Talking in Pictures

Sheila Finch

Christina Dill

“I’m really sorry,” the woman behind DolphinAdventures’s registration desk in Noli said.

Behind her, the hot Mediterranean sun streamed through tall windows. Tired from her long journey, Lena Kehaloha glowered at the group of chattering, mostly young people coming up the path to the admin building.

“All the dolphins we work with are assigned to a group that arrived yesterday. And since you weren’t here –”

Lena caught her breath. “This group are all interspecies researchers?”

“No.” The registrar looked puzzled. “Tourists on dive adventures to the wrecks.”

No lack of research going back decades categorizing dolphin sounds and basic meanings –  and Lena was familiar with just about all of it –  but communicating beyond the hand signals water-park trainers used remained out of reach. At least, it had, until the recent advances in neural implant technology. Lena’s dissertation would be cutting edge, and she wasn’t going to be easily thwarted.

DolphinAdventures guarantees the opportunity to interact with wild cetaceans,” Lena argued. “It doesn’t specify that I’d have to go on your planned adventure.”

“We weren’t fully staffed to begin with,” the registrar argued. “We lost a dolphin two days ago. One of our young ones. It just failed to show up for work.”

She forgot her own grievance for a moment. “Do they often not show up?”

“This pod is very reliable. But they’re wild, free to come and go as they wish.”

She decided to stay a couple of days and if nothing turned up, she’d fly back to the University of Hawai’i, even if that meant taking the boring option her doctoral committee advised. Adam would be happy to see her home again – or maybe not, considering the fight they’d had. She should never have expected a graduate student writing a doctoral thesis about Everett worlds to understand.

Neural implants, tiny packages of electrodes, had been used for decades for everything from directing prostheses to controlling epilepsy, to transmitting information from one brain’s implant to another. And it hadn’t taken long before scientists at the University of Washington demonstrated brain-to-brain communication – three people in separate rooms, playing Tetris. But the advance that excited Lena came when neuroscientists experimented with cyberthink, sending messages from a brain that had an implant to one that didn’t.

One of her professors recommended an old book by an autistic animal psychologist about the way animals thought in pictures. The project Lena designed would test whether an implant could relay an image to a brain that didn’t have one, a brain that used sonar instead of words. Her doctoral committee thought she was headed to the cetacean research facilities in San Diego where her field work would be monitored and safety procedures followed. But what was the point of working with tame dolphins? She’d headed to Italy.

She dumped her scuba gear and duffel bag in the room the registrar indicated and went outside. The Ligurian Sea was at the still point between high and low tides. No sign of a single dorsal fin breaking the surface. So different from the Pacific’s wild surf she and Adam grew up with on Kauai. They’d spent so many hours in the water, first snorkeling, then later scuba diving along the reef. She’d pursued her dream at university – first linguistics, then interspecies communication.

She sat on a sea wall, the old stones warm against her bare legs, watching a small boat make its way back to the dock. Two people onboard. The woman jumped out, long-limbed and sunburned, ready to catch the dock line. The man cut the engine and stepped onto the dock.

Ciao!” the woman said.

Lena waved.

“Tired of Noli already?” The woman’s English was better than Lena’s Italian.

“I was hoping to do research in communication,” she said. “But DolphinAdventures is all out of cooperating dolphins.”

Sfortuna! So what will you do?”

Lena shrugged.

“A long journey here for nothing.” The woman turned to the man. “Roberto? Can we help?”

He paused from pulling scuba gear out of the boat and studied Lena. “You could research our little biosphere.”

The woman held out her hand. “I’m Sofia.”

“Lena,” she said. “I didn’t know there were any working underwater farms left.” She’d heard about the underwater biospheres, pioneered more than thirty years ago in this little bay.

“Deeper water offers a better environment,” Sofia said. “The Gamberini company leases a couple of the original ones that haven’t deteriorated to citizens like us. We could show you.”

Biospheres didn’t excite her, but it would be better than moping around for a dolphin that might or might not return to work. “That’ll be great.”

“Six tomorrow,” Roberto said. “Be here.”


