Abyss & Apex : Third Quarter 2008: Praxitales

PRAXITALES Illustrations

Praxitales

by Nye Joell Hardy

 

This is a story of faith, myth, trust, guilt, and the way belief can cage you as soundly as bars of steel….

brains

This isn’t an academic facility. This is a military installation. God damn it. Things got hot, and Gidford sold me to the military.

The cab was pulling away, leaving me freezing by a wooden sign that read “Pacific Northwestern Oceanic Institute.” A path led down to a gate in the chain link and barb wire fence. In the distance, amid inky pines, white 1940’s barracks glowed fuzzily like elongated doghouses beneath neon lights. I knew it. It’s a hoax. A cover. They probably want me to wire bombs into dolphin brains. Make them into sentient weapons.

Clutching my purse, briefcase, and duffel bag, I skidded down the path, snow squeaking beneath my sneakers. It was midnight and I was late, thanks to a train that had broken down no less than seven times in three days: I was now about an hour above Seattle in, as Gidford had explained it to me, “Some God forsaken wilderness in the middle of nowhere.” Anyway it sliced, I was a long ways from my native Miami. I’m not going to do this. And I’m going to kill Gidford.

For a military installation, security seemed poor: no one was around. Reaching the closest building, I hopped up fragile wooden steps. Breathing puffs of ice, I banged on the door, my tingling fist clutched around the leather handle of my briefcase. After a few minutes, I shouldered my purse, dropped the briefcase between my numb feet, and tried the frozen door knob. It turned.

Shivering in a windbreaker never intended for snow, I entered. A small entry room –– white plaster walls, worn, and thick red carpet, smelling moldy, threadbare furniture. A heater forced a warm breeze, and bare light bulbs lit the little room and an empty hallway that stretched down the length of the building. No one was around.

I stomped my wet feet. No one appeared.

I’ll stay the night. That’s all. Wooden doors lined the hall. Hoping to find someone, I walked down the hall, stopping to examine the notes, letters and cartoons stapled on each door –– the familiar spoor of academia. Offices or laboratories? Dormitories? For a moment I felt comfort, then reminded myself that scientists who worked for the military had gone to college, too. God damn it.

Unsure of what to do, and standing before one of the doors, I heard the faint whiskery noise of pages being turned. Hesitantly, because no light slivered around the door frame, I knocked on it.

A chair scraped back. Footsteps. The door swung away from me.

“Is this a …” I started.

Out of the blackness emerged a tall, lean man. Fifty–ish. A professor? His long white hair was pulled into a ponytail, and his cheekbones were high and face wide like an American Indian. He wore a red plaid shirt and blue jeans, which I was beginning to suspect was the official uniform for the State of Washington. Holding a book in one hand, a long forefinger marking a page, and leaning against the door frame, he considered me silently with marble blue eyes.

“Is this a military installation?” I tried to sound insulted, then paused. As far as I could tell, the man was not breathing. “I’m Helene Connor,” I added, “from the Miami Oceanarium and Bathypelagic Institute.” I stopped again, and waited.

He was holding his breath; he exhaled with phenomenal slowness. “My dear,” he said finally, quietly.

His expression asked me why I had knocked on his door in the middle of the night. “I’m here about…”

“Praxitales,” he started, as slowly as he had been breathing. He broke the word into gentle syllables. Prax,eh,tal,eez. “Rol–lie can help you. She’s the Resident Assistant. Last door on the right, down the hall.” He looked away then, took one step back, and closed the door.

I blinked. Strange. In addition to being truly bizarre, the man had an obvious East Coast accent.

On the next door, I knocked more aggressively. This time, a groggy girl as plump as a seal, in a quilted nightgown, opened the door. She goggled at me with frightened, enormous seal–eyes. “Who are you?”

I knew I was tired, but I really wondered how bad I looked: people were giving me the strangest reactions. “Helene Connor. Miami.”

She looked too timid to be military. “Oh, oh. Yes,” she managed in a small voice. “We’re glad you’re here. You’re late. You look exhausted. Let me take you to the guest room.”

Before I could ask her any questions about my alleged assignment, she ducked back into her dark room, and returned with a steel ring of keys. “This way. How was your trip?”

“Fine, I suppose.”

“Uh, good. Breakfast is at 7:30 am. The Board of Directors wants to meet you at 9:00.” We walked back down the hall; she stopped before a roughly lacquered door and opened it. “If you want, I’ll meet you for breakfast and show you around before then, Dr. Connor.”

“Oh, I’m not a doctor,” I said wearily, peering into the small room.

The look she gave me was worse than disappointment: it was downright dangerous. “You’re not a Doctor.”

“I’m a graduate student. I’m working on a Doctorate in cetacean psychology.”

I saw that this girl had a complete range of unpleasantness that I hoped never to fathom the depths of. Considering that the moment before, she had actually been frightened of me, our roles had reversed utterly.

“I…” the words died in my mouth. I didn’t know what was going on. That was a sure thing, now.

She looked furious, but she did nothing other than turn and mince down the hall, barefoot on her solid little feet. I slunk into the room, clicked on the bare light bulb, and glowered at a narrow bed and a desk–chair unit intended for a sixth grader.

This was not going well, not well at all. I glanced at the mirror in the open bathroom. My straw toned hair looked like someone had cut it off and glued it back on my head; weariness had caused welts under my eyes that purpled like bruises. Worse, being out of my environment for three days had murdered my tan.

I dropped my bags to the floor and eased onto the creaking bed, between the folded blankets and an old pillow that had seen fluffier nights. I then pulled a tatter of newspaper out of my windbreaker pocket.

