Friday, June 28, 2019

To the Pain of Death by James Rumpel

An interplanetary comedian is selected by computer to fight a battle of great political import despite having the physical prowess of a banapple; by James Rumpel.

Shiver Trueorbit thought things were going well. This was the first time he had ever performed in an Abeberian club. An ever-growing layer of indigo haze floated near the ceiling, like rising dew on a spring morning. The lounge owner had told him that Abeberians expressed their laughter in two ways. The first was an ear-piercing squeal. The second was by releasing a dark blue gas. Shiver figured that either the audience was finding his routine to be humorous or the buffet was serving Borilian cabbage.

"And what's the idea with anti-gravity boots, if you're just floating around, you don't need boots. You know what I mean." Shiver paused to let the screeches reach a crescendo before continuing. In addition to entertaining the occupants of the half-filled lounge with his wit and repertoire, Shiver was also wowing them with juggling. He had discovered early in his performance that the Abeberians were amazed by juggling, which probably had something to do with that race having gnarled claws instead of hands. Always the showman, Shiver performed most of his act while simultaneously keeping three shot glasses in the air.

"Did you see the news that the Ogokrin ambassador got caught cheating on his wife. He should have known better than to try and go behind the back of a woman who literally has eyes in the back of her head." The human comic prepared to conclude his performance with a final flurry. He deftly tossed all three glasses behind his back and watched as they landed in his outstretched left hand, nestled one inside the other. As the final shot glass made a perfect landing, Shiver noticed a very serious looking human, in military garb, enter and stand stoically in the rear regions of the lounge. That man was clearly not the usual clientele of this joint.

Carelessly tossing the glasses offstage, Shiver took a quick bow. "Thank you, you have been a wonderful audience. And remember, on your way home, if an Aquarian offers to wash your windshield make sure he has a bucket. Good night." Shiver left the stage quickly, to a smattering of applause and clicking claws. The acrobat act, which was to follow, was already beginning to set up. Shiver didn't even bother to head backstage; he made his way directly to the bar. Unfortunately, he never reached the oasis of alcohol. His path was blocked by the military man he had spied earlier.

"Please, have a seat, Mr. Trueorbit," said the stern looking gentleman as he pulled out a chair from a nearby table.

"I'm sorry, sir. I don't fraternize with fans, at least, not male fans," said Shiver holding his hand up apologetically.

"Oh, believe me, I am not a fan. It is extremely important that you listen to what I have to say. Your government has need of your services."

"I'd be happy to put on a tour for the troops. How much do you pay?"

The man made no attempt to hide his scoff. "No one wants you to perform for the troops. You are needed for a much different, more important mission, a mission that will find you sufficiently compensated, very sufficiently."

That information spurred the comic's interest. Awkwardly swinging his leg over the back of the chair, a move he had hoped would look so much cooler than it actually did, Shiver took a seat. "I'm listening."

"Good. My name is General Uyrob LeGrant. Please listen, carefully, to the details."

The tale the general wove was intriguing. There had recently been a major dispute over a small planet in the Portoast system. That star system was an insignificant, three planet cluster near the border of Vormon territory. The Vormon were a predatory race that had, recently, been making trouble for the UMPA, United Merchandizing Planet Association.

The planet in question really had no significant value to either the UMPA or the Vormon. It was a line in the sand. In an attempt to settle the disagreement in a manner that would not spark an all-out war, both sides agreed to settle their differences using a traditional Vormon adjudication technique. Each side would choose three warriors and the dispute would be settled through "combat to the pain of death."

Shiver interrupted at this point. "That sounds pretty dramatic. Why couldn't they have simply said 'to the death?' Or, 'to the pain?' Or, 'to the mild annoyance?'" He watched the general for any sign of amusement. There was none, none whatsoever.

Trying a more serious approach to the conversation, Shiver asked. "Why would we agree to that? The Vormon are huge and great fighters."

