Life on Hydra (fiction)

Copyright © Karl Dahlke, 2020

What if intelligent creatures on a distant planet were entirely aquatic? How would their civilization evolve? How would it differ from ours? Here on Earth, we used stone tools for three million years, followed by fire, burgeoning chemistry, metallurgy, the Carnot heat engine, and an explosion of knowledge and understanding. This pathway is not available to the marine mammals on Hydra. They have their stone age, but without fire and heat, there is no bronze age. Perhaps there is a glass age of sorts.


At first glance, a dolphin on Hydra looks like a dolphin on earth, but on closer inspection, the front fins don’t look like fins at all. They look more like arms with skin attached, somewhat like a bat. And at the end of those arms are hands, grasping hands with opposable thumbs. Webbing between the fingers would have improved the speed and efficiency of swimming, but the dexterity of individual digits proved even more valuable. Thus, webbing never evolved. The dolphins could count on their fingers, build and manipulate tools, play the flute, and even hold hands in a gesture of love and affection that humans would recognize.

The dolphins on Hydra were able to discern four planets moving against the backdrop of stars, and these were, of course, moved about by gods, but that’s all they could glean from the night sky.

Dolphins on Hydra can read and write, hence their near vision remains acute. When in deeper waters, their enhanced hearing takes over, including echolocation, similar to dolphins on earth.

An opening at the top of the head allows for breathing at the surface with most of the dolphin submerged. After several deep breaths, a healthy adult dolphin can dive to a depth of 500 meters and hold his breath for 15 minutes as arteries and veins restrict the blood supply to the vital organs. Lungs compress at the bottom of the dive, and re-expand as the dolphin returns to the surface.

Diving and the Bends

Every five years, the dolphins compete in organized sports similar to the Olympics on Earth. Events include speed swimming, distance swimming, figure swimming, synchronized swimming, high jumping above the surface of the water, deep diving, and a number of bubble games.

Favos was ready to compete in his third tournament, having taken first place five and ten years ago. Everyone expected him to win this year. He took some deep breaths at the surface while the judges attached the thread that would measure his descent. Favos knew better than to hyperventilate. Others had done so, and reached deeper waters, but they died in the attempt. Somehow they were tricked into thinking they had more breath than they really had. Five years ago, one of his competitors, Alphoto, reached a depth of 1.1 kilometers. The judges just shook their heads in disbelief, as though the feat were impossible, and indeed it was. After an hour they pulled his lifeless body up by the thread attached to his tail. Favos knew better; he took several long easy breaths, then shot straight down like an arrow. The thread recorded a distance of 0.86 km, and then, thankfully, went slack as he returned to the surface unharmed. Favos was once again diving champion of the world. This would, of course, be recorded on the Wall.

At the same time, Bargoth was planning her own fascinating yet dangerous diving experiment. It had been talked about, but never attempted. She found an abandoned turtle shell which could hold quite a bit of air, and she planned to take this air supply down with her, to reach depths never before attained by dolphins. (Other fish could dive deeper, and even whales, but Bargoth wanted to extend the limits of scientific exploration.) The problem was buoyancy. It would take tons of force to pull all that air below the surface. Having trapped air in the shell, she affixed rocks to the shell, one after another after another, until it finally sank. She descended with her air supply, well below a kilometer, as measured by her colleagues at the surface. She took breaths now and then from the shell, and exhaled in the water, knowing that her air was “spent”, and she would not benefit from breathing it again. The bubbles drifted up slowly, past her face and up to the surface. “I could stay down here for almost an hour,” she thought, taking another breath. “How much science could I do at the hotspot in an hour? How many shrimp and fish and clams could I bring to the surface, species that have never been seen before? How much could we discover?”

Bargoth was startled out of her daydream by a shocking reality. Her trapped air supply was frighteningly small, just a pocket at the top of the shell. This could not be explained by her breathing, she hadn’t taken that many breaths. She hadn’t removed that much air from the shell. Something else was going on. Bargoth was a gifted scientist, and she correctly surmised that the weight of all that water above her was squeezing the air into a much smaller space. Air was compressible, like certain plant materials. Would it return to its original volume when she rose to the surface? She thought it would.

Meantime she had to poke her nose all the way up to the top of the shell to take a breath. A wave of fear swept over her, as though drowning was imminent and inevitable. She took two more breaths, released all the rocks, and held on to the shell as it pulled her back up. Sure enough, the air pocket inside grew, until it was almost its original size. After taking a dozen breaths at the surface, Bargoth told everyone what she had discovered at her record shattering depth of 1.07 km. But within a matter of minutes something went terribly wrong. Bargoth writhed in pain, and her screams could be heard throughout the university. She died soon thereafter.

The condition was called Bargoth’s Syndrome in her honor. Doctors suspected that air in her lungs, or in her blood, expanded, as it did in the shell, and caused the condition, although an autopsy was unable to prove this conclusively. Needless to say, nobody was willing to repeat the experiment. The episode was written on the Wall, so that future generations would understand the physics and the biology that Bargoth had elucidated. She was not the first scientist to give her life in the pursuit of knowledge, and she would not be the last.


Ejerton was born 137 years after Bargoth’s untimely death. He studied her work, her careful observations, her astute conclusions, and her fatal mistake. Thus, he was cautious when he began to study the compression of air under water at age 15. Yes, he dragged air below the surface, but he didn’t breathe any of it, not a sip. His parents taught him how to dive, and he could hold his breath with the best of them. And so, while still in high school, he decided to quantify Bargoth’s effect. Air was compressed, but by how much?

He only needed a long thin tube – no need for large reservoirs of air or heavy rocks. He fashioned a tube from a reed near the shore of Kamas, a large island just a few kilometers to the east. With air trapped inside, he descended ten meters, using a precut thread to measure his depth. The air was half its size, squeezed to half its length along the reed. He rose to the surface and the air returned to its original volume; perfectly compressible. Ejerton did the same experiment at 20 meters and the air was compressed to one third its original size. Thirty meters cut the volume by a factor of four, and so on. He submitted a paper to The Science of Matter and summarized his findings as follows.

