Totem Poles

and

The saucer aliens are here. They’re healing the planet. They’ve got to be stopped.

 

Dirt Complaining and Dirt Harkening were a long-buried married couple.

“I haven’t minded being dead one bit,” said Dirt Complaining. “But now we’ve got space aliens nosing around. And they’re curious about totem poles? Why did you men even make those things?”

“We were great artists,” said Dirt Harkening.

“Fools conjuring up cosmic forces.”

“I miss potlatch,” said Dirt Harkening. “That’s what I’ve missed most, down here in the Earth’s dirt.”

“Potlatch again,” said Dirt Complaining. “Ha! All you big chiefs, pretending to be above all wealth, so spiritual, so potent! Whose robes and amulets were you burning and throwing into the sea? Women’s crafts, women’s treasures!”

“Easy come, easy go,” said Dirt Harkening. “With flying saucers in the sky, our whole Earth is in play. But come what may, dear wife—our squabbles don’t matter anymore.”

“The heirs of our dead flesh still walk the Earth, husband.”

“The living take no account of us. People have forgotten that sacred truth was captured in the mighty symbolism of our totem poles. Even though the saucers understand.”

“Your totem poles were vulgar,” said Dirt Complaining. “Big phallic brags !”

“We artists like that sort of thing. A totem pole that stands up good and stiff—very fine.”

“Let’s see how this ends,” said Dirt Complaining.

 

Ida lowered her combat binoculars. She had pale skin, a heart-shaped face and a bob of lustrous dark hair. “It’s a shame that nobody sees the point of our struggle. What if we’re wrong?”

Kalinin adjusted his brimless fur Cossack hat. He was a bony, waxy-skinned warrior with high cheekbones and a great beak of a nose. “You and I will be heroes,” he said, looking tenderly upon Ida. “Once we learn how to kill this race of flying saucers.”

“But the saucers are saving the very Earth that mankind destroyed!”

“If you wash an apple before eating it, do you do that for the apple’s good?”

Heaped with garbage, a chain of filthy diesel trucks lumbered toward the vast scar of the coal mine, here in the Donbass region of the Ukraine. One after another, with distant groans and screeches, the great trucks dumped their trash. It was high noon, with a glaring sun.

The alien creatures had three primary forms—one for the air, one for the sea, and one fearsome form that infested the Earth itself.

The air invaders resembled classic flying saucers. They haunted Earth’s skylines, absorbing pollutants. In their seagoing form, the saucers took on shapes like whales. They devoured poison gyres of floating plastic with their ivory teeth, and filtered toxins with their dark baleen. And the subterranean saucers were colossal, rubbery, saucer worms. They infested mankind’s mines and landfills, erasing every scrap of poison they found.

Thanks to the aliens, the withered fields and rain forests, stricken by every form of human rapacity, were blooming again. Happy dolphins and gallant tuna swam the open seas. Wild pigs roamed the taiga like the wind. The planet’s molten poles were freezing again as the rising seas receded.

The very largest of the chthonic saucer worms was here in a Donbass coal mine. Kalinin’s sworn goal in life was to kill this worm. For weeks, militarized Russian diesel trucks had been dumping nuclear waste into the mine, filling it with choice bait for the saucers. Lured by this bonanza of filth, an armada of the flying saucers had burrowed into the shaft and had merged their bodies to form a vast and lumpy worm.

Sheltered by a rampart of wet sandbags, Kalanin and Ida watched one of the great, silvery saucers fly by overhead. Kalinin’s ragtag paramilitary warriors set up a rousing antiaircraft fire from their muddy ambush holes. But they weren’t firing bullets.

The living saucers, it seemed, had a weakness. They carried within them some prime directive about intelligent life, some ethic that manifested itself as a tenderness towards human beings. The saucers were unwilling or even unable to harm people. They had an especial loathing for dead people. Therefore Kalinin’s paramilitary troops fired human body-parts at any saucer within range—making the innocent blue sky above the radioactive coal-mine into an aerial graveyard of human carrion.

The saucer flexed, ducked, and dodged its way through the sprays of gore. The fierce militia-men concentrated their bloody fire the more. The saucer’s capacities, although great, were not infinite. Under the harassment of flying carnage, the saucer’s smooth seamless edges grew rough. The alien invader slowed, faltered, and broke into a hailstorm of twitching mirror-scraps. These were saucer grubs, actually quite good to eat.

