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This short story takes you inside the mind of an intelligent bottlenose dolphin who faces the ultimate test of life and death. If the story works for you, it should evoke a feeling of empathy and compassion. Along the way, it touches on a host of subjects, including animal rights, the dangers of commercialism, the misuse of science, and our attempts to understand the nature of the world.

 

Finding Freedom

by Ken Sanes

At the front and center of the auditorium a large glass tank was sitting on the floor. Inside the tank was Freedom, a somewhat agitated looking bottlenose dolphin. Not much else was in there with him -- just sea water, a stick that he used for tapping, and an underwater computer touch screen that acted as a virtual keyboard with a display of letters.

Surrounding the tank on three sides was an amphitheater of seats under an expansive ceiling. And in the seats was an audience of many of the world’s most brilliant scientists, along with prominent politicians and celebrities. Some were absorbed in conversations on their cell phones or were busy sending and receiving text messages.

In the front row of the auditorium, not far from the tank, a young man with blond hair and a blue uniform kept moving around in his seat, nervously leaning to one side and then the other. As he shifted his position, Freedom was swimming back and forth across his tank, like he was pacing in the water.

The young man in the blue uniform looked over at Freedom. Many people in the audience were periodically looking at the dolphin, as well, although mostly they were looking at his three-dimensional holographic image, which was floating over them at various locations in the auditorium. What many of them noticed was that the dolphin seemed to be smiling along the entire length of his beak. Of course, to people, bottlenose dolphins always look like they are smiling. What they are actually thinking is anybody’s guess. At least it was anybody’s guess. Tonight, in this auditorium, that was about to change.

Finally, after a long delay, Dr. Mark McBane stepped in front of the glass tank and began to speak to the audience, as his image was carried live to an estimated three billion people watching holographic television around the world. Dr. McBane was also wearing a blue uniform. It had a large round logo on the left breast pocket that showed a hand clasping a flipper in a bond of eternal friendship. Above it, following the curve of the circular logo, were the letters IHCU which, as almost everyone on Earth could tell you, stood for “Institute for Human-Cetacean Understanding.” People in the audience got a good look at the logo because Dr. McBane’s 3-D image was also looming over them in the auditorium.

As Dr. McBane began to speak, cell phones were slipped into purses and jacket pockets, and a hush fell over the crowd. Across the globe, three billion people waited in anticipation.

“Today,” he said, “we make history. As many of you know, for the last decade I have been trying to communicate with the order of animals known as cetaceans, made up of whales, porpoises, and dolphins. But my primary focus has been on one species -- bottlenose dolphins -- who are remarkably quick learners.

“I can tell you that it has been my unique privilege to work with a long line of these wonderful creatures, frequently getting right in the water with them to minister to their needs and keep them company. You can believe me when I say that they are soulful animals: playful, affectionate and, in some ways, remarkably like us.

“But for most of that time, our ability to communicate with them has been rudimentary at best. Then, three years ago, our team at the Institute for Human-Cetacean Understanding made a spectacular discovery -- a bottlenose dolphin that appears to be a mutation, and that manifests truly exceptional abilities. This dolphin easily passed cognitive tests that stumped every other dolphin we have studied at the Institute. In fact, we estimate he has the intelligence of … a U.S. senator.”

The audience in the auditorium paused for a fraction of a second as it sized up what it was being told, then burst out laughing. A number of senators in the audience were laughing too. But they didn’t think it was funny.

“Just kidding,” Dr. McBane said. “But this dolphin is unusually bright. Technically, he is research subject N1-10-1. But we call him Freedom. What is truly remarkable is, that’s what he calls himself, as well.”

Dr. McBane paused briefly for effect, then walked over to the tank and looked at Freedom through the glass, as the dolphin looked back at him from the water. Then Dr. McBane turned back to the audience and continued:

“Over the past three years, while he has lived with us in his own pool and tank at the Institute, Freedom has learned how to understand human speech. And the more we have talked to him, the more new words he has picked up. But it was just a year ago that we had a true breakthrough when we taught him how to spell  -- yes, spell -- by tapping the letters on a computer touch screen that displays a keyboard with a phonetic alphabet. Today, Freedom has an extensive vocabulary -- and he is never at a loss for words.

“In fact, I have communicated with Freedom many times, simply by speaking to him, and he has talked back by spelling out his responses on the virtual keyboard. But I have confined myself to carrying out relatively minor communications: fetch the ball; what color is my hair; what are the names of everyone here now, including you? I have intentionally held off talking to him about the big questions -- such as how he sees himself and what he cares about -- so we can share some of that with you tonight. And that’s what we’re going to do. Tonight, for the first time in history, the first-ever truly meaningful -- and perhaps even philosophical -- communication will take place between another species and assembled humanity, right here in Dolphin Hall and around the world. It’s going to happen in just one minute. That’s right. In just one minute, you will be in on the making of history.

“But first we want to give you a very important message from our sponsor, Forman Motor Company.”

Then, as the audience in the auditorium and three billion people around the world, looked on, the three-dimensional image of Dr. McBane was replaced by the image of a shiny gray sports car, with the color getting lighter across the lower part of its body.

“What you are looking at,” a deep baritone voice-over said, “is a revolution in automobile construction. It is computerized, roboticized and streamlined. Not only does it lie low on the ground, but it understands when you give it instructions, and even talks back. From the long sleek beak in front to the subtle fins in back, the Forman Freedom is the next step in automotive design -- and your lifestyle.”

As the voice-over continued, the image of the car began to change. The fins on each side of the back came together, and started to look like a single large double fin, while the front transformed into, yes, it was a beak, the beak of a dolphin. The video image of the car was morphing into Freedom, with medium gray skin and a light underside, swimming swiftly and powerfully through the water. Then the image changed again and turned into Freedom “walking” backwards on the surface of the water with his tail flukes as he said in a childlike voice, through a computer animated mouth:

“The Forman Freedom. Come on in. The water is good.”  

