The Dirge of Dolphins
“…so maybe it’s best that the parade is still today, that way everyone in Sealandia can forget about the troubles above, on Earth3. It’s looking sort of grim. What do you think?”
I look around. We’re back outside, on the street. The lights of Sealandia are turned down sups low to mimic night. There’s even fake stars shining above, in the fake sky that’s actually just a dome and the entire ocean above. The fake stars shine a lot brighter and better than the stars we can’t see on Earth3. “I think that I didn’t hear a lot of what you said, but not because I wasn’t listening or paying attention to other things.”
“Because Kortena is still screwed up, and I promise it’s not me and the whale songs. Anything interesting this time?”
“Maybe. What if they’re not telling us how bad things really are? What if the world’s falling apart and all we’re doing is drinking vodka out of dolphins?” The beginning of the parade is already passing us. A bunch of girls dressed up as jellyfish people, throwing handfuls of jelly into the crowd, getting everyone sticky and gooey. Another giant dolphin shooting vodka down throats. Girls in skin-tight fish leotards like the one Milinda wanted to wear. I don’t know how her coffee diet went, or didn’t go. People stagger, fall and clap and shout and believe they’re having a swill time. Someone’s puking and laughing at the same time, the puke bright red and splashing against the sidewalk like fish guts. There’s music, loud and annoying and robotic, the sort of music I don’t like but everyone else likes so it makes me feel strange and unable to tell what’s swill and what’s errgged, lots of loud and quick noises and high-pitched girls singing, or maybe it’s a guy, with dolphin noises thrown in. More parade-people dressed up as sharks and whales, squirting onlookers with guns filled with colored liquids. Someone sprays me and it stings my eyes.
“Saltwater,” Ara explains, wiping it off her face. “Usually colored. When it’s not vodka, that is. I fought against it for years but they wanted to be more authentic. Out of all things, that’s how they want to be authentic. I may own the place, but the decisions are rarely mine. Maybe because I constantly disagree with everyone else.”
“I hate parades,” I say, knowing I did before but realizing it even more now that I’m here. The parade-people are the same as the other people, just in dumb costumes, and there aren’t any real water creatures. My head’s pounding like Kortena wants to escape it. I wanted to wait for my friends, to explain everything to them, but none of them would listen, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care or understand. I’m not sure I understand, but I know I care. I guess they’d have to see the city, the ruins, to realize that Kortena came from there and not here. Maybe Milinda would care, since she’s been acting weird, but she’s probably putting on her fish leotard instead.
I try to focus on the parade, ask Kortena what it’s all about, whales and fish and other things living beneath the water, but instead she tries to tell me about fires and flames and something called a solar curtain or current and evocations, or maybe evacuations, but it’s hard to tell when there’s so much static and broken messages and whales trying to talk to me, or sing to me, or maybe just sing in general, to no one at all. To anyone willing to listen, which should be everyone but is more likely no one. Maybe just me.
A dirge. A litany.
“What?” Ara asks.
“I thought you said it, but I think it was Kortena.” I clutch my head in my hands.
“Maybe we should go somewhere more quiet,” Ara says, slowly prying my hands away from my head and touching my cheek. “You don’t look like you’re in any condition for a parade.”
“I want to see what’s happening on Earth3. I tried to access the cameras. There’s thousands set up around the world, so you’re like everywhere at once without ever having to leave your house. But there’s just gray screens when I try. And static. A lot of static. Do you hear static?”
“No,” Ara says, frowning. “But maybe I’m on a different…network? I don’t know. I’m not sure how Kortena works, to be honest. I know how the chips work, inside our brains, but I don’t know how it’s all connected. I mean, I sort of do. I’m sure there’s servers all across Earth3 to support such a large network, to connect everyone to everything, but there’s just one server down here. The first server, I guess you’d call it. It was once just the five of us, me and my family. It’s been just me for awhile.”
“Why didn’t you say something?” I ask. “Maybe switching over would help. Is that even possible?”
“I don’t know. Probably? And because I thought you wouldn’t like this server. It’s old and outdated, like eighty years old, updated just when I want to update, so it’s nothing like your Kortena. She’s still useful and knows a great deal, filled with information and whatnot, but so far removed from your model of Kortena, with all the entertainment and…whatever else Kortena is to you.”
There’s static in my head and a siren and commercials about safety suits and different ways to tell if you’re on fire. “Take me there, please. At least I’d like to see it.”