The paramilitary troops howled with glee, and fired off celebratory blasts from their small arms. Their hot bullets would fall to earth somewhere, often killing civilians. No matter. Graveyards were a useful source for the body-parts. Flying saucers might spurn killing people, but no cosmic rule decreed that the Russians couldn’t kill themselves.

“Our best warriors are our dead,” remarked Ida, shaking her head.

“Only the dead stay true,” said Kalinin. His corps of armed volunteers was dwindling day by day. They shared Ida’s sense that the saucers were good. They feared the battle was unwinnable. And the local Ukrainian peasants were filling the warriors with wild tales. Supposedly a salamander-shaped saucer-being had resurrected a farm wife from her grave. The villagers were calling the old woman a saint.

“I do wonder why the saucers are so kind to us,” said Ida. “We’ve done nothing to deserve redemption.”

“They’re saving us up,” said Kalanin. “For a last supper.”

Silently Ida studied Kalanin, her expression a mixture of cunning and tenderness. A former painter turned Kremlin intriguer, Ida was Kalinin’s state-support liaison in his desperate, unauthorized war. She brought Kalinin black money, grim volunteers, experimental weapons, and deniable orders from the Kremlin.

Kalinin was a veteran of the Russian nuclear-missile corps. During his military career, he’d been at ease with the idea of human beings destroying the Earth. And he felt an instinctive hatred for the flying saucers and their campaign to heal the world. It was a horror to see beings who were immune to human malice.

When the saucers first invaded, Kalinin had been commanding a nuclear launch center. His hydrogen bombs had failed to impress the space invaders. The saucers merely shimmered and swayed through the thermonuclear shockwaves—insolent as striptease dancers. Russian military lasers did nothing to faze them. Particle beams, the same. Meanwhile the other nations were making peace with the aliens.

The Kremlin’s Higher Circles had encouraged Kalanin to resign from the Russian army, and to strike out on his own. And now Ida was the only ally he trusted.

A talented portraitist, Ida had at one time enjoyed the intimate patronage of the Russian Minister of the Environment. But then the flying saucers had cruelly dissolved her oligarch’s pipelines and nuclear plants. The Minister had shot himself. Casting about for a new role, Ida had found her place as Kalinin’s liaison. But now she was ready to move on, and Kalanin knew it. She had a stash of jewelry to help her along. But what about Kalanin?

The nuclear-waste trucks retreated to fetch more garbage. The harsh sun beat upon the rutted earth.

“Let’s eat,” said Kalanin, and produced a loaf of tainted Chernobyl bread. He cut off a slice with his ever-ready bayonet.

Ida unsheathed a chunk of dried sausage. The meat within its casing was the flesh of a Przewalski horse. Methodically, the couple chewed their meager rations.

“That giant saucer worm likes you,” Ida told Kalanin. “You’ve fed it so much trash that it thinks you’re its best friend on Earth.”

“I’ve spoiled the worm, yes,” said Kalinin with a thin smile. “It’s like a decadent intellectual. A lazy gourmand that never spent a day on duty.”

“Don’t hate intellectuals, Kalinin. I’m one too. An artist, don’t you remember?”

Kalinin’s face reddened with a sudden access of rage. “Why do you ally yourself with decadent parasites? They only want to lord it over those who fight!”

“Are they so wrong?” said Ida gently. “Is war so wonderful?”

“We should liquidate any wretch who collaborates with the saucers,” cried Kalanin, maddened at the thought of Ida’s impending defection. Below his furry hat-brim, his narrow eyes filled with tears. Wildly he ranted. “Spineless bastards! Double-domes! Where’s their sense of destiny? Life to them is nothing but hashish and vulvas!”

“Let’s suppose the saucers are here to raise everyone’s level, dear Kalanin. Come with me now. Let’s see how our pet saucer worm has grown on its diet of poison rubbish.”

Kalinin and Ida made their way down from their overlook, following the debris-strewn tracks of the diesel trucks. The ragged lip of the former coal-mine was a variegated crust of crushed and flattened junkyard debris, smoldering like an overbaked pie. Moving with care, Ida and Kalinin tottered close to the unstable edge.

