I’m not gonna give you all the ins and outs of old Jimmo’s life. I’ve sat in too many cracked plastic chairs before nosy-butt social workers doing that. You want deep psychological analysis of James Ignatius Malachi Obadiah Osborne’s life? Let me give you the name of my current shrink. I think Penelope has it on a thumb drive somewhere.
But in a nut shell — joke! — I’m just your average ex-vet wandering traveler who has been sucked up into a Gray mothership and been given the classic intimate biological examination. I’ve seen it all and been there, from Key West, Fla., to the ass-end of the road here in Della, Alaska. I like long walks on the beach, Norwegian aquavit, Irish wolfhounds, tough women (preferably redheads), and people who won’t give ya bullshit. Oh, and the smell of White Shoulders and AquaNet hairspray, but only because AquaNet has been proven to deter aliens. I don’t know why. You think Jimmo has all the answers?
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
You know that moment when you’ve had one too many beers and your bladder is bursting and you take a nice, long pee? Remember that little tickle of pleasure you get? That’s about as close as it comes to perfect happiness. Too strange?
OK, how about this. You take on some huge challenge, like fighting a kick-ass wildfire that’s roaring down at you and it’s just you and your crew, a few Pulaskis, and maybe a DC-3 dropping retardant. Everything else doesn’t exist. It’s just this moment and something you have to do or you die, that’s what it is. And you don’t die. You stop the fire or come out alive in a firefight or maybe kick cancer’s butt. That’s perfect happiness, because you thought you might die and you didn’t.
But also, having close and intimate sex with someone who understands you and you understand them, and you satisfy each other almost perfectly, yeah, that’s not bad, either.
What is your greatest fear?
When you’ve looked into the Big Black of death and come out the other end, there is no fear. But the idea that the Alien Occupation Government might eventually take over this planet, and the Grays would use us for whatever evil they have in mind, that scares me. It should scare you, too, oh dear reader, if only you knew the truth.
What is your current state of mind?
Highly under the influence of very effective psychoactive drugs. OK, not really. I realized long ago all I got was sexy pharmaceuticals that no one really knew how they worked, but they did. My current state of mind is bliss.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
You should read my co-author’s account of that in Truck Stop Earth. Basically, we kicked alien butt and sent those asshole Grays screaming. We won a big battle. I’m hoping we win the war.
How would you like to die?
Quick and painless. Once you get past the pain and into the Big Black, there’s not much else. If I can’t die fighting, I’d be OK dying loving.
What is your motto?
Life is what happens when really good psychoactive drugs quit working.
Title: Truck Stop Earth
Author: Michael A. Armstrong
Genre: Dark Humor, Aliens, Science Fiction
Publisher: Perseid Press
Release Date: August 1, 2016 (E-book available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble now)
The mother of all alien bases. The big one, the megabase, the center of the Alien Occupation Government, the headquarters, the brain, the nerve center, the absolute pinpoint big base, right there, right in the hills above Della. Forget Roswell. Forget Machu Picchu. Forget Stonehenge and Tikal and all those alleged alien bases, abandoned every one of them. This was the big one, right now, the source of all my troubles, the world’s troubles, the whole solar system’s troubles. Right there.
Out there across the valley, shining across it like a beacon, was a big flat mountain. “Oly’s Mountain” I later heard it called, or Table Top, some said. I could feel it, feel the humming and the disruption of the ether right down to my bones. I didn’t even have to take out my little pocket detector that’s disguised as a Swiss Army knife. I knew, I just knew. And my butt chip burned like an exploded capsule of sulfuric acid. God damn, right there in the mountain — not on it, in it.
We hauled butt up East Road and might have had to pass a few trucks at the speed Samm put the crew-cab to, except that everyone else was hauling butt, too: cops, fire trucks, volunteer firefighters. It was as if that fire were a big drain hole and we were rubber duckies getting sucked down into the tub, that’s how it pulled all of us to the fire. The smoke got thicker the closer we got, a nice stiff breeze out of the north whupping upon us, the day breeze. As we got closer, I began to think that maybe I should be going the other direction. Had no choice, though. I was in that damn truck.
