A good day to every one. Longer than usual between most, as I was without power for a handful of days, due to a not-so-threatening storm which Connecticut was not at all prepared. Considering I have no trust in my state or country to aid us in a disaster, I think it’s time I buy a generator and even more life-saving supplies. You know, in case the end of the world shows its face. Considering the events of this year already, I do not consider the apocalypse unlikely.
As always, thanks for reading.
I stumble and hit my head against the wall, think I still hear the voice inside my head, Kortena but not Kortena, and hit my head again, this time with my palm, on purpose.
Ara just stares at me, eyes filled with questions. “Uhmm, are you alright?”
“I heard it…voices.”
“Maybe that would be odd if this was, what? A few hundred years ago? But Kortena’s been around for awhile, Trevian. I think we all hear voices by now. It would be scarier if we didn’t.”
“No, not like that. Like someone was actually talking to me, breaking through Kortena to get to me. To warn me.”
Ara frowns, amusement now concern. “Warn you about what?”
“I don’t know. They didn’t say. Or maybe I didn’t want to hear. That’s when I stumbled and hit my head. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem like Kortena.”
“Or maybe it was, but not the Kortena you know. Great, now you have me sounding crazy. You know, when I first saw you, I didn’t think you were the crazy type.”
I narrow my eyes and don’t feel half as crazy as I sound or think I am. “There’s something you’re not telling me. None of this makes sense.”
Ara takes a deep breath, nods her head like she’s not sure she should nod it, like she’s guilty of something sups big. “There’s many things I’m not telling you, but only because they’re all things you must see instead of hear. Otherwise you wouldn’t believe me, and you’d be calling me crazy instead of believing you yourself are.”
“I’m not sure I want to go any further.” I stop in the middle of the hallway, in the shadows between the floodlights. It reminds me of a scene in a horror movie, just before you know something bad’s about to happen. Like you know the person shouldn’t go any further but will anyway, since that’s what people do and is exactly what I’ll do.
“Would you rather turn around and wonder about all the things you didn’t do? Go get decached somewhere with your friends who you claim aren’t your friends? Or go sleep in a coffee shop and kiss a whale?”
“I haven’t kissed a whale! And no…I’ll go.” But I slump my shoulders sups low to show Ara that I’m forlorn.
“Kortena’s roughly eighty years old,” Ara says, as if I asked her a question. “Not a few hundred.”
“That’s what, maybe three generations? We didn’t have her on Earth or Earth2. It was after we colonized Earth3 that the technology was developed, the ability to implant in our brains and influence so much. Change so much.”
“I know we didn’t have her on the other Earths. Everyone knows that. There’s these shows about history. Historicals? About life before Kortena and how anti it was, how everyone had to do more and think more and no one was happy, and that’s why the other Earths failed. Historicals bore me, so don’t start talking like one.”
“I don’t plan to, but a precursor may be helpful. The ride up ahead is sort of historical.”
“No wonder you never finished it then. History bores people, Ara. No one cares about the past.”
She laughs as if I said something far too funny. “That’s sadly true, but I think they’d care about this. Too much. My parents decided to never finish this ride, decided to stop expansion. Maybe I sort of lied before. I said that they killed themselves, and they did. But I think it was the past that truly killed them.”
The ride isn’t at all like what I expected. I pictured a ride like every other ride, fun and festive and reminding people of happier times. A smiling dolphin or grinning whale or another oyster you climb inside of and forget the world outside. A roller-coaster or big wheel that spins round. Instead, after a bunch of hallways and stairs and even a ladder, we reach a dock and one of those underwater ship things like the one that took us to Sealandia, but this one is much smaller, for two or three people instead of a group. The ship is round and silver in the dull lights of the bay, floating on the dark water. I don’t see the domed walls of Sealandia in the darkness beyond the dock and the water, but I know they’re out there, somewhere. There’s no ticket booth or velvet ropes forming a line, no signs explaining where we are and what this is. The only sound is water lapping against the ship and metal dock.
