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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

The Slan Corps Wants You!

"Bristol [Massachusetts] Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson wants to send certain prisoners nearing the end of their sentences halfway around the world to places such as Afghanistan. The program Hodgson is proposing would be part Foreign Legion, part Peace Corps. The maverick Republican sheriff said newly released prisoners could help rebuild war-torn countries while also benefiting personally…. Prisoners would have to volunteer."
—"Sheriff: Let prisoners rebuild Afghanistan," Eric Convey, The Boston Herald, January 31, 2004.

LUCKILY, I had packed enough reading material for the nearly twenty-four-hour trip from the U.S.A. to Pakistan. Two large postmodern British space operas, a fantasy trilogy by a promising new writer, Dozois's and Datlow and Windling's Year's Best volumes, a short-story collection that contained a recent Nebula winner, and a few fanzines. As it was, I had barely enough material to last me, and had to go back and memorize the copyright pages in the short-story collection and anthologies to kill the final five minutes before landing.

Once I had swiftly passed through Customs—my special passport garnered instant recognition and respect—I was met by a delegation from the Slan Corps, veteran members already resident in the country. Oh, of course, the Slan Corps wasn't the official name of our sponsoring organization, one of the most brilliant successes in the history of American diplomacy. To the federal government we were known as the Futurological Ambassadors. But every man and woman in the FA knew we were really the Slan Corps. The U.S.F.A. insignia on our uniforms—designed by Barclay Shaw—could not conceal what was in our hearts and minds, or deny the prosthetic tendrils beneath our hair that substituted for a regimental tie or ring.

Among my greeters, I recognized Jenny Cribb. Jenny and I had been on the Worldcon Committee together in 2004. I nodded in her direction and she spoke first.

"Live long and prosper," Jenny said, making the appropriate hand-gesture.

"TANSTAAFL," I replied.

"Do you want your briefing verbally or as hardcopy?"

"My eyes are just a little bit sore from the flight. Why not tell me what's up in your own words?"

"Sure. Let's get in the car, though. A lot of this stuff isn't cleared for the mundanes."

I shook hands all around with the other Slan Corps "geeks"—a term like "queer" that only members of the clan could honorably apply to themselves—and we soon found ourselves in an armored limo being driven through the streets of Lahore. The limo featured an inbuilt DVD player showing the first season of Babylon 5.

"Since the implosion of the Pakistani government last month," Jenny said, "we've had our hands full just maintaining civic order and vital services. India is chafing like a thoat at the bit to come in and take over, but we've held them off so far."

One of the other geeks who had introduced himself as Chester "Little Fuzzy" Seeger snorted and said, "It's worse than trying to get the riders of Rohan to fight Mordor. The Hindus can't get it through their heads that we're all on the same side. You'd think they had never even read Lord of Light! But we modified some of Aragorn's arguments slightly and used them on the Indian Prime Minister, and he agreed to give us six months to make the country stable enough for new elections."

I whistled nervously. "Whew! Not much time—"

Jenny exuded confidence. "It's going to be plenty. We've got a bombshell announcement that's going to be a bigger shock than Thraxas winning the World Fantasy Award. We just captured bin Laden yesterday."

"How the sprock did you manage that? He's been untraceable for six years now."

Jenny just smiled. "After you've stopped the Mule from taking down the Foundation and followed Muad'dib's logic, an amateur like bin Laden is easy to psych out."

"Well, this changes everything. Our allies are going to be as ecstatic as if they were dosed up on Ubik, our enemies will be spitting anti-matter, and the fence-sitters will be forced to declare whether Schrödinger's Cat is dead or alive."

"All we need to do now," Jenny continued, "is to make sure no rogue elements within Pakistan do anything to destabilize the situation. And unfortunately, one of those rogue elements consists of the generals. We know that at least three of them have nuclear weapons under their personal command, and no compunctions about using them, either as threats to get what they want, or on the battlefield. That's where your particular expertise comes in. Do you think you're up to it?"

Everyone in the limo looked a little apprehensive, and I realized a quip was in order to defuse the tension. "If I can't convince these half-educated zwilniks not to unleash Armageddon, then Battlefield Earth was a good movie."

By the time the derisory hoots of laughter stopped, we were at the Slan Corps compound, a converted madrasa building. Getting out of the car, I paused to salute the two flags flying high in the courtyard: Old Glory waving uppermost, and beneath that a banner bearing the logo of First Fandom. I was shown to my room, which was nicely decorated with several Star Wars posters and framed photographs of such inspirational heroes as H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein and Harry Warner, Jr. I was left alone to rest up from my flight, and after I did my Bates Eye Exercises I read a few select passages from David Drake, Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson to get in the proper military frame of mind. By five P.M. local time I felt ready to take on the generals in our scheduled meeting.

The conference room chosen by the generals featured lots of gold leaf and heroic statuary and a giant table, all out of Robert Jordan by way of David Eddings. I think I was supposed to feel insignificant. But after you've seen Trantor, Rama, and Lothlórien, you're not so easily impressed.

The tension in the room was thick as thread on Pern, and I knew that no pleasantries would suffice to dispel it. So I just launched right into my little show.

I started out slow, telling them about a few pastoral post-holocaust scenarios, like Davy and Earth Abides. They let down their defenses, imagining maybe I was even going to endorse their recklessness with atomics. But then, gradually, I began ramping up the carnage. I hit them with all the horrors conjured up by Judith Merril and Ward Moore, Fritz Leiber and Nevil Shute, Pat Frank and Algis Budrys, Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon. After ninety minutes of vivid story-telling, I had them all convinced their children would grow up Baldies or Richard-Matheson-style zombies. By the time I unlimbered my biggest gun—A Canticle for Leibowitz—this roomful of burly, formerly stolid men were weeping into their mustaches like a bunch of pre-teens reading the final Harry Potter book, the part where it's revealed Harry is Voldemort's son. At the end of three hours, the repentant soldiers had all confessed the locations of their secret missile caches to me, and I had already dispatched three squads of Marines—nicknamed the Dorsai, the Fremen, and the Starship Troopers—to lock down the illicit nuclear armories.

I was sweating when the meeting broke up. I had never doubted that I could accomplish my mission, but the effort had taken a lot out of me nonetheless. I decided I needed a little downtime before bed, so I went to the lounge, where several D&D games were going on. Other Corpsmembers were boning up on the standard manual of spook tactics by Linebarger and the advanced one by Sheldon. A few hours of roleplaying soothed my nerves, and I left for bed.

But not before reciting the Three Laws of Robotics, Clarke's Laws and Sturgeon's Law, lighting a candle at the official altar devoted to Hugo Gernsback, and—since it looked like my success in Pakistan might send me next to North Korea—filling out a Change of Address form for my subscription to F&SF.

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