A mysterious race of alien beings have turned the Earth into an intergalactic dump. But not everything that gets thrown away is junk.
Introduction: One Man From Japan
Keiji Matsumoto woke up and realized that he’d been kidnapped by aliens.
This intuitive leap so impressed him that he completely forgot to be terrified. One second he had been blearily swerving his way home from the bar, and the next he was here, on what was obviously an alien spacecraft. He was sitting on a kind of stool in front of a kind of table, both of them solid blocks emerging straight out from the floor. All the surfaces were white, like plastic, but cold to the touch like metal. He knew this because he was completely naked and his backside was getting chilly. So he stood up and inspected the walls, running his hands along and feeling for a door. The walls were emitting a blue-white light that pulsed ever so slightly. There were no exits anywhere. It had to be aliens.
Second thoughts then began to intrude. “Wait a second, Matsumoto!” he thought. “You had been drinking, right? You know how you get when you drink. Perhaps there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this. Government experiments. Yakuza organ thieves. Think scientifically!” He began to sweat.
Then the wall in front of him slid open and an alien wriggled in. Keiji immediately voided his bowels. There followed an awkward period of silence broken only by a faint dripping. Keiji stared at the alien with two wide eyes, and the alien glared back with four.
“Finished?” it grumbled.
“Sorry about that,” replied Keiji. He had the urge to bow, which he resisted. Then he did it anyway, figuring that it could hardly do any harm.
“There’s no point in inspecting it, you’re not going to get it back inside. Some kind of panic reflex?” It snuffled with a snout like a weevil. “Or perhaps a deterrent to predators. Well, I’m not going to eat you and there’s nowhere to run, so cut it out.” It gestured with one of its tentacles into the hallway beyond the door. “Come on. Better move to another room. I think we can find you something to get cleaned up with.” It oozed out and to the left, and after a moment Keiji did the same, a little bow-legged.
The hallway stretched out in both directions as far as the eye could see. Other than this it was identical to the room, right down to the pulsing light. Keiji followed the alien for a few seconds, plucking up his courage.
“Sorry to be rude,” he said, at last, “but are you really an alien?”
The alien swiveled one eye back at him over its shoulder. “A space being. Yes, I am. I’m a Trafloximorian. We are a diplomat race. Our job is to make contact with species of a certain credulous disposition, for two reasons. First, we communicate telepathically. That is why it seems as if I am speaking your language.”
Keiji nodded. “I wondered about that.”
“Second, we look like aliens. To everybody. There’s absolutely no creature in the universe that doesn’t see us and go, ‘Oh look, it’s an alien. Let’s attack it, or run away screaming, or make a mess on the floor.’ A real puzzle of evolution. It enables us to skip past certain tedious explanations, but it can make it difficult to fit in.”
“I can imagine. But, and excuse me again for being rude, but you said that this is your job? Whom do you work for?”
The Trafloximorian gestured vaguely to the walls. “Them. And before you ask, I don’t know what they are either. All I see is this bloody corridor, with the bloody light always going up and down. It makes my gloosh hurt.”
“Look, if you’re going to ask questions about everything we’ll be here forever. I’m going to be honest: You’ve been kind of a hassle so far.”
This annoyed Keiji more than it should have, given the situation. “I apologize,” he said coldly. “If I am being troublesome, then feel free to send me home at any time.”
The alien made a kind of gurgling noise that rose and fell in a regular pattern. It was laughing. “Oh, no no. We have searched long and hard for you, chosen you and you alone. Only you have the potential to comprehend the situation. By practically any measure, you are going to be the most important member of your race ever to have lived.”
