The subject responded by blowing a soft stream of bubbles through his breathing hole.
“Can you hear me all right?”
Veah didn’t want to start the interview if the subject was not ready. Could it detect how nervous she felt, she wondered.
From inside the tank, he gave a vigorous nod. [I can hear you just fine. Can we start the interview?]
Veah cleared her throat and checked her notes. The subject’s name: Bodhi.
This is going to be interesting.
“My name is Veah. I’m a student from Lar University. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
More bubbles. And then the subject’s flat reply.
“Just because I’m a student doesn’t necessarily mean I’m young.”
[Younger than me then.]
Veah schooled her features into the no-nonsense look that she inherited from her guardians.
“What makes you so sure about that?”
The subject did a somersault on the other side of the glass.
Do not let him control the conversation. He will do everything he can to throw you off. You have to be ready for him.
The voices of Veah’s superiors faded into the background. She needed their words, but she also needed to concentrate. Determined to show her subject that she meant business, she swiftly scanned her list of opening questions and decided to forgo them.
“Bodhi, does your species have a concept of god or a system of faith of some kind?”
There were no bubbles this time.
[Every species has knowledge that there exists a species greater than itself. No matter if it is the miniature ant being or my immense cousins. Every being knows of another that occupies a greater tier.]
Veah shifted in her chair. How could he know what ants are?
“Can you tell me what you mean by ‘greater’?”
Bodhi clarified. [Stronger, better hunters, better minds, great makers, great destroyers.]
Veah remembered her training and steadied her voice. “Please understand that I’m not referring another species. I’m asking if you believe in a higher, sentient power that is all knowing.”
[Those that came before us? Pioneers.]
Veah shook her head. “A higher power usually refers to something that you cannot really see or touch, but you know that it’s there.”
Bodhi lingered at the glass, as if pondering Veah’s explanation. And then finally, [Ah yes. Now I understand. You’re speaking of the love feeling. Unconditional. Powerful. Cannot be seen or brain-sensed, but existence is clear. The love feeling between two. Mother-calf. Between mates.]
To shield her frustration, Veah decided to swallow her sigh. “No. You’re speaking of a feeling. I’m referring to a power.”
[Then is it wrong to say that the love-feeling has no power over your species?]
Veah dipped her chin. “It is true that love is a strong factor in our decision making. But it’s not something that we worship, pray to, or ask forgiveness of.”
She thought that this would be enough to trigger a proper response from Bodhi, but his final reply provided no insight whatsoever.
[Perhaps it should be.]
Whenever the interviewee does not allow passage to insight, as is bound to happen, change the subject and revisit the unresolved question later.
“Next question,” Veah prompted. “Do you or any members of your species believe in the existence of an afterlife?”
[What is your meaning?]
“The afterlife refers to a place that you go after you die.”
[Yes. I’ve seen where the dead go.]
Veah blinked. “You have?”
[Of course. They go down past the curtain. And then to the sharks and the lesser fish. Their bones go back up to become a part of the sand ceiling.]
Bodhi’s description made Veah recall her notes on his species’ reversal of the ocean barrier. For them, the sea floor was the “ceiling” and the surface, which was located down, was referred to as the “curtain.”
Veah sighed. “That’s where their bodies go. But what happens to their spirit?”
A faint clicking noise came from the other side of the glass.
[What is your meaning?]
“One’s spirit or soul is the intangible part that makes that person unique. It combines their personality, their lived experience, and their core values. Do you believe that this spirit lives on after the body dies or does it cease to exist as well?”
[How could this so called spirit ever die when there are those around who will remember it? I remember the unique aspects of all those that have passed on who were dear to me. Don’t you?]
“Well yes, but eventually, I will die and that memory will fade.”
[That is what offspring is for. To carry on their parents’ unique qualities and add them to their own.]
“So you don’t believe that the spirit is preserved in another dimension? Unchanged – as it was before it was stripped of its vessel?”
[Doesn’t the vessel influence the spirit during life? Won’t a change take place no matter what? Our spirits change as we grow and mature. Why can they not change after we die? Death is certain, final, but change is constant – ever happening. Never stopping.]
Veah sighed. “I’m sorry. These questions only seem to be confusing you.”
[No.] Veah could feel the sudden weight of Bodhi’s voice against the machine through which it funneled. [Here is the truth. You and your kind seek answers to questions that you have already mapped. You have preemptively projected the design of my response. You trap us behind glass for the sake of communication, but your toys –] he gestured to the tech attached to the tank, [will not provide clarity.]
Veah set aside her clipboard, leaned back and folded her hands. Now that Bodhi was frustrated, she let herself bask in the power it lent her.
“You claim that my species will never understand yours, even with all of our advancements. Why not?”
Bodhi opened his narrow jaws and snapped them several times. The rows of conical teeth combined with the permanent smile struck a nerve in Veah.
[You are builders. Explorers. We – my kind – we are communicators. The ultimate socialites. The complexity of even just one of our dialects is beyond not only your hearing, but also your comprehension. It is my understanding that for thousands of years, you have sought to spread and explore the world under ours. Why now do you suffer yourselves to speak with us and ask us questions that your own kind could never provide a unanimous answer for?]
