On the Surface

by James L. Steele

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1.

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The stage had no curtain, rather used lighting to hide the performers from view. Right now the stage lights were dimmed to zero, and the house lights were fully lit so the land-dwellers could find their seats.

Far above the stage, Aro stood on the catwalk, leaning on the railing as he watched the audience. The usual crowd of coastline people—otters, canines, rodents, gators. The tourists stood out among them: the reptiles, the coyotes, the red foxes, the wolves, cougars and bears. Then there were the foreigners: the tigers and kangaroos to name a couple. Even after ten years Aro still couldn’t tell them apart. No one on the stage could. Everyone was equally alien, and Aro was keenly aware they thought the same of him.

This show was designed to combat that. A way to end the mystery. By presenting his world on stage for everyone to see, it would be that much less alien to everyone. He especially enjoyed this vantage point. His people were used to seeing the land creatures from below. This was the only place in the world where the perspective was reversed.

Aro and his fellow creatures leaned on the rail or held on to ropes, looking down on the creatures of fur, scale and feather. An ocean of alien life to the three dozen watching from the catwalk.

The crowd murmured amongst itself before the show. He’d come to view the audience as a school of fish: no real leader, but identical in behavior. Even though different people made up the audience every night, they reacted the same to everything on stage. They cheered and clapped at the same time, got up, sat down and breathed as one. Fish. Thinking of them like this helped Aro deal with their alien stares. He shared this technique with everyone who joined the show, and it helped them adjust.

The house lights dimmed. As a single creature, the audience quieted down. The performers took position at the gaps in the railing and raised their heads. Now it was time to forget the audience and concentrate on the performance.

The entire theater was dark for a few moments. Then the stage lights brightened from both above and below. Like a school of fish, the audience gasped in awe at what was before them.

There was no stage.

Suspended in midair over where the platform of a theater stage should have been was an enormous sphere of water, and below it was a crystal clear pool.

The audience murmured and chittered at the sight. Aro caught the usual reactions: “impossible,” “how in the,” “that’s gotta be a trick,” “projection or something.” Aro smiled. They were always awed by the first image of the show, and the rest would only be better. Aro waited for the music to start. He counted beats, waited for the right bar and dove into the sphere. As soon as his body touched the water, he was home.

On land, Aro’s motions had to be carefully premeditated. In the water, he could move freely. He folded his arms down at his sides and righted himself. His tail stabilized him and he floated in the middle of the sphere, legs together, arms at his side, surrounding water absorbing the muffled sounds of an audience in absolute awe, again. For most of them, it was their first time seeing an orca, let alone one like Aro.

A rare sight even among his own people, he was 600 pounds of solid muscle. He could bench press twice that much, squat three times, and easily curl half. He wore no clothes, but he had nothing to hide, unlike the land-dwellers. As part of the show, the audience was given a few moments to absorb his presence. He kept a stoic, dignified expression as he floated before them.

Then the other performers dove in. Dolphins, humpbacks, sharks, and even a few eels. They swam into position all around the sphere and hovered in place to let the audience absorb the sight of each performer. The audience orgasmed. Aro often wondered how they even survived being taken aback three times in less than a minute.

Creatures of the ocean tended to be massive. Nobody in the show was under 300 pounds. Each of them was quite capable of lifting one’s own body weight. They were huge compared even to the largest land-dweller, but their bodies were still streamlined to glide through the water.

The entire cast was painted in their tribal colors, using the same dyes and pigments they themselves used in their homewaters. The dolphins were painted in green swirls. The sharks each had their own patterns—the great white had orange dots sprinkling his scales, the coral shark had deep purple crisscrossing his natural brown spots. Aro, the only orca in the show, was painted red between his black swatches.

The music cued them. The performers pivoted in place and began swimming around Aro. As they did, water stretched from the pool below. Like taffy, it rose halfway up the height of the giant central sphere. It pulled away from the pool, wobbled and collected into a perfect, hovering sphere.

The dolphins reached a point in their loop and dove out of the main sphere, arcing gracefully through the air and slipping into the smaller one. They swam in formation through it.

Meanwhile another sphere had been rising on the other side. It separated from the pool and collected itself into a second companion hovering at the same height as the large globe. The sharks leaped into it.

Two more rose from the pool and stopped above, just behind the large globe. The eels leaped into one and the humpbacks into the other. Aro floated alone in the center.

The performers in each sphere swam in choreographed loops and twirls. Aro waited for his cue, then he glided through the water of the central sphere. His tail propelled him, his legs controlled his speed and rotation, his arms steered him. He swam in large circles, building up momentum. Then he leaped through the empty air and slipped into the shark’s sphere. He curled up and glided through their formations. Aro looked like the erratic comet swirling around an orderly solar system, changing pitch and angle with every orbit, picking up impossible speed in such a small space and yet never touching a single shark.

