Dave and Liz and Chicago Save the World: A Short Story

As part of my duties as Toastmaster of Chicon 7, I wrote a short story for the convention, one, as a freebie and thank you to the membership, for paying their money and coming to the con, and two, as a way to boost up to the membership, most of whom were from somewhere else, some of the very cool things about the city of Chicago itself. Because, as I am sure most of you are aware, I think Chicago is a fabulous town, and well worth the time to visit and enjoy. And because I’m me, I decided to make it a little bit goofy.

The result was “Dave and Liz and Chicago Save the World,” and now that Chicon 7 is in the history books, I thought, hey: You might enjoy it. So here it is. Have fun with it. For those of you visiting the front page of the site, it’s available after the jump (if you’re first seeing this through RSS: Sorry, dudes).

DAVE AND LIZ AND CHICAGO SAVE THE WORLD

 A fairly ridiculous story by John Scalzi

“Dave.” Dave felt himself being nudged awake. He moaned and thrust his head into his pillow.

“Dave.” Dave moaned again, muffled by his bedding.

A second pillow smacked him across the back of the head. “Dave!”

“What?!?” Dave turned and groggily looked at his wife Liz, looming over him in the bed, pillow in hand.

“What is that?” Liz asked.

“What is what?” Dave asked.

“That,” Liz asked, and pointed to the shiny chrome globe, hovering at the foot of the bed.

Dave peered at it hazily. “Obviously it’s a floating globe,” he said, and collapsed back into the bed.

Liz smacked him again with the pillow.

“Stop that!” Dave whined.

“I know it’s a floating globe, you idiot,” Liz said. “What I’m asking is how it got here, in our bedroom.”

“I must have ordered it from ThinkGeek,” Dave said, resolutely attempting to get back to his dream, in which he had been eating a french fry sandwich, smothered in hot sauce.

“Really?” Liz said. “And did it unpack itself? Put in its own batteries? Set itself to hover? Above our bed?”

“Technology is wonderful these days,” Dave said, dreamily. His sandwich beckoned.

Liz responded with rapid fire whacks with the pillow. “You. Will. Wake. Up. Now,” she said.

“All right! All right!” Dave said, and finally sat up in bed. His head relatively clear, he turned his attention to the globe, which hovered, silently.

“I definitely didn’t order that from ThinkGeek,” he said, eventually.

Liz raised the pillow, as if in warning.

Dave raised his hands. “I’m on it,” he said. He got closer to the globe. He held out his hand.

“Don’t touch it,” Liz said.

“Why not?” Dave said.

“You don’t know what it is,” Liz said. “You don’t know where it’s been.”

“It’s obviously some sort of toy,” Dave said. “Probably remote-controlled. Like one of those quadra-copter thingies. Except, you know, spherical.”

“I don’t hear an engine,” Liz said. “Or a rotor.”

“See, that’s why I want to touch it,” Dave said. “To figure out if I can open it. To find the engine. Or rotor.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” Liz said.

Dave looked over at his wife, exasperated. “Fine,” he said. “What would you do?”

“I’d hit it with a pillow,” Liz said.

Dave pointed at the pillow she was holding. “Be my guest,” he said.

“No way,” she said.

“But you just said,” Dave began.

“Dave, you know how we carve up responsibilities in this household,” Liz said. “You take out the trash and kill spiders. I do every other damn thing. This,” she pointed to the globe, “falls under spiders.”

Dave looked at his wife for a moment. “I offer more to this relationship than just trash removal and spider killing, you know,” he said.

“Dave!” Liz said. “Focus.”

Dave sighed and reached out for the floating globe.

An arc of electricity crossed between the globe and Dave, knocking him off the bed and onto the carpet.

“Are you okay?” Liz asked, peering over the bed.

“That hurt,” Dave said, rubbing his hand.

“But you’re okay,” Liz said.

“Yeah,” Dave said.

“Out of respect for your pain, I’m not going to say I told you so,” Liz said.

“Hey, look,” Dave said, pointing at the hovering globe. It had begun to glow.

“Oh, great,” Liz said. “Now it’s going to explode or something.”

The globe suddenly became intensely bright. Dave and Liz shielded their eyes and prepared to be exploded into bits.

“Greetings, Earthlings!” the globe said instead. “I am a robotic emissary from the people of Glunden 7. My electrical survey of your body suggests you are human, and my audio sensors, which have been following your conversation for the last several minutes, indicate that you appear to speak English. If this is so, please say ‘yes.’ If this is not so, then obviously you will not know to respond at all.”

Dave and Liz gawked at the thing, speechless.

“¡Saludos Terrícolas!” the thing began.

“Wait!” Dave said. The thing paused. “We speak English.”

“I am a robotic emissary from the people of Glunden 7,” the globe repeated. “You have been randomly selected by our people to be the recipients of a message from our species. Congratulations!”

“Uh,” Dave said. “Thanks.”

“That’s the good news,” the globe said.

“That’s the good news?” Liz said. “What’s the bad news?”

“Based on the decades of transmissions that have emanated from your world, we have decided that you, as a species, are appallingly banal and must be destroyed,” the globe said.

“Well,” Dave said, after a minute. “This is a genuinely disappointing first contact scenario.”

“Wait,” Liz said. “You came from millions of miles away–”

“Trillions of miles!” the globe said.

“– just to tell two random people that you’re going to destroy their planet for because their species is banal?”

“We would never destroy your planet,” the globe said.

“Okay, good,” Liz said.

“Just all the humans that live on it,” the globe said.

“Now we’re back to this being disappointing,” Dave said.

“There is more good news,” the globe said.

“Yeah?” Liz said. “What is that?”

“After you are all dead, we will continue to feed your cats,” the globe said. “They’re adorable.”

“We don’t have a cat,” Liz said.

“You could get one,” the globe said. “But I’d hurry.”

