Tubes of saline solution gurgled and burped as I sat down at the water monitoring station in my lab. I yawned open my laptop, ready to trudge through another day of research at which I was both singularly expert and profoundly apathetic. An acid wave swelled in my chest when the email landed in my inbox. Before I could think, I grabbed a plastic tub, shuffled around a security camera to the office’s display aquarium, and staggered out the back door. As I loaded the cargo into the back of my Model Y, seawater sloshed over the edges, and the tub’s occupant, Echo, splashed out chilly beakerfuls until my trunk was soaked and pooling.
This was as far as I’d thought, given the abruptness of my termination. The lab clicked closed behind me; my keycard had been deactivated.
I’m not an impulsive person. I’m not. I plan things out. I think things through, for too long, usually. But once you’re halfway out the door with a genetically miniaturized dolphin in tow, there’s no turning back.
The drive home from our Silicon Beach HQ in Venice to the Pacific Palisades was four miles, giving me forty-five minutes stuck in traffic to think. What had I done? For once, I guess, I hadn’t been thinking: I’d been acting on instinct. Lately it had felt like I was about to burst. Getting fired so unceremoniously, I supposed, had forced a rupture to my bubble, causing enough of a pressure change that all my pent-up vexations exploded from there. Hence, the dolphin in my trunk.
I rehearsed my casual tone three times before I told Siri to call Tobias. “Hey, Tobe,” I said, tapping the steering wheel. “What are you up to?”
“Gimme a sec,” he replied, and I heard a crowd’s buzz dampen as he shuffled away. Then, in his too-loud whisper: “I’m at some bullshit charity event with Carol. They’re making sculpture art from all the bottles under the Santa Monica pier.”
He—we—had been trying to get our daughter, Sophia, into a learning pod since she started preschool a few years ago, and Carol was the self-appointed gatekeeper. Half-listening, half-deciding whether to tell him about the dolphin, I heard myself say, “Wouldn’t they be better off recycling the bottles?”
“David, is everything okay?” Tobias asked.
I told him what had happened. Well, part of it.
“Fuck …” he said. I could tell from the way he trailed off that he was already itemizing logistics in his head: severance, exit package, options, insurance. “You okay?”
“Hasn’t quite sunk in yet,” I said. “But no, not really.” I asked if Sophia had any friends coming over after school. I could never keep track of her schedule. Sometimes it felt like Tobias kept it secret just so he could resent me when I failed to keep track of it. He was picking her up after the charity function, and I asked him to make sure no one came over. Of course, of course, he said. Time to process, yada yada.
“I’ll be home soon,” I said, then a pitiful, mid-hangup, “Love you.” I felt the need to preemptively apologize for the emotional upheaval I was about to put him through.
“What the fuck were you thinking?” Tobias spat, pacing the front lawn next to the car, which I’d discreetly backed into the driveway (though somehow, in the Palisades, you never saw another living soul). “You’re going to get us sued.”
To Tobias, getting sued was worse than if a Heal the Bay cleanup crew found us murdered under Tower 15. He’d been a lawyer until we had Sophia, then transitioned seamlessly into a house-husband without shedding his litigiousness. “Isn’t this protected IP?” he asked. “Jesus, am I implicated now? Is Sophia?” He moved his bootcamp-buff body between me and our six-year-old daughter.
“The company is closing its doors,” I said. “The research wasn’t officially sanctioned. They’re shutting the whole thing down.” I paused, feigning nonchalance. “No one’s going to sue.”
I had no idea how much of this was true. There’s always someone left to sue.
“She’s so cute!” chimed Sophia, who’d shimmied from behind Toby and climbed into the sopping trunk. She was now elbow-deep in the tub, the sleeve of her yellow dress clinging wet to her arm. The dolphin cowered at the other end. Sophia recognized Echo from bring-your-kid-to-work day. “Can we keep her?” she asked.
I nodded. “For now. Yeah. For a while.” I engineered a smile.
“And where, exactly, were you planning on keeping it?” Tobias asked, his forehead furrowed well past his receding hairline, his face red beneath silvery scruff.
“To be determined,” I said, but I knew the answer, and so did he. It was the whole idea behind the company’s recent research. It would take me a couple days to balance the water, but eventually, this genetically modified, miniature bottle-nosed dolphin would take up residence in our pool.
An ocean of fun, in your own backyard.
