Because in a universe of infinite possibilities unlikely coincidences happen constantly, the end of the world and the Devil Squid pre-show staging start at the same time.
5: The pirate battle cruiser Eminence of Yatii-et and Their Infinite Mercy of Blood enters high Earth orbit, completely undetected due to its advanced spectral reflectance field. Devil Squid frontman Cameron Jarlace, in the green room at the Blue Bird Theater, checks the time on his cell phone and gives his band the ten-minute warning. Drummer Lang Stephens starts another round of Candy Crush. Bass player Darnel Mattise, newest member of the band, nervously checks the set order again. Lead guitarist Marcy Ramos takes another long drag off her joint and wishes that her sciatica would stop fucking acting up already.
4: The Eminence sends out a volley of thousands of neutron-plasma seekers, targeting everything in Earth orbit that shows any EM-spectrum activity. At the Blue Bird Theater, the stage manager, someone screaming unintelligibly in his earbud, pokes his head in and says apologetically, “Sorry, five more minutes.” Marcy doesn’t so much as twitch. At least thirty years older than everyone else in the band, she’s long since learned that no matter what job you’re doing, it’s always five more minutes. She can ride the hum of anticipation a little longer.
3: The neutron-plasma seekers find their marks, clamping on like limpets—or rather a limpet-like lifeform known on the Eminence’s home world, whose name translates out to burning ass-sucker—then explode simultaneously. Humanity’s satellites go dark. In the Blue Bird Theater green room, Marcy finishes her joint. “You got another one?” Lang, in fine drummer form, asks. Marcy grins and says, “Not for you, mijo.”
2: The Eminence sinks into the atmosphere proper, deploying a near-invisible net of metalloid filaments, like the gossamer parachute of a newly hatched spider. The high winds of the upper atmosphere whip the filaments away, distributing them across the globe. The Supreme Battle Commander of the Eminence, Txiwal Crym Hyyul-et, drums his manipulating appendage on the control panel, watching the countdown for full global coverage. And in the Blue Bird Theater, the stage manager pokes his head into the green room again and flaps his hand frantically. “Come on, come on!” The band shuffles out the door, tugging down t-shirts, tugging up torn jeans.
1: After two more songs and an encore that no one but the band onstage wanted, Devil Squid takes the stage to a round of drunken, enthusiastic screaming. The lights blaze, fists come up throughout the auditorium, and it’s finally go time. The guys are about losing their minds with excitement and Marcy feels like she’s thirty again, all those aches and pains disappearing under the tide of adrenalin. Cameron throws back his head, Marcy and Darnel hit the first chord, and it’s perfect, the kind of thing Cameron claims is better than sex and Marcy thinks is somewhere beyond the first hill of a roller coaster since she’s never given a shit about sex. Overhead, the silver filaments shudder, boil, and explode to generate wave after wave of technology-murdering electromagnetic pulses.
0: Below the Eminence, darkness wreathes the planet. Txiwal Crym Hyyul-et emits a scent of satisfaction and orders the next step of the standard invasion plan—business as usual. At the Blue Bird Theater, the lights go out. There are a few screams, some of mock-fright, some of real fear, as the audience slowly realizes that this is not part of the show. Lighters—but no cell phones, suddenly those are so many little glass and metal bricks—come on like the dots of stars in darkness. Unbeknownst to any of them—for the next few minutes, and then it will be too late—an airplane overhead begins a terminal dive. And for humanity, but especially for the humans of Devil Squid, everything changes.
You work your fingers to the bone your entire goddamn life and this is what you get. First you help your mother (God rest her soul) clean apartments in gated complexes, places nicer than you’ll ever be able to afford, for cash in white envelopes. Then you clean homes without her, because she’s in the hospital with cancer and the family needs the money; after all the times Papá got arrested during protests in the sixties and seventies, no one will give him work worthy of his literature degree. Then you scrub toilets at the university for a couple of years as a late-blooming student until you graduate to swabbing out bottom-burned filter flasks for the chemistry department, because the life insurance money (your mother, always so long-sighted) covered tuition but nothing else. And when it’s done and you have that shiny degree in your hand, the one that everyone swore would change your life forever, you’re cleaning up spilled rice while you stock shelves at nights, because good high school science teachers don’t get paid jack shit in the districts that really need them the most.
