Zeroes

It was a check-cashing place in a bad part of town. He was Slither-O, former king of the Viperian. They were – and still are – an ancient reptilian-like species from caverns beneath the surface of the Earth. And while that might seem like little more than lazy exposition, it’s also why Slither-O had been left waiting at the counter for nearly twenty minutes.

“I’m sorry for the wait, Mister,” a voice called out from somewhere behind quite a lot of security glass, then pausing to ensure they were, in fact, reading this silly name correctly, “Slither-O?”

“Yeah-huh?” Slither-O sarcastically hissed.

A woman stepped out from the small cubicle where she’d been pretending to speak with someone else and approached the counter. “So, I spoke with my manager.”

“Here it comes.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we won’t be able to help you cash your check today.”

“And why the Hell not?” he spat with the flaccid fury of a middle-aged, former king having been forced to wait twenty minutes for an answer he did not like.

“Well,” the employee said, then said nothing at all as she desperately searched for something, anything at all, to say, but then settled on, “you are a, uh…”

“A what?”

“You know…” the employee said, trailing off in that way where one really, really, really doesn’t want to piss off the former leader of an entire society of subterranean serpents, but really, really can’t avoid doing so.

“No,” Slither-O snapped. “I don’t know.” He pressed his face and fangs against the grimy surface of the security glass, and glared into the employees eyes. “So, why don’t you tell me?”

The employee began to speak. “Because you’re–”

“A man-snake?” Slither-O interjected.

The employee waited, realized she wasn’t going to be interrupted a second time, then finished her thought. “A supervillain.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway,” the employee continued. “Mr. Slither-O. Because of your, let’s say, history with our, and other – many, many other – financial institutions–”

“Financial institution? This is a check-cashing place in a stripmall.”

“True,” she agreed. “But you were the one who went around robbing us. And I do mean us – this location – specifically. On several occasions.”

Slither-O threw the equivalent of his hands into the air. “That was years ago!”

“Also true. But because of that very true history, you’re officially banned from this location.”

“You’ve gotta be shitting,” Slither-O sighed.

“And all our sister locations,” she added.

“This is ridiculous! I served my time!”

“Also, the whole ‘man-snake’ thing.”

Slither-O looked at the woman, and the fight left him. “Wow.”

“Do man-snakes even have a valid form of identification?”

“I gave you my driver license.”

“Yes,” she said, “but aren’t man-snakes from like, Mars, or somethin’?”

Slither-O writhed in pain and groaned a loud, frustrated groan. “My family and I are from Arizona,” he corrected the employee. Then added, “Well, the caverns beneath Arizona”

“Hey!” someone shouted from behind Slither-O. “You can’t call it that.”

Slither-O turned to find a graying, bearded man with a large tummy and skinny legs poking out of a very short pair of shorts standing close behind him. “It?” Slither-O huh’d.

“Snakemen,” the graying, bearded man said. “Not ‘man-snakes.’”

Slither-O looked at the man. “Can we go back to how you called me a fuckin’ ‘It’?”

And yet another voice thought it a good idea to open their damned mouth at the worst time possible. “Snake-people, Dear.”

The graying, bearded man turned to a graying, moderately fuzzy-faced lady. “What’s that?”

The graying, moderately fuzzy-faced lady repeated herself. “They prefer to be called, ‘snake-people.’”

“No,” Slither-O said. “We don’t.”

“Oh, right,” the graying, bearded man said to the graying, moderately fuzzy-faced lady, then turned to Slither-O. “Sorry,” he sorry’d. “Snake-people.”

Slither-O looked at the smiling pair of oddly shaped people in front of him. “I should have incinerated you people years ago.”

The employee gasped, and clutched at a string of pearls that were very most definitely not there, as later made clear by security footage. “Excuse me?!

“Did he just threaten us?” the graying, bearded man asked of no one in particular.

“I think so,” the graying, moderately fuzz-faced lady shrugged.

“Fascist,” the employee hissed from behind all that security glass.

