Thursday, October 1, 2009
"Sing, Goddess, Sing Me To The Stars" by Ben Burgis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. It was originally published in Flytrap, and podcast in a condensed version at Diet Soap. The illustration is the work of the multi-talented Tina Connolly.
There are lizards in my coffee, and I won't drink it.
There are lizards everywhere on this planet, little green fuckers with floppy tails and tiny yellow eyes.
Some days this entire war with its armies of Spiders, humans and Bumpies seems like a diversion, a footnote to the real war we're fighting against this planet, with its irradiated sand that gets trapped in your throat, its winds that blow all day and all night, and all of its goddamned little lizards.
Lizards in your coffee at breakfast, lizards under your feet as you walk, lizards in your bed at night. They breed like maggots and no one can figure out how to get rid of them.
Lizards invade my dreams, even my dreams of Earth.
I'll be standing there after I get my discharge, holding my one little suitcase. Jenny'll be there, even though in real life she dumped me when I was drafted. We'll kiss and then we'll go into her apartment and there'll be lizards there too and nothing's changed, not a goddamned thing, because I'm not back on Earth at all. I can't be, because my eternal destiny is war and lizards, sand and wind, forever and ever.
“Pussy,” Jack says, leaning across the long cafeteria table and giving me a wicked look. “Just close your eyes and drink.”
Jack and Malloy, they just drink their coffee down, lizards or no lizards. The trick is to keep your teeth almost closed while you're gulping it. Sometimes doing it that way, you kiss the lizard, but you don't actually swallow it.
Other guys, they do like Mike is right now. He picks the lizards out from the coffee, one by one, and sets them down on the table before he drinks the stuff.
I don't know why he bothers. On days when the lizards get into the coffee, you can't get that taste out. It tastes like stale cigarette smoke, and it lingers.
The deal is, you live with it or you don't. I don't, so maybe one day in every three I just go without coffee in the morning.
A little lizard is swimming around in there right now, near the rim of my cup. If I didn't know better, I'd swear it was sticking out its tongue at me.
I shake my head and push the cup away.
“Your loss, Johnny boy.” Jack leans back into his rickety plastic chair, rubbing his stubble and looking all philosophical. “Bottom line, though? You're here. That's not going to change any time soon. You might as well roll with it.”
This is an old routine with us, and my lines grew stale in my mouth a good long while ago. Still, it passes the time. “My enlistment's up soon.”
Jack snorts, not even bothering to remind me that my enlistment's been up three times already. Every time I get a “temporary emergency extension,” another six months, another year. Hell, I think Jack's enlistment's been up four or five times.
The Spiders call the shots, and they're not in any hurry to let us go. Why bother with the expense, flying in a new human to fill that uniform when the old one isn't even dead yet?
The Spiders rolled through sweet home Terra when I was in the tenth grade. I watched the war with my old man on CNN every night, the whole week of it before New York and Los Angeles went under.
After that, the Generals moved into the White House and made their peace with the Spiders. We got to keep the flag and have “full sovereignty.” In return, the Spiders get to appoint the President and the heads of industry. They get our whole economy re-oriented towards producing raw materials for factories on the Spider home world. Best of all, they get us, lots and lots of dumb little human boys to fight in the Spiders' long war against the Bumpies. But hey, “full sovereignty.” It's a sweet deal, right?
I guess it's a better deal than the countries that resisted got.
My call from Uncle Sam came the day I turned eighteen. I thought about not showing up, hiding somewhere, but I decided against it. Why ruin the rest of my life by doing that, when I had the army's solemn promise that I'd be out in two years time?
Yeah, don't laugh. I was eighteen years old. What the hell did I know?
Two years come and go, and I get my first “temporary emergency extension” to my enlistment, on account of how the Bumpies aren't losing like they should. Hey, just six more months...
“You never know,” I insist to Jack. “I could get a non-fatal injury, you can still get shipped back for that, can't you?”
“Or you could stay alive while we're out there, focus on that, and maybe have some fun the rest of the time.” Jack leans forward in his chair, and chops his hand on the table for emphasis. Two lizards scurry out of the way. “Just a thought, y'now? Life gives you lizards...”
He doesn't get a chance to complete the sentiment. The ceiling lights go off, and then on again. The announcement starts on the PA, in English and Spanish and that weird hissy talk that the Spiders use to communicate with each other. It's our orders for the day, where to go and how to suit up. The gist is always the same; it's time to go blow shit up.
