Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Venus Effect

Apollo Allen and The Girl from Venus

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

This story also appears in the BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2017, edited by Charles Yu (guest editor) and John Joseph Adams (series editor). Available October 2017 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

This is 2015. A party on a westside roof, just before midnight. Some Mia or Mina is throwing it, the white girl with the jean jacket and the headband and the two-bumps-of-molly grin, flitting from friend circle to friend circle, laughing loudly and refilling any empty cup in her eyeline from a bottomless jug of sangria, Maenad Sicagi. There are three kegs, a table of wines and liquor, cake and nachos inside. It is a good party, and the surrounding night is beautiful, warm and soft and speckled with stars. A phone is hooked up to a portable sound system, and the speakers are kicking out rapture. It is 2009 again, the last year that music was any good, preserved in digital amber and reanimated via computer magic.

Apollo boogies on the margins, between the edge of the party and the edge of the roof, surrounded by revelers but basically alone. Naomi is on the other side of the crowd, grinding against her new boyfriend, Marcus, a musclebound meat-man stuffed into a spectacularly tacky t-shirt. Apollo finds this an entirely unappealing sight. That she and Apollo once shared an intimate relationship has nothing to do with this judgment. Not at all.

Speaking merely as an observer, a man with a love of Beauty and Dance in his heart, Apollo judges their performance unconvincing. It is the worst sort of kitsch. The meat-man against whom Naomi vibrates has no rhythm, no soul; he is as unfunky as the bad guys on Parliament-Funkadelic albums. He stutters from side to side with little regard for the twos and fours, and the occasional thrusts of his crotch are little more than burlesque, without the slightest suggestion of genuine eroticicsm. He is doing it just to do it. Pure kitsch. Appalling. Naomi is doing a better job, undulating her buttocks with a certain aplomb, a captivating bootyliciousness that might stir jiggly bedroom memories in the heart of the lay observer. But still. We know that the tail must wag the dog, for the horse is drawn by the cart; But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old, “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”

Apollo cannot bear to watch this any longer. He desperately wants to point the terribleness of this scene out to someone, to say, “Hey, look at them. They look like dumbs. Are they not dumbs?” But Naomi was always the person to whom he pointed these sorts of things out. That’s why they got along, at least in the beginning, a shared appreciation for the twin pleasures of pointing at a fool and laughing at a fool. Without her, he is vestigial, useless, alone.

He turns away from the ghastly scene, just in time to notice a young woman dancing nearby. She is alone, like him, and she is, unlike him, utterly, utterly turnt. Look at her, spinning like a politician, bouncing like a bad check, bopping to the beat like the beat is all there is. She is not a talented dancer by any stretch of the imagination, and her gracelessness is unable to keep up with her abandon. She is embraced of the moment, full with the spirit, completely ungenerous with fucks and possibly bordering on the near side of alcohol poisoning. Just look at her. Apollo, in a state of terrible cliché, is unable to take his eyes off her.

There is a problem, however.

Her heels, while fabulous, were not made for rocking so hard. They are beautiful shoes, certainly, vibrant and sleek, canary yellow, bold as love. Perhaps they are a bit too matchy-matchy with regard to the rest of her outfit, the canary-yellow dress and the canary-yellow necklace and the canary-yellow bow atop her head, but the matchy-matchy look is good for people who are forces of nature, invoking four-color heroism and supernatural panache. Yet however lovely and amazing and charming and expensive these shoes might be, they cannot be everything.

The center cannot hold; things fall apart.

Her left heel snaps. Her balance is lost. Her momentum and her tipsiness send her stumbling, and no one is paying enough attention to catch her. The building is not so high up that a fall would definitely kill her, but death could be very easily found on the sidewalk below. Apollo rushes forward, reaches out to grab her, but he is too late. She goes over the edge. Apollo cannot look away. She falls for what feels like forever.

And then, she stops. She doesn’t hit the ground. She just stops and hangs in the air. Apollo stares frozen, on the one hand relieved not to witness a death, on the other hand filled with ontological dread as his understanding of the laws of gravitation unravel before his eyes, on a third hypothetical hand filled with wonder and awe at this flagrant violation of consensus reality. The young woman looks up at Apollo with her face stuck in a frightened grimace as she slowly, slowly descends, like a feather in the breeze. She takes off as soon as she hits the ground, stumble-running as fast as one can on non-functional shoes.

Apollo does not know what has just happened, but he knows that he wants to know. He does not say goodbye to the hostess or his friends or Naomi. He just ghosts, flying down the ladder and down the hall and down the stairs and out the door. He can just make out a blur in the direction she ran off, and he chases after it.

There is a man in a police uniform standing at the corner. Apollo does not see him in the darkness, does not know that he is running toward him. The man in the police uniform draws his weapon and yells for Apollo to stop. Inertia and confusion do not allow Apollo to stop quickly enough. Fearing for his life, the man in the police uniform pulls the trigger of his weapon several times, and the bullets strike Apollo in his chest, doing critical damage to his heart and lungs. He flops to the ground. He is dead now.

• • • •

Uh, what? That was not supposed to happen. Apollo was supposed to chase the girl alien, then have some romantically-charged adventures fighting evil aliens, then at the end she was going to go back to her home planet and it was going to be sad. Who was that guy? That’s weird, right? That’s not supposed to happen, right? Dudes aren’t supposed to just pop off and end stories out of nowhere.

