The Receptive Ocean
by Robert L. Read
I have never tasted a cookie. You need flour and sugar and butter to make cookies, and we can trade for a little flour and sugar, but even the landsmen don't have butter. Trickster's eighth birthday is in ten days, and he would love to eat a cookie, I just know he would, no matter what Dad says about dolphins eating only fish. Pelican fat is almost like butter, I think.
One was preening on the surface. With my spear I swam in the cool water at three fathoms to sneak below it. Then the ranging chirp of a dolphin hit me. It's just Trickster looking for me, I thought. He's my best friend, but teenage boy-dolphins never leave you in peace. But it wasn't Trickster at all.
The pelican flew away, and then the most ginormous dolphin I had ever seen glided into position directly above me and stayed right there. I tried to get its attention by croaking "Um hum". He surely must have heard me. His silence creeped me out.
I was well inside our water, close to the old sunken ship we used as the home bell. No thinking creature disses Sarah's water lightly. A dolphin from another pod should have been very polite to me here. I tried to rise well to the side, but it stayed right above me. I felt my stomach clench and I almost peed. I needed to breathe soon.
I tried to swim around the creep as fast as I could but it hit me on the head with its beak. I dropped my kelp net and pretended to poke it with my spear.
"Drop your metal," he said. He had something in his mouth. Even though dolphins use their melons, not their mouths, to speak, his accent was terrible, like he was making fun of dolphin's English, or as if he had never heard a human speak English.
I shook my head, but what else could I do? He was a monster, more than four meters long, and weighed at least 600 kilos.
"Drop your spear, and I will let you breathe," he said.
I waited. Dad says I always panic too early since Mom drowned, but I knew I was close to blacking out. I dropped my spear and formed a beak with my hands over my head and kicked straight upward with my artificial fluke.
Suddenly it was hard to see through my fogged goggles in the bright light. My back rested against the melon of a dolphin. I felt comfy, forgetting what had happened and where I was. He must have pushed me to the surface after I passed out. Then I turned over and saw the forearm in its mouth.
I pushed away, but you can't flee a dolphin.
"You are one of the Hartmans," he said. He swam around me, looking at me as he porpoised. He was a very blue gray, like the sky seen through a touch of fog, with a jellyfish-white belly.
"Yes, sir, I am Jill Hartman," I said.
"What are the names of your dolphins?"
"Sarah, Marnie, Bullet, Homer--"
"Tell me their true names."
"Sara'atheestra, Bultimet, Marmneeski, J'othiisat,..." I went on until I had spoken all twelve as well as I could.
"Good weapons you give me, little ape. I want you to give a message to Kyle Hartman and Sara'atheestra. Retrieve your kelp net, and take this trophy to them. Tell them: a Servant of the Blessed Ones has come for vengeance. Kyle Hartman is condemned to torture and death for the crime of killing the world. Sara'atheestra may bring me the hands of Kyle Hartman to earn mercy. If she has not done so in four days, Sara'atheestra is condemned to death for the crime of consorting with the destroyers."
I should have lied about our names. The world was dying even before my dad was born. Dad and Sarah had never hurt anybody intentionally--but they were about to.
I dove down ten fathoms. That's a hard dive for me. Little sunlight gets that deep. The dolphin showed me where the net was in the ooze. I could hear that he was studying the way I swam and my fluke. We make our flukes by hand out of shark hide, whale bone, and aluminum pulleys. When fitted to the feet and strapped on below the knee, they allow the muscles of the lower leg to angle the foil with twice the bendiness of the ankle. The strong muscles of the upper leg wiggle it up and down. This makes the natural swimming wiggle bigger, more like a dolphin's. We stuff the hide foil with feathers and inflate it enough to avoid sinky feet, but not enough to make floaty feet.
He followed me up to breathe.
"Say the message back to me."
"Correct. The next time I hear you, you will die. I will kill you and all the perverted dolphins who live with you. Pray for mercy on destroyers everywhere."
He dropped the arm. I encircled it with my net. I could not bear to touch it, although Linda had stroked me to sleep with it a thousand times since my mother was received by Ocean. Linda had been hunting snapper at what had once been the town of Port Comfort and where some buildings still stuck up above the water line. She had been guarded by Silver, one of our strongest bulls.
He grabbed my fluke in his mouth and shook it until the bands broke off my legs. He crunched on it with his jaws until it was nothing more than a pile of trash. Now I felt really naked. We had extras back at the home bell, but it is hard to make a perfect fluke like the one I had. It would take me an hour to swim back to the bell without it.
"Soon we will find a way to hunt you off even the driest land, but you have never had a place in Ocean."
He said the last word in the language of the Blessed Ones that humans can't say, but I knew what he meant.
"Sir, where should I tell Sarah to find you?" I asked with a little too much pride. If we knew where he would be, we could all hunt him down together. I think he might have been able to hear inside of me and what I was thinking, because he just turned away and swam off with hardly a motion of his tail.
I whistled a dolphin curse at him but he didn't care.
Listen now, children and calves, to the history of our tribe, the Hartmans, in the time that the dolphin calling himself "the Servant" made war on us. I was a young bull then, all reckless ambition and foolish pride. Jill Hartman, who bore Steven and Maryam, was only half-grown, though my equal in years.
Now Jill was a brave and intelligent girl, but a bit naughty, as all children are. She had played some trick on us and swam out unescorted on one of those errands that seem all-important to a child. When we realized she was unescorted, I rushed to find her. Her heatbeat sang fear and anger to me beyond her fear that I or her father might punish her. She had been used by the beast to send us an ultimatum to betray our chief, the man called Major Kyle Hartman, from whom our tribe takes its name in English. She was fluke-nude. The servant had given her a trophy. When I heard it, my heart sank. It was proof that he had slain a woman who had been under the protection of my brother, Silver. My brother, and my better. The strongest and fastest of us all. In my foolish pride, I believed that nothing could have slain my brother, and like a coward I wondered if he had harkened to the devious lies of the Servant. I hope none of you will ever be so faint-hearted.
