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.
Sprosty and Vincent constructed a make-shift work shed and lab around the cab on the roof of the bookstore building. It resembled nothing more than a poor man’s Frankenstein movie set but nobody could see that from the outside. And that was the point. When you bring people back from the dead, you’re crossing enough unmeasured ethical boundaries. No reason to pique a cop’s curiosity on top of that.
“Blue Blood Blues” by The Dead Weather was the soundtrack Zelda picked for the task. Then, for continuity’s sake, some White Stripes.
When did she become a disc jockey? Vincent wondered.
Zel popped the trunk. He looked for a red handle along the side emblazoned with the KahunaKorp logo. Below it in small letters was the product name BringyBacky 9000.
“How did shitkicker ad execs ever come to run the fucking universe?” Zel grumbled as he pulled the lever.
The cab shuddered. The trunk transformed. From within it folded out a series of spider leg-like metal stilts and shining cables. They began to intertwine as though being expertly woven by some invisible strongman. In a gasp – Vincent’s in fact – the stilts and cables became a cocoon shaded in green and blue lights that pulsed along the edge of the entire construct.
A rectangular aperture appeared on its side. The floor glowed pale yellow.
“I’m getting some weird flashbacks to Cronenberg’s The Fly, guys,” Vincent said. “Is this thing safe? Are we sure these guys won’t come back zombies or mutants? Maybe they don’t want to come back. Maybe they want to stay among the un-living.”
“Worst thing that happens,” Zel said, “is that they come back and die. And guess what?”
“They’re dead already,” Zel smiled.
“That’s morbid,” Sprosty said. Then he laughed. “Nevermind. It’s funnier than it is morbid.”
Vincent clapped his hands together and rubbed them. “OK, welp, let’s get these motherfuckers into the Easy-Bake resurrection-ifier, uh, thing.”
Sprosty said, “You’re so articulate, Vincent. It’s a wonder Elsa hasn’t fallen head over heels for you.”
Vincent shot Sprosty a death glare.
“And now I’ll shut up,” Sprosty said. “Because you’re looking pretty murdery.”
Zel said, “Who are we going to bring back first?”
The three looked one to the other. They hadn’t thought about it. Maybe it didn’t matter.
“Let’s go alphabetical,” Vincent said.
Zel shrugged. “Sure.”
They placed Asimov’s blood at the center of the BringyBacky 9000. A dime-sized pool of ruddy fluid – all that Asimov ever was and ever would be was there on the bright floor of Zelda’s resurrection machine.
Vincent’s heart felt heavy. He was excited as well as nervous and terrified. His pulse skyrocketed. He wiped sweat from his forehead.
Asimov was coming back. The world needed a hero. So did Vincent.
His hands shook as he closed the door to the chamber. He nodded to Zel who entered the code to begin ignition. The air inside the work shed buzzed with electricity and smelled of ozone. The chamber hummed and shuddered.
Zel crossed his arms.
Sprosty shielded his eyes.
The red hair covering Elvis’s little body stood on end.
Vincent starred into the small observation window on the chamber’s side, as curious as a kid at the aquarium. He couldn’t take his eyes off of it. Arcs of blue danced and popped, hinting at what was to come. Alien technology that could bring the dead back to life. Ingenious, impossible, magical, and so fucking cool.
A pale mist the color of milk filled the tube. Through it, Vincent could see bones come into being; bits of calcium and marrow solidifying. Where there had been nothing, now there was something: first a foot, then a leg, now two. Soon there was a complete skeleton. Then musculature laced with veins and larded with yellow fat. It was a kind of time-lapse movie, ever accelerating. A seed was becoming a flower, blooming into a human. Eyes popped out of their shoots. The angles of the face took shape, then a dressing of skin. The final touch was a coat of hair.
The machine chimed with the same cheerful ding made by Vincent’s microwave.
The door slid open. The mist curled out ribbon-like and then, standing on spindly legs in front of everyone, was Isaac Asimov.
Sprosty squealed. “It’s alive! Alive!“
The first words Asimov said were: “I feel naked without a bolo.” As it happened, he was as bare as a Degas nude.
With a bathrobe in hand, Vincent greeted the legend and as he clothed Asimov, he searched for something to say that would put him at ease. “This is the future, Mr. Asimov. Hello.”
“This is the future?” asked Asimov, drawing in decades of lost breath, “a grease-stained garage – with a checkered taxi?”
“It gets better. I promise.”
Vincent and Asimov sat downstairs in the bookstore. Asimov was swaddled in Vincent’s comforter. He sipped from a mug of warm coffee and said, “It’s been a long time since I had coffee. Janet convinced me to give it up.”
“Yeah, your wife. Her Mormon background,” Vincent said. “But I thought you might need it. All things considered.”