“What if a great hero chose this hole as his grave?” mused Ida. “A great man whom the worm loved. Such a hero might single-handedly transform the worm. Just as the mortar-blasted corpse debris transforms the flying saucers.” She gave Kalinin a calculating look. “How much do you love me?”

“What are you after?” said Kalanin, stepping back from the hole. The sun was beating on his head. The world seemed to spin around him. The rubble, the fruitless battles, Ida’s betrayal.

“It’s your best way out of here,” said Ida, nudging him forward once more. “Death in battle is a path to immortality. To resurrection, even. I’ll bring you back to life, and I’ll finally share your bed.”

They were at the very brink of the mineshaft, with the rubble shifting and rattling beneath their feet. Below them the gigantic worm stirred, liquid, exultant, entirely happy in its garbage.

Drunk with love, helplessly wanting to impress Ida, Kalinin leapt out into the air and slashed his own throat with his razor-sharp bayonet. He dropped down the shaft amid a spinning gush of blood.

Kalanin hit the bottom so fast that his substance merged into that of the startled saucer worm. And then—so great was the creature’s revulsion for human death—it explosively shattered into grubs. The sky-darkening plume of eruption was visible for hundreds of miles.

Ida was unharmed. Quickly and decisively, she took command of the paramilitary rabble—declaring a cease-fire and dismissing them all.

That night she set off for Mumbai, India. Following Kalinin’s plume.

“Mumbai is the greatest city mankind has ever seen,” Puneet remarked to his business associate, Leela. “We nearly wrecked the planet with filth, but that was just our subcontinental exuberance. And now, thanks to the saucers, all is well. Our business is an integral part of Mumbai’s greatness.”

Leela had brought in a bright stainless-steel tiffin-box full of free-range saucer grubs, fresh from the Ukraine. The edible grubs had blown in on the monsoon winds. They were unusually tasty. Leela offered one to Puneet, who gobbled it with his usual avidity.

Leela and Puneet were from the district of Maharashtra—elite school friends and now in business together. Their initial funding had come from Puneet’s prosperous family. Leela and Puneet had rocketed to commercial success by marketing saucer worms as a general house-cleaning product called Kleen Kobras.

The source of the worms? Lucky Puneet had managed to stable a saucer-creature inside a Mumbai warehouse, an anomalous silver being the size and shape of a crocodile. There was no knowing why the creature had approached him, but there it was. He fed it a steady diet of human garbage, and the obliging lizard budded off as many Kleen Kobras as Puneet and Leela could use.

It was Leela who’d thought of selling the worms. An image of the saucer salamander was an integral part of her marketing campaign—it appeared in all the ads. These days in India, there was a fad for all things relating to the beneficent saucers.

“Our trade is indeed bringing us fine success,” said Leela. “And now we should seek entree to high society. Philanthropy, Puneet. Highly upscale. We do something momentous for dear old Mumbai, and then we are in the social register.”

“A stupendous civic gift,” mused Puneet. “With the proviso that we spend no cash. Commercial moguls such as us are too slick for that.”

“Agreed,” said Leela. “What if you petition our saucer lizard on behalf of Mumbai? Perhaps a public feast upon our worms? Surely the lizard will honor the astral grandiosity of your soul.”

“You are a most agreeable woman,” said Puneet. He raised his finger. “I have indeed been envisioning a saucer gambit. A grand stroke for urban development. Presenting it as a philanthropy would be genial indeed.”

Leela crossed her stockinged legs and opened a paper notebook. “Tell me your raga to riches, Puneet.”

Puneet toyed with a cufflink, suddenly shy. But then, warmed by the sun of Leela’s smile, he found his voice. “I am proposing that we colonize Mumbai’s outlying districts with eleven duplicate copies of the city center.”

What?

“A Dodeca-Mumbai. Twelve supercities united in one magical, intricate graffito of urbanism. We’re far too crowded within our one small Mumbai. Once I issue my commands, we’ll enjoy a megasprawl of twelve. This is a good thing. The saucer lizard can accomplish it.”

