ASTROPHYSICS PROFESSOR Ichiro Sato lit the end of a Marlboro cigarette and inhaled quickly, urgently, one eye glancing at the digital clock on his office desk. It was 14.52.34, and sunlight was streaming into his 29th floor workspace inside the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) tower, which rocketed up from the Yokohama foreshore like some kind of retro Vostok bus. Dr Sato preened his hair nervously, stole another glance at that clock, took a puff of his Marlboro. He considered phoning reception again downstairs, thought better of it, then decided to call them anyway. He asked them if his Chinese colleague Cheung Li had entered the building yet, ready for her very important meeting. She was more than an hour late, and there were no reports of delays at the arrivals deck at Narita Airport. Dr Sato knew that, because he had the Narita website open on his laptop, and it said her flight had already landed. She wasn't answering her cellphone, and neither was her driver. And according to all the online information, there were no reports of cellphone blackouts in the networks in this part of Japan. And no unusual sunspot activity either. So what was going on?

The recption staff said no in a flurry of typical Japanese apologies -- no, they were very sorry, they definitely hadn't seen her. Sato apologised as well -- "Sumimasen... I'm sorry for disturbing you." He hung up the phone, bowing. It was 14.56.03, and still no sign of the impeccable and always punctual Cheung Li. Where the hell was she? She couldn't have been caught in traffic -- Sato had the traffic flows on his monitor to prove it, and there were no traffic jams between here and the airport. There was an overturned truck somewhere, but apart from that all the lanes were moving fast. She should have been here by now, bunkered down in a crisis meeting. He needed her now! And why wasn't she answering her phone?

Dr Sato stubbed his cigarette in an ashtray, and lit another one. He was a nervous wreck! It was already 14.56.16.

Outside, below, way down there on the promenade, where the gulls bobbed on the gentle waves of Tokyo Bay, and teenage girls handed advertising leaflets to the streams of passers-by; way down there a crowd was building. Dr Sato could see the dark mass of heads from his office, could recognize the occasional TV camera crew configuration, their cables leading into waiting vans. One of the crews had even got a small drone aircraft aloft, about the same size and shape of a Yokohama gull, and it was swishing on the breezes outside Dr Sato's very window, trying to get video footage of him chain-smoking in his office. Sato pulled a blind and turned away. Alien hype was in the air, and everybody wanted to know more about those mysterious transmissions from Betelgeuse. They were calling it First Contact, and Dr Sato was the one they were coming to for answers. He was the expert!

"Jesus Christ," he said, reverting into the English he learnt when he was studying at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), doing his PhD. "What a fricking nightmare!" There was something cathartic about cursing in English, especially the Brooklyn or Cockney variants - you just didn't get that thrill swearing in Japanese! He'd heard cursing in French was even more fun, but couldn't be bothered learning another language. He was content with his mastery of Godfather style mafia slang, and the Hip-Hop patois. He looked at the clock, stubbed his cigarette. "Just where the hell is she?"

His office was a mishmash of high tech and traditional Japanese styles, straw and jet black. There were for, example, tatami mats on the floor and Japanese calligraphy posters hanging from the walls, extolling noble qualities. There was an ancient Noh theatre mask on display near to the door, the type worn by actors in oldfashioned plays. In absolute contrast to the tranquility of the past, the office was also piled full of modern junk -- swish Toshiba TV screens displaying stock market fluctuations and Chinese horoscopes, randomly pulled from the Net, little model rockets orbiting crystal moons, the obligatory framed photograph of Albert Einstein. There was also a photo of Sato with Cheung Li during a recent field trip to Sri Lanka, praying at the shrine of Arthur C Clarke. Dr Sato worked and virtually lived on the 69th floor of the JAXA, and it was his job to dream Japan into outer space. The United States was a declining power these days, paranoid and bankrupt, and Asian countries were scrambling to fill the gap. Who would plant the first colony on Mars --- China, India or Japan? But now, for the moment, who cared? There was bigger news on the grapevine, welcome relief from years of terror alerts and predictions of Armageddon.

First Contact!

It all began earlier in the week, when deepspace SETI (Search for ET Intelligence) probes began buzzing with signals allegedly emanating from the Betelgeuse star system, some 640 lightyears from the Sun. It should be mentioned that Dr Sato, a hero of Japan, had also become the figurehead of the SETI program on the back of a book he had published called First Contact, which predicted the discovery of aliens by 2050. When he wrote that book, he had anticipated first contact happening with a star system much more remote and unknown than Betelgeuse, way too far away for it to have anything but philosophical significance. As Dr Sato sat in his bright office that afternoon (14.59.59) waiting for his old partner in crime Cheung Li, that Dr Dolittle of the aquatic world... as Dr Sato lit another cigarette and considered calling reception for an umpteenth time, the incongruity of the current situation shook him to his core. He laughed suddenly, thinking of the media circus downstairs, and what he would say to Cheung Li the moment she lugged her ass into his office: <<God damn it, Cheung Li - this is too bizarre. Whoever heard of life developing around a red supergiant! >>

<<Betelgeuse is highly unstable>> Cheung Li might have said, had she been here, her eyes too luminous for Ichiro to stomach now <<but the aliens might not have evolved there. It is possible that they could have chosen it like a beacon for their broadcasts, knowing that it is highly visible and likely to be well studied by adjacent civilizations due to its variable nature.>>

<<Adjacent civilizations!>> Sato would have blurted, mind staggered. "You mean there could be even more of them? Nice theory, but I don't believe it. Betelgeuse could go supernova at any time. It blows its top regularly, and expands rapidly, and then contracts just as fast. The solar wind would be immense. There must be some other explanation, like a glitch in our god-damned computers. Or even propaganda, to help that jackass in the White House win another election."

