Jerry Swerdlow Saves the World by Lee Gruenfeld *
Seven men and four women sat in stony silence as Stuart Klonski made his pitch.They always sat in stony silence, because it was intimidating. If you didn’t believe in your idea enough to strut it proudly in front of recalcitrant supervisors, you had no business pushing it at all. If it was a good idea, and you just happened to have a shy and retiring personality, you were shit out of luck because you’d wither like a discarded peach in front of these guys. “It’s a diagnostic system,” Klonski was saying, mustering up as much self-confidence as he could reasonably fake without it being obvious. “For refrigerators.” “Ghrpfnk,” snorted Esther Pineal, loud enough so Klonski could hear her but not loud enough so anyone could actually call her on it. It might have been simply the clearing of normal nocturnal mucosal detritus, this being early in the morning. Klonski hesitated only briefly. “Way it’s designed, there’s nothing could go wrong with a modern refrigerator that it wouldn’t catch even before Suzy Homemaker knew it was happening.” Fred "Fuzzy" Fitzweiler, chairman of the board, looked around quickly to see which of the females present would take umbrage at the blatantly sexist epithet, and was pleased to see no reaction of any kind. After all, several million Suzy Homemakers paid the overly-inflated salaries of everybody in this room, and they all had a pretty solid notion of which side of their cracker the caviar was on. Here at Cottage Grove American Home Industries, a seven- billion dollar manufacturer that specialized in using spin-offs from its nuclear weapons operation to keep its consumer products division awash in useful tools for the modern home, the only regret was that they hadn’t dreamed up ring around the collar or don’t squeeze the toilet paper before the competition had. “Say, for example, the water supply to the ice-maker gets cut off somehow — ” “How?” asked a voice from a distant corner of the conference table. “How?” Klonski echoed. The voice from the back stayed silent; surely Klonski understood How? “Well, uh, the pipe gets blocked, say, or water pressure throughout the whole house drops…” “So you figure, what: there’s no water in the house and the first thing everybody’s gonna get excited about is they got no ice?” “Swerdlow,” Fitzweiler intervened smoothly, “let’s get the whole big picture here, the entire conceptual framework, before we start zeroing in on the fine details, eh?” Jerry Swerdlow shrugged his reluctant acquiescence but Fitzweiler had already motioned for Klonski to go on. Esther Pineal, who autonomically embraced whatever Jerry Swerdlow rejected, smiled and sat forward, nodding encouragingly at Klonski who, thus emboldened, proceeded. “A fan blows in the freezer, a capacitance monitoring circuit signals instantly. Maybe the bulb blows…no problem: the diagnostic center checks for filament resistance every thirty seconds and lights up if the bulb burns out!” “So you put juice through a cold bulb twice a minute; you figure maybe that’s gonna have a beneficial effect on its life — ” “Swerdlow!” admonished Vinny Gilhooley of the light bulb division. “Give the man a chance, whaddya say?” “Whole thing’s got battery backup,” Klonski persisted in some agitation. “Main power goes, no problem. Diagnostic center keeps on running!” “What’s it gonna check on, there’s no power going to the ‘fridge!” Swerdlow demanded. “I like it!” said Tiffany Amber Rosenzweig from marketing. “Greatest leap in domestic technology since the microwaveable ice cream sun— “ “Me too!” cried Amos Finnegan, manufacturing, reaching for the prototype sitting in front of Klonski. He picked it up in his hands and turned it over a few times. “Get this down to a single integrated circuit, couple cheap LED’s for lights…” He looked up at Fitzweiler. “Knock ’em out for under a buck a unit.” “We gonna include batteries?” asked Maria Gonzuaga, package design. “You nuts?” replied