The piece of paper was over twenty years old. I studied the photo, a man–figure wrapped up like an Egyptian mommy. It sat in a wheelchair attended by a veritable forest of intravenous drip bags on silver poles. For the thousandth time, I read the accompanying article.

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AP PRESS –– SEATTLE

Today at an international press conference, Albert Perrin–Hill announced that the body of Stephen Bandell, a marine biologist who died a year ago, has been used as a host for the brain of a dolphin who was once one of the deceased biologist’s study subjects. Albert Perrin–Hill and his associates at Goose Bay, a small research facility north of Seattle, quickly sidestepped moral objections by explaining that Bandell had died of a brain aneurysm and that the Pacific white sided dolphin, known only as Subject A17, would have been dead a few days later due to a severe genetic neuromuscular disorder. With equal quickness, the panel assured the audience of journalists, scientists, and politicians that the transplant was a success. Critics of the…

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“It’s a hoax,” I decided again, for the thousandth time. I turned off the light and curled up on the bed.

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I’ll just tell these people what I think, and then I will be on my way back to Miami.

I had decided to stay in my room until near nine o’clock and then find someone and ask directions. If Rollie came for me, fine, I would go to breakfast with her, but otherwise I would prefer to hide in the room.

No one fetched me for breakfast.

Close to nine, I wandered out. Doors were open. Students meandered in and out. It looked, I noted, very little like a military base, much more now like a university dormitory.

I stopped one of the students and asked where the administrative offices were. Like everyone else in this little alternate universe, he did not answer my questions straight away. “Who are you?”

I was not feeling entirely congenial. “I’m here about Praxitales.”

The look on his face was dubious. He turned and shouted down the hall. “Rollie, the girl from MOBI is here!”

I cringed, but straightened my face to obliviousness as Rollie appeared. She wore jeans and a thick sweater that looked like it had wreaths wrapped around it. Her bright blonde hair was combed back, her expression polite and formal. Bad, bad news.

“If you’ll follow me, Connor.”

I wasn’t going to grace that with a thanks. I followed her out of the building and into the barren compound. We walked to another long white building, matching each others’ strides silently.

She escorted me to an office that felt as bare as blood, even though it was filled with a conglomeration of office equipment –– folding chairs, metal desks, battered filing cabinets, cardboard boxes –– the floor boards roiled with herds of dust balls. One large window allowed chill light in, and a view of bright white snow and dull white sky. It had all the ambiance of a large janitor’s closet, and probably, at one point, had been.

And, in this janitor’s closet, behind a long table, sat two women and one man, all wearing blazers and vests. Professors. After years of education, I knew the type.

“Dr. Andrews, this is the woman from MOBI,” begrudged Rollie.

The center professor, an elegant, older woman, brightened. “You must be Helene Connor. Welcome.”

“I am. Thank you.”

Dr. Andrews gave a beautiful, young smile. “Forgive me for prying, Helene, but you don’t look very happy.”

“Oh, you’re wrong. I’m completely unhappy,” I said tersely. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Rollie look at her feet and shift her weight.

“Well, let’s talk about this. Sit down, both of you.”

“Ma’am?” questioned Rollie.

The professor’s eyes narrowed. Rollie picked up two folding chairs and clunked them down for us. She and I sat down.

Everyone looked at me expectantly. I felt like I was in the principal’s office for throwing spit wads.

“Is this a military installation?” I asked.

To my discomfort, the three at the table looked to each other quickly. Then, Dr. Andrews addressed me. “No. It’s not. We are privately funded. My name is Alicia Andrews, and I am the Head of Board of Directors, as well as Head Research Scientist. This is Dr. Vince Ray, with Bioengineering, and Dr. Cynth Molera, Marine Science. You’ve already met Rollie Perrin–Hill; she is our Senior Research Aide.”

I smiled like I was facing a firing squad. “You people are serious, then.”

The professors, probably not understanding what I meant, beamed quite charitably at me. Rollie fidgeted grumpily in her chair.

“I find it improbable that a cetacean brain could survive in a human body,” I added.

I wasn’t quite sure what reaction I expected from my announcement, but I knew I wasn’t expecting what I got: all four looked at me as if I had just announced that I had reason to believe the world was flat.

“Oh, very few people do, at first.”

“You’re not serious.”

“Don’t tell me you came all this way if you thought he was a hoax.”

“I didn’t have much choice,” I answered, raw. I didn’t feel like explaining that there had been an accident, a death of a student at the Oceanarium, and that my overseeing Professor had sent all his graduate students to other projects to avoid the backlash of law suits that were sure to follow.

“Well…didn’t Dr. Gidford give you any of the literature?”

My eyes popped at this. “The only ‘literature’ I’ve seen would give the National Investigator a run for its money.”

I had a briefcaseful of old articles, all of them so carefully non–technical that it seemed obvious that they intended to perpetuate a fake. There was also a novel, The Shroud of Humanity, written by a woman whose only other writing credit was entitled The Loch Ness Monster. Dr. Gidford wasn’t rock solid in his credibility, either; when he had given me my new assignment and the fateful train ticket, he had just been finishing off a 450–ml beaker of whiskey.

“Besides,” I finished tightly. “Even if it were possible, I wouldn’t participate. What you’re talking about is sick.”

Rollie almost choked. Andrews raised a hand at her. “It happened over twenty years ago. None of us were here when it was done. We’re just taking care of him. He’s in a bad way. Are you sure you don’t want to even try to offer some sort of insight?”

Rollie couldn’t take it anymore. “Dr. Andrews, Dr. Ray, Dr. Molera, I hate to bring this up,” the vicious look in her eyes told me that it didn’t bother her too much, “But Connor here is only a graduate student, like us. How could she possibly know anything more than the research staff, or any of us?”

