ISSUE 6 · SPRING 2011
Someone Must Stop
J S KHAN
Alas, it is upon us: the most dire cataclysm to befall the Earth since the Late Heavy Bombardment—there are too many Napoleons! Vile lil’ critters, how can the impish emperors ever be stopped? These pretenders to the throne hatch fullgrown from pockmarked pods oozing mucoslime, alien hominidae descended from farflung galaxies in spacecraft buffeted by cosmic rays and stellar wind. Swiping their cocked hats and black boots clean of the muck which gucks them, they shake their sabers and advance in threatening swarms across the globe, giggling softly and mutilating the French language with their dreadful accent. Several burst from beneath kitchen sinks in the very stink of their powerlust, potbellies jiggling in their greatcoats. They sneeze snuff on all our furniture, turn windowdrapes upside down, smash grandfather clocks, and rearrange coin collections. Their modus operandi seems quite clear: first isolate, then annihilate. But to what end? Many gnaw electrical cords, rendering household appliances useless, and nearly every copy of Plutarch has been spirited from the local library. According to the transistor radio (all other communication with the outside world has been disrupted by their superior technology), the terrain the Napoleons have already crossed since crashlanding on our planet has been left stripped as if by a plague of cicadas.
The change heralded by the Napoleons is drastic, simply dazzling; their taste for luxury baffles all. The violence perpetrated against propriety by the chittering megalomaniacs grows more lavish by the day. While we initially wished to live in peace with this extraterrestrial horde, none of us can hide our astonishment and disgust any longer.
World leaders, their lackeys, lovers, hanger-ons, and go-fors meet in secret to discuss the escalating menace the Napoleons represent. This conference is held in the drained hollow of a lake concealed beneath a wavelike mirage designed by Dr. Atari Herzcat, a Canadian superscientist of dubious origin. Dr. Herzcat believes the Napoleons will be the catalyst for the next macro-mutation in human evolution, a punctuated equilibrium of unimaginable proportion—
—The next big opposable thumb, he says. The signal event to Singularity.
Everyone chases Herzcat offstage, throwing water bottles when he tries to hide behind the lectern.
—If one Boney was so goldarned hard to lick, a four-star general from the Pentagon asks, then how in Tarnation we ever gonna stop such a verminous throng?
—Could they be clones?
—Shapeshifters from an alternate cosmos, a Finnish astrophysicist theorizes. Beings who, having destroyed their own earth, must seek evernew planets upon which to feed.
—Hogwash, a biochemist spits. Retroviral lifeforms that underwent instantaneous metamorphosis when colliding with our atmosphere.
—They harbor an anomalous, provocatory freedom, a psychotherapist remarks. A freedom—dare I call it a style?—uncommon in other colonizing species. While undergoing a state of continual mimesis, they appear to maintain a psychological state I refer to in my own casefiles as that of the ‘Sick Protagonist.’
—What threat do they pose? a Chinese astronaut asks. That’s the most important thing.
Indeed. Do the Napoleons come to liberate mankind from the ancien régime? To further democracy and cosmic peace through the establishment of some Intergalactic System? Or do they only seek to dominate the Earth to achieve eternal fame? Are they as trivial as that?
—The Bonapartists must be stopped! the four-star general shrieks. His aide-de-camp has to lead him up the elevator for some fresh air.
Always daring, is all the tacticians can agree on. An extraordinary force.
Eyewitness accounts of the Napoleonic Host:
—Munching sounds everywhere. A masticating roar like silkworms feeding.
—Loneliness has an odor too, right? That’s how their podships smell.
—One of them kept shaking his fist and asking if I could see his star. What star?
—They possess an overfondness for ferreting out the vulgar details of married lives.
—A most cherubic smile ignites their collective countenance. Beauti-ful, tender smiles.
—But I’ll be buggered if they don’t take an almost childish delight in trickery. They befuddle for befuddlement’s sake. Provoke without reason. What’s the point?
—I peeped out tha window thar and could’a swore I was to sleep and dreamin’!
—None of them ever sleep. Ever.
—They obsess over tidiness, but what remains to organize in a city burnt to the beams?
—Despite their repulsive ways, they are remarkably kind to children and servants.
With the Napoleons, there is never a fixed plan; events proceed in spastic starts. Feints here and there, minor skirmishes in the brush. One lectures my wife Janessa on the importance of feminine hygiene, the necessity of shaving and perfuming regularly. Another plays checkers with several old men in the park, gambling for their Social Security checks as he twists balloon animals for infants in passing strollers. Yet another sits stuck up in a cypress tree, mewing softly. Another leans over a huge spinning globe, his tongue sticking out as he squints and thrusts colored pins into separate countries. Another is getting drunk listening to Beethoven’s third symphony, sprawled nude in my neighbor’s fountain. Another, adorned in a Roman toga and a crown of thorns, instructs Boy Scout Troop #466 on the anatomy of glory, handing out catalogs with essays examining talent and morality on a gradient scale transposed as an x-y axis. At least six or seven of the grubby pests have been spotted distributing propaganda simultaneously promoting and distorting Ignatius Loyola’s thought-experiments: Imagine a chain, a series of corresponding planes, a dance to music up a crooked stairwell. Others discuss with City Council the twofold task the Valentinian speculation takes upon itself, matter being a spiritual condition of the universal subject. Still more (really, is there no end to them?) flash across the suburbs atop enormous mutant golden bees to gather conscripts from among the disgruntled bourgeoisie. A dozen other Napoleons reorganize our high schools into corps of reserve Marine Guards, each grade divided into three companies of two brigades with an additional battery of artillery.