Despite what they would come to say about Keiji Matsumoto, he was not a complete moron. He understood his place in the world. He was an average guy born in an average place to average parents. He had done well enough in school to get a job that paid a decent wage and had potential for advancement, even if he didn’t particularly enjoy it. He had some friends and some prospects for romance. He played tennis once a week and vaguely wanted to travel to America one day. He understood all these things, and realized that, on the face of it, there was no reason whatsoever why he should be considered important. But while he was no moron, he remained tragically human. It could not be said that he had ever been entirely satisfied with his lot in life, and had often wondered if there was not something more that he could be doing with it. The plainness of society and the pettiness of its people disappointed him. Others in his position might have turned to religion or perhaps to politics, but Keiji instead had turned to science fiction. He was no otaku, filling his tiny apartment with stacks of manga and little figurines, but he did know his stuff. He doubted if there was a single sci-fi film ever made that he had not seen. He had even learned enough English to watch films that never made it to Japan. This was how he had immediately understood his situation, and how (despite the unfortunate situation with his bowels) he was handling himself so well now, conversing with a Trafloximorian onboard what was presumably a spaceship.
Therefore, so like a human, Keiji began to fill the gaps in his knowledge with self-gratifying fantasies. The alien had mentioned something about telepathy. Perhaps it, or its mysterious masters, had scanned the planet for a human whose mind was sufficiently open to the fact of their existence, who understood that destiny lay out among the stars. Perhaps that was him, Keiji. Maybe it was true after all. Maybe he was important.
“Careful, Mastumoto!” he thought. “You’re a diplomat for the whole human race. The alien could be reading your thoughts even now!” Out loud, he said, “Thank you, but I doubt that I am so important.”
The alien grunted in a non-committal fashion. “Here, this should be far enough. Let’s try this room.” It squiggled to the left, and the wall slid silently open. On the other side was a room identical to the one they had been in before, except for a towel folded neatly on the table. The alien gestured, and Keiji began to rub himself down.
“Astonishing, isn’t it? All I have to do is say what I want and go down the corridor for a bit, and it’ll be waiting for me in a room. At the end of the day I say, ‘Well, good work today! Time to knock off!’ and the next door leads to my bedchamber, with all my stuff inside. I’ve walked for hours down the corridor. It never ends, just goes on and on and on. Then I go into a room and find it’s the one I was last in, as if I never went anywhere.”
“I did say I could ask for anything, didn’t I? Absolutely anything. Speaking of which, do you want anything else?”
Keiji felt that he could use a bath, but that seemed presumptuous. “Some clothing, perhaps?”
“What’s wrong with your skin?” It rotated its head. “Sorry, I suppose there are all kinds of people in the universe. Clothing is actually a good thing, really. It shows initiative. Hold on, I’m sure they won’t be long. Ah!” Indeed, a slot had opened in the wall, and a platform emerged holding something that turned out to be a kind of bathrobe. Keiji slid it on and felt ready for almost anything.
“Now,” said the Trafloximorian, rubbing its tentacles together, “how about something to eat? Or drink? Water? Do you drink water?”
“Yes, but thank you, I’m fine.”
“This actually isn’t a question. You’re going to get something to eat. It’s a test. Don’t worry, it’ll be easy if you relax. Take a seat at the table.” Keiji obeyed, his heart racing. Another slot opened up, and the alien bubbled over to it. Seconds later, he found himself staring down at a metal tray. On the tray was a square piece of wood and a lump of black slime that jiggled wetly. He didn’t know what to say or do. The alien hovered over him, perhaps a little nervously. “Now, are you ready? Here’s the test: I need you to eat those things, but,” it paused dramatically, “not with your hands. Ready?”
“You want me to eat these?”
“Yes, but not with your hands. Confusing, right? I’ll give you a hint: You can ask for any tool you want. Any tool at all. Okay? Go!” It watched him expectantly.
Keiji drew a breath. He figured that there was at least an even chance that it might be his last. “There is a small problem. These are not food.”
The alien drew back. “What are you saying? These are samples of some of the most abundant organic matter on your planet! Surely your species is capable of consuming its most readily available sources of sustenance?”
“Again, it seems that I have to apologize, but this is wood, which comes from trees. We often eat the fruit or even the leaves of trees, but not the wood. Other animals do, but we do not.” He congratulated himself. This was real intergalactic exchange, two species communicating across an unfathomable cultural gap. He warmed to his subject, dramatically indicating the blob. “And I’m afraid I don’t even know what this is.”
