Excerpt for Welcome to the Universe; or, How I Learned to Appreciate the Significance of a Thorough DeFlocking by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





WELCOME TO THE UNIVERSE

Or, How I Learned to Appreciate the Significance of a Thorough DeFlocking



M. D. Tabat


Copyright © 2018 M. D. Tabat

All rights reserved.

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Dedicated to Charlene and Chuck


TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53


CHAPTER 1

Give up; refuse to challenge your fate. Give in; accept your destiny. Stop struggling against the Universe’s grip on your throat. Once that pressure is gone, you will be free!”

The First Pronouncement of Bleen

Jbx Utaalk’s mandibles clickity-clacked. A drop of condensed breath fell from the ceiling and landed on her cheek. She flinched. A shiver, beginning at her shoulders and ending at the tip of her wide tail, exposed her fear and apprehension. On her right and left, ten Utaalkians—witnesses for the execution—standing erect on their sturdy hind legs pressed their chitinous backs against the rough-hewn stone of the claustrophobic cave lit by a few small candles standing on the floor. Pincers at the ends of the spectators’ tiny arms tapped chittering gossip, like weak radio static, to their neighbors.

Stalactites, just beginning to form on the low, jagged ceiling, glowed and shimmered in the flickering light and bent ten pairs of antennae back toward their owners. The only unoccupied area in the crowded space was a narrow alley between Jbx and her target. The room smelled of brine, mold, and candle fragrance—seaweed.

Blindfolded, Djt Utaalk stood facing Jbx. Irregular gray blotches, partially hidden by makeup, on Djt’s crimson abdomen and tail fan indicated the deadly parasite consuming him from within. A slight sway to maintain balance indicated he wasn’t yet dead. His six pairs of arms and single pair of heavy claws hung limp at his sides. The fore letter D identified him as the oldest living Utaalk in the room.

Git Utaalk squeezed around the witness nearest the entrance and wiped a drip off his shoulder. The insignia of a junior council member—Utaalk’s rising sun, Adarab—was tattooed on the midsection of his chest. Shoulders back, thrusting his painted badge of honor forward, he strutted his half-a-claw-shorter-than-average body into the center of the opening and threw his arms wide.

“Fellow Utaalks,” he said with a commanding voice two claws superior to his audience. “We cannot measure the importance of this day in claws or tails.” He tapped the sweating chest plate of each witness as he slunk toward Djt. “This is a moment above and beyond any in Utaalk history. Greater even than the discovery of our resistance to being Flocked.” The rustling static grew louder; blinking eyestalks bubbled in and out of the skittish audience’s tiny skulls.

Holding Jbx’s wrist, Git lifted her unresisting, unarmed claw as high as he could into the air; it missed the ceiling by inches. “Here is our savior.” He snapped his free claw at Djt. “There is our sacrifice. Today, with this action, we reclaim our birthright as the sole species in the galaxy able to build stardrive engines.”

“Oba,” Git said, clacking his claw officiously. “Let’s get on with this. The plan cannot proceed without this film.”

“Camera rolling,” Oba Utaalk announced, with a rhythmic flutter of her young uropods. One of her eyestalks peered into the camera eyepiece; the other was covered with a thin, dark sock. An artsy red beret was pushed back on her head. An orange cravat weighted by a variety of medals attested to her award-winning professional status. Her smaller left claw pushed a squeaking crank.

The camera was a crude box covered with fabric. The crank did not advance any film-recording mechanism; a digital camera mounted behind the phony lens recorded the scene. Oba insisted that the act of creating artwork was a work of art itself, worthy of embellishment and spectacle. The camera projected over Jbx’s right shoulder, the weaponized arm. A second camera stared back from over Djt’s right shoulder to record the shooter’s movements.

The crossbow pistol shook as if it were trying to wriggle free of Jbx’s grip as she raised it and aimed the barbed arrowhead between Djt’s antennae. A hubcap-sized medallion hung from a length of coarse twine tied around her neck. JBX was emblazoned in block letters across its face. Every 3.21 seconds, the inscription morphed into another galactic language, to ensure her name would become infamous throughout the galaxy.

The top-secret operation was organized by an influential handful of individuals stretching from the top of the planet’s government to Git, Jbx, and the witnesses in the cave. Even the crossbow was an illegal import. Weapons were not needed on Utaalk. The urge to kill had been bred out of them in the centuries since they had begun building stardrive engines for the Galactic Association of Stardrive Manufacturers and Engineers (GASME). Their monopoly on engine construction had made them all rich. Utaalks, rock-crawling dullards that they were, spent their money surrounding themselves with shiny, wriggly objects. A parade of galactic peddlers presented the Utaalks with overpriced, well-polished gewgaws proclaiming the latest item to be the most sought after bling in the universe.

They were never heard arguing.

“Honey, did you buy the Galaxyball tickets?”

“No, dear, I thought you did.”

“Honeyscrum, the pot is at seventeen quintillion credits. We really don’t want to miss this one.”

“But, dearscrumgrunt, you know the odds are so long, you are almost as likely to win if you don’t buy a ticket.”

“I know the odds, my little honeyscrumgruntdist, but I asked you to buy the tickets.”

Never in recorded history had one Utaalkian taken the life of another. There had never been a need for murder.

Until now.

The livelihood of all Utaalks was threatened; their single-commodity economy, their very civilization, was on the verge of collapse. All because of an upstart species—a newly discovered life form on the edge of the galaxy called Human. By a cruel galactic circumstance, they were also immune to the toxic effects of Flock, the principle catalyst in stardrive engines. The same stardrive engines they once had an exclusive contract to build, precisely because Flock was a fatal poison to every species in the galaxy except them.

Until now.

The Humans had to be neutralized and discredited. The plan was simple. But first an example had to be made, for the greater good of all Utaalkians.

“Shoot, Jbx,” Oba clacked. “Now!”

Jbx retracted her eyestalks to cover them and twisted her antennae to drown out the chittering of the witnesses. She drew a shaky bead on the mental image of the location where she had last seen Djt standing. If the operation was successful, Djt’s name would be praised as a sacrifice, savior, and martyr for her race; Humans would be undone, and they would once again become the most important planet in the galaxy. Utaalk would forever have the upper hand in dealing with GASME, not the other way around.

