Richard Gelvin's fiction has appeared in several Web publications. He is currently
working on a novel based on the premise of this short story.
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by Richard Gelvin
"Director, it is my responsibility to inform you that
the planned exercise will have devastating consequences for
"We're not in conference, Jay, I wish you'd dispense
with the formality. Sugar?"
"Yes. You're pushing him, Neil. He's sensitive.
Putting it in human terms, he's a child. This will be his
first exposure to live combat. It may ... change him."
"I expect it to. A good soldier is adaptable under
command. He'll adjust, and grow from the experience."
"Or, he won't, in which case we bring up one of the
other candidates. Hha is promising, the most promising so
far, but there are others."
"None with the strategic inference capability of Hha.
None that have ever beaten me at chess."
"There are others who can check you in a dozen moves,
Colonel, but that's off the record. Ours isn't the only
"What will you do with Hha, then, if he washes out?"
"He'll have to be destroyed. He knows too much to be
set free, and handing him over to the private sector is not
an option. If he can't do his job, we won't maintain him."
"You son of a bitch."
"My mother was Irish. Cream?"
Hha could feel the water temperature rising in his
tank, though it happened so gradually the humans expected
him not to notice. They always warmed his environment
before a battle exercise. From what he had read of human
history, Hha imagined the rising temperature was related to
the human conception of war and the motivation of its
participants -- "hot-bloodedness," or the "heat of battle," or
some other shark-piss human metaphor equating body
temperature with endeavor.
Similar metaphors appeared in erotic literature Hha had
accessed through his library station; a liaison between a
man and a woman had been described as though it were a
desperate battle, one with a glorious and catastrophic
conclusion. Hha had been surprised there were survivors.
Humans seemed to treat sex and war as equally thrilling
pursuits, in their writing and in their social exchanges.
Perhaps it was the same with dolphins? Hha, far from
maturity, didn't know.
Ancestral contained no such metaphors; there were no
words for hot or cold, nor any way to equate such things
with sex or conflict. The closest concept translated as
"blessedness", and it described one's surroundings and
included the warmth and taste of the water, the closeness
and comfort of comrades, and one's station of celebrity or
notoriety within the pod. "Blessedness" was well-being, and
Hha hoped to attain it, one day.
He floated at the surface with only his blow hole
exposed to the air, and painted fleeting pictures in the
center of his holding tank with his sonar. If he were not a
soldier, he would be a painter, whose medium was sound. The
technology existed, he knew, to record his works, but the
humans never used it. Oh, they monitored his tank,
constantly, but they mistook his painting for random
soundings, which were recorded on some sound graph in a
single dimension, shapeless, dead. It would require more
sophisticated equipment to record the three dimensional
images he drew in the water with meticulously tempered
sound. Perhaps he would introduce the world to a new art
form, after the war.
After the war, he would paint for the world.
What he painted now, he had painted before, many times.
A sonic image appeared in the center of his tank -- a dolphin
in mid-breach in the open, wild sea, her back arched to
descend again into the cold, swelling waters. The attitude
of her body was purposeful, and the lean, shimmering image
suggested great speed, but it also suggested freedom.
The image lasted only milliseconds before it
Hha expelled the air from his lungs as he observed the
last of his high frequency brush strokes expend their energy
against the stark walls of his tank, and remembered the
stories his father, Se Paa, had told of his life before his
capture and commission to the Project -- the schools of fish
that glittered in bright multitudes and were fresh and
lively when eaten, not like the cold dead fare offered by
the tankmaster; the open expanse of sea that went on
uninterrupted by land for thousands of klicks; the tales of
danger, of sharks, and the unshakable solidarity of the pod
in defending against them; the solitude that could be
afforded in the open ocean by diving into the black depths
of Mother Water, and the unusual, contemplative
communication with whales who spoke so strangely of the
world and seemed irritated by the playful demeanor of
Hha had listened raptly to Se Paa tell of his travels,
rolling over on his side as his father spoke in the concise
Ancestral language, taking in the words, closing one eye to
rest and receive the tale. But when Se Paa spoke of his
lifemate, Ensa, Hha would roll back level and fix both eyes
in keen concentration.
