‘Merlin's Dolphin’, Erika Tracy

Illustrations © 2010 Miguel Santos

 [ Dolphin, © 2010 Miguel Santos ] The crewmen of the Merlin were studying their new mate as though they’d found a professor in their soup. Then they all, to a man, began sneaking glances at his hat. Each of them was bareheaded or topped in a knit cap. Bernard Wellesley, however, had a broad-brimmed hat he’d picked up in Australia some years ago. The edges heaved in the stiff ocean breeze.

There was a cantrip for keeping hats on. Wellesley didn’t mention that just yet, not to these ever-so-ordinary men. He didn’t mention the staff collapsed and stored in the pocket of his long grey oilskin, either. They could get used to his clothes before they had to get used to his talents. He could get an idea which of them were likely to give him trouble. For now, if keeping an eye or several on his flapping hat made them happy, he was happy. He gave them a friendly smile. He was a friendly person by nature, and easily amused, so after a few days they decided to like him. He worked hard, surprisingly strong for his size and demeanor, when it was needed. On a fully loaded supertanker, this was often, though the crew was larger than it might have been.

“How fast are we cruising?”

“Twelve knots. Why?”

“Twelve knots is a good ride.” Wellesley grinned. “Back in a jif.”

Jonesy watched amazed as Wellesley trotted toward the bow, then broke into a sprint. “Hey! Wait!”

Wellesley vaulted the rail and dove. Clear of the deck, his body lengthened, his clothes fluttering into smooth grey hide, his legs melding. A dolphin plunged into the water and vanished. Jonesy jogged to the bow himself and watched the animal riding the bow wave. The finned body rose from the water in an arch, then blurred into the foam, again and again. Even with the tanker so low in the water, the dolphin looked tiny. Jonesy wondered how his bunkmate intended to get back on board.

“Did you know he could do that?” Jonesy demanded of the world. By now, three other crewmen had joined him, and they all grunted negatives, spitting salt spray from their lips as it gathered. They hadn’t realized there was a warlock on board any more than he had. They had no better an idea what to think of it.

“Bloody hell, looks like fun, though, dunnit?” said Randolph after a moment.

Jones could feel envy gnawing at him. It did look like fun, not to mention better than getting slapped in the face with spray and spit on by your mates. “He’d better fuckin’ tell us all about it,” he muttered to a chorus of agreement. Usually the statement would have had something to do with shore leave if one of them had found a particularly fine woman. Usually someone else would have said it. This was a different kind of secondhand arousal.

They watched until other duties and the captain called them away. Jones was lucky enough to be at the stern when the dolphin rocketed up from the depths, overtaking the tanker in a burst of speed. Jones had seen the incredible leaps in dolphin shows; it was something else again to see the beast clear the stern rail in a flip and transform in midair. Wellesley tumbled to the deck and rolled, and even from some distance away Jonesy could see him laughing.

Jonesy stood on deck enjoying the throb of the engine passing through him. “Do the Brits let your type into the navy, then?”

“My type?” Wellesley answered lightly. “No, nowhere does, but they do let them into the merchant marines.”

Jonesy was proud of himself. A few days ago, he would have blurted, Do the Brits let warlocks into the navy? instead. He’d learned better. So had Randall, whose nose was now a stranger shape than before. “I thought everyone on board this time was a navy fella.”

“Almost. One navy or another. But there was some guess that the pirates had a wizard in the lot, so someone had the bright idea maybe the bait-ship here should have one too.”

Jonesy considered that. “I’m for it.”

“Good, since you bunk with him.”

At the time, Jonesy hadn’t realized that the captain had put together the two odd ducks of the crew. He’d only hoped Wellesley was either oblivious or tolerant. He turned to look at his bunkmate. “Why would a wizard who can do goddamn anything turn pirate?”

“You mean a Somali wizard? Same reason as anyone else there. There’s no effing money if you don’t hold something for ransom to get it. At least, that’s part of it.” Wellesley sounded less cheerful now. “In Africa, most of Africa anyway, wizards are illegal. I’ve probably missed forty shore leaves over that in my career. When we refuel, or if we send a handful of pirates ashore, I’m staying on the Merlin. Can you imagine what it’s like to be illegal, just for what you are, half the places your boat comes to land?”

Jonesy blustered through an uncomfortable cranny in his middle. “Nope,” he said, rather than admitting he didn’t have to use his imagination. Plenty of countries wouldn’t like him any better than Wellesley, and sometimes even his shipmates could be a risk to him. He wiped spray from his face with his sleeve, though it did very little good. The fact was, Wellesley made him uncomfortable for a completely different set of reasons than Wellesley made everyone else uncomfortable. “Can’t imagine what it’s like to be a dolphin either.”

