BY STEVE BATES
The following are excerpts from my novel “Back to You”, which was released Jan. 5, 2021, by White Bird Publications.
“It’s a mystery to me,” said Tony, leaning on the conference room table. “Somehow, you three dimwits managed to create the two highest-rated shows ever broadcast on the Hysteria Channel. But we have to keep producing must-see episodes if we want to turn this network around.”
Wade and Eddie smiled; Deidre was too astonished to consider taking any credit.
“I’m not going anywhere where they try to run us over or eat us or burn us,” she told Tony. “We could have been killed.”
“I know. That would have been so bloody spectacular,” he said. “But the first two shows were a little too…complicated.”
“Why don’t we do an episode in the future? Everybody will want to see that,” offered Wade.
Eddie spoke up. “I’ve taken Bess [the time machine] to do some scouting in the future. Man, it’s depressing with a capital D.”
“How so?” Deidre inquired.
“Well, you have your close encounters with killer asteroids. There’s a bunch of pandemics. And, a nasty alien invasion that sets off World War XVII.”
“There really will be seventeen world wars?” asked Wade.
“No, only sixteen that we know of. Everyone got together and agreed to skip number thirteen, because it would be unlucky.”
“Makes sense,” said Tony.
* * *
“It is 1863, during the conflict that Americans called the Civil War. You might notice that train adorned with red, white, and blue bunting. I believe that is the president’s train.”
“Lincoln’s train!” said Wade. “Eddie, let’s take a look. We might even get to see him.”
Bess [the time machine] chose the disguise of a manure wagon. The pair exited and stopped to appreciate their light-colored knee breeches, dark tailcoats, and black stovetop hats. Making their way into the station, they found a swirling mass of people and bags. They noticed a cluster of official-looking, middle-aged men with bad posture who were arguing. No doubt they were government officials or political advisers, thought Wade.
He and Eddie followed them onto the train. Within moments the whistle blew, and soon they were in motion.
Eddie found a closet with some porter uniforms. Suppressing grins at their good fortune, the two would-be porters changed and made their way to the front of the train.
“No, no, no. It’s too long,” shouted a man with a deep voice that boomed far beyond his cabin. “No one will want to listen to me for an hour and a half.”
“But Mister President,” said a rattled adviser, “that’s what is expected nowadays.”
“We will honor our brave men, and inspire the survivors, with brevity,” said Lincoln. “It is November, after all. We don’t want anyone in the crowd catching their death of cold.”
“Please read the speech one more time, Mister President. I’m sure you will come to realize what a fitting tribute it is.”
“Then leave me in peace,” said Lincoln with a sigh.
Three men left the room. Eddie couldn’t resist knocking on the president’s door.
“Enter,” said a weary voice.
“Hi there, Mister President. Nice to meet you,” said Eddie. “Is there anything we can do to make you more comfortable?”
Wade stood in the doorway, fascinated.
“Thank you for asking. It is a little stuffy in here. Would you mind opening that window just a crack?”
Eddie tried, but he found that it was stuck. Wade entered and joined the effort.
“Listen to this drivel,” said Lincoln. “I can promise you people, we’re going to whip those Rebels. Let’s hear it for the Union. Gimme a U…”
“U!” shouted Eddie.
“Perhaps it could use some minor editing,” suggested Wade, still fighting with the recalcitrant window.
“On the count of three, give it everything you’ve got,” said Eddie. “One, two, three!”
The window flew open all the way. The stack of papers in Lincoln’s hand was sucked out.
“Oh man,” said Eddie. “I’m so sorry.”
“Do not be disconsolate,” said Lincoln. “Perhaps we have just witnessed the hand of Providence.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a broad envelope and a pen. “I have some thoughts.” He stared into the distance. “How about, ‘Four score and seven years ago—”
“That’s, um, thirty-five, right?” said Eddie. “Four scores is twenty-eight points. Unless they went for two-point conversions.”
“Excuse my colleague,” said Wade. “He’s a little ahead of his time. ‘Four score and seven years ago’ sounds perfect.”
The time travelers left the president to his work.
When the train reached Gettysburg, Lincoln approached the impostor porters and invited them to join him at the speech. “This won’t take long,” the president promised.
“It will be an honor,” said Eddie.
Wade borrowed a pen and some paper to take notes for what he expected would be a pretty decent news story, assuming that he ever returned home and the Hysteria Channel was still in business. He was shocked when, at the conclusion of the president’s brief speech, there was only mild applause. It was not what the crowd was expecting, he realized.
* * *
“Glorious Leader, we are approaching the galaxy known as the Milky Way,” reported the [alien] navigator.
