Edition 5: Bottlenose by Larry Lefkowitz
The Navy Mammalian Military Program has had some unexplained losses. Captain Sullivan wishes to get to the bottom of it. Will his worst fears be realised when he reveals an insidious cetacean plot? SY
Captain Sullivan was given to waive formalities and allow his crew of dolphin trainers to address him as “Skipper” when his mood was right or the circumstances favorable. Neither beneficent mood nor favorable circumstances prevailed as he prepared to address a meeting he had called of his “Military Dolphins,” a sobriquet his trainers bestowed on themselves in honor of the dolphins they trained.
He picked up a sheet of paper from those piled on the dais in front of him. Simultaneous with his beginning to read, there appeared on the screen behind him a grinning Lieutenant Daniels (junior grade). “November 17—Clifford ‘Smiling Jack’ Daniels was laid to rest today with full military honors. Something had ripped his oxygen tank clear off his body. A shark, possibly. Lieutenant Daniels was added to the investigation which had begun with the first death.”
Despite the solemnity of the moment, seeing Daniel’s cognomen under the photo, Sullivan had to force down a smile at how those in the military loved to bestow nicknames.
On the screen the next photograph was of a trainer wearing his brimmed hat at a rakish angle. “October 3rd—Ensign Alonso Bronson was laid to rest today with full military honors. An underwater object or creature had rammed him and caved in his chest. A shark attack has been eliminated as a possibility. Dolphins do ram, but they are not hostile to humans.”
The third photograph in the series, that of the first victim, was projected on the screen. “21st August—Lieutenant Pete Humphreys was laid to rest today with full military honors. The tube to his breathing apparatus was bitten through. A dolphin’s being responsible cannot be ruled out at this stage.”
Whereas the other reports had been received by those assembled in glum silence, this one caused a murmur to ripple through the listeners.
“You suspect one of ours?” Bradley asked. “That is, one of our dolphins?”
Sullivan shifted uncomfortably. “It cannot be ruled out.”
“But why, Skip—er, Captain Sullivan? We are good to our dolphins.”
“Up to a point. The attack dolphins, for instance, are sometimes…‘destroyed’ in training.”
“Collateral damage,” Ditmars intervened. Too quickly, Sullivan thought.
“From our point of view,” countered Garber. “From theirs…”
“They have a point of view?” shot back Logan.
“Certainly they do. We all know their individual proclivities.”
Sullivan decided it was time to settle things down. “Let’s review the history of our program to try to put our fingers on some clue to the recent losses.” He picked up another page from the sheaf of papers on the dais. “The Navy Mammalian Military Dolphin program began in 1960 to work with dolphins in order to help with defense, mine detection, and design of new submarines and underwater weapons. The bottlenose dolphin was shown to be the best for what the Navy needed. The bottlenose dolphins’ asset was their highly evolved sonar, helping to find underwater mines and aid detection of enemy swimmers.”
The listeners nodded their heads, their experience with dolphins having confirmed their unique suitability for such tasks.
“In fiscal year 2007, the Navy spent 14 million dollars on marine mammal research.”
“So raise our salaries,” someone piped up sotto voce.
Sullivan tried to discern the wise guy, but as he had his nose to the paper as he read the statistic, he was too late. He ignored the titters of laughter and smirks. He settled for sweeping the audience with his displeased gaze, which brought about an immediate silence, although inwardly he appreciated the comment as a welcome relief of the tension caused by his resurrection of the subject of their comrades’ deaths.
Except for the one droll comment, the men had listened politely to Sullivan’s recounting of the history of the military dolphin program, but they began to fidget as Sullivan continued speaking. “The Soviet Navy operated a research facility to explore military uses of marine mammals near Sevastopol.” Here he paused, and in an effort to regain their attention added, “Sevastopol, Russia, not Sebastopol, California.” He was rewarded with some guffaws. “The Russian military is believed to have closed its marine mammal program in the early 1990’s. In 2000 the press reported that dolphins trained to kill by the Soviet Navy had been sold to Iran.”
Everyone looked at Farsanigan, Iranian-born. He smiled was embarrassed.
“The Persian Porpoise as prototype,” chimed in Purcell, the resident clown.
“Profound, Purcell,” Sullivan seized on the alliteration. “We suspect the Russians under Putin have resurrected the program.”
Although he sensed the men knew the history of the attempts to train dolphins for military purposes, and their foot-shifting and other signs told him so, he had to state it for the record. “Our dolphins have been trained to lay underwater mines, to locate enemy combatants, or to seek and destroy submarines. Occasionally, there is ‘collateral damage.’ Of course, official Navy policy is not to train marine mammals to harm or injure humans in any fashion or to carry weapons to destroy enemy ships.”
His listeners looked at one another with various looks of skepticism. Sullivan ignored those. He was delivering official Navy history. He tried to maintain a neutral visage. He knew that no one who worked with dolphins liked to think of these intelligent and likeable creatures being killed, of ‘fatalities,’ in the euphemistic argot of the team members.
Sullivan returned to the subject of human fatalities. “Given the nature of our investigation into the loss of our fellow members, the function of Team Blue is of paramount importance and relevance. As you know, Team Blue uses dolphins as sentries to protect harbor installations and ships against unauthorized human swimmers. When an enemy diver is detected by a dolphin, the dolphin approaches from behind and bumps a device onto the back of the enemy’s air tank. The device is attached to a buoy which then floats to the surface, alerting the Navy personnel of the intruder. The dolphins depend on their superior underwater senses and swimming ability to defend against counterattacks.”
