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.
Vincent shut the bookshop down. He put up a sign that said Pierce’s Paper would be closed until further notice. He stood for moment looking out the window. For years, real estate hustlers had been trying to get Vincent to close these doors. Sell, relocate – just get outta there. Now, he was putting up the Closed for Business sign.
Behind him, Sprosty and Dick were making a commotion, pushing together tables so the team – writers, scientists and aliens – could sit in roundtable fashion. Share ideas, face each other and probably do a bit of hollering.
Dick and Heinlein sat on one side. Einstein and Heisenberg sat on another. Asimov sat at the head of the class, happy to have new glasses. Zel, Vincent and Sprosty stood a few feet in front of them.
Zel set his datapad at the center of the table. It projected a holographic map of the Earth. A red dot flashed on it, showing their location in New York City.
“It’s like Star Wars,” Sprosty said. “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.”
“For the record,” Zel interrupted, “Bothans are selfish dicks. Now – moving on.” Zel spun his fingers in the air. The hologram responded and rotated so that the pulsing red dot faced Zel. He pointed to it and said, “Us.” He brought his fingers together and then spread them out. The hologram expanded correspondingly to show the solar system. Then it zoomed out more to show the Orion arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. Farther and farther out it went until they were looking at a ten billion light years-wide sphere of the universe. At its center was that bright cardinal pinprick.
Zel pointed to a massive group of stars that twirled and sparkled below the equator of the hologram. “This is the Eridanus Cluster. Don’t confuse it with the Eridanus constellation. At the heart of the cluster is the star Epsilon Eridani. It should be familiar territory to anyone with a background in science. You writers should know it intimately. Epsilon Eridani crops up in Sci-Fi as often as Sprosty at the minibar. Namely, all the time. Asimov, I’m looking at you.”
The white-haired master shrugged. “It’s a nearby system that I used in Foundation’s Edge, the first place humans settled after Robots and Empire.”
Einstein and Heisenberg at first looked lost. Then they moved on to unimpressed. Einstein tapped his pipe impatiently against the table.
Zel said, “Right. Anyway, Eridanus is important because it’s the home of the largest supervoid in the known universe. Inside the cluster is an area about one billion light years across which is simply … empty. There’s nothing there. What’s more interesting is that the void is the result of a quantum entanglement between our universe and another.”
Heisenberg’s mouth gaped. “Entschuldigen Sie mich?” When it was clear that nobody else at the table except Einstein knew what he was saying, Heisenberg clarified, “Excuse me?”
“Yeah,” Vincent said. “I don’t get it either.”
“No, my boy, the mechanics of what he’s talking about, I understand. Theory. But the rest .”
“It’s sort of like our universe’s bellybutton,” Asimov said to keep Vincent up to speed. “Or bubbles in a bathtub intersecting one another.”
“But another universe?” Heisenberg queried.
At that, Einstein chuckled “Was it not you who said the improbable might be probable?”
“Not I,” Heisenberg said. “The quantum.”
Asimov looked deep in thought. Heinlein studied the hologram like a military tactician. Dick closed his eyes and muttered faintly to himself.
Zel held up his hands. “Guys, what’s important here is that the Eridanus supervoid is the home of the Combine. Their home is cold nothingness.” He tapped his datapad. A yellow triangle appeared. “This is the Combine’s capital ship. It is the size of South America. It carries enough firepower to destroy any planet it wants. It will be here in six days. We need to stop it.”
Silence settled on the team.
It was broken by Heinlein. “What is the status of Earth’s space program?”
“Poor,” Vincent said. “There is work being done by private companies but little by the government – and nothing on the scale needed.”
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Heinlein said. “I presume any kind of direct intervention is out of the question?”
“You presume correctly,” Zel said. “There is no way for us, none at all, to fight the Combine on a military level. We have to outsmart them.”
Dick laughed. “I was wondering why you thought a group such as us–” he looked into the face of each person and being in the room “–could be of any help. You’re betting that we writers could whip something up, craft an idea with the ease of toasting a marshmallow. Then the big brains perform magic of their own by setting it to practical use?”