For the first few nights, Echo stayed in the bathtub of our master bathroom—the deepest one we had, and the only one not colonized by a six-year-old’s plastic toys and L’Oreal No Tears bottles. I dumped in the water from the transport tub, making sure to keep Echo moist, Free Willy-style, then carefully lifted her in after, which wasn’t hard—this latest iteration of dolphin weighed only 25 pounds, a 94 percent reduction in mass from the wild type. Once settled, she squeaked out an ambivalent eh-eh-eh-eh-eh and sent little puffs of mist over the edge of the tub. In the bathroom light her skin glistened purple gray.
I’d been the resident marine biochemist at the company (which I refused to call by its new name: “Porpoiseful Pets”), where I was responsible for remotely balancing and automating the temperature, pH, salinity, dissolved mineral load, and algae content of our tanks. There was a lot going on, right beneath the surface, invisible unless you knew how to look. And I did, making me—I told myself—uniquely qualified to care for Echo.
Tobias—silent, begrudging, afraid—figured the best way out of this mess was to help me conceal her. He volunteered to run errands: first to the saltwater aquarium store for the chemicals and supplements I needed, then to Erewhon for fresh sardines, since even Whole Foods only had canned.
Within the week I had Echo moved out into the pool, grateful, for the first time, for our hideous privacy hedges.
Everything soon came to light about Porpoiseful Pets. The company had been required to cease all operations overnight. The entire staff, minus legal, was laid off. A crew was brought in to destroy the evidence, the genetics lab found smoldering. Echo, we hoped, was presumed to have perished in the chaos.
The story had Theranos-level intrigue, Blackfish-caliber ethical concerns, and an adorable missing mascot. At our next HOA meeting—which we attended only to avoid conspicuous absence, having not left the house except to take Sophia to school or run errands for Echo (Toby was even skipping his Bootcamp on the Bluffs)—it was clear the company closure had become the talk of the whole West Side.
“So tragic, what they were doing,” said Jessica from three doors down.
“Sinister, almost,” said her husband, an executive at Exxon. “The cruelty.”
“That was where you worked, wasn’t it?” asked Doreen, the nosiest person in our cul-de-sac, who already knew the answer. “You didn’t know anything about it, right? The scandal and all?”
I told them what I’d told everyone, and which was, for the most part, true: “The company kept everything so siloed, only a couple people knew what was happening. I was only in charge of the water.”
What had happened was: bad science. Pressure from the board, cutting corners with research, rushed live animal testing. Porpoiseful Pets, we all found out, had been shut down due to ethics violations. A maintenance employee leaked video of the tanks—rows of them, hundreds—with the genetic crosses that hadn’t worked out. The dolphins with normal-sized bodies but heads so small they couldn’t eat, who had become emaciated or starved. The ones with fins so tiny they couldn’t swim well enough to breathe and drowned, floating belly-up. The really fucked-up ones: organs on the outside; missing all fins, spinning in circles, like a misshapen stone dropped into the sea; one that looked like a manatee hit by a truck.
I should clarify that the video came out after I was fired, and it was the first I’d seen of that dark interior. I was just the water guy. Like everyone else, I’d only seen Echo, the one on display.
What I hadn’t realized was that Echo was the only prototype that had been successful and survived to adulthood. According to the whistleblower reports that were now coming out, the normal-sized dolphins who carried these minis to term often didn’t recognize the pint-sized porpoises as their own and accidentally ate their young. And even if the minis avoided cannibalism, they had a lot more to survive.
If I’d known how bad things were, of course I wouldn’t have stayed. They had kept things siloed. I wouldn’t have stayed. Even for my one percent share of the most recent $4 billion valuation. For forty mill. I wouldn’t have. Right?
Tobias had been trying to get Sophia into a pod since before she started kindergarten. As I saw it, these pods were nothing more than expensive cliques, but Tobias wanted in, and I went along with it, like I went along with everything. I was a jellyfish, moving with the currents and winds, my own motility stifled to little blundering pulses that did nothing to change my course. Waiting to get washed up on a beach only to desiccate in the sun.
I acquiesced to the pod discussion just like I’d done when we talked about starting a family. I hadn’t really wanted kids. At first my excuse was that I didn’t want to pass on my suspect genome, the unique combination of alleles that rendered me so spineless. When Toby cheerfully volunteered to contribute the biological element, I cited the dumpster fire of a world we lived in, the climate change-ravaged wasteland we’d be leaving a child to inherit. The real reason, though, was more selfish: I hadn’t wanted to be distracted from my research. I wanted to push the boundaries of human understanding, to discover something that might even improve the prospects of our blighted world. And though I’d largely overcome the resentment of our cookie-cutter existence, now, with the pods, Toby was lobbying for yet another rigid structure.