"Ah, but we have a major advantage," answered the humorless general. "We have the ANALY 2000. This powerful computer can use analytics to calculate the odds of any situation. We simply asked the ANALY to find the three individuals among the populations of UMPA with the greatest probability of success in this endeavor. The ANALY is never wrong. It calculated that the three selected combatants have a 99.873% chance of success. Believe me, we like those odds."

"So," Shiver began, a confused look plastered on his face. "You want me to put the three fighters in a good mood before they face the Vormon?"

"No, you were one of the three individuals selected by the ANALY 2000."

Shiver's jaw dropped. After a couple of minutes, where the general just let him sit there, mouth agape, Shiver finally spoke again. "Those other two guys must be really good fighters."

"You will meet them soon enough. Are you ready to come with me and begin preparations? Remember, no matter what you or I think of your selection, we know you have nearly a 100% chance of success."

The human comedian considered his options. He was not a particularly large or healthy man. At the age of forty, he could safely say that he was past his physical prime, though Shiver doubted he ever had one. But the computer was, basically, guaranteeing success. He did want to discuss one more item. "You said something about me being generously compensated."

"Oh, yes," the general nodded and explained. "We are prepared to give all the combatants one-fourth of the value of the entire planet upon their successful completion of the encounter. It should come to around 5 million credits each."

Shiver's jaw dropped once again. He had to admit; this jaw drop was much more enjoyable than the previous one. "Sir, you have a deal."



A temporary base had been set up on the disputed planet. Shiver was the first of the trio to arrive. Once there, General LeGrant introduced him to Lieutenant Brokker, the official in charge of the ANALY 2000 interface. It was the young Lieutenant's job to communicate with the powerful computer. While waiting for the other combatants to arrive, LeGrant gave Shiver a quick tour of the planet he would be fighting for.

The planet was uninhabited, though it did feature an Earthlike atmosphere and ecosystem. LeGrant pointed out that there would be some exportable produce. One of these items was a fruit known as a banapple. Examining a specimen, Shiver noted it was crescent-shaped, like an Earth banana. The similarity stopped there, however. This fruit was deep crimson in color and, instead of having a peel, it had an edible skin similar to an apple. "Hence the name," Shiver quipped. "Are there any appnanas?"

To his surprise, LeGrant nodded in the affirmative. "Look at the other side of the tree."

The opposite side of the same tree was blanketed with a number of spherical, yellow fruits. Picking one, Shiver found that it was encased in a thick yellow peel. "This is crazy," said Shiver. "I'd even go so far as to say its bananas... and apples."



A second interplanetary ship arrived soon after. From the base entryway, Shiver watched a UMPA officer escort an alien down the ramp. He recognized the being as a Chronian.

The Chronians were not a physically intimidating species. This particular one stood about three and a half feet tall. The orange-skinned creature's legs made up about two-thirds of its height. A hairless, perfectly spherical, head made up most of the rest. On the very top of its head stood the alien's one parabolic shaped ear. It had a torso, but it was barely the size of a loaf of bread. Shiver noticed that this creature's tiny body was covered by a pink tunic. Apparently, this Chronian, like most of that planet's inhabitants, bought its clothing in the human infant department. At the ends of its legs and arms were vastly oversized feet and hands. To Shiver, his battle mate looked like some sort of bizarre marionette.

This alien was clearly not a fighter. That fact was made even more obvious as Shiver watched the officer lead the Chronian from the ship. The length of the incline they were descending was little more than 30 feet. After nearly three minutes the alien had not traversed the distance. When the Chronian moved, it moved at a reasonable pace. The problem was, the creature would suddenly stop in its tracks, standing motionless, for lengthy periods of time.

Shiver and the General reached the base of the ramp before the Chronian. The General began introductions. "Shiver Trueorbit, this is Boongo Pappapap from the planet Chronia."

Shiver nodded and extended his hand toward the diminutive alien. Boongo simply stared, motionless.

LeGrant continued, "Boongo is not being rude. You see, the Chronians are a race that sometimes leave the flow of time. When they are standing static, it means time has stopped for them and you simply have to wait for it to begin moving again. It is..."

