Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Attack of the Swarm-Horde, pt. 1

On the world of Kreblon-V—which was actually a moon that, because of the ultralithium core, was more inhabitable than the planet for which it was a moon—the four suns were spinning around each other in rapid succession—which they typically did before setting. It was a beautiful evening, and the inhabitants of the planet, humans of Earth descent, enjoyed it.
The year is 70,000 A.E.—which stands for After Earth, which is a shortened form of After We Left Earth, because people left Earth in space ships after it was decided that, hey, why not? Humans colonized the worlds—occasionally running into other races, and making friends with them right off the bat. You see, people sudden became enlightened after the end of the Eighth World War, which resulted in the deaths of roughly half of Earth’s population, and realized that, hey, why can’t we all just get along? And so, after leaving Earth, people started firing themselves—via large spaceships called Colonizers—into wormholes. (It was found in the year 4,000 C.E. that wormholes were basically large portals, all connected to one another and, with enough radiation shielding, a ship could hop from one distant solar system to the next in no time at all.)
The Kreblonians were descended, roughly, from 3,000 individuals from Nashville, Tennessee—and, as such, the culture of Kreblon-V revolved around banjos (now termed space-banjos on account of them being in space) and chicken-fried steak and biscuits. The cholesterol levels were stupidly high on Kreblon-V, but it was okay because of the recent invention, a couple of systems over on Arcturus-II, of the anti-cholesterol pill. (It was a fact that, in the year 30,000 A.E., anti-cholesterol pills were in full production in the Raynor system, but the sudden appearance of a space-worm ended in the destruction of the manufacturing plants.) Everything, one might say, was hunky-dorey under the four suns of the Kreblon system.
That is, until The Swarm-Horde flung through space. The Swarm-Horde was exactly what it sounded like. It was a Swarm. It was a Horde.
It was dangerous.
And, to soup up the danger, it wanted nothing but to kill and consume. Seventeen trillion individual beasts of different species from different worlds, captured by the All-Mind, a gigantic brain at the center of the Swarm-Horde—both figuratively and literally—as it swept across the cosmos. The All-Mind, once, a long time ago, was an adolescent, asked another gigantic brain out on a date, and was turned down. Being of a sensitive nature, the All-Mind took it way too personally and decided that, if it couldn’t go out on a date, then, damn it, the entire result of trillions of trillions of years of explosions resulting from the Big Bang would burn. Well, technically, be digested by a swarm—no, a horde of beings. Thus, the Swarm-Horde was born when the All-Mind convinced its little brother—a tinier, but still gigantic, brain—to join him on his quest.
And now, the Swarm-Horde set its sights on Kreblon-V.

Commander-General Flarf, a tall man, about fifty-five, square-jawed and stubble-ridden, stood at his office’s window in the capital city of Kreblon-V, Evergreen. (The name was ironic, as most trees were palm trees, this being a tropical part of the moon—which orbited the planet Kreblon, which had an ultralithium core, which rendered the planet uninhabitable, but which rendered the moon much like Earth because of the properties of ultralithium.) He looked out over the cityscape stretching out from under his 117th story office. It was vast. It was ecologically-sound. And, most importantly, it was completely safe.
(That is, until the Swarm-Horde would attack—but they didn’t know about that.)
And, even more importantly, it was completely safe because of Flarf’s efforts. Years ago, he led the defense against the Space Pirates of the Armstrong Nebula. He attacked the despicable Commie-Fascists of Archon-XI and defeated the last threat to good old-fashioned space-democracy in this sector of the galaxy. Yes, you might say Flarf was a decorated soldier, but that would be ignoring the fact that he had in fact wallpapered his office with his decorations. He was an ultra-decorated soldier. He possessed a plethora of decorations. The rest of his office—consisting of a black chair, a redwood desk, and various bookshelves filled with books—also had medals nailed, stapled, and glued to their surfaces.
A less decorated soldier, Private Ames—recently of the planet Georgia, where everyone liked Space-Coke and space-baseball—burst into his office, panting. Sweat poured down his face, his otherwise jaunty black uniform of the Kreblon-V Defense Force had a small wrinkle, showing the sense of urgency with which he had to leave the barracks. “Commander-Colonel-General Flarf, sir!” he shouted.
“I’ve been promoted,” Flarf said. “It’s now just Commander-General.”