Dr. Ray, a greying Hispanic man, interceded. “We don’t have many choices left, Rollie. When Praxitales became ill, we sent letters asking for assistance to every academic and medical facility in the country, and no one replied. That was six months ago. This time, we had only two respondents, and this young woman was the more qualified. We’ll have to take what we can get.”

I wasn’t sure I appreciated that.

“But how can an outsider help?” Rollie whined, now. “I’ve worked with Praxitales my whole life. If he won’t talk to me, he won’t talk to anyone!”

“He talks?” I asked.

Rollie stood up, hotly. “He walks, he talks, he does card tricks,” she said angrily. “You’ve got less training than me, and less experience. I REFUSE to take you seriously.”

“Rollie…” started Andrews.

Rollie, tears in her eyes, bolted out of the room.

“…Please forgive her, everything will work out,” Dr. Andrews seemed upset, but not ruffled. “Her father was on the original project…she’s known Praxitales her entire life. She is taking this all very personally.”

“He talks?” I asked again.

“Well, he did,” said Dr. Molera, the red haired woman sitting next to Dr. Andrews. “Six months ago, he stopped talking. Just recently, he stopped eating and we have to tube feed him. His health seems fine. We’re stumped.”

“I see. Can I see him?”

The three professors looked at each other, then at me. It did not make me feel good.

Dr. Molera nodded. “We can arrange that. He’s on his morning walk right now.”

“He wal…” The only thing that kept me from blurting out my surprise, my disbelief, was that I wanted to impress these people with my ‘mere graduate student’ intellect. I scrabbled for a rational reaction. “Is there anyone with him?”

“Only a monitor–floater. It is customary for him to walk around the bay. He prefers the solitude.”

“Uh–huh. I have to see this.”

Dr. Andrews stood up, and gestured at the door. “Be our guest. Take the trail north. It will take you to the bay.”

brains

You’re not in Miami anymore, Toto.

I wore a sweater beneath my windbreaker, but it didn’t help. Washington state was colder than Florida had been since the last Ice Age. It was also wilder than the East Coast had been in two hundred years. Outside the compound, I entered an alien world. The paved path was the only reality I really trusted. The shaggy pines, leafless trunks spined with branches like Voo–Doo dolls, and abstract ice–sculpture drifts of snow made me nervous.

My level of discomfort leveled off when I reached a cretinous beach formed not of sand, but smooth grey river rocks. Cold waves, black and frosted with salt under a steel–brushed sky, crashed into the forbidding stone. Shivering in the ice–wind, I studied the Pacific coastline. Like my home waters, I guessed these waters never repeated a day’s colors or textures.

I sighed. It was my ocean: there were no walls in the sea.

My doctoral work depended on that, and on animals that did not know what barriers were. Unlike humans, who experienced physical barriers, and whose minds were compartmentalized for that reason, I hypothesized that creatures in the open ocean developed a ‘barrier–free’ psychology, and a different sense of language to explain their world.

Those animals, for me, were dolphins.

Sickly, I remembered why I stood there. Praxitales. A dolphin who could speak to me. A dolphin in a man’s body. A brain transplant between species.

I scanned the stone beach, necklaced by an ellipse of furry pines. Peeking out from behind the trees, I could see the twittering lights of a security fence.

I’m sorry. It’s just too twisted.

I decided to leave, but then hesitated: a red jacketed figure was emerging from behind a tree on the other end of the beach.

A tall, white haired man. The strange fellow I had spoken with the night before. He strolled towards the surging waters.

I doubt a brain–transplant patient could walk so quickly. I picked across the rocks, not wanting to twist an ankle, choosing a path with which to intersect him. He reached the edge of beach first, and stopped.

Approaching, I gave a calculated smile. “Hello, again.”

“Hello.” His bright blue eyes dazzled me, even in the grey, cool sunlight. His words, as always, were careful. “Are you one of my new graduate students?”

“No. I was sent here to try and help Praxitales. Do you know where he is?”

“How do you propose to help him?”

No one in Washington State, apparently, was capable of answering a simple question directly. “Hell if I know. I’m just a very ordinary graduate student from Miami. That’s been made pretty clear to me.”

“Are you sure?” He asked.

“What? That I’m a graduate student, or that everyone around here…” I let the thought drop. The dotty professor no longer looked at me. He had turned towards the grey surf and now scanned it with an intensity that let me know he wasn’t just taking in the scenery. He sought something.

I looked out across the wind faceted water. I saw it, then. A dark hooked fin sliced out of the silvery magic that is the ocean, then sank out of sight. I had caught a glimpse of the creature’s eye, watching us, masked in silver and white. I knew the species. Lagenorhynchus obliquidens, the Pacific white sided dolphin.

I felt confused. “That’s not… Praxitales. Is it?”

“No. That’s Mach–no–mach.”

There was something wrong with his voice. It sounded thick, unhappy. His face was turned from me, and I could only see the edge of his cheek. I could also see an ancient bruising running down the back of his neck, disappearing into the fur lining his red coat. His shoulders shook.

The man, I realized, was crying. “Sir?”

He didn’t answer me. Feeling blisteringly awkward, I looked up at the sky, wishing that I could just fly away. A monitor–floater, an outrageously expensive piece of hardware, floated high in the air directly above us, like a toy–sized U.F.O.

Suddenly, I felt like the victim of a huge galactic practical joke. My chin snapped down, and started to quiver. I stared ferociously at the professor’s profile.

Through the white hair, I could see a long pink caterpillar of a scar. “Who is Mach–no–mach?” I whispered. The strange name chewed my tongue.

“Mach–no–mach,” said the stranger slowly, tearfully, “is my wife.”

