Read Breakthrough Online

Authors: Michael Grumley

Breakthrough (2 page)





The silver doors opened and John Clay stepped out of the oversized elevator. With a sharp right he made his way down the long white hallway of the Pentagon’s D ring.  From the far end of the hall, Admiral Langford spotted Clay and broke off his conversation with another officer.  He walked to meet him and handed Clay a thick folder.

, Clay.”  The admiral was shorter by a couple inches but moved erect and with a sharpness that always made Clay feel he was looking up.  They met several years prior when Admiral Langford took over the department.  He’d been under Langford ever since. 

Clay fell into step with
Langford as he opened the folder and scanned the first page.  “A computer glitch, sir?”

“Apparently there’s more to it,
” Langford responded calmly.  “It was originally filed as a glitch but we can’t replicate it.”  He nodded to a woman walking past them.  “Navigation system was working perfectly since the sub left port and then all of the sudden they’re fifteen miles off course.”

Clay tried to keep up while flipping through several pages of what most would consider random computer code.  “Any changes in direction?”

“No change in direction, same course but fifteen miles further out.”  Langford could see the problem taking hold in Clay’s head.  Clay was one of the best analysts he’d ever had, with a mind like a steel trap.  Langford never had to repeat anything to him. 

“Sounds like that would rule out
drift or cross currents.  Might be something with the engines if it were one of the older subs but the new class measures speed by GPS too.  How about a satellite problem?”

They turned and continued down another hallway adorned with pictures of past military officers.  “That’s what I thought, but so far we haven’t had anything else reported.”

Clay spoke without realizing it.  “Those sats are all semi synchronous, a GPS receiver is never locked onto the same six signals.  Which means by now-”.

“They’re all part of other sets.” 
Langford pulled out a security card and swiped it through the reader next to a giant door that read DNI in large blue letters.  “We identified all the sets that the Alabama was using for that entire week and ran checks on them individually.  Nothing.”  Langford swung the large door open.  “How was the trip?”

, sir.”

“I’ll make it up to you.”

The Department of Naval Investigations was a large department and took a large part of the Pentagon’s second floor, rings A through E on the west side.  Consisting of several hundred staff, most specializing in legal and personnel issues, the department was growing as a result of the softening of military policies.  Personnel issues such as harassment had skyrocketed over the last several years as the military struggled to adapt to twenty-first century expectations.  Next to legal and HR, the Navy’s technology group was small by comparison.  Clay’s team was smaller still. 
Electronics and Signaling
was a specialty that very few understood, let alone were interested in.  Even the brass, who were often technology’s strongest advocates did not really want to know
, they just wanted it to work.  Clay’s E&S team often had to find out why a technology was
working, where the failure occurred and why.  It required expert level knowledge in a wide variety of technologies including computer chip design, networking, signaling and a thorough understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Clay turned a corner and passed a number of offices.  His aide
, Jennifer, was clearly expecting him when he opened the door and walked through.

“Hi John.” She said hanging up the phone.  “How were the Caymans?” 

“You would have hated it,” he smiled and moved past her into his office, “No reality TV.”

She grinned and followed him with a folder of her own.  “I’ll be sure to cross it off my list.”  Jennifer laid the folder out and set aside his stack of messages which Clay eyed with dismay. 

“All of these in just three days?”

“You’re a popular guy.”  She flipped through the folder for his benefit.  She pulled out a number of documents from the back.  “And these need your signature.”

“What would I do without you?”

“Oh stop, you’re going to give her a big head.”  They both looked up to see Steve
Caesare in the doorway smiling.  At six foot with matching dark hair and mustache he was one hundred percent Italian but without the ties to the mob, or so he said.  Caesare and Clay had been friends since the beginning, meeting in the earliest days of their now twenty-two years of service and working through most of those years and several departments together. 

Jennifer smiled and left the room, flicking him on the arm as she passed.

Steve entered and sat down in a chair across from John’s desk.  “Our leaves are getting shorter and shorter, pretty soon they’ll be shorter than our lunches.”