Ensa was not Hha's mother -- he didn't have one, as far
as he knew, other than an anonymous host mother into whom an
engineered splicing of Se Paa's genes, and others were
placed -- but Hha wished that she were and had read enough of
human law to know that, in the abstract thinking of Men,
Ensa was his step-mother, and that gave him some warm,
connected solace as he imagined her, free and alive in the
Sometimes, after a battle exercise, when he was near
enough to the mouth of the harbor to hear the sounds of
the open sea, Hha would call Ensa's name, but the only
response he ever received was once, from a passing whale who
answered with a question.
Who calls? the passerby asked.
Enret Se Paa! Hha answered, Ancestral for "son of Se
Paa", and the whale responded with a disinterested phrase in
Whale Dialect that translated as "unknown to me", then
continued on his migration course.
Hha wanted to tell his father stories, too. He wanted
to tell him all that he had learned of the world in his
training, the wonders of the rich language he had been
taught and the bright world it had opened for him; the long
blazing history of humans that Hha was so quickly becoming a
part of, the brilliant art and literature, and poetry!
Hha wanted to tell him about his dolphin troops -- how fit and
fine they were, how well they worked together and how they
trusted him, obeying without question his every dispatch.
But Hha never spoke to Se Paa of such things.
He'd seen his father silently eyeing the massive grey
troop ships churning the harbor water as they sailed out of
port, and he noticed the dark suspicion in his father's
eyes. He couldn't admit to Se Paa that one day, he would be
a close part of the mission of Men against other Men, in
support of their great fleets. Reconnaissance, detection,
targeting, confusing the enemy with false sonar images
painted in daunting clouds around the opponent -- these were
things Se Paa would never understand.
And so Hha kept silent about his work and training,
enjoying his father's company on his rare visits. Instead,
he immersed himself in Se Paa's stories of the blessed seas
beyond the harbor nets, hoping that his father would
eventually see worth in him as a son and a soldier.
Father, he thought in the language humans had taught
him, as the last echoes of his painting faded from the tank,
I will yet make you proud.
The battle alarm sounded, and the exit gate opened
simultaneously. The situation board above the gate intoned
information about the coming battle -- Hha's position would be
one of defense, he could expect to be fearfully outnumbered,
and his troops would not be reinforced.
Hha had faced similar exercises before, and had always
triumphed. But now an unfamiliar sonic clause radiated from
the board, and was reinforced on the color display:
LIVE AMMO -- KILL COMMAND
Hha took a fraction of a second to send an ultrasonic
whisper through the center of the tank, his canvas, blank
now but for his prayer --
Forgive me, Father.
With powerful fluke strokes, Hha darted through the
open gate and into the command armor that awaited outside
his tank, suspended by thin detachable threads. The open
armor surrounded his sleek body and snapped into place,
fitting tightly against him and covering his body, with the
exception of his head, fins and flukes.
When his armor had powered up, and its comm-link had
clicked into the tiny receptor in his skull, Hha took roll
of his pod leaders.
Their responses danced in his head as a painful
pressure built in his sinus chambers and a part of Hha
seemed to detach itself and watch the routine, unlike other
exercises, where his focus had been entirely on the Game.
Do they know? Do they know that good 'phin will die
He recalled the last conversation he had been allowed
to have with his father, months before, when his studies had
fallen off, and Colonel Creighton had arranged a visit, in
the hope that it would improve his concentration.
Hha had danced about his father when he entered the
open gate of his tank, performed tight, excited loops around
him, before coming to a nervous halt in front of the aging
'phin. He had bowed his head, as dolphins do in the
presence of a dominant bull, and beamed a greeting in
Ancestral Dolphin reserved for senior family members. His
father had not returned his greeting, but had slowly circled
the perimeter of Hha's tank, emitting sharp, investigative
pings. Hha had waited nervously in the center of the tank
until his father was ready to address him.
What do you do here? his father had asked.
What do you play?
Hunt-seek-find -- fight?
Yes. Hha had turned his head away at the admission,
and the old dolphin had clicked his teeth in chastisement.