The Napoleon that scares me most, however, is the one I see on my lunch break everyday when I pass the corner of MLK Boulevard and Park Street to pick up a Cuban from Eddie’s downtown. Hunched in a drab, motheaten coat, this wretched creature stands with tricorn hat jingling with spare change in his trembling hand.
Lean close enough, you can hear him mutter: Fortune is a toothless whore.
The majority of the Napoleons are smaller than their historical prototype by at least six inches, though the more thoroughbred have been found to fit da Vinci’s model for beauty with singular precision, since the length of their feet from the end of their toes goes twice into that from their heels to their knees, that is, where their leg-bones join their thigh bones. The length of their feet is also equal to the length of their faces from their chins to their hairlines, while the thickness of their thighs as seen from the front are equal to the width of their faces, 2/3’s of the length from their chins to the top of their heads. This physical distinction gives the more highranking among them more masculine features than the babyfaced original—despite their slighter stature—and they look far more noble whilst riding aloft on their big beautiful buzzing bees than le petit caporal ever did on a horse.
This perfect aesthetic symmetry was first divined by Dr. Atari Herzcat, who has captured several of the Napoleons using tranquilizer darts before tagging and measuring them in his lab on a misty isle off Nova Scotia—though every specimen he has captured has somehow managed to escape. Escape is one of the Napoleons’ flairs, it would seem. My Uncle Hugo postulates it is their diminutive good looks that lead them to be even more egomaniacal, duplicitous, and elusive than their historical analog. They share a peculiar herd consciousness all the more noteworthy given their extreme individualism. All can read without hesitation the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone. Their favorite stratagem is the cat’s paw. Compromise is a word that has not yet entered their limited, somewhat barbaric vocabulary. When interrogated by Dr. Herzcat, every one of them admits shamelessly the desire to completely subjugate the human race—with which they diverge by only thirty-five million nucleotide substitutions.
War is certain.
In the secret bunker in the basin of the hollow lake, all the delegates of the newly formed Eighth Coalition stare exhausted into the shadows enveloping them, sweat beading on their lips. Most, as always, maintain a position of palpably neutral idiocy. To conserve electricity—as well as remain hidden from the recently declared “Enemies of Mankind”—the primary sources of light have been switched off so the few red bulbs throbbing down the hall pulse off Dr. Herzcat’s glasses.
—The environmental impact won’t be minimal, he whispers in the Prime Minister’s ear. We’ll have to live in sewers and subway tunnels for at least three generations. The total release foggers will propel a flammable gas into the air over a spectrum control great enough to kill the entire Host if we think in terms of say one fogger per seventeen stadia. The atmosphere, rendered turbulent, will spark lightning and ignite, scorching the sky and earth—
—No time! a Sheikh’s mistress shrieks. Can’t we just capitulate?
—Capitulate? Those creepy-crawlies are the Antichrist!
—What good is a crystal palace if there is any doubt about it?
—Don’t misunderstand me, darling, but who can name such antithetical men and say afterward that they believe in them? Who with honesty can say they don’t believe in them?
—Let us beware of introducing fanaticism into our politics, Madame.
—Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s!
The Pentagon Chief of Staff leans over, rocking up and down on his heels, running his hands through his receding hair and chuckling softly.
A rumbling engulfs the underground bunker, a colossal creaking of metal and wood. The earth shakes. Pebbles clatter against the nimbic illusion of water. Everyone glances up to see through the mirage an endless array of twelve-pounders fencing the lake with their dark bores swiveling downward. They are accompanied by thousands of grenadiers. Turncoats all.
—We’re surrounded! The general screams, jumping up and firing his 9mm while shoving the POTUS under a desk. The Vice President catches a ricochet in the hip.
The Napoleons squander not just money but time, dignity, even their own freedom. They infest the world like some tactile delirium, unearthly yet familiar and always utterly outrageous. One rides an elephant down I-20 adorned in a turban and peacock feathers, the ocellar markings emblematic of the Napoleons’ impenetrable spy ring. Another swings from the chandelier at my Uncle Hugo’s, throwing plates at the servants who scramble to avoid the china exploding around them like mortar shells. Another, winning all the chips at my weekly poker game, gives everyone their money back, admitting with a wink he’d been cheating the whole time. Another guest-stars on Sesame Street, trading jokes and melancholic love songs with Kermit the Frog. Will he get in the bathtub with Ernie, singing with his rubber duckie? Another calls late at night, demanding Janessa take up a quill as he dictates his memoirs over the phone. Yet another stalks the neighborhood using a bayonet to pop the same balloons he gave out earlier in the park.