Bill Sell’em-their-own-desk Wusterman, VP of sales. “What, a guy buys a new refrigerator, he can’t afford two double A’s from Radio Shack?” “Hey!” protested Garrison Thistlewaithe, battery division. “Sorry, This,” Wusterman said. “You know what I mean.” Fitzweiler was all smiles and fingers thumping excitedly on the table, but there was also a hint of pained reluctance about him. “Research?” he finally managed to inquire, weakly. Jerry Swerdlow, who had remained quiet as ordered during the remainder of Klonski’s presentation, sniffled and thumbed his lip for a few seconds. “Klonski,” he said at last, shifting in his seat and putting his elbows on the table, “lemme ask you something.” “Shoot!” said Klonski amiably, ready for anything now. Several in the room winced at his unfortunate choice of words regarding a pending inquiry from Research. Swerdlow nodded. “When’s the last time you saw a refrigerator go on the fritz?” Klonski raised his eyebrows slightly. “You mean me, personally?” “Yeah, you.” Klonski scrunched up his face in thought, anxious to convey that he considered all potential negatives carefully, like the truly objective professional he was. “You mean, a refrigerator of my own, or…” “I mean, when’s the last time you ever saw anything ever go bad on any refrigerator, ever, no matter whose it was.” “Ah.” Klonski nodded vigorously, communicating his clear grasp of the question. He kept on nodding until he said, “Can’t think of one, offhand.” “You couldn’t think of one, you stood on your head ‘til next Tuesday.” Swerdlow looked around. “Refrigerators, they’re like telephones used to be, before de-reg fucked ‘em up. ‘Fridge runs fifty years, nothing ever goes wrong.” “What about the bulbs?” Esther Pineal asked. “What about the bulbs!” Swerdlow shot back. “You open the door, it’s dark, the bulb is burned out!” “But you get no advanced warning!” insisted Rosenzweig. “With the diagnostic system, you know in advance it’s going to be dark in there!” Swerdlow blinked at her several times, but before he could think of an appropriate way to phrase a response to her inanity, Fitzweiler jumped in. “Rosenzweig, how much can we bump the price, we stick this thing in a unit?” Rosenzweig tilted her head to one side. “Fancy lights, little glowing labels…” “Might could add four bits to the production cost,” Finnegan warned. Rosenzweig absorbed this intelligence, then announced, “Hunnerd bucks, we advertise it right.” An enormous smile began to form on Fitzweiler’s face, but Gilhooley cut it off. “Wait a minute.” He turned to Klonski. “What happens, the diagnostic center itself goes poop?” “Huh?” Klonski replied, buying time to think. “Yeah,” Finnegan said, frowning. “Then what? We build in a self- monitoring device, that’s gonna bump the cost.” Rosenzweig slumped back on her seat, dejection deeply etched in her features. Fitzweiler exhaled loudly and glared at Klonski. Similar reactions befell most of the others. “The hell difference does it make?” Jerry Swerdlow asked of no one in particular. Gilhooley looked at him, then at the others, who were similarly looking around the conference table. Fitzweiler, suddenly alert, nudged his chin toward Swerdlow, urging him to elaborate. “I said, what difference does it make?” Seeing a decided lack of comprehension on the faces of his colleagues, he went on. “I told you: nothing ever goes wrong with a ‘fridge. So if the diagnostic center goes kerblooey, who’s gonna know?” Fitzweiler sat with his jaw hanging open, sensing but not seeing a renewal of the elation that had earlier enveloped the room. He had to struggle to suppress tears from springing up in his eyes: a righteous pain in the ass, that Swerdlow, but worth every cent he paid him, which was twice what he paid the next highest salaried person in the room, excluding himself, of course. “Fucking brilliant,” Thistlewaithe said quietly, shaking his head in admiration. Swerdlow looked up at the ceiling and rolled his eyes. “We done here?”
