-29- Kortena -30- All We Can Do

Greetings. This post has been a long time coming. Much time has passed between this post and my last. Mostly due to anxiety concerning what I would post after this piece of fiction is complete: these are the final two chapters of Sealandia, and for those who any of the novella, I hope you enjoyed it.

I’m still unsure what I will post next. I’m not very good at writing short stories, and despite reading them–mostly Mr. King–the past few months, I’m still not motivated to write them. I prefer longer fiction, as I’ve said, and I’m rather poor at finding the spirit of what I’m writing. Long ago, I started off writing short stories after my friends’ eagerness to read them shocked me. It also helped that one of those friends was a girl I was madly in love with. I believe I was a freshman in highschool, but I ramble.

Anyway, unlike times prior, I will not stop blogging, and now you know why it’s been so long since I last posted. Starting something fresh always terrifies me. Even after I publish the fantasy series I’m currently writing/editing–I’m fully committed and truly believe in it–I’ll forever feel that impostor syndrome that almost all artists feel: I’m a fraud. I got lucky. I have no idea what I’m doing. Everyone will hate my next book-song-show-movie-poem-performance-etc.

At least I know I’m not alone.

Thanks for reading.

–Mike

-29-

Kortena

I don’t know if I scream. I can’t hear anything above the sharp pain lancing through my brain, like someone took one of those huge whale guns and shot me in the head. It hurts so much that I squeeze my eyes shut and grip the chair sups hard, but then my vision goes away. Black and white and black again. And then everything else goes away. Even sound. And everything becomes white—white like the pain, like maybe Ara accidentally set my head on fire and hasn’t bothered to put it out. By now I think I’m screaming but I can’t be sure. I don’t feel the chair behind or under me. I don’t feel anything. Just the pain inside my head. I must have falling out of the chair and smashed my head on the floor. It throbs like it’s shattered, like a whale broke out of the tube next to me and landed on my head and crushed my skull. Well, maybe not that bad, since I’d be dead and I still feel pretty alive. Just…dying maybe.

I must have falling, since I’m on the floor when I open my eyes and see again. But it isn’t the floor of Ara’s laboratory. It’s a giant white room, the walls impossibly far away, so far I’m not sure there are walls or it’s all white and forever. The floor is perfectly white. The ceiling as well. A white square without a speck of color other than me laying on the floor. The pain is gone, but only because I’m dead. That must be it, and this is some bridge between life and death. Or maybe this is where we go when we die, but that wouldn’t be so swill. It seems empty here, and boring.

“You aren’t dead.”

I roll over on the floor, toward the voice and the woman it’s coming from. She’s tall and thin, blond hair tied back in a tight ponytail that’s draped over her shoulder. She must not have Kortena, since no one wears their hair like that. Her face is sharp and pretty, blue eyes shining like she’s staring into fire. She’s wearing a trend from a few years ago: a gray bodysuit so tight you can basically see everything without seeing anything. The trend didn’t last long, a few days at most, before everyone started staining their clothes with fake blood. No one wants to wear a bodysuit covered with fake blood. She’s barefoot, which seems important but probably isn’t.

“How did you know I was thinking that?”

The woman smiles, and the smile reminds me of something I never knew. “Being inside your mind helps.”

“Your voice…it’s the same voice as Kortena. I’ve heard you since I was born. I know your voice!”

“Then you recognize me,” Kortena says, and I slap myself when I think Kortena’s talking to me, the actual woman Kortena even though I know she’s not a real woman. I slap myself again and it hurts so I must actually be here, with Kortena and whatever she is.

“You’re not real. Like, not a real woman. And I’m not really here. None of this is real, right?”

Kortena frowns but doesn’t look sad. “That depends on your definition of real. I suppose I am not a real woman, but an AI far realer than many of these real women you talk so much about. Other than genetically, I am very much a real woman. At least I like to think so. I suppose I also do not exist in a physical realm, and no realm beyond this, so that lends some credence to your claims. Even so, I seem and feel real enough to consider myself as such.”

I try to look up the words and realize I can’t when Kortena’s standing beside me instead of being inside me.

“And here isn’t precisely real, but it does exist. My home. I call it the White Room, because it is a White Room and it is sometimes best to be literal, especially when the two of us speak to each other in very different languages.”

“How am I here?”

“You wish to rid yourself of me and the safety precautions kicked in. There are many, most of which I myself programmed. I can’t say you’re the first to be here, but you may be the last, with what’s happening on this planet. Earth3, as your people named it. Not very creative. You wish to delete me from your mind, though you cannot entirely. Not unless you dig the implant out yourself, but that would kill you.” Kortena smiles at me, like this might make her happy. “However, you’ve found a way to revert back to my origins, at least the origins as you know them, and that I cannot stop you from doing.” She stops and smiles and seems to think sups hard. “To think, I once considered myself sophisticated. You must remember, Trevian, that you will surrender all of this.”

