Idea Generation Strategies — Little Gems of Self-Indulgence

Trying to write without self-indulgence is like striving to eat a sundae without ice cream. Conceit permeates the endeavor, which can degenerate into excessive naval-gazing or into painful tedium that’s barely even interesting to the writer. Examining previous writings is often like looking back on my teenage years when I thought I knew something about philosophy, or religion, or the virtues of lederhosen… ouch. Don’t do that.

But is a little self-indulgence a bad thing?

During my 365 days of story, self-indulgence was sometimes all I could manage to regurgitate into a submission. Although the results were of an “insider” nature, they often turned out pretty well in the scheme of things, and they carried me through some barren moments of brainstorming.

Did they satisfy the reader, though? I hope so.

One type came through reminiscences, such as elements of my childhood in Day 52: Snakes and Tadpoles and Wasps and Things or such as the mood of an actual frat-house Tupperware party evinced in Day 83: The Pampered Chef Party Crashers. I suspect I enjoyed these a lot more than the readers because they reflect the little entertainments of my own life. They’re interesting in their own right, but not the kind of “gem” I always hope for. Still better than naval lint.

Another species arises from triumphs and survival. By their nature they were more indulgent than reminiscences, yet these had more real-life emotion and irony built into them. Day 112: Nice Throw tells an event I experienced almost exactly as it happened, but through the eyes of a fictional character. Surviving a three-tailed tornado (yes—three tails) drove the writing in two stories, Day 290: Big Wind and another that I kept in reserve. “Big Wind” is one of Garbol the wizard’s stories, while the one in reserve reflected my true experiences more realistically—again, through the eyes of a fictional character.

In spite of the raw emotion in these, I still think “Snakes and Tadpoles” is more satisfying among them, but the stories became much more gratifying in a third species of self-indulgence—raging at the world. These stories rise above the rest.

Early this year with only a few months left of the 365 project, I took a job with a significant commute north of D.C. For a few weeks I took rush-hour traffic down I-270, I-495, and I-66 to my home in eastern Virginia. For a corn-fed Nebraska boy, the traffic was horrendous, but it still might have been livable had it not been for the complete disregard every driver had for every other driver. I submit to you that your hope for humanity will plummet if you regularly take this commute. There were no stereotypes—every color and creed behaved the same. The middle finger and the car horn were the cultural features that united them all.

Who better to act as the surrogate for my spleen than Garbol the wizard? In Day 306: Rush Hour with Garbol, the wizard endures very much the kinds of things I endured on those commutes, but with a little magic in the mix. I really enjoyed this one, and it was an effective… er… vehicle for exorcising my demons.

Also during the Flash-a-Day-for-a-Year project, I received a lease renewal document from my apartment managers, and the document revealed some despicable practices in the way they price gouge their captive market for the purpose of coercing them into alleviating their vacancy risk. It demonstrated unbelievable crooked disregard for their tenants, and it enraged me. I started arrangements to move away almost immediately after.

You will find sprinkled among my stories several slams against apartment agencies and bean counters in the greater Washington D.C. area, and they probably seem quite odd, but I had to get it out of my system and leak it to the world. Maligning these turds in random places probably didn’t enhance my stories any, but ultimately I dumped it all into Day 265: A Job Fit for a Robot. In this story, you can learn some of the details of what they did through the eyes of a robot decommissioned from dock work and reassigned to an apartment complex. The ending tells you very close to what I think of these real-life people. Something beneath lint, anyway.

As a writer, you might as well allow yourself a little self-indulgence. The bottom line is it can help you produce, and like any other method you might use, some stories will be better than others.

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Day 365 (Done): Four Dudes and the Space Zombies

The dudes had been dreading this part of the journey home. It was the most dangerous stretch according to the aliens who’d helped them plan everything out with their intergalactic GPS gizmo. The danger came from one primary issue. Space zombies.

Nate rested in the reclining fixture used by the ship’s previous owners, basically a vat of brown Jello. The ship was gigantic, but only that room had human life support. The merchant had rigged the roomed with the piloting controls and an airlock, so it was a lot like a space blimp, except the cabin was on the side. Windows gave a limited view to outer space.

It was an old ship with unused and obsolete pipes, conduits, and gadgets hanging loosely from the walls. The important stuff was colored blue, or so they were told.

Nate daydreamed about fighting off the zombies, steering the ship to safety, and looking good in a white suit, while Jack, Bradley, and Tim hailed him as their hero.

“Wake up, butthead.” Tim flicked him on the back of the ear and shook the vat.

“What do you want?”

“We’ve hit zombie space.”

Nate hopped out of the vat with a slurp. “Why didn’t you just say so.”

“I believe I just did.”