But while the image of Freedom multiplied on video screens in the auditorium and around the world, the young man in the blue uniform, who had been sitting in the first row, nervously shifting from side to side, walked over to Dr. McBane and whispered in his ear:

“I don’t know how it happened. But the pieces of fish that you use as a reward for the dolphin never made it here. I know we packed them, and no one else can figure out what happened to them, either. I can drive back to the Institute if you want. It’s a long drive, but I can drive back and get it. I don’t think it’ll be in time but --”

As the young man spoke, the benevolent expression on Dr. McBane’s face changed and, for just a moment, he displayed a look of intense anger. Then Dr. McBane waved the young man away with a half sweep of his hand, making clear that, no, he did not want to wait for the fish to arrive for the dolphin. They were already twenty minutes behind schedule, and the president of the Forman Motor Company was sitting in the first row glaring at him, undoubtedly because of the time.

They would simply have to do the presentation without the fish, Dr. McBane thought to himself. It wouldn’t be the first time Freedom had performed without receiving a reward.

Then, as the image of Freedom dissolved, it was Dr. McBane’s image that was back, floating in the auditorium over the audience and transmitted to holographic televisions around the world, precisely one minute later as promised, as he began to speak again:

“As you all know, our ability to communicate with these creatures is particularly urgent,” he said. “The impact of overfishing, pollution and disease has devastated cetacean populations around the world, including bottlenose dolphins. But if we can communicate with them, there is hope we can work with them to repopulate the oceans.

“And so, now, without further delay,” he said, in his best announcer’s voice, “I give you the first ever deep communication between another species and assembled humanity as we forge a new bond, hands and flippers across the water, between dolphins and ourselves.

Dr. McBane then began ascending the ladder to the platform at the top of the glass tank, but slowly to enhance the inherent drama of the situation. He was nothing if not a showman. Announcing that the first ever serious communication between a person and a dolphin would take place on television had been a stroke of marketing genius. As a result of that decision, this television spectacular had already brought in enough money to pay for his research for a lifetime. It had also instantly propelled him into the ranks of the super-rich -- and that was before the Freedom reality TV series, the hand and flipper lunch boxes, the music video with Freedom whistling and squeaking as backup, and all the other lucrative deals that would come his way. And he already had other ideas that would hold the public’s attention after the initial burst of publicity, including a love interest for Freedom and a school for dolphins.

Of course, with these kinds of stakes, Dr. McBane didn’t intend to leave anything to chance. He had taught Freedom exactly what to say in his communication to assembled humanity, and the dolphin was now ready to repeat the answers he had rehearsed, and play his part as a cog in the great media machine. Dr. McBane himself had written the answers. But only he and Freedom, and a handful of graduate students and research assistants, knew it. 

And so it was with great confidence that Dr. McBane reached the highest step of the ladder, pulling himself onto the platform next to the open top of the tank. Freedom was waiting there, his head sticking out of the water, looking to see if there was a piece of fish in Dr. McBane’s hand. As Freedom waited expectantly, it was hard not to notice that he and Dr. McBane looked a lot like child and parent. In fact, that was very much by design since Dr. McBane had carefully nurtured Freedom’s dependence on him. He had even been careful not to give Freedom too much information about the world, which might evoke a sense of independence or a desire to leave the Institute. As a result, Freedom didn’t know anything about the ocean, even though it was next to the Institute. Nor had he ever seen another dolphin since Dr. McBane was trying to focus his emotional attachments on his human keepers. Perhaps most surprisingly, Freedom didn’t even know what a dolphin was. In fact, he was in the dark about almost everything. They taught him about objects but not places; actions and adjectives but not plants or animals. Oddly enough, he had even been tutored in the elements of architecture so that, in tests, he could tell the difference between pictures of Corinthian and Ionic columns. But they never explained how it all fit together to make buildings, and it never occurred to Freedom to ask.

Fortunately, at least to the best of Dr. McBane’s knowledge, there had been only a single breach in security they had to deal with in all that time. It happened when a graduate student named Gina tried to give the dolphin a quick education, telling him about the world outside the Institute, and what species he was, and about how things are born and live and die. She even held up a mirror so Freedom could see what his face looked like. Up till that moment, it never occurred to Freedom that his face looked like anything. But her effort to liberate the dolphin’s mind was captured by security cameras, and Dr. McBane had her physically escorted from the research facility, as she struggled every step of the way. Freedom‘s requests after that to look at himself again in “the shiny thing” were ignored.

Given their bond, it was natural that when Dr. McBane stepped onto the platform over the glass tank in the auditorium, Freedom immediately rose to the surface, expecting a piece of fish along, perhaps, with a pat on the head or a task to perform. But this time, as Freedom rose out of the water, Dr. McBane didn’t have a reward for him. Instead, Dr. McBane crouched down on the platform so that he and Freedom were face to beak. It was an iconic moment, summing up the meeting of the two species, which three billion people watched with fascination. Dr. McBane then posed a question through his clip-on microphone, his voice filling the auditorium and expanding out across the world. It was unlike any question an animal had been asked before. At least, it was unlike any question an animal had been asked and was ready to answer.

“Tell us, Freedom, what do you have to say to all these people? What important thoughts can you convey, now that we have made it possible for you to communicate with us,” Dr. McBane said. “As we extend hands and flippers across the water, tell us what matters to you. Give us your first public words.”

Freedom knew what came next. He was supposed to say that this was a new beginning for his species. And he hoped this would be the start of a great partnership as dolphins and humanity explored the mysteries of the mind and the deep together. Then he was supposed to add, “Oh, yes, and your research assistant, Xuili, who is out with a cold, called on the phone and asked me to say Hi.” That last comment was a folksy touch that would undoubtedly evoke applause from many in the audience.