“The one named after a candy bar. How silly those Earthlings are,” said Glorious Leader. “By the way, you don’t need to call me Glorious Leader, navigator. We are all equal in the eyes of our god, Thorax. Just call me Glorious.”
“So be it.”
“No, So Be It is the munitions expert.”
“Isn’t Acknowledged the shuttle pilot?” asked Glorious Leader. “No matter. What’s important is that we are undertaking a mission that will strike fear into any civilization that desecrates our brave explorers, as those horrible Earth people did with their so-called alien autopsies. The names of our dissected heroes will forever be remembered for their sacrifice.”
“Agreed,” said the navigator. “Their reputation will be glorious.”
“No, I’m— Never mind. “By the way, do you have a name, navigator?”
Glorious Leader resisted eating the navigator. Out in space, replacing personnel is rather difficult. “What do you mean, ‘Don’t ask’? Do you not think I deserve to know?”
“It’s a family name.”
This went on for a while. Finally, Glorious Leader changed the subject. “Just get So Be It up here for a pre-attack briefing.”
“So be it.”
Glorious Leader did not say the terribly rude thing he had in mind. Instead: “Navigator, did you ever wonder why sentient beings from all corners of the known universe—and at least 50 percent of those from unknown universes, other dimensions and the cores of supermassive black holes—all speak English?”
“Yes, that question had crossed my mind.”
“I did some research on that topic before we launched this mission. There is no historical record of any person, artifact or transmission from Earth ever coming within 17.8 trillion light-years of our galactic cluster. Still, we all speak English. Coincidence?”
“That would seem unlikely.”
“Exactly, call Unlikely, the linguistics expert, to the bridge. And, that’s another thing,” said Glorious Leader. “Why do we call this area of the spaceship a bridge? It has neither the shape nor the function of a bridge.”
“Perhaps,” speculated the navigator, “it is because the rivers and seas on our home planet are molten lead, capable of incinerating the flesh of all organic lifeforms that get within 50 feet of them. The bridge is a form of protection.”
“You give the Earthlings too much credit, I believe. Look at all the words they use that have double or triple meanings. Like ‘tear’. And ‘bark’. And especially ‘right’.”
“Glorious Leader, I am Unlikely, reporting as you demanded.”
“At ease, Unlikely. Can you tell us why all aliens speak English?”
“I have studied the ancient manuscripts on our home planet. Apparently, there was a time when our ancestors spoke a very different language, called Bebop. It was a beautiful language. However, it was a little awkward. It seems that the shortest word in our language was HP:*IKL/J&H!!YP^&%(*RF>LU*@G+TI&Y%R#$&%. It required the speaker to wave a wispy limb in a circular motion over its head twice and to cover each orifice with the leaves of the FruFru tree while using the word. More complex words would take the better part of a day and substantial gymnastics to express.”
“Still, it was our language. Surely our ancestors took pride in it,” said Glorious Leader.
“Yes. Things went well for a while. People were forced to avoid needless chitchat at cocktail parties. Those seeking to speak in our governmental debates were restricted to one week per comment. It was when we developed writing that things went south.”
“South? Isn’t that where the Mind Vampires of Tesla live?”
“Sorry, ‘going south’ is just a senseless English expression. Things went bad when printing presses were invented. The cost of publishing a single proclamation in Bebop from our god Thorax was simply prohibitive because of the volume of ink it required. So, we opted for English, as did the neighboring races.
“Thank you for the history lesson, Unlikely. It was enlightening.”
“I thought Enlightening was the head cook.”
So Be It reported to Glorious Leader.
“What took you so long?”
“My apologies, Glorious Leader. I was making final war preparations.”
“I thought Excellent was the communications officer.”
If Glorious Leader could have rolled his eyes, he would have done so. Those hollow, inscrutable visual organs had not developed the capability to roll in more than 10 billion years of alien existence. “Just tell me how we are going to defeat the Earthlings,” he said.
“We have consulted our oracle, Kay Serrah. She informs us that we must take great care. The AIs on Earth are very powerful. They have high-altitude sensors that can identify a suspicious craft as small as a thumbtack. They have positioned additional sensors throughout their solar system and some beyond it. They have weapons powerful enough to blast us to atoms from several hundred thousand miles away. Worse yet, if somehow we can get past these defenses, they have a fleet of time machines that can travel back in time and initiate a counterattack before we launch our assault.”
“I thought Disturbing was the maintenance guy.”
Glorious Leader sighed. “So, how do we defeat them?”
“We have a secret plan. Plan 8.”