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The Not So Exceptional Galactic Gambit of Marge Welsworth -- Daniel M. Cojocaru

Clad in heavy mail, draped in his royal banner, standing tall in the stirrups of his palfrey, Robert the Bruce wields his battle axe above his head. Sunlight catches the blade as it is suspended, inert for an eternal moment, before gravity and the kinetic energy of a kingly arm will inevitably make it split open the miserable head of Henry de Bohun like an overripe watermelon.

Once there can be no more doubt as to the twain halves of Bohun’s head never meeting again, a colourful backdrop choir, consisting of fifteen hundred Scottish soldiers in full highland garb, which will only be invented several hundred years later under English rule, bursts into song with Dolby surrounding clarity: “Wha, for Scotland's king and law, Freedom's sword will strongly draw, Freeman stand, or Freeman fa', Let him on wi' me!” Beneath the firm rock of the immovable Stirling Castle the boohooing English army is irresistibly forced back over the Bannock Burn. 

The Bruce and his choir start congratulating each other with the fourteenth-century equivalent of high-fives-–whatever that might have been--as a high-pitched, ululating sound is emanating from the copse into which the English have just fled. With the ululation growing louder, the English reappear and are, not exactly attacking, but running towards the Scots. The latter, in utter bewilderment, abandon their celebrations and turn towards the copse. Whipping the last English stragglers out of their shrubs, a lone figure with long straight dark hair and razor-sharp bangs is revealed as the originator of the ululation.

“Weet, is tha’ a kilt?” one of the Scottish soldiers utters in broad Scots.

“Tha’s no kilt”, another soldier says, “Tha’s a lassie wearing a leather battle dress!”

The Bruce’s thundering voice puts an end to all speculation: “Tha’s a lass alright. But no regular lassie. It’s Xena, Warrior Princess. At last, we have ourselves a worthy foe.”

As Xena, Warrior Princess strides surefooted towards the Scottish army, putting her battle cry on pause, an all-star team of historical warrioresses emerges behind her from the copse. Among them, Cynane, half-sister of Alexander the Great, approaches without hesitation, her claymore raised high with only one hand. Next to her, The Nubian Queen Candace of Meroe advances elegantly with every single hair of her Egyptian bob in place. On the far right-hand side it seems like thirteen-year-old Xun Guan’s grim look alone could break the enemy line. Beside her, Tymicha of Sparta, in lieu of throwing down the gauntlet, spits out her tongue that she has just bitten off.

While things thus seem prepared for a Scottish-ancient-virago steak sandwich with fresh English pâté patties, there’s yet another ingredient announcing itself from behind Stirling Castle. First, the army can be heard singing, like the Scots, before thousands of soldiers, marching in perfect sync, appear from behind the castle walls: “Leningrad my v boyakh otstoyali, Otstoyali rodnoy Stalingrad. Nas vedyot v nastupleniye Stalin, Nashi tanki fashistov gromyat!”

The Bruce turns his head, shrugs and says: “Gromyat eh? Wallace would have loved this! Ah well. We shan’t fash ourselves with bloody Red laddies on Scottish soil even if they’re not the Auld Alliance exactly. But against ancient lassies their tanki will do just fine.”

As these titans of war ready themselves for the inevitable powing, zlopping, thwapping, and craacking, out of nowhere and everywhere a new song, this time instrumental only, is heard on the plain. The Bruce and his choir pick up the tune at once, break into a spasmodic run towards the enemy singing: “dadadadadadadada dadadadadadadato bat—"

But then, a deep, rumbling, yet clear clarion call from the castle puts a stop to everything. The Scots, the English, Xena, Warrior Princess and her viragoes, the Soviets, all stop dead in their tracks--and--relax? Standing behind the castle’s parapet, speaking into a megaphone, is the originator of the clarion call: “Ok guys. Let’s take five everyone. Also, can we have some more overripe watermelons please?” At this, more people are emerging onto the plain from underneath large, camouflaged sliding hatches in the ground. But these are clearly not warriors of any kind but resemble more a ridiculously overstaffed pit crew changing a racing car’s tires. Some are setting up folding tables onto which others start stacking refreshments--a welcome respite from all you can beat. Still others are carrying make-up cases, blowdryers and vanities towards both, Xena, Warrior Princess and her followers, and the Scots.

