Fiction – “I Will Come Home” by Chris Fletcher
This is what he had expected to see when he was sent out to L2 space to visit the Hong of Koan-tu: gleaming machined objects, strange chambered habitats rolling in icy darkness, computerization glossing over every object and surface like an oil slick, swarms of nanoflies riling the air, the visible, breathable manifestation of a weird new cloud consciousness.
What Aido Kohei actually saw five minutes after entering the main habitat ring of the Hong of Koan-tu: the steamy kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, its steel tables laden with food in many stages of preparation, blackened woks bubbling with oil and broth, and one young shaggy-haired Nipponese man, clad in a shabby black tunic, holding a broad-bladed knife in one hand, the other resting upon a pale green cabbage.
“May I help you?” the cook said. He halved the cabbage and then quartered it, discarding the pieces of its stem and core on the floor. Aido thought he saw something dash out from under a stove and grab up the debris, but it happened and was done with so fast he did not get a good look at it.
Aido approached cautiously, staying clear of the hot stoves and fryers, wary now of whatever machinations handled the floor sweeping. “Perhaps I have been misdirected. I am here to find Kido Matsaru, and was directed into this…place.”
“You have come to the right place,” the cook said, rapidly slicing the cabbage into thin shreds, no longer looking at Aido. “I am Kido Matsaru.” He swept the now-shredded cabbage into a large steel bowl and turned his attention next to a thick bundle of scallions.
Aido extended a hand, proffering the paper card that he had been asked to use as his greeting. Eyes narrowed in obvious suspicion, Kido took the card and looked at it. Aido noticed the young man’s eyes widen briefly – recognizing the chop of the Zaibatsu Kido-Shonen, no doubt – and then narrow once again. Evidently he was not happy to see a greeting from his father.
“He wishes you to accompany me to Earth.” Kido had set the card down and resumed his chopping. Aido persisted: “Things are happening there. He needs you now.”
Ignoring Aido, Kido crossed to other side of the kitchen and opened a refrigerator compartment. He withdrew plucked chickens one at a time until six sat on the adjacent counter. “Come back tomorrow,” he said, finally looking directly at Aido. “Tomorrow,” he repeated, firmly. “See Miz Lo out in the dining room. She will attend to your accommodations until then.”
Aido obeyed – as if the order had come from the boy’s father – but with a great sense of confusion and worry.
Fifteen years earlier, Kanagawa Prefecture, Nippon:
The boy stood stiffly at the edge of a round pool. Silently, he cried. He couldn’t stop the tears streaming from his eyes, but he denied to those watching him – his father, a brother, the brother’s friend – the satisfaction of hearing him sob.
“I told you that this was all a waste of time,” the boy’s father said, frowning at him. “You should have listened to me.”
On the still surface of the pool lay an iridescent slick of organic matter, the remains of the baby meme-dolphins. Only three weeks old, they were all dead now, dissolving into their non-sentient nano-components.
“You didn’t need to kill them,” said the boy, a ragged whisper.
“I did not kill them, Matsaru.”
“You turned off the field. They needed to stay in the field a while longer.”
“Do not argue with me, boy. This sort of thing is a waste of time anyway. Tomorrow you will return to your normal studies.”
The boy stood there until eventually his father and the others left. He would obey his father and return to his normal studies tomorrow, but he resolved that it would not always be so.
To Aido, Miz Lo seemed, in spite of the smoothness of her face and the brightness of her eyes, to be very, very old. She shuffled into the small and tidy hotel-style room that was evidently to be Aido’s during his stay in the Hong, and though she trod slowly and with short steps, she also carried imperiousness about her like a thick cloak. Aido felt strangely intimidated by this woman, and he jumped a bit when suddenly she turned to face him.
“We have no room service,” Miz Lo said evenly. “But the restaurant is open all hours, and you may take your refreshment there.”
Aido cleared his throat and said with some unaccountable nervousness, “Miz Lo, it is necessary that I meet with Kido-san very soon. Have you any idea what time tomorrow that may be possible?”