Resistance, fierce until last Monday, has finally crumpled in the Financial District. Guerillas everywhere surrender or flee for the hills as tricolor flags are raised over the pummeled cityscape. Thousands of the faux monarchs march down Main Street, firing volleys into the air before reloading their muskets and firing again to celebrate their surge—though victory does not suit them. They grow moody, restless, all sitting grand and gloomy on their thrones of honeycomb, grown bored long ago trading crowns between themselves. Bread prices soar; family jewels vanish. One Napoleon, shorter and fatter than the rest, sits at an enormous table over which is draped the biggest map I’ve ever seen. He leans on one arm, his other hand tucked in his coat between its polished brass buttons. Occasionally he removes his hand to maneuver blocks of wood around the map while haranguing a famous television correspondent.
—Our problem is an artistic one, a formal one. Can one give science a firm architecture? Can one make a poetry out of politics?
Minutes later he rants furiously, sulking, soaked like a drunk in his own ambitions:
—You can’t wait around like some pterosaur catching thermals, vous comprenez? You’ve got to learn to think of nothing but pushing onward, of becoming your own footsoldier. The overwhelming impulse toward entropy and the infinite which the cosmos expresses is (nothing more or less than) dissatisfaction with the universal self . . .
The correspondent cuts in, saying previously we understood our problems, or at least thought we did, but now everything is just too complicated. She urges the Napoleon and his polygängers to reconsider their project of planetary conquest. The Chairman of the Horde listens patiently, then leans back in frustration, swiping all the wooden blocks off his map. They clatter dully to the floor.
—The Earth is an antheap, he sighs.
A terrible endgame ensues.
The Napoleonic Host overruns the last of the Resistance with resounding success, routing our forces after our center is disarrayed at Garthright Field by a furious grande batterie. The filthy beasts then flank our troops to the north, our retreating reserves falling victim to boobytraps with pitfalls full of exploding cigars. Newspapers, centers of propaganda, rejoice in the New World Order.
A hundred days pass in a single night, and the Napoleons enact a seemingly endless stream of edicts under the odd light of this lazy moon, so many edicts in fact that the Napoleons leave more signatures than anyone to ever walk the earth, all their countless illegible scrawls ratifying laws written to better instruct mankind on how to breathe, to blink, to sweat, to die. If this wasn’t enough, junkyards are converted into gardens, ice-rinks into junkyards, parking lots into parks, gardens into parking lots, parks—no matter how far inland—into boat-docks, while previously existing docks are torn down so their harbors might be frozen into open-air ice-rinks.
The next morning all the Napoleons vanish, however, every single one of them, and nothing remains of their visit but these laws and the charred remains of their regimental eagles—which they themselves must have burnt. Their enormous bees litter the streets too, all dead, each landed upside-down with feet sticking up and looking like a fleur de lis. Their nests, penetrated by revolutionaries, are found to be full of a sour honey with strange intoxicating properties. Plaster masks are also discovered everywhere the Napoleons holed up—though each is molded differently, so one wonders how these wily simulacra could have ever worn the same face to begin with.
The death masks are discovered everywhere, in hills and valleys, in rivers or washed up on the beach, beneath rocks and in storm-gutters. I stumbled on one in my basement just last month. It was behind the washer, where one of the varmints must have nibbled through the wall. Since many of these masks are now believed to be counterfeit, I bronzed the one I found and hung it on the mantle.
Surprisingly, people already are forgetting about the Napoleons—or at least what they were really like. Will they come again, like a monsoon, or have they fulfilled their destiny here? Did they return to their own planet? Were they creatures of passion? Of calculation? Volumes have been written on their invasion and brief, inexplicable reign—yet these volumes only further obscure the reality of what occurred. What occurred, exactly? Who woke us from this reverie? Many still visit the sites where the aliens’ pods landed, crying Vive L’Empereur!—though they themselves cannot say why. The Napoleons create more anxiety through their absence than they ever did in the flesh. Several scholars now deny they existed at all.
I confess I too am just as confused as anyone else, and sit for hours with Janessa on our sofa, the two of us holding hands while staring at that brazen mask above the fireplace. Together, we puzzle over its noble brow, losing ourselves in its tortured furrows, in its hollow cheeks, its ghostly smile.
An alchemist of the word, J S Khan has held many jobs in his attempts to fund the life of a true hobo poet. A runaway sailor, he has worked on the railroad, peddled chemical fantasies, and composed suicide notes for a living. Recently his fiction has appeared in Thieves Jargon and the White Whale Review. He is currently seeking an agent for his first novel, We Three Thieves.