High above all the bustling on the plain, Marge Welsworth, a fragile-looking woman of around forty, lowers her megaphone with a sigh and turns away from the battlements towards the semi-circular stands that have been erected in the castle courtyard overlooking the battlefield.

“So, what do you think?” Welsworth asks and looks expectantly at the motley group of a dozen or so people seated on the stands.

A middle-aged man with a full head of long auburn hair and a French accent breaks the ice: “I can only speak for myself, but I thought that introducing Xena, Warrior Princess was a nice touch that will certainly be applauded by the Fladgisten. I’m just not so sure about those other warrioresses.” A general murmur of assent can be heard from among the semi-circle.

It is exactly what Marge has feared all along. She has been wanting to inject just a little bit of feminism into Earth’s contribution to the Fladgisten Intergalactic Battle Ladder, yet still salvage some historical detail. Isn’t that why she has been appointed in the first place? She should have known that the Earth Battle Advisory Council wouldn’t be ready for that kind of innovation.

“Also”, an elderly lady says, looking up from her knitting and throwing Marge a grandmotherly, but patronizing look over her horn-rimmed glasses, “I know it would not be historically accurate, but why can’t you actually have William Wallace join the battle? After all, he used to have his own monument nearby. And surely the Fladgisten appreciate Braveheart.”

That’s enough, she is thinking stubbornly, they are advisors, nothing more. And who knows what the Fladgisten want anyway? Haven’t they chosen her after all as this year’s Battle Organizer Supreme? She doesn’t have to listen to this self-important assembly of democratic leftovers from before the Fladgisten arrived.

So once the murmuring has subsided, Marge, burying all her anger and insecurity deep within her, says in a calm voice: “I shall duly consider it. If you’ll excuse me now, I’m needed on the battlefield.” Thus she walks away towards the castle, where she has been given a string of rooms worthy of her position as BOS.

But instead of taking a hover mobile down to the battlefield, Marge enters the castle and goes straight to her quarters. Let her underlings deal with getting the battle choreography on track for now. She unzips her boots and with two swift moves of her ankles dispenses them into the far corners of her high-ceilinged bedroom. Then she takes a deep breath and lets herself fall onto the soft spread of her huge four-poster bed. She closes her eyes and slowly releases the air.

Marge stares emptily at the stuccoed ceiling as myriads of thoughts are flitting through her mind. How did she end up here? Only a year ago she was simple Margareta Wels, the only child of a French mother and German father, post-doc nobody and unrecognized expert on the history of war. But everything had changed with the arrival of the Fladgisten, even before she was made BOS.

She can hardly even remember a time before they arrived just five short years ago. It just seems so surreal now, like their arrival itself. 

The Fladgisten had announced their presence to humanity in probably the most worn out of humanly fantasized ways of first contact: one day their ships were just hovering over the earth all around the globe, like so many giant, high-tech Norman castles. 

Then, their approach became somewhat more subtle. After a couple of days, in which the whole world was on the verge of turning into the aftermath of a global radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, political leaders across the globe addressed the public in competing live casts. The messages, however, were all the same. Yes, the aliens had been in touch and yes, they seemed friendly and technologically superior, which was sort of obvious what with the hovering spaceships in the air.

The fact that all governments around the globe despite their many differences were uttering the same message convinced the majority of people of the reality of the aliens. But even the most hardened of conspiracy theory nuts were beginning to see sense, when the Fladgisten, as the world leaders had revealed they liked to be called, started to rain their technological manna onto the human race.

Marge remembers well that this wasn’t on the level of, let’s say, microwave ovens. It was literally anything that anyone could ever wish for: from cancer cures to food replicators, self-growing skyscrapers, eco-friendly hover cars (self-growing of course) to more-than-real virtual reality devices, instant sex-change pills and various solutions to determining the perfect cornflakes/milk ratio. In short, the Fladgisten seemed to have scanned the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on humanity with an irresistible prejudice in its favour. They seemed to understand us just as far as we wanted to be understood, believed in us as we would like to believe in ourselves and gave us whatever we thought we truly desired. Needless to say, world peace, an end to hunger and the climate crisis were achieved almost literally overnight.