Until you’re sixty-seven and those assholes in all levels of government think the best way to teach kids is to punish teachers, and then you have no job and a pitiful excuse for severance pay, though you know you’re lucky to have even that much. Retirement is a dream for people who could save money instead of spending every penny on keeping your extended family and your less fortunate students going, so you fling job application after job application uselessly into the void. You’re well past your expiration date, the last bruised, brown banana that no one wants to pick up on the job market, your lower back is shot to hell after so many years of cleaning up other people’s messes, and it’s just you alone in your tiny, two-bedroom ranch-style house, the last thing you have left of your parents. No kids because you never wanted any, no husband or wife because you weren’t interested in sex or romance or any of that shit, no church because you always ignored Papá’s stale jokes about becoming a nun. And you’re counting the days until you have to slide into your cousin’s landscaping business, because carrying a leaf blower sounds like agony, but it’s still easier on the back than sleeping on someone’s floor because you can’t afford property tax on the house Papá killed himself over paying off.
The logical follow up: buy weed from one of your neighbors and smoke it out on the porch, because who gives a shit about drug tests any more, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than whatever experimental back surgery your doctor keeps mentioning with a gleam in his eye.
Then one day that same damn neighbor sounds like he’s torturing some innocent musical instruments to death in his backyard, and it’s so bad you can’t suck the THC into your bloodstream fast enough to not care. So you limp over to his house, kick open the rusty back gate, and tell him and his little friend who is actually holding the guitar to quiet the hell down.
“Can’t, Marcy,” Cameron—your neighbor—says. You tell all the Anglos to call you Marcy, because it’s orders of magnitude less painful than hearing them butcher the name your parents gave you: Marcia. At your you’ve got to be shitting me, kid stare, he continues, “David left the band. We need a new guitar or we’re sunk.”
“I didn’t know you had a band,” you say. “And if you sound like this, you’re still sunk.”
The other kid—still clutching the electric guitar with his hips all canted forward like he thinks music emanates directly from the nuts—sneers at you. “Like you’d know punk if it fucking bit you.”
He might be right. You’ve always more been into the rock and folk greats of the sixties and seventies, just like Papá, and music since then has passed you by. But life is shit and all the social contracts were lies, so maybe it’s time to try something new. You take a drag off your joint and smile. The nice thing about being unemployed is you don’t have to take shit off anyone. “And you wouldn’t know a major chord if it bit you in the ass, pendejo. Give me the fucking guitar.”
The kid flips you off. But the guitar belongs to Cameron, and he pries the guitar out of greaseball’s hands and offers it over, though he’s got one of those condescending white boy smiles on his face as he does it.
It’s been years since you touched a guitar, and you probably wouldn’t even try if you weren’t stoned off your ass. The fingers remember even if the callouses are decades gone, all those long hours in a hot, close garage with Papá, playing along with a radio because two shitty, cracked, thrift store guitars were the same price as a shitty thrift store TV and more fun.
You give the guitar an experimental strum and jump at the noise it makes. Cameron and the kid smirk at each other. You take another drag off your joint, adjust the tuning slightly, and make that guitar scream.
You fuck up the riff pretty bad. But the real point is you can recognize it as music, and so can Cameron. He grins, clapping his hands. “I never woulda fucking guessed,” he says. “You like punk rock?”
“Always been more into igneous, myself, but I like trying new things.” No one laughs. No one ever gets your goddamn jokes.
“No way,” the other kid says. “She’s fucking old Cameron. You think grandma can shred?”
“You gonna fucking stop me?” you say.
“She’s already more punk than you,” Cameron says. “Audition over.” Then he turns back to you. “You want the gig?”
You’re not doing anything else right now. “Sure.”
And that’s how you end up standing on stage in that one perfect moment when the world ends.
Everyone from the concert and the surrounding city block who survived the plane’s impact gets herded toward the foothills by floating gun platforms that look more sophisticated than any drone that’s ever appeared on the evening news. There are no loudspeakers; the gun platforms keep things moving by shooting anyone who isn’t walking fast enough or in the right direction.
They can talk quietly as they walk. Cameron’s of the opinion that it has to be the Russians, since they have the best military out there of the people that don’t like the United States. No one else is convinced that they’d invade like this, and as Lang points out, he can’t believe that “Vlady” would invade the US without stroking one off in public.
Cameron offers up North Korea, which no one takes seriously considering they can’t even shoot a missile straight. From there he pivots to China, at which point Marcy asks him if he’s just shopping around for brown people to blame and Cameron fires back that last time he checked, Russians are pretty damn white, and Marcy starts up about actually in the western cultural climate, Eastern Europeans have traditionally been—
At which point Lang interrupts to offer the suggestion that it’s a right-wing coup. Darnel waves that off under the theory that there are way too many white people getting shot right now. Lang scratches the scraggly little bulldog beard and shrugs. “Yeah, but they’re white punks.”