She reached the dock with fifteen minutes to spare. The air was cool and hinted at fish. And out there – a few meters off the dock – a dorsal fin. Delphinus delphis, the Common Dolphin, was up early even if the tourists weren’t.

Sofia waved her over. “Welcome aboard.”

Roberto took her gear. The outboard sputtered to life and they headed out to sea. Lena trailed her hand in the water and watched a small pod of the short-beaked dolphins racing towards the boat. Reaching it, they swam alongside, surfing its wake, then turned and headed for shore. Ohana, Hawai’ians called them. Relatives. Every morning before high school, she and Adam had searched for the toughest waves because they loved the challenge, and dolphins surfed alongside every time. If her project worked, it would open up a new world of possibilities in interspecies communication. Dolphins and humans working together to understand and explore the ocean and heal its wounds.

And maybe even beyond that if someday ET came to call. Maybe she should’ve tried that line on Adam.

“How do you communicate with dolphins?” Sofia yelled over the noise of the outboard. “Do they speak Inglese or Italiano?”

She laughed. “Neither. We start with flash cards, single images, kind of like when you’re working with crows or chimps – remember Washoe the Chimp and Alex the parrot? They get a reward  – a grape or a cracker maybe – when they make correct choices. Then gradually you work up to something more complex. But I want to go further than that.”

“Dolphins work for grapes?” Roberto asked.

“Sardines, surely,” Sofia said.

“The university in Hilo has lab pools where I practiced with a couple of dolphins – rescues from aquatic parks. But they were trained to follow a human’s signals and it was hard to get the experience of true communication.”

“So here you will find the experience?”

She realized Sofia was just being polite. Not everybody was thrilled by the possibilities of interspecies communication.

Roberto cut the outboard and dropped anchor by a tattered Italian tricolor flag attached to a small buoy. Lena pulled on her gear. Roberto checked her gauges. Sofia was first in the water, Lena followed, the sea cool and silky on her bare legs. They descended seven meters slowly, following the buoy’s anchor chain in bright water. A small school of fish drifted by, then a tiny seahorse.

Sofia tapped her arm and pointed. Below them, a dome like a translucent balloon was tethered to the seabed. Sofia unfastened a latch and they entered through a gate in the dome’s steel mesh floor. They swam up into air trapped in the top of the structure. Sofia secured the gate on the inside.

As soon as her head was out of the water, Lena pulled the diving regulator out of her mouth. The air was humid – condensation ran down the dome’s walls and misted her scuba mask – and scented with the sharp green smell of young plants.  Rows of shelves above the water level housed dozens of healthy plants in pots, beans and strawberries and much more she couldn’t name.

“The plants make their own oxygen now,” Sofia said. “In the beginning, oxygen had to be pumped into the domes.”

Now that they could have a normal conversation, she asked about the mesh gate at the bottom.

“We’re not worried about human thieves. But sea creatures find this place fascinating. And some of them love to snack on our plants.”


Sofia chuckled. “Perhaps. But look down there, a crab’s clinging to the mesh. He’d do a lot of damage if he could get in. Oh! And there’s an octopus come to eat him for lunch.”

Octopus vulgaris,” Lena said. Some researchers in Hilo studied cephalopoda, interesting creatures, but too alien for someone whose heart belonged to the dolphins.

It was crowded in the dome, big enough to prove growing plants underwater could be done but definitely uncomfortable for more than a couple of humans at a time. The novelty of watching Sofia and Roberto tend their farm wore off after a while. She wasn’t a farmer, she was a linguist. Only right now she wasn’t.

“Would you mind if I went for a look around outside?” she asked.

“Dive alone?” Roberto said. “This is something Americans do?”

“Not really, but I wouldn’t go far – ”

“I don’t advise!”

“I’ve been diving since I was a kid in Hawai’i.”

Sofia turned, her arms full of plant cuttings. “Not so very deep here, Roberto.”

“Madonna mia!” Roberto said sharply. “Gli americani!”

“Stay clear of the domes,” Sofia warned. “Most of them are unsafe. And watch time. We’re not staying long today.”

She adjusted her mask, slid down under the shelves and out through the mesh gate. She glided through a tall stand of kelp, watching seahorses slip away.

Something touched her leg.