Jbx’s claw clenched. The crossbow recoiled. The arrow flew true and severed Djt’s head cleanly from his body. When she opened her eyes, green tomalley ooze, an eruption from the severed neck, dripped off the ceiling onto the arrow’s feathers. The tiny head rolled into a corner and the eyestalks turned white. The sightless eyes stared at Jbx.

Git was gleeful at the accuracy of the shot. “Did you get it?” he asked.

Oba ran her antennae through her mandibles, the expression of arrogance.

“But of course,” Jbx said. “I am a professional.”

The witnesses crowded around the corpse and blocked Jbx’s view. A whiff of brine confirmed the group had already ripped open Djt’s tail and were feasting on the meat. Their society believed that by eating their dead, the dead would—on a cellular level—become part of the living and survive on from one generation to another, thus guaranteeing immortality. Besides, they tasted pretty good.

Jbx watched Git and Oba muscle their way through the crowd. She was not hungry, and the newly stitched incision over her waist segment still throbbed painfully. She rubbed the sutured section, imagined the poison imprisoned within, and weighed the possibility that the Humans might detect and expose her mission.

“Did anyone bring the Zzyzx sauce?” asked Thc, the youngest of those present and, as teenagers tend to be, rude and insensitive to the gravity of the situation. However, in Thc’s defense, it was considered tasteless and gauche to assimilate another Utaalk without a decent sauce.

Of course, bibs were optional.


CHAPTER 2

Be wary of your Position. If Truth does not fit your Understanding or fulfill your Expectations, you must have taken a wrong turn at Reason.”

The Sixth of the Nine Nuisances of Bleen

The glass enclosing the two-story Miriam Wu Memorial Atrium was doped with a variety of heavy metals to absorb the solar particle radiation that would fry Human tissue, even though Mars was half again as far as Earth to the Sun. Mars did not have a strong enough magnetic field to trap those energetic particles and generate auroras, so common to northern earthly latitudes.

Another debilitating environmental factor for the Human habitation of Mars was the low gravity; a 150-pound person on Earth weighed 57 pounds on Mars. As attractive as it sounded to the gastronomically obsessed, they would indeed feel much lighter, but over time their bone mass would deteriorate. If left uncompensated, the lack of gravitational acceleration would reduce an ordinary Human’s bones to twigs. Upon return to Earth, their own weight would crush them into a boneless jellyfish.

To prevent muscle and bone degeneration, every visitor and resident was custom fitted with a set of balance weights to maintain tone and strength. They were designed to be worn as simple bands on wrists, elbows, ankles, and knees, with a collar on the shoulders to correctly compress the spine, and a second belt for the hip. Alternatively, personal clothing was designed with pockets at the same strategic points to hold and hide the balances. The elite had theirs fashioned from gold or platinum. Existence on Mars was to be as earthlike as possible.

Back patting, small talk, and polite laughter occupied the famous group of Humans waiting behind the curtain for their momentous introduction. The year was 18 AQ (after Quane).

Eighteen years before, Quane, the devilish traveling junk seller, had appeared in low Earth orbit to sell his stardrive engine technology in exchange for the DNA blueprints of two hundred thousand species of Earth’s animals and plants.

Richard Winn, the first to meet Quane, was gray, frail, and gaunt. Hunched over and blanketed in his wheelchair, he smiled wanly at his former International Space Station crew. Though just fifty years old, the debilitating effect of his exposure to Flock sixteen years earlier made him appear twice his age. His reaction to Flock, being the first person exposed to the toxin, was the most intense. As the infection spread from person to person, it became less and less debilitating. Ultimately, it acted as a Human antidote against the poisonous red dust, and Humans became the second species in the galaxy immune to Flock, the principal catalyst for the stardrive engine reaction, which enabled interstellar travel.

“Oh my god,” Richard wheezed. “I still can’t believe you’re all here.” His grip was less than a light breeze on Fedor’s emaciated wrist.

Fedor Yashin, who had been the material scientist on the ISS when Quane had arrived to sell Earth a stardrive engine, was suffering an aggressive bone cancer caused by his exposure to ionizing radiation during his years in space. His wild thatch of white hair had been defoliated, revealing a landscape of liver spots and cysts, and a meandering lacework of spider veins. His face was gaunt, the tight skin resisting his forced efforts to blink and close his mouth. His tongue darted in an out in a frantic attempt to keep his lips moist.

Instead of riding in a wheelchair, he was connected to a contraption of his own design. It was a metallic exoskeleton that enabled him to stand erect or bow as desired by use of hydraulic actuators with hinges at critical joints. His ankles were tied to other actuators, which lifted and placed each foot in a rhythm and speed selectable by a thumbwheel under his index finger.

“You’d have a hard time starting without me,” Fedor said, wincing as he winked. Neither he nor Richard wore balance weights.

Nancy Wahl, a member of the same ISS crew and the first documented person to ever lay eyes on an officially confirmed extraterrestrial spacecraft, shuffled nervously. Her long blond hair had been trimmed to a short pixie. Although GASME had assured Humanity that the atrium and manufacturing facility was impervious to all dangerous ionizing radiation, Nancy could not overcome her instinctive fear for the health of the eight-month-old fetus incubating in her womb. On her return to Earth after Quane’s visit, she began a deep-fried relationship with the manager of The Varsity Drive-in. There was nothing like potential parenthood to bring one to the altar of responsibility. Besides, doctors could not put compensating weights on her unborn baby.

“Richard, you know we all love you,” Nancy said, finally over her schoolgirl crush for him. “This is all way more than we hoped for. And it was all thanks to your sacrifice.”

Because of that sacrifice, GASME and the manufacturing arm of Stardrive Engines, Inc. (SDEI) had constructed a manufacturing facility on Mars and staffed it with Humans. The Martian facility had broken the monopoly of the lobster-like species from a rocky planet called Otkin Adarab Utaalk because they had been the first—and until the discovery of Humans, the only—species resistant to Flock. As a result, Earth was quickly becoming one of the richest planets in the galaxy.

