Charles surfaces for a moment, drawing in fresh, clean air before submerging. A swift burst of clicks punches through the murky water, resolving the amalgamation of sounds and pale shadows before him for a brief moment. A small group of tuna, hot on the trail of a baitfish school, the solid flicker of the shelf seafloor and beyond them, on the very periphery of his senses, a pod of mothers and calves, dusky by the pitch of their song.
A flick of his tail sends him sailing closer to the coast. Even if they are kin, he doubts they will welcome the approach of a solitary male. And he is no longer young enough to flirt the line of bull and calf, as he has done in the past, joining briefly with larger pods to exploit the advantages of communal hunting.
He knows he could broadcast; seek out a like-minded bachelor or two and form his own for the sake of a more consistently full stomach. He has learned to conceal himself more effectively and most don’t even notice anything odd about him, but something in him despairs at the constant need for deception.
An inquiring whistle from nearby; one of the duskies has keyed in on his presence. A young female, the idle playfulness of calfhood not yet gone, bored and restless in the shadow of her mother and a new calf, two dim signatures at the edge of his senses.
She’s not in season, merely curious, but he can’t resist rumbling out a low tone of invitation, just to hear the resulting flurry of outrage among the mothers.
Amused, he coasts along the surface, heading south and out into open water. The shelf drops away beneath him, an endless dark expanse which will rise to merge with the sunlit waters of the surface come sundown. Reckless and buzzing with energy he increases his speed, tail beating against the solid weight of the water, faster and faster until at last, for just a moment, he can break gravity’s tight grip and he leaps.
The clouds are low and dense above the choppy waters and he regrets the lack of clear blue skies or gleaming stars as he hurtles through the air. He scans the horizon, a flash image imprinted on his mind, to be examined as he tumbles back into the water, giddy with the dizzying shift. It’s moments like this that make him feel gloriously close to his kin, and terribly alone.
Because while the leaping-joy is universal, no one ever looks to the stars and thinks to wonder what they are.
Troubled, he pushes aside the memory of his mother’s bewildered clicks and spins in a tight whirl, charging forward as he flicks a cursory scan over his glimpse of the surface. And that’s when he sees it.
Southwest, on the brink of his vision, a flicker of movement, an unrecognizable shape.
Curious, he sends out a burst of sound, but it comes back muddled, too distant for a clear picture. But something is out there, and the few disparate pieces which do make it through let him know it’s something unusual, something wrong.
Puzzled but intrigued, he sets off in the direction of the sounds.
His first impression, when he finally draws close enough that visual input compensates for the auditory inconsistencies of the shifting mass of shapes and densities, is big.
The creature is enormous, rivaling the bulls of his distant kin for sheer size, a monstrous reddish bulk, tentacles sprouting from every edge. It’s entwined about the shape of another creature and for a moment he thinks he’s interrupted one of his kin feeding, but it’s readily apparent that the monster isn’t struggling for freedom. Thick tendrils are locked about the smaller creature, crushing.
He knows he should leave. Large prey carry with them equally large risks and it’s a lesson most learn early or not at all, but something about the slow, deliberate display of power horrifies him. The expression in the one large eye visible is languid, nearly satisfied. Beneath the mat of tentacles he can see the creature fighting, the twitch of its body as it struggles.
He’s crashing into the monster before he’s even given it a full thought, beak a stiff deliberate spear against the one place logic and memory tell him is sensitive, no matter the shape of the body.
There’s a gush of jelly fluid about his beak and the monster goes into a convulsion, tentacles clouding the water as it rips from the creature. He tries to twist away, but it’s not necessary; a jerk of that enormous body, a jet of water and he’s engulfed in darkness.
He makes for the creature, sending out a burst of clicks through the blinding cloud of ink as he does so, intending to guide it to surface. After the struggle it must be exhausted, desperate for air…
Large jaws snap shut inches from the end of his beak.
He’s freed a shark.
He skitters back from the snapping teeth and turns to flee, but instead of attempting to eat him, the shark is speaking, utterly enraged,
How dare you! Do you have any idea what a long pursuit you’ve interrupted? I should tear you to bits for your interference!
He halts, incredulous at first, mostly at being addressed at all. Does the shark truly have no concept or care of how close it came to death? Then shock metamorphoses to anger. Idiot! he fires back. I don’t know what madness induced you to follow such dangerous prey, but a few more moments and he would have ripped you apart!
I had everything under control, if you hadn’t stopped me I would have—
Cool your bloodlust for a moment, you toothy ingrate, and look at yourself!
