Thursday, June 19, 2014


The story unfolds:

A young crew.  A new world.  Aliens barely advanced beyond fire and Copernicus.  And the boyish captain has to exceed every order, taking his starship where it shouldn't be, risking an overly loyal crew as well as himself while trying to save creatures that should be doomed.

“Some planets have thick lithospheres,” the storyteller explains.  “Thick and insulating, and after millions of years of quiet, their crust shatters.  Volcanoes.  Oceans of lava.  Poisoned air, and death for any civilization unlucky enough to be born in those times.  That’s what they were facing.”

I know something about being unlucky.

When he looks my way, I nod at him, feigning interest.

The man rather likes his own voice, and years of success have fooled him into believing that his voice is special and his stories are captivating.

“I saved those creatures,” he says.

The pride is obvious.  And so is his sense of power.

“My ship’s engines and weapons...together, they bled off the extra volcanic pressures, and the forces that couldn't be diffused were put underground, buried for another thousands years.  We hoped.”

This story has been told many times, polished and simplified and probably infested with lies.  Little lies, and a few large ones, and he probably doesn't see them anymore.

I listen carefully, with deep interest.

But I don't listen in the ways that he imagines.

Finally, he settles on an anecdote--a few minutes of running through an alien forest, chased by the very creatures that he wants to rescue.  The tale resembles one of the films that I watched on Earth long ago, as a youngster--all motion and violence with ridiculously quick edits.  Real life has no edits.  Existence always slower than the movies, particularly when the stakes are high.

When I was a child, other people went to the movies to be entertained.

But I wasn't interested in small thrills.  I sat in the seats to watch the audience, teaching myself the best ways to manipulate people.

“I was a young captain,” my captor repeats.  “And I risked everything to save a species that I didn't know.”

I nod and adjust my posture, causing my chains to shift.

The links have a musical quality, ringing sweetly against one another.

“I have your people,” the man says.

How could I have forgotten that fact?

“I don’t want to hurt any of you.  But you have a history.  You are history, ugly and blunt.  And none of my colleagues would lose two nights of sleep because an Admiral with a sterling service record decided to euthanize a few hundred war criminals sleeping in baths of liquid nitrogen.”

“But you won’t kill them,” I say quietly.

“They aren't technically alive,” he says.  “Only you.”

He wants me.

“Khan,” he says.

This is the first time he uses that name.

My captor is an Admiral. “I didn't earn my rank by avoiding danger,” he says.

I am very dangerous.  He appreciates that. Perhaps these chains won't restrain me.  He knows I could kill him in an instant, with one finger and any leverage.  And maybe I could fight my way out of this prison cell too. But the risks accumulate, and I don’t know enough to measure the odds. So I am a compliant prisoner. Besides, the others cannot help. My second desire, after gaining my freedom, is to save my own people.

With a pitiful tone, I mutter, “Please don’t hurt them."

He smiles.  He approves of my tone. In his youth, this man was most likely beautiful.  Age and the puffiness in the face have diminished his appearance, but the uniform and his powerful office are still valuable. I imagine that he has no problem finding willing bed partners.  Women.  Men.  Alien. Whatever meat fuels his well-practiced arrogance.

I would blow this man, and more, if it helped make him mine. But I suspect our relationship will move along a different route.

Showing caution and a tentative hope, I look at him.

That once-pretty face smiles.  Delighted.

“I don’t care how brilliant you are,” he says.  “You can't being to imagine the incidents and coincidences that put me on the trail of your ship.”

I am brilliant and can imagine quite a lot, thank you.

But I couldn't have guessed this story.  Not ever. All at once he is telling me about time traveling aliens.  He describes an entire world of scientific aliens being destroyed in a day.  And the Earth was subsequently attacked and nearly destroyed too. With little warning, his realm has been jerked out of every expected pattern, and at the center of the carnage stands one intelligent mixed-blooded creature--an ancient man who has spoken to my captor on a few occasions, and never for long.

“The asshole is from the far future," the Admiral says. "Supposedly he's one of ours, but when I asked about threats and promises farther out in space, he offered me nothing.  Nothing. I asked about past missions, discoveries and new technologies. But no, he told me nothing. Nothing but to say, ‘I won’t damage these time lines anymore than I have already.’”

“Meanwhile, the galaxy is left in a shambles,” I say.

“Our little piece of the quadrant, yes." The insult, real or imagined, still feels fresh. "Of course everybody who knows anything is terrified.”

He tells me quite a lot, every time his mouth opens.

"How did you find me?" I ask.