On cue, he leaped straight up through the empty air into the eel’s sphere and swam through their synchronized water dance as the music picked up. Aro leaped through the humpback’s sphere, then finally into the dolphin’s.

After building up momentum he leaped through the air, straight towards the audience and into the large globe. He didn’t bend his path around to stay within it—he kept swimming towards the audience.

The audience gasped as the orca flew towards them. At first he appeared to splash out of the globe and land on someone, but the sphere of water had stretched with him. It spread out into a sheet, a two-dimensional ocean hovering in midair over the audience. Aro swam into this sheet, over the audience’s heads. They gazed up at him, children pointed, adults stared with open mouths.

While the audience had been distracted watching the massive orca somehow swimming over their heads, the other spheres merged with the sheet, and the performers glided through the ocean. The dolphins swam in formation upside down, giving the audience the illusion of viewing them from above. The sharks swam with their fins hanging down over the audience. Some of the taller ones had to lean down to keep the fins from hitting their heads.

Gradually the ocean receded to the stage and formed a single globe over the pool. The dolphins gathered on one side of the sphere. The sharks on the other.

The choreographed opening was over. Now began the silent play. This was the element of the show that changed from quarter to quarter and kept the performers from getting bored with routine.

This quarter’s play was a reenactment of the war between the sharks and the dolphins. Aro, the eels and the humpbacks had discreetly left the stage. Most waited in the pool below for their cue. Aro had swum up to the top and waited on the catwalk, watching the audience from his usual place.

It was his quarter off from this part of the show. He had performed in all three segments last quarter and was glad for a chance to relax for part of the night again. It gave him time to observe the aliens below.

He was always curious to see their reactions to the play. Aro himself had it memorized, and he’d watched audiences watch the play a dozen times by now, so he knew what their reaction was before they ever made it. Fish were predictable. Land-dwellers in groups were no different.

One person in the audience caught his eye. Aro strained his eyes to see him through the darkness. He recognized the species only from photographs and books: lion. The first lion he had ever seen in his fifteen years on land.

The play was to the point of the battle itself. Every performer had small packets of a red substance hidden under their body paint. When struck, the packet broke and a trail of something that resembled blood poured out. But unlike real blood, it didn’t dissipate. It stuck together and formed majestic strands in the water that swirled with the sphere’s rotation. Aro wished real blood behaved so poetically.

He had raised objection to the romanticizing of this war while the segment was still in the planning stage, but the producers insisted it was just for the show. The story behind it would be well-known. Aro was skeptical until he saw the audience’s reaction. To the land-dwellers, Aro’s ordinary, everyday life was fascinating and poetic. It made him feel special.

The lion’s reaction to the poetic blood was even more pronounced than the audience’s. One of the performers let herself fall out of the sphere and into the pool below in theatrical death.

The lion cried.

Aro squinted, trying to get a better look at him. The rest of the audience was watching with calm detachment. But not this creature. Aro had never seen anyone so absorbed in the show before.

The sphere was full of strands of poetic blood as the final two combatants swam and parried each other. The lion was the most attentive in the audience. Aro wanted to see his reaction to the finale, but he had to be ready for his cue. As the show’s star, he was part of every closing performance, at least. Aro took his place above.

In the battle, the sharks won, and the last dolphin performer poetically fell to his death in the pool below. The last shark swam to the foreground and posed victoriously before the audience. In the silence, the blood swirled around.

This was true. The sharks had won but had destroyed the territory they fought over and had to abandon it anyway. That was the reason Aro put on these silent plays. They may romanticize the battles, but the poignant endings were always preserved. The shark swam alone in the empty sphere with the blood for a minute. Then he himself fell to his death in the pool below, leaving an empty globe behind for a few beats.

The stage lights dimmed. The audience stood and applauded.

The UV lights switched on. The blood changed from red to blue. The sphere expanded into a sheet and flattened out like a tidal wave over the audience’s heads. Visually, it symbolized that out of the horrors of war came something wonderful. Mutual understanding and peace. The audience took their seats and looked up in awe.

The lion gasped and sank deeper into his seat. That wasn’t just a typical fish-gasp of amazement. The lion was enamored. Among an entire school of fish, this lion stood out in every possible way. Aro pondered it, almost missing his cue. He put it away and dove into the flat ocean. The other performers swam up, meeting in the middle.

