The Children of Prometheus

Robert A. Burroughs

© 1996 All Rights Reserved

(Used here by permission. Images are © by the author, and image components (except maps) are © by Corel Corporation. No material may be reproduced in electronic or other form without prior permission.)

This short story appeared in the January 1997 issue of the Interspecies Communication Newsletter


Among the Titans were the brothers Prometheus and Epimetheus. To them fell the office of populating the world, and providing their creations with natural gifts. Prometheus, whose name means "foresight," took some earth and shaped it in the gods' image. He named his creation Man.

Epimetheus, whose name means "hindsight," gave little thought to his work. He squandered the physical gifts on the lower animals. He gave wings to birds, powerful teeth and claws to lions and bears, and swift legs to horses and deer. When Man's turn came, nothing remained.

Prometheus invented a new gift, and he gave it to the human race. It was Intelligence, and it was better than all the others. It set our race above all the other animals, and gave us dominion over the land. That's the entire story of creation, as other Greeks tell it.

We, however, know the truth. Prometheus created at least one other race, and we believe there are more. We will look for them and, if they exist, we will find them. We will greet them as brothers and sisters, and welcome them into our nation.

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Long ago, Greek colonists sailed to settle a newly discovered island in the great Ocean. As they sailed west, they passed the Pillars of Hercules, or modern Gibraltar. The mountains reminded them of huge columns, and they thought of the giant Titan who supported the sky on his shoulders.

The island brought joy to the colonists, since the land was fertile, and its bay would make an excellent harbor. They said, "This land is Atlas' gift to us," and they dedicated the island to him.

For many years, they lived as other Greeks lived. They raised crops, fished, and traded with Lusitania, Iberia, and North Africa. Their merchant ships had to cross fifty or sixty miles of open sea, and could not hug the coasts as others' did. Their sailors had to be more skillful and daring than other nations'. The island's shipbuilding technology and navigation skills soon reached those of Minoan Crete and Phoenicia. This was how the people lived for the first few centuries.

The islanders noticed the fishlike mammals that lived in the seas, and the mammals noticed them. Among the islanders was a simple but inquisitive and perceptive fisherman. Despite his hard, long days on the sea, he found time to play with and befriend the dolphins who often followed his boat. The dolphins weren't interested only in his fish. They were curious about him and his boat.

One dolphin was especially curious and inquisitive. He often played with her in the shallow waters, and showed her his simple possessions. He often said things like, "You catch fish with your teeth, and I catch them with my net." He pointed to his teeth and his net as he said "teeth" and "net." One day he put a fresh, but dead, fish in his teeth. (He'd learned not to handle live ones in the dolphin's presence. She usually snatched them from his hands.) "If I could swim like you, I'd catch fish in my teeth, too!" His clowning entertained and pleased the dolphin, and she often visited him.

The dolphin became pregnant and delivered a calf, which she showed to the man. The man's wife had recently borne a child, and he brought her to the water to show her son to the dolphin. "My wife had a baby, too!" As always, he pointed to the object he was naming. He pointed to the baby as he said "baby."

The friendship continued for many months. One day, as he brought his boat to shore, the man's net fell overboard. "My net!" He'd have to dive to the bottom to retrieve it. At least the water wasn't too deep.

The nearby dolphin dove, and quickly returned with the net. The man took it from her jaws with gratitude, and then the realization hit him. He had little formal education, but he was intelligent and perceptive. The dolphin couldn't see the net, but she knew what I wanted when I said "net." "You understood me! I said 'net,' and you understood!"

Patient interaction filled the next months. The man visited the dolphin as often as his work allowed, and his wife often came to the sea. The man realized that the dolphin could think abstractly: she could understand words that referred to objects that weren't present.

The dolphin was among the most intelligent members of a highly intelligent species. She thought to herself, {I use sound to see, to find fish, to call others, to identify myself. They use sound to identify objects. Perhaps I can do it.} She didn't think in these words, since her people did not use words, but these words describe the idea.

One day, the man stood waist-deep in water to visit his friend. The dolphin focused a beam of sound with her melon, the fatty acoustic lens in her head, and directed it across the man's leg. He felt the sonar's feathery touch on his leg. Then the dolphin put her head above the water, and made a short noise. It didn't mean anything. She made it up for her experiment, and kept it simple. She again probed his leg with her voice, and again made the same noise.

The realization hit him like a thunderbolt. "By the gods, you're doing it, too!" She's using a- word?- to refer to my leg!