Darnel chews thoughtfully on his lip. “And all of this is missing the point. If it’s just that someone decided to drop the shit on Denver, why the hell haven’t we seen the army yet? We haven’t even seen a jet or a drone or whatever.”
“Maybe there were multiple attacks?” Lang says.
“So many that there’s been jack shit done for a major metropolitan center?” Darnel asks.
Cameron stares at him, long and hard. Then says, “You think this is some fucking Independence Day shit, don’t you.”
“Well, look at the writing on the platforms,” Darnel says.
Cameron frowns. “What writing?”
“Regular marks on the side. It’s got the patterns you’d expect in some kind of alphabet, like nothing on Earth. You get me?” Darnel says.
“You’re saying it’s fucking aliens?” Cameron says. “I wasn’t serious when I said Independence Day. Jesus fuck.”
“Tell me I’m wrong,” Darnel says.
“Never known any humans who had their shit together enough to take over the whole world,” Marcy says dryly.
“Whoa, whoa,” Lang says. “We’re missing the bigger point. When did you turn into some kind of language-ologist, Darnel?”
“Linguist,” Darnel says, as if it pains him. “And Marcy’s not the only one who’s got expensive wallpaper in her shitter.”
Marcy laughs, and holds out her fist for Darnel to dap. Shit feels almost normal for about five seconds. Then one of the platforms floats closer and they get their heads down and keep walking. To one side, there’s a chatter of gunfire that’s too bright to be regular bullets, even tracers, and a body hits the mud in a spray of chains and leather.
“What the fuck is going on right now? We’re being herded like fucking sheep. What happened to all the blood and sweat and music? If society is dead and the government’s in ruins, why aren’t we celebrating? Why are we still doing what we’re told? Let’s fucking go!” Cameron the mellow dealer and laid-back band leader is gone as he hefts a rock and slings it at one of the gun platforms.
Marcy changes course—it can’t end this way—but she can’t move fast enough and she body checks Darnel instead. Lang’s already eating dirt, because he remembers his self-preservative instinct at the damnedest times.
The expected hail of gunfire doesn’t happen. Marcy and Darnel lift their heads from the mud. There’s a huge dent in the gray metal platform, and it looks like it’s flying a little crooked.
Cameron grins like the sun coming out in the spring, and Marcy remembers why sometimes she loves that precious idiot like the son she never wanted to have or the little brother her mother brought into the world stillborn. She feels it like a knife through her heart, because she fucking knows what comes next.
As Cameron picks up another rock, as the kids he’s got at his back start chanting his name, there’s a BOOM in the sky. A shockwave slams the brave and the smart alike back down into the mud.
A teardrop of scorched metal floats in front of them for a moment, bigger than the platforms. Then it opens and oh fuck, Darnel was right. What steps—slides—squishes—whatevers—out has never been on the surface of Earth before. It’s more fucked than anything Giger could have come up with after dropping acid and looking through pictures of deep-sea vent creatures, like a jellyfish and a hagfish had a demonic hatefuck and this popped out six-hundred and sixty-six months later.
For one perfect, horrifying moment, Cameron and the thing square off. It’s impossible to tell if the monster—alien—is looking at Cameron, but that’s how it feels. Silence except for the rattle of the breeze, the thud and rush of over-labored heartbeats.
Cameron lifts the rock over his head. “I’ve got something for your fucking lea—”
The alien gestures with a wave of lashing tentacles, too fast to discern. There’s a pop, a spray of bright red, and then Cameron isn’t there anymore. Everyone for a twenty-foot radius is wearing him.
Darnel screams. So does Marcy. Lang vomits into the mud.
Then the gun platforms start cycling up, a high-pitched whine they all know too damn well. Marcy and Darnel drag Lang up out of the muck, and there’s nothing left to do but run toward the foothills.
You work your fingers to the bone getting the impromptu forced labor camp organized, sending the kids out to scavenge for building materials, making sure no one digs the latrine too close to either the stream or where the Jellyfuckers toss out the rations, a million other little things, and this is what you get: a motherfucking election. Except you don’t really get it, because no one bothers to fucking tell you, or Lang, or Darnel until it’s already happening. The only reason you find out is because Lang blows out the sole of one of his Chucks and you head to the rickety communal storage shelter to see if there are any spare shoes.
