Read Breakthrough Online

Authors: Michael Grumley

Breakthrough (6 page)

12

 

 

 

Clay and Caesare walked into Admiral Langford’s office and silently closed the door behind them.  He motioned for them to sit as he held the phone to his ear with the other hand.  They sat relaxed, having been in the office many times.  Langford’s office was actually where most of their discussions took place, both formal and informal.  While officially a bureaucrat, Langford still tried to remain involved in many of the details of his department, particularly on the technical side.  He was adamant that any leader who did not or could not understand the fundamentals of what their teams did, should not be leading those teams in the first place.  He insisted it made for better decision making and created a more efficiently run department and his department’s achievements were hard to argue with.

It had been two weeks since their trip to Emerson’s ship.  After three days of searching for the lost Triton rover with an older submersible they were forced to return to Washington and file a formal requisition to go back out and finish the job.  Judging from
Langford’s expression they knew what was coming.

Finishing the call, he hung up wit
h a sigh.  “Well the sub is out,” Langford said.

“They know that we can’t hope to find the Triton or replicate the probl
em without taking a sub down,” Clay replied. 

Langford
nodded.  “They know, I made that abundantly clear.  It’s just too damn expensive.   With these democrats cutting our budgets, we just can’t justify spending a couple million dollars to steam out there and run some tests.”

“What
about Emerson’s submersible?” Caesare asked.  “They still haven’t found it and that’s going to be one expensive piece of equipment to write off.  We could be looking for that at the same time.”

Langford
shook his head.   “Let’s not give up on the Triton.”

Clay was not surprised.  It was not the first time they were held up because of funding.  Sooner or later everything came down to money.  What bothered him the most was that in all likelihood the decision was based on a spreadsheet rather than a death certificate.  If the Alabama had been in the Mariana Trench when it had the error, it could have smashed into one of the trench walls and turned that submarine into a giant tomb.  Clearly someone had decided that this was an isolated system malfunction, something he could not deny without more testing.  Of course he could not confirm it without testing either.  Another shining example of naval bureaucracy.

“Well if the Navy wants the Triton but we don’t have access to a sub,” Caesare started, “how exactly are we supposed to recover it?”

Langford
smiled.  “Funny you should ask.”

 

 

 

 

The United States Geological Survey was created in 1879 when President Rutherford B. Hays signed the bill appropriating the designated funds.  Based in Reston
, Virginia the USGS had the task of providing detailed data on the planet’s myriad environments and ecosystems.  With a budget of just over one billion dollars, nearly 400 locations, and a network of over 10,000 scientists, technicians, and support staff, the scientific reach of the USGS was enormous, and the reason why the department’s Director Kathryn Lokke routinely got very little sleep.  With a tumultuous rise to the head of the organization, and with the previous director being caught in a scandal of fraud and extramarital affairs, Lokke had her hands full trying to run things and repair the damage to their image. 

The irony was that the USGS was one of the better run organizations in the public sector; something
Lokke thought about often.  She could not help but take it personally since she had spent the better part her career at the USGS.  In fact, Lokke was not only one of the first female directors of the department, but arguably the most scientifically capable as well, when compared to her predecessors.  She had been a lead scientist for years and headed some of the organization’s most difficult projects, which was why she found the job of running it all the more frustrating.  She was not a bureaucrat and loathed having to play one, something else she thought of often, especially as she exited the room after her 10 a.m. conference call.

Lokke
walked quickly back to her office on the top floor and almost made it past her assistant without being stopped.

“Ms.
Lokke!” said Richele as she put down the phone.  “Mr. Haines just called and said he needed to talk to you urgently.”

Lokke
frowned.  “About what?”

“He didn’t say.  But he’s on his way up.  I thought perhaps you would like me to bump some other…perhaps more annoying meeting instead”.

Lokke could not keep from smiling even after being stuck on the phone all morning.  Richele was obviously talking about Albert Petriono, the head of Energy and Minerals.  Someone everyone tried to avoid.  “Thanks Richele, that would be great.”

She winked.  “Already done.”

 

Haines burst into the office two minutes later and quickly closed the door.

“We have a problem.”

Lokke
was startled.  This was very unlike him.  She pushed her laptop away and gave him her full attention.  “What kind of problem?”

“Have you been told about the earthquake in the Antarctic?”

“Briefly this morning.”

Haines took a deep breath.  “It was near the Ronne.” 