The shark pauses, as though only now registering its wounds, the numerous eruptions, plumes of blood left in the wake of curved hooks, which cloud the water around it.
Now that the waters are clearing, the ink dissipating with the gentle swells, he can get a better glimpse of the creature, a heavy bull with a pointed snout, his hide darker and more uniform than the patterned tigers or barrel-bodied whites that typically cruise these waters. He is also riddled with scars, grotesque, enlarged mirrors of the tiny rosettes he sometimes sees left on his kin’s skin when they’ve tangled with an octopus, not all fresh. A bleeding gash transects the skin of his muzzle, the mark of the monster’s beak.
Why were you pursuing such a dangerous catch anyway? Surely there is smaller, easier prey to be taken. Like himself, for example, though if the shark gets any ideas Charles will be damned if he’ll make it easy.
The bull lashes his tail, As if a little, chattering jumper would have any understanding of my motives.
Affronted and indignant he retorts,Try me.
The bull turns in a sharp threat display and the once clear communication dissolves into something furious and muddled. Liar-liar-how-can-he-possibly-understand-none-of-them-understood-even-as-they-bled-and-died-even-as-he-broke-the-natural-order-shattered-it-wasn’t-even-hunting-mothers-and-pups-blood-everywhere-blood-blood-blood—
Charles jerks away and surfaces, his mind churning, A massacre.
The bull slows in his erratic display. Yes, he says hesitantly. They didn’t have a word for it, didn’t understand it even as it was happening. The light ring of his eye focuses on Charles, Only I understood.
Something tentative and giddy flares into existence within him. An impossibility, and yet…
Your name, what is it?
Thrown, the bull flicks his tail, What?
Your name. I am Charles. A pilfered moniker, taken from the lips of a human mother calling for her calf on the deck of a ship and made his own. A mark of separation, an identity distinct from the one given him by his kin, the multilayered jumble of visual markings and whistles. His kin, who do not understand things like names and massacres.
The bull stares at him so long he almost begins to despair, but then understanding lights those strange eyes.
I am Erik.
You need to slow down. Charles rolls and surfaces before plunging back beneath. Erik’s shadow flickers across his back, blocking out the light briefly and he pulls alongside the shark’s large snout.
Erik twitches and shies away before he can make contact, the wide wake which he cuts through the water wavering, No time. He knows I am following him. He will already be on the move.
If what you say of him is true, it is unlikely he will hide forever. And you are injured. When was the last time you fed?
Why? Erik’s eye rolls in his direction and his snout shifts back slightly, exposing rows of teeth, Do you plan on doing something about it?
Charles blows a string of amused bubbles in his direction,Watch it, my friend. My teeth might not be as impressive as yours, but I have my own tricks. And as you are now? I have more to fear from that yellowtail school to the east of us.
Goaded, Erik begins to slow, Perhaps a brief hunt is in order.
He turns to the east, but Charles is already upon him, brushing across his back with the tip of one pectoral fin, Wait.
Erik jerks away from the light touch, jaws swinging out, Don’t!
Startled, Charles retreats, My apologies, I meant no offence.
Why do you keep…what is that? And Charles suddenly feels very stupid because he has observed enough of Erik’s distant kin. Enough to know that touching is limited to very brief instances of feeding and coupling.
I am sorry, my friend. Among my kin it is…touching is more common. It is a means of communication.
And what does that communicate?
Charles can’t quite think how to verbalize the complex layers behind the gentle stroke, so he warbles out a brief song of comfort-acknowledgement-kinship.
Erik’s tail beats in slow rhythm, I see.
I didn’t mean to interfere with your hunt, only to offer some advice. Yellowtail are swift and your hide is rather dark to try to ambush them in the open ocean. Would you be willing to hunt with me?
The shark pauses and he can almost see the solitary creature struggling to comprehend the idea of hunting with another, but Erik’s interest is peaked.
The school is a small one, but composed of adults, zipping through the water propelled by strong tails. Normally he wouldn’t even consider such prey, they’re far too large to swallow, but he’s seen Erik’s shearing teeth and he’s willing to give this a go.
He has to push himself, tail beating against the water, but at last he draws alongside and overtakes them. The fish ignore him, secure in their size.
He glances behind him, checks his distance, and throws himself into a full stop.
Startled, the first in the school runs right into him, solid mass smacking into the wall of his body. The others twist and try to scoot away and he lashes out with his tail, catching one across the head and they try to scatter.