The dolphin made the same noise without probing his leg. He lifted his leg and moved it, to show that he understood.

The dolphin thought, {It works!} She invented another, previously meaningless noise, and touched the man's hand with her voice. She soon taught him to respond to that noise, too.

The man added a new element to the game. He moved his leg again, and said "Leg." The dolphin replied with the first sound that she had invented: {Leg.} Now, he and the dolphin both had words to refer to a human leg. Then he repeated the exercise with his hand. The two played this new game until the sun went down.

The next day, the man persuaded some other villagers, including the elders, to come to the sea. When they arrived, they found several dolphins. The skeptical humans entered the water, but their disbelief soon became amazement.

The dolphin showed the others. She made a short noise, and the man moved his hand. She made another, and he lifted his leg. It became clear to the others that a particular noise evoked a particular response.

Another dolphin tried the first noise, and the man moved his hand.

The man said, "tail," and his friend lifted her tail and said, {tail.} The village headman's jaw dropped in amazement. He said, "tail," and he got the same response. The dolphin and the fisherman had exchanged only a few words, but they were enough to show that they could understand each other.

The people didn't know it yet, but they would later place a number on this year. They would number it zero.

The Scholar died fifteen years later, and the records show her lifetime as ? BU to 15 AU. By then, her work had advanced far enough to assure its success. Her people continued it, as did the Fisherman and his people. The Fisherman's family knew his birth year, and he lived from 25 BU to 28 AU.

There are canals in the nation's principal city, and the largest runs through its central square. The Fisherman's immortal bronze replica stands waist deep in its water, and the Scholar's bronze image faces him. The Scholar's tail and dorsal fin are under the water, and her head and flippers are above it. The year is now 574 AU: After the Understanding, as the Republic of Atlantis reckons the years.

Circe and Odysseus (the real story) and the Bond

Atlantis had known peace for more than a century. No one remembered what it was like to fight real soldiers whose leaders were real generals. The Republic had always dealt fairly with other countries, and most non-Atlanteans were afraid to sail out of sight of land. An invasion of the island itself was unthinkable, although there was always piracy. Nonetheless, the polis, or city-state, took a realistic view of the world. The Atlanteans knew what the rest of the world was like, and what other Greeks were like. There had been, for example, the idiocy in Asia Minor. It had taken ten years, and many of the Achaean "victors" had never returned home.

One King wandered for another ten years, and he might never have returned home without the Atlantean map. His crew completely distorted the truth about Circe, but the Atlanteans understood why. The real story was too embarrassing, so the Ithacans changed it. They didn't want to slander their hostess, so they said it happened on the Aeaean Isle. The Ithacan sailors made up a lot of other stories too, about sea monsters and one-eyed man-eating giants.

The Atlanteans could understand the King's mistake, though. He had seen humans talking with "fish," and he thought the latter were transformed humans. His men were dining at Circe's estate, and, since they had been on ship's rations for a long time, they were eating a lot. That's why Circe made the remark that she meant as a joke, but her swineherd was leading her pigs up the road. The King really believed that she had turned his men into pigs.

The world was a violent place, and the peace-loving Republic knew it. That's why two squadrons of Atlantean war galleys had practiced against each other earlier in the day. After the maneuvers, the hoplites, rowers, sailors, and dolphin partners had bathed in fresh water from the aqueducts.

It was still warm, so the people allowed the sun to dry them. Then they put on fresh garments, and left for dinner. The cobblestones under their sandals were smooth, white and clean. This was the pedestrian walkway, which ran next to a canal. Chariots rattled along the path on the other side, which sloped slightly toward a gutter. The gutter's drains emptied into the parallel cloaca, or sewer. There were daily cleanings when water flowed over the chariot path to sweep the horse wastes into the cloaca.

In the canal, a dolphin felt a call of nature. He swam toward the side and found an opening. Water flowed slowly from the canal into the opening, and he performed his functions there. The flow carried the wastes into a pipe that entered the sewer. Like the streets, the canal itself was clean, and no one was reluctant to swim in it.

The group came to the statues of The Fisherman and The Scholar. Reverent awe flowed through each Atlantean as he or she looked at the statues, although each had seen them hundreds of times before. The Understanding, as they called the pair of figures, had that effect on people.

The sculpture affected several passing dolphins the same way. They saw the humans standing by the canal, and they lifted their tails in the Sign of the Bond: Our tails are your tails.

The humans completed the Sign by extending their hands, palm up, at waist level. Our hands are your hands.

