HumorScience Fiction

Everyone's a Critic

By Tim McDaniel
2,449 words · 9-minute reading time
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            Melton Welch rubbed his eyes.  After an all-night session at the computer, his eyes itched and his hands were cramping.  He thought there might be a permanent knot in the small of his back. Oh, but it was worth it, how it was worth it!  After so many disappointments, this one hadto sell.

            It was about time, too.  He'd had the worst luck -- manuscripts lost in the mail, stories somehow deleted from the computer, or that came back with missing pages or weird, editor-inserted changes, complaints that his stories copied lines from other recent submissions Melton had never read.  Now he was due.

            He grinned as he typed the final lines of his story:

            "Behind you, Professor!  It's the cockroaches!  And now they're coming for you!"

            As the story printed, Melton found a stamp for the return envelope in the kitchen drawer. It must have been the lack of a SASE that had caused "Elvisians of Gracelandia" to get rejected; he wasn't going to make that mistake again.

            Then he stuck the address label he had prepared earlier onto a large manila envelope.  The editor -- what was his name?  -- had to be impressed that he had been professional enough to use printed address labels.

            Melton slid the story into the envelope along with his SASE, and clutched it to his chest -- yes, this was it, he was sure. This would be the one that would sell. He held his fame and his future in his hands.

            He focused his blurry eyes on his watch. Just past eight.  The post office wasn't open yet.

            Melton slapped the envelope onto the coffee table and went back into the kitchen to use the phone.

            "Dave?  Hi. It's Melton.  Yeah, I know it's a bit early... Listen, Dave.  Do me a favor?  I've been up all night writing, and I'm just beat.  Can you sign in for me at work today?

            "No, they won't bother checking.  They never do.  It would really help me out...  Oh, thanks, Dave.  I appreciate it."

            Melton hung up and yawned.  He could do with a couple hours of sleep.  When he woke up, the post office would be waiting.

            He tumbled into bed with a satisfied smile, dreaming of Hugos and Nebulae.

                                                                            

            Melton was unsure of what had awakened him.  He was still very sleepy; perhaps a truck had rumbled by on the road outside his apartment window.  It was 10:42 according to the bedside clock; sunlight was pushing through his window blinds.

            Well, he was awake now, and he might as well get that manuscript to the post office.  Every moment of delay would be another moment in which he was denied the fame that publication would surely bring.

            He threw off his blankets.  The room was a bit chilly, and he was in his underwear, so he snagged his fuzzy robe off the floor and pulled it around him.  He'd get a quick shower, then off to the post office, and then have a snack before going back to sleep.

            Melton was tying his robe as he left his bedroom. He glanced to the right just before he entered the bathroom, and found that he was not alone in the apartment.

            A man sat at his computer, a floppy disk in his hand.  He looked up, and seemed as startled as Melton, his eyes wide and his mouth open. He was youngish, tall and thin, no more than twenty or so, with cropped brown hair and a black sweater and jeans.

            The man seemed unarmed, and more than that, he seemed scared.  This gave Melton a certain measure of bravado.  "Who the hell are you?" he croaked -- well, maybe the trace of bravado hadn't quite made it to his voice.  He began casting his gaze about the apartment, looking for a possible weapon.  The only thing that looked at all useful was the floor lamp, and he began edging that way.

            The man stood up, his hands outspread in supplication -- and now Melton saw "Revenge" magic-markered on the label on the floppy the man was holding -- the disk with his latest story!

            Given confidence by this surrender, but his throat still dry, his heart still hammering, Melton repeated his question. "Well?  Who are you, and what are you doing here?"  He seized the floor lamp.  Could he cross the room, and get to the phone in the kitchen?  He wasn't sure.

            The man seemed to search for words, then said, "Excuse me.  I'm a thief."  His voice was strangely accented, like he usually spoke German or Japanese or something.

            Melton saw the man's eyes flicker towards something on the coffee table -- a small plastic device that looked like a remote control, except that it had little blinking blue lights on it.

            The man saw Melton's look, and lunged for the device, but as he snatched it up Melton got a good hold of the floor lamp and swung it like a hockey stick.  It connected with the man's hand, sending the device hurtling against a wall where it cracked open, spilling electronic innards onto the carpet.

