Story: the aliens arrive. When they leave, the inhabitants of planet Earth are left with something really strange: each other.
Life on Planet Earth
Harlan Joe was driving a truck from Chicago through to Denver the day the aliens arrived. Listening to the Big Event on radio, he was puzzled.
"Papua New Guinea? Where the hell is Papua New Guinea?"
Then he saw, up ahead, the woman in the red dress who was standing by the bright red sports car. She was trying to flag him down. For the sake of the red dress, Harlan Joe obliged. When he pulled up alongside of the red sports car, he saw one of the tires had blown out. He also saw that the woman had red, red lipstick. And that she was smiling at him.
That was how Harlan Joe came to meet Avaltreen Blue.
Why Papua New Guinea? That was never explained. Landing at Fort Moresby, the capital of PNG, was the first totally inexplicable and utterly alien thing which the aliens did.
Everyone on the planet had been conditioned to expect the arrival of aliens. But the conventions of Hollywood had always called for aliens to show up in Washington DC or New York - or maybe Los Angeles. Not in some place in the tropical nowhere north of Australia.
The aliens arrived in ships which were the color of aubergines, a shining purple fat with the potency of knowledge. They chose, for reasons which they did not choose to reveal, to call themselves the Polysynthacella. They had decided (rightly or wrongly) that they had made themselves into experts on the languages of planet Earth, and that they could legitimately name themselves.
"We will unite you in knowledge," they said.
What did this mean?
Nobody knew. Hypothesis was protean, but all conclusions tentative. And, when asked to explain themselves, the Polysynthacella merely repeated their original statement, as if it was self-evident.
"I don't think they're so bright," said Avaltreen Blue.
It was the first original thought of her life. She might (conceivably) have had a second, except that, at that point, the police kicked in the door of the motel where Avaltreen Blue was shacked up with Harlan Joe, and arrested her for grand auto theft, possession of marijuana and the counterfeiting of United States currency.
"I thought the Secret Service took care of the counterfeiting thing," said Harlan Joe, visiting her in jail.
"Yeah," said Avaltreen Blue, looking tired, "but maybe they were busy or something."
After six months in Papua New Guinea, the Polysynthacella moved to Chile, where they established a big base in the desert.
"Yeah, Chile," said Harlan Joe, meeting Avaltreen Blue outside of the jail.
"Where's that?" said Avaltreen.
"Down south," said Harlan Joe, who had seen it on TV - the maps, the explanations and all. "You know. Way down south. Where they speak Spanish and all."
"So maybe the big guys want to learn Spanish," said Avaltreen.
Then she gave way to emotion, suddenly, unexpectedly, and wept. Harlan Joe took her in his arms and she wept all the more. She had not really believed that he would wait for her. She had not really believed that he cared.
Down in Chile, the Polysynthacella covered a good half of one of the driest deserts in the world with a gritty substance which they claimed was powdered chimpanzee fur. Nobody knew why they did this, or where they got the fur from.
The Polysynthacella were big, lumbering amphibians which looked like queen-size mattresses covered on both sides with short but powerful tentacles. The tentacles were a rubbery green and yellow tentacles and looked unconvincing, as if the Polysynthacella were not authentic creatures, but, rather, the flawed products of a second-rate plastic toy factory.
"What are you here for?" asked Ispat Bean, winner of the "Meet the Aliens" contest.
"We are here to unite you in knowledge," said one of the Polysynthacella, the one which called itself Medellin Spalding.
"So how come that Papua place?" said Ispat Bean. "You like the coffee, or what?"
"It is part of your planet," said Medellin Spalding. "You should know about it."
"Oh yeah?" said Ispat, who, being from Ohio, didn't see the necessity. "And how about that dumb name of yours?"
"The mind needs chewing gum," said Medellin Spalding, cryptically.
And waved all his (its?) green and yellow tentacles simultaneously for a solid ten seconds.
The scientists of the world were ecstatic. Ispat Bean, who was just a guy who made hamburgers at McDonald's in Cincinnati, a guy who was a part-time computer geek, a guy whose one claim to fame was that he kept piranhas as pets - this Ispat Bean had actually extracted information from the aliens.
The aliens were, it seemed, of the opinion that Papua was important, or should be, not to the aliens themselves but to Earthlings such as Ispat Bean.