“Did we get another break off?” Lokke asked, thinking about the giant, island-sized piece of ice that had broken off the Ronne Ice Shelf a few years earlier.

“Well for starters, it was no
ice quake.” 

Lokke’s
expression became concerned.  “Go on.”

“We’ve got a couple researchers there in the Halley camp; got thrown out of bed in the middle of the night.  The next morning they went out to take a look.  They found a crack, a big crack.”

Lokke held her breath.  “How big?”

“Miles. “

Her next question was very deliberate.  “Where?”

Haines inhaled slowly.  “Beyond the shelf, on land.  About ten miles in.”

She stared at him for a long time then finally leaned back in her chair.  “Jesus.”  Haines sat silently while it sank in.  Lokke looked at a large map on the wall of the Earth’s southern hemisphere.  “How bad is the slide?” she asked.

“Fourteen feet.”

“Oh my god!”  She shook her head in disbelief.  “Has this been verified?”

“Yes.  We had a plane fly down from McMurdo.  They ran the length and measured 43 miles, most of it on land.  The ground team verified the slide depth nearest the camp.  It looks pretty consistent from the air.  It was strong enough to set off all the seismic instruments on the continent.”

Lokke knew what that meant.  Even though the Antarctic was a rather small land mass, all of the earthquake sensors being triggered meant the shift was powerful, very powerful.  “Let’s get a large team and some equipment out there right away.  We need to get all the measurements and verify with a ground penetrating scan before we communicate this out.”

Haines nodded.

“In the meantime, I’ll start getting people together.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

13

 

 

 

Chris replaced the camcorder’s tape with a new one and handed the old tape to Alison who applied a small label on its back displaying a tiny barcode.  She then passed it under an optical
scanner which recorded the number and brought up a small field on the computer’s monitor to add notes.  She typed a short summary of the exercise they had just completed and hit enter, adding the entry to the database.

“Ready for the next one?”
Chris asked.

“Let’s give them a break,” s
he said looking at Dirk and Sally.  She glanced down at her watch. “It’s almost feeding time and I’m sure we’ve got a-”

Food now.
  Sally’s words came over the speakers.

Alison smiled.  She leaned over and typed
Yes, food now
and clicked the translate button.  She turned around and picked up the phone to call the aquarium’s feeding team.

Thank Alison
, came the mechanical reply.

Alison suddenly froze.  She dropped the phone and turned around to look at the tank.  Both Chris and Lee had done the same.  After a long silence, they all turned toward each other.

“What did she say?” asked Alison.

Chris leaned past Lee and looked at the monitor screen.  “Did Sally just say
ALISON?”

Lee scooted forward and studied the screen.  “Uh…she sure did.”  He raised one of his eyebrows.  “How the hell did she do that?”  Lee typed several words on his computer and hit the enter key.  Another window opened, displaying the transaction log files and hundreds of lines of cryptic text.  He identified the last line translated and looked at the attribute signature of the word
Alison
.  He then scrolled down examining the log details for all translations over the last two days.  “Aha!” he said triumphantly, but suddenly leaned back in his seat with another thought.  “Oh wow!”

“What is it?” Alison pressed.

He did not answer immediately.  “Wow that is really something else.”

“What already?!”

“Context.  IMIS translated for context.”  He almost seemed to be talking to himself.  He quickly snapped out of it and looked at Alison and Chris.  “You see, the design of IMIS’ artificial intelligence, part of what allows it to learn, is trying to identify context.  This is basically the relationship between multiple variables to achieve what it believes to be the best accuracy.”

Chris frowned.  “This is starting to sound Greek.”

“Look,” Lee said, starting to get excited.  “Let’s say IMIS is trying to figure out the word
hello
.  If it thought it identified the right dolphin sound for
hello
but that sound was emitted when the dolphins were moving away, the context of that interaction would show that translation to be wrong.”

Alison nodded.  “Of course.”

“Obviously that’s an over simplified example.  What IMIS just did was apply that context on BOTH sides of the translation.  Look at this!”  He pointed to the translation logs on the screen.  “What Sally said was not
Thank Alison
, she actually said
Thank girl
.  But IMIS not only identified and translated
girl
successfully but it also used its context algorithm to recognize that Alison is the only female among us; probably based on her computer account since she has been typing some of the words to Dirk and Sally.  Therefore IMIS recognized that the message was meant for the only girl and substituted Alison’s name.  Hell it even capitalized her name.”

“Holy cow.”

