Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Leap Earth

As it's 29th February, here is a story I wrote, about a Leap Earth, for my friend Alex.

Leap Earth

As Lily walked past a closed hatch cover on the deck, she heard a metallic clank. “Ooh, that were a mistake,” she heard. She stopped, puzzled. That was a Yorkshire accent. The crew were Filipino. Besides which, going into an enclosed space and shutting the cover up behind you wasn’t really the done thing.

She stood there a moment longer, wondering if she had perhaps misheard. That had happened to her when she’d first come onboard, the crew would have conversations among themselves and she imagined she heard English. They had just sounded like random words, though, not sentences in dialect. Odd.

“What do we do now then?” continued the muffled voice from below the steel. Lily started opening the hatch. There was definitely someone there. Her heart started beating a little faster – a stowaway? They’d done a thorough search before leaving port, as per company policy, but basic human error could have meant something was missed. A stowaway from what sounded like Hull, though? In Japan?

She lifted the hatch with difficulty. She really needed to work on her physical strength, she reminded herself, before refocusing on the issue at hand. She wondered who she was going to see emerge from the darkness – and the darkness was total. Whoever it was either didn’t have a flashlight or had turned it off.

Lily stepped back and looked to either side of her but there was nobody else on deck. The ABs must have gone to have coffee. Dammit.

Slowly, a figure clambered up the ladder and out of the hatch. He was bald, small and darkish red in colour, with purple patches in various places. He looked, in all honesty, severely burnt, apart from the fact that his skin was totally smooth. He was wearing pale green, a long sleeved top and long tight trousers. He straightened up, saw Lily, and stepped back, eyes widening. “Ooh!”

Now he was in front of her, she looked at his face properly. It was flat. Completely flat. There was a nose shape and nostrils, a normal mouth and eyes and eyebrows, but no contour whatsoever. It was as if his head had been put through a mangle. Lily could feel her forehead wrinkling up in confusion and tried very hard to undo it. She had been brought up to be polite, no matter how much a person’s physical appearance may terrify her. “Um,” she said, her breath quickening, “Who are you?” She tried to remember the protocol for finding a stowaway at sea but her mind had gone blank. She was fairly certain she needed to tell someone. Why hadn’t she brought a radio? She was only meant to be checking that the life jacket boxes were unlocked, so maybe someone would come looking for her if she just kept the weird man here.

“Ward,” the man said cheerfully, holding out his hand. “If I may ask, where am I?”

“You’re on the Tidelines Leprechaun. A container ship. We’ve left Japan. Is that where you got on?”

“Japan? Er, no, love. I just got on here.”

“Here? We’re in the middle of the ocean. You were in the ballast tank, I think. Down there,” Lily said, pointing back down the hatch. She went to close the cover again.

“Oh, don’t do that. Fracas’s still down there.”

“Who’s Fracas?!” Lily was trying to pay attention to what the man said instead of his peculiar appearance. 

She peered down the hatch and sure enough, there was a little blonde head on its way up. She stepped away. Fracas hopped nimbly onto the deck and turned out to be even smaller than Ward, but much the same in most other characteristics. That strange flat face, light green clothing, and an indeterminate age.

The newest addition to their conversation grinned up at Lily. “I am Fracas, dear. I work with Ward. I imagine you probably need a bit of a sit down.”

Lily had no idea what to do. “Um. Right. Fracas. Ward. What the hell are you doing on our ship? Are you trying to get to San Francisco? Where have you come from?” At that, Fracas punched Ward in the arm.

“San Fran bloody Cisco, Ward? What the fuck good is that going to do us?”

Ward looked embarrassed. “It’s me first time,” he said to Lily. “I reckon we’re not meant to be here at all.”

Lily nodded. “Yeah, you’re definitely not. First time doing what? I think I have to take you to see the captain, whoever you are.” She made as if to go towards the accommodation, but the pair stayed still. 

Fracas leaned forward and grabbed Lily’s sleeve.

“Listen, dear. Um. This is a bit of a... thing. It’s all a mistake, you see. We’re certainly not meant to be here annoying you and getting in your way. But it’s happened and now we need to explain it all before you tell more people. It’s important that not many humans know. You can see we don’t look like you? We aren’t from where you’re from, after all.”