“This is a ride?” I ask.
“It would have been, had things proceeded differently. We had planned on private adventures through the ocean, guided trips that would be a bit more thrilling than anything directly inside Sealandia. This was the first of many planned sea explorers. Not exactly a ride, but close enough. It was one of our better ideas, as the rest of Sealandia is very commercial. This is for the thrill seeker and explorer.”
“What went wrong?”
“Nothing. Not in the traditional sense. This was near the beginning, mind you. Sealandia’s been in my family for a very long time, and my grandparents didn’t care much for the amusement aspect. Originally, Sealandia was a science and knowledge experiment that rapidly evolved and morphed while still retaining the integrity of exploration.” Ara talks quickly, with a lot of words Kortena has to help me with. “Obviously there was always a goal for credits, since you can’t do anything without funding, but the main objective was definitely more about learning. Of course, that was a different time, shortly before Kortena’s introduction to the world. A lot quickly changed.”
I nod, having heard the history more than once, all about the sups struggles and sad people who had to do everything themselves and usually failed because of it.
“Anyway, this is something you should see rather than hear. I ramble when I’m nervous, tend to over-explain everything. I just thought some history would help put everything in context.”
“We’re going into the water?” I ask, staring into the rippling darkness.
“Technically the dome is already surrounded by water, but yes, we’ll become more intimately connected with the water.”
“I really hate water.”
“Which makes Sealandia seem like a poor destination for you. Alas, here you are.” Ara presses a button on the side of the ship and the hatch opens with a whoosh. Inside is just as compact as the outside, with two connected front seats and an even tighter back seat. A bunch of buttons and panels and screens and levers that confuse me. Ara motions for me to go inside, so I step off the dock and sort of fall into the ship, pull myself across the seat as Ara laughs and follows me in. She presses another button and the door slowly shuts with another whoosh and locking sound that both comforts and terrifies me. The water won’t come in, but I won’t get out. She presses a few more buttons, like she knows what she’s doing, and lights turn on. Screens and graphs appear on the front window. Inside is even smaller than I had thought, with barely enough room to move. Ara’s shoulder brushes mine, her bare leg pressed up against my leg. She’s like a sexy sea captain who doesn’t know she’s sexy. She’s too concentrated on the controls and the numbers and pictures flashing before us.
“You uhhh, know what you’re doing, right? Like how to drive this thing?”
She stares at me like I asked a stupid question. “I wouldn’t put our lives in jeopardy. My parents taught me how to drive it after they could no longer stand my begging. I’ve been driving this thing for at least a decade, though you’re my first passenger. Other than a few stuffed animals. I think it will be a lot less lonely with you. The ocean is a big place. Very dark and very lonely. It must be a lot like space.”
Ara nods. “But wetter.” She takes a deep breath and looks at me. “I just want to warn you.”
“Things won’t be the same. I don’t think you much care, considering you’re not at all happy, but I’d figured I’d warn you just the same.”
“I’m happy,” I insist, prepared to list all the reasons why but it’s hard to think of any. I try, but can only find one reason why I’m happy.
Ara knows it, so I say nothing.
Beyond the Dome
The vessel plunges deeper. Actually, we’re just beneath the surface of the water. I can still see through it if I lean forward and look up, but I prefer to stay pressed back against my seat and squeezing my arm rest and my knee tightly enough to hurt my hand and my knee. I really hate water. I’m sure, that if it happened, I’d also hate drowning. This is sups more frightening than floating down to Sealandia—I had taken a bunch of drugs and knocked myself out for the beginning of it, so by the time I woke up we were already too deep for me to freak out.
“We’ll be fine,” Ara says, prying my hand off my knee and slipping it into hers. “And if we drown and die, at least we’ll die together. That was supposed to be a joke,” she says when I don’t laugh and instead close my eyes and take deep breaths. “I guess I shouldn’t joke about drowning, or even discuss it. I’ve done this hundreds of times. Really. This ship was created for extremely deep sea exploration. We planned to build a bunch of them for tours across the ocean’s seafloor.”