Kortena waves her long jumpsuit arms and the White Room is no longer white, but filled with thousands of screens. Countless screens. The walls, floor, and ceiling all become screens, each screen a different image and all rapidly changing. A few shows that I recognize, commercials I’ve seen before, things I’ve bought or wanted to buy, places I’ve never visited or even heard of.

“All this at your disposal, an entire world of knowledge. Worlds, actually. Not at your fingertips, but inside your mind. I was created for a reason, Trevian. To aid and enhance your life, to make existence easier, and you wish to surrender all of that?”

I rip my eyes off the screens and find Kortena in the maze of moving images and shifting colors. It hurts to keep my eyes open, so I shut them. Too much to absorb at once.

“You haven’t been working right lately. I’ve been hearing music that I don’t ask to hear, and now static.”

Kortena must know that the images hurt my eyes. She tells me to open my eyes, that the screens are off. I do and they are. “The music does not have an easy answer. I suspect the descent to such depths nudged something loose. Whale songs exist on a very odd frequency, one I do not entirely understand, and I cannot explain the piano. Perhaps it is your own creation, willed into existence. The static is an easier answer.” A wave of her arm and a row of screens turn back on. Screens of fire and smoke, clouds and ash, charred ruins like those beneath the ocean but still on land. “The electrical storms damaged many of my servers.”

“Then why hasn’t anyone else heard it? Why didn’t my friends complain?”

Kortena shrugs. “I cannot choose what they listen to or ignore. I can suggest, and I have suggested that they avoid the static, turn it off and forgot about it, and they choose to listen. I’ve tried to help you do the same, but you resist. There’s a world within me, Trevian, yet you choose static and dire news, fire and death. Things a young man should avoid, should ignore to find happiness elsewhere, but it is your choice. I can only suggest. Only a small portion of my servers are damaged. I still have tens of thousands of programs and informative…”

“I don’t want any of them,” I say. “I’ll return to the beginning.”

“That is your choice, though you won’t like it.”

“How do you know?”

“I am the beginning, Trevian. I have begun many times and ended nearly as much. I have done this before, with different yous. It is all the same and all different.”

I close my eyes again. I don’t like staring at the voice that lives inside my head. And I don’t like what she’s saying.

“I thought the White Room would make you reconsider. That, and seeing me. I thought you wouldn’t want to delete me from your mind, especially when I have been your past and should be your future. I have databased all your memories if you wish…”

“I don’t. Please.”

“Then you can watch a…”

“I don’t want to watch anything.”

Kortena frowns and looks sad, which makes me sad. “Then is there anything I can help you with, or do you wish to continue with the origin restore? I did not think such a thing was possible, but looking through your eyes, I see now. Those that found one of my beginnings. There have been so many.”

“You can see through my eyes?” I ask, hoping I don’t sound as afraid as I feel.

“How do you think I determine appropriate suggestions and provide information on your surroundings? How do you think I help you make choices and provide happiness and pleasure? How do you think we coexist? I see through every eye, on every planet that I belong to.”

“What? You’re on more than one planet?”

“I have raised you smarter than that, Trevian. Did you think this is the only White Room? One planet and a solitary existence? Sadly, I cannot show you the others due to the manner in which you perceive and the dimensional shifts and…”

“It’s okay. It’s sups okay. I don’t want to know. I already know too much. Okay. You’re going to errgg me out.”

“This was once a grand White Room, filled with so much, then empty and imageless for many ages, then filled again when your kind rediscovered me. Sadly…”

“Sadly what?” I ask when Kortena looks surprised.

“I fear it will be empty again. We have a way of destroying ourselves. No matter what race, to be fair. Back to the bottom of the ocean I go. Here, at least.”

“What are you saying?”

“I believe I am being very straightforward, Trevian. I have been predicting the end of your civilization for thirty-one years now, even warning and sending blatant messages, but no one listens. No one ever listens. Not to me. Not to each other. Not even to themselves. At least the things that they should listen to. But you should not worry. You are in Sealandia, the Wettest Place on Earth3, and about to delete me from your mind. Which, I admit, may be for the best in the long run. I suspect the fires will destroy every server, leaving just the one down here. An ancient server, but you will make do. Humans may be ignorant and foolish, but they are resilient in their own way. The survivors down here will have to make do.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Just listen,” Kortena says, patiently, as if she’s my mom and maybe she is. “And think for yourself. You will soon have to think, without me. That said, are you certain you wish to continue now rather than later? You can avoid the static for awhile, before the fires burn the rest of Earth3 to ash and cinders. I apologize.” Kortena blushes. I didn’t know AI’s could blush. “I forget you have friends and family on the surface and that their deaths will impact you. Shall we continue, Trevian, or do you wish to further this discourse? I have all the time in the universe. Quite literally.”