The alien seemed to bristle a bit at this, its shoulders (or what it had in place of shoulders) swelling slightly. “That’s a type of fungus! You can’t say that you don’t eat fungus!”
“Ah, I’m glad we can clear this up. Yes, we do eat fungus and enjoy it greatly, but not every type of fungus. We most commonly eat types of mushroom. Do you know what I mean?”
The shoulders deflated. “Yes, I think I get your meaning. The fruiting bodies. Perhaps we can take a look and find a fungus you can eat, perhaps something common in the area we found you in?” It directed this last bit to the ceiling, and then looked back to Keiji. “Thank goodness you eat fungus! I might be the Trafloximorian, but you’d be a real alien if you didn’t eat fungus. It’s the most common form of life in the universe, you know. Its spores can survive in vacuum and cosmic radiation, traveling between the stars to seed dead planets with life. Sometimes it evolves intelligence. Sometimes,” it lowered its voice, “I suspect that the you-know-whos may be.” It cocked its eyes upwards again. “But best not to gossip about the higher-ups. Here we go! Let’s try this!” A new tray had appeared out of the slot. Keiji was relieved to find that it held fresh shiitake, immediately recognizable by its smell. He didn’t much care for fresh shiitake but supposed it was best to be accommodating.
“This is one of my people’s favorite types of fungus! I can easily complete the test now. Did you say that I could ask for tools? In that case, could I please have some chopsticks?” When the alien didn’t respond, he explained. “Two thin sticks of wood, cut equally to about this long?” He indicated with his hands. In minutes, he was lifting the mushrooms to his lips, and then he was chewing triumphantly.
“Fantastic!” exclaimed his examiner. “Show me again! Yes, you manipulate the sticks with great delicacy. I suspect that you could use them to eat a great variety of things?”
“Yes, but I must admit that it is difficult to eat all types of food with chopsticks. Many of my species don’t use them at all. We also use knives and spoons and other things.”
There followed a lively debate and process of trial and error. Keiji gave a description and the wall would produce an attempt at realizing it. Some things, such as the fork, required several iterations. Eventually, however, he found himself using a ladle to swirl the shiitake, chopped finely, in a metal pot of steaming water. “And that’s how you make soup,” he concluded. “As I said, you would need a constant source of heat and some other ingredients, but this is the basic process.”
“Yes, you describe it well. This has been most enlightening. I can see that we have chosen wisely. And you are certain that all of your kind can do these things? To be specific, you might be taken to be a representative of the human race?” The alien leaned forward eagerly. Keiji did his best not to feel proud.
“Well, I wouldn’t call myself a chef, but I suppose that most humans can do at least this much.”
“Truly, you are the one that we have been searching for. Our long quest is over at last. Huzzah! Please, join me at this wall over here.” It turned and faced the wall. Keiji moved next to him, confused. The wall continued to pulse. The alien made a noise not unlike a cough, if a cough was made entirely through the ears. “I believe that it might be a window? Or possibly could be, if we wanted it to be a window?”
The wall opened and became a window, and Keiji Matsumoto stared out into the blackness of space and down at the bright globe of the Earth. He had been half expecting it, but he still had to catch himself. His knees felt weak. They were not that far up, and his eyes drank in the glory of his planet. He could see enormous cloud formations roiling with currents of wind and flashing with lightning, and below that the land and the sea wrestled with each other in endless deadlock. Night was receding to the west, and beneath the clouds shone the lights of great cities. This was his home, and though he had dreamed, he had never dared to hope to see it thus.
“I understand what you must be feeling,” said the alien. “I well remember seeing Trafloximor from orbit, for the first time. The shades of purple and yellow, the Crootil Mountains shining in the light of the second sun. I saw it, and understood at once how rare and precious a thing is life. How few and far between are its bright pinpricks in this black expanse we call space. And how blessed it is, to be at last able to cry out across the void, to find each other, to touch another intelligent mind and to say, ‘We are not alone! Here we are, together at last!’” It turned, and laid one tentacle gently upon his arm. “Here we are, human, together at last. It is an emotional moment. The time has come for your planet to take its rightful place within the great order of being.”
