Cerebral Vortex

by Sean Patrick Hazlett


The hollow-skulled dolphin carcasses started washing ashore about a week ago. No matter how many times Dr. Janet Kimball examined the bodies, she was at a loss as to what was behind these mutilations. Dr. Kimball observed an atrocity that had become so common she was almost numb to it – almost, if not for the dolphins’ missing gray matter. In all her forty years, she’d never come across such a peculiar and gruesome sight.

This isn’t right, she thought. There aren’t any signs of a typical beaching. Normally, the pod would have some survivors.

The carcasses were in an advanced state of putrefaction. The discolored bodies had bloated abdomens, swollen from what appeared to be a two-week accumulation of gasses in their viscera. The wave action of the tide only added to the miasma choking the shoreline, mixing the salty tang of seawater with the ripeness of decaying flesh. The sight of seagulls engorging themselves on dolphin remains only reaffirmed that nature was a harsh mistress.

Perhaps the military had something to do with the dolphins’ beaching, Dr. Kimball surmised. Maybe the Navy’s been conducting war games over the past few weeks. After all, sonar can disorient a dolphin’s echolocation system. But that still wouldn’t explain the missing gray matter. It just doesn’t make any sense.

The overcast December sky and biting coastal winds were a physical manifestation of her inner gloom. The stench of rot assailed Dr. Kimball’s senses. It required all her willpower to avoid vomiting again on the beach, and her surgical mask afforded her nose little protection. She shuffled her sensible, wide-heeled shoes through the sand, and nervously scratched her short, mousey-brown hair.  

As a professor in marine sciences and ecological physiology at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, Dr. Kimball was one of the most qualified people on the planet to solve this mystery. Yet she struggled to develop a suitable hypothesis to explain what was happening.

Dr. George Mason, the grandfatherly director of Hopkins Marine Station, ambled toward Dr. Kimball as she carefully inspected a dolphin’s empty skull cavity with her latex-gloved hands.

“Anything new?” Mason asked, eyes watering as he held the back of his forearm against the surgical mask covering his mouth in a futile attempt to avoid smelling the rank odor that overwhelmed him.

“Unfortunately, no. I’m seeing the same surgical excisions I found in the last pod that washed ashore. The entry wounds also seem to have been cauterized by intense heat,” Dr. Kimball explained.

“So what you’re telling me is that we have some form of aquatic cattle mutilation?” Mason teased and chuckled at his attempted levity. He then abruptly dry-heaved after inhaling too much putrid air.

Dr. Kimball didn’t laugh. “George, whoever is doing this is incredibly sick and twisted. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

She didn’t intend to dismiss Mason’s jokes. Lord knows she needed a break from the stress. George meant well. In fact, she owed her professional career to Mason.

When she was an undergraduate at Stanford, he had taken an interest in mentoring her. When she struggled in her physiology classes to overcome her squeamishness about dissection, Mason was there to offer encouragement. He convinced her to pursue a PhD in marine sciences and ecological physiology, instead of becoming a medical doctor. When many of Mason’s colleagues confused Janet Kimball’s dissection-table queasiness for unsuitability in their field, Mason defended her to the last. Without his support, she probably would have returned to her small hometown in Iowa, far away from the bleeding edge of scientific research.

“You still think this is some military conspiracy, don’t you?” Mason chortled, and then hacked.

“Of course not. I never did. I just don’t think it’s a coincidence there’s been a ton of military activity off the coast these past few nights.”

“The Coast Guard confirmed minimal sonar use in these waters these past few weeks, right?” Mason inquired, adjusting his horn-rimmed spectacles.

“That’s true. I just don’t think they’re telling us the full story. There’s something really warped going on here, George, and I don’t like it one bit.”

“Well, next week the pleasure will be all yours if dolphins keep beaching with their brain boxes missing,” Mason ribbed Dr. Kimball. “On Monday, I’m flying to Los Angeles for my cruise to Hawaii. I never had a honeymoon. If I cancel me and my wife’s vacation, I do believe my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary may be my last.”

A series of flashes from the bluffs surrounding the beach startled Dr. Kimball.

