(This is part two of a story starting here.)
The Scumbug shot through space faster and faster. Julia floated around in the co-pilot’s seat watching the cosmos streak by until she got bored and turned to her phone. “Do you have wifi? You’ve got bad reception, Scumdaddy.”
“Please, please, please don’t call me that,” said the Scumbug. “What’s reception? What’s wifi?”
“My phone doesn’t have the little bars that let me talk to people. I can’t text my friends back on Earth.”
“Good. No one can know where we’re going. If you’ve got air, you’ve got enough.”
“I’ll need water, too.”
“Water?” The Scumbug rippled skeptically. “Humans drown.”
“Yeah, but we still need water.”
“You guys are picky.”
“And food.” Julia played a phone-game which worked in airplane-mode. “I’m not that picky. I’ll eat spaghetti or whatever kind of noodles you can cook.”
“Slow down, short-stuff. What’s spaghetti? What’s a noodle? What’s cooking? My translator can’t keep up.”
“You have a translator?”
“Duh. Can’t speak human, can I? And you can’t speak Scumbug.”
“But… where is it?” She looked around the Scumbug. There were twenty fist-sized lumps embedded in its mass. “Are your kids translating for you?”
“Close. Those aren’t just my kids. Whenever I blorp anything up, I crunch it down and it joins the lumps. They’re digestive stones—like, a flaybo might eat rocks to mash stuff in its stomach.”
“Humans don’t have a word for flaybos, so the translator gives you garbage. But like I was saying, I blorped up the translator, so it’s locked in these lumps. Anyway, what’s spaghetti?”
“It’s a noodle.”
“But what’s a noodle?”
“I answered your question,” said Julia, “now you answer one of mine. What’s the Big Cheese?”
“Um.” The Scumbug’s membrane wavered. “It’s hard to explain to someone who’s just entered the cosmic theater.”
“Why? Is it like a really big seahorse?”
“No. What? No. The Big Cheese is… well… Your phone has reception, connecting you to your friends, right?”
“You’ve got reception, too. Everything in the universe makes a little impression on you, and you make an impression back on them. All of that together—all the connections between everything ever—that’s the Big Cheese.”
Julia frowned. “The—the interconnectedness of all things put a bounty on me?”
“What does that mean?”
“Hold on, I’m looking through my translator’s dictionary.” The Scumbug bubbled. “What do you call it when humans pool resources to secure more resources?”
“That doesn’t have the political connotation I’m looking for.”
“Does ‘fundraising’ imply the inevitability of physics?”
“Osmosis,” said the Scumbug. “That’s the word. Water goes where there’s no water. Exploitation goes where there’s no exploitation, and that’s the Big Cheese. You got a bounty because mob mentality decided to pluck Earth like a ripe berry.”
“…But… who would you collect the bounty from? How does it work?”
“Look, kid, if I understood economics, I wouldn’t be an assassin. Now tell me: what the hell is a ‘noodle’?”
“It’s… um… It’s a food, and you cook it, and it’s floppy and starchy.”
“Cook? What does it mean to cook?”
“I really don’t.”
“Um. You boil water with noodles in it for a few minutes, and then you get rid of the water and eat the noodles.”
“Let me get this straight,” said the Scumbug. “See, I do bad things for a living. I once fed a flaybo to his own jeorbs. I don’t know noodles from spaghetti, but I can learn what’s lethal. What’s lethal to humans? Combustion and drowning. And, uh, decapitation,” it mumbled. “But now you’re telling me, before you eat stuff, you put it in boiling water?”
“Are you homeopaths?”
For a while the Scumbug and Julia were quiet. In the cosmic distance, bursting supernovae colored black space. When Julia’s phone-battery was almost empty she took a portable charger from her skirt-pockets and plugged it in. “Do your lumps have a power-outlet?”
“Julia, did you know you’re the most polite victim I’ve ever kidnapped?” asked the Scumbug. “Usually people are screaming their heads off.”
“Well, you’re planning to kill them, aren’t you? You said you were taking me to a safe-house.”
“Maybe I’m lying. Maybe I’m cashing in your bounty, and you’re gonna be a hostage for the Big Cheese.”
“All my daddies lie to me, but at least they had power-outlets and wifi.”
“Kid, what’s your deal?”
