by David A. Edwards
As the announcement came that Flight KX70125 had landed, Kaoru Takayanagi stopped reading the news, and put on his glasses. He finished the last of his lukewarm spirulina and walked along to Gate 7 where the arrivals were about to disembark. A woman in a dark grey business suit, face full of piercings, crimson hair matching her tie, was the first to emerge, swearing into her audio cellphone at someone named Rodney. There followed various other business types, a grossly overweight American couple in Hawaiian shirts, a TV reporter who Kaoru vaguely recalled from somewhere, looking much shorter in the flesh. Then came some sports team in formal dinner suits full to bursting with their massive shoulders and pecs, two little old ladies in flared jeans, and others.
The man Kaoru was looking for was near the back, in a plain grey jacket and matching trousers. He was tall, athletic build, and clean-shaven with short blonde hair. What a pity that he’d cut off his dreads. The dreads would have been good to ridicule for their appropriation of what once was a fairly revolutionary symbol. He walked with his shoulders back and head upright, but the camera’s high resolution would pick up, and if necessary accentuate, the slight nervousness that betrayed itself in the corners of his mouth and eyes. He had the look of a minor celebrity (which he was) on unfamiliar ground (which he also was). He was trying to ignore the two vicious little kids behind him, taunting him with cries of “Hey bro, have you come to buy our country?” and “Ah’d lahk a Big Mac with large fraahs please!”.
Kaoru waited until the man reached the end of the tunnel and began to look around. Kaoru was thinking whether to include this bit of footage, maybe turn it into a slow zoom out, or whether it was too obviously propagandistic. He’d probably do a few different cuts of the end product - his watch had plenty of memory left. And as well as leaving his hands free the two lenses of his glasses worked stereoscopically. This allowed for three-dimensional position inference and perspective shifting during post-production if he got really unhappy with the footage. They did make him look like some mid-20th century comedian though. Putting this thought aside for the moment in the interests of professionalism, he waited three more seconds until he judged the moment right, and stepped forward to introduce himself.
Walt Crosby had a headache that no amount of asprol would take care of. He’d been sitting in the plane surfing through the underwater baseball pages and listening to the third movement of Mozart’s Serenade in G Major when that kid had tapped him on the shoulder and asked in a broad antipodean accent if he was the guy who’d been on that Reebok ad. He’d smiled and said yes, and was about to go into his party anecdote about how the basketball wouldn’t bounce properly in zero gravity so it took ages to adjust his aiming style and then he kept missing when he got back to Earth, but the kid just let out a nasal “Aaahaah!” and punched him - pretty hard - on his right upper arm. The kid started taunting him about being a media spectre, a capitalist goon, an imperialistic Yankee blah blah blah, and Walt had known that he was in for a long flight. “Can I have your autograph Mister?” asked the second kid, even pudgier and spottier than the first, and paused for comic effect...“So I can wipe my ass with it! Ah hahahahaha!”. They were both laughing wildly at that, and the cabin attendant had told them to quiet down but seemed to not really mean it and was trying to conceal a grin.
The plane had touched down in Wellington, New Zealand/Aotearoa at 17:15 on October 15, in the year 2020CE. His watch now adjusted itself to local time, twenty hours ahead of where he’d come from, obeying the signal from the airport master clock. Did that mean he’d lost some time? Was there a missing gap cut out of his life? He gave the cabin attendant a thin-lipped smile as he disembarked the plane.
Walt found himself in what he took to be the main concourse of the airport, a reasonably large open space with a slightly dingy floor, and various storefronts, some apparently not in service. He couldn’t see the guys from the Film Company. He started looking around, tuning out the two kids behind, and so at first missed the fact that the little guy in the scruffy shirt in front was talking to him.
“Hey Mr. Crosby, I’m Kaoru Takayanagi, I’m from Trismegistic Productions and I was hoping we could kind of go straight into this like maybe if you were to go up against the window or something for an expositional shot since I spose you guys are gonna do the seeding from out of a plane, it’d be kind of appropriate, I’m thinking maybe an MCU”.