Clay dropped
Langford’s folder onto his desk and fell into his chair, turning it toward Caesare.  “You’re lucky you didn’t come, the shorter it is, the more depressing the return.”  He took a deep breath.  “Tell me why we do this again, for love of country or something?”

“It’s the chicks.”

“Langford talk to you already about the Alabama?”

“Yeah, I gave him that same folder this morning.” 
Caesare stretched out his legs and leaned back.  “It’s strange.  I haven’t seen anything like it.  Probably not earth-shattering but they want to put back out quickly before the crew gets lethargic.  We’ve been working with their technicians, going through everything with a fine tooth comb.”

“Find anything?”

“Not yet.  We’re about to start tracing out cables.”

Clay sighed and leaned forward, opening the Alabama’s folder.  “Were there any other vessels nearby using the same satellites?”

Caesare shook his head.  “No, the closest ship was only using four of the same birds, not enough for a true comparison-”.  He was interrupted by his cell phone.  He looked at the number before answering.  “Hey, any news?  Okay, be right there.”  He ended the call and stood up.  “Borger may have something.”  



Will Borger was a true throwback from the hippy generation, though technically a few years too young to actually qualify.  He wore his hair long in a ponytail, likely trying to make up for the top of his head which was losing ground.  He routinely wore round glasses and loose fitting Hawaiian shirts.  He was the epitome of
the old computer geek and Clay and Caesare liked him immensely.

The two walked into the lab, filled with computer and satellite equipment, some so complex that it was almost unrecognizable even to them.  Most of the shelves were a tangle of wires and cables, connecting dozens of monitors, computers, oscilloscopes, and amplifiers.  Clay estimated that Borger had enough coax cable in his office to start a television company.  A wooden desk sat in the corner under an old lamp
with almost a dozen keyboards, some stacked on top of each other.

Borger stood nearby hunched over a table covered with a giant red and white map.  He looked up with raised eyebrows.  “Hey Clay, I didn’t know you were back.”

“Yeah, almost like it never happened.”

, you must have gotten called back for the Alabama, I hear they want to get this zipped up and back out to sea next week.”

glanced down at the map.  “What’s this?”

“The Earth. At least part of it.  I finished stress testing the
sats and didn’t find anything so I decided to take a look at the coordinates using the new Jason-2 satellite.”

Clay was familiar with the Jason-2.  Replacing its predecessor the Jason-1, which itself replaced the TOPEX/Poseidon, the first satellite designed to study the planet’s magnetic field.  Those early missions had changed how satellite computer chips were designed and significantly increased their ability to withstand high doses of solar radiation, resulting in a boon for the satellite industry.  Yet while the first two returned a wealth of information, the Jason-2 was the first craft sensitive enough to detect fields closer to the surface.  He recalled the launch creating quite a bit of excitement among the scientific community.

Borger continued.  “The maps won’t be completed for a few more years but because of its launch orbit the equator was the first area to be mapped, including the Caribbean where the Alabama reported the problem.”

They moved in closer.  “And?”

“Well here’s the rest of the equator and here’s the area around Bimini,” he said pointing to a large darkened circle.  “According the J-2 there appears to be a very high level of magnetism here.”

“Any chance of a fluke?  Maybe the instruments aren’t calibrated yet.”

Borger shook his head and ran his hand over the rest of the map to straighten it.  “I don’t think so.  As you can see the rest of the measurements are accurate.  Pretty coincidental that we’d see a glitch happen right here.  If I had to guess I would say the sea floor has an unusually dense iron composition.”

Clay looked up.  “But that shouldn’t affect GPS.”

“Well maybe not by itself, but we’ve been having small solar flares all month, and those have been known to throw off all kinds of things especially satellites.  The flares we had on the day the Alabama experienced this problem were pretty small but with the area having a high iron concentration, the ionization may have rendered the satellites unable to accurately pinpoint their position.”

“How long did the flares last on that day?”

“Six or seven hours I think, I’d have to check.”

Clay stood up and tapped his finger on his chin, thinking.  “So if the flares were the cause we could expect to see inconsistencies in the sub’s data for up to six or seven hours prior?”