“What the Hell is happening?” Slither-O sighed. “Are you hairless apes serious right now?”

The hairless apes gasped a collective hairless, ape-like gasp.

“Racist,” the graying, moderately fuzzy-faced ape ook’d.

“Robberies are one thing to overlook, Mr. Slither-O,” the employee said. “But I will not tolerate racists in my financial institution!” And she slapped a big, red button labeled SECURITY ALARM.

As a high-pitched, rather annoying alarm shrieked and a group of hairless apes eyed the equally hairless Person of Scale, Slither-O considered bashing his skull against a wall until he no longer could. “What’s next? Is some caped-crusader asshole gonna show up and–”

Pot today, Slither-O!” yet another voice still shouted.

But before Slither-O could even begin to respond to such a terrible, no good, damned awful pun, a big fuckin’ pot shattered atop his skull and he howled in excruciating pain.

“Everyone okay?” Slither-O’s assailant asked of everyone but Slither-O.

“Thank you, Gnatman!” they all replied in unison for some reason.

“I heard the alarm from the parking lot,” Gnatman started, then corrected himself. “I mean, my gnat-sense was, uh, buzzing.”

“Did you seriously just hit me with a potted plant?” Slither-O concussed.

“Stay down, Slither-O,” Gnatman ordered.

“I think I have a concussion.”

Gnatman laughed like a damned maniac. “Good thing they have a wonderful doctor down at City Jail!”

“This is such bullshit.”

“It’s true, Mr. Potty Mouth,” Gnatman chastised. “They keep Dr. Magician on retainer.”

Slither-O rolled his eyes. “Huzzah.”

“Though,” Gnatman added, “I think he’s technically a registered nurse.”

“I don’t care.”

“Anyway,” Gnatman continued. “The police will be here any minute to deal with you.”

Police sirens bleated as they pulled into the stripmall, and the little bell above the door tingled as some unseemly anachronism wearing a trench coat in the middle of a pleasant summer afternoon entered.

“We’re here to deal with Slither-O, Gnatman,” Detective-Man said.

“Detective-Man!” Gnatman gushed. “Just in time!”

“Me?” Slither-O squinted. “I was trying to cash my goddamn paycheck before The Craptacular Jack-ass here–”

“Hey!” Gnatman whinged.

Slither-O glared at Gnatman, then continued mid-breath. “–conveniently shows up ‘out of nowhere’ and assaults me!”

“Assault? You’re a supervillain.”

Slithero stomped what he called feat and screamed. “Retired! I’ve been retired for like, five years!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Detective-Man yeah-yeah’d and cuffed what he assumed were Slither-O’s wrists. “You can blog all about it while we process you down at the station.

As he was escorted out the door, Slither-O litigiously lobbied at the oblivious idiot flirting with the employee behind the security glass. “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer, Gnatman!”

“So, uh,” Gnatman uh’d.

“Yeah?” the employee replied.

“Slither-O did try to rob you, right?”

“Yes?” the employee lied.

Gnatman shrugged. “Good enough for me.”

The Heart of a Hero

The sky opened, and Hell followed.

Beneath this, it was Tuesday. And to be perfectly honest, it was a rather pleasant one until it wasn’t. Sure, there was quite a bit of suffering carrying on in many parts of the world, including right around the corner from where it all ultimately ceased to be (Oh, the awful things people were doing to each other and their families in the privacy of their own homes – but the less said about this, the easier it is to focus on the fun parts of this horrific, if fictional sci-fi apocalyptic tale). But in some godforsaken shopping center in the sort of Californian city where people with far too much money buy overpriced things from people with far too little of either, the sun was warm, the wind was cool, but not too much, and existence wasn’t all that bad if you could afford to ignore it. In fact, Peter Protagonist managed to catch every red light on the way to work, causing him to be late yet again. Fortunately, Peter hated his job. Unfortunately, he arrived just in time to witness his girlfriend, Ann Plot-Device, having coffee with another man in the parking lot. At least, in the sense that they were currently engaged in some form of sexual intercourse in the backseat of a twenty-year old, mostly primer-colored Honda Civic.

