Read Breakthrough Online

Authors: Michael Grumley

Breakthrough (5 page)





The front doors of the aquarium were locked and would not be opened again for eight hours.  All displays were off
and only a few overhead lights lit the long tiled floor.  Darkened posters lined the walls, barely legible in the shadows, displaying some of the aquarium’s upcoming events.

With all the lights off in the lab
the tiny blinking lights from the servers now gave the room an eerie glow.  The hum of the machines was much louder without the white noise from the building’s air conditioning system.  In fact, without the servers, there would have been no sound at all. 

The colorful data streams continued to dance across the top of the monitor on Lee Kenwood’s desk.  The IMIS system never stopped.  It continued relentlessly processing the data.

Suddenly all of the lines came together for a single moment, the point of intersection instantly highlighted by a large green circle.  A note sounded and letters appeared in the lower left hand corner. 
Words Translated: 1  - Estimated Accuracy: 77%

As suddenly as
they had stopped, the streams began dancing again.





Alison rode up to the back door of the aquarium and jumped off her mountain bike.  It was almost noon and she had promised herself she would only stop to get the mail she’d left the night before.  Her bills were just one of the casualties of working seventy hours a week for the last two years.  It was a miracle they hadn’t turned off her electricity yet.  She leaned her bike against the wall and retrieved her keys from the small pouch under the seat.  She unlocked both dead bolts and swung the door open with a squeak.  After a quick trot down the darkened hallway she unlocked
a second door and walked into the lab, now brightly lit from sunlight coming through the glass walls from the top of Dirk and Sally’s open tank.  She could see the dolphins on the far side swimming back and forth before a large pack of children, all pushing their noses against the cold glass.

Alison smiled and walked into her office, a small
nondescript room housing little more than a desk, computer, phone, and a foldup cot in the corner.  The books and paper were carefully stacked and organized, a reflection of her sometimes irritating attention to detail.  She pressed the button on her phone next to a blinking light and typed in her code.  The messages started playing aloud while she looked around her desk.

“Hi Ms. Shaw, my name is Jay Sunderland and I’m a reporter for the Miami Independent.  I wanted to come in and interview-”

Alison moaned and cut it off.  The next message wasn’t any better.  She continued scouring her desk for the envelopes.  Frowning she looked up and thought for a moment, then leaned and looked out through the doorway.  They were sitting on Lee’s desk with her cell phone on top.

She walked
briskly by and picked them up when something suddenly caught her eye.  She looked at the screen and her eyes shot wide open.  “Oh my god!” 

In a panic she reached for the phone, knocking it and most of the paper off the desk along with the mail.  She quickly picked up her phone and began typing a text message with her shaking hands.


The late morning sun shone through the slatted blinds and across a figure in a large queen bed.  The room was simply decorated with a large dresser and desk on top of which sat a laptop computer and a pile of papers.  Around the room were several pictures of group events, most with friends packing into the shot.  The settings of the pictures varied widely with some on the beach, some in mountains, and more in what appeared to be small and remote villages. 

A professed over-sleeper, Chris Ramirez was still face down in bed when his phone chimed.  Barely more awake than asleep, he sighed and felt absently for it on top of his headboard.  He rolled over and pushed the comforter off of his head.  He rubbed his eyes and held his phone up about a foot from his face and read the message.

“Oh my god!” he yelled.  He quickly tried to get up but tumbled out and onto the floor along with his sheets.  He desperately tried to kick them off and ran into the bathroom, dragging the top half of his bed behind him.  He stopped and read the phone again before dousing his face with cold water and running his wet hands through his messy brown hair.


In his small apartment, Lee sat in the living room and stared at a giant computer monitor.  With his hair sticking up and a fresh layer of stubble, it was clear that he had been in the chair for quite a while.  He wore a lightweight headset and watched the screen intently as his onscreen character moved in and out of large rooms carrying a giant weapon.  In the video game, his avatar scanned from side to side looking for enemies.  Seeing none, Lee relaxed and reached for a can of Mountain Dew.  He raised the
can to his lips and quickly emptied it just as his phone burst out playing Bob Segar’s
Old Time Rock and Roll
.  He reached for it keeping his eyes on the screen.  When he held it up and peered at the tiny LCD screen, he froze.  “Hooooly cow!”  He jumped out of the chair tearing his headset off and grabbing a pair of pants from an open dresser drawer.  He hopped and stumbled through the bedroom doorway with only one leg in.