A dark shape comes hurtling up from beneath and all he sees is a brief, white glint of Erik’s jaws before sharp teeth are sinking into a yellowtail’s belly. A snap-jerk of that narrow head rips out the stomach and leaves the creature floating, a perfect gap carved out of its body, tail twitching weakly as blood pumps into the water. But Erik’s not yet finished and Charles dives out of the way as those powerful jaws slice through the fish he’s stunned. The others flee and Charles is left circling on the periphery of the carnage, a bit overwhelmed.
It feels foolish, this unease, but his own hunting is so…clean in comparison. Rarely is anything torn or shredded; he simply doesn’t have the equipment for it.
Erik is already on the first yellowtail, body jerking and lashing as he rips the large fish apart and swallows the ragged chunks. He consumes it in moments, his feeding nearly as swift as his attack, and turns to the second fish.
For an instant he thinks Erik will eat that one as well and his own hunger is forgotten as gut-deep relief wells in him. The relief that a predator’s attention is elsewhere for now, but Erik reigns himself in and turns to him.
He approaches slowly, conscious of the tension thrumming through that huge body and the shreds of flesh dangling from Erik’s teeth. Are you certain that you’ve…fed sufficiently? he asks, and there’s a flicker of shame at the question.
I’m fine, Erik replies, clipped. Besides, I’ve had my share, now you get yours, isn’t that how this works? And the uncertainty in the question makes something ache in him.
Yes, he says. Or at least that’s what I’ve heard.
He leaves Erik to make of that what he will and tugs a dangling hunk of flesh from the floating fish. His only food for the last few days has been the odd baitfish and the yellowtail is a feast. He’s so involved with it that he nearly leaps out of his skin when something rough brushes up against him, light and tentative. His eye rolls upward and he gets a glimpse of Erik above him, pectoral fin gliding across his back as he circles around him, scanning the area.
Hurry up, he says. I’d prefer to be out of here before we get company.
Warmth wells in him, Of course, my friend.
It’s different, hunting with Erik. He can’t rely on his own instincts for how a fellow pod member will respond. It isn’t always easy, but the rewards are more than worth it.
Skimming beneath the surface of steadily warming waters as they head south, following the flickering trail of the monster, traces of carnage and small, magnetic fluctuations that only Erik seems able to pick up, they talk. Of glimpses of the world beyond the ocean, of things they have witnessed on their own solitary wanderings, and of their respective kin, a topic which Erik shies away from. And when Erik’s senses falter it is Charles who links into the tangled web of sounds beneath the water, using his kin’s senses as his own.
Despite the urgency of Erik’s quest, they settle into an almost harmonious existence. They are an effective team and Charles is constantly delighted and impressed by Erik’s ability to plan out an ambush. It is likely they would have remained so, if not for a small incident.
It is dawn, the water just shifting from deep blue to light and clear and Charles is in contact with a nearby pod, singing out his inquiries. He has the impression that the group has seen the monster, but he’s having difficulty extracting information over the inquiring whistles of one of their number. She’s young, cousin, in season and evidently, utterly enamored by the pitch of his song.
He can feel Erik growing impatient beside him and while he’s fairly certain the bull has no concept of what a mating song is, he can’t help but feel slightly embarrassed by the female’s persistent calls of invitation.
Enough, snaps Erik, tail lashing. Do they, or do they not have any information? By the amount of calling they’re doing, you should have his exact coordinates by now.
It’s not that simple, he replies, struggling to split his attention into yet another direction, It’s entirely possible that they do have information, but I’ll never get it out of them if I’m rude. She’s just a bit…distracted right now. And insistent.
She? Erik says, and then understanding dawns, Are you telling me that bizarre noise is an invitation to mate?
The shark stares at him and for a moment he thinks Erik is going to explode with rage and go off about silly distractions when they should be moving, but then Erik simply makes a sharp turn and starts to swim away.
Startled and confused, he pursues, Wait, Erik!
The bull’s body is tight and tense, Go on, Charles. It’s probably beyond time for us to part ways.
What on—Erik, what are you talking about?
There’s obviously a place for you there and a breeding female. You’ll never get that chasing shadows with me.
Oh for the love of—Erik, I’m not looking for a breeding female!
Erik’s tail lashes, Liar, everyone is.
Are you? He asks, because he’s honestly curious.
It doesn’t matter. There’s nothing left for me but to see the monster that killed my kin destroyed.
And after that?
There is no after.
Oh, Erik… He coasts down and trails a soothing fin across one flank, ignoring the rough scratch against his skin. I fear what you may find at the end of this journey, but I will stay with you to see it finished. He bumps gently against the bull’s side, making sure he is paying attention, And after.