“All things considered … Have we reached Mars?”
“No, sir. But mechanical instruments have gone in our place. Rovers. You remember the Viking spacecraft. But our reach has been in retreat. Machines go but not people. We can’t seem to afford to send humans. Us. We have a space station, though. It’s manned.”
“Are people still reading my books?”
Yes, yes yes, Vincent nodded. “People still know the names Elijah Baley and Susan Calvin.”
“Foundation and the Laws of Robotics. I always thought I’d be remembered for those. But what I wanted to be remembered for was no one book, but my opus – my life’s work.”
“Your work isn’t over, Mr. Asimov. You’ve got a lot to do.”
“In what regard?”
“Saving the world.”
Asimov looked down into his coffee mug and pushed it away. “It kept my hands warm. This world is cold.”
“More than you know.”
Asimov’s blue eyes studied Vincent with curiosity. He had a nervous smile and, outside of the sideburns, a head of thinning grey hair. “If you want my help,” he said, “I will need a new pair of glasses.”
“Not a prob.”
Asimov’s smile expanded in tentative fashion when abruptly, a pink, naked man ran screaming past them out onto the street.
“What on Yahweh’s good green Earth was that?” Asimov said.
Vincent shrugged. “I’m not entirely su–”
Sprosty was there in a heartbeat. Elvis bobbed on his shoulder. The blue alien paused near Vincent and Asimov. He held up his hands the way a four-year-old would address his parents while explaining that there was a perfectly good reason why his finger found its way into the electric socket.
“Phil Dick got naked. And crazy. Again,” he said.
With that, Sprosty was out the door, chasing a somewhat paranoid and exposed-in-the-altogether person through the streets of Manhattan.
Asimov said, “And you thought bringing him back was a good idea?”
“Not the naked and crazy, but the rest of it … Yeah.”
Philip K. Dick walked up to the first person he saw on MacDougal Street – naked as a jaybird – and said, “You are living in a manufactured reality. What is real to you was made – made by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. What is real? You have no answer? I have no answer! There are no answers. There are only questions. Questions challenge the power – the power to get you to believe in the not-real. I distrust that power. They have a lot of it, the wherewithal to create an entire universe, universes – of mind. I ought to know. I do the same.” He paused. “Do you have any drugs?”
He’d been speaking to a nun. The nun began to weep.
Sprosty watched a few feet away with intense interest. Just how weird would things get, he wondered? In his hands was a dollar store bathrobe. Vincent had bought one for each person they resurrected. But Phil didn’t give a fuck. He wanted only to be loud and jubilant, to touch, to talk, to be stoned and not stoned – to be alive, and most assuredly, not to be dead.
Sprosty felt a kinship.
He giggled to himself. “Heh, Dick.”
Before anyone could call the cops, Sprosty walked up to Dick and spread the robe over him. He said, “Oh, jeez, Uncle Phil.” He gave the teary nun a forlorn smile. “Ma’am, I’m terribly sorry. Uncle Phil here is having one of his episodes.” He put the right kind of emphasis on ‘episodes’ to edge Sister Penguin toward pity. “I hope he didn’t frighten you.” Then, to Dick, “Come on Uncle Phil. Let’s go back inside where it’s warm and you’ll attract less attention.”
“That man needs help,” the nun said as she regained her composure.
“The family is painfully aware, Sister.”
“I apologize for any unpleasantness,” Dick said as he sat down next to Asimov. “Then again … I was dead. Now, maybe I’m not.” Dick took a deep gulp from the coffee mug. “This is another drug, you know, caffeine. It just happens to be legal. It is still legal, right?”
“So is clothing,” Vincent said.
“That’s nice. Are you sure this is the future? Have American mores advanced much beyond Disneyland? Not much, looks like. Nice store, at least,” said Dick looking around at the books.
“Thanks … Dick.”
“Who else are you hijacking?” He gestured to Asimov. “I see the great and popular Isaac is sitting beside me. And where is the blue guy? I might like to have a word with him.”
“You two will get along fine, I suspect. Sprosty is on the roof with Zel. They’re, uh, getting the rest of the band back together. Einstein, Heinlein and Heisenberg.”
Dick smiled. “Robbie! Nobody calls him that but me. He is the Dean, of course – and a gentleman. He understands. See, I believe that what happens inside–” he thumped his chest to make the point “– matters more than what goes on outside. I didn’t write fiction. My books are histories, diaries, biographies – my life story. Spacey, yes, but facts. The Dean was analytical. He was the outside to my inside. And all things military. Well, he wasn’t always that way. Something changed. But Robbie helped me when I was down and out. Which, unfortunately, was often. He loaned me money when I owed the IRS. Good heart. That is what it means to be human.”