Lee passed the doorway to the bedro
om where his wife was sleeping.  He quickly ran back in and yanked a t-shirt out of a large drawer.  “I gotta go honey!”


Frank Dubois and his wife sat at a small table on the patio of small French café.  A tall shade protected them from the already blazing sun.   He was reading the Wall Street Journal on a tablet computer while his wife nibbled on the last of her croissant and flipped through her Martha Stewart magazine.  She felt a tiny vibration against her hip and looked down at her purse hanging over the back of the chair.  “Ooh honey, your phone is buzzing,” she said, reaching in.

Frank lowered the
tablet and reached out for the phone.  He turned it around and looked at the screen.  He instantly jumped out of his seat, knocking over the entire table. 

“What, what is it?!” she cried, looking down to see if she was now wearing part of her breakfast.

He bent down and quickly picked up their things.  “We have to go!”


Lee’s old Volkswagen beetle and Frank’s BMW raced into the aquarium’s rear parking lot at the same time, both screeching to a halt next to each other.  Lee leapt out and ran in front of the BMW’s silver hood as Frank kissed his wife.  “I’ll call you later!”  With that he chased after Lee and disappeared into the dark hallway with the large steel door closing behind them.  They both sprinted down the hall and arrived to find Alison and Chris standing behind Lee’s desk looking at the screen.

“What have we got?!” Frank asked excitedly.

Alison didn’t reply.  She simply smiled and watched their expressions as they reached the desk and saw for themselves.

“Right on!” Lee exclaimed thrusting a clenched fist in the air.  “Three words!”  He grabbed the mouse and clicked on a button labeled “vocabulary” which brought up a small window with the three words listed within it;

Everyone shouted in excitement and pressed into a clumsy group hug.  Alison took a deep breath and covered her mouth with her hands, trying to keep calm.

Lee looked at the details of each word.  “Look at the accuracy, seventy-seven, seventy-eight, eighty-one!”  He smiled broadly.  “Can you believe it, the damn things actually works!”

“We don’t know that yet,
” Alison said.  They tried to remain calm but couldn’t seem to wipe the excitement off their faces.  “This may very well be an error.”  They all turned toward the tank.  Dirk and Sally were watching them from the other side of the glass, slowly moving themselves back and forth.

“They’re watching us,
” Chris said.

Alison smiled and approached the tank, placing her palm gently on the glass.  “They’ve probably never seen us this excited before.”

Lee looked at Alison.  “So…what do we do now?”

Everyone turned back to Frank, and he knew why.  Part of the project’s planning naturally covered what they would do in the event that the system actually translated something.  The protocol they agreed upon called for a series of data checks and careful documentation.  Of course those procedures left out one big factor, the sheer excitement and elation of the thing actually working.

Frank looked serious for a moment but was finally unable to suppress the smile.  “Let’s at least try to maintain
protocol.  Chris, grab a video camera and we’ll document later.”

Chris ran across the room and picked up a small camcorder while Lee slid into his chair.  He powered the camcorder on and pointed it at Lee’s monitor. 

Lee took a deep breath and typed out the word
.  He looked at them over his shoulder and clicked the large button labeled “Translate”.

Nothing happened. 

Chris began to speak when Lee held up a hand and stopped him.  Finally, from the underwater speaker submerged within the dolphin’s tank, a high pitched sound emerged followed by two distinct clicks.

and Sally suddenly turned and looked at the speaker.  They swam over and examined it closely.  They looked from the speaker back to the team on the other side of the glass, then back to the speaker again, where Dirk bumped it gently with his nose.  Sally swam closer to the side of the tank, briefly opening her mouth and returning the same sound with two clicks.

Suddenly the word
appeared again on the monitor just below the word Lee had typed.







Alison felt a lump in her throat.  She was so overcome with emotion and excitement at the same time that she could barely move.  Still grinning, she watched Chris and Lee trying to quickly verify the camera had recorded correctly.  Frank was sitting on the edge of a desk behind Lee’s chair, staring at the screen in a daze.  She knew what he was thinking.  Beneath the initial excitement lay a blanket of doubt.  After all they had only exchanged one word.  This could still be a fluke, or a computer error, or sheer luck.  But Sally had clearly spoken something
to them. 
Was it an actual exchange or were they simply repeating what they heard?