“Rather early, I should think.” She gazed at him for a moment and added, “We are leaving the Hong tomorrow, so I suspect that he would wish to dispose of any business you may have with him before we depart. Unless it is your intention to accompany us.”
“Leaving, you say? For Earth, I’d hope? It’s why I am here. He is needed back home.”
Miz Lo smiled very slightly. “We are not going to Earth, Mister Aido.”
Aido wondered if this evasive manner of conversation was the cultural norm here or merely the stock-in-trade of the two strange people he had met so far. “Then where are you going?”
Miz Lo shook her head very slowly and then shuffled toward the door, waving Aido aside with the slightest swipe of her right hand. “I’ll let him tell you, if he wants to. Tomorrow.”
With little to do for the rest of the evening, Aido sat in a skeletal yet comfortable plastic chair in his quarters, opened his tablet and glanced through streams of interdepartmental communications. Most of them with dealt with tedious affairs, and he waved them away one by one, but he noticed that he had been copied on a long thread of communications and documents from people in the psiberbiotics division dealing with patent applications. He couldn’t make much sense of any of it, found it dreadfully dull, and wondered why he was being included in the discussion. He was about to delist himself from it when a fresh message appeared from his immediate supervisor.
“Mr. Aido,” she said, a jittery image of a bald-headed woman floating in the space above Aido’s tablet, “please take note of the ongoing dialogue over new bio-product patent applications being filed by the Zaibatsu Jando. Our analysts are trying to discern what this activity may portend. Also, the Chairman believes that this may have something to do with your own mission. We have no further details, other than that the Chairman wishes you to be aware of these developments as you pursue retrieval of Kido Matsaru. The Veil will obscure communications between Earth and the L2 region for most of the next thirty-six Terran hours. We will attempt to contact you again once the distortion has moved.”
Aido sighed and waved his way back to the beginning of the biotech thread. He read, listened and absorbed as much of it as he could, but he had a hard time imagining how any of it had anything to do with that odd cook he had met a few hours before, that young man who was supposedly the scion of an empire.
The next morning, Aido found himself back in the restaurant’s dining room. Absent, however, were both Kido and Miz Lo. Instead a boy who looked even younger than Kido, and who introduced himself as “Tamoh-the-Pilot,” spoken swiftly as if all one word, presented him with a confusion of unfamiliar equipment, spread out on a table and draped over a chair.
“This will be your hand-held,” the Tamoh-the-Pilot said. “It will work better with our communications and data retrieval interfaces than your Earth model.”
“This,” the Pilot said, picking up something else, “is a tablet for your personal record keeping. You may bring it back to Earth with you when that day comes.” He continued, “This device jacks into your suit and monitors your vitals. It’s hot-linked with the medical AI even when off-ship. This thing – ”
“Please wait a moment!” Aido cried, cutting off the recitation. Tamoh-the-Pilot fell silent. Aido said, “I do not know what you are talking about. What suit?”
“This suit.” Tamoh pointed to what looked like a shapeless mass of black rubber, hanging over a chair. “It’s an acceleration suit for your comfort during the voyage: we will be traveling under three gees during much of the initial acceleration out to Jovian space.”
Tamoh frowned at him for a moment and then said, very slowly, “That’s by Jupiter. The planet Jupiter.”
Five years ago:
Today was the worst day ever.
But yesterday…that had been the best ever: Matsaru swam with Kale, the North American boy from the psiberbiotics unit who had finally solved with Matsaru the puzzle that had confounded them both for years. Yesterday they swam together in the warm water of the bay surrounded by their meme-dolphins, grown, alive and thinking. They played liquidly around the humans, occasionally bumping up against them, occasionally hugging them in their pink tendrils. And they sang. “Do you hear it?” Kale gasped. “I hear it!” Matsaru shouted. They let themselves be led under the water, enfolded, and they heard the song with their whole bodies. The creatures shared their thoughts, too, brilliant and glacial, capacious and serene. The humans could not apprehend their meaning, but they gleaned thrills of joy from them.