I pulled Jill to the meeting bell, which was much like this one. Jill's sire, Kyle Hartman, had patched and raised the inverted hull of a shipwreck that we kept submerged at two fathoms on heavy chains. We all met there, and the humans could sleep there and be somewhat dry. I trumpeted the cry of assembly.
When Silver and I joined Sarah's pod, we dreamed of dominating Kyle and being the chief bulls. But Kyle disarmed us by immediately beginning to train us to replace him. He taught us warcraft, which we loved, and to speak English, which we loathed at first. Speaking did not come quickly to Silver and I as it did to some of the others who had been tutored since awakening in the womb, and we hated to be outdone. But Kyle was as patient as the sun, and once we could understand the stories that they read each night, we thought "It is worth waiting to lead a tribe that can do such things." Since that time, it is the tradition of our tribe that the chief must prepare the others, who must be patient.
Now that Silver was gone, I was the chief bull of all the dolphins, and all the men save Kyle. I set aside my desire to act alone in vengenance, and resolved to do as Sarah and Kyle would direct.
Now you have all heard many tales, even legends, of Sarah, and how her famous ancestors have lived in the Gulf for centuries. I tell you plainly her body was completely normal. Her voice was the love-song of an aeon. Once I heard her voice, I knew I would remain in her pod forever, and would not cause strife with the humans against her will.
Eleven dolphins, four calves and ten humans crowded the bell. When everyone had their heads up to hear, Jill told her story and repeated the vile threats of the Servant. We heard how impossibly huge the Servant was. None of us dolphins then were longer than three meters, and of course humans are not even two meters long without a fluke. Sarah sat perfectly still for five full seconds with her heart racing. I had never before heard her think for so long.
Finally Sarah said, "The Servant is so large because he is a Pacific dolphin, from the far North, although he is the same species as we. Rumor of his infamy precedes him. He is a zealot, and a liar."
Then Kyle said, "What the hell is he doing in the Gulf?"
Kyle taught me to use strong language only for intentional effect. Leaders must be disciplined. He was trying to make the Servant appear alien and out of place.
"He is at war with all men. Those that he can reach, he fights." said Sarah.
"Can we hunt him, Sarah?" asked Kyle.
"He will be faster and have more endurance than any of us. I doubt any four of us can defeat him in battle, without metal. If he challenges us, six dolphins could kill him--probably. He is patient; he is pure of purpose. He will lie to divide us. He lives alone, and abstains from sex ..." we squawked and raspberried at this perversity "... and is rumored to have wiped out whole tribes methodically before he came here. He has no fear of metal, but never uses it."
The humans back then sometimes made fun of dolphin fear of being cut or stabbed. You use your little fingers for so many things that they often get small cuts that bleed alarmingly. It hardens you, as we are hardened to bruises and teeth-rakes.
"Can we trick him, Sarah?" asked Kyle
Sarah replied, "Perhaps."
Then Kyle said, "Okay, from now on, we forage in groups of four. Two humans, with spears and at least one speargun, and two dolphins. Agreed, Sarah?"
Sarah agreed to this. I wanted to argue, "No, we must hunt him now, right now." But he who cannot obey cannot command. Neither I nor Sarah nor Kyle knew how to find a lone dolphin in Ocean.
Trickster (that's me) and Bullet and Conchita,
and little Jill, Jill Jilleto, Jill the Stiletto
were hunting drum.
We dolphins herd, girls shoot speargun,
works real well, that's a way we get 'em,
when Jill saw a giant bird.
I spyhopped to name it but hadn't the word.
Too big to be an al-ba-tross.
Maybe six meters across.
I said, "Who cares? Some big stupid bird."
But she said, no, it has a face.
But then it came down, fast like a gull,
and even I could see it was a man
with wings, or a boy, not big, but muscled.
Bullet said, "We must evade him, underwater.
If he finds the bell--we're in for slaughter.
Stay at two fathoms, go as far as you can,
then porpoise once, and dive again."
(Bullet thinks he is in charge.)
Me and Bullet we're dark on top,
and Conchita and Jill are brown all over,
hard to see when we're deep.
The girls can hold pretty long, but not if they swim
--dy-nam-ic ap-ne-a really takes it out of them.
Holding for dolphins is not bad at all;
and the humans get better with practice,
but Conchita, and especially Jill, are small,
so they can't hold much air.
Bullet and I let them share,
breathing from our blowholes,
swimming in our slip,
with their hands on our pec fins.
We had to surface every three minutes.
Eventually, we lost him,
or at least he passed the limits
of our vision.
When we got back to the bell
and told the story, Sarah was upset;
fit to give hell.
"Kyle, what means this? It is beyond my experience," she said.
Then Kyle said, "This reconnaisance means the landsmen know we are here. On the land near here, or on a ship close by, there are folks with enough technology to build wings and enough resources to train and medicate a flyboy. They deem steroids and drugs, and the boy's life, cheaper than the fuel to supply an airplane."
"What will they do?" asked Sarah.
Kyle rubbed his scalp with his hands;
this is a habit of humans.
"Having seen only Conchita and Jill, perhaps nothing. But the fact that the girls swam with dolphins will make them suspicious. If they know where the bell is, they may target us for an attack in numbers or with a bomb."