Nick Danthier, the accidental but not altogether reluctant discoverer of the secret to operating alien stardrive engines, moved from the neck up. His head turned, angled, and posed to create a lifelike display of the latest model of his upscale line of personally autographed sunglasses. The collar of his leather jacket was upturned, and his thumbs were hooked into his pants pockets. The jacket was culled from a new line of designer clothing he was promoting. The enhanced stitching around the weight pockets emphasized a “Yeah, I was on Mars. What’cha gonna do about it?” attitude—whether or not the owner had actually set foot on the red planet.

“Dude,” Nick gently slipped a spare pair of his ultra-exclusive glasses onto Richard’s face. “Wear these glasses for one minute, and we’ll both make a truckload of money from the increased sales.”

“Thanks, Nick,” Richard did not have the strength to refuse. After many years of speaking engagements and product endorsements, he simply nodded when offered a new source of income. Every new spring of money diffused, like water through a river plain, into his too-many-to-count charitable nonprofits. His largest fund by far funded a small army of investigators dedicated to finding and paying the hospital bills of any injured Dia’Bolos. Quane had vanished after leaving Earth, and Richard was obsessed with finding and thanking him for his contribution to Humanity’s success.

Miriam Wu, leader of the Galaxy Quest expedition eleven years earlier and negotiator of the deal bringing stardrive manufacturing to Mars, was a bit grayer and heavier but still radiated a motherly self-confidence, inviting all into her intellectual but nonjudgmental embrace. The waiting list for her advanced graduate classes on exobiology was five years deep and growing. Her lecture circuit was booked solid for seven years. At fifty years old, and after months of objectively probing her endocrine system, she deduced that she had met the man with whom she could rationally survive cohabitation and childbearing, as long as they were quick about getting it on. She radiated subjective, teary joy for her personal situation and even more for the company surrounding her.

“Richard,” Miriam caressed Richard’s shoulder. “None of this would have happened without you. You are the one responsible for all of this, the ascendancy of Earth and Humanity.” Her sleeve shifted, revealing a wristband covered with images of endangered Earth animal species.

Nancy fought back the tears welling in her eyes. As she dabbed the corner of her eye with her sleeve, she heard a sniffle. Fedor was staring, unblinking, up at the ceiling. He wiped his finger under his nose and it came away wet.

Chuck Martin, the muscle on the Galaxy Quest expedition, stood to the side while the others jabbered and laughed. A spare tire from easy living was beginning to inflate above his waistline, and his hair was a touch longer than military grooming standards demanded

Arriving early, he had paid his respects to Richard and reviewed the security arrangements. Life had been predictable after his return from the Galaxy Quest expedition—promotions, medal-pinning ceremonies, plaque presentations, and selfies with grinning generals and politicians. He was little more than a photo op, arm candy to advance careers. Daily facial massages relieved the cramps from the forced smiles. Cold compresses on his eyes erased his frosted vision from the barrage of flashbulbs.

Chuck had instantly accepted the offer to be security director at the Martian facility as the means to escape a life as a two-dimensional prop for the selfie culture.

A dull, muddy suspicion had nagged the backfield of Chuck’s attention since his landing on Mars. Urged by reflex, he reached up to touch the Saint Christopher medal he had appealed to for help during the galaxy mission with Miriam and Nick, but his fingers grabbed his reading glasses instead. The medallion was now part of his military trophy case. He smirked at his foolish forgetfulness, and then frowned. Successful soldiers knew to trust their instincts, honed and sharpened by months of physical and mental challenge and deprivation; survival might depend on a split-second look into the future, aka intuition. There was a game afoot.

A six-foot-four-inch, droopy-eyed, bearded giant, usually assigned by promoters as chief roadie to the most exclusive and highest-priced entertainers, strolled onto the stage where the small group waited. If his nametag had been pinned right-side up, it would have read BOB. Bob’s wristbands were weighted with pointed steel spikes; his elbow bands displayed flaming skulls. The unseen images on his shoulder and hip bands had been banned in nineteen countries.

“Ahem,” the giant grunted to call the group’s attention. Blasé from overexposure to the celebrity of the greatest rock stars of Earth, he never looked up from his clipboard. One satisfying perk to this assignment was that without his weights, in the privacy of his quarters and the company of groupies bent on prying backstage passes to their favorite bands on their next vacation on Earth, he felt 114 pounds lighter. “Curtain up in one minute.”

The stage was a temporary structure created for the presentation of the six most influential people in leveraging Earth from boondocks to galactic prominence. Arguably, Quane, the alien who had sold Humans the technology to become galactic celebrities, should have occupied an exclusive stage two levels higher. He was, however, unavailable for the ceremony despite the money, favors, and influence Richard had paid, begged, and leveraged for his discovery.

When queried about Quane’s whereabouts, GASME representatives shrugged and turned their heads away. Human scout ships using state-of-the-art stardrive engine technology, the first off their Martian assembly line, confirmed that Quane’s name and location was a mystery to every alien they encountered. Richard refused to admit that his greatest mentor and Humanity’s greatest benefactor would never be found. Miriam, Chuck, and Nick had greeted each other earlier with furtive nods. They were conspiratorial in their vow to conceal Quane’s treachery, especially to Richard.

Roth Abend, the Earth-appointed Martian governor, strolled to the middle of the stage in front of the curtain. He tapped the microphone and the amplifiers drummed like a tympani to the assembled crowd. “Attention,” he said. “Attention, please.” The shrill whine of feedback did more to subdue the audience than his voice.

Abend was a tall and broomstick-thin thirty-eight year old. The size of his ego was in stark contrast to his narrow shoulders. Sideways, he might almost have hidden himself behind the microphone. His Earthbound bosses had assured GASME that although the new governor was as thin as a piece of paper, he was more durable and trustworthy than any words written upon it.

“Thank you all for coming,” Abend said with a voice like a low E guitar string. His Adam’s apple bobbed in time with his words—a bouncing ball directing the audience in a sing-along.

“We are here today to officially christen this facility for stardrive engine production.” A few whistles and yelps called back.

“Thanks to the people behind this curtain…” He waved behind him. “Humans are now members of the galaxy.” More and louder yells.

“Today, we are entitled to call ourselves extraterrestrials.”