And Freedom’s first inclination was to give just this scripted answer since he didn’t want to disappoint Dr. McBane. But what he really cared about was the fact that he had been taken out of his expansive home tank and stuck in this cramped glass tank, which didn’t give him enough room to swim. Then this small tank had been moved, and there was a lot of bumpiness that was very uncomfortable, and now he was in this strange place full of people and he wasn’t even getting a fish! Where’s my fish, he wanted to know. Then the frustrated dolphin emitted a series of whistle-like sounds, dove into the water, picked up a stick with his teeth, and began poking the keyboard displayed on the large computer touch screen sitting at the bottom of the tank. Members of the audience, both in the auditorium and around the world, watched what he was doing through two parallel images that showed Freedom tapping his keyboard and the letters appearing below him.

Dr. McBane looked closely at the letters as they began to appear one by one on a computer monitor on a stand next to him.

The first letters were: “G -- e -- t  m--”. This wasn’t what they had rehearsed, Dr. McBane thought to himself. Then, without warning, it seemed to Dr. McBane like he was looking at everything from a great distance as if he was disconnected from the auditorium and even from himself. He started to panic, uncertain if he even had control over his body from this strange state of dissociation. But Dr. McBane wasn’t going to let another one of these psychological episodes destroy the most important day of his life. So he kept himself together the best he could while his face projected an appearance of benevolence and calm. Then he saw that the message was complete. Whatever the message was, it would have to be read. Looking at the screen, and with all of the world listening to the sound of his voice, Dr. McBane boomed out the dolphin’s first communication to humanity:
 
“Get me out of the damned water!”

At first, Dr. McBane just stood there. Then he read the message again to himself, with only his lips moving, and turned to the crowd: 

“I think it’s a joke,” he said, as the audience in the auditorium burst out laughing. “One of the things we’ve discovered is that Freedom has a very dry sense of humor.”

There was an additional smattering of laughter in the audience, and even some scattered applause at the bad pun. But at least it helped diffuse an uncomfortable moment and distracted people from the odd quality of the message.

“This wouldn’t be the first time Freedom has had some fun at the expense of his human keepers,” Dr. McBane continued. “I’ll ask again.”

By this time, Freedom had resurfaced and, with his head above the water, he was looking at Dr. McBane.

Dr. McBane then improvised an unscripted question. He knew it sounded verbally clumsy, and Freedom might not understand it all, but it was the best he could come up with in his current psychological state: 

“Freedom, you are an aquatic mammal who separated from the line that led to humanity millions of years ago. And you are intelligent although your intelligence isn’t entirely like our own since it has been shaped by your life in the water. Please, from your own unique perspective, tell people around the world what you are thinking about and what matters to you. Reach your flipper across the waters and say something of importance to humanity.”

Freedom realized that Dr. McBane wanted him to repeat the scripted answer he had failed to give the first time. He was also very interested in that word Dr. McBane had used -- “world.” He remembered the time when his friend Gina tried to explain the world to him. He wanted to ask her about it again but, after that, she disappeared, and when he asked the other people about it, they changed the subject. Without much to go on, he assumed the world was all the tanks he had been in -- the tank he grew up in, his home tank at the Institute, the big air tanks that people walked around in, and now the small glass tank he was stuck in, and this oversized air tank it was inside of, full of all these people.

He knew there had to be other tanks beyond those since people obviously emerged from somewhere with fish, and then went back again. But Freedom couldn’t figure out what all those other tanks were like or how they were arranged in relation to each other. And now he was stuck in this small tank and still no fish! So the unhappy dolphin emitted a series of whistle-like sounds again, then dove down, picked up his stick and tapped out more letters. Except this time he just kept tapping, one letter after another. The more he tapped, the quicker he went.

“I think Freedom is writing his autobiography,” Dr. McBane said, as a wave of subdued laughter quickly rose and fell through the audience, which was now in a state of concerned anticipation and not particularly receptive to humor.

Finally, Freedom’s words started to appear on the screen. Or at least something close to his words started to appear. A computer turned what he wrote into complete sentences and fixed the grammar. But it was still the essence of what Freedom was tapping underwater on his touch screen keyboard. 

Meanwhile, Dr. McBane felt like he was being engulfed in surges of anxiety as he saw that, whatever Freedom was tapping, it once again wasn’t the scripted answer. Then he started to read Freedom’s words out loud as humanity listened and read silently along with him:

“Where’s the rest of me?” McBane said, reading the display of Freedom’s words. “Why don’t I have hands and walk on legs like everyone else? And where’s my fish! I am truncated; I am missing parts and can’t extend myself like you. I am a column with stumps. And why am I the only one in the water! Will somebody please get me out of the water! I want to extend my hands. I want to walk on dry land, pick things up, wave, and scratch myself. I can’t tell you how much I want to scratch….”

At this point, Dr. McBane’s voice trailed off. But Freedom was still tapping away on the keyboard. It seems that Dr. McBane’s question, and the unusual circumstances, had broken loose a torrent of thoughts that had been building up in the dolphin and getting stronger, the more he learned about people -- and the power of language. Dr. McBane said he wanted Freedom to tell humanity what mattered to him. And Freedom was doing just that, with a vengeance.

As words continued appearing on all the screens in the auditorium and around the world, Dr. McBane stood there reading the dolphin’s words silently, his lips moving ever so slightly:

“Why am I in the water?” the words said. “Why aren’t you? What is everything else? And where did all these people in this big air tank come from?

“When I bounce the ball on my nose and knock it into a hoop, I am happy? And when I fetch the stick, and Dr. McBane says I did a good job, then I’m happy too. But why isn’t anyone else like me? Am I the only one? Was I once like you? Will I become like you? There has to be something more. Where does Dr. McBane come from, and where does he go when he leaves? Is that where the fish are? What are you hiding? I know you are hiding things from me. You hid death. And then someone told me about it, and I never saw her again. I still don’t understand it, but I’m sorry she told me. What is death? Is this death?”