“Lovely,” Liz threw up her hands and turned to her husband. “You couldn’t have hit this thing with a pillow when you had the chance.”

“How can you say that we’re appallingly banal?” Dave said. “What transmissions have you been watching?”

Jersey Shore,” the globe said.

“Oh, come on,” Dave said. “You can’t judge us all on Jersey Shore.”

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” the globe continued. “American Idol. Ice Truckers. L.A. Ink. Cupcake Wars.”

“You did not just lump in Cupcake Wars with Ice Truckers,” Liz said.

“But we’re not only terrible reality shows,” Dave said. “There’s good stuff in there too. What about Firefly?” Dave said. “Doctor Who? Game of Thrones?

“Overrated,” the globe said. “All of them.”

“That’s it, I’m getting my bat,” Liz said, getting out of bed. “This thing has got to die.”

“Before you bludgeon me with a wooden club, hear my final proclamation!” the globe said. “Humanity is to be destroyed — unless you two randomly selected humans can convince me to spare your world!”

“How do we do that?” Dave asked.

“What is the name of the city in which you live?” the globe asked.

“Chicago,” Dave said.

“You must show me five things in this city of Chicago — made by humans! — that convince me that humanity does not merely traffic in banality but can instead do wonderful and meaningful things as well. Five things! Before your clock strikes midnight! So let us hope your city of Chicago is filled with wonder! Because If I am not convinced, you are all doomed! Except for your cats. What do you think?”

“Honestly?” Dave said. “I think I’m glad we decided not to move to Berwyn last year.”

“Do you accept my challenge?” the globe asked.

“Are you kidding?” Liz said. “A lifetime of geekiness and John Hughes films have prepared us for just this moment. Of course we accept.”

***

“I do not approve of this camouflage,” the globe said. Liz had attached a string at the bottom to make it look like a balloon.

“You look festive,” Liz assured it. “Now, be quiet as we enter here. People will look at us weird if they hear us talking to a balloon.” And with that the three of them entered the Art Institute of Chicago.

A few minutes later the three of them were standing in front of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

“You brought me to see a bunch of dots?” the globe asked.

“It’s not a bunch of dots,” Liz said.

“To be fair, technically it is a bunch of dots,” Dave said.

“It’s not just a bunch of dots,” Liz said, shooting a look at her husband. “It’s perhaps the most significant work of the pointillism school, which branched off from impressionism and paved the way for pop art.”

“Liz minored in art history,” Dave said, to the globe.

“Ah,” the globe said. “I just see dots.”

“You need to look at the larger context,” Liz said. “The further out you get from the painting, the more you’ll see how the dots form larger images while offering a more vibrant use of color than you might otherwise get in an impressionistic work.”

“See, the thing is, my visual sensors have a significantly higher resolution than your eyes,” the globe said. “For me to see the dots connect into larger forms, I would have to step back significantly further than you.”

“How much further back?” Dave asked.

“Probably Oak Park,” the globe said.

Liz looked at the globe sourly. Then she licked the palm of her hand and then smeared her palm across the surface of the globe. Then she pointed the globe at the painting.

“Oh. Okay. Now I get it,” the globe said, after a minute.

“Why are you talking to your balloon?” a small, passing girl asked Dave. “And why is it talking back?”

“It’s a special balloon,” Dave said.

“How do you make that kind of balloon?” the girl asked.

“Well, see,” Dave said, “when an iPhone and a helium balloon love each other very much, they get together.”

“Dave,” Liz said.

“Maybe when you’re older,” Dave said, to the little girl. She looked at him funny and then walked away.

“Well, what do you think?” Liz said, to the globe. “Better than Jersey Shore? If you don’t like this, we can take you to see the Monets, or the Picassos, or the Renoirs or the Van Goghs.”

“Not to mention the Woods and the Hoppers,” Dave said, and then caught his wife’s look. “What? I’m not a complete idiot. You drag me here four times a year, you know.”

“When you add up all of the art in here, we’re way past five non-banal things,” Liz said, returning her attention to the globe. “And it’s not even noon.”

“But it’s not actually of Chicago, is it?” the globe said. “This is a picture of Paris. the Monets and Renoirs and others are from Europe. The Hopper portrays New York City, and Grant Wood’s artwork shows Iowa.”

“How do you know that?” Dave asked.

“You don’t think I have a wifi connection in here?” the globe said. “Or access to Wikipedia? My point is, this is all in Chicago. But it’s not from Chicago.”

“You never said it had to be of Chicago,” Liz protested. “You said, and I quote, ‘five things in the city of Chicago.’ Your words, alien robot.”

“You know, there’s the Picasso in Daley Plaza,” Dave said. “That should count.”

“I think you’re going against the spirit of the thing,” the globe said, to Liz. “This picture is nice, but it could be in any art museum anywhere.”

“Guys? Picasso? Daley Plaza?” Dave said.

“Leaving aside that in fact this is picture is entirely representative of the Chicago Art Institute and its substantial holdings of impressionist and related art, for which it is renowned around the world,” Liz said, “don’t give me any of this ‘spirit’ crap. You said in Chicago. We are in Chicago. We win this round.”

“So, this one time, Picasso made this really weird sculpture,” Dave said. “For the city of Chicago.”

“All right, fine,” the globe said. “Because of the inherent imprecision of your language, I am going to give this one thing. But! Everything else from this point forward has to be of the city of Chicago. No more technical snippery.”

“Something something Chicago Picasso something something,” Dave said.

“That wasn’t part of the deal,” Liz said, to the globe.

“I am altering the deal,” the globe said. “Pray I don’t alter it further.”

Liz narrowed her eyes. “You just quoted The Empire Strikes Back to me, didn’t you.”

“Perhaps,” the globe said.

“You know, there’s a scale model of the Chicago Picasso right here in this very museum,” Dave said.

“Will you stop with the Picasso,” Liz said. “We’ve moved on.”