And the shelter—biggest space in the camp that isn’t swarming with Jellyfuckers or drones—is packed with people. It’s mostly upper middle classers who got driven in about a week and a half ago, some subdivision that weathered the initial carnage and had been hunkering down to wait things out. There’s a few of the punks scattered here and there, looking small and sheepish.
“—and if chosen to stand, I’m in the best position to negotiate with the invaders,” the man at the front, wearing a wrinkled polo shirt and smudged khakis, says. You find it irritating that he’s not a hell of a lot dirtier. “They’ve already spoken to me, as most of you know. They do speak English. We’ll be all right if we don’t make trouble.”
You’ve watched enough scifi movies that you’re not surprised. Earth’s been shitting out signals all over the electromagnetic spectrum for years, though now you have to wonder if the Jellyfuckers talk more like Real Housewives or football announcers.
“Negotiate?” Lang bursts out. “Are you fucking serious?” In the weird quiet of the shelter, his voice is impossible to miss. Which is fine, because you were sure thinking the same thing. Lang’s young enough that he thinks saying it’s going to make a goddamn difference, and you love him for it most days.
The crowd turns to look at him, uncomprehendingly.
“Young… man,” Khaki Guy begins, “we’re in a bad position here.”
“No shit,” Lang says. “What the fuck is this?”
“We have to face the facts. Thanks to Frank saving his ham radio equipment—” Khaki Guy points toward an elderly white guy in a dirty flannel shirt who goes even more hunch-shouldered at the attention “—we now know that this truly is world-wide. Our military has been all but destroyed. Help isn’t coming. We have to look out for ourselves.”
“We have been looking out for ourselves,” Lang protests. “We’ve been working our asses off getting shit organized, especially Marcy! And you’re not going to say shit to us? That’s fucked up, man.”
You don’t know if it’s that you’re a woman, or old, or brown, or the perfect nexus of all three, but everyone suddenly looks at you like you appeared out of nowhere. You cross your arms and glare like, yeah, that’s right, I’m sure standing here. Breathing.
“It’s democracy,” Khaki Guy says stiffly.
“Not if some of us are shut out,” Lang growls.
If Cameron was here, you’re sure he’d have a thing or two to say. But Cameron’s not here—because he already had a thing or two to say. You’re too old, too tired, your back fucking hurts, and nothing Khaki Guy can do to you is worse than standing here and watching him reshuffle the same old deck while a shooting pain keeps spiking your right heel. “Vote all you want,” you say, and turn to go.
Lang does a little bunny hop of sheer, boiling rage and completes the thought in a way you definitely weren’t bending toward with a shout of: “Yeah! We don’t recognize your authority!” He punctuates it by pumping his fist in the air.
But you? You keep walking, Lang gets caught in your wake. He always sticks with the band, and thank God because it lets you and Darnel keep him in one piece when he starts writing checks with his mouth that the rest of him can’t cash.
Khaki Guy shouts behind you: “There will be consequences if you interfere!”
You flip the bird over your shoulder. You’re never too old to do that.
They’re hiding out together behind one of the little plastic lean-tos that the aliens dropped down a couple days into the mining operation. Marcy rolls a joint with the same kind of care a priest would handle the fingerbone of a saint.
“And here, I figured you’d run out of MJ before I ran out of T,” Lang remarks.
Marcy laughs. “This rations a little easier.” She used to smoke daily. She doesn’t have to. The grinding pain in her back and hip is the old frenemy that overstays its welcome. “You gonna be okay?”
Lang shrugs. “Depression, anxiety, weight loss, and headaches.”
“Other than the headaches, sounds like an average day,” Darnel remarks.
“Headaches are just gonna magnify the suck when I’m in the shed.” Lang means the machinist shed, banging around with his makeshift tools. It’s him and this girl that Marcy’s pretty sure he’s fucking on the sly, and good for them both if that keeps them going.
“I’ll ask around. People got to be hoarding painkillers,” Darnel says.
“What’d you want to talk about, Marcy?” Lang asks after the silence stretches and Marcy keeps rolling that joint between her fingers.
“If we want to take the bastards down, we’ve got to do it ourselves.” Marcy does her work and doesn’t complain, watching all the while. She knows that Khaki Guy and his friends have their eyes on her and doesn’t care. She was sneaking around regulations in the public education system before most of them were out of diapers.
“Best way to do anything,” Lang answers promptly.
