Mother and Son

(This is part three of a story starting here.)


Germa the Gerbil opened his eyes for the first time ever. To his left and right a hundred of his scrawny broodmates were mewling and shivering still wet with afterbirth. Looking left again, half those broodmates were gone. Looking right again, no broodmates remained. Germa was in a dark, earthy cave, alone except for whatever was munching the bones of his litter.

“Hush little gerbil, don’t make a sound.” Germa tensed as the unseen entity approached. “Momma’s decided to keep you around.” Germa’s snout was opened and a nipple pressed against his tongue. “Made the extras into milk.” Germa slurped. It was sweet. “Made their bones as soft as silk.”

Germa closed his eyes and suckled. He was pick of the litter. The rest had been recycled into nutrients for him and him alone.

Germa woke up. He was in his spaceship headed toward the planet of the flaybos. He left his sleeping-pod and took the controls. “Computer, how long was the trip?”

“Six Earth-weeks,” said the computer.

Germa nodded. Using the sleeping-pod was risky—a bandit robbing the ship could kill him easily as his mother killed his helpless broodmates. But neglecting the sleeping-pod was worse—prolonged space-travel warped your perception of time unless you slept through it. “Prepare for landing,” said Germa. “I heard the Scumbug gloating about hiding its scrambag in this hell-hole.”

His spaceship landed and Germa stepped out onto the exit-ramp.

Instantly the sand churned. A hundred jeorbs emerged squealing and screaming and thrashing their tentacles at him. Germa’s spaceship targeted these jeorbs with laser-canons and disintegrated them. More jeorbs dug up and the spaceship kept zapping them to ash.

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After a few minutes jeorbs ceased to appear. Germa descended the exit-ramp and investigated the holes they’d left in the sand during their assault. The holes went deep into the planet. Germa followed them into the darkness. Germa didn’t mind darkness; he was mostly blind. Behind the odor of jeorbs there was the stench of their flaybo. Germa followed the stench through the labyrinths. Eventually he found a flaybo with no jeorbs. It hissed at him. “Save your screeches for the interrogation,” said Germa.

“You’ll get nothing from me!”

“I’ve killed your jeorbs. You sent them all to die.”

“Psha. I’ve hidden the best ones. If you kill me they’ll eat my corpse and tell my story.”

Germa opened wide. “Not if I eat you first!” The flaybo leapt upon Germa and smacked him with tentacles. Germa ripped open the flaybo’s body and slurped intestines like spaghetti. The flaybo howled and bit Germa, but Germa was more proficient at combat-cannibalism. “The Scumbug! Has it come here?”

“I don’t know what a Scumbug is!

Germa ate more insides. “The Scumbug boasted to me about feeding a flaybo to their own jeorbs to hide a vessel somewhere in this planet. Where is it?”

“I don’t know!”

“Who knows the Scumbug’s secrets?”

“Only the flaybo keeping them!”

“Where are they?”

“I don’t know!”

Germa kept eating. “Who does know?”

“Nobody but the Scumbug!”

“Graah!” Germa ate the flaybo’s beak in frustration. “If you don’t tell me now I’ll eat you whole. Another flaybo will tell their story to your jeorbs. Everything you are will be gone forever.”

The flaybo tried to speak but with no beak, blood just poured from its face.

“Pity.” Germa ate the rest of the flaybo and picked its tendons from his buckteeth. “No wonder the Scumbug stowed its scrambag here. Flaybos can’t scream anything useful.” Germa left the subterranean catacombs and boarded his ship. “Lady Mantoid is probably already on the Scumbug’s trail. Only she and her brood could comb the whole inside of this planet looking for clues.”

The ship’s computer chimed in: “We could comb the exterior from low orbit.”

“Huh?”

“Look,” said the computer. The holes which the jeorbs made during their onslaught hadn’t yet filled with sand. “The surface of this planet is covered in the dandruff of a hundred million jeorbs and flaybos. If the Scumbug left recently perhaps the exit-wound hasn’t filled yet.”

“A-ha.” Germa leaned back in his pilot’s chair. “Liftoff.”


“So what is a scrambag, exactly?” asked Julia. She was glad to play her phone-games next to the power-outlets. “You said it was an egg?”