Startled, she saw the grey arm lined with sucker pads sliding over her thigh, a sensation that made her skin prickle. She tried to draw her leg away from the octopus, but it seemed determined to hang on. Another arm fastened itself to her bare arm. Now she felt the strong suction of the pads. She shook her arm and the creature let go; she kicked hard and shot toward the abandoned dome looming ahead. Shoals of fish swarmed the structure, their scales winking in the hazy columns of sunlight. The dome was overgrown with barnacles and sea-grasses.

The octopus caught up with her and wound an arm around her calf, the chromatophores in its skin rippling with color to match her own brown skin. It must’ve measured about two feet from one end to the other, a bulb-shaped body and eight arms, rectangular pupils. She smacked the arm and it released her leg. The octopus jetted away.

The ruined dome was cracked, and the water inside murky. The air trapped at the top of the dome would be foul too. Pieces of metal that had fallen off the structure lay below on the sea floor or tangled in the anchor chains, the rusty mesh gate on the underside hung open. Remembering Sofia’s warning, she had no intention of going into the dome.

There was something inside, a dim, vague shape at the level of what remained of shelves, just below the air line. It was hard to make out through the cloudy water. She pressed her mask against the dome and squinted. Definitely something inside – a longish, grey shape –

A young one missing, DolphinAdventures’ registrar had told her.

Her heart thumped. But how did it get inside – and why couldn’t it get out again? Was it alive? She had to do something. Think! She told herself.

Of course. Think.

She took several slow, calming breaths, cleared her mind of chatter and concentrated. Not the right way to do this! But there was no time to start at the beginning, to make flash cards or arrange rewards; if it was still alive, it was in danger. Her heart thumped. Excitement and nervousness made this more difficult – all she managed at first was a blurry jumble of images. But after a while, the hours of practice in the lab took over. It was much like meditating. Her mind cleared, the image she was forming grew clearer: The dome’s open gate and a dolphin swimming through. She followed the protocol she’d been taught to activate the chip, tongue touching a spot on the roof of her mouth. A slight ping of headache in her left temple that disappeared rapidly was the only sensation of the neural implant working.

Nothing happened.

Why didn’t it free itself? She’d have to go inside to check if it was still alive. Exactly what she’d been warned not to do – but she couldn’t just leave the little dolphin without checking.

The octopus reappeared, hovering just above her shoulder, one arm touching the mesh gate. It shot ahead of her into the dome. She grabbed at the dome’s underside and pulled herself halfway in where the water was too cloudy to see well. She reached up as far as she could and made contact with the dolphin. It didn’t move. It was almost vertical, its blowhole just at the surface of the dirty water, and much too still.

There. A slight ripple in the water as if air had escaped the blowhole. Alive – but for how long? The air supply in the dome was foul without filters or plants to replenish the oxygen.

She gave the animal a gentle push, but it seemed stuck. Maneuvering was difficult in the dim space cluttered with the debris of broken and discarded equipment, the tangles of rotting vegetable material. Her heart raced. For the first time since she’d learned to swim underwater, she felt claustrophobic.

What’s holding you, baby? Fine interspecies communicator she’d make! She willed herself to calm down and formed another picture, a dolphin swimming free. It was much harder to do here than it had seemed in the safety of the lab.

Nothing. She was too late. The animal was dying.

The octopus snaked an arm over the dolphin, then slid over the animal’s skin making her think of a doctor exploring an injury. For a second, it slipped out of view underneath the dolphin. Then it reappeared in a hurry, all eight arms rippling, its body rapidly displaying one color after another. Ignoring the danger, she pulled herself fully inside and reached for the dolphin, her fingers exploring the sleek body. A thick piece of discarded cable that had anchored the shelves where plants would have been had become wound around a pectoral flipper. She could just see where the dolphin had struggled, trying to free itself, but only managed to tangle the cable deeper into its flesh. Hard to say how long it had been trapped, but if something wasn’t done soon it would run out of air.

What she needed was wire cutters, but all she had was a five-inch titanium dive knife. It would have to do. She unhitched it from her dive belt. Carefully, she began poking and sawing at the cable, not wanting to hurt the dolphin. Time-consuming work.

Time! she remembered. How long had she been down here? She couldn’t stop right now.