"Hello," said Boongo, reaching his hand out to grasp Shiver's, which was no longer there.

Shiver also interrupted the general. "I actually am well aware of the Chronians. I did a comedy tour on Chronia a few years back. It did not go very well."

"Why is that?" asked LeGrant, feigning interest.

"Well, let's just say it had to do with the secret to good comedy. You know what that is don't you?"

Ignoring Shiver, the general continued. "We aren't quite certain why a Chronian is helpful to this mission. But, if ANALY says he is needed, he is needed. You can't argue with 99.873%.

"Well, I sure hope the final member is a better fighter than either of us," observed Shiver.

"Timing," answered Boongo.



The ship carrying the final member of the battle team arrived barely an hour before the competition was to take place. Shiver and Boongo stood with General LeGrant and watched as the vessel landed and unloaded its passengers. The door slid to the side and out stepped a mountain of a man. He was young, athletic, and broad-shouldered. The observers were also glad to note that this man wore the uniform of a UMPA officer.

"This is great," said Shiver. "Not only does that guy have muscles on top of muscles, but he's also a trained fighter. Now I see why the computer is so certain we will win."

"That is not the third combatant," the general informed him. "That is Colonel Fortess. He was the officer dispatched to retrieve your partner."

Fortess stepped aside, allowing the final member of the fighting triumvirate to exit the ship. As the combatant emerged, disappointment immediately took control of Shiver's face. Leaving the space ship and descending the ramp was a teenage human girl. Shiver guessed that she was barely old enough to be considered an adult. He didn't have to guess to know that she was not a fighter.

The young woman was not very tall. Even wearing stiletto heels and having a tall beehive of purple hair piled on top of her head, she was still more than a foot shorter than the accompanying Colonel. She was dressed as if she was prepared to spend a night clubbing; the dancing kind, not the fighting kind. She wore a tight-fitting silver dress covered by a short black sweater. She probably didn't know how to fight, but she sure could accessorize. From head to toe, the woman was covered with a myriad of rings, bracelets, and necklaces.

LeGrant broke the silence, "That is Maghi Kunkle, the final member of our team."

"Oh, come on. You have to be kidding me?" cried Shiver, unable to withhold his frustration.

"He is really big," added Boongo.

Shiver found himself grasping for any hope he could think of. "Please tell me that she has telekinetic powers or she is some kind of mutant with superhuman strength."

"Not that I know of," answered the UMPA leader. "But it's all okay. Remember, ANALY guarantees victory for the three of you." An acute observer would have noted that even LeGrant's tone indicated that he was starting to have a difficult time believing his company line.

Just then, Lieutenant Brokker, tentatively, approached and whispered something in the general's ear. "Excuse me, I need to go converse with the Lieutenant," said LeGrant, quickly taking his leave. "The two of you need to go down there and introduce yourself to Maghi. Also, the time of the combat is quickly approaching. You will each be allowed to use one primitive weapon. Colonel Fortess will show you the choices and help you pick them out."



Once Brokker and LeGrant were far enough away that he didn't have to worry about being overheard, the general addressed his Lieutenant in a muffled yell. "What do you mean we have a problem?"

"Well, you see," began Brokker, clearly distraught. "It appears that a mistake was made inputting the data into ANALY." He paused, taking a deep breath and glancing around for the closest escape route. "You see, when I typed the initial question into the computer, apparently, my fingers weren't exactly on the home row of the keyboard. Instead of asking for the three with the greatest 'chance in combat to the pain of death' the computer was asked for the three with the greatest 'change in comedy to the pail of dance'. Darn auto-correct."

"Change in comedy to the pail of dance?" repeated General LeGrant. "What does that even mean?"

"I don't know, sir, but those three would be really good at it."

Now it was the general's turn to take a deep breath. After pushing his anger back down into the deep dungeon of his psyche, he asked, "So, what does the ANALY 2000 calculate as this groups chances of winning the combat?"