Mason inclined his head toward the uninvited photographers. “Well, we better wrap up fast and call the folks from the lab to get these bodies out of here. Looks like the press is starting to take an interest in our work. I’d rather avoid them if possible. Wouldn’t you?”

Dr. Kimball nodded.

The next morning, Dr. Kimball responded to another pod washing ashore up north on Stinson Beach. After speaking with some of her international colleagues, Dr. Kimball confirmed that the California Coast seemed to be the only region plagued by these incidents. As she crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, she tuned her radio to NPR. With yesterday’s unwanted media attention, Dr. Kimball hoped she’d have enough time to examine the bodies before the press arrived.

“The van der Veen party was last seen Saturday embarking from the Tiburon Yacht Club’s docks. One friend of billionaire hedge fund manager Charles van der Veen suggested that the social outing was only planned to last the afternoon. This Thursday, the Coast Guard found van der Veen’s yacht adrift about a hundred nautical miles off the Pacific Coast,” the radio reporter narrated.

“After examining the ship, California State Police found no evidence of foul play. Coast Guard Lieutenant Martin Remus was on the scene when authorities discovered the empty vessel.”      The female reporter transitioned to Remus’ eyewitness report. “When we arrived at the scene, the boat was floating peacefully. I first thought the passengers had abandoned the ship in a hurry, because they left their food and wine undisturbed in the vessel’s dining quarters. The engine was also still idling. The odd thing was the life rafts were still in place. Yet there were no signs of a struggle or violence. It was as if the passengers just vanished.”

Good, Dr. Kimball thought, With the press distracted by some missing billionaire playboy, they’d have little time to interfere with her work today.

After another hour driving along the meandering road to Stinson Beach, Dr. Kimball began what was becoming her daily death march. As she moved amongst the dark echelons of decomposing and fetid dolphin remains, she noticed a black silhouette several hundred yards from her, juxtaposed against the gray fog blanketing the beach. Fog was nothing new to Stinson Beach, but the shadow calmly strolling amongst another massacre disturbed Dr. Kimball. The figure was armed with what appeared to be a rectangular device.

Curious, Dr. Kimball walked cautiously toward the individual. After all, someone who could dispassionately go about his or her business amidst such an atrocity had to be up to something.

As she drew closer, she noticed the figure wore some kind of military uniform.

“Excuse me,” she announced. “Do you have any idea what’s going on here? Why these dolphins are washing ashore with such regularity?”

“Ah, Dr. Kimball,” the man replied. “I figured we’d run into each other sooner or later. I had hoped it would be later rather than sooner. Where’s the old man?”

Dr. Kimball failed to conceal her astonishment and dismay. She countered with a disorganized barrage of questions, unable to contain her outrage. “How did you know my name? Why are you here? What the hell are you people up to? Who’s experimenting on these dolphins?”

“Now, now, Dr. Kimball. All in due time. We have some questions for you first.” The man dismissed her protests with an air of authority.

Before responding, Dr. Kimball paused, breathed deeply, and observed her subject dispassionately like the scientist she was. The man wore two golden oak leaf clusters on his left and right lapels. The black nameplate over his upper right pocket had white lettering bearing the engraved name, “Reynolds”. His left breast had a patchwork of colored rectangles and a pin that had two fish or dolphins facing toward each other. Short and stocky with bright red hair, the man seemed oddly nonchalant to Dr. Kimball.

“I refuse to submit to any inquiry until I know who you are, why you’re here, and how you know my name,” Dr. Kimball fired back.

The man smirked at her comment, and winked at her. He then brazenly pointed the rectangular device in her direction. It reacted with a high-pitched squeal.

“My, my, Dr. Kimball, you’ve been a busy bee. Your exposure is approaching 5,000 millirems,” the man stated matter-of-factly.

“My what?” Dr. Kimball huffed in exasperation.

“Your radiation exposure is about to surpass the maximum annual dose for American nuclear personnel. I suspect the old man would have similar readings. You might want to give him a heads-up.”

Reynolds now had Dr. Kimball’s undivided attention.

“How in the hell have I been exposed to radiation? What on earth does it have to do with dolphins? And why do you keep calling Dr. Mason ‘old man’? Frankly, I find it disrespectful and rude.”