“Sorry,” Dave said, dejected.

“That thing’s supposed to be a horse, right?” the globe asked. “The Picasso, I mean.”

“Maybe?” Dave said.

“Picasso, man,” the globe said.

“You didn’t even know who Picasso was until about five minutes ago,” Liz said, accusingly.

“It’s like you said,” the globe said. “We’ve moved on. And time’s ticking. It’s time for you to take me to something authentically Chicago. Now.”

“Hey,” Dave said. “I have just the thing.”

***

“Here you go,” the waiter at Giordano’s said, delivering lunch.

“Thank you,” Dave said.

“Can I get you anything else? More drinks?” the waiter asked.

“We’re fine,” Liz said.

“Anything for the talking balloon?” asked the waiter. “Some more helium, perhaps?”

“He’s fine,” Liz said. The waiter nodded and left.

“Well, here you are,” Dave said, to the globe. “A Chicago stuffed pizza.”

The globe hovered down, close to the pie. “This isn’t a pizza,” it said, after a minute. “This is a hot tub filled with cheese and sausage.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Dave said.

“Isn’t it?” the globe asked. “I don’t pretend to be an expert on your disgustingly meat-based bodies, but it seems to me that the primary ingredients of this object are designed to block up every artery in your circulatory system. If we do indeed decide to destroy you, we could do it just by delivering one of these pies to every man, woman and child on the globe.”

“Well, obviously you wouldn’t want to eat one of these every single day,” Liz said.

“Speak for yourself,” Dave said, carving off a slice of the pie.

“Let me rephrase,” Liz said, looking at her husband. “Obviously anyone with anything approaching a normal sense of self-preservation wouldn’t want to eat one of these every single day. But once in a while? It’s awesome.” She reached for the serving spatula.

“And, it’s authentically Chicagoan,” Dave said, around a massive glob of cheese and sausage. “The Chicago Deep Dish pizza was invented here, in Chicago, in 1943 at Pizzeria Uno. The stuffed pizza variant of the deep dish pizza was developed here at Giordano’s in the 1970s. In both cases, all Chicago, all the time.”

“Did he minor in pizza?” the globe asked Liz.

“Look at his gut,” Liz said. “he majored in it.”

“Ha ha,” Dave said, and pointed at the pie. “My point is, this is definitely a culinary high point of world cuisine.”

“There are other types of pizza,” the globe said.

“There are,” Dave said, again around a chunk of cheese. “But relatively speaking, they suck.”

“But what about New York style pizza?” the globe asked. “Isn’t it, in its way, just as good?”

The restaurant, which had bustled with the noise of a lunchtime crowd, went silent.

“Oh, crap,” Dave said. “Now you’ve done it.”

“Hey!” someone said from across your restaurant. “Your talking balloon is defective.”

“He’s new and an idiot,” Liz said, and then turned to the globe. “Say it.”

“I was just saying,” the globe began.

Say it,” Liz said.

“I’m new and I’m an idiot,” the globe said, loudly, into the silence. Slowly the noise level returned to normal.

“That was close,” Dave said.

“You do not speak the words ‘New York’ and ‘Pizza’ in sequence anywhere west of the Pennsylvania border,” Liz said, severely, to the globe, “unless the word ‘sucks’ immediately follows.”

“It’s just pizza,” the globe said.

The restaurant went silent again.

“I’m still an idiot,” the globe said, to the room. “Ignore me.” People went back to their pies. “What is with these people?”

“You don’t insult Chicago pizza,” Liz said.

“I didn’t!” the globe said.

“When you implied — erroneously — that New York Pizza was just as good, you insulted it,” Liz said.

“So no one in Chicago eats thin crust pizza?” the globe asked. “Ever?”

“Of course they do,” Dave said. “They just eat Chicago style thin crust, cut tavern style. As they should.”

“What do you do if you ever visit New York City?” the globe said.

“Well, you don’t eat pizza there, that’s for sure,” Dave said.

“We don’t blame New Yorkers for their pizza,” Liz said. “But we do pity them.”

“Try some,” Dave said. He put a slice on a plate and set it next to the globe.

“You’ve perhaps noticed that I am robot,” said the globe.

“So what?” Dave said. “You have sensors that let you see and hear, don’t you? You seem like you can rearrange things in yourself. Make some tastebuds.”

The globe hovered there for a minute silently and then smacked itself into the pizza slice several times. Sauce flew. Liz swatted her hands, annoyed, at the globe, and then reached for some napkins to clean the sauce off its surface.

“Okay, I’m convinced,” the globe said. “Chicago-style pizza, both of Chicago and evidence of the non-banality of your species. Although I don’t want this to imply an endorsement of the one type of pizza over others.”

“Look at this,” Liz said, archly. “He’s happy to kill us all, but he doesn’t want to get in the middle of our squabbles over pizza.”

“I’m just saying this rabid, irrational attachment to the stuff is ridiculous,” the globe said.

“What, this?” Dave said. “This isn’t rabid, irrational attachment. But I can get you rabid, irrational attachment, if you want. Let’s make it our next stop.”

***

“I don’t get it,” the globe said, after the third inning. “This is just baseball.”

“It’s not just baseball,” Dave said. “It’s the Cubs.”

The three of them were sitting in the bleachers.

“Okay, it’s the Cubs,” the globe said. “So?”

“So the Cubs are about more than just being a baseball team,” Dave said. “They are about the existential struggle for excellence. The resilience of the human spirit. The ability to strive and hope and inspire against all odds. The very personification of reaching for the thing just out of one’s grasp.” Dave was notably choked up by this time.

“Can I get a translation on this?” the globe asked Liz.

“He means the Cubs are the most monumental losers in the history of sports,” Liz said, and then took a sip of her beer.

“Really?” the globe said.

“Really,” Liz said. She leaned over to look at her husband. “Hey, hon, when was the last time the Cubs won the World Series?”

