Janitors of the Cosmos
Caleb Svoboda killed God with a claw hammer. Finally tracked the bastard down to a grungy whorehouse in Hoboken. Allah had dirt and blood in his beard. Teeth yellow with nicotine. Old man’s bald head glistening with sweat. Mouthing off about how Caleb would suffer. Hooker shrieking in a corner.
God had died hard, and Caleb carried fresh wounds as proof. He sighed. Stared at the mound of paperwork on his desk. Wished he was back outside tracking or fighting.
This was the worst part of the gig: The bureaucracy.
Every victory required form after form. Had to inventory everything. What planet he went to. What weapons he used. What species he interacted with. Was there a risk of temporal destabilization? Were the indigenous peoples aware of his actions? Aware of The Collective?
“Aware of me givin you suits the finger?” Caleb said.
The holographic communication panel on his desk fluttered to life. “Heard you got God. Well done.” Caleb’s brother Jack said through a cigarette. “What took so long?”
Jack was not one to pass up an opportunity for sibling mockery.
Caleb smiled. God had taken forever. “That guy, man. The Jews believe there’s just the one asshole. The Muslims believe there’s just the one asshole. Christians believe that there are three assholes in one asshole … the three-in-one belief versus the there-is-only-one belief makes it tough to track an escapee down. And — I thought you quit?”
“Catarina nags me, but,” Jack shrugged. “I am what I is. She’s just being, I dunno, a girl. Pills nullify all the bad shit. ‘Sides, I’m back home! N-Y-C! Everyone who’s cool here smokes.”
Caleb rubbed his forehead. “Don’t have too good a time. You’re there for a reason.”
“I know, I know. Call you in a bit. Gettin in position. Love.”
Jack’s hologram disintegrated.
Caleb turned back to the forms, but mind was on his childhood in Brooklyn. Happy days until that damned old thing underground woke up. It and its insane brothers — the ones who came back from the dark. He and Jack had stopped them, but at a cost.
Then The Collective came knocking. Offered the brothers jobs. Offered them a chance to save lives by taking lives.
Why not? Jack, then a teenager, and Caleb, twelve, had thought. Could be fun.
Caleb jabbed ink onto the pages of his report. “We were idiots! Should have stayed in Brooklyn and just, hell, coped. And I hate writing fuckin longhand.”
“Know you do,” the supervisor’s left head said from the doorway of Caleb’s office. “Have to write everything out so that the secretaries can type it all up from scratch. To be sure there are no mistakes.” The supervisor’s right head winked. “Or maybe I just like torturing pink mammals.”
Caleb cocked his head as The Engine in his brain – his gift since childhood – translated the words.
The word that described the supervisor was ‘griffin.’ Well, hell, it was a two-headed griffin and the Svoboda brothers had dubbed their boss, with a stunning lack of creativity, “Griffin.” He was large and colored as myths and illustrations had presumed: white, eagle-headed and tan, lion-bodied, with wings that were sort of grey. The arms and hands on his shoulders were inexplicably toned. Once, over drinks, he’d said that he was from a massive planet circling Mu Arae, but neither Caleb nor Jack had any clue if that was true.
They were, after all, from a place called Brooklyn on a pale blue dot called Earth. Their interplanetary knowledge was limited to what they picked up on the job.
“Couldn’t you just read my mind and pull the reports from there?” Caleb asked.
“Could. Don’t want to. Legalities, you understand. Privacy laws.” Griffin sighed.
“Those damn janitors — the Collectors. They’ve decided to go on strike, just so you know.” Griffin sneered. Then became serene. “It’s not that bad. Easier than my life at the moment and no worse than going out into the field.”
Caleb raised an eyebrow.
Griffin fluttered his wings. “Really. Quit being a baby.”
“Fine. When am I off god duty?”
“When your planet stops being so gullible.”
Caleb rolled his eyes. “Now you’re just being a dick.”
“You signed up for this. You guys wanted to go after those brain-juice junkies pretending to be gods.–The miserable shapeshifting shits. Could have gone for something simple, but, no. You kids took stuff you thought was all Science Fiction wackiness.”
The shapeshifting shits in question were the Litostians. Legendary jerks. They weren’t magical, but appeared magical to the less-advanced races they targeted. Nasty critters had stunning control over the matter of their own bodies. Could morph at will, become anything they wanted you to see. A burning bush, say. Or the shimmering visage of a Jewish chick from Nazareth. Maybe a bearded carpenter on some toast.
The brothers called them ‘galactic vampires.’ Things that fed off the energy expended by directed thought. Some folks were sure they fed on thermal energy generated inside the brain. Others, that it was something special triggered when particular parts of the brain lit up — centers of the mind that just happened to coincide with prayer and belief. Opinions differed. Nobody knew for sure.
The only certainty was that the Litostians were literally addicted to humans.
Well, that, and these two very human brothers were the best at dealing with them.