I guess to be fair, brother was running around in the middle of the night, acting a fool. That’s just asking for trouble. He was a pretty unlikeable protagonist, anyway, a petty, horny, pretentious idiot with an almost palpable stink of author surrogacy on him. I think there was a Kipling quote in there. Who’s that for? You don’t want to read some lame indie romance bullshit, right? Sadboy meets manic pixie dream alien? I’m already bored. Let’s start over. This time, we’ll go classic. We’ll have a real hero you can look up to, and cool action-adventure shit will go down. You ready? Here we go.

Apollo Rocket vs. The Space Barons from Beyond Pluto

There are fifteen seconds left on the clock, and the green jerseys have possession. The score is 99-98, green jerseys. The red jerseys have been plagued by injuries, infighting, and unfortunate calls on the part of the ref, who, despite his profession’s reputed impartiality, is clearly a supporter of the green jerseys. The green jerseys themselves are playing as though this is the very last time they will ever play a basketball game. They are tall and white and aggressively Midwestern, and this gives them something to prove. Sketch in your mind the Boston Celtics of another time. Picture the Washington Generals on one of the rare, rumored nights when they were actually able to defeat their perennial adversaries, mortal men who somehow found themselves snatching victory from the god-clowns of Harlem.

Fourteen.

One of the green jerseys is preparing to throw the ball toward the hoop. If the ball were to go into the hoop, the green jerseys would have two points added to their score, and it would become impossible for the red jerseys to throw enough balls into the other hoop before time runs out. The green jerseys are already preparing for their win, running over in their minds talking points for their post-game interviews, making sure the sports drink dispenser is full and ready to be poured upon the coach, and wondering how the word “champions” might feel on their lips.

Eleven.

But this will not happen. Apollo is in position. He reaches out with his mighty arm and strips the ball from the green jersey before he can throw it.

Ten.

Apollo runs as fast as he can with the ball, so fast that every atom of his body feels as if it is igniting. He looks for an open teammate, for he is no ball hog, our Apollo, but there are no teammates to be found between himself and the hoop. So he runs alone. He is lightning. There are green jersey players in his way, but he spins and jukes around them before they can react, as if they are sloths suspended in aspic. Do his feet even touch the floor? Is it the shoes?

He’s on fire.

Three.

He leaps high into the air and dunks the ball so hard that the backboard shatters into a thousand glittering shards of victory. The buzzer goes off just as he hits the ground. The final score is 100-99, red jerseys. Apollo Triumphant is leapt upon by his teammates. Hugs and pats on the back are distributed freely and with great relish. The crowd erupts into wild celebration. Apollo, Apollo, they chant.

Patrick, the captain of the opposing team, approaches Apollo as confetti falls from above. There is a sour look on the man’s face, an expression of constipated rage at its most pure. He balls his fingers into a fist and raises it level with Apollo’s midsection. It rears back and trembles as an arrow notched in a bow, ready to be fired.

“Good job, bro,” he says.

“You too,” says Apollo.

They bump fists. It is so dope.

A small child limps onto the basketball court. He smiles so hard that it must be painful for his face. Apollo kneels and gives him a high-five, then a low-five, then a deep hug.

“You did it, Apollo,” says the child.

“No. We did it,” says Apollo. “They’ll never be able to demolish the youth center now.”

“My new mommy and daddy said they could never have adopted me without your help.”

Apollo puts a finger to his own lips. “Shhhhh.”

“I love you, Apollo,” says the child, its face wet with tears. “You’re the best man alive.”

Apollo drives home with his trophy and game ball in the back seat of his sports car, a candy apple convertible that gleams like justice. He blasts Rick Ross a positive, socially conscious rap song about working hard and pulling up one’s pants on his stereo. The road is his tonight. There are no other cars to be seen, no other people for miles. For all his successes as balla par excellence, Apollo still appreciates the beauty and quiet of the country.

Suddenly, a sonorous roar pours out from the edge of the sky, so powerful that it shakes the car. Before Apollo can react, a yellow-silver-blue ball of fire shoots across the sky and explodes on the horizon, for a moment blotting out the darkness with pure white light before retreating into smoke and darkness. Apollo jams his foot on the pedal proceeds in the direction of the mysterious explosion while obeying all traffic laws and keeping his vehicle within the legal speed limits.

Holy shit Golly,” he says.

Apollo finds a field strewn with flaming debris, shattered crystals, and shards of brightly colored metals. He hops out of his car to take a closer look. Based on his astro-engineering courses, which he gets top marks in, he surmises that these materials could have only come from some kind of spaceship. He is fascinated, to say the least.

He hears movement from under a sheet of opaque glass. He pushes it away and sees that there is a woman lying prone underneath. At least, Apollo thinks she is a woman. She is shaped like a woman, but her skin is blue, and she has gills, and she has a second mouth on her forehead. Woman or not, she is beautiful, with delicate, alien features and C-cup breasts.

“Oh my God,” says Apollo. He kneels down next to the alien woman and cradles her in his arms. “Are you okay?”

She sputters. “. . . Listen . . . ship . . . crashed . . . There isn’t much . . . time . . . You must stop . . . Lord Tklox . . . He is coming to . . . answer the . . . Omega Question . . . He will stop at nothing . . . please . . . stop him . . . Save . . . civilization . . . Leave me . . .”

Apollo notices a growing purple stain on the woman’s diaphanous yellow robes. Based on his Theoretical Xenobiology class, he hypothesizes that this is blood. He shakes his head at her, unwilling to accept the false choice she has presented him with. “I’ll do whatever I can to stop him, but first I have to help you.”

She reaches up to gently stroke his hand with her three-fingered hand. “. . . So kind . . . I . . . chose well . . .”

With his incredible basketballer’s strength, it is nothing for Apollo to lift the woman. He may as well be carrying a large sack of feathers. He places her in the passenger seat of his car and gets back on the road lickety split.