“Air is compressed by a factor of 1 + m/10, where m is the depth in meters. A column of water, 10 meters high, weighs exactly as much as the entire column of air above the sea, for however high it goes. Each 10 meters of water adds another standard of weight and further compresses the gas.”

He also concluded, correctly, that water is incompressible, else the weight of water, and the pressure, would increase faster than linear, faster than his formula indicated. Finally, using math that hardly anyone knew, much less a high school student, he showed that air pressure decreases exponentially as you rise higher above the sea. This follows from air being perfectly compressible. After a while the atmosphere becomes whisper-thin, and then … what lies beyond? “Nobody knows,” he admitted in his paper. “Maybe nothing, a state of pure vacuum. A brave traveler who tried to go to the Moon or the stars would discover there is no air to breathe.”

Ejerton presented another hypothesis, which would normally be rejected as pure speculation, but as one referee put it, “It just feels so right.”

“About 73,000 years ago,” he wrote, “Destrophus suggested that all matter is made up of atoms, individual particles that cannot be divided further. This was little more than philosophy at the time, but recent experiments lend credence to this hypothesis. If air is made of small atoms that fly about, then twice the pressure will squeeze air into half its volume, whereupon the gas is twice as dense. Twice as many atoms are banging against the walls of the container from inside, thus balancing twice the pressure from outside. In contrast, a liquid or solid has all its atoms tightly packed. It weighs a thousand times as much as a gas, with its atoms bunched together, and compression cannot squeeze the atoms further. They are already touching each other, or nearly so. The compression experiments on air and water, described in this paper, suggest that matter is made of atoms after all, free and flying about in a gas, and tightly packed in a liquid or solid.”

His paper was accepted and circulated throughout the university, and even the general public took notice. Nine months later it was engraved on the Wall. No one his age had ever made such an important discovery before.

Ejerton wanted to turn the science of matter into a formal discipline, a branch of science that would eventually be called “chemistry”, but he knew that further progress would be nearly impossible without heat. It was just a gut feeling, a sense that heat could distill matter down to its pure essence and facilitate reactions that had never been seen before. Dolphins had seen fire before, and it was described on the Wall. Every 20 or 30 years lightning would strike the nearby island of Kamas, sparking a blaze in the southern forest.

An unusually large conflagration occurred when Ejerton was 18. Everyone swam towards the island to watch, but Ejerton slipped away from his family and went right up to shore. He poked his head above water and felt the heat, like a piece of the Sun come to Earth. The orange light was frightening and beautiful at the same time. Acrid smoke filled the air; he had never smelled anything like it before. Trees were consumed by the flames, but thanks to the god of life, new ones would grow in their place. The heat was intense, and Ejerton had to slip back into the protective arms of the sea. He swam back to his family, who, like most of the dolphins that day, stayed a respectable distance from shore. “What kind of process is that?” he wondered as he went to sleep that night. “It obviously can’t occur in water; the god of the sea protects us.”

Coraltown, where Ejerton lived, was situated halfway between Kamas and the hotspot, a geologic thermal vent just 240 meters below the surface. Ejerton had visited the hotspot as a child, against his parents’ wishes. But he was careful. Others had ventured too close, and the resulting wounds didn’t look or smell like any other wounds. Not a shark bite, not a jellyfish sting, but a horrible blistering of the skin. These were slow to heal, and sometimes they didn’t heal, leading to infection and death. So Ejerton approached slowly and cautiously. He felt the heat, and smelled the sulfur, and gathered some of the unusual tube worms and giant clams that lived there. His mother was impressed by the unusual fauna, but she nonetheless chided Ejerton to stay away.

He did as she requested for a few years, but now, under the aegis of Coral University, he was going back as part of his research. A team of undergraduate and graduate students was at his command, and that was fortunate, because the next phase of his research was long, arduous, and labor-intensive. He told his students, “We need to swim far and wide, and gather as many different materials as possible. Plants, shells, bones, minerals, rocks, metals, volcanic glasses, everything. We’ll catalog them and record how each one responds to heat. We have some containers on long handles that can stand up to a thousand degrees, so you don’t have to get too close to the heat. Have any of you been to the hotspot before?”

Four of the 21 students raised their fins.

“Well, to be honest, most of you don’t need to. We need materials gathered from far and wide. That’s the heavy lifting. But I will need a couple of assistants at the hotspot. If you’re interested, then come up afterwards, there’s a waver you have to sign.” Ejerton paused for a moment. “The world is run by lawyers.”

The students nodded.

“It’s pitch dark down there, so you could swim into 700 degree water quite by accident. Use your ears, your echolocation, and even your sense of smell. I’ll show you how. But as I say, most of you won’t need to do that.”

Minor results accumulated for 17 months: this mineral melts, that alloy separates into distinct metals, etc. Then Claris, one of his students, brought back a substance that the locals called “hygride”. “Well, that’s a new one,” commented Ejerton, studying the material. Claris was hotspot-certified, so they went down together. She gently slid the dish of hygride into the vent, and bubbles started rising from the substance. They could see the bubbles clearly through echolocation. “What is that?” Ejerton wanted to ask, but of course he was holding his breath.

They stayed down for five more minutes, then Claris waved a fin as if to say, “I have to surface.” Ejerton waved her up, remaining at the spot for another three minutes. The substance continued to bubble at a rapid rate. Finally he pulled the tray away from the vent and returned to the surface. After several breaths they asked each other, “What was that?” They looked at the silvery metal liquid that remained. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” analyzed Ejerton. “It’s metal, but it’s liquid, and it’s much heavier than water since it didn’t drift away during our ascent.”