            Melton brought the lamp back up and waved it threateningly at the stranger, but the man, unimpressed, simply stared at the remains of his device.  Then he slumped in the chair, cradling his hand.

            "Who are you?" said Melton.

            The man looked up.  "My name is Reginald Jordan," he said.

            Jordan -- that was in Syria, Melton thought. Middle Eastern, anyway, though the guy didn't really look it.  Probably a terrorist of some kind.

            "Who the heck are you?"

            Just then there was a cracking noise as the wood around a lock splintered, and the front door flew open.  A tall woman strode into the room like an avenging fury. Melton squawked and scrambled away, trying to keep equally distant from each of the strangers.  He clutched the lamp close in front of him.  The cord popped out of the outlet with a jerk.

            The new arrival looked to be about the same age, equally thin, but was much shorter, and with orange -- not red -- hair.  In her left hand was a device like the one Melton had demolished.

            She threw a string of nonsense syllables at the man, and he responded similarly.

            "Hey, hey, English!" said Melton, raising the lamp threateningly.  Then he lowered it again.  It was heavy. "Who, I mean what, are you? What's going on?"  The woman just looked at him.  "You'd better talk!" said Melton, raising the lamp again, breathing hard.  A cold sweat plastered the sleep-frizzed combover against his forehead.

            "We might as well," said the man, in English. "You don't know what a man of his sensibilities might do with that pole.  Besides, who'd ever believe him?"

            The woman nodded, reluctantly.  "I guess you're right."

            Melton lowered the lamp again.  "So?  Who are you?"

            "I am Literary Agent Susan Trout."  The woman gestured to the man.  "Agent Reginald Jordan."

            "And…?"

            "You are a writer, Mr. Welch," said Agent Jordan.

            "Why, yes!"  Melton smiled, putting down the lamp.  "But I haven't been published yet.  If you're an agent, maybe--"

            "We know.  You've been sending out manuscripts, and they come back with form rejections, or are lost in the mail."

            "How could you know that?  I don't know you people.  Are you from the magazines?  You hardly needed to break in here, just to see my work..."  Melton's voice trailed off.  It had occurred to him that these people were trying to stealhis work, not publish it.

            "No, Mr. Welch.  We are not from the magazines.  We're from the year 2434, actually.  We're with an organization called the Futurians."

            "Stupid name."

            "Well, it sounds better in our language."

            "It's some local fan club, right?  You probably want me to give a talk to your group? But busting in my door…"

            "No, Mr. Welch.  We're from the future.  We've come back in time to make sure that you never get published."

            "'Never'--?"

            "And why are youhome?" the man asked.  "According to our records, on this date you were at work.  Your employment records show this."

            "Records?" Melton was dazed.  "The sign-in book?  A friend signed in for me-- it's no big deal.  But how would you know?"

            "We check all kinds of documents before making a jump."

            Melton laughed.  "Yeah, right.  So the timesheets from Chicago Chemical Supply Warehouse have survived until the twenty-third century.  Sure. Listen, before I call the cops on you jerks, you'd better get your story straight."

            "Very well," said Agent Trout, with an odd smile and a glint in her eye.  She brought up her remote control thingy and pointed it at the wall.  She pressed a button, and suddenly there was a three-dimensional image in front of Melton: stacks of books, piles of magazines.  He could see Trout behind them.  "This is a recently-seized collection of some of your books."

            "What?" Melton was breathless.  Nobody could make holograms that good.  The image looked completely tangible, but when he reached out, his hand passed through it.  He bent forward to take a closer look at some of the titles.  "The Apprentice Prince!" crowed Melton.  "That's him on the cover, when he's disguised as a dragon.  I just started writing that.  Volumes One, Two, Three, Four... And my there's a Trek novel by me!  And --" then the image winked out.

            "Bring it back!"

            "That's just what we won'tdo, Mr. Welch.  In fact, we want to make sure none of your fiction ever reaches print. We've stolen your disks, erased files, intercepted manuscripts on their way to publishers.  We break into publisher's offices -- well, most of them know about us anyway -- to plant similar stories just before yours arrive, or to intercept yours and send back rejections.  We've spent a lot of time and energy on you and your fiction, Mr. Welch."