“Oh hello. Good evening.” - smooth American tones - “Ah, I was expecting to be met by a Mr. Bradley?”
“Oh yes well Mr. Bradley couldn’t make it as he got called away at the last minute to do some kind of consultant work on the big Finnegans Wake shoot, and of course its all supposed to be top secret, up in the big drawer as it were” (he pronounced the words ‘supposed to’ with the slightest of emphases). “So if I could just get you to stand over there and explain to the people what it is that you’re doing here...”
“Ah where exactly would you like me to start from? I mean some of this material is still highly classified, and I’m not prepared to...”
“No no Mr. Crosby that’s all totally lascivious and out there and prepaid past-tenses and so on. In fact I’ve just had a better idea, possibly by a factor of about 200% if I had to put a number on it, which was as follows, namely, would you like a beer?”
“You have beer in this country?”
Kaoru Takayanagi smiled - “You’re not that far from home now Mr. Crosby”.
The bus let them off on Courtney Place, a long street with fairly old buildings in a slightly seedy part of town. The streets were paved but the stones were in some parts stained and cracked. Walt Crosby, who had seemed surprised by his reception at the airport and by having to take a bus into town, took it all in with an air of polite disdain. He was about to register curiosity at the loud machine noises and the workmen moving around a few of the taller buildings, when Kaoru motioned him towards a nearby bar. On the window beside the door was a simple painting of an elderly Asian man and the bar’s name: Ho Chi Minh’s.
“Nice place” said Crosby, sitting himself down on one of the window stools. He looked around the dim room, which was decorated in mock-Asian style with bamboo doorframes and so on. Against the far wall were a couple of pay-computer terminals. Two young men in scruffy white clothes with food-stains were sitting at a table taking drags from a hookah, and ravening into a big bowl of rice. There was an odd smell contributing to the general haze. Soft-coloured lasers made patterns through the smoke above, some of it probably generated artificially to add to this effect.
Crosby also felt an odd throbbing sensation, twisting and sliding, which started in his head and chest. It took him several seconds to recognise that this was music, making extensive use of frequencies in the subsonic range. Over it, at the upper range of his hearing he could faintly hear complex randomly generated melodic bubblings and burblings, like a stringed instrument being split into its component harmonics, weaving around and dancing against each other. There was also what sounded like a pair of hi-hat cymbals playing polyrhythms. Repetition in electronic music was long out of fashion. The result was a definite background ambience being set, but against which conversation was possible without having to raise voices. Crosby found the experience somewhat uncomfortable. He started humming the great Neil Diamond classic “Sweet Caroline” to himself, as Kaoru Takayanagi came over with two beers.
“So, is it what you were expecting?”
“Ha. Well to be honest with you Mr. Takayanagi, I was expecting more of a reception, I mean I don’t intend to sound rude here but...”
“Oh that’s strange. What made you think that?”
“Well” said Crosby, somewhat taken aback, “it’s just that there’s been a lot of attention given to this project in the media, and I was expecting to give some kind of press conference.”
“Oh, I see. The media. No-one pays any attention to them. Uh, we seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot here Mr. Crosby. You see I was under the impression that you were coming ahead of the scientists to do a short kind of soundbite-type documentary biography and maybe get a quick holiday in New Zealand, out of the glare of publicity and into the glare of UV as it were...”
“No, I don’t know where your information comes from, but it differs from mine. I’m going to have to talk to my agent about this”. He was looking distinctly angry. And a thought occurred to him: “You’re not recording any of this are you? Could you please take those glasses off?”
“Mr. Crosby, be reasonable” said Kaoru, removing his glasses and suppressing a grin, “the scientists don’t fly in from Antarctica for another two days. I’ve been given the go-ahead to make this film, the Murdoch-brigade have picked up the option, everyone gets paid, you go ahead and be frontman for the ozone seeding, we all live happily ever after”.