“Were. What went wrong?”
“That’s what I plan on showing you.”
The ship continues to sink, Ara letting it drop down and down instead of steering it, like she wants to ease it in, all slow and nice. She presses another button and pushes a lever forward and low rumble starts, like a whale waking up, and the ship moves forward smooth and fast. More numbers appear in the corners of the windshield, though I guess it’s not a windshield because there’s no wind in the ocean, unless there is and I don’t know about it. Bright lights turn on and cut through the darkness of the water, and more spotlights on the sides and roof. “This lever lets me control the spotlight on the top,” Ara says, pointing to it and the screens on the console. “That screen is connected to the main spotlight, and those screens show the sides and below, and even behind us. Complete vision, and I can even zoom in with the top camera. Everything is recorded and saved back in Sealandia. There’s even a claw and other stuff to collect samples.”
“A lot of swill things,” I say, starting to feel more relaxed, or at least like I won’t puke. “I can see why you wanted to make this an attraction. People would have liked it, even if we’re just swimming around in a big dome and there’s nothing to see. Still, you feel like you’re in the ocean, away from everything else. Almost like another world.”
“Even more interesting, Kortena doesn’t work beyond a certain threshold, which we’re approaching very soon, right beyond the dome.”
“Beyond the dome?”
I see the dome up ahead, like a giant, curved glass wall. Ara presses a button and a door in the dome slides open, just big enough for the ship to slip through. It all happens so quickly that I don’t even have time to tell her no, to turn back, that we shouldn’t go beyond the dome and into the ocean. But it happens and I feel panicky again, like the world’s suddenly much bigger than it should be and I’m sups smaller. “The dome was built near the seafloor, close enough to be studied via expeditions like this one. You’ll notice that Kortena is offline now.”
I check and find my head completely empty, like my brain’s missing and thoughts are hard to find. The feeling’s difficult to explain since I never felt it before now, like how it must feel to get your arm chopped off but still feel it attached. I won’t be able to learn a lot of Ara’s big words. I can’t find the answer to any question or hear about new things, or the news, or anything. Ara’s here, and I’m here, but I’ve never felt more alone, like the entire world just vanished and I’m left with just me and my thoughts and the overbearing silence.
“An odd feeling, isn’t it? I was terrified the first time I realized Kortena didn’t work beyond the dome, and even more terrified directly after, when I processed the feeling and realized how dependent we are on her. How connected we all are. Everything is. And how alone we actually are. The signals must be unable to transmit so far, or maybe the dome acts as a barrier. Or perhaps there’s another reason. I think there is, but I’ll wait for that. It’s weird, isn’t it? With your head so empty and clear.”
“I don’t like it. I can hear myself think.”
“You’ll get used to it, and Kortena will come back, though you may not want her to.”
I don’t see how that could ever be possible. Sure, Kortena can be annoying sometimes and distract me from the other things she’s distracting me from, but living without her seems impossible. It was impossible for others, those before me, since they ruined all the Earths and basically killed themselves. Earth3 has already lasted almost a hundred years with Kortena. That has to be a lot longer than Earth and Earth2. A hundred years is basically forever. I try to find the exact number of years but remember that Kortena is gone. I try to ask her why she’s gone, but then I again realize she’s gone. This will take a lot to get used to. Kortena’s as natural as breathing, and I’m bad at holding my breath. Another reason why I hate water.
There’s still nothing to see. Ara is silent. The ocean is silent. I’m silent and there’s nothing to look at or do. Life gets boring sups quickly without Kortena. I guess I can look at the water, so I do. It’s dark and lifeless, without life, just some bubbles as the ship points downwards, going deeper.
“Just ahead now,” Ara says. “Was it a coincidence? I don’t know. The ocean is a big place, so the chances seem slim. We were drawn to it, I think. I don’t see how there can be another answer.”
“What are you talking about?”
