contact is faint, but I sense the caller’s desperate urgency.

“Did you hear that?” I ask Tobin.

“Hear what?”

“I thought I heard someone calling my name telepathically.”

“I didn’t hear anything, but you have a longer range than I do.”

I keep listening hard, but the call doesn’t come again.

When the sun touches the tops of the waves and burnishes them bright gold, Tobin clears his throat. “It’s great out here, but I’m way ready for breakfast. If we don’t eat now, we’ll be late for our jobs.”

“Yeah, we’d better go.” I glance uneasily toward the strait. I’m sure I didn’t imagine that call, or the need in it.

:I will come and help you teach the young ones later,: Mariah promises before she swims away with Sokya and Tisi in her wake.

I slip beneath the surface and follow Tobin as he heads for the mess cave. Safety Harbor is really just a narrow inlet several miles long lined with caves and smaller coves along the northern side of the Queen Charlotte Strait. Despite the scorching temperatures farther south, the waters here are still cold and so rich with nutrients, the steep rock walls of the colony are covered with scarlet corals, feathery pink sea fans, and white sponges.

More kids are awake now and heading for breakfast just like Tobin and me. I smile when I see Robry ahead of us in line, rubbing his dark brown eyes, his black hair still tangled from sleep. Even though Robry’s only ten, he’s growing up to look amazingly like his big brother. My heart twists when I think of Cam, my best friend I had to leave back home.

Inside the mess cave, one of my father’s helpers in scuba gear supervises our food prep, and the other watches to make sure we don’t mess around too much. At breakfast things are usually pretty calm, but there are over three hundred of us here now, and during lunch and dinner the mess cave can get a little wild. When I pass through the food line, the kids on breakfast duty hand me a fresh piece of salmon in a food pouch and a container of wakame mash.

Luckily, Ree and Thom, two of our friends from the southern sector, are already there and eating together, so Robry, Tobin, and I swim over and join them. Most of the kids at Safety Harbor are friendly, but I’m not great at hanging out with new people.

:Buenos días, boss,: Ree greets me. Because of her strong nose and dark eyebrows, I think she looks like a fierce Mayan princess.

:I’m not your boss anymore. Janni’s our boss now, and that’s fine by me,: I reply absently. I’m still listening for that mysterious telepathic call again.

Ree glances over at Janni, a strong, stocky girl who’s chief of the Sea Rangers, an elite group chosen for their skills in fighting and sea survival. :Janni does look pretty tough,: Ree admits admiringly.

As if she can feel us looking at her, Janni turns our way. She nods to me but doesn’t smile. She was really nice when we first arrived, but for some reason she’s been less friendly toward me recently.

:So who’s going to try out for the Sea Rangers?: Ree asks everyone.

:I am,: Thom declares. :I’m gonna go crazy if I have to spend another day firing spear darts at targets.: Tall, with a craggy face and big hands, Thom grew up with a band of guerrillas determined to topple the Western Collective, so he’s more used to action and fighting than the rest of us.

Bria and Lena come over and join us. Bria seems bright and cheerful as always, but Lena looks like she’s still half asleep.

Ree nudges Thom while she sends Lena a teasing grin. :Hey, I thought you were going to sleep through your classes and work shifts today, Sleeping Beauty.:

Thom looks away uncomfortably. I know he won’t join Ree’s teasing because he has a huge crush on Lena.

:If you say another word to me before I’ve woken up, I’ll cut your braids off,: Lena threatens Ree.

:Someone woke up on the wrong side of her hammock this morning,: Ree says, her black eyes dancing.

:Hey, Ree,: I say to distract her, :isn’t that the guy you thought was muy guapo when we were training at the Gymnasium yesterday?:

Ree whips around to look, and Lena sends me a grateful smile as she starts nibbling at her salmon.

:Here’s Safety’s Harbor’s newest hero,: Tobin greets Penn.

:Hi guys,: Penn says. A little older than the rest of us, Penn is part Chinese. Yesterday he became one of the most popular kids in the colony when he figured out a way to stream music into our ear receivers, the tiny implants that help us communicate with my dad’s non-telepathic helper staff.

:Penn, you’d really be my hero if you can find a way to make seaweed taste better.: Lena opens her food container and glares at her wakame mash. She scoops out a portion with her fingers and closes the box before the rest floats away.