“You had that want in you. We spent a lot of time training you, making sure the gifts you two had were as honed as possible so that you could exercise your want. But more than that, you are saving lives. Don’t forget. It’s dirty, but scores of innocent people would be dead without you.” Griffin looked thoughtful for a moment, and then met Caleb’s gaze again. “Finish the paperwork, and then get to the Comm Center. Your brother’s almost in position. I want you to oversee the op.” He paused. “And to test something new out. A solution to our labor strike.”
The supervisor strode out to pester someone else.
Caleb started on his report and then gave up. He’d get to it later.
If Jack was pulling the trigger, he might see some action second-hand.
Two a.m. in New York, and a cocky kid in his late twenties was strolling down East 14th in lower Manhattan. He had a lit Nat Sherman in his mouth. Thin brown Hint of Mint kind he liked because it reminded him of the shit Clint Eastwood smoked in the Dollars Trilogy.
The kid, dressed like a cowboy, with boots and a blue-white plaid shirt on. A straw, whiskey-colored Stetson sat atop his head. He fit in perfectly with what was fashionable in town at the time. Though nobody knew he always dressed like this. Like he was headed to a costume party or something.
Nobody knew, either, that the long-barrel Colt strapped to his thigh was very real. Heavy caliber and not some toy prop. Or that the rawhide satchel he carried on his back was packed with a folded high-powered rifle.
Hell. It was New York. People don’t ask many questions if someone dresses up weird.
So he kept walking. Tipped his hat to pretty girls on the way. And stopped when he got in front of the apartment building opposite The Blind Pig Bar.
Two thuggish looking guys stood in his way. Drunk, by the smell.
“Look at this motherfucker,” said the one on the right. “Cowboys don’t live here, man. Whatchu doin?”
Guy on the left stomped his foot and laughed, on account of it was so damn funny.
Jack shot them a grin. “Just need to get inside, fellas. Been a long day. Gotta take a load off.”
Righty said, “Tell you what, man. Make you a deal. Gimme that hat you can go in.”
“Fraid I can’t do that. See, this is mine.” Jack pointed to the Stetson. “You want one, you can buy one.”
Lefty stopped laughing and stomping. Looked up to his buddy on the right to see what was going to happen next.
“What say I just take your fuckin hat, bitch,” Righty said, angry now. He and Lefty puffed out their chests, trying to intimidate, and stepped forward.
“You can try.” Red fell over Jack’s vision, blocking out everything except the fight, anticipating their first moves.
Righty moved, but Jack juked and pulled the Colt out. He whipped it across Righty’s face, breaking the jaw and drawing blood. Righty went down with a breathless thud. In a blur, Jack spun the Colt around his finger and slid it back home on his thigh.
He ducked as Lefty’s fist came at him and sidestepped. Jack pointed a finger at Lefty and said, “Really? You really gonna try after I knock your punk buddy out like that?”
Lefty took another swing and Jack ducked again. This time Jack returned the favor and brought his knee up into Lefty’s solar plexus. Something inside Lefty’s chest cracked The thug dropped to his knees, sucking for air.
Jack lit himself another cigarette. “We’re done. You two get on outta here.” Righty and Lefty started to wobble to their feet, so he kicked them both in the ass once, making them fall down again. “Git.”
A few drunks across at the Blind Pig clapped and hooted.
Jack took a bow before heading inside to get to the apartment building roof.
Pristine. Sterile. White. Shiny.
All words that did not describe the Communication Center.
It looked, instead, like any big room filled with computers and operators — though none of these operators were human. Get enough eating, farting, talking creatures in one place for long enough, and the result is the same.
Caleb took an unoccupied seat. The computer sensed him, identified him, greeted him. It brought up prompt screens for communication access and broadcasted Caleb into Jack’s headset.
“You there?” Caleb asked as Jack’s biometric readings popped onto the screen. His brother’s heart rate was up. Brainwaves, as always, skirted near the top. And Caleb guessed Jack’s Red was on. “Griffin wants me to be with you on this one. And we’ve got a new toy.”
Jack’s voice rose from static. “Is it fun?”
“Should be. Engineers call it a Cthulittle.”
Caleb had heard stories about them. Little squid-looking biomechanical things that sucked the ‘souls’ — or lifeforce, or energy, or quantized spirit, or whatever one wanted to call it — from downed targets and pooped them into a containment grid. They were ergonomic and streamlined. Adorable, in a strange way. Light green squids with big heads and big eyes. Mutant kittens mewling and chirping.
Galactic bureaucracy being what it was, he assumed the things had been created to replace the hundred or so Collectors that The Collective had.
The Collectors were the ‘unskilled labor’ that followed guys like he and his brother around. They, well, collected any remaining energy from a given kill. Janitors for the cosmic janitors, so to speak. They themselves were a race — not to be confused with The Collective, which was the name given to this galactic, corporate UN – adept at absorbing energy.