Fearing that she had allowed the roles of this interview to switch, Veah rushed to satisfy Bodhi’s inquiry so that they could move on.
“You’re right, Bodhi. A study of modern human evolution tells that our nature is to explore and manipulate our environment to suit our needs. We are indeed builders. But,” she made sure to lock onto his smooth melon – the part of his body that was the most sensitive, even more so than his eyes.
“Manifest Destiny was our old motto. Now that we have explored every celestial body in our solar system and have traveled beyond, colonizing the furthest reaches of the Milky Way, riding space time on the event horizon of our galaxy’s core, we have found that our greatest potential has been achieved. Now we must look inward. Absolute Understanding is what humans of the present seek to achieve.”
Veah lifted her hand towards the machine that filtered Bodhi’s conscience.
“I admit that what this machine does at its minimum setting does not allow for Absolute Understanding. You and I can only communicate at the most primitive of degrees. The results of this interview won’t be any more successful than communicating through sign language with an ape. I only get the slimmest glimpse of who you are, what you know, and the truth of your species’ experience.”
Bodhi swam up to the top of the tank where the device was lodged and tapped it with his beak.
[You said yourself this toy is set to the minimum. Why not increase its capacity?]
“The results are unpredictable. This is not merely a translation device. It operates on transference. Every time you speak to me, I’m absorbing waves that carry echoes of your brain cells. They leave imprints on mine and are analyzed by the parts of my brain that process language. This is all happening at the microbiological level, of course.”
[Let me guess.] Bodhi swam back down. [If you increase the toy’s intensity, you risk my brain waves overwhelming your cells. You could become disoriented and forget your own language.]
Veah lowered her eyes. “Correct. But . . .”
Veah looked up at Bodhi. His head was turned to the side so his eye was focused on her.
[It has no barriers. The only way to understand is to become. Wouldn’t you agree?]
Veah looked at her hands. “I . . .”
[How many of your kind have died in the name of exploration? You boast about the accomplishments of your species, but like I said before, you are young. Is it really fair to take ownership for a history that you had no hand in forging? You strive for Absolute Understanding simply because you want to be among the first of your kind to touch it. Everything else has been marked off. Done. Completed.]
Veah was already standing on her chair, using her clipboard to reach the tech that filtered Bodhi’s conscience.
She strained, one hand on the glass to support herself, the other reaching towards the dial.
“Even if I lose my memories or forget how to speak, at least I’ll understand. I’ll have the answers that the only other sentient life on our planet has access to. They’ll write books about me: Neveah Armstrong – the bridge between Cetaceans and Homo sapiens. The Ultimate Communicator!”
She slipped, but not before tipping the dial all the way up with the edge of her clipboard. On her way down, she remembered seeing the very front of Bodhi’s melon through the glass.
Veah opened her eyes and immediately tried to blink away the blurriness. She opened her mouth to release a groan, but nothing came forth.
She was suspended, floating.
What is going on? Why can’t I speak?
“He will be okay. I think he’s just a little stunned. The sonar decryption egg must have gotten overheated from prolonged use.”
Veah struggled to blink again. That’s my voice!
“Were you able to make any progress with this one?”
Veah concentrated on the new voice. It was one of her superiors. He wasn’t supposed to be checking in on her for another two hours. Did she pass out after hitting her head?
Why is it so cold? Why can’t I barely see anything?!
“This one was definitely more talkative than the rest, but you were right. He just tried to take control of the conversation. His responses were mostly cleverly articulated nonsense. And when he didn’t know the answer, he just blew bubbles or waved his genitalia at me. To mock me and this process no doubt.”
Veah could finally see what was happening. But she wasn’t looking through her eyes. Whenever she aimed her forehead at the voices, vibrations returned to her, creating perfectly textured three dimensional models of everyone’s bodies. One of those bodies belonged to her.
No, not me. I’m right here . . . . The person over there just looks like me.
While the people continued their conversation, a foreign presence entered Veah’s head and forced everything else to the background.
[Builders. Explorers. But that’s not all. I left one other thing out.]
Bodhi? Is that you? What the hell is going on?
[Conquerors. Your kind surpasses all the rest when it comes to the enslavement and subjugation of others.]
Bodhi . . . what have you done?
[I wasn’t sure if it would work. You’re young, educated, idealistic. I wasn’t sure if I could make you think that a prisoner would ever want to help you take the only thing that I had left at the cost of my freedom – knowledge.]
Bodhi . . . please, don’t tell me. If that’s you inside my body right now, then I’m . . .
[I told you that your species cannot compare to mine when it comes to socialization. We were reading and understand each other’s intentions and opportunity for error eons before your ancestors stretched a limb beyond the shadows of their caves.]
Veah tried to scream, but all that came forth was a bleating whir from her melon. The humans outside gave no reaction. On the other side of the glass, the other Veah turned her head and smiled.
[They cannot hear you.]
“Goodbye, Bodhi.” The other Veah held her clipboard firmly against her chest and bowed. “Thank you for sharing your experience with me.”
Veah screamed again, but the sounds only bounced off the glass and reverberated back, giving her a blinding headache.
[Absolute Understanding can only be achieved when you become.]
The other Veah turned for the door.
[Isn’t that what you wanted?]
Bodhi, don’t leave me here!
[You deserve no less, my friend.]