They crowded around Jack at the controls. The displays were visual, almost like a human’s computer screen, but everything had a green tinge. A thin yellow line demarcated zombie space, and it intersected the blob that represented their ship.

Jack kept repeating a song he’d made up, which wasn’t entirely unlike a reggae tune. “Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no, uh-oh. Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no.”

Tim blew air between his teeth. “I think a half hour is long enough to be singing that song.”

Jack grinned wide and sang louder, adding hand motions, twirling his fists around each other and swinging his arms out on alternating sides. “C’mon, guys. Join me.”

Bradley joined him for a verse. “We should take this to Vaudeville.”

Nate studied the screen, but didn’t see anything worrisome. “Can we take this just a little more seriously?”

“What do you have to worry?” said Tim. “You ain’t got no brain.”

“Haha.” Nate noticed a shimmer on the screen close to their ship’s blob. “Hold on, guys. Look here.” He hovered his finger over the shimmer, and it grew more distinct as they watched.

“Damn,” said Tim. “It’s a whole fleet.”

“Just keep it steady, guys.” Jack bopped his head. “Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no, uh-oh.”

“Seriously, Jack.” Tim frowned at the screen. “Can it.”

Jack sang louder. “Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no.”

“Oh, come on,” said Tim. “It’s like the stupidest song ever.”

“He’s got to deal with things in his own way,” said Nate.

“When I trained in Dao Ling, we used song to focus our chi,” said Bradley.

“Well focus your ass on that screen. You remember what to do, right?”

“Yeah,” said Jack. “What do you think I’m doing? I cut to medium thrust, I set course for a hop trajectory that should bounce us away and around, but keep us in opposition, and I increased the air cycle in the cabin.”

“The air cycle’s not part of the procedure,” said Nate.

“I farted,” said Jack.

“No shit?” said Tim. “I thought someone was cooking rotten broccoli.”

They watched as their ship took an arc that would put them in parallel opposition.

“Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains…”

“Kill me now,” said Tim.

“No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no, uh-oh.”

“Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no.” Nate pointed at the back edge of the fleet. “Part of it’s breaking off.”

Tim spat. “Shit, he’s right.”

“Okay. Don’t panic.” Jack’s eyes darted everywhere, wide and terrified. “Nobody panic. Stay cool.”

“It’s okay,” said Nate. “They gave us a procedure for this. We’ve got to navigate through them according to their flight configuration. We can confuse and avoid a lot of their sensors. Get a close-up on the break-away ships. You ready for some maneuvering?”

Jack looked at Nate. “Maybe Bradley should do this. He’s the best pilot.”

Nate nodded. “Good idea.”

Jack and Bradley changed places. Bradley cracked his knuckles and fiddled with the controls.

Nate puzzled through the zombies’ flight configuration and instructed Bradley in some complicated flight patterns, taking them right into the ships. Jack sang the ‘oh-no’ song quietly next to him. They had a few maneuvers left to get out when Jack gasped.

“Wait,” he said. “The other way. The other way!”

“Why?”

“Just do it. They’re directing you straight into a trajectory with the other fleet, and it’s turning. We’ll lose opposition.”

“Holy shit, he’s right,” said Tim.

Nate sputtered. “I didn’t see that. Do it, Bradley!”

Bradley took them out the side of the smaller fleet, but one of the zombie ships broke off and followed.

“No!” said Nate. “They’re coming.”

“No shit, Sherlock.” Tim bent close to Bradley. “Pull off this way. Lead him away from both fleets so we can deal with him alone. Drive like it’s the Daytona 500.”

“I once subbed for Jeff Gordon in—”

“I’m sure you did, Bradley. Focus.”

Bradley smiled stupidly and worked the controls. The ship and their pursuer got farther and farther apart.

“He’s doing it,” said Nate.

“Now we’ve just got to shake this last guy.”

Their ship stopped turning and went in a straight line.

Tim grabbed Bradley’s shoulder. “Why aren’t you turning?”

“The controls stopped working.”

“What do you mean?” asked Nate.

Tim pushed Bradley’s hands away and worked the controls. “Shit. I’ve got nothing.”

Bradley shook his head. “Not good.”

“Damn,” said Nate.

“Oh, no. You can’t eat my brain. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no, uh-oh.”

The zombie ship zipped up next to them, a rust-colored mass of cobbled together technology. A loud clang sounded as they attached.

“Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no.”

“We’ve got to get the controls back,” said Nate.

“Oh, really?” said Tim. “Cause I thought we should break for tea.”

“You’re not helping,” said Nate.

The warning light for the outside airlock turned on.

“Knock it off, guys.” Jack pulled an orange pipe off the wall. “Tim and Bradley, figure it out. Me and Nate will hold them off.”

Nate grabbed another piece of pipe, and they both held them up ready to swing.

