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An Alien in Japan (1)
Last night there I was woken by a faint rattling sound. The metal shutters which close out the darkness beyond the French doors were shaking faintly. Just one of Tokyo's little earthquakes, the practice drills for the Big One? Apparently not.
Mariko was sleeping amidst my swollen membranes. Carefully, I deflated my periphery and retracted, hauling myself back into my armor. Armoring up changes not just my body but my very psychology. I feel ruthless rather than tender.
I get up, doing a tripod squat. Crouched. The low Japanese ceiling does not permit me to rise to my full three meters. Extending a spiking rod from my Big Attack forelimb, I open first the sliding glass door then the metal shutters, opening the exit to the balcony.
A machine floats beside the washing machine which lives out there on the balcony. The ambient light of the city night reveals something nasty inside. A congealed glob of gray squatting in a swirl of venomous yellow. It is one of those petty-minded Dworlicks, surely. Painted on the carapace of its personal transporter is its number. Number 29. That, then, will serve as its name. The Dworlicks do not have the concept of personal names.
"Bastinda," it says.
"My name is Fred," I say.
"Fred?" says Number 29.
"I have named myself after Frederick the Great," I say, with dignity. "He was one of the locals. He - "
"He was a great man," I say, disappointed that Number 29 has no interest in my Rite of Naming, even though it must know how important that Rite is to me. "Anyway," I say, giving up on the subject, "that's by the by. The important thing is, when do we leave?"
"Yes. I'm marooned here. I need to be rescued. You are here to rescue me - right?"
"You have breached the Covenant," says Number 29.
"Don't play dumb. You know what you've done. You've given them technologies they're not ready for."
"Oh, they're more than ready for them. They would have got there themselves, anyway, in a few years. They were heading that way before I got here."
But Number 29 is firm. I have committed a crime, and I am under investigation. They will not rescue me. Rather, I will be given an opportunity to redeem myself by undoing what I have done.
Something happened last night. I remember making a note of it. But it was not something pleasant. I have chosen to forget it. Humans apparently have this ability, but mine is more refined. I can forget at will, while indexing the things that I have forgotten so that they may be recalled as necessary. I am a superior lifeform - am I not?
The delegation came to see me again today. It was the same old story.
"We want the virus," said Pete Chancer, the guy from the American embassy who is probably CIA.
"There is no virus," I said, as usual.
Then Pete dropped something new into the mix.
"We know about the dog," he said.
Later, I conferred with Candy, my English teacher. The dog? She told me that in this case the use of "the" suggests the existence (future, present, past or hypothetical) of a particular dog which Pete knows about and which he knows that I too know about.
"But there have been so many dogs!" I said. "A satisfying number of them past tense by now."
"You shouldn't say such things," said Candy. "Not even as a joke."
Joke. Even after so many laborious explanations, and even after reading Freud and others, I still don't quite understand this concept of "joke". But I do understand that she is telling me to drop the subject, so I do.
"Does it feel weird?" says the games show host. "To have three legs?"
These shows. One more stupid than the next. But it's good public relations. Public relations is helping keep me alive. I know that. So I try to be patient.
"A kangaroo likewise," I say, trying in my clumsy way to soundbite.
Loquacity is natural to me; in discourse with the peoples of planet Earth, it is when I attempt to be pithy that I run into trouble. My shorthand is not theirs.
"It has three legs," I say.
The audience laughs. Dumb alien. Thinks a kangaroo has three legs. But what I'm trying to get at is the tripod system. Hind legs and tail - a tripod. Most stable form in nature. A kangaroo, sitting at rest, is balanced on a tripod, the tail serving then as its third limb. A cat, leaping through the air, is using its tail for balance.
But they don't get it.
It is amazing just how profoundly their biology has influenced their outlook. They live on a planet on which most of the larger animals are five-limbed creatures. But they have demoted the fifth limb to the status of "tail", something they construe to be a superfluous tag, and this makes it impossible for them to perceive the kangaroo's tripod.
I am a tripod. The kangaroo is also a tripod. We are both natural, logical. A kangaroo is faster than a human. So am I. We are superior to you. Know that, after you kill me. I was better than you were.
