First, a bag of trash in a low-rent apartment complex’s dumpster in Massachusetts came to life and began fomenting revolution among the neighboring refuse. Second, three hyperintelligent rats that smelled like vanilla crash-landed an interdimensional spacecraft in Katmandu. These two intertwined events occurred simultaneously but near-imperceptibly, leaving planet Earth dangling in peril even though only one person actually noticed.
In Metrowest Boston, Jerry Hairlinger woke up in his apartment five hundred yards from the newly sentient trash bag. He’d been dreaming of 3D pharmaceutical printers hooked to cellphones so physicians could text pills to patients. Jerry was going through a rough patch and wasn’t sure what to do on this particular sunny day. Sometimes, people paid Jerry to keep them company while working on do-it-themselves home projects and a friend sometimes had available shifts at her indie coffee shop—but mostly Jerry read old paperbacks and pretended that free coffee qualified as food. Jerry was the kind of reasonably decent guy who might prove helpful if he happened to stumble upon a dumpster that was rapidly becoming anti-human.
“We can take our time, brothers and sisters, but we must kill all earthlings,” grumbled the voice from the dumpster.
Jerry didn’t hear voices in his head often, but it had happened before—so he was cautiously curious. He climbed up the dumpster’s side and looked in. There wasn’t much to see: cardboard pizza boxes, soda cans, a blanket that looked infectious, a broken plastic chair, a filthy stuffed carrot and several small trash bags.
“Hey, man, people aren’t bad, just mostly confused,” Jerry said, as cordially as he could. He figured someone inside a dumpster’s day was worse than his. Sometimes Jerry wore a happy face rather than attempt sharing angst with strangers. The muffled voice laughed heartily, lasting long enough to become downright creepy. Jerry leaned his head from side to side to confirm the frightening laughter was entering via his ears and wasn’t just in his head. The voice must have come from inside a trash bag. Based on the bag’s size, Jerry was either conversing with something that wasn’t human or with the most well-spoken toddler ever.
Meanwhile, back with the hyperintelligent rats from space, it’s an exaggeration to call what happened in Kathmandu a “crash landing.” It’s more accurate to call it a “near-fatal mishap.” The rats had interdimensional travel under control for millennia—but warping wasn’t always pretty. Their craft, called the 23 Skidoo, was on the Hotel Annapurna’s roof. Their missions sometimes looked like conglomerated decisions where rats endured fatal mishaps while bigwigs pretended sacrifices were part of the plan, like how less developed countries have natural resources stolen and turned into junk no one needs or how oil drilling sometimes involves paying off a few grieving families because it’s cheaper than buying safety equipment for everybody. The three rats onboard the ship—Tanner, Jenna and Hildy—saw all this differently, of course, and believed in their mission—even with their fur feeling crispy and their ship smelling like vanilla mixed with early-1980s plastic melted by a cigarette lighter.
Tanner was ostensibly the leader (though they were communist space rats) and pilot, but she wasn’t feeling aces about their ship’s malfunctioning. Jenna was rattled and decided to wait before figuring out if it would be funny to say, “At least we’re not dead yet.” Hildy was determining where they were, searching the Internet, and marveling at pictures of a place called Carlsbad Caverns, hoping to spelunk once the mission was complete. Hildy was distractable, but cool under pressure. Technically, their species started exploring the universe while based three billion light years away—but Tanner, Jenna and Hildy spent their childhoods together at an art commune in a luminous galaxy near the NGC 5643 Group of the Virgo Supercluster.
Not far from Earth in astronomical terms, the rats and some penguinlike creatures lived in peace and harmony, mostly making art, music, and occasionally putting on plays inspired by art and music. They’d tried the opposite—making art and music inspired by plays, but found that the immediacy of live theater was lost when hung on a wall or sung. Reinterpreting plays as musicals worked better, but still disrupted the acting with songs. Occasionally, they wrote about earthlings because Earth was a regular stop for the rat explorers. Usually, the rats would swoop in, save humanity from intergalactic or self-induced destruction, then get back to their bunks in time to eat yogurt drops for midnight snacks.
Tanner said, “Frankie Mouse and Benjy Mouse on matching popsicle sticks! We’re so off course Google needs a plugin just to tell the distance.”
“I have the plugin already,” Hildy said. “It’s 7,376 miles.”
“Well, the ship’s in fine fettle, so we can make a leap no problem. Deep breaths!” Tanner said, more loudly than she meant to. The three rats from the galaxy near NGC 5643 exhaled hard while they warped. It took less than one second. Arriving next to the dumpster, things weren’t going smoothly…
“Oh, great. Earthling alert!” Hildy said as she saw Jerry’s disturbed and perturbed expression.
“It’s not my style, man, but I can get gasoline down the block and then your dumpster’s a bonfire.”
“I’m an interdimensional monster and you’re a wasteful species. I can make you know how it feels to burn! I can blot the sun with the charred remains!”