“You’ll be okay. I just need some supplies.”

He stops at the nearest gas station. He races around inside to get what he needs: bandages, ice, sports drink, needle, thread, protein bar. With these items in hand, he rushes towards the register, which is next to the exit. He is stopped by a man in a police uniform. The man in the police uniform asks him about his car.

“It’s mine,” Apollo says.

The man in the police uniform does not believe Apollo.

“You have to come help me! There’s a woman in trouble!”

The man in the police uniform does not believe Apollo and is concerned that he is shouting.

This is ridiculous! Sorry sir. I am sure you are just doing your job. Let me show you my ID and insurance information so we can clear all of this up,” says Apollo.

Apollo goes to fish his wallet from his pocket. His naked hostility, volatile tone, and the act of reaching for what very well could be a weapon are clear signs of aggressive intent, and the man in the police uniform has no choice but to withdraw his own weapon and fire several shots. Apollo is struck first in the stomach, then the shoulder. He does not immediately die. Instead, he spends several moments on the floor of the convenience store, struggling to breathe as his consciousness fades into nothing. Then, he dies.

• • • •

What the fuck is happening? Seriously. Where is this dude coming from? I haven’t written that many stories, but I really don’t think that’s how these things are supposed to go. The way I was taught, you establish character and setting, introduce conflict, develop themes, then end on an emotional climax. That’s it. Nobody said anything about killers popping up out of nowhere. Not in this genre, anyway.

So hear me out. I think we may be dealing some kind of metafictional entity, a living concept, an ideo-linguistic infection. I don’t know how he got in here, but he should be easy enough to deal with. I think we just need to reason with him. He’s probably a nice guy. Just doing his job, trying to keep the story safe. He was probably genuinely afraid that Apollo was reaching for a gun. You never know with people these days. Life is scary.

Besides, that story wasn’t working either. That Apollo was a big phony, totally unbelievable. Guys like that went out of style with Flash Gordon and bell-bottoms. It’s not just about liking the protagonist. You have to be able to relate to them, right? I think that’s how it works. That’s what everybody says, anyway. To be honest, I don’t really get the whole “relatability” thing. Isn’t the point of reading to subsume one’s own experience for the experience of another, to crawl out of one’s body and into a stranger’s thoughts? Why would you want to read about someone just like you? Stories are windows, not mirrors. Everybody’s human. Shouldn’t that make them relatable enough? I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of experience with this kind of thing. I thought smoking was a weird thing to do, too, but then I tried smoking and was addicted forever. Maybe I’ve just never come across a good mirror.

So let’s do a child. Everybody loves children, and everybody was one. Plus, it’s really easy to make them super-relatable. Just throw some social anxiety disorder and a pair of glasses on some little fucking weirdo and boom: You got a movie deal. It’ll be a coming-of-age hero’s journey sort of thing, adolescence viewed through a gossamer haze of nostalgia.

Bully Brawl: An Apollo Kidd Adventure

This is 1995. A group of young people sit on the stoop of a decaying brownstone just off the L. The topic is television. Some show or another. Who can remember? Broadcast television in the year 1995 is terrible all around, hugs and catchphrases and phantasmal laughter suspended in analog fuzz. Is Full House on in 1995? Is Urkel? They don’t know how bad they have it. Naomi leads the conversation. A skinny, toothy girl with a voice like a preacher. You can almost hear the organ chords rumbling in your chest whenever she opens her mouth. She jokes about what she would do if her own hypothetical future husband were to comically declare himself the man of the house, with the punchlines mainly revolving around the speed and vigor with which she would slap the black off him. She is sort of funny, but only because the television shows she is describing are not.

Apollo does not make any jokes. He is sort of funny himself (people laugh at him, at least), but he does not know how to make funny words happen. He is mostly quiet, only chiming in with the factual, offering airtimes and channels and dropping the names of actors when they get stuck on the tips of tongues. Six or seven of them are gathered, and Apollo believes himself to definitely be the or-seventh. He is wearing a t-shirt with a superhero on it. Not Superman. Superman gear can be forgiven as a harmless eccentricity if you’re otherwise down. But Apollo’s rocking some kind of deep-cut clown in a neon gimp suit on his chest. Remember, this is 1995, and this man is thirteen years old. Unforgivable. He’s not just the or-seventh, he is the physical manifestation of all the or-seventhness that has ever existed in the world.

The new girl is sitting next to him. She might have been the or-seventh were she not new. Check that sweater. Yellow? Polyester? Sequin pineapples? In this heat? Worse than unforgivable. But who knows what lies under it? A butterfly? A swan? Any and all manner of transformative symbology could be hiding, waiting, growing. There’s still hope for her. She may be four-eyed and flat-butted and double-handed and generally Oreoish, but there is hope. She can at least drop into the conversation sometimes, in the empty spaces after the punchlines. She has that power. For instance, after Naomi does a long routine on what she would do if she ever found a wallet lying on the sidewalk like on TV (in brief: cop that shit), the new girl says something about losing her own money and getting punished harshly by her mother. It is not a funny thing to say, but memories of belts and switches and tears are still fresh in their adolescent minds, and it is comforting to laugh it out. Apollo laughs the hardest, and he does not know why.

The sun is gone. Just a little light left. The new girl can’t go home alone. Not in the almost-dark. This is 1995, not 1948. Apollo volunteers to walk with her.

“He like you,” says Marcus, Naomi’s not-quite-but-basically-boyfriend, by way of explaining why Apollo is the best one for the job.