That was as far as anyone got with interviewing the aliens, however, because, the very next day, they abruptly departed from the planet, without warning.
A year later, the itching disease broke out, simultaneously, all over planet Earth. It was monstrous. It was like your whole body was one big itch. And x-ray analysis showed strange branching structures - a kind of supplementary nervous system, by the looks of it - spreading through the bodies of the afflicted.
"The afflicted" being the entire population of the planet.
"It's those aliens," said Harlan Joe, speaking to other truckers by CB radio as he headed into Akron.
His truck rolled past a car which was stopped by the highway. In the car, a man. Maybe sleeping, maybe dead. Harlan Joe didn't stop. He was intent on his conversation. He was through the itching phase by now - otherwise he wouldn't have been able to drive the truck - but he was still as mad as hell.
Harlan Joe didn't know - and wouldn't have cared if he had known - that the man in the car was Ispat Bean. Harlan Joe had seen Ispat Bean on TV, a while back, but had already forgotten all about him. Everyone else on planet Earth, pretty much, had done the same thing.
Ispat Bean had gone from global supercelebrity to nonentity. His attempt to make it big ("My vision: a piranha in every home! The ecological solution to the food scraps problem!!") had failed absolutely. He was totally broke and was on the run, trying to stay ahead of a consortium of lawyers which wanted to extract one of his kidneys and half of his liver. (Some of the testimony in the class action suit was heartbreaking. "My little girl ... this is a photo of her beautiful little hand, before that ugly ... before that monstrous ... oh! And she did so want to play the violin ....")
"Aliens," repeated Harlan Joe. "They did it. This plague, it's them."
Harlan Joe was no scientist, but, as it happened, the world's best brains agreed with him.
After Harlan Joe had driven past, Ispat Bean got out of the car, where he had been pretending to sleep. He looked around. Nobody was in sight. He hauled the body out of the trunk and dumped it by the roadside. He had already strapped ten pounds of plastic explosive to the body and rigged up a timing mechanism, which he now initiated. Five minutes after Ispat Bean drove away, the body exploded, sending little pieces of flesh and bone flying in all directions.
That night, in his motel room, Ispat Bean watched the TV, eager for the first news of the Exploding Dog Killer. Having been famous once, Ispat was sure he could be famous again.
Kill humans? Anyone can do that. And there is something in our nature which cheers on the Hannibal Lecters of the world. Humans are, after all, our competitors, and our enemies. It's people - strangers - who park in our chosen place, who grab the last carton of milk off of the supermarket shelf, who keep us awake by talking on the plane.
But killing dogs ... now there's a whole new dimension of evil. Unimaginable evil. Evil worthy of prime time interviews, a movie, a video, a TV series, a book.
"Next up," said the announcer, "the exploding elephant."
Elephant? No, idiot! Dog! Not elephant - dog.
But it was an elephant, after all. There was a parade in Sri Lanka, wherever the hell that was, and this elephant exploded.
"Tamil Tiger terrorists have claimed responsibility," said the announcer.
Say what? A bunch of tigers made an elephant explode?
Ispat Bean couldn't quite figure it out. But he was starting to appreciate the truth of Ted Bundy's famous dictum (often erroneously attributed to Andy Warhol): "Achieving celebrity is not only more difficult than you imagine, it is more difficult than you can imagine."
"But Bundy did it," said Ispat, "and I will too."
After watching the exploding elephant, Harlan Joe went to take a shower, leaving the TV on, sound turned up loud, so he could listen to the horse racing.
He was in the shower when he was -
- in the truck.
Trapped in a kind of full-sensorium movie of his own life, talking into the CB radio, saying, "It's those aliens," and seeing, out of the corner of his eye, a car by the road, some man slumped inside, maybe sleeping, maybe dead.
Then he was back in the shower.
The impact of the water on his naked flesh was galvanic. His head jerked back and slammed up against the nozzle of the shower, gashing the back of his head.
"What the?!" said the racetrack commentator.
Harlan Joe stumbled out of the shower, heedless of the blood and water he was spreading around the motel room, and went to the TV. The race was still on, but the commentator had lost it - was trying to recover, but had gotten such a shock that he could not remember the names of the horses, the names of the riders. His own name, perhaps.
