Hyphialta surfaced a long way out to sea, and taking a moment to relax and catch her breath, scanned the familiar outline of her private harbour. Alrik was there as usual, sitting in the deckchair by the slipway, beneath the arm of her personal hoist. A family of sea lions sunned themselves on the jetty by his side, while a few lazy marine iguanas slid into the sea one by one from the rocks at his feet. Behind him the wind turbine turned slowly above the angular arrays of solar panels and the enormous mesh satellite dish human intrusions gleaming in the morning sunshine. He seemed to be reading a book, or perhaps making notes. She swam back slowly, wondering if he would notice her approach. He spotted her and waved when she was about fifty metres from the landing stage.
"Welcome back, Alta. That was a long dive."
"Was it? It's beautiful out there. Dolphins, rays, turtles, hundreds of sea lions
why don't you join me? You haven't dived yet and this is one of the best locations in the whole world."
"Maybe later. I don't do much diving these days, and I can't stay here very much longer you know. I really wanted to talk to you."
"Okay. I'll come on land."
"Can I help you with the winch?"
"No need. I'm used to it."
She manoeuvred herself carefully into the fabric sling, rolled over on to her back, and pressed the waterproof switch on its dangling cable. At once the motor began to whirr and she felt herself lifted gently out of the water and into the air. Alrik watched, fascinated as ever, while the device automatically swung her into position above her wheelchair and then lowered her into it. It didn't seem to occur to him that she might be sensitive about it, that his intense interest might make her feel like an exhibit in a freak show. No, that was unfair, she decided. Alrik didn't see her in that way. He was a scientist. Close observation of the unusual was second nature to him. He meant well.
"Can we go inside?" she asked when she had secured her seat belt, "I haven't had breakfast yet." He nodded and reached towards the chair. "It's okay, Alrik, I can do it. If I need help I'll ask for it."
"Don't be. Sorry, I mean. You're always saying you're sorry about everything. There's nothing to be sorry about."
She regretted having spoken sharply as she effortlessly propelled the wheelchair up the gentle slope to the house. She wanted to like Alrik no, she did like him, a lot but some things about him she found slightly annoying. He never seemed to adapt to her, to learn her needs and preferences. He seemed to repeat the same behaviour patterns no matter how often she explained that she would prefer something else. Maybe it was a cultural difference. He had to walk uncomfortably fast to keep by her side, her faithful puppy, anxious to remain close. When they reached the door he opened it for her and stood to one side, no doubt responding to some deep imperative of his upbringing. She accepted the courtesy without comment.
The building was little more than a two-room shack: a room for work and a room for sleep. The sound and vision monitoring area took up most of one wall, with an equipment-laden desk and four large flatpanel viewing screens for the outputs of the underwater cameras. A fifth smaller one was the computer monitor, and to either side were arranged the consoles that monitored and recorded from the underwater microphones and fed the sound transducers that allowed her to talk back. On the same desk was a satellite telephone and a standard keyboard and mouse. The free space all around the walls was lined with sagging shelves of her books and notes and CDs of her scientific data, all at a convenient height for the chair, and above these, large panoramic windows gave views of the sea lion colonies along both sides of the bay, the diving frigate birds and the rocks that seemed to ripple with the movements of tens of thousands of marine iguanas, entering and leaving the water in their endless cycle of foraging.
As soon as they came into the room they could hear through the monitoring equipment the clicking of the dolphins and the deeper, more distant wailing of a school of migrating blue whales. Hyphialta went to the console and selected the output of the camera just beneath the jetty. A large male dolphin was staring straight into it. She made a shrill clicking sound from the back of her throat. The dolphin dipped its head in acknowledgement, responded with a similar clicking sound of its own, and swam away.
"You always do that when you get back from a dive, don't you?" Alrik commented.
"He likes me to let him know that I'm okay when I get back."
"Is that Roc?"
"Yes. Why don't you come down with me and I'll introduce you. He's keen to meet you."
"I think I might be jealous." They exchanged a smile.
"If you want to do something, you could make us a cup of coffee. And take a look what we've got in the fridge. I've worked up an appetite." She could tell that it pleased him when she used the inclusive "we". It was part of the harmless flirtation that they had been engaged in over the couple of weeks that he had been there. She hoped he realised that it couldn't go any further.
He dutifully put the kettle on and started to rummage for food. "Eggs. Eggs on toast with beans. Will that be all right?"
"Anything, Alrik. Whatever's there." Alrik busied himself with the pots and pans. He had to sit to cope with the height of the specially adapted cooker and work surfaces. Hyphialta responded to another series of clicks from one of the underwater microphones.