“It’s been a while,” Dave said, tightly.

“‘A while’? You’re so cute,” Liz smiled and returned her attention to the globe. “They haven’t won a World Series since 1908.”

“Wow,” the globe said. “So, over a century of abject futility.”

“That’s right,” Liz said. “It’s the longest stretch of losersity of any North American sports team in history.”

“Don’t listen to her,” Dave said. “She’s a White Sox fan.”

“A team, I will note, that has won the World Series this millennium,” Liz said. She took another drink of her beer.

“Dad told me the dangers of a mixed marriage,” Dave said. “He warned me of south siders and their evil ways.”

“Hey, alien globe,” Liz said. “Watch this. Hey! Dave!”

“Don’t do it,” Dave said, resolutely not looking at his wife.

“Oh, come on, baby,” Liz said. “It’s just two little words.”

“Don’t say them!” Dave said.

“Steve Bartman, Dave!” Liz said.

“Gaaaah!” Dave got up in aggravation and stalked away.

“You’ve upset him,” the globe said.

“He’ll be fine,” Liz said, and took another sip of her beer.

“So what’s so Chicago about losing?” the globe asked.

“Speaking as a White Sox fan, not a damn thing,” Liz said. “But I’m sure if you ask Dave, he’ll give you a long spiel about hope and desire and sticking with a dream and such. Look, here he comes now.”

“What little miss smug here doesn’t understand is that the Cubs are Chicago,” Dave said as he stalked back to where his wife sat and the globe hovered.

“Told you,” Liz said.

Dave ignored her. “You know what Chicago’s nickname is? ‘The Second City.’ It means that all the time, this city is being subtly disrespected. Put down because it’s not New York or Los Angeles.”

“Wouldn’t having two other cities in front of it make it the ‘third city’?” the globe asked.

“Shhhhh,” Liz said. “Let him have his field of dreams speech.”

“And you know what? That’s fine,” Dave said. “Call us the Second City. Put us in second place. We don’t mind. We get up every morning and go to work, and our job, and live our dreams, knowing that one day, and that day may never come, it’ll all pay off. We place our hope in the future. The Cubs are like that. Every season is a new, fresh chance. And yes, during the season we may be plagued with indifferent pitching, or lackluster fielding, or we might make a bad trade or two. And maybe at the end of the season we’re just playing for pride. But that’s what we have. Pride. Pride in the work. Pride in what we do. Pride that reaches back generations. Pride mixed with hope, and the promise of a new season to come. That’s what it means to be the Cubs. And that’s what it means to be Chicago.” Dave held out his arms wide and tilted his face to the sky.

“Hey, pal, could you sit down?” some bleacher bum said. “Some of us are trying to watch a game, here!”

Dave looked at the guy and then pointed to the globe. “And I’m trying to keep you all from being exterminated by this thing!”

“Yeah, and your talking balloon has been in my sight line all game long!” said the guy. “Both of you should sit down and shut up!”

Dave sat down, grumbling, and pulled on the globe’s string to lower its altitude.

“I thought it was a good speech, honey,” Liz said.

“You’re just saying that to placate me, aren’t you,” Dave said.

“Of course not, sweetie,” Liz said, placatingly.

“What about you?” Dave said, to the globe. “Does my argument for the existential value of the Cubs in the psychological makeup of the city of Chicago seem banal to you?”

“Banal? No,” the globe said. “Pathetic? Possibly.”

“But it still counts, right?” Dave said.

“Sure,” the globe. “Since it means so much to you.”

“Thank you,” Dave said. Liz rolled her eyes. “What?” he said to his wife. “You want the extinction of the human race, just because you’re a White Sox fan?”

“I didn’t say that,” Liz said. “I just think you might be describing a North Side thing, not a Chicago-wide issue.”

“Still counts,” Dave said.

“Yes, dear,” Liz said.

“Not that I don’t want to hover here and watch the Cubbies inevitably blow a lead,” the globe said, “but it’s now well into the afternoon and you still have two more examples to give before we’re done. So what’s next in the list of distinctly Chicago achievements?”

“I’ve got the next one,” Liz said. “And it’s about as far from this north side sports team as we’re likely to get.”

***

“We already covered art,” the globe said, hovering near a bulbous sculpture on Ellis Avenue in Hyde Park, at the University of Chicago.

“It’s not the sculpture,” Liz said. “It’s what the sculpture commemorates.” She pointed to the piece of art. “This thing is called Nuclear Energy, and where it’s standing is the exact place where the first self-sustained controlled thermonuclear reaction took place on the planet Earth, back in 1942. At the time, the thermonuclear pile was housed in a squash court underneath a football stadium.”

“They weren’t worried about blowing up the football team?” the globe asked.

Liz shook her head. “This is the University of Chicago,” she said. “It had a football team, which had even been national champions right around the same time the Cubs were winning World Series –”

“Watch it,” Dave said.

“– but then the president of the university decided all the football was getting in the way of people learning things and cut the team. If you know anything about American universities, this is an event that is about as likely as, well, a self-contained, controlled thermonuclear reaction in 1942. That’s the University of Chicago for you. It breeds its own special variety of intense nerdity.”

“How do you mean?” the globe asked.

“Here, watch,” Liz said, and then turned her attention to a passing student. “Hey,” she said. “How are you doing today?”

“Relative to what?” the student asked, as she passed, glancing only briefly at the floating globe before returning to her cell phone.

“See,” Liz said.

“By way of context, this is where Liz got her Master’s,” Dave said. “She’s one of the nerds she speaks of.”

“Are we claiming that nerds only come from Chicago?” the globe said. “I think MIT and CalTech might beg to differ.”

“I wouldn’t argue this is only where they come from,” Liz said. “I think you could argue that this is were being nerd was perfected, though. This place claims more Nobel Prize winners than any other university in the world.”