“Got it!” said Bradley.

The inside airlock door lifted.

“Too late,” yelled Jack.

An Incredible-Hulk-sized alien that looked like a mushroom with distended bellies on his stalk and five legs rotated out. Several mouths with vertical teeth snapped and drooled from the side of the mushroom cap, and a horrible snort came from the top, which seemed to have some kind of opening that spat green stuff. Behind were five more just like him.

The translator sputtered and snapped. “BAAAAAAWK braaaaaaains!”

Tim shot past Nate and propelled himself into one of the zombie’s distended bellies, hitting it with a forearm and taking him down back into the airlock.

Nate grabbed Tim’s ankles and pulled him back in as Jack hit the button to close the airlock.

“Go,” yelled Jack.

The vessel shuddered and separated from the zombie ship. Tim sprang up and hit the button to open the outside airlock, and the zombies tumbled out into space.

“Get us out of here,” yelled Nate.

After a tense hour hovering over the screens, getting farther and farther away from the zombie fleet, Nate allowed himself some relief.

“Good job, Bradley.” Jack patted Bradley on the back and chuckled. “Not a lot of people are going to believe this one. But we’ll know.”

Bradley grinned wide. “Not since my brothers in arms in Vietnam have I had such comradeship.”

Tim scoffed. “You’re not old enou… Ah, hell. Take a break, Bradley. I’ll drive for a while.” They traded places.

“Thank you, Tim. I can practice my Blues Clues meditation techniques now.” He tugged on Jack’s shirt. “You want to try?”

“No, thanks, Bradley. I’m more of a Sesame Street guy. I’m gonna take a nap.” He went to his usual corner, wrapped himself in a blanket, and snored.

Bradley went to the middle of the room and assumed the lotus position.

Anxiety squeezed Nate’s chest as he thought about the many galaxies and empty space they still had to travel through to get home. “I hope this really is the worst of our trip.”

“Hey.” Tim gripped Nate’s shoulder. “If we can get through this, we can get through anything. Go sit in your Jello. I promise you’ll feel better.”

Taken aback by Tim’s kindness, Nate plodded over to the tank and sunk in. The cool comfort soothed his nerves. His mind drifted to pleasant thoughts of home as the sound of Tim’s voice drifted softly through the cabin.

“Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no, uh-oh. Oh, no. You can’t eat my brains. No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no.”

Day 364 (T minus 1): The Happening

Damien ran into the cafeteria and squeaked his sneakers to a stop where Al and I ate lunch, plopping down on the bench next to me. He looked at me, then at Al, breathed out sharply and nodded. “The Men in Black are here.”

Al dropped his sloppy joe.

“Where?” I asked.

“Palm Street, just off Main.”

“What are they doing?” asked Al.

Damien threw up his hands. “No idea. But they’re all over the place.”

The clock on the wall said twelve sixteen. Nine minutes left of lunch break. “Gonna have to play hookey,” I said. “Let’s grab Harry.”

We intercepted Harry coming up the west wing and filled him in. We had a well-established escape route down the street side of the gymnasium and across through an antique store’s parking lot, then down a back alley.

Damien was right. Literally dozens of men milled about Palm Street, almost all of them in black clothing. Black shirts, black pants, black shoes, even black hair. They chatted in groups smoking cigarettes, sat alone, or went in and out of the local businesses. Some of them wore cowboy hats. We walked by and stopped in front of the thrift store.

“It must be a big happening for so many to work openly like this,” said Al.

“That’s what I was thinking,” said Damien.

“I thought they’d all be in black suits,” said Harry.

“Yeah, they’re probably lower level operatives,” I said.

A lot of them went in and out of the Golden Recording Studio. Two of them spoke quietly and leaned on the mailbox in front, as if they were guarding the place, but trying not to show it.

I tapped Al on the chest. “Hey, you guys think that’s a temporary headquarters?”

“Maybe it’s permanent,” said Damien. “Right under our noses this whole time.”

“Let’s talk to them,” said Al.

“They’re not going to tell us anything,” said Harry.

“Can’t hurt, though.” I was pretty keen on talking to them. Our UFO Hunters club could really use some contacts in the organization, and—who knows?—maybe we could get involved. “Let’s try the guys by the mailbox.”

The man on the left was taller than most and smoked a cigarette. No hat.

“Hey, mister.” Damien walked up to them. “I’m Damien Scorelli. May I ask your names?”

“Johnny Stone.” The tall one held out his hand and Damien took it.

“Is that your real name?” asked Harry.

“Of course not.”

I exchanged glances with Damien and Al.

The short one extended his hand to me. “Jason Ghostrider.” He smiled. “Mine’s not real, either.”

“You… you’re men in black,” said Harry.

They both nodded and smiled. “Yeah. That’s right.”