“Holy cow is right,” Lee replied, “IMIS is even smarter than I thought.”  He looked at all the servers on the far wall with their hundreds of blinking lights continually churning through the data.  “No wonder it’s making such fast progress.”

The phone rang interrupting them.  Alison quickly picked up the receiver.  “Ali here.”

“Hi Ali, its Frank.  Can you come up to my office please?”


Uh sure,” she said nodding.  “Can it wait twenty minutes?  We’re right in the middle-”

“Actually it can’t,” he broke in.  “I need you up here right away.”

“Okaaay, I guess I’ll be right up.”

Chris gave a disappointed frown.  “What, he can’t wait twenty minutes?”

“Evidently not.”

“What’s up?”

“No idea.  He just said he wants to see me.”  She let the phone drop back into its cradle.  “Check on their lunch, will you?”

“Will do.”

With one last glance at the dolphins, she turned and headed for the stairs.  She was in a good mood.  They were making excellent progress with the project in the last couple weeks, and as much as she knew Frank liked to grandstand, she was thankful that he agreed not to issue another press release after that initial translation.  The attention they got from the morning show alone overwhelmed them with everyone wanting to come see Dirk and Sally.  It was great for ticket sales but with a host of people, including the mayor, all coming down for public appearances and photo ops, it slowed their work considerably.  Frank enjoyed the attention but the rest of the team was frustrated with the delays and hobnobbing. 
Okay, that wasn’t totally true
, she thought. 
She was the one frustrated
.  The other guys enjoyed it too.  She had often considered why she avoided attention but never came up with a concrete answer.  Maybe it was all the looks in school, the luck of getting her mother’s features and constantly being hit on.  Maybe it was her determination in academics and always being singled out by the teachers.  She had resigned herself to the fact that she would never really know what started it, but even if she did would it change anything?  Probably not.  She would always be a bookworm at heart.

Alison reached the top of the stairs a little winded and realized that she really needed to get back to the gym.  She walked down the short hallway and gave a polite knock as she opened the door. 

“You won’t believe what we just-” she began as she stepped inside but her smile abruptly disappeared.  Inside was Frank and two men dressed in shirt and tie.  They all stood as she entered. 

“Ah here she is,”
said Frank coming around his desk.  “Alison, I’d like you to meet John Clay and Steve Caesare, they’re with the-”

“Let me guess,” s
he feigned politeness.  “From the government.  You’re dressed too nice for the Army.  CIA?”

Clay and Caesare were moving toward her with hands extended bu
t stopped abruptly.  “Uh, the Navy actually.”

She crossed her arms in front of her.  “What a surprise.”

The men looked at Frank with a trace of confusion.  “Ali,” Frank started.  “These men came to talk to us about the project.”

Alison raised her eyebrows sarcastically.  “Wow, really?!”

“Uh yes,” Clay said apprehensively.  “We were just explaining to Dr. Dubois that we heard about your project and thought we might be able to help in the research with your dolphins.”

“The government is here to help.  And what kind of help would that be?  Teaching them to attach mines to enemy ships?”

Again Clay looked at Frank with more confusion, who was now looking sternly at his project lead.

“No
, no, nothing like that.  We may be able to help your progress with an opportunity to work hand-in-hand with your dolphins.”

Alison’s posture did not change.  She gave Frank a long stare. “What kind of
opportunity
?”

Caesare gave her his trademark smile.  “Recovering one of our small research submersibles in the
Caribbean Sea.” 

Alison looked at him
, then back to Clay.  She was having none of it. “You can’t do that yourself?”

“Well we could,” Clay said ignoring the sarcasm.  “But we thought it might provide an opportunity for you and your team; a real world interaction that might further your translation efforts, and perhaps even-”

“The dolphins haven’t been out in the open ocean for years.  They’re not accustomed and we can’t exactly put a leash on them.  Besides transporting them would be a major production.”

“We’re prepared to accommodate any requirements you have.”

“I don’t think so,“ Alison replied.  “Besides our translation capabilities are still much too-”

“Gentlemen,
” Frank interrupted with a raised, yet professional tone.  “Could you give us a moment please?”

Clay and Caesare nodded and turned toward the door.  They stepped politely around Alison and closed it quietly behind them.

Outside they crossed the hall and leaned against the white wall with hands in their pockets.

“I don’t think she likes you,”
Caesare said.

Clay laughed.  “She certainly seems to have some strong feelings about the military.”