“Truly so?” said Leela. “All I’ve seen the lizard do is hatch Kleen Kobra worms. Exceedingly many of them, yes, but—”

“Our saucer lizard is deeply sensitive to my kundalini,” replied Puneet. “The only limits are those within my mind!” Warming to the sound of his own voice, Puneet waved his spotless cotton sleeve at the view from their penthouse office’s window. “We’ll make the Dodeca-Mumbai of your dreams, Leela.”

“But I’ve dreamed no such thing.”

“The lizard and I will cut-and-paste our entire downtown, warping and squeezing where need be.”

“And you said—twelve in all?”

“I have conceptualized a keen workflow,” said Puneet, glowing with pride. “We copy Mumbai once, and that makes two Mumbais. Then we copy the two Mumbais, so there are four. And then—” Puneet rose from behind his teakwood desk and rapped his Kleen Kobra distribution map with a swagger-stick. “Then we make two fresh copies of the four, arriving at twelve altogether!”

“I understand,” said Leela, her expression studiously blank. She would never want the wealthy Puneet to know she thought he was an idiot.

“Imagine our tourism,” crowed Puneet. “Our exotic Indian fastness—twelve times as magical as before. Dodecaduplicated by saucer aliens! What a place for a honeymoon.”

Leela tapped her front teeth with her mechanical pencil. “But—twelve Mumbais means twelve times the slums. Dodgy to promote.”

“We won’t be copying the people of Mumbai,” said Puneet. “Human reproduction is for the likes of you and I. The saucer lizard will only be replicating the infrastructure. Dodeca-Mumbai will have twelve classic Royal Taj Hotels. Twelve Bombay Stock Exchanges. Twelve Marine Drives. Each and every Mumbai dweller will have twelve times as much room!”

Leela made jotting gestures in her notebook. She gazed up at Puneet, widening her eyes. “Brilliance! The lowest slumdog sleeping on the pavement will prosper as a landlord. Imagine the looks on their faces in Dubai! The Arabs have a mile-high skyscraper, yes, but our metropolis will be twelve times so flat as ever before!”

“It’s good to have you as my business soulmate, Leela. Our brainpower is more than doubled. Dodeca-Leela-Puneet!” Puneet paused, studying Leela’s fair form. “May I venture another idea? What if we launch the first wave of Dodeca-Mumbai tourism with a fertility festival?”

Leela frowned. “Sex tourism?”

“Nothing so hole-and-corner as that,” said Puneet, adjusting his coiffure with his manicured fingertips. “In Dodeca-Mumbai we are looking for the stars.” His voice grew soft. “Listen to me, Leela. You and I might inaugurate the fertility festival, should you permit. We two have been selling saucer worms for months. Isn’t it time we discovered our mutual humanity? Carnal yet noble—like the conjugal sculptures of Khajuraho. Stirring the milk of life with the cosmic cobra.”

“This is a marriage proposal?”

“Who but Leela can be a worthy mate for the architect of Dodeca-Mumbai!”

“Very jolly,” said Leela.

Their nuptial ceremony was glamorous and elaborate. But in the midst of greeting the mass of wedding guests, and tying his robe together with Leela’s, and circling the sacred nuptial fire—all this while talking to the saucer salamander on his phone—well, Puneet made some slip-ups.

The twelve copies of Mumbai failed to appear. Instead, there was only one copy of Mumbai, botched and glitchy, and shoehorned higgledy-piggledy into the streets and intersections of an existing sector of the town. The intended replica of the core metropolis consisted of 7,777 Royal Taj hotels.

These sumptuous and vacant lodgings were immediately set upon by the angry Indians whose access streets had been built over. They now had to climb over the tops of buildings to get in and out of their homes. The citizens didn’t know whom to blame for their urban mishap, but they knew they’d been disadvantaged by some typical big-city swindle. Some of them settled into the massed new hotels’ million-plus rooms. Others began diligently stripping out carpets, doorknobs, towels, soap, and brass bathroom fixtures.

Adroitly dodging the burst of public anger, Puneet and Leela crept incognito into one of the 7,777 bridal suites. They were drained by their intricate marriage ceremony—and dejected over Puneet’s bungling. Their initial attempt at sexual congress was desultory.

“Let’s lie low,” said Puneet, sprawling on the wadded satin sheets. “Until the Mumbai corruption squads become bored with searching for scapegoats. Our fresh new married life should be about propriety, stability and impeccable Hindu values. No more saucer grubs. Just rice, coriander and chamomile tea.”