“You know Johnny Cash?” asked Jason.

“Huh-uh,” I said.

Damien let go of Johnny’s hand. “Was there some space alien activity around here?”

Johnny straightened, a funny look crossing his face. “There’s been a lot of activity around here.” He furrowed his brow. “Who wants to know?”

I stepped forward. “My name’s Jimmy Dickerson. This is Harry Crawford and Al Kaiser. We’re UFO hunters, and we’d like to get involved with your organization.”

Johnny chuckled. “My organization?”

“Yeah,” I said. I wasn’t happy the way he didn’t seem to take us seriously. “We do investigations all the time. You’d benefit from our experience and resources.”

“It’s dangerous work, hunting aliens,” said Johnny.

Jason scoffed. “Johnny, you shouldn’t be telling them that.”

Al stepped up. “We can handle it.”

Johnny pursed his lips. “I believe you could.” He leaned over, hands on his knees. “Okay. Here’s the thing. There’s an initiation for joining our team.”

“Johnny!” Jason pushed him in the arm.

Johnny glared at him. “Leave it alone, Jason.”

Jason shook his head and walked off.

“You want to be part of us, go inside there.” Johnny pointed to the Golden Recording Studio. “Ask for an audition, and do whatever they ask you to do.”

I looked at my pals, and we all nodded to each other solemnly.

“You know any Johnny Cash songs?”

I shrugged.

“My parents listen to him sometimes,” said Al. “But I don’t know any.”

“That’s all right,” said Johnny. “You know ‘This Land is Your Land?’”

“Yeah, of course,” said Harry.

“Just sing that.”

“They want us to sing?”

“Don’t question it,” said Johnny. “If they let you join, you’ll understand then.”

It didn’t make much sense to me, but, who knows? Maybe singing could be used as a way to paralyze aliens.

We walked into the studio. It was dim, but pleasant. I grabbed Damien and pointed to a poster on the wall that said ‘Man in Black Retrospective, Coming this Summer.’

“Is it code?” he asked.

I shrugged.

A big bald man sat in a chair in the reception room. He looked up from his tablet.

“Hello, sir,” stammered Damien. “Can… can we have an audition?”

“You all together?”

Damien nodded.

The man reached onto the counter next to him and grabbed a clipboard. After examining it for a minute, he handed it to Damien. “You can have the last slot in ten minutes.”

Damien wrote on the clipboard and handed it back.

After seventeen minutes, baldie ushered us into the recording booth. Two men sat in the dark on the other side of the glass.

“What is this?” asked a voice.

“We’re here for the audition,” I said.

They murmured to each other. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“On my count,” I whispered. I counted to four, and we all sang ‘This Land is Your Land.’ It wasn’t bad.

“Thank you. You may leave now.”

“Did we pass?” asked Al.

“We’ll let you know.”

When we got outside, the Men in Black were gone. Whatever the happening was, it must have cleared up.

All four of us were as excited as we’ve ever been.

“We could be real UFO hunters,” said Harry.

I scowled. “We are real UFO hunters.”

Harry frowned. “Yes. Yes. Of course.”

I smiled. “But you’re right. This could be really good.”

I don’t know how long it takes to process this kind of thing, but I was stoked. I went home and started a page for case number five. At the top I put “Unknown Happening.” In the middle, I took notes about our initiation audition to be bona fide Men in Black.

That was about two years ago, and I’ve finally resigned myself to the fact that they were never calling back. I stopped in the studio several times, with the guys or alone, but whenever we asked for the Men in Black, they claimed no such people worked there.

Yeah, right. Had it been temporary? Did they vacate after we found out they were there? We’ll never know, but it was the closest we’ve come, so far, to the real Men in Black.

I thought it was finally time to close the case. Underneath the notes about the initiation I wrote ‘Rejected.’ At the bottom of the page for the happening, I wrote ‘Unsolved.’

Day 362 (T minus 3): Middle Earth in Weinberg Station

Paco, a Transit Authority employee, waited for Garbol at the overpass entrance that led to the Weinberg train station. He was a short man, big ears and a mustache, his bright blue uniform and hat making him look like a character out of Mario Brothers.

The wizard drove up in a light blue Chevy Metro with a maroon door on the passenger side, the engine whining like it never left first gear. The front tire bounced over the curb, and he parked on the side walk, the back driver-side wheel still on the street.

Garbol climbed out. He had long brown hair, tattered bluejeans, and an Earth, Wind, and Fire concert T-shirt, pool stick in his hand. He reminded Paco of one of his Dungeons and Dragon buddies after a twenty-three hour run—but with a hint of cray-cray.

Paco looked at his watch. “Is this precisely when you intended to arrive?”

“Everyone’s a wiseass,” said Garbol.

