Loneliness Retrospect
            by Eclipse

            She stepped out of her house-bubble one morning in March.. or maybe it was April. The waters of the cove glistened in oily, rainbow colors, ribbons of metallic gold streaking through. The same color of her dome, she'd often thought. More bronze than gold really. The dome around her house was transparent, like dark honey, a specially developed material that kept the house and small garden inside safe. Caroline had been one of the first to get one, so she'd had it put in back when they were cheap and in good supply.
            She left the safety of her little house often though, as much as once a day in the spring. And it was spring, the first few touches of it come in the way the sunlight touched the roof of her house, and the biochemical response of her garden (and, she was secretly sure, her own body) to unseen cues.
            She gazed down into the water, through glasses specially made for such a purpose. Some silvery fish shot by under dark plumes of algae. A rare breeze rippled the water against the crusty sand. She continued on Few other signs of life. But surely, and here her heart started to flutter with anticipation, surely the seagulls would have almost finished their nest. She gazed out where she had seen them off and on over the past several days, and gave a quiet, startled cry.
            The gull was lying at the edge of the waters, delicate feet curled up in rigor mortis, white feathers stained an ugly brown where they'd been touched by the tide. Caroline's heart fell. She hadn't seen any other gulls this year. The other probably shared the same fate.
            Instinctively, she reached for her flute in its sterilized container at her side. She stood several feet behind the gull, brushing a chemical soaked pad over her dry lips, and began to play. The notes soared and glided, echoing across the water in memory of a single, white feathered bird. She poured her heart out through her instrument, sweet notes rebounding against the shining dome and the empty expanse of the sky. With such unmeasured sadness she dared to finally let her soul fly across the waters...
            But she seemed alone in her mourning, and in its time, the song ended itself. She continued walking, deciding to go on to the edge of the little cove before turning back for home. Only a few steps had she taken though, when she stopped, tilting her head to listen. A soft, haunting sound seemed to ripple from the waters. Most people wouldn't have noticed it, but Caroline was a musician, and her ears were sharply tuned and attentive to the sounds of the world around her. And so she stood, transfixed, until suddenly the bay fell silent again. The spell was broken, and ominous storm clouds dotted the horizon. It was time to go back home.

            Crying, crying, crying from the ocean. A whole generation of children, adolescent music fans, stood the the edge of the sea. A sea themselves, of dyed hair, cybernetic implants, a few wildly natural youths mingled amongst them--long hair swishing against slight, simple clothing. One amongst the crowd started singing, one of C-SeaBird's more thoughtful songs, well known amongst them. Slowly it was taken up, but it couldn't hide the lonely wailing, desperate crying. The children looked solemnly at each other, and by some unspoken cue, one of them waded into the ocean. Caroline stood on forgotten cliffs, watching them, trying to yell, but no sound could escape her lips. "I'm here, I'm here, not under the waters, look behind you..." she thought, but they would not. The first disappeared under the waves, and another C-Sea fan quietly followed... and on, and on, until the very last voice finished the last verse of the song, and slipped out of sight. Only then could Caroline scream.

            She woke up at three in the morning, shivering from a cascade of fitful dreams. She reached out across from her bed in the dark, pressing a few buttons to send the same set of Caroline SeaBird songs through the room that had just before echoed through her dreams. She sung along with her recorded voice, remembering exactly how she'd felt when she created this piece. The rest of the night she spent lost in her own music, listening to her past and composing her future, and trying to ignore those recent haunted dreams.