When they tired of swimming, they reluctantly left the water. Matsaru and Kale made love on the sand at the water’s edge, still hearing in their tired muscles the meme-dolphins’ song. And when they were spent from sex, they slid back into the water and listened some more.
But today was the worst day ever. Face stony with anger, Kale gazed at Matsaru from a cloud of vapor above Matsaru’s desk. “I have been transferred. I am leaving immediately. They gave me no warning.”
“Jovian moons. I don’t know what for. A new project.”
“The zaibatsu has no operations out there.”
“Apparently we do now.”
“I’ll speak with my father, and stop the transfer.”
Kale shook his head. “Think about it for a minute. Who do you think thought of this in the first place?”
“He wouldn’t.” Though Matsaru knew that he would.
“I had such a great time with you these last few months,” Kale said. “And I love you. But think about it: I’m not exactly the right ‘wife’ for a future shogun. I don’t even want you to try to stop the transfer. It’s for the best that I leave.”
“Don’t cry. I don’t want to see you like this. Not ever, and certainly not for me.”
And he didn’t have to, because Kale suddenly ended the call.
Kido watched without expression the image of his father speaking to him, a recording sent here with Aido. “It is because we need a leader, Matsaru. You do not have the luxury of staying away anymore. I am sorry. But after I have explained everything, you will – “
The young man shut off the image with a wave. “Summarize this for me, Aido-san. I don’t have time for one my father’s long-winded, guilt-ridden lectures.” He was, indeed, already clad in his acceleration suit, ready to leave. Aido had allowed the strangely persuasive Miz Lo to maneuver him into donning one as well, though he still had no intention of leaving for Jovian space nor letting Kido Matsaru do so either.
Aido said, “Very well, to simplify: an economic and political crisis has brought down our North American allies. A complete collapse of our Western hemispheric interests is the result. Our zaibatsu has lost critical levers of power with the One-World Senate. And now the Jando heir is set to assume the Presidency of the Senate.”
Kido raised an eyebrow. “Jando Ai?” he said. “Interesting.”
“Interesting” was not the word Aido would have used for the new leader of the Kido-Shonen’s archenemies. The treacherous young woman, just a few years Kido’s senior, could push the world to a deadly precipice. “We expect that she will use the ongoing crisis to gather extraordinary powers into her Presidency,” Aido said, excited. “Imagine it! The Jando with the power to establish a worldwide shogunate!” Then, regaining his normal business-like calm, Aido added in typical zaibatsu-understatement style, “This would afford our organization many opportunities for difficulty.”
“And what does my father wish me to do? How would I head off this supposed horror?”
“He plans to promote you to the chairmanship. You will be the new public face of our organization. Your very presence on Earth will signal to the Jando and anyone thinking to align with them that we are still a vigorous organization.”
“And why would I care? What does it matter? If the Jando want to rule Earth, then what of it to me? I live in space now. People have many non-Earth options nowadays.”
Carefully, Aido said, “It is your birthright. And it is your duty.”
“I’ll make a deal with you, Aido-san. Or rather present you with two choices. You may select either as you wish. One: return to Earth and give my father my regrets; or two: come with me on this voyage.”
“Come with you?” Aido checked the time, wishing it were not so many hours before the Veil withdrew and he could call Earth for consultation.
“And, if after you see what I have to show you,” Kido said, “you think that what’s going on back on Earth still matters as much, then I will return there with you.”
Aido read this message from his supervisor: It is done. The One-World Senate granted by acclamation Jando Ai’s first package of requests. She is taking control of the banks. We expect this is only the beginning. We are still trying to make sense out of these Jando biotech patent filings to which we drew your attention. We still do not know what they are for, but we suspect that we will soon have bigger things with which to concern ourselves. Do not fail to bring Kido Matsaru home.
Despite the “comfort” that Tamoh-the-Pilot promised the acceleration suit would afford its wearer, Aido found being thrust to three-gee, and kept there for hours, to be distinctly uncomfortable and he spent much of their first day Jupiter-bound lying in his couch and trying to sleep through the misery. But eventually acceleration ceased and the sense of gravity left the ship entirely until Tamoh-the-Pilot put the wide habit ring of their vessel into a spin, creating a centrifugal force effect that mimicked a small fraction Earth-normal gravity. This, too, was less than pleasant for Aido for the first few hours of it, but it was at least better than the hours of acceleration.
