Sea Eyes Chapter 9

22 08 2007

Q. So just how intelligent are dolphins?

Nicola Watton, Tacoma WA

 

A. A dolphin’s brain is relatively large by the standards of marine creatures but when compared to their body size this is nothing remarkable. In fact, dolphins show no more intelligence than the average rat.

Science Q & A

Tacoma Evening Examiner

 

 

 


 

Chapter Nine

 

 

 

 

 

Nine o’clock saw Leigh on Freeseas doorstep pressing the intercom switch, cup of Cafe Latte in one hand, layout pad under the other arm. This time the camera’s inspection didn’t seem quite so intimidating. She felt confident, optimistic and raring to go.

 

            “Yes?” Even through the loudspeaker’s distortion Leigh could tell the voice was female.

 

            “Hi, yeah. It’s Leigh Carson – I start today.” This was said with a chipper air of false confidence which she hoped would fool electronic devices. Fact was, she hadn’t felt this nervous since she started grade school. Stomach churning as if facing the prospect of spending recess sitting alone while the cool kids mocked her.

 

            A brief silence followed by the sound of a buzzer. Leigh pulled the heavy door open. It looked and felt as if it had been designed to withstand a direct nuclear blast. It swung shut behind her with a finality that made her wonder if she weren’t about to be interred.           She waited by the elevators, unable to ascend without an access card. From the floor numbers counting down she could tell a car was descending. She wondered if the enigmatic Mr. Kyle Raitt would be on hand to welcome her aboard.

 

            But it was not Kyle who stepped out of the car when the doors finally snapped apart but a wiry looking girl with long, corkscrews of auburn hair and so many freckles crowding her sharp features that they gave the appearance that she was in fact sporting an all-over tan.

 

            “Hi,” said Leigh. “I’m Leigh. I’m here to work on some advertising and publicity for you guys.”

 

            The other girl subjected her to a stony stare then handed her a key card. “This will let you operate the elevators,” she explained. “If you become a permanent fixture they’ll assign you a key card and PIN number for the outside door and security system.” Her look seemed to say that she sincerely hoped this wasn’t going to be the case. She stepped back into the car. Leigh followed, her earlier exuberance all but extinguished by the other girl’s abrupt manner. Whatever happened to ‘Hi, welcome aboard,’ she wondered? She realized the woman hadn’t even bothered to introduce herself and wondered what on earth she could have done to incur her resentment because that’s undoubtedly what it was. She wasn’t wanted here and she wasn’t welcome. Leigh’s stomach lurched to a stop along with the car, an unfamiliar sea-sick feeling that she realized she hadn’t experienced since she’d had to do her first pitch as a green year twenty two old intern with a second rate degree in communications from a second rate college nobody had ever heard of. Except this was worse, she decided. At thirty-three she’d thought she’d done with having to prove herself. Now she was right back in the arena with a howling mob of spectators who couldn’t wait to see her fall flat on her face. She glanced down at the woman next to her and experienced the fleeting pleasure of knowing that the auburn locks owed more to L’Oreal than regressive genes. She squared her shoulders as the car stopped and the doors slid open. All she had to do was remember she was doing them the favor not the other way round. If she didn’t like it she could quit tomorrow. After all, it wasn’t as if she was getting paid to be ignored and cold-shouldered.

 

            “Ah, Leigh, there you are. Come on in, we’re just about to have a strategy meeting.”

 

            Well at least one person seemed pleased to see her, thought Leigh as she followed Kyle into a conference room. “You’ve met Fran I take it?” he added, indicating the silent, brooding redhead.

 

            “Yeah, sure. In fact, I already feel right at home,” Leigh couldn’t resist adding. The girl shot her a look but said nothing, taking a seat at the far end of the table.

 

            “Leigh, I’d like to introduce Tomio Bashar, our computer expert, Rosie Butler, our accountant, Wayne Bullock who’s in charge of membership and Brad Druban our campaign coordinator.”

 

            Leigh shook hands with each of them in turn. Tomio, a smiling compact man whose professional status belied his strength, Rosie, a smiling, friendly middle-aged woman with a mass of dark graying curls that clearly owed nothing to a formula purchased at Thrifty. Wayne, a thin, academic Britisher complete with tweeds and elbow patches and lastly Brad, a craggy, bull-shouldered man whose gentle expression seemed at odds with his massive physique. None of them looked like terrorists, Leigh thought. They looked like the kind of people employed by companies all over America. At least their reception was friendly, almost making up for the cold-shoulder she’d received from the other girl who now sat silently doodling on her notepad at the other end of the table. Again Leigh wondered what she’d done to warrant such off-hand behaviour.