“You… are you a real wizard?”

“Yeah.” He glared down at Paco. “You a real smurf?”

Paco laughed. “I never hear that one before, Mister Garbol.”

The wizard’s glare softened.

Paco started to babble about how much he loved the Lord of the Rings.

“You’ve got something?” asked Garbol.

“Yes, sir.” Paco beckoned him to follow into the overpass. “We never seen anything like it.” The entryway was clear, tall windows on each side gave them clear view of traffic going underneath. “Some kind a dragon thing.”

Garbol stopped and turned to him. “A dragon?”

“Nothing very big. Gandalf could handle them with a hand tied behind his back.”

“Them?” The wizard leaned over, nose-to-nose. “How many?”

“Not sure. Maybe a dozen or so?”

“Fire breathers?”

“Yeah. That’s why animal control refuse service.”

“Anyone down there with them?”

“An employee and some customers. Don’t know how many, but they’re okay. Locked in utility room.”

Garbol straightened. “Okay.” The way the wizard’s eyes blazed reminded Paco when Gandalf lost it in Bilbo’s Hobbit hole in the first movie. “Power and magic are fluctuating like mad around here, so we’re very close to a parallel world. They may have come through a rift.”

As they walked over the highway, a thirteen-foot crocodile belly crawled in from the station entrance, except his eyes were the size of saucers, he had a back fin like a spinosaurus, and smoke poured out his nostrils.

The wizard stopped.

“Oooh, Mr. Garbol. You know what you have to do.”

The wizard looked at him. “What the hell are you talking about? What is this thing?”

“C’mon, man. It’s like the Mines of Moria—you know what I’m saying.”

“What?”

Paco thought Garbol was going to swat him with the pool stick, but he couldn’t help himself.

“You know. Against the Balrog. You… shall….” He held his hand out toward the lizard.

“If I do it, will you stop distracting me with Tolkien stuff?”

Paco smiled and brought up the video camera on his iPhone. “Sure, man, anything you say.” Paco stepped back to get a good side view of the wizard, pointed his phone at the monster, then back to the wizard who held up his arms, waving his pool stick.

“You shall not pass,” boomed the wizard.

The video thrilled him enough, it could even go viral, but when Paco felt the air around him stiffen, he knew this was for real.

The fire-crock snarled and blew fire strait at them, and Paco, startled, fell on his cola, but the flame stopped halfway to them.

Paco picked himself up. “You got to fight the balrog, man.”

Garbol pointed his stick forward and muttered. “Not today, pal.”

“What you doing?”

“Warding the other end of the overpass so that thing doesn’t escape on the north side.”

Garbol walked toward the fire-crock.

“Hey, man—you sure we should do that?”

“Would you question Gandalf?”

Paco grumbled. He sure had him there.

Paco hurried up next to him to keep the wizard between him and the beast. They turned into the turnstyle area. The wizard hopped over it and stepped up to the down escalator. At the bottom a five foot fire-crock tried to high walk up, occasionally lunging to get ahead, but immediately falling behind.

Garbol took the stairs. Four more little dragons prowled around the platform.

“Where are the rest?” asked the wizard.

“I don’t know half of them half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of them half as well as they deserve.”

Garbol glared. “Really?”

Paco cowered. “Do not be so quick to deal out death and judgement. Even the very wise do not see all ends.” He grinned as he winced.

“How many times did you see those movies?” Garbol waved him off. “I feel the nearness of the other world, but I don’t see anything. Something disturbed them. Brought them through.” He looked around the platform and the track, keeping a fair distance from the fire-crocks. He stared at the track and shrugged. “We might as well get the people out.”

Paco took him to the big door at the back of the escalators and opened it. His buddy, Jerry Strickler, huddled in the back with three girls, a guitar busker bulging with muscles in an orange tank top, and a man in a gray suit. They crowded in next to some cleaning equipment and a big barrel of salt.

“Don’t be afraid,” said Garbol. “I’ll escort you out of here.”

“That’s right,” said Paco. “We will not abandon Jerry and Rippin’ to torment and death.” He jutted his chin toward the busker when he said ‘rippin.’ “Not while we have strength left. Leave all that can be spared behind. We travel light. Let’s hunt some pork!”

“You’re out of control,” said Garbol. “Contrary to popular belief, it’s not always good to wantonly display your nerdly passions.”

Paco didn’t care what the wizard thought. He was on a roll.

The wizard turned and took a sudden step back. Paco looked to see what startled him and saw several of the dragons now surrounding the storage room door.

“They don’t look that hungry,” said Garbol. “Why are they closing on us?” He looked at Paco as if expecting an answer.

Paco shrugged.

A demented squawk pulled their attention back into the room at the same time the lizards trumpeted and blew fire. The busker croaked out a vaguely western tune completely off key, his guitar jangling hideously.