“Kinda cute though,” said Caesare.  He took a few steps and studied a framed picture.  It was an old black and white photograph of the aquarium’s groundbreaking ceremony.  He guessed the number of people in the small crowd to be about eighty, dressed in suits and gowns forming a half arc around a few people in the middle; one of them holding a shiny shovel.  The tiny plaque below the picture read
1925
.  “This place has been around a long time.”

Clay nodded coming over to see the p
icture.  “I’ve been here before,” he said.  “I was a boy, maybe seven or eight.  My dad brought me when I was visiting him in Miami.”  He leaned in for a closer look at the picture.  “It was a lot smaller then.”  Clay stared silently at the picture.  He still remembered that trip clearly.  It was the same weekend that his father told him of his parent’s pending divorce.

Caesare looked back at the door.  A small plate in the middle read
Dr. Frank Dubois, Director
.  “So what do we do if they say no?”

Clay shrugged.  “Break out our snorkel and fins, I guess.”

 

Frank stepped forward and sat on the edge of his large oak desk.  His face appeared tired.  He hunched his shoulders for a moment and then dropped them with a sigh and looked up at Alison.

“I think we should do this.”

“What?” she scoffed.  “You’re not buying this are you?  This is the Navy Frank!  They’re not here to help us, they’re here to find out how they can leverage the technology!”

“Look, Ali.  I know how you feel about these guys and I know what happened before-”

“And you think it’s different now?  I guarantee you they’re outside right now talking about how they can turn this into a military advantage.  All they want-”

“Who do you think is funding this Alison,” Frank suddenly blurted with a wave around the room.  “Santa Claus?!  It doesn’t matter whether it’s NASA, the Navy, or the goddam IRS, government money is the only reason we’re here!  Do you have any idea how hard it is to raise this money?”  He took a deep breath and dropped his tone.  “Look, we’re losing money, you know that, and the ticket sales are still declining, even with the surge we got after that press release.  The plain fact is that we need more time.  We have so much more to do but without our grants we’ll be lucky to keep the aquarium open until the end of the year.”

Alison unfolded her arms and frowned.  He was right.  Without the money all of this would come to an abrupt end sooner or later. 

“Listen,” Frank went on.  “I know how you feel about these guys, I do.  I know what happened.”  He watched Alison tense up, knew he touched a soft spot, but he had to.  He had always known that someday, it would eventually come down to this.  “We have to play the game.  At least for now.  We have no choice.  We have a big lead in this field but if we get closed down all of our information will be made available to everyone and they’ll be where we are in a matter of months.”

Her shoulders relaxed slightly.  “You think they would cut us off just like that?”  He made no effort to answer.  He didn’t have to.  Alison could not believe that she’d even uttered the words. 

She walked slowly to the window and stared out at the palm trees jutting into the air from the next street like a row of towers.  It was amazing how mad she still was.  It was almost ten years ago and she still hated to think about it.  Her first serious research project, her first
meaningful
project was in Costa Rica and the world’s first serious attempt to map and document the complete breeding and migration patterns of ocean tortoises.  They had spent three years tagging, tracking, and caring for thousands of tortoises, sleeping in tents with virtually no money, and in the end they had accomplished something that no other ocean biology team had been able to do.  God, they were so idealistic.  And at the time they considered the Navy, and the US government for that matter, a godsend.  They provided the equipment, the computers and the tracking devices.  Without their grants, Alison’s team would not have been able to track the mammals off the damn beach let alone across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. 

They knew beyond a doubt that if the program was extended, it would allow them to study not just the routes but eventually their to
rtoise’s entire life span from birth to death.   They were finishing their papers, some, including Alison were finishing their doctorates when the hammer fell.  In one coordinated effort, the Navy confiscated the majority of their work.  Anything that was deemed in the interest of national security was permanently moved to government research teams in various fields.  She and the team were stunned, unable to imagine how on earth a population of tortoises qualified as a security threat.  It never made any sense and they were all sure it was just some monumental misunderstanding.  Through a friend she had found out that the Navy had another agenda from the start.  Their intention was to learn how they could use the tortoises affixed with small but powerful transmitters to obstruct communications to and from enemy vessels based on proximity of an agent tortoise. 
Agent tortoise
.  It still sounded as absurd today as it did then.  Absurd or not, it was a shock to find out that the Navy’s support was a sham from the beginning.  They never cared about the biology, they simply wanted to deem whether it had a viable military application. 

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