CONTRARY BRIN: Afficionado Part III

Concluding my “shut up and just play your guitar” moment… here’s the concluding section of that stand-alone chapter from EXISTENCE that serves to begin the Uplift Saga!


(See Part I here.)

(See Part II here.)

By David Brin

A stand-alone chapter from EXISTENCE  (2012)


That day passed, and then a tense night that he spent clutching a sleeping dolphin by moonlight, while clouds of phosphorescent plankton drifted by. Fortunately, the same selective-permeability technology that enabled his helmet to draw oxygen from the sea also provided a trickle of fresh water, filling a small reservoir near his cheek. I’ve got to buy stock in this company, he thought, making a checklist for when he was picked up tomorrow.

          Only pickup never came. The next morning and afternoon passed pretty much the same, without catching sight of land or boats. The world always felt so crowded, he thought. Now it seems endless and unexplored.
          Hacker started earning his meals by helping hold the fishing net when the group harvested dinner. The second night he felt more relaxed, dozing while the dolphins’ clickety gossip seemed to flow up his jaw and into his dreams. On the third morning, and each of those that followed, he felt he understood just a bit more of their simple language.
          He lost track of how many days and nights passed. Slowly, Hacker stopped worrying about where the pickup boats could be. Angry thoughts about lawsuits and revenge rubbed away under relentless massaging by current and tide. Immersed in the dolphins’ communal sound field, he began concerning himself instead with daily problems of the Tribe, like when two young males got into a fight, smacking each other with their beaks and flukes until adults had to forcibly separate them. Using both sign language and his growing vocabulary of click-code, Hacker learned that a female (whose complex name he shortened to “Chee-Chee”) was in heat. The young brawlers held little hope of mating with her. Still, their nervous energy needed an outlet. At least no one had been seriously harmed.
          An oldtimer — Kray-Kray — shyly presented a pectoral fin to Hacker, who used his knife to dig out several wormlike parasites. “You should see a real doctor,” he urged, as if one gave verbal advice to dolphins every day.
          Helpers go away, Kray-Kray tried to explain in click code. Fins need hands. Helper hands.
          It supported Hacker’s theory that something had been done to these creatures. An alteration that had made them distinctly different than others of their species. But what? The mystery grew each time he witnessed some behavior that just couldn’t be natural.
          Then, one day the whole Tribe grew excited, spraying nervous clicks everywhere. Soon Hacker saw they were approaching an undersea habitat dome hidden in a narrow canyon, near a coast where waves met shore.
          Shore…. The word tasted strange after all these days — weeks? — spent languidly swimming, listening, and learning to enjoy raw fish. Time had different properties down here. It felt odd to contemplate leaving this watery realm, returning where he clearly belonged — the surface world of air, earth, cities, machines, and nine billion humans, forced to inhale each others’ humid breath everywhere they went.
          That’s why we dive into our own worlds. Ten thousand hobbies. A million ways to be special, each person striving to be expert at some arcane art… like rocketing into space. Psychologists approved, saying that frenetic amateurism was a much healthier response than the most likely alternative — war. They called this the “Century of Aficionados,” a time when governments and professional societies could not keep up with private expertise, which spread at lightning speed across the WorldNet. A renaissance, lacking only a clear sense of purpose.
          The prospect of soon rejoining that culture left Hacker pensive. What’s the point of so much obsessive activity, unless it leads toward something worthwhile?
          The dolphins voiced a similar thought in their simple but expressive click-language.

# If you’re good at diving — dive for fish! #
# If you have a fine voice — sing for others! #
# If you’re great at leaping — bite the sun! #

          Hacker knew he should clamber up the nearby beach now to call his partners and brokers. Tell them he was alive. Get back to business. But instead he followed his new friends to the hidden habitat dome. Maybe I’ll learn what’s been done to them, and why.
          Swimming under and through a portal pool, he was surprised to find the place deserted. No humans anywhere. Finally, Hacker saw a hand-scrawled sign.

Project Uplift Suspended!
We ran out of cash. Court costs ate everything.
This structure is deeded to our finned friends.
Be nice to them.
May they someday join us as equals.