“Every hit-man has a scrambag,” said the Scumbug. “If you ever need to disappear you’ll want a collection of tools and weapons to abscond with. Not every hit-man has such a useful egg as mine.”

“Who are we disappearing from?”

“Everyone after you.”

“Like Germa the Gerbil?”

“Is he after you?”

“The seahorse said so.”

“Well, Germa’s a chump. I’m not scared of him. But yes, we’re disappearing from the likes of Germa the Gerbil.”

Julia looked through the transparent shell of the scrambag. Stars were rushing by. “How fast are we going?”

“Naked, I can travel through vacuum at about three light-years a week. With the scrambag’s tech we’re booking about thirty a day and still accelerating.”

“How many light-years have we traveled so far?”

“A couple hundred.”

Julia punched some numbers into a calculator on her phone. “We’ve…We’ve been off Earth for months?”

“Uh-huh.”

“But.” Julia shook. “But it hasn’t felt that long at all.”

“That’s normal,” said the Scumbug. “Traveling at relativistic-speeds warps perception of time.”

“I haven’t had a bite to eat since we left Earth and I’m not even hungry.”

“Your stomach perceives time, too. It might be years before you’re hungry.”

“How does that work?”

“Do I look like a physicist?”

Julia folded her arms. “You promised me noodles.”

“I did not.”

“I want noodles!” said Julia. “You adopted me months ago and haven’t made noodles once! You’re awful, Scumdaddy.”

“Okay, okay! Chill.” The scrambag hummed. “You said noodles are starchy, right?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Starches are pretty easy. My scrambag can make them from scratch.” From the ceiling of the orb, one long strand of spaghetti protruded until it coiled on the floor like a rope. “Go wild, kid.”

“I can’t eat that,” said Julia.

“Why not?”

“No tomato-sauce.”

The Scumbug curdled. “What’s a tomato?”

“It’s a vegetable. Actually, wait, maybe it’s a fruit?”

“Starches are easy, Julia. Plants are hard. I can’t make a tomato because I don’t even know what they look like.”

“They’re red but they start green.”

“That doesn’t help. Is there anything else which goes on noodles?”

“Um. Butter? Olive-oil?”

“All that’s gibberish to me except ‘oil.’ I can make oil. Humans eat oil?”

“Yeah, it’s in lots of stuff.”

“Oil bursts into flames, and you eat it?”

“Not that kind of oil!” Julia laughed. “I think olive-oil is made of plant-fats and stuff.”

“Ah. Plant-fats. I can fake that. Still flammable, though.” The scrambag hummed as the Scumbug made oil. “Hold on, it might take a while.”

“How many light-years to go, Scumdaddy?”

“A bunch. We’re going where not even the Big Cheese can hurt you.”

“Where?”

“You know how the Big Cheese is—what’d you call it?—the interconnectedness of all things?” Julia nodded. “Well, we’re going where there’s no things. The Big Empty. The space between galaxies. The only place the Big Cheese fears.”

“…But… if we’re part of the Big Cheese, shouldn’t we also fear the Big Empty?”

“You don’t want to be part of the Big Cheese. No one does! That’s why the Big Cheese happens.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind. We’re going to Neverland, Julia.”

“Is there reception in Neverland? Your egg doesn’t have wifi.”

“Aren’t you listening to me? No wifi! No reception!”

“But my friends—”

“I can adopt your friends next if it turns out you really need them for your survival. Until then, no Cheese!”

“You want me to threaten suicide? I’m no stranger to that game!”

The Scumbug’s lumps jittered. “…Julia?”

“I was born playing that game. When I was popping out, the doctor said it was either kill me or kill my mum. Mum selflessly squirt me into the world and choked. Daddy number one didn’t want me after that. Daddy number two adopted me and a bunch of other kids to dodge taxes by claiming us as dependents but keeping us in squalor. I said I’d kill myself if he doesn’t give us half the cut. He surrendered me to Daddy number three and I’ve been fighting my way up ever since. You don’t scare me!”

“See, I’m tellin’ ya, this is exactly the kind of Cheese I want to keep you away from.”