:Sorry,: he says with a smile and a shrug. :I’m better with computers. I’d probably poison everyone if you turned me loose in the kitchen.:

:Is Lena complaining about the food again?: asks Kalli, swimming over to join us after finishing her breakfast shift. Skinny and smart, with brown skin and a quick smile, Kalli already seems to know everyone in Safety Harbor.

:Lena’s right. Breakfast shouldn’t be all green and mushy,: Bria says as she frowns at the portion of mash she’s holding in her fingers.

:It’s not so bad,: Robry says seriously. :It’s full of minerals, vitamins, carbs, and fiber we can’t get from fish.:

:Thanks for the food lecture, Dr. Cruz.: Lena rolls her eyes at him.

:At least we’re not really having SEE-food for breakfast,: Robry replies with a mischievous gleam in his eye. :Oops, now we are.: He opens his mouth so wide that Bria and Lena can’t help but see the green mash all over his teeth. A small piece of seaweed floats out of his mouth and hovers over their table.

:Eww! That’s disgusting,: Bria shrieks, but I can tell she’s trying not to giggle.

:If your breakfast is so disgusting, I’ll have it,: Tobin says with pretend eagerness and grabs for his little sister’s mash container.

:No way. This is my breakfast,: Bria declares, and Tobin winks at me.

:You could sign up to join the cook crew,: Kalli suggests to Lena, who’s starting to look a little green herself. :They’re always looking for people to help out.:

:I just might do that,: Lena surprises me by saying. :I liked cooking back home. Someone has to do something to make the food around here edible.:

:Go for it, Chef Lena!: Ree grins at her.

As soon as we finish breakfast, we check the screens set into the dark rock walls by the cave’s entrance. I’m scheduled to help out at Dolphin Bay this morning.

:Looks like most of us have a local sea-life class this afternoon,: Penn points out.

:They probably want to teach us not to pet the anemones,: Thom says glumly.

:I wish they wouldn’t treat us like total sea newbies after we survived our little thousand-mile trip here.: Kalli shakes her head.

After grabbing our fins from the dorm caves, we thread our way through dozens of other kids swimming to their morning jobs and classes located in caves and coves throughout the colony. Tobin and Thom swim along with me, since they’re heading for the Gymnasium—a wide sandy cove where the Sea Rangers teach fighting and survival skills—which is right next to Dolphin Bay.

I smile when I spot a red Irish lord sculpin below us on the floor of the inlet. The small, shy fish is trying to hide in a mass of scarlet soft corals surrounded by a rainbow of purple, pink, orange, and blue anemones. We’ve just reached the deep channel that leads to Dolphin Bay when I feel that distant mental touch again.

:Nere, I need your help.:

This time the contact is strong enough that I know exactly who it is. I catch Tobin’s arm before he can swim on.

:Tobin, I know who’s been trying to reach me. It’s my brother, James, and I think he’s in trouble!:

I CLOSE MY EYES and concentrate on reaching out telepathically to my big brother. :Are you okay? How can we help?:

:I’m hurt and I’m adrift in a small boat. I—I keep blacking out.:

:Where are you?:

:Five or six miles southwest of Safety Harbor. There’s a small rocky island covered with trees just east of me.:

:Hundreds of islands around here look like that.: I can’t keep my fear and frustration from my mental voice.

:This one has a tall rock on one end that looks like a tower. Nere, you gotta find me before the Marine Guard does.: His mental voice is so weak, I can barely hear him now.

:We will,: I promise him. :Hang on.:

I open my eyes to see that Tobin and Thom are watching me. :What’s up with your brother?: Tobin asks.

:He’s injured and he’s stranded in a small boat somewhere south of here. He cut out his locater chip more than a year ago. If the Marine Guard finds him, they’ll send him off to a prison camp for sure. We gotta tell my dad. Come on.:

As we hurry back toward the home caves, I call the pod, and soon eleven excited Pacific white-sided dolphins are dipping and swirling around us. I ask Sokya for a tow, and after she darts in close, I catch hold of her dorsal fin. Seconds later, we’re flashing through the water way faster than I can swim on my own. I glance over my shoulder and see that Tobin and Thom are getting towed by their dolphin partners, too.

Mariah swims up beside us with Tisi, and I tell her about James contacting me.

:we will find your brother. now our pod will finally be together again.:

I so hope she’s right. James had good reasons to stay behind in the Channel Islands, but things must have gotten even worse down south if he was desperate enough to make his way here.