 

            Kyle indicated that she take the seat next to him and she sat down gratefully. “Some of you may be familiar with Leigh’s work,” he was saying and she found herself blushing with shame recalling the chain of events that had led her here. But it appeared he was not out to embarrass her. “I’m sure Leigh will bring with her the professionalism and expertise our marketing has been lacking up until now and I think I can safely predict that she will be making a great contribution to our efforts in the field.”

 

            “This is throwing you in at the deep end,” he whispered apologetically as Wayne began to speak. “But if you sit in you’ll soon get the hang of how we operate.”

 

            Leigh nodded, uncapping her pen and folding back the cover of her notepad in preparation. As Wayne began to speak about the problem of membership attrition and building loyalty, she found herself making notes. Then Brad began to talk of the effect over-fishing and coastal decimation, not to mention tourism was having on the orca population of Puget Sound.

 

            “But there seem to be hundreds of them,” Leigh found herself saying. “I didn’t think Killer whales were an endangered species.”

 

            It was an opinion she instantly regretted voicing as Fran, silent until now, waded in. “That just shows how ill-informed you and the rest of the general population are,” the other girl sneered. “The orca population in Puget Sound is actually in decline. But then perhaps you didn’t have the time to go onto our website and check that out before you joined us,” she added clearly enjoying Leigh’s growing discomfiture. “The fact is that unless we do something to protect the salmon the orcas feed on, and to lobby for tighter regulations on the Eco-tourism boom we’re going to see so many boats out there you’ll be able to walk from here to Friday Harbor without getting your feet wet with not an orca to be seen.”

 

            For the second time that morning Leigh found her cheeks burning.

 

            “Leigh’s just getting up to speed on the issues, that’s why she’s here,” said Kyle throwing Fran a look. “I’m sure once she’s familiar with all the facts she’ll be able to tell us the best way to keep the general public informed. We need to look at things from a civilian perspective, not just the front line.”

 

            “The bottom line is that we need more regular donations. More people making monthly contributions or signing up for a year or even two years membership,” Wayne was saying. “You know, half the time I think people make a donation because it’s the anti-establishment thing to do rather than them actually believing in the cause.”

 

                Kyle’s eyebrows shot up. “Plenty of people sincerely believe in what we’re doing. If the oceans die we’re all history. That’s not a call to revolution, that’s a simple statement of fact.”

 

            “But you have to admit that our image isn’t exactly squeaky-clean. There’s plenty of people out there who still think we’re radicals. They probably think the Voyager is crewed by refugees from a sixties love-in with Steven Segal at her helm with a toke in one hand and a bomb in the other,” Wayne said.

 

“So, who needs them? We’ve got plenty of support and from the people that matter,” added Fran. “If we went for corporate sponsorship none of this would be necessary.”

 

            “We need them,” Wayne reiterated. “We need to convert more people. To educate them if you like on how important these issues are and that if on occasion our methods come across as a little extreme there’s a very good reason for that. We’re fighting for the lives of every living thing on the planet and not just the ones that live in the water either.”

 

            “I still think ~,” Fran began to be cut short by Kyle.

 

            “We’ve had this discussion before and I’m not about to change my position on it. No to corporate funding.”

 

Leigh glanced from one to the other. This was obviously a subject they’d locked horns over many times in the past. And while she hadn’t actually warmed to Fran on a personal level, she had to admit her idea had merit.

 

“May I ask what’s such a bad idea about it? Some companies want to be seen as responsible corporate citizens – we could milk the guilt factor and ~,”

 

Now it was her turn to be cut off. “Because we want to stay lean, accountable. Besides, corporations often have their own agendas – you should appreciate that more than anybody else here.”

She might have known Dapple would surface sooner or later. “I’ll tell you what the net result is,” Kyle continued. “Organizations so dependent upon their funding infrastructure they become unable to act, buying into the very establishment against whose practices they were originally set up to protest against. Take Greenpeace as a prime example.”

 

“But unless we bring big business over to our side how on earth do we expect them to change?” Fran persisted.

 

“Sorry,” interjected Leigh. “What was that about Greenpeace? I’m not sure I understand.”

 

Fran turned to her with a sneer. “Everybody knows Greenpeace sold out. They traded away dolphin protection in exchange for other concessions which were higher on their own agenda. At least, everybody with a serious interest in environmental concerns knows about it.”