“If the Big Empty doesn’t even have wifi I’m gonna off myself and you won’t get whatever kind of tax-dodge you’re after. Just send me to Daddy number nine!”

“Hey! Hey! No talking like that! Let’s make a deal.” The Scumbug’s scrambag drizzled oily substance on the long strand of spaghetti. “I’ll tell you what it’s like where we’re going. Then you tell me what wifi is and I’ll do my best to make some for you.”

Julia munched the spaghetti. It was bleh, but she ate anyway.

“I’ve made a tiny planet hidden way out in the Big Empty. You’ll be able to grow up with no Cheese—just you, air, water, and all the oily noodles you want. You’ll be totally safe because the Big Empty is filled with Easy Cheese, and the Big Cheese can’t stand Easy Cheese. It won’t come anywhere near you.”

“…Easy Cheese? You’re making this up.”

“I’m not! Easy Cheese is the biggest part of the Big Cheese. That’s why the Big Cheese is so scared of it!”

“Maybe Daddy number nine will tell me what really going on.” Julia pointed outside the translucent scrambag at an approaching spaceship. “Maybe that’s him now.”


The ambassador’s newest office was at the core of the moon. “Wow. So this is what a trillion units can buy?”

“Half a trillion,” said the seahorse. He showed the ambassador expenditure-charts on his glass tablet. “We’ve got another half-trillion to play with before we inevitably tailspin.”

“I’m feeling flight-worthy,” said the ambassador. He was flanked by eight armed guards on either side. “Germa the Gerbil left weeks ago and Lady Mantoid is chasing his tail. Earth’s foray into the cosmos has been nothing but profit!”

“Lemme skim my salary off the top, then.” The seahorse used the glass tablet to wire units to his home-planet. “What will you do with almost half a trillion units? Revolutionize Earth’s something-or-other?”

“Shh, shh.” The ambassador tutted disapprovingly. “Earth doesn’t know about these units. Remember, nothing in this office leaves the office.”

“Seriously?”

“You deal with me. I deal with Earth. The story they’re hearing is that we’re working our tails off trying to get Julia back from an alien hit-man. That’s good media. We got these units chucking Julia under the bus to make a deal with an alien hit-man. That’s bad media.”

The seahorse turned off his glass tablet at tucked it into his skin-flap. “There’s a reason you’re the Big Cheese, sir. Truly I’m just riding your coattails. I couldn’t bring myself to make good decisions like you.”

“Julia’s kidnapping has driven my Earthly profits through the roof,” said the ambassador. “Poor people are donating to me out of pity. What’s the exchange rate from American dollars to space-units?”

“There is none. Your money is worthless in the galactic theater.”

“Perfect. I’ll pocket the donations and we’ll tell Earth their generosity exchanged for half a trillion units. We’ll spend the units on more publicity-stunts—gosh, maybe we’ll actually rescue Julia after all! Or pretend we’re trying, anyway.”

“What can you buy with your human-money?”

“Oh, human-stuff,” said the ambassador. “Mostly fancy offices in interesting locations. I had a few albino tigers back in my heyday. Maybe I’ll have some shipped to the moon.”

“Huh.” The seahorse chuckled. “You know, the Big Cheese does stuff like that. Hoarding dangerous animals.”

“The tigers wouldn’t be dangerous. They’d be declawed and defanged.”

“Neutralizing animals is the reason you hoard them in the first place, isn’t it? I couldn’t tell you, I’ve never had the fascination myself.”

The ambassador shrugged. “Where does Germa the Gerbil think the Scumbug is going?”

“Remember I said the Scumbug fed a flaybo to its own jeorbs?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Flaybo-planets are scattered along the galaxies’ outer rim. They’re made of the excretions of jeorbs and flaybos who live inside them. The Scumbug hid its scrambag in a planet like that, like stashing a getaway-motorcycle in a septic-tank on the bad side of town. If Germa knows which planet, he might be headed there.”

The ambassador drummed his knuckles. “Let’s assume Julia is dead. For her honor, we hire an assassin to kill Germa, or maybe the Scumbug. Earth makes a strong first impression on the Big Cheese and as ambassador I’ll give myself a shiny medal.”