"Well, we are not certain, sir," answered the soon to be private. "Every time we try to run that probability, the ANALY comes back with a floating decimal point error. We think that means the probability is too minuscule to calculate accurately."

"I guess it really doesn't matter. We were going to attack the Vormon whether we won or lost. Winning just would have given us more time. Hopefully, those three can hold on long enough for us to start mobilizing the troops," schemed the general. "I will go start the slaughter, I mean ceremony, and then initiate the attack directive. Maybe, if I convince those three that they are still supposed to win, they can survive for a sufficient amount of time to give us some advantage."

"Do you want me to start typing up the orders?" asked Brokker.

"What do you think, Mr. Pail of Dance?"



The combat was to take place on the top of a tall plateau. As the shuttle transporting the three combatants floated in for a landing, Shiver gazed out a window and surveyed the area that would soon serve as an arena. The plateau was not exceedingly large, maybe a quarter of a square mile in total. The terrain was mostly flat, though there were a few prominent rock formations. On one side, near the edge, stood a small copse of stunted banapple/appnana trees, their deep blue leaves splattered with red and yellow polka dots. Shiver also noticed that running from the fray was not going to be an option. The entire circumference of the plateau edged against a cliff. Anyone who tried to leave the top of the plateau without the aid of the shuttle was either going to have to be an expert at rapelling or fall at least one hundred feet.

Once the UMPA shuttle had landed, LeGrant gave the three representatives a laconic pep talk. "Okay, we all know you are going to win. ANALY told us as much. Remember though, that we don't know what actions you need to take to gain the victory. Do whatever you feel you must. Trust your instincts."

"You better get me home by midnight," proclaimed Maghi. For the first time since introductions at the base, Shiver realized how annoying her nasal voice sounded. The irritation was made even more excruciating by the sound of her popping chewing gum. She continued, "I have a date with a minor league rollercube player."

"Don't worry. You'll be done well before then," answered LeGrant. To Shiver that statement sounded either ominous or sarcastic, he wasn't quite certain which.

"Remember the information about the Volmon. Their reptilian scales make them all but impervious to those weapons you carry. The only parts of their body that are not naturally shielded are their mouth, eyes and a small area in their lower abdomen. They may not be particularly fast, but they are immensely strong and have great endurance. If you need to stall for time, running away from them is a very good option. They will catch you, eventually, but it will a while for them to do so. Representatives of both sides will return to collect you... their bodies at the end. Now, go do your best and remember, we are all winners just for trying."

With that the general escorted them onto the battlefield. Shiver placed a dagger, the weapon he had selected, in his belt behind his back. He had chosen the dagger over other, more intimidating weapons because it was light and easily thrown. He figured the one positive attribute he possessed was manual dexterity. A dagger would allow him to play to his strength and at the same time allow him to remain at a distance from the much stronger Volmon. He was proud of his choice of weapon and the reasoning behind it. He was not so overjoyed with his teammate's selections. Maghi had picked a short spear because it matched her dress. Boongo hadn't chosen a weapon at all, having run out of time.

As they walked, three abreast, behind the general, Shiver spotted the opposition walking in a similar formation behind their leader. The Volmon were even more frightening than he had imagined. Standing nearly seven feet tall, the creatures were covered with thick green scales. Even with scaly exoskeletons, Shiver could see muscles rippling in their arms and legs as they marched in perfect precision. They wore no clothing except for a loincloth, the flap of which, was made of metal and strategically covered their soft lower abdomen.

Each of the alien fighters carried a large weapon. The one directly across from Shiver had a battle ax that was easily taller than Shiver himself. Another carried a thick chain with two barbed metal spheres attached. The third twirled a broadsword nimbly in his enormous hands. Behind each Volmon dragged a thick, barbed tail. Powerful bodies and brutal weaponry were not the most intimidating features they possessed. Their faces, with their black, beady eyes and wide fang-filled mouths, were the kind of ugly that would not only give any child bad dreams, but also give nightmares to that child's teddy bear.