It's on the Internet. Rumor-mongering scuttlebutt, only in this case it happens to be true. Sort of.
"Alien refuses to release virus."
Well, hey, that's only a half-truth at once. How many times do I have to say it? There is no virus. Sure, there have been bugs on the rampage ever since I got here, but that's sheer coincidence. Take, for instance, the narcoleptic plague? I had nothing to do with it, despite what the comic books say. I don't have any viruses, good or bad, and I'm not part of some conspiracy to destabilize the planet Earth. My spaceship crash-landed here, that's all. Let me let you in on a secret. Stuff happens - that's the basic organizing principle of the universe. Believe me.
"She thinks you'll eat the baby."
Mariko, eight months pregnant. The "she" in question is my mother-in-law. Okay, it's a fact - we do eat just about anything. My species, I mean. And, yes, I did eat the MIR cosmonauts, just as the tabloids say. But they were already dead when I peeled open the door of their orbital tin can. Trust me on this.
"We have a videotape," says Pete.
"Of what?" I say. "Rodney King?"
"Rodney who?" he says.
Plainly something is going wrong. The "joke" I have so carefully constructed, working in accordance with a mathematical formula of my own devising, is not working. Maybe the problem is that Rodney King was too long ago. Maybe Pete doesn't remember the incident. In that case - am I more of an American than he is?
A hypothetical question. Fact is, I have never even been to America, and have no intention of going. I think this is one of the reasons Pete is sore with me, though he probably doesn't have any conscious awareness of this.
Aliens are supposed to land in the USA - it's one of the stated givens of American pop culture. But, back in the 1990s, Japan recommitted itself to manufacturing technologies - to the making of widgets. It is Japan which has the engineering skills which give me the best shot at getting my spaceship rebuilt.
"Have you seen this?" said Pete.
He shows me a photo. Skinheads dancing round a Hitler shrine. Inside - the photo doesn't show it, but I can hypothesize - a Hitler box.
"Look," I say. "The Hitlers are bootleg technology. It has nothing to do with me."
"But you have the virus."
"The boxes are self-contained," I say. "How could any virus ever get into the box?"
The boxes are sealed. They draw energy from the gravitational field of the planet Earth. It is a self-evident proposition that there is no way to load a virus into them, but the people here believe in the existence of something called a "meme", which, as far as I can work out, is a self-replicating idea. Supposedly I can show the Hitler a carefully gimmicked picture of Eva Braun's backside or something and meme him into insanity. But this is impossible.
On this planet they have some very odd notions about how intelligence functions. Freud is only partially responsible for this.
"Or it might be a mutant."
Mariko. Again. But it won't. How many times do I have to say this? My species, we're perfect adaptors. The child, it will carry its heritage latently, the authentic genetic encoding suppressed, never to be expressed unless it mates with one of my own kind. For all intents and purposes it will be a human being, its latency masked by a perfectly good set of human-equivalent chromosomes. Over the last billion years we've interbred with thousands of species on thousands of different worlds. It's our specialty. We don't mess up - believe me.
"This is Japanese grammar," says Candy. "First you're stating your topic - my species, the child - then you're saying something about it."
"I'm saying we're the future," I say.
"On this planet?"
"I wasn't entirely truthful about the suppression factors," I said. "The authentic genes will express themselves in the face of survival contingencies."
"In the coming eco-catastrophe, my kind will prevail."
"It's what I thought," she said, taking off her clothes.
She used to belong to a cult. She worshiped at her guru's feet until her guru was taken to jail for currency counterfeiting and the murder of seven different snooping journalists. I knew that before I hired her. It seems my predictions were correct.
I didn't plan to invade this planet, but I'm tired of being hassled. You think this wouldn't have happened without me? Hey, I only accelerated things. Believe me. Artificial intelligence is the way it always goes. Candy is pregnant now - with our species, reproduction works pretty efficiently - and I've bought her an air ticket to Atlanta by way of Honolulu and Chicago. After the coming ecological melt-down, my children's children's children will inherit Pete's American dream.
