The early afternoon sky was grey and darkening, promising snow.

The doors on the old Tohoku Shinkansen line closed, still smoothly. It would be just five hours to Aomori on the Northern tip of Japan’s main island, Honshu. Not as fast as the hyper-loop, but this one offered windows and time to think.

The station receded into the distance, allowing the mind to settle from the boisterous city.

Marina made herself comfortable in an impeccably clean seat. First class, a basic courtesy of her employer. Mr. Kawashita had been annoyed with her choice of transport–“Nostalgia doesn’t become you,” he’d said–but given the weight of her assignment, he had caved without too much grumbling.

Marina looked at the bento box that sat steaming next to a canned highball, which trembled ever so slightly: her lunch ritual when traveling by train through Japan. This was always one of her favorite moments, enjoying a meal to go and watching the countryside flash past, but today the usual rush failed to materialize. Even on Fridays the train remained mostly empty, and Marina felt somewhat empty inside herself.

It was not an unfamiliar feeling. The past few days she had felt it return over and again, centering around her encounter with her friend Coco’s new baby boy. Marina, usually such a people person, had felt a strange distance to the tiny creature, paired with an acute sense of… what, exactly?

It was not envy–at least not of childbirth. She remembered Coco’s bloated face. Yet seeing the new mother’s joy behind the pain and exhaustion, Marina wondered if she was missing out on her chance at… what, exactly?

Being 32 meant the odds were getting slimmer and slimmer to find a serious boyfriend, by Japanese standards at least. As a foreigner, she’d been spared some of the ageism.

First, a serious boyfriend. But then she’d have to find a different job…

Marina had quite some money saved up in her bank account–an outrageous amount, really, compared to her friends. But what she did wasn’t really about the money.

She popped open the cold, fizzy alcohol, sipping as the last of Tokyo’s suburbs shot past to make way for long stretches of frozen farmlands.

Snow was beginning to fall, even though it was only October. Marina looked for an update on the weather in Aomori, before sending a brief, blanket apology to her clients for being offline these coming days. Some would be disappointed… others ensnared more deeply.

Marina blinked three distinct times to turn off her electronics and rubbed her eyes. Resisting the urgent pull of thinking that would lead her away from silence, she focused on her breath.

In and out.

In and out of that silence.

After a few dozen breaths, she was interrupted by her rumbling stomach and grinned. With a final sigh of relief, she opened the bento box and began to wolf down her hot food.

That was good.

Burping lightly, she took a pen and notepad from her bag, before letting her thoughts flow ahead, towards Kaito.

“Siren,” she wrote in dark ink.

Marina had never met a siren before. She could usually achieve some studied sexual interest in her clients, but this time would be unique in that she had no idea what to expect–for better or worse.

What would Kaito feel like?

A polite cough from across the aisle startled Marina. She looked up to find a tired, elderly man smiling at her. So engrossed had she been in her thoughts that she hadn’t noticed him.

“Good afternoon… The snows are beautiful, huh?” Marina offered, feeling a tinge of pride at her flawless pitch accent, the result of many years of private tutoring. Back in her prideful twenties, she’d reasoned that if she was to be a commodity, she would be among the finest and priciest. Flawless Japanese was a bare minimum.

The elderly man seemed unimpressed and nodded down at her notebook, hesitantly asking: “I couldn’t help but notice… sirens?” He was evidently embarrassed to point out her private writing, but his curiosity must have won out.

“I’m meeting one in Aomori.” Marina smiled. She wondered why she was talking so openly about the topic with him. Perhaps it was his grandfatherly air. He was wearing a functional but slightly oversize suit jacket over a woolen sweater fraying at the edges. His eyes sparkled.

“Ah, that must be… Kaito?”

Changing the subject before the man could continue, Marina asked: “Where are you heading?”

“Morioka.” The man looked down at his folded hands with a dreamy grin on his face. “I’m heading for a wondrous meeting as well, my daughter just had her second child.”

Babies… it seemed as if everyone was having them again. Marina tried to listen politely as the old man told her the girl’s name, her weight–healthy–and how she’d be going to the same school as her great-grandfather.