So, while most people were happy to accept the gifts of the Fladgisten without asking too many questions, and the rest just buzzed off into whatever virtual reality they preferred instead, nobody seemed to know anyone who had really seen any of those Great Gatsbies of the galaxy.

Nothing was certain about the physique of the Fladgisten. It was believed that they were shapeshifters, able to assume any form they wanted. In an effort to probably not shock humanity too much, it was rumoured that in their first video-talks with humanity’s political representatives they had appeared in the shape of dead human celebrities. This led to some confusion later, when they started showing themselves to a broader public, as some of the celebrities they impersonated were not actually dead. It seemed that even a Kardashev III civilization, commanding the energy of a whole galaxy, wasn’t completely beyond fake news. They then adopted a new, even more eccentric approach, which was to exclusively assume the shape of the King of rock’n’roll himself. Like Schroedinger’s cat he was both alive and dead at the same time, but it didn’t seem to matter much to anyone which it was. Thus, assuming a kind of impossible quantum state of being, becoming Elvis impersonators also seemed really the right way forward for a civilization that must have managed the unification of quantum mechanics and gravity.

Yet to the disappointment of physicists and the SETI-crowd, it wasn’t any human achievement in science and technology or a signal with the collected textbook knowledge of mankind that had drawn the attention of the Fladgisten. 

Instead, while passing through humanity’s neck of the universe’s woods they had picked up a re-run of the Game of Thrones episode “Battle of the Bastards”. This, as it turned out somewhat surprisingly to Marge, was humanity’s “warp-drive” moment that catapulted Earth onto a seat at the table of the intergalactic community. For the Fladgisten, despite their kind and benevolent behaviour towards humanity, seemed to simply love good battle simulations.

Among the increasing number of rumours about the Fladgisten spreading around the globe, one particular aspect solidified itself into accepted fact. Apparently, the Fladgisten were the senior species organizers of a series of intergalactic battle ladders. Due to the various differences of planetary years, there were numerous events taking place more or less all the time. It was by no means that the Fladgisten had asked anything in return for their many gifts, but more and more people realized that there really wasn’t much left to do, except roaming the wonderful playground that earth had become through the generous help of the Fladgisten. And that was fine. But in a somewhat “galactolympic” spirit, humanity wanted to participate and, like a good child, wanted to prove to their wonderful interstellar godparents that they were worthy of their attention. Also, as the Fladgisten themselves had recognized: humans already were good at simulating battles and had an immense industry of streaming giants possessing the means to show whoever else was out there that humanity could feign beating the shit out of each other better than anyone else in a hundred million lightyears.

Marge takes a deep breath and remembers how she, as a serious historian of war, had sneered at humanity’s first contribution to the battle ladder. The first BOS had been a second-rate director of graphic b-war-movies, who, Marge smiles at this, probably even didn’t know how to spell Von Clausewitz. But then out of nothing, newscasts and social networks all over the world hailed her as next BOS from millions of screens. If it wasn’t for her unmistakable face, she would not even have known it was her, as for some reason they had changed her name to “Marge Welsworth”.

To her this came as even more of a shock than the arrival of the Fladgisten itself. First, it was strange to see her familiar face and only partly familiar name encroaching on her from all around, a visual osmosis aimed at consolidating within herself what only for her still was fake news: that she was BOS. It wasn’t that she really had anything else to do--what little interest there had been in the history of war before the Fladgisten, had completely dried up, what with world peace and all.

Here was a chance to finally get some recognition for her hard work that had cost her so much. She had sacrificed her youth and whatever slim chance at founding a family she had had for another faint possibility: “making it” in the world of war history. No boyfriends, or girlfriends for that matter--no time really for exploring her sexuality; not that many had been attracted to her in that way anyway. Even in her prime the occasional looks thrown her way expressed that she might be considered pretty only if you squinted your eyes really tightly, were already a little bit drunk, and didn’t look at her from the side.

The grinding years in academia didn’t help. Late nights in the library, unhealthy food, and being regularly passed over for tenure had made her skin sag, and the lingering hint of a double chin had announced itself more and more prominently, until no turtleneck could even attempt anymore to seriously mask the growing disproportions of her face, which, so she felt, had been too small to begin with.