Erik doesn’t respond, but his swimming smoothes out, his pace adjusting to match Charles’.
You are not alone.
They continue south for a time, swimming in tandem, until Erik breaks the silence.
How would you have done it?
Hmm? Charles responds, Have done what?
How would you have invited her to breed?
Startled at the odd question, Charles rolls and glances back at Erik, Why do you ask?
I only…never mind. Erik speeds up, tail thrashing and Charles wisely doesn’t press. He does however increase his own pace and draws alongside the bull.
Well, he says, heart pounding in unfamiliar rhythm. I suppose, if she hadn’t been already calling, I would have sung to her.
A subdued twitch, I see.
It’s really quite an interesting exercise,Charles says, feigning unconcern. Would you like me to demonstrate?
If you feel you must.
Charles takes a moment to compose himself. He might possibly be insane for trying this, but if he’s right, he cannot afford to mess it up.
Carefully focusing his gaze away from his companion, he begins to sing.
But it’s not a song he’s ever used on the small, pleasant females he’s occasionally coupled with. Instead of narrow, well-formed flukes and light, high jumps, he sings of strength beyond compare, of scars earned, of eyes like a ring of sky at high noon, of abyss-dark skin, of hunting prowess and companionship.
Erik slows to a crawl, his attention entirely on him now.
Charles finishes his song and looks at his companion expectantly.
Erik looks nearly lost, I don’t know what to say.
This is never going to work.
Maybe. Say yes anyway.
This is never going to work, snaps Erik as Charles circles him, eyeballing certain parts of his anatomy and clicking softly to himself.
Patience, my friend. It may not be as impossible as you think.
Putting aside the fact that we were never intended to be able to accomplish this act, I don’t want to hurt you. It’s frustrated, nearly frightened and Charles gets the impression of confusion, of snapping reflexes and females gripped between large jaws, I’ve never seen your kin breed, but I doubt it’s anything like mine.
Perhaps not, but I think we might be able to work something out. Rising up on level with Erik, he looks at him, serious, If you can trust me, I’d like to try something.
A moment of hesitation, and he continues, gentle, We don’t have to, I can always try another way, but if you are concerned about harming me, I thought this might put your mind at ease.
Erik twitches, tail lashing, Do it.
Charles surfaces for a moment and plunges down, drawing parallel with Erik’s belly, If you are at all uncomfortable with this, just say so. I can set you right in a moment.
And then he hooks his pectoral fins behind Erik’s and turns them over with a lash of his tail.
The effect on Erik is immediate; he goes utterly rigid and then his entire body falls limp, fins spreading and relaxing. His eyes roll.
Eric? Charles says, low and urgent. Are you alright? Talk to me.
Can’t, can’t breathe…
Alarmed, he almost flips the bull back over, but then a thought occurs. Swimming up to the narrow snout, he presses his own beak against the jaws, nearly cutting himself on sharp saw teeth, and squirts a jet of water into Erik’s mouth.
Gills flare in response, Better…
Do you want me to set you right?
No, better, safer like this.
He doesn’t respond to what he sees as a foolish fear. Small strides for now. He strokes his fin and beak along Erik’s sensitive lateral line, Relax, my friend.
Erik shudders as he caresses the pale skin of his belly, nudging at the prominent claspers, so different from his own organ. They stiffen in response and he takes a moment to surface and pass more water over Erik’s gills before descending and aligning the two of them belly-to-belly. Hooking his organ around the claspers, he tries a tentative squeeze-and-stroke movement that’s hardly elegant, but still makes Erik jerk and shift, despite the paralysis.
Erik?, he asks, anxious.
The reply isn’t verbal, a garbled impression of sensations and not-words. Erik can’t see Charles like this, but he can feel him, the electrical pulses of his body hot as a brand as he moves against him. He wants to bite, jaws still twitching in his frozen state, wants to stroke, wants to thrust. And pleasure streaks through Charles because so help him, he wants Erik to. Wants those teeth hooked in his skin, that large body curled around him, holding him still. Wants those claspers in him, stiff and sharp and splitting him open.
He sings that want to Erik and the large, heavy body convulses in response as Erik climaxes. Charles strokes against rough skin until at last his own climax overtakes him. Fumbling, he manages to turn them, still pressed tight to Erik, reluctant to withdraw.
The bull is motionless for a long moment, and then a large tail beats once, twice and he’s gliding through the water. And Charles follows, mirroring his movements, belly flattened to Erik’s, until the need for air becomes too great.
Erik follows him to the surface, drawing close and then he feels it, the light caress of a fin against his body.
Charles sings his joy for the whole ocean to hear.