“My own parents moved to Tokyo after the financial crash to find a better future. Now my daughter has returned to rediscover her roots and even has the money to spare to invite me over–first class!” The grandfather grinned a toothy grin and lifted his beer in salute: “To a good journey!”

Marina raised her own highball and took a sip, before returning to her notepad as the man took out a book and a cozier silence returned to the compartment.

Marina’s mother had also moved to Tokyo for a better future, taking Marina with her. The future had certainly been lucrative for her mother, if somewhat short.

Watching the snow fall outside, she returned to her thoughts about sirens.

What did she know about them?

Their arrival had defined Marina’s youth. She remembered first hearing the news from her drunk father and laughing him off. The next day, however, her mathematics teacher repeated the same story during class, and they’d discussed it all morning. Marina couldn’t believe her ears, but only a month later she’d be writing an essay about the sirens, as her small town was waking up to a new reality: they were not the only ones in the solar system.

They never had been. That was the conclusion of a Swedish scientist, whose nasal voice reached screens big and small all around the planet. A probe to Saturn’s icy moon of Enceladus put him and a team of befuddled European scientists at the center of the global news for over six months. Marina remembered discussing every shred of gossip with her friends at school, from what sirens looked like to the correct way of pronouncing the Swedish scientist’s name.

For a brief moment, the nations of the world acted in unprecedented unity as they prepared for a range of possible conflict scenarios. Quickly, however, it became clear that there was no need.

Dwelling in the depths of Enceladus’ dark oceans, sirens were not only extremely intelligent but blissfully pacifist: they had no known material culture on Enceladus, yet the ones who arrived on Earth delighted in the complex play of human forms and systems, many mastering several human languages in a fortnight. In her essay, Marina reported that one of them had been found reading Anton Chekhov after just five days.

Siren-human relations had blossomed, as their neighbors proved highly adaptable to an array of Earth’s cultures and climates. Those that were brought to Earth, through their childlike brilliance, led humanity into an artistic and cultural renaissance that left little untouched. Buildings, city grids, musical compositions–even the world’s digital infrastructure was observed, playfully tinkered with, and reproduced in greater elegance. It was as though sirens possessed some a priori intuition about Earth’s materiality.

All this caused furious speculation that sirens had transcended, if not leapfrogged the physical realm altogether. One famous American singer put out the theory that sirens had taken a step down the evolutionary ladder just to interact with humans… a view that gained traction after its repudiation by the leaders of the world’s major religions. Only when the Pope appeared side by side with a siren in a brilliant PR stunt, did the discussion somewhat die out.

Marina finished her highball, renewing her efforts to focus.

It was tough to take the situation seriously. Twenty years after first contact, it still seemed incredible to Marina. Life within the solar system? Simple biological compounds, one-celled organisms–maybe. Instead, those scientists drilling the ice on Enceladus had opened up a wondrously complex civilization, so very far ahead of humankind… Reportedly, a siren was a wonder to behold.

Marina didn’t even know if you could speak of a single siren. The academic literature was murky. Theories ran from a hive mind to a modular organism, in which each cell contained the consciousness of the whole. Marina found both possibilities equally incomprehensible–but she had to be prepared for all eventualities.

Had she been hired to pleasure a hive mind?

Marina saw the man look up from his book with a thoughtful glance and realized she’d been tapping her pen against the paper in frustration.

“Do you think they find Earth too hot?” she asked. “The sirens, I mean?”

The grandfather scratched his head. “I have heard that several sirens have recently moved to the arctic zone, or what’s left of it. Perhaps they’re getting homesick?”

Marina took note of the possibility and closed her notebook. She wasn’t getting anywhere. “I wish I could go see their world. Those light blue stripes look so beautiful… They always made me think of a white tiger.”

“Me, I prefer earth.” The man gazed out at the snowstorm engulfing the train, and intoned:

“From heaven fall icy petals;

In the sky not a spot of blue remains.

A dusting of jade covers the ground

And buries the blue mountains.

The sun rises over the mountain peak.

The chill pierces my bones.

Silence prevails.”

For a moment there was but the soft buzz of the train and the winds whispering against the glass of the shinkansen. Then the man grinned and broke the silence: “Musō Soseki wrote this in the 14th century. Forgive my melancholy, but they don’t write poetry like they used to.”