Now. Before anyone thinks to cast judgment on the poor girl, it should be made very clear that Ms. Plot-Device, her extracurricular lover, and that hideous car were all instantaneously vaporized the moment someone falling from the aforementioned Hellhole in the Sky subsequently landed directly on top of – and, I suppose, through – all of this. So do temper your throbbing rage and flaccid demands for primal social justice. Because if nothing else, it’ll all prove rather meaningless in the grand scheme of the next five or so minutes.

That said. There was a bit of fire, a sort of explosion. All fantastically gratuitous, really. But as sexually stimulating as the creation of celestial impact craters and collateral damage may be, they also tend to be somewhat overstimulating for those standing a bit too close to fully appreciate such things. Yet for as bleeding about the head as he most concussedly was after being literally and painfully shock-waved several yards through the air, Peter’s metaphorically broken heart was grateful for the distraction.

“Are you okay?” someone eventually assed to shout in that way where one really wants to sound like they give a shit, but really don’t.

“I think they’re moving,” another added.

“Someone survived that?”

Peter’s vision mostly righted itself and he watched as the gathering crowd heroically tended to the needs of that helpless smoldering hole in the ground.

“Is anyone getting a signal?”

Peter dragged himself bleeding and internally bleeding to the smoldering hole, and saw what all this not-calling-me-an-ambulance business was all about: some clown in the bloodied, tattered remains of some kind of fancy Halloween costume was wriggling about and crying, “They’re coming! They’re coming! Good God, someone get me out of here, they’re coming!”

“Who?” Peter asked in that way one does when they want the other person to stop screaming the same thing over and over and finish their thought. “Who’s coming?”

“Them!” the clown in the Halloween costume replied, lifting and pointing with his broken, mushy stub at an alien armada more or less done gathering on this side of the Hellhole in the sky.

“Alien invaders!”

“They’re going to kill us all!”

“It’s the end of the world!”

“Everyone duck and cover!”

But before Peter could follow the rest to the nearest sturdy doorway, desk, or table, the clown in the Halloween costume spoke again. “Sorry. What was that?” Peter replied.

“I said, the Libertitans aren’t here to kill you.”

“Then why are they here?”

“To conquer you, to steal your world, strip mine it, and enslave your people in soul crushing and backbreaking low-paying jobs as they profit off your perpetual misery and labor.”

“”Uh-huh,” Peter blinked.

“I think I’m a bit too far gone now,” the clown in the Halloween costume coughed and spat into his helmet, the blood and viscera staining the visor and making Peter gag a bit. “Only you can stop them now.”

But before Peter could laugh at such a ridiculous statement, the clown in the Halloween costume pulled open their chest cavity with far too much ease, revealing a beautiful gemstone where their heart should have been.

“Ew,” Peter cringed.

“My name is Heckles,” the clown coughed and spat again. “I was just a party clown from Anaheim. Until I got this.”

“What is it?”

“A piece of The Black Star.”

“Okay,” Peter blinked again.

“When you take this, it will grant you power beyond imagination.”

“But?”

“But what?”

“What’s the catch, the gimmick?”

The clown sighed. “The Black Star will replace your heart and consume your life force until you either die in battle or you burn out like a battery.”

“Why would I ever agree to something so ridiculous?”

“Because this is your chance to become a hero and save the world!”

“Yeah, but I don’t see an upside for me.”

“Are you shitting me? There’s an alien armada directly above us, and all you can think about is how this situation can benefit you personally?”

“Now. See? That’s not fair. You’re the one that came crashing down atop my cheating girlfriend and wrecked my car. And now here you are, a literal clown in some spandex getup…”

“Supersuit.”

“Thank you,” Peter said, then continued. “A literal clown in some spandex supersuit insisting I give up any semblance of autonomy for the sake of saving a world that has proven time and again to not give a super-shit about me, themselves, or much of anything else, really, even when repeatedly faced with one self-inflicted global crisis after the other. Quite frankly, we could use a change in management around here.”