“Yes,” whispered Keiji. “I always knew it would happen someday, but I never expected—” He choked off, wiping tears from his eyes.
“Look! That is your land, is it not? That grouping of islands, there!” The alien pointed, and through the clouds beneath them they could see Japan, its outlines so familiar from maps and from photographs, but now real, so close that he might reach out and touch it. The alien watched the emotions go over his face in silence, before continuing. “I must explain to you, human, that it was not entirely by accident that we chose one from your culture in particular. I have been told by my employers that yours is a hardy and resilient tribe. You have for millennia withstood disasters both natural and unnatural, and have emerged each time stronger than before. Is this the truth?”
Keiji had never felt particularly patriotic before, but he felt it now. “Yes, we have faced many difficulties in the past and united each time to overcome them.” He wasn’t entirely sure that this had always been the case, so he finished, “I suppose anyone would. It is a human characteristic.”
“Yes, but I am told that you are among the most technologically advanced on your planet. Yes? I am correct?”
“Yes, I suppose so. We have a reputation as a resourceful people.” He scratched his chin. “But I must be modest, there are many who have a similar level of technology.”
“Yes, yes! But there’s a connection, is there not? Hardship leads to social cohesion leads to an emphasis on group excellence characterized by the strong self-directed work ethic of the individual?”
Things had begun to go over Keiji’s head. The Trafloximorian had wrapped its tentacle around his arm, just a bit too tightly to be comfortable, and was leaning in and speaking very fast. Its multiple lips palpated damply. Finally he replied, hesitantly. “Really? Honestly, I never did well at social studies. If you say so, but it could be more complex than that?”
“You must have guessed that all this held a larger purpose.” It indicated the cooking demonstration. “You have a remarkable natural ability to adapt to unusual challenges and to effectively communicate new concepts. These are essential. Our technology is obviously far more advanced than your own, and will have an immense impact on your planet. Think about that technology, that knowledge! The wonders! It will affect the destiny of every single organism, down to the smallest bacterium. You have shown that your species possesses the skills needed to receive this incredible gift. It was thought that one from your culture in particular would be able to answer the most important question of all: Will they receive it? Will your species receive our gifts? Will they? Will they, human? Will they?” Its eyes spun around in their sockets.
“Uhh—listen, I think that I should—”
“It’s a simple question! Does your species want to sit in a backwater for all eternity, emptying its bowels at every alien it sees? Or does it want to receive the gift of our incredibly advanced technology? For free! No cost in money! Absolutely free! This offer is for a limited time only, human! Will it receive or not?”
“Well, if you put it that way, I suppose, yes, but—”
“Yes? Did you say yes?”
“Yes, sure, but I really—”
It released him and turned back to the window, gazing at the Earth for a second. Then it pivoted up towards the ceiling. “That’s a yes then. Whenever you feel like it.”
Keiji rubbed his arm, but his feelings were hurt more. “What’s going on? What happened?”
“Honestly, I thought it would be harder than that,” the alien muttered. “Really, you should learn to listen a bit more closely. Technologically advanced, my bloody bloomblow. You’re screwed, and no doubt about it.” Outside the window, small squarish objects began to appear from all sides, apparently emerging out of the side of the ship. Keiji watched them fall towards the Earth, slack-jawed and struck dumb. It was only when they hit the atmosphere that perspective finally returned, and he realized that they weren’t small at all. They were enormous.
“What are those things?” he shrieked. “Is this an invasion?”