So, who could blame her for accepting the position? Finally, she was able to arguably use her vast knowledge of war history for the benefit of humankind. Not that it was strictly speaking necessary, as the Fladgisten had provided humanity with everything it needed. But neither was the DNA-refreshment she would have been given anyway, even if she hadn’t become BOS, which among other things had returned a tautness to her skin beyond anything nature had had in store for her in the first place. And that, like being BOS, mostly just felt good. Only occasionally, just like now, a feeling of undeserving about skin and BOS and a nagging sense of the triviality of it all returned like the obligatory reruns of second-rate Christmas movies.

“Knock, knock!” A voice accompanied by actual knocking on the ajar door interrupts her reverie. As Marge sits up, a shaggy-haired man in his fifties, wearing a beige trench coat enters the room.

“I knew I’d find you here”, the man continues. “They told me you’re on the battlefield, but when I saw your assistant freakin’ out down there about your having vanished, I guessed you’d be holed up here.”

“Yohan!” Marge sighs deeply, gets up from the bed, and hugs him tightly.

“Wow, it really seems that my presence is needed here!”

“Oh Yohan!”

“So what’s rocking Marge’s world so much that she needs to hug it out with good ol’ Yohan?” He wiggles out of her hug and gently leads her to the bed, where they both sit down next to each other.

“Oh, Yohan, you know. The usual. I’m really unsure about the battles, if I picked the right ones, whether the advisory council approves, never mind the Fladgisten and the rest of the freakin’ galaxy.” She quickly wipes a tear from her eyes.

Yohan puts his arm around her supportively and pulls her head towards his chest.

“Aww, Marge, I understand. But that’s what you have me for, right? And I know it doesn’t help, but you know what I think about all this, right?”

Despite herself, Marge has to stifle a chuckle. Yes, she does know what Yohan thinks about all this. Yohan, her only, if unlikely friend in the whole wide world. 

Marge had met Yohan years back, while she was still a grad student, at one of her first academic conferences. While she was too shy to voice an opinion, mainly because nobody really talked to her between sessions, Yohan seemed to be a pillar of the war history crowd, shaking hands here, hugging keynote speakers there. And since he hopped from group to group talking to literally everyone, he also talked to her. He asked her about her research, where she was from, told her not to be intimidated by all the others, as their standoffishness was just a strategy disguising their own insecurity.

Yohan was loud and boisterous and always in a good mood, which was probably why everybody liked him, including Marge. Yet by the third day of the conference, Marge had still not been able to figure out, what exactly he was doing there. He wasn’t affiliated to any university or organisation, wasn’t giving a paper or promoting a book. What he was doing though, was to ask long and convoluted questions after each talk that stopped making sense half-way through and always revolved around Clausewitz’s concept of total war.

And yet, over the course of their long friendship, Marge hadn’t been able to quite make up her mind about whether Yohan was a genius or an utter and complete fool. But it had to be one or the other, there was no middle ground. One day she admired the depth and width of his reading, the next she was stunned by his serious suggestion that time travel would be developed within the next twenty years and that he himself had written a first draft of an outline of its basic principles and, in line with his hobby horse, an addendum cautioning against an escalation of the technology into a total temporal war.

While the arrival of the Fladgisten had nothing to do with time travel per se, Yohan implicitly took it as evidence in support of his prediction. Not that he ever made the connection in an argument, it was a more subtle change observable in his more erect posture, in a triumphant glistening of his eyes or firmer hand gestures, which Marge had noticed since the arrival of the Fladgisten.

As for that arrival itself, Yohan had seemed unsurprised--maybe if you believed in the invention of time travel, the appearance of alien-overlords really was only worth a shrug. Yet even after the most suspicious of paranoiacs had been swayed by the constant generosity streaming through the Fladgisten floodgates, Yohan had maintained a beware-the-Greeks-bearing-gifts attitude.

“You’ll see”, he always said when he saw Marge, wagging his finger, “one of these days the Fladgisten will decide that our free trial month is over and then they’re gonna make us pay and that will inevitably lead to total war.”