Every Atlantean, human and dolphin, learned the Bond in early childhood. It was simple, and it was the foundation of the nation's power. The complete Bond called upon humans to give dolphins whatever aid their hands, fires, tools, technology, and the land's bounty could provide. It obliged dolphins to serve humans with their powerful tails and their sonar, and to help them win the seas' wealth.

Under the Bond, humans and dolphins were equal citizens. Adults of both species could vote, and hold office as a Senator or Steward. The Senate was the government's representative branch, and the Stewards were the executive branch. Canals ran from the sea into the Citadel, and into the Senate building. During the Senate's construction, some people objected that the design placed seats for humans above the dolphins' pool. The dolphins replied that the idea of height equaling superiority was a purely human paradigm. In the ocean, there is no up or down; "up" mattered only when you had to surface for air.

An Ordinary Schoolday

School was difficult, since the students could not recite the teacher's words to show their understanding. Instead, they had to act them out, or reply in Greek. Black Water's clicks, whistles and squeals echoed through the chamber. First, he called the roll. As he called each child's name, the pupil stood. This class rarely needed Laomedon's guidance any more, since they remembered the words. The first grade was much harder. There, Black Water spoke and Laomedon showed the children what he meant.

The teacher began taking the students through brief sentences. He emitted a series of clicks, whistles, and squeaks, which the children understood as, {I caught a trout.} The children replied, "I caught a trout." The teacher continued, {You caught a trout.} The children knew the difference between the sound patterns that represented the pronouns, and they replied correctly.

{I am cooking the trout,} the teacher said. "I am cooking the trout," the children replied. {Will you cook the trout?} the teacher asked. The students were starting to learn the interrogative form of the verb, and its past, present, and future tenses.

Neither Black Water nor any of his fellows would ever ask a land citizen to do this, of course. They could not appreciate the culinary effects of treating meat with fire, but their fishing partners never ate before performing this activity. The land citizens had an alien sense in their noses that allowed them to savor their foods, as he had senses they lacked. For example, he could see inside bodies, and he could navigate under water at night. Nonetheless, the students had to know the sound for "to cook." An ocean citizen might ask, for example, {Will you return after you gather wood for cooking?}

Another of the land citizens' strange rituals was to remove the fish's head and entrails before using it. They discarded these, and Black Water speculated that they were offerings to the sky-dwellers, or gods. When his fishing partners threw them overboard, he thought of Poseidon, who looked like a land citizen but lived under water. He had never quite understood the land people's theology, but he doubted that Poseidon ever received these offerings. There were too many sharks and other scavengers that converged once the fishing party departed. Also, no sea citizen had ever seen this Poseidon individual, although he would have been hard to miss.

Long ago, the sharks would have come as soon as fish blood entered the water. Now they were more circumspect. Black Water's people had never truly feared sharks, although they were dangerous to the young, the infirm, and the unwary. Sharks were now prey like any other fish. In his younger days, Black Water had speared and taken twelve. A fisherman placed the lance in Black Water's weapon harness. It was easy to locate the heart inside the fish, and drive the broad bronze tip into it. The harness' design made it easy to detach the lance, and leave it in the fish, with a backward surge. The fishermen came for the shark, skinned it, and cleaned it. Sharkskin was valuable to the land citizens, because it was tough and waterproof. Then Black Water ate his fill of shark meat, which the fishermen cut to size for him.

Long ago, the sea citizens had been reluctant to eat dead fish. They quickly understood, however, that meat from a freshly dead fish was similar to a fish that one of them had taken in the water. Their fishing partners, like themselves, had no interest in fish that had been dead for a long time. Even cooking did not make such fish palatable to the land citizens.

Trout and bass were new to Black Water's palate. For most of his life, he ate fish that he, or his fishing partners, had caught in the sea. He had enjoyed the fishing drives, and he remembered his powerful body surging through the water after the schools. He remembered the sound of his hunting cry, and those of his nearby companions. The fish heard the dolphins' voices, panicked, and swam into the waiting nets. One drive could easily take hundreds of fish. The fishermen on the boats pulled the nets in, and began stunning fish and throwing them overboard. They did this until their companions in the water had eaten their fill. The fishing groups were far more efficient than individual hunters, although sea citizens often hunted for exercise and to maintain traditions. There was instinctive satisfaction in tracking a fish, closing with it, and taking it. He knew that land citizens also hunted for sport, although it was easier to get meat from their farms.