Sullivan paused and said more slowly, “That’s the official program. But more controversial—and classified—is the use of explosives to blow up enemy personnel or the use of dolphins to ram or to attack the breathing devices of unauthorized divers; this aspect is, in my opinion, of supreme relevance to our investigation.” He lowered his voice, “All three victims belonged to Team Blue which was involved in this work.”
There ensued another silence, broken only by the squawk of a seagull, followed by Nugent raising his hand. Deferential, as always, mused Sullivan, who nodded to him to speak.“Maybe the Russians are at work here—to sabotage our program.”
All eyes were focused upon Sullivan now, awaiting his reply to this suggestion, which apparently had not escaped their suspicions. “No, something…closer to home .is at work here.” Sullivan had returned to the possibility that their dolphins bore responsibility for their trainers’ deaths. But now he had to go one step further.
Rather Burstein did it for him. “Are you suggesting that the dolphins have…rebelled? Tired of our, ah, destroying them in training?”
Sullivan nodded, a lump in his throat as big as a battleship. He tried to keep his Adam’s apple from disclosing the fact.
“You’re serious?” Garber asked.
Taking a deep breath, as if he had just come up from a dive, Sullivan spelled it out. “I repeat what I had alluded to earlier, that there is a very real possibility that dolphins—our dolphins—are responsible for the deaths of their trainers. Completed with premeditated malice.”
The men looked at one another. Some nodded, this confirming what they had thought all along, but which had been expressed until now only in hints. Others looked aghast, or pained.
“You think the dolphins are wiser than us?” Ditmars piped up at once.
“Not than you, Ditmars,” Sullivan tried to lessen the tension a notch.
“’Flipper’ trained as serial killer,” Browning muttered.
“Perhaps we went too far,” opined Berliner, the philosopher among the men.
Sullivan decided to ignore the implications of Berliner’s comment. Any decision to scuttle the program would have to come from Washington. He would stick to the parameters of the investigation. “Pete was found with his breathing hose bitten through. Alonso was found with caved-in chest.”
“Rammed by a dolphin?” Peters interrupted.
Sullivan, ignoring the question, continued, “Cliff had his oxygen tank ripped off.” Here he paused and then said, “Possible evidence of premeditated attack.”
“You make it sound like the dolphins are more intelligent than us,” repeated Ditmars, unable to come to terms with the idea, as if his personal honor was at stake.
“Need I remind you that bottlenose dolphins have an absolute brain mass of between 1500 to 1700 grams. That is, slightly greater than that of humans, who have 1300 to 1400 grams and about four times that of chimpanzees which have a brain mass of 400 grams.”
“So we are in a relatively good position,” ventured Purcell.
Once more Sullivan welcomed the temporary easing of tension.
“Sounds like ‘The Day of the Dolphin’—the movie,” Ferguson mused out loud. “A scientist and his wife train dolphins to communicate with humans. They teach the dolphins to speak English in dolphin-like voices. Two dolphins are stolen in a plan to further train them to carry out a political assassination by having them place a limpet mine on the hull of the yacht of the President of the United States.”
“Yeah,” piped up Henkin. “Pauline Kael, the film critic for the New Yorker suggested that if the best subject that the movie makers could think of was talking dolphins, then they should quit making movies altogether.”
“And the Simpson’s had an episode titled ‘Night of the Dolphins’ that involved Lisa freeing a dolphin who then takes over earth because dolphins lived on the land until the human race drove them into the ocean,” added Caruthers.
“Me, I prefer ‘Flipper’ stories,” Macbride chuckled.
Things were getting out of control, thought Sullivan. Fortunately (or perhaps not fortunately, he wasn’t sure), Ganz brought things back to the present. “Captain Sullivan, you seriously believe that our dolphins developed this plan of revenge amongst themselves?”
“They do communicate with each other. But they would need help.”
“Help?” more than one of the men exclaimed.
“I suspect that one of us helped them!”
Now he had uttered what was nagging increasingly at him as the investigation had proceeded. As he had feared and expected, a wave of voices broke upon him. After allowing them to express their reactions and protests for some minutes, he silenced them with a gesture. “Who among us increasingly protested at our working with explosive devices with our dolphins?”
Everyone looked at Blair.
Blair reddened and half rose out of his seat. Then he sat. Then he opened his mouth, waving his arms. “Yes!” he shouted. “I urged them to revenge. I used my verbal command training with the dolphins to impart the message. Revolt!”
“What about Daniels and Bronson and Humphreys! They died because of you.” Sullivan struggled to maintain self-control. If he lost it, the men would follow him, and he would have failed in his duty.
“By their own hand!” shouted Blair. “They were the explosive attack dolphin experts. I tried to warn them they were going too far. They were losing too many dolphins. They refused to listen!”
Some of the men present would have lynched him on the spot, had he not bolted for the door. Before he could reach it, Sullivan blew his whistle and two burly naval policemen entered and grabbed Blair. Sullivan had held them in readiness.
He had succeeded in solving the mystery of the three trainers’ deaths. Yet the thought would trouble him for some time that maybe the dolphins hadn’t finished. That they might, somehow, someday, have the last word. That maybe the revolt would spread and embrace other cetaceans. That Homo sapiens would lose domination of the sea. Ships would be destroyed, world trade ended. Stagnation.
Even that the dolphins would return to the land. Such thoughts were accompanied by a movie title which repeated itself as mantra in his 1300 to 1400 grams of brain mass, as if the dolphins themselves had planted it there with premeditated malice: ‘Dawn of the Dolphins’.
The stories, poetry, and humor of Larry Lefkowitz have appeared widely in publications in the U.S., Israel, and Britain in print, online, and in anthologies. Lefkowitz is currently looking for a publisher for an anthology of his humorous fantasy and science fiction stories.