“Yeah, something like that,” Zel answered.
Asimov said, “You will have to forgive me if I admit to some reservations. It’s one thing to go into battle but quite another to fight an enemy you have no chance of defeating. We agreed to defend earth but, given everything I’ve heard, that may not be realistically possible.”
Einstein snorted. “After all, we might as well have been kidnapped. We died once. Now what do we have to look forward to? Again with the grave.”
Then it was Dick who said, “Kill me once, shame on you. Kill me twice, shame on me.”
“It was a gamble,” Zel said. “But it is your planet. I’m just an interloper. And I’m not the reason a starship the size of a continent is on a collision course with your zip code.”
“We were dead for a long time before we were even born. And then we returned to nonexistence,” Heisenberg said.
Asimov nodded. “Mark Twain. Paraphrased, but the idea is the same.”
Asimov turned to Zel and said, “Don’t misunderstand me. This is a compelling narrative. If I wasn’t about to die a second time, I would say, it’s fascinating. But the enormity of what you’re asking…”
“It’s crazy,” Dick said. “And I know crazy. Which makes me think – why the hell not? Why couldn’t we do it? We were dead. What have we got to lose?”
Heinlein had heard enough. “We need to be soldiers,” he asserted. “If we can’t fight their metal, their ships, their weapons – we can fight them. Skill, timing, our ability to learn what we have to – and make it work. Hell, we’re not giving up before a shot is fired. Isaac, think about this: No earth, no books, no you. It won’t be like you died again. It will be like you never existed.”
“You’re asking us to build a weapon, are you not?” Einstein asked. “Once before, I and Herr Heisenberg bore witness to what others did with our work. Hiroshima was the result. You have to ask yourself – perhaps this is where it all ends. Our species. What you talk about – maybe it does nothing more than postpone the inevitable?” He rubbed his chest.
Heisenberg did not speak but his eyes did – the weight of the role he played in the Manhattan Project. Science gone wrong, in his judgment. Pure knowledge, command over the atom, had become an instrument of war. He had made that possible.
Suddenly, everyone in the room had an opinion. Eight voices fighting to be heard and getting louder.
Vincent lit a cigarette. The noise, he thought. He was inured to New York City volume, meaning he was virtually deaf at times, but this was getting intolerable. It felt like high school – like bullshit.
He slammed his hands down on the table.
“Shut UP! This is my planet. I’m not dead. Never been dead. Never been brought back to life. I’m alive. So is everything around you. This street. This city. This country. This world.” To himself, he thought, This Elsa, my Elsa.
Vincent locked eyes with the titans surrounding him. “I know that none of you asked for this. What we’ve done may be cruel. But ‘til you came, there was no hope. You are all that is left. What’s at stake is the extinction of seven billion people.”
“No one wants an end to humanity,” Einstein said. “We shaped this world, all of us. Each of us has either a bloodline or someone we care about.”
They thought about that and as they did it got quiet. Then Dick said, “Show us the taxi-ship.”
“Yes,” Heinlein said. “We want to meet Zelda.”
The Band, as they had taken to calling themselves, huddled around the yellow checkered taxi. Dick and Asimov addressed Zelda, asking questions. She answered willingly, no longer needing to camouflage herself. Heinlein poked around under the hood. Einstein and Heisenberg examined the high-tech gear in the trunk, fittingly impressed.
In the back seat, Sprosty coddled Elvis.
Vincent texted Elsa: If you ever had any desire to meet Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Isaac Asimov, Phil K. Dick or Robert Heinlein, now might be a good time. Putting the smartphone back in his pocket, he asked of all, “Anything brilliant?”
Einstein puffed on his pipe and crossed his arms.
Heisenberg said, “Wir haben ein paar Dinge gedacht.”
“Yes,” Einstein said. “We have a few thoughts.”
Einstein rubbed his chest, leading Vincent to ask, “Are you all right?”
“I fear that your ability to bring me back has not rid me of the maladies I suffered when alive.”
