The human steps onto the station from her shuttle, and walks into the scanner. It flashes - no weapons. I pity her, though there’s nothing I can do for her. By tomorrow she will be a slave the same as me; the Gaunvans collect ambassadors like trophies.
“Hello there! Amanda Thorn, ambassador for the Empire of Humanity. You’re a Ixian, correct?”
Mimicking human body language, I nod my head. "That’s correct. Ix Malasan. It is an honor to meet you.“
She smiles, reminding me again that she has somehow modified herself to breathe atmosphere suited to the Gaunvans rather than wear a respirator like myself. Other than that she appears to be a standard human, something I am led to believe is less and less common as they pursue the bizarre compulsion humans have to alter their bodies. Changing hair color, adding pigments to their skins in patterns and pictures, growing long tails or ears that mimic other species from their planet. No other known species tampers with their bodies like this.
“Not to be undiplomatic, she says, "but the Gaunvans enslaved your people. Why are you here?”
“We… reached a mutually beneficial agreement. We would have lost in combat and been eliminated, so we chose to preserve what we could of our culture. The Gaunvans are not naturally skilled at diplomacy, so they bring me along to assist and to show that peace can be made.”
She nods. "Understood. I can respect that choice. How much freedom do you have, personally?“
Smart of her, to start planning for her future. "A fair amount. I have free reign on the ship when we are in transit. At the homeworld I have reasonably comfortable quarters.”
“Have you ever met the Empress, or…?”
“Oh, no. No, while on the homeworld I am confined to my chambers - but they’re quite spacious.”
“Shame. Okay, plan ‘A’ then. Let’s get this over with.”
Despite my attempt at encouraging diplomacy, the Gaunvan commander starts with threats. I don’t know why I bother. He looms over the human, chitinous plates almost black in the dim light. His pod of six is posted around the room, for show more than for actual security since she followed orders and came alone and unarmed. "Failure to surrender will bring the full wrath of our army upon you. Humanity will be crushed, and wiped from the universe.“
To her credit, she looks very calm. "We live in a post-scarcity society. Bloody conquest just seems silly, doesn’t it?”
“It is for the glory of Gaun!”
“Well, I’m not prepared to get into a religious debate with you,” she says, “since I doubt there’s anything I can do to change your mind. Since you’re committed to this course of action, what are you willing to offer if we surrender?”
Now he goes back on script. Maybe I am getting through to him a little? He talks about the benefits of being enslaved, mainly the protections for up to twelve designated culturally historical sites. They’ve been mostly good on their word on my homeworld, though they did use the area just outside of the Hahhn Memorial as a waste dump.
She nods as she listens. There was a part of me that was worried she would argue, because the humans are somewhat childlike. They don’t understand the horrors of war. Certainly they fought in the past, but the last time they had to battle was more than two of their generations ago, so these ones have all grown up coddled and soft. They play games with each other instead, silly competitions. They make art, and play pretend, and alter their bodies for fun. They don’t have weapons anymore, and wouldn’t know how to use them if they did.
“Well then,” ambassador Thorn says, “this is about what I expected. On behalf of humanity, I would like to formally reject this offer.”
Oh no. Foolish humans. The galaxy will miss your innocence. The commander makes an excited clicking noise, looking forward to combat. He reaches a blade-tipped hand towards ambassador Thorn, but hesitates as every device in the room bleats out an alert - we’ve all lost communications with the outside.
Like one of the dances humans do, she gracefully pivots around while taking his hand. She ends up close to him and places her other arm against his thorax, then… oh gods. Gods, what… she’s ripped his arm off. It’s not possible. The commander is clearly thinking the same thing, staring in mute shock at his dripping limb.
“I’d like to extend a counter-offer,” she says, and flips the arm around before jamming the bladed end into his neck. The warriors around the room are fidgeting, uncertain. They haven’t been told to attack, and don’t want to dishonor their commander by intervening in a fight with such a small creature. She’s still holding the commander’s severed arm in his neck, but she rotates and heaves, lifting him off the ground with it for a moment… and then his head pops off, landing squarely on the conference table. She allows the corpse to slide to the ground, and straightens her clothes as if they aren’t covered in ichor.
I don’t understand.
The warriors, now with no orders at all, finally act. She smiles as they come for her, I suppose because she has done her duty to send this powerful message of resistance. She can die in peace. Or… no… She’s killing them. She’s smiling because this is fun for her. Though they’re partly killing themselves; if there had been two of them, prepared, strategic, they might have prevailed. Watching six panicked fighters get in each other’s way while trying to stop a smaller, faster, and somehow impossibly stronger foe is almost hypnotic. At least one is killed by the stab of a friendly lance due to pure confusion. It’s over faster than I would have thought possible, severed limbs strewn across the room. I’ve got some fluids splashed across my clothing. Only one yet lives, and he is retreating. She seems to be allowing it.