Caleb wasn’t convinced that the Cthulittles were up to the job. And he felt bad for the son-to-be unemployed workers. The insectoid Collectors gorged themselves for a paycheck, sucking up more than they could handle to preserve a balance. Space bees chasing murderous pollen for pay (even sort of looked like bees, except wingless).
Collectors ended up with social problems, family problems, and head problems. All that energy gobbled up, wreaking havoc on their bodies and their psychologies. One more race The Collective kept under its thumb. Econoslavery.
“Jack?” Caleb asked into his headset, ignoring a pang of class guilt while staring at the meter long squid creature waiting by his feet. “You got that Litostian in your sights?”
“Yeah. He’s outside the Blind Pig on Fourteenth in Manhattan. Got the Rippers loaded.”
Jack used Ripper bullets almost exclusively on assassination missions. They were self-aware, and they loved their job.
Jack said, “Mark sighted.”
There was a hushed whisper as the Ripper left the barrel of Jack’s gun.
It announced itself and Caleb could hear all of it:
“Hello! I am a bullet! In a moment, part of me will separate into three sections. Each section will be a spinning blade. The other part of me will lodge itself in you and then explode. Isn’t that neat? Jack had the forethought to aim for your brain. You’ll be dead real soon. Hooray!”
The thing posing as a human outside the bar exploded from the neck up. Its tight pants stood for a moment, soaked in blood and matter. The lower half of it tried to walk. Took a step. Then fell.
In a flash the soul shitter was gone, and in another, back — loaded with Litostian juice.
“Test run was good?” Jack asked. “The Cthulittle did … whatever?”
Caleb stared, somewhat astounded. “Yeah, good quick job.”
The little squid thing in front of him chirped. An automated containment bin rolled toward it. The creature hiked up its hindquarters and crapped energy into it.
It started to purr, and then burped as Caleb hoisted it in his arms. He tickled what he thought might be its chin. “Did you half digest a soul or what?” Caleb asked as the Cthulittle stretched, exhausted.
On Caleb’s communications console, the hologram of a slender insect figure appeared. A Collector. A space bee, yellow and black. It’s head had two banks of eyes with a hundred ocular orbs in each. Its mandibles clicked. It announced that it was the Collector union leader. It preached of grave consequences for the firing of all those workers. For the use of the squids in their place.
“You will suffer,” the image shrieked.
But Caleb had already walked away.
The hologram disintegrated, cursing in its native tongue.
The Cthulittle wouldn’t leave him be. Like a forlorn lover, it followed Caleb everywhere.
“It likes you,” Griffin said. “Which is fine. We don’t mind. Plenty more, doing their job.”
“I mind,” Caleb said. “I have things to do. And it keeps burping.”
“Yeah, that’s in the R&D report. Just a bug. We’ll fix it in the next generation. Relax.”
“I don’t need to relax and I don’t need a goddamn pet.”
The Cthulittle wrapped a little tentacle around Caleb’s leg and purred.
“Not sure you have a choice in the matter,” the supervisor said, his beaks somehow grinning.
So Caleb kept it.
“I dub thee, Viktor — after my father,” Caleb said to the little biomechanoid in his apartment. It watched his movements with saucer eyes. “Better than a cat, I guess. No litter.”
As he slept, it curled up with him.
Sometimes it warmed the bed near his feet. Other times, it threw its tiny bulk against Caleb’s naked back and rested there. But on most occasions it would wait until Caleb was sound asleep then crawl right next to his head and burp.
Caleb would shoot awake and smack the thing away.
It never remembered these smacks — or chose to ignore them.
And was doomed to repeat them.
Until one night.
The squid burped. Caleb smacked it away.
And was then shot in the face by a tiny lightning bolt.
“The fffu–” Caleb jumped up in bed. He rubbed his cheek and looked around for the Cthulittle. It cowered at the end of the bed.
“Did you?” Caleb pointed at it.
Its little lips quivered, and its eyes glanced to the side.
There, on Caleb’s night stand, stood the diminutive figure of Zeus — a Litostian whom Caleb was sure he’d killed.
“Yes! It is I, human scum! Zeus!” the itty-bitty, white-robed figure screeched in a tiny, tinny voice. “Thought you’d gotten rid of me, eh?” He hefted another lighting spark. It popped against Caleb’s bare side with a flash of light. The attack was more annoying than painful.
“Would you quit it?” Caleb grabbed for the little god.
“Ahhh!” Zeus shrieked, struggling in vain as Caleb gripped him. The Greek ‘deity’ bit Caleb’s hand.
Which did hurt.
Caleb hurled the miniscule fraud against the wall. It impacted hard and then fell to the floor in a lump. Still.
“Son of a bitch.” Caleb watched the spot of blood on his hand grow.
To the Cthulittle: “It’s all right. I’m not mad at you.”
The squid chirped, crawled up the sheets, and planted itself in Caleb’s lap.
He petted it until it purred and drifted off to sleep.
“God … damn,” Jack said as he tapped the glass of mini-Zeus’s electromagnetically sealed enclosure. “The burps, you think? Lettin kill energy out?”