“Congratulations, sir,” Flarf said. He saluted.
Flarf, watching the private from the reflection in his window, saluted back. “Thank you, private. At ease.”
Ames collapsed on the ground, which was the way Kreblon-V soldiers reacted when they were told to be at ease. “Mmmrgl fmmrmaf mmmrmgm,” he said.
“Private, please roll over. You’re talking into my carpet. That doesn’t help anyone, does it?”
Private Ames rolled over on the floor. His face was pockmarked by the impressions of carpet fibers. If one were to look at Private Ames as anything other than a Private—as a human being rather than a cog in the military machine—then one would see a sixteen year-old boy who foolishly joined the Inter-Planetary Space Defense Corps—an organization that chose which planets were peaceful ones (usually decided as a result of a completely random lottery that, more often than not, chose belligerent planets as peaceful ones—luckily, being chosen as peaceful planets, the belligerent planets then became peaceful ones) and sent troops to their defense—and was ripped away from his family and friends before he really had the chance to go up in the ranks. Commander-General Flarf, on the other hand, saw Private Ames as he now was—a hunk of flesh that could be tossed in the line of fire to slow the advance of a cold, unfeeling enemy.
“There,” said Commander-General Flarf. “Now what seems to be the trouble, Private? I see you have the Ribbon of the Commie-Fascists. You’ve served under me before.”
“Not really, sir,” Ames said. “I stole this from my father, who was in the IPSDC before me, and served under you. He said that he was going to give it to me the day before I left, but I done figured it’d be better if I just went ahead and taked it. Cut out the middle man, as we say back home.”
“I like your initiative,” Flarf said. He walked over to his desk, opened a drawer, and took out some space-whiskey. He opened up the bottle, took a couple shot glasses from the drawer, and filled them. “Join me, will you?”
“Sir,” said Ames, still on the floor, “I would be honored to, but regulations state tha—”
“Bullshit,” Flarf said. “You learn that regulations aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. If I followed regulations all the time, you know what would have happened to this planet?”
“What’s that, sir?”
“The course of history would have remained the same, but I wouldn’t be able to say ‘If I followed regulations all the time,’ because I would have. Now,” Flarf poked the desk, “join me in a drink to your health or I’ll have you shot for insubordination and drink your whiskey—that is my whiskey—myself. Understood?”
Ames stood up, saluted, and knocked back the shot of space-whiskey. “Yes sir. Sir, that is damn good whiskey.”
“I know,” Flarf said. “Now, what is it that’s got you all aflutter? I haven’t seen anyone in such a state since the Commie-Fascists announced that we had it all wrong and they were a parliamentary monarchy all the time.”
“Sir, I remember that on the news. My dad done near killt himself on account of killin so many of them Not-Really-Commie-Fascists. Anywhat, I done heard from my friend, Corporal Jenkins, that them scientists what live up on the hill found themselves an anomaly out there in space, sir.”
“Oh?” asked Flarf. He returned to gazing out the window. It was probably nothing. There were tons of anomalies out there in space. Once, a philosopher friend of his said that it was the nature of the cosmos to be anomalous. Made sense if you thought about it and had had a lot of space-coffee beforehand. “What kind of anomaly?”
“Well, sir, I don’t rightly know, and I reckon they don’t rightly know either. All Corporal Jenkins told me was that they picked up some message on that machine what picks up thoughts.”
“The Thought-Reading Machine?”
“That’s the one, sir. The message said…” Private Ames tugged at the collar of his uniform. “well, ‘kill Kreblon-V. Drink their blood, eat their flesh. Kill Kreblon-V.’”
Commander-General Flarf did the only thing a Commander-General could do at a time like this. He walked over to his desk, picked up a space-pencil, walked back over to the window, and snapped it in half. Then he turned back to Private Ames. “Dear sweet Space-God. Do you know what this means, Ames?”
“I reckon it means that they want to kill us dead, sir.”
“That’s right, Ames. You’re a smart kid. You’ll go far in the IPSDC if you keep at it.”