“Actually, my dad’s from near Hull,” Lily said to Ward. He looked at her blankly. “Aren’t you from Hull? Your accent is Yorkshire, right?”

Ward shrugged. “I don’t know where Hull is, love, but I think it’s best if Fracas tells you where we’re from. She’s better at talking. Could we go somewhere a bit quieter?” The ocean wind blew strongly in Lily’s ears. She would be far more comfortable in her calm air-conditioned cabin, but she still had no idea what to do. If she presented these two to the captain, what would he say? She was kind of interested to find out, but then again, she’d always loved secrets and these two didn’t seem to present any kind of threat.

“Well,” she said, still thinking, “I could take you to my cabin but if you don’t want anyone else to see you, it’ll be tricky. We’d have to go past the galley and there might be a few of the crew around at the moment.”

Ward held up his finger and turned sideways. He vanished. Or rather, nearly vanished, and looked like a thin black rod or pencil line drawn in the air. He turned back and returned to full visibility. Lily’s forehead wrinkles returned with him. She stared.

“I have no idea what just happened,” she informed him. He grinned and Fracas patted her on her back. 

“We’ll just do that, dear, all the way, if you can lead us to somewhere with a locked door so we can explain. Nobody’ll see us unless they’re looking, and who would look for a straight line? The world’s full of them already. People don’t want more. Curves are the only interesting thing to look at.”

Lily disagreed with her point but couldn’t argue with the plan. She headed inside and straight up to her cabin, two decks up. When she got there, she waited for a minute (she still couldn’t see Ward and Fracas but assumed they’d been right behind her) and then shut and locked her door. That second, they reappeared.

Fracas skipped around the cabin, finding it very spacious thanks to her tiny frame. “Lovely! Lovely!” she chanted, before seeing Lily’s raised eyebrows. She sat on the floor, contrite. Ward joined her with crossed legs and Lily, after a few seconds, did the same. She felt as if she were in a pow-wow back in Brownies.

“So...” she said encouragingly. Her mind flitted back to the life jacket boxes. She’d been on her way to see the last one before this had happened. Must remember to go and check it later.

“Yes,” began Fracas, “so indeed. We intended to jump onto a little fishing boat. I’m not entirely sure where we are. Are we near the Date Line?”

Lily nodded. “The International Date Line, yes.” She thought back to her morning looking at charts on the bridge. “We’ll probably cross it in a couple of hours.”

“Excellent, well at least there’s that. We live there, you see.”

“You live in the middle of the ocean? Sorry, I’m confused.”

Ward butted in. “We live along the Date Line, love. In the extra five degrees.”

“The extra five degrees?” she asked. This was making no sense. If it weren’t for their appearance, Lily would have dismissed their riddles entirely and shoved them up to the captain’s office, but she had never seen people so extraordinary – there had to be an extraordinary explanation.

“Every leap year, the world gains five degrees,” said Fracas soothingly. “That’s where we stay.”

“No it doesn’t! They definitely would have told us that at college,” Lily sputtered. She wasn’t too hot at maths but she knew that the Earth always had 360 degrees, for God’s sake. Was it really February 29th, though? She had lost track of the date.

“Well, this is why we can’t let many people know, you see. The Earth gets an extra five degrees of latitude next to the International Date Line every four years, and we pop up to see what’s what and get supplies, and then go away again until the next leap year. Because it doesn’t go through land, nobody notices. Sailors get a bit confused but they always think it’s just their brains playing tricks on them.”

Lily was not entirely convinced that this whole experience wasn’t exactly that.

“Ironically,” Ward added jovially, thrusting currants into his mouth from a plastic bowl which had appeared somehow, “If the extra earth didn’t keep appearing and disappearing, the world would be a bit quicker on its feet about getting round the Sun and there wouldn’t be any need for a bloody leap year in the first place!”

Well, that’s just nonsense, she thought. “Look, say I believe you. What does that mean? What do you want? And how do you disappear for four years, anyway?”