The Two-flukes corrupt you.
No! They teach!
Hha couldn't express the wonders he had learned of the
world--its history, literature, mathematics--in the limited
vocabulary of Ancestral.
Teach taboo! his father had shouted, directing his
sonar in a narrow beam that Hha felt like a slap. Teach
kill! Two-flukes want -- SHARK!
Hha could not have been stung more deeply. To be
likened to a rapacious, unthinking fish by his own father
had been devastating.
Father, he had pinged softly, his head bent steeply in
submission, I have no choice.
Always choice for thinking 'phin, his father had
replied, and then circled his son once before departing,
bouncing one last admonishment off the wall by the open gate
as he left. Choose well, Hha, he advised, and was gone.
The roll call complete, Hha's troops awaited their orders.
The mild static of the open comm-link sounded like a
breaking wave inside Hha's head.
"Pod leaders," Hha told them. "This is a live exercise. Arm weapons.
Advance in urchin formation on my order. Surface forces
advance and report on my band, command-comm alpha--" Hha's
orders were interrupted by an underwater detonation in the
center of the battle harbor, half a klick distant, near his
advance troops. The shock wave struck and snapped the taut
web that held Hha in place in his armor, catapulting him
back against the forward pylon of the tank gate.
Momentarily stunned by the impact, Hha shook off the blow
and swam in the direction of the explosion, scanning with
high pitched pings. His sonar reported debris in the center
of the harbor, and the water tasted of blood. Over the
comm-link, he heard the excited voices of his pod leaders
issuing orders, a call for medics for the wounded, and evac -- for the dead. The dead!
"Surface Force Recon, report!" Hha sent over the link.
"Negative contact. No enemy scanned."
"Alpha Pod, Lieutenant Cyn."
"You're closest. What happened?"
"Air attack, sir. One bomb, delivered in the center of
the harbor. I'd sent three 'phin to recon and longscan.
They were hit directly, and I have other casualties. I
couldn't -- Sir! I have a report of a ship coming around the
point, two klicks south. Waterline ports are opening!
Troops debarking! The harbor nets are down, they've got a
clear path to us. ETA, three minutes."
"Commander to all forces -- break formation, dive -- hug
the harbor bottom -- execute a crescent sweep south, with the
reef as a pivot -- Alpha Pod, take point. We'll sweep them
into the harbor and trap them with their flukes to the
Hha was passing through the blast area as he issued his
commands. There were bits of shattered battle armor
settling onto the sandy harbor bottom. The water tasted
foully of blood, and Hha recognized the scent of an
individual -- Yeoman Sana, Surface Force Recon. A female.
Hha had once painted an image of her as they'd visited in
the recreation tank. He'd used a tight corner of the tank
to craft her lithe body performing a close turn among the
stars and anemones beyond the reef and she had expressed
joyful astonishment at the detailed image. Hha had promised
he would teach her to paint, show her how to gauge the
surroundings and use them to reflect the sound, and then
stabilize an image with staccato pulses -- someday.
Hha cursed in Ancestral, cursed the Sea Devils that had
taken Sana to the Great Sea, too soon, and reviled the
Two-flukes, the cheaters, the shark-skinned humans who had
bombed them from the air without providing them with a
warning, or an air defense. As he left the blast area, he
beamed a determined prayer through the center of the
Farewell, Sana. You live in memory.
"Commander, Lieutenant Cyn. I have a Two -- a human in
full battle gear approaching. He's broadcasting on my band,
repeating the same message -- 'King to Rook Five.'"
"Place him under guard, and hold him by the nets, I
want to question him. Continue your maneuver. When the
enemy is in range, fire on them, but direct your fire so
they can dodge by entering the harbor -- make sure that is
their only option."
The man floated outside the harbor by the tall winch
that controlled the harbor net. He was flanked by two
nervous 'phin from Alpha Pod, one of which held the man's
rifle firmly in his snout. The 'phin dipped their heads in
salute as Hha approached.
"Give me a reason to let you live, Colonel," Hha said
over the link.