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Returning to Dr. Andrew’s office, I stopped when a man shouted at me, and turned to see that I was being borne down upon by a pair of men in padded black fatigues.

The first, a tough middle aged crewcut, cut me off before I could accuse him of anything. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“I’m…”

“God damn it,” muttered the second of the two, a shorter black man.

“…Do you have your I.D. badge?” finished my charming interrogator. He glared at me.

“No.” Already shaken, and angry for it, I glared back. “No, I was here about Praxitales.”

“You don’t have a security clearance.”

“No…” I looked at the silver bars on his collar. “No, Lieutenant.”

His face reddened. “I’m a Captain. Let’s go see Dr. Andrews right now.

I was just on my way.

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Dr. Andrews looked once at me, once at the men escorting me, and gave a huge smile. “Helene. Gentlemen. Come in. Sit down.” She was alone in the janitor’s closet office.

We entered. No one sat down.

Captain Roberson began immediately. “We specifically told you not to call for outside consultation,”

Andrews’ Teflon smile did not waver. “She’s not a consultant. She’s a graduate student.”

Thanks.

“You’re not obeying orders.”

“I’m not in the military,” replied the Head Research Scientist evenly. Firmly.

Roberson’s face reddened again, this time into his short porcupine hairline. He scowled at her and then, without further notice, blew out of the barren office. Grimacing professionally, his little companion trailed after him. Andrews’ pale eyes were hard and angry, but she blinked herself into gentleness before she would look at me.

“Well,” she said.

I frowned. “You lied to me. No matter. Your problem is solved. He’s talking. I’m leaving. Bye.”

“He talked? What did he say? How did you…”

“We talked for about half an hour, after he stopped crying. He said that his wife, this sweet little porpoise, has been hanging around the bay for him all these years. She’s finally dying, and he is grieving.”

“Wife? You’re kidding…”

“Watch the tape on the monitor–floater,” I snapped. I took a deep breath, and did what I really wanted to do: rant. “He’s not a science experiment, he’s a man. A crazy man. And you people are crazy if you expect me to believe any of this!”

“Wait.” Andrews raised a slender hand. “I take it you still entertain doubts?”

“I may be ‘just a graduate student.’ Don’t think I’m a fool. I did my undergraduate work in Psychobiology. He’s homo sapiens. Normal respiration, normal blink response, normal reflexes. He talks slowly, but that’s due to his mental condition, not brain damage. He’s a man who thinks he’s a dolphin and you’re letting him do it!” I glared at her: I had been talking so fast I had no spit left in my mouth.

“Please, calm down.”

“No, God damn it. What you’re suggesting is impossible.”

“You think that we set up an elaborate show just to fool you? And Rollie? And everyone else?”

“The The Piltdown Man springs to mind. It’s not like changing a battery in a car, for God’s sakes!” It wasn’t even the delicate matter of hooking up the nerves of a severed brain to a body again; that technology had existed for over a decade. I had spent three days on the train learning all the reasons why Praxitales had to be a hoax. I had a very long list. “A dolphin brain is larger than a human brain. You would have had to discard portions of it to make it fit the cranium. If…”

I hesitated, and then decided, do it, let them know what you think. “Even thinking of doing it is the sickest thing I’ve ever heard of. If your little Frankenstein had survived, it would have been unabashedly and severely brain damaged! ”

“Actually,” replied Dr. Andrews, softly. “We shaved the cortex down and removed some of the buffering fat. I can show you the X–rays. The brain also sits at a slight angle. It would amaze you.”

“And the immune system?” Normal transplants failed often because the body readily recognized what was itself and what was not. In the case of an organ transplant, it was the transplanted organ that recognized the new body as transgressing surroundings and chemically rejected it. A transplant between two different species would be impossible.

“We bathed the tissues in Q–12. The cell I.D. tag. It allows differing cells to recognize each other and prevents rejections.”

“It only works within a species. Sometimes.”

“That’s Q–12 alpha. Q–12 beta worked just fine with Praxitales.” Dr. Andrews smiled serenely.

Still glowering, I pulled more facts out of my mental black hat with a flourish. “Just exactly how did you convince one blood type to provide adequate oxygen for a human body and a cetacean brain? Dolphin hemoglobin carries a third more oxygen than human red blood cells!”

Another beautiful smile. “That was the tricky part. We manufactured chimeric blood cells –– hybrids of the human and dolphin –– and then a rigorous physiological therapy on the body and brain for eight months so that they would work together. Perrin–Hill was a biochemist: he won a Nobel prize for his work.” She stopped, and evaluated my sick expression. “Please, Helene, be patient. I’ll show you the lab, the notes. I know it’s hard to believe, but you’ll see.”

“No, I won’t.” I was deeply angry, and I knew that anything Dr. Andrews said, plausible or not, would only serve to infuriate me more. I also knew she was lying, but I held that last trump card mute in my seething heart: I had spent enough days standing in waist high water, shivering in my wet suit and holding ailing dolphins afloat to know that when those precious animals had suffered enough, they simply stopped breathing, and died. Unlike humans, who could breath if they were unconscious, dolphins only breathed at will. No dolphin would choose to survive the horrific procedure Andrews fantasized.

And there was something pathologically wrong with anyone who would expect such a beautifully sentient animal to do so. There was also something psychotic about a facility that would propagate the tale of such an abomination…I had just reached the point where I didn’t even want to know why.

“No,” I growled. “I’m fed up with you people. I’m leaving.”

“Really?” Asked the good Doctor. She held up a silver card. “I’m holding your return train ticket.”

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They can make me stay here. They can’t make me work.

I sat on the scroungy narrow bed, my duffel bag packed by my side.