There’s a huge rock ahead. Ara slows the ship without answering. We’re just barely moving now, our spotlight shining off a huge pile of rocks. Basically a mountain. We must be close to the bottom of the ocean. I look at the screens, see that there’s more rocks beneath us. Rocks piled high, big slabs and rubble. Ara pushes the ship closer to the rocks, sliding around them and down the other side, spotlights shining off the nearby stones.
“This would have made a swill ride,” I say. “Even if there’s just a bunch of water and rocks. The feeling of being in the open ocean would have been enough, I think. It’s enough for me. Too much. I keep thinking, what if there’s a crack in this ship? Then we drown.”
“The same is true for all of Sealandia,” Ara says, which doesn’t make me feel at all better. Somehow, I had never thought of that. “Open your eyes.” I hadn’t realized my eyes were shut. “Listen, Trevian, I don’t want to be sorry that I showed you any of this. I don’t want to be sorry for anything that I’ve done, so try not to make me.”
“Is this a date?” I ask.
For once, Ara looks confused and surprised, blushing for just a moment, before the color’s gone. “Yes,” she finally says. “An odd date deep within the ocean, but a date just the same. Yes, this is a date. Isn’t it intimate?”
“It is,” I say,” “but I’d like to choose the next one. Not that this isn’t swill and all, but it’s hard to think about kissing you or anything like that when I’m terrified and supposed to be staring into the water and paying attention to a million things, and all these buttons and screens and levers, and the whales, and it’s all a lot. I’d usually be more focused on you, you know, instead of trying to stay calm and forget how much I hate water and want land and whales and…”
Ara leans over and kisses me, which is sort of rude since I was talking, but I don’t mind. Girls can do all the rude kissing they want. It’s a soft and gentle kiss, not too long but not short either, the sort of kiss when you can tell the person has wanted to kiss you for awhile and just didn’t know how to begin, but once begun everything’s swill and whoa and you could keep kissing forever. Real gaga like. She leans away and steadies herself, grabs the controls. “Sometimes it’s best not to think,” she says. “Trust me. I’ve had a lot of practice not thinking. That, and you tend to ramble. Kissing you may be the only good way to shut you up.”
“So I should ramble more?”
Ara laughs and focuses her eyes ahead, on the rocks as the ship just sort of floats there. “No. It wouldn’t be as cute if you forced it. Plus, I needed to kiss you now just in case the future changes everything for the worst. There’s always that.”
She smiles like she said something she wanted to be funny but realized it wasn’t.
I want to turn back. I’ve seen enough of the ocean to know I don’t like it, and I already kissed Ara so the ride can’t get any better. Unless she’s gets all whoa sexy, but that seems unlikely in the ship. I don’t think there’s enough room, and then who would steer? Maybe the ship would just sort of float there, waiting for us to finish. What if a whale saw? Would it care? But Ara reminded me that the whales are inside of Sealandia, not outside in the ocean, which is I guess toxic. It looks like normal water, but you can never tell what something is just by looking at it. Or it’s alarmingly high levels of toxicity. I frown. Those words don’t sound like mine, even when I thought them. I assume toxicity must have something to do with toxic, but I’m not too sure. You can never tell with words.
“Are you starting to feel weird?” Ara asks.
“You mean, like excited? I didn’t mean to think about you and me in the ship but there may be enough room if you want and…”
“What? No! We’re in the ocean! And my foot would likely hit a button or push a lever. Probably both.”
“You’re the one who kissed me. What else am I supposed to think?”
“I don’t mean excited,” Ara says. “Like some of your thoughts may not be yours. Like there’s too many of them. Too much.”
“No, I don’t think so.” I look out the ship’s window, into the nebulous, Stygian darkness from which secrets both hide and emerge. “Actually, yes. I’m thinking with a bunch of words that aren’t mine. I don’t even know what they mean.”
Ara nods. “Good. That means nothing has changed here, that you’ll believe me. Just ignore those thoughts best you can.”
“Okay, but why am I even thinking them?”