Caleb adjusted the bandage on his hand. “Maybe. Maybe the memories are surviving death, somehow. Well, no, consciousness doesn’t survive death. Not even in Litostians. And since we know that, he–” Caleb pointed to the muttering, cursing doll-sized deity “–shouldn’t be quite as pissed at me as he is. Plus, why does he have a body if it’s just energy leaking out?”
Griffin walked in, heads staring in different directions, pondering.
“I mean, he shouldn’t know where he is. Who The Collective is. Who I am. And he certainly shouldn’t know that I was the one who killed him,” Caleb said.
“Well, he does.” Jack stuck his tongue out at the former god. “Maybe it sapped a persona from your head?”
“Unlikely, at best,” Griffin said. “Turns out, the burps are releasing small amounts of energy from containment. But, if this was the remnants of energy collected during the Zeus kill, then how did it get there? Jack’s op in New York was the first time the Cthulittles have ever been used. Caleb took Zeus out years ago. Longer than that, in fact, considering we had to send him back in fucking time. So, no, I think that’s out.
“His energy signature matches what we have on file. And the DNA is the same as the Litosian that called itself Zeus but… well, look at him. He’s tiny.”
Viktor the Cthulittle cooed at Caleb’s feet.
“Any reports of abnormalities among the others?” Caleb asked.
“Excluding the burping, no.” Griffin said. He turned his heads to watch the angry god.
Zeus was now sneering, and frantically masturbating.
They were in the station’s bar, THE THING — which both brothers thought was a hoot. It reminded them of their favorite movie growing up.
The place was dirty. Liquid puddled on the floor. A few extraterrestrials were making out in the dark. Other aliens glared at each other, trying to tell who was looking for a fight. A multisexual creature made a pass at Jack, boasting that it could form holes at will. Jack pointed to the ring on his finger and politely declined, saying that he had a sweet human girl.
“I can do better than a human girl,” it said.
Jack smirked. “I don’t think so. She’s on-mission. Saving an entire planet.”
It shrugged him off, as if to say, Whatever. I’ll go fill my holes somewhere else.
Viktor burped in Caleb’s lap.
The brothers looked at each other and laughed.
“Makes me think I should say something along the lines of, ‘Like old times,’” Caleb said.
“Yeah, except that’d be a lie,” Jack said.
Which was true. They’d both opted to leave Brooklyn, and Earth, before either one had had the chance to hit a bar. At the time, they’d simply decided there was no point in staying. That they were probably too young to make such a decision never came up. Now, there was the inescapable pain of having missed something.
“To dad,” Jack said, reaching over to pat Viktor.
“And mom,” Caleb said.
They clinked their bottles and drank.
“It’s not so bad, dude. Shit, we’re gunslingers. Elite.” Jack said. “Enjoy it.”
“Easy for you to say,” Caleb retorted. “Your girl came with you.”
They were quiet then. No revelry. No chumming around.
Caleb hefted Viktor onto the bar top, then he slouched forward, focusing on his beer.
Jack stayed quiet.
Someone bumped into Caleb.
Jack did the barking. “Watch it, dipshit.”
The thing that had thumped Caleb turned to say something. It was tall and slender. But any distinguishing features were hidden under a large, hooded trench coat.
Something jittered on its face, under the hood — mandibles gripping and releasing. Its hundred black eyes blazed when it caught a glimpse of Viktor.
Caleb felt ice form in his chest. And Jack saw Red.
It was a Collector.
“You goddamn little thing,” the insect stranger raised a curled talon. “Stole my job. Piece of shit!”
But Caleb was on his feet, and so was Jack.
Caleb grabbed the stranger’s outstretched claw and twisted, protecting Viktor — who had sense enough to scramble down from the counter and seek cover. Jack jumped the alien from the side, pinning it, and clocking it in one bank of eyes.
The thing howled.
Bar patrons screamed and fled.
“It’s OK,” Jack shouted. “I’m licensed.” He patted the big-barreled Colt in his holster. “At least I haven’t pulled that out, huh?”
Caleb snatched a monster mandible in each hand, pulling them apart.
“Man, are you barking up the wrong tree,” Jack said.
Caleb leaned in close. Smelled the weird ozone it gave off. “What do you have against my pet?”
The stranger on the floor grunted and spat.
The insect stiffened, “My kids can’t eat, you fuck! You’re lucky the boss isn’t here. He’d make you pay. He will make you pay.”
Caleb let go. The thing’s mandibles snapped into position.
“Fuck. Fuck!” Caleb punched the floor. The Engine in his head putting disparate pieces together. “I get it now. I get it.” He looked to his brother. “Up, off him.”
Jack hesitated, but obeyed.
Caleb grabbed Viktor and put the squid on his shoulder. He waved the bartender over. “Any Collectors come here, they eat and drink on my tab. By which I mean: for free.” He glared. “I hear otherwise, I’ll do to you what I did to God.”