“Better seek vengeance on the gerbil,” said the seahorse. “With its scrambag the Scumbug might be impossible for anyone to catch. Julia’s long gone.”

“What is a scrambag, anyway?”

“It’s what the Scumbug calls its escape-pod. Hit-men sometimes feel an urgent need to become distant and undetectable. Um. Speaking of which.” The seahorse looked around the office. “We’ve got escape-pods, don’t we?”

“Yeah, why?”

“I just feel a sudden sense of impending dooOH HOLY CRAP!” The ambassador’s sixteen armed guards exploded into fountains of bugs the size of chihuahuas. “Open the escape-pods!”

“Bleh.” The ambassador wiped entrails and bug-goop from his suit and pressed a button under his desk to open the escape-pods. More bugs spilled from the pods and crawled all over the seahorse and the ambassador. “What the hell is this!”

The seahorse hesitated to speak because the bugs were swarming around its face. “The spawn of Lady Mantoid!”

“That’s right!” She crawled from an escape-pod onto the ceiling of the office. Lady Mantoid was like a praying mantis with a giggling geisha’s make-up. She was as long as the office was wide. “Darlings! Rejoice! If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead!”

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The ambassador swatted bugs from his face, but they just kept coming. “What do you want!”

“How much did Germa the Gerbil pay to hear that the Scumbug had captured your daughter?”

“How did you know—” began the seahorse, but the ambassador interrupted.

“A trillion units!”

“I’ll take that, thank you very much, in return for your lives.”

“We spent half already!”

“Pity. I’ll kill just one of you in exchange for the other half.”

The seahorse blinked. “Okay!” He fished the glass tablet from his flap.

“Hey!” The ambassador tackled the seahorse, squashing bugs between them. “Those units aren’t yours to spend!”

“I wanna live! I’ve got a family!”

The ambassador wrestled the tablet from him and clutched it to his chest as the bugs swarmed. “Mantoid!”

Lady Mantoid!” she said.

Lady Mantoid! How’d you know the Scumbug got Julia?”

“I followed Germa for a while,” said Lady Mantoid. “He was in a sleeping-pod so he couldn’t notice me trailing him. I realized he was headed toward a flaybo-planet where the Scumbug boasted about hiding its scrambag. If the Scumbug has Julia and Germa hasn’t bothered eating you yet, you must have tricked him somehow. Or maybe… you’re letting him think he’s tricking the Big Cheese?”

“You got it!” said the ambassador. “We’re letting Germa cash Julia’s bounty before the Big Cheese realizes she’s worthless to us. You could beat him to it and make two trillion units, but only if we’re alive!”

“That sounds complicated,” said Lady Mantoid. “Give me your half-trillion units and I’ll feed your seahorse to my limitless spawn.”

The bugs were already munching the screaming seahorse. The ambassador tapped the tablet and used it to bat away bugs. “I just spent the rest of it!”

“Ooh. My bugs will eat you too then.”

“I invested it.” The ambassador showed her the tablet. “I raised Julia’s bounty to two and a half trillion. That simplifies things, doesn’t it? Not so complicated anymore?”

The seahorse screamed and screamed even as the bugs pulled away from him and the ambassador. When the seahorse composed himself he saw Lady Mantoid and the ambassador staring eye-to-eye. “You’ve got moxie,” she said. “You’re Easy Cheese. And I like Easy Cheese!”

The seahorse shook. “This is so simple I think you’re gonna have to explain it to me.”

“Charlie,” said the ambassador, “how much has your retirement-fund invested in Julia’s kidnapping?”

“About ten-billion units of my assets are invested in kidnapping newcomers.”

“Julia specifically?”

“No way for me to know, but it’s spread pretty thin. Maybe a few hundred units?”

“Exactly. I put half a trillion units on Julia’s head, so I reckon I’m the lead stakeholder on the bounty!”

“So when I capture Julia and return her to you,” said Lady Mantoid, “I’ll get the whole bounty to myself and Earth will appear subjugated by the Big Cheese while the supposed hostage is safe and sound!” Lady Mantoid and her army of bugs packed into the escape-pods. “Pleasure doing business, Ambassador.”

