KAFKA'S LAST WORDSorCetacean NationbyNolan Holland*
Callas put the corpse down, and hid from the wind in the shadow of a boulder. The midday sunlight ricocheted off the yellow-white sand and slashed into his retinas. He tightened the rag around his head, first blindfolding himself completely, then opening a tiny slit to let in the burning light. He could feel wetness on the rag, tears and pus from his wounded eyes.
The ocean wind coated his body with salt. His burns stung. Icy foam from the surf enveloped his bare feet. He pulled his legs in close to his body to conserve warmth and reached out to check for movement. His fingers collided with Kafka's dorsal fin. Gently, he moved his hand down the fin and over the smooth rubbery skin. Callas swallowed a sob, and let his head loll onto his shoulder.
"Kafka," he said to the carcass. "Why did you let them do this?" He saw the flash, heard a low thumping sound roll in over the ocean.
He put his hand to his eyes to block the light. With his eyes closed, a circular orange floater hung in front of him, a reminder of the last flash.
Callas grunted and struggled to his feet. A wave of nausea rolled up from his stomach. He bent over, put his hands on his knees and vomited yellow-green bile. Then he took a breath. He searched the sand as if blind and found Kafka's fluke. He grabbed the porpoise's tail. Grunting, he pulled it over his shoulder. He peered through the slit between folds in his rag bandage and dragged his dead friend toward the jetty.
He remembered Clovis as he walked.
"They have hands, you know," Clovis told him. In his mind he saw the lab as it was: the blue window on one wall, chairs strewn randomly about the room, incomprehensible electronic boxes with lights and monitors displaying raw data from the subject in the holding tank. Clovis. Dr. Clovis Martin. Her "Save the Whales" T-shirt visible through her lab smock. Keys jangling from a ring on the belt loop of her jeans. Her laser blue eyes and blond hair cut shorter than his.
She said, "Their brains are as large and complex as ours. They can sense magnetic fields, electric fields, ultrasound. They have a sophisticated three-dimensional sonar that allows them to pinpoint an object the size of a quarter from a hundred yards." Then, "You're staring."
"Sorry," he replied. "Hormones. Mating season. Be patient."
"I'm not a goddamned cow in rut. We have work to do." She leaned over a desk and typed a few commands into one of the analysis machines. She waited a moment. Then, satisfied, she turned back to see Callas staring again.
"I'd have fired you already if I thought for a second I could find someone else who can talk to them," she said. "For the life of me, I don't know why such a talent is wasted on a dolt like you."
"I guess I have a way with fish," said Callas.
"They're not fish. They're mammals," said Clovis. For a second, he thought she found his sandy hair and muscular build attractive. She grit her teeth, suppressed whatever impulse she was having, and went back to work.
Clovis looked at her watch. She said, "I want you suited and in the tank in fifteen minutes. Take the transmitter labeled 'A' off Kafka. Be careful while it's active. Those probes terminate in his cerebral cortex. You don't want to spark him and fry his brain. You turn off 'A,' unstrap it, put on the yellow box labeled 'C,' and turn 'C' on. Can you do that?"
"Sure," said Callas.
"This isn't going to be too hard for you, is it? Remember, take off 'A' and put on 'C'. Okay?"
"I know the alphabet," he said.
"You could have fooled me," she said. She walked to a cabinet and pulled out a leather case and a vial of clear liquid. She unzipped the case, pulled out a long paper envelope and tore an end open. She took a disposable syringe from the envelope, stuck the needle into the vial, and measured the liquid as she pulled the plunger down.
"We're going to do something different today," Clovis said.
"You want me to narc Kafka again? You know how he hates that."
"This isn't for Kafka. It's for you." Callas took a step backward.
"Me? What the hell...?"
"Look," Clovis said. "This is what the U. S. government pays you to do. You either gimme your arm or get the hell out."
"Nothin doin. You tell me what that is first."
Clovis sighed and crossed her arms holding the needle in one hand like a cigarette. "I need to figure out why Kafka responds the way he does to you. I think he's keying off your alpha rhythms. This is an artificial environment. It's not like it was back in Spain when you were using Kafka to herd fish into your father's nets. I want to put you into a more natural state."