They didn’t come suddenly, or without warning. First indications were via interference on radio telescopes aimed at that particular part of the sky, and were quickly confirmed by ground based radar all over the northern hemisphere. That’s pretty much what got people excited in the first place, that the invaders were so self-confident they made no effort to conceal themselves. There were fifty-two ships in all. They’d started out as fifty-three, one of them, the advance scout, having burned up spectacularly somewhere over Angmakssalik, Greenland. A flurry of intense ionic emissions followed, apparently frantic attempts by the main body to brake their momentum prior to entering the atmosphere. There was a brief glow as the first ship behind the scout struck the ionosphere, but it faded out as the vessel skipped back off into space, having come in at too shallow an angle. Reversing direction and applying ion thrust, it came in slowly on its second pass and joined the rest of the ships as they settled into the thicker air and took up positions around the globe. The usual arguments raged below as to whether these were friendlies or hostiles, a rancorous debate that was ended quickly upon the fiery disappearance of Cosmoledo Island off the northern coast of Madagascar following its illumination by a bluish-green beam emanating from one of the larger ships in the hovering fleet. Upon the brief diminution, owing to the shock of the catastrophe, of the frenetic radio and television waves that had been zipping around the planet earth, a broadcast was sent down from a different ship that popped up, audio only, on radios that happened to be tuned to 92.3 FM or 940 AM, and televisions playing Channel 9. The video signal was left alone, so that it took people watching reruns of Petticoat Junction a few moments to realize that the soundtrack didn’t match the visual action. “People of this planet, we demand your immediate surrender. Our civilization is ten thousand of your years older than yours, and your punny technology is no match for our superior weaponry, as the destruction of that small highland amply remonstrated. There is no escape. You must surrender. You have one earth day.”
Secretary of the Interior Patricia Levine said, “This is really terrible English.” She looked up from a transcript of the alien broadcast. “Punny?” She glanced around the table. “Meant puny, didn’t they? And remonstrated, well…” “It’s an invasion, Patricia, not a goddamned spelling bee.” President of the United States Johns Pickford drummed his fingers impatiently, waiting for some response from the rest of his Cabinet. “Was it the same in all the other languages?” asked Allen Chesterson, Commerce. “There was only the one, Al.” Timothy McElwain, Secretary of Defense sat forward, anxious to contribute. “Just the one broadcast, same for everybody.” “What makes ‘em think everybody on this planet speaks English?” mused Quentin Fine, the president’s chief of staff. “That’s how brilliant they are, see?” answered McElwain. “They figured out that English is the lingua franca of the whole planet. Why waste time, when there’s people all over the place speak English and can translate for the foreigners?” “They’re not foreigners where they live, Timothy,” Joseph Canseco, Transportation, shot back huffily. “You all gonna sit around bullshitting much longer, or should I just go surrender right now?” “How would you do that, Mr. President?” asked Levine. President Pickford looked at her queerly. “I didn’t really mean it, Patricia.” “No, what I’m saying, suppose you did. How would you go about it?” “I don’t get it,” Fine said, picking up on the president’s annoyance and adopting it as his own. “Wait, I see what she means,” McElwain jumped in. “They didn’t tell us how to signal surrender. If we gave up, how do we let ‘em know?” “What the hell difference does it make!” Pickford thundered. “We’re not giving up!” He looked around at the averted eyes surrounding the table. “Are we?” he ventured timidly. “We don’t even know what it means to give up,” Canseco put forth. “What happens?” “Obviously, they don’t annihilate us,” said Chesterson. “They wanted to do that, the hell’s the sense of waiting for us to surrender?” “Good point,” agreed Marguerita Toomey, HUD. “So what do they want: make us all slaves?” “We don’t even know they want to stay here,” said Jason Fullerton, attorney general. “Maybe we’re supposed to give ‘em something.” “Like what?” asked