The answering smile made Jonesy’s legs ache. “Makes up for being born illegal. I don’t know how to explain it, though. We have words for seeing, smelling, and hearing, not for echolocation and—” He broke off, blushing far harder than the faint heat Jonesy had tried to hide.

“You can’t just stop there.” Badgering was irresistible, especially with nothing to look at but light-grey sky and iron-grey water. Jonesy kept at it, with long silences to put the younger man’s guard down, until the watch was nearly over. Wellesley squirmed and blushed and clicked at his elder’s manners.

“Fine! Remember you asked. Maybe it’s something you Yanks would just laugh about over a can of beer. Dolphins don’t have hands, so if they want to poke at something or play with it, well, the males just naturally use their willy.” Wellesley looked down meaningfully. “It’s nothing like using your finger, believe me.”

Jonesy opened his mouth, closed it again, and cleared his throat. “I believe you.”

Once he’d had the thought, it annoyed him by popping in again at odd moments for days. He was never going to try it, because you just didn’t do that—well, not unless you were a dolphin, apparently—but that didn’t keep him from wondering what it would be like to poke at things with his Johnson.

Waves crashed across the deck, sliding from one rail to the other in slithering lines of foam. Jonesy had heard stories of undersea monsters big enough to wrap their arms around even a supertanker. He didn’t believe in them, but when these hills of water clutched at the pipes and rails, he thought of them. Even huge and laden as it was, the Merlin rocked underfoot.

Jonesy hated this weather. He hated that he was supposed to keep watch in it. He hated having to monitor valves in it. “If there are pirates out in this,” he shouted, “they can have the damn ransom!”

Behind him Wellesley laughed. “They’d’ve earned it!”

They slipped and slid, buffeted by cold wet slaps. Jonesy had the rhythm of it, catching the deck as it rose to smack at his advancing foot. The noise was incredible. Suddenly, when he’d expected a drop, the tanker leapt and shook like a dog. He lost his footing.

He slid. Frantic. The catwalk, the rail—

A hand at the middle of his back. For an instant, he thought it pushed, and he clutched desperately for a hold of any sort. The hand closed on a fistful of his coat. With that help, he could catch a bar and haul himself upright.

Wellesley grinned in the spray. He had one arm locked around the rail, the other still gripping Jonesy between the shoulders.

Jonesy found himself getting the fidgets whenever he thought about how slowly they were traveling. They cruised at the speed which let Wellesly swim in great circles around the tanker, riding the bow wave between laps for a rest. His fine sonar worked better in the turbulent wake than any mechanical device, and pirates tended to approach in that turbulence knowing it made them invisible. The point was to be caught—but not to be caught by surprise. By day he slept the deserved sleep of a tired man, and the rest of the crew kept watch to stern. Jonesy kept the same shift as his bunkmate, squinting into the night for a break in the moonlit waves, listening for engine trouble or shouts as much as for the sounds of approach.

They came at night. Wellesley threw himself out of the water to report a cruiser with two motorboats approaching, then threw himself back in. Jonesy stared at the vanishing swirl, thinking fast, then called the alarm in to the helm. He didn’t think Wellesley would skip a fight, but he wasn’t sure. Soon, squinting into the night, he thought he could make out the other boat. Then he was certain. The stern would be the easiest place to board, but the mother ship would overtake the tanker to fire across the bow. For communication between the ends of the tanker, the pirates would have radios just as the crew did, but radios required a free hand and a free moment. He radioed his own news of spotting the boats and received permission to resist if it seemed wise.

Then he took up the hose. If his timing was good, he could catch the side of one of the little boats as it tossed in the wake and flip it. If he was very lucky, he might take them both. Without the boarding crew, the mother ship’s pirates could still threaten to shoot, but would have no one aboard the Merlin. Shooting an oil tanker was dangerous, though, and they would get no ransom for burning flotsam.

Jonesy tripped the valves, all but the last, on his improvised cannon. Then he braced his feet. He thought he could hear the choking buzz of small boats’ engines. He held very still as the larger boat passed. Let them think the Merlin was an easy target. Let them think Merlin slept.

There was a clank almost directly ahead of him, a grappling hook. It bounced across the deck and caught. Jonesy shifted his weight and popped up. The little boat below him tossed in the turbulent wake, its small crew invisible in the darkness. That made it easier. He yanked the valve open to fire a short jet of water at the starboard rail.