"It was my uncle's nets and I didn't use Kafka. He helped of his own free will. We didn't train him. He just showed up. We fed him. We worked together. We all ate well," he said.
"Yeah, sure," Clovis said. "Anyway, this is going to change your brainwaves slightly. I want to see if he reacts any differently when your alpha changes in real-time."
"No way, lady," said Callas. "Nobody's screwing with my brain."
"You won't feel a thing," said Clovis. "You'll be a little tired. You might be a bit confused, but it won't be anything unusual. Especially for you." Callas looked at his feet, then back to Clovis. Her face softened to a smile. "Come on, big fella. You scared of a little needle?"
He looked her in the eye and approached with an arm extended. Clovis tied a rubber hose around his bicep, found a vein at the inside of his elbow, and poked the needle in. Callas winced.
"It's just a tiny prick," she said.
"Speak for yourself," Callas replied, smiling.
"What a baby," Clovis said as she untied the hose, then pulled out the needle. She folded his arm at the elbow. "Go on," she said, "suit up and get in the tank. Monitor my audio on channel two and set the tank infrared and video cameras to eight." Callas nodded. He felt a warmth travel from his arm to his chest.
"What did I just say?" Clovis asked him. She slapped him gently on the cheek, grabbed his chin, and looked into his eyes.
"Your audio on two, cameras on eight."
"That's my boy," Clovis said. She walked over to a rack of machines and began throwing switches and typing commands to start the data collection.
Callas walked up the stairs and into the gear room. He slipped into his wet suit. He chose an aluminum tank from the rack, connected the primary stage of his face mask regulator to the tank's valve stem, and cracked the valve. The pressure gauge sprang to position: three thousand pounds. He fixed a belt of weights around his waist and flipped the tank over his head. The backpack fell into place over his shoulders. He pulled the mask over his head and took a few breaths to test the air delivery.
He moved the selector on his mask radio to channel two. "You on?" he said.
"Go," came Clovis' voice.
Callas grabbed the underwater robot cameras and the "C" transmitter and walked to the edge of the holding tank. He set the channel selectors on the robot cameras, tested the electric props, and dropped the robots into the water. From the lab, Clovis saw the cameras submerge. She took control and guided the cameras to neutral positions in the corners of the tank. Callas put on his flippers, grabbed a bag of whole mackerel, and let himself slide into the clear water.
Kafka swam in lazy circles over Callas. Callas slowly descended under the weight from the belt. The porpoise approached and hovered in front of Callas's mask. A small yellow box with a black "A" was clearly visible beside Kafka's blowhole.
"Hello, Kafka," Callas said. He took a fish from the bag and gave it to Kafka.
The porpoise spoke. Callas could feel the whistle and clicks echoing off the walls of the holding tank, focusing on him. He closed his eyes and felt the waves move up and down his body. A harmony of sound, sonic and ultrasonic, combined and created a pattern of vibration that rippled through him.
Clovis's voice snapped him to reality. "What did you get?" Callas closed his eyes again and saw the picture.
"It's me. He's showing me our home. I see me on the dock in Spain with the fishermen. It's the hello."
"We've got that one twenty times already. Can you get him to continue where he left off? Get a few images then slap the 'C' transmitter on him."
"Okay," said Callas. His feet touched the bottom of the tank. He pushed himself with his toes and floated slowly upward. He felt the warmth from the drug coat him like a blanket.
Callas held out his hand toward Kafka with his fingers outstretched. "Kafka. Show me more of the story. Tell me more about this." He pushed his open palm toward the mammal.
Kafka whistled and clicked again. Callas closed his eyes. He saw huge black clouds grow on the ocean horizon as if his eyes were at water level. He saw a flash of lightning jump between the clouds as they advanced, blotting the sun and blue sky. Then there was another flash. Bright and white, it erased the entire view.
