Author’s note: A month or so ago, John Scalzi announced a contest for stories describing this image, which shows ex-Star-Trek star Wil Wheaton riding a winged unicorn pegasus kitten, a spear clutched in one hand, as he bears down on prolific blogger and science fiction writer John Scalzi, who is rendered as an orc. John invited people to come up with their own narratives to describe the action. What are they doing? Why are they there? These are my answers.
This contest is being sponsored to raise money for the Lupus Alliance of America. If you like the story, and have a few bucks spare, please consider donating.
THE COMPLEX IDENTITY OF THE ARCHETYPAL HERO
A Fictional Treatise with Unicorn Pegasus Kittens
by Rachel Swirsky
At dawn, the volcano spat a stream of ash into the sky. Black haze drifted across the plain, battering Wil’s face as he tried to sleep, insinuating between his eyelashes and coating his tongue.
Beside him, the unicorn pegasus kitten stirred, beating its ash-covered wings furiously. More black clouds whooshed into the air.
The hellscape was thick with heat and sulfur. Lava hissed and bubbled. Basalt formations cast weird, sinister shadows.
Squinting through the grit, Wil ascended his mount and urged the beast into the air. They swung upward, circling above the plain. Amid the geological chaos, Wil couldn’t hope to spot his enemy. Still, he soothed his impatience—if there was one thing he knew about the Scalzi, it was that he couldn’t remain quiet for long.
Before setting down on this fiery planet, Wil had attended one last appointment with his analyst.
She sat on her sterile, grey chair, in her sterile, grey office. The asymmetrical, plunging neckline of her turquoise dress showcased her cleavage magnificently. Black curls cascaded across her back, contrasting with her pale skin and wide, dark eyes.
“I don’t know who I am today,” Wil said by way of greeting. She gestured him to sit.
“Heroes never do.” Her alien accent was a soothing blend of Israel and Eastern Europe. “Identities are fraught. They blend together—the people we are, the roles we play, the men we wish to become. Who’s to say any of us know our true natures? But heroes confront their existential uncertainty, bringing their chosen identities into battle like talismans.”
She’d settled into a comfortable rapport with Campbell and Jung these days, ever since her vocabulary had extended past flirtation and fainting fits. She’d get a real uniform soon if she could avoid any more plots about nudity at weddings.
“I feel like things are always in flux,” Wil said. “My first kiss was with this girl, you know, just a normal teenager. Then she turns into a bear. A literal bear. ‘I’m a shape-shifter,’ she says. Where does that leave me? Where’s my sense of permanence?”
The analyst shifted—position, not shape—and widened her limpid eyes. “Who do you want to be?”
Wil shrugged. “More than some dumb kid.”
“Do you think you’re a dumb kid?”
“People say I am.”
“And how does that make you feel?”
Wil frowned. “Aren’t you supposed to be able to read my emotions?”
Sighing, the analyst shook her head. Black curls rippled. “People who know nothing about psychology think a therapist’s job is to intuit other people’s emotions. But the point of analysis isn’t to give people answers. It’s to help people find answers for themselves.”
She leaned forward, light playing over her cleavage. Her heavily mascaraed lashes rasped as she blinked, a sound like window shutters. “Sometimes,” she confided, “I suspect no one put much thought into me at all.”
There were things the Scalzi understood about how he’d come into existence, and things that remained, for the moment, unclear.
First, there was the fact of his orc-hood. This seemed comprehensible. While vague memories insisted he hadn’t always been an orc, there was a certain orc-like quality to whatever it was he’d been before. Perhaps not single-minded murderous rampage, but stubborn debate team. Besides, it was beautifully ironic for a graduate of the Webb School to eschew eating pees with his knife in favor of ripping meat off the bone with his fangs.
No, the Scalzi was more or less free of existential angst about his personal form. He was more concerned with the hows and whys of this Mordor-like landscape, which investigation had proved was not actually Mordor, due to its telltale lack of hobbits.
Something was hunting him through the dark and ash. He heard flapping in the night, of wings that made him cringe and cower, wings belonging to some creature beyond the bounds of nature—neither dragon nor manticore, but some other foul beast, with breath like rotting meat and claws that resounded off the mountainsides like swords clanging on anvils. It was not the sort of feline he could tame with his usual methods of adhesive and pork products.
He had an enemy, riding the aberrant beast. A fighter. A powerful one.
While he skulked between the shadows that stretched between basalt monoliths, the Scalzi kept his gaze on the sky. Once, he looked up in time to see the sun silhouetting his airborne opponent. The man wore raiment in red and white, emblazoned with the symbol of a mocking face. He rode straight-backed, one fist wrapped around the golden chain of an amulet, the other around the haft of a spear. His mouth contorted into a furious roar—and though the sound was swallowed by the bubbling lava and the thunderous clap of the pegasus kitten’s wings—still, chills clutched at the Scalzi’s bowels.
Heroes wear identities as talismans.
Wil contemplated his analyst’s words as he and his mount circled the volcano.
Identity warped and stretched and bent and bled. Who was he? What was a hero?
He cast a jaundiced eye downward, critically regarding his heroic pose. The amulet, the spear—not bad as quest items went—but he balked at the clown’s disturbing, knitted grin.
Then again, was the sweater any more ridiculous than the garment he’d cast off? That spandex uniform which would have made a decent pair of pajamas?