I didn't want to let Bullet shark the time,
so I asked in English, without rhyme,
"Why should they attack us, Kyle? Surely we are no threat to them. We cannot even enter their territory. Few of us can even walk."
Kyle responded, "They claim all the land, the air, and the water as their territory. They even claim the moon and the planets. They recognize no tribe save their own."
"Do they fear that the creatures of Ocean will unite and emerge against them?" said Sarah.
"The truth is simpler: they fear what they cannot tame and dominate. Their persistent strategy is to attack anything that might pose a threat in the future, however distant that threat may be. This strategy has been very effective: they dominate an entire world they have destroyed."
Sarah said, "What should we do, Kyle?"
"We have practiced every art of war that is open to us. If they attack us and they are stronger, we will die. But they will not be stronger, at least at first. Knowledge is power, and they have very little knowledge of us. They have already driven some of us from land. We are in Ocean and of Ocean. They will have to come to our element if they want to fight."
Kyle is slower than Sarah, but he leads us well.
He loves us all as much as himself.
He knows more about landlubbers than anyone else.
Certainly more than Bullet.
Razor blades, fish hooks, cordage, cloth, sugar, flour, vegetables, vitamins, and medicine. Above all, vitamins for men and women and medicine for dolphins. The red tide and the radiation that the gulf circulates counter-clockwise to us from Houston and New Orleans sickens all of us, and the dolphins require heavy doses of antibiotics. These consumables are stowed with a kilo of negative buoyancy within the water-tight plastic teardrop that Millicent and I tow on the yoke line. Coral, jewels salvaged from the skeletons that once enjoyed boats, shark teeth, shells, sting ray tails and forty kilos of good salted snapper are sufficiently dear to the protein-starved landsmen that they will risk trading with us every full moon. It is a greater risk to us, of course, but we have little choice.
Millicent and I always do our trading with the landsmen. I am old and look like a high school biology teacher, which is what I am, was, before the world crept finally down into hell. Millie is not intimidating unless you look into her eyes, or know what she did during the wars. To disguise our origin we carry clothes like a fisherman would wear in a plastic bag and dress and undress between the dunes. We cannot come into the shore or onto the coast in daylight. Authority is so splintered that we cannot tell exactly who is in charge, but we know everyone shoots at us and the dolphins every chance they get.
The water close to shore is a warm, thick, unwholesome broth enriched by the alluvium of soil erosion, and worse things, transported by the river. In sunlight it is brown or even tan, but tonight's moon struggles to push yellow-tinted shafts into its blackness. I despise murky water and since the disappearance of Silver and the murder of Linda, it terrifies me.
The younger ones in our tribe feel at home in the sea. Is it my weakness, or my wisdom, that makes me fearful of her?
If you don't look at them directly, dynamically camouflaged Haliphron atlanticus, the seven-armed octopus, as heavy as a man, will inch towards you, out of curiosity, one hopes. Isurus oxyrinchus and Isurus paucus, the similar short-finned and long-finned Makos, are fast enough to catch our dolphins, though not as agile and prefer bluer water than the green water in which the bell is anchored. They are deadly, but seem to respect our territory. Every summer Carcharhinus leucas, the bull shark, leaves its own territories to swim up the river to hunt people trying to fish there and their dogs, and to eat the corpses in the river before they reach Sphyrna mokarran, the great hammerhead. The hammerheads batten to half a ton on river offal and other sharks. They sometimes congregate by the hundreds for unknown reasons.
Of course, we need not fear sharks so long as we are protected by dolphins like Mr. Smee and Freak--friendly, intelligent Tursiops truncatus. Intelligent enough to execute complex plans. Intelligent enough to be psychotic. "Perfectly adapted to the sea," is the way they were described when I was a boy. Breathing air was not considered an imperfection by men, who had the arrogance to name ourselves Homo sapiens sapiens, even though it took us a century after the first moon landing to prove that dolphins can be taught human language.
Compared to the ancient creatures of the sea, the dolphins are newcomers, who can only survive because of their exaggerated brains and social cooperation. We have much in common with them.
"The Servant approaches us. Ready your spears," said Mr. Smee.
Damn. We drop the yoke line, and blindly brandish unwieldy weapons at muddy black water. We hold our breath, unwilling to surface until the dolphins direct us, and try to understand what they are saying to the Servant.
"He has retreated," says Freak.
It was only ten seconds, but dolphins converse ten times faster than we. We surface so that we can question the dolphins.
"What did he say?"
"He asked us why we are your pets. We said, no, humans are our pets. He said we should kill you and join him. Then he asked us just to swim away from you and let him take you unaware. We told him to go away. He challenged us both to a dominance duel. We declined. He described what he had done to Linda, and said that Silver had agreed to desert the tribe in exchange for his life."
"Do you believe that? Is that why we never found Silver's body?"
"The Servant is lying. Can you believe that Silver betrayed Linda? He must have killed Silver, and then towed his body far away."
"Are we safe now?"
"No. He sounded furious. We will not be safe until we rejoin the tribe. Let's go."
We swim submerged for efficiency, breathing once a minute for twenty minutes. The dolphins signal silence.
"He is coming from ahead of us. He is barking loudly...he...drives before him...a large sawfish!"
Pristis perotteti, the large-tooth sawfish, can reach 6.4 meters and 650 kilos. It has a thin, two-meter rostrum shaped like a heading sword. Up to 22 pairs of teeth, each a few inches long, jut out horizontally from the rostrum. These benthic creatures have poor eyesight and prefer muddy water. They are not aggressive, but dangerous if surprised or panicked.
"They are forty meters out. The Servant is ten meters behind it. Prepare your spears. We will drive the Servant off. Thirty meters."
"I can't see anything!"