Blow shit up and try not to get blown up, and that is all. Focus on that, and maybe I can get through this long enough that the army runs out of temporary emergencies and I get to go home.
It would just be nice if that happens while I still remember what home is like.
When I was in high school, back in Ohio, I took an English Lit class and we read Homer. This is before the Spiders came, mind you, when real life was pretty dull.
The story, the poetry, it blew my mind. If one book can follow you through life, for me the Iliad would have to be it.
I love books, not that there's much worth reading on the base. Half the time, all that's available are official pamphlets on History and Moral Philosophy, scintillating stuff about the menace posed to all peace-loving races by the Bumpies, the nobility of the “coalition” and the importance of eternal friendship between humans and Spiders, a friendship rooted in on our deep and abiding shared values. Stuff like that is always available for the bored soldier-boy to wile away his evenings with.
Well, that and porn.
On the whole, I prefer books and magazines in the latter category, although they get a little nasty when they're passed around the bunks too many times.
Anyway, I really loved that English class. When we read the Iliad, those first few lines swept through my mind like a column of fire.
“Sing, Goddess, of the wrath of Achilles...”
There's something there, in the flow of the words and the images that sunk a meat hook into my soul. In school we read some crappy modern translation, but I bought myself a good one that summer.
When I got drafted, I had to leave most of my books behind, but I always managed to find room in my pack for that copy of the Iliad. I think that weirded some people out, the dumb kid from rural southern Ohio who carried around Homer wherever he went.
Well, during the Battle of Fire Point, we had to evacuate our barracks in a hurry. Homer didn't make the cut, but even without a physical copy, I can still close my eyes and see those first few stanzas as clear as if they were printed on the back of my eyelids. “Sing, Goddess...”
I'm all suited up now, the best protection that human and Spider technology can provide, without the army wasting a lot of money on replaceable grunts.
In other words, I've got a plastic mask, some flimsy goggles and a Protection Suit that looks like a red wetsuit. This suit is, not counting the heat-sticks we carry or the pills they give us to breathe the air here, the only part of the package that represents an actual technological advance on anything the army used twenty years ago during the invasion of Iraq.
When the sand's too thick in the air to safely use heat-sticks, we have to take out the knives and fight hand to hand, the way Achilles fought Hector...well, if Achilles was only there because he was drafted and Hector had eight-chambered bug eyes, but you get the idea.
Still, the Protection Suit's great. It can withstand and repel lasers, knife points and all kinds of other shit.
Or it can when it's intact, which it isn't if you've been wearing the same one for the last six months. Hey, I'm sure they'll get replacements in stock any day now.
That, or I'll get a non-fatal injury and they'll send me home. You've got to look on the bright side.
We're running now, three to a row, across the rocky red ground. The wind is blowing reddish orange sand everywhere, but with practice you can see shapes through it pretty well. A Spider runs behind us, its eight long legs loping slowly through the blowing sand. The Spider is the CFEO, the Coalition Friendship Enforcement Officer. It clutches a heat-stick in one of its mouths, aimed at our moving backs.
The first few Bumpies of the morning's skirmish appear through the drifting sand. They're still a considerable distance away, too far for us to get a good shot. They run three to a row, like us. I'm sure that's why the Spiders use as as soldiers, so they can engage Bumpies with creatures that can fight like Bumpies.
Bumpies even kind of look like us, in their broadest outline; two arms, two legs, between five and eight feet tall. Up close, you can see the bumpy, purple skin, the eight-chambered eyes and the snouts, but they still look like a variation on the same theme as us.
The Spiders, though, the Spiders don't look like anything. I mean, they're black and they walk around on eight legs, that's why we call them Spiders, instead of trying to pronounce whatever hissy word they use to describe themselves, but that's the extent of the similarity between them and anything as banal as a real spider like we have back on Earth. The size and shape of the bodies, that whole system of seven mouths, it baffles me. Just looking at them sometimes, it's like the way the world looks when you've had too much whiskey and not enough sleep.
People say Spiders are as weird on the inside as they are on the outside. I've even heard some guys say that Spider legs can be mashed into a powder, and it's like acid or mushrooms or something, but I don't know how anyone ever had a chance to find out.
“Ready...” I pull the heat-stick off my belt. I can feel it powering to life in my hands. It's warm, like a cup of coffee right after it's been poured. Even with the hot winds blowing on my hands and the exposed part of my neck, I enjoy the sensation.