She follows behind, holding a lance. The wounded and scared warrior scurries down the hallway towards his ship, looking back behind him as he goes. She’s just… walking. Calm. And for some reason I’m following. The last Gaunvan reaches the airlock and the second he enters his code she throws the lance - throws it! - and spears him.
“Come on, we’re stealing their ship.” She says it like this is the most normal thing in the world.
“There are thousands more on board! Thousands! Almost all warrior caste!”
She smiles again, and keeps walking. I see errors on the screens that we pass, messages indicating communications have been lost. They can’t tell anyone what is happening here. Even the communicators within the ship are on nodes rather than being wired, so the warriors at one end of the vessel won’t be able to coordinate with the other end. Do they even know they’ve been boarded?
We enter the bridge after she kills a handful of other guards with ease. They’re too shocked by her presence to act in time. Once the door are sealed and she is working on the control systems she starts talking to me again.
“Well, you know, we do like to be prepared.”
“But you… you ripped his arm off.”
“Yeah, that was super satisfying.” She looks at me appraisingly. "Oh, come on. Is it really that surprising? You knew we were into changing ourselves, right? Being strong enough to pop an overgrown bug’s forelimb off isn’t rocket science.“
"Your people are so peaceful…”
“Oh, sure, most of them. But we did that, too. Tweaked ourselves over the years to decrease aggression and some of our tribalistic tendencies, increase empathy… all stuff that can be undone if needed. Though for a good cause even the nicest of us can squish a bug or two.”
“You bond with Ry'ling devourers!”
“Those are the big fuzzy guys that look like cats, yeah? Those guys are adorable! But… look, liking some things that could kill us doesn’t mean we’ll sit back and get enslaved. We didn’t put up with it well when we enslaved each other, and we certainly aren’t going to go for it now that we’re… finally… on the same page about slavery being unacceptable. It was, uh, a longer time than we like to admit before the last hold-outs were convinced of that one.”
I can feel the ship un-dock. We’re moving. "What about all the warriors on board? They’ll break through the doors eventually!“
"Not according to this control panel here. Take a look.”
It says there’s no atmosphere in the rest of the ship. Life signs are negative on all but two of the warriors, presumably the only ones that got to their suits in time. She disabled all the safety measures, somehow. She just killed… I check the life signs readout again to confirm the number… three thousand, six hundred, and fourteen soldiers. Wait, how is it tracking that unless… “Are communications back up?”
“Yeah, I’m calling some friends. The military is right around the corner, so to speak.”
“But Earth doesn’t have a standing military.”
She laughs. Not just a little bit. She’s actually doubled over for a moment, unable to catch her breath. "Sweet Jeebus, you guys actually fell for that? No standing military. Have you read about us at all?“
Three ships appear seemingly out of nowhere, and one docks with the Gaunvan vessel. Once the atmosphere is restored we head to the airlock to meet them, and I’m surprised by an entire platoon of Gaunvan warriors. Speaking English.
"Okay boys, send your last goodbyes! This is in all likelihood a one way mission. Commander Thorn! It is an honor to see you again, and might I say you look exquisite drenched in the blood of your enemies!”
She bows to him, blushing, and then salutes the Gaunvans. Or… humans? Can they change themselves this drastically?
“You’ve got two holed up in here somewhere. Bridge is clear, have the techs bring the new brain on board.”
She looks at me like she’s forgotten that I’m here, and then turns back to the others. "Men, this is our new friend Ix Malasan who has just been liberated from his captivity. He’s going to be helping with our intel. Malasan, yeah, a new brain for the ship. Once this vessel is cleaned up and back in service with a new crew we’ll be able to take it over whenever we want even if all of our boys get killed. We cooked up a really sadistic AI for it.“
"But how do you know the protocols? This was your first contact with the Gaunvans, they’ve never lost a ship anywhere near here!”
“No? There wasn’t a mining colony disaster two years ago?”
“But that was just an accident… and you weren’t even involved in the war yet… and…”
The faux-Gaunvans have finished boarding. The one that was talking to them before puts a bladed claw on ambassador - commander - Thorn’s shoulder. "You coming with?“
"Naw. Orders said I could only come if they allow ambassadors near extremely high value targets. Malasan here says they don’t, so I need to wait for my next mission back on Earth.”