He had, however, lived 42 years, and was too old to hunt efficiently. It was natural to retire from the fishing groups and teach. He still received ocean fish from the fishing groups, but now the land citizens brought him freshwater fish from their streams.

Black Water did not, of course, call himself by this name. He couldn't pronounce it, since he had no vocal cords. His air passage did not even connect to his mouth. The citizens who lived on the land couldn't pronounce his real name, either, but they had to call him something. His mother, who had been an excellent diver, earned the name for him. A fishing boat lost its net a few miles off the coast. Grey Tide took the cable down, one and a half stadia below the surface, and hooked it to the net. This was a prodigious dive, even for the ocean's citizens. The sailors knew that those depths never saw sunlight, and they thanked Grey Tide for retrieving the valuable net from the black waters. When she gave birth later that year, the sailors suggested this name as a reminder of her deed.

The teacher remembered his own school days, which began more than forty years ago. A human teacher spoke to the little dolphins in Greek, and an older dolphin showed them what he meant. The dolphin also taught him the artificial dolphin language that humans understood. Dolphins have no words as humans know them, so they had to develop them. The Scholar started this process centuries ago, and it evolved with time.

Black Water remembered learning to reply to the Greek words in the artificial language, or to show his understanding by acting them out. He then learned to read the talking metal sheets. The dolphins' written language was another artificial one, and it used sound instead of writing. To write to, or for, dolphins, artisans stamped copper or bronze sheets with deep indentations. The indentations had different shapes, and they represented words. To read the metal, a dolphin swept it with a monotonous sonar beam. The different shapes returned different sounds as the sonar crossed them, and the dolphin understood them.

Theories of Evolution

The medical school was in a nearby chamber, and Machaon was teaching anatomy. He pointed to the corresponding organs in the dolphin and human cadavers. As he pointed to each, his colleague applied her sonar to the same organ in each student's body. The student felt the organ resonate, which gave a better idea of its location. The dolphin students, in turn, found the correct organ in Machaon's body. It was easy to explain the digestive tract by sliding a fish replica down the esophagus, and then along the stomach and intestine, of each cadaver. An assistant applied a bellows to the dead dolphin's blowhole, and the students saw the lungs inflate. He repeated this with the human cadaver. Machaon pointed to the kidneys and bladders, and used the words for liquid excretion.

A cloth screen hid the cow bones from view, but the dolphins quickly learned to tell the broken one from the sound one. They also learned to tell a bruised cow liver from a sound one, and to identify weapon tips inside meat.

Dolphin and human physicians made excellent teams. The dolphin's sonar could often find and identify injuries inside a human or dolphin body. The dolphin could then tell a human colleague exactly where they were. It was standard practice for a dolphin to examine pregnant women who were about to give birth, to tell whether the baby's head was facing the birth canal. If it wasn't, the human physician could prepare for complications. The dolphin also examined pregnant dolphins, but hoped to find the baby's tail facing the birth canal.

A student asked Machaon, {Why do you think our ancestors lived on land, as you do?}

Machaon said, "There's a legend that some sailors tried to kidnap Dionysus, the god of wine. When they realized who he was, they jumped overboard. Dionysus was merciful, and he saved them from drowning by turning them into dolphins. That's only a story, though. Here's the evidence."

The physician pointed to the shoulders and flipper bones of one of the classroom's dolphin skeletons. The classroom had at two of each model or skeleton, one in the water and one outside it. "If you examine the fish skeletons, you'll find none that have a structure like this. Fish don't have bones in their fins, and this five-fingered structure is a lot like our hands. Four-legged land animals have similar bone structures, although hooves sometimes conceal them. If your ancestors were fish, you wouldn't have developed skeletal support for legs. If they were land animals, though, you would have."

"Also, your bones are hard, like ours. Fish skeletons are softer. We don't think you're fish that learned to breathe air. We think you were land animals that learned to live in the water."

Machaon's colleague said, {Perhaps we all came from fish, long ago. You had tails once, but you lost them the way we lost our hind legs.} She referred to the human skeleton's tailbone. {The structure begins with the head, and proceeds down a spine. That's common to all mammals, and to fish. You showed us a stillborn human embryo once, and it looked a lot like a fish. It even had gill slits, but your babies never have them.}

Machaon said, "We can only speculate. The physical evidence supports the theories, but we can't prove them. How would fish change into dolphins, or humans? I can't imagine a human baby coming from a fish egg. Maybe it happened gradually, with successive generations of fish looking more and more like people. I wish we had a way to find out. I'm sure we will, someday."