The boat tipped and wallowed, taking on water. Then it heaved suddenly upward on the near side and rolled. Jonesy could hear shouts in God-knew-what language. Beyond the shadows, a fin cut the water. From his comfortable angle, it was clearly a dolphin’s, but from sea level all fins are alarming. The shouts sounded more desperate. With a laugh, Jonesy shifted along the stern, looking for the other boarders.

The tanker’s engines throbbed to a halt. Jonesy had missed the rocket that had no doubt been fired across the bow, but the night seemed lighter. In the stark edges of the shadows, he couldn’t find the second boat, but apparently they could see him moving. Gunfire split the night. He threw himself flat on the hose, then rolled to aim it. Turning on the water knocked him several feet, but he had better luck than the standing pirate, knocking his enemy into the ocean. There was a splash, a thud, and a larger splash. A moment later, Jonesy heard a definite high-pitched scream.

He wasn’t surprised when Wellesley launched himself out of the water to fly onto the deck. “Nice work,” Jonesy greeted.

“You, too. That was rather fun.”

“What did you do, bite their feet?”

In the dim light, Jonesy saw a flash of teeth in a grin. “I might have nipped playfully at a toe or two. They’ll have figured it out by now, but we seem to be leaving them behind. Should I be concerned?”

Even after the engines are halted, a tanker keeps going forward for a long time. “They’re pirates. And there’s more of them.”

Bright teeth flashed. “Right. More toes. I’d best have a look.”

“I’ll stay here, make sure nothing comes up the ropes without my say-so.”

Wellesley clapped him on the shoulder and jogged away. Jonesy blended himself into a vertical pipe’s shadow and waited. Fully five minutes later, he saw the trailing rope twitch and the round shape of a head rise up. Behind it gleamed a long cylinder, the muzzle of a gun.

This was his kind of moment. He waited, thinking of leopards. The slender figure rose up in the darkness, limber and graceful in the night. And it fell gracefully to the deck when Jonesy struck it just above the ear.

He carried a pocketful of zip ties; they were handy for so many things. They were handy now. He quietly bound his captive’s hands, then waited to see if anyone else came up. The gun, he took for himself.

A flare of some sort rose up behind him, making shadows leap to life, then shrink. In its light he could see the rope swinging freely from the hook and nobody nearby in the water. With a shrug, he coiled the rope up on the deck. He expected no further surprises from that direction. Even if the pirates righted their little boats, all the equipment would be sinking slowly to the ocean’s bottom.

He prodded his prisoner with his foot, not hard, and received the same grouchy grumble he would have expected in any language. In our sleep, he decided, we still speak the language of Babel. It had been his favorite story as a child. The better light showed him fine cheekbones and an elegant profile. Either this was a very young pirate or a very slim woman. He’d never heard of a woman pirate here or anywhere. To move things along, he prodded with the gun barrel and barked, “Get up.”

She—yes, definitely she, a mystery for later—gathered her body, twisted, and rose with far too much grace for someone with her hands behind her back. The idle tanker moved gently on the waves. Jonesy pointed forward and made her lead. He hoped he didn’t have to try to swap the woman for his crewmates. He wasn’t a good diplomat, and he wasn’t sure which of the men would be touchiest about it afterward.

The woman shifted her hands in the lie. He poked her with the barrel again. She said something he didn’t understand, but the tone was unmistakable. The gun in his hands dripped. “If it won’t fire, I can still hit you with it.”

She stilled her hands and kept walking.

There seemed to be a fireworks display going on at the fore. What he’d taken for flares, he realized, were something else, things that zipped and darted in all directions like minnows. When two struck, sparks flew and whistled. The woman spat at the deck and spoke a word, and Jonesy didn’t need a translator. “Yeah, we have a warlock. Looks like you did, too.”

The flares raged and subsided. Jonesy bit his lip. A moment later, though, Wellesley’s voice rang out. “That you, Jones?”


“Join the fun, why don’t you?”

The “fun” was a row of prisoners, dark skinned and sullen. One looked truly furious. Wellesley pointed with a staff he’d not displayed before, then tossed something like a coin on his palm before putting it in his coat pocket. “He was the hard one. I’d been warned they might have a wizard, but I hadn’t expected one this strong.”

Jonesy pointed his charge to a spot beyond the others. She slouched to her place, claiming a wider space between herself and the last man than he would have expected. Seated, she shook her head once, apparently still aching from his blow. He didn’t feel bad about it.