“Perhaps it’s harder to find,” Marina offered diplomatically, thinking of a gifted friend who had aspired to be a poet but failed to get by. “Or maybe it’s just that there’s not much silence left to fill with poetry.”

“Maybe so…” the man sighed, then smiled. “You should ask Kaito if they have poetry on Enceladus. He should know, he’s the cultural ambassador to Earth, isn’t he?”

“Yes,” was all Marina could say. Perhaps she would be asked to recite a poem for Kaito. But while she’d certainly heard stranger requests over the course of her career, she doubted poetry was enough cause for summoning an expensive courtesan all the way from Tokyo.


* * *


A pale moon hung high over the Aomori train station when the shinkansen arrived. Marina had dozed off for a while after bidding the old grandfather farewell at Morioka. The freezing air was fighting its way through her thick scarf, but she still felt groggy when a middle-aged woman in uniform stopped her in front of the station.

“Ms. Sidorov?”

Marina nodded, confused.

“I am Ms. Tanaka, Kaito’s driver. I am to take you to your ryokan.”

“You must be mistaken…” Marina had booked a little house on the outskirts of town. She always came a day early to appear rested and make final preparations before meeting with her clients.

“It’s Kaito’s wish that you be made as comfortable as possible during your stay in Aomori. We know you’re not set to meet until tomorrow night, but…” Misinterpreting Marina’s hesitation, the driver added rather curtly: “I can assure you that your stay at the ryokan has all been paid for.”

Marina was accustomed to displays of wealth and power from upper class clients and knew how to play those to her hand, but invitations to an undisclosed location were usually a huge red flag. If something went wrong, Kaito would be protected by status of a wholly different kind… diplomatic immunity of the interplanetary kind.

Then again, sirens were supposed to be peaceful: “Like some Buddhist bacterial culture,” as a popular comedian had once joked.

Besides, ryokans were known for their excellent food.

“Alright, where are we going?”

“Half an hour south of Aomori, towards the Towada-Hachimantai National Park.” Although considerably shorter than her, Ms. Tanaka stubbornly insisted on taking over her luggage. “The snowplows have made us a freshly cleaned path, so we’ll have no trouble getting there.”

Ms. Tanaka walked over to a shining Toyota Crown Comfort, kept in mint condition by someone who must have had a sentimental connection to the vehicle. What gasoline cars were left on Japan’s roads tended to be exorbitantly expensive old-timers, but this car was the opposite of a collector’s item: at one point in time, it had been Japan’s most popular taxi. Fortunately, the heating still worked.

The road out of town was spent in relative quiet, and Marina grew mesmerized by the light of the reddish streetlamps flowing past, one after the other. After a while she closed her eyes to rest a bit but found herself unable to.

What would Kaito, who could take on any shape he wanted, look like?

When Marina had first started working as an escort, plain old research had helped her cope with challenging clients. She would spend long nights trawling the web to understand the ins and outs of some wealthy banker or art dealer’s life. As she grew more experienced, she was given assignments to politicians, celebrities, and other public figures who had to navigate their desires within narrow private lives. Research had always been her friend, but not this time.

Illustrious though he was, Kaito had largely come up blank–probably something to do with his status as ambassador. More frustrating was the general lack of information on his basic physiology. Sirens mostly took on a human shape, but what if Kaito decided not to?

Did sirens have erogenous zones?

Marina felt woefully ill-prepared for not even possessing this basic information.

She silently cursed her boss for not offering her more details. What words Mr. Kawashita had spent on Kaito served merely to highlight the gravity of the assignment. Quivering with veneration, he had repeated ad nauseam that “this client could make us or break us.” Each time he emphasized the point by adding: “Do you understand?”

Kawashita never bothered to hide his view of her as little more than a dimwitted foreigner.

Marina politely made clear that she understood.

“I don’t understand why Yuki failed me, she always…” Kawashita coughed. “I suppose a siren might be too much even for her. Kaito wants someone capable of complete surrender. Do you understand?”

The man’s bushy eyebrows raised up dramatically each time he asked her that question. At times, Marina would mimic the gesture when replying that she understood, something that could send the man into a fit of rage that she found quite enjoyable.