“Like we disappeared on our way up here,” Fracas said, as if it were obvious. “Though under the water, of course. Just along the Line.”

“I was stuck on a corner last time,” added Ward, rubbing his nose. “Hurt a bit.”

Despite their story being ridiculous and slightly – make that utterly – unbelievable, Lily was starting to like these two. She could at least chat to them. It was a bit lonely sometimes, being in the middle of the ocean with no other native English speakers.

She sighed. “Right, OK. Every leap year the world gains five degrees, and that’s where you live, and when it’s not a leap year you go and hide back down under the ocean, but now it is a leap year, so you’re here.”

They both nodded enthusiastically. “You’re far better at this than we were told humans’d be,” said Ward, offering Lily his bowl of currants. She declined, and he continued to swallow them at a rate of knots.

“Humans – you mean you aren’t? Who ‘told’ you?”

Fracas placed a single currant on her tongue and swallowed. “We’re Intercalaries. Quite like humans, I suppose, except would you like to try disappearing underwater for four years at a time? And we look a bit different, as you can see. I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned it. Others tell us it’s normally the first thing you lot comment on, our bright skin. Well we get bruised a lot, you see, all this pushing and pulling on our resources. We’ve evolved into having permanently damaged-looking skin.”

Lily felt a sudden urge to write everything down. She felt like she was interviewing the pair, and was certain she wouldn’t remember their answers when she woke up, or got back to the real world, or realised she was a lunatic sitting in a room by herself eating currants.

“So there are others like you who tell you about humans. You’ve never met any before? And what exactly were you going to do if you got on a fishing vessel as planned?”

Ward suddenly stood up. “Look, you haven’t got a spoon, have you? I can’t eat these so quickly with just my hand.”

On the desk sat a set of cutlery Lily had brought with her (just in case) and never used. She pointed and decided to enquire about the dried fruit.

“We eat them, to get rid of them,” Ward said, as if that explained everything. Fracas took over, a sympathetic smile on her flat lips. “In four years, there’s a lot of current that builds up in the ocean in our five degrees. As a flat substance it can’t go anywhere, but it still exists. So when we finally emerge, it has a really short space of time to release all its energy. In order to reduce that to a normal level, so that humans don’t notice all the temperamental swells and whirlpools that would happen, we have to eat most of it in the time we have.”

Lily sighed. If this wasn’t real, it really was the most bizarre thing she’d ever heard of. “You’re saying the currents of the ocean are made of... currants?”

They stared at her. “Course they are,” said Ward slowly, momentarily stumped by the question.

“We don’t only eat currants,” Fracas tried to reassure her. “For a treat, sometimes we’re allowed to pick dates off the line.”

“The... International Date Line. Is made of dates. Is what you mean.” Lily had to speak steadily to calm herself down so that she did not throw herself out of the window in frustration.

At that, Fracas laughed, a tiny tinkling bell noise. “No! Of course not. The line is made of silk. The dates hang from it.”

There was no chance for Lily to think about whether she believed it or not. The outlandish ‘facts’ kept on coming. She went to sit by the porthole for a few minutes and stared out, willing logic to re-enter her life. 

Things kept occurring to her and she couldn’t help but ask. She was no good at allowing mystery to exist when the answers could be there for the taking.

“How did you get onto a ship, though? In one of our tanks? I heard you say you’d made a mistake. Don’t you just swim to the surface of the water?”

Ward nodded. “I banged me head. Forgot about that.” He gazed around, as if he’d already forgotten about it again. “Thing is, right, I’m not that good at swimming. We can do this thing, we can get through solids if we go sideways and aim for corners. We were told to go for a little boat and hide under a bench and it’d all be fine, but truth be told it’s our first time up here and it’s a bit weird, isn’t it? Shapes and stuff. Me big brother goes to get it all usually but they decided to make me go and I dragged Fracas along. Anyway, so I measured it wrong and here we are.”

Fracas looked at the clock on the wall. “We should be getting on. Or at least work out how you can help us. What did you say your name was, dear?”

“Lily. What is it you’re supposed to be getting?” She wasn’t ready yet to rejoin them on the floor. She was exhausted by all this new information. Suddenly she really needed to sleep.