I had seen enough. These people were not only military, they were fanatical. The students I had seen walked around the installation as if it were holy ground and Praxitales, their deity. The professors? High priest and priestesses, keepers of the sacred alter. Captain Roberson and his little buddy, the temple guards. I felt as if I had inadvertently stumbled into some bizarre myth.

And what do all myths require? A sacrifice, that’s what.

I refuse! Determined to stare at the wall until Andrews released me, I broke my own promise when someone knocked on the door, then opened it.

Rollie peeked in. Her brown seal eyes looked tortured. “You can’t leave,” she whimpered. “He talked to you.”

“I just spent an hour telling your Head Research Scientist why I shouldn’t be here. You’re crazy if you think I’ll listen to you as to why I should stay here.”

“Did he say anything else to you?”

I looked out the window at the snow field. I really missed Miami.

“What did he say?”

I sighed. “He said that I looked very pretty. He liked the way my eyes, hair, and skin were all the same color. ‘A gentle gold woman,’ were his exact words, I think.”

“He likes to complement people,” Rollie’s already swollen eyes filled with tears.

“Rollie,” I started carefully, “There’s something wrong here. There is no way in the world that something like Praxitales can exist.”

“Didn’t you see his scars? He talked to you and you don’t believe?” Her fire and hatred gone, she sounded hollow and desperate. I felt guilty for disliking her.

“Rollie, this is the strangest thing I’ve ever heard of. I’m from Miami. That’s saying a lot.”

“He’s dying, and you don’t believe in him.”

“Rollie…” Whatever the truth was, I knew Rollie believed in Praxitales.

She really believed in Praxitales.

“Uh…” Suddenly, my windpipe began to ravel up; I could feel my stomach trying to squeeze upwards. “Uh…” I ran into my room’s little bathroom. I barely made it to the sink. There was nothing in my stomach, but I retched for a good minute.

Grasping the porcelain edge, I saw in the mirror Rollie sitting on my bed, watching me. “I’m sorry,” I grated.

“It’s okay. Dr. Molera went through the same thing when she first got here. So did Ralphie. You’re suffering from paradigm shift.”

“What?” My innards began to crawl again. I braced myself.

“Paradigm shift. You’re starting to believe what we’re telling you and you don’t want to so badly, it’s making you sick. Your body is rejecting it.” She gave a harbor seal’s sad smile. “Like an organ transplant.”

I shook my head. My stomach threatened to betray me again. “No. No, I don’t.” I watched her in the mirror. “I can’t. You’re not the only one who has worked with dolphins all your life, Rollie. I grew up on a research vessel. If Praxitales were genuine, I would have heard of him.”

“No, you wouldn’t have.”

“Why not?” I still held the sink. I tried not to sway.

“There are some things you should understand about Praxitales.” She glanced out the window, sadly. “My father said that when Praxitales came out of the coma, the scientific world thought he was a miracle, but when he began to talk, he was considered an abomination.”

Warily, I lowered myself down to my knees. Sitting down, I leaned against the cold wall, and stared at Rollie.

Her tears quietly began to flow. “People don’t like to hear that they are wrong, Connor. They asked Praxitales what he thought and felt, and he told them. But it wasn’t what they thought he should be thinking and feeling, and they blacklisted him for it. The reason you can’t find anything out about him is because, twenty years ago, he embarrassed and mocked everyone, showed them they were fools, told them their live’s works were jokes. Everyone’s theories were wrong. The media, the scientists, all the icons of research, even Stephen Bandell himself. Everyone.”

The mind of an animal in a human being. “If a different species could express its views, everyone would want to know what it had to say, I think. I know I would.”

Rollie shook her head. “No. That’s why we’re at a military facility. Nobody else will give us any quarter. The Navy helps us with blood work and all the medical checkups he always needs.”

My stomach was beginning to hurt again. “Okay,” I groaned. “Say, for argument’s sake, I believe you. What did Praxitales say that upset everyone?”

With a ghost of haughtiness, the borrowed confidence of a Nobel Laureate’s daughter, Rollie lifted her round chin. “Why don’t you ask him?”

brains

I didn’t go talk to the Amazing Dolphin Man. I called Miami, since both my cell phone and net–connection seemed to resent being in Washington: neither worked.

“Mary, this is Helene. Is Gidford in?”

“Hi, Helene…no, he’s been unavailable all this week. He hasn’t been returning messages either. You know…the place is crawling with investigators.”

Fine, talking to that drunken pig wasn’t my first choice, anyway. I balanced the receiver of the old fashioned phone on my shoulder. Rollie had given me a lab journal; I held it on my lap and was paging through it. Still very much the skeptic, I now entertained even more questions. Praxitales was doubtfully what these people claimed, but he was something to these people, and I wanted to find out what. I needed help. “Okay, how about Kip?”

“Oh, he’s in the Bahamas.”

“The Bahamas?

“Why? Where are you?”

“Gidford sent me to Washington! Washington State! Why in the hell did Kip get…forget it.” Now, I was really upset.

“Is John Paul in? Or did he get an assignment in the French Riviera?”

“Uh, no. Wait. He’s over at the University –– they put him in an office in the library basement. I’ll transfer you, Helene. Hold on.”

The ancient telephone line buzzed quietly. Maybe the science of it would work, but forgive the pun, there’s still something fishy about this. Why would it be a secret? Scientists wouldn’t reject negative information. Data is data, whether it correlates your theories, or not.

I thought of all the theories that had ever been postulated regarding the mental lives of dolphins. Just about everything had been considered. One researcher in the Seventies, John Lilly, had even hypothesized that dolphins were psychic. At the very least, it had been an excellent excuse to conduct a lot of “experiments” with LSD.