The ship sinks lower. Ara flips on a switch and a bright light turns on beneath us, illuminating piles of stones and rocks, only it’s not all stones and rocks, but pieces of buildings, steel and glass and whatever else buildings are made from. Tall buildings, still erect as fish swim in and out, and others in piles of ruin, giant heaps that the ship hovers over. A ruined city everywhere the light shines, which is a lot of everywhere. It’s a sups bright light.
I stare, keep staring, but I can’t make myself understand. “How did a city get down here? That’s what this is, right? How big is it? Did you put it here? Wait, that’s a dumb question, isn’t it?”
“How could I put a city here?” Ara asks. “And it’s enormous. It would take days to see all of its destroyed glory. A drowned giant. My guess is that the ocean wasn’t always here. Or that the entire city sunk on an island, but that doesn’t sound plausible. Granted, I’m not a scientist, and neither were my parents or their parents. At least not this kind of scientist.”
“Your parents knew about this?”
“My family found and explored the city at length, searching for any signs or explanations of the past. If they found anything, they never shared it with me. They only found one thing down there, and they regretted doing so.”
“Was it a dead whale?”
“No, it wasn’t a dead whale. Dead whales float. At least I think they do.” She pauses and stares at the drowned city for a long time. “They found Kortena.”
I stare at Ara for a long time, waiting for her to smile and laugh, call me a fool for believing her about any of this. Maybe the entire city is an illusion. But she just stares back at me, unsmiling. “What do you mean they found Kortena? She’s in our brains.”
“She’s a chip inside our brains, yes. My grandparents found a few dozen of the original chips down here, in buildings and whatnot, where the tides couldn’t steal them away. I know you don’t believe me, and don’t want to believe me.”
“I…what? Like…Kortena is in our heads. Someone developed the technology.”
“Someone, meaning my family, found the technology and sold the discovery to the government for a very large sum of credits, enough credits to greatly expand the research facility and turn it into an amusement park to continue funding the research. The time does line up, if you’re trying to do it in your head. Kortena is roughly eighty years old, discovered a few years after my grandparents founded this research station. A long story with a lot of science that I really don’t understand, but I know they stumbled across this city and what’s now called Kortena. I still have their writings, if you’re truly interested, if you’re having trouble believing me. I’ve never shared this with anyone, not a single soul, so I have no idea how insane it sounds. It all sort of made sense to me. Maybe because I grew up with it, with knowing my parents were hiding things from me, with having years to process and understand. Anyway, we’re here for a few reasons, Trevian. Because you need to see to believe, and because I want to share their journal with you. Because no secrets.”
“Okay,” I say real sup slowly, feeling my brain processing. “Yeah. I’ll look at it, but I doubt I’ll understand it. Sometimes I even have problems understanding you.” I wince. I didn’t want to say that, but Ara doesn’t look surprised or upset, like she knows I’m a lot less smart than she is.
“I’ll take us closer to the city and you’ll understand it well enough. I can’t explain it, but there’s intelligence residue down below, like Kortena’s leaked out and infected the water, like you get smarter just being near it. A fake smart, since it goes away. Maybe there’s a giant Kortena beacon buried beneath the city. A giant, brilliant brain.”
“Okay,” I say, because okay seems to be the only thing I can say or think. My mind’s like…bam. Totally errgged. A lot of explosions, the big and fiery ones. The sort of explosion that sends a city to the bottom of the ocean. “Wait.” I say it again and again. “Wait.” Faster, than sups slow again.
“I’m waiting,” Ara says, grinning like she knows I just realized something, and I did.
“I thought we were the first ones on Earth3, and that was only what, a hundred years ago or something like that?”
“Something like that,” Ara agrees.
“Then whose city is this? That means we didn’t make Kortena…then who? And what does it mean if we’re using it now?”