 

Next to her she heard Kyle sigh. “That’s right. That’s why we aired our piece last month. To make sure the public understands that dolphins being killed in tuna nets is an issue that is far from resolved. Which goes back to my original argument that once we have a broad-based agenda instead of focussing solely on the oceans, once we go down the slippery slope to corporate funding, we cease to be accountable.”

 

There was a silence while the others digested his words. Despite her nervousness, it was Leigh who finally broke the silence.

 

            “Maybe we just need to re-frame the problem,” she said quietly, looking up from where she’d been drawing a picture of a killer whale on her pad. She was almost frightened after making such a fool of herself earlier to venture an opinion but had since decided that she had nothing to lose. “What you’re saying is you need more support from the average person in the street, not just the committed environmentalists.”

 

            “And just how do you propose to do that? Go stand outside Seattle Aquarium with a collection tin? Well I can tell you it’s already been tried,” Fran said.

 

            “No, actually I was thinking of something else.”

 

            “Shoot,” said Kyle.

 

            Encouraged she ploughed on. “What we need to do is convince people you’re not the Eco-bogeymen. We need to put an image, a face to the faceless corporation if you like,” her eyes sought Kyle’s face then just as quickly looked away. “You remember the Dr Seuss book, The Lorax?” She watched as they all, including Fran, nodded in turn. She had their attention now and was confident where she was going. “Remember what he said ‘I speak for the trees’? Well what above a fund-raising campaign aimed exclusively at schools, kids and their families? We use a catch phrase ‘I speak for the seas – Freeseas.’ We have educators that go out to schools and tell kids what it is we’re doing and what we’re up to. They can join The Crystal Voyagers. Their membership entitles them to a newsletter, offers on merchandise and even visit the Crystal Voyager whenever she docks at their city. We organize day trips for kids whale watching. For older kids maybe we even offer a chance to be part of Voyager’s crew for a month. We get them on side now, while they’re young because we’re looking at tomorrow’s congressman or manufacturer. And you get their parents alongside by default.  And here ~” she paused to hold up the rough drawing of a killer whale she’d been working on. “Look at this. This animal is really very visual. Symbolic even. You’re missing a great marketing opportunity if you don’t utilize it in the form of a trademark or logo or even on merchandising. I know you have the surfer for the ship but this can be exclusive for the younger members ~ ’ She quickly embellished the drawing by adding a figure on the back of the whale so that it looked as if it was being ridden by a surfer. “Even combine the two.”

 

                Opposite her she saw Wayne nodding in approval.

 

            “Visual? Symbolic?” Fran’s voice was laden with sarcasm.

 

            “I-I only meant that it would translate easily into a corporate identity,” Leigh stammered, the confidence she’d felt a moment earlier again vanishing faced with Fran’s criticism. She was beginning to feel more and more like a third grader who’d flunked a simple assignment.

 

            “Is that all you can do? Reduce a magnificent creature down to a cipher? You’re not selling floor wax now, or Dapple tuna for that matter. And just for the record, penguins don’t dance and they’re not going to halt factory fishing nor stop global warming either.”

 

“That’s enough.”

 

            Fran turned to Kyle. “She sees us as just another product to market and exploit,” she protested.

 

            “I said that’s enough.” Kyle paused. After a few moments Fran lowered her gaze back to the paper in front of her. “Personally all this makes sense to me. It accomplishes two things, allows us to build a new member base without I might add, compromising our stance on corporate sponsorship, and secondly it gives us a whole new image. In fact, this is just the kind of marketing savvy, excuse my jargon, we’ve been lacking.”

 

            Brad nodded. “I agree with Kyle. We’re great at the frontline stuff. It’s our corporate image that needs working on. I’d be the first to admit that.”

 

“Okay, let’s put it to a vote. I vote that we implement the Crystal Voyagers campaign without delay,” said Kyle.

 

            “Seconded,” said Tomio on his left.

 

            “Aye,” replied Rosie, Brad and Wayne in unison. Only Fran remained silent.

 

            “Then we’re adjourned. Leigh, grab a desk over there next to my office and just let Rosie know what you’re going to need in terms of resources to get this thing up and running. Fran – if I might have a moment of your time.”

 

            Leigh made her way over to an empty desk at the far end of the floor. She pulled out a chair and thankfully sank into it. Talk about a baptism of fire. She shook her head as she started to draw up a list of the campaign elements.

 

            Later, she looked up to find Fran standing over her. The girl was holding two cups of coffee one of which she handed to Leigh. Leigh, who would have been less surprised if the other woman had tipped it over her head, took it, muttering her thanks and wondering if she ought to employ a taster.