The atrium responded with a chorus of cheers larger than all of their lives. The chant began and grew. “Rich-ard! Rich-ard! Rich-ard!”

The echo soon morphed into a back and forth. “Rich-ard! Mir-i-am! Rich-ard! Mir-i-am!”

Abend bobbed something into the microphone but was drowned out by the cheers. He nodded offstage and spread his arms.

The curtain lifted to a battlefield of camera flashes. The honorees, blinded by the photonic onslaught, lifted their hands to shield their eyes. Richard and Fedor simply lowered their gazes.

The crowd cheered, whistled, and yelled a tsunami of sound waves toward a blinking but resilient breakwater—six rocks of Humanity standing against a tidal wave of adulation.

The audience was a mixture of off-shift factory workers already living on Mars, reporters and dignitaries from Earth pressing for the next byline or independent voter, and a small assortment of persons desperate for fanzine coverage. People who were famous not for any special talent, expertise, or powerful intellect, but for the simple ability to appear regularly on the front pages of newspapers and social media sites for no productive reason whatsoever. These celebrities of celebrity lived in the contrived fear of their corporeal forms becoming as thin and vacuous as their usefulness if they were not continuously in the public eye and, like the ghosts of dreams exposed to daylight, dissolving into nothingness as if they never really existed at all.

GASME had kept their word. Aliens of all sorts had toiled for ten years, without a single dollar of Earth investment, to complete the Martian facility. Some were still scraping in the red soil on the other side of the atrium’s windows, disinterested in the activity within. There were machines riding the backs of insects and amoebas seated on spindly robots. Some were stock-still so it was impossible to know whether they were asleep, turned off, or watching the ceremony.

While the glass-enclosed fanfare honored and congratulated the few responsible, none in the congregation truly assimilated the miraculous fact that Humanity had at last achieved the status of interstellar species. Humans were no longer big fish in the small pond of their limited solar system; they were now whales in the galactic sea and just as powerful and influential.

Outside the glass, Human-introduced anaerobic bacteria gobbled carbon dioxide and pooped oxygen—the same microbes that billions of years before, on an infantile Earth, had made the planet habitable for air-breathing animals. Lithoautotrophs fixed carbon in their microbial bodies and drew energy from the oxidation of the plentiful iron in the red rock. In dying, they formed the rudiments of soil for future Martian generations.

Unnoticed by anyone at the party was Earth, a pale blue dot with a smaller attendant moon, rising above the Martian horizon, the morning star preceding a distant, cold sunrise.

Miriam and Chuck steadied Richard’s arms as his hands held the oversized ceremonial scissors. The word EARTH was printed on the top blade; MARS was printed on the bottom.

“In cutting this ribbon,” Richard wheezed, “we sever the bond anchoring Humanity to a single planet.” He closed his eyes and squeezed. Miriam and Chuck provided the energy to finish the motion. The divided ribbon wafted away in slow motion, blown by breaths of air more uplifting than the low-gravity environment. When the scissor blades joined, only EARTH was visible. Nancy tossed a pinch of Flock into the air above the audience. The others on stage tossed their own, and the recipients snatched the dust out of the air and flung it back.

Flock tossing was the latest fad on Earth to commemorate anything—from weddings where it was tossed onto heads instead of rice to funerals where people dropped it into the grave just before the dirt to rubbing it on a pitcher’s mitt for good luck, which was legal according to major league baseball rules.

“I wish Quane were here to see this,” Richard said. Only Miriam and Chuck were near enough to hear.

A netful of balloons and boxloads of confetti floated down onto the party. The Homestead Indiana High School band, selected by social media after a year-long competition, struck up a brilliant and soaring but musically abridged version of “Mars” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Tastefully removed from the printed program was the subtitle, “Bringer of War.” The weighty program was packed with a multiday, 24-hour schedule of rock, jazz, and classical bands, half of which comprised the men and women living and working on Mars.

The headliner of the night, starting at ten o’clock, would be the local group Flocking Fools, who had recently signed their first Earth-side record contract.

The new Earthling-Martian society had searched for an appropriate demonym for the Humans now living on Mars. Of all the proposed names—Martians, Maerthlings, Earmartians—Humarts, a slang form of Humartians, became the unofficial default title due to its ubiquitous usage among the emails and texts of the people living, working, and dying on Mars.


CHAPTER 3

The fact that two is the sum of one plus one is immaterial; what is essential is that one and one resolved to become two.”

The Third of the Four Formulas of Bleen

Donald Gregory paced the unvarnished wooden floor. Thin puffs of dust jumped out from under his soles. At the end of each five-paced stride, he stopped and lifted his eyes from his shoes to trace an invisible check mark in the air with his right index finger. Then he spun around on his size-eleven Allen Edmonds’ Moras and repeated the stride and check. He was running down his mental spreadsheet and verifying the details of the mission that had been code-named Simoom, and breaking in his one-inch heels. Nothing says power like height. Except for the shoes, he was in disguise from head to ankle in a navy-blue hooded sweatshirt and gray sweatpants. The paper tags had been torn off; the remaining plastic tag holders and fold creases attested that the items had been recently purchased and were still unwashed. The same board whined under the weight of his foot with each pass.

The miniscule wooden office was in an anonymous, red-brick building that once upon a time had housed an assortment of businesses. Gregory paced across the floor of an old advertising agency before it went bankrupt in the late 70s. Empty drawers on two leaning file cabinets gaped at him with slack jaws. A grimy chrome and Formica table under the window was the only other furnishing. Demolition would not be enough to exorcize the smell of varnished wood and tobacco smoke clinging to every surface. A single soot-stained window framed a flat-roofed auto body shop and, just beyond, the gleaming glass headquarters of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA).

The agency owned this building and provided it as a secure cover for clandestine meetings like Gregory’s. DARPA’s very deep, very dark, very secret pockets were funding Simoom. If it was successful, Gregory hoped to ride the positive wave all the way to the White House. If not, he might be kneeling to fit Moras on his colleagues.

Gregory had moved from a position as President Burke’s secretary of defense to one as a defense lobbyist. His overlarge ears and heavy eyes still reminded the casual observer of a basset hound, but he had lost 25 pounds of paunch using a commercially promoted diet and a library of exercise CDs since he had left the Burke office. Nothing says power like height and fitness.

