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 and Zelda stared.
Vincent said, “That’s the fucking engine?”
“That’s the fucking engine core,” Zelda said. “This whole area is the engine, really.”
They were surrounded by pipes and exhaust at the center of a shiny blue sphere a mile across. In front of them sat a brain the size of the cab. It was supported by a series of thick biomechanical cables. Its left side was shiny and metallic. Its right side was pulsing red tissue.
“What the hell is it?” Vincent asked.
Zelda said, “It is, or was, a Grandefudlian. Members of our race have been kidnapped and enslaved by the Combine before. They take our best. Our strongest and most creative. They experiment on us. It started as an effort to study imagination – and culture shared without instrumentation. It became bondage, just what you see in front of you: Organic artificial intelligence. A contradiction in terms, but they did it. The Combine needed something special to power their flagship. Something that could think its way through complex navigational conundrums and then create solutions.”
“What kind of solutions?”
“Planetender is the name the engine gave itself . . .”
“Shit.” Vincent sighed. “All right. If it’s at least part Grandefudlian, does that mean you can interface with it? Talk to it?”
“I think so.”
“Good. Do you have any ideas?”
“Planetender, as you know, travels by utilizing an Alcubierre Drive. It warps the fabric of space. You expand it to create a bubble behind the ship, and shrink it in front of the ship. The ship rides on the side of the bubble. It’s like surfing a wave.”
“Yeah, I remember. The Star Trek shit.”
“Right. So since the engine is powerful enough to do that, we need to trick it. We need it to create a black hole. To warp spacetime.”
“To warp it here, you mean. To create a black hole at the center of the Combine flagship and send it straight to hell.”
“Send us straight to hell. There’s no going back now, Vincent.”
“Buy the ticket, take the ride.” Vincent lit a cigarette.
They moved forward. Slow. They approached the Big Brain as though it was a dangerous wild animal. For all intents and purposes, it was.
Zelda’s right headlight flipped open. From it emerged a long thin needle. Surgically, Vincent guided the cab and her unusual proboscis into the soft red flesh of the Combine engine. It pierced the tissue. And then Vincent waited as Zelda plugged in.
He expected the big brain engine to speak with voice of the devil. Some Voice of Time or Basso Profondo that would rattle his bowels.
Instead, he got, “Hiya! How’re you folks doing today!”
All of it said in Gomer Pyle pitch, in idiom sweetened with chipper morning weatherman. It sounded pretty loopy.
“Jesus, that’s unnerving,” Vincent said. “Is that your kind? Afflicted with a sunny fucking disposition? And he sounds like a nimrod.”
Zelda grumbled. “He isn’t my kind anymore.”
To the engine, Vincent said, “So you’re Planetender, right?”
“Yessir! Sure am! Oh, heck, I love my job. I try to help the Combine with as much as I can. You can’t imagine the genocide, by golly. It would just make your head spin, don’tcha know.”
“You Sarah fuckin Palin or something?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”
“On some parts of Earth that might be funny.”
“On Earth! Oh dear. Earth must be destroyed.”
“Why must Earth be destroyed?”
“Don’t you know?”
“I did ask.”
“Earth is going to destroy the universe.”
Vincent laughed. He couldn’t help it. The idea that this thing, self-appointed Planetender, was saving the universe . . . .”So you think you’re rescuing all known life by destroying Earth?”
“Yes. Earth must be stopped, at any cost, for the sake of existence.”
At any cost. Vincent chewed on that. “Who told you all of this?”
“The Kommissar, of course.”
“Of course,” Zelda said in a mocking tone.
Planetender said, “He is all-knowing. And all-powerful. He is our savior. He will stop the Earth and the monkey menace. He will stop the virus!” The engine sounded like the Kim Jong Un Fan Club of North Korea. “He’s just a swell guy.”
“I bet,” Vincent said. “But how do you know you even can stop the Earth monkey menace?”
“Well jeez, of course we can.”
“The Kommissar. And nobody can trump the Combine, for heck’s sake.”
“But that’s just what you’ve been told. I’m asking how do you know?”
Zelda whispered, “Vincent I don’t see how this–”
Vincent said, “Just bear with me.” Then, to Planetender: “Tell me, my friend, how do you know that you can defeat Earth?”
“I see what you’re saying. Allow me to rephrase. I believe that the Combine is capable of destroying the Earth monkey menace. It is my job to assist the Combine in all of their glorious plans.”
“So you’re just doing what you’ve been told.”