“Dr. Kimball, I’m asking the questions here. I’ll be happy to answer any questions I’m able to, after I’ve debriefed you,” the cocky redhead declared with a smug, self-satisfied grin.

Dr. Kimball strove to balance her quest for knowledge against her desire for control. “I need some answers now,” she declared, refusing to budge.

“OK, fine. Since you’ve obviously gotten your panties in a bunch, I’ll tell you a bit about myself. The name’s Reynolds. I’m a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy. Like you, the Navy is very interested in learning more about what’s happening to these dolphins.”

Dr. Kimball had suspected as much, but she allowed the officer to continue without interruption.

“Tell me a little about these dolphins. What subspecies are they? Where do they live? How deep do they dive?”

How deep do they dive? Now there’s an odd question.

Dr. Kimball instantly transformed into professor mode. “These animals are known as Delphinus capensis, more commonly known as the long-beaked common dolphin. You can tell from their rounded forehead and moderately long beak. They travel in families of ten to thirty individuals, and belong to larger groupings of between one hundred to five hundred animals. They tend to live within fifty to one hundred nautical miles off the coast.”

Dr. Kimball deliberately left out the answer to the last question – an omission Reynolds did not miss.

“How deep can they dive?” he repeated with a twinkle in his eyes.

“At least nine hundred feet or so.”

“Is it possible for them to venture any deeper than say, two thousand feet?”

“I doubt they could for any extended period of time. Why?”

Reynolds shrugged, and then ignored her question. “Dr. Kimball, in your autopsies, have you ever come across any evidence these dolphins suffered as a result of rapid ascension from extreme depths?”

Now Dr. Kimball was intrigued. The dolphins did indeed show signs of decompression sickness. For instance, many of them had accumulated tiny bubbles beneath their blubber. The greater mystery of the dolphins’ missing gray matter had distracted her from this other peculiarity.

“Come to think of it, they did. Why do you ask?”

“I’m sorry, Dr. Kimball, you don’t have clearance for that information.”

“Are you kidding me? I have a Top Secret clearance,” Dr. Kimball argued. “I did some work for the government a few years back that required me to have one.”

“I’m sorry, doc, this matter requires a Top Secret SCI clearance, and you don’t have one of those. But that’s not important right now. I still have more questions.”

Janet took a deep breath, and tried to regain her mental composure. “Until you tell me what this is all about, I’m done answering your questions.” Dr. Kimball dug in her heels. “Plus, you can’t tell somebody they’ve been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, and then change the subject. I demand answers.”

Reynolds looked at Dr. Kimball, then down at the dolphin carcasses strewn across the beach, then back up at her.     “Fair enough,” he said, “We believe that whatever’s sucking the brains from these dolphins is using tech with a nuclear-powered heating source because the residue on these dolphins is highly radioactive. You probably shouldn’t spend any more time around them. In fact, the Navy sent a team to Hopkins Marine Station today to decon your labs, and remove the dolphin remains you’ve stored there.”

“You’ve no right to do that!” Dr. Kimball protested.

“The hell we don’t. The carcasses are all highly radioactive. It’s illegal for anyone to have that much radioactive material in a civilian lab without explicit government permission.”

“Fine.” Dr. Kimball sighed. “By the way, you said, ‘whatever is extracting their brains’, not whoever. Why?”

“I didn’t say that,” Reynolds replied. His expression was blank. Then he changed the subject. “I have one more question before I go. How intelligent are dolphins compared to humans?”

By this point, Dr. Kimball was at the end of her rope, but she figured this question was an easy one, so she might as well answer it. “While a dolphin’s brain is about twenty-five percent heavier than a human brain, the metric that counts is the encephalization quotient or EQ. EQ measures the ratio of brain size to body size. Humans have an EQ of over seven, while dolphins’ EQs range between three and six, depending on the species. In other words, dolphins are second only to humans in terms of intelligence.”

“If you had to measure the number of floating point operations a dolphin can process per second, what would that number be?” Reynolds asked.

Dr. Kimball was dumbfounded. “Floating point what?”

“Never mind.” Reynolds shrugged. “We appreciate your cooperation, Dr. Kimball.”