“Let’s call it Hygrium?” suggested Claris. “It’s the metal that is left over when the gas bubbles away. ”

“Fair enough,” replied Ejerton. “Let’s take it to the dean of science – he’ll be fascinated.”

They repeated this experiment a dozen times during the next three weeks. As a result, Ejerton suggested that hygride was a mix of the liquid metal hygrium and a pure gas that he called “oxygen”.

He captured the oxygen in a shell and found that animals, such as frogs, could live in oxygen even longer than they lived in the same volume of air. After subjecting a bird and two lizards to the novel gas with no ill effects, Ejerton mustered the courage to breathe the gas himself. It had no color, and no odor, and seemed no different from air, except he had the feeling he didn’t need as much of it to sate his lungs. Small shallow breaths were sufficient. This was the gas of life, the pure gas. Air was apparently a mix of oxygen and other biologically inert gases.

The next breakthrough came two years later. Claris, who was becoming his partner in science and in life, suggested they chip away the rust surface from an iron meteorite, since the metal inside was quite different. This was a lot of work, scraping the surface with stone tools before new rust could form, but a dedicated team of students did just that, and the resulting iron, when exposed to sea water and heat, released another gas in a high-speed rust-promoting reaction. Water was necessary, for iron in a shell of air was not transformed at all.

Ejerton collected the gas just as he had done two years earlier. Once again he subjected various animals to the gas, and it didn’t kill them instantly, but they would die in a few minutes if not returned to their natural environment. The gas seemed harmless, but devoid of the oxygen that is necessary for life. Perhaps this was one of the inert gases in air. He called it “hydrogen”, generated from iron and water.

In an inspired experiment, Ejerton and Claris and a dozen other students collected hydrogen and oxygen and placed them in a shell together. The mixture exploded when exposed to the heat of the thermal vent. The flame was clearly visible from below. For the first time, dolphins had created fire.

Five months later, Ejerton was able to induce the same reaction using a spark from a flintrock, and he eagerly demonstrated fire at sea level for the entire faculty of Coral University. The explosion startled everyone into stunned silence, then a chorus of whistles broke out. Frollit, a history professor, asked, “So what is in the shell after the fire? It doesn’t look like the smoke we’ve seen over Kamas.”

“You’re a true scientist,” complimented Ejerton. “That’s a great question. After the flames cool, there seems to be nothing but water. Absolutely nothing. As though water is a combination of hydrogen and oxygen. But there’s more. You need exactly twice as much hydrogen as oxygen. If you include more hydrogen, it is left over at the end. If you include more oxygen, it is left over at the end. The ratio is exactly 2 to 1, not 1.9, and not 2.1. This is compelling evidence that matter is made of atoms, as Destrophus suggested so long ago.”

In his next paper, “The Atomic Theory of Matter”, Ejerton published the first chemical reaction: 2H + O = H2O. Over the next ten years, he and Claris produced other gases, including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen chloride, and sulfur dioxide, and whenever gases reacted together, they did so in ratios that were small whole numbers. The ratio might be two to one, as with hydrogen and oxygen, or two to three, as with hydrogen sulfide and oxygen, but always small whole numbers. If matter was just continuous stuff then ratios would be inexact; but if matter consists of atoms that rearrange themselves like pieces of a puzzle, then ratios will be exact.

By the time Ejerton was the dean of science at the university, everyone had accepted the atomic theory of matter, and students could, for the first time, major in chemistry.

Glass Artist

Like Ejerton 100 years before, Astimon was fascinated by the hotspot. He constructed shelves at varying distances from the vent, so his samples could be exposed to different temperatures for hours or days on end. Glass was his favorite medium: clear volcanic glass, which was not easy to find. Enterprising teenagers collected the glass from several kilometers away and sold it to Astimon so he could concentrate on his craft. He melted the glass and separated it by components, then he placed clear glass, or colored glass, into molds made of fine grained sand. In theory, a mold could be used again and again, although the surface had to be refinished after each casting. Once the molten glass took on the shape of its mold, Astimon moved his masterpiece to the next shelf just one meter away. Each day he moved it a little farther from the vent, so that it cooled very slowly and didn’t crack. After two weeks his finished sculpture, perhaps a detailed glass bird with wings outstretched, was ready for sale.

Astimon was more than an artist, he was also a precise technician, producing lenses to order. Some of his curved glass balls were sold to the public for the amusement of children, as they viewed the distorted, inverted images, and some helped elderly dolphins to see fine details. Other lenses had precise dimensions as specified by the university. These commanded a higher price, of course. One of the professors, Galymin, was trying to put lenses together in a tube to make something called a “telescope”. The eye piece would remain in the water, while the forward lens would poke up above the surface. Galymin worked out the optics as light passed from air to lens, to the water in the tube, to the eye piece, to water, and finally into the observer’s eye. It took several tries, but he finally had a working telescope. Everybody came to peer at the mountains and valleys and seas on the Moon. It wasn’t just a bright spot in the sky, it was another world. Did anybody live there? There was no indication of life.

Planets expanded from dots to small disks, and the stars remained points of light, proving that the Moon was closer than the planets, which were closer than the stars. This was the birth of astronomy. Seventy years later an accumulation of precise measurements demonstrated the elliptical orbits of the planets around the Sun, and the Moon around Hydra, and 46 years later it was all tied together with the universal law of gravity. Still, nobody understood the stars. Some thought they were suns, very, very far away, but most thought that was ridiculous. With nothing but a handheld telescope, astronomy came to a halt at the edge of their solar system, and cosmology, as a science, was never conceived.

A different assemblage of lenses produced a device called a microscope. Since it spread light apart instead of gathering it together, it only worked near the surface on a bright sunny day. Once again, dolphins were amazed as they peered at the tiny microbes that were all around them. A few years later the germ theory of disease was proposed, since infected tissue was rife with the little nasties, but nobody took the theory seriously. The microscope, like the telescope, remained a novelty, a toy to look upon another world that didn’t really relate to theirs.