I can tell that Ara’s asked herself these questions many times and never found an answer she liked or believed. “This is why I like you, Trevian. Why I’ve liked you since the first time I saw you. I could tell that you actually thought about things, unlike most people. And you’re quite cute. That also helps. You have Kortena, but Kortena doesn’t have you. Not yet. Not entirely. And that’s everything.”
She sends me the journal without asking a second time, through my network and into my brain. I guess some parts of Kortena still work, this close to everything.
Logs, but not the Tree Kind
I still don’t believe it was coincidence that we settled the research station here of all places. I’m not the first nor to the last to say that the ocean is a very big place. Endless for all it matters, Earth3’s ocean most of all, triple the size of Earth. This world is primarily water, after all.
There’s something below us, on the ocean flow. The same scans I had thought we misinterpreted in the beginning, now far more concrete as we approach. With the test launchers return, there’s no reason to believe that…
The city is vast, far beyond our wildest wonders and dreams, far larger than any city on Earth3. Far larger, and on the bottom of the ocean, its origins unknown. We didn’t build it. That much is certain. Another race of humans who tried to colonize this planet? And failed. It seems unlikely, as there are no signs of life above the ocean, across the rest of Earth3, almost all of which we have already inhabited as we did Earth2. But if we didn’t build it, then who? Impossible to tell when all signs of life have vanished from the city…which makes sense considering the city has likely been drowned for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. Erosion, ocean winds, endless ways for history to be erased. We’ve skirted the city thus far, not yet nearing the ruins and shattered streets below, not yet daring to draw closer until we know more, what may have happened in the past, what may still stir below.
I doubt we will report this discovery to the governments of Earth3. They’ve failed us before, so many times, bickered over every question and concern. Blundered this and that. This discovery will only summon chaos: who was here before us, and what happened? What went wrong? What will go wrong this time?”
We’ve drawn closer. Evidence of altering thoughts, cognitive and even emotional abilities that seem to evolve, but all unstable and short-lived. Exceedingly dangerous to tamper with the mind.
We discovered some sort of ancient yet advanced technology in the ruins. Chips that miraculously withstood time and the elements. They appear to be implants, lost and discarded with nothing to be implanted in, yet free of damage. Eight so far, in counting. I do not yet know their purpose. Hopefully tests will yield answers.
Her name is Kortena.
Seven weeks of tests and interactions with the AI, Kortena. A name she apparently gave herself, as we cannot find another origin. A product of this alien city, this relic of the past, another civilization, but we know nothing more. The ruins tell us so little, and Kortena tells us nothing. At least not anything about the people from which she came. Her origins. She can tell us little about this planet, and preliminary tests hint at her ability to learn and grow, but she can’t tell us everything. Or won’t. Safety mechanisms, perhaps, put in place by her creators?
The technology is far beyond anything we have ever encountered, so complex we’re still unsure how it works. No. Unsure is a poor choice of words. We have no idea. An almost telepathic connection between the chip and us, but only in intimate proximity, as if someone’s actually living within a palm-size sliver of existence, these tiny chips that somehow survived down here.
Kortena refuses to elaborate on her existence or the inner workings of her creation.
Only that once she exists, she cannot unexist.
There were other chips, she claims, a chip for every occupant in the city. All but a few washed away, deep in the ocean. That a few remained must be a miracle. As much of a miracle as an AI of this advanced nature. Kortena claims to alter and improve based on need and desire. So far this seems true, but our time has been very limited and this may be an illusion, something we want to believe, almost a placebo effect. Still, I’m more willing to believe the impossible than I was two weeks ago. Now, too much seems possible. That an AI can improve and evolve on its own…this has long been the stuff of legends and stories. Utopias and distopias.
One of my countless fears. As I gaze upon the ruins of a once great city, only thing is clear: something went wrong.
This level of discovery cannot be held secret forever. Not when we may be able to help the entire world. The ability to do great good, to change the inevitable future of Earth3 and disrupt the route we have traveled for so long. This discovery cannot be coincidence. It cannot. It may sound self righteous, even foolish, but we were meant to find Kortena. Meant to forever change the scope of human history. Meant to…