“And Heisenberg is still suffering from–”
Heisenberg said, “Cancer. The kidneys and gall bladder.”
Vincent said, “I’m sure Zel or Zelda can fix–”
Einstein shook his head. “We would rather focus on the work. As Heisenberg and your Samuel Clemens said, we were dead long before we were alive. Even the first time.” He smiled.
Vincent smiled back. “Fair enough.”
“And to be honest, if we are to die – again – we would prefer it be natural, rather than at the vicious hands of der Mähdrescher.”
Vincent said, “So, those ideas?”
“Indeed,” Heisenberg said. “The cab’s shield is very impressive. We were wondering if there is some way to amplify it.”
“Cover Earth in a protective umbrella,” Einstein said.
“But the power requirements would be outrageous.”
“How outrageous?” Vincent asked.
Zel said, “They calculate that for each second of protection, we would need 550 megatons worth of fusion power. Which is the same as detonating eleven of Russia’s Tsar Bombas – the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated – each and every minute
Vincent whistled. “Welp, let’s put that on the back burner for now. What else?”
Einstein said, “This again depends on Zelda. If we could redirect the cab’s gravity compensators, fashion them into some kind of beam, then perhaps we could knock der Mähdrescher’s ship backwards. Repulse them in some way.”
“Or throw them out of orbit,” Heisenberg said. “But–”
“It would take juice. It would take power,” Vincent said. “I’m sensing a pattern here.”
Einstein and Heisenberg shrugged.
Zel stared at the rooftop. He seemed about to say something but kept his mouth shut.
Vincent wandered over to Dick and Asimov. “You guys got any ideas?”
“Too many to fit inside my head,” Dick said.
Asimov looked to Vincent. “I presume you’re talking about some way to halt the advance of the Combine.”
“Yeah, maybe a black hole cannon or shit … a device to teleport the Combine into the middle of the sun?”
Asimov said, “The energy requirements would be–”
“Outrageous, yeah, “
“But that black hole cannon,” Dick said, “it’s an interesting notion.”
“It is,” Asimov added.
Vincent took a deep breath. At least he had a good idea. “How feasible would a black hole cannon be?”
Asimov said, “Not feasible at all.”
Vincent deflated. “Energy concerns?”
“There is that. But, you’re talking about creating the most powerful gravitation force that the universe has ever known. The Combine ship would get sucked in but the Earth might follow it. “
“What about a baby black hole?”
Asimov considered it. “Maybe. Something small enough just to eat the mass of the Combine ship and then dissipate. But there’s still reason to worry. The overall gravitational effect could pull Earth out of orbit, perhaps, too close to the sun or too far away from it. We could find ourselves doing the Combine’s dirty work for them.”
Dick chuckled. “That’d be a kick in the pants.”
Vincent grimaced. He walked over to Heinlein, who, solitary, was still buried under Zelda’s hood. He said, “Please tell me you have an idea, something practical.”
Heinlein pulled himself up to his full six foot stature. He rubbed his shaved head and stroked his moustache. “I do, but you aren’t going to like it.”
“I’ve listened to what everyone else has to say. They’re thinking defensively. I say we play offense.”
“As long as you speak English and tell me something I can understand, I’m with it.”
Heinlein slammed Zelda’s hood shut. “This is an impressive machine. More impressive than I or anyone else has ever seen.” He shoved his hands into his pockets. “I say this is your chariot. This is your sword of Damocles. Durandal wielded by Roland. Excalibur, if you’re more pedestrian.”
“No, I get the references. What’s your point?”
“Stop thinking big. Think small. Distract the Combine. Take Zelda into the guts of the Combine ship. Destroy it from there. She has enough toys to make the flight and enough firepower to do the job if you can find a weak spot – an Achilles Heel.”
Vincent smiled. “That makes,” he paused, “sense.” Vincent was nearly overcome with emotion. “Tear out the heart of the Combine. Infiltrate.”
Heinlein nodded. “It’s a plan.”
“Why wouldn’t I like it?”
“Because whoever flies this ship in won’t be making it out.”