-12- As Happy as a Pea -13- Bards of the Ocean -14- Ara’s Secret

-12-

As Happy as a Pea

The ride is dark and slow, like we’re moving through space but can’t control our movements. Like we’re floating through water, the dark water of the oceans like what we passed through on the way here. I get motion sick real easy, so it’s the sort of ride that I like real good, so slow it’s like we’re not moving, because we aren’t moving. Just sitting in an oyster-shaped cart, me and Ara side by side, so close I can smell her perfume. She smells like vanilla yogurt, which is the new swill thing, so that means she at least pays attention to some of the stuff Kortena tells us. I’ve never liked yogurt, but on her it smells good, like I could eat it off her and not want to puke.

“This has always been my favorite ride,” Ara says.

She moves closer to me, almost touching. It’s so dark I can barely see her. Just the shadows of her face. Even her shadows are pretty. The outlines of her face, more shadows dancing across skin.

“How many times have you been on this ride?”

She shrugs. “I don’t know. Twenty? Thirty? Actually, probably a lot more. Like…a few hundred? I used to sleep on it, and they’d let me ride over and over again. At night, of course.”

“But there’s no night or day here. There’s only darkness outside the dome.”

“True,” Ara says. “Sort of. Sealandia doesn’t really sleep or stop, but there are still clocks of the above time, Earth3’s time, and Sealandia follows it. Including tourists, after their first few days. You can’t stay awake forever.”

“Remember when everyone tried?” I ask. “There was that show, the popular one…what was it?”

“The Man Who Never Sleeps,” Ara says. “Very creative names shows have nowadays. Everyone thought it was a documentary when it was clearly a work of fiction. Then Kortena had to tell us to stop staying awake after all those people died.”

I look up documentary and fiction, but I do it quick enough for Ara not to notice. She’s smart, I realize, sups smarter than me and my friends. I thought fiction was like a number, a piece of a number, but it’s actually something that isn’t real. I don’t know why the word is even a word when we can just say fake. “It doesn’t matter now that Kortena tells us when we should sleep. That’s probably my favorite upgrade.” I can feel Ara staring at me, even if I can’t see her very good.

“Out of all the upgrades and additions and all the things she does, you like that Kortena tells you when to sleep?”

“And when to wake,” I say. “So I don’t stay awake too long or sleep too long, so I don’t die like all those people did.”

“Don’t you think your body would know by itself?

“What?” I laugh like it’s a joke but I don’t think it is. “How would my body know when to sleep or wake? It doesn’t have a mind.”

“Your head does! And it has a brain. How do you think people survived without Kortena telling them to sleep and wake?”

I shrug. I guess I never really considered it. “I don’t know. I assumed they guessed and were tired if they guessed wrong, and if they guessed really wrong then they died. I mean, there’s a reason why the other Earths failed and why we’re now here. Kortena. The other Earths couldn’t survive without her.”

“Is that what you really think?” Ara asks.

“Sure. Kortena tells us so all the time. Humans make mistakes and aren’t made to live on their own. Otherwise Earth wouldn’t have went away like it did. And Earth2 blew up. I guess we’re not very good at keeping planets alive. But now there’s Kortena.”

“But Earth3 suffers all of the same problems,” Ara says. “War and pollution and…”

“Kortena’s fixing all that, as long as we give her time. She says so, and things are better.”

“Are they?”

“We’re in Sealandia, so yes. Things are better. Here, at least. I don’t know. I hate the news, even if Kortena tries to make me listen. It’s boring and there’s always something better. Can we talk about something else, something that isn’t sups negative? I didn’t come to Sealandia to be errgged out by the world.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry. This is what I do.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think too much and question too much and judge too much, and really, I just tend to be too much. I’m sure you’ll think so soon enough. It’s probably why I spend so much time here. Dolphins don’t judge you for thinking too much and learning to question things. Nor do humpback whales or any other sea creature. Except maybe the octopuses. They always seem to judge me. But not like people do.”

“You really love Sealandia, don’t you.”