          There followed a WorldNet access number, verifying that the little dolphin clan actually owned this building, which they now used to store their nets, toys and a few tools. But Hacker knew from their plaintive calls the real reason they kept coming back. Each time they hoped to find that their “hand-friends” had returned.
          Unsteady on rubbery legs, he crept from the pool to look in various chambers. Laboratories, mostly. In one, he recognized a gene-splicing apparatus made by one of his own companies.
          Project Uplift? Oh yes. I remember hearing about this.
          It had been featured in the news, a year or two ago. Both professional and amateur media had swarmed over a small group of “kooks” whose aim was to alter several animal species, giving them human-level intelligence. Foes of all kinds had attacked the endeavor. Religions called it sacrilegious. Eco-enthusiasts decried meddling in Nature’s wisdom. Tolerance-fetishists demanded that native dolphin “culture” be left alone, while others rifkined the proposal, predicting mutants would escape the labs to endanger humanity. One problem with diversity in an age of amateurs was that your hobby might attract ire from a myriad others, especially those whose particular passion was indignant disapproval, with a bent for litigation.
          This “Uplift Project” could not survive the rough-and-tumble battle that ensued. A great many modern endeavors didn’t.
          Survival of the fittest, he mused. An enterprise this dramatic and controversial has to attract strong support, or it’s doomed.
          He glanced back at the pool, where members of the Tribe had taken up a game of water polo, calling fouls and shouting at each other as they batted a ball from one goal to the next, keeping score with raucous sonar clicks.
          Hacker wondered. Would the “uplift” changes carry through from one generation to the next? Could this new genome spread among wild dolphins? If so, might the project have already succeeded beyond its founders’ dreams, or its detractors’ worst nightmare?
          What if the work resumed, finishing what got started here? Would it enrich our lives to argue philosophy with a dolphin? Or to collaborate with a smart chimp, at work or at play? If other species speak and start creating new things, will they be treated as equals — as co-members of our civilization — or as the next discriminated class?
          Some critics were probably right. For humans to attempt such a thing would be like an orphaned and abused teen trying to foster a wild baby. There were bound to be mistakes and tragedies along the way.
          Are we good enough? Wise enough? Do we deserve such power?
          It wasn’t the sort question Hacker used to ask himself. He felt changed by his experience at sea. At the same time, he realized that just asking the question was part of the answer.
          Maybe it’ll work both ways. They say you only grow while helping others.
          His father would have called that “romantic nonsense.” And yet…
          Exploring one of the laboratories, Hacker found a cheap but working phone that someone had left behind — then had to work at a lab bench for an hour, modifying it to tap the sonic implant in his jaw. He was about to call his manager and broker — before they had a chance to declare him dead and start liquidating his empire. But then Hacker stopped.
          He paused, then keyed the code for his lawyer instead.
          At first Gloria Bickerton could not believe he survived. She wouldn’t stop shouting with joy. I didn’t know anyone liked me that much, he mused, carrying the phone back to the dome’s atrium. He arrived in time to witness the water polo game conclude in a frothy finale.
          “Before you arrange a pickup, there’s something I want you to do for me,” he told Gloria, after she calmed down. Hacker gave her the WorldNet codes for the Uplift Project, and asked her to find out everything about it, including the current disposition of its assets and technology — and how to contact the experts whose work had been interrupted here.
          Gloria asked him why. He started to reply.
          “I think I’ve come up with a new…”
          Hacker stopped there, having almost said the word hobby. But suddenly he realized that he had never felt this way about anything before. Not even the exhilaration of rocketry. For the first time he burned with a real ambition. Something worth fighting for.
          In the pool, several members of the Tribe were now busy winding their precious net around the torso of the biggest male, preparing to go foraging again. Hacker overheard them gossiping as they worked, and chuckled when he understood one of their crude jokes. A good natured jibe at his expense.
          Well, a sense of humor is a good start. Our civilization could use more of that.
          “I think —” He resumed telling his lawyer.
          “I think I know what I want to do with my life.”


So concludes this stand alone story from EXISTENCE. Also available here

See the vivid, 3-minute video trailer! (Images by Patrick Farley.)


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