Reynolds reached into his trouser pocket and handed Dr. Kimball his business card. “If you have any questions or anything peculiar comes up, don’t hesitate to call me. And remember, stay away from the dolphins. Your long-term health depends on it.”

As Lieutenant Commander Reynolds turned and walked away, he abruptly stopped, looked over his shoulder and said, “Do you know of any scientists doing research on how marine life responds to astronomical events? Like meteorites impacting the ocean, for instance?”

The question was so strange and unexpected that Dr. Kimball just stared blankly at Reynolds for a good ten seconds before she convinced herself the man was actually serious.

“No, Commander Reynolds, I’m fairly certain no one’s ever done any such research. Why?”

“No reason. Thanks again for your cooperation.”

Two nights later, Dr. Kimball met her boyfriend, Peder, at the upscale Sundance Steakhouse in Palo Alto. Dr. Peder Hermansen was an associate professor in Stanford’s computer science department with a promising career in cybernetics. He was tall, thin as a rail, and had pale white skin, blonde hair, and piercing blue eyes.

The couple began the night with the usual flirtatious pleasantries like any new couple. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before Peder detected a strange uneasiness lying just beneath Janet’s forced cheerfulness.

“Janet, you seem distracted tonight. What’s bothering you?” Peder brushed his hand across her shoulder to show his concern.

“It’s what’s happening to the dolphins,” she lied. She had had plenty of time to fortify herself from that horror.

“You seemed troubled by it the last time we were together, but not this upset. If you don’t mind me prying, what is it really?”

“The other day, on Stinson Beach, I came across a naval officer with a Geiger counter. He told me I’d been exposed to close to the maximum annual radiation dose for an American nuclear technician.”

“Oh, my God,” Peder whispered. “Are you sure he wasn’t just lying to you?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. I went to see my physician, who confirmed it.”

“Are you going to be all right?”

“The doctor said I’d be fine, as long as I stay away from the dolphins.”

“Whoa, wait a second. First, how’d you get exposed to that much radiation? Second, what the heck does it have to do with dolphins?”

An awkward silence shrouded the couple as Janet nervously played with her fork.

“Well, if you’d rather not discuss it, I get it,” Peder said sympathetically. “I just wanted to let you know I’m here for you.”

“No, I understand your concern. To be honest, I’m just having trouble wrapping my head around some of the questions I was asked. They seemed really odd things for someone to ask a dolphin expert.”

“What were they?”

“He wanted to know if the dolphins exhibited any signs of decompression sickness. He also asked me if I knew of any scientists who have studied how meteor showers affect marine life. And then he wanted to know how smart dolphins were as defined by some weird measurement having to do with floating.”

Peder laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Janet asked, annoyed he didn’t seem to be taking her seriously.

Peder held up his open palms in an effort to calm her. “I’m sorry, Janet. I just find the third question amusing, because I think I may be able to answer it.”

“What?” Janet was incredulous.

“Your military man wanted to know the processing power of a dolphin’s brain. He was referring to a measurement in computer science known as floating-point operations per second, or flops. While I couldn’t tell you what the average processing power of a dolphin brain is, I could tell you about the human brain.”

“Sure, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Well, you see, the average human brain still has more processing power than the world’s most advanced supercomputer. Some experts say the average human brain has nearly a hundred petaflops of computing power, while the world’s most advanced supercomputer has just over ten petaflops.”

“A peta what?”

“Sorry. A petaflop is about one quadrillion mathematical computations per second.”

“Why on earth would he want to know about the processing power of a dolphin’s brain?”

“Maybe the military’s working on some sort of a biological computing system that harnesses dolphin brain power. You told me once that dolphins use large areas of their brains for echolocation, right? Maybe the Navy is working on an advanced form of sonar.”

Janet’s mind started racing. It all made sense. A military observer who knows my full name. Questions on dolphin intelligence, and the depth to which they could dive. Perhaps the Navy does want to harness a biological computer in an advanced submarine, and needs to find a way to neutralize the chemistry causing decompression sickness.

“The Navy’s behind these atrocities,” Janet concluded. “Hey, I’m sorry to cut our dinner short, but I need to go to Moffett Field.” Janet kissed Peder, and left the restaurant so she could give Lieutenant Commander Reynolds a piece of her mind.