The suspended ocean was low enough for the performers to reach down and touch the audience. Aro was always first to begin. He held his hand down to a wolf cub in a seat. The cub cautiously took the hand. Aro gave it a gentle squeeze and swam on as the music sped up. The other performers did the same to as many people as they could. It was tricky because they had to stay somewhat in formation to maintain their place in the choreography, but there was some room for variation.

To the people in the seats, it was like reaching down into the water and touching a new world. Aro figured it was what gave this theater worldwide fame. No other place in the world allowed land-dwellers to touch another culture like this.

Aro glanced from side to side, looking for the lion. Alas he was on the other side of the theater; no way Aro could reach him from here. Too many ocean-dwellers were in his way, and if he broke formation, he could cause performers to fall out of the water and onto the audience.

When the music reached a certain pitch, the performers withdrew their hands and crisscrossed through the sheet back to the stage. They jumped above, dove back in and never touched each other or fell through to the seats. The cheers and awe-inspired shouts were their reward.

Gradually the performers returned to the stage, the sheet receding with them and reforming into a sphere. They swam around for the finale. The UV lighting now highlighted their body paint, making them look alien even to the performers’ eyes.

The ocean-dwellers stopped and floated in exactly the same positions in which they had begun the show. The music stopped. The audience jumped to their paws, hooves and claws, and applauded.

As one, the other performers did a loop, their own variation of a theatrical bow, and swam either above or below offstage. Aro was alone in the sphere for a few moments. Then he performed a theatrical bow in water, twirled around and swam up. The sphere lowered into the pool, and the stage went dark. The applause lasted another five minutes. Aro leaned on the railing and watched the lion.

His mouth was agape at the spectacle, and he was panting. This wasn’t an uncommon reaction, but in the lion’s case there seemed to be something more authentic about it. Perhaps he had come from some faraway land and never even knew there were people who lived their whole lives in the ocean. The show would be much more intense to someone like him.

The audience filed out. Aro watched until the lion left, then he walked across the catwalk and down the stairs to the performer’s lounge.

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2.

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Aro’s room was on the top floor of the hotel adjacent to the theater. It had been custom remodeled just for him like every suite for the performers. Most everything a land-dweller would want in a room was removed—the bedroom, the minibar, most of the bathroom, and so on. Instead, ninety percent of the floor space had been converted into a pool.

Made of transparent resin, Aro’s pool was built right up against the exterior wall. The windows overlooking the city had been reconstructed to extend below the floor level. This gave Aro a bird’s-eye window-view of the city even from the bottom of the pool. It was a view he had specifically requested.

The remaining ten percent of the suite was furnished with a couch, loveseat, tables and chairs facing a television. Aro occasionally watched TV but seldom used the furniture. These things were for the land-dweller visitors.

Aro’s was one suite of about thirty to be remodeled in this way. He had his own suite, and so did each of the sharks and the eels and the humpbacks. The dolphins, however, had a suite together—three hotel rooms joined into a single unit.

Aro swam along the bottom of his pool now. The salty water was warm, constantly filtered and as pure as it could be. That was another thing he requested, as soon as he found out it was possible. It turned out to be the easiest thing for the land-dwellers to accommodate, which, fifteen years ago, was nothing short of magic.

Heated water, free of debris and all impurity, was the ocean-dweller’s equivalent of finding the land of milk and honey. Countless stories of vain attempts to find this paradise were passed down from generation to generation. Nobody once put forth the idea that it would exist on dry land.

Among the ocean people, “luxury” was a concept that didn’t exist. Everyone in the sea was the same. The mobility water permitted meant there was no way for one group of people to separate themselves from another group. Kings and queens were the same as paupers and generals. To have heated pools filled with filtered water, air always in easy reach, separated from everyone but a privileged few was luxury in every sense of the concept. It was as unfathomable to an ocean-dweller as sleeping in the clouds, and yet here he was.

Aro floated gently to the surface and rested on his back. The show always took a lot out of him, and coming back to this pool of filtered water was the only reward he needed. About an hour after the show concluded there was a knock on the door.

“It’s open,” Aro shouted.

In walked a spindly lapine wearing usual business attire. Aro raised his head from the pool and welcomed him.

The Cast Assistant carefully stepped around the pool, turned a chair to face the orca and sat down. He opened the tiny computer on his lap and ran down Aro’s messages. The orca turned over and swam casually around and through the pool.

Aro didn’t know how to use a computer. He couldn’t even read, but he didn’t have to; Olis was hired to take care of these matters for him. His assistant read him official communiqués from award ceremonies, royal banquets, celebrity events and the like.