What really bothered me was this: so much had been written on dolphin psychology, many of the papers opposed one another. Praxitales had disproved them all? All of them?

No. Slowly, I began to bang my head on the wall until John Paul, also known as The Pope, also known as The Resident Computer Genius, picked up the line. “Pope!”

“Einstein! How’s it going, lady?”

“You wouldn’t believe where I am. What’s up there?”

“Bad. Donny’s wife is suing the Institute. Everyone is running around like they’re avoiding snipers.”

I remembered Donny. I remembered holding his hands. Tears needled my eyes.

“Hel, you there?”

I pushed the lab manual off my lap, pressed my hand to my face. For the last few days, I had pushed the accident to the back of my mind. I wanted it to stay there. “I need you to pull up some information from those secret files you always brag about.”

“What’s the name?”

“Praxitales. I’ll spell it.”

In the background, the key–strokes of the Pope’s computer fluttered. “…Okay. Hold on. Hmmm. The Shroud of Humanity. Book title.”

“I’m familiar with it. What else?”

“There’s a list of other references. Two names. Stephen P. Bandell and Stephen Praxitales Bandell.”

Praxitales. Bandell’s middle name. A Greek name. I thought then of Greek myths, of dolphins saving drowning sailors. There had been no dolphin to save Donny. The image of Mach–no–mach, grey flanks in black waters, flashed through my mind. Don’t cry.

“Einstein. Helene.” The Pope was trying to get my attention.

“Do the second one.”

“Okay. Uh. Shit.”

His tone scared me. “What?”

“I’ve just been tagged by N.I.S. What…Helene, I’ll call you back.”

The line went dead.

brains

The Pope did not call me back.

On Rollie’s door, stenciled in thalo blue was an Egyptian falcon. The Egyptian sun–god, I realized. Ra.

R.A. Resident Assistant. Clever. I banged on the door. Rollie yelled at me to enter.

She was seated at her desk, her head down on her hands.

“Do you cry all the time?” I asked.

She lifted her head, deftly plucked a tissue from a box, and blew her chapped nose. “As of late? Yes.”

I slid onto her quilt–covered bed. “What if I told you that your Praxitales is more than a Navy charity case? He’s a classified project.”

“No.”

“The Naval Intelligence Service has a secured file on him. One of my friends just got busted for touching on it.”

“Naval…”

“Naval Intelligence Service. It’s the Naval equivalent of the F.B.I.” I took a deep breath, because I was familiar with them: my father was a Naval officer. I wondered if John Paul knew how much trouble he was in.

Rollie considered me with solemn brown seal eyes. Then, she blew her nose again, and shook her head. “No. We have a contract with the Navy. They provide us with the facility, and all they do is weekly blood work and exams. Praxitales is ours, not theirs.”

“Are you sure?”

Rollie didn’t answer me. She reached across her desk and picked up a framed picture of herself, her father, and Praxitales. Quietly, she studied it.

I tried again. “Do you see the results of the blood tests?”

She put the picture down, and stood up.

“Rollie.”

Ignoring me, she trundled to the end of the bed, knelt, and withdrew from underneath the bed a heavy set of bolt cutters.

“One of the perks of being the Resident Assistant,” she stated, answering my wordless surprise. “Come on. The brass are down at the mess hall.”

Rollie donned a knee–length coat, hid the bolt cutters beneath it: nervously, we walked over to the administrative building. Being lunch hour, the white washed barrack was vacant.

There, we entered Captain Roberson’s unlocked office. Rollie cut open a combination lock into another room containing filing cabinets. I shook like a diseased willow, not only because we were now felons, but because it had just dawned on me that, with this kind of interest by the government, Praxitales could very well be a legitimate phenomenon.

That man is a dolphin.

If he is, there are things I want to ask him. There are things I need to ask him.

Rollie pulled open a drawer. “‘Language.’ Have you listened to him speak, Connor? Did you notice he mimics any accent he hears? We have no idea how he does it…” She slid the drawer shut.

Handling data, Rollie became excited. I could feel her pride, the honor of a graduate student privileged enough to work on a very respected project.

Praxitales. Feeling dizzy, I crouched next to the whispering Resident Assistant.

“…He can see in the dark, too. I don’t think he knows that we know. It’s probably a variation of the sonar.” She pulled open another drawer. “No, this isn’t it. ‘Pulmonary Functions.’ He can hold his breath like a dolphin. For up to ten minutes!” She closed it, tried another one. “‘Hematology.'”

I glanced at the door. “You know him best. Why would he talk to me?”

Reading an opened file, she didn’t answer me at first. Then, in a shakier whisper, “I don’t know why. It hurts that he would talk to you, not me. This report doesn’t make any sense to me. Does it to you?” She shoved the manila folder into my hands.

Why would a dolphin speak to me? Me. I glanced down at the pencil–written records. The blood–gas fractions meant little to my untrained eyes, but…

Stunned realization turned budding awe into puddle water. I flipped through the pages. “He’s on a drug regimen. He has been for several months.”

“What kind?” Rollie looked terrified.

I checked everything again. Thorazine. Zan–ol. Sodium pentathol. A few strains of barbiturates.

K–bel lysergic acid.

“Psychotropic drugs. Really high dosages. They’re doping him up with mind altering substances.” With the care one would use in handling a ticking bomb, I replaced the folder, shut the drawer. I took Rollie’s bolt cutter, wiped her fingerprints off with my shirt, and dropped it behind the cabinets, wiped fingerprints off the cabinets. I couldn’t breathe. “Let’s get out of here.”