Information and the Wall

Selest carefully wrote the answers to her trig test, applying squid ink to her leaf paper in slow strokes. Her mind was elsewhere however, daydreaming about the process of writing and information storage.

The trig identities on her paper were only viable for a few hours before the sea water washed them away, but that was enough time for the teacher to read the papers and record the grades in closed books that kept the water away, preserving the grades for at least a semester. Of course, each time the book was opened the writing would degrade. Corporate and financial records were carved into wood or soapstone, and could last for months or years if carefully protected. At the highest level, the archives of the dolphin civilization were carefully carved into the Wall.

Selest was thinking about the Wall as she turned her paper in for a grade. She wanted to become Wallmaster some day, and she had the skills. She was only 16, yet her carvings were finely detailed, sometimes requiring a magnifying glass to read. And she understood almost every subject, as a scribe should.

After high school, Selest skipped college and became an apprentice to the scribes. Her first assignment was simple – record the results of last month’s election on the history page. She had been to the Wall many times as a child, swimming past kilometers of black granite. Math, science, history, poetry, literature, music, it was all there, but space was limited – anyone could see that. The Wall descended down to the ocean floor, but you could only write on the top 20 meters or so, because there was insufficient light below. What a shame – all that unusable space!

“Hold the pen like this,” instructed her tutor, 30 years her senior, “so that the diamond tip cuts like this. You have to make several passes, each tracing the original line.” He demonstrated on a stray piece of granite as they floated near the surface. “To top it off, you have to make all these careful movements while holding your breath. Most students start at the top so they can breathe normally while learning to write, but I think you can handle it.” He paused for a moment and handed the granite pad and the pen to Selest. “Besides, the top three meters are full anyway, for at least 35 kilometers.”

Selest pulled the pen across the granite face and noticed no marks at all. The tutor held her hand and changed the angle slightly, and they pulled the pen together. This time there was a tiny scratch. Selest smiled as she traced it again, exactly where the scratch was originally. After eight more strokes she had a legible line.

“Excellent!” proclaimed the tutor. “Now try a curve, like the letter S.”

Training usually lasted for two to three months, but Selest was ready in a couple weeks. She swam to column 136 of the history page and dove down six meters to the last entry. First, the date of the event, then “+n” for the number of days between the event and its documentation on the Wall. She barely wrote the year and month when she had to come up for air.

“Damn!” she thought as she gasped for breath. “The one thing I’m really not good at. My brother says boys are better at diving than girls, but he’s a jerk. Boys participate in more underwater sports – it’s nurture not nature – I’ll get better.” She took several slow breaths, descended, and finished the date +n. Selest soon learned not to stay down to the point of exhaustion; it just didn’t pay. Better to develop a rhythm: dive, write a few letters, surface, breathe, repeat. The entry was complete in a few hours, definitely a hard day’s work. Her tutor swam over and inspected the entry, and was suitably impressed. Selest was now a scribe!

Thirty-four years later, Selest was Wallmaster. Dolphins were milling about in small groups as she brought the biweekly meeting of the Wall Committee to order.

“There are only a few items on the docket,” she began, “so maybe we can finish up by lunch.”

Several dolphins nodded their assent.

“Let’s start with the erasures as usual. There are only two suggested. The first is one I don’t quite understand. The proof of the four-color theorem is wrong? Now I’m familiar with the theorem, so does this mean you have produced a map requiring five colors?”

The chair of the mathematics department at Coral University swam leisurely to the front and approached Selest. “Not exactly,” he explained. “But we have come to realize that the logic is not right. It is based on chains of colors, but those chains can interweave and interact, so the proof is not quite right.”

“Well,” commented Selest, “none of us are qualified to agree or disagree. Do you speak for the math department?”

“I do,” replied the professor, nodding vigorously.

“Okay, but rather than erasing it all, whereupon a future generation might rediscover it and think it is correct, I suggest you leave it and add a note as to the flaw in logic. It fooled you for a long time, didn’t it? We need to document that so others will go down a different path.”

Everybody nodded, acknowledging the wisdom of this assessment.

“Put together a brief description of the error, please, and get together with the math scribe.” Selest waved in a sweeping gesture from the math professor over to a scribe far to her right who had expertise in the subject.

“Okay, there’s one more proposed erasure, on the music page. This one is 62,000 years old. It’s not wrong, just old, and according to some it is no longer relevant or vital given the limited space on the Wall. To summarize, the entry describes a girl Tara and a boy Jethro. She sang, and he played the flute. Are you familiar with it?”

Some were, and some weren’t.

“I read the story, but it was a long time ago. The singing was described as angels come down to Hydra. Dolphins would swim for hundreds of kilometers to hear them sing and play. The entry claims that friends who went to the concert would sometimes fall in love. In fact it was a going joke – if you invited your friend to a Tara Jethro concert then you wanted him or her to become much more than a friend. Well, that’s the short version of the entry.”

“Interesting,” remarked a dolphin from the back, “but that was 62,000 years ago, and we need to make room for new songs on the Wall, like Bolling’s flute concertos.”

“I disagree,” said a music student at the college. “Tell me, have you ever heard anyone sing so beautifully that you thought she was an angel? I haven’t. Has anyone caused others to fall in love just by her voice? I think we should keep the entry, just to know that such things are possible. It gives me pleasure to know that such a singer once lived.”

“How big is the entry?” asked another, hoping to quantify the situation.

Selest looked at her notes. “976 words.”

“That’s not much,” commented another.

The discussion continued for about ten minutes, and then Selest brought it to a close. “It’s not a big entry, it is 19 meters down, and I do think it’s inspiring to know that someone can sing that well, that someone captured the hearts of an entire generation. We’re going to let it stand.” She was the final arbiter in such matters, so they moved on.

