C. R. Hodges writes all manner of speculative fiction, from ghost stories to urban fantasy to science fiction. Thirty of his short stories have been published in markets such as Cicada, On the Premises and EscapePod, and he is a first prize winner of the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. His online haunts include crhodges.wordpress.com and www.facebook.com/C.R.Hodges.Author/.
by C. R. Hodges
Tap. A single raindrop falling on a tranquil ocean. A few heartbeats later a second, then a third. Too numb to listen, I fade back into the swimming half sleep. Lost, starving and exhausted, I just want to make my way home.
More taps, persistent, yet without the randomness of rainfall. My eyes flutter open. I swivel my head, imaging the distant pings through my jawbone. A sonic mirage, I tell myself, as my eyes droop again. I have been swimming for two moon cycles now, through the vast deep water devoid of food. More a skeleton with fins than the dolphin I once was, I continue toward the sunrise.
The swelling amplitude and eerie familiarity of the pinging eventually cut through my stupor. Both sides of my brain awaken, listening, counting the voices. Four, maybe five creatures—no, they are ships—approach.
Friends. An ocean ago, the human Mel-Nie trained me to recognize foes from allies by their voices, their sounds. Despite the weariness of my emaciated body and the ache in my stomach, I seek out the largest ship. If I can make it onto her bow wave, I can finally rest. The throbbing grows nearer, but she sounds wrong somehow, sick.
The water suddenly frigid, my stub of a right fin trembles. The ship is large, yet still smaller than Ger-Ald or the other ten-whale ships. I force my tail flukes into action, focusing on the approach. Images of fin-like triangles come unbidden. Chi-La, my mate, was always better at this, plotting the sea path of these great ships, holding me back until just the right moment. I surge forward, trying to build speed, but my balance is off and my strength is but a shadow. The massive bow wave is there and then gone, just the sharp keel bearing down on me, like the one that sheared off half my fin. I dive, corkscrewing. My stub flails uselessly. A tail fluke glances off the hull, spinning me so I face the churning maelstrom.
I kick at the hard steel plates, pain coursing up my spine. Memories flood back: the grating sounds of ships dying, the searing heat from the burning sea. Chi-La died this way, hacked into chum as she tried to save Ger-Ald while I rescued Mel-Nie. I can still smell Chi-La’s blood in the water, still see the thousand ragged pieces of her pulverized body floating past. I plunge for the deep, using my good fin to spiral away from the hull. The giant whirling blades, propellers Mel-Nie named them, pass less than a length above my tail.
Only one propeller, I realize, the reason for the odd cadence. This ship is crippled, like me.
Surfacing in the calm between the wakes, I gulp air, musky and tinged with oil. The bright sunlight burns through the fog of Chi-La’s lingering memory. I curse at an albatross as it soars past, as if it can understand, even as I swim on.
Furious with my ineptitude, I sprint after the trailing ship. My stub has to work so much harder now, even though this ship is slower. And smaller, but she will have to do. I take a true course in, dead on. The bow wave assaults me, water forcing at my blowhole. The dark prow looms over me, crashing downward. I struggle to flip myself around. My flukes grate across the barnacle-covered hull. I lunge forward, my whole body driving my exhausted flukes and fins.
Then I am on the crest of the bow wave. Safe. The ship does the work now, and I rest, still moving, still heading toward the morning sun.
I persist for a full sun cycle, my exhausted body rejuvenating, my mind relaxing. We were once the best, Chi-La and I, the only dolphins who could ride the furious bow waves of the huge ten-whale ships. Now I ride the bow waves of their puny escorts, alone. But at least I ride. The color of the sea softens, green instead of blue-black. Green means food. I leap into the air, plunge to my right and break free. My reward is a single ping of raw sound, the humans’ form of greeting. I chirp an unheard reply, for the first time in many sun cycles wishing I still possessed the talker that Mel-Nie strapped to my chest. But that died too, in the burning sea.
The shallows serve up a banquet, and I gorge myself on mackerel. Three sun cycles later I swim lazily with the current, sated. Home can wait just a little longer.
A harbor looms before me, too cold, and without the proud arch bridging the headlands. Yet I have been here before, trained here with Mel-Nie and her human pod, and I know my heading. My half fin seaward, I make for home.
I meet several pods of dolphins along the way, but none are familiar. One pod is friendly, with surplus females, but I am not yet interested in a new mate. The currents help, the water warming, my strength returning as I eat and eat. There are many ships headed up and down the coast, ugly things that taste of grease and dead fish, but some have modest bow waves that do make for a decent ride. For the first time since Chi-La’s death I enjoy myself, until a pair of dolphins join me on the wave.