“So, no parade?” Ara asks, wincing as one whale punches another and they both fall into a fountain in the middle of the square. Everyone cheers and begins fighting each other with big foam thingies that are supposed to be octopus arms but instead just look like noodles. Whack. Whack. Whack the noodles. I think I see Bruno. He’s one of the fighting whales, the whale that’s losing and getting punched in the face and smacked with a noodle octopus arm.
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Standing still, talking without actually saying anything. That’s what you’re seeing. A man wearing a dolphin mask, but he isn’t a dolphin. He isn’t as smart as a dolphin. Nor as wise. Dolphins possess wisdom. Enough wisdom to predict the oncoming events and prepare themselves. Prepare themselves as much as dolphins possibly can. They’re dolphins, after all. They live in water and do dolphin things and cannot easily influence the human, mortal realm. The girl beside you says literally every other word, so that the meaning has been lost long ago. No doubt she never knew it, and if she did, that’s over now. But this isn’t new or unique. Most people speak in words they don’t know or understand, and most of the most never say anything at all. Just empty words. Emptiness is the new big thing. It’s swill. Emptiness is everything. They stand in line waiting for dolphins to spit vodka down their throats. They cough and choke, laugh and cry when nothing is funny. Just sad. But that’s not why they cry. They cry because they can. Because it’s all they have left when so much has been stripped and stolen away. When there is nothing. They cry because the world has forgotten them, or they have forgotten the world, and no one knows it.
The Ghost of Sealandia
We’re away from the crowds and the people in those crowds, away from the loud noises and terrible music and all the parts of Sealandia I dislike. If only the parade was simple, just fish and sea creatures and the parts of the sea that people should come here to see. Waves and coral and sand and rocks and water and creatures that lived in the water but can’t now because this is Earth3. Ara’s leading me away, back to the humpback whale oyster cart ride, the parts of Sealandia that no one ever sees. I’m beginning to think that no one comes here for the wildlife. It’s all hidden, beyond sight, where people don’t want to look.
“Are you sure you want to switch networks?” Ara asks. “I’ve never done this before. Honestly, I don’t know if I even can, but I’ll try if you’re sure. It’s old and outdated and not what you’re used to. I’m repeating myself just to warn you.”
The static is louder now, almost like whispering voices inside my head. “I’m sure.” Whale and dolphin whispers join the static. My throat is dry, like someone poured vodka down it.
“It’s a version of Kortena you’ve never even experienced, from before we were born, with a few minor tweaks and such. You may hate it, and I don’t know if I can reverse it.”
“I think it’s worth the risk,” I say. “Kortena’s getting worse, like she’s trying to explode my mind from the inside, like there’s too much going on and she can’t process it all. What if that’s what happened to the people before us? What if Kortena corrupted their minds and they died?”
“Then that still wouldn’t explain how the city sunk to the bottom of the ocean or why you alone are experiencing it. Or anything else. But it’s a theory worth holding onto.”
I sulk and think as the oyster cart moves through near darkness, Ara holding my hand and leaning against me as we go. The static isn’t so bad now, and the silence is better. Everything moves quicker this time. Jumping out of the cart, onto the walkway and not banging my shins, through doors and halls, into the room where big computer machines line the walls, and in the middle of the room there’s the glass tube that the whales swim within. It’s empty now. I pay more attention to everything this time. Try to see it all. Really see and understand it. The computers have lots of screens on them—screens with images of places and graphs and charts that I can only stare at but not understand because I’m not a robot.
“Are these screens of Earth3?” I ask. There’s about a dozen, but only eight seem to work. Pictures of water: seashores and rivers and oceans and other watery things. Water that falls. The pictures are moving, the water flowing and waves waving.
“Various locations across Earth3, yes. They were all working a few weeks ago, but screens have been going dead. I don’t know why. Maybe it has something to do with the electrical storms.”
“Or the fires.”
“It would explain why the feeds went out.”
“Can you link my Kortena to one of these computer screens?” I try to ask Kortena a question, to show me the latest news, but all I get is static and randoms adds about pants you can control with a remote to zip and unzip.
“You mean like the technicians do in a network booth?”
“I guess, if that’s what they do. The guy there just talked about his dog. I mean link it so other people can see what I see and hear what I hear. I don’t want you to think I’m insane, and I’d like to know I’m not insane, too.”