It wasn’t that Marge was against questioning the benevolence of the Fladgisten, although it might have become trickier since being BOS, but Yohan had just cried wolf too many times before for her to give it any serious thought. Also, total war between whom exactly? Certainly not between the Fladgisten and puny humanity?

“Look, all I’m saying is that we’ve been way too trusting of these Fladgisten”, Yohan says and takes a big sip of his pint of Deuchars. Marge and he are seated in a nook of The William Wallace pub at the foot of Stirling Castle. It did not take much convincing for Marge to take Yohan up on his offer to go get a pint together and take her mind of things.

“Why are they so obsessed with battles? I mean, okay, they’re not real battles, I get it, but I’m with Baudrillard on this one. All simulations do become real at some point.” Yohan pauses for a second, pleased with his own argument.

“Or take their name. Why hasn’t anyone really bothered to explain why they call themselves the ‘Fladgisten’?” Yohan looks at Marge as if he expects a fully formed answer from her. When he doesn’t continue, Marge realizes that he actually does expect one.

“Erm, well, I don’t know. I mean why do we call ourselves human? Isn’t it just their word for their own species? You know, for them we’re the aliens and they are the humans.”

“Yeah, yeah sure”, Yohan dismisses this with a wave of his hand as if trying to get rid of an annoying fly. “I know, that’s the standard explanation. Maybe we’re even very bad at pronouncing it right and we just spell it ‘Fladgisten’ because the sounds ‘flə’, ‘dʒɪs’ and ‘t(ə)n’ are the best we can do in approximation.” His emphatically dismissive pronunciation of “dʒɪs” catapults a dissolved blob of spit and Deuchars onto the sleeve of Marge’ tartan sweater that Marge wipes away discreetly with her other sleeve before Yohan has a chance to notice.

But Yohan, too embroiled in his argument, would have missed it anyway: “I’m just wondering if anyone has actually stopped to consider what ‘Fladgisten’ means.” Yohan looks up at her with a conspiratorial smile that beckons her to ask him to go on and says, “well, I have”.

Marge glances at him sideways, wondering, not for the first time, whether the angle he holds his head with respect to his shoulders, could be an early sign for the onset of some mental illness. But then she decides to humour him and sighs: “Well?”

“I think it refers to ‘phlogiston’, a substance supposed by 18th-century chemists to exist in all combustible bodies, and to be released in combustion.” Yohan looks at her triumphantly as if that explained everything.

“I don’t see how--”

“I know, I know”, Yohan cuts her short, “I haven’t quite figured out how it fits. My hunch is just that it’s a clue that will help explain why the Fladgisten have been so kind to us, and I just fear that somehow it will lead to--”

This time it’s Marge who interrupts him with a sigh: 

“--total war.”


She really should have seen this coming. Yohan just sees what he wants to see and while he is the only one who has stood by her showing any real interest in her person throughout the years, she should know better by now than to take him seriously on this.

“Look,” he continues in a less agitated tone, as if reading her thoughts, shifting his head to a more upright position, “all I’m saying is that you as BOS should try to talk to one of those Fladgisten. I mean, they are literally at every street corner, mauling the King’s greatest hits. Gosh, there’s one standing right outside this very pub.”

And that’s exactly why Marge can’t make up her mind about Yohan. Because that again makes sense. Why hasn’t she actually talked to one of those Elvis impersonators?

Marge stares at her empty glass after Yohan has left for his hotel, citing a minor headache, but probably being just too upset about the whole Fladgisten issue. Very Marge-like she is hesitating. Should she really? But then, very un-Marge-like, she decides to do what Yohan has done all his life. She’s gonna ask some questions.

“Love me tender, love me sweet…” commands this particular King, as Marge walks up to him. He has decided to go with the clichéd overweight and out-of-date look, sporting a black-quaff wig and plastigold aviators framing enormous sideburns, with hopefully fake chest hair sprouting from the décolleté of his sequined, cream-coloured imitation-leather onesie. Barely an inch above his strapped-on Western guitar, the mandatory Elvis-lightning-bolt is dangling from a heavy gold chain.

Marge is hoping that somehow, he will acknowledge her presence, making this easier for her. But he just drones on, as if she weren’t there.