Think of it as a test, Charles says, riding the wake left by Erik’s body. An exercise in control if you will.
Control? I could kill or maim you by accident.
Possibly, though I’ve not noticed many of your kin going around with missing fins. You’ve more control than you think.
Our hides are far thicker than yours, and it isn’t uncommon for mothers to be scarred.
I can tolerate a few scrapes and cuts. My only request is that we do this near the surface.
But how will I know? What if I bite too hard?
Then I will say so.
It will be too late by then! Erik turns aside, tail lashing.
Charles rolls and dips, contemplating, I think you merely need to find a balance. You don’t spend all your time with your jaws crushed together, do you?
Don’t be foolish.
And yet you can bring them together with great force to feed.
Obviously, what are you getting at?
Then you simply need to find the space between the two. Hard enough to grip, but not crush or sever. Bobbing up alongside Erik, he strokes his beak down the side of his rostrum and Erik shudders at the electric sensation, I trust you, my friend.
And then he rises, heading for the surface. He can feel the subtle vibrations of Erik’s body as he follows and he slows his pace, waiting.
Jaws clamp tight about his pectoral fin and he has to force himself not to thrash and fight. It hurts, saw-teeth pricking at his skin, but Erik’s being careful as he winds his large body around Charles.
The difference in their sizes is never more evident and Charles is sharply aware that he must be far smaller than any female of Erik’s kin as the shark scrapes and moves against him, struggling to merge two bodies never intended to fit together.
Erik, he murmurs and obediently the shark turns them, rolling slowly until Charles is at last exposed to the surface, wind whipping across his exposed back as he takes a breath. And then they’re back beneath and he can feel Erik’s claspers, stiff and searching against his body and he makes a low, quavering sound as they find the mark.
It’s like nothing he’s ever felt before and his body twitches at the unfamiliar signals, but it’s still closer to pleasure than pain, and the way that Erik’s teeth sink incrementally further sends a purely intellectual shudder of ecstasy through him.
He’ll bear a mark, a perfect ring of scars, but as Erik spasms and gasps his name in something like wonder, he can’t bring himself to care.
I want to show you something, Erik says, stiff and half-shy, but it will have to wait until sundown. Do you mind?
He agrees, of course, though it is uncommon for his kin to be active beyond nightfall. He knows that Erik has adjusted his patterns somewhat to hunt with him, but it is one thing to know and quite another to see the bull fade into a dark shadow beside him as the sun dips below the horizon. And Erik moves so silently it is as if he has vanished utterly. He falters for a moment, but then a fin brushes along his back, I am here.
Can you see me like this?
A chuckle, I don’t need to see you.
Curiosity sparks, Then how did you know where I was?
A long silence, I’ve never needed to see to tell where you are. This close, I can feel your heart beating.
You might not think it so amazing if things were different. Erik’s tone is morose.
Charles wants to reach out, to touch, but though he can feel the edges of the wake from Erik’s body, he can’t pinpoint where to contact I will always find your abilities amazing, my friend.
Foolish, now hush and look down.
Obedient, Charles turns his eyes toward the black abyss, straining to see. And then a light winks into being in the darkness, like a small, weak star, and more, and more until suddenly they’re engulfed in a glowing cloud. Tiny tentacles trail and bump across his body as the squid dart beneath the surface.
Don’t just sit there staring, they’re rather tasty.
I’m still trying to get over the shock that you did something like this. It’s beautiful, but we fed earlier today.
Erik turns away, gulping a mouthful of small squid. Well, it’s not as if I can court you in the proper manner of your kin, he mumbles.
Oh, my friend, he laughs, startled. Let me set your mind at ease in that respect. Erik is a pale ghost in the shimmering swarm and he approaches, nuzzling along his side, I am more than sufficiently courted.
Then Erik nips at him in a half-playful way that surprises them both and they’re off, streaking through the alarmed school. Charles ducks and dives, swerving behind clouds of squid as Erik blunders through them, cutting a wide swathe. Wily, he makes a steep dive and thinks he’s shaken Erik when a heavy weight slams into him.
For a moment he thinks Erik’s misjudged the distance in the dark, clouded waters, but then tentacles lock around his body and alarm blares through him.
When he’d first come upon the monster, he’d seen its size and power, had seen its cruelty marked out in Erik’s skin.
But he’d had no concept of what it was to have that power, that ancient, cold intelligence, turned on him.
Charles writhes in the darkness, struggling against crushing pressure, an encasing blanket of tentacles which severs any sense of up or down. Cold and slick and all-enveloping, broken by flares of warmth as hooks catch and tear and his blood wells up.