            "But... but why?"

            "Because it's crap."

            "What?  Oh, come on--"

            "No, really, it's all crap.  Every critic agrees.  And who needs bad books?  It's the mission of the Futurians to cut out the worst of the worst, to save future generations the anguish of reading badly-written derivative garbage like yours."

            "Maybe it's just youthat's being shortsighted," said Melton hotly. "Maybe you can't recognize innovation and genuine imagination.  Or maybe it scares you.  Yeah, that's it, isn't it?  You just want to protect your safe little world from my powerful and disturbing insights into the human condition."

            "No.  It's just crap."

            "Hah!"  This ejaculation seemed to be unconvincing to the Futurians.  "Even mymomloves my stories," explained Melton, "and she's far from your typical reader of science fiction.  That shows I have breakout potential."

            "No it doesn't."

            "But I can't be the worst!"

            "There's been some debate about that."

            "But other writers who are, well, I guess you could say crappy, they get published all the time, and you haven't stopped them!  What about Robert Jordan?  Huh? He's published.  Explain that!"

            "Yes, Jordan," the woman said. "Well, powerful as we are, we can't be expected to catch all of them, you know."

            "But have you readhis stuff?  If you honestly think I'm so bad, then--"

            "Oh, come on, he's not so bad," the shorter officer said.  "I mean, after the first few books, he got better."

            "When there's nowhere to go but up--" Melton began.

            "Now, listen here," the man said. "You have to admit that around the fifth--"

            "Better to say no more than necessary, Agent Jordan," the woman said.  She refused to meet Melton's eyes.

            "Oh," Melton said.  Then, "Oh! So your great-great-grand--"

            "Put down the lamp, Mr. Welch," Trout said. "You can't stop us.  Even if you clubbed the two of us to death with that thing, others would come, and others after them.  The future takes aesthetics very seriously, Mr. Welch, and we're relentless in our duty to save the world from people like you."

            "Then why not just kill me, huh?  Why not just zap me into dust?"

            "That would be unethical!"

            There was a pause.  Melton, breathing hard, stared at the Futurians, and they looked back.

            "Youcan'tstop my fiction!" Melton said suddenly, happy to have caught them with logic.  "That would create a paradox!  If I never get published, you'll never come back to stop me, and so--"

            "Amateurs," scoffed the man.  "They think they know it all.  As a matter of fact," he said to Melton, his voice condescending, "the time-flux configuration precludes that.  The Moebius incongruity insures that all non-systemic aberrations have only non-localized actualities.  Usually.  And we're hardly dealing with an uptimed directive or a squeezed semi-universality here."

            "Got that?" said Trout, smirking.

            Melton let the lamp down, deflated.  "Oh, go ahead, then," he said.  "Get out of here if you want."

            The Futurians gathered up the disk, and the envelope with his story, and the shards of the broken thingy, and then the woman began pushing buttons on the one she held.

            Melton felt a surge of raw energy from his gut. "I won't be stopped, you know," he said.  "I'm a writer, damn it!  I'll find a way to get into print, in spite of you!"

            The Futurians started to flicker.

            "I know!" said Melton.  "I'll put out e-books!  They'll publish anything!"

            "Go ahead," Trout said.  "We don't even bother patrolling them.  It's not like anyone reads the things." Then, in a flash of purple light, she and Jordan disappeared.

            Melton sat on his couch, and, gradually, his brain began functioning again.

            "I'll have to move," he thought. "Someplace far away from Chicago."  His gaze roved the room, coming to rest on his computer.  "Maybe Seattle.  Every other guy in the magazines is from there these days.  And I can change my name, so they can't track me.  Yeah, that's what I'll do."

            The story he had finished the night before was still vivid in his mind; he could recreate it.  Some words would be different, sure, but the core of the story was bright in his brain.

            He typed out the title.

                                                 "The Revenge of the Arthropodians"

                                                                by Melton Welch

            "New name, I need a new name..." murmured Melton.  He deleted "Melton Welch" and typed a new name in its place.

                                                                by Tim McDaniel

 

This story originally appeared in Abandoned Towers.


Author: Tim McDaniel

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