"You too," said Harlan Joe.
"Next up," said the announcer, brightly, "the exploding elephant."
And Ispat Bean was forced to watch the whole thing all over again. The big story which had wiped his little story out of the news (if, indeed, his little story, his exploding dog, had even been noticed by the world.)
Rubbing salt in his wounds.
Inside of seventy-two hours, there were three distinct "playback episodes", in which every person on the planet experienced a playback of part of his or her life. The playback episodes were different for each person, but seemed to range in length from three seconds through to about ninety minutes. Regardless of length, however, subjectively each playback episode seemed to take close to zero time.
The scientists came up with a hypothesis pretty quickly.
The new structure which the Polysynthacella had inflicted upon the human race was an organic recording-playback device. It recorded part of your own experience then played that experience back, so you lived through it all over again.
During playback, your perception of time was messed around with, so a couple of seconds were enough to permit the replaying of well over an hour of experience. And, at the same time, you were disconnected from your living body.
Well, a fair few auto accidents, and a couple of really spectacular mid-air collisions. Plus a big spike in the number of household accidents, particularly in the kitchen - nasty incidents involving boiling water, for example, or boiling oil. And some brutal stories came out of saw mills and factories, as well. The accident and emergency wards were full.
"But we will survive," said the President grimly.
President Bundy - Howie Bundy, the brother of Ted - was everything a president should be in that hour of need. Grim, spiritual, Christian, confident, resolved. No cheap jokes. No canned laughter. But no tears, either. No flinching.
Watching the president on TV, Harlan Joe felt reassured. Okay, so they were living through a disaster, but it was a familiar American disaster, unfolding in the continental United States, as disasters should. You could understand it without a bunch of maps of weird places with strange names nobody could even pronounce. It was a disaster that America owned.
(Okay, okay, so the people in Africa or wherever were living through the same thing. But it wasn't compulsory to think about them.)
Harlan Joe fell asleep in front of the TV and woke to find his mouth full of glue. He was breathing it, hauling it in, gulping it down as if his life depended on it. He tried to stop, but found the body which owned him was not responsive to his commands.
The body begged, scavenged, slept on the streets of a busy city. A full sixteen hours.
Then - whammo! Harlan Joe was back in front of the TV again, wide awake. Back where he had started from. He looked at his wristwatch. He'd been asleep when it all started, so he wasn't sure how much time had gone by. The TV announcer was stammering, seemed to have lost his bookmark in the universe.
By the next day, the city had a name - Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras. And so did the boy. Leon, little Leon, now destined to be dried out at the Betty Ford clinic at the expense of the CIA, which had muscled in as his protector.
Leon was the first of the global playback stars. Presumably, there would be a second. If so, should there be a special category in the Oscars for playback stars?
"I don't have an opinion," said Octave Bundy - brother of Howie and Ted - on the set of the movie provisionally entitled "Leon's Playback" (coming to a movie theater near you inside of the week, if technically possible.) "I deal with actors, not the real world."
Meantime, the news was dominated by emergency precautions which people were taking - or could, or should - to cope with the "subjectivity lapses", which were now lasting up to half an hour. Globally, little Leon's playback had killed over 50,000 people and put several million in hospital. "Playback," as it was coming to be simply called, was shaping up to be a major problem for the survival of the human race.
"We will unite you in knowledge," the aliens had said.
And they sure had.
But, hey - who wants to be united with some glue-sniffing kid in some gutter some place where they don't even speak English?
"True charity cannot be coerced," said President Howie Bundy, denouncing the perceived agenda of the Polysynthacella. "The name for forced charity is gunpoint robbery, pure and simple."
The gun manufacturers launched a big advertising campaign advising people to go out and buy themselves guns to protect themselves against "anyone who wants to rob you, whatever the hell their holy excuse."
"You know what I want?" said Avaltreen.
"What?" said Harlan Joe.
"I'd like a, you know, playback. With some Hollywood stud, you know, like, someone on TV."
"Someone famous?" said Harlan Joe.
"Yeah ... you know ... doing ... Hollywood things."
What things? Harlan Joe couldn't imagine. Neither could Avaltreen Blue. But they did their best to improvise their own Hollywood-style debauchery.
"So hot," said Avaltreen, afterwards.