Leela clumsily adjusted her incendiary wedding-night nylon-and-satin lingerie, which was a rumpled splash of sexy vermilion in the hotel’s saffron sheets. “I can write a press release blaming the Dodeca-Mumbai mix-up on that plume of grubs from the Ukraine. I’ve been in touch with a Russian woman who just arrived from there. She noticed our saucer lizard logo and she wants to meet the lizard herself. She has some odd notion about rebirth. Anyway, she’s offering me diamond earrings.”

“Birth?” said Puneet, always a half-step behind. “This reminds me of the fertility festival I’d mentioned. All singing, all-dancing, very fine. I’ll take the stage and announce that my new bride is on the way to bearing me a son and heir! Thereby bringing us sympathy. The sooner the better, Leela.”

“I knew you would request this, Puneet, but the time is not right. I’m a successful businesswoman, embroiled with international intrigue.”

Puneet raised a chiding finger. “Human fertility is the one blessing that flying saucers can never bring! You must bear us two sons, seven, twelve!”

Leela immediately locked herself in the suite’s large bathroom.

“What are you doing in there?” called Puneet plaintively.

“All will be well, dear husband,” said Leela. Her voice was indistinct through the heavy, gilt door. “I’m consulting expert counsel.”

Time passed. Puneet watched television, which consisted entirely of 20th century satellite reruns from China and Brazil. And now someone was pounding on the hallway door. Puneet opened up to find an attractive white woman standing there. She had smooth, pale skin, a lustrous bob of dark hair, and a writhing, bandage-wrapped package cradled in both her arms. It resembled a mummified crocodile.

“Did you lose this?” said Ida, in Russian-accented English.

“That’s mine!” cried Puneet. “That’s my magic saucer lizard, it’s the source of all my business!”

The Russian woman tenderly set the writhing mummy onto the marital bed.

Leela unlocked the bathroom door and pranced into the hotel suite. She was still in her wedding lingerie, and had tidied her hair and make-up.

“This is the Russian woman you were talking about?” Puneet asked Leela.

“I phoned her for help,” said Leela.

“Help with what?” said Puneet. “We were doing fine here! We just got married!”

“Does that make you the master of life and death?” put in Ida, rolling her glorious eyes in disdain. “While you frolic in satin sheets, a Russian hero gave his life for mankind!” She turned to Leela. “Open the windows. A miracle is at hand. A redemption. A resurrection.”

Leela obeyed at once. The low, city-lit clouds were roiling with dark energy, swirling with an almighty monsoon of flying scraps and silver shreds. Ukrainian saucer grubs hailed in through the open windows, mounding upon the twitching silver crocodile in the bed. The grubs merged into a mass that split open, and—

“A son for me?” cried Puneet.

No. It was Kalinin. His eyes glowed like the staring orbs of a painted Byzantine icon.

“Oh darling,” said Ida, hurrying forward and kissing his pale lips.

“We’re going to America,” said Kalanin, pulling free.

 

Ida and Kalinin walked hand-in hand down a waterfront street in the grotty south end of San Francisco. It was a fine summer night, nearly dawn, with a full moon on the horizon. They’d been to an art party. There had been wine. And a smorgasbord of barbecued saucer grubs.

“I love the sight of saucers now,” said Kalinin, gazing into the haunted, moonlit sky. He still had his beaky nose and his high cheekbones. His teeth were straighter than before, and he spoke English. His passage through the phantom world of the saucer-beings had changed him other, less definable ways. He said odd things, and he had a heavy aura.

Kalinin had told Ida that he was one of twelve resurrected saucer saints—twelve saints scattered across the surface of the Earth—and that he could hear the voices of the other saints within his head at all times. But Ida and Kalinin kept these secrets from those around them. They walked among humankind like an ordinary woman and man.

Silvered by the low moon, a nearby saucer’s energetic surface was a ceaseless flurry of subtle, mercurial patterns, like wave-chop, or like the scales of a swimming fish.

“You always understood them better than anyone else, Kalinin,” said Ida. “Do they plan to annihilate us? Is that why they sent you back?”

“They’re refining us,” said Kalinin. “Like ore within a crucible. Like vapor in an alembic. Life and death are philosophical mistakes.”