The petite female greets me with a cheerful squeak; the larger male muscles his way in between us. “Taken,” he says. He is a quarter length longer than I, his flanks smooth and unscarred.
“My mate died,” I say, in a neutral chirp that neither threatens nor accepts his dominance. “I am going home.” Yet I do not yield my place on the crest of the bow wave. Our place. Chi-La should be with me. I resist the urge to flee, to dive, to never surface.
He responds by shoving me to my left, his large flank slamming into my broken fin. I feel myself slipping toward the edge of the wave, the depths beckoning. But I snap my flukes hard, spin and butt him under the jaw, then rake the jagged edge of my half fin up his tender underbelly. He jerks aside, a few drops of blood tainting the water for a heartbeat before the wave flushes the taste away. “Was it a shark?” he asks, as he images my ravaged fin, his chirps higher pitched now. “Half-Fin,” he adds.
Despite the more deferential tone, the epithet both offends and pains me. Yet it fits. I accept the new name as penance. “Human ship. A death fight.”
“Who won?” the female asks.
We ride the bow wave in silence. “Where is the rest of your pod, Half-Fin?” she asks.
I want to explain that my pod consists of dolphins and humans and even ships. I need to talk about the carnage that night: the unimaginable fires that burn the surface of the very ocean, the gurgle of human lungs flooding with seawater as they drown, the groans of rupturing steel hulls. But I can’t even tell myself that they may all be dead, even Mel-Nie. “Gone,” I say, “like my fin.”
The male slides off to his right, allowing me the prime location on the crest.
I stay with them for the rest of the swim down the coast. Hoon-Epp gives me a wide berth but Tae-May, his young mate, swims beside me, asking countless questions. “What is the sea like on the far side of the world? How did you get there? What was your mate’s name? Was she sleek?”
I answer her questions about the sea and even Hoon-Epp’s questions about the battle, but it is painful to talk of my mate. “Chi-La was smart. She taught me how to ride the bow waves of the ten-whale ships.”
“No one can ride the bow wave of a mighty ten-whale,” Tae-May says.
“We did.” Chi-La knew the way to enter the wave, just right. She knew how to calculate angles and velocity, concepts I have never understood despite Mel-Nie’s best efforts at teaching. “Together.”
This shuts her up. Hoon-Epp too, who offers Tae-May to me that night while we drift past a beach. I decline. Chi-La was sleek once too, but that was before. Her scars were far sexier than any smooth-flanked dolphin.
“Were you frightened when the great air sharks took wing?” Hoon-Epp asks, swimming in my wake as the sun burns through the morning haze.
The air sharks that launch from the decks of the ten-whale ships, flames spitting from their tails, were indeed terrifying that first time, but not now. In truth we even flew once, Chi-La and Mel-Nie and I, in an air shark’s gullet, over the immeasurable ocean. But these are secrets of the humans, Mel-Nie’s secrets. Secrets I will not tell.
“Can you teach us, Half-Fin?” Tae-May asks, as she brushes softly against my underside. “To ride the bow waves of the great ten-whale ships?”
She is sleek, and I can almost taste her in the water. But I can almost taste Chi-La’s blood too, the image of her being torn to pieces still seared into my jawbone. “When I get home, perhaps. If I find my friends. My pod.”
“You could start a new pod.” She rolls under me, her underbelly smooth.
I plunge ahead, my flukes beating faster now, forcing myself to remember Chi-La, to remember the scars she received the first time we fought the enemy humans alongside Mel-Nie. Scars that I caressed each night while we drifted in the swimming half sleep. The water tastes familiar, and in the twilight I spot the promontory at the head of the bay. We’re close.
At dawn, we surface in a roiling ocean. I have to leap twice to catch a glimpse of the bridge, stretching from headland to headland, gleaming the color of the sunrise. “Is this home?” Hoon-Epp asks, as he breaches beside me.
“Yes,” I say, “and no. This is where I wait for my old pod. If they live, they will meet me here.”
Another moon cycle passes before I hear the distant pings. Our pod has grown by four, and when Tae-May bears Hoon-Epp’s calf, the pod will grow again. All of us swim out to sea, listening between the pings. Fifteen by my count, a fleet, but at least eleven are wounded, like the one-propellered ship I mistimed.
I lead my pod in a tight formation. We pass an underwater ship—a submarine Mel-Nie would call it—patrolling ahead of the fleet. It is as quiet as an orca stalking a sea lion, but still I can hear its faint mechanical quivers and know it for a friend. A quarter sun cycle later we reach the ten-whale ship in the center. She is huge but crippled, her voice like a mouthful of gravel. I cannot tell who she is, if she is indeed Ger-Ald, or just one of her sisters.