People look startled and curious as we race past.

:Kalli, have you seen my dad?: I call as we speed by her.

:Yeah, I’m pretty sure he was heading topside. What’s going on?:

:Tell ya later.:

We find my dad in the shallow sea cave that leads to the colony’s surface buildings. After I pop my head out of the water, I see he’s in the midst of taking off his mask and flippers.

“Hey, Dad,” I call out to him. His face lights with a smile when he sees me.

“Good morning, sweetling. I looked for you in the mess cave, but I must have just missed you.”

A pang shoots through me as he speaks. After he and my mom staged his death so he could come here and build Safety Harbor, I thought I’d never hear Dad call me “sweetling” again.

“James contacted me,” I say, “and he’s hurt.” Quickly I fill him in. My dad’s smile fades as I talk, and his brows draw together.

“I don’t think we can risk sending a boat for him until nightfall,” he says reluctantly. “The strait is crawling with ships this morning. I don’t know what’s happening out there, but something big’s going on.”

“Then send us,” I say. I glance at my two friends, and they both nod eagerly to show they’re in. “We’ll swim under the surface and the pod will help us find him. Tobin’s a good medic, and he can treat James until you can send a boat for him tonight after it’s dark.” At least I hope Tobin can keep him alive until then.

“But the Marine Guard might pick you up on sonar.”

“Dad, that was a threat we faced every day on our way here,” I say, not even trying to hide my impatience. Sometimes I think he forgets we managed to survive for weeks in the ocean with no help from adults.

He swims closer and places a hand on my shoulder. “I know, but I just got you back,” he says, his gaze steady.

Please, James sounded so weak, and you know Mariah’s the best at search and rescue.”

“All right.” He drops his hand and takes a deep breath. “If you survived a voyage from San Diego up the Western Collective to Canada, you can probably survive a few hours out there in the strait. You three hurry and get your travel gear, but you’re going to take two of our best Sea Rangers with you. They know the waters around here.”

I sigh in relief, and the dolphins whisk us back to the dorm caves. Within minutes, Thom, Tobin, and I are ready with seapacks and spearguns, and we meet up with Janni and Rohan, the two Sea Rangers my dad chose to accompany us. Rohan, a quiet Indian boy, nods to Tobin. They’re already friends because Rohan is a medic, too.

:I need to inspect your spearguns and seapacks before we cross the perimeter,: Janni announces abruptly.

Thom, Tobin, and I glance at one another. Does she really think we don’t know how to take care of our equipment? James might not have time for this! Biting back a protest, I hand her my speargun.

She looks it over. :These bands will need to be changed soon.:

:But not yet,: I say.

:Not yet,: she admits grudgingly and moves on to my seapack. What is up with her? Just as Janni finishes inspecting all of our gear, my dad approaches us. Beside him is Vival, the stern-faced woman in charge of the Sea Ranger program.

“Because Janni knows these waters best, I’m placing her in command of this expedition.” Vival speaks to us through a transmitter in her dive mask. Neither she nor my dad is a telepath.

“But, Nere,” my dad adds through his own transmitter, “you’re in charge of dolphin communications and their search. I want you to save James, but you can’t risk getting caught and revealing the existence of this colony to the Western Collective, the Canadians, or anyone else. Good luck.”

He swims forward to give me a hug. I try to hug him back, but it’s hard to embrace someone wearing a wet suit, a dive belt, and an oxygen tank. I give Janni a sideways glance afterward. She doesn’t look happy about my father’s orders.

:You guys ready?: she asks. We nod, and she signals a Safety Harbor dolphin to give her a tow. We pair up with our own dolphins, and soon we’re speeding toward the shimmering silver wall of bubbles that stretches across the narrow mouth of Safety Harbor. That wall protects the entire colony from sharks, other predators, and scavenger fish. As we cross it, all I can see are bubbles, and they tickle my face and hands.

Then we’re through the wall and heading west. Drawing in a deep breath, I realize this is the first time I’ve been outside the perimeter since we arrived at Safety Harbor a week ago. I tighten my grip on my speargun and look around carefully for any sign of danger. Visibility is good today, which means we can see almost forty feet ahead through the clear green water. A small school of mackerel flows past us, sunlight glinting on their stripes and silver scales. We pass a tall yellow-brown forest of kelp, and I almost smile when I spot several harbor seals watching us curiously out of their big, dark eyes.