We scarfed down our burgers as we trucked out there, Samm eating one-handed and driving with the other hand, a sort of frightening sight. I understood, though. It might be a while until we ate again. Soon enough we got to the logging camp. Samm didn’t even close his door or yank out the keys to the truck — in fact, he left it running. The only thing he did was turn it around so it faced out, toward the road. I understood. That was our lifeboat.
“Grace, you take Freddy and Jimmo,” Samm shouted. “Work on keeping the fire from jumping the road.”
“And if it jumps the road?” she asked.
“That won’t happen. Hold the line,” Samm said.
“Hold the line,” Grace mumbled. “Right.” She pointed at me and Freddy. “Freddy, you’ve got a red card. Jimmo, grab a chainsaw and a Pulaski and do what Freddy tells you. Come with me.” Grace had picked up a Pulaski, this ax-like thing that was also a pick, and we rushed up to the road side of that big clearing.
Someone had started up one of those feller-bunchers and slowly — it’s not like they moved all that fast anyway — moved toward a line of dead trees up the road. Thick smoke rolled downhill toward us, but in all the smoke I couldn’t see any flames. Maybe that was good, maybe that was bad, I just fucking didn’t know.
“Might as well attack that line of trees,” Grace said, pointing across the road from the camp. A standing clump of red, almost needleless trees lined the road across the way. It seemed kind of stupid, a logging camp surrounded by a dead forest. Later, Samm told me that it was a land dispute, this land owned by someone from Outside who hadn’t seen the land in twenty years and didn’t understand that the whole fucking forest had died and the trees had to come down. This was war. You did what you did to stop the fire and to hell with property rights.
The little forest narrowed down into a V as it came to the road. Grace explained that I should break up the grass and other ground flammables on either side of the V as she and Freddy felled trees. They began lopping off trees so they fell uphill, into the fire and a big slash pile. Even though the trees had died, they still had branches and witches’ brooms and shit that could catch fire. A lot of the dead trees had punky middles, which made them harder to burn. If you could fell ’em the middle wouldn’t catch fire and it would slow the burn down. Mainly, Grace explained in all the chaos, in a calm voice that made me listen closer, “Mainly we don’t want a crown fire, where the tops burn.” A crown fire was like a whole new level of shit.
With all the smoke and the heat I couldn’t tell if we fought back the fire or just wasted a lot of good burger fuel for nothing. I’d cut trenches in the dry underbrush, exposing dirt, so that if the fire burned out of the slash piles we made it wouldn’t go further. Grace said we were making a back burn, creating our own little Dresden there so that the big Tokyo of a fire wouldn’t have anything else to burn. You understand? Of course not, you assholes don’t know history. Dresden was like this quaint little city the Allies firebombed in Double-Ya-Double-Ya Two, and Tokyo another example of 20th Century martial urban renewal.
Get into the flow of something like that, where you’re not quite sure you’ll live but hope to fuck you don’t die, and after a while, time is nothing. Time doesn’t slow down, it doesn’t stop, it just no longer becomes a marker by which the universe gets measured. It isn’t when it once was. What mattered to me was the dirt I exposed, the flames that didn’t cross the road, and the fire that burned itself out.
You just fought. My uncle who was in the war said that once: You just fought. First came chaos and then an organization of chaos and then chaos became your local reality, and you understood it. It developed its own rules and everything and quit being chaos. I focused entirely on one task, one general series of movements: lift Pulaski, dig into ground, turn over dirt, lift Pulaski again, repeat as necessary.
Eventually, though, this new reality came into being, a new form of chaos which I realized with a start was the way the world had been some time ago. The smoke seemed thinner, the heat less. Between Grace and Freddy and that guy on the feller buncher (which I still thought was a rocket launcher), the forest in front of us turned into a big bonfire, controlled and orderly and consuming itself and not more forest. I saw around me that other workers scrambled with wet rugs or sheets stamping out fires from falling ashes that had fallen on the wind. Other than that, the fire had not crossed the road.
“We held the line,” Grace said, but with a tone of voice that said she didn’t believe it.
“Held the line,” Freddy said.
“Did it,” I said.
“Did it. Damn it, we did it!” Grace raised her chainsaw in triumph.