“Nice gun,” said Randolph. “Gonna fuckin’ throw it at ’em?”

Drying, it had a fine sheen of salt. He doubted it would fire, but he liked the heft. “Was gonna club ’em like baby seals.”

Wellesley gave him a private look that made Jonesy sorry he’d said it, though he wasn’t sure if it showed concern for pirates or a fondness for seals. The young wizard raised an eyebrow to the captain. Getting a nod, he spoke to the prisoners.

“Did you know he could talk A-rab?” Randolph muttered.

“Nope. Somehow, though, I’m not surprised.”

The prisoners sneered at first, dropped a little, and began casting sideways looks at their own wizard. He looked defiant. His eyes blazed, and he heaved himself over in what looked like a suicidal escape attempt. Wellesley lunged at him, catching the man’s hair. His coat flapped forward against the man’s face and—

And Wellesley had a tenuous hold on a large squid, tentacles tearing at him and the great beak snapping. Jonesy took a chance on the gun, thrusting it at the great eye nearest him. The trigger did nothing, so he jabbed instead, figuring even a warlock wouldn’t like a poke in the eye. The huge creature spasmed and lashed him aside with a giant ripping arm.

From the corner of his eye he saw a purple light, brief, leaving an orange blob behind on his eyelids. An instant later he heard a gunshot. Rolling to his feet, he ignored a pain in his ribs.

The arms of the squid lashed, but without purpose. The captain hadn’t lowered his pistol. Wellesley disentangled himself and looked at the corpse with what seemed to be regret.

The other pirates had edged away, though two were still in range of the twitching tentacles. Jonesy noticed something wrong. There was a zip tie in a neat circle sitting on the deck. “Where’s the girl?” he shouted. “Where’s the damn girl?

Randolph rushed to the rail. “There’s something at the side. Looks like—ink?”

“Ink,” Jonesy echoed, feeling blank. Wellesley stared at them both for a moment, then dashed away. Jonesy followed, hearing commands to watch the prisoners and assuming the orders weren’t for him.

It was a long run. Someone had cut the pirates’ vessel adrift, and it wallowed a little distance away. A great tentacle rose from the water and fastened itself to the side of the small boat, then another. And an octopus, of all things, heaved out of the sea, coming over the rail one arm at a time.

Then, by some geometry Jonesy didn’t want to remember, it shifted and blurred. His former prisoner stood on the deck of her boat and waved, then added another equally universal hand gesture. Since the gun hadn’t fired before, Jonesy returned the communication with vigor. “Can’t you do something?” he snapped at his friend.

Wellesley sighed, panting. “I only beat Squiddy before because I was smarter, better trained, and totally unexpected. Think karate black belt against sumo wrestler—he was way stronger. If she’s survived in Africa this long, and even managed to join this lot, now I can’t bet on any of those things.”

The girl disappeared toward the helm. A moment later, the engine coughed to life.

“Fuck, Wells, I caught her.”

“Surprised her? Then walked her right where she wanted to be? She wanted her boat back.”

It was curving away now. Jonesy thought she might go back for whatever pirates and boats still floated in the vast ocean. If he’d been one of those men, though, he wouldn’t have liked to depend on her. An octopus was not a social animal. “She’s got it.”

“And something to think about. I don’t suppose you know what I told them.”

“Something that made them unhappy with their war—wizard.”

He’d hoped Wellesley missed the slip. A moment of tight lips said he hadn’t. “I told them the International Commission Against Piracy would put all Somali pirates up for trial in Kenya, and that we’d already radioed for their pickup before they’d set foot on deck. I told them the exception was wizards who agreed to be bonded to the British Crown. Kenya’s easier on wizards than many African countries—they don’t teach them, but they leave them alone until one turns criminal. And they do cauterize the stumps.”

Jonesy had never heard this cold, level tone from his usually jolly friend. “I don’t think you convinced her.”

“Doesn’t look like it, but she may spread the word. Speaking of action at a distance, by the way—the safety’s still on.”

Shit.” It was.

“What navy did you say you were in?”

“Fuck you. We’d better go back, in case the whole crew’s wizards.”

“I think it must have been the Andorran navy.”

“Never heard of ’em. Let’s go.”

They did, but slowly. Wellesley seemed exhausted. “Andorra’s about the size of the Merlin. Also, landlocked.”

“Did I say ‘Fuck you,’ or did I say ‘Fuck you’?”

“So shoot me. Take the safety off first.”