“I wanted you both to see something.” Marcy points finger in the general direction of the Jellyfucker Palace. The blackened metal projections of the ship—because it’s the ship, not really a palace, but you have to have a sense of humor these days if you want to survive—overshadow the little shack and the whole camp, but the action is going to happen low to the ground.
Lang and Darnel exchange a look and shrug, then lean out. They peer toward the palace, to see the hollow of a door open midway up the ship’s edifice. Then the biggest Jellyfucker of them all squidges out, shining greasily in the sunlight. As one, the overseer Jellyfuckers turn and move toward it, leaving their gun platforms behind to keep the humans in line.
“Inspection time?” Darnel asks.
“Maybe,” Marcy agrees. “It’s every day, at this time.” All the electronics are dead except for Frank’s treasured ham radio set, but she engineered a pretty accurate hourglass for herself with some nice sugar sand from part of the mine pit. “I’m thinking—”
“They drag someone out every day?” Lang asks.
“What?” Marcy tucks the joint into an empty cigarette box, slides off her wobbly crate and inserts herself in the height lineup between Lang and Darnel.
It sure does look like the Jellyfuckers are dragging one of their own to the front. It’s definitely not their normal weirdly smooth style of movement when the Jellyfucker in the middle gets tossed to the ground. It whips its tentacles frantically around.
She fishes around in her pockets until she comes out with the makeshift spyglass she rigged from lenses out of eyeglasses that people didn’t need any more because they were dead. It gives her a decent if slightly wavy close-up on the action. Lang makes a grab for it and she slaps his hand away.
The big Jellyfucker on the balcony raises a tentacle that’s got some kind of bracelet wrap on it. Gestures again. All the other Jellyfuckers back away from the one on the ground, forming a ring around it.
And then the Jellyfucker explodes in a shower of goo. Like Cameron exploded.
“What the fuck,” Darnel says, more like a prayer than a statement.
“Fuck me,” Lang whispers. This time, Marcy doesn’t resist when he takes the spyglass to get an eyeful of the distant, oily sheen of Jellyfucker guts splattered all over the ground.
Marcy makes herself breathe slowly. She sees a plan forming, a path to strike at the heart of Jellyfucker Central. “This is it.”
“What?” Darnel and Lang chorus.
“We’re going to get the band back together,” Marcy says. “We’re going to play one final fucking blowout show… for the Jellyfuckers.”
She looks at the boys, urging them to understand or at least believe. She knows they’re being watched. She doesn’t want to lay the whole plan out.
“We’ve got no instruments,” Lang says.
“We’ve got someone on the inside at the machine shop.” And she’ll have a few design specifications for Lang, she decides. As soon as she gets a sample of all the goop that the Jellyfuckers have just walked away from.
Darnel suddenly grins. “And we’ve got someone who can figure out the linguistic cues to get these Jellyfuckers to pay attention to us. To get them to let us inside.”
Marcy grabs their hands and squeezes. “It’ll take time. But we—”
“So much for being the hardest working person in the camp,” a familiar, extremely annoying voice drawls behind them. They all turn around to see Marcy’s nemesis: Khaki Guy. Somehow, he looks even cleaner than he did at the bullshit election meeting. Maybe cuddling up to Jellyfuckers comes with a bleaching effect.
“Smoke break,” Marcy says. She doesn’t believe in letting people think they’ve rattled her.
“We have a quota if we want to keep our privileges,” Khaki Guy says. “Get back to work.” A drone platform floats up behind him.
Privileges negotiated by the benevolent Khaki Guy: eleven-hour work days under the gun instead of twelve. No one in this goddamn camp seems to remember the word collaborator while they’re enjoying their flavorless lunch protein bricks.
Marcy sees Lang clench one hand into a fist. She glances at Darnel, and in a moment of non-telepathy they silently agree that running is the smart thing to do. They each grab one of Lang’s arms and drag him away, back toward the mine pit.
You work your fingers to the bone for three goddamn months, and it feels like three decades between the constant, grinding pain and the Jellyfuckers and Khaki Guy always breathing down your neck. But this is where it gets you: the dark, oval chamber deep inside the Jellyfucker Palace, with El Jellyfucker Grande sitting on what has to be its version of a throne, burbling at you. You can feel Lang practically vibrating with the urge to run or barf or both at the same time, even as he clutches his buckets and sticks right behind you. Darnel’s quiet, but Darnel’s been doing his dead man walking impression for the last twenty-four hours since he managed to convince the Jellyfuckers to bring them in for a concert “celebrating” the total subjugation of the earth, using a lot of flattery and weird bodily contortions.