“The wettest place on Earth3,” she mutters, nodding and slouching in her seat, black bangs hiding much of her face. “I love Sealandia just like everyone else loves and hides within Kortena. I think that’s one of the things I like about you. I noticed it right away.”

“Noticed what?”

“You’re actually here when I talk to you instead of just in Kortena and only half listening, or not at all. You’re present in the world.”

“Yeah, well, I get sick of the commercials and don’t understand half of everything else, and it’s worse now, with my network messed up. Is this ride ever going to start?”

Ara winks a shadowed wink at me and the ride suddenly comes alive, as if she knew it would, as if she controlled it the entire time.

“I’ve ridden it too many times,” she says. “I can almost count the seconds in my head. And since you haven’t told me to shut up yet, I’ll shut myself up. I talk too much, Trevian, so just tell me when I am.”

Ara learns back in the oyster seat, her leg pressing against mine, shoulder brushing my shoulder. Two clams in a pod, the sayings goes. I think. As happy as a pea. I never understood all those sayings.

I’m as happy as a pea.

-13-

Bards of the Oceans

The oyster cart’s gliding on rails, down deeper into the ocean, through a glass tube not much wider than the oyster. Dim blue and green and purple lights illuminate the ocean outside the tubes, where I thought humpback whales would be but aren’t. The voice lady talking over the ride tells us that humpbacks can’t survive this deep in the ocean, which is sups depressing since that’s all I really want to see. But I guess there’s humpbacks elsewhere in Sealandia, in special pressurized tanks.

“Although they cannot be seen, the songs of the humpback whales can always always be heard. One must only shut their eyes and listen, or leave their eyes open and listen, since it doesn’t take much eyesight to hear. It’s said that the humpback whales are the bards of the oceans, that their music is without rival, and even musicians feel jealousy over the majestic beasts. Poor humans, not nearly the gifted artists that humpbacks are, their voices far from the splendor of the eeeeeeeeeeeeeehheeeeeeeeeeehhhh’s of the humpbacks.”

The voice comes from speakers behind my head, so close they sound inside my mind, like the voice is Kortena’s voice, but not since I told Kortena to be quiet so I could enjoy the ride.

“The chambers outside the tube are pressurized for habitable life, so that the humpbacks can live this deep beneath the ocean. There’s also air for them to breathe, a mock surface that replicates a day and night cycle, since we assume that’s what a humpback whale would enjoy. That, and they have to breathe. Don’t be disappointed if you do not actually see one of the whales. They can be quite shy and the chamber is vast in an attempt to mimic a true habitat.”

“We won’t see one from here,” Ara says. “Hence there being no line. This ride has a reputation of not being a ride, but a place for people to lock faces.”

I turn to Ara, hoping I don’t look as hopeful as I feel. I must, since she says, “We won’t be locking faces. Not here, at least. Or yet. But I know you want to see the humpbacks, so I brought you here.”

“But you said we wouldn’t see any.”

“Here we won’t. There’s a spot up ahead where we can get off the ride. That will be our best chance at seeing them.”

I look over the side of the oyster, to the tubing below, a drop of maybe ten feet. We’re not buckled in, and the oyster does move slowly, but it still seems sups dangerous. “Is that allowed?”

“Technically, no, but I doubt anyone will notice or care. Security is pretty lenient in this part of Sealandia, like part of a mansion that’s rarely visited or cared for. This was once the center of attention, but then the roller-coasters and shopping malls came in, and all that other mass appeal stuff, and everything changed. It stopped being about the animals.”

“And started being about what?”

“The same as what’s above. Nothing. Whatever Kortena wants to sell us or do. Only here, everything takes a lot longer and is more expensive because of shipping time and costs. Most people are only here for a few days, maybe a week, but they still get packages mailed to them. How long are you supposed to be here?”

A great question. “I don’t know.”

“That seems like the sort of thing you should know.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out eventually.”

Ara says so but I don’t know. I think it’s more probable that something got totally desynced on the way here, like a jellyfish got into my brain and shocked all the brain wires and burnt away a bunch of my memories and normal functions, like sleeping and remembering. But then the network booth would have noticed something wrong and fixed it. Or someone would have noticed. Kortena would have.