Luckily, the old cable had almost rotted and it broke apart without much sawing. She gently removed it from the damaged flipper. Go! She thought, and concentrated as hard as possible on an image of the dome’s gate.

The dolphin shuddered, then slowly slipped fluke first toward the open gate.

She felt a rush of euphoria and relief. She’d been right to believe in communication with cetaceans. It could be done. She could do this! The future waited for her with endless possibilities. She imagined stunning her doctoral committee with her results – possibly with this very dolphin.

Shaking with the aftermath of tension, she stuck the knife back in its sheath and followed the dolphin out of the dome.

She could see the wounded flipper clearly now and realized she needed to get the poor baby back to DolphinAdventure’s veterinarian. But that would be too complicated to transmit in pictures; she doubted a wild dolphin would recognize the concept of a vet. She compromised, concentrating on forming a simple picture of the seawall near where the divers and the dolphins met up with each other.

Nothing happened. She took a deep breath, emptied her mind and tried again.

The result shocked her. The young dolphin jerked away, its flukes beating furiously. And the octopus collided with her head so violently it knocked her mask sideways.


Sofia and Roberto were outside their dome, assembling mesh sacks of produce for the trip back to land when Lena arrived. No chance for conversation until they had ascended to the anchored boat and could remove their masks.

She told them about the rescue. “I think it was the young one they’d lost track of. I’d hoped I could work with it when it recovered. I want to prove true communication with dolphins is possible. Not just hand-waving and using whistles as if they were dogs.”

“They are wild creatures,” Roberto said curtly. “Free to swim away from humans.”

“Roberto,” Sofia said. “Lena wouldn’t hurt them. She only wishes to explore future possibilities.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore since I doubt I’ll get the chance again.”

“You’ll think of something,” Sofia said.

She stared glumly over the side of the boat where the dolphins had surfed alongside them only this morning. Foolish to cling to childhood concepts of ohana. Dolphins were just one species among many; no special bonds existed. Maybe she should have listened to her advisor and gone to San Diego where she could’ve had a safe time with Flipper’s descendants.

Something rippled in the water and she squinted through sun glare to see it.

The little octopus was following them. Odd behavior, surely? What kind of brain did a cephalopod have? An octopus had nine of them, she remembered, one in the head and one in each arm. Were any or all of them conscious? Did they all have different thoughts? Researchers had known for decades that the creatures were an example of advanced cognitive evolution, with a system for communicating that humans hadn’t managed to decipher. She’d heard the anecdotes, the preliminary reports, but she’d been too focused on dolphins to pay attention. Tough enough to imagine how any sea creature thought, even mammalian ones. Trying to communicate with nine brains at once wouldn’t be as simple as talking in pictures. It would be like communicating with extra-terrestrials.

It couldn’t work.

Could it?

She leaned far out over the water and let her mind empty of thoughts. Decades ago, ethologists had decided self-recognition was the gold standard proof of consciousness. That would be a start. Slowly, she constructed a picture of the octopus itself.

The result was immediate. The octopus shot away from the boat, turned, and streaked back, colors kaleidoscoping over its body. It kept pace with the boat as they headed for shore, only leaving when they reached the sea wall. It certainly looked as if the octopus had received her transmission.

Her scientific training prevailed. Results had to be repeated to count. It would be far more difficult than working with dolphins, where there was a centuries’ long history of willingness to cooperate on the cetaceans’ part. Yet how much more rewarding to take on a problem this difficult! Communicating with that many minds in one creature might take the cooperation of a quantum physicist used to thinking about many versions of reality.

She knew just the right one.

“I think I’m going home,” she told Sofia.


British-born Sheila Finch did graduate work in linguistics and medieval history at Indiana University. She is the award-winning author of eight science fiction novels and short stories that have appeared in magazines such as Fantasy & Science Fiction, Amazing, Asimov’s, and many anthologies, including her own collection, The Guild of Xenolinguists. She also recently published a non-fiction work, Myth, Metaphor, and Science Fiction, exploring the connections between mythic themes and a literature of the future. She lives in Long Beach, California, where she regularly visits the Aquarium of the Pacific for inspiration.