Chesterson. “How the hell should I know? Maybe some natural resource they don’t have on their own planet.” “What if it’s water?” asked Levine. “All our fresh water? What then?” “Might as well kill us all, they take our fresh water,” said Toomey sadly. “Not water,” McElwain assured her. “How they gonna carry that much water? You know how much water weighs?” “You saw their technology,” Canseco countered. “They took out an entire island!” “Not much of an island,” Chesterson mused out loud. “How do we know that’s the biggest they could’a done?” McElwain shaped his question as a challenge: How big a chance you wanna take? “Why don’t we just ask ‘em,” Toomey proposed. McElwain chuckled as he sat back, and several of the others joined in his condescension as Toomey’s face turned red. “The hell’s so funny?” she insisted. “Can’t we negotiate? What’s wrong with that?” A low, soft rumble rolled through the room. When it had passed, the people around the table looked at each other, none needing to voice their concern over what it might have been. Someone knocked at the door, and it opened to reveal the president’s private secretary. “Message for Secretary McElwain,” she said apologetically, and Pickford made a waving motion. Behind her, a uniformed aide rushed in and handed a pink While-You- Were-Out message slip to McElwain, who read it and nodded at the aide, who forgot that the Secretary of Defense was a civilian and saluted smartly before he departed. McElwain shook his head and read the message again, shaking his head in dismay until Pickford said, “Oh, for Chrissakes, Timmy: you gonna tell us what’s so important they hadda interrupt a Cabinet meeting?” “Macquarie,” McElwain intoned dramatically, then paused. Pickford looked like he was about to wring the Secretary’s neck. “What,” he hissed through gritted teeth, “is Macquarie?” “You might better ask,” McElwain replied, “what was Macquarie.” “It’s an island between New Zealand and Antarctica,” Levine said. “What, they pop that one, too?” McElwain nodded, and shot Toomey an angry look. “So much for negotiating, Madame Secretary.” Like it was her own personal fault Macquarie got vaporized. Before Toomey could react, Pickford cut her off. “Well, that’s it, then. We gotta hit back. What’ve we got we can fight with, Tim?” McElwain forgot his theatrics as he looked at Pickford in genuine shock. “Are you serious, Mr. President? You heard those guys, saw what they can do…!” He looked around the room desperately and came half out of his seat. “Ten thousand years more advanced than us! I’m prepared to fight Cubans and Africans, not aliens!” McElwain fought for control and settled back down. “Maybe if you’d’a approved my budget request…” “Conventional weaponry isn’t going to do it,” Chief of Staff Fine offered. “What about nukes?” Chesterson asked. “They’re all sitting in landfills,” McElwain sneered derisively. “Disarmament, see? Left us high and dry in our moment of crisis.” “What good would they do anyway?” Pickford said, ignoring the sarcasm. “You saw what they can do.” McElwain shrugged. “Big deal. We got rid a couple islands in the fifties with the big H.” Patricia Levine got up and stepped over to the window, looking upward at one of the ships hovering some miles above. At this distance she couldn’t make out the singes and obvious scars on the hull that had shown up in telephoto shots made by NASA. “Seems to me those boys have seen some action.” “Technology or not,” Jason Fullerton said, “they’re not indestructible. They can still burn. Didn’t one of ‘em go up in smoke on the way in?” “True,” Pickford agreed, stroking his chin. “But what do we do about it?” “Okay, here’s the deal,” McElwain began, suddenly animated. “First we need to make a careful assessment of the situation, make sure we know all the — ” “We got fifty-two alien ships are gonna vaporize us in sixteen hours, we don’t either do what they want or destroy ‘em,” said Patricia Levine. “There’s your sit-rep. Now what?” McElwain, scowling, shriveled a little and clammed up. “Private sector,” Canseco said. “Say what?” Pickford asked. “Corporate America, Mr. President. Give ‘em a challenge — ” “…and enough money…” Chesterson of Commerce added, quickly comprehending the transportation secretary’s drift. “And enough money,” Canseco agreed, “they’ll figure out a way. They always do.” “Which company?” Toomey asked. Pickford grinned as he nodded his understanding. “All of ‘em,” he answered.