The ambassador caught his breath and loosened his tie while the escape-pods took off. The seahorse wept and hit the floor. “What the hell was that!”

“We’re scamming the Big Cheese,” said the ambassador. “Lady Mantoid will claim the bounty by returning Julia to us under the pretense that we’re one of the evil space-monsters capitalizing on Julia’s capture. We might even be in position to make some units after the dust settles.”

The seahorse shook his head. “You can’t outsmart Lady Mantoid. If you survive this it’s because she thinks she’ll have leverage over you.”

“And she’ll be right!” said the ambassador. He wiped bug-juice off his suit. “She’s got secrets we need her to keep and she’ll make us pay through the nose. But if an assassin like Lady Mantoid think’s you’re valuable enough to keep around, you stick around.”


“Oh, that’s just Germa,” said the Scumbug. “I’m not worried about him. Hey, can you see that? That’s your new home-planet.”

Julia looked where the Scumbug pointed with a pseudopod, but couldn’t see anything but empty black space. They can just entered the Big Empty. “How do you even see things, Scumdaddy?”

“Vibration-detectors in my lumps.”

“Vibrations? In the vacuum of space?”

“Lotsa things vibrate through the vacuum of space. Like Easy Cheese. I can sense Easy Cheese better than anyone. That’s why I’m not scared of the Big Empty.”

Julia looked back at Germa’s spaceship. “Germa’s ship is vibrating. It looks like it’s charging a laser.”

“He’s bluffing. If he vaporized you he wouldn’t get the bounty.”

Germa’s ship fired a laser and missed Julia but clipped the Scumbug. Julia felt the scrambag heat up a few degrees by proximity to the blast. “You’re awful confident, Scumdaddy. What makes you think Germa’s such a pushover?”

“He’s the kind of life-form who gets eaten by their parents.”

“You think Germa’s mommy is gonna come put a boot up his butt?”

“No, no. I’ve never met Germa’s mother personally. I’m sure she’s a fine old gerbil-lady and the fact she probably eats her kids is the origin of the idiom but not the only meaning. I mean Germa’s the kind of alien who’s betrayed by everyone all the time because he’s not clever enough to do the betraying himself.”

Germa’s spaceship exploded into a billion pieces when another spaceship flew out of nowhere and blew it up.

“See? Now there’s someone I’m worried about.”

Julia gawked at the ship. It looked like the head of a praying mantis. “Is that Lady Mantoid?”

“Probably a sibling of hers. When a brood gets the chance to mature it’s pretty tight-knit.” The Scumbug’s twenty lumps separated. “I’m splitting up. Julia, you’re taking the scrambag.” Like a dividing cell, the Scumbug split into two blobs. One blob was large and contained eighteen lumps. The other blob was small and contained two lumps and Julia in the scrambag. “You’re coming with me,” said the lumps.

“So there are two Scumbugs now?”

“Still just the one. I’m split up.” The scrambag accelerated far faster carrying so much less mass. The rest of the Scumbug lagged behind to engage the mantis-ship. “I’m gonna drop you off on your new home-planet, then send a lump back to the main mass with most of the blob.”

Julia watched the Scumbug’s larger portion blorb up the mantis-ship and attempt to digest it as they disappeared into the black distance. “So… Can you see things from the other lumps? Can you sense their vibrations, I mean?”

“Your hands can feel each other, right? But if you chopped off a hand, you could feel it, but not feel from it. I can just put myself back together after I chop myself up. Anyway, welcome home.”

No wonder Julia hadn’t seen it in the vast emptiness of space: the new planet was the size of a mobile-home. The Scumbug’s smaller portion landed on it’s gray dusty surface. The scrambag opened and Julia walked out. “It’s a little small. A lot small, actually.”

“I pumped up the gravity by injecting some neutron-star matter.” The scrambag shut and left the planet, leaving only one lump beside Julia.

“Hey!” Julia waved her arms at the departing scrambag. “Come back!”

“I’m still here, Julia,” said the remaining lump.

“But I need power-outlets!”

“We’ll try to make do here.”

“There isn’t any here. This is nowhere.

“That’s why you’re safe!” The Scumbug started to dig. “Lemme introduce you to your new friend.”

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