by Zella Christensen
Unlike many of the innovations introduced during the global rule of Plague and Mad Doll, the Future Projection Project was not an unmitigated success. The time machine it required, a yellow apparatus the size of a bumper car with a clear plastic bubble where the pilot sat, was constructed using the last of the planet’s uranium. World peace seemed inevitable now that the various nations of the world were united under one flag, so there didn’t seem to be any reason to save a little extra.
Agent Ted, the time machine pilot, had once been employed by a shadowy agency within the country formerly known as the USA but had enthusiastically supported Mad Doll and Plague when it became clear which way the political wind was blowing. His assignment was simple: figure out what’s going to happen and report back.
At least, it sounded simple.
Ted decided to jump ahead one month at a time, reporting back after each mission. Up through July, six months from when he was assigned to the project, things on Earth looked pretty normal, even boring. On Ted’s seventh trip, to August, he noticed a strange whining sound as soon as the time machine started up. He ignored it and set a beach in Australia as the machine’s destination. He’d never been to Australia before.
Once he arrived and climbed out of the time machine, Ted stood on the beach and stared into the night sky. The machine wasn’t so precise that he could predict at what time of day he would arrive, and it looked like he had a few hours to wait before the sun came up. Then he would find a convenience store in the nearest town and buy a newspaper to skim for information. On his previous six trips, the headlines had all said things like Long Live Our Glorious Rulers and Breaking News: Era of Peace and Plenty Continues Uninterrupted. It was a boring job, but the pay was unbelievable, and Plague and Mad Doll hadn’t asked him to “remove” anybody like his old bosses sometimes did. His new job also involved fewer smoky rooms, and his asthma hadn’t given him trouble in months. Ted smiled at the thought of how far he’d come since the days of his old, morally questionable job working for a dangerously powerful government agency.
A bright flash in the sky caught his attention. Ted frowned and squinted upward until he picked out a strange light in the sky. The light resolved itself into three lights. Then five. Then fifteen. Forty. He lost count.
Ted’s eyes widened as he realized what he was seeing: a fleet of massive, shining spaceships heading straight for Earth. He scrambled desperately for the notepad and pen in his pocket and muttered under his breath as he tried to get an accurate count of the approaching fleet. Binoculars! That’s what he needed. He’d have to head back to January, grab a pair, and come back so he could report on the enemy as accurately as possible. How would Earth prepare for this invasion? What kind of weaponry and technology did their enemies have?
He remembered with a sinking heart that the planet’s supply of uranium had been exhausted in making the time machine. How did you defend yourself from an interstellar military force without nuclear weapons?
Behind him, someone coughed. Ted jumped and whirled around, but there was nothing there but the time machine. It shuddered and coughed again, and a thin jet of steam shot from some internal mechanism. Clearly, something was wrong with Ted’s ride home. He thought fast. If he got into the time machine and it broke down, who knew what would happen? Would he be catapulted into the far future or distant past? Stuck in some weird in-between dimension? Killed outright?
But if he didn’t get back to January and bring news of the impending alien invasion to Plague and Mad Doll, humankind would be caught with its collective pants down. Ted hesitated. He looked back at the sky, now dotted with huge spaceships.
Ted took a deep breath and did something heroic. He got into the coughing, steaming, trembling time machine and set his course for home. The time machine went from trembling to shaking. Its coughs started to sound less like the effects of a lifetime of smoking and more like a lion hacking up a hairball. And then—
—he was in the lab, and Plague and Mad Doll were standing nearby. They rushed forward together, grabbed one of his arms each, and dragged him away from the time machine just before it gave a final hacking cough, as if it had finally cleared an annoying bit of phlegm, and vanished.
There are a lot of theories about where the time machine went: into the far future, the prehistoric past, or another dimension. No one’s figured it out yet, and with the world’s supply of uranium exhausted, no one’s been able to duplicate the experiment with a new time machine. At least for the time being, Earth’s brief age of time travel was over.
After hearing Ted’s news, an ordinary world dictator might have started building up their global army in preparation for the impending disaster, but Plague and Mad Doll were no ordinary world dictators. Instead, they created a special unit with only one task: to save the world.
Plague’s cousin Ian was assigned with heading up the squad, a promotion that had nothing to do with prior experience and everything to do with nepotism. Nineteen of the world’s brainiest and brawniest were placed under his command.
For their first day on the job, these nineteen finest lined up in front of Ian, who paced up and down in front of them. His second-in-command, Floyd, paced behind him. He didn’t have a lot of experience either.
“What do you think we need first?” Floyd asked.
The nineteen finest stared stoically ahead.
“Guns,” Ian said.