“Come,” I say to my pod. I do not tell them that at the ten-whale ship’s reduced speed this will be too easy. Even with my half fin, I leap onto the wave. Yet still I feel a surge of pride when the rest of my pod joins. The ride is uneven, the wave sluggish and irregular. And I miss Chi-La with a pain that burns worse than any flame. Yet she would want me to be here, leading, riding.
After allowing my pod a few moments to savor the bow wave, I leap out, arching my back, hoping a lookout will spot me. With a splash I land back in the water, peeling off to my right with powerful tail strokes. My pod follows.
Four heartbeats later the ping comes. Tap. The humans have seen me. I stop to listen, drifting, but they have nothing more to say. Just that solitary ping.
We linger in the stern wash, my pod leaping and playing on the wake as I spy-hop on the surface, trying to make out the glyphs on the ship’s tail. The ten-whale ship has slowed, and I can now see how she lists, her left flank upturned and mangled. A chill shoots through me, colder than an arctic current: is she floundering? I sink slowly back under the waves.
The pings come in a torrent, some short, some long. The other dolphins stop and look at me. I drift slowly as in sleep, just an occasional flicker of my flukes, but with both sides of my mind wide open. Just like chirps and squeaks, the odd sequences make sense if I concentrate and think like a human, as Mel-Nie taught me.
“Welcome home,” the message says. “I missed you.”
I thrust upward, throwing my head, torso and haunches out of the water, tail flukes beating mightily. Soon an air squid takes off from the ten-whale ship, its tentacles whirling above it like a ship’s propeller. I leap and leap again, up into the aerial maelstrom. A black-clad body drops into the water. Hoon-Epp snarls and sprints forward to attack, but I call him off with a rapid series of chirps. A small head surfaces, and a pair of arms holds out a talker. I dip down and ease my snout into the halter.
“Hello,” Mel-Nie says. How strange it is to again hear these alien sounds and then hear the talker repeat them in pings and chirps. She pulls her mask off. Her face looks worn, and she bears a scar too, above one eye.
“Hello,” I chirp, the talker making strange words for her. “I like your scar.” Chi-La would have liked it too.
Mel-Nie’s lips turn up at the ends. A smile she calls it. “I knew you would. My mate, however, does not.” Another smile, real or not I cannot tell.
“Send him to me and I will butt some sense into him.” I breach and roll to show off my scar and stump. Chi-La always pretended to be jealous whenever I rolled for Mel-Nie. I right myself, not at all embarrassed, but the three females in my new pod titter. This is good.
Mel-Nie caresses my mutilated fin with her gloved hand. “Are you okay?”
“They call me Half-Fin now.” I roll again, adding in a playful splash with the stub.
She laughs, the sunlight glistening from her pale face, as we swim slowly side by side. “They call me Half-Leg.” She dives headfirst, one foot and one stump popping briefly out of the water.
I chortle, knowing this needs no translation. We match.
“Thanks for saving my life,” she says. “If you hadn’t dragged me to that beach on Okinawa, I would’ve drowned.”
My flanks burn again with the memory of those flames. I choke on the chirps and squeaks as I motion toward the wounded ship with my good fin. “Your ten-whale ship sounds so frail. Is she really Ger-Ald?”
“She’s badly damaged, but yup, that carrier is our old friend, the Gerald R. Ford. Don’t worry, we’ll repair her. After fifty years of service, she’s still one tough lady.”
I try to flex my facial muscles to form a smile. Mel-Nie is a tough lady too. “And your pod, do they survive? Can they be… repaired?”
Mel-Nie’s blue eyes search mine for two heartbeats. “Fourteen ships went down that night. Three thousand sailors died: drowned, burned or worse. But if Chi-La hadn’t thrown herself into the submarine’s propeller, thousands more would have perished.”
I am happy for Mel-Nie, glad that Ger-Ald lives. Yet my flukes still droop at the mention of Chi-La. Nestling my head into Mel-Nie’s thin arms, I listen to her sobs, as the swell lifts and lowers us, my flukes gently pushing us toward Ger-Ald.
“I am sorry for your loss,” she says in a coarse whisper, as a fresh wave of warm tears mingles with the cold sea spray on my face. “For our loss. I loved her too.”
The ships wait patiently while Mel-Nie is hoisted back up. I leap onto the bow wave as Ger-Ald gains speed, heading toward the bridge. A light rain is falling now, although the sun shines through. My new pod beside me, the memory of Chi-La safe in my heart and the half-legged Mel-Nie safe above me, I ride the bow wave home.
Copyright 2022 by C. R. Hodges