Aro listened with casual interest. They were the usual invitations to visit faraway places. Just last month he had taken a trip out west to visit the film studios and meet some of those performers. He was in negotiations for getting the cast involved in motion pictures. Aro was thrilled at the idea of a film adaptation of the stage show. Finally a chance to put every element of the show together and present it to everyone who couldn’t see it in person.

It was a lot to arrange; transporting the cast over long distances was no easy task. Trucks had to be equipped with pools and water systems. As of now there were only two such trucks available, and Aro was usually the only one who traveled, as he had been told it was too expensive to transport everyone.

That’s what the negotiations were about now, and it was the message Olis was reading. The theater’s producers were trying to convince the film studio to split the massive cost of transportation and housing. The film studio’s counter-counter-proposal was to pay for one truck, one room, and the entire cast would simply be housed in one of the community pools.

Aro did a loop through the water, considered it below the surface for a minute, then came up and said, “I don’t like that. It’s not wise to keep sharks in crowded places for too long. Dolphins can get away with it, but sharks get agitated.”

Olis typed as Aro spoke about the generations of war between sharks and dolphins, and between orcas and sharks. Right now it was only the show that kept them together in peace—they’re in this for a common good—but if cooped up together for too long, old rivalries would bubble up again.

Olis finished typing almost as soon as Aro finished speaking. He nodded and continued on down the list of messages. Aro agreed to a few other public appearances, other invitations to meet various kings and queens and presidents across the world. As usual, he would go alone and speak for the group.

It was amazing. Countless opportunities laid out before him. All he had to do was say yes, and they happened. Easy transport over vast distances to meet powerful people who wanted to meet him.

When he had answered everyone, Olis closed the computer and said goodnight. Aro wished him goodnight as well. The rabbit walked out and closed the door behind him. He didn’t bother locking it.

Aro folded his hands behind his head and floated between the surface and the pool’s resin bottom. He rolled over to his side and gazed out the window at the city. An endless nighttime vista of lights greeted him. He never tired of it.

Since Aro left the ocean fifteen years ago, every land-dweller lifted him up on a pedestal and marveled at him. In the ocean, he was just an orca. Unable to change or influence anything. None of this would have happened in his homewaters, and he was thrilled for the chance to reach as many land-dwellers as possible and tell them about his people. It was working better than he had ever hoped.

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3.

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The lion was in the audience for the next night’s show. And the next. And the next. For five straight performances Aro watched him from the top of the stage as he took his seat every night. Most people only came to this theater once. Tickets were too expensive just to buy on a whim; this show was something people planned ahead for months to see.

It wouldn’t have been so unusual if he had more people with him each time. It wasn’t uncommon for people to bring a friend or family member to see the show the next night. That was the usual reason anyone saw the show more than once, but the lion was alone. Night after night he found his seat by himself. No one shared his awe and fascination during the performance. No one joined his side as he filed out of the theater.

Aro watched him closer during the performances. After the play, the lion leaned out of his seat and gazed up at the ocean above. One of the sharks happened to swim over his seat, and she reached down and held a hand out to him. The lion eagerly reached up and took the hand. He grasped it hard, she would later tell Aro, like he was trying to pull himself up into the ocean. When she swam away, the lion turned around in his seat and watched her go. He turned around, watching everyone at once, following every performer.

He did this on the third and the fourth nights as well, more and more in awe every time he saw it. Aro wanted to arrange it so he could shake the lion’s hand, but the lion’s seats were always too far away from Aro’s reach. The blocking was ironclad. Any deviation from it would be disaster.

While standing offstage during the silent play on the fourth night, Aro wondered if this lion really was from that distant continent whose name escaped him. He remembered it lay in waters that were foreign even to Aro. What must the world be like over there for him to be so fascinated by ocean-dwellers?

On the fifth night Aro found the lion in the audience again, and as usual he was not in a seat under Aro’s path. The lion watched the silent play intently, hanging on the performers’ every action.

Aro had met kings and queens, dictators and presidents, celebrities and authority, but never in his fifteen years on land had he seen this kind of reaction from those land-dwellers. It was special. The first audience member to be truly touched by the ocean-dweller’s everyday, ordinary life. The first real sign that people were getting the message. Aro wanted to thank him, but not in the same way he thanked the rest of the fish. He wanted the lion to know what it meant to him.

The finale ran like clockwork, and as soon as he was out of the sphere, Aro clumsily ran across the catwalk, down the steps and through the door to the lounge. He quickly dove into the pool, swam around and wiped the UV blood off his hide. He leaped out, grabbed a towel and dried himself off.

Aro was used to this, though he couldn’t understand the value of being dry. The theater and hotel staff balked at the performers whenever they walked around wet. Or naked.

