The New Ocean

David S. Golding

Last week I flew from Prague to Shanghai to go to this year's World Ocean Festival. At first I went because I felt obligated, since it's an important cause and everything, but in the end it was so amazing.

I met up with Leon, a German engineer I've known since I was a student. We ate crepes at the historic Plaza 66 and designed our avatars for the party. With a few graceful gestures he shaped the most stunning turtle head onto himself, glinting ultraviolet and neon, depending on the angle. It was very appropriate for the occasion because I think it was one of the extinct species. Leon has always been so aware of world issues.

My avatar was admittedly a bit childish. I couldn't resist giving myself mermaid flippers, or trying to anyways, but my awkward motions just transformed my legs into two stabby things, big fangs basically. Leon could only laugh, his hand shooting to his lips. He reshaped my avatar with an engineer’s precision and a designer's flourish. By the time he'd finished, I was covered up to my neck in cyan scales. I stretched my feet and the fins flexed convincingly.

Then we went to the festival at Ligong Tower. Along the way, the streets were decorated with giant kelp swaying hundreds of meters into the air, sharks gliding above the traffic, brine and bubbles everywhere. This was, of course, a major world event.

The tower itself had been shaped into a huge growth of coral, hot orange beneath teal bristles. Leon instantly identified it as pillar coral, which according to him has been extinct for a few decades. I smiled at him in wonder, but he seemed to be intently distracted by the tower, or the sky, or something even beyond that. He takes life too seriously sometimes, always has. I suppose that's what happens when you're so aware of things.

I looked down at the scales across my arm sparkling like sapphire. Whenever I go to something big like this, I feel like I'm really living. My fingers touched through the segmented texture and felt my skin, plain and unseen, just to be sure.

The festival was breathtaking. A misty pool rippled at the center of it all. I thought the vapours were genuine, but they couldn't have been, because I dipped my webbed toes into the water and found it refreshingly cool. My bag hit the stone floor beside my sandals and I jumped right in, Leon's soft laugh close behind.

We held our breath and swam through schools of extinct fish. I glided up to one all alone that looked like a dragon, fins circuited with bright aquamarine and orange. A mandarinfish, Leon would later tell me. Its marble eyes didn't seem to register my presence at all. Below, a little red fish used its fins to crawl along a simulated rock. The illusion was broken only when a glitch in the system would allow a dorsal to glide through someone's leg or a jellyfish to enter someone's torso. Tangerine pink starfish clung to the wall. At the bottom of the pool, an image of Shanghai's skyscrapers was shaped in virtual sand.

We dried off and went to eat at the most cultural restaurant I've ever been to. A couple from Mexico came with us from the pool, artists of some sort that I couldn't determine. One of them wore the weirdest avatar, far too disturbing for an event where most people went as seahorses or angelfish. It was a blue whale, snared in a tight mesh of digital colours, oozing chromatic blood from its torn fins and blowhole. The other had no avatar, which was also weird, and wore nothing special but an earring like a little harpoon gun. I couldn't figure out if the earring was real or shaped, but I wasn't going to reach over and find out.

The couple was raving about some new movement called originism. It sounded fascinating and all, but I was so hungry I could barely focus. On the tabletop, they showed us an example of originist aesthetic in a flurry of imagery: a white bear atop ice floating through outer space, tearing through the atmosphere and slamming into the sea next to a group of people in rags on a polystyrene raft, only to be overturned by a barnacle-skinned titan who burst up from the water, gripping a dolphin and aiming it like a pistol.

I was grateful when the food came. We ate Maldivian mas riha, Kiribati palusami in coconut leaves, and Solomon cassava pudding, all cuisine from islands of the past. I had to take a video of the spread on our table, since I'm pretty sure most of my friends had never seen this kind of thing.

The walls of the restaurant were shaped into an orchard of palm trees, arrayed so that as you walk by they glide in distant patterns. Leaning back in my seat, I sighed and watched the stretches of swaying leaves. The palms were so endless that you could never ask for more.

We returned to the pool area after eating, just in time for the main show. Everything went dark, except for some shimmery reflections that made it feel like we were in an underwater cave. From the pool rose a monstrous clamshell, which unsealed to let loose a flock of pelicans before revealing a half-man, half-woman, half-octopus. A slimy mouth opened and out came the music, spacious reverberations beneath vowels of breath. Eight tentacles reached up and writhed to the sound's ebbs and flows. When bioluminsecent plankton dripped from above, everyone screamed and started to dance.

After a while, Leon wanted to get away from the noise for a bit and smoke a cigar, so we headed up to the roof. It's sort of obligatory that when you visit the Ligong Tower you go to the top. I strolled out into the open air and we were almost alone, Leon and I.

All of Shanghai had been shaped into water, the city invisible, the waves infinite. I turned off my display, because I wanted to see the actual view.

The ocean disappeared to reveal a roofscape of dust and corrugated tin, everything just nailed together or leaning against everything else, scraps of wood, concrete blocks, plastic bags cut open into tarps. In the distance, gutted buildings held the colours of clothes hanging to dry. Poverty is such an awful thing in Shanghai, or in Los Angeles, or anywhere really. But atop the Ligong Tower, over a kilometer above the city, I couldn't handle how the slums went all the way to the horizon and disappeared into the sweltering sun, a sun that struck me as cruel until I reactivated the imagery of the ocean waves, and again the golden rays glistened across a marine paradise.

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About The Author

David S. Golding

David S. Golding grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He now teaches peace studies and development geography in Sri Lanka, and is a doctoral candidate at Lancaster University. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Jersey Devil Press, Mithila Review, Barely South Review, and elsewhere. Read his work at <www.dsgolding.com>.

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