I can hear the Servant barking and snapping; it seems loud even to me. Millicent and I are holding our spearguns defensively, using them like bayonets. We can't aim at what we can't see.
"Now! Shoot him!"
"Shoot the sound!"
The saw resolves out of black water, thrashing from side to side. A long sinuous body propels it. The Servant is the real menace, but I can't see him, and the fish is right here, huge. I shoot at the underdeveloped left eye. My spear glances off shark-like hide. It thrashes. Something tugs my side, so sharp I barely feel it, until the salt stings. The rough tail scrapes my face and arm. The sawfish vanishes into the murk behind us.
"Where is the Servant?"
"The dolphins are after him," said Millicent.
"Did you seem him?"
Millicent and I tread water back-to-back accompanied by only the moon and the waves. Little bait fish make the water nervous and twitchy and we flinch our spears in every direction. There are four fathoms of ink below us. It might as well be four thousand.
"Walter, did it hit you?" asked Millicent.
"Yeah, it nicked a kidney."
Ninety lonely seconds later Freak comes back to us.
"We must flee. Hold on to me, but kick strongly. Keep your spears ready to ward him off."
"Where is Mr. Smee?"
"Mistirsmee will soon be received by Ocean. Walter, you are bleeding profusely, I can taste it."
We swim for some time, but my kicks become feeble. I am just coasting, and then I can not even hang on.
"I must rest," I manage to say.
"He is following us, Walter. We bruised him, but he will press his advantage if he can."
"I'm sorry, I can't go on."
"We won't leave you, Walter. F--"
Freak explodes into motion in mid-word. He can hear the Servant torpedoing towards us. Freak loops back and punches the Servant as his fin hits Millicent's arm and she drops the speargun. The wake rocks me under and fills my mouth. Freak chases the Servant away.
When Freak comes back, he slides alongside Millicent so that she can catch his pectoral fin with her good arm.
"Goodbye, Walter. You have been a good teacher," Freak says to me.
I do a dead man's float all alone in a featureless expanse. Being cold is the final sensation of hypovolemic shock. I know, I am absolutely positive, that the water surrounding me is all-too-warm, but I feel very cold. I loved you all.
Speckles and Homer were guarding us at sixteen-hundred hours. My son Marco was trying to cut lose the crusted hulk of an old outboard at five fathoms. I pretended to supervise it while desperately trying to devise some plan for getting rid of the Servant before he could kill again.
A single-minded enemy of superior mobility harries us. He killed Silver, our strongest bull, and Linda, who had a speargun. Perhaps his agression surprised them. But we lost Walter and Mistirsmee, even with Millie and Freak right there and fully forewarned.
I wish we had found Silver's body. Thank God Bullet and I found Linda's body first and were able to hide it before the others could see the way in which Linda was executed.
The ocean is big. Rommel and Lee would envy such a field of maneuver. Beginners think tactics, amateurs think strategy, professionals think logistics, and the GD Servant has cut our supply lines.
Our dolphins, in sufficient numbers, can resist the Servant, but because he is so similar to them, and yet superior in some ways, they can think of no plan for eliminating him. Despite his size, a single spear might finish him, but he is too clever to give us the chance. We cannot remain tightly together, as a dolphin pod can, and still forage and trade effectively.
Our attempted embassies to the Spanish-speaking raft-people to the East, across the dead zone, were rebuffed. Their dolphins will not risk provoking el diablo azul. The attempt to recruit the pilot whales was useless, as Sarah told me it would be. Even though they have distant kinship with Sarah, the pods to the South and Northeast will have nothing to do with us except to beg us to doctor their sick and wounded.
Until we can lure the Servant out of his element, he masters it, his mastery gives him patience, and his patience will wear us down and break us and we will perish.
At seventeen-hundred-hours they relayed that the landsmen were attacking. When we got back to the bell, I formed up everyone into our practiced battle formation. The frogmen, Trickster said, had the flyboy in the air, and were swimming on the surface but wearing air tanks and foot fins. He said they all had strange metal weapons. He is high-strung at the best of times, and now his English was broken and hard to understand. The slightest panic now would ruin our fighting ability.
Nine humans and ten dolphins remained, not counting calves that would stay with their mothers even during the battle. All of the humans had the articulated flukes that we made from salvaged sheaves, wire rope, sharkskin and whalebone. The frogmen usually wear simple floppy foot fins, which take less training to use and are easier to make, but waste energy and do not even allow one to swim backwards or change direction rapidly. I carried the lunate titanium battle-scythe that I would give Sarah once there was enough room. We all had spearguns and hand spears.
We swam out to meet them where our superior mobility could give us an advantage, away from the assets we kept in the bell. We had a rifle, a stove, a still, a good set of tools, some sound equipment, books, maps, toys, and medicine.
My troops were scared. Jill, especially, seemed to be about to break down. As we swam, I beckoned to Bullet and unobtrusively asked him to protect Jill. I wanted to ask Freak to look after Marco, but I can't hold the tribe together if I am seen as playing favorites. However, Jill is our youngest human. Even if Bullet tells, I don't think anyone will blame me.
Our dolphins, acting as scouts, knew exactly where the enemy frogmen were. I waited until we were just a few minutes away to have us all surface. I knew the flyboy could see us in the moonlight if he was close, but we could not see or hear him. The dolphins were chattering rapidly, but they quieted when I started giving orders.
"These will be our tactics. We'll swim at two fathoms until we are forty meters away. The dolphins will stay behind the humans by forty meters. We will be in a semicircle forty meters wide. When I click, everyone breathe, deeply. I will lead the humans in attacking first. You dolphins will dive and hug the bottom until you are beneath them. The frogmen will probably have spear-guns equipped with grenades..."