"Come on, Callas," said Clovis. "What are you getting? Slap on the 'C' box. "
"I think he's mad at me. Something's wrong." Callas looked toward the sub-surface lab window. He could see Clovis standing at the machines, typing, turning knobs, tearing printouts.
"Keep it going, Callas. Wake up. You're not that tired. The 'C' box," she said.
He turned back toward the hovering gray body in front of him. "She did this to me. She twisted my brain, ol' buddy."
He felt the waves converge on him again. This time, he felt a bolt of energy scramble up his spine and explode in his head. Suddenly, he was out of the tank standing naked on the beach next to the lab building. The sun burned down from the zenith. Frigid winds blew in off the water as the driven surf pounded the sand.
In front of him sat a small humanoid. Its body glistened a wet rubbery gray with white streaks. It was thin, fragile looking. Its head was a large hairless orb from which two black eyes stared at him unblinking. It had no nose, no ears, and only a slit for a mouth.
Callas stood paralyzed, his eyes glued wide in fear. He tried to scream, but his chest felt as if it moved against a great weight. He fought to breathe.
He felt a harmony of sound waves penetrate his body. He saw himself standing on the pier in Spain by his uncle's fishing boat as if his viewpoint were from the surface of the water. He saw himself crouch toward the water and extend his hand, palm open, in greeting.
The vision faded. The being held up a hand as Callas had done in the sound image. Callas felt his muscles relax. The weight lifted from his chest and his breathing returned to normal. He slowly bent his knees and fell sitting cross-legged on the sand.
"Kafka?" he asked. "Is that you?"
The being nodded slowly. The sound vibrated Callas again. Now, he heard a voice. It came from inside his head, from where the sound waves converged. "This is one form," said the voice. "I thought you might understand this one better."
"I don't understand any of this," Callas said. "Where are we?"
"We're in the tank," said Kafka. "Clovis is outside watching us."
Callas chuckled. He said, "Kafka, I see a beach. I see an alien. I know where I am."
"She gave you a drug that facilitated my imaging."
"How did you know that?" Callas asked.
"I sensed it from the moment you entered the pool. She wants to speak with me herself. She's interested in what I will say."
Callas said, "She's an environmentalist. She thinks you're going to talk about saving the planet."
The being blinked. It said, "She works for your rulers. She doesn't understand there are powers planning to use her information for their own interests."
Callas could hear the surf crashing onto the beach behind the humanoid. He could feel the salt air tightening his skin. He couldn't believe it was an illusion.
"I don't understand," Callas said. "This doesn't make sense. How can you know these things?"
Kafka said, "It's good you are trying to learn more about us. More about this." The humanoid held his open hand forward.
Kafka continued, "Soon, you'll find you're only one of thousands of the first generation that can communicate with cetaceans. It's a dominant trait in humans. In four generations, it will be inherited by most of the humans on earth. Then we will communicate with all humans."
"You mean there are more like me?" Callas asked.
"Thousands now. Soon, every human."
"How? I mean, why are you doing this?" Callas asked.
"Cetacean technology is much older, much more advanced than human technology. We evolved earlier than humans. We started as land walkers. We had hands and legs like you. We still have five finger bones in our front flippers. This." He showed his open hand to Callas again.
"We built cities, pyramids on the land. Some of them still stand. We studied genetic manipulation. Eventually, we returned to the sea. My ancestors learned to live in three dimensions as if outside the force of gravity. They developed new senses. Now our children can compute images in any number of dimensions. They control new mathematics, new technology we could never have discovered as land dwellers."
Callas asked, "But where are your cities? Where is your advanced science now? There's nothing in the ocean, Kafka. Your people are stuck in our nets, and the land belongs to humans."
Kafka laughed. His laugh was a solitary sound ripple that tickled Callas on the inside from head to toe.
Kafka said, "Our invention is around you. It's everywhere. Look at the ocean mountains, the reefs, the ripples on the water, the cracks in the earth's crust. These are our construction. The buffered ecosystem that absorbs poisons and emits life-giving nutrients. This is our technology."
"I always thought it was nature," said Callas.