They’d started two hours ago with glee in their hearts and anticipation in their corporate bank account. A no-bid, cost-plus, heavy bonus and open equipment procurement contract from the US government. Sure, it was all or nothing — produce and get it all, fail and get nothing, or even die at the hands of the invaders — and sure, all their competitors had the same deal, but after all this was Cottage Grove American Home Industries, recipient of the Home Appliance Innovator of the Year Award (known affectionately as the “Oster”) for their groundbreaking Model 470 side-by-side frost-free with the exclusive Sans Souci diagnostic center display. What problem couldn’t they solve? But they’d been at it for two hours, and hadn’t a clue as to how to go about defeating the aliens. “They’re showing it again,” Finnegan said, pointing at the television playing mutely on the side wall. Several hours earlier, CNN had reported that two dozen aliens had descended in a small transport from one of the ships hovering twenty miles above the town of Busanga in southern Zaire. Shaky home video shot by a wildlife researcher from nearby Kolwezi showed the beat-up little craft, about the size of a bloated DC-9 without wings, descending in a choking cloud of dust and loose twigs, dents and charred areas clearly evident on its dull surface. Some beings about five feet tall scurried out, so heavily clad in thickly layered spacesuits that there was little to suggest their physiognomy other than that they were bi-pedal, had at least two arms each, and a head thrusting out of what would have been their chests had they been human. They’d seen it half a dozen times already, the talent gathered in the Cottage Grove American Home Industries board room. How the aliens, holding cylindrical objects looking vaguely like cheerleading megaphones, had stormed a dilapidated hardware store, gathering up an odd assortment of goods, including brass curtain rod hangers, blank keys, trowels, cans of spray paint, hacksaw blades, funnels, metal toilet paper holders and faucets until a slightly larger one of their crew had lumbered out of the ship, grabbed the nearest marauder and smacked him across what looked like a shoulder, sending him sprawling to the floor and causing the others to freeze in their tracks. From somewhere in the crowd of human onlookers came a giggle, and the new crew member turned toward the sound, aimed his megaphone and made some small movement with what was probably a hand. A thin, bluish- green ray of light shot out of the device, spreading as it hit the crowd and causing the eight or so people in its way to explode in a hail of charcoal that soon lay smoldering at the feet of those remaining unharmed. The point of view of the videocamera then shifted toward the ground, as though whoever had been using it had lost interest in continuing the documentary while running away. “Anybody got any other ideas?” Fitzweiler ventured. “You realize what this means,” said Gilhooley of the light bulb division. “Shit.” Chairman of the Board Fitzweiler was too savvy a businessman not to recognize when no alternatives were available. He swiveled around to the credenza behind him, and punched a button on his intercom. “Get Swerdlow in here!” he growled at his secretary.
Jerry Swerdlow quietly reviewed the photos arrayed across the conference table. When the protracted silence grew uncomfortable, Esther Pineal said, “Nobody seems to know what those tiny bits of silver are.” She pointed to a telescopic photo of the hull of one of the smaller ships. Tiffany Amber Rosenzweig said, “Thinking is, it’s some kind of ion recovery mechanism, to reduce power losses as they travel across — ” “Or short-range communication antennae,” Amos Finnegan said, “so they can talk to each other without being over — ” “It’s duct tape,” said Jerry Swerdlow, not otherwise interrupting the flow of his examination of the pictures. Garrison Thistlewaithe, slack-jawed, turned to Finnegan. “Whud he say?” “Thought he said duct tape,” Finnegan answered. “’S’what is sounded like to me,” Thistlewaithe agreed. “Fuzzy?” Fitzweiler frowned. “What was that, Swerdlow?” The head of Research looked up at the chairman. “Duct tape.” Pineal drew her head back, as though reluctant even to breathe the same air as Jerry Swerdlow. “On a spaceship?” “Why not?” Swerdlow answered. “Long as you don’t go through somebody’s atmosphere too fast, it oughta work pretty good.” “You gotta be kidding me,” Finnegan said. “Good enough for a 747, why not a spaceship?” “747, my pink behind,” Rosenzweig snorted. “Next time you climb aboard one,” Swerdlow said evenly, “especially an old one, take a close look at the leading edge of the wing.” He smiled mean-spiritedly as Rosenzweig, head of marketing and proud holder of platinum status in several frequent flyer clubs, blanched. The amateur videotape was being played on CNN yet again. Swerdlow muttered something to himself as they watched. “Whuwazzat?” Finnegan asked him. “Ten thousand years,” Swerdlow repeated, echoing the aliens’ declaration of how much more advanced their culture was than our own. “How’re we supposed to go up against that?” Thistlewaithe asked, mostly to himself. Swerdlow cocked his head to one side as he watched the scene unfold on the television. “Get me one’a those,” he said, pointing to the screen. “One’a what?” Fitzweiler asked. “One’a those megaphone thingies,” Swerdlow answered. “How we s’ppoza to do that, Swerdlow?” Finnegan said acidly. Swerdlow turned to him for the first time during the meeting. “No idea,” he said, as though surprised someone should even ask him such a question. Then he addressed himself to Fitzweiler. “Just get me one,” he repeated, and walked out of the room.