“Two days? What the hell am I doing here in this hick little town?!”
“Look, just chill, OK? Comportment’s important. There’s probably been some jamming of the itinerary. Someone forgot to tell you the proper schedule. All I know is it’s in the contract”.
At that, Crosby knew he was probably beaten. He excused himself and went to one of the pay-computers at the back, and got a line to his agent in Houston. As always he resisted the vague nagging to use the words “Houston, we have a problem”, but explained what had happened. Bob Dallas looked annoyed, rueful, apologetic, exasperated, and amused all at once, as he admitted that yes, this Mr. Takayanagi of Trismegistic Productions was indeed contracted to film a short documentary.
They’d been hacked. The contract was now official, and there weren’t a darned thing they could do about it, unless by the classic American pioneer-spirit way, taking them to court. This would take too long and cost far too much to be worth the bother, so they might as well go along with it. In Bob Dallas’s view, a bit of extra publicity never hurt anyone, there were some royalties to be made from it, Noo Zealand’s a nice place from what he’d heard... so if this little Takayanagi punk wants to make a documentary then let him. We can get him tied up in bigger litigation if we wait to see the product.
Walt Crosby took the next step in the chain of logic: he could get himself a new and better agent, but it would take too long etc. He knew that you get these kinds of guys hanging around movie-making towns. Some kid scrapes together a bit of money, buys a camera and some editing software and budda-bing, out pops another ‘production company’. He knew he was caught. Just one of the hazards of travelling Earthside. Modern-day panhandlers. Shoe-shine boys. He had been very quietly and simply and effectively blackmailed.
Crosby returned to his seat. Takayanagi was smiling into his beer. “Everything checks out?”
“Yeah, it all checks out” said Crosby. He drank some beer moodily. “So what’s with the guys working on those buildings?”
“Ah” said Takayanagi, “big project. For when the floods start coming. Property values in pretty much every coastal part of the world have plummeted thanks to global warming. We’re already getting more and more Pacific Island refugees here. Thing is Wellington’s got all these hills, so most of the city can simply shift uphill a bit. But the downtown area’s going to be flooded in the next few years when too much of the polar ice caps go. Now the really cunning part is that a lot of the area about to go under is where the tall buildings are, the old CBD. So assuming that the floods peak where they’re supposed to, the upper parts of these skyscrapers will still be above water. And they’re arranged into streets, so what’s gonna happen is the streets become canals, like in Venice. You with me?”
“Yes” said Crosby, “gee whiz, that’s really something”.
“Yeah, I’m quite impressed with it myself. It’s pretty violent actually. This is going to be a major tourist destination come the middle of the century. It’ll be great for scuba diving. I think they’re trying it in a few other places. They just need to reinforce the bottoms of the buildings. If they can get some of them watertight, they can even still use the lower levels. They’ll have all kinds of underwater restaurants. Building in the ocean’s obviously the way things are going. Architecture’s come in leaps and bounds in the last few decades since computers came along. I’ll take you to Te Papa, it’s just round the corner. That place really is a museum, in more ways than one”. There was a pause in the conversation. “The Hutt Valley over the other side of the harbour’s a problem though. They’re gonna build a big seawall and cross their fingers. Still, it’ll be funny because then the country really will earn the name ‘New Zealand’”.
“Noo Zealand?? Oh, I get it. And some young boy’ll have to put his finger in the dyke?”
“Yeah, it’s one of those humorous anecdotes for telling to foreigners. Can get a bit carried away with the finger-in-the-dyke bit if they’ve got dirty minds though”.
Crosby thought about the way these small-time media people worked. Get up late for a job one morning and then they’d have to change their name for the CV. “Foreigners” he said, “uh, tell me, Kaoru Takayanagi - is that a Japanese name? You don’t look...”
“No no, it’s just my latest alias. Tribute to a couple of my favourite Japanese free-jazz musicians from fifty years ago. You into music?”