“Sometimes I miss the old Kalinin,” said Ida. “It was noble to be so stubborn. Fighting the inevitable, no matter what.”

“Discarded dross,” said Kalinin. “Economics, government, military power—nonsensical, distorted, irrelevant.” Imposing as he seemed to others, when he gazed at Ida, his eyes were as warm as ever before. “Love remains. Art is the path to the final unification.”

“Everyone at the party was saying things like that,” said Ida, shrugging her bared shoulders in her shining gown. “People are so full of themselves in America! They talk as if they were demigods, but what do they do? They crank themselves up on grubs and watch someone’s thousand-hour video in ten minutes.”

“A mirage that flies by, half-seen, half-sensed,” said Kalanin. “The saucers want a richer kind of art. They want us to change the world.”

“But Kalinin, what if the saucers are like children who poke sticks into anthills to watch the ants seethe? The ants build and build, they strive and strive—but are any of them famous artists?”

“We’ll craft a great work of ant,” said Kalanin.

“Everyone at the party was talking about totem poles,” said Ida. “In the old days, the Native Americans of the northwest carved faces on sticks with stone knives. That was their art. But then, one day—one strange day—the sailing ships came to them, and strangers brought them steel axes. How did they respond? They made huge totem pole logs, from Oregon to Alaska!”

“Totem poles,” said Kalinin slowly. “Yes. Of course. Totem poles are good.”

“But the story is tragic! The old world that the natives knew by heart became someone else’s New World. A world of syphilis and smallpox, with the totem poles stored in museums.”

“The grubs are our steel axes,” said Kalanin.

“Why don’t the saucers speak to us, Kalinin? Will they let us join their world? Can we join the Higher Circles of galactic citizenship?”

Kalinin gave a dry laugh. “Higher than the Kremlin.”

They walked along in silence for a few minutes, bringing their minds into synch. They even got a levitation thing going, loping along in long strides, laughing at each other.

“You see it too?” said Kalanin, coming to a stop, panting for breath. “You’ll make a painting. Monumental. And then—

“The end of the world,” said Ida. “Brought to you by a crazy woman who made her crazy boyfriend slit his own throat with a bayonet.”

“And who brought him back to life. This is holy, Ida. No need to joke.”

Ida held out her hands. “I laugh because I’m scared.”

The two of them embraced, lit by the moon and the silver saucers and the first rays of the rising sun. A gentle puff of breeze came off the bay.

“I’ll paint now,” said Ida.

“Paint everything,” said Kalanin. “Can it fit?”

“I’ll use—poetic compression,” replied Ida. “Room to spare.”

She raised her arms and the skies opened. Tens of thousands of saucer grubs rained down upon her. Some of the grubs became brushes, others formed pools of paint.

Ida and her living brushes set to work, painting on the street, on the sidewalks, on the nearby warehouse walls, Ida swinging her arm from the shoulder, carving sweeps of color and form. Her loose strokes limned buildings and people and trees. She depicted the insides of the buildings as well as the outsides, and the meanings of the things to be found in there, and the lives of those who’d made the things.

“Be sure to include an image of your painting,” urged Kalinin.

Ida nodded, uninterruptedly busy, sharpening the identities of her scribbles and blots. A tight spiral of darkly energetic grubs began converging onto a certain section of her mural. Ida was crafting a secondary world-mural within the main one.

Just like the main mural, the secondary mural held a image of the entire world. And within it you could see a third mural, with a yet tinier fourth mural inside that, and so on and on.

“Keep going,” said Kalinin.

“We’ve only begun,” said Ida. Flecks of paint bedizened her bobbed dark hair like stars in a night sky.

Kalinin closed his eyes and his lips moved. Rays of light flickered into life, one of them stellating out from Ida’s regress—the others from points across the globe.

Twelve poles of supernal light, needles of prismatic brilliance, radiating into the cosmos, dissolving the substance of our world. Bathing in its native glow, the Earth became a silver, dodecahedral orb, a mysterious cosmic traveler.

 

“I like this potlatch,” said Dirt Complaining.

“The best ever,” Dirt Harkening agreed

 

“Totem Poles” copyright © 2016 by Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling

Art copyright © 2016 by Richie Pope

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