After “the incident,” as it came to be called, Freedom was moved back to his home tank at the Institute, which was an indoor pool on top, with a side wall of non-reflective glass one level below, so visitors could watch him underwater during visiting hours. And usually there were a lot of visitors who came to the waterfront to see its three biggest attractions: the docks and fishing boats, the local aquarium, and the Institute for Human-Cetacean Understanding.

Freedom didn’t know any of that, of course. Nor did he understand that his unveiling had been a public relations disaster, with TV reporters crawling around the auditorium after he tapped out his monologue, interviewing people in the audience who angrily accused Dr. McBane of exploiting an innocent, helpless dolphin. And by the next morning, news had leaked about Dr. McBane’s restrictive training methods. Soon there were calls for a Senate investigation. The senator who led the party out of power held a press conference and questioned whether Freedom had been deprived of his animal nature, his “essential dolphinness,” as the senator put it.

One curmudgeonly television commentator, who was bald on top with big goggle-like eyeglasses and gray hair flying out from the sides, called for a ban on the research altogether:

“What right do we have teaching animals about death,” he said. “They are like children and don’t have the capacity to come to terms with the hard truths of life. Bad enough we have to know about it, right!”

Many people agreed.

Freedom may not have known any of this was happening after he was moved back to his home tank, but he did know something was wrong because, for the first time in his life, he was left alone. Dr. McBane, who had been with him every day for the last year, was nowhere in sight. No one else showed up either - no assistants or graduate students, and no visitors gawking at him in his tank. It was just Freedom and the automatic feeder, doling out pieces of fish at the same times every day.

As Freedom swam the length of his tank, he tried to figure out what was happening. Where was Dr. McBane? Where were the other people? He wanted to tap with his stick to ask. But no matter how many times he searched, he couldn’t find the computer touch screen keyboard that usually sat on the bottom of his tank, allowing him to spell out his words. The keyboard was like an extension of him. Without it he was mute. So he poked the bottom of the tank with his stick at the place where he imagined the letters on the keyboard would be. He knew what he was saying. But there wasn’t anyone else around who understood.

After a few days of being alone, Freedom was pacing across his pool even more than usual. Then he started to float lethargically on the surface of his glass cage. Fragments of images, and bits and pieces of memories, began to pass through his mind from the time in the other place where he had been raised. He remembered the trainer there who hit him with a stick when he failed to do a trick properly, and dangled fish in front of him to taunt him and then put the fish back in the bucket.

Then, on the fifth day of Freedom’s solitude, a group of people came through a side door into the large interior space that housed his pool. They were wearing caps and masks that concealed their faces, and they were carrying cutting instruments and tools for picking locks. There were eight of them. Freedom knew that for a fact because he counted. One of them spray painted something on a wall near the surface of the pool. Freedom stuck his head out of the water and looked with great interest at the letters, which said:

“PASTA -- People Against the Sadistic Treatment of Animals.”

Freedom didn’t know what sadistic meant, and he didn’t know that he was an animal. He certainly didn’t have any way to know that the name was connected to animal rights or that it had a vaguely humorous second meaning since it was a way of encouraging people to eat meals made from something other than animal flesh.
 
As Freedom looked at the new people, he was excited and afraid. He didn’t know who they were or what they were doing. He went down into the water and resurfaced. One of the new people, a woman with a covered face, then said: “Hello Freedom. It‘s good to see you again.”

Freedom recognized her voice immediately. It was Gina, the graduate student who told him things and showed him what he looked like with that shiny surface, and then never came back again.

“Hi!” Freedom tapped with his stick against the side of the pool, once again hitting each place where he imagined the letters would be on his computer touch screen. “Where have you been?”

Gina didn’t understand. But she could figure out what he was saying.

Another woman in a mask then came up next to her.

“Hi, Freedom,” she said.

He recognized her too. It was Xuili, the research assistant who had been out with a cold.

Then Freedom saw two of the people who were with them jump into the other end of the pool and dive underwater. Moments later, he heard a clanking sound where they were diving.

“It’s time to swim like you never swam before,” Gina said, as she pointed to where the sound was coming from. “It’s time for you to be born.”

Freedom was used to following commands, so he swam below the surface toward the sound at the other end. As he did, he saw the two people sliding open a door under the water, that was embedded in the concrete wall of the pool. Beyond the door, he caught sight of a large tube-shaped tunnel filled with water, which was like an extension of the pool. Freedom had always known that part of the wall looked different from the rest. But until this moment he had no idea that it opened up. 

Freedom surfaced.

“Swim,” Gina said, as she pointed to the underwater door to the tunnel.

Freedom dove again. At first he was reluctant to go into this unknown place. But he knew Gina wouldn’t do anything to hurt him. And he was hoping for some kind of special treat after he did this trick for her. So he entered the tunnel, swimming slowly at first, then a lot faster as he began wondering what kind of tank was on the other side. As the minutes passed, he continued swimming. But he couldn’t detect a way out ahead, not with his sight or his sense of echolocation. Finally, he decided he’d better go back to his pool where, he hoped, Gina would at least have a piece of fish waiting for him now that he had performed the trick.

So Freedom turned around and swam back to his pool. But as the water in the pool came into sight, he could see that the door connecting the tunnel and pool was sliding shut. He swam faster, pushing his beak between the partially shut sliding door and the wall. Then he tried to force the door open with his beak. But it didn’t have any effect. Since Freedom didn’t know what else to do, he withdrew his beak. The door almost immediately slammed shut as Freedom started looking around for a handle he could pull to open it, since pulling a handle was one of the tricks he had been taught in the past. But he didn’t see anything that looked like a handle.

That was when he realized there wasn’t any way to get a breath of air in the water-filled tunnel. So he turned around and started to swim, faster than before, away from the pool and back through the tunnel, his tail flukes propelling him forward as quickly as he could manage. The idea that he might run out of air had never occurred to him before. So he swam, hoping there would be a surface -- and air -- at the other end. Soon, he passed the farthest place in the tunnel that he had reached before. The tunnel then took a right turn and so did Freedom. Next, it took a left turn as he turned left. The first part of the tunnel had been dimly lit. But now this part was dark. Freedom’s side scraped against the side of the tunnel as he swam erratically, in a panic, desperate to find a way out. And then, just as everything seemed lost, he turned left again as the tunnel turned left, and came to a round door. As he gave it a push with his nose, it opened automatically.