“It would have been nice having you with us, Thorn. Well, maybe we’ll see each other again. Suicide mission or not, I think I’ve decided to live through it.”
“Bold choice,” she says, and kisses him next to his lower mandibles.
He nods at me, then turns back to his men. “Okay everyone, we are now officially on the job. And what is that job?”
In unison, they start chanting.
“FUCK! SHIT! UP! FUCK! SHIT! UP! FUCK! SHIT! UP!”
For a moment I nearly feel pity for the Gaunvans. Nearly. Commander Thorn leads me off of the ship, and I start thinking about what useful information I can provide the ‘harmless’ humans. Fuck shit up, indeed.
It’s not like we weren’t warned. Rumors had long swirled about the sound of former One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles’ upcoming solo career taking inspiration from ‘70s rock staples Queen and David Bowie, and Styles’ own fashion statements of recent years certainly telegraphed his interest in being considered part of the British rock continuum. But still, it can’t help but be a little shocking to hear Harry’s solo debut “Sign of the Times” for the first time, to hear that thudding piano intro give way to soaring guitar and dramatically sighing vocals. It’s strangely disconcerting in how familiar it all feels.
Throughout the song’s nearly six-minute run time, the memories of British rock history shoot off like fireworks – spanning from late-period Beatles to Bowie to Listen Without Prejudice-era George Michael to Suede to Robbie Williams and even early Coldplay. It doesn’t sound like a tribute to (or rip off of) any of these artists – it just sounds like someone who’s grown up studying at the feet of all these titans and now wants to try his hand at joining their ranks. And to Styles’ considerable credit, he basically succeeds: “Sign of the Times” is as lighter-waving, arm-swaying, random-mate-hugging a power ballad as they come, sounding – as many have pointed out on Twitter on this somewhat apocalyptic-seeming of Fridays – like the appropriate montage soundtrack for the end of the world.
But whatever IRL timeliness the song’s strength-in-weariness lyric delivers, musically, the song’s title comes off as pretty ironic. Fact is, “Sign of the Times” couldn’t sound much less like 2017; a pop era where rock music is viewed as increasingly archaic and even the biggest bands – no shade to LCD Soundsystem – seem to be trading in their guitars for turntables, or at least some enormous synths. To hear Harry’s big return keyed to a song built around Elton John piano and George Harrison guitar slides is pretty jarring: Ten years ago, the song would’ve felt somewhat safe, 20 years ago it would’ve felt downright pandering, 40 years ago it would’ve been Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself.” But right now, it feels practically subversive.
And you know what? The rock part of it isn’t even the most surprising thing. What’s really staggering about “Sign of the Times” is just how goddamn British it is. Look at the paths the other One Direction members have taken since the group went on indefinite hiatus: Louis is making EDM bangers with Steve Aoki, Zayn is trying to catch a ride on Drake’s luxury liner and Niall (Irish, not British) is making Mumford-via-“Hey There Delilah” folk-contemporary. Hell, look at 1D themselves: Their last few albums were heavily rock influenced, but took cues from Fleetwood Mac, Journey and Def Leppard – the latter a U.K. band, but one way more popular with American audiences – rather than anything proudly British.
Styles, meanwhile, practically sounds like he’s draping himself in the Union Jack and yelling “Yanks Go Home.” He’s created the perfect song for British rock fans who wish Glastonbury would go back to more traditional headliners, who wonder why 20 years after Be Here Now essentially ended the Britpop moment, nobody seems interested in picking up Oasis’ mantle. (The Gallagher brothers will probably hate it.) In the U.K. as in the U.S., the entire musical mainstream seems to be going global, and that’s mostly a good thing, which has led to some interesting and boundary-breaking music at pop’s center. But there’s something undeniably refreshing about a huge pop/rock song with this strong a sense of its home country’s musical history and identity – you just don’t hear much of that anymore, coming from anywhere.
It’ll be fascinating to follow what radio does with this song. It doesn’t sound like anything topping the charts on either side of the Atlantic, and it’s just about impossible to imagine American top 40 stations scheduling six minutes of this in between Chainsmokers and Bruno Mars jams. But less than a day into its lifespan, the song already seems to be striking a big enough chord – it rocketed to the top of the iTunes charts within hours of its middle-of-the-night U.S. release – that it might soon prove equally impossible to imagine the biggest stations ignoring it entirely. If this really is the film soundtrack to the end days, then cue the Don LaFontaine trailer voice: IN A WORLD where pop was ruled by trop-house and Ed Sheeran, ONE MAN dared to try to bring British rock back to the mainstream. Let’s sit back and see how this unfolds. - Billboard
Rap Monster of Breakout K-Pop Band BTS on Fans, Fame and Viral Popularity
BTS may be the biggest musical act you’ve never heard of — unless you’re already one of the Korean pop group’s millions-strong fanbase. The seven-member boy band, Bangtan Sonyeondan (or BTS for short), is know for their catchy pop-rap, sharp music video choreography and candid social media presence. They’ve recently leveraged their popularity into blockbuster stadium tours and Billboard’s prize for Top Social Artists of the year, as well as nabbing a spot on TIME’s list of 25 Most Influential People on the Internet.