"I wondered what was hiding nearby. So I ordered a thorough survey of the Oort cloud, looking for hidden aliens, lost ships. And there was your ship, cold and drifting."

“Where are my people?” I ask, letting my voice break at the end.

"I have them," he says.

I drop my eyes. "Please don't hurt them."

I have never known any admiral who doesn't want to protect his people, if only because they are his possessions and quite small.

“Help me and they'll survive,” he says.

I nod.

And I show him a cowering kind of hope.

To save the others, I would do anything but surrender myself.  I love them, and certain ones I love dearly.  But I am called Khan for good reasons, and this relationship between the Admiral and Khan will be precarious for a long while.  I'm quite certain of that.

My captor shares his scheme for hiding my people and gaining my cooperation too.

It’s a ludicrous, overly complicated plan.

A bureaucrat’s idea of effective action.

“And this is what I want from you,” he says.  Then he explains some tiny portion of the entire plan.

I listen.

Sometimes I ask questions, obvious questions and some that are subtle, and the blunt answers are quickly delivered. Some of his answers are probably entirely true.  And what might be confused for a treaty is gradually hammered out between us.

The chains will remain on me, one way or another.

But before he leaves, I ask, “What about those other aliens?”

“What others?”

“The ones living on the volcano.  Have you ever returned to check on them?”

“There’s an observation post.  Automated, reporting directly to me.”

“And they’re well?”

“Yes, yes.  The planet is healthy, and their civilization is learning new tricks.”

This is an Admiral, a high-achieving master of a frightened empire.  Yet despite all of the technological wizardry, he seems even less than impressive than the men and women I defeated in centuries past.

“If those volcanoes returned today,” I begin.


“Would you rush back to save them?”

A moment of contemplation is necessary.  Obviously, he hasn't considered the matter. Then a new smile builds, and he says, “I doubt it.  Not being a young captain anymore, I’d delegate the job.  If it mattered.”

Young captains.

They are the danger in this realm.

“Sleep, Khan," he says.  "We have a busy agenda, starting tomorrow.”

Excellent advice, if you are dealing with an ordinary man.  He leaves and I shut my eyes, feigning sleep but letting my mind race, picturing the galaxy as a grassland. And I am Khan, astride a horse named the Admiral, and every empty horizon is mine for the taking.

Monday, June 2, 2014


The big game wasn’t.

We were down twenty with five minutes left. The other team was running up-the-middle, clock-burning plays, and that's when Coach pulled his first-string.  Nothing exciting was going to happen, unless you’re a third-stringer seeing your first action in a month. Which was me.  Banging bodies, trying to hurt and not get hurt.  You know.  Football.  And then there was two minutes left and a punt, and I was sitting on the sideline, feeling bruised and warm and happy.  I wasn’t watching the flying ball or the lights above the field.  I was looking at tooth marks in the back of my hand, wondering if I was going to get rabies. Wishing I could turn into a werewolf.  You know. I was just daydreaming.

That’s when the lights went out.  Everywhere everywhere.  Not that we knew it then.  But the grid was down, not one phone would work, and craziest of all, the school buses and next to none of the cars would start. It was dark and cold with our team and its sorry fans sixty miles from home.  Which is a very long walk.  But one kid had an ancient Ford pickup, a pre-computer beast that wanted to run. My folks didn't like it, but I climbed in the back end.  My folks told me to be careful. They always told me to be careful. I told them this was an adventure and I'd have fun, and sure enough, there were adventures along the way.  Two flat tires, one little crash. Some beer and some siphoning of gasoline. I could tell you how much fun I had, but I’m already eating my time here.  So let’s just say that ten of us rode home together, and by the end of that long dark trip, we were the ten best friends in the world.

Out of those ten, I'm the only one alive today.

By the way.


I was home at dawn, and that's when the grid came back on.  Except we weren't in control of the power anymore. And our Internet was missing. And every radio and TV was playing the same message:  The United States of America had been invaded.  Invaded and conquered, said our now ex-President. "With barely one shot fired in response," he said.

Getting beat by twenty is bad.  But the US had been defeated twenty thousand to twenty.  That's what the news reports were telling us. The reporters and the government people wept on camera, claiming that our nation was occupied, that martial law was in force, and every one of these invaders looked like sharp, well-fed boys and girls spoke perfect English.

But they were North Koreans, incredible as that sounded.

Which is where the story went all far-farfetched.
If I was conquering somebody, I'd want to conquer them hard.

Never give your enemies any chance to breathe. That's what I say.