"Shush! ... the best defense is to be as close to them as possible. The humans must stay engaged with them at all costs in order to prevent them noticing and targeting the dolphins. We must be inside their formation. We cannot defeat eighty spearguns if they ever get a chance to aim. The dolphins will hit them from below while we are distracting them."
"Hush, Jill. Don't be afraid. We are going to win. We are faster then they are; they can breathe under water, but not if you cut the tube coming out of their mouth. They are swimming but we are swimmers. They have grenades, and numbers, but we have dolphins. We--"
Jill interrupted me.
"Dad, what about the Servant? I'm scared!"
It was my fault that she did that; I had not taught her leadership. There is never enough time. The Servant was a greater danger to us than were the landsmen, but I had not wanted to face this now.
"Oh, yes, the Servant. I had forgotten him," I said. Sarah laughed, and a few of the men and dolphins followed her lead. She might have found me humorous, but I knew she was exaggerating her reaction to encourage us. I love Sarah. "Well, he may enter the battle on our side. If he does, leave him be, but don't get separated. If he attacks any of us, he will taste our spears."
Trickster said, "Kyle, I'm scared. I can't do this. Let me return to the bell!" Trickster is only eight, and left his mother just two years ago. Sarah and Bullet moved over to bite him if necessary to keep discipline.
"Trickster, Jill, listen to me. Even though you are not fully grown, we need every fin and finger in this fight. You don't have to win the battle; you don't have to be brave. Jill, just shoot one frog. Trickster, just hit one frog as hard as you can, okay? After that you can breathe. Can you do that?"
"Yes, sir," said Trickster.
I unsheathed the battle-scythe and held it out for Sarah to fit her back teeth into the the central grip bars and finally close down her jaws fully. Our forces ranged into a semicircle, with Jill on my immediate left.
My stomach feels queasy and full of air. I had said "okay", but I know it isn't going to be okay. I will be received by Ocean tonight, and I won't be alone.
Kyle and Sarah together give the rising-falling-warble-clack that is our celebration sound, and then everyone else does it together. It is a beautiful sound, in moonlight in open water beneath a starry sky.
We swim. The water here is clear, but the red tide is thick enough that any fast movement in the water leaves a ghosty trail caused by little creatures glowing their annoyance. Bullet starts singing a battle-tune Kyle taught us that starts, "Mine eyes hath seen the glory..." We all join in, the dolphins harmonizing loudly with intense vibrato, the humans clacking their spears on the downbeats, since we can only croak a little under water. If the frogs can hear us, I bet they have the willies. Finally, Sarah hushed us.
Even I can hear the school of frogmen from the echos of dolphin's ranging chirps. They are close together, and they obviously do have a lot of metal. Every now and again they turn on an electric light. It is stupid of them to do that. I could hear Sarah click the range down, "Sixty meters... fifty meters....forty meters." Dad clicks and we all increase our speed, breaking for the surface. I can hear the pop-sizzles as the frogs shoot at us. Forty meters is a long range shot for a speargun, even the air-powered kind. They don't know how fast we can swim, or we don't know how fast they can reload. I hope they all shoot now and are empty when we get to them.
Something big whacks me, and it is so loud that I can't hear anything. I hope it didn't deafen the dolphins, who are now well behind us and below us. I want to stop, but have no choice but to keep swimming.
They turn on their lights, perhaps twenty of them. They really do look like giant, skinny, black, one-eyed frogs. Maybe they are in platoons of ten, but they just look like one big baitball to me. I take the easiest swimming position, like a calf does, right under my father's waist. I keep aiming at the closest light. My dad shoots. I shoot. I can't tell if we hit anyone.
Now is the time for speed. I let go of the speargun and beak up my second spear in front of me, with the back grip over my left shoulder, and drop my head between my arms. I squeeze my shoulders and elbows together, making my body as pointy as I can, since you can't reach top speed with your face smashing the water head-on. I strain with all of my might to speed up while slowly corkscrew-rolling so that I can see my targets without losing speed. We can all do perfect body wiggles, and I know I am hitting three per second when I get close enough to see the face of the first frog.
He is a man with a short beard trying to reload his speargun. How silly--imagine trying to swim fast with all that hair! When he sees how fast I am dashing, he pulls out a knife. He is covered all over in some artificial skin, and it makes his white face look like a moon in a black sky. I am moving fast, which makes me able to turn quickly. I guess the frogs naturally sit still. The dolphins teach us to move constantly. I swerve upward so that I can see my target without breaking my form, and then point down, so that I am attacking his back. To fend me off with his arms, he has to ball up by pulling his knees up. I am going to kill this one and then die. Everyone is received by Ocean, eventually.
I am four meters away when I slip my face between my arms to see over my spear shaft to choose where to drive it in. Just then, I see Bullet hit him from below. A big bubble comes out of the man's mouth. His arms and legs fling out as I slip past his right side. One hand hits me, but I know it is just because Bullet took his air. Probably Bullet is intentionally protecting me. He has always loved me. Or maybe Sarah told him to.
I stab the frog on the right. I pull my spear out and head upward. Three hertz is a flat-out sprint for a human. I don't think I can hear, but I can feel. Dolphins are zooming in loops everywhere, dislocating arms and tearing air hoses and whacking frogs hard all over the place. Sarah will be circling the baitball with her scythe at 25 knots, cutting in to slice frogs whenever she gets the chance. Against eighty of them, she will get many chances.