“Excuse me--,“ she utters, but then falters. How do you even address a Fladgisten impersonating an Elvis impersonator?

But just at that moment, the King switches to the middle part of another song: “We can’t go on together with suspicious minds and we can’t build our dreams on suspicious minds…”

Is he addressing her? But then the song just continues. How does she even know that this isn’t just a regular Elvis impersonator? That would be just her luck.

“Ok, look. I don’t know how to really ask you this. But why have you picked me as BOS?”

This time he switches to the middle of “Lonesome Tonight.”

“You know someone said the world’s a stage, and each must play a part. Fate had me playing in love with you as my sweetheart. Act one was when we met, I loved you at first glance…”

“Look, this is stupid. Can’t we just…,” but Marge stops mid-sentence as the King reaches the lines “then came act two, you seemed to change, you acted strange, and why I’ll never know…”

Her heart is beating faster. Has she just struck up a genuine conversation with an alien species, a true first contact long overdue?

“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you, don’t you, don’t you?” 

Oh, come on, I know you’re just toying with me, Marge is thinking. But a more frightening thought strikes her. Can he read her mind?

“Can I just ask--” Again she is cut short by a switch to yet another song: “A little less conversation, a little more action please, all this aggravation ain’t satisfactioning me…”

Is he giving her advice, in whatever round-about way, on her role as BOS?

“You ain’t nothing’ but a hound dog, crying all the time, well, you ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.”

What the…? A feeling of nausea begins to crawl up her body as a terrible, but yet unformed meaning begins to take hold in her mind, while the King continues to sing “Hound Dog”. The only thing she instinctively knows is that she must leave immediately. But she’s too polite to just turn around and walk away and stammers apologetically: “But why not just…I mean, couldn’t you just have…I can’t really--ugh, you Fladgisten, you!”

She turns around and starts to walk away when the singing stops. Despite the urge to get away as quickly as possible, she turns her head. The King is clutching his lightning bolt with one hand, pointing to her with the other and says firmly, yet with a tinge of surprise: “No. You Fladgisten, you.” His voice has shed all pretence, has become hard and angular, a shard of glass in one’s throat.

Marge turns away and quickens her pace. The King, his voice smooth again, begins to perform “In the Ghetto”. When he reaches the lines “as a crowd gathers ‘round an angry young man, face down on the street with a gun in his hand, In the ghetto”, the truth hits Marge like lightning and, trembling all over her body, she is barely able to make it back up to the castle.


The following night she stands with a cup of coffee in her hand behind the parapet overlooking the battle again. The Bruce has just split open another overripe watermelon. He’s getting quite good at it too--but not too good--she is thinking with a smirk. 

Over the last twenty-four hours everything has fallen into place in her mind and an eerie calm has replaced the feeling of nausea. Having understood what the battle ladders are actually for, she knows now what to do to save humanity from the Fladgisten--ok, technically she shouldn’t call them that anymore. It is something she knows how to do. Something she has been not just good at, but something she has excelled at all her life.

Marge shifts her neck slightly to one side, just as Xena beats the English out of the bushes yet again--how ludicrous! But that’s exactly what she needs. If the Fladgisten really somehow syphon an ethereal substance from human total war, not unlike harnessing the power of lightning, to fuel their Kardashev-III-civilization energy needs, then she’s gonna pick her battles in a way so that humanity never gets very high on the battle ladder. But even if they are the intergalactic do-gooders everyone believes them to be, she can’t really lose her quasi-Pascalian wager: worst case, she’s just gonna go down in history as a so-so BOS.

But no, she has moved beyond doubt. Once again, she looks down at her creation, takes a sip of coffee and enjoys feeling good about herself for the first time in her life: she’s going to win this battle for humanity with her mediocrity.

Daniel M. Cojocaru was born and grew up in Switzerland (of Rumanian and Czech background). He studied English Lit in Zurich and later did his PhD at Oxford University (St. Peter's College). In 2010 he moved back to Switzerland and has lived in Winterthur with his family since. He teaches English in Wetzikon, Switzerland. Recently he took a small step for mankind, but a big one for himself, and joined twitter: 


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