I come home in the evening and find Mariko sitting at the table, silent. One of these Japanese silences. Communication through non-communication. I don't understand it. On all the worlds we've cataloged, communication requires data-outputs. That's a logical entailment of the intent to communicate, isn't it? You want to say something so you output data. You wave your feelers, flash your lights, bark, howl, modulate your electromagnetic field. Whatever. But it doesn't work like that in Japan.
"What's the problem?" I say.
"I don't understand you," I say.
"Nobody can ever really understand anyone else," she says. "We can try, but we can't. Not really."
I don't believe this. Can't. It's counter to the axioms my species believes in. We're communicators, and our fundamental belief is that we can decrypt any code. But I'm starting to realize that the notion of code entails - logically - the notion of data outputs. As above. The idea of a civilization based on omerta is difficult to get a grip on.
I watch TV. Ads. They're communicative. Buying and selling. We understand this. It's a basic principle of life, everywhere: the exchange of things of value. Here on Earth, as elsewhere, even bacteria do it - bartering genes in the sewers, exchanging packets of penicillin resistance for packets of something else.
Japanese TV fits nicely into our basic concept of what constitutes a civilization. That's the thing about Japan. It's outwardly so normal.
On the TV news, the monsters Kilimanjaro and Tegucigalpa are shown scuffling in the ruins of Tokyo. They've both been pretty quiet for the last six months, but now they're getting to grips with each other again. The Tokyo Tower, which has miraculously survived their earlier bouts, goes down in a crumpling heap.
The Japanese people don't seem particularly worried about the fact that their former capital has been overrun by monsters. It is the destiny of Tokyo to be destroyed. It was destroyed once by a great fire which took place at about the same time as the Great Fire of London, and a second time by the great Tokyo earthquake, and then a third time by systematic American fire bombing during World War Two. Eventually, both Kilimanjaro and Tegucigalpa will die of old age, and then the Japanese will rebuild in preparation for the fifth destruction.
Then, on TV, I see myself. I'm moving in on a dog. The video clip ends there.
"CNN promises more tomorrow," says the announcer.
The CIA must be feeding them this stuff.
The phone rings.
"Meet me at the temple," says Pete.
We can't actually meet in the temple precincts itself - themselves? Candy, I sent you away too soon! - because the gates are locked for the night. So we meet outside, and Pete shows me the video using a little holographic converter.
"It's authentic, isn't it?"
"No," I say, denying everything, because of course he's wired.
But it meshes with my memories. Yeah, it's authentic all right.
In the video, I'm shown disembowelling a dog. Myself, three meters tall, all spikes and talons. The dog is writhing in a spurt of blood. Then its head is gone. Globules of emotion purge forth from my spouts, thickly white, falling. The road steams and burns where they hit. Bones and hair vent from my cloaca.
Watching that exciting hunting scene, I feel, undeniably, a faint but irrepressible sense of pride in the economy of action, the speed with which the howling brute is stripped of its uselessness.
Still. The dog was a mistake. I realize that now. On this planet, these scavenger-predators serve the dominant sentient species as psychological symbiotes. Much as Mathakebri served me until he was killed after the incident with the child. I regret, then, the dog.
"Well?" said Pete.
"See you on the next talk show," I say, throwing down the gauntlet.
The dog video is on TV yet again. I regret the dog. I have repented. I have been through rites of repentance in accordance with the forms prescribed by the traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. Is that not enough?
Engrossed in these thoughts, I miss the news item which follows the dog video. I have not paid attention to the commentary. So now I access my monitoring brain, the archival consciousness which is constantly watching and indexing the outside world, and replay the commentary. The latest news is from America, and it is about the AIs - the AI lawyers.
After the accident marooned me on this plant, it soon became apparent that I would need cash, otherwise I would be no better than a zoo animal. There were plenty of offers from TV and movie companies, but the dignity of my species did not permit me to accept. (I still can't believe the amount of time I had to waste brushing off insistent Hollywood types who were unable to understand why I wouldn't want to star in some kind of high-tech "Godzilla" remake or the like). Instead - it is technically illegal, but I have no regrets about this breach of the Transcosmic Covenant - I licensed some technology to Mitsubishi.