When monsters found Earth, Jenna tried to negotiate intergalactic treaties on the sly. Diplomacy often went smoother when the earthlings were none the wiser, but Jenna was going to have to do this one the hard way.
“I’ll find your kin and crush them in the Great Pacific garbage patch!”
Tanner piloted the small craft up to Jerry’s face, glad her hovering was smooth and hoping Kathmandu would be her only mishap this month. It’s always scary when you might get hurt and don’t have control over the outcome, especially when you’re putting faith in an intergalactic conglomerate that makes spaceships. Distracted from the dumpster, Jerry watched the 23 Skidoo for a while, finally asking, “Why do you smell like vanilla?” when Tanner opened the lid so Jerry could see inside and his nose caught the scent.
“It’s vanillin, an extract from the vanilla bean. It helps us get along in the tight confines of the ship and smells like old books,” Jenna said, because she believed rats and people should get along too and was into peace, social justice and aromatherapy like Jerry appeared to be.
Seeming happy with Jenna’s answer, Jerry asked, “Do you know this dude?” and pointed at the dumpster.
“Not yet,” Jenna said.
“Greedy humans will drown, sputtering in their own excretions!” snarled the voice as the dumpster shook a little.
“C’mon, dumpster monster, your tiny friends have arrived!”
“No sir. Our sensors caught a rift in space so we came to help, but we’re meeting for the first time.”
“I’m totally calling the White House,” Jerry said, dialing.
Tanner piloted the ship into the dumpster while Jerry stepped away and started talking on his phone. A can of baked beans rolled out of a trash bag and sized up the rat’s ship. It was hard to tell exactly what was going on because the aluminum and steel object had a wider range of motion than the normal discarded canned good, but didn’t have any discernible facial or anatomical features.
“I shall send swarms of crushed soda cans to suffocate people like locusts. Humanity will be extinct when my swarm finds them all,” said the can of beans. “Or I shall make the cans into pointy throwing stars called shurikens and gouge people.”
“Man, you totally have to handle this because it’s over my head,” Jerry said into his phone. After a pause, he said, “Alrighty then.” Looking dejected, Jerry hung up. He hadn’t heard the latest threats to humanity’s existence. The three rats had heard, but intimidation didn’t hurt their feelings unless the threats were really personal.
“What did the White House say?” Jenna asked, genuinely interested.
Jerry didn’t want to answer. Finally, he muttered, “They told me I should handle the problem and if I couldn’t to call 911.”
Hildy said, “911 can be valuable, but law enforcement is underequipped for handling alternate dimensions.”
Jenna paused, then asked, “Does this mean you’re willing to negotiate on behalf of all earthlings, sir?”
“Uh. It’s Jerry.”
“This has to be a nightmare, so I’m game.”
“Frightening trash monster, where are you originally from?” Jenna cheerfully asked the can of beans.
“Your mom,” grumbled the trash monster.
“Okay then. We’re going to try to negotiate an intergalactic peace treaty. To recap, we have: a guy reluctantly willing to negotiate on behalf of his species because someone has to and the White House said no, a credible threat of human extinction over the next couple weeks where garbage will rise up and crush and eviscerate people, and three helpful rats who do as much good in the universe as we can. We need privacy, quick, or our two dignitaries are going to get nastier toward each other,” Jenna said, aiming the last sentence at Tanner and Hildy.
“We’re going to the Guadalupe Mountains in New Mexico!” Hildy shouted, adding, “Amazing caverns.”
Jerry looked inside the 23 Skidoo. “I can’t fit into your teensy ship.”
“Then we bolt our warpleaper to the dumpster,” Tanner said, pressing buttons quickly. A claw extended from the ship and latched onto the dumpster.
The can of beans that had been inside the trash bag growled, then said, “Get in, stupid human. We need to hash this out,” mostly because Jerry just went from representing only Jerry to suddenly representing the collective bargaining power of the entire human race.
Jerry was just tall enough to clamber into the dumpster. He expected a whooshing sound, but it was more like losing his breath and suddenly seeing a gigantic cavern appear outside the dumpster. Having been outdoors and now climbing back out of a dumpster was mind-boggling, like he was in the Grand Canyon but it had a roof.
“Alrighty. I don’t know if you’ve ever done mediation before, but there are a few ground rules we need on the table before we begin,” Jenna said, looking excited.
“I’ve studied meditation,” Jerry said, mishearing.
“No. ˌMiːdiˈeɪʃ(ə)n. We want to resolve the differences. And I think we should let the trash monster lurking inside the can of beans speak first…”
“I smell sulfuric acid in the walls of this cave and that is what I shall unleash upon you and all of your kind, stupid human. All your toxins shall be used to haunt and harm you. I shall try to spare wildlife, but they will also die due to your toxic littering. I shall lift your automobile graveyards and drop them on homes so they tumble into the sea! I shall pelt your heads with trash until your brains fall out!”
