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The Day the Dolphins Vanished - SF Short Story Preview
THE DAY THE DOLPHINS VANISHED
(C) 2010, 2017 Victor D. L
Beatrice Benson, BB to her colleagues and friends, would be at home in any exclusive beach resort anywhere in the world tanning her perfect body while her long, lustrous light-brown hair absorbed and weaved the sun’s rays into auburn and blonde highlights as legions of men tripped over one another for the chance to fetch her a cold drink, a towel, sun block or anything else her heart desired in hopes of gaining the simple reward of the flash of her brilliant smile. If she were not preoccupied by more important things, BB would have been amused by these attentions of which she was largely unaware, in part because she was not the type to frequent beachside resorts or spend much time lounging on beach chairs, and in part because her preternatural beauty and credentials—Ph.Ds. in marine biology, electrical engineering and linguistics all earned by her 30th birthday—quickly burned off the wings of desire of mere mortal men who were attracted to her like insignificant moths hovering about the seemingly friendly blue flame of a Bunsen burner, leaving them in a similar position in trying to hold a conversation with her as the average chimpanzee trying to grasp the finer points of the Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic.
Fortunately for both moths and men, not too many moths fly about the average lab, and not too many men hang around the out of the way craggy beaches and immense stretches of ocean that BB made her home while working largely on solitary projects, conducting research, writing papers, and otherwise contributing to the advancement of her fields with an I.Q. that Einstein would have envied and a work ethic that would have made John Calvin proud. Her current project had taken her to Florida’s Gulf Coast, near Navarre Beach in Santa Rosa County, but far from the crowded condo-dotted beachfront. A generous grant from the National Science Foundation allowed her to take her floating laboratory, a modest converted cabin cruiser, wherever she went, carrying its precious cargo of high-end computer and electronics equipment with which she hoped to bridge the communications gap between dolphins and humans.
Her study of the available data had long before led her to the conclusion that dolphins have a highly evolved language. Computer analysis of sounds emitted in the audible spectrum alone showed repetitions that closely mirrored speech patterns that span across all human languages. Lesser intelligent mammals emit sounds that convey meaning to their own species, but these are typically limited to communicating very basic information essential to the survival of their species, such as calls warning about danger, or the availability of food, or simply warnings for others to keep away. Even insects evidence the ability to communicate that kind of information to their own kind. But Dolphins and most whales are in a different category altogether, possessing brains that are larger than the great apes, including Homo sapiens, and evidencing the ability for complex communication.
It is one thing to recognize the fact that speech is taking place, but quite another to be able to decipher that speech, let alone translate it in a meaningful way so that it can be understood in its proper context across species. Even when dealing with human speech, it can be quite challenging to interpret from one language for another, even for native speakers of the languages being interpreted. But our shared humanity allows us to at least understand certain emotions, such as anger, fear, pain, sadness and love without the need for a universal translator. Drop a human being with money in her pocket anywhere on the planet and she will have little trouble finding food to purchase, the shelter of a hotel room, and an endless number of consumer goods that she can easily purchase at the local market. Moreover, she needs no language at all to determine the intentions of people with whom she interacts as there are an endless number of non-verbal clues that all of us emit that can allow others to, for the most part, accurately gauge our intentions and label us as either as probable friends or foes. The best machine translation available today still yields results that can range from comical to tragic depending on their context and use. Anyone who has ever tried to decipher instructions accompanying low-cost, assemble-it-yourself furniture or other similar consumer goods imported from non English-speaking countries outside of the U.S. can attest to that fact. Even when dealing with a common language, the very real possibility for misunderstanding exists due to the regional usage, slang and pronunciation variances from in different regions of the same country, and especially when dealing from a common language adapted by countries for their own use. An American from Mississippi and an Englishman from Liverpool both speak English, but will likely have some difficulty understanding one another, especially if they possess only a rudimentary education. The same is true for a Haitian and a Parisian, a Puerto Rican and a Spaniard (or, for that matter, a Spaniard from Galicia and one from Seville, Valencia, Madrid, or Barcelona, even if they are all speaking Spanish rather than their local regional languages). Indeed, the simple verb “coger” in Spanish which means—and has always meant—”to get, or to grab” to a Spaniard, means “to copulate” to an Argentine. Thus, “coge las llaves” (take the keys) means f__k the keys in the vernacular in Buenos Aires, and “cógeme de la mano” (take my hand) means something equally obscene.
Fortunately, when it comes to human languages, we have native speakers, interpreters, dictionaries and, when all else fails, comedians and diplomats, to help bridge the potholes along the road of cross-cultural communication. No such tools are available for inter-species communications, making the process of communication infinitely harder for both species, even when our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees, or other only slightly more distant, intelligent cousins, such as gorillas, are involved.
But what may seem like insurmountable challenges for the rest of us are only interesting, irresistible puzzles for the likes of BB who was uniquely qualified to tackle the problem because of her complementary competencies and inexhaustible patience. Using the resources of her university as a Professor of Marine Biology and her NSF grant, she had spent a one-year sabbatical working with a half dozen dolphins in an attempt to develop a dolphin/human speech interface. Aside from the dedicated software she had developed to achieve a real-time translation program, her equipment was relatively simple: a supercomputer, an all-weather outdoor, portable large-screen projection system and an extensive array of ultrasensitive microphones and speakers capable of recording and reproducing sound well below and above the normal range of frequencies audible to the human ear. With the equipment in place, the experiment methodology was simplicity itself: images—both still and video—were flashed on the screen with microphones above and below water recording the dolphin chatter while the English word or phrase accompanying the visual material broadcast in above and below water speakers. The overarching concept that BB banked on was that dolphins would be intelligent enough to make the connection of the attempt to communicate and be able to learn at least some rudimentary verbal concepts with the assistance of the usual reinforcements—treats, physical contact, and genuine care and attention being paid by a patient trainer. It was her hope that by recording and cataloguing the dolphin sounds that accompanied the flashing pictures her computer software would be able to distinguish the dolphin equivalents for at least some of these visual representations over time.
Her methods were simple, and they worked. . . .
***** END OF PREVIEW ****
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