“You’re worried. That won’t let you enjoy the whales.”

I nod. “I think I’m broken. Or Kortena is broken, which just means I’m broken, but worse.” For some reason this makes Ara squeeze my hand, but more like how a doctor squeezes your hand and asks you if it hurts than in a sexy way, unless she’s a sexy doctor. I don’t want Ara feeling sorry for me and that being the reason she’s squeezing me, but I let her do it anyway since someone should feel sorry for me other than just myself. Plus, I’d like if she was a sexy doctor.

“Every one and thing’s broken nowadays,” she says. “We just have to be a little less broken than everyone else.”

“That’s hard when a piano whale song won’t stop playing through Kortena. It’s like it’s almost not there, real quiet-like, so quiet I’m already forgetting it’s there. Sometimes I don’t even know, until I do.”

“Well, is it a pleasant song? Do you like it?”

“I guess so. I never knew I liked piano until recently.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“It shouldn’t be happening, that’s the problem. I’m not asking Kortena for it, but she can’t shut it off, or won’t. Or maybe I’m just imagining it in my other mind and not Kortena.”

“I think it sounds nice, and didn’t you want to stop talking about things that depress you? Unless everything depresses you. I hope not. That would depress me.”

“Let’s just focus on the whales.”

“Or lack of whales, but we’ll see them. Just listen when I tell you to leap out of the oyster.”

Leaping out of a moving oyster doesn’t sound like a smart idea, but I nod and lean back into the seat, and Ara nods and leans into me, so now I can tell she’s sups into me. Sometimes I think I know what women like or hate or whatever their emotions do, but then things end up like Sophie or anyone else and it’s just a lot of yelling and crying and no one’s happy in the end.

Sometimes it’s sups easier to listen to whales or someone talking about whales, how they should be here but aren’t.

This is, in a way, a mega huge metaphor.” Captain Grant rips a fistful of lilies from the earth and shoves them toward his driver, Mund. “Give these to a girl and tell her they’re from me.” Grant strikes something like a pose, awkward and painfully uncomfortable, left hand resting on right knee, right ankle in front of left foot, left hip thrust forward, all the while masking it as a very natural, distracted look.

What girl?” Mund asks. “You do realize we’re in the middle of a park, don’t you? There’s thousands of girls, women, and these flowers are public property. Also, did you have a stroke? You look horribly uncomfortable.”

I’ve stroked nothing in half as many days,” Grant says.

Half as many as what?”

Don’t bother with questions, Mund. And whatever girl you think I would like best. Tell her the lilies are a metaphor. Girls love metaphors. Mysterious and aloof and all that. Tell her I’ll make her moan like the moon. That’s also a metaphor.”

Captain Grant, my apologies, but I’m certain you don’t know what most of those words mean, and you certainly don’t know what a metaphor is.”

Now you’re being the metaphor!” Grant shouts, smacking Mund with the lilies, soil dislodging from their roots. “It’s simple, Mund. First of all, I only like girls who love lilies. You know that.”

Now I do.”

And I’ll only date a girl who is also a metaphor. But she must also see that the lilies are a metaphor. Do you see the duality?”

Your words are making me go blind, Captain. I beg you to stop and replant the lilies before they wither like this drawn out dialogue.”

Fine, but do you think she’ll someday read this and understand?” Grant asks.

I’m sure your metaphor-enthusiast, lily-loving girl will eventually read whatever it is you’ve yet to write. First, however, you must write. You must write”

Tiny plastic cups. Tiny plastic cups. Tiny plastic cups, all in a row. Drink the water. Drink the water. From the tiny plastic cups.

-a poem from a poet-about tiny plastic cups and the water within those cups and how one should drink the water from those cups, as that is the purpose of water and the cups that hold the water.