Hence the AIs. A functional lawyer available to every American who has fifty bucks in his pocket. (Technically, his or her - but the customers are mostly men). The Japanese, the British, the French - they don't go for this technology. But the Americans love it.
Now one of the AIs has figured out a new wrinkle on the sexual harassment business. In America, if you wilfully touch something which is physically attached to someone else, that constitutes sexual harassment. But, in American subways, people are routinely crammed into trains in sardine fashion. Touching is inevitable. Of course, it's not wilful.
What the AI has figured out is that wilfulness may conceivably be attributed to the agency which permitted this situation to arise. That is, the powers which planned, built, operated, policed and permitted the subway systems. A dozen different class action suits have now been initiated.
According to the TV, the chronically overloaded American legal system is going to collapse entirely unless the relentless stream of inputs from fifty-dollar AIs is checked. I am blamed. Frankly, I couldn't care less. Logically, justice has to be rationed, otherwise everyone would be suing everyone else all the time, but organizing such a rationing system is not my problem.
Night. The apartment is quiet, but for the dog which is intermittently howling next door. I think about the dog, but control myself. In the fish tank, the Einstein talks to itself. The Bill Gates, a bootleg artefact, sits on the TV, lecturing me about the utopian high-tech future.
I'm telling you - how many times do I have to say it? - I'm not responsible for the bootleg copies of Bill Gates. Or the Hitlers. Okay, okay, so I licensed the basic technology, but, hey, I'm telling you, you would have got there yourselves soon enough.
Artificial intelligence. Any skinhead can have his personal Hitler. And now every shopkeeper has his personal Bill Gates tucked away in the back room, a happily dynamic little workaholic - "When I'm awake, I'm working!" - devising business plans for the conquest of the universe.
And what's really interesting is that this flood of intelligence - the Hitlers, the Bill Gateses, the AI lawyers, the Shakespears, the Miltons, the Edisons, the Einsteins, the Freuds and the Jungs - has added absolutely nothing to the ability of humans to organize themselves for their common good. The reverse, actually. That shopkeeper communing with his personal Bill Gates isn't trying to work out a strategy for coping with the ozone hole or reversing the shrinkage of the glaciers. No, he's wargaming his conquest of market share, and good luck to him.
As I've already indicated, my genes will see it through the coming catastrophe, so, to be brutally frank, I'm not too fussed.
Finally, I switch it to mute. I sit up, considering the next marketing move. Some thoughts are stirring in my mind about AI dogs. But maybe an AI dog is a contradiction in terms. What people really like about dogs is that dumb physicality, that constellation of limits which makes for dependence, which, in turn, makes for loyalty. Every man is Napoleon to his dog.
Late at night, Mariko comes to the suite of coiled chains which serve me as a bed. Tentatively, she touches one of my spikes. I inflate one of my peripheral envelopes, creating a tongue of pinkness. She lies on it, and I let my armor crack open. My membranes flow over her. She lies, passive, as my thin flesh flows over her. I feel the heat of the life kicking in her belly, and momentarily think about fast food, about the taste of sulphur. (But sulphur was another planet, wasn't it?)
She is silent. I am silent. And, silent in silence, I imagine that we are communicating. For a brief moment, I imagine that I understand.
This morning, a Dworlick was found dead in the little park at the base of my apartment building. Its artificial carapace had cracked, exposing it to the atmosphere of planet Earth. To a Dworlick, of course, Earth's mix of nitrogen and oxygen is intensely poisonous. It died. Probably it died slowly. In pain. A lot of pain, I think.
The Dworlick's sustaining machine seems to have fallen from a height. It failed, I supposed. That is a reasonable hypothesis. No machinery is perfect, least of all the machinery of our emotions. I want this on the record: I had nothing to do with it. I suppose you will read this after you kill me. Well, read it and suffer. I was innocent, and my death is on your hands.
This story, "An Alien in Japan" was first published in Sackcloth and Ashes issue 3 March 1999 (ed. Andrew Busby) (Wigan, United Kingdom, ISSN 1462- 2211) (pp 55-63; 3,440 words) (science fiction). This story was first posted on the internet by Hugh Cook on 2003 March 13. Copyright © 1999, 2003 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.
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