"It is nature," said Kafka. "That's why it's wonderful." Kafka stood in front of Callas. "Your environmentalist colleague is right about one thing," he continued. "Your race is stressing the system. That's of little consequence. The system has safeguards. You would be eradicated before the ecosystem disintegrated. That's not our concern. "
"What is your concern? If polluting the planet isn't your problem, what is?" Callas asked.
"Before, you asked me how and why humans would soon communicate with us. We made alterations to your genetic structure as your race evolved. We guided you through time. Soon, a time will come when you will join us as inheritors of the earth. Together we will guide the next species to follow us. Let me show you something. Something wonderful," Kafka said. The humanoid put his bony hands on Callas's head.
Callas felt Kafka's sound waves building in his skull. They grew in intensity. He closed his eyes, but there was no image. Then he felt a tingling, like a pinprick in the center of his head. He thought he saw a man walking. A large biped covered in long black hair. It reached for a tree branch and pulled itself up.
The pinprick in his head became a fist, knotting his head from the inside. The fist grew hot, first red, then to searing white flames. Callas's vision evaporated as the pressure grew. He heard a whine as if he stood in the blast of a jet engine. He clutched his hands to his ears and screamed against the bursting pain that roared outward from inside his head. He tried to push the humanoid's hands from his head but he was alone. Kafka was gone.
There was a flash of light. A brilliant burst of nuclear heat seared the flesh from his muscles and fried his retinas to bubbling crisp. He arched his back. He flailed his arms against the pain. He moved his hands in spasms as if to hide his whole body from the nuclear inferno in their tiny shadow. To his head, to his legs, to his torso, to his eyes, he flailed his hands in futility. His arms and legs shook in the spasmodic shiver of agony. The skin crackled to black and fell from his body into piles of greasy chips revealing his moist pink muscle underneath. He writhed, screaming.
Kafka's voice tore into his head. The voice was loud and tortured. Kafka said, "Now, you are the messenger. You will tell them to stop conflict. You will make them stop all killing of their own accord, or we will stop them. They will stop harming mammals. They will stop harming themselves. They will stop or we will take action. Our action will not be reversed. Their plans will be disrupted. Their weapons will fail. Their prayers will go unanswered. Once we begin, they will not be saved."
There was a peal of thunder.
Then Callas was waking up. The daylight burned into his skull like an acetylene torch. He shouted and put his hand to his eyes. He could feel stinging pain as heat rose from the burned surface of his body. His skin was intact, but red, blistering, and painful to the touch. He was entirely naked but for several small melted pieces of his rubberized wet suit that were welded to his flesh.
He felt around and found a cleaning rag lying on the concrete patio surrounding the holding tank. He wrapped the rag around his head like a blindfold. Then he pried a slit between the turns in the rag letting in just enough light to allow him sight without pain.
The porpoise lay on the concrete next to him, silent, barely moving. He pressed his head against Kafka's body.
"What happened? Kafka, what happened?" he said, then groaned with a wave of pain and shivers that enveloped him.
The porpoise whistled gently. Callas closed his eyes. In his mind, he saw the jetty half-mile north of the lab on the beach. He saw himself throw Kafka into the water from the jetty. Then he jumped in.
Callas stood. Shaking, he walked through the scuba gear room and down the stairs to the lab. There was no power. The lab was lit only by the sunlight that filtered through the tank window. The light illuminated a band of dust that filled the air in the room. The lab was chaos. Callas coughed. He tripped over a massive box on the floor and stepped on a sharp object with his bare foot. He steadied himself on a chair.
Clovis's electronic equipment had been torn from the racks and strewn about the room. Paper, computer disks, tapes, torn wires, lay everywhere. He called to Clovis, but silence was his answer. As he passed the data collection console, he saw the empty slots where the machines had been. The recorders had been unbolted and removed. They were not in the room.
He screamed again for Clovis. His voice echoed through the empty lab.
A dulled flash briefly illuminated the lab as it passed through the tank water. He heard another peal of thunder. The lab building shuddered under the sonic impact.