The two opposing forces met in the center of the plateau. First, the Volmon stopped, standing straight and tall. Then the UMPA representatives stopped at a distance of ten feet. Nearly two minutes later, Boongo arrived and took his position behind General LeGrant. The two leaders advanced and exchanged some ritualistic dialogue. They concluded by sharing each side's traditional means of sealing a deal. First, they shook hands. Next, they tapped tails. The latter was rather uncomfortable for General LeGrant.

The two leaders then returned to their respective shuttles and departed. The two sets of combatants were now alone on the plateau. They stared at each other for a brief moment. The combat to the pain of death was about to begin.

The Volmon standing opposite Shiver stepped forward, teeth flashing in what was either an awkward smile or a terrifying sneer. As he approached the human, he reached out with his right hand. "Let me wish you luck," he said, his words slurred slightly.

Shiver shrugged and also reached out his right hand. "Well, I wa..."

Just as Shiver began to return the greeting, the Volmon swung the battle ax with its left hand. The flat part of the blade caught Shiver squarely in the face, sending him sprawling to the ground, fifteen feet from where he had been standing. As he lay on the ground, little sparks of white light flickered before his eyes. "He could have chopped my head off," thought Shiver. "He's just playing with me."

Maghi dropped her spear and started running, kicking off her shoes as she did so. The closest Volman reached out to grab her. With a six-inch heel bouncing off his face, the creature's reactions were just a split second too slow. It did manage to grab her sweater and pull it off of her as she retreated, screaming.

"This creature is molting," the Volmon said. "Maybe it is transforming into a more challenging adversary."

The one who had cold-cocked Shiver replied, "No, that is their clothing, you fool. Now go get it."

"Look out, Shiver," yelled Boongo. Then he froze, once again.

Having mostly shaken off the initial blow, Shiver was now standing, unsteadily. He began to retreat as the battle ax-wielding Volmon moved towards him. The smile or sneer was even larger than earlier.

"Now, can't we come to some kind of arrangement?" asked Shiver as he continued to back away. "I have connections. Do you like acrobats? I mean to watch, not to eat. I can get you front row seats at a very popular Abeberian club. There is usually a two-drink minimum, but I bet I could get it waived." Shiver felt his back bump up against a fruit tree. This meant he was running out of space and time. It also gave him an idea. Grabbing a handful of banapples and appnanas, he began juggling.



Meanwhile, Maghi had found a rather large pile of rocks and boulders. There was a tiny opening at the bottom which she managed to crawl into. The passage narrowed the further in she crawled, but, driven by fear, she was amazed at how small of gap she could fit into. The pursuing Volmon dropped its broadsword and followed her into the tiny tunnel. It managed to get its body about halfway into the crevice when it realized it could go no further. Stretching out its arm, the Volmon grabbed a hold of Maghi's ankle. The mighty creature pulled, hoping to drag its prey back out of the boulders. All it managed to do, however, was remove one of Maghi's ankle bracelets: a very expensive silver trinket with emeralds mounted around its circumference.

The Volmon recoiled out of surprise, bumping the rocks above. It was now truly convinced that this creature was morphing into something else. Why else would it be shedding its scales? The ANALY would later calculate that the slight shifting of the rocks caused by the Volmon's movement had a .00021% chance of causing the boulders in the formation to collapse. They did. The rocks on that side of the formation slid downward, falling in upon each other. The unfortunate Volmon was crushed beneath the enormous weight.

Maghi felt sand and rock hitting her legs as she slithered out of the far side of the formation. Fortunately, the tunnel had passed all the way through the rock pile. She stood and dusted herself off. As she brushed a curl of lavender bang from her eyes she said, to no one in particular, "Great, now I'm going to have to get my hair done again."



As all of that was happening, the final Volmon was simply staring at a motionless Boongo. Eventually, it shrugged its shoulders and started to swing the flail it held. Lunging forward, the alien warrior brought the weapon over its head and prepared to smash it down on the diminutive Chronian. At that precise moment, a .00072% probability, Boongo knelt down and picked up the spear. "Maghi, you dropped this," he said as he lifted the spear.