The megaphone lay on a worktable in the Research department. Smoke drifted up from the badly-gnawed cigar sticking out the mouth of full- bird colonel Rock "Thumper" Mulgrew, who squinted icily at Jerry Swerdlow. “Fifty good men,” he said around his cigar for the third time. “Damned good men, y’hear what I’m sayin’?” “How could I not hear you, you said it three times already,” Swerdlow answered, not taking his eyes off the ray gun. “Well they were!” Mulgrew shouted, the air before him filling with flayed bits of tobacco that shot from his mouth as he spoke. “Ever’ goddamned one of ‘em!” “I’ve no doubt,” Swerdlow said as he stepped forward and reached a hand out toward the megaphone. Mulgrew grabbed his wrist. “You figure this thing was worth it, Swedlow?” The researcher sighed. “Swerdlow,” he said in exasperation. “Whatever.” Mulgrew let go of his wrist — reluctantly, it seemed — and bent forward, turning his head to look up into Swerdlow’s eyes. “You think about them men, Swedlow. You think about them dying for this thing you said you needed so badly.” With one last murderous glance at the people standing around the worktable, Mulgrew retreated and took up a position at a nearby computer workstation, rocking his M-16 idly back and forth. Fitzweiler sidled up to Swerdlow and whispered, “Was it, Swerdlow?” “Was it what?” “Was it worth all those men?” “Won’t know ‘til we’ve had a look, will we?” And with that, he set to work. Thirty minutes later he had it apart, and laid his tools down, placing his hands on the table and leaning his weight on them as he contemplated the inner workings of the device. “Well, what is it?” Mulgrew said as he picked up his weapon and came forward. “It’s a piece of shit, is what it is,” Swerdlow answered. “The hell is that supposed t’mean?” Mulgrew demanded. “Just what it says. I mean, look at this thing: bad insulation, shoddy workmanship…” “Ain’t gonna get no Oster, that’s a big fer sure,” Finnegan said, grinning, then thought better of it as his lame attempt at humor fell flat. “Yeah, well this piece’a shit killed fifty’a my men,” Mulgrew growled. “You seen what it can do. On television…” Swerdlow nodded. “Yeah. But it oughta be able to do a whole lot more.” “You got an idea, Jerry?’ Fitzweiler asked hopefully. “Oh yeah,” Swerdlow answered, smiling for the first time in anybody’s memory. He looked up, as though seeing through the ceiling. “Ten thousand years,” he said to himself, shaking his head.
“We gotta get ’em down lower,” said General Stirling. “Whaddya mean, lower?” asked Amos Finnegan. “They’re up at a hunnerd thousand feet. Can’t hit nothin’ up that high.” “Shit.” Chairman of the Board Fuzzy Fitzweiler saw a cool hundred million go flying out the window. “Damned right, shit,” Stirling said. “Whaddya think, we contracted for some half-ass solution? We want the whole package!” Dejection filled the room. “Ground all the planes,” said Jerry Swerdlow. “Come again? What planes? Whaddya mean, all?” “All the planes in the world.” Swerdlow looked at his watch. “Every damned one of ‘em.” He looked at Stirling. “Now.” Stirling got on the phone and spent ten precious minutes blabbering to a host of officials, then put his hand over the mouthpiece. “What about commercial flights out over the ocean?” “Shoot ‘em down.” “With what?” “Military fighters.” “Then what about the fighters?” “Tell ‘em to ditch.” Stirling gave the order, then hung up. “Now what?” “We wait for them to contact us.”
