The mantis ship shot across the cosmos. “Wow,” said Julia, “we’re accelerating way faster than Scumdaddy ever did.”
The spider worked the control-panel, pressing buttons and pulling levers with seven arms at once to set a course for Earth. “We mantoids build quick ships.”
“And the Scumbug isn’t known for speed,” said Sasha the seahorse, spinning in her chair. “It thinks high-tech gizmos are too Cheesy.”
“When we first met,” said Julia, “Scumdaddy told me aliens swim to space, naked. Is that true?”
“Well, yeah,” said Sasha. “You’ve seen me swim to space. A few times.” Julia looked at her blankly. “When we first met, I was underwater. Then I swam to space to meet you. You watched it happen.”
“Leaving a pond ain’t swimming to space.”
“Where does space start, then?”
“Above all the air!”
“You can’t swim in air, though.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying!” Julia shook her head and pulled out her cellphone. “Forget it. Where are the power-outlets? Is there wifi on this ship?”
“What’s wifi?” asked the spider.
“It’s like spray-cheese from Julia’s home-planet,” said Sasha. “This ship’s got spray-cheese, right Mr. Spider?”
“Of course,” said the spider. He poked a button and the spaceship’s interior walls were illuminated with projections of colorful bouncing orbs.
“…Spray-cheese?” asked Julia.
“Yeah,” said Sasha. “I haven’t used spray-cheese since I was an itty-bitty seapony. The Scumbug hates spray-cheese.”
“Then I’m interested, but what is it?”
Sasha waved one of her little tentacles. From her point of view, her tentacle appeared to impact one of the colorful orbs, and the orb bounced like she had hit it. The spider hit it back toward her, and Sasha hit it back toward him. “The whole universe is the Big Cheese, right? So you can spray your cheese at people, and other people can spray their cheese at you. It’s all virtual.”
Julia bopped an orb. “Um. Is this all there is?”
“You’re right next to me, Julia,” said Sasha. “I don’t need to spray cheese at you. But watch this.” She grabbed an orb by holding it between two tentacles. “Any more seahorses out there?” she asked the orb.
She tossed the orb from the back walls of the spaceship through the front windshield. The orb disappeared into black space. Just as quickly, another orb shot through the windshield to the back walls. The spider poked it, and the orb decomposed into text. “Neat,” said the spider. “You got a hundred curds-and-whey.”
“…What does that mean?” asked Julia.
“Watch,” said Sasha, “there’s more coming.” Two more orbs of different colors arrived from deep space onto their back wall. “See? We sprayed cheese at them, they sprayed cheese back at us.” Sasha bopped an orb.
The orb said, “You’re far from home for a seahorse!”
“That’s an insightful comment,” said Sasha. “I’m giving it a curd.”
“That’s a total curd,” said the spider to Julia.
Sasha bopped the other orb. It said, “Can I see your ovipositor?”
“Uugh,” said Sasha, “these guys are everywhere. Whey!”
“Yeah, that’s a whey,” agreed the spider.
“Oh, I get it,” said Julia. “It’s like thumbs-up and thumbs-down on ButtBook.” She gave her friends a thumbs-up.
Sasha and the spider just looked at each other. “What is she doing?” asked the spider.
“I have no idea,” said Sasha. “Some human thing.”
Another orb flew onto the back wall. Julia tapped this one to open it.
“You’re in a mantoid-ship,” said the orb. “I heard mantoids are searching for Julia. Any sign of her or the Scumbug?”
“Uh oh.” Sasha reached for the orb, but hesitated. “What should we do? That’s a hitman working for the Big Cheese. If they know Julia’s aboard, they’ll want the bounty!”
“We’ll tell ’em the truth.” The spider took the orb between three legs and spoke to it. “We mantoids ate our elders. We younglings aren’t interested in Julia’s bounty anymore.”
Before the spider returned the orb to the windscreen, Julia added to its message. “But what does she look like? Maybe we’ve seen her.” The orb shot to deep space. It returned with an image of Julia sitting beside Earth’s ambassador. Julia compared the photo to her reflection in the windscreen. She felt her stomach sink. “Nope. Haven’t seen her around here.” Julia returned the orb, but her photo stayed on the back wall.
“Wow,” said the spider. “You humans grow fast, huh?”
“Well…” Sasha tapped her little tentacles together. “See… The Scumbug thinks sleeping-pods are Cheesy. Julia and I both have speed-sickness. Her more than me.”
“…Speed-sickness?” asked Julia.
“When you travel above light-speed,” said Sasha, “weird things happen to your perception of time. You get patient. Too patient. If you get really speed-sick, you can age to death in the blink of an eye. Most people use sleep-pods toskip long journeys.”
