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.
This time, Zel wasn’t dreaming.
Zelda was talking. She had a quiet, feminine voice that fluttered into his head as a butterfly descends on a flower. She said things inside his mind. Not telepathy, but something close. Something pumped right into his grey matter.
“You have to move faster now,” Zelda said. “The Combine – Kahunakrat – knows where you are. Until now, I only spoke to you in your sleep because it was safer. Safer because your unconscious mind did not know. But we’re running out of time, so I have to take this risk. The node that the Combine planted inside your skull – the device by which I’m communicating now – has betrayed you, because you are awake.”
“The Combine put a fucking radio in my brain?”
“A KahunaKorp quantum-entanglement transceiver, to be specific. It allows for faster than light data transfer. Affect one particle and then its mirror particle on the receiving end is also instantly affected. Plenty of loopholes in quantum physics. Einstein hated it. He called it spooky action at a distance.”
“When did they ram shit into my head?”
“A long time ago, Zel. I’ve been trying to show you.”
“The dreams,” Zel sighed.
“Yes and the memories of your training. I never intended it to be a daydream. But your mind has been scrambled by the Combine brain wipe.”
“Wait, wait. The Combine planted a transceiver in my head and they wiped my mind at some point?”
“Yes. Am I not being clear? We do not have much time.”
“Well, forgive me, but I’m a little dumbstruck by the fact that a fucking machine I’ve been driving for years is now talking to me and saying some pretty heavy shit.”
“I’m not a machine, Zel. And you haven’t been doing this for years. It’s much more recent – and urgent.”
“Open the glove compartment. Reach up and to the left. Pull the handle you find there,” Zelda instructed
As Zel reached across the cab he mumbled, “Bullshit. I know every inch–” But to his confusion and chagrin, the handle was there. He pulled it.
With a sharp shhht, the dash zipped open. It revealed a space about a foot and a half wide. Light mist snaked out. A warm glow pulsed inside.
Zel waved the mist away. Then he saw it sitting there. His eyes went wide. He jerked back in the driver’s seat. “Holy dicks.”
It was a brain. A curly pink mass the size of a football bobbing in a sealed, clear container of yellowish liquid. Like something the insect-crustacean Mi-go in Lovecraft’s Whisperer In The Darkness might have pilfered from Earth to fly between planets. Worse, he could be at the Drive-In Of Dreams watching the flick They Saved Hitler’s Brain.
Zelda said, “Don’t look so surprised, Zel. After all, I was your idea. All part of your plan to fight the Combine once they realized you were a traitor.”
Zel reached for one of the cigarettes he’d stolen from Vincent before storming up to the roof. He lit it, and then reached into his vest for a pint of Jameson he’d also stolen. After a lungful of nicotine and a pull from the little bottle, he said, “I don’t understand.”
“You will. Soon.”
Zel exhaled smoke from his nostrils. “All right.”
“I need you to do one more thing – stick your finger in the cigarette lighter.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“I told you we do not have a lot of time. And I need to transfer years of information. Direct contact is the fastest way. But it is going to hurt. And you are going to feel a bit different on the other side.”
Zel took another pull of whiskey. Then, another. Then, one more for good measure. He filled his lungs again with smoke. Breathed a little fire. “Fuck it,” he said and jammed his finger into the socket.
He thought he was going to die.
Zelda hummed. Throbbed, glowed and sparkled, cooing like it was good sex.
For Zel, it was all pain. His muscles strained. His eyes bulged. Both hearts in his chest beat fast enough to put any death metal drummer to shame. So much hurt. An overload.
But then he felt pleasure. He had to let go, first. When he stopped fighting, it was good. His mind swirled with forgotten times. His physiology swelled. Biceps and triceps that had gone flabby with time were newly redefined. A gut he didn’t realize he had was now a taught six-pack.
His body started to remember.
The years in hell. The years killing. Fighting and bleeding.
And turning against the Combine.
His heart remembered something too.
Zelda said, “When you go downstairs, tell poor Elvis he isn’t alone.”
Chapter 26: Saddle Up, Ride Out
Zel walked downstairs into the shop. He smoldered. Small arcs of blue and green electricity jumped across the skin of his now-toned form. None of the clothes he wore fit anymore. The janitor jumpsuit he still had on from the Asimov heist looked too big. Yet it was apparent that the person inside it was all muscle.
“Jesus,” Sprosty said. “You been working out? Like … Seriously in the last twenty minutes. Steroids? HGH? What?”
Zel smiled. His mood was superb. His body was tight and his mind was sharp. He was remembering.
He held out his hand toward Elvis. The red furball climbed into his palm and studied Zel.
Zel brought Elvis up to his face. Said, “You aren’t as alone as you might think.” He looked around the room. “I’ll take care of you. I give you my word.”
Elvis lowered his eyes. His tendrils wrapped around Zel’s wrist. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet.” He looked to Sprosty. “My blue, four-armed friend here is going to take you to the roof. And you’re going to get in the cab. And then some things are going to be a bit clearer. OK?”
Elvis and Sprosty nodded.
“I need to talk to Vincent,” Zel said.
Elvis turned and jumped onto Sprosty. The two made their way upstairs to the cab.
Vincent arched his eyebrows at Zel. “Hey, Buddha, what’s going on?”
“I’m not even sure how to explain it.” Zel tried to figure out exactly how much to tell Vincent. “Zelda is more than what she seems. She has pirate in her. She’s Grandefudlian –powered. And apparently I helped design her as part of a plan to fight the Combine.” He didn’t mention that he was a Combine soldier-turned-traitor.
“Uh …” Vincent scratched his head. “Zelda is another Elvis?”
“Just the brain, actually.”
“You have no idea.”
Zel told Vincent what happened inside Zelda. The memories that flooded back. His training – though he left out any hint that he’d been trained by the Combine.
Vincent said, “Jesus Christ. A double life and repressed memories. That’s some Phil Dick shit. So you used to be some military badass. Now you are again?”
“Maybe this is a dumb question, but what the fuck happened to nuke your memory in the first place?”
“Zelda said the Combine wiped me.”
“I was leading a war against them. A rebellion with the pirates.”
Vincent whistled. He poured himself a shot. “So, what? You got captured?” He threw the whiskey back.
Zel nodded and drank from the bottle. “They planted all these fake memories in me. Turned me into a cab driver.”
“Huh.” Vincent lit a cigarette. He stared at the floor, thinking. “Y’know … You would think that if the Combine was going to reprogram you, they’d make you hate the pirates. And pulp. Turn you back to their side.” Vincent squinted at Zel.
Then the rest of it dawned on Zel. “Oh, no.” He slammed his fist down, splintering wood on the register counter. “Fuck!” He rubbed his forehead. Zel’s eyes became erubescent, blazing crimson. He snapped his finger at Vincent. “Get Sprosty. Get outta that janitor disguise. We gotta go. Someone is gonna pay.”
“Get your ass in gear. NOW.”
Vincent looked hurt. “This new you is sort of a dick.”