The bartender nodded.
Caleb put a hand on Jack’s chest. “We need to see Griffin.”
Caleb paced in his supervisor’s office. Jack lit a cigarette. Griffin was mid-shrug.
“You didn’t think they’d be, I dunno, pissed off?” Caleb said. “You lay off hundreds of Collectors — a race you basically condemned because they can’t do anything but collect — you give them nothing to fall back on, and you didn’t think they’d be pissed? Didn’t think they’d act on that anger? Did you at least offer them some kind of compensation?”
Griffin finished his shrug. “Didn’t think it necessary at the time. Cost-cutting measures. That was the whole reason those stupid squids were created in the first place. Cost-cutting. Gimme a break. I didn’t sign the papers. Someone above my pay grade did.”
“So, what you’re saying is,” Jack exhaled, “We’re looking at a massive, apocalyptic energy containment breach because you didn’t want to deal with the union of a race you’ve been basically keeping as slaves?”
“I didn’t do it!”
Griffin hadn’t signed the papers, no, but he was complacent. Complicit. The Collective hadn’t wanted to negotiate. They solved their dollar dilemma by firing everyone and replacing them. And Griffin said nothing.
The result was a whole race that had no qualms about siphoning Litostian energy from The Collective’s containment unit and pumping it into the very things that replaced them. Sabotage. Overloading the squids until they leaked.
“Fuck you,” Jack said, grimacing. “I always side with the workers in a class war.”
“Little Viktor here–” Caleb pointed to the squid on his shoulder “–isn’t the only one puking up Litostian energy.”
Griffin started to talk, but Caleb interrupted. “All them are doing it. And now, what? That Litostian energy. It’s out. And it’s back in Litostians. Maybe clones. The union’s cracked-out revenge plot wouldn’t work without vessels to put the juice into. Zeus was just a little one. There could be a thousand pissed off things running around out there. Things that feed off the juice in our heads. Things that think they’re gods.”
A scream erupted outside. Then more from down the corridor. In the market chamber. They began as masculine and feminine, but ended in gurgles.
Griffin waved a wing over his desk and a video screen shimmered into existence. Security feeds from the market down the corridor — and at the center of the station — came up.
Diminutive deities rampaged over kiosks, slaughtering everyone in sight. A two-foot tall Anubis rammed his staff through the chest of a snake-headed vendor and was tearing into the merchant’s scales with sharp canine teeth. The Aztec Chalchiuhtlicue used a hand axe to hack away at an innocent creature that resembled a jellyfish, which popped after the third strike.
On top of a pile of corpses, the slender, action-figure-sized form of Baal duked it out with the bald, bearded, hooker-having Yahweh.
They were settling an old score.
A hologram sputtered to life on Griffin’s desk, interrupting the live feed.
It was the Collector union leader.
“I think I have your attention now, yes?”
Griffin groaned and rolled the eyes in both heads. “What do you want?”
“I want to negotiate the terms of the union’s reinstatement, of course. You should be feeling the effects of our unjust firing by now.”
Caleb looked toward the hologram. “So you admit it?”
“Admit it? Hell, I’m proud of it, boy,” the space bee said. “We’ve been feeding those little squid bastards enough Litostian goo from containment to make em pop! Once it was out, we guided it into waiting clones. Had to get the Litostian clone bodies on discount, of course; rebels like us don’t have the deep pockets you do. Result is they’re sorta smaller than they were. But anyway. We managed to put the energy into clones of their old bodies — since you helpfully keep all that on file. Gave em life, as it were. Let em know we were friends, on the same side, told them the situation and pointed them in the right direction for vengeance. Theirs and ours. No small feat.”
Caleb threw up his hands. “Welp, that answers more than a few questions.”
The union leader continued, “The squids were never going to be as good at the job as we were. You made us what we are. Now admit it. You need us.”
“No. We don’t,” Griffin said. “You have to realize that unless we can get what’s out there back in the box, we are utterly, catastrophically fucked. There won’t be a union. There won’t even be a station.”
The space bee looked perplexed. Its mandibles twitched.
Griffin snapped his beaks and ran a hand across the brow on his left head. “The Litostian junkies aren’t a peaceful bunch, as you’re damn well aware. We saved your fucking species from them, after all. They probably only let you live because they’re more pissed at us. Those micro-deities are tearing the place apart. Check the security feeds.”
Jack leaned out the door, looking down the corridor toward the market. “They’re little. We can take em.”
A small version of Loki came pinwheeling down the passage and stabbed Jack in the calf with a curved knife. It shrieked something. It tittered.
Jack jumped backwards. Blood dripped from his wounded leg and stained his jeans. He pulled the Colt in a blur and fired.
Loki exploded, becoming a red smear in a small crater.
Viktor chirped, scrambled past Jack, and stretched its tentacles over the pieces. The suckers on its cephalopod arms shivered. It began to purr, changing colors.