Dick looked down at his coffee. “But that story line of his. The son rebels. The father has to teach the son. The son comes around and finally, daddy knows best. Too simple for me. I liked how he wrote but not always the ideas behind what he wrote.” Dick laughed. “I doubt if he likes the ideas in my writing. He knows I’m a flipped-out freak but still he helped me. You know, we never met. He was just a voice on the phone. That – reaching out to a man who might as well have been a stranger. That is the best of us.”
“We celebrate your recognition of virtue,” Asimov said dryly after being needled. “No one can argue against kinship with the human race. But there’s muddiness to your reasoning – and for that matter, your writing. The cardinal rule, my cardinal rule, is write clearly. By extension, it means, think clearly.”
Dick played with the idea of calling him Ike – a nickname he knew Asimov hated – but decided to dial it down. Enough excitement. “Isaac, I’ve been honest. True to my experience and a truth-teller about all of it. Except, maybe to the women I married.
“The universe is more than the alphabet and equations. We share this space with others. They don’t operate by the same rules. There is more than one reality. And if you think this universe is bad, you should see some of the others.”
“Yes, we only see one spectrum of light. There’s a broader spectrum, a rainbow of dimensions. This is not about the eye of the beholder. It’s not about your way, or my way. Neither is complete. It’s not all there is. Ironically though, it looks like you and I have both been thrown together into some new reality here.”
“Your reality,” Asimov said as he nodded to himself. “You’re just arguing points of view. Even if there was someplace very different, the laws of science would still apply. Your way may be a lot of fun, but it will make everyone else dizzy. Me included.”
Dick started to respond but Vincent cut him off. “Guys, this is fascinating. And the twelve-year-old me is orgasmic. But–” He lit a cigarette. “There are more pressing matters.”
“What are you smoking?” Dick asked.
“Nat Sherman. Hint of Mint. Natural menthol kind of thing. Want one?”
Vincent handed Dick one and lit it for him. Dick inhaled deeply and said, “Excellent.”
“Rather disgusting,” said Asimov. To Vincent, “Just wait until his paranoia kicks in. He’ll think you’re giving him an inhalant that can be tracked by neo-Nazis.”
Dick glared at Vincent nervously and said, “You aren’t, are you?”
Vincent said, “Jesus. No dude.”
Dick cocked an eyebrow but kept smoking.
As Vincent was wondering how five strong-willed people would mesh together as needed to save earth, Einstein walked downstairs into the kitchen area. He yawned and cracked his neck as if somewhat bored by the whole resurrection ordeal. His hair was as wild as the psychedelia of a Mouse-Kelly poster promoting a band at the Fillmore East circa 1968. He scratched his chest lackadaisically. In a thick German accent he said, “Where is my pipe and my tobacco?”
As he absorbed the newspaper, Einstein smoked. He could not be bothered to wear shoes. Socks sufficed. As he read, he scribbled numbers in the blank spaces on the paper. Looking down at the equation he said, “This is fucking bullshit!” His left hand shot up and yanked at his long grey hair. “Just, total bullshit!” He slammed his shoe-less feet down.
Dick walked in with a half-eaten bag of Doritos in his mitts. “S’matter?” He looked a little wigged out. His pupils were dilated, Dick’s seeming native state, but at least he wasn’t riffing on the pink light again. There wasn’t time for it.
“This equation is giving me a lot of problems,” Einstein said with a grimace.
Dick tossed a handful of chips into his mouth. Crunch crunch crunch. ”Well … what do you need it to do?” Crunch crunch crunch.
Einstein wasn’t thrilled about the noise – or the food falling out of Phil’s mouth – but he sucked it up and said, “I was examining equations that might explain how that creature – that machine that talks – which that ther creature – named Zel – says flies between the stars. How can it exist? It violates one rule of physics after another.”
“Just go with it,” Dick said with a shrug.
“That is not how the universe works. It’s not a roll of the dice.”
“Yes, it is.” Crunch … crunchcrunch. “You’re here. I’m here.” He fished around in the pocket of his robe for a leftover cigarette butt. He found one and lit it. “Just go with it.”
A moment later, Robert Heinlein entered. “Philip Dick. It’s about time we met. And Isaac, remember the Philadelphia Experiment?” Heinlein was all smiles and open arms.
“The Philadelphia Navy Yard, who could forget?” Asimov said. “We made a destroyer escort invisible. Then the Defense Department came in and big-footed us. To cover it up, the Pentagon made it into an urban legend. Worse, they said I couldn’t write about it.”
Asimov was exuding uncharacteristic warmth. He wrapped his arms around Heinlein. Dick joined in, wrapping himself around the twosome. Vincent thought, wasn’t this a little too Easlen? Like, Big Sur touchy-feely?