The illustrious Captain Roberson passed us in the chilly compound, as Rollie and I scurried back towards the dorm. Seeing him, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if he had an implanted shark brain: he looked at me like I was prey. I dropped my eyes, pretended I didn’t see the career military man, and wondered what part he and Dr. Andrews played in our little myth. Rollie managed a disturbed silence, until we reached her room.

“They’re running experiments on him. Secret experiments!” she quavered. “That’s probably why he’s been sick!”

I felt like I was going to be sick again, myself. “Some of those drugs are purported psychic enhancers. They might be testing him for extrasensory perception.” They’re testing Lilly’s theories, I realized.

Those drugs had other uses, as well. I stopped, thought hard.

Very hard. I remembered something that was critical to animal language studies. “Rollie. How long has Praxitales been here?”

“Almost nineteen years.”

“Has he ever been off the grounds?”

She shook her head.

“Have you ever heard of ‘captive protocols?’ It’s a term used in language tests with animals. When you teach an animal a vocabulary –– whether it’s a gorilla, a dog, or a dolphin –– you never teach them the words they need to know to ask to leave. There’s an assumption that if they can’t say it, they can’t think it.” There’s also an assumption that if they could ask to leave, they would. I bit my lip. As far as I was concerned, ‘captive protocols’ were the original sin of animal behavior studies. A sin I had committed myself, with my manatees and Bottlenoses back in Miami. “Has Praxitales ever asked to leave?”

Rollie shook her head again.

“I take it, he has the language skills to do so.”

“His I.Q. is equal to ours. Perhaps higher. He’s difficult to test.” Her eyes filled with tears. “He reads a lot. Why are they doing this?”

He’s never asked to leave.

“I think they’re programming behavior into him. Rollie, is there a glimmer of a chance that Praxitales might be a human induced into thinking he is a dolphin?” I had just eclipsed back to my original accusation, this time with an even better excuse.

Now, it made me want to cry.

Rollie was crying, but too shaken to argue with me. “Why would they do something like that? Why would my father do something like that?”

I shrugged, weakly. “It’s the military, Rollie. There could be a strategic use for the ability to make people think they are something else. Or for the physiological responses they can manipulate out of him?”

I could see that she did not agree with me, but she nodded, stiffly, and murmured what I was already thinking. “We need outside confirmation.”

“We need to get him out of here,” I said.

brains

I had been in Washington for less than twenty–four hours, and I had already burglarized an office, accessed classified records, and committed credit card fraud. Now, I was up to kidnapping.

I looked down at my lap. My hand trembled: I still held the corporate credit card Gidford had given me for emergencies. Quickly, I tucked it in my purse. I sat in a rented car. Praxitales was in the passenger seat.

“We’re going to Seattle,” he beamed, slowly. “I’ve never been to Seattle.”

I looked at him carefully since it was only my third meeting with him. Overjoyed to be in a car, he ran long fingers over every surface as if admiring a Christmas present. His blue eyes glittered, brilliant against the black puffy coat Rollie had dressed him in. Rollie had also braided his long white hair back. I knew why the staff was so devoted to him: he exuded sweetness.

Shyly, he tugged at the seat belt Rollie had strapped over him. “What is this for?”

“A restraint. For safety.”

I wish you were a dolphin. He probably was Bandell: Rollie had found a picture for me, of a man twenty years younger, heavier, with short black hair, and a devil–may–care grin. I shuddered, and fired up the car. I was going to take Praxitales to a real hospital to be examined. I was going to end this travesty.

The car had been delivered by the rental company to the main entrance of the Institute. I could see Rollie between the trees; she had disabled the monitor–floater and now acted as look–out. She waved at me to leave.

“You and I have not had a real talk yet, Hel–ene,” Praxitales said gently.

“No.” The snow–lined dirt road led up to a paved road.

“Life moves, Hel–ene,” he began. “I’m glad we’re moving. Life is restless. To accommodate the mass of your numbers, you’ve learned to stay still, but it is maddening. How can you?”

The highway. It looked icy to me. I didn’t know how to drive on ice. “Lethargic genes, I guess,” I answered off–handedly. My hands sweated, slicking the steering wheel. “Praxitales, listen to me. What I’m about to tell you is very important. You’ve been a prisoner, and you’ve been made to think you are one thing when you are really another.”

“Another what?”

I was scared. It hurt to breathe. “You are not a dolphin.”

“I’m not. I was. Now, I am a man.”

“No one would be weird enough to cut up a Pacific white sided dolphin and put them into a human being. No one would be cruel enough.”

“It wasn’t cruelty, Hel–ene. Al–bert told me that, once. It was love. They couldn’t bear to lose me. They had been dreaming for some way to save me when my host’s brain died.”

“No. It’s crossing the line. It’s going too far.” Funny, I thought, saying such a thing at the same instant I’m committing a crime. Praxitales was the property of the Pacific Northwestern Oceanic Institute. I checked my mirrors, again, and caught a rubbery, mocking smile out of the corner of my eye.

“Would you,” he asked, “have crossed ‘the line’ to save Don–ny?”

The entire country knew about the accident at MOBI, but Donny’s name had not been released to the public. “Who told you about Donny Marcello?”

His beautiful sapphire eyes sparkled wickedly, but Praxitales didn’t answer. Since I was risking my future to save this man, it irritated me. He was toying with me.

He didn’t have the right.

“So,” I continued, coldly, “What was it like being a dolphin? What was it like, living in a world without walls?”

He took his own turn at sarcasm. “You’ve read the literature.” Lit,er,a,ture. Every word was broken down.

Boy, they did a job on him.

“I read the literature.” The road was empty behind me, like a pot waiting to boil. “I find it hard to believe that you discounted every theory ever postulated on dolphin behavior.”

“I am alive, Hel–ene. I am not definable in words.