“What are you doing?” asked Garbol.

“Garth Brooks.”

“Do they pay you not to sing?”

The busker scowled. “I get a lot of compliments.”

“You’re delusional. That cacophony is obviously what upset them and made them cross over.”

Paco stepped up to him. “Fool of a mook! Throw yourself on the track next time and rid us of your stupidity!”

Garbol clenched his free hand and looked at the sky. “You do realize, little man, I can turn you into a sewer rat with a blink of my eye?” He dropped his fist and turned to the busker. “They’ve got your scent. I have to wrap you in a perception shield.”

The wizard stepped to the salt barrel and pulled off the lid, then pulled out a pocket knife to cut the cardboard around the metal rim. When the metal ring pulled loose, he handed it to Paco.

“I wish the ring had never come to me,” said Paco. “I wish none of this had happened.”

Garbol scoffed and let a wry smile escape. “You are a committed man, and you should be committed.”

He grabbed a handful of salt and sprinkled it into a circle, then grabbed the ring and set it on the salt.

He snatched the buskers guitar, handed it to Paco, and pulled the busker into the circle by the arm. He mumbled something and pulled the ring up and around the busker, over his head, and then twisted it around as if tying off an imaginary baggie.

“All right,” said the wizard. “That ought to do it. You play here again and I’ll turn your tongue into a caterpillar.”

They watched the fire-crocks, which had quieted, their noses smoldering lightly.

One by one they turned and wandered away. Garbol followed the last one, and Paco stayed with him. They turned the corner toward the front of the escalators and watched him belly-crawl just past the elevator, the outside of the shaft covered with green tiling. The fire-crock touched his nose to a tile, and the front of him shrank as the wall seemed to suck him in, slurping him up until he was gone.

Garbol strolled up to the wall and squatted, then ran his hand over a tile near the floor.

Paco went on one knee next to him to get a closer look. A hairline fracture split the tile on a diagonal.

Garbol smirked at him. “It is a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing. Such a little thing.”

“Yes!” said Paco. He jumped up and punched his fist in the air.

Day 358 (T minus 7): Navigating the Universe–A Four Dudes Flashback

“These guys want to help,” said Nate. He tried to sound confident because Jack was in a panic.

‘These guys’ were aliens that looked like tipped over Erlenmeyer flasks, see-through and all. They had a line of sharp looking teeth, each about a foot long, hanging off the back. They might have had many features, but they were so transparent the dudes could barely see their outline. The aliens had invited them through an entryway that worked more like a sphincter, you had to push your way through, and for some reason, maybe flask etiquette, the aliens wouldn’t go ahead of them.

“How do you know?” Jack eyed the aliens warily. “For all you know, they’re leading us into a gas chamber.”

“I’m picking it up from the translator thingy.”

The translator was a blob that looked like putty with colors shooting over its surface, thin hair shooting out everywhere, puffing bladders, a number of slits that burbled and popped, some bizarre looking circuitry, and a blue sea slug crawling all around it. It ejected and retracted rods to hop and tumble after them. Every time they said something it erupted into action, and it spoke to them for the aliens.

Of course, ‘spoke’ was a stretch. It mostly bawked at them, with a few English words thrown in.

Tim scoffed. “How the hell are you picking up anything from that gobble-dee-gook? We understood more from those egg aliens at the depot.”

“Right,” said Nate. “And every alien race we’ve come across has been nothing but helpful. Why would they help us and then send us into danger?”

“A trader always takes care of his merchandise,” said Jack.

Bradley giggled. “Like the time Mrs. Bush sold me at the Bachelor Auction for Homeless Churros Addicts.”

Tim spat. “Are you sure that wasn’t the Dimwit Auction for Stuttering Husbands?”

“I don’t know, but Carrot Top was the only one to get a higher bid than me.”

“Right,” said Tim.

“He was at the height of his career,” said Bradley.

“Knock it off,” said Jack. “Do you really think a creature with teeth that big isn’t interested in eating us?”

Nate put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “I’m not getting that from their tone.”

Tim scoffed.

Nate gritted his teeth. “You got any better ideas, Tim?”

“Yeah.” He stepped into Nate’s face, but Nate held his ground. “I got about a pound of—”

“Knock it off,” said Jack. He leaned on Bradley, who stared blankly, his perpetual stupid smile reminding Nate how much of a liability he would be for them.

“Let me just peak in,” said Nate. “If it looks hinky, I’ll wave you off.”

“How can anything here not look…” Jack exhaled sharply. “Fine. Go ahead. It was nice knowing you.”