“He knew a young man on Earth,” Miz Lo told Aido over dinner, speaking of Kido Matsaru. They sat together (barely, in the low gravity) on a tatami mat, across a low-slung table and nibbled on bits of sashimi and tempura. To one side, stars and space shone through a large window. “He was an American bio-artist who used to work for the organization’s psiberbiotics division. Kale was his name. He left Earth, ordered to the Jovian moons by the organization.”
Miz Lo paused her story and drank miso broth from a transparent bulb in several slow sips. Aido wondered for a moment if that single statement was the entirety of her tale, but then she resumed: “This broke Matsaru’s heart. He blamed his father for it, in part. But I think he also grew to hate Kale, too, for not making it possible for them to stay together, for years of never even replying to a message.”
“This American boy was his lover?”
“You can see, then, why it would have been difficult in the politics of the zaibatsu, when the heir-apparent would instead be expected to pair with someone who matches our silly idea of royalty.”
As they continued their dinner, Miz Lo told Aido Kohei the rest of the story. Deeply wounded and angry, Kido Matsaru resigned his position as chief of the organization’s terrestrial redevelopment division, enraging his father by doing so. He abandoned his dearly held dream of bringing new life to Earth’s dying seas. He declared that he was withdrawing from the affairs of the zaibatsu and Earth itself. He went into space, travelling to the Moon and then from one space station and can city to the next, living a life of wanton self-indulgence, with Miz Lo in tow trying to watch over him. After a year of this, he met a group of well meaning but poorly organized Chinese entrepreneurs trying to make a go of it in an old, run-down L2 can city. Something clicked on in the young man’s conscience. These people, with their dogged optimism, inspired him to get back to work on something productive. With his Kido money and connections, he helped his new friends organize a small but reasonably prosperous hong that quickly became the hub of a new economy for the L2 region. For his own part in it, he declined a leadership role and took nothing but the modest job of chef in their restaurant.
“This made him quite content for a while,” Miz Lo said.
“Why did you go with him?”
“I practically raised him from the time he was a baby,” she said with great dignity. “His mother was not there, and you know what his father is like. And I, too, was angry at how he had been treated by his father. Going with him was my way of expressing that discontent and also keeping an eye on my boy.”
Aido considered what he had heard for a moment and then said, “You say that his work with the Hong made him content for a while. Did something change?”
She nodded slowly, her lips turned downward. “A few months ago,” she said, “Kale sent him a message.”
The gas planet hove huge in the viewport now and Aido thought he could see three of the Galilean moons plainly, though he was not sure which was which. Kido had told them that their destination was Europa and its vast world-covering ocean. Over their vessel’s public address system, Tamoh-the-Pilot lectured at length about Jupiter, its formation, its moons, the history of human exploration of them, the nature of gas giant planets, the features of the outer solar system, as if he were some kind of space-going tour guide.
Kido turned down the volume on Tamoh and invited Aido to look at images on a screen. For a few seconds, he couldn’t figure out what he was looking at. Amorphous shapes, colorful blobs, bizarre living forms evidently twisting and twirling in water. “When I was a kid, I called them meme-dolphins,” Kido said. “Though they’re not really dolphins. But they can configure into species similar to dolphins if they want.”
“This is some kind of bio-engineering?”
“Bio-art, combined with nano-technology and quantum culture.”
“What do you mean by quantum culture?”
Kido looked away, as if embarrassed, for a moment. “Never mind. It’s a theory I had, and it’s difficult to articulate. It has to do with the building of sentience from small pieces and transmitting broader culture from one living thing to another likewise.”
“These creatures are real? Not a simulation?”
“These images were sent to me from Europa. They are real. In fact, at this time, the Europan sea may have as much life in it as Earth’s. My father thought it was arrogant – and not commercially worthwhile – to create simulacrums of life like this. But if that’s arrogance, then is it outright hubris when one creates real life and endows it with sentience?”