Swimming through the opened door with very little room to spare, Freedom was suddenly out of the tunnel and somewhere else. It looked like another tank. But the water was murky and the only wall he could see was the one behind him with the door that he had just come out of. His echolocation didn’t detect any other walls either. Normally, he would emit click-like sounds; they would bounce off objects or the sides of his tank and come back to him, giving him a mental outline of his surroundings. But here he wasn’t picking up much of anything, just a few small shapes in the water.

But Freedom didn’t care right now. He only wanted to get to the surface. So he headed up, expelled old air through his blowhole and, breaking the surface of the water, took in a deep life-giving breath of fresh air.

Then, as he looked around, above the surface, he was amazed at what he saw. He was in an enormous pool with the highest ceiling over it that he had ever seen. The ceiling was light blue, but it had white sections that looked like the cotton balls one of the research assistants used to stick in her ears. And there was a bright round lamp radiating light, that was somehow part of the blue ceiling.

Everything about this tank told him there weren’t any limits, except the wall on one side and an irregularly shaped floor, which he could see wasn’t too far down. But he decided he must be seeing things incorrectly. This was a different kind of tank than he was used to, and it was confusing him.

In any case, Freedom wasn’t interested in figuring it out, at least not now. He dove back down into the water, so he could go back into the tunnel and find a way back to his home tank. But when he reached the round door to the tunnel, it was shut tight. He pushed it with his beak but nothing happened. He did it again, and once again he got no response. He was now stuck in this giant tank full of murky water!

Uncertain what else to do, Freedom dove down and, with his powerful tail flukes moving up and down to give him propulsion, he began to swim, hoping he’d get to the edge of the tank where he’d find another tunnel or maybe where Dr. McBane would be waiting for him with some fish, telling him everything was okay.

Then, as he was swimming, something moved by him. Freedom was in a state of shock. Something was swimming in the tank with him that didn’t have arms and legs! In fact, it looked like a fish. But it couldn’t be a fish because it was alive, like him.

Freedom swam as quickly as he could to get away from it. Then, uncertain what else to do, he continued swimming.

Hours later, after passing more things swimming in the water, he still hadn’t reached the edge of what he assumed was a giant tank. Then the water got dark. The ceiling high above the surface of the water got dark, as well, except now it had small yellow lamps like sparkling dots and a rounded sliver of a dim lamp, for light. Lacking even a stick, Freedom clumsily tapped his beak against the surface of the water, spelling out, “More light, please,” based on where he knew the letters would be on his computer touch screen.

But nothing happened.

“Is this death” he wondered to himself, picturing the letters in his head, while he absent-mindedly half spelled it out with his beak. Finally, after many hours, it got light again as the bright round lamp returned and rose across the distant blue ceiling. Freedom was filled with a sense of relief. He had wished for light and finally there was light.

At this point, he considered going down to the bottom of the tank to see if just maybe he could find a keyboard. That‘s when he realized the bottom had disappeared! He used his echolocation and discovered it was further down than he could ever imagine swimming. There were now no walls and a distant floor that was lost in the depths of the water. And that ceiling high above the surface of the water had an unsettling vagueness that wasn’t like anything he had ever seen before. It was like he was in an endless tank, a tank where he could go on forever without coming to anything. How was that possible?

Freedom tried to tap a question on the surface of the water:  “Where is everything?” Then he resumed swimming.

But now he was hungry. So he tapped for food. But of course there wasn’t any food. Then he saw something that shocked him almost as much as everything else put together: there was another small fish swimming nearby in the water, and it suddenly lurched forward and bit into an even smaller fish, which was wriggling around. A wave of compassion came over Freedom for the smaller fish struggling to escape. Then, moments later, the small fish disappeared into the larger fish’s mouth.

Suddenly, a different feeling came over Freedom. He lunged forward and swallowed the fish that had just eaten the smaller fish, gobbling his double meal, head first, without chewing.

Freedom was hungry, and he had eaten what was in the tank with him. It shouldn’t have been in the tank anyway. But he realized this was a very different way of eating. Not entirely unsatisfactory. Unless this was an exception, the food was alive and it was swimming around in the giant tank just like him! Then he felt remorse. He had eaten something like him. How could he do it? Was it possible that all the other fish he had eaten in his home tank had once been alive too? He had assumed they were things, like his toys and his stick, but things to eat.

But soon his feeling of hunger drowned out his remorse, and he began to prowl through the water, chasing and lunging at fish. Some he caught and ate, just like the first one. Others got away. One lost a tail, which he spit out. Finally, he had his fill. He tried to tap out with his beak that he was done eating but then remembered there wasn’t anyone to tell or any way to tell it. The good news was that he had found a way to get food in the giant tank. He could stay alive by eating these small, sad, tasty versions of himself.

There was also another change in Freedom. Up to this point, he had stayed relatively close to the surface, afraid of the depths that were far below him. But now he began swimming deeper into the water, hoping to reach the bottom where maybe he’d finally find another tunnel -- or a keyboard. And with each dive, he went a little deeper. But each time he dove, and had to swim a longer distance to reach the surface, he realized that coming up for air might one day be a problem, like when he was trapped in the long tunnel. In his home tank, the surface had always been close by, and the people who sometimes swam in the water with him never really got in his way. But, here, if there was a problem, even once, he would be unable to breathe. What would happen then? As he mulled it over in his mind, spelling out words and thoughts by picturing the letters and vaguely tapping in the water, he felt like he was on the verge of an answer….