“Shoulda done it faster,” Kyle said from behind us. “It almost got away from us. It got one of the fuel trucks.”
Grace glared at him, bandana long ago fallen away, but her hair still in perfect shape, only with so much smoke and ash that it looked like a black helmet. “We held the line, Kyle.”
“I really need you to listen to me closer, Grace,” Kyle said. “I’m only offering criticism for your own good.”
“Oh, fuck —”
She didn’t get the next words out. Freddy shoved her aside and they both rolled toward me, almost knocking me down. I stepped aside and let them fall, then looked up to see why Freddy had tackled Grace. The guy with the feller buncher held a burning tree in the claws of his machine. Smoke obscured his vision and he couldn’t quite see where he was going. The machine stopped and the guy let down that log, branches still on it, the crown roaring.
We later figured out that he must have seen a tree on our side of the road that caught fire, just one tree, and in our complacency we missed it. He didn’t, though. Guy saved the day, he did, and what did it matter what happened next?
He dropped the tree. Just like I’ll always remember that shred of metal whirling at me when the Zapata cannery blew up, I’ll remember that tree falling. It came down, right on an open part of the airstrip, which was what the feller-buncher dude was aiming for, a nice open spot. All would have been well and this story might have turned out different, if not that the tree in its falling, a branch of the tree in its falling, nicked Kyle.
“I need you to step aside,” I wanted to say, but couldn’t. I’ll feel a little guilty forever after that I didn’t.
The tree came down. The branch nicked Kyle. The tip was sharp. As it fell, it knocked off his helmet, and sliced right through his left ear, your basic Van Gogh chop job. Kyle reached up with his left hand, held it to his ear, and then looked down at a glob of blood in his palm. He didn’t scream, I’ll give him credit for that, but he did look mildly uncomfortable.
When Kyle’s helmet came off, this amazing pouf of silver-blond hair sprung straight up, kind of a Disco Do, just whisping over his ears and falling boyishly over Kyle’s forehead — over his squinty little eyes. But then a spark or a little flame from the burning tree hit his hair, and kawoosh, it went up like a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol, and inside of two seconds, Kyle went totally bald, nothing more than ashes on his scalp.
He rolled forward, over and over like you got taught in grade school to put out a fire if for some chance, hey, a burning tree fell on top of you and lit your precious little Disco ’Do on fire. Kyle slapped at his head and his ears, or what was left of the left one. His right leg stuck out kinda funny, and for a moment I thought it was broken. It was broken, I swear. Kyle reached down and twisted and turned it, then stood up.
His right ear dangled by a little thread of cartilage, only it didn’t bleed. At least, I thought his right ear had been ripped off, too. Kyle turned away from us for a second, did something to the side of his head, and turned back. He did this kind of dancing jig thing, took a deep breath, and smiled.
“Kyle, man, your ear got ripped off,” Samm said. “Are you OK?”
He reached up, felt for the bloody patch, reached down to the ground and picked up something that looked like a shriveled up mushroom. Kyle smeared that thing against the stump of his left ear, then smiled.
“What ear?” he asked.
Samm looked at Kyle, over at us, back at Kyle. He started to say something, then shook his head.
“Good as new,” Grace said.
Ayup, I thought.
Except he put the ear back on backwards.
Amazon US https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01HN3JAJS
Michael Armstrong was born in Virginia in 1956, grew up in Tampa, Florida, and moved to Anchorage, Alaska in 1979. He has lived in Homer, Alaska, since 1994. He attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop and received a bachelor of arts from New College of Florida and a master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Alaska Anchorage. His first novel is After the Zap. Michael’s short fiction has been published in Asimov’s, The Magazine of Science Fiction, Fiction Quarterly, and various anthologies, including Not of Woman Born, a Philip K. Dick award nominee, and several Heroes In Hell anthologies. His other novels include Agviq, The Hidden War, and Bridge Over Hell, part of the Perseid Press Heroes in Hell universe.
Michael has taught creative writing composition, and dog mushing. He is a reporter and photographer for the Homer News. He and his wife, Jenny Stroyeck, live in small house they built themselves on Diamond Ridge above Homer, which they share with an incredibly adorable labradoodle.
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