Aro didn’t see the point in clothes either. He had nothing to hide, no offensive parts to flash anybody with, but he and the other performers were instructed that when they went out in public, they must be dry and clothed.

As dry as he could be, Aro threw on the shirt and shorts he had stashed behind a trash can before tonight’s performance. He walked out of the lounge, through the office area and out the far door.

The people in the hall were just exiting the theater. When an enormous orca stepped out the employee’s only door, they were even more stunned than during the performance. Aro smiled as best he could and offered a hand. A crowd gathered immediately.

Their producers didn’t discourage unplanned appearances between shows, but it was seldom done. Aro himself hadn’t done it in two years; things had become so busy he didn’t have time to go out and meet everybody.

He had been warned that it could ruin the magic, seeing an ocean-dweller on land. Aro could appreciate that. As graceful as he was in the water, on land he was just a big klutz. His muscles were invaluable for twisting and looping through the currents and fending off predators from all angles. On land, they tended to grind against each other and get in the way. If this were seen, it could damage the show’s reputation.

Connecting with the audience like this could help the show, so the producers didn’t mind the occasional surprise meet-and-greet as long as they refrained from any activity that would make them look graceless.

But the main reason it was a rare occurrence was ocean people spoke in an ultrasonic vocal range. Most of the performers couldn’t speak the land-dweller’s languages. Aro was one of only three who could. He was not only the star performer but the primary translator between the choreographers, directors and producers, and everyone else on land who had to be part of their lives. It had taken four years for Aro to reach this point. Most of the others were just starting.

The crowd filed out of the theater and congealed around Aro. The orca towered three feet above them and shook hands.

“Absolutely love the show!”

“You guys are beautiful up—”

“How do you get the water to do that?!”

“Oh, I know, right—”

“—amaz—”

“—takes my breath away!”

Aro laughed a little. “Thank you, thank you for coming. I’m glad the show thrilled you, but I’m not allowed to talk about the water effects. Trade secret.”

“—it true all of you got cut off in some lake that dried up and now you’re trapped here?”

“I heard that, too!”

“Everyone’s sayin’ it—”

“—how did you—”

“No, it’s not true. Fifteen years ago I decided to venture onto dry land. As a youth I’d heard rumors of people who live their lives above the surface, and I wanted to find out if they were true. I found a whole civilization of billions right above our heads. I was always told if I showed myself I’d be killed, but I didn’t believe it. Communication was difficult for a while, but there had been other sea people who’d made the same leap I did years earlier. They had already figured out how to communicate with my kind, to an extent. I gave my story, wanted to know as much about the land as I could. About ten years ago someone approached me with the idea for this stage show as a means to tell the world who we are. The others joined the show pretty much for the same reasons. They’d heard the rumors and wanted to find out for themselves.”

Aro always marveled at how everyone quieted down and listened whenever he spoke. The fish murmured, tittered amongst themselves.

“How much can you bench?” someone said.

“I heard you can lift a car; is that tr—?”

“—is it just for the show?”

Aro smiled charismatically. “We exercise to maintain it now, but in the open water, we get like this just swimming against the currents and fighting off predators.”

“What’s the blood made of?”

“—trade secret, too?”

“Yes,” Aro said, shaking a few more hands. “It’s another secret. It’s similar to our body paint. We really do paint our bodies like this; it’s for tribal identification. I’m from the tribe of,” Aro made a few ultrasonic whistles. “It happens to glow in UV light. Sea dwellers’ eyes are sensitive to it, so it means a lot more to us.”

“What’s it made of?”

“—is it true it takes six hours to put it on?”

“How much do your makeup people get paid to put that stuff on?”

Aro sighed. Typical fish questions. They kept coming. Aro stopped giving historical and cultural details and focused on the rumor and the stage. It’s what the fish wanted to talk about, and if there was one thing he learned in the water it’s that you can’t steer a school of fish by yourself.

He found the lion in the crowd, listening eagerly, struggling to keep a position in the crowd. The lion stood a foot taller than everyone else. Aro’s eyes met the lion’s.

Aro smiled at him, leaned close. “I see you in the audience a lot lately.”

The lion was speechless for a few breaths. He’d been singled out; one of the performers had noticed him, and the lion had gone into fanboy lockup, no doubt. “It’s… Beautiful.”

Aro smiled. He leaned close to the lion’s ear and whispered. “Go back inside the theater. I’ll meet you there in twenty minutes.”

He straightened up and addressed the crowd. The lion stood there stunned. Aro made eye contact again and nodded, hoping that was the correct gesture for “you heard right, now go.”