Julia shivered. “The Scumbug mentioned something like that. It’d felt like we’d left Earth maybe days ago, but the Scumbug said we’d been gone for weeks and weeks.”
“We’ve got sleep-pods aboard,” said the spider. “We haven’t accelerated enough yet to need them, but… Julia, it’s gonna take us a looong time to get to your home-planet, and if the Scumbug is slower than us…”
Julia cradled her face. “How long have I been off Earth? How many months?”
She wasn’t sure how her translator was conveying the word ‘month,’ but both Sasha and the spider looked down. Julia knew the scale of her journey was in years.
The spider tapped the control-panel to bring up a dictionary on the back wall. “It’s going to take us…” It used another three legs to use a calculator on the control-panel. “…Six months to get to Earth. How much slower is the Scumbug?”
Sasha used the calculator, and then the dictionary.
“Give it to me straight,” said Julia. “How many years of my childhood did I lose up here?”
“…Less than a decade,” said Sasha, “I think. But one decade is the closest unit of time your language has.”
Julia wiped a tear from her cheek. “Maybe I’ll get back to Earth in time for my eighteenth birthday.”
A red alert appeared on the windscreen. “Uh oh,” said the spider. “Approaching spaceship!”
“Approaching spaceship, sir,” said the seahorse. “They’re disembarking now.”
“Send them in,” said Earth’s ambassador.
A horrible octopus-monster burst down the office-doors holding a laser-gun in each tentacle. “Thought you could hide on the moon, huh?! No one escapes the ultra-squid! Surrender the child and be subjugated to the Big Cheese!”
“Julia’s not here!” said the ambassador. He didn’t even have any bodyguards.
“Then you’ll tell me where she is,” said the ultra-squid, pointing four lasers at the ambassador’s head, “or I’ll let your planet replace you with an ambassador easier to intimidate!”
“Will you pay the standard fare,” asked the seahorse, “or do you want the deluxe package?”
“Um.” The ultra-squid pointed the other four lasers at the seahorse. “What?”
“Julia’s bounty is over five trillion units,” said the seahorse. “For one trillion units, we’ll give you exclusive information about Julia’s location. For another trillion units, we’ll also promise not to give this information to the hit-man of your choice.”
The ultra-squid narrowed its siphons. Strange calculations clicked in its slotted eyes. “…Julia’s bounty is so high… because she’s worth nothing to you… and you’re inflating the appearance of her worth… to profit off hit-men trying to kidnap her?” The ambassador nodded and put a shushing finger over his smile. “…But… you’d only do that if Julia could never be captured,” said the squid, “and anyone sensible enough to realize that woul—”
“—would get invited to the zoo!” The ambassador flipped a switch under his desk. The floor lit up. Beneath a thin sheet of glass was a whole warehouse of wild animals.
The ultra-squid flinched.
“Don’t worry! This isn’t just a death-threat,” said the ambassador. “I actually want you to join in on the death-threat! Beneath you is my cadre of bodyguards, working professionals just like you, whose work-ethic and entrepreneurial spirit aligned with my values. They can kill you, or you can join them, and get a cut from the saps who fall for the ‘deluxe package’ shtick.”
“…You drive a hard bargain,” said the ultra-squid. “I could kill your whole cadre of bodyguards, but as long as you’re profitable, I’ll join your squad.”
The seahorse breathed a sigh of relief while the ambassador shook a tentacle with both hands. “You and the rest of the bodyguards share from a twenty-percent cut of the net profit.”
“Now it’s a forty-percent cut,” said the ultra-squid.
“Deal,” said the ambassador. “Leave the way you came in and take the stairs down on your left.” The seahorse led the ultra-squid through the busted-down doors.
On returning to the desk, the seahorse shivered. “Eeeugh. That was close.”
“Think it’ll buy it?” asked the ambassador.
“The zoo down there. I said those were professional hit-men to scare the squid, but they’re just a bunch of animals I shipped up from Earth. Will the squid realize?”
“Sir, I don’t think you understand what’s about to happen.” When the door opened into the zoo downstairs, the ultra-squid entered tentacles-first and ate an entire angry grizzly bear.
“Whoa!” The ambassador watched blood pour from the squid’s beak as it ate a rhinoceros starting at the horns. “Hit-men don’t get along, do they?”
“I’m afraid you doomed your zoo when you told the squid it would need to share,” said the seahorse. Soon the zoo was empty except for blood, the giant squid, and its laser-guns. “Sir, I think it’s time for me to stop working here.”
“What? But we’re making so many units!”