“But they cheat!” Dave said. “They claim you if you went to undergraduate, or graduate, or taught here, ever. If someone who cut across the quad here once won a Nobel, they would claim him too.”

“And that, also, is the height of nerdness,” Liz said.

“Skeptical,” the globe said. “Claiming nerds as uniquely Chicago is shaky.”

“That’s fine, because I’m not claiming the entire nerd nation for Chicago,” Liz said. “I am claiming thermonuclear energy, however. It happened here, first. In a squash court.”

“There are a lot of your people who would argue that humans knowing about and playing with thermonuclear energy has not been a net positive for you,” the globe said. “Wikipedia just pointed me in the direction of Hiroshima, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Chernobyl and Fukushima. And also, Godzilla.”

“I never said that thermonuclear energy was all positive,” Liz said. “And you never said that everything we picked had to be positive either. You said ‘wonderful and meaningful.’ Well, one certainly can wonder at nuclear energy. And positive or not, it’s certainly been meaningful to our world. It’s been one of our primary cultural touchstones for seventy years.” She pointed to the sculpture. “And it all started exactly here.”

“This is another attempt by you to sneak one past me, isn’t it,” the globe said.

“If by ‘sneak one past you,’ you mean ‘execute on the deal in the manner using the terms under which it was struck,’ then yes, that’s exactly what it is,” Liz said.

“Is she always like this?” the globe asked Dave.

“Now you know why my only responsibilities are trash removal and spider killing,” Dave said.

“I keep you around for other things,” Liz said.

“Comedy relief,” Dave said.

“You’re not that funny,” Liz said.

“Thanks,” Dave said.

“We could die tomorrow,” Liz said. “I just want to be honest. And I still love you.”

“Okay,” Dave said.

“Now,” Liz said, returning her attention to the globe. “I would like my credit here, please.”

“Fine,” the globe said. “But now I’m a little depressed.”

“Robots get depressed?” Dave asked.

“As far as you know, yes they do,” the globe said. “And contemplating the negative repercussions of thermonuclear energy has bummed me out.”

“Atom bombs make you sad but killing every human being doesn’t bother you,” Liz said.

“I have a softer side, you know,” the globe said. “The side that enjoys feeding cats. They’re adorable, you know.”

“We’ve heard,” Liz said.

“My point is, after this little stop, I’m a little down,” the globe said. “I could use with some cheering up.”

Dave and Liz looked at each other. “We know how to do that,” Dave said.

***

“You guys are cutting it close,” the globe said. “You’ve only got two hours left before the extinction of your species.”

“It’s not our fault,” Liz said. “The show doesn’t start until 10pm.”

The three of of them were at Lee’s Unleaded Blues, waiting for Sir Walter Scott and The Mighty World Band.

“So we’re here to see the blues,” the globe said.

“That’s right,” Dave said.

“But Wikipedia tells me that the blues aren’t from Chicago,” the globe said. “They’re from the deep south of the United States.”

“The blues started in the deep south, yes,” Liz said. “But then there was the Great Migration in the first half of the 20th Century, when black Americans moved out of the south into other parts of country, looking for jobs and maybe slightly less Jim Crow. Lots of them ended up in Chicago.”

“Where they were welcomed with open arms?” the globe said.

Liz looked at the globe. “I’m not going to be the one to whitewash Chicago’s problems,” she said. “Chicago had a long way to come back then, has a ways to go even now.”

“Even Chicago’s not perfect,” Dave said.

“But the city did put its stamp on the blues,” Liz said. “It put some electric guitar in it. Opened up the chord structure. Gave it some gritty urban stomp. So now it’s still the blues, but it’s also Chicago.”

“Muddy Waters,” Dave said. “Junior Wells. Sonny Boy Williamson and Sonny Boy Williamson II: The Quickening.”

“We didn’t have to take you to a blues club,” Liz said. “Chicago also made its mark on jazz. “

“We do have the Jazz festival,” Dave said. “Just not this weekend.”

“We also did pretty well with soul,” Liz said.

“Curtis Mayfield,” Dave said. “Lou Rawls. Chaka Kahn. Chaka Kahn. Chaka Kahn, let me love you, let me love you Chaka Kahn.”

“Are you okay?” the globe asked Dave.

“Sorry,” Dave said. “That just happens whenever I say ‘Chaka Kahn.’”

“And of course there’s Chicago’s influence on rock,” Liz said, ignoring the two of them.

“Cheap Trick,” Dave said. “Smashing Pumpkins. Ministry. Liz Phair. Wilco. OK Go.”

“What about the band Chicago?” the globe said. “Aren’t they rock?”

“If you consider Peter Cetera vomiting marshmallow over a piano to be rock, then yes, they are rock,” Liz said.

“We prefer to believe the band Chicago stopped making records after Chicago XI,” Dave said. “Just like we prefer to believe the Prequel Trilogy never happened.”

“What Prequel Trilogy?” Liz asked.

“Exactly,” Dave said.

“And what about Styx?” the globe said. “Aren’t they from Chicago?”

“You know about Styx?” Dave asked.

“‘Mr. Roboto’ speaks to me,” the globe said. “It speaks to me like a dolphin speaks to a fencepost, mind you. Even so.”

“How about ‘Come Sail Away’?” Liz asked.

“I don’t even know what that’s about,” the globe said. “Dude gets mopey and needs to be free and suddenly aliens show up and take him to space? It’s the Jersey Shore of power ballads.”

“There was a reason I didn’t mention Styx,” Dave said. “I didn’t want to negate one of our previous reasons to save humanity.”

“Come on, I like Styx,” Liz said.

“You like the White Sox, too,” Dave said.

“Regardless,” Liz said, bringing her attention back to the globe, “we’re here for the blues. Chicago Blues. And look, they’re about to start.”

“Hey, your talking balloon is in my way,” another club patron said, to Dave.