“Pod-based learning” had taken off a few years back, even before COVID. Half the families in the Palisades had pulled their kids out of school altogether—even the fancy private ones you’d think would be too expensive for a mass shooting or disease outbreak didn’t feel safe anymore. The pods would hire some Brown grad with a psych degree and build the curriculum collaboratively, with all families weighing in and paying up. Sophia’s best friend, Wren, was in a pod. But we were still on a waiting list. Toby’s theory was that I didn’t have time to “contribute,” although Toby had retired at 37 and had plenty of time to focus on Sophia’s education. My theory was that every pod already had their token white gay couple for diversity’s sake, and who needs two? Whatever the reason, we hadn’t yet been invited into a pod.
That changed as soon as the neighborhood caught wind of Echo. We’d been trying to keep her a secret, but six-year-olds are lousy secret keepers, and Wren had told her parents. In the Palisades all there was to do was gossip, and speculation ensued. Within a couple weeks a spot magically opened up in our dream pod, the one Sophia’s best friend was in. Carol came with the ornate acceptance envelope herself. The pod, she said, was already eager to add a marine biology unit.
Tobias was hugely relieved, and started drafting the NDAs he’d make all the pod parents sign before anyone came to the house. Sophia was elated that our yard would become a classroom once a week. We were in. Phew, I guess.
“Was this your plan all along?” Toby asked one night, his chin on my chest. He still smelled faintly of fish, which was how we all smelled these days. “Stealing the dolphin to get Sophia in?”
In lieu of verbal response, I leaned in to kiss him: plausible deniability.
“Hey Tobe,” I said, after a much-needed roll-around. “Thanks for having my back on this.”
He kissed me on the cheek and went to check on Echo.
The company hadn’t started out bad. We were formerly called “Seasearch,” a lazy portmanteau of “sea” and “research,” but nowhere near as bad a name as “Porpoiseful Pets.” I’d been with the company from the beginning, when its mission was pure: to preserve marine biodiversity. Dolphin populations were dying at alarming rates due to food scarcity from overfishing and pollution. If we could introduce miniaturized crosses into the wild, even a 20 percent reduction in body mass would result in commensurate population support. The idea was a stretch, sure, but the funding was real, and our research agenda addressed all kinds of amazing topics, from ocean acidification to iron seeding.
My PhD research had aimed to understand the biochemical mechanisms behind the symbiosis between bioluminescent bacteria and anglerfish: the famous glowing fish hook. My buddy, Bruce, who’d dropped out of our program to found Seasearch, couldn’t have cared less about my anglerfish research, but was interested in how I’d developed an automated monitoring, data collection, and adjustment system for saltwater aquariums that could be used by other scientists. I was idealistic and stupid, and thought a genetics startup sounded like the Future. I joined right after graduation.
But after three years of pure research, sequencing all the genes related to size, our geneticists hadn’t made progress, and the board was getting restless. Investors weren’t happy with the burn rate, and the company needed a faster go-to-market plan. So, overnight, after an investor saw a sketch of a miniaturized dolphin and said his granddaughter would love one for Christmas, we pivoted. Into genetically miniaturized marine pets.
I made Bruce, still CEO, get coffee with me the next day to justify the thinking.
“It’s not really that different from a labradoodle,” Bruce said. “French bulldogs are definitely not physiologically supposed to exist. Same deal.”
“Feels a little closer to Jurassic Park, no?” I told him.
“Exactly,” he said. “‘Life finds a way.’”
“I’m not sure—” But he’d already gotten up to answer a call.
That’s when they’d pitched me the one percent. Golden handcuffs, sunk cost, all those logical fallacies that keep you stuck in a mold that doesn’t fit in the first place.
The company rebranded to Porpoiseful Pets. Our pitch was that we’d engineer miniature cetaceans that could be kept in pools as small as ten thousand gallons. Dolphins were as smart as dogs, they said. The pet of the future.
A couple years later, we hadn’t released our first product, but already had a waiting list of 400 families willing to pay a hundred grand a pop for their own Porpoiseful Pet, half of which would go to “marine conservation efforts,” meaning our own lab’s own research. Sometime later, the team successfully produced Echo, who became the display dolphin, harbored in a publicly viewable tank for investor visits and company morale.
With Echo as proof-of-concept, the valuation skyrocketed. We weren’t a Unicorn; we were a Narwhal.
For years, I’d poured myself into the work. Sure, the water monitoring was mundane, but once the company really started turning a profit, I told myself, I’d be positioned to be lead scientist on our marine conservation efforts. It would all be worth it, one day, down the road.
