by Eric Wharton
Life in Mard'le-Antis is nothing to whistle about
In Search of the Gods
E. H. Wharton
Before I die I want to swim with those exquisite creatures again. I want to feel their skin on my skin, to look into their serene faces and fall head over heels in love. My eyes begin to tear whenever I think of them and I don't know why. Where I swam as a little girl they would swim in schools, just yards away, jumping and frolicking. It was magic. I guess I always wanted to be part of that magic. I touched one once as I was swimming, and it was amazing. It swam by and I could see it under the water, so I put out my hand and his back slid under my hand. It was so smooth and slick that a shudder ran through both it and me. Next time, I want to touch the whole animal, to enclose my arms around it and become one with its soul.
—Alice, Under the Sea
Scree's inner ear jangled. Life-holder was alive with sonar. Unfortunately, they came from no particular direction. Whoever the signal-sender was, they did not have any concept of control. Either that or were too frightened to care.
Scree flicked his gray flukes and slipped forward quickly and easily through life-holder. He had to get to the sender quickly and try to exert some semblance of control, or it would begin to endanger the pod. The shelf was prime feeding ground for Orca.
Scree sent echoes into the flow, and they bounced back confusing signals. There was movement out there, but with no specific pattern. Life-giver itself had become effervescent, as if a thousand cetaceans had blown bubble-clouds angrily from their blowholes all at once.
He caught movement out of the corner of his eye. It was Grish. I should have known, he thought. Grish was one of the young males of the pod. Scree turned sideways for a better view of the small one, who was moving fast, tail flukes a blur of motion.
Grish spotted the older Ceti. He turned and headed in Scree's direction, his sonar patterns densely packed.
"What is it?" Scree barked, as Grish came closer. "Your incessant clicking is making my jaw ache."
"Dulegrs, two-leggers," Grish began chattering in subsurface signals as he came upon Scree. "The nets have gotten Shar, but that's not the worst of it. I'm sure I echoed Orca coming for the nets."
Scree turned his eye in the direction from where Grish had come. So, the little one was scared after all. He would have to learn directional control, but that lesson would come later. He calmly echoed a few clicks, testing the surroundings with his own, more highly-controlled sonar.
Satisfied, Scree turned back toward Grish. He began to click out instructions. "Go back and give Shar what assistance you can. I'll head back to the pod to let them know what's happened, then join you quickly."
"Make sure its soon, it better be soon."
Scree headed Grish in the direction he had just come with a small head motion, but not before giving the young one a slap with his tail fluke to silence his relentless clicking. Grish looked back over his pectoral flipper at Scree and gave a subtle body shake to indicate apology. Scree couldn't resist some quiet enjoyment as he watched Grish spin erratically and race back toward the lurking danger.
He turned and headed toward the pod. As he neared them in the shallows of Mard'le-Antis, where the pod had been feeding, he was approached by several males. Echoes from Grish had been received by every cetacean within the area, and the pod's frolicking and feeding had ceased as they began to collect.
"What is it?" One of the males barked. "We're all on edge from some ceti's relentless echoing."
Scree slide past, ignoring the young male on purpose. Then turning, and pausing for maximum effect, he simply clicked ... Orca.
Their reaction was expected, and amusing to Scree. The smell of fear was almost palatable. Scree couldn't resist some quiet enjoyment as he watched them spin erratically and race, clicking and barking, back to the pod.
By the time Scree arrived, the shallows were alive with clicks, whistles, and barks. He was asked to confirm the echo, which he did.
"We must flee, as quickly as possible," a young male continued, having been interrupted by Scree's arrival. Many clicked assent, echoing the wishes of the pod's majority.
"There's more," Scree whistled. "Shar is caught in a two-legger's net and can't free herself. Grish is the one who discovered that Orca is headed for her, he is with her now."
Life-giver was flooded with echoes and whistles. Shar was an older female, respected, although low in stature because she had only recently joined the pod and had not formed many bonds. She became separated from her previous pod a season ago. Her forthrightness and strong will had not endeared herself to the female population, but since she was still of breeding age, her echo carried weight.
"She is in the path of Orca, how can we help?" a Cetis clicked. "We must choose a current, but quickly," another countered. The din that echoed through life-giver began to hurt Scree's jaw again.
A bark. That was all it took for all to turn toward a large Ceti floating near the perimeter of the pod. Machsee was clearly the largest, and most commanding of all present. The pod chose no protectors, it was every Ceti's duty to protect each other. But occasionally, one would prove to be experienced, and strong, that all others turned toward it in time of crisis. Machsee was one such as this. Strong of body, stronger of heart, and willing to face dangers—he exhibited a superior ability to overcome them.
He slipped into their center. "I'll go help Shar. Everyone else must run before Orca, echoing as much as possible."
"You want the pod to lead Orca away?" asked Dorsic, the elder. Machshee dipped his head in agreement, and Dorsic pondered. It was a good plan. Doubly so since no other course seemed evident at the moment.
"Very well," the old one clicked. "I'll go with you."
"No." The bark was adamant. "Elder one, you are needed with the bulk of the pod," clicked Machsee calmly.
"You'll need help," countered Dorsic. "Grish is untested and may be of little value."
"I'll help." The echo came from the back of the pod. Jaws turned.
Machsee watched as Scree slid forward. The odd one bothered him. Yet every time a crisis arose—whenever they turned to Machsee for help—there was Scree willing to swim beside him. He would be full of arguments and was always stubborn, but he could fight. Machsee had seen him do so many times, one time taking on a bull shark by himself.
Machsee knew that Scree fought without fear, or else was so good at controlling it that he appeared to have none. While the rest of the pod's males flipped and fluked about, making a grand show, it was only Scree who showed real courage in time of danger. That was one thing that Machsee respected above all else.