“Hey now, if we can’t work this out, I can just go public and stop all of you.” Jerry looked at the can of beans, then to the rats. He looked bummed he heard the word “mediation” wrong and that Jenna had seemed patronizing by being so phonetic about it.
“Yeah, yeah,” responded Jenna, “You can ‘rat’ on us. We’ve never heard that before. Here’s a tip: no one will believe you, just like the White House. You might get a little traction on hyperintelligent space rats occasionally stopping catastrophes, because there are rumors—but a talking can of beans gets you laughed out of town, if not institutionalized for observation.”
“I don’t feel like we’re actually negotiating,” Jerry muttered, looking down at his tennis shoes and trying to figure out when he dripped jelly on them. He felt out of place, having suddenly teleported for the first time. He hoped the stain was jelly, because otherwise it was something icky from inside the dumpster. He should have had breakfast before inadvertently heading out to negotiate an intergalactic peace treaty to save the human race.
“The earthlings shall die for their crimes, with or without me, because they are ruining their own niches in the ecosystem. No species can survive the self-destruction of their own habitat,” the can of beans said, with a bit less anger in its voice.
“Hey, man. I’m a vegetarian and if you’re like most Boston baked beans, there’s pork in your ingredients. I’ve never eaten you or created garbage made from you. And I recycle cans, except once when I left the cans on the floor without feeding the machines because I was rushing. Usually, I need that money. Plus, I know this sounds mean, but how much of this stems from your being tossed away uneaten? I see you were never opened and can understand you’d be bummed that you never got to be useful.”
“Jerry, that’s great how you’re showing empathy, but I want to clarify that you’re not actually talking to a can. The interdimensional monster is manifesting as bonded to the can in this dimension. Back in his or her own dimension, he or she probably fills this entire lovely cavern we’re hiding in.”
The can sighed, his or her paper label fluttering on one soggy, peeling edge.
“Seriously, I know you just met me and I’m not at my best this morning and look scruffy, but this is a big deal. This is the kind of thing where we might actually be able to stop you, trash monster. Maybe you can build an army out of discarded stuff, but you can’t destroy humanity without eventually encountering resistance.”
“But, dude, that’s going to happen either way, right? If you don’t, um, extirpate us with our own pollution and I don’t tell anybody about our tête-à-tête, then the human race will probably still louse up the planet and suffer mightily, just like you want. Have you thought about how you get what you want either way?”
The trash monster inside the can of beans became quiet. He or she hadn’t actually considered this line of logic and said nothing while thinking things over. Finally, the trash monster said, “I’m not really worried about the timeline on this.”
Jerry had to do something, so he put his hand over his heart. “Fine, I pledge allegiance to the purge,” he said, and then clambered back into the dumpster and shook the can of beans like it was a hand and touched a finger to the tiny paws of the rats. “I can see how this is the right deal, even if humanity louses it up: none of us go public and none of us issue any more demands and our agreement stands that the human race is on its own and will suffer the consequences of its own collective actions.”
“It doesn’t change anything,” said the trash monster.
“Nope, nothing at all,” said Jerry as he tried to figure out how to educate the public and to never burn carbon for personal use ever again. He hadn’t wanted to live in one of those super tiny houses, but suddenly it seemed worth it. He might even decorate it to look like the rats’ spaceship.
“Deal?” asked Jenna.
“Deal!” shouted everyone else, even the trash monster.
And then Jerry became a devoted environmental activist; the trash monster went back to watching people pollute Earth, looking forward to the world destruction yet to come; and the three hyperintelligent rats explored Carlsbad Caverns, got amazing pictures, and went back to their home galaxy to write and create art and leave the silly earthlings to their own devices.
Geoffrey H. Goodwin likes to tell people that he can see in the dark. Geoffrey also likes to say that books have ruined his life. He has a Shelley Jackson tattoo and lives near Boston, which is near where Geoffrey and Amy rapped a Beastie Boys song in front of a live audience. Clearly, Geoffrey lies. He has interviewed speculative writers and artists for Jessa Crispin’s Bookslut, as well as Tor.com, Sirenia Digest, The Mumpsimus, and during Ann Vandermeer’s editorship of Weird Tales. His fiction has appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (issues ten, thirteen, and fifteen), and also in Rabid Transit, two anthologies from Prime Books, and other places that are into that kind of thing or that get closer when you ignore them. In general, we are all becoming a meow of unknowing, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly. Coffee occasionally helps when you’re not sure if you’ve ever been to Ohio. We should probably look into drones because, let’s face it everybody, the kind of people who have the wherewithal to possess drones really aren’t the kind of people who should be stealing the sky from us. It’s easy to lose track of what’s on the ends of our forks when we’re busy trying to find unmarked and unpersoned vehicles that might be targeting things we care about.