 

            “Look, I’m really sorry if I gave you a hard time back there. It’s just that I know how hard it is to raise every dollar and I don’t want to see a cent of it wasted.”

 

            “I understand and I appreciate your honesty,” Leigh replied with as much good grace as she could muster.

 

            The other girl paused. “So – would you like to go out and grab some lunch later?”

 

            “Yeah. I’d like that,” Leigh replied.

 

            Fran turned to go then stopped. “Oh, by the way, Rosie wants your account details.”

 

            “Come again?”

 

            “The name of your bank, account number, branch details, stuff like that. So we can pay your salary straight into the account.” She took in the other girl’s stunned expression. “Yeah well, you’re probably right. On the slave wages they pay us we’re practically giving it away for free. Anyway, drop in to see Rosie anytime you’ve got a spare moment. Catch you later.”

 

            Fran walked away. Leigh smiled and returned to her list. Maybe she did belong here after all.    

 

 

      The problems with the Eye continued to plaque Ben. First there was sound into resolution. Because most of the sounds dolphins made were beyond human auditory range, Ben had had to use a sound spectrograph to stretch the signals down to within the range of human hearing. A trip to an audiologist had confirmed Bethany’s hearing to be far more acute than average which gave him some leeway with the processor. However, determining the sound range was the easy part. The problem he had to resolve if the Eye were ever to work, was in determining the range and depth of the signal relative to the object being viewed. Added to that was the fact that air slowed down the signals, reducing their speed down to about four times slower than they moved through water and even then, very often the human brain just couldn’t cope with the speed of the information as it flooded in. So again, it would have to be slowed still further which raised issues of safety and reaction time. And it was this, ever shifting equation that made the task about as easy as calculating super string theories on an abacus. Even with the help of the monster processor on his computer, Ben was going to have to write the program that would make the calculations in the first place in order to encode the chips.

 

            Then there was another problem. The translation of the rebound signal into something that could be translated into logical data not by the processor, but by that most sophisticated of all hardware, the human brain itself. The mind would have to be taught how to think in a totally new way in order to make sense of the information it was being fed.

 

            Divers know that bones conduct sound. To communicate underwater they use ‘bone mikes’ that are tucked into the hoods of their diving suits. The mike consists of a small loudspeaker enclosed in a tiny, watertight capsule. When a signal is received it is transposed into vibrations, which are then transmitted through the microphones case and the divers skin to part of the bony structure of the skull, and thence to the ear-bone complex of the inner ear. These vibrations are then converted into signals which are passed along nerves to the brain. Dolphins perceive echolocation clicks in a similar fashion, via the lower mandible which then sends the signals to the tympanic bone and then on to the brain.

 

            The Eye, while utilizing the same process, at least in theory, needed the addition to two powerful microdigital audio processors. Positioned to make contact with the temples, their job was to transduce the signals from aural to visual and then feed them straight into the brain via the visual cortex. The human brain would not be able to differentiate between those being fed from the artificial Eye to those perceived by normal eyes. At least, that was the theory.

 

            So far, only the computers Ben jacked the Eye into could translate the signals correctly to form pictures, simply because that’s what they’d been programmed to do.

 

They had the technology. What they needed now, was a miracle.

 

            But there was only one way to solve all these problems in the end. Test it.

 

 

“Tell us what you see, honey.”

 

            Beneath the visor, Bethany’s forehead was wrinkled with concentration. They could hear the ping and return of the echo as she scanned objects in the room. The furniture. Ben. Conor. Lily. They all felt the brush of sonic fingertips before they passed on to the next person or object. “I don’t know how to describe it,” she said after a while.

 

            “Try sweetheart. Can you see anything, anything at all?” Ben encouraged.

 

            “Not really. It’s more like a feeling.”

 

            “Can you describe the feeling?” asked Conor.

 

            “It feels like pins and needles. You know, when you’ve been sitting in one position too long and your leg goes to sleep. Pins and needles in my head.”

 

            Lily got up and moved around to the front of the desk. “Bethany, are the pins and needles static – do they react to movement or do they remain constant, do they stay still?”

 

            Bethany had followed Lily’s progress with her head although whether she was following the sound or the movement Ben had been uncertain. “When you move the pins and needles move,” she said.

 

            She sonared again. The rebound brought with it a suffocating blanket of sonic dust. Bethany remembered stories she’d listened to. About adventurers in the Sahara being caught in sandstorms. The descriptions of what it felt like to be caught in howling, shrieking, stinging sand, driving into exposed skin like red-hot needles could almost apply to the Eye. Except the needles of sound that pierced her were cold, like tiny hailstones. She shivered. Everything hurt, especially her head.  She no longer felt she was safe in Ben’s office. She was lost, blowing away in a storm of auditory confusion with no way out.