Nate pushed through the membrane, it was mercifully dry. Keeping one foot outside, he pushed forward until his head popped through into a brightly lit chamber that sparkled everywhere. After his eyes adjusted he discerned the outlines of dozens of the flask-aliens hanging around as if a chemist just dumped them there.

In the center of the room was a magnificent machine with colors and electricity zipping all over uncountable gadgets, some looking like circuitry, others like biological organs, all tightly interwoven in a way that fed into a quivering, shimmering cloud that displayed some kind of pattern.

Nate pulled himself out.

A look passed between Jack and Tim.

Tim shook his head. “Too easy.”

“It’s fine,” said Nate. “A bunch of them are in there. And some big machine.”

Jack set his jaw and nodded. “All right. Here we go.”

He pushed through first and Nate followed, Bradley and Tim behind him, then the translator popped through.

“Hello,” said Nate to no alien in particular.

“BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK BAWK Greets BAWK BAWK BAWK,” said the translator.

Nate supposed the missed words personalized the greeting with specifics that couldn’t translate.

“For what purpose are we here?” asked Nate.

“BAWK BAWK Navigation BAWK BAWK BAWK.”

“I got that one,” said Tim. “Chickens navigating chickens.”

“Shut up,” said Nate.

Jack grabbed Tim’s shoulder, stopping his lunge. “Not now, Tim.”

“What are you navigating?” asked Nate.

One of the aliens touched something on the machine and all of its gadgets went into action and emitted every kind of burp, squeak, and zap that was possible for the human ear to hear. They watched the machine and engaged in a long, bawk-filled, back-and-forth with the aliens, working out the meaning they were trying to convey one or two words at a time. It took three days before it dawned on Nate what they were doing.

“They’re charting a course home for us! Multiple courses.” Nate jumped up and down and squeezed Jack around the shoulders. “We’re going home! We’re going home!”

Over the course of a few weeks, they learned about stargate alignments, spaceflight, nebula worms, and excretory protocols. Nate studied them very hard because they had nothing human-friendly to record the information and he figured he was the best suited for all the technical aspects of it.

“Wait a minute.” Jack interrupted a session. “Just how far are we from earth?”

The alien running the machine cleared the cloud and a few hundred dots appeared.

“BAWK BAWK this place…” The alien made a dot in the lower right side of the cloud zap and flash. “BAWK home BAWK BAWK.” Another dot in the upper left corner zapped and flashed.

“That doesn’t look so bad.” Tim gazed up at the display, jaw hanging open.

“Which one of these planets has the depot we started from?” asked Jack.

“BAWK not planets.”

“Whattaya mean?” asked Tim. “What are they?”

Nate’s scalp went cold and he grew faint. He knew the answer before the flask said it.

“BAWK galaxies in BAWK.”

Nate gasped and thought he heard a moan. “I’ll never remember all this.”

“I got it.” Bradley pointed to his mouth. “It’s all up here.”

“How long is this trip going to take?” asked Nate.

Another moan.

Nate went back and forth with them to approximate earth time.

“Three years and seventeen days,” said the alien.

Nate heard three moans and realized one was his own.

“Why can’t we go back the way we came?” asked Jack.

“BAWK one-in-million alignment BAWK.”

Bradley chuckled. “This reminds me of the year I raced the Iditarod on my Flexible Flyer sled.”

Nate, Tim, and Jack yelled. “Shut up!”

Day 352: A Wibble’s Search for Mastery

“Where do you go for learning, Victor?” Slippy the Wibble’s tentacles swayed, which I’d come to understand as him being contemplative and… less judgmental. He was never non-judgmental. Part of his charm, I guess.

I set down the automatic corndog maker I fiddled with.

“Me?”

I dropped out of high school and got my GED, but I didn’t think that was what the alien was angling for.

“I mostly learn by doing and ask Floyd at the hardware store. I was a fix-it man in Fredericksburg, and I never knew what a customer would ask for next. One time I fixed an automatic dog washer. Never seen one before in my life, but I got it working.”

“It cleaned the dogs?”

“No, but they stay out of the hamper now.”

“Floyd is a wise one?” Slippy snapped a tentacle like the tail of a cat. A sign he’s getting serious.

“Sort of.” I picked up the corndog maker. “He’s just a guy. We figure things out together.”

The circling of a tentacle meant he approved. “Learning as common human experience. Very good. But what do you do when you wish to become a master?”

“Get your PhD?”

“Not a master ego, a true master.”

“You mean like a marksman? A craftsman? A balloon animal maker?”

“All noble things,” said Slippy. “Not what I mean.”

“What do the wibbles do?”

“Human’s have no equivalent, which is why I’m asking. We engage in a comprehensive experience to know what it means to be wibblish.”

“You mean like charm school?” I hadn’t needled him about anything that morning, so it was due.

“Sometimes you are a singularly disagreeable creature, Victor.”