As we travel swiftly below the surface, I relay to Rohan and Janni everything James told me about his location.

:It sounds like he’s probably near Tegan Island,: Janni says. :That has a big rock spike on its south end. We’ll start our search there.:

A few minutes later, the dolphins sense a ship. My heart beats faster as we scatter and dive deep to avoid sonar detection. Luckily, the ship continues up the strait without slowing, but soon we encounter three more ships traveling together in a convoy, and we have to dive and hide again.

After we turn to avoid a fifth ship, Janni shakes her head. :I’ve never seen this much boat traffic out here.:

:At least they don’t seem to be hunting us for a change,: Rohan points out with a serious smile.

I try to reach out to James, but he doesn’t respond to my mental calls. His range is so limited, I’m surprised he reached me in the first place. But sometimes when telepaths are desperate, they can broadcast their thoughts more strongly. Tobin must sense how worried I am, because he and Mali move up beside me.

:Hey, we’ll find your brother, and he’ll be okay,: Tobin reassures me.

:I hope you’re right. James can be a real pain sometimes, but he’s the only brother I’ve got.:

:Why didn’t he come north when you did? All you’ve ever really told me about James is that his Neptune transformation failed.:

I choose my words carefully. James has some secrets I can’t ever tell. :It didn’t completely fail. He had some strong telepathic abilities he inherited from my mother, and the transformation intensified those. The problem is, his ability to shield didn’t switch on. So James hears every thought of every person near him, all the time.:

:Being around other people must drive him crazy after a few hours.:

:That’s why he was happier living all by himself out in the Channel Islands.:

:That still had to get pretty lonely after a while,: Tobin says, shaking his head.

I try to reach out to James again a few minutes later.

:Nere?: I hear him reply, but his mental touch is much fainter than before.

:We’re coming, but is there some way you can mark your boat? I don’t want to risk swimming up to the wrong one and having someone spot us.:

:Th-thought of that already. Look for a gray dinghy with the motor hanging below it. Since it conked, I’m using it as a sea anchor.:

:Where are you now?:

:N-not sure. Think I’ve drifted a long way from that island.:

:Hang in there. We are going to find you.:

Quickly, I relay to my human companions what James just told me. When we reach the island, we risk surfacing, but there’s no sign of James’s dinghy. I choke back a sob. The wind is picking up, and it could have pushed his light little boat miles from here by now.

We duck back under the waves. Janni pulls out a chart and calmly assigns each of us an area to search while my dolphins swim around us in circles, squeaking and whistling in their excitement.

:we will start soon?: Sokya asks me repeatedly. The pod loves to look for people. Her brother, Densil, who is much more steady and thoughtful than Sokya, swims up beside me.

:we will find your brother in time,: he promises. :I will be happy to see him again.:

:Thanks, Densil,: I say, leaning into him for comfort. :I know you’ll find him, and he’ll be glad to see you, too.: But will my brother be okay?



  • 2014-2015 Texas Bluebonnet Master List
  • Maryland Black-Eyed Susan Book Award nominee
  • Bank Street Best Children's Books of the Year, 2014
  • 2015 Buckeye Children's Book Award nominee

    "Holyoke keeps her prose well-pitched to her audience...this suspenseful, undersea dystopia should keep middle schoolers hooked."—Kirkus Reviews

    "The book revels in the beauty of the underwater world and the creatures that inhabit it. The relationship between the teenagers and the dolphins-who actually become characters themselves-is especially well crafted. The Neptune Project will attract male and female readers."—VOYA

    "[L]ots of adventure, suspense, and underwater scenes . . . [for] readers who are looking for a slightly different dystopian adventure or those who just dream of living in the ocean and playing with dolphins."—School Library Journal

    "This fast-paced science fiction adventure with well-developed characters offers a vivid and exciting oceanic setting complete with villains, dangerous sea creatures, and protective dolphin friends."—Horn Book

On Sale
May 10, 2016
Page Count
352 pages

Polly Holyoke

About the Author

Polly Holyoke ( grew up in Colorado where she spent her childhood skiing, camping, reading, and dreaming up stories. Polly went on to graduate from Middlebury College, become a middle school social studies teacher, and write The Neptune Project. She lives in Plano, Texas with her husband and their two daughters, as well as two cats, two Chihuahuas, and a Beagle.

Learn more about this author