– from the Collection “Poems about Objects and Objective Poems about Collections”

With rising tensions, a truce party was formed but abruptly ended when said-to-be Truce Director, Harmon Garlandvanedenbrow, accidentally stabbed his opposition, Linda Carthwright, with a letter opener upon tripping over a stray duck local to the park. The robot duck had no response when questioned. The letter opener, seemingly recently sharpened, even more alarming since there were no letters to be opened during the meeting, punctured Ms. Carthwright’s heart. Now she’s dead and a truce between the two neighboring countries of Newernewest Iceyplace and Old Neverfinishedisland has been suspended in favor of an all out war.

In brighter news, the NewSun continues to burn far brighter than ever predicted and has further scorched holes through the protective barriers of Earth3. With more than one case of radiation poisoning, likely caused by the lethal toxicants used in the formation of the NewSun, scientists strongly urge wearing sweaters despite the rising temperatures. Scientists also warn to avoid the electrical storms that are now frequent across the globe. Methods of avoidance include: not going outside during the day or night. Not looking at the NewSun or being somewhere where the NewSun can look at you. Not thinking about the NewSun. Not causing solar flares. Not mentioning the NewSun where it may overhear you. Not acknowledging the sky.

In other news, future creation of robot ducks has been suspended due to fowl play. It’s a quacker past eight and this has been your news.

-14-

Ara’s Truth

I shake myself awake. At least I think I’m waking up. I don’t feel rested but I still feel like I’m just waking, like I’ve been sleeping, or been gone, somewhere else, for a very long time.

“You weren’t sleeping,” Ara says, looking at me all worried, like her emerald eyes are more sad than the rest of her. “But you weren’t here either, and it’s been like…twenty minutes? Maybe longer. I didn’t notice it at first, but then you didn’t answer me and I thought you were asleep, but your eyes were open. Unless you sleep with your eyes open? Are you a wizard?”

“A what?”

“Do you create fireballs with a stick?”

“I…what? No! Maybe I sleep with my eyes open, but I remember some of it. Things that Kortena wants to show me, and maybe some stuff that I want to see but wouldn’t have known without Kortena knowing.”

“Like what?”

“Like…I think some bad stuff is happening above, on land. Someone stepped on a duck and couldn’t open a letter, and that caused a war. I think. It’s all very confusing.”

“Was it stuff you wanted to see, or thought you were better off seeing than not seeing?”

“I don’t know, but something’s wrong with the NewSun.”

“Yeah, that’s nothing new. It’s been dying for years. Or growing, which might mean it’s dying. But everyone knew this long ago, when they found Earth3.”

This is news to me. “How do you know this?”

“It’s history,” Ara says. “Kortena can tell you, if you ask.”

“I guess I never bothered, or never knew to bother. I mean, it’s the past and can’t do anything to us now.”

Ara makes a face like she disagrees. “At least you slept through the part of the ride you’d find boring, the stuff about Sealandia and when and why it was created and all that stuff. We’re jumping off soon, just ahead. You’ll see a blue shine, a light in the dark. Just follow me.”

It still seems like a horrible idea, but I stand when Ara stands and ready when she tells me to ready. The ride is dark like it’s been from the beginning, faint lights outside the tubes shining into the ocean. “Now,” Ara says, and leaps out of the oyster, onto a platform I can just barely see. I follow, almost slip but steady myself enough to leap out of the oyster and smash my shins all whoa hard against the metal. My legs are totally errgged. I fall onto the platform, my cheek on her sneakers.

“You’re not very graceful, are you? I mean, it was sort of cute, you tumbling like that. At least you didn’t fall off. It’s probably a drop of twenty feet.”

“Twenty feet! What if I did fall?”

Ara shrugs as she crouches and helps me up. “I don’t know. I’ve never been down there, on the tube. I assume you’d slid all the way down the track, to somewhere. But you didn’t fall and seem fine, other than a few bruises.”

“My shins hurt.” I feel my shins, find them cut and sticky. “I’m bleeding! And my pants are ripped. These are the same jeans that Rossy wore on PlacePlace. The same model. They were a limited item.”

“I thought you didn’t care about that sort of thing.”

