About The Kulture Vultures
(and the Plot to Steal the Universe)
“Only five people can save the world. But there’s a problem. They’re dead.”
In the black of the cosmos, the Combine rules over entire planetary systems with an iron fist. Having harvested and destroyed the culture of billions upon billions to ensure that they, and only they, are the dominant form of entertainment in the universe, the Combine maintain a monopoly over hearts and minds everywhere with their terrible sitcoms.
Just so happens that the best pirated culture comes from Earth. The human monkeys might not be smart, but damn if they aren’t entertaining. Earth’s biggest fan, a lowly intergalactic cab driver named Zel, joins a few not-so-loyal companions in a race to prevent humanity’s extinction – by resurrecting Earth’s great pulp writers and scientists. The only ones with enough creative craziness to figure out how to stop the Combine.
They stood in a tight circle around Elvis and listened as the strange fuzzy critter told them his story. They drank. They smoked. Even Zel and Sprosty, because, well, this was weird. It was also depressing.
Elvis said, “We were librarians and scholars and writers and creators. We observed and tried to expand our understanding as much as possible. As soon as we were born, we were taught by our parents to learn and watch. And then to make new things. Because that added to the universe. Our guiding rule was: Never take; borrow, then add.
Vincent said, “You had families? Like a mom and a dad and brothers?”
“Yes. We all loved our parents. Our families. Every generation of Grandefudlian does. There is warmth in family. There was…”
“How old are you?” Zel asked.
“I was born twelve cycles ago. We learn very fast but physically, we stay small for a long time. We also live for three hundred cycles. Generally. It’s a matter of scale. Humans and other species grow faster because they have shorter lifespans.”
“And your people sent a twelve-year-old to live with the pirates?”
“No. They sent me to learn and observe and bring back intelligence. The pirate bay was the best place to find out more about human culture – which we were intensely curious about because of its uniqueness. Same reason you were there. The pirate bay was also the best place to learn about other cultures. It was free of Combine censorship or distortion.”
“But how did you survive? You’re tiny. Helpless.”
“Why did you bother to pick me up and save me?”
Zel laughed and then nodded, understanding. “For precisely that reason.”
“Most creatures in the universe wouldn’t harm me. My innocence is both genuine and an evolutionary defense mechanism. If something nasty did try to harm me, I just run away. I can move very fast. And I can hide where a bigger threat can’t go or reach.”
Vincent considered that. Said, “Why did you stay quiet until now?”
Elvis said, “It was safer for me. Safer if I stayed quiet and cute. Zel did save me but I’ve only known you all for a short time. What if Zel decided I wasn’t cute? And I did not want to compromise myself. My default mode of operation is to be silent and observe. That’s what I was taught.”
“And what changed? You said Grandefudlia–”
Elvis started to cry. “Dead.” Fat wet drops fell from his eyes. “It’s all gone now. My parents, family. My entire world.” He sniffled. “My race was connected to one another. We understood each other’s joy and pain. We feel that right in the moment, right as it happens. It’s why we never engaged in war. Our power is affinity. We live by the way of heart and mind.” Elvis reached out and curled a tendril around the wrists of Zel, Vincent and Sprosty. “We weren’t prepared when he came.”
Vincent tilted his head. “Who is ‘he?’”
Zel said, “The Combine.
Zel looked down. He thought about Kahunakrat and the machinations of evil. He thought about Zelda and how important she was. There was also the dream. That goddamn goliath of a ship punching through the atmosphere of Earth. It was Earth in the bulls-eye. He’d seen it from the beginning. He’d always known the Combine was coming here. But how?
Zel grabbed the sides of his head. The question a bullet ricocheting inside his skull.
Vincent and Sprosty stopped and gaped.
“You all right there, man?” Sprosty asked.
Zel bit his lip. He eyeballed the group. Some predatory instinct had become engaged.
When Zel spoke, the words were, “I’m fine.”
The gang watched as Zel’s eye color swirled to a dark red.
Zel said again, “I’m fine.”
Elvis crawled up Zel’s arm and took his rightful place on his shoulder. The two looked like some psychotic pirate duo.
Zel told Vincent and Sprosty, “Get your shit together. We’re grabbing Einstein and Heinlein. Then, we’re going on the offensive.” He grabbed the bottle of Jameson and drank. Stole one of Vincent’s cigarettes and smoked. “We’re gonna kill those Combine motherfucks.”
Vincent thought, This is gonna be hard to explain to Elsa.
Chapter 23: Inside Zelda
Zel was alone on the shop’s roof. He was trying to sort out his thoughts and those dreams. He opened Zelda’s driver-side door. Sat. Put his hands on the wheel of the cab. He caressed it like a lover after a decathlon of a fuck.
He said, “What are you doing to me?“ Those were the words that found their way out. He leaned back in the driver’s seat. Stared at his reflection in the rear view mirror.
His eyes, now blood-hued. Other colors – say green – you could get away with and still blend in. Red, man, how was he going to make that fly?
Beyond the physical change was the less visible change in his head: Unsettling confusion about all of it. Why did he feel this way? Why was he really out to stop the Combine? Yes, he loved Earth culture – the whole nine yards of delirium – but on an ordinary day, would he die for that?
Two cycles ago, when he and Zelda were careening between nebulae with some Cthularian in the back seat tossing out credit cubes, he wouldn’t have given a shit.
Earth? Enjoyed the stories. But – so long and thanks for all the pulp.
What was different now? And this idea to bring back the dead in the hope that they could stop the Combine with clever ideas … Where did that shit come from? Why the fuck would it work?
Zel punched Zelda’s steering wheel. He felt angry and stupid and started screaming. All hurt and uncertainty. He ran has hands over his face and wept.
Then it was over.
“What the fuck am I doing?” he asked himself as he tried to get a grip. Well, son, you’re saving a unique culture and you’re putting a dick in the Combine’s ass without a reach-around.
He thought: I knew this was going to happen. I knew all of it. Knew the Combine plans. Picked up Elvis but not just because he looked cute … But because I heard a voice? Some surreptitious memory? A dream? Was it make-believe? Except my make-believe is coming true. That memory of training. Being turned into an operative. To go behind the lines. Whose lines?
Zel shook the wheel of the cab. He made a fist.
He was being torn apart. Changing too fast. How many Zels were inside? And which one was the real Zel?
The cab driver just wanted to save Earth, the guy in love with pulp. There was also the guy who executed a Combine soldier. And the guy who felt the end of Grandefudlia as though he was there when it happened.
Zel considered that.
Grandefudlia is a tragedy but it may be more than that. It may be a key
So many keys. But how many locks – inside his head?
No, Zel shook his head. There’s one key. The key just has many parts. You just haven’t figured the whole deal out yet.
Pain. Torment. Training. Grandefudlia. Elvis. Vincent. Sprosty. The Combine. And … Zelda.
The cab thrummed under Zel’s seat. It turned on. Pumped its engines and hummed like a happy dog.
Zel sat forward. He put his hand on the dash.
He said, “Old gal, what do you have to tell me?”
With that, unexpectedly, Zelda told him.