“Eight proposed additions,” Selest summarized. “Six are routine and two are controversial; may as well start with those two first. They’ve both been proposed before, you probably know them well.” A couple dolphins nodded. She looked down at her notes, and then up again. “To Kill a Starfish. Years ago I was opposed to this, some 455 pages, and as we all know, wall space is limited. But I’ve reread the book since then, and there’s no denying it’s more than just a book. It warns us what life is like if we let prejudice and irrationality rule us, if we submit to our fears.”

A member of the board of education chimed in. “If I may, it’s required reading in high school, and for good reason. I’m here to add my support to this request, if you don’t mind.”

“Opposed?” she asked.

A scribe spoke up. “Not that I’m opposed necessarily, but if we agree, where are we going to add that much material? The literature pages are getting full, as you know.”

“I know, I know,” replied Selest. “Honestly I was thinking about Wall B. Is there anyone here who can speak for Wall B?” After a moment of awkward silence she continued. “Guess not. Well last I heard there are large sections that are sanded, smoothed, and ready to go. Course it’s 320 kilometers away, so some dedicated scribes will have to be away from their families for weeks at a time, but we’re going to have to go down this path eventually. May as well start now. … I also understand a possible Wall C has been discovered some 700 kilometers to the south?” Again, no one was able to comment. “Well that’s what I understand. Anyways, it’s clear we have to expand to other walls wherever we can. I’m not making a unilateral decision here, but I’m recommending Yes on this book, assuming we can coordinate its inscription into Wall B. Objections? Concerns?”

After a long minute of silence she closed this topic and opened the next one. “Okay, I’ll discuss Wall B with the scribes, and we’ll find a place for this very important book. Now … we turn once again to Nostrum’s poems”

Fins shot up all over the forum.

“Okay, okay, thank you for not shouting all at once. Lower your fins for just a moment. We’ve been through this and I think we know the issues. His poems are beautiful, like a sweet song of words, but he’s a serial killer who was put to death 26 years ago. We don’t want to glorify him in any way, but should we really throw away these poems in the process? We all understand the issues, but over the past week I’ve been asking myself a simple question. In the past million years, hasn’t this conundrum come up before? Wasn’t there another combination artist and criminal? I’m sure there was. So … why didn’t they document this very process? If they had, we would have something to go on today. Whatever we decide, I think we should document our decision on the Wall. Why are we including, or not including his poems? What is our rationale?”

Everyone was quiet as they absorbed the wisdom of what Selest was saying. After a couple minutes she continued.

“Here is an idea. Near the top of one of the literature pages, add an explanation, saying that we will sometimes record works of art, or of science, without an individual associated with those works, if we feel that individual is so heinous that he is best forgotten.” She twirled her papers, as if lost in thought. “And indeed he will be forgotten in a few generations, along with everything else that is not written on the Wall.” Again she looked at her papers. “Anyway, with this explanation in place, we could then record the poems … they are beautiful, there’s no denying it … we could record the poems for future generations without any attribution, or under a pseudonym.”

After a half hour of lively discussion the majority agreed with the spirit of Selest’s proposal. They diddled with the wording of the explanation for another half hour, and then the matter was closed. They stepped through the remaining additions quickly, discussed the refresh program (to keep the Wall legible over time), and then adjourned. “Out by early afternoon,” Selest whispered to herself. “That’s pretty good. I’d rather get work done than float around in meetings.”


The first form of currency was the pearl, at least one centimeter in diameter and having sufficient luster. They were small, portable, and rare, but not too rare. If an enterprising dolphin wanted to scour the open sea floor he was welcome to keep the pearls he could find. If you did the math, it was probably less than minimum wage. Still, new pearls were discovered faster than old ones were lost or damaged, thus permitting a tiny bit of inflation, which, according to some theories of macroeconomics, is a good thing. This worked, until Vorbis came along.

Vorbis swam over his oyster beds, surveying his worthless crop. Even kelp would be more profitable, and if he really wanted to step up his game, how about scallops, a delicacy that fetched a good price at the market. But he was curious – why does one oyster in a thousand produce a pearl? What is the secret? He fondled the 17 pearls in his money belt and wished he had more. He had bills to pay, always bills, and never enough. Vorbis had land though, so maybe he should grow cash crops as his relatives suggested. Maybe they were right.

Two years later he did just that, converting most of his fields to seaweed, hermit crabs, mussels, and scallops, yet he retained a small plot of oysters for experimentation. He opened them up at different times, and he noticed that one of the embryonic pearls coated a small grain of sand. That gave him an idea. He placed various sized grains in oysters and let them develop over several months. Most did not produce pearls, but some did, and a third of those were high-quality pearls sufficient to pass as currency. He had literally found a way to make money.

Two years later, with his lands devoted to oysters once again, Vorbis was depositing several pearls a week into his bank account. The teller took the pearls and updated his total on a small soapstone slab with his name on it, but the teller was a snitch, and notified the authorities: “Suspicious and regular large deposits.”

McAfry rolled up on Vorbis in the early morning while he was still asleep. Behind him, a squad of three large dolphins with muscular bodies and long powerful tails.

“Federal agents, wake up!”

Vorbis blinked a few times, until McAfry came into focus. “What the hell?”

“We’re asking the questions,” replied McAfry. “How do you earn your income?”

“Farming of course, I have plenty of land.”

“We don’t have a lot of patience.” He waved toward the three dolphins behind him. “You use to farm for a living, but now your lands are covered in oysters, and there’s no profit in that. Try again.”

“Some of my lands grow kelp,” Vorbis continued. This was true, but mostly by accident. Kelp grew naturally on the sea floor, and there was a market for it, but the waving vines covered only a small part of his acreage. “And I do odd jobs for my neighbors.”

“No you don’t,” McAfry chuckled. “We’ve checked with your neighbors. You’re a loner. Do you steal the pearls from far away and then bring them back here?”

“You’ve already investigated me, you know I don’t stray more than a few kilometers from home.”