“Well, not a great deal Mr. Takayanagi. I like the old rock & rollers, Springsteen, The Beatles, Pearl Jam, Presley, Metallica. And I like classical music”
“What, you mean like Cage and Stockhausen and those guys?”
“No, I don’t think I know them... I was thinking more of Brahms, Mozart, Gershwin, that kind of thing. And of course we were listening to the Strausses all through the last mission”.
“Yeah yeah, that’s still a great movie. Not Ligeti then? No? He was in the soundtrack... Um, this conversation obviously isn’t going to, in fact can’t possibly go anywhere, so what say we go onto something else? Listen, I’ve gotta go, you know things to see and people to do, so should I meet you back here tomorrow, say around ten?”
“Well, if you - hey what about accommodation?”
Takayanagi smiled. “Not in my contract, sorry. There’s a bunch of places around town, you should have no trouble finding somewhere”. He picked up his hat and walked to the door. “Oh hey Walt, the contract thing, don’t take it too personally OK? You know it’s the kind of thing the corporates do to people all the time, sending out spurious phone bills and so on. As above so below and all that. It is a jungle out there after all”.
Crosby waved him away, and finished his beer.
Outside, the sun had gone down behind the buildings and hills. The evening sky was pale, not yet dark. Few clouds. The first stars were just emerging. Crosby wandered left, and found himself looking at the harbour. He headed over towards it, and spent a long while sitting down by the water, watching the lights come on in the city and its reflections. Watching the lazy lapping of the water against the bottom of the pier he was sitting on. Looking out at the sky, wondering if this were the time of season to see Mars in the southern hemisphere.
He thought about Mars and its ancient red sands, which he would never walk on himself, but which he had played his small part in getting others towards. Mars, the second stepping stone in the human race’s outward drive to expansion and progress. He thought about Mars, the Roman god of war from whom the planet got its name, and what it would mean to touch a god and stand on its face. It was just like the old days of exploration by sea, an explosion outwards from a common source. Very distantly the ancestors of the New Zealand and American colonists were related. The way life appeared from the first microbes. Just like the Big Bang. He had seen the planet Earth from space, probably looked down on the very spot where he was now sitting, and known for himself its smallness. He thought about the future, and the exploration of space. Space exploration was about the reaching upwards, the human race aiming to achieve its maximum potential. That vaguely familiar phrase Takayanagi had said, “as above so below” occurred to him. He dropped a stone into the water and watched the ripples spreading outwards into dissolution.
Kaoru Takayanagi was waiting at ten o’clock the next day outside Ho Chi Minh’s as Crosby came around the corner. Seeing him, Takayanagi quickly put on his glasses and stared down at the cracked pavement for a few seconds before looking up. Extreme close-up of pavement cracks followed by a slow zoom out and tilt upwards to reveal Walt Crosby. “Ahoy there sailor. Sleep well?”
“Not too bad. I ended up just sitting by the water meditating. It’s a beautiful harbour you have here”.
“Yeah, as long as it doesn’t rise up and swallow us all. Meditating - that’s a good skill for a traveller to have” said Kaoru, passing Crosby a bottle of sunscreen, “I spose you don’t have too many harbours in Texas, or up in space for that matter. So what were you meditating on - hey should we go for a walk, maybe wander up Mount Vic?”
They started walking the way he indicated. Crosby said “I was actually thinking about the early explorers coming out here over the sea from Europe. It made me think about what you said before you left”. He rubbed sunscreen over his face and neck, and handed back the bottle.
“What, about the corporates and the jungle? Yeah well, if it’s a jungle what better place for guerilla warfare?”
“No no, you said ‘as above so below’”.
“Oh that? Yeah it’s from the Corpus Hermeticum. After ‘shit happens’ it’s about as close as you’ll find to a complete all-encompassing moral philosophy of the universe. I actually named my production company Trismegistic Productions after Hermes Trismegistus, since he was a pretty on-to-it guy. Also Hermes the trickster and the messenger of the gods and all that jizz. Pretty obvious really. There’s about fifty or sixty other spiders on the web using that name or similar variations though, so it is a bit of a problem.”