The phone rang, and General Stirling picked it up. He listened, then held the handset to his chest. “They just called the president.” Swerdlow nodded. “Tell him to give ‘em this number and hang up.” A minute later the phone rang, and Swerdlow picked it up. Stirling hit the speakerphone button. “Swerdlow.” “Why have all your aeroplanes gone from the atmosphere?” “Are you kidding?” “No, I am Zortron. What happened to the aeroplanes?” “Why, the chronosynclastic infidibulum, of course!” Swerdlow said, incredulity lacing his voice. They heard muffled but excited chattering over the speakerphone, then Zortron came back on. “What is the chrono-, the chrono-” Swerdlow laughed into the phone as loudly as he could. “Stay above three thousand feet for another ten minutes,” he said, “and you’ll find out!” Then he slammed down the phone and stood up, walking toward the window. Eight minutes later he looked at his watch, then looked back out the window and nodded approvingly. The others gathered around to see the two ships visible from this location suddenly grow large in their vision as they descended rapidly. Swerdlow shook his head, and snorted contemptuously. “Get started, General,” he said. Stirling leapt for the phone and a few seconds later was busy shouting orders as fast as he could. Swerdlow looked back out the window at the two ships coming into view. “Assholes,” he said, and went to get a cup of coffee.
Three thousand feet above the sleepy Uruguayan town of Parada Liebigs just outside of Mercedes, Lt. Cmdr. Jesus Chi-Chi los Panados armed the missiles slung beneath the wings of his F-16 Fighting Falcon and crossed himself three times. Sweat creased his upper lip as the great alien ship hove into view, and panic seized his heart as it began to slowly swing around, a hatch beginning to open in its hull. A few seconds later, the hatch was within four degrees of facing him head on, and he noted his distance on the heads-up display — 15,000 feet — and his closing speed — Mach 1.4. The ship seemed to fill his entire field of vision as it stopped rotating and the hatch was fully opened, the barrel of something like a giant cannon aiming right at him. His weapons console chirped and bleeped as the display flickered, trying to get a fix on the exact spot he’d been briefed to target, but it hadn’t locked in just yet. His gaze flew back and forth between the display and the opening hatch — still no lock — and then he saw a brief flash of light from somewhere behind the cannon. Cursing loudly, and still with no lock on the target, he slammed his hand down on the stick-mounted trigger anyway, and both Sidewinder missiles ignited and dropped from beneath his wings, the effluent from their engines momentarily blinding him. As the smoke cleared, he could see both weapons shrieking toward the ship at a staggering rate of speed even as the lights behind the cannon stopped flashing, grew brighter, then stabilized. He knew in that moment that the charge powering the giant ray gun had reached max energy and it was about to fire. Instinctively, he covered his face with both arms as he screamed, but the absurdly bright flash snaked its way to his eyes anyway and he prayed to the Virgin. Fervently. And he seemed to be getting through more words of it than he’d anticipated, so he chanced a glance out his windscreen just as the second Sidewinder made contact with the hull. Huge pieces of the ships skin were flying outward, followed quickly by great shards of the interior fittings, most of them glowing with a plasma aura. Explosions began dotting what remained of the hull until the whole ship was fully engulfed in a cataclysmic series of eruptions. At that point, maybe three seconds following the first missile hit, whatever had been holding the craft aloft failed, and it plunged precipitously, trailing fire and smoke and debris until finally crashing to the ground, the pieces still falling down meeting new ejecta shooting upward. Shortly after that, even the fastest moving chunks slowed their climb and dropped back, leaving a smoldering, glowing pile of junk on the rain forest below. Lt. Cmdr. los Panados blinked several times. “Huh,” he said, then became aware of the radio crackling insistently in his headset. “Report! Report!” Los Panados got control of his voice before keying the microphone. “Splash one,” he said calmly. “Returning to base.” Colonel Francisco Durain, piloting one of the dozen other F-16s that had been flying just behind Los Panados, slammed his hand down on the console in front of him. “Lucky bastard!” he hissed, shutting off his gun cameras and jerking the stick over violently to head his craft back home, both Sidewinders still intact under his wings.