“We haven’t found your daughter and the Scumbug.” The seahorse wore a sling carrying his numerous young, whom he gently rocked as he spoke with the ambassador. “Tracking the Scumbug is tricky because of its… eu natural transport method. I’m sorry it destroyed your robot.”
“Bah,” said the ambassador, “that’s what the robot’s for.” His current office was exactly like his other office under the Marianas Trench, and equally ambiguous in location. “And don’t worry, that wasn’t my daughter—I don’t have any kids. Rescuing Julia would be good for Earth’s image in the cosmic theater, but losing her is a punch we can roll with.”
“Huh?” The seahorse covered his children so they’d sleep. “But you told me—”
“You told me the Big Cheese put bounties on successors of leaders for leverage,” said the ambassador. “I don’t have kids. I adopted one. I’m told Julia was a problem-child. She won’t be missed. Leverage minimized.”
“Um. Wow.” The seahorse bobbed dismissively, like a shrug without shoulders. “If you need any consolation, the Scumbug won’t cash the bounty and doesn’t hurt children. Julia is paradoxically safe.”
“Why? Is the Scumbug a softie?”
“Oh, no. The Scumbug is an abominable monster. It once fed a flaybo to his own jeorbs. But unlike amoral entities like Germa the Gerbil and Lady Mantoid, the Scumbug has rigid morality. The Big Cheese trusts the Scumbug only when its ethics can be exploited.”
The ambassador smiled. “…What if we exploit them first?”
“Shh.” Now the ambassador was grinning ear-to-ear. “With the Scumbug involved, I’ve finally found the reason we went to space in the first place. Do you know why I’m ambassador, Charlie? Why I’m spokesperson of Earth?”
“My name’s not Charl—”
“Because I sent the Ultra-Voyager,” said the ambassador. “I funded the space-probe which traveled far enough to alert the Big Cheese to our presence. Do you know why I sent that probe?”
“To explore the cosm—”
“Branding!” The ambassador clapped. The seahorse flinched, but the eight armed guards in the office had nerves of steel. “My company makes useless electronic crap and commercials which convince you to buy useless electronic crap. There’s no value in a space-probe which won’t find anything for a bazillion years unless it convinces chumps that your GPS-chips are faster, or some bullshit.”
“You told me your company revolutionized Earth’s transport-infrastruc—”
“I revolutionized Earth’s cash-flow into my wallet. And look at the mess it landed me in this time! Adopting a daughter to be kidnapped at the behest of a seahorse! But we’ll come out on top of this, lemme tell you.”
“How?” asked the seahorse. “Even as we speak, Germa the Gerbil and Lady Mantoid are on this very planet narrowing down our location. When they find us, they’ll make us talk. When we say the Scumbug captured Julia, they’ll chase her down, even if they know she’s worthless to you, just because the Big Cheese doesn’t know—or they might kill us for the inconvenience!”
“Perfect.” The ambassador clapped again. “Get me in contact with Germa.”
“Or is Lady Mantoid more accessible?”
“Everything we know about these assassins comes at the expense of top-secret espionage. You want to expose our spies to the risk of death or torture just to contact their targets directly?”
“Why are you here?” asked the ambassador. “Is all that espionage just for fun?”
The seahorse shook. “We hope to protect budding civilizations from the Big Cheese.”
“For what purpose?”
“Altruism, obviously, and to establish mutually beneficial trade-relati—”
“The bounty is two trillion units,” said the ambassador. “If we can wring just a billion units out of that, that’s 100,000 units per seahorse-baby you’ve got there—isn’t that like altruism for your budding little darlings? …Is 100,000 units a lot? It sounds like a lot.”
“Well, it’s not a lot a lot, with inflation lately, but most of these spawn won’t live older tha—hey, what? How, and why, would you profit from an abduction? Julia isn’t your child, but—”
“As long as the Big Cheese doesn’t know that, there’s two trillion dollars waiting to be cashed. Maybe more if we play our cards right.”
The seahorse shuddered. “Sir—Before we go on, can I send my children in your escape-pod to their mother on our home-planet?”
“I don’t think my kids should see this.”
“I won’t explain until I send them away.”
The ambassador pushed his glasses up his nose while looking at an armed guard. That guard opened a panel on the wall, and another guard took the seahorse’s sling of numerous young.