"Who was that?"
"A female of Roc's pod. I call her Messelina you know, the wife of Claudius who slept with all the men. She's an outrageous little nymphomaniac."
"Lucky old Roc." He paused and turned to her, looking rather anxious. "Alta, I suppose everybody says this, but there's something quite magic about you. I don't think I can bear to leave tomorrow. I... I've become incredibly... attached to you..."
Oh dear! Here we go, she thought. "It's mutual," she assured him, "I've become very attached to you too. You're a good friend."
"Look, I know I'm not very good at this kind of thing..."
"You're right. Those eggs are going to burn!"
He turned down the gas. "Alta, please don't laugh at me. I'm very serious. I don't want to leave here tomorrow or ever. You've done something to me. You've got under my skin. I don't know what it is, it's not just that you're beautiful, which goes without saying. There's something just plain magic about you."
"It's the place, Alrik. This place was magic long before I came."
"No, I'm serious. It isn't just the place. It's you. I think it's the way you enjoy your life so much. The way you're happy and cheerful all the time. The way you love the water. These have been the happiest two weeks of my life..."
He paused so long that Hyphialta took the fish-slice from his hand and attended to the eggs herself. "That's sweet of you, Alrik. But don't you have a wife and family to go to somewhere?"
"No. Well, yes, I did have a wife, and I have a daughter..."
"Don't let's spoil it, Alrik. Let's not be silly. What on earth would you want with a setup like this? Hundreds of miles from civilization unless you count Puerto Ayora me in this chair..."
"We're both marine biologists. I'm the world's biggest admirer of your work. I can help you with it." He hesitated, "I'm the world's biggest admirer... of you. I know I'm quite a bit older..."
She took his hand and kissed it. She could feel the electricity shoot through his body. "It's not that. You're very sweet. And very silly. I really don't know what to say. What do you expect me to say?" He remained motionless, staring into her eyes. "I think I'd better do the eggs. Why don't you sit over there?" Alrik did as he was told. Hyphialta got on with the breakfast. She had seen this coming, but it still made her acutely uncomfortable. Living as she did, the sole inhabitant of a rocky outcrop that was the tip of an extinct underwater volcano, fifty miles from the nearest inhabited island of the Galapagos Archipelago, her social skills were, to say the least, underdeveloped. She loaded up the tray and took it to him at the wooden wheelchair-height table.
"Alrik, I'm no good at this kind of thing either. I don't know how to play the courtship game, or whatever it is. All I can do is tell you the straight truth. Okay?"
"Okay." He was still staring into her eyes.
"I have... normal human feelings like anybody else, and I do find you attractive... at least some of the time. But I'm not normal... physically. And physically there isn't any kind of intimate relationship that we could have. You do understand that, don't you? It would have to be plain companionship. That's all I could ever offer. You would always want more and I would never be able to give it. We would irritate the hell out of one another."
"No, no, that wouldn't happen. Look, I've done a lot of research into your physical condition. I haven't told you about it, but before I came here I talked to Dr. Katz at the Charles Darwin Field Station, and Merle Baxter, the man who wrote the book about you. He had access to all your medical records and body scans, and he's done research of his own..."
"What are you talking about, Alrik? Where is all this leading?"
"The fact is," he put down his coffee and started to toy with the cup, "the fact is, Alta, there are things that can be done for you."
"Things that can be done for me? What kind of things?"
"You could walk, Alta. There are procedures available that would enable you to become..."
"Normal? Say, it. It's alright. I know I'm not normal."
"I don't mean it to sound like that."
"No. Of course you don't. Nobody ever does. You don't think you're the first person to suggest this, do you?" She could hear the coldness entering her voice, and no doubt Alrik could too. She paused to let her emotions settle down. "Alrik," she began very slowly, choosing her words with care, "my father was a brilliant man. One of the greatest scientists of his generation. He contributed more to genetics than anybody else since Mendel. And he spent the last ten years of his life, which was all of my life, trying to keep himself out of prisons and mental institutions. I was the reason he ended up like that. I was his great life's work. Everything he knew, everything he believed, everything he felt, went into me. I'm the way he made me. I don't want to be any different. This is who I am. What I am. Can you understand that?" Outside a male sea lion honked, and Hyphialta had to suppress an impulse to reply.
Alrik watched the spilled yoke of his egg begin to congeal on the toast. "I'm going to speak frankly too. You may hate me for it, I don't know, but I need you to understand the way I see things. What your father did was a terrible thing. The entire scientific community condemned him for it, and rightfully so. A scientist is not a god, Alta. The power that science gives is not there to let us... live out our private fantasies. You don't play with the building blocks of human life as if they were toys. That was inexcusable. I'm sorry but it was."