“Probably,” nodded Borger.  “They may be
subtle inconsistencies though depending on how close they were to the area and their heading.”

Clay looked back to Borger.  “Can you find out exactly how long the flares lasted?”  he then turned to
Caesare.  “Let’s pull all the sub data for that entire day.”


Four hours later Caesare walked in and dropped a giant stack of paper on Clay’s desk.

“The Alabama’s complete log from the 31
.  Communications, navigation, propulsion…everything except the ship’s menu.”


Caesare shook his head.  “Nothing.  Not a single discrepancy.  And let me tell you, that is one boring read.”

Clay flipped through the pile.  “Borger says the flares lasted almost eight hours, off and on.  Anything else from the tech team on board?”

“Nope.  They’re still tracing and testing cables but I don’t expect to find anything.”

They both knew that the cabling was more
of a formality than anything else.  A last act of diligence for the sake of being thorough.  Wiring and insulation in these subs were meticulous.  Rarely was the cabling ever found to be responsible.  He pushed his chair back, finally shaking his head after a long moment.  “Well whatever it was it wasn’t a solar flare, or a systems problem.”

,” Caesare added leaning against the door frame.  “We going out?”

Clay nodded.





Alison sipped her tea and stared intently at the screen.  It was about to start, and she could almost hear her heart beating. 
What’s with the anxiety?
she thought to herself. 
You’d think you were the one on television.
  She was rarely nervous, if you could even call this nervousness.  It was more excitement than anything else.  Her press release had been picked up by dozens of papers and news broadcasts, all wanting an interview.  She would never have imagined that kind of response, but with the progress they had made recently, maybe it was not so surprising. 

What was surprising
, was that they managed to make it on television and quickly.  NBC called and wanted Dubois to be part of their Monday show, just three days after their press release went out.  Previous announcements, albeit less exciting, had only been picked up by local papers.  Something about their latest news sure got somebody excited.  It made Alison wonder who got bumped.  Hopefully some corporate executive lined up to hype a new product line or brag about how much richer they were.

Chris Ramirez approached with his own mug and looked at his watch.  “Didn’t start yet
, did it?”

She shook her head and bobbed her tea bag a couple times.

“You know you should have gone with him,” he said, taking a tentative sip.

Alison shook her head.  “Nah.  He’s better at this kind of stuff.”

“True,” Chris said, with a shrug.  “Definitely doesn’t have anything to do with him loving the spotlight.”

She raised her cup to hide the grin.

Suddenly Matt Lewis’s face filled the screen, his words barely audible until Lee turned up the volume.  “Here we go!”

“…at the Miami City Aquarium where a team of marine biologists have been
trying to do the unthinkable.  Talk to another species.  With me today is Frank Dubois, the director of the center and the research being done there.  Welcome Dr. Dubois.”

“Thank you
, Matt.”  Frank’s face filled the screen and both Chris and Lee let out a whoop.   He looked good, comfortable on camera, much better than she would have.

“Doctor, I have to say, this is really exciting.  I never knew there was such research being done at the aquarium.  How did this all get started?”

Frank flashed his perfect smile and shrugged graciously.  He was a natural.  “Well the idea is not all that new, but the technology required for this approach was not available until very recently.  We started with a small grant and eventually garnered enough interest to pay some salaries.  In fact, much of the first two years of research was done on a volunteer basis by our senior researcher Alison Shaw-”

Lee Kenwood leaned over and gave her a friendly bump.  “Alright Ali.”

“It’s a miracle,” Chris mumbled under his breath.

“Stop it!”  She blushed and stared back at the screen.  Accepting compliments was not her strong point.

Lewis continued on screen.  “So tell me about this IMIS system.”

“Well it’s a distributed computing system which means we divvy up the load to a lot of smaller individual computers, over a hundred in this case.  This gives us processing power much greater than what we could achieve even with a super computer, and at a fraction of the cost.”

“And what does IMIS mean?

“IMIS is short for InterMammal Interpretive System.”

“And this IMIS translates the language?” asked Lewis.