“Oh! You’re tired,” the little red woman said, reading her mind, or possibly just interpreting the three enormous yawns Lily had let out. Fracas stood and took Ward’s hand. “We’ll return in the morning. OK if we go in here?” And they opened her wardrobe door and disappeared.

Lily was taken aback. She had assumed that they were in a hurry, from the clock watching and the talk of disappearing for another four years. Perhaps they had all year and not just the extra day? Whatever the reason for their sudden departure, she was grateful. She yawned her head off for a few more minutes and crept into her bed to try to sleep off the weirdness.

The next morning, Lily awoke with jabbing pains in her face. She looked around to see Ward and Fracas standing to attention by the side of the bed, Ward trying to hide a long piece of metal behind his back. Everything came flooding back to her. “Er...morning.”

“Bright and early!” Fracas sang, pointing at the clock. 06:03. Oh joy.

“Today is a brand new day, lots to get done,” said Ward, still eating currants, this time using his metal stick as a sort of chopstick.

“Or rather, today is the same day as yesterday,” Fracas corrected him. “I mean, it’s a different day, but it’s the same date.”

“Not a date you can eat, sadly,” added Ward, frowning into his neverending fruit bowl. “But still, a gift. A whole extra yesterday to do things we didn’t do... yesterday.”

The way he said ‘yesterday’ reminded Lily of her granddad. Her head buzzed with confusion and she sat up to try to make sense of it. “What are you both on about?”

“The International Date Line, dear!” Fracas continued singing. “We joined on the right side of it, that is, the proper side, so that if we didn’t get finished, we’d just go back to yesterday morning when we crossed it and we could have 29th February all over again! Easy peasy. Now, we do need to do some things today, dear, so if you could refrain from sleeping for a while that’d be lovely."

Lily got out of bed and shooed them back into the cupboard while she dressed. She wasn’t due to go on watch until 8, so she would listen to what they needed and figure out where to go from there. Sugar, she needed sugar to be awake this early. She remembered a bar of chocolate she had put in her fridge a couple of weeks ago and never got round to eating. She ripped it open and sat on the edge of her bed.

Ward stepped out of the cupboard uninvited. “So, I wanted to get some kind of trinket for me little sister, some normal world thing, but then it probably wouldn’t fit at home,” he began conversationally. “Plus we do have an actual job, like, getting stuff that we properly need.”

It felt like the millionth time she’d asked this. “So what do you need?”

“Have you ever heard of a Deviation Dolphin, dear?” said Fracas, stepping lightly out of the cupboard and sitting right next to Lily.

“Yeah, it’s a bunch of posts, you turn the ship around them to find out the deviation of its magnetic compass,” she said. She’d found the entry in a chart guide and was quite proud of herself for remembering.

Fracas frowned. “No, Lily. It’s a hybrid whale and dolphin. Real whale and dolphin, I mean, not those pretend whales you have. Someone told my uncle about wolphins last year – have you ever seen one? - but orcas are technically dolphins too, y’know. Really gets my goat when people can’t be accurate. It just doesn’t make sense. You can’t mate two kinds of dolphin and then pretend it’s got a bit of whale in it.”

The exhaustion Lily had felt last night came drifting back. Would anything about these two make sense? “So a Deviation Dolphin is a whale crossed with a dolphin. What about it?”

“We’ve got to get them their food,” explained Ward. “They never wanted humans to know about them, the dolphins didn’t I mean, so they asked us to look after them. They can’t breed any more, obviously, being crossed species, so when the dolphin gives birth – the dolphins are usually the mums, what with them being sluts and all, and the whale dads, well they just take whatever they’re offered – when the dolphin gives birth, we whip the babies away down with us and just make sure they have a nice time of it until they die. But that means we have to feed them and keep four years’ worth of food at a time. So we’re here to get it.” He beamed, proud of being able to offer some useful information.

Lily was stuck on his first point. “You talk to dolphins?”
Ward nodded. “They talk to us, is more like it. All you can do is agree with ‘em. They say they talk to you too but you just bloody ignore them all, which is a bit rude given how much money they make you. That’s what they reckon, anyway.”