Hyphialta began to eat. What Alrik had said had made things easier for her. "I'm a bit disappointed in you," she said quietly, cutting up her toast. "I hadn't expected all the same old prejudices that I've heard so many times before. Let me tell you about my father." She took a sip of coffee before continuing. "He understood more about the world he lived in than anybody else of his time. He saw where his own field was leading. He knew that no laws or ethical committees or anything else could stop it going there, and he was right. Daddy had a serious point to make when he created me. I think you know what that point was. He wanted to show people that the end of Darwinian evolution had arrived for the human race. That it had been replaced by something else. And the world would only listen if they could see it with their own eyes. Put their fingers in the wounds. That was why he created me."
"Well, there! You've said it yourself. He created you to make a point. How can that be ethical or moral? People aren't things you create to make a point. That's monstrous!"
"People once said it was monstrous to transplant the heart of one person into another. Ethical ideas have to change with the passage of time, and the arrival of new science. My father needed people to understand that the switch over to this new kind of evolution, deliberate planned change, didn't have to be a nightmare. It could be glorious. We could make ourselves into anything that we could imagine."
Alrik had lost interest in his breakfast. "How can making human beings to your own recipe be right? There's a line being crossed there. I'm not a moral philosopher, I can't put it into fancy words, but I can see it. It's obvious..."
"My father wasn't a moral philosopher either. He just saw that it was coming, and it could be dealt with well or it could be dealt with badly. He mapped out the connections between the genome and the physical body, but it isn't going to end there. The time will come when we'll understand how the genome controls the mental realm as well. When we do we'll be able to turn humanity into a race of demi-gods. Near immortal, physically perfect, and at the same time moral, artistic and intellectual giants. Every individual human could be a Mozart, an Einstein, a Mahatma Gandhi, a Shakespeare and a Rembrandt all rolled into one. Once you've cracked the genome, once you understand how it works, there's nothing that you can't do. So he made me. The first transgenic individual. The first citizen of the new world. He wanted somebody that the world would see as beautiful, and not too different from themselves. I'm proud of who I am, and I'm proud of how I came to be who I am. I don't want to change anything. I'm not sick, Alrik I don't need a cure."
"I didn't mean it that way at all. I know that without your special abilities we would understand practically nothing about marine mammals. We would still be hunting them for meat and fur, and killing whales for their oil, and clubbing baby seals to death... and God knows what else."
"Yes, that's right, you would. Thank my father for that. The seals and the dolphins do, every time I talk to them, just about. And it doesn't even end there. My father's work has made the human race redefine itself. It's almost the ultimate question for science, isn't it? The question of who we are."
"You mean you can really get across an abstract concept like that... to marine mammals? The notion of the good of a whole species?"
"Alrik, I can get anything across if you give me enough time. Imagine trying to explain television to an Amazonian tribesman who's never seen a flashlight or a photograph or even a wind-up toy. It might take you a long time to get the idea across, because everything you wanted to communicate would be outside his experience. But take him to a big American city and set him up in an apartment for a couple of years with all the usual mod cons, get him a job where he can talk to people and pick up the language, and by the end of those two years he'll be criticising the bad acting in Miami Vice. Marine mammals like Roc are no dumber than us. They just have different life experiences. They think about different things. But not all that different. They can put their heads above the water and look up at the stars and wonder what they are, just like you and me. What they haven't got is a technology. Maybe to create that you need an opposing thumb, I don't know. Maybe you need an impulse to dominate nature and take control. The dolphins don't have that. If that's what it takes there'll never be a dolphin Holocaust or a dolphin hydrogen bomb."
Alrik paused to consider her words. "Your work on the language of marine mammals is absolutely staggering. You know that I'm on the Nobel committee, the most junior member they've got maybe, but I'm on it. And you know that's why I'm here. Well, I want to tell you, off the record, they wouldn't dare give it to anybody else. Your father was perfectly right. You've won over the whole world, charmed the whole world, just like you've charmed me."
"No, that wouldn't be right, Alrik. What I do here isn't real science. I just talk to the dolphins and the sea lions and make friends and enjoy myself. I'm the Amazonian tribesman in the Miami apartment. Give it to Pedro Lindsay at the Charles Darwin Research Station. His work is in a whole different league to mine. Anyway, it doesn't matter which of us gets it, the prize money goes straight to the Charles Darwin Foundation. You may as well send them the cheque now. It goes to the upkeep of the marine park. To Roc and all his friends. Pedro and I already have everything we want." She paused before she went on, wondering if she had said enough. She decided to come clean. "But I'll tell you this. I'll be up front with you too. If the Committee decides to give me the Nobel, they may not like the acceptance speech that I'm going to make"
Alrik became alert. "Why is that?"