Apollo denies this so fervently that he has to go through with it, lest she think he truly hates her. The walk is quiet for the first few blocks. Apollo is not a big talker, and the new girl has been here for two weeks, and no one, except maybe the ultragregarious Naomi, has had a real conversation with her. Still, Apollo finds himself feeling strangely comfortable. Maybe it is the sweater. Perhaps the fact that it should be embarrassing her is preventing him from being embarrassed himself. Perhaps it is the sartorial equivalent of imagining one’s audience naked. Perhaps she’s just sort of great.

Apollo stops short just before they reach the corner. He holds out his arm so that the girl will stop, too. There’s danger up ahead. A gang of street toughs. Six of them. One of those multicultural, gender-integrated ’90s gangs, a Benetton ad with knives. Red jackets, gold sneakers. One of them has a boombox. KRS-ONE maybe? Early KRS-ONE. Stuff about listening to people’s guns as they shoot you with them. Their victim is an old, grey-haired man. His hands are up. There is a briefcase at his feet. The gangsters taunt him stereotypically.

“Give us ya money, pops!”

“Don’t make me cut you!”

“Nice and easy!”

“Don’t be a hero!”

“I need to regulate!”

Apollo takes a slow step back. He means for Shayla to step with him, but she does not. He pulls on her arm, but she is still. She has a look on her face like she wants to fight motherfuckers. This is the most frightening expression that can appear on a human face.

“We have to go,” he says.

“No,” she says. “We have to help him.”

“C’mon.”

He pulls on her arm again, hard this time, but she slips his grasp. She runs at the gang, leaps into the air, and tackles the nearest one. The gangsters are surprised at first, to see this little girl brazenly attacking one of their own, but they quickly pull her off him and throw her to the ground.

“What’s your malfunction?!” one of them screeches.

The girl stands and pulls out, seemingly from nowhere, a fantastic-looking gun object that in no way resembles a gun or any other real-life weapon. “Stand down, jerks.”

“Oh dag! She got a gun object that in no way resembles a gun or any other real-life weapon! Kick rocks, guys!”

The gangsters run off into the night. Apollo runs over to the girl.

“What’s going on? What’s that thing?”

“Don’t worry about it. Forget you saw anything,” says the girl.

“Exactly,” says the old man. He begins to laugh, first a low, soft chuckle, then an increasingly maniacal cackle that echos in the night. “You have fallen for my trap, Princess Amarillia! I knew you could not resist helping a stranger in need.”

The girl gasps. “Lord Tklox!”

“What?” says Apollo.

Smiling, the old man reaches up and grabs his face, pulling it off to reveal pale skin, elegant features, and hair the color of starlight. His body begins to bulge and swell as he grows larger, eventually doubling in height. He laughs as a shining sword appears in his hands.

“Run!” shouts the girl.

“What is happening?!”

“No time to explain. Take this.” She hands him her fantastic-looking gun object that in no way resembles a gun or any other real-life weapon. “I’ll hold him off with my Venusian jiu-jitsu. Just go! Don’t stop. Please. Don’t stop. Just run. Don’t let him get you like he got the others.”

The girl takes a martial arts stance and nods. Apollo does not need further explanations. He runs in the opposite direction. He runs as fast as he can, until his lungs burn and he cannot feel his legs. Stopping to catch his breath, he holds the gun object that in no way resembles a gun or any other real-life weapon up to the light. He does not even know how to use it, how it could possibly help him in this strange battle.

So wrapped up in thought, Apollo does not even see the man in the police uniform. He does not hear him telling him to drop his weapon. He only hears the gun go bang. Later, his body is found by his mother, who cries and cries and cries.

• • • •

Did you ever read “Lost in the Funhouse”? I just re-read it as research on solving metafictional problems. Not super helpful. We get it; fiction is made up. Cool story, bro. But you know the flashback to the kids playing Niggers and Masters? Is that a real thing? Or is it just a sadomasochistic parody of Cowboys and Indians? I can’t find any information on it online, but I’m sure somebody somewhere has played it. If something as cruel as Cowboys and Indians exists, why not Niggers and Masters? There is no way a game like that is only theoretical. It’s too rich, too delicious. The role of Master is an obvious power fantasy, presenting one with the authority to command and punish as an adult might, without any of the responsibility. The role of Nigger is just a different kind of power fantasy, power expressed as counterfactual. In playing the Nigger, one can experience subjugation on one’s own terms. There is no real danger, no real pain. You can leave at any time, go home and watch cartoons and forget about it. Or you can indulge fully, giving oneself up to the game, allowing oneself to experience a beautiful simulacrum of suffering. It is perfect pretend. There are probably worse ways of spending a suburban afternoon, and there is something slightly sublime about it, baby’s first ego death. Sure, it’s profoundly offensive, but who’s going to stop you? But whatever. I’m probably reading too much into it. It’s probably a made-up, postmodern joke. When I was a kid, we just played Cops and Robbers, and it was fine.

Anyway, that was a digression. I admit that it’s difficult to defend the actions of certain uniformed narrative devices, but I’m sure there were good reasons for them. After all, there were gangsters with actual knives in that one, and Apollo was holding something that maybe sort of looked like a weapon in the dark. How are we supposed to tell the good ones from the bad ones? Can you tell the difference? I don’t think so. Besides, this was to be expected. Children’s literature is sad as fuck. It’s all about dead moms and dead dogs and cancer and loneliness. You can’t expect everyone to come out alive from that. But you know what isn’t sad? Fucking superheroes.

Go Go Justice Gang! ft. Apollo Young

Oh no.

Downtown Clash City has been beset by a hypnagogic Leviathan, a terrifying kludge of symbology and violence, an impossible horror from beyond the ontological wasteland. Citizens flee, police stand by impotently, soldiers fire from tanks and helicopters without success, their bullets finding no purchase, their fear finding no relief.