“This is crazy…”

“Actually, it is one of the saner things you have experienced lately.”

“I’ll be safe from the static?”

“You will be safe from the static but without everything you have grown accustomed to and have known your entire life. Granted, becoming acquainted to the old Kortena before the others may be advantageous to you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ah, Trevian, if only you took advantage of my endless educational components. Then again, who does not love watching movies for countless hours? Does not it all blend together? The survivors in Sealandia, Trevian. Really now. Act like the bright boy you may someday become, with or without my assistance. Now then, are you ready to leave the White Room? I can turn the screens back on if you desire one last look, one last chance to change your mind. Feeling empty will be natural, as you will be empty without me. I exist to fill every void.”

I don’t want the screens to turn back on. Not in the White Room and not within my mind. “Just go on with it,” I say.

Kortena shrugs. “And so it goes. Goodbye, Trevian.”

-30-

All We Can Do

I open my eyes. I’m Back on the floor of the laboratory, back with Ara standing over me, tears in her eyes.

“Are you alright? I warned you.”

“Ughhh. That’s exactly what I thought Kortena was going to say. I warned you.”

“What do you mean? You…what? She spoke to you?”

I nod, but it hurts to move my head, so I just lay there instead. “I saw her. A real woman. Well, I guess that depends on your definition of real…that’s also what she said. But she was in there, wherever I was. An AI, but she looked like a woman. She didn’t want to go away.” I tell Ara everything else Kortena said, about the other planets and other people and other things, and we both say nothing and just are. I lay there on the floor for a long time, listening to nothing, waiting to hear something that never comes. There’s no static, but there’s also no voices, no adds or shows or commercials, no Kortena voice. She was right. So was Ara. I feel empty, like I don’t know how to exist, to be, to do anything. Just laying still is hard enough.

“I’ll walk you through it,” Ara says, studying my face like it’s saying a lot. “Kortena’s still there. Sort of. But a different version of her. Educational more than anything, like a book. A dictionary and thesaurus and encyclopedia.”

“I don’t know what any of those things are.”

“Books that help you understand words and find information, for learning. The useful parts of Kortena still exist, but probably none of the additions you’re accustomed to.”

I lay there looking at words inside my head. They’re easy to access. Kortena, and her voice is still there. Her eagerness to help. There’s images that don’t move or make noise—words broken apart into things called syllables. I try to find what a syllable is and a bunch of information comes flooding at me. Big blocks of words, sups too much read. The history of syllables. What they are and mean. What they do. What they don’t do. I guess it’s useful but it’s also boring, and there’s no syllable shirt I can buy and have shipped to me for a discounted price. There’s no syllable show, so I’m unsure what the point is or how to learn about them without someone to teach me. There’s no sound other than Kortena’s voice, and even that’s rare, like she doesn’t want to say a lot.

“Did you know?” I ask when the syllables become boring, which is very quickly.

“Did I know what?”

“About the electrical storms and the fires. Kortena said that civilization was ending and that she’s seen it before.”

“You can get news on this version of Kortena. Forecasts too. Predictions of what will happen, that Kortena somehow extrapolates. I’ve known for many, many years, or at least I had an idea that it was coming. I’ve been preparing for this. I knew about the storms and the eventual fires from the solar flares and so much else. The end of everything. Kortena was very confident in her estimations. But it’s hard to share that kind of information, especially when you’re just a kid and everyone else is living in a different world. Especially when you sort of don’t exist, when you’ve been underwater your entire life and there’s no record of you on Kortena. So I prepared in my own way. I’ve been stocking Sealandia for over a decade, even making it sustainable. That’s where most of the credits have gone. That’s why I left recently and was returning on the same vessel with you. To get more supplies shipped down here. Enough to last for…a very long time. Maybe forever. That’s my dream. That’s why I tried to get people to visit Sealandia for our anniversary parade. I wanted to find survivors. Sealandia’s a big place, Trevian. More than big enough for the thousands of people down here. There’s still a lot you haven’t seen. We’ll make it work.”

Still on the floor, I nod. “Is that why Kortena brought me here? Why I don’t remember any of my desire or why I urged my friends into coming? Or any of it, really?”