The same basic scene was repeated at fifty-one other locations around the globe. Over Bandar Seri Begawan, one of only two cities in the sultanate of Brunei, a Harrier jump jet had been pulverized by a ray-gun blast before the pilot could get off a shot, but the alien ship had been knocked down by one of the other Harriers in the formation. Two Mirage fighters had been lost over Perigeux in the Dordogne region of France, and an F-15 never made it back from Valencia, Portugal. In addition, a large number of people were killed as the dying spaceships fell on their towns and villages. All in all, there were about four thousand deaths and eleven thousand injuries, including the eighteen men Thumper Mulgrew lost while retrieving the “hand”-held ray-gun. But in the process, the entire invading fleet had been handily destroyed. The top scientist at the Department of Defense-funded energy department got on the phone, so excited he could barely speak. “Just think of it,” he blubbered. “Think of it! There have to be some salvageable pieces in the wreckage! Think of what we can learn!” At the other end, Jerry Swerdlow yawned. “I wouldn’t bother,” he said, and hung up.
“I don’t get it,” General Stirling said, confusion deeply etched into his features. “Me neither,” Fuzzy Fitzweiler answered in a rare moment of candor, then caught himself. “We still get paid, don’t we?” “Deal’s a deal,” the general responded. “But I don’t get it.” The door opened and Jerry Swerdlow stormed in. “Now what!” he demanded irritably. “We don’t get it,” Fitzweiler said. “Get what?” “Was like shooting Iraqis in a barrel,” Stirling said. “All that advanced technology, spaceships and shit…how was it possible?” “They were idiots,” Swerdlow said. “We through here? I got a lot of — ” “Whaddya mean, idiots?” Stirling demanded. “Their civilization was ten thousand years older than ours!” Swerdlow exhaled resignedly, and dropped into a seat. “Lemme ask you a question, Stirling: where do you figure we’re gonna be in ten thousand years? Technology-wise, I’m saying.” Stirling sat upright. “How the hell should I know? Way things are moving, I don’t even know where we’ll be in ten years!” Swerdlow shrugged and seemed to consider his answer. “Okay. You figure we’ll be traipsing around the solar system?” An easy one. “Undoubtedly.” “Figure we’ll have some pretty neat weapons?” “Of course.” “And defensive systems to match?” “Certainly. What’s your point?” Swerdlow leaned back and squeezed his eyes shut, rubbing them briskly with both hands. “These guys, these aliens, they’re running around in spaceships look like entries in a soapbox derby. They only figure out one of our languages, and botch that up pretty good. First thing they do, they set foot on earth, they run into a hardware store and start grabbing up useless shit on account of it’s shiny.” “Probably needed them to repair some — ” “They didn’t need shit, Stirling. They were grabbing trinkets. Souvenirs. That ray-gun we boosted from ‘em? Seen better work in a high school shop class. For Chrissakes, their first ship burned up in the atmosphere! What kinda brains it take to figure out you don’t hit air at forty thousand per? They tell us to surrender but don’t tell us how, they got giant ray-guns that’re useless at low altitude because they can’t aim ‘em when they’re that big, just shoot straight down…” Swerdlow smiled again. “And we get ‘em to come down practically to the ground by handing ‘em some cockamamie bushwah about the chronosynclastic infidibulum, for Chrissakes!” Fitzweiler and Stirling exchanged glances. The general spoke first. “But they came across enormous distances…” “What the hell did you expect…golf carts? Sure, they made some progress. Hell, trial and error alone over ten thousand years, a goddamned monkey could probably build an airplane…” Swerdlow suddenly seemed to get lost in his own thoughts. He was considering if he hadn’t just hit upon the secret of human evolution itself. Stirling frowned. “So what you’re telling us — ” “They’re stupid, general!” Swerdlow shouted. “Dummies! Ten thousand extra years of noodle time and they’re still putting duct tape on their freakin’ ships!” Silence engulfed the room as Stirling and Fitzweiler considered Swerdlow’s thesis. “Huh,” the general muttered after it finally sank in. And thus did Jerry Swerdlow save the world. From idiots.
* © Copyright 1997 by Steeplechase Run, Inc – All Rights Reserved
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