It is a bubblegum machine gone horribly, horribly awry, a clear plastic sphere with a red body and a bellhopian cap, except there is a tree growing inside it, and also it is a several hundred feet tall. The tree is maybe a willow or a dying spruce or something like that. It is definitely a sad tree, the kind of tree that grows on the edges of graveyards in children’s books or in the tattoos of young people with too many feelings, when not growing on the inside of giant animated bubblegum machines.

It trudges along Washington Avenue on its root system, which emerges from the slot where the bubblegum ought to come out, and inflicts hazardous onomatopoesis upon people and property alike with its terrible branches.

Bang. Crack. Boom. Splat. Crunch.

Splat is the worst of them, if you think about the implications.

Various material reminders of American imperialist power under late capitalism, the bank and the television station and the army surplus store, are made naught but memory and masonry in its wake. The ground shakes like butts in music videos, and buildings fall like teenagers in love. Destruction. Carnage. Rage. Can nothing be done to stop this creature? Can the city be saved from certain destruction?

Yes!

Already, Apollo Young, a.k.a. Black Justice, is on his way to the Justice Gang Headquarters. Even as his fellow citizens panic, he keeps a cool head as he drives his Justice Vehicle headlong into danger. When his wrist communicator begins to buzz and play the Justice Gang theme song, he pulls over to the curb, in full accordance with the law.

“Black Justice! Come in! This is Red Justice!” says the wrist communicator.

“I read you, Patrick! What’s the haps?!”

“The city is in danger! We need your help! To defeat this evil, We, the Justice Gang, need to combine our powers to form White Justice!”

“Yes. Only White Justice can save the city this time!”

“Also, can you please pick up Pink Justice? She is grounded from driving because she went to the mall instead of babysitting her little brother.”

“What an airhead!”

“I know. But she is also a valuable member of the Justice Gang. Only when Pink Justice, Blue Justice, Black Justice, and Mauve Justice combine with me, the leader, Red Justice, can our ultimate power, White Justice be formed!”

“As I know.”

“Yes. All thanks to Princess Amarillia, who gave us our prismatic justice powers in order to prevent the evil Lord Tklox from answering the Omega Question and destroying civilization!”

“Righteous!”

“Just as white light is composed of all colors of light, so White Justice will be formed from our multicultural, gender-inclusive commitment to Good and Right.”

“Okay! Bye.”

Apollo hangs up and gets back on the road. He picks up Pink Justice on the way. She is a stereotypical valley girl, but that is okay, since the Justice Gang accepts all types of people, as long as they love justice, are between fifteen and seventeen, and present as heterosexual. They ride together in silence, as they are the two members of the Justice Gang least likely to be paired up for storylines, owing to the potentially provocative implications of a black man and a white woman interacting together, even platonically.

“Do you ever think that we’re just going in circles?” asks Pink Justice, staring idly out the window.

“What do you mean?” asks Apollo.

“A monster appears, we kill it, another monster appears, we kill it again. We feel good about getting the bad guy in the moment, but it just keeps happening. Week after week, it’s the same thing. Another monster. More dead people. We never actually fight evil. We just kill monsters. Evil is always still there.”

“But what about justice?”

“What is justice? People are dying. I just don’t know what we’re fighting for sometimes, why we keep fighting. It’s the same every time. It’s just tiring, I guess.”

“I think we have to fight. Even if nobody gets saved, we are better for having done it. Maybe the world isn’t better, but it’s different, and I think that difference is beautiful.”

“Like, for sure!” says Pink Justice.

A police car flashes its lights at Apollo. He pulls over. The man in the police uniform walks to the passenger side and asks Pink Justice if she is okay.

“I’m fine. There’s no problem,” she says.

The man in the police uniform tells Pink Justice that he can help her if something is wrong.

“Everything is fine. Nothing is wrong.”

The man in the police uniform tells Apollo to get out of the car.

What is this about? What’s your probable cause? Yes sir, officer,” says Apollo, getting out of the car.

The man in the police uniform slams Apollo into the side of the car and pats him down. Pink Justice gets out and begins to yell that they have done nothing wrong, that he has to let them go. This obviously agitates the man in the police uniform.

Apollo’s wrist communicator goes off, and without thinking, he moves to answer it. The man in the police uniform tackles him to the ground, sits on his chest, and begins to hit him with a flashlight. Apollo’s windpipe is blocked. It continues to be blocked for a long time. He dies.

• • • •

Come on. Really? That one was really good. The white guy was in charge and everything! This sucks. I’m trying to do something here. The point of adventure fiction is to connect moral idealism with the human experience. The good guys fight the bad guys, just as we struggle against the infelicities of the material world. That’s the point of heroes. They journey into the wilderness, struggle against the unknown, and make liminal spaces safe for the people. That’s how it works, from Hercules to Captain Kirk. It’s really hard to create ontological safety when people keep dying all the time. Barth was right; literature is exhausting.

So I guess Apollo shouldn’t have been in a car with a white lady? That’s scary, I guess. He didn’t do anything, but he was probably no angel. He was a teen. Teens get into all kinds of shit. When I was in school, I knew so, so many kids who shoplifted and smoked drugs. They were mostly white, but still. Teens are shitty. The man in the police uniform probably had good intentions. Like, he wanted to make sure the girl wasn’t being kidnapped or anything. Why else would they be together? I still think he only wants to keep people safe, especially potentially vulnerable people.

I’ve fucking got it. This is 2016, right? Sisters are doing it for themselves. Why not a lady-protagonist? Women are empathetic and non-threatening and totally cool. Everyone is chill with ladies. That’s why phone robots all have feminine voices. True story. Why would you just kill a woman for no reason? She’s not going to hurt you. This time, no one is going to hurt anybody.