“That’s really the problem,” said the seahorse. “This kind of brinkmanship is profitable until it explodes. I’m tapping out.”
The ambassador stepped between the seahorse and the busted-down doors. “When you first came to me, you promised you’d help humanity survive in the galactic theater.”
“You don’t need my help anymore,” said the seahorse. “You’ve got the squid now.”
“But the squid’s a hit-man! I need someone with your interpersonal skills. Can you give me contact-info for more seahorses?”
“Sir.” The seahorse shook his head. “I was sent to help Earth because seahorses are a friendly folk. None of us would join this situation if we didn’t help give birth to it.”
“That’s right!” said the ambassador. “You started this escapade! You can’t abandon me now, can you?”
The seahorse gave a pitiful smile. “Two conditions.”
“I want a raise.”
“And I want better escape pods.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Hey, that’s the scrambag!” said Julia. “That must be Scumdaddy. Or part of Scumdaddy, maybe.”
“It’s trying to contact us,” said the spider. “Should I accept its messages?”
Sasha pat Julia on the back. “The Scumbug won’t let you go back to Earth. Maybe we shouldn’t listen?”
Julia gestured to the spider. “Can we, like, abduct the scrambag? Beam it aboard?”
“I could swoop over it and catch it in the cargo-bay,” said the spider.
“Make it so.”
G-forces slung the trio through the cockpit. “Got it!” said the spider. “Here, take a look.” He displayed security-footage from the cargo-bay, where one of the Scumbug’s lumps was disembarking the scrambag.
The lump rolled to the security-camera. “Julia! I know you’re in here!”
“Can it hear us?” asked Julia.
“If you want.” The spider pointed to a little red button.
Julia pushed it. “Hey, Scumdaddy.”
“Julia, you know better than to go back to Earth! Earth is dangerously Cheesy! My other 19 lumps must be worried sick about you. Turn around right now! We’re going back to the Big Empty.”
Julia pushed the button again. “I’m a big girl, Scumdaddy. Earth should be scared of me.”
The lump grumbled. It tried all the cargo-bay’s obvious exits—doors, air-conditioning vents, escape-pods—but they were all locked or too small for the lump to fit through. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Julia.”
“No, Scumdaddy. You don’t know me. I’ve got a laser-spaceship and loyal crew—friends, Scumdaddy. And I’m gonna introduce them to my friends back on Earth, and feed ’em all noodles.”
“Your friends don’t love you like I love you, Julia. I’m the only one really loyal to you. Did you know, to beat the mantoids, I took six jobs for the funds to assemble a space-laser? I don’t like technology like that Julia, but I got Cheesy for you. I’m the only one you can depend on!”
“Your translator’s buggy,” said Julia. “It must not have a word for loyalty. You obviously don’t know what it means.” Julia released the little red button and whispered with Sasha and the spider. They both scurried to the cargo-bay. Julia pressed the little red button. “Here’s loyalty.”
Sasha and the spider chased the Scumbug’s lump away from the scrambag and into a corner. The spider leapt upon the lump and clutched it in all eight legs. Sasha dragged the spider and the orb to an organic-looking sphincter on the wall. “Hey! Wait! No!” said the Scumbug. “Sasha, was I really so cruel to you that you’d take my scrambag and chuck me into space?”
“You weren’t cruel to me, Scumbug,” said Sasha. “But I know you can handle it, and I want to try spaghetti.” She and the spider crammed the lump through the sphincter and out of the ship. “It’s gone, Julia.”
“Excellent.” Julia played with spray-cheese orbs on the back wall. “Scumdaddy won’t stop chasing us, but without the scrambag, it’ll at least take a while.”
The spider looked over the ship’s control-panel. “We’re moving fast enough that we should probably use the sleeping-pods.”
“Ooh, cool,” said Sasha. “I’ve never used a sleeping-pod before.”
Julia’s brow bent in disappointment. “But… I was having fun spraying cheese with you.”
Sasha laughed. “When we wake up on Earth, we can teach your human-friends to spray cheese.”
“But I’ve got friends here,” said Julia. “I’ve never had a slumber-party before. I want to have six months of slumber-party with you.”
Sasha and the spider looked at each other and smiled. They sat beside Julia and started bouncing orbs across the back wall.
The seahorse sweat. “Approaching spaceships, sir.”
“Ooh, a few at once?” The ambassador straightened his tie. “Tell them we operate first-come-first-serve.”
“Um. Sir.” The seahorse showed him the glass tablet of visualized information. “I’m afraid these spaceships belong to hit-men who are already our clients, sir. I fear they may have come to register complaints.”