He isn’t made for this, this intimate combat, but he snags a passing tentacle between his jaws anyway. Grabs it and clings on. He’s no hope of severing it, but he presses down anyway, trying to cause pain, to convince it of his status as not-prey.
His lungs are bursting.
And then something solid slams into the monster and he gets a glimpse of snapping jaws as tentacles loosen momentarily and he feels the scrape of teeth against his own skin as Erik tears through the mat of tendrils.
But Erik’s not listening, eyes white and blind as he rips through mantle and tentacle and the monster’s not even fighting, just collapsing in a gelatinous mass and Charles can’t get clear, can’t extract himself from the tangle.
And then the world explodes in pain.
When Erik surfaces the morning sun is resting on the horizon, the water just lightening to blue.
The monster floats in shreds around him, the soft body reduced to mere scraps. It seems so much less now, this creature which haunted him. He is wrung out and empty, his jaws still twitching. He scans the brightening water, and freezes.
Something else is floating near the remains of the monster’s body, a still, dark shape. His insides twist.
He’s beside the dolphin in an instant, nosing along the limp form and at first he doesn’t understand the stillness. He can still feel the electric beat of Charles’ heart and the slight movements as he floats, breathing, but then his nose guides him to the mark, the wound seeping fresh blood into the water around them.
A perfect circle is carved out of Charles’ tail and though for a moment he wants to blame the monster, he knows that ragged shape. Knows it will fit the space of his own jaws.
He slips beneath that small body, lifting it on the broad expanse of his back. At first he fears that Charles will slip off, but then he catches on the roughness of his skin and he can feel his body braced against his dorsal fin.
I’m sorry, Charles. I’m so sorry. I will fix this, I swear.
He already knows that this is not an injury which can be healed with time.
Stay with me, my friend.
Struggling to balance the unfamiliar weight, Erik heads north.
It’s a slim chance, but it’s the only one he’s got.
“Christ,” Raven breathes into the mouthpiece of her phone. “Moira, we’ve got a beached dolphin out here. He’s in bad shape, looks like it might be a shark attack.”
“Got it. I’ll have a team out there ASAP.”
“I’m not even sure we can save him. He’s not bleeding any more, but half his tail fluke’s missing. I haven’t seen one this messed up and still breathing since that one incident with the crab trap.”
“You might be right, but we may as well try.”
Half-dazed, Charles dreams.
Impressions float past him, bright and shimmering, before bursting like bubbles; pain, exhaustion, the solid mass of Erik beneath him, moving, always moving.
Crushing weight and frightening dryness, warm touches.
Erik’s voice in the dark, sharp with weariness, Stay with me, Charles.
Bright lights, close and blinding.
The thrum of danger, a ring of whitetips circling the odd mass of the two of them, curious and hungry, until Erik slips from beneath him and rips through one with bright teeth and they turn as one to their wounded kin.
And then, worse than the vivid pain, the emptiness. Foreign voices, the inorganic beep of machinery.
There’s no answer.
“It’s the damndest thing,” Moira says, shaking her head. “Never seen a weirder collection of injuries on one dolphin before.”
Staring into the tank as though she can make the creature reveal his secrets by sheer force of will, she raises her hand and ticks them off, “Besides the amputated fluke, clearly sharkbite, he’s got fresh hook marks from something like a large squid. And that doesn’t make sense since these guys don’t even go after squid big enough to cause injuries like this. But that’s not even the really weird bit.”
“Really?” Raven says, “I’d say simultaneous shark and squid injuries are a little stranger than an old sharkbite scar.”
“It’s not the scar, per se, it’s where it is. The shark would have had to have come up right behind him. And they’re not deep marks, so he wasn’t bitten very hard. But the tracks are wide, like he was shaken, but again not very hard.” She runs a bewildered hand through her hair, “It looks, and I’m not saying it is, but it looks, like a mating scar.” Frustrated, she stares into the tank, “Plus there are those really strange marks along his belly, like someone took sandpaper to him for days on end. Just…none of his injuries add up.”
Raven whistles, low and surprised, “Where did you come from, you lucky bastard?”
There are two young bulls, barely out of calfhood, sharing his tank. They circle and chirp, chattering with curiosity as he floats helpless near the surface.
He’d almost been able to rouse a bit of excitement when they’d offered their names, Alex and Sean, but he soon realizes that they’re nothing more than training implements, sounds the calves have learned in order to respond to the humans that feed them.
Where did I get my name? Erik asks, I found it, marked out in metal and stitched to the hide of a dead human. It seemed appropriate.