Ames, whose ambition in life was to be a poverty-stricken farmer like his father, and his father before him, didn’t know how to respond. How could a life spent in uniform, leaping from exotic planet to exotic planet, killing life forms of various shapes, sizes, and colors, getting laid by all manner of curvaceous species—how could all of that compare with toiling day in and day out on a farm, only to look out at a barren, rocky field and realize that, soon, Death would approach with his bony hand? (It should be noted that on the planet Georgia, the most noble life was that of the barely-surviving famer. Conversely, the most ignoble and frowned-upon life—the life which no one, especially teenagers, wanted to lead—was a rock star. Different strokes for different folks, indeed.) “Thank you, sir,” Ames said. He felt it was a subsistence farmerly way to respond.
Commander-General flarf nodded and turned to the window in front of him. He scratched at his stubble and thought for a moment. He could see Ames standing at attention, rocking back and forth, waiting to be dismissed. Flarf was about to dismiss him, when an idea hit him. There was a time for action, and there was a time for kicking some disgusting, inhuman alien ass. This was a time for kicking ass. And, when kicking ass, every Commander-General worth his spit knew he needed an aide de camp. Ames, who would go far in the IPSDC—Flarf would see to that—was going to be his aide de camp. And if he refused, Flarf would have him shot for insubordination and then use his corpse as an aide de camp. “Private,” he said.
“In my long, decorated history,” Flarf absently gestured at the medal-bestooned walls of his office at the word ‘decorated,’ “I have learned to gauge when certain times are, and when certain times are not—if you get my drift.”
“Fraid I don’t, sir,” Ames said. “I ain’t that good with words. My brother, he’s good with words, but he done got kicked in the head by a horse, so he ain’t that good with words no more.”
“Sorry to hear that, Private. I’ll send a fruit basket.” (The fruit basket would never be sent.) “What I mean to say, Private, is that there is a time for action, and there is a time for kicking ass. When some bastard aliens start flinging themselves at my part of space and want to drink the blood of a peace-loving planet, then, damnit, I do believe that it is kicking ass time. Do you agree?”
“Reckon so,” Ames said.
“Good.” Commander-General Flarf turned to face Private. He tilted his head back and studied Ames. He learned this posture from his mentor, the previous Commander-General of Kreblon-V, the eminent and beloved Deathmann. “How’d you like to be my aide de camp, Private?”
Ames tilted his head to one side. “I don’t reckon I know what that means, sir.”
Flarf shook his head gently. What were the space cadet academies teaching these kids? “It means aide-de-camp, Private.”
“Oh!” Ames smiled. “Well, sir, I’m right honored you’d even ask me, a backwards hick from the planet Georgia to help you go kill you some aliens right good.”
“Good!” shouted Flarf. He walked over and patted Ames on the shoulder. “You got a girlfiend, Ames?”
“Back home. There’s this girl named Becky-Sue who’s just the sweetest th—”
“She got nice, big tits, Ames?”
“Er,” Ames said. This wasn’t something people asked each other on Georgia. Wasn’t proper. “Uh.”
Flarf burst into laughter. “We’ll make a man out of you yet, boy. You call this Becky-Sue girl of yours, tell her that you’re going to bathe in the black blood of belligerent alien beasts and that, Space-God willing, you’ll live to roll around in the space-hay with her yet again.”
Ames, still confused by the Commander-General’s question, nodded.
“Good,” Flarf continued. He checked his space-watch. It read thirteen hundred space-hours. “You go call your girl. Come meet me at the space-space-observatory at fourteen-thirty hours. Clear, Corporal Ames?”
“Sir, I’m a Private.”
Flarf walked to a filing cabinet, pulled out a corporal’s insignia and slapped it to Ames’s uniform. The uniform, being made of space-magnet-cotton, drew the insignia in close and the two made a bond. “Not anymore,” Flarf said. “Can’t have a damn, dirty Private as my aide de camp, can I?”
Ames grinned. “You mean aide-de-camp, sir.”
“Right I do, son. Right I do.”

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Prologue to The Writer's Second Tale

The Writer, frantic, called me around one a few days after I returned to Canterbury. “We need to do storytelling, now,” he said.
Here I was, enjoying a sunny—yet cold—day on the hill, sitting on a bench and watching the undergrads trudge up the Eliot footpath, and The Writer had the gall to force me away. “Why?’
“Just,” he took a deep breath, cursed, “trust me.”
“Fine. I just got out of another writing class, right? We did something worse than defining plot. I need to get to some serious work, and the best way to do that right now is to meet up at The Sub-Pope’s Flock.”