Einstein looked perplexed, as though there was no corresponding mathematical model for what he was witnessing. But then, he thought, I should be dead. So should three other people in the room. Instead of formulating an equation for what shouldn’t be happening, he shook his head and scribbled German in the newspaper margins, LACHERLICH or RIDICULOUS.
Now, Heinlein held court. “What are the facts?” he demanded. “What are the facts and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknowable future. Facts are your single clue.”
“The facts,” Vincent said, “are that an alien evil-doer is plotting to destroy earth. His name is Kommissar Kahunakrat. I’m told he’s the meanest son-of-a-bitch with a nigh invincible army. You guys might be the only ones who can stop him.”
“Always listen to the experts,” Heinlein said. “They’ll tell you it can’t be done and why – then go and do it.”
“Just why does this Kahunakrat want to destroy Earth?” Heinlein asked.
“It’s a little strange, Mr. Heinlein. It’s because of you. And it’s because of you, Mr. Asimov. Because of you, Mr. Dick.” He told the resurrected what Zel had explained to him. “Everything Earth wrote, said, broadcast, radioed – every poem, movie, bad joke, porn mag, and science formula–” he looked at Einstein “–has become commodified. We were now in the export business, without knowing it. Everything we do, I’m told, is big business – and ends up on an entirely unexpected stage – smack dab in the middle of the universe. We’re a hit and that’s the problem. We’re competition for Kahunakrat and his minions. That’s why the knives are out. Zel says the Kommissar won’t stop until the planet is ashtray residue.”
“Am I following you, right?” Dick said. “The Three Stooges, years later, in some Godforsaken patch of the galaxy, has come to mean a death sentence for us now?”
“Quite peculiar,” Asimov said after waiting his turn. “There is no belief, no matter how foolish, that will not gather adherents who will fight to the death for it. Even, in the name of Larry, Moe and Curly.”
“Don’t forget Shemp,” Dick added. “Everything is true. Everything everybody has ever thought. If nothing abides – and nothing does – everything is fucked up. Maybe it’s our time.”
“The universe doesn’t make sense,” Heinlein said. “I always thought it was built by government contract. On the other hand, I’m not ready to roll over and play dead.”
“Kahunakrat wants to shut down Earth,” Heinlein said. “He wants to censor us. Censor me. Censor you, Phil, and censor you, Isaac. Secrecy is the keystone to tyranny. This you may not know. Does any one of us here believe that? The result is always the same: oppression. I reject it. We all do. Mr. Einstein included. He knows first-hand the suffering a monster can inflict. Now we have another tin-star, two-bit marshal. But no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. Not the rack, nor the atomic bomb, not anything. You can’t conquer a free man. The most you can do is kill him. And I don’t plan to die.”
“Well, we’re already certifiably dead,” Dick said. He looked mournful and near grieving. “The cries of the dead are terrible indeed. To live is to be hunted.” He stood up, raising his arm as though leading a charge. “I’m not much, and I may be all I have, but count me in.”
That left Asimov. “To have guts is one thing. To be crazy is another. But violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. Maybe this Kahunakrat isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. I’m a creature of emotion as well as reason. You say Jane is still alive? Never let your morals prevent you from doing what is right. This is right.”
The three stood in a circle, arms outstretched, one hand on another. Asimov said, “Albert, get over here.” He dutifully did. They looked into each other’s faces, knowing they were making a decision bigger than themselves. They were the keepers of a much larger fate.
That’s when Heisenberg strolled in. In his own thick German accent, next to Einstein, he said, “Are you dabbling in the quantum?” He patted Einstein on the back. “Many ways for the improbable to come to pass in the quantum.”
“Spooky action,” Einstein said.
“Very spooky indeed.”
An alarm on Zel’s datapad rang. It sounded like a klaxon. Loud as hell and a warning of dread. He keyed open its hologram and a blue screen about two feet wide bloomed to life. He had a personal message. It was emblazoned with a reptilian smiley face.
Zel opened the message. It read: Hello there, Zelly-boy. Long time no talk. Last conversation we had was a bit rough, wasn’t it? But I do appreciate your help. Did appreciate I guess. Because what’s you’re doing now is a no-no. Naughty naughty.
You know you were my favorite. You always did a good job. Used to, of course. Unfortunately, that doesn’t change anything now. Wonderful that you’re back on the grid. We know where you are. We know how to find you. I look forward to killing you, Zelly baby. Killing you and killing you and killing you. I hope I’ve made myself clear. Killing you and killing everybody near you. And killing the dust spec of a planet all of you stand on.
The message evaporated. A timer took its place. A countdown clock.
The Combine would get to Earth in three days.
Zel felt a rush of anger and excitement. He smiled and said to himself, “I’m gonna put your goddamn head on a pike, Kommissar.”