The tip of the spear came just below the metal loincloth of the charging Volman and into the soft underbelly of the creature, piercing one or two vital organs. Impaled, the Volman stopped in its tracks. The weapon, propelled by the initial thrust, flew from its hands and over the top of Boonga's head. Boonga ducked and then went motionless as the body of the Volman fell to the side.



Shiver continued talking as he juggled. The Volmon was slowly, menacingly, moving toward him, battle ax swinging like a pendulum. When it reached a distance of about ten feet, Shiver tossed one of the banapples in its direction. The creature caught the projectile easily. It examined the fruit for a second and then popped it, whole, into his mouth.

"You know, I like you human," laughed the Volmon. "When this is done, I am going to have you stuffed and put in my living room."

Still juggling, Shiver tossed another fruit towards the Volmon. This time the mighty creature simply caught the appnana with its mouth.

"I can do fancy juggling too," called out Shiver. He started flipping the fruit behind his back as he juggled. After a couple of behind the back tosses, he threw another fruit at his advisory. The Volmon, once again, easily caught the fruit with its mouth.

The alien fighter screamed in agony. Shiver's dagger was embedded in its tongue. Consumed by blind rage, the Volmon heaved its battle ax at the human. Shiver heard a subtle whistle as it flitted past his ear and impacted the fruit tree behind him. Assorted fruit shook from the branches, escaping the tree's grip and littering the ground. The weapon ricocheted off the tree and disappeared over the edge of the cliff.

The angry monster did not need a weapon. It was going to crush the heinous human with its bare hands. There was no place for Shiver to evade the charging beast. The tree was the last barrier between him and a lethal fall. This was it; Shiver braced for the imminent impact.

As the enraged Volmon reached its quarry, its final step landed squarely on an appnana. Slipping on the peel, the creature staggered awkwardly, then fell, glancing off Shiver before careening off the edge of the plateau. Shiver was barely able to grab a hold of a low-lying branch to keep himself from also being hurled off the cliff. As he looked down, he watched the Volmon hit the ground with a resounding thud. The fall alone probably would have killed the creature. The fact that it landed directly on the battle ax's blade assured its death. Probability of that happening: .0008%.



Back at the base, General LeGrant addressed the victorious trio. He had heard of their triumph mere moments before ordering the raid on the Volmon planet. He found himself a tiny bit disappointed at having to postpone the attack, but he knew he'd get his chance very soon. The general was overjoyed at the prospect of having control of the planet. UMPA was going to make a fortune selling combo-fruits. He hadn't even shown Shiver the kipayas.

"As we promised, each of you will receive credits equal to one fourth the assessed value of the planet, minus taxes. You have done your government a huge service. I want to personally thank you. We will now provide each of you a transport to whatever planet you wish to be taken to. Private Brokker also has something he would like to say to you."

Brokker sheepishly moved forward to address the group. "I have another proposition to make. I have been doing some data analysis with ANALY and I believe the three of you, together, possess some sort of magical probability altering ability. There is an 87.173% chance that, as a team, the three of you could do a great service to UMPA. You could play the role of interplanetary troubleshooters. I, returning to my original rank or higher, would be your handler. We could travel the galaxy as a team of super-heroes, righting wrongs and defending the weak. Doesn't that sound like a great idea?"

Maghi shook her head vehemently. "Are you crazy? All I want to do is go home... although, I am curious if that hunk Colonel Fortess could be in charge of accompanying me on my flight. I would like to get to know him better."

Shiver declined even more violently. "Absolutely not. You want to figure out a probability, try figuring the probability of you being able to remove that stupid computer from your backside if you ever quote me another one of those idiotic percentages. Now take me home."

After a moment of awkward silence, the group disbanded and everyone went their separate ways. Well, almost everyone.

Boonga stood on the empty landing deck, motionless.

2 comments:

  1. This made my day...funniest story I've read in a long time. Thanks James!

    ReplyDelete