            The next morning was still, and not a cloud on the sky. The people on the radio warned against going out, freak winds, they said, a new weather pattern approaching. Caroline disregarded them, driven by some special urge... or perhaps not really believing that the beach where she'd spent her life was a danger to her.
            She knew better intellectually though, wincing at the soft white bodies of dead fish, floating belly-up in the shallows. She had played in these waters as a child, swam and snorkeled, jumped off rocky ledges a few feet above the calm deep waters, whooping and calling at the world. She had come here to think, to ponder the mysteries of the universe. She had come to the ocean for comfort, cried salty tears into saltwater the night her parents died. It was her soul-home, and her inspiration, but now... now the waters here were too dangerous to dare touch, the strange, unnatural toxins, and strange unnatural creatures within harmful to most other life. She had watched the oceans become what they were now, and done everything she could to stop it. But she was only a lone musician, well-known to a very select group of fans, and passed over by the rest of the world. The honest messages in her songs had been given up on by most others, and now only a few heard them. Fewer still listened to them, fewer still passed them on, and all in all it seemed that the human race no longer cared where they were going, or what countless ecosystems were going with them. Perhaps, as Caroline liked to think, they had only forgotten, and would some day wake and find amongst their ten billion odd numbers the genius to turn the process around. Perhaps not.
            She slowly edged around the waters of the bay, pausing at the spot where she had heard that haunting cry the day before. Nothing. Had she only imagined it?
            Trying not to feel disappointed, she continued on, all the way to the point at the edge of the bay, and then over the little rise to look at the beaches beyond. A dark shape was smudged against the briny sand, an unfamiliar lump of gray.
            She paused, not really feeling she had the strength to gaze upon yet more debris, or perhaps yet another sea creature killed by the toxic waters. But curiosity had always been one of her better strengths, and greater weaknesses, and so cautiously, Caroline approached the unfamiliar shape. She craned her neck at it, until her puzzled curiosity was abruptly replaced with recognition, and she stopped. She knelt in the sand, longing to get closer, but not daring to. She took her life in her hands just walking along the shore with so little protection, no sense in risking more. Though this creature himself would never harm her...
            The dolphin seemed to tilt his head a little, light glinting dully off his eyes and skin as he regarded her. He whistled, a soft, low sound, almost a moan. Caroline dropped completely to her knees, a reverent wonder in her eyes; she'd thought the species dead, years ago. A bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, silky gray and wonderful in the sand. His presence gracing her life so that she felt a taut, bittersweet euphoria, a feeling she hadn't known since she was very young. How blessed she to see him... though surely he was dying.
            Minutes passed, or hours, and the dolphin took up softly whistling, a tuneless melody like the winds of old in once vast forests. Caroline paused, and joined the singing, holding her silvery flute to her lips. The music was familiar, almost an echo of a recent song of Caroline's. Life is the Message, another delicately wrought song about the plight of the environment, and humankind within it.
            Hours passed, and the tide came in, Caroline backing away to a safer distance. She paused, watching the dark ocean wash over her newfound companion, and realized that the beached dolphin could swim away now if he chose. Why didn't he? Perhaps he was confused? She looked at him questioningly, and he gazed back, his eyes lighting softly as if in some kind of deeper understanding. In an eyeblink, he'd managed to wriggle back into the sea and swim away. He was gone. Startled, Caroline watched the water where he had disappeared, until a sudden, freak wind blew spray against the shore. She jumped back, remembering the warnings on the radio that morning, and quickly headed for home.. home...

            Blue, everything was absolutely, breathtakingly blue. Her skin rippled, heart quickened; she was flying, flying in a deep, endlessly deep expanse of blue. It was cool, and yet warm, her every subtle movement sending tingles of delight along her body as she glided across this glistening infinity. Streamlined body, melding itself seemlessly with the environment around her, she felt as if she were constantly getting nearer and nearer to being some kind of absolute singularity...
            No!! She was alone. Completely alone, suddenly feeling the loss of a million lives, mourning for each one individually until she thought her pain would never end, a life alone was worth nothing. Nothing. She sped up, trying to escape this chill against her soul, curved her body and arced.. upwards.. out of blue and into gray, cold air hitting her skin harshly before she dipped under again, turquoise forever and ever below. Onwards and onwards until she felt sand scraping her skin, lurched out of the water a final time, eyes stinging in the dry air, and rested on the beach. She felt hot in the sun, and dry, but she waited.. waited.. Someone approached, knelt in the sand beside her, rested cool hands against her. Time passed, and someone else came, and someone else. Caroline closed her eyes, forgetting about the irritating sand working its way into her delicate skin, bathing in the sound of sentient voices, the feel of life surrounding her...
            The sun burned, seared her skin and burned like nothing had ever burned before. The people around her tried to splash the salty waters over her, but it wasn't enough, she felt herself slowly dying in this alien land. Better here than alone, alone forever in a home she couldn't claim... blackness. When she woke, more people still were near, she felt better in her soul, almost free. Color exploded at the back of her mind as she whistled sweetly to the creatures around her, watched with growing pleasure as one by one they turned to fishes and jumped into the clean, clear, and empty, empty sea. Life seemed to fill the land and sky and waters and ground as everything faded, grew dimmer and dimmer and she was dying, slipping. Gone.