“Uugh.” The ambassador waved a hand. “Send them in. If they cause a ruckus, the ultra-squid will escort them from being alive.”
The seahorse hesitated at the door. “You know, sir, that the ultra-squid is only loyal to you while you’re profitable. If it thinks there’s more money in—”
“Send them in.”
Ten aliens stormed into the office. Each looked like a different dangerous animal in a way which would be difficult to describe all at once. “You!”
“Me!” said the ambassador.
An alien pounded the ambassador’s desk with two crab-claws. “You said Julia was captured by the Scumbug!”
“We’ve found the Scumbug,” said a lobster-thing, “and it doesn’t have Julia.”
The ambassador shrugged. “Someone else must have found the Scumbug first. Oh well! You should’ve bought the deluxe package to keep the information to yourselves.”
An alien like a swordfish parried the ambassador’s shrug with a turned-up nose. “Give us one reason not to smear you across the walls and let another ambassador take over.”
The ambassador smiled. “Because you haven’t seen the zoo.” He flipped a switch under his desk.
The glass floor lit up to show the zoo under the office. The ultra-squid climbed the walls with its suckers and burst up through the glass. Three of the alien hit-men fell through the floor and splatted on the zoo floor.
“Kill ’em,” said the ambassador.
Instead, the ultra-squid wrapped three tentacles around the seahorse and scrambled out of the office. “Help!” shouted the seahorse, but the ultra-squid took him into his spaceship and left the moon. “Phew,” said the seahorse. “Thanks. I owe you one.”
The squid operated the controls with eight tentacles. “You owe me more than one. Way, way more.”
“Yeah, yeah. Like we agreed.” The seahorse took out his glass tablet and transferred hundreds of billions of units to the ultra-squid’s account. “Leave me near Galactic Center. I’ll get home from ther—”
“Get in the escape-pod.”
“Um. Okay.” The seahorse got in the squid’s ship’s escape-pod.
“Bye.” The ultra-squid fired the escape-pod into space.
The seahorse was smushed against the floor by the velocity. He laughed. “Oh, I am so glad to be outta there!”
The escape-pod was immediately caught in the cargo-bay of Julia’s mantis-ship.
The other dangerous-looking alien hit-men approached the ambassador’s desk. “Any last words?”
The ambassador swallowed. “Would you believe that I’m actually a robot?” An alien like a hammerhead shark shook a decisive ‘no.’ “Yeah, you’re right. I’d never pass up the chance to commute to the moon.” He sighed. “I guess I always knew the seahorse would betray me. Would any of you nice hit-men consider betraying the others and taking the seahorse’s spot?”
Before the aliens could respond by tearing the ambassador apart, the ambassador’s cell-phone beeped. He raised a finger to ask the aliens to pause took his phone from his shirt-pocket. He had a thumbs-down on his latest ButtBook post.
“…Julia’s got wifi. She’s near Earth!” he said. “The bounty’s back on, and only if I’m alive!”
“Julia?” The aliens all checked their own glass tablets. She’d spray-cheesed them a photo of herself in the scrambag. The moon and Earth were visible through the scrambag’s transparent walls. “She’s here!”
All the aliens scrambled for the office-exit, mangling each other along the way. The hallway to their spaceships was filled with blood and giblets. Alliances were made and betrayed quicker than it took their seat-belts to click.
The surviving alien hit-men flew toward Julia in the scrambag.
From the opposite side of the moon, the mantoid ship ambushed them and evaporated them in a laser-beam.
Julia crash-landed the scrambag on the moon to smash into the hallways of the ambassador’s private offices. She marched up to the ambassador’s desk with a laser-gun. “Ambassadaddy.”
“You always were weird,” said the ambassador, with his hands up.
“Gimme your phone. Mine’s low on battery, and about a decade obsolete.” The ambassador shakily gave her his phone without further comment.
Julia opened ButtBook and logged into her account. She scrolled through ten years of posts from her friends. “No way—Sam dated Becky? And they’re married?” She gripped the phone tightly through her tears. “I had to miss all of this, all because of you!”
The ambassador shook his head. “Actually, Julia, I invented ButtBook. Everything you’ve got is because of me. I’m not rich for nothing—I connect people to their friends!”
“When it’s profitable, you connect people to their friends. When it’s profitable, you chuck a girl into space.”
“And it was profitable!” The ambassador tapped his phone’s screen to show Julia his financial reports. “The galactic theater is the most easily bamboozled mark since a pigeon at the park! I just con aliens into thinking they’re in on a con! You could be in on the con, too, Julia!”
Julia shook her head and kept her laser-gun pointed at the ambassador’s chest. “You’ve got nothing I want.”