The last of the mental check marks verified that his alibi was airtight; there was no way to connect himself to Simoom if it should fail and the details were made public. The ensuing media storm would be a scandal of historic proportions, with tabloid-sized headlines and possible prison time for those involved.

The beige walls were tattooed with dirty squares and rectangles, the ghostly remains of long-missing framed diplomas and photos. The sole decoration was a poster tacked to the wall next to the door. The upper left tack was missing, the corner bent down like a floppy dog ear. The picture was a cartoon of an elegantly dressed party crowd holding large cocktail glasses, smiling and laughing while leaning on the rail of a luxury yacht. Under the water, wrapped in the boat’s rusty anchor chain and dragged across the rocky, weedy bottom, was a handful of wide-eyed people holding their breath with reddened, puffed cheeks. The motivational slogan read IF YOU’RE NOT ON BOARD, YOU MUST BE THE ANCHOR. Several open-mouthed fish stared in shocked surprise at the chained group.

He blinked once and pulled out his phone to search for any other Nuthatch Productions motivational posters. They could not have been in business long with that level of inspiration, and any still-circulating mint quality works might be valuable collector’s items.

Gregory jumped at the rap on the rattling pane of opaque, frosted window in the office door. The cut-glass doorknob spasmed left and right, jerking in its tarnished-brass skirt as if a thief were testing all combinations. The lock finally yielded, and the door swung open.

Admiral Kus, unfamiliar with the protocol for a midcity, cloak-and-dagger meeting, hesitated in the doorway. Kus’s disguise was a gray hooded sweatshirt and navy-blue sweatpants. A price tag dangled off the heel of neon-red running shoes. Kus was a man built of blocks. His flattop haircut and wide, square jaw was a no-neck cube atop shoulders as straight and thick as a railroad tie. In full-dress uniform, his arms and legs squared off his torso to form a perfect rectangle. Now he looked like he had been stuffed into an uncomfortable, rumpled sack up to his neck.

“Admiral,” Gregory said, moving toward him with hand extended. “Come in.”

Admiral Kus blinked. He pushed his hood back, just skimming the salt-and-pepper bristles that appeared to have been laser-machined level. He summoned some military composure and a few of the rumples disappeared. He squeezed Gregory’s hand with the intensity of one subduing a foe, pulled close, and in a low voice just above a whisper, asked, “Gregory, is Simoom a go?”

Gregory had not achieved success as a military-industrial complex lobbyist, because he had a weak handshake. He had tried, tested, and graduated every method of grip improvement available. He had even patented a couple of his own ideas. Therefore, Kus’s attack on Gregory’s manhood was not a surprise, and he responded with a crushing grasp of his own.

Gregory nodded. “Simoom is a go, Admiral.”

There was a tiny wince in the crow’s feet at the corner of the admiral’s left eye before they broke the handshake.

“DARPA agreed to every detail of Simoom, Admiral. Are you ready?”

The admiral strode to the window and leaned his knuckles on the table to peer out the grimy window. “Three ships are assembled and waiting at the moon.”

Gregory stood next to Kus, wiped a diagonal line of soot off the window, and smeared it between his finger and thumb. “How much Flock will you need?”

“At a hundred pounds per bomb,” Kus glanced up toward the ceiling and reiterated the calculation he had made many times, “and one hundred bombs, we will need ten thousand pounds.”

“I’ve accumulated a little more than that from just about every agency with a DARPA appropriation—from EPA and OSHA to the FDA and CDC. Skimming a little here and a little there, it all adds up and deflects blame if something goes wrong.” The soot had vanished from his fingertip. “Have you picked the planet?”

“I believe we have.” Kus rubbed the palm of his right hand with his left thumb. The action could have been interpreted as either massaging away Gregory’s handshake or wringing his hands in the diabolical gesture of an avaricious conqueror eager for battle.

“Our galactic positioning software found a planet. It seems to be in the middle of nowhere, on the periphery of the galaxy. No indications of trade or travel with other planets.” He squinted through the line of clean glass that Gregory had drawn. A bikini-clad woman advertising an internet travel site smiled back alluringly from a billboard atop the auto garage and beckoned him to join her on the deserted beach.

“It’s perfect. Middle of nowhere, no trade, no one knows it exists. It is inhabited and habitable to us, according to the galactic software. It’s like one of those South Sea atolls we used to detonate atomic bombs on in the old days.” Kus tilted his head down and smiled back at the woman. She was lying on her side, leaning on her elbow. The other arm was reaching for something—the hand of her lover, a drink from the waiter, Kus himself?

“And the best thing…” Kus nudged Gregory in the ribs with his elbow, scanned the office conspiratorially, and spoke in a hushed tone despite their guaranteed privacy. “The name of the planet is Ars Lost. How perfect is that?”

Gregory’s brows furrowed and his head turned. “What does that mean?”

“Ars Lost.” Kus nodded like he was talking to a child. “Arse Lost. Get it?” The deep, sinister chuckle welled up from his personal conviction that the plan was not only militarily prescribed, but preordained by karma and fate.

Gregory bit his lip. The planet’s name was a sadistic but humorous coincidence. Simoom, defined as a suffocating, sand-laden wind, was the test of weaponized Flock on an unsuspecting planet. Data regarding its effectiveness to subdue an enemy—the required lethal concentration, the average time to death, and the residual fighting ability of troops exposed to doses less than fatal—was vital and required information.

“So they lose their ass and we gain military advantage over the entire galaxy,” Gregory raked his fingers through his hair.

“An advantage for defensive purposes only.” Kus emphasized the point with his thick index finger raised. “Up to now, it’s been merchants and hucksters coming to sell us a lot of galactic bric-a-brac and adoration bots.” He shivered at the word. “Nothing but a bunch of vultures and jackals smelling the blood of money and circling for a share of the spoils.”

Gregory drew short horizontal and vertical smears at the upper end of the one already on the window, forming an arrow. He knew the mission by heart, too, and repeated the arguments. “I know. We can’t even repel a bunch of smarmy junk dealers. What if, someday, some aliens get the bright idea they might want to come and take over? Will GASME be able to hold them off, or will they step aside? We have to know we can defend ourselves. Our immunity to the toxic effects of Flock makes it the perfect weapon.” He rapped his knuckles on the table. “And what happens if GASME should decide to annul our contract by legal or lethal means?”