As Dr. Kimball travelled south on Highway 101, she fumed. How dare they do this to another intelligent species? The sheer arrogance. I’m going to make them pay.

“We interrupt this program to report breaking news. In the past hour, Santa Cruz residents have reported seeing dozens of bodies washing ashore,” the radio reporter announced.

Great, Dr. Kimball thought. The military is killing more dolphins, and I can’t examine them.

“A total of fifty-four males and twenty-three females washed ashore in what appears to be the worst mass murder in California history. The body of missing billionaire Charles van der Veen was found among the dead. Authorities also believe the victims include the crew of the container ship Puget, which was thought lost to pirates some time after it was last seen two weeks ago passing through the Strait of Malacca. Also discovered were several missing passengers from a Festival cruise ship that embarked from Los Angeles several days ago. The head of each body was sliced open, and had its brain removed.”

Dr. Kimball’s Prius swerved toward the shoulder of Highway 101, as she struggled to process what she had just heard.

Her mobile phone buzzed. “What?” she asked the caller. “No, it can’t be. That’s not possible. I just spoke to him a few days ago.”

Dr. Kimball didn’t consider herself a religious person, but in her anguish, she raised her eyes to the heavens, and silently asked, “Why?”

She had just gotten an unwanted promotion after authorities had recovered Dr. Mason’s brainless body amidst the carnage. Her dear friend and mentor was now gone forever.

After she’d had time to collect herself, Dr. Kimball called Lieutenant Commander Reynolds to schedule a meeting. Dr. Mason’s loss rattled her to the core. She vowed to discover what was really going on. Maybe she could help the government prevent more people from being murdered and mutilated.

While the government’s extraction of dolphin brains to build a biological computer had seemed plausible to her, kidnapping American citizens to remove their gray matter did not. Something far more sinister was at work.

For convenience, Reynolds agreed to meet her the following day at Lake Lagunita on the Stanford campus. The university hadn’t filled the artificial lake since the late nineties. Dr. Kimball and Reynolds both expected the area to be relatively quiet so they could meet discreetly.

“Lieutenant Commander Reynolds, your business card says your first name is John. May I call you John?”

Reynolds nodded.

“John, please tell me what’s really going on. I can’t take it anymore. First dolphins, now people?”

“Dr. Kimball…”

“Please, call me Janet,” Dr. Kimball interrupted.

“Janet, those details are classified. However, I need to ask you a few harmless questions, if you’ll indulge me.”

“I never get anything but questions and more questions from you. I refuse to answer any more of them,” Janet snapped.

“Please, Janet, give me a chance.”


“When did the dolphins start beaching?”

“On November third, if I remember correctly.”

“You did. Can you remember anything else of note that happened on or about that date?”

“Oh, I don’t know. It was a sunny day for all I can remember.”

“What about the night before?”

“It was a pleasant night. I remember spending the evening with a friend observing a beautiful meteor shower… Wait, didn’t you ask me something about marine life and meteor showers?”


“You also asked me about the processing capacity of a dolphin’s brain.”


“Now something is removing human brains.”

“With emphasis on the word, ‘something’,” Reynolds added with a mischievous wink.

“Oh, my God. What can I do to help?”

The Defense Department processed Dr. Kimball’s TS/SCI clearance in record time – just under forty-eight hours. Stanford quickly approved her temporary assignment to work on a classified military project.

Dr. Kimball expected her new clearance to provide her with access to untold military secrets. She was quickly disappointed, and expressed as much during her initial briefing from John Reynolds.

The two met shortly after midnight Wednesday morning, so they could discuss classified information without attracting any unwanted attention. Since Janet’s office at Moffett Field wasn’t ready yet, they again settled on Lake Lagunita for the location.

Dr. Kimball was bundled in a warm hoodie and jeans to keep out the fierce winds swirling throughout the Bay Area. The chill in the air paralleled the darkness unfurling off the Pacific Coast. For the first time, Dr. Kimball saw John Reynolds in civilian clothes. He wore neatly pressed blue jeans and a black leather bomber jacket.