Apollonia Williams-Carter and the Venus Sanction

Naomi walks into Apollonia’s private office just before 5:00. It is a cramped and dingy room, lit by a single fluorescent bulb and smelling strongly of mildew. Without greeting or warning, she drops a thick, yellow binder down on Apollonia’s desk.

“Read this,” she says.

The binder is marked A.M.A.R.I.L.L.I.A. Project. It is filled with photographs, exotic diagrams, and pages and pages of exhaustively researched reports. Apollonia proceeds slowly, taking in each and every fact printed on the pages, running them over in her mind and allowing them settle. She feels a sinking sensation in her stomach as she journeys deeper and deeper into the text.

“Dear God,” she whispers. “Can this be true?”

“Yes,” says Naomi.

“This is absolutely disgusting. How could they do something like this? How could they sell us out to aliens?”

“They don’t care about our world. Not anymore.”

“What can we do?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I brought this to you.”

Apollonia opens one of her drawers, retrieving two shot glasses and a bottle of whiskey. She pours a double and pushes it toward Naomi.

“Have some. It will calm your nerves.”

Naomi throws the glass to the ground, shattering it.

“This is no time to drink! We’ve got to do something!”

Apollonia takes her shot. “We can’t do anything if we can’t keep our cool.”

“You want me to be cool? The department will have my head if they even knew I am talking to you.”

“My head’s on the line, too. I might be a vice-president here, but they’d kill me as quickly as a break-room cockroach.”

“So what do we do? I came to you because I have the utmost respect for your work with the company.”

“We go to the press. It might cost us our lives, but at least the truth will be out there.”

“Should we try to rescue the girl?”

“No. First, we get the truth out. I’ll handle this. Delete any digital copies of these files and meet me tonight at the Port Royale.”

“Fine.”

“Remember. Anyone you know could be one of them. Use caution.”

Naomi nods and exits.

Apollonia takes another double shot of whiskey as she continues to read the binder. How could this happen? She had never trusted the powers that be, but how could they be doing this? How could they be killing people with impunity? The notes on the files indicate that it is in the name of safety and the greater good, but whose safety are they really talking about? Man or monster?

Apollonia leaves at 7:00, as she does every evening. She hides the pages of the binder in her purse. She puts on a cheerful face, smiling at coworkers and greeting the support staff as she passes. She takes the elevator down from her floor to the lobby, then the stairs to the parking garage. She makes sure no one is following her as she walks down the corridors of the unlit parking garage, turning her head every few moments to get a full view of her surroundings. She sees her car and breathes a sigh of relief. She is almost out.

“Hey there.”

She turns to see a young man in a suit. He is at least six feet tall and aggressively muscled. He smiles brightly and broadly at Apollonia, as if trying to hide something.

“Hello Patrick,” she says.

“Where ya headed in such a hurry?”

“Just going home.”

“Home, huh? I remember home.”

He laughs. She joins him.

“Long hours, huh? I feel for you.”

He sticks out his finger at her purse. She clutches it closer.

“Hey. Is that new? I think my girlfriend pointed that purse out at the store. I’m sure it was that one.”

“I’ve had this thing forever.”

“Do you mind if I see it? I just want to know if it’s well made.”

Apollonia swallows. “I’d really prefer it if you didn’t.”

The smile leaves his face, and his eyes begin to narrow. Apollonia takes a step back. She has been trained in self-defense, but this man has at least one hundred pounds on her and also might be an alien. She begins to slowly, subtly shift into a combat stance. If she times it right, she might be able to stun him long enough for her to escape. She just has to find the right moment. She waits. And waits. And waits.

Finally, he chuckles. “You’re right. That was a weird question. I haven’t been getting enough sleep lately. Sorry. I’ll see you later.”

Apollonia gets into her car. On the way to the Port Royale, she is pulled over by the man in the police uniform. While patting her down for drugs, he slips his fingers into her underwear. She tries to pull his hands away, prompting him to use force to stop her from resisting arrest. Her head is slammed many times against the sidewalk. She dies.

• • • •

She. Didn’t. Do. Anything. And even if she did do something, killing is not the answer. That’s it. I’m not playing anymore. I can quit at any time. No one can stop me. Look, I’ll do it now. Boom. I just quit for two days. Boom. That was two weeks. Boom. Now I have to change all the dates to 2016. What’s the point of writing this thing? What’s the point of writing anything? I just wanted to tell a cool story. That’s it. No murders. No deaths. Remember? It was just a love story.

I once read that people get more into love stories and poems in times of political strife and violence. What better way to assert meaning in the face of meaninglessness than by celebrating the connection between human beings? Our relationship with the state, the culture, the world, these are just petals in the winds compared to the love that flows between us. Fuck politics. I set out to do a love story, so I’m doing a love story. Plus, I’ve got a plan. So far, the Apollos have all died while messing around outside. The solution isn’t relatability at all. It’s so much simpler than that: transit. It doesn’t matter if the guy can’t sympathize with Apollo if he can’t find him. There are tons of great stories set in one place. I’ll just do one of those.

Apollo Right and the Architectural-Organic Wormhole

Apollo and Naomi sit alone on the couch by the window, the dusty brown one held together with tape and band-aids, quiet, listening to the rain and the night, watching the play of wind and glow on the raindrops outside, refracted lamplight and neon diffusing into glitter in the dark. His head rests on her lap, which is soft and warm and comfortingly “lap-like,” which is to say that it possesses the qualities of the Platonic lap in quantities nearing excess, qualities which are difficult to articulate, neotenous comforts and chthonic ecstasies of a sublime/cliché nature, intimacy rendered in thigh meat and belly warmth. Her left hand is on his shoulder, just so, and her right is on his chest, and he takes note of the sensation of her fingers as his chest expands and contracts, and it is pleasant. He takes a breath, sweet and slow. There is a little sadness, because this moment will wilt and wither like all moments, and he does not want it to, more than anything.