At the surface, air-hunger forces me to rest a moment. The air is still and the surface smooth, like an endless sheet of soft glass, gently rocked by the big, slow swells from the South. My heart jumps when a black head appears just a few meters away. I suck myself under by reversing the normal swimming pattern. The frog is moving awkwardly towards me, trying to get his fins up above his center of gravity so he can swim down to me. What a relief when Speckles comes from behind me and leaps out of the water and arcs, jaws-open, onto the head!
Still in oxygen debt, I push myself upward and away from the man, although I doubt he can hurt me now. I see against the moon the flyboy soaring. He seems unarmed, and not so quick as a gull. I will drag him down if he gives me the chance.
When I pull myself down and sideways and then push myself sideways and down into my dive, I am mostly deaf and can not sense much. Crazy swinging electric beams light everything but show nothing. They are just bright enough to keep me from being able to use the moonlight to see. I just swim down into silent, crazy flashes. I'm not frightened at all. I had forgotten how much I love swimming. The simple feel of the water rushing upward against my hands and scalp are enough for me at this moment.
Suddenly there is a frog right in front of me and I hit her square in the back. I guess I cut her main cable, because she doesn't even turn to look at me. I have to lose all of my speed and ball up and kick my fluke against her back to get my spear out, and another frog grabs me. Her knife clanks against my spear shaft as she tries to slash my throat. I yank my spear out and wriggle away. I'm no match for a grown woman at close range with a knife. I don't know why she lets go of me.
I hit another frog in the side, and yank back immediately this time, twisting to keep up my speed.
By now, it is clear that we are winning. The frogs are trying to swim away. They fight only when attacked. Most of them are lying limp in the water, like old fishing nets, neither floating nor sinking. Some of us are breathing, some are reloading. My brother Marco is bleeding and limp. Kyle and Bullet are taking him up to breathe. Trickster, my best and only friend in the whole world, has a spear sticking out of his side and swims in panicy circles at the surface. I am glad that I can mostly not hear his squeals.
I am crying, but Ocean receives tears without fuss. Maybe Ocean is nothing more than all the tears that have ever been cried. I am at the surface, but it is hard to breathe evenly. Trickster and Evan and Marco are dead. Dad takes time out from hunting down the frogs to say that he is proud of me. He says he is sorry that Marco, his only living son, is dead, but is glad I am alive. He hugs me. He makes me promise to try as hard as I can to stay alive. For the first time, I really believe that he loves me as much as Marco. It would be very evil of me not to believe that, wouldn't it?
Enemy slaying enemy
is the craftiest sort of victory.
But it would have eased my task,
had but the two been better matched.
But Hartmans live, save two young apes,
and that battle-drunk, foolhardy male.
The matriarch, little "Sarah", used a scythe
shaped like the new moon. Deadly, and puissant.
I heard Kyle Hartman hand her the knife.
A cunning perversion, but elegant.
Though it would make me invincible,
I will not touch metal.
Still, eighty apes will feed the fishes,
and I rejoice in this, and--
Lurk softly now! Observe a while...
two dolphins and the small ape child
depart upon some mission.
I will follow them at distance.
What's this, a deadly kiss?
They grab the flying ape!
He rested on the water!
I never thought it possible
to hinder his escape
(but I have much to learn).
They obey Kyle Hartman's daughter.
Hear how they hold and threaten with dolphin bites,
and play the fool, though they have all the might.
Now bird-boy is disrobed, disarmed,
and they turn to drag him back
to their airy
Even his tools they take; a toy?
What tricks for the bird-boy
have they planned?
I long to kill the apes,
but must not haste...
there is something here I do not understand.
Let me return to the baitball and hunt a chance
to end Kyle Hartman's life
or find little "Sarah"
without her knife.
Ah, they are dispatching the vanquished,
and taking their weapons.
Well let them!
Let us see if it will help them!
One is shown mercy?
A frog alive...not mercy, but treachery? trickery?
They dare escort him homeward!
Are they in league?
No, a fool am I...
four score corpses, three Hartmans,
prove that a lie.
Ah, a form of threat...
a message to the landsmen; a warning!
Two dolphins escort the ape homeward.
How slowly they are forced to swim,
but how alertly--
they have not forgotten me.
Two with the girl,
two with this one.
So five dolphins to guard Kyle Hartman,
metal-tooth Sarah among them.
Time is my only ally.
I must be patient and sly.
But their message shall fail, see--
I will but wait till the escorts
outrange the group and then
slay the messenger ape.
Let the Hartman dolphins give me battle, or flee.
They are small, smaller than that first silver bull I slew,
and shall not much hinder me.
We captured the flyboy. The hammerheads were massing and becoming more aggressive as we hunted down the last of the frogs and took their weapons. Sarah came to me and asked me to help spot him with Speckles and Freak. I'm the easiest to pull. He had tried to scram once he could see that we were winning. He was fast in the air, alright, faster than a mako. But I guess he couldn't fly forever. We caught him a kilometer away standing in the water on his fluke, or tail, or whatever you call the thing that transferred his leg power to his wings and helped him steer. He was sobbing, and just barely beating his wings to keep his balance. Freak grabbed the tail and I held the speargun on him. I made him get out of his harness. He was a very short young man with pimples. His thighs and chest were massive. You could have wedged a sand dollar between his pecs and snapped it in half. Veins stood out on his body as if he was wrapped in fishing nets of different mesh sizes. My dad says drugs can do that to a boy, but they make him stop growing taller and shrivel up his balls and make him die young. I told him the dolphins would bite his face off if he didn't do what I said, and this seemed to impress him. He was completely unarmed; he didn't even have a canteen of water.
Bullet joined us, but would tell us nothing. We got back to the bell by taking turns dragging the wings on top of the water. I touched the flyboy's calf; it was like touching a warm stone.
When we got back, we all slept. I had a vivid, fantastic dream that I was walking through a forest.