“Fire at will.”
A Bumpy comes into view through the sand, maybe three meters in front of me. Where are the other two? No time to think about it now.
I fire. It's a direct hit. I don't get his head, but I see the Bumpy flash red. Malloy, standing next to me, gets off his own shot. The twin strands of laser light mingle for a second on the front of the Bumpy's Protection Suit.
The Bumpy explodes in a white hot flash. Little Bumpy bits scatter across the rocky red ground.
He must have been waiting for a new suit, too.
The three of us start running forward. I hear a muffled scream in the wind, but I don't spare a glance at the rows behind us. The world has narrowed down to us, just us, Jack, Malloy and me, running in perfect synchronicity, and the shapes and shadows visible through the sand ahead of us. I barely feel the wind whipping sand around my neck or the lizards crunching under my feet.
Lt. Adams is shouting at us from a few meters away. I can't see him. “John, Jack, Malloy, right turn. Take the tunnel into the cliff. We need you down in the valley.”
We turn right, all in a line, and head to the top of the rocky hill. The sand is really thick now, and I can't see more than a few feet in front of me.
There are three more Bumpies. The air's gotten way too sandy to get a good shot with my heat-stick. I shove it into my belt and take out my knife. The Bumpy closest to me has the same idea.
For a second, we're grappling, arms twisted together, neither of us able to get a knife thrust into the other, neither of us able to tear away.
It's almost like dancing.
Finally, I get my chance. I twist out of the Bumpy's grasp in a quick, swiveling motion. He's off-balance for maybe two or three seconds. It's enough. I swing the knife, as hard as I can, into an exposed part of his neck.
His blood's got sort of a pink color to it, and it smells like cat piss, so far as I can recall what cat piss smells like.
He falls on me. He's making a noise, low and gurgling. Maybe he's just moaning. Maybe he's trying to say something in Bumpy-talk. It all sounds the same to me.
I dump the Bumpy on the ground, stick the knife into my belt and take out the heat-stick. I glance around the sand-filled air for a glimpse of Jack or Malloy.
There's Jack, wrestling with his own Bumpy maybe five or six meters down the cliff. Shit. I aim my heat-stick. I lower it, trying to track the motion of the Bumpy's head. Come on...
No luck. I raise it. Shit shit shit. There's no way to make sure I'm not getting Jack if I shoot.
Malloy emerges from the sand. Blood runs down his cheek, but he must've come out on top, since I don't see a Bumpy anywhere near him.
We make eye contact. I gesture with my heat-stick. He nods and takes out his knife.
With a swing, he's got the Bumpy in the back. The Bumpy's Protection Suit deflects the blow, but he lets Jack go and turns around to face Malloy. Now.
I aim my heat-stick at the Bumpy's head and fire. There's a white flash, and no more Bumpy.
The CFEO lumbers into view a few meters away with a long heat-stick in one of its mouths. It points it at us and uses it to gesture meaningfully first at the three of us and then at the tunnel entrance. We don't need sophisticated translation gear to catch its meaning.
It's time to go down into the valley.
Once we’re down there, the three of us cluster behind a rock. The valley is crawling with Bumpies, and I really need to piss.
They say you should just learn to do it in your suit and clean up later, but it's like the lizards in the coffee. You can never really get the traces out.
The sound of Bumpies gurgling at each other drifts through the wind. I pick up my heat-stick, still warm from the last time around, and aim.
I work on instinct, aiming and shooting without wasting time on conscious thought. It's like boot camp, when they run you around and around in laps after long nights without sleep and you're not tired, you're not even pissed off anymore, you're just empty.
Aim. Shoot. Duck. Aim, shoot, duck.
There's a white flash and a boom. Way too close. I fall down, smashed to the valley floor. The rock we've been hiding behind has been reduced to teeny little bits of rock drifting through the sandy air.
“John, there!” Jack gestures with his heat-stick towards the entrance to the tunnel. That seems like a spectacularly good idea right now.
Malloy must think so too, because he's charging into that hole. So fast he doesn't hear the hissing remonstrations of the CFEO.
Mike screams, but the back of his Protection Suit is holding against the laser from the CFEO's heat-stick.
Thank God for small miracles.
The sand just cleared up enough for me to get a clear shot. I don't have time to think.
I aim my heat-stick at the CFEO and fire.