“I’ve got almost ten trillion units! I’ll give you half. You’ll go back to space and hide like a fugitive princess. No one will know where you are, but I’ll keep selling the lie that the Scumbug’s got you. That lie will further fund your royal lifestyle.”
Julia cocked the laser-gun. “I’ve got another proposal.”
“Hey, are you the Scumbug?” The nineteen lumps of the Scumbug ignored and brushed past the spaceships flying by. “Where’s Julia?” asked another spaceship.
“I don’t have Julia,” said the Scumbug. “I’m starting to realize I never did have Julia.”
Hit-men kept swerving near in their spaceships, seeing the Scumbug without their target, and absconding. The Scumbug ignored them.
“Hey, are you the Scumbug?”
“What do you think?” said the Scumbug.
“I think you’re missing a lump.” The spaceship ejected the Scumbug’s twentieth lump.
The Scumbug blorped it up and become whole again. All twenty lumps became up-to-date on the situation. “Oh. You’re the seahorse’s wife.”
“You found my lump for me because your husband met Julia’s crew.”
“And you’re here to—”
“If you know so much, then shut up and grab on.”
The Scumbug blorped up the spaceship, but left holes for the engines to propel them through space. “Thanks,” said the Scumbug.
“I’ve got children aboard, just so you know. So no funny-business.”
“About a hundred.”
“My hubby said you’re really attached to yours. Julia.”
“Why don’t you have a better spaceship? Even your scrambag is pretty slow.”
“I can split into twenty lumps. I’ve never needed to move fast. I can be everywhere at once.”
“But you’re willing to hitch a ride.”
“I’ve suddenly got one single place to be.”
The ambassador swallowed. “Okay. What’s your proposal?”
“I’m Earth’s ambassador now.” Julia pressed the barrel of the laser-gun on his chest. “You’re just my father, for whom I care very, very deeply.”
The ambassador looked left and right until he realized what Julia meant. “You mean—”
“You get to be the fugitive royalty,” said Julia. “Alien hit-men can chase you across the universe to intimidate me.”
The ambassador shook his head. “The whole Earth is on my side, Julia. I can take you down and replace you with another little girl—maybe one of your ButtBook friends. I don’t go where I don’t want to.”
“Maybe you want to go to space, Ambassadaddy. I met all kinds of nice aliens out there. Aliens who became close friends of mine.”
“I’ve got friends on Earth, and I don’t need any new ones.”
“You don’t understand.” Julia snapped her fingers. The office-doors smashed open. The spider clambered in. Over the months of space-travel without hypersleep, it had grown larger than its mantoid mother. It filled the whole office. “My friend here will chuck you into lunar orbit unless you leave the solar system and never come back.”
The ambassador gulped. “You make a compelling offer.”
Yet another spaceship crashed through the ceiling. The Scumbug unblorped it. “Julia! Sasha!”
Sasha the seahorse pushed her way into the office through the tangle of spider-legs. “Hey.”
“You two are coming with me right now!” said the Scumbug. “I’ve finally learned the lessons I need to raise you into adults without Cheese!”
“You’ve already Cheesed us up!” said Julia. She considered pointing her laser-gun at the Scumbug, but used instead used its barrel to shush the ambassador, who looked like he might insert a word edgewise. “Scumdaddy, you raised me to be a fly a spaceship and not take lip from anyone, not even alien hit-men—not even you!”
“But that’s not how I meant to bring you up! You’re going back to the Big Empty and I’m trying again!”
“I’m the Big Cheese!” said Julia. “You wanted to kidnap a kid before someone else kidnapped them first, right? I’m not that kid anymore!”
The Scumbug’s lumps flocked to Sasha. “Sasha? Do you feel the same way?”
“Honestly, Scumbug, sir,” said Sasha, tapping her little tentacles together, “I’d really like to try spaghetti.”
“I raised you from childhood. You’d leave me for noodles?”
The ambassador turned his face so Julia’s laser-gun poked his cheek. “If you don’t mind me saying, Mr. Scumbug, Sir, from my perspective here, the only difference between you kidnapping Julia and, say, Germa the Gerbil kidnapping Julia, is that I was able to profit when you did it.”
“Well said.” Julia plugged the ambassador’s mouth with the barrel of the laser-gun. “Scumdaddy, as long as you don’t understand you’re part of the Big Cheese, all you can do is try to leave the Cheese and fail. And when you fail, you eat your kids, even though you’re trying not to.”
The Scumbug collected its twenty lumps in its center. “But I don’t know how to do anything else.”
“You told me yourself,” said Julia, “there’s only one other thing to do. Eat your parents. Eat the Big Empty.”