“Bit cynical, don’t you think?”

“Maybe. But we’re not only talking about choosing between one form of lifelong, cosmic indentured servitude over the other. We’re talking about unfair expectations of selfless self-sacrifice from others when, really, you’re coercing someone to act on pure emotion – in this case, fear – without all the facts.”

“That’s fair.”

“And even worse, you’re handing over the equivalent of a doomsday weapon to a random stranger on the street. Do you go around handing out guns and bombs at the local park on weekends? What makes you think I’m not only emotionally mature enough to wield such power without proper training, but to also do so without any selfish inclination to use such a weapon to force my own will on others.”

“I… I didn’t think about that.”

“Of course not. You didn’t think about this at all did you. I suppose you’ve been galvanting all about the multiverse, having one detached adventure after the next, oblivious of any consequences for swooping in and utterly upsetting the natural order of any particular corner of reality, and then being so utterly incompetent as to ensure that your troubles followed you home, where we are incapable – militarily, psychologically – of comprehending such threats, let alone actually fighting with such things.”

But before the clown in the Halloween spandex supersuit could fully process the fault in his logic and the string of mistakes that brought him here, just a few short miles away from where he had wasted much of his previous life on hard drugs, cheap liquor, and one open mic and dating app after the other, the alien armada unleashed their veggie-ray across the globe. And as the collective consciousness of humanity was locally deleted, but backed up to a server somewhere on the other side of Titan, Peter took solace in the fact that, at the very end, he had finally stood up for himself. And that had to count for something, if only because he and all of humanity were being remotely lobotomized by alien invaders from beyond the moon.

Orientation

“And that, my sweet, supple henchmen–” Girwin half-assedly lilted, and was promptly interrupted mid-spittle by the grotesque, phlegm-clogged bleating of one of the newly hired sacrificial lambs in his morning tour group.

It was sometime before lunch next Tuesday in the sunlit foyer of a giant skull carved from the lone mountain on a small island in the Pacific. Girwin was, and still is (as of this writing), often described by his coworkers, friends, family, and favorite, yet rather gossipy bartender as a, and we’re quoting here, “middle-aged schlub of a middle-manager pissing away every precious moment of his life working in human resources for a soulless, yet respectably profitable criminal organization.” The dozen or so murmuring chimps in ill-fitting radiation suits in front of him were preoccupied with complaints about being forced to wear a mask indoors (seemingly in spite of all the radiation), insisting radiation was just a myth, and idly scrolling through their respective social media feeds. Yet none of them noticed that the aforementioned rude interruption was little more than a quick cover up for what proved to be an otherwise silent, if now wholly trapped bit of fart in someone’s suit. In fact, most everyone but Girwin and that damned soul now stewing in their own gasses ignored this entirely. Girwin, however, in all his insecure whatever-the-opposite-of-glory-is, mistook this as a rude but helpful reminder of a new interoffice memo regarding inclusion. He couldn’t be assed to read the damned thing, of course. But he had heard some of the younger employees discussing something about pronouns, and thus thought it best to correct himself before someone thought to file a complaint and he’d be forced to investigate himself again. And while such a thing normally wouldn’t be much of a problem at all, Girwin had planned to duck out a bit early to read to strippers on his way to volunteer at the animal euthanatorium, so he hoped to avoid any extra paperwork that afternoon. But such is life. And as such, it continues even after a rude, brief, yet complete misunderstanding.

“My apologies,” Girwin replied, then started over from the beginning. “And that, my succulent, savory, hench-persons,” he self-corrected, pausing only long enough to make everyone feel every bit as uncomfortable as he had hoped, and then continued, “concludes our tour. I hope you found today’s experiences not only enlightening, but informative, as I would hate to have to kill any of you before your ninety-day review. But more importantly, I want to be the first to welcome you to the E.V.I.L. family!”