“Bitch in a basket. Never watched him to that before,” Jack said. “Pretty cool.”
Viktor finished and then scrambled back to Caleb.
“Don’t burp,” Caleb said, petting the squid’s bloated belly.
The solution was clear.
“This is insane,” Griffin said to the hologram. “Not only are you still unemployed, but I’m sending these two to kill you when they’re done setting things right.”
The union leader tried to explain himself.
Griffin hit the comm button and the space bee dissolved.
“Are you two ready?” He clasped his hands together.
Caleb looked to Jack. Jack put his hands up, shrugging.
“Uh … yeah,” Caleb said. “Sure.”
“This’ll do the trick?” Jack asked.
“Not a 100% fucking certain,” Caleb said.
“Just like old times.”
They were downstairs, in the containment area. The plan was simple enough: Do their jobs. Again. Knock the Litostians hard. Slap the squids on to siphon energy away. Then have the squids flash down to deposit the energy directly into the containment grid.
Caleb held Viktor up and planted the little squid’s butt against the containment grid’s square red energy transfer port. The big machine looked like an air conditioner affixed to a school bus-sized fuel tank.
Viktor blinked. Squished his face like he was constipated. Wrinkled what might have passed for a stubby nose. A second later, the containment grid hummed and the red lights flashed green.
“Awesome,” Caleb said. “Awesome in the face.”
Jack smiled. “Round em up.”
Caleb did, with a strange sense of glee.
He roused all of the squids from their holding pen. There might have been fifty, waking up slowly. They had fallen asleep on top of one another. Caleb couldn’t help but be reminded of puppies or kittens in a pound. They yawned and blinked their huge eyes. They uncoiled their tentacles from around one another.
Fucking. Adorable. Caleb thought.
Viktor barked and mewled, twirling around Jack and Caleb’s feet like a dog happy to spend time with the pack.
When Caleb finally settled Viktor on his shoulder, Jack asked, “Shall we?”
Caleb patted the hammer hanging on his belt — the same hammer that had ended God in New Jersey. “Let’s do it.”
“That thing where I said we could take em? I take that back.” Jack fired into the shambling form of Jehovah. “Why won’t you fucking die? Is this some trinity bullshit?”
Jack stumbled. His arms, legs and face were covered in blood from multiple cuts. He was tripping over the bodies of innocent people who’d been slaughtered by the aliens-turned-gods.
He snapped his revolver open and rammed fresh rounds home.
Allah/God/IHVH/Jehovah/Yahweh smiled an insane grin.
Jesus (hippy-looking as ever) and the Holy Spirit (a transparent form clad in white robes) appeared behind God.
“What the dick,” Jack said.
Things were not going according to plan. Or smoothly. Or in any direction that might have been ‘good.’
At first, most of the clone bodies had crumpled under Jack’s boots.
The minor deities hadn’t been much of a problem. Hell, the angel aliens hadn’t necessitated much more than a swift kick or bullet before being sucked up by a Cthulittle. Powerful though the Litostians were, they weren’t really gods.
After each belly was filled, the squids returned to the containment grid to deposit. Stomp. Squid. Suck. Flash, they were gone. Flash, they were back. Empty and ready for more.
But as the Jack moved up the god-chain, things got more harried. Ego made the aliens more determined. They believed themselves harder to kill, so they were. They deluded themselves into near-immortality.
The Babylonian zombie-sized death deity, Nergal, was the first to put up a serious fight. Since he was a part of a religion that had once fought with Christianity and Judaism for supremacy, he had more bite than those who’d set themselves up as minor demons or demigods. He proved this by tearing a chunk of flesh out of Jack’s arm.
Jack’s Colt responded by barking bullets into Nergal’s face.
Gripping his arm and bleeding, Jack raised his eyebrows at Caleb, who looked unsure.
It got worse from there. And even Jack’s gift couldn’t keep up with the fight.
Caleb fell to the ground.
Ares had caught him off guard and sliced the Achilles tendon above his right foot. Caleb screamed. He dropped his hammer.
The god of war, Hades, Hera and an escaped Zeus pinned him like Gulliver.
Zeus held Poseidon’s trident under Caleb’s jaw, pushing the three-fold spear into Caleb’s soft flesh, drawing blood. Ares had an obscene grip on Caleb’s eyelids and yanked them in different directions while spitting into Caleb’s whites. Hades and Hera were literally puncturing each of Caleb’s testicles with mad glee.
“Any last words?” Zeus asked.
“Yeah,” Caleb said. “Hera’s your fucking sister, you pervert.”
Zeus began to ram the trident further.
Blood poured from the wounds in Caleb’s neck like a leaky faucet.
Then there was a whisper of air.
The pointed pressure on Caleb’s throat ceased and where Zeus’ head had been was nothing but a smoking neck.
“That’s right,” Griffin hollered, “nothing says negation like a negatively-charged round from a rail gun.” He aimed his weapon at Ares, fired, and removed the little god’s torso. “Manipulated electromagnetism wins.”