“Is that really what you have done? Created real life and sentience?”
“Not me. But Kale has done it on Europa, and once with me back on Earth, by building on my ideas.”
“Kale,” repeated Aido.
“He’s asked me here, to join him.”
“But is all this really possible? And why out here?”
“Out here, he was able to work without interference from Earth. But now he is ready for us to return to Earth with this knowledge and these creations.”
“We are finally going to make the seas of Earth live again.”
But hours later, as they approached Europa, it became evident that Kido’s plan was headed for grief.
“Warning,” intoned a voice from an outpost in orbit of Europa, “Extreme biohazard. Do not approach within twenty-thousand klicks of the moon Europa.”
“What is this?” Kido said. Then he shouted it.
“Do not approach,” repeated the voice. A visual version of the same message appeared on screens throughout the ship. That still image bore the chop of the Zaibatsu Kido-Shonen. Aido winced as Kido yelled with rage.
Catastrophe, some kind of plague? Whatever had happened here, it shrouded vast swaths the moon’s watery surface in a thick bubbling carpet of slimy mold, a vast detritus of failure. It was the doomed childhood experiment with the meme-dolphins all over again, writ large, a hundred billion times the size of that mini-massacre. “This wasn’t an accident. We were sabotaged,” a ragged voice from the orbiting station said. “No, you can’t talk to Kale…Why can’t you talk to Kale?…Because he fucking hanged himself last week, that’s why!”
For a week they circled the dying moon, rejecting many polite but probably insincere invitations to dock with the orbiting station. Kido Matsaru remained mostly in seclusion. When he appeared for meals, he ate sullenly. “Not now,” he said every time Aido tried to engage him. Even Miz Lo was not favored with conversation. Then, on the eighth day of this mood, Kido joined Aido and Miz Lo for the evening meal and said, “I do not trust my own assessment of these events. I do not trust the remaining members of the project on the station. They are either lying outright or trying to protect me from something. They do still work for the organization, after all, and I am who I am. Do you have an opinion as to what happened here?”
“When you dreamed of recreating the living oceans as a boy,” Aido said, “you were dreaming of the right thing, the brightest future. It is perhaps unfortunate that your father did not see the value of this before his adversaries did.”
“The Jando,” Kido said with bitterness. Aido wondered if the young man noticed Miz Lo nod slightly, slowly.
“They have been expanding rapidly into bio-art,” said Aido. “A few months ago they filed hundreds of new patents. We couldn’t figure out what they were about. But I have a better idea now. They want to remake the seas with your meme-dolphins and so many other things, but they want this new life to be of their own creation, their own property.”
Kido glared. “I hate the way you people talk! Just say it straight: the Jando committed this crime to stop me…to stop our zaibatsu from having the biggest hand in the rebirth of our homeworld.”
Aido nodded. “You see it clearly.”
“You knew this was the way it would end.”
“I did not know it when I left Earth. But more recently, I suspected.”
Kido rose from his seat and glowered down at Aido. “Send a message to my father,” he said, anger burning slowly. “Tell him that he was right. Tell him that I was wasting my time. Tell him that if the Jando want war with us, then they shall have it. Tell him that I will come home.”
Though his mission was evidently accomplished, it now seemed a great sorrow. Stunned, Aido could only stare and gape at the boy. Miz Lo closed her eyes and sighed.
About the Author
Chris Fletcher is a small-press editor and publisher who lives in St. Louis with his partner Jeff and his cats Maus and Jack. His projects include M-Brane SF magazine, a new line of speculative fiction books by emerging writers, and the anthology The Aether Age, forthcoming from Hadley Rille Books. He is also co-editor of the soon-to-be-launched quarterly zine The Little Death of Crossed Genres.
He makes a living as a chef and tries to find time amid his other activities to write speculative fiction, much of which ends up infused with food. He can be found online at http://mbranesf.blogspot.com and http://mbranesf.livejournal.com, and on Twitter.