Meanwhile, on the surface, a massive search was underway for the missing dolphin. Dr. McBane had tried to hide Freedom’s disappearance, but PASTA posted a video on the Internet that showed the eight rescuers -- the PASTA Eight, as they came to be called -- freeing Freedom. The last scene in the video was an underwater shot taken by Gina, who had briefly jumped in the water with a small video camera after Freedom headed into the tunnel. It showed Freedom’s tail flukes waving up and down as he disappeared into the tunnel entrance. The PASTA Eight put just one word -- “Goodbye” -- under the moving image.

The PASTA Eight were now international heroes. After a little boy was shown on television holding up a sign with their name misspelled, they became affectionately known as the “PASTA ATE,” and got a lucrative contract appearing in television commercials for Al Dente’s frozen linguini dinners in mushroom and tomato sauce.

At the same time, animal rights groups were getting a lot of attention, as people held “Save Freedom” parties to raise money to find the dolphin. But things weren't going quite so well for Dr. McBane, who held a number of somber press conferences and told the world that Freedom would never survive on his own, as he tried to deflect hostile questions from reporters.

As for the news media, it more than doubled the size of its audience, as it gave the public the continuous coverage it was hungry for, with live newscasters who broke into regular programming to run photographs and video:

“Here you see Freedom,” one newscaster opined on the screen, with an image of the dolphin behind him, along with the word “Missing,” in big red letters across the bottom half of the picture. “And, as you can see, Freedom looks like he is smiling, oddly enough, and even a bit inappropriately, as if it is all a big joke. But it’s no joke. Exploited and mistreated, he is now out in an ocean whose world he doesn’t understand and isn’t equipped to survive in. If anyone has seen him, we urge you to contact this network for a substantial reward. We have a special crew standing by, prepared to carry out a daring sea rescue, which you will only see here -- live -- if we are the ones who rescue him.”

“They said they named him Freedom because he was the first dolphin emancipated through language,” a commentator said on another network. “Then they held him captive to Dr. McFrankenstein’s mad dreams of creating a new self-aware species. But they failed to tell him about the ocean. They never even introduced him to another dolphin! He was just stuck in a tank, exploited and alone. Freedom! It was an appropriate name in a ‘War is Peace’ sort of way. In reality, he suffered the essence of unfreedom because he didn’t even know there was something better. But now the last laugh is his. I say let Freedom be free. May he never be found.”

There was a lot of clapping and nodding in agreement as people listened to that commentary.

“They destroyed most of his species, and then turned him into a car!” a talk show host told her audience, in a moment of serious reflection. “But I say Freedom is everyman and everywoman. After all, we are all trapped, whether it is in meaningless jobs or confining relationships. And we all yearn to swim free….”

As the news coverage and the angry debate raged on, Dr. McBane was depressed and in a rage. Freedom had been his meal ticket, his one chance to get his name in history books. And now that he was accused of lax security and exploiting a helpless lovable dolphin, he had become the media’s designated villain. Needles to say, all the lucrative contracts had disappeared -- the lunch boxes, the endorsements, the TV series -- they were all over. Some of the companies he was dealing with still wanted Freedom’s image, which McBane had shrewdly trademarked. But they all told McBane some variation on the same thing: they didn’t dare do business with him or the public would turn on them with a vengeance.

The Forman Motor Company was even threatening to sue McBane to get back the money it invested in the TV special. Who was going to buy the car now, they asked him, when what people thought about when they saw it was the dolphin’s pathetic plea and its belief that it was incomplete. The dolphin’s fears were the exact opposite of everything the Forman Freedom stood for. The car was a way for buyers to find themselves, to know who they were and where they belonged -- to extend themselves with power and grace, and an ironic sense of humor, into the world. Now instead many people associated the car with the idea of suffering from missing appendages (which aroused particularly uncomfortable associations in male buyers who, according to marketing studies, made up 70 percent of the potential market). So the company was threatening to sue. If they did, McBane thought to himself, it would mean financial ruin and put an end to his research. Oh, who was he kidding. His research was over. Kaput! Every time McBane thought about it, he felt lost somewhere in the distance, a million miles away from his surroundings. 

But McBane still had something up his sleeve if he needed it. He had embedded two electronic beacons, along with two miniature cameras, on the dolphin -- one each in a tooth and in the dolphin’s fin. Between the tooth and the fin, McBane not only knew where Freedom was located, but he was also receiving live video images of everything the dolphin encountered, even if the images were produced from two somewhat odd perspectives.

The question was, why wasn’t McBane out on the water tracking down his prized pupil. McBane didn’t know himself. Maybe it was because he wanted Freedom lost forever in the depths of the ocean, preferably in the jaws of a shark. 

Meanwhile, across town, his nemesis, Gina, the leader of the PASTA Eight, was hiding from the press in her tiny apartment, dressed in nothing but a bathrobe, surrounded by piles of unwashed laundry. She was spooning through a container of butterscotch pudding while she observed live video of what was happening to Freedom on her computer monitor. It seems she had hacked into McBane’s computer system and was now receiving the same video image from Freedom’s tooth and fin. As far as she was concerned, things were going as well as she could have hoped. Her spies inside McBane’s organization informed her that he wasn’t going out onto the water to track Freedom down. In fact, it looked like he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Meanwhile, hundreds of boats flying the PASTA Eight flag were following all the search boats, ready to interfere if anyone tried to recapture Freedom. Gina was in touch with a lot of them, texting messages to them on her cell phone and posting information on her web site. And there was more good news -- as the camera in Freedom’s tooth had revealed in detail, the dolphin had learned to catch fish on his own, which meant he now had a fighting chance of surviving.