“Right,” I breathed, disgusted. Houses started to appear in the heavy forests around us, fleas in dog fur. I considered abandoning the highway and working my way down to Seattle on side roads.

“I lied, Hel–ene,” said Praxitales, simply.

No, I barely know where I am. I’d just get lost. “Lied? About what?”

“I didn’t want them doing to my species what they had done to me.” He placed his words as carefully as if laying bricks to build a house. “I didn’t want them to hurt Mach–no–mach.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I was the ambassador of my race, the representative.” Re,pre,sen,ta,tive, with a Miami accent. His voice hitched up. “I needed to insure that they would never take one of us again.

I told them everything that would repel them, make them want to leave us alone.”

Waiting for the car, Rollie had shown me Praxitales’ statements. Apparently, he had purported his species was nasty, vindictive, selfish, bad humored, vicious, inconsiderate, jealous, stupid. It was no surprise to me that the world wouldn’t want to hear that: the world didn’t want to hear about itself.

He had also laughed at every theory regarding dolphin psychology. I remembered Rollie had told me that, in effect, Praxitales had hurt the feelings of the scientific community, and they no longer wanted to play in his proverbial sand box.

All I wanted to know was how he knew to do that.

“How did you know what to say, Praxitales? How did you know what angered people?”

He did not answer. A police car passed. My heart pounded too hard. I was getting too scared to care about his answer, interesting as it might be, from a psychiatric point of view. I slowed the car. A school of commuters streamed by us.

I’m stopping. I didn’t, though. “Why are you telling me this? In fact, you’ve talked to me since I got here. You wouldn’t talk to anyone else for over six months. Why are you even talking to me?”

Those were questions he was willing to answer, it seemed. “You understand. You lost someone the same way I lost Mach–no–mach.”

Donny. “No. Rollie’s father died. She lost a loved one. She would understand you.”

“Al–bert died of cancer, but Rol–lie loved him. He loved her back.” His words were slow. “I had to watch Mach–no–mach suffer without me for twenty years. We could not be together, and I could tell no one…”

Donny.

“…and you had to watch Don–ny die, never able to tell him how much you loved him…”

I forgot I was driving. I gaped at the smiling, blue eyed, white haired man.

“You couldn’t tell him,” finished Praxitales. “He was married.”

My jaw dropped. Then, gravel and ice stole the tires of the car, and the vehicle screamed off the road like a roller coaster tearing down into the steepest dip. That we ended up in a ditch twenty feet below the level of the road did not bother me because I was too busy screaming at Praxitales.

“Bastard! Get out of the car!”

The man, stunned, pulled back from me. He didn’t unlatch his seat belt.

Furious, I shrieked more insults at him, but my anger fainted dead away when I realized he was bleeding. The thin, bruised skin on the back of his neck had broken open. Praxitales was injured.

Injured, and frightened to death of me.

My heart rended, and I wanted to weep, but I remembered that I was responsible for him, now. “Oh, God. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Praxitales, I’ll take care of you.” My own sob interrupted me, surprising me. “I won’t hurt you again.”

In the distance, the faint tweel of sirens commenced. Trembling sickly, I hoped someone had seen us go off the road, and had called an ambulance.

Or the police.

At this point, it did not really matter. Slowly, I reached out to the trembling man, gently stroked his arm to reassure him. “We’re going to finish this, once and for all,” I whispered.

brains

“He needs a CT scan. He hit his head,” I had lost count of how many times I had said that.

“We know, lady. Climb out,” said one of the paramedics, a little wearily.

I stumbled away from the ambulance, and watched them pull out the gurney. Praxitales had panicked in the coffin interior of the ambulance, and they had forced him into restraints. After that, he had stopped screaming, and had squeezed his eyes shut.

And stopped breathing.

I had thought the worst day of my life had been when Donny had drowned in the experimental Biosuit –– with the staff, an invited audience, and the media present –– in the gorgeous Coral Reef Room of the Miami Oceanarium and Bathypelagic Institute. Donny Marcello had drowned while all of us watched, the clear plastic ballooned around his head like a crystal ball determining his fate on the spot.

I was wrong. The paramedics had thought me insane, whispering desperately into the ear of a bleeding man who was having CPR performed on him. When Praxitales finally relented and took a breath, I had been so sick I vomited bile, again.

Watching the gurney disappear behind steel swinging doors, I just barely made it to a chair in the waiting room. I desperately hoped a CT scan would prove that he was only a man.

A man whose brain did not sit at an angle in his head.

A man who could read in the dark, hold his breath for four minutes, shadow my accent, and tell secrets that had never been breathed to a soul.

He had squealed when the paramedics had first grabbed him.

That sound had been urgently familiar to me. I had heard it many times, as an undergraduate, working with the University’s Whale Rescue Program.

Shakily, I rose and pushed through the doors. After surprising several emergency patients, I found him on a back bed closed off from the world by a green curtain. Still in restraints, he lay quietly, eyes closed, taking his slow, deep breaths. I watched him for a few minutes.

“Praxitales.”

When his eyes opened, he was looking directly at me. He looked terrible, pale. In the odd light of the hospital, his irises were white, not blue, and the wrinkles of his host’s face gleamed in high relief.

“I believe in you,” I breathed.

“I believe in you, too.” He smiled at me, faintly, like a dolphin.

I started undoing buckles.

 


 

 

Nye Joell Hardy writes “science fiction for my head and fantasy for my heart.” She has sold to NATURE, BLACK GATE, CHALLENGING DESTINY, and others; attended the 2006 Clarion; and she is congenially indentured to a major corporation’s food safety program.


 

Editorial © 2008 Nye Joell Hardy. All other content copyright © 2008 ByrenLee Press 





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