Fuck, you’re tired. You’re tired, and every muscle in your back is screaming, and there’s a shooting pain down your left leg, and you really wish Cameron was here for this so you could punch him in his stupid, watched-too-many-white-savior-action-movies face and then hug him.
But that comes later.
Shooting pain aside, you bend down to do one of those low, twisty bows Darnel taught you. Because it’s going to help you to get this close, so close that the stench of ammonia like a thousand cat-piss-soaked rugs makes your eyes water. But that stench is also important, and you knew it the moment you snuck onto the killing field three months ago and put samples of dead Jellyfucker into a mason jar. That stench spells chemistry to you.
“Get on with it,” the head Jellyfucker says, sounding like it’s talking through a throat gargling phlegm.
You glance at the Jellyfucker guards. “You are very gracious to share the glory of this victory ballad with your servants!”
This is the moment that matters most, the answer to if you’ve read everything right, learned the best approach. You’ve noticed, how the big Jellyfucker only shows up when it’s way above all the others, acting like it’s untouchable.
The big Jellyfucker makes a horrible screeching noise. It lashes its tentacles around, and the guards exit. The door shuts behind them and it’s just you humans, a single gun platform, and the big Jellyfucker. You keep your sag of relief purely internal. The big Jellyfucker screeches again and says, “Proceed before I am bored.”
So you give it a decent little recital, some Moody Blues and Simon & Garfunkel and a few of your favorites from the Stones—the Jellyfuckers had responded best to oldies. Lang drums on one bucket while sitting on the other, and it sounds surprisingly good. Darnel’s even less of a singer than you, but at least he remembers the words and that’s all you can ask for in these circumstances. Weirdly, it’s actually nice to get a little music in, though you can’t lose yourself, can’t think back to that oven-like garage with Papá tapping his foot or the stage with Devil Squid melding into some greater angel that can sing and play three instruments at once, not when you’re smelling cat piss and sweatsocks instead of oil and dust. You finish up with Sympathy for the Devil—and you glance back at Darnel and Lang, but as usual, no one gets your fucking jokes—and then do another, even lower bow that makes your left foot cramp with the pain.
“This is not what I was told it would be,” the Jellyfucker screeches. It waves a tentacle and one of the doors opens… to reveal Khaki Guy. (He’s got a name, Darnel’s told you several times, and you just don’t give a shit. He’s always Khaki Guy with his smug Khaki Guy smile.)
Khaki Guy crosses his arms. “They’re just trying to get close to you so they can cause trouble.”
You cannot fucking believe it—except that you can. Especially with Khaki Guy looking down his nose at you. You can practically hear him thinking, I’m doing the right thing, this will keep us safe.
You make yourself shrug. “Don’t know what he thinks I’m going to do with a guitar other than play it.” This guitar that Lang built, which sounds shockingly good despite the primitive circumstances… and all of the modifications you had him add. You just have to hope no one can hear your stomach cramping. And that you can still pull this off, somehow. Because otherwise, you’re dead. All of you are dead, and the last thing you’re going to see is some flatfish in pleated khaki pants.
There’s a soft hum behind you: the gun platform. The hair on the back of your neck stands on end. You can hear Lang’s teeth chattering.
“The guitar isn’t what I’m worried about,” Khaki Guy says. “With your permission, Supreme Battle Commander?”
The Jellyfucker waves a tentacle languidly in response. And then you stand still as Khaki Guy pats you down, even checking your pants cuffs. Ignore the guitar, you whisper in your head. Ignore it.
He starts reaching for the guitar. You look him square in the eye and say loudly, “Oh, I get it. You just want it for yourself. We made this for the Supreme Battle Commander as a gift, and you just try to take everything.”
“Yeah,” Lang says, voice squeaking slightly. “Landon always tries to steal the good shit for himself. Takes credit for everything.”
Khaki Guy’s eyes narrow. He reaches out to grab the guitar and you tighten your grip. You think about headbutting him. But then the Jellyfucker screeches, and you’ve never thought such a horrible sound could be beautiful. “It is my trophy. Do not touch it.”
“But—” Khaki Guy starts.
“Shut the fuck up, Landon,” Lang hisses.
“Now,” the Jellyfucker demands. It’s impossible to read any kind of human emotion from its tone. Not that it sounding overtly smug would make things easier or harder; it’d just piss you off, and you’re already as pissed off as you’ve ever been in your life, continuously.