“I’m confident that I can manage him,” Marina had said politely, eager for the opportunity to meet a siren. She made her case to Kawashita with measured confidence: dynamics differed with every client, but she knew her kinks and possessed a broad repertoire of physical and psychological techniques to offer an attractive submissive persona.

Mr. Kawashita had been quick to interrupt her.

“You’re failing to understand, this is not about playing the submissive girl.” He took a moment to weigh his words. Underneath the man’s condescension Marina sensed his nervousness. She realized Kawashita might have altogether preferred to avoid this particular client: he liked steady, predictable returns. “Like I said, complete surrender in the widest possible sense of the word. That’s how Yuki described it… and she couldn’t give it to him.”

Mr. Kawashita proceeded to light up a cigarette, ostensibly to let his message sink in, but probably just to calm himself. Marina sensed the veiled threat in his words: if the second girl he sent to Aomori proved equally incapable, it would be his reputation as one of Tokyo’s preferred procurers on the line.

Complete surrender. A flawless union with the client’s desire. A blank but deeply responsive canvas onto which Kaito’s passions could be painted.

As smoke filled up Kawashita’s office, Marina began to understand why he had called upon her, much as he hated her guts. Marina was usually paired with those seeking foreign looks, but it was her knack for bonding deeply with her clients that kept them coming back. Of course, creating an emotional and intellectual connection was indispensable at Marina’s pay grade, but she offered something more profound: if the connection was just right, Marina could commit herself to her client’s desires as if they’d sprung from deep within herself.

No greater intimacy was possible in her profession, and Marina was certain that this was why she had been chosen to seduce the siren. For all his flaws, Kawashita had a sharp eye for which courtesan’s skills could help him turn a profit.

Marina would have left the smoky office quite confident in her assignment, if not for Kawashita’s final words. He must have known they’d interrupt her workflow, but perhaps he could not help himself:

“Yuki found him… eerie.”

Marina tore her gaze off the thick snowflakes swirling outside to find Ms. Tanaka looking at her through the rearview mirror. The driver quickly returned her attention to the road, but Marina had recognized the look: here was a beautiful foreigner, dressed in luxury clothing, traveling alone to an expensive ryokan… there was little doubt as to what Marina did for a living.

Back in Tokyo, she had sought to meet with Yuki for a firsthand account, but had been unable to reach her–

“Is this car yours?” Marina inquired abruptly, after catching the woman’s stare again. She did not enjoy putting her driver on the spot, but she had little patience for nosy prejudice. Feeling tired, she was beginning to second-guess her decision to head for the ryokan: what if Kaito insisted on seeing her this very evening?

“It was my father’s car.” It was clear that the driver was blushing, even in the low light offered by the sparse streetlamps on the country road. “Why do you do this… job?”

Marina was surprised by the woman’s frankness and decided to be forthright: “I enjoy connecting with strangers, to see how deeply I can touch them even in the span of a short encounter.”

“Well, I hope you can help him feel better,” was all the driver said.

Marina had no reply to that. Evidently, she was not the only one imagining what sex with a siren would look like. A frigid silence returned to the taxi.

Not until they had arrived at the ryokan did the woman speak again. After having carried her luggage all the way to the lobby entrance, she bowed. Then she made to walk off, but at the last moment whispered stiffly: “Please have the courtesy not to cry, like the last one.”

Leaving Marina flabbergasted, Ms. Tanaka strode off into the night.


* * *


Marina’s feet crushed the virgin snow. Her breath produced little white clouds. Blowing into her gloves and rubbing her hands together, she made her way through the gate of the compound and into the gardens. The path to the ryokan’s bathhouse had been meticulously cleared of any signs of last night’s storm.

Already the air smelled slightly sulfurous with the scent of geothermal waters. Marina touched the invitation in her coat pocket. The card had been shoved under her door that morning; written in beautiful calligraphy, it had invited her to a rendezvous at the onsen at noon.

Ahead, the entrance to the bathhouse loomed into view, framed by snow-covered bamboo shoots. Marina still felt unprepared, but it could not be helped.

“Shouganai,” she whispered to herself.