“I don’t,” I insist. “But I used to, back when PlacePlace was still cool.”

“I’m sure you can buy new jeans.” Ara shuts her eyes, reopens them wide. “Yep, Kortena says there’s roughly twenty-thousand different jeans on sale right now. Everything will be alright after all. Now come on.” She points to the blue light up ahead, out there floating in the darkness, and takes my hand. Her hand sort of makes my shins feel better, but it hurts to walk or move when the jeans rub against the cuts. This is why I never jump out of moving oysters.

The walkway clanks beneath us, loud and metal in the silence. The oysters feel sups far away even though they’re just behind us, moving without passengers, the voice in the speakers talking to no one. No one cares about humpback whales. Not even tourists in Sealandia. But someone must have cared at some point, otherwise the ride would have never been built. “Where are we going?”

“I told you,” Ara says, and maybe she did but it’s hard to remember. “To the humpbacks, unless you don’t want to see them, unless you came to Sealandia to do nothing, just like everyone else.”

“No, I want to see them. I just don’t know how you know so much.”

Ara sighs and stops ahead of me, the red tips of her black hair glowing in the light of the hallway. “Fine, Trevian. Do you want the truth?”

“I don’t know. I don’t even know what the truth is.”

She sighs a deep sigh. “The truth is that I live in Sealandia, that I’ve been here since I was born. I’ve been above, to Earth3, a few times, but never for long, never to stay. I didn’t want to tell you because I thought you’d get all weird. Weirder than you already are, but in a good way. Different, I think, maybe. Or maybe I’m just being hopeful. I know this ride, and everywhere in Sealandia, because it’s the only place I’ve ever known.”

I stare at Ara, thinking she must be joking, lying to me and waiting to burst out laughing. But she doesn’t, and we just keep staring at each other, neither of us knowing what to say or when to say it, or how. “Okay. Okay. So whoa. Whoa. That’s…that’s a lot of things. How do you live here? Why?”

“Is this dark hallway really the best place to discuss this?”

“No,” I admit. “But I really want to know. Out of all places, here?”

“Sealandia’s under my family’s name, and they’re all dead. A tragic accident. You can find out about it if you really want to check. I live here because I guess Sealandia is sort of, maybe…well, it’s mine.”

A long silence as my mouth hangs open. I’m still waiting for Ara to laugh at me and say she’s joking. But she’s not.

“Then why aren’t you famous?”

“For what?” she asks, tossing her hair back and glaring at me. “For having dead parents and owning an amusement park that isn’t amusing anymore? For not having any control over that park? For being rich with a bunch of credits that don’t mean anything? Fame’s for people who do something. I just get pity, and I don’t want it. So sure, Sealandia’s mine. All of it, and I just drift around as I please, doing this and that, like a shadow that knows every sliver of light. It’s mine, but I can’t change anything. The credits that come in keep us afloat, no pun intended, and there’s never enough to change anything. Everything’s been the same since before I was born. No one cares, but I think they may eventually.”

“Why?”

She shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess it’s more hope than anything. Kortena changed everything here, and not for the better. Sealandia was once about marine life, a sanctuary and preservation for life that can’t exist elsewhere, that’s extinct other than here. But Sealandia turned into yet another tourist trap, shopping centers and fine dinning. That was never my intention. It was never anyone’s intention, but that’s what Kortena made it, what the world made it, and I was forced to bring in the credits. At least the merchandising sales have skyrocketed. Everyone wants to make sure their friends and family know they were here,the wettest place on Earth3, just a dive away, and so on.”

“I uhh…came for the humpbacks, I think. At least that’s what my friends tell me, so now I’m pretty up’d about seeing them. I’ve never seen a live whale, or a dead one. I don’t really care about the other stuff, if that helps.”

“It does. Come on then,” Ara says, turning toward the door. “And don’t act different around me just because I own Sealandia. I chose you because I thought you might be different. Because you might have something to you. Hopefully you won’t prove me wrong.”

“What do you mean, you chose me?”

Ara doesn’t answer.

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