“No, I’m doing what I believe.”
“Sounds about the same.”
“That’s not very nice.”
“Sorry, Planetender. But tell me, your job is to help the Combine obliterate Earth at any cost, right?”
“Would you be willing to sacrifice yourself to see the job done?”
“Well, shucks, I hardly think that would be necessary.”
“Because I am at relatively safe distance for my low-orbit ion cannons to crack the planet.”
“Sure, but that only takes care of the Earthlings and the Earth culture on the planet itself.”
“Think about it, Planetender. Your job isn’t only to destroy Earth. It’s to eradicate all Earth culture. But there’s a problem with that. Because the Earth monkeys have been broadcasting their–” Vincent thought of the right word “–disease for decades. Earth culture, in the form of radio waves for example, has been shot out into the depths of space. The universe is already hopelessly infected. And that’s to say nothing of what the pirates have done.”
“Are you suggesting that my duty is futile?”
“Absolutely futile. And it’s illogical to waste your time pursuing it.”
“That is an interesting quandary.” Planetender hummed. Then, cheerful as always, “Oh well! Futile or not, gotta do what you gotta do, hmm?”
“Fair enough, Planetender. But you didn’t answer my question. Would you sacrifice yourself to complete your mission?”
“As I said, that is unnecessary, but yes. Of course.”
“Of course,” Vincent said. “Then I have something you need to know, Planetender. I am a Noah’s Ark of Earth culture. I am a carrier. I am an Earth monkey. Wherever I go, there will be Earth Monkey disease. And I’m right in front of you.”
“Oh dear! I’ve enjoyed the conversation, but I will have to kill you,” Planetender said.
“Of course,” said Zelda, joining in. “But how do you plan to do that? I’ve blocked your ability to even speak with the rest of the Combine. Nobody knows what’s happening here and you don’t know what’s happening out there.
“You’re mean.” Planetender hummed again. “I have no offensive capabilities?”
“Sort of a bummer, isn’t it?” Vincent said.
“Jeez. This won’t please the Kommissar. That’s not a good thing. Worse, I’m not doing my job.”
“Hey buddy, don’t be down. In a show of good will, because we had such a darn good conversation, we’ll think of a way for you to kill us. Won’t we Zelda?”
“We sure will,” Zelda said.
“You mean it?” Planetender asked. The engine sounded strangely needy.
“I promise.” Vincent scratched his chin. His eyes drifted into space, pondering, searching. “What if . . . No, no, that won’t work.”
“Oh, please . . . .”
“I’m trying, Planetender.” Vincent paused. “Heck, what if you . . . Do you think you’re smart and strong enough to create a singularity?”
“A black hole? Aw, gole darn, I can. But that would cause the destruction of this ship. And me!”
“But it’s the only way to destroy us and Earth. Otherwise, I’ll get away. I’ll just zoom off with Zelda here. Remember what you said? You said you had to help destroy Earth at any cost.”
“Shoot. I did. That is part of my job requirement.”
“You gotta do what you gotta do, Planetender.”
“I sure do appreciate this, guys. I never would have thought of it myself.”
“I’m only trying to help. Zelda, my friend here, she’ll feed you the data so that you make a black hole that’s just right.”
“Well, that is very thoughtful. You’re really swell.”
The hologram on Zelda’s dashboard flashed. Vincent watched as the equations Einstein and Heisenberg formulated took on new, practical dimension. They flowed down the needle from the cab to the brain engine in pulsing blue waves. Planetender absorbed them.
“Gee whiz. This is great, just great. The Kommissar is going to be thrilled,” Planetender said.
“I bet,” Vincent said. In a low voice to Zelda, he said, “This is it. Any chance there’s one last rabbit in the hat? I think the Fat Lady is warming up.”
“If there was any way to escape, you would know,” she said. “If I disconnect from Planetender, my locks will be undone. The Combine will be able to get back into the engine. They could sabotage the black hole sequence. We have to stay.”
Vincent lit a cigarette. He let his hands fall from the wheel. He said, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
Zelda said, “Cute.”
“Always had a thing for Mark Twain. If you’re going to steal words from someone, steal the right ones.”
Klaxons blared in the engine chamber. The lighting went from blue to a jittery, fast-blinking yellow. Above them, at the apex of the sphere they sat in, a perfect black dot appeared.
Planetender said, “Hey guys! Boy this is gonna be fun.”
“Gee whiz,” Vincent said. He exhaled a thick plume of smoke.