A strange thing happened: A rabbit was hopping its way across the hill when a seagull barreled down from above and clutched it in its talons. I had no idea that seagulls could do that—I assumed that seagull legs were fragile things—and said, “Writer, can a seagull carry off a rabbit as if it were a hawk?”
“As if the rabbit were a hawk?”
“No,” I said, “as if the seagull were a hawk.”
“Oh. You need to work on your syntax, Narrator. Vagueness does not make friends.”
“Neither does not answering questions.”
“I don’t think so,” said The Writer. “Then again, I’ve never se—damn it, Narrator. Meet at The Sub-Pope’s Flock. Everyone else is going to be there.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes. Apparently they have fuck all to do with their time.”
I hung up, put the phone in the inside pocket of my pea-coat, watched the fading speck of a seagull carrying a rabbit, and decided that I’d walk down to town.
Now, even though I’ve spent a lot of time with you, Dear Reader, I don’t know if I’ve given you a decent description of the Footpath. So:
The path was divided into two parts: one for pedestrians, another for cyclists. In theory, this is a sound idea. In practice, it doesn’t matter a damn thing as people will ultimately do whatever they want.
The first part of the path follows the hill into a residential neighborhood. It cuts through a wooded area and is quite pleasant. If you’re walking down this path, you’ll probably meet at least one person you know at some point between leaving campus and the neighborhood.
The second part of the path cuts through a neighborhood and a park. If you’re a new student—or a visitor—you will get lost. To the untrained eye, all British neighborhoods look the same. You have a row of attached houses that, more or less, look the same—you have cars parked on the street, and, generally, they’re all tiny by American standards. To the trained, experienced eye, however, all British neighborhoods are just noticeably different. There may be a row of different trees, or a hedgrow may be better-manicured in one place than another, or there may be a friendly brown cat in one place and a friendly black cat in another, or one street may be infested by chavs—basically: you learn to pick out minutiae. For example, until I learned this stuff, I got lost in the neighborhood and wound up in Whitstable—a town about ten miles down the road and on the coast.
After walking into town for a month, I learned the ins and outs, but, nevertheless, it’s a steep learning curve. The park consists of a large green with football goals, and some benches. The place is riddled with running, yelling children, and running, barking dogs.
The final part of the path runs under a rail bridge and through the outskirts of the city center. You walk down the path, the rail station is on your right, and you come upon the River Stour directly in front of you. After following the river for a bit, you wind through sidestreets into the town center. Depending on which route you take, you may wind up right next to the Cathedral or the Westgate. I took the route that led to the Cathedral.
I cut through the sidestreets, dodged some children running mad with their backpacks clinging on for dear life, and eventually made it to the Cathedral Gate and the Sub-Pope’s Flock. I walked in, was greeted with a glare from the bartender—one day he’d bar us from entry, I just knew it—and walked to the usual table. Only The Stalker and The Student were there.
The Stalker sat, draped in his usual hoodie, usual pint of yellow cider effervescing in front of him, talking animatedly about the Illuminati. I sat down at the table and arched an eyebrow.
The Student sat with his head resting on his arms, folded up in front of him. He wore a black shirt, dark blue jeans, and a black suit jacket. He groaned. “For God’s sake, Stalker, I don’t know what you’re on about.”
“But you’ve read The Prin—”
“Yep,” said The Student. “I’ve read it, found bits of it funny, and decided I’d go on with my life, read something similar that wasn’t created during an acid trip, and never looked back.” He picked up his head and saw me. “Oh, hello Narrator. You’ve chosen an interesting time to walk in. The Stalker here was just talking about some nonse—”
The Illuminatus trilogy is not nonsense. It is the tru—”
“It’s bullshit. You’re reading bullshit. You want something worth reading? I can get you a reading list.”
“But it has quan—”
“Don’t get quantum physics from a fantasy book.” The Student rubbed his temples. “God’s sake, man, that’s like people who get their theology from Dan Brown. If you want to learn without reading nonfiction, then, fuck, I don’t know, read Crichton or something. Crichton’s smart, he did research.”
“Narrator,” The Stalker said, turning to me—his eyes were pleading, “please, tell him it’s worthwhile.”
I held up my hands. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“By using The Principia Discordia as a source for your knowledge, you’re making life harder on yourself,” said The Student.
“How? How am I doing that?”
“Okay, let’s say you’re talking to—”
“I smell a nerdy conversation,” said The Drunkard. He walked in the front door wearing his denim jacket, ballcap, and a red scarf. “Howdy, gents.”