 

Suddenly she started to cry. “Ben, I’m frightened and my head hurts.”

 

He crossed to her and she felt the movement, saw it almost like iron filings being drawn to a magnet. But the filings were like pinpricks and the magnet was her own eyes.

 

“It’s okay, honey. Let’s get that thing off you. Is it just the headache that frightens you, because we’ll get you some medicine?” Ben asked, concerned for her sudden pallor.

 

“I don’t like the headache, but I’m frightened of the light. I don’t know what’s in it.”

 

“Its okay, Beth. You don’t have to be frightened any more today,” Ben reassured her as he unhooked the Eye,

 

            “At least she can see something,” Lily said after Ben had removed the unit and Bethany was settled at a desk in his office with listening to Harry Potter on Ben’s i-Pod.

 

            “She may as well still be blind for all the good it’s going to do her.”

 

            “So, what do you think, Ben? Is this a problem with the transmission or the resolution?” Conor asked.

 

            “To tell you the truth, I’m not sure,” Ben admitted. “On the computer we have a perfect image but a computer screen is not, I hasten to remind you all, the mind of a human being. Yes, this thing is undoubtedly doing the job it was designed to do. The problem is that Bethany just can’t process the information it’s sending her into a visual image. Maybe it’s the microprocessor. I thought I’d brought the signals down to within the range of human hearing, especially Bethany’s range, which is, I have to say, more acute than most. Maybe I just over estimated her capability.”

 

            “So you’re saying this is a simple coding problem?” Lily asked.

 

            Simple? Whenever was a coding problem simple?  Ben shook his head in disbelief. Only someone with no knowledge of computer languages would say that, which was of course, why they said it. “What I have to do whenever we make adjustments to the processor is factor in the following equation: the variance of the pulse rate to the proximity of the structure. In other words, the closer the structure is, the faster the pulse rate.” And the faster Beth has to process it, he could have added, unnecessarily. “So I have to stretch the signals down, again. And slow down the pulses. Maybe then, she’ll see something other than white noise.”

           

                Zed had been right all along, Ben reluctantly conceded. All Bethany could ‘see’ even if it could loosely be called that, was a fog of digital static with no form or reason.     

 

Bethany’s headaches grew progressively worse over the next few weeks, as they strove to solve the problems with the Eye, culminating in a visit to the doctor. But even after a thorough physical examination he could find no physiological reason behind the attacks which had now assumed the persistency of a migraine.

 

                “I know this sounds crazy but if she were a sighted patient I’d say she was suffering from eyestrain,” the Doctor concluded. He prescribed analgesics for the headaches and urged Lily to bring the child back in a month if there was no significant improvement.

           

            Bethany still missed her momma, especially when her head hurt. Whenever she’d been sick at home she’d always had momma to take care of her. It wasn’t that Lily didn’t look after her. Lily was very kind. But when Bethany didn’t feel well all she wanted was her momma. Whenever Bethany felt sick just thinking about her momma could make her feel better. How momma used to come and tuck her up in bed with Puzzle. How momma would stroke her hair and put a cold compress on her forehead, like she had when Bethany had a fever one time when she’d caught the measles. Momma would stay in her room all night sometimes, just in case Bethany needed something or was frightened by a bad dream. But that was before momma became so quiet and distant. Before she and momma stopped spending so much time together. Before Uncle Carling.

 

                Bethany had begun to think that her momma was moving further and further away from her. It didn’t have anything to do with the fact that momma was back in Oregon and Bethany now lived at Seabourne. It was more a feeling Bethany got every time she spoke to her. Whenever Bethany called home her momma sounded more distant each time. As if their house had indeed been uprooted and it, along with the rest of Astoria had begun to drift out to sea along with the ships from the Columbia River. Bethany would tell her of all the exciting things she was doing but sometimes she felt as if her momma wasn’t really listening. Other times when Bethany called Uncle Carling had answered and on several occasions she hadn’t got to speak to her momma at all. Uncle Carling had told her momma was out or else if momma had come to the phone she had sounded like a stranger. A far-away stranger with her momma’s voice who told her she was busy and couldn’t talk for long.