“I don’t think they’re old enough to hear the truth about the Big Cheese,” said the seahorse as the escape-pod shot off. “I’ve looked through my translator’s dictionary; there’s an Earth personality, called, um—Saint Nick? Santa Claus?” The ambassador nodded. “Do you believe in Santa?”
“Can’t say I do.”
“Is that little girl Julia old enough to know Santa isn’t real?”
“Maybe? I certainly wouldn’t spill the beans in front of her.”
“So you understand why I had to send my kids away,” said the seahorse. “I didn’t want them to hear the Big Cheese doesn’t exist.”
“…Then who put a bounty on the kid?”
“Who leaves presents under the tree?”
“Bingo.” The ambassador squinted. “Aliens all over the galaxy contribute to the subjugation of newcomers. Every Earth-day, a hundred planets just like yours enter the cosmic theater to be crushed by the Big Cheese. You could set your watch by it. Even my retirement-fund invests in these bounties. It’s a decent ROI.”
“You. Paid. For the kidnapping. Of my daughter. Whom you were protecting.”
“If Earth had buckled under Julia’s capture, my family would enjoy the fruits of humanity’s capitulation,” said the seahorse. “We’re altruistic, not stupid. But even I wouldn’t suggest what you’re suggesting, sir.”
The ambassador grinned. “What am I suggesting?”
“You want to call an assassin and sell them information to kidnap a little girl you adopted. Earth didn’t need protection from the Big Cheese after all—the Big Cheese was here, waiting ready.”
“Ah, ah, ah—Come on. Look. You’re a good guy—you came all the way to Earth just to help us out. But like you said, you’re not stupid—if you saved Julia, you’d profit in trade with Earth, and if you didn’t save Julia, you’d make a dime at the backdoor! But the Scumbug nabbed her, so you didn’t even profit! Now we’ve got a chance to make a dime when we would be in the red, or even dead. I’m only suggesting it because I know you’re thinking it. Don’t be a Charlie Horse.”
“You’re not bad at this, ambassador.” The seahorse took a glass tablet from a hidden fold in his flesh. He tapped the tablet with his snout and it lit up like a screen. “I can contact Germa the Gerbil if you’ll sign a contract.”
“There it is.” The Scumbug made a long pseudopod point at the approaching planet, which was yellow like a desert. “Home of the flaybos.”
Julia stirred awake. “Huh?” She rubbed her eyes. “How long have I been asleep?”
“How long have you been what?”
“Asleep. Sleeping. Lying down with my eyes closed.”
“That’s how humans sleep? I thought you were being passive-aggressive.”
“I was doing both,” said Julia. “I was sleeping because it’s so boring here. I can’t charge my phone, I can’t go online—you’re the worst, Scumdaddy.”
The Scumbug bubbled. “Julia, I hope you always think I’m the worst thing in the universe. That’s success, for me. I’m a good little Scumdaddy, if that’s really how you feel.”
“You’re weird. All my other daddies said they’d be the best daddy ever.”
“And they were liars, right? Well, I’m telling the truth.” The Scumbug fell into the planet’s gravitational pull. Julia, in the co-pilot’s seat, pressed against the Scumbug’s ceiling. “There are way worse things in this universe than me, and I hope you never meet them.”
“Flaybos,” said the Scumbug. “Quick, kid, how fast can humans hit the ground without dying?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then I’ll play it safe.” The Scumbug’s volume flushed downward, faster than Julia was falling, becoming thinner and thinner until it hit the ground a mile ahead of her. The Scumbug looked like a green lollipop with a mile-long stick whose shortening decelerated Julia to the sand. “There. Are you dead?”
“Okay, get out. Wait. What air you breathe, kid?”
“Kid, I need to know what keeps you alive. There’s a little argon in Earth-air, is that the stuff?”
“No, that doesn’t sound right. When Ambassadaddy took me to the Marianas Trench, he said we need oxygen.”
“But…” The Scumbug was hopeless. “But oxygen combusts.”
“You’re the most fragile creatures in the universe, huh? Do humans need to be decapitated sometimes, too?”
“No, but we need oxygen, and water, and noodles.”