As Gina thought about Freedom eating fish in the ocean, her mind made a sideways connection to a related thought: having their spies at the Institute remove the fish from the truck that had carted Freedom to that auditorium was one of the smartest decisions PASTA ever made. The lack of his usual fish reward had upset Freedom during his performance, sparking his outburst of dolphin angst in front of the world, and exposing McBane as the fraud he was. That, and the discovery of the unused tunnel at the Institute, leading to Freedom’s pool, had been the big breaks they needed to achieve their goals. As Gina had been told the story by McBane’s assistant, Xuili, the tunnel was originally designed to be part of a performance. As McBane had envisioned it at the time, a human diver would enter the tunnel from the ocean and swim toward Freedom’s tank with a reward of fish, while audiences at the Institute simultaneously followed the diver’s progress on video cameras and watched Freedom anxiously waiting for his reward. But the first time the Institute tried to use the tunnel, the diver had an attack of claustrophobia and had to be rescued by other divers. The diver threatened to sue, claiming he was forced to work in a death trap. The institute settled with him out of court, and never used the tunnel again -- until it turned into the road to freedom for a captive dolphin. It was almost like McBane secretly wanted Freedom to escape and provided the ideal escape route, Gina thought to herself.

Of course, PASTA had helped things along there, too, rigging the door at the end of the tunnel so Freedom would be able to open it with just a nudge, and swim into the ocean. But PASTA had also fixed the door so Freedom couldn't open it from the outside and get back into the tunnel.

As Gina sat in her cramped apartment and mused about these things, back in the water, Freedom found himself confronted by something new. His echolocation was detecting something large -- larger than anything he had seen in this giant tank. At first he thought it might be a person. But the shape was streamlined, more or less like he was, without arms and legs. He swam toward it to investigate. As it came into sight, he was shocked to discover that it looked vaguely like a version of himself, except it had large and terrible teeth. And something was missing from the look on its face, something he couldn’t define, that made it not like him at all, but more like the fish he now ate when he was hungry. He had never seen anything like it before, and it scared him. As it quickly came toward him, he wondered if it was death. Then it opened its mouth further and the full extent of the teeth became obvious. That was when Freedom realized he might be food for something else -- and got his first glimmer of the actual meaning of death. Death was being food. Freedom swerved around and rammed the creature’s soft underside with his beak as it swam away.

Freedom started to say to himself by tapping his beak on the surface of the water: “I’m food, too.” But he stopped halfway through. He knew what he was thinking. This tank wasn’t for him alone. All kinds of things like him were in here, even big things his own size. It might even be one of their tanks. Then he thought to himself that, no, they weren’t really like him. They weren’t alive in the same way that he was or that people were, and he strongly suspected they didn’t tap or speak. They seemed restricted somehow. But they weren’t merely things either. They weren’t like his toys or his stick. He tapped out “alive things” in the water to describe them.

Then he continued swimming, because it was all he could think of to do. As time passed, there were periods of darkness, alternating with light. Freedom counted them for a while, but he soon lost track. When he felt tired, he slept. When he was hungry he ate, usually taking in fish with a single gulp. He had long since stopped feeling remorse for his food.

Life in the giant tank was harder than at the Institute, and it had a rhythm to it that was very different from the rhythm of learning and tasks that the experimenters had imposed on him. A lot of it consisted of just swimming. Where all the swimming was leading to, Freedom didn’t know. But after a while the water starting getting warmer, and it seemed that the more he swam the warmer it got.

Finally, after many repetitions of light and dark, a more complete awareness of his circumstances presented itself to Freedom. As he swam down deeper and deeper, seeking… something, and each time rushed back to the surface to breathe, his thoughts kept coming back to the question: what would happen if he couldn’t reach the surface in time. As he mulled it over in his mind, spelling out words and thoughts by picturing the letters, he finally came to a conclusion: death was not being able to breathe. Death was being food for something with sharp teeth and it was also not being able to breathe. He was on his own in the giant tank, and he could only count on himself for protection against death.

Now, in his mind, a system of symbols formed in which the world was more clearly divided between life and death, and good and bad. Rising to the surface for life-giving air was good. Breathing out and breathing in were good. But it was more than that. Rising to the surface came to stand for everything good. Eating and sleeping and swimming and jumping out of the water, they were good too, and they came to be symbolized in his mind by going up to the surface and breathing. Creatures with large teeth were bad; being food was very bad; not knowing where he was or where to go, and not seeing walls or a floor or a keyboard for tapping, those were also bad, and the idea of those things became associated in his mind with the memory of being stuck in that horrible tunnel and being unable to get to a surface in time to breathe. In his mind, the world was divided up, with safety and pleasure and satisfaction on one side, and death and fear and discomfort on the other, all of it symbolized by breathing and not being able to breathe, and also by eating food versus being food for the large teeth.

These thoughts haunted his brain as he continued to think about being stuck in the tunnel or being injured and unable to reach the surface. It seems that what had formed in his mind was a dolphin vision of the world, created by the fact that he lived in an environment of water but had to continuously receive supplies of air from another environment above the water to stay alive, and by the fact that he had to constantly work to catch his food and stay safe.

As Freedom’s understanding of good and bad in the giant tank became more complete, he now more knowingly turned to what was good. He ate and slept, enjoyed swimming through the water, and played on the surface. One day he wondered to himself -- “Is there anything else?” -- picturing the letters in his head. For a moment, he wasn’t even sure he had all the letters right, so he just envisioned it the best he could.

Then, from under the water, he saw a large animal floating on the surface, in the distance. Its body seemed to have a shape similar to his, with half of it in the water and half sticking out. And it was huge. He thought an animal that big would have enormous teeth and that was bad. But his dolphin curiosity got the best of him. As he approached it from the side, he leapt out of the water to get a good look. Much to his surprise, what he saw was people standing on this large animal. But a second look made clear that it wasn’t an animal after all. It was another thing, like a platform that was floating on the surface, with a curving underside that was underwater. Freedom could also hear the purr of a motor on it, which sounded like various motors he had been shown when he lived at the Institute.

Freedom came up close to the floating platform and leapt out of the water again, “walking” along the surface with his tail, whistling as loud as he could.

“It’s Freedom,” he heard a man scream. “I know it’s him.”

Freedom understood what the man said. He was saved! Finally, they would take him back to Dr. McBane and the safety and comfort of his tank.