Callas walked up the stairs to the gear room. He found a towel and gently wrapped it around his burned torso. He walked out, took the porpoise's fluke, slung it over his shoulder, and dragged Kafka out onto the beach.
Loud jets crossed overhead. Some headed out to sea, others were flying inland. He could hear a continuous thumping from the ocean above the sound of the pounding surf. Unlike the waves, there was no regularity to the man-made thunder. As he walked he heard a series of thumps erupt like a firecracker string.
There was a flash as if someone had taken his picture. He snapped his head and looked out to sea in time to see a column of white sea spray rising beneath a ball of smoke and fire.
He stopped for a moment at a rock and sat, trying to remember what had happened. He could only remember the pain. He adjusted the bandage around his eyes and touched the porpoise. Kafka was dead.
"Kafka," Callas said, "what have they done to us? How could they have come so fast? How did they know?" He stood and continued his mission.
As he approached the jetty, he saw a crowd on the beach. They waved their fists at the open sea. They cheered the exploding bombs.
Callas stopped and watched with his mouth open. He released Kafka's fluke. The body slid to the sand.
"Madness," Callas whispered to nobody. "What's happened to the people?"
A man came running toward Callas. He saw the dead porpoise and dragged the body away by its tail.
The man called to the crowd, "Hey, here! Help this guy. He got one of those devils! I have a wounded soldier here!" Several other came running toward Callas.
"Lie down, buddy," the man said. "We'll take care of you. Lie down friend." Callas sank onto the sand, first onto his knees, then he dropped onto his back and winced.
He looked up and saw a crowd gather around him. A woman knelt next to him with a black box and opened it. She removed the rag from his head and began to blot at his eyes with gauze and antiseptic. Callas screamed. He raised his trembling arms and clenched his fists to knuckle-white.
"Easy, soldier," said the woman. "You got one. You killed one of the bastards. I just hope they can get the rest of them before it's too late. We have children and families to protect. Who would have thought, all these years, the enemy was living among us. Jumping through hoops. Appearing on TV shows. Hiding like snakes waiting to strike. If only we had known, we could have exterminated them all in our fishing nets. Thank god the government confiscated those tapes from that treacherous woman. That traitor. That bitch. She was with them all along. Well, she got hers."
Callas groaned. "What's happening?"
The woman sat back on her heels and rummaged through the box. She said, "A cruise missile from the USS Ticonderoga. Programming screwed up. Damn thing didn't know how to hit a submerged target. It exploded two miles inland. It was nuclear."
He pushed the woman's hands away and rolled onto his side. He could feel the blisters swelling over the front of his body. He felt sick to his stomach. The burning continued, but muted as his nerve endings died. Clumps of his sandy blond hair fell from his head.
There was a deep trench dug in a berm just off the beach. People swarmed dragging the bodies of the dead to the mass grave. Callas could hear screaming. The hysteria of people releasing their loved ones to the grave filled the air like a nightmarish chant. Callas coughed. He tasted the metallic iron blood that rose from his lungs.
"Why?" Callas said. He began to cry.
The woman said, "We had to hit 'um before they hit us. You can't threaten the U. S. that way and get away with it. Let's see 'um deal with a hundred tactical nukes blown right up their asses. We're gonna win this one, pal. We're gonna have ourselves a fish fry."
Another flight of bombers screamed overhead. They were guided by satellites that pinpointed cetacean pods on the planet to accuracies within a millimeter.
"They're not fish, " Callas said, his voice fading. "They're people." He laid his head on the sand, contemplating the futility of counting the seconds until the tidal waves washed them all, living and dead, out to sea.
Callas watched as a small boy kicked Kafka's limp body over the edge of the man-made ravine. There was another flash, another peal of nuclear thunder. The child knelt at the edge of the trench. Solemnly, he pulled a small grey mouse from his pocket and held it in cupped hands. He kissed the dead creature, and dropped it into the grave.
The first old story is The cheshire woman
The next old story is Lost in the heart of a storm
The last old story is A first time for everything
*Nolan Holland is my Kilgore Trout for those worried about C&P