Ara nods and sits me down in a chair at the center of the room. “This is probably very dangerous, by the way.”
“More dangerous than feeling Kortena malfunction in my brain?”
“No, probably not, but still more dangerous than any tests I’d ever want to put you through. I may be bad at showing it, but I do care about you, Trevian. I prefer not to mess with your brain.”
“Something already is, so just mess with it for the better.”
Ara bites her bottom lip and nods and fiddles with the computers, turns on some screens and off some screens and presses a bunch of buttons. It’s all very technical. Then she starts sticking cables on my head, these little sticky things that adhere to my hair and skull like they’re made of glue. They tingle, the sticky tingle things, and make my head warm. “My parents did all sorts of tests down here and I have a habit of observing. I don’t know much about them, the tests, but I have hooked up myself to this network to test my Kortena, to make sure she’s working correctly in her antiquated state. There’s a few network booths in Sealandia, but they’re all for the newest versions of Kortena. Why wouldn’t they be? You don’t have the option to upgrade, right? It just updates itself.”
I nod. “I think so. They don’t tell us. Just when Kortena plans to be offline, like Milinda said.”
“Don’t move your head,” Ara tells me. “Well, this is the Kortena my grandparents used, way back when. When this was just about the only building in Sealandia and they needed a central hub. I’m pretty sure I can overwrite your version of Kortena with the old one. I didn’t want to tell you before, but it’s also the Kortena I use. The only one I’ve ever used. I thought you’d find me strange, odd, but it’s why I don’t know about half the things you talk about, and what I do know I learned from observing people in Sealandia and making a few upgrades. But the shows and commercials…I’m not very familiar with all that nonsense. Like I said, an antiquated version of Kortena. That means old, but old doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Just different.”
“Okay,” I say. “I can do old and different, even if it’s not as swill. As long as it isn’t entirely anti. I think I’m ready for that. Any Kortena must be better than a Kortena that doesn’t work and makes me lose myself. Why haven’t you had to upgrade?”
“I’ve only been to the surface a few times, just for supplies. I was born down here, in the Manatee Hospital, so I don’t even think I’m registered like you and everyone else. It’s the sort of thing I never got the chance to ask my parents, like why they had me implanted with Kortena if they were so against it. And why the original version? So many questions, but it’s hard to ask questions to people who drowned themselves. Honestly, I’m not even sure that anyone knows I’m alive, that there’s a history of me, outside of Sealandia. Like I’m a mystery person.”
“So you just…disappeared?”
“More like I never appeared in the first place. The ghost of Sealandia. How do all the wires feel?”
“But a sexy ghost. Tingly. Can you upload my Kortena?”
Ara nods but doesn’t seem so sure. She’s at the computers for a long time, pushing more buttons and playing with screens and talking to herself. “I think I got it,” she finally says, and sure enough the computer screens change. The black screens turn on to movies and shows with people doing things in places, too many things for me to explain when the pictures keep changing every few seconds, like Kortena’s trying to share every broadcast at the same time. There’s no volume, and all I can hear is static. It almost sounds like fire burning. Sometimes a voice breaks through the static, but it’s nothing I can understand. The pictures keep changing. “This is crazy,” Ara says. “I’m trying to count the number of things broadcasting through your Kortena, but it’s impossible. There’s thousands, tens of thousands, constantly changing. I think they’re all happening simultaneously, but that’s impossible.”
“No, that sounds right,” I say. “We get bored with only a few hundred things to see or do, when we don’t have options. But we can’t get bored when’s there no end.”
“But you can’t possibly process all of that! Not even a fraction of it. You’d sooner go insane.”
I shrug, not really understanding. “I guess. Is there interference? Something wrong with Kortena? Don’t tell me I’m imagining it.”
“There are many…gaps,” Ara says. “Dark places where the signals are lost and filled with jumbled feedback. I think that’s what the wavy lines are, but I’m not sure and definitely not an expert. If I had to guess, and I do, I’d say that some of the servers or whatever on Earth3 must be down.”
“Well, it won’t matter once you give me your Kortena. Do it.”
“Yes. It’s only getting worse, and so am I.”
Ara presses more buttons and walks back and forth in front of the computers. I’m not sure she knows what she’s doing, but I don’t care. I’ve had a headache since arriving in Sealandia, and that was however many days ago. “You may feel a slight shock. Let me know if it hurts and I’ll stop.”
“I’m sure it won’t…”