“So, the military knows as much about what’s going on as I do,” Dr. Kimball lamented.

“That’s partly true, Janet. However, you never gave me a chance to brief you on Operation Leviathan.”

“Do tell.”

“After the meteorite landed about two-hundred and fifty-four nautical miles off the California coast, MASINT from several of our military satellites detected a high level of radiation near the crash site.”

“Whoa, whoa. Stop right there. What’s ‘MASINT’?”

“My apologies, Janet. MASINT is an acronym for measurement and signature intelligence. In the past, we’ve used it to detect the existence of foreign governments’ nuclear programs. We used similar technologies to detect a radiation signature near the impact zone.”

“Is this the same radiation signature you detected on the dolphins?” Dr. Kimball inquired.

“Yes. And it was the same one we detected on the human corpses. But that’s not what really threw us for a loop.”

“Out with it.”

“The signature was a radioactive isotope never before observed here on Earth.”

Janet’s heart skipped a beat. “Well, where’s it from?”

“The meteorite, obviously. When the Defense Intelligence Agency detected the radiation signature, the Navy had a Seawolf class submarine operating in the vicinity at that time. The submarine, the USS Connecticut, investigated the radiation signature at its source. However, the Navy lost contact with the Connecticut once the sub came within five nautical miles of its target. We haven’t heard from the crew since.”

“Hold on a second. Are you telling me that the United States Navy lost a nuclear-powered submarine off the California coast?” Janet asked.

“Janet, I never said that. I only said we lost contact with the sub’s crew. For all I know, the sub’s communications equipment may have been damaged. Alternatively, whatever’s out there could be jamming the sub’s transmissions.”

“I get it,” Janet said. “The U.S. Government won’t admit publicly that it lost a sub. So what does the military really think is going on?”

“Well, given the strange course of events following the meteorite’s arrival, including the surgical removal of brain matter from both man and dolphin, we believe some sort of extraterrestrial intelligence is involved.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think that’s the only possible explanation that accounts for everything,” Janet agreed. “That’s why you were so interested in the processing power of a dolphin’s brain, isn’t it? The military believes whatever is out there requires more processing power than any of our current technologies, so it’s stealing the biological circuitry of the two most intelligent creatures on Earth.”

“Unfortunately, Janet, you hit the nail right on the head. Whatever’s out there, it’s trying to build or repair some sort of advanced biological computer.”

“So, how do you plan to end this?”

“That decision is above both our pay grades.”

Shortly after Dr. Kimball’s security briefing, another forty human bodies washed ashore off Half Moon Bay. Janet’s first official day on the job would be at two a.m. on the beach rather than at the program’s makeshift headquarters at Moffett Field.

She passed several bullnecked Marines on her way to the beach, each of them challenging her right to be there. She flashed her security badge at least three times before she arrived at her destination.

The Marines had neatly lined the bodies in tight rows along the beach, and had wrapped them in black body bags. The hasty order the Marines had imposed on the tragedy failed to mask its underlying chaos.

As Dr. Kimball drew closer, John Reynolds signaled her to stop. She complied after noticing five people wearing protective gear and gas masks. Reynolds was clad in a similar suit, but his gas mask was still hanging from his right hip. He walked briskly to Dr. Kimball, and handed her a cellophane package and a gas mask, “Put this on before you get any closer to the bodies.”

Dr. Kimball spent twenty minutes with Reynolds, donning her chemical suit, and learning how to form an airtight seal with her gas mask. Once she was ready, Reynolds escorted her to the five others gathered around a victim.

One of the five appeared to be a medical examiner. The examiner knelt before the corpse, scraping tissue samples from its empty cranium with a long cotton swab. With the gas mask securely fastened to her face, Dr. Kimball could smell nothing but rubber.

The body lying before her was that of an unclothed and slender adult female. Her face had a closed mouth and blank stare. The dead woman’s skin was swollen and wrinkled after several days in the Pacific. The inside of the woman’s cranium was stripped to the bone.

The medical examiner looked up at Dr. Kimball, and asked her several questions regarding the similarities between the humans’ and dolphins’ wounds.

They were virtually identical.