The Stalker slurped from his cider.
“Hey Drunkard,” said The Student. “Oh,” he said, “Rebecca’s coming along today. She’s been wanting to see what our sessions are like.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
The Drunkard, walking over to our table with a glass of whiskey in his hands, shook his head and said, “Too bad she’s coming today. The Writer’s going and, from what I could tell, he’s going to try to make a Point.”
I groaned. The last thing anyone wanted to hear was one of The Writer’s Points.
Rebecca, looking entirely too stylish to be associated with our group, walked in. She wore her hair up, had a purple coat, blue jeans, and a Star of David necklace so big that it could only be called bling. “Hey guys,” she said.
We raised our glasses. The Student walked up and kissed her, walked her back to the table.
“What were you two talking about?” asked The Drunkard.
“We were talking,” said The Stalker, “about philosophy, religion, physics—all those things that you wouldn—”
“Didn’t I hear someone shout ‘Principia Discordia’ from outside?”
The Stalker nodded.
“Ah,” said The Drunkard. “Then you’re bullshitting and wasting time. Good things to do.”
The Stalker fumed.
The Traveler walked in the front door wearing a suit and an overcoat. He ordered a lager and walked over to the table, draped the overcoat on the back of his chair, unbuttoned his jacket, and sat down.
“Well, well, well,” I said. “Look at Mr. Fancy. What’s the occasion, Mr. Fancy?”
“Laundry day,” he said. “Suit’s the only clean thing I have.”
The Writer walked in holding a briefcase, wearing his usual corduroy, button-up, and jeans. He cursed, walked over, went to the bar, ordered a pale ale, came back to the table and said, “Fucking people. Parasites. Sub-mental inch-worms.”
“Good day?” I asked.
He took off his glasses, put them on the table, and rubbed his temples. “You tell me. I go to this university for an advanced degree in Creative Writing, right? I want to learn the craft, I want to fully plumb the depths of Narrative. I want to work in such a fashion that, by next September, I have learned how to cut through the layers of what separates ‘reality’ from ‘fiction,’ and do it in such a way that I change people on a visceral level. That’s what I came here to do. Guess what they’re teaching in my class this term. Drunkard. Guess.”
The Drunkard shrugged. “Gardening.”
“They might as fucking well,” responded The Writer. “We had a discussion—a two hour discussion—about the way plot works. For instance,” he held up his right index finger, “did you know that, typically, in a tragedy, the hero loses everything?”
“No,” said The Drunkard. “Really? Shocking. Absolutely shocking.”
The Writer, irony seeping out like sweat from his pores, said, “I know. And in a comedy things end well.” He sat back in his chair and shook his head. “Fuck’s sake. If they’re just learning this in a Master’s level class, then God knows what they did in undergrad. Coloring, probably. Twits. Absolute twits.”
The Traveler cleared his throat. “Well, I don’t mean to rush you, Writer, but I’ve got an essay due in a couple weeks and I need to start researching for it.”
The Drunkard snorted. “Starting early, are we?”
The Traveler arched an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“Two weeks? I don’t start till a day beforehand. Still got a four-oh, too.”
The Student started twitching. Rebecca massaged his shoulders. “Traveler, you probably should have started a week ago. You can never have enough research.” He paused, tilted his head to one side. “Keeps you from having to come up with a lot to say on your own.”
The Traveler shrugged. “My method’s worked pretty well for me so far.”
“Right,” said The Writer. He cracked his knuckles, then his neck, then his back. “Now: We’re all aware that, in the past, you’ve accused me of being a pretentious hack.”
“I recall using stronger language than that,” said The Drunkard.
“Fuck off,” said The Writer.
“Something like that, yeah.”
“What you should remember, in addition,” continued The Writer, “that I said I’d kick off the next round with a story that you—you imbecilic grubs—could appreciate. I will give you—” he shuddered “—genre fiction.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Really? That’s hard to believe.”
“Oh,” he said, “you say that now. However, I was a child once—stupid, not yet aware of the desolation of the modern world—and I used to dabble in those things that are worth less than dog shit. I think I am more than capable of serving up a story that will make you escape into a world where there are no race wars, no sexist policies—in short, something that will make you feel all right, instead of the existential funk all of you should feel at every instant.” He cleared his throat. “Right:”