For the next couple days, everybody in our town tried to live half-normal lives. Saturday, Sunday.  Everybody found their way home over the weekend, including my very scared parents. Phones were working, but only for emergency calls. Televisions and computers worked fine, but after that first rush of news, there was nothing to see besides the posted rules for what made good citizens.  Punctuality. Order. Respect. That's what our new rulers appreciated. Then Sunday night, just when everybody was numb and depressed, televisions went back to normal-looking, normal-sounding programs.  Fox and CBS were gone. But if you had cable, you got sixty networks.  Sixty networks that we didn't know.  Each network had its own slate of shows.  Which was actually a big kick, after being bored for the weekend. But the big message is that every program looked as good as the best Hollywood could make by using live actors and real cameras. Yet our masters had cooked up these programs, including every face and voice and spoken word, inside their superconductive quantum computers. That’s the kind of power they had. It was like Americans walking into a Stone Age camp, showing the Neanderthals how to build fire with U-235. It was a wild, wild magic that stole away our capacity to breathe.

Monday, schools opened again.

We were told to go back to our lives.  People discovered that car engines ran and we could travel, but only travel to work and stores and back again.  We didn't know it then, but little whiskers of carbon and treachery had been added to electrical systems everywhere, keeping tabs on everyone.  Maybe the whiskers had been there for a long time. I still don't know how that trick was done, or when.  But if you tried driving anywhere wrong, your vehicle pulled to a stop and died.

People love routines, particularly when they don't have anything else. Most of my classmates showed at high school, even those that didn't usually make it on Mondays. But instead of learning, we spent our day telling rumors.  Crazy shit that had to be repeated because it was so crazy that just hearing it made things seem understandable. Like the one where invisible drones were flying over us night and day.  Or a robot army was assembling in the barley fields north of town. Or how every satellite in Earth orbit had been turned to mush and meteorites.

When Friday night came again, the sitcoms stopped. TV told our town to go down to the high school football field. It was time to meet our new bosses.

There were just two of them, as it happened.  A pair of Koreans.  The guy was forty and over six feet tall, and he was ugly. The woman was twenty-something and almost as tall, and gorgeous. The guy had a big gut, by the way.  Which led to a buddy of mine to joke, asking, “How do you get fat eating cabbage?”

We were standing high in the stands, him and me. And the Koreans were at the 50 yard line, flanked by a squad of ten-foot robots.

The Korean guy started laughing just then, with a big voice.  That voice didn't use stadium equipment, or any microphones or speakers we could see.  But he had a booming laugh that came into everybody's ear, and he repeated the joke before confessing that he liked cabbage fine, but he preferred beef, Kobe beef cultured in a pristine vat, and we should never believe anything we had heard about his great country.

I shot that guy.  Six months later, after a whole lot of trouble, I had a line-of-sight on both of them, and I picked the ugly fat man to hit with the laser. I cooked away everything below his belt. Then I was beside him and he was dying, looking up at me, saying that I had screwed up. He said that I should have killed the woman, because he was the nice one. The woman's revenge was going to be a whole lot worse than his ever would have been.

But that was in the future.

Nobody had a clue.

Up in the audience, we joked about cabbage, and he laughed with us and warned us about our ignorance, and then the laughter was done. And those two people standing in the middle of the football field started to talk with their perfect, perfect American English. With booming voices, they told their subjects about how the world really was.
The Korean War wasn’t what we thought it was.

Taking over one little finger of Asia was never the point of that slaughter.  And it didn't matter which superpower got the upperhand either. MacArthur?  Stalin? They were as ignorant as the Marines dying in the snow. No, all that mattered in that fight was one object buried in an ordinary hillside south of the original border.  It was after World War II when a peasant and his teenage son found this mystery object poking out of their native ground.  It was evening, and what they saw was glowing. And because glowing things can be evil, the father pulled his boy away from the mystery. But boys are wild, that boy returned later that night. That warm hard chunk of weirdness was too inviting, and he touched it. Then the weirdness merged with him in some fashion or another, and suddenly he was smarter than most people would ever be, his head filled with plans for wondrous, impossible machines.

The first thing he did, after covering up the prize, was to what home and tell his father what he had done and what he had learned. But smelling evil, that old guy tried to subdue his son, and the two fought and the younger man was left alive, and angry.

The two people standing on the fifty yard line didn't name the boy. But they repeated the story that they'd heard since childhood: Their nameless hero walked south with his news. But his own people dismissed him. And the few Westerners laughed at him. So he went north instead, where Kim Il-Sung, the new Communist leader, proved willing to listen and to believe.  And once a plan was in place, he acted on what he believed.