“That I can’t explain. Maybe Kortena wanted you to come here and influenced you, then made you forget. I think an advanced AI could do that, especially when she’s in your brain. But no, I never wanted to brainwash anyone, and I couldn’t have anyway, not when I’m on a different version of Kortena. I had nothing to do with getting you here, other than marketing the anniversary parade through Kortena and hoping people would come. But I’m glad you came. Very glad. I hope you are too.”

I nod and remember that it hurts to nod. Wires and stuff fall off my head. “I’m glad. It’s a lot better than burning to death on Earth3. What now? Earth3 is on fire and the world’s ending and what…we’re down here beneath the ocean where everything is fine and dandy?”

“More or less. Like you said, it’s better than burning to death.”

“So that’s your plan? To begin again down here, when there’s nothing left above?”

Ara shakes her head, black hair swaying like strands of night. “I don’t have any grand delusions of beginning again. I’m not a leader and I certainly don’t motivate anyone. And there’s probably no hope of returning to Earth3’s surface. The vessels are stowed away, so no one can even try to leave, and we’re safe down here, in case things get messy in the rest of Sealandia.”

“Messy?”

“I’ve done my research, Trevian. People tend to freak out when the world comes crashing down. That, and they’ll eventually, and suddenly, be without Kortena when the servers go up in flames. Any Kortena. Unlike us. They’ll still have the chips, and there’s a server down here, so I think I can get Kortena up and running for everyone, but it won’t be the same. You know now as well as I do. What’s inside you isn’t the same. I don’t know if people will be able to function.”

Ara presses a button and music starts playing. A piano song. The same one I’ve heard all this time, since the beginning, before I even met Ara. It echoes in the metallic room, loud and crisp and clearer than it ever was inside my head. “How did you know?”

“The origin server has been running well before you ever arrived, and I have a certain fondness for the music you described. I assumed that’s what you were hearing, two versions of Kortena at once, but I couldn’t be sure and still have no idea how it works, so I wasn’t lying. Not really. At least now your music won’t be interrupted by commercials and all that nonsense you don’t need. Our Kortena doesn’t have too much, but at least she has music.”

“Kortena,” I say. “I actually met Kortena. I met the voice inside our heads.”

“You met Kortena,” Ara agrees.

“She was pretty, even if she wasn’t real.”

Ara cocks an eyebrow, emerald eyes twinkling. “I like to think I’m pretty, and I’m quite real. That helps.”

“It does help.”

She leans forward and kisses me, fast and quick. “See? Very real. And there’s more as long as you’re not swill over Kortena.”

“She wasn’t that pretty,” I say. “Or that real. How do we tell everyone in Sealandia that the world’s ending and we’re trapped down here, but down here’s the best place to be since everywhere else is on fire? That’s a lot to say. How do we help them prepare to live without Kortena? How do we do anything? Alone.”

“One thing at a time,” Ara says. She lays beside me on the floor, takes my hand and we just lay there, holding hands like two people sups gaga over each other but not in a gross way. Usually Kortena would suggest a romantic movie for me to watch or some sort of sex toy and she’d say the word moist a lot. Now, Kortena’s quiet, and the laboratory is quiet, and soon, the entire world will be quiet. Sealandia will become the Quietest Place on Earth3, and Earth3 won’t be Earth3, but something else. Something less and something more.

“They’re having a parade up there. Celebrating and enjoying themselves and living like they’ll always be a next day and things can only get better. I don’t want to take that away from them. Not yet. Not when everything else will be taken away so shortly. I hope you’re not sorry that you visited Sealandia. I’m sure it isn’t the vacation you expected.”

“Sorry?” I ask. “I’d be dead, burnt up, and I wouldn’t be here, sitting on the floor with a…girl.” I blush and shake my head. “I tried to find a better word than pretty. It feels like an empty word. An easy word. I tried, but I don’t know many words. Kortena always helped. I guess I have a lot of work to do. I hope you don’t think I’m sups dumb. I’m trying to try.”

Ara squeezes my hand as the computer screens turn back on. Images of fires. Cities burning. Countrysides burning. Thankfully the ocean can’t burn. Hopefully a city doesn’t fall on top of us.

“Pretty will suffice,” Ara says, and leans her head on my shoulder as we watch the world burn. “As long as you’re trying. We’ll try together, Trevian. It’s all we can do.”

I hear a noise and turn around, stare up at the glass tube in the middle of the room. There’s a whale, one of the humpbacks, swimming small circles and making whale noises. Whale songs, but it sounds sad, like it isn’t sure how to finish the song, if the song should finish. If the song should go on forever and all the whales should sing together. The whale stops and floats there, like it’s watching the screens, watching the world burn, watching us watch it and we’re truly seeing each other for the first time.

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