It had been over a month now, which I figured meant the lab either assumed Echo was dead or didn’t care all that much about reclaiming their property. But Tobias was becoming increasingly paranoid Echo would get us sued, or arrested, even if she had led to the pod invitation. He set a Google alert for the words “dolphin,” “company,” “closure,” and a litany of others that sent his phone pinging nonstop, and worried Porpoiseful Pets was spending every minute mounting the case against us. That they’d eventually smash their way in with a SWAT team.
“The lab’s legal team called again,” Tobias said the next day. “I obviously didn’t say anything. But this isn’t going to last: there are only so many accents I can make up.”
I wasn’t sure why he was making up accents, or, for that matter, why he couldn’t repeat any, but his fear was palpable.
There was no hard evidence of Echo living with us. We’d had locks put on every gate, and there was no way to see into our yard. Twice there had been knocks on the front door from suits with briefcases that we refused to answer without a warrant, and a warrant never showed up.
I told Tobias that we were doing everyone a favor by taking care of Echo, even if she had to go back eventually. This was a win-win. We were doing the right thing.
Taking care of Echo was easy. I’d drained the pool and refilled it with adequate water. We maxed out the pool Roomba filtering out dolphin poop, and filled our freezer with herring and mackerel and scallops, for treats. The water had to be kept really cold, so we bought little wetsuits that were always drying over the back of a chair.
The marine biology unit was a hit. The kids in our pod loved Echo and spent hours a day swimming with her and playing fetch, all gentle and careful. Except Jason, that budding little sociopath, who found it amusing to stick his finger in Echo’s blowhole as she thrashed to get free. It really seemed like Echo loved the kids, too (Jason excluded). As soon as she heard the pitter-pat of their flip-flops, she began to slap the water and blow bubble rings.
For a while it was a dream: Toby and me both home, spending time together, and with Sophia. Echo happily splashing around outside. All in our pod, our little bubble. Briefly it felt like we were living in a would-be future where the company succeeded and we ended up where we were now, getting an employee discount on a porpoise of our own.
But though things were good on the surface, I still felt trapped in a simulacrum of the world. Even getting fired, with a severance that would float us for years, had revoked my autonomy: I didn’t get the chance to quit, like I should have years ago. I couldn’t think of the future, or of anything, really, except Echo. We’d become rather attached to our contraband.
Still, Tobias looked happier. Maybe even I looked happy, stretched out on a lawn chair, tossing a plastic ring for Echo to retrieve. But I was no better off than she was, schlepped from one holding tank to another, waiting for a change in the tide.
Week after week, things started to wear on me and Tobias. We both perpetually smelled like fish, which killed any sex drive either of us could muster. And it began to feel like we had a prisoner to take care of.
What I—and Porpoiseful Pets, for that matter—hadn’t adequately accounted for was that dolphins were pack animals. We knew this, of course, but hadn’t solved for it. Sure, dogs were, too, and people became their pack, but dogs could sleep inside. For Echo, the pack abandoned her every night, and we’d hear her desperate ee-ee-ee-ee-ee through the window. Please. Please.
Sophia noticed Echo’s loneliness, too, and started sleeping out on the lawn chair by the pool. Which meant one of us, either me or Toby (usually me; he was on fish duty), ended up sleeping out there with her. I once learned that dolphins turned off half their brains while they slept, leaving the other half on to swim and breathe. That was how I’d been operating for a decade: half-awake at any given time, going through the motions only long enough to come up for air.
Sophia missed school, too. She missed her art teacher, missed having enough kids to play a proper game of Sardines, even missed, somehow (she made a point of this), the rigid desks fused to their chairs. Sure, the intimacy of our pod was nice, but it was actually too close-knit, to the point that I knew what all my podmates were working on in therapy. And what they should really be working on in therapy.
“I think we should put Soph back in school,” I said to Toby one day, out by the pool. “She’s not herself. And I can’t stand most of the other kids in our pod. They’re entitled little trust-fund shits who don’t believe in consequences.” I was thinking of Jason.
“Sophia has a trust fund, babe,” Tobias replied.
“You think I don’t know that?” I snapped. “I’m the one who sold my soul. I don’t want her growing up thinking the Palisades is real life.”
“It’s our real life,” he said bitterly, looking up from the Palisadian Post. “Is this not real to you?”
“It’s real, sure. But are you happy?”
“Happier than I was worrying about Sophia every day. You were working, but I was there waiting, worrying. And it’s nice, being together, the four of us.”
“But are you happy?” I pressed.