Recently, his mother had been trapped inside an ever-shrinking bubble that isolated her from her friends, one by one, until she was alone in a miniature universe just big enough for her.
This sort of thing was always happening. It didn’t seem to be the product of a coherent cosmos.
But what did? Certainly not the universe his alternate persona inhabited, in which vast conspiracies of “geeks” congregated in “newsgroups” on an enormous “world wide web” to call for his death.
Their vehemence was demoralizing on the one hand, but inspiring on the other. In order for his mother to become the center of the universe, she’d needed to eliminate all rivals until she was the only one left. Without even trying, Wil was already the center of many universes—petty ones, yes, but universes just the same. His detractors paid their hatred like adherents at an altar.
Perhaps it was their dark incantations which had summoned all this into being. One final confrontation: Wil against evil. Evil against Wil.
How the unicorn pegasus kitten was involved, Wil couldn’t venture to guess. Perhaps it was they only way an internet incantation could summon an avatar of goodness—part mythology, part LOLcat.
The Scalzi knew when he woke that this would be his last day on this hellish terrain. The strange volcanic world rumbled and shook with renewed vigor, building toward whatever explosive end it had planned.
The final battle was upon them.
Still, the Scalzi sought to force the confrontation on his terms. He skulked between basalt outcroppings until he reached the volcano’s base, and then hiked up its slippery face, hoping to mitigate his opponent’s aerial advantage.
As he scrambled upward, the Scalzi froze, hearing the kitten’s approaching call. The creature swooped—a foot away—claws scraping rock.
The Scalzi swung his axe, scratching the animal’s foreleg.
The Scalzi leapt back, heart pounding. He brandished his bloodied axe. “Have at—if you can!”
The rider growled.
“Why are you fighting me?” The Scalzi pressed. His curiosity was limited, but he understood his physical vulnerability; if he talked long enough, the kitten might tire itself out.
“Focus on more important matters,” parried the rider, “such as your imminent death.”
“Are you confusing me with a different bald man?” Scalzi riposted. “I’m not the one who killed your father. Listen! I live in Ohio! Do you think they’d let me into the Royal Shakespeare Company?”
“Mangy fleabag! You’re not worthy to compare your pate to his! Be silent, cur.”
“Make it so,” taunted the Scalzi, tugging the waist of his breastplate.
The kitten swiped. The Scalzi rolled away. Flashing claws clutched at nothing.
“You shouldn’t let yourself get so angry,” said the Scalzi. “What do you know about fighting? You’re just some stupid kid.”
The rider roared. The kitten took up his cry.
The Scalzi knew he was on to something. “Just some stupid kid,” he repeated. “Is that why you’re after me? To get revenge on the science fiction writers who made you?”
“No more, Scalzi!” shouted the writer. “Raise your axe and fight!”
This time, the kitten’s blow landed. The Scalzi staggered. Blood flowed from his punctured shoulder.
Wil was right. The time for talk was over.
Claws raked metal; metal struck rock; teeth scraped armor. At last, the Scalzi delivered a deep blow to the kitten’s flank, forcing Wil to send the creature away to recover.
Now on foot, the two wove around each other, dart and feint evenly matched. The Scalzi favored his kitten-punctured shoulder. The wound was already red and swollen with infection.
Wil’s mind whirred. He knew many ways to extricate himself from climactic battles—but they all relied on technobabble.
“I will vanquish you,” Wil hissed, bolstering himself.
“Big talk for a little boy,” countered the Scalzi.
Their duel had driven them to the lip of the volcano. Behind them, the molten mouth gaped, its churning viscera casting a weird crimson glow.
The Scalzi positioned himself downslope, driving the younger man onto an outcropping that projected over the maw. “Face it, Wil. You can’t beat me. My kind made you what you are. Writers choose your words and sculpt your scenes. We decide when you win and when you lose.”
Wil swallowed anxiously. “Not this time.”
The Scalzi sneered. “How’re you gonna stop it?”
Wil scanned the rocks at his feet, searching for anything that would give him an advantage. “Identity is fraught,” he ventured. “Writers think they’re above it all, but they aren’t. Their subconsciouses betray them. Their identities blend and change. The writer becomes both himself and the character.”
“You’re not my Gary Stu.”
“I’m every geek’s Gary Stu.” Chunks of basalt steamed at his feet. Wil scooped up a red-hot handful, bracing against the pain. “But that’s not why I’ll win.”
“I’ll win because I’m not a stupid kid anymore.”
Wil hurled the scalding rocks into the orc’s face. The Scalzi howled. Blinded and enraged, he charged, axe swinging wildly as he blundered onto the outcropping. Wil took a deep breath, marshaled his courage, and leapt.
Down, down he fell, struggling for purchase on the mountainside. Above, the orc continued to roar, struggling to clear his eyes. Wil struck out with the haft of his spear, prying loose a bolder perched near the outcropping’s narrow neck.
Stone clanged on stone. Already weakened by the morning’s tremors, the basalt creaked. With a deafening crack, the outcropping broke free.
The Scalzi screamed as he plummeted toward the lava. His axe slipped from his hand, vanishing into the molten tumult below. Wil pitched his spear after it, watching the polearm tumble end over end.
“I grew up,” Wil whispered, expression stoic as he watched his enemy disappear.