The lion slowly turned and walked against the flow and into the theater again. Aro smiled and mingled with the audience for another ten minutes, answering more fish questions. Then Aro started to back away to the door. The fish objected as one, following him as he retreated.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I can hold my breath for an hour in the water, but I can only be out of it for a few hours at a time. My skin starts to dry out after just half an hour.”

The fish were disappointed in a very understanding way. Aro shook hands as he backed up to the employee’s only door. He punched in the code, slipped inside and shut the door behind him. He paused. Listened to the murmur on the other side.

The fish were comparing pictures they’d taken, showing each other videos. Others were telling their children how lucky they were to see the orca offstage. Aro caught his breath and smiled at his position. No one back in his homewaters would believe that on dry land, the fish chase you.

He lumbered down the hall and into the lounge. The other performers were in here already, lounging around, swimming along the bottom, imagining they were back in the open water and not in this tank.

Aro stripped off the clothes and plunged in the pool. Ultrasonic questions of why he’d gone out and met the people tonight of all nights filled his ears.

He told them he had to meet the lion.

The others still questioned why he should single this one out.

Aro replied that he had never seen someone so touched by the show before. It meant the show was working. It was removing the mystery—introducing the land nations to the world under the waves. Ten years of work, and it was finally starting to pay off. He didn’t want to let this lion slip through like the rest of the fish. He had to thank him personally.

Aro allowed himself only two minutes to recover, then he got out, dried himself off and slipped the clothes on again.

He didn’t climb the stairs to the catwalk, rather used one of the stagehand exits to the house. He grabbed the undersized handle gently and twisted it. The door opened inward, and he stepped into the empty theater. Sitting in the same seat from which he had watched tonight’s performance was the lion, all alone. Aro walked up the aisle and sat next to him.

Sitting was one of those inelegant actions ocean-dwellers were encouraged to avoid. His body was not made for it; his tail got in the way and his muscles bunched up like cement balloons. It just wasn’t part of an ocean-dweller’s life. But Aro wanted to meet the lion on his terms, so he risked looking like a clown.

“Wh… Hello,” said the lion.

“Hello to you.”

“Oh I can’t believe you were serious! I love the show! It’s really beautiful I can’t get enough. All of you are so wonderful and… And uh. Damn you’re even bigger in person. B—but why did you ask me to meet you here? I’m, um, mm…”

Aro understood the nerves. Everyone was nervous talking to someone as alien as an orca. One thing he learned was to prompt the other person to talk about himself.

“You never saw an ocean-dweller before?”

“Oh, no, no, never! Until this week I didn’t even know there were… Uh. So it’s true? It’s not just a show? There really are people who live their whole lives in the water?”

“Of course it’s true.”

“How… It blows my mind every time I think about it! Especially the water! Oh, please can’t you even give a hint on how you get it to do that?”

Aro chuckled. “No hints. They’d harpoon me if I uttered one word.”

The lion blinked. “They would…? Seriously, they’d—They’d do that?”

It caught Aro off guard. It was the number one question he got in interviews and normally people laughed when he told that joke. The press always did. Aro recovered quickly, smiled and patted the lion on the back.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding. But I still can’t say.”

“Oh, I understand, I’m sorry. It’s just… I can’t help but wonder if…”

Aro waited for him to finish. He didn’t. So he held out one hand. “I’m Aro. What’s your name?”

“Jhor,” said the lion, taking his hand. “And—and I gotta say it again—I absolutely love all of you. Just the idea of whole races of people living their whole lives underwater. I never imagined. There’s so much about the world I don’t know. I’m overwhelmed, and it’s an honor to meet one of you. B-but why did you want to meet me? You must see thousands of people every day!”

Aro released Jhor’s hand. “I’ve been watching you from offstage all week. I created this show to introduce the land-dwellers to my people, and it makes me so happy to see someone enjoy it as much as you have.”

“Oh it’s too fascinating to pass up! I can’t get my mind around it! Entire civilizations of people living in the water and we never knew about you until a few decades ago! It just doesn’t seem possible!”

“I’ve often thought about that myself. You see, ocean people are taught from a very early age to avoid the surface people. Venturing onto dry land is forbidden. Anyone who does will not be allowed to return, fearing they’ll lead land dwellers to the tribes to exterminate their enemies and claim more territory.”

“Really? Sounds pretty harsh.”

“It is harsh. That’s why I waited so long to do it. But I had to try. It amazes me that we haven’t made contact sooner. If I were to return now I’d be an outcast, and an orca without a pod is all but doomed to die.”

“Oh. So… you’re trapped here?”

“In a sense. But I’ve been lucky.”

“I’ll say! You’re world-famous! Hey, I’m sorry but I have to ask. Is it true you’re only 26 years old?”

“Actually, yes. We don’t age quite the same as people of the land.”