"Hha, I didn't know about the bombing! They knew I was
against this exercise from the start, so they wouldn't tell
me the details. Listen, Hha, I can help you. I have a
remote. I can raise the nets!"
Hha regarded him silently for a moment, thinking.
"Do you have a recorder in that instrument package?"
"I want you to record something -- make a loop of it, so
you can play it back repeatedly."
As Creighton began to set up the recorder, Hha heard
the sharp hiss of stinger torpedoes being launched, and he
turned south to scan the crisis. The enemy 'phin dodged the
missiles, and turned into the mouth of the harbor. More
stingers were launched to herd the stragglers; Hha watched
as his own troops dodged some return fire.
"Raise the nets, Colonel," Hha ordered.
The winch squealed to life, and the long netting was
lifted up off the sandy bottom, and stretched tightly across
the harbor, imprisoning the enemy 'phin.
"Are you ready to record?"
"Good. Then record this --" Hha said, and began to
speak in Ancestral. When he had finished, he turned to the
'phin that held Creighton's rifle.
"Give him his weapon; he's going to need it. Colonel,
give me three minutes, then play that recording at full
volume, and drop the nets."
"I understand," he said.
"You humans would do better to fight your own battles."
"I've always thought so, Commander."
Hha regarded his old friend for a moment, then
somersaulted and motioned for the two young 'phin to follow
as he sped away to join his troops.
"Three minutes, Creighton," he sent over the link, "and
"To you, too."
"And Creighton --"
"Rook to Bishop Four -- 'mate."
Creighton chuckled grimly and shook his head as he
watched his friend speed away. He saw a stinger come
through the net, and strike Hha a glancing blow and then
explode, but when the bubbles had cleared away, he saw Hha
still swimming, with only minor damage to his flukes.
Creighton breathed easier then, and checked his weapon, and
waited for the guard boat that he knew would come for him.
He saw the boat as it rounded the rocky point to the
north of the harbor. He swam over to the winch, climbed up
onto the metal framework and set his rifle out over one of
the stanchions to steady his aim. His wrist alarm beeped at
the end of the promised three minutes, and he activated the
recorder and tossed it into the water as the guard boat bore
down on him. He touched the remote, and the winch screeched
above him as the nets were lowered. He took aim on the
forward gun turret, then fired several rounds and dove into
the cold harbor. As he entered the water, he heard Hha's
recorded voice playing loudly out into the sound. The boat
was above him, its engines idling, as they searched for
The gunner pointed his weapon out over the bow and
looked for some sign. A tell-tale bubble gave him cause to
fire his weapon.
Come join us! Hha's recorded voice said, and continued
to say, long after Creighton was dead.
The sharp sting of his wounds was forgotten, and the
trail of his blood slowed to a trickle as he picked up
speed. He had long since shucked off his armor, not
bothering to release its comm-link from the receptor in his
head, so that the tiny unit was wrenched from his skull as
he swam urgently away. The empty armor had fallen slowly to
the sea floor outside the rim of the battle harbor, a
dolphin-shaped carcass that twittered with unheard status
requests as it settled onto the fine sand beyond the reef.
The cold sea water, so much colder than his tank water,
refreshed and invigorated him. His scans reported the
forward terrain as immense and without walls, so utterly
open and wild that Hha nearly forgot to surface for air in
his awe. When he did breach, he leapt five meters into the
hot blaze of the low western sun, and dove back again, deep
into the welcoming sea. His sonar reported a large school
of small fish three klicks to the south, and he set off to
meet them. He wanted to eat, ravenously. He wanted to
swim, play, make love, sire a son and teach him what he knew
of the world, and warn him about the ways of the Two-flukes,
as his father had warned him. He heard the far-off scans of
his troops, on their own separate courses now, and he felt
their astonishment at the wide look of the world, felt their
awakening as he felt his own.
As he swam on to intercept that tasty school, he called
out a single, joyful phrase in Ancestral Dolphin, a phrase
used by yearling 'phin after learning a new skill, and he
repeated it, over and over. His call formed a melody that
echoed and preceded Hha through the cold, blessed waters,
startling fish with its wholehearted intensity --
Father, look! Father, look!