“Fine.” The Scumbug churned. One of its twenty dark lumps lost a pea-sized mass which popped from the Scumbug’s membrane and rolled to Julia. “Eat this.”
“This ain’t no noodle.”
“It’s one of my translators. If you eat it, it won’t matter what you breathe—or even if.”
Julia took the translator and wiped off some slime. “Ew.” She swallowed it. “Yuck.”
“Okay. Get out.” The Scumbug opened and Julia walked onto the sand. “Are you dead?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then dig.” The Scumbug shaped itself into a scoop and shoveled a ton of sand. “Flaybos live underground.”
“Um. I think you’re better at digging than I am.” Julia scooped sand with both her hands.
“Just participate, kid. Humor me.” In a few minutes the Scumbug had dug a hole so deep Julia couldn’t see the bottom, not that she cared to look; she was busy with a sand-castle.
“I thought you said flaybos were worse than you. Why are you bringing me straight to them?”
“Not all flaybos, kid. Remember I said I fed one to his own jeorbs?”
“A flaybo doesn’t forget something like that. Okay, get back inside me.” The Scumbug opened for her.
“Why?” asked Julia.
“Because it’s a deep hole. I don’t think you’d survive the drop.”
Julia entered the Scumbug. “Scumdaddy, promise me you’ll get a spaceship. This really isn’t working.”
“You’ll fit in the scrambag.”
The ambassador perked up when the seahorse’s glass tablet vibrated. The seahorse touched it and the tablet played audio—heavy breathing. “Who’s this?” asked a voice like a rusty asteroid.
“You’re coming for us, o Germa the Gerbil. You’re on speaker-phone with the human ambassador.” The seahorse touched the tablet again and Germa’s face appeared onscreen. The ambassador thought Germa looked blind and dumb, more like a naked mole-rat than a gerbil.
Germa spat black spit. “I found your coordinates through this call—you’re hiding under Mount Everest. I’ll be there in minutes. Prepare to face me.”
“You’ll get no benefit from meeting us,” said the seahorse. “Instead, you’ll benefit from hearing what we have to say.”
“Scream it now, or you’ll scream it while I eat your insides.”
The seahorse gave a sour look to the ambassador, as if to say ‘see what I told you?’ but the ambassador waved it away and spoke. “Germa, by the time you get here, it’ll be too late to cash in on this opportunity.”
“If your screams are useless, your intestines alone still sustain me. I don’t mind if you don’t survive my interrogation—humanity can replace you with an ambassador more willing to compromise when I kidnap their loved ones.”
“What I’m saying is,” said the ambassador, “you’re the second assassin we’ve called. We told Lady Mantoid where she can kidnap Julia at her leisure. She’s well on her way.”
Germa snarled, revealing long, dull teeth. “Why? You’d betray your own daughter?”
“I met Julia for the first time about two weeks ago. She means nothing to me. But if the Big Cheese doesn’t know that, the bounty is on. Lady Mantoid paid quite a price for Julia’s location.”
“Don’t lie. She would never pay for something she could squeeze from you for free.”
“I thought so too,” said the ambassador, “but she changed her mind when she heard.”
The ambassador leaned in. “We don’t know where Julia is, either.”
“Then you’ve got nothing to scream. Prepare to die.”
“Wait wait wait!” The ambassador chuckled and held up one finger. “We don’t know where Julia is, but when we told Lady Mantoid why we don’t know, she knew right away, and she was in a hurry to get there. You should be, too.”
Germa trembled. “…Why don’t you know where Julia is?”
“A trillion units,” said the ambassador. “Final offer. Take it or leave it.” The seahorse objected, but the ambassador shushed him.
“The girl’s bounty is two trillion,” said Germa, “and with Lady Mantoid already on her way, I might not see a unit of it. I’ll save myself a trillion units and void the bounty by revealing Julia’s worthlessness—or just by killing you. Dead ambassadors have no leverage, and Earth’s next ambassador will know that I mean business.”
The ambassador tutted. “Lady Mantoid knew you’d say that. That’s why she paid us not to call you. She knows every second counts. You could steal her thunder if you leave now.”
Germa puffed. “I was humoring you, fool. I know Lady Mantoid is still on Earth at this very moment because I’m tracking her spaceship.”