There was no need for agreement or consent. Sacrifice was freely given and freely accepted in the pod. The majority of the pod began moving to intercept the path of the behemoth and flee before it—to distract it. Machsee separated himself from the rest and began moving toward Scree, thinking of the similarities between them.
Machsee was almost as solitary as Scree, but for different reasons. Long ago he had chosen his role as protector of the pod. His size and strength helped him choose that course, but he welcomed the direction it had given his life and the high degree of respect it afforded him.
Scree, on the other hand, was shunned because of his odd thoughts, ideas, and behavior. To his credit, he chose to ignore it, willing to accept his marginal position in the pod. Machsee chose to be solitary because there were very few of the Ceti he cared associate with, Scree seemed to have no choice. While he would probably never call any friend, Scree was probably as close as any would come. If only he didn't have such odd ways.
Machsee slid beside Scree and dipped his bottle-shaped jaw in acknowledgment of the help Scree had offered. It was a gesture given grudgingly by the strong one. Scree rolled slightly, indicating that it was of little importance. Machsee accepted that, but knew what they both could be sacrificing—possibly their lives. Scree's self-effacing attitude was another reason Machsee liked Scree.
"We should move along the flow-side trench," clicked Machsee. If Orca was purposely hunting the two-legger's nets, moving to the shallow trench between his approach and long trench while the others made a loud retreat might serve to fool him. It was an uncertain plan at best, but the only action they could take short of outright attack.
The two began to move in the direction Grish had gone. They moved through life-giver silently, effortlessly. It gave Scree time to consider his motives. There was another reason he had volunteered.
When it came to the two-leggers, Scree could not resist the possibility for contact. He was Dulegrryc, a Ceti who had raised two-leggers to god-like standards. Most Ceti believed they took the form of Delphis, the creator Cetacean. Scree was certain that two-leggers, if not gods themselves, held the key to unlock the mysteries of life.
Scree had been birthed in the Mard'Dulm, and named nicScree-dens'Melanus. As a juvenile Ceti, he had been feeding in the shallows nearby, and had drawn close to a small two-legger. His sonar told him she was young female, and curiosity had overtaken him. He slipped near her under the water, and she put out her hand. His back had slid under her touch. It was smooth and slick, and a shudder had run through both.
He had hurried away, but it had been a magical experience, and one that had altered his perception of life. He didn't know what hold they had on him, but he constantly watched the two-leggers from a distance with joy, excitement, and ... melancholy. He wanted to feel their skin on his skin again. He wanted to look into their serene faces, and wanted to be part of that magic again.
Once, while watching the two-leggers, he had even fought off a bull shark to defend a young one swimming in the shallows. It had not been easy, and Scree was left with marks on his sensitive skin that would last a lifetime. His agility had saved him, but it had been worth every cut he bore. He wore them as a symbol of his faith.
Now, as a late middle-aged dolphin of fourteen seasons, his life-long passion for watching the two-leggers had given him more knowledge of their odd behaviors than any other Ceti. His echoing soon told him they were approaching the two-legger's net.
The signals he had been receiving earlier now made sense. Fish squiggled and flipped themselves, jerking from side to side, trying to extricate themselves. In the midst of the turmoil, her tail flukes firmly twisted in the netting, floated Shar. Thankfully, it had trapped her near the surface, so she was in reach of breath-giver. Grish had been lifting her, but the effort had exhausted him.
Scree slid in beside Shar. She turned toward him, and dipped her bottle-shaped jaw in acknowledgment of the help he offered. It had been clear to the entire pod for some time that she was attracted to him.
"Let me take over lifting you to the breath-giver," clicked Scree.
"For how long, Scree?" responded Shar.
"As long as it takes," clicked Scree.
He lifted her with his rostrum, and let her take a full, deep breath. As they slid down under the lapping waves, he surveyed the situation.
It looked hopeless. She had obviously panicked after becoming entangled. The net wound around her so intricately that her life-force was beginning to seep. That was not a good sign. It would only attract Trurost, the blunt-beaked shark with strips.
With no other course of action open, Machsee began to gnaw the net surrounding her tail fin. His teeth were not sharp—they were teeth meant for grasping, not for chewing. There was too much space between them to maintain contact with the netting fibers, and progress was slow. Grish could do little but swim to the side and try to regain his failing energy. Every few minutes, Scree would lift Shar to the surface so she could breathe.
"What do you think of your two-leggers now?" Shar suddenly clicked, weakly.
Scree paused in astonishment. Why hadn't he thought of that?
He settled in next to Machsee. "Keep gnawing as best you can," he clicked. "I'm going to try and get help from the two-legger's surface floater."
Machsee stopped for a moment. "I don't have the faith in them that you do, Scree," he clicked. "But if you can get them, do so quickly."
"I will, Machsee." Turning to Shar, he clicked, " Hang on, I'll return with help. Come with me, Grish."
As the two sped off, Shar closed her eyes and let herself slip into the Ceti relaxed state. It helped conserve oxygen being used by her body. She hoped Scree would return soon.
Shar didn't know how long she had been in her comatose state, but when she awoke, echoes reverberated throughout life-giver. She twisted herself as best she could and turned an eye in the direction her sonar had picked up the commotion.
"What is it?" she clicked as Machsee abandoned his gnawing and glided up next to her. Hope filled the female dolphin. "Is it Scree with his two-leggers?"
Machsee didn't respond at first, echoing into life-giver to be certain. He became unsettled and began to rotate his body, causing an agitated cavitation.
"Who's coming? Life-giver is alive with signals."