They walked along to the seaside street of Oriental Parade, enjoying the morning sun and wind. “It’ll be a shame to lose this if the floodwaters rise,” said Crosby.
“This? Nah, just a bunch of rich people’s real estate that they won’t be able to offsell. Be quite funny really. They used to have beaches below the seawall, they’re gone already. Anyway, they’ll just have another of these places higher up the hill. What happens when the hills run out is what I want to know? Just keep going up and up I presume. Abandon the sinking ship. Even the sky’s not the limit now, is it?”
“No, I guess the sky hasn’t been the limit since 1957”.
“1957? Hey it’s good that you guys are finally admitting that the Soviets beat you to it”.
They started climbing the old wooden steps up the hill. Reaching the mosque, they stopped for brunch. The Islamic insistence on organic food was one factor helping to ensure its rapid growth worldwide. Continuing upwards to the top of Mt Victoria, they reached the observation platform and looked out at the city of Wellington, the airport, the windfarms and suburbs on the hills, and the blue harbour with the Hutt Valley beyond. Several people, many of them elderly, most of them wearing hats and sunglasses, were sitting around, looking at the view, having picnics, or writing and drawing.
“OK Walt, we’re rolling. Tell us who you are and what you’ve been doing”.
Crosby took a breath, and went through his press-conference routine. He talked about growing up in the outer suburbs of Houston and how he’d seen space shuttle launches over the water. How he’d always wanted to be an astronaut and working hard at school and America being the home of the brave where dreams come true and so on. How he’d joined the air force just as human pilots were becoming obsolete, but fortunately got accepted by NASA when the space programme started up again. It was thanks to the solar sail project, which would allow faster and more fuel-efficient space travel, putting Mars and the outer solar system within reach. A gigantic aluminium sail only a fraction of a millimetre thick but twenty square kilometres across, built in space, would catch sunlight and use it as a clean and efficient natural form of propulsion, just like wind-powered sailing ships.
Crosby had been on the team operating the first prototype. Unfortunately somehow a roller had gotten out of alignment and caused a small tear, which rapidly became a massive rip, and the project had to be abandoned until a replacement could be sent up, by which time Crosby was scheduled to return to Earth. Since which time he was still under contract but not expecting to be sent up again.
“So tell me” asked Takayanagi, “why is it that the space programme suddenly got itself up and running so quickly and then seems to have stalled?”
“Uh, I think it’s all to do with contract negotiations. There are some quite substantial sums of money being offered for use of the sail as advertising space. The accident with the first sail didn’t look promising as PR for the advertisers. They’re worried about it happening again, but it should all get sorted out pretty soon and we’ll be on our way.”
“We? Oh you mean astronauts. Or humanity generally. The sail’s very appropriate. Very renaissance explorers, very classical narrative. What I’m wondering is do you see anything strange or wrong with a space mission funded by advertising? I mean, printing some Coca Cola logo on a twenty kilometre sheet up in space that they just know the TV cameras will be all over... What’s next, naming rights for new planets? Sponsored colonies? Just like Alexander the Great. Talk about Star-bucks!”
“Well I’m not sure why you say that. I think any way of getting funding for the space programme has to be good...”
“Besides which, it is the world’s common currency, right? I mean nations are pretty much obsolete, and now instead of squabbling over national boundaries we’ve got these corporate feudal warlords fighting over market shares, as they trample on our economies, is that it? What happens when they make contact with alien life forms, and the first thing they see is this big billboard coming towards them?”
“They won’t be surprised. We’ve been sending out TV and radio signals for a century now. They’ll already know all about us.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty disgraceful alright. You realise that one of the first things they’ll hear about will be Adolf Hitler’s speeches, and military communications, and then daytime television, and infomercials, and pop music from the 1980s? Horrible stuff. We’re giving the universe the wrong impression!”