 

            If Bethany were going to be able to see just like Ben promised, then how much of her momma would remain by the time that happened? Bethany wanted to see her momma more than anything else is the world. But the thought of seeing her momma, but there not being anything left of her momma to see, seemed to Bethany like the cruelest trick in the world. Not just because her momma would fade away at the precise moment that she became visible, but because of what might be there instead of her momma. Bethany had told Ben that she was afraid of what was in the light. But she had not volunteered about the comfort to be found in darkness. The darkness was familiar. It could be controlled. In it, things came to you. Politely. One at a time. To allow you to become familiar with them. But the light, Bethany knew without experiencing it, was something else entirely. The light knew nothing of such reticence. It was forward. Brash. Rushing in and throwing stuff at you all at once without so much as a ‘by your leave’. The light contained all kinds of unknown elements. The light contained Uncle Carling.

 

            As it was, this ‘Eye’, this miracle that Ben had promised, had so far delivered nothing but pain. But Ben had made a promised and in the short time she had known him, Bethany had come to know that promises were things that Ben always kept.

 

            For almost eight years the darkness had kept Bethany safe in its womb. Now someone was about to turn on the light.

 

               

“The problem could be that you’re simply getting too hung up on the clinical aspects of the problem instead of just trusting that this thing is going to work,” said Zed when Ben got home that night.

 

            Ben sighed. He’d spent the entire day code crunching and now Zed was trying to tell him it was a matter of faith rather than application. “Unless we understand fully the mechanics there’s no way we can replicate the process,” he insisted, attempting to rein in his fast stampeding temper.

 

            “All I’m saying is that instead of slavishly following some predetermined ‘My Science Project’ formula you should just go with your intuition.”

 

            “This isn’t some quacky new-age self help project,” he snapped and then bit back the rest. Don’t you know what I’m up against. This isn’t Zen funk. This isn’t some pipe dream we share over a few beers and a pizza which we both know damn well will never come true. This isn’t something you can just say a few affirmations over and that makes it all alright. I promised I’d give a little girl back her sight.

 

At least he thought he’d bit it all back. But somehow it made it over that boundary. Escaped out into the air between them, like verbal assault craft set on a suicide mission. It was only when he saw Zed’s face awash with hurt that he knew he’d done the unforgivable. Beached all his frustrations and insecurities on the shores of their relationship like an invading army. And the trouble now was there was nothing he could do to withdraw his words has they blasted away at everything he and Zed had tried to build.

 

“Just because they were dreams doesn’t make them any less real,” Zed had countered, falling back in the wake of his assault.

 

“I know, listen, Zed – I’m so sorry ~ “

 

“Hey, don’t worry about it. Besides, it’s not me you should be apologizing to. You’re trying to replicate something that’s hard-wired into our very being. Something we probably don’t even fully understand. The miracle of sight. This has gone way beyond transplanting a pig’s heart into some unfortunate heart-attack victim. You’re asking this poor kid to become like some kind of hybrid. To adopt the thought process of an alien species. Half girl, half dolphin. It’s a quantum leap. You’re Christ, man. If you pull this off you’re fucking Jesus Christ and God and Krishna and Mohammed and Buddha all rolled into one. This could be the biggest evolutionary jump for humankind since we evolved a thumb. No wonder you’re no longer interested in the life we planned together. They’re going to give you a Nobel Prize and be worshipping at your fucking altar for the next three thousand years.”

 

                “It’s not about me. It was never about me.”

 

            “Then what is it about? Because I sure as hell now know it’s not about us.”

 

What was all this? Ben wondered. Was he was so socked in to his work he’d lost sight of what was really important?  If so, he might as well be back behind his desk in Pioneer Square, writing DTP programs.

 

                Zed waited.

 

“I only took the job because of the world you showed me. I wouldn’t even be there if it wasn’t for you.” The truth of that statement slammed Ben hard down into a chair. He sighed at the realization. “I’m more than I was because of you. But I’ve made promises ~”

 

            “You made promises to me too. Listen, if you don’t pull this off, I’ll still love you, you know.”

 

            “Just checking.”

 

            “So let me ask you this, what do dolphins see when they sonar? Have you asked one recently? Does anybody know?”

 

“Dolphins see what we see only better. The image is essentially the same whether it’s seen or sonared,” Ben replied, relieved that they seemed to be back on solid ground. “The real difference is with the sonared image. As far as we can tell they see not only the outside but also the internal structure or skeleton of the object. A three-dimensional holographic image in effect.”

 

            “Superman eat your little red shorts. So you’re going to take this poor little kid and bombard her with all this and pretend its normal? She is going to have a perception of the world that is totally different to everyone else on the planet. Everyone without flippers that walks on dry land that is. Have those boffins up at Seabourne even considered for a moment what effect this is likely to have on this poor kid? I mean, how is she supposed to relate to the rest of us?”

