The sun rose, and the sky separated from the Pacific Ocean.
The water stayed dark, but the air above lightened and developed clouds. They shone pink and hazy, stitched by the gleaming contrails of jets.
Golden Hour, thought Mike Loew, and shoved the sippy lip of the go-cup into his mouth for another desperate sip of coffee. His body still thought it was 10pm. His brain thought he should be in Hollywood. In his heart, Mike was very worried about what the salt and sand would do to his shoes.
“Um,” he said. “Are you sure we’ve come to the right place?”
It was an inane question to ask. Of course they were in the right place. Mike’s charges had woken him up an hour before dawn, fed these coordinates directly into the rental van’s AI, then dashed straight into the water as soon as the vehicle had parked. All that was visible now of the visitors were the little robot interpreters hovering over four ominous shadows below the waves.
Mike tried to think of other ways to politely phrase, “What the fuck do a bunch of non-human film critics have to do at the beach at dawn?”
“Certainly,” said one of the interpreters in the chirpy voice Mike had chosen for Sessile Probings, the non-human in charge. The official name of Sessile’s species was “Individuals Locked in Mutual Tensegrity,” but Mike privately called him a slime-fish.
“We have to wait an hour to get the tide,” said Sessile. “However, Octopus Iceberg was bored at the hotel.”
Mike glanced at a passing jogger, trying to force his brain to work. “Okay, so you wanted a morning swim before we drive up to Hollywood? I just need to know how far I should push back the meetings I’ve lined up for us.” Meetings with people who would never have given Mike the time of day back when he was trying to break into the industry. When he’d been the sort of idiot who thought you got a movie made by telling a good story.
Mike was a government functionary now, and much wiser. Or at least, he had thought he was wiser until this morning. He raised his go-cup and found it empty.
“We do not swim,” said Sessile. “We study film.”
Yes! Mike wanted to shout. That’s why I pulled strings to get myself assigned to you.
He closed his eyes. They’d told him about this in Beijing. Interpreters weren’t perfect. You needed to speak clearly and stay aware of alternate meanings. “I am confused,” he said. “Please restate.”
“Currently, I am studying this film on this rock.”
Mike tightened his grip on on his cup. He stared out over the water, a horrible realization swelling in his gut. “Sessile, what do you mean when you say ‘film?'”
“I will show you.” Shadows moved against the sand, and Sessile rose from the waves.
Sunlight glared off the spun glass globe of Sessile’s primary shell. Then the slime-fish rose to his full height and the sun was behind him, haloing the bloated head within. Sessile’s eel-like tail thrashed embedded in the column of slime that supported his fish-bowl head.
The slime hardened as Mike watched, its surface turning gray and cracked as water wept out of it. Rods pushed out of the mass, dangling snotty strands. Webs of mucus tightened, and these extruded limbs flexed.
A cluster of these limbs cradled a flat, smooth rock, about the size of a plate. It was also slimy. Everything within a foot of Sessile was slimy.
The non-human’s head pulsed within its spiked and blistered globe. Bubbles of air farted out of the depths of the tower of mucus. “Look at this, Mike,” the interpreter chirped. “I found a model film. This is a good example of a film.”
Mike wanted to fall to his knees and shake his empty coffee cup at the sky. This wasn’t how things were supposed to work! He was supposed to be in a Hollywood board room in an hour, facilitating deals and making connections. They had to respect him now! He was bringing them film critics from alternate Earths! Not…not marine biologists!
“I think,” he said, “that there has been a translation error.”
The training turned out to be worth the jetlag. Upon further discussion, Mike and Sessile managed to establish that a film was a series of sounds and images that told a story when projected in front of a human’s eyeballs. A biofilm, however, was a colony of bacteria that coordinated their behavior in order to change their environment. They secreted a number of fascinating compounds.
Mike nodded and looked down at his salt-stained shoes. “Good,” he mumbled. “Good. I’m glad we established that.”
Sessile had finished excreting his land-body. He tottered forward on a pair of spindly puppet-legs, a fishy eye bulging behind a lens-blister on his shell. “Mike, does the shape of the front of your head indicate that you are emotionally troubled?”
“No,” said Mike. “No, I’m just fine. Please don’t try to give me a hug.”
“I won’t hug you because it will be disgusting. But please wait a moment. I will call Octopus Iceberg. He studied the psychophysiology of mammals.”
Another monster loomed out of the depths, this one a plexiglass globe perched on top of a ring of articulated metal tentacles. Floating within the globe, veiled in fluttering jellyfish gowns, was an octopus.