“I don’t know. Maybe they’ll get to see some of your documentaries.”
“Haha. Good comeback. But seriously, don’t you think the human race is selling itself short? Projecting a very homogenous mainstreamlined version of itself? I mean take the space programme, I presume you don’t get to be an astronaut without being straight hardworking bourgeois...”
“I don’t know. We have a woman leading the Mars expedition.”
“Yes, but you don’t have a dope-smoking left-wing anarcho-lesbian surrealist-painter ethnic-minority witch going there do you?”
“Exactly. All the complexities get smoothed over. The weird people get drowned out.”
“Not really, everyone is still an individual. Look down on the city”. He pointed. “It looks like a big mass of buildings, and from higher up it’s just a grey patch, but close-up it’s full of individual people living their own lives.”
“Very good. Hermes T. would be proud. So is the same thing true with this new project you’re going on, the ozone seeding? After conquering genes and society, you’re now pushing atoms around and telling them what to do? It’s very complex, nanotechnology, with all those atoms whizzing around and banging into each other.”
“Yes, Erwin Schrödinger asked last century if there were any reason why human beings are as big as we are, and the answer was that life on the atomic scale would be too chaotic.”
“But the universe is chaotic isn’t it, at any level?”
“Well that’s what humans are for. To bring in some order and control.”
“If you like. Well no, that word has some unfortunate connotations so we don’t use it any more.”
“OK Apollo. So tell us about the ozone seeding.”
Crosby outlined the basic mechanics of the plan, which was in essence very simple: release tiny sub-microscopic robots, or nanites, into the upper atmosphere over the lower part of the Southern Hemisphere. These nanites would be programmed to manipulate atoms together to produce ozone, to repair the damaged ozone layer, reducing dangerous ultra-violet radiation. This was one of several environmental repair projects underway using state-of-the art technology to help undo the worst excesses of pollution. Crosby’s role? To present a TV documentary about it, for a reputable company. Why him? To boost his celebrity profile, and because of the coincidence that the famous scientist Eric Drexler, who had proposed the solar lightsail in the 1970s, was also one of the great early theorists of nanotechnology. Walt Crosby’s involvement thus had a nice ring to it. And he looked good on camera.
Takayanagi rounded on Crosby for the final assault. “So which is it? Either you end up in the long run making the Earth totally safe and predictable and boring, or something goes wrong and the nanites just keep on making ozone until there’s nothing else left in the world but ozone - you know the story of the sorceror’s apprentice? According to the Trismegistic law, one of these scenarios has to be the case. And why are they doing this? So it’s OK to go back to selling petrol and spray cans and fridges? Hat sales will decline again!”
Crosby was alarmed at this and started backing away. “Who pays the bills?” demanded Takayanagi, his voice rising, “Is our atmosphere going to be copyrighted like our food?! Will we have to pay to breathe?! Is it a trial run for terraforming the atmosphere of Mars and other planets? Who’s going to own them? If you prevent the seas from rising, the local tourism board’s gonna be pissed off. How does this relate to the story of Noah? You follow me? Who, in short, is the pale horseman?! People want to know!”
Crosby turned, and not quite running, but walking fast, made an exit down the hill. Several people were watching in amusement.
Kaoru Takayanagi grinned, and thought about how he was going to edit the footage. Good satirical material, should be worth a few quick laughs on the net. Cut it in with smuggled footage of the lightsail ripping maybe. He could always do a ‘straight’ version for public broadcasting with more subtle barbs. Another slight editing variation could yield a cut in which he was made a fool of, and there was another market there. Maybe he should go down to the airport tomorrow and watch the guy try and meet up with the scientists. Ha! Real custard-pie material. Maybe play some games with the boarding announcement computers? Almost a pity; Crosby seemed like a nice guy under all that sheltered-existence classicism. A thought struck him. “Gee, I hope there isn’t a bomb on that plane”. Oh well, shit happens.
Wellington, September 2000.