As deafening uninterest settled in, Girwin fluffed up his own round of flaccid applause in a failed attempt to conclude this complete waste of his time without another interruption.

“Excuse me, Girwin?” one of the sheep baa’d, raising one of its gloved hands.

Girwin sighed in that way where one very much wants someone else to know just how pissed-offingly annoyed they are with them, but also neither wishes to appear rude nor professional. “Yes, Jeff?”

“It’s pronounced, ‘Jeff.'”

“What did I say?”

Jeff considered this, and shrugged. “I forget.”

“Well, Whoever-You-Are,” Girwin said, pleased with his ability to only-barely resist his sudden urge to casually demonstrate the efficacy of the company-provided emergency disintegrator ray strapped to his hip. “Would you like to get to your question before I shoot you dead in front of all your soon-to-be former colleagues?

“Yes, I think I’d like that,” Jeff replied, immediately followed by the absence of both thought and sound.

Girwin looked on at this artistic display of intellectual failings with a delightfully fruity cocktail of confusion, contempt, and subconscious positioning of his hand in such a way that it was, more or less, now touching and/or holding the aforementioned company-provided emergency disintegrator ray. “Care to give us a hint, then?”

“Oh, right,” Jeff chuckled in that uniquely stupid way that universally translates to, “I’m an insufferable idiot.” “It’s about the company mission statement.”

“And what of it?”

Jeff pouted. “I thought you were going to guess.” He fumbled about for a moment, and then pulled out his mangled, dog-eared copy of the E.V.I.L. employee handbook from his ill-fitting radiation suit, and turned to a page he marked with a brightly colored bit of paper and ink. “Well,” he said, skipping over the bits in blue and reading the bits in pink, “it says right here, ‘E.V.I.L. seeks one goal, and one goal only: world domination.'”

Girwin looked on at Jeff as if the blithering bookreader were the stupidest person he had ever met, which was saying a lot given Girwin’s already low and highly vocal opinion of Brennifer in accounting. “You’re not one of those soft, tender-loined liberals, are you, Jeff?”

“No-no-no,” Jeff laughed yet again in that face-punching way he had about him, stupidly unaware of the rather erotic way Girwin’s fingers traced over the slick chrome casing of his company-provided emergency disintegrator ray. “I’m a real cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch, Sir.”

“Such a shame I have to kill you after this.”

Jeff smiled and nodded. “Agreed. But, ‘world domination’ does seem a bit vague and open-ended.”

“Is that right?”

“Yes. Sounds like a hassle, really.”

Maybe it was lightning in a bottle, a sudden stroke of significant, deep introspective insight into the illicit doings and beings of arguably the evilest corporation owned and operated by the evilest owners not involved with the designing and manufacturing of suspect electric vehicles. Maybe it was the marijuana Girwin had smoked in the bathroom before the start of that morning’s tour. Or maybe it was the way the filtration unit on the ill-fitting radiation suits tended to muffle the wearer’s voice. Whatever the reason, Girwin and the rest of his sheep seized on Jeff with all the dumbfounded, jaw-slacking attention usually reserved for adolescent boys reading their first laughably ham-fisted description of female breasts in a clunky horror novel. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” Jeff started, slipping a gloved hand and arm right up into his still-open, still ill-fitting radiation suit, and picking his nose. “If Adjunct Professor Conniption already has the technology to access alternate realities and create parallel worlds, why doesn’t he just, I dunno, go to some perfect world of his own making instead of resigning himself to a life of micromanagement?”

The others considered this for a moment in loud, distorted whispers, but Girwin decided he wasn’t comfortable questioning his deep-seeded, self-imposed beliefs. “You know what?,” he said. “To Hell with this.” And then he casually shot Jeff with his company-provided emergency disintegrator ray.

The group looked on at Jeff’s disintegrated cremains sizzling and smoking with all the life of a sizzling, smoking pile of ash, and shuffled nervously in their ill-fitting, now urine-soaked radiation suit.

Girwin returned the company-provided emergency disintegrator ray to its place on his hip. “Are there any other questions?”