 

                “She’s just the first. There’s going to be others.”

 

            “She’ll be turned into a walking freak show man, and you and I both know it.”

 

            “Hey, if I recall it was you who encouraged me to take this job in the first place.”

 

            “I thought you cared about this kid?”

 

            “I do. Why do you think I got her admitted into the program?”

 

            “Then what gives you or anybody else the right to play God with her?”

 

                “It’s not playing God. What is it with you? It’s restoring a faculty that each and every one of us takes from granted so she can live a normal life.”

 

            “What makes you so sure that’s what she wants?”

 

            “The kid’s blind for Christ’s sake! Of course it’s what’s she wants!”

 

            “Have you asked her?”

 

            It was several seconds before he spoke. “Never, ever, let me forget where my conscience is.” said Ben. “I love you,” he added.

 

                “Just checking.”

 

            Flip had emerged virtually unscathed from his close encounter with the whale aside from some minor abrasions where the whale had grabbed his arm to pull him under. “He was just playing,” he’d explained to a concerned Ben. Playing? Thought Ben. If that was playing he didn’t want to be around when things turned serious. Hadn’t Lily said that play that got out of hand was one theory behind the death of the killer whale trainer in Vancouver?

 

            But Flip had returned to work immediately after the incident. “I’m just like the crocodile bloke back home,” he’d joked. “Could probably get my own TV show if someone had a camera handy.”

 

Ben didn’t like to remind him that the man in question was dead. Even if his demise had been nothing to do with a Killer whale. In the interim, Ben and the trainer resumed their swims with the dolphins that had come to be a definite perk of the job, as far as Ben was concerned. And at least with the dolphins, he had nothing to fear.

 

            Ben admired Flip for his ability to shrug off what in his opinion, certainly amounted to something which should merit hazard pay. He wondered if the dolphin trainer was a typical example of the Australian population? With his laid-back sense of humor and inability to take whatever life threw at him seriously, if that was the case then Australia and its people were certainly worth exploring further.

 

            “I’ve never visited Australia,” admitted Ben, as they dried off in the shower room after their swim.

 

            “Best bloody beach resort on the entire fucking planet,” Flip informed him. “And better far weather than here, mate. I’d be back there right now if I had a choice. Trouble is, I wanted to work with orcas and no marine park in Oz has any. So, followed the black and white brick road up here, so to speak.”

 

            Ben nodded. His admiration for the man increasing, especially in light of the incident the other day.  “I’ve been meaning to go, that is my partner and I have. Maybe get down there for the Sydney Mardi Gras then head off up to the Barrier Reef afterwards.”

 

            But if he had looked for support for his adventure he had sought the wrong sponsor. Flip took a step back, an expression of revulsion writ large on his face.

 

            “Ah, don’t tell me you’re another pillow biter.”

 

            “I’m sorry, I don’t . . . “

 

            “That’s right. You don’t and you won’t. Strewth! Everyone acting like it’s something to be proud of.  Like we all gotta be happy for you. Glad to be gay. So you like to bugger blokes? Big fucking deal. Do they have a special day, a parade for blokes like me? Normal blokes. Straight Day? A parade, even? I don’t see that happening any time soon. So why do you think you deserve special treatment? You make me sick, the lot of you. Now get out of my sight. There’s only room for one sexual orientation in here and it’s already too crowded.”

 

Forget the old saying about eavesdroppers hearing nothing good about themselves or anyone else. In Denton’s experience the reverse was true. Not that he had ever been the subject of a conversation he’d overheard, of course. No. Fact was eavesdroppers amassed an entire storehouse of useful information. Personal information on individuals that at best could be deemed embarrassing and at the very worst could compromise their entire existence. Details to be hoarded, like precious jewels, their every facet examined, polished, and later traded to their owner’s advantage.

 

                From behind the equipment store Denton watched Ben depart. He’d overheard every word of the exchange between him and the dolphin trainer. So the guy was a faggot, so what? In every other respect he was so straight he made Bill Clinton look like a fairy. Paid all his bills on time. No criminal record, not even a parking fine. The only unpredictable thing the guy had ever done in his entire life had been to quit his previous job. Denton shook his head in disbelief. He was the frickin’ poster boy for the pansy boys, for fuck’s sake. If you son was going to turn out gay you’d want him to be just like this one.