Jonesy did, but only to make a show of putting it back on as they rejoined the others. The prisoners had been moved away from the rail, now spread against a wall to be searched. A few hours later, a ship from India’s navy took on seven pirates, and the Merlin continued on its way.

“Think it’ll matter?” Randolph mused.

“Drop in the bucket,” Jonesy told him. “Course, they may have to start wondering how many other tankers are crewed by marines, navy sailors, and wizards.”

“You mean they aren’t all?” Randolph snorted. “Anyway, your shift’s over if you want to catch a nap.”

“Thought I’d see the sun rise first. Too wound up to sleep.”

“Quite the night, wasn’t it? You and Wells going to celebrate?”

“Oh, yeah. Seconds on Jell-O tonight.”

Randolph gave him a knowing smirk. Jonesy looked as blank as he knew how to. “Right,” the square-shouldered man said eventually. Unlike Jonesy, Randolph was still on duty and had to move on.

The sun crawled over the horizon. Jonesy squinted against the glare, wondering how many reporters were scrambling for copy about the Merlin as he comfortably moved away from them at twelve knots. He wondered if they’d get any of it right. He wondered if the Indian crew had brought in the dead squid and the collapsed coin-sized staff, or if they’d heaved both overboard to make their report easier. He might have himself, before he knew Wellesley.

He sighed and headed for his bunk. Wellesley seemed to be asleep, but once Jonesy was down and dozing, Wellesley said, “Thanks.”

“For what?”

“Not every mate would jump in to poke Squidboy in the eye for me.”

“Oh. That.” Jonesy poked at his still-painful rib. It might be cracked, but it wasn’t broken. “No problem.”

The room hummed slightly with the engine’s work.

“Sorry,” Jonesy said.

“For what?”

“For... It’s amazing I can walk with both feet in my mouth, isn’t it?”

“Oh. That.”

The Merlin purred for them. Jonesy could feel the slight movement melting his tight bones apart and knew he would sleep soon.

“I’m sorry too.”

“For what?” Jonesy’s puzzlement was real. Wellesley never did anything wrong.

“Not being the least bit interested.”

“Oh,” said Jonesy. For once, he didn’t try to find a sideways denial. There didn’t seem to be much point. “That’s fine.”

“You sure? I’ll swap bunks with someone if it would help.”

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

“All right, then.”

Jonesy’s mind moved slowly over his options, testing each and moving on. “Wellesley? Thanks.”

A questioning sound.

“Decks get real slippery sometimes. When people know.”

“Oh. I thought maybe you meant for letting you look like you knew how a gun worked.”

“Fuck you,” Jonesy said, not without affection, and turned his back. He heard a low sleepy chuckle from the other bunk. He felt wide-awake now.

Someone else had guessed once when Jonesy was a lot younger. Moments later, Jonesy had been in midair, then gulping up seawater. A float had splashed down beside him as he worked out which way was where the air was. Whoever had thrown it—and Jonesy knew full well who hadn’t—had a strong arm. The boat had been well off by the time he looked for it, though he had seen heads and heard shouts. Well off, and not changing course.

He’d had a sudden realization: they were going to leave him out there on the boundless ocean, one lone unmissed queer on a float. He’d felt a sudden horror, kicking hopelessly after the boat, wondering if it was better to die of exposure or sharks. Waves obscured everything, direction and horizon and goal. He’d never been seasick in his life until bobbing like a cork. He had shut his eyes to close away the emptiness, because now even when he rose to the crests the water was empty.

And then he’d felt the rubbery muscular nuzzle of a life raft against his back. The ocean shrank while men had called him an idiot in three languages for getting turned around. They had hauled him back to solid safety.

 [ Octopus, © 2010 Miguel Santos ] The crewman he’d been working with had stayed behind. He’d said Jonesy was baptized now, wasn’t he? And Jonesy had said yes he was and he was washed clean and now he wouldn’t need a shower for another month, all the while grinning like a real man who hadn’t been scared a bit. He had pretended all the gay was washed right out of him.

Now, he kept his mouth shut and stayed busy.

Was there, maybe, a reason the first magic Wellesley had shown them was that if they pitched him off, he’d play in the water and flip himself right back onto the stern? Jonesy amused himself with replaying his own history if he’d been able to transform too. He began to feel stirrings of envy at the idea of moving comfortably from deck to water and back. The other sailor would have hurt him before dropping him over again, was all the difference that would have made. Envy and fear never made one man any better toward another, not really.

Jonesy sighed and tried to go to sleep, though he feared the dreams the past night would give him.

© 2010 Erika Tracy

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