“Let’s talk about this later,” he said, standing up. “I need to shower.”
Up until that point, though a handful of people had seen Echo at our house and more had heard about her through the rumor mill, any evidence of Echo living with us was hearsay. But when Jason’s older sister posted a video to her socials (verboten, of course, but hardly surprising—those parents were blundering), the knocks and phone calls mounted again.
It was becoming clear, too, that Echo couldn’t survive like this long term. Tell-tale signs of depression: she wasn’t eating, she was barely swimming and would just dejectedly rest her chin on the lip of the pool, treading water. It made me wonder if the lab had kept her doped up or if I was misremembering that she’d seemed content. A couple times she even launched herself over the side of the pool and into the rose bushes, which was about as close to porpoise suicide as I cared to imagine.
I had to do something. It wasn’t like there was a whole pod of minis out there, so I settled for the next best thing. I loaded Echo into the old tub from the lab, then rented a boat, with cash. I thought I’d see dolphins right away, like I usually did off the coast of Santa Monica, but the water was glassy. People were kite surfing in the distance. Echo waited patiently with me, drifting in the waves, looking up at me with those obsidian eyes.
Finally I spotted a pod a couple hundred yards off, and revved the engine, pointing in their direction. Thankfully, they were bottle-nosed, I knew from my research.
When we were closer, I gave Echo a last kiss on the forehead, just below her blowhole, and felt a pang accompany the salty taste and leathery texture. I felt another twinge, too, about losing the knowledge stored in Echo’s DNA, those years of research, out to sea.
“Goodbye, little one,” I said, then dumped the tub over the side of the boat. “Be with your own kind now.”
But Echo continued swimming circles around the boat, never venturing more than a few feet away.
“You have to leave,” I shouted, more desperately, waves beating against the boat. “You can’t stay. This isn’t where you’re supposed to be.”
She tried to jump back into the boat, but couldn’t quite make it over the edge and kept thumping against the side of the vessel.
Gradually the boat started advancing towards the pod of full-sized dolphins, or the dolphins towards the boat; hard to tell, with no grounding, if you’re moving at all.
And then Echo saw them and swam over in a splash of excitement. She jumped higher out of the water than I’d ever seen, squeaking out a joyful ey-ey-ey-ey-ey, all flowing together: yay, yay, yay! She was leaping and playing, a free dolphin, finally, home in the ocean.
No, wait. The wild pod was chasing her. Echo was fleeing. I pinned my foot under the boat’s bench for balance and reached over the edge into the water, splashing to beckon her over. But she was out of reach.
A thrash of crimson water and Pepto-pink froth, and she was gone.
The dolphin pod bounced away like stones skipping over the surface of the water, hardly seeming to pierce the dark waves, leaving not even a trail of wake.
I was left dripping, saltwater stinging my eyes, mouth agape.
I’d done this. What had I expected to happen? Deep down, hadn’t I known this wouldn’t go well? Somewhere within me, I knew another pod wouldn’t just take in this mutant. Just like somewhere in me I had to suspect there was a reason the animal lab had double doors and 24/7 security. But actually seeing it was a different matter.
I laid back on the boat bench and rocked in the waves, staring up at the blinding sky.
What could I have done, though? Returned her to the company, so they could find a new team to replicate her? I had been culpable for her demise long before I rented the boat. When I hadn’t pushed back. When things had started to go bad, and I’d just stayed the course, kept looking forward. Never letting myself choose what felt right and true. Only what felt safe, selfishly safe, on the smallest of scales.
Hopeless and beaten, I turned the boat towards the shore.
Before I went home to Tobias and Sophia, I drove to Venice Beach. I parked in my old spot, then walked around to the front of the lab building. Ghosts of the Porpoiseful Pets signage clung to the facade, the silhouette of a tiny dolphin dotting the “i.” I continued toward the coast, past the weed shops and street performers on the Strand, until sand spilled into my shoes. Then I stripped off my shirt and stretched out on the hot sand, where I lay for hours, feeling the prickle of burn.
At home, I joined Toby and Sophia on the couch.
“She’s free,” I said to Sophia. “It’s over,” to Tobias.
I kissed away Sophia’s salty tears. Wisps of her sun-blonde hair tumbled from messy pigtails.
Later that week, we were voted out of our pod. Carol had persuaded the others that getting rid of Echo, without consulting the pod, was “psychologically harmful” to the kids.
“What now?” Tobias asked.
For once, I wasn’t thinking about what came next. Wasn’t trying to engineer my way out.
I shrugged, took a deep breath, then gazed out at the purpling sky through the windows of my tank.