What followed was the speediest and most massive buildup of armaments ever conducted for twenty-one people. Ian had requested guns (when Floyd asked how many and what kind, he said, “All of them”), and so the nineteen finest, plus Ian and Floyd, soon had a whole lot of guns. They arranged them in piles. The machine guns got their own pile, the pistols got another, and so did the carbines, tranquilizers, rifles, revolvers, and antique shotguns.
Ian and Floyd surveyed the piles. The nineteen finest stood in row behind them.
“That’s a lot of guns,” Floyd said.
Ian crossed his arms. “Not enough.”
The up-building of armaments went on, but it involved more than a simple accumulation of guns (although there was plenty of that too). Ian was a visionary who knew that guns don’t defeat alien invasions, people with guns do, and so he made sure his nineteen-member team had plenty of time and resources to prepare for the impending battle. The training happened mostly in Plague’s secret underground laboratory, into which was piped an unending stream of inspirational soundtracks from zero-to-hero films. Ten-Shot Tracy perfected her skill of holding and firing a pistol with each of her fingers simultaneously; Dr. Proctor, the token mad scientist on the team, was finally able to design her dream weapon, which launched poisonous sea urchins; Strong Mack spent his days benching assorted friends and furniture until he could lift the three-hundred-pound Huge Gun comfortably with one arm; and Floyd, who wanted a cool nickname, had his arms amputated at the elbow and replaced with tiny cannons and insisted on being called Guns-for-Arms Floyd from then on. The sharpshooters, strategists, and mechanics on the team honed their unique skills.
By the time July drew to a close, the nineteen finest had built themselves into veritable gun-fighting machines, and anyone who so much as hummed the Rocky theme was likely to get punched. Guns-for-Arms Floyd had just about gotten his new limbs under control. A few days before the alien invasion occurred (or would occur—time travel makes tenses confusing), the nineteen finest (plus Guns-for-Arms Floyd) lined up in front of Ian one last time.
They were all aware of the gravity of their situation. If they couldn’t defeat their alien foes, the lives of everyone they knew would be in danger. The fate of the world was in their hands (or tiny cannons, in Floyd’s case).
Strong Mack looked down the line at the nineteen finest and Guns-for-Arms Floyd.
“Maybe Plague and Mad Doll should have built up the army,” he said.
Ten-Shot Tracy spun her guns around her fingers. “I’m sure they know what they’re doing.”
Strong Mack shrugged. It was hard to tell whether he was expressing skepticism or adjusting the weight of the Huge Gun he was holding.
Ian finished inspecting the nineteen finest and Guns-for-Arms Floyd and nodded in satisfaction. He led his team up through the lab’s trapdoor and onto the public playground under which it was located. Each member of the team was carrying a box full of guns and ammo (you know, be prepared and all that), except for Guns-for-Arms Floyd, who was having trouble gripping his box. Strong Mack compensated by stacking Guns-for-Arms Floyd’s box on top of his own. A private plane, which had torn up the lawn near the kiddie slide, waited to take the team and its guns to Australia, where Ted had seen the aliens descend.
Normally, the nineteen finest would probably have enjoyed getting an all-expenses-paid trip to Australia and staying in a five-star hotel on the beach, but knowing that soon a bunch of aliens were going to land on that beach made the whole thing less fun somehow. The nineteen finest spent their time sitting in front of the hotel, which they had reserved entirely for themselves, and cleaning the guns. They looked like grim old men from tacky cowboy movies. Guns-for-Arms Floyd looked grimmer than the others, but that was just because shaving had turned out to be challenging without hands, so he’d grown a long, shaggy beard which covered up his sunny smile.
As dusk fell after a day of grim gun-cleaning, a strange light appeared in the sky, which quickly resolved itself into the shape of a fleet of spaceships. Guns-for-Arms Floyd saw it from hotel window, and so did Ted the time traveler, who was standing on the beach, listening to the calming roar of the waves, and marveling at how far he’d come since the days of his old, morally questionable job working for a dangerously powerful government agency.
Dr. Proctor joined Guns-for-Arms Floyd at the window.
“What the hell is that?” she said. She was pointing at Ted and the time machine, not at the spaceships, which were still hard to make out.
At that moment, a tendril of smoke rose from the time machine. Ted climbed inside, and the whole thing vanished.
Guns-for-Arms Floyd pointed with one gun-arm at the lights in the sky. “Are those spaceships?”
They were definitely spaceships.
“Shit,” Proctor said. “You’d better wake Ian up. I’ll rally the troops.” Like most people, Dr. Proctor had secretly always wanted to say “rally the troops,” and even as she realized she was facing what might be the last night of her life, she took some satisfaction from being able to fulfill that dream.