“Remember this,” he says.

“What?”

“I would like it if you would remember this. Tonight. Or at least this part.”

“Why wouldn’t I remember tonight?

“You never remember any of the good parts.”

“You say that.”

“It’s true. You only remember the bad parts. The before and after. Anxiety and regret. Never the moment.”

“Who says this is a good part?”

“That’s a cutting remark.”

“I just think we have different definitions of the good and bad when it comes to certain things.”

“So this is a bad part?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Which is it, then?”

“It’s good to see you.”

“You know what my favorite memory of us is?”

“Leon.”

“I’m sure you don’t remember it.”

“Don’t.”

“It’s not weird or anything. One time I came over to your place, and you smiled that smile you have—not the usual one, the good one—and you gave me a hug. Just a long, deep hug, like you were just really happy to see me. Genuinely happy. Not angry or annoyed at all. Just cruisin’, y’know. Just cruisin’. We made out afterwards, and maybe had sex? I don’t remember that super great.”

“The fact that you don’t see anything weird about that is why we had to break up.”

“Whatever, lady.”

The door flies open. The man in the police uniform shouts for everyone to get down. A flashbang grenade is thrown inside. Apollo pushes Naomi away but is unable to get away. He suffers critical burns to his head and chest. After being denied medical treatment on the scene, he dies weeks later in the hospital from opportunistic infections. Ironically, the man in the police uniform was actually meant to go to the next apartment over, where a minor marijuana dealer lives.

• • • •

They didn’t even get to the cool part. There was going to be a living wormhole in the closet, and all kinds of space shit was going to come out, and in the process of dealing with it they were going to rekindle their love. It was going to be awesome. We can’t even have love stories anymore? What do we have if we can’t have love stories?

Okay. Now I’m thinking that the issue is with the milieu. 2015 is a weird time. Shit is going down. It’s politicizing this story. I’m not into it. What we need is a rip-roaring space adventure in the far future. That’ll be cool. All this shit will be sorted out by then, and we can all focus on what really matters: space shit.

Apollo _____ vs. the Vita-Ray Miracle

The crystal spires of New Virtua throw tangles of intersecting rainbows onto the silver-lined streets below, such that a Citizen going about his daily duties cannot help but be enmeshed in a transpicuous net of light and color. A Good Citizen knows that this is Good, that beauty is a gift of Science, and he wears his smile the way men of lesser worlds might wear a coat and hat to ward off the cold damp of an unregulated atmosphere.

Lord Tklox is not a Good Citizen, and he rarely smiles at all. On those occasions when he does experience something akin to happiness (when his plans are coming to fruition, when he imagines the bloody corpses of his enemies, when he thinks of new ways to crush the Good Citizens of New Virtua under his foot), his smile is not so much worn as wielded, as one might wield the glowing spiral of a raymatic cannon.

“Soon, my vita-ray projector will be complete, and all New Virtua will tremble as I unleash the Omega Question!” he exclaims to no one, alone in his subterranean laboratory two thousand miles below the surface.

Cackling to himself, Lord Tklox waits in his lair for those who would challenge his incredible genius.

He waits.

He keeps waiting.

Lord Tklox coughs, perhaps getting the attention of any heroes listening on nearby crime-detecting audioscopes. “First New Virtua, then the universe! All will be destroyed by the radical subjectivity of the Omega Question!”

Waiting continues to happen.

More waiting.

Still more.

Uh, I guess nobody comes. Everybody dies, I guess.

• • • •

So I checked, and it turns out there are no black people in the far future. That’s my bad. I really didn’t do my research on that one. I don’t know where we end up going. Maybe we all just cram into the Parliament-Funkadelic discography at some point between Star Trek and Foundation? Whatever. That’s an issue for tomorrow. Today, we’ve got bigger problems.

It’s time we faced this head on. Borges teaches us that every story is a labyrinth, and within every labyrinth is a minotaur. I’ve been trying to avoid the minotaur, but instead I need to slay it. I have my sword, and I know where the monster lurks. It is time to blaxploit this problem.

Apollo Jones In: The Final Showdown

Who’s the plainclothes police detective who leaves all the criminals dejected?
[Apollo!]
Who stops crime in the nick of time and dazzles the ladies with feminine rhymes?
[Apollo!]
Can you dig it?

Apollo’s cruiser screeches to a halt at the entrance to the abandoned warehouse. He leaps out the door and pulls his gun, a custom gold Beretta with his name engraved on the handle.

“Hot gazpacho!” he says. “This is it.”

Patrick pops out of the passenger seat. “We’ve got him now.”

They have been chasing their suspect for weeks now, some sicko responsible for a string of murders. In a surprising third act twist, they discovered that the one responsible is one of their own, a bad apple who gets his kicks from harming the innocent.

“We’ve got him pinned down inside,” says Apollo.

“He won’t escape this time.”

“Let’s do this, brother.”

They skip the middle part of the story, since that has been where we’ve been getting into trouble. They rush right to the end, where the man in the police uniform is waiting for them.

“Congratulations on solving my riddles, gentlemen. I’m impressed.”

“You’re going down, punk,” says Apollo.

“Yeah!” says Patrick.

“I doubt that very much.”