“Yes we know, so before we trump up a lot of charges, you better tell us where the money is coming from.” The three large dolphins surrounded Vorbis.

“What’s the offer?” asked Vorbis.

“I don’t even know how to make an offer,” answered McAfry, playing the role of good cop, “because I don’t know what the hell is going on here.”

“Simple – I tell you where the money comes from and I have complete immunity from any charges.”

McAfry feared the large influx of pearls could destabilize the entire economy. “You tell us everything, and stop whatever it is you are doing. You have enough in the bank to retire.”

Vorbis explained his method of pearl production. McAfry was in shock for several minutes as Vorbis opened one oyster after another. He voiced is fears aloud. “Anyone can do it. We have to keep this quiet until a new form of currency can be developed … You can keep the money you made, and you gradually turn your fields back into kelp, and you say nothing to anyone.”

“Of course.”

“I’m serious! You breathe a word of this to anyone and you’ll be charged with counterfeit and disseminating classified information and anything else we can think of.”

“I understand.”

After several years a new form of currency began to circulate, shells with tiny inscriptions and serial numbers. Each shell had to be made by hand. It was a good time to be a scribe. The transition was inevitable, however. Currency can’t be based on a natural commodity, like gold or silver or pearls, forever. Every government needs some control over its money supply.

Crime and Punishment

Without technology, there was no practical way to build a jail. A prisoner could be tethered by reeds and vines, but he had to be held near the surface lest he drown. A rickety enclosure might keep him in a pen, so to speak, but he could probably barge his way through it or jump over it.

Without jail, punishments were limited to fines, banishment, or death. The latter was accomplished by pressing the condemned against a field of jellyfish. Several stings would kill an adult. Of course the executioners had to avoid the stingers themselves, and it was not unusual for one of them to receive a sting on the tail or fin in the process. The prisoner was usually tied up first, to avoid a struggle, but still, one had to be careful.

As with any society, capital punishment was a last resort. Thus, fines and banishment were the norm. A banished individual would often return well ahead of schedule, trying to slip quietly back into society – and sometimes this worked.

Harsh punishments were rare, because crimes rarely escalated to more than a physical brawl. There were no guns and no knives; the only weapons were pointed sea shells and stone tools, which were rarely at hand in the heat of the moment. Without explosives, there were no weapons of mass destruction, and nothing approaching terrorism. Even organized warfare was rare, though neighboring villages would sometimes attack each other during the dark ages.

Torture is another social blight that was conspicuously absent. If you review torture on Earth, it almost always entails technology, from the Brazen Bull to electric batons. Still, the dolphins, like every other intelligent species in the universe, were fascinated by suffering, and the Wall documents their sporadic attempts at cruelty. On at least three occasions, several dolphins tied up a victim and forced him down into the hotspot. The shrieks brought pleasure to the sadists, but only for a short time, since the victim soon drowned. Another attempt at torture was a series of slow cuts, slice by slice, but after the first few cuts a swarm of sharks arrived and devoured the victim. This is not what the sadists had in mind, but when sharks smell blood they will have their way.

Thus, torture was impractical, and never played a significant role in dolphin society.

Around the World

Majara made his request to Congress: food supplies, simple tools, a sextant, thin leaf tablets for writing, and just a few pearls, all tucked away in a streamline sack that he could wear ventrally. He wasn’t entirely sure why he wanted some pearls. They were no longer currency, but they were pretty, and he had the feeling they would come in handy, or perhaps they would serve as good luck charms. His request was modest, far less than Columbus in 1492, so Congress approved the expenditure. Majara would be the first dolphin to swim around the world, and prove, in the process, that the world was round. The planet’s shape was not in doubt, the universal law of gravity says every sufficiently large object is spherical, but still it would be nice to have proof.

A trained long-distance swimmer, Majara moved forward in slow steady strokes, tracing half the circumference of Kamas in five weeks. There was plenty of food along the way; there was always food near shore. The challenge began on the east side of Kamas, when he ventured out into open ocean. Others had made the attempt, swimming bravely towards the rising sun, but they always returned within a week, citing a complete lack of food, or they were never heard from again. Majara was determined; he would not retrace his steps. He would circle the globe or die trying. His journal recorded the significant events along the way.

Day 39: I am on the east side of Kamas and heading east into the open ocean. Each night I measure the angle of the north star to watch for drift. If it rises too high in the sky then I am too far north, and need to swim east-southeast. If the star is too low, then I need to swim east-northeast. But it would take weeks for a navigational error to be measurable, and weeks to correct it. Even if I am a bit off, I still need to swim almost due east, because that is the hypotenuse, that is the shortest path back to the correct latitude.

Day 54: Food is scarce as expected. There’s no point in diving for clams, my sonar doesn’t even echo off the sea floor. The ocean is at least two kilometers deep. I’m hungry and exhausted, so I need to swim slow and steady. Most of my food rations are gone, the rest must be carefully conserved. Sleep is fitful, which makes it harder to swim the next day.

Day 67: I break open the last of the nuts that I gathered from the east shore of Kamas. May as well eat them, they won’t last much longer. I’m looking left and right for any sign of food.

Day 72: I caught a skipjack today, a big one. He didn’t hear me sneak up on him, and with one great lunge he was in my mouth. My stomach is full and I’m swimming at top speed again.

Day 83: I see birds to the south, swarming and circling. There must be an island. It’s completely out of the way, but I turn towards it in anticipation of food and a much-needed rest.

Day 86: I reach the shore of the island, which I will call “Rocky”, for all the rocks around the shore. There’s not a lot of food here but there’s enough: small fish, mussels, and some edible seaweed. I don’t see any nuts along the shore, not even trees. If I want to replenish my sack I’ll have to pack it 100% live, which is not my first choice. Different species of fish sometimes eat each other before I get round to eating them. There are some squid that might transport nicely.