“Gee, I’m so glad you finally decided to show up,” Caleb said as he snatched Hades and Hera off his balls and ground them into jelly with his hands. “Gonna prove you aren’t the cocksucker Jack and I think you are?”
Squids flashed in to suck up the Litostian mess around them.
“I never said I wouldn’t help,” Griffin said. “I just wanted to find my gun first. And, hey, I’m the cavalry — arriving at the last minute to save the day.”
Caleb cocked an eyebrow at his supervisor He checked his neck for blood flow and his crotch for damage.
They both turned to see Jack flying through the air. He managed to scream “Fucking cockbitch dongshit” before landing in a pile of liquid and remains with a grunt and a thud. He righted himself, admired Griffin’s gun, and said, “They’re like the Transformers or Captain Planet or something … hi, Griffin.”
Griffin flapped his wings in acknowledgement. “The alien who conned humanity into thinking he was, not just a god, but the one God…”
“Yeah, I’m aware,” Caleb said. “Plus he’s got his better halves with him.” Viktor clambered up Caleb’s legs and perched on his shoulders.
“But you got him in Jersey,” Jack said, standing.
“I caught him while he was fucking. It was mostly luck. And he is not currently fucking.”
Allah/God/IHVH/Jehovah/Yahweh marched across the market battlefield.
Jack lit a cigarette. “This is all an ego thing, right?”.
“Right,” Caleb said.
“He’s just another asshole alien who wanted to prop himself up so that could get at more brain juice. He’s not any different from the others. He’s only acting this strong because he thinks he’s this strong.”
“Well, there’s Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but yeah.”
“Jesus is just a fuckin’ zombie and I bet Griffin can bust the Holy Ghost with the right shot but, God–” Jack paused. “We need to take him down a peg. Use that Engine in your head. Outsmart him.”
“Make him flinch,” Caleb whispered as he hefted his hammer. “I’ll get God. You guys–”
“Way ahead of you,” Griffin said, leveling the rail gun, flanking the Holy Spirit.
Jack went right, flipping Jesus off.
Caleb tilted his head down, eyeing God predatorily. Viktor did not chirp, but clung and buried his face into his human’s neck. Caleb winked at the Judeo-Christian-Muslim menace. “That hooker was really something, man. Maybe it’s a step up from raping the peasant Mary, but shit, is a buck-tooth whore from Hoboken the best you can do nowadays?”
And still, God grinned.
But Caleb’s eyes did not waver.
Griffin tried to start the fight with some witty banter, couldn’t think of anything and gave up.
He fired a shot at the alien’s head instead.
The Ghost dodged it. Jumped with a kind of windy, acrobatic grace. It not only evaded Griffin’s attack, but pirouetted over his head, mocking him.
All Griffin could think was, I am so glad we’re exterminating your race.
Feeling the breeze the Litostian created, Griffin flapped his powerful wings and created a gust all his own — one that threw the Spirit off and caused it to careen and tumble through the remainder of its trick.
Griffin charged the Ghost as it fell. He threw his weapon to the side and used his beaks as his ancestors had, sensing, more than seeing, where the demigod’s path would lead it. Griffin snapped his beaks. His leftmost head missed, piercing only the ghostly trail of its robe.
But his right head found its target. He brought his beak to a brutal, slicing close on the Spirit’s leg. Litostian clone bone crunched, and it wailed. Not giving the thing a chance to recover, he jerked his heads back and caught it wholly. Small arms pawed and tore at his right head while a leg kicked at his left. He twisted his heads in opposite directions, splitting what was once the Holy Spirit, but now just a mess.
“Enough of that pedestrian teasing,” Caleb said as God approached, posturing, puffing his chest (Caleb had to take a moment to fully appreciate how large the clone was). “You don’t even make sense. As God, I mean. You’re what? A cranky, tantrum-prone baby who wants to spank people if they spank themselves? You couldn’t even enforce the arbitrary laws you had your followers establish. You wanted to literally put limitations on thought — even unconscious thought, things human beings have no control over because control is by definition conscious. If I dream of my neighbor’s ass, it is a subconscious want, but subconscious coveting expressed in dreams is something I couldn’t control if I wanted to. Were you too stupid to know us? Know how our minds work? Some all-knowing creator!”
God’s smile faltered.
And Caleb grinned.
Jack and Jesus circled each other.
Jack looked into Jesus’ eyes. Smirked at the crucified lord’s hippy hair and scruffy beard. He was unimpressed. He fired a slug at Christ’s left and forced the messiah right putting the carpenter where Jack wanted him.
Jack drove a fist into Jesus’ nose. Snapped it like celery. He put the Colt to Christ’s chest and put a .45 round through him, pushing the bastard backwards.
Jesus bounced back and kicked Jack in the chest, sending him reeling.
“Fucking ninja shit,” Jack muttered as his revolver skittered free of his hands.
Christ was on top of him. Straddling him. Driving fist after holy fist into Jack’s face.