Mike wasn’t a biologist or paleontologist, so he didn’t know how octopi had conquered Iceberg’s version of Earth, but the Convention of Sapient Species had much weirder members. At least he knew the two of them shared a love of audiovisual story-telling. Or so he had thought.
“Octopus Iceberg, I believe our native guide is upset,” said Sessile.
Metal tentacles tip-toed over the sand. Segmented suckers opened like camera shutters. Colors and textures flickered across the skin of the octopus. “Yes,” said its interpreter. “He has a mental state of frustration.”
“It’s just I worked hard to get this job because I thought we worked in the same industry,” said Mike.
The non-humans looked at each other.
“But you are a government official and we study film.”
Mike squeezed his eyes shut. “Biofilm! Interpreter, translate that word as ‘biofilm.'”
“There is a very important difference,” Sessile told Iceberg. “This ‘film’ is a tradition of human performance art that Human Mike hopes to participate in.”
“I understand. Human Mike, don’t be ashamed of making bad films. It is very important that you are helping science.”
“I didn’t give up because I couldn’t make a good movie,” Mike told the inside of his eyelids. Who cared what he told a bunch of marine biologists? It might as well be the truth. “I gave up because Hollywood is a corrupt pit where real art goes to die.”
There was some confusion while their interpreters chewed on the cultural context behind that explanation, which evolved into a longer diatribe about the industry in general.
“It’s just so cynical,” Mike found himself saying. “There’s this old boy’s club giving awards to each other. Calculated grabs for attention. Public personas instead of actual people. Just…” he waved his hands, “just lies. But everyone has to act like they believe, or else they get pushed out. Nobody is willing to stand up and say what they really think.”
The octopus and slime-fish looked at him.
“I am still confused,” said Sessile. “So, are there images paired with sounds?”
Mike groaned and clawed at his pocket. “Look. I’ll show you. Here’s the most critically acclaimed film of the past year.” He had it downloaded on his phone, and he watched it compulsively. It always depressed him.
“Look at this!” Mike said, thrusting the phone at the biologists. “That brown color palette. Those fake accents. It’s not a movie at all, it’s just a sign that says ‘this is intellectual.'”
“Yes,” said Sessile. “It seems completely incomprehensible. But only the most advanced art can resonate outside of its cultural background.”
“No, wait, I think I might like it,” said Iceberg. “The problem is that the quality of the display device is poor. Wait a moment.”
A message popped up on Mike’s phone. “New device connected,” followed by a long string of numbers and letters.
“I have connected my armor to your communication device.”
“You can watch movies on your exo-suit?” asked Mike.
“Of course. The entire inner surface is covered with visual displays.”
“Octopus Iceberg’s species sees with their skin and also eyes,” explained Sessile.
“Sure, why not?” Mike pressed “play.”
Iceberg’s skin prickled. Browns and grays marched across his body. “It is pleasant and soothing,” he said. “However, this effect is only effective when you are watching a movie with all eight arms.”
Mike shook his head in despair.
“What about the population?” asked Sessile.
“The population only has two arms.”
“I don’t understand. I mean what movies do most humans like to watch?”
“Oh, the public, you mean? They watch absolute garbage. Uh…look.” Mike found last season’s highlight reel from a reality show and cast it to Iceberg’s suit.
His tentacles stiffened. The fishbowl helmet sparkled with refracted images and his skin flashed red, white, and purple. “Inarticulate joy,” said the interpreter.
Sessile’s scarecrow body jerked, sending mucus flying. “Octopus Iceberg! Are you okay?”
Iceberg’s skin shivered. “This is the product of great and noble talent,” whispered the interpreter.
Mike looked at his phone to make sure he hadn’t selected the wrong video. “What? No! It’s just sex and shouting.”
“This art encompasses the essence of human existence.”
Sessile connected to Mike’s phone and his glass shell swam with images. “I understand your idea. This shows the purest form of interaction. Bacterial communities coordinate in a very similar way.”
Mike floundered. Every diplomatic instinct he possessed was saying “Just nod and smile and agree.”
But he couldn’t. Not after he’d bared my soul to these non-humans. These beings who he had thought were people. “No!” He stomped his expensive shoe on the sand. A cigarette butt went flying. “No, God damn it! This stuff is garbage! It’s stupid, Sessile.”
“We will teach you to appreciate it,” said the slime-fish.
“Yes,” said the octopus. “All that is needed for this film is proper analysis.”