He pushes aside the ache of memory.
The calves soon tire of his inability and unwillingness to join them in swim-jump-play and he floats, weary, flexing his tail in slow, deliberate movements, testing his range and flexibility.
He might never be able to swim as he once did, but he’s going to try. He’s going to find a way out of here.
He’s going to find Erik.
“I’m worried about him,” Raven says. “He’s healing well, which is great, but he’s trying to swim and his balance is all screwed up. I’m worried his muscles are going to develop improperly and he’ll be left even worse off than he is now.”
Moira taps a pen against her slate. “I thought he might be able to compensate for the fluke,” she says. “But not if he’s going to try to swim as if nothing’s wrong. He’s a stubborn little bastard, I’ll give him that.”
Raven bites her lip as she watches him struggle, “I’m going to talk to Hank.”
“You want me to construct a prosthetic fluke?” Hank pushes his thick glasses up the bridge of his nose, “It’s not that easy. It may look simple, but a dolphin tail is a very complex piece of equipment.”
“Which I don’t doubt you’ll be able to replicate with your usual, stunning precision.”
Hank sighs, “Let me see what I can do.”
He knows better than to struggle when the humans come for him. They haven’t harmed him yet and while he’s uncertain why they would need him now that his fluke is healing, the ragged stump smoothing out as new skin grows; it is at least a change from the monotony of feeding and listening to the idle play of the calves.
They keep him out for a long time. A young female stays by him, wetting and rewetting his skin as he breathes, slow and labored under the weight of his body, while they shift and manipulate his flukes.
Pain pricks and flares and he tries to put his mind elsewhere.
And when they place him back in the water, he can tell that something is different.
He pushes, beats his tail, once, twice. And instead of the frustrating half-motion of before he can feel it, the water parting before the wide plane and sending him sailing through the water, straight and powerful. It’s not as smooth as before, but worlds better than his previous efforts.
Hope kindles in him.
This, this he can work with.
Charles spends his days feeding and stretching the limits of the tank, diving and rolling as he learns to make the small adjustments necessary to compensate for the lack of feeling in his tail. Alex and Sean join him, coursing through the water in tandem and he remembers what it’s like to swim in a pod again.
The young female visits him often, making high noises which he learns indicate pleasure as he jumps and spins for her.
It’s not an altruistic exercise; he’s learned that spinning will get him fish.
Here he is welcomed. Alex and Sean are captive-born and take no notice of his inherent oddness. He could stay here, in this peaceful place, eating his fill and interacting with the strange, fascinating creatures which look at him with more intelligence than he’s ever seen in one of his own kin.
But he can’t forget Erik.
And as the months stretch out, the moon dying and being reborn in endless succession, he begins to suspect that they have no intention of letting him go.
Picking Alex and Sean’s brains for clues to how he may find his way out of here is an exercise in frustration.
Why-adult-wish-escape-lovely-warm-water-lots-of-fish? Alex queries.
Female-gives-belly-rubs, Sean warbles helpfully.
There’s more in the world than fish and belly rubs, you little clam-brained creatures, Charles mutters, and struggles to phrase his motives in a way they will understand. Mate-outside-searching-calling-sorrow, he tries.
It gets their attention immediately and he wonders ungraciously if these not-quite-calves have ever even seen a mature female. Understand-now-like-Angel-always-searching-calling-kin, Alex chirps.
Like-Angel, Sean echoes.
Startled that they seem to have caught his drift, he asks, Where-Angel-now?
Not-here-not-here, Sean sings.
Mean-sad-angry-violent-taken-away, Alex says, morose, turning so Charles can see a small scrape, left by teeth, on his tail fluke.
Slowly, understanding dawns.
He looks at the calves with something like pity.
Oh, little ones, he says gently. I am so sorry.
And then he rams headlong into Alex.
“Damn it!” Moira spits out. “What the hell is wrong with that dolphin! He was perfectly fine with Sean and Alex before.”
Raven rubs her eyes against a sudden headache, “I don’t get it either. I thought it might be just a little scuffle, establishment of hierarchy and all that, but it’s like he’s gone mad.”
“You may be right; I thought separating him out might help, but all he’s done is spend his time running headlong into the walls! Frankly I’m not certain what to do.”
“Maybe we should try to let him go.”
“You’re serious? That dolphin has thousands of dollars of cutting edge technology installed in him, and you want to just let him go? Hell, it would be more financially sound to try and put him through therapy!”