            It was morning when Caroline woke, bronze-tinted light streamed into her room. She ate breakfast, skimmed over some fan mail, flicked on the radio. She couldn't concentrate. Was that creature yesterday lonely? How had he managed to survive so long? Caroline had called her best friend, over at the biologic complex, and told her about the encounter on the beach, private though it seemed. Arin had been surprised, there hadn't been any reports of dolphins for a long time. She had sounded concerned too, and warned Caroline against going out so often. Caroline had thanked her, and hung up the phone.
            That advice would be worth taking today though, she thought, looking out at the rain pinging against the top of her dome. Besides, somehow, she felt inspired....
            Hours later she stepped out of her small studio into her bedroom, to collapse on her bed, the sound of her new song ringing in her mind. Loneliness Retrospect, she had titled it, it had a different sound than most of her work. Let the critics worry about that; she liked it. It had come to her, in a rare flowing smoothness, as if she had found it in a dream. A dream? She sat up, startled, remembering for the first time the strange dreams of the night before.

            The next day was clear, and the beach seemed to draw her, she ran out to the place where she'd last seen the dolphin, pausing at the top of the little rise to look out. There! A black shape at the edge of the waters. She drew in a breath, and walked down to see him. Yes.. yes, it was him. She played again for him, melodies of her new song, but he lay silent in the far too shallow water. There was a whirr behind her, and thudding footsteps on the sand. Turning, she saw a pair of scientists, light glinting off their protective clothing. They approached, knelt beside him, scribbled notes in notebooks quickly, and then paused, simply regarding the smooth skinned creature on the beach. An electric tremor seemed to run through the air, and then Caroline turned and silently walked away.

            They were there already the day after that, a small team of researchers, gawking child-like at the calm cetacean on the beach. Some of them had brought their children, holding them by the hands at a safe distance. They all watched quietly; the dolphin whistled gratingly, then slowly began to cheap and chitter like a funny little bird, and all the researchers broke into grins, the children laughed and pulling away from their parents, clapped their hands. A cloud was sighted on the horizon, and a wind blew up then, and the group started talking worriedly, then turned in mutual agreement and left. None of them saw the dolphin turn and slide back into the dark waters as the tide began to come in.

            Caroline's nights were quiet in the week that followed, each day she went out to watch the dolphin, lying in a slightly different spot on the sand. The researchers brought their entire families, husbands and wives standing off to the side with the children, while the scientists crouched closer, pointing out sores and lesions in the creature's skin, watching the breathing rate, realizing they couldn't measure the glisten in his eyes. Artists came, poets and musicians and photographers, every day the crowd grew. Every day the dolphin's health seemed a little worse, and the time he spent on the sands, surrounded by people, seemed longer.
            Caroline wrote music in the evenings, sometimes forgetting to eat. She collaborated with her friends over the computer networks, was introduced by a friend of a friend to a youth in the city. A girl who always wore chipped mirrorshades, she was missing a finger on her left hand, and she had a slight edge in her voice as if she'd been taking some of the newer drugs. Maybe she had. But she could sing, her sometimes quavering, often smoothly steady voice perfect for the second part in Loneliness Retrospect.
            That song was finished by the time the week was out, recorded with the help of a few friends and new technology, copyrighted under the new laws and set out onto the networks, to a world that still didn't seem to care about C-Sea style music. The story of the little dolphin was on the radio now, on the networks and in the broadcasts, people traveled from near and far to see him as he lay dying, with some unmatchable vitality. Caroline still stood every day amidst the throng of people, occasionally blowing a note or two on her flute and smiling as he whistled back at her.