Gregory turned away from the window, leaned his backside against the table, and stared at his shoes; some of their luster was gone in the murky light. “I know all the self-preservation reasons for doing this, but I still have ethical reservations about killing an entire planet full of innocent, unsuspecting people.”

Kus shook his head. “A military lobbyist with ethical reservations?” He tsk-tsked and winked at the billboard woman. “The galactic positioning software just said Ars Lost was inhabited.” He windshield-wiped his index finger in front of Gregory. “That doesn’t mean they’re people, or even intelligent. They might be animals, dancing rocks, or pulsating blobs of grape jelly. What’s morally significant about losing a few hundred soulless aliens compared to the security and continuance of the human race?” Kus waved off Gregory’s concerns with a loose backhand. “Besides, no one will ever find out. Ars Lost might be the first foothold in a long line of Human planetary occupation.”

Kus put his arm on Gregory’s shoulder, squeezed, and pulled him close, then leaned in close, “Let the bleeding hearts, a hundred years from now, fret over the reparations to the Ars Lost ancestors—if there are any.” His free hand threw a light body punch into Gregory’s ribs. “We are here and now. This is history, man! These are the times that build men’s legacies.”

Gregory mulled over the image—hordes of pleading aliens, both grotesque and gorgeous, dying in heaps and parted down the middle to allow Humanity’s military march throughout the galaxy, planet by planet, invited or not. Disparaging the innate worth of an individual or race was the starting point for every war of conquest on Earth; casting the enemy as inferior—a heathen, Hun, savage, or alien blob of jelly—lullabied one’s soothed conscience to sleep at night.

“How soon can you get the Flock?” Kus asked. His hand was inside his sweatshirt pocket, fingering his wallet. Simoom’s success was guaranteed. A trip to visit the woman on the beach would be a well-deserved personal reward after his return. He would ask to call her Lola.

“I can have it to you in a week,” Gregory said.

“Right. Ars Lost is about two months away at normal gravity. We’ll assemble the bombs in transit.”

Kus reached up and drew a circle on the window to encompass the woman on the billboard. The circle just happened to intersect the dull end of the arrow. He smiled lustfully, locked his eyes with Lola’s, and winked. Conquistador!

“That’s it, then.” Gregory pulled the shade down halfway, to signal those listening by laser eavesdropping that the meeting was concluded and they could prep for the next incognito. Without a goodbye, good luck, or handshake, he turned left in the hall. Kus followed moments later and turned right.

All that was left of the meeting were a few dusty, random footprints and a sooty pictogram symbolizing both Mars and Man.


CHAPTER 4

Happiness and joy are momentary distractions from your misery; for one fraction of an instant, you deluded yourself with the silly notion that the Universe cares. Good luck with that.”

The Fifth of the Eight Errors of Bleen

Quane, the devilish-looking Dia’Bolos, was so drunk on Kick Your Klaardids, he grappled against the barstool swaying to shake him off by wrapping his prehensile barbed tail around the seat’s cracked wooden pole. The talons of his feet clutched the bar’s tarnished-brass footrail. His hairless, red forehead rested on the bar and rocked from side to side in a small puddle of his own drool and steaming remains of spilled refreshments. Small bubbles formed when his nostrils exhaled through the swill. Blaring music, like rocks dropped on shredded metal, banged out of broken speakers. The migraine-inducing racket maintained his consciousness; it used to be one of his favorite songs.

A Kick Your Klaardid cocktail was made up of one part vinegar, two parts fermented goo from the folds of a male Shiel, and three parts Sleens—the digested remains of a blind, brainless, weasel-faced creature after passing through the nineteen stomachs of a two-horned Trazom. The mess was shaken and poured over two frozen-methane cubes and one frozen ammonia cube, then served in diamond-like carbon hemispheres to concentrate the foggy miasma.

One of Quane’s horns was broken—the result of a recent skirmish with a bug-eyed Dirk who was three times his size. A well-beyond-drunken disagreement over the theory of galactic ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny had digressed into a dispute about the relative beauty of two female species Quane had never heard of. They were winking, flapping, flailing, and flagellating an undecipherable message of attraction or repugnance toward Quane and his opponent. Pools of mucus were dripping, coagulating, and glistening on the floor beneath their stools.

The drunken Dirk had pushed him, demanding an opinion in a voice loud enough for the ladies to hear. Already three days deep into a serious bender, and rather than guessing the answer, Quane ducked his head and rushed the Dirk. His target reacted by releasing a greenish fog. Quane connected with nothing more substantial than a stinking vapor. Dirks were instinctively programmed to sidestep after emitting a distracting cloud like a bullfighter uses a cape to deflect a bull’s charge. Quane had crashed into a broken gambling machine, and his horn had broken off in the coin return slot.

A bit of stained napkin now swung off his other, intact horn, twitching in the direction of the last random bar breeze and rocking on its swaying skewer. A cold, wet glass slammed next to his head and splashed drool on his cheek. Without lifting his head, he slapped his last bit of barter on the bar. His hand jerked back, stung by one of the dead, thorny feet on the thing Humans called a cockroach.

Quane strained to lift his leaden head and force his weighty eyelids open. Chapped lips curled over the edge of the drink. Between bottles of swirling, multicolored liquids, fountains of thick, bubbling slime, and various jars retaining a variety of squirming, toothy, and spidery condiments, a scary, drunk, and broken Dia’Bolos stared back—his own face reflected in the cracked and stained mirror behind the bar. He belched and tasted the putrefied remains of a day’s worth of drink.

How rich he could have been after selling those junk engines to the strange Smez-like creatures. Their name escaped his Kicked brain. Humez? Mumens? Earthends?

Before receiving his full share, Wyruk, his boss, had been arrested, tried, and convicted of transporting Xcrutians. All of his assets were seized. The sentence mandated he be tied to a planet sweeping through a meteor storm, submersed in a lake-sized waste pit of a Shiel herd, and his remains eaten and digested through the nineteen stomachs of a two-horned Trazom. Those remains were then toasted on a planet engulfed in the atmosphere of a red-giant star, and finally, just for spite, any remaining gatherable flecks of dust were injected into the black hole at the center of the galaxy.