“You’re sure trying! She’s counting on you sticking around while she hunts down the bounty. Maybe she’ll claim it before you get word out that Julia’s a dud. Maybe she’s already cashed in! Tick tock, Germa.”
“A trillion units, Germa. Lady Mantoid paid us more than that.”
Germa grumbled. His nude pink claw appeared on the glass tablet as he poked something on his screen. The seahorse nodded to the ambassador.
“The Scumbug got Julia first,” said the ambassador.
Froth bubbled from Germa’s lips. “The Scumbug!”
“The Scumbug took off, I don’t know where. But Lady Mantoid seemed to know, and she’s on her way. The Scumbug wouldn’t lay a finger on Julia, so the bounty is wide open, and it’s nowhere near me.”
Germa climbed into a spaceship and set his screen on the dashboard. Beeps booped when the gerbil bopped buttons. “After I capture Julia and collect the bounty, the Big Cheese will learn she’s worthless to you. Then the Big Cheese will choose another way to crush your planet, Ambassador, and I’ll be back. I want to be paid for eating your insides.”
“Pleasure doing business with you.” The ambassador touched the glass tablet. “How do you hang up?” he asked the seahorse, and the seahorse retrieved his tablet.
“Lady Mantoid is still after us,” said the seahorse. “You’ve scammed Germa, but she’s not half the fool. I wouldn’t dare contact her even if I could. We must change safe-houses before she gets here.”
“No need.” The ambassador leaned back. “Germa left, and if he’s tracking her spaceship, she’s tracking his. She’ll be off this planet in a heartbeat. Now tell me…” The ambassador kicked his feet onto his desk. “What will a trillion units buy us?”
The home of the flaybos was a subterranean catacomb of rooms like sandy tombs lit by glowing mold on all the walls. As the Scumbug led her through sandstone corridors, Julia peered down halls to see what the flaybos looked like. Even seeing them she didn’t quite know what to think.
“Hold on.” The Scumbug crunched up tight to fit into a narrow hall. “You’re gonna stay here for a few hours, probably longer.”
A bunch of little thingies were listening to a big thingy tell a story in another language. “Are these flaybos?”
“Yeah, but most of them are jeorbs.”
“What’s a jeorb?”
The Scumbug wiggled. “Huh? You don’t have a word for jeorb?” Julia shrugged, and the Scumbug flared. “You’ve got a word for sons, and you have a word for daughters, but you don’t have a word for jeorbs?” Julia shrugged. “Kid, I got business. Ask the flaybo what a jeorb is.” The Scumbug slurried away. “Her name’s Julia! She’s with me!”
Julia joined the jeorbs. The flaybo smiled at her. She thought he was smiling, at least. She still wasn’t totally sure what she was looking at. She eventually decided that the flaybo was a giant beaked head on a few tiny tentacles. “What’s a jeorb?” asked Julia.
“It’s a little flaybo!” squawked the flaybo.
“So what’s a flaybo?”
“It’s a full-grown jeorb!”
The jeorbs looked at Julia like chicks waiting to be vomited into. When the flaybo bleated, the jeorbs paid attention to him again, and the flaybo kept telling his story.
Julia’s translator floundered on most of the flaybo’s recitation, and the few words which were translated weren’t so clarifying. Eventually she got bored and wandered the chamber looking for power-outlets, but didn’t dare stray too far in the labyrinthine corridors. She wondered if the flaybo’s story would end eventually, and then they could all play parcheezi or something, but the flaybo kept rambling. The jeorbs hung on every word.
So she was surprised when the jeorbs all leapt upon the flaybo and devoured him alive. When the flaybo was totally dismembered and eaten, the jeorbs had doubled in size, but their hunger had doubled as well. They ate each other until there was only one jeorb left, twice the size of the original flaybo.
Julia hid in a narrow corridor while the giant jeorb ate rocks. As it paced searching for more, the rocks in its belly knocked together.
Then the giant jeorb vomited a slurry until it deflated to the size of the flaybo—which, Julia guessed, meant that it became a flaybo. The slurry he had hurled up congealed into a student-body of jeorbs.
“You don’t need to hide, Julia,” said the flaybo.
“I think I’ll hide anyway.”
“Now you get to hear the story from the beginning. I’m sure it’ll make sense then.”