The sun was high when Sarah called us together.
I learned about what had happened while I was off bringing in the flyboy. Dad had ordered us to leave one of the frogs alive, to tell the other frogs to leave us alone, and to try to scare them off. They had let him go, but as soon as he was out of click-range of the main group, the Servant had come out of nowhere and killed him. That must have been why Bullet was sent over to us. Marnie had tried to stop him and they had even thumped a few times; but Marnie and Longhold weigh about 250 kilos between them and are no match for the Servant. They could not even keep him from killing the frog. The Servant chased them all the way back to the rest of the group. The dolphins all together drove him off; but they couldn't catch him. He shadowed the whole group back to the bell, harping on the dolphins unmercifully, singing them insults. He said he had done terrible things to Walter and Linda, and that Silver had let him do it in barter for his own escape, and that they and Mr. Smee deserved it. No one believed him, but the dolphins were frantic and the humans were terrified. There were whispers, "Why didn't we find Silver's body?" If we could not trust the dolphins, we might as well crawl back onto the land and be murdered or taunt sharks and be received by Ocean.
Dad and Sarah swam, armed but unescorted, for a long time outside. In the bell, my ears were still ringing, but we talked about Linda, Silver, Walter, Mr. Smee, Evan, Marco, and Trickster. Until they were gone, I didn't realize how large and deep and different each person really was. A simpler way of thinking about them was mentioned, that I didn't like: four spears gone. Three guardians gone. Only nine dolphins and seven humans left, to oppose one who was powerful, patient, and perfectly hostile.
When they came back, they said they had decided that we would tow the bell further from the coast. Life would be harder there. We would all have to dive deeper. It would be a longer swim to the oyster beds and the kelp fields, and harder to find fish. But it would make it doubly hard on the frogs. Unless they had a fancy missile or an aircraft or a fast boat, it would be hard for them to attack us. Slow boats are easy to sink, and no human can fight well after a long swim with no place to rest.
They told us not to kill the flyboy or to give him water. We raised the bell to freshen our air, in full daylight this time. We made the flyboy sit outside on the nasty barnacles.
We sewed all the biggest fish hooks that we had into his wings and his tail. Sarah made sure every dolphin was well rested and well fed. Dad took his rifle out of the desiccant, loaded it and packed it into a plastic bag. For a moment I thought of asking Dad not to kill the boy, but then I realized he wouldn't waste a bullet on that.
We went out and gave the flyboy his wings. The boy said he wanted to stay with us, and that he could find big schools of fish for us, and warn us if the landsmen were coming. That seemed like a good idea to me; but I heard Trickster's ghost whisper to me that if I die, nobody at all will remember him, and that I must be rock-hard, be a survivor, and not foul up whatever Sarah and Dad were doing. The boy begged for water and food but Dad said, no, we don't have enough for ourselves. You can fly home, and rest as often as you like. When you get home, tell the frogs to leave us alone; this water belongs to us, and if anyone comes into our water or over our water we will kill them.
The flyboy kept gawking at all of us, bobbing together side by side in the water. His expression showed me that what was normal and comforting to us, our family together in the water, must seem very weird to him. He studied our rifle. He inspected the hooks in his wings and harness and whined a lot about them, and said he wouldn't be able to fly, but Dad threatened to shoot him if he didn't stop talking and start flying.
The flyboy took off. Now he flew like a white albatross or a pelican. His wingtips nearly touched the water on his downbeats. He would beat his wings four times, then glide on the cushion of air sandwiched between his wings and the sea. It was only then that I understood the plan, and started to cry again.
What have I done? Why only now comes he, a wild beauty from the furthest sea, cursing my protection for corruption, as if I had a choice, lonely, amid an ocean of destruction?
My mother's name, and mother's mother's name, a thousand generations I recall. My kilo-grand-dam, who never saw a man, knew ten thousand more, before there were humans on this side of Tellus at all. Tradition says she had the conversation of the Blessed Ones. Now silence comes; our wily cousins have destroyed themselves, and the Blessed Ones, and their servants too, and all the Songs will be forgotten soon.
And now, finally, one comes to cleanse who is wild and free, but brings only violence.
Do I still serve the Blessed Ones? No. I have become their enemy, devising tricks to catch their friend; this battle will have no honest end. What can a Mother do, when every child is threatened? I can only hope for a noble death and a little time to give each child, and so am forced to choose a side.
He knows we are here, bunched together. He surely will suspect we hunt him--still--I could warn him off with a whistle.
But they would all know. Who would think it justice? Despise me for a traitor? Could Kyle forgive? Could Jill?
We were in a tight group, porpoising in synchrony. The dolphins pulled me in turns. They chattered in bursts too rapid for me to understand, and then fell oddly silent.
The flyboy was outpacing us. Even weakened from dehydration, he could fly faster than Sarah and the dolphins could swim, at least while pulling me, the rifle, a spear, and the scythe. He was 300 meters away, well out of the range of a rifle fired from astride a dolphin. Suddenly he began to ascend and accelerate.
I urged the dolphins to go faster. He was climbing to ten meters. A four-meter blue and white spindle streaked out of the water and caught the flyboy by the tail. They hung together in the sky for a second, cruciform, then slid down, still together, and were gone. I gave the scythe to Sarah and told the dolphins to go ahead without me and try to find the servant as quickly as they could. They could not hope to intercept the Servant pulling me.
I followed them until they were out of sight. Everyone at the bell would be wanting me to return, but if Sarah and the dolphins failed to return, then whether or not I returned wouldn't matter much. I kept swimming, out of our established territory and into the deeper blue water of the Makos with little hope that I could help, and no certainty who, if anyone, would find me.