            One afternoon the crowd invited her to play, she called her city friend, and smiling reporter types set up the screens and speakers for an impromptu duet of C-SeaBird's new song. The throngs of people cheered and cried and laughed, and Caroline played and sung on until dusk began to fall.

            Frogs and fish and birds and lizards surrounded her, and they were all so very ugly. Alien eyes gawked and tormented her, and she cowered, glaring hatefully at the bugs and butterflies and deer and tigers and elephants, whales and jellyfish and sea-snakes all around her. She felt herself slipping, buried under them, crying childishly for her own kind, human arms and eyes and hands and toes and legs and lips and teeth and hair in cities where everyone was the same, millions of human children spilling out across the land.

            She awoke with a shudder. She jumped out of her bed and ran in her silky nightgown onto the beach. Gazed into the eyes of the dolphin, lying patiently there in the greenish moonlight, as if waiting for her. A tremble of relief ran through her as she realized that she still felt kinship at his gaze, not revulsion. What a horror to have such feelings about all the other creatures... Surely most people felt that way, surely no one cared, or why else would they have let this happen? But did they really care about each other, could they? Surely no one would notice if Caroline disappeared, left the world as this dolphin here was leaving it. Yes, that must be how it was. Forgetting all caution or rationality, she put her arms around the dolphin, lay beside him in her little slip of a garment, barely feeling the acidic sting of the waters against her legs. She cried, her arms chafing the tender, peeling skin of the dolphin, yet he pressed closer to her, whistling softly, softly as her tears ran down his side. Her body shook, and he regarded her with half closed eyes, his breathing coming in slow rasping puffs. A little wind blew by, and her tears subsided, she leaned to kiss him. His still salty taste against her lips awoke some hidden memory, she smiled at him as if to say good bye, and turned towards the sea. He gazed after her, and closed his eyes a final time.
            She waded out, rocks scraping her bare feet, water stinging her skin. The bodies of dead fish brushed against her, slimy clumps of algae in the yellow green water. She couldn't see anything down there. She began to swim, coughing, her head pounding. She treaded water until her arms and legs ached, her mind whirled with fever, delirium. Sound and light exploded in her head, her skin chafed and her fingers began to bleed, or was it her imagination? It wouldn't clot, but kept coming, or maybe it was algae? twining itself stickily around her cold, cold hands, as the rest of her body flushed with heat. Wracked with shudders, stabbing pain, then numbness... She choked, her mouth filled with salty, bitter tasting sea. What was it the scientists had found in these waters, what chemicals, what microbes, or had she been sick before this? Surely she must have been, must have been crazy with fever to enter this ocean in the middle of the night, but she wouldn't go back if she could, couldn't go back to the home she used to know as a child; may as well die here. Maybe then someone would care, maybe then her message would be heard.

            The crowds arrived just before dawn that morning, whole throngs of people who had lodged near-by that night, running down to the beach. A group of teenagers were singing Loneliness, the song had become an overnight success. People were finally listening to what Caroline had been trying to say for years and years, a message in music spread across the land. The whole crowd stopped cold when they saw the dolphin, taking his last breath. A few sharp-eyed children thought they saw someone floating out in the waters, but their parents assured them that it couldn't possibly be so. All were quiet as the dolphin sighed a final time, save a single voice singing the last line of the song. The last thing Caroline heard before she left this world, her mind a burst of light:
            ...for a life where I'm free to love you forever; I'm running for the shore.