The Land Beyond the Sunset

The observer in Sky Challenger saw the light flash far out to sea, as the sun caught the ship's heliograph. He checked the signal, and then checked it again. "It's Hesperus! She's returned!" he shouted.

Half a year ago, Hesperus had sailed into the setting sun. Her mission was to explore the uncharted western Ocean, and four dolphins had accompanied her. They wanted to know what was in the great Ocean, too. Some people still believed that Apollo, the sun god, lived in the West. The scientists realized, however, that people in Asia Minor and beyond also watched the sunset. Perhaps those people believed that Atlantis was Apollo's home.

If a ship sailed west from Atlantis, she would eventually reach the Eastern Lands. The ship didn't carry enough food for that, however. Her crew had to hope that something else was out there. If they used half the food without finding anything, they were to turn back. The ship couldn't carry enough food for half a year, so she must have replenished her stores somewhere. Hesperus had found something.

The ship came from the South under full sail. She furled her sails, and entered the harbor. Some rowing tugs came to meet her, and towed her to a berth. By this time, a huge crowd had gathered at the dock, and another crowd was in the water.

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The party at the table listened as Sea Wind told his tale. The dolphin was one of the four that had accompanied Hesperus.

{We met a behemoth. She was like us, with warm blood and sound-vision, but seven lengths.} Sailors measured rope by counting the lengths between their outstretched hands. The city-state had later standardized the measurement. A hundred lengths, or two hundred long paces, made a stadium. There were ten stadia to a mile.

{We spoke to her, but she did not understand. She dove, and we followed her into the cold water.} He meant that the dolphins had crossed the thermocline between the warm surface waters and the depths. {We kept going, and the water turned black around us. We followed for a stadium, but she outpaced us, and was soon out of reach. I heard her searching voice, and the bottom was a mile below us.} Sea Wind knew this from the time between the sperm whale's echolocation clicks, and their echoes from the bottom.

{We had to return for air, but we dove into the cold water again to listen. As you know, the barrier distorts sound the way the air-water boundary distorts light. We had to dive below the barrier to hear clearly. The behemoth reached the bottom. I never knew anyone who could dive that far, or stay down so long. We had to surface many times while she was down there. We waited a long time, and she returned with a huge squid. The squid was four lengths.}

Argus, Hesperus' captain, said, "We named a trireme for the legendary kraken, the giant squid. It's not a legend after all. Someone must have seen one a long time ago."

The dolphin continued, {The behemoth must be intelligent. I examined her skull with my voice, and the brain case is gigantic. It could be six or seven times as large as ours. I tried to talk to her, but she couldn't understand me. She ate her squid, examined the ship, and then left. I wish that one of her race had met the Fisherman.}

Erymas, the general who commanded the Fifth Squadron, said to the dolphin, "For hundreds of years, we believed that we were Prometheus' only creations. Then our race met yours and, for almost six centuries, humans and dolphins were the children of Prometheus."

"The world is large, and we know little of what lives in the great Ocean. It is wide, and it is deep. Our best divers have reached fifteen lengths, but they cannot remain under water very long. Your best divers have descended almost two stadia, but the ocean is much deeper. We don't know much about the interiors of Europe or Africa, either. Our maps of Asia end at the Indus River, although we know the great Subcontinent lies beyond it. We've mapped its coasts, but of its interior we know only what its natives tell us."

"One of their stories involves talking monkeys and bears, and one of the monkeys leapt across three hundred miles of ocean. Our mariners found the island this monkey supposedly visited, so the part about the island is true. Is the rest true, or is it only a story like the ones imaginative sailors tell? Who knows what other races Prometheus created? I hope that we'll meet these behemoths during my lifetime, and find out."

(The huge whale hadn't thought in words, which her people did not use, but her complex brain had quickly recognized the attempt at communication. I hear your voices and I sense a pattern, but I don't understand it. I see the little land animals on their rootless, floating island. They can apparently make the island go where they want. Are they intelligent, too? I wish we could communicate, because I could tell you so many things. I've seen fishes with glowing lights on their heads, and I've eaten squid larger than this one. I've seen fire on the ocean bottom, and I had to turn away when I felt its heat. You might not believe my stories, but they're all true.)

Argus said, "Something that large couldn't have come close enough to shore to meet the Fisherman. I hope we can go to them some day, and keep their attention long enough to communicate."