“Well what choice do we have? He’s already injured himself twice in the new tank. And he’s quit eating.” Her fists curl in frustration, “I’ve been with him since the beginning; he’s fought so hard to get better. I don’t want to see that go to waste. Please, Moira.”
She stares at Raven for a long moment, and then at last something loosens, “All right, we’ll try him out netted in the cove to start. And I’ll…I’ll talk to my superiors.”
“Thank you, Moira.”
“Yes, yes, you owe me one and all that jazz. Now let me go before I change my mind about this particular piece of lunacy.”
As she heads off down the hall for her office, and the phone within, she mutters, “You better appreciate this, you little ingrate. I’m putting my ass on the line for you.”
She’s not quite sure if she’s referring to Raven or the dolphin.
Well, it’s not quite the ocean, but he’s making progress.
Charles courses up and down the length of the tiny cove, poking and prodding all the moorings of the stiff net which stands between him and freedom. He’s considered trying to leap it, but it rises a fair distance above the surface and he the cove’s far too small to gather enough speed to even try.
The female is here with him, circling at the surface and watching as he surveys the net and he rises, brushing up against her and chattering.
She shifts into a vertical orientation and spits the strange tube out of her mouth, “I know you’re excited, but Moira’s still waiting on the okay, so you’re just going to have to sit tight for a couple of days.”
He sprays a stream of water at her and ducks away.
“Brat,” she grumbles.
Ignoring her for the moment, he drops down into the center of the cove, where he can feel the tug of the tide, washing out to join with the wide currents of the sea. The precise, elusive point where his voice will carry far.
He can only hope it will be far enough.
He takes a moment to gather himself. To gather all those individual threads of pain and sorrow and endless loneliness. Of struggle and desire. And tremulous, nearly hidden beneath the lines of more intense emotions, the strands of hope and cautious invitation.
And he starts to weave his song.
The day that they release the dolphin dawns cold and cloudy. The water is chill despite Raven’s wetsuit and her hands are numb as she unfastens the flexible moorings on the small door in the netting as he bobs anxiously around her. Shifting out of the way, she stands back to see what he will do.
The few dolphins she’s seen released before are generally leery of emerging from the relative safety of the netted cove. Not this one though, he’s through the net like a shot, charging out into open water as though he means to take on the whole ocean.
At Moira’s nod she follows him out of the cove, keeping a sharp eye on the movements of his tail. They’re smooth and even, nothing to tell of his horrific injury beyond the pale, unnatural color of the prosthetic.
She grins around the shape of her snorkel.
She could leave him now, drift back to the waiting group, but she finds herself dogging his tail, admiring his movements from a distance. She’s so fixed by the play of light on his body that for a second she doesn’t notice the second shadow.
At first she thinks it’s another dolphin, a mate or pod member come to join him. It’s fanciful, but not beyond the realm of possibility, but then she realizes that it’s far too large to be a dolphin and her breath freezes in her chest.
A shark has emerged from the murky distance and is circling. And her mind is torn between horror and fascination, instinctive alarm warring with academic curiosity because Somniosus never ventures this far south and what the almighty hell is it doing here and is the dolphin, the dolphin that fought so hard to live and swim, the dolphin that she, in violation of every rule and bit of logic, has begun to think of as hers, going to end up as shark chow?
But the shark isn’t attacking, isn’t even making passes in that curious, hungry way that they do. It’s circling at a distance, as though cautious to approach, even though the dolphin’s made no move of threat.
He’s not even moving to flee, the great idiot. He’s just waiting there like he’s expecting the shark to do something.
She’s about to signal for Moira, already has her hand stretched upward, maybe she can distract it or scare it, when the shark finally makes a move and it shocks her so badly her hand falls flat to smack down on the surface.
The shark’s come over the dolphin’s back, coming in impossibly close, as though he’s going to feed, head nearly bumping into a curved dorsal fin, but then he turns at the last second and a pectoral fin brushes down the side of the dolphin’s body.
Raven has to remember to keep her jaw locked around the snorkel.
‘…Touching between pod members, done to cement and reinforce social bonds…’ her textbook drones on cue.
‘Mating scar,’ her mind supplies helpfully in Moira’s bewildered voice.
She’s slightly faint.
She concentrates on breathing as the two circle each other for several long moments. And then, at some unseen cue, the shark turns and heads out into open water, the dolphin following close behind and they vanish into the gloom.
She isn’t sure what she’s seen, but something tells her, in that same gut-deep place that determines the difference between a shark that’s coming at her curious and one that’s got dinner on the brain, that the dolphin’s probably going to be alright.
After all, he’s got the biggest bodyguard in the Pacific.