Day 94: Back to the open sea. Is the north star just a tad low in the sky? Probably – I had to go 200 kilometers south to get to Rocky. Still, I need to head almost due east, with just a tinge of north.

Day 123: I have allowed myself to drift north from 30 degrees to almost 40 degrees because there are more islands at this latitude, which translates into more food. Between the islands there are more fish, and the ocean is not as deep. I can sometimes dive for clams and mussels on the sea floor. The water is colder, but I can handle that if my stomach is full. Beyond the obvious benefits of survival, a trip around Hydra is shorter at higher latitudes. We all know the risks however. If my path takes me north of Kamas, I could swim right by without realizing it, and begin a second trip around. That’s a risk I’m willing to take. Perhaps the familiar smell of the water or some other subconscious cue will tell me when I have come back to the prime meridian. Salmon return to their birthplace from thousands of miles away – if they can do it, then so can I.

Day 221: I have reached an island that I call “Kam2”, because it reminds me of Kamas, but much smaller. Still, it is large enough to support trees and a plethora of birds; I could see that from 50 kilometers away. As I approached, two dolphin came up to greet me. Yes, dolphin, but not exactly like us. Their fins are smaller and present a slightly different shape. The tail is different too, and the eyes are a bit more on the sides of their heads. As I was staring at them, they too were startled by my features. But the real surprise came when we spoke. I couldn’t understand a thing they said, and they couldn’t understand me either. I’m sure they were speaking words and sentences, but they were completely foreign to me. Even some of the sounds were strange. The innate-language theory says that we are born with our words and grammar pre-programmed in our brains: How else can a baby learn language so quickly? But now we know that can’t be true. These dolphins speak completely different words, and even the individual sounds are different. We will have to reevaluate the theory of language when I get home.

In any case, they indicated to me, through gestures, that I should follow them, and I did. They took me to the center of their dolphin town, if you want to call it that, and introduced me to their leader. He looked me up and down as the others had done. We approached each other as if to say, “Is it okay if I touch you?” After an awkward minute, we gingerly felt each other’s fins and tails, exploring the different anatomies. They chattered among themselves, and then the leader pointed to my mouth as if to say, “I want to hear you speak.” I recited a poem that I always enjoyed, and they stared in amazement. So far, our relationship was based on mutual curiosity, but it could tip over into friendship or enmity at a moment’s notice.

It was time to make a gesture of good will. I pulled the pearls out of my sack and gently held them out to the leader. He surveyed them cautiously, then took them in his hand. They were big and beautiful, the best we have to offer. He nodded up and down, as if to say, “Thank you. I understand. You are my friend, please stay and be our guest.”

After more chatter, another dolphin took me to his field, which was rich in fish and seaweed. He invited me to eat, which I did, perhaps ravenously, which might be considered rude. I stopped myself and tried to eat in the same way as the others were eating. As I slowed down I realized this dolphin was the head of his family, with a wife who always floated nearby, an older son, and a younger daughter who seemed quite interested in me. She swam around me with the unfettered curiosity of a child. Her speech was incomprehensible, of course, so I could not answer any of her questions, but I did try to return her gestures as best I could. Finally she pointed to herself and said, “Gan!oo”. I’m writing this with an exclamation point because we don’t have a letter for the click that is in the middle of her name. She pointed to me and I said, “Majara”. She echoed my name better than I could pronounce hers, and I was somewhat embarrassed.

The entire family was very gracious, perhaps they had been instructed to care for my needs by the leader, or perhaps that was their way. As night fell they invited me to sleep with them, and I did, perhaps the first peaceful night’s sleep I’ve had since I left Kamas.

Day 222: This society consists of organized and hierarchical social structures, but there is no technology that I can see. They don’t even have a system of writing. They watched in amazement as I wrote yesterday’s log entry in my book. They stared at the marks, wondering what they could possibly mean. This morning I found a soft rock near the shore and wrote the young girl’s name on it, “Gan!oo”. I pointed to the letters and made the sounds one by one, demonstrating the phonetic correspondence. The family took the rock from me, pointed to the letters and made the sounds. I then ran my finger across the letters and said the name as a word: “Gan!oo”. They did the same. Clearly, these dolphins are as intelligent as us; they simply haven’t developed writing or other forms of technology. They asked me to write more words for them, which was quite a challenge given the different sounds in their language. They had to repeat each word several times before I felt confident in its transcription. I had to make up two more symbols for sounds that are not in our language.

Day 223: The wife, whose name I really cannot pronounce, has been waving food away from me for the past two hours, as if to say, “Just wait.” Finally, a dolphin, who seems to be a servant or employee, arrived with a large sea turtle that he had broken open. He nodded in a gesture that I have learned to recognize, a gesture of submission and offering. I took the turtle and realized it was warm, almost hot. Obviously, there is a hotspot in the vicinity. I had a friend who tried to cook fish a long time ago, and it’s very hard to get it right. It’s easy to overcook the fish in the superheated water, leaving a pile of mush. And there’s always the danger of getting burned in the process. Apparently, these dolphins have it down to an art, because this cooked turtle was the best food I’ve ever eaten. I nodded up and down, hoping that was the correct gesture for delight and appreciation. In another hour, the servant brought me a cooked trout, which was even better than the turtle. I ate it and then pointed to my stomach to indicate I could eat no more. I’ve never had such delicious food. I wish one of these cooks would come home with me and show us how it’s done.

Day 224: Time to be movin’ on. I filled my sack with squid and swam around the south end of Kam2 heading east, but someone was following me. It was Gan!oo. I looked back and her and she was smiling, as if to say, “I’m coming to see where you live.” Kidnapping is not a good way for me to end my first contact with this society, so I turned around and went back to the center of town. As I approached, her parents were swimming back and forth and chattering feverishly. I pointed to them and to their daughter. The parents scolded their daughter, at least that’s what it sounded like, and waved me away. I smiled and resumed my original course.