No war had ever been so simple. There was one goal, and that was to unearth a chunk of matter that could fill a stadium with its brilliance. And then picked people had to bring it home. The fighting lasted for three years only because that marvel proved to be bigger than most rooms, and it weighed about fifty times more than a similar-sized chunk of lead would weigh. The prize had to be moved unseen. It couldn't be seen by enemy planes or soldiers. Ever. It had to be buried when it might be discovered, or when the borders shifted again. And all through this process, only a special few people were allowed to physically touch it. One million people died, just because a fat prize had to be dragged up to where the North could be sure to keep hold of it.
“Is this thing alien?” somebody asked. Somebody down below me.

The Koreans expected the question, and the woman laughed.  In that way people laugh because it was such an obvious, stupid question.

“Of course it’s alien technology,” she told us.  “What else can it be?  You think dinosaurs constructed a hyperdense server field wrapped around an antimatter generator?  Huh?  Is that what you believe?”

Actually, I was thinking it could be some machine from the future. Or maybe another dimension. I had a bunch of possibilities in mind. But I didn't want to get laughed at, so I kept quiet.

Suddenly the man said, “We call the artifact the Far Mind."

Somebody on my right shouted, "Why that?"

"Because it is a wonderfully appropriate name," he said, flashing a big, perfect-toothed grin.

"What does your thing look like?" one old woman shouted out.

"That's not for you to know," said the Korean woman.

Then with a tone, the old woman asked, "Have you ever actually seen the thing?"

"Enough questions," said the man. Which meant, as far as I could see, "No, we haven't seen it, and that's a sore point, and now shut up."

Every time they talked, our two tyrants got geekier and easier to read.  In some ways that was comforting, as if they were saying, “We're not that awful or clever. God, we can't even keep any secrets.”  But also in a bad way, like, “We could tell you everything and look pathetic, and not even then could you defeat us.”

Anyway, the Far Mind was alien, or it was something else entirely. Whatever it was, the Mind was not at all complicated to use.  Men and women could lay their hands on any part of the thing, and ideas would flood inside their heads.  Peasants, premiers. It didn't matter who got the honor.  A select group was chosen from the North Korea's few scientists and its highest leadership, and within days, their civilization was way beyond ours.  The first order of business was to end the war with an Armistice. Second was to mask everything they did next, which proved easy.  Using their new talents, they wove fusion reactors out of new alloys, and with all that cheap power, they cloaked labs and towns and factories and more factories. Eventually entire cities vanished.  The Russians would come and visit their allies, and they saw nothing. The Chinese never left, and they saw very little. The darkest dark had come over one little piece of the world, and the rest of the world marched on, unaware of the truth.

Yeah, that was a crazy shit story.

But as it turns out, that gorgeous camouflaging system isn't quite as tight as those two claimed. Particularly once you figure out the basic tricks.

I never was good at school.  But that night, I was the best student there was. I listened very carefully to the stories.  I learned that any government works well, if your leaders happen to be superintelligent bureacrats. I learned that the population of North Korea was about twice as big as what we assumed it was.  Which still wasn't a lot of people. And per capita, that little country used about five times the energy that the US used.  It only looked dark from space because their system is cloaked and so efficient that not even spare photons get free. And that fact, plus the beef-eater's fat belly, taught me that my enemies might not be as lean and hard as they pretended.

The Korean capital city with its ugly parades? It was like an amusement park, all for show. And the tales about the refugees, starved and desperate? Those are clones of real people, cultivated in vats and starved underground, then infused with fake memories and compellingly pathetic tales.

I learned that North Koreans love to tell stories.

Standing before us, these two people were the faces and voices of our new masters. Together, they warned us to never think about rebellion.  Which was when they gave away the fact that they actually couldn't read thoughts. I know that I was busy wondering what it would take to kill them and their millions of fat brothers.  Then they mentioned that they had a huge area to rule, just the two of them.  It was a boast, like, "Five big counties to administer. Look how important we are." But that implied that it was just them, nobody else. Then to impress us with just how in charge they were, they had their tall robots drag three people out of the stands.  Each of their prisoners was a criminal.  They claimed. Coach happened to be one of those people. Charges were read. The criminals blubbered, telling us they were innocent.  But frankly, the town already had an idea about Coach and his "hobbies", and hearing the charges, nobody thought, “Oh, not our buddy.  Not Old Coach.”

The giant robots shot three bad people through the heart.