“I’m trying to help, but we mostly just learn to be ‘humanish’ by osmosis.”

“I understand that,” said Slippy. “But who are the masters?”

“You mean the authorities?”

I knew he understood the authorities, so I was grasping. Slippy twisted all four of his tentacles together, squeaked, and went to his room.

I tried to help. Seriously gave it a lot of thought for a few days, but anything I suggested just vexed him.

I took him for an afternoon walk through town to alleviate his doldrums. “What about a master of ceremonies?”

He squeaked his disapproval.

We ambled by the park. A number of people walked dogs or jogged. Kids threw a Frisbee and played on the jungle gym. Most of the people were used to him.

“If you could just identify some relevant subject matter, it might help,” I said.

Slippy rocked in his excited way, which told me he thought that might work. “Mastery is the subject.”

I stared at him. “You narrowed down learning to be a master to ‘mastery?’”

“You understand.”

I shook my head.

“You don’t understand,” he said.

“How do you master mastery?”

“Exactly!”

I shook my head.

“You still don’t understand.”

“I’m sorry, no.”

“It’s okay.” He bent a tentacle down to scratch a labrador under its chin. “We are truly alien to each other. There are bound to be things that simply don’t transmute between our species.”

I admit I was disappointed. We always seem to come up with something to satisfy his various and sundry curiosities.

A few days later pounding on my bedroom door woke me.

“Victor. I found a master chef class online. We should sign up.”

“Really?” I sat up, pretty irritated with the fellow—it was three in the morning. “All this time you were looking for a master chef? Are you kidding me?”

“Don’t be silly, Victor. Cooking is a wibblish thing to do at any level.”

Day 350: Four Dudes and a Universe Stretched

Jack felt like the gliding spaceship stretched his sanity across the universe. He reclined in a pilot’s harness designed for a very round creature. Whenever he sat up, he slid back down.

“How close are we?” asked Nate. He came in chewing on a gummy cake and handed one to Jack. They tasted like sod mixed with Elmer’s glue, and none of them liked to speculate what was in them. Unfortunately, they had to chew to eat them.

“Didn’t you just ask me that?” Jack took a tiny bite.

“I haven’t been up here for twelve hours.”

Jack grimaced. “Really? Seems like…” He shrugged. “I don’t understand the units, but the indicator has barely moved.”

Nate sighed. “It tests the limits of your mind, doesn’t it?”

Jack scoffed. “I’m trying not to think about it.”

“This is twelve times longer than anything we’ve done without a stargate.”

“I said I was trying not to think about it.”

“Then why are you staying in the pilot’s chamber?”

“Because I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Tim stepped in through the back portal, laughing and making farting noises. Bradley followed him.

“You never worked for the EPA, dinkwad.” Tim pinched Bradley’s cheek. “Hey, Jack. I forgot to tell you. He flipped his cuppies over the papples you gave him.”

“What are you talking about?”

Tim flicked Nate’s ear. “The Piggimaters, or whatever they’re called. When they provided the ship.”

Tim’s disproportionate enthusiasm unsettled Jack.

“Yeah, I guess I remember something about them.”

Tim flicked Nate’s ear again. “You guess you remember? We were just talking about it.”

“Tim, I haven’t seen you for a week.”

“Right,” said Nate. “That was when you came up here and kept flicking my ears.”

Tim flicked his ear.

“You remember that?” asked Nate.

“I remember it fine,” said Tim. He flicked both ears at once.

“Guys.” Bradley had a puzzled look, his perpetual grin crooked. “Something’s wrong.”

Jack’s gut twisted. “Hey, dudes. Remember when Bradley said something was wrong and we all ignored him? I think he might have been right.”

“Like how?” asked Nate.

“I think we’re all experiencing time differently.” Jack brushed his hair out of his eyes. “Like the other day when Nate said we all seemed to be out of synch with each other.”

“You may be right,” said Nate. “We all seem to be out of synch with each other.”

Tim flicked him again.

Bradley’s smile broadened. “This reminds me of that year I worked for the EPA measuring cow-produced methane.”

Jack stared at the indicators. It still showed them heading in the right direction, toward a galaxy they knew little about, except it was the next closest one to earth.

“Let’s just be very careful,” he said. “Make sure we understand the consequences of our actions before we do anything, and just let the ship take its course.”

“Yes, sir!” said Tim. He gave an exaggerated salute.

“I mean it, Tim.”

“Yeah, yeah. I got you.”

“We’ll be careful,” said Nate.

“Let me know when the gummy cakes pop,” said Bradley.

Tim nudged Nate. “So how come you haven’t tried to get me back for flicking your ears?”

“I did get you back. I threw you in the cultured protein vat.”

Tim’s eyes went wide. “Oh, shit.”