Xcrutians fed on fear and reproduced based on consumption. The mortal threat they posed to every inhabited planet made it a capital offense to transport a single individual off their home world. Wyruk had three on his ship when apprehended. His plan was to turn them loose on Earth and steal all the genetic material from the planet’s flora and fauna. Life was a valuable commodity in the comparatively lifeless universe.

Many of the older planets had polluted, overgrazed, or paved their environments into extinction by accident or design. By the time they realized their home world was beyond saving, without exception, they were as well. Desert and deserted planets became local trash dumps, prisons, or both. The original inhabitants, unsung and unknown, could be enticed to recount the entire history of their home world with a simple slap of a free Kick Your Klaardid coupon on the bar.

Wyruk had advanced him 1 percent of the worth of Earth’s genomes, with the promise of doubling his money after black-marketing the haul. But that was all over.

And now Quane was a fugitive. Rumor had it that beings from all over were asking for him by name. Most were unarmed. Many appeared ordinary, not police or bounty hunters. None divulged the reason they were searching for him. None of his actions warranted such a search, whether from a simple, political misunderstanding or revenge for an old deal gone wrong. He kept to out-of-the-way dives. But that left him without a friend to borrow from or the possibility of a job, legal or larcenous.

The unnamed, dilapidated bar Quane currently infested stood on a planet that was half garbage dump and half prison. Reeking mountains of trash encircled the occupied zones. Trash pickers, seedy prison guards, drunken reprobates, and anonymous criminals had filled the resident list of the last planetary census. A tenth of the population was now crammed into the bar.

Resigned to the fact that this might be his last watering hole, Quane burbled into the puddle on the bar. “I give it nine Ks out of ten. This is one hell of a resort—well worth your while to visit.”

Other reviews, posted and still available, trumpeted the planet’s amenities centuries before it had become a dump.

10Ks: “Celebrated our one hundred and twenty-second honeymoon. The food was terrific. The waiters were to die for!” —Mrs. Mifbniti Glitchulaqtor and random lover

Only 3Ks: “The beds were hard, the pillows soft, and the waiters too salty. Will not repeat.” —The three Wiliopnbes of Ioxfronqa

10+K: “Oh my god! Heaven must be a third-rate dump in comparison. And those waiters… Primo yummy.” —Foxzuinita the Jodiest

As the long, spiral arm of galactic fate would have it, Mrs. Glitchulaqtor (along with her latest romantic mate), the three Wiliopnbes, and the gushing Foxzuinita found themselves occupying adjoining rooms in the same hotel on a planet with an unpronounceable name that all sentient species in the galaxy simply referred to as Duh-uuhh.

The group’s unanimous reviews rated the local waiters as perfect tens.

Quane spent all he had on this last drink. A bead of sweat on the outside of the glass slid to the bar, a tearful goodbye. He raised his drink to the miserable reflection and hoped the self on the other side of the mirror was having a better time of it than he was—whatever time was left. He was penniless, homeless, and starving. “Bleen Flock us both,” he toasted and winked at his mirror-dwelling twin.

A sudden gale-force wind blew the paper scrap off Quane’s horn. The creatures sharing the world with his reflection were in a mad flurry. Some scrambled, holding their breath. Some rubbed and shielded body parts as if stung or shot; they banged into and bounced off of other escapees and furniture in their path. Candles in the low-hanging chandeliers, knocked by the taller rabble, bent and dripped burning wax onto their heads, inciting them further. A feathered ball banged into Quane’s back. A bit of his drink sloshed onto the bar. He swore violently at the loss and spun to see what the reflective hubbub was all about. He belched again and swooned from the stench of his own breath.

The crowd was running straight at him like a herd of wild Shiel, driven by a steaming, flashing, crackling something. The stampede parted in front of him and spread to the left and right as if he were the impenetrable unhexquadium blade on an asteroid sweeper’s prow.

Quane clung to his stool by his tail and sat fixed and unblinking. Bereft of all motor skills, he would have fallen and been trampled at the slightest twitch. Death from hunger would claim him within days anyway. A silent prayer to Bleen pleaded for the thing to kill him, eat him, and put him out of his Flocking misery.

As the fearsome monster approached, it revealed itself from head to toe. Balls of crushed paper danced on the ends of thin, twisting wires. The hairs were anchored to a wide, scaly head. Eyes mounted on short stalks gyrated at the commotion. Three toothy snakes squirmed and snapped at the air inside a wide, lipless mouth. When the crowd dispersed, Quane watched two stubby arms pat down a furiously swirling cloud fluctuating between white and gray. It emitted long and short electric sparks.

The creature was a Rebrozian, possibly the richest species in the galaxy after one of their too-too-many-great ancestors, Nitram the Average, had stumbled onto Dr. AtZ’s experiment. The accidental discovery of the means to cross the membrane separating light and dark space enabled travel across the galaxy in weeks instead of centuries. The Rebroz system maintained the exclusive, and extremely lucrative, licensing agreement to manufacture and sell stardrive engines.

The Rebrozian was too elegant a customer for this despairing dung heap.

Gruseltmira emitted an annoyed huff and dropped onto the stool next to Quane. A spark from her dress snapped to his pointed fingernail extended in her direction. The shock induced his grip to relax, and his last KYK plummeted to the floor, shattered, and evaporated into a thin fog less substantial than his future.

Quane grimaced at the Rebrozian, but his slack facial muscles contorted into an expression of a sad clown with a batch of terminal hemorrhoids. He would have throttled her but for the threat of another shock and the fear of falling to the ground, where he might be perforated by broken glass or suffocated by the heavy cloud of toxic smoke, drink condensation, and digestive emissions from the departed, unwashed rabble. He sniffed his underarms and winced; he was possibly the least washed of the lot.

“So, stranger,” the snakes in Gruseltmira’s mouth clickity-clacked. “What do you think of my new dress?” The clouds swirled, leveled, and whitened as she smoothed them down. The lightning stopped.