"Because I won't accept it on my own behalf. I'll accept it on behalf of my father about thirty years too late or I won't accept it at all. Your choice."
Alrik looked thoughtful but said nothing. She pulled him over for a little hug. He was obviously pleased, but almost at once an expression that she hadn't seen before began to spread across his face. It seemed like a mixture of amusement and disbelief. "What are you thinking, Alrik? What do you want to say?"
"It just suddenly hit me. I'm sitting here talking about evolution and marine biology with a mermaid!"
She couldn't hold back a laugh. She released him from the hug and took his two hands instead. "And the prize?"
He shrugged. "I make it a rule never to argue with mythical creatures." She kissed him demurely on the back of his right hand. She could feel that electricity again, stronger than ever. "You haven't answered my question, Alta? May I stay here? On any terms you like to name?"
She let go of his hands. "You flatter me all the time, Alrik, and I admit that's nice. But I shouldn't be doing this. Whatever people call it. Leading you on, is that it?"
"You don't want me here, do you?"
She paused. There was a shrill clicking from one of the loudspeakers and she answered with a similar call of her own. Alrik's eyes narrowed. "They're listening, aren't they? They can understand."
Hyphialta didn't reply. Instead she asked a question of her own. "Have you seen the little mermaid statue in Copenhagen?"
"Of course I have. It's just across the Oresund Bridge from Malmφ, where the Nobel Committee meets. Your father modelled you on that statue, didn't he?"
She nodded. "There is one big difference between us though. The expression on our faces. The way we feel about things. She's looking out to sea with a face full of doubt and regret and sadness, because she's given up something wonderful for something absolutely ordinary. If you look closely you can see that her tail is just on the point of turning into legs. And those legs aren't going to work very well either. In the fairytale it says that every step she takes is like walking on knives. Is that what you have in mind for me too? Some kind of prosthetic legs that would never work quite right? Pain with every step?" He didn't reply. "I've heard it all before, Alrik. I know about it. You don't have to tell me the details: I'd still be able to hold my breath for half an hour, because that's the way my father designed me. I'd still be able to swim, after a fashion, and see clearly underwater, and carry on with my research, I suppose. I'd still be able to talk to the other marine mammals. Because that's what I am, Alrik, I'm a marine mammal. No better, no smarter, no more sensitive or special than any one of them. Do you know what Roc thinks when he sees someone like you, down there diving with a big metal tank on your back?" Alrik shook his head. "He's sorry for you. I can't translate his exact words, but he sees you as a creature trapped in some kind of an iron lung because there's something wrong with your body. If the dolphins had a technology they'd be offering to remove your legs and give you a prosthetic tail. But they don't want to change me. They accept me as I am. They like me as I am. No, damn it I'll say it: love me as I am. Roc loves me, Alrik. I'm not going to say any more. You can take it any way you like."
Alrik stared at her He seemed to search for words and find none. Hyphialta merely smiled and lowered her head. "You come here talking about prosthetic legs and you don't even want to dive. You want me to leave my world and become part of yours. You're a good man, Alrik, but you've got to face up to it. We aren't right for each other. This is the one place on earth where different doesn't mean 'enemy' or 'monster'. You can walk up to any animal on Galapagos and it won't run away. You're not offering me the one thing I need most. It's what I get from the dolphins and the other marine mammals here. It's the heartbeat of Galapagos, the spirit of the archipelago. Acceptance. It's the most important thing of all for a freak like me." Alrik remained silent. "Don't be hurt. I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with you. Just that we're very different."
"And Roc? Isn't he different?"
"Not in any way that matters." She paused and they looked into each other's eyes. "I'll tell you what would be nice," she said very quietly, "would you like to comb my hair again?"
From the loudspeakers a great jumbled surge of clicking erupted, reached a crescendo and slowly died away.
The next morning, when the cabin cruiser from the Charles Darwin Research Station arrived to take Alrik back to Puerto Ayora and the airport, Roc and Hyphialta followed behind, playing in its wake. Beyond the two frolicking creatures hundreds of others, dark and graceful, leaped into the air in perfect synchronisation in groups of three or four. Hyphialta leaped out of the water too at frequent intervals and did forward and backward flips, partly because she knew that it gave Alrik an enormous thrill every time that he saw her do it, but mostly because it was fun.
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