“No problems with the camera.  We’re good.”  Chris swung the camera back around to Lee’s monitor.

Lee looked over his shoulder.  “What next?”

“Try it again.  Let’s make sure we’re not hallucinating here.”

Lee nodded and for the second time typed
This time clicking the translate button without hesitation.  Again the sounds were repeated through the underwater speaker.  Chris swung the camera to Dirk and Sally.

Sally swam in a tight circle excitedly and came back to the glass.  She repeated the same sounds and the word
appeared again on the Lee’s screen.  He repeated the exchange a third time and again Sally replied.

There was no delay through the speaker this time,” Lee thought out loud.  “Which means that when IMIS translates a word for the first time it becomes permanent.  It

Alison took a deep breath.  Lee was right, this was not a fluke.  But it didn’t mean that the word actually meant “hello” either.  It could still be gibberish and Sally simply repeated it for them.  Even some human languages were so complex that the slightest variations in tone or inflection could make the language nearly impossible to learn.  The Navajo language was a perfect example.  Their system was so complicated that unless you were born into the language
, you would never be able to fully grasp it as an adult.  This was the reason it was so successful when used in World War II against the Japanese. 
Could the dolphin’s language be the same way?  Could IMIS think it was translating something that it actually wasn’t?

Chris pulled back from the camera’s eyepiece.  “Now what?”

Alison leaned forward.  “The question is whether we have enough words for actual context.  Send another word.”

Lee typed the word
and slowly clicked the translate button.

After several long seconds the speaker finally emitted a slightly different sound.  This time Dirk swam over and joined Sally at the glass.  No longer interested in the speaker he spoke first this time repeating the pattern.  The word
appeared on the screen as the second incoming word.

“Unbelievable,” s
aid Frank, running his hand through his hair.

Alison walked over to the tank,
and looked through the glass just a few feet from Dirk and Sally. 
Were they talking?
  She wasn’t so sure.

Suddenly Sally made several long screeches and clicks.  She swam again in a circle and repeated it.

The four looked at each other then back at the screen as Chris swiveled the camera back over Lee’s shoulder.  They all held their breath. 

Finally after a long pause the computer beeped with large red let
ters appearing in the translated window. 
Unable to Translate

“I figured as much,
” said Lee.  “Until IMIS has identified them, it won’t recognize new words.”  He turned back to the others.  “It appears we’re a little limited with three words.”

“Do we know for sure that it’s working?” asked Frank. 

Lee forced himself to remain objective.  “I think so, but it’s too early to tell.”

et’s at least try the last word,” he said.

nodded and typed the word
.  Clicking the translate button got the same response, again from Dirk.

After a long silence Alison
frowned and folded her arms.  “We need to wait for more words.”



Alison rubbed her eyes and looked up at Chris’ silhouette.  “What time is it?” she asked, looking around her darkened office.

“Almost five.  The sun will be up soon.”

She nodded.  “What’s up?  Did something happen?”

“We got another word.”

“Really?!  What?”
She rolled off the cot and jumped up.

“Come and see.”

She passed him and raced to the desk.  “Food.” she said with a smile.  “Have you tried it yet?”

ope, we were waiting for you,” Lee said, approaching from behind with a can of Coke.  Frank followed, looking as though he’d just been woken up as well.  “Ready?” Lee asked sitting down.

Alison looked at the tank. 
Dirk and Sally were already awake and looking at them expectantly.

“How about ‘Food Yes’?” she offered.

They all gave her a strange look.  “Food yes?”

Lee raised his eyebrows. 
“Ah I see. Very clever.”  He looked at Chris.  “Ready to roll?”

Chris quickly stepped behind the camera and started recording.  “Hit it.”

With that, Lee quickly turned and typed
Food Yes
and clicked the translate button.

After hearing it Dirk, suddenly very excited, replied with a single familiar response and the word
appeared on the screen.

Lee smiled at Alison
, but spoke to Chris and Frank.  “By asking that, she provided an option for a single word response, differentiating between what was asked and also eliminating it as a simple repeat.  That gentlemen is a bonafide translation!”

Oh my God!

Frank jumped up and suddenly turned to leave the room.  “Wait right here.”

“Where are you going?”

He stopped in the doorway and looked back at her.  “To get some champagne.”  He looked past them to the dolphins.  “And someone get Dirk and Sally some food!”


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