Blood poured from Jack’s brow into his eyes. Bones in his jaw fractured as the messiah pummeled him. He used his left arm and fist to block the blows as best he could while searching with the other for where the Colt might have fallen.
Jesus leaned back. He brought his hands together in a mockery of prayer, and as he drew them apart, Jack saw the nails. Iron nails seven or more inches long..
A cloned body did not put a halt to the Litostian shapeshifting trait.
Jesus drove the nails into Jack’s pistol-searching palms.
Jesus smiled at Jack’s pain. As he withdrew his bloody instruments, his eyes caught Jack’s.
In a moment of Caleb-like brilliance probably never to be repeated, Jack said, “Forgive me, messiah, Lord Jesus, who sits at the right hand of the Father, for I know not what I do. I repent. I beg your forgiveness.” Jack smiled. He eyes welled with tears.
The sudden prayer threw Jesus off for only a split second, but that was enough for Jack.
He snatched the lengths of iron that protruded from Christ’s palms as though they were handles. He smirked, using all of his strength to twist the nails up. Up so that the pointed ends were now facing Jesus. The Litostian tried to retract them, but Jack would not let go.
Muscles in his arms tearing, Jack plunged the metal into Jesus’s eyes.
Christ howled and fell back, pierced by his own weapons.
Jack rolled to his knees and punched the nails in further, forcing them through the skull of the Nazarene carpenter’s head.
The Litostian lay still as the squids set upon him.
Jack lit a victory cigarette.
“Why did you ever think that humans needed you, anyway?” Caleb said. “We don’t. You don’t explain anything. You’re a copout. Consider the awe-inspiring alternatives: That there’s a megaverse from which our universe budded off. Evolution. The way molecules arranged themselves to form sentient life over billions of years! The weakest ideas that science postulates in jest are more impressive than you. What teachers and students write with chalk on a blackboard, even when they’re totally hilariously fucking wrong, is more interesting. Hell, you had to travel to a shitty backwater planet just to find anyone dumb enough to let you hang around.
“You are an unimportant, small god.”
That did it.
God charged Caleb, throwing his hands out and screaming.
Jehovah’s bald head glistened with sweat. His ugly yellow teeth gnashed. His enormous beard — now filthy with saliva and blood and gore — flapped over his shoulder.
Viktor purred in Caleb’s ear, and Caleb realized that the little squid was better than any other weapon he could have possibly armed himself with.
As God careened madly toward him, Caleb stood his ground.
He sidestepped only at the last second.
And as he did so, grabbed Viktor with one palm.
The Cthulittle threw out its tentacles.
When the moment was just right, the Litostian’s strike passing within millimeters, Caleb planted Viktor on Jehovah’s skull.
The squid squirmed, wrapping itself around God’s head, twisting through the dirty deity’s beard, worming appendages into eye sockets and nostrils. Snarls and shouts were cut off.
God fell forward, writhing, trying to hit Viktor.
Caleb stepped forward and stood on the weakened alien’s arms, pinning it down.
Viktor began to change color, absorbing.
The efforts of God relaxed. Submitting.
Caleb knelt down, petting his squid.
“They’re repulsively cute when they play,” Jack said as he wrapped gauze around his wrecked arms. “I mean that, too. It’s weird to watch them snuggle and play fight after what just happened — and their part in it.”
Caleb said nothing.
They were down near the containment grid, where the Cthulittle holding area was. The dozens of squids they’d used for their murderous purposes were nipping at each other in one big pen. They wrapped tentacles around each other. They chirped. Mewled and barked as they tussled and ran.
Viktor didn’t partake in the merriment. He instead paced the floor between Caleb and Jack’s boots, as if protecting his humans from the potentially cuter eyes of another creature.
More likely, Caleb and Jack thought, Viktor was just being with them. A partner.
Caleb reached down and scratched Viktor.
“What do we do now?” Caleb asked.
“About Griffin. About The Collective. About ourselves. I’m going to have a hard time with the mirror in the morning. We acted as the most brutal kind of Pinkerton back there. Labor killers. The Collectors wanted a fair shake and rebelled, stupidly but understandably. They reactivated — or whatever — the Litostians out of desperation. And we, us, re-imprisoned the Litostians. One oppressed race sought by another for vengeance. Griffin already wants us to go after the union leader.”
Jack tied his gauze off. “Here’s what I think: throwing the leadership of The Collective before some kind of war crimes tribunal would be great. Make them answer for what they’ve done to the Collectors. But that isn’t going to happen.”
“Wait,” Jack said, not quite interrupting. “We wait.”
Caleb knelt and pet Viktor.
William Vitka is a New York City-based author and journalist. He has written for CBSNews.com, The Red Penny Papers (natch) and On Spec Magazine to name a couple. He lives in NYC with his wife and their horrible cats, one of whom was the inspiration for Cthulittle. More of his pulp can be found on Amazon.
© 2011 All rights reserved William Vitka.