As it turned out, Ian didn’t need to be woken up. Like most of the team, he was too anxious to sleep. Guns-for-Arms Floyd took him to the window to see the approaching spaceships.
“Prepare the guns,” Ian said.
The team was well-prepared already. The nineteen finest took their positions at windows, behind columns, and on balconies. Once they were in place, Ian and Guns-for-Arms Floyd went outside and stood on the beach near the hotel, courageously taking the most visible and vulnerable positions. Behind them, the metallic sounds of ammo rattling and guns being loaded faded to silence. The spaceships grew large in the night sky.
“Are you ready?” Ian said.
“Yeah, man.” Guns-for-Arms Floyd tried to sound upbeat.
The spaceships hung in place. They had stopped moving.
“What are they doing?” Guns-for-Arms Floyd said.
Ian shook his head. Finally, one of the ships separated from the fleet and drifted down to land in the ocean. It was as big as a small town, and it landed very slowly and gently. After what seemed like a long time, a smaller craft detached itself from the ship in the ocean and skipped over the waves toward the beach. It was hard to tell, but it looked to Ian like it hovered just above the water instead of actually touching it. It stopped when it reached the beach. A door slid open on the side of the ship, and a small, furry creature stepped onto the sand. A big-eyed scaly animal was perched on what might have been its shoulder, and the furry creature was inspecting a large piece of paper in its four hands.
Ian and Guns-for-Arms Floyd waited tensely to see what the creature would do. It looked up from the paper it was holding and walked toward them.
“Hi there,” the creature said. Its mouth (located in more or less the expected place) moved, but the sound came out of the creature on its shoulder. Ian guessed that the scaly creature was some kind of translator. “Can you point me toward Barnard’s Star?”
Ian stared at the paper the creature was holding, then at the creature’s face. “Barnard’s Star?” he repeated.
“Yeah. We’re on our way there to visit some friends, but we got a little turned around. Do you know the way?”
Ian glanced at Guns-for-Arms Floyd. The nineteen finest looked around at each other and shrugged.
“Uh, no, sorry,” Ian said.
“That’s alright,” the creature said. “We’ll just ask at the next planet.”
It rolled up the paper it was carrying, tucked it under its arm, and walked back to its ship. It stepped inside, and the door closed behind it. The little vehicle skipped back across the water to the larger ship. After a pause, the enormous craft lifted slowly and silently into the sky, joining the mass of glowing shapes. As Guns-for-Arms Floyd and Ian watched, the whole fleet grew smaller and smaller until it faded out of sight. The nineteen finest drifted from their hiding places to stand by Floyd and Ian on the beach.
“Wait—that’s it?” Dr. Proctor said. She hefted her gun uncertainly and noticed, for the first time, a funny smell coming from the barrel. She hadn’t changed the urchins in awhile.
“I guess so,” Ian said.
There was a moment of collective silence as the team stared down at their various weapons. Ten-Shot Tracy spoke first.
“Shit!” She pointed her ten pistols in the direction the fleet of spaceships had gone and fired until they were all empty. The rest of the team held their ears and winced at the noise. When Tracy was out of ammo, she let the guns slip from her fingers to the wet sand and took a number of deep, presumably calming breaths.
Strong Mack wept silently, cradling the Huge Gun in his arms like an alarmingly overweight infant. “You never got to kill an alien,” he whispered to it. “Not even one.”
Ian, the only unarmed person there, squinted up toward the sky, but the alien fleet was long out of sight.
Guns-for-Arms Floyd looked down at his gun-arms. “I think we might have made a mistake,” he said.
About the Creator
Zella Christensen moves around so much that her bios are always out of date, but you can find her and some stuff she’s written online at zellawrites.com.
World’s Shortest Creator Interview
Please describe fifty words or less.
The words are within you. Extracting them is a painful process involving scalpels and men in white coats. You stare up at the bright light above, sweating profusely. You struggle not to close your eyes but don’t know how long you can resist. The scalpel gleams, arcing toward you as—
[Editor’s note: Yes, Zella’s response is 50 words long. I counted.]
Make up a word for “uncomfortably warm” and describe its origins.
After much deliberation, I have coined the linguistic game-changer “unconfowarm.” It is a clever (if I do say so myself) amalgamation of two existing English words and one step toward a more efficient form of communication that allows speakers of English to endure as little actual face-to-face conversation as possible, which I think we can all agree would be a grimprovement*.
About the Artists
Our very own D Chang is a designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Avast, Ye Airships! and the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology, and he has a janky retro JRPG on Steam. He does the Space Squid illustrations, editing, and other squid stuff.