You shoulder Landon out of the way and come close, still crouched over, closer still, until the Jellyfucker reaches out for the guitar you hold outstretched. Then you reverse your grip on the neck, hit the button that Lang swore would work and you’ve tested a hundred times—it’s about 95%, but what can you do—and the acid you’ve been cooking up for weeks in salvaged glass jars and plastic tubing sprays out all over the Jellyfucker. It screams and steams and falls over writhing. You’d been hoping for an explosion, but it’s never that simple, even if the Jellyfucker seems to be immobilized for the moment. And maybe the lack of explosion is for the best, considering you’re standing right next to it.
“Watch out!” Darnel shouts. You hear the hum of the gun platforms and hit the ground as a spray of fire whirs over your head.
“What did you do?” Landon screams. He lunges at you, and Lang lunges at him, and there’s a sound like a bag of wet cement being dropped on concrete, and Landon staggers back. Lang gives him another shove, right into the gun platform. The guns cycle up, but it doesn’t fire—maybe Khaki Guy is in deep enough that the platforms don’t automatically shoot at him. That’s fine, he makes a great shield.
You drag yourself up to your feet, leaning on the guitar, and hit the second button, the one Lang came up with and you said sure to because you can laugh at his jokes at least. An ax blade springs out of the body of the guitar with a definitive, metallic WHUNK.
“Darnel!” You toss the guitar to him. He catches it, like he’s been practicing this move all his life, and swings the ax baseball-bat-style into the gun platform, sheering off barrels and burying the blade deep in the metal. Darnel swings the ax again, screaming with the effort, and the platform rains down onto the floor as parts. He turns toward you, eyes going wide, and shouts: “No! Don’t let it touch anything!”
You turn to see that yes, even though the Jellyfucker is writhing on the floor and gurgling in a way that sounds pleasantly like it’s about to fucking die, it is trying to reach for its throne.
“Marcy!” You have one second to react before Darnel tosses the ax back to you. You catch it, one foot skidding in acid and oozing fluids, fumble, and get a firm grip just before the blade can bury itself in your shin. No time for relief. You turn, too much adrenalin coursing through you to really feel the way your back is grinding, and bring the ax down straight through the Jellyfucker’s head.
Flesh flies. Clear, stinking blood spurts. And the Jellyfucker keeps moving, tentacles lashing everywhere, too coordinated to be just death throes. So you keep chopping. Sticky fluid sprays you. Chunks of floppy meat fly everywhere. Severed, twitching tentacles roll across the floor. And the Jellyfucker gives before your rapidly numbing hands and aching back do. It stops twitching.
Then there’s just the quiet plop, plop, plop of Jellyfucker blood dripping from the throne onto the floor. Lang staggers away from the worst of the mess and retches.
“Darnel,” you snap. He’s the most important one here. Without him, what you’ve done is just a gesture.
Darnel scrambles over the mess, his overly-worn combat boot soles squeaking on the goop. Then Khaki Guy shoves him aside. Darnel’s arms windmill as almost falls. “What the hell did you do?” Khaki Guy screams into your face.
You stare at him. You thought it would be pretty fucking obvious.
“No, no, no… you’ve ruined everything!” Khaki Guy looks wildly round. “They’re going to blame all of us. You stupid bitch, you killed us all!” Like a counterpoint, there’s loud banging on first one door, then another. And another. They’re locked, maybe. You have no faith in them holding.
For a minute, you think Khaki Guy is going to try to hit you, which would be unbelievably stupid on his part, considering you’re still holding an ax that drips with alien gore, and then he rushes to sit in the big Jellyfucker’s throne. “I’ll open the doors,” he mutters. “I’ll tell them you did it, and let them punish you, and—”
“Don’t you fucking—” Lang shouts hoarsely.
“Don’t—” Darnel starts as well, though he looks more scared than angry.
Khaki Guy stabs a finger down at a random pressure plate. And then he explodes. Just FWOOM, there one moment and crimson mist the next.
There’s silence, except for the dripping of even more blood, now layered with human red. You wipe your eyes to clear away this new coating. Amazingly, Lang seems too stunned to throw up again. “Now, Darnel,” you say. You can worry about having Khaki Guy’s guts in your hair later, when there aren’t Jellyfuckers trying to kick in the doors.
“Are you kidding?” Darnel says. “You saw what happened!”
“Don’t touch it yet. But look at it. Hurry!”