If she could have smelled their rotting flesh, Dr. Kimball would have emptied her stomach. Examining the mutilated skulls of dolphins was one thing. Witnessing a similar atrocity against humanity was entirely another.

She couldn’t help but imagine a vast alien intelligence imposing its will on the planet’s most dominant species like a man would on cattle – extracting the most useful parts, and discarding the rest. In her mind’s eye, she saw a living and throbbing human brain network powering an extraterrestrial bio-computer. Did these minds remain sentient, serving as slaves to a predatory species? Did they suffer?

A week later, dead children started washing ashore. While sharing lunch with Janet at Stanford’s Tressider Memorial Union, Peder argued that the pattern seemed to follow increasingly higher processing capacity.

“You see,” Peder pointed out. “By the time children are about three years old, the brain has formed about one quadrillion connections, which is double that of the average adult. At around eleven years old, the brain begins pruning unused connections.”

“So a child would have about double the processing capacity of an adult?” Janet clarified.

“That’s right.”

The implications of Peder’s response horrified Janet.

Dr. Kimball pulled up to the Moffett Field gate, and flashed her special access badge. She drove to Hangar One, a massive dome-shaped structure towering almost two hundred feet above the joint military-NASA base. The complex covered eight acres – the equivalent of ten football fields.

John Reynold’s office was located in a makeshift work area NASA and the military had recently cobbled together. It was a hive of activity, with dozens of scientists and military personnel bustling throughout. LCD monitors lined the hastily assembled walls with images ranging from cable news networks to live satellite feeds of an area about two-hundred and fifty nautical miles off the Pacific Coast.

The moment Dr. Kimball entered Reynolds’ office she confronted him. “Please, John, tell me the military is going to do something about this.”

“I assure you, we are. The president is busy coordinating with the British, French, Russians, Chinese, Pakistanis, Indians, Israelis, and even the North Koreans as part of a nuclear nonproliferation conference. I think it speaks volumes that no such group has ever before assembled in one place to discuss this topic. I suspect the real reason the president called this meeting was to warn them of an impending ballistic missile launch. He wouldn’t want them mistaking it for an incoming U.S. nuclear attack.”

“You’re kidding me. The United States Government is seriously going to drop nukes off California’s coast?” Janet asked in disbelief.

“Janet, I can’t confirm or deny that. I know about as much as you do. Plus, what else would you have us do? We can’t get within five nautical miles of that subsurface impact crater.”

Exasperated, Janet asked, “Hasn’t anyone tried communicating with whatever’s out there?”

“Of course,” Reynolds answered. “You didn’t hear this from me, but a few of my friends working at the National Security Agency told me they’ve been beaming messages toward the impact site for weeks. However, when human bodies started washing up on the coast, the intent of our visitors became abundantly clear. After that, the U.S. military channeled all its resources into a more forceful solution.”

“So then what? How is the military going to proceed?”

“Here’s how I think it’ll play out. This is just my opinion, based on what I know of military strategy. Once the president communicates his intentions to every global nuclear power, he’s likely to order a few Ohio class ballistic missile submarines to launch several dozen missiles at the impact site. Each missile carries multiple nuclear warheads. I wouldn’t be surprised if several submarines are en route as we speak.”

“How do you know that?” Janet asked.

“Well, I don’t really. However, I’m a submariner, and have lots of Naval Academy classmates in that branch of service. More specifically, I have some friends in Bremerton, Washington who are supposed to be on shore leave. Yet none has returned my calls. Something big’s definitely up.”

"But wouldn’t the jet stream carry nuclear fallout east over the United States?”

“I’m sure the Pentagon’s planners would calibrate the missiles so they’d detonate several thousand feet under water. Hopefully that would mitigate any serious fallout,” Reynolds speculated.

“God help us if you’re right about the government’s solution.”

By the time the Navy’s subs traveled from their Bangor pens in Bremerton, Washington to launch points at several remote corners of the Pacific Ocean, the American people had started doubting the government’s official cover story. Somehow, the image of a twisted mass murderer rampaging along the California coast, scalping people and removing their brains, no longer seemed credible. The body count was simply too horrific for one demented soul to accomplish alone.