“Our story starts when the Scumbug fed a flaybo to his own jeorbs.” Julia peeked from her hiding place. “The Scumbug told the jeorbs its own story to hide its scrambag.”
“I can’t tell you,” said the flaybo. “That’s part of how it works.”
“All you do is tell people things, it seems like,” said Julia.
“Exactly. I can only tell the story. The Scumbug changed the story.”
“Is that how all flaybos work? Telling stories to jeorbs?”
“I wish I could tell you,” said the flaybo. “Other flaybos aren’t in my story anymore.”
Julia frowned. “So… Scumdaddy is making you keep secrets?”
“The Scumbug doesn’t make me do anything,” said the flaybo. “The story is the thing.” With that, the flaybo began reciting the incomprehensible story to its jeorbs. Hours later the jeorbs ate the flaybo and each other, and the surviving jeorb became a flaybo when it vomited the next generation. Julia watched this happen again and again until her boredom overcame her fear of getting lost. She walked down a narrow corridor.
“Kid.” The Scumbug filled the whole corridor before her. “Get inside me. The scrambag is ready.”
“You’ve got weird friends, Scumdaddy.” Julia walked into the Scumbug, who carried her through corridors. “This flaybo just kept… um… eating himself over and over, I guess?”
“No, his jeorbs were eating him. Didn’t they teach you anything?”
“Not really. They said they couldn’t teach me, because you changed their story.”
“Right. That’s what they taught you. That’s how flaybos work. Flaybos tell stories to jeorbs about how to live their lives. When a flaybo dies, a jeorb replaces them seamlessly, telling the same story. That’s the word—a jeorb is a replacement, but for yourself, across time.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Do humans have a word for ‘the person I’ll be tomorrow’? That’s a jeorb. I fed that flaybo to his own sense of a continuous self, so he’ll just keep doing that forever. Every other flaybo in this planet tells a story which makes jeorbs into a twisted little secret-police which would kill you in a heartbeat. Now get ready, there’s gonna be like a billion of them in here.” The Scumbug oozed out a corridor into a great subterranean hollow. It became completely dark, but Julia heard slithering tentacles.
“Are you scared of the dark?”
“Not usually, but I’m making an exception.”
“I could make my lumps glow, but I won’t. You’d be more scared with the lights on.”
“Just a little?”
The Scumbug relented and its twenty lumps glowed dimly. Julia curled up. It was like being in a car-wash from hell—jeorbs were everywhere. The Scumbug was burrowing through a heap of them, and they seemed angry about it. “There’s a reason I hid my scrambag here, kid, and it’s not the view, and it’s not the hospitality. It’s kinda like burying contraband in a cornfield full of angry gophers. And, um, made of angry gophers.”
Julia watched a jeorb trying to attack the Scumbug’s amorphous mass. From this angle, the jeorb looked like a furious sea-star. “Why’d you have to leave me behind for so long?”
“Imagine I buried a locked safe in that gopherfield,” said the Scumbug, “and I didn’t want the gophers to attack you while I put in the combination, so I left you with a gopher I lobotomized. And also, I used his lobotomized brain to bury the safe in the other gophers.”
“Scumdaddy, you’re bad at metaphors.”
“Your language is bad at giving me material to work with for metaphors. What matters is, here’s the safe.” The Scumbug blorped up a large white orb.
“So… what’s in the safe?”
“The safe is actually a spaceship.” The white orb opened. “Get in and let’s leave these gopherfield behind.”
“Oh, wow, Scumdaddy. This is way better.” Julia relaxed in the orb and it shut closed behind her. “Does it have power-outlets?”
“Julia, this scrambag is the vessel I was born in. It’s like an eggshell older than your planet. Of course it has power-outlets.” A small panel shifted into the orb’s wall, and behind it were power-outlets. “Now hold on tight, we’re leaving.”
“…Hold on tight, to what?”
“It’s an idiom, kid. Gird your loins.” The Scumbug’s scrambag accelerated using unseen humming mechanisms. The orb was transparent enough for Julia to see jeorbs and sand sliding off the Scumbug as the scrambag rose unstoppable into the sky. “If Germa the Gerbil and Lady Mantoid have caught wind that I kidnapped you first, they’ll be here soon. We’re going off the grid.”