<<You would be the first to say: don't jump to conclusions. It's true, Betelgeuse doesn't seem a likely candidate for first contact. But you never what's out there, and the Universe is stranger than we can understand. Maybe our theories about life are all wrong. Maybe they're our relatives, and The Earth is just a wayward colony, which got lost and went to sleep.>>

Dr Sato chuckled, his face wrinkling into a sardonic grin, as he imagined this conversation. Though he was pushing 65 and getting rather thin, he still hadn't lost the childish twinkle in his eye - the type of face which had made him a celebrity figure in Japan. Dr Sato had in fact become something of a public media icon worldwide --- especially in the last few years after the Hollywood lie machine made a movie of his book about contact with aliens. And how many famous Japanese do you know, apart from Yoko Ono? For whatever reason, it takes a special kind of Japanese person to achieve global presence. The Chinese -- like the vivacious and worldly Cheung Li -- seemed to have an easier time penetrating the international arena.

Cheung Li was acclaimed as the world's foremost expert on extraterrestrial communication, and virtually wrote the book about how to converse with dolphins and their kin. If these Sirian signals turned out to be real SETI wanted to know what to say, and how to say it. Dr Sato was eager to her Cheung Li's opinion, since she was probably the one who would be piecing together the opening message, when The Earth decided it was time to introduce itself.

Just then the door burst open and Dr Sato span around, expecting to see Cheung Li standing there all mysterious and beautiful. "What kept you?" But instead Dr Sato saw the wierdest looking creature he had ever beheld, a green monster, repulsive and dripping - and clad in his prized Noh mask! It looked like a Japanese theatrical version of the Incredible Hulk --- slender rather than bulky but green as moss and surrounded by the stench of mildew. Apart from that mask and some soiled traditional garments, the creature was naked.

<<Nani atta no -- Who are you?>> Dr Sato screamed. <<How the hell did you get in here?>>

<<I come from beyond the mountain of Qaf>> the wretched said. <<It is there that you were yourself at the beginning, and it is there that you will return when you are finally rid of your bonds.>>

Dr Sato wasn't familiar with the text --- "Qaf" sure as hell wasn't any place he'd ever heard of. Days and weeks later, when the Sirius message was exposed as an April Fools Day prank by some technicians over in Nevada, and the rupture of this office intrusion would play in Sato's mind like a virus, begging for answers, he would key Qaf into an Internet search engine and get the following result: "cosmic mountain constituted from summit to summit, valley to valley, by the celestial Spheres that are enclosed one inside the other." What, then, is the road that leads out of it? How long is it? Sato would wonder. But in the heat of the moment, with this green thing standing in his office, the only thing he thought was that this "Qaf" thing sounded uncomfortably Arabic. Which meant that this intruder was a terrorist, and that his life was in danger. Hamas had taken to targeted killings recently, wiping out the leadership of the West, or abducting them for conversion to Islam. Dr Sato fingered a small stun gun concealed in his suit; he'd had plenty of practice using it in his time in Brooklyn.

<<There are sensors in the walls; they react to startled voices and elevated heartbeats>> he said, and it was the truth. "Security are probably already on their way."

<<Well, they won't catch me, because I am not really here. Or rather, it is your understanding of "here" which needs to be radically redefined. No matter how long you walk, it is at the point of departure that you arrive there again, like the point of the compass returning to the same place. This is how you can walk through walls. I came from "here" and I am going "here", and "here" I will always remain, for "here" is all there is, and "there" is just an illusion. Columbus was wrong, my dear Dr Sato, and Einstein had a number of misconceptions too. The Universe is flat, not spherical. The Cosmos is a pancake.>>

<<Who are you?>> the professor asked, ready to fire his gun. "And how dare you wear my mask. It's an antique!"

<<I've got just one thing to tell you, before I go>> the sprite said, now somersaulting across the room. <<Don't look up --- look down! Don't look out, look in! Don't look at, look through! Then you will behold with wonder the face of the Mountain of Qaf! Then you will see, stacked one upon each other, the Pancake Levels of the Cosmos. The Age of Columbus has passed! Sayonara!>>

The green man smashed through the plate-glass window as if it were as flimsy as a Japanese paper wall, somersaulted out into the air. Dr Sato ran to the window, but but the time he had hoisted up the blind the green man was nowhere to be seen. 69 floors of empty blue Yokohama air lay below, then the widening crowd of the alien fans.

Don't look up --- look down! Sato thought. Just what the hell was going on here?

hana -- a fatal flower.
copyright plankettpods april 19 2002.
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