Holy God, I just committed an act of mutiny.
Not that I'm going to be strung up for this, mind you. If the CFEO dies, no one will know what happened. If it lives, it'll kill us on the spot without all the red tape.
Jack's committing mutiny too. His eyes look hard and empty behind his goggles. The laser beam from his heat-stick mingles with mine for a second in the Spider's midsection. Thank God. One beam wouldn't get it done, but two together and a little dumb luck...
Yep. There are Spider bits drifting in the air.
The Bumpies just stand there without interfering. I guess it's the first time they've seen enemy soldiers killing each other instead of them in the middle of a battle. It must be a nice change.
But orders are orders, and I suspect the Bumpy officers won't be inclined to let us go just because of that little display of temporary insanity. No time to waste.
We don't stop running until we're back at the base.
After dinner, we find a secluded spot in the bunk area. Jack has something to show us.
“I got some,” he announces, and pulls out a napkin. There's something black inside, maybe four or five inches long.
“Oh my God.” Malloy figures out what it is before I do. Those innocent-looking green eyes of his look bigger than ever. “Is that from the CFEO?”
Jack nods. He looks positively gleeful. “I've always wanted to try this shit.”
He grinds it up with the flat end of his knife.
We snort it.
Fifteen minutes pass.
Malloy. “I don't think it's working.”
Jack. “Give it time.”
Me. “I knew this was a myth.”
Another fifteen minutes pass.
Malloy lies on the bed. Two lizards crawl over his body. He doesn't even swat them off. He mumbles to himself, and laughs.
Jack is foaming white stuff around his upper lip. It smells like baking soda. How do you get that from Spider powder, from little Spider legs, itsy bitsy Spiders up the water spout?
Wait. That doesn't make any sense.
Itsy bitsy spider....
I am a Spider. Naturally. What else would I be?
I don't have eight legs like I should. I've only got two. Eight minus two is six. Where are my other six legs? Silly Spider.
Me. “I'm a Spider.”
Jack. “I'm a Spider too.”
Malloy. “Fucking A.”
Itsy bitsy spider.
Crawled up the water spout.
Sing, Goddess, of the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaens.
Down came the rain.
And washed the spider out.
Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades.
Out came the sun.
And dried up all the rain.
Many a hero did it yield prey to the dogs and vultures.
And the itsy bitsy spider.
Climbed up the spout again.
For such was the will of Jove.
Jack walks into the room with this huge, shit-eating grin. Was he gone? Where did he go?
Jack. “Man, you have got to piss. It's great.”
Malloy. “I couldn't.”
I am a Coalition Friendship Enforcement Officer. This is the high point of my career. In the Spider army I could have been a simple soldier, but in the army of the manlings I am an important figure, an officer.
My mother is proud, I am sure. Perhaps one day I will go home and be granted land on the home world to spawn a mess of little Spiderlings to bore with my war stories. I would like that.
I hope that what my superior officers have told me about the poisonous lizards on this planet is not true, that we will not all have to remain here until they find an antidote.
I remember, now, that this is a moot point for me.
I feel the tragedy of my death at the hands of the stupid manlings, and I am moved to tears.
I am a Spider, and I am many other Spiders too. I retain the memories of the CFEO's parents, and of their parents. I do not sample very many of these memories, but I am warmed by their presence in my mind. I am one being with these ancestors, and it is wonderful.
I am a Spider. Naturally. What else would I be?
I am a human. Naturally. What else what I be?
I am me, I am am, and I play among the stars.
I'm lying against the wall by the urinal as the stuff wears off. A lizard scurries across the floor. The room smells like piss and lizards and a little bit like blood.
I shake my head. How much time has gone by?
My hands are tingling. My brain is still warm with remembered bits and shreds of vision, drifting around in there like the sand out on the planet surface, like the calling card of a half-forgotten God.
I talk, just to hear my own voice. “That was very cool.”
I wander back to our hiding place in the back of the bunk area, carefully avoiding the lizards that dart back and forth across the floor.
I turn the corner and see a bunch of officers standing around and talking to some enlisted guys. Malloy is one of them. I open my mouth to call to him from across the room.
He shakes his head, just slightly, and the look in those big green eyes of his tells me everything. Battle after battle, fighting side by side, we've had enough practice reading each others' eyes, even through goggles and blowing sand, that Malloy's meaning is instantly clear.
He's saying, “get the hell out of here.”
And I do.