The man in the police uniform pulls his weapon and fires three shots, all hitting Apollo in the torso. He crumples to the ground. Patrick aims his own weapon, but the man in the police uniform is able to quickly shoot him in the shoulder, sending Patrick’s pistol to the ground.

“You thought you could defeat me so easily? How foolish. We’re not so different, you and I. You wanted a story about good aliens and bad aliens? Well, so did I.”

“How’s this for foolish?” says Apollo, pulling up his shirt to reveal he was wearing a bulletproof vest all along. Then, he unloads a clip from his legendary golden Beretta at him. The man in the police uniform falls to the ground, bleeding.

Patrick clutches his shoulder. “We got him.”

“We’re not quite done yet,” says Apollo.

He walks over to the body of the man in the police uniform. He tugs on the man’s face, pulling it off completely. It is the face of Lord Tklox.

“This was his plan all along,” says Apollo. “By murdering all those innocent people, he was turning us against each other, thereby making it easier for his invasion plans to succeed. All he had left to do was answer the Omega Question and boom, no more civilization. Good thing we stopped him in time.”

“I knew it,” says Patrick. “He was never one of us. He was just a bad guy the whole time. It is in no way necessary for me to consider the ideological mechanisms by which my community and society determine who benefits from and participates in civil society, thus freeing me from cognitive dissonance stemming from the ethical compromises that maintain my lifestyle.”

“Hot gazpacho!” says Apollo.

They share a manly handshake like Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers in Predator. It is so dope.

“I’ll go call dispatch,” says Patrick. “Tell them that we won’t be needing backup. Or that we will be needing backup to get the body and investigate the scene? I don’t really know how this works. The movie usually ends at this point.”

Patrick leaves, and Apollo guards the body. Suddenly, the warehouse door bursts open. Seeing him standing over the dead body, a man in a police uniform yells for Apollo to drop his weapon. Apollo shouts that he is a cop and moves to gingerly put his golden gun on the ground, but he is too slow. Bulletproof vests do not cover the head. He is very, very dead.

• • • •

I wasn’t trying to do apologetics for him. Before, I mean. I wasn’t saying it’s okay to kill people because they aren’t perfect or do things that are vaguely threatening. I was just trying to find some meaning, the moral of the story. All I ever wanted to do was write a good story. But murder is inherently meaningless. The experience of living is a creative act, the personal construction of meaning for the individual, and death is the final return to meaninglessness. Thus, the act of killing is the ultimate abnegation of the human experience, a submission to the chaos and violence of the natural world. To kill, we must either admit the futility of our own life or deny the significance of the victim’s.

This isn’t right.

It’s not supposed to happen like this.

Why does this keep happening?

It’s the same story every time. Again and again and again.

I can’t fight the man in the police uniform. He’s real, and I’m an authorial construct, just words on a page, pure pretend. But you know who isn’t pretend? You. We have to save Apollo. We’re both responsible for him. We created him together. Death of the Author, you know? It’s just you and me now. I’ve got one last trick. I didn’t mention this in the interest of pace and narrative cohesion, but I lifted the Omega Question off Lord Tklox before he died. I don’t have the answer, but I know the question. You’ve got to go in. I can keep the man in the police uniform at bay as long as I can, but you have to save Apollo. We’re going full Morrison.

Engage second-person present.

God forgive us.

• • • •

You wake up. It is still dark out. You reach out to take hold of your spouse. Your fingers intertwine, and it is difficult to tell where you stop and they begin. You love them so much. After a kiss and a cuddle, you get out of bed. You go to the bathroom and perform your morning toilette. When you are finished, you go to kitchen and help your spouse with breakfast for the kids.

They give you a hug when they see you. You hug back, and you never want to let go. They are getting so big now, and you do everything you can to be a good parent to them. You know they love you, but you also want to make sure they have the best life possible.

You work hard every single day to make that happen. Your boss is hard on you, but he’s a good guy, and you know you can rely on him when it counts. You trust all your coworkers with your life. You have to. There’s no other option in your line of work.

After some paperwork, you and your partner go out on patrol. You’ve lived in this neighborhood your entire life. Everything about it is great, the food, the sights, the people. There are a few bad elements, but it’s your job to stop them and keep everybody safe.

It’s mostly nickel and dime stuff today, citations and warnings. The grocery store reports a shoplifter. An older woman reports some kids loitering near her house. Your partner notices a man urinating on street while you’re driving past. That kind of thing.

As you are on your way back to the station, you notice a man walking alone on the sidewalk. It’s late, and it doesn’t look like this is his part of town. His head is held down, like he’s trying to hide his face from you. This is suspicious. Your partner says he recognizes him, that he fits the description of a mugger who has been plaguing the area for weeks. You pull up to him. Ask him what he is doing. He doesn’t give you a straight answer. You ask him for some identification. He refuses to give it to you. You don’t want to arrest this guy for nothing, but he’s not giving you much choice.

Suddenly, his hand moves towards a bulge in his pocket. It’s a gun. You know it’s a gun. You draw your weapon. You just want to scare him, show him that you’re serious, stop him from drawing on you. But is he even scared? Is that fear on his face or rage? How can you even tell? He’s bigger than you, and he is angry, and he probably has a gun. You do not know this person. You cannot imagine what is going through his mind. You have seen this scenario a million times before in movies and TV shows.

You might die.

You might die.

You might die.

The Omega Question is activated:

Who matters?

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Joseph Allen Hill

Joseph Allen Hill

Joseph Allen Hill is a Chicago-based writer and bon vivant. He has also spent time in Georgia and New Jersey. He has a marginally useful degree in Classics and enjoys making music in his spare time. He can be reached on Twitter @joehillofearth2.