The three of them had absentmindedly started eating currants again. Lily had never noticed the bowl appear, it was always just there on the floor. “So what do these Deviation Dolphins eat?”

Fracas crossed her hands over her knees. “Well,” she started slowly. “Being hybrids they have some odd habits. They drink coffee, for one thing, but only Kona coffee. Sometimes Blue Mountain but they’re ever so fussy. Back when we first started seeing them, an old ancestor of ours gave them instant coffee. They vomited up their insides and the ancestor had to sit in their guts for the next four years. So the legend goes, anyway.

“They’re also big fans of beluga caviar. Don’t judge; they can’t help themselves. They’re not even supposed to exist so a slight cannibalism is tolerable, we think. They’re very beautiful creatures. And really, it does make the job of the food collectors very easy. Coffee is one side of the date line, caviar on the other. A quick hop and a jump and we’re pretty much done. Or should be, if we weren’t currently on our way to San Fran Bloody Cisco.” With this she glared at Ward, but couldn’t prevent herself from bursting into further sunny giggles.

Lily thought for a few minutes. “Well we’re supposed to go to Jamaica after San Francisco, so we could get Blue Mountain. Of course, that’s a couple of weeks away. Other than that I have no idea how to help you.” She shrugged, sad that she couldn’t instantly provide an answer.

“Don’t you worry, love,” said Ward, patting her on the knee. “Not your fault. It were my mistake. We can sort out the food. I think,” and here he looked to Fracas for confirmation, “that one of us should pop off and get it, as that’s the easy bit after all. Then meet back here and go home. Oh, we need to remember to get the Deviation Dolphins on the way back too. Can’t let humans see ‘em. They’re too beautiful for your eyes to handle,” he explained to Lily. Obviously, there is no greater temptation to a human than the forbidden, so Lily was not too impressed by this.

Fracas stood up and clapped her hands, as if to rally her troops. Needless to say, her troops consisted of Ward, who was eating currants and rubbing his nose, and Lily, who had gone off into a daydream about seeing the most beautiful creatures on earth (in earth, technically?), so the clapping did nothing other than make her feel more organised.

“OK. I shall stay here and try to find a chart to figure out how we get home. Ward, since you find it so easy,” she said, sticking her tongue out, “you can go and get the coffee and caviar. Remember to do it the proper way round so you don’t end up in March! You need to come back here on the 29th otherwise we’ll be stuck here for four years. I’m barely even handling a day and I haven’t had a date in hours. So hurry. Go now.”

Ward immediately stood up and headed for the corner of the cabin. There he turned sideways until he was a thin black rod, then completely vanished, leaving Fracas and Lily alone.

Lily turned to the tiny Intercalary. “So how beautiful exactly are these dolphins? Can you tell me about them? Are you sure I can’t see one even for a minute?”

Fracas laughed. “I don’t know what would happen. All I know is that humans aren’t supposed to see them, it’d be dangerous. To be honest I am not the most qualified person to answer, I’ve never met a human before you. But Deviation Dolphins are the shiniest, smoothest, prettiest things I’ve ever seen. I could gaze at them for hours. Not while they’re eating, they’re a bit revolting then. Ever seen a dolphin or a whale try to drink coffee? They’re not made for it. Don’t know why they like it so much, seems unnatural. Mind you I suppose the whole thing is unnatural, isn’t it?” She looked at Lily’s digital camera, resting on the table. 
“What’s that, dear?”

Lily picked it up and switched it on. “It’s a camera. These are pictures I’ve taken on my trip so far. Look, there are a few different ports there, from Africa up to Japan, and only a couple on this bit since Japan because it’s just been ocean, mainly.” She showed Fracas the arrow button and handed her the camera, which looked enormous and clunky in her fragile hands.

“I’m going for breakfast. Have a look through the pictures if you like and I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. Do you want me to bring you anything?” Fracas shook her head, indicating the mountain of currants in front of her, and Lily escaped the cabin to try to gain some perspective down in the mess.