"I know I was," said Harlan Joe, breathing her murmering perfume.
What Avaltreen really meant was that she had gotten uncomfortably hot and wanted to cool down in a cold shower. But she let Harlan enjoy his delusions, and let him slip off to sleep before she extracted herself from his embrace and took herself off to the shower.
Harlan slept solidly that night, only to wake to find himself standing by the white plastic door, looking through the little porthole at the wilderness below. Bleak whiteness, snow covered hills with a prickling of black pines. A slow wide river running through the wilderness.
Then he was back in his own flesh, and awake, wide awake.
The CIA never found out who that was, though a dozen claimants came forward - me, me, let it be me, me who housed the human race, if only a single minute.
A month, and nothing. Then Harlan Joe was sitting in a roadside cafe, putting ketchup on his hotdog, when the cafe was suddenly gone, and Avaltreen Blue was saying "Yeah ... you know ... doing ... Hollywood things."
Then they were doing those things, Avaltreen Blue was whispering beneath him, her fingers sliding across his sweating flesh.
"So hot," said Avaltreen.
Then she was gone, and Harlan Joe found himself back in the cafe, slumped over the table, his face one huge big mess of ketchup, the ketchup bottle on the floor, the cafe full of choke on account of the stuff which had caught fire in the kitchen.
Harlan Joe and Avaltreen Blue were famous for all of a week, until the Bundy thing.
"Hello," said Ted Bundy, speaking for the benefit of the camera which was filming him. "I'm in China. And this package here - let's call it Ching Chaw, though that's not its real name - is scheduled for execution in accordance with the law. Don't feel sorry for the package. It broke a whole bunch of laws. It has it coming."
Then Ted did one of his famous performance art executions, this one using a plastic bag, a scalpel, six pounds of mud and a teaspoon. He had paid ten million dollars for the privilege. He got his money's worth.
In the playback, subjectively, the whole world was Ted. The next day, copycats repeated the whole thing in schools and kindergartens scattered across the world.
"Hey," said Ted, bewildered at the public's outraged response. "I'm an artist."
But the assassin at his door pulled the trigger all the same, scattering his brains across the freshly-painted yellow wall behind.
Ted Bundy was famous for all of a week, his fame largely extinguishing that of Harlan Joe and Avaltreen Blue. Then the pack rape in Papua New Guinea left thirty per cent of the world's population with post-traumatic stress disorder. And then came the free fall parachutist, then the twelve-hour production line shift in the Chinese plastic sandal factory, then the ten days in the life of a homeless person, then the electric chair incident which, overnight, jumped the global suicide rate by sixty per cent.
By that time, Harlan Joe and Avaltreen Blue were forgotten.
But I remember them.
These days, Harlan Joe does beer advertisements, and Avaltreen Blue has this low-level soft porn career. That's not bad going considering how quickly we've taken to forgetting our playback heroes.
Anyway. That brings me to the present moment. To me. You're in me, now. Enjoying playback. Enjoying? Enduring. Whatever. I trust you are. Or will be.
I have this vision, see.
I'm going to be a playback hero.
It hasn't happened yet - granted. But it will. The whole world will be in me, living my life. That's my vision. So let me introduce myself.
See this face in the mirror? This is me. Ispat Bean. Now, I'm going to punch that face right in the jaw. It's going to hurt. It's going to hurt like hell. But there's no escape.
Boy ... that hurt. Right?
When my time comes, you're not going to forget me. Ispat Bean. Remember the name - okay?
Now, this looks like an electric chair. And it is. Kind of. Only it's not fatal. Let me strap us in. The rest of the process is automatic. See that computer over there? It's programmed to give us a pretty wild ride over the next ... well, I won't tell you how long. That's for me to know and you to guess at.
Pain. Lowest common denominator. Binding us - making the many one. E pluribus unum and all that. I believe it is my destiny to fulfill the agenda of the Polysynthacella, to unite us in knowledge, the knowledge being that pain is the ruling One. Now say my name. Ispat Bean! Ay-ah! That hurt, it hurts! Ispat Bean! Ispat Bean! Big one coming - hold tight and scream it! Ispat Bean!
This story, "Life on Planet Earth" was first posted on the internet by Hugh Cook on 2003 March 18. Copyright © 2003 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.
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