Quane set his forehead back onto the bar and waited for the bouncers to toss him out in the alley with the rest of the garbage. It was an appropriate answer to one of his prayers for deliverance—denial of a last drink. Bleen had Flocked him over good.

“It just killed me,” Quane burbled through the puddle on the bar.

Gruseltmira spun to face him, and three clumps of paper flew off the spindly hairs on her head. One smacked Quane’s cheek and fell on the bar. “At last, someone who appreciates the finer things in life. Waiter. Waiter! What are you drinking, stranger? I’m buying.” A bit of blue and rays of sunlight rolled around her dress.

Quane lifted his head and wiped his face. Through blurred vision and between cracks and stains, he saw his mirror twin behind the bar wink. Maybe Bleen was finally on his side.


CHAPTER 5

If a star swallowed you, no one would notice a single photon of its extra brightness. If you swallowed a star, everyone would be blinded by your sudden stardom.”

The Seventh of the Nine Nuisances of Bleen

Git Utaalk bowed before the five members of Otkin Adarab Utaalk’s High Committee for the Protection of Utaalkian Engineering until his antennae touched the floor. Two of Git’s three hearts fluttered with pride; his selection to manage this mission was an extreme honor. All three of his hearts also palpitated in fear of failure that he might not accomplish the mission and the resulting downfall of forty thousand years of Utaalkian civilization. The sound of dripping condensation matched every ninth beat.

The committee held audience in the most sacred and regal building of all Adarab Utaalk. Members sat on luxurious, sand-padded rock cradles formed to accommodate their segmented tails. Their table was a thick slab of unpolished rock resting on two boulders. The circular stone room was vast to any ordinary citizen used to crawling along the ground and living in snug, underground rock crevices hollowed out by natural forces and basic hand tools. The room was twice as tall as Git when he stood upright. This was the second-largest room on the planet, by volume, after the stardrive engine manufacturing facility.

“Floof,” Git said. The word was the equivalent of “I am nothing but a faint stain on the ground at your feet but will attain Nirvana should you decide to step on me.”

“Git,” the committee chair said. “Stand up and face us.”

Git complied. Globes lit from within by glowing molds were suspended over the heads of each of the five seated at the table, testament to the brilliance of their tiny brains. A tapestry, stained with dried vertical runnels from decades of exposure to the dampness, covered the wall behind them. The illustration depicted the history of their civilization: from club-wielding, hairy primitives to a smooth-shelled contemporary Utaalk sitting astride a stardrive engine.

The committee members were extremely old. Older than Djt, their carapaces were dark, their antennae broken and stiff. Git guessed they were in their Cq’s to Cz’s. While ordinary workers built the engines that generated the entire Utaalkian wealth stream without the thought or promise of the smallest bit of pain relief or medical attention, those who managed the planet’s wealth found enough in the budget to provide themselves with the best on-world and off-world medicine.

“Phase one is complete?” asked the committee chair, seated in the middle. The globe over his head was redder and brighter than the others.

“Yes, Your Chair, Your Honor, Your Existence,” Git stammered, bobbing his head after every address. The other members sat silent and still in their cradles. The ceremonial dress, indicative of political and social superiority, was a simple necklace made from dried samples of their own excrement. Obviously, only those with the time and energy to collect, cure, and display what others thought useless had the time to plan the present and future of the planet as well as judge what was of true value and beauty on all of Adarab Utaalk. The risen sun, Adarab, was tattooed on each of their chests.

“Everything went as planned?”

“See for yourself, Your Highest.” Git held out a small cube. A juvenile ran out of nowhere, snatched the cube from Git’s pincer, and disappeared into the shadows on the other side of the room. The page had not yet grown adult claws, and its shell was orange and pliable.

The globe above the chair opened and sprayed light onto the upper wall behind Git. A grainy black-and-white soundless motion picture replayed Jbx aiming a crossbow at an off-camera target. He swallowed hard, and his eyestalks retracted into their sockets at the instant Djt was decapitated by the arrow.

“Excellent. And phase two?” The committee chair spoke without seeming to move his mandibles.

“I uploaded the video to every galactic news agency. Jbx will forever be known,” Git held back tears, “here and throughout the galaxy, as the first Utaalk in history to kill another Utaalk. Our communication has been broadcasting continuous updates and pleas for help to capture the fugitive Jbx.”

The chair was indifferent. “Phase three is prepared?”

“Jbx’s ship is programmed to scuttle itself halfway to Earth.” Git returned to a deep bow. The chair’s lack of inertia was unsettling. “The evidence of the sabotage will be ejected into space and replaced with perfect data confirming that faulty repairs were responsible for the breakdown.

“We expect GASME to be extremely suspicious. Hopefully, the video of the murder will convince them that Jbx is a traitor and fugitive seeking asylum from her home world and they will accept her offer to help the Humans.” Git’s back was strained, and he felt a squeak between his eleventh and twelfth segments.

“If the ruse is successful—and there is no reason it should not be, as your plans are always flawless, as are your minds—we proceed with phase four.”

“It must be so,” the chair said. “Failure of the mission means the end of our planet. You are dismissed.”

“Yes, yes, it will be so. As you say. Thank you. Thank you.” Git bobbed, bowed, and backed up until he bumped the door. Then he turned and ran.

Halfway across the galaxy, the GASME board of directors had finished watching the astonishing news footage of Jbx Utaalk killing Djt Utaalk. Intense analysis and discussion followed.


CHAPTER 6

Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself.”

The Ninth of the Twelve Trials of Bleen

The 15-square-mile stardrive engine manufacturing facility was laid out in the shape of a Human hand. The palm housed the Engine Assembly Building (EAB) and Habitat Assembly Building (HAB) and alone covered 10 square miles.

The thumb was the Miriam Wu Memorial Atrium. It served as the main entrance for visitors and dignitaries, and doubled as a ballroom for assemblies, lectures, and black-tie galas. The waiting list to reserve the atrium was twelve years long. Corporate executives, afraid their positions would terminate long before their function reached the front of the line, had no compunction against blowing scads of corporate profits to leapfrog ahead. Others, near the end of their venture capital ropes and fretful their entire operation might fold long before their date, shrewdly auctioned their positions in the queue in order to keep the lights on.


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