Darnel skids forward and catches himself on the throne, half-climbs onto it, and looks over the panel, lips moving as he sounds things out. “Okay, okay, I think—I got this.”
“Do you got this, or do you think you got this?” you shout at Darnel. You’re shouting not because you’re angry, but because it’s the only way he can hear you over the slamming sound of tentacles against the doors. You don’t have time for this.
“I got it! But you saw what happened to him.”
Fine. You’ll do it yourself. You’ve had a good life. “Then show me.”
“Wait!” Lang shouts. “It might be some—some like bio-lock thing!” His voice is raw, frantic. “Try using one of the pieces!”
You glance back to see Lang, a little vomit on his shirt, scoop up one of the flaccid tentacle bits and toss it to Darnel, who catches it. He glances at you, gives you this smile that seems to say, it’s been good, and then slaps it down on the pressure plate.
Because highly unlikely coincidences happen with distressing regularity in an infinite universe, the beginning of the world is shepherded into existence by the same punk band that witnessed its end.
0: Nothing happens. Bass player Darnel Matisse slaps the severed tentacle onto the pressure plate again. Drummer Lang Stephens screams into his hands. And lead guitarist Marcy Ramos sinks slowly down onto the steps and pulls a squashed cigarette box out of her pocket. A single joint rattles around in its otherwise empty confines.
1: The banging on the door to the throne stops. There’s a sound that can only be described later as
getting further and further away, and then a muffled pattering as one by one the aliens known to the Earthlings as “Jellyfuckers” explode. Unbeknownst to the surviving three-fourths of Devil Squid, the chain reaction continues far past their hearing range, rocketing around the globe at a speed only slightly slower than light.
2: Lang goes out into the bewildered camp to search out Frank MacKenna and his ham radio set and bring them back to the throne room. Marcy’s made it clear that she’s not moving. She and Darnel sit on the steps of Txiwal Crym Hyyul-et’s throne, not caring that his effluvia soaks into their ragged, dirt-stiff jeans, and lean against each other. Darnel cries quietly, and Marcy rubs his back in small circles.
3: Lang returns with Frank and armfuls of ham radio equipment in tow. Lang and Darnel take turns winding the crank as Frank makes call after call across the frequencies. It’s a hit-or-miss crapshoot of luck, who he finds out there on the airwaves. But every voice the band hears, thin and staticky with distance, is filled with wonder and a little fear, because the aliens have all exploded. What the hell is going on, over? Frank, bless him, can’t really give an answer because all Lang had yelled at him over and over as they raced toward the ship was, “Ding dong the Jellyfucker’s dead!”
4: Marcy, her back an endless spasm of agony that says she may never be able to stand again, lights that final filthy, ragged joint, the last weed that Cameron ever sold on this Earth, and lights it up. She inhales an Ave Maria and exhales a Padre Nuestro. And Darnel finally takes the microphone from Frank’s fumbling hands and says, “We killed the alien battle commander and used his ultimate weapon against his own people.” Great, the guy on the other end answers, who the fuck is we?
5: Darnel looks at Marcy and grins, like it’s old times, like he’s about to get her in a world of trouble. And he says: “Empress Marcy of the Anarcho-Socialist Republic of Earth. And she’s got a message for everyone, so listen up.”
Marcy exhales another long Gloria and grins like, you little fucker, I’ll get you for this. Because it’s a cosmic fucking joke, and there’s no one to stop her. The Jellyfuckers tore everything down, and now she—now the band tore them down in turn and the pieces are theirs to make of what they can. They’re the dogs who caught the car, but one thing she knows for sure—their teeth are made of sharpened steel guitar strings and starlight and iron will. So maybe she does have a message for any terrestrial assholes that remain, and any intergalactic ones that might be listening in as this signal starts its long march out into the void. Marcy takes the microphone and sings: “Nada cambia—hasta que lo hagamos cambiar.” She laughs, then relents and switches to something sort of equivalent in English—for Lang’s benefit, because Darnel’s eyes already shine like fire. “And the times, they are a-changing.”
Copyright 2019 Alex Acks
About the Author
Alex Acks is a sharp-dressed geologist. They’ve written labor unions and space witches in Hunger Makes the Wolf (2017 Kitschies Golden Tentacle winner) and Blood Binds the Pack; and steampunk in Murder on the Titania and Other Steam-Powered Adventures (2019 Colorado Book Award finalist) and Wireless and Other Steam-Powered Adventures.