She sat with a bowl of cereal at 07:15. What a weird day. She had just about got her head around what the Intercalaries had been saying – not that it made sense, but she could at least remember it all – and then coming away from them into an all-human area, it seemed like a dream. Could she have made it up? She looked around her. Everything looked entirely normal. Other people’s faces were normal. She tried to imagine Fracas and Ward sitting next to her and it didn’t fit. Well, of course it didn’t fit; they weren’t from this world, or at least not the main part of it. But it was too fantastical to believe when it wasn’t right in front of her. Was the best thing to stay away for a while and see if it felt more real, or to go straight back to her cabin, see Fracas and understand it all again?

She finished her breakfast and decided that the only thing she could do was get on with her life as if nothing unusual was happening, so she went back to her cabin to prepare for a normal day of work. Fracas was still sitting with the camera. She looked up when Lily entered. “Lily, what’s noil?” she asked.

Lily took the camera to see what she was talking about. Fracas had found a picture from Mauritius, a group of oversized cylindrical tanks with “INDIANOIL” printed on them in huge letters. She explained Fracas’s mistake.

“Huh. Shame. I quite like the word noil. If I have a child I may name it Noil.”

Lily was curious about something. “Fracas, if you don’t mind me asking, how old are you? Only it’s quite hard to tell, you don’t have any of the human signs of aging...”

Fracas thought for a moment. “I’m not sure. A hundred and twenty? In your years, that is. You have to remember that during the years we aren’t here, we don’t age. It’s like a vacuum down there; nothing moves, nothing changes. During the few months before and after February 29th, though, our shapes change a little, in preparation for going up or down, so we age then, a little bit. Maybe in terms of how much my body has aged, around twenty.  I can’t say we keep count like you lot seem to, though.”

Lily nodded, trying to work it all out. “So you were here, in our time, a hundred and twenty years ago? I mean, not here, but alive? That’s mad. Was the date line the same back then?”

“Well,” Fracas frowned. “I think so. I mean, it’s a human thing, isn’t it? We just call it by your name. I don’t even understand why you call it a leap year. Makes it sound like you’re missing something out, jumping over it. But you’ve added a day. Should be more of a shuffle year. Takes longer, adds steps. You know? But the line’s always been there, theoretically. Soon as they figured out a proper calendar, I suppose. I can’t remember when they started growing dates on it. A couple of times my dad was confused when he came up because you’d moved countries about, or moved the line about, either way something was where it wasn’t before. But only little stuff, it’s never harmed us.”

It was time for the work day to start, so after making sure Fracas wouldn’t get bored (“I can manage four years squashed up in a dark ocean, so your cabin for a day will do me nicely”) Lily set off to the bridge.

When she returned from her afternoon deck duties, Ward had turned up once more. He clutched a bag of packets and jars. It surprised Lily how domesticated it seemed; he had just gone to buy some coffee and caviar, like any normal person with a startlingly limited diet, but she had expected some kind of otherworldly storage facility or method of transportation. She enquired as to how they were to move the goods down with them, when they went.

“Ooh that’s a point, we need to go soon,” said Fracas, looking up at the clock. It was late afternoon. “But in answer to your question, if it’s within the confines of our clothing, it becomes part of us for the manoeuvring process. It’s this adaptable stuff, you see...” she stretched out the fabric from her arm. “Basically it’s this that allows us to become kind of flat. That’s why our faces are like straight lines but our bodies are more like yours – our faces are the only bits without the fabric covering them. Again, just evolution. We’ve had a long time. Maybe we’ll wear masks in the future and our heads will reshape.”

With that, the two of them stood up. Lily frowned. She hadn’t had nearly enough time to find out about these weird people – it didn’t seem right that they were already leaving. There was one thing she couldn’t help but ask. “Look, if I somehow manage to sort out the rescue boat, can I drive you to where you pick up the dolphins? I really really really want to see one,” she pleaded.

Fracas looked grave for the first time. “Lily, if we were to let you do that it would be incredibly irresponsible, and like I said, dangerous for you. I don’t even know what would happen to you but the strict rules are there for a purpose; it must be something pretty bad.”

“That boat sounds good, though,” offered Ward.