 

                If there was one thing Denton couldn’t stomach it was prejudice in any guise, shape or form. He prided himself on his ability to carry out the requirements of his profession regardless of race, age, religious beliefs, gender or sexual orientation. He dealt with them all equally. Men, women, black, white, gay or straight, old or young, able-bodied or disabled, and in matters of conscience spared none so much as the remorse of an eye blink. The kind of petty, small-minded discrimination he’d just witnessed made him sick. It was against everything he stood for.

 

                He waited until Galloway was well out of earshot before ducking inside the store. O’Brien was still in the process of rolling off his wetsuit. Probably frightened Galloway would be overcome with lust at the sight of his pathetic little pecker, Denton thought in disgust.

 

            “Hey! Can’t you read – the sign says ‘Employees Only’,” O’Brien snapped, then recognizing Denton he relaxed. “Sorry mate. We get more daytrippers through here than Central Station.” He stopped. The other man just stood there watching him. His silence unnerving. “So – anything I can do for you?”

 

            “I heard what you said to Galloway just now and I came to tell you to keep your sick, homophobic thoughts to yourself.”

 

            O’Brien stared at Denton as if he’d lost his mind. “Oh yeah? Well, listen mate, maybe I’m a little slow on the uptake but did someone just part the clouds and appoint you God? Besides, what’s it to you?”

 

            “Let’s just say we all have skeletons in our closets we’d rather no-one found out about.”

 

            “Listen, I don’t care what you and the rest of your pillow-biting-pooftah-mates think. It’s a free country. Besides, I’ve got nothing to hide. Hetero, mate and proud of it. Now fuck off.”

 

            For all Denton knew, the man might well be heterosexual. But as for having nothing to hide, well, from what he’d gleaned about human nature over the years he knew that couldn’t possibly be true. And now he was going to make it his business to find out.

 

                After all, even he had his principles.

 

            So he’d go back to Australia if he had choice, would he? Well, Denton would make sure it was Hobson’s Choice.

 

 Back in his tiny anonymous motel room, Denton plugged the telephone socket into the modem and switched on his notebook PC. The place was too down-market for a cable connection but that didn’t worry Denton. He’d started on dial-up. 28K. Speed made little difference in what could be accomplished. Cable or even T1 just meant it got done faster. In Denton’s opinion a bad workman always blamed his tools. He typed in a password, heard the warble of the modem dialing, chirping like some synthetic bird. He keyed in another sequence, one that would enable him to by-pass both the telephone company and the normal Internet access provider billing systems. Wherever he went, no matter how long it took, it would register as nothing more than a local phone call billed to his room. He knew exactly how to route it, piggy-backing off other systems, the data streaming away down fiber-optic cables, off satellites, criss-crossing the country through half a dozen telephone exchanges in less time than it took Ma Bell to connect a local number.

 

            Data scrolled down the screen like a digital downpour, codes puddling together on the display like rain on a Seattle sidewalk. The terminal beeped once, indicating the link was complete. Denton sat down at the cheap Formica-covered desk, palmed the mouse, then launched himself out into the temporary space of the Net.

 

            As a teenager he’d felt it growing and had been one of the first to realize it’s potential, long before the general populace’s consciousness had been alerted to it’s many possibilities. To him, the Internet was nothing but the collective subconscious made real. Tonight, he leapt out into net-space, crossing oceans, a virtual commuter, following the lines of data, clues that would lead him to their source, arriving at his destination in a matter of moments instead of the fourteen hour flight demanded by conventional means.

 

            He entered the database without difficulty, selecting a lock picking code of his own devising. It took precisely 3.72 seconds to crack the 64-bit encryption password and gain him entry. Denton smiled without humor. In his profession there were very few challenges left.  He typed in a name and date of birth and watched as the records unfolded on screen. He pulled it all, gently, gently, from the records he’d accessed, copying it straight into his own files then exited, the cleaner program, again, his own innovation, following, removing any traces of him ever being there.

 

            A few creative embellishments of his own and the file was ready. The State Department. INS. The FBI. Their access codes were as familiar to him as most people’s home telephone numbers. He dropped the record he’d obtained into all of them, flagged it then exited. One ‘phone call, anonymous now, would be all it took.

 

            Satisfied, he leaned back in the uncomfortable pre-formed chair and stretched, his portable terminal still on-line to the Net. He looked at the blinking cursor on screen. Who was out there tonight? What games could he play? He touched his piece. The one place he most loved to travel and he had to leave it behind. There were ways of course. No matter where he went he could still arrange for his piece to go with him. Out there. So many lives waiting to be touched. So many souls wanting to unburden themselves of secrets.

 

            He keyed in another line of code and launched himself out into the netherworld of the nets once more.

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