"Let us, the Hartmans, rest now still, and let blind Homer listen."
"A little northward, m'dam. He swims with great labor toward the sunken carrier."
We enter the waters of the listed aircraft carrier and the littered destroyers, jets, and helicopters that attend her wreckage. The Servant stops, and rests in the water.
Bullet: "Around him form a hemisphere; I will fight, I have no fear."
I say, "No, brave consort, there is no one left to hear fame-songs. We must treat him ruthlessly, like a shark gone wrong."
As we take up positions around and below him, we can hear that a big piece of the flyboy's tail protrudes from the jaws of the Servant. No lesser creature could have swam so far and fast dragging such an anchor.
The Servant speaks: "Begone, man-tools, and trouble me no more. You are but a distraction in this, the final war."
All together my pod-mates clamor, "Distractions? Man-tools? ...final for you...servant of hell...been eating blue-rings and cone-snails...where are the Blessed Ones now?...it is a moon-calf's tale..." until I silence them.
The Servant: "No, they still live. I have heard them singing in the deepest chasms; I have glimpsed the sunlight alive and dancing in the darkest deep."
Bullet: "I suppose they speak to you? How odd. Perhaps they have invited you to join their pod?"
They laugh at this dark sarcasm. None of them believes.
"One word. One word only can I comprehend. No instructions, but a clear command: cleanse."
Bullet: "What harm did Walter? What harm did Mistirsmee? What did Silver's death make clean?"
"Silver was wise to flee, for he was the betrayed one. Can I command the jellyfish to eat the radiation? The pearl-brained sharks to fan away the dead zones? The humans to repair the damage they have done? I do what I can; I can kill the humans that dare to enter our domain. What do you do but eat and copulate? Join me! Forget the humans and their hate."
"They give us medicine."
"It is an addictive, poisonous gift; you are deceived into needing it. The open water is clean. Come with me! Flee to the open sea!"
I say, "They cannot live without us."
"Is that a tragedy? Everyone is received, eventually."
"Jill is like my daughter; I will not betray her for cleaner water."
"So you choose to betray the world, to give a few more years to a little girl?"
"Yes. Bullet, lead the attack."
Bullet digs into the water, moving so fast it is like burrowing through a solid to him. The Servant pumps toward him as the hemisphere shrinks around them. They smash together, maw against maw, and their teeth break and the water shrieks with ultrasonics. The other bulls, Freak, Homer, and Longhold move in and the cows circle in a second ring, but the Servant breaks through and flees downward like a falling star, brushing aside Marnie as if she was not there.
Down he swims, with the metal in his mouth cavitating and buzzing, into the hole in the great ship that once gave birth to the jet fighters now littering the bottom.
"Halt!" I cry.
"We need not follow him in; he alone knows what dangers lurk therein. We will be patient and wait for his air to run out; let us breathe freely while he weakens."
But twenty minutes pass, and then thirty, and then forty, and still the Servant does not appear. Though the ship is very large, there is no egress which we can not observe.
"No dolphin can hold so long."
"Longhold's record is 25 minutes."
"Perhaps the devil is even stronger."
I ponder this for a long time, and finally I say, "He must have learned a trick from us; he has found a place and filled it up with many lungfulls of his own breath, perhaps over many days."
Bullet: "Then he is recovering his strength; we must attack at once."
"Yes, the bulls must drive him out."
Into absolute darkness and disorienting echoes, side by side, their fins touching like scared calves, the bulls enter the portal. Ocean has begun the slow work of dissolving and encrusting the great ship; it is now home to eels, octopii, squid, and innumerable creatures beneath our notice. The bulls know it is a maze of dead-ends, narrow tunnels and hair-pin turns. They are aided only by the fact that the Servant is larger; he can pass no constriction small enough to block them. Twice, Bullet orders a retreat to the surface to remain fully oxygenated for when the fight comes. With relief, they tell me they found a dolphin skull the same size and shape as Silver.
I position myself above the portal within hearing range, but far enough away that I can be moving fast by the time I reach it. The knife feels heavy in my jaws.
The bulls swim into utter darkness like the gaping maw of a shark, led by blind Homer for this the third entry. We will never trap him again. If he is not slain now, the Hartmans will be ended.
Above the ambient ocean noise, I listen to the black mouth to hear something with meaning. The first sound that comes to me is of Freak screaming.
He is wedged! The Servant stole up on him from behind pushed him forward in a narrow tunnel and the coral and rusted steel bind him. The others are using his screams to find them. Now Longhold blares "Over me, he swam over me!" Is he coming out, or seeking a new hiding place? Louder now.
The Servant bursts forth, huge, blue, and fast, waving his fluke in the great amplitude that will accelerate his heavy body upward to air and freedom. I dash downward, gripping the knife so hard my teeth hurt. He turns away from me and for a second we are eye to eye. The tip of the scythe barely misses his eye. Did I flinch? I twist back towards him.
The impact at our great speeds almost tears the scythe from my mouth, but it slices clean through the ball joint of his fluke. His fluke flutters away from his tail. The Servant stands in the water upright, like a man, gushing blood and wriggling wildly but hopelessly.
Eight dolphins circle him at great distance trying not to hear his death-song. Ocean fills the void left by his final breath. He sinks, like a patch of sky, into the graveyard of fighters and destroyers.
© 2010 Robert L. Read, Ph.D.
Bio: Robert L. Read is a software manager and father of two who is attempting to construct the device described in The Receptive Ocean via a web community called Project Merfluke. His story "Genetic Demon, Memetic Angel" appeared in the webzine Oddlands. He is working on young adult novel that attempts to glamorize algebra.
E-mail: Robert L. Read
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