“And did you just happen to come up to the surface in Orlando, or did you come up somewhere else?”

“Believe it or not, this is where I came to the surface.”

“Why here? Of all the places you could’ve ended up, why here?”

“The rumors went that land people tended to gather where water was warm. I happened to choose this place. And you? How does a lion end up here? I thought lions only lived far away from here.”

“Oh, I’m attending school. I’m on holiday with some of my other classmates. We, uh, we won this contest for an expenses paid trip to Orlando.”

“Ah, that’s how you can afford five tickets,” said Aro. “And you chose to spend your evenings here night after night instead of the other attractions?”

“I offered the others to come see the show. A couple did, and they loved it. But they didn’t want to come see it again.”

“And yet you did.”

“It’s like a work of art! You can’t see it just once! How do you rehearse? How do you teach new people to swim in water so thin like that? Has anyone ever been injured?”

Aro was starting to feel dry. “Swimming in suspended water is an exotic experience, even for us. It takes a lot of getting used to. The theater shuts down for a couple weeks every quarter, and that’s when we prepare new segments. It’s rare we get any new performers though.”

“When was the last time you had one?”

“Two years ago. One of the eels was the last to join. He was actually an outcast from the ocean. Understand, his people are very strict about even going near the surface creatures. He went too close and was chased away. It’s very sad. The show is often a safe haven for the desperate

and—”

“Hey, there’s a rumor going around that you have someone in the wings! Is that true?”

“What do you mean wings?”

“A new performer in training. You’re saving him—or her for a big reveal soon. Are you?”

It was not true. Aro was about to state it directly, but he had a feeling he should withhold an answer.

“I’m afraid I can’t talk about that either. Another trade secret.”

The lion laughed. “Oh, I understand, sure. Sorry, since I’ve been seeing the show I’ve been talking to a lot of people about it. People say things. Hard to know what the truth is.”

“Is that so? You hear these things a lot?”

“It’s just a fraction of what I’ve heard in the last week! There’s a lot more! Hard to believe isn’t it? You’re famous all over the world and there are still so many questions!”

Aro didn’t respond. Jhor picked up the thought immediately.

“Like that play! For something without a word of dialogue, it’s amazing how much of a story you can tell! And it’s so basic! There’s nothing to it, but seeing it in person, right in front of me…”

“What did you see?”

“What did I see? In the play?”

“I’m curious. What happened?”

“Well, there was a battle between the sharks and the dolphins. The sharks won, but there was nothing left.”

Aro waited for him to continue. When he didn’t, he said, “Is that all?”

“Yeah. Is there something else?”

“Well there’s a good deal of history behind that play. I wrote it in the program.”

“Oh, that. I’m not much of a reader. The play is much more beautiful.”

“Beautiful… It represents a great war, not a battle. Thousands of dolphins and sharks died in it. All over a parcel of territory about the size of this theater and hotel. It was over the right to catch fish. Thousands dead… over hunting ground. The fighting scared away all the fish, and they never returned. I witnessed that war. The bodies floated just above the ocean floor so thick both sides didn’t swim. They grabbed bodies and climbed through the water to fight each other. They used their fallen to shield themselves from attack. It was the most gruesome thing I’ve ever witnessed. I designed the play to convey that.”

“Oh. Yeah, I’m sorry. It does represent a war. I did read that part. But it’s just beautiful. It’s a powerful experience. You should be proud. Were any of the dolphins in the show in that war?”

Aro stared at him. The longer he sat with the lion, the more he felt like he was evading a fish. “Every dolphin and shark who fought in that war is dead. Orcas and the other neutral people are the only ones who can tell the story. I wanted to share it with the land people. It’s a very… solemn and tragic tale. One that hurts me personally.”

“I understand. Oh, and you know another rumor that’s goin’ around? That the dolphins are all gay and they… you know… after every show. They have a room in the hotel together and when they’re not performing they’re always—”

“Trade secret,” Aro said.

“Sure, sure! Hey, uh, uh, do you mind if I got a picture of us together here? I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t ask.”

Jhor was a fish.

Aro instinctively switched to fish-handling mode. “Of course.” Aro raised himself out of his seat, stood and posed like he always did for photo ops. Jhor pulled a phone out of his shorts, snapped an image of Aro by himself in the theater house. Then he stood beside Aro, held the phone at arm’s length and took a quick shot.

“Oh, thanks. That alone made this trip worth it! Thank you so much!”

Aro smiled. “You’re quite welcome. And thank you for coming. I have to end this now. Have a very good night and the rest of your trip to Orlando.”