Day 276: As I dive for food, I encounter fish that can make their own light. Instead of total darkness, there are flashes of yellow, green, and white. I’m hungry, but these fish are almost too beautiful to eat. I’ve never seen anything like them. Fortunately, there are other small fish and mollusks for me to eat. I’m tempted to tuck a small flasher fish in my sack and bring him home, but the last thing I need is a hungry passenger, and I wouldn’t know what to feed him in any case.

Day 302: Have I passed Kamas? I’m still at 37 degrees north, more or less, well above the northern tip of Kamas. Nothing looks familiar, and nothing smells familiar.

Day 366: The last two months have been bleak, almost nothing to write about. The ocean is deep once again, and food is scarce. I ate my last squid long ago. I manage to find a fish now and then, just enough to keep me going, but today there are more fish – I think the sea floor is rising. Sonar suggests just a couple hundred meters down. This is also a migration path for whales. I’ve seen dozens traveling from north to south in a line. They stop from time to time just to play. They rule this planet, and they don’t even realize it.

Day 405: The water smells familiar. The salt content is right, the minerals are right, the organic taste is right. I’m getting close to home. Or have I passed it? I change my course by 45 degrees, heading southeast. Here I come!

Day 427: I’m home! Everyone crowds around me and is anxious to here my story. I read my logs aloud to a large gathering. A precocious college student stops me at the end and says, “You must have lost track, you’ve only been gone 426 days.” A couple more dolphins nod in assent. Everyone is quiet for a couple minutes, until a professor speaks up. “He hasn’t lost track at all. He went all the way around Hydra traveling east, and gained a day. In other words, each of his days was, on average, a few minutes shorter than ours, since he was swimming towards the sunrise, and so he experienced one more day than we did.” Some of the dolphins understood and some did not.

Majara’s logbook ends here. The scribes decided to retain Majara’s days as written when they etched his logs into the wall, with a comment on the gain of a day. Hydra was round, as expected, but other discoveries, like a separate dolphin society with a different language, were quite unexpected. Others would make the journey in the future, but Majara was the first.

Through the Ages

Kamas and Kam2 sent emissaries to each other, and eventually they learned each other’s languages. Writing spread to Kam2, and cultural ideas were exchanged. Still, the settlements remained largely independent due to the great distance between them. This was fortunate, because one could hold on to knowledge and history while the other fell into chaos and disorder, which happened from time to time. Over the course of a billion years, there were times when both civilizations fell into the dark ages, sometimes for several hundred thousand years. If the etchings in the wall had eroded completely, the next enlightenment had to start over, and so it did. In all that time, technology never advanced beyond the glass age, allowing for a crude telescope and microscope and not much more. The motion of the planets was explained and re-explained, but nobody ever dreamed there was life around other stars.

At one point, a probe flew by Hydra, a probe from the curious people of Earth. Hydra was 5,000 light years away, thus it was one of the last planets on NASA’s list. Still, the mandate was to investigate every planet with an oxygen atmosphere, as those certainly contained life, and Hydra qualified. The probe recorded a planet that was 97% ocean, with plant and animal life clinging to the tiny islands that remained. There was no indication of technology, past or present. Nothing was in orbit, and nothing sat abandoned on the airless moon. Once again, Hydra was pushed back on the priority list.

One point three billion years after the first enlightenment, dolphins still existed on Hydra as a species, though they were relegated to the north pole. Their parent star had exhausted most of its hydrogen and was swelling into a red giant. The oceans were literally boiling at the equator, and even the poles were getting too hot to support life. Humans were well aware of this fact, and the International Space Consortium approved a sample return mission. There was no risk of contamination; in a few million years Hydra’s star would burn away its oceans and sterilize the planet.

As the last 700 dolphins clung to life, a large probe descended through the atmosphere and settled onto the surface of the sea, bobbing up and down in the waves. A metal box lowered into the sea and waited for something interesting to swim inside. A shrimp would have sufficed, or an octopus, but as luck would have it, the probe landed just above Elsa’s field.

Her first instinct was to protect her children, so she swam over to investigate this new phenomenon. She swam around it and noticed that it didn’t move at all. It hardly seemed alive. She poked her nose inside and it didn’t smell like anything at all. She swam all the way in and a door closed behind her. Bands restrained her while the computer performed a full body scan. It identified the primary veins and arteries and drew samples. Each planet had its own biology, though there were similarities. It calculated the most likely anesthetic and successfully put Elsa to sleep. After a more thorough scan it began the cooling process, decreasing the temperature of the water in the cage and the blood in her body simultaneously. It added antifreeze to the blood so it could circulate subfreezing liquid through her body. Soon the tissues were frozen solid, and the last step was the freezing of the blood itself. With this accomplished, the interstellar craft launched back out into space, placed Elsa inside a protective radiation shield, and brought her down to a dozen degrees above absolute zero, ready for the slow ride back to Earth.

Four million years later, Hydra was a dry lifeless airless world. All traces of the dolphin civilization were gone, except for one, which arrived as a block of ice on the surface of Mars. Professor Martin supervised the thawing process. It was a long shot at best. Terrestrial mammals of this size were lucky if they came back to life, and their biology was well understood. Still, it was worth a try.

The blood thawed first, and they used it to thaw the rest of the animal inside and out. As it reached 38 degrees, the heart was beating, but good lord, it had lungs! It was probably at the point of drowning when the probe put it to sleep. Dr Martin jumped into the tank and lifted Elsa to the surface, holding her blowhole above the water. Still unconscious, she sputtered and gasped, trying to trade the water in her lungs for air. Technicians worked on her for 20 minutes, and finally she was breathing normally.

“Time to bring her out of anesthesia,” said Dr Martin. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”

“Guess what?” shouted the radiologist, looking over her scans. “She’s pregnant, and the fetus is viable!”

“Really?” exclaimed Dr Martin. “Well, this is the only life we’ll ever see from that planet, so I hope it’s a boy.”