It’s not hard to see why: a live video of two members applying face masks roped in half a million concurrent viewers. Their backstage selfies regularly rack up half a million likes. A red carpet appearance can kick off a global Twitter trend. But how did they get here?
“We’re just a normal group of boys from humble backgrounds who had a lot of passion and a dream to be famous,” says singer and songwriter Kim Nam-joon, who goes by the moniker Rap Monster and, as the only English-speaking member of the group, often represents BTS in interviews. Currently on tour in Japan, Rap Monster took the time to explain BTS’ rise and how the group feeds its hungry fanbase.
How did the BTS group come together?
Rap Monster: Back in 2010, I was introduced to Mr. Bang [Bang Si Hyuk], our executive producer [and CEO of BigHit Entertainment]. I was an underground rapper and only 16 years old, a freshman at high school. Bang thought I had potential as a rapper and lyricist, and we went from there. Then SUGA joined us. [Third group member] J-hope was really popular as a dancer in his hometown. We were the first three! We debuted as a collaboration between the seven of us in June 2013. We came together with a common dream to write, dance and produce music that reflects our musical backgrounds as well as our life values of acceptance, vulnerability and being successful. The seven of us have pushed each other to be the best we can be for the last four years. It has made us as close as brothers. BTS as a group sort of took off with the success of our 2015 album that had our hit single “I NEED U.”
When did you first realize you were developing a global fandom?
We didn’t realize we were becoming famous until we were invited to KCONs [K-pop music festivals] in the U.S. and Europe in 2014 or 2015. Thousands of fans were calling our name at the venue, and almost everyone memorized the Korean lyrics of our songs, which was amazing and overwhelming. Who would have thought that people from across the ocean, Europe, the U.S., South America, even Tahiti, would love our songs and performances, just by watching them on YouTube? We were just grateful… and we still are.
BTS has millions of followers on every social media platform. How do you interact with your fans online? What kind of connections are you making?
We mostly interact with our Twitter messages by uploading selfies, [sharing] music recommendations and street fashion photos, etc. It’s about our daily life as a band on tour — and also as a group of silly friends who make fun of one another backstage. We don’t really get to reply to fans on a regular basis because there are just so many of them. But we do try to read all the reactions and replies. It’s also always interesting and inspiring for us to see what they create for us.
Why do you think you’ve been able to build such a massive online fanbase? How did it happen?
Everyone asks us that question. It’s a team effort taken from what happens to us in our everyday life. It’s not easy to run a social media account over a long period of time, but we love communicating with our fans every day and night. For example, I use the hashtag #RMusic to introduce or recommend a song I like, and I’ve been doing that for a long time. I love music and I truly enjoy sharing with our fans. Music transcends language. BTS communicates with our fans by staying true to ourselves and believing in music every day.
How does having this huge fandom impact your approach to music and to what you sing about?
BTS fans — the “ARMY” — tell us about their feelings, failures, passions and struggles all the time. We are often inspired by [them], because we try to write about how real young people — like the seven of us — face real-life issues. Most of our music is about how we perceive the world and how we try to persist as normal, average human beings. So our fans inspire us and give us a direction to go as musicians. And of course, their love and support keeps us going.
How is BTS different from other big K-pop groups? Is it your music, your engagement with supporters, or something else?
I can’t speak for other artists; every group has a different approach. For us, it will always be important to keep working hard, dancing better, writing better songs, touring and setting an example. A lot of people say this, but it’s really true for us: we are living a dream, all seven of us, being able to pursue what we love. We strive to [put] everything into our music. Our lyrics deal with real issues that face all humans: choices in life, depression, self-esteem. And the fans know that we are there for them, and they are there for us.
What’s next? What are you most excited for?
Well, we definitely continue to have big dreams. We tour all over the world, but the shows in the U.S. really opened our eyes to so many new things in the States. And when we won the Billboard Music Award, we were so honored and got to meet so many artists that we love and admire that we can’t wait to return to the States.