“Honestly, what did I say about questions?” It waggled its tentacles crazily and imitated him in a high-pitched, wailing voice. “‘What’s that? What’s this? What’s happening? I’m a human, I’m so confused!’ An invasion? Is that the best you can think of? What could you have that the creatures that built this ship possibly want?” Keiji thought of several things, but clearly he was now working outside his imaginative depth. The space outside the window continued to fill up with the descending objects. There were thousands of them now, and more every second. They broke off to the left and right, arcing around the planet, coming down everywhere at once. The alien went on. “No, those are landing craft, bearing their gifts to you. Their gift of advanced technology. Bits and pieces of advanced technology, anyway. Bits of burnt-up old spaceships, pieces of broken-down old toys, rusted-up old cans. Yes, even their rusty old cans are more advanced than anything you have. Honestly, a single rusty can would advance your technology by a hundred years. Unfortunately, there’s not going to be just one. There’s going to be billions of them. You’re going to be the junkyard of the galaxy. I don’t think you’ll have time anymore to sit around advancing.”
Despite what they would come to say about Keiji Matsumoto, he didn’t give up that easily. He leveled a shaking finger right at the Trafloximorian, and spoke in an admirably steady voice. “You listen up, you alien! You tricked me. I never agreed to that! If you’d explained properly then I’d’ve said no. So I never agreed to anything about a, a, a junkyard or whatever! You understand?”
“Oh, I agree. It’s a dreadful violation of the spirit of the law. Between you and me, universal government is a pathetic thing. There’s no regulation, it’s practically anarchy. You’re lucky that they go this far, to get you up here to say yes to anything at all. At least you understand what’s happening. Imagine how they feel down there! Right now they’re being buried under all kinds of garbage. Not just metal, you know. All kinds of stuff. They must be really confused.”
Keiji shook his head. “But why us? You said it yourself, life is precious. Why not just dump trash on Mars if you needed to put it somewhere?”
It cocked its head. “The fourth planet? Oh, no no, there’s practically no life at all on that planet. They need enterprising lower organisms to break the trash down into useful components. Banding together, overcoming hardship, using tools, all that stuff we talked about. You’re good at that kind of thing, remember? Think of it as a kind of recycling program. It’ll only take a couple hundred thousand years to clean it all up. Maybe then they’ll let you build something for them. Widgets or,” it sought in the air, “maybe some kind of flange?”
There didn’t seem to be anything left to say. Keiji Matsumoto slumped dejectedly against the wall, watching the ships as they covered the globe beneath. The alien looked at him for a while, and then it too seemed to slump a bit.
“Look,” it said, more gently than before. “Don’t blame yourself. You would have said yes one way or another. Remember, I am telepathic. And then if it hadn’t been you, we’d have chosen someone else.”
“I just don’t understand,” he said, almost to himself. “I don’t know what’s happening.”
“At least you people will have the luxury to feel like victims. You can get angry. Imagine how I feel, why don’t you? I did this to myself, signed a contract and everything. You can’t imagine the things I ask for sometimes, in the rooms. I really disgust myself.” It shuffled about a bit. “I’m not going to apologize. If it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else.” It looked up to the ceiling, and then back to him. “Ah, they’re telling me it’s time for you to go. Goodbye human.” It waved a limp tentacle. “Look on the bright side, eh? At least there’ll be lots of new types of fungus to eat. There’s always fungus living in garbage. That’ll be interesting, right? Right?”
He woke up and realized that he was back on Earth. This wasn’t hard, because he was in exactly the same spot he had left from. No matter what they would come to say about Keiji Matsumoto, he didn’t delude himself into thinking things weren’t the way they were. There wasn’t a second where he said to himself, “Think, Matsumoto! You were drunk. You could have laid down here and fallen asleep. It must all have been some kind of dream!” Nothing at all like that. For one thing, he was still wearing the bathrobe, which didn’t make sense in any other context. Also, one of the giant squarish ships was descending out of the sky right towards him. He considered running somewhere, but only for the briefest of moments. He just watched. Somewhere there was screaming, and in the distance there was fire, and beyond that the horizon had brightened with the approaching dawn. But the sun had not risen, and the stars were still very bright in the sky. The ship grew until it blotted them right out, and then stopped, so big that it covered the entire city.
It hovered there for a minute. Then it clunked, pinged, and opened up with a sound rather like a burp. And that’s how the world ended. The only whimper was from Keiji Matsumoto, and nobody heard that.