Bringing al Qaeda into the mix as a cover story worked for a while. It both terrified people, and took advantage of their worst impulses.

At some point, though, someone would inevitably start digging further. That someone was no-holds-barred investigative journalist, Kurt Stillwell. Stillwell’s claim to notoriety was his exposure of Hollywood sex scandals, allegedly by hacking into victims’ cell phones.

Stillwell had been following Dr. Kimball to her strange new Moffett Field office for several days now. The fact that she had been the first scientist to observe and examine the beached and brainless dolphin carcasses had put her onto Stillwell’s radar. Her trips to Moffett seemed particularly odd to Stillwell, because she had been promoted to lead Hopkins Marine Station after its former director’s untimely demise. Why was she here when she should have been near Monterey Bay?

On her way to her Stanford campus office, Stillwell ambushed Dr. Kimball with his camera operator in tow. “Dr. Kimball, what’s it like to work with the government on a top secret project? Why won’t you tell the American people why the dolphin and human atrocities are linked?”

“How did you know I’m working with the government?” Dr. Kimball asked, dumbfounded.

The gleam in Stillwell’s eyes told Dr. Kimball he hadn’t known, but had just thrown the question out there to bait her into unwittingly revealing privileged information. “Dr. Kimball, how long have you been working on this program? How could you let this happen to innocent people?”

The last question struck a nerve, unleashing all the stress and anxiety that Dr. Kimball had been bottling up for so many weeks. Janet lost it. She threw a clumsy right hook at Stillwell, knocking him flat on his backside.

Stillwell quickly jumped back on his feet, and started fiddling with his earpiece. He was anxious to exploit the moment, and prove to his audience that Janet was the willing executioner of a callous government, bent on human experimentation.

Almost simultaneously, the ground began shaking violently, with the seemingly solid asphalt rippling like a wave. Car alarms began blaring throughout campus. Janet noticed nearby buildings shaking ferociously, and stirring up clouds of dust and billows of smoke. The sound of glass shattering inundated her ears. Dr. Kimball was terrified, and it seemed as if the temblor would never end. As the earthquake finally began to subside, there was a bright flash of light on the western horizon.

“Carl, start rolling the camera! Now!” Stillwell ordered his companion. He then began reporting in his best sensational tone. “Our San Francisco affiliate has just reported a massive earthquake about three hundred miles off the California coast. The tremor lasted about three minutes, and was followed by a violent flash of light from beneath the ocean’s surface...”

Oh my God, Dr. Kimball thought. They’ve actually done it. Those crazy bastards actually fired dozens of multi-megaton nuclear weapons off their own coast. God help us.

Dr. Kimball braced herself for the inevitable mushroom cloud. It never came. Instead, a massive fireball rocketed toward the heavens.

“...our Washington D.C. affiliate reports that the White House will not comment on the situation. Several prominent military analysts are speculating that the North Koreans may have successfully detonated a nuclear weapon within several hundred miles off the U.S. coast...Wait, this just in. An immense fireball has just emerged from the source of the quake, and is rocketing toward space. Sources are suggesting that there may have been a failed military test off the American coast. Stay tuned for more details on this developing story after a few brief words from our sponsors.”

Janet’s father always used to say, “A good lie finds more believers than a bad truth.” Over the next several weeks, the government settled onto a plausible cover story. Janet caught the tail end of the Defense Secretary’s press briefing on the news while she was getting ready for work one morning.

“Our test of the next-generation Massive Ordinance Penetrator (MOP) worked better than we’d anticipated,” the Secretary of Defense lied, “Our new bunker-busting bomb is capable of penetrating nearly a mile beneath the surface. We believe the device’s explosion inadvertently triggered a seismic shock along several San Francisco Bay Area fault lines. The fireball observers reported was an errant submarine-launched cruise missile carrying a MOP. Fortunately, the missile landed harmlessly in the Pacific Ocean.”

Janet just shook her head. Her father was a wise man. The public really did seem to prefer the shiny lie to the dark truth.

The world of marine life no longer satisfied Dr. Kimball’s scientific curiosity. Her attention was now firmly fixed on the heavens. She believed that whatever had briefly visited Earth would inevitably return, and she wanted humanity to be prepared for the next encounter.