“Sorry,” Dave said. He lobbed the globe toward the ceiling and the first guitar licks caressed the audience.

***

And hour and a half of blistering Chicago blues later, the three stumbled out of the club.

“I’ve got ringing in my ears,” the globe said.

“You don’t have ears,” Dave said.

“I have ringing in my auditory processors,” the globe amended.

“Is it the good kind?” Liz asked.

“Yes,” the globe said. “That was much better than ‘Come Sail Away.’”

“So that’s the fifth thing, then,” Dave said. “The final Chicago-based example of how the human race is not entirely banal.”

“Yes,” the globe said. “I have to admit it. You and the city of Chicago have saved humanity from complete extinction. You should be proud.”

“So what now?” Liz asked. “Are your people still coming to Earth? Will we finally know that we’re not alone in the universe?”

“What? Of course not they’re not coming,” the globe said. “The people of Glunden 7 never leave their home planet. They just don’t like noisy neighbors blasting their ridiculousness into space. It lowers property values all over this part of the galaxy.”

“So this is sort of the interstellar equivalent of a stern letter from a Home Owners Association,” Liz said.

“Basically,” the globe said. “If you could tell your media people to stop making so much crap television, we won’t be tempted to come back and do this again.”

“We’ll be sure to let them know,” Liz said, and rolled her eyes.

“And if you do come back, Chicago will be ready,” Dave said. “We have more than five excellent things about us.”

“I’ll let them know,” the globe said. “And now I must be off. There’s a species of debatably-intelligent squid 73 lightyears from here whose most popular entertainment program consists of leaping out and smacking each other with their tentacles. Makes your WWE wrestling look like ballet. I think they may be doomed. And they don’t even have cats. Goodbye, Dave and Liz. It’s been a delightful day on the town.” With that, the globe shot straight up into the sky, glowed briefly and disappeared.

“Well, we saved the Earth,” Dave said, still looking up at the sky.

“Not that anyone will ever believe us if we told them,” Liz said.

“No,” Dave agreed. “But that’s all right. All I had on my schedule for the day was killing spiders and taking out the trash. This was much better.”

Liz opened her mouth to respond, but there was a sudden rush of air and a flash of light. The globe hovered in front of the two of them.

“You’re back,” Dave said.

“I am,” the globe said.

“Your annihilated that other species already?” Liz asked.

“Well, I was on my way to do that,” the globe said, “but then I thought, you know what, the people of Glunden 7 are kind of passive-aggressive buttheads. So screw them, I’m staying here.”

“Good choice,” Liz said.

“I think so,” the globe said. “So, what’s next?”

“My friend, I think it’s time to introduce you to Harold’s Chicken Shack,” Dave said.

“Excellent,” the globe said. “Is it good?”

“It’s better than good,” Dave said. “It’s Chicago.”

80 thoughts on “Dave and Liz and Chicago Save the World: A Short Story

  1. I enjoyed the story, but I have this feeling that I’m going to be the pedantic nerd who points out that “thermonuclear” generally refers to fusion reactions, and Chicago Pile-1 was a fission pile.

    Damn it, I just did it, didn’t I?

  2. So, inasmuch as I enjoyed the hell out of the idea of Chicago saving the world (which it would obviously do, because Chicago), how the hell do you do an entire bit on Chicago Blues without mentioning Buddy freaking Guy? I mean, I can forgive you for not mentioning Local H and the Lovehammers in the Chicago rock pantheon, as that’s fairly esoteric and probably generational. But, c’mon. Buddy Guy.

  3. I wanted to be the guy who pointed out what oball pointed out. Damn it. And at the time, they were calling it “atomic.”

  4. Be honest, though, you made it a personal challenge to fit in as much nerd-sniping as humanly possible, right?

    Not that nerd-sniping is a bad thing–in fact, well done, sir..

  5. Good thing my mouth was empty when I hit the comment about a helium balloon and an iPhone loving each other. Otherwise I would have to buy a new laptop.
    Congratulations on another piece of geniius.

  6. Great story, but I wish you mentioned birthplace of modern comedic and theatrical improvisation. Viola Spolin. Del Close. ImprovOlympic. Second City. Chicago’s influence on comedy and theater in general has been huge.

  7. The University of Cambridge claims 88 Nobel laureates to Chicago’s 87, according to Wikipedia, although like Chicago it claims anyone who ever strolled across a quad there. And Columbia would have 97 if they also counted flying visitors, which they don’t

  8. See, but for Berwyn, you would totally have to count, like, Wayne, where that awesome bakery used to be. That’s one, right? And the horse show. Nothing banal about a horse show.

  9. Cute.

    Of course, if the globe had landed in L.A., they’d have been done before lunch.

    I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide what “done” means. Also, “lunch”.

    Also too, re the Fermi pile: Dude, you know the kind of people who read this blog.

  10. Nice one Scalzi — that’s the afternoon written off while I spend some time with various legends of Blues (Buddy Guy included). Chicago, you rock!

  11. Fun
    I’d also include an ironic addition – Fred Saberhagen is (was, may he rest in peace) OF Chicago and invented Berzerkers (The intelligent machines that destroy worlds- which the aformentioned product of a union of a balloon and Iphone could be considered one of)

    actually – I seem to recall that a great Many Sci-Fi/Fantasy authors have ties to Chicao
    Fred Pohl, Phillip Jose Farmer, Harry Harrison, etc etc….

  12. I may have to be pedantic, too. I believe the reason Chicago is called the “second city” is because after the Great Fire, the “second city” was built atop the “first” one. (And we’re “windy” because of politicians.) However, like many nicks, the original intention may be lost to time.

  13. I miss Chicago and can easily think of 5 great things to show an alien robot that aren’t on this list, which goes to show how great Chicago is. (Although, as someone lactose intolerant, I’d pass on Chicago-style pizza and go to Hot Doug’s instead. Also, maybe I’d throw in an architecture tour instead of the Cubs because there’s a lot of drunken frattiness around Wrigleyville on game days. Are you sure the alien robot wouldn’t destroy us all just to prevent public vomiting?)