“Please take me home!” he said, trying to tap out the letters on the water’s surface.

Little did Freedom suspect that the video monitors on him were also transmitting images of what he was encountering to Gina, who was following this latest development on her computer monitor. She could see that Freedom had encountered a boat, and she began frantically sending a text message with the coordinates to everyone who was out on the ocean trying to protect him. She began pacing back and forth in her small apartment as she quickly scooped up another butterscotch pudding with a spoon.

“Please, after everything we’ve accomplished, don‘t let them catch him now,” she said to herself, slamming the empty plastic pudding container on the table. 

Then she got a text message back with just three words: “We can help.”

Back in the water, as Freedom waited for the people on the floating platform to come get him and take him home, he saw a second floating platform racing toward the first one. What this was about he had no idea. Then something landed on him. It was a net. As he tried to get clear of it, he got tangled up instead, and began sinking into the water. When he swung his flukes up and down, frantically trying to get back to the surface, he found himself even more entangled. The memory of being trapped in the tunnel without air came into his mind as he struggled in the net. Then, just for a moment, he started to realize something. But there wasn’t time to think about it now ….

Meanwhile, Gina was staring at the quickly shifting images on her computer monitor, waving her hands in the air, and screaming “No,” when she saw Freedom swim up to the first boat. Then she started screaming “Yes,” just as loud, as she caught a glimpse of a second boat heading toward the first, flying the colors of the PASTA Eight flag. But her hopes just as quickly collapsed again as she saw the net close around Freedom.

Back in the water, Freedom was fighting for his life, pushing each way, and only making his situation worse. Then, out of nowhere, a group of human divers appeared. They swam under Freedom and pushed him, net and all, to the water’s surface, where he took in a deep breath of fresh air.

But then the net started to be pulled in, and Freedom was struggling again when he heard someone scream, apparently from the second floating platform: “We don’t want trouble. But if you haul that net in, there’s going to be trouble -- a lot of it.”

The net temporarily stopped being pulled in as the divers helped Freedom keep his head and blowhole above the surface.

“We don’t mind a little trouble,” someone screamed back from the first platform.

“Yea, well we’ve got you on video causing the near-drowning of the most beloved dolphin in the world. That means you’ll be hated in every port on the globe. Are you ready for that kind of trouble?”

Freedom then started to struggle out of the net again, even as some of the divers were trying to help keep him afloat.

“Freedom,“ one of the divers said in a loud voice, after removing his mouthpiece. “Just stay as still as you can on the surface and we’ll get you out of this. I promise.”

Moments later the net was lifted over and away from him. He was free!

Freedom quickly swam away and leapt in the air with a feeling of exhilaration, as he saw the empty net being pulled in by the first floating platform. Then, as the divers began swimming back to the second floating platform, Freedom noticed that the people on it had unfurled a large banner with letters.

Freedom looked at the banner with great interest, aching for the time when he could once again make letters himself and say what was on his mind.

“GINA SAYS STAY AWAY FROM PEOPLE!” the banner said, in big capital letters.

Now, with his flukes propelling him, Freedom swam as quickly as he could away from the floating platforms. As he did, he thought to himself: “Not breathing is bad. People are bad. No, some people are good; others are bad.”

Meanwhile, far away, on land, Gina was jumping up and down, and cheering.

Later, when Freedom was well away from the boat, he detected another even larger floating platform. He knew better than to investigate. He turned abruptly and swam in the other direction.

As he swam away, he thought back to what had happened during his encounter with the net. He had realized something -- it seems he had encountered a floating platform like this before. It was a long time ago when he was smaller, and it was in this same endless tank. That meant he had lived in this giant tank when he was younger. How was that possible? Then, he had been taken away. But from what? Were there other people in the giant tank who took care of him before Dr. McBane and his first trainer? The images in his mind were so obscure, he wasn’t even sure they were real.

A few days later, it was a wonderful day with a clear sun and a blue sky, and the ocean was warm, and Freedom leapt into the air for the sheer joy of it. It was while he was leaping over the surface of the water that he saw it -- a creature that was more like him than anything he had seen in the giant tank. It had the same body shape. The same flippers. Even the same kind of eyes and beak he had seen in the mirror. And it was leaping too. It saw him and made a whistling sound, and he recognized right away that it was trying to communicate. It wasn’t an “alive thing” like the other creatures he had encountered in the water. It was alive the way he was alive. Freedom didn’t know what to do, so he made a whistling sound back. And then he was surrounded by them -- a group of creatures swimming around him -- and they all looked like him. They were swimming under him and jumping over the surface above him. He came up for air and there some of them were, leaping out of the water. When they then began to head away from him, he followed. But then one of these fellow creatures swam up to Freedom and gave him a long scratch on the side with its teeth. Freedom realized instantly that it was telling him who was boss. And Freedom wasn’t about to let it get the better of him, so he swam at it and proceeded to scratch it right back, as it quickly swam out of reach.  It seemed like everything was okay when suddenly the largest one in the group came up to him. Even though it was larger, Freedom could see that it was definitely one of his own kind. But the creature then also greeted Freedom with its teeth, giving him another long scratch on the side to let him know who was in charge. Freedom paused for a moment, realized the scratch really wasn’t that bad, contemplated the fact that this other creature was quite a bit larger than him, and decided not to try to counter-attack it with his own teeth. And that was all it took. With that, he was accepted as one of them.

Back on land, Gina was looking at the video image of what was happening, and crying. Then she punched in a series of code numbers into her computer, and the miniature cameras and electronic beacons in Freedom’s tooth and fin shut down permanently, so neither she nor McBane would ever receive a signal from them again.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the ocean, Freedom was happily swimming with the group of dolphins he was now part of, when he realized his questions had finally been answered. He tried tapping on the surface of the water with his beak, to share what he had learned with the other dolphins. But they didn’t have any way to understand what he was trying to tell them. No matter. He knew what he was saying. This wasn’t a tank after all. It was the world.



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