“Can’t get any better than this! Thank you so much! You’ve made my year! Didn’t even know your people existed a week ago and now I got to talk to you! It’s been an honor! Thank you!”

“You’re welcome.” Aro backed away from the seats and walked down the aisle to the exit door on the side.

Jhor waved to him. Aro waved back as he pushed the door in. He let it shut behind him. Aro lumbered heavily to another closed door off to the side. This one had a numeric keypad and was marked employees only. Aro punched in the code and walked to the lounge. Everyone was still here. The sharks swam in circles above and around the dolphins. The eels lounged on the bottom. The humpbacks mingled with everyone. Aro stripped his clothes and dove in. That was the most terrifying fish he’d ever had to deal with.

The ultrasonic questions slammed him like boat anchors.

Aro answered simply. “I was wrong.”

_

4.

_

The day after that performance, he asked for a computer, and he asked Olis to show him how to use it. Olis turned on the screenreader feature, which read the contents of the screen for him. Olis also showed him how to use the speech commands to control the system. It reminded Aro that he needed to learn how to read.

It took Aro a week to get used to using a machine to accomplish something, but he had to find out for himself. All of a sudden he didn’t trust what everyone told him. By the second week he was proficient enough to search for articles and news broadcasts on the theater.

The computer read what people were saying. He listened to interviews he’d given. It was eerie hearing words he’d spoken repeated by a computer voice, but it gave him a unique opportunity to hear the interview from the point of view of the audience. He listened to the questions now. He noticed his answers—the same kind of answers he tried to give to Jhor and the rest of the fish. The reporter (or king, or prime minister, or other person of media or authority) always followed up with another question about the show. Usually, rumor control.

Even the comments on these stories never discussed the history Aro spoke of. Nobody read the programs outlining the history of each silent play. Everything was about the performance and the performers.

Gossip. Hearing the interviews for himself now, he realized that was the majority of the questions he answered. Rumor and gossip.

Aro had also taken to sitting on the couch and watching TV. It was the first time in years he used the couch. He fumbled with the remote control, flipping around the networks. He watched news programs mostly, and occasionally he caught mention of the show in some form. He watched his own interviews. He watched specials on the theater and its performers. The content was more or less the same.

Tonight, a month after meeting Jhor, Aro had only been watching TV for ten minutes, but already he felt dry and smothered by the air. He got up, backed away from the TV and jumped in the pool. He floated just below the surface. His eyes drifted to the nighttime view of Orlando.

Over the last ten years Aro had dismissed these as the reactions of fish. Just the normal groupies other actors and celebrities warned him about. Surely there were people out there who understood why he was here.

Everyone he met was a fish. Every world leader, every actor, every creature on the land saw him as a spectacle. An exotic species from a faraway world for sure, but merely entertainment.

They told Aro the show was designed to end the mystery. By presenting his world on stage for everyone to see, it would be that much less alien to everyone. Things would change. With understanding, the separation could end.

It was a lie. They weren’t interested in helping people understand; the show was a spectacle, and Aro let it happen.

Aro suddenly became conscious of the filtered, heated water and the beautiful view from a swimming pool eighty stories up. Extravagance beyond anything that was possible underwater.

He had become complacent in land-dweller luxury. The prestige, the popularity and admiration of standing on this pedestal. He had found utopia, and he had let it become his reward for venturing out of the ocean, but that was not why he was here. Just like the fish watching him from their seats, he had been observing the world of the land-dwellers but not making an effort to be part of it.

Aro twirled upright and propelled himself out of the pool. He slid up the tile floor on his belly, halted himself and stood on his feet. He dried off quickly and picked up the phone. Speed dial number one was pretty much the only number he ever used.

Olis answered. “Hello, Aro?”

“I need to speak with you immediately.”

“Of course, Aro. What’s happening?”

“The film deal. What’s the status?”

Olis didn’t have the latest information, but he told Aro what he knew right now.

“If I’m going to put my performers through this, there will have to be some changes.”

“What kind of changes?”

“It will not be a film adaptation of the play.”

“What do you mean?”

“It needs to be a documentary.”

“Um, with respect, Aro, the producers will insist

on—”

“They are missing the point!” Aro shouted. “There is a whole civilization down there, and nobody cares! It isn’t entertainment! Millions of people live and die in the ocean, and it’s time the land-dwellers saw it how it really is!”

Aro didn’t even listen to the lapine’s objections of how documentaries make only a fraction of what a high-budget spectacle production would earn. Aro cut him off.

“I’m tired of this machine between us. Please meet me.”

Aro hung up. Immediately he dove in the pool and swam in circles. He felt like he was hunting again. Yes, he was supposed to chase the fish. He was the hunter. Not them.

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