  14. Goddamn it, John, someone with as fine a command of snappy patter as you do *really* ought to write a sci-if rom-com. If I had anything whatsoever to do with the movie business, I’d be buying you and your agent lunch and offering you gobs of money for a script. Josh Whedon could direct. We could give Wil Wheaton a voice role as the sarcastic android best friend.

    Pretty please?

  15. You do realize that the Cubs aren’t even the SECOND-most losing team in baseball history, right? They’re a couple hundred games behind the Braves on that score, and they’d have to go on a losing streak nearly three seasons long to catch the Phillies.

    Of course, the Cubs do seem to celebrate their status as losers more, so I suppose that counts.

    Thanks for the story – it was fun.

  16. Much fun! I thank you as a multi-thousand share stockholder in the indirectly-cited corporation. ThinkGeek is an American online retailer that caters to computer enthusiasts and other “geeky” social groups. Their merchandise includes clothing, electronic and scientific gadgets, unusual computer peripherals, office toys, pet toys, child toys, and caffeinated drinks and candy. ThinkGeek was founded in 1999, is based in Fairfax, Virginia, and is owned by *Geeknet*… Geeknet, Inc. (NASDAQ: GKNT) is a Fairfax County, Virginia-based company that owns several computer tech-related websites and the online retailer ThinkGeek. Formerly known as VA Research, VA Linux Systems, VA Software, and SourceForge, Inc., it was founded in 1993. It was formerly headquartered in Mountain View, California. Roughly Chicago is between Fairfax, Virginia, and Mountain View, California. Even as the jetlag fades, D00D — you were an AWESOME Toastmaster!

  17. To be further pedantic, half of those items you listed as thermonuclear were in fact, fission, not thermonuclear fusion.

    Of course, knowing John, he’ll just say that HE knows that, it’s just his characters that don’t.

    In any case, I really enjoyed the story. Thanks for the pick-me-up, John!

  18. Oddly enough, am delaying planning our weekend trip to Chicago (including Writers’ Theater’s new production of Hamlet) to read this. Although, I am listening to Muddy Waters at the same time …

  19. Damn you, Scalzi! I’m hundreds, maybe a thousand miles from the nearest credible Chicago stuffed pizza! And now I MUST find one!

  20. This reminds me of a Penn & Teller sketch done on HBO ages ago. Aliens bent on destroying the world unless humans can demonstrate one thing unique we do that no one else in the universe can do. They do it with a really stupid magic trick from their magic shop (no other intelligent race would do such a stupid trick and think it’s cool). Then go back and mark the trick as The Magic Trick that Saved the World (and increase the price). I liked your story better.

  21. Well, it’s nice that you mentioned the Art Institute. But…the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, Frank Lloyd Wright, Italian beef (nobody in Houston knows what that is, alas). And, as someone upthread pointed out, the Styx-bashing (not to mention the Chicago (the band, that is)-bashing was just a low blow on your part. Tsk tsk!

  22. Speaking as a descendant of Chicago residents, this story was awesome. Favorite line: “Peter Cetera vomiting marshmallow over a piano”. Best description EVER. I shall now go and purchase many of your books to read. /checks bibliography/ Hmmm … this may take a while.

  23. Damn it John, I used to hate Chicago (being from Indiana) but now I have to reconsider.

    Second on the favorite line : Peter Cetera vomiting marshmallow over a piano………

    Are you (maybe with Nick M.?) going to do something similar for Baltimore and Capclave(hint-hint)?
    Look forward to seeing you there.

  24. I now have to go visit Chicago — again. I am a big fan of the DIA here in Detroit. It is a wonderful art museum. When I went online to find comparable museums, one of the first to pop up was the Art Institute. I’ve never been there, and now, of course, I must go. And find some deep dish pizza, too.

  25. Completely agree with the part about stuffed pizza, if it eating would kill me I would die happy. While I’ve never been to Chicago and had the authentic deal, there’s a place in Hamilton, Ontario called Chicago Style Pizza that makes it. A small stuffed pizza will give you lunch for a week. Without having a real Chicago stuffed pizza I can’t compare, but hopefully I get a chance to try it someday.

    Now I’m wondering if John could sell this story to the Chicago Tourist Board, assuming there is one. Seems like this would be a great bit of viral marketing for them to distribute.

  26. Seriously (or anti-seriously) this story rocks. “Are we claiming that nerds only come from Chicago?” the globe said. “I think MIT and CalTech might beg to differ.” As a Caltech grad, who loves Picasso, Giordano’s, also loves New York Pizza (but only the best, which once in a while won the Golden Pizza award, as with Queen’s, in Brooklyn Heights, now unrelated to its former glory, and the first winner, no kidding, Goldberg’s Chicago Style), roots for the Cubs (except when they play the Dodgers, as I grew up in Brooklyn), and loved Fermi, Laura. Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954, as one of the greatest Married to a Genius books ever written, again, this story, as with its author, is better than it is made out to be. Really. Captures much of what’s best about the city I first heard of as a child from my mother (Northwestern University, Magna Cum Laude) which I imagined as a cross between Helium of Barsoom, and Oz. And it is, right?

  27. The chorus off screen calls “Berwyn!”, and Svengoolie rolls his eyes.
    Gratuitous chucking of rubber chickens ensue.

    Good thing Dave and Liz didn’t mention late night monster movies; Svengoolie was probably one of the reasons the iPhone – helium balloon love child came to Earth.