“OK,” Lily jumped in quickly. “How about I drive you to the spot, just so you’re in the right place, and I’ll promise to shut my eyes tight if there’s a chance I might see one? I want to do you a favour, you’ve come so far the wrong way it seems a shame not to use the boat we’ve got. I’ll probably get in trouble but it’s exciting, it’d be worth it. I’ve been wanting to get my hands on that boat since I joined the ship! It looks really fun!”

Fracas laughed at her sudden excitement after a whole day of doubt and confusion. “Well, now, you’ve offered us a favour, and it would be impolite to refuse our host. You’ve been so lovely. But do you promise not to tell anyone, even if you get in trouble and they demand an explanation?”

Lily nodded solemnly. “I do promise.” Her brain was whirring. There was not a chance she would avert her eyes if she had a chance to see the most beautiful creature on earth, especially if it was only on earth for one day every four years. These weird little people must know that. But if they didn’t, they didn’t need to.

The three (two of them in the most invisible way possible) made their way up to the deck where the rescue boat sat, or rather, hung. Lily spent a while working her way around the ropes and the davit, ensuring she’d be able to manage it all by herself, then told Ward and Fracas to get in and put everything in place. Carefully she used the remote control to swing the boat out above the water, then inched them down, very very slowly, and thanking her lucky stars that someone had closed the blinds in the mess on the deck below, until they were in the ocean. Lily had only ever been in the boat during a drill while they were alongside, and she was surprised by how much drag there was. She quickly unlocked the ropes holding them to the boat, started the engine, and made her way back towards the International Date Line to drop off her new friends.

She couldn’t help but look back to see if anyone was at the stern watching her fly away, but couldn’t see anyone. “You’ve been such a help, dear,” Fracas said as she and Ward reappeared. “I didn’t really think humans would be so nice. Apparently you’re ruining the earth, which doesn’t seem very nice. You’d never ruin the earth, would you?”

“No, I’d never ruin the earth,” Lily agreed, deciding not to mention all the CO2 her massive ship emitted with each voyage. The three of them were silent after that, watching the ocean go past, until eventually Ward stood up. The wind knocked him down again, but it had woken them all from their quiet thoughts.

“It’s here! I can smell ‘em,” he announced. Lily assumed he meant the Deviation Dolphins, although she couldn’t smell anything other than the salt water. She stopped the engine and waited for further instruction.

Fracas put the bag under her pale green jumper and turned to Lily. “Now, dear, the baby dolphins will leap up and try not to be caught. It will only be a couple of minutes so I have to ask you just to look away, back towards your ship, until five minutes has passed. These are the instructions we were given and it isn’t my choice but something might happen so please do it. I don’t want you to be hurt after you’ve helped us so much.”

She nodded and they said their goodbyes. Lily was determined to write about this when she got back to her cabin. If she wasn’t immediately made to walk the plank for stealing the rescue boat, that is.

Then they jumped, turned sideways, and disappeared below the tiny waves. Lily held her breath. She was not going to look away. She wondered what would happen to her. Would she die? Don’t be so daft, she told herself. If the reason humans couldn’t look at Deviation Dolphins was their beauty, it could only amount to something like Stendhal's Syndrome. She might faint, she supposed.

There was a dark ripple, then two. Soon the little segment of ocean in front of her was full of black marks under the surface.  Eventually one of them broke free and leapt over the waves.

It was beautiful, like they’d said. It was shiny and compact and a dark gunmetal colour. It had enormous eyes and a little smile and it looked right at Lily as it went back under the water. She gasped; an instinctive reaction. Then more came. Her line of vision was suddenly filled with the most beautiful creatures on the planet and she couldn’t look away. They were truly tiny; half a metre long at the most. They must have just been born. Their flesh looked as if it had a marbled texture and Lily longed to touch it.

As she continued to stare, she stretched out her hand towards them, then grabbed it back as she saw how it looked. It was turning a dark red. She pulled it closer to her face and saw a purple blotch begin to form next to her knuckles. Suddenly she knew exactly what the bad thing that might happen to her was, and she gave herself up to it. Her clothes faded into pale green, and with one last glance at the Deviation Dolphins, she turned herself sideways and slipped over the edge of the boat into the water, down to where the Intercalaries lived.