Then somebody up on the highest bleacher asked, “So when do we play the rest of our season?”

It was our starting running back.  A college prospect.

“Never,” said the Korean woman.  “Football is cancelled.”

If she could hear our whispers, she could certainly hear the grumbling about that news. The woman was wearing tall black boots, and just then she was wiping them clean of blood splatters. She looked more than a little squeamish to me, putting down the rag, telling us, "We don't approve of events that aren't scripted."

Three years later, the woman still wants scripts. But I can tell you, first hand, Miss Black Boots long ago got over her dislike for blood.
I could sing about adventures. Ambushes and battles. The ebb and flow of this long rebellion.  Really, a lot of it would have been spectacular to watch.  If you were safe. But while it was happening to me, there was nothing to see but mud and lasers and homemade bombs, plus dead people that I had called friends. And a very few enemy soldiers.  Since we fight machines and software a lot more than we ever fight real people.

To my count, I've killed nine of the hated Overlords, which makes me something of a war hero.

I did sleep with one of those Koreans, and I loved her, and I'm not talking about the girl anymore.

And also have killed fifty-odd collaborators.  By the way.

No, I was never much of a football player.  Too small, too weak. Way too slow. But as a soldier, I am supremely talented.
How this war ends, nobody knows.  Or even if it can ever really end.  But after three years of struggle, I finally learned the big reason why we were conquered in the first place, and why all of this has gone so wrong for the all-powerful invaders.

A few weeks back, we were in a cloaked camp in the hills. A group of resistance fighters eating cultured beef stolen from the enemy stocks.  And through the camouflage stepped this Korean-looking fellow that we recognized just in time.

He was Korean-American, I mean. And we held our fire.

His face used to be a famous face.  He used to be an actor.  Not a big, big name.  But he was that guy that always got picked for those television shows where you needed a good-looking Asian dude.

No warning, this half-celebrity came striding into camp, leading his little team of guerrillas, and after a couple ugly moments, everybody was acquainted and happy enough. It seems our actor had had his fans among the Overlords. There were people who'd seen and enjoyed his abbreviated career. And after the invasion, he used that fame to worm his way inside the lowest reaches of the new government.  That's how he learned that North Korea had never wanted to invade us. Not on this timetable, no. They had to unpack a plan in a day, and come at us in way too much of a rush.  Why?  Because they heard a rumor, an ugly credible rumor, that the American dogs had uncovered a second artifact somewhere in the Western US. It was identical to the first artifact but outside Korean control.  So they came to take it, except they hadn't found it yet. Nobody had. So today, that alien-time-machine-dimension-hoping key to universal knowledge was being chased by every player still walking the world today.

Oh, and our guest had other news to share from the outside world.

The United States proved to be a very easy meal, sure. But having made themselves visible, the North Koreans were forced to take over anyone who might fight against them. Their siblings in the South.  And China.  And Japan, which they burnt to nothing.  Then most of Russia and all of Europe too, which left the rest of the world ripe for the taking too.  So in just a few weeks, with nothing but a few centuries worth of new technology, that tiny nation became largest empire ever, as big as any civilization could ever be.  Which was too much way too fast, even for a people that had magic and marvels at their command.

Our enemies have suffered a lot of losses.

This sprawling big district has just the one gal in charge.

Miss Black Boots is killing hundreds and thousands, and for no good reason except to catch us. And to kill me.

Our semi-famous guest had come here for two reasons, he said. First, he wanted to shake my hand.  And second, he wanted to borrow a couple of my best people. Because he was off to raid an enemy stronghold, hoping to grab intelligence about where our own Far Mind might be hiding.

Neither of my people have come back again. Which is sad, or it means nothing. A lot of people vanish in war.  And this war is better at make disappearances happen.

And speaking about vanishings:

This is what I thinking about a lot.  For the last weeks, when I’m curled up in a fetal-cocoon, breathing my own recycled oxygen, I keep wondering how if there are two artifacts buried in the earth, two Far Minds, then couldn't there be three or fifty-three more of these same machines hiding in the ground somewhere?  And maybe one them got itself found by some other lucky group, way back in the past.

Why do I say that?

Because sometimes, now and again, I see something. In the corner of an eye, I'll spot somebody I don’t expect to see.

He's not Korean, and he's not like me either.

No, he's short but looks quick, strong as hell.

Like a Neanderthal.

But he's wearing a spacesuit, and riding on his thick, fullback-style chest is this weird green-and-blue picture of Mars.

The real Mars.

Not the one that we think we know.