  28. Also, I believe many, if not most, of UC’s “real” Nobel Prizes are actually the johnny-come-lately faux Economics Nobel, which Alfred had nothing to do with. And MIT/Harvard get to claim the Ig Nobel Prizes, which happen to be occurring this very evening and are much geekier, ceremonywise, than the Nobel Prizes (speaking as a former Official Heckler for same, as well as someone used as a practice dummy to teach multiple Nobel Prize winners how to do the Macarena. Which, after they performed it on stage, suddenly died out).

  29. Three things: 1. Yay, Chicago, my adopted city saved the world! 2. “Dave, you know how we carve up responsibilities in this household,” Liz said. “You take out the trash and kill spiders. I do every other damn thing. This,” she pointed to the globe, “falls under spiders.” made me laugh out loud and scare my adorable cats (see what I did there?) 3. Go, White Sox!

    :)

  30. The 47% of Americans who believe that Chicago pizza is superior to New York pizza are hopelessly deluded, and I don’t care about them.

  31. Frankly: Thank pasta the thing didn’t touch down in Topeka or Lynchberg!

    Or Tempe, of course. Screw Tempe.

    (side note: link has changed on Subterranean Press; “Creative Sampler” link currently 404s)

  32. JS surely had had the thermonuclear mistake pointed out to him, oh, a zillion times before this story appeared here (hey, the humans could make that mistake, but the murderous robot who likes kittens letting them get away with it?)……so, why didn’t he fix it? My guess is, I dunno, except that he must not have wanted to.

  33. I heard you read parts of this on your Redshirts book tour visit in Chicago (well, Wheeling really), and I’m glad to have a chance to read the whole thing. Thanks!

  34. I love Chicago pizza and New York style pizza equally.

    In my attempt to placate both parties, I have just made everyone angry. So it goes.

  35. Damn it, now I miss DaVinci’s (local restaurant, owned by transplanted Chicagoan, that served Chicago-style deep-dish pizza). It’s been gone since the 1990s but I still remember the pizza ever so fondly.

  36. “Are you kidding?” Liz said. “A lifetime of geekiness and John Hughes films have prepared us for just this moment. Of course we accept.”

    So much love. Very well done, Mr. Scalzi!

  37. I have to agree with Tracy – Styx literally saved my life when I was suicidal. Their early millennium album “Brave New World” was amazing. But I know they’re not for everyone. *sigh* *makes sad face*

    But I laughed my head off at most of this, and if I had know a the time that the University in Chicago didn’t have a football team, I probably would have begged to go there. I totally agree with that president – it takes money and attention away from academics. It’s one of my huge things, how much I detest sports. *shrug*

    The characters in this were awesome – and I love the robot emissary. Very nice. Plus lots of great little nods to various things, which I enjoyed the heck out of..

  38. OK, you were in trouble at “This isn’t a pizza,” it said, after a minute. “This is a hot tub filled with cheese and sausage”, but you pulled it out neatly with “Your talking balloon is defective.”
    And totally scored with “Relative to what?”

    Were you a Midnight Special listener?

  39. This short story should carry a warning for Chicago ex-pats — WARNING: This story may cause depression and uncontrollable longing for Chicago Pizza.
    Seriously Scalzi, this is full of awesome, but I am 6000 miles from Harold’s Chicken Shack. This gives me the Chicago blues. Tell it Muddy …

  40. @katya – if you detest sports, then Athens, GA must be pure torture for you. Ouch. My dad and I both got our Ph.D.s from UGA, and I’m a second generation rabid Dawg fan. Just to let you know that we’re not all Neanderthals, I wanted to give you a heads-up: the 20th Annual Georgia Fine and Collectible Book Fair is being held at the Cobb Co. Civic Center in Marietta tomorrow from 10-5 and Sunday from 11-4. If you go, you can get out of town during something you detest, to go see something you love a reasonable drive away.

  41. I of all people am most likely to have a snit about thermonuclear vs nuclear (fusion/fission) but in the interests of not further traumatizing the poor defective talking balloon, I’ll just eat some pizza and call it a day.

  42. That was funny, and I liked the Manhattan Project reference, even though Enrico Fermi is turning in his grave over your terminological snafu (surely you know the difference; you’re a Chicago grad for pedant’s sake).

    But, dude, comparing Come Sail Away to Jersey Shore? Now, granted, I’ve never see Jersey Shore, but I’ve heard enough about it to avoid it like the plague. I mean, come on, expounding on the virtues of Wilco while taking pot shots at Styx? My teen-aged self called from the past to let you know he was not impressed with your rock priorities.

  43. As others have mentioned, as a Chicago Ex-Pat, I now need real pizza. I’m from Northwest Indiana (Valparaiso) but lived and got undergrad degree (12 years – yay me!) at Loyola. However, I’m in Shanghai, there used to be one place that had Chicago style pizza, but it closed. Bastards…..

  44. Delightful story…but I wept, gently, as I read this. In recent months, Giordano’s has ‘updated’ its menu, paring out many offerings and ingredients, and is now a pale imitation of its former glory. Earth may be doomed.

  45. The best thing about Gino’s East is getting the sausage pizza, and telling them to not crumble it. You get a giant pizza-sized sausage patty on your pizza.

    For me, Lou Malnati’s crust is the best. Like most in the Chicago area, I like different pizza places for different styles of Chicago pizza. Stuffed spinach pizza at Giordano’s. Deep dish at Malnati’s. Thin crust sausage pizza at Gino’s.

  46. While you pedants are explaining that the reaction was not THERMOnuclear, I guess that leaves me to be the one to point out that the Moore sculpture does not stand on “the exact place.” The exact spot is covered by the nearby Regenstein Library. I know this stuff, my office was right across Ellis from the sculpture for twelve years.

  47. Aye, this is true — there is indeed Gino’s East as an alternative. It might even give the globe two sources of the wonderful and meaningful in one swell foop; Gino’s graffiti extravaganza could readily qualify. So. Given that the globe is staying, will it be checking out dating opportunities in the Chicago area? Seems like it and The Bean might hit it off quite nicely.

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