Frank smiled.  “Well not yet.  But basically, yes IMIS works by recording all of the recognizable sounds from our dolphins; all of their clicks, whistles, even postures.  Once all of those have been captured in multiple scenarios we then start the translation process using an advanced artificial intelligence program.”  He smiled again.  “Or at least we attempt a translation.”

Lewis frowned.  “So is this going to work, I mean how long will it take to make this kind of breakthrough?”

“Well the recording phase, or what we call phase one, has been completed.  Now we’ve begun phase two which is Translation, and that’s all computer.  Unfortunately since this has never been done before we really don’t have an estimate on how long it will take.  But the intelligence program is designed to learn as it goes, so every day it should get a little bit smarter.”

Lewis shook his head incredulously.  “How on earth do you write a program that talks to dolphins?”

“You get IBM’s help.”  They both laughed.  “IBM is actually one of our sponsors.  They have donated most of the hardware and a lot of programming brainpower.  The software is really quite impressive.”

“I bet it is,” Lewis continued, looking down at his notes.  “It says here that NASA is also one of your sponsors.”

“That’s right.”

Lewis shook his head.  “Okay IBM I understand, but why NASA?  What interest would they have in something like this?”

“That’s a common question.  NASA is more interested in the technology that we’re using than us actually making contact.  They are hoping to build on the technology and one day use it to communicate with an alien intelligence.  If they find one that is.”

“Really?”  Lewis was genuinely surprised.

Frank took a sip of water and nodded.  “Yes.  Their thinking is that our hopes of communicating with aliens are pretty remote if we haven’t even learned to communicate with another species on the same planet.”  He shrugged.  “The fundamental approaches should be very similar.”

“And here you are on the verge of doing just that.” 

Frank smiled again and raised his hand in a cautionary gesture.  “Well, I don’t know if I would say on the verge.  We’re
, a lot closer than say we were six years ago, but there is still a lot of work to do.  In all honesty we may still be in for a very long wait.  Like I said it’s up to the computers now.”

“So if you are able to translate what will you say?  Obviously you’re not going to ask them what it’s like to be a fish.”  The audience laughed.

“Well, we might still ask them that,” Frank said with a smile.  “But no, it’s going to depend on what we can translate, if anything.  Dolphins are the second smartest animal on the planet and they are the only species besides humans that are self-aware.  For example, when you put a mirror in the tank, dolphins will actually look at themselves and even examine their bodies.  They understand the connection and the fact that there is a world around them, so the depth of exchange possible here is staggering.”

Lewis scooted forward slightly with genuine interest.  “Let me ask you this, without knowing what level of translation
be possible, what at this stage are you
for?  In other words what are you hoping to learn if all goes well, even if it takes years?”

Frank tilted his head momentarily considering the question.  “Well
, first and foremost we would want to know who they are as a species.  And by
I mean us humans, would want to know, as one sentient being to another, as one civilization to another.”


“Yes,” he continued.  “We define a civilization as an advanced state of society.  Obviously they have no technology or industry but government and culture are huge components of what we consider a civilization.  Like humans, dolphins are social creatures.  We know they live and operate in large groups, sometimes in the tens of thousands.  But what is really exciting is the idea of culture.  Again dolphins are extremely intelligent, compared to the rest of the animal kingdom.  They even have a sense of humor.”

Alison watched the salesman emerge in Frank.  This was how he got their funding year over year.  He was a god.

“We know dolphins have a complex language.  But imagine…if they have the ability to pass information, not just to each other, but from
generation to generation
.  We could be talking about a lineage, about a progressive cognition.  That is culture!” 

The idea had not been lost on Lewis.  He sat motionless for a moment before speaking.  “Wow.  That is really exciting.”  He reached out his hand.  “We wish you the best of luck and can’t wait to have you back.” 

“Thank you.”  Frank smiled and shook.

“Dr. Frank Du
bois,” Lewis said closing, “Director at the Miami City Aquarium.”

Ken reached forward and turned the volume back down.  “Maybe now we’ll get some real funding.”

Alison smiled, her fingernail still between her teeth. 
Not bad
, she thought,
not bad at all


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